A not-so-humble request from Roy … #BroadwayWorld #Detroit Awards voting is open

I’m gobsmacked. I’m nominated at the below link for Best Actor in a musical for Ann Arbor Civic’s Mystery of Edwin Drood for BroadwayWorld Detroit’s 2017 awards. And YOU get to vote!

If you could do a guy a solid, & vote for me and the show and all my castmates … & tell your friends … I’ll come serenade you in your driveway (or not … depending on how much of an incentive that may or may not be): https://www.broadwayworld.com/detroit/vote2017region.cfm

Happy Thanksgiving!!

XOXOXO, Roy

“I don’t recognize this world.” “I don’t have to recognize it. Just save it.” Justice League

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Justice League isn’t getting a fair shake. At all. Was there far too much hype, including an insane amount of expectation put on this film to be DC’s answer to the cinematic superhero genre’s watershed Avengers? Indubitably. Did DC dig its own grave by playing coy about reviews and critical response in advance of Justice League‘s pre-Thanksgiving release? Yep. Is the critical backlash reflective of years of pent-up frustration that producer/director Zack Snyder continues to crank out one  overindulgent, sophomoric, bleak video-game-by-Abercrombie-&-Fitch-esque flick after another? Darn tootin’.

And that’s a shame.

Justice League is a lot of fun with a crackerjack cast and a ton of lovely character beats (no doubt courtesy of co-director/screenwriter Joss Whedon – Avengers, Buffy – who stepped in when Snyder left the production after a family tragedy). A few years ago, this film would have been a critical and popular blockbuster, but in a year that brought us smarter, savvier, and edgier comic book fare like Thor: Ragnarok, Spider-Man: Homecoming,Logan, and DC’s own Wonder Woman, Justice League pales in comparison as it pretty much aims for the Saturday matinee crowd and succeeds on those popcorn terms.

The plot is more or less lifted from The Avengers … and any superhero movie of the 80s or 90s. There is a rather forgettable villain in the form of Steppenwolf (part of Jack Kirby’s Fourth World/New Gods saga), a tragically Shakespearean character in print, rendered CGI-mundane and unrecognizable (voiced by Ciaran Hinds) in the film. He journeys to Earth to conquer our planet and thereby reclaim his place in the royal family of his intergalactic despot nephew Darkseid. The “MacGuffins” (a la Marvel’s “infinity stones”) are three “Mother Boxes” that have been hidden on Earth thousands of years ago by the Amazons, Atlanteans, and mankind and that, when united, will create some globby-swirly-Jackson-Pollock-looking “engine of destruction” to wipe all of us from the globe. Steppenwolf is aided by an army of screeching bug-warriors called Parademons who primarily serve the purpose of letting our Super Friend heroes bash and smash in a fairly bloodless PG-friendly way.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Now that you’ve read that byzantine description, please note that none of that matters. What does matter is the delightful dynamic created among luminous a$$-kicker Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman and DC Universe newcomers Ezra Miller as a delightfully manic and winsome Flash and Jason Momoa as a brash and swaggering yet completely adorable Aquaman. The bit with Aquaman and Wonder Woman’s “lasso of truth” is particularly priceless.

Ben Affleck seems to be running on vapors at this point as Batman, but his sullen exhaustion just accentuates the sparkling character work of Gadot, Miller, and Momoa. The trio also brings out the best in Henry Cavill, who heretofore seems to have struggled with the balance of homespun charm and godlike awe required of Superman. We even get to see Superman crack a joke or two and … wait for it …smile!

(Spoiler alert: surprising no one, Cavill, whose character died in the previous Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justicelord, THAT TITLE?!?! – is brought back to life in a fairly convoluted but nonetheless poignant sequence that evokes as much of Joss Whedon’s own Buffy the Vampire Slayer as it does DC’s classic Death of Superman comics event.)

Rounding out the League is Ray Fisher’s Cyborg (who in the comics actually started his career as a Teen Titan but was upgraded to League founding member in one of DC Comics’ never-ending and exhausting universe reboots a few years ago). Fisher is saddled with a burdensome CGI “costume” that only affords him about 1/3 of his face with which to turn in any kind of performance. Alas, he gets a bit lost in the shuffle. Nonetheless, I thought he did credible work conveying the Frankenstein’s monster dilemma of having remarkable powers (in this case, 90% of his body being replaced with robot parts) at the expense of losing his humanity and any kind of so-called “normal” life.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

There are a number of fun turns in the supporting cast from Jeremy Irons’ acerbic Alfred Pennyworth to JK Simmons’ hard-boiled yet hopeful Commissioner James Gordon. Amy Adams does her best with a handful of underwritten Lois Lane-in-mopey-mourning scenes, and Diane Lane continues to breathe feisty life into Superman’s Ma Kent. Billy Crudup (once Doctor Manhattan in Zack Snyder’s overbaked Watchmen) is heartbreaking as Barry Allen’s/The Flash’s falsely incarcerated papa. Amber Heard’s Mera (eventually Aquaman’s wife) looks the part but has far too little to do, and the same can be said for Connie Nielsen’s Amazonian Queen Hippolyta, regrettably downgraded to mere cannon fodder.

