Monday, August 27, 2012

"42nd Street" at Bloomington Civic Theatre

"Come on along and listen to the lullaby of Broadway."

"Come and meet those dancing feet, on the avenue I'm taking you too, 42nd Street."

"We're in the money, we're in the money, we've got a lot of what it takes to get along!"

Those are just a few lines from the classic musical 42nd Street, which I was surprised to learn first appeared on Broadway in 1980, having been adapted from the 1933 original movie musical. I've seen it twice before, on tour and at the Chanhassen, and what I remember most about it is wanting to tap-dance down the sidewalk to my car after the show. There's something about tap-dancing that's so infectious and invigorating; it makes me want to go sign up for the first tap-dancing class I can find, even though I've never worn tap shoes in my life! From the moment the curtain rises to reveal more than a dozen pairs of tap-dancing feet, to the rousing performance of the title song at the end of the show, Bloomington Civic Theatre's 42nd Street never loses that energy.

42nd Street is one of those great musicals about musicals, where the unknown becomes a star. Peggy Sawyer arrives from Allentown, PA, lands a role in the chorus of a new Broadway musical, and takes over the lead role when the veteran Dorothy Brock is injured. The show-within-a-show format allows for several musical numbers that have no bearing on the plot but are just fun to watch.

Highlights of the show include:

  • First and foremost, the amazing choreography by Michael Matthew Ferrell, who also directs. This show is all about the tap-dancing, and the choreography here meets that challenge - sharp and fast and thrilling.
  • A talented ensemble that very capably performs that intricate choreography.
  • Fabulous 1930s period costumes by Ed Gleeman.
  • One of my favorite things about BCT is the full orchestra that always sounds rich and beautiful under the direction of Anita Ruth. Yay for the pit orchestra!
  • Larissa Gritti is quite charming as our heroine Peggy, with a lovely voice and super fast feet.
  • Michael Fischetti, last seen as Colonel Pickering, again impresses as the famous and fearsome director who finds new life and love of the theater through his young star.
  • Last but not least - Bonnie Erickson as the veteran actor who passes the torch to Peggy, and the very funny team of Betti Battocletti and Steve Zehr as the writers of the show-within-a-show who also provide the comedy bits.
In the last year or so, I've learned that you can always count on Bloomington Civic Theatre for quality productions of classic musicals. Even if much of the cast is comprised of "amateurs" with day jobs, they obviously pour their hearts and souls into the theater every night. 42nd Street runs through September 16 - check it out if you love a classic musical.  Next up - a Sondheim show I've long been wanting to see, Sunday in the Park with George.

the cast of 42nd Street

Saturday, August 25, 2012

"Outside Providence" by Dark & Stormy Productions

If you're walking down 10th Street in downtown Minneapolis and you see some crazy people yelling out of a doorway, or perhaps you peek in the windows and see them yelling at each other while a bunch of people are sitting on chairs watching, don't be alarmed. It's just theater. I wouldn't blame you for not recognizing it as such - it's not like the theater you probably are familiar with. It's raw, real, and intimate, happening all around you in three separate locations in the space as the audience moves around to follow it. It really feels like eavesdropping on a conversation, which can be awkward because these are very intense, personal, heavy conversations! But it makes for some pretty amazing, unique theater.

Outside Providence* is comprised of three one-act plays by Edward Allan Baker. They are not related in terms of the same characters or storyline, but they are most definitely all connected in theme. All three deal with relationships (sisters, a married couple) among working-class people in Providence, Rhode Island (for those of you who, like me, know nothing about Rhode Island except that it's the smallest state, think South Boston). These people do not have easy lives or relationships. In Rosemary with Ginger, two sisters meet in their old neighborhood to enter their mother in a contest, bringing up issues of their past and present. Face Divided features a wife who loses herself in her small, closed-in life while her husband is off working and playing in a band (kind of like a poor, modern-day Betty Draper). Dolores again features two sisters, each with troubles of her own. These are desperate people who do desperate things, but continue to love and support each other. A note from the playwright explains it best: "A good dramatist puts misery on its feet and makes it entertaining, engaging an audience's interest so as to evoke empathy for those members of our species who are trapped - especially women."

the cast of Outside Providence
Four actors (Catherine Johnson Justice, Alayne Hopkins, Sara Marsh, and Ryan Lindberg) portray these complicated characters, and each gives an amazingly open, truthful, raw performance. In the fully-lit room, the actors are so close you can see the look in their eyes, and all you can see there is the desperation, hope, and everything in between that the character is feeling. It's pretty powerful stuff. The space is interesting and unique - an office on 10th Street in Minneapolis with windows looking out to the street where you can see passersby curiously looking in, adding to the feeling that this is happening right here in the real world, not on some distant stage.

This is the first production from Dark & Stormy Productions, a new theater company dedicated to creating theater to draw in a younger audience, specifically the 18-35 age group. I wouldn't know anything about the lack of theater geared toward that audience; I'm (slightly) outside of the target age group, and even when I was in that age group, I was still a theater geek who obviously had no problem finding theater that I wanted to see. But I'm all for anything that brings more people to the theater. This first attempt is definitely exciting, immediate, and entertaining, short and intense and to the point. Mission accomplished. (Outside Providence is playing now through September 15, all seats are pay what you can, more information can be found here.)

