Saturday, May 25, 2013

"Changes in Time" by 20% Theatre Company at the Minneapolis Theatre Garage

I love finding new (to me) theater companies, and with over 70 theater companies in this theater-rich town, there are many I have yet to discover. Here's one I can cross off my "to do" list - 20% Theatre Company, "committed to supporting and vigorously promoting the work of female and transgender theater artists, and celebrating the unique contributions of these artists to social justice and human rights." (Their name comes from a study that found that only about 20% of professional theater artists are women.) Their current production, the new play Changes in Time, speaks directly to their mission. It's a story of a transgender individual, who was born in a girl's body but always felt like a boy. We see three scenes in her* life - as a teenager in the 1950s, and in 20 year increments in the 70s and '90s. Taken as a whole, the play is an effective and moving exploration of how it feels to be born in the wrong body, and how that affects the individual as well as their relationships with those who love them.

Wishes: We meet our protagonist Lorraine, or Rain as she prefers to be called, as a teenager away at camp in the 1950s. She sneaks out to meet her friend Court on their last night at camp. They share stories and snacks, and Rain sadly learns that what she feels is seen as weird even by the person she loves and trusts the most. In matching blue jeans, white t-shirts, and crewcuts, Chava Curland and Briana Zora Libby are charming and sweet as Court and Rain, a perfect picture of innocent young love.

Dresses: Twenty years have passed, and Lorraine returns home to Connecticut from Boston to attend her cousin's wedding with her mother. The entire scene takes place in the car on the drive there, and as often happens on a long drive, the two have an intense and real discussion and talk about things they've never talked about before. Lorraine's mother, perfectly groomed in a skirt and jacket with hat and gloves, can't understand why her daughter can't wear a dress, just once, for the wedding in which she's a bridesmaid. Lorraine tries to explain that it goes against every fiber of her being, but her mother just doesn't get it. Still, she loves and supports her daughter, and will do anything in her power defend her. Muriel Bonertz is a hoot as the prim and proper mother with a hidden depth of feeling, and has great chemistry with Heather Spear as the tough but tender daughter.

Changes: Another twenty years have passed, and much has changed - Lorraine is now Laurence, and his mother has died. This time it's his father's turn to have a real and intense discussion with the child that he loves but can't quite understand. You get the sense that he really loves Laurence and wants him to be happy, but can't quite wrap his head around the decisions he's made, and he misses Lorraine. The truth comes out, and it's not pretty, but it's a beginning that leads to greater connection. Chris Little makes his acting debut as Laurence, which is incredibly brave, but it's Dann Peterson who shines in this scene with his very natural and touching performance as a father coming to terms with the fact that the child he's always loved is still there, even though he might look different.

Theatrically, it's interesting to track one character through several stages of their life, especially when there's such change. From a more global standpoint, it's pretty great to use theater to give voice to an underrepresented community. Unfortunately there's only one more performance of Changes in Time (go directly to the Minneapolis Theatre Garage if you're interested), but I'm glad I caught this one before it closed.

*I feel like the English language is failing me, we need a gender-neutral pronoun!

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

"Tesla" at nimbus theatre

Following Bohemian Flats, nimbus theatre again tackles a true historical story, creating an original ensemble piece. Unlike Bohemian Flats, a series of short vignettes about the Minneapolis immigrant neighborhood on the river's very edge, Tesla has more of a linear through-line and a hero to root for - the Serbian-American scientist Nikola Tesla. Both plays used historical documents and writings of the time to construct the very realistic world in which the story takes place. Writer/director Josh Cragun and his talented ensemble manage to tell an entertaining and informative story about a long-dead scientist, with some cool science tricks in the midst. I admit to being a bit of a science nerd (I toyed with a physics major), so maybe that's part of why I liked this piece so much, but it works as a theatrical story too. Tesla lived a fascinating life that's well told by nimbus.

Nikola Tesla, a contemporary and one-time employee of Thomas Edison, is best known for developing an efficient and safe alternating current motor, and has a unit of measurement named after him. But like all geniuses, he was also a bit eccentric, and by the end of his lifetime was seen as something of a "mad scientist." The play covers Tesla's life from his arrival in America in 1884 to his death in 1943, with a few flashbacks to earlier times. After leaving Edison's employ, he became quite successful and well-known, with famous friends such as author Mark Twain and architect Stanford White (who was killed in the "crime of the century!"). Unfortunately not all of his inventions were successfully realized, such as his idea for a wireless transmission tower, for which he ran out funds before it could be completed. Tesla was a forward-thinker, imagining a day when people could instantaneously communicate worldwide with a wireless device that could fit in their pocket. Imagine that!

