“The world and the way things are.” Mosaic Youth Theatre of Detroit’s alumni production of The Wiz

“Sweet thing, let me tell you ’bout the world and the way things are. You’ve come from a different place, and I know you’ve traveled far. … He’s the Wiz. He’s the Wiz. He’s the Wizard of Oz. He’s got magic up his sleeve. He’s the Wizard. And you know without his help it would be impossible to leave. Fantastic powers at his command, and I’m sure that he will understand.” – Addaperle, “He’s the Wizard” from The Wiz

A stranger in a strange land. Myth and parable and children’s literature have long made great use of this trope to teach us lessons in humanity and inhumanity, courage and acceptance. Alice’s Adventures in WonderlandThe Odyssey. Dante’s Inferno. The Phantom Tollbooth. The NeverEnding Story. Star Wars. E.T. On and on.

And, yes, that most all-American of hero’s quest tales: The Wizard of Oz.

I’ve written at length of my adoration, nay obsession, with The Wiz, Charlie Smalls’ 1970s urbanized musicalization of L. Frank Baum’s classic. As a tyke, I recreated the sets from Sydney Lumet’s bleak and transfixing film adaptation out of construction paper and magic markers and Scotch tape. I ruined countless needles on my little Raggedy Ann & Andy portable record player, cranking that two-disc film soundtrack – fished from an Ayr-Way cutout bin in Fort Wayne, Indiana – to insane decibel levels. I can still recite pages of dialogue, and I’d kill to have a Wiz-themed birthday party one day. And the soundtrack was also my gateway drug to all things Quincy Jones – just listen to the original stage score and then study what Q does with said score for the film, deconstructing and rebuilding to such a shiny pop sheen that it takes your breath away.

So, when, in my first meeting as a new board member of Mosaic Youth Theatre of Detroit, I learned that the storied company would be performing The Wiz this summer in a special alumni production, I suggested, if anyone fell through, that I would be happy to play any (or all) of the parts. I’m still waiting for them to get back to me on that. …

Digression … about Mosaic: “Mosaic Youth Theatre of Detroit is one of Southeast Michigan’s most highly regarded cultural treasures. Our critically acclaimed student-driven performances and national and international tours have brought worldwide attention to Detroit as a center for arts and culture while shining a spotlight on the area’s talented young people and creating new and diverse audiences for the performing arts. Founded by Rick Sperling in 1992 to address gaps in Metro Detroit arts education, Mosaic served 25 young artists in its inaugural year. Today, hundreds of youth from more than 50 Metro Detroit schools participate in Mosaic’s First, Second and Main Stage programs every year. These innovative programs provide expert training, mentoring and opportunity to the area’s young actors, singers, and stage technicians, while fostering a culture of high expectations, active participation and acceptance that serves them beyond the stage.”

Back to The Wiz …  how is Mosaic’s production? Especially for someone as fixated as yours truly? I am happy to report (wearing my critic’s hat, and not my board member one) that the production is warm and funny, contemporary and poignant, zippy and engaging. I said to myself that I wouldn’t cry when Dorothy (a luminous and preternaturally poised Crystal Tigney) sings the sweeping ballad “Home” at the conclusion of her journey through Oz. Nope, not me. I’m tough. Well, one single man tear during the first verse turned into a salty river down my cheeks (and one helluva runny nose) by the time Tigney hit that final soaring note. Dammit.

Directed with heart by Yewande Odetoyinbo, the production is expertly paced and turns the economic scale of Mosaic’s black box space into a strategic advantage, relying on clever costuming (with an assist from Nadia Johnson), minimal props, lighting effects (by Yemisi Odetoyinbo with Seth Swift) and projections (by Lumumba Reynolds), and the exceptional talent (and voices) of the principles and ensemble to sell this oft-told tale.

Odetoyinbo’s direction embraces camp without detracting from the essence of the piece. Glinda (exquisite Krystal Hill who also plays Aunt Em), for example, arrives with a retinue of footmen who hold an electric box fan in front of her so her diaphanous gown billows just so (Beyonce-style). Addaperle (a whip-smart Brittany Myree who doubles as Evilene) works the room like a Vegas comic. The Tin Man (a sparkling D’Marreon Alexander) integrates some charming 80s pop-n-lock into his choreography, and The Lion (a crackerjack, at times heart-wrenching, but always funny Carman Cooper) makes her entrance like a cheesy TV-variety show host, complete with her own back up lion-cub dancers. Justin Shephard is a hoot in the showy titular role, pulling out all the stops as part-time revivalist, full-time huckster.

Tigney, Alexander, Cooper, and Day

Keith Anderson Day, Jr. is a standout as The Scarecrow, invoking both Ray Bolger and Michael Jackson, while making the part completely his own. I’m showing my bias toward the version of The Wiz I first experienced, but the stage Scarecrow’s signature tune “I Was Born on the Day Before Yesterday” is no “You Can’t Win” (its sonic replacement in the film). Day’s performance of “Day Before Yesterday,” however, has me significantly reconsidering that assessment. Utterly winning, Day struts and pouts, shimmies and shines, landing the number and establishing that this Wiz is going to be something special. It’s a fantastic performance.