The film’s color palette is brighter than anything we’ve seen in the DC oeuvre to date (save Wonder Woman), replacing the sepia tones of Batman v. Superman or Suicide Squad or Man of Steel with some pops of four-color glory, especially as the film barrels toward its denouement. Danny Elfman’s score is also notable in that it boldly incorporates themes from previously “out of continuity” DC films like the original Superman and Batman movies, sonically (at least) indicating that maybe DC learned a lesson from the success of the humane and witty Wonder Woman and is allowing a little life and joy into the larger franchise.

Justice League seems to offer a message of transition, ending on an optimistic note of friendship and collaboration, family and hope. We haven’t seen too much of that in DC’s films since Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy or the “official” kick-off of DC’s extended cinematic universe Man of Steel. That lack of joy has hobbled these films to date (again, save Wonder Woman). I can only wish that audiences ignore Justice League‘s critical drubbing and give the frisky if simplistic adaptation a chance and reward the filmmakers for this much-needed course correction.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Irons’ Alfred reflects to Affleck’s Bruce Wayne early in the film, “I don’t recognize this world.” Bruce replies, “I don’t have to recognize it. Just save it.” Amen. DC did just that with Justice League, IMHO.

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Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital).

In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

“But … are you Thor, god of … hammers?” Thor: Ragnarok

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Marvel Studios’ latest – Thor: Ragnarok – is about as delightful a film to come from the Marvel/Disney machine as we’ve yet seen.

Marrying the free-wheeling whimsy of Ant-Man with the trippy nothing-is-too-zany visual style of Dr. Strange, layering in the heart and humanity of the Captain America films, and playing off the wackadoodle Shakespearean promise of Kenneth Branagh’s first Thor, director Taika Waititi (Hunt for the Wilderpeople) nonetheless delivers a completely unique vision and a superhero flick for the ages.

There is nary a shred of evidence of the micromanaged focus-grouping that seems to have plagued other entries in Marvel’s now 17-movie strong cinematic universe: the unfunny, overbaked narrative mush of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2; the ponderous “how-many-action-figures-can-we-cram-into-this-for-merchandising” clutter of Avengers: Age of Ultron; the just plain dull-as-dishwater “end-is-nigh” pretense of, yes, Thor: The Dark World.

No, Thor: Ragnarok belies its title with a light-as-air zip and a screwball comic touch that plays beautifully to star Chris Hemsworth’s Cary-Grant-trapped-in-Tab-Hunter’s-body charms. Hemsworth’s gift is in simultaneously embracing the absurd and the self-serious, mining Thor’s lovable arrogance in uncertain circumstances for “fish-out-of-water” laughs. Akin to Shakespeare’s better “history” plays (say, Henry IV with its introduction of the iconic Falstaff), Ragnarok honors the operatic complexity of its source Norse mythology by juxtaposing the light and the dark, the goofy and the grand, to play out the prodigal son’s/hero’s quest to overcome both palace intrigue and the intoxicating lure of interstellar adventure to find his proper path to the throne.

The film shouldn’t work as well as it does. Waititi is obviously fueled by a love of the corny sci-fi box office bombs that littered HBO’s schedule in the early and mid 80s (post-Star Wars) like Krull, Beastmaster, Flash Gordon, Buckaroo Banzai, and so on – movies that I myself watched in a constant loop, attracted to the gonzo so-bad-it’s-great storytelling and campy visuals. In fact, Mark Mothersbaugh’s Moog-synth score sounds like it was written for an arcade game in 1983. And that’s a fabulous thing. (There is also an epic use of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” in segments that bookend the film. It’s a touch that not only enlivens the two sequences in which the tune is used but adds a nice layer of meta commentary – “we come from the land of the ice and snow” – about finding one’s home and one’s place in this world.)

