Saturday, November 20, 2010

Idina Menzel with the Minnesota Orchestra at Orchestra Hall

Idina Menzel has had a finger in three of my favorite musical theater pies - she was in the original casts of my favorite musical RENT and the phenomenon that is Wicked, and she had a recurring role on Glee, aka a musical theater geek's TV dream come true! And she featured all three of them in her concert with the Minnesota Orchestra, led by conductor Sarah Hicks, as well as some classics and original compositions.

Idina captured the audience as soon as she walked onstage in her gorgeously draped purple dress, long loose dark hair, and bare feet (if there's one thing I admire more than a fabulous pair of shoes, it's bare feet!). She said she first performed in bare feet when she threw her back out lifting her 14-month old son Walker Nathaniel Diggs, and realized she could sing better that way. She was continually fidgeting with her dress because there was a pin left in it from the dry cleaners, which is just one example of how real and normal she was up there on stage. There was a sign language interpreter on the side of the stage that she was continually fascinated with. Every time she said an interesting word, like bitch or breast pump (did I mention she was real and relaxed?), she'd look over to see how he translated it. It was a running joke throughout the evening.

In addition to entertaining the audience with stories about her career and growing up on Long Island, she of course sang many familiar songs. Idina won a Tony in 2004 for her fearless portrayal of Elphaba, aka the Wicked Witch of the West, in Wicked. The first Wicked song she sang was my theme song, "I'm Not that Girl," and later in the evening she sang Elphie's signature song, "Defying Gravity." It was a thrill to her her do it live after hearing it so many many times on the soundtrack. Towards the end of the concert she did her thank yous, and then put her mic down, waiting for silence. I just knew she was going to sing something "unplugged," which is always my favorite moment of any concert. When the words came out of her mouth and filled Orchestra Hall, they brought instant tears to my eyes.
It well may be that we may never meet again
In this lifetime so let me say before we part
So much of me is made from what I learned from you
You'll be with me like a handprint on my heart.
And now whatever way our stories end
I know you have rewritten mine, by being my friends!
It was her personal thank you to the audience, and the second time I teared up that evening; the first was when she sang a gorgeous rendition of "No Day but Today" from RENT. Idina was nominated for her first Tony in 1996 for her portrayal of Maureen. She spoke about how the show changed her life in many ways, not the least of which was dealing with the death of creator Jonathan Larson the night before the show opened. She said that at a time when all the success and acclaim and attention could have gone to their heads, it was really all about communicating Jonathan's music and message to the world, because he no longer could. No day but today. Idina had the audience sing the refrain back to her, which was magical.

There's only now
There's only here
Give in to love
Or live in fear
No other path
No other way
No day but today.
A few years ago Idina sang "Don't Rain on My Parade" for Barbra Streisand when she was honored at the Kennedy Center Honors, and told a funny story about her interaction with Ms. Streisand at the after party. She sang "Funny Girl" for us (which she also did on Glee), followed by "Don't Rain on My Parade." If there really is going to be Funny Girl revival on Broadway, I vote for Idina playing the role of Fanny Brice rather than Lea Michele. I love Lea, but she already has a steady gig and I'd really love to see Idina back on Broadway.

Idina has a couple of solo recording available, in addition to the cast recordings of RENT and Wicked. I just downloaded a 6-song EP that includes live versions of "Defying Gravity" and "No Day but Today," as well the original song "Gorgeous" which she sang at the concert. She also did a song that she wrote for her son with her husband, actor Taye Diggs (who was also in the original cast of RENT and currently appears on ABC's Private Practice). It sounds like they have a lot of fun singing to Walker around the house. Oh to be a fly on that wall!

Idina talked about her role on Glee, and her initial horror at being asked to play the mother of a 24-year-old! But she had just had a baby and was happy to be working again. When she read the script and saw that the reunion song between her character and her daughter was Lady Gaga's "Poker Face," she was a little confused. But someone it all worked! She sang the song for us with full orchestra accompaniment.

Idina's encore song was "Tomorrow" from Annie, which was a song her parents used to ask her to sing when she was a little girl. She sang it for her dad, who was in the audience. And with that, she was back on a plane to Los Angeles. I was so happy to spend 90 minutes with someone who's had such a huge role in many of the musicals I love. I hope to see her again someday, perhaps on a Broadway stage!

