Tuesday, May 19, 2015

"Hamlet" by Theatre Unbound at the JSB Tek Box at the Cowles Center

Shakespeare's not known for writing a lot of women's roles. Part of this is no doubt a practical choice - in Shakespeare's day women were not allowed to be actors so all of the roles were played by men. Theatre Unbound turns this idea on its head by casting women to play all the roles. They won an Ivey a few years ago for their all-female production of Julius Caesar, and since then I've been itching to see their work. For whatever reason, I haven't, until now. They are closing their 15th season with an all-female production of Hamlet, one of Shakespeare's most well-known plays, and perhaps one with the fewest roles for women (two). A talented ensemble of eight women play all of the roles in this epic and beloved play, bringing a new dynamic to the story while allowing the humor and tragedy of the original to take center stage.

This is an inventive ensemble-driven production of a familiar play. Director Leah Adcock-Starr efficiently moves her cast around the empty white space as they play multiple roles, sometimes in the same scene. Actors are rarely offstage; instead sitting in white chairs right in front of the audience when not participating in the action. Zoa Green provides a lovely and appropriate soundtrack to the story, making a full range of sounds with just a couple of guitars, sometimes played like a cello or a drum. Costume designer Lisa Conley has dressed the cast in soft layers of white and gray, with characters differentiated by a hat or jacket. The ghost of the dead king is represented in a beautifully creepy ghost-like way. Ensemble member Laura Mahler introduces each scene and reads stage directions in an expressive tone that matches the scene, which is an interesting choice (and a helpful one to keep all the characters straight). This, along with the actors' pre-show onstage warm-up, gives the show a more informal feel, almost as if we're watching a rehearsal (although a polished one).

Laura Mahler and Kathryn Fumie
No pronouns were changed to reflect the fact that the stage is populated with women, but at some point gender ceases to matter as you get caught up in the story of these complicated and damaged people. Hamlet's devastating grief and playful madness are brought to life with great energy by Kathryn Fumie. Bethany Ford Brinkley gives an emotional performance as poor mad Ophelia, and then becomes Rosencrantz (or is it Gildenstern?) with a slight wardrobe adjustment and a completely different way of being in her body. Muriel J. Bonertz is appropriately dark and devious as the fratricidal king, Gretchen Emo is the gullible queen, Kathleen Hardy offers some light moments as Ophelia's father, and Nicole Joy Frethern is her supportive and loving brother. And then some - part of the fun of this show is watching these women transform into multiple characters, most of whom happen to be men.

Theatre Unbound's Hamlet is a fresh take on one of the most well-known plays in all of theater. And not just because of the all-female cast, but also because of the small size of the cast and the playful, innovative, ensemble-driven style of the show (continuing through May 31, with discount tickets available on Goldstar)

Monday, May 11, 2015

"One Arm" by New Epic Theater at the Lab Theater

Thanks to playwright Moisés Kaufman (see also The Laramie Project), an unproduced screenplay written by one of my favorite playwrights, Tennessee Williams, was saved from oblivion and can now be seen on the stage. Williams published One Arm as a short story in 1942 and attempted a screenplay in 1967 that never went anywhere. Kaufman recently adapted it into a one-act play, and thanks to the new theater company New Epic Theater, Twin Cities theater-goers can now see this beautifully tragic piece of Tennessee Williams writing in a gorgeous production at the Lab Theater. A remount of one of my favorite Fringe shows last year, One Arm tells the story of a boxer who lost his arm, his identity, and his self-respect in an accident, and spent the rest of his short life trying to get it back. There are three levels of greatness going on in this show: Tennessee Williams' poignant and moving story, Moisés Kaufman's clever adaptation, and New Epic's inventive and thoughtful interpretation. All of it comes together for a completely engaging and engrossing 90 minutes of theater.

