Wednesday, January 30, 2013

"Doubt" by Minnesota Opera at the Ordway Center

I often say that opera is not my thing, but I've only attended one opera in my life before last night (La Boheme of course, because of its connection to my favorite musical RENT), so that's not a very informed opinion. But when I heard that Minnesota Opera was doing a world premiere of Doubt (the brilliant 2005 play that was made into a movie in 2008) at the Ordway, I was intrigued. Lucky for me, my fellow blogger Bartley invited me to go along with her when she attended as a writer for Minnesota Playlist. I'm not sure I have the time or the inclination to become a regular opera goer, but I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of witnessing this beautiful new interpretation of a complicated and fascinating piece of theater.

I saw Ten Thousand Things' version of Doubt, A Parable (its fascinating and revealing full title) two years ago, and it was one of my favorite shows of the year (Ivey's, too). This four-person 75-minute play is short, intense, and though-provoking. Set in 1964, a nun and principal of a Catholic school accuses a priest of impropriety towards a student. But that's not really what the play is about; this story is used as a parable to explore the ideas of doubt vs. certainty. It's not about whether or not the priest is guilty, it's about what the presumption of guilt or innocence does to those around him. How do we ever know the truth about someone? Can we be certain about anything, or do we just have to resign ourselves to make the best choices we can on the information we're given, and live with the consequences? The piece asks, "What are you certain about?" (As does the sticky note on the front of the opera program.) John Patrick Stanley wrote the play, the screenplay for the movie adaptation, and the libretto for this new opera. The one-act four-person play has been expanded into a full, luscious orchestra with a huge cast on a big stage with stunning sets, and a large beautiful orchestra backing it up. I don't know much about opera so I can't speak to where this lies in the context of the opera world, but as a new interpretation of a piece of theater, it's a success.

The star of the show (and really the pivotal character) is Christine Brewer as the accuser Sister Aloysius. She has a commanding stage presence and an amazingly expressive voice; you can really hear Sister Aloysius' doubt beneath her claims of certainty. Also good is Matthew Worth* as the accused Father Flynn, charming and seductive, but giving one a slight feeling that something might be off. As in the play and movie, the role of Mrs. Miller, mother of the alleged victim, is a showstopper. She doesn't care what Father Flynn's interest in her son is, as long as he's seemingly kind and helpful to him, which he sorely needs in his life right now. Her only scene is a memorable one, as the orchestra pauses for her to plead for her son with a solitary voice. But my favorite scenes were those between Father Flynn and Sister Aloysius. Theirs is an intense power struggle, and tension in the music builds as the tension in the scene builds. They are surrounded by a huge cast, including a bunch of kids running around and being kids (in those familiar Catholic school uniforms). The sets are beautiful and elegant. The church scenes are so realistic (and familiar to a former Catholic), that I had to stop myself from making the sign of the cross. Huge columns adorn the stage, with pieces moving smoothly in and out as if by magic. In one scene, Father Flynn compares gossip to opening a feather pillow on a rooftop, and the illustration of the story in silhouette at the back of the stage is a thing of beauty.

Stephen Sondheim says that the difference between opera and musical theater lies in the expectation of the audience. An opera audience goes to the theater to hear the beauty and perfection of the human voice, while a musical theater audience goes for the story and the songs. Here are a few differences I observed after my one night at the opera:
  • People get much more dressed up for the opera than they do for the theater, especially on a weeknight! I love getting dressed up for the theater, it's part of the fun of the experience for me, so this was delightful to see.
  • People actually yell out "bravo" (or "brava?") after the performance.
  • The pit orchestra is huge!
  • The difference in the music is not just that there's no spoken dialogue (see RENT and other musicals with little to no spoken dialogue), but there are no traditional songs (with chorus, verse, bridge), no clear endings and beginnings of songs, no breaks for applause. Just continuous music and sung dialogue.
  • The actors are not miked, just a few floor mikes, which I also love. My favorite musical sound is the unamplified human voice, and I'm often disappointed that even in small venues actors are usually miked. These trained voices ring out across the Ordway with little assistance from technology.
  • Captions are displayed above the stage. I was surprised they still do that when the opera is in English. I tried not to look at them and just concentrate on the music, but I found that difficult. Actually it was a bit helpful, especially when two are singing at the same time.
So that's my experience at the opera, a truly fascinating and entertaining one at that. I think it helped that it was based on a piece of theater I'm familiar with. I won't be rushing to see an Italian opera, but I will keep my eye out for other pieces that may interest me. If you're a theater fan looking to dip your toe into the world of opera, Minnesota Opera's world premiere production of Doubt is an excellent choice!

*Just before I saw the show I watched the season finale of American Horror Story, in which Joseph Feinnes played a priest who might also have been guilty of some wrongdoing. From my seat in the first row of the mezzanine, Michael Worth looked enough like him that the whole night I felt like Joseph Feinnes was singing to me, not a bad thing!

Monday, January 28, 2013

"Cabaret" at Bloomington Civic Theatre

This is the third local production I've seen of Cabaret in the last two years (the others were by Frank Theatre and Lyric Arts), and I couldn't be happier about the repetition. I love Cabaret because it's wildly entertaining and fun, featuring a fabulous Kander and Ebb score, but has a dark undercurrent of the impending doom that is the Nazi party coming to power in 1930s Germany. It's a fun musical that also has depth. Cabaret is all about living this crazy life to the fullest, because it could be gone tomorrow. Director and choreographer Joe Chvala writes in the program, "our production celebrates the resistance to tyranny and the desire to be open to life's strange, wonderful and all-too-quickly-gone beauty." In this colorful production with an expansive and energetic cast, a full musical sound, several big dance numbers, and an incredible set, that objective is decidedly accomplished.

A few things noteworthy things about the show:

  • The Emcee of the Kit Kat Klub serves as the audience's guide to this world, and Joey Clark smoothly steps into the role after playing a Cabaret boy in  Frank Theatre's magnificent production two years ago. He's an approachable and entertaining host (and also appropriately hosted the post-show talk-back on the day I attended).
  • BCT newcomer Abby Desanto is a delightful Sally Bowles, full of life and passion. Bryan Porter is completely genuine in his portrayal of Cliff, and makes him relatable and sympathetic. Both have pleasant voices, and they share a believable chemistry.
  • Due to a very last-minute illness, Colleen Somerville heroically stepped into the role of Fraulein Schneider and performed beautifully. She had a script in front of her for several scenes and a few songs, and though the words might not have always been on the tip of her tongue, that didn't stop her from conveying the complex emotions of the character. Kudos to the entire cast and crew who scrambled to make the necessary changes to accommodate the illness, and managed to make all look effortless.
  • This may be the most remarkable set of all the remarkable sets I've seen at BCT (by resident set designer Robin McIntyre). Huge moving parts that represent the exterior and interior of dingy city buildings, with the names of real Berlin nightclubs adorning the walls in lights (Cozy Corner, Resi, Eldorado, Stork's Nest, Monikel). It's a nice touch of reality and an homage to that crazy beautiful city of Berlin.
  • This production is a little bit cleaner and tamer than others I've seen and heard, but that's understandable considering the suburban community theater audience. Joey explained in the talk-back that it's just, well, different than what you might see in New York City or even Minneapolis. I get that and respect it; what's most important is that the intent of the piece remains intact.
  • This seems to be much closer to the original 1966 Broadway production rather than the 1972 movie or the 1998 revival (the soundtrack I'm familiar with), so don't expect to hear "Maybe This Time" or "Money." But we do get the fun "Telephone Song" and the sweet love song "Why Should I Wake Up."
  • While I missed the onstage band ("even the orchestra is bee-utiful!"), I can't really argue with a 20-piece pit orchestra and the full sound it gives. Musical Director Anita Ruth has taken a much-deserved vacation and seamlessly handed the baton to Eric Sayre, and while hidden the pit, they do indeed sound "bee-utiful!"
  • Last but definitely not least, Joe Chvala has choreographed some pretty spectacular dance numbers, including a kickline, party scenes, and a dancing gorilla. And the talented ensemble pulls it off (seemingly) effortlessly.

