Sunday, May 27, 2012

"Compleat Female Stage Beauty" by Walking Shadow Theatre Company at the Minneapolis Theatre Garage

"To the theater to see a play!" What's better than that? Compleat Female Stage Beauty is a play about theater, specifically about that time in the history of English theater when women were finally allowed to play female roles, taking over for the men who traditionally played female roles on the stage. In this play by Jeffrey Hatcher, it's a difficult time of transition. It reminds me of that time in American film when "talkies" replaced silent films, and silent film actors had to figure out a place for themselves in the new era, or fade away (at least that's what I learned from The Artist). Similarly, the men, or in this case, one particular man, who had previously only played female roles, had to figure out a new place for himself in a world that has changed.

The play is a fictionalized account based on the lives of several historical figures. Samuel Pepys kept a detailed diary of his life and the events in London in the 1660s, and serves as a sort of narrator, opening and closing the play (and uttering the above line several times). From what I can tell, he's a little like me - he enjoys going to the theater and writes everything down in his diary. If there were an internet in the 1600s, he probably would have had a blog too. :) The main character in the play is based on another historical figure, Edward Kynaston, one of the last male actors to play female roles on the English stage. When he finds out that "his" role of Desdemona in Othello is being played by a woman named Margaret Hughes  (another historical figure) in a theater across town, he feels threatened. Eventually the king rules that men cannot play female roles on stage, and Kynaston's life falls apart. His lover leaves him, because he preferred to see him as a woman, as the role he was playing (as Rita Hayworth famously said, "Men fall in love with Gilda, but they wake up with me"). He takes a job singing bawdy songs in a pub, quite a step down from Shakespeare. It's there that his friend Maria finds him and, with the help of the King's mistress, gets him to return to the theater. He had always thought, "a man playing a man, where's the artistry in that?" But in teaching Margaret how to play Desdemona better than he ever did, he discovers a new love for the theater and a way to apply his artistry to male roles, the only ones open to him. As Maria says to him, "We are never suited for the roles we most desire."

This is a great cast (most of whom were previously unknown to me), starting and ending with Wade A. Vaughn as Mr. Kynaston. He plays such a range of emotions (and costumes!) and does it all believably, emphatically, and sympathetically. He goes from an artist at the top of his game, to the object of mockery brought low, to a teacher and expert demanding respect. The play opens and closes with Desdemona's death scene, with Mr. K first as the murdered Desdemona and later as the murderer Othello, and I found myself wishing I could see the latter production. Jane Froiland (from last year's sublime Ten Thousand Things production of Doubt) is Mr. K's frenemy, the ambitious Ms. Hughes, who goes from merely a novelty to a good actress thanks to her association with him. Adelin Phelps is bubbly and entertaining as the boisterous comedic actress and mistress of the King. Matt Sciple as the scribe Pepys, Sean Byrd as the theater owner, and Teresa Marie Doran as the fresh-faced Maria are also wonderful in their roles, and along with the rest of the ensemble populate and bring to life this crazy aristocratic English Reformation society. The wigs, make-up, and costumes are quite astounding, and a lovely three-piece band accompanies the action with period music played on such instruments as the hammered dulcimer and melodica. All of which works to transport you back a few centuries.

There are three reasons I went to see this play: I found a half-price deal on, I saw a Walking Shadow production at the Guthrie last fall and enjoyed it, and I love the Minneapolis Theatre Garage. Other than that I wasn't quite sure what to expect, which is often the best way to be surprised and delighted. "To the theater to see a play," indeed! (And I might have to check out the 2004 movie starring Billy Crudup and Claire Danes.)

"The Amen Corner" by Penumbra Theatre at the Guthrie

The Amen Corner is another quality production by Penumbra Theatre in conjunction with the Guthrie, featuring great acting, interesting content about our history, and some fabulous gospel music. However, I found it to be a little long at more than three hours including intermission. I'm not used to staying upright and alert until 10:45 pm, so I had a hard time staying awake through the performance. That doesn't necessarily reflect on the quality of the production, but I'm sure I would have gotten more out of it if I had seen a matinee.

Here's what I did get out of it: The Amen Corner tells the story of a female pastor of a church in Harlem in the 1950s. Sister Margaret is also a single mother of an almost-grown son, and everyone assumes that her husband abandoned her. When he shows up on their doorstep, it's revealed that Sister Margaret is the one who left, as a reaction to a personal tragedy, and wanting a better life for herself and her son than she felt they could have with her drunken husband. The so-called elders of the church, who were her biggest supporters, suddenly turn on her at this revelation that she supposedly neglected her family in favor of the church. They use the opportunity to vote her out of the church and appoint a new pastor, a power-hungry Sister Moore. I found them to be judgmental, hypocritical, self-righteous people who did not practice what they preached. I wanted them to forgive Sister Margaret for this little lie, because in all other respects she's a wonderful church leader. But that was not to be, and Sister Margaret had to pay the price for being human.

Some highlights of the show include:

  • The fabulous Greta Oglesby as Sister Margaret, singing and preaching and pouring her heart out with her broken family
  • Jazz trumpeter Hannibal Lokumbe as the wayward husband who disrupts the family's life in an effort to reconnect with them at the end of his life
  • Eric Berryman as the son caught in the middle between his parents, and trying to figure out what he wants to do with his life after being brought up for one thing, and discovering that's not where his heart lies
  • Austene Van as Sister Moore, with her subtle barbs at Sister Margaret building up to a complete takeover of the church
  • Lots of incredible gospel music (Musical Director Sanford Moore) featuring members of the Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church
  • A really effective and ingenious set by Vicki Smith, with the church on the upper level and the family apartment below and to the front of the stage, so that you could see the action going on (or not) in both places, with scenes of the city behind and around it

This is a really well-done production featuring several great Penumbra company members and directed by Penumbra Artistic Director Lou Bellamy, one that's definitely worth seeing. I might suggest a matinee if, like me, you're not use to late nights (I should be with as much theater as I see, I guess I'm getting too used to the one-act 90-minute show). The Amen Corner is playing now through June 17 in the Guthrie's Thrust theater. And I'm looking forward to the announcement of Penumbra's next season, to find out which play in August Wilson's ten-play cycle I'll be seeing next!

