Tuesday, September 27, 2011

"The Extraordinary Terms of Ordinary Life" by Four Humors Theater at the Loring Theater

The Extraordinary Terms of Ordinary Life is a wacky, off-beat comedy, which seems fairly typical of Four Humors Theater.  The other Four Humors show I've seen is the new original rock musical The Age of Wordsworth - the life and words of William Wordsworth set to rock music.  This show really is nothing like that, but they are similar in that both are pieces created from unique and original ideas that really evoke a sense of time and place.

The time and place of The Extraordinary Terms of Ordinary Life is a life insurance company in Manhattan in 1929, just before the crash.  The play was written by Ryan Lear (who also directs), inspired by some old life insurance training manuals he found at a garage sale.  A band playing jazz standards of the time helps set the mood, and the Loring Theater is a perfect venue - it's an old vaudeville theater built in the 1920s.  The set pieces are cartoonish skyscrapers, with a nifty backdrop of the skyline of NYC.  The whole thing put together almost feels like watching a silent film from the era, with exaggerated facial expressions and gestures and broad physical comedy.

John Davidson (the adorable Andy Rocco Kraft who's adept at the physical comedy) moves from a small town to the big city in response to an ad from the "Good Old Life Insurance Company."  Naive and enthusiastic, he believes he could be "the man."  He's immediately hired by the head of the company (Alisa Mattson, who also plays his wife, who it turns out is really the one in charge).  The experienced salesman Frank Engles (the fast talking Ryan Nelson) takes Johnny under his wing and teaches him how to sell to anyone.  Johnny soon becomes a big success, and falls in love with the sweet girl in Accounts Receivable, Mary Southworth (Rachel Petri), who has dreams of becoming a salesman like her father.  Rounding out the cast are Kat Wodtke as a creepy old man who eats paper, and the clowns Garret Vollmer, Mark Rehani, and Jon Mac Cole playing multiple roles (and harmonizing on the company theme song).

The Extraordinary Terms of Ordinary Life is a wacky, fun, at times inexplicable look at a time when the economy was booming, until it all fell apart.  Sound familiar?  Only in this world we learn that the reason the economy tanks is because the bankers are storing up gold to feed to angry demons to keep them from eating the entire human race.  Huh?  Oh well, it's about as good of a reason as any others I've heard!

Things aren't always what they seem.

"Broadway Songbook: The Words and Music of Irving Berlin" at the Ordway McKnight Theatre

This season the Ordway is doing a new series called Broadway Songbook, all about the music of Broadway - my favorite thing!  The first selection featured the music of one of the greatest American composers, Irving Berlin.  Even though I haven't seen very many of his shows or movies (he composed for both the stage and screen), I knew most of the songs in the program because his music is so ingrained in popular culture.  This is the second Irving Berlin themed musical event I've attended this year; his early immigrant experience was featured in Theater Latte Da's Steerage Song this summer.

The music of Irving Berlin was brought to life by the narration of James Rocco (Artistic Director of the Ordway), piano accompaniment by Raymond Berg, and four talented singers.  Actually, to call them "singers" is selling them short.  They're all accomplished musical theater actors who really brought the songs to life.  The wonderful thing about Berlin's music is that even songs that were not written for musical theater tell a story, making them perfect for a musical theater cabaret like this.  The cast included Joel Liestman, who's made frequent appearances in Ordway productions, including last year's super fun Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.  I think I first saw Robb McKindles as Leo Bloom in The Producers at the Chanhassen a few years ago, and most recently as a tap-dancing* sailor on the H.M.S. Pinafore at the Guthrie.  I still remember Kersten Rodau as half of the conjoined Hilton sisters in Side Show at Park Square almost ten years ago (she'll be appearing there again in Ragtime in January), and she also appeared in Pinafore this summer, as a fabulously dressed sister/cousin/aunt.  I don't recall seeing Maria Stukey before, although she's appeared at the Chan a few times, but I'll be sure to take note next time she's in a show.

The music was arranged more or less chronologically, with James leading the audience through Berlin's life, from his days as an immigrant child, to his first hit song ("Alexander's Ragtime Band"), to his stint in the army during World War II which led to a couple of musicals written for all soldier casts, to his popularity as a composer in Hollywood.  Highlights include the Joel's beautiful version of the ballad "How Deep as the Ocean" (written shortly after Berlin's first wife died on their honeymoon), Kersten's gorgeous "Always," Robb's rousing "Let Me Sing and I'm Happy," and Maria singing the often cut "Mr. Monotony."  That seemed to be a theme; Berlin would write a song for one show only to cut it, and resurrect it years later.  Such as the failed song "Smile and Show Me Your Dimple," which later became the hit "Easter Parade."  Another uber-popular holiday song is, of course, "White Christmas."  Robb sat down on the edge of the stage to sing it, and then led the audience in a sing-along.  That song evokes such a sense of nostalgia; it's a beautiful thing.  Another song from the movie White Christmas was featured when Kersten and Maria dueted on one of my favorites from the movie, "Sisters."

The cast sang a medley of songs from Irving Berlin's most popular stage musical, Annie Get Your Gun, which sadly I've never seen.  Perhaps some local musical theater company should do a production of it, and soon.  Kersten has my vote to play Annie for her convincing performance of "You Can't Get a Man with a Gun," as well as beating Joel at the playful competition song "Anything You Can Do."  Robb can join her in the cast; his performance of "They Say It's Wonderful" was heart-breaking.

This was a wonderful afternoon of musical theater; I learned some things I didn't know, and heard some new songs along with old favorites.  I'm really looking forward to the next selection in the Broadway Songbook series - The Words and Music of Contemporary Broadway in January.  That's right up my alley, and I'm sure it will again feature great local musical theater talent.

*Robb is teaching a ten-week tap-dancing class at the Guthrie this fall, for beginners and experienced tappers, which I find extremely tempting.  But I'm not sure I'm up to the commitment of being in downtown Minneapolis by 10 am every Sunday for 10 weeks.  But it sounds like a lot of fun!

"True West" by Torch Theater at the Minneapolis Theatre Garage

I received a tip about this show about a month ago, but I've been so busy I haven't had a chance to look into it until a few days ago.  Truthfully, I was hoping to rule it out because I have a pretty busy theater schedule in the next month, with more shows to add.  But when I saw that it stars John Skelley, one of my faves, and Peter Christian Hansen, who recently won an Ivey Award, I changed my mind.  This show was another must see, and I fortunately just caught it before it closed.

True West was written by American actor and playwright Sam Shepard and first produced in 1980.  It tells the story of two estranged brothers who meet up later in life.  Austin (John Skelley) is the younger brother and the responsible, mature, educated one who has a job, wife, and kids.  His mother has asked him to house-sit for her in L.A. while she's on vacation.  He's a screenwriter so he's using the time to do some research and writing, and as well as meet with an L.A. producer.  His older brother Lee (Peter Hansen) shows up and ruins his plans.  Lee is a drifter and a grifter, never staying in one place too long, making money however he can, legal or not.  The two brothers have reacted to their father's alcoholism and abandonment in opposite ways - one by being an overachiever and hoping to win his love, the other by becoming more like him.  But eventually, they end up at the same place.

