Monday, March 30, 2015

"Anne of Green Gables" at Theatre in the Round

Anne Shirley, the spunky heroine of the Anne of Green Gables, the first of six books in the series by Lucy Maud Montgomery, is one of the most beloved characters in literature. What's not to love about the orphan girl in rural early 20th Century Canada with a flair for the melodramatic and a fierce determination to enjoy life and make the most of it? Theatre in the Round is currently presenting a stage version of the book, adapted by Sylvia Ashby, which brings our beloved Anne to life in a warm, funny, and poignant way.

The play covers four years in Anne's life, which at times feels a bit rushed, like it's trying to cram too much into two hours. Not having read the book(s) in many years and not being that attached to it (the Little House on the Prairie series was my childhood obsession, and OK maybe still is) I wondered how many of the books were adapted into the play. Turns out all of this happens in just the first book, presenting the full arc of Anne's original story (subsequent books take Anne through adulthood and into her 40s). We follow Anne's journey from when she is (reluctantly) taken in by a brother and sister on Prince Edward Island. Marilla and Matthew were hoping for a boy to help out on the farm, but got Anne instead. They soon fall in love with her indomitable spirit, although Marilla tries to impart her no-nonsense practical ways on the girl. Despite her red hair (the bane of her existence), Anne quickly makes friends at school and is an excellent student under the tutelage of her favorite teacher Miss Stacey, she of the fashionable puffed sleeves. Several years pass, filled with adventures, and Anne and her friends go away to school, after which Anne decides to return to her beloved Green Gables. She's all grown up now and ready to take on some new responsibilities, but her bright spirit remains.

Mabel Thomas as Anne
The large cast does a fine job bringing the world of Avonlea to life on the small arena stage. Most fun to watch are the enthusiastic young actors playing Anne and her friends, several of whom are in high school. Most notably, sophomore Mabel Thomas is everything you could want in Anne - melodramatic and earnest and fiery and sweet. She pretty much carries the show on her young shoulders and does so admirably. She also has a nice chemistry with Jane Hammill's stern Marilla and especially Rod Kleiss' Matthew, who's wrapped around her little finger. Also amusing is Holly Windle as busybody neighbor Rachel Lynde, who occasionally pops up on the side of the stage as characters recite "Mrs. Lynde always says..."

With such a large cast, set designer Shannon Morgan has wisely chosen a fairly sparse stage. The in-the-round space has no walls or partitions, just a kitchen table on one side and a bed on the other, with divisions merely hinted at. A few benches and school desks brought in when needed subtly and successfully set the scene. The floor and sides of the round are covered with flowers, bringing a bit of the Anne's cherished outdoors in. (When told to say her prayers, Anne asks, "can't you just walk in the field, look at the sky, and feel a prayer?")

If you're a fan of the book you will most likely enjoy seeing Anne brought to life before your eyes (there were quite a few youngsters in the audience). And even if you aren't familiar with the books, Anne of Green Gables is a heartwarming, funny, endearing story of the joys and traumas, both small and large, of growing up. Playing weekends at Theatre in the Round through April 12.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

"Fruit Fly: The Musical" at Illusion Theater

Have you ever imagined your life as a musical? Lifelong BFFs Max and Sheena have done more than imagine it - they've written it! And since in addition to being best friends, Max Wojtanowicz and Sheena Janson are both super talented music-theater artists* (you may know Max from the Children's Theatre and Sheena from numerous production with Mu Performing Arts), the result is a musical that's not only fun and entertaining, but also brutally honest and from the heart. Fruit Fly: The Musical began as a hit Fringe show in 2012 and has had several workshops and readings since, and is now a full-fledged show at Illusion Theater. Each time I see it, it has a bit more depth, but always retains the beautiful, poignant, hilarious, endearing heart that is this real life friendship.

