Tuesday, December 28, 2010

My Top Ten Shows of 2010

I attended 72 events in 2010, a significant increase from last year’s total of 48. Appropriate that this is the year I started this blog! Although it’s a bit of a chicken/egg situation; I’m trying to attend more theater (especially new-to-me local theaters) to make this blog more diverse. Of the 72 events, 27 were musicals, 20 were plays, 22 were concerts, and 3 were other events (such as awards or galas). Included in the 47 plays/musicals were 10 in New York City (I visited the city three times this year, also a record high!). The 37 local shows were at 18 different theaters in Minneapolis, St. Paul, and the suburbs, ranging in size from the 40-seat Dreamland Arts on Hamline Ave. in St. Paul to the 2500-seat Orpheum Theatre on Hennepin Ave. in downtown Minneapolis. The 37 shows are actually comprised of 36 different productions since there was one I saw twice (see below to find out which one). I picked out ten memorable shows from these 36. They’re listed below in chronological order, NOT in rank order (it’s hard enough for me to limit it to ten, much less rank them).

1.  As you can read in the “About Me” section on the right-hand side of this page, RENT is my favorite musical. Before this year, I had seen it 11 times, once on Broadway and 10 times on tour, including last year’s tour with Anthony Rapp and Adam Pascal, who created the roles of Mark and Roger back in 1996. Every time is new and different because the cast is different and they bring something new to the piece. But it’s also become very familiar; I know what the set and costumes are going to look like, and who’s going to move where across the stage at what point in their song. So I was really excited when I heard there was going to be a local production at the Lab Theater in Minneapolis, featuring a local cast. It’s a great venue for a show like RENT; an old warehouse with exposed brick walls, the seats very close to and level with the stage. Everything about the show felt new, from the set, to the way the characters moved around it, to the costumes, to the interpretations of the familiar and beloved characters by the amazing cast (led by Reid Harmsen as Mark and Harley Wood, of local band Far from Falling, as Roger). A brand new version of a beloved classic, and I loved it.

2. The Guthrie Theater’s production of Macbeth was a bloody, violent, spectacle of a show, and I loved it. I’m not usually a big fan of fight scenes in movies, but when it’s on stage, it’s as intricately choreographed as a dance and often as graceful. Add to that a condensed version of Shakespeare’s classic story of a man who will do whatever it takes to become king, even if he regrets it later; a powerful performance by a magnificently bearded Erik Heger as Macbeth leading the large talented cast; and the Guthrie’s usual incomparable production value, and you have a great two hours of theater.

3. Theater Latte Da’s production of the musical Violet is the show I loved so much I saw it twice. Theater Latte Da can do no wrong in my book; I love the art form of musical theater and so does Latte Da; they make musicals that push beyond the definition of what we think musicals are. They had a very successful run with the large-scale Evita this fall, but I loved their spring show best – the quiet, intimate, moving story of a young woman on a journey to face her past, heal her wounds, and move forward with her life. With a top-notch cast featuring Latte Da favorites (Dieter Bierbrauer as Violet’s father and Randy Schmeling as Monty) and newcomers (Britta Ollmann as Violet, Azudi Onyejekwe as Flick, and teenage wonder Maeve Moynihan as the young Violet), a sparse but rich-sounding three-piece orchestra, and an intimate space in the Guthrie Dowling Studio, I easily could have seen it three or four times.

4. Technically, Brief Encounter is not a local production. It’s a touring show out of the Kneehigh Theatre in Cornwall, England, that’s currently playing on Broadway (where I saw it again in October, basically the same show with just a few cast changes). But I’m including it because it was part of the Guthrie season and only made limited stops in the US. I don't know how to begin to describe this show. It’s a perfectly lovely and unique evening of theater that uses song, film, and movement to tell the story of the 1945 Noel Coward film of the same name about star-crossed lovers who are married to other people. It’s quirky, funny, silly, and absolutely heart-breaking. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen, and I expect the Tony voters will agree come next June.

*It’s worth nothing that the above three shows were playing at the Guthrie at the same time in February/March of this year. I remember sitting in the Dowling Studio on the 9th floor, waiting for Violet to start, thinking about how a few floors below me Macbeth and Brief Encounter were occurring on the Wurtele Thrust and McGuire Proscenium Stages. Three such completely different shows, all truly entertaining in their own unique way. That’s why I love the Guthrie.

5. I’ve been hearing about Ten Thousand Things Theatre for a few years and was intrigued by the idea: theater that travels to prisons, homeless shelters, and other locations to reach the less fortunate among us who don’t typically have a chance to experience theater. And they get some of the top talent in the Twin Cities. I don’t know why it took me so long to finally attend a show, but after seeing My Fair Lady in a large empty fully-lit room at the MN Opera Center, I’m hooked and am now a season ticket holder. Ten Thousand Things performs the paid public version of their show the same way they do it on location: small cast, minimal to no sets, simple costumes, and full lights, with the audience sitting in a few rows surrounding the performance area. It’s theater unlike I’ve ever seen it: sparse, sharp, and with nothing to distract you from the work. It’s truly remarkable. In My Fair Lady, the music took a back seat to the story of a woman from the streets trying to make it in “society,” and all the gender and class issues that go along with it. Kate Eifrig gave a gutsy performance as Eliza, and Steve Hendrickson was her elegant but emotionally reserved Henry Higgins. Some of the songs were spoken which gave more focus to the words. The one exception was when Bradley Greenwald, a member of the ensemble who played several parts, sang “On the Street Where You Live.” He has an amazing operatic voice and he absolutely killed the song. With minimal accompaniment, his voice filled the room and gave me chills. Ten Thousand Things is bare bones theater, and it’s breathtaking.

