“The right accessory can change your life.” Two Muses production of new musical “At the Bistro Garden”

At the Bistro Garden Cast  (Photo by Melissa Tremblay of Platinum Imagery)

At the Bistro Garden Cast (Photo by Melissa Tremblay of Platinum Imagery)

The 1980s are hot again. I guess nostalgia must have a 25-to-30-year sell-by date when it really kicks in. Fifteen years ago, the 1970s were the rage, and we may be on the cusp of the 90s making their grungy resurgence, but right now the 80s are where it’s at.

Perhaps it’s because, like that bygone day-glo era, we still live under a perpetual shroud of Armageddon, be it chemical or nuclear or viral. Perhaps it’s because we again exist in a politically divisive age where neither political party nor our president seem terribly interested in what any of us day-to-day schmucks think or feel. Perhaps it’s because our celebrities from then and today seem interchangeable, wearing outfits that look like they were designed by circus carnies.

Regardless, the 1980s are au courant, which is perfect timing for Two Muses Theatre’s Midwestern debut of the big-haired/shoulder-padded musical At the Bistro Garden. (In the spirit of open disclosure, I know personally many of the folks involved with this production and even helped with some of their marketing, including this interview with the show’s creative team.)

Nonetheless and perhaps in part because of this, I enjoyed the show a great deal. In similar fashion to two other beloved broadly comic artifacts from my youth – Designing Women and Steel Magnolias – the show recounts the trials and tribulations of three women caught between a rock and a hard place, proto-feminists whose formative years may have been haunted by Donna Reed and Gidget but whose present days are shaped by Gloria Steinem and Madonna.

The three ladies who lunch – Abigail, Cheyenne, and B.J. – have more money and time on their hands than they should and meet every Friday at Beverly Hills’ famed Bistro Garden restaurant to kvetch and kvell about family and friends. The plot wouldn’t have been out-of-place in a very special episode of the aforementioned Designing Women but offers enough meaningful complications to give this talented trio some great scenery to chew. As expected for a show set in this era, there’s much talk of divorce and alimony, illegitimate children … and shopping. An early number – the zippy “A Sale at Neiman’s” – celebrates the joys of retail excess, offering the bon mot “the right accessory can change your life.”

At times, the cartoonish whimsy of life in the 80s takes on an almost allegorical quality, highlighting the disconnect between narcissistic artifice and the very real pain (and reward) friendship and family can bring. The lilting tunes and snappy patter neatly propel the show and its themes.

The cast functions very well as an ensemble, each shining particularly in the more poignant moments. Sometimes the rat-a-tat dialogue gets a little lost in translation, where the wit should come from speed not emphasis, but when this cast clicks, they really click.

At the Bistro Garden

At the Bistro Garden

Carrie Jay Sayer as “Lady of the Canyon” Cheyenne and AlissaBeth Morton as her daughter Destiny (yeah, those names are a time warped hoot) steal every scene with a believable familial dynamic that engenders laughter and tears. They really do a solid job finding the humor in the pathos.

Amy Lauter as Abigail, a sweet-natured if misguided women-done-wrong, and Diane Hill as B.J., a not-as-sweet-natured but equally misguided woman-done-wrong, both have many touching moments as they explore the betrayal of a dream deferred. Both actresses excel in their plaintive solo numbers, plumbing new depths of heartache.

John DeMerell as master of ceremonies and the restaurant’s maître d’ sparkles – the catalyst that gives the production forward momentum and a refreshing lightness. He has a ball playing several additional bit parts throughout the show, aided and abetted by clever costuming and no end of silly accents. Miles Bond and Rusty Daugherty are fun as a sort of campy Greek chorus, offering arch commentary as waiters, moving men, clerks who float through the proceedings.

Indeed, the costuming by Barbie Amann Weisserman is perfection, loving and warmly funny but never satirical, which is a tricky balance to pull off. Lesser costumers end up making fun of a garish era such as this one, forgetting that people actually intend to look attractive (usually) and it’s only later in time when we realize how odd some of our fashion choices actually might have been. Everyone in the show does in fact look gorgeous, even if the styles and patterns and prints make us giggle with knowing recognition.