The man with the titular one arm is Ollie Olsen, a boxer who loses his arm in an accident that kills two of his friends. No longer able to box, he stumbles into hustling (a quaint and old-fashioned word for prostitution) as a way to survive. He finds that he's good at it, and travels around the country making an impression on many men, and a few women. But he's become dead inside, unable to feel anything for anyone, until he ends up in prison and is faced with the end of his life and the memories of past encounters. The story is told within the framework of a screenplay; a narrator begins the story carrying a script in his hands, and he and other characters read stage directions such as "exterior night," or "camera pans." It's almost as if you're watching a movie, or a movie acted out on stage, which adds another level of interest and originality to the storytelling.

Torsten Johnson and James Kunz (photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp)
The tight six-person ensemble (only two of whom return from last year's production), fluidly and seamlessly tell the story that jumps around in time and place. Taking over the role of Ollie is Torsten Johnson in an incredibly physical performance, saying as much with the way he writhes on the floor or climbs over the furniture as he does with his sparse words. It's an apt interpretation of a character who's defined by his physicality - his prowess in the boxing ring, his "mutilation," his job as a hustler.

Most of the story is told through a series of perfect two-person scenes with Ollie and the people he meets, all of whom are portrayed by the five other cast members. H. Adam Harris is the narrator, bringing to life Williams' (and/or Kaufman's) elegantly descriptive words, and also plays a man who is perhaps Ollie's only true friend. The other four actors sit in chairs behind the stage with their various props and wardrobe pieces around them, watching the scene until they're called to join in the action. The two returning cast members are the radiant Aeysha Kinnunen playing all of the Tennessee Williamsesque women, and Adam Qualls in several diverse performances including the callous prison guard and a nervous divinity student who wants to help but isn't quite sure why or how. Craig Johnson makes an impression (as always) as a wealthy and lonely john, a sleazy porn producer, and the crazy landlady. Rounding out the cast is James Kunz, who also choreographed the movement. There is no "choreography" as you typically think of it, but the way the actors move around the space is really quite beautiful and expressive.

Craig Johnson and Torsten Johnson (photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp)
Director and scenographer Joseph Stodola makes great use of the space at the Lab Theater, an even more appropriate setting that the Southern Theater was last year at the Fringe. The raised square stage has seating on three sides, giving the feeling of watching a boxing match, especially when two characters are in the box sparring verbally or physically. Some of the action also takes place outside of this box, near the chairs at the back of the stage, with the narrator wandering in and out through the audience. The stage is empty except for a metal frame bed, one chair, and a cart with an old projector on it, hinting at the screenplay nature of the original work. It all speaks to a thoughtful attention to detail that elevates the work.

It's worth noting that when I attended the show last Saturday night, I was one of the oldest people in the audience. This is a rare occurrence; at 41 I'm often one of the youngest people in the audience (nothing makes me feel younger than a Sunday matinee at BCT!). Perhaps it was the 9 pm start time - we older people have a hard time leaving the house after 8, and if I wasn't already out at a birthday party I probably wouldn't have made it either. Whatever the reason, kudos to New Epic Theater for drawing in a younger audience. But they deserve to be drawing in a larger audience than the one I was part of. I know they're a new company in a community rife with theater companies young and old, but trust me when I say that this one is worth your time. The director, cast, and creative team have created a gorgeous piece of theater based on the work of two fine playwrights. I hope that they're not a one-hit wonder and will continue to produce thoughtful, relevant, inventive, gorgeous work like One Arm. Performances continue tonight through this weekend only, so you have six more chances to see it (a few 9 pm performances but also some 7:30 shows for those with an earlier bedtime).

