Whip and nae nae, compassion and inclusion. A beautifully revitalized The Wiz (Live!)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I’ve always been an Oz-nut for as long as I can remember. Oh, the annual viewings of the 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz every holiday season (pre-VCR/DVD/YouTube era, you got one shot, once a year!). I read the books backwards and forwards and mentally catalogued all the fantastic creatures, political intrigue, and oddball illustrations. (“Dorothy Gale” was my “Harry Potter.”) Occasionally, I would delve into other adjacent fantasy lands like Narnia or Wonderland when I needed to cleanse my palate. I devoured any and all minutiae about what motivated L. Frank Baum to write the series (hint: he was pretty irritated with scandal-ridden American politics … go figure).

Championing Gregory Maguire’s postmodern, animal-rights-skewing reimagining of the life and times of the Wicked Witch of the West, I eventually viewed that recent stage musical adaptation twice (though I think it misses the mark when it comes to Maguire’s prescient political allegory). I obsessed over all the trivia I could find on the various cinematic and stage and television journeys over the rainbow and across the Yellow Brick Road. I even love The Boy from Oz – apropos of nothing.

Oh, did I collect STUFF! Stuff upon stuff always competing for space with my ever-growing piles of Star Wars and comic book ephemera as well. Oz has generated mountains of merchandise in the past 100+ years: toys, dolls, figurines, posters, and, yes, those ubiquitous-in-the-1980s Franklin Mint plates. I have a couple of those hand-painted platters (thanks to my gracious parents) … but where and what was the “Franklin Mint” exactly? Does anyone really know? Was it just in some dude’s basement and his name was Franklin?

However, if pressed to pick one corner of Oz-mania that is my absolute fave, the moment that cemented my fascination with the various permutations of this quintessentially American fantasy series? That would be The Wiz, and particularly the 1978 Sidney Lumet-directed film version starring Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Nipsey Russell, Ted Ross, Richard Pryor, and Lena Horne. It’s a polarizing entry point to be sure. While the stage version of Charlie Smalls’ musical was a huge and historic Tony-winning hit in the early 70s, the film was a colossal bomb, vilified for the liberties it took with the source material, and there was a bit of ageist/sexist foolishness over Lumet casting then 33-year-old Diana Ross as Dorothy. (“Too old,” the people cried! I’d love to be 33 again …)

I wrote at length on The Wiz in an embarrassingly fawning love letter in my first book (not humble-bragging – just telling you where you can find it). The movie isn’t without its flaws – too long, kinda dreary, covered in the depressing pseudo-sexual grime that seemed to permeate films of the “Me Decade.” Yet, I would argue that it is the very moodiness of the film, coupled with a Quincy Jones-produced funk bottle-rocket of a score, that gets closest to the populism with which L. Frank Baum approached his work. In that sense, one might suggest that The Wiz movie, remembered chiefly as an unmitigated pop culture misstep, was actually the purest distillation of the grim essence at the original novel’s core.

However, nobody but me likes the nearly forty-year-old flick, so it was high time for a multimedia teardown and rebuild of The Wiz. I’m happy to state that NBC’s live televised holiday musical (from Craig Zadan and Neil Meron who brought us the turgid Peter Pan Live! and the better-but-still-sort-of-moribund Sound of Music Live!) did a fine job reestablishing The Wiz for a new generation.

Director Kenny Leon, aided and abetted by choreographer Fatima Robinson and script doctor Harvey Fierstein, wisely approached the work not as sacred text but as an opportunity for reinvention and reinvigoration. Some of the updates worked beautifully, particularly the orchestrations which, originally (film and stage), were very much “of the moment” (dated R&B, disco) so a refresh was not only in order but essential. Other tweaks fell flat (iPads, sushi, referring to the silver slippers as “kicks”) – a good rule of thumb? If it’s going to sound corny five years from now, chances are it already sounds corny now.

The smartest thing the production team did was cherry pick from both the stage and film scores. Quincy Jones, when he was working on the film, saw that Smalls’ score, even then, needed an overhaul, notably the Scarecrow’s signature tune: the percolating and devastating “You Can’t Win” – foreshadowing Jones’ future blockbuster collaborations with Michael Jackson on the albums Off the Wall, Thriller, and Bad – replaced the stage production’s aimless “I Was Born the Day Before Yesterday.” Happily, in this latest production “You Can’t Win” won out, and the Elijah Kelley’s adorably nimble performance as the Scarecrow benefited.

