“Now, we are here. In Xanadu.” Penny Seats’ production opens July 14 at Ann Arbor’s West Park

Yes, this is actually happening. Xanadu opens in Ann Arbor’s West Park on Thursday, July 14. Tickets at www.pennyseats.org. Thanks, Ann Arbor Observer for this listing! 

Elephant ears optional: My strange life with Vice President Thomas Riley Marshall

Tempus fugit. Carpe diem. Time waits for no man. It takes a licking and keeps on ticking.

There are so many clichés associated with the concept of time, which is as much an indicator of the shallowness of humankind as it is our own internal wrestling match with existentialism. For 26 years(!), I happily have portrayed a footnote in American history, Vice President Thomas Riley Marshall, who served under Woodrow Wilson during World War I. He is a hometown legend where I grew up, Columbia City, Indiana, and my life and his have been peculiarly intertwined.


Marshall is perhaps best known for his quote, “What this country really needs is a good five cent cigar.” Oh, and he was a Democrat, praise be. They do exist in Indiana!

While he was born in nearby North Manchester, he resided in Columbia City, and his home was just a few blocks from where my mother grew up, a house my parents then later purchased, prompting a move from Fort Wayne 30 years ago. In fact, as a child, my mother had spent a glorious afternoon once with Marshall’s former secretary, looking through sheet music, but, indicative of the nature of any small town that can fixate on the most meaningless of gossip to the detriment of a bigger picture, no one bothered to tell my mother of this woman’s notoriety.

Decades later, my mother would find herself one of the curators of The Whitley County Historical Museum, which you may have guessed is housed in Marshall’s former home, restored to its Italianate glory. Because my family has always been a creative and resourceful clan, my mother recruited me, in my freshman year of high school, to spray silver in my hair and clip a fake homemade mustache under my nose (to this day, I couldn’t grow a mustache if my life depended on it, and I’m fine with that) and eat soup and break bread at a holiday dinner with a small but plucky crew who had an appreciation for northern Indiana history.

While that first mustache fell into my soup more times than I could count, and I found myself faced with questions I had no idea how to answer (I am genetically incapable of historical reenactment, and I would be an epic failure as a cast member at Greenfield Village or colonial Williamsburg, as I have no capacity to pretend that I don’t know what a television is or to extemporaneously expound on what life was like 100 years earlier without devolving into uncontrollable giggles), it was an auspicious beginning to the longest-running role I’ve ever held.


It was at that time that I fell in love with having a script, and in a great desire to avoid ever awkwardly eating dinner with people who knew more about the character I was playing then I did, I wrote a 20 minute speech, borrowing liberally from Marshall’s autobiography A Hoosier Salad. He was a funny man, not Mark Twain clever, but the Hoosier equivalent, and the speech was peppered with one Neil Simon-esque zinger after another. You know the kind? Set up, set up, punchline. Set up, set up, punchline.

My parents bought me a better mustache, and introduced me to the joys of spirit gum, though the likely-carcinogenic silver hairspray remained. I borrowed, and never returned – sorry about that – a tuxedo from some family friends, and after honing my craft at one women’s literary circle after another, my nascent impersonation career took off. And sputtered. And took off again. I suspect it was in those days that I began to appreciate cucumber sandwiches and pineapple upside down cake and how to successfully dodge and parry through invasive, yet well/meaning, inquisitions from blue-haired octogenarians. I would find myself presenting in the unlikeliest of circumstances, repeatedly giving the speech to Governor, later Senator, Evan Bayh, for example, who probably knew it better than I did after certain point.

Like Marshall, I would end up attending small, eccentric, insular, provocative Wabash College, a liberal arts institution that, to this day, stubbornly hangs on to its all male status, like a gilded beer keg at a caveman drum circle. It’s a charming place, filled with enough memories and shenanigans to last a lifetime; coupled with the tender yet firm guidance of intellectually insatiable parents who afforded me every opportunity, my college years set me on a path for success and even more importantly toward open-mindedness.

Just when I would hope I had shaken off the specter of Marshall, somebody from the College or from my hometown or from a neighboring burg, would recall that I did this bizarre thing, and they would summon me back, not unlike Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin screaming “Beetlejuice! Beetlejuice! Beetlejuice!” And, poof, I would show up, hat in hand, with the same tired anecdotes that still delighted people as if they had never heard them before.

