Sunday, February 27, 2011

"Ballet Works TC/NYC Connections" by James Sewell Ballet at the Southern Theater

After I saw the musical Billy Elliot last December, the sheer joy and beauty of dance inspired to go to the ballet.  So I bought a ticket to the James Sewell Ballet at the Southern Theater.  And then I saw the movie Black Swan and was a little creeped out by it all.  Fortunately today's show was not creepy at all, it was beautiful and intriguing and funny and moving.

I know next to nothing about dance; I've only been to a few dance productions in my life.  So I didn't necessarily get everything I saw today, but I was mesmerized by it.  Ballet Works is a series of five pieces by different choreographers; the company does it every year as a way to work with new choreographers and let some of the dancers choreograph.  James Sewell and some of the choreographers were there to introduce and talk about their pieces.  It was pretty casual and somewhat interactive; before his solo piece James led the audience through some activities to help explain what he was going to do.  His piece, "Body Puzzles," was about different limbs doing different things at the same time, like patting your head while rubbing your stomach.  Of course what he did was much more complex and intricate than that, and really cool.

The other solo piece was called "Dressage" and involved the dancer, Nic Lincoln, attempting to stand, walk, and then dance in super high heels.  It was only when choregrapher Judith Howard spoke after the performance that I understood that he was a foal learning to walk.  Either way, it was beautiful and fascinating to watch.

The other three pieces involved five to seven members of the eight-person company.  The hardest part with the group numbers is that often there were multiple things going on at the same time and it was difficult to watch them all.  There was quite a range of dance styles and movements.  My favorite was probably the last one, "things fall apart" choreographed by one of the dancers, Chris Hannon.  It seemed a little closer to musical theater, a world I'm much more familiar with and comfortable in.  It was a joyous number and a good way to end the show.

I enjoyed my foray into the ballet world and I look foward to more!  Theater is still my first love, but an occasional trip to the ballet is a nice supplement to my steady diet of theater.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

"Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" by Penumbra Theatre at the Guthrie

August Wilson wrote ten plays about the African-American experience, each covering one decade in the 20th century.  He lived in St. Paul for over ten years and worked closely with Penumbra Theatre, which has produced more of his plays than any other theater in the world, including several world premieres.  They're currently doing Ma Rainey's Black Bottom at the Guthrie, directed by Penumbra Artistic Director Lou Bellamy.  Set in Chicago in the 1920s, Ma Rainey is a fictional account of a recording session of the real life blues singer of the same name.  But it's really about so much more than that.  The way Wilson weaves in themes of racism and history and unspeakable horror along with an entertaining and humorous story is just remarkable.  After the show there was a discussion let by Penumbra Education Director Sarah Bellamy and two experts on race relations, Herbert A. Perkins and Elona Street-Stewart.  The discussion was much more profound and insightful than anything I could say!

Everyone in this cast is amazing in their roles.  Ma Rainey is played by Jevetta Steele of the fabulous local singing family The Steeles.  Ma is what some might call a "diva."  But really, she's a woman who knows what she wants and knows that her power is limited.  Before her voice is recorded, while there's something that she has that the studio owner and her manager still want, she is able to exert some power over her situation.  But as soon as the recording is done and she's signed the release, they don't need her anymore and she's nothing to them.  The four-member band is comprised of Cutler (James Craven), the leader who speaks in rapid-fire words that reminded me of Tommy Lee Jones; Toledo (Abdul Salaam El Razzac), the wise and book-reading piano player; Slow Drag (William John Hall, Jr.), the easy-going bass player; and Levee (James T. Alfred) a young man who has dreams and ambitions of his own.  He wants to play his own arrangements and improvisations, which does not go over well with Ma.  Much of the play is these four men talking and joking with each other.  Their characters are so specific and interesting that it's a pleasure to listen to them go on about nothing, but also difficult at times when we catch glimpses of the pain that's behind it all.

