Friday, June 28, 2013

"Herocycle" by FTF Works at Old Arizona Theater

Evel Knievel. You probably know the name even if, like me, you don't know much about the man behind the legend. FTF Works' Herocycle, a remount of a 2008 Fringe show, explores the life of Robert Knievel in a creative and innovative way, using aerial acrobatics, circus tricks, music, and the work of Joseph Campbell. The result is a really unique, physical, and captivating piece of theater.

This is a work that doesn't really follow any conventions of theater, so it's hard to even know where to begin describing it. So I'll just jump right in. Evel Knievel, the famous daredevil who made a career out of jumping his motorcycle over cars, animals, and various other objects, is played by two actors, Erik Hoover as Robert Knievel and Jim Peitzman as the alter ego he created for himself. The two often debate, the daredevil side convincing the human side to take greater and greater risks. Robert spends much of the show in a wheelchair, representing the cumulative three years he spent in the hospital recovering from various crashes, while Evel is often flying overhead on aerial silks, irrepressible. Both are dressed in Evel Knievel's trademark white suit with the stars and stripes, like 70s superheros, as is Beth Brooks, who is credited as "Reporter, Goddess" but serves as a sort of narrator and guide through the story. We learn a little bit about Robert's life and history, with Sasha Gibbs playing his wife and a groupie. Both Beth and Sasha sing at times with a fantastic band (original compositions by Sam Brooks, and a special shout out to violinist Maliya Gorman-Carter who at one point plays while suspended from the air), although this is not a musical. But most remarkable of all is the physical way all of the cast moves about the space, which is populated with various size ramps, jumping, rolling, spinning, flying. It's exhausting and fascinating to watch. Every time someone (usually Jim) was up in the aerial silks I couldn't take my eyes off of them, especially when Jim went into an almost free fall descent, stopping a few feet from the ground. It's a clever way to show the daredevil aspect without having an actual motorcycle jumping through the air onstage.

I find myself drawn to stories of people who take great adventurous risks in the pursuit of something that they usually can't even explain themselves. It's a drive that some people have to challenge themselves, just to prove to themselves (or the world) that they can do it. It's the same thing that drove Nik Wallenda to walk on a tightrope across a gorge near the Grand Canyon just a few days ago, something that Evel dreamed of doing on a motorcycle. (Perhaps it's the same thing that drives me to run marathons and go on "vacations" where I hike all day instead of lay on a beach, like most people do on vacation.) When George Mallory was asked, "Why do you want to climb Mount Everest?" he famously replied "Because it's there." I suspect Evel Knievel would have responded in a similar way if asked why he wanted to jump 15 buses on a motorcycle. Joseph Campbell explored commonalities across cultures and their stories, and the archetype of a hero that is present in all of them. I'm not sure if Evel Knievel was a hero, but he was definitely on a journey towards something or somewhere, whether or not he ever reached it. And there are many similar stories on smaller and grander scales throughout the world and its history.

I don't know if I did Herocyle justice (it's a little hard to wrap my head, and words, around it), and I'm sorry if I rambled a bit there, but that's what good theater does - make you think, explore new ideas, and make connections. This piece, created by Erik Hoover and Kym Longhi, is the most creative thing I've seen on stage in quite a while. The actors and musicians are all wonderfully expressive, the costumes are awesome, the moving set pieces are interesting but never in the way of the story. The whole package is unique and creative, a little odd, but just a fascinating creation. Only two performances remain, so get there fast if you're interested in exploring a little.

Erik Hoover, Beth Brooks,
and Jim Peitzman

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

"Hair" by 7th House Theater Collective at 514 Studios

Hair is a sneaky little show (subversive, one might say). This piece that James Rado and Gerome Ragni created in the late 60s lures you in with it's happy hippie, silly and fun celebration of sex, drugs, and rock and roll, and then punches you in the gut with its serious and powerful themes of war and death and conformity. I always forget until I see it again what a remarkable thing it is that in 1968, the anti-war movement from the streets of NYC and around the country was represented on a Broadway stage, which before was relegated to more traditional musicals about things happening far away in time or space. Burning draft cards onstage in 1968 was a serious (and dangerous) artistic statement. But sadly, the idea of young people going off to war, never to return, is a concept that is not outdated. It's always a good time to put on a production of Hair in my opinion, and the talented young theater artists behind the 7th House Theater Collective agree. Theirs is a low-budget (they raised funds on Kickstarter), grass-roots, up-close-and-personal, raw and real production (perhaps similar to the first Off-Broadway production). But don't let this low-key vibe fool you, these kids have talent. And with the Chanhassen's Michael Brindisi as director, and choreographer Emily King, they have created a new interpretation of one of the most important pieces in musical theater history that's full of life and energy and raw emotion.

