Sunday, August 29, 2010

"All Shook Up" at the Chanhassen Dinner Theatres

The New Chanhassen Dinner Theatres is the largest professional dinner theatre in the country, and one of the best. It has recently come under new ownership, led by long-time Artistic Director Michael Brindisi, which is committed to making it successful as a business and a theatre. I've attended just about every show on the mainstage in the last five years or so; my sister lives nearby so it's a good excuse to go visit her. While there are some shows I like more than others, they always do a great job and have a talented core group of actors, singers, and dancers. I've recently realized that the Chanhassen is like the comfort food of musical theater. And that's not a bad thing, I love my mac & cheese (just had some on a stick at the MN State Fair today!). Like comfort food, a show at the Chan leaves you feeling warm, happy, and satisified. But there's usually nothing risky or edgy, nothing that will push the envelope of musical theater (see The Scottsboro Boys currently playing at the Guthrie). I believe there's a place for that, and I hope the new Chan is successful.

Truthfully, All Shook Up is not one of my favorite shows I've seen at the Chan. It's a jukebox musical, which is not always a bad thing - my personal favorite is Jersey Boys, which has a great story in addition to all the great songs. Unfortunately the book of this show is not strong. It reminds me a lot of the last show at the Chan, Footloose (a bad boy, or "roustabout," comes to a town where dancing and fun is forbidden, and brings music back to town), with a little bit of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night thrown in (girl dresses up as a boy to get close to the boy she likes, mistaken identities and mayhem ensue). But on the plus side, the cast is great and there are some nice arrangements of all the old familiar Elvis songs everyone loves, and the cast fills them out beautifully. Rico Heisler is strong as the Elvis figure, Chad, and newcomer to the Chan Laura Rudolph, as Natalie, has a clear beautiful voice and good stage presence; I look forward to seeing more of her. Scene stealer Jay Albright plays Natalie's father Jim, and as usual, brings a little extra something to the role. He has the uncanny ability to break your heart and make you laugh at the same time! If Aimee K. Bryant (proprieter of the town hangout and Jim's love interest) was auditioning for the role of Motormouth Maybelle in next year's Hairspray, she won it in my book! Another scene stealer was Emily Rose Skinner as Miss Sandra, the woman every man falls in love with. The band was on stage which is always fun to see, and the dance numbers were fun and lively.

I'm looking forward to next year's shows at the Chanhassen - Jesus Christ Superstar (I recently saw a list of the top five rock musicals, and this was the only one I haven't seen, so I feel like I should!), and Hairspray (one of the most infectious and happy musicals, with a little depth too). Also coming soon at the Fireside Theater is I Do, I Do, which in its previous incarnation ran for over 20 years. This production stars two Chan faves Keith Rice and Norah Long, so I hope to check that out too.

So if you're looking for some good quality musical theater comfort food (and some actual comfort food too - dinner is served before the show and dessert at intermission), check out one of these shows at the Chanhassen.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

"Witches' Night Off," A Cabaret by the Cast of Wicked

Last night I attended a concert called Witches' Night Off, a cabaret performance by the touring cast of Wicked to raise money for the Minnesota AIDS Project. As I mentioned in my Wicked review, this cast is hugely talented, so it was fun to see them all have their chance to shine. I recognized some people from the show, but they look quite different without their crazy fabulous Oz costumes and hair. About a dozen or so cast members took part in the show. None of the principals were there (I'm sure they use their day off to rest their voices), with the exception of Rachel Potter, Glinda's understudy who I saw perform on Sunday. Performances ranged from showtunes (including a duet of "Take Me or Leave Me" from RENT) to pop songs to dance numbers, and what beautiful dancers they are!

The concert was held at the Bolt Underground in Minneapolis - a bar is not my favorite type of venue. It was loud and crowded and seating was limited. In retrospect I wish I had sprung for the $50 VIP seats; it would have been well worth it and the money goes to a good cause. Instead I was standing in the back craning my neck and getting jostled by the crowd. But it thinned out as the show went on and I found a seat. They auctioned off several cool items from the show, including Glinda's purse! Another auction item was the opportunity to be painted green and sing "Defying Gravity" with the cast. If only I had known it included the singing part I might have gone for it! I would have made a prettier Elphaba than the man who won. ;) But I must admit he did a pretty good job with the song. Unfortunately the auction parts dragged on and only made me wish I could fast-forward to the performances!