Zack Morgan as Nikola Tesla
Zach Morgan very naturally inhabits the character of Tesla and brings him to life. Tall and well-dressed, polite but firm in his ideas, it's easy to root for his success, which makes it all the more tragic when his success starts to fade. Tesla has a bit of OCD in him, constantly wiping his hands or suit where someone has touched him, an act that seems to increase in desperation as his eccentricities begin to overtake his creative genius. Zack is supported by an ensemble of two men and three women (Heidi Berg, Jesse Corder, Nissa Nordland, Brian O'Neal, Heather Stone) who play many various roles. Interestingly but effectively, the women often play men (19th century science was a man's world), even while dressed in period dresses. I was particularly fascinated by one convertible dress, with a skirt that could be pinned back to reveal pants and a jacket that could be removed. Very slight costume changes such as this help to distinguish characters (costumes designed by Andrea M. Gross). The two-level set (designed by Ursula K. Bowden) with a prominent central staircase serves as a good background for various locations, but most impressive of all are the working science gadgets, various motors and machines, including the huge Tesla coil which gives off glorious sparks in the dark. It's a little like when Steve Spangler visits the Ellen Show - isn't that cool?

Yes, science is cool, and inventors like Nikola Tesla are responsible for all the cool technology we've come to depend upon. nimbus theatre gives us a glimpse into the life of the man behind some of these inventions, and it's quite compelling. They're taking the weekend off for Memorial Day, but return for two more weekends - you can make reservations here. Recommended for science nerds and normal people alike.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

"A Streetcar Named Desire" by Ten Thousand Things at Minnesota Opera Center

Ten Thousand Things does theater like no other company I've seen, and Tennessee Williams wrote some of the best American plays of the 20th Century - full of drama and tragedy and beautifully written characters. Combine these two powerhouses and you have a pretty remarkable experience at the theater. A Streetcar Named Desire is one of Williams' best-known plays and deals with complex issues of family relationships, spousal abuse, rape, poverty, and mental illness. My first introduction to the work was a beautiful production at the Guthrie three years ago, a memory I try to hold on to in an attempt to displace the memory of last year's unfortunate Broadway production, which had audiences laughing at inappropriate moments. It was like Streetcar, the Comedy, and it was not good. The concept was a good one - an ethnically diverse cast - but the tone of the production was much too light. I thought perhaps it was also due to the unsophisticated audience that the TV actors on stage brought in, but I've learned from Ten Thousand Things that it doesn't matter if an audience member has never seen a play before in their life, or has seen hundreds. If you do it right - they'll get it. In addition to performing for the typical theater-goer like myself, TTT takes their shows into prisons, homeless shelter, schools, and community centers in an effort to bring theater to a wider audience. And they have a really wonderful and unique way of stripping the work down to the essentials and presenting it in a way that anyone can relate to, regardless of prior theater experience. They've done that with Streetcar, and the result is a brutally real and emotionally affecting two hours that's at times difficult to endure. Seeing Williams' tragic story so up close and personal is almost too much to bear. In other words - they did it right.

Austene Van as Blanche
This production of Streetcar focuses on the four main characters and removes several minor characters that don't factor into the main plot. The play begins with Blanche visiting her sister Stella and her husband Stanley in New Orleans. Blanche and Stella grew up in a wealthy Southern family, but hard times have caused Blanche to lose the home place, while Stella and Stanley live in two small modest rooms. Blanche is high-strung, to put it mildly. She takes long baths and drinks to calm her nerves, and can't possibly speak about the troubles in her past. She's a woman who's all about appearances; if things look pretty and put together, then everything must be all right. Reality is much too harsh for the world that Blanche lives in. Her young husband died tragically years ago, which, along with her family's financial hardship and the deaths of her parents, sent her on a downward spiral. No where else to go, she lands with her sister, with a trunk full of pretty clothes, fur, and jewelry, mementos of her past. Blanche finds companionship with Stanley's buddy Mitch; they're two lonely people who need someone. It's the beginning of what seems like could be a quiet, simple love, as opposed to Stella and Stanley's passionate but abusive love. Stanley is suspicious of Blanche and thinks that she's holding something back. He learns some gossip about her and uses it against her. In the end, Stella must choose between her husband and her sister. It's a tragic story with no happy endings.