The recording session hits a few rough patches.  Ma wants her stuttering nephew Sylvester (Ahanti Young) to record an intro to one of the songs, and it's just heart-breaking to listen to him struggle with the words until he gets it right.  Ma's glamorous girl Dussie Mae (Lerea Carter) flirts with Levee, spurring Ma on to jealousy.  All the while the studio owner Sturdyvant (played by Michael Tezla, my costar from A Serious Man), watches from the office above while Ma's manager Irvin (Phil Kilbourne) acts as a go-between, making sure everyone is happy and gets what they want.  Eventually the songs are recorded satisfactorally and Ma and her entourage leave the studio.  The band is left behind to pack up their things.  Levee gives Sturdyvant some songs that he wrote, hoping to record them with his own band.  Instead, Sturdyvant gives him five dollars for each song and sends him on his way.  Levee is devastated, and takes his anger and disappointment out on one of the other band members in a tragic ending to the play.  It's an ending that's been bubbling up throughout the course of the play, almost as if it were inevitable.  Which doesn't make it any less shocking.

There's so much that needs to be said about this play, and I don't even know where to begin.  I guess I'll close by saying: if you have the chance to see an August Wilson play, take it.  Obviously I don't know a whole lot about what it means to be a person of color in this country.  But I feel like after watching an August Wilson play, I understand a little bit more of our shared history.  I'm making it a goal to see all ten plays in the cycle at some point in my lifetime.  One down, nine to go.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

"Shirley Valentine" at the Jungle

Shirley Valentine is the first show of the Jungle Theater's 2011 season.  I've attended several shows at the Jungle over the past few years, but this is the first year I have a season pass.  They always do good work and it's such a lovely little intimate space, and there were several shows in this year's season that I was interested in.  But Shirley Valentine was not one of them; I knew nothing about this show before I went to see it.  It ended up being great fun, and also poignant at times. 

Shirley Valentine is a one-woman show about a woman in Liverpool who is stuck in her life, and begins taking steps to change it.  For this production, that woman is the very talented Cheryl Willis.  She completely inhabits this character and is totally comfortable in her skin.  In the first half of the first act, Shirley is cooking supper for her husband: chips and egg.  I was fascinated by the real preparations, from peeling and cutting the potatoes, to frying an egg, to heating up a can of gravy, to assembling all on the plate and putting it on the table.  It all seems second nature as her hands do the work while she tells her story.  She talks directly the audience, and occasional asks the wall for reassurance, "Isn't that right, wall?"  Shirley is a woman stuck in the routine of her life.  Her children are grown and have left home, her husband has become cruel and demanding, she only has one friend to talk too.  So when that friend plans a trip to Greece for the two of them, Shirley is at once thrilled by and frightened by the idea.  She can't possibly go to Greece for a fortnight, can she?  Of course she does, without telling her husband!  The second act takes place in Greece, and it's a different Shirley we see.  She's more confident, more relaxed, more alive.  Shirley has seen the life that exists beyond her narrow world, and is forever changed by it.

Shirley Valentine was a thoroughly enjoyable night at the theater.  And, I discovered they sell (decaf) Dunn Brothers coffee in the lobby for a dollar!  It doesn't take much to make me happy - good theater, good coffee.  The Jungle's next show is the Tony Award winning play, Next Fall, and this summer's A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is on my list of shows to see in 2011.  More good theater and more good coffee awaits.  :)

"The Homecoming" at Center Stage

I went to Baltimore last weekend to visit my BFF and theater buddy, and to see my friend Trent Dawson in a play at Center Stage (the Guthrie of Baltimore).  If you ever watched the dear, departed soap As the World Turns, you  might know Trent as the lovable rascal Henry Coleman, a role he played for over ten years and for which he was nominated for three Emmys.  Since CBS cancelled the show last year after 54 years on the air, Trent has returned to his theater roots.  He did two shows off Broadway last year, and began this year in The Homecoming at Baltimore's Center Stage, where he's performed several times before.  The show also featured a couple of Minnesota actors: Steven Epp and Felicity Jones, both of whom worked at Theatre de la Jeune Lune for many years.  But I recognized Felicity as the ghost of Christmas past, a role that her twin sister Charity Jones played for several years at the Guthrie.  If I didn't know better, I would have thought they were the same person!  They share the same looks, voice, and talent.

