Wednesday, December 19, 2012

"All is Calm" by Theater Latte Da at the Pantages Theatre

I've seen six Christmas-themed theater productions in the last month and a half, and Theater Latte Da's annual holiday production All is Calm* comes closest to what I think is and should be the spirit of this midwinter holiday season: a celebration of our shared humanity, that transcends any perceived difference of nationality, ethnicity, religion, class, or political belief. All is Calm tells the true story of the WWI Christmas day truce, through songs and soldiers' own words. If these soldiers who were sent to kill each other could put aside their differences, share in each other's joy, and make peace for one day, it gives me hope that a larger peace is possible. This quote that arrived in my inbox today seems most appropriate: "If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man's life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility" (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow).

Now in it's 5th year, All is Calm was created by Latte Da's Artistic Director Peter Rothstein and the nine-man vocal ensemble Cantus. It begins with a few traditional Christmas carols, sung in stunning harmonies. Then the theater part of the piece begins as the actors (Matt Rein, David Roberts, and Alan Sorenson) come onstage and being speaking the words of witnesses to the event, taken from letters, journals, and other historical sources from that day in 1914. Songs and words are seamlessly woven together in one cohesive piece that continues without intermission or interruption throughout the arc of the story. We begin with "The Optimistic Departure," when young men across Europe were excited to go on an adventure they were sure would be over soon. Then comes "The Grim Reality" as the difficulties and death of battle set in. The high point is the quiet celebration of "Christmas" and the blessed "Truce," as the fighting stops and men from both sides enter "no man's land" to share stories and play games. Finally, in "The Return to Battle," the war continues as if the truce never happened, and in fact it was never repeated in such a large scale, as the war continued for another long four years.

the cast of All is Calm with the men of Cantus
All is Calm is a perfect example of what Theater Latte Da does best - weave together music and theater in an interesting and innovate way to tell a story. It's what Peter calls "intelligent musical theater," which is my favorite thing in the world. His creation is beautifully brought to life by this talented combination of actors and musicians. The three actors really embody the different men whose words are spoken, in a variety of accents. The men of Cantus, who have come from all over the country to sing together, not only sound gorgeous, but they're pretty good actors too as they become the soldiers in their joy and grief. This is truly a beautiful, moving, transfixing experience. Because of the seamlessness of the piece there is no room for applause. The audience was holding it in, which is perhaps why there was an almost immediate and deserving standing ovation as soon as the music ceased.

All is Calm is playing now through Saturday at Hennepin Theatre Trust's beautifully restored Pantages Theatre. If you go, be sure to check out the WWI exhibit upstairs, on loan from the Minnesota Military Museum in Little Falls. This is the second time I've seen this show, and it's one that only gets better with repeated viewing. This is my last theater experience of over 100 that I've had this year (look for my 2012 favorites to be posted around New Year's), and I can't think of a better way to end this amazing year of theater.**

soldiers of the London Rifle Brigade pose with
German Saxons of the 104th and 106th regiments on
Christmas day, 1914. Imperial War Museum, London.

*I received two complementary tickets to opening night of All is Calm.
**I can't think of a better way to begin another amazing year of theater than going back to the Pantages to see another Latte Da production, Aida, featuring one of my favorite scores, and what could possibly be the best love triangle in all of musical theater!

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

"The Match Girl's Gift" by Cerulean River Productions at the Minnesota Centennial Showboat

The Minnesota Centennial Showboat is kind of a magical place to see theater. Stepping onto this historic docked boat on the Mississippi River across from downtown St. Paul, you're transported into another world. Last time I was there, it was the world of pre-WWII Berlin, not typically associated with a river showboat, but still a transformative experience. (And I'm just waiting for someone to do Show Boat on the Showboat; it's an opportunity too good to pass up, don't you think?) The Showboat is currently decked out as a Victorian Christmas, from the actors dressed in period costume who greet you, to the Christmas decorations, to the music in the show. It even smells like someone is baking Christmas cookies! Two shows by Cerulean River Productions are currently playing in repertoire - The Match Girl's Gift and A Threepenny Christmas. I attended a Sunday matinee of the former, and I found it to be a cute and charming holiday show, sort of like A Christmas Carol lite.

