Monday, December 26, 2011

My Year of Theater, 2011

What a year it has been!  In my first full year of having this blog, I made a conscious effort to see more diverse local theater.  The result is that I doubled the number of Minnesota theater events I attended, from around 40 last year to around 80 this year.  Not counting the Minnesota Fringe Festival and touring productions, I saw shows by almost 30 different local theater companies.  That's not even half of the theater companies in Minneaplis/St. Paul, so I have much more to do next year!

Here are a few of my favorite shows from this year (in alphabetical order).  Click on the title of each show to read my full thoughts at the time I saw it.

25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Theater Latte Da
It's a safe bet that a Latte Da show will appear on my year end favorite list every year.  I loved this delightful musical about a bunch of misfit middle school spellers so much, I saw it twice.  Sweet and funny with a super talented young cast who perfectly embodied the eccentric kids, this was another hit from Theater Latte Da.

This was an unexpected highlight of the year: a classic musical by Kander and Ebb, starring one of my favorite local actors (Bradley Greenwald as the emcee) and a member of the original production (Melissa Hart as Fraulein Schneider), produced in the darling little theater on the Minnesota Centennial Showboat.  It's such a rich piece of theater, heart-breaking and wildly entertaining, and new-to-me Frank Theatre did an amazing job with it, as well as facilitating a wonderful post-show discussion on the afternoon I attended.

Come Hell and High Water, The Moving Company
Early this year, I went to Baltimore to see a friend of mine in the weird and wicked play The Homecoming, coincidentally also starring Minnesota actor Steven Epp.  I'm almost embarrassed to admit I wasn't very familiar with him at the time, having never seen a Jeune Lune show before they closed up shop.  But now I know - he's kind of brilliant.  Steven and Dominique Serrand of Jeune Lune have a new theater company, and this year they presented the original piece Come Hell and High Water, based on a William Faulkner story about a flood in New Orleans (no, not Katrina, although that's certainly brought to mind).  I don't even know how to describe it; there was music, movement, story-telling, and water.  A lot of water.  What I loved most about this show is that it was unlike anything else I've ever seen.  It's a thrill to see something so completely original.

Doubt and Man of la Mancha, Ten Thousand Things
Don't make me choose between these too amazing productions by Ten Thousand Things!  They brought their completely unique, bare-bones, intimate, authentic style of theater to these two different plays - one a short, serious exploration of child abuse in the Catholic Church, the other a beloved musical about a man with a dream.  Each with a brilliant cast (Sally Wingert and Kris Nelson in Doubt, Steven Epp leading the way in La Mancha) that shined without elaborate sets or lighting to distract from the work of bringing the story to life, I couldn't possibly pick a favorite between the two.  They were both heart-breakingly beautiful in their simplicity and truth.

Hamlet, Jungle Theater
I admit it - I have a hard time with Shakespeare.  It takes me a while to get inside the language and really feel what's going on.  But I didn't have any problems with the Jungle Theater's production of Hamlet this year.  Bain Boehlke designed the inventive set and directed the fabulous cast, led by Hugh Kennedy as a very real Hamlet.  The whole production felt utterly modern and current, including innovative use of video, while still remaining true to the original work.

I really loved this original dance/music/theater piece by Joe Chvala and the Flying Foot Forum.  I had no idea what to expect walking into the Guthrie's studio theater, and was blown away by the story of an American journalist in the Bosnian War, and the way it was told through music, dance, and images.  This is what musical theater can and should be: original, relevant, inventive, moving, and full of wonderfully diverse music and dancing.  And for some inexplicable reason, this is the most viewed page on my blog, with twice as many views as the next highest page.  It makes me think that maybe they're shopping the piece around trying to find new life for it, which makes me happy.

2011 was the year I was introduced to August Wilson's ten-play cycle about the African American experience in the 20th century, although really it's about the American experience.  Ma Rainey is about a jazz singer in the 1920s and the musicians that play with her, and the struggles they face amidst the racism of the time.  Two Trains tells the story of the patrons and owner of a diner in a 1960s neighborhood that's disappearing.  Both are brilliant studies of life and history and characters.  And no one does it better than Penumbra Theatre, which has produced more August Wilson plays than any other theater in the country.  I look forward to next season's selection.

