Tuesday, June 30, 2015

"SAFE: A Benefit to End Gun Violence" at the Capri Theater

Gun violence is unfortunately never far from our consciousness. Gun deaths occur daily, and mass shootings like the recent killing of nine people in a church in Charleston seem to be happening with greater frequency in this country. I'm not one to get political on this theater blog, but it's clear that we have a problem, and it cannot be solved until both "sides" let go of their firmly held beliefs and meet in the middle to come up with a solution to stem the epidemic. A group of local music-theater artists, led by Joshua Campbell, held the third annual benefit in support of Protect Minnesota, an organization working to end gun violence right here in our home state. The goal of the evening was to raise money for the organization, but also to start a conversation, because that's truly the way that change will happen. And of course, to enjoy some fabulous performances. Mission accomplished on all fronts!

Similar to the benefit I attended two years ago (I missed last year), the evening was structured as performances of songs from musical theater and pop culture, interspersed with relevant readings. The text this year came from a play called The Gun Show by EM Lewis. The excerpts (read passionately and emotionally by Ann Michels, who didn't sing much because she's saving it for her other job) made me want to see the entire play. EM Lewis is one of those people who is in the middle - she grew up with guns in rural Oregon and still owns a gun, but recognizes that there needs to be some changes in the way we think about, legislate, and handle guns. The play is funny, honest, and thought-provoking.

The music (with direction and piano accompaniment by John Lynn) was centered around the theme of "safe." The five performers are some of the Twin Cities best music-theater actors - Aimee K. Bryant, Jennifer Grimm, Kasono Mwanza, Rudoph (Tré) Searles III, and Katie Bradley. It was a treat to hear them sing, especially these highlights:
  • Aimee and Tré dueting on "Two Lost Souls" from Damn Yankees (which Tré recently appeared in at the Ordway)
  • Katie singing about opera- and jazz-singing neighbors and showing she can sing it too
  • Katie and Kasono on one of my favorite musical theater songs, "Suddenly Seymour" from Little Shop of Horrors (which Katie appeared in with Mu Performing Arts a few years ago)
  • Aimee once again channeling Celie from The Color Purple with the song that's guaranteed to bring tears to my eyes, "I'm Here"
  • Jennifer (who I'm pretty sure is a time traveler from another era) singing songs like "Someone To Watch Over Me" the way they were meant to be sung
  • Two lovely duets from Kasono and Tré
  • The fantastic group numbers - the Beatles' "With A Little Help From My Friends" and John Legend's "Humanity (Love the Way It Should Be)"
In addition to the performances, there was also a raffle of theater tickets, a speech by a local pastor, and a remembrance of the nine victims of the recent Charleston shooting. A great show for a great cause, what's better than that?

To find out more about Protect Minnesota, visit their website. And start a conversation, perhaps with someone you don't agree with, in an attempt to help find a shared solution.

Ann Michels, Rudolph Searles III, Kasono Mwanza,
Katie Bradley,Aimee K. Bryant, and Jennifer Grimm

Monday, June 29, 2015

"The Music Man" at Guthrie Theater

The Guthrie Theater's production of The Music Man is the reason why people who love musicals love musicals. And since I'm a person who loves musicals, I love everything about it! I loved the movie as a kid, and recently fell in love with the piece anew when I saw Ten Thousand Things' sublimely sparse and spellbinding production last year. On the opposite end of the spectrum is the Guthrie's big, bold, glorious show, with a huge cast of old and new favorites, breathtaking sets and costumes, those beloved familiar songs, spirited dancing, and a real live marching band! Meredith Wilson's story and music is such a beautiful and moving celebration of the power of love, music, hope, community, and a shared goal. And this production brings out every wonderful thing in his work. In a word, this Music Man is scrumptious.

You all know the story - a con man comes to a small Iowa town to sell them band instruments, uniforms, and a false promise of musical instruction, bringing music and new life to the stolid town, all the while planning to skip town after he collects the money, until he unexpectedly "gets his foot caught in the door on the way out," realizing that he needs these people to believe in him as much as they need someone and something to believe in. Professor Harold Hill is an expert salesman with a knack for knowing exactly what people need to hear and telling it to them in the most appealing way. He wins the town over person by person, giving the children something to focus on and look forward to, convincing the bickering school board to become a barbershop quartet, prompting the busybody ladies to form a dancing society.  But music teacher and librarian Marian, a proud, guarded, and bookish "old maid" with high standards is not so easily won over. She knows the truth about Professor Hill, but when she sees her troubled and withdrawn little brother begin to blossom under his friendship, and the town come together as one, she sees that "the truth" about Professor Hill doesn't really matter. What matters is the joy that he's brought to the town, and even if he does skip town, he will leave them better than he found them.