Saturday, May 9, 2015

"Forget Me Not When Far Away" by Ten Thousand Things at Minnesota Opera Center

The village of Farmingtown has been devoid of men for so long that when one returns from the far away and long-lasting war, the first woman he meets rushes up to him and inhales him deeply. This hilarious and oddly touching moment at the beginning of Kira Obolensky's new play Forget Me Not When Far Away sets the tone for this playful and poignant fairy tale about a soldier returning to a home he once knew. Ten Thousand Things has been on the road with the show for a few weeks, performing at correctional facilities, community centers, and other unlikely venues. As director Michelle Hensley said in her introduction of the show (which has come to be one of my favorite parts of a TTT production), the fact that this play has resonated with such diverse audiences in different ways is a credit to the skills of the playwright, who has created a world outside of time and space that somehow feels familiar and relatable to everyone. This world is brought to life in the beautifully sparse way that only Ten Thousand Things can do, with a brilliant cast of six performing in a fully lit room in a space so small that they literally trip over the audience. The fanciful story is grounded in truth and made to feel very real by the universality of the story, the charming accessibility of the language, the up-close-and-personal performances by the actors in whom you can feel every nuance of every emotion through a look in the eyes, the twinge of a facial muscle, or a subtle movement of the body. Ten Thousand Things harnesses the magic of theater in its most basic form like no other company can.*

Farmingtown is a quaint village in which news is passed by the town crier, the main employment is farming and working in the morgue, and the men all go off to war while the women stay home. The women have adjusted well to this man-free life, taking charge of all systems and businesses in town. They're in for a shock when one John Ploughman returns from war, discharged due to an injury. The more than 20 women depicted in the play (portrayed by just five actors) all react to him in a different way, from the aforementioned inhaling, to surprise, to skepticism, to a determination to win him. Lacking the necessary paperwork to prove that he's not dead as was announced, John faces a tough road readjusting to life in Farmingtown. He's searching for a woman he knew before the war, a woman he now loves but scorned in the past, when he was a bit of a playboy. It turns out Flora Crisp has been pining after him all these long years, or at least the idea of him. But this isn't your typical love story; the people of Farmingtown find love and fulfillment in different ways, as the war ends and a new chapter of their lives begins.

John Ploughman at the bar (Ron Menzel with Shá Cage,
Photo by Paula Keller)
Ten Thousand Things often casts their show without much regard to gender, changing the gender of characters or casting women as men or vice versa. But in this play it's quite specific that there is only one man in town, surrounded by women (and one awkward and adorkable little boy). Ron Menzel is that man, his masculinity standing out in a soldier's uniform against the women in their cute but functional dresses and colorful Keds (costumes by Sonya Berlovitz). Ron is one of my long-time faves from the Guthrie (beginning with the memorable Intimate Apparel nearly ten years ago), and it's a thrill to see him in this setting as he fully inhabits this character in every moment of his journey, effortlessly portraying the frustration, hope, desperation, brokenness, determination, and above all humanity in this man in all his flaws and glory.

three of the bewigged women of Forget Me Not When Far Away
(Elise Langer, Shá Cage, Karen Wiese-Thompsonm
photo by Paula Keller)
I can't say enough about these five women who play over 20 characters, differentiated not only by the wigs on their heads but also by a unique voice and carriage of the body. All of them give sometimes hilarious, sometimes touching, always specific performances, including:
  • Sun Mee Chomet as the wounded Flora, the tough landlady, and the steady barkeep
  • Annie Enneking as a prim and proper government worker, John's ex, and a singer at the bar (singing songs she wrote)
  • Elise Langer as a possibly drunken postal worker, a ditsy blond, the town crier, and perhaps my favorite character - a little boy who's slightly off but open and loving and wise
  • Karen Wiese-Thompson as a cigarette-smoking trench coat-wearing PI, a dentist, and Flora's concerned grandmother
  • Shá Cage as a fortune teller, a timid little girl, and a woman chasing after John who turns out to be a good friend
Ten Thousand Things travels light in terms of props and set pieces, which only seems to make them more creative. Irve Dell's clever and efficient set consists of four standing metal frames that hinge down to represent a door, window, or bar, with two metal boxes serving as all the other necessary furniture. Peter Vitale creates a delightful soundtrack for the story, subtly setting the tone. For some reason there's clog dancing, which provides a reason to show off Jim Lichtsheidl's charming choreography.

