Monday, January 30, 2012

"Dangerous Liaisons" by Torch Theater at the Minneapolis Theatre Garage

Have I mentioned how much I love the Minneapolis Theatre Garage?  I think it's the best theater deal in the Twin Cities.  For $20 cash at the door (and free parking) you get to see some great theater by small but talented theater companies.  Everything I've seen there has been worth the money, and much more!  Last week I saw Dangerous Liaisons by Torch Theater, and it was no exception.  I'd never seen the play (aka Les Liaisons Dangereuses) or the 1988 movie before so I was largely unfamiliar with the story, if not the general concept.  It's a deliciously wicked story; two friends cruelly manipulate people for their own amusement and benefit, with no regard to the consequences for their victims.  In the end everyone loses.

Stacia Rice (Torch Theater's Artistic Director) is excellent as La Marquise de Mertueil, the widow who plays these wicked games.  What she doesn't want anyone to see is that she does it in self-defense, to keep herself from being hurt or used.  And as a woman in 18th century France, it's the only power she has.  Her friend and partner in these games is Le Vicomte de Valmont (John Middleton, also excellent), an 18th century Barney Stinson.  (Or rather, Barney Stinson is a modern day Vicomte.)  He knows exactly the right things to say and do to get seemingly any woman into bed.  It's a game for him, and he always wins because he doesn't play fair.  He sets his sights on the pious married woman Madame de Tourvel (Mo Perry in a heartfelt and moving performance), and unintentionally falls in love with her.  But that's only part of their scheme; things get more complicated and don't quite work out the way they had planned. The Marquise is left alone to crumple sadly and beautifully into a heap in her full skirts.

The supporting cast is also excellent, even those playing the servants who don't have a lot to do except smirk as they're changing sets between scenes.  The stage is as deep as I've ever seen it at the garage; usually it's much shallower but they must have opened it up to allow for more space for the bed and period furniture.  The costumes (designed by Rich Hamson) are rich and luscious enough to make you drool (see the photo above), including matching hats and coats for the dresses.  Perhaps my favorite feature of the play is the live music that's played between scenes.  Most of the singing is done by two members of the ensemble, Ann Michels and Matthew O'Connor Riehle, who also plays the lute and other period instruments.  They sing various songs in English and French (including "Alouette"), and it's really quite lovely, sometimes heartbreakingly so.

I'm a little late with this one so it's only playing for another week.  Check it out if you want a great cheap night at the theater.

Celebrity Sightings
This is a good one, friends!  I got to the garage in plenty of time to pick out a good seat.  After I got settled I noticed that three seats down from me was a sign that said "Reserved for Sally Wingert."  And next to her was "Reserved for Dominique Serrand."  Wow, that's like Minnesota theater royalty!  Sure enough, they came in and watched the show.  Sally will soon be appearing in Crashing the Party at Mixed Blood Theatre, and Dominique's theater company with Steven Epp, The Moving Company, will be presenting a new work at the Lab Theater in March.

Friday, January 27, 2012

"Ragtime" at Park Square Theatre

I would like to say that Park Square Theatre's production of the musical Ragtime is the show of the year, but I know that it's only January, and there are 11 months to go.  But 2012 would have to be a pretty good year for this show not to make it onto my end of the year best of list.  I was a little afraid my expectations would be too high; I've been looking forward to this show for months because Ragtime is one of my favorite musical theater soundtracks and the cast list looked superb.  But I was not disappointed, the show lived up to my expectations in every way.  The cast is indeed superb and includes several of my favorites in top form; the music sounds divine thanks to the depth of talent in the large ensemble and the fantastic orchestra (as expected when Denise Posek of Theater Latte Da is the Music Director); and the costumes, choreography, and sparse set all add to the feeling of time and place - 1906 in New York City and its suburbs.  With a cast of 35, this is Park Square's largest production to date, but the stage did not feel crowded, just full of life and music and pain and beauty.

Ragtime is based on the 1975 E.L. Doctorow novel of the same name and tells the story of three families - an upper class White family, an African American family, and an immigrant family.  The three families' lives become intertwined with each other, as well as with several historical events and figures, such as anarchist Emma Goldman, magician Harry Houdini, and chorus girl Evelyn Nesbit (played by Kersten Rodau, Sasha Andreev, and Caroline Innerbichler, all perfectly cast and wonderful in their roles).  The hero of our story is Coalhouse Walker, Jr. (the charismatic Harry Waters, Jr.), a ragtime piano player in love with a poor servant named Sarah (Brittany Bradford in a beautiful performance that's completely different from the last time I saw her, as Gary Coleman in Avenue Q).  Coalhouse's journey takes a drastic turn when he's faced with discrimination and tragedy.

