Thursday, June 21, 2012

"Roman Holiday" at the Guthrie Theater

you can keep the diamond,
I'll take the Vespa!
Before last night, I thought that Xanadu at the Chanhassen Dinner Theatres was THE musical to see this summer. But after seeing Roman Holiday at the Guthrie, I have to amend that statment. There are two musicals you need to see this summer: Xanadu for the fun, campy, winking look at movie musicals, and Roman Holiday for a lush production of a good, old-fashioned musical.

As usual, I have never seen the classic movie on which this musical is based. This new musical written by Paul Blake incorporates songs of Cole Porter into the story of Princess Anne, who escapes her strict diplomatic schedule to spend a day touring the city of Rome with a gentleman she meets on the street. What she doesn't know is that he's a journalist who knows exactly who she is, and is planning to write a story on her. In the fairly predictable plot, they two fall in-love-for-a-day and he rethinks his plan. Even though this is a new musical, it feels like a classic, with gorgeous orchestrations of classic songs, big dance numbers, and a compelling romance. 

Francesca (Christina Baldwin) and her dancing boys
The Guthrie has assembled a fantastic cast of both local talent and imports from Broadway. The two leads fall into the latter category. Stephanie Rothenberg is absolutely delightful as the wide-eyed, enthusiastic Princess Anne. Edward Watts is perfect as the tall and dreamy Mr. Bradley. Both have beautiful voices. Another Broadway import, Jim Stanek, is charming as the third member of this friendship (and partner in Mr. Bradley's scheme). A few locals round out the principals, including the great Michelle Barber as Anne's aunt and confidante. And as I've said many times before, Christina Baldwin can do anything - from silly to serious and anything in between (did you catch her in the Moving Company's lovely Werther and Lotte?). Her Francesca is funny, flirty, and fabulous, singing and dancing with a bunch of boys.

Joe (Edward Watts) and
Anne (Stephanie Rothenberg)
in front of the Trevi Fountain
There's such great familiar talent in the ensemble that it was almost distracting. Instead of watching the main action, I was laughing at John Skelley as a mustachioed ice cream man, or marveling at the grace of Broadway vet (and local talent) Linda Talcott Lee, or watching Ann Michels dance with Tony Vierling, or recognizing Jared Oxborough beneath sideburns and a goatee. This cast has serious chops - singing, dancing, and making the background action almost as compelling as what's in the foreground.

As usual at the Guthrie, the production value is at the highest level possible. The costumes (by Matthew J. LeFebvre) are to die for, even ones that only appear on stage for a brief moment in the background. Gowns, hats, gloves, shoes, all gorgeous. The show also features amazing set construction (designed by Todd Rosenthal), with various pieces floating in and out from the sides, back and above. They've even recreated a portion of Rome's famed Trevi Fountain. Last but certainly not least, the orchestra sounds gorgeous. I should know, I was sitting almost directly behind the conductor, Andrew Cooke. This production truly is a feast for the eyes and ears!

Roman Holiday is playing in the Proscenim stage at the Guthrie from now until August 19. Check it out to see a Broadway-quality musical featuring lots of home-grown talent.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

"Noises Off" at the Jungle Theater

I've seen a lot of ridiculous shows lately (and I mean that in a good way) - Xanadu, Absolute Turkey, The War Within/All's Fair - and the Jungle Theater's Noises Off is another one. Not only is it a show within a show, it's a farce within a farce. Featuring a spectacular cast of favorites, intricately choreographed chaos, and over-the-top backstage drama, it makes for a very entertaining night at the theater.

Noises Off was written by English playwright Michael Frayn after watching one of his plays from backstage: "It was funnier from behind than in front and I thought that one day I must write a farce from behind." Six actors, one director, and two stagehands are putting on the fictional farce Nothing On. Act I shows us their final dress rehearsal, with the director watching from various parts of the audience. Act II is one month later, and the stage is turned around so that we get to see everything that happens backstage, while still hearing and catching glimpses of the onstage performance. It's a wild ride, and impossible to keep track of everything that's happening. Affairs, misunderstandings, drunkenness, tempter tantrums, and that's just backstage! Finally, in Act III the stage is turned around again and we get to see the performance, which has fallen apart. It's disastrous, painful, and hilarious.

