Thursday, April 28, 2011

"Jersey Boys" at the Orpheum Theatre

The Tony award-winning musical Jersey Boys is what is called a jukebox musical* - a musical that's constructed around already existing popular songs and doesn't feature new music written expressly for the stage.  But unlike most jukebox musicals which feature a fictional story created to fit into and around the songs, often resulting in a convoluted or predictable story (e.g., Mamma Mia, Rock of Ages), Jersey Boys chronicles the true story of the 1960s American rock and roll band the Four Seasons.  Instead of forcing the story to fit the songs, the story takes center stage while the songs illustrate where the boys are in their career.  The book (by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice) is really well constructed and clever.  Each member of the original Four Seasons takes a turn narrating the show, giving their unique perspective on the rise and fall of the band, and how the constant touring and heightened fame took a tole on their personal lives.  As one of the boys says, "you sell 100 million records, see how you handle it."

The early life of the Four Seasons is told by Tommy DeVito, who (in his view) was responsible for getting the group together and managing the gigs and tours.  And he never lets the other guys forget it, which causes some tension as the years go on.  He's a smooth and cool charmer, and a bit of a bad boy (women, gambling, etc.).  Matt Bailey as Tommy has great charisma and a strong stage presence; I had a hard time taking my eyes off of him when he was on stage, no matter what else was going on.  When Tommy left the band in the second act and Matt left the stage, I felt his absence and anxiously awaited his return.

The next chapter of the story is told by Bob Gaudio, the young songwriter whose addition to the group spurred their early success, penning such hits as "Sherry," "Big Girls Don't Cry," and "Walk Like A Man."  The night I saw the show there was an understudy in the role.  I usually don't mind seeing an understudy (unless I know the usual actor), in fact it's sometimes fun to see an understudy give an all-out performance in one of their few opportunities to play the role.  Kevin Worley gave that kind of a performance; it felt like he had been out there every night with the other guys.  He sings my favorite song in the show, "Cry for Me," which is the first Four Seasons hit featured in the show; it's a show-stopper and a preview of what's to come.

In the second act, Nick Massi, the bassist and arranger, takes over the narration.  Nick is played by Steve Gouveia, who's been with the show since its pre-Broadway run in San Diego, which is evident in his comfort with the role.  Things start to go wrong with the group as the tensions build and the fame and expectations increase.  Tommy is forced to leave the group after his huge gambling debts are found out, and Nick chooses to walk away.  The final chapter is told by the most well-know member of the group, Frankie Valli, the man with the golden falsetto.  I saw an understudy in this role too; John Michael Dias is scheduled for a couple performances a week.  I imagine singing this show eight times a week is rough on the voice, so they have a regular understudy.  Again, he was great, growing from the naive 16-year-old kid whom Tommy takes under his wing, to the seasoned performer who keeps the group going when everyone else has left (in fact Frankie Valli is still touring today).  The show ends with the group's induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990, and the band is happily reunited for a final song ("Who Loves You") and a short postscript from each of the boys about what they're doing now.

As I mentioned earlier, the reason this show is successful (I mean that in artistic terms, since the songs alone would probably make it a commercial success, as countless jukebox musicals have proven*), is because of the way the show is constructed, including book, direction, and sets.  Singing under the streetlight effortlessly transforms into singing in the studio or a club.  One of my favorite devices is when the Four Seasons appear on the TV shows Ed Sullivan and American Bandstand.  You see the guys from the side, performing to the cameras, while on the screen behind them you see what it looks like on TV (I wonder how many versions of this they had to film with the various combinations of understudies).  Then they turn to face the audience like they're performing at a concert, and we the Jersey Boys audience play the role of the audience at a Four Seasons concert.  The screens also at times showcase fun 60s-era cartoons which add to the period feeling of the show, not to mention the fabulous Mad Men-esque wardrobe!

This is my second time seeing the show on tour, and I've been listening to and loving the soundtrack for the last three years ago.  The music is infectious, the cast is great (four strong leads plus a talented ensemble playing a huge number of roles), the well-told story is dramatic and funny and interesting.  And there's just something appealing about watching four men in matching well-tailored suits, singing great songs and performing smart choreography.  Jersey Boys is playing through May 8 at the Orpheum Theatre; there might be a few seats left if you hurry.

Continue reading if you're interested in a philosophical discussion of the state of musical theater today.  If not, thanks for reading this far!