At the beginning of Cabaret, the Emcee invites the audience to "leave your troubles outside" and enter the world of the Kit Kat Klub for a few hours. It's an excellent suggestion and a wonderful place to do just that; in fact, it may even get you thinking about troubles much larger than your own. (Playing now through February 17.)

Sunday, January 27, 2013

"Nellie" at The History Theatre

In the new play Nellie, The History Theatre does what it does best - educate the audience about a little known chapter of Minnesota history while telling a compelling story on stage. Despite having grown up in the same town as influential union organizer and civil rights activist Nelllie Stone Johnson, I had never heard of her before seeing this play. Playwright Kim Hines gives us the elder Nellie as the narrator of her own story, as we follow her from her childhood on a farm where she helped her father organize farmers, through her years as a student at the University of Minnesota, to being hired as an elevator operator at the Minneapolis Athletic Club, where she organized workers to demand fair pay and employment practices. The play covers the beginning of Nellie's life as a leader, and left me wanting to know what happened next. I'd be interested in seeing Part II of this play, in which Nellie becomes the first black elected official in Minneapolis, counsels two of Minnesota's most famous politicians (Humphrey and Mondale) in Civil Rights issues, and helps to found the Minnesota DFL. Still, Nellie shows us how this Minnesota farm girl, "born the wrong gender and the wrong color" (as she says about her college-educated mother), became one of the heroes of our fair state.

Greta Oglesby plays the elder Nellie, who serves as the narrator of her life. It's a clever device in which Nellie interacts with her own past as she shares it with the audience. Despite all that she's accomplished in her life, she displays some uncertainty and perhaps even regret at not having said or done what she now, in hindsight, believes she should have. Several times in the play, the young Nellie (Shá Cage) says something, only to be corrected by the older Nellie - that's what I wanted to say, but what I really said was this. How many of us would like to rewrite scenes from our past? But our guide Nellie makes sure to convey the truth of her story, even if it takes a few tries to get it right.

Nellie organizes her fellow workers
while her older self looks on and encourages
Greta and Shá both give strong performances as the elder and younger Nellie. Greta is the wise woman at the end of her life, while Sha transforms from the young and uncertain woman to someone who recognizes unfair treatment and steps up to fix it. It's an almost physical transformation; at the end of the show, when the two Nellies are standing side by side, they almost look like the same person. They're supported by a strong ensemble of actors playing multiple roles, including Ron Collier, who gives a mighty speech as a preacher against the unions.

Two Opening Nights in St. Paul, two excellent Michael Hoover set designs. In addition to Johnny Baseball's movable bleacher platforms, he designed a somber and stately backdrop for Nellie's life. The wall of a building with large windows resides in the back of the stage, which serves as Nellie's elevator in addition to windows in which we see silhouettes of voices from Nellie's past. In front is a sparse open space with a few chairs and tables. It's a simple and entirely appropriate environment for this story to be told.

I appreciate The History Theatre for telling stories like this. Nellie's story is pretty remarkable, for a black woman in the early part of the 20th Century with very little power given to her by the world, to find her own power and dedicate her life to improving conditions for working people like herself. Simple things that we today take for granted, like weekends off and health insurance, we owe to people like Nellie. Head to The History Theater between now and Feb. 17 to learn more about this remarkable woman. (Discount tickets available on

Saturday, January 26, 2013

"Johnny Baseball" at Park Square Theatre

New original musical theater is my favorite thing in the world (and something that's in short supply in these days of jukebox musicals and movie adaptations). Baseball is another one of my favorite things, so combining these two things makes me a happy baseball/theater fan. Johnny Baseball is a new musical by brothers Robert and Willie Reale (music and lyrics, respectively, who were in attendance opening night) and Richard Dresser (book). It premiered at American Repertory Theatre in Boston in 2010 and has gone through a few workshops before it's current incarnation at Park Square Theatre. While it's not the perfect musical (yet), it has some really great songs and scenes, and has the potential to be a great and successful musical. I'm not certain it could every play on Broadway; this love song to the Boston Red Sox might not be well received in Yankee territory. (On the other hand, we all know Broadway is for tourists, so it might be OK!) But the current version is highly enjoyable for baseball and musical theater fans alike, with a fantastic cast and clever and interesting staging, direction, and choreography.

Johnny Baseball mixes fact and fiction. The fact is that the Red Sox went 86 years without a World Series win. While the real reasons for that are complicated and varied (and in my opinion can mostly be attributed to the fact that baseball is a funny game, and sometimes things just don't go your way), one popular theory is that the Red Sox were cursed because they sold their star player, Babe Ruth, to the Yankees in 1920, beginning a streak of Yankee dominance in World Series (that I as a Twins fan find frustrating and unfair, but don't get me started about the Damn Yankees!). Johnny Baseball proposes an alternate theory to the so-called "Curse of the Bambino." While this theory is just as preposterous, it works well as the conceit of the show (except for the fact that this curse happened in 1948, which doesn't explain the first 30 years). We begin with modern-day Red Sox fans agonizing over a game (specifically, game 4 of the 2004 ALCS), when an old man in a Yankees hat begins to tell a story. We then flash back to the 1918 Red Sox season, when a fictional rookie pitcher named Johnny O'Brien joins real life star Babe Ruth. Johnny meets and falls in love with "colored girl" singer Daisy, and things don't go well for them, as to be expected in 1918. We continue on through history to Babe's death in 1948 and later, as Johnny and Daisy (and, presumably, the entire Red Sox nation) experience the consequences of their relationship. It's really a tragic story of love lost and talent wasted, but the tone of the show is mostly hopeful and happy.

Red Sox fans agonize over Game 4
The show is incredibly well-cast, down to every last member of the ensemble (way too many to mention here, but a few standouts include Sarah Gibson, who looks and sounds so perfect in these period roles, like the ones she's played with Skylark Opera, and Max Wojtanowicz, always charismatic and a joy to watch). In fact, I found the ensemble numbers to be the strongest moments in the show - really fun and clever songs celebrating the joy and heartache of being a baseball fan. The leads are up to the task as well. I've seen Timotha Lanae playing supporting characters in various things around town, so it's nice to see her in the spotlight here as the strong-willed blues singer Daisy, and she takes to it very well. Josh Campbell is sweet and sincere as the naive young rookie who becomes known as Johnny Baseball, and nicely transforms into a more jaded and lived-in version of the character in the second act, 30 years later. Timotha and Josh's voices blend beautifully on such numbers as the sweet "I Thought About You." Zach Curtis is a scene stealer as the confident and lascivious Babe, and again later as powerful and eccentric Red Sox owner Yawkey. Also of note is Rudolph Searles III, who has a lovely voice as Tim, a pivotal character in the "curse."

Johnny throws a pitch as the ladies watch
In addition to the cast, the staging, direction, and choreography are all also top-notch. The set (by the always excellent set designer Michael Hoover) consists of red wooden wheeled platforms of varying heights that are moved around to represent bleachers, a bed, or a pitcher's mound. Big screens adorn the stage that display historical photos or images that serve as set backdrops. The actors move around this world with ease, and the choreography is so ingrained into the story that I'm not sure where the direction (by Doug Scholz-Carlson) ends and the choreography (by Jim Lichtsheidl) begins. This is not the typical musical theater choreography, with bold and precise big dance numbers, but is something more loose and organic, whether it's drunken men swaying and singing (the hilariously entertaining "Brotherhood of Bastards") or fans suffering and celebrating through a ball game. I didn't know Jim was a choreographer, but he's long been one of my favorite actors because of the specific and thoughtful physicality he brings to every one of his performances, so it really shouldn't be surprising that he's transferred that physical way of inhabiting a character to this cast. Along with the choreography, the representation of baseball itself is interesting and innovative. The pitcher throws into the audience, while the catcher receives the pitch on the other side of the stage from the audience, just one of several delightful representations of the movement of the ball. And the period costumes (MaryBeth Gagner) are gorgeous.

