“America is just one big strip club.” Hustlers, IT Chapter Two, and Theatre Nova’s latest production Admissions

  • [Image Source: Wikipedia]

    “… the ‘Horatio Alger myth’: a teenage boy works hard to escape poverty. Often it is not hard work that rescues the boy from his fate but rather some extraordinary act of bravery or honesty. The boy might return a large sum of lost money or rescue someone from an overturned carriage. This brings the boy—and his plight—to the attention of a wealthy individual.” – Wikipedia entry on author Horatio Alger
  • [Image Source: Wikipedia]

    “America is just one big strip club … You have people tossing the money and people doing the dance.” – Jennifer Lopez’ “Ramona” in Hustlers
  • “From one angle … motherhood can be viewed as one long journey of overcoming obstacles. I salute mothers everywhere who overcome obstacles with grace, courage and tenacity. … There was this huge obstacle in the way that needed to be fixed for my daughter’s sake.” – amalgamation of quotes from scandal-ridden Desperate Housewife Felicity Huffman
  • “Motherhood is a kind of madness.” – Jennifer Lopez’ “Ramona” in Hustlers

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

America is a “land of opportunity,” that is, if you are on the right side of the carnival game. This fall’s cinematic completion of Stephen King’s classic novel It, directed again as a labor of love by Andy Muschietti, opens with a grown man defeating a little girl in one such street fair contest and then magnanimously leaning down, whispering in her ear “thank you for letting me win,” and handing her the ugly stuffed frog (I think it was a frog?) he receives as a prize. It is as warm a moment as it is pandering, the young man’s buddy looking on admiringly. As the two men wander away, they lock in an embrace. Things aren’t what they seem. Moments later they are victims of one of the most brutal gay bashings I’ve seen on screen, the result of malevolent Pennywise the Clown’s supernatural influence on an already provincial, ugly, small-minded Maine town. (Truth be told, small-minded small towns are one of King’s favorite literary targets, God love him). There’s your American dream, folks, in one cynical, tragic, and heartbreaking 15 minute sprawl. [King based the incident in his novel on a real-life hate crime in Bangor, Maine, in 1986, at a time when few people would publicly address such horror.]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Hustlers, written and directed with sizzle and sass by Lorene Scafaria, brings Jennifer Lopez, the actor, back on screen in a fiery mama lion performance, the likes of which we haven’t seen from her in years. Lopez is a multi-hyphenate talent and by all accounts a pretty likable human being, but she has not been willing to play anything other than that on screen in a long time. Her stripper den mother Ramona avails herself of the 2008 financial crisis and the ugly stew of capitalistic greed, toxic masculinity, rampant misogyny, female objectification, and weaponized sexuality that seems to be Wall Street’s stock-in-trade (if the movies are to be believed … paging Michael Douglas’ Gordon Gekko). Imagine if Magic Mike were written and produced by the team who put together The Big Short.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Ramona and her pals (a dynamite ensemble that includes Crazy Rich AsiansConstance Wu, Akeelah and the Bee‘s Keke Palmer, and Riverdale‘s Lili Reinhart with crackerjack supporting turns by Julia Styles, Trace Lysette, Mercedes Ruehl, and singers Cardi B and Lizzo) gleefully (and illegally) flip the script on predatory men, drugging them, dragging them to strip clubs, draining their corporate credit cards, and leaving them in a heap of deflated machismo, far too embarrassed to press any charges. The women’s motivation? A mix of revenge, justice, and primarily a desire to provide better lives for their daughters, grandmothers, and other women in their lives.

[Image Source: Theatre NOVA’s Facebook Page]

The third leg of that “American dream”? College education and that carnival game that is the admissions process are addressed with incisive wit, searing criticism, and deft balance in the timely Michigan premiere of Joshua Harmon’s play Admissions by Ann Arbor’s Theatre NOVA, directed with aplomb by David Wolber. (Note: this show must be a beast to learn and to mount, with its zig-zagging clutch of monologues and whiplash inducing reversals of philosophy. I suspect Wolber and cast must share the kind of  brainpower required to complete the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle in record time.)

Hill and Burcon [Image Source: Theatre NOVA’s Facebook Page]

In Admissions, a cheerfully smug couple Sherri and Bill, both working in administration at a New England prep school (Diane Hill and Joe Bailey, both at the top of their games here), are faced with the consequences of their own best liberal intentions to create “balanced diversity” at Hillcrest (the setting of the piece) when their own son, a student there, is wait-listed for Yale University. Their boy Charlie – a brilliant whirlwind of well-meaning confusion and privileged petulance in Jeremy Kucharek’s thoughtful performance – is passed over by Yale in favor of his best friend at Hillcrest (and the child of his parents’ best friends), a young man of color, whom Charlie believes to be “less accomplished than himself.” As you can imagine, in the grand tradition of school-based satiric comedies like God of Carnage or Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, matters escalate and spiral quickly. Cynthia Szczesny as Sherri’s befuddled assistant and Sarah Burcon as Sherri’s best pal Ginnie serve as a kind of de facto Greek chorus, highlighting the absurdity of the situation and the dire consequences of good intentions that are as ego-driven as they are divorced from day-to-day reality.

Bailey, Hill, and Kucharek [Image Source: Wikipedia]

I don’t want to spoil the twists and turns the narrative takes, but, suffice it to say this is neither a play the MAGA crowd will love nor one any Bernie Bros will embrace. Admissions casts a pretty scathing eye on us all and the mechanisms we craft to make a better world in our own images (whatever we believe those images to be). The title, of course, is a play on words: the literal use of “admissions” in terms of higher education and the figurative in terms of those honest truths we can’t bear to say out loud. A special shout out to Daniel C. Walker’s brilliant and economical use of Theatre NOVA’s warm, inviting, but challenging physical space. The use of a turntable to contrast home and office is smart, efficient, and (perhaps unintentionally) symbolic of the topsy turvy nature of the play itself.

[Admissions runs through October 13 and tickets may be purchased at www.theatrenova.org.]

And now back to It, Chapter Two. The first film nailed the pastoral qualities of youth in America, with that bubbling, malevolent, churning undercurrent of impending adulthood, cultural manipulation, and familial and societal abuse that Stephen King does so very well. The second film – not dissimilar to the second half of the 1990 ABC mini-series – suffers structurally in that the Losers Club are reunited in adulthood, seemingly all amnesiac to the horrifying events of their youths at the hands of ugly townspeople, parents, bullies, and Pennywise himself. It, Chapter Two is at its strongest in flashbacks to the children of the first film, filling in the gaps of the fateful summer depicted in Chapter One.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

That said, the adult cast of Chapter Two – including Mamas Jessica Chastain, Trainwreck‘s Bill Hader, X-Men‘s James McAvoy, Isaiah Mustafa, Jay Ryan, James Ransome, and Andy Bean – do yeoman’s work selling the turmoil of adults, who have successfully “forgotten” the abuses of small town American living to achieve material success (if not emotional happiness) in the “big city.” Pennywise, brilliantly played again to maximum creepiness by Bill Skarsgard, is the inversion of the Horatio Alger myth and more likely a corollary to the true American experience. It is not a helping hand magnanimously offered that pulls someone up the corporate ladder, once said individual has demonstrated his or her “heart of gold;” it is fear, it is persecution, and it is one heaping chip on one’s shoulder, propelling us onward toward “happiness,” the achievement of which may never be all it’s cracked up to be.  If there’s a through-line in the three very disparate entertainments I took in this weekend, it’s that.

  • “The essential and defining characteristic of childhood is not the effortless merging of dream and reality, but only alienation. There are no words for childhood’s dark turns and exhalations. A wise child recognizes it and submits to the necessary consequences. A child who counts the cost is a child no longer.” – Stephen King, Salem’s Lot.

_______________________

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.

