Monday, October 20, 2014

"Next to Normal" at Bloomington Civic Theatre

Diverging from the usual feel-good classic musicals, Bloomington Civic Theatre is currently presenting Next to Normal, one of the few musicals to win a Pulitzer Prize for drama and perhaps the most brilliantly written musical of this century. Unlike shows like Guys and Dolls or Singin' in the Rain, you won't leave the theater feeling happy and carefree. You'll leave feeling emotionally exhausted and perhaps continuing to think heavy thoughts for several days. Next to Normal is not an easy show to watch, but it's such a rich and rewarding experience. I couldn't be happier that there are not one but two local productions if it this season, at BCT now through November 15, and at Yellow Tree Theatre next spring (which is sure to be a much different show with their small intimate stage). This was my fifth time seeing Next to Normal, and BCT's production is as beautiful and heartbreaking as ever.

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. One of the things that this show does is play with the idea of "normal." 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. As Natalie sings, "I don't need a life that's normal, that's way too far away, but something next to normal, would be OK."

Karen Weber gives a raw and fearless performance as Diana, taking her to all her highs and lows, a voice full of emotion. Sean Dooley broke my heart as Dan, the caregiver in the family who sacrifices himself to take care of everyone else. Like he did in RENT, Blake Rhiner gives a passionate and powerful performance as their son Gabe. Aly O'Keeffe (née Westberg) brings her effortlessly beautiful voice to the role of daughter Natalie, imbuing her with all the angst, despair, and hopefulness of a teenager. Rounding out the six-person cast are Erin Patrick Miller, sweet and funny as Natalie's "perfect for you" boyfriend, and the powerful-voiced Dominique Wooten as the doctors.

Music director Anita Ruth usually helms a big traditional pit orchestra, but in this show she directs a six-piece onstage rock band, which is fantastic. Director Joel Sass also designed the set (as he does at the Jungle), and it's really cool. The use of levels, representing different rooms in the house, is continued from the original Broadway set but on a more manageable scale. The sharp clean lines of a modern and orderly home contrast with the chaotic inner life of this family. Barry Browning's bold lighting highlights the changing tones of the songs.

Next to Normal is a truly brilliant musical, but a heavy one, dealing with issues of mental illness, codependency, drug abuse, suicide, and grief, albeit with moments of humor (a great relief to the audience). It's a perfect example of what musical theater can do; it can be so much more than just light frothy entertainment (although there's a place for that too). Next to Normal is real, relevant, poignant, smart, funny, deeply emotional, and yes, profound. Check it out at Bloomington Civic Theatre through November 15, just don't expect big colorful dance numbers (discount tickets available on Goldstar).

Sunday, October 19, 2014

"1984" by Theatre Pro Rata at Intermedia Arts

"Big Brother is watching." We're now 30 years beyond the dystopian world imagined by George Orwell in his novel 1984, and its themes have become eerily familiar and not too far outside of our current reality. Written over 60 years ago, 1984 predicts a world where the government controls what information the public receives, and knows our every thought and action. This adaptation by Michael Gene Sullivan focuses on the interrogation of "thought criminal" Winston Smith, and this well-done production by Theatre Pro Rata makes for a gripping and squirm-inducing evening.

Entering the theater at Intermedia Arts, the audience is immediately thrown into the world of 1984. On a bare stage, a man is handcuffed and curled up inside a square on the floor. A recording warns us, "system observers are prohibited from interacting with the subject." The play begins when the interrogators come on stage and jarringly shut off the house lights. The main interrogator is at first only heard, as he instructs the man known as 6709 Smith to confess his crimes. The four "party members" act out scenes from his life as he recounts them. Smith works for the Ministry of Truth, and his job is to change past documents to match the current party line. He's secretly disgruntled with the party, led by someone called Big Brother who may or may not be real, and longs to join the resistance, known as the brotherhood. He meets a woman who feels the same way and they embark on a clandestine affair, trying to hide from the telescreens that are in every home and workplace, observing and recording everything that happens. He is eventually captured, along with his incriminating diary and a book about the brotherhood. The goal of the interrogation is to break him of his "thought crimes" and restore in him a believe that Big Brother is right and good. When the torture moves past electrical shocks into making real his worst nightmare (involving rats, the most squirm-inducing moment), Smith is broken. Big Brother wins again.