All in all it was a fun night and a great opportunity to watch this cast strut their stuff in a way they can't as part of the ensemble. I'm tempted to go see Wicked one more time before it leaves town; who knows when it will be back again!

Sunday, August 22, 2010

"Wicked" at the Orpheum Theatre

Wicked! It’s one of my all time favorites, even though this is only the third time I’ve seen it. I’ve loved the soundtrack since I saw the show for the first time on tour in 2006, and haven’t been able to stop listening to it (and singing along) since! For those of you who don’t know, Wicked is based on the book of the same name by Gregory Maguire, which is a retelling of the story of the witches in The Wizard of Oz. But that’s really only a starting point; it’s an entirely new creation. Stephen Schwartz (music and lyrics) and Winnie Holzman (book) took this dark and complicated story and made it lighter and simpler, without losing the weight of the story. Both are truly remarkable transformations, as Maguire’s book has little resemblance to L. Frank Baum’s world of Oz, and the musical took the book and went in an entirely new direction. It’s really one of the most perfect musicals, it has everything!

Seeing Wicked live is an entirely different experience than listening to the soundtrack. It’s a true spectacle (in a good way). The set is amazing, complete with a dragon hanging over the audience, a huge mechanical wizard head, flying monkeys, and lots of moving pieces and gears. The costumes are outrageously gorgeous. From the green and white striped school uniforms of Shiz, to the black and white dance clothes, and my favorite, the amazing green dresses of the Emerald City! And the hair is just crazy. But the reason this entire spectacle works is that there’s great substance behind it. As I mentioned, the music is rich and beautiful and fun. But it’s really the story that holds it all together. Wicked is not just about the good witch and the bad witch; it’s about friendship, finding where you fit in, and standing up for what you believe in, no matter what anyone tells you. And that’s something I think everyone can relate to. I certainly can; Elphaba is close to my heart – I consider “I’m Not That Girl” my theme song. ;)

This touring cast is extremely talented. Both Vicki Noon as Elphaba and Rachel Potter as Glinda (the understudy), have the vocal chops required for these two roles. Vicki stopped the show on several occasions: “The Wizard and I” and especially “Defying Gravity.” TV and movie vet Don Amendolia made for a charming wizard. Behind them was a talented ensemble of dancers and singers. Lucky for me I get to see this cast again tomorrow night! They’re performing in a cabaret called "Witches Night Off" to raise money for the Minnesota AIDS Project.

I'll leave you with one of my favorite quotes from the show (did I mention the show also features some biting social commentary?):

“The truth has nothing to do with facts and reason. The truth is what people agree on. Where I’m from we believe all sorts of things that aren’t true. We call it history.”

Sunday, August 15, 2010

"The Scottsboro Boys" at the Guthrie Theater

I just got home from seeing The Scottsboro Boys at the Guthrie Theater, and am listening to the soundtrack as I write this. It’s a brilliant new musical by John Kander and the late Fred Ebb, and we get to see it here in Minneapolis before it moves to Broadway this fall. It’s funny, disturbing, thought-provoking, moving, and filled with great music and choreography (Susan Stroman directed and choreographed the show). The majority of talented cast will be heading to Broadway with the show, one exception being David Anthony Brinkley, frequent member of the cast at the Chanhassen Dinner Theatres, as the Interlocutor (sadly, John Cullum, aka Holling Vincoeur on my favorite TV show Northern Exposure, did not make the trip to Minnesota). Colman Domingo and Forrest McClendon play Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo, fixtures in the minstrel show and comic relief, and several other characters. The nine talented actors and dancers protraying "the boys" are led by Joshua Henry, who gives a beautiful and heart-breaking performance as Haywood. The youngest of the boys really was a boy – 13 years old and played by the adorable Jeremy Gumbs.

The Scottsboro Boys is the final show of the 2009-2010 Guthrie season in the McGuire Proscenium Stage. My season seat in this theater is in the front row, which is actually the cheap seats because apparently the first row is “too close,” which doesn’t exist in my world. When I got to my seat I was excited to see that there’s an actual pit with an orchestra (before I was a theater geek, I was a band geek, performing in the pit for two shows in high school). The music is wonderful and remiscent of Kander and Ebb's other great shows, Cabaret and Chicago. The set design for this show is really interesting; it mostly consists of mismatching dining room chairs painted silver, moved around and put together in different configurations to represent a train, a bus, a jail cell, and a courtroom.