6. This summer’s Circle Mirror Transformation was a Guthrie production but not part of the Guthrie season. It told the story of a Saturday acting class in the fictional small town of Shirley, Vermont. Full of awkward pauses and odd exercises, it felt like I was spying on this class and getting to know and love the five participants and their complicated lives. This small, intimate production in the Dowling Studio also seemed to be a favorite of actors; I spotted three of them in the audience (and even got to ride the elevator down to the first floor stage door with two of them!). There was nothing really remarkable about this show, just a quiet, real, completely satisfying exploration of five intersecting lives.

7. Another part of the Guthrie season that’s not technically a Guthrie production, Scottsboro Boys is the final musical by John Kander and the late Fred Ebb (composers of classics such as Cabaret and Chicago). Following a successful run Off-Broadway earlier this year, Scottsboro Boys moved to the Guthrie this summer in preparation for its opening on Broadway this fall. The excellent cast was intact with one exception: local actor David Anthony Brinkley filled in for John Cullum (aka Holling Vincoeur from my favorite TV show Northern Exposure). Employing a traditional minstrel style, the musical tells the true story of nine young black men who were accused of raping two white women in 1931 in Scottsboro, Alabama, and the miscarriage of justice that ensues. As you can tell from the subject matter, it’s not a light and easy musical. At times difficult to watch, but with the amazing music and choreography you’d expect from a Kander and Ebb show, it deals with some serious issues of racism and justice that we’re still dealing with in this country today. I wish there were more musicals like this, forcing us to look at our world in a new way through the medium of song and dance. Apparently it’s too raw and real for the mainstream theater-going public to deal with, because the show recently closed after a run on Broadway of less than two months. The producers are hoping for a spring revival in time for the Tonys, at which it’s sure to be well-represented.

8. The Glass Menagerie is a tragic tale of a dysfunctional codependent family; a mother who only wants the best for her children, a daughter who is afraid to go out in the world, and a son who doesn’t know what to do to make it better for them all. The Jungle Theater’s production was beautifully sad and moving.  The incomparable Wendy Lehr (winner of the 2010 Lifetime Achievement Ivey Award) played the mother, and her chemistry with Joshua James Campbell's Tom was real and delightful.  Rounding out the strong cast was Michael Booth as the charming and arrogant gentleman caller, and Alayne Hopkins as the fragile Laura.  This family is trying so desperately to be happy, and they fail so miserably, that your heart just breaks for them.  I was reminded of how much I love the space at the Jungle and the work that they do.  They have several exciting shows coming up this year, so I just ordered a season pass.

9. My favorite theater find this year is the Yellow Tree Theatre in Osseo, a northwest suburb with a quaint small town feel. Founders and spouses Jason Peterson and Jessica Lind founded the theater in 2008 upon returning home after trying to find their fortune in New York City. Instead, they decided to make their fortune here. They transformed an ordinary space in a suburban strip mall into a warm, inviting space “where good stories live.” They opened the 2010-2011 with the original play String, a quirky romantic comedy that made me laugh and warmed my heart. Their website says: “We at Yellow Tree Theatre have this dream. We see the people of this community gathering together and getting excited about theatre. We see our theatre as a meeting place where everyone feels welcome, an artistic venue where people of all ages and walks of life can mingle together. Maybe we’re a little romantic, maybe this sounds like a crazy convoluted idea, but we’re okay with that. We like crazy.” I like that kind of crazy too.

10. The Guthrie’s production of The 39 Steps, which just closed last week, was a zany, fun, whirlwind of a show. A cast of just four actors played dozens of different characters on a wild ride across the Scottish countryside. Sarah Agnew, Jim Lichtscheidl, and Luverne Seifert were all hilarious in each of their many roles, and Robert Berdahl played the main character Richard Hannay with a suave elegance and over the top hamminess. They all seemed to be having as much fun as the audience was. I ran into Sarah at a Ten Thousand Things performance of Life’s a Dream during the run of the show, and couldn’t resist telling her I loved the show. I said to her, “I don’t know how you guys don’t crack each other up.” And she responded, “We do!” Like a great Carol Burnett sketch, the audience and the actors get caught up in the hilarity and fun of it all.

