Count all those “live Tweets” rolling in. Fox’s #GreaseLive!

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I don’t like Grease (in any of its musical forms – Broadway, film, community theatre, drunken karaoke). And I ain’t never gonna like Grease. There are some catchy songs, and Rizzo is pretty much a Teflon-plated hoot no matter who is applying Stockard Channing’s time-tested performance template (even if Channing herself seemed like a 45-year-old playing that role). Yet, the book (in its countless revisions) can’t decide if it wants to be corny, contrived, plastic sock-hop nostalgia or crude, crass, grimy locker room ick. The character development rarely rises above that of an Archie comic – an uneasy mix of satire, camp, and canonization. And the climactic message of “be yourself … no, wait, don’t be yourself … tease, your hair, slap on Spandex pants, and strut around like an inebriated race horse” (which could describe Danny’s arc as much as it does Sandy’s) is, shall we say, problematic?

So, I came at Sunday’s Grease Live! – Fox’s gambit in the ever-escalating live televised musical arms race – with a bit of trepidation and a whole heap of hate-watching ire in my arsenal. Said arsenal remains unused this Monday morning. The show was actually kind of … good? Maybe I can deploy my ire for the Iowa caucus?

As in the days following NBC’s The Sound of Music Live!, Peter Pan Live!, and The Wiz Live! (think we could retire the “live” and the exclamation marks, folks?), there will be a lot of digital “ink” spilled and memes/GIFs posted, some fawning, some hypercritical, but one can’t deny that this new genre – that is neither really live (Live!) nor filmed, neither organic/authentic nor polished/accomplished, neither bad nor good – is a happening that energizes viewers, inspires conversation, and piques our collective cultural interest in stage musicals again.

Let it be said that none of the musicals performed to date are anything I would have chosen to perform or to see, left to my own devices. To me, these shows are all tired, shopworn, and clichéd. All have been filmed and/or performed live on television before, and, with the exception of The Wiz, those prior adaptations were more or less already considered definitive. The next wave of shows coming down the pike – Hairspray (?!) and The Rocky Horror Picture Show – just affirms that conclusion, though Rocky Horror’s casting – gender-bending an already bent show – may prove intriguing.

For all intents and purposes, these shows are less theatre, more stunt spectacle, as if a monster truck rally and a high school theatre department collaborated for a production that none of us really want to see again but can’t not watch. NBC/Fox could give a fig what theatre snobs think. These shows are a throwback to a time when The Wizard of Oz and Gone With The Wind aired annually on network television, when people didn’t think twice when three (!) different television adaptations of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella aired over the years, or when plays like Twelve Angry Men could hit Broadway and be a live television event and a major motion picture in rapid succession. It’s called event programming – it’s always existed, it’s always drawn eyeballs and made money for the networks, it’s always had corporate sponsors (Alcoa! Coca-Cola! Frigidaire!) …  and viewers have always said their era was better than the one in which we find ourselves now.

Grease Live! had the spectacle part down pat. There were clever fourth-wall-breaking behind-the-scenes commercial breaks and scene transitions (grimacing host Mario Lopez and those runaway golf carts notwithstanding). The film-worthy indoor/outdoor sets and the acres of Warner Brothers’ backlot dedicated to the production, including a full-fledged amusement park, were incredible (rainstorms notwithstanding). I would love to know how they accomplished the seamlessly gliding transitions from one fully-realized location to the next – notably the transitions from Rizzo’s Pepto-Bismol pink bedroom to a glitzy USO stage and back (Keke Palmer’s star turn on forgotten number “Freddy My Love”) or from gleaming 360 degree art deco diner to “Teen Angel” heaven (Carly Rae Jepsen’s otherwise forgettable new tune “All I Need Is An Angel” and BoyzIIMen’s shaky “Beauty School Dropout”).

Hamilton helmer Thomas Kail’s direction of all the musical numbers (aided and abetted beautifully by Glee alum Zach Woodlee’s loving choreography) was sharp, purposeful, and epic, furthering the narrative in clever ways (Jordan Fisher’s “Those Magic Changes” an early delight, detailing Danny Zukko’s failed efforts to “fit in”) and providing flashy, eye-popping showstoppers (“Summer Lovin’,” “Greased Lightnin’,” “Born to Hand Jive,” and the finale “You’re the One That I Want/We Go Together” all crackled with a frenetic music video energy … and that’s a good thing). And the costumes (and instantaneous costume changes)?  To die for.  Frothy, cute, and kinetic.