*I received one complementary ticket to Outside Providence.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

"Trick Boxing" by Sossy Mechanics at the Guthrie

The last production I saw at the Guthrie's Dowling Studio was a dance piece about swimming. And now - a dance piece about boxing*. Both shows feature the grace and dance-like movements found in sport. But Trick Boxing, by husband and wife duo Brian Sostek and Megan McClellan, aka Sossy Mechanics, is about more than just boxing. It's a delightful love story told through theater, dance, and puppets.

The storyteller guiding us through this little tale (set in the 1930s or 40s) is a gambler and boxing manager named Buck. He discovers a young immigrant who's fast on his feet and decides to turn him into a boxer and use him in a scheme. While training for his first match, Dancing Danny David wanders into a dancehall and meets Bella, the sister of a boxer previously used by Buck. She decides to help Danny get out from under Buck's thumb.

The two actor/dancers play about a dozen different characters in the story, with nothing more than a change of accent and body stance to distinguish them. Brian plays Buck, Danny, Bella's brother, a scary evil gambler, the bookie, and several other characters. He often is on stage alone, having conversations with himself, the movement and words of one character flowing seamlessly into the other. In perhaps the most amusing scenes of the play, the boxing matches are represented by puppets in a tiny ring, with Brian doing the play-by-play. And then there's the dancing. Whether it's Bella training her brother, or a demonstration of boxing moves, or Danny and Bella at the dancehall, it's truly a delight to see.

I've seen Brian and Megan dance once before, and I've seen Brian in several things as an actor, but I've never before witnessed the full extent of their talent. It's a true pleasure watching artists tell stories using their own unique gifts, and I love the Guthrie for supporting artists and helping them do what they do, while making it easily accessible to theater-goes. You should take advantage of that while you can and go see the show, playing now through September 2. While Swimming with My Mother made me want to go swimming, Trick Boxing makes me want to take swing dance lessons!

*I received one complementary ticket to Trick Boxing as part of the Guthrie's "Blogger Night."

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Fringe Festival 2012: Ash Land

Day: 5

Show: 16

Title: Ash Land

By: Transatlantic Love Affair

Created by: Diego Lopez

Location: Rarig Thrust

Summary: A very loose re-imagining of the classic Cinderella tale, in which our heroine is now a farmer's daughter somewhere in the plains of middle America in the last century. Ellie's beloved mother dies, leaving her and her father devastated and with a farm to care for in a drought. Ellie's aunt marries her father in order to help care for her and the farm, but decides to sell it. Ellie goes to the town banker's party to try to stop the sale, where she meets his kind and handsome son. And then, it begins to rain.

Highlights: I saw this show at the Sunday night "Audience Pick" encore performance, and I'm so grateful I had a chance to see it. I found it to be achingly beautiful. A steel guitar (played by Harper Zwicky) accompanies the action and sets the tone for the show (if there's an instrument more mournful than a steel guitar, I've never heard it). Transatlantic Love Affair (what a cool name for a theater company) does physical theater (see also Live Action Set), which means that the eight actors in the cast portray everything in the world they create, not just the characters. They are the waving wheat, the water pump, the pigs, the doors and windows, the car, and most delightfully - the rain. It's so playful and inventive, and reminds me of a phrase I often use to describe Ten Thousand Things - the power of collective imagination. With zero props or set pieces the cast (with the help of the music) is able to transport everyone in the room to a specific time and place. Of special note in the cast are Adelin Phelps as our heroine Ellie, Derek Lee Miller as her grief-stricken father, Isabel Nelson as her gone but not forgotten mother (you can just feel the love between them in this sweet little family), and Heather Bunch as the "evil" stepmother, who's just trying to get by like everyone else. This is the first show I've seen by Transatlantic Love Affair; I missed Ballad of the Pale Fisherman when it was at Illusion Theater earlier this year, but you can bet I won't make that mistake again when Illusion again hosts them for Red Resurrected early next year.

Friends, this one really touched me. And that's all I ask from theater - to move me in some way, whether it's to laughter or tears, or a different way of thinking about something, or a different way of seeing something. To leave the theater knowing that I'm different than when I walked in, that I've been forever changed (in some small way) by what I've seen. That's what this show did for me. What a wonderful way to end an amazing Fringe Festival.

Read more of my fringe fest reflections...

Fringe Festival 2012: Last of the Red Hot Flops

Day: 5

Show: 15

Title: Last of the Red Hot Flops

By: Deadbeats Theater

Created by: Britt Aamodt

Location: Gremlin Theatre

Summary: The Victoria Cafe Theatre in St. Paul is about to close down at the end of Prohibition, when a buyer comes into the picture. The performers and staff have to put on the show of their lives to make the sale go through.

Highlights: This is a light, fun show, if a bit loose in plot and inconclusive in the ending (did they save the theater or not?). It's over-the-top in a radio play kind of way. Alice Barry looks and sounds great as the star singer Minnie Hale, Mike Stapp provides some humorous moments as the janitor and reluctant performer Moe, and Michael Fischbein is sweet as Minnie's lovestruck soda jerk suitor. Deadbeats Theater is keeping alive a lost art, radio plays, and as a big fan of A Prairie Home Companion, I approve!

