Shaggy dog biting the hand that feeds: Randy Newman at The Palladium in Carmel, Indiana

Randy Newman (All photos by Don Sexton)

Randy Newman (All photos by Don Sexton)

The first concert I ever attended (at least that I remember) was when my parents took this eighth grader to see Bobby McFerrin at the much-vaunted Holidome in Crown Point, Indiana. Just take a moment and let that sentence settle in … and try to contain your envy. Yes, some kids in the late 80s went to see Madonna or Aerosmith or MC Hammer or New Kids on the Block, but for me it was Bobby McFerrin all the way. And this was before “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” So there.

The show was in the round, with just McFerrin and maybe a piano. I can’t recall. But with his phenomenal, otherworldly musicality, he rattled (largely acapella) through two hours of amazing numbers, not to mention his complete re-creation of the entire film The Wizard of Oz, including that iconic “I’m melting!” bit.

Flash forward, nearly 30 years (sigh), and I find myself yet again riding along in the backseat of my parents’ car, on our way to see another Baby Boomer mainstay Randy Newman, this time in Indianapolis. Nothing takes you back to the feeling of being a child like riding in the backseat of your parents’ car on a long car trip – that intoxicating mix of comfort and powerlessness as you cruise down the road listening to the squabbling and the laughter, to music you don’t recognize and familial history references you do. I wouldn’t trade that feeling for anything.

Palladium

Palladium

So it is with this context that we took in Newman’s concert at Carmel, Indiana’s palatial music hall, the Palladium at the Center for Performing Arts. Such a musical hall Indiana has never before seen – a concert venue that looks like it was designed by M.C. Escher, if overdosed with Benzedrine by Liberace’s hairdresser, after visiting the Palace of Versailles or Disneyland’s “Hall of Presidents.” It really is beautiful and strange, with a byzantine entrance and egress system that made me feel like I was playing Milton Bradley’s Mousetrap.

However, there isn’t a bad seat in the house (nor a reasonably priced one), with Phantom of the Opera-esque box seats at every turn, polished cherry and marble floors, phenomenal acoustics and lighting, and super-cushy chairs.

As we sat there taking in the opulence, Newman lumbered on stage, after a loving introduction by Michael Feinstein himself. You see, Feinstein, a Columbus, Ohio native, helped get the Center established five or so years ago, alongside his husband Terrence Flannery, as a permanent monument to the Great American Songbook and to our musical theater traditions. The space also houses The Great American Songbook Foundation, which is very much worth visiting if you have some time to spare before a show there. They are great about arranging tours.

Roy and Susie waiting for the big show

Roy and Susie waiting for the big show

For over two hours, it was just Newman, his piano, and a very responsive audience. Newman isn’t quite the showman that McFerrin was/is – likely an unfair comparison since they’re such different artists, and I am judging them across a divide of 30 years. Ah well.

But what Newman lacked in showmanship, he made up in shaggy charm. He would periodically play wrong notes, stop, look up at the audience, shake his head, and say things like, “I never was a very good pianist.” Then, he would dive back into plunking out notes for many of his signature songs like “I Love L.A.,” “Short People,” “You Can Leave Your Hat On,” and “Mama Told Me Not to Come.”

A highlight for me was his performance of “Love Story (You and Me),” a Newman tune covered previously by artists as diverse as Harry Nilsson, Lena Horne, and Harry Belafonte. The song is a poignant charmer and has not aged a bit. Newman delivered it with aplomb, his frogs-and-molasses voice the perfect accent to the song’s lilting, loping melody.

Newman peppered his set-list, which pretty much seemed made up as he went along, with anecdotes about his life as a child of Los Angeles, as a child of the 60s, and as a child of a movie soundtrack dynasty (he is the nephew of acclaimed film composers Alfred and Lionel Newman and the cousin of Thomas Newman). The casual vibe he affected was on the whole delightful, though a bit more preparation and variety would have benefited the slow-going second act.

An artist of Newman’s caliber with such an accomplished history in pop, theater, and movie music is pretty much just going to do whatever the hell he wants, so that’s just fine. It is unlikely he will come this way again, so we are grateful we got the chance to see him.

Newman at piano

Newman at piano

I never realized just how many songs the man has written about cities and/or states: Baltimore, Los Angeles, Birmingham, Louisiana. And he performed them all. They follow a similar formula, with snarky verses that alternate with hypnotic repetition of said geography’s name. He worked in a wink and a nod to his Hoosier hosts, noodling through “On the Banks of the Wabash” and “Back Home Again in Indiana,” at one point looking around the beautiful Palladium and cheekily observing, “What a dump.”