As I am careening now through middle-age, I had filed the speech away and hidden that yellowed, crusty mustache under the bathroom sink, believing I would never be asked to do this again. In fact, that tuxedo buckles under my newfound girth, and I had hoped I wouldn’t have to deal with the mortification of trying to zip up those pants again. But, mere months ago, Mary Ann Anderson on a sojourn from the Historical Society board, emailed me at the law office where I work, betraying whatever over-the-hill actor protection program I thought I had fallen into, and asked me and Tom to return.

And I’m so glad she did.


Columbia City has a summer festival every year called Old Settlers. And in the summer of 1986, before I entered eighth grade at a new junior high in a strange yet familiar town, this street fair was my Disneyland. The downtown was taken over by the kind of carnival rides that anyone with a couple of screwdrivers and a hammer might be able to assemble, and for a week solid I would walk a handful of blocks to ride the tilt-a-whirl until my face was blue, shoveling elephant ears down a gullet queasy from the experience. I didn’t know nor care what an “Old Settler” was nor why the town’s self-appointed illuminati donned red blazers to celebrate the occasion. I just wanted carny distraction!

Thirty years later, the same rickety rides still appear and the red jackets are omnipresent. But this time I was among them, not as an impetuous teenager, but as an anxious adult, worried about a world spinning off its axis a little more every day and newly appreciative of one’s own heritage and mythology. What once seemed tangential to the celebration now seems essential: tracking and inventorying the number and ages of the attendees, where they live, and how far they may have traveled.

As part of a specific event – “History Alive!” – centered around this particular cataloging activity, Anderson asked me, a couple of Civil War reenact-ors (one for each side of the War Between the States apparently), some local artisans, and a handful of pioneer-garbed volunteers to mill about the museum grounds through the afternoon, greeting the “old settlers” as they arrived.

I found myself panicked. No script? I have to answer strange questions again? No quips? But once I settled in – somewhere around hour three – and my ever-loving and supportive parents stopped by (we never grow out of that, thank goodness), I started to have, well, fun. And even more I appreciated the purpose of this festival to celebrate people and our connection with one another and our history. Not all of us can be vice president of United States, nor would likely want to be, but we make our own history every day.

Sitting on Marshall’s front porch, dressed like a lunatic, I caught up with a steady stream of faces, half-remembered but fully loved. Looks like I just grew up a little bit. How about that? You can now call me an Old Settler. Elephant ears optional.

“No, there is no world-wide standard for the determination of provincialism. There is only one standard by which to judge men and women, and that standard is not so much one of brains and education as it is of culture and heart. Kindness seems to be the one golden metewand by which to measure how really civilized and catholic one may be.” – Thomas Marshall


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Roy Sexton tells about growing up in Columbia City, favorite teachers, pastimes, and unique opportunities he was privileged to experience living in a small town.

 

Susie Sexton’s father, Roy Duncan, was in charge of the Columbia City Blue Bell factory for many years. Susie herself grew up in Columbia City and lives today in the same home she was brought to as a baby. In this interview, Susie reminisces about Columbia City, her parents, the Blue Bell factory, the local theater and churches, and life in general.

 

 

Stuff blew up: Jeff Weisserman’s guest review of Batman v. Superman – Dawn of Justice


Over this holiday weekend, it is unlikely I will see the ubiquitously promoted (and cumbersomely titled) Batman v. Superman – Dawn of Justice. I might add that never in my comic book fanboy life have I been less interested in viewing a spandex blockbuster than I am Batman v. Superman – Dawn of Justice. I will watch it, though. Eventually.

Heck, even Ben Affleck looks mortified to be part of director Zack Snyder’s Abercrombie and Fitch-ified super hero fever dream …

 

SadFleck

 

View SadFleck in motion …

So, my ever-loving, slightly smartass colleague Jeff Weisserman saved me the trouble (and the suffering) and texted me his take today (after spending three hours and $60 for his entire family to be bored silly at 10 o’clock last night).


Without further ado, Weezy v. Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Tedium …

I wrote your review for you. It was dark. We were confused. It didn’t tell a story well. Wonder Woman was hot. Amy Adams wasn’t. Ben Affleck was. Superman wasn’t. Jesse Eisenberg was out of place with his overacting. Stuff blew up. I stayed up late.

Thank you, Jeff. Now go see My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2, and save me that grief as well.