Honorable Mention:

I’ll always remember 2010 as the year of Hair. The 1968 Broadway musical was revived in 2009 and I had only started hearing about it when I was in New York City that April. I was hoping to get tickets at the TKTS booth, but no such luck. I became obsessed with the show as the soundtrack was released and the cast made frequent TV appearances, including on the 2009 Tony Awards, where it won for best revival of a musical. I fell in love with the entire cast, or tribe as they’re known, but especially Gavin Creel, both for his infectious performance as Claude and his tireless advocacy in bringing equality to everyone. I was planning another trip to NYC in April 2010, and as soon as Hair tickets were released I bought some. Just a few weeks later, it was announced that the entire cast was moving across the pond to do the show in London’s West End; their last NYC performance would be in March of 2010. Great news for the show and a great opportunity for the tribe, but devastating news for me! After a few hours of depression I thought, why don’t I just go to NYC before March to see the cast that I love doing this show that I love? So that’s exactly what I did, and it turned out to be one of my best trips there. My theater buddy Kendra and I saw the show and loved it – I was afraid it wouldn’t live up to my high expectations, but it absolutely did. We danced onstage and sang “Let the Sun Shine In,” and met most of the cast at the stage door. When Gavin hadn’t appeared and no one else seemed to be coming out, we were about to give up (did I mention it was January and cold?). But our patience was rewarded when Gavin came out to talk to a man who had been at the original show 40 years ago. He very generously braved the cold to talk to the few fans that remained. I found him to be just as sweet and kind and warm and funny as I thought he would be. Gavin traveled to Minnesota in September to perform at a fundraiser for then-candidate and current governor Mark Dayton, and I was able to talk to him for a few minutes then as well, after watching his amazing performance of classics and musical theater selections. But enough about Gavin, back to the show at hand.  I saw Hair again in April with the replacement cast, and it was almost as good as the original! I’m looking forward the tour that’s coming to Minneapolis in March, starring original tribe members Paris Remillard and Steel Burkhardt as Claude and Berger.

Entertainment Weekly called Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson “a weird, wild masterpiece,” and I find that a fitting description. During my third trip to NYC this year, Kendra and I were standing in the TKTS line trying to decide what to see, when a very nice and helpful young man convinced us to see BBAJ. It wasn’t a hard sell; I had heard rumblings about it, and as soon as our new friend heard that we’re interested in original, inventive musical theater, he directed us to this show. A political satire set to an endlessly singable emo-rock score with brilliant over-the-top performances, most notably by rising star Ben Walker as the sexypants president, BBAJ is part utter silliness and part biting commentary on the world we live in. Sadly, like Scottsboro Boys, this show is ahead of its time. It’s closing this weekend after a mere 120 performances. I’m so grateful I had the chance to see it during its short run, and I hope that it finds life in other forms.

I had the great fortune of seeing two Broadway legends and one legend-in-the-making at Orchestra Hall this year. Bernadette Peters (Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods, the movie version of Annie) performed with the Orchestra in May; Patti LuPone (in addition to such Broadway classics as Evita and Sweeney Todd, she also played my alter-ego Becca’s mom in my favorite TV show as a teen, Life Goes On) performed with only piano accompaniment in June; and Idina Menzel (Maureen in RENT and Elphaba in Wicked) performed barefoot with the orchestra in November. All three women told stories about their history and experiences in the world of musical theater, singing songs from shows they were a part of and shows they wished they were a part of. Three amazingly talented women and three amazing evenings celebrating my favorite thing, musical theater.

On the music front (remember those 22 concerts?) the definite highlight of the year was StoryhillFest over Labor Day Weekend. A two-day folk music festival in the beautiful Brainerd lakes area, StoryhillFest featured performances from nine artists in addition to two concerts by the duo Storyhill, about whom Garrison Keillor said something like, “setting the bar for male vocal duets.” The weekend was a wonderful celebration of music and the outdoors, and a collaboration between artists that culminated in a nightly campfire sing. I’ve never experienced anything quite like listening to my favorite musicians sing and play by the magical light of a campfire under a thousand stars. I went to the website to buy my tickets for the 2011 fest last week, only to find that the rooms are sold out! Not a big fan of camping in a crowd of people, I bought a few day passes and put my name on the waiting list in the hopes that something will open up before next September. If you like sitting outside listening to great music, get your tickets now!

That about wraps up my year in live entertainment!  Looking back on it, 2010 was a very good year.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

"A Christmas Carol" at the Guthrie

The Guthrie Theater presents A Christmas Carol every year, and this is the sixth year in a row that I've seen it.  They've been using the same adaptation for years, although last year was a condensed 90 minute version of it.  This year they're using a brand new adaptation by Crispin Whittell, directed by Guthrie Artistic Director Joe Dowling.  The old version was great, but after so many years you know what's going to happen when, so it was a lot of fun to see a new twist on the classic story.  This version seems a little crisper, a little more modern.  There's no narrator like in years past, and it's a little funnier too.  The set is entirely new and features Scrooge's office with a safe full of money and a loft upstairs, from which he watches some of the action.  The ghosts fly in on wires, Christmas Past was right over my head!

One thing that hasn't changed about A Christmas Carol is that it features a great cast.  Guthrie favorites include Isabell Monk O'Connor, Nathaniel Fuller, Suzanne Warmanen, Hugh Kennedy, and the brothers Nelson.  Kris plays Scrooge's clerk Bob Cratchit and Mark plays Marley's ghost in chains and gray face paint.  Mark's daughter Ella is one of the children in the cast, who were all wonderful.  I've seen quite a few productions with great child actors lately (Joseph, Billy Elliot), and I realized today that I shouldn't be surprised that kids are great actors.  All kids love to play make-believe, and kids are much more open and imaginative than adults, so it's no surprise that some of them thrive on stage.