The show is structured as a minstrel show, telling the true story of nine black men who were accused of raping two white women in Scottsboro, Alabama in 1931. They were convicted and sentenced to death in a sham of a trial, just a few weeks after they were accused. The appeals and trials lasted for six years, going all the way to the US Supreme Court. The show illustrates what these young men went through to find justice, and challenges us to rethink our own ideas.

The Scottsboro Boys is the kind of show that gives me hope for the future of musical theater; in an age where every other show on Broadway is a TV or movie adaptation, this is an original piece about a unique and important story. I don’t want to jinx anything, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see several Tony nominations and wins for this show next year. As Guthrie Theater Director Joe Dowling wrote in the program, “If, as I strongly believe, Oscar Wilde was right when he said that theater is ‘the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being,’ then The Scottsboro Boys teaches us about ourselves and our history while reminding us of these nine young men whose ordeal deserves to be remembered and commemorated.”

See John Kander talking about the show:

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

"Where's My Tony?" at Hennepin Stages

Last night I attended a fun show that celebrated, while poking gentle fun at, musical theater. Where’s My Tony was a one-night-only show written and hosted by local actors Whitney Rhodes and Joshua James Campbell, both of whom appeared in Theater Latte Da’s The Full Monty last fall. They presented ten “alternate” Tony Awards, followed by a performance by one of the songs from the winning show. Whitney and Josh were great hosts, both very funny with great voices, and with a good chemistry between them. What I loved most about this show is that even though it was sponsored by the Hennepin Theater Trust and featured the big Broadway touring musicals that have passed through the Hennepin theaters, it also spotlighted several talented local artists and their upcoming projects at smaller theaters such as Theater Latte Da and Mixed Blood Theatre (I tried to provide links for everything, so if something interests you, you can click for more info or to order tickets). This evening was fine example of what a great theater town this is.

The show began with a medley of songs from each of the shows in the upcoming Broadway touring season (which I have season tickets for): Wicked, Rock of Ages, Billy Elliot, Shrek, Hair, Jersey Boys, and West Side Story. Josh and Whitney took turns singing the songs, complete with costume changes and pirouettes (from Josh during the Billy Elliot song).

Without further ado, the awards:

The Worst Title of a Musical: Urinetown. Before they even announced the nominees I knew this one would be the winner. I saw Urinetown seven years ago and loved it. It’s equal parts satire, social commentary (“people don’t want to be told their way of life is unsustainable”), and great music. I’m just waiting for a local theater to mount a production of it. Accepting the award was Jared Oxborough, who first caught my attention in Footloose at the Chanhassen Dinner Theatre earlier this year. He sang the best song from Urinetown, “Run, Freedom, Run.” He would make a great Bobby Strong, and an even better Che, which just happens to be his next role in Theater Latte Da’s upcoming production of Evita.

Most Controversial Musical: Avenue Q. Even though I was rooting for another nominee, the brilliant Spring Awakening, this is a good choice. Rose Le Tran (frequent performer with Mu Performing Arts) accepted the award and sang “I Wish I Could Go Back to College.” She will be appearing in Mixed Blood Theatre’s production of Avenue Q next spring, which I was really excited to hear about. I love this show but have only seen the Broadway/touring production, so I’m curious to see what a smaller production will look like.

Best Musical that Doesn’t Contain Any Original Music, aka Jukebox Musical: Jersey Boys. Catherine Battocletti (also in last year’s The Full Monty) accepted the award and sang “Oh What A Night” from the show, a fun song with audience participation!

Best Guilty Pleasure Musical: Starlight Express. I’ve never seen this show and don’t know much about it, but Josh and Whitney sang a song that was appropriately cheesy.

Most Epic Musical: Phantom of the Opera (which I’m proud to say I’ve never seen). Whitney and Josh again took this one, with Whitney playing the part of Christine and Josh growling the Phantom role. It ended with a fun disco version of the title song, complete with glow-sticks thrown out to the crowd.

After a brief intermission, Whitney and Josh announced awards that were given out previously, including:

Best Musical to Take Your Kids to, to Torture Them: Fiddler on the Roof
Musical that Makes you Think All Art and Creativity in Theater is Dead: 101 Dalmatians
Lifetime Achievement Award (for Continuing to Tour with that Tired Show): Phantom of the Opera

Back to the main awards:

Best Musical to Take Your Boyfriend to Who You Secretly Think is Gay: Mama Mia. The very talented Kinaundrae Lee (aka Angel in RENT at the Lab Theater earlier this year) took the stage to sing a dramatic rendition of the title song. He will be appearing in the Ordway’s production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (another nominee for worst title) this winter.

