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Googly-eyed ambitions yield fuzzy returns

By Carolyn Hayes Harmer

REVIEW: "Fuzzballs"

Go Comedy! Improv Theater

Posted: Aug. 15, 2014 at 4:55 p.m.

If Tommy LeRoy isn't already a local legend in metro Detroit theater, he should be. Seen the low-tech, high-impact blood and animatronic effects in the long-running "Evil Dead: The Musical"? That was Tommy LeRoy. Remember the larger-than-life ED-209 robot in "Robocop: The Musical"? Classic Tommy LeRoy. Point to anything that's ever been rigged to do an unexpected thing, any custom-built exactly-to-scale prop, or any visionary proportion-defying costume in an original production, and those in the know won't need many guesses to identify the source.

It's worth noting because Go Comedy! Improv Theater's untamed late-Thursday time slot is not just being overrun by any old puppets, but by Tommy LeRoy puppets. The do-it-yourself ingenuity impresario is creator and director of the fluffy and flashy "Fuzzballs," in essence a live-action staging of a puppet TV show.

The production cites Jim Henson's "The Muppet Show" as inspiration, and its presentation borrows from the stage show "Puppet Up!," created by Henson's son. There are two major components to the setup: the playing area to one side of the Go stage, where scenes unfold live for a camera, and the simultaneous video image projected above center stage. (More so than usual at Go Comedy!, there are good seats and less-good seats for this production; for best results, aim for a clear view of the area in front of the "Fuzzballs" backdrop.) The puppeteers aren't masking themselves, but merely hovering out of frame, so viewers can choose to watch either the final product or how the sausage is made – or to compare the two, which is a mind-expander in and of itself.

LeRoy and company (numbering about sixteen in total, of which around half appear in any given performance) have scores of puppets at their disposal, from classic flap-head/floppy-arm to perfectly sculpted dinosaurs to everyday objects with rudimentary rubber-band mouths. Each is meticulously detailed and possessed of real personality, which is furthered by deft manipulation on the parts of the puppeteers. The work implies careful study of the shimmies and adjustments that inject life even into a puppet at "rest," as well as camera-specific use of perspective and foreground/background focus.

Essentially, if the Muppets had a single set, a cable-access budget, and a need to create a whole show on the fly, this is probably what it would look like. The one-act production features a blend of scripted vignettes and short-form improvisational games, contrasting chaotic free play with exhaustively constructed bits, many dependent on music. Although the sensibility is recognizably Henson, as "Avenue Q" taught the world, there's nothing like watching puppets saying filthy things. So while this show hardly wallows in its impiety, any time improvisers are allowed to work blue, four-letter words and adult subject matter tend to make an appearance.

The improvisational elements are skillful and good for some laughs, although what they gain by the puppetry medium is not as clear as what they sometimes lose. Setup drag and stilted transitions tend to remind the viewer of the benefits of editing, and the selected games' reliance on strings of one-liners holds the expressive puppet characters back in a talking-head purgatory of their own making.

Rather, this production is undoubtedly best in innovative segments that are engineered to be heightened by the format. These predominantly visual gags are dually splendid in concept and in execution, some with complexity that really rewards the behind-the-curtain view. Another particular highlight is a pair of friendly, disarming creatures (expertly characterized on press night by Tommy LeRoy and Michelle LeRoy) that seek out – and inevitably find – willing partners in cute gameplay; their assembled physicality, voice, rapport, and objective make a harmonious combination with exponential opportunities for humor.

There's truth in advertising in "Fuzzballs," whose subtitle reads, simply, "Comedy With Puppets." Comedy indeed winds throughout this peculiar grab bag of clever scripted and bawdy improvised fare. But ultimately, it's when the puppets stop being an incidental gimmick and start being the linchpin of the humor that this production intermittently finds its rewarding and hilarious groove.

SHOW DETAILS: 'Fuzzballs'
261 E. Nine Mile Rd., Ferndale
10 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 21, 28, Sept. 4, 11
11:59 p.m. Aug. 23
45 minutes; no intermission
$10 ($5 midnight performance)


Vocal boys make good

By Carolyn Hayes Harmer

REVIEW: "Forever Plaid"

The Dio - Dining & Entertainment

Posted: Aug. 2, 2014 at 6:37 p.m.

Upon opening, The Dio – Dining & Entertainment carefully selected the darling musical "Forever Plaid" (by Stuart Ross) as its statement first dinner-theater production. That was in 2013, when unexpected obstacles forced the run of the show to be truncated after its first weekend. But the company proceeded unruffled, and is now one year in and going strong, giving "Forever Plaid" a proper return. Helmed by cofounder and director Steve DeBruyne, the current production at last showcases what made it such an apropos entertainment selection for this cozy Pinckney venue, pairing a savory buffet dinner with a show that's earnestly sweet.

The Dio's resident chef, Jarod, knows his way around a chafing dish, creating a spread of rich entrees and sides that stay appetizing throughout the dining service. There's standard-issue green salad and warm breadsticks, fresh Waldorf salad and buttery sautéed vegetables, breaded boneless chicken crisp enough to write home about, and a pasta dish clotted with cheese and sausage. The stuff is reminiscent of a favorite homemade special-occasion meal, the kind that leaves stomachs straining in pleasure before coffee and dessert even hit the table.

