Musings from the bleak midwinter … I woke up here in Grey Gardens cranky – the pandemic and life’s obligations weighing me down. I know everyone is feeling it.
But then I saw these little footprints of Hudson’s in the snow which gave me some warmth and perspective. Life continues in beautiful ways.
John Doordashed some unhealthy but tasty and comforting breakfast treats, and I had some lovely NSFW check-ins from my adopted siblings (whether they like it or not) Blaine Fowler and Diane Hill.
I took a much-needed shower (why are we all so averse to bathing in pandemic?) and threw on my new 80sTees.com Mister Miracle shirt (thanks, Kevin Stecko!), which reminded me how much the escapism (pun intended) of comic books thrills me.
Jack Kirby created Mister Miracle (a cosmic Houdini) and the rest of DC Comics’ bonkers New Gods at the height of his most unfettered creativity. Kirby had jettisoned Stan Lee’s reportedly toxic self-promotion from his professional life and let his freak flag fly. This was after already gifting the world Captain America, the Fantastic Four, Black Panther, Thor, the X-Men, Hulk, Iron Man, and so many other incredible characters.
I found kinship in Kirby by inadvertent means. In the mid-80s, Kenner toys released arguably the greatest super hero figures ever with their SuperPowers line: a well-constructed, detailed (for that era), heady mix of characters both popular and obscure. I was gobsmacked when I saw Dr. Fate and Red Tornado hanging on the pegs alongside Superman and WonderWoman at our local KayBee.
But my favorites among all of the figures in the line were the New Gods – Darkseid, Steppenwolf, DeSaad, Kalibak, Orion, and, yes, Mister Miracle. They were day-glo Shakespearean – epic, fun, transfixing. It would be years later that I would learn the New Gods are suspected to have inspired (in part) my other geek love at the time (and still) Star Wars. (Also, an incredible Kenner toy line over which I obsessed.)
So, I put on this shirt, and thought what lessons can I take from King Kirby? How can I live my life as boldly and creatively? And maybe inspire others as he had inspired me?
One of the treasures my dad Don Sexton unearthed these past few months was a beautiful quilt my great grandmother Money had made. (At least I hope I have that right. My mother Susie Sexton is somewhere saying “I KNEW you weren’t listening to me!”)
After brainstorming a bit with dear friend Aaron Latham about the merits and downsides of framing it (ain’t no wall big enough for THAT!), it occurred to me to order one of those plexiglass display cases you find in jewelry stores and trade shows. Thank you, Shoppopdisplays, for coming to the rescue and delivering on Sundays!
I spent far too much time trying to figure out how to fold this damn thing, but I’m thrilled that it is safe and displayed now in our TV room.
That little moment of creative endeavor and honoring the past did my heart good. I’m no Jack Kirby, but this artistic activity – not to mention that quilt’s bold colors and beautiful lineage – will brighten my January/February days.
My crankiness has subsided, and that is all due to family, friends, memories, reflection, and writing (this right here if you made it this far). Food, shopping, and cute dogs help too!
Yes, I overshare, but social media and blogging for me are (as they were for my mom) the perfect combo of bulletin board, journal, and party that never ends. Thanks for being there. ❤️
It promises to be a fun and free-wheeling conversation focused on the principles of good design, challenges of visual communication in industries that need dense messaging, best practices she would recommend, and maybe even some markers of the good friendship (i.e. shenanigans) shared by Nikki and Roy sprinkled in—fingers crossed we get to hear about the night they saw the Backstreet Boys in concert!
Legal Marketing Coffee Talk is brought to you by: By Aries and Kates Media.
I am so incredibly proud of my friend Brenda Zawacki Meller, published author! My copy of her book Social Media Pie: How to Enjoy a Bigger Slice of LinkedIn arrived today, beautifully inscribed and in a trademark Meller Marketing pink envelope. Now that is good branding! The book is fantastic, and even if you feel like you know a lot about LinkedIn, there is far more that she can teach you.
As I texted her today, “Brenda, you have surpassed us all in your accomplishments, in your bright light, and in your singular execution of strategy. What you have done in quick fashion in terms of positioning yourself is nothing short of impressive and remarkable. So damn proud of you!” Here are some photos from the many adventures I’ve been privileged to have with Brenda, and her support and encouragement of me and of so many others has meant the world. That is just who she is, and if you don’t know her yet (which would be shocking since she has 52,000 followers and counting on LinkedIn!), you really should!
ABOUT THE BOOK: You’re on LinkedIn, but you’re not sure you’re getting the most out of it. You’re open to learning, but you need some guidance on how to be more effective at your time and efforts on LinkedIn. And, you believe you can have fun while learning. I mean, obviously. Otherwise, what the heck are you doing considering buying a book called, Social Media Pie. That’s crazy talk, right? Or is it BRILLIANT? Probably a bit of both. In Social Media Pie: How to Enjoy a Bigger Slice of LinkedIn, Brenda Meller will share strategies to help you make the most of your LinkedIn presence to help you to reach your business and career goals. In this book, you’ll learn how to:
Adjust your settings to maximize your visibility and reach
Optimize your LinkedIn profile
Create a powerful invitation that’s more likely to be accepted and screen in invitations while creating dialog
Generate greater levels of network engagement
Post (and how often to post) — and what to do NEXT
Build a company page and grow followers (LEADS!)
Rock on LinkedIn in just 15 minutes a day
Through a conversational approach, how-to instructions, and a sprinkling of pie-isms throughout, Brenda will teach you how to increase your slice of the LinkedIn pie. With over 50,000 LinkedIn followers, a LinkedIn Social Selling Index (SSI) of 88, nearly 8,000 profile views in the past 90 days and an awesome LinkedIn network, she shows you how anyone with a strong desire to improve their results on LinkedIn — and an open mind for shining the spotlight on others — can supercharge their LinkedIn presence.
