“They are either working … or looking out their windows.” The Dio’s production of The Bridges of Madison County: The Musical

Jon McHatton and Marlene Inman

There is something special happening in Pinckney, Michigan. In a downtown storefront, The Dio – Dining and Entertainment is steadily providing night after night of polished professional theatrical performance accompanied by exceptional dinner service, lovely ambiance, and a heartwarming sense of community.

The company’s latest production is The Bridges of Madison County, the 2014 Tony Award-winning musical by Jason Robert Brown (The Last Five Years, Honeymoon in Vegas, Parade) and Marsha Norman (‘night Mother, The Secret Garden, The Color Purple). This was our first foray to The Dio, and we will definitely be returning for future shows. Yes (in the spirit of transparency), we were there to support beloved theatre pals, but, with all the objectivity I can muster, The Dio’s Bridges is a music box marvel not to be missed. (We also absolutely adored the new friends we made: Kurt and Becky, our dinner companions at Table 4!)

I’ve not read the source novel by Robert James Waller (the three-hankie, tear-jerking book club mania that surrounded its release gave me the heebie jeebies … and I blame its runaway success for inflicting Nicholas Sparks upon modern literary best seller lists), and the film bored me silly with Meryl Streep doing her darndest to channel Anna Magnani up against the splintery balsa wood that is Clint Eastwood. The story, for those unfamiliar, details the whirlwind weekend affair between (wait for it) a National Geographic photographer visiting a small Iowa town to photograph covered bridges and an Italian woman trapped in a pleasant but unremarkable marriage to a farmer who has left her alone for the weekend as he heads off with their two children to attend a state fair in Indianapolis (which isn’t in Iowa). Whew.

Blessedly, Brown and Norman take the Harlequin Romance conceit of the source material and turn it on its head, crafting from its simplistic superstructure a sour/sweet souffle of American rural provincialism, xenophobia, and sexism. Bridges in their hands becomes allegorical operetta (a la The Most Happy Fella), a tragedy of missed opportunities and of failing to stoke the fiery spark of individuality in our dearest loved ones.

The Dio’s Bridges of Madison County ensemble

Directed with poignant nuance, arch wit, and clinical precision by Steve DeBruyne, The Dio’s cast rises to the challenge. Leads Marlene Inman and Jon McHatton as Francesca and Robert respectively, yes, capture the heady chemistry of sweeping escapist romance that audiences will desire, but they also layer in sparkling moments of humor and humanity and tragic loss that offer the narrative heartbreaking heft. Their vocals are breathtaking, simultaneously soaring and intimate – “Wondering” and “Falling Into You” being particular highlights. Inman gives a beautifully calibrated portrayal of an Italian woman whose intense creativity is hauntingly at odds with the workaday charms of farm/family life in mid-60s Iowa. McHatton is a gleaming presence throughout, a bolt of free-thinking masculine Id in stark relief against a conservative landscape. McHatton brings a welcome humility and forlorn longing to a role that in less capable hands could devolve into swaggering machismo.

The rest of the ensemble is a well-oiled machine, doing yeoman’s work in multiple roles and seamlessly shifting, moving, and reassembling the various components of Matthew Tomich’s ingenious cube-based set design from farmhouse kitchen to bustling Main Street to cathedral to, yes, covered bridge. Tomich uses projections and additional lighting techniques to bring a dreamlike wonder to the proceedings, using The Dio’s limited space to maximum effect. I could have watched those set changes all day. You never hear an audience member say that.

Carrie Jay Sayer as Gladys Kravitz-esque nosy neighbor Marge and Dan Morrison as her husband Charlie wring every bit of funny out of their broad character roles, sidestepping outright mugging and infusing a refreshing sense of empathy. I also must call out Madison Merlanti as Robert’s ex-wife Marian; her delivery of the hypnotic ode to what-might-have-been “Another Life” is a showstopper.

At one point Francesca explains to Robert that, while the houses in her small Iowa farm community may look desolate, they are quite a flurry of frantic inner life, that the people in them are “either working … or looking out their windows,” perhaps sitting in judgment of their neighbors or envious of the world that may be passing them by. The Dio’s production of The Bridges of Madison County (running two more weekends through May 21) takes us lovingly, critically inside those homes, reminding us that tragedies of the heart – small and large – happen in every living room, every day.

