Count all those “live Tweets” rolling in. Fox’s #GreaseLive!

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I don’t like Grease (in any of its musical forms – Broadway, film, community theatre, drunken karaoke). And I ain’t never gonna like Grease. There are some catchy songs, and Rizzo is pretty much a Teflon-plated hoot no matter who is applying Stockard Channing’s time-tested performance template (even if Channing herself seemed like a 45-year-old playing that role). Yet, the book (in its countless revisions) can’t decide if it wants to be corny, contrived, plastic sock-hop nostalgia or crude, crass, grimy locker room ick. The character development rarely rises above that of an Archie comic – an uneasy mix of satire, camp, and canonization. And the climactic message of “be yourself … no, wait, don’t be yourself … tease, your hair, slap on Spandex pants, and strut around like an inebriated race horse” (which could describe Danny’s arc as much as it does Sandy’s) is, shall we say, problematic?

So, I came at Sunday’s Grease Live! – Fox’s gambit in the ever-escalating live televised musical arms race – with a bit of trepidation and a whole heap of hate-watching ire in my arsenal. Said arsenal remains unused this Monday morning. The show was actually kind of … good? Maybe I can deploy my ire for the Iowa caucus?

As in the days following NBC’s The Sound of Music Live!, Peter Pan Live!, and The Wiz Live! (think we could retire the “live” and the exclamation marks, folks?), there will be a lot of digital “ink” spilled and memes/GIFs posted, some fawning, some hypercritical, but one can’t deny that this new genre – that is neither really live (Live!) nor filmed, neither organic/authentic nor polished/accomplished, neither bad nor good – is a happening that energizes viewers, inspires conversation, and piques our collective cultural interest in stage musicals again.

Let it be said that none of the musicals performed to date are anything I would have chosen to perform or to see, left to my own devices. To me, these shows are all tired, shopworn, and clichéd. All have been filmed and/or performed live on television before, and, with the exception of The Wiz, those prior adaptations were more or less already considered definitive. The next wave of shows coming down the pike – Hairspray (?!) and The Rocky Horror Picture Show – just affirms that conclusion, though Rocky Horror’s casting – gender-bending an already bent show – may prove intriguing.

For all intents and purposes, these shows are less theatre, more stunt spectacle, as if a monster truck rally and a high school theatre department collaborated for a production that none of us really want to see again but can’t not watch. NBC/Fox could give a fig what theatre snobs think. These shows are a throwback to a time when The Wizard of Oz and Gone With The Wind aired annually on network television, when people didn’t think twice when three (!) different television adaptations of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella aired over the years, or when plays like Twelve Angry Men could hit Broadway and be a live television event and a major motion picture in rapid succession. It’s called event programming – it’s always existed, it’s always drawn eyeballs and made money for the networks, it’s always had corporate sponsors (Alcoa! Coca-Cola! Frigidaire!) …  and viewers have always said their era was better than the one in which we find ourselves now.

Grease Live! had the spectacle part down pat. There were clever fourth-wall-breaking behind-the-scenes commercial breaks and scene transitions (grimacing host Mario Lopez and those runaway golf carts notwithstanding). The film-worthy indoor/outdoor sets and the acres of Warner Brothers’ backlot dedicated to the production, including a full-fledged amusement park, were incredible (rainstorms notwithstanding). I would love to know how they accomplished the seamlessly gliding transitions from one fully-realized location to the next – notably the transitions from Rizzo’s Pepto-Bismol pink bedroom to a glitzy USO stage and back (Keke Palmer’s star turn on forgotten number “Freddy My Love”) or from gleaming 360 degree art deco diner to “Teen Angel” heaven (Carly Rae Jepsen’s otherwise forgettable new tune “All I Need Is An Angel” and BoyzIIMen’s shaky “Beauty School Dropout”).

Hamilton helmer Thomas Kail’s direction of all the musical numbers (aided and abetted beautifully by Glee alum Zach Woodlee’s loving choreography) was sharp, purposeful, and epic, furthering the narrative in clever ways (Jordan Fisher’s “Those Magic Changes” an early delight, detailing Danny Zukko’s failed efforts to “fit in”) and providing flashy, eye-popping showstoppers (“Summer Lovin’,” “Greased Lightnin’,” “Born to Hand Jive,” and the finale “You’re the One That I Want/We Go Together” all crackled with a frenetic music video energy … and that’s a good thing). And the costumes (and instantaneous costume changes)?  To die for.  Frothy, cute, and kinetic.