His show was riddled with his caustic takes on religion and politics, government and capitalism. That was a breath of fresh air in an otherwise conservative community, so I’m sure a few spiky letters to the editor will arrive at the Indianapolis Star this week.

Yet, if he had really wanted to drive a stake through the heartland, he should have played one of my personal favorites, his theme “That’ll Do” from Babe: Pig in the City. While originally sung by Peter Gabriel, their voices are rather interchangeable at this point, so I think Newman delivering this subtle ode to kindness and to compassion and, well, to pigs would have been the perfect punctuation mark on his performance in factory farming Indiana (sad example here). We thought about shouting the title “That’ll Do” (like some rowdy concert-goers shouted “Free Bird” when I saw Tracy Chapman at the Wabash College Chapel years ago), but then we realized he might misunderstand, think we were telling him he was done for the evening, and then walk off stage.

Newman, ever the iconoclast, also worked in his shots at corporate giant Disney, letting us know in no uncertain terms, that while he has appreciated the opportunity, he hasn’t always been thrilled with the artistic limitations imposed. In a funnier bit, he commented how frustrating it is to score something such as a toy soldier falling into a drawer, adding that there is a good 20 minutes of Toy Story he’s never seen, because that particular section didn’t require any musical scoring. He then launched into a fine rendition of “You’ve Got a Friend in Me,” one of the sharpest musical moments of the evening. Again, I wouldn’t have minded hearing a slightly more obscure tune from the Toy Story saga, the beautiful and heartbreaking “When She Loved Me” (originally sung by Sarah McLachlan and written by Newman).

I guess it is a sign that I am more of a fan than I knew, having left the show enjoying what I heard but wishing for more songs than time had allowed.

Feinstein and Sexton

Feinstein and Sexton

As a final note, we realized after the show was over, that we had been seated in a box next to Michael Feinstein and his family and some potentially uber-wealthy donors. No doubt we probably would have been a bit better behaved had we known this – not putting our feet on the backs of chairs, nor taking flash photos, nor snapping our chewing gum. We are so classy. Regardless, after he finished schmoozing Daddy Warbucks and Co., Feinstein was kind and gracious enough to take a photo with us and to chat for a bit, though I suspect the cleaning crew was dispatched to our vacated box immediately.

Do take a moment to check out Feinstein’s Foundation and the great work they’re doing there, and if you feel like sending a donation to preserve our musical history and keep art alive, I’m sure it would be appreciated. If you find yourself in Indianapolis, definitely stop by for a visit or show. It’s worth it!

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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.

“The right accessory can change your life.” Two Muses production of new musical “At the Bistro Garden”

At the Bistro Garden Cast  (Photo by Melissa Tremblay of Platinum Imagery)

At the Bistro Garden Cast (Photo by Melissa Tremblay of Platinum Imagery)

The 1980s are hot again. I guess nostalgia must have a 25-to-30-year sell-by date when it really kicks in. Fifteen years ago, the 1970s were the rage, and we may be on the cusp of the 90s making their grungy resurgence, but right now the 80s are where it’s at.

Perhaps it’s because, like that bygone day-glo era, we still live under a perpetual shroud of Armageddon, be it chemical or nuclear or viral. Perhaps it’s because we again exist in a politically divisive age where neither political party nor our president seem terribly interested in what any of us day-to-day schmucks think or feel. Perhaps it’s because our celebrities from then and today seem interchangeable, wearing outfits that look like they were designed by circus carnies.

Regardless, the 1980s are au courant, which is perfect timing for Two Muses Theatre’s Midwestern debut of the big-haired/shoulder-padded musical At the Bistro Garden. (In the spirit of open disclosure, I know personally many of the folks involved with this production and even helped with some of their marketing, including this interview with the show’s creative team.)

Nonetheless and perhaps in part because of this, I enjoyed the show a great deal. In similar fashion to two other beloved broadly comic artifacts from my youth – Designing Women and Steel Magnolias – the show recounts the trials and tribulations of three women caught between a rock and a hard place, proto-feminists whose formative years may have been haunted by Donna Reed and Gidget but whose present days are shaped by Gloria Steinem and Madonna.

The three ladies who lunch – Abigail, Cheyenne, and B.J. – have more money and time on their hands than they should and meet every Friday at Beverly Hills’ famed Bistro Garden restaurant to kvetch and kvell about family and friends. The plot wouldn’t have been out-of-place in a very special episode of the aforementioned Designing Women but offers enough meaningful complications to give this talented trio some great scenery to chew. As expected for a show set in this era, there’s much talk of divorce and alimony, illegitimate children … and shopping. An early number – the zippy “A Sale at Neiman’s” – celebrates the joys of retail excess, offering the bon mot “the right accessory can change your life.”