6709 Smith (Grant Henderson)
The story plays out in reenactments, as Smith is forced to watch the highs and lows of his recent life as he recounts them. At times he participates in the scenes (although never leaving his square on the floor), at other times his role is taken over by one of the party members, some of whom seem to get caught up in the story they're telling, others of whom are increasingly angry at having to take part. It's a clever and effective storytelling device that not only conveys the facts of the story (or at least as Smith remembers them), but also gives us more insight into the main character and the nameless characters who play the roles.

Impressively, Grant Henderson as Smith never leaves the stage, or his shackles, from before the show, through intermission, to curtain call. He takes Smith from a man who's upset but strong enough to fight back, through the devastation of betrayal, to something so broken it's difficult to watch. As the voice of the interrogator, John Middleton is eerily calm and insistent, and later shows up in person to give an even greater presence to this cold and relentless embodiment of evil. As the unnamed party members, Brian Columbus, Emily Dussault, William Goblirsch, and Kory LaQuess Pullam all create personalities for these characters and the characters they play. Director Carin Bratlie keeps the action moving along and the tension ever increasing.

Theatre Pro Rata's 1984 is thought-provoking, compelling, creepy, disturbing, and a little too real. Check it out at Intermedia Arts in Uptown through next weekend.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

"Romeo and Juliet" by Ten Thousand Things at Open Book

No one does Shakespeare like Ten Thousand Things. They manage to boil the text down to its bare essentials, and convey the heart of the story in a way that feels fresh and modern. This season they bring their unique Shakespeare style to perhaps his most well-know play, the story of star-crossed lovers that inspired all others, Romeo and Juliet. In the typically minimalist production (since TTT performs on location at prisons, homeless shelters, and community centers, the paid public performances are also in a small, fully lit room with little in the way of sets and costumes), director Peter Rothstein and his fantastic cast of eight playing multiple characters bring this familiar story to life in a unique way.

You all know the story so I won't recount it here. Several scenes stand out in this production. The party scene where Romeo and Juliet first meet is nicely done in the small space, with the cast dancing around the audience. The balcony scene is sweet and charming (how do you create a small and easily portable balcony? with a chair on top of a table). The fight scenes are dynamic (choreographed by Annie Enneking), made all the more real because of the close proximity and the perceived danger of an injured party falling into the front row of the audience. The final death scene is beautiful and heartbreaking.

the famous balcony scene
(Anna Sundberg and Namir Smallwood)
As the titular lovers, Namir Smallwood and Anna Sundberg are a compelling pair. Namir gives Romeo a passion and single-mindedness in being with his love, and Anna portrays Juliet as a modern young woman, speaking the Shakespearean language naturally. Six other actors portray all of the characters necessary in this stripped down version. Regina Marie Williams is Juliet's somewhat flighty mother, in contrast to her portrayal of the stern-faced Prince. Bob Davis expresses Juliet's father's love for her, and frustration when she doesn't do his bidding. Karen Wiese-Thompson is entertaining as always as the comic relief nurse, the apothecary, and a mustachioed servant. Dennis Spears is always interesting to watch, and here plays the helpful Friar and Juliet's slain kinsman. David Darrow makes his TTT debut, nicely differentiating the young rebel Mercutio from the nerdy Paris (both with great death scenes). Kurt Kwan is Romeo's sturdy friend Benvolio and a blustering servant.

As always, Peter Vitale has created a soundtrack that sets the mood for the story, whether a party scene or a fight, with help from Jason Hansen on multiple instruments. Boxy black and metal stools and tables are the only set pieces, cleverly arranged as mentioned above to create the balcony, as well as Juliet's bed and tomb (designed by Erica Zaffarano). Trevor Bowen's costumes are modern yet classic, with touches of red for the Capulets and purple for the Montagues, with lovely youthful dresses over leggings for Juliet.

