Thursday, July 7, 2011

My Favorite Shows of the First Half of 2011

I’ve seen more than 30 local theater productions by almost 20 different theater companies so far in 2011. Now that the year is half over, I thought I’d reminisce about a few of my favorites.

[title of show], Yellow Tree Theatre
My favorite little theater in the ‘burbs produced this hilarious four-person musical about musicals, which was the perfect fit for their small intimate space (“four chairs and a keyboard”). This piece is like a love letter to musical theater, and the soundtrack is so much fun to listen to. The fantastic cast was obviously having just as good a time as the audience was. I also have to thank Yellow Tree for introducing me to the music of Blake Thomas in their production of Our Town. Check him out if you like real, original, authentic country music.

Cabaret, Frank Theatre
I love Cabaret; it can simultaneously make you laugh and break your heart. Starring Bradley Greenwald as the emcee and original Broadway cast member Melissa Hart as Fraulein Schneider, as well as a talented and diverse ensemble, this production by previously unknown-to-me Frank Theatre did just that. And it also introduced me to the perfectly lovely little theater on the Minnesota Centennial Showboat.

Heaven, Flying Foot Forum
This show gives me hope for the future of musical theater. In a time when it seems like just about every “new” musical on Broadway is a jukebox musical or tired adaptation, Joe Chvala and the Flying Foot Forum created an original piece that’s moving and entertaining, and everything musical theater should be. Tackling a subject one wouldn’t normally think of for a musical (although I believe no topic is off limits for musical theater), Heaven tells the story about an American war photographer in Bosnia.  Repeating what I said in my original post, “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.”

Man of La Mancha, Ten Thousand Things
I’m pretty sure that Ten Thousand Things will always have a place on any “best of” list I write because of their sparse, intense, stripped-to-the-bone productions with nothing getting in the way of the pure talent of the performers. They produced two amazing shows this year but I decided on Man of La Mancha for this list (even though Doubt, A Parable, featuring Sally Wingert and Kris Nelson and directed by Peter Rothstein, was also brilliant). Silly, profound, inspirational, and featuring an amazing cast led by the crazy brilliant Steven Epp as Don Quixote, the man with an impossible dream, I hope that it meant as much to the “non-traditional” audiences that were privileged to experience it as it did to me.

I was originally planning to list my six favorites of the last six months, but after the above four I couldn’t decide among the many other shows I loved. So I’ll just briefly list a few more:

  • I saw my first August Wilson play this year, Penumbra’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom at the Guthrie, and I can’t wait to see more of his ten-play cycle on African American life in the last century.

  • Peter Rothstein and Dan Chouinard’s original theater/concert piece Steerage Song featured a super talented cast of singers, musicians, and actors, and reminded us all of our immigrant past.

  • 7-Shot Symphony, an delightfully original piece of “physical theater” by Live Action Set, was a combination of a Western and classical myths, and also featured a yodeling love song!

Those are some of the highlights among the amazing local theater productions I've seen in 2011 so far.  My two favorites among the touring productions were both shows I had seen twice on Broadway, and both tours featured members of the original Broadway casts: the American tribal love-rock musical HAIR, and the brilliant Next to Normal.

Here's hoping the second half of 2011 is even better!