At times, the cartoonish whimsy of life in the 80s takes on an almost allegorical quality, highlighting the disconnect between narcissistic artifice and the very real pain (and reward) friendship and family can bring. The lilting tunes and snappy patter neatly propel the show and its themes.

The cast functions very well as an ensemble, each shining particularly in the more poignant moments. Sometimes the rat-a-tat dialogue gets a little lost in translation, where the wit should come from speed not emphasis, but when this cast clicks, they really click.

At the Bistro Garden

At the Bistro Garden

Carrie Jay Sayer as “Lady of the Canyon” Cheyenne and AlissaBeth Morton as her daughter Destiny (yeah, those names are a time warped hoot) steal every scene with a believable familial dynamic that engenders laughter and tears. They really do a solid job finding the humor in the pathos.

Amy Lauter as Abigail, a sweet-natured if misguided women-done-wrong, and Diane Hill as B.J., a not-as-sweet-natured but equally misguided woman-done-wrong, both have many touching moments as they explore the betrayal of a dream deferred. Both actresses excel in their plaintive solo numbers, plumbing new depths of heartache.

John DeMerell as master of ceremonies and the restaurant’s maître d’ sparkles – the catalyst that gives the production forward momentum and a refreshing lightness. He has a ball playing several additional bit parts throughout the show, aided and abetted by clever costuming and no end of silly accents. Miles Bond and Rusty Daugherty are fun as a sort of campy Greek chorus, offering arch commentary as waiters, moving men, clerks who float through the proceedings.

Indeed, the costuming by Barbie Amann Weisserman is perfection, loving and warmly funny but never satirical, which is a tricky balance to pull off. Lesser costumers end up making fun of a garish era such as this one, forgetting that people actually intend to look attractive (usually) and it’s only later in time when we realize how odd some of our fashion choices actually might have been. Everyone in the show does in fact look gorgeous, even if the styles and patterns and prints make us giggle with knowing recognition.

A narrative highlight – musically and acting-wise – is the number “Just Another Baby.” A scorched-earth, toxic meltdown that B.J. (Hill) delivers at a baby shower, ridiculing our nation’s unyielding mania for infants and our collective fixation on insipid names, miniaturized fashion, and corrosive parental competition. Hill nails it, and, as the show’s creative team (Deborah Pearl on book, David Kole on music/lyrics) continues to refine this work, they might consider sprinkling a bit of that second act’s number’s funny-as-h*ll venom throughout the softer/gentler first act.

(One minor quibble is the use of a pre-recorded accompaniment in this production. There is a live keyboard for some of the numbers, and those particular songs/performances had a warmer, more organic quality. No doubt this hybrid approach was driven by resource availability, but, at times it is a bit distracting.)

Jules Aaron’s direction is efficient and witty and makes effective use of the tight space with multi-functional set pieces and clever blocking. He has done a fabulous job forging a tight ensemble with rich stage life and believable connections, clearly key to making this show sing (pun intended).

As a new work, this show is worth catching to see how it continues to develop. The first act could use a trim here or there as it serves chiefly to set up the soap opera-esque fireworks of the second act (think Douglas Sirk meets The Carol Burnett Show – and that’s a good thing). After the intermission, the show speeds along as all of the puzzle pieces established in the first act come together. The show has one more weekend so be sure to stop by The Bistro Garden, to reminisce about a bygone era that is still surprisingly and perhaps sadly relevant today. Tickets can be purchased at www.twomusestheatre.org.

Two Muses Theatre performs in the Barnes & Noble Booksellers Theatre Space, 6800 Orchard Lake Rd, West Bloomfield, MI  48322, South of Maple (15 Mile). Enter the bookstore, and the theatre is on the left.

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Tomfoolery

Tomfoolery

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.

“Huge shoulder pads and big earrings and the heyday of the wealthy in Beverly Hills…” Midwest Premiere of At the Bistro Garden

www.twomusestheatre.org

Cheyenne (played by Carrie Jay Sayer) sees her daughter’s new look when Destiny (AlissaBeth Morton) emerges from the dressing room at Neiman Marcus.

Enjoy this interview I did for my pals at Two Muses Theatre – they are about to present the Midwest premiere of the musical “At the Bistro Garden,” and the following article features the show’s creators Deborah Pearl and David Kole as well as director Jules Aaron.