I love our local actors so much that I'm always a little disappointed when cast lists are released with unfamiliar names at the top. But I need to learn to trust the Guthrie casting department, because they always find just the right person for each role. For as soon as these newcomers stepped on stage, they made me fall in love with them against my will! And truly, this 40+ person cast is a beautiful mixture of about half Guthrie veterans, a half dozen newcomers from the national scene, and even more Guthrie newcomers from within our own talent base, including many of our most above average children.

Marion and Professor Hill lead the dance
(Stacie Bono and Danny Binstock, photo by T. Charles Erickson)
Moments after stepping onstage, or rather, revealing his identity after the opening train scene (more about that later), Danny Binstock had me under his spell as much as Harold Hill has the River City-zens under his. Smooth-talking, -moving, and
-singing, with boundless charm, an ever-present spring in his step, and a knowing roguish smirk on his face (and looking a bit like Joseph Gordon-Levitt), he simply is Professor Hill. Stacie Bono is everything you'd want in Marian the librarian, sensible, smart, and proud, slowly letting her hair down (figuratively and literally) as she lets this man into her life. And her golden soprano voice will give you chills on such songs as "My White Knight" and "Till There Was You." Danny and Stacie are a charming pair with oodles of chemistry and lovely harmonies.

the marvelous cast of The Music Man (photo by T. Charles Erickson)
I cannot possibly mention all of the wonderfulness in the ensemble, but I'll just point out a few, starting with the littlest (the child roles are shared between two actors). Soren Thayne Miller is sweet and adorable as Winthrop; the moment when he begins to talk excitedly about his scrumptious solid gold coronet always gets me. Rising star Natalie Tran is equally adorable as the spunky Amaryllith. Moving on to the grown-ups, Richard Ruiz has played the role of the Professor's buddy Marcellus four times around the country, and it's easy to see why - he's a dead ringer for Buddy Hackett from the movie, and his big song "Shipoopi" is just as fun. Peter Thomson is hilarious as the bumbling mayor (in Peter's words, he thinks himself the Teddy Roosevelt of River City, but possesses the intellect of Spiro Agnew). Barbara Marineau is a hoot as his wife Eulalie, performing in ever more ridiculous get-ups with her dancing ladies (all of whom are wonderful). James Ramlet, Joel Liestman (filling in for an injured T. Mychael Rambo), Robert O. Berdahl, and Robert DuSold comprise a barbershop quartet sent from heaven. Margaret Daly is a warm and funny presence as Mrs. Paroo, and Brandon Timmons is a wonderfully high-stepping, baton-twirling, band-leading drum major.

the train rolls into River City (photo by T. Charles Erickson)
The talent in the large ensemble bursts off the stage, and director John Miller-Stephany does a wonderful job keeping everything organized and moving, and bringing out the huge heart in this piece. The busy and spectacular group numbers are nicely balanced with quieter character moments. Speaking of spectacular group numbers, Joe Chvala's choreography is, as always, an absolute delight and so much fun to watch, even though there's so much going on onstage it's impossible to take it all in in one sitting (lucky for me I'm going back to see the show again with my family in August). The opening number is particularly ingenious, as the salesmen rap about the art of selling ("you've gotta know the territory!") while moving as one, so realistically depicting the motion of a train that I almost got nauseous just watching them! Another highlight is "Marian the Librarian," depicting probably the most fun that's ever been had in a library.

Tommy (Brandon Simmons) leads the band as the crowd cheers
(photo by T. Charles Erickson)
A musical about a band has to have a great band, and do they! Music director Andrew Cooke is the first person onstage, taking his place in a mini-pit at the front of the stage, only his shoulders and head visible as he leads the cast and backstage band performing this beautiful, rousing, clever, lovely score with too many great songs to mention. And when the River City band marches on stage at the climax of the play, it's truly thrilling, and so moving as these loving parents think the warbled sounds of these unrehearsed children is as sweet as a symphony. That's love.

