“We may be essential workers but we aren’t expendable.” Theatre Nova’s “I’m Streaming of an ALRIGHT Christmas” and The Ringwald’s “Have Yourself a MISERY Little Christmas”

2020. The artifacts of this momentous tire-fire of a year will be fascinating to view years from now. For all of the foolishness afoot in America these days, there has also been incredible ingenuity and anxiety-induced whimsy to spare.

Our Southeast Michigan theatre community rallied to find new ways to entertain, distract, and survive this year, employing ubiquitous Zoom technology to reinvent the much-needed art of storytelling.

Ann Arbor’s Theatre Nova has reimagined its annual holiday panto tradition for this new era with sublime results. I’m Streaming of an ALRIGHT Christmas is, intentionally or not, a delightful throwback to children’s variety shows of the 1980s like Pee Wee’s Playhouse or Pryor’s Place.

Written by Carla Milarch and and R MacKenzie Lewis (who serves double duty as music director), the free-wheeling hour (just the right length!) features multi-talented David Moan, Mike Sandusky, Monica Spencer, and Charles the Puppy, with a cameo performance by a famous mystery guest (clue: “fairy ex machina”).

The story, borrowing liberally from holiday classics like Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, follows the footprint of so many tv-specials of yore, as Santa, Rudolph, Friendly the Elf, Mrs. Claus (Sandusky is a Madealike, culinarily-challenged scream here), Yukon Cornelius, the Abominable Snowman, and an adorable puppy, yes, try to “save Christmas,” this year from the “Rona Monster” (bearing an uncanny resemblance to Philly sports mascot “Gritty”). Spencer’s Friendly and Sandusky’s Rudolph exclaim early on, “We may be essential workers but we aren’t expendable!”

Sandusky

While the “Rona Monster” concept may seem a bit too on-the-nose given what we are all living through, it ends up being just the right parable for these tricky times. The script is loaded with zany references that both adults and children will enjoy, not shying away from a political pot shot or two. And the daffy and delightful musical numbers are plentiful, with nods to The Knack (lead singer of which was none other than Detroit native son and Geoffrey Fieger-sibling Doug Fieger), Les Miserables, Hamilton, and … Buck Owens (!) among others. Moan shines in a “Bring Him Home” moment that not only captures his soaring vocals and incredible musicality but also his deft comic timing.

The show is winsome and sweet and nicely avails itself of the interactivity that the Zoom platform provides. There are many moments for the kids to get involved, kind of a 21st-century version of clapping to bring Tinker Bell back to life. This show is well worth your time not to mention your investment in supporting one of our most creative local theater companies.

And speaking of fab local theater companies that exude cleverness and irreverence, The Ringwald brings us Have Yourself a MISERY Little Christmas in their inimitable style. Directed by Brandy Joe Plambeck with a smart, economical eye, the production showcases a dynamite Joe Bailey as a Santa whose “biggest fan” Annie Willis (Suzan M. Jacokes aiming for the rafters and nailing Kathy Bates in a brilliant parody performance) cares for him after a sleigh mishap.

Ringwald newcomer Aurora Boarealis Pigdon plays Annie’s pet pig and (arguably) steals the entire show

From The Ringwald’s website: “Written by Ringwald favorites Vince Kelley and Matthew Arrington … [the show] tells the story of Annie Willis, a lonely (slightly psychotic?) woman who lives in a remote cabin in Colorado. When she discovers a wrecked sleigh during a blizzard, she hauls the sole survivor back to her house to tend to him. When she discovers her patient is none other than St. Nick himself, Annie can’t believe her luck and she tries to persuade Santa to rewrite his Naughty and Nice lists to her liking. Will Santa’s Number One Fan succeed?”

