Sunday, September 26, 2010

Gavin Creel at the Woman's Club of Minneapolis

If you live in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area and you're a fan of musical theater, you should have been at the Woman's Club of Minneapolis on Friday night.  My favorite Broadway actor, Gavin Creel, performed at a fundraiser for Minnesota's DFL gubernatorial candidate, Mark Dayton, sponsored by HRC Minnesota PAC and OutFront Action PAC.  Gavin recently spent a year and half playing Claude in Hair on Broadway and London's West End, which closed earlier this month.  I became obsessed with the show shortly after it opened, and fell in love with Gavin's voice upon buying the soundtrack.  I also have his two solo recordings, the lovely little EP called Quiet, and his earlier (more upbeat and poppy) recording Goodtimenation.  I finally got to see Gavin and the rest of Hair's talented tribe on Broadway in January of this year.  While Hair has sadly closed on Broadway and in London, it's soon embarking on a national tour.  I was hoping Gavin might join the cast (he confirmed that he's not when I spoke to him after the show), but having this opportunity to see him in concert is even better!

In addition to being a super talented performer, Gavin is also a great advocate for marriage equality, having co-founded an organization called Broadway Impact.  Their website pretty much explains it all: "We are a community of actors, directors, stage managers, fans, producers - pretty much anyone who has ever seen, been in or worked on a Broadway show - united by the simple belief that anyone who wants to should be able to get married."  Sounds like a no-brainer to me.  Mark Dayton is a supporter of marriage equality, so somehow, somebody connected with somebody, and Gavin ended up here in Minnesota for great music and a great cause. 

Gavin with Minnesota's next governor Mark Dayton

On to the show.  Gavin brought with him Mary Mitchell Campbell, musical director of such shows as The Addam's Family, Company, and Next to Normal in its off-Broadway incarnation (one of my recent faves). 

Gavin Creel accompanied by Mary Mitchell Campbell on piano
Gavin started off the concert with a medley of (mostly) Irving Berlin songs, and later sang the Berlin song "Pack up your sins (and go to the devil)."  In addition to a few classics, he also sang several musical theater songs, including "Something's Coming" from West Side Story, "You Got Trouble" from The Music Man (which was fabulous, this song has such complex and clever lyrics that it's always fun to see it done live), a Stephen Sondheim song "What Can You Lose?" from the film Dick Tracy, and a selection from Thoroughly Modern Millie, for which he was nominated for his first Tony.  He also told a very funny story about what it's like to audition for a show, such as the (hopefully) fictional Exorcist: the Musical (a dig at the recent unfortunate trend of movie and TV show adaptations on Broadway).  He sang one of his real-life audition songs, "Today is the first day of the rest of your life."

Mary Mitchell left the stage for a few solo songs by Gavin, for which he also played the piano.  He sang two new songs, one of which he wrote for his best friend's recent wedding.

Gavin's solo songs at the piano
For the finale of the show, Gavin was joined on stage by local musical theater actors.  Unfortunately they were not individually introduced, but I did recognize several of them, including Ann Michels (most recently seen in A Streetcar Named Desire at the Guthrie), Sasha Andreev (Latte Da in the Park, Two Gentlemen of Verona at the Guthrie) , Harley Wood (from the band Far from Falling and a local production of my favorite musical RENT at the Lab Theater), and Brendan Bujold (the title character in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at the Chan).  They sang the finale from Gavin's most recent show, Hair, for which he was nominated for his second Tony.  Any concert that ends with a sing-along to "Let the Sun Shine In" is my kind of concert!

Gavin and the local tribe singing
"Flesh Failures/Let the Sun Shine In"
Well, not quite the end.  Gavin and Mary Mitchell came back out for an encore: "The Rainbow Connection."

Gavin and Mary Mitchell: "The Rainbow Connection"

After the concert there was a reception upstairs in the beautiful old building that is the Woman's Club.  Gavin is a popular man, but I did eventually get a few minutes to chat with him.  It's nice to know he's still the warm, genuine, giving person that I met at the stage door of Hair earlier this year.