Grant Wood's Young Corn
The inspiration for Todd Rosenthal's set design is, appropriately, Iowa artist Grant Wood. Yes, there is an American Gothic moment, but the larger inspiration is the painting Young Corn. Not only are the backdrop and scrim painted in the style of Young Corn, but the buildings are as well. Director John Miller-Stephany said in a post-show discussion that this emphasizes the importance of the rural farming community in this small Iowa town. In addition to the massive buildings (some of which might look familiar to those who saw My Fair Lady last summer), there is large square in the stage floor that lowers to the bowels of the Guthrie* to change the set pieces from the train, to the town square statue, to the Paroo living room, to the gymnasium, to the hotel, to the library, and finally to the footbridge. Mathew J. LeFebvre's costumes are a feast for the eyes, from flouncy dresses to well-tailored suits to brightly colored band uniforms.

It's obvious that Meredith Wilson wrote The Music Man as a loving homage to his home city of Mason City, Iowa, using people and places he knew as inspiration for the piece. And the Guthrie's production continues in that spirit. As much as we Minnesotans like to make fun of Iowa, we're really not that different, and the values of home, community, pride, and family ring true. If you're a person who loves musicals, you won't want to miss this Music Man that will remind you of why you love musicals. That is, familiar and beloved songs, a huge and hugely talented cast of familiar faces and new, fantastic set and costumes that bring you right into that world, humor, and most important, a meaningful and poignant story told with much heart. The Music Man continues through August 23, but get your tickets soon before they sell out.

*The Guthrie offers backstage tours, in which you can visit the bowels of the Guthrie and see how the stage mechanics work, as well as tour the rehearsal spaces and costume and set shops.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

"Two Gentleman of Verona" by Classical Actors Ensemble at Lake of the Isles

The best thing about living in Minnesota is: a) theater, and b) lakes. Combine those two, and you have about as perfect of a Minnesota experience as you can have. Classical Actors Ensemble is presenting Shakespeare's comedy Two Gentleman of Verona at Lake of the Isles (and other select locations) this summer. I saw the matinee yesterday, and it was a lovely way to spend a picture perfect Minnesota summer afternoon. The show is utterly charming, and something about doing it outdoors in a public space makes Shakespeare seem more immediate, natural, and real, like this is a story that's happening in our world here and now. I sometimes have a hard time getting into Shakespeare, but this company makes it extremely accessible and so easy to become engaged in the stories, characters, and Shakespeare's beautiful words, which sound modern and fresh in this context. Their mission is: "Classical Actors Ensemble is dedicated to engaging audiences by capturing the spirit in which plays of the English Renaissance were originally performed - with immediacy, passion, and as popular entertainment." Mission accomplished.

the cast of Two Gentleman of Verona
Walking down the hill by the lake towards the stage area feels like walking into the Renaissance Festival. A dozen or so young people are cavorting in Renn Fest peasant garb, talking, singing, playing instruments. The pre-show show is a going away party for Valentine, who's leaving Verona to find his fortune in Milan (which they adorably pronounce MILL-un). It feels like a modern day outdoor party among friends, except for the charming dances to Beetles and other pop songs played in Renn Fest style. The cast is comfortably chatting with each other and the audience, and as showtime approaches, the language suddenly switches to Shakespeare and the play begins, but that modern immediate feeling is never lost. The show is playful, loose, and fun, full of youthful exuberance, but not at the expense of the material. On the contrary; it feels like this is how Shakespeare is meant to be done. It's not supposed to be stiff and formal, but, like their mission says, "with immediacy, passion, and as popular entertainment."

the royal Silvia with outlaw Valentine
(Megan Volkman-Wilson and Daniel Joeck)
Verona is portrayed as a provincial little town (Renaissance Festival), and Milan the slick big city (as the wardrobe changes to a sharp black, gold, and pink, with a '20s flair). Valentine leaves fair Verona and his best friend Proteus behind, and finds love in Milan in the form of Silvia, daughter of the Duke. Proteus soon follows his friend to Milan, leaving behind his own beloved, Julia, and being a fickle man soon falls in love with Silvia too. But Silvia's father already has a husband picked out for her, and banishes Valentine from Milan, whereupon he falls in with a band of outlaws. Proteus' attempts to woo Silvia come to naught, and she goes in search of her love Valentine. Proteus follows with his page (Julia in disguise), finds Silvia and Valentine, who is none to happy with his friend's behavior. But this is a Shakespearean comedy, so the appropriate couples are reunited, and all's well that ends well!