 

BobbleJeff

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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.

“We may be evolved, but down deep we’re still animals.” Disney’s Zootopia

Zootopia

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

This political season is arguably the most distressingly fascinating one I can ever recall. Whether #ImWithHer or #FeelingTheBern or #MakingAmericaGreatAgain or #DumpingTrump, the vitriol and shenanigans, the dramatic tension and circus-world comedy, and the reality-television-fueled debasement of what it even means to be “presidential” are as titillating and train-wreck exhilarating as they are shocking and horrifyingly confounding.

Into this topsy-turvy world, where GOP elephants compare “hand”-sizes and Dem donkeys trade an endless stream of cocktail napkin memes, comes a funny little kids’ movie from Disney, an animated fable with mobster rodents and badge-wearing rabbits, hustling foxes and pencil-pushing sheep (who may or may not be political wolves). Disney’s latest effort Zootopia may very well be the allegory for our times, a medicinally incisive piece of camp that pierces the heart of our political juvenilia, not as a heavy-handed polemic but as a frothy noir merringue that still manages to offer timely (and timeless) critique of our national propensity toward ugliness, be it in the form of sexism, racial profiling, class distinctions, ageism, xenophobia, anti-intellectualism, crass marketing, leveraging abject fear to erode any and all civil liberties, or, yes, speciesism.

If George Orwell’s Animal Farm had been reimagined by Bugs Bunny‘s Chuck Jones, you’d have Zootopia, as close to classic Looney Tunes‘ satirical irreverence as middle-class-family-friendly Disney may ever get. 

“Zootopia” (the place) is an urbane promised land where anthropomorphic animals of all species coexist amicably – think Richard Scarry’s Busytown on steroids or Watership Down, Jr., with predator and prey working and playing side-by-side and setting a far better example than humans can ever seem to manage. Zootopia is a Manhattan-esque place, brimming with hustle and bustle, composed of boroughs distinguished by their unique climates (e.g. polar, rainforest, desert, etc.)

Judy Hopps (effervescently voiced by Once Upon a Time‘s Ginnifer Goodwin) is a brave bunny who defies her expected station (as a carrot farmer) to become a cop (a role typically taken by larger, more aggressive male creatures, like cheetahs and buffalo). As in human life, Hopps is quickly marginalized (for her gender and her size) by her co-workers, assigned the menial task of traffic duty.

Yet, something dire is afoot in this magical land, and the balance of animalia power is challenged as traditional “predator” animals revert to more violent ways of the past. (This is still a Disney movie, so that basically means angry eyes and lots and lots of snarling.) Lt. Hopps seizes the moment, and, with the aid of a con man fox named Nick Wilde (Bad Words‘ Jason Bateman, finding his animated doppelganger), cracks the case.

Or do they? That‘s really where the cheeky fun begins as the third act of the film inverts all of our notions of Zootopia, landing a stinging indictment of how society offers a phony face of inclusion and acceptance as long as things run smoothly with safety, security, and prosperity ostensibly guaranteed for all.  The minute the “natural order” (which we mindlessly take for granted) is revealed as the wobbly house of cards it actually can be, all bets are off, and life starts to resemble a Trump rally or a Promise Keepers meeting or Hitler’s Nuremberg, with fiery, fearful rhetoric of us-versus-them, boundary walls, torture, and police states. Zootopia – accidentally or intentionally or both – holds a mirror to this truth and presents its audience, young and old, a cautionary hopefulness that we can still pull ourselves from the mire.

Yet, the magic of this film (not unlike similarly smart animated fare like The Lego Movie, Inside Out, or Wall*E) is that the message never comes at the expense of entertainment  (maximizing impact and influence). This picture is just so. much. fun. In addition to Goodwin and Bates, there is sparkling voice work from Thor‘s Idris Elba (Police Chief Bogo, a blustering water buffalo), Whiplash‘s J.K. Simmons (Mayor Lionheart, a scheming king of the jungle), Jenny Slate (Bellwether, the mayor’s browbeaten lamb assistant … lion and the lamb, get it?), Nate Torrence (Officer Clawhauser, a dispatch policeman cheetah for whom food is quite literally love), and Alan Tudyk (Duke Weaselton, a shifty little informant weasel). Uni-named pop star Shakira rounds out the cast playing uni-named pop star Gazelle, nailing some witty moments as a well-intentioned if misguided celebrity trying to bring cross-cultural unity through superficial lip-service. (Sounds like some recent Oscar speeches, eh?)