Read more of my fringe fest reflections...

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Fringe Festival 2012: Silence

Day: 4

Show: 14

Title: Silence

By: Yellow Bird Productions

Written by: Jay'd Hagberg

Location: Rarig Proscenium

Summary: A traditional musical with an interesting twist that I've never before seen on stage. It's your typical boy meets girl, boy gets girl, boy loses girl story. But the twist is that the girl is deaf, while the boy is not. The cast is a combination of deaf and hearing, and every character has an interpreter, either to sign or to speak for them. Abby is an aspiring dancer, Mark an aspiring musician, and they find a connection despite their differences.

Highlights: The music is great in a pop/musical theater sort of way, the dancing is lovely, the large cast is talented in singing, acting, and signing, but the beautiful thing about this piece is that it'll make you rethink what music is. It's not just something that you hear (the composer, Jay'd Hagberg, and several members of the cast are deaf). It's also something that you feel, both physically in your body (think heavy drumbeats or bass), and also somewhere deeper, in your spirit or soul. That's what comes through so powerfully in the story of Abby, a young deaf woman who defies the odds to become a dancer, and falls in love with Mark, who is not deaf nor does he know ASL. Canae Weiss, who plays Abby, is also deaf, and is a beautiful and expressive dancer and actor. When Abby "sings" a song, she expresses the song through her face, body, and signs, while an interpreter sings the words. It's a device that works really well. What doesn't work as well is the ending; it felt a little too easy, a little too rushed (at about 40 minutes, this was one of the shorter shows I've seen). We only saw the beginning and end of Abby and Mark's relationship, but not much of the middle. I hope the creators and cast continue to work on the piece and flesh out the middle of the story. This is a great seed of what could be a really lovely and powerful piece of theater, and I look forward to seeing it.

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Fringe Festival 2012: The Music Box

Day: 4

Show: 13

Title: The Music Box

By: Graber and Napolitano Productions

Created by: Elliot David Graber

Location: Rarig Thrust

Summary: Set in 1929 St. Louis, a young writer takes a job with a newspaper to pay the bills, but never forgets about the book that he's written based on stories his beloved grandfather told him as a child. His favorite story is the one about the poet and the prince, and he dreams of the day when he falls in love. So of course, he falls in love with his boss's fiance, a spirited young woman who's not sure she wants to give up her life to move to New York and settle down with the stable, steady man.

Highlights: I feel like I should have loved this show more than I did. All the pieces are there - beautiful original music in the classic musical theater style, appealing performances by the leads, gorgeous costumes, elaborate sets (for the Fringe), even the clever program made to look like a newspaper from 1929 passed out by boys in period Newsies costumes. This is likely to be the most professional-looking show you'll see at the Fringe (check out the beautiful postcard on the left). But I just didn't connect with it as much as I did some other shows I've seen this week. Perhaps it was a little too cliche, perhaps it was too ambitious (see: frequent set changes that went smoothly but perhaps pushed the running time to the one-hour limit). But if you're a musical theater fan, it's still worth seeing for the gorgeous music and production. Libby Anderson gives a great performance as our heroine Zoey and makes you want things to work out for her. She and Jordon Oxborough (could he be Jared's little brother?) make beautiful music together. This show might work better if it were fleshed out into a full production, giving the characters and relationships more room to grow and develop.

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Fringe Festival 2012: Rip

Day: 4

Show: 12

Title: Rip

By: Dovetail Theatre Company

Created by: David Darrow and Kara Davidson

Location: Theatre Garage

Summary: Based on the short story "Rip Van Winkle" by Washington Irving, Rip is a retelling of the classic American folk tale with new original music drawing from American folk and rock music. In this version of the story, Rip is a working man in the 1950s who decides to quit his unfulfilling job in the hopes of seeing the world. But his wife is not on board with this plan, as they have many children to support. Rip goes into the woods with his trusty dog, falls asleep, dreams of meeting the explorer Henry Hudson and his crew, and then wakes up to find himself old and the world changed.

Highlights: The story is a classic and wonderfully retold by playwright Kara Davidson, who's also adorable as the tail-wagging enthusiastic dog. Billy Balmer gives a great performance as the title character, an unfulfilled working man who longs for more. When he wakes from his dream, there's no outward change in terms of clothing or the traditional beard, but you can tell that Rip has aged years just in the way Billy slowly and painfully moves his body. But the most memorable part of the show for me is the fantastic music, composed by David Darrow (who also puts on an English accent to play Hudson). It has that great folky Americana sound that I love, with a bit of rock thrown in as well (a rock song about the Northwest Passage? Strange but brilliant). If there were a soundtrack available, I would have already bought it and been obsessively listening to it for the past few days. In the unlikely event that this acting thing doesn't work out for David, he can always fall back on a career as a singer/songwriter/guitar player. I'll be the first in line to buy his debut album. But back to the show - Rip is not a traditional musical in the sense that characters don't break out into song in the middle of a scene. Rather, it's a series of spoken scenes alternating with musical interludes that are quite separate from the main action, but further explore the idea of the scene. The awesome band is made up of David and the curly-haired brothers (I assume) Ben and Jonas Yela, who play a variety of acoustic and electric guitars, mandolin, percussion, and trumpet. The actors occasionally step out of the scene to join the band in a song. The one fault of the show is that I wanted to see more. The show ends when Rip wakes up, but I wanted to see what happened next. This really feels like Act I, and I humbly suggest that the creators write and present Act II at next year's Fringe, to be followed by an eventual production of the piece as a whole - with a soundtrack available for purchase, thank you!