Stella (Elizabeth Grullon) and
Stanley (Kris Nelson)
This fantastic four-person cast is directed by the equally fantastic Randy Reyes. All of these characters are interesting and complex, but none more so than Blanche, and Austene Van plays every layer. Blanche becomes more and more unhinged as the play goes on, and by the end, her eyes are just vacant; she's gone. Elizabeth Grullon is also great as Stella, always hot and frazzled and wanting to believe in her husband and sister both, until she has to make the terrible choice. Kris Nelson may not look like the Stanley Kowalski type, but he's got that sinister attitude in every word and look. He's one of my favorite local actors and usually has this great positive energy, but in this case he's turned that energy much darker in an almost scarily realistic way. Rounding out the cast is Kurt Kwan as the sweet and charming Mitch. All four of these actors have great chemistry with each other and play well together.

This is a fairly elaborate set by Ten Thousand Things standards. In case you've never seen a TTT show before, they create a "stage" by placing a few rows of chairs in a square. The space in the middle is where the story takes place, but it also spills outside the square as the fully lit room allows you to follow the actors as they leave the space. Dean Holzman has effectively transformed this empty square into the two rooms, with an imaginary curtain separating the tiny bed in one corner from the kitchen table in the other. Peter Vitale adds a soundtrack to the play, adding in jazz music playing on the radio or creepy carnival music when Blanche remembers her difficult past.

The last several shows that TTT has done have been on the more light-hearted side, which allowed the cast to play with the audience a little. But not so with Streetcar. The actors keep the intensity of the story and reside in the world they create, as if the audience isn't even there. Not since Doubt two years ago (also starring Kris Nelson) have they tackled such a serious drama. As always, I highly recommend that you go see it. I went with a friend who had never seen TTT before, and we're already talking about getting season passes next season (which includes A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Music Man, and a new play by Kira Obolensky). Warning: the kind of real, raw, intimate theater that Ten Thousand Things does can be addictive.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

"Cul-de-Sac" by Loudmouth Collective at Open Eye Figure Theatre

Loudmouth Collective is a new theater company that specializes in small ensemble or solo pieces. They open their second season with the latter - a solo play called Cul-de-Sac, featuring Wade A. Vaughn playing nine different characters. It's a bit of a murder mystery, but really the murder is an excuse to explore these characters, as each gets a chance to tell their own story. At a ticket price of $15 for a 90-minute show in an intimate space, featuring great writing and acting, it's a bargain and a new, cool, accessible kind of theater.

In Cul-de-Sac, Leonard tells his story from the other side - he has been murdered in his home. His neighbors add their perspectives of the story, as does his murderer. Leonard is a sympathetic character, as we hear differing opinions of him from his neighbors in addition to hearing his own truth directly from him. Playing all of these roles is Wade Vaughn, who made a great impression in last year's Ivey award-winning Compleat Female Stage Beauty. Anytime I've seen Wade on stage, it's almost like a one-man show; he commands the stage in a way that makes everything else fall away. Here, there is nothing else on stage with him - no furniture or costume changes, his only props are a lighter and a watch. He (with help from director Natalie Novacek) has created a specific physicality and voice for each of the characters, from a 13-year-old girl (who is complex in the way that only 13-year-old girls are complex) to an elderly man. Each one of them talks about their relationship with Leonard, but in doing so they convey something about themselves and their life. The writing creates a voice for each of them, and Wade gives them a physical presence. In one neighborhood party scene he slips back and forth between the characters at a dizzying speed. Watching him slip into and out of each one's skin is fascinating and compelling, as the 90 minutes fly by. The writing by Daniel MacIvor is at times beautiful, describing sound as a ball of energy that travels around a neighborhood, and comparing that to an old-fashioned letter traveling from sender to recipient through many hands. And it's funny too at times.

This is a sort run, eight performances only, and the next Loudmouth show is not until next January, so if you like your theater short and succinct, potent and poignant, raw and compelling, go check them out now while you can. (More information and reservations here.)