Everything about the baseball part of this show is fantastic and spot-on, from the opening number "Eight-Six Years" (we're going on 22 years without a championship here in Minnesota so I feel the pain!), to the love/hate relationship with a handsome opposing player in "Not Rivera," to the desperate pleas of baseball fans in "One More Run" (both feelings to which I can relate), to the beautiful and poetic ode to the magic of baseball in Johnny's song "All I Have to Do." "See You in the Big Leagues" is a fun and catchy song, and Daisy's nightclub number "Color Me Blue" is wonderfully bluesy. However, the non-baseball parts of the show could perhaps benefit from a little more development. The lackluster love song "Mr. Moon" is a little too "Somewhere Out There" (Timotha and Josh deserve a better song), and while the staging of the love song "God Wouldn't Mind" is cute, the words are less cute than creepy. I also didn't love the penultimate number "Errors" (Sondheim did it better in "No One Is Alone"/"Children Will Listen"). But with a few more tweaks the creators could have a really successful show on their hands, wherever they take it next. I'm thrilled to have gotten the chance to experience this new work.

Most of all, this show speaks directly to my baseball-loving heart and makes me anxious for the end of the long off-season. Only 29 days until the first Twins Spring Training game! Until then, head to downtown St. Paul between now and Feb. 10 to experience the joy, frustration, and community that comes with the love of the game. (Or head over to the good old HHH Metrodome this weekend for TwinsFest 2013 to meet some of the players before they head down to Fort Myers, as well as great players from Twins baseball history, like Tony O, Rod Carew, and one of my personal faves from the glory days of the late 80s, Frankie V). Let's play ball!

Monday, January 21, 2013

"Broadway Songbook: The Words and Music of Stephen Sondheim" at the Ordway McKnight Theatre

Three years ago I attended a Q&A session with one of the greatest living musical theater composers, Stephen Sondheim. At the time I hadn't seen very many of his shows, but since then I've seen a half dozen more and have really come to appreciate his immense talent. The second installment of the Ordway's wonderfully entertaining and informative Broadway Songbook series this season features the words and music of Sondheim. James Rocco (the Ordway's Artistic Director) once again wrote and hosts the show, sharing stories about Sondheim's life and work. He whittled Sondheim's 19 Broadway musicals down to select songs from 11 of these shows (the Sondheim catalog is so great that perhaps Sondheim should be an annual occurrence in this series!). Joining James onstage are musical director Raymond Berg, who very ably leads us through this challenging music, and six of my favorite local musical theater actors: Jennifer Baldwin Peden, Dieter Bierbrauer*, Joel Liestman, Kersten Rodau, Erin Schwab, and Regina Marie Williams.

The featured shows are:

Saturday Night (1954, not produced until 1997): Jennifer Baldwin Peden sings a lovely ode to NYC in the first musical that Sondheim wrote, although it wasn't seen on Broadway until over 40 years later.

West Side Story (1957, lyrics only): This is one of the greats and one of my favorite musicals. In perhaps the most thrilling moment of the show, the entire cast sings the brilliant "Tonight Quintet," with Dieter reprising his role as Tony (which he played at the Chanhassen several years ago) and Jennifer hitting those piercing high notes as Maria, while the others prepare for the rumble. Dieter also sings another great song from the show, "Something's Coming."

Gypsy (1959, lyrics): Kersten and Jennifer duet as Louise and June on the adorable "If Momma Was Married," while Regina channels Mama Rose in "Some People."

Anyone Can Whistle (1964): Kersten lends her powerful voice to a really amazing song I've never heard before, "There Won't Be Trumpets," and Erin sings the heart-breaking title song.

Company (1970): Once again reprising a role he previously played (in Theater Latte Da's gorgeous production just last fall), Dieter sings one of the best musical theater songs, "Being Alive." It's the third time I've heard him sing it, and it just gets better every time! In another classic from the show, Erin hilariously and effectively belts out "Ladies Who Lunch." I'll drink to that!

Follies (1971): So many great musical theater classics in this show I was lucky enough to see on Broadway a few years ago, including "Broadway Baby," "I'm Still Here," and "Buddy's Blues." But perhaps my favorite is a song that was cut from the show, the very funny and clever "Can That Boy Fox Trot," perfectly delivered by Jennifer.

A Little Night Music (1973): This show gave us one of the most famous Sondheim songs, "Send in the Clowns," which Regina sings with beautiful and heartfelt emotion.

Sweeney Todd (1979): Joel sings a lovely rendition of my favorite song from this otherwise dark and creepy show, "Not While I'm Around."

Into the Woods (1987): Joel and Dieter are the two princes in "Agony," complaining about the difficulty of winning their princesses' love. And the show closes with the touching "No One Is Alone" and "Children Will Listen," with the voices of the entire cast blending beautifully.

The Frogs (1974/2004): The show very appropriately opens with a selection from this previously unknown-to-me musical.

Road Show (2008): Regina and Dieter sing a charming duet from this frequently re-worked show, "The Best Thing That Ever Happened To Me."

The Ordway's Broadway Songbook series is a great thing for musical theater lovers like myself. A chance to hear familiar songs and a few new ones, and take a deep dive into a particular artist's work. James is a welcome host; his enthusiasm for the material is contagious. And the performers are always among the best Minneapolis and St. Paul have to offer. This is the fourth one that I've seen (I've only missed one since its inception), and every one has been so much fun. I hope they continue the series for years to come! Broadway Songbook: The Words and Music of Stephen Sondheim continues this weekend. If you love musical theater, you don't want to miss this one! Next up: Cole Porter, where they're sure to do a few numbers from Anything Goes, also coming to the Ordway this spring.

*I met Dieter a few weeks ago when I spotted him at the Pantages Theatre for a performance of Aida. I'm happy to report that in addition to being a talented singer/actor, he's also a lovely person. He said that his mom often reads Cherry and Spoon and tells him about it, so hello and thank you Mrs. Bierbrauer!

Saturday, January 19, 2013

"The Ultimate Pajama Party" at the Lab Theater

I tend to be a little leery of things referred to as "for girls only!" I'm afraid that it'll be chock full of gender stereotypes that will offend my feminist sensibilities more than entertain. But when I received an invitation to the opening night of The Ultimate Pajama Party at the Lab Theater, I couldn't resist the idea of going out to the theater in my comfiest and cutest pajamas (I have a weakness for pajamas, and can never walk through the Target pajama section without throwing something into my cart). The Ultimate Pajama Party is more party than theater, and since I'm a theater geek who enjoys theater more than parties, it's not really my thing. But everyone seemed to be having a great time, and I can see that it could be a really fun thing for a group of girlfriends who like this type of thing. The gorgeous space at the Lab Theater is decked out to full effect and everyone involved has worked really hard to create a fun and welcoming space for this experience.

As expected, this "girls night out" event does play on every stereotype of What Women Like, from the Kardashians and Fifty Shade of Grey (no, thank you) to shopping and jewelry (yes, please). Even the cast of characters assembled fit into stereotypes - the frazzled mom, the single girl, the gay best friend. The evening is set up as a party for Lisa, who is late in arriving to the party (allowing us party-goers time to visit the tiki bar and enjoy the free snacks). Lisa has invited her friends to celebrate, and the evening continues with a few skits and musical numbers interspersed with party games. I wish that the scripted play parts were more developed. They've assembled a fantastic cast of local actors whose talents I would like to see more of. What's there is good (written by James Detmar, who brilliantly played many roles in Spring Awakening last year), there's just not enough of it. The website says "After a bad breakup with Steve, a dead-end job and years spent not pursuing her dreams, Lisa is ready to celebrate new beginnings," but I didn't really get that from the show. I would prefer more scripted parts and less interactive games (diet bingo, walk like a Kardashian). But again, I'm a theater geek so maybe that's just me.

