Saturday, May 28, 2011

"Arsenic and Old Lace" at the Guthrie Theater

Who knew murder could be so funny?  I'd never seen the 1944 movie Arsenic and Old Lace but I knew the general idea - sweet old ladies who poison people.  It was great fun to watch it all unfold in hilarious fashion with a fantastic cast of Guthrie favorites, led by Sally Wingert (who has appeared in over 75 Guthrie productions) as Martha Brewster.  Her sister and partner in crime, Abby, is played by 1980-83 Guthrie company member Kristine Nielsen, whom I last saw as the storyteller in the weird and wonderful Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson on Broadway.  Both women are wonderful as the wealthy sisters who take their charity to lethal levels - putting "lonely" people out of their misery and giving them a lovely burial in their cellar.  They really think they're doing a kindness! 

Martha and Abby are not the only crazy Brewsters; madness runs in the family.  The sisters have three nephews.  Teddy (another Guthrie regular, Bob Davis) lives with them and thinks he's Teddy Roosevelt.  He dresses the part, thinks the basement is Panama, and yells "charge" every time he ascends the stairs.  Teddy's brother Mortimer (the always charming Jonas Goslow) seems quite normal and well-adjusted; he's a theater critic (which allows playwright Joseph Kesslring to get in many jokes about the theater and critics) and newly engaged.  His fiance Elaine (Kathryn Lawrey) is a smart and spunky minister's daughter, who's also a neighbor and friend of the Brewster sisters (and she wears fabulous shoes).  Mortimer loves his aunties and is quite shocked when he stumbles upon their dirty little secret.  Instead of turning them in, he tries to find a way to protect them and get them out of the situation, even though they don't think they need any help. 

The third brother is the long absent Jonathan, who left town as a troubled teenager, and continued in his devious ways.  He's on the run from the law and comes home to hide, bringing some baggage with him.  Jonathan (Tyson Forbes) is a tall, creepy figure out of an old horror movie (his face has been surgically altered to look like Boris Karloff).  Accompanying him is his plastic surgeon accomplice Dr. Einsten (the hilarious Kris Nelson, who recently showed his dramatic side in Ten Thousand Things' Doubt, in which he co-starred with Sally Wingert).  The aunts and Mortimer try to get rid of Jonathan, but he insists on staying.  He soon discovers their secret and uses that as leverage.  In the end, Mortimer devises a complicated plan to solve the aunts' problem as well as get rid of his criminal brother, with the help of some bumbling police officers who happen to come in at the right time.  And his fears about going mad like the rest of his family are alleviated when he finds out an interesting bit of news about his past.

The entire play takes place in the Brewster family home in Brooklyn.  The two-story set looks like a child's dollhouse cracked open to reveal the details of a charming traditional old home.

Arsenic and Old Lace, directed by Artistic Director Joe Dowling, is another quality production from the Guthrie.  Which reminds me, it's time to renew my season subscription!  The 2011-2012 season, which will be my ninth season as a subscriber, features Shakespeare, Greek tragedy, Neil Simon, Tennessee Williams, a Cole Porter musical, and a production with the Penumbra Theatre Company.  A little bit of everything and a lot I'm not familiar with.  Which should add up to another great season.

Friday, May 20, 2011

"Next to Normal" at the Ordway Center

I first saw Next to Normal two years ago on Broadway, shortly after it opened.  I went into the show knowing next to nothing about it, other than it was getting some good buzz, and it was about a family dealing with mental illness.  That's unusual for me; I usually know something about the show I'm seeing and sometimes even get the soundtrack before I see the show.  But this was the perfect way to see Next to Normal.  I was completely blown away by it.  It's really unlike any other musical I've seen.  It's not just the subject matter that makes it unique, but also the small cast (just six actors), modern and affective set, and driving rock score.  It never lets up; you go on a journey with this family and end up emotionally exhausted.  I saw it again on Broadway last year, which is also unusual.  I typically don't spend two precious NYC days on the same show!  But Next to Normal is worth it.  The show closed on Broadway in January and is now touring across the country, with a stop at St. Paul's Ordway Center this month.  This is the third time I've seen it, and Alice Ripley has starred in the show each time.  She only gets better each time I see her, and settles more comfortably into Diana's skin.  (Although there's really nothing comfortable about Diana or this show.)  She owns this role and we're so lucky she's traveling across the country sharing it with us all!

