By John Quinn
Review: ‘Boomtown 1925’
Southwest Detroit in the 1920s returns to life at Matrix Theatre
It was a decade unlike any other in Detroit’s history: The War to End All Wars was over, prosperity was rising and Jazz was the music of the day. And women were beginning to exert their political and economic muscle.
Yet it was also a period in which the city struggled with integration and segregation.
One local neighborhood was different from the rest, however, and its uniqueness is chronicled in “Boomtown 1925,” a fascinating exploration of social change now playing at Detroit’s Matrix Theatre.
With a rapidly expanding automotive industry luring the masses to Detroit in the 1920s, the city’s population exploded by more than a half-million. Detroit was rapidly becoming a melting pot, and its most diverse neighborhood was Delray, located in Southwest Detroit.
The story unfolds within the confines of Gus’s All Night Diner, a local institution that sits across the street from the Ternstedt plant on the corner of Fourth and Livernois. Coffee is a nickel, a ham sandwich costs 15 cents and meatloaf with mashed potatoes sets a customer back a whopping 30 cents.
It’s also where people from all cultures and backgrounds cross paths, much to the chagrin of some in the neighborhood!
The play’s nine writers – known as the Collective Playwrights Workshop – tell their story through the experiences of five women from different cultures who find their lives entwined at the diner. This is a slice-of-life play; that is, there is no central crisis that needs to be resolved by the end of the evening. Instead, we watch as each of the five characters grows and evolves over an 18-month period. The result is an absorbing character study that parallels one of the most exciting eras in Detroit’s history.
We feel pride as Lupe Acosta (played by Myrna Segura-Sample), a working mother of five who is hired to be the night cook at the diner, gains experience and strikes out on her own; we experience joy when Rose Attalee (Kimberly Wray-Norman), a widowed black woman who fled Georgia after her home was torched by the Klan, finds love at the diner; we feel pain when Marika Molnar Soltecz (Fran Marchone), a Hungarian who owns a boarding house, loses her job at the plant; we sympathize with Connie McCarren (Bridget Michael), a rich white college student, who yearns for something more in her life than money; and we applaud when Virgie Tatro (Krystie Troia), a runaway from Kentucky, blossoms from racist party-girl to responsible adult.
Adding to the show’s flavor are references to topical issues of the day, including a visit from birth control advocate Margaret Sanger, the trial of Dr. Ossian Sweet and Hamtramck’s financial woes.
Ten enthusiastic performers light up the stage, plus several “interveners” – characters who appear for only a moment. It’s a truly delightful evening of engaging performances, although slightly marred by a flaw that is common among shows featuring inexperienced actors: The pacing needs to be improved. The very natural-sounding dialogue is often delivered herky-jerky; that is, long pauses sit between two sides of a conversation. Such unnatural and uncomfortable delivery damages a show’s rhythms. Fix this, and the result will be a totally mesmerizing evening of local theater!
“Boomtown 1925” Presented Thursday through Sunday by the Matrix Theatre Company, 2730 Bagley, Detroit, through March 20. Tickets: $15. 313-967-0999. http://matrixtheatre.org.
The Bottom Line: A slice of Detroit’s history comes alive in an original and very entertaining production.
Review: ‘The Phantom of the Opera’
A Broadway standard still has appeal
Back in the day when I “did” theater instead of write about it, a young reporter for a here-to-be-nameless suburban paper was dragooned by his editor to review a civic theater production. His opening line: “Why would anybody stage ‘My Fair Lady’ when the Audrey Hepburn film was so perfect?” I’m not sure he was employed long enough to discover the answer to that question, but I’ll point out his most obvious mistake: Film and theater are different art forms, and “which is better” discussions are the fruitless comparisons of apples and oranges.
We have so many “Phantoms of the Opera” because Gaston Leroux’s 1911 potboiler of a novel is based on an oddly compelling twist on the Beauty and the Beast fable. There’s just so much one can do with it! A hideously deformed genius lurks in the cellars of the Paris Opera House, terrorizing the casts and crew as the “Opera Ghost.” He falls in love with a nave chorus girl, and becomes Pygmalion to her Galatea. But Christine herself finds, “It’s in your soul that the true distortion lies.”
Since “Phantom” has been through Detroit four times and has played on Broadway since 1988, what’s left to say?
Well, let’s start by saying this show doesn’t travel light. It’s a spectacle of false proscenium, massive staircases and that thousand-pound chandelier suspended over the theater critics’ heads. It’s eye-popping costumes and pyrotechnics intense enough to send a wave of heat into our faces. It’s stage gimmicks and melodrama. It’s a show that can be overwhelming when viewed up closeÑthere’s just so much to see. It improves with perspective.
Some people find that the Andrew Lloyd Webber score annoying. In writing a musical about opera, he has filled the play with pastiches – a little fake Verdi, mock Mozart, purloined Donizetti – and if you don’t recognize the source, how can you get the joke? Musical lovers seem to dread his use of melodies over and over in a Wagnerian leitmotif. But in the end, I think the show is just too much fun for the serious types.
If you think a show like “Phantom” deserves at least one view, is this the production? Well, I haven’t seen the film, and wouldn’t have compared the two anyway. Does the tour compare well with Broadway, or with the Toronto production that was my only previous contact with this show? Oh yes, surprisingly so. Some of the bells and whistles may be diminished, but not so you’d notice.
Despite all the kitsch, what’s going to carry a musical is the singing, and “Phantom” is blessed with powerful voices. Tenor Gary Mauer appears in the title role, and knocks out his hellishly difficult part with aplomb.
Solos and duets are crystal clear, but it seems some combination of seating and acoustics muddied the chorus numbers for me. Is the venerable Masonic showing its age?
“The Phantom of the Opera” Presented Tuesday through Sunday at the Masonic Temple Theatre, 500 Temple, Detroit, through March 27. Tickets: $18 – $72.50. 313-872-1000.http://www.nederlanderdetroit.com.
The Bottom Line: A shining example of the Broadway mega-musical, this “Phantom” is plain entertainment on a grand scale.