“Modulating to the Stars” – The Dio’s Forever Plaid … Plus, Aaron C. Wade’s Possessive and Purple Rose’s Harvey

Matthew Wallace, James Fischer, Steve DeBruyne, Angel Velasco as The Plaids [Image source: The Dio’s Facebook page]

In our household, we really dig The Dio – Livingston County, Michigan’s professional dinner theatre, a true labor of love from Steve DeBruyne and Matthew Tomich. The company recently received a boatload of well-deserved Wilde Award Nominations for recent productions The Bridges of Madison County and The Last Five Years, including nominations for DeBruyne and Tomich themselves individually. (I’m looking forward to co-hosting the upcoming awards night on August 28 with my partner-in-shenanigans EncoreMichigan.com‘s publisher David Kiley.)

So John and I, who had both seen separate productions of the musical revue Forever Plaid about twenty years ago (mine in Columbus, Ohio and starring my delightfully talented buddy Joey Landwehr, and John’s in Ferndale, Michigan), have been eagerly awaiting The Dio’s production. I am happy to report that The Dio’s version honors the storied musical, infusing lovely grace notes of anarchy and poignancy that neither John nor I recalled noticing before.

Directed with graceful efficiency by DeBruyne and ably assisted by Dan Morrison (another Wilde nominee – I’m sensing a trend here), The Dio’s Forever Plaid clocks in at a brisk 90 minutes (not including the dinner service beforehand).

Crisp music direction to bring out the lush harmonies and to keep pace with the mile-a-minute medleys is crucial, and Brian Rose (who also gets pulled into the onstage hijinks) meets and exceeds that requirement.

Our friends Rob Zannini and Aaron Latham joined us. Aaron once served as house manager for Andy Williams’ Branson theatre, so he had LOTS of fun insight into this show’s era!

Costume designer Norma Polk gives the Plaids just the right touch of mid-century charm. And Tomich, as always, does a masterful job, leveraging lighting, set, and sound design to make The Dio’s challenging space work beautifully for the show’s unique needs, in this case a nightclub just beyond the Pearly Gates.

The conceit of Forever Plaid is that a quartet of harmonizing AV nerds – who have more affinity for AM-radio staples like Perry Como and Harry Belafonte than for The Beatles or Elvis Presley – are struck down by a busload of Catholic schoolgirls, schoolgirls who are on their way to catch The Beatles’ American debut on The Ed Sullivan Show.

The Plaids were en route to record their first album, but, due to said unfortunate bus collision, they end up in heaven (or some Copacabana proximity of it) to play their final concert, just as America is switching its radio dials from light frothy pop to jangly/jarring rock-n-roll.

The Dio’s cast not only nails the smooth sounds of late 50s boy bands, but they deliver rich characterizations that are as hysterical as they are heartbreaking. As group leader Franky, DeBruyne is the consummate “big brother” – a loving, occasionally frazzled asthmatic, keeping the other three from spinning into apoplexy, aided and abetted by his trusty inhaler. “We will modulate to the stars,” he enthuses in one of his many pep talks to the boys.

Akin to the lovechild of Clark Gregg (Agents of SHIELD) and John Leguizamo, Angel Velasco is a delight as nosebleed prone Jinx, whose debilitating shyness melts away when he gets his brief moment in the spotlight.

James Fischer is a gleeful mix of smarm and charm as Sparky, who can barely master the au courant Spanish lyrics of “Perfidia” when they are written on his hand.

And Matthew Wallace is a tear-jerking ball of sunshine as the bespectacled Smudge, whose escape into the vinyl grooves of his beloved 45 collection (which he carries everywhere in a beat-up suitcase, complete with a not-so-hidden Mickey Mouse decal) gives the show its sweet/sad center.

Wallace, Fischer, DeBruyne, Velasco [Image source: The Dio’s Facebook page]

Anyone who appreciates this era of music (as I do) will geek out over the set list, which includes “Three Coins in the Fountain,” “Undecided,” “Magic Moments,” “Catch a Falling Star,” “Sixteen Tons,” and so on. All are delivered with an admirable balance of reverence and cheek, with subtle-but-damn-funny choreography that winks at the twee style these classic guy groups exemplified.

Showstopper “Lady of Spain,” toward the show’s conclusion, is staged as a salute to The Ed Sullivan Show, complete with references to Topo Gigio, Senor Wences, and the entire “really big shoooow” gang. Sadly, this thought crossed my mind: “In ten years, if someone does this show again, will anyone in the audience know what the hell is going on during this sequence.” Dammit.

The Dio’s Forever Plaid wraps the performer’s nightmare in a gauzy blend of nostalgia, satire, and candy-sweet harmonies. For those who feel marginalized by the status quo, standing before an audience and opening your heart through the magic of lyrics and melody is a revelation, and to have it all taken away in an instant is as tragic as can be. Kudos to this production for honoring the silly escapism of the show while embracing its darker underscore. That is a rich harmony, indeed.

