Saturday, August 29, 2015

"Extremities" by Dark & Stormy Productions at Grain Belt Warehouse

With their sixth production in the three-year life of the company, Dark & Stormy once again delivers a short, intense, well-acted and directed play in an unconventional space. But Extremities has none of the dark humor that could be found in some of their past shows. It's all violence and drama and complex moral questions. This 1982 Broadway play turned 1986 movie starring Farrah Fawcett explores the weighty themes of sexual violence, power, and justice. There's no clear winner in this story, no obvious right and wrong, just a lot of grey area, where most of us live. Each of these four characters, beautifully portrayed by this excellent cast, is at times sympathetic and at times infuriating in their words and choices. More than 30 years after it was written, Extremities is as relevant and topical as ever.

I don't want to say too much about the plot because you really need to watch it unfold unspoiled, but it centers around a woman named Marjorie who is attacked and nearly raped by a stranger in her home, until she's able to gain the upper hand with plans of enacting justice on her attacker. Her two roommates come home to find an injured man tied up, and aren't sure what to believe. The three women have very different perspectives on the situation, and it's fascinating to watch them struggle with what to do. Terry is scared, then becomes annoyed and doesn't want to sacrifice for Marjorie. Patricia applies her social work techniques to talk everyone through it and try to work out the best possible solution. Marjorie is just trying to survive in the only way she knows how. The attacker-turned-victim tries to sweet talk each of them in turn to get away, belying the monster we meet in the beginning of the play.

Emily Bridges, Sara Marsh, and Tracey Maloney
(photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp)
Smart young director Mel Day brings a clarity to the murky waters of the play and works well with the four-person cast, each of whom brings their A game. Artistic Director Sara Marsh gives a brave and raw performance as Marjorie, going from a terrified woman at the worst moment in her life, to taking control of the situation, and turning into an unforgiving force. Also excellent as the two roommates are Tracey Maloney (a familiar face on Twin Cities stages) and Emily Bridges (yes, she's Beau's daughter, but also a welcome newcomer to the local theater scene). But perhaps most impressive is James Rodriguez as Marjorie's would-be rapist, somehow bringing some humanity to the role. He makes this man truly terrifying during the attack, then charming and polite as he tries to talk his way out of it, and finally, he's absolutely devastating as this criminal faces what he's done.

The play is staged in Dark & Stormy's temporary new home in the Grain Belt Warehouse in Northeast Minneapolis. The stage is not so much a stage as a living room in a corner of the intimate space, with just a few rows of chairs on two sides. You're right there in the room with these characters and inside their dilemma. The attack scene is brutal and terrifying to watch, with intricate fight choreography (by Annie Enneking) well performed by James and Sara in a way that's almost too real, especially when viewed up close and personal. There are some nifty stage magic tricks that make the results of the violence visible in a very realistic way.

I'm not sure that the way we talk about rape has changed all that much in 30 years. Hopefully it's more acceptable to talk about it at all now (see also Bill Cosby), but unfortunately we still hear talk of blaming the victim because of how she dresses or acts around men, and the difficulties of getting justice through the legal system in what sometimes amounts to he said/she said. At its best, theater can start a conversation about important, relevant, difficult issues, and that's what this play does, without offering easy answers. Extremities continues through September 19 (Dark & Stormy shows tend to sell out in these small spaces, so get your tickets in advance).

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

"Blood Brothers" - A Reading by Second Fiddle Productions

As far as I know, Second Fiddle Productions is a one-of-a-kind theater company in this town of 70+ theater companies. They are exclusively dedicated to producing one-show-only readings of rare and unusual musicals. Founded by the talented Ruthie Baker (currently a resident of River City at the Guthrie), the company is now in their second year and I finally was able to go to one of their Monday night readings - the 1983 West End hit Blood Brothers. After just eight hours of rehearsal, this ten-person cast full of the Twin Cities top music-theater talent breathed such incredible life into this script and score that I wonder why it isn't produced more often.