Monday, May 21, 2012

"Vasa Lisa" by Ten Thousand Things at the MN Opera Center

Do you know when you go to the theater (or a movie or concert) and become so engrossed in the experience, that it feels like the only reality you've ever known, for that short space of time? And then it's over, and your feet carry you out of the building and into the street, and the world seems a little different, a little strange and unfamiliar. It may take you a few minutes to snap out of it, like you're in a trance. I had such an experience upon seeing Vasa Lisa. I should be used to it by now, but it never ceases to amaze me how Ten Thousand Things can carry me away into a different time and place with just a few makeshift costumes and set pieces, and those words, lots of words truthfully and authentically spoken. This is story-telling at its best and most basic, and it feels like something we as humans have been doing for tens of thousands of years.

Vasa Lisa is a new play by Kira Obolensky based on the Russian fairy tale Vasilisa the Beautiful, directed by Artistic Director Michelle Hensley. The title character is a young woman whose mother has died and left her with a little doll to help her. She goes through many trials and tribulations because of her drunkard father, evil stepmother (is there any other kind in fairy tales?), and the village witch who reportedly eats people! She only wants to have enough bread to eat, and to see her mother again, and ends up learning that the little doll who helps her is the truest, wisest part of herself. This all sounds very trite and and simple, but the way it unfolds is wondrous in the hands of the talented artists of Ten Thousand Things. Tracey Maloney makes Vasa Lisa very relatable, real, and sympathetic. The other four members of the cast play various human and animal roles to hilarious and delightful effect. The incomparable Sally Wingert is equally good as Vasa Lisa's beloved mother, the voice of the doll (sitting just two seats away from me), and the witch. Frequent TTT player Elise Langer is the hilariously annoying stepsister, a hungry cat, and everything in between. The two clowns from the Guthrie's sharp and silly production of 39 Steps are reunited here - Jim Lichtsheidl and Luverne Seifert. Both of them are so talented at creating multiple distinct characters, and so entertaining to watch. It's really a pleasure to watch the entire cast play together.

As usual, everything about the production is sparse but effective, proving you don't need a lot of fancy tricks to create a fantasy world. (For those of you unfamiliar with Ten Thousand Things, they take their shows on the road to such unconventional places as prisons and homeless shelters, and their paid public performances share the same full lights and minimal sets and costumes.) The few set pieces are really cool, intricate, and functional pieces of art (created by Irve Dell). Peter Vitale once again provides an expressive soundtrack, which includes a few little songs sung by the characters in a natural and unintrusive way. This time he has a few musicians to help him, creating a fuller sound.

I often get more out of the children's stories at my church than the sermons for adults, and that's how I felt seeing this show. There were several children in the audience who seemed just as captivated as I was by this story. It's delightful and joyous and wondrous. This final show of Ten Thousand Thing's 2011-2012 season runs for runs for one more weekend. And their newly announced 2012-2013 season looks just as exciting as this one has been - Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, a "hip hop retelling of Aeschulus' The Seven Against Thebes" (say what?), and the American classic A Streetcar Named Desire with a non-traditional cast (which is sure to be better than the version currently running on Broadway). I know I've said this before, but you really can't call yourself a Twin Cities theater fan if you've never experienced Ten Thousand Things.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

"The View from Here" at Nautilus Music-Theater

The View from Here* is the second show I've seen in Nautilus Music-Theater's small studio space in St. Paul's Lowertown neighborhood. Like last fall's Joan of Arc, The View from Here is a beautifully intimate and acoustic music-theater experience. But unlike Joan of Arc, there were plenty of available seats last night, which means you have a great opportunity to see one of the five remaining performances. This is my favorite way to listen to music, whether at a concert or the theater, without the interference of microphones and amplification. Even if the sound is done well (which it sometimes isn't), it still creates a distance between the performers and the audience. In Nautilus' studio theater, there's no separation between the performers and the audience, either through physical space or sound, creating the feeling that we're all in this together.

The View from Here is a one-man musical written by Timothy Huang and first produced in 2005 at the NY Musical Theatre Festival (which I'd love to go to sometime). A man moves into a small, bare apartment in New York City and attempts to get his book published. He arrives brimming with confidence and optimism, writing letters to his wife about the great things he's seeing and experiencing. But that slowly starts to change as his manuscript is repeatedly rejected and he's forced to get a boring job to pay the bills. And it starts to become apparent that something isn't quite right with this situation. He constantly writes and talks to his wife, wishing they could be together, yet he never calls her (who writes out letters longhand anymore in this age of smart phones?). When it finally comes out what the real situation is that led him to write a book and move to NYC, it's heart-breaking and leads to a near tragic ending.

The main character is played by the consistently excellent Joel Liestman, with musical accompaniment by Jerry Rubino on piano and Jim Tenbensel on the trumpet, both of whom are heard but not seen. The trumpet provides the other side of several conversations this character has, in a Charlie Brown sort of way. This is a great score, and Joel sings it beautifully, as well as portraying the range of emotions that this character goes through. It reminds me a little of Next to Normal - a really intense musical theater piece about heavy topics like grief and loss - only on a smaller scale. It's almost like a Ten Thousand Things show; it has that same raw, immediate feel.

