Saturday, August 23, 2014

"Golden Boys" at The Lab Theater

The new original musical Golden Boys, written by New York composer/playwright Horace Turnbull, tells the story of an integrated WWII army unit created to raise morale of troops and civilians by performing musical theater. I know, it sounds like something that was made up as a good story for a musical, but it's based on fact. The US Army created the Special Services in 1942 and set up a school at Fort Meade in Maryland to train officers and enlisted men in the art of entertainment. Golden Boys is a fictional story set in this world, focusing on one unit that rehearses and performs a musical in a US tour as well as overseas for the troupes. It's an ambitious project, covering issues of racism, the treatment of homosexuals in the military, and the camaraderie of people joining together for a common cause in the midst of war. The result is a bit unfocused and too long, but as this is the premiere, hopefully these issues can be worked out and the piece polished into a potentially great musical.

The story is told by Johnny, a man nearing 90 in the present day who tells his story to some unknown listener. The events unfold in flashback, with Johnny occasionally interjecting commentary (either in his period persona stepping right out of the scene, or as the old man, which is a bit confusing). Under the direction of Sergeant Buchanan, about a dozen enlisted men rehearse a musical called "Johnny Come Home," in which they play all parts, both men and women. Most of the men get a moment to tell their story in monologue, shining a light on the many different people who join the military and their diverse reasons for doing so. They go on tour, experiencing segregation in the south and racism in the army. Throughout the experience they form that familiar military bond, with the central relationship being that between Johnny, who plays the male lead in the musical, and Joshua, who plays the female lead Annette and falls in love with Johnny in real life as well as in the show. Familiar character types include the bad guy Baldwin who comes around only after a tragedy, the comic relief Carlos, and the wealthy playboy Rich. We come back to old man Johnny in the end, a nice bit of symmetry that ties up the story for all the guys we've come to know throughout the story.

The show-within-a-show concept, a musical theater staple, allows for many great musical numbers that have nothing to do with the plot, such as tap dancing in wet suits and flippers, and a mambo number complete with Chiquita Banana headdress. Most of the songs are fun and catchy, a few border on trite and cliche. The choreography by Jimmy Peters is fantastic, and these boys (most of whom are local talent) can dance! Highlights in the cast include Michael Fischetti as the stern but softhearted Sargeant, who is also a hoot as waitress Geena in the show; Scott Gilbert as our narrator Johnny, a likeable fellow whose story we want to follow; Bryan Gerber, who manages to create two compelling and sympathetic characters in gay soldier Joshua and lovestruck Annette; Aleutian Calabay as the tapping playboy; and Mark Anthony Hall with lovely vocals on a couple of solos as Ellis (conductor of the imaginary band, see below).

In my eyes there is only one unforgivable sin in musical theater, and that is the use of pre-recorded music instead of a live band. Unfortunately this production commits that sin. Canned music cheapens any musical and brings it down a level. Hopefully future productions will include live music; there's even mention of the band for the show-within-a-show, which would be a great opportunity to work a live orchestra into the show.

This production only has two more performances, so get to the Lab Theater fast to see these dancing and singing Golden Boys (discount tickets for Sunday's show available on Goldstar).

Thursday, August 21, 2014

"Take It With You" at The Underground

There's something cool going on in Duluth. I mean, there are lots of cool things going on in Duluth; it's one of Minnesota's top tourist destinations, with the lake and the big ships and all. But specifically on the music-theater front, which is what brings joy to my heart, there is something new and cool going on. It's called Take It With You and it's live radio theater, recorded monthly at The Underground in Duluth's historic Depot, and available for free online listening. This scripted serial radio program hearkens back to the days when people used to gather around their radios to listen to music and stories about their favorite characters. Now we can gather around our computers to listen, or plug into a podcast, as we follow this quirky cast of characters on their monthly adventures. It's described as "Cheers meets A Prairie Home Companion meets Austin City Limits," but I encourage you to give it a listen and see for yourself just how charming and funny and silly and musically delicious it is.

In the first 60-minute episode of Take It With You, we meet Blake (voiced by one of my favorite musicians Blake Thomas, check out his gorgeous and heartbreaking albums on iTunes), the owner of a bar and music club in Duluth, eager new employee and aspiring musician Andy (Frye, of Yellow Tree Theatre fame), disgruntled actress-turned-waitress Mary (Fox, another fave from Yellow Tree and other local stages), and oddball regulars Rick (the hilarious mutli-voiced Ryan Nelson), Bill (Robert Lee), and Zach (Stofer), with other wacky characters played by Katy Helbacka and Andy Bennett. Whether it's a bachelorette party or a stint in the local jail, these loveably kooky characters work their way through some situation each episode, while hanging out, chatting, promoting local businesses, getting advice from too cool for school "Steve and Jamie" and theoretical physicist "Ask Brooks," and of course, playing music.

