Wednesday, December 19, 2012

"All is Calm" by Theater Latte Da at the Pantages Theatre

I've seen six Christmas-themed theater productions in the last month and a half, and Theater Latte Da's annual holiday production All is Calm* comes closest to what I think is and should be the spirit of this midwinter holiday season: a celebration of our shared humanity, that transcends any perceived difference of nationality, ethnicity, religion, class, or political belief. All is Calm tells the true story of the WWI Christmas day truce, through songs and soldiers' own words. If these soldiers who were sent to kill each other could put aside their differences, share in each other's joy, and make peace for one day, it gives me hope that a larger peace is possible. This quote that arrived in my inbox today seems most appropriate: "If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man's life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility" (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow).

Now in it's 5th year, All is Calm was created by Latte Da's Artistic Director Peter Rothstein and the nine-man vocal ensemble Cantus. It begins with a few traditional Christmas carols, sung in stunning harmonies. Then the theater part of the piece begins as the actors (Matt Rein, David Roberts, and Alan Sorenson) come onstage and being speaking the words of witnesses to the event, taken from letters, journals, and other historical sources from that day in 1914. Songs and words are seamlessly woven together in one cohesive piece that continues without intermission or interruption throughout the arc of the story. We begin with "The Optimistic Departure," when young men across Europe were excited to go on an adventure they were sure would be over soon. Then comes "The Grim Reality" as the difficulties and death of battle set in. The high point is the quiet celebration of "Christmas" and the blessed "Truce," as the fighting stops and men from both sides enter "no man's land" to share stories and play games. Finally, in "The Return to Battle," the war continues as if the truce never happened, and in fact it was never repeated in such a large scale, as the war continued for another long four years.

the cast of All is Calm with the men of Cantus
All is Calm is a perfect example of what Theater Latte Da does best - weave together music and theater in an interesting and innovate way to tell a story. It's what Peter calls "intelligent musical theater," which is my favorite thing in the world. His creation is beautifully brought to life by this talented combination of actors and musicians. The three actors really embody the different men whose words are spoken, in a variety of accents. The men of Cantus, who have come from all over the country to sing together, not only sound gorgeous, but they're pretty good actors too as they become the soldiers in their joy and grief. This is truly a beautiful, moving, transfixing experience. Because of the seamlessness of the piece there is no room for applause. The audience was holding it in, which is perhaps why there was an almost immediate and deserving standing ovation as soon as the music ceased.

All is Calm is playing now through Saturday at Hennepin Theatre Trust's beautifully restored Pantages Theatre. If you go, be sure to check out the WWI exhibit upstairs, on loan from the Minnesota Military Museum in Little Falls. This is the second time I've seen this show, and it's one that only gets better with repeated viewing. This is my last theater experience of over 100 that I've had this year (look for my 2012 favorites to be posted around New Year's), and I can't think of a better way to end this amazing year of theater.**

soldiers of the London Rifle Brigade pose with
German Saxons of the 104th and 106th regiments on
Christmas day, 1914. Imperial War Museum, London.

*I received two complementary tickets to opening night of All is Calm.
**I can't think of a better way to begin another amazing year of theater than going back to the Pantages to see another Latte Da production, Aida, featuring one of my favorite scores, and what could possibly be the best love triangle in all of musical theater!

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

"The Match Girl's Gift" by Cerulean River Productions at the Minnesota Centennial Showboat

The Minnesota Centennial Showboat is kind of a magical place to see theater. Stepping onto this historic docked boat on the Mississippi River across from downtown St. Paul, you're transported into another world. Last time I was there, it was the world of pre-WWII Berlin, not typically associated with a river showboat, but still a transformative experience. (And I'm just waiting for someone to do Show Boat on the Showboat; it's an opportunity too good to pass up, don't you think?) The Showboat is currently decked out as a Victorian Christmas, from the actors dressed in period costume who greet you, to the Christmas decorations, to the music in the show. It even smells like someone is baking Christmas cookies! Two shows by Cerulean River Productions are currently playing in repertoire - The Match Girl's Gift and A Threepenny Christmas. I attended a Sunday matinee of the former, and I found it to be a cute and charming holiday show, sort of like A Christmas Carol lite.

The Match Girl's Gift is based on the Hans Christian Anderson story "The Little Match Girl," in which a little girl freezes to death on the streets while selling matches, with only visions of her dead grandmother to comfort her. This version is a little less grim, with the match girl dreaming her way into the home of a wealthy family she has long envied. The plot is perhaps a bit simplistic and trite, focusing on the rich boy's dysfunctional relationship with his parents, desperate for their approval. But the performances of the cast make up for what is lacking in the story. In the title role, Jillian Jacobson, a 7th grader whose bio already includes the Guthrie Theater and Girl Friday Productions, is a star in the making. She's a completely natural actor who easily brings you along on her character's journey. Also charming is Clare Foy as her chimney sweep friend. Megan Volkman-Wilson again shines in a motherly period role (see also Sunday in the Park with George).

But story aside, the highlight of this show is the music which begins and ends the show. The ensemble beautifully sings a selection of Victorian Christmas carols, accompanying themselves with a few instruments, and ringing out in gorgeous a capella harmony. I found myself somewhat impatient for the story to end so we could get back to the music!

The Match Girl's Gift closes this weekend, but A Threepenny Christmas continues through December 30 (see schedule for details). There were quite a few families in the audience, who seemed to be having a great time. If you're looking for a charming Victorian Christmas experience, the Showboat's a good place to find it.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

"2 Pianos 4 Hands" at Park Square Theatre

For anyone who's ever been an aspiring musician, 2 Pianos 4 Hands* will ring true. My instrument was clarinet, not piano, and I was nowhere near as good as the two characters in the show, who are very good by most people's standards, but not quite good enough to make it in the music world. Still, I can relate to "Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge" and practicing until you're bored silly. Such is the life of Teddy and Richie, aka Ted Dykstra and Richard Greenblatt, two Canadian actor/musicians who created the play based on their own experiences and have performed it all over the world. In Park Square Theatre's version, returning after a successful 2010 run, the 4 hands belong to Michael Pearce Donley and Peter Vitale (who is also responsible for the delightful sound and music that accompanies Ten Thousand Things' unique productions). Both Michael and Peter possess a pretty amazing (and I would think rare) combination of skills - they're excellent pianists as well as great actors, delivering funny and heartfelt performances. No wonder this show sells out - funny, relateable, and featuring some beautiful classical music (as well as a few pop pieces thrown in for fun).

The show opens on a stage that is bare except for two grand pianos. Two pianists enter in tuxes with tails, seemingly elegant and professional, until they start to wordlessly bicker about who gets which piano and which bench. The hilarity continues from there as we flash back to childhood lessons, with the actors taking turns playing the young child and their various teachers. We follow them through the early days of lessons, fights with their parents about practicing too much or not enough, junior high competitions, and trying to get into that school where they think they belong, until they're told they're not quite good enough, whereupon they're forced to give lessons to housewives or perform in piano bars for drunks. But through it all, there's the music. The dueling duets are the most fun, as they make it into a competition, whether they're sitting at the same piano or each at their own. A medley of pop tunes turns into a fun game of "name that tune," from the The Young and The Restless theme song to Charlie Brown's theme song. And finally, the show ends with a long and impressive piece (Bach's Concerto in D minor, 1st Movement, for you classical music fans), that to my untrained ears, sounds like it's being performed by a couple of classical musicians.