the cast of Noises Off
as the cast and crew of Nothing On
I've never seen a playbill that has a second, fictional, playbill within it. We get to read about the cast of Nothing On, complete with bios. This fictional cast is temperamental, difficult, and possessing questionable levels of talent. Fortunately the real cast is nothing like them; they're all brilliant in their portrayal of these quirky characters. (Although to be fair, we don't know what's going on in the real backstage of the Jungle; I imagine that would be quite entertaining as well, but hopefully with less violence.) Cheryl Willis is the veteran actress and star of Nothing On, who mixes up her lines and has jealous affairs with her fellow actors. Ryan Nelson (a fave from Yellow Tree) is the actor who can't complete a sentence that's not written for him. Summer Hagen is the flighty blond whose exaggerated performance is exactly the same every time, even if everything around her changes and it no longer makes sense. The divine Bradley Greenwald, who has a seriously killer singing voice but who is equally good at playing silly, is the simple man who needs a motivation for everything his character does. Add to that the very funny E.J. Subkoviak as the exasperated director, the nimble Kimberly Richardson as the awkward stagehand, Neal Skoy as the other awkward and overworked stagehand, Stephen D'Ambrose as the revered and famous actor who's also a drunk, and last but not least, Kirby Bennett (whose Girl Friday Productions is producing a Tennessee Williams play I've never seen, Camino Real, next year), and you have one dynamite cast. Directing all this craziness is Joel Sass, who also designed the reversible set, both difficult tasks beautifully done!

If you've never visited the cozy Jungle Theater in the Lyndale/Lake area of Minneapolis, this is a good time to start. I've really enjoyed their season so far, and it looks like it's only going to get better with Waiting for Godot starring Nathan Keepers and Jim Lichtsheidl, and In the Next Room with a fabulous cast of women (and a few men). But don't wait for those shows, Noises Off is a very funny farce with a talented cast. Even though it's three acts long, you won't have any trouble staying awake for it with all the craziness going on in this fictional theater world. I've never thought about what actors do between their exits and entrances, but now I'll be imagining all kinds of crazy backstage shenanigans!

Saturday, June 16, 2012

"FELA!" at the Ordway Center

Everybody say "Yeah, Yeah!" So begins the experience that is the unique and completely original musical FELA! I saw the show on Broadway in 2010 (where it ran for just over a year, winning three Tony Awards of eleven nominations), and it was unlike anything I've ever seen on a Broadway stage - the music, the dancing, the costumes, "original no artificiality!" The show and much of the original cast is at the Ordway this week, and it's just as dynamic as when I saw it in NYC. FELA! is based on the music and life of Fela Kuti, a Nigerian musician and activist who became popular in the 1960s and 70s. He developed a style of music called Afrobeat, "a complex fusion of jazz, funk, Ghanaian/Nigerian High-life, psychedelic rock, and traditional West African chants and rhythms." I'm not sure what all of that means, but the combination is pretty awesome.

The musical is structured as one of Fela's concerts at his club in Lagos, Nigeria - the Afrika Shrine. Fela tells stories of his life, family, and country, and shares his music with the audience in an interactive way. The audience is part of the show, and the more they play along, the more fun everyone has. Be prepared to get on your feet and dance a little, but don't worry, if you can read a clock, you can follow along. :) But it's not all fun and easy. Fela talks about his travels to America, where he became inspired by the Black Power movement. Upon his return to Nigeria, he used his music to express his political views which were not popular with the government, resulting in the government raiding his compound, severely beating Fela and causing the death of his mother.

my autographed playbill from Broadway
January 29, 2010
Sahr Ngaujah (who was nominated for a Tony for playing this role on Broadway) completely embodies Fela Kuti and brings him to life before our eyes. There's no evidence of "acting;" he simply is this character. Telling stories, singing, playing the saxophone, dancing, leading the band, he never stops. There's a large band on stage and they are amazing. As interesting as Fela's life is, it's the music and dance that drive this show. The entire ensemble is comprised of talented dancer/athletes. Before the show I participated in the Ordway's Summer Dance Series (free dance lessons of a different style every Thursday through the summer) which this week was, appropriately, African dance. I was sweating and exhausted after 40 minutes of it, and it was nowhere near the complexity and difficulty of what the cast of FELA! does. I wish they would make a workout DVD; these dancers have the best abs I've ever seen! They're in incredible shape, and it's from doing that eight times a week. I recognized a few familiar faces among the ensemble; many of them were part of the original Broadway cast. And they'll have another chance on Broadway - the tour returns to NYC this summer.