The cast – made up of Disney Channel refugees, Grease movie alumni, and a handful of legit stage stars – wasn’t always able to match the technical prowess, and I suspect Kail was wisely hedging his bets by layering on the gloss and the wow, so we didn’t notice (or care) when a cast member hit a sour note (rarely) or performed their dialogue like they were reading the side of a cereal box (often). Vanessa Hudgens’ Rizzo was the star of the night. Her Rizzo may have lacked pathos, but she added a layer of heartbroken outsider sweetness (not unlike what Laura Benanti brought to Sound of Music’s “Baroness”) that was an appealing counterpoint to all the gum-cracking sass. She infused “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee” with a welcome playfulness that kept the song from devolving into sheer meanness (as it often does).

The aforementioned Keke Palmer brought presence and poise to her Marty, quietly driving every scene in which she appeared, and Jepsen was appealingly forlorn as pink-haired loser Frenchy. The Pink Ladies, generally, kept the enterprise afloat, with a loveable sauciness that unfortunately was unmatched by the rather forgettable T-Birds. Not a moment stood out for the greasers, though Aaron Tveit’s Danny Zuko was a singing/dancing marvel. He is arguably the most accomplished musical vet of the cast (Next to Normal, Les Miserables), and it showed, in both good and bad ways. He hit every mark, sang like an angel, and nailed every move and gesture and pose … but he didn’t seem to be having one darn bit of fun. He lacked an impish sparkle that would have sold the performance for the ages, which is a shame, as he did bring a hunky empathy and kindness that actors typically don’t give the role, distracted as they often are with the pompadour and the leather jacket and the cars and the mythically phony “50s-ishness” of it all.

Julianne Hough is not my cup of tea. Never has been. Like Tveit, she has the technical know-how (particularly where movement is concerned) but she has this inherent bland unlikeability that I can’t ever quite get past. Yet, in the case of this production, that quality served her and the show well (to a degree). I’ve never understood why Rizzo, in particular, hates Sandy so much, so quickly. The nebulously defined rivalry over Danny just never works (and is too sexist anyway). So, having a lightly annoying Sandy to motivate a less bullying Rizzo worked for me, whether that was intentional or just a happy accident of chemistry.

Rounding out the cast, Saturday Night Live’s Ana Gasteyer was stoic perfection, as the malaprop-spewing Rydell High principal, and Wendell Pierce was fun as an archetypically pompous and inept coach/gym teacher. Didi Conn (Frenchy in the original film) and Eve Plumb (“Jan Brady”) offered spry cameo turns, and Jessie J (England’s answer to P!nk) did a serviceable job performing the iconic “Grease (Is the Word)” over the opening credits – a tune originally sung by Frankie Valli and written by Barry Gibb for the 1978 film. Never mind that the lyrics to “Grease (Is the Word)” make absolutely no sense (the term “word salad” springs to mind) nor do they have any discernible connection to the plot; the tune’s catchy, we all know it, and it’s perfectly marketable as a pop single. Money, money, money!

In the end, that’s all Grease Live! was every really about anyway. This isn’t great art. This isn’t Great Performances. (Hell,  that high-minded PBS program is underwritten by the Koch Brothers now, isn’t it?) These “live” musicals are an exercise in commerce with a light veneer of artistic pretense. Take some songs you know and a premise you vaguely recall from your youth, mix in a Fantasy Island’s gaggle of dubious “talents,” layer on some high-paying sponsors, promote the sh*t out of it, and count all those “live Tweets” rolling in. #Captalism_Live!

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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.

A day late and a dollar short: NBC’s Peter Pan Live!

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I was an apologist for last year’s inaugural live musical broadcast on NBC: The Sound of Music Live! starring pop/country superstar and American Idol winner Carrie Underwood.

In defense of those rather cardboard proceedings, featuring an underwhelmingly wooden (see what  I did there? 🙂 ) performance from the otherwise charming, sweet, golden-voiced Ms. Underwood, I wrote, “Bully to NBC and the production team and the cast for their accomplishment and for giving the Wal-Mart generation a glimpse of another era. … Let’s hope for more live theatre on network TV … and less Wal-Mart.”

After finally slogging through Peter Pan Live! via the wonders of DVR, can I rescind that wish?

Good lord, but there was even MORE Wal-Mart: the creepily self-satisfied, Midwestern, hetero-normative, consumerist-fantasy, vaguely Christian with a capital “C”, generic family that peppered every d*mn commercial break during last year’s broadcast being replaced by a creepily self-satisfied, Midwestern, hetero-normative, consumerist-fantasy, vaguely Christian with a capital “C”, celebrity family, that of Sabrina the Teenage Witch Melissa Joan Hart, doing her darndest to look winsome and bake cookies and project a calm, ethereal, Donna Reed-passivity that would make Gloria Steinem’s head explode.