Austin is writing a screenplay on an old typewriter (remember, it's 1980), and is about to sell it to his producer Saul (a slick and slimy John Middleton).  But instead, Lee runs into Saul, and charms and cons him into buying an idea of his.  Saul drops Austin's movie (a period love story, which "no one wants to see") for Lee's silly story about two idiots chasing each other across Texas.  Austin is furious and frustrated - "everything is riding on this" - which makes you wonder what else is going on in his life that makes him so desperate to sell this screenplay.  The brothers fight and argue as they work on the new screenplay based on Lee's story.  Austin goes from drinking milk to matching Lee beer for beer, and then they both continue on to the harder stuff.  The kitchen becomes a mess of empty beer cans and littered dishes and silverware.  Austin begs his older brother to let him join him on the road, living in the desert.  Lee agrees, but their plan is quashed when their mother comes home unexpectedly.  This feels like just a snippet of this family's life that makes you curious about what happened before and what will happen next.

This play really gets deep into these two characters and their relationship with each other and their parents.  And it's not pretty.  In fact, it's brutal, and very physical.  I couldn't help but wonder how many injuries were incurred throughout the run of the show.  The actors are probably glad not to be hurling themselves and each other across the stage every night.  But it sure was entertaining, if at times painful, to watch.  John and Peter are both great and fearless in creating these characters.  I remember seeing Peter in Dollhouse at the Guthrie last year.  He was so good at playing this jerk of a husband, that I wanted to boo him when he came out for the curtain call.  This was a similar experience; they're both good at playing unlikable characters, but somehow finding the humanity in them.

I can check another theater off my list, Torch Theater, whose Artistic Director is Stacia Rice, another one of my faves.  I've been to the Theatre Garage three times in the last few months and have really come to enjoy it.  It's pretty unassuming from the outside, but for $20 cash at the door you get to see some great theater in an intimate little space (so intimate in this case that I was glad I was not sitting in the front row because it appeared that the fights were about to spill over into the audience!).  Over the last year or so I've been going to more and more venues around town to see more and more theater companies.  And the more theater that I go to, the more theater that I'm led to, as I discover more and more favorite actors, venues, and theater companies.  This town is an interconnected web of talent.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

"The Rocky Horror Show" by Cardinal Theatricals at the Lab Theater

The Rocky Horror Show is a crazy, campy, ridiculously fun show.  And the perfect choice for this year's "Girls' Night Out at the Theater" (a yearly event I plan for my friends).  But I must confess: I have never been to a midnight showing of the movie version of the show; audience participation is not my thing.  I prefer to sit back and let the professionals do all the work.  But that's not the way it works with Rocky Horror.

The Rocky Horror Show originated as a stage musical in London in 1973, before making the leap across the pond to L.A. and NYC.  It's been produced around the world, but most people know it for the 1975 cult hit movie The Rocky Horror Picture Show.  The movie took on a life of its own at the midnight showings, where a whole script was developed for the audience to interact with the movie, complete with props like toast and playing cards, most of which I don't quite get.  Stage shows of Rocky Horror have since incorporated some of the movie madness into the show, but fortunately for me, knowledge of all of the intricacies is not required.  You can buy "audience participation kits" at the theater, and there are a few plants in the audience who yell the appropriate things at appropriate times.  I have to admit, I found it a little annoying at first, like when the person behind you talks during a movie.  But after a while I came to realize that it doesn't distract from the show, rather it adds another level of entertainment.

The Lab Theater is the perfect venue for this show (the last show I saw there was this same team's production of RENT, one of my favorite shows of last year).  You come down the stairway in the corner and enter a large open space with brick walls.  There is bleacher style seating along two sides of the room, facing each other, with space in between where the action of the play takes place.  There's no "stage" in the traditional sense, although there is a changing backdrop on one end.  Actors move set pieces on and off the stage area, including a red circular couch and a cute little car.  The actors do a great job of acting to all sides of the room (as directed by Andrew Rasmussen); you never feel like the action is taking place somewhere you can't see, but rather that you're observing it from above.  The actors move into the aisles, so beware of aisle seats (or gravitate towards them, whichever you prefer).  My one small complaint about the staging is that the band is not visible (I'm a band geek; I always love it when the band is on stage).  It would have been fun if they were in a corner or on a platform somewhere, watching and being part of the action.

This is an all-around fantastic cast, from narrator Don Shelby to the last member in the ensemble.  I grew up watching Don Shelby on the news, but ever since his appearance on Letterman I knew he was much more than just a news anchor.  He's a total ham, and a perfect fit for this role.  He presides over the show in a Hugh Hefner smoking jacket, introducing scenes and playing with the audience.  And at the end of the show, he joins the cast on stage, dressed appropriately.  But the star of Rocky Horror is of course the sweet transvestite Frank-N-Furter, and Andre Shoals is fabulous.  The "normal" couple in this world of misfits is Brad (Reid Harmsen, so wonderful as Mark in the aforementioned production of RENT) and Janet (the lovely-voiced Erin Capello).  It's a difficult line to walk, to be the serious sincere ones in a campy, over-the-top show, and they do it well.  Other standouts include Randy Schmeling as the creepy butler Riff Raff (a role I also saw him perform in the Ordway production of the show four years), and Molly Callinan as his sister (?) Magenta.  She's a dynamic performer; you can't take your eyes off her.  Craig Daniel Stastny as the sweet, simple, beautiful creation Rocky, Jamecia Bennett whose powerful voice soars in "Whatever Happened to Saturday Night," the list of talent goes on and on.

The Rocky Horror Show plays at the Lab Theater through Halloween (and I can only imagine how crazy that night will be).  Costumes are encouraged; there's a contest at intermission.  This is a really fun evening out, and it's a great thing to bring a group to (perhaps even a bachelorette party).  Group discounts begin at a group of 10.  I had a group of 17 and they treated us very well, including giving us a shout-out at intermission and reserving almost a whole row for us (we needn't have worried about getting there early to grab good seats).  We had dinner before the show at the nearby Sapor Cafe and I would highly recommend it, especially for large groups.  Delicious, fresh, interesting food, wonderful service, and good beer on tap; that's about all I need!  Once again, "Girls' Night Out at the Theater" was a success.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The 2011 Ivey Awards at the State Theater

For the love.  That was the theme of this year's Ivey Awards, and nothing could sum up this evening better than that simple statement.  I look forward to the awards every year because it's such a beautiful celebration of the theater community in Minneapolis/St. Paul.  Plus, it's also the best people-watching of the year (not counting the State Fair, which is beautiful in its own way).  This year was another fantastic night showcasing several of my favorite shows of this past year, and possibly of the upcoming year as well.