Best Show to Inspire Your Halloween Costume: Rock of Ages. Earlier in the show Josh had asked the crowd for names, verbs, body parts, etc. He inserted them into the song “Hit Me with Your Best Shot” which Whitney then sang. A sort of musical Mad Libs.

Best Male Diva (aka Divo) Song: “This is the Moment” from Jekyll and Hyde. Josh and Whitney tag-teamed this song, literally. One of them would sing a line or part of a line, then tag the other one who had to pick up where the song left off. It became very fast and funny, but they did a great job keeping up with it and sounded great too! I always admire the ability to maintain an amazing singing voice while playing for laughs (see Sara Ramirez in Spamalot).

The Best Show to Drink Through: Annie. Madde Gibba was called to accept the award but wasn’t responding. She was soon spotted behind the bar, and slowly (and drunkenly) made her way to the stage to sing a very funny version of “Maybe.” At one point she made her way into the audience and sat on a man’s lap to read a letter to her father. Madde is appearing in a few shows at the Fringe Festival this week.

The last award of the evening was Whitney’s choice, Best Song Typically Sung by a Woman that I Really Want Josh to Sing: “Maybe this Time” from Cabaret. This is the one of the all-time great musical theater songs, and Josh sang it beautifully. I'll next see Josh as the gentleman caller in The Jungle Theater's production of The Glass Menagerie next month.

The show concluded with the People’s Choice Award. There were ballot boxes on the bar where the audience could vote for “most anticipated show of the upcoming Broadway season.” I voted for Wicked, but only because I didn’t hear the question before I voted and I didn’t see all of the shows. The winner is the one I would have voted for had I been fully informed: Hair! My love for this show deserves an entire post to itself so I won’t go into it now; I’ll save it for a slow theater week (and yes I do have them!). But suffice it to say, I can think of no better way to end this show than a performance of “The Flesh Failures/Let the Sun Shine In” from Hair, with all of the above performers taking part. It was the perfect end to a perfect evening of musical theater.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

"The Gospel at Colonus" at the Ordway Center

“Live where you can, be happy as you can.” That pretty much sums up the feeling I got from The Gospel at Colonus, which I saw today at the Ordway Center in St. Paul. It’s a retelling of Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus using gospel music. You remember Oedipus, he’s the one who accidentally killed his father and married his mother (and they say soaps have crazy plotlines). Oedipus at Colonus tells the story of when he comes to Colonus at the end of his life, and finds peace and redemption after his long troubled life.

This story is powerfully and effectively told through gospel music. If the mixture of Greek tragedy and gospel music has you confused, consider this quote from Lee Breuer (book and lyrics): “Zora Neale Hurston made the connection between Greek tragedy and the sanctified church many years ago. The Gospel at Colonus is a proof of her hypothesis.” The talented cast includes the Triad: 4Christ chorus, the Blind Boys of Alabama (who actually are blind, which seems quite obvious now), and local favorites the Steeles (Jearlyn, Jevetta, JD, and Fred). The four Blind Boys all play Oedipus as a sort of chorus, with the oldest of the group as the main Oedipus. He’s this little, bald, frail looking old man, but boy can he sing! And when he sings he doesn’t seem frail at all, jumping up and down and waving his arms. It’s the kind of show that makes you want to clap and sing along, and makes it difficult to sit still in your seat.

The framework of the story is a preacher who is preaching “the book of Oedipus.” The preacher is played by Rev. Dr. Earl F. Miller, a real-life preacher in St. Paul who has been playing this role since he took over for Morgan Freeman on Broadway. In fact, many of the cast have been involved with the show since its inception, including the Steeles. The story comes to life as the preacher tells it, and we meet Oedipus’ sister/daughters, who have always supported him, and his brother/son, who has not. We are taken through the emotions of Oedipus’ life and rejoice with him when he finally finds peace.

I really enjoyed this show. I love gospel music. No matter what the words say, I find it inspiring and uplifting. I’ll close this post with the words that closed the show: “Now let the weeping cease, let no one mourn again. There is no end.”

