“No day like today.” The Barn Theatre’s 2017 production of Rent

 

“To days of inspiration/Playing hooky, making/Something out of nothing/The need to express/To communicate,/To going against the grain,/Going insane, going mad/To loving tension, no pension/To more than one dimension,/To starving for attention,/Hating convention, hating pretension.”

– “La Vie Boheme” from Rent, Jonathan Larson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning musical.

 

When Rent hit the musical theatre scene, it created a seismic shift, a middle finger to convention, not far afield from what Nirvana did to rock music a few years earlier with Nevermind or what Alan Moore’s Watchmen did to comics even a few years before that. We didn’t really know the term “market disruption” back then, but these Gen X cultural touchstones were exactly that, staking a claim and a voice for those at the margins and, in the process, achieving immense (and ironic) commercial success and transforming their respective industries. We often forget there are more people on the margins (people with wallets) than in the comfortable middle.

(Remember the “popular kids” who bullied you in school? There were fewer of them than the rest of us and nobody actually liked them. Sooooo, how were they deemed “popular”? Who gave them their power? All of us idjits on “the margins,” that’s who.)

I saw a touring production of Rent nearly 20 years ago at the Fisher Theatre in Detroit. I admit nosebleed seats as well as overamplifaction of the band and underarticulation of the cast led me to having zero idea of what was going on and longing for a nice Rodgers and Hammerstein show. Another decade later, we took in Chris Columbus’ film version, which retained much of the original Broadway cast. John loved it; I was a bit more on the fence, feeling the Home Alone/Mrs. Doubtfire/Harry Potter drector’s candy-coated, populist sensibility probably wasn’t the best choice for Alphabet City drug addicts, AIDS sufferers, drag queens, and starving artists. And, to be honest, faced with the prospect of seeing the show again, I wondered if it had suffered the same time warp that befell a musical like Hair.

Wrong. Rent couldn’t be more prescient or essential in today’s challenged times.

During the Wilde Awards last week, I befriended Jamey Grisham, who has been a featured performer, choreographer, and director for The Barn Theatre School in Augusta, Michigan, for the past decade. The Barn had a great night at the ceremony, between an exceptional performance by Jamey and racking up a number of awards. Most notably, however, I was struck by their humility and their sense of community, something you don’t always see in the hyper-competitive world of professional and regional theatre. (Let’s just say I’ve never been sprung on insecure prima donnas.)

Jamey was wrapping up The Barn’s 2017 summer repertory season, playing Angel in, yup, Rent and invited us to see their closing show. So glad we made the drive!

John and me with Penelope Ragotzy and Jamey Grisham

As an aside, The Barn Theatre was founded in 1946 and serves as a fertile training ground for the theatrical talent of today and tomorrow. Notable alumni – who served as apprentices or appeared onstage or both – include Lauren Graham, Tom Wopat, Jennifer Garner, Eric Petersen, Marin Mazzie, Stephen Lynch, Kirker Butler, Paul Loesel, Kim Zimmer, Becky Ann Baker, Eric Cornell, and, yup, Jonathan Larson (the creator of Rent who died a tragic and untimely death from aortic dissection the night before the show opened).

Jamey, perhaps channeling a bit of his community-building character, along with cast-mate and fellow Wilde Award winner Penelope Ragotzy (who also oversees publicity and marketing – they wear MANY hats there) did everything they could to make us feel welcome.

Unfortunately, their production of Rent has wrapped and is now in the record books, so this review will serve more as a reflection on the piece itself, on its relevance, and on the unique and magical nature of The Barn Theatre itself. Given the ongoing cultural and socioeconomic fragmentation of modern-day America, Rent is perhaps more essential than ever (the narrative’s over-reliance on land lines and answering machines notwithstanding).

Loosely based on La Boheme, Rent details a Christmas-Eve-day-in-the-life (first act) followed by a year-in-the-life (second act) of a fractious group of New York anti-Friends: gypsies, tramps, and thieves who can barely afford a cup of coffee, let alone hang out all day in a coffee shop, and whose “fabulous” loft living comes with no heat, no electricity, and the constant threat of eviction. Larson drew iconic characters (the filmmaker, the musician, the junkie, the drag queen, the performance artist, the lawyer, the teacher, the sell-out) and gifted them with even more iconic songs, an unyielding series of barbaric yawps from a youthquake disaffected by the 1% ruling the world. Larson was ahead of his time, foretelling a generation for whom gender and sexuality are fluid (albeit silly) constructs, who care deeply for their environment and whose diet and fashion are dictated by kindness and compassion and locality, and whose self-absorbed/self-aggrandizing selflessness drives all grown-ups in their presence to apoplexy. Sound familiar? All of it?