Forget Me Not When Far Away is a delightful story about returning home, reconnecting, and re-establishing your identity in a changed world. Like other TTT productions, the show feels like the neighborhood kids have gotten together to put on a play in someone's backyard, if your neighborhood were populated with some of the most talented theater artists in town. Paid public performances continue at the Minnesota Opera Center and Open Book through the end of May. Go see it, and then make plans for next season when TTT continues their pattern of Shakespeare-musical-new play with Henry IV Part IDear World, and Changelings by Kira Obolensky.

*To find out more about the magic of TTT, check out founder and Artistic Director Michelle Hensley' book All the Lights On.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Minnesota Fringe Festival: Five-Fifths of Dirty Dancing at Illusion Theater

The 2015 Minnesota Fringe Festival kicked off this week with their annual spring fundraiser entitled "Five-Fifths," in which a popular movie is divided into five parts and given to five Fringe companies for their interpretation. This year they chose Dirty Dancing, presumably because it's one of the best movies ever made (that's not sarcasm; a devotion to Dirty Dancing and Patrick Swayze is inherent in anyone who was a teenage girl in the '80s). I could not resist this beloved movie receiving the Fringe treatment by this group of creative and wacky geniuses, and was not disappointed by the result, which was as delightfully bizarre and diverse as the festival itself.

The Huge Founders opened the show, with Mike Fotis (a Fringe legend) in drag as Baby, doing the requisite narration as well as hilarious commentary into a microphone. The five-person cast took us through the introduction to Kellerman's.

Picking up at the famous "I carried a watermelon scene," in which Baby is first exposed to the dancing, was the dance troupe Guittar Productions. They did some pretty cool physical theater things in their part of the retelling.

The baton was then passed to the adorably awkward Carl and Wanda Finkles. Like in their Fringe show last year, the Finkles did their part in a "we're putting on a show!" kind of way. Except that the show they prepared for was that other '80s dance movie Footloose. So they winged it in their own hilarious and original way as we saw the training sequence and the big dance number (a reprise from their last show).

In Mainly Me Productions' segment of the show, it was raining Patrick Swayze (if only!). The "Hey Mickey/Hey Sylvia" crawling on the floor scene was crashed by Patrick Swayze from four of his other movies and the SNL Chippendales sketch, which then turned into a Chippendales dance-off, culminating in the To Wong Fu Patrick Swayze singing "It's Raining Men." The whole thing was hilarious!

Who better to take us into the final big dance number than Bollywood Dance Scene? The Kellerman's talent show was a Bollywood dance-off (on For the Loyal's small sloped hexagonal stage), Johnny declared "nobody puts baby in a corner," and they did the lift!! Then the 30+ dancers came out into the audience for a joyous dance worthy of the spirit of Dirty Dancing.

The 2015 Minnesota Fringe Festival runs from July 30 through August 9. Check out their website for a list of companies (tentatively) scheduled to perform and for further information about the fest.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

"River Road Boogie" at History Theatre

Does the name Augie Garcia ring a bell? Unless you were a young person who frequented the local Rock and Roll clubs in 1950s St. Paul, probably not. Augie is considered the Godfather of Minnesota Rock and Roll, but unlike his contemporary Buddy Holly, he was a one-hit wonder who never achieved national fame, whether by choice or happenstance is unclear. A new play at the History Theatre, written by local actor and playwright Joe Minjares, sheds light on the fascinating story of this man who was not just a pioneering Minnesota musician, but also a Korean War vet and a devoted family man. Like The Buddy Holly Story (a History Theatre hit remounted last fall), River Road Boogie tells the story of Augie's life through his music as performed by this fabulous cast, but unlike The Buddy Holly Story the music takes a back seat in the second act as Augie's life starts to turn away from a music-focused one into a family-focused one. As always at the History Theatre,* this play is a wonderful opportunity to learn about a great Minnesotan you might never have heard of, but whom you will certainly admire and appreciate after seeing him brought to life on stage.