2 Pianos 4 Hands is playing at Park Square Theatre now through December 30. It's definitely worth checking out for some rare non-holiday related fun and beautiful piano music.

*I received two complementary tickets to the show.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

"The Servant of Two Masters" at the Guthrie Theater

If you do not enjoy the feeling of laughing until your face hurts, you must avoid The Servant of Two Masters at all costs. Because if you end up sitting in the Guthrie's beautifully red proscenium theater sometime between now and January 20, you will laugh for two hours straight, and your face will hurt. But if you're willing to risk this pain, if you like silly, outrageous, classic yet modern, slapstick, adeptly executed comedy (with delightful music thrown in), then get yourself to the Guthrie and wade through the throngs of people flocking to that other show and make your way to the theater across the lobby (but certainly don't show up at the Level Five Cafe 40 minutes before showtime expecting to get a table). I don't have the words to adequately describe the experience; it's just beautifully executed comedic Theater.

The Servant of Two Masters is an 18th Century play of the style known as "commedia dell'arte," in which masked character types act out familiar comic scenes. The play arrives at the Guthrie via the Yale Repertory Theatre and several translations and adaptations, the final one by Steven Epp, who also plays the titular dual-mastered servant, and director Christopher Bayes. They've peppered the over 250 year old play with current political and pop culture references, everything from "Gangnam Style" to Titanic to The Music Man to The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and everything in between. They even manage to poke some gentle fun at the Guthrie and the show across the lobby. The comedy is very physical and very exaggerated, a head-spinning mix that'll keep you on your toes. In fact, out of the several dozen shows I've attended sitting in the front row of the Guthrie Proscenium Theater, this is the first time I've feared for my safety a tiny bit. If you're sitting near the front, stay alert. Things go flying and the 4th wall is often breached, sometimes literally. Christopher Bayes was the director of movement for The 39 Steps on Broadway, which is no surprise; this show is a more than a little 39 Steps-esque. In the hands of this incredibly talented cast of mostly Guthrie newcomers (welcome to our beautiful Minnesota winter!), the original story, the adaptation, the direction, the music, the sets, and the costumes all combine for a ridiculously fun night at the theater. Another first - I've never high-fived an actor after a play, but somehow it seemed acceptable and appropriate after this show.

Leading the cast is one of the few locals in the show, Steven Epp, of the late Theatre de la Jeune Lune, and the current innovative theater company The Moving Company. Since I unfortunately never saw a Jeune Lune show, I have only recently become aware of the crazy brilliance that is Steven Epp. By that I mean he is equal parts crazy and brilliant, and you're never quite sure which part will show up. The best is when both parts show up, as they do here. There are similarities between this adaptation and another classic comedy Steven adapted to zany effect, Ten Thousand Things' Il Campiello. In addition to the words, his performance as the servant Truffaldina is playful and unexpected, wacky and entertaining. The well-meaning and always hungry Truffaldina is juggling two masters who, unbeknownst to him, are lovers trying to find their way back to each other. The talented Sarah Agnew (another local cast member) is the lovely Beatrice (pronounced bay-a-TREE-che to dramatic effect), who is in disguise as her deceased brother. Sarah does a beautiful job playing the straight man (literally) amidst the storm of crazy surrounding her. Jesse J. Perez plays her love, Florindo, as something off the cover of a romance novel. As the father trying to marry off his daughter, Allen Gilmore is simply hilarious, and in one prolonged scene had the audience in tears. Liz Wisan is charming as the lady's maid who wins Truffaldina's heart.

One of my favorite parts of the play is the music, provided by Aaron Halva on accordion and percussion and Carolyn Boulay on violin. They accompany the cast on a few songs (some of whom have excellent voices, especially Adina Verson as the daughter) and provide a soundtrack for the action, and really feel like part of the play rather than "just" the band. The sets (Katherine Akiko Day) and costumes (Valerie Therese Bart) are also delightful. There is no backdrop on the stage, there is no backstage, the entire area is in full view. A curtained area in front frames the main action, and charming tiny houses hint at the town. Costumes, make-up, and masks are as exaggerated as the comedy.

The Servant of Two Masters is playing now through January 20, so you have plenty of time to go see it, even in this busy time of year. It's relentless ridiculous over-the-top comedy, even the actors couldn't keep a straight face. It never lets up; you'll be crying "Chanhassen!" by the end. And if you want to know what I mean by that, go see the show!

the cast of The Servant of Two Masters

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

"Catch Me If You Can" at the Orpheum Theatre

If you've read this blog before, you know that I'm not a huge fan of movies made into musicals, preferring instead to see original and creative work written for the stage. But I was curious about Catch Me If You Can*, based on the 2002 Spielberg movie, which was in turned based on Frank Abagnale Jr.'s 1980 auto-biography about his life as a highly successful teenage con artist in the 1960s. It's a fascinating story in any format - how this young and incredibly intelligent man was able to impersonate a pilot, a doctor, a lawyer, and presumably anyone he wanted to be. Lucky for us he now uses his powers for good, not evil; after spending time in US and European prisons, he's worked for the FBI for 36 years, helping to prevent the crimes he perfected. It's no wonder someone wanted to turn this story into a musical. I found it to be, while not the perfect musical, genuinely enjoyable and entertaining. With few exceptions the songs are fast and catchy and fun, the choreography and dancing is of the high standards of Broadway, and the set and costumes transport the audience back to the 60s, as seen through the bright and happy TV shows of the era (more Laugh-In than Mad Men, and especially bringing to mind the underrated and over-before-its-time Pan Am). All in all a successful adaptation of a movie that did not seem to be crying out to be made into a musical. But with successful musical theater creators Terrence McNally (book), Marc Shaiman (Music and Lyrics), and Scott Wittman (Lyrics), it works. Act fast if you're interested - it's playing at the Orpheum Theatre through this weekend only.

A few other thoughts on the show:

  • A trio of great voices belonging to charismatic actors lead the show. Dominic Fortuna (who seems to have wandered over from Jersey Boys) is sympathetic as Frank's down on his luck dad, whose schemes are never quite as successful as his son's. Merrit David Janes is FBI Agent Hanratty, who's trying to catch Frank, and eventually does. It's a role that won Norbert Leo Butz a Tony last year, and Merrit gives it the energy and humor required. Last but not least, Stephen Anthony is the star of the show as our charming hero/antihero. He's got a great voice and inhabits all of Frank's various guises with ease, while still letting us see the lost and searching boy underneath.
  • The obligatory romance is one of the least successful subplots; the real relationship driving the show is between Frank and Hanratty. Though they only share a few scenes together, theirs is the most interesting relationship and most compelling chemistry.
  • The ensemble is fantastic in their 60s wardrobe; they look, move, and sound great.
  • The show is set up as Frank telling his story on a 60s variety show, complete with colorful graphics displayed on the backdrop of the stage, and an awesome band onstage, dressed in white tuxes.
  • The score is energetic and fun; highlights include "Don't Break the Rules" (Hanratty's shining moment), Frank's emotional "Good-Bye," and the final duet between Frank and Hanratty - "Strange But True," which pretty much sums up the plot. 