Then it's on from gastronomical feats to theatrical ones, as the attention shifts front and center to "Forever Plaid," in which a semiprofessional 1950s guy group returns to Earth from the hereafter to at long last realize its harmonic ambitions. Plaids Frankie (DeBruyne), Jinx (Jarod Schneider), Sparky (Cody Musteffe), and Smudge (Thomas Mate) are humorously rusty at their old shtick, but their pipes remain refined and attuned, thanks in large part to music director George Cullinan, who also conducts coolly from an onstage keyboard (joined by bassist Benjamin Merte).

Overcoming physical ailments and paralyzing stage fright, the quartet bops and reverberates through its revue of standards, primarily crooning into handheld microphones that become part of Cara Manor's snappy-smooth unison choreography. Matthew Tomich is credited with set, lighting, and sound design, leaning into the lounge-y feel of the deeply hued space with gauzy hues that are reflected in the Plaids' sharp white dinner jackets (by costumer Norma Polk).

There are scripted breaks from the show's main trajectory, be they very Plaid diversions into other genres, or segues intended to dig deeper into the different personalities. Indeed, each actor has his own eccentricity: serious Schneider petrified of any blunder, vigilant Mate giving his peripheral vision a workout to crib the next step, baby-faced Musteffe getting carried away with himself, and ringleader DeBruyne doling out instructions and corrections. But with each digression, the group quickly springs back like a rubber band into its wheelhouse, with the wannabe lounge lizards reverting to their true blue Boy Scout selves, and to the superior four-part harmonic modulation for which these romantic ballads were written.

Metaphysical mystery, interpersonal relationships, and comic gaffes aside, this "Forever Plaid" is best at what the Plaids themselves do best: the music. The whole of the experience is a treat for eardrums and taste buds alike, ready and waiting to indulge viewers itching for a whole night out.

SHOW DETAILS: 'Forever Plaid'
The Dio - Dining and Entertainment
135 E. Main St., Pinckney
12:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 4
6:30 p.m. Friday, Aug. 8, 15, 22, 29, Sept. 5
6:30 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 9, 16, 23, 30, Sept. 6
12:30 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 3, 10, 17, 24, 29, Sept. 7
90 minutes; no intermission

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OTHER VOICES - REVIEWS: Forever Plaid - The Dio

Read DANIEL SKORA's review - New Monitor (Aug. 7, 2014)

Read RONALD BAUMANIS' review – Mostly Musical Theatre (Aug. 1, 2014)


A different sport comes to Ferndale – and scores a big win

By Dana Casadei

REVIEW: "ComedySportz Detroit"

Michigan Actors Studio

Posted: Sept. 21, 2013 at 6:13 p.m.

Detroit is known for its sports teams. We root each year for the Wings as they make it to the playoffs time and time again, scream at the TV as the Lions play, and love watching Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera come up to bat. Now there's a new kind of sport entering the Detroit scene, ComedySportz Detroit.

This sport doesn't have bats or helmets, although there are team uniforms and fouls. At the press preview, and world premiere (according to the evening's referee, Jeff Fritz), two teams of three (a red team and blue team) battled it out for laughs – and points – at the Michigan Actors Studio in Ferndale.

When you walk in you're given a glow stick, a token to take home, that has a red and blue side. This is how points for the voting aspect of the show work. Before the show begins the players come into the audience to chat with spectators, immediately breaking down any sort of fourth wall.

The evening's ref explains the rules, and the three fouls, then introduces the two teams. One of the really interesting aspects of ComedySportz is no two shows will ever be the same. Teams are constantly competing against different ones, there's variety in the games that are played, and it's highly unlikely that two different audiences will give the exact same answers each night.

After the national anthem is sung – get ready for some off-key, and in last night's case, way off-tune, singing – the real fun begins. Games will be played, the ref may get a little too "drunk with power," and ultimately a winner will be chosen.

The debut teams, the Motor City Mechanics and the Ferndale Fire, both really brought their A-game, with each team's captain being standouts amongst the group. The Ferndale Fire's Rico Bruce Wade was dynamite, and the Motor City Mechanics' Jaclynn Cherry was simply superb. Both teams were strong, but some people were just genuinely funnier to watch.

Most of the games work well, but a few felt a little stale. Sit, Stand, Kneel has a few kinks to work out, and it wasn't all that funny to watch. Same goes for Do-Rap-Rap; it had some bumps, as players weren't always sure when to start the actual rap, and it felt a little predictable that the final two had players from each team.

I was most skeptical of 3 Things – which is very tough to briefly describe herein – but it ended up being one of the most amazing improv routines I've ever seen. At first I had no idea what was going to happen, but once the Ferndale Fire started the game, it was pure improv magic. Re-play was another highlight of the evening.

When some people think of improv, they automatically assume it will be dirty with a lot of swearing. This is another way that ComedySportz Detroit stands out among the improv crowd. One of the fouls, the Brown Bag Foul, works this way: If someone in the audience, or one of the players on stage, says something "you wouldn't want your grandma to hear," they have to wear a brown bag for the rest of that game. It's improv that's still funny for everyone, but parents won't get asked uncomfortable questions on the ride home.

If last night's show was any indication of what's to come for ComedySportz Detroit, the Michigan Actors Studio will be hitting homers for many weekends to come.

SHOW DETAILS: "ComedySportz Detroit" continues at Michigan Actors Studio, 648 E. Nine Mile Road, Ferndale, every Friday at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday at 7:30 & 10 p.m. 105 minutes. Tickets: $10-$15. For information: 877-636-3320 or

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