Dyan Bailey is great boozy fun as Mrs. Claus, and Kelley vamps it up as Lauren Bacall. Production values are top notch, fully embracing The Ringwald’s unsung super powers around video design, editing, and execution. The cinematography and scenic design are polished and really add to the enjoyment. Unlike Theatre Nova’s offering, this one isn’t *quite* for kiddos, although teenagers of a certain satiric bent would adore it.

Bailey and Jacokes

The Ringwald is offering a bonus holiday cabaret, and, at a brisk and breezy 30 minutes, it is well worth a viewing. Again, from their website: “Also included with your ticket is the The Ringwald Holiday Cabaret, a new virtual cabaret with some of your favorite holiday melodies. The cabaret features Ringwald favorites: Kryssy Becker, Alisa Marie Chirco, Jordan Gagnon, Dante Hill, Christopher Kamm, Vince Kelley, Richard Payton, and Matthew Wallace. The cabaret is accompanied by Jeremy St. Martin.” Payton, Kamm, Gagnon, and Becker are particular standouts, with engaging delivery, articulating nicely the heartache and pathos underlying the “HAP-happiest time of the year.”

Both productions are streaming online. Theatre Nova’s performances are scheduled in order to maximize the interactivity, and The Ringwald’s show is video-on-demand. Ticket details follow…

I’M STREAMING OF AN ALRIGHT CHRISTMAS

Sun, Dec 20 5pm
Wed, Dec 23 7pm
Thurs, Dec 24 7pm
Sat, Dec 26 11am & 2pm
Sun, Dec 27 5pm

GET TICKETS HERE. Ticket holders will receive a link to click on to view and maybe even participate in the fun! Tickets are $10 (one viewer), $15 (two people), and $25 (family).

Have Yourself a MISERY Little Christmas

Tickets for Have Yourself a MISERY Little Christmas are available at three different giving levels: $20, $50, and $100. Performances stream December 4-31. Purchase here.

Once you purchase your ticket, an email will be sent to you which will include links for Have Yourself a MISERY Little Christmas, a virtual program, and a special bonus video, The Ringwald Holiday Cabaret. All of the videos are hosted on Vimeo. You can watch these on your phone/computer/tablet or, if you have the capability, you can stream them to your smart TV. (You can follow these steps to make it work).

The Sweetest Sounds” (click title for my rendition) from Richard Rodgers’ No Strings (later repurposed for the 1997 ABC/Disney television production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella with Brandy and Whitney Houston) … Want to join me in supporting a good cause? For my birthday this month (December 28 to be exact!), I’m raising money for Ronald McDonald House Charities Ann Arbor and your contribution will make an impact, whether you donate $5 or $500. Just click donate on this fundraising page: https://lnkd.in/eQ_NVZD

I’m a proud board member and have seen firsthand how every little bit helps. This little fundraiser is nearing the $3000 mark because of wonderful support from kind and generous friends like you! #keepingfamiliesclose

“The Sweetest Sounds” from No Strings
Charles the Puppy
Moan, Sandusky, Spencer

Of freak flags and time warps: The Ringwald’s production of The Rocky Horror Show

Originally published by EncoreMichigan.com

[Jacokes – image source: The Ringwald]

Richard O’Brien’s The Rocky Horror Show is a bit of an artifact of its time, when queer culture and camp were avant garde, subversive, and downright frightening to most of America. Mike Pence notwithstanding, today we’ve seen such a mainstreaming of O’Brien’s core shock tactics (gender fluidity, B-movie tropes taken to their kinkiest extremes, gay panic, sophomoric raunch) that the show almost seems like a cuddly, family-friendly enterprise. I guess we can thank Andy Warhol, John Waters, Madonna, RuPaul, Logo TV, and Sacha Baron Cohen for that? When Drag Race – the likeliest heir to Rocky Horror’s legacy – is one of the most popular reality shows in America, you know we’ve turned a corner, even if the daily headlines, Fox News, and the comments section of any given Yahoo! news story lead us to believe otherwise. Hell, Fox themselves aired a (not very good) TV remake of Rocky Horror starring trans actress/activist Laverne Cox  … in response to Carrie Underwood playing Maria in NBC’s Sound of Music Live!?! Strange days indeed.