Monday, May 13, 2013

"An Iliad" at the Guthrie Theater

Stepping off the elevator onto the 9th floor of the Guthrie Theater, I was treated to a site I've never seen before, despite having seen dozens of productions in the Dowling Studio. The wall that separates the lobby from the theater was gone - leaving a full view of the stage from the elevator, with the audience seats behind it and to one side. The Studio is what they call a "black box theater," meaning the room is just a big black box, in which the stage and seating can be arranged in infinitely different ways. But in reality, there are three or four common arrangements that are usually used. The set-up for An Iliad, a one-man show version of Homer's epic poem The Iliad, is the most creative use of the flexibility that this stage has to offer that I've seen. At one point our storyteller goes out into the lobby part of the theater and explores the glorious echo heard in that space, utilizing every square inch of the 9th floor. But this is not the most remarkable part of An Iliad. That would be Stephen Yoakam's performance as the storyteller poet. He tells the story directly to the audience (the house lights were fully or partly up for some of the show, creating that feeling of interaction), as well as acting out many roles from a baby to a crippled god, imbuing each moment with such depth of emotion. It's another one of those epic one-man show performances that must be seen.

I was vaguely familiar with The Iliad from my high school and college studies, as most people probably are. It tells the story of The Trojan War, you know - the one with the Trojan Horse, "the face that launched a thousand ships," Achilles, Agamemnon, and all of that. But the brilliant thing about this telling of the ancient story (co-written by Lisa Peterson and Denis O'Hare), is that it's really about any and every war that's ever been fought. At one point our storyteller lists what seems like every war in human history, and there are disturbingly many. The list is endless, and he gets more and more dejected with each one, until he quickly speeds through the end of the list and is silent. An Iliad makes the story of the Trojan War real and relevant, a story of the horrors of any and all wars.

Stephen Yoakam
Stephen Yoakam is the poet Homer himself, reluctantly singing his song again, reluctant because of the death and destruction that is at the center of it. He calls to the muses for help, forgets names, skips over parts and lingers over others, stripping off his long coat, sweater, and eventually shoes and socks as he gets deeper and deeper into the tale. It's as if it physically pains and tires him to tell this story. This is a performance that's real, raw, intense, moving, and entirely captivating.

But of course, a "one-man show" is never really that. Stephen is aided by the direction of Benjamin McGovern, the set design of Michael Hoover (the focus of which is what looks like an abandoned fountain in a town square, adorned with sand, water, scaffolding, and Greek wall sculptures, for an interesting mix of modern and ancient), and the lighting of Tom Mays (it's like another character, showing us where to look, flashing with the muses, house lights increasing and decreasing at appropriate times).

Playing now through May 26 at the Guthrie Theater, An Iliad is a sobering look at war through the eyes of one man and one ancient war that doesn't feel so ancient.

Friday, May 10, 2013

"Out of the Pan Into the Fire" by The Moving Company at the Southern Theater

If you're a theater fan living in the Twin Cities, you need to experience The Moving Company at least once (and like potato chips, you probably won't be able to stop at just one show). What they do is so totally unique and innovative, and completely their own style - original work with creative storytelling, sometimes perplexing, sometimes profound, always interesting. Their new production is a modern original fairy tale, inspired by the classics collected by the brothers Grimm, but bearing no direct resemblance to any of them. Out of the Pan Into the Fire is at times amusing, moving, poignant, odd, sad, and sweet.

Serving as a storyteller and narrator, as well as a character within the drama, the endlessly watchable Steve Epp plays Angelo. He begins the show reading a story from a book, a story from "a time when wishing was of some use," and then takes part in that story. Angelo collects children to raise and then send off into the world, and is left with just two oddballs who've never quite left. Elsie (Christina Baldwin like I've never seen her before, but just as captivating as always) is the super smart young woman who knows everything but has experienced nothing. She's deathly afraid of leaving her safe home and going out into the world. She's a sort of awkward child-woman, dressed in rags and dorky glasses with clothespins in her hair. Her brother Thirteen is her exact opposite - dumb as a rock and afraid of nothing, because "he doesn't know enough to be afraid." In Nathan Keepers' usual physical style of character creation, Thirteen is like a big eager happy puppy dog, who only wants to be loved and be happy and play with his best friend, potato. Christina and Nathan created a beautifully doomed romantic couple in last year's Werther and Lotte, and now with Elsie and Thirteen they have created a funny, sweet, and genuine sibling relationship. This odd little family is happy, but Angelo knows that he has to send his children out into the harsh world to complete their development as human beings. Angelo leaves so that Elsie will have to face the world and experience the heartbreak that goes along with it (for true wisdom is knowledge plus experience), and Thirteen will learn fear (which is, as Elsie tells him, dread plus reverence). Growing up is hard, as these two overgrown children learn.