The hosts of the show were a father and son team of local actors.  Seth Numrich is currently starring on Broadway in the hit play War Horse, and his father, Charles Numrich, is an actor in the local theater scene.  They were charming hosts.  The running gag was that they were working on the "opening banter" scene, trying to "find themselves in the piece," and Seth kept giving his father notes about how to better play himself.  In addition to the hosts a number of local celebrities and representatives from the awards' sponsors presented the awards, including the Twin Cities' most beautiful news anchors, Frank Vascellero and Amelia Santaniello, as well as puppet supercouple Princeton and Kate Monster.

The opening number was a mash-up of four of my favorite musicals of this year, as well as one that just opened that I'm dying to see: the Children's Theatre's delightful Annie, the wickedly funny and sweet Avenue Q at Mixed Blood, the hilariously goofy A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum at the Jungle, the Guthrie's luscious production of HMS Pinafore, and Hairspray currently playing at the Chan.  It was a salute to costumes and the people who make them happen.  Characters from each show wandered onto the stage, which was populated with backstage theater people.  They each sang a song from their show, only with alternate lyrics appropriate to the Iveys.  It was really surreal and fun to see all these characters from diverse shows interacting.  As usual Miss Hannigan (Angela Timberman) stole the show, and the sailor from the Pinafore (Aleks Knezevich) ended up with no pants.

The Ivey Awards aren't like most awards shows you see on TV; there are no set categories or nominees, they just honor wonderful accomplishments wherever and however they appear.  This year they awarded eight people or productions, in addition to the emerging artist and lifetime achievement awards.  The honorees are:
  1. Peter Hansen for his performance in Burn This at the Gremlin Theatre.
  2. Live Action Set for their production of the new and inventive "physical theater" piece The 7-Shot Symphony (the cast of which was backstage at the time preparing for their performance later in the show).
  3. Gary Rue for musical direction of Buddy - The Buddy Holly Story at the History Theatre.
  4. Ben Bakken for his performance in the title role of the Chanhassen's Jesus Christ Superstar.
  5. David Bolger for the amazing choreography in the Guthrie's H.M.S. Pinafore (I saw this show twice but could have watched the dance numbers a hundred times without tiring of them).
  6. Craig Johnson for his direction of Girl Friday Production's Street Scene (which never felt crowded or uncomfortable despite the huge cast in the small space).
  7. Dennis Spears for his performance as Nat King Cole in Penumbra Theatre's I Wish You Love.
  8. Ten Thousand Things for their incredible production of Doubt, A Parable (although I'm not sure how voters chose between this and their other two incredible productions last season, Life's a Dream and Man of La Mancha).
Of these eight productions, I saw five (numbers 2, 4, 5, 6, and 8), which is a pretty good percentage.  (Although technically I did not see Ben Bakken's award-winning performance; he had the night off when I saw Jesus Christ Superstar (slacker).  But that's not my fault so I'm still giving myself credit for it!)  Considering I only saw one of the awarded productions last year, I'd say that's quite an improvement.  It was my goal this year to see more "obscure" productions (meaning not at one of the big theaters in town), and see more theater companies that I'd never seen before.  I definitely met my goal, although I still missed a lot.

In addition to these awards, the Iveys also gave the "Emerging Artist" award to Anna Sundberg, whom I recently saw in Street Scene and look forward to seeing again soon.  This year's "Lifetime Achievement" award went to Bain Boehlke, Artistic Director of the Jungle Theater.  He was presented the award by last year's winner Wendy Lehr, his friend and frequent collaborator.  I've really been enjoying my season pass at the Jungle this year, and couldn't be happier for Bain!

A usual, the musical performances were the highlight of the show.  We saw excerpts from one upcoming show, three past shows, and one show that's currently running.  The upcoming show is one I'm very much looking forward to - Park Square Theatre's Ragtime, which opens in January (tickets are already on sale and I've got mine!).  Coalhouse Walker and Sarah sang the beautiful and hopeful song "Wheels of a Dream."  One past show that I unfortunately missed is Ivey honoree Buddy - The Buddy Holly Story at the History Theatre - great songs and a fun performance.  Mu Performing Arts reprised "Suddenly Seymour" from their wonderful production of Little Shop of Horrors this spring.  Sadly, Audrey II did not make an appearance.  Another Ivey honoree, Live Action Set, presented an excerpt from their opera of sound and movement, The 7-Shot Symphony.  The final performance of the night was a great choice for the closing number - Cardinal Theatrical's production of The Rocky Horror Show, currently playing at the Lab Theater (I'm seeing it this week).  The number began with an introduction from the show's narrator, former WCCO-TV news anchor Don Shelby like you've never seen him before - in heels (he quipped that's what was under the desk).  The cast sang "Whatever Happened to Saturday Night," led by Jamecia Bennett as Eddie.  Judging by this performance, it's going to be a fun, energetic, crazy show!

There was one other performance at the awards last night, featuring young local talent.  Ryan McCartan is a recent high school graduate who has won several national awards in musical theater.  He sang "Someone to Fall Back On," and he's truly amazing.  He has a gorgeous voice and also put a lot of emotion into the song.  I hope to see him on local stages before he becomes a big star.

They finally found a way to make announcing the list of sponsors entertaining.  Local comedic actor Shanan Custer announced each sponsor, and two actors acted out each one.  It was fast and funny, and made a segment that usually drags feel like a legitimate a part of the show.

And with that, another year of theater has come and gone.  I've seen some really amazing shows, and discovered some great new (to me) theater companies.  And it only seems to be getting better.  If you're reading this blog I probably don't have to tell you this, but I will: go see some local theater!  If you need suggestions, check out my "Upcoming Shows" to the right.  If you have suggestions for me, please let me know.  There's more brilliant theater out there than one person can possibly see (believe me, I've tried).

Happy theater-going!

Sunday, September 18, 2011

"August: Osage County" at Park Square Theatre

Now that I'm finally done writing about my fabulous trip to NYC, I can get back to what this blog is really about: local St. Paul/Minneapolis theater.  Last week I saw the brilliant play August: Osage County at the Park Square Theatre, a great little space in downtown St. Paul.  I've attended a handful of their shows over the years, and a few things this season intrigued me.  One is their upcoming production of the musical Ragtime (featuring a fabulous cast of local musical theater actors), which I saw ages ago on tour and loved.  The other is the bitingly funny and tragic play August: Osage County, which I also saw on tour.  I remember laughing and cringing at the life of the dysfunctional Weston family, and those feelings continued with this production of what has become an American classic.

The dysfunction starts with the parents Beverly and Violet, he's an alcoholic and she's addicted to pills, and continues through their three adult daughters.  Barbara left home long ago to work and raise a family, Karen has been wandering and searching for happiness and thinks she's found it, and Ivy has stayed close to home, perhaps too close.  But none of them have been able to escape the pull of the family, and come home in response to an unexpected tragedy.  Violet's sister and her family also show up to add more layers of dysfunction.  The outside observer to all of this is Johnna, a young woman who has been hired to take care of Violet as she goes through treatment for cancer.  Through her we observe this family like a fly on the wall.