the clowns Speed and Lance
(Marci Lucht and Michael Ooms)
Everyone in the cast is great and so much fun to watch, and these well trained young actors project beautifully over the noises of traffic, animals, and people to the small crowd gathered on the hill. As the titular gentleman, Daniel Joeck (Valentine) and Joseph Papke (Proteus) portray a great bromance and are charming in their individual stories as well. Marika Proctor makes the bespectacled Julia appealing and empathetic, while Megan Volkman-Wilson is posh and sophisticated, but no less true in her love. As usual, the servants get the funniest, smartest lines, and Marci Lucht (Speed) and Michael Ooms (Lance) deliver them with gusto. Marci is a wisecracking tomboy, and Michael is an endearing goofball (not unlike his father). As Silvia's foppish suitor Turio, Timothy Daly is over-the-top (in a good way). But perhaps the biggest scene-stealer in this cast is the dog Karma, playing the role of Lance's dog Crab. Following along where he's led, doing as he's told, playful and adoring of his master (I'm loving the recent trend of live animals in theater!).

bespectacled and in love - Proteus and Julia
(Joseph Papke and Marika Proctor)
Director Hannah Steblay nicely reigns in the chaos of people, animals, music, and the natural elements to create a focused and engaging story. And just because it's outdoors doesn't mean they skimp on costumes and set. Several large wooden platforms are moved around, flipped over, and stood on end to create the different settings. The provincial Renn Fest costumes give way to the sleek city wardrobe of smart suits, fedoras, and flapper dresses. (Scenic design by Shannon Morgan and costume design by Sarah Sakry.)

I love the use of music throughout the play in appropriate places, as the band consisting of various combinations of horn, accordion, guitar, and voice play Renaissance-style pop songs. Perhaps the most appropriate is the curtain call song "Why Do Fools Fall In Love?" which could be a theme song for just about all of Shakespeare's comedies. In this play as in others, it's a mystery why these fools fall in love, and then fall out of love, and then fall back in love again. But we love to watch them! These two gents are a particular joy to watch - a charming and energetic production in the unparalleled setting of the great Minnesota outdoors. Be sure to put this one on your Minnesota summer to do list! They perform Fridays at 7 and Saturdays and Sundays at 2 through July 12, mostly at Lake of the Isles but with a few other Twin Cities locations sprinkled in (see their website for details).

my view of the stage - could it be more charming?!

Saturday, June 27, 2015

"Sherlock Holmes and the Ice Palace Murders" at Park Square Theatre

The old adage "the show must go on" was tested last night. On the day that Park Square Theatre's world premiere play Sherlock Holmes and the Ice Palace Murders was scheduled to open, Steve Hendrickson, aka Sherlock himself, underwent surgery for an aneurysm. The good news is he's going to be fine and will hopefully return to the show soon, but what to do about opening night? Director Peter Moore to the rescue! With one emergency rehearsal and script in hand, he took the stage to embody one of the most iconic characters in literature and film. And it was a success. Even though he often looked at the script (not even a show biz vet like Peter Moore can learn an entire play in a few hours), he never broke character and was able to convey that distinct Sherlock Holmes-ness. It probably helps that he's surrounded by a great cast playing multiple characters, acting a script written by one of Minnesota's best playwrights Jeffrey Hatcher, based on a novel by Larry Millett, based on the characters created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. That's a recipe for success that's able to withstand last-minute challenges.

In Larry Millett's story, Sherlock Holmes and his trusty partner Watson are on a three-month tour of the US in 1896. They're about to depart Chicago to head back to London when they read about the strange disappearance of a wealthy groom in St. Paul. The mystery is too much for Sherlock to resist, so they take a detour to St. Paul to see what they can find. What they find is a daughter and son of wealthy businessmen with a stake in the Winter Carnival, about to be married in the Ice Palace until the groom disappears and the bride suspiciously returns her wedding dress. Holmes and Watson team up with a local barkeep/ex-cop named Shadwell Rafferty, along with journalist Miss Pyle who wrote the article enticing them to come to St. Paul. They discover a horrific scandal in the groom's past, and secrets that the bride is keeping as well. Suspects abound, from family members to Ice Palace workers to the town burglar. It's great fun to watch these two sleuths uncover the truth, especially in the second act as the clues start falling into place with greater speed.

