“Well, the theatre is certainly not what it was.” Cats (2019 National Touring Production) at Detroit’s Fisher Theatre + my quick take on Encore Musical Theatre’s production of Fun Home

Grizabella [From the production’s Facebook page]

Cats is one odd damn show. Spoon River Anthology in leg warmers, leotards, and Capezios. T.S. Eliot was an odd man (see Tom & Viv … no really, go see it). He wrote some odd poems about cats with silly made up words that would embarrass Lewis Carroll. Andrew Lloyd Webber may very well be an odder man. He writes musicals about chandeliers and roller skating trains and upside down swimming pools. The early 1980s (when Cats was written) was a seriously odd time, one arched foot still firmly placed in Studio 54 bell-bottomed Bob Fosse’d debauchery and the other pointed at a big-haired, Jane Fonda jazzercised, Reaganomic’d pneumatic future. And like anything at the nexus of the supremely weird, Cats was – and is – a big ol’ fat box office blockbuster. Now and forever indeed.

Bombalurina [From the production’s Facebook page]

I saw it once with my mother, about ten years ago, at Warsaw’s Wagon Wheel Playhouse, where my mom herself had performed in her teens. My mom’s friend Myrna Bailey (at least I think it was Myrna?) had given us tickets, and we went, not exactly enthused but grateful for the free entertainment, looking forward as much to dinner afterward as we were to an evening of prancing, preening anthropomorphized felines in body-stockings. We were pleasantly surprised. At the time, I theorized that the show works better in a smaller setting. The Wagon Wheel performs everything in the round (hence the name), and the set design was a literal jungle gym, with the titular cats swinging over your head and crawling at your feet. The small space and the resulting limited grandeur made the hyperbolic concept of an army of cats meeting once each year to choose one among them to ascend to the “Heavyside Layer” seem not so utterly ridiculous.

A decade later, another free ticket, another Cats – this time at Detroit’s Fisher Theatre with my dear friend Colleen whose husband Blaine is thrilled when I go see musicals with her that he doesn’t want to see. And I love Colleen, and I love musicals, and I love free stuff.

This production is a touring production of the recent Broadway revival (which starred a former Pussycat Doll, I think?) that is pretty much a carbon copy of Trevor Nunn’s original 1981 blockbuster. It’s fine. It’s weird. And it’s fine.

Production values are top notch – lighting is evocative and compelling, sound is Moog-synth lush, and the sets and props are cheekily “Incredible Shrinking Man”-sized to imply cat-proptioned human performers. Like any given Sunday of a touring production (we saw the 9/8 show … and it’s taken me this long to figure out what the hell to write), our performance was rife with understudies stepping up for their big moments in spandex and cat-face.

Notable performances last Sunday were turned in by understudy Zachary S. Berger as kitty major domo Munkustrap (at times it felt like he was auditioning for the part of Thomas Jefferson in 1776 … or Hamilton … and that’s a compliment; someone get him into one of those shows and out of a cat tail ASAP); Keri Rene Fuller as a suitably bedraggled and heartbreakingly left-out-in-the-cold Grizabella; Tion Gaston a moonbeam-on-gymnastic-steroids as Mistoffelees; Tony D’Alelio and understudy Erin Chupinsky as cute-as-button feline felons Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer; and Lexie Plath channeling her best vampy Christina Hendricks as Bombalurina. Bringing down the house, though, was Timothy Gulan as Gus (short for “Asparagus”) the Theatre Cat and Kaitlyn Davidson as his associate Jellylorum. Their second act number is literate, witty, deft, and sublime. Gulan even gets in a winking critique of the kind of theatre Cats itself represents when he croons, “Well, the theatre is certainly not what it was.”

[From the production’s Facebook page]

But, good lord! These damn character names! Trying to type that previous paragraph took me twenty minutes. And if I had heard the term “Jellicle Cat” one more time, I was likely to stand up in the theatre and scream, Network‘s Peter Finch-style, “I’m mad as hell and I can’t take any more!”

I enjoyed myself more at Cats than I should dare to admit in writing; in fact, the experience inspired me to put some hurt on the gift booth as I departed (including cat-eared baseball hats for me and for my parents), which led me to wondering why this thing has had the nine lives it has had. The show is sweet-natured, a warm and comforting spectacle, beautifully staged and orchestrated, befuddling but ultimately not particularly intellectually challenging, and, on the balance, a showcase of every kind of theatrical talent a performer could possibly possess.