 

[Harris – image source: The Ringwald]

Ferndale, Michigan’s The Ringwald gets all of this. This milieu is their stock-in-trade. In fact, I can practically feel their collective eyeballs roll as they read that opening paragraph. Consequently, it is assured that Ringwald will do something unique with the material, while honoring the nostalgia factor that keeps Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, and Millennials alike coming back year-after-year to this show and its classic film adaptation. The film, of course, starred Tim Curry, Barry Bostwick, and Susan Sarandon in career-launching roles with a million toast-strewn midnight-movie showings.

 

[Wallace, Harris, Gagnon, Jacokes – image by author]

Directed with aplomb by Brandy Joe Plambeck (also brilliantly pulling out all the stops as exposition- spouting character Dr. Scott), The Ringwald’s Rock Horror Show does not disappoint. Tied loosely to the bicentennial anniversary of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (I wondered why everyone was doing these kinds of shows in the middle of summer – well, I’m seeing this one), The Ringwald’s production is a damn party. Yes, O’Brien’s book reads like a series of MadLibs pages strung together and makes about as much sense. However, the songs are sublime, and they are beautifully delivered here – kudos to Jeremy St. Martin’s music direction. The bonkers characters are a scream for talented actors like Ringwald’s to play. No bit of scenery remains unchewed; no audience member unaccosted. And it’s divine.

 

Defying convention, Plambeck transplants the show from a rambling gothic castle into a seedy biker bar, covered in punk rock graffiti and serving (non-alcoholic) drinks to audience and cast members – with smart, solid, economic scenic design from Stephen Carpenter. It’s a genius and immersive move. Squeaky clean (or are they?) Brad and Janet – representing the dreams and aspirations of middle-America to live boring, Instagram-friendly lives – stumble into said bar from the rain to use the pay phone after their car dies. While there, Brad and Janet meet a sordid cast of characters, all of whom are easy-to-judge but hard-to-avoid and totally at home in this setting. What Plambeck’s approach loses in outright spooky weirdness, it makes up for in sheer Muppet-y anarchic charm.

 

[Harris – image source: The Ringwald]

The bar is run by one Dr. Frank N. Furter who uses sex as a weapon AND a floor show. In a welcome bit of gender-blind casting, Suzan M. Jacokes takes on the role. Her acting style seems pneumatically engineered for an outsized, cartoonish part like this, and she doesn’t disappoint. While nuance may not be her forte, she has power, polish, volume, and command to spare. You can’t look away. I did miss some of the slithering insinuation we typically associate with the role, but Tim Curry’s gonzo performance will always cast a long shadow. Jacokes deserves plaudits for stomping it to the ground and making it uniquely her own. She’s like the caffeine-addled lovechild of Gloria Swanson and Rodney Dangerfield. She nails the anthemic “I’m Coming Home” number, with just the right hint of Liza/Judy-ish “little girl (boy?) lost” pathos.

 

[Wallace, Gagnon – image by author]

Matthew Wallace and Jordan Gagnon as Brad Majors and Janet Weiss, respectively, are an absolute delight, setting aside the faux innocence often brought to the roles and bringing a postmodern loopy assuredness that is fun to watch. Their love/hate dynamic in “Dammit Janet” and later “Super Heroes” is touching, thoughtful, and refreshingly believable, particularly in the midst of such a carnival-esque enterprise. Their characters benefit best from the updated locale. The hedonism of a late-night, dead-end watering hole on a stormy night (and with no vehicular escape) would indeed lead to some relationship topsy-turviness.

 

Brad and Janet arrive smack in the midst of Dr. Frank N. Furter’s experiments (in a bar?) to genetically engineer the perfect man and sexual plaything “Rocky.” Garett Michael Harris as Rocky turns in an eye-poppingly nimble performance that is more Iggy Pop than Tab Hunter. He’s terrific.

