The King and I at Detroit’s Fox Theatre: A puzzlement worth solving


king and I banner

Originally published by Encore Michigan

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I is a puzzlement. For the modern viewer at least. The classic show has one of the most beautiful and haunting scores in the legendary R&H canon, but that book … that book. It’s one part Beauty and the Beast fairy tale, one part Westernized history lesson of a culture that deserved better – a fetishization of Asian stereotypes that somehow doubles upon itself as a stringent critique of racism, ethnocentrism, and misogyny.

The King and I is very much a “have its cake and eat it too” smorgasbord of mid-century tropes. Is it a Rorschach test indicting Westerners’ elitist, imperialist, entitled tendencies, or is it simply a smug regurgitation of prejudices for self-satisfied commercial ends? That whole “Small House of Uncle Thomas” ballet in the second act was likely a provocative critique of racism in its day, but our post-Book of Mormon-conditioned cynicism now brings the sequence a whole new layer of culturally appropriated meta-awkwardness.

Blessedly, Lincoln Center’s recent Tony-winning revival, now touring nationally and currently running at Detroit’s Fox Theatre, sidesteps (mostly) the show’s more cringe-worthy moments with a light, humanistic approach that focuses less on spectacle (although there is just the right amount of glitz) and more on the quiet moments as Anna and the King find their appreciation for each other as people not stereotypes. The time-warped jokes about hoop skirts and polygamy still abound, but the production and its cast do a lovely job winking at the clunkier bits without condescending to the source material or breaking characterization. That’s an impressive high wire act.

king and IThe cast is sublime, with leads Elena Shaddow (Anna), Jose Llana (King of Siam), Joan Almedilla (Lady Thiang), and Q Lim (Tuptim) offering riched, nuanced turns on iconic characters. Llana plays up the childlike whimsy of an authoritarian wise enough to know his limitations but far too arrogant to openly admit them. His “et cetera, et cetera, et cetera” becomes a kind of postmodern emotional shorthand that never devolves into hackneyed shtick (more “I am Groot,” less “That’s what SHE said!”).

Shaddow presents a fiery and steely Anna, overlayed with poignant notes of loss and heartache -#ImWithHoopSkirt. Almedilla avoids the community theatre pitfall of devolving Lady Thiang into Cinderella’s Lady Tremaine, painting a portrait of a dutiful if wounded courtesan who finds agency working between the cracks in a broken system. Her “Something Wonderful” is a heartbreaking, pretzel-logic showstopper.

Q Lim’s Tuptim – offered as a gift of “property” to the King at the show’s beginning (even though her heart belongs to another) – is the show’s moral compass, revealing the toxic hypocrisy at the heart of Siam’s patriarchy. Her “My Lord and Master” is ablaze with a welcome feminist undercurrent that might be anachronistic to this show and its setting but perfectly welcome in this #MeToo era. “We Kissed In a Shadow” takes on an increased urgency in Lim’s hands as well. Thank goodness.

king and I posterAs expected, the costumes (Catherine Zuber) and sets (Michael Yeargen) are divine. You can’t do this show without some sartorial sumptuousness, and Zuber delivers, her cast awash in gorgeous, flowing jewel-toned silks. The sets are more evocative than detailed, filling the space with floating, gliding pillars that represent a number of locales. Yeargen’s scenic work brings a lovely and surreal dream-like quality to the proceedings which suits Bartlett Sher’s contemporary and self-aware direction.

The King and I is a classic that deserves to be rediscovered by modern audiences, and this production is one for the ages, smoothing over any problematic datedness with a fresh and humane approach. This production celebrates the wonder and beauty of cultures finding appreciation for each other and, more importantly, of people letting go of gendered and racial pretenses and embracing their common humanity.


king and I audienceReel 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.

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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.

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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.

La Cage Aux Mormons: Derek and Julianne Hough and The Move Live Tour at the Fox Theater, Detroit

11221501_10206285578157274_7488430663654299396_oSo, for those of you hoping for a review this week of, say, Marvel’s Ant-Man or even Amy Schumer’s Trainwreck? You are getting neither.

Nope, you are getting an (albeit brief) overview of Mormon siblings/Dancing with the Stars alumni Derek and Julianne Hough’s Move Live dance extravaganza at the Fox Theatre in Detroit. 905771_10206285578077272_4772899360683282822_o

Yup, you read that correctly. 11109697_10206285578117273_4376833428147160117_o

John’s birthday present this year consisted of tickets to tonight’s show, given that last year ago he saw Derek on an episode of MTV’s Ridiculousness and got a kick from the Y-chomosomed Hough’s joie de vivre. And I, being the nice, thoughtful soul that I am, bought us tickets.