The world in which this story takes place is quite magical. Upon entering the Southern Theater, I was immediately captivated by the little chairs in graduated sizes, from child-sized to doll-sized. The set (designed by director Dominique Serrand) is comprised of odd spaces created by cardboard, a locker, a raised stage area, plastic garbage bags, and various other compartments. There are secret doors and windows, from which characters suddenly appear and disappear (leading to several moments of "how'd they do that?!"). Delightful and surprising things happen with the set and props; there is wind, ice, rain, and dirt (without spoiling everything, there is significant clean-up that must happen between shows).

The cool thing about The Moving Company is that often the actors help in creation of the work (this one was written by Steve, Nathan, and Dominique), so that the characters are suited to the particular talents of the actors, whether it's Nathan's crazy physicality, or Christina's lovely voice (which she does use here), or Steve's great storytelling. Watching the three of them (along with Sam Kruger, who plays a couple of small but impactful roles) play in this strange and magical world is a joy. One that you really must experience to fully comprehend. Check them out at the Southern Theater through May 26, and in the meantime, you can contribute to their Kickstarter campaign to help fund the project.

Nathan Keepers, Steve Epp, and Christina Baldwin

Thursday, May 9, 2013

"Anything Goes" at the Ordway Center

The 1934 Cole Porter musical Anything Goes had a successful revival on Broadway in 2011 and won several Tonys, including Best Revival. That production is on tour and is currently playing at St. Paul's Ordway Center for one short week. I was invited to see it opening night and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It's a terrific new production of a classic musical, with many great songs, fun characters, clever one-liners and bad puns, a full orchestra, and a talented ensemble performing fantastic choreography.

Anything Goes takes place almost entirely on a cross-Atlantic voyage on a ship (which is how people traveled before the days of air travel, and it sound so much more fun). The cast of characters includes a lounge singer/evangelist named Reno Sweeney and her pal Billy, who stows away on the ship to prevent the woman he loves, Hope, from marrying a rich Englishman named Evelyn. Also on board is a low level mobster whom Reno and Billy befriend. The voyage is filled with mistaken identities, high jinx, romance, and of course, music.

Highlights include:
  • Rachel York is perfectly cast as Reno Sweeney. She has a rich and dusky voice, both singing and speaking, that is perfectly suited to the character and the time period. Her performance is breezy and effortless.
  • As Reno's pal Billy, Josh Franklin is quite dreamy - tall with a gorgeous voice and a charming way about him. From my seat in the last row of the theater, he reminded me of a taller Chris Messina (which is a good thing).
  • Jeff Brooks is a hoot as Moonface, aka Public Enemy #13, especially in the nonsensical song "Be Like the Blue Bird."
  • I love this score. Anything Goes was one of two musicals for which I played in the pit orchestra for my high school production (remember the Great Halloween Blizzard of '91? it preempted our opening night), so hearing that gorgeous pit orchestra brought back memories. After seeing the show I downloaded the 2011 cast recording and am enjoying listening to it; I'm not sure how I survived so long without it! "I Get a Kick Out of You," "You're the Top," "Friendship," "It's De-lovely," "Anything Goes," "Blow, Gabriel, Blow" - hit after hit after hit.
  • Director and choreographer Kathleen Marshall won a Tony for the choreography of the Broadway production, and it is quite fantastic, especially the prolonged tap sequence to the title song at the end of Act I. It goes on and on as more people join in. Tap dancing is as much music as it is dancing, as it creates a rhythm that captivates the audience and carries us along. And as a general rule, I approve of dancing sailors in tight white pants.
  • The set depicts the deck of a ship, with several levels and moving parts. The cute and tiny rooms move onto center stage when needed. The costumes are divine, especially Reno's wardrobe of gorgeous gowns.
  • My one complaint is that if I wrote this show, I would have Billy end up with Reno instead of the bland Hope. I don't know how any man could notice another woman when Reno is in the room, and she deserves better than that weird Brit Evelyn. Billy and Reno are my ideal couple.

It's quite remarkable that a piece written in 1934 is still fresh, funny, and entertaining almost 80 years later. Now that's a classic. Playing through this weekend only at the Ordway - so get your tickets now!

the show-stopping tap dance "Anything Goes"

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

"To Life! A Benefit to End Gun Violence" at the Varsity Theater

A common reaction to the ever increasing violence in this world is helplessness. A feeling of, "What can I do, what can anyone do to stop this?" A group of theater artists responded to this feeling of helplessness by doing what they do best - putting on a show. A show to educate, inform, raise money, and entertain. Josh Campbell, Brendan Bujold, and Tre Searles joined their artistic forces with Protect Minnesota, an organization working to end gun violence. The result was a fun evening of music and theater that raised almost $12,000 to aid in Protect Minnesota's goal of ending gun violence in Minnesota. Proving once again my belief that theater has the power to change the world, in small ways or big.