 

[Riedel, Bailey, Sulkey – image by author]

Janet takes up with Rocky; Frank takes up with Brad (and Janet). Brad and Janet’s former science professor Dr. Scott arrives in a wheelchair (and glittering pumps) to drop a whole sh*t-ton of backstory. Frank reveals that he and his fellow bar denizens are actually space aliens (!) who left their mission behind to get freaky with earthlings. Servants Riff Raff (effectively underplayed by Donny Riedel) and Magenta (Dyan Bailey – imbuing Magenta’s “over it” personality with her trademark Kathleen Turner-esque a$$-kickery) shoot up the bar with ray guns and demand a return to their home planet. Brad and Janet escape, sweetly acknowledging their love and their need for one another. Finis. Whew.

 

The ensemble work (Colleen Bielman, Ryan Kayla, Peggy Lee, Rebecca S. Mickle as “The Fantoms”) is exceptional, and the group numbers (“Time Warp,” “Floor Show”) really pop in The Ringwald’s tiny space. Efficient and effective choreography is provided by Molly Zaleski. Articulation in the group numbers sometimes gets muddled, but most of the audience knows these songs backwards and forwards so that can be forgiven. Austin Sulkey makes a fabulously exasperated/exasperating Columbia, whose love of delivery boy Eddie (a swaggering RJ Cach) ends in tragedy. Costuming on both Columbia and Eddie is great as they look like they just stepped off Pat Benatar’s “We Belong” video. Vince Kelley has done remarkable sartorial work here across the board, tying the updated setting’s aesthetic with the imagery we are accustomed to seeing in this show. Clever stuff.

[Jacokes – image source: The Ringwald]

 

Peggy Lee (no, not that Peggy Lee) deserves a special shout out for her work as “Fantom Flo.” She hauntingly delivers the show’s opening and closing numbers (“Science Fiction Double Feature” and its reprise). Her voice is exquisite – clear and crisp and evocative.

Lee also embraces “biker chic” better than anyone else in the cast, save ursine narrator David Schoen, who greets every audience member at the door, brings you to your seat, may pull you up on stage, and is completely “Hell’s Angel” intimidating in a totally adorable way.

 

This is a production put together by people who clearly love this show. The stage manager Holly Garverick shouts out all of the expected audience participation lines from the back of the house, encouraging the audience to interact with the proceedings, a la those midnight movie house showings throughout the 70s and 80s. One thought: let’s all retire yelling “slut” whenever Janet’s name is mentioned onstage. It may be tradition, but, in these “I’m With Her”/#MeToo days, it feels all kinds of misogynistic wrong.

 

[Jacokes – image source: The Ringwald]

Audience members are encouraged to purchase (for a nominal fee) a bag of props (playing cards, rubber gloves, party hats, bells, glow sticks, newspapers, kazoos, “Time Warp” dance instructions) to use at key moments during the show. Garverick may want to help with that a bit, as well, as the opening night audience didn’t seem terribly keen on using any of those goodies, save the newspapers.

 

On August 4, The Ringwald will perform the show in a special midnight performance, again to evoke those high school years when people convinced their parents it would be ok for them to go take in a showing at the witching hour.

 

[Riedel – image source: The Ringwald]

Why has Rocky Horror been such a success all these years? I often wonder. However, The Ringwald’s production reminds us that, while the show may not be Pulitzer Prize-winning material, it champions underdogs and misfits, encourages all of us to let our freak flags fly, and envisions a world where inclusion of any and all is the ideal … in one really weird package. That is why. And that message is more important than ever before. Vive la difference.

 

The Ringwald’s production of The Rocky Horror Show runs until August 6. For tickets, go to http://www.theringwald.com

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Lauren Crocker and Roy Boy

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.