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.

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

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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.