“I retain the right to be moved by those little things nobody notices.” – Bernadette (Cate Blanchett) in Where’d You Go, Bernadette?
My favorite part of the Christmas to New Year’s gauntlet? Those empty days when the sky is gray and there are no obligations, and you can sit around in your sweatpants, shell-shocked and comatose from the holiday frenzy, vegetating in front of a movie or television screen (or both!).
“People will believe anything if you’re properly dressed.” – The Man Who Invented Christmas’ Charles Dickens (Dan Stevens), repeating advice his father John Dickens (Jonathan Pryce) taught him
Cats. O, Cats. Listen, it’s a weird effing show (read more here) that should have never been the success it was. And the lemming-like behavior that led audiences to fuel its decades long stage success is the same lemming-like behavior that is leading people to scorn the film in droves now. The film is a logical outgrowth of its goof-a$$ origins, and, by that low bar, it’s perfectly fine. Passably entertaining even. So, everyone STOP piling on because it’s fun to make fun of something you SHOULD have scorned in 1981. Too late now! Director Tom Hooper (Les Miserables) brings some inventiveness here and there, but as Rum Tum Tugger (a mush-mouthed Jason Derulo) might observe, it tends to get lost “in a horrible muddle.”
The human faces on CGI cat bodies are disconcerting (mostly in how they kind of float around and drift a bit), but I found the un-CGI’d human hands and feet even more repulsive. Rebel Wilson (Jenny Anydots) should not be allowed anywhere near a musical. Or a piano. Or karaoke. Or cockroaches. The group dance numbers should have all been cut, as pseudo-ballet is pretty but not much fun to watch in the cinema, and Hooper’s approach to filming said numbers is by turns monotonous and disorienting. Imagine Michael Bay’s Transformers singing disco-synth, day-glo show tunes.
Buried under the muck, there are decent performances yearning to break free. Ian McKellen is heartbreaking and campy as Gus the Theatre Cat. James Corden is James Corden! as Bustopher Jones (though his number has about 8 reprises too many). Judi Dench makes a really pretty Persian Cat – who knew she had the face for it? Her Old Deuteronomy has a few good zingers, and she looks really fine lounging in a wicker basket. Idris Elba (MacAvity) and Taylor Swift (Bombalurina) should take their act on the road, hitting nightclubs across the land and wearing cat-style footie pajamas. Jennifer Hudson skulks and sulks nicely as Grizabella (even if showstopper “Memory” gets thrown into an editing Cuisinart by Hooper). Surprising no one, the British dance-trained unknowns Steven McRae (Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat), Robert Fairchild (Munkustrap), and Laurie Davidson (Mr. Mistoffeles) escape with the most dignity, lending pathos to t.s. eliot’s clever wordplay and lithe movement to their feline character work.
As my mother noted, the filmmakers would have been so much better off just crafting this as an animated film, a la The Aristocats or Lady & the Tramp. But, no. That would have made sense. And, while Cats may be “forever,” it has never made one lick of sense. Meow.
“Morals don’t sell nowadays.” – Jo (Saoirse Ronan) in Little Women
Ain’t that the damn truth? And no one knows that better than the political puppet masters over at FOX News. New movie Bombshelldepicts the downfall of FOX head Roger Ailes (creepy good John Lithgow, who is no Loudest Voice in the Room‘s Russell Crowe, however). Ailes is brought low by decades of sexual misconduct, bullying, ugliness, and sheer thuggishness. Today, we’d reward that behavior by making him President of the United States.
The film is good, though lacking the depth of other treatments (namely Loudest Voice on Showtime). Go for Charlize Theron’s uncanny take on Megyn Kelly. Stay for the popcorn zip of director Jay Roach’s takedown of the hypocritical/toxic right wing media. Margot Robbie is remarkable as a production assistant torn between her ambition and her tenuous grasp on integrity. In other words, she fits right in in the FOX newsroom. Kate McKinnon is acerbic fun as Margot’s cubicle-mate, and Nicole Kidman does her best version of Nicole Kidman-as-befuddled-ice-queen as Gretchen Carlson, who first brings charges against Ailes. Some have worried that the film makes heroes of the unheroic, Kelly and Carlson and their ilk being as complicit in the rise of this Trumpian nation-state as anyone. Charles Randolph’s script doesn’t let them off the hook, in my opinion, and Roach’s swirling direction keeps the audience from feeling too much empathy for anyone.
“I’m sorry. I don’t know secular music.” – Bombshell‘s Kayla (Margot Robbie), a production assistant who mixes up images of The Eagles’ Don Henley and Glenn Frey during a FOX News broadcast
Who has two thumbs and is finally suffering from Star Wars fatigue? THIS guy. Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is full of sound and fury, signifying … meh. It is overlong, derivative, and convoluted, and, while director J. J. Abrams pulls far too many threads together in a reasonably satisfying way, Skywalker just isn’t very thrilling. The film feels like homework: “I’ve seen eight of these things, and watched a grab bag of spin-offs and tv shows, so I guess I have to see how this thing ends.” Thank heavens for Adam Driver (Kylo Ren) and Daisey Ridley (Rey) who deserve a much better script but do yeoman’s work making something, anything seem interesting.