Music director DeLashea Strawder – with accompanists Maurice Draughn and Keir Ward – does wonders in the challenging space, nailing every number, eliciting beautiful harmonies and nuanced dynamics from her stellar cast. Javon Jones’ choreography is spry and contemporary, efficiently employing the ensemble to do all the heavy-lifting to convey settings (e.g. Yellow Brick Road) and effects (e.g. the twister that brings Dorothy to Oz). As for that ensemble (Chloe Davis, Myles Dungey, Nya Johnson, Kristianna Marks, Alexandria Miller, Jamiliah Minter, Kaila Scales, Brionne White, and Coleman Ward), they are all in, sassily interacting with the audience and seizing their moments to shine, while always honoring the narrative whole.

Now, perhaps more than ever, The Wiz offers an essential message of inclusion and of challenging the status quo. Home is where the heart is, but, on her journey to rediscover that “feeling we once had,” Dorothy takes her shots at demagogues and bullies, embraces and champions the marginalized, and offers hope to the hopeless. I can’t think of a more important message for today’s America.

Cooper, Tigney, Shephard

Mosaic Youth Theatre’s The Wiz runs one more weekend (August 16-19 with multiple show times) and tickets may be purchased here.

“Well there may be times when you wish you wasn’t born. And you wake one morning just to find your courage gone. But just know that feeling only lasts a little while. You stick with us, and we’ll show you how to smile.” – Dorothy, Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Lion, “Ease on Down the Road”

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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 first they must catch you.” The Darkest Minds (film review) and Barn Theatre’s production of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

“All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies, and whenever they catch you, they will kill you. But first they must catch you, digger, listener, runner, prince with the swift warning. Be cunning and full of tricks and your people shall never be destroyed.” Richard Adams, Watership Down

When even our escapist entertainment reminds us of the dystopia in which we are currently living as Americans, you know things are dire indeed. This weekend we took in a Saturday night production of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast by our talented pals at Augusta, Michigan’s Barn Theatre and a Sunday matinee of the film adaptation of Alexandra Bracken’s young adult novel The Darkest Minds. Both were engaging diversions, and, yet, as I sat through both, I was reminded repeatedly of how disconcertingly life imitates art.

If there were ever a tale as old as time that functions as a parable of toxic masculinity, it is Disney’s take on Beauty and the Beast, adapted from Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont’s fairy tale first as an Academy Award-winning animated musical in 1991, then as a Broadway stage show in 1994, and finally as a live action film musical in 2017. And it’s made boatloads of cash in each iteration.

Andrea Arvanigian as Belle and Charlie King as Maurice in “Beauty and the Beast” at Barn Theatre.

Let’s see. Belle, a bookish beauty, is caught between two brutes: 1) a misogynistic and vainglorious hunter (Gaston) who sees her as a trophy to be bullied and berated into submission and 2) a literal beast of a man who forces an exchange of her imprisonment for her father’s freedom and locks her in his castle until she succumbs to his “charms.” It may as well be renamed “#MeToo: The Musical.”

As always, the Barn wows with their stagecraft, turning around a technically complex show with barely a week of rehearsal, all the while smiling and parking cars and mowing lawns and serving drinks and selling souvenirs. Be our guest, indeed!

I’d never seen the stage iteration, and I admit to having some difficulty with the first act which pads out the narrative with some forgettable numbers and comic bits and belabors the Beast’s darker impulses to the point that we  begin to lose the sense of isolation and loneliness that humanizes him in the films (not Alan Menken’s and Tim Rice’s finest work – Rice took over for the late Howard Ashman for the Broadway adaptation’s additional material). I now understand why Disney went back to the drawing board with last year’s live action flick, rather than adapt the stage version.

Swiped from Jamey’s Facebook page … sorry (not sorry)!

That said, Jamey Grisham as the titular beast does a lovely job working around those limitations and giving us a Beast who is more of a woebegone man-child than an outright Stanley Kowalski caveman. As I said to him following last night’s performance, his Beast was like a misunderstood pit bull who’d been left at the shelter too long. He looked at me quizzically, but, believe me, for an animal lover like me, that’s high praise. Jamey has the voice of an angel and moves beautifully, but arguably his finest moment is his quietest: when Belle reads King Arthur aloud to the admittedly illiterate Beast. The tender poignancy of Andrea Arvanigian’s Belle sharing a beloved tome with a creature who has never received the most basic of kindnesses is palpable. And the subtle canine physicality that Grisham brings to the scene (how does a Beast sit in a chair, anyway?) is heartwarmingly whimsical.

Albert Nelthropp as Gaston in Barn Theatre’s “Beauty and Beast.”

Albert Nelthropp has a true gift for balancing the cartoonish and the menacing as Gaston. He never misses a comic beat, has a voice (and articulation) that fills the cavernous Barn space, and possesses that rare ability to be likable without losing the utter despicability of his character. Penelope Alex is a lovely and warm Mrs. Potts, delivering the title tune in a soft and lullaby-like manner.

And Hans Friedrichs is having the time of his life as Maurice Chevalier-inspired major domo Lumiere. Few performers could be as elegantly hysterical with (basically) a flashlight strapped to the end of each arm. He and Samantha Rickard as his paramour-turned-feather-duster Babette are a hoot.

Disney’s Beauty and the Beast runs through August 10, with tickets available at www.barntheatreschool.org

Be sure to stick around for the Bar Show, a Barn Theatre tradition where the apprentices take over the Rehearsal Shed post-performance to deliver a kooky comic cabaret with polish and panache. Grisham directs and choreographs (is there anything this man can’t do?) with a zippy but inclusive efficiency.