Hair is light on plot, but you don't need a complicated plot to have a story to tell and a truth to convey. Hair is about a "tribe" of young people living, loving, and protesting war on the streets of NYC. We follow Claude's journey as he receives his draft notice in the mail and processes it with the help of his friends (and a drug-aided hallucination), and makes a decision that affects everyone's lives. The novelty of this production is that it's done in the round in a small warehouse* in Minneapolis, with audience members sitting on couches and pillows, sometimes invited to take part. As you enter through the open garage door, actors are milling with the audience (and on a Monday night with many theater peeps in attendance, including Joseph and several of his brothers and a couple residents of Urinetown, it was difficult to tell the cast from the audience). They're dressed in modern clothes in the first act, which I was OK with, until they changed to period hippie clothes in the second act, which just felt right. The only set pieces are a couple of ladders rolled in and out as needed. The lighting is really cool, at times throwing shadows of dancing hippies up on the brick wall and huge flag, and creating a circle of light from which Claude cannot escape.

Listening to the 2009 revival cast album today, I realized they cut out a few songs and bits, and rearranged some things. But it works, there's a nice flow to the loopy ramblings of the tribe. The first act ends with the infamous nudity (tastefully and subtlety done, if there is such a thing a subtle nudity), and Claude is given a hallucinogenic drug just as the lights go down prior to intermission. The second act opens with everyone in the same position, now dressed in period hippie clothing. It's almost as if the play begins in modern times, and then they shed that modernity (literally) and everyone is transported back to the 60s in the second act with Claude's trip. Lots of bizarre things happen like in a crazy dream, including a brutal war sequence that's repeated and rewound several times, flowing through to Claude's decision to fulfill his duty.

this flyer for the Be-In looks suspiciously
similar to the one handed out during
the 2009 Broadway production
The cast of 13 is smaller than usual (the Broadway casts have been over 20), which causes some insignificant compromises - the women burn draft cards (which doesn't make sense logically but works aesthetically) and there aren't enough women of color for "White Boys," so one of the guys joins them. But all of the major characters are covered. And most importantly, this tribe really feels like a tribe - a group of people that love and trust each other, and play and work well together. Including - Katie Bradley as the pregnant Jeannie who's hung up on Claude; a fabulous Brianna Graham as Dionne (and Abraham Lincoln); Caroline Innerbichler, a perfect choice for the sweet innocent Crissy ("Frank Mills"); Derek Prestly as my favorite character Woof (although no making out with Mick Jagger's poster); Grant Sorenson in a very funny and well-done bit as a female (?) tourist encountering the hippies; and lovely harmonies by Rudolph Searles III and Tara Borman on one of my favorite musical moments of the show, "What a Piece of Work is Man."

The heart of this piece for me is the love triangle between Claude, Berger, and Sheila, with the strongest love being between best friends Claude and Berger. The trio of Matt Riehle, David Darrow, and Cat Brindisi play it well and believably. Matt is charismatic and playful with the audience, as Berger should be, at times a lovable and loyal friend, at other times a jerk. As much as I love Gavin Creel from the 2009 Broadway revival (so much so that I made a special trip to NYC to see him and the rest of the tribe before they took the show to London, and waited outside in the freezing cold of January to meet him after the show), David's version of "The Flesh Failures" is something I've never heard before. He turns the song into a desperate cry of confusion, terror, and despair, literally beating his chest as he tries to make sense of it all. He took this song that I've heard hundreds of times before and made me hear it in a whole different way. "Silence tells me secretly... everything" gave me chills. Finally, I had this thought while I was sitting there - someday when Cat Brindisi wins her first Tony Award, I'll be sitting at home on my couch cheering her on and remembering the day I heard her sing "Easy to be Hard" in a sweaty little garage space in Minneapolis.

My first experience with Hair, the Americal Tribal Love-Rock Musical (besides that one episode of the early 90s sitcom Head of the Class), was the 2004 Michael Brindisi directed production at the Pantages, starring a hugely talented cast that are still among my favorite actors working today. Now almost ten years later, this feels like the next generation of that production. The future looks bright, and I look forward to seeing what these young artists do in the next ten years. A few tickets remain for this weekend's final performances (did I mention they're free?). Get 'em while you can.