Read more of my fringe fest reflections...

Friday, August 10, 2012

Fringe Festival 2012: Answered Prayers

Day: 3

Show: 11

Title: Answered Prayers

By: Nautilus Music-Theater

Created by: Robert Elhai and Jim Payne

Location: Rarig Xperimental

Summary: A musical adaptation of several of the short stories in the collection Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson, Answered Prayers completes the trilogy which also includes last year's Twisted Apples (my favorite show of Fringe 2011) and Untold Lies from 2010 (which I unfortunately did not see). This year's installment introduces us to some new characters in the small town - a teacher who left Winesburg to see the world and has since returned, and therefore is viewed as a bit strange by the townspeople who never left, and the pastor of the town church, who is fascinated by this strange woman to the point of thinking that he's found God in her. The common thread with last year's piece is George Willard, a young writer whose job at the newspaper allows him the opportunity to know many of the townspeople.

Highlights: Like last year's show, the music is beautiful, expansive, and expressive (libretto by Jim Payne and music by Robert Elhai), and wonderfully performed by the two-person band and three-person cast. Norah Long and Joshua Hinck return from last year's Twisted Apples. Joshua reprises his role as George and shows us more depth to the character. Norah, who last year played George's withering mother, brings a different energy to this much different character - a woman who's seen the world and returned to the small town of her birth to find it lacking. They are joined this year by JP Fitzgibbons (performing with laryngitis!) in a powerful performance as the pastor. I wanted to know more about these characters (I'm currently reading the book so hopefully I will), and I look forward to all three acts being performed as a full production. While I was more taken by last year's show and the compelling story of George's mother and their relationship, Answered Prayers adds more layers to life in this small town. I'm curious to see how all the pieces will fit together and the story they will tell as a whole.

Tip: The show sold out the night I was there (the Xperimental seems to be one of the smaller houses), so it might be wise to buy your ticket in advance if you're going to the last remaining show on Sunday at 4.

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Fringe Festival 2012: A Comedy of Edits

Day: 3

Show: 10

Title: A Comedy of Edits

By: Callahan and Lingo

Written by: Allegra Lingo

Location: Rarig Arena

Summary: In a sort of play-within-a-play, what starts off as two writers in a storytelling competition becomes the performance of one writer's play about the process of writing. She's suffering from writer's block, and through a discussion/debate with her friend, is able to find her voice again.

Highlights: A lot of Fringe shows are sort of low-brow, silly humor (not that there's anything wrong with that), but this is not one of those shows. It's refreshingly intelligent and will keep your mind spinning as you try to keep up with the debate. Allegra is a Fringe regular, but this is my first time seeing her work. She's a wonderful writer, and Taylor ably and adorably shares those words with the audience as he spars with her.

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Fringe Festival 2012: Nightmare without Pants

Day: 3

Show: 9

Title: Nightmare without Pants

By: Joking Envelope

Written by: Joseph Scrimshaw

Location: Rarig Thrust

Summary: A man from the ATF (the Bureau of Alcohol, Taxes, and Feet) has come to confront someone who did their taxes wrong. A woman comes forward out of the audience, and is told that in order to avoid punishment by an evil pony, she must fall in love in the next 45 minutes. After scouring the audience for a possible target, a man volunteers, and much mayhem ensues. Oh, and no one is wearing pants.

Highlights: Did the summary make sense to you? No matter, it's a wonderfully silly premise that leads to a hilarious exploration of memories, relationships, life, and happiness. Playwright Joseph Scrimshaw (of the theater company Joking Envelope) also stars as the ATF man who leads us through this adventure (beware of the first row, you might get picked on). The hilarious Shanan Custer plays our main character who tries to fall in love but is just too practical. Rounding out the fabulous cast are John Riedlinger as the "happiness counselor," John Middleton as "beer can mouth man," and Anna Sundberg as the enthusiastic and perky waitress. I laughed through the entire show and then was surprised by the almost poignant ending. "Oh life (hey life), why are you so unfair? You're full of stupid things, like school and boys and hair." Very profound question, and a sweet ending to a salty show.

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Thursday, August 9, 2012

"Chicago" at the Ordway Center

I love a Kander and Ebb musical. Great songs that are endlessly singable (and danceable), a fun and entertaining show, and social commentary on some issue that always seems relevant, no matter how long ago the show was written. In this case, Chicago, now on tour at the Ordway in St. Paul, first appeared on Broadway in 1975, but its commentary on our celebrity and violence obsessed culture has only become more true in the 35 years since it opened. Maybe that's why the 1996 revival is more successful than the original; it's still running on Broadway and is one of the longest running shows in history. I've seen the show four times now, and it's always great. While there's nothing new or different about this touring production (it's the same Broadway revival production that's been touring for years), the cast is fantastic and the show is, as always, spectacular.

