“The world and the way things are.” Mosaic Youth Theatre of Detroit’s alumni production of The Wiz

“Sweet thing, let me tell you ’bout the world and the way things are. You’ve come from a different place, and I know you’ve traveled far. … He’s the Wiz. He’s the Wiz. He’s the Wizard of Oz. He’s got magic up his sleeve. He’s the Wizard. And you know without his help it would be impossible to leave. Fantastic powers at his command, and I’m sure that he will understand.” – Addaperle, “He’s the Wizard” from The Wiz

A stranger in a strange land. Myth and parable and children’s literature have long made great use of this trope to teach us lessons in humanity and inhumanity, courage and acceptance. Alice’s Adventures in WonderlandThe Odyssey. Dante’s Inferno. The Phantom Tollbooth. The NeverEnding Story. Star Wars. E.T. On and on.

And, yes, that most all-American of hero’s quest tales: The Wizard of Oz.

I’ve written at length of my adoration, nay obsession, with The Wiz, Charlie Smalls’ 1970s urbanized musicalization of L. Frank Baum’s classic. As a tyke, I recreated the sets from Sydney Lumet’s bleak and transfixing film adaptation out of construction paper and magic markers and Scotch tape. I ruined countless needles on my little Raggedy Ann & Andy portable record player, cranking that two-disc film soundtrack – fished from an Ayr-Way cutout bin in Fort Wayne, Indiana – to insane decibel levels. I can still recite pages of dialogue, and I’d kill to have a Wiz-themed birthday party one day. And the soundtrack was also my gateway drug to all things Quincy Jones – just listen to the original stage score and then study what Q does with said score for the film, deconstructing and rebuilding to such a shiny pop sheen that it takes your breath away.

So, when, in my first meeting as a new board member of Mosaic Youth Theatre of Detroit, I learned that the storied company would be performing The Wiz this summer in a special alumni production, I suggested, if anyone fell through, that I would be happy to play any (or all) of the parts. I’m still waiting for them to get back to me on that. …

Digression … about Mosaic: “Mosaic Youth Theatre of Detroit is one of Southeast Michigan’s most highly regarded cultural treasures. Our critically acclaimed student-driven performances and national and international tours have brought worldwide attention to Detroit as a center for arts and culture while shining a spotlight on the area’s talented young people and creating new and diverse audiences for the performing arts. Founded by Rick Sperling in 1992 to address gaps in Metro Detroit arts education, Mosaic served 25 young artists in its inaugural year. Today, hundreds of youth from more than 50 Metro Detroit schools participate in Mosaic’s First, Second and Main Stage programs every year. These innovative programs provide expert training, mentoring and opportunity to the area’s young actors, singers, and stage technicians, while fostering a culture of high expectations, active participation and acceptance that serves them beyond the stage.”

Back to The Wiz …  how is Mosaic’s production? Especially for someone as fixated as yours truly? I am happy to report (wearing my critic’s hat, and not my board member one) that the production is warm and funny, contemporary and poignant, zippy and engaging. I said to myself that I wouldn’t cry when Dorothy (a luminous and preternaturally poised Crystal Tigney) sings the sweeping ballad “Home” at the conclusion of her journey through Oz. Nope, not me. I’m tough. Well, one single man tear during the first verse turned into a salty river down my cheeks (and one helluva runny nose) by the time Tigney hit that final soaring note. Dammit.

Directed with heart by Yewande Odetoyinbo, the production is expertly paced and turns the economic scale of Mosaic’s black box space into a strategic advantage, relying on clever costuming (with an assist from Nadia Johnson), minimal props, lighting effects (by Yemisi Odetoyinbo with Seth Swift) and projections (by Lumumba Reynolds), and the exceptional talent (and voices) of the principles and ensemble to sell this oft-told tale.

Odetoyinbo’s direction embraces camp without detracting from the essence of the piece. Glinda (exquisite Krystal Hill who also plays Aunt Em), for example, arrives with a retinue of footmen who hold an electric box fan in front of her so her diaphanous gown billows just so (Beyonce-style). Addaperle (a whip-smart Brittany Myree who doubles as Evilene) works the room like a Vegas comic. The Tin Man (a sparkling D’Marreon Alexander) integrates some charming 80s pop-n-lock into his choreography, and The Lion (a crackerjack, at times heart-wrenching, but always funny Carman Cooper) makes her entrance like a cheesy TV-variety show host, complete with her own back up lion-cub dancers. Justin Shephard is a hoot in the showy titular role, pulling out all the stops as part-time revivalist, full-time huckster.

