“Modulating to the Stars” – The Dio’s Forever Plaid … Plus, Aaron C. Wade’s Possessive and Purple Rose’s Harvey

Matthew Wallace, James Fischer, Steve DeBruyne, Angel Velasco as The Plaids [Image source: The Dio’s Facebook page]

In our household, we really dig The Dio – Livingston County, Michigan’s professional dinner theatre, a true labor of love from Steve DeBruyne and Matthew Tomich. The company recently received a boatload of well-deserved Wilde Award Nominations for recent productions The Bridges of Madison County and The Last Five Years, including nominations for DeBruyne and Tomich themselves individually. (I’m looking forward to co-hosting the upcoming awards night on August 28 with my partner-in-shenanigans EncoreMichigan.com‘s publisher David Kiley.)

So John and I, who had both seen separate productions of the musical revue Forever Plaid about twenty years ago (mine in Columbus, Ohio and starring my delightfully talented buddy Joey Landwehr, and John’s in Ferndale, Michigan), have been eagerly awaiting The Dio’s production. I am happy to report that The Dio’s version honors the storied musical, infusing lovely grace notes of anarchy and poignancy that neither John nor I recalled noticing before.

Directed with graceful efficiency by DeBruyne and ably assisted by Dan Morrison (another Wilde nominee – I’m sensing a trend here), The Dio’s Forever Plaid clocks in at a brisk 90 minutes (not including the dinner service beforehand).

Crisp music direction to bring out the lush harmonies and to keep pace with the mile-a-minute medleys is crucial, and Brian Rose (who also gets pulled into the onstage hijinks) meets and exceeds that requirement.

Our friends Rob Zannini and Aaron Latham joined us. Aaron once served as house manager for Andy Williams’ Branson theatre, so he had LOTS of fun insight into this show’s era!

Costume designer Norma Polk gives the Plaids just the right touch of mid-century charm. And Tomich, as always, does a masterful job, leveraging lighting, set, and sound design to make The Dio’s challenging space work beautifully for the show’s unique needs, in this case a nightclub just beyond the Pearly Gates.

The conceit of Forever Plaid is that a quartet of harmonizing AV nerds – who have more affinity for AM-radio staples like Perry Como and Harry Belafonte than for The Beatles or Elvis Presley – are struck down by a busload of Catholic schoolgirls, schoolgirls who are on their way to catch The Beatles’ American debut on The Ed Sullivan Show.

The Plaids were en route to record their first album, but, due to said unfortunate bus collision, they end up in heaven (or some Copacabana proximity of it) to play their final concert, just as America is switching its radio dials from light frothy pop to jangly/jarring rock-n-roll.

The Dio’s cast not only nails the smooth sounds of late 50s boy bands, but they deliver rich characterizations that are as hysterical as they are heartbreaking. As group leader Franky, DeBruyne is the consummate “big brother” – a loving, occasionally frazzled asthmatic, keeping the other three from spinning into apoplexy, aided and abetted by his trusty inhaler. “We will modulate to the stars,” he enthuses in one of his many pep talks to the boys.

Akin to the lovechild of Clark Gregg (Agents of SHIELD) and John Leguizamo, Angel Velasco is a delight as nosebleed prone Jinx, whose debilitating shyness melts away when he gets his brief moment in the spotlight.

James Fischer is a gleeful mix of smarm and charm as Sparky, who can barely master the au courant Spanish lyrics of “Perfidia” when they are written on his hand.

And Matthew Wallace is a tear-jerking ball of sunshine as the bespectacled Smudge, whose escape into the vinyl grooves of his beloved 45 collection (which he carries everywhere in a beat-up suitcase, complete with a not-so-hidden Mickey Mouse decal) gives the show its sweet/sad center.

Wallace, Fischer, DeBruyne, Velasco [Image source: The Dio’s Facebook page]

Anyone who appreciates this era of music (as I do) will geek out over the set list, which includes “Three Coins in the Fountain,” “Undecided,” “Magic Moments,” “Catch a Falling Star,” “Sixteen Tons,” and so on. All are delivered with an admirable balance of reverence and cheek, with subtle-but-damn-funny choreography that winks at the twee style these classic guy groups exemplified.