However, Waititi isn’t on a nostalgia trip; he isn’t interested in self-indulgence. Rather, with a Howard Hawks-esque (Bringing Up Baby) command of pacing, set-up, visual jokes, and patter, Waititi delivers a character-driven romp that celebrates a lost soul embracing his destiny and learning a touch of humility along the way. Of course, in this case, the lost soul happens to be the Norse God of Thunder and a superheroic Avenger who pals around with the Hulk, but that’s beside the point. Odin (a wry Anthony Hopkins) consoles his son at one point, when Thor is bemoaning the loss of his magic hammer Mjolnir, “But … are you Thor, god of … hammers?”

The plot is almost impossible to encapsulate, but I’ll try. Thor and brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston reclaiming the smarmy twinkle that made the character such fun initially) are on a search to find their father Odin who is hiding out in Norway. Early on, they encounter Benedict Cumberbatch’s Dr. Strange in a witty cat-and-mouse sequence that telegraphs that Ragnarok won’t be your typical Marvel flick.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Eventually, Loki and Thor discover that their father has concealed both a dark history from them and the existence of a sister Hela (Cate Blanchett, all slither and swagger and having a devil of a good time) who has returned to Asgard to take over the universe and wear some really fierce eyeliner and multi-horned headgear. Thor and Loki get shunted by Hela to Sakaar, a planet of garbage and misfit toys, where Jeff Goldblum’s Grandmaster runs a Let’s Make a Deal-meets-Gladiator “Contest of Champions.” (This is the best use of Goldblum’s insidious, out-sized, googly-eyed demeanor in years.)

Lo and behold, Thor’s old buddy The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo fully embracing the sweet/sour rampaging baby characterization from the Avengers films) is somehow on Sakaar too. The boys fight; they make up; they fight again; and eventually, with the aid of new compatriot Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson bringing the boozy, bossy fun), return to Asgard and save the day (more or less) from Hela’s machinations. Whew.

Oh, and Karl Urban (Star Trek, Dredd, Pete’s Dragon) pops up as Hela’s right-hand thug Skurge the Executioner, and, as always, Urban brings a nuanced inner-conflict and a compelling screen presence to a character who in lesser hands would have been a screaming, raving slab of testosterone. One day, I’d like to see him in a movie that doesn’t require special effects, if they make those any more.

In the end, though, the film is a showcase for Hemsworth’s effervescent wit and steroidal comedy and for Waititi’s sure-handed cinematic voice and eye-popping visuals. Hemsworth is at a difficult career crossroads: a household name actor in international box office blockbusters who doesn’t yet seem like a star. Perhaps this turn will change that. If not, he and Waititi need to team up again posthaste and, maybe this time, sans capes. Hemsworth is that rare performer – a beautiful human specimen with the comic genius of an ugly duckling. Waititi is that rare director – one who loves all films and has an encyclopedic knowledge of the best and the worst but deftly avoids self-indulgence and derivativeness. As Goldblum’s Grandmaster says in response to Thor’s use of his lightning powers, “Out of your fingers … was that, like, sparkles?” Indeed, Hemsworth plus Waititi generate nothing but cinematic sparkles. Here’s hoping for more.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital).

In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

Richard Dawson lives! Andy Cohen at Detroit’s Motor Casino Soundboard (review)


Watch What Happens Live! host Andy Cohen is Gen X’s answer to 70s talk show mainstays, like Richard Dawson or Mike Douglas, an affable if impish presence, eliciting the best cocktail party bon mots from an eclectic grab bag of A-to-D-list celebs. And like his precursors, he subsumes his incisive wit in the garb of the court jester, secretly the master pulling everyone’s strings. This is chiefly why his late night show is such a dangerous and anarchic pleasure to watch.

Furthermore, people forget that his day job is as chief production exec for the army of shamelessly, gloriously mindless reality shows (Real Housewives, et al) that Bravo pumps out on a daily basis. Cohen almost single-handedly transformed that network from one that reflected pop-culture to one that generates it, buzzworthy fare that keeps water coolers and social media hopping.


Oh, he is an author too, with three books to his credit, and heavy hitter friends like Anderson Cooper, buddies who would die on their swords for the man. Yet, he leverages his St. Louis-bred Midwestern values and his Jewish upbringing to achieve a humble cornfed nerd cred that makes him instantly accessible.

For the most part, he has deftly avoided any controversy in his career. Until this week, when the post-Trump hurricane of toxic finger-pointing caught up even with him as the still-festering feud between Kathy Griffin and Anderson Cooper spilled into Cohen’s well-tailored lap.


It is in this context that Cohen held a meet and greet/Q&A at Detroit’s Motor City Casino Soundboard venue. Local 95.5 radio show personality Mojo moderated the evening. Cohen himself admitted during the event that the controversy this week had him a bit gun shy, and he was noticeably reserved. Gone (for tonight) was his Joan Rivers-meets-Robin Williams rat-a-tat gossipy mensch persona. One cannot really blame him.

