Tuesday, April 30, 2013

"The Night of a Million Stars" at the Ordway McKnight Theatre

The Rocky Horror ShowGrey Gardens. Flower Drum SongThe Full Monty. Evita25th Annual Putnam County Spelling BeeMu DaikoCompany. The Broadway Songbook Series. These are some of the great memories I have from the Ordway's McKnight Theatre. It has been home to a lot of wonderful local musical theater, and I will miss it now that it's being demolished to make room for a new 1100 seat concert hall. But as was the case when the Guthrie left their original home, the history does not reside the building. It's in the people, the community, our shared memory of time spent together. And that will continue in another space. The Ordway's Artistic Director and amiable host of the McKnight's final celebration, James Rocco, said that he likes to think of the Twin Cities acting community as one big rep company, and I agree. That company will never perform in that space again, but it will continue. And one of my favorite memories of that space will always be Sunday night's warm and fuzzy celebration - The Night of a Million Stars!

I'm not going to give you a play-by-play, because that wouldn't even come close to describing the experience. You really had to be there. Like Peter Rothstein said (more on that a bit later), theater is an art form that isn't captured on a disc or tape, it only exists when artist and audience share a space together. I think that's why I write this blog, to try to capture my experiences at the theater and make them last a little longer, make something permanent out of it. But it's not, it's ephemeral. And that's the beauty of it.

There were over 40 performers on that stage, including a four-piece band led by Raymond Berg. Most were familiar to me, some beloved, and a few I'd never seen before. All were entertaining and complementary to the Ordway and James, and several brought him to tears with their love. It was a big, mushy, happy, bittersweet night. And it was long - over three hours, although it didn't feel that long to me. Most of the performances were from the 81 shows that have played in the McKnight, many with original cast-members. Scenes from the shows were displayed on a large screen at the back of the stage. These are a few of my favorite moments:

  • Love, Janis is one show I wish I would have seen. I was happy to get a taste of it when Jill Mikelson sang "Me and Bobby McGee."
  • Greta Grosch played the part of an usher who finally gets her chance to be a star. Very funny.
  • The entire cast of the most recent Broadway Songbook, featuring Cole Porter, stayed after their matinee to perform a few numbers, including Gary Briggle's wickedly funny "Miss Otis Regrets," Kersten Rodau's rousing "Blow, Gabriel, Blow," and Jennifer Baldwin Peden's hilarious "The Physician." All of the six Songbooks were represented, including the only one I missed - Johnny Mercer. Tonia Hughes brought the house down with "Come Rain or Come Shine," and then her son Cameron Wright just about outdid her- the apple doesn't fall far from the tree!
  • Theater Latte Da's Peter Rothstein and Denise Prosek were there, having staged six shows at the McKnight over the last several years. Peter put it best - "parting is such sweet sorrow!" They introduced performances from two of those six shows. Dieter Bierbrauer sang one of the best musical theater songs ever written, Sondheim's "Being Alive" from Company (the fourth time I've heard it in that room, and I never tire of it). Josh Campbell sang the funny and overly macho "Man" from The Full Monty, and told a hilarious story about a technical malfunction during one show that revealed more than was intended.
  • A medley of songs from Blues in the Night, another show I missed, directed by Austene Van and featuring the divine Debbie Duncan and Jamecia Bennett, who absolutely shredded the title song from the show (in the evening's most dangerous heels, no less!).
  • Erin Schwab (who had to follow the above performance) never fails to crack me up. She's hilarious, not to mention her fabulous voice that she can use for comedy or drama or both, as she did in another Sondheim classic, "I'm Still Here."
  • The cast of the 2007 Ordway production of The Rocky Horror Show (including Randy Schmeling, Bradley Beahen, and Nicole Fenstad) reunited for a few numbers, including, of course, "The Time Warp."
  • Kimberly Richards brought back her nun from Late Night Catechism and had the crowd in stitches, with her pope jokes and asking women to cover up with tissues.
  • Christina Baldwin performed the final solo number, the lovely and haunting "Will You" from 2009's Grey Gardens, the last Ordway musical in the McKnight, in which she played both Edies - big (in her younger days) and little (from the iconic documentary).

So farewell to the McKnight Theatre. The street just outside the theater is already blocked off so construction is sure to begin imminently, and will continue through 2015. But they really don't even need a wrecking crew - many of these performers could bring the house down on their own. There was so much talent on that stage I'm surprised it didn't collapse with the sheer weight of it! It was a fun night, a great celebration of local talent, and a nice way to say good-bye.

the new concert hall

Monday, April 29, 2013

"Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde" by Walking Shadow Theatre Company at the Minneapolis Theatre Garage

Irish playwright and poet Oscar Wilde is famous for his professional life - such plays as The Importance of Being Earnest and An Ideal Husband - and his personal life - he was tried for and convicted of "gross indecency," i.e., homosexuality, which was illegal in England at the time (late 19th century). The latter is the subject of the play Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde. It's a very well-constructed play; playwright Moisés Kaufman combines the actual transcripts from the trial with quotes from related newspaper articles, biographies, and auto-biographies to tell the story in a very real and vibrant way. Walking Shadow Theater Company has assembled an excellent nine-man cast (directed by a woman, co-Artistic Director Amy Rummenie) to play a few dozen characters in Oscar Wilde's universe. This is not an easy play, it requires the audience's attention and participation. It took me a little while to get used to the structure of the play, in which the source of each new quote is cited by someone in the ensemble, but once I did I found it to be a fascinating exploration of ideas.

In the first of the three trials, Oscar sues the father of his lover, Lord Alfred "Bosie" Douglas, for libel after he left a card at his club calling him a "posing sodomite" (what a civilized way of insulting someone). Oscar's attorney puts up a good case, but when they learn that the defense is going to call several young men as witnesses to testify against Oscar that could result in him being prosecuted for gross indecency, he withdraws the case. Too late - he's immediately arrested and tried. The second trial, against Oscar this time, results in a hung jury. The third and final trial results in Oscar being convicted and sentenced to two years in prison. He suffers injury and illness while in prison, from which he never recovers; he dies just a few years later, in exile in Paris. Oscar has several opportunities to leave the country during this process to escape trial and imprisonment. But he chooses to stay and fight an unjust law, and to stand up for his ideals of art and aestheticism. He argues that he is a poet and an artist, and that his love for Bosie is pure and misunderstood. Unfortunately Oscar's story has a tragic ending, but it provides for a very thought-provoking and engrossing night at the theater, exploring ideas still relevant today.

Oscar (Craig Johnson) and Bosie
(Casey Hoekstra, photo by Dan Norman)
Leading that excellent nine-man cast I mentioned is Craig Johnson, who gives a rich, layered performance as Oscar. At times funny and flippant, at times hurt and delicate, at other times strong and confident. He is sympathetic and entertaining, from the way he smooths his hair to the expression on his face as he silently listens to his accusers. Casey Hoekstra is as charming as Bosie as he was in last year's Summer and Smoke. You can feel Bosie's love for Oscar, despite the fact that he conveniently leaves the country to avoid prosecution himself. Even thought Bosie is not present for Oscar's second and third trials, he's there in spirit and memory and letters, as he haunts the edge of the stage, watching the proceedings with growing agitation. I hesitate to call out anyone in the ensemble, most of whom are on stage for the entire play and ably play all of the roles and accents given to them. But I will mention a few personal favorites - Bryan Porter is very entertaining as he relishes every diverse role and accent he plays; Alex Brightwell gives a moving closing speech as well as portraying Oscar's friend and fellow writer George Bernard Shaw; and David Beukema displays great range as everyone from Queen Victoria to a bewigged judge to a modern Oscar Wilde scholar.

