Saturday, July 22, 2017

"Sunrise at Midnight" by Taous Claire Khazem at Dreamland Arts

One of the things I most appreciate about theater is the opportunity to learn about cultures different from my own. Where else am I going to experience Algerian folktales? #TCTheater artist Taous Claire Khazem* has brought the folktales of her father's native land right here to St. Paul, and recruited some of her fellow artists to tell the stories in an inventive, engaging, and movement-filled way. Sunrise at Midnight can be seen for eight performances only at the charming and intimate Dreamland Arts, and the performance I attended was sold out (or very nearly), so act fast to catch this unique theater offering (info and tickets here).

Friday, July 21, 2017

"Jesus Christ Superstar" at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts

The Ordway's recent string of excellent locally produced Broadway sized musicals continues with the popular Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar, and it's fan-freakin-tastic. Unlike the Ordway's last original, West Side Story, Jesus Christ Superstar is not one of my favorites; I've only seen it once before and never really listened to it (although I vaguely recalled singing a song from the show at a Catholic grade school concert wearing a t-shirt with an awesome '80s iron-on decal). So I went into the show last night with mostly fresh eyes. I still think the piece is a bit weird (the heavy story of the life and death of Jesus, with a comic number and a disco thrown in), but there's something kinda fabulous about it. And the number one reason to see the show at the Ordway is this mostly local cast that is absolutely spectacular. The show is completely sung through, most of it at full volume, and everyone in the lead and featured roles just knocks it out of the park. And every member of the 30+ person ensemble (including several sweet-singing children) completely gives it their all. Notably, this cast is racially diverse (including an African American Jesus*), a beautiful example of color-conscious casting by the Ordway. At this moment in time when our country, our world, is more divided than ever, it's heart-warming to celebrate an inclusive, loving community of diverse peoples. And isn't that what Jesus taught, before his message was distorted, used, abused by institutional religions? Not exclusion but inclusion, not us vs. them but the idea that we are all one, we are all special, we are all worthy of all the bounties that life has to offer.

#TCTheater Artists Respond to the #Ham4All Challenge

If you're a musical theater geek like me, or just someone who's aware of pop culture and particularly social media challenges, you've probably heard of and enjoyed Lin-Manuel Miranda's #Ham4All challenge, in which celebrities and normal people post a video of themselves singing a song from his brilliant creation Hamilton, donating $10 to the Immigrants We Get the Job Done Coalition through, and challenging two others to do the same. It's been a ton of fun to watch all the contributions to #Ham4All (just search the hashtag on any of the social medias to see all the wonderful contributions), but of course I wanted to see my favorite #TCTheater artists do it!

Thursday, July 20, 2017

"Maria de Buenos Aires" by Mill City Summer Opera at the Machine Shop

For the past five years, Mill City Summer Opera has performed an opera outdoors at the Mill City Museum Ruins Courtyard, a stunning location in which to experience opera. This year the Courtyard is under construction, so they made the best of the situation and are instead performing in a historic building across the river, an event space called the Machine Shop. For this small indoor location they've chosen a 20th Century, three-person, small orchestra piece, in contrast to their usual classical, large cast, full orchestra pieces. The opera is perfectly suited to the space (and reminds me a bit of what Skylark Opera has been doing lately), and the experience, while different than outdoor opera in the Ruins Courtyard, is just as thrilling. On a hot and steamy summer night, Maria de Buenos Aires is a hot and steamy little opera that is positively hypnotic in its poetry of sound and movement.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

2017 Minnesota Fringe Festival Must-Sees

It sure feels like the dog days of summer, which means that the Minnesota Fringe Festival is soon to be upon us (August 3-13 to be exact). 11 days, 15 venues, 176 shows, and a whole lotta crazy fun! If you're a Fringe newbie, read on, I have a few tips for the uninitiated (I know it can be overwhelming, but just jump in!). But before that - I've read through the list of shows (and attended the first Fringe Preview, in which 30 shows present a 3-minute excerpt) and marked about 60 that I want to see. Alas, the maximum one person can see is 56, and my goal is 40-50, so I'm going to have to whittle that list down somehow. But the below 20 are at the top of my list (in alphabetical order), so hopefully the Sudoku puzzle that is my Minnesota Fringe schedule will work itself out accordingly. Read on, add your suggestions below, and Happy Fringe!

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

"Motown the Musical" on tour at the Orpheum Theatre

Motown the Musical is a rip-roaring race through 25 years of music history that may leave you with a slight cast of whiplash, but will also leave you with a whole lot of great tunes in your head and a smile on your face. Anytime you try to shove that much history into that short of a time, it's going to feel more like a surface overview than an in-depth look, and this does. But it's a thrill to hear these iconic songs and watch the iconic dance moves live before our eyes (I wouldn't consider myself a particular fan of Motown, but yet I knew nearly every one of the more than 50 songs in the show, that's how pervasive this music is in pop culture). The Motown era was important not just to music history but also to sociopolitical history, and the musical pays homage to that, albeit in a quick and high-level fashion. The audience at the Orpheum Theatre last night was decidedly more diverse than I typically see there, and this is a rare musical with a largely African American cast, both of which are worth celebrating. And Motown the Musical (at the Orpheum through Sunday only) definitely feels like a celebration - of the music and the people who love it.