The production makes good use of videos and photos projected onto the walls of the theater, as well as lighting that extends into the audience. Marina Draghici won a Tony for the costumes of FELA!, and deservedly so. They're a really cool mix of traditional African and 70s hippie style, and most importantly, they allow the dancers to move. The women wear fringed skirts that are never still, and the men wear 70s plaid pants and open (or no) shirts. Fela himself dresses in elaborate pastel pantsuits. Another Tony-winner from this show is Bill T. Jones for choreography. He also also co-created and co-wrote the show (with Jim Lewis), and directs the show (and he won a Tony for the choreography of Spring Awakening, so different but equally striking).

Words are not adequate to describe the music and dance of FELA!, so here's a look at their Tony Awards performance two years ago, featuring Sahr as Fela and much of the same cast that's currently in St. Paul. Only three performances remain before they pack up and head to NYC, so act fast!

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

What If Life Were More Like Theatre?

In his opening number at the 2012 Tony Awards, Neil Patrick Harris perfectly explained my feelings about theater, and why I write this blog. I often wish I could live my life sitting in a theater immersed in another world; real life seems so boring, messy, and frustrating in comparison. If only life were more like theater!

What if life were more like theatre?
What if everywhere you went you heard a band?
Wouldn't life be so much sweeter
if you could queue the weather with your hand?


And what if all your questions had rhyming answers
And you never left home without your back-up dancers?
What if life were more like theatre?
Wouldn't life be grand?

What if life were tightly written
And divided into nifty little scenes

AS: You're my whole world
NPH: The world's a pretty big place, Amanda.
AS: What's that suposed to mean?
NPH: It means I'm leaving you.
AS: No! Mamma mia!

And just as you spilttin'
Your apartment disappeared by unknown means
Thanks mysterious people in black clothing!

And what if no one thought that there was something strange
About a magical, seven-second costume change?
And then apropos of nothing
There were crazy dance routines!

What if everyone's diction were crisper
And secrets were told in a shouted whisper
And the only problems that mattered were your own

NPH: Hey, you guys wanna hear me sing about my problems?
NPH: I love my fake friends!

What if everyone took it for granted
That British umbrellas were all enchanted
You can hardly see the cables!
And your next-door neighbor was the legendary Patti LuPone

NPH: Hi, Patti!
PL: Hi, Neil!

What if life were more exciting
More dramatic, intriguing, intense?
If every moment were nail-biting
Filled with ever-mounting danger and suspense?

And then just when you were in the most precarious position
You would get a brief intermission


Act two!

What if all of your colleagues were hotties
With freakishly flexible bodies
And none of them needed to sleep or eat or pee?

DANCERS: We don't pee!

And if one day you feel kinda cruddy
You stay home and call your understudy

JTF: Yes, the role of him will now be played by me!
NPH: Actually, you know what? I'm feeling better now!
JTF: Are you sure? 'Cuz I can take the last verse.
NPH: No I'm good!
JTF: You just sound tired.
NPH: Go away- you threaten me!

What if life were more like theatre
With a simple motivation and a plot?
Don't we all wish life were neater?
But we know that in reality it's not

No, life is bleak and brutal and we carry from the cradle
The awarenes that it's futile and invariably fatal
We muddle without rest but through the sadness and confusion
We huddle at the cesspit of our sadness and delusion

ANNIE: Hold on. Hold on! Leapin' lizards, Mr. Patrick Harris! Don't be a downer- this is the Tony Awards! And remember, the sun will come out tomorrow!
NPH: Really? You know, you've got a point, little orphan know-it-all. But since you're not back on Broadway til next fall, why don't you go find your parents.

Big finish!
If life were more like theatre
Life wouldn't suck so much!
Life wouldn't suck so much!

Monday, June 11, 2012

"Gilligan's Island: The Musical" by Minneapolis Musical Theatre at Illusion Theater

I topped off my four-musical weekend (which also included the ridiculously fun Xanadu at the Chanhassen, the classic Bernstein musical Wonderful Town by Skylark Opera, and a reading of the new musical Heading East by Theater Mu and starring Tony-winner BD Wong) with  Minneapolis Musical Theatre's Gilligan's Island: The Musical. It was like the whipped cream on top of the ice cream sundae that was my weekend: light, airy, and fun, not a whole lot of substance but a pleasant ending to an incredible weekend. In addition to being a theater junkie, I'm also a TV junkie and grew up watching classic sitcoms like Gilligan's Island, so this show is right up my alley.