Thursday, August 5, 2010

"A Streetcar Named Desire" at the Guthrie

STELLAAAAAAAAAAA! Before last night, that’s pretty much all I knew about Tennessee Williams’ play A Streetcar Named Desire. But now I know what a fascinating, entertaining, tortured tale it is. I saw it last night as the final show of the 2009-2010 season in the Wurtele Thrust Stage at the Guthrie Theater (the final show in the McGuire Proscenium Stage is Scottsboro Boys, which I’ll see in a few weeks). As usual at the Guthrie, it was an amazing production.

Blanche DuBois has got to be one of the greatest characters in the history of American theater. Think Scarlet O’Hara, only without the “I’ll never go hungry again” strength. Blanche and her sister Stella were raised on a beautiful old Southern plantation to live a certain kind of lifestyle. That lifestyle has fallen apart, and Stella is now married to the abusive Stanley, living in a run-down house in New Orleans, and Blanche has gone from man to man, looking for someone to take care of her. She was raised to be the wife of a gentleman and mistress of a household, and doesn’t know how else to get through life. She’s still haunted by the tragic ending of her early marriage, which is beautifully illustrated by the sound and lighting in the play. At times you feel like you’re inside Blanche’s head, and it’s not a comfortable place to be!

The story begins when Blanche comes to New Orleans to visit her sister (and takes a streetcar named, yes, Desire, to get there). She meets Stella’s husband Stanley, a brute of a man, verbally and physically abusive toward his wife. But he has that charm and passion (e.g., “Stellaaaa!”) that, like most abusive relationships, keeps Stella coming back to him. Stanley and Blanche do not get along, and when Blanche overstays her welcome and Stanley discovers the truth about her past and why she’s there, he uses it against her. Her fragile world comes tumbling down.

The all-around solid cast features Guthrie regular Stacia Rice as Stella Kowalski, Guthrie newcomer Gretchen Egolf as Blanche DuBois, and 1999 graduate from A Guthrie Experience for Actors in Training, Ricardo Antonio Chavira (Carlos from Desperate Housewives), as Stanley Kowalski. Gretchen beautifully portrays Blanche’s charm and wit that's covering for a person on the edge of falling apart, and who eventually steps over that edge. I felt the most sympathy for Blanche in this play. Sure she’s made some poor choices in her life, but she’s just doing what she knows and trying to find someone who will love her and take care of her. As her suitor Mitch (Brian Keane) tells her at one point, “You need somebody. And I need somebody, too. Could it be - you and me, Blanche?” I really wanted that to happen for her, for both of them, even as I knew it wouldn’t.

Stacia and Ricardo have a believable passion and ease with each other as Stella and Stanley. Ricardo is so good I wanted to boo him when he came out for the curtain call! Stanley is not a likeable character. In a way, Blanche is the lucky one, because she hit bottom and might now get some help to rebuild her life. Stella is stuck with abusive Stanley, and you know it’s only going to get worse. To quote Wicked (I mentioned I’m a theater geek, didn’t I), “If that’s love it comes at much too high a cost.”

Other notable members of the cast are frequent musical theater performer Ann Michels, and my “costar” and one of my favorite local actors, Raye Birk. For those of you who don’t know, I also have a burgeoning career as a movie extra – catch me at minute 56 of the Coen Brothers’ 2009 film A Serious Man. Raye plays the doctor in the film, and even though my scene was not with him, I consider him my costar. ;-).

Another digression: several weeks ago I saw Stacia and Ann in the audience of Circle Mirror Transformation in the Dowling Studio at the Guthrie; I think they were just beginning rehearsals at the time. The play was a really funny and touching look at a community acting class and the lives and relationships of the participants. A show about actors must draw actors, because I also saw Randy Reyes (Song in the Guthrie’s recent production of M Butterfly) in the audience.

I’ll close this first “review” on Cherry and Spoon with some memorable quotes from the show. Even though I’ve never seen the play before, some of them were familiar to me because it’s become a part of our culture.

“I don't want realism. I want magic! Yes, yes, magic. I try to give that to people. I do misrepresent things. I don't tell truths. I tell what ought to be truth.”

“I never met a dame yet that didn't know if she was good-looking or not without being told, and there's some of them that give themselves credit for more than they've got.”

“Whoever you are, I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”

Thanks for reading, and check out this production if you get a chance. It's haunting and tragic and at times, funny. Even though it was 3+ hours long, it didn't feel that long. It was another wonderful night at the Guthrie, my favorite place on earth. :)