“Well, the theatre is certainly not what it was.” Cats (2019 National Touring Production) at Detroit’s Fisher Theatre + my quick take on Encore Musical Theatre’s production of Fun Home

Grizabella [From the production’s Facebook page]

Cats is one odd damn show. Spoon River Anthology in leg warmers, leotards, and Capezios. T.S. Eliot was an odd man (see Tom & Viv … no really, go see it). He wrote some odd poems about cats with silly made up words that would embarrass Lewis Carroll. Andrew Lloyd Webber may very well be an odder man. He writes musicals about chandeliers and roller skating trains and upside down swimming pools. The early 1980s (when Cats was written) was a seriously odd time, one arched foot still firmly placed in Studio 54 bell-bottomed Bob Fosse’d debauchery and the other pointed at a big-haired, Jane Fonda jazzercised, Reaganomic’d pneumatic future. And like anything at the nexus of the supremely weird, Cats was – and is – a big ol’ fat box office blockbuster. Now and forever indeed.

Bombalurina [From the production’s Facebook page]

I saw it once with my mother, about ten years ago, at Warsaw’s Wagon Wheel Playhouse, where my mom herself had performed in her teens. My mom’s friend Myrna Bailey (at least I think it was Myrna?) had given us tickets, and we went, not exactly enthused but grateful for the free entertainment, looking forward as much to dinner afterward as we were to an evening of prancing, preening anthropomorphized felines in body-stockings. We were pleasantly surprised. At the time, I theorized that the show works better in a smaller setting. The Wagon Wheel performs everything in the round (hence the name), and the set design was a literal jungle gym, with the titular cats swinging over your head and crawling at your feet. The small space and the resulting limited grandeur made the hyperbolic concept of an army of cats meeting once each year to choose one among them to ascend to the “Heavyside Layer” seem not so utterly ridiculous.

A decade later, another free ticket, another Cats – this time at Detroit’s Fisher Theatre with my dear friend Colleen whose husband Blaine is thrilled when I go see musicals with her that he doesn’t want to see. And I love Colleen, and I love musicals, and I love free stuff.

This production is a touring production of the recent Broadway revival (which starred a former Pussycat Doll, I think?) that is pretty much a carbon copy of Trevor Nunn’s original 1981 blockbuster. It’s fine. It’s weird. And it’s fine.

Production values are top notch – lighting is evocative and compelling, sound is Moog-synth lush, and the sets and props are cheekily “Incredible Shrinking Man”-sized to imply cat-proptioned human performers. Like any given Sunday of a touring production (we saw the 9/8 show … and it’s taken me this long to figure out what the hell to write), our performance was rife with understudies stepping up for their big moments in spandex and cat-face.

Notable performances last Sunday were turned in by understudy Zachary S. Berger as kitty major domo Munkustrap (at times it felt like he was auditioning for the part of Thomas Jefferson in 1776 … or Hamilton … and that’s a compliment; someone get him into one of those shows and out of a cat tail ASAP); Keri Rene Fuller as a suitably bedraggled and heartbreakingly left-out-in-the-cold Grizabella; Tion Gaston a moonbeam-on-gymnastic-steroids as Mistoffelees; Tony D’Alelio and understudy Erin Chupinsky as cute-as-button feline felons Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer; and Lexie Plath channeling her best vampy Christina Hendricks as Bombalurina. Bringing down the house, though, was Timothy Gulan as Gus (short for “Asparagus”) the Theatre Cat and Kaitlyn Davidson as his associate Jellylorum. Their second act number is literate, witty, deft, and sublime. Gulan even gets in a winking critique of the kind of theatre Cats itself represents when he croons, “Well, the theatre is certainly not what it was.”

[From the production’s Facebook page]

But, good lord! These damn character names! Trying to type that previous paragraph took me twenty minutes. And if I had heard the term “Jellicle Cat” one more time, I was likely to stand up in the theatre and scream, Network‘s Peter Finch-style, “I’m mad as hell and I can’t take any more!”

I enjoyed myself more at Cats than I should dare to admit in writing; in fact, the experience inspired me to put some hurt on the gift booth as I departed (including cat-eared baseball hats for me and for my parents), which led me to wondering why this thing has had the nine lives it has had. The show is sweet-natured, a warm and comforting spectacle, beautifully staged and orchestrated, befuddling but ultimately not particularly intellectually challenging, and, on the balance, a showcase of every kind of theatrical talent a performer could possibly possess.

[From the production’s Facebook page]

I think the secret weapon is the show’s second act. The first act is kind of a rambling mess, something about a “Jellicle” (d’oh!) ball and a potential death and far too many cat puns and metaphysical gobbledygook and … leotards. The second act distills the experience into a succession of fun, poignant, catchy-as-eff numbers with cleverly drawn characters: the aforementioned “Gus the Theatre Cat,” “Skimbleshanks, the Railway Cat,” “Macavity the Mystery Cat,” “Magical Mister Mistoffelees” (with some truly nifty lighting effects), and the ubiquitous “Memory” (which was the emotional gut punch Sunday that it needs to be – kudos to Keri Rene Fuller). So, yes, I’ve been humming all of these melodies in my head for about a week now and occasionally prancing through my living room like a very old and overweight tabby. That’s the power of Cats. Damn you, you odd little man, Andrew Lloyd Webber!

[From the production’s Facebook page]

From Broadway in Detroit: One of the biggest hits in theatrical history, Cats will come to Detroit from September 3-15, 2019 as part of a multi-season North American tour. Tickets for CATS start at $35 (includes facility and parking fees) and will go on sale Sunday, June 9. Tickets can be purchased online at www.broadwayindetroit.com or www.ticketmaster.com, and by phone at 800-982-2787. A limited number of premium seats will be available through Ticketmaster and at the Fisher Theatre box office. For group sales (12 or more) please call 313-871-1132 or email groups@broadwayindetroit.com. Tickets for the open captioned and audio described performance may be purchased in person at the Fisher Theatre box office or by phone at 313-872-1000, ext. 0. Composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber and based on T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, the record-breaking musical has captivated audiences in over 30 countries and 15 languages, is now on tour across North America featuring new sound design, direction and choreography for a new generation.

_________________

[From the production’s Facebook page]

And now for the antithesis. Technically, one should not review a final dress rehearsal … but The Encore Musical Theatre Company’s current production of Fun Home, an industry preview of which I was invited to attend earlier this week, is transporting, heartbreaking, funny as hell, poignant, and beautifully crafted. So I’m breaking a cardinal rule of criticism! C’est la vie! The show opened at the theatre’s space in Dexter, Michigan, this past Thursday and runs through October 13.

From Encore’s description: “Fun Home is a musical adapted by Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori from Alison Bechdel’s 2006 graphic memoir of the same name. The story concerns Bechdel’s discovery of her own sexuality, her relationship with her gay father, and her attempts to unlock the mysteries surrounding his life. It is the first Broadway musical with a lesbian protagonist. It is told in a series of non-linear vignettes connected by narration provided by the adult Alison character.”

[From the production’s Facebook page]

Dan Cooney, Encore’s founder, returns from New York to play Bechdel’s complex, complicated, controlling, earnest, loving, maddening father Bruce. He brings such a haunted/hunting presence to this difficult role, always believable, relatable, and therefore that much more tragic, but never overbearing or villainous. It is a nuanced and deft portrayal of a broken human being, caught up in circumstance, selfishness, and unrealized potential, fully actualized on stage with sympathy yet appropriate critique. It is nigh impossible to play the unlikable on stage, but to do so in a way that garners empathy from the audience is a feat of magic. Kudos, Dan.

[From the production’s Facebook page]

Every bit his match is local firecracker Sarah Stevens. I’ve never seen a bad performance from her, every one unique, expertly crafted, and vibrant. Her adult version of Bechdel is in keeping with her track record, yet deceptively unassuming – a “Ghost of Christmas Present” who observes and comments on the proceedings, never once actually taking part (until one very powerful moment) but utterly shaping the audience’s perspective as the events unfold. It is a warm and gorgeous performance that will speak to any child of those families that espouse good intentions yet remain riddled with tragedies large and small – children who survive each day with equal parts laughter, art, artifice, and heartache.

