Wicked witches, hateful Heathers, terrific Tonys … and a cowbell: a summer weekend of theatre and tolerance (Wicked’s national tour stop in Toledo, Ann Arbor Civic’s Heathers, & 2018 Tony Awards)

“We are all sacred and we all belong, so let’s just bake a cake for everyone who wants a cake to be baked!” – Andrew Garfield in his acceptance speech after winning 2018’s Best Actor in a Play for his performance as Prior Walter in Angels in America’s Tony-winning revival

There is little question we live an ugly era, fraught with divisiveness, judgment, cruelty, intolerance, bullying, and hate. I can’t recall a time in my life when leaders behaved in such childlike fashion nor neighbors invoked so openly the weapons of economic disparity and hypocritical piety. It makes me want to cry.

Yet, there is always the theatre – historically, a welcome haven from injustice and an incubator of progressive thought to counteract all the bully pulpits corroding and calcifying ‘Merica’s heart.

This weekend, I found solace in the unlikeliest places: Oz, a 1980s Ohio high school, and CBS.

Someone in my house loves the Stephen Schwartz musical Wicked – based on (IMHO) the superior novel by Gregory Maguire – so much so that we’ve seen it three (?) times now. So, as a belated birthday present for John, we trekked down to Toledo’s Stranahan Theatre (kind of a high school auditorium in the middle of a cornfield) to catch the latest national touring cast.

 

I will always contend that playwright Winnie Holzman did yeoman’s work translating Maguire’s Byzantine text into a sleek, commercial, nearly theme park-ish machine, nailing at the highest concept all the narrative beats while jettisoning the sticky, problematic militant animal rights and fiery socialist critique woven throughout the original book. Problem is … I just happen to really like that critique.

I don’t envy actors taking on these roles which were set in stone aesthetically well before even Idina and Kristin got their over-singing mitts on them. Wicked‘s costuming intentionally evokes our communal love for the 1939 MGM film, and Menzel and Chenoweth were themselves just jazzing a postmodern remix on Margaret Hamilton’s and Billie Burke’s portrayals. As a touring actor, when your particular Elphaba or Galinda (the “gah” is silent) then numbers 837 or so off the line, what hope do you have to break out? In a cornfield in Toledo?

Well, I’m happy to report that this particular cast does as best as any at making the roles their own. Perhaps it is because this is likely the first generation of performers who grew up with the 15-year-old (!) show as more of an institution and less of a novelty. Consequently, they have a bit of comfort and moxie to tweak the edges.

Ginna Claire Mason, particularly, as Glinda gives us a different take – less Texas pep-squad Pepto Bismol pink cheerleader, more madcap Judy Holliday/Madeleine Kahn physical comedienne. It works well.

Mary Kate Morrissey has the tougher road, trying to make emerald green, holier-than-thou Elphaba distinctive, and she more or less succeeds, particularly after the always epic, always heart-melting “Defying Gravity” act one finale. The second act of Wicked is like a snowball down a mountain, cramming a whole LOT of plot development into 45 minutes (after a 90 minute first act that stretches the Hogwarts-ish high school plot points well beyond audience interest). Elphaba jets about a ton in that second act and can become the queen of exposition in less capable hands. Morrissey does a fine job bringing fire and grit as Elphaba comes to realize the chicanery of a Wizard who uses falsehoods, deception, and (literal) scapegoating to consolidate power and sow discord. (Sound familiar?)

Other standouts in the cast are Jody Gelb as a self-assured, utterly Machiavellian Madame Morrible; Mili Diaz as a Nessarose (Elphaba’s sister) for the ages whose heartache and heartbreak toxify in the most haunting sibling rivalry I’ve seen in any given production of this show; and Jon Robert Hall as a Fiyero whose glib Prince Charming gestures belie a conflicted heart of gold.

What struck me most watching this show again was how subversive it actually is (particularly marketed as it is as a “family night at the theatre”). Perhaps, I’ve gained enough distance on the source material or perhaps the actors amped up the political commentary in subtle ways, but, as an allegory of the shallow evil shallow men enact upon their fellow humans (and animals) in pursuit of ephemeral power and of the divisive and destructive impact such “leadership” has on our daily interactions with one another, Wicked is timely viewing. I’d gladly venture into a cornfield again to see it, in fact. I wonder if my fellow patrons Saturday night caught the commentary. I hope so.

Yours truly with my Drood castmate Sarah Sweeter and my Legally Blonde castmate Donna Wolbers

Sunday I caught up with my Ann Arbor Civic Theatre family and the closing performance of their production of Heathers: The Musical, directed by my friend – the exceptionally talented Ron Baumanis. I saw the film Heathers (starring Winona Ryder and Christian Slater) in its original 1988 moment when a bruise-black satire on the horror that high school inflicts was still a novel concept. In the meantime, Mean Girls, Easy A, Edge of Seventeen, and countless other films have swiped the concept and explored it in more sophisticated, less sophomoric ways and half of them have been musicalized as well (or are likely soon to be).

In this violent and ugly societal moment, where mass murders in high schools and celebrity suicides are a daily occurrence, Heathers is a troublesome choice. The film and subsequent musical (written by Legally Blonde the Musical‘s Laurence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy) builds its narrative around an escalating series of homicides-staged-as-suicides and assorted other violent plots against the thuggish queen bees and football jocks roaming the cafeteria. It’s a revenge fantasy, intended to question social hierarchies, by exploring the unspeakable. The problem is that the unspeakable in 1988 is now just another day in 21st century America.

That said, Baumanis and his cast commit to the material with heart and sensitivity while keeping tongue firmly in cheek. The first act is the more difficult pill to swallow as it is full of ugly teenage behavior, set to a peppy rock score, all intended to presage the carnage and social lesson that is to follow in the second act. Imagine Grease the Musical and Carrie the Musical having a baby, genetically modified by the kids from Weird Science. I admit I squirmed in my seat about a dozen times, which I think is testament that the cast was doing it right.