10985489_10206286234733688_4257423839131278927_oSo, how was it? Not bad. In a Donnie-and-Marie-meets-Magic-Mike-why-are-we-still-so-weirdly-repressed-it’s-2015 sort of way. It’s basically a two-hour episode of DWTS with blessedly little commentary and a few too many inspirational pep talks, all glitz and glamor, fox-trots and lip syncing – a K-Tel cornucopia of pop music and flash-dancing.

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Move Live

Back to the show? It is so Branson, Missouri-meets-Baz Lurhmann that I kinda dug it. Move Live is high-energy, filled with up-to-the-minute pop hits, and the Hough siblings can move – no pun intended. Hence, the show is aptly named.

Downside? Julianne (d*mn painful in one of the lead roles in the recent film adaptation of Rock of Ages) insists on singing. A lot. And her voice (charitably put) is like hearing two latex balloons rubbed together. Someone needs to intervene.

However, as a dancer, Julianne is divine … albeit she does remind me of desperate-for-validation cheerleaders with whom I went to high school, so I found her a wee bit exuberantly repulsive at times.

(Some of those aforementioned cheerleaders are firmly in the camp of those who think “pig wrestling” is really awesome now, so that didn’t much help Julianne’s cause. My worlds are colliding in a really unfortunate way this evening.)

11713854_10206286222093372_7765995984257500901_oDerek on the other hand is pretty darn charming. I hadn’t warmed to his gifts from that one episode of Ridiculousness, but, watching him in Move Live, I thought, “Yeah, there’s a star. He has the face of a rat and the body of Michelangelo’s David, but that’s a star.”

Derek sang as often as his sister, and, while his voice isn’t going to put Andrea Bocelli out of work, it’s stronger than Julianne’s.

He also has an engaging presence that had the DTWS-sycophants in the audience eating from the palm of his hand.

Move Live

The numbers ran the gamut from Bruno Mars’ au courant “Uptown Funk” to Christina Aguilera’s pastiche “Candy Man” to Elvis Presley’s moldy chestnut “Jailhouse Rock.” All were delivered with a polish and a joy that one only sees in a Broadway-caliber musical revue. 10873632_10206286215893217_1080407561164823413_o

My snide sh*tty snark aside, the Hough siblings are really d*mned adorable, and I enjoyed myself greatly. I felt like I’d time-traveled to 1979, watching a super-special, family-friendly episode of Solid Gold, starring Donny and Marie, The Carpenters, and Captain and Tennille. 11705498_10206286714585684_924200078516691853_o

And you know what? That’s just fine. If that’s the niche these fabulously talented siblings are destined to fill, then I dare say that this sad and troubling era could use a touch of their Me Decade-inspired sparkle.

#LaCageAuxMormons ____________________________

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.

Zippy, socially incendiary fun with a side of self-mythologizing: Motown the Musical in Chicago

Somewhere between the toxic camp of Dreamgirls and the theme park spectacle that is Motown the Musical, the real story of Berry Gordy and Diana Ross lives.

Currently playing at Chicago’s Oriental Theatre, the Broadway transplant tells the tale of Motown Records’ founding and (ostensibly) the true life story of its chief mastermind Gordy and of his key preoccupation/inspiration call-her-MISS-Ross.

(Yes, this Metro Detroit resident – yours truly – had to travel to Chicago to see a musical about the Motor City. Ah, show biz. Why this tuner isn’t in permanent residence at Detroit’s Fox Theatre I will never know.)

What I enjoyed about the show is how seamlessly it blends all of the magical hits of the Motown era into one narrative, running the gamut from Joe Louis’ historic title bout victory to the Detroit race riots to Motown’s iconic 25th anniversary television special.

The ensemble is unbelievable. A relatively small cast literally portrays hundreds of characters, many of them etched into our collective memories: Michael Jackson, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, Mary Wells, Martha and the Vandellas, Gladys Knight, Stevie Wonder, The Temptations, The Four Tops, and on and on.

For the most part, the cast – who must have a thousand dressers backstage and racks upon racks of costumes and wigs – avoids devolving into cheap mimicry, giving us fully realized, albeit brief, glimpses into the lives of these pop music celebrities.

A few moments made me wince, particularly the portrayal of a young Stevie Wonder, but that may have just been my oversensitivity at the strange chuckles from an audience who seemed to find Wonder’s blindness a source of amusement.