The set is spectacular (designed by Michael Hoover).  An entire house sits on stage with the front wall removed, like a life-sized doll house.  We're able to see into every room, even the kitchen stocked with appliances, spices, dishes, and food.  It feels like a house that's lived in and witnessed countless family dramas.

I can't say enough about this cast of mostly local actors, starting with Barbara Kingsley as family matriarch Violet.  She understudied the role on Broadway and on the first national tour, but never got the chance to play the role.  She's got her chance now, and the months she spent living with the Westons is evident in her portrayal.  At times incomprehensible as a drugged-up Violet, at times cruelly honest and in control, Violet is a fascinating character that I alternately sympathized with and despised.  Barbara's real-life husband Stephen D'Ambrose plays Violet's husband Beverly, whose brief appearance at the beginning of the play is so affecting it hangs over the rest of the play.

The Weston girls look and act like family.  Virginia S. Burke is particularly good as Barbara, as she slowly starts unraveling while trying to deal with her family.  She even looks like Violet; you can see her transforming into her mother even as she tries to resist it.  Kate Eifrig (who will always be My Fair Lady to me) is Karen, who proudly shows off her fiance (who, it turns out, is no prince), and Carolyn Pool completes the trio as Ivy, who's found love in an unusual place.  Karen Landry is funny and entertaining as the meddling Aunt Fannie Mae.  Her sweet suffering husband, Uncle Charlie, looked familiar, like ... that guy on TV.  It turns out Chris Mulkey (a native Midwesterner who now lives in L.A.) has been on countless TV shows (including two of my favorite shows of the last year - Justified and Boardwalk Empire).  Each character in this play is complex and layered, which makes it fascinating to watch.

This is my second three act, two intermission, loooong play I've attended this month.  Even though it wreaks havoc on my sleep patterns, it's great theater.  It's a pleasure to be that immersed in a story and characters for that long.  I extended the evening even longer by staying for the post-show talk-back with the actors and director Leah Cooper; this is one of those plays that will get you thinking and talking for days.  August: Osage County runs through the first weekend of October, check it out if you want to be challenged, entertained, and maybe even a little bit disturbed.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

"Freud's Last Session" at The Marjorie S. Deane Little Theater Off-Broadway

After four straight musicals (three on and one off Broadway), my theater buddy and I decided to conclude our New York City trip with a one-act Off-Broadway play.  We heard good things about Freud's Last Sesson (we always like to talk to the helpful people hanging around outside the TKTS booth, most of whom are young actors, and will give you the real scoop if you ask for it).  It's currently playing at the "Little Theater" in the West Side YMCA, just off of Central Park, but will be moving to New World Stages in October.  This new play written by Mark St. Germain ran from July through November of 2010, and was brought back in January due to popular demand.  It has gotten rave reviews; this move will hopefully mean that even more people get to see this intelligent, throught-provoking, moving play.

Freud's Last Sesson tells the story of a fictional encounter between two historical figures, Sigmund Freud (the founder of psychoanalysis) and C.S. Lewis (author of the Chronicles of Narnia).  It takes place in London in 1939, when Freud is 83 years old, having recently fled from his native Austria, and Lewis is 41 and teaching at Oxford University.  Freud is suffering from a painful cancer of the mouth (he died a year later).  In the fictional story, Freud contacts Lewis and asks him to visit him.  Lewis is initially nervous and unsure why Freud would want to see him, thinking possibly he offended Freud in one of his recent books.  It turns out Freud just wants to have a conversation with him.  Freud is an atheist, and is curious why Lewis converted from atheism to Christianity.  They have a long conversation about a number of topics, including religion, God, family, love, and sex.  They rarely agree, and really have no hope of changing each other's mind.  But it's obvious these two men have a great respect for each other as well as a willingness to have an open and non-judgemental dialogue about their beliefs.  Which is is an attitude I wish more people had.

This is a two-person cast, and both actors are marvelous and well-matched.  Martin Rayner is a kindly, curmudgeonly Freud, and Mark H. Dold plays Lewis with a deference to his elder, while still staying firm and confident in his beliefs.  As the play goes on Freud's pain increases to the point where it's almost painful to watch him, for the audience and the character of Lewis.  The pain of both characters is palpable due to the performances of the actors.  They've been playing these roles for over a year and have really settled into their characters.  With a play like this, I'm sure they find greater depth in the piece with every performance.

By the end of the play, nothing had been resolved.  I wanted them to keep talking so I could keep listening to their discussion.  My friend bought an (autographed) script; I'll have to borrow it so I can more deeply study this piece.  They discussed the German word Sehnsucht (one of those great German words that describe such a complicated concept it cannot be accurately translated).  Freud says that our deepest desires are never fulfilled, but to Lewis that's the definition of joy.  I'm not sure what to think about that, but think about it I do.

"How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying" at the Al Hirshfield Theatre on Broadway

Last Saturday was my favorite kind of day: a two-show day in NYC. First, a stunning production of the Stephen Sondheim musical Follies. Followed by the fun, energetic, thoroughly entertaining How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying, complete with a post-show backstage tour (more on that later). It doesn't get much better than that!

How to Succeed is the second Frank Loesser musical I've seen this year.  The first was Guys and Dolls, and I can definitely see similarities in the songs, structure, and setting.  How to Succeed is set in a workplace in the 60s. Sort of like a dancing and singing Mad Men, without all the angst and serious consequences of the gender and racial inequities of the time. The costumes are fabulous, with the men in slim-cut suits with skinny ties, and the women in mod sheath dresses with matching hats and bags. The character of Rosemary alone has at least a half dozen of these dresses, all in various shades of pink! The backdrop of the set is a sort of honeycomb, with changing colors in the cells, which also house dancers for some numbers.  The set is comprised of an intricate series of moving pieces that represent different areas of the office.  I was particularly impressed by an overhanging ledge that popped out of the side and supported a desk and many people.

The plot of the show follows a young man named J. Pierrepont Finch who manages to climb the corporate ladder in a short time by manipulating situations and impressing the right people; he's like Eddie Haskell of the business world.  The young man is of course played by Daniel Radcliffe (you may have heard of him from his role in a little movie franchise).  He gives an amazing performance and really leads the show.  The fact that at the height of his career, when he could have done anything he wanted to, he chose to do musical theater on Broadway, is a pretty cool thing in my book.  And he doesn't just rest on his laurels as a "big star;" he's worked really hard to learn the singing and dancing this role requires, and it shows.  This is not easy choreography; it's intense and driving and relentless.  In one number he's being carried and twisted and turned through the air, in another he's stamping letters and effortlessly tossing boxes around the mail room (one of which ended up in the audience, and whoever caught it was not giving it back!), not to mention leading the ensemble in the showstopper, "Brotherhood of Man."  I was more impressed than I expected to be by a "movie star," and I'm looking forward to watching his career grown on stage and screen.