Gilligan's Island: The Musical is pretty much exactly what you would expect (which isn't surprising considering it was written by the creators of the TV show). The same seven castaways, the grass huts, the familiar outfits, the sitcom predicaments. Only with music! The cast is great; everyone is perfect for their roles and gamely jumps in with both feet. Ryan Levin is appropriately adorable as the well-meaning but not so smart Gilligan, and Ryan Grimes is very Skipper-like. Joe Hendron is perhaps my favorite character, the Professor, who has a solution for every problem, except how to get off the island. Rebecca Gebhart is the sweet Kansas farm girl, and Angela Fox is the sexy, slinky movie star Ginger. Finally, Marlin Rothe and Joyce Norman have the accents and attitudes down pat to play Mr. and Mrs. Howell.

I know I often complain about movie and TV show adaptations taking over Broadway, but this isn't Broadway. And this show doesn't try to be more than it is - a fun, nostalgic homage to a classic sitcom. If you loved watching Gilligan's Island, you'll love this show (playing now through June 24). Surprisingly, this is the first Minneapolis Musical Theatre production I've seen. For whatever reason I've never quite made it to any of their shows. Now that I've "discovered" them, I'll definitely be back!

the castaways

"Heading East" by Theater Mu at Dreamland Arts

On the afternoon of the day that the Tony Awards were presented in NYC, I had the privilege of watching Tony winner BD Wong in a reading of a musical called Heading East (first produced at East West Players in the 1990s, with music by Leon Ko, book and lyrics by Robert Lee, who was also in attendance), presented by Theater Mu and supported by a fabulous cast of local actors. I've never attended a workshop of a new work before (unless you count an early preview of Tony Kusher's An Intelligent Homosexual... at the Guthrie a few years ago, at a time when he was making daily changes to the script), so I was curious to see what it would be like. It was just like I pictured it – a dozen or so chairs with black music stands on a bare stage (at the lovely and intimate Dreamland Arts in St. Paul), where the actors sat, stood, sang, spoke, and mimed some action. The emotion and feeling of the piece was fully there, but with a very sparse production around it. Some stage directions were read aloud to help create a mental picture of the scene, and the work of the actors soon made me forget this was "just" a reading. I found it to be a really well-written, entertaining, and moving piece of musical theater that I hope continues to grow and find life.

Heading East tells the story of one man over the course of roughly 130 years, representing the life of the Chinese immigrant in that time. The time warp allows for many different topics and eras in Asian-American history to be covered, but as discussed in the post-show talkback, it's an issue that needs to be worked out so that it's a little easier for the audience (and not so distracting for linear thinkers like me). As a young man in mid 19th Century China, Siu Yee embraces new ideas and wants to help his parents by moving beyond the old ways. This eventually leads him to the "gold mountains" of California, where he develops a successful business. He takes a wife, raises a son, and becomes a citizen, all while experiencing over 100 years of Asian-American history. The show really about what it means to be an American. Most of us are descended from immigrants, and I found myself thinking of my own ancestors making the decision to leave home and family behind in search of a better life in America. Of course nothing is as good as it seems, there are struggles along the way, and there's a longing for home, as well as redefining what "home" means.

I really enjoyed the music. There are fun, catchy songs, beautiful duets and solos, and stirring ensemble numbers. (You can listen to the score here, from a 2010 concert.) The cast really did an amazing job; they've obviously been working hard on this little reading (click on the program above to see a list of performers). Everyone sounded fantastic (thanks to musical direction and piano accompaniment by Anita Ruth of BCT), and successfully conveyed the emotions of the characters. What a pool of talent we have here, it's no wonder the creators chose to work with Theater Mu on this project! Now about the star of the show: I've long been a fan of BD's TV work (especially as Father Ray, the moral center of the Oswald State Correctional Facility), so it was a thrill to see him act and sing on stage. His character is not always likable as he pursues success with little regard for anything else, but you begin to understand the man behind the ambition and the complexities of the character through BD's beautiful performance.