I don’t know how this cast does this jam-packed, high energy, Jerome Robbins-on-caffeine-pills show night after night. They must have the aerobic health of decathletes.

Clifton Oliver as Gordy and Allison Semmes as Ross acquit themselves in a lovely fashion with roles that are just a bit too idolatrous. Given that Gordy is a producer, I guess that adoration is unsurprising.

Semmes gives a nuanced performance, introducing as much critique of Ross’ famed ambition as she was likely allowed, evolving from 17-year-old hopeful to seasoned diva before our very eyes.

Other standouts are Nicholas Christopher who gives us a sweet-hearted, nervous-headed Smokey Robinson (providing the show’s best comic moments) and Jarran Muse whose Marvin Gaye is both epic talent and maddening flake.

This isn’t a bad show. In fact it’s quite delightful. However, it is too long by at least 30 minutes. And at times the manner in which fairly significant historical moments are reduced to song and dance amidst pretty fantastic digital projections is a little goofy.

I wanted to love this show. I wanted to leave the theater with all of these marvelous songs dancing through my head. At times, however, I felt pummeled by Gordy’s self-mythologizing, to the point I wanted to spend the rest of my life listening to hair metal.

Go for the spectacle, the amazing costumes, the brilliant use of light and minimalist set pieces, but prepare yourself for a marathon. The talented cast redeems a marginal book and does yeoman’s work reminding us why Motown’s canon was and is such zippy, socially incendiary fun.

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Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Thanks to BroadwayWorld for this coverage – click here to view. 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 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.

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Can’t get no respect: Robin Thicke at Detroit’s Fox Theatre

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Unfortunately for Robin Thicke, the son of Hollywood b-listers Alan Thicke and Gloria Loring, he is often seen as the poor man’s Justin Timberlake. He is actually as talented if not more so than JT. But none of us will ever know that, for he has been labeled a skeezy player by most of the major media.

I have enjoyed his music for about 10 or more years now, since he first came on the scene with his Fifth of Beethoven knock-off “When I Get You Alone” still rocking his dreadlocks and a skateboard. Since that time, he has graduated to three-piece suits and a full orchestra backing him up, though for us old fans in the group, he still plays that original hit … sans skateboard.

[Photo by Author]

I saw him at the Fox Theatre  in Detroit, and he was a fantastic throwback to an earlier, Motown-infused era. He proved himself a marvelous multi-hyphenate musician, and he graciously acknowledged his backup band much earlier in the set than anyone I have ever seen, including digital placards of every musician who supported him. It was the epitome of a “jam session” – a notion which usually leaves me cold, but his sheer joy sold it all.

Yes, he ended the show with the uber-popular “Blurred Lines “– a song that apparently has both Camille Paglia and Gloria Steinem in apoplexy. I’m not sure it’s any more offensive than anything else on the radio these days and it’s infinitely more catchy … Marvin Gaye’s family’s lawsuit notwithstanding.

Let me add, though, that I find the video problematic myself. I am not an apologist for Mr. Thicke. I don’t know if “Blurred Lines” director Diane Martel was co-opting the insane imagery of hip-hop videos to make a satirical statement, to be provocative, or to be exploitative. I have been unclear from my first viewing of it. And some days I think Thicke shot himself in the proverbial foot with this clip. Yet, he also had a hit song because of it, as he had bubbled under for over a decade with few people paying attention to his musical talent.

I suspect he feels this conflict too since the live show had very little of that dubious (gross? misogynistic?) iconography, save the occasional Bond girl silhouette on a rear projection screen. It is a sad indictment of our culture that these kind of stunts are required to get anyone to pay attention. A Faustian bargain to be sure.

IMG_0619The live show was an absolute delight, filled with exceptional craft and an infectious love for Detroit. Thicke, who seems to hail from somewhere left of Malibu, knows his audience and definitely can work a crowd, cannily including covers of hits from Michael Jackson and Al Green. He proved himself an exceptional presence, while lacking a bit of Timberlake’s joie de vivre. Regardless, he held the audience enrapt for a lean and efficient 90 minute set. His opening act, DJ Cassidy offered a wonderful range of current and vintage disco and R&B that meshed nicely with Thicke’s set.

While most of the world has decided they don’t like Robin Thicke for some inexplicable reason, his talent is unimpeachable. If he swaggers his way to a venue near you, I urge you to give his show a shot. He is very talented Hollywood progeny who deserves more respect than he tends to get.

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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 and Memory Lane both also have copies of Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series.