That said, what was revealed on stage tonight was a side of Cohen that is often overshadowed by his onscreen antics: a measured, kind, thoughtful, inclusive personality that is likely the engine driving his long term success as both a behind-the-scenes executive and a front of house huckster.


(We had the pleasure of a quick interaction with him before the show and a photo opportunity. He was warm and genuine and authentically appreciative of his supporters, taking what time he could to acknowledge our common humanity. It was rather remarkable as these kind of cattle call meet-and-greets go.)

There really isn’t much to review about the evening other than it was a loose and free-ranging conversation about Cohen’s history. I would have appreciated a bit more about his days as a CBS producer and the challenges he experienced transitioning to his current role. Alas, the crowd – a few of whom seemed to have stepped off the set of one of Bravo’s productions – were there for dirt on which “real housewife” was the biggest alcoholic or most likely to end up in jail. C’est la vie.


To be fair, Mojo could have put a bit more work into the kinds of questions he asked, a series of FM morning show queries which often fell below the caliber of Cohen’s innate wit. Nonetheless, Cohen seized every moment to engage his audience in playful banter and seemed to relish the 90 minutes he had with us. He described his pal Kelly Ripa as having the gift of making everyone who shares the screen with her a better host. The same could be said for how Cohen’s ease-of-self helped Mojo tonight as well.

There were delightful touches with images of Cohen in his youth and videos of his family and friends projected onstage. At one point, Cohen joked, “Is this a roast?” Not at all, in fact. It ended up being a joyous and heartwarming celebration of a free spirit who has carved his own path and seems gobsmacked by his own success. Hopefully, next time he will bring his buddy Anderson Cooper along to ask the questions.

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

I wrote a thing. #JDSupra publishes my  “Goldilocks & The Three Jobs: How to Tell Your In-House Marketing Role Is the Right Fit.” 


Thanks, Adrian Lurssen and JD Supra for the opportunity to contribute again!

 “Goldilocks & The Three Jobs: How to Tell Your In-House Marketing Role Is the Right Fit.” 

Excerpt: “So, whether you are looking for the right firm or you are the right firm doing the looking, here are some observations that may be worthwhile to those in-house marketing professionals in flux. These are my hard-earned learnings on how to be successful in a new role, and if your new work culture doesn’t respond, it may be the wrong fit.” Read here.  

“Ain’t nothing like a little fear to make a paper man crumble.” It (2017)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I don’t like clowns. Never have. I trace it back to being unable to escape the ubiquitous, harlequin-gaze of shock-glam rock group KISS, leering from their album covers while my parents shopped for jazz and show tunes in record stores in the 70s. Gene Simmons and Ace Frehley are to blame for my aversion to Bozo and Ronald McDonald, apparently.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

So, by the time the first film adaptation of Stephen King’s bestselling 1986 novel It rolled around, as a 1990 ABC-TV miniseries featuring a gleefully sadistic Tim Curry in the titular role as homicidal, otherworldly “Pennywise the Dancing Clown,” this high school senior had a stockpile of around 15  years of greasepaint-smeared nightmares with which to contend. The miniseries, which also featured a Love Boat-load of d-list celebrities like Richard Thomas, Annettee O’Toole, and that Venus Fly-Trap guy from WKRP in Cincinnati, is controversial among King fans who thought it deviated too much from the source text and diluted the book’s iconic scares to adhere to the rigors of commercial TV (nearly 30! years ago).

I don’t care. It was plenty unnerving to me. I admit that the miniseries’ second half, wherein Thomas and company step to the forefront as adult versions of the bullied “Losers Club” whom Pennywise (and others) tortured as children is a drag. However, the first half is a tour de force for Curry who needs nary a pixel of CGI to let his freakiest flag fly as an unearthly creature in clown form who quite literally feeds off the terror he engenders in the small-minded small town of Derry, Maine.

I wasn’t sure I needed to ever sit through this tale again. Why do that to myself, spending another two hours watching an unhinged clown steer headlong into the coulrophobia curve that had plagued me for years. Yet, like some kind of perverse immersion therapy, I found myself in a movie theatre watching Warner Brothers’ R-rated big-screen remake.

Director Andy Muschietti brings the same gothic Brothers Grimm fractured fairy tale approach he applied to the inferior Mamaand it works here, particularly given the familiarity many viewers will already have with the material. The film plays out more like a foul-mouthed Hansel and Gretel than Nightmare on Elm Street.