A post-show discussion was led by BD Wong, Robert Lee, and Mu Artistic Director Rick Shiomi. As usual, I'm fascinated by artists talking about their work, and there were many insightful comments from people more knowledgeable than I about the subject matter and the art form of musical theater. I really look forward to seeing the fully staged production next year (it will be part of Mu's 2013-2014 season) and seeing how it has changed. There's nothing I love more than new original musical theater, and I'm happy to support it wherever I can. And I'm thrilled and proud that a work like this is being produced here in Minnesota. After that, who knows? Personally, this is the kind of thing I'd love to see on Broadway instead of another movie adaptation or jukebox musical.

"Wonderful Town" by Skylark Opera at the E.M. Pearson Theatre

This is my second year attending Skylark Opera's summer festival, and I quite enjoy it. It introduces me to classical musicals that I've never seen (or in this case, heard of), which is a great thing for my continued musical theater education. Skylark follows last year's On the Town with another classic Bernstein/ Comden&Green collaboration - Wonderful Town. In addition to the similar names, both are traditional musicals set in New York City, with slightly dated stories but great music (you really can't go wrong with a Leonard Bernstein musical). This year's show features many of the same actors as last year, which in this case is a good thing. It's another well done production of an American classic.

Wonderful Town follows two sisters from Ohio as they move to NYC to pursue their dreams, one as an actor, the other as a writer. They rent a run-down studio apartment on Christopher Street in the West Village, where they meet many interesting characters. They encounter several obstacles to fulfilling their dreams, but this being a 1950s musical (the action takes place in 1935, but the musical was first produced in 1953), they eventually overcome and are successful in life and love. (As Neil Patrick Harris sang at the Tonys, wouldn't it be nice if life were more like theater!)

A few of my favorite things:

  • I'm afraid Sarah Gibson is being typecast as the 1940s tough broad after playing a similar role last year and this. But she's so great at it! Her Ruth is my kind of heroine - a tall, strong, independent, capable woman (who therefore knows "One Hundred Easy Ways" to lose a man).
  • Sarah Lawrence also returns from last year's festival, playing the pretty, perky, popular blond Eileen, who, unlike her sister, easily attracts men wherever she goes...
  • ... including the amusingly diverse trio of the newspaper man Bob (Gabriel Preisser, who sounds beautiful on "A Quiet Girl" and "It's Love"), the nerdy Frank (Paul R. Coate), and the slimy Chick (Riley McNutt).
  • The huge ensemble portrays lots of different characters in this colorful city, with several great ensemble dance numbers. I particularly loved the sharp, rhythmic, almost Fosse-like "Swing." (choreography by Penelope Freeh)
  • Fantastic period costumes! (designed by Lynn Farrington)
  • Last but not least, the fabulous score: clever, catchy, beautiful, silly. I only knew one song, the gorgeous duet performed by the sisters - "Why oh why oh why oh, why did I ever leave Ohio?" (Thanks to Sue Sylvester and her mother, Carol Burnett.) Oh how I love a great big pit orchestra sound!

Ruth (Sarah Gibson) and Bob (Gabriel Preisser)

If you're interested in classic musical theater and opera, be sure to check out Skylark Opera's summer festival, playing for one more week at the E.M. Pearson Theatre on the Concordia University campus in St. Paul. The festival also includes the opera Mlle. Modiste, which I don't plan to see because opera's not as much my thing, and I have a hard enough time seeing all of the musicals and plays I want to! (But you know what Stephen Sondheim says about the difference between opera and musical theater...)

Saturday, June 9, 2012

"Xanadu" at the Chanhassen Dinner Theatres

I was fortunate enough to be invited to Press Night* at the Chanhassen for the Midwest premiere of their summer musical, Xanadu, and I have to say, I think it's the most fun I've ever had at the theater! Xanadu is a parody of the 1980 Olivia Newton-John movie flop of the same name, and Douglas Carter Beane (who wrote the book of the show) has done a fantastic job of creating a clever, funny, silly, campy piece of theater that manages to make fun of itself at the same time that it celebrates creation and the arts. The Chanhassen always does a good job with their shows, but this is a really excellent production, the best I've seen there in years. The cast completely commits to the camp of the piece, as directed by Artistic Director Michael Brindisi, and that's what you have to do. There's no halfway with this show, you have to go all in or it doesn't work. And they do.