This year's younger and heartier Ebenezer Scrooge is Daniel Gerroll (another theater actor with dozens of TV credits) in his second role at the Guthrie.  His dark wit and singular focus on making money believably transform into an openness and joy at life after witnessing his past and what's waiting for him in the future.  Angela Timberman is very entertaining as his drunken housekeeper Merriweather who's startled at his change in demeanor.  Nic Few plays the Ghost of Christmas Present with joyous energy and laughter that's contagious.  The streets of London and Fezziwig's party are populated with dozens of men, women, and children who laugh, dance, and sing.  I was sitting in the front row and felt like I was at a great party!

I enjoy A Christmas Carol every year and was delighted at this fresh new take on it.  Sets, costumes, and staging are always incomparable at the Guthrie, but it's the heart of the story embodied through the excellent cast, from Scrooge down to Tiny Tim, that make this a memorable show.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

"Billy Elliot" at the Orpheum

Some shows you go to for the music, some for the story, and some for the dancing.  Billy Elliot is definitely a show you go to for the dancing.  And also the great story about being who you are and expressing yourself in the way that you want, no matter what anyone else thinks.  The music, written by Elton John with lyrics by Lee Hall (who wrote the screenplay for the movie) is good, but is mostly there to facilitate the dancing.  The musical won several 2009 Tonys, including best musical (which should have gone to Next to Normal in my opinion), best direction, best choreography, and best actor for the three young men who shared the role of Billy.  I've wanted to see it for a while, but resisted because it was one of those ubiquitous movie adaptations, which I often find to be unimaginative and mostly about making money.  But Billy Elliot is the exception that proves the rule.  For one thing, it's not a huge blockbuster with a built-in audience (like Spiderman, for example); it's a sweet and funny little English movie.  Secondly, it's about dance and music, so it seems naturally suited to the stage (unlike, for example, Spiderman).  I loved the movie, and I think it has been successfully translated to the stage.

Billy Elliot takes place in Northern England during the coal miners' strike of 1984.  The whole town is on strike, and in the midst of this, an 11-year-old boy discovers dance.  After accidentally wandering into a ballet class populated by adorably awkward little girls (in some of the best performances of the show), he finds himself continuing to come back to dance class.  His teacher, played by the divine Faith Prince (she's guest-starred in numerous TV shows in addition to her successful Broadway career), discovers a talent in him he didn't know he had.  Billy's growing passion for dance is not initially accepted by his miner father and brother, but they eventually come to support him in his dream that will get him out of the dying mining business.

My favorite scene in the movie is when Billy, angry that he was forced to miss his dance school audition, is so overcome by emotion that he can't do anything but dance.  He doesn't know what to do with what he's feeling, so he throws it all into a dance through the streets of the town.  That scene also turns up in the musical, and is equally well done.  Billy screams and dances to a song called "Angry Dance" as the miners strike and the cops patrol.  In another scene, Billy dances a beautiful balletic dance shadowed by his older self, played by the incredible ballet dancer Maximilien Baud.  They dance together in joy, and Billy flies through the air, finding freedom in dance.

Another sweet subplot in the movie that's well replicated is about Billy's friend Michael, played in this performance by the charismatic and talented Jacob Zelonky, who likes to dress up in women's clothing.  He convinces Billy to try on a skirt, and they sing and dance about how there's nothing wrong with "Expressing Yourself," even if that means wearing a dress.  Several dresses come to life and dance with the boys, who are wearing glittering tap shoes and are surrounded by a shining backdrop.

As I mentioned before, the ballet girls are some of the best performers in the show.  Ranging in age from about 8 to 14, they play girls who are learning ballet in a small town with varying degrees of success.  They're rowdy little girls who love to push each other and make faces, and even occasionally swear!  They look so comfortable and natural up on stage; each and every one is a star in the making.  In one brilliantly choreographed scene (the show was choreographed by Peter Darling), the ballet girls dance in and out amongst the striking miners and the cops, as they continue to discuss what's going on, seemingly oblivious to the fact that they're twirling and lifting a little girl in a tutu.  It's a fascinating juxtaposition.

Another one of my favorite scenes (there's just so much to talk about in this show!) is when Billy asks his somewhat senile grandmother about his grandfather.  You might expect a touching story, but not in this show.  Instead, Granny tells Billy how her husband was a bastard who hit her.  But in the evening, "We'd Go Dancing," and everything was magical.  If she had it to do over again, says Granny, she'd enjoy her life and not be someone's wife!  As she's telling the story, the versatile men in the ensemble quietly come on stage from the right, and slowly move towards Granny and Billy until she dances and fights with them, and then continue gracefully past and out the windows on the left.

But the star of the show is, of course, Billy.  There are five Billys touring with this production, taking turns playing the role.  The Billy I saw is 14 year old Daniel Russell from Australia.  An amazing dancer, a great actor (I had tears in my eyes when Billy read a letter from his deceased Mother), and not a bad singer.  I'm so impressed by him and all the kids for the performances they give and the focus and discipline they must have to tour with this show at such a young age.  I'm inspired to look into the possibility of taking dance classes (better late than never), but in the meantime, I ordered a ticket to the James Sewell Ballet at the Southern Theater next year.  I'm not sure that I've ever been to a ballet, and judging from the little I've seen, I'm sure I'd love it!