Zootopia is a visually stunning film throughout, and one viewing will unlikely do justice to the rich detail (and hidden references) of this animal planet. Directors Byron Howard and Rich Moore (Wreck-It Ralph) have realized a sumptuously immersive world here that is simultaneously transporting and sobering. Mayor Lionheart exclaims, “We may be evolved, but deep down we’re still animals.” These words (other than the disparaging implication of “animal”) are as true (if not truer) of we humans, struggling through as fractious an historical moment as many of us may see in our lifetimes. Zootopia may just be the tonic we all have needed. Lt. Hopps notes repeatedly through the film – as much warning as mantra: “Zootopia … where anyone can be anything!” Maybe we Americans should give that idea a shot again? What do you think?

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img_0083Enjoy this recent radio show, featuring The Penny Seats (and yours truly!) … “Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris: Feelings that Connect Us All” – https://t.co/E9YMfoZN0C

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.

Frank Weir photographs February 25 Jacques Brel performance 

   
    
    
  

Wonderful photos taken by talented Frank Weir of the 2/25 Jacques Brel performance! Enjoy! Given high audience demand, The Penny Seats – http://www.pennyseats.org – will offer an encore performance of Jacques Brel is Alive and Well on the final performance date of the run, Thursday, March 3rd. This encore performance starts at 9:15pm, with dinner seatings beginning at 7:30pm. (This show is in addition to the sold out performance at 7:30 pm that same day.) As the show is only 70 minutes long, the evening will conclude at approximately 10:30pm. 

From BroadwayWorld – http://www.broadwayworld.com/detroit/article/Penny-Seats-to-Offer-Encore-Performance-of-JACQUES-BREL-IS-ALIVE-AND-WELL-20160226

“We are beyond thrilled at the audience response to this production, and we are especially thrilled at the year-over-year growth that our company has seen. This is the second production – in partnership with Conor O’Neill’s – that has enjoyed a completely sold out run and has required us to add a performance. We’ve also seen double digit increases in our attendance at our summer performances in West Park. We couldn’t be happier,” notes Penny Seats president Lauren London, adding, “Grab these seats for the Jacques Brel encore before they’re gone! Tremendous thanks to our enthusiastic partners, Conor O’Neill’s Irish Pub and Restaurant. Everyone, please be sure to enjoy a pint at the pub, and toast Conors’ support of the arts in Ann Arbor.”

  
    
    
    
    
    
 

Penny Seats’ Jacques Brel is Alive and Well offers encore performance at Conor O’Neill’s in Ann Arbor

  
Given high audience demand, The Penny Seats will offer an encore performance of Jacques Brel is Alive and Well on the final performance date of the run, Thursday, March 3rd. This encore performance starts at 9:15pm, with dinner seatings beginning at 7:30pm. (This show is in addition to the sold out performance at 7:30 pm that same day.) As the show is only 70 minutes long, the evening will conclude at approximately 10:30pm. 
 
Performed off-Broadway in 1968, Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris has enjoyed continuing success, and was revived Off-Broadway in 2006, to considerable acclaim. The Penny Seats perform the show as a dinner theatre event in partnership with Conor O’Neill’s Traditional Irish Pub and Restaurant. You can purchase dinner-and-a-show tickets for just $20 each or show-only tickets for $10.
 
“We are beyond thrilled at the audience response to this production, and we are especially thrilled at the year-over-year growth that our company has seen. This is the second production – in partnership with Conor O’Neill’s – that has enjoyed a completely sold out run and has required us to add a performance. We’ve also seen double digit increases in our attendance at our summer performances in West Park. We couldn’t be happier,” notes Penny Seats president Lauren London, adding, “Grab these seats for the Jacques Brel encore before they’re gone! Tremendous thanks to our enthusiastic partners, Conor O’Neill’s Irish Pub and Restaurant. Everyone, please be sure to enjoy a pint at the pub, and toast Conors’ support of the arts in Ann Arbor.”
 
The musical revue stars Brendan Kelly of Ypsilanti, Natalie Rose Sevick of Swartz Creek, Lauren London of Ann Arbor, and Roy Sexton of Saline. Laura Sagolla (of Ann Arbor) directs, Richard Alder (of Westland) serves as music director and Paige Martin (of Ann Arbor) choreographs. Technical direction is provided by Stephen Hankes (of Ann Arbor).
 