*Last week I attended a "Broadway Confidential" talk (sponsored by Hennepin Theatre Trust) about the rise of the jukebox musical.  While I didn't enjoy it as much as the previous talk about HAIR! (I may be slightly biased because that's one of my favorite musicals and I find the historical and political implications fascinating), it was an interesting discussion.  Lori Maxwell, a local music director and director, talked about all the wonderful reasons that the jukebox musical is so successful (less risky, built in audience, makes a lot of money, etc.).  I tend to think of those reasons as negatives; to me they sound like consumerism, not art.  In some ways I think jukebox musicals are a cop-out - an easy way for Broadway producers to ensure a return on their investment and not take a risk on something new and innovative, which may or may not succeed.  These days most original musicals (Spring Awakening, Next to Normal (coming soon to the Ordway, go see it!), Scottsboro Boys, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson) have to show a success Off-Broadway before producers will take a chance on them on a Broadway stage.  While something featuring the music of the Shirelles (Baby It's You) or pop hits (Priscilla Queen of the Desert) is guaranteed to sell tickets to people looking for nostalgia.  I think the audience has to take some responsibility too; both Scottsboro Boys and Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson ended their runs early last year, partly because of lack of ticket sales.  Whether on network TV or Broadway, producers are no longer willing to let an audience build slowly, insisting on instant success or pulling the plug.  There's plenty of new, original, innovative musical theater around (just in the last month I've seen two brilliantly inventive original musical pieces right here in Minnesota: The Age of Wordsworth and Heaven - which I think could and should play on Broadway), it's just that less and less of it can be seen on Broadway.  Jersey Boys is the exception that proves the rule - a jukebox musical that feels authentic and original, despite not featuring any original music.

I believe in the art form that is musical theater; there are no limits to the stories it can tell and the things it can do.  That's why I try to support original musical theater wherever I can find it!

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

"Twin Cities Theatre Artists Support Japan" at the Ordway McKnight Theatre

The Ordway took their fun and colorful production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat on tour to Tokyo, Japan earlier this year, and a few days after their arrival, the earthquake hit.  The experience obviously affected the cast and crew greatly, which inspired them to pull together much of the top musical theater talent in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area (including many of my favorites) to perform in a benefit concert at the Ordway's McKnight Theatre last night.  It was a wonderful evening of music and entertainment that raised money for the Red Cross.  (And it almost made up for the Guthrie not doing their annual Cabaret show this year.)

The evening began with Joseph castmember Brian Kim singing "Something's Coming" from West Side Story.  Next, local actor Linda Kelsey gave us a few sobering facts about the earthquake and its continuing repercussions, and introduced the evening's hosts, Kimberly Wells and Kristine Kvanli from ShopNBC.  The singers were accompanied by four talented pianists: Mindy Eschedor, Denise Prosek (Music Director of Theater Latte Da), Gregory Theisen, and George Maurer (more about him later).

Back to the performances.  Dennis Curley from local theater company Table Salt Productions sang a very funny song about a dinner party that got a little out of control, "I Should Have Said No."  Jennifer Eckes sang about her love of bald men in "I Want Them."  The next performance featured a delightful dance number by Brian Sostek and Megan McClellan of Sossy Mechanics, preceeded by a cute little voice from the audience crying, "Mommy!  Daddy!"

Local director Austene Van introduced her performance by saying that she usually stays behind the scenes, but was recently encouraged to share her voice with an audience.  It became clear a few seconds into the performance that she was joking, as she sang in a very over-exaggerated style with a very dramatic dancer behind her.  Very funny.

The next singer, however, was no joke.  I recently saw Melissa Hart in Frank Theatre's fabulous production of Cabaret.  A Broadway veteran, she was also involved in the original Broadway production of Cabaret.  She sang "Make Someone Happy," and her years of experience shone through in the way she emoted through the performance and sang to the audience.  Lucky for us, she now calls the Twin Cities home.

Joel Liestman was part of the Joseph cast and one of the people behind getting this event together.  He performed a comic ode to his lawn.  Next, Michael Gruber and one of my favorite Chanhassan regulars Tony Vierling performed "Moses Supposes" from Singing in the Rain (which Tony starred in a few years ago at the Chan).  In addition to some tongue-twisting lyrics, the performance included some pretty impressive tap-dancing.