Laura Etnier-Austin is particularly effective in the second act as long-suffering wife/mother Helen who finally has her moment of plain-spoken truth with her daughter (a luminous and very funny Grace Allyn as the college-aged Alison), and it is revelatory. The ensemble –  including Monica Spencer, Tyler J. Messinger, and wonderfully natural child actors Joely Engelbert, Emmanuel Morgan, and Gavin Cooney – is magnificent as well – moving effortlessly from manic whimsy to quiet angst and back again.

[From the production’s Facebook page]

As always, the Encore makes effective use of their tight space, with a detailed set design that evokes the Bechdel’s historic home, cleverly adding a separate “parlor” in the wings (complete with period-perfect wallpaper) which features Tyler Driskill’s rock solid orchestra. It’s a wonderful touch that clues the audience upon arrival regarding the conscious theatricality of the show’s staging. Plus, it’s just darn nice to see Driskill and “the band” for once as they perform genius feats with a tricky score.

Run, don’t walk, to get your tickets: https://www.theencoretheatre.org

_________________

Real Men Wear Pink … I’m honored to have been selected to be part of this year’s “Detroit Class.”

Thank you to everyone who has contributed so far … you’ve helped me be the #1 fundraiser three weeks in a row (see rankings below!). But my competition is gaining on me. LOL. It’s all for a good cause. If you feel so inclined, your donation will do wonders: http://main.acsevents.org/goto/roysexton

I was invited by the Canton Chamber to join their monthly newsmagazine last week for a taping that should air soon – grateful to Executive Director Thomas Paden and wonderful Denise Staffeld, Megan Schaper, and Kevin Ryan for being part of #TeamRoy on this campaign! Denise captured some video with her iPhone of me singing “Pure Imagination” for the shoot – you can get a flavor here: https://youtu.be/DQ1vwiQuWe8

And don’t forget “Follies” is opening at Theatre Nova on 11/7 with yours truly as “Buddy” – it’s going to be great fun: https://www.artful.ly/theatre-nova/store/events/18594

From American Cancer Society to the Real Men candidates: As a group you have already raised $13,653! Way to go! Detroit is currently #1 in Michigan and #37 in the Nation – to follow along with the top campaigns and the top Real Men click here. The American Cancer Society currently has 28 grants in Michigan totaling more than $14 million. There are ACS funded researchers at Henry Ford Health System, Michigan State University, University of Michigan, Van Andel Research Institute, Wayne State University and Western Michigan University. The success of the American Cancer Society grant program is exemplified by the fact that 47 American Cancer Society-funded researchers have received a Nobel Prize!

Detroit Top 10 Leaderboard

  1. Roy Sexton – $2,888
  2. PJ Jacokes – $1,673
  3. Dr. Carlos Ramirez -$1,438
  4. Jonathan Burt – $1,301
  5. Brad Lukas – $1,286
  6. Brendan Russow – $1,208
  7. Mike Lawson – $1,190
  8. Dave Spencer – $575
  9. Jim Stocking – $450
  10. John Hicks – $300

_________________

Magnificent Sue Booth (“Sally” to my “Buddy” in the upcoming “Follies”) in the upper left and lower right corners. And me with with talented and lovely Laurie Atwood middle right.

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.

“Everything old is new again.” The Dio’s production of A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder + a quick take on the film Bennett’s War

“Everything old is new again,” that Boy from Oz Peter Allen once musically observed. You live long enough and you see pretty much every trope and concept repeated in some form or fashion. In 2014, Robert Freedman’s and Steven Lutvak’s A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder was the belle of the Tony Awards, winning Best Musical among its other honors. The musical was itself based upon the 1907 novel Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal by Roy Horniman which had inspired the 1949 Alec Guinness film Kind Hearts and Coronets.

That said, I hadn’t seen the musical until taking in The Dio Theatre’s exceptional production (currently running), and I was struck by how it made me think of so many other works: Cy Coleman’s Little Me with its succession of bumped off suitors all played by one wunderkind actor; Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians with its episodic structure framed around a steadily mounting drawing room body count; Rupert Holmes’ The Mystery of Edwin Drood with its winking neo-operatic hyperbole; the gothic gallows whimsy of Edward Gorey’s Gashlycrumb Tinies with one absurdly alphabetically-inspired ghastly death after another; and maybe even a bit of Neil Simon’s Murder By Death with its cavalier and circuitous satire of the entire murder mystery genre

I’m not sharing all of this pedantry to sound pretentious and pompous … though that very well may be the inadvertent effect I’ve achieved. I offer this perspective to say that I’m not sure I was completely sprung on A Gentleman’s Guide‘s source material as I couldn’t shake what felt like derivative familiarity. The plot concerns Monty Navarro, the lost heir to the D’Ysquith family fortune, and his devious machinations as he systematically eliminates the eight legitimate D’Ysquith relatives standing before him and untold wealth.  A Gentleman’s Guide tells that tale, tongue firmly in cheek, as one actor plays all the ill-fated D’Ysquiths in an episodic style that is less grand guignol and more Carol Burnett Show meets Gilbert and Sullivan.

Three paragraphs in, I’m not here to evaluate the book or music – that ship has sailed, and the rest of the theatre community seems to universally adore A Gentleman’s Guide. My task is to talk about The Dio’s production, and, as with all of the company’s storied output, the show is beautifully, thoughtfully mounted with technical aplomb, spectacular talent, pristine music direction, and touring production-level costume and set design.

Director Steve DeBruyne in collaboration with an A-list team – Matthew Tomich (set, lighting and sound), Norma Polk (costumes), Eileen Obradovich (props), Carrie Sayer (assistant direction), and Marlene Inman (music direction) – offers a show that is by turns immersive, inspiring, layered, and sparkling. The look and feel is like an unfolding storybook: arch sartorial splendor that would put Colleen Atwood to shame; family portraits that open Laugh In-style for the Greek chorus to observe the onstage shenanigans; clever digital projections depicting locales as diverse as the D’Ysquith manor, a towering abbey, and the Egyptian pyramids.  Inman has created a sonic landscape that is as splendid as it is overwhelming; the voices onstage could fill a space three times the size of The Dio. The musical abilities of this cast, in Inman’s exceptional hands, are something to behold.

Olive Hayden-Moore, Sarah Brown, David Moan, Angela Hench [Image from The Dio’s Facebook page]

Standouts are David Moan (“Monty”) and Sarah Brown (“Phoebe,” Monty’s cousin … and dearly beloved). Moan and Brown have a deft touch for balancing the light comedy, dark themes, and vocal prowess required here. Moan is becoming a bit of a cottage industry around humanizing sociopaths, after his celebrated turns as Sweeney Todd and John Wilkes Booth (Assassins) at The Encore Theatre. Here Moan’s soaring voice is paired with a characterization that is as wry as it is poignant: an outsider always looking in, waiting for his moment to shine, even if that involves pushing a relative (or 8) off the proverbial (or literal) cliff.  Moan and Brown are at their best in the “slamming doors” number “I’ve Decided to Marry You” (also, arguably the most ear-wormy tune in the show) alongside Angela Hench (“Sibella”), depicting a love triangle gone zanily sideways. Hench is an incredible vocalist, but, at times, given the accent she employs, our table struggled to discern her lines.

Richard Payton as … The D’Ysquiths [Image from The Dio’s Facebook page]

Local legend Richard Payton, as expected, milks every moment of excess and bombast in his multiple roles as the self-important D’Ysquiths. The scenery practically has teeth marks from his work here, and, as much fun as he is clearly having, some nuance does get lost in The Dio’s tight quarters. He is balanced by an exceptionally strong ensemble (Lydia Adams, Michael Bessom, Olive Hayden-Moore, Jared Schneider, Carrie Sayer, Maika Van Oosterhout, Mark Anthony Vukelich) also playing multiple roles. Their collective high point (other than some really funny fake ice skating) is “Lady Hyacinth Abroad” wherein Payton’s entitled queen bee “Lady Hyacinth D’Ysquith” launches a series of successively disastrous philanthropic voyages to far flung corners of the globe, her exasperated retinue in tow.

