“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.

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[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.

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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.

“Page-turners they were not.” Star Wars: The Last Jedi, A Christmas Story Live!, and the failure of marketing

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

There are few pieces of holiday entertainment about which I am more excited than the arrival of a new Star Wars flick or a live television musical event, and, yet, somehow, it took me a good week get around to watching Disney/LucasFilm’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi and soon-to-be-Disney-corporate-stablemate FOX’s A Christmas Story Live! In part, that is because we insane monkeys (humanity writ large) feel the absurd need to cram ALL POSSIBLE JOY and festivity into the four-plus week span between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, leaving January a bleak and empty month of snow drifts and credit card bills. Consequently, the things we might put at the top of our list under any normal circumstances slide depressingly to the bottom of our “must do”s.

Yet, there was something else about both Last Jedi and A Christmas Story Live! … I wasn’t that excited to see either. The messaging and advertising surrounding both events couldn’t have “buried the lede” worse, and I believe that the “backlash” or audience disappointment in both is less a result of the quality of the work (both are actually excellent in wildly divergent ways) and more a result of misaligned promotional efforts.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Did you know Christmas Story Live!, brilliantly directed with military precision and classic Broadway charm by Scott Ellis and Alex Rudzinski, was a musical by Oscar-winning Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (La La Land) before you started watching? We theatre geeks did, but all of the commercials promoting the three-hour event conveniently bypassed that there would be, you know, singing and dancing galore. As a result, Twitter lit up like the “dumpster fire,” which internet trolls accused the show of being, with self-righteous indignation that “childhoods were being ruined” by the introduction of “musical numbers” to such a “great classic.”

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Let’s also note, for the record, that the original 1983 Christmas Story (which is a pretty perfect confection, even if it suffers from some now-tone-deaf misogyny and racism) was a flop that only found life in video store rentals and through HBO’s habit back then of running forgotten films 38 times a day. It has become beloved, but that doesn’t mean some tinkering couldn’t benefit the timeworn tale.

It’s an absolute shame that audiences didn’t embrace this new production, and I can only hope that this TV-musical finds its own cult following on YouTube or NetFlix or whatever venues now allow 8-year-olds to watch any piece of entertainment to the point of nausea. The cast for A Christmas Story Live! was sublime, from a warm and winning Maya Rudolph and Chris Diamantopoulos as the parents to a crackling Jane Krakowski and Ana Gasteyer as the teacher and Mrs. Schwartz respectively. Nary a beat was missed, and even the to-be-expected line flubs (“purkey”) were handled with grace and aplomb. The role of Ralphie was split between a lovely and magically omnipresent Matthew Broderick (adult narrator Ralphie) – who mixed just the right holiday cocktail of sentiment and cynicism – and a remarkable Andy Walken (child Ralphie) – who buried all annoying “look at me” child actor tics in a star-making performance that propelled every scene with heart and raw talent. Walken is one to watch.

(By the way, broadcasters, please cut down the number of in-show commercials. You’re killing the momentum and joy of a stage-show-on-TV by shilling for Old Navy every 8 minutes.)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Much like FOX’s production of Grease Live!, the camera whizzed and swooshed from interiors to back lot streetscapes to fantasy playgrounds and back again accompanied by a literal army of extras who populated each locale with verve. Standout numbers included Gasteyer’s “In the Market for a Miracle,” Rudolph’s “What a Mother Does,” Diamantopoulos’ “A Major Award,” Krakowski’s “You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out,” and the children’s ensemble “When You’re a Wimp.” The musical expands on the original film’s notions of inclusion balanced with the bittersweet comic realities of half-remembered holiday times, giving the female characters an agency and authority lacking in the 1983 script and discovering shades of sympathy for both the bullies and the bullied on the playground and in life. (Including PSAs for folks to go out and adopt rescue dogs like those amazing canine thespians portraying the Bumpus hounds didn’t hurt either.) It’s just a shame FOX was too chicken to promote the musical honestly and directly. I triple-dog-dare the execs to rethink their approach if there is a next time, but I’m sure the suits will blame the show itself and not their mishandling of its promotion.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

My lumps of coal aren’t only reserved for FOX’s marketing team, but Disney/LucasFilm’s as well. (For those Star Wars fans who have patiently – or impatiently – read through my analysis of A Christmas Story Live!, thank you. Now go watch it, and fast forward through the commercials.) The ads for Star Wars: The Last Jedi were nigh inescapable. No shock there. Disney has pretty successfully re-established the franchise as a holiday tradition – first with 2015’s The Force Awakens, then last year’s Rogue One – and that means advertising the bejeezus out of each new film’s imminent arrival.