Augie Garcia grew up in a tight-knit Mexican-American family in St. Paul's West Side neighborhood, specifically an area know as The Flats across the river from downtown St. Paul. He and his friends were such loyal St. Paulites that they refused to drink Grain Belt beer (brewed "across the river"), only Schmidt or Hamm's would do! Our story picks up when Augie returns from a few harrowing years serving in the Korean War. He's happy to be home with his family, friends, and music, and channels his conflicting feelings about the war into his music. He starts a band called the Augie Garcia quintet (inexplicably with six members) and they become quite successful in the local music scene, with a standing gig at the River Road Club in Mendota. In what was perhaps the highlight of their career, Augie and the boys opened for Elvis and were famously kicked off the stage by Colonel Parker because they were coming dangerously close to upstaging the King. Soon after, fame came a-callin' with the promise of bigger gigs and national attention, forcing Augie (in this interpretation of his life) to do some serious soul-searching and decide what he truly wanted in life. Jersey Boys showed us what happens when you succumb to the dangers of fame and success, but Augie chose a different path. As a result most people today don't know his name, but those who saw him perform remember, and thanks to the History Theatre, so will I.

a '50s dance party on the History Theatre stage
Augie released a handful of singles in the mid-50s, the most successful of which is "Hi Yo Silver," inspired by the popular Lone Ranger TV series. The show incorporates five Augie Garcia originals, including this hit and the title song, as well as a few other hits of the time and traditional Mexican songs. All are performed in the context of a concert, rehearsal, or just singing around the house or bunker with friends, making this more of a play with music than a traditional musical. This along with the fact that the cast doubles as the band (a mix of actors and musicians) means that the music feels organic to the story, rather than an add-on. The big Rock and Roll numbers all come in the first act and are fabulously performed by cast, band, and dancers. The second act only features a few quieter songs, the musical spectacles of the first act fading into memory as did Augie's musical career. The tone of the piece shifts as Augie grows up and deals with his demons.

Ricardo Vázquez channels Augie Garcia
(photo by Scott Pakudaitis)
The Ivey Awards 2013 Emerging Artist Ricardo Vázquez is the perfect choice to play Augie Garcia. He embodies the man physically, emotionally, and musically. Augie's music inhabits his body in a specific way, particularly in the song "Ivy League Baby," when he's all over the stage energetically performing crazy dance moves in Augie's trademark shorts (in the post-show talk back Ricardo said he was able to watch a video of a performance Augie gave in the '90s, and extrapolated that back a few decades with his own unique spirit). In addition to the music, Ricardo also brings depth to the character, particularly in Augie's emotional breakdown after a local tragedy reminds him of the hell of war. The excellent supporting cast includes Matt Rein with a couple of diverse performances as Augie's tormented war buddy and band mate (playing the upright bass), and a sleazy radio DJ; Lara Trujillo and Pedro R. Bayón as Augie's supportive parents; Kelly Matthews as Augie's girlfriend Nancy in a sweet love story; and Shawn Hamilton as the sax player who serves as a sort of narrator of the story. Like they did for Buddy Holly, History Theatre has brought in some students from St. Paul Conservatory for Performing Arts to serves as dancers and concert attendees, bringing a youthful energy to the stage.

Tom Mays' cool scenic design provides a perfect backdrop for the story. A replica of the Robert Street Bridge, so important in Augie's life and memories, dominates the back of the stage, with the outline of a huge guitar behind it (something I didn't actually notice until I attended the "hiatus concert" by my favorite local band Storyhill on the same stage later that day). The stage on which Augie and the boys perform rolls out for the concert/rehearsal scenes, and then rolls back again to allow room for scenes in Augie's house, a bar, or other locations.

I truly appreciate the History Theatre for bringing to life people who are important in the history of my beloved home state of Minnesota, but who may not be written about in the history books. Augie Garcia is one such Minnesotan, and it's a treat to watch him shine on stage in the person of the uber-talented Ricardo Vázquez, supported by all these great actors, musicians, and dancers. River Road Boogie continues through May 31 (discount tickets available on Goldstar).