A narrative highlight – musically and acting-wise – is the number “Just Another Baby.” A scorched-earth, toxic meltdown that B.J. (Hill) delivers at a baby shower, ridiculing our nation’s unyielding mania for infants and our collective fixation on insipid names, miniaturized fashion, and corrosive parental competition. Hill nails it, and, as the show’s creative team (Deborah Pearl on book, David Kole on music/lyrics) continues to refine this work, they might consider sprinkling a bit of that second act’s number’s funny-as-h*ll venom throughout the softer/gentler first act.

(One minor quibble is the use of a pre-recorded accompaniment in this production. There is a live keyboard for some of the numbers, and those particular songs/performances had a warmer, more organic quality. No doubt this hybrid approach was driven by resource availability, but, at times it is a bit distracting.)

Jules Aaron’s direction is efficient and witty and makes effective use of the tight space with multi-functional set pieces and clever blocking. He has done a fabulous job forging a tight ensemble with rich stage life and believable connections, clearly key to making this show sing (pun intended).

As a new work, this show is worth catching to see how it continues to develop. The first act could use a trim here or there as it serves chiefly to set up the soap opera-esque fireworks of the second act (think Douglas Sirk meets The Carol Burnett Show – and that’s a good thing). After the intermission, the show speeds along as all of the puzzle pieces established in the first act come together. The show has one more weekend so be sure to stop by The Bistro Garden, to reminisce about a bygone era that is still surprisingly and perhaps sadly relevant today. Tickets can be purchased at www.twomusestheatre.org.

Two Muses Theatre performs in the Barnes & Noble Booksellers Theatre Space, 6800 Orchard Lake Rd, West Bloomfield, MI  48322, South of Maple (15 Mile). Enter the bookstore, and the theatre is on the left.

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Tomfoolery

Tomfoolery

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.

“Huge shoulder pads and big earrings and the heyday of the wealthy in Beverly Hills…” Midwest Premiere of At the Bistro Garden

www.twomusestheatre.org

Cheyenne (played by Carrie Jay Sayer) sees her daughter’s new look when Destiny (AlissaBeth Morton) emerges from the dressing room at Neiman Marcus.

Enjoy this interview I did for my pals at Two Muses Theatre – they are about to present the Midwest premiere of the musical “At the Bistro Garden,” and the following article features the show’s creators Deborah Pearl and David Kole as well as director Jules Aaron.

“You aren’t inventing the wheel, but you are putting in the spokes. And you hope that wheel will carry the show!” observes Los Angeles-based theatrical director Jules Aaron, currently in Metro Detroit to helm Two Muses Theatre’s Midwest premiere of the new musical, At the Bistro Garden.  It’s an apt metaphor for the Motor City and an even more appropriate one for such a collaborative effort as launching a new theatrical work. Written by fellow Angelinos, the book by Deborah Pearl and music/lyrics by David Kole, the show, which runs from September 26 through October 19 promises to surprise and delight Michigan audiences.

At the Bistro Garden is a sharply funny and touching look at the lives of three friends from Beverly Hills who lunch weekly at the famous Bistro Garden restaurant, circa 1987. Their friendship keeps them from shattering and helps them get through infidelities, betrayals, a daughter going astray, love lost, and love found. Winner of the 2005 ASCAP Best New Musical award, the show was previously work-shopped in L.A.

“The idea came originally from David Kole. He started out with five songs and a clear sense of who these women were. He asked me to sing – I also sing professionally- on the demos. He had no book, so I created the story, and wrote scenes that give the women distinctive voices, while also helping identify where additional songs would be needed. I love that it’s about the strength and vulnerability of women – and what’s behind the facade that we see – because these women are every woman underneath.   We started on this a while ago, and the 80s are cool again, so it’s perfect timing. Huge shoulder pads and big earrings and the heyday of the wealthy in Beverly Hills give us a good context for the comedy,” explains Pearl, a longtime television writer/producer, whose credits include Designing Women. “Over the years, working in television, I learned so much about comic timing – what works and what doesn’t. And since I’m a singer as well, I hear the human voice as melody. That’s how I write. I hear the characters speak in my head and it’s like I’m taking dictation. Sometimes I can’t type fast enough. When it comes to you, you listen.”