On the plus side is that fantastic cast of local actors I mentioned:
  • Bonni Allen - I got a kick out of her presiding over the strange puppet show since she played Kate Monster in Avenue Q.
  • Doug Anderson - he makes a smooth transition from playing the stereotypical Minnesota guy in A Don't Hug Me Christmas Carol to the stereotypical gay best friend.
  • Betti Battocletti - always musically comedic in such shows as 42nd Street and The Full Monty.
  • Dawn Brodey - one of the standouts in last year's fantastic Fringe show Joe Dowling's William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet...
  • Janet Paone - I've never seen her before but she's very funny and bawdy in the show.
  • Melanie Wehrmacher - the guest of honor Lisa, a totally different role from the last time I saw her in Diary of Anne Frank.
  • Lisa Weiland - the frazzled mom, which I'm sure many women in the audience can relate to.
Many of them go by their real names in the show, and seem to be sharing some real stories about their lives, so I'm not really sure where the actor ends and the character begins. They all meander through the audience during the show, chatting with guests, and are all very fun and open, creating that party atmosphere. The evening concludes with a performance by Lisa's favorite local band (and actual local band), Belladiva. They sing a collection of current pop hits (which I like to call Glee songs) as well as classic female power pop anthems like "I Will Survive" and "It's Raining Men." This loosely theatrical interactive event turns into a dance party.

the Lab Theater all decked out for a party
I love the Lab Theater - it's like a big, beautiful blank slate. Joshua Barnd has transformed it into an elegant space, with comfy white couches and chairs, black tables, zebra print floor, gorgeous drapery, and a fun setup for photo shoots (if that's your thing). It's just an all around lovely space to be in. There are also party favors and t-shirts to be had, and free food - always a plus at a party!

The Ultimate Pajama Party is super cheesy, both literally (snacks!) and figuratively. They're definitely targeting a specific market and might become a huge success. Personally, I prefer more traditional theater (did I mention I'm a geek who would a million times rather go to the theater than a party?), but if you're looking for a fun and silly night out with your girlfriends, you might want to give this one a try. The party continues through February 10, and don't forget to wear you favorite pajamas! (Half price tickets available for select dates at

Friday, January 18, 2013

"As You Like It" by The Acting Company at the Guthrie Studio Theater

The Acting Company has been touring the country for 40 years, bringing Shakespeare and other classic works of theater to cities from Decorah Iowa to NYC. The Acting Company has close ties to the Guthrie Theater, where it stops every January, and features many U of M/Guthrie BFA graduates. This year they're presenting As You Like It (which I saw just last year in a delightful interpretation by Ten Thousand Things). In case you get Shakespeare's comedies confused like I do, with their similar plots of banishment, disguises, and mistaken identities, let me remind you that As You Like It is the one where Rosalind is the daughter of a banished Duke, who escapes into the forest disguised as a man, where she convinces young Orlando to woo her as if she were Rosalind. And everyone lives happily ever after. The talented young cast and the delightful staging bring this amusing story to life.

Highlights of the show include:
Joseph Midyett and Elizabeth Stahlmann
as Orlando and Rosalind 
  • Joseph Midyett and Elizabeth Stahlmann are convincing and charismatic as the young lovers Orlando and Rosalind, as is Megan Bartle as Rosalind's devoted cousin Celia.
  • I'm beginning to think this might be my favorite Shakespeare comedy, mostly because of the inclusion of music, which is interpreted differently in each production I've seen. Here, we are treated to the lovely voice of Noah Putterman as the lord's musician Amiens.
  • A couple of diverse performances, both equally enthusiastic and charming, are turned in by Michael McDonald as a refined courtier and a poor shepherd hopelessly in love.
Chris Thorn as Jaques with masked creatures of the forest
  • As the melancholy forest dweller Jaques, Chris Thorn (in long hair and a beard that makes him look like he's from the cast of Argo) very effectively delivers one of the most famous monologues in Shakespeare, the one that begins with "All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players," and then goes on to list the seven stages of man.
  • I'm not sure what time period the costumes are supposed to be from, but they are interesting to look at. Celia's dress looks vaguely 40s-ish (and her adorable forest attire more like a Swiss miss), while Rosalind's wardrobe has a flapper-esque quality, and the men dressed in suits from sometime in the first half of the 19th century.
  • Walking into the intimate studio theater, the stage is empty except for three standing phonographs and trees off to either side. At intermission, the stage is transformed into a magical forest. The phonographs are cleverly used to create sound effects and music, and the masks worn to represent animals in the forest are perfectly delightful.
I think it's safe to say that after 40 years, with such alumni as Rainn Wilson and Kevin Kline, not to mention chairperson of the advisory board Angela LandsburyThe Acting Company is an institution of the American theater. They're at the Guthrie through February 3, and then will continue to tour the country with As You Like It and Of Mice and Men (which I wish they were doing here as well) through spring. This is my third year seeing them (see last year's Julius Caesar, and 2011's Romeo and Juliet and A Comedy of Errors), and they never disappoint.  Check them out at the Guthrie, and watch this video about the 40th anniversary of The Acting Company:

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

"Thom Pain (based on nothing)" by Loudmouth Collective at Open Eye Figure Theater

We create community.
We have fun.
We're small.
We want to share a drink.
We get it.
We love language.
We don't waste your time.
We are sick of apathy.
We tell stories.

This is how the new theater company Loudmouth Collective describes themselves. I think all of those things are fantastic, as are all of their shows that I've seen. OK technically Thom Pain (based on nothing) is the first Loudmouth Collective production I've seen, but their first show was a remount of one of my favorite shows of 2012, The Peanut Butter Factory's Gruesome Playground Injuries, and Artistic Director Natalie Novacek (who directs this piece) also directed one of my favorite Fringe Fest shows of last year, Joe Dowling's William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet on the Moon, Featuring Kate Mulgrew as Lady Capulet. So I feel like I've got the gist of what they're all about. And that is: interesting, intelligent, funny, a little bizarre, thought-provoking, unique, meaningful theater. It's good stuff, friends, check it out.

I can't really tell you what this play is about. As the title says, it's based on nothing. In this one-man show, a character called Thom Pain tells stories directly to the audience for 70 minutes straight. Stories about a sad little boy, a dog, bees, a love gone wrong. Stories that draw you in, painting pictures with words, and then snap you back to reality. It's sort of faux-interactive; Thom talks to people in the crowd, but it's all part of the show. It's always a little scary when the house lights go up, but don't be afraid, you're among friends. I just hope you're paying attention.

As Thom Pain, Sam Landman gives a terrific performance, the kind of performance that makes you forget that this is an actor playing a part, and begin to think that he's really just this crazy/profound guy going on a 70-minute existential rant. It's a pretty remarkable feat just to perform this piece that's so dense with words, but Sam also manages to convey a range of emotions - pain, anger, confusion, loss, frustration, longing. It's intense and captivating, and quite fascinating to watch.

This is my first time attending a theater production at Open Eye Figure Theatre, although I was there once for a concert. It's a great little space. Small and intimate, with a brick arch over the stage, it's a nice place to watch theater. The stage is completely bare for this show, except for a dictionary on a stand. The lighting (by Stephanie Richards) is the only thing that creates the mood; Thom is almost in conversation with the lights.

I'm really at a loss for what else to say about this piece, partly because I'm still processing it, and party because I don't want to spoil any of the delightfully perplexing surprises in the show if you go see it. And if you're looking for something unique and different, you definitely should go see it. Thom Pain (based on nothing) plays for one more weekend at the Open Eye Figure Theatre; reserve your tickets here. And remember - pay attention!

