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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You’ve got a friend in me: Captain Kangaroo, blogging buddies, and movies

Captain Kangaroo

Captain Kangaroo

Facebook is fun! As some of my colleagues might tell you, I fought social media tooth and nail about five years ago, but now I can’t imagine a world without it. It breaks down barriers, opens minds, and disseminates interesting information like no other channel.

My pal Nick Sweet, a crime novelist born in England and now living in Spain, tagged me in a blog chain and asked me to answer the following questions. You can read his original post here.

But me being me … I can’t just do what I’m told. So I’m going to intersperse my answers with pages from another one of the “reviews” I wrote in my toddler years – this time about an episode of my beloved Captain Kangaroo. In fact, I adored the show so much I have my own autographed photo of Bob Keeshan as the Captain. (And you can check out Baby Roy’s take on The Bullfighter and the Lady here – thanks to my mom for saving these whimsical pages from my youth.)

Captain 1

Part of my task as assigned by Nick is also to “pay it forward” and acknowledge some bloggers that I love – please check out their work …

  • My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s fabulous free-thinking blog about animals, culture, empathy, and understanding here.
  • Beth Kennedy’s charming musings about yesterday and today at I Didn’t Have My Glasses On.
  • Lovely Kat Kelly Heinzelman’s thoughts on family, friends, and baseball at RedSoxLady35.
  • Gabriel Diego Valdez’ careful analysis of film, culture, and social politics at Basil Mariner Chase.
  • And my fellow thespian JP Hitesman’s energetic romp through local theatre offerings at Theatrical Buddha Man.

All five blogs are engaging and challenging and informative and rich – written by kind and thoughtful souls, hoping for a better, kinder world.

Captain 2

And here are my answers to Nick’s questions …

What am I working on?

What am I not working on? Between my daily life as a legal marketer, communicator, and strategic planner and my “free time” writing this blog, getting the word out about the Reel Roy Reviews book, proudly promoting my mom’s marvelous output as an author and a columnist and an animal rights activist, trying to be a good friend and family member, sharing a loving home and minding two nutty mutts, keeping up with my weekly comic book addiction, acting in and supporting local theatrical efforts, going to concerts and movies and plays, buying an ungodly amount of cds and dvds, and on and on, I’m not sure which end is up most days!

How does my work differ from others in its genre?

Stealing this from the press release about the book … “I try to respect that (for the most part) these are show business professionals putting (ideally) their best feet forward and that they are human beings with hearts and souls and feelings. I hope I never seem cruel. I don’t mean to be. These writings are off-the-cuff and journal-style and come from as positive a place as I can muster….Approach everything and everyone honestly and with positive intent and offer candid feedback with an open heart and as much kindness as possible.”

Captain 3

Why do I write what I do?

Also stealing from the release (lord, I’m lazy today) … “Film is an encapsulated medium. Whether 90 minutes or three hours, a movie tells one story-beginning, middle, and end-introducing you to new friends, enemies, and locales in an efficiently designed delivery mechanism. With a good film, I feel you get the experience of reading a novel (whether or not the film is in fact based on any work of literature) in a highly compressed fashion. … In the best movie-going experience, your brain leaves your body for a bit, you take a mini-vacation to places you might not otherwise ever see, and you return to your regularly scheduled life a bit changed, perhaps enlightened, and hopefully re-energized.”

How does your writing process work?

John laughs that he thinks I write my reviews as we’re still in the parking lot of the theatre. There is some truth to that. I’ve always been annoyingly analytical while watching a movie or a play or a concert – what choices were made, why, what do they say about the artist or about our culture? So all of that stuff is swirling in my head, and I quite literally have to purge it when I get home, or I lose track of the ideas and find myself on the cranky side. So, the minute we walk in the house, I grab the laptop, head upstairs, plunk myself on the bed, and exorcise these crazy thoughts.

Captain 4

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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.

Animals, the environment, nature or wildlife: Dearborn’s Big Read Wrap-Up Event

Roy and Susie and John and Terry

Roy and Susie and John and Terry

What a wonderful day! Thanks to Henry Ford Centennial Library’s Henry Fischer for organizing the Big Read Wrap-Up author event. I was (and am) so proud that my mom Susie Duncan Sexton was among so many great writers, that she has an essay included in their book Animal Tales, and that my canine “siblings” Jack and Zelda are featured on the front cover.

Animal Tales book cover

Animal Tales book cover

 

Me reading my mom's essay

Me reading my mom’s essay

Here’s the book description: “Call of the Wild Dearborn: Animal Tales is a community anthology featuring short stories, poems, and essays about animals, the environment, nature or wildlife.” It will be available to purchase online at the library’s site soon. [All photos in this blog entry by Don Sexton.]

