“No day like today.” The Barn Theatre’s 2017 production of Rent

 

“To days of inspiration/Playing hooky, making/Something out of nothing/The need to express/To communicate,/To going against the grain,/Going insane, going mad/To loving tension, no pension/To more than one dimension,/To starving for attention,/Hating convention, hating pretension.”

– “La Vie Boheme” from Rent, Jonathan Larson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning musical.

 

When Rent hit the musical theatre scene, it created a seismic shift, a middle finger to convention, not far afield from what Nirvana did to rock music a few years earlier with Nevermind or what Alan Moore’s Watchmen did to comics even a few years before that. We didn’t really know the term “market disruption” back then, but these Gen X cultural touchstones were exactly that, staking a claim and a voice for those at the margins and, in the process, achieving immense (and ironic) commercial success and transforming their respective industries. We often forget there are more people on the margins (people with wallets) than in the comfortable middle.

(Remember the “popular kids” who bullied you in school? There were fewer of them than the rest of us and nobody actually liked them. Sooooo, how were they deemed “popular”? Who gave them their power? All of us idjits on “the margins,” that’s who.)

I saw a touring production of Rent nearly 20 years ago at the Fisher Theatre in Detroit. I admit nosebleed seats as well as overamplifaction of the band and underarticulation of the cast led me to having zero idea of what was going on and longing for a nice Rodgers and Hammerstein show. Another decade later, we took in Chris Columbus’ film version, which retained much of the original Broadway cast. John loved it; I was a bit more on the fence, feeling the Home Alone/Mrs. Doubtfire/Harry Potter drector’s candy-coated, populist sensibility probably wasn’t the best choice for Alphabet City drug addicts, AIDS sufferers, drag queens, and starving artists. And, to be honest, faced with the prospect of seeing the show again, I wondered if it had suffered the same time warp that befell a musical like Hair.

Wrong. Rent couldn’t be more prescient or essential in today’s challenged times.

During the Wilde Awards last week, I befriended Jamey Grisham, who has been a featured performer, choreographer, and director for The Barn Theatre School in Augusta, Michigan, for the past decade. The Barn had a great night at the ceremony, between an exceptional performance by Jamey and racking up a number of awards. Most notably, however, I was struck by their humility and their sense of community, something you don’t always see in the hyper-competitive world of professional and regional theatre. (Let’s just say I’ve never been sprung on insecure prima donnas.)

Jamey was wrapping up The Barn’s 2017 summer repertory season, playing Angel in, yup, Rent and invited us to see their closing show. So glad we made the drive!

John and me with Penelope Ragotzy and Jamey Grisham

As an aside, The Barn Theatre was founded in 1946 and serves as a fertile training ground for the theatrical talent of today and tomorrow. Notable alumni – who served as apprentices or appeared onstage or both – include Lauren Graham, Tom Wopat, Jennifer Garner, Eric Petersen, Marin Mazzie, Stephen Lynch, Kirker Butler, Paul Loesel, Kim Zimmer, Becky Ann Baker, Eric Cornell, and, yup, Jonathan Larson (the creator of Rent who died a tragic and untimely death from aortic dissection the night before the show opened).

Jamey, perhaps channeling a bit of his community-building character, along with cast-mate and fellow Wilde Award winner Penelope Ragotzy (who also oversees publicity and marketing – they wear MANY hats there) did everything they could to make us feel welcome.

Unfortunately, their production of Rent has wrapped and is now in the record books, so this review will serve more as a reflection on the piece itself, on its relevance, and on the unique and magical nature of The Barn Theatre itself. Given the ongoing cultural and socioeconomic fragmentation of modern-day America, Rent is perhaps more essential than ever (the narrative’s over-reliance on land lines and answering machines notwithstanding).

Loosely based on La Boheme, Rent details a Christmas-Eve-day-in-the-life (first act) followed by a year-in-the-life (second act) of a fractious group of New York anti-Friends: gypsies, tramps, and thieves who can barely afford a cup of coffee, let alone hang out all day in a coffee shop, and whose “fabulous” loft living comes with no heat, no electricity, and the constant threat of eviction. Larson drew iconic characters (the filmmaker, the musician, the junkie, the drag queen, the performance artist, the lawyer, the teacher, the sell-out) and gifted them with even more iconic songs, an unyielding series of barbaric yawps from a youthquake disaffected by the 1% ruling the world. Larson was ahead of his time, foretelling a generation for whom gender and sexuality are fluid (albeit silly) constructs, who care deeply for their environment and whose diet and fashion are dictated by kindness and compassion and locality, and whose self-absorbed/self-aggrandizing selflessness drives all grown-ups in their presence to apoplexy. Sound familiar? All of it?