Showstopper “Lady of Spain,” toward the show’s conclusion, is staged as a salute to The Ed Sullivan Show, complete with references to Topo Gigio, Senor Wences, and the entire “really big shoooow” gang. Sadly, this thought crossed my mind: “In ten years, if someone does this show again, will anyone in the audience know what the hell is going on during this sequence.” Dammit.

The Dio’s Forever Plaid wraps the performer’s nightmare in a gauzy blend of nostalgia, satire, and candy-sweet harmonies. For those who feel marginalized by the status quo, standing before an audience and opening your heart through the magic of lyrics and melody is a revelation, and to have it all taken away in an instant is as tragic as can be. Kudos to this production for honoring the silly escapism of the show while embracing its darker underscore. That is a rich harmony, indeed.

One more weekend to see Forever Plaid at The Dio. And get your tickets now as the last several performances have been sold out.

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[Image source: Possessive’s Facebook page]

If the Plaids share an aspirational obsession with achieving “that perfect chord,” the characters in Aaron C. Wade’s directorial film debut Possessive suffer from a more debilitating and prurient kind of obsession. Wade was our exceptional properties master on Ann Arbor Civic’s recent production of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and he did double (and triple) duty as our show photographer and videographer. Needless to say, I’m a fan.

His first film reveals exceptional potential for crafting cinematic narrative that is as compelling as it is repulsive. That’s a compliment, by the way, and I’m pretty certain he will be quite thrilled with that assessment.

You can find out more about his film by checking out the fan page here, where you will also find a link to the full film as well as updates on its upcoming DVD release. The film’s description reads, “The film Possessive is a romantic thriller story about a man with a well-hidden deviant core and a mentally unstable woman who claims him for her own.” Yup, and then some!

I won’t spoil any of the twists and turns Wade has in store for Possessive‘s viewers, but he has written a script that is as raw as it is confessional. He frames each scene with a visceral immediacy that is remarkably discomforting, and he has cast the production with an eclectic and talented team of local unknowns who exhibit a brave and impressive lack of vanity. Wade’s leads Sarah Lovy and Terence Cover (“Donald Reagan”) wring every bit of bruise black satire from this tragicomedy – two lost souls whose fetishized obsessions with the details of each other’s lives prevent them from ever actually knowing one another.

I look forward to seeing Wade’s future work. He is one to watch. And how great that we have so much remarkable local talent willing to share their gifts with the world.

(Check out Aaron’s assessment of Fenton Village Players’ current production of Thoroughly Modern Millie here.)

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[Image source: The Purple Rose’s Facebook page]

Finally, here is another kind of obsession – the affection of Elwood P. Dowd for his invisible friend “Harvey,” a six-foot, three-and-one-half-inch tall “pooka” who takes the form of an anthropomorphic rabbit in Mary Chase’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name.

Currently, Chelsea, Michigan’s Purple Rose Theatre (also nominated for a number of Wilde Awards) is performing this theatrical classic. I have not yet seen it, but the reviews have been stellar.

That said, I wanted to give a shout out to my former St. Joseph Mercy Health System colleague Jaclyn Klein who organized a remarkable talk back after the Sunday, July 16 matinee performance. Members of the cast and crew alongside St. Joseph Mercy Chelsea Hospital physicians discussed how attitudes toward mental health have changed for the better (or worse) since the play debuted in 1945. The presentation, ably facilitated by local news personality Lila Lazarus, was live streamed on Facebook. You can catch the video here. Kudos to all!

Harvey runs through August 26, and tickets can be purchased here.

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Everybody loves The Dio! Ran into my Xanadu/Urinetown castmate Paige Martin and Urinetown castmate Maika Van Oosterhout at the performance

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.