Every time I see Romeo and Juliet I think, why doesn't Juliet just run away with Romeo when he's banished? Why doesn't the stupid Friar get the message to Romeo? Why doesn't Romeo wait a moment longer before taking the poison? But to great frustration, it never changes. Another thing that never changes is Ten Thousand Things' high quality budget productions. The absence of the usual bells and whistles of theater allows the acting and the story to shine.

Romeo and Juliet plays through November 2 at Open Book and the MN Opera Center. With a loyal audience and small performance spaces, shows have a tendency to sell out, so you'll want to order tickets in advance.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

"Colossal" at Mixed Blood Theatre

"Clear eyes, full heart, can't lose." The excellent TV series Friday Night Lights is about all I know of football, and all I care to. But I still went to Mixed Blood Theatre's football-themed play Colossal, partly because I thought I heard rumors of a marching band (wrong, no band, just a three-person drumline), but mostly because it looked intriguing. Like Friday Night Lights, there's much to enjoy and appreciate about Colossal even for those of us who don't like football. Also like Friday Night Lights, the plot centers around a star player who was paralyzed during a game. It's a powerful story, beautifully told, with great innovation in the timing of the play and in the feats of athleticism on display. In fact it's so good, it almost made me like football, and that's saying something.

The audience is seated five minutes before game time, I mean showtime, with the sound of the drums and the football players' pre-show cheers. Mixed Blood's black box theater has been turned into a mini football field, with bleacher seats for the audience. Before the show, coach Stephen Yoakam puts eight strong, fit, athletic young men through a series of drills - catching, blocking, running - while an older man does yoga. For the first time I appreciated the athleticism of football; it's really quite beautiful in its own way, like a kind of a dance. The pre-show gives way to the start of the play, which is structured as four 15 minute quarters, with the time counted down on the scoreboard. One of the most remarkable things about this production is that the scenes end exactly on time. If they go too fast, there's dead air while we wait for the clock to run down. Too slow and they run out of time. But that never happened. And despite the short run time and the presence of the ticking clock, nothing feels rushed, there are still quiet moments of stillness filled with emotion. The logistics of the whole thing work like clockwork, but the artistry of the story is never sacrificed.

Mike (Toby Forrest) and the team
And the story that is told is beautiful, poignant, and tragic. In dueling realities, we see Mike after his accident (quadriplegic actor Toby Forrest, in a moving and heartfelt performance) and young Mike pre-accident (Torsten Johnson, full of energy and brash confidence). Young Mike appears like a devil on Mike's shoulder, keeping him from moving on and healing from the hurt. In addition to the physical injury, Mike is also hurting from a broken heart; he was in love with one of his teammates (like if Jason Street were in love with Smash), who hasn't come to see him since the accident almost a year ago. Mike's dancer father (the yogi, gracefully played by David Deblieck) doesn't know how to help him, and his physical therapist Jerry (the always excellent Ansa Akyea) tries, but Mike isn't willing. He continually watches a tape of his accident, as the football players and young Mike reenact it for us, pausing as Mike presses pause on his remote, unwilling to go past the impact to what happens next. Memories of Marcus (a charismatic Darius Dotch) and the relationship they had also hold him back. Over the course of an hour (unlike a football game, it really does only last an hour), Mike works to let go of the hurt so he can move forward with the life he has now.

a pre-injury Mike (Torsten Johnson) is flying high
Many artforms combine to create a truly innovative piece of theater. The drumline provides the soundtrack for the drills and game scenes. A beautiful dance entertains us at halftime, performed by Mike and his dad along with a troupe of dancers. The actors playing Mike's teammates run around the stage like athletes, and look like real football players in a real practice (at least to my football-ignorant eye). The entire theater has been transformed, from the set to the bleacher seats to the ushers in football jerseys. All woven together with a beautiful script by Andrew Hinderaker (who wrote this play in response to an "unproducible play" challenge) and smoothly brought to life by director Will Davis. There's a palpable energy in that room that's quite different from anything I've felt at the theater before.