Kole adds, “People ask how I write from a woman’s perspective. It’s from observing. I got this idea while having lunch at the Bistro Garden. I went there the first time with Cloris Leachman – I do her orchestrations, including her stint on Dancing with the Stars. I realized what a great restaurant it was and I’d see all these ‘Old Hollywood’ folks and I’d get a sense of the lore. Flynn, Sinatra all used to go there. I wrote five songs to define the characters I’d invented. I wanted to make a small show. And no one was writing for women, particularly women in their 40s. I was going to write the book myself, and I knew Deborah as a studio singer. She sang on the demos, and I ran into a wall writing the actual stories. I had five characters with developed backgrounds – middle names, children, wardrobes – but I didn’t have a real story. Deborah came up with the story arc.”

Pearl then met Aaron, who was in New York directing a play starring a mutual friend. As all great showbiz stories go, they struck up a conversation, she told him about this new work, and he was intrigued.

“I’ve gotten to the point in my career where I specialize in new shows. I’ve done 70 plus new shows. I’m currently working on three new shows. Deborah asked me to look at their musical and I liked it very much. When the Two Muses opportunity came up, it seemed like a great fit,” elaborates Aaron. Aaron’s mother, who, at 95, still lives in Oak Park in the house where he grew up and is an active writer and director herself, was “the marriage broker. She had seen several shows at Two Muses that she liked a lot. She said it would be so nice if I could do a show out here and we could spend some time together. Barbie [Amann Weisserman, one of Two Muses’ co-founders] and I spoke about a year ago, and I said let’s find something that we both like. Six months later we landed on Bistro Garden, and we started specifically to look at schedules. And here we are. It was one of those things. It’s such a treat to spend this time with my mom and to work with a theatre that is a real up and comer. They produce well. They are very sharp.”

Aaron, a Wayne State graduate who also holds a Ph.D. from New York University, isn’t the only member of the creative team with ties to Metro Detroit (or, for that matter, with an influential mother). Kole was born and raised in Grosse Pointe where he attended high school, leaving at 18 to tour with Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians, eventually landing in Beverly Hills where he has worked as a film composer in addition to his theatrical work. “Nathan Judson was my band teacher here. Big influence – taught me music, theatre, opera. My mother introduced me to musical theatre. My mom is from New York and we’d go in the summer and see all the original productions. Anything Rodgers and Hammerstein – King and I, South Pacific – and then Sondheim – both had profound influences. I’ve been accused of being Sondheim-esque. I was immersed in A Little Night Music when I was working on Bistro Garden. Jonathan Tunick’s pointillistic orchestrations speak to me.”

For Pearl, though, working on this show has been her introduction to the wolverine state. “This is my very first trip to Michigan. It’s so beautiful. Reminds me of where I grew up in Pennsylvania. I so miss the green from my years of living in L.A. I actually had an intro to Detroit by my friend Allee Willis – composer of Earth, Wind, and Fire’s ‘September’ among other of their hits. She has a music video and movie in process called – I Love Detroit. And I see why. It’s such a creative place. I’m moved by the commitment to the arts here. Everyone in our production is so into it. And talented. And really happy to be working.   And they like my material!” Pearl laughs heartily. “I always love people who love my material. And I played one of the roles in the workshop, so it’s fun to see someone else playing that role. It takes a huge amount of work to mount a show. People don’t appreciate that. Musicals are a ton of work and an equal amount of fun. That’s what I hope people who come to the show will leave with.   An evening of fun.   At the Bistro Garden is a joyous experience.”

www.twomusestheatre.org

At the Bistro Garden, BJ (played by Diane Hill) gossips with best friends Abigail (Amy Lauter) and Cheyenne (Carrie Jay Sayer) while the Maitre D (John DeMerell) listens in.