Monday, December 20, 2010

"All is Calm" by Theater Latte Da at the Pantages Theatre

All is Calm is the annual Christmas show by Theater Latte Da, my favorite local theater, and, inexplicably, this is the first time I've seen it.  In it's third year, the show was written by Latte Da Artistic Director Peter Rothstein (with musical arrangements by Erick Lichte and Timothy C. Takach) about the World War I Christmas Truce of 1914.  Soldiers on both sides (German and Allied troops) spontaneously decided to stop shooting at each other for one day, and walked out into "no man's land" to sing songs, play games, and share photos of loved ones.  All is Calm tells the story of these men through music and their own words.

I'm not sure whether to call this show a concert, a play, or a musical.  It's really a lovely combination of all three.  In a message from Peter Rothstein in the playbill, he says, "I'm interested in creating performance where the content dictates the form" (something I believe I've also heard Stephen Sondheim say).  The show is constructed from quotes from soldiers' letters and journals, as well as articles written about the truce.  Three actors recite these quotes in a colorful variety of British accents.  Interspersed among the quotes are songs by the male vocal ensemble Cantus, who sing traditional Christmas carols and army songs.  Peter was inspired to collaborate with Cantus when he saw one of their concerts and realized that "their work was pushing the boundaries of chamber music in the ways Theater Latte Da was pushing the boundaries of musical theater."  It's a beautiful collaboration; at times it's hard to distinguish the actors from the musicians.  They're all dressed alike in black coats and sweaters.  As the story moves into winter of 1914, they all gather their scarves a little tighter, pull hats and gloves out of their pockets, and button their coats.  The singers act the part of the soldiers leaving their homes and families with excitement, expecting to return soon, only to be caught in a brutal, cold, long war.  The truce is a short break in their weariness, and gives them hope, at least for a moment.

I think this show is less about Christmas or any specific holiday, than it is about the realization that we're more alike than we are different.  The people we are fighting against in any war are really not that different from ourselves.  They want to be home with their families and live a peaceful, happy life, just like we do.  It really is a lovely thought - what if the armies of both sides went on strike, would we find another way to settle our differences?  Idealistic maybe, but something to think about.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

"Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" at the Ordway

I walked into the Ordway Center in St. Paul last night and saw a sight I've never seen there before - children playing on stage.  Dressed in colorful clothing, they were skipping rope, tossing balls, doing cartwheels, dancing, and goofing around.  It turns out they weren't a school group run amuck, they were part of the production.  41 local school children, chosen out of over 300, were on stage most of the night - singing, dancing, or just sitting on the side of the stage, watching the action.  I had a hard time taking my eyes off of them (I saw a few little Rachels and Kurts in their midst), it was so fun to watch their reactions to the main action.  But the main action was well worth watching too.

Written by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber in the late 1960s, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat is based on the biblical story of Joseph, youngest and favored son of Jacob.  He was sold into slavery by his jealous brothers, and because of his talent for reading dreams, he rose to power as the Pharaoh's 2nd in command.  He led the country through bounty and famine, and forgave his brothers when they unknowingly came to him for help.  The most famous of Josephs is Donny Osmond, who played the role in Canada and the US in the 1990s.  There was a Q&A with some of the cast and crew after the show last night, and several people brought up the Donny Osmond version of the show.  I don't think anyone who does Joseph will be able to escape comparison, at least for the next decade or two!

Instead of Donny Osmond, our Joseph is Anthony Fedorov (who has come a long way since his Idol days).  I saw a preview of him singing "Close Every Door to Me" at Sample Night Live a few weeks ago; I was impressed then, and it's even better in context.  He has a strong voice, and looks and acts the part of the young innocent Joseph who grows to become the powerful assistant to the Pharaoh.  The part of the narrator may be the most difficult and largest role, and Jennifer Paz does a great job leading the audience through the story as well as corralling the children at times. 

Most of the remainder of the cast is local.  The talented T. Mychael Rambo plays Joseph's father Jacob and several other roles, and the hilarious troupe of brothers is filled with local talent.  Their numbers include the country-style "One More Angel in Heaven," "Benjamin Calypso," and my favorite, "Those Canaan Days."  Jered Tanner really hams it up as Napthali.  The dancing is wonderful (the show was choreographed by director James Rocco, who is also Artistic Director of the Ordway), and the cast includes Chanhassen regulars and fine dancers John R. Sloan, Tony Vierling, and Julianne Mundale.  For the closing number of the first act, the rousing "Go, Go, Go Joseph," the cast is dressed in psychedelic 60s outfits and wigs that make the show look like an episode of Laugh-In.  There's even a disco ball hanging from the ceiling of the theater.  The curtain call includes a "Megamix" of songs from the show with everyone dressed in white, and colorful streamers spray out at the end of the show (see the blue and gold streamers on the playbill above).

With a run time of less than two hours including intermission, the Ordway's production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat is a fast, fun, colorful, energetic show full of great performances from the large cast of professionals and children.  It's playing through January 2; check it out if you're looking for a light-hearted, entertaining night at the theater.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

"Miracle on Christmas Lake" at Yellow Tree Theatre

A small regional theater is preparing for their Christmas play when the rights are unexpectedly pulled.  They have to scramble to pull together a new production in a short period of time.  This is both the plot of Miracle on Christmas Lake and the true story of how Yellow Tree Theatre developed the play two years ago in their inaugural season.  They were all set to do Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol when they were told they were granted the rights by mistake and could no longer do it.  Since one of the founders of the theater, Jessica Lind, is a playwright, she wrote a new play and chose to base it on what they were going through, although with many fictional and wacky additions.

