Sunday, April 29, 2012

"Deal! The Musical" by Tyrol Hills Music at the Ritz Theater

One sign of a good musical is when the audience leaves the theater singing, humming, and whistling the songs from the show* which they've never heard before.  Such was the case when I attended** the new, original, and very Minnesotan musical Deal! The Musical by Tyrol Hills Music.  Not only are the songs catchy and hummable, but the story is heart-warming and wickedly funny, and it rings true to anyone who grew up in this state.  It's a little like a Garrison Keillor story come to life, and in my opinion Garrison Keillor is an American treasure, so that's a very good thing.

Deal! The Musical was written by local playwrights Jerry Seifert and Tom Broadbent, who also wrote the music.  I gather from a note in the playbill, as well as the appearance of the name Broadbent in the real newspaper clippings that are displayed between scenes along with old photos, that this is at least a semi-autobiographical show for Tom.  The story takes place over a ten-year span in the late 1950s and 1960s in the town of Stacy MN, not too far north of the Twin Cities on I35.  Art and Elsie have just moved into town, having hit a snag in their dream to own their own farm.  Elsie's newly widowed friend  Pearl along with Art's brother Oscar and his "pal" Millie come over to the house to play poker every week, where much is discussed.  Art and Elsie's two daughters grow up over the course of the play - from proms and first loves to babies and illness.  Life changes and grows, and the only thing that stays the same is the weekly poker game that brings this family together.

This capable cast (directed by Josh Campbell) is led by real life husband and wife team Jon Hegge and Laurie Flanigan-Hegge as Art and Elsie.  Laurie has a beautiful voice that's featured in several songs, and Jon gives a nuanced performance as the head of the family who's struggling with not being able to provide as he had hoped, especially after an accident leaves him unable to work.  He sings about feeling useless, and finding inspiration in his hero, Twins great Harmon Killebrew (as a lifelong Twins fan, any musical that includes a song called "Harmon Killebrew" is definitely one for me!). David Roberts' Oscar is a bit of a drunk and a loveable jerk, but we get to see a more vulnerable side when he sings about "The Lost and Found Tavern."  Aly Westberg and Max Wojtanowicz share a couple of lovely duets as one of the daughters and her beau, who grow from an awkward prom couple to a married couple facing very real problems.  The scene-stealer of the show is Kim Kivens (who was also great in Spelling Bee last fall) as the boozy, bawdy Millie, tottering on her high heels and constantly skiping off to the bathroom after uttering another cute euphemism ("time to tinkle!" "I feel a rain delay coming on!").  Millie's a cutesy, funny character, but Kim gives her depth (especially in the lovely "Lord's Prayer") and makes the audience root for her.

Don't let the ads you might have seen fool you - Deal! The Musical is not a flashy Vegas musical; it's a sweet and funny Minnesota story about a family in a small town and people that will seem familiar to you.  Yes, they cram a lot of hardships and romances into two and a half hours, so that some of them get short shrift, but that's forgivable when the overall show is this satisfying. Check it out at the Ritz Theater in Northeast Minneapolis (free parking across the street!), and you'll see a lovely little story set in a small Minnesota town, where the women are strong, the men are good-looking, and the children are above average.

*I woke up morning after the show singing "Deal, dammit, deal, dammit, deal dammit deal!"  And here's the song that I heard people humming and whistling at intermission, echoing what I was hearing in my own head:

**I received one complementary ticket to see Deal! The Musical.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

"Capital Crimes: The St. Paul Gangster Musical" at the History Theatre

I love HBO's Boardwalk Empire, about gangsters in Atlantic City during Prohibition.  There's something about that era of history that seems glamorous and delicious, even though the reality of it was violent and dark.  The History Theatre offers a fun and campy look at this era in our very own hometown.  Capital Crimes: The St. Paul Gangster Musical* is a little like Boardwalk Empire the musical, without the heavy drama, and with the Depression-era Midwest as the backdrop instead of AC.  I almost wish they had gone a little bit further into camp; there were some more serious moments that didn't quite fit the tone of the show.  But all-in-all it's a fun show that is sure to make you want to learn more about these criminals and their involvement in Minnesota history.  And it's pretty cool to think that some of these things happened just a few blocks from where you're sitting.  That's what the History Theatre does best - shed light on the complicated and varied history of our beloved state.