Pearl is an active volunteer back home, somehow finding time between all her artistic endeavors to sing a monthly jazz service at her synagogue, perform at high holidays at Cedars Sinai Medical Center, and co-found and direct a collective of professional and non-professional singers called “The National In Choir” who’ve been entertaining at hospitals and senior centers every December in L.A. for over thirty years.   Her Jewish identity is important to her as an artist. She spent years studying Torah with Jewish writers and producers (in a group funded by “Avi Chai”). “Art is transformative. The most joyful use of my voice and my writing is in a spiritual context. There’s nothing better than lifting people up with your work,” she notes.   “And everyone here is happy to share in the creative lifting.”

Aaron echoes Pearl’s enthusiasm for their newfound Michigan friends, “This cast is a really great group of people. They have talent and a wonderful attitude and sense of dedication. So sweet to be around. I have high hopes that we are going to have a very strong show. When you work in New York or L.A., the amount of talent is overwhelming and you are working with casting directors. When we finished casting in Detroit, I was very pleased.”

But how does Kole, with whom the central concept of Bistro Garden first began, feel about the process so far? “I look forward to handing my little child over to other people. I love seeing their takes on these characters or how they sing a melody I wrote. I love people attaching their own bits to my germination of an idea. It always makes it better than what I had in mind. I’ve literally worked with thousands of musicians and hearing what they do with my work, how they phrase a line is always a pleasure,” he relates.

“I had never done theatre in Detroit. My expectations have been so exceeded from my time here in Detroit. Diane [Hill, Two Muses’ other co-founder] and Barbie are phenomenal. And I love their families. Observing Jules work with the actors and the wonderful choreographer [Allyson Smith] and musical director [Daniel Bachelis] is phenomenal. Jules is not on a power trip but is very encouraging, supportive. He understands my characters. These characters … they are like my children. Deborah is their adoptive mother, and Jules really understands them. They are real now.”

Kole concludes, “What’s really great is I’m looking around this rehearsal space and I see all these people – actors, production team, audience – and it started with this little idea I had and now everyone is here taking part in this. It’s such an honor. Their lives are being changed by this little idea. It’s so gratifying.”

Two Muses Theatre, recent recipient of an operational grant from Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs (MCACA) and the NEA, performs in the intimate 150-seat theatre inside Barnes & Noble Booksellers, located at 6800 Orchard Lake Road in West Bloomfield (south of Maple).   Performances are Sept 26-Oct 19 on Friday and Saturday evenings at 8:00pm and Sunday afternoons at 2:00pm. Advance tickets are available for $23 for adults and $18 for students and senior citizens and are available at the door for an additional $2. Group discounts are also available. Doors open 30 minutes prior to each performance. There is ample free parking and handicap accessibility. For tickets and information, please call 248-850-9919 or visit twomusestheatre.org.

Founded in November 2011 by Diane Hill and Barbie Amann Weisserman, Two Muses Theatre is a nonprofit, professional theatre dedicated to increasing opportunities for women in theatre. All funds raised from performances and educational workshops go directly into maintaining the theatre and contributing to charitable organizations centered on women and families.

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Postscript! The show I’m in  – Tomfoolery, starting October 2 at Conor O’Neill’s in Ann Arbor – now has a super-cute poster … and here it is (to the left). More info at pennyseats.org.

Celebrating the words and music of Tom Lehrer, with an opening short by Zach London, The Penny Seats will perform Thursdays, October 2, 9, 16, and 23. Dinner starts at 6:30pm; show at 8pm. Dinner and show are just $20 per ticket; show only $10 per ticket!

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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.

“We love a good ghost story. How about you?” Never Can Say Good-bye film in development PLUS Slipstream Theatre event AND Shih Tzu res-cue!

Never Can Say Goodbye

Never Can Say Goodbye

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again (particularly for those provincial social media naysayers … who aren’t listening anyway), the internet brings the world together in fun and surprising and interesting ways, breaking down geographic boundaries and uniting people by affinity (as opposed to arbitrary constructs of place and time). Read The World is Flat. No, really. Go read it.