One more weekend to see Forever Plaid at The Dio. And get your tickets now as the last several performances have been sold out.

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[Image source: Possessive’s Facebook page]

If the Plaids share an aspirational obsession with achieving “that perfect chord,” the characters in Aaron C. Wade’s directorial film debut Possessive suffer from a more debilitating and prurient kind of obsession. Wade was our exceptional properties master on Ann Arbor Civic’s recent production of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and he did double (and triple) duty as our show photographer and videographer. Needless to say, I’m a fan.

His first film reveals exceptional potential for crafting cinematic narrative that is as compelling as it is repulsive. That’s a compliment, by the way, and I’m pretty certain he will be quite thrilled with that assessment.

You can find out more about his film by checking out the fan page here, where you will also find a link to the full film as well as updates on its upcoming DVD release. The film’s description reads, “The film Possessive is a romantic thriller story about a man with a well-hidden deviant core and a mentally unstable woman who claims him for her own.” Yup, and then some!

I won’t spoil any of the twists and turns Wade has in store for Possessive‘s viewers, but he has written a script that is as raw as it is confessional. He frames each scene with a visceral immediacy that is remarkably discomforting, and he has cast the production with an eclectic and talented team of local unknowns who exhibit a brave and impressive lack of vanity. Wade’s leads Sarah Lovy and Terence Cover (“Donald Reagan”) wring every bit of bruise black satire from this tragicomedy – two lost souls whose fetishized obsessions with the details of each other’s lives prevent them from ever actually knowing one another.

I look forward to seeing Wade’s future work. He is one to watch. And how great that we have so much remarkable local talent willing to share their gifts with the world.

(Check out Aaron’s assessment of Fenton Village Players’ current production of Thoroughly Modern Millie here.)

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[Image source: The Purple Rose’s Facebook page]

Finally, here is another kind of obsession – the affection of Elwood P. Dowd for his invisible friend “Harvey,” a six-foot, three-and-one-half-inch tall “pooka” who takes the form of an anthropomorphic rabbit in Mary Chase’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name.

Currently, Chelsea, Michigan’s Purple Rose Theatre (also nominated for a number of Wilde Awards) is performing this theatrical classic. I have not yet seen it, but the reviews have been stellar.

That said, I wanted to give a shout out to my former St. Joseph Mercy Health System colleague Jaclyn Klein who organized a remarkable talk back after the Sunday, July 16 matinee performance. Members of the cast and crew alongside St. Joseph Mercy Chelsea Hospital physicians discussed how attitudes toward mental health have changed for the better (or worse) since the play debuted in 1945. The presentation, ably facilitated by local news personality Lila Lazarus, was live streamed on Facebook. You can catch the video here. Kudos to all!

Harvey runs through August 26, and tickets can be purchased here.

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Everybody loves The Dio! Ran into my Xanadu/Urinetown castmate Paige Martin and Urinetown castmate Maika Van Oosterhout at the performance

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital).

In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

“I act because it compels…” The Penny Seats’ upcoming production of Elektra

“…The audience is being given the gift of live theater. Films do not ask from us in their enacting, a film can merrily play out to an empty room, but the very beauty of live theater is the human exchange. Without that sense, it is dead.”

– Emily Miller Mlcak

(Mlcak is a beloved professor from my undergraduate days at Wabash College, and she wrote this in response to “scha·den·freu·de.”)

Elektra cast photo by Dawn Marie Kaczmar

Elektra cast photo by Dawn Marie Kaczmar

These words rang in my ears the other week when I crashed a rehearsal of The Penny Seats’ summer production Elektra (as adapted by Ann Arbor’s own Anne Carson) for a sneak peek of the glorious mayhem that is sure to delight audiences at the West Park Band Shell July 10 – 26.

In the spirit of transparency (oh, how I do hate that overused expression), I am one of the founders of The Penny Seats, and I held featured roles in the company’s first slate of offerings: Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet), What Corbin Knew, She Loves Me, and Little Me. However, to reclaim some balance in my personal life, I stepped off the board last year and am just a blissfully unencumbered theatre-goer this summer.

(I think I’d be pretty lousy in Greek tragedy anyway – my cheesy musical comedy shtick would likely grate in the world of Sophocles.)

“The very beauty of live theater is the human exchange.” From what I saw of Elektra’s opening scenes, that quality is evident by the bucket-ful. Portraying the title character, Ypsilanti’s Emily Caffery, who recently appeared onstage at both Performance Network and Two Muses Theatre, captures the visceral heartache of a daughter betrayed as her family unravels before her very eyes.

For those unfamiliar with the tragedy, Elektra details the revenge scheme the title character and her brother Orestes exact upon their mother Clytemnestra and step father Aegisthus, in retribution for father Agamemnon’s murder. The action takes place in Argos, shortly after the Trojan War.