*The History Theatre recently announced their new season, and I'm super excited that the season opens with my favorite Raw Stages reading Glensheen, a musical about the famous Duluth mansion and the strange murder mystery that occurred there. My favorite Minnesota playwright Jeffrey Hatcher sets just the right tone, with some really great songs by Chan Polling. Another very promising reading from this year, Complicated Fun, closes out the season next spring. And if you missed Buddy Holly last time around - don't worry, he's back this fall.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

"For the Loyal" at Illusion Theater

It's a story that is all too familiar. A person in power is found to have molested children, and even worse, the crime has been covered up by others in their organization. Whether that person is a teacher, a priest, or a football coach, it's an unthinkable abuse of the power and trust that the position entails, and we wonder why no one spoke up sooner. All of us like to think that if we witnessed a crime, especially against a child, we would report it to the police no matter the consequences. But would we? What if it's not that simple? What if we didn't have any actual evidence, just suspicions? What if reporting the incident would destroy our lives? Would we take extreme measures to ensure justice is done? Or would we just try to minimize the damage and move on with our lives? Such are the questions posed in the new play For the Loyal by Lee Blessing. There are no easy answers, and I left the play feeling more confused than I was before. But it's a powerful, engaging, thought-provoking exploration of this horrifying and all too familiar situation.

The incident in this play is similar to what unfolded at Penn State a few years ago. At an unnamed University, assistant coach and grad student Toby (Sam Bardwell) finds a naked boy at the home of Coach Carlson (a creepy-charming Garry Geiken), and reports it to Head Coach Hale (Mark Rosenwinkel). Hale tells him not to tell anyone, that he'll take care of it by forcing Carlson to retire, thinking that if he's no longer at the University it's not his problem. Toby is upset and tells his pregnant wife Mia (a strong and sympathetic Mia), who wants this man to be punished and prevented from hurting any more children, thinking of her unborn son and a childhood friend. The story takes an unexpected turn, affecting all parties involved. I don't want to say too much and spoil the intriguing way that it all unfolds, but suffice it to say that many angles of this situation are explored, none of them good.

Anna Sundberg, Sam Bardwell, and Garry Geiken
(photo by Aaron Fenster)
The cast does a great job leading us through this difficult story and making us feel the humanity in most of the characters portrayed. In addition to the above named actors, Michael Fell gives several standout performances as various teenage boys involved in the story, all of whom have a different relationship with and reaction to the situation.

This is a fitting project for Illusion Theater, which has actively worked to end sexual abuse of children since the 1970s with the TOUCH program, including creating a play and later a film for children and schools to educate about what's an acceptable touch and what to do when it's not. They're currently raising money to update the film for a new generation. This play falls right in line with their mission, bringing awareness to the issue of sexual abuse of children, but this time the focus is on the responsibility all of us have to be a witness to what's going on around us. For more information about their education programs, see their website.

I couldn't help but be reminded of plays like Doubt, A Parable, which featured a similar situation of if, when, and how to report suspected abuse, and Theatre Pro Rata's recent The Woodsman, which looked at things from the perspective of a recovering child molester. For the Loyal is a powerful play that raises plenty of difficult questions with no easy answers, and effectively puts the audience in the position of "what would you do?" Continuing at Illusion Theater through May 19 (discount tickets available on Goldstar).

Friday, May 1, 2015

"Next to Normal" at Yellow Tree Theatre

"I don't need a life that's normal, that's way too far away. But something next to normal would be OK. Yes something next to normal, that's the thing I'd like to try. Close enough to normal to get by." This sentiment is at the heart of the Pulitzer Prize winning musical Next to Normal, which tells the story of a family dealing with mental illness and grief. Despite their issues, which are many, they're bound together by love as they struggle to get through each day. It's a deeply emotional and poignant story, and a universal human one. Even if your life hasn't been affected by mental illness, at its heart the show is really about the struggle to live your life, keep your family together, and be happy even in the midst of tragedy. Perhaps that's why I love it; it's a brilliant example of how the art form of musical theater can do something profound as well as entertaining. Even though this was my 6th time seeing the show (including twice on Broadway, once on tour at the Ordway, and local productions at Mixed Blood and BCT), I've never seen it quite like this. Yellow Tree Theatre chose it as the final show of their 7th season in their cozy space in an Osseo strip mall. The intimacy of the space brings you right into the Goodman family's life in a way that's not possible in a larger theater. The fantastic and well-matched cast brings out every emotion in the Tony winning score, under the direction of Ben McGovern in his Yellow Tree debut. This is the kind of show that's an experience; you don't just watch the show, you're immersed in it and taken on a journey. It's a difficult ride at times, and may leave you feeling emotionally exhausted, but it's a beautiful and rewarding experience.