The Barn’s production, populated as it is with Millennials channeling the Gen X oldies, got that irony fully. From the flawless jungle gym of a set by Samantha Snow to the pitch perfect Archie-meets-Salvation Army pop of Michael Wilson Morgan’s costumes, the able cast was aided and abetted by a technical team – and by Brendan Ragotzy’s sure-handed direction – that embraced the early 90s conventions fully yet wasn’t afraid to wink at the more twee “lost generation” quirks. (The Barn space itself, if you’ve never been, is like seeing a musical in the inverted hull of an old ship, warm and cozy, a little eerie, kind of claustrophobic, and very dramatic.)

Grisham (and, no, it’s not just because he invited us!) was a standout as the shamanistic Angel, the tinsel-strewn lightning rod whose second act sacrifice teaches this band of misfits what love really means. Grisham (doing double duty as the show’s choreographer as well) commanded attention with every entrance and imbued Angel with a lovely “mama bear” authoritarianism that was a welcome new addition to the piece.

Also providing remarkable turns were Courtney Bruce as heart-of-gold-in-pleather Joanne and  Byron Glenn Willis as heart-on-his-sleeve-Jiminy-Cricket Tom Collins. Both mined the conflicted layers inherent in each role, pushing past the one-note takes (pushy lawyer, saintly teacher) that can derail lesser portrayals of each character. Notably, Bruce’s “We’re Okay” and Willis’ reprise of “I’ll Cover You” were character-driven showstoppers that exemplified how each actor grounded their performances in the urgent realities of untenable situations. (I would be remiss if I didn’t note that Willis and the aforementioned Grisham made a divinely poignant stage pairing, both vocally and in their scenework.)

Maureen (originated by Idina Menzel) can be a confounding character, the pampered performance artist who wreaks emotional havoc on anyone foolish enough to give her their heart. In Samantha Rickard’s hands, Maureen was no-less confounding, but also sympathetic and relatable … and a comic firecracker to boot. “Over the Moon,” Maureen’s absurd paean to absurd social justice warriors, was a triumphant hoot, augmented as it was by director Brendan Ragotzy’s genius decision to add a chorus of dancing cows. And, yes, Rickard and Bruce knocked sassy, swaggering musical standoff “Take Me Or Leave Me” out. of. the. park.

Courtney Bruce with me and John

Overall, the ensemble work was top-notch, a blend of seasoned Equity vets and acting apprentices. The central roles of  Mark and Roger are often a challenge to differentiate, given how broadly drawn all of the surrounding characters are, and Nick Barakos and Alex Crossland (respectively) held their own, with Barakos especially offering some nice solo moments and solid interactions with Angel and Tom as the show progressed. These performers obviously will continue to grow, and it’s a remarkable environment where students can take top-billing and learn onstage from seasoned pros.

Following each Barn performance, audience members are encouraged to retire to the “Rehearsal Shed” where the apprentices present a cabaret show (“The Bar Show”) – and serve you drinks and desserts (imagine your grandparents’ “rumpus room” if it had been taken over by cast members from the documentary Camp). Given that we were there for the final performance of the season, emotions ran high – and many a heart-string was plucked – as these kids poured out their souls (and the spirits) one final time. It was truly a gift to be in the room.

I realize this post is one-part review and about eight-parts love letter, but it was just that kind of day, a beautiful late-summer weekend in Michigan, enjoying a wonderfully talented, utterly inclusive band of talented bohemians portray a wonderfully talented, utterly inclusive band of talented bohemians. Thank you for the memories, Jamey and Penelope and your Barnie Brethren. We’ll be back.

 

“Take me for what I am!/Who I was meant to be!/And, if you give a damn,/Take me baby, or leave me!”

– “Take Me Or Leave Me” from Rent

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The Bar Show

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.

“With great power comes great irresponsibility.” #Deadpool

Deadpool If Quentin Tarantino re-imagined Bugs Bunny as a fourth-wall-bursting, profane, cavalier, heartbroken, mutant mercenary with a death wish, it would look something like Marvel’s latest cinematic offering (through Fox, not Disney) Deadpool.

Ryan Reynolds stars as the titular anti-hero (affectionately dubbed “The Merc with a Mouth”), and he has never been so charming, so lovable, so offensively juvenile, so obscene, or so humane. Reynolds has always been too much of a glimmering, beautiful smart-ass for me, like Johnny Carson on steroids (literally), and, even though he may hold the record for playing different super hero personae (Blade III, the regrettable Green Lantern, and the unforgivable movie Deadpool 1.0 in X-Men Origins: Wolverine), I’ve never really left a film of his without the strong desire to smack him across his smirking, pretty boy mug.

