Of freak flags and time warps: The Ringwald’s production of The Rocky Horror Show

Originally published by EncoreMichigan.com

[Jacokes – image source: The Ringwald]

Richard O’Brien’s The Rocky Horror Show is a bit of an artifact of its time, when queer culture and camp were avant garde, subversive, and downright frightening to most of America. Mike Pence notwithstanding, today we’ve seen such a mainstreaming of O’Brien’s core shock tactics (gender fluidity, B-movie tropes taken to their kinkiest extremes, gay panic, sophomoric raunch) that the show almost seems like a cuddly, family-friendly enterprise. I guess we can thank Andy Warhol, John Waters, Madonna, RuPaul, Logo TV, and Sacha Baron Cohen for that? When Drag Race – the likeliest heir to Rocky Horror’s legacy – is one of the most popular reality shows in America, you know we’ve turned a corner, even if the daily headlines, Fox News, and the comments section of any given Yahoo! news story lead us to believe otherwise. Hell, Fox themselves aired a (not very good) TV remake of Rocky Horror starring trans actress/activist Laverne Cox  … in response to Carrie Underwood playing Maria in NBC’s Sound of Music Live!?! Strange days indeed.

 

[Harris – image source: The Ringwald]

Ferndale, Michigan’s The Ringwald gets all of this. This milieu is their stock-in-trade. In fact, I can practically feel their collective eyeballs roll as they read that opening paragraph. Consequently, it is assured that Ringwald will do something unique with the material, while honoring the nostalgia factor that keeps Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, and Millennials alike coming back year-after-year to this show and its classic film adaptation. The film, of course, starred Tim Curry, Barry Bostwick, and Susan Sarandon in career-launching roles with a million toast-strewn midnight-movie showings.

 

[Wallace, Harris, Gagnon, Jacokes – image by author]

Directed with aplomb by Brandy Joe Plambeck (also brilliantly pulling out all the stops as exposition- spouting character Dr. Scott), The Ringwald’s Rock Horror Show does not disappoint. Tied loosely to the bicentennial anniversary of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (I wondered why everyone was doing these kinds of shows in the middle of summer – well, I’m seeing this one), The Ringwald’s production is a damn party. Yes, O’Brien’s book reads like a series of MadLibs pages strung together and makes about as much sense. However, the songs are sublime, and they are beautifully delivered here – kudos to Jeremy St. Martin’s music direction. The bonkers characters are a scream for talented actors like Ringwald’s to play. No bit of scenery remains unchewed; no audience member unaccosted. And it’s divine.

 

Defying convention, Plambeck transplants the show from a rambling gothic castle into a seedy biker bar, covered in punk rock graffiti and serving (non-alcoholic) drinks to audience and cast members – with smart, solid, economic scenic design from Stephen Carpenter. It’s a genius and immersive move. Squeaky clean (or are they?) Brad and Janet – representing the dreams and aspirations of middle-America to live boring, Instagram-friendly lives – stumble into said bar from the rain to use the pay phone after their car dies. While there, Brad and Janet meet a sordid cast of characters, all of whom are easy-to-judge but hard-to-avoid and totally at home in this setting. What Plambeck’s approach loses in outright spooky weirdness, it makes up for in sheer Muppet-y anarchic charm.

 

[Harris – image source: The Ringwald]

The bar is run by one Dr. Frank N. Furter who uses sex as a weapon AND a floor show. In a welcome bit of gender-blind casting, Suzan M. Jacokes takes on the role. Her acting style seems pneumatically engineered for an outsized, cartoonish part like this, and she doesn’t disappoint. While nuance may not be her forte, she has power, polish, volume, and command to spare. You can’t look away. I did miss some of the slithering insinuation we typically associate with the role, but Tim Curry’s gonzo performance will always cast a long shadow. Jacokes deserves plaudits for stomping it to the ground and making it uniquely her own. She’s like the caffeine-addled lovechild of Gloria Swanson and Rodney Dangerfield. She nails the anthemic “I’m Coming Home” number, with just the right hint of Liza/Judy-ish “little girl (boy?) lost” pathos.

 

[Wallace, Gagnon – image by author]

Matthew Wallace and Jordan Gagnon as Brad Majors and Janet Weiss, respectively, are an absolute delight, setting aside the faux innocence often brought to the roles and bringing a postmodern loopy assuredness that is fun to watch. Their love/hate dynamic in “Dammit Janet” and later “Super Heroes” is touching, thoughtful, and refreshingly believable, particularly in the midst of such a carnival-esque enterprise. Their characters benefit best from the updated locale. The hedonism of a late-night, dead-end watering hole on a stormy night (and with no vehicular escape) would indeed lead to some relationship topsy-turviness.

 

Brad and Janet arrive smack in the midst of Dr. Frank N. Furter’s experiments (in a bar?) to genetically engineer the perfect man and sexual plaything “Rocky.” Garett Michael Harris as Rocky turns in an eye-poppingly nimble performance that is more Iggy Pop than Tab Hunter. He’s terrific.