Blood Brothers was is set in and was first produced in Liverpool. The titular brothers are twins separated at birth when their poor single mother is convinced into giving one of them to her wealthy and childless employer. Despite their very different lifestyle, the boys meet on the streets of Liverpool and become fast friends, each admiring and envious of what the other possesses. But as they grow up, the extreme difference in their situations becomes more evident as one brother has a successful career and the other turns to crime to feed his young family. But in the end what could come between these best friends and unknowing twins? A woman, of course, and the fight over her results in the death of both brothers.

The story ends tragically but there is fun and humor along the way. I'd never heard any of the songs before but I think the score is great, with an '80s English musical sort of sound. I love how the comparisons to Marilyn Monroe turn from joyful to sad, as does the dancing song. The recurring theme of the devil at your door and the superstition about bad luck with new shoes on the table casts a dark cloud on the show, reminding us of the upcoming tragedy even through the happy times and good humor.

Since this is a reading, I'm not supposed to write a review (although I'm not sure that what I usually write are really reviews), so I'm not going to tell you how amazing this cast is and how incredible and fully formed their performances were even though they only rehearsed for eight hours and were often reading from the book. I'm especially not going to tell you how fabulous Jen Burleigh-Bentz was as the mother, or how adorable Eric Morris and Reid Harmsen were as the brothers, or what a great job Josh Campbell and Nic Delcambre did as Director and Music Director/accompanist, respectively. Nope, I'm not going to tell you that, but I am going to tell you that if you're interested in expanding your musical theater knowledge by watching top-notch local talent "read" a musical you may never have heard of before, keep your eye on Second Fiddle. Their final reading of this year is The Most Happy Fella in October, with their third season announcement coming soon. Stay tuned to their Facebook page for details.

Monday, August 24, 2015

"Escape from Alcina's Island" by Mixed Precipitation at Falcon Heights Community Garden

For another installment of summer outdoor theater in Minnesota, we have Mixed Precipitation. Every summer they deliver something they like to call a "picnic operetta," which is just what it sounds like - a little light opera with food. Perhaps the "mixed" in this company's name refers to the mixture of food, music, theater, and the outdoors, perhaps it refers to the mixture of classic operetta with pop music. Either way it's a fun, charming, delightful, and yummy example of the outdoor theater that can be had in Minnesota. And even better - they travel around to area parks and gardens, so you can likely find a performance near you.

Handel's opera Alcina, about a seductive sorceress (Carolyn Cavadini) who lures Ruggiero (Dan Piering) away from his beloved Bradamante (Maggie Lofboom) with the help of her sister Morgana (Lizz Windnagel), has been transformed into a story of truckers on the road (adaptation by Director Scotty Reynolds and Music Director Marya Hart). This allows them to bring in some great old Country-Western road and heartbreak songs like "Six Days on the Road," "Heartaches by the Number," "The Race is On," and the classic George and Tammy duet "We're Gonna Hold On." It's great fun to hear these songs played by the four-piece classical/country orchestra, interspersed with Handel's lovely music sung mostly in Italian (with some surtitles charmingly rolled out by hand on a scroll to the left of the stage).

Morgana's Melon Margarita
There's nothing serious about this show, except that this cast can seriously sing. The show is loose and playful, performed with great enthusiasm by the large ensemble which includes several children and teens. Their Western attire adds to the fun and informality of this operetta. The acoustics aren't always great with the wind and the nearby soccer game, but that's part of the charm and spontaneity of outdoor theater.

Alcina's Antipasti
And then there's the food (created by Nick Schneider and Kimlinh Bui). The five courses are announced by the cast and somehow worked into the plot, usually as Alcina offers her guests hospitality. Each of the courses is a perfect little bite of flavor, all of them vegetarian and some of them vegan (make sure to ask about any dietary needs). Plates are passed among the crowd seated on the ground or in camp chairs as the show continues. So come hungry (but not too hungry, they are small bites).

Mixed Precipitation offers a unique, fun, and summery opportunity to enjoy good food and entertaining music-theater in your neighborhood park. I know it's mid-August, but summer in Minnesota isn't over yet so be sure to get in this last taste of outdoor theater before the snow falls! Performances continue at parks and gardens around the Twin Cities area and beyond - see their website for the full tour schedule.

the charming scene at the Picnic Operetta - the race is on!