I didn’t love Last Jedi, the previous film in the series, but at least I felt, in that instance, that there was a plan and a strong artistic vision. Skywalker seems like it was focus-grouped with a bunch of Orlando tourists, hopped up on churros and Red Bull, after riding Space Mountain a dozen times. Truth be told. I just didn’t care. I know these films are fairy tale nonsense, Saturday-morning serials on big budget steroids. I love that about Star Wars, but, to succeed, to truly succeed, these flicks need to be fun and rollicking and light as air, so you happily look past the broad leaps of logic and common sense. Rise of Skywalker is anything but fun or light or rollicking, so all you are left with is a plateful of plot holes … and regret.
We Star Wars fans may seem nitpicky. Perhaps these movies were best left in the murky fog of childhood remembrance, but if Jon Favreau can evoke this perfect balance of whimsy and comic book gravitas in TV’s The Mandalorian, why can’t this be accomplished on the silver screen again as well? Disney has come closest with their entries in the Star Wars Stories anthology films, notably Rogue Oneand arguably Solo. Let’s hope Disney/Lucasfilm puts a pause button on these movies for awhile, learns some tough lessons from wise Baby Yoda, and gives their film strategy a good rethink. We’ll be waiting, getting older and fatter, but still buying action figures.
“Make sure she’s married by the end. Or dead. … Girls want to see women marry. Not [be] consistent!” – Jo’s publisher (Tracey Letts) in Little Women
Yet, I don’t suffer from Little Women fatigue, and, by all rights, we should be finished with cinematic and televised depictions of this oft-told tale of the plucky March sisters, surviving and thriving in Civil War-era America. The latest iteration, written and directed with postmodern aplomb by Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird), is a marvel.
The film is exquisite – a smart, sharp update for contemporary sensibilities, without losing the familiar story beats. Unencumbered by linear chronology (the film operates as a series of flashbacks while Jo challenges the limited sensibilities of her era’s publishing industry), Gerwig reimagines Little Women to render inexorable its keys messages of agency, humanism, imagination, independence, and hope.
Among the cast, of course Saoirse Ronan is dynamite as Jo, never losing the spirit or authenticity of the era but painting a clear-eyed portrait of a human being gobsmacked by the artificial limitations society imposes on her gender. The more things change. …
Meryl Streep as Aunt March downplays that character’s sometimes arch control and sour disappointment, offering an aunt as amused as aggravated by the changing mores around her. Laura Dern is the quintessential Marmee, warm and flinty and kind. Chris Cooper is lovable and loving as the March family’s wealthy neighbor, and Timothee Chalamet puts his innate insouciance to good use as Laurie.
The revelation, though, is Florence Pugh as Amy, avoiding the pouty, flouncy pitfalls of other portrayals, turning a bright spotlight on a woman tired of being left behind, refreshingly unapologetic in the choices she (logically) makes, given the cards she’s dealt.
Much will be written about the film’s ending, which borrows a bit (knowingly?) from the Broadway musical. Where does Gerwig actually leave the March sisters? At a sun-dappled picnic, happily betrothed, teaching the young and raising their own families? Or, with Jo as a fully-realized free-agent, unburdened, accomplished, and ready to change this world for the better? Or a mix of both? This film is essential viewing, and one of the best movies this year.
“Don’t get sucked into a fight with someone who has better reason to be in it than you do.” – Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) in Bombshell
Outside of the cinema, we also caught some great flicks now on home video or streaming/cable. The House with a Clock in Its Walls is a welcome, wholesome throwback to the ABC Afterschool Special and Wonderful World of Disney broadcasts of yore.
Based on a series of novels from the early 70s (inspired by a gothic mansion in Marshall, Michigan), Clock stars Jack Black and Cate Blanchett at their most understated. Save for a CGI-filled denouement that gets a bit manic, the movie is a lighter-than-air soufflé of a fantasy period piece. Young Lewis (accessible, likable, kind Owen Vaccaro) is orphaned and is sent to live with his eccentric Uncle Jonathan (Black, almost unrecognizable in his quietly nuanced turn). Jonathan happens to be a warlock with a sorceress bestie (Blanchett, also nicely underplaying). Black and Blanchett seem like they stepped right off the set of 1958’s Bell, Book, and Candle – which is high praise – and I surely hope they get to make more installments in this series.
The Man Who Invented Christmasuses the inspiration behind Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol to inform, instruct, and inspire, thereby breathing new life into this over-adapted classic. Dickens (a wry and winsome Dan Stevens of Beauty and the Beast) is challenged to maintain his humanity in the face of a commercial machine that crushes souls and torches family ties.
His reclamation of his own voice and of his own industriousness is tied inextricably to his reconciliation of a past that haunts him and of a present that buffets him – not unlike what befalls Ebenezer Scrooge (a brilliant and twinkling Christopher Plummer). Jonathan Pryce deftly balances heartbreak, disappointment, and yearning as Dickens’ embattled father. The production, directed with a sure hand by Bharat Nalluri from a layered and literate script by Susan Coyne, is a breath of fresh air in an increasingly cliched holiday season.
Where’d You Go,Bernadette?,directed by Richard Linklater, is a beautiful film, light and poignant, a loving treatment of lost souls rediscovering their moorings and of the special challenges those with creative brains can experience in this judgmental world. Cate Blanchett as Bernadette and Kristin Wiig as her long-suffering “mean girl” neighbor both bring their A-game to the enterprise.
There is a pivotal sequence in the film wherein Bernadette’s heartbroken free-spiritedness finally runs afoul of the pragmatic realities of day-to-day living. Laurence Fishburne, as a former architectural colleague of Bernadette’s, and Judy Greer, as a therapist hired by Bernadette’s husband Elgin (the always reliable Billy Crudup), in parallel/intercut conversations with Bernadette and Elgin respectively, discuss the couple’s situation.