Each episode features a half dozen or so of Blake's original songs, covers, or standards. Friends, I would drive 300 miles to listen to Blake sing one of his original songs. OK maybe that's a slight exaggeration, but I'm telling you, he's the real deal. He writes clever, whimsical, poetic, simple yet profound lyrics, accompanied by haunting or driving melodies, and sings in an authentic country voice. Add to that Mary's lovely harmonies and the whole group joining in on such standards as "Sitting on Top of the World," and you have some of the best music I would ever want to listen to.

But don't take my word for it; you can listen to episodes 1 and 2 online right now, just an hour each so it's not even a huge time commitment. I had the great privilege of watching the live recording of episode 5 this week, and as much fun as it is to listen to this show, it's even more fun to watch it in person with a sold-out crowd, and see the love and energy and joy that the cast brings to this unique creation that's both modern and charmingly traditional. Listen to the podcasts, like their Facebook page, and if you happen to be in Duluth the third Tuesday of the month, go see it in person!

the Take It With You gang at The Underground

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

"King Arthur: A Picnic Operetta" by Mixed Precipitation at Falcon Heights Community Garden

There's a lot of outdoor theater going on around the Twin Cities, if you know where to look for it. I partook of one such opportunity on what turned out to be a rainy day, so it was moved indoors to a warming house. But the spirit was still there. Mixed Precipitation takes classic operettas, condenses them, puts a modern spin on them, performs them in community gardens around the Twin Cities metro area, and also serves great food. What could be better? This year's selection is Henry Purcell's 1684 English Baroque opera King Arthur, with plenty of modern references and some punk rock music thrown in for good measure. It's a fun and delicious way to experience music-theater in an informal setting.

Condensing a full opera down to under 90 minutes creates a bit of a hard to follow jumbled mess, but from what I gathered, King Arthur of Cameloteapolis is building a new jousting stadium that will host the Super Joust, a costly endeavor that faces opposition from the Saxons, who are concerned about things like corporate personhood and minimum wage. Or something like that. There is fighting, jousting, magic, a wedding or two, and much beautiful music. I didn't care for the rock songs as much as the opera songs, which are so beautifully sung and played by this wonderful cast and small orchestra that it doesn't seem necessary to add modern songs (although I do kind of love the idea of a rock cello).

Grant Schumann, Peter Middlecamp, and Cassandra McNally
This wonderful cast of adults and children appears to be having a great time playing together, which always makes it more fun for the audience. And they look crazy cool in punk hair, make-up, and costumes. Young Grant Schumann leads the wildly energetic band of Saxons; Wric Larson is dark and mysterious with a commanding deep voice as the demon Grimbald; Elizabeth Windnagel is a delightfully airy imp; Jim Ahrens is our beautiful-haired and slightly out of touch King Arthur; magic is created by JP Fitzgibbons' Merlin and Naomi Karstad's Morgan Le Fay; Maggie Lofbloom's jousting champion Guinevere is a heroine to root for; and Peter Middlecamp is charming as her jousting rival/suitor. And the whole casts sounds fantastic; turns out the warming house has surprisingly good acoustics.

The most unique aspect of this experience is the food. Delicious, interesting, creative, fresh, local food is served in perfect little bites throughout the show, very cleverly worked into the plot and introduced by the characters. I think people should serve me food at the theater all the time! I do wish I had been able to experience this in the great outdoors as intended, but it was still great fun, and they somehow made the last minute change of venue work.

King Arthur continues weekends through September 21. Check the schedule for a garden near you, and then go see some fun and creative music-theater while enjoying delicious food.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

"Guys and Dolls" at Bloomington Civic Theatre

I love a big old-fashioned classic musical* at Bloomington Civic Theatre, and Guys and Dolls is definitely that. This 1955 musical with a well-known score by Frank Loesser is one of the most beloved musicals of the last century. As per usual, it gets fine treatment by BCT, with fantastic choreography and direction by Matthew Michael Ferrell, Anita Ruth's always wonderful pit orchestra, a huge and energetic ensemble, bright and beautiful period costumes, and fine performances by the leads. If you're a lover of classic musicals of the '50s - this is it.

Guys and Dolls centers around the underground gambling business in NYC and a mission trying to save the sinners. Nathan Detroit runs the big craps game in town and is always looking for a place to hold it, while trying to hide it from Adelaide, Hot Box dancer and his fiance of 14 years. To get the money to secure a location for the game, Nathan bets big-time gambler Sky Masterson that he cannot convince pious mission worker Sarah to go to Havana with him. Sky wins the bet, but it's not quite that simple. To win Sarah's heart, he bets against the guys' souls to get them to come to a meeting and save the mission. And everyone lives happily ever after.