Max and Sheena have been friends for 20 years, which means they met when they were babies. Just a couple of musical-theater-loving kids in the St. Cloud area, singing and acting on stage and off. The story of their friendship plays out on stage and in song in a somewhat fictionalized way, paralleled with gross science facts about actual fruit flies, not the gay man/straight woman kind. We learn that Max hated Sheena when they first met (there's proof!), Sheena asked Max out (and was gently rebuffed) in high school, their moms thought they were perfect for each other, Max told Sheena he was gay before he told his family, the friendship went through growing pains in the post-college years when Sheena started spending time with her new boyfriend and Max got jealous. But these two just can't quit each other, and the real Max and Sheena's love and respect for each other, as well as their easy, natural, charming chemistry, shines through their characters.

Max and Sheena as Max and Sheena
(photo by Lauren B Photograpy)
Fruit Fly is very meta in a [title of show] sort of way. Max and Sheena are playing themselves but not exactly, portraying their story but not exactly, and it's hard to tell where the real people end and the characters begin. The whole play has a "we're putting on a show, how exciting!" sort of attitude, and at various points they break out of the show to comment on it. It gets pretty intense near the end as their true thoughts and feelings are laid bare, and it feels so real and raw there's a brief moment of "wait, this is scripted, right?"

The show includes 7 or 8 songs, mostly duets but with solos for both Sheena and Max, who both perform the songs with much heart and vocal talent. The fun, clever, fast lyrics** combine well with Michael Gruber's catchy tunes and interesting melodies to create a strong score that stands on its own (dare I hope for a cast recording?). Music director and piano accompanist Jill Dawe has a playful musical repartee with the cast, who are not miked (hooray!). The musical theater references abound in this show about two musical-theater-loving friends. The cast keeps a tally of Sondheim references on the onstage white board, which also adorably diagrams out the scenes and songs in the show.

The best kind of theater is theater that comes from a place of truth, as this show most definitely does. It takes courage to spill your deepest secrets and intimacies of a relationship on stage, but it makes for theater that's so rewarding for the audience, and, I imagine, the creators. Like the aforementioned [title of show], this new musical is a piece that could play on stages around the country with any two actors with the right chemistry. But of course Max and Sheena are the best and most honest Max and Sheena. If you're a fan of musical theater, you really must go see this show that's a love letter to good friends and musicals. Playing now through April 11 at Illusion Theater in downtown Minneapolis (be sure to check out the discount tickets on Goldstar).

*To see more of Max and Sheena's talent and adorableness, check out their monthly cabaret series Musical Mondays at Hell's Kitchen, in which they and their super talented friends sing songs around a different theme each month.
**Listen to Sheena and Max talk about the process of writing a musical about their life on Twin Cities Song Story and Twin Cities Hit Show.

Friday, March 27, 2015

"The Debutante's Ball" at the History Theatre in Partnership with Mu Performing Arts

The History Theatre excels at taking stories from Minnesota's past and putting them on stage in a way that's full of life and relevant. The latest example of this is The Debutante's Ball by local playwright Eric "Pogi" Sumangil. The play was part of last year's new works festival "Raw Stages" and is now receiving a full production on the History Theatre stage. This story of a milestone in the life of local Filipino-American youths was charming and poignant as a reading, and it's even more so now with the benefit of sets, costumes, and choreography. It feels very real - the playwright based many of the characters and situations on his own experience, and memorabilia from recent Balls are displayed in the lobby. The specific and detailed look at one culture's tradition speaks to the larger theme of how we find and hold on to our culture, family, traditions, and identity in the ever changing modern world.