 

[Riedel, Bailey, Sulkey – image by author]

Janet takes up with Rocky; Frank takes up with Brad (and Janet). Brad and Janet’s former science professor Dr. Scott arrives in a wheelchair (and glittering pumps) to drop a whole sh*t-ton of backstory. Frank reveals that he and his fellow bar denizens are actually space aliens (!) who left their mission behind to get freaky with earthlings. Servants Riff Raff (effectively underplayed by Donny Riedel) and Magenta (Dyan Bailey – imbuing Magenta’s “over it” personality with her trademark Kathleen Turner-esque a$$-kickery) shoot up the bar with ray guns and demand a return to their home planet. Brad and Janet escape, sweetly acknowledging their love and their need for one another. Finis. Whew.

 

The ensemble work (Colleen Bielman, Ryan Kayla, Peggy Lee, Rebecca S. Mickle as “The Fantoms”) is exceptional, and the group numbers (“Time Warp,” “Floor Show”) really pop in The Ringwald’s tiny space. Efficient and effective choreography is provided by Molly Zaleski. Articulation in the group numbers sometimes gets muddled, but most of the audience knows these songs backwards and forwards so that can be forgiven. Austin Sulkey makes a fabulously exasperated/exasperating Columbia, whose love of delivery boy Eddie (a swaggering RJ Cach) ends in tragedy. Costuming on both Columbia and Eddie is great as they look like they just stepped off Pat Benatar’s “We Belong” video. Vince Kelley has done remarkable sartorial work here across the board, tying the updated setting’s aesthetic with the imagery we are accustomed to seeing in this show. Clever stuff.

[Jacokes – image source: The Ringwald]

Peggy Lee (no, not that Peggy Lee) deserves a special shout out for her work as “Fantom Flo.” She hauntingly delivers the show’s opening and closing numbers (“Science Fiction Double Feature” and its reprise). Her voice is exquisite – clear and crisp and evocative.

Lee also embraces “biker chic” better than anyone else in the cast, save ursine narrator David Schoen, who greets every audience member at the door, brings you to your seat, may pull you up on stage, and is completely “Hell’s Angel” intimidating in a totally adorable way.

 

This is a production put together by people who clearly love this show. The stage manager Holly Garverick shouts out all of the expected audience participation lines from the back of the house, encouraging the audience to interact with the proceedings, a la those midnight movie house showings throughout the 70s and 80s. One thought: let’s all retire yelling “slut” whenever Janet’s name is mentioned onstage. It may be tradition, but, in these “I’m With Her”/#MeToo days, it feels all kinds of misogynistic wrong.

 

[Jacokes – image source: The Ringwald]

Audience members are encouraged to purchase (for a nominal fee) a bag of props (playing cards, rubber gloves, party hats, bells, glow sticks, newspapers, kazoos, “Time Warp” dance instructions) to use at key moments during the show. Garverick may want to help with that a bit, as well, as the opening night audience didn’t seem terribly keen on using any of those goodies, save the newspapers.

 

On August 4, The Ringwald will perform the show in a special midnight performance, again to evoke those high school years when people convinced their parents it would be ok for them to go take in a showing at the witching hour.

 

[Riedel – image source: The Ringwald]

Why has Rocky Horror been such a success all these years? I often wonder. However, The Ringwald’s production reminds us that, while the show may not be Pulitzer Prize-winning material, it champions underdogs and misfits, encourages all of us to let our freak flags fly, and envisions a world where inclusion of any and all is the ideal … in one really weird package. That is why. And that message is more important than ever before. Vive la difference.

 

The Ringwald’s production of The Rocky Horror Show runs until August 6. For tickets, go to http://www.theringwald.com

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Lauren Crocker and Roy Boy

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.

“Donny and Marie without the sexual tension.” Steve Martin and Martin Short’s An Evening You Will Forget for the Rest of Your Life at Fort Wayne’s Embassy Theatre

There is a perfect comedic moment – amidst countless such moments – at the end of Steve Martin and Martin Short’s current touring production An Evening You Will Forget for the Rest of Your Life. Short is serenading the audience with Sondheim’s cliched classic “Send in the Clowns” while sitting atop the grand piano on which Steve Martin accompanies him.

For the first (and last) time in the show, Short is playing for sincerity, employing his surprisingly effective and beautiful singing voice to wring ironic pathos out of the lyrics, albeit with that omnipresent puckish twinkle in his eye.

Roles suddenly reversed, Martin editorializes shamelessly, interrupting the flow with delightfully pointed barbs (“Where are those godd*mned clowns?!” … “NARY a clown!”). Martin croons, “One who keeps tearing around [gestures to self], one who can’t move [flits a hand toward Martin].” Martin stops playing, looks at Short with believable exasperation, and spits out a perfectly timed: “F*ck you.” Cue audience howls of delight.

That moment of camaraderie and candor is an exquisite representation of the show in its entirety: a streamlined and contemporary homage to the unhinged yet cerebral comics stylings of, say, a Steve Allen or Victor Borge, the leave-it-all-on-the-field heart of a Sid Caesar, the button-down mind of a Bob Newhart, the buddy/buddy tension of a Martin and Lewis in their prime, and the glib showbizzy glitz of a classic Bob Hope Oscar hosting gig (sans those pesky awards).

