The King and I at Detroit’s Fox Theatre: A puzzlement worth solving


king and I banner

Originally published by Encore Michigan

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I is a puzzlement. For the modern viewer at least. The classic show has one of the most beautiful and haunting scores in the legendary R&H canon, but that book … that book. It’s one part Beauty and the Beast fairy tale, one part Westernized history lesson of a culture that deserved better – a fetishization of Asian stereotypes that somehow doubles upon itself as a stringent critique of racism, ethnocentrism, and misogyny.

The King and I is very much a “have its cake and eat it too” smorgasbord of mid-century tropes. Is it a Rorschach test indicting Westerners’ elitist, imperialist, entitled tendencies, or is it simply a smug regurgitation of prejudices for self-satisfied commercial ends? That whole “Small House of Uncle Thomas” ballet in the second act was likely a provocative critique of racism in its day, but our post-Book of Mormon-conditioned cynicism now brings the sequence a whole new layer of culturally appropriated meta-awkwardness.

Blessedly, Lincoln Center’s recent Tony-winning revival, now touring nationally and currently running at Detroit’s Fox Theatre, sidesteps (mostly) the show’s more cringe-worthy moments with a light, humanistic approach that focuses less on spectacle (although there is just the right amount of glitz) and more on the quiet moments as Anna and the King find their appreciation for each other as people not stereotypes. The time-warped jokes about hoop skirts and polygamy still abound, but the production and its cast do a lovely job winking at the clunkier bits without condescending to the source material or breaking characterization. That’s an impressive high wire act.

king and IThe cast is sublime, with leads Elena Shaddow (Anna), Jose Llana (King of Siam), Joan Almedilla (Lady Thiang), and Q Lim (Tuptim) offering riched, nuanced turns on iconic characters. Llana plays up the childlike whimsy of an authoritarian wise enough to know his limitations but far too arrogant to openly admit them. His “et cetera, et cetera, et cetera” becomes a kind of postmodern emotional shorthand that never devolves into hackneyed shtick (more “I am Groot,” less “That’s what SHE said!”).

Shaddow presents a fiery and steely Anna, overlayed with poignant notes of loss and heartache -#ImWithHoopSkirt. Almedilla avoids the community theatre pitfall of devolving Lady Thiang into Cinderella’s Lady Tremaine, painting a portrait of a dutiful if wounded courtesan who finds agency working between the cracks in a broken system. Her “Something Wonderful” is a heartbreaking, pretzel-logic showstopper.

Q Lim’s Tuptim – offered as a gift of “property” to the King at the show’s beginning (even though her heart belongs to another) – is the show’s moral compass, revealing the toxic hypocrisy at the heart of Siam’s patriarchy. Her “My Lord and Master” is ablaze with a welcome feminist undercurrent that might be anachronistic to this show and its setting but perfectly welcome in this #MeToo era. “We Kissed In a Shadow” takes on an increased urgency in Lim’s hands as well. Thank goodness.

king and I posterAs expected, the costumes (Catherine Zuber) and sets (Michael Yeargen) are divine. You can’t do this show without some sartorial sumptuousness, and Zuber delivers, her cast awash in gorgeous, flowing jewel-toned silks. The sets are more evocative than detailed, filling the space with floating, gliding pillars that represent a number of locales. Yeargen’s scenic work brings a lovely and surreal dream-like quality to the proceedings which suits Bartlett Sher’s contemporary and self-aware direction.

The King and I is a classic that deserves to be rediscovered by modern audiences, and this production is one for the ages, smoothing over any problematic datedness with a fresh and humane approach. This production celebrates the wonder and beauty of cultures finding appreciation for each other and, more importantly, of people letting go of gendered and racial pretenses and embracing their common humanity.


king and I audienceReel 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

A day late and a dollar short: NBC’s Peter Pan Live!

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I was an apologist for last year’s inaugural live musical broadcast on NBC: The Sound of Music Live! starring pop/country superstar and American Idol winner Carrie Underwood.

In defense of those rather cardboard proceedings, featuring an underwhelmingly wooden (see what  I did there? 🙂 ) performance from the otherwise charming, sweet, golden-voiced Ms. Underwood, I wrote, “Bully to NBC and the production team and the cast for their accomplishment and for giving the Wal-Mart generation a glimpse of another era. … Let’s hope for more live theatre on network TV … and less Wal-Mart.”