Next to Normal tells the story of what at first appears to be a "normal" American family, until the cracks begin to show. Diana and her husband Dan married young and started a family. They suffered a great tragedy that triggered Diana's bipolar disorder, which she's been dealing with for years. Everyone in the family suffers in their own way. Dan has to be the strong one as Diana falls apart, and therefore never gets the chance to deal with his own feelings about what happened. Their children, Gabe and Natalie, live in the shadow of the tragedy and are trying to deal with it on top of the normal problems that come with adolescence. Natalie's afraid that she'll follow in her mother's footsteps, and Diana's unable to be the mother that she wants to be. Diana hits rock bottom and undergoes ECT, aka shock therapy. It erases her memories, both the good and the bad, and she struggles to get her life and family back. Eventually they learn that there is no such thing as a "normal" family; all families look different and are dealing with their own unique issues, both big and small. The Goodmans struggle to find a way to get through theirs, and show us just what is possible with love.

Diana and Dan
(Jessica Lind Peterson and Jeremiah Gamble,
photo by Michal Daniel)
Yellow Tree co-founder Jessica Lind Peterson returns to the stage after a couple years absence in the role of Diana. Perhaps she was saving up all her vocal and emotional strength to pour into this intense role, and it worked. Her voice sounds as lovely as always, almost too lovely for this anguished woman, as she portrays Diana's highs and lows, her confusion, despair, loss, and hope. She's well-matched by Jeremiah Gamble as Dan, who gives a strong and heartbreaking performance as the caregiver who finally lets himself fall apart. As Natalie, Libby Anderson is a young powerhouse whom I look forward to seeing more of on stage, with a voice that's strong and clear and a charismatic stage presence. Lucas Wells plays the family's enigmatic son with energy and passion as he climbs around the two-level set. Grant Sorenson brings a sweetness to the role of Natalie's boyfriend Henry that makes this a couple to root for. Andy Frye makes the most of the supporting roles of Diana's doctors, and has a bit of fun with her rock star fantasies. With a small cast musical like this you need a group of actors that work and play well together, and feel like a family. Yellow Tree has accomplished that with this cast.

the cast of Next to Normal (photo by Michal Daniel)
The original Broadway set had three levels, and every production I've seen makes uses of multiple levels in some way. Yellow Tree has adapted this idea well to their small space, with an upper level that spans the back wall of the theater above the small thrust stage. The set is sparse and modern with minimal props or set pieces, just a judiciously used table and chairs (set by Eli Schlatter). There's not a lot of warmth in this home, which suits what the family is going through. The band (directed by Kyle Picha) is barely visible in the back of the stage behind a screen (they had to knock out a wall to make room for it!). And they sound great performing this fantastic score. Have I mentioned this is a rock musical? The driving score powers us through the story and never lets up, although it also has some lovely quiet moments. As several of my companions mentioned, music can take you places emotionally that mere words cannot, and this music beautifully brings out every varied and complicated emotion of the story.

If you haven't yet ventured out to Osseo to visit Yellow Tree Theatre, well, you're just not paying attention. They've always done great work but are really stepping up their game lately as they continue to challenge their audience and bring in top talent from around the Twin Cities. Next season is sure to be a continuation of this trend as they tackle some more intense pieces, including the Tony winning play Clybourne Park, and another one of my favorite musicals, the lovely and inspiring journey of Violet. But first, don't miss this beautifully heartbreaking production of one of the best musicals of this century. Tickets are selling fast but they have added a few performances, so get to the website or call the box office and snatch them up before they're gone!