The Barn’s production, populated as it is with Millennials channeling the Gen X oldies, got that irony fully. From the flawless jungle gym of a set by Samantha Snow to the pitch perfect Archie-meets-Salvation Army pop of Michael Wilson Morgan’s costumes, the able cast was aided and abetted by a technical team – and by Brendan Ragotzy’s sure-handed direction – that embraced the early 90s conventions fully yet wasn’t afraid to wink at the more twee “lost generation” quirks. (The Barn space itself, if you’ve never been, is like seeing a musical in the inverted hull of an old ship, warm and cozy, a little eerie, kind of claustrophobic, and very dramatic.)

Grisham (and, no, it’s not just because he invited us!) was a standout as the shamanistic Angel, the tinsel-strewn lightning rod whose second act sacrifice teaches this band of misfits what love really means. Grisham (doing double duty as the show’s choreographer as well) commanded attention with every entrance and imbued Angel with a lovely “mama bear” authoritarianism that was a welcome new addition to the piece.

Also providing remarkable turns were Courtney Bruce as heart-of-gold-in-pleather Joanne and  Byron Glenn Willis as heart-on-his-sleeve-Jiminy-Cricket Tom Collins. Both mined the conflicted layers inherent in each role, pushing past the one-note takes (pushy lawyer, saintly teacher) that can derail lesser portrayals of each character. Notably, Bruce’s “We’re Okay” and Willis’ reprise of “I’ll Cover You” were character-driven showstoppers that exemplified how each actor grounded their performances in the urgent realities of untenable situations. (I would be remiss if I didn’t note that Willis and the aforementioned Grisham made a divinely poignant stage pairing, both vocally and in their scenework.)

Maureen (originated by Idina Menzel) can be a confounding character, the pampered performance artist who wreaks emotional havoc on anyone foolish enough to give her their heart. In Samantha Rickard’s hands, Maureen was no-less confounding, but also sympathetic and relatable … and a comic firecracker to boot. “Over the Moon,” Maureen’s absurd paean to absurd social justice warriors, was a triumphant hoot, augmented as it was by director Brendan Ragotzy’s genius decision to add a chorus of dancing cows. And, yes, Rickard and Bruce knocked sassy, swaggering musical standoff “Take Me Or Leave Me” out. of. the. park.

Courtney Bruce with me and John

Overall, the ensemble work was top-notch, a blend of seasoned Equity vets and acting apprentices. The central roles of  Mark and Roger are often a challenge to differentiate, given how broadly drawn all of the surrounding characters are, and Nick Barakos and Alex Crossland (respectively) held their own, with Barakos especially offering some nice solo moments and solid interactions with Angel and Tom as the show progressed. These performers obviously will continue to grow, and it’s a remarkable environment where students can take top-billing and learn onstage from seasoned pros.

Following each Barn performance, audience members are encouraged to retire to the “Rehearsal Shed” where the apprentices present a cabaret show (“The Bar Show”) – and serve you drinks and desserts (imagine your grandparents’ “rumpus room” if it had been taken over by cast members from the documentary Camp). Given that we were there for the final performance of the season, emotions ran high – and many a heart-string was plucked – as these kids poured out their souls (and the spirits) one final time. It was truly a gift to be in the room.

I realize this post is one-part review and about eight-parts love letter, but it was just that kind of day, a beautiful late-summer weekend in Michigan, enjoying a wonderfully talented, utterly inclusive band of talented bohemians portray a wonderfully talented, utterly inclusive band of talented bohemians. Thank you for the memories, Jamey and Penelope and your Barnie Brethren. We’ll be back.

 

“Take me for what I am!/Who I was meant to be!/And, if you give a damn,/Take me baby, or leave me!”

– “Take Me Or Leave Me” from Rent

___________________________

The Bar Show

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.

“Sometimes I don’t want to let it go.” Idina Menzel at Detroit’s Fox Theatre – PLUS, my mom Susie Duncan Sexton on Patty’s Page tv show

No Day But Today

“No Day But Today”

For a bit of time now, I’ve had a love/hate relationship with Idina Menzel, she of the soaring vocals that are such a shot of adrenaline in beloved (overrated?) musicals like Rent and Wicked. The first time I saw her perform Wicked‘s signature tune “Defying Gravity” on the Tony Awards (10+ years ago), I got chills and my eyes welled up from the underdog-makes-good vitriol in her delivery. She was the best thing – the much-needed battery acid – in Chris Columbus’ misguided candy-coated film version of Rent. Her sporadic appearances on Glee – as the brilliantly cast mother of All About (Baby) Eve Rachel Berry (Lea Michelle) – were spiky, oddball fun, notably their peculiar duet of Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face.”