After finally slogging through Peter Pan Live! via the wonders of DVR, can I rescind that wish?

Good lord, but there was even MORE Wal-Mart: the creepily self-satisfied, Midwestern, hetero-normative, consumerist-fantasy, vaguely Christian with a capital “C”, generic family that peppered every d*mn commercial break during last year’s broadcast being replaced by a creepily self-satisfied, Midwestern, hetero-normative, consumerist-fantasy, vaguely Christian with a capital “C”, celebrity family, that of Sabrina the Teenage Witch Melissa Joan Hart, doing her darndest to look winsome and bake cookies and project a calm, ethereal, Donna Reed-passivity that would make Gloria Steinem’s head explode.

And good googly wooglies but as much as I hated the ever-increasingly invasive Wal-Mart ads, the show was worse. Others seem to disagree, but I found this production flatter, duller, drearier, and more aggravating than last year’s. Perhaps I gave Underwood and company a pass because it was the first time in decades someone had attempted such a spectacle. Perhaps Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Sound of Music is just a stronger show in its bones than Jule Styne/Adolph Green/Betty Comden’s Peter Pan. Perhaps Sound of Music had a stronger supporting cast, capable performers like Audra McDonald and Laura Benanti who knew how to transcend the molasses and pop off the screen with sparkle and charm. Perhaps all of the above.

 

My mother Susie Duncan Sexton emailed me immediately following the Peter Pan broadcast – the subject line was “panning pan” and the content is slightly edited here for a family audience 🙂 …

Petuh, Petuh, Petuh…Christopher Walken as Hook channeled Bette Davis?  Kelli O’Hara as Mrs. Darling could have played Petuh or Wendy.  Wendy girl [Taylor Louderman] was great but looked 47.  Nana dog was the best of all.  Show was about as LIVE as a corpse in a casket.

The costumes? (Kelli alone even got that right)  Petuh Pan girl should have worn tights and elf shoes/hiking boots exposing a hint of waxed legs…And, with their outrageous costumery for Tiger Lily’s men and sometimes the pirates, why not give Petuh a pointy hat?!?

And Allison Williams as Petuh never left girldom.  Was this a fever dream about some very odd female rite of passage? Just exchange thimbles either with other girls or with castrated fun-loving immature boys whom they will mother, rather than ever … you know what?

And I kept thinking of Natalie Wood for some reason?  What would she have thought of Walken on a boat with BTW the most talented folks in the show?  Had been looking forward to the production and kept thinking –through all of the lengthy commercial breaks (breaks causing ADD) filled with materialistic mind sets from big families who could even maybe adopt lost boys–that it would improve?

And how about this suggestion.  When Minnie Driver pushed the show down for a completed drowning death that the windows might have opened and Allison’s dad, newscaster Brian Williams, himself flew in?  His man daughter with the waxed legs all grown up?  And did they write unmemorable new-stale songs for this thing or what?

 

My mom is spot on.

As I watched this thing in dribs and drabs over the past weekend – 30 minutes here, 30 minutes there – I grew more horrified with each installment. Was Walken being punished somehow? Or were we, the audience? He seemed miserable, tone-deaf, and medicated like an aging drag queen who’d put in one too many performances of “I Will Survive” at The Jolly Roger in Provincetown. And the dancing? His much-vaunted dancing? All I saw was a lot of leaning left and right, fay hand gestures, and an occasional pretend tap sequence or too. Is that latter bit called lip-syncing? Toe-syncing?

Williams is arguably a smidgen better actor than Underwood but she definitely doesn’t have the erstwhile Maria’s pipes or, for that matter, simple sweetness. Williams had all the pluck and charm of a ball point pen and, at times, she performed like a well-heeled, smart-alecky co-ed slumming on her winter break from Barnard.

Christian Borle as Mr. Darling/Smee was ok. I find him talented but one-note usually. I may be in the minority, but I thought this production highlighted all of his airless, stiff limitations. O’Hara, on the other hand, was magic. In this production, she reined in her overly plucky twinkle, and gave us a Mrs. Darling who was warm, authentic, poignant, and haunting. I very much like what she did with the role. It was a sobering juxtaposition to everything else.