At the heart of this story is the teenager Ana (an appealing Stephanie Bertumen), who moves out of her parents' home because they want her to be an assimilated American and can't understand why she longs to learn more about her Filipino heritage. She finds the Valentine's Day Ball and the weekly classes to prepare for it, taught by the strict and traditional Tita Belinda (Sherwin Resurreccion, showing us the heart behind the tough exterior). There she meets other Filipino youth who are participating for different reasons, and are the typical range of high school characters - the awkward nerd, the cocky jock, the spoiled popular girl (played with youthful charm by Kylee Brinkman, Joelle Fernandez, Alex Galick, Maxwell Thao, and actual high schooler Jeric Basilio). The language is natural; these kids talk like real teenagers talk, with a few Tagalog words thrown in. Ana struggles to balance work, friendship, money, and her relationship with her parents, but with the help of her new friends is able to accomplish her goal of participating in the Debutante's Ball. Through this experience she learns something she hasn't been able to learn from her endless research - what it's like to really be part of a community and be proud and confident in who you are.

Part of Ana's research into her heritage is to watch videos, which we see played out by the cast onstage as Ana watches from the aisles. A cheesy soap opera that mirrors her parents' experience, a comedy routine, a children's story, a rap that explains the origins of the Ball. It's a clever device that allows the audience to learn about Filipino culture along with Ana. Another tradition we see onstage is a boy serenading a girl he likes outside of her house, a sweet and tender moment of young and innocent love.

the debutantes at the ball (photo by Scott Pakudaitis)
The play is called The Debutante's Ball - so there better be dancing and pretty dresses! Rest assured, there is. After spending two hours getting to know these characters I almost felt like their parents must, a sense of pride at what they've accomplished and how grown-up and mature they are. The girls look lovely in their matching white flowy dresses (costumes by Kathy Kohl), the boys handsome in their tuxes. The story culminates in a dance (choreographed by Pogi) that's quite beautiful on the surface, but goes much deeper knowing the tradition, stories, and people behind it.

The Debutante's Ball is a universal story of a young person coming of age and trying to figure out who they are, where they came from, and where they fit in the world. Continuing at the History Theatre through April 12 (discount tickets available on Goldstar).

Sunday, March 22, 2015

"Nature Crown" by Theatre Forever at the Guthrie Studio Theater

I went to see Theatre Forever's newest creation Nature Crown not knowing what it was about. I left the theater still not knowing exactly what it was about, except that it's lovely, delightful, innovative, poignant, creative, and incredibly moving. The original fairy tale deals with the ideas of home, place, and change, but I'll let creator and director Jon Ferguson explain it: "It's about returning to a source or place of origin, honoring that place and letting it go, all at the same time. It's about love and change and re-connection. And that's what I hope for everyone. Through the experience of this play I hope that this story and this place becomes yours. I hope that we find parallels between us, to better understand each other, and ourselves, in order to live better together."

The story centers around a typical working man named João (Diogo Lopes) who is fired from his job, sending him off on a life-changing adventure (or dream?) in a village on the other side of the woods. He meets a mysterious woman (Aimee K. Bryant) who he later learns is Nature or the Earth herself, and chases a boy (13-year-old Lorenzo Reyes) to a quaint little village preparing for a once in a century celebration, at which point everything is destroyed and life begins anew. After presenting himself to the King (Brant Miller) and Queen (Catherine Johnson Justice), João remembers the village and doesn't want it to change, so he believes the royal assistant Rupert (Tony Sarnicki) when he tells him he must slay a monster in the woods to prevent the village's destruction. Things don't go as well, but "this is a fairy tale, so everyone gets what they need." João returns to his life forever changed, with the memories of this place and this experience bringing a new energy and joy to his life.

the villagers (photo by Eric Melzer)
But this plot summary does not even tell one-tenth of the story. This is one of those pieces that's difficult to put into words, because what is created in that in-the-round space by the 14 members of the ensemble, four musicians, and the six-member Artemis Chamber Choir* is beyond words. It's so creative, and playful, and physical, and fun, and unabashedly sincere and hopeful. The village is created by little houses mounted on backpacks, so of course the castle is a suitcase. It's England so there's lots of tea pouring and drinking. Two young villagers (Paul Rutledge and Ben Mandelbaum) learn to transform themselves into trees and logs and rocks. A mysterious backpacked man (Peter Lincoln Rusk) and his apprentice (Nick Saxton) help to guide the events as they're supposed to happen. Flower petals represent leaves and blood, depending on what's called for. Things pop up out of the floor when needed. A spoon is a recurring motif. None of it makes any sense, but somehow it all makes sense.

