“We may be essential workers but we aren’t expendable.” Theatre Nova’s “I’m Streaming of an ALRIGHT Christmas” and The Ringwald’s “Have Yourself a MISERY Little Christmas”

2020. The artifacts of this momentous tire-fire of a year will be fascinating to view years from now. For all of the foolishness afoot in America these days, there has also been incredible ingenuity and anxiety-induced whimsy to spare.

Our Southeast Michigan theatre community rallied to find new ways to entertain, distract, and survive this year, employing ubiquitous Zoom technology to reinvent the much-needed art of storytelling.

Ann Arbor’s Theatre Nova has reimagined its annual holiday panto tradition for this new era with sublime results. I’m Streaming of an ALRIGHT Christmas is, intentionally or not, a delightful throwback to children’s variety shows of the 1980s like Pee Wee’s Playhouse or Pryor’s Place.

Written by Carla Milarch and and R MacKenzie Lewis (who serves double duty as music director), the free-wheeling hour (just the right length!) features multi-talented David Moan, Mike Sandusky, Monica Spencer, and Charles the Puppy, with a cameo performance by a famous mystery guest (clue: “fairy ex machina”).

The story, borrowing liberally from holiday classics like Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, follows the footprint of so many tv-specials of yore, as Santa, Rudolph, Friendly the Elf, Mrs. Claus (Sandusky is a Madealike, culinarily-challenged scream here), Yukon Cornelius, the Abominable Snowman, and an adorable puppy, yes, try to “save Christmas,” this year from the “Rona Monster” (bearing an uncanny resemblance to Philly sports mascot “Gritty”). Spencer’s Friendly and Sandusky’s Rudolph exclaim early on, “We may be essential workers but we aren’t expendable!”

Sandusky

While the “Rona Monster” concept may seem a bit too on-the-nose given what we are all living through, it ends up being just the right parable for these tricky times. The script is loaded with zany references that both adults and children will enjoy, not shying away from a political pot shot or two. And the daffy and delightful musical numbers are plentiful, with nods to The Knack (lead singer of which was none other than Detroit native son and Geoffrey Fieger-sibling Doug Fieger), Les Miserables, Hamilton, and … Buck Owens (!) among others. Moan shines in a “Bring Him Home” moment that not only captures his soaring vocals and incredible musicality but also his deft comic timing.

The show is winsome and sweet and nicely avails itself of the interactivity that the Zoom platform provides. There are many moments for the kids to get involved, kind of a 21st-century version of clapping to bring Tinker Bell back to life. This show is well worth your time not to mention your investment in supporting one of our most creative local theater companies.

And speaking of fab local theater companies that exude cleverness and irreverence, The Ringwald brings us Have Yourself a MISERY Little Christmas in their inimitable style. Directed by Brandy Joe Plambeck with a smart, economical eye, the production showcases a dynamite Joe Bailey as a Santa whose “biggest fan” Annie Willis (Suzan M. Jacokes aiming for the rafters and nailing Kathy Bates in a brilliant parody performance) cares for him after a sleigh mishap.

Ringwald newcomer Aurora Boarealis Pigdon plays Annie’s pet pig and (arguably) steals the entire show

From The Ringwald’s website: “Written by Ringwald favorites Vince Kelley and Matthew Arrington … [the show] tells the story of Annie Willis, a lonely (slightly psychotic?) woman who lives in a remote cabin in Colorado. When she discovers a wrecked sleigh during a blizzard, she hauls the sole survivor back to her house to tend to him. When she discovers her patient is none other than St. Nick himself, Annie can’t believe her luck and she tries to persuade Santa to rewrite his Naughty and Nice lists to her liking. Will Santa’s Number One Fan succeed?”

Dyan Bailey is great boozy fun as Mrs. Claus, and Kelley vamps it up as Lauren Bacall. Production values are top notch, fully embracing The Ringwald’s unsung super powers around video design, editing, and execution. The cinematography and scenic design are polished and really add to the enjoyment. Unlike Theatre Nova’s offering, this one isn’t *quite* for kiddos, although teenagers of a certain satiric bent would adore it.