Steve Hendrickson has played Sherlock multiple times on Park Square's stage (most recently in The Adventure of the Suicide Club two years ago), so those of you who see the show after his recovery are in for a treat! But even now, Peter Moore does a fine job filling in for him, and Bob Davis is so comfortable in the skin of Dr. Watson (a role he has also played multiple times) that it seems like a quite natural pairing. As their new partner/friend/adversary Rafferty, E.J. Subkoviak is a delight with his Irish-by-way-of-Boston accent and roguish charm. Tamara Clark and Taylor Harvey do as much as they can with the roles of the plucky reporter and the bride with secrets (the world of Sherlock Holmes has always been a boy's club, but it's too bad a modern update doesn't have better roles for women). The rest of the cast ably plays multiple roles, including Neal Hazard as the affable driver and the grieving father; Jason Rojas, reveling in the opposite roles of the bride's spurned and moody lover and her spoiled rich boy brother; James Cada, almost unrecognizable in his three roles of the Swedish Ice Palace guard, the father of the bride, and the gruff police chief; and Stephen Cartmell, deliciously creepy as the cross-dressing burglar and mysterious as the ice sculptor.

The stage is mostly empty, surrounded by a scroll frame, with images that look like book illustrations projected on a screen at the back of the stage to set the scene. There are some creepy cool effects in this murder mystery, and a charming sled (scenic design by Lance Brockman). Amy B. Kaufman's period costumes are lovely, especially the hats worn by the would-be bride.

Despite the opening night set-backs, Sherlock Holmes and the Ice Palace Murders is a smart, funny, and entertaining mystery, with plenty of local references and jokes. The audience also seemed to enjoy the references to other Sherlock Holmes stories that I didn't get, not being a huge fan of the series. If you're a fan of Sherlock Holmes, or if you're looking for a light and fun summery mystery (set in the winter), you might want to check this one out (continuing through July 26).

Sherlock Holmes and the Ice Palace Murders from Park Square Theatre on Vimeo.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

"You Can't Take It With You" at the Jungle Theater

About a year and a half ago, I cut down the hours on my day job so that I would have more time to do what I love - seeing and writing about theater. Which essentially means I took a pay cut in order to have more time to enjoy my life. This means that my bank account is a little smaller, but as the man said, you can't take it with you! It's a motto I live by, but had yet to see the play by that name until last night. I was pleased to discover that it celebrates this very spirit - doing what you love, surrounded by people you love (no matter how crazy they might be), and not sacrificing these things for a paycheck. Granted, not everyone is in a position to reduce their paycheck to spend time blogging, or dancing, or making fireworks, but it's a good thing to assess how you're spending your time (more precious and rare than money) every once in a while. Jungle Theater's production of You Can't Take It With You is funny, quirky, heart-warming, and with a cast so delicious it'll make you drool.

Hugh Kennedy and Anna Sundberg
(photo by Kerri Pickett)
It's 1937 New York, and the extended Sycamore family is about as eccentric as they come. Grandpa quit his job 35 years ago because he didn't enjoy it, and spends his time raising snakes and attending commencements. Daughter Penny and her husband Paul keep busy writing plays and making fireworks, respectively, while their daughter Essie, who lives in the house with xylophone-playing husband Ed, studies dance and makes candy. Various other oddball friends and employees fill the house, with daughter Alice as the only seemingly "normal" one. She works in an office on Wall Street, and falls in love with the boss' son. As you can imagine, when Alice brings Mr. Kirby and his conservative wealthy parents home to meet the family, much hilarity ensues. Will these two very different families ever make peace so that these two crazy kids can get hitched?