Fishburne and Greer’s characters share seemingly contradictory theses: Fishburne’s that Bernadette’s departure from a creative work life has atrophied her spirit and her mind and Greer’s that Bernadette has had a break from reality brought on by environmental change. In reality the truth is somewhere in between, and Emma Nelson, in a bright and affecting turn as Bernadette’s and Elgin’s daughter Bee, explicates clearly how her parents have drifted from what she once knew them to be, simultaneously appreciative of their distinctive quirks and gifts. Fishburne and Greer are both marvelous, as well, avoiding caricature or presumption, walking a fine line between compassion and bemusement.
As the film works toward its resolution, which as evidenced by the trailers includes Bernadette voyaging to Antarctica, her family finds healing, as they embrace the spark that makes Bernadette an individual while balancing the collective needs that will re-center their lives. The seemingly screwball comedy elements of the film may lead viewers to miss the important nuance here. Not dissimilarly to Joker, Where’d You Go, Bernadette? offers a sensitive and empathetic portrayal of how the intersection of emotion, intellect, and environment impacts us all.
“No one is useless in this life who lightens the burdens of another.” – The Man Who Invented Christmas’ Charles Dickens (Dan Stevens), repeating advice his father John Dickens (Jonathan Pryce) taught him
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 email@example.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.
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
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
Roy Sexton – $2,888
PJ Jacokes – $1,673
Dr. Carlos Ramirez -$1,438
Jonathan Burt – $1,301
Brad Lukas – $1,286
Brendan Russow – $1,208
Mike Lawson – $1,190
Dave Spencer – $575
Jim Stocking – $450
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.
“Oh, I went to the emergency room last night. They took me from the veterinarian’s in an ambulance. The EMS boy looked like Aquaman.” – Susie Duncan Sexton
Wait. What?! So began a phone call with my mother about a month ago. To clarify a few things: no, she does not receive her health care AT the veterinarian BUT got light-headed while she was there and, then … nearly passed out. And, no, Jason Momoa is not moonlighting for Whitley County EMS, but my mom is threatening to call 911 again, just so she can hang with the young man who apparently bears a striking resemblance to Game of Thrones’ Khal Drogo.
My mom has gone through a battery of tests over the past month, and the good news is that her exuberance for life and her candor and her irreverence have apparently served her well physically in that an army of doctors have found no issues of concern. As my mother notes, “I don’t want to go into that medical world if I don’t have to.” Who can blame her? I do wish she wouldn’t have such a propensity to read and believe all of the side effects listed on any and all medications, but, hell, that wariness has likely served her quite well in this pharmacologically reckless culture.
What my mother has learned from this experience is that when others don’t listen or behave like outright jackholes, it can cause her to experience justified exasperation to the point of plummeting-elevator-wooziness. I think too many of us are still trying to learnthat lesson.
“At 46, I’m coming to the realization that I want life to be less about ‘stuff.’ I’ve had so much fun collecting and gathering and accumulating, but now it all just feels like a weight around my neck.” – Roy Sexton
Two weekends ago, I went to visit my parents. After her chance encounter with a hunky Momoa-look-alike, life flashed before my mother’s eyes, and she wanted to call a family meeting to discuss our “plan.” Note: we are NOT a “family meeting” kind of family, and we might have “plans” but for some reason we don’t actually share them. We are more of a “something unanticipated just happened so let’s light our hair on fire” kind of family. My mother has always been the one who says the things that need to be said but aren’t always heard. This time, it felt like my father and I stopped being idiots long enough to listen. I was cautiously optimistic that we might talk about what the future could hold. And, then …
“I’m getting up at 10 am tomorrow to take the LaCrosse in to trade for an Impala.” – Don Sexton
Unclear if that was invitation for me to assist in the car-buying process or not, but I volunteered to tagalong on a task that has pretty much eluded me my entire adult life. I inherited a hand-me-down Buick Century from my grandmother when I was in college. My parents were kind enough to buy me a Honda Civic when I was in graduate school. Then, I was wise enough to marry an automotive engineer, and I never set foot in an auto dealership again.
My father used to call on auto dealers across northern Indiana in the late 80s when he was a lending officer for Merchants National Bank. He knows a thing or two about this world; the finer points of operating an iPad may befuddle him but he knows his Carfax from his Kelley Blue Book. Nonetheless, the game of buying a car remains one rife with swaggering toxic masculinity.
“I’m sorry. With whom am I negotiating on this? You or your dad or John,” whined the auto salesman as I handed him my cell phone and asked him to work everything out with an auto engineer stationed at his home computer in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
My father and I both gestured toward the phone and then promptly closed our traps. The best way to cut through toxic masculinity? Introduce a well-informed curve ball who doesn’t cotton to preening peacocks. We walked out of there with a gently used Ford Fusion at a third of the expected price, paid in cash, leaving behind a small army of Dockers-wearing salesmen scratching their heads.
“Good. I’m glad John got involved. He reminds me of me. When he gets to talk about what he loves, he’s unstoppable.” – Susie Sexton, upon our return.
You see, all along, my mom had suggested their ancient Buick LaCrosse needed a retirement. My mom is the one saying, “Can we slow down and just take care of the things we love before time is completely gone?” My mom is the one urging people to live their best lives and to enjoy the moments they are in. My mom is the one asking for authentic conversation that isn’t transmitted via digital device in tweets, texts, and cynical memes.
KNOCK! KNOCK! “We’re at the door here for breakfast and swimming and to tell you our plan.” – my parents at my hotel room door the last morning of my weekend visit. (I may have asked for them to call before heading over … that didn’t happen.)