On the night I attended, "the real Frank Abagnale Jr." was there for a Q&A after the show. He just happened to be in town speaking to US Bank about fraud prevention, and popped into the theater to talk to the audience. It was obvious from his answers that he's been talking about this for a long time and has been asked everything multiple times. But it was fascinating to hear more details about his story from the man who lived it, and find out what is real and what is Hollywoodized or Broadwayized. As for the musical version of his story, he said, "I kind of even like it more than the movie." I think I kind of agree.

Stephen Anthony as Frank leads the cast of Catch Me If You Can

*I received one complementary ticket to Opening Night of Catch Me If You Can.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

"An Eventually Christmas: Holidays at the Mill" at the Mill City Museum

Eventually... why not now? So went the popular slogan for Gold Medal flour in the early 20th Century, the height of the flour milling business upon which our fair city of Minneapolis was built.* What was once the Washburn A. Mill (the Washburn-Crosby Company later became General Mills) is now the site of the Mill City Museum, right next to the river in Minneapolis, just down the block from the Guthrie Theater. The vacant building burned down in 1991, but most of the external structure was saved. The museum opened in 2003 and showcases the history of the milling industry and the city that it helped to build. I've been wanting to visit the museum since it opened, but in typical theater geek fashion, it was theater that finally got me there. An "Eventually" Christmas: Holidays at the Mill is a unique theater experience written by talented local writer/comedian/actor Joseph Scrimshaw (whom I only recently discovered thanks to his hilarious and odd little Fringe show this summer). At just $14 for the short play, which also includes admission to the museum (an $11 value), it's a steal - for just three extra dollars you can experience the museum plus this fun little play that helps you imagine the lives of the people that worked in that very location. I love the idea of theater happening in the exact location where similar events might have taken place (see also: After Miss Julie, produced by Gremlin Theatre in the basement kitchen of the James J. Hill House); it makes me feel like I'm witnessing history, instead of just a made-up drama.

the cast of An Eventually Christmas
The play takes place in the museum's Flour Tower elevator. If you've never been to the museum, this might seem odd - a play in an elevator? But the elevator is actually a unique way to tour the building, and, it turns out, experience theater. The bleacher-like seats in the large elevator face the opening, from which the different floors are viewed, representing different stages in the flour-making process (the museum's guided tour will give you a more detailed history that you can use as background to the events of the play, although it's not necessary to follow the play). Our guide through the play is the Ghost of Mill City Past (the charming and personable Richard Rousseau), dressed in chains, "like that other ghost in that other story being told down the street." The Ghost directs the elevator to different floors and explains a bit about the characters in the scenes, who are based on real employees of the mill, circa 1920, as described in the company's "Eventually" newsletter. The Ghost cajoles museum tour guide Anthony into taking on different roles in the scenes (Anthony is actually actor Brian Columbus, very entertaining as he slips from being just plain Anthony into the various characters). The story involves a couple of women on the "women's floor" (packing bags of Gold Medal flour) as they plan for the annual Christmas party, which sounds like it was THE event of the season. The story culminates on the 8th floor, when the audience exits the elevator and enters the Washburn-Crosby Company's party, and watches the events unfold.

I've always said that theater is my window to the world, and in this case, it's my window to the world of the past. An "Eventually" Christmas: Holidays at the Mill is a great addition to the museum and helps you experience life in the mill as it was 90+ years ago, while standing in that very location. History + theater = a great day in my book. And the next time someone says "eventually" to me, I'll respond with "why not now?" Sounds like a great motto for life, as well as flour.

An "Eventually" Christmas continues this weekend only, three performances a night Friday and Saturday. Click here to find more info and make reservations (space is limited in the elevator, so reservations are recommended).

*When you visit the museum, be sure to watch the short film by another local talent, Kevin Kling. Minneapolis in 19 Minutes Flat gives the entire history of the city of Minneapolis in an abridged version. While I would happily watch a two hour film on this topic, the under-twenty-minute version is entertaining and informative.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Ticket Giveaway for "Catch Me If You Can" at the Orpheum Theatre

Friends, I have a very exciting opportunity for you! Hennepin Theatre Trust has very generously offered to give away a pair of tickets to the new musical Catch Me If You Can to one lucky Cherry and Spoon reader. The musical is based in on the 2002 movie (starring Tom Hanks and Leonardo DiCaprio), and ran for about six months on Broadway in 2011.

The tickets are for opening night, Tuesday December 11, 7:30 showtime, at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis. The subject of the musical, Frank Abagnale, Jr., will be in attendance that night for a Question & Answer session after the show. Here's how to enter the drawing:

If you're a Facebook user -
  • CLICK HERE to go to the Cherry and Spoon Facebook page
  • LIKE the page, if you haven't already, and make sure "show in news feed" is checked if you want to get updates from Cherry and Spoon in your news feed
  • LIKE the post that says "friends, i have an exciting opportunity for YOU! Hennepin Theatre Trust has offered to give away a pair of tickets to the opening night of "CATCH ME IF YOU CAN" to one lucky Cherry and Spoon reader. LIKE this post to enter a drawing to win two tickets to the show on this TUESDAY, dec. 11 at the orpheum theatre in minneapolis. the winner will be announced on SUNDAY evening. good luck!"
If you're not a Facebook user -

It's as simple as that! And the even better news is that only 14 people have entered so far, which is much better odds than any lottery you can enter. The winner will be announced on Sunday evening. Good luck!

For information on the show or to purchase tickets (if you don't win), which runs for eight performances from December 11 through the 16, see the Hennepin Theatre website.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

"Sample Night Live" at the History Theatre

I can't believe it's been two years since I've been to Sample Night Live, the variety show held the first Wednesday of every month at the History Theatre that gives audiences a chance to sample local art (performance and visual). I attended the audience favorites show in December of 2010 and have always meant to go back, but something always comes up. So when my friend The Playbill Collector told me she was able to get some blogger tickets to this year's audience favorites show, I was happy to go along. And even happier to see that the host would once again be Loungeasaurus Rex (alter ego of the multi-talented Tom Reed). He never fails to entertain with his trademark mix of comedy, ad lib, crowd interaction, and cheesy (but good) lounge singing, all while clutching his notes in his multi-ringed hands. When an audience member told Loungeasaurus that he used to build semi-conductors, he made up a silly and clever song on the spot about semi-conductors. But not the usual definition, rather it became a song about a conductor who was not yet a full conductor. Hilarious.