Maybe that’s why I liked this Deadpool so much, which wisely torches any and all Reynolds’ previous super hero work to date in a series of winking inside jokes throughout the film. Screaming irreverence notwithstanding (which I absolutely loved), the film hides Reynolds (and his cheese-tastic visage) under a spectacularly expressive red and black mask (the costumer deserves a medal) or under a football field’s worth of latex scar tissue (when said mask is removed), liberating Reynolds to be the big, sweet, friskily asexual, flaming nerd he’s always desired to be. It suits him beautifully.

The film, which spins out of the decidedly more family-friendly X-Men movie universe, isn’t as unconventional as it purports to be. Yes, Reynolds alongside director Tim Miller (directing his first feature after a career in animation – explaining the Tex Avery influences) freely lampoon and celebrate the super hero genre, gleefully biting the many hands (Marvel, Hollywood, Disney, misogyny, bro-culture) that feed them. However, the film’s chassis is as conventional as they come – yet another comic book origin story where boy meets girl; boy gets terminal cancer; boy abandons girl because he doesn’t want her to see him wither away; boy hooks up with creepy-skid-row-scientists-conducting-sadistic-experiments-in-a-murky-basement-somewhere; boy gets super powers, curing his cancer, but also gets really ugly; boy puts on a super suit to gain revenge on skid row scientists; boy avoids girl ’cause he’s really ugly now, but still lurks around all Phantom of the Opera style; boy beats up the creep who scarred him (literally) with the help of a couple of comically wayward X-Men; boy gets girl back after she punches him repeatedly for ever leaving her in the first place. Finis.

Hmmm … well, maybe the movie is not that conventional. What sets Deadpool apart, ultimately, is how deftly the film marries the prurient and the gentle. The adoration and respect that Reynolds’ Wade Wilson (later Deadpool) shows his fellow lower-class misfit Vanessa (deftly played by Gotham’s Morena Baccarin, lighting up the screen with naughty screwball feminist camp) is genuine and tender (when they aren’t smacking each other with riding crops). The kindness and the mutual admiration Deadpool has for his blind, Ikea-loving, foul-mouthed septuagenarian roommate Blind Al (portrayed with scene-stealing delight by an unrecognizable Leslie Uggams!) is precious and heart-warming (when they aren’t talking about crack cocaine, firearms, and the near-sensual comfort of their Crocs footwear). The sweet and salty bromance between Reynolds and barkeep Weasel (nebbishly scruffy T.J. Miller, used much more effectively here than in that godawful Transformers flick) is a grounded and welcome respite from all the four-color absurdity (when they aren’t starting bar fights by sending alcoholic beverages with risque names from one table of thugs to another).

This film is a hoot and is wildly inappropriate for anyone under 18 or anyone over 18. I applaud the filmmakers for taking on the challenge of an R-rated comic book adaptation, and, while indulging many of their baser instincts, maintaining the sense of joy and inclusion that propels the most successful, broad-reaching super hero films. Deadpool stands in marked contrast to movies like Kingsman or Watchmen or 300 that wear their ugly outcast alienation on their collective sleeves (or, in the case of 300, lack of sleeves … or, in the case of Watchmen, lack of pants), movies with a kind of baked-in, intractable sexism.

I suppose we can thank (?) 300/Watchmen director Zack Snyder (and friends) for creating that new brand of sexism, one in which the purveyors claim that the true sexists are those preoccupied by the sexism? By golly, don’t you dare try to prevent these alpha-aspirational men (?) from being MEN! Grrrr. OK, neither Snyder nor his ilk have ever said that – though films like 300 are really freaking Freudian, in a bad P90X, artisanal craft beer-drinking, Paleo Diet way. Hell, maybe I’ve just had too many wobbly political debates on Facebook this week? #FeelingBernt? But I digress …

Whatever the case, Deadpool is a welcome divergence from those dark and gritty, self-serious comic book adaptations and offers plenty of scatalogical foolishness to satiate your inner 8th grader, while infusing the genre with a truly subversive love for underdogs of any and all stripes (among us all) – and that will satisfy your exhausted outer grown-up.

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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.

Manners maketh man? Fifty Shades of Grey and Kingsman: The Secret Service (films)

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I feel like I need to have my brain scrubbed with turpentine and disinfectant after the double feature we just endured: Fifty Shades of Grey and Kingsman: The Secret Service.

Were these movies bad? No, not at all. Did I enjoy myself? Yes, for great swaths of both flicks. Will I hate myself in the morning (and have some really loopy dreams)? Decidedly yes.