I'm apparently one of the few Americans who doesn't like football (I haven't attended a game since high school, when I was forced to because I was in the marching band, hence my hope to see a marching band at halftime). But this play isn't about football. It's about a passion for something you love and sacrifice everything for, family that supports you no matter what, falling in love and making stupid decisions because of it, getting stuck in the past and having the courage to move past it, letting go of what was and embracing what is (aka "no day but today").

Don't expect to see me at a Vikings game anytime soon (or ever), but I do have a greater appreciation for the sport of football and its place in our culture, as well as the damage that it can cause. Whether you like football or not, head to Mixed Blood Theatre between now and November 9 to experience some truly unique theater. And you can't beat the price - all tickets at Mixed Blood are free thanks to their Radical Hospitality program (although donations are accepted, and advance reservations are $20).

"Nice Work If You Can Get It" at the Ordway

"Nice work if you can get it, and if you get it, won't you tell me how!"

The first thing that comes to my mind when I hear this song is the theme song for the '90s TV sitcom Cybill. But it also makes me think of what I do here at Cherry and Spoon. It's not really work, because I don't get paid, but people give me free tickets to come see their shows. That's a pretty sweet gig. But of course, this well known Gershwin brothers song was not written for Cybill Shepherd or for me, but for the Fred Astaire movie A Damsel in Distress. It's also the title of the new jukebox musical Nice Work If You Can Get It, which features this and a dozen or so other songs by one of America's best songwriting teams, George and Ira Gershwin. George (the composer) and Ira (the lyricist) both collaborated with other people, but this musical focuses on the songs they wrote together (I learned about George from the Ordway's Broadway Sonbgook, and Ira from a play at Park Square). And like the title says, it's a nice show. There's not a whole lot of substance, but the songs are undeniably great, and they're well performed by the cast and full orchestra. Add in some fantastic dance numbers, gorgeous sets and costumes, a very loose plot to tie it all together, and you have a pleasant evening at the theater.

A jukebox musicals is a musical with no original music written for the show, but rather the creators incorporate music from a musical artist (like Abba in Mamma Mia) or theme ('80s rock songs in Rock of Ages). Like most jukebox musicals in which a story is conjured up to fit the already written songs, the plot of Nice Work If You Can Get It is pretty silly, and really just an excuse to get the songs in. But it's entertaining enough, sort of a combination of Anything Goes and Guys and Dolls. Famous (female) bootlegger Billie Bendix meets wealthy playboy Jimmy Winter in 1920s New York. When she hears that he has a large house on Long Island that no one ever uses, she decides to stash 400 bottles of hooch in the cellar. But the next day, Jimmy shows up with his new bride Eileen, "the finest interpreter of modern dance." They assume that Billie's partner-in-crime Cookie McGee is the butler, because he has dressed in the butler's clothes in case the police come by (OK, sure). The obligatory crazy hijinks ensue when Jimmy's girls, Eileen's senator/reverend/judge father, his temperance advocate sister, and the cops show up. And of course, admidst all this, Billie and Jimmy fall in love.

Billie and Jimmy (Mariah MacFarlane and Alex Enterline)
This production is luscious, from the big full orchestra, to the fantastic dance numbers by Kathleen Marshall, to the gorgeous 1920s period costumes (the shoes!), to the elaborate set of the mansion, with beds, baths, and tables rolling in and out as needed. And while the plot may not be stellar, the cast is. The leads all have fantastic voices and are quite entertaining as they ham it up. Reed Campbell as Cookie is the most guilty of ham, in the best possible way. He's an absolute scene stealer, so much fun to watch as he finagles his way around the mansion and the rich people. Our romantic couple both sing beautifully. Alex Enterline as Jimmy is a charmer, and Mariah MacFarlane as Billie has a sweetness to her voice that's juxtaposed nicely with Billie's tough exterior. Rachael Scarr is also great as Jimmy's new wife Eileen, who is so conceited that she sings a love song to herself.