The penultimate performance of the first act was by another one of my favorites, Bradley Greenwald.  He was brilliant as the emcee in Frank Theatre's Cabaret, among many other performances.  He sang the opening number from The Music Man, you know, the one that sounds like a train and includes the line "but he doesn't know the territory!"  It's super fast and contains a ton of lyrics, and was masterfully performed (although I'm glad I wasn't sitting in the front row at that point ;).  I'm pretty sure there's nothing Bradley can't do.

The first act ended with the always thrilling Mu Daiko.  A Japanese drumming group that's part of Mu Performing Arts, their presence seemed appropriate to the theme of the evening and was an entertaining and rousing combination of percussion and choreography.

The second act began with a performance of "Any Dream Will Do" by the cast of Joseph.  Another one of my favorites, from Theater Latte Da, the Chanhassan, and other theaters, Randy Schmeling, sang the lead (I also happened to be sitting next to Randy's biggest fan - his mom).  Connie Kunkle joined him, as did much of the cast, including a few children.

Ann Michels, who's been in too many amazing shows to mention, sang a beautiful song called "Christmas Lullaby."  She was accompanied on the piano by George Maurer, with whom she frequently performs as part of the George Maurer Jazz Group.  George later performed an original solo piece called "Purple Muppets," which combined classic rock, TV theme songs, and classical piano pieces.  In a very funny intro to this song, he said he wrote it as therapy for his "pianist's envy."  I have a few of his CDs but have never seen him live; I'm thinking now I need to make sure that happens soon.

James Rocco proved that he's not just the man behind the scenes as the Artistic Director of the Ordway when he sang a fast, jazzy song called "Cloudburst."  Connie Kunkle came back to center stage to sing "I've Got No Strings."

I just adore Jim Lichtscheidl; he never fails to crack me up.  He's currently appearing as Captain Bluntschli in Arms and the Man at the Guthrie, but he's recently made a name for himself by playing multiple characters in one piece.  He's brilliant at differentiating the characters through the tone of his voice and the carriage of his body.  Now I know he can do it in dance too!  He performed a hilarious dance/comedy routine in which his partner dropped out at the last minute, leaving him a "Dear Jim" letter which he sheepishly read on stage.  He then proceeded to do both parts of the dance, holding a dress on a hanger in front of him when he was doing the female part.  Brilliantly entertaining, as usual.

I had just seen Regina Marie Williams the day before in Ten Thousand Things' delightful Man of La Mancha, in which she plays the prostitute Aldonza, aka the lady Dulcinea.  She's wonderful in that role, and last night sang a beautiful, jazzy rendition of "Come Rain or Come Shine."  Erin Schwab followed that with a wacky performance of "Somebody to Love" (because nothing puts you in the mood to give like a hootenanny Queen song).  She had the audience help her out with the chorus, which I was able to do because I knew the song from Glee (my window into the world of popular music).  In addition to being very funny, she has a killer voice too.

The next performance featured my favorite local actor, Dieter Bierbrauer, in a performance from his recent Off-Broadway show Power Balladz.  His co-star from the 2009 Lab Theater version of the 80s jukebox musical, Randy Schmeling, joined him for "Wanted, Dead or Alive" (one of the few 80s songs I know despite never being featured on Glee).  They gave a very hammy, sincere performance of the song with dramatic poses and facial expressions.  But they both have outstanding voices individually that blend together beautifully, so even though they were playing it for laughs, it sounded gorgeous and rich.

The final individual performance of the night was given by Tokyo native Momoko Tanno.  It was very moving to hear her talk about her home and family, and then sing a Japanese song which translated to "My Country Home."  It made the recent tragedy seem a little more real.

Finally, all of the performers joined Jen Burleigh-Bentz and Jake Endres singing "You'll Never Walk Alone."  It was just thrilling to hear all of those amazing voices blend together in this inspirational song.  Which brings me to the business portion of the evening.  The Japanese people need our help.  If you're like me and you've been meaning to make a contribution to the Red Cross, but just haven't gotten around to it, maybe this will serve as a good reminder, as it did for me.  If so, you can go to the Red Cross website and click on "Donate Now" in the upper right-hand corner.  You can then check "Japan Earthquake and Pacific Tsunami" if that's where you want your donation to go.

Thanks to all of the artists and behind-the-scenes people who donated their time to bring this wonderful evening to reality and raise money for a good cause.  I only wish more people had been there to see it!

"Man of La Mancha" by Ten Thousand Things at Minnesota Opera Center

I failed in my quest today - my quest to find a pair of yellow shoes.  But if I learned anything from Don Quixote, it's that it doesn't matter if you fail in your quest, it only matters that you have a quest and continue to strive for it no matter what obstacles you encounter.  There's nobility and grace in that.  So even though I may never find the perfect pair of yellow pumps, I'll continue to search for them.