But enough about the host. On to the performances. At each month's show, the audience picks their favorite act among the musicians, actors, poets, puppeteers, etc. Those winners are invited back in December, where the year's favorite is selected. The candidates include (click on each artist's name to find out more about them):

  • A couple of talented guitar players - Greg Herriges, impressive on multiple stringed instruments (who was also among the favorites in 2010), and Cory Wong, who played a couple of beautiful originals (you know he's a good guitar player because he spent not a little time tuning his guitar between songs, or as he said, playing the traditional Chinese song tu ning).
  • A totally unique duo of oboe and upright bass, the Vecchione/Erdahl Duo, who were, as they said, "not as bad as I expected." In fact, they're quite delightful despite, or perhaps because of, the unexpected combination. They played in support of Minnesota Orchestra musicians.
  • A little humor brought to us by puppeteer Margo McCreary and Jack the dog (who was interested in the same gross things that most dogs are interested in), and the very funny stand-up comedian Amber Preston, whose comedy is local and relatable and clever, told in an entertaining conversational style.
  • A musician in a category all his own - the one-man band Crankshaft. Alex Larson plays guitar, drums (with his feet), harmonica and kazoo, and sings (covers and originals), and sounds pretty awesome, in a rootsy, bluesy, rockabilly sort of way. He was my pick for favorite of the night; I really appreciate his creativity and ingenuity in creating a complete sound all his own.
  • The more traditional multi-person band was represented by Electric Children, a very cool bluesy five-person band (with dancers), and the crazy Irish pub band The Dregs (also returning from the 2010 show), who took advantage of the unrated second act by turning the very lovely Christmas song "Do You Hear What I Hear" into the less lovely but much funnier "Do You Have What I Have," a song about STDs.
  • The strange and funny four-person comedy improv group Meat and Cheese, who did a hilarious skit in which two members spoke in unison, all improv. Crazy fun.
  • The spoken word of Maximum Verbosity, who told a twisted Christmas story (and really, aren't they all a little twisted, what with the elves and all?).
  • Two folky singer/songwriter/guitar players who would be right at home at Storyhill Fest, the modern-day hippie Heatherlyn (another returnee from the 2010 audience favorites show), and the night's winner, Sarah Morris, whose lovely voice would have easily filled the theater without the aid of amplification.
  • And of course, I must also mention the Sample Night Live house band, The Smarts, keeping the crowd entertained with jazzy holiday favorites before the show, during intermission, and at the end while the votes were being counted (and the winner is - the Von Trapp Family Singers... sorry, wrong variety show).

I very much enjoyed my second time at Sample Night Live, and I vow not to let another two years go by before going back. Yes, some acts were better than others, but that's the beautiful thing about Sample Night - if there's an artist you don't like, take heart, it'll be over in seven minutes, and then there will be another artist onstage, and you just might discover a new favorite. In addition to the diverse talent onstage, visual artists also present their work for sale in the lobby. And did I mention the prizes? While I didn't win, someone in my group did, as more than a dozen prizes were given out in the door raffle.

A night like this makes me appreciate artists and the amazing creativity that they display. What makes someone think - "let's pair an oboe with an upright bass," or, "I know, I'll play the guitar, two drums, cymbals, tambourine, and a harmonica all at the same time, and sound really awesome doing it," or, "I'm going give voice to a lumpy dog puppet that's as interested in smelling people's butts as real dogs are," or, "let's attempt so speak in unison even though I have no idea what you're going to say," or, "I can slick back my hair, put on a cheesy 70s suit, make up a song on the spot, and make people laugh."  Artists boggle my mind, and make me happy to live in the same world they do.

Monday, December 3, 2012

"A Don't Hug Me Christmas Carol" at New Century Theatre

I purchased a three-show package at New Century Theatre (the newest of the Hennepin Theaters), mostly because I really wanted to see 2 Sugars, Room for Cream, and the other two shows in the package looked interesting: Deer Camp The Musical (starring Newhart's brothers Darryl) and A Don't Hug Me Christmas Carol. I found 2 Sugars, Room for Cream to be a delightfully original sketch comedy, and the other two... well, let's just say they didn't quite live up to what I believe musical theater can do (see this and this). That being said, I chuckled more than once, and the audience seemed to be having a great time. A Don't Hug Me Christmas Carol is very similar in structure and feel to Deer Camp The Musical, but since I can relate to the traditional Minnesota Christmas more than I can relate to a weekend getaway based on killing animals, I enjoyed this one a little more. It's a very loose retelling of the Dickens classic A Christmas Carol, set in small town Minnesota. Local bar owner Gunnar falls in the frozen lake and is in a coma, whereupon he's visited by his romantic and musical rival, Sven Jorgenson, showing him his past, present, and future. And like in the classic story, this Scrooge learns to be a little more kind and grateful, and yes, even allow his wife to hug him every once in a while.

Highlights of the show, such as they were, include:

  • A very enthusiastic and talented cast make the most of the material they're given. Number one among them is Bonni Allen as Gunner's long-suffering wife Clara. Bonni played Kate Monster in Mixed Blood's delightful production of Avenue Q last year, and I was quite amused when she once again put on a puppet, this time in the form of Barbra Streisand (it's a long story). Ross Young also appeared in Deer Camp, and once again he puts everything he's got into grumpy but loveable Gunner.
  • Like Deer CampDon't Hug Me's original songs are sung live by the cast to canned music, but at least there's an excuse for it this time - the music comes out of the bar's karaoke machine. Most of the songs are cute and amusing (except for one disappointingly homophobic song). And I can never resist a singalong, even if it's to a stupid song about Grandma cutting the cheese.
  • The dancing that accompanies the songs is also quite amusing (choreographed by Doug Anderson, who also plays the dimwitted bar patron Kanute, perhaps a nickname for Knutson?).
  • The spirit Sven Jorgenson (Michael Lee) gives an amusingly bad Robert Goulet impression.
  • The set is a very realistic looking small town Minnesota bar, judging by the responses I got when I posted a picture of it on Facebook with the caption "guess where I am?"
  • A Christmas Carol wouldn't be A Christmas Carol without Tiny Tim, and he appears here in a very wacky version - actress Emily Moore (who also plays waitress and aspiring singer Bernice) on her knees with a Cockney accent.
  • Again like Deer Camp, this show does not take itself at all seriously, and doesn't try to be more than it is - a silly, entertaining, mindless romp through bad jokes and cheesy story. You gotta respect that.

I've heard about these Don't Hug Me musicals (there are several in the series) and often wondered about them. Now I know they're not really my kind of musical. But they serve a purpose I suppose, and less adventurous theater-goers might enjoy them. A Don't Hug Me Christmas Carol is playing now through January 6. (But in the genre of Minnesota-themed holiday shows, I highly recommend Yellow Tree Theatre's Miracle on Christmas Lake II.)

the lifelike bar set of A Don't Hug Me Christmas Carol

Sunday, December 2, 2012

"A Behanding in Spokane" at Gremlin Theatre

A Behanding in Spokane is a very dark, very funny little play. The 2010 Tony nominated play by Irish playwright Martin McDonagh is this year's selection in what has become Gremlin Theatre's tradition of non-holiday fare in this month of Christmas Carols and jingle bells. I saw it on a three-show weekend, sandwiched between Yellow Tree's Miracle on Christmas Lake II and A Don't Hug Me Christmas Carol. It serves as a nice palate cleanser, but more than that, it's a great play with a fabulous cast of actors that's thoroughly entertaining any time of the year.

The play takes place in a shabby hotel room somewhere in America (kudos to designer Carl Schoenborn for creating the appropriate level of shabbiness). Mr. Carmichael has been traveling around the country for 27 years, looking for the hand that was taken from him as a teenager in a cruel act of violence. He's full of rage and revenge; you get the feeling that this searching for his hand business has been a hard life, but it's all he's ever known. Portrayer David Tufford embodies the years of frustration, exasperation, and darkness this man has lived through. Even though in some ways he's the villain of the play, threatening violence to every other character, you can't help but sympathize with him when he shares the details of how he came to be a one-handed man. There's a sadness there too; once he accomplishes his goal, he's got nothing else to live for, and the life he's known is over.

