“Freedom’s what you choose to do with what’s been done to you.” Madonna’s Madame X Tour in Chicago and Come From Away National Tour in Detroit

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

“Unhappy the land where heroes are needed.” – Galileo, in Brecht’s Life of Galileo (1943)

“The theater, which is in no thing, but makes use of everything – gestures, sounds, words, screams, light, darkness – rediscovers itself at precisely the point where the mind requires a language to express its manifestations…. To break through language in order to touch life is to create or recreate the theatre.” – Antonin Artaud, The Theatre and Its Double (1938)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

“…agitprop theatre, a highly politicized theatre that originated in 1920s Europe and spread to the United States; the plays of Bertolt Brecht are a notable example. Russian agitprop theater was noted for its cardboard characters of perfect virtue and complete evil, and its coarse ridicule. Gradually the term agitprop came to describe any kind of highly politicized art.” – Wikipedia entry on “Agitprop Theatre

“Stop the world/Take a picture/Try to capture/To ensure this moment lasts/We’re still in it, but in a minute -/That’s the limit – and this present will be past.” – “Stop the World,” Come From Away

“I’m not your bitch. Don’t hang your shit on me.” – Madonna, “Human Nature” from Bedtime Stories

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

It’s funny – not “ha ha” funny, but odd funny – that I haven’t much wanted to write anything else since seeing Joker three weeks ago. That film – and Joaquin Phoenix’ transcendent performance – took up permanent residence in my brain and refracted everything I’ve viewed since. I’m still digesting that film and its profound reflection of our fragmented society. I want to see it again (and again), but maybe it’s for the best that life has intervened and, consequently, I haven’t been able to indulge that impulse.

My co-workers and yours truly in line for Madame X

Joker makes its plea for compassion and empathy in strokes both bold and nuanced, and it leaves a bruise (on the heart). That same earnest desire to reach through and wake us from our collective self-absorption and malaise was evident in two other performances I’ve taken in recently: Come From Away‘s National Tour stop at Detroit’s Fisher Theatre and Madonna’s Madame X tour residency at the Chicago Theatre, one a decided crowd-pleaser and the other a riding crop upside the head. I’m sure you can guess which is which.

Come From Away [Image Source: Wikipedia]

Come From Away is a beautiful show, on its surface a pastoral ode to the power of human kindness, belying its sharp-eyed critique of the darker sides of human nature.

Wrapped in the aural comfort food of its Chieftains-esque score, Come From Away tells the story of 38 planes rerouted to the tiny Newfoundland town of Gander during the days following 9/11 and the joys (and tensions) of a tight-knit community faced with housing and feeding and comforting thousands of stranded, anxious, and exhausted international travelers.

Come From Away [Image Source: Wikipedia]

What is brilliant about the show, beyond its Brechtian theatricality (a dozen actors play all of the townspeople and all of the visitors, using a handful of mismatched kitchen chairs, a costume item or two, and a clutch of flawless accents), is the fact that Come From Away is not a Valentine to 9/11. This isn’t some fawning piece of jingoistic nationalism. The heartwarming positivity of seeing a plucky band of Canadians open their doors and hearts to a rather spiky bunch of displaced Americans and other nationals is not without a few bumps along the way. Irene Sankoff’s and David Hein’s remarkably integrated book and score do not shy away from the ugliness of racism, misogyny, ageism, homophobia, materialism, and the overarching fear that can eat us all alive in the face of crisis.

That said, the show blazes a bright and inspiring path in its “warts and all” philosophy, leaving us with the comforting affirmation that there are in fact angels among us who truly care about all creatures (great and small).

Madonna [Image Source: Wikipedia]

Turning to Madonna for a moment, I read a review recently that described her latest recording Madame X as a cast album in search of its show. An apt description, given what I witnessed at the Chicago Theatre last week. I, for one, am a fan of Madonna when she lets her freak flag fly and doesn’t care one whit for marketability. Her Dick Tracy-inspired album I’m Breathless is a good example (ironic since it was clearly initiated as a marketing ploy … and turned out to be anything but.) Madame X is her nuttiest collection in years, Paul Simon’s Graceland as designed by Yoko Ono, Giorgio Moroder, and Tex Avery, full of world beats, polemics, and gobsmacking u-turns.