Angela Timberman, John Middleton, and a kitty!
(photo by Kerri Pickett)
This is a huge and star-studded cast, with many favorites from the Jungle and other local stages, including three real-life married couples (although only one of them actually plays a married couple). And there's not a weak link among them, including the two kittens! Each actor is so committed to the role and bringing out each character's delightful and specific quirks, while still making them seem like real people. In fact I don't know where to begin in singling out individual performances, for fear of leaving someone out! But I'll give it a go:

Angela Timberman, Cathleen Fuller, Hugh Kennedy,
Nathaniel Fuller, and Julia Valen
(photo by Kerri Pickett)
There's Angela Timberman as the loveable flake of a mother (I don't think it's possible for a human to upstage her, but a kitten can, especially when it starts playing with her earring!); John Middleton as her fireworks-obsessed husband; Cathleen and Nathaniel Fuller as the stiff and conservative Kirbys, both of whom have a little more life inside them than initially seen; Anna Sundberg as the sweet and relatively normal Alice; Hugh Kennedy, as charming as ever as her Mr. Kirby; Elisa Pluhar and Peter Lincoln Rusk as a couple of loyal employees that fit right in with this odd family; Charity Jones as a boozy actress who spends most of her time onstage collapsed in a heap; the delightful Julia Valen as Essie, constantly dancing and fluttering in her ballet slippers, frequently getting up on those toes; sharing a cute and easy chemistry with Max Wojtanowicz as her husband who accidentally distributes communist messages; Jay Albright, goofy as ever as Paul's fireworks buddy; Allen Hamilton as the frighteningly intense Russian dance teacher; Wendy Lehr as the Grand Duchess who makes blintzes, a third-act appearance that's worth the wait; Gabriel Murphy as the shocked IRS agent who enters the home and doesn't know what he's getting into; and last but not least, Raye Birk who, like Grandpa, is the heart and center of the show. Phew! Trust me, they're all fantastic and play together so well under Gary Gisselman's direction that every performance is a joy to watch. In fact there's often so much goodness going on at once on different parts of the stage that it's impossible to take it all in!

All of this craziness takes place in the Sycamore home, beautifully designed by Tom Butsch to use every inch of the Jungle's small stage. There's a foyer, office area, alcove for Ed's xylophone and printing press, stairway, dining table, and several doorways with set decoration continuing outside the doors. The walls are covered with framed photos and artwork, and every corner is crammed with books and tchotchkes. Amelia Cheever's '30s period costumes are beautiful (including several pairs of shoes I would like to own) and perfectly suited to each character. The lighting by Don Darnutzer and sound by Montana Johnson complete this specifically defined world (including several fireworks tricks on and off stage), with period music playing during intermissions and a post-curtain call song that perfectly sums up the evening: the best things in life are free!

What else can I say about You Can't Take It With You than it's an absolute delight and utterly joyful. Head to the Jungle between now and through August 9 for a pick-me-up and to revel in the good things in life.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

"Once" at the State Theatre

There's no big opening number, no splashy dance with dozens of chorus girls and boys, no pit orchestra, no large moving set pieces, no colorful glamorous costumes. Once is not your typical musical. In fact, according to The Cherry and Spoon Music-Theater Spectrum1 it's not a musical at all, but rather a play with music. Yet this atypical not-really-a-musical musical won eight Tony Awards in 2012. Why is that? Why was this quiet and quirky musical based on a little Irish movie awarded Broadway's biggest prize? Perhaps because it is different from other musicals. Perhaps the voters awarded the creative and organic way music is used to tell this beautifully simple and non-traditional love story. Once is a new kind of music-theater, and proves that musicals don't always have to be big and loud to have a profound effect on the audience. Once is quietly, beautifully stirring.

This is the second time that the First National Tour of Once has stopped in Minneapolis, with largely the same cast, although this time it's making its home in the slightly more intimate State Theater2. The tagline for this tour is "once is not enough," but for me, thrice is not enough as I would gladly go see it again every night of its brief one-week Minneapolis stay! Perhaps I'm biased - Once is one of my favorite movies and my favorite movie soundtrack, and it introduced me to my favorite musician Glen Hansard. But even without that prior attachment, it's easy to see that Once is something truly special. The music is raw and passionate, performed by a cast of 13 quadruple threats - they act, sing, dance (or at least move in a choreographed way), AND play an instrument. This folk-rock score written by the stars of the movie, Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, is not the kind of music you usually hear coming from the Broadway stage; it's quieter, less polished, and more real3. The story is simple and quiet - boy meets girl, boy fixes girl's Hoover, girl encourages boy to record his songs and follow his dreams, boy and girl go on with their separate lives, better for having met one another. John Carney's original story was adapted for the stage by the beautifully twisted mind of playwright Enda Walsh, retaining that unique Irish spirit4. The result as a whole is lovely, poignant, moving, and grand.