“You aren’t inventing the wheel, but you are putting in the spokes. And you hope that wheel will carry the show!” observes Los Angeles-based theatrical director Jules Aaron, currently in Metro Detroit to helm Two Muses Theatre’s Midwest premiere of the new musical, At the Bistro Garden.  It’s an apt metaphor for the Motor City and an even more appropriate one for such a collaborative effort as launching a new theatrical work. Written by fellow Angelinos, the book by Deborah Pearl and music/lyrics by David Kole, the show, which runs from September 26 through October 19 promises to surprise and delight Michigan audiences.

At the Bistro Garden is a sharply funny and touching look at the lives of three friends from Beverly Hills who lunch weekly at the famous Bistro Garden restaurant, circa 1987. Their friendship keeps them from shattering and helps them get through infidelities, betrayals, a daughter going astray, love lost, and love found. Winner of the 2005 ASCAP Best New Musical award, the show was previously work-shopped in L.A.

“The idea came originally from David Kole. He started out with five songs and a clear sense of who these women were. He asked me to sing – I also sing professionally- on the demos. He had no book, so I created the story, and wrote scenes that give the women distinctive voices, while also helping identify where additional songs would be needed. I love that it’s about the strength and vulnerability of women – and what’s behind the facade that we see – because these women are every woman underneath.   We started on this a while ago, and the 80s are cool again, so it’s perfect timing. Huge shoulder pads and big earrings and the heyday of the wealthy in Beverly Hills give us a good context for the comedy,” explains Pearl, a longtime television writer/producer, whose credits include Designing Women. “Over the years, working in television, I learned so much about comic timing – what works and what doesn’t. And since I’m a singer as well, I hear the human voice as melody. That’s how I write. I hear the characters speak in my head and it’s like I’m taking dictation. Sometimes I can’t type fast enough. When it comes to you, you listen.”

Kole adds, “People ask how I write from a woman’s perspective. It’s from observing. I got this idea while having lunch at the Bistro Garden. I went there the first time with Cloris Leachman – I do her orchestrations, including her stint on Dancing with the Stars. I realized what a great restaurant it was and I’d see all these ‘Old Hollywood’ folks and I’d get a sense of the lore. Flynn, Sinatra all used to go there. I wrote five songs to define the characters I’d invented. I wanted to make a small show. And no one was writing for women, particularly women in their 40s. I was going to write the book myself, and I knew Deborah as a studio singer. She sang on the demos, and I ran into a wall writing the actual stories. I had five characters with developed backgrounds – middle names, children, wardrobes – but I didn’t have a real story. Deborah came up with the story arc.”

Pearl then met Aaron, who was in New York directing a play starring a mutual friend. As all great showbiz stories go, they struck up a conversation, she told him about this new work, and he was intrigued.

“I’ve gotten to the point in my career where I specialize in new shows. I’ve done 70 plus new shows. I’m currently working on three new shows. Deborah asked me to look at their musical and I liked it very much. When the Two Muses opportunity came up, it seemed like a great fit,” elaborates Aaron. Aaron’s mother, who, at 95, still lives in Oak Park in the house where he grew up and is an active writer and director herself, was “the marriage broker. She had seen several shows at Two Muses that she liked a lot. She said it would be so nice if I could do a show out here and we could spend some time together. Barbie [Amann Weisserman, one of Two Muses’ co-founders] and I spoke about a year ago, and I said let’s find something that we both like. Six months later we landed on Bistro Garden, and we started specifically to look at schedules. And here we are. It was one of those things. It’s such a treat to spend this time with my mom and to work with a theatre that is a real up and comer. They produce well. They are very sharp.”

Aaron, a Wayne State graduate who also holds a Ph.D. from New York University, isn’t the only member of the creative team with ties to Metro Detroit (or, for that matter, with an influential mother). Kole was born and raised in Grosse Pointe where he attended high school, leaving at 18 to tour with Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians, eventually landing in Beverly Hills where he has worked as a film composer in addition to his theatrical work. “Nathan Judson was my band teacher here. Big influence – taught me music, theatre, opera. My mother introduced me to musical theatre. My mom is from New York and we’d go in the summer and see all the original productions. Anything Rodgers and Hammerstein – King and I, South Pacific – and then Sondheim – both had profound influences. I’ve been accused of being Sondheim-esque. I was immersed in A Little Night Music when I was working on Bistro Garden. Jonathan Tunick’s pointillistic orchestrations speak to me.”