Tigney, Alexander, Cooper, and Day

Keith Anderson Day, Jr. is a standout as The Scarecrow, invoking both Ray Bolger and Michael Jackson, while making the part completely his own. I’m showing my bias toward the version of The Wiz I first experienced, but the stage Scarecrow’s signature tune “I Was Born on the Day Before Yesterday” is no “You Can’t Win” (its sonic replacement in the film). Day’s performance of “Day Before Yesterday,” however, has me significantly reconsidering that assessment. Utterly winning, Day struts and pouts, shimmies and shines, landing the number and establishing that this Wiz is going to be something special. It’s a fantastic performance.

Music director DeLashea Strawder – with accompanists Maurice Draughn and Keir Ward – does wonders in the challenging space, nailing every number, eliciting beautiful harmonies and nuanced dynamics from her stellar cast. Javon Jones’ choreography is spry and contemporary, efficiently employing the ensemble to do all the heavy-lifting to convey settings (e.g. Yellow Brick Road) and effects (e.g. the twister that brings Dorothy to Oz). As for that ensemble (Chloe Davis, Myles Dungey, Nya Johnson, Kristianna Marks, Alexandria Miller, Jamiliah Minter, Kaila Scales, Brionne White, and Coleman Ward), they are all in, sassily interacting with the audience and seizing their moments to shine, while always honoring the narrative whole.

Now, perhaps more than ever, The Wiz offers an essential message of inclusion and of challenging the status quo. Home is where the heart is, but, on her journey to rediscover that “feeling we once had,” Dorothy takes her shots at demagogues and bullies, embraces and champions the marginalized, and offers hope to the hopeless. I can’t think of a more important message for today’s America.

Cooper, Tigney, Shephard

Mosaic Youth Theatre’s The Wiz runs one more weekend (August 16-19 with multiple show times) and tickets may be purchased here.

“Well there may be times when you wish you wasn’t born. And you wake one morning just to find your courage gone. But just know that feeling only lasts a little while. You stick with us, and we’ll show you how to smile.” – Dorothy, Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Lion, “Ease on Down the Road”

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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.

 

…but movies transport me

Spider-Roy

Spider-Roy

Nina Kaur (thanks to fellow Farmington Player Amy Lauter for connecting us!) asked me to contribute a guest blog entry to her fun and interesting blog Thirty Something Years in Ninaland. Here’s what she wrote about me – “Every Monday I will have a guest blogger. Today I am featuring a wonderful Movie Reviewer named Roy Sexton. He is witty, charming and great critic! Enjoy reading about his journey!” Wow! Thanks, Nina! Click here for the original post on her blog.

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By yours truly …

Movies have always been an important part of my life.

I like to read books (more accurately comic books these days, as I seem to now have the attention span of a tsetse fly), and I adore music. Television is fine, and I’ve spent many hours traipsing the boards of theatres across the Midwest. But movies transport me.

I love the fact that a film is an encapsulated medium. Whether 90 minutes or three hours, a movie tells one story – beginning, middle, and end – introducing you to new friends and enemies and locales in an efficiently designed delivery mechanism. With a good film, you get the experience of reading a novel (whether or not the film is in fact based on any work of literature) in a highly compressed fashion.

Nina Kaur

Nina Kaur

Your brain leaves your body for a bit, you take a mini-vacation to places you might not otherwise ever see, and you return to your regularly scheduled life a bit changed, perhaps enlightened, and hopefully re-energized.

I stop reading email, answering calls, or monitoring social media…and just blessedly check out…for a bit.

My parents cultivated appreciation for the arts by filling our home with movies and music and books and love. I’ve groused in the past about wanting, as a child, to play with my Star Wars action figures in the solitude of my toy-lined room and being forced instead to sit in our den with my parents and watch some creaky B&W classic movie on Fort Wayne’s Channel 55. And I am so grateful now for that.

