By Jenn McKee
In a comedy show about the history of Detroit, you pretty much have to expect a Native American character named White Stripes, don’t you?
Well, there’s that and more in “Detroit Be Damned: A Beaver’s Tale,” now having its premiere at Planet Ant. Co-written by director Shawn Handlon and cast member Mikey Brown, the show uses comic sketches to tell the story of several generations of the LeMerde family (yes, the meaning of that French name is addressed) in Detroit.
After a pretty good opening scene between White Stripes (Kennikki Jones), her brother (Chris Jakob) and Antoine Cadillac (Jessalyn Brooks), the show leaps forward to 1966, and at this point, things get a little bumpy for a bit – due to a lot of jumping around in time, and to the varying quality of the sketches.
The 1966 moment, for instance, focuses on an uncomfortable exchange between a young boy (Chris Korte) and his grandfather (Jakob), wherein Grandpa describes the sex life of an ancestor and White Stripes, as described in a graphic, old family journal. When the boy mentions Henry Ford to change the subject, the old man launches into a rant. Slightly funny, but not wildly funny.
Next, an eye-rolling, petulant Colonial teen, traveling by wagon against her will with her father to Detroit from Boston, is given a lot of juice by Brooks, who rocks out with an accompanying teen angst song. But the bit – like ones that follow about the Belle Isle purchase and the 1805 fire – is cute but feels a little flat, comedically.
This applied to much of the show’s first half, despite some whimsically goofy animation, and occasionally hysterical lines (a runaway slave says, “I didn’t mind the farming. It was all the beating and raping I could do without,” and Augustus Woodward excitedly claims that “Tens of new jobs will be created by plan”). And while I realize “Detroit” is a comedy show, slightly sharper execution of the songs (performers often seemed a little out of synch with the recorded music) and choreography would probably help the musical jokes hit home a little more effectively.
The show hits its highest point right after intermission, when a hilarious number about Livonia features Korte in a bathrobe, popping out from behind the set to offer acerbic asides (when Livonia’s residents are described as “gay,” for instance, Korte adds, “the good kind,” and later adds, “We hide the old people”). I’ve seen variations on this theme in other comedy shows in the area, but the song nonetheless nails its (admittedly easy) target for some very good laughs.
And while the remaining scenes never quite ascend to these heights again, one thing the show has going for it is the way it imparts the city’s fascinating history in a caustic light. I hadn’t realized, for instance, that Houdini had offered his last performance here.
So I had the pleasure of learning some things while laughing at some fine insider jokes, such as the heated patron battle regarding the neighboring Detroit institutions, American Coney Island and Lafayette Coney Island. This segment leads into a strong closing number that rouses the audience’s spirits.
Each of the cast members have strong moments, but Korte was the standout for me on opening night, switching gears between subtle comedy, farce and occasional moments of drama with apparent ease.
Technically, the multimedia show had a few stumbles on opening night. The video elements were stilted or frozen on two occasions, and the image of what appeared to be a computer screen was up for a few minutes late in the show. In terms of direction, some of the scene changes are clunky, but Handlon keeps things moving and, in terms of using various corners of the space, surprising.
Ultimately, those interested in a lighthearted look at local history should look no further than “Detroit.” It’s not a home run, but it would probably get you to third – in the old Tiger Stadium, anyway.
‘Detroit Be Damned: A Beaver’s Tale’
Planet Ant Theatre, 2357 Caniff Ave., Hamtramck. Friday-Saturday through March 27, plus Sunday March 14 & 21. $20. 313-365-4948. http://www.planetant.com