Nice Work if You Can Get It continues at St. Paul's Ordway Center through this weekend only. If you enjoy the music of the Gershwin brothers, big dance numbers, and gorgeous sets and costumes, you might find this a pleasant evening at the theater (discount tickets available at Goldstar).

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

"Rough Cuts: Empire Builder" by Nautilus Music-Theater at the Landmark Center

I love going to readings of new works, especially works of music-theater. I've seen some great ones this year (including this and this), but strangely enough I don't believe I have attended Nautilus Music-Theater's monthly Rough Cuts series before. I always love the work that they do and the innovation they bring to the art form of music-theater, and Rough Cuts is a great way for artists to further their creations and test them out in front of the audience. It also allows us audience members a chance to peek inside the creative process. I highly recommend checking out this or one of the many other new works series around town, or ask your favorite theater if they ever do readings of new work. The rich theater talent in this town is not just seen in performances, but also in the creation of new and lasting work.

The subject of this month's Rough Cuts, which kicks off the 21st year of this series, is a new piece called Empire Builder, with book and lyrics by Anne Bertram and music by George Maurer. An excerpt of the show was presented a few years ago, but this is the first reading of the full show. It tells the story of three characters as they take the train called The Empire Builder from Chicago to points west, some as far as Seattle. I took this train from St. Paul to Montana years ago, and I can understand why the creators chose it as their inspiration for this musical. It's a wonderful way to travel, see the country, and meet people who are all on journeys of some kind. On this trip we meet Sky Wolf, a Native American given up for adoption as a child, returning home to see his dying Grandfather, the recently laid off and frustrated with life Jimmy Masterson, and sociology professor Dr. Beatrice Holder, who's considering leaving academia to take a high paying job. These three characters are all at a crossroads in their lives, and make a connection with each other on this journey. But this Empire Builder is not just any train, it's a time-traveling train that makes stops in the past. Most of these have to do with Sky's history; he steps off the train and into the lives of his ancestors. One stop is in Dr. Holder's past, as she meets her grandfather, a porter who faces racism. But this is mostly Sky's journey, and as he learns about his past he's able to move forward and forgive his grandfather.

This piece has great promise and I hope to see it develop further in future productions. A few things still need to be worked out, as pointed out in the post-show discussion (another fun feature of readings - audience feedback). I agree with the comment that it feels odd to have one stop in the past that has nothing to do with the main story; it would be nice to have it somehow connected, or maybe drop it and dig even deeper into Sky's story. A lot is covered in this piece, including Native American history, Civil Rights, Affirmative Action, the effect of wars, and the history of the railroad. That's a lot to chew on in just a few hours; narrowing of the focus might help the musical feel more cohesive. George Maurer's music is gorgeous, with various styles woven into it and recurring themes. There's a hint of Native American sound in Sky's lullaby, but I would love to hear even more of it, and in general more of the Native American culture (which may come in with casting and sets/costumes/props in future productions).

As with most readings I've attended, the cast does an amazing job performing this new material. I assume they haven't had much time with it, and they mostly read/sing from the script, but that in no way inhibits their performance and their emotions as they bring these characters to life. Dieter Bierbrauer sings beautifully (as always) as Sky, and brought me to tears with his emotional journey from resentment to acceptance to forgiveness. Max Wojtanowiz provides the comic relief as sidekick Jimmy, but also has some emotional moments of his own. Completing this excellent trio is Thomasina Petrus as Dr. Holder, strong but conflicted. The ensemble holds great talent too as they bring richness and fullness to the music and story, in the form of Jay Albright, Susan Hofflander, Ann Michels, Kasono Mwanza, and Dane Stauffer. And the five-piece orchestra, led by the composer on piano, sounds fantastic.

There is one more reading of Empire Builder - tonight at 7:30 at Walker Community Church in Minneapolis. Go see this promising new work, beautifully performed by talented musicians and actors. Or check out next month's Rough Cuts (held on the second Monday and Tuesday of the month), or one of the other new works series in town.