“Anybody that’s different, we’re ready to be prejudiced against them” – Jonathan Balazs’ documentary Mars Project

[Image Source: marsprojectmovie.blogspot.ca]

[Image Source: Mars Project]

One of the things I love most about social media is that, if you allow yourself, you can expand your horizons beyond the provincial – those traditional boundaries of geography, life experience, education, family – to defy and redefine the term “friend.” This is a revolution in the making, and none of us can really see the forest for the trees at this point as to how differently our communities, virtual or otherwise, ultimately will look in the future.

That being said, I was honored when Canadian filmmaker Jonathan Balazs reached out to me via Facebook as a follower of this blog to see if I would review his documentary Mars Project (click here for more info). I was thrilled that he wanted to share his work with me – evidence of the global footprint we all can create with just a few keystrokes.

(As an aside, this morning, I heard Sheryl Sandberg – COO of Facebook and author of Lean In speak at Detroit’s Adcraft Club breakfast. I appreciated her candor about the toxic effects of sexism, racism, ageism, and all the other nasty “-ism”s in society today. Interesting factoid: 63% of facebook’s 1.28 BILLION users return every day.)

Balazs’ documentary, a brisk 60 minutes, offers the haunting tale of a hip-hop artist Khari “Conspiracy” Stewart who may or may not be suffering from mental illness and how his frustrations with the health care system lead him to explore more spiritual/humanistic options to cure his “affliction”.

We learn Khari’s story in his own words through voice-over as well as through first person interviews with his twin brother Addi, who telegraphs a palpable mix of frustration, rivalry, annoyance, and love. We also hear from representatives of the mental health profession who express their frustration with their own colleagues’ tendency toward quick medicinal fixes and reductive categorization. One doctor observes, “Anybody that’s different, we’re ready to be prejudiced against them.”

Arguably the most interesting question the documentary grapples with is the “chicken or the egg” phenomenon of whether insanity breeds great art or the intensity of the artistic process prompts social maladjustment. Art as therapy?

The film pointedly critiques a society that often labels “mentally ill” those folks who view the world differently. In watching Addi and hearing him articulate his understandable frustrations with Khari, the viewer may intuit a rush to judgment that occurs out of annoyance and jealousy as much as it does concern for his brother’s well-being.

The filmmakers don’t offer us any easy answers to these questions, and, at times, I wondered if Khari had created this persona of a hip-hop artist plagued by demonic voices (that may or may not come from space!) as a quirky means of differentiating and marketing himself. Yet, as the film runs its course, illuminating the reality of Khari’s difference, it becomes apparent that his musical gifts come with a price.

Balazs uses a variety of techniques to illustrate Khari’s unique place in a world that rejects him. At one point. a radio interview is played wherein the DJs remark how Khari’s music is 10 years ahead of its time, while his own brother, a member of the crew, admits he can barely bring himself to listen to it.

The film is shot in a grainy hand-held fashion that suits the subject matter, with some interesting layered effects as footage is projected on brick walls and other stationary objects in and around Edmonton, the twins’ hometown.

I have had a tenuous relationship with hip hop in recent years, though I was a big fan in high school and college. Those artists who speak to me have always been a bit left of center, be it De La Soul or Black Sheep or Jungle Brothers or Digable Planets or even more mainstream folks like Kanye West and Erykah Badu.

I also find myself questioning the efficacy of modern approaches to mental health, which seem more about bringing everyone “in-line” to “normalcy” … when I’m not sure any of us really know what that is or what that looks like.

I’m not meaning to start a debate here about mental health doctrine or about the artistic merits of Kanye West, but I will concede that this documentary gave me a lot of food for thought … and makes me want to find some of Khari’s musical output. And, in this sense, Balazs did his job as a documentarian beautifully. Balazs is a filmmaking force to watch.

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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: Silver Linings Playbook

From my wonderful publisher Open Books

The countdown continues! 15 days left until the official release of ReelRoyReviews, a book of film, music, and theatre reviews, by Roy Sexton! The book is now (for however long THAT will last 😉 !) on Amazon’s list of top-selling “Guides and Reviews”!!

