“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.

“Could We Start Again, Please?” NBC’s Jesus Christ Superstar, Live in Concert

Jesus_Christ_Superstar_LiveI wouldn’t exactly call myself an Andrew Lloyd Webber fan. I like his musicals more than I might care to admit. There is something intoxicating about an indulgently baroque score that is riddled with random hair metal guitar licks and disco drum beats. I loved an album he did eons ago with his brother Julian Lloyd Webber called Variations in which he basically “dance remixed” Paganini into submission. I suspect that’s where my fascination with musical reinvention began. Oh, I saw the film Evita about a dozen times in 1996 at the peak of my Madonna obsession, and I dearly loved it, although it doesn’t hold up as I’d hoped in light of more celebratory, effusive, less self-conscious film musicals that would follow.

I’m even less sprung on “He is Risen” #SoBlessed Easter spectacle and pageantry. I grew up in a small town in Indiana, and, at some point, Easter took on an almost insufferably sanctimonious quality among the social media posts I would read and observe from friends and family members. Not sure how and when that happened, but, as for me, I’m more of a “Here comes Peter Cottontail” #CadburyEgg kind of Easter person.

So I approached with YUGE trepidation NBC’s latest live musical Jesus Christ Superstar, Live in Concert starring pop/rock stars John Legend, Sara Bareilles, and Alice Cooper alongside theatrical luminaries like Hamilton’s Brandon Victor Dixon and Porgy and Bess’ Norm Lewis.

I was wrong. It was pretty fabulous with a dystopian post-punk quality that was more George Orwell than Mel Gibson and a color-blind casting approach that was more Sesame Street than Sean Hannity. Producers Craig Zadan, Neil Meron, and Marc Platt generally know their way around a musical (NBC’s Peter Pannotwithstanding). With this production, they seemed to be less interested in staging a family friendly holiday confection (remember that creepy Wal-Mart clan from The Sound of Music Live’s commercials? shudder) than in presenting allegorical commentary on the fragmented state of our world today.

Norm Lewis

Lewis

It is a testament to directors David Leveaux and Alex Rudzinski that they allowed the music and the performances to drive the spectacle, avoiding the overdone trap of previous live musicals with their veritable nesting doll of detailed sets that segue seamlessly one to the next. No, with Jesus Christ Superstar, settings were evoked through language and sound and cleverly used props and set pieces, surrounded by graffiti strewn walls and scaffolding used for exits and entrances and the occasional flogging and/or hanging (fun times!).

Maybe I just didn’t pay enough attention in vacation Bible school, but I wasn’t always sure what the heck was going on during Jesus Christ Superstar. The ubiquitous commercial breaks after every big number derailed narrative momentum. The sound quality overall and the challenges of actor articulation/projection while performing in a vast, echoing Brooklyn warehouse contributed as well. The visibly live audience was a smart if distracting choice, adding to the cult-like adoration of the titular figure but often drowning out important lyrical bits.

Jesus Christ Superstar arguably also had the most uniformly excellent cast we’ve seen yet in one of these live productions. Nary a scenery-chewing Christopher Walken nor balsa-wooden Allison Williams in the bunch. The theatre vets faired best, with Dixon and Lewis leading the charge. Lewis as Caiaphas was suitably haunted and haunting as the Jewish high priest who organizes the plot to rid this rabble rouser from their midst. The show was grounded beautifully by his easy-to-take-for-granted performance.

brandon-victor-dixon-jesus-christ-superstar

Dixon

In the showier role as Judas, Dixon left it all on the field (sometimes to the detriment of diction), offering a portrayal rife with conflict and fear: love for a friend versus uncertainty that Jesus’ chosen path made any damn sense at all, layered with just enough resentment and jealousy to make it utterly believable. His final number, performing the show’s title song, was a barnstormer, replete with costuming that made Dixon look like a glittering disco ball.

Alice Cooper preened and strutted appropriately as King Herod whose one song (literally “King Herod’s Song”) is basically a toxic vaudevillian turn, leeringly challenging Jesus to provide evidence of any miraculous abilities at all. Cooper didn’t have to do much other than just be Cooper whose decrepit looks overlaid with his signature stage makeup and hair made for a compellingly repulsive portrayal. With Herod’s song and the subsequent “Trial before Pilate” (British stage vet Ben Daniels made for a kinky, mustache-twirling prefect … still not sure what I thought of him but I couldn’t look away), the die is cast for Jesus and the institutional conspiracy to cut short Christ’s anarchic message of love and inclusion and acceptance entered its final stage.

That was the aspect of this production that spoke to me the most, perhaps because of this ugly current milieu in which we live. Take, for instance, those brave, big-hearted Parkland kids who are pilloried by the falsely fair-and-balanced prophets of “freedom” every time they speak their truth. This production did SUCH an effective job demonizing the forces working against Jesus, did SUCH an effective job depicting the ugly mobs calling for his crucifixion, did SUCH an effective job revealing the insidious intersection of greed and power-mongering that it sent chills down my spine. I was less interested in the show as reflection of faith as I was in its revelatory “more things change, the more they stay the same” positioning.

I kept wondering how Fox News, who cozies up to such a feverishly Evangelical base, would find a way to deride this production which carries in its heart a pretty arch critique of the very demagoguery that is Fox’s stock-in-trade these days. I’m still waiting. Maybe they’ll just counter with a live production of Grease 2.

John Legend was a bit of a cipher as Jesus, which accidently (or intentionally?) aided this direction. His voice all Nat King Cole creamy smooth was an interesting juxtaposition to the jagged rock orchestration surrounding it, but his acting range just doesn’t exist. He can’t help but exude kindness, but otherwise his facial expressions seemed limited to surprised, placid, and worried … with barely any distinction between those. It didn’t much matter. The machinery of Webber’s music, coupled with the sharp overall POV of the production, formed an unstoppable steamroller with Legend along for the ride. When Legend as Jesus finally disappears into the great beyond (with a floating cross effect that was gobsmacking in a “how did they do that?!” way), we are left with the uncertainty of living in a world that punishes kindness and rewards cruelty.

jesus-christ-superstar

I am no theologian by any stretch, but I read some online comments where people unfamiliar with the musical wondered why it didn’t continue on through the “resurrection.” I think the fact that it does not address that part of the tale imbues Jesus Christ Superstar with a greater universalism.

We leave the piece with as much doubt as we entered. We are given no easy answers. Is Judas’ agnosticism valid? Why do we live in such a world where compassion is rewarded with utter rejection and abject fear? Why is love seen as weakness? Why are the biggest pronouncers of their faith often the worst hypocrites?

That is my idea of a “passion” play. Sounds like something Washington, D.C. should watch. On repeat.

____________

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.