“Most Friends Fade”: The Ringwald Theatre’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along

Kaminski, Armstrong, Johnson [Image Source: The Ringwald’s Facebook Page]

Stephen Sondheim, genius as he may be, is saddled often (fairly or unfairly) with the critique of having a “second act problem.” His shows kick off with a high-concept bang but then devolve into misanthropic goo around the 10 o’clock hour. Modern revivals of most of the major works have found clever fixes for these issues, but one could argue Sondheim himself was trying to reverse his troubles with 1981’s Merrily We Roll Along.

The musical is based on the play by the same name by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart and works backward in roughly five year increments from the climactic and ugly dissolution of a trio’s longstanding friendship in 1976 to its very inception in 1957.

So, rather than a second act problem (the second act is actually quite impactful), Merrily We Roll Along has a “first scene” problem. Unfortunately, I’m not sure The Ringwald’s latest production, which is otherwise pretty damn fine, fixes it.

Kaminski, Armstrong, Johnson [Image Source: The Ringwald’s Facebook Page]

Much like Company, which The Ringwald will be performing next and which is also a Sondheim collaboration with playwright George Furth, Merrily is a show about a man in midlife crisis free-fall, told through a series of episodes and punctuated by the kind of garish and venomous cocktail parties that only seem to exist on Broadway stages and in Bette Davis movies.

And, yes, there is a musical reprise alerting us we are moving from one moment to the next – no “Bobby, baby” this time, but plenty of repetitions of the title song (which you will have in your head for weeks).

The protagonist in question (and likely surrogate for Sondheim himself) is Franklin Shepard, a brilliant composer whose Faustian fixation on the material trappings of success (big house, bigger house, first wife, messy tabloid divorce, affair and subsequent second marriage to his leading lady, money, money, money … and cute plaid suits) takes him further and further away from the hardscrabble joys of his bohemian early days with fellow creative pals Charley Kringas, his lyricist, and Mary Flynn, their novelist buddy.

Schultz [Image Source: The Ringwald’s Facebook Page]

As the three leads in Ringwald’s production, Kyle Johnson (Franklin), Ashlee Armstrong (Mary), and Kevin Kaminski (Charley) are transfixing, and the show rises and falls on their believable dynamic and the sparkle each bring to their respective roles. And that’s why that opening scene is so confounding. We meet this trio at the worst possible moment in their lives, in a shrill and clunky scene that fails to indicate the beautiful story which follows. I don’t fault Joe Bailey’s otherwise consistent and effective direction, nor the physical space (you go to The Ringwald for talent and heart, not production values), but I do cite the show’s gimmicky structure and, to a lesser degree, a fairly heavy-handed performance style in that opening scene that is blessedly absent elsewhere from this cast.

I only belabor this point for one reason – as an audience, don’t be discouraged by the opening, because otherwise this production is aces.

The vocal quality of the cast, performing a tricky yet melodic score, is exceptional, and music director CT Hollis is to be commended for bringing such vibrancy and color from the assembled voices. Kudos also to in-house accompanist Ben Villaluz for doing yeoman’s work in lieu of a full orchestra.

Johnson, Gagnon [Image Source: The Ringwald’s Facebook Page]

The set design by Brian Kessler is minimal, almost to a fault, but there is clever use of small set pieces, décor, and furniture to differentiate locales. Dyan Bailey’s video projection is great fun and is aided and abetted by Brandy Joe Plambeck’s lighting/sound. (Brandy Joe also plays Frank’s sad sack manager Joe to great effect in the show.) Using archival footage, played in reverse, the video snippets, which run during the aforementioned “Merrily We Roll Along” reprises, add a nice visual distraction in the tight space, bring whimsy and poignancy, and offer helpful historical context.

