Near, Far, Antics Wherever They Are: Jeff Daniels’ "Diva Royale" keeps the laughs flowing at the Purple Rose Theatre
Jeff Daniels’ funny, silly, and embraceable comedy Diva Royale is—as the program announces—back by public demand at his Purple Rose Theatre in Chelsea.
Three stay-at-home Michigan moms form a close bond with their devotion to Canadian diva Celine Dion and their discontent with home life. Dion is their anchor. They have all the albums, they know all the words to all the songs, they know the heartaches she’s endured and they also love (love, love, love) the movie Titanic, where Dion’s soaring voice gives lift to the love affair of poor Jack and well-to-do Rose.
When they discover that their goddess will be performing in the Big Apple, they are ready to set out on the adventure of a lifetime. As they tell us these events happened in 2019 BC—before covid.
The play is told in a fast-paced, frenetic style that keeps the jokes, the antics, and occasionally, the stinging truth at a high pitch. If one joke fails to amuse you, the next one will have you howling, as the audience was throughout the play at the press opening.
There is no set. The show is surrounded by the audience on all four sides. The women are introduced and tell us all about their exceptional children, their busy lives, their sluggish husbands, and Celine Dion. When they have a problem, they just try to keep in mind WWCD (what would Celine do). The women are in almost constant motion. They not only bounce lines off each other but dance, pose, recreate those epic Titanic scenes, and swoon over their idol.
But this is really about three women who leave the warmth and decency of their small Michigan town to confront the dangers of Manhattan. Daniels has spent a lot of time in both Michigan and New York and presents a funny catalog of New York types: the hotel clerk at the only hotel room they could afford (a dump), the cab driver with the fast-running meter, the street thief, etc. They get lost, they get arrested, they get separated. They learn that the Big Apple isn’t all bad.
The cast features Purple Rose veterans, who are in touch with Daniels' style and his beguiling sense of humor. They embrace both the sharp banter and the physical comedy with gusto.
Rhiannon Ragland plays Helen, a woman with many complaints, especially about her hefty husband. She’s not just obsessed with Celine but has a hilarious problem that the freedom of the big city allows her to pursue. Ragland is especially good at falling apart as the trio gets into one problem after another.
Kristin Shields plays Mary Catherine, a demure but quietly sensuous young mother. She longs for Leo (Leonardo DiCaprio), who played Jack in Titanic. And New York is just the kind of place where they might get together or she might have her eye on someone very different. Shields captures Mary Catherine’s joy in the freedom of the city.
Kate Thomsen plays Lynette, the most physical of the three. In addition to being obsessed with Celine, she’s also obsessed with her phone. When separated from her phone, she loses it completely. Thomsen has a great time with the physical movement, from the opening swirl of the sometimes delirious trio and also the small gestures of a painful condition caused by separation from her phone.
The thieves of New York (or as the program says: Generic Man) are all played by Rusty Mewha. Mewha has a great time being a smug hotel clerk, a shady cab driver with a rich Noo Yawk accent, and a phone thief with attitude. He also has the charm and the light brogue of Jack (that is Leo) as Mary Catherine becomes his Rose. But he really comes to life in a shiny red dress as he embraces the drag queen tribute to Celine. His voice rises, his body fills the stage, and the humor builds from there. The sight of the tall Mewha in a dress designed to show off his showgirl legs combined with his singing and strutting is a must-see.
Silly, slightly surreal, a blend of witty banter and slapstick movement (especially when they recreate the lovers at the prow of the Titanic), Diva Royale has a little something for everyone.
Daniels has acted in dramas and comedies. He’s been recognized for his serious roles, but he has embraced the doofus in Dumb and Dumber as one of his favorite roles. In the program, Daniels credits comedy with saving his fledgling Chelsea theater when it first opened in 1992. He writes, “Funny is universal. Funny feels good. Funny also sells tickets.”
And, as he notes, in troubled times like these, everyone needs a laugh.
Hugh Gallagher has written theater and film reviews over a 40-year newspaper career and was most recently the managing editor of the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers in suburban Detroit.
The Purple Rose Theatre production of Jeff Daniels' “Diva Royale” will continue at the Purple Rose Theatre, 137 Park St., Chelsea, at 3 pm on Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, at 8 pm on Thursday, Fridays, and Saturdays, and at 2 pm on Sundays through December 23. For tickets, call the box office at 734-433-7782, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit purplerosetheatre.org.