Sarah lives with the seemingly perfect well-to-do family consisting of a father, a mother, and a son, as well as mother's younger brother and father.  Curiously, these characters (with the exception of the son, Edgar) don't have names, so that they could be anyone or everyone.  I've seen Lee Mark Nelson and Christina Baldwin many times, but I don't think I've ever seen them perform together.  It was worth the wait, they both give great performances as these layered characters.  Mark makes Father both sympathetic and aggravating as he's caught in the old ways and refuses to change.  Christina gives Mother such strength and yearning, hope and determination, and her voice is amazing as always, especially in the moving ballad "Back to Before."  Noah Coon is adorable as little Edgar, the boy who mysteriously knows more than he should (warn the duke!).  Finally, Younger Brother is on a journey all his own, always looking for something to cling to and finding it in unfortunate places (or persons).  Aleks Knezevich (the rightful captain of the Pinafore) is perfect for the role in this perfectly cast show.

At the center of our third family is another one of my favorites, Dieter Bierbrauer, as a poor immigrant trying to make a better life for his daughter (the adorable and talented Megan Fischer, who doesn't have as much to do here as in last year's Annie).  Tateh's path crosses with Mother's several times, in what turns out to be a most excellent love triangle.  (Lee Mark Nelson, Christina Baldwin, and Dieter Bierbrauer singing in three-part harmony, I thought I'd died and gone to Minnesota musical theater heaven!)  All of the characters in this story are connected somehow, and what each does affects the others.  The ensemble is spectacular, and several of them shine in their spotlight moments, such as Timotha Lanae (who was also on board the Pinafore last summer) as Sarah's friend.

In addition to the perfect cast and music, the choreography (by another Latte Da regular Michael Matthew Ferrell), set design (by Rick Polenek), and costumes (designed by Andrea M. Gross) also add to the production.  I'm not sure where the direction (by Gary Gisselman) ends and choreography begins when you're moving this many people around a small stage, but not only is it flawlessly done but it also really enriches the characters and helps define their story.  The same can be said for the costumes, especially in the opening sequence, when all the upper class people are dressed in pale linen, the immigrants in dark earth tones, and the "Negroes" in bolder colors, creating an obvious division that melts away as their stories blur together.  The stage is sparse, with a second story around the edge of the stage to allow for characters to come and go in the background. The few set pieces almost look like "silhouettes" (as Tateh sings), allowing the story to be the focus.  A screen is occasionally lowered to display real images from the time period, further adding to the sense of time and place.

This is a heavy show, at times so difficult to watch that I closed my eyes to try to erase the images of violence and injustice.  But there are also lighter moments of humor (I particularly enjoyed the ode to baseball, "What a Game").  I read the book after first seeing the musical in 1998, and remember thinking that it's not a book that screams "make me into a musical!"  But it proves that no topic is off limits for musical theater, if done thoughtfully and respectfully and creatively.  Ragtime is such a musical. 

This country is always struggling, always changing, always trying to better itself.  And there are always going to be tragedies and set-backs along the way, but hopefully each generation leaves the world slightly better for the next generation, for all the Coalhouse Walker IIIs of the world.  Ragtime deals with what it's like to be an American, then and now, good and bad.  As Gary Gisselman said in a post-show discussion, it's about racism and immigrants and the rich vs. the poor, themes that we are still dealing with today.  But it's also about family and love and hope for the future.  Ragtime officially opens tonight and plays through February 19, and it's definitely worth seeing.  It may even be worth seeing twice!

Ragtime trailer from Park Square Theatre on Vimeo.

Monday, January 23, 2012

"Broadway Songbook: Words and Music of Contemporary Broadway" at the Ordway

The Ordway is presenting a series of informal cabaret-style concerts this season called Broadway Songbook.  The first one featured the music of Irving Berlin, and was an entertaining and informative look at the history of musical theater.  The second installment, featuring music of "Contemporary Broadway," was the one I was most looking forward to, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  It was a fairly accurate representation of the state of Broadway today - the good (The Book of Mormon), the bad (Priscilla Queen of the Desert), and the ugly (Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark).  I'm not a big fan of jukebox musicals or adaptations of blockbuster movies; it seems like an easy way for producers to make money without taking any risks.  But that's a lot of what's popular on Broadway these days, so it's only fair that they included it in this show.  Fortunately there were also plenty of original musicals and revivals featured to balance things out.