There is a picaresque quality to the narrative as It traces the summer-long adventures of seven young misfits, all marginalized in different ways under the weight of living in an insular community rotting to its core. The children all are haunted by debilitating fears, made manifest through a series of bogeymen and disturbing visions, and, over time, they come to realize there is a supernatural through-line (namely Pennywise) uniting them all. Bill, the ringleader of this poignant but scrappy band has lost his little brother the year prior in an unsolved kidnapping (we viewers know that Pennywise actually dragged the poor lad down a sewer drain from the troubling but elegantly framed prologue which opens the film), and Bill’s unrelenting drive to discover the truth of his sibling’s disappearance galvanizes the group, ultimately uniting them to vanquish Pennywise (or do they?).

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I didn’t find the film particularly frightening or disturbing, which is either a sign of me aging out of my phobias or of a film that plays more like a spiritual sequel to The Goonies than a horror-fest. There are plenty of jump scares, jarring sound effects, and other conventions of the genre, and Bill Skarsgard (son of Stellan) does a perfectly fine job rendering a souped up Pennywise for the Millennial era, as informed by the apparitions of the Harry Potter films as anything in Stephen King’s canon, but none of it gave me the heebie jeebies.

In fact, Muschietti’s film plays out like an extended love letter to everything Spielberg. The potty-mouthed kids’ hard scrabble reality is played for laughs and poignancy. The late 80s setting (updated from the book’s 1950s era) allows for a number of film and pop culture references (a la Gremlins or Poltergeist) and a generally scruffier “lost generation” quality adds a heartbreaking layer of disposability to the Losers Club.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The kids themselves (Jaeden Lieberher, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Wyatt Oleff, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer) are the film’s best special effect, with a refreshing authenticity, yearning, and lack of “cute child actor” pretense. They are fighting an uphill battle against an insidious enemy – the town in which they live – and anyone who has ever suffered the relentless, bullying pressures of provincialism will find themselves projecting their experiences onto these tender souls. Although, I admit I wearied after a point of the movie’s “look how crude and rude children are and isn’t it funny to hear them say really naughty things” shtick. That annoyed me from Spielberg in his trying-too-hard moments, and it still annoys me here.

The strongest Stephen King adaptations – The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, The Shining, Carrie, Misery, Dolores Claiborne – posit that the worst horrors are not supernatural at all but rather man’s inhumanity to man. That is also where It derives strength as a film. The adult residents of Derry all reflect the indifference and neglectfulness of a self-absorbed society that has turned on itself, an ourobouros eating its own tail. As one father hisses to his son in the film, “Ain’t nothing like a little fear to make a paper man crumble.” And clowns be damned, that is the worst horror of all.

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Yours truly with Jim and Rob before watching Stephen King’s It


Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

“No day like today.” The Barn Theatre’s 2017 production of Rent

 

“To days of inspiration/Playing hooky, making/Something out of nothing/The need to express/To communicate,/To going against the grain,/Going insane, going mad/To loving tension, no pension/To more than one dimension,/To starving for attention,/Hating convention, hating pretension.”

– “La Vie Boheme” from Rent, Jonathan Larson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning musical.

 

When Rent hit the musical theatre scene, it created a seismic shift, a middle finger to convention, not far afield from what Nirvana did to rock music a few years earlier with Nevermind or what Alan Moore’s Watchmen did to comics even a few years before that. We didn’t really know the term “market disruption” back then, but these Gen X cultural touchstones were exactly that, staking a claim and a voice for those at the margins and, in the process, achieving immense (and ironic) commercial success and transforming their respective industries. We often forget there are more people on the margins (people with wallets) than in the comfortable middle.

(Remember the “popular kids” who bullied you in school? There were fewer of them than the rest of us and nobody actually liked them. Sooooo, how were they deemed “popular”? Who gave them their power? All of us idjits on “the margins,” that’s who.)

I saw a touring production of Rent nearly 20 years ago at the Fisher Theatre in Detroit. I admit nosebleed seats as well as overamplifaction of the band and underarticulation of the cast led me to having zero idea of what was going on and longing for a nice Rodgers and Hammerstein show. Another decade later, we took in Chris Columbus’ film version, which retained much of the original Broadway cast. John loved it; I was a bit more on the fence, feeling the Home Alone/Mrs. Doubtfire/Harry Potter drector’s candy-coated, populist sensibility probably wasn’t the best choice for Alphabet City drug addicts, AIDS sufferers, drag queens, and starving artists. And, to be honest, faced with the prospect of seeing the show again, I wondered if it had suffered the same time warp that befell a musical like Hair.

Wrong. Rent couldn’t be more prescient or essential in today’s challenged times.