Chicago takes place in the 1920s and features two women who are in prison awaiting trial for murder. They are, of course, celebrities, and they use that celebrity to their advantage in the courtroom. America loves a true crime story and a public trial, something that was equally true in the '20s when newspapers were the form of media, and today with the prevalence of "Court TV." Roxie and Velma compete for the spotlight and for the attention of their lawyer Billy Flynn, who will defend anyone for 5000 dollars. In the end they realize that joining forces will get them further than competing with each other, as they take their act to Vaudeville.

I'm not a fan of stunt casting (i.e., casting a big name TV star to sell more tickets, something that long-running shows like Chicago fall victim to), so I was a little leery of "starring John O'Hurley as Billy Flynn." (You know John O'Hurley - J. Peterman from Seinfeld.) But he quickly won me over. We know from Seinfeld he's a great comedic actor, but he's also a "self-taught pianist and classically trained vocalist." Combine those two parts and he's an excellent Billy Flynn, the loveable razzle-dazzler. But of course, the women are the star of this show. Terra C. MacLeod is the perfect Velma, the more experienced and jaded murderess, and Tracy Shayne is also great as the ingenue murderess Roxie, who soon learns how to work the system. Both women have played their roles on Broadway, and their experience and comfort with their characters shows. Ron Orbach also has a long history playing Roxie's nebbish husband Amos, and is delightful especially in his big number "Mr. Cellophane." I saw an understudy for Mama Morton, Kecia Lewis-Evans, and she's great with an amazing range. R. Lowe also deserves a mention as the reporter who isn't quite what she seems - an incredibly voice played for laughs, even moreso when her true nature is revealed (and no it's not Rob Lowe). All of the women and men in the ensemble are fantastic, and beautifully and crisply perform the Fosse-inspired choreography.

If you've never seen Chicago, this is your chance to see a musical theater classic that's deservedly one of the most popular shows on Broadway. If you have seen it before, this is a great production of a show that's worth seeing again if you've got the time and money. (Helping you out on the latter point is Goldstar - half-price tickets still available!) Chicago, in typical Kander and Ebb style, will entertain you with music, dance, and characters, so that you might not even realize they're making an interesting and relevant point about the society we still live in (see also Cabaret and The Scottsboro Boys).

Monday, August 6, 2012

Fringe Festival 2012: The Unamazing Nonadventure of the Underachiever

Day: 2

Show: 8

Title: The Unamazing Nonadventure of the Underachiever

By: Greg Nesbitt

Created by: Greg Nesbitt

Location: Theatre in the Round

Summary: Two aliens land on earth to find power for their spacecraft and themselves. Here on earth, everyone has been turned into a superhero with their biggest talent being turned into their superpower (the bartender knows everyone's drink orders before they order it, the reporter knows where stories will be before they happen). The aliens feed off of ego, and when they meet a group of ego-less underachievers, they've finally met their match.

Highlights: I have to be honest - this is a weird one. It's not the type of show I would normally choose to see, but I went to see a friend of a friend. There are some funny moments, and also some perplexing moments. Laura Mahler gives an enthusiastic performance as Daddy Issues Gal, and Jo Mary as the alien Ultimate Supreme Commander is kinda fabulous in her thigh-high leather platform boots and purple spandex. If you're looking for something a little bit odd and slightly off, this might be the show for you!

Read more of my fringe fest reflections...

Fringe Festival 2012: Fruit Fly: The Musical

Day: 2

Show: 7

Title: Fruit Fly: The Musical

By: The Jansonowicz Players

Created by: Sheena Janson, Max Wojtanowicz, Michael Gruber, and Nikki Swoboda

Location: Rarig Arena

Summary: An original and auto-biographical musical about the lifelong friendship between a gay man and a straight woman. The show starts out in the present ("it's the opening night of our musical!"), and Max and Sheena reminisce about meeting as children and flashback to several important moments in their friendship. Through it all, they're always together, singing.

Highlights: My favorite Fringe show of my second day attending the festival is this adorable little musical (my favorite from Day One also featured Max Wojtanowicz, coincidence?). I've seen Max and Sheena separately in several shows over the last year or so (Sheena had just done her last show as the Baker's Wife in Into the Woods that very afternoon), and I very much enjoy both of them. So I was delighted to find out that they're friends in real life who have written a musical together about their friendship. And now I love them even more! Their performances are very natural and heart-felt; their love and respect for (and sometimes annoyance with) each other really shines through. It's a beautiful thing to tell the story of your life so openly and truly, and in song is even better! And the songs are really quite good, very catchy and fun with some great harmonies (music and additional lyrics by Michael Gruber). This is totally my kind of show, and if you also like sweet, funny, touching, and heart-warming musicals, this is one show you have to see.

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Fringe Festival 2012: An Agony of Fools

Day: 2

Show: 6

Title: An Agony of Fools

By: Ben San Del

Written by: Ben San Del

Location: The Southern Theater

Summary: A stand-up comedy routine from the playwright of last year's Fringe favorite Minnesota Middle Finger.