Once the second act kicks in, the narrative shifts to a series of individual character moments, all of which are deeply affecting, particularly Martha Dunnstock’s confessional of unrequited grade school love “Kindergarten Boyfriend,” delivered with maximum heartbreak and just the right amount of cheek by Zoe VanSlooten.

Baumanis is a gifted director who casts his actors not solely based on their talents but also on their abilities to collaborate and to contribute to a cohesive production culture, and he hit a home run again with Heathers. Emily Courcy makes the iconic role of protagonist Veronica her own, with soaring vocals and a healthy dose of side-eyed cynicism. Sam Torres as alpha “Heather”  commands every speck of stage dust, an Amazonian mean girl who takes no prisoners. Amy VanDyke and Chloe Grisa as her cohort “Heathers,” however, are not overshadowed, each staking their claim to the title with wit and moxie. Hayden Reboulet is transfixing and delightfully bonkers as football star Ram Sweeney – one part Robin Williams, two parts John Belushi, yet with a lithe gracefulness that I could attribute to neither.

There are three “adults” in the cast who play multiple roles, and Jeff Steinhauer, Nick Boyer, and Vanessa Banister gleefully embrace the anarchic shenanigans while telegraphing the kind of poignant emotional projection we far too often see among parents and educators who don’t realize that kids may need as much discipline and direction as they do “time outs” and “safe spaces.”

Banister practically leaps from the stage in her “Ladies of the Canyon” Berkeley-grad garb, wielding her cowbell like a cudgel, as the earnest but inept guidance counselor who whips up a frenzy of suicide-aspiration with her well-meaning if misguided attempts at student engagement. Yes, her favored accessory is a cowbell.

If Wicked is a show that questions authoritarianism and harassment in the safe guise of cruise-ship polish and all-ages-spectacle, Heathers steers into the curve, embracing every bit of ugliness (and then some) endemic in the “Beyond Thunderdome” American high school experience. The show is dispiriting, discomforting, and utterly essential. Yet, the finale offers a glimmer of hope and the promise of acceptance (once we all honestly admit how g*dd*amned awful we can actually be to one another) with a rousing reprise of its most melodic and anthemic numbers “Seventeen” and “Beautiful” – a “You Can’t Stop the Beat” dance party for the truly downtrodden and nerdy. It’s an acerbic, sardonic show, and I don’t know that I ever want to see it again, but I’m glad I did once. I’m proud Ann Arbor Civic had the bravery to do it, and I hope others follow suit.

Finally, the Tonys. Ah, the Tonys. The theatre-lovers’ prom. Sunday night, hosted with shaggy charm by Sara Bareilles and Josh Groban, the awards broadcast (if it wasn’t cut off by the nightly news in your neck of the woods) did an exceptional job sending a message of inclusion and transgression without totally thumbing its collective nose at Trump and his hard-charging followers.

(Well, except Robert DeNiro … he said what all of us were thinking in what was basically the left’s version of Clint Eastwood talking to an empty chair a few years ago. And I loved it.)

There were tear-jerking moments: Garfield’s acceptance remarks (alongside Nathan Lane’s, one of the more eloquent and thoughtful speeches of the evening), the all-out love for peace-be-with-us musical The Band’s Visit, and a remarkably authentic and guile-free performance of “Seasons of Love” by the Parkland drama club teens. That song has become so cliched, but they sure as h*ll made it work again.

Sure, there are far too many musicals now adapting popular movies – but we’ve always had that on Broadway, and I’m guessing those who are troubled are actually bothered that the popular movies being adopted aren’t their popular movies. I was surprisingly smitten with the numbers from SpongeBob SquarePants: The Musical and Mean Girls (itself just a less strident riff on Heathers); and who would have thought I’d be excited about the umpteenth revival of Carousel or My Fair Lady, but both productions seem to embrace the inherent sociopathic dysfunction baked into their respective concepts on the way to crafting revivals relevant for their simultaneous commentary on yesterday and today.

So, the theatre. It heals. It offers us a calm harbor in which to observe and view the most troubling aspects of our world, of those around us, and of ourselves. Thank you, theatre.

And … as a bit of postscript as prelude: please order, download, ingest (however people consume music these days) Betty Buckley’s latest album Hope. Her gift is in her ability to draw upon the music of the stage and the FM dial and everything in between  to offer – in the truest sense of cabaret – sharp-eyed criticism of this wackadoodle world and a bit of tonic to soothe our troubled souls. Somehow, she is also getting me to like “Steely Dan,” which I thought would never happen. I leave you with some lyrics from the title track “Hope” by Jason Robert Brown:

And so we sing a song about hope/Though I can’t guarantee there’s something real behind it/I have to try to show my daughters I can find it/And so today –/When life is crazy and impossible to bear –/It must be there/Fear never wins/That’s what I hope/See? I said ‘hope.’/The work begins.”

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Drood reunites – yours truly, Banister, Sweeter

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.

 

“Nevertheless, she persisted.” Rossini’s La Cenerentola (Cinderella) … Detroit’s Opera MODO

“Nevertheless, she persisted.” Funny to consider that phrase apropos to a fairy tale princess, but darn if Opera MODO’s latest production Rossini’s La Cenerentola (Cinderella) doesn’t give glorious vocce to that timely and essential concept. I’m with her, indeed.

