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Opera

It ain’t Tommy, but …

Yes, there is a real live rock opera in Detroit

Jason Smith as Manny in his haunted bedroom.
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Published 5/19/2004

Manny and the Mirror is a homegrown rock opera, a psychedelic psychological trip into the closets of the mind fortified by a sound track that runs the gamut from acoustic folk to rocking seedy cabaret. The piece of musical theater captures the universal appeal of storytelling and the art of sound.

Toga-clad and tennis-shoe-wearing musicians cover the stage and infiltrate the audience, playing a mix of standard and unusual instruments. Guitars, sax, keyboards, accordion, cello and even a glockenspiel drive and accentuate the many voices of Manny (like the impelling Molly Thomas, who plays the psychologically twisted role of Manny’s mother as well as his fiancée, Charlie). Creators Daniel Roth and Chris Korte tapped into Detroit’s wealth of musicians and actors to create this inspirational piece of musical theater.

Back in his old room at home, his bed still covered in baseball sheets, Manny, played by Jason Smith, is at a post-college crossroads, on the verge of marrying the woman of his dreams. His room is haunted, and the memories of his dead brother Michael, his mother and his young self won’t let him be. Dared by the ghost of his brother, he slips into a mirror — that great literary prop forever used as a symbol for self-reflection — and steps into a subconscious jungle that swirls throughout the theater. A melange of pop-rock (from fuzz guitar and rough-edged ballads to dark, Three Penny Opera-esque laments and Tex-Mex foot-stompers), Greek mythology, vacant-father residue and Oedipal complexes fog his mind.

In his search, Manny finds himself seduced by the sirens of his past. One by one, his former loves emerge from doorways made up of white points of light. The women are draped in metallic-copper mini-gowns, like Star Trek femme fatales.

Ruth Chrachiola, Kathryn Galazka and Courtney Presley interweave eerie harmonies while circling a prostrate Manny, singing, “Do you remember me, you don’t remember me ... I need you and you don’t need a wife.”

In a torture chamber constructed by his thoughts, Manny revisits his relationships at age 13, during high school, and at college in a moment that is both surreal and familiar; the strain pervades the entire production.

This, the third production of Manny, marks the introduction of two new songs: “Oh Mama” and “Family.” The latter is a collaboration between the creators, the performers and musician Michael Rollins, who plays both sax and guitar in the show. The song is a sweet and cathartic trio between Mom, Manny and brother Michael, illustrating a critical moment in his bedroom, when Manny literally rips the mask off the mother in his memory. Not only does the song bring to life and break down mind-concocted illusions that keep Manny from moving on, it exhibits a grand culmination of talents, both entertaining and insightful.

Manny began as a Wayne State student project, when Roth and Korte decided to write a rock opera, challenging themselves with the criterion that all dialogue be sung. Hastings housed the play’s first professional production a year ago, and it comes back this year in conjunction with Planet Ant Theatre of Hamtramck as well as with the talents of other local actors and musicians, billed collectively as “Apollo and the Sundrivers.”

Manny has evolved as it has grown, with the directors adding new songs and further developing its story, characters, musical orchestrations (under the direction of Mikael Fiedler) and production quality. Because Roth is working on his master’s degree in South Africa and was unable to be part of this production, Korte decided to take a break from playing the title role and switch his sights to directing (assisted by Joel Mitchell) and concentrating on Manny’s story. The move paid off. The production keeps getting better and better.

Performing local theater in and around Detroit is a far-from-lucrative labor of blood, sweat and love. Manny and the Mirror has the guts, song-savvy and impact worthy of a lengthy run somewhere. We can probably look forward to a reprise at Hastings Street next spring, but we suggest you don’t wait that long to get a taste of off-Broadway here in our own very-talented hometown.

 

Manny and the Mirror will show during the D-Pollen Festival (www.dpollen.com) at Hastings Street Ballroom, located at 715 E. Milwaukee St. in Detroit. Showtimes are May 21-22 at 7 p.m.; May 23 at 6 p.m. Tickets are $10-$15. Call 313-365-4948, ext. 2 for tickets.

Anita Schmaltz is a freelance writer. E-mail letters@metrotimes.com.

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