Thank you to my karaoke compatriots this past Friday night at Dino’s Lounge in Ferndale, Michigan, for encouraging these shenanigans: Colleen McConnell Fowler, Blaine D. Fowler, Collin Fowler, Bailey Fowler, Lauren Crocker, Michael Stets Steczkowski, Kristina Millman-Rinaldi, Dave Rinaldi, Matthew Laurinec, Jenna Miller, Danielle Zuccaro, Clarice Zuccaro, Sam Finn, Jo Epstein Finn, Bradley L Finn, Dustin Banooni, Warner Crocker, Thomasin Savaiano, and Amanda Murray. Thank you, John Mola, for cheering me on and taking these videos. 🎶❤️
“I retain the right to be moved by those little things nobody notices.” – Bernadette (Cate Blanchett) in Where’d You Go, Bernadette?
My favorite part of the Christmas to New Year’s gauntlet? Those empty days when the sky is gray and there are no obligations, and you can sit around in your sweatpants, shell-shocked and comatose from the holiday frenzy, vegetating in front of a movie or television screen (or both!).
“People will believe anything if you’re properly dressed.” – The Man Who Invented Christmas’ Charles Dickens (Dan Stevens), repeating advice his father John Dickens (Jonathan Pryce) taught him
Cats. O, Cats. Listen, it’s a weird effing show (read more here) that should have never been the success it was. And the lemming-like behavior that led audiences to fuel its decades long stage success is the same lemming-like behavior that is leading people to scorn the film in droves now. The film is a logical outgrowth of its goof-a$$ origins, and, by that low bar, it’s perfectly fine. Passably entertaining even. So, everyone STOP piling on because it’s fun to make fun of something you SHOULD have scorned in 1981. Too late now! Director Tom Hooper (Les Miserables) brings some inventiveness here and there, but as Rum Tum Tugger (a mush-mouthed Jason Derulo) might observe, it tends to get lost “in a horrible muddle.”
The human faces on CGI cat bodies are disconcerting (mostly in how they kind of float around and drift a bit), but I found the un-CGI’d human hands and feet even more repulsive. Rebel Wilson (Jenny Anydots) should not be allowed anywhere near a musical. Or a piano. Or karaoke. Or cockroaches. The group dance numbers should have all been cut, as pseudo-ballet is pretty but not much fun to watch in the cinema, and Hooper’s approach to filming said numbers is by turns monotonous and disorienting. Imagine Michael Bay’s Transformers singing disco-synth, day-glo show tunes.
Buried under the muck, there are decent performances yearning to break free. Ian McKellen is heartbreaking and campy as Gus the Theatre Cat. James Corden is James Corden! as Bustopher Jones (though his number has about 8 reprises too many). Judi Dench makes a really pretty Persian Cat – who knew she had the face for it? Her Old Deuteronomy has a few good zingers, and she looks really fine lounging in a wicker basket. Idris Elba (MacAvity) and Taylor Swift (Bombalurina) should take their act on the road, hitting nightclubs across the land and wearing cat-style footie pajamas. Jennifer Hudson skulks and sulks nicely as Grizabella (even if showstopper “Memory” gets thrown into an editing Cuisinart by Hooper). Surprising no one, the British dance-trained unknowns Steven McRae (Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat), Robert Fairchild (Munkustrap), and Laurie Davidson (Mr. Mistoffeles) escape with the most dignity, lending pathos to t.s. eliot’s clever wordplay and lithe movement to their feline character work.
As my mother noted, the filmmakers would have been so much better off just crafting this as an animated film, a la The Aristocats or Lady & the Tramp. But, no. That would have made sense. And, while Cats may be “forever,” it has never made one lick of sense. Meow.
“Morals don’t sell nowadays.” – Jo (Saoirse Ronan) in Little Women
Ain’t that the damn truth? And no one knows that better than the political puppet masters over at FOX News. New movie Bombshelldepicts the downfall of FOX head Roger Ailes (creepy good John Lithgow, who is no Loudest Voice in the Room‘s Russell Crowe, however). Ailes is brought low by decades of sexual misconduct, bullying, ugliness, and sheer thuggishness. Today, we’d reward that behavior by making him President of the United States.
The film is good, though lacking the depth of other treatments (namely Loudest Voice on Showtime). Go for Charlize Theron’s uncanny take on Megyn Kelly. Stay for the popcorn zip of director Jay Roach’s takedown of the hypocritical/toxic right wing media. Margot Robbie is remarkable as a production assistant torn between her ambition and her tenuous grasp on integrity. In other words, she fits right in in the FOX newsroom. Kate McKinnon is acerbic fun as Margot’s cubicle-mate, and Nicole Kidman does her best version of Nicole Kidman-as-befuddled-ice-queen as Gretchen Carlson, who first brings charges against Ailes. Some have worried that the film makes heroes of the unheroic, Kelly and Carlson and their ilk being as complicit in the rise of this Trumpian nation-state as anyone. Charles Randolph’s script doesn’t let them off the hook, in my opinion, and Roach’s swirling direction keeps the audience from feeling too much empathy for anyone.
“I’m sorry. I don’t know secular music.” – Bombshell‘s Kayla (Margot Robbie), a production assistant who mixes up images of The Eagles’ Don Henley and Glenn Frey during a FOX News broadcast
Who has two thumbs and is finally suffering from Star Wars fatigue? THIS guy. Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is full of sound and fury, signifying … meh. It is overlong, derivative, and convoluted, and, while director J. J. Abrams pulls far too many threads together in a reasonably satisfying way, Skywalker just isn’t very thrilling. The film feels like homework: “I’ve seen eight of these things, and watched a grab bag of spin-offs and tv shows, so I guess I have to see how this thing ends.” Thank heavens for Adam Driver (Kylo Ren) and Daisey Ridley (Rey) who deserve a much better script but do yeoman’s work making something, anything seem interesting.
I didn’t love Last Jedi, the previous film in the series, but at least I felt, in that instance, that there was a plan and a strong artistic vision. Skywalker seems like it was focus-grouped with a bunch of Orlando tourists, hopped up on churros and Red Bull, after riding Space Mountain a dozen times. Truth be told. I just didn’t care. I know these films are fairy tale nonsense, Saturday-morning serials on big budget steroids. I love that about Star Wars, but, to succeed, to truly succeed, these flicks need to be fun and rollicking and light as air, so you happily look past the broad leaps of logic and common sense. Rise of Skywalker is anything but fun or light or rollicking, so all you are left with is a plateful of plot holes … and regret.
We Star Wars fans may seem nitpicky. Perhaps these movies were best left in the murky fog of childhood remembrance, but if Jon Favreau can evoke this perfect balance of whimsy and comic book gravitas in TV’s The Mandalorian, why can’t this be accomplished on the silver screen again as well? Disney has come closest with their entries in the Star Wars Stories anthology films, notably Rogue Oneand arguably Solo. Let’s hope Disney/Lucasfilm puts a pause button on these movies for awhile, learns some tough lessons from wise Baby Yoda, and gives their film strategy a good rethink. We’ll be waiting, getting older and fatter, but still buying action figures.