At some point in the past couple of years, my parents and I transitioned to that mid-stage milestone of the child (gleefully) staying at a hotel when he/she comes to visit said parents. It’s not meant to be rude or controlling, but as one ages, as one becomes set in their ways, as one’s midsection grows more pear-shaped … the idea of retreating to a hotel room, collapsing in a heap, and breathing solitary air at the end of a day’s family visit carries a touch of appeal.
And my parents get to come use the pool like two 12-year-olds who’ve just run away from home.
Here’s the thing: those two 12-year-olds who these days spend as much time plotting each other’s demise as they do reflecting wistfully on their 50 (!) years of wedded “bliss,” came bounding into my room, speaking a mile a minute, finishing each other’s sentences, sharing their “plan” with me. I was half awake and a little cranky, but their zeal was a tonic.
And that plan? It’s a pretty good one. It’s not for me to tell, but I feel good about the future. Possibly for the first time ever. You see, I have a vision of the fun we will have, reminiscent of those special days I lived at home and had nary a care in the world, other than what cartoons were airing on Saturday morning or passing an algebra test. And that vision is shared. That makes all the difference.
It was quite an honor to offer the keynote address alongside ProfessionalMovers.com’s spectacular Andrew Androff at last week’s Sterling Heights Regional Chamber of Commerce/Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses Sales & Marketing Conference. Video of my presentation “How to Win the Room (When You’d Rather Stay Home)” courtesy the lovely Brenda Meller of Meller Marketing: https://youtu.be/xnvDZFDYGI8
I adore Brenda whose kindness and generosity know no bounds. She authentically cares and celebrates. That is a rare quality. And thanks to the equally loving and supportive Heather Morse-Geller who got this ball rolling with a lovely post last year and to my sweet friend Blaine D. Fowler for reading it aloud at this very conference (same day it was posted, in fact, when HE gave the keynote).
Thank you, Melanie Hughes Davis and Sterling Heights Regional Chamber of Commerce for this fantastic opportunity. #BeARoySexton😊❤️
When you have a dear friend who is absolutely gaga for a musical group, you go to a concert with him. Part of the joy is watching him share something that means so much. Now, I admit I am not your typical KISS concert-goer. Furthermore, I should note that as a child wandering through record stores with my audiophile parents I found myself rather terrified of those four nerdy New York City boys with a fetish for Kabuki make up and superhero tropes. I am pretty certain I can blame their album covers for my lifelong fear of clowns.
Yet, here I was at Detroit‘s spectacular, state-of-the-art Little Caesars Arena, singing along at the top of my lungs beside my friend Blaine to such ubiquitous pop rock hits as “Beth,” “Rock-n-Roll All Nite (Party Every Day)” – not “part OF every day” as I used to believe – “Detroit Rock City,” “Heaven’s On Fire,” and “I Was Made for Lovin’ You.” In fact, that last number – so swanky, so disco, a little bit Blondie, a whole lot Donna Summer – was the highlight of the set for me. However, I detected from all of the seated KISS fans that this particular ditty was not exactly one of their top tier requests. Paul Stanley had to exclaim, “This is one of our biggest international hits!” Emphasis on international.
What I never realized about a KISS show is how sweet-natured the whole enterprise is. All I ever knew were images of Gene Simmons’ reptilian tongue and bat wings and platform boots. But the crowd was about as gracious and polite as could be, many of them dressed up in makeshift versions of their favorite band members’ costumes. It was like hair metal comic-con.
I also never realized, or perhaps this is a late in life development, that front man Paul Stanley is some strange cross between Bette Davis, Bugs Bunny, and Dr. Frank-n-Furter. And Gene Simmons is his Joan Crawford/Elmer Fudd/Id. They are both oddly hypnotic … and utterly adorable. I guess it makes a kind of sense as Gene is pals with Cher and Liza Minnelli, even managing Liza’s career toward an epically camp collaboration with the Pet Shop Boys in the late 80s. Don’t drop bombs, indeed.
And just when you think the entire show is veering off into some unhinged Transylvanian borscht-belt-vaudeville-on-crack self-indulgence, these boys bring an awe-inspiring martial musicality. Drummer Eric Singer and guitarist Tommy Thayer are insanely talented musicians – Buddy Rich and Jimi Hendrix in grease paint. To be honest, I was floored … and Blaine was validated.
It’s clear that it troubles the band that what they have gained in worldwide success has never been offset with total credibility or artistic respect. They even mentioned their appreciation for Detroit fans who have stood by them through thick and thin, even as it took them multiple attempts to make it into the Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame. Jealousy is jealousy, and it hurts no matter your level of notoriety or achievement.
I haven’t even touched on the spectacle of it all. The staging was electric, with no end of pyrotechnics, floating platforms, fog machines, video displays, and gauche Vegas glitz. KISS leaves it all on the field. After 45 years of complete commitment to their adoring audience, the impending retirement implied by this self-proclaimed “Final Tour Ever” seems well-deserved.
Well, Blaine, you’ve got a new recruit for the #KissArmy. Incredible show! Photos here … assorted video clips follow.
Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital).
Laramie Project review originally published by Encore Michigan here.
[Image Source: The Ringwald’s Facebook page]
The Ringwald Theatre’s 2018-19 season opener The Laramie Project is not a production that needs to be reviewed. It is a production that needs to be viewed. It is a production that essentially illustrates (beyond question) that the most impactful theatre requires very little: words, voice, people, movement. Storytelling in its truest form. As an audience member, I haven’t cried like I did opening night of Laramie Project in years (if ever).