Writing this blog has introduced me to a documentary filmmaker in Toronto (click here) and allowed me to review a short film by an animal advocate whom I’ve never met but feel as though I have (click here). It has helped me connect with and learn from fellow bloggers (click here) and has given me the opportunity to assess the work of local theatre groups (click here). I even got a shout out from JB Bernstein, the subject of the Disney film Million Dollar Arm, over my review of that fabulous flick: “It means a lot to hear a review like this. This was a very personal story, and to know that I was able to reach even one person with our message it was worth all the work.”

Ok … enough patting myself on the back …

My downright caustic review of the latest Transformers installment caught the attention of Traverse City-based independent filmmaker Theresa Chaze (click here for her website). She is also a published author, experienced video producer, and accomplished communications professional, and she is hard at work launching her new film Never Can Say Good-bye. I was honored when she asked if I would read her script and offer my thoughts.

(And the animal lover in me adores this part of her impressive bio: “As the media specialist for Angel Protectors of Animals and Wildlife, she produced several public service announcements and micro-documentaries. The messages remained informative and promoted positive action to save our nation’s wildlife.” Yes! Another of her potential projects is a TV show about equine therapy for veterans – Horses and Heroes.)

Theresa Chaze

Theresa Chaze

Never Can Say Good-bye reinvents the reincarnation conceit (Christopher Reeve’s/Jane Seymour’s 1980 film Somewhere in Time, Ellen Burstyn’s 1980 film Resurrection) in the guise of gothic paranormal psychodrama (Nicole Kidman’s 2001 film The Others, Julie Harris’ 1963 film The Haunting, Deborah Kerr’s 1961 film The Innocents). The plot concerns two families united by a doomed marriage in the 1950s and explores the dissonant legacy that familial discord has had on subsequent generations. (See the Stephen King/John Mellencamp musical Ghost Brothers of Darkland County for another take on this thematic concept.)

I finished reading the script earlier this week. It is so well done and layered and clever. I love the notion of turning a ghost story on its head through the lens of reincarnation. I thought the characters were all clearly and thoughtfully drawn, and the script is definitely a page turner in the best sense. The disparate threads cohere in a denouement that is both chilling and poignant. The dialogue is believable, and the insular college-town setting (somewhere in northern Michigan, I believe) lends a nice chilly, hierarchical vibe.

Different actors are reported to have been attached at various points, including Lauren Holly, Bill Hayes, and Dyan Cannon. Stanley Livingston is connected to direct. Obviously, “name” performers would bring added attention to the project, but I daresay a cast of unknowns would keep audience attention focused on the narrative and the dense web of challenging relationships therein.

And, as in seemingly all creative efforts these days, there is a crowd-source funding campaign afoot through Indiegogo – you can donate here. From the campaign’s page …

We love a good ghost story. How about you? We are not talking about films that gross out the audience or are so dependent of special effects that the producers forgot to give the characters personalities or have plots that are based on clichés or simply don’t make any sense. Much like Dark Shadows, Never Can Say Good-bye is based on suspense and plot twists that will scare the socks off the audience and make them suspicious of the dust bunnies under their beds.

Best of luck, Theresa – hope this script makes it to the silver screen soon – it’s a keeper!

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Slipstream LogoMy pal Bailey Boudreau (with whom I appeared in Farmington Players’ production of Legally Blonde the Musical last year) has launched the Slipstream Theatre Initiative here in Metro Detroit, and they have a fun event this weekend. Here’s an excerpt from the press release:

Slipstream Theatre Initiative is proud to present a one-weekend staged reading festival of new, local works! The festival is a fundraiser for both Slipstream Theatre Initiative and Two Muses Theatre, and promises to provide non-stop entertainment.

Slipstream

Slipstream

Featuring new short plays by Playwrights Cara Trautman, Bailey Boudreau, Emilio Rodriguez, Kim Carney, Emily Fishman, Barry Germansky, Margaret Edwartowski, Katherine Nelson, Lori Reece and Josie Kirsch, this two day event offers a wide variety of material and subject matter.