“Make sure she’s married by the end. Or dead. … Girls want to see women marry. Not [be] consistent!” – Jo’s publisher (Tracey Letts) in Little Women
Yet, I don’t suffer from Little Women fatigue, and, by all rights, we should be finished with cinematic and televised depictions of this oft-told tale of the plucky March sisters, surviving and thriving in Civil War-era America. The latest iteration, written and directed with postmodern aplomb by Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird), is a marvel.
The film is exquisite – a smart, sharp update for contemporary sensibilities, without losing the familiar story beats. Unencumbered by linear chronology (the film operates as a series of flashbacks while Jo challenges the limited sensibilities of her era’s publishing industry), Gerwig reimagines Little Women to render inexorable its keys messages of agency, humanism, imagination, independence, and hope.
Among the cast, of course Saoirse Ronan is dynamite as Jo, never losing the spirit or authenticity of the era but painting a clear-eyed portrait of a human being gobsmacked by the artificial limitations society imposes on her gender. The more things change. …
Meryl Streep as Aunt March downplays that character’s sometimes arch control and sour disappointment, offering an aunt as amused as aggravated by the changing mores around her. Laura Dern is the quintessential Marmee, warm and flinty and kind. Chris Cooper is lovable and loving as the March family’s wealthy neighbor, and Timothee Chalamet puts his innate insouciance to good use as Laurie.
The revelation, though, is Florence Pugh as Amy, avoiding the pouty, flouncy pitfalls of other portrayals, turning a bright spotlight on a woman tired of being left behind, refreshingly unapologetic in the choices she (logically) makes, given the cards she’s dealt.
Much will be written about the film’s ending, which borrows a bit (knowingly?) from the Broadway musical. Where does Gerwig actually leave the March sisters? At a sun-dappled picnic, happily betrothed, teaching the young and raising their own families? Or, with Jo as a fully-realized free-agent, unburdened, accomplished, and ready to change this world for the better? Or a mix of both? This film is essential viewing, and one of the best movies this year.
“Don’t get sucked into a fight with someone who has better reason to be in it than you do.” – Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) in Bombshell
Outside of the cinema, we also caught some great flicks now on home video or streaming/cable. The House with a Clock in Its Walls is a welcome, wholesome throwback to the ABC Afterschool Special and Wonderful World of Disney broadcasts of yore.
Based on a series of novels from the early 70s (inspired by a gothic mansion in Marshall, Michigan), Clock stars Jack Black and Cate Blanchett at their most understated. Save for a CGI-filled denouement that gets a bit manic, the movie is a lighter-than-air soufflé of a fantasy period piece. Young Lewis (accessible, likable, kind Owen Vaccaro) is orphaned and is sent to live with his eccentric Uncle Jonathan (Black, almost unrecognizable in his quietly nuanced turn). Jonathan happens to be a warlock with a sorceress bestie (Blanchett, also nicely underplaying). Black and Blanchett seem like they stepped right off the set of 1958’s Bell, Book, and Candle – which is high praise – and I surely hope they get to make more installments in this series.
The Man Who Invented Christmasuses the inspiration behind Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol to inform, instruct, and inspire, thereby breathing new life into this over-adapted classic. Dickens (a wry and winsome Dan Stevens of Beauty and the Beast) is challenged to maintain his humanity in the face of a commercial machine that crushes souls and torches family ties.
His reclamation of his own voice and of his own industriousness is tied inextricably to his reconciliation of a past that haunts him and of a present that buffets him – not unlike what befalls Ebenezer Scrooge (a brilliant and twinkling Christopher Plummer). Jonathan Pryce deftly balances heartbreak, disappointment, and yearning as Dickens’ embattled father. The production, directed with a sure hand by Bharat Nalluri from a layered and literate script by Susan Coyne, is a breath of fresh air in an increasingly cliched holiday season.
Where’d You Go,Bernadette?,directed by Richard Linklater, is a beautiful film, light and poignant, a loving treatment of lost souls rediscovering their moorings and of the special challenges those with creative brains can experience in this judgmental world. Cate Blanchett as Bernadette and Kristin Wiig as her long-suffering “mean girl” neighbor both bring their A-game to the enterprise.
There is a pivotal sequence in the film wherein Bernadette’s heartbroken free-spiritedness finally runs afoul of the pragmatic realities of day-to-day living. Laurence Fishburne, as a former architectural colleague of Bernadette’s, and Judy Greer, as a therapist hired by Bernadette’s husband Elgin (the always reliable Billy Crudup), in parallel/intercut conversations with Bernadette and Elgin respectively, discuss the couple’s situation.
Fishburne and Greer’s characters share seemingly contradictory theses: Fishburne’s that Bernadette’s departure from a creative work life has atrophied her spirit and her mind and Greer’s that Bernadette has had a break from reality brought on by environmental change. In reality the truth is somewhere in between, and Emma Nelson, in a bright and affecting turn as Bernadette’s and Elgin’s daughter Bee, explicates clearly how her parents have drifted from what she once knew them to be, simultaneously appreciative of their distinctive quirks and gifts. Fishburne and Greer are both marvelous, as well, avoiding caricature or presumption, walking a fine line between compassion and bemusement.
As the film works toward its resolution, which as evidenced by the trailers includes Bernadette voyaging to Antarctica, her family finds healing, as they embrace the spark that makes Bernadette an individual while balancing the collective needs that will re-center their lives. The seemingly screwball comedy elements of the film may lead viewers to miss the important nuance here. Not dissimilarly to Joker, Where’d You Go, Bernadette? offers a sensitive and empathetic portrayal of how the intersection of emotion, intellect, and environment impacts us all.
“No one is useless in this life who lightens the burdens of another.” – The Man Who Invented Christmas’ Charles Dickens (Dan Stevens), repeating advice his father John Dickens (Jonathan Pryce) taught him
Well, this is about the nicest review anyone (who isn’t my mother) has ever written about anything I’ve done on stage. “Roy Sexton is outstanding as Buddy. He has some of the most complex songs exploring the most complex emotions. His takes on ‘The Right Girl’ and ‘Buddy’s Blues’ are vocally strong and emotionally engaging as he conjures up a dialogue with his girlfriend while still yearning for the love of his wife.” Read more: https://pulp.aadl.org/node/399787. Theatre Nova’s Follies in Concert runs ONE more weekend, starting Thursday: http://www.theatrenova.org
“Follies” continues Thursday-Saturday, Nov. 14-16, at 8 pm and Nov. 17 at 2 pm. Theatre Nova, 410 W. Huron St., Ann Arbor. For tickets, call 734-635-8450 or go to theatreNOVA.org.