The show tells the true story of Barker-Karpis gang, who were bank robbers, murderers, and kidnappers working throughout the Midwest, including Minnesota, where they kidnapped local beer tycoon William Hamm.  This story is told through the eyes of crime reporter Nate Bomberg who acts as narrator (Jake Endres, also playing multiple other roles, much as he did in the last History Theatre show, Coco's Diary).  We see the Barker brothers, their mother, and Alvin Karpis as they plan and commit crimes.  We also see J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI chase them, in particularly Karpis as Enemy Number One.

A few highlights of the show:

  • Get there early for the pre-show entertainment - an onstage speakeasy, complete with dancing, singing, drinking, and fighting.  I kept waiting for the dancers to return during or after the show, but sadly they never did.
  • E.J. Subkoviak again plays a government official with questionable motives and techniques.  In 1968 he was Nixon's adviser John Mitchell, and here he's Hoover.  One of the highlights of the show is his hilarious song "Perfection." This show is at its best when it's tongue-in-cheek, not taking itself too seriously.
  • Josiah Austin Gulden as Karpis looks like a young Nucky Thompson (with better teeth), has a great voice, and makes a compelling hero-criminal.  You almost want him to get away with his crimes and retire with his "girl" and start a family.
  • Speaking of, the two gangster girlfriends are played by the clownish (I mean that as a complement) and loose-limbed Kimberly Richardson and the more serious and lovely-voiced Anna Reichert.  Paula and Dolores take "stand by your man" to a whole new level.
  • You can definitely see touches of director Noah Bremer of Live Action Set in this show.  His theater company excels at physical theater, using their bodies and movement to set the scene and tell the story.  There are some really lovely moments of that here, but I found myself wishing for more.
  • I love period costumes, and E. Amy Hill does a beautiful job bringing the 1930s to life without being too over-the-top about it.  Wear your long strand of pearls or your fedora and you'll fit right in.

*I received two complementary tickets to attend the opening night of Capital Crimes: The St. Paul Gangster Musical.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

"Spring Awakening" by Theater Latte Da at the Rarig Center

Warning: this is not an unbiased review.  Theater Latte Da is my favorite local theater company, I think everything Peter Rothstein touches is gold (this: "Peter Rothstein is one of the premiere directors of musical theater in the country and I live in terror that an evil Broadway producer will swoop down and snatch him away from us.*"), and Spring Awakening is one of my favorite musicals (I saw it on Broadway with most of the original cast, and twice on tour, and I have a kitty named Moritz Stiefel).  So I was predisposed to love this production, and love it I did.  But it seems that I'm not alone in that feeling (see the many glowing reviews from real theater critics), so you can rest assured that I am not leading you astray when I say that if you're a fan of music and theater, go see this show (playing now through May 6 at the Rarig Center on the U of M West Bank Campus).  And really, if you're not a fan of music and theater, why are you reading this?  ;)

The eight-time Tony-winning Broadway musical by Steven Sater (book and lyrics) and Duncan Sheik (music) is based on an ahead-of-its-time German play by Frank Wedekind (Frülings Erwachen for my fellow German nerds).  It was written in the late 19th century but rarely produced at the time because Wedekind so explicitly and realistically examined the sexual awakening of teenagers in a repressed society, and "the opposition children encounter from their elders just when they need openness and understanding, and how the way adults treat them will determine their future course" (Carl R. Mueller in a note in the playbill).  More than 100 years later this ground-breaking play was combined with modern pop and rock music to great the ground-breaking musical.  Our heroes are the teenage lovers Melchior and Wendla, and Melchior's best friend Moritz, who don't have the information they need to handle the issues they face, which has dire consequences for all three of them.  And not surprisingly, Peter Rothstein has found the perfect Twin Cities actors to portray these roles.

the lovers: Wendla (Cat Brindisi) and Melchi (David Darrow)
Cat Brindisi proved last fall in Theater Latte Da's Spelling Bee that she is not a star because of nepotism (her parents are Michael Brindisi, Artistic Director of the Chanhassen Dinner Theatres, and busy and talented actor Michelle Barber, who also plays her mother in this show), she's a star because she's an incredible talent in her own right.  She's really the heart and soul of the show as Wendla, the wide-eyed and curious young girl who learns about life the hard way, because no one will tell her the truth.  Unfortunately for us she's moving to NYC to find her fortune.  I wish her the best and I will go see her on Broadway, but I wouldn't mind seeing her come home to do a show every now and then.