Miracle on Christmas Lake is set in the fictional town of Christmas Lake, Minnesota.  Colin (Stuart Gates) inherited the town theater from his father and moved home from New York City with his wife Tess (Carolyn Jensen) to run it.  Colin left a semi-successful acting career in NYC, including a role on the fictional soap opera As Time Ticks On.  (Coincidentally, Jessica and her husband Jason Peterson, director of this production and Artistic Director of the theater, had also spent time in NYC before moving home to Minnesota to open the theater, and Jason appeared on the dear departed soap As the World Turns.)  Colin calls all of the actors in the cancelled production, It's a Wonderful Life, for an emergency all-night brainstorming/rehearsal session, but only the oddball Martha Knutson (Jessie Rae Rayle) can attend.  She brings along tator tot hotdish and her pet bearded lizard, named Katherine after her grandmother.  Martha is a caricature of Minnesota and seems to be stuck in the 80s judging by her high-waisted acid washed jeans and moon boots.  Jessie, who also appeared in String this fall, gives a fearless performance, contorting her face and invoking a crazy laugh and funny posture.  Piano tuner Neil (Ryan Nelson), who has an understandable obsession with Little House on the Prairie and Michael Landon, is roped into joining the new production.  After a failed attempt at trying to extract something interesting from Martha and Neil, Colin decides to act out an episode of As Time Ticks On to appeal to their chief benefactor, Mrs. Burlington (Diana Wilde, who also plays Colin's mom), who's a big fan of Colin and the show.  They also give her a part in the play.

The main character in As Time Ticks On is Victor Icon of Icon Enterprises, an obvious nod to Victor Newman from the number one soap, The Young and the Restless, who is most certainly a soap icon (even though he's a manipulative greedy bastard ;).  There's also a character named Marlena (Days of Our Lives).  Plot points include sperm switching, affairs, evil twins, and being buried alive, all soap staples.  The play begins, and chaos ensues.  The lizard Katherine has gone missing and Martha is beside herself.  Neil is only comfortable when using someone else's voice, from Bill Clinton to Marlon Brando to my favorite, Jimmy Stewart.  Mrs. Burlington has a hideous hairy mole on her chest, and Tess is forced to do an awkward Colombian accent.  The show falls apart, and Tess tries to save it by singing perhaps the most melancholy of Christmas songs, "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas."

The show is a disaster, and Colin is sure he's going to have to sell the theater and move back to NYC, something Tess thought she wanted until she sees how much the theater means to Colin.  But it turns out people loved the show; Mrs. Burlington comes through with her donation and they sell out the performance for the next night.  Like in The Producers, the show is so bad it's good!  Tess and Colin decide to stay in the little Minnesota town and make a life and a theater there.  I, for one, am glad that Jessica and Jason made the same choice.  While this fall's String was more my style, Miracle on Christmas Lake is a funny, silly, campy show with great performances that makes for an entertaining evening.  It pokes loving fun at everything from tator tot hotdish to lutefisk to soap operas to Little House on the Prairie.  I continue to be impressed with Yellow Tree and am looking forward to their upcoming productions, Our Town and the musical [title of show].

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Peter Mayer at the Cedar Cultural Center

Peter Mayer is one of my favorite Minnesota musicians, and the Cedar Cultural Center is one of my favorite places to listen to music in Minnesota.  Which seems like two good reasons to step outside the theater theme of this blog.

If you're looking for a place to hear "interesting, rich music" (as Peter put it last night), check out what's coming up at the Cedar.  Even if you've never heard of any of the artists, give it a try.  It will at least be, as Peter says, interesting and rich.  I've seen many great musicians the Cedar, who also seem to enjoy playing there.  It's located on Cedar Ave. in the West Bank area of Minneapolis.  Tickets are reasonably priced (usually around $20), and seats are general admission.  It pays to get there a little early if you like to sit up close like I do.  They sell food and drinks inside, and there's a great Thai restaurant next door.  Note: if you go in the summer (or spring, or fall, or pretty much anytime it's not freezing outside), it will be warm inside, so dress in layers that can be removed.

I've been a fan of Peter's for about ten years now, ever since I heard him on the dear, departed Morning Show on MPR (check out Radio Heartland for a similarly ecclectic mix of music, although without the witty hosts).  He usually plays one or two shows in the Twin Cities every year, and I go see him every chance I get.  He's one of the best guitar players I've ever seen live, and makes the guitar sound like I didn't know a guitar could sound (which might explain his charming obsession with tuning while on stage).  He writes most of his own songs, which are funny, touching, thoughtful, or just silly.  Some of his songs are spiritual, but in a sort of earthy way not tied to any religious tradition, which I appreciate.  I'm lucky enough to attend a church where he occasionally plays during services, which is always a treat.

The website Minnewiki: The Minnesota Music Encyclopedia offers this description of Peter:

Peter Mayer writes songs for a small planet—songs about interconnectedness and the human journey; songs about the beauty and the mystery of the world. Whimsical, humorous, and profound, his music takes you up mountains, across oceans, into space, and back home again. A native of Minnesota with a background in Theology, Peter is not big on love songs, but prefers delving into science, nature, and things spiritual.

