'Cancer! The Musical': A Touching Tale

By Dana Casadei

I've seen a few musicals in my few years as a critic, and they often contained big Broadway-style showstoppers, elaborate sets and constant costumes changes. "Cancer! The Musical" doesn't have any of those things, and I loved it all the more for it.

"Cancer! The Musical," produced by Planet Ant Theatre and playing inside the theater at the Boll Family YMCA in Downtown Detroit, may not be filled with elements that classics like "West Side Story" and "Wicked" have, but it has something more important: a telling story that will be just as timeless as those Tony winners.

The heartwarming tale has three main plot points that all intertwine. There's Dr. Bernard (Dustin Gardner), who believes he's found the cure for cancer; Dr. Harris (Jamen Spitzer), who needs that cure to save the woman he loves, Annie (Britta Peele); and Mr. Murphy (David Schoen), who wants to steal it.

The script and music in the two-hour production are filled with a witty satire and sarcasm, and moments that will tug at your heartstrings, created by Shawn Handlon and Dr. Thomas Donnellon, who wrote the book and John Edwartowski, who composed the music. With songs such as "Waiting Room" and "Side Effects," viewers are brought into a very real world of cancer that is often only left for dramas, both televised and in real life. The script and lyrics also have the ability to explain all the medical chitchat that not everyone understands, but not in a way that's condescending.

Edwartowski's music ranges from ballads, such as "Borrowed Time," one of Peele's many moments to shine, and "Annie, I," my favorite Spitzer song of the night, to much more up-beat tempos, like "We Gotta Get Outta (Here Comes the Hitman)," showcasing Dustin Gardner and Kelly Rossi's comedic skills. There are also a variety of pairings throughout, some better matched than others.

While most of the cast gets a moment, or three, to show off their voices, Schoen's deep baritone sounds like it's melting butter and is the easy standout of the evening. "Waiting Room," the first moment his voice really got to let loose, left me waiting for a moment I got to hear his smooth as silk voice again. His performance of Mr. Murphy quickly goes from powerful, evil villain to a man just as lost as the rest.

The costumes, like so much else, are simple, with each dressed in all black, making it easy to switch between characters with the addition of scrubs, mice tails, and, in one case, a very red hat. The set sticks along the same lines, with a few items constantly coming and going to change the scene. Anything more elaborate would have felt out of place.

The trio of Handlon, Donnellon and Edwartowski have created something very special in "Cancer! The Musical." It may have many elements of simplicity, but it really lets the story shine, the most important element of all.


'Cancer! The Musical'

Planet Ant Theatre at Boll Family YMCA Theatre, 1401 Broadway St., Detroit. Friday-Sunday through Dec. 15, plus Wednesday, Nov. 21. $25. 313-365-4948. http://www.brownpapertickets.com

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