While those influences are obvious and intentional and openly acknowledged by Martin and Short, the show is very much its own special creation, as much a reflection of and capstone to the storied careers of its two featured stars as it is a celebration of the artistic influences on these two talented baby boomers.

Performing at Fort Wayne‘s historic Embassy Theatre on Friday, May 18 to a sold out crowd (which became a witty aside in itself at the expense of performers who “never learned to save” and who “sell out” doing such latter-career runs), An Evening You Will Forget for the Rest of Your Life is a warm, intimate, clubby, utterly charming fireside chat of a production: expertly paced, professionally mounted, and consummately memorable. To describe this as a Broadway caliber show would not be hyperbole.

There are some fantastically bonkers surprises I will dare not spoil in this review. Just be aware that, while both performers exhibit a lovely, moneyed, Carsonesque cool, calm, and collected demeanor throughout, that poise is a big ol’ ruse … their trademark crazy is just one banjo, bagpipe, or leaf blower away. Oh, and Jiminy Glick. As a hand puppet.

This is a beautifully balanced evening, leveraging video, music, talk show formats, monologues, vintage photos, and sketch comedy to weave a compelling narrative of how these two performers found success (and occasional failure) in Hollywood and how their infectious bromance evolved over four decades. “Donny and Marie without the sexual tension,” Short quips at one point.

Also, as evidence of the graciousness and wisdom of these two performers who endeavor to give every patron his or her money’s worth, to celebrate the talent of others, AND to take a well-deserved mid-show break, the production features a kind of concert-within-a-show as frequent Martin musical collaborators Steep Canyon Rangers take to the stage and offer a bluegrass inferno the likes of which I’ve never seen. Imagine the titular character in “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” bum-rushing a Lollapalooza mosh pit inside Studio 54.

So. freaking. good.

As my mother observed (we were there to celebrate her birthday and Mother’s Day): “It was like Steve Martin and Martin Short were in my living room, and we just got to listen to them and laugh without talking to them or without them hurting our feelings. Martin and Steve performed atop a grand piano at one zany point and referenced #MeToo in a hilarious, subtle fashion. What a show the Martins created…a real gift for two hours which flew by. I feel like I know those guys now.”

Amen to that. Nary a clown? Pshaw. Absolute geniuses? Indubitably.

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Postscript … and then THIS happened … whoa!

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

“It’s like a pirate had a baby with an angel.” Avengers: Infinity War

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Marvel. I love you. Disney. I love you. I’ve got nerd cred. I’ve been reading comic books for nearly 40 years. I have piles of them squirreled away all over our house. I have a small army of action figures that, if I had any sense about me, I’d put in boxes and not display everywhere like I’m a character from Big Bang Theory.

So, please, my fellow fan-kids, don’t lose your collective minds when I say Avengers: Infinity War is kind of a big ol’ meh.

I’ve got people already on my Facebook page arguing a) we’ve waited 10 years for THIS so it MUST be AMAZING; b) if Lord of the Rings is long and boring but was made for the geeks, then this can be just as episodic and ponderous too; c) Roy, you just don’t GET it … Empire Strikes Back was dark and sad so this is a logical step in the Marvel narrative.

Folks, my critique of this film is not with the source material, and if I – a 45-year-old man who carries a well-worn velcro wallet which I bought at Hot Topic (!)  and which is festooned with ALL the Marvel characters – feel letdown by the film, it is NOT a personal slight to you.

I don’t envy Infinity War directors The Russo Brothers who had to follow the zippy bottle rocket that was Black Panther, a film which successfully balanced the hyper-detailed mythology which those of us far too immersed in comic book lore desire with a sharp, cinematic storytelling that enveloped general audiences in an inspiring and evocative new world.

On the whole, the Russos do a great job in Infinity War of balancing far too many personalities. I can only imagine the war room they set up to figure out which spandex-clad beings would show up where and at what time and how many lines they did or didn’t receive (let alone then wrangling the egos of actors portraying said superheroes). This is no Batman & Robin debacle, nor is it a Watchmen-level slog or a Batman v. Superman cluster.

About 80% of Infinity War is transfixing and, well, fun. It is episodic to a fault, but the characters are drawn consistently from their respective franchises without any jarring beats, and there is a kicky joy to seeing Tom Holland’s delightfully irreverent Spider-Man lost in space or watching Chris Hemsworth’s Thor team up with Bradley Cooper-voiced Rocket Raccoon. Hemsworth’s God of Thunder is by far the brightest spot in the film; Dave Bautista’s Drax has one of the flick’s funnier lines when he opines that Thor “looks like a pirate had a baby with an angel.”

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Pretty much everyone from the Black Panther cast fares well also, bringing some much needed buoyancy and energy to the film’s saggy late-middle section. All the returning Avengers play to their strengths as best they can in an overcrowded film. Robert Downey, Jr. (Iron Man) is still so Robert Downey, Jr. Chris Evans is stoic and warm and rather square as Captain America. Mark Ruffalo is pleasantly fussy as Bruce Banner (The Hulk). Scarlett Johansson (Black Widow) and Elizabeth Olsen (Scarlet Witch) are pros so they make the most from underwritten roles that mostly require them to look worried and wave their arms around periodically. And so on.