Authors

Authors

My mom emailed, “What I would add is the ‘moment in time’ that Selfridge [Jeremy Piven tv series] identified in his final installment for this season last night seated around a Thanksgiving table with his entire family … because you, Roy, so poised on that stage reading about Jack and Zelda with that magnificent slide of the book cover was incredibly moving for me! Like nothing ever before! Loved every moment of this event. Super concept! Pleased to have been included … I am delighted to have a story in the book and that my Jack & Zelda are a part of the cover! I once taught the works of Jack London, so I enjoyed the Call of the Wild theme of the presentations at the Saturday afternoon event.”

Rosalie's in Jonesville

Rosalie’s in Jonesville

My parents had a marvelous lunch at adorable Rosalie’s in Jonesville, Michigan, on the way to the event, and John and I had such a nice dinner with them and with Terry Branoff at La Pita in Dearborn following – with a quick stop at beloved Dearborn Music. And then Terry and I were off to see Lady Gaga. Here’s my mom’s website: www.susieduncansexton.com – enjoy!

Susie at Rosalie's

Susie at Rosalie’s

Henry Fischer

Henry Fischer

More about my mom and her work…

Roy and Susie and John and Don

Roy and Susie and John and Don

Read about movies and nostalgia, animal issues and sociopolitical concerns all discussed in her book Secrets of an Old Typewriter and its follow-up Misunderstood Gargoyles and Overrated Angels – print and ebook versions of both are available on Amazon (click the title). You can find her fun and free-wheeling blog here.

Her books are also carried by these fine retailers: Ann Arbor’s Bookbound and Common Language; Columbia City’s North Side Grille and Whitley County Historical Museum; and Fort Wayne’s The Bookmark. And you can download from iTunes.

Meet other like-minded souls at her facebook fan page. Or join a great group of animal advocates Squawk Back: Helping animals when others can’t … Or Won’t

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La Pita

La Pita

Giggle and Laugh

Giggle and Laugh

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.

Bleeding gratitude for her Little Monsters – Lady Gaga’s ArtRave tour at Detroit’s Joe Louis

The Lady herself

The Lady herself

Little Monsters, Mama Monster did you proud in the “D” tonight. Lady Gaga rocked the house at Joe Louis Arena and made me a Gaga-believer.

I freely admit that her last effort ArtPop left me a bit cold. I’d been a fair-weather fan all along, absolutely adoring some of her hook-laden hits  and scratching my head on others. Lyrically, she occasionally seemed to be picking at Tori Amos’ or Bjork’s verbally tortured scraps, yet the uptempo accompaniment always kept bringing me back for more.

Opening number

Opening number

 

 

 

But that needle skipped the record, quite literally, when I heard ArtPop for the first time, the only cut speaking to me on any level being the incredibly infectious “Applause.”

However, watching Lady Gaga’s ArtRave tour tonight, suddenly all of ArtPop snapped into perfect relief. Like watching a musical after only hearing the cast album, every number made sense in the context of Gaga’s Jeff-Koons-meets-Haruki-Murakami vision.

And most importantly Gaga seemed to be having fun. She was an inferno, dancing with military precision, belting like some Liza Minnelli/Janis Joplin lovechild, and commanding us, like some hippie dippy drill sergeant, to accept and to love and to move.

Her stage

Her stage

I fell head over heels in adoration with this talented woman tonight.

Often dressed like The Birth of Venus (by way of the Jersey Shore) or like The Little Mermaid‘s Ursula (by way of Sigmund the Sea Monster), Gaga definitely had a “we’re all in one big aquarium together” vibe going. Her backup dancers were dressed as sea creatures more often than not, and the amazingly tight orchestra seemed to be playing from the inside of a fabulous sand castle onstage.

With my pal Terry (and a Little Monster behind us)

With my pal Terry (and a Little Monster behind us)

Gaga tore through all the familiar hits – from “Poker Face” to “Paparazzi” to “Bad Romance” – landing on my personal favorite “Born This Way” as an exquisite piano ballad (as opposed to its typical four-on-the-floor sonic blast). The song took on a touching resonance that it never had when Madonna (the queen of swipe-as-homage) called it a “reductive” version of Madge’s “Express Yourself.”

(Really, Madonna, I love you, but that was unnecessary. There’s room for us all in Gaga’s big tent.)

Applause

Applause

But most notably, Gaga – whether schtick or sincerity or both – opened her heart (sorry, Madonna, couldn’t help it) time and again to the fans surrounding her fabulously asymmetrical catwalk of a stage and to those of us in the cheap seats, imploring us to be kind to one another, to be tolerant of difference, and to be empathetic in every action and deed. She bleeds gratitude for her followers, and to witness that in person is the greatest spectacle of all.

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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.