The physical space is completely transformed from when I last saw it (designed by Nautilus Artistic Director Ben Krywosz, who also directs). The stage is a tiny, bare apartment, unfurnished except for an answering machine and phone. The lone window in the apartment is a working window that, when opened, allows the sights and sounds (not to mention cool air) of the city to enter, further adding to that raw, immediate feel.

Nautilus again delivers a great "music-theater" experience, unlike you'll get in any other theater in town, and one that's definitely worth checking out while you still can (click here for ticket information).

*I received two complementary tickets to see The View from Here.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

"The War Within / All's Fair" by The Moving Company at the Southern Theater

Absurd. Perplexing. Wacky. Unexpected. Delightful. Those are the five words I would use to describe The Moving Company's new piece The War Within / All's Fair (a recent challenge on their Facebook page). I never quite know what to expect when I go to see a Moving Company show, and that's what I like best about them. It's always inventive and creative, a new perspective on a familiar topic. And there's no exception here in this piece created by Moving Company's co-Artistic Directors Steve Epp and Dominique Serrand, along with Artistic Associate Nathan Keepers and some lucky students at the U of M.

How can I describe The War Within / All's Fair? I think this quote from the playbill says it best: "If you're looking for a play here you won't find it. There is no overriding agenda, rather a parade of unfortunate encounters in a fictional workplace. The daily circus of the socially, economically and politically marginalized. Bits and pieces strung together, you might say, to create a more horrifying whole. Inspired by the great tradition of the buffoon, it is a world peopled by characters with little-to-no respect for anything or anyone, and even less for themselves."

From the moment the show starts you know you're in for something unique - each character makes their entrance walking across the stage, staring at the audience, finally striking some odd character-specific pose. They move around this unnamed workplace/factory/warehouse in choreographed chaos. The show is loosely structured as random scenes and interchanges between various groups of characters as they go about a day on the job. The most consistent characters leading us through are chameleon Nathan Keeper's janitor, going about his daily tasks of sweeping, vacuuming, and complaining, and the hilarious Susan Warmanen's gum-chewing, pink-wearing gossip (every workplace has one), speaking in nonsensical metaphors. Other characters include Jon Ferguson as the jerk of a boss with a neck brace, Haley Carneol as the self-described pansexual, Christian Bardin as the awkward girl with a lisp, Sam Kruger as new employee Gaush (that's pronounced Josh, not gowsh), whose lifeless body is quite brilliantly and gracefully maneuvered by Peter Lincoln Rusk, when he's not making odd sound effects. Each of these characters is a distinctly wacky creation. And they occasionally break out into song!

There's really not much else I can say - check out this absurdly entertaining show if you're looking for an unconventional and innovative evening of theater.  Playing now through June 10 at the Southern Theater.  (Check out my new favorite website for half-price deals.)

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

2012 Tony Nominations

The 2012 Tony Award Nominations were announced on May 1. I have a few opinions about who I'd like to see take home the trophies since I've seen five of the eligible shows on my trips to NYC last fall and this spring (plus one right here in Minneapolis!):
Here are the nominations along with a few thoughts about the nominees (update: winners are bolded).

Total Wins:
Once - 8
Peter and the Starcatcher - 5
Newsies - 2
Nice Work If You Can Get It - 2
Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman - 2
The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess - 2
Follies - 1
One Man, Two Guvnors - 1
Other Desert Cities - 1
Clybourne Park - 1
Venus in Fur - 1

Best Play 

Clybourne Park (Bruce Norris)
Other Desert Cities (Jon Robin Baitz)
Peter and the Starcatcher (Rick Elice)
Venus in Fur (David Ives)

I almost saw Venis in Fur this spring, but unfortunately I didn't quite get there. So I can't really comment on this category, other than I look forward to seeing the first two shows at
the Guthrie next season (I just renewed my subscription).

Best Musical
Leap of Faith

Nice Work If You Can Get It

First, let me express my sadness that three of these "new musicals" are movie adaptations, and the fourth is a new story with no original music (Nice Work If You Can Get It features the music of George and Ira Gershwin). Such is the state of Broadway today - very few new original musicals (fortunately they still exist Off-Broadway). That being said, I saw Once and loved it, and would be happy to see it win. Yes it's the dreaded movie adaptation, but it's a quiet, simple movie about music that lends itself well to the stage. They were able to stay true to the spirit of this lovely story and music, while making it an entirely (well, mostly) new creation.

Best Revival of a Play
Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman
Gore Vidal’s The Best Man
Master Class

I was interested in seeing Death of a Salesman because of its star (more about him later), but musicals always call to me more than plays when I have a limited time in NYC. So I can't really comment on this (other than I'm pleased to see that the unintentionally comedic production of A Streetcar Named Desire did not receive a nomination).

Best Revival of a Musical
The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess
Jesus Christ Superstar

I was lucky enough to see both Follies and The Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, and both are spectacular revivals. Follies, by the great Stephen Sondheim, was first on Broadway in 1971, and this revival is a gorgeous production (after a limited run on Broadway, it's currently playing in L.A.), featuring beautiful music, an amazing cast of Broadway vets, and fantastic costumes.  Porgy and Bess is a new version of the classic 1935 opera, a gripping story about the African-American residents of fictional "Catfish Row" in South Carolina. If I had to choose between these two, I'd choose Porgy and Bess, but possibly only because it's fresher in my mind.

Best Book of a Musical
Lysistrata Jones (Douglas Carter Beane)
Newsies (Harvey Fierstein)
Nice Work If You Can Get It (Joe DiPietro)
Once (Enda Walsh)

Once again I'd vote for Once, the only one I saw. But really, Irish playwright Enda Walsh did a wonderful job of filling in the sparse movie and making it into a full-length musical. While I might have preferred the simplicity and subtlety of the film, I recognize that that kind of silence doesn't translate well to the stage, and I'm not sure it could have been done better.