I’m glad I saw A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder. I’ve been intrigued about the show, but, admittedly, in the end, I’m not sure I’m a fan of the concept. It is a lot of show, and coupled with dinner service makes for a lengthy evening. However, I am a fan of The Dio and the magic they weave in Pinckney, Michigan. Their production of A Gentleman’s Guide is accomplished, polished, and impressive. The degree of difficulty which this theatre company continues to embrace (and conquer) seemingly without a second thought is, in a word, inspiring. And the fact that they consistently deliver exceptional productions with grace, inclusion, humility, and kindness makes The Dio an absolute treasure.

A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder runs through October 6 at The Dio. Tickets may be purchased here.

___________________

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

So, like any household, we try to strike a balance in our choices, particularly where entertainment is concerned, hence we took in the low-budget motocross film drama Bennett’s War at my husband’s request.

It’s a formulaic sports-as-metaphor flick, but, on the balance, a likable one. Production values are that of a mid-range television pilot, and, other than country star Trace Adkins as a down-on-his-luck farmer, the cast is comprised primarily of unknowns. A few jingoistic moments made me cringe – notably a golden-hued Michael Bay-like opening wherein titular every man Marshall Bennett (a winning Michael Roark) has turned his motorcycle riding prowess into a tour of duty in Afghanistan. That tour doesn’t end well. Bennett ends up back home, injured and unable to race, his family farm facing foreclosure.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

However, Bennett has a beloved mechanic buddy Cyrus (a charming Ali Afshar, also serving as the film’s producer and curiously choosing to tell, in character, a couple of tone-deaf jokes at the expense of his fellow Arab Americans). The duo face down an enemy motocross team Karate Kid-style (remember that “everything old is new again” thing?), overcome a few narratively convenient setbacks, and save the farm (literally).

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

You know what? I enjoyed Bennett’s War. The movie is well-cast, nicely paced, and mostly good-hearted. Bennett’s War is pleasant entertainment, zips by in a breezy 90 minutes, and doesn’t leave an unpleasant aftertaste. Sometimes that’s just fine.

___________________

Richard Payton [Image from The Dio’s Facebook page]

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.

“True terror is to wake up one morning and discover that your high school class is running the country.” The Ringwald Theatre’s production of Disney’s High School Musical

Collage swiped from The Ringwald’s Facebook page

Stick to the stuff you know
If you want to be cool
Follow one simple rule
Don’t mess with the flow, no no
Stick to the status quo
No, no, no
Stick to the stuff you know
It is better by far
To keep things as they are
Don’t mess with the flow, no no
Stick to the status
Stick to the status
Stick to the status quo – Stick to the Status Quo,” High School Musical

Watching The Ringwald Theatre’s production of Disney’s High School Musical alongside an avowed HSM superfan like my husband was as entertaining as the show itself. He did his best to stifle singing along to his favorite numbers, occasionally verbalizing key lines of dialogue before a character onstage would, frequently noting (dramaturgically) to me differences between the film and the stage version. I suspect this is what it is like attending Stratford’s Shakespeare Festival with a lifelong Bard scholar? It was all kinds of adorable.

No doubt John has his own review to offer, but this is my blog. While I don’t find the HSM trilogy without its charms (well, the first and third installments at least … the second film is the Voldemort of Disney Channel tee-vee musicals … best never invoked again), I think the movies could stand a bit of tinkering, revising, and revisiting. And, in recent news emanating from last week’s D23 convention, it sounds like the Mouse House agrees.

While the HSM franchise gave us the gift that keeps on giving in Zac Efron, it also left a legacy a with a generation of twenty-somethings that it is good to be different, that you must never constrain yourself by the labels teachers/parents/friends slap upon you, and that singing show tunes is good for the soul … even in the middle of a crowded cafeteria. Whether you loved high school or really hated it, the movies speak in a cuddly and antiseptic way to the toxic socioeconomic hothouse that is public education in this country and how all of us are shaped for better or worse by the twelve years we spent there. “True terror is to wake up one morning and discover that your high school class is running the country.” – Kurt Vonnegut

Matthew Wallace as Troy and Jordan Gagnon as Gabriella

As metaphor for inclusion and a fun platform for camp, HSM is a pretty genius choice for The Ringwald, whose stock in trade is as much John Waters as it is Stephen Sondheim. When I bought these tickets, I did so as a gift for John but also for myself as I was genuinely curious how they’d approach the show. I’m happy to report that the Ringwald’s team pulls it off in their shaggy dog, Mickey-and-Judy-are-putting-on-a-show fashion, with exceptional vocals, high energy, and (mostly) just the right amount of wink-and-nudge.

The plot is paper thin but nonetheless lovely: a science-loving girl (“Gabriella Montez”) and a basketball “jock” (“Troy Bolton”) discover their mutual love of show tunes on a mid-winter ski trip, and turn their high school “status quo” upside down by auditioning for the spring musical. It’s a slight but surprisingly subversive conceit, compounded by the fact that the “villains” of the piece – Sharpay and her doting brother Ryan (think The Carpenters, just as weirdly incestuous, but with blond hair, pink plaid outfits, and body glitter) – are the theatre kids, overly protective of their turf and their small corner of high school performative heaven. Anyone who’s worked in theatre in any aspect will view this duo with a knowing smile. The theatre community waves the flag of inclusion and understanding … until you step outside your “lane” or win a role someone else has coveted or challenge the artistic certitude of another.

Kevin Keller as Jack Scott

The Ringwald’s production, populated as it is by a cast who, for the most part, would have been in elementary school when High School Musical debuted in 2006, is pleasantly reverential to the material, while not taking any of it too damn seriously. It’s a high wire act that I found, quite frankly, refreshing. Playing double duty as director and actor (“Coach Jack Bolton”), Brandy Joe Plambeck takes a breezy, frothy approach to the material, aided and abetted by his real-life husband Joe Bailey in the role of Sharpay. In Bailey’s hands, Sharpay is both comic and poignant, never shrill, and just the right side of arch. Bailey knows that a middle-aged man playing a heartbreakingly spoiled high school theatre diva is pretty damn funny in and of itself and that layering on any meta commentary or turning up his nose at the material would sink the show and his performance. It’s smart and it’s fun, and Bailey alongside his “brother” Ryan (Christopher Ross-Dybash exuding sunshine) are a hoot.

Similarly, frequent Ringwald player Jordan Gagnon brings a nicely grounded whimsy to Gabriella. In her program bio, she writes that she is “excited to be living out [my] childhood fantasies of playing Gabriella.” For the young people in this cast, I suspect HSM is to them what Bye Bye Birdie, Grease, or Mamma Mia! are to other generations. Gagnon’s affection for the material is evident. The actor knows the enterprise is a bit silly but treats it as the heightened reality it is, and Gagnon strikes just that perfect balance of nodding to the audience while believing in her bones that she is a marginalized high schooler finding her true voice in life and love. She’s a delight to watch.

Matthew Wallace as Troy

Gagnon’s real-life boyfriend Matthew Wallace (I’m not telling tales … it’s in the marketing materials for the production) plays Troy. He is at his best when it is just the two of them onstage. There is an easy comfort to their onstage dynamics that really sells their numbers. I would encourage Wallace to find that same ease in the rest of the production. He has been exceptional in productions like The Dio’s Forever Plaid and The Ringwald’s own Merrily We Roll Along. Here, however, his physicality and high energy run the risk of commenting upon the material and distancing himself from it, as opposed to immersing himself in the goofy joy of the narrative. Wallace has a fabulous voice, and he and Gagnon are so good together onstage, but Wallace at times seems to be accentuating the stereotype of the thick-headed high school athlete as opposed to realizing the point of the piece is to gently, lovingly undermine those stereotypes.

The ensemble is damn terrific, selling the big group numbers in Ringwald’s tiny space, and energizing the audience with their unbridled enthusiasm for the score. Music director Lily Belle Czartorski and choreographer Molly Zaleski have great fun with the “pop” nature of this material, and their cast rises to the challenge. Standouts are Rashna “Rashi” Sarwar as “Taylor McKessie” and Geoffrey Schwerin as “Zeke Baylor,” both of whom squeeze every bit of juice from their limited stage moments, crafting memorable, lovable, vibrant characters. Tyler Goethe also deserves a shout out for nailing every bit of the choreography – again, note that I was sitting beside a “superfan” and it was not lost on him (or me) that Tyler was on point with every single move and was utterly present throughout. Wendy Cave plays “Kelsi Nielsen,” the resident high school songsmith, awfully big. She lands great laughs, but she also skates on the edge of commentary as opposed to immersion.