Directed brilliantly (and I mean brilliantly) by designer/director Moníka Essen, with a very clever original English translation by librettist Caitlin Cashin, La Cenerentola offers a Cinderella for our modern age: selfie-obsessed stepsisters with cotton candy colored hair; a wicked stepfather who looks like the bastard child of Stanley Tucci’s “Caesar Flickerman” from The Hunger Games and fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld; a fairy godmother in Chanel couture who would be a kick-a** contestant on RuPaul’s Drag Race; TWO princes in skinny suits and hipster garb; and a Cinderella as a stifled artiste who gives as good as she gets.

In all transparency, my day-time employer Kerr Russell sponsored this production, and I was privileged enough to attend the final dress rehearsal in Essen’s home/performance space “The Fortress of Fun.” (Imagine the Kennedy Compound as designed by Marc Chagall and Dr. Seuss. This home is divine. I didn’t want to leave.)

Essen makes excellent use of the space (obvi) with the first and final acts transpiring in her cavernous and elegant living room/bar, some transitional moments as the audience is treated to libations and snacks in the courtyard, and a “ball”/Paris is Burning vogue-off centerpiece in Essen’s adjacent art gallery. The immersive approach is far from gimmicky. With a wink and a smile, Essen and her ensemble embrace the kitsch and the pathos and take their viewers on what is, in fact, a thoughtful, poignant, hysterical, and utterly engaging journey (a word that has become cliché, but is spot on here).

Accompaniment is provided by Steven McGhee on a grand piano, an omnipresent musical narrator of sorts, commenting at times on the proceedings with physicality and guffaws. He’s a pip. There are two casts performing in repertory. Our cast was the Friday/Sunday cast.

Julia Hoffert is a battle-ready Cinderella for the ages, as much Amazonian princess (think Wonder Woman with a painter’s palette) as Disney one. Her vocals soar, but her acting seals the deal, providing a haunted and heartbreaking and ultimately inspiring narrative arc of a woman reclaiming her soul.

The rest of the ensemble are equally brilliant and technically proficient. Lindsay Terrell and Erika Thomspon simultaneously terrify and amuse as Cinderella’s truly horrid siblings. There isn’t one piece of beautifully appointed scenery they don’t gleefully chew. Kurt Frank makes skeeziness a joy to behold as patriarch Don Magnifico. Ben Boskoff is a luminous and dreamy Prince Ramiro (this boy can sing!), and Jacob Surzyn is an utter lark as the Prince’s foil and sidekick Dandini.

But snatching wigs. And stealing. the. show? Aaron Von Allmen as Cinderella’s savior Alidoro, a fairy godmother with attitude who inspires both her charge Cinderella and the audience to be bold, to be bad, and to not take guff from anyone. It is a brilliant addition to the production to have a fierce and funny drag queen be the shaman who drives transformation of the most magical kind: becoming true to one’s self.

As you can imagine, the costuming is smart, yet economical. Not a prop nor a sight gag are wasted, and, every moment adds up to crystalline narrative coherence. I’m not an opera person (I’m sure the MODO folks are tired of hearing that), which is what makes what they do SO brilliant, creating accessible yet sophisticated entree to one of the most beautiful art forms. As my friend Jane Kang texted me after the show about her husband, “Ben was scared it would be too artsy for him … but he LOVED it.”

That is true. And I would posit that the reason we all loved it – and trust me, I haven’t observed as delighted an audience in a long time – is that the production spoke in wise and witty ways to our present human condition of cultural atrophy and of stunted identity and how we owe it to ourselves to rise up, push back, and, yes, persist. Do not miss this show.

  • Rossini’s Cenerentola! Tickets available HERE!
  • May 24-27, 2018 at The Fortress of Fun

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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.

“Could We Start Again, Please?” NBC’s Jesus Christ Superstar, Live in Concert

Jesus_Christ_Superstar_LiveI wouldn’t exactly call myself an Andrew Lloyd Webber fan. I like his musicals more than I might care to admit. There is something intoxicating about an indulgently baroque score that is riddled with random hair metal guitar licks and disco drum beats. I loved an album he did eons ago with his brother Julian Lloyd Webber called Variations in which he basically “dance remixed” Paganini into submission. I suspect that’s where my fascination with musical reinvention began. Oh, I saw the film Evita about a dozen times in 1996 at the peak of my Madonna obsession, and I dearly loved it, although it doesn’t hold up as I’d hoped in light of more celebratory, effusive, less self-conscious film musicals that would follow.

I’m even less sprung on “He is Risen” #SoBlessed Easter spectacle and pageantry. I grew up in a small town in Indiana, and, at some point, Easter took on an almost insufferably sanctimonious quality among the social media posts I would read and observe from friends and family members. Not sure how and when that happened, but, as for me, I’m more of a “Here comes Peter Cottontail” #CadburyEgg kind of Easter person.

So I approached with YUGE trepidation NBC’s latest live musical Jesus Christ Superstar, Live in Concert starring pop/rock stars John Legend, Sara Bareilles, and Alice Cooper alongside theatrical luminaries like Hamilton’s Brandon Victor Dixon and Porgy and Bess’ Norm Lewis.

I was wrong. It was pretty fabulous with a dystopian post-punk quality that was more George Orwell than Mel Gibson and a color-blind casting approach that was more Sesame Street than Sean Hannity. Producers Craig Zadan, Neil Meron, and Marc Platt generally know their way around a musical (NBC’s Peter Pannotwithstanding). With this production, they seemed to be less interested in staging a family friendly holiday confection (remember that creepy Wal-Mart clan from The Sound of Music Live’s commercials? shudder) than in presenting allegorical commentary on the fragmented state of our world today.

Norm Lewis

Lewis

It is a testament to directors David Leveaux and Alex Rudzinski that they allowed the music and the performances to drive the spectacle, avoiding the overdone trap of previous live musicals with their veritable nesting doll of detailed sets that segue seamlessly one to the next. No, with Jesus Christ Superstar, settings were evoked through language and sound and cleverly used props and set pieces, surrounded by graffiti strewn walls and scaffolding used for exits and entrances and the occasional flogging and/or hanging (fun times!).