Highlights of the show include:
  • The music. The score includes such favorites as "Bushel and a Peck," "Adelaide's Lament," "If I Were a Bell," "Luck Be a Lady," and "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat," all played and sung beautifully be the orchestra and cast.
  • Michael Matthew Ferrell's choreography. The group numbers are so much fun to watch, from the opening number, creating perfect tableaux of city life, to the Hot Box Girls performances, to the smooth swinging Havana scene, to the crapshooters sharp dance. And these guys and dolls can dance.
  • Ed Gleeman's costumes. Men in rainbow-colored suits, two-toned shoes, and hats used as props in dances - what's not to love about that? The women look pretty smashing too.
  • Bill Rolon and Rachel Weber. Perfectly cast as Nathan and Adelaide, they absolutely sparkle and crackle on stage, individually (Nathan working the guys, Adelaide's charming lament and leading the Hot Box Girls) but especially together ("Sue Me" is a highlight, funny and tender). They even look the part; somehow the height difference (in Adelaide's favor) only makes them more perfect for each other. This is a relationship you can understand and root for, despite the overly long engagement.
  • The voices of Holli Richgels and Joshua Paul Smith. I always find the Sky/Sarah romance less appealing than Nathan/Adelaide, but these two sound lovely together.
  • The charming trio of Lamar Jefferson, A.J. Longabaugh, and Andrew Newman. They're almost like narrators of the show, singing the opening number and the title song in enthusiastic harmony. And Lamar is pitch perfect as Nicely-Nicely, singing the crowd-pleasing "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat."
This faithful and fun production of a beloved musical theater classic continues through September 14. You might want to get your tickets sooner rather than later, as this one is sure to be popular (Goldstar tickets are currently sold out but check back in case more dates are added).

*As much as Guys and Dolls is a quintessential example of a classic piece of musical theater that BCT does well, their next show is a great example of a new and modern rock musical, Next to Normal. I'm excited to see BCT step out of their comfort zone a bit with this devastatingly brilliant Pulitzer Prize winning musical that features a small six-person cast and typically onstage rock band rather than a traditional pit orchestra.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

"The Big Lowdown" by Bedlam Theatre on the streets of Lowertown

When was the last time you played Red Light Green Light? Or told ghost stories at a slumber party? Or searched for eggs in a park? It's been more than 30 years for me, but playing Red Light Green Light in a parking lot in St. Paul's Lowertown neighborhood with a bunch of strangers, mostly adults, I was immediately taken back to when I used to play it with my cousins on the sidewalk outside my great aunt's house. And that's the idea behind Bedlam Theatre's walking theatrical experience The Big Lowdown - giving adults the space to play like we did when we were children, but which most of us stopped doing as the concerns of the real world began to weigh us down. The Big Lowdown attempts to awaken that childlike spirit again, and while it was a bit too interactive and participatory for my comfort level (perhaps I would have felt more comfortable if I were wearing a mask and told to be silent), I do appreciate the spirit of the evening, and enjoyed some really cool and unique performances.

BodyCartography Project
The adventure begins at Bedlam's new bar/ restaurant/performance club, Bedlam Lowertown. Participants are divided into groups led by "rovers" in character - from wizards to aliens. I followed the Peanuts character Lucy, along with about ten other adventurers, to seven stops in Lowertown, mostly outdoors in odd and interesting spaces. In addition to Red Light Green Light and the slumber party (where I was hoping to play "light as a feather, stiff as a board" like we did at slumber parties in the '80s), activities include a Unity parade, er, strut; a really cool robotic and fluid dance performance; a couple of bellhops whose actions are narrated by a bearded man, that hits just the right mix of audience participation and performance, and is oddly delightful; and my favorite stop - a fascinating performance by The BodyCartography Project. Six people dressed in orange meld their bodies onto the concrete and metal surfaces of an alleyway, and get absolutely filthy because they are literally rolling around on the ground with their faces and bodies pressed into the concrete, hanging on anything and everything. I could have watched these amorphous beings creating strange and beautiful shapes for hours.

The adventure culminates in lovely Mears Park with a few more games and the announcement of the winners (did I mention it's a competition?). In the end it was a fun evening, despite the awkward moments, and is a great way to see some of the interesting spaces of Lowertown. I appreciate Bedlam's mission to get the audience involved in their art, but after this and the recent Fringe fest, I'm ready to go back to sitting comfortably behind the fourth wall in a darkened theater. At least for a little while.

The adventure continues this weekend only, so get there fast to take part in the playing. It's especially fun for kids, who are a little more connected to their playful spirits than us adults.