Melchior is that kid who's too smart for his own good.  Always questioning, always thinking, he's got it all figured out.  But unfortunately the world he lives in doesn't allow for new ideas, and he learns a harsh lesson about reality.  David Darrow again gives an intense and moving performance (having played one of two teenage boys who fall in love in Latte Da's last show Beautiful Thing), and this time we get to hear his beautiful voice too.

Moritz (Tyler Michaels)
in a rare quiet moment
I first saw Tyler Michaels when he stole the show as Snoopy in You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown at BCT earlier this year, and was happy to find out he'd be taking on the role of my poor sweet Moritz.  He brings his amazingly physical style of acting to this role and makes it completely his own - leaping in the dance numbers, jumping over chairs in scenes, and climbing around the stage as he sings one of my favorite songs, "Don't Do Sadness."  He said in the post-show discussion that he lets the emotions reside in his body as a way to better feel and portray them, and it shows in the most wonderful way.

Two actors portray all of the adult roles in the show, mostly teachers and parents, and most of them not very likeable (Melchior's mother seems to be the one kind and sensible adult).  The aforementioned Michelle Barber and James Detmar do a wonderful job at creating multiple distinct characters in very short scenes.  The ensemble is largely made up of U of M students, and really, who better to cast as a bunch of teenagers than theater students?  They're young and hungry with their whole lives in front of them, just like these kids with great German names like Ernst and Ilse.  Eager to learn, they're learning from the best in this production.  And they have fantastic boundless energy that fills the thrust stage.

The Tony-winning score sounds amazing in the hands of the five-piece onstage band led by Denise Prosek.  The choreography by Carl Flink (Chair of the U of M's Theatre Arts and Dance department) is really cool and unique, so organic to the characters and the music.  As he and the cast talked about in the post-show, the dancing is these characters' bodies speaking in a way that their words cannot in their strictly regimented world.  It's somewhat reminiscent of the Broadway choreography (which he's never seen), but is it's own thing entirely (gone are the hand-held microphones, opening up more opportunties for movement).  I particularly loved "The Bitch of Living," with the boys dancing on and around chairs and leaping through the air, hoping someone will catch them (when it was over I wanted to rewind and watch it again!), as well "Totally Fucked," in which all of the kids run around and literally get in the audiences faces.  It's all youthful energy and passion with nowhere to go but into the dance.

I chose this production of Spring Awakening for an annual event I plan for my friends called "girls night out at the theater."  I love this musical so much, and I knew Latte Da would do a fantastic job, that I wanted to share it with as many people as possible.  I don't often tell people "you must see this show."  But I'm telling you, you must see this show.  There are plenty of seats available (I know because I just ordered tickets to see it again), so get them before they sell out as word spreads!  This is a show not to be missed.  If you don't believe me and the dozen other reviews, see for yourself:

Peter Rothstein and Theater Latte Da's year-long experiment in focusing on youth-oriented productions was a resounding success in my eyes (see The 25th Annual Spelling Bee, about a middle school spelling bee, and Beautiful Thing, about two teenage boys falling in love in working class London).  It provided opportunities for up-and-coming musical theater actors that will hopefully convince them to stay here, and continue to enrich this amazing theater community.  And I can't wait to see what Theater Latte Da will do next year, which will hopefully announced at a lovely outdoor concert at Lake Harriet this summer.

*Quote from John Olive's review at

Thursday, April 19, 2012

"Now. Here. This." at the Vineyard Theatre Off-Broadway

This is Now. We are Here. Let’s do This! Such is the premise of the new original musical from the creators of the 2008 Tony-nominated [title of show], a musical about writing a musical. I saw a production of [title of show] at Yellow Tree Theater last year, which turned me on to the fictional (?) version of these four talented and wacky friends. So I was excited and grateful to find out that their new show happened to be playing last weekend when I was in NYC, and jumped at the chance to see the real thing. In this Off-Broadway show at the Vineyard Theater (where Scottboro Boys and Avenue Q got their start, as well as [title of show]), they talk directly to the audience and ask for their full attention. What are the odds that the 100 or so people in that theater arrived at that place at exactly at the right time? Slim, so let’s give it our full attention and make the most of the 100 minutes we have together.