Ah, everything else. The ingeniously fluid set design employed during Sound of Music was definitely on display, but a bigger budget does not necessarily bring better taste or strategic restraint. Neverland looked like it was outfitted by Hot Topic and Justice store employees hopped up on acid and Diet Coke. The Lost Boys/Pirates/Natives (basically all the group numbers) were a hoot to watch – that’s generally when the show came alive, especially the Pirates … but they all appeared to have been costumed by cast-off pieces from The Village People’s camp classic (?) Can’t Stop the Music (directed by Nancy Walker, btw/wtf).

It was this jarring conflict of tone and energy and intent that was most problematic. As my mom suggests with her “pointy hat” remark, if the show had just gone for all-out crazy the way the set and costume design suggest, it would have been an absolute riot. Peter Pan is a strange children’s (?) book with a lot of bizarre Freudian subtext (and super-text) made even odder when musicalized with a grown woman playing the lead and a cast of grown men all in pursuit of and at odds over finding the perfect mother (seemingly the show’s primary narrative conceit).

The production designers seemed to get that innate oddness, but, apparently, they were attending different team meetings from the director and cast who approached the material with flat affect and somber tone … when they could remember their lines, that is. The only way this thing would have worked (in addition to excising an hour of material/advertisements) would have been to celebrate its peculiarity, not only in production values but in performance. We needed unhinged whimsy but got unhinged boredom.

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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.

Empathetic philosophy and ebullient heartache: Laura Benanti at Indianapolis’ The Cabaret at the Columbia Club

Benanti with my mom and me

Benanti with my mom and me

On this Tony Award weekend, we had the privilege of meeting a fabulous Tony-winner – Laura Benanti – last night at Indianapolis’ The Cabaret at the Columbia Club.

The Columbia Club

The Columbia Club

You might recall last fall that I was a staunch defender of NBC’s production of The Sound of Music (click here), which I thought suffered unfairly from a lot of social media-fueled schadenfreude. The one element that did not need defending, by me or anyone else, because it was universally lauded as perfection, was the performance by Laura Benanti as the Baroness.

Roy and Susie with poster

Roy and Susie with poster

I am happy to report that she is even more terrific in real life.

Benanti with my dad

Benanti with my dad

Throughout her fizzy cabaret show, not a note is missed – musically, comedically, thematically. She is one of the most engaging performers I’ve ever had the privilege to observe.

But even more importantly, she is kind and down-to-earth and real.
My mother and I accidentally ran into her at the elevator right before her performance. Rather than keep her distance, she walked right over to us, and with an effervescent smile, queried, “You’re coming back, aren’t you?” Of course we were! And, even though she had a two hour set to get herself psyched up for, she stood there and talked to us for several minutes.

 

 

 

I might add that she is just as gracious with all of her fans following the performance in what otherwise can be sometimes awkward for both audience and performer: the dreaded meet and greet. She takes time with each and every one and genuinely connects with all.

Almond with me and my mom

Almond with me and my mom

With my starstruck gushing aside, what about the performance itself? It is such great fun – a brilliant blend of soaring vocals, crack comic timing, cheeky irreverence, and poignant character analysis. The essence of what makes cabaret such a viable art form.

The Big Room

The Big Room

Benanti is marvelously aided and abetted by her amazing musical director Todd Almond who is as much sidekick and partner as accompanist, composing the original tunes, vocalizing with Benanti, and offering the periodic witty aside. And, by the way, he is equally personable, following the performance, happily taking my loony suggestions of pop nuggets they can skewer in their act – notably, my latest obsession Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea’s “Problem.”

Why, might you ask was I so bold to suggest such a silly song for these accomplished musicians to perform in their act?
Susie and Roy Capone

Susie and Roy Capone

 

Well, for someone like Benanti who moves seamlessly between My Fair Lady‘s “On the Street Where You Live” to Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” to Nine‘s “Unusual Way” (mesmerizing!) not to mention Sisqo’s “The Thong Song,” it seems a logical addition.