During the Wilde Awards last week, I befriended Jamey Grisham, who has been a featured performer, choreographer, and director for The Barn Theatre School in Augusta, Michigan, for the past decade. The Barn had a great night at the ceremony, between an exceptional performance by Jamey and racking up a number of awards. Most notably, however, I was struck by their humility and their sense of community, something you don’t always see in the hyper-competitive world of professional and regional theatre. (Let’s just say I’ve never been sprung on insecure prima donnas.)

Jamey was wrapping up The Barn’s 2017 summer repertory season, playing Angel in, yup, Rent and invited us to see their closing show. So glad we made the drive!

John and me with Penelope Ragotzy and Jamey Grisham

As an aside, The Barn Theatre was founded in 1946 and serves as a fertile training ground for the theatrical talent of today and tomorrow. Notable alumni – who served as apprentices or appeared onstage or both – include Lauren Graham, Tom Wopat, Jennifer Garner, Eric Petersen, Marin Mazzie, Stephen Lynch, Kirker Butler, Paul Loesel, Kim Zimmer, Becky Ann Baker, Eric Cornell, and, yup, Jonathan Larson (the creator of Rent who died a tragic and untimely death from aortic dissection the night before the show opened).

Jamey, perhaps channeling a bit of his community-building character, along with cast-mate and fellow Wilde Award winner Penelope Ragotzy (who also oversees publicity and marketing – they wear MANY hats there) did everything they could to make us feel welcome.

Unfortunately, their production of Rent has wrapped and is now in the record books, so this review will serve more as a reflection on the piece itself, on its relevance, and on the unique and magical nature of The Barn Theatre itself. Given the ongoing cultural and socioeconomic fragmentation of modern-day America, Rent is perhaps more essential than ever (the narrative’s over-reliance on land lines and answering machines notwithstanding).

Loosely based on La Boheme, Rent details a Christmas-Eve-day-in-the-life (first act) followed by a year-in-the-life (second act) of a fractious group of New York anti-Friends: gypsies, tramps, and thieves who can barely afford a cup of coffee, let alone hang out all day in a coffee shop, and whose “fabulous” loft living comes with no heat, no electricity, and the constant threat of eviction. Larson drew iconic characters (the filmmaker, the musician, the junkie, the drag queen, the performance artist, the lawyer, the teacher, the sell-out) and gifted them with even more iconic songs, an unyielding series of barbaric yawps from a youthquake disaffected by the 1% ruling the world. Larson was ahead of his time, foretelling a generation for whom gender and sexuality are fluid (albeit silly) constructs, who care deeply for their environment and whose diet and fashion are dictated by kindness and compassion and locality, and whose self-absorbed/self-aggrandizing selflessness drives all grown-ups in their presence to apoplexy. Sound familiar? All of it?

The Barn’s production, populated as it is with Millennials channeling the Gen X oldies, got that irony fully. From the flawless jungle gym of a set by Samantha Snow to the pitch perfect Archie-meets-Salvation Army pop of Michael Wilson Morgan’s costumes, the able cast was aided and abetted by a technical team – and by Brendan Ragotzy’s sure-handed direction – that embraced the early 90s conventions fully yet wasn’t afraid to wink at the more twee “lost generation” quirks. (The Barn space itself, if you’ve never been, is like seeing a musical in the inverted hull of an old ship, warm and cozy, a little eerie, kind of claustrophobic, and very dramatic.)

Grisham (and, no, it’s not just because he invited us!) was a standout as the shamanistic Angel, the tinsel-strewn lightning rod whose second act sacrifice teaches this band of misfits what love really means. Grisham (doing double duty as the show’s choreographer as well) commanded attention with every entrance and imbued Angel with a lovely “mama bear” authoritarianism that was a welcome new addition to the piece.

Also providing remarkable turns were Courtney Bruce as heart-of-gold-in-pleather Joanne and  Byron Glenn Willis as heart-on-his-sleeve-Jiminy-Cricket Tom Collins. Both mined the conflicted layers inherent in each role, pushing past the one-note takes (pushy lawyer, saintly teacher) that can derail lesser portrayals of each character. Notably, Bruce’s “We’re Okay” and Willis’ reprise of “I’ll Cover You” were character-driven showstoppers that exemplified how each actor grounded their performances in the urgent realities of untenable situations. (I would be remiss if I didn’t note that Willis and the aforementioned Grisham made a divinely poignant stage pairing, both vocally and in their scenework.)