Pride, Pillsbury House Theatre
This might have been the most difficult play to watch this year; there were some brutally violent scenes.  But it was also very moving and meaningful and well done.  Four actors all played multiple characters and depicted the story of two gay men and the woman who loves them, in two distinct time periods - 1958 and 2008.  Tracey Maloney, Matt Guidry, and Clarence Wethern all brilliantly portrayed two different versions of the same character, one in each time period.  Subtle changes in voice, wardrobe, and carriage of the body instantly let the audience know which time period was being presented.  The play illustrated just how far we've come in 50 years, and that we still have a ways to go.

[title of show], Yellow Tree Theatre
Musical theater is my favorite thing in the world, so a musical that celebrates (and maybe pokes a little fun at) musical theater is bound to be on my list of favorites.  This musical about two guys writing a musical about two guys writing a musical is hilarious and full of musical theater references.  It was a perfect choice for the cozy intimate stage of Yellow Tree, my favorite little theater in the suburbs.  The fabulous four-person cast (Jessica Lind, Mary Fox, Andy Frye, and J.C. Lippold) had as much fun as the audience.  It also gave me a new motto: "I'd rather be nine people's favorite thing than a hundred people's ninth favorite thing."

Twisted Apples, Nautilus Music-Theater at the Fringe Festival
This was my first year attending the Minnesota Fringe Festival, and I loved it.  I saw ten shows in a little over a week (a record even for me), some funny, some moving, some weird, but all in all a wonderful sampler of the talent in the Twin Cities.  My favorite show of the Fest turned out to be one of my favorites of the year - the original music-theater piece Twisted Apples by Nautilus Music-Theater, the second of three short operas that will eventually make up a full three-act opera based on Sherwood Anderson's 1919 short story cycle Winesburg, Ohio.  Led by a gut-wrenching performance by Norah Long, it completely captivated me and brought me into the world of the little frontier town, so much so that I found the sunshine outside jarring when I left the theater.  I look forward to next year's installment.

Since it's hard for me to pick just ten, here are ten more shows I loved: 7-Shot Symphony, After Miss Julie, August: Osage County, Avenue Q, Burial at Thebes, Edge of Our BodiesH.M.S. PinaforeI Am My Own Wife, Little Shop of Horrors, and Wizard of Oz.

In addition to the above plays and musicals, there are a few artists whose work stood out for me this year, whom I saw multiple times in wonderfully diverse productions.

Bradley Greenwald appeared in two of my favorite shows this year, and I don't think that's a coincidence.  From the emcee in Cabaret to a German transvestite antiques collector in I Am My Own Wife, and everything in between ("everything" in this case being Hamlet's murderous uncle and a buffoonish soldier on the Way to the Forum), he's always a joy to watch.  Whether he's speaking or singing in that magnificent voice of his, in English or in German, he puts everything he's got into his performance, and I can't get enough.

Unlike my other two favorite artisits, I didn't know who Anna Sundberg was before July of this year, although I had probably seen her before.  But this fall she starred in three fantastic and diverse plays by three different theater companies, showing great range in playing a woman among immigrants in early 20th century NYC (Girl Friday's Street Scene), a very modern woman dealing with relationship issues (Walking Shadow's reasons to be pretty), and the entitled daughter of the owner of a large estate in 1940s London (Gremlin Theatre's After Miss Julie).  Oh, and she won an Ivey Award for emerging artist, so I guess I'm not the only one who took notice.

I have to admit I don't usually pay attention to the director of theater or movies.  I'm never quite sure what to attribute to the director vs. the cast or the writer.  But here's what I do know: every play or musical directed by Peter Rothstein that I've seen has been excellent theater, so he must have had something to do with it.  It's always high quality work from top to bottom, beginning with the seemingly perfect cast he assembles.  Whether it's with Ten Thousand Things (the thought-provoking Doubt, see above), The Children's Theatre (two shows that'll make you feel like a kid again, Annie and The Wizard of Oz), a joint production between the Ordway and 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle (the colorful and entertaining Guys and Dolls), or his own Theater Latte Da (the moving Song of Extinction; an original piece about immigrant music that he created with pianist Dan Chouinard, Steerage Song; and the delightful Spelling Bee), a Peter Rothstein directed show is always entertaining, or interesting, or thought-provoking, or hilarious, or heart-breaking, or moving, or all of the above.