The event taking place in the hotel room before us is a sort of business transaction. A couple has decided to try to sell him a disembodied hand that they know is not his, but this man is not so easy to fool. He does not enjoy being scammed, and the consequences are dire as the two try to get out of it. Sara Marsh as the slightly dimwitted Marilyn and Brian J. Evans as her somewhat savvier boyfriend Toby are very entertaining as the alternately loving and bickering couple.

David Tufford and Luverne Seifert
Last but certainly not least in this talented four-person cast is Luverne Seifert as "the receptionist guy." I adore Luverne; he's a true clown (I mean that as the highest complement). He's extremely expressive in his delivery and physicality, and is an expert at engaging the audience (go see him in a Ten Thousand Things production and beware if you're sitting in the front row). He delivers an insane monologue that's really about nothing, other than establishing what a strange character this Mervyn is. He inserts himself into the situation happening in the hotel room, and is actually quite delighted that something exciting is finally happening in his life. I won't go into details about how this situation is resolved (you'll have to see it yourself to find out), but it's a crazy fun ride to watch them get there.

I only discovered the Gremlin a year or so ago, but they've quickly become one of my favorite theaters in town. Everything I've seen there has been interesting, or surprising, or touching, or silly, or all of the above. A Behanding in Spokane (with excellent direction by Matt Sciple) is no exception. Gremlin Artistic Director Peter Hansen* called it "an insane play and ton of fun to do." It's a ton of fun to watch, too. Playing now through December 16 at Gremlin Theatre in St. Paul.

*Peter was working the will call desk the night I attended, talk about hands on (no pun intended). Peter will soon be reuniting with his After Miss Julie costar Anna Sundberg for the Jungle's production of the recent Tony Award-winning play Venus in Fur.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

"Miracle on Christmas Lake II" at Yellow Tree Theatre

"A Little Bit of Lovin' and a Christmas Tree." That's the theme song of this year's rendition of Yellow Tree Theatre's annual holiday show, Miracle on Christmas Lake II* (presented for the second year in a row after a successful three-year run of the original Miracle on Christmas Lake). The song is a pretty good description of the plot as well - the "Loving" being represented by nerdy soulmates Martha and Neil and small town theater owners Colin and Tess, and the "Christmas Tree" taking the form of a silly costume that Colin wears in the pageant thrown together at the last minute. But more than that, it's about a small community pulling together to save their beloved small town way of life. Not your average sugar-coated Christmas treat, Miracle on Christmas Lake II is silly and preposterous and hilarious and heart-warming.

In the ridiculous (in a good way) plot, the entire town of Christmas Lake comes down with the goat flu (which causes its victims to make strange bleating noises and eat garbage), and is also in danger of annexation by neighboring town Potterton. Colin and Tess must put on a successful Christmas show to impress the Hollywood producer wanting to film a movie in Christmas Lake, which will save the town. It's the pretty much the same show as last year (written by Jessica Lind Peterson and directed by Jason Peterson, founders of the theater), with a few little tweaks and mostly new cast. The one constant in the five years of Christmas Lake is Yellow Tree regular Ryan Nelson as the Little House on the Prairie-obsessed piano tuner Neil, who thinks acting means doing an impression. He grows funnier and nerdier every year, and never fails to crack me up. Debra Berger ably takes on the role of Neil's girlfriend, the Sound of Music-loving Martha with a pet lizard and a mean tater tot hotdish recipe. Neil and Martha's big romantic moment is crowned with a rendition of (what else) "Something Good" from Sound of Music (the movie, but not the original stage musical, which had a song called "An Ordinary Couple" in its place, which has just outed me as a fellow nerd - maybe that's why I love Neil and Martha so much). Josef Buchel (the charming gentleman caller) and Rachel Petrie (of Four Humors Theater) play the only normal people in town, Christmas Lake native Colin and his wife Tess, who run the local community theater and try to corral these crazies into some semblance of a theatrical production. The charismatic Andy Frye returns as the Hollywood location scout with a secret, only this time he's given a new name (Stefan Stefanjovak) and a vaguely Eastern European accent. Rounding out the cast is Charles Fraser playing several characters, each one more quirky and outrageous than the last. The entire cast plays well together. One of the best examples of this is a fabulous slow-mo fight between Neil and Stefan over Martha. Hilarious and deftly executed.

Over the last three years I've grown to love the residents of the fictional town of Christmas Lake, which will seem familiar to any Minnesotan (you can read more about last year's version of the show here, and about the original play here). I hope to return for many years to come. Jason says in this article in the StarTrib that there are plans for a third play. Until then, check out this trailer featuring scenes from the show accompanied by one of my favorite local musicians (thanks to Yellow Tree) Blake Thomas** singing "A Little Bit of Lovin' and a Christmas Tree" (I'm still waiting for it to be released as a single). In the show, the cast sings the song and it sounds quite lovely - several of these actors are hiding great voices behind their comedy.

Miracle on Christmas Lake II from Yellow Tree Theatre on Vimeo.

*I received two complementary tickets to Miracle on Christmas Lake II, and brought along nine more friends who happily purchased tickets, even though many of them had seen the show last year. It's a really fun group outing, especially when paired with dinner at Nectar Wine Bar in adorable downtown Osseo.

**Blake Thomas is writing a new original musical Stay Tuned to be presented at Yellow Tree Theatre next spring, with help from his lovely and talented wife Mary Fox and Stefan Stefanjovak himself, Andy Frye (who is also directing Yellow Tree's next show, Circle Mirror Transformation, which I called "a quiet, real, completely satisfying exploration of five intersecting lives" when I saw it at the Guthrie in 2010). More information on both shows here.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

"A Christmas Carol" at the Guthrie Theater

You can always count on the Guthrie's annual production of A Christmas Carol* for perfectly satisfactory holiday entertainment. Charles Dickens' 1843 novella is such a classic story of gratitude, forgiveness, and appreciation for one's life and the people in it, that no matter how many times I see it, it never gets old. This is my ninth year in a row attending A Christmas Carol at the Guthrie, and while the core story is always the same, there are enough changes from year to year to keep me interested. Whether it's a new adaptation (by Crispin Whittel, which the Guthrie began using in 2010), new direction (this year by Joe Chvala of Flying Foot Forum, bringing his signature style of motion to the dance numbers and the way characters move around the stage), or new actors playing familiar roles (more on that later), every year brings a slight twist to a familiar and beloved story.