Madonna [Image Source: Wikipedia]

As a result, the album begs for some theatrical staging, and Madonna, for the most part delivers, taking her trademark arena/stadium excess and translating for much smaller and more intimate environs like the Chicago Theatre (where she is currently in residence as part of her Madame X world tour).

For the most part, it’s a very compelling switch, but, continuing the aforementioned “cast album” comparison, if these small theatre residencies are Madame X‘s out of town tryouts, I think Madge needs to send the “book” back for some revisions.

This was NOT a deal as Madonna didn’t take the stage until 11:15 pm, concluding at nearly 2 am! She may be in cahoots with the parking industry.

When our Queen of Pop tries to be overtly political and offer “profound” declamations of individualism, she comes off like a college freshman who has just discovered Jean-Paul Sartre and James Baldwin. Madonna has never been what one would consider an exceptional comic raconteur so the show’s interminable patter between songs, ostensibly structured to create intimacy, provocation, and laughter falls exceptionally, head-scratchingly flat. When the show focuses on more of a one-world ideology, with its polyglot mixing bowl of international flavors and styles, the implied politics of love and understanding are much more impactful.

The bulk of the show’s set list is pulled from the album Madame X with more than a few classics woven in: “Express Yourself,” “Rescue Me,” “Papa Don’t Preach,” “American Life” (sounding fresher and more prescient than ever), “Frozen” (a breathtaking performance which includes floor-to-ceiling projections of Madonna’s first-child Lourdes dancing as her mother sings this haunting hit from Ray of Light, the album inspired by Lourdes’ birth), “La Isla Bonita,” “Human Nature,” and a rousing “Like a Prayer.”

My work pals and yours truly before dinner/show

The old songs fit nicely alongside the new, providing a thematic arc of free-expression and heartfelt-spirituality that is quite effective, juxtaposed as they are with dystopian images of a society skidding off the rails: dancers in police garb, gas masks, and other militant fetish-wear or the recurring martial motif of a vintage typewriter whose striking keys double as gunfire throughout the production.

When Madonna visits some of the stronger material from Madame X – the stuttering sci-fi shmaltz of “Future,” the slinky robo-cha-cha-cha of “Medellin,” or the sultry disco of “Crave” – the show is a luscious dream.

As with every Madonna tour, there are a couple of numbers to preserve in the proverbial time capsule. In the case of Madame X (in addition to some wonderful exploration of Lisbon’s Fado culture), “Batuka” with its accompaniment by the all-women Orquestra Batukadeiras is a rocket-blast of fist-pumping feminism. The show’s encore “I Rise” is a goose-bump-inducing salute to any and all who’ve been marginalized by a society that praises conformity above all else.

As Madonna marched into the audience and out the lobby doors of the Chicago Theatre Thursday night, her entire retinue in tow and chanting “I Rise,” I found myself moved to tears and thinking there may be hope for all of the Arthur Flecks in this world after all.

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With my Detroit pals at Come From Away

There’s nothin’ you can do to me that hasn’t been done
Not bulletproof, shouldn’t have to run from a gun
River of tears ran dry, let ’em run
No game that you can play with me, I ain’t one

‘Cause I’m goin’ through it, yeah
I know you see the tragic in it (alright)
Just hold on to the little bit of magic in it (yeah)
I can’t break down now
I can’t take that now (I can’t take that now)

Died a thousand times
Managed to survive (I managed to survive)
I can’t break down now


I can’t take that (I can’t take that)

I rise, I rise
(Rise) I rise up above it, up above it
(I rise) I rise, I rise
(Rise) I rise up above it all

I managed to survive
Freedom’s what you choose to do with what’s been done to you
No one can hurt you now unless you want them to (Unless you want)
No one can hurt you now unless you love ’em too
Unless you love ’em too

– Madonna, “I Rise” from Madame X

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Yes, I bought a Madame X eye patch at the souvenir stand. It did not fit MY big noggin alas.