[From the production’s Facebook page]

I think the secret weapon is the show’s second act. The first act is kind of a rambling mess, something about a “Jellicle” (d’oh!) ball and a potential death and far too many cat puns and metaphysical gobbledygook and … leotards. The second act distills the experience into a succession of fun, poignant, catchy-as-eff numbers with cleverly drawn characters: the aforementioned “Gus the Theatre Cat,” “Skimbleshanks, the Railway Cat,” “Macavity the Mystery Cat,” “Magical Mister Mistoffelees” (with some truly nifty lighting effects), and the ubiquitous “Memory” (which was the emotional gut punch Sunday that it needs to be – kudos to Keri Rene Fuller). So, yes, I’ve been humming all of these melodies in my head for about a week now and occasionally prancing through my living room like a very old and overweight tabby. That’s the power of Cats. Damn you, you odd little man, Andrew Lloyd Webber!

[From the production’s Facebook page]

From Broadway in Detroit: One of the biggest hits in theatrical history, Cats will come to Detroit from September 3-15, 2019 as part of a multi-season North American tour. Tickets for CATS start at $35 (includes facility and parking fees) and will go on sale Sunday, June 9. Tickets can be purchased online at www.broadwayindetroit.com or www.ticketmaster.com, and by phone at 800-982-2787. A limited number of premium seats will be available through Ticketmaster and at the Fisher Theatre box office. For group sales (12 or more) please call 313-871-1132 or email groups@broadwayindetroit.com. Tickets for the open captioned and audio described performance may be purchased in person at the Fisher Theatre box office or by phone at 313-872-1000, ext. 0. Composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber and based on T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, the record-breaking musical has captivated audiences in over 30 countries and 15 languages, is now on tour across North America featuring new sound design, direction and choreography for a new generation.

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[From the production’s Facebook page]

And now for the antithesis. Technically, one should not review a final dress rehearsal … but The Encore Musical Theatre Company’s current production of Fun Home, an industry preview of which I was invited to attend earlier this week, is transporting, heartbreaking, funny as hell, poignant, and beautifully crafted. So I’m breaking a cardinal rule of criticism! C’est la vie! The show opened at the theatre’s space in Dexter, Michigan, this past Thursday and runs through October 13.

From Encore’s description: “Fun Home is a musical adapted by Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori from Alison Bechdel’s 2006 graphic memoir of the same name. The story concerns Bechdel’s discovery of her own sexuality, her relationship with her gay father, and her attempts to unlock the mysteries surrounding his life. It is the first Broadway musical with a lesbian protagonist. It is told in a series of non-linear vignettes connected by narration provided by the adult Alison character.”

[From the production’s Facebook page]

Dan Cooney, Encore’s founder, returns from New York to play Bechdel’s complex, complicated, controlling, earnest, loving, maddening father Bruce. He brings such a haunted/hunting presence to this difficult role, always believable, relatable, and therefore that much more tragic, but never overbearing or villainous. It is a nuanced and deft portrayal of a broken human being, caught up in circumstance, selfishness, and unrealized potential, fully actualized on stage with sympathy yet appropriate critique. It is nigh impossible to play the unlikable on stage, but to do so in a way that garners empathy from the audience is a feat of magic. Kudos, Dan.

[From the production’s Facebook page]

Every bit his match is local firecracker Sarah Stevens. I’ve never seen a bad performance from her, every one unique, expertly crafted, and vibrant. Her adult version of Bechdel is in keeping with her track record, yet deceptively unassuming – a “Ghost of Christmas Present” who observes and comments on the proceedings, never once actually taking part (until one very powerful moment) but utterly shaping the audience’s perspective as the events unfold. It is a warm and gorgeous performance that will speak to any child of those families that espouse good intentions yet remain riddled with tragedies large and small – children who survive each day with equal parts laughter, art, artifice, and heartache.

Laura Etnier-Austin is particularly effective in the second act as long-suffering wife/mother Helen who finally has her moment of plain-spoken truth with her daughter (a luminous and very funny Grace Allyn as the college-aged Alison), and it is revelatory. The ensemble –  including Monica Spencer, Tyler J. Messinger, and wonderfully natural child actors Joely Engelbert, Emmanuel Morgan, and Gavin Cooney – is magnificent as well – moving effortlessly from manic whimsy to quiet angst and back again.

[From the production’s Facebook page]

As always, the Encore makes effective use of their tight space, with a detailed set design that evokes the Bechdel’s historic home, cleverly adding a separate “parlor” in the wings (complete with period-perfect wallpaper) which features Tyler Driskill’s rock solid orchestra. It’s a wonderful touch that clues the audience upon arrival regarding the conscious theatricality of the show’s staging. Plus, it’s just darn nice to see Driskill and “the band” for once as they perform genius feats with a tricky score.

Run, don’t walk, to get your tickets: https://www.theencoretheatre.org

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Real Men Wear Pink … I’m honored to have been selected to be part of this year’s “Detroit Class.”