The Minneapolis Theatre Garage is one of my favorite smaller theater spaces in the cities. It's a great blank slate in which worlds can be created, with the audience close and intimate as actors often wander through the aisles. Set designer Steve Kath has turned it into a courtroom, with a railinged judge's bench, a movable witness box, tables and benches, and books piled in corners. Costume designer E. Amy Hill has done a great job replicating Oscar's outfit in the photo on the cover of the playbill, down to the fur collar and walking stick. All of the characters are in equally meticulous period garb.

This is the kind of play I like. It's challenging, thought-provoking, historical yet relevant, and engrossing, the kind of play that'll leave you with lots to think about and ponder as you leave the theater. And it's well-written, well-acted, and with great attention to detail in the set and costumes and direction. If this is the kind of play you like too, you have four more chances to see it, this Wednesday through Saturday at the Theatre Garage in Minneapolis.

Alex Brightwell and the cast of Gross Indecency
(photo by Dan Norman)

Saturday, April 27, 2013

"Bessie's Birthday" by Theater Latte Da at the Lab Theater

When I walked into the Lab Theater last night for the final selection in Theater Latte Da's new works project "NEXT: New Musicals in the Making," they were playing Dolly Parton. I took that as a good sign. Not that I needed one, I've really been enjoying NEXT and this is the one of the three pieces that I've seen before, as part of a triptych of one-act musicals called Passage of Dreams, presented in 2009 and one of my favorite shows of that year (and this was my favorite of the three pieces, which I thought at the time would make a great full-length musical). Like the music of Dolly Parton, Bessie's Birthday is funny, homespun, sweet, and surprisingly poignant at times. Writers Katie Baldwin Eng (book and lyrics) and Jeff Tang (music) have worked with director Peter Rothstein and music director Denise Prosek to continue to develop and expand Bessie's Birthday over the past few years, with the results being presented for three shows this weekend.

Like Theater Latte Da's most recent full production, Light in the Piazza, Bessie's Birthday is about a young woman who is emotionally still a child because of brain damage suffered in her youth. But that's where the similarity ends. Light in the Piazza is a love story set in Italy in the 1950s, with a gorgeous, almost operatic score to match. Bessie's Birthday is about a family in Wisconsin in the present day, with a score appropriate to the story. The songs are funny (when the men sing about grilling meat), or touching (the sisters sing to each other), or both (splash!). There's not a whole lot of action, but we get to know this quirky little family. Bessie (Caroline Innerbichler, who was in Passage of Dreams but not this piece) is turning 30, even though she's still a little girl in many ways. Her sister Delphine (Elizabeth Griffith, who was also in last week's C.) is returning home to Wisconsin with her New York boyfriend (Sasha Andreev) in tow. Their parents May (Janet Hanson, the only returning cast-member from the 2009 production) and Sam (James Detmar) are throwing the usual summer pool party for Bessie. The only other guests are funny neighbor Jack (John Gamoke) and his wife Grace (Julie Madden), who provide much of the comedy. They prepare for the party, have conversations, light fireworks, tell jokes, and toast the birthday girl.

Bessie loves to swim, and is most at home in her pool. It gives her the freedom to be herself and see the world in her own particular way. Bessie's birthday tradition is to push her guests into the pool, fully clothed. In an effective story-telling device, as each character gets pushed into the pool, they freeze for a few moments in mid-air and speak their truth. Funny or poignant, whatever it is, but very real. The entire play has been building to this moment, and it's a satisfying ending to the story, while still knowing that the stories continue in these characters lives. As has been the case throughout this series, the entire seven-person cast gives fully realized performances, despite the scripts and music stands before them. Caroline portrays Bessie with a sweet innocence and a lovely voice to match. I think I like Elizabeth even more than I did in C., she's very in the moment. Sasha is genuine and likeable as the outsider trying to make sense of this new environment. Janet brings much heart to the role of a mother trying to protect her daughter and afraid to let her go off on her own (another similarity to Light in the Piazza), and James Detmar nails the part of the typical Midwestern dad. Last but not least, John and Julie are a hoot as the crazy neighbors (as was Julie in Company last fall - she's a great comic singer).

There was a lot of talk in the post-show discussion, from the creators and audience members alike, about how this is a quiet and delicate story, not your typical big and splashy musical. It's still short for a musical, about 75 minutes with no intermission, but perhaps that's what best serves the story. It's the little moments that touch the heart, the simplicity of the story and interaction between the characters. I could easily spend two hours with these characters, but not at the expense of those quiet moments of poignancy. That's the challenge.

Whenever I happen upon a post-show discussion, I almost always stay, along with typically about 10% of the audience. It's worth noting that all three of the NEXT shows I've attended have had a much larger retention rate for the post-show discussion, probably about 75%. Perhaps the type of audience that's drawn to the reading of a new work is more invested in it than the average theater-goer. The creative teams have seemed very interested in what the audience has to say, as that's a big part of the development of a new work. I would be happy to see any of these three pieces - When the Moon Hits Your Eye, C., or Bessie's Birthday - as a full production. If I had to pick just one, I would choose When the Moon Hits Your Eye. The characters and their stories really drew me in, I loved the use of music and mix of styles, I found the characters reading stage direction and descriptions of other characters to be a fresh and interesting story-telling method, and I can imagine lots of interesting possibilities for staging (the three levels of the apartment building, the sunset at the end). But even if I don't see any of them again, being a part of the creation of these three diverse new works has been a great experience. I look forward to next year's NEXT!

Thursday, April 25, 2013

"Nice Fish" at the Guthrie Theater

In 2008, Mark Rylance won a Tony for his Broadway debut in the play Boeing-Boeing and gave an inexplicable speech about wearing uniforms. He won again in 2011 for Jerusalem, and this time he talked about walking through walls. These weren't just weird ramblings as they appeared; he was reciting poems by Minnesota poet Louis Jenkins. The two men didn't know each other at the time of the first speech, but by the second one they had begun collaborating on writing a play that consists of several of Louis' poems strung together (including both of Mark's speeches). The result is an absurd, hilarious, strangely profound, and yes, somewhat inexplicable play called Nice Fish (sort of like Waiting for Godot on ice), now playing at the Guthrie's Proscenium Theater.

The stage of the Proscenium Theater has been quite effectively transformed into a frozen lake by set designer Todd Rosenthal. A bare glassy surface with wisps of snow strewn about and a backdrop of a distant shore are all that adorn the stage when the play begins. It perfectly captures the stark beauty of winter. Later, complex fishing equipment is brought out, including a tent, a fish house with sauna, a vintage snowmobile, and neon palm trees - just your typical Minnesota winter scene. The visual delights continue with twinkling stars, objects that fly or float across the ice, and a delightful battle with the wind.

a typical Minnesota scene: two friends ice fishing
(Mark Rylance and Jim Lichtscheidl)
The play begins with a series of short vignettes, some only seconds long, punctuated by lights out, that show us two friends setting up for a long day of ice fishing. Eventually they start speaking, to each other or thoughtfully to the air, little observations about life. Often the biggest laugh comes when the lights go out and the audience realizes that's the end of the scene. The scenes slowly build until we learn a bit more about these two fishermen - Erik (Jim Lichtsheidl) is an experienced fisherman, married with a couple of kids at home, while Ron (Mark Rylance, who also directs with his wife Clair van Kampen) is new to this fishing business and is on a bit of a quest to find himself. Jim and Mark are a great pair, an odd couple, and my favorite scenes of the play are those with just the two of them on the ice, talking about nothing and everything (I thought the same thing when I saw Waiting for Godot at the Jungle last year, which also featured Jim). Mark's Ron says everything in a sort of dazed way, as if he's as surprised by what's coming out of his mouth as anyone. He's easy-going and happy to experience all that life has to offer. Jim's Erik speaks with precision and certainty; he just wants to fish and is disturbed when things don't go according to plan. And they don't.