And good googly wooglies but as much as I hated the ever-increasingly invasive Wal-Mart ads, the show was worse. Others seem to disagree, but I found this production flatter, duller, drearier, and more aggravating than last year’s. Perhaps I gave Underwood and company a pass because it was the first time in decades someone had attempted such a spectacle. Perhaps Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Sound of Music is just a stronger show in its bones than Jule Styne/Adolph Green/Betty Comden’s Peter Pan. Perhaps Sound of Music had a stronger supporting cast, capable performers like Audra McDonald and Laura Benanti who knew how to transcend the molasses and pop off the screen with sparkle and charm. Perhaps all of the above.

 

My mother Susie Duncan Sexton emailed me immediately following the Peter Pan broadcast – the subject line was “panning pan” and the content is slightly edited here for a family audience 🙂 …

Petuh, Petuh, Petuh…Christopher Walken as Hook channeled Bette Davis?  Kelli O’Hara as Mrs. Darling could have played Petuh or Wendy.  Wendy girl [Taylor Louderman] was great but looked 47.  Nana dog was the best of all.  Show was about as LIVE as a corpse in a casket.

The costumes? (Kelli alone even got that right)  Petuh Pan girl should have worn tights and elf shoes/hiking boots exposing a hint of waxed legs…And, with their outrageous costumery for Tiger Lily’s men and sometimes the pirates, why not give Petuh a pointy hat?!?

And Allison Williams as Petuh never left girldom.  Was this a fever dream about some very odd female rite of passage? Just exchange thimbles either with other girls or with castrated fun-loving immature boys whom they will mother, rather than ever … you know what?

And I kept thinking of Natalie Wood for some reason?  What would she have thought of Walken on a boat with BTW the most talented folks in the show?  Had been looking forward to the production and kept thinking –through all of the lengthy commercial breaks (breaks causing ADD) filled with materialistic mind sets from big families who could even maybe adopt lost boys–that it would improve?

And how about this suggestion.  When Minnie Driver pushed the show down for a completed drowning death that the windows might have opened and Allison’s dad, newscaster Brian Williams, himself flew in?  His man daughter with the waxed legs all grown up?  And did they write unmemorable new-stale songs for this thing or what?

 

My mom is spot on.

As I watched this thing in dribs and drabs over the past weekend – 30 minutes here, 30 minutes there – I grew more horrified with each installment. Was Walken being punished somehow? Or were we, the audience? He seemed miserable, tone-deaf, and medicated like an aging drag queen who’d put in one too many performances of “I Will Survive” at The Jolly Roger in Provincetown. And the dancing? His much-vaunted dancing? All I saw was a lot of leaning left and right, fay hand gestures, and an occasional pretend tap sequence or too. Is that latter bit called lip-syncing? Toe-syncing?

Williams is arguably a smidgen better actor than Underwood but she definitely doesn’t have the erstwhile Maria’s pipes or, for that matter, simple sweetness. Williams had all the pluck and charm of a ball point pen and, at times, she performed like a well-heeled, smart-alecky co-ed slumming on her winter break from Barnard.

Christian Borle as Mr. Darling/Smee was ok. I find him talented but one-note usually. I may be in the minority, but I thought this production highlighted all of his airless, stiff limitations. O’Hara, on the other hand, was magic. In this production, she reined in her overly plucky twinkle, and gave us a Mrs. Darling who was warm, authentic, poignant, and haunting. I very much like what she did with the role. It was a sobering juxtaposition to everything else.

Ah, everything else. The ingeniously fluid set design employed during Sound of Music was definitely on display, but a bigger budget does not necessarily bring better taste or strategic restraint. Neverland looked like it was outfitted by Hot Topic and Justice store employees hopped up on acid and Diet Coke. The Lost Boys/Pirates/Natives (basically all the group numbers) were a hoot to watch – that’s generally when the show came alive, especially the Pirates … but they all appeared to have been costumed by cast-off pieces from The Village People’s camp classic (?) Can’t Stop the Music (directed by Nancy Walker, btw/wtf).

It was this jarring conflict of tone and energy and intent that was most problematic. As my mom suggests with her “pointy hat” remark, if the show had just gone for all-out crazy the way the set and costume design suggest, it would have been an absolute riot. Peter Pan is a strange children’s (?) book with a lot of bizarre Freudian subtext (and super-text) made even odder when musicalized with a grown woman playing the lead and a cast of grown men all in pursuit of and at odds over finding the perfect mother (seemingly the show’s primary narrative conceit).

The production designers seemed to get that innate oddness, but, apparently, they were attending different team meetings from the director and cast who approached the material with flat affect and somber tone … when they could remember their lines, that is. The only way this thing would have worked (in addition to excising an hour of material/advertisements) would have been to celebrate its peculiarity, not only in production values but in performance. We needed unhinged whimsy but got unhinged boredom.

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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.

Two-parts 12-year-olds’ slumber party, one-part Bettie Page pinup calendar: Katy Perry’s Prismatic World Tour at The Palace of Auburn Hills

Cover Girl

Cover Girl

 

Katy Perry is adorable. I realize this is not news. But when you spend several hours in her orbit during her Prismatic World Tour you are stunned by the extent of her Hello-Kitty-meets-Mae-West powers.