The Match Girl's Gift is based on the Hans Christian Anderson story "The Little Match Girl," in which a little girl freezes to death on the streets while selling matches, with only visions of her dead grandmother to comfort her. This version is a little less grim, with the match girl dreaming her way into the home of a wealthy family she has long envied. The plot is perhaps a bit simplistic and trite, focusing on the rich boy's dysfunctional relationship with his parents, desperate for their approval. But the performances of the cast make up for what is lacking in the story. In the title role, Jillian Jacobson, a 7th grader whose bio already includes the Guthrie Theater and Girl Friday Productions, is a star in the making. She's a completely natural actor who easily brings you along on her character's journey. Also charming is Clare Foy as her chimney sweep friend. Megan Volkman-Wilson again shines in a motherly period role (see also Sunday in the Park with George).

But story aside, the highlight of this show is the music which begins and ends the show. The ensemble beautifully sings a selection of Victorian Christmas carols, accompanying themselves with a few instruments, and ringing out in gorgeous a capella harmony. I found myself somewhat impatient for the story to end so we could get back to the music!

The Match Girl's Gift closes this weekend, but A Threepenny Christmas continues through December 30 (see schedule for details). There were quite a few families in the audience, who seemed to be having a great time. If you're looking for a charming Victorian Christmas experience, the Showboat's a good place to find it.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

"2 Pianos 4 Hands" at Park Square Theatre

For anyone who's ever been an aspiring musician, 2 Pianos 4 Hands* will ring true. My instrument was clarinet, not piano, and I was nowhere near as good as the two characters in the show, who are very good by most people's standards, but not quite good enough to make it in the music world. Still, I can relate to "Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge" and practicing until you're bored silly. Such is the life of Teddy and Richie, aka Ted Dykstra and Richard Greenblatt, two Canadian actor/musicians who created the play based on their own experiences and have performed it all over the world. In Park Square Theatre's version, returning after a successful 2010 run, the 4 hands belong to Michael Pearce Donley and Peter Vitale (who is also responsible for the delightful sound and music that accompanies Ten Thousand Things' unique productions). Both Michael and Peter possess a pretty amazing (and I would think rare) combination of skills - they're excellent pianists as well as great actors, delivering funny and heartfelt performances. No wonder this show sells out - funny, relateable, and featuring some beautiful classical music (as well as a few pop pieces thrown in for fun).

The show opens on a stage that is bare except for two grand pianos. Two pianists enter in tuxes with tails, seemingly elegant and professional, until they start to wordlessly bicker about who gets which piano and which bench. The hilarity continues from there as we flash back to childhood lessons, with the actors taking turns playing the young child and their various teachers. We follow them through the early days of lessons, fights with their parents about practicing too much or not enough, junior high competitions, and trying to get into that school where they think they belong, until they're told they're not quite good enough, whereupon they're forced to give lessons to housewives or perform in piano bars for drunks. But through it all, there's the music. The dueling duets are the most fun, as they make it into a competition, whether they're sitting at the same piano or each at their own. A medley of pop tunes turns into a fun game of "name that tune," from the The Young and The Restless theme song to Charlie Brown's theme song. And finally, the show ends with a long and impressive piece (Bach's Concerto in D minor, 1st Movement, for you classical music fans), that to my untrained ears, sounds like it's being performed by a couple of classical musicians.

2 Pianos 4 Hands is playing at Park Square Theatre now through December 30. It's definitely worth checking out for some rare non-holiday related fun and beautiful piano music.

*I received two complementary tickets to the show.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

"The Servant of Two Masters" at the Guthrie Theater

If you do not enjoy the feeling of laughing until your face hurts, you must avoid The Servant of Two Masters at all costs. Because if you end up sitting in the Guthrie's beautifully red proscenium theater sometime between now and January 20, you will laugh for two hours straight, and your face will hurt. But if you're willing to risk this pain, if you like silly, outrageous, classic yet modern, slapstick, adeptly executed comedy (with delightful music thrown in), then get yourself to the Guthrie and wade through the throngs of people flocking to that other show and make your way to the theater across the lobby (but certainly don't show up at the Level Five Cafe 40 minutes before showtime expecting to get a table). I don't have the words to adequately describe the experience; it's just beautifully executed comedic Theater.