Erik and Ron have a few visitors out there on the ice. First, a DNR officer (a hilariously stern Bob Davis) wants to make sure they have their licenses in order, which of course they don't. Later, they run into a strange young woman named Flo (a charmingly spacey Emily Swallow), her brute of a boyfriend (a long-haired and imposing Chris Carlson), and his brother (Tyson Forbes, tall and silent). These three characters are odd, not of this cold and stoic state of Minnesota. They represent gods of Nordic mythology, and strange and wonderful things happen. There's music, dancing, and hockey. As the play ends, Ron and Erik transform into something else, and something else again. One of the characters says, "Old people leave this life like a movie - I didn't get it!" That's a little how I felt leaving the theater - I didn't quite get all of it, but it was a marvelous experience.

Nice Fish continues at the Guthrie through May 18 (which is probably about the time the ice will be gone from Minnesota's 10,000 or so lakes). Go see it, and bring your favorite fisherperson.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

"Mary Poppins" at the Orpheum Theatre

In general, I'm not a big fan of the current trend of turning movies into musicals. But when the original source is a classic movie musical, I make an exception! The only surprise is that it took 40 years for the 1964 beloved children's classic Mary Poppins, starring the great Julie Andrews, to make it to the Broadway stage. The 2004 West End production moved to Broadway in 2006, and just closed last month. I've never seen it on Broadway because there are just too many other good choices (and I'm over 12 years old), but I was excited to see it on tour and see how this classic translates to the stage. It's been a while since I've seen the movie (again, I'm over 12 years old), but the playbill kindly notes the half dozen new songs (by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe) that have been added to the originals from the movie (by Richard and Robert Sherman), with varying degrees of success. There are a few unnecessary songs and scenes that I would cut to get all the kids in the audience (and myself) home to bed earlier, but some of the movie's best moments have been translated to the stage remarkably well. On the whole, Mary Poppins is an utterly charming stage musical that's highly entertaining, especially for the young ones. And let's face it, if "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" doesn't make you smile, it's possible you don't have a soul.

Highlights and other thoughts:
  • As the title character, Madeline Trumble is indeed practically perfect in every way. She channels Julie Andrews, and has remarkable control of her voice, sometimes singing in this trill that's so very Mary Poppins. Her every move, from the top of her head to the tips of her fingers, is precise, practiced, and perfect. In any other role it might be too polished, but this is exactly how we all know Mary Poppins to be. She does Julie Andrews proud.
  • Con O'Shea-Creal is a real charmer as omnipresent chimney sweep Bert. The character serves as a sort of narrator, always there in scene transitions singing "Chim Chim Cher-ee" in a mournful or light-hearted way as the scene demands. He moves with grace about the stage and has great chemistry with the children. And in one thrilling moment, he effortlessly walks up the side of the stage and across the ceiling, all with a smile.
  • Speaking of the children, what adorably precocious little pros are Alexa Shae Niziak and Eli Tokash as Jane and Michael Banks! They carry several scenes by themselves, interact with the cast, sing, dance, they do it all. What a life for a kid, to travel the country and live in the world of Mary Poppins four times a week (two Janes and two Michaels travel with the show and take turns in the role).
  • The sets are truly spectacular. The Banks family home at 17 Cherry Tree Lane moves forward from the back of the stage and opens like a life-size dollhouse. Later, it turns around and the back opens up to reveal the kitchen (like on Downton Abby, whose creator Julian Fellowes wrote the book, we get a glimpse into the life of the servants as well as the masters of the house). The park, the bank, and the cityscape are all equally magical with clever use of perspective on the backdrops. And yes, there's a bit of flying, which is not the sort of thing that impresses me at the theater. But you can't really do Mary Poppins without seeing her rise into the air with her umbrella.
  • I'm disappointed that the women's suffrage subplot was removed, along with my favorite line from the movie: "We all like men individually, but we agree that as a group they're rather stupid." Instead we get a boring plot of Mr. Banks' troubles at work (he works at a bank, how clever), and Mrs. Banks trying to support him (one of my least favorite new songs "Being Mrs. Banks"). If I was bored by all this business of lending and making money and marriage stuff, I can't imagine what the kids thought. But of course, a lesson has to be learned, and that comes when Mr. Banks learns to stop being a jerk and pay attention to his wife and kids.
  • Another needless scene is when the toys come to life and dance around, singing a song that the playbill tells me is called "Playing the Game" (that's how little I remember it). It's an addition that didn't work for me, unlike the moving and dancing statues which I found delightful.
  • I could take or leave the evil nanny. I suppose it's necessary for Mr. Banks obligatory transformation but I just wanted Mary to come back. But I guess that's the point.
  • A few of the new songs worked. "Cherry Tree Lane" is a great way to get through some of the exposition and tell us who the players are. "Practically Perfect" feels like it could have been in the movie as Mary Poppins gets to know the kids and they her. Every musical needs a feel good anthem, and that is "Anything Can Happen (If You Let It)." It's a great message of imagination and positivity, as is the show.
  • You'll also recognize some old favorites, the haunting "Feed the Birds," the upbeat "Jolly Holiday" (with a colorful explosion), the fabulous dance number "Step In Time," and my favorite, "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious," set in a fantastical "talking shop." At one point Mary spells the word while Bert forms the letters with his body, and it gets faster and faster as the entire cast joins in. It's a thrill, no wonder they chose it as a post-curtain call sendoff.
Mary Poppins is not a musical I would choose to see on Broadway, but on tour, I think it's a great choice, especially if you have little ones. It's never too early to expose kids to theater, and this is a great one. Just be prepared for a late bedtime and crabby child the next day! Small price to pay for this memory (playing through this weekend only).

Monday, April 22, 2013

"Broadway Songbook: The Words and Music of Cole Porter" at the Ordway McKnight Theatre

The final selection for the popular Broadway Songbook series this season at the Ordway is Cole Porter. I didn't think I knew that many of his songs; I've only seen one of the 28 Broadway musicals he wrote (Anything Goes, the Broadway touring production of which will soon stop at the Ordway). But Cole Porter is one of those great American composers whose songs you know even if you don't think you do. He wrote back in the day when songs from Broadway musicals crossed over to popular culture, and they've stayed there. Songs like "Let's Do It," "Don't Fence Me In," "You're the Top, "I Get a Kick Out of You," "Another Op'nin," and "I've Got You Under My Skin," all written for musicals, many of which have been forgotten, but the songs remain. Ordway Artistic Director James Rocco brings his usual charm and enthusiasm as host of the evening (or afternoon), sharing facts about Porter's life and career (at one point he exclaims in an aside, "this is my favorite part!"), and singing and hamming it up on a few songs himself. He's joined by Musical Director Raymond Berg on piano, who flawlessly keeps the show moving, and a cast of six local musical theater actors (Jennifer Baldwin Peden, Gary Briggle, Joshua James Campbell, Kersten Rodau, Kirby Trymucha-Duresky, and Regina Marie Williams), all of whom don't just sing these songs, they perform them. And they all look gorgeous - the women in silver and fuscia cocktail dresses and the men in tuxes. Cole Porter deserves this respect. The only thing missing is the champagne!

