Live theater, unsolicited commentary. From Detroit to Lansing.


News flash: Some people actually love Detroit so much, they're willing to sing about it. That's the kind of misplaced astonishment we're used to reading in the national media, the disbelief that anybody would willingly live in Detroit, and it makes some locals' blood boil. In that same defiant spirit, the Planet Ant original musical Detroit Be Dammed: A Beaver's Tale addresses both the history and the heart of the city, embracing them in an infectious surge of passion.

Written by Mikey Brown and Shawn Handlon and directed by the latter, the show evades the traditional mold of setup, song, setup, song. Musical numbers are used sparingly, leaving plenty of room to unfold numerous stories and even more jokes. The first act is a sweeping retelling of defining moments in the history of Detroit, each told through the lens of the LeMerde family. (For readers not versed in French expletives, a nice way of translating the name would be the poop. LeMerdes through the years are accordingly bumbling and hapless, but all are likable and never moronic.) Most of the progression is chronological, leading from French rule to British to American, briefly back to British, and then to American again. The city's role in the Underground Railroad is addressed, and Augustus B. Woodward and Henry Ford make appearances. The three men in the cast each play different men of the LeMerde ancestry, which is helpfully made clear by the use of a projection screen. Projected images also remind viewers of the year, provide visual aids, and feature a line-drawn cartoon beaver that belts brief synopses and exposition to a bluesy refrain.

The second act is similar, but takes a shift in tone — 2009's Omar LeMerde blames prior generations for making Detroit unable to sustain him or his peers, and he must contemplate moving away, breaking a 300-year tradition of LeMerdes in Detroit. (His father considers himself a loyal Detroiter despite having moved to Livonia, after the city built a freeway in front of his childhood home.) Brown and Handlon do remarkable work bringing the relationships of multiple generations to life, and the lineage is clear without having to spell it out for the audience. Local specifics are also woven in this act, including the question of Coney Island allegiance, a great scene at the expense of the Lions, and the brilliant number "Livonia," which is a thousand times funnier than a song about white flight has any right to be. 

The ensemble cast of Brown, Jessalyn Brooks, Chris Jakob, Kennikki Jones, and Chris Korte demonstrates fine comedic skill and decent singing and dancing, although sometimes just singing over the prerecorded music is challenge enough. Choreography by Jill Dion is best in a complicated number extolling the virues of steam power over the combustion engine (oh, LeMerde). The many characters are made sufficiently distinct by Alison Lewis and Margo Kish's costumes — wigs, accessories, and representative pieces worn over the actors' neutral gray shirts and jeans. Handlon's staging makes dynamic use of the gray setting, playing with levels and multiple entrances and putting voices all over the space. The show moves at a quick clip, but viewers are given plenty of assistance with keeping up.

From the pre-show music by decades of Detroit artists to the final anthem to a beleaguered and maligned hometown, the energy and drive behind the performances attribute what feels like long-overdue honor to the subject matter. Brown and Handlon ground their uplifting message about Detroit by portraying it as it is, warts and all: its impossible street design, its jagged racial history, its abysmal football team. Detroit Be Dammed: A Beaver's Tale isn't solely a history lesson, or a love letter, or a campaign for improvement. The show isn't intended to win over outsiders with its inside jokes and self parody, but people who already love the city (even in the most cynical sense) should be moved by the conviction at the core of its levity. This production — even more so the devotion behind it — is an argument in Detroit's favor.


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