Bailey Boudreau

Bailey Boudreau

The actors include Scott Romstadt, Steve Xander Carson, Miles Bond, Cara Trautman, Jennifer Jolliffe, Cindi Brody, Katie Terpstra, Alexander Henderson Trice, Claire Jolliffe, Maxim Vinogradav, Nick Kisse, Joshua Daniel Palmer, Josie Kirsch and Bailey Boudreau.

All proceeds will go to the 2014-2015 seasons of Slipstream Theatre Initiative and Two Muses Theatre, both non-profit organizations.

  • What: Original Works Weekend
  • When: Saturday July 19th, 7:30 pm & Sunday July 20th, 5:00 p.m.
  • Where: Two Muses Theatre inside the West Bloomfield Barnes and Noble
  • How Much: $10, additional donations accepted (tax-deductible)
  • Contact: InsideTheSlipstream@gmail.com , www.SlipstreamTI.com

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And this is just something that I needed to capture – and why not put it in this particular crazy quilt of a blog entry …

Shih TzuSo, I’m going to lunch yesterday with my colleagues Mike and Jan and I see a Shih Tzu or something (no tags, but a collar) running about the busy traffic on Middlebelt. We lure the dog into a yard with a rattle-y container of gum, and the people who live in the house say, “We saw him running around.”

Really? And you didn’t do anything?

They give us some twine which we fashion into a leash. I wander about this neighborhood while Jan and Mike go to the drugstore to get a real leash (which of course they don’t carry – my mom always says, “Always have a leash in your car.” I will now).

As I stumble around using this dog like a divining rod to see if he will lead me to his home (he didn’t – he was kind of a cute dingbat), up rolls from within the neighborhood a Grand Marquis painted an ugly orange red and on tires the size of small boulders. The gentleman driving the car, not saying “thank you,” grumbles, “My dog.” I say, “What’s his name?” Surly reply, “Bear.” (Really, a Shih Tzu named “Bear”?) The dog did indeed reply to the name, at which time the man got out of the car, lifted the dog roughly by the collar, smacked it on its side, and said, “We’re goin’ home.”

So, who wants to kidnap a Shih Tzu with me? Yes, we drove back through the neighborhood to confirm that he and “Bear” do live there. And, after work yesterday, I drove by the house again where the dog lives, and I met the teenage boy who clearly loves him very much. Let’s hope for the best.

If you want to know where I got this love for all creatures great and small, please check out my mom’s latest wonderful blog entry “that is my medicine” here.

And read about friend Beth Kennedy’s adoption of “Nacho the Cat” here!

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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.

“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.

Around the world with Reel Roy Reviews – plus, save the date for upcoming book events

Fun in the sun with Reel Roy Reviews

Fun in the sun with Reel Roy Reviews

As folks start itching for some springtime fun, Reel Roy Reviews, Vol. 1: Keepin’ It Real is beginning to see the world! Jeff Weisserman emailed photos from beautiful Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic where his wife Barbie is celebrating her birthday with friends. Jeff writes, “Chillin’ by the pool … The Dominican debut of Roy Sexton‘s book …”

Barbie’s dear friend Beth Kennedy (click Beth’s name to read her marvelous blog!) is well into the tome by the look of things as her sun-loving pals cheer her on. (Beth is holding the book in the photo above.)

Rusty Miskovich and Susie Duncan Sexton present Tari her birthday gift

Rusty Miskovich and Susie Duncan Sexton present Tari her birthday gift

In less tropical climes, wonderful Tari Joyce celebrated a very special birthday as well, in this case at the North Side Grille  in Columbia City, Indiana. Susie Duncan Sexton presented Tari with her own copy of Reel Roy Reviews as a gift.

Surrounded by friends, Tari was treated to a lovely evening. Tari notes, “Thanks, Susie, for making my birthday so nice! What great friends I have! Amazing … It was grand!!! Fun was had by all!”

Tari surrounded by her fun-loving pals

Tari surrounded by her fun-loving pals

Save the date! A couple of upcoming book launch events in Southeast Michigan …

First up, Common Language in Ann Arbor will host a mixer on Thursday, April 10 at 7 pm. I will be there signing books, but, even better, some of my theatre friends from The Penny Seats will offer interpretive readings of some of my zanier essays. Yes, there will be crudités … and wine!