Both films are adapted from literary works … Albeit one is a soft-core porn trilogy written by Twlight-fanfic-aficionado E.L. James and is sold conveniently to S&M-curious grocery shoppers at Wal-Mart, Target, and Meijer. The other is a graphic graphic novel created by comic book iconoclasts Mark Millar (Kick-Ass) and Dave Gibbons (Watchmen) for whom bloody violence and gore is a balletic vehicle for cheeky satire and whose work is distributed via corner comic shops to superhero and gaming fetishists who greedily devour it from their befuddled family members’ basements. (In full disclosure, save that basement reference, I fall firmly in the latter camp and never in the former, though I do shop at Target and Meijer a lot.)

As for the film adaptation of Fifty Shades, whose chief contribution to popular culture seems to be the mainstreaming of kink (provided you happily equate it with vampirism), I found that I really enjoyed all the narrative elements that had absolutely nothing to do with the core subject matter. When otherwise charming leads Jamie Dornan (“Christian Grey”) and Dakota Johnson (“Anastasia Steele” – cripes, these names) do finally get to the “sexytime,” a term I’m borrowing out of necessity from Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat, the movie grinds (no pun intended) to a halt. Johnson exhibits a delightfully natural comic timing which belies her status as Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith’s progeny, let alone as Tippi Hedren’s granddaughter, and Dornan does bemused hunky brooding better than anyone this side of the CW.

Their … ahem … courtship seems to be from a different movie entirely (thank heavens) than all the dirty business. I enjoyed their banter (underwritten though it is), and director Sam Taylor-Johnson has the good sense to cast as Christian and Anastasia’s respective mothers Marcia Gay-Harden and Jennifer Ehle (both sleekly slumming here). It crosses my mind that someone should remake the feather-light froth of Barefoot in the Park or Any Wednesday and throw Dornan and Johnson in the roles; no whips, chains, bare ass-cracks, or nipples required.

Watching Fifty Shades (and, mind you, I didn’t hate it), I kept wishing for the film to leave that stupid “red room of pain” and return to Anastasia’s shabby chic college flat (oh, how I adore the darling roommate played by Eloise Mumford) or Christian’s shimmering spaceship of an office, populated as it is by admins who wouldn’t be out of place in Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love” video. I truly enjoyed all the silly soap opera shenanigans around the stilted sex scenes.

Remember that certain musical production number of yore, the dull kind that went on forever and had Cyd Charisse entangling Gene Kelly in a thousand-mile-long chiffon scarf (which in itself is kinda kinky)? That’s how I felt about all of Fifty Shades‘ tie me up, tie me down, Beauty-and-the-Beast boudoir moments.

It is a testament to Taylor-Johnson’s direction that she is able to pull together some semblance of romance and charm and wit from what I’ve heard are shoddily written books. And, no, I am never going to read them! Bully for her.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Kingsman is by far the better film, chiefly because director Matthew Vaughn (X-Men: First Class, Kick-Ass, Stardust, Layer Cake – this last one starring “ultimate James Bond” Daniel Craig) wisely casts Colin Firth in the lead role, a role which cannily plays to and toys with Firth’s persona as the consummate Brit gentleman. In prologue to one of Firth’s many jaw-dropping, gymnastically-choreographed fight scenes, he intones “manners maketh man.” Firth is clearly having the time of his life playing a Savile Row “dapper dan” tailor who happens to lead a double life as a Kingsman, a super-secret agent keeping Queen and Country (and pretty much all of us on this planet) safe from bomb-dropping megalomaniacs and local bar-brawling hooligans. He is a joy to watch.

Much of Vaughn’s film is a pleasure, like Dr. Strangelove if directed by Quentin Tarantino on a bender from too many viewings of Moonraker, Octopussy, Smiley’s People, and Austin Powers. Firth (“Harry Hart/Galahad”) takes his orders from a wry Michael Caine (“Arthur”) with tech guidance from the warmly imposing Mark Strong (“Merlin”).

As Samuel L. Jackson’s “Valentine” (an intentionally corny mashup of Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Blofeld, and Dr. Evil) determines that the best way to cure global warming and other ills affecting this planet is to divest Earth of its “disease” (that would be us humans), Firth and his fellow Kingsmen race against the clock to expand their ranks with new recruits to foil Valentine’s cartoonishly gruesome plan.

Taron Egerton (a British mix of James Cagney and Matt Damon) is a wonderful new cinematic presence as aspiring Kingsman “Eggsy,” and his Eliza Doolittle/Henry Higgins scenes with Firth sparkle. Akin to Fifty Shades, I kept wanting the mayhem to stop so we could have more sprightly character development with this dynamic duo.