I don't want to say too much in case you have yet to see the show (tickets still available through this weekend!); it's best not to know too much going into it.  The basic story is this: Diana and her husband Dan married young and started a family.  They suffered a great tragedy that triggered Diana's bipolar disorder, which she's been dealing with for years.  Everyone in the family suffers in their own way.  Dan has to be the strong one as Diana falls apart, and therefore never gets the chance to deal with his own feelings about what happened.  Their children, Gabe and Natalie, live in the shadow of the tragedy and are trying to deal with it on top of the normal problems that come with adolescence.  Natalie's afraid that she'll follow in her mother's footsteps, and Diana's unable to be the mother that she wants to be.  Diana hits rock bottom and undergoes ECT (electroconvulsive therapy), aka shock therapy.  It erases her memories, both the good and the bad, and she struggles to get her life and family back.

As I mentioned earlier, Alice Ripley is brilliant as Diana, and the Tony voters agree with me; she won the Tony in 2009.  (As they say in [title of show], she's fierce!)  And she has a strong cast around her, including understudies Jason Watson as Dan and Caitlin Kinnunen as Natalie.  I would imagine that with such a vocally intense show and small cast, understudies go on often.  It's a seamless exchange; they're so comfortable in their roles and with the cast that you'd never know they didn't perform every night.  Completing the family is Curt Hansen as Gabe, who gives an electric performance.  Rounding out the cast are Preston Sadleir as Natalie's on again off again boyfriend Henry, who tries to help her move beyond the issues of her family, and Jeremy Kushnier as Diana's doctor, who in her hallucinations is sometimes her dance partner and sometimes a rock star.

The simple and modern set consists of three levels that represent the family's house, or maybe levels of consciousness.  It's a really inventive use of space; the actors run up and down the stairs and sing from the different levels.  The awesome band is scattered on either side of the top two levels.  The colors are cold and jarring; it's not a warm fuzzy home.

Tom Kitt (music) and Brian Yorkey (book and lyrics) won the Tony for best score, and I couldn't agree more.  It's one of my favorite and most played musical soundtracks (and I have a lot of musical soundtracks).  There isn't a whole lot of talking between the songs, which really drive the story forward and convey the emotions of the characters in a way mere words cannot.  It's at times angry, mournful, beautiful, funny, sad, resigned, gorgeously melodic, and fiercely staccato.  Just like the emotions the characters are going through.  My favorite song is "I'm Alive" sung by Gabe in the first act, but there are too many amazing songs to mention.  With such a small cast you can really hear the precise harmonies; the voices of the cast blend beautifully together, whether it's two, three, four, or all six of them.

This is not a show for the faint of heart.  It'll bring up emotions in you that you didn't know you had.  Even if your life hasn't been touched by mental illness, there's likely something in the dysfunctional but loving Goodman family that you can relate to.  I saw the show with two good friends of mine last year and they got into a seriously intense argument that spilled out onto the streets of New York City after the show.  It's that kind of show.  And that's why I love it.  It's everything that I want musical theater to be: smart, funny, original, relevant, and emotional.  It makes you feel something.

I saw the show on a Wednesday night, which is when the Ordway frequently does their "Ordway Extra" pre-show, as well as a post-show talkback with the actors.  The pre-show talk was by a local psychiatrist from the University of Minnesota and one of his patients, who has been diagnosed with schizophrenia.  He bravely told his story, which was remarkably similar to Diana's.  One thing that struck me was when he said that after he started taking meds and his delusions of being followed ended, he felt empty.  Diana sings about that in "I Miss the Mountains."  The meds smooth out the highs and lows and she ends up feeling nothing.  After the show, our Dan and Natalie, Jason Watson and Caitlin Kinnunen, came out to answer questions, along with Pearl Sun, understudy for Diana (who thankfully did not perform that night, no offense to Ms. Sun, but I would have been quite disappointed not to see Alice!).  They talked about what it's like to perform in such an important and well-respected show, what it's like to be an understudy, and several other topics.