That's kind of a silly analogy, but Ten Thousand Things' Man of La Mancha is kind of silly.  And I mean that as the highest compliment.  It's playful and profound at the same time.  The play-within-a-play set in a prison seems like a perfect choice for Ten Thousand Things, considering a large part of their work is performing in prisons.  I imagine it has a different sort of poignancy in those locations than it did in the spacious room at the Minnesota Opera Center where I saw it.

Man of La Mancha is a musical based on Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes's seventeenth century novel Don Quixote.  Cervantes is the main character in the piece, a poet who, after being thrown in prison, pleads his case to the other prisoners by telling the story of a crazy old man who thinks he's a knight named Don Quixote.  Cervantes and his servant act out the story, and the other prisoners also play roles, at first reluctantly, and then enthusiastically.  Steven Epp (whom I last saw in The Homecoming in Baltimore) is crazy brilliant as the mild-mannered poet who transforms into the charmingly insane knight.  His version of the signature song, "To Dream the Impossible Dream," is different than you've ever heard it.  It starts off as a vulnerable, unsure, almost whispered idea of a dream, and grows into the strong confident voice of a man fighting against all odds.  It brought tears to my eyes.

Cervantes' servant and Quixote's squire Sancho Panza (whom Quixote calls Tonto, Santa, and various other names in a running gag throughout the show) is played by Luverne Siefert.  I've seen Luverne in a few different productions over the last year, and I've come to believe he's a true clown, in the best sense of the word.  He can take a simple throwaway line and turn it into the funniest joke, just through his line delivery or the expression on his face or way he moves across the stage (or in this case, floor).  He's truly a delight to watch.  Regina Marie Williams (who was also in TTT's recent production of Doubt) plays the prostitute Aldonza whom Don Quixote sees as the beautiful lady Dulcinea.  This is a woman who lives a hard life with no beauty in it, and because of the way this man speaks to her and treats her, she begins to believe in herself and the world again.  Rounding out the cast and playing multiple roles are Tracey Maloney, Matt Guidry, and T. Mychael Rambo (who lets his amazing voice ring out a few times during the show).  It's so much fun to watch this cast work together and with the audience.  Since the show is performed in the same style as it is on location, the lights are up, so the actors frequently look at the audience and make side comments.  At one point Quixote grabbed someone's program to make a dagger to fight with, and Steven handed part of it back saying, "my bio's in there."  I was sitting in the front row very close to the action; I was afraid someone was going to end up in my lap!  One of the beautiful things about watching a Ten Thousand Things production is that it's so intimate and immediate, you really feel like a part of the show.  It's almost like watching the neighborhood kids put on a show in the basement, if only your neighborhood were populated with the most talented actors, directors, and musicians in the Twin Cities.

In typical Ten Thousand Things style, the music is less of a focus than in the typical production of a musical, focusing instead on the story, in which conversations morph into songs and back into speaking.  That's not to say that the music and sounds (by Music Director Peter Vitale and Michael Pearce Donley) are not lovely, but it's not the lush musical sound you might expect from a musical.  The props all come out of Cervantes' box and include a muffin tin for armor, brooms for horses and/or lances, and a metal bowl as a helmet.  It's sort of a double suspension of disbelief, as the prisoners make do with what they have to tell the story, and we as an audience go right there with them.  It's a truly magical transformation.

Don Quixote is only defeated when forced to look into a mirror and face reality.  All of his noble dreams fall away and he's just a simple, sick, old man again.  But that spark is still in there, as at the end of his life he remembers.  Don Quixote sees life as it could be, not as it is.  Because sometimes "too much sanity is madness," which I think was never more true than it is today.  I rarely watch the news because it's overwhelming and depressing to focus on all that is wrong with the world.  The world of Don Quixote is a much nicer place to be, at least for 90 minutes on a Sunday afternoon.  The show is playing for two more weekends, check it out if you want to escape from reality for a little while and be taken on a wonderful journey.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Bobby McFerrin at Orchestra Hall

If all you know about Bobby McFerrin is his 1988 pop hit "Don't Worry, Be Happy," you don't know Bobby McFerrin.  That song was just a blip in his long career as a composer, conductor, and vocalist with a 4-octave range "on a good night" (as he said in the Q&A portion of the show).  I saw him in concert for the third time last night; the first time was six years ago, and I also saw him a few years ago with the vocal ensemble Cantus.  In his solo shows, Bobby's alone on stage with only a microphone, a chair, and a bottle of water.  He creates an entire world of music with nothing but his voice and body.  He can do things with is voice that I've never heard anyone else do.  But the best part about a Bobby McFerrin performance is the pure joy with which he performs, and that he brings out in everyone watching him.