Best Original Score (Music and/or Lyrics) Written for the Theatre
Bonnie & Clyde (Music: Frank Wildhorn, Lyrics: Don Black)
Newsies (Music: Alan Menken, Lyrics: Jack Feldman)
One Man, Two Guvnors (Music & Lyrics: Grant Olding)
Peter and the Starcatcher (Music: Wayne Barker, Lyrics: Rick Elice)

I haven't heard any of these scores so I can't comment, other than it's interesting to note that the latter two are classified as plays with music, rather than musicals. And I'm surprised that Newsies qualifies as "original" score since it features music from the movie, but I guess they included enough original songs to qualify.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Play
James Corden, One Man, Two Guvnors
Philip Seymour Hoffman, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman
James Earl Jones, Gore Vidal’s The Best Man
Frank Langella, Man and Boy
John Lithgow, The Columnist

Again, I haven't seen any of these performances so I can't comment, other than to say that Philip Seymour Hoffman is one of my favorite movie actors who also happens to be an accomplished theater actor (this is his third Tony nominations), so I wouldn't mind seeing him win.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Play
Nina Arianda, Venus in Fur
Tracie Bennett, End of the Rainbow
Stockard Channing, Other Desert Cities
Linda Lavin, The Lyons
Cynthia Nixon, Wit

I think Tracie Bennett is the surest bet to win a Tony this year. Granted I haven't seen any of the other performances, but her portrayal of the great Judy Garland in End of the Rainbow is genius. And I don't know how the Tony voters could resist giving the award to the woman who brought this icon to life. I heard Tracie speak in a post-show discussion at the Guthrie, and she's been very involved in the creation of this piece and this character for ten years, so it would be nice to see that sort of passion and dedication rewarded.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Musical
Danny Burstein, Follies
Jeremy Jordan, Newsies
Steve Kazee, Once
Norm Lewis, The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess
Ron Raines, Follies

Oh, this is a tough one! I've seen four of these performances, and heard nothing but rave reviews for the one I haven't seen. Ron and Danny were both wonderful in Follies, but of the two Danny is my favorite (I also saw him a few years ago singing "Nothing Like a Dame" in South Pacific at Lincoln Center). Steve is also wonderful, bringing a quietness and depth to his role of that guy in Once (even if, or maybe because, he's so different from my darling Glen). But if forced to choose, I'd give the Tony to Norm Lewis, who so completely embodied (physically and emotionally) the "crippled," big-hearted Porgy.

with Norm Lewis (Porgy in Porgy and Bess)

Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Musical
Jan Maxwell, Follies
Audra McDonald, The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess
Cristin Milioti, Once
Kelli O’Hara, Nice Work If You Can Get It
Laura Osnes, Bonnie & Clyde

First of all - no Bernadette? But aside from that, I have to go with Audra, because she's Audra, and her Bess is so complex and layered, sympathetic while making mistakes. And that voice, come on! Let's just give her her fifth Tony.  (And a big congratulations to Minnesota's own Laura Osnes on her first Tony nomination and her successful Broadway career!)

with Audra McDonald (Bess in Porgy and Bess)

Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Play
Christian Borle, Peter and the Starcatcher
Michael Cumpsty, End of the Rainbow
Tom Edden, One Man, Two Guvnors
Andrew Garfield, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman
Jeremy Shamos, Clybourne Park

I've only seen one of these performances, but Michael Cumpsty is sweet and charming as Judy's pianist in End of the Rainbow, who tries to save her from herself, so I'll go with him.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Play
Linda Emond, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman
Spencer Kayden, Don’t Dress for Dinner
Celia Keenan-Bolger, Peter and the Starcatcher
Judith Light, Other Desert Cities
Condola Rashad, Stick Fly

No comment (but I think Judith is fabulous).

Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Musical
Phillip Boykin, The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess
Michael Cerveris, Evita
David Alan Grier, The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess
Michael McGrath, Nice Work If You Can Get It
Josh Young, Jesus Christ Superstar

Can I write in Joshua Henry in Porgy and Bess? No? Then I'll vote for David Alan Grier, who is pretty spectacular too. Oh wait, Phillip Boykin is so imposing as the evil Crown that he received a few boos at the curtain call, which prompted him to smile and curtsy. He was super sweet and friendly at the stage door, so unlike his character. I change my vote to Phillip.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Musical
Elizabeth A. Davis, Once
Jayne Houdyshell, Follies
Judy Kaye, Nice Work If You Can Get It
Jessie Mueller, On A Clear Day You Can See Forever
Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Ghost the Musical

The Follies cast included so many amazing veteran Broadway actresses in featured roles, each getting the chance to sing one fabulous song, that I'd give the award to Jayne Houdyshell's "Broadway Baby" as a representative of them all.

Best Scenic Design of a Play
John Lee Beatty, Other Desert Cities
Daniel Ostling, Clybourne Park
Mark Thompson, One Man, Two Guvnors
Donyale Werle, Peter and the Starcatcher

No comment.

Best Scenic Design of a Musical
Bob Crowley, Once
Rob Howell and Jon Driscoll, Ghost the Musical
Tobin Ost and Sven Ortel, Newsies
George Tsypin, Spider-Man Turn Off The Dark

Let's give it to Once's Irish pub. Other than the fact that they don't serve Guinness, it feels like an inviting place to have a pint, listen to some music, and watch this lovely story unfold.

Best Costume Design of a Play
William Ivey Long, Don’t Dress for Dinner
Paul Tazewell, A Streetcar Named Desire
Mark Thompson, One Man, Two Guvnors
Paloma Young, Peter and the Starcatcher

No comment.