The rest of the cast is just as amazing as its lead, from the secondary characters to the last member of the ensemble.  John Laroquette (who won the Tony for this role) plays the president of the company, and his comedic skills are used quite well.  I wonder how many of his funny little ticks and gestures have been added as he continues to perform the role.  He and Dan have great chemistry as boss and favorite employee. Rose Hemingway plays Finch's love interest Rosemary (she of the multiple pink dresses) with a sweet earnestness that makes you believe she really would be "Happy to Keep his Dinner Warm."  Christopher J. Hanke plays the boss' nephew and Finch's nemesis, and really hams it up (in a good way).  Last but not least, one of my favorite soap actors Michael Park (Emmy-winner for his role as Jack on the dear departed As the World Turns, who's also a veteran of the stage) brings his charisma and talent to the role of sycophantic personnel manager Mr. Bratt.  From his previous soundtracks (Smokey Joe's Cafe, Violet) I knew he could sing, but he's a pretty smooth dancer too.  I have a mutual friend with Michael, who arranged for my theater buddy and me to meet up with him after the show, which led to my amazing backstage experience.

looking out from the empty stage at the Al Hirshfield Theatre
Unlike the other shows I've posted this week, this playbill only has one autograph on it.  That's because this show has the craziest stage door I've ever seen.  If you go see a Broadway show and want to say hello to the cast, it's pretty easy to find the stage door, wait ten minutes, and get autographs from the entire cast as they leave the theater.  But not this show.  There were cops, barricades, and more people than I've ever seen at a stage door.  They were all there to see Daniel (and maybe John), which is unfortunate because the fabulous ensemble members snuck out and away without anyone really noticing.  Fortunately, we were on the guest list so we were escorted past the waiting crowds right up to the door, where Michael greeted us and led us inside.  We walked a few feet, and suddenly we were on the stage! 

with Michael Park (Mr. Bratt) in the elevator on the set of
How to Succeed
Ironically, the stage at the Al Hirshfield Theatre is the one Broadway stage I've previously been on, when I saw HAIR there twice last year and danced with the hippies on stage after the show.  But this was different.  The theater and stage were completely empty, except for us and a few cleaning people.  Michael showed us some of the parts of the set and what moves where.  He very kindly talked to us for quite a while.  He only had great things to say about Daniel, both as a person and a performer.  Dan walked across the stage while we were standing there talking, and we exchanged nods.  He went outside accompanied by screams, and when we left the crowd had mostly dissipated.  We walked home on a high from our fabulous day of theater in NYC, capped by a once in a lifetime backstage experience.  Thanks Michael!

How to Succeed is definitely a great choice if you're in NYC and want a fun, entertaining, classic musical theater experience.  Daniel leaves the show on January 1, to be replaced by one of my favorite Glee kids Darren Criss.  He'll play the role for three weeks, followed by a Jonas brother (no comment).  If I were you, I'd make every effort to see the show this year, or in January.  But with this huge and talented cast, the incredible choreography, and great music, it's sure to be a fun time for the rest of its run on Broadway.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

"Follies" at the Marquis Theatre on Broadway

Bernadette Peters and Stephen Sondheim on Broadway.  That's all it took to get me to see Follies last weekend, a show that I previously knew nothing about.  Sometimes it's best to go into a show with no expectations.  I was blown away.  It's an absolutely stunning production.  From the set and costumes, to the huge veteran cast, to the gorgeous Sondheim music, it's an amazing musical theater experience.

Follies is set in 1971 and was first produced on Broadway that year.  It takes place in a theater about to be demolished and reunites the women who worked there in the 30s and 40s as "Follies girls."  The main characters are two erstwhile best friends, Sally (Bernadette Peters) and Phyllis (Jan Maxwell), and their husbands Buddy (Danny Berstein) and Ben (Ron Raines).  They comprise an awkward and complicated love quadrangle.  Buddy loves Sally but Sally loves Ben.  Ben only loves Sally until he has her, and then he wants Phyllis back.  As they reminisce about their past and their stories unfold, we also see the young versions of these four characters.  Their costumes are slightly faded, they're lit with a softer light, and even the sound of their voices is slightly echoing, like we're seeing visions from the past.  Sometimes the past and present action occur simultaneously.  The worlds overlap and we see the parallels between then and now.  It's really beautifully and effectively done.

The show opens with the orchestra playing the Prologue while beautifully dressed women walk slowly and elegantly across the stage, a run-down theater.  They're ghosts of the past, dressed in blacks and greys, with the elaborate headdresses of showgirls.  They continue to walk around or stand in the background as the present-day action goes on in front of them, and one or two even remain on stage during intermission.  There's a sad, wistful feeling about the show, and the costumes, set, lighting, and sound design all contribute to that feeling.

As I'm beginning to learn is typical in a Stephen Sondheim show, everyone in the large ensemble gets their moment to shine.  And they all just knock it out of the park - Mary Beth Peil slinking across the stage singing "Ah, Paris," Jayne Houdyshell singing the classic "Broadway Baby," Elaine Paige belting "I'm Still Here," and Terri White tapping up a storm in "Who's That Woman."  These women are all stars in their own right, but are in this show for one shining moment.  And the beautiful thing is that they're all over 50.  After seeing RENT starring a bunch of 20-year-olds (which is appropriate for the show) just the night before, it was nice to see mature, beautiful, talented, amazing women kicking it up on a Broadway stage.  That's a rare sight, and thrilling.

Follies celebrated its opening night just this week.  I fully expect and hope to see all four leads nominated come Tony time next spring.  They are all spectacular, especially the women, and each have their "folly" moment at the end of the show.  Danny Burstein (whom we loved in his Tony-nominated role in South Pacific a few years ago) does a funny vaudeville number ("The God-Why-Don't-You-Love-Me Blues") that is hiding deeper pain.  Jan Maxwell has a killer dance number with a bunch of dancing boys behind her.  Bernadette walks out onto an empty stage in a gorgeous purple dress and pours her heart out in song, as only she can do.  Finally, Ron Raines (one of those theater/soap crossover actors), comes out in a top hat and tails and leads the ensemble in a great song and dance number, until he falls apart at the mess he's made of his life.  It's not a happy ending, but it's a conclusion.  I felt like I had been on a journey with these people and shared a moment in their lives.

We waited at the stage door, but because it was a matinee before an evening performance, we didn't see any of the four leads.  But we did see young Buddy and the tap-dancing Terri White, who informed us that the cast was going into the studio in October to record the soundtrack.  I'll be watching for that.

Follies is on Broadway for a "limited engagement" after a run at the Kennedy Center in DC earlier this year.  I'm not sure how long the engagement will last, but it would be a crime for any musical theater lover who has the opportunity to see it, not to.  One could say that it would be folly to miss this show.