Like Madonna before her (only without the hauteur), Perry mines every element of current (and past) pop culture to concoct a cheeky confection that is two-parts 12-year-olds’ slumber party, one-part Bettie Page pinup calendar.
 
Hot n Cold

Hot n Cold

 

 

 

Every pop dolly from Britney to Gaga has been after Madge’s crown for years, but I daresay Katy sneaked off with it ages ago with a wink and a smile. Whereas Madonna couches her pop appropriation (theft?) in Marlene Dietrich-style Teutonic frost, Perry zooms in on California sunbeams with a spray of confetti in her wake. But don’t be fooled by the bonbon guise, Perry is just as crafty, intelligent, and witty as her forebear.

 
Walking On Air

Walking On Air

 

Last night’s show at the Palace of Auburn Hills, attended by a sold-out crowd of crazed KatyCats who braved one of the most torrential downpours in recent memory, was/is an epic tribute to one young person’s (Perry’s) astounding ability to crank out nearly two-dozen top ten hits in half a decade. These are the kind of ubiquitous, ear-wormy, inescapable, platinum(!) sing-alongs that most rock stars would give their eyeteeth to have just once in a lifetime. In this sense, Perry and her prodigious musical output have as much in common with the Jackson siblings – Janet and Michael – as any other singers. Like those two talents, the hits just keep on coming … like you’re being pummeled in a disco-fied prizefight.

 
Prismatic

Prismatic

Perry’s latest extravaganza is a deceptively lean and efficient delivery mechanism for all of her numbers, running the gamut from ancient Egypt to 80s video games, from LOLCats-inspired memes to hippie dippie flowers and fairies. The show is a technical marvel with nary a misstep.  As one might expect from a tour dubbed “prismatic,” COLOR! and pyramids and COLOR! and light and COLOR! and triangles and COLOR! are key visual elements.

 
The cartoon cavalcade of costumery appears to have been designed by Roy G. Biv on a bender … and it’s exquisite. The lighting scheme is rife with laser beams, pyrotechnics, kitschy/campy video projections, and enough light-pipes to make Tron green with envy.
 
Birthday

Birthday

As anyone who watched (and loved) Perry’s documentary Part of Me (click here) will attest, Perry’s aesthetic may be best described as American Greetings crossed with Andy Warhol, and the front woman delivers it all with wide-eyed wonder, tongue firmly in cheek. In this sense she may be more Jeff Koons than his self-appointed muse Lady Gaga – sorry, Little Monsters.

My high points from the show?
 
Turning “Hot-n-Cold” into a cabaret number featuring singing/dancing/jazz-handy felines; lightly kinky “Birthday” delivered with zero irony in what appears to be a Chuck E. Cheese party from hell; and closing number (arguably the strongest tune in her canon) “Firework” which she performs alone, amidst, yes, fireworks and wearing a Marie Antoinette gown as bedazzled by Jackson Pollock.
 
This is How We Do

This is How We Do

Every element of the show is meticulously manicured, including opening acts Ferras and Kasey Musgraves, both of whom give the kind of fully-realized performances you rarely see in a warm-up. Ferras is the missing link between Flock of Seagulls and Adam Lambert, strutting about the stage, delivering his new wave hoo-ha in a supremely confident and compelling manner.

 
Kittywood

Kittywood

Musgraves, though, is the stealth winner of the evening – a twangy Laura Benanti who complements nicely Katy Perry’s Lucille Ball-esque screwball tomfoolery.

Enveloping the audience in a big country hug, Musgraves delivers her sweetly sharp, refreshingly progressive hits like “Follow Your Arrow” and “Merry Go ‘Round” not to mention Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots are Made for Walkin'” amidst neon cacti and groovy roots musicians. Genius counterprogramming on Perry’s part.

 
Katycats

Katycats

Both Musgraves and Perry are adept at torching their own glamazon façades and letting their freak flags fly, directly interacting with their audiences in funny and touching ways. Last night’s production felt as if a female Rat Pack had arrived from somewhere beyond Pluto to stage a Pride parade, bringing too-cool-for-school hipsters, screaming junior high girls, their befuddled parents, random “bros” ashamed to admit how much they love pop music, and tightly wound Walmart shoppers all into one big tent revival of tolerance, expression, and joy. I loved every minute!

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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.

“I thought we had Cate Blanchett for the budget?” 22 Jump Street

Description: Film poster; Source: Wikipedia [linked]; Portion used: Film poster only; Low resolution? Sufficient resolution for illustration, but considerably lower resolution than original. Other information: Intellectual property by film studio. Non-free media use rationales: Non-free media use rationale - Article/review; Purpose of use: Used for purposes of critical commentary and illustration in an educational article about the film. The poster is used as the primary means of visual identification of this article topic. Replaceable? Protected by copyright, therefore a free use alternative won't exist.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

There is no question I like my movies silly. Silly but smart and self-aware.