A few of my favorite parts:
  • Regina, Josh, and Kirby turn "Let's Do It" into a charming trio. You know the song, "Birds do it, bees do it, even educated fleas do it. Let's do it, let's fall in love!" As we learn throughout the show, this is a typical Cole Porter song - it features a list of items in a theme, and is a bit naughty. Or as James says, "wickedly sophisticated."
  • Proving that he really could write a song about anything, Porter took a sentence overheard at a restaurant and turned it into "Miss Otis Regrets," a deadly funny story song, perfectly performed by Gary.
  • Most of these songs are upbeat and funny, but a few are sad and lovely. Regina sings a few of them with the appropriate longing and melancholy - "Love for Sale" and "(You'd Be So) Easy to Love."
  • They wisely give Josh several beautiful ballads, "Begin the Beguine," "In the Still of the Night," and "At Long Last Love." All of them just gorgeous.*
  • Jennifer brings her effortless voice and style to songs both funny ("I'm Unlucky at Gambling") and touching ("I Get a Kick Out of You").
  • A song written for Porter's favorite leading lady, Ethel Merman, is of course performed by Gary, and it is indeed "De'Lovely."
  • I'm just waiting for Kirby's breakout role. She's long been a standout in the ensemble at Bloomington Civic Theater, and she proves with great performances of "Give Him the Oo La La," "My Heart Belongs to Daddy," and "Always True to You" that she can hold the stage on her own. Funny and charming with a fabulous voice, someone's going to cast her in a lead role soon. 
  • To end Act I, Kersten walks through the house and encourages the rest of the cast to sing in a rousing rendition of "Blow Gabriel, Blow." She's a fantastic comic actor/singer (see also Xanadu) and she brings that to "Find Me a Primitive Man" and "Brush Up On Your Shakespeare," but also shows her sensitive serious side in "When Love Comes to Call."
  • The Kiss Me Kate medley makes me want to see that show sometime (especially since I finally just saw Taming of the Shrew, the Shakespeare play on which it's based). The cast shares the duties on several songs, and also performs a little choreography. I also loved the group rendition of "You're the Top" from Anything Goes, in which the cast trades lead, like tossing the ball back and forth.
  • James' style as host is very laid back and casual, which I enjoy, but the performances are all professional and top-notch, the show flowing smoothly and flawlessly from start to finish.
This is the last production at the Ordway's McKnight Theatre before it is demolished to make way for a much larger concert hall for the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. If you're as sad to see it go as I am, make plans to attend "The Night of a Million Stars" this coming Sunday evening. Not quite a million, but at least a few dozen stars will make their appearance! The Broadway Songbook series will continue next year on the main Ordway stage, which just doesn't have the intimacy and charm of the McKnight. But I'm sure they'll make it work somehow. In the meantime, "Broadway Songbook: The Words and Music of Cole Porter" continues for one more weekend, get your tickets now if you can!

*The multi-talented Josh Campbell will soon be directing "TO LIFE! A Benefit to End Gun Violence" at the Varsity Theater, an evening of music and theater featuring a great local cast, with proceeds going to Protect Minnesota. It's sure to be a fun evening for a great cause. Click here for more information and to purchase tickets.

"This Side of Paradise" at the History Theatre

F. Scott Fitzgerald is one of Minnesota's most famous sons, and his relationship with his wife, the Southern belle Zelda Sayre, is the stuff of legend. They were young, beautiful, and famous - one of those celebrity couples like those we still obsess over today. But they were not happy, and both died in their 40s, separated from each other. This is the subject of the new jazz musical This Side of Paradise at The History Theatre. The title refers to Scott's first novel, which he wrote in part to convince Zelda that he could support her, and which did result in her agreeing to marry him. But this is really Zelda's story, and is told from Zelda's perspective later in life, when she was frequently hospitalized for mental illness, as she remembers her life with Scott. The music, written by jazz singer and composer Nancy Harrow originally as a song cycle, is fantastic, and I would love to see it performed as a song cycle. Nancy worked with playwright Will Pomerantz to fill in the spaces between the songs with scenes of the couple alone, with their friends, and with their only daughter Scottie. The piece is strongest when it focuses on Scott and Zelda, less so when it digresses into showy musical theater numbers that don't seem to fit. This is a story that might be better served by a quieter, simpler telling. But still, it's a powerful story with great performances and gorgeous music, about a couple that's still fascinating and impossible to figure out.

The play takes place in 1940, as Zelda talks to her doctor and remembers her life with Scott. We see the scenes play out with the younger Zelda as the older Zelda watches and sometimes participates, as if she's trying to relive the happy moments and save her younger self from some of the trauma she goes through. We see Scott and Zelda's first meeting in 1918, when she's a 17-year-old debutante and he a 21-year-old officer in the Army, stationed near her hometown in Alabama. They fall passionately in love, become engaged, and then Zelda breaks it off, afraid Scott can't support her with his short story writing. So he writes a novel, This Side of Paradise, and when it is published, they marry and began their tumultuous life together, in St. Paul, New York City, and Paris. Scott enjoys his success as an author, but Zelda struggles to find her own identity as an artist, whether through writing, painting, or dance (nicely represented onstage by Zelda constantly writing or painting a portrait of a dancer). As Act I ends, Zelda spirals further into mental illness. In a striking moment, both Zeldas and little Scottie twirl out of control as Zelda desperately cries, "Why can't I be happy?" In Act II, the two timelines converge and the present takes over from the past, which I found a little confusing. Scottie is all grown up and comes to visit her mother and make amends. Scott and Zelda, living apart for years, meet one last time, and he leaves again. The ending seemed to imply that Zelda makes peace with herself, but I'm not sure that she ever did, living in and out of psychiatric hospitals for the rest of her life until she died in a hospital fire. This is a tragic story with no happy ending.

Zelda (Norah Long) with her doctor
(Alan Sorenson, photo by Scott Pakudaitis)
The three leads are all excellent in their roles. Norah Long plays the older version of Zelda and Kendall Anne Thompson is the younger version. They are frequently onstage at the same time, and are quite believable as the same character. Kendall's Zelda goes from youthful confidence to desperation, while Norah's Zelda is a woman trying to make sense her life and holding on with her fingernails. Both sound gorgeous singing these beautiful jazzy songs. As Scott, Bradley Beahen is charismatic with a lovely voice, and has chemistry with both Zeldas (although I'm not sure why Zelda ages and Scott doesn't - typical double standard?). The ensemble cast gamely performs the dance numbers, which are entertaining even if they don't match the tone of the story. If one of the measures of the success of a musical is if the audience walks out humming or singing songs they've never heard before, then This Side of Paradise is a success. I couldn't stop humming "My Lost City" all through intermission, and went to sleep with "Until it Comes Up Love" stuck in my head.

Zelda and Scott in happier times
(photo by Scott Pakudaitis)
The versatile set (by Rick Polenek) has the crisp white sterility of a hospital but also functions nicely for the flashback scenes. Director Ron Peluso makes good use of the set and the space, with some scenes taking place behind the windows, like almost-forgotten memories. Kathy Kohl has designed gorgeous period costumes that perfectly depict the "Jazz Age," a term coined by Scott to describe the life he and Zelda lived.

I love that the History Theatre gives me more insight into the history of my beloved home state of Minnesota. This is a fascinating chapter, and even though much of Scott and Zelda's story did not play out in Minnesota, we still claim them as our own. I also love when theater sparks my interest in a subject which leads me to further study, and this has certainly done that. Half of my time spent on this blog post was just reading more about Scott and Zelda's life together. I'd like to re-read Scott's most famous novel, The Great Gatsby (and see the soon to be released Baz Luhrman movie adaptation of it), and also read some of his other novels, especially Tender is the Night, and Zelda's counterpart, Save Me the Waltz, both largely taken from their life together. This Side of Paradise will give you a taste of Scott and Zelda's life in the Jazz Age, full of music, fashion, art, and tragedy. (Playing now through May 19, with discount tickets available on Goldstar.com).