Bar Show

The Disney theme continues with numbers from Coco, The Aristocats, and The Lion King, plus the lost number “Disneyland” from Marvin Hamlisch’s and Howard Ashman’s musicalization of Smile and a pretty epic opener “The Greatest Show” from Benj Pasek and Justin Paul‘s The Greatest Showman (which, for all intents and purposes, should be a Disney musical … but isn’t).

Video clips at the bottom of this post.

From musicalized misogyny on Saturday to a sci fi fable on Sunday about children locked in cages by the government, forcibly separated from their parents –  The Darkest Minds … I told you our entertainment choices this weekend seemed oddly ripped from today’s headlines. Or I just spend way to much time trolling CNN’s and MSNBC’s websites.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The Darkest Minds has been unfairly pilloried by critics. It’s not awful. It’s not great either. The cinematic universe is now littered with Ray Bradbury-esque young adult future-shock franchises that aspired to the box office glory of Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games but never quite made it past the starting gate: The Golden Compass, The Mortal Instruments, Beautiful Creatures, Percy Jackson, Divergent, I Am Number Four, and so on. Judging by ticket sales this past weekend, Darkest Minds will be in the trash heap of failed young adult film series as well.

That’s a bit of a shame, as I found its depressing and ominous qualities oddly … refreshing (?). It is necessarily discomforting in today’s world to watch a piece of popcorn entertainment depict young children forcibly ripped from their parents’ arms and sent to internment camps for being “different” (albeit in this instance for having super powers). Yes, we’ve covered this territory a lot; hell, it’s basically the same premise Marvel’s X-Men have been milking for nearly sixty years. Yet, it remains timely. Sadly timely.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The film probably would have worked better as a bleak TV series – something you watch on NetFlix on a grey Sunday afternoon, while still in your pajamas and eating an entire box of Cap’n Crunch cereal.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

In her first live action film (after Kung Fu Panda), Jennifer Yuh Nelson has assembled a capable and transfixing cast, even if they are in servitude to a fairly pedestrian and episodic script. A luminous and haunting Amandla Stenberg (Rue from the original Hunger Games) plays telepathically gifted Ruby Daly – as in all of these sorts of films, she is the Christ/Skywalker/Superman-like “one who will save us all.”

Stenberg is a star in the making, so her mere presence makes the film far more interesting to watch than it should be. A la Dorothy in Oz, she has a band of scruffy friends – Harris Dickinson as dreamy love interest Liam, Skylan Brooks as cerebral Chubbs, Miya Cech as mute Zu – who aid and abet her adventures. The foursome are by far the best thing in the film with a chemistry that deserves a far better vehicle to showcase it.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

They are on the run from a rather confusing collection of government entities and rebel factions that have sprung up in the wake of a nationwide virus that has killed 90% of America’s children and left the remaining 10% with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. Uplifting, eh?

Of course, all the adults – well-meaning and earnest Mandy Moore (that’s pretty much her range right there), glowering Gwendoline Christie (sadly sans her shiny Star Wars Stormtrooper helmet), and West Wing‘s Bradley Whitford being all West Wing-y as, yes, the President – are on a mission to collect the super kids to do … well … something? Take over the world? Kill the remaining kids? Clean boots and grow vegetables? Heck, I have no idea.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Arguably, the best outcome for the tens of people who will have walked past Mission: Impossible or Mamma Mia! to go see The Darkest Minds is that some of them might be inspired to pick up the far superior Watership Down by Richard Adams and give it a spin.

Ruby improbably finds a paperback copy in an abandoned shopping mall, reads it to her compatriots, and then repeats ad nauseum Adams’ narrator’s memorable caution to “Prince Rabbit” that “all the world will be your enemy.”

Sadly, these days, those words seem more prescient than ever. So much for escapist entertainment.

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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.

 

 

Fool you once, shame on me. Fool you twice? #Winning … Yours truly to emcee #WildeAwards for 2nd (and probably last) year

They invited me back. That was probably a bad idea. I’m emceeing EncoreMichigan.com’s 17th annual Wilde Awards ceremony – August 27 at the The Berman Center for the Performing Arts.

Tickets for the 2018 Wilde Awards, the 17th annual award show recognizing the best performances and productions of the previous season, to be held August 27 at The Berman Center for Performing Arts in West Bloomfield, Michigan, are now on sale at The Berman’s website.

Click here for advanced tickets.

Featured artists who will perform include cast members from The Ringwald Theatre’s production of Rocky Horror Show, Wilde nominee Sonja Marquis (American Trailer Park Musical), Wilde nominee Janet Haley (Michigan Shakespeare Festival, Flint Youth Theatre), Wilde nominee Lauren LaStrada (Lady Day) and more. Emcee for the evening will be yours truly.

“We had an amazing year of great theatre in Michigan during the 2017-18 season, and I am looking forward to celebrating the season with our community,” said David Kiley, editor-in-chief of EncoreMichigan.com. “It’s always a special night, and we have made some changes this year to the entertainment and to catering to make it an even better experience all the way around.”

  • Read the coverage here.
  • View the nominees here.