Best Costume Design of a Musical
Gregg Barnes, Follies
ESosa, The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess
Eiko Ishioka, Spider-Man Turn Off The Dark
Martin Pakledinaz, Nice Work If You Can Get It

For the amazing headdresses alone, Follies deserves the Tony. Not to mention the costumes of the Follies girls, the party-goers, and the slightly faded clothing of the past versions of the characters that haunt the place.

Best Lighting Design of a Play
Jeff Croiter, Peter and the Starcatcher
Peter Kaczorowski, The Road to Mecca
Brian MacDevitt, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman
Kenneth Posner, Other Desert Cities

No comment.

Best Lighting Design of a Musical
Christopher Akerlind, The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess
Natasha Katz, Follies
Natasha Katz, Once
Hugh Vanstone, Ghost the Musical

I usually don't really notice lighting, but in this case, I think the lighting in Follies plays a pivotal role in differentiating the past and present, both of which appear onstage at the same time. It's like you're watching a living memory, in addition to the very real present.

Best Sound Design of a Play
Paul Arditti, One Man, Two Guvnors
Scott Lehrer, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman
Gareth Owen, End of the Rainbow
Darron L. West, Peter and the Starcatcher

No comment.

Best Sound Design of a Musical
Acme Sound Partners, The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess
Clive Goodwin, Once
Kai Harada, Follies
Brian Ronan, Nice Work If You Can Get It

Again, not something I usually pay attention to (maybe this is one of those things one only notices when it's bad, not when it's good), but the sound design of Follies also helped differentiate the past from the present characters. Just a slightly muffled quality that hinted you were hearing echos of the past.

Best Choreography
Rob Ashford, Evita
Christopher Gattelli, Newsies
Steven Hoggett, Once
Kathleen Marshall, Nice Work If You Can Get It

I realize this isn't really fair because I only saw one of the nominees (again), but the choreography in Once is so different from a typical musical: graceful, organic movements, rather than show-stopping numbers, that incorporate even the scene changes.

Best Direction of a Play
Nicholas Hytner, One Man, Two Guvnors
Pam MacKinnon, Clybourne Park
Mike Nichols, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman
Roger Rees and Alex Timbers, Peter and the Starcatcher

No comment.

Best Direction of a Musical
Jeff Calhoun, Newsies
Kathleen Marshall, Nice Work If You Can Get It
Diane Paulus, The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess
John Tiffany, Once

I'm going to give my vote to Diane Paulus for Porgy and Bess; she brought this classic to life in a fresh way. It's unbelievable to think that this piece was written over 75 years ago, and is still so real and moving.

Best Orchestrations
William David Brohn and Christopher Jahnke, The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess
Bill Elliott, Nice Work If You Can Get It
Martin Lowe, Once
Danny Troob, Newsies

I was lucky enough to sit three rows behind the pit orchestra at Porgy and Bess (thanks TKTS!), and the sound was so lush and gorgeous, full and rich. Everything musical theater music should be.

That's it! Please let me know your thoughts. I'll be back to update once the awards are presented on June 10. But I won't be watching live as I have theater tickets that night. What better way to celebrate theater than to go to a show?!

Monday, May 14, 2012

"My Fair Lady" at Bloomington Civic Theatre

Wouldn't it be loverly? Just you wait, 'Enry 'Iggins! The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain. I could have danced all night! On the street where you live. Get me to the church on time! I've grown accustomed to her face.

I'd forgotten how many familiar and endlessly singable songs are in the classic Lerner and Loewe musical My Fair Lady until I saw it again yesterday, at the Bloomington Civic Theatre. I've actually only seen it on stage once, well, not so much on stage as in a rehearsal room at the MN Opera Center in a beautifully sparse production by Ten Thousand Things. But that's not a fair comparison, because what Ten Thousand Things does is incomparable. The current production at BCT is the first fully staged production of this classic musical that I've seen, and they do a wonderful job with it - from the full pit orchestra conducted by Anita Ruth, to the delightful costumes and set, to the talented and spirited cast. Yes, it's a little long, with some songs going on and on, and then coming back for more, but it's thoroughly enjoyable.

I'm sure everyone's familiar with the story. And even if you think you aren't, you know it. It's been retold many times, from the original Shaw play Pygmalion, to the Julia Roberts movie Pretty Woman. A gentleman takes a lower class woman and transforms her into a "lady." In this case, the gentleman is Professor Henry Higgens, who studies phonetics and is intrigued by "flower girl" Eliza's poor accent, and makes a bet with his colleague Colonel Pickering that he can transform her into a lady in six months time. Eliza does indeed learn to be a "lady," but retains her spirit and even teaches 'Enry 'Iggens a bit about being a human being in the process.

A few highlights of the show:

  • Jim Pounds is everything you want Higgins to be - elegant, curmudgeonly, sophisticated, exasperated, stubborn, with a heart hiding somewhere deep inside.
  • Rachel Weber plays Eliza with such energy and spirit, she fairly leaps off the stage! At times proud and strong, at times weepy and needy, she's a real heroine with a lovely voice to match her spunk.
  • Michael Fischetti is also good as Colonel Pickering, with a wonderfully silly laugh.
  • Fred Mackaman provides the comic relief as Eliza's father in the songs "Get Me to the Church on Time" and "With a Little Bit of Luck."
  • Mary Kay Fortier-Spalding is a bit of a scene-stealer as the Professor's sophisticated mother who grows to love this young woman, who seems to be the only one who can teach her son a lesson or two.
  • Eric Heimsoth doesn't have much to do as Freddy, other than sing the most beautiful song in the show, "On the Street Where You Live," and he does it justice.
  • The scene at the races is a feast for the eyes. The women are decked out in elaborate period dresses in various patterns of black and white, the men in tails and top hats (costumes by Ed Gleeman), all holding themselves primly still until Eliza shouts out "move your bloomin' arse!" And watching Eliza put on her act while telling stories about her drunken aunt is hilarious.
  • This may be the most elaborate set I've seen at BCT, with the walls of Higgins' stately home rolling in and out (sets by Robin McIntyre).
  • The large and capable ensemble performs several group dance numbers, choreographed by Lewis E Whitlock III, who also directs.