Follies’ premise – aged alumni of the Weisman (think Ziegfeld) Follies reunite at their derelict theatre to relive their youth and ponder their life choices just before the place is leveled for a parking lot – is challenging to stage for any theater because of the intermingling of time, but Theatre Nova carries it off. …
Dramatic highlights of this show are “Losing My Mind,” a solo performed by Sue Booth, as Sally, and “Live, Laugh, Love” by Thomas Murphy, as Ben, and the ensemble.
Comic highlights are the rollicking “Buddy’s Blues” by Roy Sexton as the sad sack traveling salesman Buddy Plummer, and “I’m Still Here,” performed by Olive Hayden-Moore as Follies veteran Carlotta.
Diane Hill, who directs the play and co-stars as Phyllis Rogers Stone, also performs two of Follies’ funniest songs, “Could I Leave You” and “Lucy and Jessie” with spot-on comic timing.
Follies’ famous mirror number, “Who’s That Woman,” is given nice treatment by Carrie Jay Sayer, as showgirl Stella.
The most effective time-splicing number in the show is probably “Waiting for the Girls Upstairs.”
Eddie Rothermel, Kryssy Becker, Connor Thomas Rhoades, and Annie Kordas do a fine job of portraying Ben and Phyllis, Buddy and Sally in their younger years.
Theatre NOVA presents “Follies in Concert” book by James Goldman, music & lyrics by Stephen Sondheim Nov. 7 – 17, 2019
ANN ARBOR, MI (Oct. 8, 2019) – Theatre NOVA, Ann Arbor’s professional theatre with an exclusive focus on new plays and playwrights, presents a limited engagement of “Follies in Concert” book by James Goldman, music & lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.
Sondheim’s Broadway smash-hit musical concerns a reunion in a crumbling Broadway theatre of the past performers of the “Weismann’s Follies” that played in that theatre between the World Wars. Presented in concert, Follies is a glamorous and fascinating peek into a bygone era, and a clear-eyed look at the transformation of relationships over time, with countless songs that have become standards, including “Broadway Baby,” “I’m Still Here,” “Too Many Mornings”, “Could I Leave You?” and “Losing My Mind.”
Directed by Diane Hill, with Music Direction by Brian E. Buckner, “Follies in Concert” features Sue Booth, Thomas Murphy, Diane Hill, Roy Sexton, Annie Kordas, Kryssy Becker, Eddie Rothermel, Connor Rhoades, Harold Jurkiewicz, Olive Hayden-Moore, Carrie Jay Sayer, Emily Rogers-Driskill, Gayle Martin, and Edith Lewis.The production and design team includes Monica Spencer (scenic design), Jeff Alder (lighting design), and Briana O’Neal (stage manager).
“Follies in Concert” will run for two weeks only, Nov. 7 through Nov. 17, 2019, at Theatre NOVA (410 W. Huron, Ann Arbor), a downtown performance space. Performances are Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. and Sunday matinees are at 2:00 p.m. Theatre NOVA features free parking for patrons, as well as quick access to the city’s restaurants, bars, bakeries, and coffee shops.
Tickets are $30 for this limited engagement fundraiser for Theatre NOVA. For tickets, visit TheatreNOVA.org, call 734-635-8450 or buy them in person at the box office one hour before showtime.
Theatre NOVA is Ann Arbor’s resident professional theatre company. Its mission is to raise awareness of the value and excitement of new plays and playwrights and provide resources for playwrights to develop their craft by importing, exporting, and developing new work.
Stephen Sondheim wrote the music and lyrics for “Saturday Night” (1954), “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” (1962), “Anyone Can Whistle” (1964), “Company” (1970), “Follies” (1971), “A Little Night Music” (1973), “The Frogs” (1974), “Pacific Overtures” (1976), “Sweeney Todd” (1979), “Merrily We Roll Along” (1981), “Sunday in the Park with George” (1984), “Into the Woods” (1987), “Assassins” (1991), “Passion” (1994), and “Road Show” (2008). Sondheim also wrote lyrics for “West Side Story”(1957), “Gypsy”(1959), and “Do I Hear a Waltz?”(1965) and additional lyrics for “Candide” (1973). Anthologies of his work include “Side by Side by Sondheim” (1976), “Marry Me a Little” (1981), “You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow” (1983), “Putting it Together”(1993/99), and “Sondheim on Sondheim” (2010). He composed the scores of the films “Stavisky” (1974) and “Reds” (1981) and songs for “Dick Tracy” (1990) and the television production “Evening Primrose” (1966). His collected lyrics with attendant essays have been published in two volumes: “Finishing the Hat” (2010) and “Look, I Made A Hat” (2011). In 2010 the Broadway theater formerly known as Henry Miller’s Theatre was renamed in his honor.
James Goldman was born in Chicago and graduated from the University of Chicago; he did postgraduate work at Columbia University. He has written numerous plays, including “Blood, Sweat and Stanley Poole” (1961; co-written with his brother, William Goldman), “They Might Be Giants” (1961) and “The Lion in Winter” (1966). In addition to “Follies” (1971), he has been the bookwriter of “A Family Affair” (1962; co-author with William Goldman, music by John Kander), the television musical “Evening Primrose” (1967, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim) and “Follies” (1987, London – a re-conception of the original piece). His screenplays include “The Lion in Winter” (1968 – Academy Award; British Screenwriters Award), “They Might Be Giants” (1970), “Nicholas and Alexandra” (1971), “Robin and Marian” (1976) and “White Nights” (1985, co-writer). Goldman’s work for television has included an adaptation of “Oliver Twist” (1982), “Anna Karenina” (1985), “Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna Anderson” (1986). He is also the author of a novel, “Waldorf.”
Diane Hill (director) is a Producing Artistic Director at Theatre NOVA and was founder and Artistic/Executive Director of Two Muses Theatre, a nonprofit, professional theatre in West Bloomfield. Diane was a professor at University of Detroit Mercy and Oakland Community College, where she originated and designed the Theatre degree program. She has a Ph.D. in Theatre from Wayne State University and a Bachelor of Music and Master of Arts in Theatre from the University of Michigan. She has performed at many professional theatres in southeast Michigan, including the Fisher Theatre, Meadow Brook Theatre, Masonic Temple, Michigan Opera Theatre, Detroit’s Gem Theatre, Purple Rose Theatre, Tipping Point Theatre, Encore Musical Theatre, Croswell Opera House, Open Book Theatre, The Ringwald, and Cherry County Playhouse. She was awarded a Wilde Award for her portrayal of Professor Vivian Bearing in “Wit,” a Rogue Critic’s Award for her work as Mama in “’night, Mother,” both with Breathe Art Theatre Project, and an Ann Arbor News Award for her work as Agnes in “I Do! I Do!” at Kerrytown Concert House. At Theatre NOVA, she directed “Clutter” and “Kill Move Paradise.” Theatre NOVA audiences saw her play Olympe de Gouges in “The Revolutionists” (Wilde Award Best Production), Zelda in “The How and the Why” (Wilde Award Best Actress), and Penelope Easter in “The Totalitarians.”