Real life buddies Jeff Bowen (who wrote the music and lyrics), Hunter Bell and Susan Blackwell (co-writers of the book), and Heidi Blickenstaff (who apparently contributes nothing but her amazingly gorgeous voice) play themselves and explore nothing more and nothing less than the origin of the universe, as well as their own personal origins. How we came to be as a species, and how each of them came to be as individuals. They visit a museum together, and try to focus on the now-here-this of it all – being fully present in the moment (inspired by philosopher and monk Thomas Merton). They visit different exhibits in the museum (with some nifty videos showing us birds or turtles or hominids), which serve as the background for each character/actor telling a story about their past (I’m not sure where the actor ends and the character begins in this show). It’s a clever device to get at universal experiences of growing up in this world. Jeff puts on a persona to hide who he really is. Susan fills her days with activities to avoid a home that embarrasses her. Heidi is an over-achiever desperate for attention, always trying to please her stoic lawyer father. Hunter likes to escape into his little fantasy world when reality isn’t so great. There’s something to relate to in each of these characters. For their next project, I'd love to see a musical about how these four very different but very compatible people met and became friends.

Like [title of show], Now. Here. This. is hilarious, adorable, and surprisingly poignant. The songs are fun and catchy, and sometimes go deeper than that (I hope they record a soundtrack of the show). I found myself wiping away tears on several occasions, particularly when Heidi and Hunter talked about their grandmothers’ deaths, quickly bringing me back to my own grandmother’s passing two years ago. These are very relatable stories that will make you laugh, cringe, cry, and be happy that the universe brought you to that place at that moment. At least that’s the effect this show had on me. There's no great plot here, just the sharing of very human experiences.

Hunter, Jeff, Susan, and Heidi

We met Jeff and Hunter after the show (the girls had to leave quickly to catch the opening of Peter and the Starcatchers, bummer, because I really wanted to get a picture side by side by Susan Blackwell). Hunter spotted the medals that my friend and I were wearing (we had run a half marathon in Central Park that morning and were dorky enough to wear our medals around town). He shared about when he and Jeff ran a marathon, and he agreed that a race, some good local brew (at Little Town NYC next door to the theater), and a show comprised the perfect day! This was the last of the four shows that we saw in NYC, and it was a perfect ending to our theater weekend. A light but satisfying and surprisingly rich dessert.

And just for fun, my favorite song/video from [title of show].

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

"A Streetcar Named Desire" at the Broadhurst Theatre on Broadway

Tennessee Williams’ classic play A Streetcar Named Desire with a non-traditional (i.e., non-white) cast sounds like a great idea. And it is, but unfortunately for the production opening April 22 on Broadway, the execution is a little lacking. I saw the show in previews, so they still have time to make changes. And really the basics are all there – the cast (despite being filled with TV actors) is really quite good, and you can’t ask for much better material than Tennessee Williams. It’s the tone of the piece that’s off. This is a great American tragedy, and the audience was laughing and hooting like it was a romantic comedy. Perhaps part of the problem is that the TV actors draw an unsophisticated audience, but the fact is, if it’s done well, any audience should get it regardless of their background (see: Ten Thousand Things). I think the problem is that they play up the humor (which is supposed to be a dark, ironic humor) so that the audience is fooled into thinking this is a comedy. I heard laughs as Stanley was desperately and infamously calling “Stellaaaaaaa!” This is a moment that should not play for laughs. I even heard a few chuckles as poor Blanche was struggling on the floor as she was being hauled off to the loony bin. Somehow the audience missed the fact that this is a tragic and desperate situation – spousal abuse, rape, mental illness, poverty. I really don’t know how this cannot be apparent in any Tennessee Williams play, but somehow, to this preview audience, it was not. Perhaps in rehearsals the director and cast didn’t realize how this would play to an audience, and now that they’ve heard audiences laughing as the actors pour their hearts out, they’ll make some changes to remedy the situation. Or maybe I just was part of a weird audience that night. I think I would have enjoyed the play a lot more if there were no audience. Every time they laughed it took me right out of that deliciously tortured and poignant world of Tennessee Williams.