Maybe I just didn’t pay enough attention in vacation Bible school, but I wasn’t always sure what the heck was going on during Jesus Christ Superstar. The ubiquitous commercial breaks after every big number derailed narrative momentum. The sound quality overall and the challenges of actor articulation/projection while performing in a vast, echoing Brooklyn warehouse contributed as well. The visibly live audience was a smart if distracting choice, adding to the cult-like adoration of the titular figure but often drowning out important lyrical bits.

Jesus Christ Superstar arguably also had the most uniformly excellent cast we’ve seen yet in one of these live productions. Nary a scenery-chewing Christopher Walken nor balsa-wooden Allison Williams in the bunch. The theatre vets faired best, with Dixon and Lewis leading the charge. Lewis as Caiaphas was suitably haunted and haunting as the Jewish high priest who organizes the plot to rid this rabble rouser from their midst. The show was grounded beautifully by his easy-to-take-for-granted performance.

brandon-victor-dixon-jesus-christ-superstar

Dixon

In the showier role as Judas, Dixon left it all on the field (sometimes to the detriment of diction), offering a portrayal rife with conflict and fear: love for a friend versus uncertainty that Jesus’ chosen path made any damn sense at all, layered with just enough resentment and jealousy to make it utterly believable. His final number, performing the show’s title song, was a barnstormer, replete with costuming that made Dixon look like a glittering disco ball.

Alice Cooper preened and strutted appropriately as King Herod whose one song (literally “King Herod’s Song”) is basically a toxic vaudevillian turn, leeringly challenging Jesus to provide evidence of any miraculous abilities at all. Cooper didn’t have to do much other than just be Cooper whose decrepit looks overlaid with his signature stage makeup and hair made for a compellingly repulsive portrayal. With Herod’s song and the subsequent “Trial before Pilate” (British stage vet Ben Daniels made for a kinky, mustache-twirling prefect … still not sure what I thought of him but I couldn’t look away), the die is cast for Jesus and the institutional conspiracy to cut short Christ’s anarchic message of love and inclusion and acceptance entered its final stage.

That was the aspect of this production that spoke to me the most, perhaps because of this ugly current milieu in which we live. Take, for instance, those brave, big-hearted Parkland kids who are pilloried by the falsely fair-and-balanced prophets of “freedom” every time they speak their truth. This production did SUCH an effective job demonizing the forces working against Jesus, did SUCH an effective job depicting the ugly mobs calling for his crucifixion, did SUCH an effective job revealing the insidious intersection of greed and power-mongering that it sent chills down my spine. I was less interested in the show as reflection of faith as I was in its revelatory “more things change, the more they stay the same” positioning.

I kept wondering how Fox News, who cozies up to such a feverishly Evangelical base, would find a way to deride this production which carries in its heart a pretty arch critique of the very demagoguery that is Fox’s stock-in-trade these days. I’m still waiting. Maybe they’ll just counter with a live production of Grease 2.

John Legend was a bit of a cipher as Jesus, which accidently (or intentionally?) aided this direction. His voice all Nat King Cole creamy smooth was an interesting juxtaposition to the jagged rock orchestration surrounding it, but his acting range just doesn’t exist. He can’t help but exude kindness, but otherwise his facial expressions seemed limited to surprised, placid, and worried … with barely any distinction between those. It didn’t much matter. The machinery of Webber’s music, coupled with the sharp overall POV of the production, formed an unstoppable steamroller with Legend along for the ride. When Legend as Jesus finally disappears into the great beyond (with a floating cross effect that was gobsmacking in a “how did they do that?!” way), we are left with the uncertainty of living in a world that punishes kindness and rewards cruelty.

jesus-christ-superstar

I am no theologian by any stretch, but I read some online comments where people unfamiliar with the musical wondered why it didn’t continue on through the “resurrection.” I think the fact that it does not address that part of the tale imbues Jesus Christ Superstar with a greater universalism.

We leave the piece with as much doubt as we entered. We are given no easy answers. Is Judas’ agnosticism valid? Why do we live in such a world where compassion is rewarded with utter rejection and abject fear? Why is love seen as weakness? Why are the biggest pronouncers of their faith often the worst hypocrites?

That is my idea of a “passion” play. Sounds like something Washington, D.C. should watch. On repeat.

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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.

Attention Must be Paid: Tipping Point Theatre’s “Ripcord”

Originally published by Encore Michigan.

One day you wake up, and you find you relate to characters and situations that just the other day felt safely, pleasantly distant and remote. In our home, we have a nightly ritual of watching an episode of a (now) classic sitcom right before going to sleep: Everybody Loves Raymond, Will & Grace, Friends, and increasingly The Golden Girls. I always had finite patience for the self-absorbed whimsy of Friends, and, now, I can barely stomach the show. Once, I thought Raymond’s Marie and Frank Barone were an affectionately nuanced portrayal of meddlesome parents; now, I completely relate to their affable frustrations over “young people” who don’t appreciate their elders’ hard-won advice and perspective. And The Golden Girls? Well, let’s just say, someone get the lanai and the caftan ready. I’m on my way.

It is through this lens, then, that I approached TippingPoint Theatre’s Michigan premiere of Ripcord!, a comedy by David Lindsay-Abaire (Pultizer Prize-winner for Rabbit Hole). Ripcord!, on its surface, is Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? if written by someone who actually likes women. Similarly, the narrative is an escalating emotional arms race between two grand dames, aging in place and trapped in one location (in this instance, one of those “high end” independent senior living facilities). However, unlike Baby Jane, the women have agency from having “seen it all” (think Elaine Stritch’s seminal performance of Sondheim’s “I’m Still Here”); they wear some kicky resort clothes (think Golden Girls with better tailoring and fewer shoulder pads … fun costume design by Shelby Newport); and no one gets served a pet parakeet on a platter (although there is a LOT of business with food being brought up from the cafeteria … I kept waiting).