Having the time of their lives onstage are the aforementioned Plambeck as “Coach” and Suzan M. Jacokes as drama teacher “Ms. Darbus,” two educators whose dreams deferred manifest in ugly rivalries and provincial manipulations, all nobly disguised as wanting “what’s best” for their charges. If there was dramatic metaphor for the crises, both large and small, of today, it’s this. Jacokes and Plambeck are great fun in their short scenes together.

Costuming by Vince Kelley is just as one would hope, mirroring without shamelessly imitating the iconic garb of the original film. I want to give a special call out to the show’s marketing materials, as well, which evoke the look and feel of the original film’s poster and set the right tone for what to expect, as does the pre-show music: “Kidz Bop” versions of early-aughts pop music hits. Hysterical! The new lighting array at The Ringwald is a welcome upgrade with Plambeck making great use of gels and specials to maximize the understandably understated set design by Stephen Carpenter, a pitch perfect “Wildcat” logo prominent throughout.

For those wondering: yes, The Ringwald’s version of High School Musical is family-friendly, but with plenty of acknowledgment to any adults in the audience that this is all one big lark, albeit one with a really nifty message of inclusion and acceptance. If you aren’t tapping your feet or dancing in the aisles during the “We’re All In This Together” finale, well, there’s just no hope for you!

Everyone is special in their own way
We make each other strong (we make each other strong)
We’re not the same
We’re different in a good way
Together’s where we belong
We’re all in this together
Once we know
That we are
We’re all stars
And we see that
We’re all in this together
And it shows
When we stand
Hand in hand
Make our dreams come true
Together, together, together everyone
Together, together, come on let’s have some fun
Together, we’re there for each other every time
Together, together, come on let’s do this right – We’re All In This Together,” High School Musical
___________________

The Ringwald’s production of Disney’s High School Musical runs through September 16. Purchase tickets here.

___________________

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

“Christopher Columbus!” One Off Productions’ Little Women the Musical

Christopher Columbus! Can you hear that beautiful noise coming from the eastern edge of Washtenaw County? Listen carefully. Something really magical is happening in a small jewel box of a theater on the campus of Washtenaw Community College. One Off Productions – I love that name! – is presenting Little Women, the Broadway musical none of us remember but all of us should.

I had heard of the show; I knew Sutton Foster and Maureen McGovern, of all people, were in the original run; and I believe I had heard a song or two. Obviously, the forward-thinking novel by Louisa May Alcott, depicting the inner and outer lives of the four plucky March sisters – adventuresome Jo, fiery Amy, stately Meg, and dear-hearted Beth – and their noble mother Marmee as they survive and thrive in New England in the midst of the Civil War is emblazoned in our collective cultural subconscious. However, I had never had a chance to see this musical, originally produced in New York in 2005. And that’s a shame. Grateful, however, that One Off has brought this beautiful, sophisticated score and delicately nuanced adaptation for the enjoyment of Southeastern Michigan audiences.

Lieto and Mills

As iconic Jo, Sarah Mills, wearing many other production hats including director and producer, affects a thoughtful and poised narrative arc from earnest kid to battle-tested author, never maudlin, always heartfelt, and at times delightfully comedic. I attended last night’s final dress rehearsal (which as expected had its share of 11th hour technical distractions), so it would be interesting to see how she settles into the role, adding nuance as the run proceeds.

Mills is also a gifted vocalist, as is the entirety of this remarkable cast. Her act one closer “Astonishing” is exactly that. Hearing such strong, classically trained voices in such a small and intimate space, delivering what is, in essence, a light operatic score is a treat.

Gagnon, Case, and Mitchell

Wendy Cave is spot on in the role of Amy, by turns heartbreaking and maddening in her character’s impulses but always compelling. As Meg, Morgan Gagnon is lovely and gracious with just the right touch of playfulness to offset the show’s heavier moments. In the pivotal role of Beth, upon whom hangs the story’s tragic narrative impetus, Mills’ real-life sister Rebecca Timmons is a quiet storm. She is at her strongest one on one with the other characters in the show and her final interactions with Mills are appropriately devastating. She also is a gifted comedic actor, and her timid, bewildered, and bemused take on the rather odd number “Off to Massachusetts” is a hoot.

Elizabeth Mitchell as the sum and center of the March family universe – Marmee – offers a poignant but refreshingly lighthearted take on the role. She has a remarkable and distinctive singing voice, with the acting chops to accentuate that innate talent. Her solo moments of reflection on stage as a mother trying to keep the fraying threads of her family woven together are a gut punch. And as the toxic id to Marmee’s earth mother superego, Julia Fertel is haughty fun as snooty Aunt March.

As for the men – Jon-Luke Martin, Michael Cuschieri, Bradley Lieto, and J. Michael Morgan – all have great fun in their dual roles as boyfriends and husbands and neighbors … and the occasional pirate or river troll. (Note: there are a few fantasy sequences where aspiring writer Jo’s inner fantasy life takes center stage.) All of the men seem to be having the time of their lives on stage, Lieto most especially (and what a voice!) as overeager neighbor boy Laurie. It is clear that this is an ensemble that appreciates, respects, and enjoys one another, which translates beautifully onstage.

Lieto and Mills

The musical accompaniment is divine, leaning into chamber music, with just a piano, viola, and cello. What conductor/pianist/music director Rebecca Biber is able to accomplish in the small space with her talented team (Elizabeth Marsh, Robin Bloomberg, Phoebe Gelzer-Govatos, Meghan Rhoades – performing on different nights) is remarkable. It is a lush and orchestral sound, yet simultaneously intimate and haunting

Orchestra

The set design by Wilm Pierson is simple yet sophisticated and quite impressive. Lighting cues differentiate the scenes, all of which take place in the backdrop of the family attic. Items that would normally be found in an attic double as scene props (by Jamie Sonderman, prop master) – a trunk here a toy piano or rag doll there – and the actors make great use of the space overall. It is a testament to the design and the direction as the set seems much more extensive than it really is. Costumes by Emily Betz are period-perfect, and long-time sound designer Kelvin Elvidge makes effective use of mics in the small space. Seasoned theatre vet Rebecca Winder rallies the team as the production’s stage manager.

Ensemble

You may feel like you have seen Little Women far too many times in your life: classic movie, film remakes, television productions, or stage plays. One Off’s production of Little Women is truly special, however, as it is clearly a labor of love for all involved with a clear message of inclusion, compassion, and empowerment. Do not miss it.

______________________

Produced nationally and internationally, Little Women has been praised by critics for its ambition in adapting such a well-known story for the stage. This timeless, captivating story is brought to life in this glorious musical filled with personal discovery, heartache, hope and everlasting love.

Ensemble

Based on Louisa May Alcott’s life, Little Women follows the adventures of sisters, Jo, Meg, Beth and Amy March. Jo is trying to sell her stories for publication, but the publishers are not interested – her friend, Professor Bhaer, tells her that she has to do better and write more from herself. Begrudgingly taking this advice, Jo weaves the story of herself and her sisters and their experience growing up in Civil War America.

Little Women embodies the complete theatrical experience, guaranteeing a night filled with laughter, tears and a lifting of the spirit. The powerful score soars with the sounds of personal discovery, heartache and hope – the sounds of a young America finding its voice.

8pm Shows July 25th-27th & August 1st-3rd

2pm Shows on July 28th & August 4th

Tickets here: https://www.oneofftheatre.com/

______________________

Ensemble

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

“I shall ensconce myself on the … lanai.” Slipstream Theatre’s Merry Wives of Windsor … er …Miami

Originally published by Encore Michigan here.