Saturday, April 20, 2013

"C." by Theater Latte Da at the Lab Theater

The 1897 French play Cyrano de Bergerac has been adapted many times and in many forms, so much so that everyone knows the story of the poet Cyrano and his unusually large nose, who writes the words for a handsome but ineloquent man to woo his love Roxane. After musicals, operas, and countless movies (including the 1987 movie Roxanne, the only version of the story I've seen), it may seem like there's nothing new to say. But Bradley Greenwald's new musical adaptation (with composer Robert Elhai), presented as part of Theater Latte Da's new works initiative NEXT, strives to do just that. It lies somewhere in the intersection of theater, musical, poetry, and opera, emphasizing the music and poetry that is in the original piece. Or as Bradley writes in a note in the playbill, "It's the story of Cyrano and music, of Cyrano and poetry, and the story of what music and poetry mean to Cyrano, Roxane, Christian, me, you, all of us in this room right now." Still in its earliest form (they've been working on it for less than a year, and I saw the very first public presentation - how cool is that?), it feels a little rougher than the last week's NEXT piece, When the Moon Hits Your Eye, but it also feels like it has great potential. There's a lot going on, with many characters (a 13-person cast, many of whom play multiple characters, plus someone reading a few stage directions) and a fairly ambitious staging, so it's quite remarkable that in just two weeks the creators, cast, director Peter Rothstein, and music director Denise Prosek have gotten it into the shape that it is. They're still making changes, they mentioned in the post-show discussion (which is a big part of NEXT - getting audience feedback to make the work better) that another song will be added after the curtain call tonight. I feel privileged to have seen it in this early form and look forward to seeing where it will go from here.

As I said, we all know the story. Cyrano loves Roxane, a childhood friend, but she loves Christian. Cyrano reluctantly agrees to help Christian woo her by giving him words to say ("we poets always have epistles to our imaginary lady loves in our pockets"), because he is unable to express himself in the poetic way that Roxane desires. Roxane falls even more deeply in love with Christian from the letters that he sends her when he's away at war, not realizing that who she's really falling in love with is Cyrano. When she tells Christian she would love him even if he were ugly, he realizes that she doesn't really love him, and is devastated. He begs Cyrano to tell her the truth, but tragedy intervenes. (Not at all like the happy ending I remember from Roxanne!)

Apparently there are no limits to Bradley Greenwald's talents. He has an incredibly gorgeous voice, and could easily make a career doing nothing but musicals and opera. But he doesn't just rest on that effortless voice, he also does non-musical theater - from drama, to comedy, to an Ivey-winning performance in the one-man show I am My Own Wife. Adding to that list of talents, he did his own translation of Cyrano from the original French, so as not to be influenced by anyone else's interpretation of the work (I knew he could speak and sing German, but French too!). He's taken this literal translation and formed it a fresh new perspective on the story. The original play is all in verse, but Bradley chose to have only Cyrano speak in verse to distinguish his poetic voice from the masses. He focuses on the music that's in every scene, so when we hear music it feels organic to the story - the first scene takes place in a theater, another with a group of composers in the next room, another at war where soldiers sing to keep their spirits up. The plan for a fully staged production is to have the musicians be on stage and part of the action, rather than a separate band or orchestra. After all that creative muscle, Bradley also sings beautifully and expressively, and has a glorious death scene.

Bradley has a large and talented cast supporting him, some of whom I know from other shows and some who were new to me. One of the latter is Elizabeth Griffith, who is sweet and serene as Roxane, with a lovely voice, but also shows her longing and grief. Sean Dooley (whom I don't think I've seen since the 2004 Michael Brindisi production of Hair, one of my favorite local theater memories) is a great choice for Christian. His voice doesn't have the depth and richness of Bradley's (but whose does?), rather, his voice is like Christian's own words - simple and straight-forward and from the heart. Cyrano speaks in poetic flourishes, with a singing voice to match, and it makes sense that when Christian sings, his voice also matches his words. He's charming and sweetly awkward when trying to express himself and falling short, showing that Christian really does love Roxane as much as Cyrano does. "I love you and want you to always know it, that's the best I can say it, I'm no poet."

The music, composed by Robert Elhai, is comprised of a variety of styles, which he chose to do to give the piece a timelessness, or as Peter Rothstein said, "immediacy." There's a marching-off-to-war-WWI-ish song, a charming Renaissance era duet between Cyrano and Roxane recalling their childhood, a rousing duel song (in which Cyrano appears to be making up the lyrics as he goes), a touching love song "Love Lies Waiting," and what sounds like a folk song from Gascony. It's a nice collection of songs that fit the story and enhance it.

The two pieces I've seen so far in Theater Latte Da's "NEXT: New Musicals in the Making" have been so different, but equally intriguing, satisfying, and promising. When the Moon Hits Your Eye is an intimate and modern story with just seven characters, each of whom we get to know and love, featuring songs from the public domain. C. is more epic and timeless, with a huge cast of characters (sometimes difficult to keep track of, especially without costume changes to give us a clue), and original music that feels like a real part of the story. So far NEXT is showing the great diversity that can be found in music-theater, and I can't wait to complete the trilogy next week with Bessie's Birthday. But you still have two chances to see C. - don't miss out! For more information and to purchase tickets for this weekend and next weekend, see Latte Da's website, or just show up at the Lab Theater (a great setting for this series because of its vast open space like a blank slate).

Thursday, April 18, 2013

"Deathtrap" at the Jungle Theater

One of the highlights of the Jungle Theater's stellar 2012 season was the deliciously thrilling Dial M for Murder, about which I wrote "murder shouldn't be this fun." Three of the five members of that cast, along with the director/designer, reunite for this year's thriller Deathtrap. Dial M is a classic from the 1950s, and Deathtrap was written by Ira Levin in the late 1970s as an homage to the thriller genre of which Dial M is a prime example. It's a bit more modern feeling, less tense and more funny, and very meta. Several characters in the play are playwrights who begin to write a play describing their lives, and then continue to act in order to figure out what happens next in the play, in a life imitates art imitates life sort of way. There are several surprising plot twists and turns, including one moment so shocking that there was a cry of fear and delight throughout the audience such as I've never heard before inside a theater. The audience reaction was almost as much fun as what was going on onstage.

I really don't want to give away too much of the plot, because watching it unfold is part of the fun. Usually you can sort of tell where a play is going or how it's going to end, but watching Deathtrap, as each scene ended, I had no idea where the next scene was going, which certainly kept me alertly watching throughout the show. The play centers on once-great playwright Sidney Bruhl, who is desperate for another hit. When a student from his seminar sends him what could be that hit, he hints to his wife Myra that he just might be willing to kill the man to make that hit play his own. After all, he's written enough murder mysteries for the stage to be able to conduct one in reality (or so he thinks). Sidney invites the young playwright Clifford to his home, to his wife's dismay. The plan continues, but not in the way you might think. There's also a Dutch psychic (or as they called it in the late '70s, ESP), and a lawyer called in to settle some affairs. Oh just go see it, you'll find out what happens!

Sidney (Steve Hendrickson) and Myra (Cheryl Willis)
argue as Clifford (Michael Booth)
finds himself in a sticky situation
The cast that worked together so well on Dial M last year does so here as well. Michael Booth is once again the man plotting to kill Cheryl Willis (I hope she doesn't take it personally), and both are great to watch - Michael with his deft transformation from naive innocent to something more sinister, and Cheryl with her British accent and over-the-top histrionics  Steve Hendrickson steals the show with his very physical portrayal of Sidney, all loose exasperation and paranoid plotting. One of the biggest audience laughs came when he flopped around on a chair for many long minutes while Clifford typed away, unaware of the spectacle in front of him. Claudia Wilkins is a hoot as the concerned Dutch psychic ("I sense much pain, much pain!"), and Terry Hempleman (another Dial M vet) as the lawyer is the calm at the center of the storm, until he's not.

All of this crazy action is beautifully directed by the Jungle's Artistic Director Bain Boehlke (with fight choreography by Peter Moore, also part of the Dial M cast). Bain also designed the set of course. As usual, the intimate stage at the Jungle houses a specific, detailed, impeccable set. This time it's a carriage house that's been converted to a writer's study. The walls are covered with posters window cards from (real and fictional) Broadway plays, scripts litter the floor under a bench, and books crowd onto huge built-in shelves. But the most impressive thing is the wall of weapons that Sidney has collected from his murder plays and elsewhere. Several of them figure prominently in the plot, and all are beautifully displayed on the wall above the fireplace. The lighting (Barry Browning, who won an Ivey for lighting Dial M last year) and sound (Sean Healey) all add to the very specific sense of time and place that is so characteristic of the Jungle's work.