Eliza Doolittle (Rachel Weber) sells flowers to
Professor Henry Higgins (Jim Pounds)

BCT's musical line-up for next season looks like another good one, featuring the tap-dancing extravaganza 42nd Street, a Sondheim show I've been dying to see - Sunday in the Park with George, one of my favorite musicals - Cabaret, and Leonard Bernstein's On the Town. I think that's going to be worth the drive across town.

Mu Performing Arts 20th Anniversary Gala

Last weekend I attended the Mu Performing Arts 20th Anniversary Gala, held at the Loring Pasta Bar (a lovely venue for a celebration, if less than ideal for stage performances). I've attended the Mu Gala a few times in the past, and it's always a fun evening of theater, music, drumming, good food and drinks, and great silent auction items (sadly, no Ivey Award tickets this year). The goal of the evening, in addition to celebrating the amazing Asian-American theater community in the Twin Cities, is to raise money for Mu to continue its work. In particular, this year they're focusing on building a new space and developing a new musical (my favorite thing). Artistic Director and founder Rick Shiomi announced his impending retirement, which made for a bittersweet celebration. And despite the absence of my favorite Mu actor Randy Reyes (he's a busy guy, so he was probably working somewhere), it was another delightful evening.

This year's gala featured a special attraction - an appearance by stage, film, and TV actor BD Wong. I know him best as Father Ray from Oz, one of my all-time favorite TV shows and HBO's first scripted series (that paved the way for everything else to come).

BD has also appeared on Law and Order: SVU, as well as the recently cancelled NBC drama Awake. In addition to these roles, he's an accomplished theater actor, having won a Tony in 1988 for his role in the David Henry Hwang play M. Butterfly (which was produced at the Guthrie a few years ago, with the aforementioned Randy Reyes in BD's role). BD is working with Rick and Theater Mu on the development of a new musical called Heading East, which will be part of Mu's 2013-2014 season. The musical tells the story of "would-be tycoon Siu Yee Tong, a brazen young man who travels from drought- and famine-ridden China to the shores of Gold Rush-era San Francisco in 1849, determined to be America’s next great success story. Too weak to make his fortune as a prospector, Siu Yee discovers instead the joys of American entrepreneurship, building a thriving Chinatown business on the backs of his struggling countrymen.
BD Wong performing a song from the new musical Heading East,
with Suzie Juul and Eric Sharp

BD and local actors performed two songs from the musical (you can listen to songs from the 2009 demo here). We were also treated to a performance of "No One is Alone" from the Stephen Sondheim musical Into the Woods, which Mu is doing this summer at Park Square Theatre in St. Paul. And of course, no Mu Gala would be complete without a performance or two from Mu Daiko, the thrilling Japanese drumming ensemble.

BD was presented with the Rick Shiomi Award for Excellence and made a lovely acceptance speech about the true meaning of Community Theater, as work that serves the community (I prefer the term Regional Theater, but I agree with his point). He said he's enjoying working with our local theater artists and exploring that sense of community, which can be missing in "the big city."

Here's wishing Mu another fabulous 20 years, in which I'm sure they'll continue to meet and exceed their goals.  You can find more information about current and upcoming productions and projects at their website.

Monday, May 7, 2012

"Are You Now or Have You Ever Been..." by Carlyle Brown & Company at the Guthrie Studio

... a member of the Communist party. That's the completion of the wordy title of this play, or at least one variation of it. It refers to questions posed by Joseph McCarthy and his senate subcommittee to the African-American poet and suspected Communist Langston Hughes in 1953. This new play at the Guthrie Studio Theater,* written by Carlyle Brown (who also wrote the moving play American Family which premiered at Park Square a few months ago), is about Langston Hughes and his experience with McCarthyism. But it's really about so much more. It's about who he was as a man, as a writer, as an activist, as well as what was going on in America during the time he was writing (with possible parallels to today).

Gavin Lawrence plays Langston Hughes, and it's worth noting that he starred in American Family opposite the playwright and Noël Raymond, who directs this play. These are frequent collaborators who continue to work well together. And in this case, Gavin's portrayal of Langston Hughes is one of the best performances I've seen on stage this year. He fully inhabits this character and brings him to life before our eyes. He speaks directly to the audience, looking us in the eye, engaging us and making us feel like a part of the story. He "reads" long segments of books and articles, recites poetry (with the words displayed on a screen behind him), talks on the phone, talks to himself, talks to the audience, all seamlessly and organically. I know I shouldn't be, because it's their job, but I can't help but be impressed by actors who memorize long monologues. This is basically a one-man show for the first hour. And he never stops talking and being this man. I must confess: I've never been able to get into poetry; reading a printed poem does nothing for me. And I know next to nothing about Langston Hughes. But when Gavin as Langston reads these poems out loud, I get it. He brings these beautiful words to life in the most wonderful way - he performs them, he lives them. I could listen to him read poems for two hours, and this is coming from someone who's not generally a fan of a poetry. There are lots of interesting and worthwhile things about this play, but for me it's all about Gavin Lawrence's performance.