Those are just a few of the things I loved this year in the rich and deep world of theater in Minnesota.  Thanks to anyone who read my blog this year, posted comments, emailed me with show suggestions, offered me free tickets to come to their show, or went to the theater with me.  It's such a joy to experience the amazing theater in this town and to get to share my experiences, thoughts, and feelings with you all.

P.S. I only made it to New York once this year, but I did pretty good.  I saw three of the best Broadway musicals of the year (The Book of Mormon, How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying, and Follies), and two off-Broadway shows I really enjoyed (a new production of my favorite musical RENT, and the thought-provoking two-person play Freud's Last Session).  I've already started my list of new shows I want to see, so hopefully I'll get back to NYC again soon!

Saturday, December 17, 2011

"The Wizard of Oz" at the Children's Theatre

This is my week to see children's shows, and I'm loving it!  Earlier this week I saw the Ordway's magical production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella, and two days later I saw a fantastic production of The Wizard of Oz at the Children's Theatre, beautifully directed by my favorite director Peter Rothstein.  If I had to pick a favorite between the two shows it would be The Wizard of Oz, if only because it's a more well-known and beloved story, and the tale of a young girl learning that everything she needs to make her dreams come true is within her is something I appreciate more than the tale of a young girl who needs a fairy godmother and a prince to make her dreams come true.  But both are really beautiful, well done productions that made me feel like a kid again.

The star of the show is Maeve Moynihan as Dorothy.  Maeve is a Children's Theatre regular (she made her debut as a munchkin in The Wizard of Oz in 2002), but I'm not, so I first saw her as Carrie in the Guthrie's world premiere of the Little House on the Prairie musical in 2008.  I remember being impressed with her then, as I was when she played the young version of the title character in Theater Latte Da's Violet last year (one of my favorite shows of 2010).  As Dorothy, Maeve is charming and believable with a beautiful full voice.  She's so young (she just turned 18) and so talented; she has the whole world ahead of her.  I can't wait to see what she does with it, and I only hope that after she becomes a big Broadway star she comes home every now and then to grace us with her talent.

Dorothy's three friends are beautifully and perfectly personified by Dean Holt (Scarecrow), Max Wojtanowicz (Tin Man), and Reed Sigmund (Cowardly Lion).  First of all, the make-up and costumes (by Helen Q. Huang) are spectacular and do a wonderful job of helping to create the character (and they get into and out of them fairly quickly).  Each one of them has the specific movements of the character - the loose-limbed Scarecrow, the mechanical Tin Man, and the cat-like Lion - that the actors never lose sight of for a moment.  I would be entertained just watching the three of them move and dance and interact for two hours.  Reed's Lion is particularly entertaining.  About his role in this spring's Annie I wrote, "Reed is almost over the top in his portrayal of Rooster, but it works."  And that's true here too; he almost goes over the top but never quite crosses that line; it's brilliant, especially for kids.

Another star of the show is little Loki, who plays Toto.  He (she?) has to be the most compliant dog I've ever seen. S/he is passed back and forth, sometimes to some pretty scary looking creatures and amid loud noises and commotion, but is never frazzled or upset.  S/he is onstage for much of the show, and just calmly hangs out in someone's arms, watching, standing where placed, occasionally eating a treat.  I guess that's to be expected when the animal trainer (William Berloni) is a Tony award winner who has worked extensively on Broadway.

The sets by Scott Bradley are simple, but colorful and effective.  The spinning house and flying objects are kind of adorable, and the lightning flashes and crashes distract the audience while the set is being changed from Kansas to Munchkinland.  This is one show where the lighting really helps create the sense of place (green for Oz, red for poppies).  But some of the best effects are never seen at all.  In several scenes the actors look off above the audience, at a tornado or the Emerald City or the wizard, and they're so convincing I had to fight the urge to turn around and see what they were looking at!  And of course The Wizard of Oz would not be the same without the familiar wonderful music, beautifully played by the pit orchestra led by Victor Zupanc (who seemed to love interacting with the kids before the show and during intermission).