Here’s a snippet from Roy’s review of Silver Linings Playbook: “Make no mistake, Russell is offering pointed commentary on how we deal with mental illness in this country. Yes, people may need ‘help,’ but not pharmaceutical, not pigeonholing. There is a wonderful scene where both characters speak knowingly about the horrors of the various drugs they have had to endure but in a totally cavalier way, like kids comparing comic books or baseball cards they may have collected.”

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.

World of broken toys: Silver Linings Playbook

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]

OK, I have to fess up. I went into Silver Linings Playbook with axes to grind: Sullen, dull Jennifer Lawrence can’t be that good. The movie couldn’t be nearly as strong as the awards-season fawning implies. Bradley Cooper must be just doing his same smarmy/winsome crap. Jessica Chastain was robbed at the SAG Awards (and no doubt soon-to-be shanghaied at the Oscars too).

Wrong.

This is a sweet, deeply affecting film. My quibbles? I’m not totally on board the David O. Russell train. As a director, I feel like he aspires to be Paul Thomas Anderson grungy/dirty/epic (see: Boogie Nights, There Will Be Blood) while riffing on a Robert Altman we’re-so-groovy-with-our-overlapping-improvised-dialogue vibe (see: Nashville, The Player, or my guilty pleasure Popeye). BUT he does consistently wring great performances from his players and has a lovely eye for skewering populist middle American conventions (see: The Fighter) .

I wasn’t nuts about Robert DeNiro or Jacki Weaver as Cooper’s haunted, crackpot parents. They had moments of authenticity, but mostly they seemed like they were well-heeled Yuppies slumming and winking at their hardscrabble Italian/Phildelphian roles. Their early scenes were the worst culprits of goofy look-at-us-make-up-the-dialogue-as-we-go-along bits.

(A sidebar plea: American directors, please, I implore you, just stop this improv junk, along with the twitchy, handheld camera stuff. The only people who can do this are the British…and maybe Australians…and only with Mike Leigh in charge – see: Secrets & Lies).

HOWEVER, what did I like…no, love…about this film? Lawrence and Cooper, especially when he was onscreen with Lawrence. Oh, and I adored always reliable Julia Stiles as Lawrence’s materialistic/tightly-wound sister. She nails the young Gen Y cloying mommy thing with that constant need to remodel/remake/reproduce. Love her!

The plot of the film just sounds ridiculous when you read about it: young man loses it when he catches his wife cheating on him; he is released under the care of his parents, though he still struggles with bipolar disorder; he meets cute with a young widow similarly afflicted; they enter a dance competition and simultaneously bet all his father’s money on a football game with a triumphant, fist-pumping Hollywood outcome for all. End scene.

Only…it’s not exactly like that. What you don’t get from that synopsis is that Lawrence  and Cooper zig when they might have zagged. They are broken toys hurt deeply by a world that only knows how to hurt. They are surrounded by friends and family who are just as afflicted (though not conveniently “diagnosed” for their “problems”). Cooper has a line at the end of the film about the world having a million ways to break our hearts.

The film addresses mental illness/health deftly and humanely. We may label people “ill”  out of our own fear or a desire to avoid any inconvenience they may cause us…when all of us are struggling with our own demons every day. Perhaps we do it out of resentment: “I can keep my genie in its bottle, so why can’t you?” Who knows. But it is hypocritical and unfair.

Cooper and Lawrence are quiet forces of nature. Blunt instruments with hurricanes of sadness roiling right beneath the surface. Anyone who knows me may not be surprised at this analogy, but they reminded me of abused, neglected strays one brings home to rehabilitate: gun shy, scared, sad, perhaps aggressive but with much stifled love to give.

Make no mistake, Russell is offering pointed commentary on how we deal with mental illness in this country. Yes, people may need “help,” but not pharmaceutical, not pigeonholing. There is a wonderful scene where both characters speak knowingly about the horrors of the various drugs they have had to endure but in a totally cavalier way, like kids comparing comic books or baseball cards they may have collected.

The most powerful statement the film makes is that what truly heals a broken heart/mind are kindness, attention, passion, and understanding.  Much humor is derived from the fact that these two characters are brutally, unflaggingly, purely honest. Like children. And what a wonderful way to be.