My appreciation for classic cinema resulted from these years basking in the glow of our old RCA color TV. And when we could finally afford a VCR and could now watch any movie of our choosing, I was already hooked on the story-telling of vintage movies with their requisite arch wit, dramatic stakes, whimsical joys, and belief that anything was possible.

However, not everything was high art in our house. The advent of HBO in the early 80s and its repetitive showings of whatever junk Hollywood had most recently cranked out shaped my tastes for better or worse as well. I’m a sucker for the movie train wreck – the more star-studded, over-budget, under-written, and garish the better. Some of my most beloved films are among the most notoriously awful of all time: Xanadu, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Wiz, Popeye, Flash Gordon. The Black Hole, Raggedy Ann and Andy’s Musical Adventure, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Return to Oz, Battle Beyond the Stars, Krull, The Neverending Story, and so on.

If it was a flop and it was shown ad nauseum one mid-afternoon following another on HBO in the 1980s, then I fell in love with it. Like self-imposed water torture on my nascent aesthetic.

As time went by and I stomped through my high school and college know-it-all years (some might argue I’m still stuck in them), I learned from both my parents and some wonderful teachers the tools of critique and criticism. What is the intent of the piece? What is the context for its creation? How effective is its structure, composition, impact? Where did it go awry or where did it cross over into something classic?

It’s all highly subjective and a bit arrogant, I suppose, but I can’t help it. I’m entertained by the act of analysis.

In more recent years, Facebook gave me an outlet to connect with my inner-Ebert. I started posting status statements summarizing in glib, condensed fashion my take on whatever flick we had just enjoyed … or endured. My kind-hearted and patient partner John has suffered through a lot of movies over the years, many he enjoyed … and even more he did not.

Jim and Lyn's Wedding

At wonderful Jim and Lyn’s beautiful wedding

We still bicker about his departure from Moulin Rouge after twenty minutes with nary an explanation. I found him after the movie in the lobby reading a newspaper – I don’t know what is more telling: that he was too kind to want to ruin the movie for me by alerting me how much he hated it, or the fact that I stayed to the end without checking on his safety and security!

My friends and colleagues enjoyed these little “squibs” I posted on social media. I suppose I was aspiring to capture the grace and insight of Leonard Maltin’s “micro reviews” that I consumed voraciously as a child every January when we bought his latest edition. (The paper on those early volumes was always of some strange newspaper-esque stock prone to smudging and was pulpily aromatic. I will never forget that musty, fabulous smell.)

John always asks plaintively, “Didn’t they know this movie was bad when they were making it?!”

Perhaps I keep trying to solve that riddle, with the false confidence that my $10 movie ticket entitles me to a shot at armchair quarterbacking. Perhaps the failed actor in me is still trying to reclaim some artistic glory. Or perhaps I’m just a wise-ass with too many opinions and without the good sense to keep them respectfully to myself.

My pals told me, “Set up a blog. Capture these Facebook reviews for future reference. They’re great; they’re fun! Blah blah blah.” I have to admit that eventually my ego got the better of me, and, one late night, I explored the wonders that WordPress holds (albeit not that many) and set up ReelRoyReviews as a diary of sorts, detailing my adventures in the cinema.

Here’s the funny thing. Nobody read them. Nobody. At least for quite a while.

Well, that’s not entirely true. My mom was an avid reader and supporter and was always the first to offer an encouraging comment: “My son writes the best reviews and everyone should love them.” So there!

But you know what? Something interesting happened along the way. I stopped caring and just started writing for myself. And I started having fun. And people started reading.

Life is way too short (and exasperating) to get too intense about entertainment, so I try to take a light and conversational approach with my reviews. And I try to respect that (for the most part) these are show business professionals putting (ideally) their best feet forward and that they are human beings with hearts and souls and feelings. I hope I never seem cruel. I don’t mean to be. These writings are off-the-cuff and journal-style and come from as positive a place as I can muster.

Approach everything and everyone honestly and with positive intent and offer candid feedback with an open heart and as much kindness as possible.

Please check out my latest reviews hereDawn of the Planet of the Apes, Transformers: Age of Extinction, Edge of Tomorrow, 22 Jump Street, The Fault in our Stars, and Tammy and more …

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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.