*514 Studios is a little tricky to find. It's actually on an alley parallel to Washington on the 3rd Street side, between 5th and 6th Avenues. Street parking is pretty easy to find, especially on the other side of Washington (and free after 6). The one downside of this space is that there are no concessions available. On a hot summer night, it would be nice to have a drink, which also often helps with interactive theater. ;)

Sunday, June 23, 2013

"BEHOLD: 50th Anniversary Gala Performance" at the Guthrie Theater

the program was passed out after the show,
the stage and hallways were strewn with yellow rose petals
It's the morning after the Guthrie's 50th anniversary gala performance, and I'm still just beside myself with glee. It was such an incredible celebration of the Guthrie's past, present, and future. We revisited moments from the past with long-time Guthrie favorites, witnessed some of the amazing talent that currently passes through the Guthrie's three stages, and looked to the future of much more goodness to come. I have seen over 120 productions at the Guthrie in my ten seasons as a subscriber, and even though I'm on the Blogger Night list and get offered free tickets to every show, I will not cancel that subscription because I want to be able to say someday "I've been a Guthrie subscriber for 50 years!" I have never been more proud to be a member of the Twin Cities theater community, that in many ways was born and continues to be shaped by Sir Tyrone Guthrie's decision to create his experimental regional American repertory theater in the state where I happened to be born ten years later. What good fortune for us all. I truly believe that we would not have this rich community of over 70 theater companies and more theater seats per capita than any other town outside of NYC if it were not for the Guthie, which continues to lure great talent to our fair state and foster our home-grown talent from within. The Guthrie Theater is one of my favorite places on the planet and where I've spent many of my happiest moments, and last night tops the list.