"Home is where the heart is," the saying goes. Or perhaps the heart is where home is. We all carry places around inside of us, places that meant something to us at different times in our lives. Places that we may never see again, or places that we may return to and find them not at all how we remember them. "You can never go home again," goes another saying, but this piece seems to say that we can carry the memory and spirit of that place inside us, to give us courage for what lies ahead.

If exploring the ideas of home and change and courage ("be brave or you'll miss everything") with music, movement, delightful props, heartfelt performances, and much theatrical innovation is intriguing to you, go see Nature Crown, and be reminded of those places that lie inside your heart (continuing in the Guthrie's Dowling Studio through April 4).

*The Artemis Chamber Choir performs in the lobby of the Dowling Studio before the show, and the acoustics of the space combined with lovely harmonies create something quite haunting.

Bernadette Peters in Concert at the Ordway

It's true, there is nothing like a dame. Especially when that dame is Broadway legend Bernadette Peters. She performed last night as part of the Ordway's "Rock the Ordway" celebration to commemorate the opening of their new Concert Hall in place of what used to be the McKnight Theatre. But she actually performed on the Ordway's main stage, a nuance that was lost to me until my companion and I waited in the crowd in the Concert Hall lobby, only to be told we were in the wrong theater. At which point we scurried across the lobby to find the doors closed and the concert already begun. Oh well, I only missed one song, and got a brief glimpse the pretty new theater. Meanwhile, Bernadette and her 11-piece band, led by Marvin Laird on piano, filled up the larger main theater with music, emotion, inspiration, joy, and sheer talent. Bernadette is a true master of her craft, and since her craft happens to be my favorite art form musical theater, it was a heavenly night. I've been lucky enough to see her perform several times in the past, including with the MN Orchestra in 2009 and on Broadway in Gypsy, A Little Night Music, and Follies, but she's one of those performers that I will see any and every chance I get because she always brings it.

Over about 90 minutes that felt like 20, Bernadette sang 16 songs, 10 of them written by the great Stephen Sondheim (counting the missed opening number "Let Me Entertain You" from Gypsy, for which he wrote the lyrics only). Sondheim and Peters is a match made in musical theater heaven. She's performed in five Sondheim shows in her 50+ year Broadway career (yes, she was a young child when she started). Sondheim's lyrics are so rich, clever, and meaningful, matched with interesting and inventive melodies, and Bernadette is a master at delivering them in a way that brings out every aspect of the song. No matter what she's singing, she knows how to wring every drop of emotion out of the song, whatever emotion the song calls for, whether that emotion is joy ("Mr. Snow" from Carousel, which I had just seen for the first time the night before), desire ("Fever"), heartbreak ("Losing My Mind" from Follies), hope (Disney's "When You Wish Upon A Star"), regret ("Send in the Clowns" from A Little Night Music), or anything in between. She feels every note, every word, every breath of the song and makes the audience feel it too.

Most of the songs in the program are selections from beloved musicals, but she often chooses an unexpected song, i.e., ones that she would likely never sing in a show because they're typically sung by men. Her rendition of "There is Nothing Like A Dame" (from whence came my opening statement) is fun and sexy and unlike I've ever seen it performed before. She sounds lovely singing "Joanna" from Sweeney Todd and holds the note on the word "hair" incredibly long. Instead of choosing the song I expected her to sing from Company, "The Ladies Who Lunch," she sang "You Could Drive A Person Crazy" (a crazy fast song written for three people) and the absolutely thrilling "Being Alive."