Sunday, August 23, 2015

"Becoming Dr. Ruth" by Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company at Highland Park Center Theater

Everyone knows Dr. Ruth, the famous sex therapist and '80s TV and radio icon. But what do we really know about her, other than that she's diminutive, heavily accented, able to speak frankly about formerly taboo subjects, and always grinning and cheerful? The new play Becoming Dr. Ruth reveals just what a fascinating life she's lead as a young girl orphaned by the Holocaust, never forgetting the importance of education instilled in her by her father, or the love and support of her mother and grandmother. A true survivor, she forged a successful new life for herself and became the Dr. Ruth we know today. This funny and poignant one-woman show does a wonderful job of creating a portrait of the woman behind the icon.

Playwright Mark St. Germain (see also Freud's Last Session) has written Dr. Ruth's life story as a conversation between Dr. Ruth and the audience. There's no fourth wall, as she candidly speaks directly to the audience, saying "I love to go out to the theater, today, the theater comes to me!" The play is set in 1997 as Dr. Ruth is packing up the apartment she's lived in for over 30 years, triggering a flood of memories that she shares with the audience. Born in Frankfurt, Germany in 1928, she recounts her days as part of the Kindertransport to Switzerland, moving to Palestine and fighting in the Israeli War of Independence, her three marriages and two children, and her endless pursuit of education, eventually becoming sex therapist to the nation through her radio and TV shows. It's a life both ordinary and extraordinary, filled with unspeakable tragedies as well as everyday struggles of love, family, and career.

Miriam Schwartz as Dr. Ruth (photo by Sarah Whiting)
When I first read that 25-year-old Miriam Schwartz was cast as the 69-year-old Dr. Ruth, I have to admit, I was skeptical. But any doubt is erased within minutes as Miriam takes the stage in full Dr. Ruth mode, and has the audience in the palm of her hand for 90 minutes. She perfectly captures this iconic woman's indomitable spirit, boundless cheerfulness, energetic shuffling walk, and frank and honest sex advice delivered in that familiar German-Israeli-French-American accent. Miriam has completely transformed herself and is an absolute delight to watch as she brings Dr. Ruth to life before us with humor and poignancy.

Of course, a one-person show is never just that, and Miriam has great support in director Craig Johnson, who keeps her busy moving around the apartment set, packing up memories; scenic designer Kirby Moore who has created a cluttered, homey, lived in set; and dialect coach Foster Johns to help her get the accent down pat.

This summer show opens Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company's 2015-2016 season and runs for just seven performances. Catch it while you can* to see a funny, poignant, sharply written play about America's most trusted sex therapist who turns out to be much more than what she seems, with a wonderful performance by Miriam Schwartz as the star of this one-woman show.

*Note that Ford Parkway is closed between the theater and Snelling, so plan accordingly and allow time to navigate detours.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

"Eastland" at Renegade Theater Company

Have you ever heard of a ship called the SS Eastland? Neither had I, which is strange because in 1915 the ship rolled to its side and sunk to the bottom of the Chicago River, trapping many of the 2500 passengers below deck as the ship filled with water and resulting in the death of 844 of them, the most deadly disaster on US soil until 9-11. Maybe it's become overshadowed in history by the sinking of the Titanic, which was even more deadly and more glamorous, with many rich and famous on board. Whatever the reason that this disaster is mostly unknown, the Eastland Disaster Historical Society is working to change that. To find out more about this horrific event, you can visit their extensive website, read any number of books, or go see a musical. It just so happens that music-theater is my favorite way to learn about history, and I feel so fortunate to have seen Renegade Theater Company's beautiful production of the new musical Eastland, just the second production of this piece that premiered at Chicago's Lookingglass Theatre. What better way to tell this very human and very tragic story of hope, loss, love, grief, and survival than through music and theater?