Maureen (originated by Idina Menzel) can be a confounding character, the pampered performance artist who wreaks emotional havoc on anyone foolish enough to give her their heart. In Samantha Rickard’s hands, Maureen was no-less confounding, but also sympathetic and relatable … and a comic firecracker to boot. “Over the Moon,” Maureen’s absurd paean to absurd social justice warriors, was a triumphant hoot, augmented as it was by director Brendan Ragotzy’s genius decision to add a chorus of dancing cows. And, yes, Rickard and Bruce knocked sassy, swaggering musical standoff “Take Me Or Leave Me” out. of. the. park.

Courtney Bruce with me and John

Overall, the ensemble work was top-notch, a blend of seasoned Equity vets and acting apprentices. The central roles of  Mark and Roger are often a challenge to differentiate, given how broadly drawn all of the surrounding characters are, and Nick Barakos and Alex Crossland (respectively) held their own, with Barakos especially offering some nice solo moments and solid interactions with Angel and Tom as the show progressed. These performers obviously will continue to grow, and it’s a remarkable environment where students can take top-billing and learn onstage from seasoned pros.

Following each Barn performance, audience members are encouraged to retire to the “Rehearsal Shed” where the apprentices present a cabaret show (“The Bar Show”) – and serve you drinks and desserts (imagine your grandparents’ “rumpus room” if it had been taken over by cast members from the documentary Camp). Given that we were there for the final performance of the season, emotions ran high – and many a heart-string was plucked – as these kids poured out their souls (and the spirits) one final time. It was truly a gift to be in the room.

I realize this post is one-part review and about eight-parts love letter, but it was just that kind of day, a beautiful late-summer weekend in Michigan, enjoying a wonderfully talented, utterly inclusive band of talented bohemians portray a wonderfully talented, utterly inclusive band of talented bohemians. Thank you for the memories, Jamey and Penelope and your Barnie Brethren. We’ll be back.

 

“Take me for what I am!/Who I was meant to be!/And, if you give a damn,/Take me baby, or leave me!”

– “Take Me Or Leave Me” from Rent

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The Bar Show

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

Wilde Awards 2017: If only I had Wink Martindale’s career …


Well, the 2017 Wilde Awards Ceremony is in the history books. And a truly special night celebrating the best of Michigan theatre is over … for another 365 days.

As a kid, I was obsessed with game shows and awards ceremonies, so to suggest that co-hosting last night with EncoreMichigan’s David Kiley was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream is no hyperbole. And more than a little dorky. If only I had Wink Martindale’s career.

I was humbled to be amongst such theatrical and critical talent last night, and to see so many personal friends receive well-deserved recognition last night affirmed that good people who work hard do earn the spoils. And my buddies still spoke to me after the show was over. #winning

Full list of winners and additional coverage here.



Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language

Encore Michigan photos by Richard Rupp

 

“It’s called the Reign of Terror, not the Reign of Agree-to-Disagree.” Theatre Nova’s Michigan premiere of Lauren Gunderson’s The Revolutionists

K. Edmonds and Melissa Beckwith; Diane Hill in foreground. [Photo from Theatre Nova’s Facebook page.]

“Sigh. Gasp. Retort. Sometimes I say them, instead of doing them.”  – The Revolutionists’ Marie Antoinette (a sparkling, scene-stealing anarchic aristocrat in the delightfully daffy hands of Melissa Beckwith)

 

In a genius bit of cross-promotion, the Huron Valley Humane Society (which is as much animal advocacy organization as top rate animal shelter) partnered with Theatre Nova to hold (on August 24) a benefit preview of Theatre Nova’s latest offering The Revolutionists by Lauren Gunderson – a play as much about finding your voice in collaboration and commiseration with like-minded individuals facing the same wall of apathy, antipathy, and alienation as it is a time-bound period piece exploring the exigencies of the French Revolution.

(Needless to say, the packed house of Greater Ann Arbor animal advocates left the theatre fired up, galvanized, and inspired.)

Yours truly, Penny Yohn, and Kim Elizabeth Johnson enjoying the pre-show reception

Like Clutter, another entry this season at Theatre Nova, The Revolutionists is both memory play and call-to-action with a nice slathering of meta-absurdity across its surface. Playwright Gunderson brings together four women (some historical figures, some composites) in one small room at the height of France’s Reign of Terror to discuss their truths, their narratives, their plights as free-thinking women in a society that seeks revolution and equity but not when it comes to the distaff side of society. Liberté, égalité, fraternité. Literally. (Bernie Bros, anyone? Too soon?)