As I said before, the costumes are just magnificent.  The child munchkins are the cutest little things; one tiny one in particular I wanted to put in my pocket and take home with me!  These kids are so enthusiastic and energetic, and really fine young actors.  They're just children playing make-believe, in fabulous costumes in front of hundreds of people.  It makes me wonder which of these children will be playing Dorothy in another 10 years.

This was my last show of 2011, and the year couldn't have ended better.  I've seen a ton of theater this year, more than any other year of my life (my year-end summary is coming soon), and this was a perfect finale to it.  A story so familiar it's part of our cultural heritage, executed to perfection by the top talent in the area, a heart-warming and inspiring story.  What a world, what a world!

(For another wonderful stage interpretation of The Wizard of Oz, click here.)

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

"Cinderella" at the Ordway

I always like to go to the Ordway's holiday production because it's typically an original production (rather than a touring show) featuring a mostly local cast.  Last year they did the colorful and super fun Joseph, the year before Beauty and the Beast.  This year's selection is the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Cinderella, originally written for television in 1957 starring the great Julie Andrews.  The Ordway's production is magical and very sweet, and almost makes me believe in fairy tales, almost makes me believe that impossible things really can happen.  It was fun to forget that I'm way too old for fairy tales and immerse myself in the magical world that Cinderella lives in, if only for a little while.

A few of my favorite things:
  • A huge cast of primarily local talent, including the divine Wendy Lehr as the Queen and Gary Briggle as her elegant husband, Reid Harmsen (aka Mark in RENT and Brad in Rocky Horror) as the enthusiastic steward and friend of the prince, and way too many ensemble members to mention here (but I had fun trying to identify them in the group numbers).
  • The sweet-voiced and extremely likeable Jessica Fredrickson (another local with whom I was previously unfamiliar) as our Cinderella.
  • A quite capable and swoon-worthy Prince in the form of Jeremiah James (the one non-local featured).
  • Hilariously over the top performances by Greta Grosch (one of the original Church Basement Ladies) as the Stepmother and Colleen Somerville and Andrea Wollenberg as her two homely but hopeful daughters.
  • A sassy fairy godmother (Tonia Hughes) who encourages Cinderella to make her own wishes come true, with a little help.
  • Cinderella's animal friends adorably represented by puppets manipulated by dancers dressed in black (including Linda Talcott Lee who recently talked about her experiences working with the one and only Jerome Robbins).
  • Two dimensional painted set pieces and backdrops that look like a storybook come to life.
  • A seriously magical and seemingly instantaneous transformation from poor serving girl to belle of the ball and back again (I'm still not sure how they did that).
  • Great musical theater songs like you would expect from R&H, fun dance numbers, and beautiful playful costumes.
One gauge of the success of a musical is if I leave the theater singing the songs and feeling like I could dance down the sidewalk back to my car.  By that criteria, the Ordway's Cinderella is a success.  A light and fluffy show, but very well done.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

"Charley's Aunt" at the Guthrie Theater

I'm sure I've said this before, but I love my season ticket seat at the Guthrie's Proscenium Theater (the rectangular red one) - front row center.  It's actually in the "cheap seats" section because it's "too close."  But even though I get a crick in my neck (like sitting in the front row of a movie theater), I love being close enough to see the color of the actors' eyes and the sweat beading up on their foreheads.  I almost feel like I'm in the middle of the action.  And a lot of crazy action there is in the late 19th century English farce Charley's Aunt, playing now through mid January.

A brief plot summary: two young men at the fictional St. Olde's College in Oxford are in love with a pair of young ladies who are leaving the country tomorrow.  They need an excuse to see the ladies and profess their love to them, so they invite them over to Jack's rooms to meet Charley's aunt, a wealthy widower he's never met.  When her arrival is delayed, they convince their pal Babs to wear his theater costume and impersonate the old lady.  As you can imagine, much hilarity and hijinks ensue (including pratfalls, kicks in the rear, slaps, etc.), especially when the real aunt arrives and finds someone else using her name!

