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Inspiring ‘Cancer! The Musical’ stands up to disease with wit

Published November 14, 2012

» click to enlarge «
Dez Walker, right, appears as Dr. Bojangles opposite medical students, from left, played by Dustin Gardner, Jamen Spitzer and Britta Peele in “Cancer! The Musical,” currently being staged at the Marlene Boll Theatre inside the Boll Family YMCA in downtown Detroit.

DETROIT — Cancer. It’s one of the scariest words anyone can hear, even though advances in diagnosis and treatment have meant that it’s not always the death sentence it once was.

But since its debut in 2005 at Detroit’s Abreact Theater, the award-winning “Cancer! The Musical” has been standing up to cancer with heart and humor, inspiring cancer patients, survivors and their loved ones by finding light in an often-dark tunnel. Now playing at the Marlene Boll Theatre, the Planet Ant Theatre production takes a jab at the “business of cancer” as it recounts the intertwined tales of a group of noble lab rats, a researcher who believes he’s close to finding a cure and the rival pharmaceutical executive who wants to steal it, and a doctor desperate to obtain the cure to save the woman he loves.

The cast includes Dustin Gardner of Pleasant Ridge, Kelly Rossi of Grosse Pointe Park, Britta Peele of Harrison Township, Jamen Spitzer of Ferndale, Dez Walker of Royal Oak and David Schoen of Dearborn. A portion of ticket sales will benefit Gilda’s Club Metro Detroit.

“Cancer! The Musical” emerged from a real cancer experience. Second City Detroit alumni and Planet Ant Artistic Director Shawn Handlon, of Harper Woods, penned the story with his brother, Dr. Tom Donnellon, a cancer survivor and surgeon at HOPE Surgical in Port Huron.

“Doctors in general have a very dark sense of humor and tend to joke around a lot in the operating room, so that’s where (my brother) got the idea for a musical about cancer,” said Handlon in a previous interview. “But the more I thought about it, the more I saw it as a chance to poke fun at the aspects of the medical industry that are kind of cold.”

Handlon, who grew up in St. Clair Shores, enlisted his colleague, Second City Detroit musical director John Edwartowski, of Harper Woods, to write the score.

Edwartowski, a Fraser native, also was impacted by cancer: Both of his parents lost their first spouses to the disease, and his older siblings all lost a parent to cancer as a result.

“I was very conscious when Shawn and I were writing the music that I have six siblings that lost a parent, and I love and respect my siblings and I didn’t want to write something that poked fun at something so serious,” Edwartowski said.

Still, they were able to find humor in the material.

“It’s not a slaphappy romp,” Edwartowski said. “There are moments of levity, as well as moments of gravity. It’s not just people running around acting crazy — although you’ll see some of that.”

Some of the proof that the show’s authors have succeeded has come from audience members touched by cancer who’ve been moved by “Cancer! The Musical.” Edwartowski said an elderly couple who had just lost a son to cancer came to an early performance and expressed their gratitude for the show.

“To the best of my knowledge, it works for people,” he said. “I think it’s that it presents an unvarnished look at a serious topic, but it doesn’t wallow in itself. In no way, shape or form does it make fun of the people involved. I think it handles the subject matter tastefully.”

Since its debut, “Cancer! The Musical” has undergone several revisions to better tell the story. It has been staged several times, including off-Broadway in 2007 at the New York City International Fringe Festival, where it was hailed critically for its treatment of cancer’s impact on the lives of ordinary people. Most recently, the show was performed in spring 2011 at what is now the Elizabeth Theater above the Park Bar in Detroit, Edwartowski said. And attendees of the Boll Theater shows will have a chance to purchase a soundtrack for the first time. Edwartowski, who also plays in the show’s band, said listeners can expect “a good rock ‘n’ roll record.”

Rossi, who grew up primarily in Clinton Township and Utica, plays multiple roles in this show, including a spy for a pharmaceutical company and a researcher who’s close to finding a cure for acne. A close relative is a cancer survivor, but she said she knows a number of other people who lost their lives to the disease, so “Cancer! The Musical” hits home for the actress.

“I know that not every story has a happy ending,” Rossi said.

The show’s writers hope to make it easier for people to be open about cancer.

“Just as shows like ‘Menopause the Musical’ and ‘The Vagina Monologues’ helped to defuse their taboo subjects, ‘Cancer! The Musical’ allows people to talk about cancer and no longer view it as a dirty or scary word that shouldn’t be talked about. … (This show) is a wonderful example of embracing life, no matter the outcome,” said Debbie Taxe, development director for Gilda’s Club Metro Detroit in a prepared statement.

Edwartowski said they want to empower and entertain audiences. And Rossi, in her second run in the show, believes they’ve succeeded.

“With the writing, it’s very heartfelt,” Rossi said. “It really hooks you in. It ends up being such an enjoyable production to be in, you can’t help but think it’s enjoyable to watch.”

“Cancer! The Musical” runs through Dec. 15. Tickets are $25, and all performances are at 8 p.m. except for those on Sundays, which are at 2 p.m. The Marlene Boll Theatre is located inside the Boll Family YMCA at 1401 Broadway in downtown Detroit’s theater district. Tickets can be purchased at For more information, visit the show’s Facebook page or

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