Similarly, I like my Channing Tatum silly. Silly but smart and self-aware.

22 Jump Street delivers on both expectations in spades.

When a beautiful person – like Tatum or, say, Jon Hamm or Charlize Theron – can let their freak flag fly, shed vanity, and just be a big goof, I find that endlessly appealing. Tatum, with his James-Dean-on-steroids pout and lunkhead-with-sparkle charm, hit an unexpected comedic home run with the cinematic adaptation of 21 Jump Street in 2012. And that left-field success is (quite literally) repeated with 2014’s sequel.

Tatum’s partner in (fighting) crime Jonah Hill is the perfect match in his sheer opposite-ness. When we first met their characters “Jenko” (Tatum) and “Schmidt” (Hill) in 21 Jump Street, comic gold was spun from their playing against type. Tatum was the loose-limbed Looney Tune, and Hill was his (sort of) straight man. (Imagine Bud Abbott in Lou Costello’s body.)

Wisely, the formula carries over in the now-franchise’s latest installment. Rather than posing as high school students to break up a drug ring, however, cops Jenko and Schmidt go to (wait for it) college to break up a drug ring. The very meta film, directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (on a satirical roll following February’s blockbuster The Lego Movie), gives us one, yes, self-aware joke after another, ridiculing Hollywood’s tendency to bloat and distort what was once witty originality in the crass desire to mint money from one unnecessary sequel after another.

You know you’re in good hands when the redoubtable Rob Riggle reappears from the first film, continuing to crack wise on how the “boys” look like 40-year-olds and shamelessly ridiculing Schmidt’s whiny sycophancy.

Other standouts in the cast include Jillian Bell as sardonic (and just plain hysterically mean) college dorm devil “Mercedes;” Wyatt Russell (son of Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell) as a golden-haired, puka-shell-necklace-wearing frat/football bro “Zook;” and Ice Cube (as cantankerous “Captain Dickson”) who has somehow managed to turn his rage-against-any-machine 90s persona into wry, whip-smart comic firepower.

The plot is admittedly inconsequential. The film starts nowhere and ends in the same place – pretty much all by design. However, if you want to see two good-hearted, happy-as-clams performers (Tatum and Hill) decimate a college campus while careening about in a go-cart decorated like a football helmet or skewer all the tried-and-true spring break Where the Boys Are cliches or offer zany subtle-as-a-sledgehammer critique of America’s ongoing puritanical dance with homophobia, then this is the movie for you. And for me.

(And be sure to stay through the credits. Some of the free-wheeling-est jokes are made as the filmmakers propose about 30 more Jump Street films that could keep the team of Tatum and Hill in business for decades.)

P.S. Thanks to my mom – author and columnist – Susie Duncan Sexton for allowing me to guest-write her ‘Old Type Writer’ column this month on Jennifer Zartman Romano’s ‘Talk of the Town.’ You can check out our tribute to Tony Award-winning actress Laura Benanti here.

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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.

 

Empathetic philosophy and ebullient heartache: Laura Benanti at Indianapolis’ The Cabaret at the Columbia Club

Benanti with my mom and me

Benanti with my mom and me

On this Tony Award weekend, we had the privilege of meeting a fabulous Tony-winner – Laura Benanti – last night at Indianapolis’ The Cabaret at the Columbia Club.

The Columbia Club

The Columbia Club

You might recall last fall that I was a staunch defender of NBC’s production of The Sound of Music (click here), which I thought suffered unfairly from a lot of social media-fueled schadenfreude. The one element that did not need defending, by me or anyone else, because it was universally lauded as perfection, was the performance by Laura Benanti as the Baroness.

Roy and Susie with poster

Roy and Susie with poster

I am happy to report that she is even more terrific in real life.

Benanti with my dad

Benanti with my dad

Throughout her fizzy cabaret show, not a note is missed – musically, comedically, thematically. She is one of the most engaging performers I’ve ever had the privilege to observe.

But even more importantly, she is kind and down-to-earth and real.
My mother and I accidentally ran into her at the elevator right before her performance. Rather than keep her distance, she walked right over to us, and with an effervescent smile, queried, “You’re coming back, aren’t you?” Of course we were! And, even though she had a two hour set to get herself psyched up for, she stood there and talked to us for several minutes.

 

 

 

I might add that she is just as gracious with all of her fans following the performance in what otherwise can be sometimes awkward for both audience and performer: the dreaded meet and greet. She takes time with each and every one and genuinely connects with all.