Monday, January 14, 2013

"Rabbit Hole" at Theatre in the Round

Theatre in the Round is celebrating their 500th mainstage production with the 2006 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Rabbit Hole. It's a feat unmatched by any other theater in town, and this play is a great choice for this milestone event. Rabbit Hole is a really well-written contemporary play with just five (onstage) characters, who talk the way real people talk. The play depicts an unthinkable but unfortunately real situation - a family trying to cope with grief after the accidental death of a child. It's pretty intense, but fortunately there are some lighter humorous moments that break up the intensity, just like in life. From the cast to the direction to the set, Theatre in the Round does a fine job with this difficult work.

The story begins eight months after the death of 4-year-old Danny. Grieving parents Becca (Elena Gianetti) and Howie (Ron Ravensborg) are dealing with the tragedy in different ways (she wants to move out of the house to avoid reminders, he repeatedly watches videos of their son), and are having a hard time meeting in the middle. Becca's sister Izzy (Rachel Finch, the standout in the cast with her completely natural acting) is her polar opposite and tries to distract everyone with her colorful life. Adding some much need comic relief is their mother Nat (Linda Sue Anderson, who's a hoot), with her crazy theories about "the Kennedy curse" and other rants. The delicate family balance is disturbed when the young man responsible for the accident appears (the appealing Kenny Martin II). This feels like a very real family dealing with a very real problem, struggling, sometimes failing, but continuing to be there for each other.

The "in the round" stage looks like a real (but very neat, which is understandable given who lives there) contemporary home, complete with kitchen, dining room, living room, and a child's bedroom that looks as if he never left (set design by Peter W. Mitchell). I have a strange fascination with watching people perform real-life mundane tasks on stage, like folding laundry and washing dishes, and there's plenty of that here in this lifelike home. One of the things I love about Theatre in the Round is that you get to walk right through the set to get to your seats, which makes it seem even more real. The nature of an "in the round" theater provides an interesting staging problem, but thanks to the direction by David Coral, I never felt like I was missing out on anything, even if a character's back was to me. During the effective scene transitions, the lights dim but don't go out, as evocative and appropriate music plays. We see the characters progress from one room/scene to another, in what are not throwaway moments but rather add to building the characters.

Rabbit Hole is playing weekends now through February 3. If you haven't seen any of the previous 499 productions at Theatre in the Round, number 500 is a good place to start.

Elena Gianetti and Ron Ravensborg
as grieving parents Becca and Howie

Sunday, January 13, 2013

"Annie" by GREAT Children's Theatre at the Escher Auditorium, College of St. Benedict

I've wanted to attend a GREAT Theatre production in St. Cloud for a while now - I have a lot of family in the St. Cloud area and have attended events at the Paramount Theatre where they often perform, so I thought it would be a fun thing to do to expand the geographic area of Cherry and Spoon. But I never quite found the right show, until my youngest cousin Greta was cast as Duffy in Annie. And even better - the production would take place at my alma mater, the College of St. Benedict, on the very stage where I used to perform as a member of the Wind Ensemble when I was a student there many years ago. So it was with much excitement that I made that familiar drive to CSB with my parents to see the show with about 15 or so members of my large and supportive extended family. While of course the production of a community theater in St. Cloud is not quite at the level of professional theaters in Minneapolis/St. Paul, the love of live theater and the desire to share that love with the audience and children in the community is still there, and that's what's important. GREAT Theatre (which stands for Great River Educational Arts Theatre) has stated values that include "honoring the imagination of children - their involvement in the arts cultivates curiosity, creativity and endless exploration" and "sharing the wonder of live theatre - the resulting joy is something all people should experience." That's definitely something I can support.

GREAT Theatre borrowed the sets, costumes, and music from the Broadway tour of Annie. Unfortunately the music is canned (they could have easily filled the pit with the talented music students from St. Ben's and St. John's), but the sets and costumes look fabulous on the stage of the Escher Auditorium in the Benedicta Arts Center. GREAT doubled the number of orphans normally in the show to give more children the chance to participate in the show, and who can argue with that? There's really nothing cuter than a bunch of ragamuffin little girls running around the stage singing and dancing, and director/choreographer Alison Feigh does a great job placing them around the large stage and keeping them in line. All of the kids are enthusiastic and joyful and totally in the moment, especially Greta Eherenman as Duffy and Aedyn Colville as the scrappy little Molly. Making her mainstage debut with GREAT, Katie Amdahl does an impressive job as our heroine Annie. The kids are joined by a bunch of experienced adult actors. Standouts include Mike Harens as a very likeable Daddy Warbucks, and Megan Potter (who would fit right in on any Twin Cities stage with her beautiful voice and stage presence) as Mr. Warbucks' assistant Grace.

I brought Greta (and her mom) to see the Peter Rothstein-directed Annie at the Children's Theatre a few years ago (where we met Peter who was sitting right in front of us!). I couldn't be more proud and thrilled to see her up on stage doing the show herself. GREAT Theatre is doing good work bringing live theater to the community and kids in particular, which I think is a pretty cool thing. There could very well be a few future theater stars on that stage, and this experience is helping them along on that journey. I look forward to seeing more GREAT Theatre productions (especially those starring the talented Greta, who I've always known is a star), and perhaps exploring the St. Cloud theater scene a bit more (please email me if you know of other St. Cloud theaters I should check out). Wherever you live, go support your local community theater!

my cousin Greta as Duffy

Saturday, January 12, 2013

"I Am Anne Frank" by Nautilus Music-Theater at the Southern Theater

I recently read The Diary of a Young Girl after seeing a moving production of the play based on the book, The Diary of Anne Frank, at Yellow Tree Theatre last fall. We're all familiar with Anne's story - she and her family hid in a "secret annex" in a building in Amsterdam in the mid-1940s, until they were found and sent to concentration camps. But what struck me most about the diary is how normal Anne seems, writing about typical teenage topics like sibling rivalry, parental trouble, boys, movie stars, books, school. She was an ordinary girl in an extraordinary situation. Perhaps that's the most remarkable part of her story, how she was able to carry out an almost normal life, growing up living in a small crowded apartment that she was never able to leave, with the threat of death and danger always so near. Nautilus Music-Theater's remount of their 2006 Ivey-winning production of I Am Anne Frank gives yet another perspective on that familiar story. Like all good musicals, when words aren't enough to express what you're feeling - there's music. Music communicates emotions in a way mere words cannot. And this piece expresses the joy, fear, longing, frustration, hope, and desperation of Anne's story.

A few highlights of the show:
  • Vanessa Gamble gives a beautiful performance in what is almost a one-woman show. She really does become Anne in all her forms - stubborn, spirited, joyful, fearful. The music flows seamlessly out of the dialogue, often using Anne's own words from the diary. Vanessa's performance of this beautiful music (by Michael Cohen) gives us deeper insight into Anne's experience.
  • It's "almost" a one-woman show, because Vanessa is accompanied on stage by the always excellent Joel Liestman. He spends most of the show sitting at the edge of the stage, watching Anne, reacting to her, and providing another character for her to play against. He occasionally joins in for a song or discussion, playing Anne's teenage friend and fellow annex resident Peter.
  • The set is like a floating island in the beautiful cavernous space of the Southern Theater, a mostly bare square box with just the hint of a window and a desk and chair, and Anne's words on the back wall. Anne never leaves this small area, like the real Anne never left the small apartment. Peter never leaves an even smaller box on the side; even when they're singing and dancing together and exploring their relationship, they never cross that invisible boundary, adding to the feeling of isolation and loneliness of the situation. (Nautilus Aristic Director Ben Krywosz is responisble for the direction and set design.)
  • The lighting (by Michael Wangen) is like a third actor on stage, creating moods, hinting at the time of day, showing us the stars on Anne's face.
  • The simple choreography (by JP Fitzgibbons) flows out of the music and emotion of the words and feels very organic to the characters.
The show opens with the actors introducing themselves, listing a few personal characteristics, some similar and some different. Then they tell stories of genocide around the world, all of which have taken place since the Holocaust, a tragedy we swore to never let happen again. But it's still happening. Anne's words are so simple and profound, as she ponders why people kill people who are different from them, and who decided they were different in the first place. "It's really a wonder that I haven't dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart." Hers is an inspirational story, and this production by Nautilus Music-Theater does it justice.