At the heart of the film is a very interesting and thoughtful dynamic between “big bad” Thanos (a surprisingly nuanced motion capture performance from Josh Brolin) and his adopted daughters Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula (Karen Gillan). Thanos’ villainous motivation (not dissimilar from Killmonger’s in Black Panther) is that society is incapable of caring for itself and that, with resources as finite as they are, the best solution is simply to slaughter half the population of the universe. Okey dokey. His daughters – who tend to hang out with the heroic Guardians of the Galaxy – aren’t down with that, and their familial tension, in a nod toward King Lear, gives the film a much-needed narrative grounding.

However, ultimately, the Russos have far too many moving parts to address, let alone future franchises to set up, so the dysfunctional Thanos family reunion gets overshadowed quickly. I won’t spoil any surprises (to be honest, there aren’t as many surprises as pre-release marketing would have you believe), but there is a substantial and gutting moment between Thanos and Gamora around the mid-way mark. The scene works so well, in an almost Dickensian fashion (think the sadder, creepier parts of A Christmas Carol), due to Brolin’s and Saldana’s performances. Saldana particularly breaks your heart. As an audience member, I was invested.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Yet, a final act then follows that piles up the body count (not a spoiler – I’m not saying who) and just as quickly establishes a mechanism where all that mayhem could be undone (not a spoiler – I’m not saying how). I, personally, felt emotionally cheated. The film ends with a fairly dispassionate and obtuse note, and we are left wondering “what next?” Unlike, say Empire Strikes Back which concludes with a Saturday matinee cliffhanger as somber as can be (“will we see Han again? where is Luke’s hand? who’s his daddy really?”), we already basically know the outcomes in Infinity War will be reversed. It feels like a bait and switch. I didn’t like it when Superman “died” in Batman v. Superman, and I don’t much care for it here, even though Infinity War is The Godfather compared to anything DC has released.

(By the way, I’m tired of everyone now saying a bleak middle chapter with a non-ending in a genre film series has a raison d’etre just because of the role The Empire Strikes Back plays in the original Star Wars trilogy. So there.)

I apologize for my rant. I apologize for my indulgences with this “review.” Infinity War is not a bad film. In fact, it’s an interesting exercise in corporate synergy that is far more artistic than it might have been in other hands in another era. I enjoyed so many moments in the film, but, ultimately it doesn’t hang together in the compelling, capstone tapestry I’d hoped it would. Like Drax’s description of Thor, this movie is a bit like a “pirate has had a baby with an angel” – trying to accomplish too much (crowd-pleaser, merchandise machine, epic denouement to a decade of pretty damn great movies) with a whole lot of heart but just not quite enough substance. This movie left me exhausted.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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

‪Honored to be one of #AMAfeed’s featured #authorsAMA. My #askmeanything starts Thursday 3/15 at 9 am! #geeksunite

Well, that’s nifty! Honored to be one of AMAfeed’s featured #authorsAMA. My #askmeanything starts Thursday 3/15 at 9 am! #geeksunite – here.

I love movies, musicals, superheroes, cartoons, action figures, & miscellaneous geekery. I love talking about them even more. Ask me anything!

I’ve been posting my movie musings at www.reelroyreviews.com for five years now … much to the chagrin of true arbiters of taste. And at one point a publisher (Open Books) decided to turn my online shenanigans into a couple of books. I tend to go see whatever film has been most obnoxiously hyped, marketed, and oversold in any given week. Art films? Bah! Won’t find too many of those discussed by yours truly. And every once in awhile, I may review a TV show, theatrical production, record album, concert, or book (yeah, probably not too many of those either). So ask me anything … I act, sing, write, laugh, cry, collect, and obsess in my downtime … and I market lawyers to pay the bills.

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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.

Manic fun under the orange roof. The Dio’s Murder at the Howard Johnson’s

Joshua Brown, Dale Dobson [Photo courtesy The Dio, Michele Anliker Photography]

Originally published at www.encoremichigan.com

If Neil Simon’s Plaza Suite  had been written by Mel Brooks and staged as a very special episode of The Carol Burnett Show, you would have The Dio’s latest Murder at the Howard Johnson’s. And if you are a child of the 70s, as I am, that is pretty high praise. The Dio, as always, has put on an extremely capable and professional production. What they do so well is provide crowd-pleasing entertainment, exceptionally produced and beautifully performed.

The piece is, as the title suggests, a series of vignettes around a possible murder (or murders) at a Howard Johnson’s Hotel. From Wikipedia: “Murder at the Howard Johnson’s is a 1979 play in two acts by American playwrights Ron Clark and Sam Bobrick. The production officially opened on Broadway at the John Golden Theatre after 10 preview performances on May 17, 1979; closing just three days later after only four more performances.” Surprisingly – and this could be why the play closed so quickly in its original incarnation – it is more prescient and self-aware than most similar farces of its era of the 70s’ overall garishness and often-absurd attitudes toward gender and sexuality.