Brian E. Buckner (Music Director) is an active actor, pianist, composer, arranger, vocal coach, choreographer and music director based in the Ann Arbor, MI area. A versatile talent, he works comfortably in all genres and is director of music of several local ensembles including Wild Swan Theater and the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation, in addition to having performed in Canada, China, and Mexico. Favorite recent productions include “Murder Ballad” (The Penny Seats Theatre Company), “The Devil’s Music” (Theatre NOVA), “Peter and the Starcatcher” (University of Michigan) and “Rock of Ages” (The Dio). Brian composed the original music used in Theatre NOVA’s production of “Kill Move Paradise.”
FACT SHEET WHO: Cast: Sally Durant Plummer: Sue Booth Benjamin Stone: Thomas Murphy Buddy Plummer: Roy Sexton Phyllis Rogers Stone: Diane Hill Young Sally: Annie Kordas Young Ben: Eddie Rothermel Roscoe, Young Buddy: Connor Rhoades Young Phyllis: Kryssy Becker Dimitri Weismann, Theodore Whitman: Harold Jurkiewicz Hattie Walker, Carlotta Campion: Olive Hayden-Moore Emily Whitman, Heidi Schiller: Edith Lewis Stella Deems: Carrie Jay Sayer Young Heidi: Emily Rogers-Driskill Solange La Fitte: Gayle Martin
Sondheim’s Broadway smash-hit musical concerns a reunion in a crumbling Broadway theatre of the past performers of the “Weismann’s Follies” that played in that theatre between the World Wars. Presented in concert, Folliesis a glamorous and fascinating peek into a bygone era, and a clear-eyed look at the transformation of relationships over time, with countless songs that have become standards, including “Broadway Baby,” “I’m Still Here,” “Too Many Mornings”, “Could I Leave You?” and “Losing My Mind.”
Directed by Diane Hill, with music direction by Brian E. Buckner, “Follies in Concert” features Sue Booth, Thomas Murphy, Diane Hill, Roy Sexton, Annie Kordas, Kryssy Becker, Eddie Rothermel, Connor Thomas Rhoades, Harold Jurkiewicz, Olive Hayden-Moore, Carrie Jay Sayer, Emily Rogers-Driskill, G-jee Martin, and Edie Lewis. The production and design team includes Monica Spencer (scenic design), Jeff Alder (lighting design), and Briana O’Neal (stage manager).
Thursday, Friday and Saturday @ 8 p.m. Sun. @ 2:00 p.m. Click here for tickets! Sunday, Nov. 10 is SOLD OUT Special $10 off Preview Thursday, Nov. 7 at 8:00pm
Opening night ticket includes an afterglow reception with the cast and crew!
“I’ve proved my point. I’ve demonstrated there’s no difference between me and everyone else! All it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy. That’s how far the world is from where I am. Just one bad day.” – Joker in Alan Moore’s and Brian Bolland’s classic 1988 graphic novel The Killing Joke
“Those of us who have made something of our lives will look at those that haven’t as nothing but clowns.” – Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) in Joker
“The worst part of having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you don’t.” – Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) in his journal in Joker
“Rated as many stars as possible. Brimming with messages about humanity. Incredible and mesmerizing. The best scene reflected in the poster [Joker descending the steps, fully realized]. The film turns embedded prejudices and mindsets and pseudo-psychology and psycho-babble on their collective heads. Disturbing? Yes. Important to view with an open mind? Absolutely! Not your typical comic book villain nor hero. Heartbreaking but enlightening. Stay focused and let this gem penetrate your heart. All due to the earnest performance of Joaquin Phoenix. Bravo and hallelujah!” – Susie Sexton, my mom, in her review as shared on Facebook.
[Image Source: Wikipedia]
Joker is a brilliant, heartbreaking, honest, essential film. Its lesson? Focus on the origin with empathy if you truly want to avert the outcomes depicted. Best film I’ve seen this year.
Joaquin Phoenix, who has always been one of our most dependable if at times criminally underrated actors, gives the performance of a lifetime as Arthur Fleck, a man shattered by a relentlessly unforgiving society that has rarely, if ever, graced him with a kind word or charitable thought. Far TOO much has been written that Joker will inspire “lone wolf” killers to act upon their most marginalized feelings and strike us good, pure, honest citizens down as we cheerfully consume material goods, collect our paychecks, and avoid our own hidden pain(s). Bullsh*t.
[Image Source: Wikipedia]
Those folks who shout “thoughts and prayers” in the midst of firearm-fueled massacre, those folks who say we need “mental health awareness” not “gun control,” those folks who turn a blind eye to the institutionalized bullying that breaks sensitive souls? This movie should be required viewing for them (us) all. The true criminal act is to imply violence occurs in a vacuum, to suggest that mental breaks from reality are somehow apropos of nothing, and to look past our collective tendency to pathologically distance ourselves from the very people who need our help the most. Joker is the movie we all need desperately right now.
[Image Source: Wikipedia]
It is also interesting to me that casual viewers see Joker as “too dark” or “too intense” or “too morally ambiguous” for a comic book movie. I recommend you turn an eye toward 1988’s Alan Moore/Brian Bolland seminal graphic novel The Killing Joke (written over 30! years ago), which, while not a literal blueprint for Todd Phillips’ film, provides Joker with its essential DNA. Moore was one of the first to plumb the depths of why the Clown Prince of Crime is the way he is. (Tim Burton lifted the most superficial of aspects here for 1989’s Batman with its fixation on the yin/yang duality of Batman and his primary nemesis.) In The Killing Joke, we see a man rejected and broken by one disappointment upon another, until he finally succumbs to the message he believes he’s been receiving all along: you aren’t wanted by this world, so let this world know how little you want it. It was a powerful and disconcerting take in its day, made even more controversial due to its scenes depicting the rape and torture of Batgirl and her father Commissioner Gordon. Blessedly, Phillips (The Hangover trilogy, Borat) working from a screenplay he co-wrote with Scott Silver, gives us the sense memory of The Killing Joke while jettisoning Moore’s more misanthropic/sadistic tendencies.
[Image Source: Wikipedia]
Joker is a movie I will be thinking about for a very long time. I could cry now reliving Phoenix’ early scenes – his glimmers of puppy-like hope dashed by one cruel word after another, his eyes conveying decades of hurt, his fractured heart yearning for empathy. It is a remarkable performance, layered and loving, with a Chaplinesque understanding that the most compelling underdogs are simultaneously winsome and incendiary. The turn he takes, slowly, methodically, as he is increasingly battered, does eventually result in violent impulse, but the film is not the bloodbath some might have you believe. There are three particularly shocking flashes of rage, as Arthur/Joker rewards his tormentors with the very lessons they have been teaching him. In each instance, there is a logic – and a horror – and unlike most Hollywood films,in Joker, violence has consequence and emotional weight. I believe that is a crucial distinction that pundits aren’t making, and I’m not entirely sure why.