Bernadette Peters epitomizes what musical theater is. It's not about vocal histrionics or perfection (although she certainly has that too), it's about conveying emotion, character, and story through song. There are few people on the planet who can do that as well as Bernadette Peters.

The Ordway's "Rock the Ordway" celebration concludes today. And while this was the only event in which I partook, I think it's safe to say: Ordway, consider yourself rocked.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

"Carousel" with the Minnesota Orchestra at Orchestra Hall

One of the greatest musical theater composing teams, Rodgers and Hammerstein, had a smash hit with their very first show - Oklahoma!, based on the play Green Grow the Lilacs. For their sophomore outing they chose another play, the Hungarian Liliom, and adapted it into Carousel, which was a bit of a gamble due to the darker nature of the story and not-so-happy ending. But the risk payed off; Carousel was another rousing success and ranks among R&H's big five musicals. Shockingly, this musical theater geek has never seen the show in any form or listened to the score, an omission that is and will be corrected by two productions this spring. Bloomington Civic Theatre is doing the show next month, but first up is Minnesota Orchestra's semi-staged production of it with the full orchestra and a large ensemble cast, directed by Robert Neu. I can think of no better way to first experience this classic piece of music-theater than in this musically rich production, where the focus is on the score, which the orchestra and cast beautifully bring to life on the newly remodeled Orchestra Hall stage.

Being unfamiliar with the story, I found in it familiar bits from other works of theater. At first it reminded me of Porgy and Bess, until it turned a bit Our Town-ish in the second act, although it's also not dissimilar to Oklahoma! in some of the characters and themes (imagine if Laurey had ended up with Jud Fry instead of Curly). This is the classic good girl falls for bad boy story, in which the good girl sees the best in the bad boy, and the bad boy tries to be a better person for the good girl, but ultimately fails despite his love for her. In this case the good girl is mill worker Julie Jordan and the bad boy is carnival barker Billy Bigelow. They both sacrifice their jobs to be together, which unfortunately does not lead to happiness for the pair. Because of its themes of poverty and domestic violence, it's a difficult story, one that I have some issues with (including one particularly disturbing line in which Julie tells her daughter it's possible to be hit hard and not feel it - unacceptable), so I'm glad I have a chance to see it again next month and let it sink in a bit.

But now, on to the best part - the music! As a former bank geek (once a band geek always a band geek?), I'm always thrilled to be in the presence of an orchestra, and don't get the chance nearly enough. Our Minnesota Orchestra, conducted by Sarah Hicks, sounds marvelous playing this sweeping melodic score. And the cast, comprised of mostly local talent, is a dream. As Billy, Gabriel Preisser has a gorgeous and resonant voice, and brings out every emotion in the famous "Soliloquy" song. Sarah Lawrence sings beautifully sweet as Julie, and makes us feel her deep love and pain. It's great to see so many familiar faces and voices among the supporting players and ensemble, including the always great Kersten Rodau, Paul R. Coate (overheard in the audience: "Mr. Snow has the best voice"), Kathleen Humphrey, Riley McNutt (providing a bit of comic relief as charming rapscallion Jigger), and Gary Briggle. The finale song "You'll Never Walk Alone" (which I didn't know was from Carousel, or if I did know I'd forgotten it) sends chills down the spine and brings tears to the eyes.

I'm not sure what's "semi" about this staging, other than the absence of large set pieces, which are not missed. The small set pieces (benches, crates, and darling hand-held but almost full size carousel horses) are really all that's needed to hint at the scene, with the dialogue and music and our imaginations doing the rest. There's nothing "semi" about Samantha Fromm Haddow's lovely costumes, which include the working folks' garb, a wide range of carnival costumes, and ballerina Louise's light and flowy dress with matching jacket. Nothing "semi" about the choreography by Penelope Freeh either (who also gracefully dances as Louise), with the ensemble ably performing charming group dance numbers. And the staging makes good use of the area behind and in front of the orchestra.