David Darrow and Blake Thomas
As the lights came up on stage to reveal Blake Thomas and David Darrow with guitars in their hands, I knew I was in the right place, even though I was in Duluth, about 150 miles from where I usually attend theater. I'd been hearing about Renegade for a while, and this was a perfect first experience with them. The fact that they found this new musical, brought it to Duluth (a town that's no stranger to shipwrecks), and took a chance on it, speaks a lot to who they are as a company. A look at their list of past shows reveals some interesting and challenging selections, and I like that. I wasn't sure if a town the size of Duluth could sustain the level of talent we're used to in the Twin Cities, but judging by this excellent cast, it can. UMD has a great theater program (a few of the cast members are students), and that bleeds out into the community. Plus, 150 miles isn't really so far.

Jenna Kelly as Bobbie
This is not a linear story, a mere recitation of facts and timelines with music. Rather it's a collection of stories. Stories about the disaster itself as experienced by different people on the ship and in the community, and stories about life before the disaster. Stories of these real people's lives that are messy and complicated and wonderful, as life is. Obviously not every story can be told, but the musical creates clear pictures of who some of these people were and what was lost that day, and evokes more emotions that the number 844 ever could. If there is a main character, it's 13-year-old Bobbie (played by Jenna Kelly, and whose granddaughter started the Historical Society with her husband and was at the performance I attended). Through Bobbie's eyes we see all of the excitement of the day, the despair as she's separated from her family and trapped below deck, and the determination to survive. We also meet Ilse (Rachael Ronding), a woman who feels trapped in her expected life of work and family, until she meets a grocer (David Darrow) who shows her that life can be more. There's the ship's captain (Blake Thomas), who refuses to take the blame, an undertaker (Scott Hebert), and a teenager named Reggie (Dylan Rugh) who puts his talent for holding his breath to use recovering dozens of bodies from the water as he imagines his idol Harry Houdini (Zachary Stofer) challenging him to stay down longer.

the cast of Eastland
All of these stories of past and present are clearly and cleverly intertwined by book writer Andrew White, who also wrote the lyrics. The gorgeous music by Andre Pluess and Ben Sussman is evocative of the early 20th century time period, at times haunting and at times driving (the standout "Into The River"), and is a well-constructed musical theater score with recurring themes ("things tip, they lean"), character solos, lovely duets, and thrilling group numbers. But the show is so fresh and new, the score wasn't really written down. Music director Blake Thomas provided new orchestrations for this production, with a band consisting of two guitars, an upright bass, piano, and an occasional mandolin. Renegade performs in an intimate space at Teatro Zuccone in downtown Duluth, a space that requires no microphones. It's a rare thing to see unmiked performers in a musical, but it's the best way to hear music. There's something about the unamplified human voice that is so effective in conveying the true emotions of the piece. The sound mix is perfect; I wish all musicals could be performed like this. The tiny space also brings the audience close enough to see the fear, hope, despair, and wonder in these marvelous actors' eyes. And with no intermission to break into the flow of the story, it's an incredibly compelling and affecting experience.

Dylan Rugh diving off the stage as Reggie
Director Peter Froehlingsdorf, who found Eastland and brought it to Renegade, keeps these complicated layered stories and the large cast moving in the small space. The stage is made of uneven surfaces with trap doors, appropriate for a ship that tips and leans, with spaces on the sides used for flashbacks and the band housed in the back section of the stage. A couple of beautiful effects include the diving "human frog," using a harness and pulley system, and characters hanging drenched clothing over a washtub as the water pours off of them and the undertaker pins a number on them, representing some of the 844 victims. It's a powerful and haunting effect.

Eastland is a beautifully written new musical, one that doesn't feel rough or unfinished, but fully formed and complete. Renegade's production is extremely well done and well received - the closing weekend is sold out. I believe this rich piece has a future and hope to see it performed in theaters around the country, particularly here in the Twin Cities. It's a story that deserves to be heard, especially when this well told. "Is there any better way to pass the time?" For me, there is none.

