“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.

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[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

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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

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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.

Stop taking photos of sandwiches: Betty Buckley’s “Ah, Men!”

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Legendary Betty Buckley with not-so-legendary Roy Sexton [Photo by Author]

Facebook is a funny thing. Such a powerful tool that could do so much to create positive social change is being used for rather mundane, likely superficial, arguably dumb things: bragging about new homes, taking photos of sandwiches, complaining about Lady Gaga.

I love (not) the people who opine about “declining morals of society” and then post photos of themselves doing body shots at a Jimmy Buffett concert. Accountability? Yeah, apparently only when it’s a one-way street headed to Sarah Palin-ville.

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Lobby of The Columbia Club
[Photo by Author]

And then there are the friends (and sometime relatives) who bloviate about how some people have “too many friends” and “how could you know all of those people” and “aren’t you afraid of identity theft…cause you want to waaaaaaatch.” I don’t know what motivates this last string of comments: jealousy, annoyance, small-picture thinking, or the fact that the more friends one has the harder it is to stalk all their comings and goings on the social network.

So why am I on this annoyingly self-serving high horse? Perhaps I’m full of myself because I had the privilege of meeting a Tony Award-winning performer I’ve long-admired. I was listening to her CDs in college when my fraternity brothers were blasting Bob Marley and Pearl Jam on the front lawn.

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Buckley with Susie Duncan Sexton [Photo by Author]

What does this have to do with Facebook? Well, said performer has very smartly leveraged the communication platform to connect with generations of fans in an authentic and direct way, without the meddling intermediary of a PR agent. I was beyond geeked a few years back when we “friended” one another in cyberspace and struck up conversations over the intervening months about politics, movies, and animals.

Who is this tech-savvy celebrity? You’ve probably deduced by the blurry photos above (my family just can’t be trusted with cameras, myself included) or, heck, from this blog entry’s title: Betty Buckley.

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Entrance to The Columbia Club
[Photo by Author]

Betty Buckley is known to some musical theatre neophytes as “Abby” on Eight is Enough or as Sissy Spacek’s sympathetic (slap notwithstanding) gym teacher in Carrie. To some adventurous cinephiles, Buckley is remembered for her character turns in Tender Mercies, Frantic, or The Happening. And for millennials who subsist on a steady diet of the CW and ABCFamily, they would have seen Buckley pop up on brother Norman Buckley’s saucily fun Pretty Little Liars. (Norman and mom Betty Bob are fantastic Facebookers as well!)

But for us theatre nuts, Ms. Buckley will always be known for her knockout performances in such classic musicals as 1776, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Cats, and Sunset Boulevard among many others. And for her series of jazz-infused, confessional cabaret recordings over the past 20+ years.

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“Ah, Men!” album cover [Photo by Author]

One of her latest cabaret offerings – recording as well as live performance – is a show called “Ah, Men! The Boys of Broadway!” The nifty conceit of the show is Buckley’s fulfillment of a lifelong desire to perform all the great Broadway anthems written expressly for men.

Given our Facebook connection with Ms. Buckley, there was no way we would miss seeing her perform in Indianapolis’ most splendid room: The Cabaret at The Columbia Club, a surprisingly intimate yet Eloise-esque marble-floored, velvet-curtained, lost-moment-in-time hall with a ceiling-to-floor window overlooking the twinkling lights of Monument Circle.

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Stage at The Cabaret [Photo by Author]

You must catch this show if it comes anywhere near your community. It’s not often you get to hear a legend in person, let alone one as relatable as Buckley. Her between-song patter is a hoot: for example, as a kid, she desperately wanted to be a “Jet” in her local community’s production of West Side Story, and these anecdotes offer the perfect context for her song choices.

And, oh, what song choices! Many of my personal favorites – from The Fantasticks‘ rallying “I Can See It” to Guys and Dolls’ elegiac “More I Cannot Wish You” – are featured. The Sweeney Todd medley effortlessly marries “Not While I’m Around,” “Johanna,” and “My Friends,” capturing the melodiously tragic arc of Sondheim’s best show in a perfect seven-minute bon-bon.

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Roy Sexton, Susie Duncan Sexton, and The Cabaret’s executive director Shannon Forsell [Photo by Author]

Accompanist and arranger Christian Jacob helps Buckley transform the bombast of The Pajama Game‘s signature tune “Hey There” into a haunting, undulating meditation on regret, loneliness, and heartache. But the show’s highlight is a ten-minute Spike Jones-meets-Mel Brooks riff on My Fair Lady’s “Hymn to Him” in which Buckley runs through nearly every noteworthy male role in the musical theatre canon and winkingly expounds on how much better her take on said roles would be.

We have admired and appreciated Ms. Buckley’s talent throughout her career; we are grateful to live in an age where technology allows us to appreciate the person as well as the performer, an age that can inspire thought and expression and compassion and kindness … if people will let it … and stop taking photos of their d*mn sandwiches.

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P.S. Sorry for another outright plug, but please do check out my mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s new book Misunderstood Gargoyles and Overrated Angels – in paperback or digital download at  www.susieduncansexton.com, www.amazon.com, or www.open-bks.com (also available on iTunes). I love what pundit, columnist, and radio host Carol Baker just wrote about the book and thought I’d share it here…

As a weekly columnist, writing on topics of politics and social justice, I find Susie’s writing style a breath of fresh air. As I sailed through story after story, it was like sitting across a kitchen table, having an old friend share stories of their life over an endless cup of coffee. I know how to bring a reader into a story to laugh or to cry or to be an intimate observer, but Susie effortlessly helps to evoke memories of my own early childhood, my youth, young adulthood and ultimately, to come to terms with an aging body. Susie glides from topic to topic through time and weaves her stories like a familiar old song. I’ve committed to attempting a Susie Duncan Sexton homework assignment of becoming a storyteller because she’s proven it’s never too late to stretch my writing chops. She inspires me to write more – and to write better. She inspires me to write with less angst and to simply “think out loud on paper”. Perhaps to be a little more understanding of the gargoyles and a little less approving of the angels.

This is comfort food for a writer’s soul.