The Wilde Awards Show is the single biggest fund-raiser of the year for EncoreMichgan, which is a non-profit, and the only media source fully covering the professional theater community and industry in Michigan.

Encore’s critics reviewed more than 230 show openings last year. And the site also provides an online casting directory of actors, known as E-Casting, plus audition info and industry news.

This year’s Wilde Awards event is receiving support from Actors Equity Association, the Kerr Russell law firm, the Kalamazoo Arts Council, Falcon Paymasters, PrideSource Media and The Berman Center for Performing Arts.

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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.

As if in a dream: Tipping Point Theatre’s Impossibility of Now wows

Originally published by EncoreMichigan

 

[Image Source: Tipping Point]

“Words – so innocent and powerless as they are, as standing in a dictionary, how potent for good and evil they become in the hands of one who knows how to combine them,” the novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne once observed. For all intents and purposes, this quote could serve as the central thesis of Tipping Point Theatre’s latest offering, the Michigan premiere of Y. York’s The Impossibility of Now.

[Image Source: Tipping Point]

With a narrative conceit that wouldn’t have been out of place in mid-century episodes of Playhouse 90, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, or my mother’s beloved The Loretta Young Show, York’s play details the recovery of a successful non-fiction writer Carl (a dazzling Dave Davies) whose slate is literally wiped clean when a utility pole falls on his car and renders him an amnesiac. His wife Miranda (poignantly portrayed by Julia Glander) has suffered for years, married to a pre-accident Carl who was terse, cruel, distant, and unkind, keeping her an emotional prisoner in their isolated three-story Las Vegas condo.

[Image Source: Tipping Point]

In the midst of her heartache, Miranda had taken up with a hunky man-child dentist Anthony (Glander’s real-life husband Alex Leydenfrost) who may or may not have fully healed from his own recent divorce. Yet, Carl returns from the hospital a changed man – innocent and loving, full of wonder about this new world around him … and pretty darn smitten with Miranda. Needless to say, Miranda is at a crossroads.

[Image Source: Tipping Point]

What keeps the piece from devolving into maudlin soap opera? Sprightly dialogue by York that values adult wit over self-indulgent shtick and, perhaps more importantly, smart direction from Frannie Shepherd-Bates that allows each of her talented actors to shine and genius set and projection design from Moníka Essen that elevates the narrative with a hauntingly dream-like quality.

The interplay between Davies and Glander, as a couple rebuilding a life from ash, provides the production its most affecting moments. Essen’s set – a series of (literal) jigsaw puzzle pieces – is a nod toward Carl’s attempts at reconciling a sea of memories, real and imagined.

[Image Source: Tipping Point]

Her projection work aids and abets the exceptional onstage connection between Davies and Glander: a series of animated words appear at key junctures on a screen above the stage, representing the ever-spinning algorithms in Carl’s mind, and provide exquisite punctuation (sometimes riotous, sometimes heartbreaking) on the unfolding tragicomedy.

I was transfixed by the interplay of these elements; an effect that can only be achieved in the theatre, expanding and elevating a good play into something great.

Quintessa Gallinat’s nuanced sound design is a key element in this experience as well and must be acknowledged for the immersive but unobtrusive use of music and sound effects.

[Image Source: Tipping Point]

My only quibbles are more with script than production. At two hours, the narrative at times seems attenuated past its breaking point, and the capable and compelling Leydenfrost is saddled with a role which, at times, seems to be more a sitcom-level complication than fully developed character. He and Glander are fun to watch with their dental chair trysts, but those moments are jarring, like lost pages from Neil Simon’s Plaza Suite, given the high-wire act Davies brings to Carl’s reclamation of self. They almost seem like two different universes entirely. It doesn’t hurt the show, and the cast all soldier through admirably, but the script would be more of a gut punch with fewer shenanigans and even more focus on Carl and Miranda’s fascinating pas de deux.

[Image Source: Tipping Point]

Davies is a marvel. His crack comedic timing coupled with a deep-feeling pathos engenders a wealth of audience empathy. Davies has built an extraordinary number of layers into a role that in lesser hands could have been Forrest Gump-redux. He never condescends to the character nor to the situations and is electrifyingly present throughout. Don’t miss his work here. “Deft and exhilarating” can’t begin to describe it.

Tipping Point and its Producing Artistic Director James Kuhl are perhaps too-often unsung for the consistent level of quality and engagement they bring to their work. Productions there are consistently top-notch, relatable, and transporting. They take chances on new material, use their space in clever and creative and economical ways, and provide a safe place for an extraordinary array of talent to play. The Impossibility of Now is a perfect example of the humane and humanistic approach they take to theatrical arts, and, for that, this critic is grateful.

[Image Source: Tipping Point]

The Impossibility of Now runs through August 19.

 

 

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[Image Source: Theatre Nova]

Addendum … I’m participating in this event (below) on Thursday …

Theatre NOVA, Ann Arbor’s professional theatre with an exclusive focus on new plays and playwrights, presents their semi-annual Michigan Playwrights Festival, now in its third year. Five new plays by Michigan playwrights will be given readings July 25-29, 2018.

[Image Source: Theatre Nova]

Theatre NOVA focuses on new plays and new playwrights and is dedicated to working with new and local playwrights to help them develop their craft and to offer brand new plays for audiences. The theatre created the Michigan Playwrights Festival to nurture Michigan playwrights and to develop full-length plays for future seasons. They recently produced “Clutter,” an original script by Michigan playwright Brian Cox, as a result of its staged reading at a previous festival. “Clutter” was lauded by audiences and critics and earned two Wilde Award awards, including Best New Script.