Things shift, they change
That's life, it rearranges
Things tip, they lean
'Till you find you're between
Something old and something new
Change is good for you

Thursday, August 20, 2015

"Take It With You" at The Underground

I'm sitting here in the warm and inviting Solglimt Bed and Breakfast, staring out at the blue-gray waters of Lake Superior, on a mini mid-week vacation. And what brings me to lovely Duluth, Minnesota's favorite in-state getaway? Theater, of course. Tonight I will make my first visit to the Renegade Theater Company to see the new musical Eastland, but my first stop was my second time watching the delightful radio show called Take It With You. Now in their second season, TIWY was created by Blake Thomas and Mary Fox (whom you might remember from Yellow Tree Theatre, Theater Latte Da's Our Town, or varioius other theaters in the cities before they decided to leave us and take their talents to the North Shore). This super talented couple along with some super talented friends write, perform, produce, record, and upload an hour-long episode every month, which you can (and should) listen to for free here!

Take It With You is a scripted show that follows a group of charming oddball friends centered around a Cheers-like bar in Duluth (at least until they tore it down to make way for a baseball field, more on that later). There's romance, adventure, comedy, a bit of social commentary, a visit from Mayor Don Ness, a conversation with local business owners, and of course, music! Many of the songs are Blake Thomas originals (if you like country, folk, Americana, singer-songwriter, or just good music in general, you'll want to check out his albums on iTunes), along with traditional song, standards, or whatever fits in with the theme of the episode. Episode 13 is all about baseball, so we were treated to songs about Jackie Robinson, Joe Dimaggio, and a sing-along to "Take Me Out to the Ballgame."

In this episode, the gang is challenged to play a game of baseball against a Little League team sponsored by the rival bar across the street. The stakes are high; if our team wins, the rival bar closes up shop. They decide to tear down the bar and build a baseball diamond in a cornfield in the hopes of attracting some baseball stars, but all they manage to attract are the cast of Field of Dreams, who actually can't play baseball. A few "sports montages" later and the game is over, as is the episode, with a whole lot of fun had by all. Including the large and loyal in-person audience and the cast that lends their musical, vocal, and sound effect making talents to the story - Blake, Mary, Katy Helbacka, Matt Helbacka, Ryan Nelson (with a hilarious array of voices from a little girl to James Earl Jones), Lane Prekker, and Zach Stofer (with Abe Curran on bass). It's so much fun to watch them create this wonderfully silly and very specific fictional world through voices, music, and sounds.

After more than a year and 13 episodes, the TIWY crew is like a well-oiled machine, which allows lots of room for playing around and having fun. "Live radio theatre" is a unique concept in this day and age, and TIWY is a unique product. It's fun and entertaining, with loveable oddball characters, great music, and support of local Duluth culture and businesses. Give it a listen and you might just get hooked. Every episode ends with the cast taking turns on the 1930s folky song "Sitting on Top of the World," which perfectly sums up the feeling this show evokes.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

"Hairspray" at Artistry (formerly known as Bloomington Civic Theatre)

Bloomington Civic Theatre has recently rebranded themselves as Artistry, and they've set the bar pretty high for the new direction of the organization. Their first production, a new take on the old favorite Hairspray, is fun and lighthearted, has a powerful and very relevant message about equality and self-love, is performed by a dynamic and diverse cast, and is directed and choreographed with great energy and spirit. It's an all-around wonderful show and is sure to be a smashing success (get your tickets now before they sell out). If Hairspray is any indication, I expect Artistry's inaugural season* to be the top-notch!

At this point I'm sure everyone's seen some version of Hairspray, whether the original movie, the musical based on the movie, or the movie based on the musical based on the movie. Normally this would be a recipe for disaster, but this story is so rich and music-filled that each iteration works. Despite not looking like the prim and proper skinny girls on her favorite TV show, The Corny Collins Show (think American Bandstand), Tracie wins a spot on the show and begins to dance on TV. She can't understand why her "colored" friends can't be on the show, so she arranges a protest and is promptly thrown in jail. But she gets out, continues towards her goal, wins the boy of her dreams, and achieves racial harmony through dance.

