Saturday, April 15, 2017

Damn, that Detroit musical was fun!

In recent decades, it's been easy to take potshots at Detroit; pretty much everyone's done it at some point over the years, residents and pundits alike, and much of it was deserved. But rarely have they been hurled with as much comedic insight and love for the city as can be found in The Detroit Musical about to conclude its run at the new Ant Hall in Hamtramck.

Originally titled Detroit Be Damned: A Beaver's Tale when it premiered in 2010 at Planet Ant (and subsequently at the Park Bar), co-creators Mikey Brown and Shawn Handlon have updated their popular production that views the city's 300-plus-year history through the eyes of the LeMerde family, who were among the area's original French settlers. (Look up a translation of their last name and you'll discover just how sneaky and subversive Brown and Handlon are at carefully threading the show together with even the most seemingly innocent reference.)

Beginning with explorer Antoine Laumet de La Mothe, sieur de Cadillac's arrival by canoe in 1701, the well-researched musical comedy touches upon many of the significant moments in the city's history - including the known and not-so known (Oscar Meyer lived and worked in Detroit? Who knew!), as well as the good, the bad and the "just for the fun of it." (So, yes, it makes total sense to include the friendly rivalry between the American and Lafayette Coney Islands downtown, although to me the constant negative description of food from one of the two venues comes across as more of a personal vendetta against the place than anything else.)

While not every poke or jab is as sharp or works as well as the cast and creators would like, the overall result is an often side-splitting romp, thanks to sharp and witty dialog, with expertly crafted video (by Brown) and delightful tunes (words by Brown and director Handlon; music by the multitasking Brown) helping to set the time, place and plot pieces needed to move the story along. (I bet everyone hums The Livonia Song - a catchy ditty about white flight - at some point after the performance; it's the highlight of the show.)

Five actors portray the show's numerous characters, with only an article of clothing or head piece to distinguish one from another. (They're mostly related, after all.) Chris Korte and Dez Walker return from previous incarnations of the show (always a major plus), joined by Stefanie Bainter, Rj Cach and Paris Mason. Together, the ensemble is equally adept at delivering the comedy as they are the songs, with the two women especially strong in the vocals department. (The recorded music sometimes overpowered the singers, however.) And every time the handsome and clean-cut Cach walked on stage, I couldn't help but think there's a production of The Book of Mormon in his future.

The Bottom Line: For me, The Detroit Musical represents one of the things I love most about our local professional theaters - especially the smaller houses: They're willing to take chances and explore themes and concepts their bigger brothers and sisters wouldn't touch. And as patrons, we're lucky to have such talented creators living and working here, creating original works of such high quality. So while The Detroit Musical isn't perfect (and what is?), it sure is one helluva fun show!

The Detroit Musical closes April 15. For show details, click here.

PS: Here's one fact the show's creators failed to include in their script: A certain cranky critic is a direct descendant of one of Detroit's original 300 families. Yes, my roots here are deep - and my family tree includes more than a few colorful characters. But we lasted within the city limits longer than the LeMerdes did: through 1995 when my mother passed away and we sold the house she lived in for a few months shy of 50 years.

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