Almond with me and my mom

Almond with me and my mom

With my starstruck gushing aside, what about the performance itself? It is such great fun – a brilliant blend of soaring vocals, crack comic timing, cheeky irreverence, and poignant character analysis. The essence of what makes cabaret such a viable art form.

The Big Room

The Big Room

Benanti is marvelously aided and abetted by her amazing musical director Todd Almond who is as much sidekick and partner as accompanist, composing the original tunes, vocalizing with Benanti, and offering the periodic witty aside. And, by the way, he is equally personable, following the performance, happily taking my loony suggestions of pop nuggets they can skewer in their act – notably, my latest obsession Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea’s “Problem.”

Why, might you ask was I so bold to suggest such a silly song for these accomplished musicians to perform in their act?
Susie and Roy Capone

Susie and Roy Capone

 

Well, for someone like Benanti who moves seamlessly between My Fair Lady‘s “On the Street Where You Live” to Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” to Nine‘s “Unusual Way” (mesmerizing!) not to mention Sisqo’s “The Thong Song,” it seems a logical addition.

What you may gather from the preceding paragraph is that Benanti’s show is a gutsy synthesis of her tastes and style and identity. She wears all these songs easily … which is a remarkable gift. She is always herself yet simultaneously channeling a wild array of characters.
Benanti and me

Benanti and me

 

This tour is captured live on her album “In Constant Search of the Right Kind of Attention,” recorded at 54 Below, formerly the iconic disco Studio 54. My recommendation? Buy this album now, and enjoy it like you would a cast recording before going to see a Broadway show. The album is remarkable, but seeing Benanti act and sing these songs live is something not to be missed. There are enough variances between the album and the show to keep things interesting, and I won’t spoil the surprises here. If she comes to your town, run (don’t walk) to see her.

Most compelling is the manner in which Benanti paints a picture of her life as a perpetual (though fiercely independent) underdog. About someone so talented and beautiful, that may be hard to believe, but the reality is she has always been a quirky theater kid on the outside looking in. Amusingly, she lays bare the personal turmoils of a young girl listening to cast albums, learning to play the ukulele, and dressing up as obscure musical theater characters for Halloween.
Cheers

Cheers

 

(She also isn’t afraid to go off script, poking gentle fun at the more provincial elements of the Hoosier-land where she was performing. I love my home state, but I give Benanti many props for gently reminding her audience that tolerance and compassion and humanity are essential regardless your background or beliefs. And if one can get that message across with a smile on one’s face, it makes an impact.)

I leave you with a clip of her singing “Mr. Tanner,” a forgotten gem by Harry Chapin. This number was a highlight for me both when I first listened to the recording as well as during the live performance. It definitely gives you a sense of her empathetic philosophy and ebullient heartache. Enjoy!

[All photos by Don Sexton – more here.]

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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.

Countdown: Nebraska

From my wonderful publisher Open Books

Almost there folks! Just 4 days remain until the official launch of ReelRoyReviews, a book of film, music, and theatre reviews, by Roy Sexton!

Please note that, in addition to online ordering, the book currently is being carried by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan and by Memory Lane Gift Shop in Columbia City, Indiana. Memory Lane also has copies of Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series.

Here’s what Roy thinks about Nebraska: “Payne absolutely nails the small-town American vibe of suspicious desperation, envious gossip, and corrosive pride, and he does it without once condescending to his subject matter or judging the characters in play.”

Learn more about REEL ROY REVIEWS, VOL 1: KEEPIN’ IT REAL by Roy Sexton at http://www.open-bks.com/library/moderns/reel-roy-reviews/about-book.html. Book can also be ordered at Amazon here.

“He believes everything that people tell him…” Nebraska

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I daresay Alexander Payne’s Nebraska may be my favorite film of 2013, and it is in my top 100 of all time. Payne (Election, Sideways, About Schmidt) presents as believable a treatise on family in middle America as I’ve ever seen, but, in his nuanced approach, he never loses the cinematic essence of his narrative.

The film stars Oscar nominee Bruce Dern as a Montana curmudgeon who gets one of those “you’ve won a million dollars if you just buy some magazines” come-ons in the mail. In his deep desire for something special to happen in his life, he believes it. The film opens as Woody Grant (Dern) makes yet another breakout from the home he shares with his exasperated wife (Dern’s brilliant fellow nominee June Squibb) and attempts to walk the 900 or so miles between Billings, Montana and Lincoln, Nebraska – where the letter-generating marketing company is headquartered – to claim his prize.

Enter Dern’s youngest son David, played by a refreshing Will Forte (Saturday Night Live, MacGruber), who beautifully balances frustration and familial love when he agrees to take his dad on the obviously fruitless quest to Lincoln. The dynamic between Dern and Forte is magic with both performers (assisted by director Payne) bringing out the best in each other, depicting a convincing parent/child dynamic with all the warmth, wit, frustration, and heart that entails.