[Image Source: Theatre Nova]

In the previous year, “Irrational” by R. MacKenzie Lewis and David Wells was given a full production and also received a Wilde Award for Best New Script. Other plays that began as staged readings at Theatre NOVA and have gone on to full productions are “Katherine” by Kim Carney, “Spin” by Emilio Rodriguez, and “Bird” by Kristin Hanratty. “Resisting” by David Wells and “Mrs. Fifty Bakes a Pie” by Linda Ramsay-Detherage also benefited from readings at a Michigan Playwrights Festival and had their world premieres in the current Theatre NOVA season, with “Resisting” being nominated for a Wilde Award for Best New Script.

[Image Source: Theatre Nova]

This activity is supported by the MICHIGAN COUNCIL FOR ARTS AND CULTURAL AFFAIRS and the NATIONAL ENDOWMENT FOR THE ARTS.

Schedule of the July Michigan Playwrights Festival:

“Sex and Innocence” by Emilio Rodriguez, Wednesday, July 25 at 8:00 pm

After hours, inside a fictional museum for 1950’s Hollywood plastic figurines, a statue of Rita Moreno comes to life and runs into a statue of Marlon Brando. When Rita’s statue discovers that she is tucked away in the basement of the museum and remembered as merely a sex symbol instead of an Oscar-winning actress, she attempts to re-brand herself while simultaneously confronting her tumultuous relationship with Marlon. Can she change how she is revered, or will her interactions reaffirm the very image she seeks to shatter? This reading, directed by Emilio Rodriguez, will feature Chloe Castro-Santos and James Busam.

“Hollywood Lies” by Jackie Sue Salter, Thursday, July 26 at 8:00 pm
A story of friendship amidst the Hollywood blacklist, “Hollywood Lies” presents 1948 Hollywood where a just-past-her-prime actress attempts to revive her stalled career. “Hollywood Lies” features Colleen Gentry, Roy Sexton, Laurie Atwood, Robert Schorr, and Ellen Finch, and is directed by Brian Cox.

 

“Under Ceege” by Jeffry Chastang, Friday, July 27 at 8:00 pm

Following the death of her father, a retired hospital worker finds herself not only at odds with her son, in the middle of a lucky lottery streak, but also at a financial disadvantage as she struggles to buy the home she’s lived in all of her life. Featuring Monrico Ward and directed by Lynch Travis.

[Image Source: Theatre Nova]

“Dirt” by Kristin Andrea Hanratty, Saturday, July 28 at 8:00 pm

All that Saundra wants to focus on during her sixth year of college is parties, avoiding schoolwork and herself. However, after she returns from a road trip to the Southwest, she finds herself plagued by the pains of others and the mysterious substance found in a hole of a New Mexican church. Directed by Aliyah Kiesler, “Dirt” features Danielle Wright, Carlos Westbrook, Rishi Mahesh, Maggie Alger, Connor Hutchins, Alan Gibson, and Joe Sfair.

“Dirty Glass” by Micealaya Moses, Sunday, July 29 at 2:00 pm

Teenaged Meghan returns home a year after running away and has to find a way to fit herself into her old life. Meghan and her community grapple with their responsibility concerning Meghan’s choices in a world that often doesn’t see young black girls as children and refuses to acknowledge when they have been victimized. This reading of “Dirty Glass” features Arabia Little, Shelia Johnson, Doug Monds, Dan Johnson, Aseneth Peek Parker, Jillian Diane Craighead, and Lorenzo Orlando, and is directed by Casaundra Freeman.

[Image Source: Theatre Nova]

The Michigan Playwrights Festival will run October 10-15, 2017 at Theatre NOVA (410 W. Huron, Ann Arbor), a downtown performance space. Show times are 8:00 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. Theatre NOVA features free parking for patrons, as well as quick access to the city’s restaurants, bars, bakeries, and coffee shops.

Tickets are $10 for each reading, while festival passes good for all five readings are $30. Theatre NOVA continues its commitment to making theatre accessible by offering pay-what-you-can tickets for those who need them for all readings. For tickets or more info, visit TheatreNOVA.org, call 734-635-8450 (Tuesdays through Fridays from noon until 3 p.m.), or buy them in person at the box office one hour before show time.

Theatre NOVA is Ann Arbor’s resident professional theatre company. Its mission is to raise awareness of the value and excitement of new plays and new playwrights in a diverse and expanding audience and to provide resources and outlets for playwrights to develop their craft, by importing, exporting, and developing new plays and playwrights.

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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.

Of freak flags and time warps: The Ringwald’s production of The Rocky Horror Show

Originally published by EncoreMichigan.com

[Jacokes – image source: The Ringwald]

Richard O’Brien’s The Rocky Horror Show is a bit of an artifact of its time, when queer culture and camp were avant garde, subversive, and downright frightening to most of America. Mike Pence notwithstanding, today we’ve seen such a mainstreaming of O’Brien’s core shock tactics (gender fluidity, B-movie tropes taken to their kinkiest extremes, gay panic, sophomoric raunch) that the show almost seems like a cuddly, family-friendly enterprise. I guess we can thank Andy Warhol, John Waters, Madonna, RuPaul, Logo TV, and Sacha Baron Cohen for that? When Drag Race – the likeliest heir to Rocky Horror’s legacy – is one of the most popular reality shows in America, you know we’ve turned a corner, even if the daily headlines, Fox News, and the comments section of any given Yahoo! news story lead us to believe otherwise. Hell, Fox themselves aired a (not very good) TV remake of Rocky Horror starring trans actress/activist Laverne Cox  … in response to Carrie Underwood playing Maria in NBC’s Sound of Music Live!?! Strange days indeed.