Gavin and me

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The 2010 Ivey Awards at the State Theatre

This is my fourth year in a row attending the Ivey Awards, Minnesota's theater awards.  It's always one of my favorite theater evenings of the year, because it's not just about recognizing a handful of great accomplishments this year, it's about celebrating this amazing theater community that I'm so grateful to be a witness to.  There were almost 1000 eligible productions at over 70 participating theaters this year.  We saw performances from five of those shows, and a dozen awards were handed out.  One way that the Iveys are different from the Tonys is that if you see a great show on the Tonys, it's likely still playing and you can go see it.  But with the Iveys, these shows are done and over.  I only saw one of the awarded productions, so I missed out on some great theater this year!  I'm going to try to get out to more of the 70+ theaters (I've only attended 15 of them), and see if I can become an Ivey evaluator.  So maybe next year I'll be more familiar with the winners.

Part of the fun of Ivey night is people watching.  It was quite entertaining to walk down Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis and see people dressed to the nines next to people in their Twins gear headed to Target Field (go Twins!).  We saw some gorgeous dresses and beautiful suits, as well as some questionable ensembles, but all carried off with style.  I like to see which of my favorite actors I can spot walking down the street, at the pre-show party, and in the rows around me at the State Theater.  It's a good night for star-gazing!

The show opened with the opening number ("I Hope I Get It") from A Chorus Line.  The dancers were various people from the theater community and when they lined up with their head shots, they told their real stories.  One woman sang "What I Did For Love" because she left NYC for Minnesota so she could work and have a family.  Several of the "older" members sang "Hello wisdom, hello choices, hello life!"  A couple of teachers sang "Kids and Class."  The voice in the back of the theater was a woman who was half of an influential couple in the theater community, John and Sage Cowles.  John was one of the people who convinced Tyrone Guthrie to build his theater in Minneapolis, which mayor RT Rybak called "The Big Bang" of Minneapolis/St. Paul Theater.  It was a really clever number and a good way to introduce us personally to several local artists.

This year's hosts were Jungle Theater Artistic Director Bain Boehlke and recipient of this year's Lifetime Achievement Award Wendy Lehr.  She's currently appearing in The Glass Menagerie at the Jungle, which I saw last week.  In case you don't remember what I said about Wendy's performance, here it is: "Friends, if you have the chance to see Wendy in anything, take it. I've seen her in several things in the last few years (including as Big Edie in Grey Gardens, and stealing every scene she was in in The Full Monty), and she's always amazing. She inhabits whatever character she's playing fully, and has this great spark and stage presence that's much bigger than her petite frame."  Nice to know that the Ivey voters agree with me!  The fun part is that she had no idea and seemed truly surprised and touched.  She's had an amazing career in theater of fifty years and counting.

The ceremony was a mixture of performances and awards, presented by theater people, past winners, and corporate sponsors (thanks Best Buy!).  First, the awards.  The people, theaters, and productions honored at the 2010 Ivey Awards are:

  1. Costume design company Tulle and Dye for design of the elaborate costumes in the Ordway Center's Beauty and the Beast.  (This is the one show of the honorees that I saw.)
  2. Joseph Stanley for scenic design for Mulan Junior at The Children's Theatre Company.
  3. An overall award for Mixed Blood Theatre's production of Ruined.
  4. Katie Guentzel for her performance in the title role of My Antonia at Illusion Theater.  (I attended the awards with a friend of mine who works for Medtronic.  She said Katie was a receptionist there until just a few months ago.  I don't think she'll be returning to receptionist work anytime soon!)
  5. Another overall award for Mary's Wedding at The Jungle Theater.
  6. The second award for My Antonia at Illusion Theater was for Allison Moore's adaptation of Willa Cather's novel.  (I really wish I had seen this play; I read the book ages ago and this would have been a great excuse to revisit it.)
  7. Aaron Gabriel for original score for the musical Madame Majesta's Miracle Medicine Tent at InterAct Theatre.
  8. Regina Marie Williams for her performance in Ruined at Mixed Blood Theatre, making it the second two-time winner of the night.
  9. Othello at Ten Thousand Things.  (I did  not see this production, but I saw my first TTT production this year, My Fair Lady, and recently bought a season pass for next season.  TTT performs in prisons and shelters in their effort to bring theater to people who don't normally get to the theater.  Artistic Director and founder Michelle Hensley gave a lovely speech about including more people in the audience, which makes the work and the experience richer for everyone.)
  10. An advertising award for Penumbra Theatre.
  11. This year's Emerging Artist Award went to costume designer Kalere A Payton, who has recently designed for Penumbra Theatre and The Guthrie Theater, among others.
  12. The final honoree was the aforementioned Lifetime Achievement Award for co-host Wendy Lehr.
The performances were amazing and really the highlight of the show. Jennifer Baldwin Peden (half of the uber-talented Baldwin sisters who later presented an award), sang "Listen" from Nautilus Music-Theater's production of Joan of Arc. The cast of Always and Forever at Illusion Theater sang "Signed, Sealed, Delivered." Live Action Set acted out the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy in about five minutes and with no props other than an oversized ring. It was hilarious and spot-on. The cast of the wonderful production of my favorite musical RENT at the Lab Theater reunited for an energetic performance of "La Vie Boheme." The future of Twin Cities theater was on display in a performance of "Tomorrow" by a group of young people in the community. The night ended with a performance from Theater Latte Da's production of The Full Monty. And yes, they went "the full monty." :)  A fun way to end a fun night.