This past Monday night at the charming Varsity Theater in Dinkytown, eight fabulously talented theater artists, under the direction of Josh Campbell, shared songs from musical theater interspersed with seven short scenes by different playwrights, showing their differing reactions to gun violence, some amusing, some sobering, some righteously angry. Most of these are from a series of plays gathered by playwright Caridad Svich, whose bilingual play In the Time of Butterflies was recently seen at Mixed Blood (read an interview with her here). My favorite scenes were Right After Virginia Tech, written by Laura Zam and performed by Tod Peterson, and Bridge to Baraka: The Pen Instead of the Gun, written by Yvette Heyliger and performed by Regina Marie Williams. The former is smart, funny, and real, as the playwright tries to wrap her brain around the issue and calls for listening, respect, and empathy from seemingly opposing sides. Tod is such a fantastic performer that he brought the words and emotions of the playwright to life. The latter contains some of that righteous anger I mentioned, beautifully conveyed by Regina, and I learned something I didn't know about the beginning of the modern gun rights movement.

Musical highlights of the evening include:

  • Ben Bakken applied his dangerously great voice to a couple of diverse songs - the fun and rousing "Run, Freedom, Run" from Urinetown (one of the must-see shows of this summer) and the poignant and emotional "Endless Night" from The Lion King (one of the additional songs written for the stage version).
  • The rosy-cheeked Suzie Juul sang "Easy to Be Hard" from Hair (another must-see show of this summer), and dueted with Regina on a very funny song about the differences between 17 and 43.
  • Reprising his role as Seaweed in Hairspray at the Chanhassen from a few years ago, Kasono Mwanza sang "Run and Tell That," with help from Julius Collins III, who later gave a great solo performance of "I'm Flying Home" from Songs For a New World.
  • Ann Michels sang the sad and pretty "Where Do You Start" by Alan and Marilyn Bergman, Thomasina Petrus brought the house down with her rendition of "Feelin' Good," and the two joined forces for "Class" from Chicago.
  • The cast closed the show with, of course, "To Life" from Fiddler on the Roof (which I've heard we may be seeing on a local stage later this year).

For more information about Protect Minnesota, visit their website. Thanks to all of the above theater artists for putting their many talents towards a great cause, raising money and awareness along the way.  To Life!

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

"On the Town" at Bloomington Civic Theatre

"New York, New York, it's a hell of a town!" How could I not love a show that includes that lyric? The 1944 Bernstein/Comden&Green/Robbins musical On the Town is a love letter to NYC as much as anything else. Three sailors on leave have a mere 24 hours in which to enjoy all the city has to offer, and they do their best. It's a light and happy musical, but it's also about enjoying the short time you're given (or as some might say, "no day but today"). As director Wendy Lehr notes in the playbill, "There is an underlying poignancy in all the high jinx." This is my second time seeing On the Town (Skylark Opera did it a few years ago), and already being familiar with the plot and music, I was really able to appreciate the funny and clever lyrics, crisply drawn characters, and of course, the amazing musical composition by Leonard Bernstein. I could definitely hear similarities to that other great Robbins/Bernstein collaboration. On the Town a great piece, a classic in musical theater history, and as usual, Bloomington Civic Theatre does a smashing job bringing it to life.

A quick plot review in case you've never seen the show (or have only seen the movie, which has significant changes of plot and music, as if one could improve on Bernstein!): Our three sailor heroes are the fun-loving skirt-chasing Ozzie, the organized and determined sightseer Chip, and the good guy Gabey, who only wants to find that one special girl. Find her he does, when he falls in love with a poster of Ivy Smith, Miss Turnstiles, on the subway. His two friends agree to give up their goals for the day (girls and sightseeing) to help their pal Gabey find Ivy. Since this is a musical, of course he does find her, but not without complications. In the end, a good time is had by all, and the boys get back on the ship, as a new batch of sailors land to spend their golden 24 hours in New York - a hell of a town.