Robinson’s choreography cleverly incorporated many au courant moves but in subtle fashion. Oz has always been a cracked mirror reflection of American society, so moves like “whip” and “nae nae” – not to mention some seriously fierce Emerald City voguing – spicing up Ozzians’ onstage pogoing was smart and fun.

The cast was perfection throughout. Newcomer Shanice Williams as Dorothy married a steamroller voice with righteous fire that was fun to see. Finale “Home” was a knockout. She seemed a bit lost in the quieter, softer moments of the show, but those skills will come with experience. For a broadcast theatrical debut, she ran rings around Peter Pan Live’s Allison Williams, though admittedly that bar was so low that it sits in a sub-basement somewhere next to Brian Williams’ career.

Queen Latifah gave as good as she got as a gender-defying Wiz. Vocally, she wasn’t quite up to the role, but from sheer presence? There was no taking that stage away from her.

Intentional or not (and I suspect intentional with Leon’s and Fierstein’s involvement), there was an interesting statement in having the traditionally male role of The Wiz played by the indomitable Latifah. In the guise of the strutting, swaggering Wiz, everyone called Latifah “sir,” until it was revealed that The Wiz was not actually a he but a she. When Dorothy’s scruffy companions exclaimed their horror, Dorothy wheeled on them, exclaiming, “There is nothing wrong with being a woman,” and then spun back to The Wiz and chastising, “But there is everything wrong with being a liar.”

I don’t know what to make of the moment, but, in its narrative context of self-actualization and self-discovery and self-worth, it offers an interesting commentary on the relevance/irrelevance of gender, the importance of humanity and honesty, and the authentic roles women can and do play in leadership and in the accountability of others. I dug it.

In this reboot, women ruled Oz. Not just Dorothy and The Wiz, but Mary J. Blige’s Evillene was a pip. She frolicked dangerously close to the land of overacting, but it’s to be expected from a role that, while serving the primary narrative impetus (“kill the witch”), only has about 10 minutes of actual stage time. Her number “Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News” is a highlight in the score, and the gospel rave-up that Blige delivered did it proud. Blige running around in a half-hoop skirt and stiletto boots that looked like they could serve double duty as murder weapons only added to the, er, fun. And, in one of the few actual LOL moments of the evening for me, Blige had an Abott-and-Costello-esque word battle with a lackey that sparkled with perfect comic timing.

Uzo Aduba’s Glinda had even less stage time than Blige but an even better song in the gorgeous, hauntingly inspirational “Believe in Yourself.” I’m sorry, Aduba, but no one can touch the incomparable Lena Horne in my mind for her soaring, effortlessly fierce performance of that number in the film, but you made it your own. The sweetly schoolmarm-ish way Aduba (Orange is the New Black) approached the role was distinctive and effective, even if her dress looked as though it were made of a million fuzzy, glowing yellow pipe cleaners.

Stephanie Mills, who played Dorothy in the original stage production, was a thoughtful addition as Aunt Em, establishing the show’s central thesis in fine fashion with opening ballad “The Feeling We Once Had,” an undulating gut punch of a song, simultaneously channeling the remorse for life lost and hope for life yet to live. Glee’s Amber Riley nailed the playground chant whimsy of “He’s the Wiz,” barreling through the number like her life depended on it. Her acting and enunciation could still use a bit of work, but her powerhouse voice made up for those flaws.

If the show’s authority and presence came from the women in the cast, the zip and the play came from the men. David Alan Grier’s Lion had the most fully realized performance of the night – not a beat was lost, not a note was missed. The show was fully alive whenever he was onscreen; he kept things moving at a clip (which was a blessing given half the three-hour running time was made up of commercials … though, happily, that creepy Walmart family was MIA this year); and any consistent comedy in the production came from him. Elijah Kelley (Hairspray) was an adorable wee dervish as the kind-hearted Scarecrow, and pop star Ne-Yo was all country-fried charm and deep feeling soul as the Tin Man. His “What Can I Feel” was a tear-jerking marvel.

From classics like “Ease on Down the Road” to the jubilant (and timely) “Everybody Rejoice/Brand New Day,” the cast of The Wiz Live! performed the showstoppers with vital urgency, as declarations that life can be better – should be better – and that it takes all of us, with the right sense of compassion and of adventure, to get there. I think L. Frank Baum would have been proud. I know I was.

Little Roy

Little Roy

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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.

Zippy, socially incendiary fun with a side of self-mythologizing: Motown the Musical in Chicago

Somewhere between the toxic camp of Dreamgirls and the theme park spectacle that is Motown the Musical, the real story of Berry Gordy and Diana Ross lives.