At the end of act one, I was a puddle, with two acts to go, and, by the time the performance wrapped, I was red-eyed, gutted, mad-as-hell, and cautiously hopeful. It’s that good. I suppose some projection was involved on my part. I was roughly Matthew Shepard’s age when he was savagely brutalized and murdered. I grew up and attended college in Indiana, which, as Mike Pence’s political ascent will attest, is a state not unlike Wyoming – more Handmaid’s Tale than Moulin Rouge.
That notwithstanding, The Ringwald’s production of Laramie Project is a slow-burn powerhouse.
The play written by Moises Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theater Project assembles first-person narratives from hundreds of interviews with Laramie townspeople, University of Wyoming faculty members, friends of Matthew’s, and the Tectonic Theater’s actors themselves. The narrative roughly follows this arc: defining Shepard’s humanity and upbringing, detailing the incidents of that tragic evening, and assessing its aftermath, all in the words of narrators both reliable and not. It is up to the audience to sort the wheat from the chaff and to make sense of a society where such irrational cruelty can occur. The approach is as journalistic as it is theatrical, and the topic is (sadly) as timely today as it was when the piece was written in 2000.
Director Brandy Joe Plambeck has assembled an empathetic, deep-feeling, yet commanding cast to perform dozens of roles: Joe Bailey, Greg Eldridge, Kelly Komlen, Sydney Lepora, Joel Mitchell, Taylor Morrow, Gretchen Schock, and Mike Suchyta. Rarely does this stellar group miss a beat, and Plambeck wisely eschews distractingly overt theatricality for a stripped down readers’ theatre approach. The emphasis is quite literally on the words on the page, and, as the details mount, both performers and audience are swept into a hurricane of emotion, of indignation, and of heartbreak.
As for those tears of mine? Well, Lepora and Bailey are the chief culprits, tasked to deliver some of the more devastating speeches and historical detail. They resist the temptation to indulge their characters’ raw emotions in a broad, selfish, “actorly” way. Rather, they quite realistically and subtly show their characters desperately trying (and failing) to stifle and contain their confusion, their anguish, their rage. And that damming of emotion, only to see the floodgates fail, is what cuts an audience to the quick.
Suchyta is quite effective as a series of “Wyoming” alpha men, from a star theatre student to a local bar owner to Shepard’s tormentors Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson. Mitchell is a sparkplug, breathing bold strokes life into the play’s few comic moments as a surprisingly insightful cab driver, and Morrow does a fine job balancing characters both reprehensible (local “mean girls” who basically imply Shepard deserved his fate) and painfully noble (one of the very few out-and-proud lesbian faculty members at the University of Wyoming).
That said, I hate to single out any performances, because this is an ensemble show in the truest sense of the word, and everyone is excellent. Plambeck paces the show in a measured but never ponderous way. The costuming is minimal, stage directions and character names are read by Plambeck, and scene changes/location names are projected on the back wall of the space. This approach results in a production that places the emphasis squarely where it belongs – on the voices of the people who experienced this tragedy and on a nation that both evolved and devolved as a result. Don’t miss this production.
“I’m so Chinese I’m an economics professor with lactose intolerance.” – Crazy Rich Asians
The other week we saw the film Crazy Rich Asians. Somehow life got in the way of me writing anything at length about the film, which is a shame because it is quite exceptional. Let me say this: while it was marketed as a wall-to-wall laugh riot a la Bridesmaids, it shares more with that film’s DNA than just riotous shenanigans.
Don’t get me wrong, Crazy Rich Asians has its fair share of zaniness, chiefly supplied by sparkling comedienne Awkwafina, but like Bridesmaids, that tomfoolery belies a gentler, sweeter, yet exceptionally subversive core. It’s been 20-some years since Hollywood produced a film starring an all-Asian cast (the far inferior Joy Luck Club), and the box office success of Crazy Rich Asians will hopefully inspire a bit of sea change where Asian representation in Tinseltown is concerned. Money matters (sadly).
Crazy Rich Asians is part fair tale fantasy, part light comedy, part soap opera, all heart. Luminous Constance Wu arrives a fully formed movie star as Rachel Wu, a whip-smart economics professor in New York whose life is turned upside down when she learns her longtime boyfriend Nick Young (a dashing Henry Golding) is in actuality Singapore real estate royalty. As Rachel runs the gauntlet of Henry’s wackadoo family members – including a sympathetically subtle turn by Michelle Yeoh as Henry’s fearful and controlling mother Eleanor – Wu reveals varied layers of heartache and resilience. It’s a thoughtful performance, understated and thereby likely to be unfairly overlooked come awards season, but nonetheless an exceptional depiction of female frustration and agency in this maddening modern era.
Catch this film while still in theaters or on home video shortly.
[Yes, a window into my musical taste.]
Blaine Fowler’s AmericaMy friend Blaine Fowler is a brilliant, witty, and delightful radio DJ here in metro Detroit on WDVD 96.3 FM. His morning show is a top-rated listen in this market. He and his wife Colleen are also among the kindest people you’ll have the chance to meet with two lovely and successful children. But one of his greatest loves is music. I wrote a bit about his last iTunes album 49783 here.
His latest release America was just posted on iTunes and Amazon for download.The whole album is divine. More cohesive sonically and rawer lyrically than the prior one, with an almost “song cycle” effect and an evocative moodiness. I liked it very much. Highlights include “Love Is” (a trippy throwback to Prince at his Minneapolis peak), “Reach,” “Oval Beach,” and “Best Friend.” This is an impressive evolution, which is saying something as I very much enjoyed Blaine’s previous effort. Keep it up. And keep experimenting. My two cents.