Blair Underwood, famous for playing smooth, sophisticated, beautiful characters on TV, is surprisingly good as the rough and violent Stanley, who passionately loves his wife even though he beats and belittles her. But he’s still beautiful, which may be part of the problem; some people may come to the show just to see him, and want him to be the romantic hero, which Stanley most definitely is not. It's not his fault that he can't get away from being Blair Underwood.  Daphne Rubin-Vega (who so wonderfully created the role of Mimi in RENT), is also good as Stella, especially as she grows more desperate in the second act. But this play is really about Blanche, and Nicole Ari Parker (in what appears to her stage debut) does a good job with this tough but fragile Southern woman whose way of life is disappearing as she tries to hold on by her fingernails. (It dawned on me that Blanch is Maggie from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, if Brick had killed himself.) The last of the four main characters is Mitch, who should be a sad, lonely man who’s willing to settle for Blanche, a damaged woman who doesn’t really love him (at least judging by the excellent Guthrie production a few years ago). Wood Harris is miscast in this role. As much as I love my favorite drug dealer Avon Barksdale from The Wire (OK maybe second favorite, after Stringer Bell), he just doesn’t seem right as the guy who never gets the girl. There’s no way Wood Harris’ Mitch would be an aging, lonely, single man living with his mother.

I truly hope that they’re able to fix the tone of the play before the opening. Because I do love the non-traditional casting, and the good news is that a few minutes into the play you forget that there’s anything different about this Streetcar cast, and the implausibility of an African American family having owned a southern plantation for 100 years in the 1950s. That doesn’t matter anymore once you get into the story. Unfortunately with this production, there are other obstacles that get in the way of this classic.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

"The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess" at the Richard Rodgers Theatre on Broadway

The new production of the Gerswhins' Porgy and Bess is one of those classic epic musical theater experiences, like I haven’t had since seeing South Pacific at Lincoln Center four years ago. The kind of show where from the opening bars of the orchestra to the last curtain call, you know this is something special, this is the real deal. A new and exciting interpretation of a classic piece of music-theater history that is still so resonant it feels fresh and new.

Everything about this production is top-notch – the gorgeous music by George Gershwin, the staging and choreography, the sparse but effective set (with working water pump!), and the cast. Oh the cast! Audra McDonald has long been one of my favorites, mostly because of the Ragtime soundtrack (not to mention her role on the pretty good TV show with the really good cast, Private Practice). She’s a four-time Tony winner, and will no doubt be nominated for her performance as Bess when the nominees are announced on May 1. So raw and real, tough and vulnerable. Not to mention her incredible voice singing these amazing (and difficult) songs. Matching her in excellence is the heretofore unknown to me Norm Lewis as Porgy. His body is painfully contorted, but his voice is easy and beautiful, and his presence strong. Surrounding the two main characters is a strong cast of supporting characters and ensemble. Joshua Henry (a Tony nominee for Scottsboro Boys, which played at the Guthrie before its Broadway run), brings his gorgeous voice and charismatic presence to the role of the doomed Jake. NaTasha Yvette Williams is great as the mother figure Myriah. David Allen Grier (who's more well known for his movie and TV roles, but is also a trained and experienced theater actor) is the comic relief as the smartly dressed drug dealer called Sporting Life, but he also has the musical and dramatic chops needed.

I'm not very familliar with the original opera Porgy and Bess, first produced in 1935, so I can’t talk about how this production reworked and reinterpreted the original. I hear they’ve tried bring more depth to the characters, to change what some saw as a racist portrayal of African American life. But I only know what I saw, which is wonderful. I was so unfamiliar with the story that when the show began with another actress singing the classic song “Summertime,” I thought we were seeing an understudy for Bess. Fortunately I was wrong, and Audra made her entrance a little bit later to my great relief. Bess and her man Crown are in the “bad” crowd of Catfish Row, SC – involved in drugs, violence, gambling. When Crown kills a man, he skips town, and agrees that Bess should find a “temporary” man to live with (I guess a woman living alone is out of the question). Porgy is available and willing, so he takes her in. He's beloved by the community, but they think he can never “keep” a woman because he’s a “cripple”    (his foot is turned completely in at a 90 degree angle and his whole body leans, but don’t worry, Norm told us he works with both a chiropractor and a physical therapist to prevent permanent damage to his body). For some reason Porgy loves Bess completely and unconditionally, and is the only person who can see the good in her. It’s a confidence and stability she’s never known, and it teaches her to begin to believe in herself. Until her past comes back to haunt her, and she falls back into old ways. The town turns on her, but Porgy refuses to give up on his Bess. I was frustrated at the open ending, but as Norm said when we met him after the show, it’s an ending of hope, and I have to believe that these two damaged people find each other again.

