Adrift in a sea of male menopause: Two Muses’ production of Jake’s Women

And presenting: ALL of Jake's Women. His girlfriend, his therapist, his sister, his wife, his late wife, his daughter aged 21 and 12. November 14-December 7. A heartwarming comedy by Neil Simon. [Photo by Melissa Tremblay of Platinum Imagery.]

And presenting: ALL of Jake’s Women. His girlfriend, his therapist, his sister, his wife, his late wife, his daughter aged 21 and 12. Through December 7. [Photo by Melissa Tremblay of Platinum Imagery.]

Playwright Neil Simon has always seemed to me like a man adrift in a sea of male menopause. The man sure can write a very funny line (I often think his work is best served in a musical comedy setting), yet he seems preserved in Swinging 60s amber, a throwback to another time when the whole country fantasized about living on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and found humor in delicatessen euphemisms and sitcom-sexualized comedies of error.

 

Simon’s semi-autobiographical memory play Jake’s Women, thereby is an interesting conundrum. First produced in 1990 and starring Alan Alda, the show is Simon’s post-mid-life-theatrical-crisis-writ-large. Simon literally and figuratively exorcises the the ghosts of women who have influenced and shaped his work. Take that, Joan Baim! And that, Marsha Mason! And that … Elaine Joyce?!? In the wrong hands, the play could be an exercise in misogyny at worst or farcical foolishness at best – a kind of Borscht Belt version of Fellini’s 8 1/2 (itself later staged/musicalized by Maury Yeston as Nine).

I am happy to report that the sparkling ensemble in Two Muses’ current production of Jake’s Women (directed by Bailey Boudreau) hits all the right notes. Given that Two Muses’ mission is to promote and celebrate the artistic contributions of women, this play is an inspired and intriguing choice. In lead actor Robert Hotchkiss, the production gives us a sensitive and grounded Jake, informed and haunted as much by modern life/sensibilities as he is by any kind of cooked-up gender war.

Jake’s marriage to whip smart corporate warrior Maggie is failing as he has never gotten past the death of his first wife Julie. The past and present collide as Dickensian specters (wives, daughter, therapist, sister, paramour) shadow Jake’s every move, given vibrant, intrusive life by his crumbling mental state. Jake as a writer is forever trapped in his own head, revisiting the past as a means of understanding the present yet never truly living in any moment. Jake’s laptop computer is an omnipresent stage symbol of the wall he puts between himself and the rest of humanity. I suspect anyone with a smart phone can relate to that.

As Maggie, Amy Morrissey provides the perfect counterpoint to Jake’s neuroses. She has a tricky task of playing Maggie both in the present day and as an idealized Maggie from the early days of their relationship. The actress shows great warmth and humor for the material but is never sidelined by Simon’s more misogynistic tendencies. Maggie is a person first and foremost, as she intones to Jake in one of their later conversations.

The ensemble work is particularly strong in this production. Charlotte Weisserman as Jake’s 12-year-old daughter Molly beams with a mischievously angelic presence – as does Barbie Weisserman as Jake’s sister, the chaotically big-hearted filmmaker Karen. (No shock there I supposed as Charlotte clearly has inherited some lovely, natural stage gifts from her talented real-life mom Barbie.)

Some of the production’s most emotionally affecting moments come from the theatrical mother-daughter team of Meredith Deighton as Jake’s late wife Julie  and Egla Kishta as college-age Molly. The familial dynamic achieved between Alexander, Kishta, and Hotchkiss during the play’s second act is remarkable – deeply felt with a comfort and ease rarely seen on any stage.

It wouldn’t be a Neil Simon show without some broad comic relief. Margaret Gilkes is sharp-edged fun as Jake’s saucy therapist Edith, aided and abetted by some of the script’s best zingers, which Gilkes nails with Elaine Stritch-y aplomb. Luna Alexander as Jake’s of-the-moment mistress has the show’s most raucous scene  (think The Odd Couple‘s Pigeon Sisters by way of The Jersey Shore‘s Snooki and Jwoww), and she wrings every bit of rimshot glee from her second act moment.

Like the majority of Two Muses’ output, the production values are spot-on, with clever and efficient use of the space, detailed but never overdone set dressing, classic character driven costuming, and an evocative lighting plot.

Back to Jake:  Hotchkiss builds his character beautifully, giving us a broken soul who is not just relatable but a lot of fun to watch. Jake’s journey is a difficult one to convey on stage, rife with potentially self-indulgent pitfalls, but Hotchkiss is very smart, warm, and wry and never panders to the audience or to his character’s many, many flaws.

Jake follows a similar arc to Company‘s Bobby, never sure who he really is and only finding motivation by pinging off the input of others. Unlike Sondheim, however, Simon offers Jake a bit more redemption. Hotchkiss does a fine job walking Jake’s circuitous path as he realizes that snark and witty wordplay do not healthy flesh-and-blood relationships make. The play’s script leaves us with an ambiguously happy ending, as Jake and Maggie set off to resolve their differences, but the rich performances by Hotchkiss and Morrissey overlay that denouement with a believable and honest sense of the couple’s future chances.

The play runs through December 7 at Two Muses Theatre. 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. Tickets can be purchased online here or by calling 248.850.9919 (Box Office Hours: By phone:  10am-5pm.  In person at the theatre, 60 minutes prior to all performances.)

________________________

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.

“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.

________________________

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.

________________

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!

________________

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.