[Image Source: Wikipedia]
The cinematography by Lawrence Sher and the musical score by Hildur Guðnadóttir are almost characters in Joker unto themselves, crucial to the narrative, framing the film’s emotional grace notes and enveloping the audience in an increasing sense of disorientation. And the supporting cast, including Robert DeNiro as a smarmy talk show host, Frances Conroy as Arthur’s tortured mother, Zazie Beetz as Arthur’s neighbor and possible love interest, and Brett Cullen as a Trumpian Thomas Wayne (Bruce’s papa) are all excellent – Dickensian specters dancing in and out of the passion play in Arthur’s mind.
[Image Source: Wikipedia]
“In my whole life, I didn’t know if I even really existed. But I do. And people are starting to notice,” Arthur observes as he becomes the reflection of the dark society in which he dwells. Joker is, in fact, a subversive film because it dares to suggest that we, each and every one of us – with our casual cruelty, our blithe self-absorption, our overt thuggery – are responsible for the toxicity in our society, for those who are broken by it, and for those who act violently upon it. There is no easy blame in Joker, and that’s why the film may make some self-righteous souls uncomfortable. Joker swivels the mirror on its audience and hisses, “You are the problem, and only you can fix it.”
[Image Source: Wikipedia]
“On Wednesday night I attended the New York Film Festival and witnessed a cinematic masterpiece, the film that last month won the top prize as the Best Film of the Venice International Film Festival. It’s called Joker — and all we Americans have heard about this movie is that we should fear it and stay away from it. We’ve been told it’s violent and sick and morally corrupt — an incitement and celebration of murder. We’ve been told that police will be at every screening this weekend in case of ‘trouble.’ Our country is in deep despair, our constitution is in shreds, a rogue maniac from Queens has access to the nuclear codes — but for some reason, it’s a movie we should be afraid of. I would suggest the opposite: The greater danger to society may be if you DON’T go see this movie. Because the story it tells and the issues it raises are so profound, so necessary, that if you look away from the genius of this work of art, you will miss the gift of the mirror it is offering us. Yes, there’s a disturbed clown in that mirror, but he’s not alone — we’re standing right there beside him.” – Michael Moore in a Facebook post about Joker
[Image Source: Wikipedia]
“To appreciate Joker I believe you have to have either gone through something traumatic in your lifetime (and I believe most of us have) or understand somewhere in your psyche what true compassion is (which usually comes from having gone through something traumatic, unfortunately). An example of dangerous compassion would be to, say, make a film made about the fragility of the human psyche, and make it so raw, so brutal, so balletic that by the time you leave the theatre you not only don’t want to hurt anything but you desperately want an answer and a solution to the violence and mental health issues that have spun out of control around us. This film makes you hurt and only in pain do we ever want to change. It’s all in the irony of trauma — a fine line between the resentment of wanting to hurt society back for raping you of a decent life, for not protecting you, and accepting what feels like alien feelings with softening to those others who seem freakish in our era of judgment, and digital damnation. Like kids in Middle School: man, they can just be mean. For no reason. And, sometimes, those awful little clicky [sic] kids breed an evil in someone that rages much later, when everyone pretends we are all back to normal, when we all thought it had just manned up and gone away. We have a habit of hating and ostracizing and dividing and sweeping our problems under the rug. Joker, is simply lifting the rug and looking underneath it. Nothing more. Nothing less. It’s there.” – Josh Brolin in an Instagram post about Joker
[Image Source: Wikipedia]
“I’m not exactly sure what it was. Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another… If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice.” – Joker in Alan Moore’s and Brian Bolland’s classic 1988 graphic novel The Killing Joke
Thank you to Thomas Paden and the Canton Chamber for this TV opportunity to discuss our #RealMenWearPink Detroit campaign. View here.
Grateful to be interviewed alongside rock stars Denise Isenberg Staffeld and Megan Schaper. And stick around to the end to see/hear the official video of yours truly singing #PureImagination with accompaniment by super talented Kevin Robert Ryan.
If you feel so moved to donate, please click here.
“Breast cancer affects everyone women and men. That’s why we’re recruiting men to fight breast cancer through Real Men Wear Pink. This distinguished group of community leaders is determined to raise awareness and money to support the American Cancer Society’s mission and save more lives than ever before from breast cancer.”
Also, don’t forget that Theatre NOVA’s Follies in Concert opens November 7. I’m playing “Buddy”! We had our first read-through this week, and it’s such a marvelous cast! It’s going to be great fun. Tickets here.
Sondheim’s Broadway smash hit musical concerns a reunion in a crumbling Broadway theatre of the past performers of the “Weismann’s Follies” that played in that theatre between the World Wars. A fundraiser for Theatre NOVA and presented in concert, Follies is a glamorous and fascinating peek into a bygone era, and a clear-eyed look at the transformation of relationships over time, with countless songs that have become standards, including “Broadway Baby,” ” I’m Still Here,” “Too Many Mornings,” “Could I Leave You?” and “Losing My Mind.” Directed by Diane Hill with music direction by Brian E. Buckner. Featuring Sue Booth, Tom Murphy, Diane Hill, Roy Sexton, Annie Kordas, Kryssy Becker, Eddie Rothermel, Connor Rhoades, Harold Jurkiewicz, Olive Hayden-Moore, Carrie Jaye Sayer, Emily Rogers-Driskill, Gayle Martin, Edith Lewis and Darnell Ishmel.
Cats is one odd damn show. Spoon River Anthology in leg warmers, leotards, and Capezios. T.S. Eliot was an odd man (see Tom & Viv … no really, go see it). He wrote some odd poems about cats with silly made up words that would embarrass Lewis Carroll. Andrew Lloyd Webber may very well be an odder man. He writes musicals about chandeliers and roller skating trains and upside down swimming pools. The early 1980s (when Cats was written) was a seriously odd time, one arched foot still firmly placed in Studio 54 bell-bottomed Bob Fosse’d debauchery and the other pointed at a big-haired, Jane Fonda jazzercised, Reaganomic’d pneumatic future. And like anything at the nexus of the supremely weird, Cats was – and is – a big ol’ fat box office blockbuster. Now and forever indeed.
Bombalurina [From the production’s Facebook page]
I saw it once with my mother, about ten years ago, at Warsaw’s Wagon Wheel Playhouse, where my mom herself had performed in her teens. My mom’s friend Myrna Bailey (at least I think it was Myrna?) had given us tickets, and we went, not exactly enthused but grateful for the free entertainment, looking forward as much to dinner afterward as we were to an evening of prancing, preening anthropomorphized felines in body-stockings. We were pleasantly surprised. At the time, I theorized that the show works better in a smaller setting. The Wagon Wheel performs everything in the round (hence the name), and the set design was a literal jungle gym, with the titular cats swinging over your head and crawling at your feet. The small space and the resulting limited grandeur made the hyperbolic concept of an army of cats meeting once each year to choose one among them to ascend to the “Heavyside Layer” seem not so utterly ridiculous.