The Blanche and Baby Jane of Ripcord! are Abby (played with broken glass sparkle by Ruth Crawford) and Marilyn (a heartbreakingly impish Susan Craves). Abby has lived in the same room for four years, mostly alone, as her brusque bravado drives off anyone unfortunate enough to be assigned her roommate. Along comes Marilyn, a ray of sunshine with an iron will – Little Orphan Annie as designed by Sun Tsu. In the 80s, yes, Abby would have been played by Bea Arthur, and Marilyn by Betty White. In this contemporary milieu, Crawford and Craves couldn’t help reminding me of Jane Lynch and Carrie Fisher, respectively. I’m uncertain whether that was intentional on the part of director James Kuhl and his production team or just happenstance, but that dynamic contrast in type and in look works really well.

Marilyn is determined to melt the permafrost around Abby’s cold heart, and Abby is hell-bent to get this bounding golden retriever puppy-meets-Marquis de Sade jettisoned from her life forever. Or,at least have her relocated to a newly vacated room downstairs. Consequently, they place a bet. If Marilyn can scare Abby (who claims no fear), she gets the better bed in their room with an epic view of the park and all the sunlight she can stand. If Abby succeeds in making the relentlessly chipper Marilyn angry, Marilyn vacates the premises, only to be seen at the occasional bingo night. Hijinks ensue.

As plays go, Ripcord! is, in fact, more sitcom than Broadway. The narrative is too episodic by half, and thinly drawn supporting characters come and go primarily as forgettable story beats and harmless complications. However, Abby and Marilyn–built as they are on familiar, near-mythological archetypes (broken monarch, trickster god) – are the show. Lindsay-Abaire wisely commits the lion’s share of the piece to exploring the debilitating isolation and the liberating joys of aging, as evidenced through the pranks, shenanigans, and outright cruelty these women exact upon one another.

At the end of the day, neither Abby nor Marilyn much gives a rat’s-patootie what anyone thinks of them. That is refreshing. Otherwise, we would have yet another tired male-crafted narrative pitting one woman against another. Ripcord! pulls just shy of that, offering a study of two humans who have suffered devastating setbacks, chiefly at the hands of their own spouses and/or children, and who find themselves thrown together like randomly assigned college roommates in their “golden years.” Together, they discover their authority and their appreciation for each other through the artificial tension such circumstances naturally bring.

All of that said, this is the kind of show that TippingPoint does so well. Acerbic, witty, expertly paced, and polished, Ripcord! rarely misses a beat. At Saturday night’s performance, there were some minor flubs here and there, and an actor or three stepped on each other’s lines–all of which will disappear as the run progresses and this already incredible ensemble tightens the performance. Director James Kuhl has cast the show expertly, with two leads who take the sitcom tropes the script hands them and turn in masterfully crafted, compelling character turns – believable humans who are as delightful, maddening, confounding, and damn funny as any family member you may get trapped with at a Thanksgiving dinner.

Dez Walker is great deadpan fun as Scotty, the nursing attendant and foil for the worst these two rivals can dish out. I don’t want to spoil the surprises, but let’s just say their warfare may or may not include skydiving, haunted houses, surprise relatives, muggings, CraigsList phone pranks, and drug-laced peach cobblers. Walker’s reactions to it all are priceless and pleasantly understated. At times, I felt I was watching a Tom and Jerry cartoon brought to life.

Vanessa Sawson, Jason Bowen, and Patrick Loos round out the cast, playing an assortment of family members and haunted house performers (there is an ironic joke in there somewhere). They all do fine work and have some sharply comic moments. Bowen is comedy gold as said mugger who devises an unfortunate and hysterical use for the “legs” in his pantyhose mask.

The ensemble suffers at times, however, from tonal inconsistency. Whereas Craves, Crawford, and Walker imbue their characters with a believability and a subtlety that contrasts nicely and, at times, poignantly with the proceedings, the other performers occasionally devolve into a broader comic style that felt a bit jarring. It’s a minor quibble and is as likely a function of the play’s construction as the performance itself.

The cast is aided and abetted by clever, kitschy, surprising production design. As noted, the costumes by Newport are divine. The efficient and evocative set by Monika Essen is comprised of a series of modular units that can serve as the independent living facility, haunted house, park, etc. Essen supplements the physical set with some eye-popping projections and some nifty animation, all of which creates a captivatingly immersive experience.

Sonja Marquis has a blast with the sound design, weaving techno, hip hop, and some delightfully daffy dance remixes (Carmina Burana? BRILLIANT!) into the musical cues. I would love to download that soundtrack. I particularly appreciate that Marquis resists the urge to employ “age appropriate” music (whatever the hell that would even mean) and delivers a rocking score that gives as good as it gets and adds a fantastic level of manic urgency to the leading characters’ conflict. I also geeked out that the poster and program cover (by graphic designer Quintessa Gallinat) go for POP! over lace doilies, with a fab Roy Lichtenstein spin on the play’s iconography. Well played, TippingPoint!

If, like me, you feel your age every time you read a headline, turn on the radio, or just get out of bed in the morning and if you wonder sometimes whether all this running about and people-pleasing we do in life really matters, you will love Ripcord! If you think these experiences and feelings are still tucked away behind the nebulous and protective curtain of “your future,” then you must see Ripcord! Now. Let’s kick ageism in its collective ass. This isn’t a play about “old people.” This is a play about all of us and the need for kindness and empathy and acknowledgment in. the. moment. Attention must be paid

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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.