Peter had two of his frequent collaborators on stage with him: Marc Anderson on percussin and Dan Schwartz on guitars/mandolin/back-up vocals.  Marc is an accomplished percussionist, and Dan is a talented multi-instrumentalist whom I've seen several times solo or with other groups.  When Peter had to stop playing the guitar for a year or two due to an injury, Dan took over the guitar-playing at all of his shows.

I didn't have my camera last night to capture any videos, so here's one from youtube.  This is my favorite Peter Mayer song, and probably his most well-know, "Holy Now" (at the Cedar in 2003 with Dan Schwartz).

Note: there are two talented singer/songwriter/guitar players named Peter Mayer, both of whom I love.  The other one is based in Florida and is a member of Jimmy Buffet's band.  So be careful when you're searching for Peter Mayer to make sure you have the right one!  Although you really can't go wrong with either.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

What I Learned from Stephen Sondheim

I posted this on my facebook page after I attended “An Evening with Stephen Sondheim” at The State Theater in Minneapolis on March 5, 2010.  It seems appropriate to share it here.

I had the great privilege of listening to Stephen Sondheim talk about his career and musical theater for about an hour and a half. He’s truly a genius of musical theater, and I came to the conclusion that I haven’t seen nearly enough of his shows! I’m writing this mostly for myself, so that I don’t forget what I learned from him that evening.

The difference between musical theater and opera is in the audience’s expectations. Opera audiences go to the opera to hear the human voice. Musical theater audiences go to musical theater for the story and the songs. Operas are meant to be played to an opera audience in an opera house. Stephen doesn’t feel that any of his pieces fit that bill. A few of them could be considered “light opera,” but mostly they fall into the musical theater category based on the above criteria.

Stage and film are two entirely different art forms, and difficult to move from one to the other. The main difference is, again, the audience. Stage musicals are interactive and depend on feedback from the audience, and are never performed exactly the same. Movies are entirely independent of the audience and are the same every time you watch them. Stephen doesn’t think there’s been a successful movie adaptation of a stage musical until Sweeney Todd (even West Side Story and Chicago, which he said were good, but didn’t quite translate). He didn’t really go into detail why, other than that Tim Burton really got it.

The reason that Sweeney Todd has so much music is that he was inspired by horror films. He wanted to scare the audience, and he asked the question, how do horror movies scare the audience? The answer: they have scary music playing through most of the movie. So he wanted that undercurrent of scary music for Sweeney, and since it’s a musical, it made sense to have the characters singing. He originally wanted to do a small, claustrophobic production, but the director, Hal Prince, only does things big. So Stephen agreed to let Hal do it his way, knowing that he’d have his small, claustrophobic production later (like the recent Broadway revival, which I saw).

Stephen was asked about writing for specific performers (Ethel Merman, Angela Lansbury), and he said it was more about writing for the character than the voice. He talked about writing Sunday in the Park with George. Originally the male lead was a low voice, and the female voice was a soprano voice. But when Mandy Patinken auditioned (despite being told he didn’t have the right voice for it), they realized he would be brilliant in the role. Then Bernadette Peters was cast as the female role, and since she has a lower voice, he just switched the parts so that the male voice was higher and the female lower. He said if he was writing an opera he wouldn’t have had that freedom; they would have had to cast someone who fit the part as written.

He was asked about the “evolution” of musical theater, and he started talking about how Broadway has become commercial. Because musicals are so expensive to produce, “in this economy” producers are afraid to take risks and only want to put on something that they know will make money. Which explains the preponderance of “jukebox musicals” (musicals based around known songs, like Rock of Ages or Mama Mia) and “Disneyized musicals.” They have a built in audience so the producers know they’ll make some money, even if they’re not good. He said the true evolving of theater is being done Off-Broadway, and then if they’re successful, sometimes a producer (“or 27 producers”) will bring them to Broadway. He listed Spring Awakening and Next to Normal as examples (both of which I’ve seen and love).

He talked about working on West Side Story (he wrote the lyrics, Leonard Bernstein wrote the music, Arthur Laurents wrote the book, and Jerome Robbins directed and choreographed). Jerome Robbins wanted a song to explain the second act ballet, and Bernstein (whom he called Lenny) had this song that he’d written years ago and tried to get in every show. So Stephen used that and wrote “Somewhere.” But there were such long notes in the music that he couldn’t put in any two-syllable words. A friend of his teases him and calls it “the A song,” because the least important world, a, gets the most emphasis and the highest note. (Sing it now: there’s… A… place… for… us…) He also talked about the recent Broadway revival (which I saw last year), which incorporated some Spanish into the songs and dialogue. He said it didn’t work as well as they thought it would because, incomprehensibly, there were people in the audience who had never seen the movie and didn’t understand what was going on! So they took some of it out.

Stephen’s favorite place to write is lying down on the couch. He also writes at the piano too, but feels doesn’t want to limit himself to just things he’s able to play. He said his right hand is better than his left.

The story and character dictates everything in the piece.

His favorite musical (other than his own) is Porgy and Bess.

He said the heart of music is the harmony. It’s the harmony that makes a song memorable. You can give the same melody line to two people to harmonize differently, and one will be memorable and other forgettable.