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.

She’s fun; she’s frisky; and she doesn’t give a f*ck. Madonna’s #RebelHeart Tour in #Detroit

Madge

Madge

Madonna albums are like cast recordings for a film or stage musical. You buy the album before you have a sense of the visual or of the narrative that overlays the music.

Iconic

Iconic

It isn’t until you watch the music performed live or in video form that you really “get” the intent.

Holiday

Holiday

And then the album becomes a kind of souvenir, an aural remembrance of the pageant and all its themes and provocations.

That is not to say Madonna’s music doesn’t stand on its own (generally it does, even the lesser works … <cough> Hard Candy) but it doesn’t really come alive until you see, sense, feel, taste (?) the spectacle swaddling her nursery rhyme-like tunes.

I’ve had the good fortune now to have seen her live on four occasions (and one additional stalking moment when I spied her gliding into a Traverse City movie theatre for the premiere of her documentary I Am Because We Are; I was perched precariously with one knee on a parking meter and one foot on John’s shoulder at the time to get the best view I could … I’m not subtle).

Body Shop

Body Shop

In 2001, she brought her Drowned World Tour (supporting Music and Ray of Light) to Detroit after years of not stopping in the Motor City. I had practically committed to memory the cheeky joys of Blonde Ambition and The Girlie Show (both of which had been broadcast on HBO) so the somber, take-no-prisoners/play-no-hits/look-at-me-wearing-a-kilt-and-playing-an-electric-guitar-badly approach of this production was an unintentional let down.

Holiday

Holiday

I wanted camp and kitsch and got sturm und drang. As the years have passed, I’ve come to reconsider my initially superficial disappointment with that show, realizing that she was predicting musically and visually the angst and anxiety and chaos that have come to define America in the 21st Century. Go figure.

Iconic

Iconic

I caught The Sticky and Sweet Tour when it stopped at Ford Field in 2008. While Hard Candy was a bit of a Milk Dud upon first listen, that show which supported the much-maligned album opened a world of confectionery delights in its rainbow-colored, kaleidoscopic staging.

In many respects, the show was a return to multi-culti appropriation form for the Material Girl as her years living hand-to-mouth in New York and her interests in hip-hop, eastern rhythms, and gypsy folk were distilled into a revelatory, propulsive brew.

Bitch, I'm Madonna

Bitch, I’m Madonna

A dark heart still beat at the center of the show as Madonna continued to channel a justifiable rage against the machine, skewering a society that consumes relentlessly and persecutes shamelessly.

If the dark heart of Sticky and Sweet was hidden behind a coating of tasty caramel, it was on full corrosive display in The MDNA Tour (supporting the EDM-chugging album of the same name). Madonna, freshly divorced from director Guy Ritchie, was letting her angry Id freak flag fly, and it was glorious … and cold.

Whereas the album at times seemed a meandering if compelling mess, the show was a silver bullet to the heart of America, with a series of pneumatic projection screens that raised and lowered to depict gun-ridden crime scenes, oppressive religious structures, and a cracked political landscape. It was a brilliant show though a tad impenetrable and joyless.

Madonna and Nicki Minaj

Madonna and Nicki Minaj

With my talented pal - actor and designer - Barbie Weisserman

With my talented pal – actor and designer – Barbie Weisserman

Which brings us to her latest – The Rebel Heart Tour – which was performed at Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena last night (October 1).

I’m a big fan of the particular record this tour supports (see my review here) which, to me, is a spiritual sequel to the caustic, intoxicating Erotica album but with a level of maturity, exhaustion, and peace that only 20+ years of living could bring. Needless to say, I was curious, excited, and a bit nervous about what interpretations she might bring to this superior collection of ditties.

She did great.