A decade later, another free ticket, another Cats – this time at Detroit’s Fisher Theatre with my dear friend Colleen whose husband Blaine is thrilled when I go see musicals with her that he doesn’t want to see. And I love Colleen, and I love musicals, and I love free stuff.
This production is a touring production of the recent Broadway revival (which starred a former Pussycat Doll, I think?) that is pretty much a carbon copy of Trevor Nunn’s original 1981 blockbuster. It’s fine. It’s weird. And it’s fine.
Production values are top notch – lighting is evocative and compelling, sound is Moog-synth lush, and the sets and props are cheekily “Incredible Shrinking Man”-sized to imply cat-proptioned human performers. Like any given Sunday of a touring production (we saw the 9/8 show … and it’s taken me this long to figure out what the hell to write), our performance was rife with understudies stepping up for their big moments in spandex and cat-face.
Notable performances last Sunday were turned in by understudy Zachary S. Berger as kitty major domo Munkustrap (at times it felt like he was auditioning for the part of Thomas Jefferson in 1776 … or Hamilton … and that’s a compliment; someone get him into one of those shows and out of a cat tail ASAP); Keri Rene Fuller as a suitably bedraggled and heartbreakingly left-out-in-the-cold Grizabella; Tion Gaston a moonbeam-on-gymnastic-steroids as Mistoffelees; Tony D’Alelio and understudy Erin Chupinsky as cute-as-button feline felons Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer; and Lexie Plath channeling her best vampy Christina Hendricks as Bombalurina. Bringing down the house, though, was Timothy Gulan as Gus (short for “Asparagus”) the Theatre Cat and Kaitlyn Davidson as his associate Jellylorum. Their second act number is literate, witty, deft, and sublime. Gulan even gets in a winking critique of the kind of theatre Cats itself represents when he croons, “Well, the theatre is certainly not what it was.”
[From the production’s Facebook page]
But, good lord! These damn character names! Trying to type that previous paragraph took me twenty minutes. And if I had heard the term “Jellicle Cat” one more time, I was likely to stand up in the theatre and scream, Network‘s Peter Finch-style, “I’m mad as hell and I can’t take any more!”
I enjoyed myself more at Cats than I should dare to admit in writing; in fact, the experience inspired me to put some hurt on the gift booth as I departed (including cat-eared baseball hats for me and for my parents), which led me to wondering why this thing has had the nine lives it has had. The show is sweet-natured, a warm and comforting spectacle, beautifully staged and orchestrated, befuddling but ultimately not particularly intellectually challenging, and, on the balance, a showcase of every kind of theatrical talent a performer could possibly possess.
[From the production’s Facebook page]
I think the secret weapon is the show’s second act. The first act is kind of a rambling mess, something about a “Jellicle” (d’oh!) ball and a potential death and far too many cat puns and metaphysical gobbledygook and … leotards. The second act distills the experience into a succession of fun, poignant, catchy-as-eff numbers with cleverly drawn characters: the aforementioned “Gus the Theatre Cat,” “Skimbleshanks, the Railway Cat,” “Macavity the Mystery Cat,” “Magical Mister Mistoffelees” (with some truly nifty lighting effects), and the ubiquitous “Memory” (which was the emotional gut punch Sunday that it needs to be – kudos to Keri Rene Fuller). So, yes, I’ve been humming all of these melodies in my head for about a week now and occasionally prancing through my living room like a very old and overweight tabby. That’s the power of Cats. Damn you, you odd little man, Andrew Lloyd Webber!
[From the production’s Facebook page]
From Broadway in Detroit: One of the biggest hits in theatrical history, Cats will come to Detroit from September 3-15, 2019 as part of a multi-season North American tour. Tickets for CATS start at $35 (includes facility and parking fees) and will go on sale Sunday, June 9. Tickets can be purchased online at www.broadwayindetroit.com or www.ticketmaster.com, and by phone at 800-982-2787. A limited number of premium seats will be available through Ticketmaster and at the Fisher Theatre box office. For group sales (12 or more) please call 313-871-1132 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Tickets for the open captioned and audio described performance may be purchased in person at the Fisher Theatre box office or by phone at 313-872-1000, ext. 0. Composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber and based on T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, the record-breaking musical has captivated audiences in over 30 countries and 15 languages, is now on tour across North America featuring new sound design, direction and choreography for a new generation.
[From the production’s Facebook page]
And now for the antithesis. Technically, one should not review a final dress rehearsal … but The Encore Musical Theatre Company’s current production of Fun Home, an industry preview of which I was invited to attend earlier this week, is transporting, heartbreaking, funny as hell, poignant, and beautifully crafted. So I’m breaking a cardinal rule of criticism! C’est la vie! The show opened at the theatre’s space in Dexter, Michigan, this past Thursday and runs through October 13.
From Encore’s description: “Fun Home is a musical adapted by Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori from Alison Bechdel’s 2006 graphic memoir of the same name. The story concerns Bechdel’s discovery of her own sexuality, her relationship with her gay father, and her attempts to unlock the mysteries surrounding his life. It is the first Broadway musical with a lesbian protagonist. It is told in a series of non-linear vignettes connected by narration provided by the adult Alison character.”
[From the production’s Facebook page]
Dan Cooney, Encore’s founder, returns from New York to play Bechdel’s complex, complicated, controlling, earnest, loving, maddening father Bruce. He brings such a haunted/hunting presence to this difficult role, always believable, relatable, and therefore that much more tragic, but never overbearing or villainous. It is a nuanced and deft portrayal of a broken human being, caught up in circumstance, selfishness, and unrealized potential, fully actualized on stage with sympathy yet appropriate critique. It is nigh impossible to play the unlikable on stage, but to do so in a way that garners empathy from the audience is a feat of magic. Kudos, Dan.
[From the production’s Facebook page]
Every bit his match is local firecracker Sarah Stevens. I’ve never seen a bad performance from her, every one unique, expertly crafted, and vibrant. Her adult version of Bechdel is in keeping with her track record, yet deceptively unassuming – a “Ghost of Christmas Present” who observes and comments on the proceedings, never once actually taking part (until one very powerful moment) but utterly shaping the audience’s perspective as the events unfold. It is a warm and gorgeous performance that will speak to any child of those families that espouse good intentions yet remain riddled with tragedies large and small – children who survive each day with equal parts laughter, art, artifice, and heartache.