(As an aside, I just heard, for the first time, Harry Chapin’s heartbreaking song “Mr. Tanner” courtesy of darling Laura Benanti’s equally delightful At 54 Below live album. I kept thinking about this song while watching the movie – similar joke, slightly different punchline, but equally affecting. Watch Benanti’s performance here.)

The road trip has its complications, generated in part by Woody’s alcoholism and possible dementia. Woody and David end up making a memorable stop in the father’s hometown of Hawthorne after Woody takes a fall and bangs up his noggin. Despite his son’s advice to the contrary, Woody tells a group of former drinking buddies about his newfound “winnings,” and that spark sets off a slow-burning comic powder keg of jealousy, greed, pride, resentment, and miscommunication among Woody’s family and friends.

Payne absolutely nails the small-town American vibe of suspicious desperation, envious gossip, and corrosive pride, and he does it without once condescending to his subject matter or judging the characters in play. The cast is perfection, from the aforementioned Dern, Forte, and Squibb to Bob Odenkirk as oldest son Ross and Stacy Keach as country-fried thug/bully Ed Pegram. I think any of us who grew up in small towns know that last guy – Keach perfectly personifies the overbearing charmer who has his greasy thumb on every citizen’s every move.

If Dern and Squibb, Payne and the movie don’t walk off with armloads of Oscars, I will be heartbroken. And Forte was robbed by not being nominated – he is the glue holding the film together.

Payne has populated the rest of the town and Woody’s extended family with a spectacular assortment of unknown performers (at least unknown to this viewer). Every one of them seems like they just walked out of the general store in AnyTown, USA and onto this movie set. The brothers, cousins, sisters-in-law in the film especially have it down: that stultifyingly overcast atmosphere created by family members who haven’t seen each other in years, with their probing questions, insulting assumptions, and tedious conversations about cars and mileage while watching Sunday afternoon football on TV. (Particularly observe Forte whose expressions in those scenes are priceless, fully leveraging his improv comedy training without breaking character once.)

Payne is not making fun of this place or its inhabitants, but he is putting this microcosm on display, warts and all, in a near-allegorical illustration of how life catches up with everyone, how we all get older, and how disappointment is a toxin that saps the soul. And somehow he gets that all done with a light touch, warm-hearted humor, and one darn poignant moment after another. When Forte and Dern arrive at the marketing joint in Lincoln, Forte tells the bemused woman who works there, “He [Woody] believes everything that people tell him.” She replies, “Oh, that’s too bad.”

And if you aren’t chuckling knowingly at Forte’s karaoke dinner with his loving/combative/crazy/adorable parents or weeping some sweet, salty tears at the film’s final moments, then you are made of granite!

Go see this movie. Now.

Fa …. a long, long way to run: The Sound of Music Live! (2013 NBC event)

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

A lot of ink (and, one might argue, blood) has been spilled in the intervening days since The Sound of Music Live! starring country/pop superstar and American Idol Carrie Underwood reaffirmed NBC as a destination for “Must See TV.”

It’s taken me a bit of time (for once) to digest all of my thoughts – less about the show and more about the absurd level of snotty, glib, social-media fueled schadenfreude it seemed to generate.

Just when I thought this telecast (which I enjoyed by the way – more on that in a moment) would be another casualty of America’s silly “culture wars,” along came news that it was one of the most highly viewed shows in recent memory.

The chief driver of controversy and ratings? Ms. Underwood herself, who somehow has become as big a cultural lightning rod as my beloved Miley.

Seriously, watching my Facebook feed Thursday night, I found it fascinating that so many of my “Red State” friends, for whom the Wal-Mart sponsored production’s selection of Underwood seemed targeted, dug in their heels and proclaimed they didn’t like “different” and “it wasn’t like the movie” and “how dare they replace Julie Andrews” (whom I should add herself replaced Mary Martin from the stage show). Conversely, my “Blue State” friends all saw this as some Tea Party conspiracy to send Broadway to the Dark Ages and “bring Hee-Haw to high culture.” (And, yeah, they also didn’t like that is wasn’t Julie Andrews. There goes Underwood, finally bringing this country together again!)

Really? Really, folks? Just unclench and enjoy that someone is trying something new –  ironic, I know, given that this particular show is a pretty musty, overdone piece of musical theatre malarkey, but just go with me here.

I applaud producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron for attempting – and succeeding – at the herculean task of getting a three hour, live musical performed, mostly without a hitch, on prime time television to blockbuster viewership. Last time that happened? Fifty years ago with another Rodgers and Hammerstein musical – Cinderella – which I might also add committed the “sacrilege” of casting a “hot young thing” in place of another actress who had originated the role (albeit in an earlier TV version). Guess who? Yup, Julie Andrews was “replaced” by Lesley Ann Warren, who was not only a bit dodgy as an actress but not that remarkable a vocalist either.

