Live theater, unsolicited commentary. From Detroit to Lansing.


Last season's infectiously fun original musical Detroit Be Dammed: A Beaver's Tale has moved to the heart of downtown Detroit for another round of good-natured ribbing from among the ranks of its own. Written by Shawn Handlon and Mikey Brown and presented (as before) by Planet Ant Theatre, the current production has changed somewhat, yet feels as complete as the original, with all of its abundant satire and affection intact.

From the beginning, the viewer is thrust into the bosom of the fictitious LeMerde family, a proud and likable batch of Charlie Brown types genetically predisposed to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, to wholeheartedly champion a doomed cause, or to be shouted down the relatively few times they make a good point. The show boasts essentially the same songs as before, which both impress musically and are cultivated for maximum comedy. The more wrong the point of view, factually or ideologically, the bigger and more impassioned the number, and the giggle-inducing juxtaposition is turned to full laughter by whip-smart lyrics. The city's few wins and mounting losses are presented almost as inside jokes; when a descendant finally succumbs to mounting crime rates and white flight and moves to the suburbs, the attendant tune is an eviscerating ode to whitewashed Livonia, with Jill Dion's ironically idyllic choreography blossoming on a larger stage. Also retained is the well-executed framework and story line, tracing three hundred years of melting-pot LeMerde lineage (and, by extension, Detroit history) throughout the first act, then drawing out its present-day plot in the second.

Among the discernible changes in this revival, the most noteworthy is the reversal of the contemporary class-of-'09 LeMerde character from male to female. Making the family's last scion a woman doesn't detract from the well-written parent/child struggle that drives the second act, in which the paucity of jobs and opportunities in Detroit force the college graduate to consider uprooting, much to her father's consternation. More importantly, the switch ensures that each cast member represents at least one LeMerde, a detail that's surprisingly unifying, given how little the script changes to accommodate it. Other details of the book and score have been added or edited; to the credit of Brown and Handlon, the revisions were embedded and polished enough that I couldn't easily differentiate what was brand new from what I forgot I had seen the first time. Beefed-up video supplementation (also by Brown) adds its own jokes in force, but, as in the curiously woeful lament for an abandoned house, a keenly felt mixture of pain and pride is always palpable just under the humorous veneer. With accomplished direction by Handlon, the production is a prime example of we-kid-because-we-love, executed with flair.

The ensemble cast of five does fine work vocally and comically; many characters pass too quickly to get major attention and development, but the performers' range is second to their indomitable energy. Brown's assorted low-key LeMerdes are a splendid entry point into the line. As a starlet-like young Briton forced to move to Fort Detroit against her will, Dawn Bartley captures teenage rebellion in a pissed-off rock song. Among the few portrayals of LeMerdes at different ages, Dez Walker gamely bridges a young idealist with his curmudgeonly future self while maintaining the core of the character. Together, Chris Korte and Sharon L. Brooks give their father/daughter relationship a strong dramatic center that grows into the central conflict, immediately establishing a warm and respectful familial bond that sets the stakes high for the second act and makes the conclusion that much more satisfying.

Acoustics present some problems in the big, raw Park Bar performance space: spoken lines are in danger of being swallowed up, whereas the pre-recorded score is sometimes overpowering. However, the emerging downtown venue, both in its proximity to the roundly skewered hub-and-spoke layout developed by Augustus Woodward and in its actual embodiment of the renewal of a rundown city, feels like the right fit for the small-scale, can-do attitude of this production. The minimalist, lightly accessorized wardrobe by costumer Alison Lewis can't possibly distinguish among so many switching characters and eras, but the helpful historic narration by Brown's video-animated singing beaver character capably fills in the gaps. What designer Rollo's primary-colored LED lighting may occasionally lack in nuance, this is dwarfed by the jaw-dropping Earth-friendliness of its total 80 watts of power. It may be over-reaching to suggest that the show's move to the mostly vacated downtown and rebuilding with better and greener materials is a model for the kind of renewal many would like to see for Detroit; even so, the unquestionable heart behind the success of Detroit Be Dammed: A Beaver's Tale is something the city could use more of.


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