Laura Etnier-Austin is particularly effective in the second act as long-suffering wife/mother Helen who finally has her moment of plain-spoken truth with her daughter (a luminous and very funny Grace Allyn as the college-aged Alison), and it is revelatory. The ensemble – including Monica Spencer, Tyler J. Messinger, and wonderfully natural child actors Joely Engelbert, Emmanuel Morgan, and Gavin Cooney – is magnificent as well – moving effortlessly from manic whimsy to quiet angst and back again.
[From the production’s Facebook page]
As always, the Encore makes effective use of their tight space, with a detailed set design that evokes the Bechdel’s historic home, cleverly adding a separate “parlor” in the wings (complete with period-perfect wallpaper) which features Tyler Driskill’s rock solid orchestra. It’s a wonderful touch that clues the audience upon arrival regarding the conscious theatricality of the show’s staging. Plus, it’s just darn nice to see Driskill and “the band” for once as they perform genius feats with a tricky score.
Real Men Wear Pink … I’m honored to have been selected to be part of this year’s “Detroit Class.”
Thank you to everyone who has contributed so far … you’ve helped me be the #1 fundraiser three weeks in a row (see rankings below!). But my competition is gaining on me. LOL. It’s all for a good cause. If you feel so inclined, your donation will do wonders: http://main.acsevents.org/goto/roysexton
I was invited by the Canton Chamber to join their monthly newsmagazine last week for a taping that should air soon – grateful to Executive Director Thomas Paden and wonderful Denise Staffeld, Megan Schaper, and Kevin Ryan for being part of #TeamRoy on this campaign! Denise captured some video with her iPhone of me singing “Pure Imagination” for the shoot – you can get a flavor here: https://youtu.be/DQ1vwiQuWe8
From American Cancer Society to the Real Men candidates: As a group you have already raised $13,653! Way to go! Detroit is currently #1 in Michigan and #37 in the Nation – to follow along with the top campaigns and the top Real Men click here. The American Cancer Society currently has 28 grants in Michigan totaling more than $14 million. There are ACS funded researchers at Henry Ford Health System, Michigan State University, University of Michigan, Van Andel Research Institute, Wayne State University and Western Michigan University. The success of the American Cancer Society grant program is exemplified by the fact that 47 American Cancer Society-funded researchers have received a Nobel Prize!
Detroit Top 10 Leaderboard
Roy Sexton – $2,888
PJ Jacokes – $1,673
Dr. Carlos Ramirez -$1,438
Jonathan Burt – $1,301
Brad Lukas – $1,286
Brendan Russow – $1,208
Mike Lawson – $1,190
Dave Spencer – $575
Jim Stocking – $450
John Hicks – $300
Magnificent Sue Booth (“Sally” to my “Buddy” in the upcoming “Follies”) in the upper left and lower right corners. And me with with talented and lovely Laurie Atwood middle right.
Stick to the stuff you know If you want to be cool Follow one simple rule Don’t mess with the flow, no no Stick to the status quo No, no, no Stick to the stuff you know It is better by far To keep things as they are Don’t mess with the flow, no no Stick to the status Stick to the status Stick to the status quo – “Stick to the Status Quo,” High School Musical
Watching The Ringwald Theatre’s production of Disney’s High School Musical alongside an avowed HSM superfan like my husband was as entertaining as the show itself. He did his best to stifle singing along to his favorite numbers, occasionally verbalizing key lines of dialogue before a character onstage would, frequently noting (dramaturgically) to me differences between the film and the stage version. I suspect this is what it is like attending Stratford’s Shakespeare Festival with a lifelong Bard scholar? It was all kinds of adorable.
No doubt John has his own review to offer, but this is my blog. While I don’t find the HSM trilogy without its charms (well, the first and third installments at least … the second film is the Voldemort of Disney Channel tee-vee musicals … best never invoked again), I think the movies could stand a bit of tinkering, revising, and revisiting. And, in recent news emanating from last week’s D23 convention, it sounds like the Mouse House agrees.
While the HSM franchise gave us the gift that keeps on giving in Zac Efron, it also left a legacy a with a generation of twenty-somethings that it is good to be different, that you must never constrain yourself by the labels teachers/parents/friends slap upon you, and that singing show tunes is good for the soul … even in the middle of a crowded cafeteria. Whether you loved high school or really hated it, the movies speak in a cuddly and antiseptic way to the toxic socioeconomic hothouse that is public education in this country and how all of us are shaped for better or worse by the twelve years we spent there. “True terror is to wake up one morning and discover that your high school class is running the country.” – Kurt Vonnegut
Matthew Wallace as Troy and Jordan Gagnon as Gabriella
As metaphor for inclusion and a fun platform for camp, HSM is a pretty genius choice for The Ringwald, whose stock in trade is as much John Waters as it is Stephen Sondheim. When I bought these tickets, I did so as a gift for John but also for myself as I was genuinely curious how they’d approach the show. I’m happy to report that the Ringwald’s team pulls it off in their shaggy dog, Mickey-and-Judy-are-putting-on-a-show fashion, with exceptional vocals, high energy, and (mostly) just the right amount of wink-and-nudge.
The plot is paper thin but nonetheless lovely: a science-loving girl (“Gabriella Montez”) and a basketball “jock” (“Troy Bolton”) discover their mutual love of show tunes on a mid-winter ski trip, and turn their high school “status quo” upside down by auditioning for the spring musical. It’s a slight but surprisingly subversive conceit, compounded by the fact that the “villains” of the piece – Sharpay and her doting brother Ryan (think The Carpenters, just as weirdly incestuous, but with blond hair, pink plaid outfits, and body glitter) – are the theatre kids, overly protective of their turf and their small corner of high school performative heaven. Anyone who’s worked in theatre in any aspect will view this duo with a knowing smile. The theatre community waves the flag of inclusion and understanding … until you step outside your “lane” or win a role someone else has coveted or challenge the artistic certitude of another.
Kevin Keller as Jack Scott
The Ringwald’s production, populated as it is by a cast who, for the most part, would have been in elementary school when High School Musical debuted in 2006, is pleasantly reverential to the material, while not taking any of it too damn seriously. It’s a high wire act that I found, quite frankly, refreshing. Playing double duty as director and actor (“Coach Jack Bolton”), Brandy Joe Plambeck takes a breezy, frothy approach to the material, aided and abetted by his real-life husband Joe Bailey in the role of Sharpay. In Bailey’s hands, Sharpay is both comic and poignant, never shrill, and just the right side of arch. Bailey knows that a middle-aged man playing a heartbreakingly spoiled high school theatre diva is pretty damn funny in and of itself and that layering on any meta commentary or turning up his nose at the material would sink the show and his performance. It’s smart and it’s fun, and Bailey alongside his “brother” Ryan (Christopher Ross-Dybash exuding sunshine) are a hoot.