The Servant of Two Masters is an 18th Century play of the style known as "commedia dell'arte," in which masked character types act out familiar comic scenes. The play arrives at the Guthrie via the Yale Repertory Theatre and several translations and adaptations, the final one by Steven Epp, who also plays the titular dual-mastered servant, and director Christopher Bayes. They've peppered the over 250 year old play with current political and pop culture references, everything from "Gangnam Style" to Titanic to The Music Man to The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and everything in between. They even manage to poke some gentle fun at the Guthrie and the show across the lobby. The comedy is very physical and very exaggerated, a head-spinning mix that'll keep you on your toes. In fact, out of the several dozen shows I've attended sitting in the front row of the Guthrie Proscenium Theater, this is the first time I've feared for my safety a tiny bit. If you're sitting near the front, stay alert. Things go flying and the 4th wall is often breached, sometimes literally. Christopher Bayes was the director of movement for The 39 Steps on Broadway, which is no surprise; this show is a more than a little 39 Steps-esque. In the hands of this incredibly talented cast of mostly Guthrie newcomers (welcome to our beautiful Minnesota winter!), the original story, the adaptation, the direction, the music, the sets, and the costumes all combine for a ridiculously fun night at the theater. Another first - I've never high-fived an actor after a play, but somehow it seemed acceptable and appropriate after this show.

Leading the cast is one of the few locals in the show, Steven Epp, of the late Theatre de la Jeune Lune, and the current innovative theater company The Moving Company. Since I unfortunately never saw a Jeune Lune show, I have only recently become aware of the crazy brilliance that is Steven Epp. By that I mean he is equal parts crazy and brilliant, and you're never quite sure which part will show up. The best is when both parts show up, as they do here. There are similarities between this adaptation and another classic comedy Steven adapted to zany effect, Ten Thousand Things' Il Campiello. In addition to the words, his performance as the servant Truffaldina is playful and unexpected, wacky and entertaining. The well-meaning and always hungry Truffaldina is juggling two masters who, unbeknownst to him, are lovers trying to find their way back to each other. The talented Sarah Agnew (another local cast member) is the lovely Beatrice (pronounced bay-a-TREE-che to dramatic effect), who is in disguise as her deceased brother. Sarah does a beautiful job playing the straight man (literally) amidst the storm of crazy surrounding her. Jesse J. Perez plays her love, Florindo, as something off the cover of a romance novel. As the father trying to marry off his daughter, Allen Gilmore is simply hilarious, and in one prolonged scene had the audience in tears. Liz Wisan is charming as the lady's maid who wins Truffaldina's heart.

One of my favorite parts of the play is the music, provided by Aaron Halva on accordion and percussion and Carolyn Boulay on violin. They accompany the cast on a few songs (some of whom have excellent voices, especially Adina Verson as the daughter) and provide a soundtrack for the action, and really feel like part of the play rather than "just" the band. The sets (Katherine Akiko Day) and costumes (Valerie Therese Bart) are also delightful. There is no backdrop on the stage, there is no backstage, the entire area is in full view. A curtained area in front frames the main action, and charming tiny houses hint at the town. Costumes, make-up, and masks are as exaggerated as the comedy.

The Servant of Two Masters is playing now through January 20, so you have plenty of time to go see it, even in this busy time of year. It's relentless ridiculous over-the-top comedy, even the actors couldn't keep a straight face. It never lets up; you'll be crying "Chanhassen!" by the end. And if you want to know what I mean by that, go see the show!

the cast of The Servant of Two Masters

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

"Catch Me If You Can" at the Orpheum Theatre

If you've read this blog before, you know that I'm not a huge fan of movies made into musicals, preferring instead to see original and creative work written for the stage. But I was curious about Catch Me If You Can*, based on the 2002 Spielberg movie, which was in turned based on Frank Abagnale Jr.'s 1980 auto-biography about his life as a highly successful teenage con artist in the 1960s. It's a fascinating story in any format - how this young and incredibly intelligent man was able to impersonate a pilot, a doctor, a lawyer, and presumably anyone he wanted to be. Lucky for us he now uses his powers for good, not evil; after spending time in US and European prisons, he's worked for the FBI for 36 years, helping to prevent the crimes he perfected. It's no wonder someone wanted to turn this story into a musical. I found it to be, while not the perfect musical, genuinely enjoyable and entertaining. With few exceptions the songs are fast and catchy and fun, the choreography and dancing is of the high standards of Broadway, and the set and costumes transport the audience back to the 60s, as seen through the bright and happy TV shows of the era (more Laugh-In than Mad Men, and especially bringing to mind the underrated and over-before-its-time Pan Am). All in all a successful adaptation of a movie that did not seem to be crying out to be made into a musical. But with successful musical theater creators Terrence McNally (book), Marc Shaiman (Music and Lyrics), and Scott Wittman (Lyrics), it works. Act fast if you're interested - it's playing at the Orpheum Theatre through this weekend only.