I now understand what all the fuss is about over Carousel, and I'm glad that this gorgeous production was my first introduction to it. I look forward to getting to know it a bit better at Bloomington Civic Theatre next month. In the meantime, if you can make it to Orchestra Hall this weekend, do so.

Monday, March 16, 2015

"H.M.S. Pinafore" by Gilbert and Sullivan Very Light Opera Company at Plymouth Congregational Church

Such is the breadth and depth of the Twin Cities theater community that a company such as Gilbert and Sullivan Very Light Opera Company has existed for over 30 years and I, an avid theater-goer who prides herself on knowing just about every company in town, have never heard of it. True, it skews a little more towards the opera end of the music-theater spectrum than I usually venture, but that's no excuse. I've seen several G&S operas and am enamored of their fast, witty, tongue-tying, clever lyrics and intricate rhythms. I attended my first production by this company yesterday, and while it might have helped that this year they're doing H.M.S. Pinafore, a show I'm familiar with from the Guthrie's boisterous production a few summers ago, I found it to be absolutely marvelous! A cast of over 30 and orchestra of over 30 performing a classic piece of music-theater in a straight-forward and energetic manner? Oh joy, oh rapture!

H.M.S. Pinafore, or, The Lass That Loved A Sailor, takes place on ship somewhere off the coast of England. While the piece was written in the late 19th Century, the costumes and the presence of a radio places it in the 1940s. A Captain reigns over a crew of sailors, one of whom, the bright and earnest Ralph, has fallen in love with the Captain's daughter Josephine. She has also fallen in love with him, but is betrothed to Sir Joseph, "the ruler of the Queen's navy." Ralph and Josephine decide to marry despite the difference in their stations and her father's disapproval, when a long-held secret is revealed that turns the situation on its head. It's a whole lot of silliness that allows for many great songs with Gilbert and Sullivan's trademark repetitive pitter-patter lyrics. As director Lesley Hendrickson notes in the playbill, "Don't ask how old Little Buttercup is supposed to be. Don't even think it." Just go with it and enjoy the fun and frivolity.

the young lovers Josephine and Ralph
(Victoria Valencour and Kai Brewster)
Many of the cast members seem to have been members of the company for many years, which is obvious in how well they sing and play together. One such long-time member is Waldyn Benbenek who beautifully sings the role of the Captain. He's joined by Tom Berg as the stuffy and very funny Sir Joseph. Kai Brewster and Victoria Valencour sound lovely and are very convincing as the young star-crossed lovers. Ryan Johnson is quite funny and a bit scary as the villain Dick Deadeye, remarkably his first acting role as an adult. Caitlin Wilkey is the charming Little Buttercup, she of the mysterious age and holder of the secret. Stephen Zehr and Amanada Weis ably lead the wonderful chorus of sailors and sisters/cousins/aunts, respectively. The entire cast is really impressive in singing these songs with precision. When 30+ voices are joined together in harmony, it's really quite thrilling.

Also thrilling is this huge orchestra, perhaps the largest orchestra I've ever had the pleasure of listening to at a music-theater production. Way too big for a pit, they're crammed backstage out of sight, but I knew were there because Music Director and Conductor Randal A. Buikema was introduced before the show and shook hands with the first violin, like a real orchestra. As a former member of the pit orchestra, I'm quite happy to see the orchestra so prominently featured and sound so wonderful.

If you like your opera very light and beautifully sung and played by cast and orchestra, this company should definitely be on your radar, as they are now on mine. They typically only perform one full opera per year, in the spring, but they also present a summer concert at the Lake Harriet Bandshell (a wonderful place to listen to music in the great outdoors) and this year are planning to participate in the Fringe Festival.

While it's my first time seeing this company, they obviously have a loyal audience as performances frequently sell out. Order your tickets now if you're interested in seeing this wonderfully performed and entertaining classic.