The aforementioned Marie Antoinette, Caribbean revolutionary Marianne Angelle (a grounded, heartbreaking, and damn funny K. Edmonds), and Jean-Paul Marat’s assassin Charlotte Corday (a fiery, spiky, compelling Sara Rose) find themselves in the chambers of playwright Olympe De Gouges (a fabulously neurotic Diane Hill … channeling just a hint of Hillary’s steely resolve?), seeking a writer to help them finish their stories. It is unlikely that these women would have ever interacted IRL (“in real life,” as the kids say), but Gunderson has great fun imagining what might have transpired. For example, she rehabilitates and humanizes Antoinette as a 1% victim of misunderstood and misrepresented intention (the heroine of Stephen Schwartz’ classic ditty “Meadowlark” if played by Carol Kane), never quite letting her off the hook for her tone-deaf excess. It’s a marvelous hat trick, aided and abetted by Beckwith’s revelatory performance.

Director David Wolber has stacked the deck with a to-die-for cast (in fact, most of them do meet the guillotine at some point – or multiple points – during the show), and he wisely let’s them run like hell with their roles, shaping and pacing the narrative for maximum funny and maximum heartache.

K. Edmonds and Sara Rose [Photo from Theatre Nova’s Facebook page]

The challenges facing these women in 1793 aren’t terribly different from those facing women in 2017, and that’s a damn shame. The language is purposefully anachronistic, and Wolber’s staging – coupled with the dreamlike design of Daniel C. Walker (lighting), Carla Milarch (sound … seriously, download right now the equally anachronistic, breathtaking pop songs by French group L.E.J. which are used interstitially and at intermission), and Forrest Hejkal (set, costumes, props, hair) – smartly positions the play as an allegorical comic nightmare, cautioning us that history sure as hell repeats itself. As Cordray warns her compatriots at a moment when they seem to be sliding into fearful ambivalence and losing their collective moral compass, “It’s called the Reign of Terror, not the Reign of Agree-to-Disagree.” Touché.

The Revolutionists runs at Theatre Nova through September 17. Don’t miss it. Tickets at www.TheatreNOVA.org

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Yours truly with Kim Elizabeth Johnson

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language

“Don’t be afraid to give a compliment.” Mary J. Blige’s Strength of a Woman Tour at Michigan Lottery/Freedom Hill Amphitheater 


Twenty-five years ago, a goofy white kid, a freshman at Wabash College (me) walked into a Target store in Crawfordsville, Indiana and took a look at the cover of Mary J Blige’s now-iconic What’s the 411? debut album and thought, “THAT looks interesting!” instantly buying it and listening to it on repeat ever since.

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In fact, the album was more than interesting. It was a revelation. Other generations had Aretha Franklin or Tina Turner as a soulful voice that crossed R&B and pop and rock boundaries to express a deep-seated pain over an intolerant and misogynistic world. My generation has Blige. She was to hip hop what Kurt Cobain was to rock, a disaffected iconoclast gleefully turning Top 40 convention on its collective ear.

Two and a half decades later, I finally had the opportunity to see Blige live – at the Michigan Lottery/Freedom Hill amphitheater. (By the way, this is a marvelous venue, with nary a poor sight line and a fantastic array of amenities.)


Blige put on a killer show. As you can imagine, she “leaves everything on the field,” as sports pundits are prone to say. The show highlighted all of the hits, from her debut album through equally landmark LPs My Life and Share My World, on to her latest offering Strength of a Woman, also the title of this tour.

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The set design was minimal, with some fun digital projections recounting the looks and styles of her storied career, and her remarkably tight backing band knew just when to get out of the way of her freight train of a voice.

If there was a theme to the evening, it was that women survive and thrive despite the pain and duresss of a society stacked against them.  Blige has been famously unlucky in love, and she isn’t afraid to throw shade at any man in the audience who views women as a disposable commodity. One of her fieriest moments was recent album cut “Special Place in Hell,” dedicated to all the swaggering, self-absorbed cowboys out there. And, unsurprisingly, classic feminist anthems like “Not Gon’ Cry,” “I’m Goin’ Down,” and “My Life” were delivered with a fiery urgency that kept them as fresh and timely as the day they were recorded.

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Blige’s opening act, Destiny’s Child alum LeToya Luckett, carried a similar thene through her set list. While Luckett lacked the visceral authenticity of the show’s headliner, she landed her musical critique of a society that fails to honor its women. As she observed, “Don’t be afraid to give a compliment…must be something insecure about you if you can’t.”


Well, I am not afraid to give credit where credit is due. And tonight’s performance was a scorcher. Do not miss this tour if it passes your way.


Thanks to the venue’s Tina Genitti for being the consummate host this evening. My friend Aaron Latham and I had a remarkable time!

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital).

In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language