 

[Harris – image source: The Ringwald]

Ferndale, Michigan’s The Ringwald gets all of this. This milieu is their stock-in-trade. In fact, I can practically feel their collective eyeballs roll as they read that opening paragraph. Consequently, it is assured that Ringwald will do something unique with the material, while honoring the nostalgia factor that keeps Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, and Millennials alike coming back year-after-year to this show and its classic film adaptation. The film, of course, starred Tim Curry, Barry Bostwick, and Susan Sarandon in career-launching roles with a million toast-strewn midnight-movie showings.

 

[Wallace, Harris, Gagnon, Jacokes – image by author]

Directed with aplomb by Brandy Joe Plambeck (also brilliantly pulling out all the stops as exposition- spouting character Dr. Scott), The Ringwald’s Rock Horror Show does not disappoint. Tied loosely to the bicentennial anniversary of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (I wondered why everyone was doing these kinds of shows in the middle of summer – well, I’m seeing this one), The Ringwald’s production is a damn party. Yes, O’Brien’s book reads like a series of MadLibs pages strung together and makes about as much sense. However, the songs are sublime, and they are beautifully delivered here – kudos to Jeremy St. Martin’s music direction. The bonkers characters are a scream for talented actors like Ringwald’s to play. No bit of scenery remains unchewed; no audience member unaccosted. And it’s divine.

 

Defying convention, Plambeck transplants the show from a rambling gothic castle into a seedy biker bar, covered in punk rock graffiti and serving (non-alcoholic) drinks to audience and cast members – with smart, solid, economic scenic design from Stephen Carpenter. It’s a genius and immersive move. Squeaky clean (or are they?) Brad and Janet – representing the dreams and aspirations of middle-America to live boring, Instagram-friendly lives – stumble into said bar from the rain to use the pay phone after their car dies. While there, Brad and Janet meet a sordid cast of characters, all of whom are easy-to-judge but hard-to-avoid and totally at home in this setting. What Plambeck’s approach loses in outright spooky weirdness, it makes up for in sheer Muppet-y anarchic charm.

 

[Harris – image source: The Ringwald]

The bar is run by one Dr. Frank N. Furter who uses sex as a weapon AND a floor show. In a welcome bit of gender-blind casting, Suzan M. Jacokes takes on the role. Her acting style seems pneumatically engineered for an outsized, cartoonish part like this, and she doesn’t disappoint. While nuance may not be her forte, she has power, polish, volume, and command to spare. You can’t look away. I did miss some of the slithering insinuation we typically associate with the role, but Tim Curry’s gonzo performance will always cast a long shadow. Jacokes deserves plaudits for stomping it to the ground and making it uniquely her own. She’s like the caffeine-addled lovechild of Gloria Swanson and Rodney Dangerfield. She nails the anthemic “I’m Coming Home” number, with just the right hint of Liza/Judy-ish “little girl (boy?) lost” pathos.

 

[Wallace, Gagnon – image by author]

Matthew Wallace and Jordan Gagnon as Brad Majors and Janet Weiss, respectively, are an absolute delight, setting aside the faux innocence often brought to the roles and bringing a postmodern loopy assuredness that is fun to watch. Their love/hate dynamic in “Dammit Janet” and later “Super Heroes” is touching, thoughtful, and refreshingly believable, particularly in the midst of such a carnival-esque enterprise. Their characters benefit best from the updated locale. The hedonism of a late-night, dead-end watering hole on a stormy night (and with no vehicular escape) would indeed lead to some relationship topsy-turviness.

 

Brad and Janet arrive smack in the midst of Dr. Frank N. Furter’s experiments (in a bar?) to genetically engineer the perfect man and sexual plaything “Rocky.” Garett Michael Harris as Rocky turns in an eye-poppingly nimble performance that is more Iggy Pop than Tab Hunter. He’s terrific.

 

[Riedel, Bailey, Sulkey – image by author]

Janet takes up with Rocky; Frank takes up with Brad (and Janet). Brad and Janet’s former science professor Dr. Scott arrives in a wheelchair (and glittering pumps) to drop a whole sh*t-ton of backstory. Frank reveals that he and his fellow bar denizens are actually space aliens (!) who left their mission behind to get freaky with earthlings. Servants Riff Raff (effectively underplayed by Donny Riedel) and Magenta (Dyan Bailey – imbuing Magenta’s “over it” personality with her trademark Kathleen Turner-esque a$$-kickery) shoot up the bar with ray guns and demand a return to their home planet. Brad and Janet escape, sweetly acknowledging their love and their need for one another. Finis. Whew.