Monday, October 13, 2014

"Master Class" by Theater Latte Da at the MacPhail Center for Music

I don't know opera, and I don't believe I had ever heard the name Maria Callas before seeing Theater Latte Da's Master Class. But I have been educated. I now know that Maria Callas was one of the most talented, dedicated, and fascinating artists of the 20th century. Her paintbrush was her voice, her canvas was the stage, her creation was opera. She sacrificed everything for her art, and had very strong opinions about what art is and what it isn't. She shared those opinions in a series of master classes at Julliard in the early '70s. Playwright Terrence McNally used those classes as the backdrop against which to tell the story of who this woman was in his 1996 Tony-winning play. Her attitude towards art may not lead to the healthiest and happiest of lifestyles, but it does in some cases lead to some exquisite art, both in her singing, and in this magnificent production by Theater Latte Da.

The brilliance of this play is that it's constructed as a music school lecture, with Maria Callas as the instructor and we, the theater audience, as her audience. This allows her to speak directly to us, which is a bit terrifying as she's not an easy teacher, but also extremely engaging as it immediately draws us into the world of the play. Maria takes the stage and begins imparting to us her wealth of knowledge about opera and show business in general, gained from thirty years of performing at the best opera houses in the world. One by one she calls three students in to instruct them as we watch, teaching them that it's about more than just the singing, you have to feel every emotion. Through her direct instruction to the audience, her harsh critiques of her students (that is really more about her than them), and through flashbacks or memories of certain trying times in her life (including her relationship with Aristotle Onassis), we get a clear picture of who this woman was, and it's quite fascinating. She was the type of person for whom the word diva was invented, but it was all at the service of her art.

I'm feel like I'm running out of words to describe Sally Wingert's performances. She recently won an Ivey for not one but four brilliant performances over the last year, all of which I saw and loved. And yet she continues to amaze me each time I see her. How does she do it? She has created so many very different, complex, fascinating, layered, real women. Sally absolutely commands the stage as Maria Callas; she's strong, opinionated, funny, vulnerable, and so present. When you watch Sally you don't feel like you're watching a performance, you feel like you're watching a person. Maria would approve of Sally, she doesn't "act," she "feels," she "is." I felt like I was attending a very important lecture about art and life, and I should be taking notes. I'm not sure who was giving the lecture, Maria Callas, or Sally Wingert, or director Peter Rothstein, who does another beautiful job with this production. Likely it's some delicious combination of all three.

Maria instructs young Sophie while Manny looks on
(Andrew Bourgoin, Kira Lace Hawkins, and Sally Wingert)
As commanding as Sally is, she's not the only one on stage. With her the whole time is music director Andrew Bourgoin as accompanist Manny. I was lucky enough to be sitting near the front on the piano side of the stage, where I could watch his hands bouncing off the keys or softly caressing them. As Manny, he also provides a nice foil for Maria, mostly listening quietly and occasionally interrupting reluctantly to keep things on track. Kira Lace Hawkins, in Jan Brady hair, has a nice turn as student Sophie, with a voice as rich, smooth, and delicious as melted chocolate. Opera singers Benjamin Dutcher and Kelsey Stark O'Emilio also lend their gorgeous voices to the roles of eager students Anthony and Sharon.

Theater Latte Da could not have picked a better location for this play. Antonello Hall at the MacPhail Center for Music is a gorgeous, high-ceiling, pristine, sparsely furnished room that was built for sound. One of my favorite things that Maria says is "I don't believe in microphones, people have forgotten how to listen, if you can't hear me it's your fault." No amplification is necessary in this space with these trained artists, and the sound is exquisite. I also appreciated the costumes (by Willene Mangham). They definitely have a '70s vibe, but it's subtle and doesn't overpower the simple directness of the story.

Theater Latte Da's Master Class is everything. It's funny, completely engaging, poignant, touching, entertaining, and features beautiful music. In short, a smart, funny, clever, meaningful play, sublimely executed by Theater Latte Da. Head to the MacPhail Center for Music in downtown Minneapolis between now and November 2 to experience this exquisite production.

I'll leave you with a quote from Maria Callas: "The only thanks I ask is that you sing properly and honestly." A great motto for not just art, but life.