Zadan and Meron have pretty much led the charge over the past twenty years bringing the American musical into the broader popular consciousness of film and TV. And, yes, one of their gimmicks is creative and unconventional casting that gets them sponsorships, studio green lights, and viewership. Vanessa Williams and Jason Alexander and Chynna Phillips in Bye Bye Birdie. Kathy Bates in Annie. Brandy Norwood and Whitney Houston in Cinderella. Bette Midler and Cynthia Gibb in Gypsy. Richard Gere and Renee Zellwegger and John C. Reilly and Queen Latifah and Catherine Zeta-Jones in the Oscar-winning Chicago. And, yes, John Travolta (and Michelle Pfeiffer) in Hairspray. (NOTE: many of these folks were not necessarily considered musical stars before these productions, but are now.) Would these productions have been artistically “better” with Broadway vets in those roles? Probably. Would these films have gotten made, let alone watched and enjoyed by millions, without these stars? Nope.

And, furthermore, Audrey Hepburn was cast over Andrews in My Fair Lady, the Hollywood penance for this decision in turn landing Andrews Mary Poppins and, I suspect, Sound of Music, which had been written for Broadway for Mary Martin (yes, JR Ewing’s mom who made a name among American viewers for playing a boy – Peter Pan). And should Barbra Streisand have played the lead in the film Hello Dolly! or Lucille Ball Mame? And don’t even get me started on Frank Sinatra and Marlon Brando in Guys and Dolls (the latter of whom is cuter in the role than people give credit). And I’m not sure I was that nuts about Beyonce in Dreamgirls, though I did adore another American Idol – Oscar-winning Jennifer Hudson – for her contributions to that film.

What’s my point – other than showing off all the useless and opinionated knowledge I carry around in my noggin? I’m not quite sure, other than everyone chill the freak out!

How was the show? It was fine – not revelatory but not a train wreck either. Quite the contrary. Yes, Underwood is not an actress, but she is a presence with a pleasant personality and a marvelous voice – all of which seemed to suit the rather bland, nun-lite role of Maria, if you ask me. (I kept thinking of Gwen Stefani the whole time for some reason – they vaguely resemble each other and I also love this riff by Stefani on “The Lonely Goatherd” – truly, check it out!)

Before I get labeled an Underwood apologist, let me say I have always been rather neutral about her. I hate American Idol. I love that she’s a vegan and an animal rights activist, vocally opposed to factory farming and ag gag bills. I find her preening, showy religiosity annoying – yes, we get it – you’re so “blessed.” I adore that she is a social progessive who believes in equal rights for all, including ardent support for gay marriageI do not like country music (unless it’s poppy stuff like Shania or Taylor). I enjoy Underwood more when she’s singing about smashing a cheating boyfriend’s car than when she’s imploring for “Jesus to take the wheel.” (She does seem to sing about motor vehicles a lot, come to think of it.)

The producers wisely surrounded Underwood with a cast of pros (True Blood‘s Stephen Moyer’s rigid and kinda dull take on Captain Von Trapp notwithstanding). Audra McDonald as Mother Abbess and Laura Benanti as the Baroness were the absolute rock star standouts of the night. I hate “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” but I was in tears from McDonald’s rendition. And Benanti was a sparkling delight, humanizing what could have been a villainous turn. She has a perfect light yet intelligent touch for this kind of production – I hope they do more with her. The kids were all fine and avoided the cloying, insufferable trap into which so many productions can fall. Newcomer Michael Campayno was marvelous in the tricky role of turncoat boyfriend Rolf.

The set design was sublime – beautifully detailed but consciously theatrical. And I got a visceral thrill when the cast would glide from one locale to another through an open door or a raised curtain, most notably when the family leaves their home for the climactic Nazi rally.

My criticism of the evening? Those d*mn creepy Wal-Mart ads that seemed designed to appeal to some modern, overpopulated, Midwestern yuppie family that buys too much crap and communicates in dull, cutesy quips via their cellular devices when they are one. room. away. from each other. Argh!

Why do people love this musical? And feel so fiercely protective of it? I’m not quite sure – there are much better shows out there, including Rodgers and Hammerstein’s many other offerings. There is a strange princess element – young nun finding love with a stodgy rich man in a castle. An inversion of the Beauty and the Beast tale? Or is it the nightmare panic that the Nazi element offers, including the pulse-pounding (and clever) escape from that oppressive regime while singing the oddly creepy “So Long, Farewell.” Not sure, but clearly a lot of folks love this darn story, so bully to NBC and the production team and the cast for their accomplishment and for giving the Wal-Mart generation a glimpse of another era.

Let’s hope for more live theatre on network TV … and less Wal-Mart.