This is a brilliant cast, and it's worth noting that six of the ten cast members are graduates of the joint University of Minnesota/Guthrie training program.  Like the Minnesota Twins, the Guthrie has a strong farm system; they grow their own talent, which is on great display in this show.  Starting with the talented and charming John Skelley as the title character, or the false version of the title character.  He completely commits to this very physical role; at one point he's holding his breath and his face literally turns red as he breaks out in a sweat!  John appears to be having a great time as Babs, who is having a great time being Charley's aunt.  Except for avoiding the two distinguished gentleman vying for his affection (Colin McPhillamy and Peter Thomson - much more elegant and handsome than he was as the ruler of the Queen's navy), he gets to laugh and flirt with two lovely ladies to his heart's content!  Matthew Amendt is also wonderful as Jack, the ringleader of the whole scheme who goes from confident and enthusiastic to exasperated when his plan falls apart.  Ben Mandelbaum is adorable, boyish, and incredibly expressive as the young Charley.  Every good English comedy needs a sly, mischievous butler who's smarter than those he serves, and Guthrie newcomer Charles Hubbell fills that role well.  The three young ladies are also played by U of M/Guthrie graduates and are as lovely and talented as the men.  And if that's not enough, Sally Wingert (the Meryl Streep of the local theater scene) brings her considerable talent to the role of the real Charley's aunt.

As expected at the Guthrie, the sets and costumes are spectacular.  The three scenes of the play each have their own authentic and detailed set that floats or slides in or out.  When I first walked into the back of the theater and saw the stage, it was like looking into a Victorian doll house.  The men look sharp and elegant in their suits, and the ladies' dresses with matching hats look good enough to eat!  And from my front row seat I got a good look at the shoes - smashing.

Charley's Aunt is everything a good farce should be - silly and ridiculous, light and funny, and perfectly executed by everyone involved.

"Miracle on Christmas Lake II" at Yellow Tree Theatre

Three years ago Yellow Tree Theatre faced a dilemma: the rights to the Christmas show they were planning to do were pulled, and they only had a few weeks to come up with something. They performed a “miracle.” They wrote and produced an original play in a few weeks that turned into a hit that ran every December for three years. Miracle on Christmas Lake is about a small town Minnesota theater that has to develop a play in a few weeks in order to keep the theater from closing down, and they do it to hilarious effect. This year Yellow Tree is presenting the brand new sequel, Miracle on Christmas Lake II (both shows written by Jessica Lind). Our favorite characters return (except for the soap fan with the hairy mole) – Colin, who runs the theater, and his wife Tess are now parents of a six month old baby, and Martha, loveable despite (or because of) the fact that she embodies every bad stereotype of Minnesotans, is now (sort of) engaged to her nerdy Little House on the Prairie loving costar from last year’s production. The town of Christmas Lake is in danger of being annexed, and the town savior appears in the form of Hollywood scout Joey Deschantel, who is going to recommend the town to his producers as location for the upcoming remake of It’s a Wonderful Life, starring famous Minnesota actors Josh Hartnet and Jessica Biel. He takes charge of the town Christmas pageant, making it into a spectacle so Hollywood will take notice.

That’s a whole lot of complicated exposition, but the details of the story don’t really matter. What matters is that this is a hilarious show with tons of heart and local flavor. It’s not the usual holiday sugary sweet schmaltz, but you’ll still leave the theater with a warm glow to carry out into the cold Minnesota night. You’ll remember fondly this crazy quirky little Minnesota town full of loveable characters that may actually resemble people you know.