The ensemble (Jerry Haines, Ashley M. Lyle, Anna Morreale, Nicole Pascaretta, Donny Ridel, and standout Matthew Wallace) act as a sort of Greek chorus, commenting on the action directly and playing an array of waiters, reporters, partygoers, etc. Notably, at one point, they are referred to in aggregate as “The Blob” – a collective of insipid, shallow socialite hangers-on whose sole purpose, with the help of pushy second wife Gussie (in a tricky but extremely effective love-to-hate performance from Liz Schultz), seems to be to drag Franklin further into mediocrity. The ensemble has a ball (some to the point of distraction, unfortunately) with this highly theatrical function. Think Bells Are Ringing’s “Drop That Name” as performed by the Kardashian family.

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Kaminski, Armstrong, Johnson [Image Source: The Ringwald’s Facebook Page]

As for musical numbers, Kaminski’s rousing and acerbic ode to being the neglected friend – “Franklin Shepard, Inc.” – is the moment where the production really zings to life, set into fizzy motion by Wallace’s eye-popping take on a vain talk show host interviewing Kaminski. “Old Friends” – performed by Johnson, Armstrong, and Kaminski – wherein the trio attempts to rekindle their affections through song is a delight, with some sweet nods by choreographer Molly Zaleski to Singin’ in the Rain’s iconic “Good Mornin’” number.  Jordan Gagnon has her strongest moments performing a haunting and heartbreaking “Not a Day Goes By” in the first act as Frank’s mistreated ex-wife Beth. And show closer “Our Time” with Johnson, Armstrong, and Kaminski is a lovely sweet-and-sour take on the limitless possibility of new friendship as seen through a sobering retrospective lens.

Over dinner before the show, my friend Lauren and I were discussing the high wire act of balancing one’s creative spark within the daunting machinery of commerce. Merrily is very much Sondheim’s meditation on that concept, written at a point when he had achieved great success and was likely gobsmacked by the pressures such “golden handcuffs” inflict. He would later write more accessibly about the issue in Sunday in the Park with George,After all without some recognition, no one’s going to give you a commission.” Kyle Johnson as Franklin does a remarkable job channeling this tension, offering us a central tragic figure who is as relatable as he is maddening. Johnson smartly resists the people-pleasing trap of making Franklin “likable,” with a feral and sweaty inner life that leaps from the stage. Comparably, Armstrong gives us a Mary who is loyal and true, witty and warm and utterly alone. The juxtaposition of the two figures with Kaminski’s twitchy, lovable, exasperating Charley makes for great theatre.

Merrily We Roll Along has an almost cult-like following, and I can see why. The score is magical, the structure a problematic puzzle, and the three leading characters (particularly as portrayed here) sublime. Don’t miss a rare opportunity to see this unusual show live with such a talented and winsome cast.

Roy and Lauren Crocker at The Ringwald

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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.

Wilde Awards 2017: If only I had Wink Martindale’s career …


Well, the 2017 Wilde Awards Ceremony is in the history books. And a truly special night celebrating the best of Michigan theatre is over … for another 365 days.

As a kid, I was obsessed with game shows and awards ceremonies, so to suggest that co-hosting last night with EncoreMichigan’s David Kiley was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream is no hyperbole. And more than a little dorky. If only I had Wink Martindale’s career.

I was humbled to be amongst such theatrical and critical talent last night, and to see so many personal friends receive well-deserved recognition last night affirmed that good people who work hard do earn the spoils. And my buddies still spoke to me after the show was over. #winning

Full list of winners and additional coverage here.



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

Encore Michigan photos by Richard Rupp

 

“Modulating to the Stars” – The Dio’s Forever Plaid … Plus, Aaron C. Wade’s Possessive and Purple Rose’s Harvey

Matthew Wallace, James Fischer, Steve DeBruyne, Angel Velasco as The Plaids [Image source: The Dio’s Facebook page]

In our household, we really dig The Dio – Livingston County, Michigan’s professional dinner theatre, a true labor of love from Steve DeBruyne and Matthew Tomich. The company recently received a boatload of well-deserved Wilde Award Nominations for recent productions The Bridges of Madison County and The Last Five Years, including nominations for DeBruyne and Tomich themselves individually. (I’m looking forward to co-hosting the upcoming awards night on August 28 with my partner-in-shenanigans EncoreMichigan.com‘s publisher David Kiley.)