As always after attending the Ivey Awards, I'm inspired to go see even more local theater!

Check out the red carpet fashions here (sadly, our pre-show photo did not make the cut).

Thursday, September 16, 2010

"The Glass Menagerie" at The Jungle Theater

Apparently it's Tennessee Williams month in Minnesota. Last month I saw his iconic play A Streetcar Named Desire at the Guthrie, and last night it was another classic, The Glass Menagerie, at The Jungle Theater. The Jungle is a lovely little intimate theater in the Uptown area of Minneapolis. I've been there a few times; the last time was for the awesome rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch two years ago. I need to go more often, because they do good work. Their upcoming season (unlike most theaters, their season runs concurrent with the calendar year) includes the Stephen Sondheim musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and I Am My Own Wife with one of my favorite actor/singers, Bradley Greenwald.

But back to the show at hand. I've seen The Glass Menagerie a few times before (most recently at the Guthrie three years ago), and I've always loved it. There's something so beautiful and tragic about Laura, who's more comfortable with her collection of little glass animals than with people, her mother, who's living in her glorious past as a debutante in the South, and her brother Tom, who's trapped between wanting to take care of them and wanting to live a life of his own. I jumped at the chance to see it again at the Jungle with this talented four-person cast, three of whom I've seen and enjoyed in other shows.

Wendy Lehr plays the mother, Mrs. Wingfield. Friends, if you have the chance to see Wendy in anything, take it. I've seen her in several things in the last few years (including as Big Edie in Grey Gardens, and stealing every scene she was in in The Full Monty), and she's always amazing. She inhabits whatever character she's playing fully, and has this great spark and stage presence that's much bigger than her petite frame. She's also hosting the Ivey Awards (Minnesota's version of the Tonys) next week, along with the Jungle's founding Artistic Director, Bain Boehlke. Her Mrs. Wingfield is equal parts charming belle of the ball, "Christian martyr," and overbearing mother, all of it entertaining.

Laura is played by Alayne Hopkins, who I've never seen before but who portrayed Laura's fragility and pain very well. Her brother Tom is played by Joshua James Campbell, who I most recently saw as the host of the cabaret show Where's My Tony? Josh was also in Grey Gardens and The Full Monty (which I believe is making a reprise at the Iveys next week). The three made for a very believable dysfunctional family. I particularly liked the chemistry between Wendy and Josh. One of my favorite scenes was when Tom and his mother were on "the terrace," aka the fire escape, wishing on the moon. He was leaning over on the railing, and she leaned over and put her head on his shoulder as she talked about how she wished her children success and happiness. It was such a sweet scene, and illustrated that she really did love and want the best for her children, even if she might not have gone about it the right way.