It helps in great part that The Dio’s crackerjack production team – director Steve DeBruyne, assistant director Carrie Sayer, set/lighting/sound designer Matt Tomich, costume designer Norma Polk, and props master Eileen Obradovich – understand to an almost superhuman level the high wire act of balancing arch comedy and full-on camp without devolving into a soapy, self-indulgent mess. They really spin magic out of smartly utilized resources and raw talent at The Dio – that is what theatre is all about.

The production is an affectionate love letter to a blessedly bygone era. The color scheme is that of the classic hotel, and the dinner theatre food offerings before hand even more so. Why-oh-why American decor abandoned that lovely, preternatural turquoise and orange hue combo I’ll never know.

Molly Cunningham, Joshua Brown [Photo courtesy The Dio, Michele Anliker Photography]

For those unaware, The Dio always offers an immersive evening of entertainment, beginning with dinner and dessert before the performances. If you have a Midwestern palate like mine, and your idea of haute cuisine was shaped table-side at restaurants like Ho-Jo’s with a soundtrack of Hall and Oates and Air Supply in the background, the buffet of vintage delights will leave you chuckling and satisfied by its array of guilty pleasures. I’m vegetarian, and The Dio is always great about accommodating dietary needs, but even I was charmed by the clam strips on the menu. I remember thinking as a child that clam strips were the most exotic items I could order in any restaurant. The Dio has even replicated the vintage style of a Howard Johnson’s menu in the show’s program. No detail is left unturned.

The show is a hoot from start to finish, and, as the run progresses, the tight three-person ensemble will likely get looser and funnier, knowing when and where to milk the audience’s shock-and-awe over the spiraling shenanigans. Those audience reactions will be a key component to the success of this production. Not unlike Harvey Korman and Tim Conway legendarily “breaking” in the middle of a sketch because they had so surprised one another with a comic bit, Murder at the Howard Johnson’s will rise and fall by the affection the performers have for each other’s work. The audience on Saturday night was vocal and enthused, and the cast responded accordingly. The production finds an easy 70s groove with solid pacing, clever musical cues, and the aforementioned pitch perfect set and costume design. I had my covetous eye on one plaid jacket in particular.

Dale Dobson, as cuckolded used car salesman Paul Miller, nearly runs away with the show. Imagine if Gene Wilder and Charles Nelson Reilly had had a baby. No really. Imagine it. There is no place that brave Dobson won’t go – physically and emotionally – and his performance is a manic and escalating tour-de-force. Dobson’s character development pulls just to the right side of becoming an unhinged cartoon, the actor weaving in authentic notes of heartbreak and confusion over the realization that his beloved wife (“I bought her FIVE watches!”) has taken up with a hunky bald dentist who has an affinity for, yes, plaid jackets.

Molly Cunningham Joshua Brown, Dale Dobson [Photo courtesy The Dio, Michele Anliker Photography]

Joshua Brown as dandy dentist Mitchell Lovell is nicely understated (somebody has to be amidst the day-glo chaos), nailing the oddball swaggering machismo of the era, wherein sexual infidelities were seen as heroic accomplishments and men who had been weaned on too many cowboy movies thought a highly compensated career in, say, dentistry made them a modern day Wyatt Earp. The “Me Decade” had no idea #metoo was on its way. Brown has a gift for scoring laughs in the quiet moments, a glowering sidelong glance here, a well-placed sigh there. He is the Lyle Waggoner of this enterprise.

Molly Cunningham knocks it out of the park as Arlene Miller whose indiscretions and flights of murderous fancy launch the narrative into action. She has a knack for the throwaway line, scoring as many laughs with a tossed off zinger as she does the screwball physical comedy demanded by the production. Cunningham also does yeoman’s work keeping the slower moments moving along, setting up the piece’s increasingly hyperbolic tomfoolery.

The show is broken into three scenes (there is no intermission) placed across three holidays (Christmas, Independence Day, and New Year’s), all set in a Howard Johnson’s hotel room, as the trio plots and fails miserably to kill one of their own – a different victim each holiday – triggered by the passions Arlene sparks in the knuckle-headed men in her life. The play’s structure is a tad clunky, forcing the audience to become precoccupied with the passage of time – both in terms of the narrative’s chronology and the play’s length. Interestingly, this is the only element of the piece that reads as dated. However, the Dio’s production makes it all work so well that this becomes a minor criticism.

Murder at the Howard Johnson’s is great fun. Ibsen, it ain’t. Gloriously goofy, it is. Grab a bottle of wine; enjoy the buffet of carbs; and sit back for a night of relentlessly hysterical comedy. Under the orange roof, you won’t be disappointed.

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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.

Could-have-been, should-have-been, might-have-been moments in time: Constellations at Theatre Nova

Originally contributed to encoremichigan.com

[Images from Theatre Nova’s Facebook page]

Big ideas in little moments. That seems to be Theatre Nova’s stock-in-trade, making effective use of its unconventional venue to feature new works (Clutter, The Revolutionists) that explore existential philosophy as expressed in the comic, poignant, tragic spaces between the rain drops of daily living. It’s a smart and essential artistic niche the organization has carved for itself.