So John and I, who had both seen separate productions of the musical revue Forever Plaid about twenty years ago (mine in Columbus, Ohio and starring my delightfully talented buddy Joey Landwehr, and John’s in Ferndale, Michigan), have been eagerly awaiting The Dio’s production. I am happy to report that The Dio’s version honors the storied musical, infusing lovely grace notes of anarchy and poignancy that neither John nor I recalled noticing before.

Directed with graceful efficiency by DeBruyne and ably assisted by Dan Morrison (another Wilde nominee – I’m sensing a trend here), The Dio’s Forever Plaid clocks in at a brisk 90 minutes (not including the dinner service beforehand).

Crisp music direction to bring out the lush harmonies and to keep pace with the mile-a-minute medleys is crucial, and Brian Rose (who also gets pulled into the onstage hijinks) meets and exceeds that requirement.

Our friends Rob Zannini and Aaron Latham joined us. Aaron once served as house manager for Andy Williams’ Branson theatre, so he had LOTS of fun insight into this show’s era!

Costume designer Norma Polk gives the Plaids just the right touch of mid-century charm. And Tomich, as always, does a masterful job, leveraging lighting, set, and sound design to make The Dio’s challenging space work beautifully for the show’s unique needs, in this case a nightclub just beyond the Pearly Gates.

The conceit of Forever Plaid is that a quartet of harmonizing AV nerds – who have more affinity for AM-radio staples like Perry Como and Harry Belafonte than for The Beatles or Elvis Presley – are struck down by a busload of Catholic schoolgirls, schoolgirls who are on their way to catch The Beatles’ American debut on The Ed Sullivan Show.

The Plaids were en route to record their first album, but, due to said unfortunate bus collision, they end up in heaven (or some Copacabana proximity of it) to play their final concert, just as America is switching its radio dials from light frothy pop to jangly/jarring rock-n-roll.

The Dio’s cast not only nails the smooth sounds of late 50s boy bands, but they deliver rich characterizations that are as hysterical as they are heartbreaking. As group leader Franky, DeBruyne is the consummate “big brother” – a loving, occasionally frazzled asthmatic, keeping the other three from spinning into apoplexy, aided and abetted by his trusty inhaler. “We will modulate to the stars,” he enthuses in one of his many pep talks to the boys.

Akin to the lovechild of Clark Gregg (Agents of SHIELD) and John Leguizamo, Angel Velasco is a delight as nosebleed prone Jinx, whose debilitating shyness melts away when he gets his brief moment in the spotlight.

James Fischer is a gleeful mix of smarm and charm as Sparky, who can barely master the au courant Spanish lyrics of “Perfidia” when they are written on his hand.

And Matthew Wallace is a tear-jerking ball of sunshine as the bespectacled Smudge, whose escape into the vinyl grooves of his beloved 45 collection (which he carries everywhere in a beat-up suitcase, complete with a not-so-hidden Mickey Mouse decal) gives the show its sweet/sad center.

Wallace, Fischer, DeBruyne, Velasco [Image source: The Dio’s Facebook page]

Anyone who appreciates this era of music (as I do) will geek out over the set list, which includes “Three Coins in the Fountain,” “Undecided,” “Magic Moments,” “Catch a Falling Star,” “Sixteen Tons,” and so on. All are delivered with an admirable balance of reverence and cheek, with subtle-but-damn-funny choreography that winks at the twee style these classic guy groups exemplified.