Reel Roy Reviews soaks up some rays in Punta Cana

Reel Roy Reviews soaks up some rays in Punta Cana

Then, my pals Megan and Peter at Bookbound, also in Ann Arbor, have scheduled a book-signing/Q&A for Saturday, April 26 at 3 pm. And who knows? There may even be a show tune or two! Their shop is a relatively new addition to the Ann Arbor book scene, and they have such a wonderful spirit of supporting new authors. Check them out!

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Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! 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; by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan; and by Memory Lane Gift Shop in Columbia City, Indiana. Bookbound and Memory Lane both also have copies of Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series.

Cost of feeling: Two Muses production of Next to Normal

Description: Film poster; Source: Wikipedia [linked]; Portion used: Film poster only; Low resolution? Sufficient resolution for illustration, but considerably lower resolution than original. Other information: Intellectual property by film studio. Non-free media use rationales: Non-free media use rationale - Article/review; Purpose of use: Used for purposes of critical commentary and illustration in an educational article about the film. The poster is used as the primary means of visual identification of this article topic. Replaceable? Protected by copyright, therefore a free use alternative won't exist.

[Image Source: Two Muses Theatre]

This isn’t a review. If anything it’s an ode to a phenomenal local professional production of the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Next to Normal.

(In full transparency, several of my friends have been involved in putting this production together … and I even donated a nickel or two to the Kickstarter campaign that helped fund it.)

I had seen a few numbers from the Broadway production of this challenging show on the 2009 Tony Awards, and I promptly bought the two-disc cast album, but I had not yet ever had the privilege of seeing it.

It definitely exceeded my expectations.

Next to Normal, with music by Tom Kitt and book/lyrics by Brian Yorkey, details in rock opera form the travails of a young couple as they careen toward middle age, navigating Yuppie-dom, petulant teenagers, and a predilection for making sandwiches on the kitchen floor. A traumatic cloud hangs over their McMansion, the truth of which is revealed M. Night Shyamalan-style toward the end of the first act.

This narrative context – which shares its genetic code with such tragic familial dramas as The Subject Was Roses, Glass Menagerie, Fear Strikes Out, Ordinary People, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, or All My Sons – is the perfect framework to explore the thorny topic of mental illness in today’s America. Our overeager societal penchant for pharmacological solutions receives the most caustic critique, though the authors have plenty to say about gender, age, economics, and the medical profession writ large.

The musical ends with an open-ended if nebulous note of hope, a hope that seems to rely chiefly on honesty, candor, risk-taking and acceptance as the true road to any mental recovery from a catastrophic event.

For those who haven’t seen this show, my words above may be, excuse the expression, maddening. I don’t mean to be coy (Roy! – with apologies to Paul Simon) but if I say more I will spoil the twist that sets the show toward its inevitable conclusion. So there. (You know you’re headed to Wikipedia right … about … now!)

Keeping in mind my admission that many of these folks are friends and acquaintances, the Two Muses cast, in my estimation, was uniformly excellent. With minimal staging, heartfelt performances, and a blessedly light touch, the six-person ensemble (Diane Hill, Nathan Larkin, John DeMerell, Aubrey Fink, Rusty Daugherty, and Richard Payton) delivered an exceptional show. Hill and DeMerell captured beautifully the delicate and painful dance of a couple perfectly wrong for one another, whose youthful good intentions have calcified into painful resentment.

With expert direction by Hill and Barbie Weisserman (including additional staging by Frannie Shepherd Bates) and strong musical support from Jamie Brachel (and fully visible musicians sharing the stage with the actors), this production strips away any visual distraction, simply and effectively using lighting, movement, and a simple chrome dining table and chairs to evoke a wide vary of locations, moments, and emotions.

So, here’s the punchline, Metro Detroiters. You only have one more shot to see this stellar production. Run don’t walk to the Two Muses website – www.twomusestheatre.org – and get your tickets for tomorrow (Sunday, June 30) afternoon. You won’t be sorry!