The plot of the show is an odd mix of Greek mythology and 80s references, with some 40s dance numbers thrown in. Sonny is a Venice Beach artist who has lost his inspiration, when Clio the muse (along with her sisters) steps out of a mural and disguises herself as the roller-skating legwarmer-wearing Australian-accented Kira to help him. Together, they fix up an old theater to open a roller disco, where music, art, dance, and athletics combine. Meanwhile, Kira's evil sister curses her to fall in love with the mortal, which is forbidden by their father Zeus, so she is exiled to the netherworld. Sonny follows Kira through the mural to Mount Olympus to declare his love for her. (Yes, I know, it's ridiculous, but just go with it!) Amidst all of this silliness is some clever commentary on the current state of musical theater (all of the muses left in 1980, leaving only poor cinematic adaptations, and the box that is juke), including an Andrew Lloyd Webber dig! This is a show that doesn't take itself too seriously; it's in on the joke.

Kira (Jodi Carmeli) and her sister muses
photo by Act One, Too Ltd
Jodi Carmeli as Kira is the star of this show. Totally immersed in the camp, she floats around the stage on her skates, speaking with an exaggerated Australian accent, and her gorgeous singing voice sounds uncannily like Oliva Newton-John at times. Dieter Bierbrauer (one of my faves) is an excellent choice to play Sonny. He also walks that fine line of camp and sincerity as the sweet but slightly stupid California artist dude (and he's a natural on roller stakes, methinks he's done this before). A silver-maned, big-voiced Keith Rice is great as always, playing a business man who once had a muse of his one. In a flashback, we see his younger self (the Gene Kelly-esque Mark King) singing, dancing, and being inspired by a muse who looks an awful lot like our Kira. The muses are all wonderful, especially Kersten Rodau, who totally hams it up as the evil muse, and Seri Johnson, as her slightly nerdy sidekick (and a second role that's equally hilarious). The two of them cackling and plotting together are a hoot! Finally, I was waiting the entire show to see Cat Brindisi (aka Wendla from Theater Latte Da's brilliant production of Spring Awakening), but she only appears briefly at the end. Still, it means that she hasn't moved back to New York City yet and is helping out with the family business this summer. Maybe we can keep her around a little longer.

Kira (Jodi Carmeli) inspires Sonny (Dieter Bierbrauer)
photo by Act One, Too Ltd
The set is pretty simple and the stage is considerably smaller due to the onstage seating. The costumes (by Rich Hamson) are super fun, ranging from drapey Greek gowns, to bad 80s cliches, to a centaur and Medusa! And you gotta love a musical that has both a choreographer and a skating coach. The music (by Jeff Lynne and John Farrar) is from the 1980 movie, so it has that great cheesy nostalgia (I just downloaded the soundtrack and will likely be singing along with it in the car with the top down all summer!).

Xanadu is the perfect summer show - light and fun, clever and silly, very refreshing and entertaining. There are limited seats available onstage, which on Press Night seemed to be reserved for local TV celebrities, including Don Shelby (aka the narrator of The Rocky Horror Show). So if you'd like to be part of the action, call the box office for details (but don't say I didn't warn you!). There are also participation kits available for purchase (ala The Rocky Horror Show), which include disco balls, glow sticks, and other assorted goodies. All of this, along with the great material and spot-on execution, makes for a ridiculously fun summer party at the theater. This is a fairly limited run for the Chanhassen, just four short summer months, so get out to the Southwest suburbs while you can!

the Xanadu "X-Box" participation kit, available for purchase 

*I received two complementary tickets to Xanadu, along with food and drinks (thanks to the official drink sponsor of the show, I now have a new favorite summer drink). But I loved the show so much that if I lived closer, I'd happily pay full price to see it again!

Monday, June 4, 2012

"An Absolute Turkey" at Gremlin Theatre

An Absolute Turkey is a hilarious farce of a play, complete with mistaken identities, physical comedy, a humming war, and campy over-the-top emotions. It’s quite a change from Gremlin Theatre’s last play, the quiet and lovely long distance romance Sea Marks, but a nice change that shows the versatility of the theater.

An Absolute Turkey is set in Paris sometime in the past. The plot is too complicated to even try to explain. Basically, it’s about a bunch of people trying to have affairs, or hiding affairs, or exposing affairs, or promising to have an affair if they catch their spouse having an affair, all while declaring their love or hate for each other in grand demonstrative ways.