the loveable oddballs of Once
Since this is largely the same cast as last year, I'll repeat what I said then: As the guy, Stuart Ward has big shoes to fill - both those of Glen Hansard and Steve Kazee, who won a Tony for the role. And fill them he does, although in a different style than either of these predecessors. He possesses a gorgeous voice that's more musical theater than folk-rock, a moody intensity, and great stage charisma. The character of the girl changed so much from movie to stage that all thoughts of Marketa Irglova are gone, but Cristin Milioti (aka the surprisingly short-lived "Mother") left a great impression. Dani de Waal fills those shoes nicely in the quite tricky role of the girl, charming and sweet but not too perky. And when Stuart and Dani sing together, as on the Oscar-winning song "Falling Slowly," it's wondrous. The two are well supported and enhanced by ten wonderful actor/singer/musicians (and one adorable little girl). Standouts include Evan Harrington as the good-natured but tough music store owner, Scott Waara as the guy's sweet Da (with a really lovely pre-show song), and Matt DeAngelis, providing comic relief and powerful percussion as Svec (you know you're a true musical theater geek when you recognize touring cast members, as I did Matt; I clearly remember him as Woof in another musical obsession of mine, Hair, and in American Idiot).

The set is a pub that never changes, with tables and chairs brought out to represent different settings. Through it all, most of the cast remains on stage, watching from the sidelines. Dingy mirrors surround the stage and offer other angles of the action. The movement and choreography is so beautiful, subtle, and organic. There are no typical "dance numbers," just characters moving organically as the music moves them. Even the scene changes are beautifully and elegantly carried out, as not a moment is wasted.

The show begins before the show begins; the audience is allowed onstage to visit the pub and drink an overpriced beer through a straw. But it's worth it because the cast of musicians soon comes onstage for a traditional Irish session which you're able to witness up close and personal. After the audience is escorted off the stage, the session continues as the cast trades songs, until the musical baton is passed to the guy in the scarf, he belts out an impassioned "Leave," and the house lights go down. Just like that, reality fades and the world of the play takes over, and is so engrossing that it's like a dream. One that I hated to leave.

Stuart Ward and Dani de Waal
Unlike what Hollywood and Broadway usually tell us, not everyone gets a happily ever after kind of love, and maybe that's not even the ideal kind of love to strive for. If we're lucky, we get an hour, or a day, or a week-long encounter with someone who changes our life and pushes us forward when we've become "stopped." Maybe that's what life is, a series of moments, encounters, relationships, that might not last a lifetime although their effects do. That's what this story is about, and that's what these two people do for each other. It's a perfect love story, even though it may not end in the way that we're taught to expect. And it's also a love story about Ireland and its rich and unique culture, that the girl describes as "speaking and singing of what it is to be human." She tells the guy that he has "heart and soul," and this unique music-theater creation has heart and soul in spades, and speaks and sings of what it is to be human, with all the heartbreak, joy, disappointment, passion, connection, difficulties, and wonder it entails.

Once continues at the State Theatre in downtown Minneapolis through this weekend only. Whether it's once, twice, thrice, or more, it's a grand experience that's not to be missed.

1. The Cherry and Spoon Music-Theater Spectrum (TM pending): in a musical, characters sing in character, expressing their emotions and moving the plot forward. In a play with music, the music takes place in context, with characters singing in a way that would make sense in real life, and don't sing as the character. If you take the music out of a play with music, it still makes sense, although some of the impact is lost. If you take the music out of a musical, the story no longer makes sense.
2. Find out more about the State, Orpheum, and other local theaters in my "Review of Venues."
3. If you like the music of Once, check out Glen and Mar's follow-up album Strict Joy under their band name The Swell Season, or their solo albums Rhythm and Repose and Muna (among others), or the upcoming album commemorating the 25th anniversary of Glen's band The Frames.
4. For another taste of that unique Irish spirit, go see Guthrie departing Artistic Director Joe Dowling's loving ode to his homeland, the beautifully tragic Juno and the Paycock.

