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.