Theatre Nova’s latest offering – Nick Payne’s award-winning Constellations – is in brilliant keeping with this artistic through-line, a breezy and compelling two-hander that runs a brisk intermission-less 70 minutes.

Directed with the surety of an actor’s eye by Theatre Nova founder Carla Milarch, the play depicts in non-linear fashion the ever-was and never-was moments in the romance, dissolution, reconnection, and tragic end of a young mumblecore couple in contemporary England. Marianne (a wide-eyed, sparkling Meghan VanArsdalen) is a Cambridge academic specializing in quantum mechanics and astrophysics whose disarming lack-of-filter is as charming as it is blunt. Roland (a shaggy, inviting Forrest Hejkal) is a beekeeper whose awkwardness in life and love yields to a compelling and heartbreaking loyalty as the piece progresses.

I dare not spoil any of the play’s twists and turns – and there are a few – but suffice it to say that Constellations applies string theory, multiversal philosophy, and the random/structured elegance of bouncing atomic particles to the seeming mundanity of daily living. If you’ve ever wondered how crossing the street five minutes later or using a harsher tone of voice in one conversation might impact the trajectory of your fate, this is the play for you. Similar territory has certainly been covered in any number of comic books, Twilight Zone episodes, and fantasy films (Sliding Doors, The Butterfly Effect, etc.) but never, that I can recall, in the guise of a two-person play.

Structurally, the piece repeats short scenic episodes, with a minor tweak each time – a shift in dialogue, a change in tone, a switch in timing – to reveal how different eventualities may work out for the couple. The production helps mark the break between each episode with a quick flash of light and sometimes a shift in hue. (I’m color blind, so I might have missed any more subtle lighting indicators.) There are interstitial, nebulous, ominous spoken-word exchanges between the two characters as well (think Greek chorus by way Stephen Hawking … for lack of a better description) that hint at an inevitable dark turn in their lives.

The respective occupations of each character underpin the play’s philosophy and help explain what might otherwise be confusing to the casual viewer. Marianne offers a giddy take on the exciting prospect of living in a “multiverse” where each decision we make creates another “branched world,” parallel versions of ourselves living out vastly different lives just because we chose one breakfast cereal over another. Roland’s beekeeping becomes a conflicting yet complementary metaphor for the finite nature of life, the ordered but surreal nature of community, and how our impending mortality sweetens/sours our daily acts. There is a particularly riotous sequence, beautifully played by the two leads, wherein Roland uses some fairly grotesque imagery from the mating habits of bees to offer Meghan a cumbersome but altogether winning marriage proposal.

The production is aided and abetted by economical set, sound, and lighting design (by Hejkal, Diane Hill, and Daniel C. Walker respectively) that evokes a dreamlike inner/outer life through bioluminous hues and a repetition of hexagons that evoke bee hives, human DNA, covalent structures, and outer space itself.

Any quibbles with the production are quite minor and will likely resolve after the jitters of opening night. A few sound and music cues were a bit too hushed; some Midwestern cadences (rarely) slipped into the very British dialogue; and the two leads, dripping in chemistry, had an initial physical stiffness that could be chalked up to the awkwardness of their characters’ burgeoning romance but read on opening night as being a bit uncertain how to fill the performance space.

I will also note that I had the joy of sitting with a group of students who were quite taken with the performance and with the play itself. I’m sure some fuddy duddies nearby were lightly annoyed at the unrestrained vocal responses given by these young people as the story revealed itself. I, for one, was delighted. It is a rare treat to watch a new audience discover its love of theatre and to have honest, visceral reactions to what they are observing. That is what theatre has always been about … and always should be about.

Constellations is a rare treat, well-timed with Valentine’s Day just peeking around the corner – a thinking person’s romantic comedy about reality and consequence. The direction by Milarch is pitch perfect, capturing the nuances of multiple variations on a theme and making easy-to-follow and deeply affecting what, in less capable hands, could have been a muddled mess. Yet, it is the stars of Constellations (pun intended) who make this must-see entertainment. Van Arsdalen and Hejkal give as good as they get, presenting beautifully flawed, profoundly moving characterizations through a swirl of could-have-been, should-have-been, and might-have-been moments in time. Together they are a revelation.

Constellations runs from January 26 through February 18 at Theatre Nova, 410 W. Huron St., Ann Arbor, MI 48103. Tickets: www.theatrenova.org or 734-635-8450.

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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.

Hometown Love for Drood

Really sweet of my hometown paper to run this notice today. I know it made my parents Don and Susie Sexton very proud and it made me smile. Thank you, Linda Thomson and The Post and Mail! ❤️

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.

“Boy Bands who dance make more money.” 98 Degrees’ “Let It Snow” concert at Detroit’s Sound Board – PLUS, The Barn Christmas Cabaret, Blaine Fowler, and Christmas Story Live!