Monday, June 22, 2015

"Choir Boy" at the Guthrie Theater

What do you get when you combine a talented young playwright, an excellent cast that includes five up-and-coming actors and two beloved veterans of local stages, stirring a capella gospel music arranged by a local musical legend, and the Twin Cities' best director of "theater musically?" You get Choir Boy, a lovely and affecting play about a young gay man coming of age in an African American boarding school. The playwright is Tarell Alvin McCraney of the excellent Brother/Sister trilogy that Pillsbury House Theatre has produced in its entirety in the last several years. While those plays have an epic, mythical quality, Choir Boy is more grounded in reality, but just as beautifully written. Add in musical direction and arrangement by Sanford Moore and direction by Peter Rothstein, an expert at using music in the best possibly way to enhance the theatrical storytelling, and you have something quite special going on in the Guthrie's Dowling Studio.

Choir Boy centers around five young men at Drew Prep School, a fictional African American boarding school (of which, the playbill tells us, only four exist). We witness their lives over the course of a school year, beginning with graduation at which Pharus (John-Michael Lyles) proudly leads the choir in the school song, until distracted by some homophobic heckling by his classmate Bobby (Darrick Mosley), who happens to be the nephew of the Headmaster (James Craven). This causes some tension in the choir room when the boys return to school in the fall, and newly appointed choir leader Pharus kicks Bobby off the choir, while allowing his sidekick Junior (Kory LaQuess Pullam) to stay. Pharus has a sweet friendship with his roommate AJ (Ryan Colbert), and some unspoken history with David (Nathan Barlow). A new (white) teacher (Robert Dorfman) comes in and tries to shake things up, challenging the boys to think about things in a new way. As graduation rolls around again, these five young men are in a different place in their lives, a bit older, a bit wiser, a bit more lost or a bit more found. It's really a slice of life kind of play, where you can imagine these characters' lives existing before the actions of the play, and continuing after the actions of the play, in a direction that's not clearly spelled out. We don't know the full stories of their lives, but getting to watch a year of their lives over the course of 90 minutes is a fulfilling and rewarding experience.

This play truly depicts the universal struggle of being a teenager and trying to figure out who you are and what your place is in this world, when so many external sources are telling you what to do, be, and think. This is conveyed through the specific challenges of being a young gay man in a strict Christian African American boarding school. And the music, which is absolutely beautiful and essential to the piece, really helps to create the specific world. Under the direction/arrangement of Sanford Moore, these five young men create some beautiful harmonies and fascinatin' rhythms on these traditional gospel and spiritual songs with a modern twist. The music is placed perfectly to enhance the storytelling, whether the song is mournful or joyful, and happens organically in scene transitions, rehearsals, or performances.

the Choir Boys (Darrick Mosley, Ryan Colbert,
John-Michael Lyles, Nathan Barlow, and Kory LaQuess Pullam,
photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp)
John-Michael Lyles is the one member of this excellent seven-man cast who's new to the Twin Cities theater scene, and he's just perfect for his role. He creates a real and well-defined character in Pharus, alternately frustrating and sympathetic (if the Drew choir is Glee, Pharus is Rachel Berry, full of talent and not afraid to say it). The four other young men are bright young local talent seen on various stages around the Cities in the last few years, and it's nice to see them all shine as individuals and as a group in this piece. James Craven always makes everything better, here as the stern Headmaster who truly cares for these boys at the same time he's frustrated, perplexed, and annoyed by them. Last but not least is Robert Dorfman, his portrayal of the eccentric teacher in nice contrast to the otherwise strict boarding school environment and providing some comic relief - bumbling, putting his foot in his mouth, but passionate about his job and reaching young minds.

Michael Hoover's sharp set simultaneously represents five different settings (dorm room, Headmaster's office, showers, classroom, and yard) on multiple levels, making great use of the upper story balcony in the Dowling Studio. And what was it that Chekhov said? If you show a shower on stage, you must have a shower scene? Both Damn Yankees and Choir Boy deliver on that promise, although the latter with more realism.

I saw Choir Boy last Saturday night at the Guthrie Theater, home of three stages in one building. It also happened to be the first preview of The Music Man, and the joint was jumping! Even though I was annoyed to find my usual parking level full, and people clogging the escalator, hallways, and bathrooms, like the man I rode the elevator with said, it's nice to see so many people out supporting the arts. And three such different plays on the three stages - a 90-year-old Irish play that is departing Artistic Director Joe Dowling's swan song, one of the most beloved American musicals, and this exciting new play about young African American men coming of age. Some 2000 people, all gathered together in one space to share in the experience of live theater - what a beautiful thing (thanks again Joe Dowling!). Choir Boy continues through July 5.

This article also appears on Broadway World Minneapolis.