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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.

“I refuse to pity you in the way to which you have become accustomed.” The Fault in Our Stars (film)

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

What has happened to me? Have I been taken to the dark side by young adult fiction? Or are the cinematic charms of Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort simply to blame? (Wow, those are some monikers – what is with every millennial having a kooky name? God love yuppie parents and their precious aspirations.)

First, I lavished praise on Divergent (see here) starring Woodley and featuring Elgort (as her brother). Now, I find myself equally enthused about The Fault in Our Stars, the film adaptation of John Green’s worldwide bestseller about young cancer patients finding love for the first time. This go-round, Woodley and Elgort aren’t siblings, but rather are the oncologically-challenged paramours in question. (That took a bit of getting used to after Divergent‘s familial dynamic. Just sayin’…)

Nothing about this movie, in the abstract, is something I should have liked. I don’t like sappy love stories (e.g. Nicholas Sparks!). I don’t like cancer dramas where illness becomes metaphor for tragic courage (e.g. Love Story!). I don’t like teen angst played out by beautiful people who’ve never had a zit in their lives and live in “middle class” homes that look like spreads in Better Homes & Gardens (e.g. pretty much any show that doesn’t feature superheroes or monsters on The CW and ABC Family … and even a few that do!).

However, I found The Fault in Our Stars quite remarkable. The film is too long by a good 20 minutes, and it has its fair share of After School Special stomach-turning goop. Yet, it also has a poignant spikiness and warm-hearted cynicism that I found refreshing.

Woodley is lovely as “Hazel,” the film’s narrator and protagonist – a young woman who has spent much of her young life in hospitals, who lugs around an oxygen tank, and who obsesses about “the only honest book about death” she’s ever read – An Imperial Affliction. She is sick of being sick, but she’s also up-to-here with well-meaning folks who push her to join prayer circles and support groups. (I don’t know if it’s happenstance or by design that the film is set in Indianapolis, but Hazel’s eyeball-rolling, scorched-earth reaction to a class held in a Hoosier church basement by a twee born-again sitting atop a latch-hook-rug depicting the “heart of Jesus” had me at “hello.”)

Woodley and Elgort (“Gus”) meet cute in the church parking lot, when he, also a cancer sufferer, offers her a cigarette. See, he carries a pack around at all times, never lighting them, both for shock value and because, after losing one leg to cancer, he likes to “keep death between his teeth,” one unlit cigarette perpetually dangling from his lips.

Never ooky, always honest, continually charming, Elgort and Woodley are a luminous screen couple. Yes, the specter of cancer is always near, but the film deftly skewers Camille-esque cliche by depicting the realities of the illness and the pharmacological insanity of modern healthcare without devolving (much) into maudlin soap opera.

People who know they are dying can be really sh*tty with the healthy and unhealthy folks around them, but they also can tap into an exuberance for living life that the rest of us can’t hope to touch. The movie captures both with subtlety and nuance, with much credit going to its talented young co-stars.

Laura Dern is her affecting, capable self as Hazel’s pragmatically optimistic mother, and Willem Dafoe is a quiet hoot as Hazel’s literary hero, the author of An Imperial Affliction, who, let’s just say, doesn’t feel one iota of condescending compassion for “Make-a-Wish” kids.

At one point, Dafoe hisses, “I refuse to pity you in the way to which you have become accustomed,” seemingly putting Hazel in her place for once and for all. What he fails to realize is that Hazel, full of a self-awareness few ever achieve, wants neither his pity nor his kinship. She simply wants truth and respect. That‘s a fine summer movie message in my book.

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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.

Rich people problems: Endless Love (2014)

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I had low expectations going into the 2014 remake of Endless Love, the 1981 original of which I had never seen nor ever cared to see and which had a title song that always made my scalp itch.

(Seriously, Brooke Shields, who starred in the first film, made her career on one boringly naughty movie after another. Why is it that she now hates on young up-and-comers who have swiped and amped-up her career-making playbook in their own ironically postmodern way? I suspect I just answered my own question.)