A few other thoughts on the show:

  • A trio of great voices belonging to charismatic actors lead the show. Dominic Fortuna (who seems to have wandered over from Jersey Boys) is sympathetic as Frank's down on his luck dad, whose schemes are never quite as successful as his son's. Merrit David Janes is FBI Agent Hanratty, who's trying to catch Frank, and eventually does. It's a role that won Norbert Leo Butz a Tony last year, and Merrit gives it the energy and humor required. Last but not least, Stephen Anthony is the star of the show as our charming hero/antihero. He's got a great voice and inhabits all of Frank's various guises with ease, while still letting us see the lost and searching boy underneath.
  • The obligatory romance is one of the least successful subplots; the real relationship driving the show is between Frank and Hanratty. Though they only share a few scenes together, theirs is the most interesting relationship and most compelling chemistry.
  • The ensemble is fantastic in their 60s wardrobe; they look, move, and sound great.
  • The show is set up as Frank telling his story on a 60s variety show, complete with colorful graphics displayed on the backdrop of the stage, and an awesome band onstage, dressed in white tuxes.
  • The score is energetic and fun; highlights include "Don't Break the Rules" (Hanratty's shining moment), Frank's emotional "Good-Bye," and the final duet between Frank and Hanratty - "Strange But True," which pretty much sums up the plot. 

On the night I attended, "the real Frank Abagnale Jr." was there for a Q&A after the show. He just happened to be in town speaking to US Bank about fraud prevention, and popped into the theater to talk to the audience. It was obvious from his answers that he's been talking about this for a long time and has been asked everything multiple times. But it was fascinating to hear more details about his story from the man who lived it, and find out what is real and what is Hollywoodized or Broadwayized. As for the musical version of his story, he said, "I kind of even like it more than the movie." I think I kind of agree.

Stephen Anthony as Frank leads the cast of Catch Me If You Can

*I received one complementary ticket to Opening Night of Catch Me If You Can.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

"An Eventually Christmas: Holidays at the Mill" at the Mill City Museum

Eventually... why not now? So went the popular slogan for Gold Medal flour in the early 20th Century, the height of the flour milling business upon which our fair city of Minneapolis was built.* What was once the Washburn A. Mill (the Washburn-Crosby Company later became General Mills) is now the site of the Mill City Museum, right next to the river in Minneapolis, just down the block from the Guthrie Theater. The vacant building burned down in 1991, but most of the external structure was saved. The museum opened in 2003 and showcases the history of the milling industry and the city that it helped to build. I've been wanting to visit the museum since it opened, but in typical theater geek fashion, it was theater that finally got me there. An "Eventually" Christmas: Holidays at the Mill is a unique theater experience written by talented local writer/comedian/actor Joseph Scrimshaw (whom I only recently discovered thanks to his hilarious and odd little Fringe show this summer). At just $14 for the short play, which also includes admission to the museum (an $11 value), it's a steal - for just three extra dollars you can experience the museum plus this fun little play that helps you imagine the lives of the people that worked in that very location. I love the idea of theater happening in the exact location where similar events might have taken place (see also: After Miss Julie, produced by Gremlin Theatre in the basement kitchen of the James J. Hill House); it makes me feel like I'm witnessing history, instead of just a made-up drama.

the cast of An Eventually Christmas
The play takes place in the museum's Flour Tower elevator. If you've never been to the museum, this might seem odd - a play in an elevator? But the elevator is actually a unique way to tour the building, and, it turns out, experience theater. The bleacher-like seats in the large elevator face the opening, from which the different floors are viewed, representing different stages in the flour-making process (the museum's guided tour will give you a more detailed history that you can use as background to the events of the play, although it's not necessary to follow the play). Our guide through the play is the Ghost of Mill City Past (the charming and personable Richard Rousseau), dressed in chains, "like that other ghost in that other story being told down the street." The Ghost directs the elevator to different floors and explains a bit about the characters in the scenes, who are based on real employees of the mill, circa 1920, as described in the company's "Eventually" newsletter. The Ghost cajoles museum tour guide Anthony into taking on different roles in the scenes (Anthony is actually actor Brian Columbus, very entertaining as he slips from being just plain Anthony into the various characters). The story involves a couple of women on the "women's floor" (packing bags of Gold Medal flour) as they plan for the annual Christmas party, which sounds like it was THE event of the season. The story culminates on the 8th floor, when the audience exits the elevator and enters the Washburn-Crosby Company's party, and watches the events unfold.