However, “Let It Go” (the ubiquitous ditty from Disney’s Frozen) seemed like an underwritten redux of “Defying Gravity” (not her fault of course), and the whole “Adele Dazeem” debacle just got more cloying and unfunny with each passing day (again not her issue … exactly). And the “brand” of Menzel – not unlike that of Wicked co-star Kristin Chenoweth or, for that matter, Audra McDonald or the queen mother of kewpie doll divas Bernadette Peters – suffers from a “gee, aren’t I darling” humblebrag self-absorption and a disingenuous projection of “how did I get here?!” humility that belies the ragingly talented, driven loon lurking underneath.

“Don’t Rain On My Parade”

Blessedly, Menzel’s show last night at Detroit’s Fox Theatre (more or less) stripped away that glossy artifice and laid bare the broken soul with the big voice. It was a revelation.

In her between-song patter, Menzel offered a rambling treatise on her befuddlingly amazing 18-month ride, with epic highs like the runaway success of Frozen and performing on the Oscars and devastating lows like her divorce from Taye Diggs (whom she never mentioned by name). Lest you think she was milking all of this life experience in some kind of self-serving “Oprah” confessional, that was not the vibe at all. Her chatter was too loopy, too heartfelt, too, well, lost to be anything but that of a desperate soul searching for an anchor in a swirling moment of intense success and loss.

“River”

She channeled this personal crisis into a fascinatingly raw (and dare I say schizophrenic) array of song choices. Yes, the favorites were all present: “Defying Gravity,” “The Wizard and I,” “For Good” (for which she dropped the mic and used the Fox Theatre’s legendary acoustics to chilling effect), all from Wicked; “Take Me or Leave Me” (which she used as an opportunity to winningly share the stage with many hyperventilating Idina-groupies in the audience) and “No Day But Today” from Rent; and, of course, show-closing “Let It Go,” again sharing the mic with all the wannabe “Elsa”s in the audience (weirdly/delightfully interpolating the song with Red Hot Chili Peppers’ funky classic “Give It Away”?!?!).

The Wicked tunes especially seemed to get a perfunctory, hastened treatment, as if Menzel is as tired of them as we are. She seemed anxious to get to the caustic musical nuggets at the heart of her show, gleefully dropping many f-bombs along the way, hoisting a middle finger to the Disney empire (and all the blue-dressed dollies) that allowed her to mount such an extensive summer tour in the first place. That’s my kind of diva (and I hate that word).

“Defying Gravity”

She delivered expected Broadway bon-bons like Funny Girl‘s “Don’t Rain on my Parade” and an Ethel Merman tribute medley (Annie Get Your GunGypsy) with powerhouse vocals and a salty element of sad understanding, as if trying to say, “We women have been treated like crap forever, no matter how talented we are. Knock it off!”

The deepest heartache was telegraphed during a one-two punch of the crystalline elegance of Joni Mitchell’s “River” and what could only be described as a “hooker medley” of Cole Porter’s “Love for Sale” and The Police’s “Roxanne.” Both numbers were electrifying, eliciting a hushed awe from the audience. “River” with its repeated chorus of “I wish I had a river I could skate away on” seemed to serve as Menzel’s central thesis. In her introductory remarks to “Love for Sale/Roxanne,” she mentioned a fearsome theatre professor who excoriated her about her performance of the Porter tune, challenging “Do you even know what that song is about?!?!” She wanted us to know – especially juxtaposed with her earlier performance of “There’s No Business Like Show Business” – that, yes, Mr. Man, she does know that the song is about. It was sheer theatrical brilliance.

Fox Theatre

Fox Theatre

She performed a number of original works, none of which alas quite held up to the other material, but the punk rock passion with which she delivered the tunes revealed an alternate reality where Idina might have been another Alanis, instead of a wannabe Barbra. She offered If/Then‘s 11 o’clock number of “Always Starting Over” as a fiery yawp over the Sisyphean nature of daily living. Her take on Radiohead’s 90s classic “Creep” was a dizzyingly effective blend of Broadway bombast and grunge existentialism. I would love to have that performance on a permanent loop in my head.

John and Roy

John and Roy

At one point in the show, Menzel joked that, while she’s appreciative of her recent success, “sometimes I just don’t want to let it go.” Some days she just wants to stay in her bed and let the world run its course while she tries to figure out which end is up. Her candor and her authenticity were much appreciated, and, along with her prodigious use of the f-word, just the eye-opening experience all those baby Elsa princesses in the audience needed to hear. I, for one, can’t wait to see what happens next.

____________________________

BONUS! Enjoy part 1 of my mom Susie Duncan Sexton‘s two-part interview with delightful Patty Hunter on her Patty’s Page TV program. Also in the house are journalist and advocate Terry Doran and my dad Don Sexton. It’s a free-wheeling and fun discussion of politics, small-town living, animal rights (and, yes, pig wrestling), writing, and other insights and adventures. Enjoy! Click here to view.

____________________________

Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews 2

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 Bookbound, Common 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.