I spent some time this morning looking through my nine (and counting) scrapbooks full of ticket stubs and playbills, remembering past versions of A Christmas Carol. It was fun to see the revolving cast, with many constants returning year after year along with a few newbies every year. About two-thirds of last year's cast returns, with notable newcomers including Chanhassen fave Jay Albright (applying his entertainingly expressive face to the diverse roles of the jolly Mr. Fezziwig and the somber priest at the graveyard), the newly crowned Ivey Award-winner Hugh Kennedy (charming and natural as usual in the role of nephew Fred), and yet another graduate of the U of M/Guthrie program Paris Hunter Paul as young Scrooge. J.C. Cutler returns as Scrooge after his magnificent performance as artist Mark Rothko in Red at Park Square, his performance even more poignant and delightful than last year. Kris L. Nelson returns for the third year as Scrooge's hard-working clerk Cratchit, a likeable fellow who is eventually rewarded for his loyalty to the old Mr. Scrooge. Also returning for the third year is Angela Timbermann as Scrooge's housekeeper Merriweather, once again stealing scenes with her singing, drinking, and general disdain for everything. Returning ghosts include Tracey Maloney as the lovely but sad past, and Robert Berdahl as the merry present that turns much darker (also appearing as the boy Scrooge's literary friend Ali Baba and old Scrooge's fellow stingy businessman). But the award for longest tenure with the show has to go to Suzanne Warmanen as Mrs. Fezziwig. She has played the role in all but one of the nine productions I've see (I guess she was busy in 2009?), and who knows how many years before that. She's got the role down pat, but continues to make it fresh and funny. Rounding out the cast are countless children and adults playing "rich men, poor men, carolers, Fezziwig guests, villagers, Londoners, and Morris dancers." The children are especially impressive as always, including the little darling playing the all important role of Tiny Tim, singing a beautifully clear and high carol so slowly and patiently while standing all alone on stage. Judging by these kids, the future of Twin Cities theater continues to look bright.

My favorite scene in A Christmas Carol is always the Fezziwig party, or rather parties, as we see young Scrooge change over several years at the annual event held by his generous employer. Filled with music, dancing, food, and lots and lots of people, it always looks like the most wonderful party you've never been to. The dancing (choreographed by director Joe Chvala) is delightful, and everyone joins in. But this show is not all fun and games; the special effects involving the forlorn future shown to Scrooge are pretty creepy. Which makes the final transformation all the more satisfying. And it goes without saying that the sets and costumes are a feast for the eyes.

If you've never seen the Guthrie's production of A Christmas Carol, it really is something you must experience at least once. And if the last time you saw it was prior to 2010 when they started using the darker, sharper, funnier adaptation with completely new sets, you'll probably want to see it again to see how much it's changed. Finally, if you're like me and you see it every year, rest assured that this year's production does not disappoint. Playing now through December 29.

*I received two complementary tickets to A Christmas Carol as part of Blogger Night at the Guthrie.

"Romeo and Juliet" by Theatre Coup d'Etat at the Southern Theater

In Theatre Coup d'Etat's production of Shakespeare's classic tragic love story Romeo and Juliet, there's a big twist: Romeo is a woman. But the surprising thing is that it doesn't change the story one bit. It's the same beautifully tragic, frustratingly doomed love story we all know and love. The only language that's been changed are the pronouns referring to the lady Romeo. The problem everyone has with Romeo and Juliet being together is not because of their gender, but because they belong to warring families in Verona. It's a very quick and easy transition to get used to a female Romeo, and from there, the power and drama of the classic story take over.

But before we get to the play, there was a strange but fascinating pre-show show. First, the cast gathered onstage for a yoga and vocal warm-up, which was kind of fun to watch. Then all of the actors transformed into animals, crawling around the stage sniffing and growling at each other. I had a brief moment of fear - they're not going to do Romeo and Juliet as animals, are they? Fortunately that was not the case, and the exercise ended as quickly as it began. The actors/animals left the stage, and after a moment, the Prince entered, and the story began. I still have no idea what that was about; it was a strange preamble that seemed to have nothing to do with the play, but it certainly was interesting!

the Friar (Paul Schoenack)
with the (momentarily) happy couple
(Christina Castro and Briana Patnode)
On to the main event. Strong performances by the entire cast are led by our Romeo and Juliet. Christina Castro is a strong and likeable presence as Romeo, believably falling in the love with the girl across the room at a party, who just happens to be the daughter of her family's enemy. Briana Patnode's Juliet is all sweet wide-eyed innocence, until her new love kills her cousin and is banished from Verona, and her innocence turns to despair. Meri Golden provides some comic relief as Juliet's story-telling nurse. Also notable are Alec Barniskis as the Prince, with appropriately imposing height and commanding voice; James Napolean Stone as Mercutio, especially his entertaining fight and death scene ("a curse on both your houses!"); and Paul Schoenack as the friar who tries to do right by the young lovers.

The Southern Theater contains the most beautiful stage in the Twin Cities. With the cavernous space in front of the original arch, the possibilities are endless, and it's perfectly suited to a classic story like Shakespeare's. Theatre Coup d'Etat makes good use of the space with just a few necessary and basic set pieces. The costumes (by Tyler Stamm) are simple but beautiful, classic with a modern twist. I appreciate that the Capulets wear a bit of red, while the Montagues wear a shade of blue, because sometimes I have a hard time remember who's on which side. Romeo's look - boots, leggings, and jacket - is not overly feminine, but not that different from what women wear today. Juliet's wardrobe is as lovely and sweet as she is.

This is a great production of a classic piece of theater. Romeo and Juliet is a show that's done so often, you almost need a new take on it to justify doing it again. Or rather, I need something different and interesting to make me want to see it again. Re-imagining Romeo as a woman is just that twist that makes you see and appreciate the story in a new way, without significantly changing it.

the gorgeous wide open stage at the Southern Theater

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

"In the Next Room" at the Jungle Theater

In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play. It's an unexpected title. And while, yes, the play features the vibrator (more specifically the time in history when "electric massage" was a serious medical treatment for a particular ailment of women diagnosed as "hysteria"), the play is really about relationships, medical practice, the dawn of electricity, connections, and life "when the power dynamic between man and woman began to stir, but most men's hearts belonged first to invention" (from a note in the playbill). This Tony-nominated new play by Sarah Ruhl is making its regional debut, and as usual, it's perfectly executed by The Jungle Theater. Funny, smart, and sweet, with impeccable set and costume design, it's a highly entertaining night at the theater, even if it might make you squirm in your seat a little (which is not a bad thing in theater).

The titular "next room" refers to Dr. Givings' medical office, which, awkwardly, is just off the parlor of his beautiful Victorian home in "a prosperous spa town outside of New York City." Women visit Dr. Givings when they're feeling a little off, and he very calmly and clinically administers the therapy, as their husbands chat with Mrs. Givings or take a brisk walk around the grounds. Catherine is very curious about her husband's practice, despite his attempts to keep her away from it. The ironic thing is that the doctor who is helping many women, strangers, to feel better, is completely oblivious to his own wife's needs. She has recently given birth to a beautiful baby girl but is unable to produce enough milk to feed her, so a wet nurse is hired to feed the baby. This leaves Catherine feeling inadequate as a mother and as a woman, something her husband has little sympathy for. He just pats her on the head and says "there there." Her restlessness and dissatisfaction manifest themselves as falling in love with a male patient (it is rare, but men apparently can also suffer from "hysteria"). Eventually the Givings are able to talk to each other about how they feel and what they want and need, in their own sort of way, and begin the road to healing and connection (without the aid of electricity).

the patient and the doctor's wife "in the next room"
(Emily Gunyou Halaas and Christina Baldwin)
This is a dream cast. The capable John Middleton brings the doctor to life and hints that perhaps there is something behind his cold exterior. As I've said before, there's nothing Christina Baldwin can't do - comedy or drama, musical or straight play, or all of it combined. She's completely delightful as doctor's wife, her bubbly exterior masking the pain underneath (and she even sings a little!). Also great are Emily Gunyou Halaas as the reluctant patient who comes to depend on the therapy, and the always entertaining Bradley Greenwald as her insensitive (to say the least) husband. My new fave Austene Van (I'm super excited about her upcoming role) brings much compassion and humanity to the role of the wet nurse, who has recently lost her own baby and is now giving milk and love to a stranger's baby. Ryan Underbakke is quite charming as the artist suffering from hysteria, and Annie Enneking brings a softness to the outwardly brusque and efficient midwife assisting the doctor.