The host for the series is Ordway Artistic Director James Rocco, and once again he introduced each song with a little background or a funny story about the show or composer.  Accompanied by Raymond Berg on piano, the talented singer/actors included Joel Liestman, Robb McKindles (both of whom also appeared in the Irving Berlin show last fall), Kym Chambers Otto, Allison Tilsen-Kassabian, and Cinderella herself, Jessica Fredrickson.

Some highlights of the show:

  • The opening number was a beautiful, soaring song that I was unfamiliar with (and I thought I'd know all the songs!), from a musical called Songs for a New World by Jason Robert Brown. 
  • Jessica sang several musical theater songs that always get me teary-eyed.  "The Beauty Is" from Light in the Piazza by Adam Guettel, "There's a Fine Fine Line" from Avenue Q, "For Good" from Wicked (a duet with Kym), "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" from Mary Poppins.  OK maybe that last one doesn't quite fit with the others, but she was definitely channeling Julie Andrews!  James announced that Jessica will soon be moving to New York City.  I'll be sad not to see her on local stages, but I wish her well and hope to see her on Broadway one day!
  • In addition to the duet with Jessica, Kym sang the beautiful ballad "I Get a Kick Out of You" from Anything Goes, currently running on Broadway (and I'm kicking myself for not seeing it when I was there last fall - sadly I can only fit so many shows into 5 days in NYC).  She also led the cast in "Day by Day," the 1970s pop hit from the musical Godspell, also currently being revived on Broadway.
  • Two of the shows I did see on Broadway last year (and adored) were featured in the show.  Joel sincerely and hilariously sang "I Believe" from the brilliant original musical by the creators of South ParkThe Book of Mormon (there are only a few songs from that show that you can sing at the Ordway on a Sunday afternoon), and James himself sang the classic "Broadway Baby" from the divine revival of Stephen Sondheim's Follies.
  • A newbie to the Twin Cities theater scene, Allison has a fabulous voice and personality to match.  She got one of the biggest rounds of applause for her rendition of "When You're Good to Mama" from Chicago, and closed the first act on a high with "I Will Survive" from Priscilla Queen of the Desert, which I earlier referred to as "the bad" because: 1) it's a movie adaptation, 2) it has no original music, and 3) they use some canned music instead of a full live orchestra.  That's three strikes and you're out in my book.  But despite the origins of the song, it was still a fabulous rendition of a classic pop song.
  • Joel and Robb made for an entertaining Pumbaa and Timon in the super fun song "Hakuna Matata" from The Lion King.  Too bad they didn't also sing this song's counterpart from The Book of Mormon, "Hasa Diga Eebowai."  Oh wait, that's one of those songs you can't sing at the Ordway on a Sunday afternoon.  Slight digression: I've been seeing the ads for The Lion King everywhere, but I will not be seeing it.  Don't get me wrong, I've seen the show several times and love it.  It's that great familiar music from the movie but with a much richer and deeper orchestration, and the puppets/masks are truly a sight to behold.  But for the price they're charging for tickets ($100+ for just about every seat in the house), I can see 2-3 local shows that are just as good, if not as splashy.  So I'm choosing to spend my time, money, and blog space on supporting local artists and new work.
  • Joel sang the beautiful and dramatic song "Music of the Night" from Phantom of the Opera, a show I'm proud to say I've never seen (I seem to be the only person on the planet who hasn't).  He also sat down at the piano to channel Billy Joel in the title song from the jukebox musical Movin' Out (which I have also never seen and don't plan to).
  • Robb and the cast sang "Steal Your Rock and Roll" from the Tony award winning musical Memphis, a show I am looking forward to seeing on tour at the Ordway in a few months.  He also sang one of my favorite songs from  Jersey Boys, "Can't Take My Eyes Off of You."  I know I said I'm not a fan of jukebox musicals, but Jersey Boys is the exception that proves the rule.  I've seen it twice and I love it.  I think the reason it works for me is that the book is really clever; it's the true story of The Four Seasons' rise to fame (and subsequent fall), not some silly story made up to fit into the body of songs.
  • Finally, you can't really talk about contemporary Broadway without at least mentioning the spectacle that is Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark (aka "the ugly").  James gave a brief history of all the trials and tribulations (and expense and injuries) the show has gone through, describing the songs as guitar-heavy Bono songs.  "Let's do a song... no, let's not do a song from the show."  Wise choice!
It was another great afternoon of exploring the world of musical theater at the Ordway.  The only shows I thought were missing were two of my recent faves - Next to Normal and Spring Awakening (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is probably too much to hope for).  But other than these two absences, it was a truly wonderful selection of the best of Broadway, performed by some fantastically talented local actors, singers, and musicians.  Next up: the music of Johnny Mercer.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