Nautilus has been touring the show around the state for the past year or so, and it only plays for two more performances at the Southern Theatre. Buy your tickets here - it's a bargain at under $20 a seat for this beautiful and moving 90-minute show.

Vanessa Gamble as Anne Frank

Sunday, January 6, 2013

"Aida" by Theater Latte Da at the Pantages Theatre

"Broadway Re-Imagined" is the title of the new collaboration between local musical theater company Theater Latte Da and Hennepin Theatre Trust, which oversees the Hennepin Theatres (Orpheum, State, Pantages, and New Century), hosting many Broadway tours. In the first product of the collaboration, the 2000 Elton John/Tim Rice pop/rock musical Aida is re-imagined as a rock concert with some fantastic design elements. It's a much bigger production than Latte Da usually does - bigger stage, bigger venue, bigger set design; Aida is a big musical with a big sound. But director Peter Rothstein still gives it that Latte Da touch with interesting and innovative choices, and I loved it. I saw Aida on tour and on Broadway on my very first trip to New York City in April of 2001, and while I don't remember much about the actual production, I've listened to and loved the soundtrack for twelve years. It's a fantastic (and Tony-winning) score, and it sounds amazing with the awesome onstage rock band and the (as usual) perfect cast assembled by Latte Da. The book is a little weak (maybe because it took three people to write it), but the compelling performances by the cast more than make up for it. All in all it's a wonderfully entertaining evening at the theater that's a feast for the eyes and ears.

The musical Aida is based on the 19th century opera of the same name by Guiseppi Verdi. It tells the fictional story of Radames (a captain of the Egyptian army), who falls in love with Aida (a slave who is actually the princess of Nubia, a nearby nation with which they are at war), despite the fact that he is engaged to marry the Egyptian Princess Amneris. Radames' father has concocted a plot to kill the Pharoah and marry his son to the heir of Egypt, and thereby control the country. But he has underestimated his son's love for this "slave," Aida's desire to free herself and her people, and Amneris' strength in ruling in her own right. I've never been a big fan of "love at first sight" stories (especially of the slave/master variety), but it soon becomes clear that Radames and Aida are very much alike - both living in the shadow of their father, unable to live their lives freely as they choose. Amneris, despite initially seeming shallow, is a sympathetic character, making for a love triangle with no happy ending.

The entire cast is superb, beginning with the three leads. Austene Van played a goddess in last summers A Night in Olympus at Illusion, and as Aida, she is a goddess. She has a regal voice and carriage that makes one wonder how anyone could not know that Aida is a princess. Her voice is stunning and her performance passionate as the woman torn between the man she loves and the people she would die for. Adam Pascal played Radames in the original Broadway cast (and also originated the role of Roger in my favorite musical RENT), and as much as I love him, his voice is not quite big enough for some of these sweeping pop ballads. So to hear someone like Jared Oxborough sing these songs is a revelation. He has a more musical theater type of voice with a gorgeous tone, but still gives it that rock edge. After listening to the OBC for twelve years, I finally know what these songs were supposed to sound like. Austene and Jared look and sound gorgeous together, with a believable chemistry.

Last but certainly not least: the third member of our love triangle. Simply put, Cat Brindisi is a star. She has dabbled her toe in the pool of New York City, and it's only a matter of time before she's snatched up and taken away from us to become a Broadway star. She follows her incredibly moving performance as Wendla in Spring Awakening last year with another stunner here. Her Princess Amneris is a cross between Glinda and Cleopatra. She first appears shallow, enjoying clothes and shopping and frivolous things. But it's soon revealed that she's deeper than she seems, eventually growing into the role of leader of her country, and Cat makes this transition believable and sympathetic. One of my favorite songs from the show is the super fun "(Dress Has Always Been) My Strongest Suit," and Cat sings the crap out of it. In contrast, "I Know the Truth" is a sobering moment of realization, serious and beautiful.

The show also features a couple of strong turns from supporting players. Nathan Barlow, a student in the U of M/Guthrie program, is one to watch. He impressed last fall in Measure for Measure with Ten Thousand Things (where there's nothing to hide behind), and he's quite charming here as the young Nubian man who recognizes Aida for who she really is and encourages her to fulfill her destiny. Ben Bakken as Radames' devious father is a scene-stealer with his two songs "Build Another Pyramid" and "Like Father Like Son." He really wails on these songs and sounds fantastic; it's now obvious to me why he won an Ivey for playing the title role in Jesus Christ Superstar (while I did see the show, it was on Ben's night off). The marvelous T. Mychael Rambo is underutilized in the ensemble and as Aida's father. He doesn't sing much except a few lines and a glory note, and even though I know Aida's father doesn't get a song, I was hoping they'd sneak one in somehow. It seems a shame to have T. Mychael Rambo in a show and not feature him!

As I mentioned, the band is onstage for the entire show, which I always love. Jason Hansen does an amazing job leading this group of musicians that look and sound like a rock band. The whole show really plays like a rock concert, with characters occasionally singing into microphones. I particularly loved Jared singing "Fortune Favors the Brave" while hanging with the band, and the gorgeous trio "A Step Too Far," with the three members of the love triangle singing into mics at the front of the stage. The choreography by Michael Matthew Ferrell is really interesting and diverse, from the jerky movements of the soldiers, to the "Walk Like an Egyptian" style of "My Strongest Suit", to the thrilling African style dance of the Nubian people. A really beautiful aerial performance seems slightly out of place, but does serve to emphasize the extravagance of palace life in comparison to what's going on outside of it.

The set is spectacular, and when I looked in the playbill and saw the name Joel Sass (frequent designer/director at the Jungle, which has the best sets in town), I was not surprised. Backdrops and large pieces that move in and out, along with the use of screens and fabrics, represent various locations from the river to the palace. The costume design (Tulle & Dye) mixes modern with ancient, and Amneris' wardrobe is gorgeous and showy, and easily removable; her handmaids dress her up like a paper doll. This is not a historically accurate representation of ancient Egypt, rather it invokes the time period while matching the modern rock vibe of the score. (This is one of several elements that reminded me of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, another modern retelling of history that mixes the old and new.) I'm going to see the show again in a few days with my theater group, and I'm glad, because there's a lot going on; it's really impossible to take it all in on one viewing.