Showstopper “Lady of Spain,” toward the show’s conclusion, is staged as a salute to The Ed Sullivan Show, complete with references to Topo Gigio, Senor Wences, and the entire “really big shoooow” gang. Sadly, this thought crossed my mind: “In ten years, if someone does this show again, will anyone in the audience know what the hell is going on during this sequence.” Dammit.

The Dio’s Forever Plaid wraps the performer’s nightmare in a gauzy blend of nostalgia, satire, and candy-sweet harmonies. For those who feel marginalized by the status quo, standing before an audience and opening your heart through the magic of lyrics and melody is a revelation, and to have it all taken away in an instant is as tragic as can be. Kudos to this production for honoring the silly escapism of the show while embracing its darker underscore. That is a rich harmony, indeed.

One more weekend to see Forever Plaid at The Dio. And get your tickets now as the last several performances have been sold out.

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[Image source: Possessive’s Facebook page]

If the Plaids share an aspirational obsession with achieving “that perfect chord,” the characters in Aaron C. Wade’s directorial film debut Possessive suffer from a more debilitating and prurient kind of obsession. Wade was our exceptional properties master on Ann Arbor Civic’s recent production of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and he did double (and triple) duty as our show photographer and videographer. Needless to say, I’m a fan.

His first film reveals exceptional potential for crafting cinematic narrative that is as compelling as it is repulsive. That’s a compliment, by the way, and I’m pretty certain he will be quite thrilled with that assessment.

You can find out more about his film by checking out the fan page here, where you will also find a link to the full film as well as updates on its upcoming DVD release. The film’s description reads, “The film Possessive is a romantic thriller story about a man with a well-hidden deviant core and a mentally unstable woman who claims him for her own.” Yup, and then some!

I won’t spoil any of the twists and turns Wade has in store for Possessive‘s viewers, but he has written a script that is as raw as it is confessional. He frames each scene with a visceral immediacy that is remarkably discomforting, and he has cast the production with an eclectic and talented team of local unknowns who exhibit a brave and impressive lack of vanity. Wade’s leads Sarah Lovy and Terence Cover (“Donald Reagan”) wring every bit of bruise black satire from this tragicomedy – two lost souls whose fetishized obsessions with the details of each other’s lives prevent them from ever actually knowing one another.

I look forward to seeing Wade’s future work. He is one to watch. And how great that we have so much remarkable local talent willing to share their gifts with the world.

(Check out Aaron’s assessment of Fenton Village Players’ current production of Thoroughly Modern Millie here.)

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[Image source: The Purple Rose’s Facebook page]

Finally, here is another kind of obsession – the affection of Elwood P. Dowd for his invisible friend “Harvey,” a six-foot, three-and-one-half-inch tall “pooka” who takes the form of an anthropomorphic rabbit in Mary Chase’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name.

Currently, Chelsea, Michigan’s Purple Rose Theatre (also nominated for a number of Wilde Awards) is performing this theatrical classic. I have not yet seen it, but the reviews have been stellar.

That said, I wanted to give a shout out to my former St. Joseph Mercy Health System colleague Jaclyn Klein who organized a remarkable talk back after the Sunday, July 16 matinee performance. Members of the cast and crew alongside St. Joseph Mercy Chelsea Hospital physicians discussed how attitudes toward mental health have changed for the better (or worse) since the play debuted in 1945. The presentation, ably facilitated by local news personality Lila Lazarus, was live streamed on Facebook. You can catch the video here. Kudos to all!

Harvey runs through August 26, and tickets can be purchased here.

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Everybody loves The Dio! Ran into my Xanadu/Urinetown castmate Paige Martin and Urinetown castmate Maika Van Oosterhout at the performance

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.

“The beat goes on …” Cher’s “Dressed to Kill” tour at Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena

Heart of Stone

Heart of Stone

This review of Cher’s “Dressed to Kill” tour stop at Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena will not mention anything about how good she looks or how great she sounds or how well she moves or her stamina, all of which seem to be referenced by other reviewers with the qualifier “for her years.” These remarks annoy me for many reasons, chiefly that they are ageist and sexist and demeaning and, well, just plain dumb. Cher is an awe-inspiring pro regardless the era of her storied career.