"Julius Caesar" by The Acting Company at the Guthrie

The Acting Company's production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar* is an intense and beautifully acted drama, even if I didn't quite understand what the war was about or why (spoiler alert) everyone decided to stab themselves at the end.  I wasn't very familiar with the play (other than the well-known quotes "et tu, Brute," "beware the ides of March," and "friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears!"), and it's a little too much war and politics for my taste.  (It brought to mind the magnificently epic HBO drama Rome, about some of the same historical figures, which I also remember loving except for all of the war and political drama.)  That being said, The Acting Company once again brings an energetic,  vibrant interpretation of Shakespeare to the Guthrie as one of the stops on their tour around the country.

Last year The Acting Company performed two Shakespeare plays in repertory - the hilarious slapstick comedy The Comedy of Errors and the classic romantic tragedy Romeo and Juliet.  Four actors from last year's troupe return this year (including Juliet herself, Kaliswa Brewster as Caeser's wife, et al), joined by some familiar faces as well as some new ones.  It's a great ensemble, led by Bjorn DuPaty as the powerful, charismatic, and doomed title character.  But despite the title, the star of the play is Brutus, the conflicted friend of Caesar who loves Rome more than he loves Caesar, and therefore conspires to kill him to save the people of Rome from his tyranny.  William Sturdivant (a graduate of the U of M/Guthrie training program who's appeared several times on the Guthrie stage) makes this conflicted character completely believable, embracing Caesar even as he delivers the final blow, following through with what he started until the situation becomes hopeless.  Zachary Fine gives a wonderful performance as Mark Antony, who grieves for Caesar and promises to avenge his death.  He gets to play a wide range of emotions - devastated, angry, compliant, defiant, persuasive - and reels the audience in every time.  Kathleen Wise, one of only three women in the cast, also gives a fine performance in a short scene as Brutus' wife and as several other characters.

This is a modern-day production of an ancient story.  Contemporary clothing (the men in sharp suits, the women in business attire or beautiful dresses), cell phones, and a block of video screens make the drama feel current.  Walking into the Dowling Studio at the Guthrie, cable news pundits are displayed on the video screens, and the play opens with a demonstration by cheering young people with signs.  It seems like a pretty high tech show to tour with, but it's a nice element that adds to the play.

The moral of the story (if there is one) - violence begets violence.  An arguably noble act leads to more destruction and war, the very thing they were trying to avoid.  That's an idea that is, unfortunately, timeless.  Julius Caesar plays at the Guthrie through the first week of February, and then continues on tour around the country, ending up in New York City in April.

*I received two free tickets to this play as part of "Blogger Night at the Guthrie."

Celebrity Sighting
I spotted the great T. Mychael Rambo (last seen in the brilliantly musical Burial at Thebes) as I was getting on the elevator to head up to the 9th floor studio.  As far as I know he's not currently appearing on stage at the Guthrie; maybe he was there to check out a show!

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

"You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown" at Bloomington Civic Theatre

You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown at Bloomington Civic Theatre is an energetic, fun, sweet, colorful, and downright adorable show.  All I knew about this musical before I saw it is that Kristin Chenowith won a Tony for her role as Sally.  Based on the classic comic strip Peanuts by Minnesotan Charles Schultz, it was originally produced in 1967 and revived in 1999.  There's not much of a plot to the show, it's more like a series of vignettes that bring to mind the comic strip.  With just a six-person cast, this is the smallest show I've seen at the BCT.  There's no room for weak links in such a small cast, and there are none here.  Each character is a familiar friend, and these actors bring them to life in front of us.  I happened to go on a "talk-back" day, which is always fun for me, and one of the actors commented that their characters are bigger, more exaggerated versions of themselves.  I'm not sure if that's true, but it sure could be judging from their performances.

Our Charlie Brown is Adam Qualls, who was so good as the baker in Into the Woods last year.  He again does a wonderful job as our hapless hero, for whom nothing ever goes quite right.  Adam's Into the Woods wife is now his adversary/friend Lucy.  Colleen Somerville was last seen as one of the hilariously evil stepsisters in Cinderella at the Ordway, and is everything you'd want Lucy to be - relentless and pushy and selfish, and somehow loveable.  Charlie Brown's cute, spoiled, and not very studious little sister Sally is played by Courtney Miner, who, as she joked in the talk-back, gives Kristin Chenowith a run for her money!  She's adorable and fun to watch, especially chasing rabbits with Snoopy and in her big song "My New Philosophy."  Also great are Andrew Newman as the blanket-carrying, thumb-sucking Linus, whose intelligence and eloquence contrast with his babyish ways; and Eric Heimsoth as the classical music obsessed Schroeder, who gets to sing one of the funnest songs, Beethovan Day!