Back when I first saw Aida, before I started my Guthrie season subscription that led me into the world of local theater, I pretty much only saw the Broadway touring shows. I'm certain there are many people in that situation, unaware of the depth of theater talent right here in Minnesota. I hope that this partnership between Theater Latte Da and Hennepin Theatre Trust will draw people like that into the theater, thinking that they're going to see a Broadway tour (even the official Playbill looks like Broadway). Once they get inside they'll realize that this fabulous production is completely home-grown, which will hopefully encourage them to see more local theater, most of which happens off of Hennepin Avenue. That's the goal of this new partnership, and Aida is a successful first entry. Playing now through January 27 at the beautifully restored historic Pantages Theatre, check it out to get a taste of Broadway made in Minnesota. I can't wait to see what they're going to re-imagine next.*

Dance of the Robe (all photos by Michal Daniel)

*Update: it has been announced that Theater Latte Da and the Hennepin Theatre trust will next be re-imagining a musical theater classic, Kander and Ebb's Cabaret. Peter told me that they were one of the first companies to licence the Sam Mendes 1990s revival version, which is much darker and grittier than the original, and incorporates some of the music written for the film. I cannot wait to see Latte Da's spin on one of my favorite musicals, coming January 2014.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

10 Most Popular Cherry and Spoon Posts of 2012

In a fun exercise for me, which may or may not be interesting to you, I have listed my top 10 most popular posts of 2012*, starting with the most popular. Many of these are smaller theaters and/or ones with which I have a special relationship (not as creepy as it sounds), and one is a nationally touring (and my favorite) band.  Check it out:

  1. You're a Good Man Charlie Brown, Bloomington Civic Theatre
  2. Xanadu, Chanhassen Dinner Theatres
  3. Spring Awakening, Theater Latte Da
  4. Deer Camp: The Musical, New Century Theatre (one of the least favorable reviews I wrote this year)
  5. Edith Stein, Open Window Theatre
  6. Cabaret, Lyric Arts Main Street Stage
  7. Still Life with Iris, Yellow Tree Theatre
  8. The Punch Brothers, Varsity Theater (one of my few non-theater posts)
  9. My 2012 Fringe Must-See List (written before the fest)
  10. 42nd Street, Bloomington Civic Theatre

*I borrowed this idea from one of my new favorite bloggers, Mayim Bialik (aka Blossom, Amy Farah Fowler).

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

My Year of Theater, 2012

My theater habit is getting out of control. In 2012, I saw over 100 local theater productions by over 30 theater companies (including the 16 shows I saw at the Minnesota Fringe Festival). Comedy, drama, musical, and every possible combination thereof. I won't claim to list the "best" or the "top" shows, because who am I to judge what's best? Truth be told, I've never had a bad experience at the theater. But of course, there are shows that I enjoy more than others, shows that inspire, enlighten, amuse, move, surprise, challenge, satisfy. Shows that stay with me weeks, months, or even years after I've seen them. These are just a few of my favorites from 2012. Agree? Disagree? Head to the comments section below and share your favorites of 2012.

In alphabetical order, my 2012 favorites include (click on the title to read my full thoughts on the show at the time I saw it):

Ash Land, Transatlantic Love Affair: My favorite show of the fantastic 2012 Minnesota Fringe Festival was also the last one I saw, a Sunday night audience pick. This very loose retelling of the Cinderella story is a totally unique creation that moved me in so many ways with its innovative and simple way of storytelling. The company of actors embodied, in addition to the human characters, everything in the world of the story, from the waving wheat, to the water pump, to the long awaited rain. Ash Land is everything theater should be, or as I said in my original blog post: “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.” It was my first show by TLA (a double Ivey winner this year, for Ballad of the Pale Fisherman and the Emerging Artist Award for co-founder Isabel Nelson), and I plan to see everything they do from now on, beginning with a reprise of their 2011 Fringe show Red Resurrected, playing at Illusion Theater in February.

Buzzer, Pillsbury House Theatre: Pillsbury House Theatre does not make the kind of theater that’s nice and fun and pleasant. They make theater that will challenge you, make you think about the world you live in, and want to do things differently. Whether it's Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Brother/Sister trilogy, which continued this year with The Brothers Size, or the new play Buzzer, a story that explores race, gentrification, and the complicated relationship between three friends. The trio of young actors all gave powerhouse performances, including an Ivey Award winning performance by Hugh Kennedy. If you missed this show, you're in luck – the play is being remounted at the Guthrie's Studio Theater beginning in February with the original cast (which also includes Namir Smallwood and Sara Richardson).

Gruesome Playground Injuries, Peanut Butter Factory: This funny and surprisingly moving little play about the lifelong relationship between two childhood friends (beautifully portrayed by Adam Whisner and Leigha Horton) was perhaps my most surprising and delightful theater find this year. With very little idea of what I was going to see, I completely loved the experience. As I wrote at the time, "This is why I do this, friends. To go to an out of the way, under the radar theater with zero expectations, and be totally surprised and delighted and touched and moved. It doesn't get much better than that." It was far from the biggest or splashiest show (produced at the cozy little Intermedia Arts theater), rather it was quiet, powerful, and transformative.

Into the Woods, Mu Performing Arts: It was a great year for Sondheim in the Twin Cities. Theater Latte Da staged Company (more on that later), Bloomington Civic Theater did a beautiful production of Sunday in the Park with George, and Mu tackled Into the Woods, setting the European fairy tales we're all familiar with in the woods of Asia. As I wrote at the time, "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." With beautifully simple sets and costumes, a fabulous cast that included Mu favorites Randy Reyes, Sheena Janson, Sarah Ochs, and Katie Bradley, and that wonderful Sondheim score perfectly executed under Denise Prosek's music direction, it was both classic Sondheim and something new.

My Antonia, Illusion Theater: My first Illusion show was a remount of a successful play from a few years ago, which I regretted missing the first time around. This beautiful adaptation of Willa Cather's pioneer novel moved me with its sense of nostalgia for that time in our history when everything was new, told through Cather’s wonderfully descriptive prose, a talented cast playing many different characters (led by Joel Leistman, Dustin Bronson, and Emily Gunyou Halaas), and beautifully evocative music. Its simple beauty unexpectedly brought tears to my eyes.

Next to Normal, Mixed Blood Theatre: Next to Normal, a gut-wrenching look at the effects of mental illness on one typical American family, is simply one of the best musicals written in this young century. It's one of my favorite scores to listen to, and I saw the Broadway production three times (including once on tour), so needless to say I was thrilled to hear about this local production. With its simple staging, talented and racially diverse cast, and excellent execution of the difficult and driving rock score, Mixed Blood did not disappoint.

Red, Park Square Theatre: It was a good year for Park Square. They started the year with a spectacular production of another one of my favorite musicals, Ragtime, about early 20th century America and the diverse people who inhabit it, with an amazing cast full of local talent (I'll talk more about a few of them a bit later). But if forced to choose, I have to say that the intense two-person drama Red was my favorite Park Square production this year. A career performance by veteran local actor J.C. Cutler, equally matched by the up-and-coming young actor Steven Lee Johnson (see also Beautiful Thing), playing a complicated teacher/student, father/son, mentor/mentee relationship, set in the world of art in 1950s New York City. A beautifully written play, fantastically acted by two performers totally in the moment, a lived-in set that included life-size replicas of huge and famous works of art, in short, "this play is an almost visceral experience, with art, music, ideas, words, appealing to all of the senses."

Sea Marks, Gremlin Theater: The Gremlin is another fairly new-to-me theater that I've really come to enjoy, showcasing a wide variety of work, from the hilarious farce An Absolute Turkey, to the dark comedy A Behanding in Spokane, to my favorite of this year, Sea Marks, a quiet little play about an Irishman and a working woman from Liverpool who embark on an unlikely romance through letters. Two of the Twin Cities' best actors Stacia Rice and Peter Hansen played the couple, about whom I wrote, "to watch them together in this intense, beautiful, sweet, awkward little dance of a play is a true pleasure."

Spring Awakening, Theater Latte Da: If you've read this blog before, you know that Theater Latte Da is my favorite theater company, specializing in what Artistic Director Peter Rothstein calls "intelligent musical theater." I really loved their fall production of perhaps my favorite Sondheim musical, Company, which they managed to make modern and relevant despite it being over 40 years old. But their spring production of Spring Awakening was, simply put, perfection. Along with Next to Normal, Spring Awakening is one of the best musicals of this century, in which a 19th century German play is turned into a rock musical exploring the difficulties of being a teenager in this world. Latte Da's superb production featured a super-talented and energetic young cast - Cat Brindisi, David Darrow, Tyler Michaels (more on him in a bit), and a bunch of the University of Minnesota's best theater/dance/music students. The choreography by Carl Flink was the best I saw all year, and took full advantage of the youthful passion and energy of the cast. It was successful and extremely satisfying on every front – and deservedly won an Ivey Award for all-around excellence. As one evaluator put it, "this is the reason the Iveys were created."