Highlights: I went to see this show for something different (I don't see much stand-up, except for Louie), and because I really enjoyed Minnesota Middle Finger at last year's Fringe. Since I'm not an expert on stand-up I don't really have much to compare this to, but I found Ben to be very funny, relatable (even if I did come out on the wrong side of the morning vs. night person and cat vs. dog person jokes), and likeable. So if you're looking for a few good laughs, this show is a good choice. And for me, that's what the Fringe is for - seeing some things you don't normally see.

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Fringe Festival 2012: The Hungry Games: Mocking the Mockingjay

Day: 2

Show: 5

Title: The Hungry Games: Mocking the Mockingjay

By: Tom Reed

Created by: Tom Reed

Location: Theatre in the Round

Summary: A one-man comedy/musical spoof of The Hunger Games books and movie, and the hoopla surrounding it.

Highlights: Watching Tom tell the entire saga and play all the characters is pretty entertaining, although probably moreso if you're familiar with the source material, which I am not (and now I'll have a slightly skewed perspective when I do finally get around to reading the books!). He also expresses himself (as the various characters) in song, with Brian Allen accompanying on keyboard as well as providing a soundtrack to the story. Tom does a great job of using the entire space at Theatre in the Round and engaging the audience; at one point he asks the audience to shout out things which he incorporates into the show. While I did not enjoy this show as much as last year's Disney princess-themed spoof, I still find Tom to be a unique talent - he's funny, can make things up on the spot (go see his alter ego Lougeasaurus Rex host Sample Night Live on some first Wednesday of the month), and he has a really great voice (see Mixed Blood's Avenue Q).

Read more of my fringe fest reflections...

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Fringe Festival 2012: Candide

Day: 1

Show: 4

Title: Candide

By: Four Humors Theater

Written by: Nick Ryan

Location: Rarig Thrust

Summary: A fast-paced and farcical adaptation of the 18th Century novel Candide by Voltaire. The title of each scene is announced before it begins as quick changes occur during blackouts, and as the play progresses, the scenes get shorter, faster, and more absurd.

Highlights: I'm not familiar with the source material, and I have to admit, I wasn't quite sure what to make of this one at first. But once I realized that it's a farce, and let go of any attempts at logic or rationality, it grew on me and I quite enjoyed it. It's worth seeing this show for the cast alone; Anna Hickey, Matt Spring, Ryan Lear, and Christian Bardin create many wacky and memorable characters throughout the short play (I particularly loved Christian Bardin's silly, funny, and poignant little song as the old woman who's seen too much in her life). Brant Miller is the one constant as the affable title character. It's an absurd, funny, entertaining romp.

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Fringe Festival 2012: Joe Dowling's William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet on the Moon, Featuring Kate Mulgrew as Lady Capulet

Day: 1

Show: 3

Title: Joe Dowling's William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet on the Moon, Featuring Kate Mulgrew as Lady Capulet

By: The Peanut Butter Factory

Written by: Christopher Kehoe

Location: Theatre in the Round

Summary: In this play-within-a-play, a renowned local theater is doing a completely ridiculous version of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, set on the moon with the Capulets as aliens, the Montagues as humans, and the Friar as a robot, complete with stunt casting (for those non-Trekkie's like myself, Kate Mulgrew played Captain Janeway on Star Trek: Voyager). Five audience members give us their varying opinions and experiences with the play - a critic, a Star Trek fangirl, an understudy, a professor, and man who's attending the play with a woman who is not his wife.

Highlights: This is by far the best of the four shows I saw on my first day at the Fringe. First, the brilliant writing by Christopher Kehoe (who's also hilarious as the pretentious theater critic), in which he very successfully weaves together certain pivotal scenes from Romeo and Juliet with the commentators critiques. He also uses the actors' real names and backgrounds as fodder for the satire (e.g., Alex Brightwell really did recently graduate from the U of M/Guthrie BFA program, Max Wojtanowicz really did appear in the Children's Theater's "Ivey-Award-winning" production of Romeo and Juliet). This play pokes fun at just about everything about this sort of big budget spectacle theater, but in a good-hearted way (see the lovely note below about the real Joe Dowling, Artistic Director of the Guthrie Theater). It also illustrates that everyone's experience with theater, or any art form, is different, depending on what we bring to the theater that day. Whether it's "I have to pee," or our education and past experiences, or the person we're sitting next to, it all affects what we get out of the show. What is seen as crap and a waste of time to most of the audience turns out to be, for one man, what "saved my life." And that's the beauty of art. I have to mention the cast that is all-around fantastic (even the robot!), from the play-within-a-play actors who manage to give such convincing, if slightly over-the-top, performances of this classic play seemingly oblivious to the craziness going on around them that I almost wish I could see the entire fictional production, to the five outsiders who lets us see the play through their eyes, especially Dawn Brodey as the professor who lectures her students about the obvious (to her) misogyny of the piece. This is the second play produced by The Peanut Butter Factory (a producing company, not a theater company) and directed by Natalie Novaceck that I've loved (see also Gruesome Playground Injuries), and it makes me excited to see what they'll do next.

Tip: If you go to see this show (and you should), you might want to consider buying tickets in advance. I went to the first performance and it was almost sold out. This show clearly had a lot of pre-show buzz, which is only going to increase as people see it.