Bailey and Jacokes

The Ringwald is offering a bonus holiday cabaret, and, at a brisk and breezy 30 minutes, it is well worth a viewing. Again, from their website: “Also included with your ticket is the The Ringwald Holiday Cabaret, a new virtual cabaret with some of your favorite holiday melodies. The cabaret features Ringwald favorites: Kryssy Becker, Alisa Marie Chirco, Jordan Gagnon, Dante Hill, Christopher Kamm, Vince Kelley, Richard Payton, and Matthew Wallace. The cabaret is accompanied by Jeremy St. Martin.” Payton, Kamm, Gagnon, and Becker are particular standouts, with engaging delivery, articulating nicely the heartache and pathos underlying the “HAP-happiest time of the year.”

Both productions are streaming online. Theatre Nova’s performances are scheduled in order to maximize the interactivity, and The Ringwald’s show is video-on-demand. Ticket details follow…

I’M STREAMING OF AN ALRIGHT CHRISTMAS

Sun, Dec 20 5pm
Wed, Dec 23 7pm
Thurs, Dec 24 7pm
Sat, Dec 26 11am & 2pm
Sun, Dec 27 5pm

GET TICKETS HERE. Ticket holders will receive a link to click on to view and maybe even participate in the fun! Tickets are $10 (one viewer), $15 (two people), and $25 (family).

Have Yourself a MISERY Little Christmas

Tickets for Have Yourself a MISERY Little Christmas are available at three different giving levels: $20, $50, and $100. Performances stream December 4-31. Purchase here.

Once you purchase your ticket, an email will be sent to you which will include links for Have Yourself a MISERY Little Christmas, a virtual program, and a special bonus video, The Ringwald Holiday Cabaret. All of the videos are hosted on Vimeo. You can watch these on your phone/computer/tablet or, if you have the capability, you can stream them to your smart TV. (You can follow these steps to make it work).

The Sweetest Sounds” (click title for my rendition) from Richard Rodgers’ No Strings (later repurposed for the 1997 ABC/Disney television production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella with Brandy and Whitney Houston) … Want to join me in supporting a good cause? For my birthday this month (December 28 to be exact!), I’m raising money for Ronald McDonald House Charities Ann Arbor and your contribution will make an impact, whether you donate $5 or $500. Just click donate on this fundraising page: https://lnkd.in/eQ_NVZD

I’m a proud board member and have seen firsthand how every little bit helps. This little fundraiser is nearing the $3000 mark because of wonderful support from kind and generous friends like you! #keepingfamiliesclose

“The Sweetest Sounds” from No Strings
Charles the Puppy
Moan, Sandusky, Spencer

“Smells like Marlboros and farts.” Planet Ant Theatre premieres Who Run the World

Originally published by EncoreMichigan

We live in fraught, absurdist political times. Kurt Vonnegut couldn’t even have anticipated how off-the-charts bonkers our reality show polarization has become. So, there is a timely, refreshing, and essential concept at the heart of Planet Ant’s latest original work Who Run the World – taking its title from the pop-feminist anthem  “Run the World (Girls)” by that ubiquitous purveyor of hard lemonade Beyoncé.

The show – written from what appears to be a series of free-wheeling improv exercises by director Lauren Bickers and her unrestrained cast Dyan Bailey, Suzan Jacokes, Esther Nevarez, Scott Sanford, Caitlyn Shea, and Sarah Wilder – is an interesting conceit. What will be the logical (and comically tragic) progression of our society by 2040 if we continue down this Red State/Blue State, feminist/antifeminist, extreme left/alt-right striated path?

Cast of Who Run the World (Photo by Scott Myers)

In the evening’s most effective and crispest moments, a series of video montages (created by Bailey, who used a similar technique in The Ringwald’s concurrently running production Merrily We Roll Along) bring the audience up-to-speed on world events from 2018 to 2040. America is rocked by a series of increasingly extreme political swings – President Oprah Winfrey succeeds President Donald Trump; she is, in turn, defeated by President Donald Trump, Jr.; he is ousted by President Ellen DeGeneres who is overtaken by Prezident Kid Rock (who didn’t even know he was running). A full out gender war erupts, centered around a network of Target stores, and eventually the women prove victorious driving unenlightened men into a series of, yes, “man caves.”