What you may gather from the preceding paragraph is that Benanti’s show is a gutsy synthesis of her tastes and style and identity. She wears all these songs easily … which is a remarkable gift. She is always herself yet simultaneously channeling a wild array of characters.
Benanti and me

Benanti and me

 

This tour is captured live on her album “In Constant Search of the Right Kind of Attention,” recorded at 54 Below, formerly the iconic disco Studio 54. My recommendation? Buy this album now, and enjoy it like you would a cast recording before going to see a Broadway show. The album is remarkable, but seeing Benanti act and sing these songs live is something not to be missed. There are enough variances between the album and the show to keep things interesting, and I won’t spoil the surprises here. If she comes to your town, run (don’t walk) to see her.

Most compelling is the manner in which Benanti paints a picture of her life as a perpetual (though fiercely independent) underdog. About someone so talented and beautiful, that may be hard to believe, but the reality is she has always been a quirky theater kid on the outside looking in. Amusingly, she lays bare the personal turmoils of a young girl listening to cast albums, learning to play the ukulele, and dressing up as obscure musical theater characters for Halloween.
Cheers

Cheers

 

(She also isn’t afraid to go off script, poking gentle fun at the more provincial elements of the Hoosier-land where she was performing. I love my home state, but I give Benanti many props for gently reminding her audience that tolerance and compassion and humanity are essential regardless your background or beliefs. And if one can get that message across with a smile on one’s face, it makes an impact.)

I leave you with a clip of her singing “Mr. Tanner,” a forgotten gem by Harry Chapin. This number was a highlight for me both when I first listened to the recording as well as during the live performance. It definitely gives you a sense of her empathetic philosophy and ebullient heartache. Enjoy!

[All photos by Don Sexton – more here.]

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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.

Fa …. a long, long way to run: The Sound of Music Live! (2013 NBC event)

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A lot of ink (and, one might argue, blood) has been spilled in the intervening days since The Sound of Music Live! starring country/pop superstar and American Idol Carrie Underwood reaffirmed NBC as a destination for “Must See TV.”

It’s taken me a bit of time (for once) to digest all of my thoughts – less about the show and more about the absurd level of snotty, glib, social-media fueled schadenfreude it seemed to generate.

Just when I thought this telecast (which I enjoyed by the way – more on that in a moment) would be another casualty of America’s silly “culture wars,” along came news that it was one of the most highly viewed shows in recent memory.

The chief driver of controversy and ratings? Ms. Underwood herself, who somehow has become as big a cultural lightning rod as my beloved Miley.

Seriously, watching my Facebook feed Thursday night, I found it fascinating that so many of my “Red State” friends, for whom the Wal-Mart sponsored production’s selection of Underwood seemed targeted, dug in their heels and proclaimed they didn’t like “different” and “it wasn’t like the movie” and “how dare they replace Julie Andrews” (whom I should add herself replaced Mary Martin from the stage show). Conversely, my “Blue State” friends all saw this as some Tea Party conspiracy to send Broadway to the Dark Ages and “bring Hee-Haw to high culture.” (And, yeah, they also didn’t like that is wasn’t Julie Andrews. There goes Underwood, finally bringing this country together again!)

Really? Really, folks? Just unclench and enjoy that someone is trying something new –  ironic, I know, given that this particular show is a pretty musty, overdone piece of musical theatre malarkey, but just go with me here.

I applaud producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron for attempting – and succeeding – at the herculean task of getting a three hour, live musical performed, mostly without a hitch, on prime time television to blockbuster viewership. Last time that happened? Fifty years ago with another Rodgers and Hammerstein musical – Cinderella – which I might also add committed the “sacrilege” of casting a “hot young thing” in place of another actress who had originated the role (albeit in an earlier TV version). Guess who? Yup, Julie Andrews was “replaced” by Lesley Ann Warren, who was not only a bit dodgy as an actress but not that remarkable a vocalist either.