Langston Hughes (Gavin Lawrence) and his lawyer (playwright Carlyle Brown)
respond to questions from McCarthy's subcommittee

After about an hour of this phenomenal one-man show, the action moves to the actual subcommittee proceedings as McCarthy and three others pepper Langston with questions about his poems, his travels, and his beliefs. They're seated at a high desk behind the screen, as Langston sits with his lawyer (played by the playwright) facing the audience. The questions are ridiculous and paranoid, and Langston fends them off as best he can. There's no real resolution to the scenario. Only silence as the committee members walk out. One last poem is displayed on the screen, which the audience is left to read silently to themselves.

Sometimes there’s a wind in the Georgia dusk
That cries and cries and cries
Its lonely pity through the Georgia dusk
Veiling what the darkness hides

Sometimes there’s blood in the Georgia dusk
Left by a streak of sun
A crimson trickle in the Georgia dusk
Whose Blood? …Everyone’s

Sometimes a wind in the Georgia dusk
Scatters hate like seed
To sprout its bitter barriers
Where the sunsets bleed

Celebrity Sighting
As I was looking for a seat in the general admission seating of the Dowling Studio, I spotted a sign that said "reserved for Joe Dowling."  Yes, the man for whom the theater was named, and Artistic Director of the Guthrie, was in the house!

*I received two complementary tickets to attend Are You Now or Have You Ever Been... as part of the Guthrie's "Blogger Night." 

Saturday, May 5, 2012

"The Glass Menagerie" at Yellow Tree Theatre

The Glass Menagerie is the final play in Yellow Tree Theatre's fourth season, and it's a great conclusion to an entertaining season. Written by one of the greatest American playwrights (and one of my favorites), Tennessee Williams, this play is a nice choice for Yellow Tree and fits their intimate style and space very well. The Wingfield family's dysfunctions feel very real and close as you sit just a few feet away from the action. The Glass Menagerie has long been one of my favorite plays. It's a self-described "memory play" in which one of the main characters, Tom, introduces and narrates the action, as well as taking part in it. He has several soliloquies, filled with such beautiful language: "Yes, I have tricks in my pockets, I have things up my sleeve. But I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion." Such is theater - truth in the disguise of illusion. Of all Williams' plays, this is the one that contains the most truths about his life and his past. Perhaps that's why it's so bittersweet.

A mother and her two adult children live in a small apartment in St. Louis in the late 1930s. Tom dutifully supports the family by working at a shoe factory, where he feels stifled and bored with life. Laura has a slight physical impairment that has caused her to become reclusive, wanting nothing more than to stay in the apartment, listen to records on the Victrola, and arrange her glass figurines, her menagerie. Their mother, Amanda, is constantly nagging her children - telling Tom how to chew his food and how to sit at the table, cajoling Laura into leaving the house to attend business school or entertain a "gentleman caller." She's a stereotypical fading Southern belle, who talks constantly of her glorious past and happy youth; she performs a memory play of her own for her children. She wants Laura to be as popular as she was, but Laura is nothing like her, and the time and place they live in is nothing like the one in which she came of age. The situation turns tragic as the gentleman caller experiment fails miserably, Tom leaves the family to find his fortune in the world, and Laura is left with her glass menagerie.

Tom (Jason Peterson) and his mother (Katherine Ferrand);
the looks say it all
Noted Twin Cities director Jon Cranney brings out the best in this fantastic four-person cast. Katherine Ferrand plays Amanda Wingfield, one of the greatest roles in American theater, and she knocks it out of the park. She's always talking, always fluttering about, telling endless stories, with lots of energy hiding a deep sense of desperation (like many of Williams' women). Katherine's sharp performance alone is worth the trip to Osseo! Yellow Tree Artistic Director Jason Peterson plays Tom, another great role. He speaks in memory-tinged melancholy as he narrates the scenes, with quietly controlled anger and restlessness in the scenes with his family. I was curious to see Carolyn Trapskin as Laura because her previous roles at Yellow Tree have been so crazy and over-the-top; this is a much more internal character than I've seen her play before, and she does it very well. Laura always breaks my heart, perhaps because I find myself relating to her, and this production is no exception. Finally, Josef Buchel is everything you want the gentleman caller to be - bright and charming, friendly and talkative with everyone he meets, but hiding an insecurity and uncertainty with life. Part of the tragedy is that Jim and Laura really do get along well, and she's able to open up to him somewhat, making them (and us) believe that things could have gone differently if the situation were different. But there are no happy endings with Tennessee Williams, only deep explorations of family, relationships, and societal bonds.

Laura (Carolyn Trapskin)
and her gentleman caller (Josef Buchel)
The stage at Yellow Tree is tiny, but they always seem to transform it into what's needed. This time the set (by Jeffrey Petersen) is a somewhat shabby but homey little apartment, with sloping wood floors and a small dining room separated by a curtain from the main living area, sparsely decorated with photos and mementos. I don't usually comment on (or notice) the lighting, but the candlelight scenes with Jim and Laura were beautifully done (lighting by Paola Rodriguez); it felt as if we were watching an intimate moment play out in the soft glow of candles.