Of the four returning characters from the original Miracle on Christmas Lake, only one is played by the same actor: Ryan Nelson as the nerdy Neil.  My favorite thing about Neil is his love for Little House on the Prairie, which I share. It was my favorite show as a kid and I still have to stop and watch whenever I come across it on TV. (Beth and Manly!!) The other fun thing about Neil is that he thinks it’s not acting if you use your normal speaking voice, so he always imitates a famous actor, despite the director’s protests. Said director is played by Andy Frye who played Hunter in [title of show] this spring. His super high energy brings new life into the little town. The moon boot and high-waisted jeans wearing Martha Knutson is played this year by Carolyn Trapskin, and she ably contorts her face and voice into the weirdness needed for this character. And it works for her, she has three men chasing after her! Our sane couple (loosely based on Yellow Tree founders, director Jason Peterson and playwright Jessica Lind) are played this year by J.C. Lippold and Mary Fox (both of whom also appeared in [title of show]).  Mary's given some great and diverse performances around the cities this year, as she does again here. While she effortlessly created an outrageously quirky character in Theater Latte Da’s Spelling Bee this fall, she does a great job here of playing the straight role among these other crazies (although she does get to appear in a tutu and speak in rhyme). J.C.’s Colin is a calming, grounding presence as the man who desperately wants to save his hometown, because he doesn’t know who he is without it. Gary DuBreuil fills out the cast playing several diverse roles, from a minister to a volunteer police officer to a Hollywood producer.  All together it's a very capable and entertaining cast that plays well together on the little stage (which is an actual raised stage for this production).

A lot of crazy things happen and the show falls apart for various reasons, but still manages to be a success because the townspeople pull together to make it happen. The play within a play (a very modernized version of the Christmas story) is in rhyme, with Mary delivering much of it in a halting cadence as if Tess is making it up on the spot. Colin accompanies the show on the piano, and it closes with everyone joining in to sing a wonderful new holiday ditty, “A little bit of lovin' and a Christmas tree” (written by one of my favorite local musicians Blake Thomas, if you like country/folk music, you must check him out). It’s a really sweet and fun end to a really good time. In fact, if a single were available for download, I’d download it today (hint, hint, to whoever may be reading this!).  Or you can just watch this video on a continuous loop, like I do.  ;)

I think it's safe to say that their Christmas show is Yellow Tree’s most popular show of the year; it's playing six days a week (which their other shows typically do not) and has been extended into January. If you're looking for a fun and non-traditional holiday show that still has that traditional holiday spirit, check it out, especially if you’re in the Northwest suburbs. And make sure to get there in plenty of time to get seats. I went with a group on a Tuesday night and it was packed, maybe even sold out. We were enjoying our half price bottles of wine at nearby Nectar Wine Bar (which I highly recommend for a pre-show dinner) so much we didn’t get to the theater as early as we hoped, so we had to take whatever seats we could get! But even from way in the corner it was a thoroughly enjoyable evening.

Monday, December 5, 2011

"I Wish You Love" at Penumbra Theatre

It's not often that you get a second chance to see a production you missed.  Every year at the Ivey Awards I'm presented with several wonderful productions and performances that I didn't see.  I always wish they'd bring back the productions so I could have another chance to see them, and this year my wish came true!  Dennis Spears won an Ivey for his performance as Nat King Cole in I Wish You Love by Penumbra Theatre earlier this year, and after touring with the show in Washington DC and Connecticut, they brought it home to their St. Paul theater for another run (now through Dec. 18).  I'm so glad I had the opportunity to see it.  Not just for Dennis' award-worthy performance, but also because it's another quality, thought-provoking, moving production by Penumbra.  I was lucky enough to attend on a day when there was a post-show discussion led by Education Director Sarah Bellamy, which was, as always, enlightening and illuminating about the topics surrounding the show (if you ever get a chance to go to a talk-back at Penumbra, take it).  The more I see of Penumbra, the more I love them.  Like me, they believe that theater is more than just entertainment.  Theater has the power to start conversations and change the way we view the world.

I Wish You Love is a Penumbra original; written by Dominic Taylor, head of Penumbra's new play development program, and directed by Artistic Director Lou Bellamy, it premiered at Penumbra earlier this year.  The play is a fictionalized account of Nat King Cole's 1957-1958 TV variety show, the first hosted by an African American.  The sponsors were skittish, and Cole ended up putting his own money into the show to keep it on the air.  The play branches off from that and shows us the racism behind the scenes of the show; the network and sponsors didn't want any of the black band members to appear on camera, and Nat received death threats.  The network insisted he go on a national tour to prove his national popularity, ending in his birthplace of Alabama (he grew up in Chicago).  This was during the height of the Civil Rights movement and the violence surrounding it.  Nat and his band were caught up in the violence, which brought a whole new reality to what they were seeing on the news every night.