Thank you to everyone who has contributed so far … you’ve helped me be the #1 fundraiser three weeks in a row (see rankings below!). But my competition is gaining on me. LOL. It’s all for a good cause. If you feel so inclined, your donation will do wonders: http://main.acsevents.org/goto/roysexton

I was invited by the Canton Chamber to join their monthly newsmagazine last week for a taping that should air soon – grateful to Executive Director Thomas Paden and wonderful Denise Staffeld, Megan Schaper, and Kevin Ryan for being part of #TeamRoy on this campaign! Denise captured some video with her iPhone of me singing “Pure Imagination” for the shoot – you can get a flavor here: https://youtu.be/DQ1vwiQuWe8

And don’t forget “Follies” is opening at Theatre Nova on 11/7 with yours truly as “Buddy” – it’s going to be great fun: https://www.artful.ly/theatre-nova/store/events/18594

From American Cancer Society to the Real Men candidates: As a group you have already raised $13,653! Way to go! Detroit is currently #1 in Michigan and #37 in the Nation – to follow along with the top campaigns and the top Real Men click here. The American Cancer Society currently has 28 grants in Michigan totaling more than $14 million. There are ACS funded researchers at Henry Ford Health System, Michigan State University, University of Michigan, Van Andel Research Institute, Wayne State University and Western Michigan University. The success of the American Cancer Society grant program is exemplified by the fact that 47 American Cancer Society-funded researchers have received a Nobel Prize!

Detroit Top 10 Leaderboard

  1. Roy Sexton – $2,888
  2. PJ Jacokes – $1,673
  3. Dr. Carlos Ramirez -$1,438
  4. Jonathan Burt – $1,301
  5. Brad Lukas – $1,286
  6. Brendan Russow – $1,208
  7. Mike Lawson – $1,190
  8. Dave Spencer – $575
  9. Jim Stocking – $450
  10. John Hicks – $300

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Magnificent Sue Booth (“Sally” to my “Buddy” in the upcoming “Follies”) in the upper left and lower right corners. And me with with talented and lovely Laurie Atwood middle right.

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

“I’d rather be divisive than indecisive.” #Hamilton National Tour in Detroit

I’m ornery. Sometimes. Ask my family.

When the entire universe seems to loooooooove some performer or movie or show or play. And I mean in that show-offy, fawning, “you MUST see … you mean you HAVEN’T seen?!,” clutch the pearls kind of way? I make up my mind that I’m 110% certain I WON’T like it. And I won’t try it. Nope. Not never.

It’s a pretty stupid and annoying personality trait for me to have, TBH.

Thank heavens we have friends like Rob Zannini and Aaron Latham to kick me in the pants (and buy tickets) when I’m being a stubborn idiot.

This brings us to Hamilton, the national tour of which ended its month-long residency in Detroit yesterday (Easter Sunday) at the Fisher Theatre.

You certainly don’t need my validation to tell you the show is well worth the hype. Just ask the American Theatre Wing. Or the Grammy organization. Or the Pulitzer committee. Or that bragging neighbor/coworker/friend who saw it in New York four years ago (and has seen it six more times already).

Sigh. They are ALL spot on.

The show is a brilliant, clever, pointed, sassy, dare I say, frothy overview of the life of spiky, complex, groundbreaking Founding Father Alexander Hamilton (!). And nary a dancing cat or crashing chandelier in sight. “I’d rather be divisive than indecisive,” Hamilton observes at one point. Amen, brother. And, damn, do we need some of that informed moxie in our politicians now (more than ever).

Based on the 2004 biography that turned our collective view of America’s birth on its head, Hamilton gives us a warts-and-all review of the “young, scrappy, and hungry” Hamilton and colleagues like Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Burr. Classic musical 1776 also has great fun with the challenges (and infighting) at the beginning of our nation’s great democratic experiment. But Hamilton is less decorous and revels in the raw and ugly street fighting at play. And makes it all seem fun.

Imagine the Revolutionary War staged by West Side Story-era Jerome Robbins, but with the technical wizardry (and turntable) of Cameron Mackintosh’s Les Miserables and a musical score by Stephen Sondheim, Eminem, Kander & Ebb, the Brill Building songwriters, Beyoncé and Jay-Z. Oh, why not throw in a touch of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s and Tim Rice’s Jesus Christ Superstar for good measure. Creator/wunderkind Lin Manuel Miranda wears his influences proudly on his sleeve, openly referencing Broadway’s vibrant history lyrically, musically, visually.

It doesn’t get much more American than that.

Add in color-blind casting and a steampunk approach to costuming and set design, not to mention evocative, lithe choreography (nary a gymnastic tumble to be seen … thank God), and you have a three hour spectacle that never bores for a second and zips by in a flash.