“Smells like Marlboros and farts.” Planet Ant Theatre premieres Who Run the World

Originally published by EncoreMichigan

We live in fraught, absurdist political times. Kurt Vonnegut couldn’t even have anticipated how off-the-charts bonkers our reality show polarization has become. So, there is a timely, refreshing, and essential concept at the heart of Planet Ant’s latest original work Who Run the World – taking its title from the pop-feminist anthem  “Run the World (Girls)” by that ubiquitous purveyor of hard lemonade Beyoncé.

The show – written from what appears to be a series of free-wheeling improv exercises by director Lauren Bickers and her unrestrained cast Dyan Bailey, Suzan Jacokes, Esther Nevarez, Scott Sanford, Caitlyn Shea, and Sarah Wilder – is an interesting conceit. What will be the logical (and comically tragic) progression of our society by 2040 if we continue down this Red State/Blue State, feminist/antifeminist, extreme left/alt-right striated path?

Cast of Who Run the World (Photo by Scott Myers)

In the evening’s most effective and crispest moments, a series of video montages (created by Bailey, who used a similar technique in The Ringwald’s concurrently running production Merrily We Roll Along) bring the audience up-to-speed on world events from 2018 to 2040. America is rocked by a series of increasingly extreme political swings – President Oprah Winfrey succeeds President Donald Trump; she is, in turn, defeated by President Donald Trump, Jr.; he is ousted by President Ellen DeGeneres who is overtaken by Prezident Kid Rock (who didn’t even know he was running). A full out gender war erupts, centered around a network of Target stores, and eventually the women prove victorious driving unenlightened men into a series of, yes, “man caves.”

The gynocentric society, on the surface, seems practically perfect in every way: work/life balance, a presidential cabinet made up of bureaucrats dedicated to peace and culture and comfort, and omnipresent “dance breaks” set to the strains of Black Box’s “Everybody, Everybody.”

I admit my other favorite aspect of the show was the pre-show music/scene interludes, which all seemed to be emanating from my own personal iTunes collection. Any time I hear Madonna’s “Human Nature” during a performance (which has been … never … up-until-now), I’m a happy boy. “I’m not your b*tch. Don’t hang your sh*t on me.”

It’s unfortunate, then, that the actual show doesn’t quite live up to the promise of its surreal high concept. The performers–playing both the aforementioned cabinet members as well as a series of mulleted, flannel-wearing male denizens of the underground–should be commended for the ferocity and BIG energy with which they attack the material, but many scenes seem unrehearsed, perhaps even improvised on the spot, which clashes with the slick and professional nature of the video narrative. Further, the production seems to exist at three decibel levels: loud, louder, and loudest. For such an intimate space, this flattens the proceedings, giving the show an extended “skit-like” quality. When the cast is all present onstage, there is such a cacophony of voices and movement, it is at times difficult to discern exactly what is transpiring.

Dyan Bailey, Scott Sanford (Photo by Scott Myers)

There are many funny lines but they are lost as the actors’ articulation isn’t always up to snuff. Or clever quips are delivered with the blunt force of an anvil striking the audience on its collective head, losing the wry, satirical touch that would make them really zing. For example, one particular “man cave” is described as smelling like “Marlboros and farts.” The line made me chuckle, not from its actual delivery, but from its potential.

That is not to say that everyone involved doesn’t have their moments. Dyan Bailey has great fun channeling Kathleen Turner- meets-Donald Trump-meets-Ernst-Blofeld as societal matriarch Kameela Toriana (Department of Appearance and Diplomacy). There isn’t a piece of Jennifer Maiseloff’s underdeveloped scenery she won’t chew (her use of an exercise ball as her throne was particularly effective and amusing), and Bailey’s sheer force-of-hurricane-gale-will keeps the show moving apace.

Caitlyn Shea offers the closest thing to character progression in her shrinking violet-turned-Norma Rae Tracee McAllister (Director of Unpacking), who brings some nuance to the cartoon-like proceedings and revels in her character’s whiplash-inducing turns of personality.

The remaining cast members have some zippy moments, particularly when each goes to the “man cave” of Scott Sanford’s Addison Houser to explore their respective vices. There is an interesting narrative sequence to explore in these scenes if Planet Ant continues to develop the piece. These “vice visits” form a kind of Faustian compact – not dissimilar to Jack Nicholson’s increasingly menacing trips to commiserate with the spectral barkeep in The Shining – wherein the characters discover their true selves and the balance they’ve lost amidst political extremes. If the Who Run the World team works on refining those scenes, that sequence could provide much-needed narrative spark and character development to the play.

I may not be the right audience for what Planet Ant does. The full-house on opening night roared with laughter and approval, particularly as the show escalated further into Saturday Night Live territory or when actors riffed off-script due to a missed light cue or misplaced prop.

As an aside, when I bring my friend Lauren to a show, there seems to be an ironic bit of foreshadowing in our pre-show dinner conversation. I held forth at Green Space Café about how I just didn’t get “improv” and often found the humor therein a bit of a “stretch” for my linear sensibilities. As we watched Who Run the World, which I hadn’t realized was improv-based until I read the program immediately prior (shame on me), it reminded me that, at least for this viewer, I prefer a tightly rehearsed show with clear and nuanced character delineation, levels, and timing. I offer this to say that if you are a fan of improv, you might really dig Who Run the World … and I’m just a crabby fuddy duddy.

That said, I suspect there is a really sharp 45-minute piece buried somewhere in Who Run the World’s two-hour run time. With some Draconian editing, the show could be just the tonic our troubled times need. I, for one, crave a new Crucible, Children’s Hour, or, hell, Book of Mormon for this MAGA vs. #MeToo cultural dumpster fire in which we are currently living. Who Run the World ain’t it yet … but with some work, it might be.