 

The ensemble work (Colleen Bielman, Ryan Kayla, Peggy Lee, Rebecca S. Mickle as “The Fantoms”) is exceptional, and the group numbers (“Time Warp,” “Floor Show”) really pop in The Ringwald’s tiny space. Efficient and effective choreography is provided by Molly Zaleski. Articulation in the group numbers sometimes gets muddled, but most of the audience knows these songs backwards and forwards so that can be forgiven. Austin Sulkey makes a fabulously exasperated/exasperating Columbia, whose love of delivery boy Eddie (a swaggering RJ Cach) ends in tragedy. Costuming on both Columbia and Eddie is great as they look like they just stepped off Pat Benatar’s “We Belong” video. Vince Kelley has done remarkable sartorial work here across the board, tying the updated setting’s aesthetic with the imagery we are accustomed to seeing in this show. Clever stuff.

[Jacokes – image source: The Ringwald]

Peggy Lee (no, not that Peggy Lee) deserves a special shout out for her work as “Fantom Flo.” She hauntingly delivers the show’s opening and closing numbers (“Science Fiction Double Feature” and its reprise). Her voice is exquisite – clear and crisp and evocative.

Lee also embraces “biker chic” better than anyone else in the cast, save ursine narrator David Schoen, who greets every audience member at the door, brings you to your seat, may pull you up on stage, and is completely “Hell’s Angel” intimidating in a totally adorable way.

 

This is a production put together by people who clearly love this show. The stage manager Holly Garverick shouts out all of the expected audience participation lines from the back of the house, encouraging the audience to interact with the proceedings, a la those midnight movie house showings throughout the 70s and 80s. One thought: let’s all retire yelling “slut” whenever Janet’s name is mentioned onstage. It may be tradition, but, in these “I’m With Her”/#MeToo days, it feels all kinds of misogynistic wrong.

 

[Jacokes – image source: The Ringwald]

Audience members are encouraged to purchase (for a nominal fee) a bag of props (playing cards, rubber gloves, party hats, bells, glow sticks, newspapers, kazoos, “Time Warp” dance instructions) to use at key moments during the show. Garverick may want to help with that a bit, as well, as the opening night audience didn’t seem terribly keen on using any of those goodies, save the newspapers.

 

On August 4, The Ringwald will perform the show in a special midnight performance, again to evoke those high school years when people convinced their parents it would be ok for them to go take in a showing at the witching hour.

 

[Riedel – image source: The Ringwald]

Why has Rocky Horror been such a success all these years? I often wonder. However, The Ringwald’s production reminds us that, while the show may not be Pulitzer Prize-winning material, it champions underdogs and misfits, encourages all of us to let our freak flags fly, and envisions a world where inclusion of any and all is the ideal … in one really weird package. That is why. And that message is more important than ever before. Vive la difference.

 

The Ringwald’s production of The Rocky Horror Show runs until August 6. For tickets, go to http://www.theringwald.com

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Lauren Crocker and Roy Boy

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.

“He puts the ‘hell’ in ‘hello.” The Barn Theatre’s production of Bonnie and Clyde the Musical

Melissa Cotton Hunter and Jonnie Carpathios [Photo from The Barn’s Facebook page]

In a time when vanity rules the day, socioeconomic disparity drives a culture war of epic proportions, and shallow aspirations of celebrity glitz and glamor are seemingly the sole requirements to seek (and win) public office, Frank Wildhorn’s Bonnie & Clyde the Musical (running July 3-15) is an inspired choice for the 72nd season of Augusta, Michigan’s summer stock venue The Barn Theatre.

Earlier this season, The Barn performed another Wildhorn piece – Civil War – with comparable commentary on the corrosive myth-making and partisanship that tears at the heart of our nation. Who knew Wildhorn could be so deep?

I suspect there’s a reason we don’t see Jekyll & Hyde on the Barn’s slate this season.

That said, like any Wildhorn show, the treatment of history tends toward the romantic (or the superficial … depending on your point of view). Regarding Wildhorn, while the man only writes the music, he sure gets blamed for a lot of the structural flaws in his shows. Strange thing that, and I’m just as guilty as any other critic, so here goes … Sondheim, he ain’t. Bonnie & Clyde overlays the tale of the notorious bank robbers with a kind of misunderstood outlaw prince/princess narrative that is less Natural Born Killers, more Lifetime TV. In less capable hands, that approach can be maddening, especially with so much subtext to mine about the always twisted nature of fame (and infamy) in America.

Jonnie Carpathios [Photo from The Barn’s Facebook page]

Fortunately, this is The Barn, so the production is about as pitch perfect as can be.

Directed with lean efficiency and maximum style by Brendan Ragotzy, the show moves at a brisk pace, representing its bleak Depression-era Dust Bowl Texas setting through a series a rough-hewn-boarded flats and saturated-color lighting cues. Samantha Snow (scenic designer), Mike McShane (lighting designer), and Lauren Alexandria (costume designer) all deserve a bow for their evocative, economical work transporting the audience to another haunted/haunting place in time. Shout out to Michael Wilson Morgan for his clever and agile coupe car design that allows the fugitives’ roadster to become (as it should) an iconic character unto itself and not just expensive theatrical window dressing.