98 degrees 2

“Boy Bands who dance make more money,” 98 Degrees’ Nick Lachey observed wryly during a pre-show Q&A at Detroit’s Sound Board in the Motor City Casino on Sunday, December 16. The band was in town with their holiday music tour At Christmas, supporting their recent album Let It Snow. This is their second volume of Christmas tunes, the first being 1999’s This Christmas.

Nick’s answer followed a question about what the 40-somethings (Nick Lachey, his brother Drew Lachey, Jeff Timmons, and Justin Jeffre) would say if they could talk to their younger selves 20 years ago during the band’s seminal days. The other band member answered variations of “just enjoy this, don’t worry so much, and have fun.” Nick’s answer got the biggest laughs for candor and practicality. He surmised, if only he’d allowed himself to be choreographed more or dangle from a trapeze or do back flips, he’d have Justin Timberlake’s career. (Ironic, since his brother Drew was an early winner on ABC’s Dancing With the Stars.)

It was this very inclusive humility that made the boys-to-middle-aged-men so endearing Sunday night. At the mid-point in most pop music careers, there seem to be three doors from which to choose: 1) recycle your own hits before smaller-and-smaller venues; 2) start cranking out “standards collections” (do we really need any more covers of “Someone to Watch Over Me”?); 3) grab a particular holiday and ride the wheels off it (thank you, Perry Como). 98 Degrees have wisely chosen the last option which suits their bromantic ski-lodge cocoa-sipping aesthetic very nicely.

We wisely chose the “VIP upgrade” Sunday night which afforded us a sound check performance, the aforementioned Q&A, a photo op meet-and-greet, and a thoughtfully arrayed “swag bag” (autographed poster, ornament, etc.). I would recommend that to anyone seeing them live. Behind-the-scenes (as well as onstage) they were self-effacing, gracious, and altogether charming. I suspect this hard-earned humility came from years of living in- and out-side the spotlight, both as a vocal group that was generally and unfairly overshadowed by Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC and as solo reality television stars (chagrined George Burns-esque hubby Nick, gold-plated hoofer Drew, and Magic Mike-ish Svengali Jeff) and occasional politicians (thank you, progressive Justin).

As for the show? It’s pretty exceptional. The winsomeness on display informally is manifest in a stage presence that is professional and rehearsed, inclusive and loose and confidently casual, with nary a hint of swagger, and with an authentic appreciation for the fact that people in the audience are still willing to shell out some cash at the holidays to see these Cincinnati kids sing and (sort of) dance. (This is actually our third time seeing them live – once in 2000, and during their first reunion tour in 2013.)

Backed by a strong rhythm section, keyboards, and backing vocalists, 98 Degrees breeze through two hours of holiday music and greatest hits, including a daffy and endearing Disney medley that includes their Stevie Wonder duet from Mulan “True to Your Heart” as well as a take on “Let It Go” (Frozen) that only proud, lightly woke Gen X fathers-of-young-daughters could perform and a breathtaking “Circle of Life” from The Lion King.

“Little Drummer Boy” gets a much needed beat-box refresh; Joni Mitchell’s “River” becomes a sonorous but no less poignant pop anthem; “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” (which we learned was their Motown Records audition song twenty years ago) is given new life as a creamy and rich a cappella number; and their own hit “Una Noche” gets a fizzy infusion of “Feliz Navidad.”

I’m not a fan of holiday music. I think it’s all been run into the ground, and any time a new carol comes along, department store Muzak and pop radio eviscerate its novelty within mere minutes of its arrival. Consequently, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed hearing “Mary, Did You Know?” or “Run Rudolph Run” sincerely delivered by capable vocalists taking the music but not themselves too seriously.

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. If these boys dedicate their remaining swoon-worthy days to a career of cardigans and holiday doo wop, I’ll gladly follow along. And that is totally unlike me, so well done, lads, well done.

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While I’m recommending holiday (and other) entertainment …

We saw the Barn Theatre’s holiday cabaret during its opening weekend and really enjoyed it. Maybe I’m not such a Grinch after all. From talented critic and pal Marin Heinritz –  “It all feels like an intimate family affair — the way we perhaps imagine the holidays to be in our dreams, where everyone is beautiful and happy and talented and welcome; and folks full of love and cheer get together to make merry and shine bright in honor of something much larger than us.” Read her review here.

And my buddy Blaine Fowler, host of the daily Blaine Fowler Morning Show, released a great album 49783 on iTunes and Amazon about a month or so ago in time for his birthday. I’ve been listening to it for awhile, and as I mentioned to him in a text, “Loving it! I’m hearing the influences of Led Zeppelin, Stewart Copeland of the Police, Corey Hart, Rush, a little Maroon 5, Bryan Adams, and The Kinks. Yet, uniquely your own. Production is polished where it should be and rough hewn and funky where not. Your voice is featured nicely as well with catchy at times haunting melodies and heartfelt lyrics.” Check it out!

And because we were at the concert last night, I have not had a chance yet to watch Fox’s live broadcast of A Christmas Story: The Musical – directed by Scott Ellis (She Loves Me, Mystery of Edwin Drood), in fact, the uncle of Blaine Fowler’s cohost Lauren Crocker.