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Lauren Crocker, Roy Sexton – opening night of Who Run the World

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.

‪Honored to be one of #AMAfeed’s featured #authorsAMA. My #askmeanything starts Thursday 3/15 at 9 am! #geeksunite

Well, that’s nifty! Honored to be one of AMAfeed’s featured #authorsAMA. My #askmeanything starts Thursday 3/15 at 9 am! #geeksunite – here.

I love movies, musicals, superheroes, cartoons, action figures, & miscellaneous geekery. I love talking about them even more. Ask me anything!

I’ve been posting my movie musings at www.reelroyreviews.com for five years now … much to the chagrin of true arbiters of taste. And at one point a publisher (Open Books) decided to turn my online shenanigans into a couple of books. I tend to go see whatever film has been most obnoxiously hyped, marketed, and oversold in any given week. Art films? Bah! Won’t find too many of those discussed by yours truly. And every once in awhile, I may review a TV show, theatrical production, record album, concert, or book (yeah, probably not too many of those either). So ask me anything … I act, sing, write, laugh, cry, collect, and obsess in my downtime … and I market lawyers to pay the bills.

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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.

“Most Friends Fade”: The Ringwald Theatre’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along

Kaminski, Armstrong, Johnson [Image Source: The Ringwald’s Facebook Page]

Stephen Sondheim, genius as he may be, is saddled often (fairly or unfairly) with the critique of having a “second act problem.” His shows kick off with a high-concept bang but then devolve into misanthropic goo around the 10 o’clock hour. Modern revivals of most of the major works have found clever fixes for these issues, but one could argue Sondheim himself was trying to reverse his troubles with 1981’s Merrily We Roll Along.

The musical is based on the play by the same name by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart and works backward in roughly five year increments from the climactic and ugly dissolution of a trio’s longstanding friendship in 1976 to its very inception in 1957.

So, rather than a second act problem (the second act is actually quite impactful), Merrily We Roll Along has a “first scene” problem. Unfortunately, I’m not sure The Ringwald’s latest production, which is otherwise pretty damn fine, fixes it.

Kaminski, Armstrong, Johnson [Image Source: The Ringwald’s Facebook Page]

Much like Company, which The Ringwald will be performing next and which is also a Sondheim collaboration with playwright George Furth, Merrily is a show about a man in midlife crisis free-fall, told through a series of episodes and punctuated by the kind of garish and venomous cocktail parties that only seem to exist on Broadway stages and in Bette Davis movies.

And, yes, there is a musical reprise alerting us we are moving from one moment to the next – no “Bobby, baby” this time, but plenty of repetitions of the title song (which you will have in your head for weeks).

The protagonist in question (and likely surrogate for Sondheim himself) is Franklin Shepard, a brilliant composer whose Faustian fixation on the material trappings of success (big house, bigger house, first wife, messy tabloid divorce, affair and subsequent second marriage to his leading lady, money, money, money … and cute plaid suits) takes him further and further away from the hardscrabble joys of his bohemian early days with fellow creative pals Charley Kringas, his lyricist, and Mary Flynn, their novelist buddy.

Schultz [Image Source: The Ringwald’s Facebook Page]

As the three leads in Ringwald’s production, Kyle Johnson (Franklin), Ashlee Armstrong (Mary), and Kevin Kaminski (Charley) are transfixing, and the show rises and falls on their believable dynamic and the sparkle each bring to their respective roles. And that’s why that opening scene is so confounding. We meet this trio at the worst possible moment in their lives, in a shrill and clunky scene that fails to indicate the beautiful story which follows. I don’t fault Joe Bailey’s otherwise consistent and effective direction, nor the physical space (you go to The Ringwald for talent and heart, not production values), but I do cite the show’s gimmicky structure and, to a lesser degree, a fairly heavy-handed performance style in that opening scene that is blessedly absent elsewhere from this cast.

I only belabor this point for one reason – as an audience, don’t be discouraged by the opening, because otherwise this production is aces.

The vocal quality of the cast, performing a tricky yet melodic score, is exceptional, and music director CT Hollis is to be commended for bringing such vibrancy and color from the assembled voices. Kudos also to in-house accompanist Ben Villaluz for doing yeoman’s work in lieu of a full orchestra.

Johnson, Gagnon [Image Source: The Ringwald’s Facebook Page]

The set design by Brian Kessler is minimal, almost to a fault, but there is clever use of small set pieces, décor, and furniture to differentiate locales. Dyan Bailey’s video projection is great fun and is aided and abetted by Brandy Joe Plambeck’s lighting/sound. (Brandy Joe also plays Frank’s sad sack manager Joe to great effect in the show.) Using archival footage, played in reverse, the video snippets, which run during the aforementioned “Merrily We Roll Along” reprises, add a nice visual distraction in the tight space, bring whimsy and poignancy, and offer helpful historical context.

The ensemble (Jerry Haines, Ashley M. Lyle, Anna Morreale, Nicole Pascaretta, Donny Ridel, and standout Matthew Wallace) act as a sort of Greek chorus, commenting on the action directly and playing an array of waiters, reporters, partygoers, etc. Notably, at one point, they are referred to in aggregate as “The Blob” – a collective of insipid, shallow socialite hangers-on whose sole purpose, with the help of pushy second wife Gussie (in a tricky but extremely effective love-to-hate performance from Liz Schultz), seems to be to drag Franklin further into mediocrity. The ensemble has a ball (some to the point of distraction, unfortunately) with this highly theatrical function. Think Bells Are Ringing’s “Drop That Name” as performed by the Kardashian family.