[Image Courtesy Slipstream]

“Thank you for bein’ a frieeeee-eeeeehnd” goes the familiar refrain from the theme song to the ever increasingly ubiquitous Golden Girls. If you had told my 8th grade self, watching these grande dames of stage and (small) screen – who, back in the mid-1980s, were enjoying a third, nay fourth, act career resurgence – that they would be as relevant and beloved 30 years later with reruns airing around the clock, their own action figures, an empire of nostalgic collectibles, and even a LEGO set, I would have scoffed. Scoffed, I sayeth!

NOW, if further you had told my pretentious, Shakespeare-loving college self that one day a sharp and irreverent Metro Detroit theatre collective would leverage Falstaff-focused comedy The Merry Wives of Windsor as a vehicle to celebrate all things Dorothy, Rose, Blanche, Sophia, Stanley, and, well, cheesecake, I would have been dumbfounded (and mildly intrigued).

Picture it. Columbus. 1997.

(In all transparency, I played jealous hubby Master Ford in a production of Merry Wives at Ohio State in 1997 that was inspired by P.G. Wodehouse. Like I said: pretentious. I know no one asked, but I volunteered that info anyway.)

Picture it. Ferndale. 2019. Director (and founder) Bailey Boudreau has delivered a light summer soufflé with just the right pinch of zeitgeist in Slipstream’s newest production Merry Wives of Windsor Miami. If you want to escape the summer heat with a blessedly breezy 70 (!) minute lark that is as much arch sitcom as pithy Bard, don’t miss this show.

People can be far too reverential where Shakespeare is concerned; we don’t need three hours, carefully curating every side character and extraneous subplot. Shakespeare was the Netflix of his day – populist entertainment – and Boudreau and his company wisely realize that playing fast and loose with the material, while miraculously preserving the language and major plot points with only the most minor (and witty) of winking contemporary adds, wins the day.

The only downside to Boudreau’s approach is that the very structure of Merry Wives prevents the audience from witnessing the Wives/Girls all assembled for a skosh too long. As the play opens, there are more than a few intertwining subplots:

  • Young suitors pursuing Ms. Anne Page (a pitch perfect Luna Alexander expertly channeling Rue McClanahan as Southern-fried Blanche Devereaux)
  • A money hungry intermediary Mistress Quickly (Linda Rabin Hammell having the time of her life as Estelle Getty as impish Sophia Petrillo)
  • A pair of identical letters written to happily married Mistress Ford (a happy-go-lucky Mandy Logsdon as Betty White as daffy Rose Nylynd) and Mistress Page (ever-poised Jan Cartwright as Bea Arthur as queen bee Dorothy Zbornak) by lecherous Sir John Falstaff (a spot on Patrick O’Lear with a lovely zest of nuanced camp as Herb Edelman as oafish Stanley Zbornak). BTW, Falstaff was a character so popular in Shakespeare’s history plays that he got his own “spinoff” in Merry Wives … you can’t get more “sitcom” than that!
  • An obsessively jealous husband Master Ford (a house-afire Ryan Ernst) who thinks it would be a wise idea to disguise himself as a rich old codger to trick his wife into cheating on him … with himself … to prove how unfaithful she is. Paging Darrin Stevens (from a different show altogether).

Photo collage by yours truly

Given all of that set up, eating up the first 20 minutes or so, the production takes a while to sort the conceit of Golden Girls-homage from the fussy Shakespearean business. It all aligns in due course, so just be patient with yourself, whether you are familiar with the original play, with The Golden Girls, with both, or with neither. Boudreau adds a clever framing device wherein the “studio audience” is hustled from Slipstream’s cozy lobby to the back performance space by a harried, headset wearing production assistant, doubling as the narrative-device character Simple (an eager and energetic Grace Trivax). It sets just the right tone for what is to unfold.

I might also add that, intentional or no, Merry Wives and the very nature of the piece couldn’t be timelier: empowering women to upend toxic masculinity (controlling husbands, manipulative suitors, philanderers, and sexual predators) through wit and wisdom, collaboration, and a good dose of shaming. There’s a nice bit of #MeToo underpinning the enterprise. That also aligns with the very progressive nature of The Golden Girls. It was a show ahead of its time, on its surface a simple bit of comic escape, but underneath a fairly biting critique of misogyny, ageism, homophobia, and classism.

We even had Ms. Frances Sternhagen take in our production of Merry Wives

Transitional music cues are lifted directly from the original show (which is a sweet touch), and costuming from Tiaja Sabrie is as 80s as it gets. Of particular note, the styling (hair, makeup, clothes) for Blanche/Anne, Dorothy/Mistress Page, and Stanley/Falstaff is broadcast-ready, immersing those characters (and the audience) in the look and feel of our beloved TV icons.

Merry Wives of Windsor Miami is a summer garden party, messy at times, riotous at others, completely unforgettable, and well worth your attendance. I suspect the cast will settle into a wonderful rhythm as the run proceeds, not unlike the finest situation comedy casts of yore. In addition to the principals, Jake B. Rydell, Tiaja Sabrie, and Alex “Cookie” Isenberg all bring heart and light to their supporting roles.

Shout out to the marketing materials on this show, as well, which cleverly set the tone for what you are about to witness. Jan Cartwright’s photography and the design by Esbee Creative are the right mix of Reaganomic-era kitsch and South Florida joie de vivre, lovingly mimicking the look and style of TV ads for the original series.

Yes, this is in our home

I would be remiss if I didn’t highlight the performances of Luna Alexander and Patrick O’Lear. It is a delicate tightrope to walk to make Shakespearean language understandable to an impatient modern ear, to imitate famed sitcom characters imprinted on our collective consciousness without devolving into caricature, and to keep the narrative moving apace so the audience doesn’t know what hit ‘em. Alexander and O’Lear both pull off that hat trick with aplomb.

For myself, I could watch Alexander read the phone book (do they still print those?) as McClanahan, all gummy smile, wild eyes, throaty voice, elongated vowels, and mincing walk. She even stays gloriously in character from the wings where Blanche, Rose, Dorothy, and Sophia all watch the action unfold from directors’ chairs. It’s a high-flying act, and she nails it. Tens across the board.

See you at the Rusty Anchor!

Slipstream Theatre Initiative offers The Merry Wives of Miami July 12 through August 4,  Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm, Sundays at 7 pm. Tickets can be purchased at www.slipstreamti.com, by emailing Slipstreamti@Slipstreamti.com, or calling (313) 986-9156. Read more about the production here.

____________________________________

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

“I’d rather be divisive than indecisive.” #Hamilton National Tour in Detroit

I’m ornery. Sometimes. Ask my family.

When the entire universe seems to loooooooove some performer or movie or show or play. And I mean in that show-offy, fawning, “you MUST see … you mean you HAVEN’T seen?!,” clutch the pearls kind of way? I make up my mind that I’m 110% certain I WON’T like it. And I won’t try it. Nope. Not never.

It’s a pretty stupid and annoying personality trait for me to have, TBH.

Thank heavens we have friends like Rob Zannini and Aaron Latham to kick me in the pants (and buy tickets) when I’m being a stubborn idiot.

This brings us to Hamilton, the national tour of which ended its month-long residency in Detroit yesterday (Easter Sunday) at the Fisher Theatre.

You certainly don’t need my validation to tell you the show is well worth the hype. Just ask the American Theatre Wing. Or the Grammy organization. Or the Pulitzer committee. Or that bragging neighbor/coworker/friend who saw it in New York four years ago (and has seen it six more times already).

Sigh. They are ALL spot on.

The show is a brilliant, clever, pointed, sassy, dare I say, frothy overview of the life of spiky, complex, groundbreaking Founding Father Alexander Hamilton (!). And nary a dancing cat or crashing chandelier in sight. “I’d rather be divisive than indecisive,” Hamilton observes at one point. Amen, brother. And, damn, do we need some of that informed moxie in our politicians now (more than ever).

Based on the 2004 biography that turned our collective view of America’s birth on its head, Hamilton gives us a warts-and-all review of the “young, scrappy, and hungry” Hamilton and colleagues like Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Burr. Classic musical 1776 also has great fun with the challenges (and infighting) at the beginning of our nation’s great democratic experiment. But Hamilton is less decorous and revels in the raw and ugly street fighting at play. And makes it all seem fun.