A few highlights:

  • The three sailors are all charming and energetic, great dancers and singers. AJ Longabaugh is all youthful energy as Ozzie, Andrew Newman is funny and adorable as Chip, and C. Ryan Shipley brings the appropriate love and longing to Gabey.
  • I love the women in this show - they're strong and confident, they know what they want, and they go after it, whether it's a man or a career. They're that specific 1940s type of broad, when women did "men's work" because the men were off at war, and did it well and proudly. Colleen Somerville, Rachel Weber, and Alyssa Seifert all fill their roles perfectly.
  • The show is directed by the incomparable Wendy Lehr, winner of the 2010 Ivey Lifetime Achievement Award, and choreographed by Michael Matthew Ferrell (frequent collaborator with Theater Latte Da). As always his choreography is fresh, fast, and fantastic.
  • The huge ensemble delightfully plays many roles, all sorts of characters that you see on the New York City streets, and perform the dance numbers with aplomb. Standouts include Neal Beckman, who makes the most of every role and minute he has the stage, and dancer and assistant choreographer Krysti Wiita.
  • As a rule I don't usually like the "dream ballet," a popular convention in 1940s and 50s musicals that I'm glad has gone out of fashion. They're usually just a silly diversion from the main action. But I like it here (when the original choreographer is Jerome Robbins, that great storyteller through movement, it makes sense to add some prolonged dancing sequences). I especially love the one takes place on a subway, that great microcosm of humanity, with passengers slowly waving to the motion of the train. There are several scenes where story is told simply through dance and music, with no spoken or sung words, making On the Town part dance show, part musical.
  • I love a pit orchestra, and no one does it better than Anita Ruth and Bloomington Civic Theatre. Hearing the music of Leonard Bernstein come to life with a 20+ piece orchestra is a dream.
  • Favorite numbers are any of the male/female duets ("A Taxicab," "Carried Away," "I Can Cook Too") and the fun friendship song "You Got Me."
  • The set is simple but interesting, influenced by the artwork of David Klein, who created posters for TWA, and the costumes create that 1940s period look.

BCT has recently made the transition from community theater to professional theater, which makes sense because they've been providing professional-level entertainment for years. They attract top professional talent (e.g., the aforementioned Wendy Lehr and Michael Matther Ferrel), added to the talent-in-residence of the always great Anita Ruth and Robin McIntyre's set design. Most of the actors have day jobs, but it's clear from their performances and from comments at post-show talk-backs that they love what they do. They bring that passion and joy to the stage and give it all to the audience. On the Town concludes the 2012-2013 musical theater season, with an exciting 2013-2014 season coming up that includes Singin' in the Rain, Les Miserables (for which they've hired two "professional" actors, William Gilness and one of my favorites, Dieter Bierbrauer, to lead the cast), 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, and Gypsy. (I think it's time to renew my season tickets!) If you're a musical theater fan who lives in the Southern Metro, you have no excuse not to go see a show at BCT. And if, like me, it's a bit of a drive to get all the way out to Bloomington, trust me - it's worth it. (On the Town playing now through May 26.)

sailors on leave (C. Ryan Shipley, Andrew Newman, and AJ Longabaugh)

Sunday, May 5, 2013

"Stick Fly" at Park Square Theatre

Why is watching a dysfunctional family on stage or screen so much fun? Maybe it's because it makes our own family look a little less dysfunctional in comparison. Such is the case with the LeVays, the upper class African American family at the center of Stick Fly, the 2011 Broadway play* making it's regional debut at Park Square Theatre. We spend a few days with the LeVays in their home in Martha's Vineyard, where they have intense conversations about race, class, gender, education, relationships, and family. It's the kind of play that draws the audience in and makes you pay close attention so as not to miss a moment of the rapid-fire dialogue. The compelling cast really feels like a family by the end of the play, with many of their issues still unresolved, forever changed by the weekend.

The patriarch of the LeVay family is a neurosurgeon who marries into one of the few African American families to have a home on the Vineyard. Elder son Flip is also a doctor (but in the less prestigious field of plastic surgury) and a womanizer. He brings his new girlfriend Kimber to meet the family. She's white, but comes from the same upper class background as the LeVays. Younger son Kent is the sweet, sensitive artist type who doesn't quite fit in with this family of overachievers. He wants to be a writer, of which his father definitely does not approve. He too brings his girlfriend, or rather fiance, Taylor, to meet the family. She's the daughter of a famous author who grew up middle class with a single mother, a stark contrast to the LeVays' lifestyle. Add to this mixture the daughter of the longtime family maid, who grew up almost a part of the family but always outside of it, and you have plenty of conflicts just ripe for exploding. And they do. Mrs. LeVay is often spoken of but never appears. Dr. LeVay's excuses don't cover the fact that there's something going on there. When the reason is finally revealed (it's a fairly predictable secret, I've watched enough soap operas to see it coming a mile away), it causes all of the conflicts of the weekend to come to a head.