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Kaminski, Armstrong, Johnson [Image Source: The Ringwald’s Facebook Page]

As for musical numbers, Kaminski’s rousing and acerbic ode to being the neglected friend – “Franklin Shepard, Inc.” – is the moment where the production really zings to life, set into fizzy motion by Wallace’s eye-popping take on a vain talk show host interviewing Kaminski. “Old Friends” – performed by Johnson, Armstrong, and Kaminski – wherein the trio attempts to rekindle their affections through song is a delight, with some sweet nods by choreographer Molly Zaleski to Singin’ in the Rain’s iconic “Good Mornin’” number.  Jordan Gagnon has her strongest moments performing a haunting and heartbreaking “Not a Day Goes By” in the first act as Frank’s mistreated ex-wife Beth. And show closer “Our Time” with Johnson, Armstrong, and Kaminski is a lovely sweet-and-sour take on the limitless possibility of new friendship as seen through a sobering retrospective lens.

Over dinner before the show, my friend Lauren and I were discussing the high wire act of balancing one’s creative spark within the daunting machinery of commerce. Merrily is very much Sondheim’s meditation on that concept, written at a point when he had achieved great success and was likely gobsmacked by the pressures such “golden handcuffs” inflict. He would later write more accessibly about the issue in Sunday in the Park with George,After all without some recognition, no one’s going to give you a commission.” Kyle Johnson as Franklin does a remarkable job channeling this tension, offering us a central tragic figure who is as relatable as he is maddening. Johnson smartly resists the people-pleasing trap of making Franklin “likable,” with a feral and sweaty inner life that leaps from the stage. Comparably, Armstrong gives us a Mary who is loyal and true, witty and warm and utterly alone. The juxtaposition of the two figures with Kaminski’s twitchy, lovable, exasperating Charley makes for great theatre.

Merrily We Roll Along has an almost cult-like following, and I can see why. The score is magical, the structure a problematic puzzle, and the three leading characters (particularly as portrayed here) sublime. Don’t miss a rare opportunity to see this unusual show live with such a talented and winsome cast.

Roy and Lauren Crocker at The Ringwald

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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.

In Whitley County covers BroadwayWorld recognition – PLUS, video of numbers from “Life is a Cabaret” #cabaret4relay

Thank you, Bridgett Hernandez and In Whitley County, for this lovely coverage of my recent BroadwayWorld Detroit / BroadwayWorld / Cennarium Award for Ann Arbor Civic Theatre’s Mystery of Edwin Drood. And for the connections you make between play and work and how important it is to have both.

Plus, enjoy these videos of numbers from the final dress rehearsal of “Life is a Cabaret” – click to view. Thanks, Lia, for capturing! You can also view as a continuous playlist here – more videos will be added as available.

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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.

Thank you for the music. Life is a Cabaret an unqualified hit! #cabaret4relay

I am overwhelmed. In the best way possible. Bunch of theater nerds got together under the expert leadership of Denise Isenberg Staffeld and Kevin Robert Ryan with Lia De Biasi and Shirley Addison Auty and sang a bunch of beloved old tired show tunes, raising over $14,000 (!!!) in one evening for Relay For Life of Canton and Plymouth, MI. We had a sold out crowd of 400 people who seemed to enjoy whatever the hell we were doing on stage. Let that sink in. 400 people. $14,000. ONE (Wednesday!) night.

And we had a heckuva time doing it.

Personally, I had nearly half of my law firm Kerr Russell show up to support me – they filled the back three rows. I still have goosebumps over that. And I had a number of other wonderful friends – old and new – there to support our efforts. This is truly a remarkable experience, and I will be forever grateful. I shall sleep well tonight.

Hometownlife Coverage here.

Thank you, all:

John Mola, Christopher Tremblay, Cathy Skutch McDonald, Jim Paglino, Ben Two-Ships, Bethany Jean, AJ Kosmalski, Aimee Kat, Michelle Burtley, Jeff Steinhauer, Tim Chanko, Tracy Neil, Kelvin Elvidge, Nikki Bagdady Horn, Jenn Kennedy, Melissa Francis, Bruce Sheri Hardcastle, Cynthia Villeneuve, Gail Showler, Katie Westfall, Jeffrey May, Brandy Swykert Mathie, Ashley Racette, Yvette Kotlarczyk, Sue Smith, Candice Hadley, Rebecca Winder, Leo Babcock, Jackie Jenkins, Michelle MacDonald McAllister, Pat Williams, Michele Danic, Sue Fater Willis, Jan Sekedat Caurdy, Laura Evans Jones, Kristina Kalfayan, Heather Kalfayan, Shana Orgeck, Karen Schumer, Debra Behrmann, Gary Longwell, Joanie Davidson Forfinski, Cara Forfinski, Cole Forfinski, Jamie Gazella Coker, Kelly Hinojosa, Megan Schaper, Liz Johnson, Kim Strube Scartelli, Diane Pessefall DiMauro, Liz Johnson, Kim Strube Scartelli, Marion Zidzik Rozum, Tammy Schenck Brown, Debby Ash, Wendy Sielaff and lord knows who all I’m missing. Grateful for you all ❤

#cabaret4relay

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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.

Less than one week until Life Is A Cabaret! February 7 … benefiting American Cancer Society Relay for Life #Cabaret4Relay

 

Life is A Cabaret: A Musical Fundraiser featuring Broadway Tunes! This event is a collaboration with Chicks for Charity and The American Cancer Society. Proceeds will benefit the Relay For Life of Canton and Plymouth, MI. Tickets are $22 and are available at the box office, by phone or online at https://goo.gl/qRq7b3! The event is 7 pm at Canton’s Village of Cherry Hill Theatre. Doors open at 6 pm.

“You Will Be Found” in rehearsal (from Dear Evan Hansen) – Featured vocalists: AJ Kosmalski as “Evan” with Aimee Chapman – #cabaret4relay

 

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.