Of course there's one more character in the play, the gentleman caller, "the long delayed but always expected something that we live for." And can't we all relate to that? The feeling that there's something good and exciting coming, something that will make our lives better? Michael Booth (a frequent cast member at the Guthrie) plays Jim with just the right amount of charm and bravado. For those of you unfamiliar with the play, Mrs. Wingfield's main goal in life is to find a husband for her "crippled" and painfully shy daughter so that she will be taken care of, and enlists Tom to bring home a nice young man from his workplace. When the gentleman caller finally arrives, Mrs. Wingfield makes a big fuss over it and puts pressure on Laura to be pretty and perfect, which only makes her more nervous. The scene when Laura and Jim are alone together is all sweetness and awkwardness, and actually goes quite well, considering, until it's revealed that he's engaged to be married. I wish they could have seen this evening as a successful dress rehearsal for the next gentleman caller, who hopefully would be more available. But instead, Laura is devastated and Mrs. Wingfield is angry at her son for humiliating them. Tom leaves to find his fortune in the merchant marines, but can never quite leave the image of his sister behind him.

A classic play, one of America's greatest playwrights, a talented cast, a lovely intimate space - all reasons you should go see this play before it closes on October 17! As they say at the Jungle, "Epic theater, intimate space."

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Broadway is Coming to Minnesota in the Form of Gavin Creel!

We're in luck, my fellow Minnesota theater lovers! One of today's hottest Broadway stars is coming to Minnesota for a concert next Friday, September 24. Gavin Creel most recently portrayed Claude in Hair on Broadway and London's West End. Hair is my most recent theater obsession, and I made a special trip to NYC in January of this year just to see this show with the original revival cast, especially Gavin, before the entire company moved the show to London in March. I was lucky enough to meet Gavin at the stage door, and he was every bit as sweet and kind as I expected him to be.

In addition to being a talented actor and singer (check out his albums Goodtimenation and Quiet on itunes), Gavin is also very involved in social activism, particularly in the area of marriage equality. He founded an organization called Broadway Impact, and was also largely responsible for the entire cast of Hair taking the day off so that they could participate in the National Equality March in October 2009. The concert next week is a fundraiser for Minnesota DFL gubernatorial candidate Mark Dayton, who is running on a platform that includes marriage equality.

Great cause, great music, I'm there! For more information on the event or how you can donate, click here.

Update: read my report of the event here.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Storyhill Fest 2010