A Woman's World

A Woman’s World

 

 

 

 

With that disclaimer out of the way, the show kicks ass. Yes, she employs the arena spectacle template that Madonna and Janet Jackson perfected in the 90s, but she definitely makes it her own. (Some might argue that Cher actually invented the genre with her “Take Me Home” tour in the 70s/80s.) There are plenty of Cirque du Soleil style moves from her backup dancers, a thunderously tight band, and all manner of pyrotechnics and digital displays.

And the costumes. Oh, the costumes. Rather famously, Bob Mackie had to withdraw from his long-time professional relationship with Cher because he couldn’t handle the demands of this tour. Well, whoever filled his sequined loafers did a fantastic job. Cher, with a knowing wink to her audience, proceeds seamlessly (pun intended) through just about every iconic outfit of her forty-plus year career, including the ginormous Native American headdress and that leather-thong-up-her-derrière get up.

Cher ... of Troy?

Cher … of Troy?

Unlike some other pop stars, who shall remain nameless, Cher sings full voice throughout, with no apparent backing vocals other than those provided by the onstage backup singers. She doesn’t seem to lip-sync for one moment. I know that should go without saying when you pay exorbitant prices for concert tickets, but I’ve seen plenty of stars in recent years quite obviously mouthing along to prerecorded vocals.

Cher covers all of the major hits, and even some forgotten ones. But her strongest moments are when she breaks through all the Vegas glitz, and talks directly to us in that inimitable, down-to-earth, saucy style.

Her tribute to Sonny Bono is touching without being maudlin, and her overview of her film career is surprisingly moving, given how uneven some of those movies have been.

The Beat Goes On

The Beat Goes On

(At one moment tonight, she let loose a delightfully irreverent diatribe about her addiction to Dr. Pepper and how the company has never given her any swag in her decades of drinking the stuff, save one shabby cooler filled with a lowly six pack after one of her recent shows. She also told the crowd that her cat was rescued from under a tour bus on another concert stop in Detroit years ago. “He’s a Malibu cat now,” she drawled in that distinctive contralto of hers.)

She is at her best when she just stands still and SINGS (!), including “You Haven’t Seen the Last of Me,” an underrated gem from her last cinematic foray Burlesque. The song is lyrically perfect for a performer who has launched about four “farewell tours” in the last decade.

Benatar and Giraldo

Benatar and Giraldo

The mod 1960s montage of hits from “The Beat Goes On” through “Half Breed” is also a high point. Cher efficiently glides through those numbers, giving us just enough to remember how much we love those songs and not so much that we realize how darn silly they are.

Opening act, Pat Benatar and Neil Giraldo are outstanding as well. They shred gleefully through all their 80s classics, having a ball tonight as they celebrated their 32nd wedding anniversary with all of us at Joe Louis Arena. Benatar’s vocals are crisp and throaty as ever, and Giraldo proves what an amazing guitarist he is over and over. And I really don’t give a hoot about guitarists, but I was impressed.

Finale

Finale

 

Cher and Benatar are wonderful examples of smart, savvy, witty women – no, strike that last word and replace it with people. They have given their all to the entertainment industry and yet retain strikingly distinctive senses of self. Their authenticity should give hope to all the young performers out there who may be tempted to sell their souls to the devil. Cher likely would wink and nod, flip her hair, and say, “Don’t sell your soul to the devil … just give it to him on consignment … whoooaaahhh.”

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Dinner before at Ferndale's Local Kitchen

Dinner before at Ferndale’s Local Kitchen

 

 

Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Please check out this coverage from BroadwayWorld of upcoming book launch events. In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan; by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan; and by Memory Lane Gift Shop in Columbia City, Indiana. Bookbound, Common Language, and Memory Lane also have copies of Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series.