Zadan and Meron have pretty much led the charge over the past twenty years bringing the American musical into the broader popular consciousness of film and TV. And, yes, one of their gimmicks is creative and unconventional casting that gets them sponsorships, studio green lights, and viewership. Vanessa Williams and Jason Alexander and Chynna Phillips in Bye Bye Birdie. Kathy Bates in Annie. Brandy Norwood and Whitney Houston in Cinderella. Bette Midler and Cynthia Gibb in Gypsy. Richard Gere and Renee Zellwegger and John C. Reilly and Queen Latifah and Catherine Zeta-Jones in the Oscar-winning Chicago. And, yes, John Travolta (and Michelle Pfeiffer) in Hairspray. (NOTE: many of these folks were not necessarily considered musical stars before these productions, but are now.) Would these productions have been artistically “better” with Broadway vets in those roles? Probably. Would these films have gotten made, let alone watched and enjoyed by millions, without these stars? Nope.

And, furthermore, Audrey Hepburn was cast over Andrews in My Fair Lady, the Hollywood penance for this decision in turn landing Andrews Mary Poppins and, I suspect, Sound of Music, which had been written for Broadway for Mary Martin (yes, JR Ewing’s mom who made a name among American viewers for playing a boy – Peter Pan). And should Barbra Streisand have played the lead in the film Hello Dolly! or Lucille Ball Mame? And don’t even get me started on Frank Sinatra and Marlon Brando in Guys and Dolls (the latter of whom is cuter in the role than people give credit). And I’m not sure I was that nuts about Beyonce in Dreamgirls, though I did adore another American Idol – Oscar-winning Jennifer Hudson – for her contributions to that film.

What’s my point – other than showing off all the useless and opinionated knowledge I carry around in my noggin? I’m not quite sure, other than everyone chill the freak out!

How was the show? It was fine – not revelatory but not a train wreck either. Quite the contrary. Yes, Underwood is not an actress, but she is a presence with a pleasant personality and a marvelous voice – all of which seemed to suit the rather bland, nun-lite role of Maria, if you ask me. (I kept thinking of Gwen Stefani the whole time for some reason – they vaguely resemble each other and I also love this riff by Stefani on “The Lonely Goatherd” – truly, check it out!)

Before I get labeled an Underwood apologist, let me say I have always been rather neutral about her. I hate American Idol. I love that she’s a vegan and an animal rights activist, vocally opposed to factory farming and ag gag bills. I find her preening, showy religiosity annoying – yes, we get it – you’re so “blessed.” I adore that she is a social progessive who believes in equal rights for all, including ardent support for gay marriageI do not like country music (unless it’s poppy stuff like Shania or Taylor). I enjoy Underwood more when she’s singing about smashing a cheating boyfriend’s car than when she’s imploring for “Jesus to take the wheel.” (She does seem to sing about motor vehicles a lot, come to think of it.)

The producers wisely surrounded Underwood with a cast of pros (True Blood‘s Stephen Moyer’s rigid and kinda dull take on Captain Von Trapp notwithstanding). Audra McDonald as Mother Abbess and Laura Benanti as the Baroness were the absolute rock star standouts of the night. I hate “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” but I was in tears from McDonald’s rendition. And Benanti was a sparkling delight, humanizing what could have been a villainous turn. She has a perfect light yet intelligent touch for this kind of production – I hope they do more with her. The kids were all fine and avoided the cloying, insufferable trap into which so many productions can fall. Newcomer Michael Campayno was marvelous in the tricky role of turncoat boyfriend Rolf.

The set design was sublime – beautifully detailed but consciously theatrical. And I got a visceral thrill when the cast would glide from one locale to another through an open door or a raised curtain, most notably when the family leaves their home for the climactic Nazi rally.

My criticism of the evening? Those d*mn creepy Wal-Mart ads that seemed designed to appeal to some modern, overpopulated, Midwestern yuppie family that buys too much crap and communicates in dull, cutesy quips via their cellular devices when they are one. room. away. from each other. Argh!

Why do people love this musical? And feel so fiercely protective of it? I’m not quite sure – there are much better shows out there, including Rodgers and Hammerstein’s many other offerings. There is a strange princess element – young nun finding love with a stodgy rich man in a castle. An inversion of the Beauty and the Beast tale? Or is it the nightmare panic that the Nazi element offers, including the pulse-pounding (and clever) escape from that oppressive regime while singing the oddly creepy “So Long, Farewell.” Not sure, but clearly a lot of folks love this darn story, so bully to NBC and the production team and the cast for their accomplishment and for giving the Wal-Mart generation a glimpse of another era.

Let’s hope for more live theatre on network TV … and less Wal-Mart.