I've always said that theater is my window to the world, and in this case, it's my window to the world of the past. An "Eventually" Christmas: Holidays at the Mill is a great addition to the museum and helps you experience life in the mill as it was 90+ years ago, while standing in that very location. History + theater = a great day in my book. And the next time someone says "eventually" to me, I'll respond with "why not now?" Sounds like a great motto for life, as well as flour.

An "Eventually" Christmas continues this weekend only, three performances a night Friday and Saturday. Click here to find more info and make reservations (space is limited in the elevator, so reservations are recommended).

*When you visit the museum, be sure to watch the short film by another local talent, Kevin Kling. Minneapolis in 19 Minutes Flat gives the entire history of the city of Minneapolis in an abridged version. While I would happily watch a two hour film on this topic, the under-twenty-minute version is entertaining and informative.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Ticket Giveaway for "Catch Me If You Can" at the Orpheum Theatre

Friends, I have a very exciting opportunity for you! Hennepin Theatre Trust has very generously offered to give away a pair of tickets to the new musical Catch Me If You Can to one lucky Cherry and Spoon reader. The musical is based in on the 2002 movie (starring Tom Hanks and Leonardo DiCaprio), and ran for about six months on Broadway in 2011.

The tickets are for opening night, Tuesday December 11, 7:30 showtime, at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis. The subject of the musical, Frank Abagnale, Jr., will be in attendance that night for a Question & Answer session after the show. Here's how to enter the drawing:

If you're a Facebook user -
  • CLICK HERE to go to the Cherry and Spoon Facebook page
  • LIKE the page, if you haven't already, and make sure "show in news feed" is checked if you want to get updates from Cherry and Spoon in your news feed
  • LIKE the post that says "friends, i have an exciting opportunity for YOU! Hennepin Theatre Trust has offered to give away a pair of tickets to the opening night of "CATCH ME IF YOU CAN" to one lucky Cherry and Spoon reader. LIKE this post to enter a drawing to win two tickets to the show on this TUESDAY, dec. 11 at the orpheum theatre in minneapolis. the winner will be announced on SUNDAY evening. good luck!"
If you're not a Facebook user -

It's as simple as that! And the even better news is that only 14 people have entered so far, which is much better odds than any lottery you can enter. The winner will be announced on Sunday evening. Good luck!

For information on the show or to purchase tickets (if you don't win), which runs for eight performances from December 11 through the 16, see the Hennepin Theatre website.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

"Sample Night Live" at the History Theatre

I can't believe it's been two years since I've been to Sample Night Live, the variety show held the first Wednesday of every month at the History Theatre that gives audiences a chance to sample local art (performance and visual). I attended the audience favorites show in December of 2010 and have always meant to go back, but something always comes up. So when my friend The Playbill Collector told me she was able to get some blogger tickets to this year's audience favorites show, I was happy to go along. And even happier to see that the host would once again be Loungeasaurus Rex (alter ego of the multi-talented Tom Reed). He never fails to entertain with his trademark mix of comedy, ad lib, crowd interaction, and cheesy (but good) lounge singing, all while clutching his notes in his multi-ringed hands. When an audience member told Loungeasaurus that he used to build semi-conductors, he made up a silly and clever song on the spot about semi-conductors. But not the usual definition, rather it became a song about a conductor who was not yet a full conductor. Hilarious.

But enough about the host. On to the performances. At each month's show, the audience picks their favorite act among the musicians, actors, poets, puppeteers, etc. Those winners are invited back in December, where the year's favorite is selected. The candidates include (click on each artist's name to find out more about them):