The gynocentric society, on the surface, seems practically perfect in every way: work/life balance, a presidential cabinet made up of bureaucrats dedicated to peace and culture and comfort, and omnipresent “dance breaks” set to the strains of Black Box’s “Everybody, Everybody.”

I admit my other favorite aspect of the show was the pre-show music/scene interludes, which all seemed to be emanating from my own personal iTunes collection. Any time I hear Madonna’s “Human Nature” during a performance (which has been … never … up-until-now), I’m a happy boy. “I’m not your b*tch. Don’t hang your sh*t on me.”

It’s unfortunate, then, that the actual show doesn’t quite live up to the promise of its surreal high concept. The performers–playing both the aforementioned cabinet members as well as a series of mulleted, flannel-wearing male denizens of the underground–should be commended for the ferocity and BIG energy with which they attack the material, but many scenes seem unrehearsed, perhaps even improvised on the spot, which clashes with the slick and professional nature of the video narrative. Further, the production seems to exist at three decibel levels: loud, louder, and loudest. For such an intimate space, this flattens the proceedings, giving the show an extended “skit-like” quality. When the cast is all present onstage, there is such a cacophony of voices and movement, it is at times difficult to discern exactly what is transpiring.

Dyan Bailey, Scott Sanford (Photo by Scott Myers)

There are many funny lines but they are lost as the actors’ articulation isn’t always up to snuff. Or clever quips are delivered with the blunt force of an anvil striking the audience on its collective head, losing the wry, satirical touch that would make them really zing. For example, one particular “man cave” is described as smelling like “Marlboros and farts.” The line made me chuckle, not from its actual delivery, but from its potential.

That is not to say that everyone involved doesn’t have their moments. Dyan Bailey has great fun channeling Kathleen Turner- meets-Donald Trump-meets-Ernst-Blofeld as societal matriarch Kameela Toriana (Department of Appearance and Diplomacy). There isn’t a piece of Jennifer Maiseloff’s underdeveloped scenery she won’t chew (her use of an exercise ball as her throne was particularly effective and amusing), and Bailey’s sheer force-of-hurricane-gale-will keeps the show moving apace.

Caitlyn Shea offers the closest thing to character progression in her shrinking violet-turned-Norma Rae Tracee McAllister (Director of Unpacking), who brings some nuance to the cartoon-like proceedings and revels in her character’s whiplash-inducing turns of personality.

The remaining cast members have some zippy moments, particularly when each goes to the “man cave” of Scott Sanford’s Addison Houser to explore their respective vices. There is an interesting narrative sequence to explore in these scenes if Planet Ant continues to develop the piece. These “vice visits” form a kind of Faustian compact – not dissimilar to Jack Nicholson’s increasingly menacing trips to commiserate with the spectral barkeep in The Shining – wherein the characters discover their true selves and the balance they’ve lost amidst political extremes. If the Who Run the World team works on refining those scenes, that sequence could provide much-needed narrative spark and character development to the play.

I may not be the right audience for what Planet Ant does. The full-house on opening night roared with laughter and approval, particularly as the show escalated further into Saturday Night Live territory or when actors riffed off-script due to a missed light cue or misplaced prop.

As an aside, when I bring my friend Lauren to a show, there seems to be an ironic bit of foreshadowing in our pre-show dinner conversation. I held forth at Green Space Café about how I just didn’t get “improv” and often found the humor therein a bit of a “stretch” for my linear sensibilities. As we watched Who Run the World, which I hadn’t realized was improv-based until I read the program immediately prior (shame on me), it reminded me that, at least for this viewer, I prefer a tightly rehearsed show with clear and nuanced character delineation, levels, and timing. I offer this to say that if you are a fan of improv, you might really dig Who Run the World … and I’m just a crabby fuddy duddy.

That said, I suspect there is a really sharp 45-minute piece buried somewhere in Who Run the World’s two-hour run time. With some Draconian editing, the show could be just the tonic our troubled times need. I, for one, crave a new Crucible, Children’s Hour, or, hell, Book of Mormon for this MAGA vs. #MeToo cultural dumpster fire in which we are currently living. Who Run the World ain’t it yet … but with some work, it might be.

_______________________

Lauren Crocker, Roy Sexton – opening night of Who Run the World

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.