Jonnie Carpathios and Melissa Cotton Hunter [Photo from The Barn’s Facebook page]

Opening night had a few not-unexpected technical bumps – dodgy spotlight here, slow-moving flat there, and a muffled mic or two. With the exceptional vocal talents in this cast, it’s a bit disheartening when the leads sound as though they are singing through a thin layer of gauze or when one has to strain to hear dialogue as amplification is only used during musical numbers. It’s a minor complaint and perhaps exacerbated by the fact that I was sitting in the back of the house atop rumbling AC units and under the lighting loft. Plus, my ears ain’t what they used to be either. C’est la vie.

The cast? Is to die for. No pun intended, given – spoiler alert – the ill-fated fate of our titular larcenous lovebirds. Barn mainstays Melissa Cotton Hunter and Jonnie Carpathios knock it out of the park as Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow respectively. Hunter and Carpathios wisely eschew actorly vanity to get to the heart of their characters’ vanity. Any onstage preening and prancing (and there is plenty of it) comes with healthy portions of heartbreak and insecurity as well. It is a testament to these performers that, while the audience may relish the toe-tapping tune-filled adventure, we never lose sight of the tragic consequences that familial rejection and economic marginalization have had on these desperate creatures.

Melissa Cotton Hunter [Photo from The Barn’s Facebook page]

The show opens with the number “Picture Show” in which the duo proclaim their aspirations to become as “celebrated” as Clara Bow and Al Capone (!). If you give these kids an iPhone and a selfie-filled Instagram account and swap out Bow for Kim Kardashian and Capone for, dare I say, Donald Trump, the poignant ditty could be about any number of lost souls today, fighting uphill battles against an economy and a culture they believe to be stacked against them.

Let me add that Hunter’s and Carpathios’ performances are subtle. The show is no polemic, so don’t be deterred by my more politicized observations. Hunter and Carpathios are talented actors mature enough to draw upon their contemporary influences without derailing the escapist joy of watching two beautiful, young exiles upend a system that rejected them from the outset.

Aiding and abetting (quite literally) our anti-heroes are Clyde’s brother Buck (Derek Gulley) and Buck’s wife Blanche (Samantha Rickard). Gulley and Rickard also turn in nuanced performances, wisely avoiding the pitfalls and pratfalls of second banana comic relief. Rickard especially does a fine job conveying Blanche’s tortured soul, yearning for a calm and stable family life but tragically loyal to a husband inexorably pulled to a life of crime. Her performance is a bit Eve Arden, a smidge Carrie Fisher, and a touch Sally Field …  and that combination works quite effectively.

Describing her brother-in-law Clyde, Blanche deadpans, “He puts the ‘hell’ in ‘hello.'” In lesser hands, that line would hit the audience over the head with a “laugh now!” anvil, but Rickard’s rueful, ever-so-slightly envious delivery offers wit and insight and character definition in one tidy morsel. Blanche’s opening number “You’re Goin’ Back to Jail” is a musical highlight, set in a beauty salon, with a sharp-as-tacks “Greek chorus” all-in-curlers, commenting on the unexpected joys and freedoms that result from having incarcerated husbands.

Samantha Rickard and Derek Gulley [Photo from The Barn’s Facebook page]

The conscious theatricality of Bonnie & Clyde reaches its apex in two numbers – “God’s Arms Are Always Open” and “Made In America” – performed with gusto by Hunter’s real-life husband Patrick as a preacher whose commentary on the false promises of organized religion and government crystallize how society has failed Bonnie and Clyde.

Patrick Hunter [Photo from The Barn’s Facebook page]

Miguel Ragel Wilson deserves special recognition for his touching and winsome portrayal of Ted Hinton, caught between his unrequited lifelong adoration of Bonnie and his career as a deputy-cum-sheriff pursuing her as she and Clyde continue to terrorize Texas. Wilson has a remarkable singing voice – clear, well-articulated, powerful, distinctive (check him out in the third “Bar Show” clip below, singing Marty Robbins’ “El Paso”). He pairs that impressive vocalization with a lean physicality and personality that evokes a mix of young Anthony Perkins, Sam Waterston, and Ray Bolger. He is one to watch.

“The Bar Show”

As always, The Barn offers an immersive experience. Grab a drink or snack at the Rehearsal Shed before or during the show, and you will see performers from the ensemble, in costume, slinging drinks and making small talk. It’s absolutely charming and never unprofessional.

Following the performances, the ensemble and apprentices take over the Shed and put on a free-wheeling and saucy cabaret – “The Bar Show” – all while still serving drinks and providing exceptional customer service. What remarkable training this experience must be for any profession they choose to pursue later in life, artistic or otherwise.

This time around in the Shed, you’ll hear some Patsy Cline, some Eurythmics, some Ricky Martin (with “breathtaking” choreography), some Marty Robbins, some Zorba, and maybe a commercial jingle or two. Do yourself a favor, and stick around after Bonnie & Clyde and take in the cabaret. It is not only worthwhile and entertaining, but gives you such an appreciation for how much work goes into a summer spent at The Barn.

Don’t miss Bonnie & Clyde. Yes, it’s a fun show with a great score, but the production at The Barn makes it an essential one, offering provocative perspective on today’s fraught and exhausting, quintessentially American experience. I couldn’t imagine a better way to celebrate Independence Day.

Bonnie & Clyde the Musical hereruns July 3-15 at The Barn Theatre in Augusta, Michigan. Tickets can be purchased .

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Jamey Grisham, Marin Heinritz, Roy Sexton, John Mola – happy audience members following the performance

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.

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.