  • A couple of talented guitar players - Greg Herriges, impressive on multiple stringed instruments (who was also among the favorites in 2010), and Cory Wong, who played a couple of beautiful originals (you know he's a good guitar player because he spent not a little time tuning his guitar between songs, or as he said, playing the traditional Chinese song tu ning).
  • A totally unique duo of oboe and upright bass, the Vecchione/Erdahl Duo, who were, as they said, "not as bad as I expected." In fact, they're quite delightful despite, or perhaps because of, the unexpected combination. They played in support of Minnesota Orchestra musicians.
  • A little humor brought to us by puppeteer Margo McCreary and Jack the dog (who was interested in the same gross things that most dogs are interested in), and the very funny stand-up comedian Amber Preston, whose comedy is local and relatable and clever, told in an entertaining conversational style.
  • A musician in a category all his own - the one-man band Crankshaft. Alex Larson plays guitar, drums (with his feet), harmonica and kazoo, and sings (covers and originals), and sounds pretty awesome, in a rootsy, bluesy, rockabilly sort of way. He was my pick for favorite of the night; I really appreciate his creativity and ingenuity in creating a complete sound all his own.
  • The more traditional multi-person band was represented by Electric Children, a very cool bluesy five-person band (with dancers), and the crazy Irish pub band The Dregs (also returning from the 2010 show), who took advantage of the unrated second act by turning the very lovely Christmas song "Do You Hear What I Hear" into the less lovely but much funnier "Do You Have What I Have," a song about STDs.
  • The strange and funny four-person comedy improv group Meat and Cheese, who did a hilarious skit in which two members spoke in unison, all improv. Crazy fun.
  • The spoken word of Maximum Verbosity, who told a twisted Christmas story (and really, aren't they all a little twisted, what with the elves and all?).
  • Two folky singer/songwriter/guitar players who would be right at home at Storyhill Fest, the modern-day hippie Heatherlyn (another returnee from the 2010 audience favorites show), and the night's winner, Sarah Morris, whose lovely voice would have easily filled the theater without the aid of amplification.
  • And of course, I must also mention the Sample Night Live house band, The Smarts, keeping the crowd entertained with jazzy holiday favorites before the show, during intermission, and at the end while the votes were being counted (and the winner is - the Von Trapp Family Singers... sorry, wrong variety show).

I very much enjoyed my second time at Sample Night Live, and I vow not to let another two years go by before going back. Yes, some acts were better than others, but that's the beautiful thing about Sample Night - if there's an artist you don't like, take heart, it'll be over in seven minutes, and then there will be another artist onstage, and you just might discover a new favorite. In addition to the diverse talent onstage, visual artists also present their work for sale in the lobby. And did I mention the prizes? While I didn't win, someone in my group did, as more than a dozen prizes were given out in the door raffle.

A night like this makes me appreciate artists and the amazing creativity that they display. What makes someone think - "let's pair an oboe with an upright bass," or, "I know, I'll play the guitar, two drums, cymbals, tambourine, and a harmonica all at the same time, and sound really awesome doing it," or, "I'm going give voice to a lumpy dog puppet that's as interested in smelling people's butts as real dogs are," or, "let's attempt so speak in unison even though I have no idea what you're going to say," or, "I can slick back my hair, put on a cheesy 70s suit, make up a song on the spot, and make people laugh."  Artists boggle my mind, and make me happy to live in the same world they do.

Monday, December 3, 2012

"A Don't Hug Me Christmas Carol" at New Century Theatre

I purchased a three-show package at New Century Theatre (the newest of the Hennepin Theaters), mostly because I really wanted to see 2 Sugars, Room for Cream, and the other two shows in the package looked interesting: Deer Camp The Musical (starring Newhart's brothers Darryl) and A Don't Hug Me Christmas Carol. I found 2 Sugars, Room for Cream to be a delightfully original sketch comedy, and the other two... well, let's just say they didn't quite live up to what I believe musical theater can do (see this and this). That being said, I chuckled more than once, and the audience seemed to be having a great time. A Don't Hug Me Christmas Carol is very similar in structure and feel to Deer Camp The Musical, but since I can relate to the traditional Minnesota Christmas more than I can relate to a weekend getaway based on killing animals, I enjoyed this one a little more. It's a very loose retelling of the Dickens classic A Christmas Carol, set in small town Minnesota. Local bar owner Gunnar falls in the frozen lake and is in a coma, whereupon he's visited by his romantic and musical rival, Sven Jorgenson, showing him his past, present, and future. And like in the classic story, this Scrooge learns to be a little more kind and grateful, and yes, even allow his wife to hug him every once in a while.