Similarly, frequent Ringwald player Jordan Gagnon brings a nicely grounded whimsy to Gabriella. In her program bio, she writes that she is “excited to be living out [my] childhood fantasies of playing Gabriella.” For the young people in this cast, I suspect HSM is to them what Bye Bye Birdie, Grease, or Mamma Mia! are to other generations. Gagnon’s affection for the material is evident. The actor knows the enterprise is a bit silly but treats it as the heightened reality it is, and Gagnon strikes just that perfect balance of nodding to the audience while believing in her bones that she is a marginalized high schooler finding her true voice in life and love. She’s a delight to watch.
Matthew Wallace as Troy
Gagnon’s real-life boyfriend Matthew Wallace (I’m not telling tales … it’s in the marketing materials for the production) plays Troy. He is at his best when it is just the two of them onstage. There is an easy comfort to their onstage dynamics that really sells their numbers. I would encourage Wallace to find that same ease in the rest of the production. He has been exceptional in productions like The Dio’s Forever Plaid and The Ringwald’s own Merrily We Roll Along. Here, however, his physicality and high energy run the risk of commenting upon the material and distancing himself from it, as opposed to immersing himself in the goofy joy of the narrative. Wallace has a fabulous voice, and he and Gagnon are so good together onstage, but Wallace at times seems to be accentuating the stereotype of the thick-headed high school athlete as opposed to realizing the point of the piece is to gently, lovingly undermine those stereotypes.
The ensemble is damn terrific, selling the big group numbers in Ringwald’s tiny space, and energizing the audience with their unbridled enthusiasm for the score. Music director Lily Belle Czartorski and choreographer Molly Zaleski have great fun with the “pop” nature of this material, and their cast rises to the challenge. Standouts are Rashna “Rashi” Sarwar as “Taylor McKessie” and Geoffrey Schwerin as “Zeke Baylor,” both of whom squeeze every bit of juice from their limited stage moments, crafting memorable, lovable, vibrant characters. Tyler Goethe also deserves a shout out for nailing every bit of the choreography – again, note that I was sitting beside a “superfan” and it was not lost on him (or me) that Tyler was on point with every single move and was utterly present throughout. Wendy Cave plays “Kelsi Nielsen,” the resident high school songsmith, awfully big. She lands great laughs, but she also skates on the edge of commentary as opposed to immersion.
Having the time of their lives onstage are the aforementioned Plambeck as “Coach” and Suzan M. Jacokes as drama teacher “Ms. Darbus,” two educators whose dreams deferred manifest in ugly rivalries and provincial manipulations, all nobly disguised as wanting “what’s best” for their charges. If there was dramatic metaphor for the crises, both large and small, of today, it’s this. Jacokes and Plambeck are great fun in their short scenes together.
Costuming by Vince Kelley is just as one would hope, mirroring without shamelessly imitating the iconic garb of the original film. I want to give a special call out to the show’s marketing materials, as well, which evoke the look and feel of the original film’s poster and set the right tone for what to expect, as does the pre-show music: “Kidz Bop” versions of early-aughts pop music hits. Hysterical! The new lighting array at The Ringwald is a welcome upgrade with Plambeck making great use of gels and specials to maximize the understandably understated set design by Stephen Carpenter, a pitch perfect “Wildcat” logo prominent throughout.
For those wondering: yes, The Ringwald’s version of High School Musical is family-friendly, but with plenty of acknowledgment to any adults in the audience that this is all one big lark, albeit one with a really nifty message of inclusion and acceptance. If you aren’t tapping your feet or dancing in the aisles during the “We’re All In This Together” finale, well, there’s just no hope for you!
Everyone is special in their own way
We make each other strong (we make each other strong)
About 20 years ago, someone described me as a “Midwestern Backstreet Boy.” I think it was meant as a put down, although if someone called me that now, I would be thrilled. To this day, I’m still not sure what it meant, other than like every kid my age in 1999, I had overly spiky hair and an under-developed fashion sense that rested somewhere between that of Chandler Bing and of Vanilla Ice … by way of JCPenney.
Twenty (!) years later, the Backstreet Boys are still touring, all of them about my age, and the teenagers and 20-somethings who once screamed with rabid adoration are now (cough) middle-aged, debt-ridden, maybe a bit paunchy, and prone to sit during all but the most popular numbers, dutifully capturing every moment on their eerily glowing iPhones, grainy footage never to be viewed again.
I admit *NSYNC was always more my speed, and I have followed Justin Timberlake’s career with some unearned pride, like a racehorse upon whom I had inadvertently placed the right bet. And my husband and I have somehow fallen into the habit of becoming latter-day 98° groupies, to the point the band members actually recognize us when we show up at meet and greets. Heaven help us.
So I went into tonight’s DNA World Tour stop of The Backstreet Boys at Detroit’s Little Caesars Arena with some trepidation. My friend Nikki bought these tickets what seems like a year ago, when their new album DNA was released. I was pleasantly surprised by the songs on that record, which showed a hard won humility and remarkable amount of sophistication, but I admit I hadn’t listened to it after the first couple of plays and had forgotten most of the new music. That was a mistake on my part, and I would advise anyone seeing the show to re-familiarize themselves with that album. It will help your enjoyment immensely.
Much of the first half of the show comes from that album, but DNA’s nuance gets lost in the cavernous environment of an arena. That’s a shame. The Boys might have been smart to take this album on a club tour, not unlike the one “Madame X” Madonna is launching soon. Nonetheless, I was struck by the incredible vocal prowess of the quintet, who sang live throughout, full voiced and powerful. – the rare a cappella number being a particular showcase of their skills.
The set design was unremarkable, but perfectly reasonable for the setting. Replete with digital screens and glowing geometric shapes, the set did not detract, although it did not add much either. Choreography was also at a minimum, essentially The Boys strutting around a trapezoidal catwalk while wearing various shades of what appeared to be military fatigues as designed by Mad Max. To their credit, they avoided all of the modern rock tour clichés like aerial gymnastics or platforms that float out above the audience.
My mother has a couple of things she says about performers these days. She will look at stars around my age and say, “I don’t understand why they are famous. They look like they would come fix my sink.” And “Why can’t singers just stand still and sing anymore?” I suspect she would’ve said both things during this show, and when The Boys did just stand still and sing, vocals layered with silky harmonies and overly earnest delivery, they were at their best.
Band members Kevin Richardson and AJ McLean offered the most pleasant surprises of the night, the former acquitting himself as a remarkably able comic raconteur and the latter demonstrating an earthy, bluesy grit to his singing that I don’t recall from 20 years ago. I’d like someone to give this duo their own variety show post haste.
All of that said, The Boys’ strongest material has always been their carnivalesque, slightly garish, day glo uptempo numbers – “Larger Than Life, “Backstreet’s Back (Alright),” and last year’s pulsating hit “Don’t Go Breakin’ My Heart.” Wisely, they close the show with those hits in a foot stomping rave up that has even the most world-weary Gen X’er fist-pumping like it’s 1999 again. And that alone is worth the price of admission.