I know I throw around the word "favorite" a lot, but if I were forced to pick my top five musicals, this would definitely earn a place on the list.  If you're a fan of theater (and if you're reading this blog you probably are), trust me, go see this show.  You will not be disappointed.  Emotionally spent, yes, but not disappointed.  It's not every day that a Tony-winner reprises her role here in Minnesota, so that alone should get you to the theater!  Add to that one of the best musicals written in the last decade, and it's really a no-brainer.  OK I'll stop now.  But really, go see it.  ;)

Here are Alice Ripley with original cast members J. Robert Spencer and Aaron Tveit performing "You Don't Know/I Am the One" at the 2009 Tony Awards.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

"Come Hell and High Water" by The Moving Company at the Southern Theater

Come Hell and High Water is the third show of my Southern Theater season, which includes four plays I’d never heard of by small local theater companies unknown to me. Like the previous shows in the season (Theatre Novi Most’s Oldest Story in the World and Four Humors Theater’s Age of Wordsworth), Come Hell and High Water is not your typical evening at the theater. All of these shows stretch the definition of theater and play with music and movement as storytelling devices. This is what makes theater fun for me.  I never know just what to expect when I go to the Southern Theatre, but I'm always delighted and surprised by what I see.

Come Hell and High Water is a production of a new theater company called The Moving Company ("we do theatre"), founded by Steve Epp and Dominique Serrand of Theatre de la Juene Lune, which closed its doors in 2008.  Sadly, I was only just beginning to become aware of all of the amazing and varied theater companies in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area at that time, so I never saw a Jeune Lune production, for which I am now kicking myself. But hopefully a bit of their spirit lives on in this new company.  Their mission is "to create and produce new and challenging theatre that builds on the past, is grounded in the present, and looks to the future. To maintain and nourish an atmosphere for the development of new ideas."

Come Hell and High Water is an adaptation of William Faulkner’s novella Old Man. Steve Epp (who I’ve seen twice previously this year, in The Homecoming at Center Stage in Baltimore, and recently as the title character in Ten Thousand Thing’s Man of La Mancha) adapted the story and plays the old man. As the play opens, the "old man" wanders in from the street, recently released from prison in New Orleans on the brink of Hurricane Katrina.  He begins to recount his experience as a prisoner during the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 (the most destructive river flood in US history).  Nathan Keepers plays his younger self, and both actors are onstage for the majority of the 90 minute show. Steve and Nathan do a wonderful job of playing one character, often completing each others sentences or speaking in unison, and adopting the same voice and mannerisms. By the end of the show I felt like they were one person.  Back in 1927, the old man is a young man in prison for attempting to rob a train. When the flood comes he’s given a boat and told to rescue a woman in a tree and a man on a roof. He never finds the man, but he rescues the very pregnant woman.  She gives birth as they float down the river to New Orleans.  It’s a transformative event in both of their lives.

This production features beautiful and eclectic music. Most of it is music of the time and place, a traditional Americana sound (which I love). Other than voices, the only instrument is a guitar played by Per Halaas.  Christina Baldwin is responsible for the music arrangement and also plays the woman in the tree. She has an incredible range, both in the notes she can sing and in the styles of music she can sing. I’ve seen her in such diverse shows as Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance at the Guthrie (one of my all-time favorite Guthrie shows) and Grey Gardens at the Ordway, in which she played Little Edie. In this show she sings everything from "Peace in the Valley” to a classical piece. The ensemble of about a dozen people, curiously dressed as a priest, a mailman, and other seemingly displaced characters, provides the musical backdrop and witnesses the story unfolding. They also play with water, at times making music with it. At the end of the show water rains down on the Southern Theater, and it’s a beautiful release.  (No need to bring an umbrella, the audience doesn't get wet. ;)