He talked about working with Warren Beatty on music for the film Reds. He played something for Warren on his piano and Warren asked him to record it. He only had a cheap little tape recorder, so he made a tape that he didn’t think was very good. He made Warren promise not to play it for anyone. When he went to a screening of the movie, that tape recording was in the movie! Warren liked the way it sounded and could never replicate it.

Since I wrote this in March I've seen one more Sondheim show - A Little Night Music on Broadway starring Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch.  There are a couple more coming up locally that I plan to see - Into the Woods at the Bloomington Civic Theatre and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum at the Jungle Theater - so I'm on my way to seeing more of his shows!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

"Sample Night Live" at the History Theatre

“Art in a trial size.” That’s the motto for Sample Night Live, which is held the first Wednesday of every month at the History Theatre in downtown St. Paul. It allows audience members to sample the work of local artists in one evening for one low price. Visual artists display their work in the lobby, and about a dozen performing artists take part in the evening’s program. Last night was the “Audience Favorites Show” – the audience votes on their favorite performance every month and the winners are invited back for the December show.

Sample Night Live is hosted by Lounge-asaurus Rex (aka Tom Reed), a singer/comedian/emcee in a 70s lounge-singer suit, complete with mustache and big sunglasses.  He's a funny and entertaining host, informing the audience about the performers and providing "seamless transitions" between acts.  He made up several songs on the spot; I think my favorite was "Code Monkey."  Accompanying him and several of the musicians was the house band, The Smarts.  They played before the show and during intermission; last night they did a collection of jazzy Holiday standards and originals.  They play an impressive number of instruments for just four men!

The family friendly Act I began with a performance by American Idol contestant Anthony Fedorov, who is starring in the upcoming Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at the Ordway Center, along with a talented local cast.  Anthony sang "Close Every Door to Me" from the show and did a beautiful job.  I already have my ticket as part of my season package at the Ordway and I'm looking forward to the show! [Update: read my review of the show.]

The first act also included a trio of children's act, and the kids in the audience enjoyed them, as did I.  First was a band called Funkasaurus-Rex (no relation to Lounge-asaurus) consisting of a tuba, trumpet, bass guitar, and drums.  The band is part of the Perpich Center for Arts Education and played a medley of songs while entertaining the crowd.  The magicians from Dew Dah Magic also performed - a magician and his two adorable kids who performed Houdini's Metamorphosis trick.  The final kids' act was my favorite - two clowns from Theatre of Fools, aka "Vaudeville for the 21st Century."  They did a few tricks and managed to communicate and entertain without saying a word.

Three musical acts rounded out the first half of the show.  Greg Herriges plays guitar and other instruments in a style he calls "world/whirled music."  He won audience favorite of the night, and hence, the year.  I don't disagree with the choice; he's very talented.  The other two acts were Scandinavian music ensembles.  The five-person Saana Ensemble sings traditional Finnish music (the members are originally from Finland), and the duo Kaivama, Sara Pajunen on fiddle and Jonathan Rundman guitar/harmonium, performs traditional and original Nordic tunes.  Both groups made beautiful music.

After intermission, Act II began with a presentation from MNTV, which airs short films from Minnesota filmmakers on public television.  I recognized a few local actors in some of the clips.  Eighteen films will be shown, beginning on December 12 on TPT2 (check your local listings).  The rest of the performers were musicians with one exception - the poet Khary Jackson aka 6 is 9.  I don't know anything about poetry slams or the art of spoken word, but it was pretty cool.  The Artists' Quarter in St. Paul hosts a poetry slam every Monday night; I might have to check it out sometime.

The first musician of the second act was the jazzy cool Christine Rosholt.  Accompanied by The Smarts, she sang a few Holiday songs including one of my favorites, "Baby it's Cold Outside."  She has a strong and beautiful voice and a cool style.  Julie Johnson and the No-Accounts are a folk trio consisting of Julie Johnson on flute/bass flute, Doug Otto on vocals/guitar, and Drew Druckrey on guitar/resonator guitar/vocals/mandolin.  Their current focus is on roots music from right here in Minnesota.  As a lover of folk music and Minnesota, I think this is a pretty cool thing!  According to their website, the "first full recording of composition/songs based on Minnesota folk music" comes out next year, and I'll be watching for it.

How can I describe The Dregs?  I'll let them do it: "Ireland's shame and a menace to sobriety, The Dregs are a band of Scandinavian-Irish posers who bring their own merry flavor of folk music to the pubs and taverns of Minnesota. With staggering behavior, these six sorry sots perform intoxicating ballads, lush anthems, and sea shanties that'll have you three sheets to the wind! So pour yourself a cold one, and get ready for a stomping, clapping, spitting, swearing, mug-swinging, good time!"  They're a lot of fun, and would probably be even more fun after a pint or two of Guinness.  The final act of the evening was a folk singer/songwriter that seemed to step right out of the 60s, Heatherlyn.  She played a couple of originals inspired by Martin Luther King Jr., accompanied by The Smarts.

I really enjoyed my first experience at Sample Night Live and will definitely be going back.  I would like to see more theater samples, because that's my thing (obviously).  It's impossible to get to all of the many wonderful theaters in the Twin Cities (although I do my best), so it would be nice to get a taste and see which ones I want to see more of.  I'll be keeping an eye on their website (you can also follow them on facebook) to see what I can sample next.  Anything that supports the community of artists in this town is OK by me.