What does a 2002 Broadway musical based on a 1988 movie set in 1962 have to do with 2015? As it turns out, a lot. Tracie Turnblad is a heroine for the ages, proving that a young woman who doesn't meet society's standards of beauty can live a happy and fulfilling life, fall in love, and enact social change (all while dancing and singing!). And more than 50 years after the fictional events of the show take place, we are still traveling that road towards racial equality. The protest scenes include signs saying "Black Lives Matter" and "Hands Up, Don't Shoot," landing the show squarely in the present day and bringing an even greater poignancy to the song "I Know Where I've Been." Lyrics such as "there's a road we've been traveling, lost so many on the way" and "there's a struggle that we have yet to win" mean even more today. And somehow singing "I Love You Baltimore," and the entire show that's based on John Waters' love letter to his hometown, takes on a deeper meaning after the events that played out there earlier this year. I was moved to tears several times, which is a rare thing in musical that's also this much fun.

Brandon Caviness and Gracie Anderson
as Edna and Tracie Turnblad
Artistry has compiled a fantastic cast, and it's nice to see some new faces among the familiar ones. Starting at the top, Gracie Anderson is everything you could want in a Tracie Turnblad. She can sing and dance with the best of them, but more importantly, she has great charisma and winningly portrays Tracie's huge heart and spirit. As teen heartthrob Link, Nicholas Kaspari is no Matthew Morrison (who is?), but he's got some smooth moves and oodles of charm, and makes Link worthy of Tracie's affection. It's refreshing to see parents as loving and supportive of their daughter and her crazy dreams as Tracie's parents are. Brandon Caviness is fabulous in this role of a lifetime as the hausfrau Edna who learns from her daughter that it's not too late to take her place in the world, and Alan Holasek's Wilbur is all sweet and lanky awkwardness. The two of them make a charming and "timeless" couple.

"The Big Doll House"
2014 Spotlight Award winner Angela Steele proves she's more than worthy of that honor with her terrific performance as Amber, the mean girl everyone loves to hate (and she looks like a blond bouffanted Cristin Milioti). Catherine Noble is hilarious as Tracie's gum-popping sidekick Penny. Is that Melissa McCarthy stealing scenes in a number of roles from the president of the hairspray company to a cop? No, it's Meagen Kedrowski, but she coulda fooled me with her very specific comic creation of these characters, complete with funny voices and weird faces. Last but definitely not least, Bey Jackson's performance as Motormouth Maybelle, and specifically his rendition of the aforementioned Civil Rights anthem "I Know Where I've Been," is a thing of inspiring beauty.

A hallmark of BCT/Artistry is their traditional pit orchestra let by Anita Ruth, but in this show it's so much fun to see them on stage like a big band on a TV show, sitting behind the Painted Ladies of Baltimore on this simple but effective set by Erica Zaffarano. Ed Gleeman's '60s period costumes are fabulous and might make you miss Mad Men a little less, with the men in sharp suits and the women in lovely full-skirted dresses (several of which I would like to own). And kudos to wig designer Paul Bigot for creating the appropriately over-the-top hairsprayed hairdos.

When the director is a choreographer and a former American Bandstand dancer, you know there's going to be some amazing dancing in the show. Michael Matthew Ferrell has teamed with choreographer Kristin Iiams to create a fun and fast-moving show with such sharp, fast, fun, and very '60s dancing that I wish I were born a few decades earlier. In the capable hands of dance captains Emily Madigan and Krysti Wiita and this dynamic young cast, the dancing is a joy to watch. Warning: it's hard to sit still watching this show!

Hairspray is a show that's been done many times in the last 13 years, so you might wonder, why now? Artistry answers that question by bringing a feeling of relevance and immediacy to this poignant and moving story wrapped up in fabulous '60s song and dance. And it's a beautiful thing to see such diversity on stage and in the audience, especially at a theater in the suburbs (other suburban theaters - take note!). Hairspray continues through September 13, get your tickets now because they're going to be hard to come by (also check for discount tickets on Goldstar).

*The musical theater season continues with Yeston and Kopit's PhantomThe Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, and Fiddler on the Roof. Also check out the plays in Artistry's black box theater.