Imagine the Revolutionary War staged by West Side Story-era Jerome Robbins, but with the technical wizardry (and turntable) of Cameron Mackintosh’s Les Miserables and a musical score by Stephen Sondheim, Eminem, Kander & Ebb, the Brill Building songwriters, Beyoncé and Jay-Z. Oh, why not throw in a touch of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s and Tim Rice’s Jesus Christ Superstar for good measure. Creator/wunderkind Lin Manuel Miranda wears his influences proudly on his sleeve, openly referencing Broadway’s vibrant history lyrically, musically, visually.

It doesn’t get much more American than that.

Add in color-blind casting and a steampunk approach to costuming and set design, not to mention evocative, lithe choreography (nary a gymnastic tumble to be seen … thank God), and you have a three hour spectacle that never bores for a second and zips by in a flash.

(I would recommend scanning the show’s Wikipedia entry before viewing, if, like me, your memory of American history from your high school coursework is far away in the rear view mirror.)

The first act takes us through the Battle of Yorktown; the second addresses the much messier work of building a new nation, and the spiraling life of a man (Hamilton) who gave far too much to his work and far too little to those who loved him.

Our cast (below) included understudies Tre Frazier and Wonza Johnson in the pivotal Jesus/Judas roles of Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr respectively. They were phenomenal, bringing nuance, empathy, heart, and fire to their depictions.

Other standouts were the commanding and wry Paul Oakley Stovall as George Washington (we had the pleasure to meet this gracious actor and his lovely family after the show – learn more about him here); luminous Stephanie Umoh as Angelica Schuyler; impish and adorable Bryson Bruce as Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson; riotous and effete Peter Matthew Smith as the Elton John-esque King George; and heartbreaking Hannah Cruz as Hamilton’s long-suffering yet stoic wife Eliza. Cruz brings down the house with her turn in the second act, wronged repeatedly by Hamilton’s high-minded, myopic ways. If you aren’t a puddle when she “removes herself from his narrative,” you ain’t human.

Hamilton repeatedly asks the audience to consider “who tells YOUR story?” All I can say is that if someone decides to do a show about my life (cue laughter now), I sure as hell hope Lin Manuel Miranda is still around to write it.

P.S. We ended our day with an astounding dinner at Lady of the House, a Beard Award-nominated restaurant in Detroit’s historic Corktown district. OMG. I’m no “foodie” (reference the sentiments of my opening paragraph above), but this place (veg friendly BTW) is to die for. Our server eventually became accustomed to (possibly amused by?) my plebeian ways. She wanted to “sequence” our “courses” of innumerable shared plates. I wanted a grilled cheese.

Perhaps inspired by the political wrangling in Hamilton, we found our common ground (though I never got that grilled cheese). Nonetheless everything we consumed was out of this world, with locally sourced flavor combinations to knock your socks off. Run don’t walk to this fab, shabby chic establishment. And be prepared to pay a pretty penny. It ain’t cheap, but like the pricey Hamilton, well worth the outlay.

Thank you, Rob and Aaron and our pal Rachel Green for an incredible, enriching Easter in Detroit!

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.

Want to hear me attempt to sing Whitney Houston? February 6 cabaret “Lights. Camera. Cure.” (Plus, a bit of good news!)

Enjoy this preview of the Feb. 6 #LightsCameraCure cabaret to benefit American Cancer Society – video here: https://youtu.be/EA2MW45itFI. Includes some schmoozing and singing from yours truly. My attempt to channel #WhitneyHouston 😂 … as well as a throwback to Oklahoma! (oh, what a beautiful melody) are all at the 9:45 mark. Plus, I will be emceeing the event this year again.

Tickets are going fast – last year’s event sold out and raised nearly $15,000 dollars. Get your tickets at http://www.cantonvillagetheater.org today.

Thank you, Thomas Paden and Canton Chamber for this coverage. Great job, Denise Isenberg Staffeld, Megan Schaper, Tammy Schenck Brown, and Kevin Robert Ryan. Canton Chamber of Commerce Business Spotlight: December 2018

 

_____________________

Proud to announce that my fabulous colleague Megan McKeon and I were both promoted to director-level roles at Clark Hill PLC, in the Marketing and Business Development group, effective January 1. We report to a truly amazing and supportive Chief Marketing and Business Development Officer Susan Ahern (she is the best!). I feel fortunate to be part of this incredible team and to be part of this organization, and I am very grateful for their appreciation of my individuality, of my quirks, and of my contributions thus far. More to come! Happy New Year!

_____________________

Me, Kevin Ryan, and an unnamed holiday conifer. “The breeze is so busy, it don’t miss a … Christmas tree?”

 

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.

A night at the opera: Tipping Point’s production of A Comedy of Tenors

Originally published at EncoreMichigan here

“Dying is easy, but comedy is hard” goes the old mantra, hyperbolically detailing the degree of difficulty for making an audience laugh. That said, it probably should be modified to read: “Dying is easy, comedy is hard, and farce is impossible.” Whether you love farce or not (I sorta don’t), it requires the crack timing of a Swiss clock, the physicality of a gymnast, and the rapid-fire delivery of a machine gun.

Fortunately, for those in the opening night audience of Tipping Point’s latest A Comedy of Tenors, farce is one of the company’s super powers.

The piece, a sequel to Ken Ludwig’s Lend Me A Tenor, details the chaotic hours before an operatic concert of three (maybe four) tenors in 1930s Paris. As the performance hangs in the balance from the tempestuous machinations of a set of male divas (toxic masculinity in its absurdist reality), producer Saunders (a hellzapoppin’ human stress-ball performance by company mainstay Dave Davies) flips every lever, ethical and otherwise, so that the show can go on.

As you can imagine, many doors are slammed as the cast romps about Monika Essen’s creamy-fine French Moderne set (someone be sure to reinforce all those floor joists for the duration of the run!). Costuming by Suzanne Young is period-perfect, ultra-tailored gorgeousness. And with Midwesterners trying their hands at a world’s atlas worth of dialects (high and low country Italian, Brooklynite, Russian), dialect coach Christopher Corporandy has his work cut out for him … and succeeds with “it’s a small world after all” aplomb. Able lighting and sound design, effortlessly transitioning the action from hotel suite to arena stage and back again, are provided by Neil Koivu and Julia Garlotte respectively.

The cast is on the balance terrific. As opera superstar Tito, the emotional vortex of this comic storm, Richard Marlatt is clearly having a ball, and, pun intended, never misses a note. I won’t spoil the first-act surprise, but he has to work double-time and applies a refreshing amount of nuance to differentiate the contrasting moments he has to play. He is aided and abetted by the ever-fabulous Sarab Kamoo as his long-suffering, take-no-prisoners wife Maria.

Joe Zarrow brings a lovable accessibility to production assistant turned singing sensation Max, and Nick Yocum sparkles as young matinee idol sensation Carlos. Tito and Maria’s Hollywood hopeful daughter Mimi could be a thankless role, bringing more narrative complication than character definition, but Hope Shangle nicely blends the hot-headed charm and earnest pragmatism of her stage parents. Last but certainly not least, Melynee Saunders Warren is a Molotov cocktail tossed into the play’s second act as a Russian chanteuse whose unrequited love for Tito escalates the mania to a fever pitch. She is sheer slinky stage magic.

The script is more sitcom than art, and that’s just fine. The opening night audience was enrapt by the crackerjack performances. Directed with military precision by Angie Kane Ferrante (assistant direction by Mary Conley), this top-of-their-game cast elevates the material and delivers a fine and fun evening of escapist entertainment. And, heaven knows, we all could use that. A frisky holiday offering from the always exceptional Tipping Point.

Tipping Point Theatre presents Ken Ludwig’s A Comedy of Tenors Thursdays through Sundays, November 15 through December 23. Previews November 15 and 16 include talkbacks the producing artistic director James R. Kuhl and director Angie Ferrante. Tickets are $26. Senior citizens 62 and older: $2 off per ticket; groups of 15 or more: $3 off per ticket for all performances, excluding previews and opening night. This may be combined with the senior discount. All tickets are available online at http://www.TippingPointTheatre.com.