"RENT" at the New World Stages Off-Broadway

RENT is my favorite musical (as you can see in the "About Me" blurb to the right).  My obsession with the show dates back to when it premiered in 1996 and I first saw it on tour (twice) in 1997.  It's really the first musical I fell in love with as an adult and it's where I mark the beginnings of my love for theater.  I've now seen it 13 times: once on Broadway, every tour that came to St. Paul or Minneapolis (including the 2009 tour that starred original cast member Adam Pascal and Anthony Rapp), and a fabulous local production at the Lab Theatre in Minneapolis last year.  So when I heard that there was a new production Off-Broadway directed by original director Michael Greif, but with a new perspective on what has become a musical theater classic, I had to see it.  And I loved the show as much as I ever have.

New World Stages is like a multiplex of Off-Broadway theater (there are six theaters in the building), and seems to be the place where Broadway shows go to downsize (Avenue Q, Million Dollar Quartet).  The stage and the house are much smaller than the Nederlander Theatre where RENT played for 12 years (making it the ninth longest running show on Broadway).  With the exception of one local production, I've only see the Broadway/touring version of the show.  And even though every time you see it's different (cast), it's also somewhat the same (costumes, sets, direction).  So it was a thrill for me to see a fresh new production with all new sets, costumes, choreography, and direction, not to mention a talented, young, (mostly) unknown cast.

For those of you who've never seen RENT before, basically it's about a group of young starving artists in New York City's East Village in the late 20th century, struggling with poverty, AIDS, love, creation, and trying to find their place in the world.  It was written by the late Jonathan Larson (he died the night before the Off-Broadway premiere of the show in 1996), and is based on the opera La Boheme. 

with Adam Chanler-Berat (Mark)
This cast is young and talented.  Annaleigh Ashford is perhaps the best Maureen I've ever seen (with the caveat that I've never seen the original Maureen, Idina Menzel, perform the role).  She's delightfully kooky and has one of those voices that she just effortlessly throws around for comedy, when in reality it takes a lot of skill and control to sing well comedically.  She has a great match in Corbin Reid's Joanne; their duet "Take Me or Leave Me" is a highlight.  Matt Shingledecker and Adam Chanler-Berat are a well matched Roger and Mark, respectively, and well cast for their roles.  Adam is the one cast member I knew before seeing this show; he originated the role of Henry in Next to Normal ("perfect for you....").  He makes a really good Mark (my favorite character); the Mark/Roger duets were great as was the Mark/Joanne duet "Tango Maureen."  We had an understudy for Collins, Marcus Paul James, and he was wonderful (as understudies often are, I find).  As I told him at the stage door, the second act reprise of "I'll Cover You" always gets to me, and his version was no exception.  The casting was very well done for all of the roles, with the possible exception of Mimi.  Arianda Fernandez's performance is ferocious, but lacks the vulnerability needed to make the audience care about what happens to her.  It's a difficult line to walk.

The Off-Broadway stage is smaller with not as much room to run around as the Broadway stage, but they make good use of the vertical space.  It reminds me of a smaller version of Next to Normal (not surprising since Michael Greif directed that as well, and they share the same set designer, Mark Wendland), with its multiple levels and stairways.  The sparse furniture of the original show, consisting of long tables and folding chairs, has been replaced with actual desks and chairs and moving set pieces.  The iconic costumes have been changed, but still retain the spirit of each character.  Upon seeing each them I'd think - that looks like something Mark would wear, even though I haven't seen him wear it before.

with Matt Shingledecker (Roger)
When I met the cast at the stage door I was shocked at how young they looked, as did most of the fans waiting for them (I guess I looked that young 15 years ago when I first saw the show).  I'm a first generation RENThead, but it's pretty cool that there's a whole new generation of young people falling in love with the musical for the first time.  There were plenty of empty seats on a Friday night, so if you're in town definitely check it out.  You can most likely get discount tickets at the TKTS booth.  This show has such heart, and such a feeling of friendship and togetherness and living in the moment (made even more poignant by knowing the creator's story).  This new production captures that spirit beautifully.  It's still the musical that I've loved for 15 years, but a new creation too.

No day but today!

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

"The Book of Mormon" at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre on Broadway

I planned my 2011 trip to New York City around The Book of Mormon.  In fact, my NYC theater buddy and I were so focused on getting tickets that we didn't immediately realize that our trip coincided with the 10th anniversary of 9-11.  Which actually turned out to be a really fortunate "coincidence."  There's nowhere else I'd rather be on that day. 

But back to the show.  I saw it described somewhere as "sweetly irreverent," and I can't think of a better way to say it.  The creators Matt Stone, Trey Parker (the creators of South Park, of which I have yet to see a single episode), and Robert Lopez (Avenue Q, one of my favorite new musicals, which has a similar feel) are somehow able to walk that fine line.  They've created something that's the foulest thing I've ever seen on stage, but with a really wonderful heart and a great message.  It works, and (most) people get it.  So much so that The Book of Mormon won nine Tony Awards this year (including Best Musical, Best Score, and Best Book), and tickets are hard to come by.  It's that rare creation that's a critical and popular success.

The musical tells the story of two Mormons who go on their mission to Uganda.  For Elder Price, the good and earnest overachiever, Africa is not what he had planned for his future.  He wants to do "something incredible," and doesn't feel that Africa is the place to do it.  His companion, the socially awkward compulsive liar Elder Cunningham, is thrilled to finally have a "best friend" and is content to sit by and watch as he does big things.  They soon find out that the African mission has not baptized a single new Mormon, and is in danger of being shut down.  Elder Price decides to get out and go somewhere he can made a difference, but Elder Cunningham decides to "man up" and takes an unconventional approach to converting the Ugandans.

Another wonderful thing about The Book of Mormon is that it's a traditional musical in structure, but totally non-traditional in content.  There are big ensemble numbers with amazing intricate choreography (dancing Mormon boys as well as more African style dancing), duets between buddies and would-be lovers, and quieter moments of one character expressing himself through a beautiful ballad.  Which is further evidence to support my theory that musical theater is a versatile art form that can be used to communicate any number of ideas and stories.

with Andrew Rannells (Elder Price) at the stage door
The cast of this show is so talented, and we were fortunate to meet many of them at the stage door (see playbill above).  Josh Gad is adorkable as Elder Cunningham, and has created a character so specific that I'm curious to see how it's interpreted on tour (i.e., will they just cast a Josh Gad impersonator?).  Andrew Rannells has a great voice and is very believable as the young idealistic man whose dreams don't take the form he thinks they will.  Nikki M. James deservedly won a Tony for her role as Nabalungi, the sweet and open-hearted daughter of the village leader.  I was thrilled to recognize Michael Potts from the 2009 Guthrie-commissioned Tony Kushner play Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures.  He said he had to choose between reprising his role in that play on Broadway, and this role - tough choice!