Bobby's concerts are the most interactive concerts I've ever been to.  He gets the audience to sing along with him and directs them like a choir.  At one point the audience sang "Ave Maria" while he provided the rhythm.  Usually you don't have to ask me twice to sing at a concert, but I draw the line at "Ave Maria."  Fortunately there were some people in the audience much more talented than I, and it sounded lovely.  In both solo shows I've seen, he also invites the audience on stage to sing and dance with him.  Last night about a dozen people went up to dance with him, from amateurs and children to people who obviously had some training in dance.  They'd improvise a dance while he improvised the music, both parties reveling in the joy of the music.  He also sang duets with a few many people, asking them to sing whatever song they wanted while he accompanied them.  He did this part a little differently when I saw him six years ago.  Instead of asking for volunteers, he went out into the audience and would go up to someone and start singing a few bars until they sang along with him, and then he'd improvise around them.  I was sitting near the front next to an empty seat on the aisle, so I had a feeling he'd choose me.  And he did!  He had me sing a simple three-note melody, and then he sang along with me.  I can clearly remember singing with him and looking into his eyes, feeling the joy.  It was a beautiful moment.

One of my favorite things that Bobby does is a Wizard of Oz medley, in which he sings the songs and does all the different voices and even acts out some of the scenes.  Check it out:

Friends, if you ever get a chance to see Bobby McFerrin sing anywhere, with anyone, at any time, take it.  I promise you won't be disappointed.  It's always a joyous occasion.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

"Next Fall" at the Jungle Theater

Next Fall is one of those plays that will make you laugh, cry, and reevaluate what you think about certain issues (which happens to be my favorite kind of play!).  Directed by Joel Sass at the Jungle Theater, Next Fall tells the story of two gay men in a committed relationship whose lives change irreversibly when one of them is involved a freak tragic accident.  The play begins in the waiting room of the hospital, where Luke's friends and family have gathered as he lies unconscious in his hospital bed.  The story of Luke and Adam's relationship is told through flashbacks, which alternate with present-day scenes in the hospital.  Luke and Adam love each other and have made a life together, despite very different worldviews.  Luke is a devout Christian who believes in heaven and hell, while Adam is an atheist who can't understand how Luke can continue to believe despite what his faith has to say about homosexuality.  Somehow Luke is able to reconcile that contradiction, something his Christian friend Brandon can't accept.  But both Adam and Brandon start to rethink their opposing positions when faced with the possible loss of someone important to them.

Luke's southern Christian parents are also there in the waiting room, and neither one knows that Luke is gay and living with Adam.  Luke has always been afraid to tell them, despite Adam's urging to do so.  When it comes time for decisions to be made about Luke's care, his parents are legally responsible, and Adam has no say.  When Adam's relationship with Luke comes to light, there are some tense moments, but in the end, they realize that they all love Luke, and begin to listen to and comfort each other.

OK that sounds really depressing, but there are also quite a few humorous moments as we watch Luke and Adam's relationship unfold through flashbacks.  And Luke's eccentric mother (Maggie Bearmon Pistner) provides many humorous moments as she interacts with the others in the waiting room.  It's a "laugh through your pain" kind of show.

Garry Geiken (whom I saw recently in Latte Da's Song of Extinction) gives a funny and heart-breaking performance as Adam, and Neal Skoy (in his Twin Cities professional stage debut) is quite charming as Luke.  Stephen Yoakam (who was recently named best actor by City Pages for his performance in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf at the Jungle last year) allows Luke's father's deep feelings for his son to peek through his tough exterior, and has a wonderfully subtle and believable accent.

Luke is an actor, and his family and friends keep talking about his performance in the play Our Town a few years ago (which fortunately I saw recently at Yellow Tree, so I understood the reference).  The theme of Our Town is that people don't usually appreciate life to its fullest until it's over.  Next Fall has a similar theme.  It's a play about loss and regret, but also about love and togetherness and living the life you want to live.