While this blog will mostly focus on theater in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area, I did warn you in my Origins post that I might occasionally write about music. This is one of those times. I spent labor day weekend at StoryhillFest - a folk music festival in the Brainerd lakes area of Minnesota (one of my favorite spots on the planet, by the way). The festival is named after one of my favorite groups, Storyhill - two guys, their guitars, great songs, and beautiful harmonies. They gathered around them some of the most talented singer/songwriters/musicians I've ever seen in one place. This is only the second year of the festival in Minnesota (they've been doing it longer in their native Montana), and as the very capable and witty emcee said, it has to be one of the best kept secrets in Minnesota. If people knew what great music was being made here, they'd be turning people away. I hope it's successful enough to continue for many years, but I also hope it never gets so big that it loses it's intimate community feel. In addition to Storyhill's performance each evening, nine other artists performed at the festival, only one of whom I had heard before, and all of whom I enjoyed. I managed to limit my initial CD buying to four, although I think there will be a few more to come in the next few days. Here's a short summary of each artist, click on their name to be directed to their website. Connor Garvey was the brave first artist to take the stage on the first day, when the camp chairs were only half full. He had two musicians with him - Tom Murphy on mandolin and Jeff Mitchell (who also sang lots of great songs at the campfire) on electric guitar. Connor's website says his "songs are like placing folk-funk guitar and ukulele, soulful vocals, and paradoxical metaphors in a juicer - you've never tasted it before, but it's intriguing and delectable so you have to keep drinking." What more can I say? Except that his songs are hopeful, funny, and thoughtful, and I found him completely adorable. I didn't buy his CD the first day, trying to pace myself, but in the end I couldn't resist his youthful charm and red hair. By the way, Tom is an amazing mandolin player and at the campfire he could play along with anyone on any song, even if he'd never heard it before!
Next up was Carrie Elkin. I knew before her first song was over that I would need to buy her CD. She has a voice so clear and pure that, combined with her insightful songs, it cuts right to your soul. I love that her voice is so powerful she actually had to back away from the mic at times, otherwise the sound system might have combusted with the sheer power and passion of her voice. Following her was her partner in life and, sometimes, music, Danny Schmidt. They both sang back-up for each other in addition to several solo songs. Danny is an amazing songwriter; my favorite was about a broken stained glass window, which he called "a humanist story in a church song." It's an amazing piece of songwriting; I want to study it like a poem. The last act before Storyhill was Anais Mitchell, accompanied on some songs by Rachel Ries on percussion and keyboard and Jefferson Hamer on electric guitar. Anais has an amazingly indescribable voice, so I won't even try. See (hear) for yourself: I just downloaded her newest CD Hadestown, "a folk opera based on the Orpheus myth and set in a post-apocalyptic American depression era," which I find very intriguing. Rachel is also a talented singer/songwriter; she and Anais recorded a lovely little EP called Country. Storyhill concluded the concert part of the day, and after that everyone moved over to the campfire. I'll talk about both later, but the interesting thing to note is that my first impressions of the next day's artists were singing around the campfire, which is kind of a nice way to first hear someone. Day 2 was the day of Johns. The first one to take the stage was John Mieras. The interesting thing about John is that he doesn't really look the part of a folk singer, he just looks like an average guy. Which he is; he recently quit his 9-to5 job to do what he really loves - music. So when he took up the guitar at the campfire I thought, who's this guy? And then he started to sing, and he just blew me away. He has a really pretty voice, especially in the upper range. I bought his 7-song CD partly because I like his voice and songs, and partly because I want to support him in continuing to pursue music. Justin Roth was the only other artist besides Storyhill that I knew before the festival. He performed during a service at my church a few years ago, and I so loved his song "Shine" that I bought the CD. Turns out I like his new stuff even better, so I pre-ordered his upcoming CD (my four CD total is growing daily). He's an amazing guitar player and had led a guitar workshop earlier in the day. As you can see in the below picture, he played an entire song on the neck of the guitar. I didn't know you could do that! He's also a very talented and clever songwriter and a great singer.

The next artist was another John - Johnsmith. Again, I'm not sure I can say it better than his website: "Johnsmith is a Bard. The role of the Bard in every society is to hold up a mirror to that society, to convey and reveal - through the mysterious alchemy of music and words and performance - the secret inner language of the heart." I think that applies to all the artists at the festival, but especially to John. He sang a really lovely song at the campfire called "Safe Home," which he wrote while in Ireland and very much reminded me of my trip there.

Taking a break from the Johns, the next artist was Meg Hutchinson. Another lovely voice and beautiful, thoughtful songs. One I especially liked is called "The Gatekeeper" and is about someone who works at the Golden Gate Bridge and has the task of stopping suicide attempts, which he does by asking two questions: "How are you feeling?" and "What are your plans for tomorrow?" She joked that her job is to write cheerful songs about depressing topics. I'm not sure I'd say cheerful, but uplifting and inspiring, yes. Hers is one of the four CDs I bought at the festival. How can I describe Johnathan Byrd? He's a character, just look at his photo below! Not everyone can pull off orange pants, cowboy boots, and a cowboy hat, but he can. His music veers a little bit more towards country, and his songs can either be funny or heart-breaking, or anywhere in between. The last song I heard from him was as he was leaving the campfire on the final night to drive to Chicago. I don't remember exactly what it was (I was up way past my bedtime so it's all a little foggy), something about a pony I think, but I do remember it was achingly lovely. And now we get to the main attraction and reason for the festival - Storyhill, aka Chris Cunningham and John Hermanson. They met as kids in Montana and have been making music together ever since (with a few interruptions). They went to college at St. Olaf and Johnny still lives here in Minnesota, so I think it's fair that we claim them as our own, or at least share ownership with Montana. ;) I first heard of Storyhill when their self-titled CD was released on Red House Records a few years ago. They played it frequently on the dear departed MPR Morning Show with Dale Connelly and Jim Ed Poole (aka A Prairie Home Companion sound man Tom Keith). It was the gorgeous harmonies on the song "Give Up the Ghost" that convinced me to buy their CD, and once I listened to that I was hooked. I've seen them a few times in concert since, and I knew if they were organizing this festival it was going to be great. I was not wrong! I don't know what else to say about these guys, very talented individually and together. And obviously with a great ear for talent, judging by the people they invited to their festival. Here's a video I recorded of one of my favorite songs, especially when performed live, "Steady On." I think they're contractually obligated to end every concert with this song. ;) Chris and Johnny on stage:

After the day's concerts were over, all of the musicians headed over to the campfire (which was conveniently located next to the lodge where I was staying). This was definitely the highlight of the weekend. It's one thing to listen to a CD, with everything cleaned up and auto-tuned (although there's less of that with folk music), another thing thing to hear someone sing live, but to hear the unamplified human voice is something really special. Whatever concert I go to, if the artist puts down their mic, it's always my favorite moment of the show. There's just something so raw and beautiful and primal about it, especially in the light of the campfire. I can imagine that hundreds of years ago, on that very spot, Native Americans were sharing songs and stories with each other in that same way. Maybe I'm still sleep deprived from two nights in a row of staying up past 1 am, but it was a truly magical experience. I think the artists did it as much for themselves as the attendees, and I felt like I was pressing my nose to the glass and watching these musicians in their element. The only thing close to it that I've experienced was when I was in Ireland, and you go to a pub in a small town and the entire town shows up, all taking turns sharing their music and a little part of their soul. That's what this was like.

I think what I love most about StoryhillFest is that it gave me a new source to find great new musicians that I love, something I've been missing since the Morning Show was cancelled. I have a great deal of admiration for and more than a little envy of people who make a living doing what they love, whose work is their life's passion. These people are modern-day troubadours, traveling the country and sharing songs and stories. I can't wait until next year to discover more new favorites!

A few more videos of Storyhill:

"Better Angels"

"If I Could"

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Top Ten Shows of 2009

Since I have a little lull between shows, I thought I'd post my list of top ten shows from last year. I posted this on my facebook page, but I don't think many of my facebook friends really cared. :)

in no particular order (well, sort of in chronological order of when I saw them):

1. The Color Purple (touring): what can I say, I cried buckets at Alice Walker’s inspiring story.

2. RENT (on tour with original stars Anthony Rapp as Mark and Adam Pascal as Roger): my favorite musical and the one I’ve seem most often (I think this was number 11). After 13 years of listening to the soundtrack it was beyond thrilling to see and hear these two together (in row 2 center!!).

3. Passage of Dreams (Theater Latte Da): truly lovely and innovative musical theater, as Latte Da usually does. It was three original short musicals, all of which were beautiful and unique.

4. Next to Normal (Broadway): I saw this knowing almost nothing about the show and was totally blown away. Absolutely brilliant, it gives me hope for the future of original musical theater.

5. West Side Story (Broadway): one of my favorite musicals of all time and beautifully done in this revival. Also the best stage door experience ever! [Note: this was before my HAIR stage door experience in 2010]

6. Kushnerfest at the Guthrie: three great works by one of America’s best living playwrights.
a. Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures: I had the good fortune to see this beautiful and complicated new play still in previews, introduced by Kushner himself. It was still a work in progress (in a few scenes the actors carried scripts) which made me feel like a part of the process. It was powerful and thought-provoking.
b. Caroline, or Change: beautiful and moving original musical theater.
c. Tiny Kushner (an evening of short plays): some weird, some great, all interesting. And Jim Lichtsheidl gave an amazing performance as many different characters in one of the pieces. [Note: this show is currently playing at the Tricycle Theatre in London with the Guthrie cast.]

7. A Chorus Line (touring): I can’t believe I call myself a theater fan and it took me this long to see this show! The quintessential musical about musicals. What I did for love, indeed!

8. The Full Monty (Theater Latte Da): this year’s “girls night out at the theater” selection was a hit! I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so hard in the theater. Again, Latte Da knocks it out of the park.

9. In the Heights (touring): everything musical theater should be – original, relevant, and inspiring.

10. The Guthrie Cabaret: not the musical Cabaret, but a cabaret show with some of the best talent in the cities. I’m so grateful to live in this amazing theater town!