Monday, November 15, 2010

"Life's A Dream" by Ten Thousand Things at Open Book

I attended my first Ten Thousand Things production, My Fair Lady, earlier this year. I've been hearing about them for years, but just hadn't gotten to a show. After that first show, I was hooked, and bought a season pass for this year. If you've never seen a TTT production, it may be a bit jarring at first. They perform in an open room with almost no set, simple costumes, and full lights. The actors look you in the eye as they deliver their lines a few feet in front of you. The reason they perform like this is because their main focus is to bring theater to people who don't usually have the opportunity to go to the theater - people in prisons, homeless shelters, and treatment centers, for example. "Because theater is richer when EVERYONE is in the audience." For those of us fortunate enough to be in the position to go to the theater, they also hold public paid performances, but they perform in the same style as they do for their less fortunate audiences. It's theater unlike I've ever experienced it before. With no distractions, it's all about the acting and the piece. And they use some of the best actors in the community (and apparently also draw some of the best actors to the audience: I spotted Sarah Agnew from 39 Steps at the Guthrie across the aisle from me!).

But on to the show at hand: Life's a Dream. With mistaken identities, women dressing as men, kings and princes, prophesies from the stars, and swordfights, it felt a little like a Shakespeare play. It was written around the same time, although not by Shakespeare, but by Spanish playwright Pedro Calderon de la Barca. King Basilio of Poland receives a prophesy before his son is born that he will cause destruction to the land. When Sigismund is born, Basilio has him imprisoned in a tower, where he grows up and lives his life, never knowing who he is. When it comes time for Basilio to name an heir, he decides to give his son a chance to defy fate. He is brought to the palace unconscious and given one day to prove himself a worthy king. If not, Basilio will take him back to the tower, where he will wake up and be told it was all a dream. From which comes the central theme of the show: Is life a dream? And if so, what should we do with that dream, when we know it could be over at any moment?

The cast is wonderful. Dennis Spears plays King Basilio as an elegant and powerful man anyone would gladly follow. Namir Smallwood is his son Sigismund and makes you feel every bit of his torment, rage, and hope. Elise Langer is the comic relief as Clarion the clown, and Maggie Chestovich is Rosaura, the scorned woman who goes on a quest to win (or kill) her love and find her father. She's a spitfire who wields a sword and wears a pretty party dress (check out Maggie's blog to find out more about the places they've performed the show).

The next TTT show is Doubt starring Kris Nelson and Sally Wingert - the Meryl Streep of the Minneapolis/St. Paul theater scene, fresh off of her Broadway debut in La Bete. A must see in my book, as is the last show of the season, Man of LaMancha. If you want to see theater in its purest form, unencumbered by elaborate sets, fancy costumes, or dramatic lighting, go see a Ten Thousand Things show. If you believe in the power of theater to change the world, or at least to make one person's life a little better, support Ten Thousand Things in the work that they do.

Life’s brief
So let us dream.
Let’s all remember
that we must wake up when we least expect it.

Celebrity Sighting
I saw Sarah Agnew sitting in the audience across the aisle from me, watching the play.  She's currently appearing in the uproarious 39 Steps at the Guthrie, where she was doing two shows that day.  In between shows she ran across Washington to take in a little theater.  I ran into her at the bathroom and couldn't resist telling her how much I loved the show, and that I didn't know how the cast didn't crack themselves up every night.  She said they did!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

"The 39 Steps" at the Guthrie

The 39 Steps is a wild, zany, fun ride of a show. It's broad slapstick humor, with the cast of four playing dozens of characters. They clearly have as much fun as the audience, almost cracking themselves up at times. I saw the show this spring Off-Broadway in New York and loved it, so I was excited to see it at the Guthrie with this fabulous local cast. Set in 1935 England and Scotland, the play is based on 1935 Alfred Hitchcock movie of the same name. It's a spy story, but the story is really mostly an excuse for the crazy antics that surround it.

The main character, Richard Hannay, is a bored English gentleman who suddenly gets involved with a spy and goes on a cross-country adventure, trying to save England from some unknown evil. Robert O. Berdahl is perfect as Richard; he has the suave elegance, raised eyebrow, and dark wavy hair to bring him to life. Robert is a regular at the Guthrie, most recently playing Macduff in the bloody great spectacle that was Macbeth. But my favorite memory of him is at the Guthrie cabaret a few years ago (which they're not doing this year, boo!) when he sang Tom Waits' song "Waltzing Matilda." It was achingly beautiful and made me kick myself for not seeing his show Warm Beer Cold Women a few years ago. I can only hope he'll reprise it sometime.

Richard's love interests were played by Sarah Agnew, another Guthrie regular (most recent: Dollhouse). She was very funny as the German spy Annabella Schmidt; the simple farm wife with the unfortunate overbite Margaret; and Pamela, the woman who unwillingly gets pulled into Richard's spy life and ends up falling for him. She has great comedic chops and reminds me a little of Molly Shannon in her expressive face and the way she throws herself physically into the characters.