*A note to my fellow theater-goers.  Please make sure to turn off your cell phone when you enter the theater.  And then double-check to make sure it's off.  And if you don't know how to turn off your cell phone, don't bring it into the theater!  At a crucial moment during the play, someone's cell phone went off, which totally took me out of the moment.  It was very distracting and disappointing.  I wanted to reach for my remote and rewind a few minutes and watch that scene again!  So please, friends, make sure your phones are off!  Thank you.

Monday, April 11, 2011

"Heaven" by the Flying Foot Forum at the Guthrie Theater

It was a last minute decision to see Heaven yesterday.  I had heard about this dance/music/theater piece about an American photographer in the Bosnian war and was intrigued.  So when I found myself with a free Sunday afternoon, I decided to do what I most love to do on a Sunday afternoon - see a matinee.  It turned out to be one of the best decisions I've made recently; I'm so grateful I had the opportunity to see this amazing, intense, beautiful show!

Heaven is a production by the dance company Flying Foot Forum, directed by Artistic Director Joe Chvala (pronounced koala, as the lovely woman sitting next to me who knew Joe as a child told me).  They specialize in a style of dance called "percussive dance," and while the dancing is definitely an integral part of the storytelling, I wasn't expecting Heaven to be as much of a classic musical theater piece as it is.  The music (written by Chan Poling) is of various styles, ranging from traditional music of Eastern Europe, to a classic musical theater love song.  I found the score to be inventive, original, moving, and memorable; if there were a soundtrack available, I would buy it!

But let me start at the beginning.  The Guthrie website warned audience members to be in their seats 15 minutes before the show started for the "pre-show entertainment."  The stage is set up as a cafe, and while the wonderful band (directed by Jake Endres and featuring the amazing vocals of Natalie Nowytski) plays traditional music, people start filtering into the cafe, greeting each other, talking, laughing, dancing.  It feels like a welcoming neighborhood sort of place; I wish this place were real and I were a part of it.  Then the dancing starts to get more aggressive, and like in the school dance scene in West Side Story, dancing turns into fighting turns into dancing again.  The proprietor of the establishment (played by Joe Chvala) breaks up the fight, and welcomes the audience to "Cafe Heaven," where "all are welcome."  But be careful, because the sentiment "all are welcome" also applies to "Cafe Hell" across the street.  And as the story unfolds, it becomes clear just how short a journey it is from one place to the other.

The protagonist of the story is Peter Adamson, an American photographer (played by the wonderful Doug Scholz-Carlson, who is so good I'm surprise I haven't seen him in anything before).  Peter is in Bosnia to serve as a witness to the atrocities of war, hoping he can somehow change the world.  After three years he's become jaded and convinced that no one can do anything to help.  A few days before shipping out, he meets a man named Faruk and agrees to go on one last mission to help him find his wife.  The experiences he has on the journey and the people he meets prove to be life-changing, in more ways than one.  He gets the one shot that lands him the front page of the New York Times, that might possibly bring awareness and an end to the senseless killing.  But he's conflicted about his success because he knows that there's much more behind the photograph.  In the end, he finds he can't leave this place and its people behind.

This is mostly an ensemble piece, and what a talented ensemble!  Most of the actors play multiple roles from soldiers to citizens and everything in between.  Joe Chvala and Sherwin Resurreccion serve as narrators and guides through much of the action, and display the percussive dance style to great effect.  The lovely-voiced Laurel Armstrong (whom I recently saw in Into the Woods at the Bloomington Civic Theatre, which Joe Chvala also directed) plays Lejla, a woman that Peter meets along the way (the afore-mentioned love song).  Eric Webster is the hardened and bitter soldier Faruk who wants nothing more than to live a life in peace, reunited with his wife.  All of the dancers are amazing, expressing the frustration and pain and hopefulness of the people through their dance.  It's quite impressive what that many dancers can do in such a small space as the Dowling Studio!

Another interesting feature of this piece is the use of images.  Often when Peter takes a photograph, that photograph is projected onto the backdrop of the set, giving the audience a chance to see the world through Peter's lens.