The show is a standard Madonna production, with top-of-the-line choreography, lightning fast costume changes, a healthy dose of sociopolitical sniping, and some flat-out stunning visuals (both digital and set design). What sets this show apart from the three live shows already described is that, well, Madonna seems happy. Not goofy or forced or self-aggrandizing. Just happy.

Lourdes

Lourdes [Photo Courtesy Glenn Nolan]

Her University of Michigan-attending daughter Lourdes was seated just a few rows over from us and Madonna’s father was somewhere in the crowd, so Madonna seemed genuinely, authentically giddy to be back home.

(By the way, watching Madonna’s daughter beam with pride and delight as her famous mom did her thing pretty much made the show. I suggest that somebody set up a live-feed of Lourdes to run on a screen somewhere at every tour stop from here on out.)

Material Girl

Material Girl

The show is structured in the Madonna boilerplate: four sections – a religious pastiche, a desert garage, a Latin party, and the roaring 20s. New songs from Rebel Heart are juxtaposed with left-of-center arrangements of classic hits, in a successful effort both to freshen up the old and validate the new.

Our seats

Our seats [Image Created by Becca Mansfield]

Set changes are simple but effective, achieved mostly through digital projections and some props, and Madonna’s costumes are less glam than we typically see and more utilitarian, a base costume for each of the four sections, adjusted with the addition or deletion of pieces depending on the song being performed.

The stage

The stage

One of my favorites from the new album – the title track “Rebel Heart” – is a high point of the evening. Madonna strums a guitar (she’s gotten quite proficient at it over the past 15 years!), standing alone on the catwalk stage (shaped like a crucifix, a heart at the end and spanning the entire arena floor), with a series of fan-created tribute images behind her.

Who's That Girl

Who’s That Girl?

As we watch hundreds of interpretations of Madonna’s famous mug morph one into another – water color, photo collage, pen and ink, and so on – what would have once seemed yet another exercise in her seemingly limitless supply of hubris is instead touching and loving, a capstone on an exceptional career that continues to brim with unbridled potential.

Her mother's daughter [Photo Courtesy Glenn Nolan]

Her mother’s daughter [Photo Courtesy Glenn Nolan]

As I viewed those images, I thought of college-age Lourdes sitting a few rows away, gobsmacked myself at how time slips away and wondering what must be going through Madonna’s daughter’s head as she watches countless depictions of her mother’s famous stances and poses sail by.

The show is riddled with such visceral, thoughtful, and, yes, entertaining moments. Opener “Iconic” with a guest video appearance from Mike Tison is a bombastic gut punch, Zack Snyder’s 300 if designed by Bob Mackie, with Madonna, the Warrior Queen, descending from the ceiling in a gilded cage.

Music

Music

Thereafter, we quickly enter Madonna’s favorite territory – pop blasphemy lite – with a sequence that ends in a “Last Supper” tableau, that is if the Last Supper had been held in a discotheque in Miami. What a pip!

The show slows down a bit after that, allowing both performers and audience, to stop clutching their pearls and to catch their breath.

Motown

Motown

As Madonna strums away, she turns classic chestnut “True Blue” into a campfire ode and makes the raunchy “Body Shop” sound like a salute to old-fashioned courtship and love.

Classic club track “Deeper and Deeper” makes a glorious return to stage in one of the most epic line-dances I’ve ever seen, and we even got a winking re-branding of “Material Girl” (a perfect song that Madonna has always inexplicably claimed to hate, which is a shame because it’s … perfect).

True Blue

True Blue

Merchandise!

Merchandise!

Madonna, possibly still smarting from not getting cast in Chicago, struts atop a steeply angled platform, dressed as a 20s flapper and crooning all those famous “some boys” lines from the tune, knocking one male dancer after another off her perch as they slide down the raked stage into a tuxedo-garbed heap on the floor.

There is a glorious flamenco-style medley of her classic tunes that spins out of Madonna’s torreodor-from-space visioning of her recent hit “Living for Love,” and she slaps “Like a Virgin” on the behind and turns it into a dub-step R&B banger. It shouldn’t work, but it does. Brilliantly.