(I would recommend scanning the show’s Wikipedia entry before viewing, if, like me, your memory of American history from your high school coursework is far away in the rear view mirror.)

The first act takes us through the Battle of Yorktown; the second addresses the much messier work of building a new nation, and the spiraling life of a man (Hamilton) who gave far too much to his work and far too little to those who loved him.

Our cast (below) included understudies Tre Frazier and Wonza Johnson in the pivotal Jesus/Judas roles of Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr respectively. They were phenomenal, bringing nuance, empathy, heart, and fire to their depictions.

Other standouts were the commanding and wry Paul Oakley Stovall as George Washington (we had the pleasure to meet this gracious actor and his lovely family after the show – learn more about him here); luminous Stephanie Umoh as Angelica Schuyler; impish and adorable Bryson Bruce as Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson; riotous and effete Peter Matthew Smith as the Elton John-esque King George; and heartbreaking Hannah Cruz as Hamilton’s long-suffering yet stoic wife Eliza. Cruz brings down the house with her turn in the second act, wronged repeatedly by Hamilton’s high-minded, myopic ways. If you aren’t a puddle when she “removes herself from his narrative,” you ain’t human.

Hamilton repeatedly asks the audience to consider “who tells YOUR story?” All I can say is that if someone decides to do a show about my life (cue laughter now), I sure as hell hope Lin Manuel Miranda is still around to write it.

P.S. We ended our day with an astounding dinner at Lady of the House, a Beard Award-nominated restaurant in Detroit’s historic Corktown district. OMG. I’m no “foodie” (reference the sentiments of my opening paragraph above), but this place (veg friendly BTW) is to die for. Our server eventually became accustomed to (possibly amused by?) my plebeian ways. She wanted to “sequence” our “courses” of innumerable shared plates. I wanted a grilled cheese.

Perhaps inspired by the political wrangling in Hamilton, we found our common ground (though I never got that grilled cheese). Nonetheless everything we consumed was out of this world, with locally sourced flavor combinations to knock your socks off. Run don’t walk to this fab, shabby chic establishment. And be prepared to pay a pretty penny. It ain’t cheap, but like the pricey Hamilton, well worth the outlay.

Thank you, Rob and Aaron and our pal Rachel Green for an incredible, enriching Easter in Detroit!

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.

…and I got a pretty nifty t-shirt too: The Book of Mormon … Detroit engagement

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

This isn’t going to be an honest-to-goodness, legitimate theatre review per se. Heck, I bought a bag of t-shirts and three magnets at the “Shop of Mormon,” for heaven’s sake, so you know I am not playing the dispassionate critic here.

Nonetheless, we saw the musical The Book of Mormon this afternoon at Detroit’s Fisher Theatre…and we loved it.

Crude? Yes. Offensive? Maybe. Catchy? You bet. Heartwarming? Indubitably.

The show, written by South Park‘s Trey Parker and Matt Stone and Avenue Q‘s Robert Lopez, is a loony melange with Forbidden Broadway, The Producers, The Lion King, and (oddly) The King and I in its Great White Way-loving DNA.

The performers all acquitted themselves beautifully in the well-oiled, pneumatic, theme park way that merchandise-pushing, cash cow national Broadway tours nowadays achieve effortlessly. The first act was a bit sluggish which was partly an issue with the book and partly the consequence of it being a matinee show at the end of a long run. Christopher John O’Neill as schlubby, screw-up Elder Cunningham was the standout among an exceptional cast, giving a lovable, transcendent performance in what could have been a shrill, one-note role.

As you may already know, the show is about two young Mormon missionaries who are sent to Africa to teach the people there about Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and “golden plates.” Things go awry for the duo almost immediately, and the resulting misadventures – an uneasy, yet thrilling mix of satire and homage – call into question the very nature of faith itself.

Much mock disdain may come in these twitchy, thin-skinned times of the creators setting organized religion in their snark-filled sights. Those uptight twits are missing the point. The show has a clear and refreshing point of view. Okay, there is no “one true” religion and all religious texts are inherently goofy if you think about any of their myth-filled contents too much. However, faith in something – a book, a higher power, one’s own imagination, Orlando, frogs, each other, whatever – can inspire and helps us grow, providing fulfillment and evolution.

My favorite numbers of the show – “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” and “Joseph Smith American Moses” – highlighted this perspective with zany aplomb. Blind adherence to some notion of divine reward/punishment saps one’s spirit. Faith in ourselves and in our ability to do the right thing here and now is key to an authentic existence.

Who’d a thunk the South Park guys would turn in such an empowering, humanistic treatise disguised as a scatalogical, sophomoric romp? …and I got a pretty nifty t-shirt too!