Highlights of the show, such as they were, include:

  • A very enthusiastic and talented cast make the most of the material they're given. Number one among them is Bonni Allen as Gunner's long-suffering wife Clara. Bonni played Kate Monster in Mixed Blood's delightful production of Avenue Q last year, and I was quite amused when she once again put on a puppet, this time in the form of Barbra Streisand (it's a long story). Ross Young also appeared in Deer Camp, and once again he puts everything he's got into grumpy but loveable Gunner.
  • Like Deer CampDon't Hug Me's original songs are sung live by the cast to canned music, but at least there's an excuse for it this time - the music comes out of the bar's karaoke machine. Most of the songs are cute and amusing (except for one disappointingly homophobic song). And I can never resist a singalong, even if it's to a stupid song about Grandma cutting the cheese.
  • The dancing that accompanies the songs is also quite amusing (choreographed by Doug Anderson, who also plays the dimwitted bar patron Kanute, perhaps a nickname for Knutson?).
  • The spirit Sven Jorgenson (Michael Lee) gives an amusingly bad Robert Goulet impression.
  • The set is a very realistic looking small town Minnesota bar, judging by the responses I got when I posted a picture of it on Facebook with the caption "guess where I am?"
  • A Christmas Carol wouldn't be A Christmas Carol without Tiny Tim, and he appears here in a very wacky version - actress Emily Moore (who also plays waitress and aspiring singer Bernice) on her knees with a Cockney accent.
  • Again like Deer Camp, this show does not take itself at all seriously, and doesn't try to be more than it is - a silly, entertaining, mindless romp through bad jokes and cheesy story. You gotta respect that.

I've heard about these Don't Hug Me musicals (there are several in the series) and often wondered about them. Now I know they're not really my kind of musical. But they serve a purpose I suppose, and less adventurous theater-goers might enjoy them. A Don't Hug Me Christmas Carol is playing now through January 6. (But in the genre of Minnesota-themed holiday shows, I highly recommend Yellow Tree Theatre's Miracle on Christmas Lake II.)

the lifelike bar set of A Don't Hug Me Christmas Carol

Sunday, December 2, 2012

"A Behanding in Spokane" at Gremlin Theatre

A Behanding in Spokane is a very dark, very funny little play. The 2010 Tony nominated play by Irish playwright Martin McDonagh is this year's selection in what has become Gremlin Theatre's tradition of non-holiday fare in this month of Christmas Carols and jingle bells. I saw it on a three-show weekend, sandwiched between Yellow Tree's Miracle on Christmas Lake II and A Don't Hug Me Christmas Carol. It serves as a nice palate cleanser, but more than that, it's a great play with a fabulous cast of actors that's thoroughly entertaining any time of the year.

The play takes place in a shabby hotel room somewhere in America (kudos to designer Carl Schoenborn for creating the appropriate level of shabbiness). Mr. Carmichael has been traveling around the country for 27 years, looking for the hand that was taken from him as a teenager in a cruel act of violence. He's full of rage and revenge; you get the feeling that this searching for his hand business has been a hard life, but it's all he's ever known. Portrayer David Tufford embodies the years of frustration, exasperation, and darkness this man has lived through. Even though in some ways he's the villain of the play, threatening violence to every other character, you can't help but sympathize with him when he shares the details of how he came to be a one-handed man. There's a sadness there too; once he accomplishes his goal, he's got nothing else to live for, and the life he's known is over.

The event taking place in the hotel room before us is a sort of business transaction. A couple has decided to try to sell him a disembodied hand that they know is not his, but this man is not so easy to fool. He does not enjoy being scammed, and the consequences are dire as the two try to get out of it. Sara Marsh as the slightly dimwitted Marilyn and Brian J. Evans as her somewhat savvier boyfriend Toby are very entertaining as the alternately loving and bickering couple.

David Tufford and Luverne Seifert
Last but certainly not least in this talented four-person cast is Luverne Seifert as "the receptionist guy." I adore Luverne; he's a true clown (I mean that as the highest complement). He's extremely expressive in his delivery and physicality, and is an expert at engaging the audience (go see him in a Ten Thousand Things production and beware if you're sitting in the front row). He delivers an insane monologue that's really about nothing, other than establishing what a strange character this Mervyn is. He inserts himself into the situation happening in the hotel room, and is actually quite delighted that something exciting is finally happening in his life. I won't go into details about how this situation is resolved (you'll have to see it yourself to find out), but it's a crazy fun ride to watch them get there.