As I mentioned, there's water on set, in bins set into something like kitchen counters. There's also a refrigerator on stage, and everything has a water mark a few feet above the ground as if it had been through a flood. One of my favorite parts of the set is a sort of teeter-totter – a wooden plank balancing on a stack of sandbags. It serves as a boat for part of the story, and the convict and the pregnant woman perform a magical balancing act that looks effortless and graceful.  But I imagine that it took hours of rehearsal to get it that way!  Another unique feature of the show is a deer played by dancer Katelyn Skelley with all the skittishness and grace you'd expect in a deer.  Why there's a deer in the flood I'm not sure, but it adds another unique and beautiful element to the play.

This show is a timely piece with the recent flooding along the Mississippi River (was there ever a time when the Mississippi didn’t flood?). Come Hell and High Water uses water and floods as a way to explore themes of the past, regret, racism, hope, and hopelessness. As the old man says in the opening line of the show, “The past is never dead. It ain’t even past. It’s just there… same as a river.” This is a really beautiful production of a new work that’s inventive, surprising, moving, entertaining, and a pure pleasure to watch.

Monday, May 9, 2011

"Jesus Christ Superstar" at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres

I don't think I need to explain to anyone what Jesus Christ Superstar is about (except for my sister, who asked me, so what's the show about?).  It's the story of, obviously, Jesus of Nazareth and the last days of his life, as told in the form of a rock musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber.  What I didn't realize going into the show, however, is that there's virtually no talking.  It's pretty much two and a half hours of straight singing, and pretty intense singing at that.  Unfortunately, the two leads - Ben Bakken as Jesus and Jared Oxborough as Judas - had the night off when I saw the show.  Their understudies did a great job, but Jared (who was so amazing as Che in Theater Latte Da's Evita last fall) is one of those actors I would go see in anything, and I like Ben too, so I was disappointed to see that dreaded slip of paper in the playbill.  That being said, it was another great night of theater at the Chan, if a little more heavy than usual.

The show began with a love-fest, people wandering onto the stage and greeting each other and their teacher Jesus with hugs and smiles.  But we soon find out that not everything is as pleasant as it seems.  Judas is not happy with the direction things are taking.  And Jesus is overwhelmed by his followers' adoration of him.  Mary Magdalene seems to be the only person who really understands his very human struggles, and soothes him with the song "Everything's Alright."  Michelle Carter gives a beautiful performance as Mary, especially the haunting "I Don't Know How to Love Him."  Both understudies gave a fine performance, as is usually the case.  Jake Klinkhammer as Jesus did an amazing job.  He has a beautiful strong voice and his performance of the song "Gethsemane," in which Jesus questions his fate, was powerful.  Even though Jesus is the title role, I think Judas has the larger role, driving much of the plot.  Broadway veteran Michael Gruber (who performed a charming tap dance with cast-member Tony Vierling at the Twin Cities Theatre Artists Support Japan benefit concert a few weeks ago) was Judas, and did a great job with the complex role.

The show was directed by Michael Brindisi and choreographed by Tamara Kangas Erickson, and they had a big job because there's a huge ensemble cast.  As usual at the Chanhassen, they're all great.  A lot of faces I recognize from countless shows, and I saw a few new ones too.  One of the highlights is the brief but entertaining performance by the always hilarious Jay Albright as King Herod.

The Chanhassen always puts on a quality performance with talented performers and this show is no exception.  It's a little darker and more intense than their usual shows, but really well done.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

[title of show] at Yellow Tree Theatre

I'd rather be nine people's favorite thing than a hundred people's ninth favorite thing.  That's a line from the brilliantly funny musical about musicals [title of show], and it's also my new goal for this blog.  Since I started Cherry and Spoon about nine months ago, I've been trying to figure out what I want it to be, what my goals are, and why I'm doing it.  How do I measure success - monthly page views (1000+), number of followers (9), number of Facebook likes (28)?  [title of show] says just do something for the love of it and don't worry about pleasing everyone.  Don't settle for mediocrity, and even if most people think you're weird or crazy, maybe nine people will love it.  And that's a pretty cool thing.