Friday, August 15, 2014

"Proof" by Candid Theater Company at People's Center Theater

I like to refer to the 2001 Tony winner for best play Proof as my second* favorite math play (yes, I am a math geek in addition to being a theater geek). But of course it's not about math. Math is the language with which this very relatable story about family, identity, and mental illness is told. And even though I saw this play less than a year ago at Bloomington Civic Theatre, I welcomed the chance to spend more time with this complicated, dysfunctional, yet loving family. Candid Theater Company's production is nicely done in the intimate and sparsely decorated People's Center Theater on the U of M West Bank campus.

Proof tells the story of a young woman named Catherine whose father, a renowned mathematician, has just died. She took care of him in the final years of his life as his mental health deteriorated. In that time he filled 100 notebooks with gibberish, or is it mathematical genius? Similar to the movie A Beautiful Mind (based on the biography of mathematician Jon Nash), he sees patterns and codes everywhere, and it's difficult to decipher the difference between madness and genius. One of his former students, Hal, comes over to the house to go through the journals to see if there's anything of value. At the same time, Catherine's sister arrives from New York and tells her she's sold the house, and wants Catherine to move to New York with her. When Hal discovers one beautiful, complicated, ground-breaking proof, Catherine says that she wrote it. No one believes her since she's had little schooling; she dropped out of college to take care of her father. It's obvious she has inherited her father's mathematical skill, but has she also inherited his mental illness? That's the question that Catherine struggles with as she tries to figure out who she is without her crazy genius father to take care of and define her life.

Kendall Anne Thompson shines in the central role of Catherine. She beautifully, deeply, and physically conveys the complex emotions of Catherine, from the joy of discovery to deep loss and despair. The more I see of Kendall the more convinced I am that she's on her way to becoming a star of the Twin Cities theater scene (see also RENT). Steven Flamm is appropriately befuddled as Catherine's mentally ill father, seen in flashbacks and hallucinations. His final descent into his illness is devastating. Rounding out the cast are Katherine Prebel as Catherine's pragmatic, over-protective, and controlling sister, and Michael Terrell Brown as young mathematician Catherine falls for.

Proof is a great play, and you don't have to be a math nerd like me to enjoy it. But if you are, you'll learn some interesting facts about prime numbers and mathematician Sophie Germain, and enjoy a few inside jokes, like the one about a song called iProof continues through August 24 (discount tickets available on Goldstar).

*My favorite math play is Tom Stoppard's Arcadia, which I first saw almost 20 years ago in London, and haven't seen in over 10 years. Some local theater needs to produce this play soon!

Thursday, August 14, 2014

"Rose" by Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company

Who can resist a one-woman show by Sally Wingert, one of the Twin Cities best actors? Add to that an intimate in-home setting and an epic story that encompasses the entire scope of Jewish history in the 20th Century, and you have an unforgettable evening of theater. Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company's production of Martin Sherman's play Rose, which is being performed in homes around the Cities, is inspirational, horrifying, funny, charming, disturbing, brutally honest, and entirely compelling. With just seven performances remaining and limited seating, you'll want to get your tickets now.

We meet Rose at the age of 80 in 1999 as she's sitting Shiva for a murdered girl (who that girl is comes out later). She's lived through many pivotal events in her life - growing up in a shtetl in Ukraine, moving to Warsaw and falling in love, being forced into the ghetto, hiding in the sewers after the uprising, boarding the fateful ship Exodus to the promised land only to be turned away, starting a new life in America, seeing her dream of a Jewish homeland realized for her family, only to watch helplessly as it's marred by violence that continues today. All of this is told with a personal perspective by this fictional woman in a way that makes these unthinkable events feel painfully real.

Sally Wingert as Rose (photo by Sarah Whiting)
Sally Wingert's performance as this remarkable woman is nothing less than transportive. She takes you right along with her as Rose tells stories from her past, from amusing to horrifying. The intimate setting adds to the feeling that you're sitting there with Rose, in her home, listening to her tell her stories. Sally is so real and natural in this role, making side comments to the audience who return knowing nods or laughs, getting short of breath and slowly sipping water, crunching on her daily pills with ice cream. It's another beautifully real performance by Sally Wingert.

Above all, this woman is a survivor. What is it about the human will to survive that makes a person live on when everything she's ever known - home, family, community, identity - is gone? But she did, as did many others. Rose carries her past with her into the future, even when her children and their children tell her to let it go, that it doesn't matter anymore, that this is the future. But Rose knows that the past informs who we are and must never be forgotten. Stories about the countless individual and collective atrocities committed during the Holocaust never stop being horrifying. And this play cuts right to the heart.

Rose continues in homes around the Twin Cities through August 24. Call the box office to reserve your space on this incredible journey.