with Norm Lewis (Porgy)
The music is, of course, divine. The score includes several songs familiar to anyone who’s grown up in Western culture – in addition to “Summertime,” there’s “I Got Plenty of Nothin,” and “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” As much as I enjoy seeing a modern band on stage, I geek out over a full and luscious pit orchestra, as this is. The choreography is so evocative of the time and place, not too smooth and polished but organic to the people and the situation, from the carefree picnic scene to the tense fight scenes. The costumes are simple but also help to explain who these people are, with Bess changing from a form fitting red dress to a soft floral dress as she becomes an accepted part of the community.  Diane Paulus seems to have a knack for directing classic pieces of music-theater history and bringing them to modern audiences; she also directed the 2010 revival of HAIR that I loved so much.
with the great Audra McDonald (Bess)
It’s a tough year for revival of a musical, with the fabulous production of Stephen Sondheim’s Follies last fall. But there’s something about this piece that’s so all-around satisfying, it’ll be hard to beat.

"Once" at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre on Broadway

The soundtrack to the 2006 Irish movie Once, featuring music by Irish musician Glen Hansard of the band The Frames and Czech musician Marketa Irglova, is my favorite movie soundtrack.  It literally has not left my car CD player in the last five or so years.  I also love their CD Strict Joy, released under the name Swell Season, and am eagerly awaiting the June release of Glen's first solo CD, Rhythm and Repose.  I've seen them perform live several times and they're amazing musicians.  Glen in particular is one of the most passionate musicians I've ever seen live, and I'll continue to go see him whenever he's in town.  So it was with much excitement and trepidation when I heard that there was going to be a stage musical version of the film.  I love the story and the music, but would they be able to translate the magic of the film to the stage without ruining a good thing?  The reviews were pretty good, but I had to see it for myself (hence this trip to NYC).  Good news: I loved it almost as much as the original.  The musical is different from the film; where the film is subtle and internal with much left unspoken, the music is more cutesy and external with things more obviously spelled out (sometimes literally).  But the film is so sparse that I suppose they have to fill it out for a live audience.  I think it's quite successful and well done; the magic of Once is retained on stage, if in a slightly different form.

The general plot of Once, both film and musical, is this: a street musician who works at his dad's vacuum repair shop has recently gone through a bad breakup and is disenchanted with life.  He meets a young Czech immigrant woman who's full of life and encourages him to make music and get his girl back.  In the movie, this encouragement is more subtle, but in the stage musical the girl is relentless in convincing the guy to move on (the characters have no names).  This sort of perkiness could be annoying, but in the hands of Cristin Milioti it's quite charming and irresistible.  She walks the fine line of being sweet and quirky without being cloying.  Steve Kazee as the guy is no Glen Hansard, but he may be the next best thing.  His voice is smoother than Glen's, more musical theater than folk-rock, but by the time he finished the first song, the raw and heart-wrenching "Leave," he had won me over.  He effectively played the heartache of the character and his slow coming back to life through the interaction with this girl and the music they make together.  What I love about the movie, that thankfully they've kept in the musical, is that these are two people who meet and have an intense connection that profoundly changes the direction of each of their lives, and then they continue on different paths.  In a Hollywood movie, they would end up together, but this seems much more real and poignant somehow.  It's a true love story, but one that you don't often see on screen or stage.  I ran across a quote by Albert Schweitzer that reminds me of this show: "In everyone's life, at some time, our inner fire goes out. It is then burst into flame by an encounter with another human being. We should all be thankful for those people who rekindle the inner spirit."  That's what these two people did - rekindle each other's inner spirit.

The two strong leads are surrounded by 11 talented musician/actors (one of whom is an adorable little girl) who play instruments (fiddle, guitar, drums, etc.), sing, act out several roles, and generally contribute to the atmosphere of Irishness.  Standouts in the cast include the impressively bearded Paul Whitty as the owner of the music store who's smitten with and protective of the girl, and David Patrick Kelly (of Twin Peaks fame) as the guy's stoic but supportive father.  But really they're all wonderful musicians and actors.  When not involved in the action, they sit around the edge of the stage, which is made up to look like an Irish pub (from which you can buy overpriced drinks before the show, although sadly they do not have Guinness, which is how you know it's not a real Irish pub).  The scene transitions are interesting and graceful, with the pub serving as a bank office, the girl's apartment, and the guy's bedroom.  The choreography is sparse and lovely, very organic to the story and characters.  One effect I think they could do without is the surtitles.  At times they display the dialogue in Czech as it supposedly is being spoken by the Czech characters, while we hear them speak English.  Later they display the English translation when the girl is speaking Czech.  It's a little confusing and inconsistant.