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton offered her enthusiastic take: “It was excellent and clever and added some sensitive-oriented stuff. Great Busby Berkeley-type numbers. Loved all of the three main women and Matthew Broderick…clever use of him to the max. The little boy looks like Jane Krakowski but she makes a darling teacher and Maya and Ana are great. Bully boy quite interesting…little brother looks like Ned Beatty. The story being musicalized gives it true zing.” It got Susie’s seal of approval! I look forward to catching up with this one later this week on the DVR.

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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.

“My lack of success is self-imposed.” Roman J. Israel, Esq.

When you are driving home after a movie (albeit loaded up on carbs and sodium from this insane food we Americans insist on eating at Thanksgiving) and you as a family are discussing how you would rewrite the script, chances are the film fails to fulfill its own potential. Such is the case with Denzel Washington’s latest Roman J. Israel, Esq. (If that title alone doesn’t warn you that you are in for an overreaching quirkfest, nothing will.)

Directed by Dan Gilroy, who helmed the far superior Nightcrawler with Jake Gyllenhaal, the movie tries to be too many things.

Is it a film – taking a cue from Melville’s classic short story Bartleby the Scrivener (kudos to my mom for reminding me of that piece) – wherein one person’s singular and single-minded belief system magically transforms all who come in contact with said person? This could be a genre unto itself – think: Erin Brockovich, The Pursuit of Happyness, Forrest Gump, Being There, Rain Main, To Wong Foo. Sometimes the tale ends tragically, often not, but just about every time, someone in the film walks away with an Oscar.

Or is Roman J. Israel, Esq. an allegorical cautionary tale of the dire consequences of material temptation – a Hitchcockian cat-and-mouse, sweaty-palmed, walls-closing-in thriller depicting a poor schlub caught with his hand in the cookie jar, thinking he’d finally “made it big”?

Or is the flick just another soap opera set in the paradoxical world of the American legal system, where nobility and opportunism make strange bedfellows?

Any ONE of those films would have been fine, particularly given the great character work Washington delivers as a sensitive yet obtuse attorney with a database-like brain, a penchant for keeping all written records on index cards, a fixation on jazz music, and a lion’s heart for civil rights and human equality. Washington’s Israel has been the back-office partner for a two-man law firm in Los Angeles, and, when the face of the practice is felled by a heart attack, Israel finds himself unemployed.

As in Nightcrawler, director Gilroy’s Los Angeles is a concrete jungle of oppression and temptation (photographed perhaps a bit too exquisitely). Israel offers his services first to an ACLU-like organization helmed by Carmen Ejogo’s Maya, but finds that the volunteer organization has neither the money nor the appreciation for what his generation has brought to the movement.

Israel ends up in a Faustian contract with Colin Farrell’s George Pierce who runs a criminal defense firm, a man more interested in the pricing model depicted in his slick brochures than in the rights of his hardscrabble clientele.

Israel’s sweet self-righteousness quickly is subsumed by the earthly pleasures of a regular paycheck, and when he finds himself using privileged information to gain a bounteous reward for the capture of an alleged murderer, his world spirals downward.

Yet, everyone who meets Israel transforms into a better human for some inexplicable reason, including Farrell’s character whose 180 degree turn gives the audience whiplash. As Israel’s world devolves, the other characters get religion (metaphorically speaking), but the film presents little compelling evidence as to why.

Oh, and all of this happens over just a three week period. Whew.

I wanted to love this move and to be moved by its message that “purity can’t survive in this world.” In fact, the movie is filled with bon mots like that: “my lack of success is self-imposed,” “hope don’t get the job done,” “each one of us is greater than the worst thing we’ve ever done,” “gang sign? like that flag pin on your lapel?” That may be its biggest problem. It’s a movie of bon mots, adding up ultimately to not very much more than a big budget Hallmark Hall of Fame that fancies itself an expose of the seamy gonna-get-mine underbelly of modern Los Angeles. That’s a shame.

Whereas Nightcrawler was a gut punch to the Horatio Alger myth that underpins Americans’ preoccupation with sparkling capitalism, Roman J. Israel, Esq. fails to deliver a similar blow to the endemic racism and deal-making that undermines our faith in the criminal justice system. That movie has yet to be made. Let’s try less quirk next time.

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.

Wilde Awards 2017: If only I had Wink Martindale’s career …


Well, the 2017 Wilde Awards Ceremony is in the history books. And a truly special night celebrating the best of Michigan theatre is over … for another 365 days.

As a kid, I was obsessed with game shows and awards ceremonies, so to suggest that co-hosting last night with EncoreMichigan’s David Kiley was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream is no hyperbole. And more than a little dorky. If only I had Wink Martindale’s career.

I was humbled to be amongst such theatrical and critical talent last night, and to see so many personal friends receive well-deserved recognition last night affirmed that good people who work hard do earn the spoils. And my buddies still spoke to me after the show was over. #winning

Full list of winners and additional coverage here.



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

Encore Michigan photos by Richard Rupp