The cast is strong from top to bottom, and is clearly having a blast playing together. Sara Richardson best captures the spirit of the piece in campy style, with her clear enunciation, exaggerated facial expressions, and over-sized gestures. She’s having great fun with this, and it’s great fun to watch her. Also fun to watch are Peter Christian Hansen (Artistic Director of the Gremlin) as the suave single man (who spends quite a bit of time rolling around on the floor) that the married women understandably plan to have an affair with if they ever catch their husbands cheating; Ryan Lindberg as the relentless womanizer hiding his many affairs from his wife; Katharine Moeller as the lusty Swiss woman in braids and a dirndl, come to Paris to find her lover; and Peter Ooley as her large and threatening husband. (They even throw in a little German, which is always fun for me.) The cast is very adept at the physical comedy of the piece, of which there is plenty.

Peter Christian Hansen and Sara Richardson,
with Peter Simmons in the background

The set is furnished with pretty period pieces, and plenty of space for the actors to move around in. And the period costumes (and hats!) are quite enjoyable to look at. There's really not a whole lot else to say about this one. This is one of those plays that’s just pure pleasure, no thinking or reflecting required, just sit back and enjoy the ride. It's a fun romp, very well executed, and well worth the time invested. (As usual, be sure to check out for half-price deals, I did!)

Sunday, June 3, 2012

"Standing on Ceremony: The Gay Marriage Plays" at New Century Theatre

Planning a wedding. Writing your vows. Pre-wedding jitters. Pressure from one’s parents to get married. The loss of a loved one. All of these things are associated with a common milestone in life – getting married. The one tiny difference in the series of short plays called Standing on Ceremony: The Gay Marriage Plays is that the couples living through these common experiences are same sex-couples. But the emotions conveyed in this funny, touching, and at times heart-breaking play are universal human emotions that everyone in the audience can related to, no matter their sexual orientation or marital status.

Standing on Ceremony: The Gay Marriage Plays began as a series of benefits in L.A., continued Off-Broadway last fall, and is now being produced in theaters across the country. Nine playwrights contributed to the work, and their collective body of work is impressive, including some plays I’ve seen recently: I Am My Own Wife (Doug Wright), Compleat Female Stage BeautyWhat’s the Word For (both Jeffrey Hatcher), reasons to be pretty (Neil LaBute). Wendy Knox of the innovative Frank Theatre directs six talented local actors who portray a variety of characters in the nine stories. In one a couple is writing their vows, and discovering that the traditional words don’t really apply. Another is in the airport on their way from L.A. to Iowa (of all places) for a hometown wedding and coming to terms with the gravity of what they’re about to do. A New York mother pressures her single gay son to find a husband, because all of her friends' gay kids are getting married now that it’s legal. A heterosexual couple amusingly deals with the possibility that the husband is gay and worry that their son may follow in his father’s footsteps. A crazy woman begins hearing voices in her head and feels that her traditional suburban lifestyle is being threatened. A man delivers a heart-wrenching eulogy for his partner of 40 years. And finally, a happy couple celebrate their union with all of their friends.

About that talented cast of six. Jim Lichtsheidl (recently seen in the delightful fairy tale Vasa Lisa with Ten Thousand Things) is always a delight to watch, especially when he gets to play several characters in one piece. Shanan Custer brings her very funny style to stories both serious and ridiculous (the aforementioned crazy woman, in a hilarious monologue). Shawn Hamilton (Ragtime and Avenue Q) and Aimee K Bryant (Hairspray at the Chan) unfortunately don’t get to sing, but they do play a hypocritical evangelical couple determined to stay together despite her husband’s indiscretions and scandals. Mark Rhein is the man whose wife tells him he has a “gay sense of humor,” and in the most moving vignette, talks about his 40-year love story. Last but not least, Laura B. Adams is strong and funny as the Jewish mother and a woman planning a wedding, something she never thought she'd do.

Mark Rhein and Jim Lichtsheidl

Standing on Ceremony: The Gay Marriage Plays is playing at the newest of the Hennepin theaters – the New Century Theatre in City Center in downtown Minneapolis. It’s the first time I’ve been there and I quite like the space, which includes little cocktail tables among the seats in the audience, reminiscent of Hennepin Stages (Hey City Theater) down the street. The plays are staged very simply staged, with a row of chairs on the stage and a few tables to the sides. The actors occasionally hold scripts; its more like a reading than a fully staged production.

I very much recommend this show (it runs for two more weekends). It’s an entertaining evening of theater that tells universal human stories, and it might get you thinking and talking about the subject of marriage equality. Which is something that we as Minnesotans need to think and talk about in light of the upcoming vote on the Marriage Amendment. For more information on that check out Minnesotans United for All Families.