the ensemble, Cristin Milioti, and Steve Kazee

This seems an unlikely Broadway musical.  Based on a small indie movie, with obscure Irish references, featuring acoustic folk music (my favorite genre), and no "riding off into the sunset" type of ending, it's not your typical musical.  The songs are incorporated organically; instead of characters breaking out into song as dialogue, they sing in the context of a recording session or at a pub.  It's pushing the boundaries of what music-theater can be, and I love that.  We met most of the cast at the stage door, and they were all very kind and generous with their time (which is usually the case).  They all seem to be aware and grateful that they are involved in something special.  Here's wishing them a long run on Broadway (and maybe they can get some Guinness for the pub ;).  If you're in NYC, it's definitely worth checking out.  And make sure to get there early to enjoy the pre-show entertainment - an authentic Irish pub session featuring the talented musicians in the cast singing traditional songs.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

"The Birthday Party" at the Jungle Theater

I don't get Harold Pinter.  This is the second of his plays I've seen in the last year or so, and although the plots were very different, both left me with a feeling of "what just happened" as I left the theater.  Which I guess is kind of the point with the acclaimed English playwright, whose "style mixed domestic turmoil, evasive dialogue and not-so-heroic characters with experimental storytelling styles and an atmosphere of comic menace" (according to a note in the playbill).  It's more about the language and the fascinating characters than the plot, which is intentionally vague.  In The Birthday Party, two mysterious men show up at a boarding house by the English sea, inquiring about its sole resident, for some unexplained but clearly malevolent purpose.  It's bizarre and inscrutable, but the cast assembled by the Jungle Theater is fantastic in creating these crazy characters that are somehow still sympathetic.  I can recognize that it's a great production of a classic play, even if I don't really get it.  And it's still a lot of fun, albeit perplexing fun.

Real life husband and wife Richard Ooms and Claudia Wilkins portray the married proprietors of this shabby boarding house, and not surprisingly, they're quite believable as an old married couple.  Stephen Cartmell is particularly effective as the depressed, haggard, mysterious resident Stanley.  He's hiding out in this little seaside town, from what we never learn.  But it has turned him into a skittish, angry, frightful man.  Stephen dives into the role whole-heartedly, and somehow engenders sympathy for this mess of a man who just wants to be left alone.

Mr. Goldberg, one of the two nefarious men who show up to claim Stanley, is played by Tony Papenfuss, aka "my brother Daryl" from Newhart (he's returned home from L.A. to continue his career on Twin Cities stages, how did I not know that?).  Mr. Goldberg is deliciously evil and up to no good, as you can tell from his slicked back hair and mustache.  His companion, Mr. McCann (Martin Ruben), is the muscle of the organization.  The sensitive Irishman is nervous until they actually start doing the job.  The two are a great comedy team with rapid-fire dialogue, especially as they're questioning Stanley.  Not surprising that the interrogation ends in screaming!  Rounding out the cast is Katie Guentzel as Lulu, who seems much too pretty and normal to be hanging out with this crowd.  But she obviously has a story of her own, which we never really learn, that attracts her to these misfits.

The dingy and unkempt boarding house comes to life in the precise and detailed little diorama that is the stage at the Jungle Theater.  As is common at the Jungle, the director is also the set designer, in this case Joel Sass, which always seems to create a cohesive vision for the story.  It's so lifelike, with dust and dirt on the surfaces, that I wouldn't want to set foot in that room!  But I did enjoy peering into it for two and a half bewildering, engrossing, entertaining hours.

Monday, April 9, 2012

"What's the Word For" at Illusion Theater

What’s the Word For is kind of an awkward title. But that's the only thing that's awkward about this new play by Jeffrey Hatcher, commissioned by Illusion Theater. It's a beautiful exploration of the inter-dependant relationship between two unlikely companions.

What’s the Word For tells the story of a college film professor who loses his ability to take care of himself after being injured in a car accident, and the nurse who takes him in. The title refers to Mrs. Caleodis and Hayden’s favorite activity – crossword puzzles. She reads the clues to him, saying “what’s the word for …” and he always knows the answer. He’s maintained an incredible amount of knowledge, but can’t remember simple things, like the titles of the movies he loves so well. He has to be reminded to eat and lock the door. Mrs. Caleodis has taken care of Hayden for 14 years, and has reached an age where she needs a little taking care of herself, after suffering several strokes. She tries to find a new home for Hayden, but he doesn’t want to live anywhere else or with anyone else (routine is very important to him). And she’s unwilling to let him go, too. They’ve created a life together that seems to work for them, however difficult it might be. Unfortunately they can’t go on forever in this way; change is coming whether they want it to or not.