Click here for show days, times and details.

Thanks, David Liebrecht of Heartland Home Health & Hospice, for the nice shout out at the 57 minute mark here on Mark S. Lee’s “Small Talk” program. And to Brenda Zawacki Meller of Meller Marketing for alerting me! Always a fun and informative show.

Plus, Blaire Miller, CCM, MBA of Hunter Group, Sheilah Clay and Linda Little MBA, RN, CCM of Neighborhood Service Organization – NSO, Bob Lambert of Detroit Foundation Hotel, and Paula Christian Kliger, PhD of Psychological Assets Pc.

Listen to Small Talk with Mark S. Lee – November 18th, 2018 by Lee Group #np on #SoundCloud

_____________

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.

“Let this be a sign. Let this road be mine.” Broadway’s Anastasia

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I’ve got a history with Anastasia. My mother and I saw the animated film in theatres in 1997, past the age of so-called social acceptability for a mother and son to go see an animated “princess musical.” Furthermore, we were both ugly crying within 15 minutes of the film’s opening, overtaken by the lush poignancy of Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens’ Broadway-ready score. Admittedly, we had been through about 15+ years of Faulknerian extended-family drama at that point, so we might have been raw nerves primed to lose our sh*t as an amnesiac Anastasia revisits the literal ghosts of her Romanov family past to the haunting strains of “Once Upon a December” as vocalized by the incomparable Liz Callaway.

A few months later, I decided to stage these bizarre, self-indulgent one-man cabarets on the campus of Wabash College (my alma mater where I was working as a development officer) and included both “Once Upon a December” and “Journey to the Past” among my selections, using other people’s lyrics to express my late 20s existential angst.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I also recall that my mother and I both thought the animated film – 20th Century Fox’ answer to Disney’s nouveau blockbuster classics like Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid – lost its way narratively when it turned master manipulator Rasputin into a nausea-inducing Maleficent knock-off with a comic relief sidekick bat Bartok, who would go on to star in his own series of wacky straight-to-video films. I’m not sure anyone would have predicted the Russian revolution and the tragic gunning down of the entire Romanov royal clan would eventually lead to a pile of Bartok the Magnificent DVDs in a Wal-Mart clearance bin one day. Ah, capitalism wins after all.

So, it was with a giddy heart and a heaping helping of trepidation that I entered Broadway’s Broadhurst Theatre on Wednesday evening, September 26, to view the Broadway hit reinvention of Anastasia. (Please note, the last – and only other – time I saw a show on Broadway was when I attended, alongside Frances Sternhagen’s daughter Sarah Carlin, Paul Simon’s legendary flop The Capeman. And, other than the company I kept, that show sucked.)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I’m happy to report that someone somewhere must have overheard that conversation my mother and I had 20 years ago (kidding!) and jettisoned the lousy script from the animated film and gave playwright Terrence McNally carte blanche to build a new narrative around the fantastic score. New songs have been added obvi – how else can they justify ticket prices starting at $160?! And the production values are absolutely to. die. for.

Costuming by Linda Cho is music box exquisite, and Alexander Dodge’s scenic design integrating flawlessly with Aaron Rhyne’s photo-realistic projection design is a gobsmacking wonder. I don’t know how they will tour this, but between the turntable at center-stage, the rotating flats of arches that outline everything from the Russian royal palace to communist bloc headquarters to Parisian nightclubs, and the breathtaking video projections that immerse the audience in a thrill-a-minute train ride or sweeping hillside vistas, I was in awe.

Curtain Call

Surrounded as I was by a sea of late-20-something women (all of whom were likely the little girls seated beside my mother and me when we saw the animated film), I stuck out like a sore thumb in the audience. And I didn’t care.

In its bumpy opening moments, the show seems JUST a touch theme-parkish, and it probably didn’t help that the woman playing Anastasia’s queen mother kept tripping over the hem of her Swarovski-crystal encrusted gown … and looking REALLY annoyed every time she did so. We are introduced to Anastasia as a child and the sumptuous excess of the Romanov family in a ballroom scene that is about as exciting as watching paint dry.

However, with a flick of digital magic and some ominous lighting cues, we are informed that the Romanov family has been summarily executed (hey, that’s a fun start to a family musical … if it worked for Bambi, I guess) and the littlest princess Anastasia may or may not have been killed alongside them. I must admit I wasn’t sure how they were going to pull that off. It’s kind of an important piece of set up. They did so tastefully and artistically and substantively, signaling straight away that there would be no singing and dancing bats in this interpretation.

We are then introduced to the adult Anastasia, now going by Anya, who seems to remember none of her upbringing. Unlike the animated film, doubt is placed in the audience’s minds whether or not she, in fact, is the grown-up Anastasia, though she sure does remember a lot of unusual details.

Christy Altomare is a crackerjack Anya, delivering the hit songs with aplomb but adding a contemporary agency to the character that is utterly refreshing. Whether or not Anya is a royal, she suffers no fools gladly. Borrowing liberally from the 1956 classic film starring Ingrid Bergman and Yul Brynner, McNally sets up a narrative where Anya/Anastasia must escape Russia and journey to Paris to meet her surviving grandmother the Dowager Empress (a luminous Jennifer Smith, filling in for Judy Kaye in our performance) to prove her lineage.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

She is aided and abetted by a couple of well-intentioned scalawags Dmitry (dreamy, zippy Zach Adkins whose soaring voice rattles the rafters) and Vlad (Broadway vet John Bolton whose confident ease and crack comic timing nearly carry the show). Of course, initially this duo is only interested in collecting reward money for “finding” Anastasia. In fact, they have set up a casting call to try and coach any young street urchin into the role. It’s like My Fair Lady-meets-American Idol. However, when they start to realize little Anya may in fact be the real deal (clue: remember that music box in the animated film? … it plays an equally important – and merchandisable – a role here), their common decency starts to shine through.

Narrative complications are provided not by an evil immortal magician who can remove his head at will (no Rasputin … yay!), but by a society in turmoil as the Soviet government wants nothing more than to squelch the Romanov legend and give power to the people. (Watching a show about how nutty Russians can be was … odd … in this current political climate, I must admit.) Max Von Essen (Tony nominee for An American in Paris) turns in a solid performance as conflicted military bureacrat Gleb (think Les Miserables Javert without all the scenery chewing) whose hunt for Anya/Anastasia propels our heroes forward.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Once Anya, Dmitry, and Vlad reach Paris in the show’s second act, Anastasia truly comes alive. The stakes are raised. There is a magnificent scene at the ballet where Anya and her grandmother circle one another to the backdrop of Swan Lake (think The King and I‘s “The Small House of Uncle Thomas”). And we are introduced to the Dowager Empress’ lady-in-waiting Countess Lily, who has a sordid past with Vlad. NewsRadio‘s Vicki Lewis normally plays Lily, but we were treated to understudy Janet Dickinson … and she was a MARVEL. The perfect blend of Madeline Kahn and Christine Ebersole. Lily’s role could be a thankless one in lesser hands. She’s pretty much saddled with expository responsibilities. Dickinson turned her two numbers “Land of Yesterday” and “The Countess and the Common Man” into absolute show-stopping barnstormers. If only the entire ensemble had her fire. I’d love to see this woman headline a show ASAP.

That said, on the balance Anastasia is a glittering gem of a musical, heartfelt and transporting with important messages about individuality, compassion, and family in all its forms. Unlike the animated film, the stage show fully embraces the historical underpinnings without losing the escapist fantasy of someone realizing that they just might be royalty. However, this is no rescue-the-princess throwback. Anastasia and the women surrounding her challenge the status quo, call the shots, and do their level best to overcome a world stacked against them. One step at a time. One hope, then another.

Anastasia is currently running at the Broadhurst Theatre. I bought my ticket for 50% off at TKTS. The musical is also launching its national tour. Don’t miss it.

______________________________

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

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

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