The scenes in the play cover rehearsals, breaks, and the TV show itself.  Video images are beautifully and effectively woven into the live action on the stage.  When the show goes live, a camera in the back of the theater videotapes what's going on onstage, which is simultaneously broadcast on several black and white TVs hanging over the stage.  It feels like we're at a live taping of "The Nat King Cole Show," complete with "Applause" signs and vintage commercials that come on during the breaks.  We also get news reports of the growing violence in the South and see real news footage projected onto the screens.  It's quite a contrast between the smooth, pretty music in the TV studio and people being beaten on the streets in the news footage.

I'm not that familiar with Nat's music (other than his Christmas album and his posthumous duet with his daughter Natalie), but I've been watching some videos of him on youtube, and Dennis Spears seems to have captured his mannerisms, his voice, and his spirit.  You see two Nat King Coles in I Wish You Love - the smiling public face, and the behind the scenes real man who is frustrated with the sponsors and the network.  As soon as the countdown to live TV begins (five, four, three, two....), Nat puts on his million dollar smile and speaks to the camera, and to his audience watching at home.  And then he sings in that familiar velvet voice (musical direction by Sanford Moore).  As soon as the cameras are turned off, reality sets in and he lights up a cigarette (Nat died of lung cancer at the age of 45) as he interacts with his band or the producer.  Nat's band members (inspired by his real life trio) are played by the always great Kevin D. West as the bass player and long-time friend of Nat's, and newcomer to the Twin Cities theater scene Eric Berryman as the young guitar player Nat takes under his wing.  We learn more about Nat and his life and goals through the stories, jokes, and pain he shares with his friends.  The show's producer, who does the best he can for Nat within the restrictions placed upon him, is played by Michael Tezla (my co-star from A Serious Man).

In what turned out to be a fascinating and completely unplanned but somehow serendipitous pairing of theater, I saw the Chanhassen's production of Hairspray the same weekend that I saw I Wish You Love.  Both shows are set in a similar time period and deal with segregation.  Both explore the use of TV and music to help break down the barriers between the races, but in very different ways.  Hairspray is a fairly simplified version of events, in which everyone ends up happily and peacefully dancing together, and it's a white girl who leads the way.  I Wish You Love is a much more realistic view (we see several violent images that are hard to look at) of the struggles of African Americans that continue to this day.  There is no happy ending for Nat King Cole, just continued struggle, and progress mixed with setbacks.  Both shows deal with an important and unpleasant part of our history that really wasn't all that long ago.  I found that they complemented each other nicely, one a "fairy tale," and one a very real tale of one man trying to make a difference just by his very presence in American living rooms across the country through the power of television.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

"Hairspray" at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres

I saw the musical Hairspray at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres yesterday, and I'm still singing and dancing!  I've seen the show several times and it's one of my favorite musical theater soundtracks, so it's no surprise that I loved it.  It's a great cast of Channhassen regulars and newcomers, and a really wonderful production.  I went with my family, a group of 15 people ranging in age from 4 to 66 (including several teenagers), and a good time was had by all.  But it's more than just a good time, it's a great message - togetherness, standing up for what you believe in, and the realization that despite the fact that we might look different, we all just want to dance and have fun and be free to live our lives.  It's easy to forget that segregation wasn't really that long ago in the history of this country.  Today I saw I Wish You Love at Penumbra Theatre (more thoughts on that coming shortly), which gives a much more brutal, realistic view of segregation.  Both shows are about using music and television to enact social change, but that's where the similarities end.  In real life, segregation didn't end cleanly and easily with everyone dancing happily together.  But like Director Michael Brindisi writes in the playbill, Hairspray "is a fairy tale, but it can come true."  Humor and music and dancing is a legitimate way of dealing with an important part of our history.