If you've never been to the Jungle Theater in the Uptown neighborhood of Minneapolis... what have you been doing with your life? I cannot recommend them enough. I'm always impressed by the quality of work, beginning with the sets, that are the best in town, and continuing with every other aspect, including interesting choices of plays (this summer - Urinetown the Musical!). Deathtrap is delightfully fun and chilling, a play that pokes fun of the genre while paying homage to it, perfectly produced by the Jungle, as per usual (playing now through May 18).

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

"When the Moon Hits Your Eye" by Theater Latte Da at the Lab Theater

Continuing their mission to "create new connections between story, music, artist, and audience by exploring and expanding the art of musical theater," Theater Latte Da is presenting three new works as part of "NEXT: New Musicals in the Making." The creators spend two weeks workshopping the piece with Theater Latte Da's Artistic Director Peter Rothstein, Music Director Denise Prosek, and a talented cast of local actor/singers. At the end of that period they present the work to audiences, who are invited to give feedback on what they've seen. For a musical theater fan like myself, it's an exciting opportunity to observe and maybe even take part in the creation of a new piece of music-theater.

The first installment, When the Moon Hits Your Eye, was presented last weekend at the gorgeous Lab Theater. This "play with music" was written by playwright Jon Marans (who also wrote Old Wicked Songs, which Latte Da did at the Guthrie Studio in 2008) and features several diverse songs in the public domain. It's a slice of life in the neighborhood known as Hell's Kitchen in NYC, specifically the corner of 48th Street and 9th Avenue. It's a fantastic neighborhood that's rich with stories (if you're in NYC to see some shows, do not eat anywhere near Times Square, instead head over to 8th or 9th Avenue, where the real people live, work, and eat). Our characters include engaged couple Natalia (Emily Gunyou Halaas) and Larry (Rudolph Searles III), Natalia's mother Felizbella (Michelle Cassioppi), her ex Matthew (Steven Grant Douglas), and the grieving Debbie (Sara Ochs), all of whom live in the same building. Their landlord Gian Carlo (Raye Birk) also works in the barber shop on the ground floor, and the widow Liz (played by Nancy Marvy), who used to teach in the neighborhood, is friendly with the residents. These seven characters make up a little family, and the play shows us a few days in their intersecting lives - weddings, affairs, first dates, illnesses, break-ups, career changes, and other usual stuff of life. And of course, music accompanies their life. Music as diverse as an Italian opera, the plaintive Boll Weevil song ("lookin' for a home"), a haunting Scottish border ballad, a Mongolian love song, and a Portuguese celebratory song. The characters narrate each others' actions (partly due to the fact that this is a reading, partly as a story-telling choice), but in a really interesting and interactive way. They don't just blankly read the narration, rather they convey their feelings about what's going on through the reading. The language is beautifully descriptive; you can easily visualize the action as it plays out in different areas of the building. All of these pieces combined to tell a really lovely story, funny, poignant, and completely engaging. I think the creators have something really special here, and I'm excited to see where it will go next. Although I might call it a musical rather than a play with music. Characters sing to each other in character, espressing their emotions, and walk down the street singing. That, to me, is the very definition of a musical.

I know this is supposed to be about the work, but without the fabulous performances by every one of the seven cast-members, you cannot appreciate or even really see the work. They spent about two weeks with this material, and though they had scripts in front of them, they were able to create fully rounded characters with a wonderful chemistry and sense of family between them. Steven and Emily's duet on the border ballad is an absolute dream, Sara sings gorgeously in Mongolian, and Rudolph's Italian opera is thrilling. Raye and Michelle portray a sweet and tender later-in-life love story, and Nancy's character is the heart of the building. And did I mention that they all speak in authentic-sounding accents, and sing in multiple languages? This wouldn't be an easy piece to do with four weeks of rehearsal, how much more challenging with only two weeks and a constantly changing script!

As anyone who reads this blog knows, musical theater is my favorite thing in the world. But I think I love it most for what it can be, and often isn't in whatever movie has been most recently adapted to the Broadway stage. Theater Latte Da strives to elevate the art form that is musical theater and move it into the future. That's what NEXT is all about, and judging from the first selection, it's going to be an amazing three weeks at the Lab Theater. Up next is C., a new musical adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac by Robert Elhai and Bradley Greenwald. Following that is Bessie's Birthday, which has been expanded from the one-act musical presented as a part of Passage of Dreams four years ago (one of my favorite shows of the year). I remember thinking when I saw it that it could and should be expanded into a full-length musical, so I'm thrilled that they're doing just that.

If you're a fan of music-theater, or just enjoy seeing the creative process at work, I highly recommend you attend one or both of the remaining selections in "NEXT: New Musicals in the Making."

the beautiful bare stage of the Lab Theater,
where anything can happen

Sunday, April 14, 2013

"Lover" by James Sewell Ballet at the Cowles Center

Speaking about musicals, Garrison Keillor recently said, "I don't know anything else that can really just elevate people. You walk out on air. And you walk out into the squalor and the noise and the crowded city and you feel sort of magical." Here's something else that can do that - dance. After seeing beautiful performances of three diverse pieces by James Sewell Ballet at the shiny new Cowles Center last night, I walked out into the busy streets of Minneapolis and felt sort of magical, like I knew a secret that no one else knew. I don't know what all those people were doing out in the city on a cold Saturday night, but I'm pretty sure it was nowhere near as delightful and moving as what I experienced.

As a theater geek, I don't often go to see dance performances, but I do occasionally, just to mix things up a little. I chose to see this one because the first of three pieces, Lover, features the music of the great musical theater composing team Rodgers and Hart, performed by my favorite pianist Dan Chouinard and one of my favorite actor/singers Bradley Greenwald. It was a great excuse to go see some ballet!

Lover: This is the most theatrical of the three pieces, and really tells the story of four couples. Bradley Greenwald and Maria Jette sing the songs of Rodgers and Hart, accompanied by Dan Chouinard on piano. Just these three amazing musicians performing together would be entertainment enough! If they did this piece as a concert with just the three of them onstage, I would go and I would love it (musical highlights include the gorgeous "My Funny Valentine" and a wordless scatting version of "The Lady is a Tramp" )The singers also play characters and are so expressive that I had a hard time looking away from them to watch the dancing. But fortunately I did, because the dancing is charming, delightful, whimsical, and very accessible for a ballet novice like myself. The seven-member company, along with special guest and company co-founder Sally Rousse (elegant in a glamorous red dress with a long cigarette holder), perform the choreography of James Sewell. The four couples fight, make up, flirt, and change partners, all in gorgeously expressive movement.

the company performs Lover

Glitter Garden: This is a solo piece by company member Nic Lincoln, choreographed for him by Larry Keigwin (who also choreographed the recent off-Broadway production of RENT). The performance begins as people are filing back into their seats after intermission. Nic is in character, just off-stage, getting photographed by papparazzi and putting on his stage make-up. He makes his way to the stage as the lights go down, changes into his costume (which consists of brass knuckles, epaulettes, and a gladiator skirt), and begins the performance. It's a strong, powerful performance, with sharp, fast movements, some of which are reminiscent of a marionette. At one point it literally rains glitter upon him, as he poses for a photo shoot. I assume this is some sort of commentary on fame or celebrity. Whatever it means, it's quite beautiful and fascinating to watch.