This is the kind of musical I wish were prevalent on Broadway today, instead of umpteen movie and TV show adaptations and jukebox musicals.  Original musical theater that uses music and movement to tell an interesting, relevant, meaningful, entertaining story, and to help us make sense of the world we live in.  That's what musical theater can, and should, do.  And when that happens, there's nothing better.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

"Avenue Q" at Mixed Blood Theatre

The Tony award-winning musical Avenue Q is Sesame Street for adults.  Particularly young adults in their early 20s who are transitioning to adulthood and realizing that Sesame Street didn't tell the whole story.  The happy sing-song-y score sounds like something you would hear on a kids' show, but with songs like "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist," "Schadenfreude," "It Sucks to Be Me," "If You Were Gay," and "The Internet is For Porn," you know you're not in kids territory anymore!  The show is delightfully irreverent and non-PC; pretty much every ethnicity and social group gets skewered.  But in the end it's a hopeful story about friendship and enjoying what you have in life when you have it, because "everything in life is only for now."  I've seen the show on Broadway and on tour, and Mixed Blood's production (directed by Artistic Director Jack Reuler) is just as wonderful and inventive.

Like Sesame Street, many of the characters in Avenue Q are puppets.  Mostly human puppets but a few monsters as well (aka people of fur).  But unlike Sesame Street, the actors portraying the puppets are completely visible.  The puppets were designed to look like their human counterparts and they wear identical clothing, so it's almost like you're seeing double.  This amazing cast does a fantastic job of matching their human emotions and movements to their puppet's emotions and movements.  The human emoting complements the puppet's movements so the puppet actually looks sad or confused or upset.

The show is perfectly cast, not a weak link among them.  In the Broadway/touring version several of the actors do double duty as more than one character.  There's less of that here; instead, several of the actors join the band (led by Jason Hansen) when they're not onstage.  In fact, there's only one member of the band who doesn't also play a character onstage.  The most ingenious example of this is Eric Mayson, who plays Trekkie Monster and also plays bass in the band.  He's dressed in black with a full-sized monster puppet strapped to his back.  He walks around backwards onstage, and then goes back to the band with Trekkie still on his back while he plays the guitar.  There is one instance of an actor playing dual roles; like in the Broadway version, the same actor plays our monster heroine, Kate Monster, and her nemesis, the sleazy lounge singer Lucy T. Slut (her name says it all).  Bonnie Allen does this brilliantly, at times having conversations with herself, smoothly going back and forth between the boozy, throaty voice of Lucy and the girlish voice of Kate (Ruth Christianson inhabits the puppet Kate when Lucy's on stage).  The center point of this triangle is Princeton, the naive and idealistic newcomer to Avenue Q who learns that adulthood isn't as easy as he thought.  I've seen Tom Reed before in a different incarnation - as Lounge-asaurus Rex, host of Sample Night Live (a monthly showcase of the local arts/music/theater scene), which I saw once last fall and am still hoping to get back to sometime soon.  Tom is very funny and clever as Loung-asaurus Rex, ad libbing songs and entertaining the audience between the acts.  But I could hear a great voice behind the comedy, which he shows off in this show.  Other puppet residents of Avenue Q include roommates Rod and Nicky (think Bert and Ernie).  Seth Tucker will break your heart as Rod, the closeted gay Republican investment banker who wants nothing more than to be loved.  He dreams one night of having his love for Nicky (Brian Skellenger, one of my Chanhassen faves) returned, and it's a beautifully cheesy and romantic scene with the puppets flying and twirling through the air (Lauren Chapman choreographed the puppet and human movements).  The non-puppet residents of Avenue Q include engaged couple Brian ("unemployed and turning 33") and Christmas Eve (a stereotypical Japanese immigrant who has two masters degrees but can't get a job), played by Shawn Hamilton (who also plays the sax, onstage and off) and Rose Le Tran.  The superintendent of Avenue Q is none other than Gary Coleman (Brittany Bradford) - "I had a lot of money that was stolen by my folks."  Rounding out the cast of characters are the adorably sinister "bad idea bears" who represent that little voice inside of us that says things like "spend all your money on beer!" or "have a long island iced tea, they're yummy!"  You know it's a bad idea, but they're so darn cute they're impossible to resist!

I didn't realize the Mixed Blood Theatre was a black box theater until I walked in and the stage was on the opposite end of the room.  The brick townhomes of the Broadway/touring production have been replaced by simple black and grey boxes with sliding sections that reveal the various apartments in the building.  It's an efficient and clever use of space, with scene changes accompanied by drum solos by Andy Mark.

This is a fabulous show.  If you're familiar with this blog, you know I love everything.  But really, this production is fun, hilarious, accessible, light-hearted, and heart-warming, with great performances of catchy, singable songs.  The house was packed last night and the audience was clearly having a good time.  It's playing through the end of the month, so get your tickets now!