Monday, July 10, 2017

"Don't Dress for Dinner" at Gremlin Theatre

Good news friends, Gremlin Theatre is back with a new performance space in St. Paul! Four years after losing their space on University and Raymond, which also hosted other theater companies and the Minnesota Fringe Festival, they've opened a brand new space just a few blocks away on Vandalia (although they've continued to do shows at other venues in the intervening years). They are continuing to make improvements to the space that includes a spacious lobby and an intimate thrust stage, conveniently located near the Green Line, just off highways 94 and 280, and right next door to Lake Monster Brewery, whose libations can be brought into the theater. And there's also free parking! What more could you ask for from a theater space? Just one more thing, and that's great theater. The inaugural production at the new Gremlin fulfills that last requirement - the hilarious and tight comedy Don't Dress for Dinner (which was the first show they did nearly 20 years ago, read more about that here). It's a really funny and fast-moving show with a fantastic cast, and a great way to christen this exciting new St. Paul theater space!

Saturday, July 8, 2017

"The Comedy of Errors" by Classical Actors Ensemble at Newell Park

This is my third summer seeing Classical Actors Ensemble's delightful Shakespeare in the Park, and I'm convinced this is how Shakespeare is meant to be seen, at least the comedies. Playful, approachable, bawdy, musical, outdoors, accessible (read: free) to all, and 90 minutes long. The Comedy of Errors is a silly farce of a play and a perfect choice for this annual event. This charming and entertaining cast makes the convoluted story (relatively) easy to follow and the Shakespearean language clear and compelling. Performances continue at parks around the Twin Cities through July 23, and I highly recommend it as a fun outing for all ages, enjoying the best that Minnesota has to offer in terms of summer weather and great theater. The performance is free with no reservations required, just show up with a blanket or lawn chair, and maybe a picnic lunch, and be ready to be entertained.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

"Idiot's Delight" by Girl Friday Productions at Park Square Theatre

Idiot's Delight is one of those deceptive plays that makes you think it's a light and fun romp through the past, until you begin to see the seriousness behind the beautiful clothes and pretty music. WWI vet Robert E. Sherwood's play premiered in 1936 and is eerily prescient about the impending war in Europe. Or maybe not; maybe it was obvious at the time that the world was heading to another Great War, only 20 years after the first one. But even now, 80 years after it was written, the themes of nationalism, loyalty, changing borders, and a great sadness at the cost of war on all sides ring true. This one left me feeling a little depressed, but with much to contemplate, and also thoroughly entertained, as always, by Girl Friday Productions' biennial contribution to the #TCTheater world. Girl Friday specializes in "larger scale American plays of exceptional literary merit that are less frequently produced today," and Idiot's Delight is indeed a delight, but one that is most certainly not for idiots.

Monday, June 26, 2017

"Might as Well Be Dead: A Nero Wolfe Mystery" at Park Square Theatre

Shortly into Might as Well Be Dead: A Nero Wolfe Mystery, I had a feeling of déjà vu. But this was a world premiere play, how could I have seen it before? Eventually it dawned on me - three years earlier I saw another Nero Wolfe play. The Red Box was the first adaptation of this popular NYC detective series by author Rex Stout, and Might as Well Be Dead is another (a fact that was somehow lost to me before I sat down in the theater). Playwright Joseph Goodrich once again adapted the book into a play, Peter Moore returns to direct on a very similar set designed by Rick Polenek, and several cast members reprise their roles. Hence the feeling of déjà vu. Yes, the story is formulaic, but it's a formula that works. A curmudgeonly yet noble hero detective, his charming sidekick, a series of murders, and suspects a-plenty. If you're a fan of mysteries and noir crime thrillers, this one's for you.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

"Sunday in the Park with George" at the Guthrie Theater

Of late, the Guthrie Theater has had a tradition of producing a classic crowd-pleasing musical every summer (most recently: South Pacific, The Music Man, and My Fair Lady). But inexplicably, they have never produced a musical by the great Stephen Sondheim on the main stage. Perhaps it's because Sondheim is not easy, to do or to watch; not as readily familiar and accessible as the classics of the '50s. But Sondheim is the Shakespeare of musicals, and it's about time the Guthrie remedied this gross oversight. They do so in splendid fashion this summer with their stunning production of what is perhaps the musical theater master's greatest masterpiece, Sunday in the Park with George, directed masterfully by Artistic Director Joseph Haj. Sondheim and frequent collaborate James Lapine first joined forces on this piece that won them a Pulitzer Prize, getting their inspiration from the 19th century painting "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte" by Georges Seurat, one of the leaders of the Impressionist movement. Artists being inspired by the work of another artist who lived a century earlier to create art about art. It's pretty meta, and no surprise that it's a favorite among musical theater artists. The Guthrie has assembled a sparkling cast and created a gorgeous design that brings this work of art about art itself to brilliant life.

Monday, June 19, 2017

"Ghost the Musical" at Old Log Theatre

Old Log Theatre's contribution to the summer blockbuster musical is Ghost the Musical, based on the popular 1990 movie. It premiered on Broadway in 2012 and ran for only a few months, and when I saw the tour the following year I was not impressed. At the time I wrote, "At its core, Ghost is a small intimate love story, but Ghost the Musical is a big splashy techno-heavy 'show,' in which the beauty of that story gets lost. The story would be better served with less tricks, a smaller cast, fewer showy songs, and a greater focus on what we really care about - the relationship between Molly and Sam." I'm thrilled to report that Old Log has done just that. The score, which is quite good, the story, and the relationships between the characters are more the focus of the show, with lower tech effects that serve the story rather than drawing attention away from it. If you're looking for a satisfying summer musical experience, head out to Old Log Theatre, one of the oldest theaters in Minnesota, in lovely Excelsior on Lake Minnetonka.