A few more thoughts:
  • Chanhassen newcomer Therese Walth is the star of the show.  She plays Tracy with such energy and enthusiasm it's contageous, and her voice is big and beautiful.  Her energy is matched by another Chan newcomer, Kaija Pellinen, as Tracy's best friend Penny.  She's hilarious and endearing in her awkward lankiness and gum smacking as she follows her best friend and supports her in her adventures.
  • David Anthony Brinkley and Jay Albright may be the best couple I've seen on the Chanhassen stages in some time. Their chemistry is so playful, fun, sweet, and believable, it's a thing of beauty to watch. They have an ad lib section in the middle of "You're Timeless to Me" in the second act.  I'm not sure what Jay was doing because his back was to me, but David was cracking up. I don't blame him; I don't know how anyone can look at Jay Albright and keep a straight face, he's such a clown! David usually plays a tall, distinguished, silver-haired gentleman so it was fun to see him play against type as a tall, big-haired, supportive Baltimore mother, and do it so well.
  • Tom Rusterholz as Link Larkin is no Matthew Morrison (who is, really?), but he puts his Richie Cunningham charm to good use as the boy Tracy falls in love with, and who eventually proves he's worthy of her.
  • Nice to see some new faces in the ensemble along with old faves, including my favorite Chanhassen dancer and perennial teenager Tony Vierling. In any of the big, fabulous dance numbers (choreographed by Tamara Kangas Erickson), my eyes naturally gravitate towards him.  Two more Chanhassen faves Julianne Mundale and Janet Hayes Trow play the two less than supportive, but very funny and entertaining, mothers.
  • Kasono Mwanza has the moves as Seaweed, and the voice too.  Run and tell that!
  • After I saw the Elvis jukebox musical All Shook Up at the Chan last year, I wrote this: "If Aimee K. Bryant was auditioning for the role of Motormouth Maybelle in next year's Hairspray, she won it in my book!"  Apparently it wasn't only in my book, as she is playing the role and doing an amazing job!
  • We had an understudy for Corny Collins, Ben Johnson, and he was excellent.  He's everything Corny should be - suave and charming with a beautiful voice (he sings with the Minnesota Opera).  Speaking of understudies, I see Kinaundrae Lee is an understudy for the Dynamites, which I would love to see!  He played Angel in a local production of RENT last year so I know he can sing and dance in heels!
Hairspray has been extended through May so you have plenty of time to make the trip out to the Southwest suburbs to see this colorful production of a super fun show.  You'll laugh and dance, and maybe even be reminded that like Tracy, sometimes you need to take a stand to make a difference.  It may not end up with everyone happily dancing together, but it might get things moving.

Friday, December 2, 2011

"How to Cheat" at the Gremlin Theatre

How to Cheat is an interesting little play.  There's a lot going on in the short 75-minute show, some of it weird, some of it funny, some of it intellectual, and all of it entertaining.  The show is playing at the Gremlin Theatre* (which recently produced the thrilling After Miss Julie at the James J. Hill House) and is a joint production with Alan Berks & Company.  The two-person cast includes Randy Reyes, whom I'd watch in pretty much anything because he's always interesting and entertaining, and Candy Simmons, whom I've never seen before but also quite enjoyed.  Alan Berks directs the play and wrote it specifically for Randy; it premiered at the Minnesota Fringe Festival a few years ago and has now been expanded into a full-length play.

How to Cheat is about a man (single) and woman (married) who meet at a fancy party in a huge mansion and steal away together.  They end up in an out-of-the way room furnished with eclectic old pieces and boxes of memories (pretty cool set design by John Bueche, and several of the items are being sold via silent auction).  The room has several levels leading up to a bed.  They both know why they're there but take their time getting there.  Louie and Meri dance and flirt, stumble and run up and down and around the room.  He's a scientist and a bit of a player, she's a journalist who's unhappy in her marriage.  They discuss science and war, they dance, they play a card game that's much more than a card game.  Several different narrative styles are used to tell the story, from normal two-person dialogue, to a dream sequence, to speaking directly to and interacting with the audience.  It's smart and funny, it'll make you think and feel and laugh.  Randy and Candy create two complex and interesting people, and have a believable chemistry.

The play ends with the sounds of explosions coming from outside the room, and the couple decides to face whatever's going on together.  I'm not sure if it really is the end of the world, or if the explosions symbolize the new perspective they have on the world after this connection they've discovered, this shared experience.  The show is only playing for about a week, so act quickly if you're interested.

*I received two complementary tickets to attend the opening night of How to Cheat.