Currently playing at Chicago’s Oriental Theatre, the Broadway transplant tells the tale of Motown Records’ founding and (ostensibly) the true life story of its chief mastermind Gordy and of his key preoccupation/inspiration call-her-MISS-Ross.

(Yes, this Metro Detroit resident – yours truly – had to travel to Chicago to see a musical about the Motor City. Ah, show biz. Why this tuner isn’t in permanent residence at Detroit’s Fox Theatre I will never know.)

What I enjoyed about the show is how seamlessly it blends all of the magical hits of the Motown era into one narrative, running the gamut from Joe Louis’ historic title bout victory to the Detroit race riots to Motown’s iconic 25th anniversary television special.

The ensemble is unbelievable. A relatively small cast literally portrays hundreds of characters, many of them etched into our collective memories: Michael Jackson, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, Mary Wells, Martha and the Vandellas, Gladys Knight, Stevie Wonder, The Temptations, The Four Tops, and on and on.

For the most part, the cast – who must have a thousand dressers backstage and racks upon racks of costumes and wigs – avoids devolving into cheap mimicry, giving us fully realized, albeit brief, glimpses into the lives of these pop music celebrities.

A few moments made me wince, particularly the portrayal of a young Stevie Wonder, but that may have just been my oversensitivity at the strange chuckles from an audience who seemed to find Wonder’s blindness a source of amusement.

I don’t know how this cast does this jam-packed, high energy, Jerome Robbins-on-caffeine-pills show night after night. They must have the aerobic health of decathletes.

Clifton Oliver as Gordy and Allison Semmes as Ross acquit themselves in a lovely fashion with roles that are just a bit too idolatrous. Given that Gordy is a producer, I guess that adoration is unsurprising.

Semmes gives a nuanced performance, introducing as much critique of Ross’ famed ambition as she was likely allowed, evolving from 17-year-old hopeful to seasoned diva before our very eyes.

Other standouts are Nicholas Christopher who gives us a sweet-hearted, nervous-headed Smokey Robinson (providing the show’s best comic moments) and Jarran Muse whose Marvin Gaye is both epic talent and maddening flake.

This isn’t a bad show. In fact it’s quite delightful. However, it is too long by at least 30 minutes. And at times the manner in which fairly significant historical moments are reduced to song and dance amidst pretty fantastic digital projections is a little goofy.

I wanted to love this show. I wanted to leave the theater with all of these marvelous songs dancing through my head. At times, however, I felt pummeled by Gordy’s self-mythologizing, to the point I wanted to spend the rest of my life listening to hair metal.

Go for the spectacle, the amazing costumes, the brilliant use of light and minimalist set pieces, but prepare yourself for a marathon. The talented cast redeems a marginal book and does yeoman’s work reminding us why Motown’s canon was and is such zippy, socially incendiary fun.

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Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Thanks to BroadwayWorld for this coverage – click here to view. In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

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Can’t get no respect: Robin Thicke at Detroit’s Fox Theatre

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Unfortunately for Robin Thicke, the son of Hollywood b-listers Alan Thicke and Gloria Loring, he is often seen as the poor man’s Justin Timberlake. He is actually as talented if not more so than JT. But none of us will ever know that, for he has been labeled a skeezy player by most of the major media.

I have enjoyed his music for about 10 or more years now, since he first came on the scene with his Fifth of Beethoven knock-off “When I Get You Alone” still rocking his dreadlocks and a skateboard. Since that time, he has graduated to three-piece suits and a full orchestra backing him up, though for us old fans in the group, he still plays that original hit … sans skateboard.

[Photo by Author]

I saw him at the Fox Theatre  in Detroit, and he was a fantastic throwback to an earlier, Motown-infused era. He proved himself a marvelous multi-hyphenate musician, and he graciously acknowledged his backup band much earlier in the set than anyone I have ever seen, including digital placards of every musician who supported him. It was the epitome of a “jam session” – a notion which usually leaves me cold, but his sheer joy sold it all.

Yes, he ended the show with the uber-popular “Blurred Lines “– a song that apparently has both Camille Paglia and Gloria Steinem in apoplexy. I’m not sure it’s any more offensive than anything else on the radio these days and it’s infinitely more catchy … Marvin Gaye’s family’s lawsuit notwithstanding.