I feel I must devote an entire paragraph to the sets at the Jungle, and to this set in particular. I've come to believe that the Jungle has the best sets of any theater in town, not because they're the most fancy and elaborate (that would be the Guthrie and whatever touring Broadway production is currently in town), but because they serve the story best, and create the most distinct and specific world in which that story exists, from the sparse and barren world of Waiting for Godot, to the shabby rooming house of The Birthday Party, to the gorgeous home of the Givens juxtaposed with the cold and efficient operating theater "in the next room." Often the director also serves as set designer at the Jungle, giving a cohesive focus to the story and its environment. Although that's not the case here, the result is the same. Sarah Rasmussen beautifully directs this piece, and Bain Boehlke has created a beautiful world in which it comes to life. And the effect at the end, when the Givens go out into their winter garden, is something quite magical. In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play, really is a beautiful and touching holiday show!

And then there are the costumes, gorgeously designed by Moria Sine Clinton. Not only do they look luscious, but they're also functional, as most characters strip down to their underthings. It's quite fascinating to watch the layers come off and go back on again in a complicated but orderly manner. And yes, the underthings are just as beautiful (and yes, they use the word underthings).

In the Next Room is the final show in The Jungle Theater's 2012 season, which also included the Ivey Award-winning (for lighting) and deliciously thrilling Dial M for Murder, the bizarre Pinter play The Birthday Party, the hilarious and fast moving farce Noises Off, and the delightfully absurd Waiting for Godot. It's truly been a remarkable season. Is it possible the 2013 season could be better? With recent Broadway hit Venus in Fur (starring Anna Sundberg and Peter Christian Hansen), Deathtrap, Urinetown (a musical I love and have been dying to see again), Fool for Love, and Driving Miss Daisy starring the incomparable Wendy Lehr, the answer could be yes. Stay tuned. In the meantime, go see the perfectly delightful In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play, playing now through December 16.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

"Trail of Two Cities with Dan Chouinard and Friends" at the Minnesota History Center

I love history (especially Minnesota history), and I love music. So the recent event at the Minnesota History Center*, Trail of Two Cities with Dan Chouinard and Friends, was just my kind of thing. I became familiar with talented pianist/accordionist/storyteller Dan Chouinard years ago through the dear, departed, MPR Morning Show, and have seen him in many concerts since, including his Cafe Europa show (about his adventures bicycling around Europe with an accordion) and Steerage Song (last summer's collaboration with Theater Latte Da). In Trail of Two Cities, Dan brings his music/storytelling format to these two beautiful cities we call home, and more specifically, to how we travel between them. Dan travels by bicycle as much as possible, which I hugely admire and envy. He encouraged the audience to bring the mindfulness necessary when traveling through the city by bike to however we travel. There's a reason the roads we travel on are where they are. The show reminded me a little of The History Channel's series How the States Got their Shapes, only with local landmarks like the crosstown (a way for livestock trucks to bypass the city) and University Avenue (an old Native American trail from the falls of St. Anthony to the bend in the river).

In addition to learning lots of fascinating tidbits about local history, complete with period photos and paintings, Dan and Friends also provided music to accompany the stories. Dan's talented Friends include several members of the Guy's All-Star Shoe Band, "old-time musicians" husband and wife duo Kim and Quillan Roe, and talented vocalist Prudence Johnson. Train songs, truck songs, river songs, the music covered every mode of transportation used in the history of these Twin Cities. Modes of transportation and related songs include:
  • Horse and buggy - a sing-along to "Surry with the Fringe On Top"
  • Trains (a 30-45 minute trip in the late 19th century) - "The Wabash Cannonball"
  • Steamboat - a song about the Lake Pepin Steamboat by the adorable Chouinard Family Barbershop Quartet (Quintet?), consisting of Dan, his dad, and three brothers
  • Streetcars (which took over the train business in the early 20th century until their demise in 1956) - "Clang Clang Clang went the Trolley"
  • Highways (first built in the '50s and '60s, 94 was built straight through the African American neighborhood of Rhondo) - "Drive the USA in Your Chevrolet"
It was a fascinating trip through local history that made me want to learn more. It also made me want to move from the suburbs into the city so I could make use of the growing public transportation (the streetcars return!). The show reminded me of my desire to take the train to Chicago for a theater weekend, and float down the Mississippi to New Orleans on a riverboat. I'm not sure if the latter even exists, but the former definitely does, and especially now that the Amtrak is moving back to the newly renovated historic Union Depot in St. Paul, I'll be sure to do that soon. Thanks to Dan and Friends for exploring the ideas of local travel in such an entertaining and musical way!

The Falls of St. Anthony by Albert Bierstadt

*The Minnesota History Center's auditorium is a nice venue (I'd previously seen a History Theatre production 1968 there), and it's a great museum. I've been wanting to see their current exhibit on the US-Dakota War of 1862 and was hoping to go that afternoon and make a day of it, but unfortunately they closed the center between museum time and event time. I'll have to go back another time, perhaps in conjunction with another event.

Monday, November 5, 2012

"Summer and Smoke" at Theatre in the Round

Tennessee Williams is one of my favorite playwrights. He has created several memorable women (or perhaps versions of the same woman), among them Amanda Wingfield, Blanche DuBois, and Maggie the Cat. I have recently become acquainted with Alma Winemiller in Theatre in the Round's sublime production of Summer and Smoke, and I am utterly charmed by her complexities and heart-broken by her plight. Like all of Tennessee Williams' women, Alma is a genteel Southern woman with clear ideas of the way life should be, whose story turns tragic when reality doesn't live up to her expectations. 

I love a good unrequited love story, and this is one of the best I've seen. The kind that makes you think maybe things can work out for these two crazy kids, and then dashes your hopes to the ground as reality sets back in and it all falls apart. The prim and proper minister's daughter Alma is in love with the boy next door, the playboy doctor's son John, who grew up to be a doctor himself. Alma is not the type of woman John usually keeps company with, but he's drawn to her. Alas, theirs is a love that can never be. She wants him physically, but she can't admit that even to herself because it doesn't fit into the world she's created for herself. He wants her soul, but he doesn't even know what that means because in his clinical, earthly world the soul doesn't even exist. This creates an attraction and tension between them that can never be relieved, and it's unbearably tragic to watch it all unfold. There are some light and funny moments in the play as well, especially in the first act. But Tennessee Williams did not write comedies (one misguided Broadway production of Streetcar notwithstanding), so we know there's no chance for a happy ending for our couple.