And then there was the moment where she sang “La Vie En Rose” … in powerful voice … in French … with a ukulele. Simply because her daughter loves the song and asked her to sing it. Not a dry eye in the house.

Barbie with new friends all the way from Australia - Glenn and Philip

Barbie with new friends all the way from Australia – Glenn and Philip

(I daresay this is a direction she might want to pursue more fully for her next reinvention. Please? If Lady Gaga can monkey around with Tony Bennett, Madonna can go full Edith Piaf.)

The show has its flaws. Any big arena tour doesn’t hold up under intense scrutiny. These are circus acts for the new millennium, full of false emotions, phony posturing, smoke and mirrors.

MeBut what Madonna does so well on this tour is humanize: herself, her personae, her history, her songs, her legacy.

We have lived with a rigid, defensive Madonna for about 15 years now (I blame Guy Ritchie … or England), and we are starting to get our quintessentially American street urchin, our mugging-Horatio-Alger-rag-dolly back, and I couldn’t be happier. She’s fun; she’s frisky; and she doesn’t give a f*ck.

Welcome back, Madge.

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CakeSpeaking of Rebel Hearts …

This past Sunday, September 27, I married my long-time partner John Mola in a ceremony officiated by Ann Arbor Mayor Christopher Taylor and Pastor Ian Reed Twiss and attended by a small gathering of family and friends. We honored our guests with donations to the Huron Valley Humane Society and also gave, on behalf of the wedding officiants, to Equality Michigan, 826Michigan, and the Jim Toy Center.

John and Roy

John and Roy

Dinner at Weber’s in Ann Arbor, Michigan, immediately followed the ceremony and included a three-tiered wedding cake that gave a nod to John’s and my shared interests in Disney, superheroes, and classic cars.

Family

Family

Our parents Susie and Don Sexton and Luci and Simone Mola (respectively) presented the grooms, and readings (1 John 4: 16-21; excerpt from the Supreme Court ruling Obergefell v. Hodges, and “Maker of Heaven and Earth – All Things Bright and Beautiful” poem by Cecil Frances Alexander) were given by Stephanie Kassman, Rachel Green, and Gabby Rundall (our niece). Lori Rundall, John’s sister, presented the toast, and photographs of the event were taken by Gabby Rundall and Kyle Lawson.

100_2035

Vision in green – Zach & Susie

About the day, my mom wrote on her blog (here) …

“Took a tumble off some steps and directly into prickly shrubbery, rode in a limousine–my virgin ride, kept my hat on, lost my dress and my shoes, urged the Ann Arbor mayor to prevent deer culling, learned I am not alone in detesting Bing Crosby, spoke to a journalist about the Last Tango in Paris and why I sorta love Trump and not Bernie and that I want to vote for Hillary, posed with Zach because we are kindred spirits and love mint green, met my second minister that I see eye to eye with since the beginning of time, and today am sore all over ‘my little body’? And the wedding occurred on schedule in spite of it all and was the happiest moment of my lifetime! Congrats, John and Roy ♥!!!!

John and I dearly love this description – it makes me smile every time I read it!

Ian, John, Roy, & Christopher

Ian, John, Roy, & Christopher

Thanks to our parents and our family for their love and support and their unyielding championing of bravery and authenticity and kindness. Thanks to our friends for giving us this wonderful network of fun and joy. Thanks to Ian and Christopher for their guidance and their important and gracious roles in making it all “official.” Thanks to the Supreme Court for doing the right thing in the face of a wall of political foolishness.

IMG_2894And, I can feel John rolling his eyes now, but thanks to performers and artists like Madonna, who have pushed for compassion and inclusion for decades for us all, for anyone who is different or who is judged unfairly based on gender, age, race, species, sexuality, faith, financial status, and so on. We are a nation that can do so much good by just being kind. Let’s do more of that.

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Image by Lee Gaddis of Gaddis Gaming

Drawing of yours truly as a superhero by Lee Gaddis of Gaddis Gaming

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.