Encore Michigan

Purple Rose revives Titanic ‘Diva Royale’

Review November 12, 2023 Julie Linderleaf

CHELSEA, MI–Diva Royale, first produced in 2018, hits the stage again at the Purple Rose Theatre in Chelsea, MI running until December 23.  This quirky comedy written and directed by Jeff Daniels headlines their 33rd season.

A comedy that brings together three Michigan housewives connected by their daily routine at the school pick-up lines and a shared love for Celine Dion, this production brings back original cast members: Rhiannon Ragland as Helen Millerbee, Kristin Shields as Mary Catherine Carlton, and Kate Thomsen as Lynnette Taylor-Tyler and drag-diva Rusty Mewha.

The play’s premise of housewives finding a common bond in their love for Celine Dion is a fun and relatable theme. Jeff Daniels’s punchy writing created punny prepared punchlines and even connects it to a real Celine Dion quote: “I have become a housewife and there is no better job,”  He found the perfect mix of humor in motherhood, cell phone addiction, Big City crime, strained friendship, and the Titanic movie all rolled up in a mistaken identity. 

The humor and camaraderie between the characters are the play’s strongest points. The chemistry between the actresses is evident and adds depth to their portrayals of the housewives. The MBN: The Mama Bear Network, all with children named after their favorite movie, Titanic, live the ordinary lives of midwestern mini-van moms. When an opportunity arises to see Celine Dion live in concert at a one-night- only showing in New York City, these midwestern housewives quickly organize a girl-trip to the Big Apple.

One unique aspect of the production is its setting on an arena stage with no sets or props. This minimalistic approach places a strong emphasis on the characters and their interactions, allowing the audience to focus on the story and the performances. The performers do an excellent job of creating a believable world with their expressions and dialogue despite the lack of traditional set pieces.

Even without a set, scenic designer Brian D. Dambacher, created a uniquely designed flooring, visually appealing in its shiny purply-pink hues. By adding the additional temporary fourth audience seating side to create the four sided arena acting area, it not only adds more seats, it also creates a surprise entrance for Mewha’s the generic man.     

As the only man in the cast, Rusty Mewha definitely has his hands full. As the generic man he fills the shoes of the husbands, the uber driver, cop, muggers, flight attendants,  Jack from the Titanic movie and other various characters.  His shining moments are when he dons the flowing wig and sequined dresses, expertly crafted by costume designer Shelby Newport, to take the stage as Celine Dion. He makes a whirlwind of entrances and exits, changing clothes and characters, to suit the scene. 

While Diva Royale offers an entertaining experience, some viewers might find the lack of sets and props a bit challenging, as it requires them to use their imagination more actively. It’s like watching a 90 minute acting class. However, this minimalistic approach can also be seen as a creative choice that sets the play apart from more conventional productions. Some scenes may be a struggle to view in the far corners of the aisle entrances. It’s an intriguing directorial choice by Jeff Daniels, because some key moments are hidden from view by the backs of audience heads. 

Jeff Daniels, who also penned the play, produces a bit of a madcap story connecting the all-things-Titanic and obsession with Celine Dion to a 24-hour NYC trip that goes pear-shaped with a side order of stranger-stooges thrown in just for a fun twist. With Daniels’ storied career playing roles ranging from FBI Director James Comey to Atticus Finch and dozens of amazing film and stage roles, it’s a grin to think how many times he must have watched the cheesy Titanic movie to get all the details right. Make sure you get a chance to see it at least once before its month-long run runs out.  

There is a second cast listed in the program, so be aware when you are booking your tickets. Just like the housewives characters, audience members can even experience their night out taking pictures with a cut out of Celine Dion in the lobby to have their very own photo shoot with the biggest Diva Royale.