John and Alma
(Casey Hoekstra and Joanna Harmon)
The show is all about Alma and John. Yes there are other people onstage and several of them have nice moments (including Karen Bix as Alma's childlike mother, Ty Hudson as Alma's sweet but boring suitor, and Tara Lucchino who almost succeeds in making me like Alma's rival for John's affection), but the success of the play hinges on the performances of Joanna Harmon and Casey Hoekstra as Alma and John. And boy do they deliver. Joanna, a member of the inventive physical theater company Live Action Set, plays Alma with a nervous fluttery energy that never subsides. She puts her training to good use in this very physical performance; you can see the tension in Alma's body as she interacts with various characters. Casey, a graduate of the U of M/Guthrie program making his Twin Cities stage debut (to which I say welcome and please come back soon!), plays John with a relaxed intensity, all slow knowing smiles as he lounges and watches Alma. Whenever either was off stage I waited for their return, and the best scenes are the ones with the two of them together. Their relationship is so intense and complex, perplexing and familiar. One particularly intense love scene took place literally a few feet in front of me on the intimate Theatre in the Round stage, which made me wish I had one of those fans from the Winemiller's sitting room!

The busy and multi-talented Randy Reyes directed the play and did a beautiful job with the intricate dialogue and intense scenes. With a set design by Rob Jensen, the small stage is packed with set pieces that manage to create three distinct settings, two of which interact with each other as John and Alma stare out their windows across the yard at each other. The details are impeccable as the audience gets a close-up view due to the unique in-the-round stage (the usher led me right through the Winemiller's living room to my seat on the opposite side, and I was close enough to peek over an actor's shoulder at an authentic-looking photo album). The costumes (by Carolann Winther) are evocative of the time, place, and character, from John's white suit to Alma's conservative clothes to Rosa's vibrant red dress.

I've been to Theatre in the Round several times in the past few years for Fringe shows, but it's been a while since I've seen a Theatre in the Round production. Currently celebrating their 61st season, they are the longest running theater in Twin Cities. Even the Guthrie has only been around a mere 50 years! They were recently featured on one of my favorite shows MN Original (a weekly series on tpt that showcases local artists of all types of media). You can watch that feature online to learn about the interesting challenges presented by the in-the-round design. I will definitely be back to Theatre in the Round before next year's Fringe; they have several interesting shows coming up this season, including the Pulitzer Prize winning play Rabbit Hole in January. Unfortunately Summer and Smoke has already closed, so if you missed it, I apologize, because you missed a good one.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

"Sunday in the Park with George" at Bloomington Civic Theatre

It was my second Sondheim musical in a row - that's what I call a good weekend! The day after attending the opening night of Theater Latte Da's beautiful production of Company, I headed out to Bloomington to spend my Sunday in the Park with George. Unlike Company, I'd never seen or heard Sunday in the Park before; all I knew about it was Sondheim, art, and original cast members Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters. But that was enough to make me want to see it, and it was actually one of the reasons why I chose to buy a season pass to Bloomington Civic Theatre this year (the first show was the big dance musical 42nd Street, and the season continues next year with one of my faves, Cabaret, and On the Town). The inspiration for this musical was the 19th century painting "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte" by Georges Seurat, one of the leaders of the Impressionist movement. Sondheim and frequent collaborate James Lapine imagined the story behind the painting, both the painter and his subjects. In doing so they explore the ideas of art and creativity and being obsessed with one's work to the point of ignoring everything else.

"A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte" by Georges Seurat
Art Institute of Chicago
The first act recreates the above painting by introducing the figures as people George meets in the park where he goes to paint. The woman on the right with the parasol is his model/lover Dot (named after the dots or blobs of color George uses to create his pictures). She sings about how hot and uncomfortable it is to stand without moving in the sun, but she does it because she loves George, and he teaches her how to concentrate. Other figures we meet are the man standing next to Dot (Jules, a painter friend of George), the woman in the center with the orange parasol with the little girl in white (his wife and daughter), the man lounging on the left (a boatman), and several others. Unfortunately, the world is not as ordered as George wants it to be. Jules and his wife have an unhappy marriage, and Dot leaves George when he seems to care more about his painting than her. At the end of the first act, things descend into noisy chaos, until George moves everyone into place to match his vision, and the painting is alive before our eyes.

The second act takes place in a museum 100 years later, where the figures jump out of the painting, and we meet George's great-grandson, also named George, also an artist. The story delves into the nature of art, artists, and commercialism vs. staying true to one's art (similar themes as in the play Red about painter Mark Rothko). Act II has a very different tone than the Act I, and I found myself wanting to return to the world of the painting. In my research (i.e., Wikipedia), I ran across this quote the New York Times review (by Ben Brantley) of the 2008 Broadway revival, "Sunday remains a lopsided piece - pairing a near-perfect, self-contained first act with a lumpier, less assured second half." But fortunately, things take a satisfying turn at the end when young George returns to the island in the painting and is able to achieve some resolution for his great-grandfather, who died young.

Joey Clark as George and Jennifer Eckes as Dot
The show may be called Sunday in the Park with George, but for me the star of the show is Jennifer Eckes as Dot (and as young George's grandmother Marie in the second act). In addition to her beautiful voice on these challenging Sondheim songs, she gives Dot such heart and spirit, with such a longing for a better life, that I couldn't help rooting for her and thinking George was a bit of a jerk for letting her go! Joey Clark also gives a fine performance as George (completely unrecognizable under the wig and beard), and manages to make George likeable despite the fact that he makes some bad choices and pushes everything and everyone away for the sake of his art. It's nice to see the modern George learn some of the lessons his great-grandfather was not able to. Other standouts in the cast include Kelly Krebs and Beth King as the obnoxious and spoiled American couple, and Alan Sorenson and Megan Volkman-Wilson as Jules and his wife. They also play characters in the second act, but as I mentioned above, I found the first act much more memorable and moving. Finally, Anna Evans (one of the Cocos in Coco's Diary at the History Theatre earlier this year) is a little scene stealer as the mischievous girl in white.

The costumes and set are so important to this piece, because the audience has to believe that these characters came out of the painting, and BCT does a beautiful job creating the effect (set by Robin McIntyre and costumes by Ed Gleeman). The white set pieces we see at the beginning are removed to reveal a large-scale replica of the background of the painting, with trees dropping in from overheard. The costumes are exquisite and look very similar to the painting (including impressive bustles!). At the end of the first act a scrim is lowered at the front of the stage with the image of the painting on it, in front of the live action painting arranged on the set, and it's a spectacular effect. Last but not least, a highlight for me of any BCT show is the traditional pit orchestra led by Anita Ruth. The music sounds like George's painting, and he often paints to the music - short and staccato, in unexpected blobs.

It's a great time for Sondheim, and this show is a nice pair to Theater Latte Da's Company. With every additional Sondheim show I see, I feel like I'm "Putting It Together" a bit more and understanding his work a little bit more. I've seen several shows since I heard him speak two and half years ago, and it's been fun. Next on my Sondheim wishlist is Assassins, which I've never seen. But until then, go see these two wonderfully different but quintessentially Sondheim shows! Check out the BCT website for more info on Sunday in the Park with George, or take advantage of the half-price tickets available on