Yellow Tree Theatre has recently announced their new season and it looks like another great one. I'm most excited to see Circle Mirror Transformation, a great character piece I saw at the Guthrie studio a few years ago which should be a great fit for Yellow Tree - intimate, funny, poignant, and full of awkward pauses and weird acting class exercises. And of course, nothing piques my interest like the words "new original musical," especially when the authors are one of my favorite local musicians, Blake Thomas, along with great Yellow Tree actors Mary Fox and Andy Frye. So if you missed out on this production (only two more performances, sorry for the late review), you have some great choices next season to visit Yellow Tree Theatre in charming Osseo, where good stories live.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

"Time Stands Still" at the Guthrie Theater

Walking into the proscenium theater at the Guthrie last night was impressive.  On the stage is a very lifelike Brooklyn apartment, complete with a view of Manhattan through the huge windows, with gently falling snow. I could live in this beautiful apartment, with it's brick walls and exposed beams, just a short train ride away from my favorite city. Just gawking at that set provides entertainment, but fortunately the drama that goes on within it is equally captivating. Time Stands Still, written by Donald Margulies, was nominated for a Tony for best play a few years ago.  (Incidentally, two of the four plays nominated this year will be produced by the Guthrie next season, Clybourne Park and Other Desert Cities, they know how to pick 'em!)  The story centers on a couple who are journalists that travel to war-torn countries to report on the tragedies they see - James through words, and Sarah through photographs.  They're forced to re-evaluate their lives, both as individuals and as a couple, when he suffers a mental breakdown and she is almost killed in a roadside bomb.  The result is an entertaining, complex, at times joyful, at times devastating, all-around engrossing look at the lives of four friends living in a complicated world.

I love plays with small casts, especially when they're this good (and directed by Guthrie Artistic Director Joe Dowling).  Bill McCallum and Sarah Agnew as James and Sarah create a very believable relationship; you can sense the level of comfort that comes from being together for nine years.  Just watching them watch each other throughout the action of the play is telling.  Yes they have issues, but they love and support each other.  The play begins as they return home after Sarah's six-week-long convalescence after her injury, James wanting to help and protect her as she struggles to regain her strength and independence.  They have very different reactions to what they've experienced.  James just wants to live a safe, comfortable, normal life, but Sarah is unwilling to give up her work, not knowing who she is without it.  Watching them come to this realization together is heart-breaking.  Like the play I saw a few days ago (the lovely Sea Marks at the Gremlin), these are two people who have to live in different worlds, despite their obvious and very real love for each other.  It reminded me of these words I had just read over dinner at the Level Five Cafe: "I wondered if the life that was right for one was ever right for two!"  (from My Antonia by Willa Cather, which I had to re-read after seeing Illusion Theater's beautiful adaptation a few months ago.)

In addition to this complex and interesting couple, the story also involves their good friend and editor Richard (Mark Benninghofen) and his pretty young girlfriend Mandy (Valeri Mudek), who turns out to be much more than a mid-life crisis.  James, Sarah, and Richard are jaded and world-weary because of the things they've seen in their work, but Mandy is naive and optimistic, choosing to focus on the joy in life, while the others are surrounded by pain.  She can't understand how James and Sarah can simply observe and report on the crises they see without helping.  But Sarah explains that she doesn't have the luxury of feeling, her job is to bear witness and show the world what's happening.

Time Stands Still is a fascinating look at the lives of war journalists, what they experience and what they sacrifice in order to bring truth to the world.  But it's also a very intimate story about four friends navigating life in this complicated world we live in, and figuring out how to live with each other while remaining true to who they are. There's not much action, just people sitting around a fabulous Brooklyn apartment talking.  I'd watch that any day, provided the words are this well-written and well-acted.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

"Sea Marks" at Gremlin Theatre

After seeing Sea Marks at the Gremlin Theatre, I had to listen to Glen Hansard on the way home, just to continue that distinctly Irish feeling of achingly beautiful pain mixed with joy that the play captures so well.  In fact I was surprised to find out that the playwright, Gardner McKay, is not Irish, but rather an American actor, artist, and writer.  I spent a week hiking around the Dingle Peninsula on the Southwest coast of Ireland several years ago, and this play brought me right back to that place.  It's a stark and beautiful land, with fierce winds, rugged cliffs, and great waves on the endless sea.  Colm, one of two characters in this play, grew up on an island referred to as "The Heads," along the western shore of Ireland.  He's rarely left the island in his lifetime, until he meets, corresponds with, and falls in love with a woman from Liverpool.  He moves there to be with her, but the call of the sea is too much to ignore.

Stacia Rice and Peter Christian Hansen (also the Artistic Director of the Gremlin) star as the unlikely lovers Timothea and Colm.  They're two of the best theater artists working in the Twin Cities today, and that's not just me speaking in hyperbole; they each have plenty of awards and accolades to prove it.  To watch them together in this intense, beautiful, sweet, awkward little dance of a play is a true pleasure.  Colm meets Timothea briefly when she visits the Heads for a relative's wedding.  During the long lonely winter, he remembers meeting her and writes her a letter.  She writes him back, despite not remembering him.  They correspond for over a year, until she returns to the island for another wedding and asks him to come back to Liverpool with her.  Timothea works in the publishing industry, and she's had segments of his poetic letters to her published as a book of sonnets.  As much as he tries to fit into her world, he never quite does.  They live in different worlds, and they can visit each other in those worlds for a time, but in the end they have to continue living their separate lives, joined only by beautiful words on the page.  This is a bittersweet love story.

In addition to the marvelous acting, the set and costumes help to create the sense of place and define who these characters are.  As seems to be usual at the Gremlin, the set (by Carl Schoenborn) makes interesting and effective use of the vertical as well as horizontal space.  Timothea's cozy multi-level apartment is on the left of the stage, and Colm's sparse little room by the sea is on the right, with an obvious difference between the two settings.  The simple costumes (by Becki Harris) help create a sense of character, from Timothea's 50s era dresses and working woman's outfits, to Colm's sea-worn clothing and Irish "jersey."  I also enjoyed the music.  Before the show a selection of Celtic music is heard, while at intermission it switches to the more modern music of the 50s, as the action of the play leaves the timeless Irish shore for the busy modern city of Liverpool.  And the accents, to my untrained ear, are fun to listen to and further define who these people are.

A beautifully written play performed by two great actors, a simple and effective set and costumes, and a story that transports you to another time and place for a few hours - it all adds up to a lovely experience at the theater.