Let me add, though, that I find the video problematic myself. I am not an apologist for Mr. Thicke. I don’t know if “Blurred Lines” director Diane Martel was co-opting the insane imagery of hip-hop videos to make a satirical statement, to be provocative, or to be exploitative. I have been unclear from my first viewing of it. And some days I think Thicke shot himself in the proverbial foot with this clip. Yet, he also had a hit song because of it, as he had bubbled under for over a decade with few people paying attention to his musical talent.

I suspect he feels this conflict too since the live show had very little of that dubious (gross? misogynistic?) iconography, save the occasional Bond girl silhouette on a rear projection screen. It is a sad indictment of our culture that these kind of stunts are required to get anyone to pay attention. A Faustian bargain to be sure.

IMG_0619The live show was an absolute delight, filled with exceptional craft and an infectious love for Detroit. Thicke, who seems to hail from somewhere left of Malibu, knows his audience and definitely can work a crowd, cannily including covers of hits from Michael Jackson and Al Green. He proved himself an exceptional presence, while lacking a bit of Timberlake’s joie de vivre. Regardless, he held the audience enrapt for a lean and efficient 90 minute set. His opening act, DJ Cassidy offered a wonderful range of current and vintage disco and R&B that meshed nicely with Thicke’s set.

While most of the world has decided they don’t like Robin Thicke for some inexplicable reason, his talent is unimpeachable. If he swaggers his way to a venue near you, I urge you to give his show a shot. He is very talented Hollywood progeny who deserves more respect than he tends to get.

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Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Please check out this coverage from BroadwayWorld of upcoming book launch events! 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; by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan; and by Memory Lane Gift Shop in Columbia City, Indiana. Bookbound and Memory Lane both also have copies of Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series.

“What’s more important than the safety of the American people?” RoboCop (2014)

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

In the ongoing march of unnecessary remakes of 1980s films, here comes RoboCop clanking his way through the February movie doldrums, after all the Oscar bait has run its box office course.

And I liked it. Quite a bit. (And not just for all the on-location shots of Downtown Motown, including a ton of exterior shots of GM’s Renaissance Center.)

Maybe I am just tired of films that make artistic statements and am ready for one that is a low-rent summer-esque blockbuster. RoboCop certainly fit the bill.

Gone is the original film’s Swiftian satire of Reagan-era fear of one’s own neighbors. No comic undertones in this somber affair. In its place is a grittier/glossier take on post-9/11 American xenophobia and the supercharge it gives to the military-industrial complex’s ongoing economic prospects.

In fact, the film begins with a very telling sequence wherein robot police forces jackboot their way through some unidentified Middle Eastern country, lining the streets with men, women, and children deemed “nonthreatening” only after an invasive infrared scan (or two).

These scenes are interposed with footage of Samuel L. Jackson as an even cartoonier version of a Rush Limbaugh/Bill O’Reilly television pundit casting his death darts at liberal politicians who won’t allow such android stormtroopers to police American streets. Yes, his character proudly wears a little “Stars and Stripes” pin on his lapel and tosses the word “patriot” around the way some people discuss the weather.

Satirical or not, this film isn’t afraid to telegraph its punches.

Instead of sardonic Peter Weller in the title role, we have a more emo RoboCop (his armor is even all black) in Swedish actor Joel Kinnaman. Yes, RoboCop cries. A lot. Kinnaman does a fine job grounding the wackadoodle proceedings, which involve a decent Detroit cop being blown to smithereens, being reconstructed in droid form as part of a martial law experiment conducted by big bad OmniCorp, and then proceeding to solve his own murder much to the chagrin of, well, everyone.

Unlike Weller, Kinnaman as Alex Murphy consistently and genuinely seems distraught by his unlikely circumstances, and the scenes between his otherwise cardboard wife (Abbie Cornish) and son are effectively poignant, chiefly through his presence.

The rest of the cast is fleshed out (no pun intended) by a great group of ringers (and a surprising number of Oscar nominees): Gary Oldman as the Dr. Frankenstein-mad-genius-with-a-conscience who transforms Murphy from beat cop to Tin Man; Michael Keaton as OmniCorp’s believably “country club casual” money-hungry CEO; Jackie Earle Haley as a junkyard dog lieutenant in Keaton’s army-for-hire; Jennifer Ehle as Keaton’s coolly calculating corporate counsel; Marianne Jean Baptiste as a smoothly corrupt police chief; and Jay Baruchel doing his dorky-James-Franco-wannabe thing as Keaton’s chief marketing nerd.

I don’t know that the world really needed a RoboCop remake but, as an exercise in taking a well-worn narrative and using it to tweak our post-millennial materialism, self-preservation, insecurity, and fear of the unknown, it runs like clockwork.