The Homecoming was written by the English playwright Harold Pinter and won the Tony Award for best play in 1967.  It takes place in the London home of Max and his two grown sons, Lenny (Trent Dawson) and Joey.  The play opens with Max looking for a scissors, and Lenny ignoring him until he finally answers, "Why don't you shut up, you daft prat?"  That sets the stage for this funny and disturbing tale of a weirdly dysfunctional family, to put it mildly.  They hurl insults and physical violence at each other relentlessly.  The only sane one seems to be sweet Uncle Sam.  Into the crazy world comes the oldest son Teddy (Steven Epp), returning home after six years in America.  He brings along a wife that no one knew he had.  Ruth (Felicity Jones) is drawn into this mess of a family without much protest.  She seems to want her husband to pull her out of it, to demand that they leave together.  It's almost as if she's testing him.  But he just sits passively by and watches it happen, unable to do anything to stop it.  It's almost as if he expected it to happen.  Why he returned home to the zoo after he escaped I'll never understand, but family ties are strong.  It leaves one wondering what happened in this family that lead to this state, and why Ruth goes along with it so easily.  We're only given a part of the story, a small window into the crazy world of this family.

This quote from the playbill helped me make sense of the show, or rather, accept that I can't make sense of it: "Critics of The Homecoming often cite the play's intentional avoidance of clear-cut character motivation and easily digested meaning.  But for Pinter, drama that fits comfortably into understood, reassuring categories 'is not theatre but a crossword puzzle.  The audience holds the paper.  The play fills in the blanks.  Everyone's happy.  There has been no conflict between audience and play, no participation, nothing has been exposed.  We walk out as we went in.'"  This is definitely not a safe, comfortable play.  But good theater has the tendency to make one a little uncomfortable.  This was a wonderful production of a difficult play: great cast, fabulous period costumes, and a shabby chic set.

It was a fun weekend, catching up with old friends.  Baltimore's a fun little town (also home to one of my favorite shows, Ace of Cakes!), and Center Stage is a lovely and accomplished theater.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

"WTF" by Mu Performing Arts at Mixed Blood Theatre

I was introduced to Mu Performing Arts a few years ago by a friend of mine who's on their board.  Over the last ten years or so Mu has grown to become one of the top Asian American theater companies in the country.  I've attended several of their shows, ranging from Tony-winner David Henry Hwang's semi-autobiographical play Yellow Face to the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Flower Drum Song.  So when my friend said she had an extra ticket to their current production WTF at the Mixed Blood Theatre, I was in!

I'm not quite sure how to describe this play, so I'll let playwright Katie Ka Vang do it for me: "WTF is the story of the lives of young Hmong Americans living in today's society.  The characters in this piece all try to build a life for themselves.  Specifically, it follows the story of True and Sunday.  I wanted to magnify these two characters, who seem as through they just slide through life and simply just survive.  They do, but the way they choose to survive is more than just surviving."  That's an interesting way to put it, because at first True and Sunday are passive characters.  Sunday (Saikong Yang) is dealing with an over-achieving sister, opium addict parents, and an apprenticeship with a crazy artist.  True (the talented Sun Mee Chomet, who has appeared at the Guthrie in Macbeth, Intelligent Homosexual, and Two Gents) has recently lost her mother and has a strained and complicated relationship with her father (and his two other wives).  It's only when she gets pregnant that she begins to make choices to get her life back on track, as does her old friend Sunday, who agrees to make a life with her and her baby.

As much as this play is about the Hmong community, it's also a universal story of people dealing with the hardships of life.  Drug addiction, unexpected pregnancy, loss of a parent, a family member in Iraq, trying to find your place in the world, these are things everyone can relate to.  WTF also uses music, dance, and film to tell its story.  A text message is projected onto a screen onstage between scenes, which sets the stage for the upcoming scene (even if its meaning isn't always entirely clear).  True's boyfriend (Fres Thao) is a rapper/singer, and her soldier brother Rush (Billy Xiong) breakdances, as does the adorable 16-year-old Mimo Xiong. 