In a review of the production for Encore Michigan (www.encoremichigan.com), Marin Heinritz observed, “Director Laura Sagolla gets Brel and his sensibility and guides a terrific cast. The four actors, two men and two women, are utterly amusing storytellers and work beautifully together to bring this show to life in this intimate space, a small platform stage with static lighting and minimal set pieces and props in a shotgun room. At turns, they create lovely harmonies together, dance and dramatize the vignettes in each song. …Though Jacques Brel is no longer alive and well in Paris (or anywhere), thanks to Penny Seats’ production of his quirky collection of songs, unpretentious theatre is alive and well in Michigan.”
 
Given the nature of this special performance, advance purchase is recommended at http://www.pennyseats.org or by phone at (734) 926-5346. (View a performance clip here – http://youtu.be/3YSrkyCtnQA – of “Madeleine” in rehearsal.) Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris will be the first of three shows comprising The Penny Seats’ 2016 season. The group plans to stage productions of The Canterbury Tales and Xanadu at West Park this summer, from June 16th through July 30th.

Photo (above) of cast performing “Timid Frieda” taken by Kyle Lawson. Ann Arbor Observer photo (below) taken by Kerry Rawald.

  

ABOUT THE PENNY SEATS: Founded in 2010, we’re performers and players, minimalists and penny-pinchers. We think theatre should be fun and stirring, not stuffy or repetitive. We believe going to a show should not break the bank. And we find Michigan summer evenings beautiful. Thus, we produce dramas and comedies, musicals and original adaptations, classics and works by up-and-coming playwrights. We also provide cabaret shows, acting classes, and wacky improv evenings. And you can see any of our shows for the same price as a movie ticket.

FOR MORE INFORMATION about The Penny Seats call at 734-926-5346 or Visit: http://www.pennyseats.org.

 

Reviewing the reviewer? Encore’s review of The Penny Seats “Jacques Brel”

  
Holy cats. For once, I’m speechless. Review (rave!) – “Jacques Brel is Alive and Well in an Ann Arbor pub” – “Director Laura Sagolla gets Brel and his sensibility and guides a terrific cast. The four actors, two men and two women, are utterly amusing storytellers and work beautifully together to bring this show to life in this intimate space, a small platform stage with static lighting and minimal set pieces and props in a shotgun room. At turns, they create lovely harmonies together, dance and dramatize the vignettes in each song.” Read more at the link below …

http://www.encoremichigan.com/2016/02/jacques-brel-is-alive-and-well-in-an-ann-arbor-pub/

Thanks, Marin and Encore! Whew! Three performances left – February 18, February 25, and March 3. Get your tickets before they are gone at http://www.pennyseats.org

Jacques Brel opens tonight!

  
Opening night tonight is nearly sold out! THREE more Thursdays of Brel after that! www.pennyseats.org – these photos are by Kyle Lawson – view more here.

Thanks to BroadwayWorld for their coverage here and to my hometown friend Jennifer Romano for this shout out here in Talk of the Town!

  

Jackie rides again!!

First dress rehearsal photos!

  
Thanks to talented Kerry Rawald for these great photos! You can view the full album on Facebook here.

We open tomorrow night! Only 10 tickets left for our first show! www.pennyseats.org

Doodles, yellow couches, legs, & selfies. Jacques Brel in rehearsal.

  
Cast member Brendan August Kelly (bottom left corner) masterminded an Instagram takeover during today’s rehearsal. Enjoy these results, or view the original posts (and hysterical captions) on The Penny Seats’ Instagram page here.

  

  

Join us Thursday evenings, from February 11 through March 3, for the mesmerizing music, humor, and sentiment of the one and only Jacques Brel. Originally performed off-Broadway in 1968, this show has enjoyed continuing success, and was revived Off-Broadway in 2006, to considerable acclaim. 

We are performing it as a dinner theatre event in partnership with Conor O’Neill’s Traditional Irish Pub and Restaurant. Thus, you can purchase dinner-and-a-show tickets for just $20 each (dinner seatings begin at 6pm), or show-only tickets for $10. Curtain at 7:30pm in Conor O’Neill’s Celtic Room. Seating is limited, to get your tickets now! www.pennyseats.org