Last but not least, stealing every scene he's in, is Tyler Michaels as Snoopy.  He completely inhabits this canine character with great physicality and energy, in the way he moves and dances as well as how he reacts to what's going on around him.  He said in the talk-balk that he studied physical theater, which is obvious in his performance.  According to Tyler's website he will soon be playing my favorite character, Moritz Stiefel, in the highly anticipated (by me) Spring Awakening by Theater Latte Da.  It's the first bit of casting news I've seen, and I'm very excited to find out that someone I now know and like will be playing my sweet, troubled Moritz.

A few more great things about the show: colorful, oversized children's clothing that makes the adult actors look like kids; cartoonish sets that look like the comic strip come to life; delightful, childlike choreography by Joe Chvala who also directed; and really fun, catchy songs accompanied by the fabulous six-person pit orchestra led by Anita Ruth.  I saw a lot of kids in the audience who seemed to be having a good time, but the Peanuts characters are timeless and relatable at any age.  The final song is the familiar refrain "Happiness is...", listing all the wonderful and seemingly trivial little things that add up to make life worth living.  This production definitely captures the bittersweet life-is-tough-but-wonderful feeling of the comic strip.

I saw my first show at BCT just last year, and it kills me that I missed some of my favorites (like Light in the Piazza and Urinetown) in previous years.  Longtime Music Director Anita Ruth talked about how BCT is a stepping stone for young actors between college and some of the bigger stages around town.  Most of the actors have "day jobs," and the experience they receive at BCT is invaluable and will surely lead them to bigger things.  BCT seems to be the place to spy young up-and-coming talent, in addition to seeing some great theater.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Brian Stokes Mitchell at Orchestra Hall

In my first theatrical experience of the new year, I saw Tony award winning Broadway actor Brian Stokes Mitchell at Orchestra Hall last weekend.  I know him best as the voice of Coalhouse Walker, Jr. in the original cast of Ragtime.  I've never seen him in the role but it's one of my favorite soundtracks (which I've been listening to a lot lately in anticipation of Park Square Theatre's upcoming production featuring an all-star cast of local talent).  It was one of those rare experiences when one of your favorite soundtracks comes to life, when a voice and a song that's so familiar is live right there in front of you (like when I saw Anthony Rapp and Adam Pascal in RENT a few years ago).

Brian performed with the fabulous Minnesota Orchestra, led by Sarah Hicks and her super-toned arms (I want that workout!).  To begin the show, the orchestra performed a medley from the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Carousel, and then Brian appeared to sing "Some Enchanted Evening" from South Pacific.  His voice in person is everything it is on recordings: deep, rich, expressive, gorgeous.  Not only that, but he's also handsome, charming, funny, and entertaining; an engaging performer.  As expected, he sang a selection of musical theater classics, some from musicals that he's appeared in ("The Impossible Dream" from Man of La Mancha, his encore) and some that he hasn't ("Soliloquy" from Carousel, "Don't Rain on My Parade" from Funny Girl).  But he also sang some standards from outside the musical theater world ("How Long has This Been Going On," "Waters of March," a Gershwin medley).  In an interesting twist, he blended the Duke Ellington classic "Take the A Train" with "Another Hundred People (Just Got Off of the Train)" from Sondheim's Company.

Brian Stokes Mitchell in Ragtime
Brian was involved in writing the children's alphabet book Lights on Broadway, and he sang the single that goes along with the book.  "I Was Here" was written by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty (the composers of Ragtime) and tells about the life of an actor.

One of my favorite moments was when Brian put down his mic to sing another song from South Pacific, "This Nearly Was Mine." With the orchestra playing softly behind him, his voice soared through the beautiful acoustics of Orchestra Hall.  It was magical.  But of course, what I was waiting for was the glorious "Wheels of a Dream" from Ragtime, and I was not disappointed.  He sang it in a medley with "America the Beautiful," and it was a lovely expression of hope for a better world and a belief that those dreams will come true.

I've had the good fortune to see several of my favorite Broadway actors perform at Orchestra Hall, both with and without orchestra accompaniment.  Bernadette Peters, Patti LuPone, Idina Menzel, and now Brian Stokes Mitchell.  On the top of my wishlist is Mandy Patinkin, so I'm putting that out in the universe: Mandy Patinkin, come and perform at Orchestra Hall!