The cast – made up of Disney Channel refugees, Grease movie alumni, and a handful of legit stage stars – wasn’t always able to match the technical prowess, and I suspect Kail was wisely hedging his bets by layering on the gloss and the wow, so we didn’t notice (or care) when a cast member hit a sour note (rarely) or performed their dialogue like they were reading the side of a cereal box (often). Vanessa Hudgens’ Rizzo was the star of the night. Her Rizzo may have lacked pathos, but she added a layer of heartbroken outsider sweetness (not unlike what Laura Benanti brought to Sound of Music’s “Baroness”) that was an appealing counterpoint to all the gum-cracking sass. She infused “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee” with a welcome playfulness that kept the song from devolving into sheer meanness (as it often does).

The aforementioned Keke Palmer brought presence and poise to her Marty, quietly driving every scene in which she appeared, and Jepsen was appealingly forlorn as pink-haired loser Frenchy. The Pink Ladies, generally, kept the enterprise afloat, with a loveable sauciness that unfortunately was unmatched by the rather forgettable T-Birds. Not a moment stood out for the greasers, though Aaron Tveit’s Danny Zuko was a singing/dancing marvel. He is arguably the most accomplished musical vet of the cast (Next to Normal, Les Miserables), and it showed, in both good and bad ways. He hit every mark, sang like an angel, and nailed every move and gesture and pose … but he didn’t seem to be having one darn bit of fun. He lacked an impish sparkle that would have sold the performance for the ages, which is a shame, as he did bring a hunky empathy and kindness that actors typically don’t give the role, distracted as they often are with the pompadour and the leather jacket and the cars and the mythically phony “50s-ishness” of it all.

Julianne Hough is not my cup of tea. Never has been. Like Tveit, she has the technical know-how (particularly where movement is concerned) but she has this inherent bland unlikeability that I can’t ever quite get past. Yet, in the case of this production, that quality served her and the show well (to a degree). I’ve never understood why Rizzo, in particular, hates Sandy so much, so quickly. The nebulously defined rivalry over Danny just never works (and is too sexist anyway). So, having a lightly annoying Sandy to motivate a less bullying Rizzo worked for me, whether that was intentional or just a happy accident of chemistry.

Rounding out the cast, Saturday Night Live’s Ana Gasteyer was stoic perfection, as the malaprop-spewing Rydell High principal, and Wendell Pierce was fun as an archetypically pompous and inept coach/gym teacher. Didi Conn (Frenchy in the original film) and Eve Plumb (“Jan Brady”) offered spry cameo turns, and Jessie J (England’s answer to P!nk) did a serviceable job performing the iconic “Grease (Is the Word)” over the opening credits – a tune originally sung by Frankie Valli and written by Barry Gibb for the 1978 film. Never mind that the lyrics to “Grease (Is the Word)” make absolutely no sense (the term “word salad” springs to mind) nor do they have any discernible connection to the plot; the tune’s catchy, we all know it, and it’s perfectly marketable as a pop single. Money, money, money!

In the end, that’s all Grease Live! was every really about anyway. This isn’t great art. This isn’t Great Performances. (Hell,  that high-minded PBS program is underwritten by the Koch Brothers now, isn’t it?) These “live” musicals are an exercise in commerce with a light veneer of artistic pretense. Take some songs you know and a premise you vaguely recall from your youth, mix in a Fantasy Island’s gaggle of dubious “talents,” layer on some high-paying sponsors, promote the sh*t out of it, and count all those “live Tweets” rolling in. #Captalism_Live!

__________________

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.

Return to Sweethaven: Sting’s The Last Ship in previews in Chicago (review)

For all intents and purposes, Sting has musicalized what is arguably his greatest album The Soul Cages – full of warmth and sadness and Celtic rhythms – in his new show The Last Ship in previews at Chicago’s Bank of America theater.

It is a thing of beauty.

Directed expertly by Joe Mantello (Love! Valour! Compassion! and Wicked) with an efficiently insightful book by John Logan (Gladiator, Skyfall) and Brian Yorkey (Next to Normal), The Last Ship paints the hardscrabble tale of an English community (based on Sting’s hometown experiences) whose sole industry – shipbuilding – has seen better days.