Read more of my fringe fest reflections...

a note from the playwright about the play's namesake
(click on image for a larger view)

Fringe Festival 2012: Lily

Day: 1

Show: 2

Title: Lily

By: The Algebra Theater

Written by: Becka Linder

Location: Theatre in the Round

Summary: A high school math teacher who once dreamed of becoming an actor, and maybe still does, returns home to Minnesota after living in California. She's struggling in her life, and keeps thinking back to her class in California, and one particular girl she can't stop seeing.

Highlights: Becka Linder is compelling and appropriately frenetic as the coffee-drinking teacher ("call me Ruthie"), and she also wrote and directed the piece, based on her real life experiences as a math teacher and an actor. She's also cast some of her real students as the students, and they're all wonderful, particularly Abby Maas as the title character. No sign of "acting," just kids being kids. The ending was a little lacking in resolution, especially in Ruthie's relationship with her husband, but worth seeing for the performances by adults and kids alike. And how can I not love a play with references to both local theater ("look, it's Mo Perry*!") and math (the Fibonacci sequence and the Golden Ratio).

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*Ironically, I found myself standing in line for my next show in front of Mo Perry. No I did not say "look, it's Mo Perry!" because someone beat me to it. A gentleman was talking to her about how much he loves her work, even though he couldn't quite remember what he'd seen her in recently. "Were you in An Ideal Husband?"  "No." Finally he asked what she was last in - "Crashing the Party at Mixed Blood."  "No, that's not it." An example of life imitates art imitates life. (I think he was thinking of Dangerous Liaisons.)

Fringe Festival 2012: All's Fair

Day: 1

Show: 1

Title: All's Fair

By: Synapse Theater

Written by: Gregory Giles

Location: Rarig Xperimental

Summary: A woman is dealing with the grief of losing her husband, and returns to the carnival where they met as teenagers 35 years ago, and to which they have been returning every year since. Now that her love is gone, she doesn't even know what love is, or what it was that she felt. She tries to recover that feeling through remembering the past (we see the young lovers in a series of flashbacks) and conversing with the spirit of her husband.

Highlights: All's Fair is a sweet love story (it reminds me a little of the Ann Reed song "Love at the Fair") that also explores the idea of memory and how it might play tricks on us. The current and past versions of the characters often appear onstage together (see Sondheim's Follies), which is interesting and effective in seeing how they've grown and changed. Anya Fetcher and Richard Weber are charming and awkward and sweet as the young lovers, and Karen Jensen is an appealing guide through the story.

Read more of my fringe fest reflections...

Saturday, August 4, 2012

"Into the Woods" by Mu Performing Arts at Park Square Theatre

"Witches can be right, giants can be good. You decide what's right, you decide what's good."

After seeing the Stephen Sondheim musical Into the Woods for the second time (the first being last year's production at BCT), I have an even greater appreciation of the cleverness of the piece. I love how it turns fairy tales on their heads and explores what happens on the other side of the "happily ever after." Does Cinderella get bored living the pampered life in the palace? Can you really get away with killing a giant without repercussions? Things are not always as straight-forward as they seem. In addition to the clever intertwining and re-imagining of fairy tales, the music is of course brilliant. Smart, fast, funny lyrics combined with unexpected and interesting melodies that sometimes don't fall easily on the ear, but that's what makes it so uniquely, brilliantly, Sondheim*. But something unique about Mu Performing Arts' production of Into the Woods is that director (and soon to be retiring Artistic Director) Rick Shiomi has "set the piece in the woods of Asia rather than those of fairy-tale Europe. Several of the classic western tales featured in this musical have equivalent stories in Asian cultures." And the shift works beautifully, shedding a slightly different light on these archetypal stories that are common among many diverse cultures, attempting to make sense of our shared human experience. And it's also a whole lot of fun.

Here are a few highlights in the all-around fantastic production:
  • This is an intricate score and, I imagine, not an easy one to pull off successfully. But under the direction of Denise Prosek it sounds amazing, beautifully performed by the singers and the five-piece band that sounds bigger than it is.
  • Randy Reyes and Sheena Jansen as the Baker and his Wife are the heart of the piece, and have a wonderful easy chemistry together. They both do a wonderful job filling in the little in between moments, such as when they frequently have to pause their dialogue to wait for the laughter to die down.
  • Maxwell Chonk Thao and Suzie Juul are both adorable as the sweet but stupid Jack (and the Beanstalk) and the bubbly and willful Little Red Riding Hood.
  • Alex Galick and Eric Sharp are appropriately melodramatic as the princes who enjoy being in "Agony" over the women they love, and for whom the thrill is in the chase (and kudos to Eric for also playing the dastardly wolf).
  • Sarah Ochs plays Cinderella with a little more depth and spirit than in the traditional story, and beautifully sings the touching ballad "No One Is Alone."
  • Last but not least, Katie Bradley is entertaining as the evil ugly old witch who transforms into a young and beautiful (but powerless) witch, and also has a poignant moment in "Children Will Listen."
  • A really effective addition to the piece is the use of two Kurogos (played by Kim Egan and Bri Heu), traditional Japanese stagehands dressed in black who move set pieces and provide sound effects (such as a crying baby or a mooing cow).
The bad news is that the show closes this weekend, so only two performances remain, but it's well worth the effort if you can make it. I've really come to love Mu's slightly non-traditional take on traditional musicals (see also Little Shop of Horrors), which allows me to see them in a whole new light. I'm looking forward to the announcement of next summer's show! (In the meantime, you can catch Mu's awesome taiko drumming ensemble, Mu Daiko, at the Fringe Festival.)