Caffery, a student of the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Theater Institute, notes, “This translation is not stuffy. The piece is very recognizably human. It is immediate and real, and I am using the text as much as possible to bring each image to life.” Indeed, her Elektra is violent yet empathetic, adrift yet fierce, inconsolable yet laser-focused … Dorothy Gale by way of Katniss Everdeen.

The yin to Caffery’s theatrical yang is Sonja Marquis as Elektra’s soccer-mommy-from-hell Clytemnestra. Marquis, a resident of Brighton, has worked at Tipping Point, Purple Rose, Encore, Two Muses, and The Ringwald among many other local theatre companies. “Don’t be scared of the Greek mythology. You’ll find lots to enjoy,” Marquis observes. “Clytemnestra is painted as a villain, but I don’t judge her. As an actor, I look for the justification … Elektra’s father killed my child [Iphigenia, sacrificed to the gods before the play begins]. Obviously, Elektra sees it differently, but why wouldn’t Clytemnestra be angry?”

Marquis quickly adds, with a hearty laugh, “But don’t worry … I definitely haven’t identified with my character’s villainy that much!”

Remaining cast members include Samer Ajluni (“Old Man”/“Aegisthus”), Scott Wilding (“Orestes”), DeAnnah Kleitz-Singleton, Sarah Lovy, Katherine Nelson, and Kez Settle. Like Marquis and Caffery, these accomplished thespians have all appeared in venues across Southeast Michigan: Hillberry Theater, Abreact Performance Space, Waterworks, Wild Swan, Planet Ant, JET, and more.

Director Russ Schwartz along with assistant director JP Hitesman are mining the material for contemporary resonance – familial discord, jealousy, anxiety in wartime, sexism, ageism – and are layering in a light amount of cheekiness to keep their audience engaged (and to highlight the darkness that much better). For example, keep your ears open for Ajluni’s marvelously witty take on the expository tale of Orestes’ “death” by chariot race – imagine Ben-Hur as told by an announcer at the Belmont Stakes.

Ajluni, who calls Farmington Hills home, is savvy to the challenges of outdoor theatre. (Elektra will not only be performed outdoors, but the production will take full advantage of all the space surrounding the West Park Band Shell.) “I once did a show in Central Park, and you get a different feel every show. Focus is key,” notes the actor, adding that playing two very different characters “lets you do something far from yourself. … I love when the Old Man gets to be the voice of the audience, telling the characters, ‘Stop giving so many speeches!’”

Lovy, who plays Pylades, a mute boy, chuckles, “I like that they gave me a chance to do drag! Seriously, though, plays like this are important for education. I was introduced at a young age to the classics. That exposure has helped me relate to daily life, family dynamics, and themes. I’m really grateful for that. … I’m the eyes and ears of the show, and I can’t let on what I know or the whole family will blow up”

Settle, one half of the show’s Greek chorus, concurs, “We are there to influence the outcome. We have a job to do … but we are ethereal beings performing a delicate dance between justice and vengeance.”

Nelson, Settle’s fellow chorus member, elaborates, “Ancient Greece is where theatre started, and it continues as a source of great drama with plots as extreme as any summer blockbuster. In our daily lives, we are all so worried about being calm and polite, but a show like this? You can really cut loose.”

With such a fun, fizzy, and damn erudite cast, Schwartz is grateful for this summertime collaboration and echoes his actors’ perspectives. “This show and this cast are so perfect for the space. This is different than anything The Penny Seats have done before, and we wanted to expand our direction a bit.”

Hitesman adds, “This is challenging stuff … very active. The relationships are so intense, like a real family, and working on this reminds you how much the Greek classics have influenced today’s theatre, film, TV.”

Schwartz concludes, “Carson’s adaptation gets to the spirit of what modern audiences will appreciate. It is very immediate and draws you in. If you’ve been away from Greek drama for a while, this show is a great way to reconnect … and if you’ve never seen a Greek tragedy, this is the one for you. Immediate and relatable.”

In the play’s opening scene, Elektra declares, “I act because it compels.” In the context of the play, this proclamation indicates an urgency of movement, but, witnessing this intrepid band of actors exercise their talents, these words take on double meaning. Indeed, they do act because the very doing compels – compels the hearts and minds of both performers and audience. And I, for one, can’t wait to see the finished results!

Elektra opens July 10 and runs through July 26. Shows are Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 7 pm, and tickets are $10 per person. You can purchase tickets at www.pennyseats.org or by calling (734) 926-5346. Patrons may want to may want to bring blankets or camp chairs to sit on, as the tiered seating around the pavilion does not have back support. The company has partnered with a local caterer to have food on-site, and picnicking (beginning at 5:30 pm performance nights) is encouraged.

[This piece first appeared on BroadwayWorld here – I appreciate their wonderful support!]

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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.