Summer and Smoke, Theater in the Round: 2012 was also a great year for Tennessee Williams, one of my favorite playwrights. The highlights include a beautifully sad production of The Glass Menagerie at Yellow Tree Theatre, the intense and bristling Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at the Guthrie, and Autumn Song, a new piece by local composer George Maurer, in which the poems of Williams and Rainer Maria Rilke are gorgeously set to music. The one blight on my year of Tennessee Williams is an unfortunate and unintentionally comedic Broadway production of A Streetcar Named Desire (I'm looking forward to seeing Ten Thousand Things' production in May to see how it should be done). But my favorite Williams experience this year was a show I almost didn't see, Summer and Smoke at Theatre in the Round. I'd never heard of this play, and hadn't been to Theatre in the Round in years, so I wasn't quite sure what to expect. I was blown away by the tragic love story and the performances of the cast (particularly Joanna Harmon as the tortured Miss Alma) on this intimate little stage. It was heart-breakingly lovely.

Turn of the Screw, Torch Theater: A perfectly thrilling ghost story at one of my favorite venues, Minneapolis Theatre Garage, Torch Theater's production of the Jeffrey Hatcher adaptation of the classic ghost story was just in time for Halloween. Two excellent performances by Lindsay Marcy as the governess of two troubled children at a spooky remote English estate and Craig Johnson as every other character in the story fueled this tense and tight drama that continued to give me chills even after I left the theater. Watching the governess fall apart as the events unfolded was deliciously disturbing, even more so when you realized it might all be happening inside her head.

Werther and Lotte, The Moving Company: For the second year in a row, a production by this new-ish theater company founded by Theatre de la Jeune Lune artists Dominque Serrand and Steven Epp has landed on my list of favorites. This time it's a lovely and innovative interpretation of a novel by Goethe. Christina Baldwin (more on her in a moment) and Nathan Keepers brought their individually unique and specific talents (hers musical, his physical) together to create a piece that combined music, movement, images, and storytelling in a way that pushes the boundaries of what theater can be and do. In other words, "it's truly lovely and a breath of fresh air."

Xanadu, Chanhassen Dinner Theatres: You may have seen ads for the Chanhassen's summer show that quoted me as saying, "it's the most fun I've ever had at the theater!" While it's true that the Chanhassen puts on the best press night in town, the fun mostly came from the show. Xanadu was the perfect summer entertainment (I saw it twice) - light and fun and hilarious, but with some clever commentary on the state of musical theater that proves it's in on the joke. It was a bit of a departure for the Chan, which usually does more traditional, classic musical theater (see their current production of Bye Bye Birdie, or next summer's production of Joseph, the third in six years), and a very successful one at that (to my eyes). A relatively small cast allowed each member to shine, from the Olivia Newton John-esque Jodi Carmelli to Kersten Rodau in a hilarious turn as an "e-evil woman!" And the cheesy 80s music featured in the show became my soundtrack of the summer.

The Sunshine Boys
That completes my list of favorite shows of the year. I haven't mentioned any Guthrie Theater shows yet; in a way I feel like they belong in a class of their own. The Guthrie has more resources than any other theater in town (not just money but the kind of talent they're able to attract from around the country), they produce more theater than any other theater, and I see more shows there (18 this year on their three stages) than anywhere else. My favorites this year include the delightfully original dance pieces Swimming with My Mother and Trick Boxing in the Studio theater, the luscious summer musical Roman Holiday, the fast and funny Raye Birk/Peter Michael Goetz buddy comedy The Sunshine Boys, the pre-Broadway production of End of the Rainbow featuring a fierce and fearless performance by Tony nominee and Ivey winner Tracie Bennett,
Time Stands Still
the sobering and intense war and relationship drama Time Stands Still, the hilarious British comedy Hay Fever, the story of poet Langston Hughes Are You Now or Have You Ever Been (featuring Gavin Lawrence, who brought Hughes and his poetry to life in one of the best performances of the year), the tensely claustrophobic study of human nature The Birds, and last but not least, the ridiculously hilarious adaptation of the 18th century Italian play The Servant of Two Masters (currently playing through January 20).

The Birthday Party
Of special note this year is The Jungle Theater because of the consistency of quality in all five of their shows this year. 2012 was my second year with a season subscription (unlike many theaters, their season runs concurrent with the calendar year), and I loved everything I saw. They've really grown on me as one of my favorite theaters in town (along with the Guthrie, Theater Latte Da, and Ten Thousand Things). Firstly, they have the best sets in town, in the sense that the sets are perfectly matched to the story. I always feel like I'm peering into a life-sized diorama of some fascinating and clearly drawn world. Secondly, they make smart and interesting choices in plays, this year beginning with the thrilling mystery Dial M forMurder, continuing with the bizarre Pinter play The Birthday Party, the hilarious farce Noises Off, the beautifully absurd Waiting for Godot, and finally, the piece de resistance, the sublime In the Next Room. Add some of my favorite actors and directors, and you have a very strong year of theater. Next year looks to continue this trend, starting with Venus in Fur in February, and featuring one of my favorite musicals Urinetown this summer.

Dieter Bierbrauer (center) with
the cast of Company
In addition to my favorite shows and theaters, I also had a few favorite theater artists this year that are worth mentioning. I have long been a fan of Dieter Bierbrauer’s, but never more so than in 2012. He was featured in four of the shows mentioned above, all wonderfully diverse performances in terms of character and musical style. From a poor immigrant father in the turn of the century musical drama Ragtime, to a California surfer dude singing 80s pop songs in Xanadu, to poet Rainer Maria Rilke singing his beautiful words (as composed by George Maurer) in Autumn Song, to a 35 year old single man contemplating life and marriage in Company with its intricate, gorgeous, and powerful score. That's quite a collection of magnificent performances.

Christina Baldwin (right)
in In the Next Room
Like Dieter, I have long admired Christina Baldwin (remember her spectacular turn as Edie in Grey Gardens at the Ordway a few years ago?). Watching her over the years, I have come to learn that there is nothing she can't do - comedy, drama, any style of musical, straight plays. She displayed that range to remarkable effect this year, including four of my favorite shows of the year. She also began the year in Ragtime, giving a sensitive and understated performance as a wealthy wife and mother who yearns for more. She co-created and co-starred in the lovely and moving Werthe and Lotte, then played the fun and flirty Italian singer Francesca in Roman Holiday. Last but not least was a moving performance as a neglected wife in the Jungle's delightful In the Next Room. And even though the latter is a play, we still were treated to her gorgeous singing voice, in addition to her tremendous acting talent.

Tyler Michaels
in Spring Awakening
Unlike the above two artists, I had never heard of Tyler Michaels before this year. But he began to impress me in the first show I saw in 2012, You're a Good Man Charlie Brown at Bloomington Civic Theatre. Tyler didn't just play the dog Snoopy, he physically transformed into him. He brings that physicality to every role he plays, although not many are quite as extreme as the transformation into a dog. He followed that performance with a portrayal of my favorite Spring Awakening character Moritz that was both physical and emotional. In two days I saw Tyler in Illusion's modern day fairy tale A Night at Olympus (part of their Fresh Ink series that focuses on new work), and Theater Latte Da's summer variety concert. He can currently be seen in Bye Bye Birdie at the Chan, which unfortunately does not fully utilize his talents. He's a talented young actor who's exciting to watch, and I for one am looking forward to what he has planned for 2013.

I apologize for the length of this blog post, and thank you for hanging in there if you're still reading this! I saw an incredible quantity and quality of theater this year, and hopefully this has given you a pretty good summary of the highlights. I'm extremely grateful to be a part of this amazing theater community, and I'm excited to see what 2013 has in store. Happy new year of theater to you all!