The Book of Mormon may seem to be poking fun at the Mormon religion on the surface, but I think it's a really wonderful exploration of faith and religion. Different cultures interpret religion through the lens of their experience, and myths change to suit the audience. In the end, people find stories that help them explain the world they live in and give them comfort about their uncertain future.  Kind of like what musical theater does for me.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

"Hamlet" at the Jungle Theater

I have a season pass to the Jungle Theater this year for the first time.  And I have to admit, when I saw Hamlet on the list of shows, I wasn't overly excited as I've seen it a few times.  But I've never seen Hamlet like this.  It's a truly inventive production that manages to make it feel current without changing any of the language or meaning of the piece. 

From the moment you walk into the intimate theater space at the Jungle, you know you're in for a truly unique Shakespeare experience.  Modern rock music is playing, and images and words are flashing across the screens onstage.  The action opens, not on a castle rooftop, but in the basement surveillance room, with a bored security guard flashing through security camera images of the floors of the castle.  It's through these cameras that the king's ghost is seen.  Hamlet's friend Horatio and one of the guards hop in the elevator to confront him while the other guard watches, as the action seamlessly moves from the stage to the pre-taped video.  It's an ingenious idea and flawlessly executed.  The use of images and videos appears in various parts of the play, as Hamlet scrolls through photos on his cell phone and the images are projected on screen, and later, as the queen watches the action of a party on a TV screen.  Yes, this is a modern-day Hamlet.  In addition to cell phones and TVs, characters also use laptops and iPads.  The costumes are modern, ranging from classic and refined (as in the queen's gorgeous wardrobe), to a more youthful and edgy look on Hamlet and his young friends.  The set (designed by Bain Boehlke, who also directed) is brilliant.  In addition to all of the audio-visual devices, it consists of huge columns that are moved around the stage to represent different areas of the castle.  The settings are as varied as a busy airport bar, the dark basement of the castle, and an airy breakfast room.  In between scenes, as the set is being changed, the time and setting of the scene are flashed on the screen, guiding the audience through the action.  This may sound like a lot of stuff going on that could distract from the story, but I found that it really enhanced it and drew me in.

I've seen Hugh Kennedy in a number of productions at the Guthrie and I've always liked him.  He's a very natural actor and has great charisma and stage presence.  But I've never seen him in a lead role like this (although I'm not sure there is another lead role like Hamlet).  His Hamlet is real and raw, tortured and crazy, lost and vulnerable.  You can feel his pain at the loss of his father and the changes it's brought to his life.  The words sound so natural coming out of Hugh's mouth, and Shakespearean language does not always sound natural.  He really made this play come alive for me.  I sometimes have difficulty concentrating on three plus hours of Shakespeare, but Hugh's performance, along with the inventive set design and contemporary setting, made it easy.

Bradley Greenwald (one of my favorite actors from the musical theater world) is deliciously smarmy and evil as Claudius, Hamlet's uncle and his father's murderer.  His voice is melodious even when merely speaking.  Michelle Barber is regal as Hamlet's newly widowed, newly wed mother Gertrude, who aches for her son and can't understand why he isn't as happy as she is with the new way of things.  The scene near the end of the play in which Hamlet visits Gertrude's room is particularly poignant and heartbreaking.  It's so nice to see Michelle outside of the Chanhassen (where she's a regular) and see what else she can do.  Gary Briggle (who was so wonderful in my favorite Fringe show this year, Twisted Apples) is also excellent as the King's councillor Polonius, and Erin Mae Johnson is a sufficiently crazy Ophelia.  I was happy to see Doug Scholz-Carlson from one of my favorite original musical theater pieces this year, Heaven.  He plays Ophelia's brother and Polonius' son, and has a wonderful fight/death scene at the end.

Hamlet is playing into October.  If you like your Shakespeare contemporary, real, and a little bit shook up, but still true to the original, you should check it out.  I probably don't need to warn anyone that it's not a short play; with three acts and two intermissions, it's well over the three hour mark.  I wouldn't recommend hanging out at a campfire until the wee hours of the morning a few nights before you see it (although the dollar Dunn Brothers coffee in the lobby helps).  Make sure you're well rested, fed, and watered.  You'll want to be alert for this one.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Storyhill Fest 2011

I'm going to diverge from the theater world for a bit to tell you all about my favorite music event of the year: Storyhill Fest.  This was my second year attending this lovely little gem of a folk music festival in the beautiful wooded lake country of Minnesota.  I enjoyed the fest so much last year that there was no question I'd be back.  It's a wonderful respite from the world and a nice transition from summer to fall.  To borrow the tagline from Woodstock, it's two days of peace and music. Top musicians from the folk community in Minnesota, Austin, and around the country gathered to share their music with each other and the audience, both from the stage and around the campfire.  Nine singer/songwriters joined the main event, local duo Storyhill.  The fest is small and intimate with a community feel, and the musicians seem to be having just as much fun as the attendees.  All of these artists write their own songs, and each has a unique sound and style.  Some of them are old friends, some just met, but they play and sing together beautifully.  It's really a wonderful variety of music that I will be having fun listening to in the coming weeks and months.

Click on each artist's name to be taken to their website, where you will find information about how to buy their music, when and where to see them perform live, and more fun stuff.

John Elliot
Most of the artists in this year's line-up were new to me.  That's true of the first artist to perform on day one - John Elliot.  John grew up in Minnesota and now lives in L.A.  Several of his songs are about that idea - going home, missing home, remembering where you came from.  Some of his songs are funny and crazy, with lyrics like "my mom is a dog" and "I left my grandpa for dead," and some are poignant and will make your heart ache a little.  Some are both.  In one song he named several members of the '87 and '91 World Champion Twins, a surefire way to win my heart (Frankie V!).  He's very charming and entertaining, and sometimes his songs turn a little angry too.  I walked away with a $5 download card for his new CD plus lots of extras - a great deal!

Andrew Pressman and Raina Rose
The next artist to perform was Raina Rose, accompanied by her fiance Andrew Pressman on upright bass (he also accompanied many of the other artists for all or part of their sets).  Raina has a sweet voice reminiscent of folk singers from the 60s.  I particularly like her Jewish/Unitarian/gospel song "Let Me Down Easy."  Raina and Drew's next production is the baby they're having soon.  :)

Anthony da Costa
John and Raina regularly perform together along with Anthony da Costa.  They did a set together on day two under the name "Elliot Rose da Costa" (aka "Beggars and Mules"), in which they took turns singing one of their songs while the other two backed them up.  But back to Anthony.  He's surprisingly young for someone so talented and so comfortable on stage, and who's already released five solo albums.  He's a college kid (he's currently attending Columbia University in NYC), but his sound is much more mature than his age.  He writes great songs and has more of a country or country-rock sound.  He also played the electric guitar behind many of the other artists, which I didn't think was allowed at a folk music festival, ;) but somehow it worked!  I just downloaded one of his CDs and I'm listening to it thinking, this guy is 20 years old?  Unbelievable.  I'll be keeping my eye on this one.