I only discovered the Gremlin a year or so ago, but they've quickly become one of my favorite theaters in town. Everything I've seen there has been interesting, or surprising, or touching, or silly, or all of the above. A Behanding in Spokane (with excellent direction by Matt Sciple) is no exception. Gremlin Artistic Director Peter Hansen* called it "an insane play and ton of fun to do." It's a ton of fun to watch, too. Playing now through December 16 at Gremlin Theatre in St. Paul.

*Peter was working the will call desk the night I attended, talk about hands on (no pun intended). Peter will soon be reuniting with his After Miss Julie costar Anna Sundberg for the Jungle's production of the recent Tony Award-winning play Venus in Fur.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

"Miracle on Christmas Lake II" at Yellow Tree Theatre

"A Little Bit of Lovin' and a Christmas Tree." That's the theme song of this year's rendition of Yellow Tree Theatre's annual holiday show, Miracle on Christmas Lake II* (presented for the second year in a row after a successful three-year run of the original Miracle on Christmas Lake). The song is a pretty good description of the plot as well - the "Loving" being represented by nerdy soulmates Martha and Neil and small town theater owners Colin and Tess, and the "Christmas Tree" taking the form of a silly costume that Colin wears in the pageant thrown together at the last minute. But more than that, it's about a small community pulling together to save their beloved small town way of life. Not your average sugar-coated Christmas treat, Miracle on Christmas Lake II is silly and preposterous and hilarious and heart-warming.

In the ridiculous (in a good way) plot, the entire town of Christmas Lake comes down with the goat flu (which causes its victims to make strange bleating noises and eat garbage), and is also in danger of annexation by neighboring town Potterton. Colin and Tess must put on a successful Christmas show to impress the Hollywood producer wanting to film a movie in Christmas Lake, which will save the town. It's the pretty much the same show as last year (written by Jessica Lind Peterson and directed by Jason Peterson, founders of the theater), with a few little tweaks and mostly new cast. The one constant in the five years of Christmas Lake is Yellow Tree regular Ryan Nelson as the Little House on the Prairie-obsessed piano tuner Neil, who thinks acting means doing an impression. He grows funnier and nerdier every year, and never fails to crack me up. Debra Berger ably takes on the role of Neil's girlfriend, the Sound of Music-loving Martha with a pet lizard and a mean tater tot hotdish recipe. Neil and Martha's big romantic moment is crowned with a rendition of (what else) "Something Good" from Sound of Music (the movie, but not the original stage musical, which had a song called "An Ordinary Couple" in its place, which has just outed me as a fellow nerd - maybe that's why I love Neil and Martha so much). Josef Buchel (the charming gentleman caller) and Rachel Petrie (of Four Humors Theater) play the only normal people in town, Christmas Lake native Colin and his wife Tess, who run the local community theater and try to corral these crazies into some semblance of a theatrical production. The charismatic Andy Frye returns as the Hollywood location scout with a secret, only this time he's given a new name (Stefan Stefanjovak) and a vaguely Eastern European accent. Rounding out the cast is Charles Fraser playing several characters, each one more quirky and outrageous than the last. The entire cast plays well together. One of the best examples of this is a fabulous slow-mo fight between Neil and Stefan over Martha. Hilarious and deftly executed.

Over the last three years I've grown to love the residents of the fictional town of Christmas Lake, which will seem familiar to any Minnesotan (you can read more about last year's version of the show here, and about the original play here). I hope to return for many years to come. Jason says in this article in the StarTrib that there are plans for a third play. Until then, check out this trailer featuring scenes from the show accompanied by one of my favorite local musicians (thanks to Yellow Tree) Blake Thomas** singing "A Little Bit of Lovin' and a Christmas Tree" (I'm still waiting for it to be released as a single). In the show, the cast sings the song and it sounds quite lovely - several of these actors are hiding great voices behind their comedy.

Miracle on Christmas Lake II from Yellow Tree Theatre on Vimeo.

*I received two complementary tickets to Miracle on Christmas Lake II, and brought along nine more friends who happily purchased tickets, even though many of them had seen the show last year. It's a really fun group outing, especially when paired with dinner at Nectar Wine Bar in adorable downtown Osseo.

**Blake Thomas is writing a new original musical Stay Tuned to be presented at Yellow Tree Theatre next spring, with help from his lovely and talented wife Mary Fox and Stefan Stefanjovak himself, Andy Frye (who is also directing Yellow Tree's next show, Circle Mirror Transformation, which I called "a quiet, real, completely satisfying exploration of five intersecting lives" when I saw it at the Guthrie in 2010). More information on both shows here.