However, the ads for Last Jedi overplayed the “trust no spoilers, for there be amazing twists and turns here” hyperbole. We nerds who grew up anxiously awaiting the familial, Shakespearean revelations offered by each subsequent episode of the previous two trilogies walked into Last Jedi ready to gobble up a smorgasbord of “galaxy far, far away” secrets: who was Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis); who are Rey’s parents; why has Luke Skywalker withdrawn from life; how does Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie) keep her armor so dang shiny; why is Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) such a pouty brat? The marketing for the film had us all whipped into a lather that had nothing to do with the actual film Rian Johnson gave us, and that also is a damn shame. We do get a few of these answers, but mostly Johnson challenges whether or not any of those questions should be asked in the first place.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Was the film too long by half, suffering from a meandering and episodic structure that seemed more suited to the small screen than the large? Perhaps. Did Johnson riff on The Empire Strikes Back‘s structure in a similarly derivative way to J.J. Abram’s lifting passages wholesale from A New Hope for Force Awakens. Kinda. Was it disappointing that Johnson basically thumbed his nose at our expectations for the same regurgitated Joseph Campbell hero-quest stuff that has fueled every Star Wars movie to date?  Damn straight. And rather exhilarating as well. Like cold water in one’s face on a mid-December evening.

I admit I was bored silly at times, and I nervously giggled at some (perhaps intentional) Spaceballs-esque series-self-satire. (Could that New Order/Resistance three hour-long-slow-ass chase through space be any weirder?). However, I also appreciated that – yes, not unlike A Christmas Story Live! – Johnson mines and reinvents the source material, jettisoning the self-satisfied reverence holding it back and embracing the core essence of what hippie Baby Boomer filmmakers like Lucas and Spielberg and Henson were trying to achieve with their 70s and 80s cinematic fantasias. Lucas always came this close to feminism and to embracing diversity in his films, but always fell short, leaving us with the same white male space-knights-in-shining-armor we’ve always had. Johnson, with Last Jedi, gives us a Star Wars allegory rich with thorny and difficult implications for modern-day America.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

An “evil empire” propping up and propped up by the one-percent (note: I hated the “casino planet” sequence in Last Jedi, until I realized how truly subversive it is) aims to squash the “spark” of individuality across the galaxy. They are challenged at every turn in Last Jedi by a rag-tag band of characters who wouldn’t be out of place among the human cast of Sesame Street … or a Benetton ad: a feisty female mechanic (Kelly Marie Tran) who isn’t going to suffer any fools gladly; an “I’m-With-Her” battle-scarred princess-cum-general (Carrie Fisher) who leads with wit not super-powers; a purple-haired-don’t-nobody-mansplain-to-me admiral (Laura Dern) who carries her own agenda with no apologies; a fighter pilot (Oscar Isaac) who gets his impulsive swagger handed back in shreds by Fisher and Dern and likes it; a former Stormtrooper (John Boyega) who finally learns that love not self-aggrandizing-self-sacrifice is true heroism; and a nascent Jedi who learns that the lessons she needed were in her own heart all along (Daisy Ridley).

The cast, for the most part, is great, saddled with a talky script that fails to match the pure swashbuckling-zip of previous films in the series. Blasphemous as it may sound, I wasn’t  particularly taken with Fisher’s performance, which appeared to run the gamut from sort-of-exhausted to “I’m so tired of this sh*t.” Mark Hamill, on the other hand, delivers a career-best turn as a defeated and curmudgeonly Luke Skywalker for whom life has been crueler and less rewarding than the once optimistic farm boy had ever anticipated. Hamill is no Sir Alec Guinness (by a long shot). Yet, it is interesting and a tad surreal to see Hamill now playing the cranky Jedi mentor to a young whippersnapper (Ridley) at roughly the same age Guinness was when he appeared in a similar role (Obi Wan Kenobi) in A New Hope.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I exited the theatre from The Last Jedi disappointed and ambivalent. However, as I reflected the next day, I realized I was doing a disservice to the film Rian Johnson made because it didn’t align with the film I expected. I daresay it deserves a second viewing, on its own merits and divorced from its own discombobulated marketing campaign.

As one character (who shall remain a surprise for those who haven’t seen Last Jedi) wryly observes about a stack of old Jedi training manuals, “Page-turners they were not.” Both The Last Jedi and A Christmas Story Live! are more thoughtful and challenging than the easy and comfortable “page-turner”  nostalgia pitched in their respective marketing campaigns. I hope they both get their due.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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.