I first heard Ellis on the dear departed MPR Morning Show a few years ago (which, incidentally, is where I first heard Storyhill, so thanks Dale and Jim Ed!).  I was captivated by her sound so I bought a few of her CDs, but I'd never seen her perform live.  It's a whole different experience.  She performs with such joy, it's infectious.  She talked about making an effort to cultivate wonder and possibility in her life, and that's evident in her music.  She sings a lot about being present and slowing down and enjoying your life as it is right now.  And she has a laugh that can't help but make you smile, which is the effect that her music has on me too.

Peter Mayer
The penultimate performance of day one was Peter Mayer.  I've been a fan of his for many years and seen him in concert several times, and even talked about him here.  So I was excited when I found out that he'd be joining the fest this year.  He was his usual storytelling, obsessively tuning self.  Which is to say, wonderful.  There's no pretense with Peter; he's real and present.  He sang my favorite song, "Holy Now," along with several other selections both silly and profound.  I was disappointed that he didn't make it out to the campfire; his songs are so perfect for a campfire.  I was hoping to hear one of his classics like "Yukon Sally" or "Camping Round the Sun" in the campfire setting, or maybe "Bountiful" with everyone joining in for the hu-nana chorus.  Maybe next year.

Day one ended with a nice long set by Storyhill, followed by an even longer time of sitting by the campfire listening to the day's artists trade songs and stories.  But more on that later.  On to day two.  (By the way, there's lots to do at the camp when the music stops - hiking, swimming, kayaking, all the usual Minnesota fun.)

Carrie Elkin
Carrie Elkin is the one (scheduled) repeat performer from last year's fest, and I couldn't have been happier about that.  She is perhaps my favorite find from last year.  She has a powerful, clear, gorgeous voice.  She's this tiny little thing, and she opens her mouth and just blows me away.  She had Andrew, Anthony, and Raina on stage with her for most of the set, but ended it with a solo, a cappella, unplugged performance of "Amazing Grace" that was just stunning.  In addition to her considerable musical talent, she also was an entertaining emcee on day one.  And she wears super cute dresses.  She'll be performing at the Landmark Center in St. Paul on Sept. 16 with her lover (as she likes to say) Danny Schmidt.  Danny's an amazing songwriter, a poet really, and Carrie has a voice like no other.  If you're free that night and in the area, you really should check them out.

Andrew Pressman, Anthony da Costa, A.J. Roach, Raina Rose
I first heard A.J. Roach sing at the campfire at the end of day one, but didn't get the full experience until day two.  He has this crazy weird brilliant voice that I can't even begin to describe.  Our day two emcee, J Matt, said it best - mesmerizing.  Something about it just draws me in.  His songs are kind of dark and twisty; at one point he asked the audience, "is this too weird for you?"  It's just the right amount of weird for me.  I listened to his most recent release, Pleistocene, on the drive home, which features a haunting song I first heard at the campfire, "The Poet."

Tom Murphy and Connor Garvey
Next we had a "surprise treat."  Connor Garvey, who was at last year's fest, wasn't on the line-up for this year but just couldn't stay away.  He stopped by after a gig in Duluth the night before and sang a few songs from his just released album Where Ocean Meets Land.  He's another one whose music just makes me happy when I listen to it.  Anthony demanded that Connor sing "Soul on the Line" at the campfire, which turned into a sing-along.  He almost lost control of the song when everyone wanted to keep singing the chorus even when it was time for the bridge!  He's coming back to Minnesota this fall and will be performing on October 22 at the Ginkgo Coffeehouse in St. Paul.

Anthony da Costa and Grace Pettis
Grace Pettis has a lovely voice, and writes really thoughtful, beautiful songs.  She's another young one, and she sounds youthful and hopeful, but also plaintive at times, as in the song "Haley's Comet," which she wrote about her parents' divorce.  She's from Alabama, but like a lot of people in this group, has spent some time in Texas.  She wrote a beautiful song called Abilene inspired by the name of the town.  Grace has won a few up-and-comer songwriting awards, so she's one to watch as well.

Ray Bonneville shares a label with Carrie Elkin and Storyhill - Red House Records, based in St. Paul.  They recently released their second tribute album to another Minnesota folk singer, Bob Dylan.  Ray and Storyhill are both featured on A Nod to Bob 2, and it's fabulous.  I think it's safe to say that Ray is the veteran of this group, and it shows.  He has a rootsy, bluesy sound and was switching back and forth between multiple different guitars and harmonicas.  He sings his story-songs as if he's lived them.

Chris Cunningham and John Hermanson, aka Storyhill
I could listen to Storyhill all day every day and never tire of it.  I don't know why that is.  Maybe it's their gorgeous harmonies (as Garrison Keillor said, they're "setting a new high standard for male duet harmony").  Maybe it's the songs they write that capture a specific place or feeling.  Maybe it's the camaraderie that Chris and Johnny share from singing together since they were kids.  But whatever it is, they have won over a legion of loyal fans, of which I am only one.  They played for about 90 minutes or so at the end of each day, singing old favorites (even a few I'd never heard, being a relatively recent convert) as well as selections from their newest CD Shade of Trees.  On the second night Johnny gave the audience permission to sing along, which was all I needed to join in (especially after a few beers from an excellent local brewery).  Too many favorite songs to mention, but "Steady On," their anthem (as Chris put it), is always thrilling to hear.  And a little bit sad, because it always signals the end of the concert.  But in this case, the end wasn't the end.  The music continued at the campfire.

There's something about campfires.  You can just stare at the fire and get lost in it.  I find that there's also something wonderful about the unamplified human voice.  It's always my favorite moment of any concert if the artist puts the mic down to sing a song.  So when you combine a campfire and the human voice, magic happens.  The musicians gather around the large campfire, with festival attendees behind them (although the divide is blurred at this festival in general and at the campfire in particular).  They take turns singing, usually something they've written but occasionally covers.  Passing guitars and capos (a word I learned last year) around the circle, backing each other up on guitar, mandolin (Tom Murphy was another unscheduled attendee and can play along with anything), harmonica, or vocals.  The night sky overhead was littered with stars that you never see in the city, and the call of the loons on the nearby lake mingled with the music.  Magical.  There's no better word to describe it.

I'll leave you with "The Storyhill Band" singing a Storyhill song, "Sacramento."  Chris and Johnny are joined by Andrew on bass, Anthony on electric guitar, and the sirens Raina and Carrie on vocals.  To see even more videos from Storyhill Fest, including a clip from the campfire, visit the Cherry and Spoon youtube channel.  And if you don't have any plans for next Labor Day, consider attending Storyhill Fest 2012.  It's not 100% for certain yet, but my fingers are crossed that they'll be back.  And so will I.  Steady on.