Your Move: The final piece was choreographed by James Sewell based on recorded moves by audience members, gathered at performances over the last year. These video recordings are sometimes displayed on large white fabric that serve as screens, either simultaneously with the dancers or in rotation. It's really remarkable to see what James and the company have created based on a few moves, some silly, some quite lovely on their own. The ensemble is dressed in sporty clothes in black and grey, with orange accents and the James Sewell Ballet logo, like the JSB workout collection (which they should totally develop and sell, I'd buy it!). The audience moves are well organized into segments, some just weird facial expressions, some slow and elegant movements, some jerky staccato. All of it woven seamlessly and beautifully together to create a new expression of the shared joy of dance.

Unfortunately last night was the final performance of Lover, but I think I will be checking out JSB again. The company epitomizes the beauty of the body in movement. It's quite amazing to think that these dancers have the same set of muscles that we all were born with, but they make them do that! Of course it's more than just the movements, it's also the emotional expression, which these dancers also do quite well. They emote not just with their movements but their facial expressions as well. It really does, like Garrison says, make one feel  sort of magical.

"Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" at the Chanhassen Dinner Theatres

celebrating 45 years at the Chanhassen
(can you name the actor who appears
three times, and the actor currently
starring in a Broadway musical?)
On last week's episode of A Prairie Home Companion from Town Hall in New York City, Garrison Keillor said a good musical can "pick you up and throw you up in the air." The Chanhassen Dinner Theatres' new production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat is just such a show. While I was a little disappointed that they chose to do this show for the third time in the last seven years, I can see why they picked this one to repeat. In addition to being a big commercial success for them, it's a fun, light, happy show - just what you want to see in the summertime (that is hopefully coming). With a super high energy cast, great performances in lead and featured roles, fantastically performed music, and a colorful set and costumes, it's fun for all ages. You will leave the theater feeling a little lighter. And hopefully the success of this five-month run will give them the freedom to choose something a little bit risky and interesting for their next show.

Written by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Weber in the late 1960s, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat is based on the biblical story of Joseph, youngest and favored son of Jacob.  He was sold into slavery by his jealous brothers, but because of his talent for reading dreams, he rose to power as the Pharaoh's second in command.  He led the country through bounty and famine, and forgave his brothers when they unknowingly came to him for help. In other words, it's just a fun romp about slavery and famine. This is an entirely sung-through musical, with no spoken dialogue. It's pretty intense musically, and the almost thirty-person cast and nine-piece onstage orchestra (under the musical direction of Andrew Cooke) sounds full and fantastic.

Some highlights of the show:
  • The show may be named after Joseph, but the main character is nameless. Jodi Carmeli reprises her role as the Narrator and is completely comfortable in the role, vocally and from a character standpoint. She carries the show and is a wonderful friendly guide for the audience (and the two lucky children picked to join the actors on stage*) as she leads us through the story with a winking, knowing look (you'll be OK Joseph, we've been outside and seen the marquee).
  • In a completely different role from the last time I saw him (Theater Latte Da's Aida), Jared Oxborough is a delightful Joseph - childlike and almost goofy (my friend compared him to Keanu Reeves in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure). His voice sounds fantastic as always. "Close Every Door" is the one somber moment in the show, a bit of a tonal disconnect with the rest of the show, which is almost giddy. This is an angsty song, but there's zero angst in this show, so it doesn't quite fit. Still, it's a nice vocal moment for Jared.
the Pharaoh (Keith Rice) with his many admirers
(photo by Rick Spaulding)
  • Keith Rice may have let his hair go gray, but he's still got it! He steals the show as the Elvis-like Pharaoh, making the women faint by flexing his jewel-nippled pecs, doing the splits, thrusting his hips, curling his lip, and singing in that great baritone voice of his. He really hams it up in the best way.
  • Joseph's eleven brothers sing in full and beautiful harmony in a variety of styles - the twangy "One More Angel in Heaven," the mock-mournful French "Those Canaan Days," and the tropical "Benjamin Calypso." In the latter song, the brothers are pleading for mercy for Benjamin (Tyler Michaels, with his usual expressive physicality), who has been wrongly accused of stealing. As Benjamin tries to escape the accusation, Tyler non-chalantly whistles "Bye Bye Birdie," a nice nod to the last show at the Chan, in which he also appeared.
  • The choreography by Tamara Kangas Erickson is fun and fast, and very ably performed by the energetic young ensemble. Julianne Mundale, one of the best dancers to ever grace the Chanhassen stage, gets her fantastic dance scene (in which I swear she almost kicks herself in the face).
  • In a show with the phrase "technicolor dreamcoat" in the title, you expect color. And costume designer Rich Hamson delivers. The coat is indeed technicolor, and everyone from the Egyptian slaves to the brothers to Joseph in his sparkly gold loincloth are well-clad (almost making one forgive the bad wigs and fake beards). The set (by Nayna Ramey) is dominated by huge letters on rollers spelling out "JOSEPH" that are cleverly used as various set pieces.

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat is a safe choice for the Chanhassen, but they really deliver. Director Michael Brindisi says in a note in the playbill, "I think we'll just do it and have fun." Light, fun, happy, and highly entertaining - sometimes that's all you need from a musical. The show continues through August so you have plenty of time to make your way out to the Southwest suburbs and check it out. (I only hope it's not snowing when you see it, like it was when I did.)

Joseph (Jared Oxborough) with his pleading brothers
(photo by Rick Spaulding)

*If you have a little one with a yen for the theatrical, you can enter them into a drawing before the show in the lobby. Two lucky kids are chosen each night to join the cast on stage and take part in the show. You might also want to consider the Chanhassen's summer musical theater camps.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

"In the Time of the Butterflies / En el Tiempo de las Mariposas" at Mixed Blood Theatre

Mixed Blood Theatre often has surtitles during their plays, I assume to make them more accessible to the hearing impaired. But in the case of their new play In the Time of the Butterflies, the surtitles are needed to translate from spoken Spanish to English and from spoken English to Spanish. I don't speak a word of Spanish, but like in foreign films, you soon get used to reading the words while simultaneously getting the emotional content from the actors' performances. And there is much emotional content in this play. It's based on the historical novel of the same name, a fictionalized account of the Mirabel sisters. The four sisters were political dissidents in the Dominican Republic who worked to overthrow the dictator Trujillo, aka El Jefe, who is believed to have ordered the deaths of 50,000 people during his thirty-year reign. Three of the sisters were among those numbers. The one surviving sister, Dede, tells their story and keeps their memory alive.

In the Time of the Butterflies is constructed in the framework of memory. Dede is telling her story to a Dominican-American writer who is writing it down to tell the world. It's a painful story, but a pleasant one too as Dede remembers the happy times with her sisters in their family's garden. The story is told partly through Dede's reminiscing, and partly through scenes of the sisters interacting with each other and reading diary entries. It starts when they are young girls with hopes and dreams, and continues as they see those dreams thwarted by El Jefe. He invites the sisters to a party, and when Minverva rejects his advances, he puts their father in jail and they are forever on his "naughty list." As the years advance, the sisters, especially Minerva who studies to be a lawyer but is prevented from practicing, become more and more involved in trying to end Trujillo's dictatorial reign. Youngest sister Maria Teresa joins her, and eventually so does Patria. Dede reluctantly gives the group a place to meet, but is concerned for her family's safety. And rightly so - Minerva and Maria Teresa are jailed and tortured. They are eventually released, but their story, along with Patria's, comes to a tragic end. Dede is left to deal with her feelings and represent the heroism of her sisters to the world.

the Mirabel sisters
This bilingual cast of seven is equally great and expressive in English and Spanish, flowing back and forth between the two languages smoothly. As the only man in the cast, Raul Ramos is downright creepy as the evil dictator, and also plays several other roles. Maria Gonzalez as the one surviving sister is elegant and proud, mournful and hopeful. Hope Cervantes is the attentive and curious modern American writer, who has her own story about coming home to the land of her ancestors. The four sisters are wonderfully played by Maggie Bofill, Claudia de Vasco, Adlyn Carreras, and Thallis Santesteban, with a genuine feeling of camaraderie and occasional tension between them. They also look beautiful, thanks in part to the parade of dresses they're put in by costumer Jeffrey Bleam. From the innocent white dresses of the opening scene, to the flowery dresses in the garden, and everything in between, they manage to look classic and period-appropriate yet fresh and modern.