Update: the show has been extended through May 29.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

"Arms and the Man" at the Guthrie Theater

My season ticket for the proscenium theater at the Guthrie (the rectangular, red one) is in the front row.  Those are the cheap seats, under the theory that they're "too close."  But in my book, there is no "too close" at the theater.  I like to be close enough to be in danger of being spat upon (which was a definite danger at this performance!).  I like to be able to see the expressions on the actors' faces, and I feel more immersed in the world the closer I am, with no distractions between me and the stage.  Depending on the show and the set design, sometimes there's a row or two added in front of me, but not at this show.  The stage for Arms and the Man includes a rounded wooden projection that came out practically into my lap!  The stage ended about three feet in front of me at nose level.  All along the edge of the stage is a row of toy soldiers and old books, so I had to watch the play through the soldiers.  It was a little distracting when the action of the play was at the back of the stage, but I soon got used to it.  Well worth it to be that close to the charming small town Bulgarian estate that was the setting for this play.

George Bernard Shaw's play Arms and the Man is set during the Serbo-Bulgarian war of 1885.  The first of three acts takes place in the bedchamber of the daughter of a prominent Bulgarian family, while her father is off fighting in the war.  Raina's peaceful evening is interrupted when the Serbian soldiers are chased through the town and one of the men, a professional soldier from Switzerland, climbs through the window of her room to escape.  He's weary from battle, and Raina decides to hide him (out of pity or boredom, it's hard to know).  The soldier is played by one of my favorite local actors (and one of my costars from the Coen brothers film A Serious Man), Jim Lichtsheidl.  Jim is brilliant at playing multiple characters, as he did in last fall's 39 Steps, and Tiny Kushner (part of Kushnerfest 2009), just to name a few.  He has this great physicality about him that allows him to completely transform into another character.  This time his only role is that of Captain Bluntschli, and it turns out he's just as wonderful when he's only one person.  The weary captain wants nothing more than food and rest, having eaten all of the chocolate he carries instead of ammunition.  Raina offers him chocolate creams, which he devours, and thereafter refers to him as "my chocolate cream soldier."  She convinces her mother to let him stay, but since he's fallen into a deep sleep on her bed, they couldn't move him anyway!

After a brief intermission (during which the audience is entertained by music and dancing by J.C. Cutler's Nicola, the family servant), Act II takes place a few months later in the garden outside the house.  Father has returned from the war, as has Raina's betrothed, the brave and buffoonish Sergius.  They tell Raina and her mother about a scandalous story of Swiss soldier who was taken in by two women, not realizing that they were talking to those very women!  When Captain Bluntschli arrives to return the coat he borrowed, Raina's mother tries to shoo him off, but not before Father has seen him and asked him to stay for lunch.  In Act III the characters move inside into the library, where it is eventually revealed that Raina and her mother are the ones who hid Captain Bluntschli, and romantic entanglements become untangled.

The strong cast also features the amazing Peter Michael Goetz, veteran of over 80 productions at the Guthrie in addition to his numerous movie and TV roles.  He plays the father/major as a somewhat befuddled man who's not quite sure what's going on in his own house.  Kate Eifrig is the stern and in control woman of the house, trying to hide a secret and ensure a good marriage for her daughter.  Michael Schantz (a Guthrie newcomer) is terrifically over-the-top as the "hero" Sergius who's obsessed with the proper appearance of things, even while cheating on his fiance with her maid.  Raina (the delightful and spirited Mariko Nakasone) is right there with him, playing the game, until she realizes that Captain Bluntschli is the one person who sees her as she really is, and therefore she has no need to act the part in from of him.

The set is wonderful and whimsical.  In addition to the toy soldiers mentioned earlier, the snowy mountaintops of Bulgaria surround the main set, of which there are three: Raina's bedchamber with its stately balcony doors through which the soldier arrives, the garden with big purple flowers and a free-hanging second story representing the house, and the library with its tall shelves and animal heads hanging on the walls.  Everything is oversized and utterly charming.  The costumes are to die for.  Raina and her mother wear beautiful gowns (and since I was on shoe level I got a great look at Raina's pretty little low-heeled satin slippers that match her dresses) and the men wear elaborate uniforms, everything trimmed in fur.  Raina has a huge gorgeous fur cloak that I coveted (but of course in faux fur only!).

From the baked mac and cheese at the Level Five Cafe before the show, to Captain Bluntschli's final kiss of Raina's hand, it was a thoroughly enjoyable evening at the Guthrie.  A funny and smart play, wonderful acting, gorgeous set and costumes, what more does one need?