How is this latest unnecessary remake of a 1980s film that already lives in perpetuity through the HBO/VHS generation onto the YouTube/Netflix era? Not bad, actually.

The story is Romeo and Juliet if it were written by Nicholas Sparks and directed by Douglas Sirk. It’s a hot mess melodrama replete with all kinds of rich people problems – including but certainly not limited to …

  • Mysterious death of a high school football star son on-track to attend an Ivy League school and whose memory is preserved by his vintage Mercedes left rotting exquisitely in the exquisitely landscaped driveway
  • Lonely youngest daughter who tries to honor her OCD heart-surgeon daddy by following in her dead brother’s Ivy League-bound footsteps which apparently means looking and acting like Taylor Swift’s fabulous trust-fund cousin yet having no friends whatsoever
  • Prized daughter disappointing her papa by falling for the sheepish bad boy slab of beef with a heart of gold whose sheer inappropriateness is represented by his love of flannel shirts and by his decorating his bedroom walls with license plates
  • A mother whose writing career was derailed by familial tragedy (and possibly a preoccupation with decor from Pottery Barn) but who rediscovers her inner muse when this saucy lad turns her family’s WASPy world right ’round, baby, ‘right round like a record, baby
  • And, finally, a twiggy middle brother who disappoints his stern father at every turn by declaring his college major as “communications” (apparently a dirty word in this rarefied air), by listening to his dead brother’s vinyl (!) records and not putting them back in their sleeves, and likely also by constantly rocking a Bermuda shorts/blazer/sockless loafer sartorial combo.

All that aside, director Shana Feste, who approaches the material in a workmanlike After-School Special way, wisely stacks her cast with pros who treat the hyperbolic material with as much nuance and heart as they can muster. Leading the way (and arguably saving the film) is Bruce Greenwood as the aforementioned patriarch. He recycles the wounded well-heeled-dad-calcified-by-familial-tragedy routine he applied so remarkably to last fall’s Ghost Brothers of Darkland County.

Don’t get me wrong – there is nothing derivative in his performance here. He offers just the right gravitas and stays within a razor’s edge of Snidely Whiplash territory, giving the film just the perfect amount of tension, discomfort, and propulsion.

By his side in the acting department is the underrated Joely Richardson as his wife. She takes what could have otherwise been a thankless role as the pampered “lady who lunches” and conveys (primarily with those eyes of hers) a world of hurt, confusion, and misplaced optimism.

As the third parent of the piece, Robert Patrick is perfectly fine as the requisite single-father-of-the-boy-from-the-wrong-side-of-the-tracks. Patrick has left his Terminator 2 days far behind him and has evolved into a decent character actor. And, of course, the film in its sloppy shorthand has him run a gas station/garage … which, if you’ve ever paid for a car repair, means he should be as wealthy as anybody in that d*mn town on whatever Hollywood-planet this movie takes place.

The kids around whom the narrative revolves are fine as well. Apparently, those best-suited to play American teenagers are British actors in their mid-to-late-20s, but Alex Pettyfer (Magic Mike, I Am Number Four) and Gabriella Wilde (who played the Amy Irving role in last fall’s Carrie remake – virtually the same character as this… hairstyle, wardrobe, mannerisms, and all) acquit themselves quite well.

I’m not one for movies depicting young love – all those dappled-sunlit montages of two beautiful people doing beautiful people fun things like swimming in lakes, setting off fireworks, riding around in art-designed dilapidated pick-up trucks, or going to rock concerts in the rain.

However, Pettyfer particularly rises above these cliches (if not always rising above his own vanity – you can tell the dude loves the way he looks). He brings a subtle quality of menace and obsession to his role. It is nicely disarming. You aren’t quite sure if Greenwood isn’t kinda sorta right to throw one Wile E. Coyote speed-trap after another in Pettyfer’s unyielding path to wooing/stealing his daughter away.

I enjoyed myself much more than I thought I should, and this one is worth catching at the dollar theatre or on TV, if for no other reason than seeing some well-trained actors traffic in some sudsy melodrama. And, blessedly, that sappy title song is nowhere to be found. Sorry Ms. Ross and Mr. Richie, but color me relieved.