“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.

“They are either working … or looking out their windows.” The Dio’s production of The Bridges of Madison County: The Musical

Jon McHatton and Marlene Inman

There is something special happening in Pinckney, Michigan. In a downtown storefront, The Dio – Dining and Entertainment is steadily providing night after night of polished professional theatrical performance accompanied by exceptional dinner service, lovely ambiance, and a heartwarming sense of community.

The company’s latest production is The Bridges of Madison County, the 2014 Tony Award-winning musical by Jason Robert Brown (The Last Five Years, Honeymoon in Vegas, Parade) and Marsha Norman (‘night Mother, The Secret Garden, The Color Purple). This was our first foray to The Dio, and we will definitely be returning for future shows. Yes (in the spirit of transparency), we were there to support beloved theatre pals, but, with all the objectivity I can muster, The Dio’s Bridges is a music box marvel not to be missed. (We also absolutely adored the new friends we made: Kurt and Becky, our dinner companions at Table 4!)

I’ve not read the source novel by Robert James Waller (the three-hankie, tear-jerking book club mania that surrounded its release gave me the heebie jeebies … and I blame its runaway success for inflicting Nicholas Sparks upon modern literary best seller lists), and the film bored me silly with Meryl Streep doing her darndest to channel Anna Magnani up against the splintery balsa wood that is Clint Eastwood. The story, for those unfamiliar, details the whirlwind weekend affair between (wait for it) a National Geographic photographer visiting a small Iowa town to photograph covered bridges and an Italian woman trapped in a pleasant but unremarkable marriage to a farmer who has left her alone for the weekend as he heads off with their two children to attend a state fair in Indianapolis (which isn’t in Iowa). Whew.

Blessedly, Brown and Norman take the Harlequin Romance conceit of the source material and turn it on its head, crafting from its simplistic superstructure a sour/sweet souffle of American rural provincialism, xenophobia, and sexism. Bridges in their hands becomes allegorical operetta (a la The Most Happy Fella), a tragedy of missed opportunities and of failing to stoke the fiery spark of individuality in our dearest loved ones.

The Dio’s Bridges of Madison County ensemble

Directed with poignant nuance, arch wit, and clinical precision by Steve DeBruyne, The Dio’s cast rises to the challenge. Leads Marlene Inman and Jon McHatton as Francesca and Robert respectively, yes, capture the heady chemistry of sweeping escapist romance that audiences will desire, but they also layer in sparkling moments of humor and humanity and tragic loss that offer the narrative heartbreaking heft. Their vocals are breathtaking, simultaneously soaring and intimate – “Wondering” and “Falling Into You” being particular highlights. Inman gives a beautifully calibrated portrayal of an Italian woman whose intense creativity is hauntingly at odds with the workaday charms of farm/family life in mid-60s Iowa. McHatton is a gleaming presence throughout, a bolt of free-thinking masculine Id in stark relief against a conservative landscape. McHatton brings a welcome humility and forlorn longing to a role that in less capable hands could devolve into swaggering machismo.

The rest of the ensemble is a well-oiled machine, doing yeoman’s work in multiple roles and seamlessly shifting, moving, and reassembling the various components of Matthew Tomich’s ingenious cube-based set design from farmhouse kitchen to bustling Main Street to cathedral to, yes, covered bridge. Tomich uses projections and additional lighting techniques to bring a dreamlike wonder to the proceedings, using The Dio’s limited space to maximum effect. I could have watched those set changes all day. You never hear an audience member say that.

Carrie Jay Sayer as Gladys Kravitz-esque nosy neighbor Marge and Dan Morrison as her husband Charlie wring every bit of funny out of their broad character roles, sidestepping outright mugging and infusing a refreshing sense of empathy. I also must call out Madison Merlanti as Robert’s ex-wife Marian; her delivery of the hypnotic ode to what-might-have-been “Another Life” is a showstopper.

At one point Francesca explains to Robert that, while the houses in her small Iowa farm community may look desolate, they are quite a flurry of frantic inner life, that the people in them are “either working … or looking out their windows,” perhaps sitting in judgment of their neighbors or envious of the world that may be passing them by. The Dio’s production of The Bridges of Madison County (running two more weekends through May 21) takes us lovingly, critically inside those homes, reminding us that tragedies of the heart – small and large – happen in every living room, every day.

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Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.