This play is the second in a year of plays written by women produced by Mixed Blood* (written by Caridad Svich based on the novel by Julia Alverez). The first was the hilariously biting comedy Elemeno Pea by Molly Smith Metzler, and the remaining are TBA. I think this is a fantastically bold choice by Mixed Blood, but not surprising considering their commitment to diversity of all kinds, which is not just words but can be seen in every play they produce. As Artistic Director Jack Reuler notes in the playbill, "In our so-called liberal entertainment industry, the gender balance of writers, directors, and producers remains profoundly imbalanced. We are proud to walk our talk, practice what we preach, and live our mission in this arena." Right on. I'll be watching.

*My one complaint about Mixed Blood Theatre, which I admire more and more the more I see of their work, is that they consistently do not put artist bios in their playbills. As someone who likes to make connections between the many shows I see, I find this disappointing. But it's a very minor quibble for a theater that does such amazing and diverse work.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

"Go If You Think It Your Duty" at the Minnesota History Center

I've never thought of the Civil War is as a particularly important part of Minnesota history, its battles being fought hundreds of miles away. But a new exhibit at the Minnesota History Center proves otherwise. In fact, Minnesotans were among the first to volunteer for the Union Army. One such volunteer was Madison Bowler from Nininger, a small town near Hastings. He enlisted in 1861 and served for five years before returning home to Minnesota. During that time he married his fiance Lizzie and had a child, despite only being home for a total of twelve weeks during a four-year period. Madison and Lizzie left behind hundreds of letters that they wrote to each other, which have been compiled into a book called Go If You Think It Your Duty by Andrea R. Foroughi. The book was adapted into a one-hour play by Victoria Stewart and presented at the History Center for two performances. On the day I attended the play, I also visited the exhibit (as well as the sobering exhibit on the US-Dakota War that happened right here on Minnesota soil during the same time as the Civil War). I found it to be a really nice complement to the exhibit and a great way to bring a little piece of Minnesota history to life.

This little play features some pretty big names in the local theater scene - director Craig Johnson and actors Anna Sundberg and Peter Christian Hansen as the Bowlers (see also Venus in Fur). You know that cliche "I would watch [insert name of favorite actor] read the phone book?" Peter and Anna are two such actors for me, and even better when what they're reading are a series of impassioned and touching letters between a husband and wife separated by war. The play mostly consists of Madison and Lizzie standing in front of music stands on opposite sides of the stage, reading their letters to each other. This may sound boring, but in the hands of Peter and Anna, the words come to life. They convey the joy, frustration, anger, sadness, and hope in the life of this couple lived apart. The letters cover everything from the mundane (oh those awful Minnesota winters) to the profound (the death of Lizzie's sister), from joyful (the birth of baby Victoria) to unpleasant (Madison and Lizzie's disagreement about where Madison's duty lies). There are just enough conversation scenes interspersed among the letter readings to weave together a story (Abby Desanto and Dietrich Poppen play additional characters). Period costumes and music of the time (James Lekatz on piano provides a soundtrack, with the cast joining in on several songs) add to the sense of time and place.

Go If You Think It Your Duty is a short, sweet, simple play that brings a little piece of history to life. Unfortunately there are no more performances of this play planned, but the exhibit runs through the fall, so maybe it'll pop up again. I have attended a few special events at the History Theater, but I wasn't really aware that they produce original theater. I am now. The moral of the story is - keep your eye out for theater in unusual places, it's everywhere.

Monday, April 8, 2013

"Misterman" by Frank Theatre at the Southern Theater

I go to a lot of theater (obviously). Most of it falls within the realm of the expected. It's rare that I see something that's completely unlike anything I've seen before. So when I do, I appreciate it, even if I don't quite understand it all. It's refreshing in my typical 3-4 shows a week schedule to see something bold, edgy, risky, and utterly captivating. Frank Theatre's production of Irish playwright Enda Walsh's* one-man show Misterman is such a piece. Featuring a truly remarkable performance by John Catron, a fantastic space, and pretty intricate technical choreography of audio recordings and equipment that start and stop on cue, it's definitely something to see. It may not for everyone, but as someone who sees a great quantity of theater, it's just what I needed to jar me out of the usual.

I'm not sure I can even summarize the plot for you, but I'll try. There's a man named Thomas living in the small Irish town of Inishfree. He reenacts one day in his life with the help of audio recordings of his parents and neighbors. When he leaves his front door (but not really) and meets people in the town (but not really), he also acts out their side of the conversation. He buys his mammy's favorite biscuits, visits his father's grave, treats himself to a cheesecake, and goes to a local dance. This is all happening inside his own head, as he desperately tries to make sense of how he ended up where he is (wherever that is). It's not so much about what happens as how it happens and what it means for this fascinating character.

John Catron channels crazed
Irishman Thomas
This is a gutsy, fearless, no-holds-barred performance by John Catron (and I thought he let loose as the drunken Jamie Tryone in Long Day's Journey Into Night, but that was nothing compared to this!). In what must be a physically and emotionally exhausting ninety minutes, he sprints across the large space of the Southern Theater, laughs, cries, cooks an egg and eats it, gets drenched by rain, strips, runs in place, climbs up and down stairs, and plays several different characters opposite each other, all with different accents and physicality. He acts opposite a tape recording and makes it so believable you can almost see the person he's talking to. He is completely immersed in this character, and just watching the expression on his face change as he listens to a recording of a particularly pivotal moment in his life is revelatory. Thomas is a deeply disturbed man, but John also makes him sympathetic. It's a fully committed performance that is fascinating to watch.

The Southern Theater is one of my favorite places to watch theater. The cavernous space has so much room to be transformed. Sometimes it's sparse, bare, and beautiful, and other times, like this, it's cluttered with the things that make up the universe of the play. All kinds of discarded recording equipment are piled on shelves and in corners. A makeshift kitchen is on one side of the stage, complete with a working hot plate and sink. A cemetery is constructed out of orange pop cans, as if Thomas has created the world in which he plays out his story. Kudos to director Wendy Knox and the tech team (set design by Michael Sommers, sound design by Michael Croswell) for the flawless execution of the many pieces and parts that go into this play - recordings that play right on cue, things that drop from the ceiling, and tape players that turn on and off. (Some pretty big local theater names lend their voices to the recordings, which are mostly unrecognizable due to the accents, but it's still fun to guess.) There are a lot of moving parts in this "one-man show," and it all appears seamless and effortless.

Misterman plays at the Southern Theater Thursdays through Sundays, now through April 28. If you're looking for something different and interesting and a little bit bizarre, this is it. In addition, Frank Theatre is offering free readings of three other plays by Enda Walsh on Wednesdays at the Southern. If I weren't booked the next three Wednesdays I'd check it out to get a deeper look into the (somewhat disturbed) mind of this playwright.

*A big reason why I wanted to see this play is to see more work by Enda Walsh, who I know as the Tony-winning book writer of the musical Once, the musical adaptation of one of my favorite movies. Never in a million years would I have connected the writer of Misterman with Once, so different are the two pieces. But after thinking about it a bit, it makes perfect sense. The movie Once is a quiet, subtle story, one that doesn't translate easily to the traditional big Broadway musical stage. Enda Walsh brings some of that rawness that is so apparent in Misterman to Once, keeping it from becoming too sweet and sappy, and keeping it grounded in reality. I guess that's why they gave him a Tony for it.