just a friendly game of Scrabble
(photo by Petronella Ytsma)
This capable six-person cast is directed by the always excellent Marion McClinton. James A. Williams (who has worked with Marion in two plays from Pillsbury House Theatre's "Brother/Sister" trilogy, with the third hopefully coming soon) is the strict but genial dad, who soon reveals a darker side. Darius Dotch and Darrien E. Burks create distinct personalities as the elder and younger sons, and also share that brotherly love as well as conflict. Tracey Maloney (one of my favorites) is Kimber, the calm outsider at the center of the storm, and Traci Allen steals several scenes as the passionate Taylor. Last but not least is Brittany Bradford as the maid's daughter. I've enjoyed her performances of such diverse singing roles as Gary Coleman, Natalie, and Sarah Brown Eyes, and I'm happy to discover that she's just as compelling in a non-singing role. She believably takes her character from a hard-working and happy young woman to someone who's entire world has changed.

Besides the actors, the other star of the show is the set, designed by Christopher Mayer. It's a beautiful home that's nicer than any I've lived in! The living room and kitchen are side by side, separated by an invisible wall, that allows for two conversations to be going on at once. The space is well used, with people often congregating in the kitchen as happens in real life, or for a friendly game of scrabble in the living room.

This is a smart, engrossing, challenging (with several jaw-dropping moments of - they did not just say that!), thought-provoking, emotional, funny, and very real play. The opening-night audience was very engaged and responsive (I think I even heard an "Amen!" at one point), which is always fun to see. If that's the kind of play that interests you, it's definitely worth seeing. (Playing now through May 19 at St. Paul's Park Square Theatre.)

*HBO is reportedly going to produce a movie version of the play, adapted by playwright Lydia Diamond. I'll watch that!

Saturday, May 4, 2013

"I Love to Eat" at Illusion Theater

Everything I know about the culinary world I learned from watching Top Chef. The name James Beard is often heard on the show, in terms of the awards his Foundation bestows on promising chefs, but I never really knew much about the man himself. I'm not really what one would call a foodee; my favorite meal is a veggie burger, fries, and beer. But I do love to eat, as do most people, and we have that in common with James Beard, the subject of I Love to Eat: A Love Story with Food at the Illusion Theater. This one-man show, written by playwright James Still and directed by Michael Robins) is a sort of hallucination/dream/stream-of-consciousness in which James talks to us, the audience, telling stories about his life and love of food and cooking. Not much happens, but by the end of the 75-minute play, I had grown quite fond of this man who was a pioneer of American cookery.

The play consists of James in his kitchen telling stories, preparing food, reading letters from fans, and talking on one of three phones to fans or friends (including Julia Child). He is alone on stage, but you get the feeling that he craves connection, hence his generous contact with fans. We learn a little about his childhood in Portland (an ideal childhood is not necessarily a happy one), his travels, and his TV show. James hosted the first TV cooking show in the late 40s, and we see a few scenes from the show, talking to a cow puppet, the sponsor of the show. He makes his beloved onion sandwiches (with homemade mayonnaise), and a few lucky audience members get a taste! He focused on "every day American cookery" rather than pretentious fancy meals, encouraging his fans and students to use the preparation and eating of food to bring people together, as it has throughout human history.

James Beard (Garry Geiken) with his co-host
Garry Geiken has shaved his beautiful head of hair to play James, and fully embodies not only his bald head but also his love of life, food, and connection. He moves in and out of the various scenarios (TV show, phone conversations, memories, reading letters) with ease. He has an infectious laugh and easy smile, but also gives us a sense of loneliness under the jolly exterior (it's impossible not to cry when you're chopping onions). He has the audience in the palm of his hand, as we dutifully repeat tips like "only fresh lemons always." The set, designed by Dean Holzman, is a detailed and homey kitchen that's slightly fantastical - the floor slopes towards the audience - giving the sense that this is not quite reality. The lighting (designed by Mike Wangen) tells us when we're entering the wacky world of the TV show.

James believed in "good food, simply cooked," and using the best ingredients. I Love to Eat is a theatrical meal James would approve of - the best ingredients combine in a story simply told. Sometimes sweet, sometimes bitter, but always tasty. The title says it all - he loved to eat, and he conveyed that love through his cooking and through his teaching. Like a good meal, you'll leave the theater feeling happy and satisfied. Playing now through May 18, with half-price tickets available on Goldstar.