All the remaining characters were played by Luverne Seifert and Jim Lichtsheidl, who are credited simply as "clowns." And so they are. A sort of Laurel and Hardy comedy team, they played cops, paper boys, spies, innkeepers, farmers, even natural elements like puddles and the wind! With the simple change of a hat or donning of a coat, combined with a new accent, they transformed into a completely different character. I've seen both of them do this sort of thing before. Luverne Seifert was in Ten Thousand Things' brilliantly sparse production of My Fair Lady earlier this year, in which he played several characters, including Eliza's father (get me to the church on time!). Jim Lichtsheidl is one of my favorite local actors. He has a great physicality about his acting, and is able to completely transform himself through the tilt of his head, a gesture of his hand, or the cadence of his speech. He starred in the one-man show Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol at Park Square Theater last year; a retelling of A Christmas Carol in which he played all of the characters in the story. He also appeared in Tiny Kushner, a collection of short plays during last year's Kushnerfest at the Guthrie, and in one of the plays he portrayed dozens of different characters. It was truly amazing to witness. So this play was right up his alley.

The 39 Steps is a fun and thrilling show with a top-notch cast. If you go, and you should, be prepared to laugh a lot and forget about the worries of the real world, as you're immersed in the wacky world of Richard Hanney and the dozens of characters who fill the stage, in the bodies of four mere mortals.

Monday, November 8, 2010

"Spring Awakening" at the Orpheum

This is how much I love the musical Spring Awakening: I named my kitty Moritz after my favorite character.  Fortunately my Moritz doesn’t share too many traits with his namesake.  He is sweet and loveable, and a bit of a rascal, but he’s not nearly as tortured and lost as Moritz of the musical.  The life of a cat is much easier than the life of a teenager coming of age in late 19th century Germany.  Or anywhere and at any time, for that matter.  That’s what this show is about: how difficult and frustrating and wondrous it is to grow up.

Spring Awakening opened on Broadway in December of 2006 after a successful run off-Broadway, and went on to win eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Book, Best Score, Best Choreography, and Best Direction.  The original cast included John Gallegher Jr., who won the Tony for his portrayal of Moritz, as well as future Glee stars Lea Michele and Jonathan Groff.  The musical Spring Awakening is based on the late 19th century German play of the same name (Fruelings Erwachen in the original German) by Franz Wedekind.  In some ways it's a big ad for sex education, because it deals with the destruction that can result when kids aren't told the truth, and don't have an outlet for their feelings and experiences.  Melchior (MEL-ki-or) is the popular and confident boy who thinks he has it all figured out, until he finds out he doesn't.  Wendla is the girl who loves him and ends up pregnant, in part because her mother refuses to tell her the truth.  "Mama who bore me, mama who gave me no way to handle things, who made me so bad."  Moritz is the troubled misfit who sees no way out of the confusion he's in.  He sings my favorite song (and one of my theme songs), "Don't Do Sadness."  Perhaps I relate to this show about angsty teenagers more than a 30-something-year-old woman should, but we all have a bit of the teenager in us, don't we?

Despite dealing with such heavy issues as teen pregnancy, child abuse, and suicide, Spring Awakening is also a fun and spirited rock musical.  It's a period piece with period costumes, but the characters whip out hand-held mics to belt out modern-sounding rock tunes.  I first saw in on Broadway the year after its Tony wins.  The original cast was mostly intact, with the exception of Tony-winner John Gallegher Jr. (who's currently starring in American Idiot on Broadway).  His replacement, Blake Bashoff (aka Karl on Lost), also gave a phenomenal performance.  Lea and Jonathan were riveting together and individually (one of the many reasons why I love Glee is that they reunited Melchi and Wendla in my living room week after week!).  The show has an amazing youthful energy and makes you feel everything along with the characters.  Here's a clip from the Tonys with the original cast and slightly toned-down lyrics:

This is the second time I've seen the show on tour; this time it was only a two-night engagement. Despite the limited number of performances, the set was mostly unchanged from what I've seen before (with the exception of the hanging platform). A few lucky audience members get to sit on the bleachers onstage with the cast (someday I'm going to figure out how to get those seats!). This production features a young and talented cast. Every part was really well cast, they all played and sang their roles very well.  Coby Getzug was adorable and tragic as my poor sweet Moritz.  The applause after the song "Totally F**ked" was perhaps the longest applause I've ever heard in middle of a show; it went on for several minutes.  And well deserved, it's an energetic song (and a great song to sing in the car to relieve the stress of the day ;).  The cast came out for an extra bow at the end; the audience clearly enjoyed the performance.

To paraphrase a song from the show, "We've all got our junk, and my junk is theater."  Lucky for me I'll get another fix in just two days when I see 39 Steps at the Guthrie!

my Moritz