Freeman Means Business
This week, my friend and fellow legal marketer Susan Freeman interviewed me for her podcast. She writes, “Check out the latest great conversation about the life of a legal marketer from our ‘Peer Pod’ podcast featuring Roy Sexton, a real dynamo — and a reel dynamo too!” Click here or here.
“Be patient. Listen to those with experience in areas that are new or foreign to you. Don’t be afraid to be your authentic self. People WILL respond.” Thank you, Susan!
This concept couldn’t be more important in our tumultuous times. “Disruption” is the word of the day, and, man, are we ever disrupted.
Of course, we see this culturally and politically, but we also see it in our legal industry. Technology brings amazing advances, efficiencies, and “super powers” we never knew we could possess. Would I have imagined 20 years ago, I would have a device in my pocket and social networks therein that would allow me to access friends and experts around the globe in an instant? Nope.
[Image Source: Wikipedia]
However, this technology also brings great change. As the music industry, the print media industry, the photography industry, and many others have all witnessed, technology can cause customer migration, profit erosion, infrastructural change, and wholesale business model reinvention.
We in the legal space have known for years that this is coming for us – at what speed and in what fashion is still being determined. We are living in our own history right now, and we won’t see the forest for the trees for quite a while. However, we as marketing and communications and strategy and business development professionals must be on the forefront of these conversations, must embrace the new ideas, must socialize them within our organizations, and must be active participants in the writing of that history.
Fine, Roy. So where does Paddington come in?
Empathy and understanding and listening are crucial business skills that are too often dismissed as “soft.” Yet, having finely calibrated emotional antennae helps us predict the future and navigate the present. Culture eats strategy for lunch. A cliché but an apt one. Without accurately assessing the anxiety ridden waters in which we swim and finding ways to engage and allay our partners’ emotional pain points, we will never achieve the organizational focus required to create lasting, meaningful change.
[Image Source: Wikipedia]
The next time you are in a heated conversation with partners over an issue close to your heart, stay calm, stay empathetic, stay committed, and don’t meet their energy at a heightened level. Underplay it, keep the facts on your side, and use empathy: why are they arguing your idea? why are they pushing back? Trust me, it’s not to torture you. Don’t make it about you.
First, lawyers learn through argumentation. That’s how they burnish ideas. Also, the money you spend, at the end of the day, comes out of their pockets. Understand that business model and appreciate it. Further, change isn’t easy for any of us. Who has bought an exercise book somehow thinking it will magically transfer abs to them without actually following the prescribed routines? This guy for one. Knowing that none of us want to change but that we must change, take the time to understand your partners’ histories, training, experiences and how all of that will impact their willingness to adopt the very ideas they must adopt to survive.
And first and foremost, be kind and polite (even if others aren’t … and especially if others aren’t). The world will be right.
[Image Source: Wikipedia]
This is why I go to LMA’s annual conference: my energy and emotional “work reservoir” are replenished being around like-minded professionals.
I learn new skills and trends and issues facing us all, not just in the sessions but in the hallway chatter and the cocktail parties and the late night coffee runs.
In fact, do not flee the social interaction or run off to take a conference call in your downtime. Talk to people, learn from them, include them.
LMA can feel like the biggest clique in the world. It ain’t.
[Image Source: Wikipedia]
It’s just that we don’t get to see each other that often, and, for new people, it can seem like we don’t want you to play our reindeer games. Nothing could be farther from the truth. I was one of those new people (what feels like yesterday), but I tweeted and I facebook’d and I got out of my own head and I approached people.
And we old guard, in turn, need to be mindful and empathetic about what it was like to be “new.” Be kind. Be polite. Be supportive. Be inclusive. Those skills will serve you well at LMA, at your firms, and in life.
So says Paddington Bear.
Wow! Thank you, Blaine Fowler! He read this piece by Heather Morse at the Sterling Heights Chamber/Chemical Bank Sales & Marketing Conference. Thanks to Joan Giffels for capturing. And Heather for making me a hashtag. I feel pretty damn special this week. #bearoysexton#bearoysextonchallenge#lmamkt
Second version, captured by Brenda Meller of Meller Marketing and Social Media below …
________________________ [My street cred follows … ] _____________________
Roy Sexton is responsible for leading Kerr Russell’s marketing, business development, communications, and strategic planning efforts.
He has nearly 20 years of experience in marketing, communications, business development, and strategic planning, having worked at Deloitte Consulting, Oakwood Healthcare (now Beaumont), Trott Law (formerly Trott & Trott), and St. Joseph Mercy Health System. He has been heavily involved regionally and nationally in the Legal Marketing Association as a board member, content expert, and presenter. He is treasurer-elect currently for the Legal Marketing Association’s Midwest Regional Board of Directors.
He earned his Bachelor’s degree from Wabash College, and holds two masters degrees: an MA in theatre from The Ohio State University and an MBA from the University of Michigan. He is a graduate of Leadership Detroit and Leadership A2Y, was a governor-appointed member of the Michigan Council of Labor and Economic Growth, and was appointed to the Michigan Mortgage Lenders Association Board of Governors in 2012.
He served as an at-large member of LMA’s Midwest Regional Board, served on the advisory committee for Strategies Magazine, and was a member of the Social Media SIG steering group. He has been involved on the following nonprofit boards and committees: First Step, Michigan Quality Council, National MS Society, ASPCA, Wabash College Southeast Michigan Alumni Association, Penny Seats Theatre Company and the Spotlight Players. He currently sits on the boards of Ronald McDonald House Charities of Ann Arbor, Royal Starr Film Festival (Royal Oak, Michigan) and encoremichigan.com. He is a published author with two books Reel Roy Reviews, Volumes 1 & 2.
Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital).