Against this backdrop, Gideon, who fled this life and the girl he loved (Meg), returns to find the son he never knew and the life he never wanted. Narrative tension comes from the “will they, won’t they” of Meg and Gideon resuming their romance. I won’t spoil the surprise, but I was pleasantly heartened by the believable outcome of that particular storyline.

The ensemble does marvelous work with Sting’s hypnotic score. The title song will be stuck in my head for weeks. And the key themes of class and faith and honoring one’s past will resonate with every viewer.

In fact, that is what works most wonderfully in this new production. Yes, the show anchors around a rather conventional love triangle, but the anxiety of a town trying to find its footing again as its chief economic foundation erodes is compellingly told.

Using minimalist design that evokes a number of locations (think “Jersey Boys” in the U.K.), Sting and Logan and Mantello populate this seaside village with a cast of characters that would not be out of place in Popeye’s Sweethaven.

Standouts in the cast include Michael Esper (“Gideon”), Rachel Tucker (“Meg”), Sally Ann Triplett (joyously Emily Watson-esque as cheeky “Peggy”), Jimmy Nail (sounding uncannily like Sting himself as “Jackie”), and Fred Applegate (“Father O’Brien”).

I’m not sure if it is kosher for one to critique a show still In previews … so don’t consider this a review. Rather, think of it as a shameless plug to go check out this fabulous, grounded, melodic production either in Chicago or when it magnificently sails to a town near you. It will be on Broadway soon.

________________

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.20140611-225534-82534412.jpg

Cost of feeling: Two Muses production of Next to Normal

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: Two Muses Theatre]

This isn’t a review. If anything it’s an ode to a phenomenal local professional production of the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Next to Normal.

(In full transparency, several of my friends have been involved in putting this production together … and I even donated a nickel or two to the Kickstarter campaign that helped fund it.)

I had seen a few numbers from the Broadway production of this challenging show on the 2009 Tony Awards, and I promptly bought the two-disc cast album, but I had not yet ever had the privilege of seeing it.

It definitely exceeded my expectations.

Next to Normal, with music by Tom Kitt and book/lyrics by Brian Yorkey, details in rock opera form the travails of a young couple as they careen toward middle age, navigating Yuppie-dom, petulant teenagers, and a predilection for making sandwiches on the kitchen floor. A traumatic cloud hangs over their McMansion, the truth of which is revealed M. Night Shyamalan-style toward the end of the first act.

This narrative context – which shares its genetic code with such tragic familial dramas as The Subject Was Roses, Glass Menagerie, Fear Strikes Out, Ordinary People, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, or All My Sons – is the perfect framework to explore the thorny topic of mental illness in today’s America. Our overeager societal penchant for pharmacological solutions receives the most caustic critique, though the authors have plenty to say about gender, age, economics, and the medical profession writ large.

The musical ends with an open-ended if nebulous note of hope, a hope that seems to rely chiefly on honesty, candor, risk-taking and acceptance as the true road to any mental recovery from a catastrophic event.

For those who haven’t seen this show, my words above may be, excuse the expression, maddening. I don’t mean to be coy (Roy! – with apologies to Paul Simon) but if I say more I will spoil the twist that sets the show toward its inevitable conclusion. So there. (You know you’re headed to Wikipedia right … about … now!)

Keeping in mind my admission that many of these folks are friends and acquaintances, the Two Muses cast, in my estimation, was uniformly excellent. With minimal staging, heartfelt performances, and a blessedly light touch, the six-person ensemble (Diane Hill, Nathan Larkin, John DeMerell, Aubrey Fink, Rusty Daugherty, and Richard Payton) delivered an exceptional show. Hill and DeMerell captured beautifully the delicate and painful dance of a couple perfectly wrong for one another, whose youthful good intentions have calcified into painful resentment.

With expert direction by Hill and Barbie Weisserman (including additional staging by Frannie Shepherd Bates) and strong musical support from Jamie Brachel (and fully visible musicians sharing the stage with the actors), this production strips away any visual distraction, simply and effectively using lighting, movement, and a simple chrome dining table and chairs to evoke a wide vary of locations, moments, and emotions.

So, here’s the punchline, Metro Detroiters. You only have one more shot to see this stellar production. Run don’t walk to the Two Muses website – www.twomusestheatre.org – and get your tickets for tomorrow (Sunday, June 30) afternoon. You won’t be sorry!