[title of show] is "a musical about two guys writing a musical about two guys writing a musical."  It was written by Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell, aka "two nobodys in New York," as an entry into the New York Musical Theater Festival in 2004, where it was accepted for production and later went on to play off and on Broadway.  Hunter and Jeff are the main characters, and the show chronicles its own creation in a trippy "show within a show" kind of way.  It's sort of like standing between two mirrors; you're not sure if what you're seeing is the real thing or its reflection.  Hunter and Jeffy recruit their wacky and talented friends Heidi and Susan to help them create and star in the show.  It's really about the love of musical theater and creation in general - creating something you love and watching it take off.  There are so many musical theater references, from John Cameron Mitchell to Kander and Ebb to Shubert Alley to the magical number 525,600, that I didn't even catch them all, and I'm a musical theater geek!  One of my favorite songs (I had to download the soundtrack after seeing the show) is "Original Musical," in which Hunter sings to Jeff about how hard it is to get an original musical on Broadway; it would be much easier "if it was a jukebox musical, a revival, or a recognizable commodity."  I was nodding my head as the list of musicals based on movies went on and on and on.  "So movies make good musicals?  Well, they make musicals."  (For a discussion of the jukebox musical vs. the original musical, see the footnote at the end of my recent Jersey Boys post.)  Some other fun songs are "Monkeys and Playbills," which is almost entirely composed of the titles of obscure musicals, and "Die, Vampire, Die," which talks about those little voices inside (or outside) our heads that tell us we can't, and how to banish those voices.  In a poignant moment, Heidi sings about living the life she dreamed of as a little girl in "A Way Back to Then."  This show goes from the ridiculous to the sublime, and back again.

[title of show] is a perfect match for Yellow Tree Theatre - small and intimate ("just four chairs and a keyboard"), funny, quirky, and featuring great songs.  Although I never thought I'd hear such a string of expletives coming from the stage of Yellow Tree Theatre.  But I liked it.  :)  I've found that musicals that use the f-word are usually f***ing brilliant - RENT, Spring Awakening, Avenue Q, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Next to Normal (go see it at the Ordway, featuring the fierce Alice Ripley, hey that's the first time I've ever used the word fierce, and that's the second!).  The four-person cast is comprised of four talented individuals who also have great chemistry and comfort with each other; they're really believable as friends.  I knew Mary Fox (Susan) could sing from her recent appearance in Our Town, for which she also recorded a soundtrack with Blake Thomas.  But I didn't know Jessica Lind (Heidi), co-founder of Yellow Tree, has such a gorgeous voice.  Andy Frye and J.C. Lippold (who from his bio appears to be the Mr. Schue of Maple Grove) play Hunter and Jeff.  They're both funny and natural and have great voices in addition to their wonderful chemistry together, and they rarely left the stage during the 90-minute show.  The audience was clearly having a good time going on the journey to Broadway with this group of four friends.

There's lots of youtube fun associated with this show, which I've only begun to enjoy.  In the show Hunter and Jeff talk about creating a youtube show called The [title of show] Show about getting [title of show] on Broadway.  That really exists and it's hilarious (you can watch it on the [title of show] youtube channel).  Also, check out this video of "Nine People's Favorite Things" featuring fans of the show, some famous and some just regular people.  I've watched it several times and see someone new each time.  (And if you watch closely you may see the CSB/SJU bus, which I spent four years riding!)

Thanks to Yellow Tree Theatre and the real Hunter, Jeff, Heidi, and Susan for sharing the love of musical theater, my favorite thing in the world.  This blog is my [title of show].  If you love musical theater, or any art form, go see this show while you still can!  I'll leave you with another one of my favorite quotes from the show, that speaks to what musical theater can do:

We could ask significant questions
We could get important points across
Like are we writing for art
And is art a springboard for fame
And will fame get folks to trust us
But will they trust us
If it’s just us
Me and you