“Boy Bands who dance make more money,” 98 Degrees’ Nick Lachey observed wryly during a pre-show Q&A at Detroit’s Sound Board in the Motor City Casino on Sunday, December 16. The band was in town with their holiday music tour At Christmas, supporting their recent album Let It Snow. This is their second volume of Christmas tunes, the first being 1999’s This Christmas.
Nick’s answer followed a question about what the 40-somethings (Nick Lachey, his brother Drew Lachey, Jeff Timmons, and Justin Jeffre) would say if they could talk to their younger selves 20 years ago during the band’s seminal days. The other band member answered variations of “just enjoy this, don’t worry so much, and have fun.” Nick’s answer got the biggest laughs for candor and practicality. He surmised, if only he’d allowed himself to be choreographed more or dangle from a trapeze or do back flips, he’d have Justin Timberlake’s career. (Ironic, since his brother Drew was an early winner on ABC’s Dancing With the Stars.)
It was this very inclusive humility that made the boys-to-middle-aged-men so endearing Sunday night. At the mid-point in most pop music careers, there seem to be three doors from which to choose: 1) recycle your own hits before smaller-and-smaller venues; 2) start cranking out “standards collections” (do we really need any more covers of “Someone to Watch Over Me”?); 3) grab a particular holiday and ride the wheels off it (thank you, Perry Como). 98 Degrees have wisely chosen the last option which suits their bromantic ski-lodge cocoa-sipping aesthetic very nicely.
We wisely chose the “VIP upgrade” Sunday night which afforded us a sound check performance, the aforementioned Q&A, a photo op meet-and-greet, and a thoughtfully arrayed “swag bag” (autographed poster, ornament, etc.). I would recommend that to anyone seeing them live. Behind-the-scenes (as well as onstage) they were self-effacing, gracious, and altogether charming. I suspect this hard-earned humility came from years of living in- and out-side the spotlight, both as a vocal group that was generally and unfairly overshadowed by Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC and as solo reality television stars (chagrined George Burns-esque hubby Nick, gold-plated hoofer Drew, and Magic Mike-ish Svengali Jeff) and occasional politicians (thank you, progressive Justin).
As for the show? It’s pretty exceptional. The winsomeness on display informally is manifest in a stage presence that is professional and rehearsed, inclusive and loose and confidently casual, with nary a hint of swagger, and with an authentic appreciation for the fact that people in the audience are still willing to shell out some cash at the holidays to see these Cincinnati kids sing and (sort of) dance. (This is actually our third time seeing them live – once in 2000, and during their first reunion tour in 2013.)
Backed by a strong rhythm section, keyboards, and backing vocalists, 98 Degrees breeze through two hours of holiday music and greatest hits, including a daffy and endearing Disney medley that includes their Stevie Wonder duet from Mulan “True to Your Heart” as well as a take on “Let It Go” (Frozen) that only proud, lightly woke Gen X fathers-of-young-daughters could perform and a breathtaking “Circle of Life” from The Lion King.
“Little Drummer Boy” gets a much needed beat-box refresh; Joni Mitchell’s “River” becomes a sonorous but no less poignant pop anthem; “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” (which we learned was their Motown Records audition song twenty years ago) is given new life as a creamy and rich a cappella number; and their own hit “Una Noche” gets a fizzy infusion of “Feliz Navidad.”
I’m not a fan of holiday music. I think it’s all been run into the ground, and any time a new carol comes along, department store Muzak and pop radio eviscerate its novelty within mere minutes of its arrival. Consequently, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed hearing “Mary, Did You Know?” or “Run Rudolph Run” sincerely delivered by capable vocalists taking the music but not themselves too seriously.
Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. If these boys dedicate their remaining swoon-worthy days to a career of cardigans and holiday doo wop, I’ll gladly follow along. And that is totally unlike me, so well done, lads, well done.
While I’m recommending holiday (and other) entertainment …
We saw the Barn Theatre’s holiday cabaret during its opening weekend and really enjoyed it. Maybe I’m not such a Grinch after all. From talented critic and pal Marin Heinritz – “It all feels like an intimate family affair — the way we perhaps imagine the holidays to be in our dreams, where everyone is beautiful and happy and talented and welcome; and folks full of love and cheer get together to make merry and shine bright in honor of something much larger than us.” Read her review here.
And my buddy Blaine Fowler, host of the daily Blaine Fowler Morning Show, released a great album 49783 on iTunes and Amazon about a month or so ago in time for his birthday. I’ve been listening to it for awhile, and as I mentioned to him in a text, “Loving it! I’m hearing the influences of Led Zeppelin, Stewart Copeland of the Police, Corey Hart, Rush, a little Maroon 5, Bryan Adams, and The Kinks. Yet, uniquely your own. Production is polished where it should be and rough hewn and funky where not. Your voice is featured nicely as well with catchy at times haunting melodies and heartfelt lyrics.” Check it out!
And because we were at the concert last night, I have not had a chance yet to watch Fox’s live broadcast of A Christmas Story: The Musical – directed by Scott Ellis (She Loves Me, Mystery of Edwin Drood), in fact, the uncle of Blaine Fowler’s cohost Lauren Crocker.
My mom Susie Duncan Sexton offered her enthusiastic take: “It was excellent and clever and added some sensitive-oriented stuff. Great Busby Berkeley-type numbers. Loved all of the three main women and Matthew Broderick…clever use of him to the max. The little boy looks like Jane Krakowski but she makes a darling teacher and Maya and Ana are great. Bully boy quite interesting…little brother looks like Ned Beatty. The story being musicalized gives it true zing.” It got Susie’s seal of approval! I look forward to catching up with this one later this week on the DVR.