We left the play not knowing quite what to make of it.  But director Randy Reyes says, "This play is not about finding answers, but rather about asking the right questions."  So I guess that's OK.

Mu's next production is the musical Little Shop of Horrors, which is on my list of shows to see in 2011.  I can't think of anyone better to play Seymour than Randy Reyes, and I can't wait to see what Mu does with this sweet and funny little musical.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

"Shrek: The Musical" at the Orpheum

I'm not a fan of the current trend on Broadway of turning movies into musicals, so Shrek was never high on my list of shows to see.  But it's part of this year's Broadway touring season at the Orpheum, which also included several shows that I did want to see (Rock of Ages, Billy Elliot, and the upcoming HAIR and West Side Story).  I bought the season package, and didn't have very high expectations about Shrek.  So of course I was pleasantly surprised, as is usually the case.  This little movie-musical has pretty good theater credentials with book and lyrics by David Lindsay-Abaire (Pulitzer Prize winner for his play Rabbit Hole, which he recently adapted into a movie starring Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart) and music by Jeanine Tesori (Thoroughly Modern Millie, Caroline or Change, and one of my favorite shows of 2010, Violet).  I found it to be charming and clever at times with some great songs and a fabulous cast.  It's a lot of fun, doesn't take itself too seriously, and has a great message for the many kids in the audience.

I'm sure everyone is familiar with the plot: ogre meets girl, ogre loses girl, ogre wins girl who really is an ogre herself, with many mishaps and much silliness along the way.  Eric Petersen is somewhere inside the Shrek costume and make-up and has a big strong voice and a charming presence.  But the star of Shrek in my opinion is Princess Fiona (Haven Burton).  She's not your typical fairy tale princess - crass and impatient and opinionated.  And that's why I like her.  Haven has a beautiful voice and natural presence on stage, especially in the charming "Morning Person" and "I Know It's Today," which she sings with two younger versions of herself.  Fiona and Shrek's chemistry is especially evident in the song "I Think I Got You Beat," in which they compare their difficult childhoods (kicked out of the house, locked in a tower).  Alan Mingo, Jr. has a really amazing and effortless voice coming out of a silly donkey's body, and David F.M. Vaughn gives an impressive performance on his knees as the vertically challenged Lord Farquaad.  It's actually quite fascinating to watch the choreography as he dances on his knees, short little fake legs hanging in front and a flowing cape to cover his real legs.  Another bit of choreography I enjoyed was that the misfit fairy tale characters, lead by Pinocchio (Blakely Slaybaugh).  Not only does he speak and sing in a high falsetto, a feat in itself, but the choreography really makes him look like a puppet.  When Pinocchio leads the fairy tale misfits in "Let Your Freak Flag Fly," it's impossible not to smile and cheer them on.  But I think my favorite character was the dragon who's guarding Fiona's tower; a large puppet manipulated by four ensemble members and gorgeously voiced by Carrie Compere.  In the song "Forever," she laments that everyone comes to save the princess and considers her just an obstacle in their way.  No one wants her.  She kills all of the knights except four, whom she keeps locked up as her backup singers.  Again, really interesting and beautiful choreography in the way the dragon puppet really comes to life and has a personality all her own.

I'm still stumped by how they do the Fiona transformation at the end - from human to ogre.  I was sure they had brought in another actress in full ogre make-up, but no one else came out at the curtain call.  I don't recall Fiona being offstage; I don't know how they got her in that get-up so fast!  Theater magic, I guess.  The show ends in the same way the movie does - with all of the characters (including an impossibly cute gingerbread man) singing the Monkees' "I'm A Believer."  Shrek is one of those shows that leaves you dancing and singing as you go out into the cold Minnesota night.

Shrek is a fairy tale for modern times; one where Prince Charming doesn't always show up to rescue the Princess.  And sometimes when he does, he's on ogre or a really short jerk.  And "beautiful isn't always pretty."  I guess if you're going to turn a blockbuster movie into a musical, that's not such a bad one to pick.