the cast of Into the Woods

*For more Sondheim, see Theater Latte Da's Company at the Ordway McKnight Theatre and Sunday in the Park with George at Bloomington Civic Theatre, both opening in October.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

"Latte Da in the Park" by Theater Latte Da at Plymouth Park

Harry Houdini, Cinderella, Moritz Stiefel, Little Inez, and Judy Garland gather in a park to sing showtunes. No, that's not the beginning of a bad joke, it's Theater Latte Da's annual summer park concert. This show is always my favorite summer outdoor event, and since I missed the show at Lake Harriet this year, I attended the show in Plymouth earlier this week. It's a much smaller venue than Lake Harriet, but just as lovely, especially since the oppressive heat of this summer abated enough to make it quite comfortable to sit outside and listen to some music: a selection of showtunes, pop songs, standards, and a sneak peek of Theater Latte Da's upcoming 2012-2013 season, which looks to be as outstanding as last season was (the year of youth: Spelling Bee, Beautiful Thing, and my favorite show of 2012 so far, Spring Awakening). I've seen all of these talented singer/actors before, in the above-mentioned roles and more, and I loved seeing them in this casual environment.

The show began and ended with the entire cast joining in for the pop classic "I Can See Clearly Now" (and it was indeed a "bright sunshiney day"). The five performers then took turns singing individually, accompanied by Latte Da's constant and eminently capable Music Director Denise Prosek, who kept things moving smoothly along.

  • Harry Houdini, who also goes by the name Sasha Andreev, sang a few songs including the title track from the musical Memphis, and a particularly moving rendition of Five for Fighting's "100 Years to Live."  (and yes I had to google that to find the name of the band.)
  • Our Cinderella, Jessica Fredrickson, sang the Dolly Parton hit "Here You Come Again" and Nat King Cole's "Orange Colored Sky," which later morphed into a nifty duet with the next character...
  • Moritz Stiefel is one of my favorite musical theater characters, and Tyler Michaels is quickly becoming one of my favorite musical theater actors to watch perform. He sang a couple of standards - "Hey There (you with the stars in your eyes)" (originally from the musical The Pajama Game), and "Fly Me to the Moon," the aforementioned nifty duet with Jessica. The two also dueted on a silly and sweet love song called "Cubicle of Love." Tyler and Jessica's voices blend together beautifully (I saw them just the night before in A Night in Olympus at Illusion Theater), and I hear we'll be treated to more of it in Bye Bye Birdie at the Chanhassen Dinner Theatres, opening this fall.
  • Little Inez, aka Ivory Doublette, sang Whitney Houston's "I Wanna Dance with Somebody" and a very funny little ditty about never getting to sing the melody.
  • Judy Garland's spirit was present when Jody Briskey sang "The Trolley Song." Jody also sang the beautiful "Fields of Gold" and a super-fast and hilarious song setting words to Chopin's "Minute Waltz."
The evening continued with Latte Da's Artistic Director Peter Rothstein announcing their upcoming season, which includes three shows I've been dying to see live and local. They open with Stephen Sondheim's Company (which I've never seen live on stage but fell in love with thanks to the Neil Patrick Harris filmed concert version released to movie theaters last year), followed by the Tim Rice/Elton John Aida (I saw it 11 years ago on tour and Broadway), and closing with Adam Guettel's beautiful creation, A Light in the Piazza (another one I saw once many years ago on tour). The only casting that's been announced is Dieter Bierbrauer as Bobby in Company (a choice with which I heartily agree). One hallmark of a Peter Rothstein production is pitch perfect casting, so I can't wait to find out who will be taking on the roles of Aida, Radames*, Amneres*, Clara, Fabrizio, and the rest.

To whet our appetite for the upcoming season, the cast sang a few songs from the above three shows. First, Company. Tyler led the cast in "Side by Side by Side," Ivory sang "Another Hundred People," Jody sang "Ladies who Lunch" (which I hope she'll do in the production this fall, she has the perfect voice for the song), and Sasha sang the stirring closing number "Being Alive." Jessica and Tyler unfurled several pages of sheet music to sing the beautiful and heart-breaking duet from Aida, "Written in the Stars." Finally, Jessica treated us to a medley of a few songs from The Light in the Piazza.

My very first post on Cherry and Spoon was about Latte Da in the Park in the summer of 2010, so I sort of regard this as my anniversary. I've been doing this for two years now, and it's only getting better and giving me more and more opportunities to see amazing theater and meet talented people and have wonderful experiences. Judging by Theater Latte Da's upcoming season, next year is going to be even better!

*Update: additional casting for Aida announced. Jared Oxborough (aka Che in Evita) will play Radames and Cat Brindisi (Wendla in Spring Awakening) will play Amneres, two more excellent casting choices!