For Pearl, though, working on this show has been her introduction to the wolverine state. “This is my very first trip to Michigan. It’s so beautiful. Reminds me of where I grew up in Pennsylvania. I so miss the green from my years of living in L.A. I actually had an intro to Detroit by my friend Allee Willis – composer of Earth, Wind, and Fire’s ‘September’ among other of their hits. She has a music video and movie in process called – I Love Detroit. And I see why. It’s such a creative place. I’m moved by the commitment to the arts here. Everyone in our production is so into it. And talented. And really happy to be working.   And they like my material!” Pearl laughs heartily. “I always love people who love my material. And I played one of the roles in the workshop, so it’s fun to see someone else playing that role. It takes a huge amount of work to mount a show. People don’t appreciate that. Musicals are a ton of work and an equal amount of fun. That’s what I hope people who come to the show will leave with.   An evening of fun.   At the Bistro Garden is a joyous experience.”

www.twomusestheatre.org

At the Bistro Garden, BJ (played by Diane Hill) gossips with best friends Abigail (Amy Lauter) and Cheyenne (Carrie Jay Sayer) while the Maitre D (John DeMerell) listens in.

Pearl is an active volunteer back home, somehow finding time between all her artistic endeavors to sing a monthly jazz service at her synagogue, perform at high holidays at Cedars Sinai Medical Center, and co-found and direct a collective of professional and non-professional singers called “The National In Choir” who’ve been entertaining at hospitals and senior centers every December in L.A. for over thirty years.   Her Jewish identity is important to her as an artist. She spent years studying Torah with Jewish writers and producers (in a group funded by “Avi Chai”). “Art is transformative. The most joyful use of my voice and my writing is in a spiritual context. There’s nothing better than lifting people up with your work,” she notes.   “And everyone here is happy to share in the creative lifting.”

Aaron echoes Pearl’s enthusiasm for their newfound Michigan friends, “This cast is a really great group of people. They have talent and a wonderful attitude and sense of dedication. So sweet to be around. I have high hopes that we are going to have a very strong show. When you work in New York or L.A., the amount of talent is overwhelming and you are working with casting directors. When we finished casting in Detroit, I was very pleased.”

But how does Kole, with whom the central concept of Bistro Garden first began, feel about the process so far? “I look forward to handing my little child over to other people. I love seeing their takes on these characters or how they sing a melody I wrote. I love people attaching their own bits to my germination of an idea. It always makes it better than what I had in mind. I’ve literally worked with thousands of musicians and hearing what they do with my work, how they phrase a line is always a pleasure,” he relates.

“I had never done theatre in Detroit. My expectations have been so exceeded from my time here in Detroit. Diane [Hill, Two Muses’ other co-founder] and Barbie are phenomenal. And I love their families. Observing Jules work with the actors and the wonderful choreographer [Allyson Smith] and musical director [Daniel Bachelis] is phenomenal. Jules is not on a power trip but is very encouraging, supportive. He understands my characters. These characters … they are like my children. Deborah is their adoptive mother, and Jules really understands them. They are real now.”

Kole concludes, “What’s really great is I’m looking around this rehearsal space and I see all these people – actors, production team, audience – and it started with this little idea I had and now everyone is here taking part in this. It’s such an honor. Their lives are being changed by this little idea. It’s so gratifying.”

Two Muses Theatre, recent recipient of an operational grant from Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs (MCACA) and the NEA, performs in the intimate 150-seat theatre inside Barnes & Noble Booksellers, located at 6800 Orchard Lake Road in West Bloomfield (south of Maple).   Performances are Sept 26-Oct 19 on Friday and Saturday evenings at 8:00pm and Sunday afternoons at 2:00pm. Advance tickets are available for $23 for adults and $18 for students and senior citizens and are available at the door for an additional $2. Group discounts are also available. Doors open 30 minutes prior to each performance. There is ample free parking and handicap accessibility. For tickets and information, please call 248-850-9919 or visit twomusestheatre.org.

Founded in November 2011 by Diane Hill and Barbie Amann Weisserman, Two Muses Theatre is a nonprofit, professional theatre dedicated to increasing opportunities for women in theatre. All funds raised from performances and educational workshops go directly into maintaining the theatre and contributing to charitable organizations centered on women and families.

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Postscript! The show I’m in  – Tomfoolery, starting October 2 at Conor O’Neill’s in Ann Arbor – now has a super-cute poster … and here it is (to the left). More info at pennyseats.org.

Celebrating the words and music of Tom Lehrer, with an opening short by Zach London, The Penny Seats will perform Thursdays, October 2, 9, 16, and 23. Dinner starts at 6:30pm; show at 8pm. Dinner and show are just $20 per ticket; show only $10 per ticket!

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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.