However, the violence – granted one of Vaughn’s signatures (along with hyperkinetic fight scene editing) – is a bit of a boat anchor around the film’s otherwise bright-hearted and buoyant spirit. There is just so much gore – body parts flying every which way, hyperbolic gun-play, medieval skewerings – that the satire becomes lost in the junior-high-boy juvenile excess and self-indulgence. I will admit, though, that the sight of Firth massacring a whole church full of hypocritical redneck bigots (an obvious stand-in for the hate-spewing Westboro Baptist Church and … others) is a guilty pleasure I shall carry in my heart for all time.

(Also – spoiler alert – no animals are ever hurt, though there is a peculiar test of the Kingsmen recruits that, well, tested my patience. Kind of an Old Yeller moment that ended up being a total ruse. People hurt? Lots. Animals hurt? None.)

I’m not sure I would go so far as to recommend either film, as I worry what you, dear readers, would think of me and of my mental stability if you ventured forth to see Fifty Shades or Kingsman based on my recommendation. However, if you feel like taking in a guilty pleasure (or two) suffused with a heaping helping of puerile foolishness, these films are for you. Yet, this evening’s offerings definitively reminded me that just because something can be depicted on film doesn’t mean it should be depicted on film. Manners maketh man, indeed.

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Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews 2

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 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.

Boys of Summer: Man of Steel

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

All I can say is thank heavens for Kevin Costner and Diane Lane. (Not a sentence I thought I would ever type.)

These two veterans give Man of Steel, the latest big screen Superman treatment, much-needed heart, warmth, and vitality.

Now, that’s not to say Man of Steel is bad. Quite the opposite in fact. The film is stocked with a phenomenal cast of Oscar-nominated/winning actors: the aforementioned duo playing Ma and Pa Kent as well as Amy Adams as Lois Lane, Laurence Fishburne as Perry White, Michael Shannon as General Zod, and Russell Crowe as Jor-El. All of them bring an almost BBC-level Shakespearean gravitas to the four-color (albeit grittily muted) proceedings.

Furthermore, relative newcomer Henry Cavill is a perfect Superman, particularly for a postmodern era. He exudes the noble sadness of a person caught between two worlds, a haunted soul hoping that both worlds (in this case, Krypton and Earth) find a means to rise above their darker natures. He makes the most of too few moments of wit, most in exchange with a crackerjack Adams, and he powers through some painfully-obvious shots of otherworldly beefcakery. Alas, at times, it seemed as if director Zack Snyder was more inspired by the latest Abercrombie & Fitch catalog than the DC Comics source material. (From 300 to Watchmen to Man of Steel, Freud would have a field day with Snyder’s hyper-stylized oeuvre.)

My biggest issue with the film would be its chronic video-game aesthetic that starts to grind the viewer into paste as pop-eyed, scowling, yet compelling Shannon’s Zod fights … and fights … and fights … and fights with Cavill’s Superman, pretty much turning Metropolis into a smoking crater. The sheer improbability of all the destruction waged hurts the otherwise credible dynamic established by this great cast.

But back to Lane and Costner. With very little screen time, they made a believer out of this viewer … that the all-American values these adoptive parents impart in their son aren’t some goody goody impulse. Rather, these values are a tool the couple use to keep their child safe, helping him blend into a small-town/small-minded world that would otherwise loathe him for his exceptional talents. A fresh and interesting lens through which to view an oft-told American myth.

If last summer’s Dark Knight Rises, which was directed by Man of Steel producer Christopher Nolan, was a parable of 99 per centers run amuck, then this follow-up plays on today’s crazed paranoia – among neo-cons and bleeding hearts alike – of an imminent fascist state controlling all thought, action, and deed. Crowe’s Jor-El rockets his baby boy to Earth to show his Kryptonian people a different way, a life of free-will, hope, and joy. Problem with that is that we Americans can be a cowardly and fearful lot … so thank goodness little Kal-El (soon to be Clark Kent) stumbles upon a prototypical humanist couple in a Kansas cornfield.

And you know the moment that brought me to tears? (SPOILER ALERT!) When the filmmakers have Pa Kent meet his maker going back and rescuing the family pooch from a CGI-swirly tornado barreling down a stretch of Kansas interstate. Yes, the dog survives, and Costner gets his glow-y Field of Dreams moment right before getting swallowed by the twister. He looks knowingly at his space alien boy as if to say, “Be humble, do the right thing, and always help all creatures great and small.” And inadvertently, it was also a moment of a former blockbuster boy of summer (Costner) passing the torch onto a new one (Cavill).