This two-person play features a couple of wonderful performances. I’ve seen several two-person plays lately; it's a nice format, the actors can really dive into the characters and their relationship (see also Werther and Lotte, Gruesome Playground Injuries). Melissa Hart, a Broadway vet who, fortunately for us, has made Minnesota her home (Frank Theatre's Cabaret last year, most recently Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at the Guthrie), is so natural as Mrs. Caleodis. She never appears to be acting, she just is this character. And Michael Paul Levin is also wonderful as Hayden, portraying both the sweet, confused, helpless version of the character, as well as a flashback to his healthier days when he was much less likeable. The two create a believable relationship onstage.

This was my first time at Illusion Theater’s space on the 8th floor of the Hennepin Center for the Arts. (I recently their beautiful production of My Antonia downstairs at the Goodale Theater in the new Cowles Center.) It’s a lovely space with a beautiful view of the city. The audience was sparse on the Thursday night I attended, which always makes me feel as if I know a secret few others do. (Now you're in on the secret. :) This was also my first time purchasing a ticket through Goldstar, which is a website I recently ran across that’s like Groupon for local theater and other events. I bought a ticket to this show for under $10, including fees. I also purchased a ticket for the upcoming play Sea Marks at Gremlin Theater for a similar price. All you have to do is enter your email and zip code, and you get a daily email with deals. It's great way to keep up with what’s out there and see more theater affordably (which is nice when you see as much theater as I do!). What's the Word For is a great place to start.

Friday, April 6, 2012

"Hay Fever" at the Guthrie

Noel Coward's play Hay Fever is one of those plays that you go to for pure enjoyment.  There's not much that's deep or thought-provoking about it, but not every play has to be.  It's just a delightfully silly romp through the life of a wealthy, spoiled, eccentric family. 

Judith Bliss is a recently retired stage actress, who continues to live her life as if she's on the stage.  Everything is a production; she creates drama just to be able to act it out.  Her husband David is a novelist who spends most of his time in his study.  Their children are, as expected, spoiled and privileged and as dramatic as their mother.  The Bliss family has a "country house" outside of London, and each member of the family invites a friend out for the weekend, without telling any of the others.  They're terrible hosts, alternately ignoring and insulting their guests.  Each of the four guests has their own reason for accepting the invitation to the country; this is a wealthy and famous family whom everyone wants to know.  But they soon learn that the Bliss family is not so pleasant to be around, despite their eccentrically charming home.

This is a dream cast of Guthrie veterans, returnees, and newcomers.  The most veteran of the cast is Barbara Bryne as the family's servant, who steals every scene she's in.  TV and Broadway actor Harriet Harris returns to the Guthrie to play Judith (she most recently appeared in The Glass Menagerie in 2007, I also saw her in another Noel Coward play, Present Laughter, opposite Victor Garber on Broadway a few years ago).  She is deliciously over the top as Judith must be, milking every moment of drama for the greatest effect.  Simon Jones is another TV and Broadway vet returning to the Guthrie (most recently seen in Shadowlands in 2008), playing the family patriarch, a sort of straight man to the craziness around him.  Cat Walleck, a newcomer to the Guthrie, is fierce and funny as Sorel Bliss, very much her mother's daughter.  Completing the family is Guthrie fave John Skelley as Simon Bliss.  He has such an easy, natural charisma on stage that he is, as always, a joy to watch.  Add to all that the perfectly cast guests, and it's a wonderful, tight, ensemble that plays the histrionics and awkward silences equally well.

I recently said that the set of The Birds, in the Guthrie's studio theater, was the most detailed set I'd ever scene.  I might have to amend that statement after seeing this set, except that in The Birds the details are crammed into a small space, while the Bliss house expands over the large thrust stage, including huge brick exterior walls and flowers in the garden as well as the busy interior.  Every surface of the home is painted or covered in a charming, eccentric style.  Janet Bird designed both the set and the gorgeous 1920s period costumes, and the look is delicious.  She and the director, Christopher Luscombe, appear to be transplanted from London's West End for this production, perhaps adding to the delightful British-ness of the play.

A fabulously talented cast, a classic play, beautiful set and costumes - just another night at the Guthrie.