But enough gushing - on to the show. I had seen the impressive list of attendees weeks before, but I sort of forgot in the wonder of each moment that someone else wonderful was coming next! It was just moment after incredible moment of pure talent. The show was directed by Peter Flynn, written by Mark Benninghofen, music directed by Andrew Cooke (with a fabulous onstage band), choreographed by Brian Sostek, with set design by Michael Hoover. This behind-the-scenes talent was matched by the talent onstage - so many artists whom I love and admire on that stage and in that building (I saw too many faves in the crowd to mention), that by the end of the night my heart was full of love and my face was sore from smiling. Here are a few (OK many) highlights:
  • Joe Dowling, the Guthrie's Artistic Director since 1995, was greeted with a standing ovation when he introduced the show and spoke a little bit about the history of the Guthrie (read more here).
  • The show opened with a medley of showtunes from musicals that the Guthrie has done over the years, some that I fondly remember and some before my time. And who else should open this musical portion of the evening besides the brilliant and beautiful Baldwin sisters?! Christina Baldwin and Jennifer Baldwin Peden both revisited celebrated roles in Gilbert and Sullivan shows as, respectively, "Poor Little Buttercup" in H.M.S. Pinafore a few years ago and Mabel ("Poor Wandering One") in 2004's Pirates of Penzance (which lives in my memory as my favorite Guthrie show ever). They were joined by many of my favorite musical theater actors (including but not limited to: Dieter Bierbrauer, Aleks Knezevich, Timotha Lanae, Norah Long, Ann Michels, and Angela Timberman) singing selections from Sweeney Todd, She Loves Me, and 1776 among others.
the ensemble (photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp)
  • The evening's co-hosts were none other than Sally Wingert and Greta Oglesby. They were funny and entertaining hosts, and both got a chance to showcase their talent. Sally did a scene from The Royal Family with the incomparable Barbara Bryne and Valeri Mudek, an entirely appropriate scene about love of the theater. Greta reprised "Lot's Wife" from the acclaimed 2009 production of Caroline, or Change, and instantly I was carried back to that show to the point where I could picture the set around her. She was truly astounding on this incredible song.
Sally Wingert and Greta Oglesby (photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp)
  • The "one and only" Peter Michael Goetz has appeared in over 90 productions at the Guthrie, from the 60s through just this year. He is utterly charming and quite the storyteller - no story better than when they were doing Of Mice and Men and Midsummer Night's Dream in rep, and he went onstage for Midsummer Night's Dream in his Lennie costume (a story I've heard before, but it's still great). Incredulously, he's never won an award for theater, but he joked that if there were a Tony for "the guy who kept going," he'd win. After his entertaining talk, he reenacted a scene from the 2004 production of Death of a Salesman with the help of Guthrie alums Matthew Amendt (most recently of Charlie's Aunt) and Erik Heger (a magnificently bearded Macbeth a few years ago).
Matthew Amendt and Erik Heger (photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp)
  • Several nationally known stage and screen actors spoke of their Guthrie memories via pre-recorded video segments, including Gary Sinise, David Hyde Pierce, Harriet Hayes (Hay Fever), Joshua Henry (Scottsboro Boys), Santino Fontana (currently starring in Cinderella on Broadway), recent Tony winner Courtney B. Vance, and Christopher Plummer (be still my heart).
  • The male vocal ensemble Cantus (familiar to me from Theater Latte Da's annual All is Calm) treated the audience to a stunning rendition of "Somewhere" from West Side Story.
  • Real-life married couple Daniel Gerroll and Patricia Kalember (anyone else remember Sisters?) presented a hilarious sparring scene from Noel Coward's Private Lives
Daniel Gerroll and Patricia Kalember (photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp)
  • An adorably nervous T.R Knight ("I wasn't meant to play myself") spoke of his history with the Guthrie (his first role was Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol) and also spoke of original company member (and four-time Tony winner) Zoe Caldwell, and showed a video of an interview he did with this spirited 80-year-old. He also read a lovely quote about the effect her performance had on one man, and how "theater is about changing the lives of people you'll never meet." Ever since falling in love with the sweet dorky George on Grey's Anatomy, I've been waiting for T.R. to return to the Guthrie stage. This will have to do until he comes home to do a play.
T.R. Knight (photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp)
  • Musical theater composer Jason Robert Brown (who, I have to admit, I am not that familiar with) was commissioned to write a song for the occasion, and boy did he deliver! "Hamlet 3.2" is everything you want in a musical theater song - fast and clever lyrics, a full and complete arc, and a melody that's still stuck in my head. Now I see what all the fuss is about - that guy has talent! And so does the man who sang it, Broadway actor and Tony nominee Brian D'Arcy James. I've never had the pleasure of hearing him sing live before, so it was a treat to witness his powerful voice and charismatic delivery on this brand new creation, never before performed for an audience. And he was backed by the best chorus ever (see above). Lyrics include "Speak the speech, I pray you... trippingly off the tongue," ending with a rousing chorus of "To be or not to be, to be or not to be." I wish I could download the song (I wonder if they recorded the show?), but until then, it will live in my memory (you can listen to a demo recorded by Jason Robert Brown here).
Brian D'Arcy James (photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp)
  • I can't tell you how much I love Whoopi Goldberg. Not only is she one of the coolest, smartest, most talented, funniest people on the planet (EGOT, anyone?), but I feel a connection to her because she's in my living room every day and we share a birthday. In the excitement of the evening I almost forgot she was there until she literally (please read that as Parks and Recreation's Chris Traeger would say it) descended from the ceiling. She performed her Tony-winning one-woman-show at the Guthrie years ago, and in her off-hand hilarious style, part faux-reading from a script and part speaking from the heart, talked about how intimidating and amazing that was and how much she loves theater and the Guthrie. With one final "flyover my ass!" she descended down through the floor of the stage, never to be seen again. Was that a dream or did it really just happen?!
Whoopi! (photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp)
  • This evening would not be complete without an appearance by Tracie Bennett. A Tony nominee and Ivey winner for her role as Judy Garland in End of the Rainbow, she once again channeled Judy to sing a medley of "Almost Like Being n Love" and "This Can't Be Love."
Tracie Bennett (photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp)
  • The show ended with a soliloquy from The Tempest by the divine Stephen Yoakam, followed by one final song from our fabulous ensemble (including Cantus) - "Make Our Garden Grow" from Candide. I am certain that Sir Tyrone Guthrie would be quite proud of how the garden he planted 50 years ago has grown.
Stephen Yoakam (photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp)
  • I realize I have outed myself as a TV addict in this post, if not before. Needless to say I am beyond thrilled that Vincent Kartheiser (aka Mad Men's smarmy Pete Campbell) is playing Mr. Darcy in the Guthrie's upcoming production of Pride and Prejudice. When I spotted him in the crowded lobby after the show, I couldn't resist the opportunity to tell him how much I love him on Mad Men (is Pete not the most complex, fascinating, frustrating character on TV?) and how much I'm looking forward to seeing him as Mr. Darcy. I told him I believed he'd do a great job, despite people's protestations that "Pete Campbell can't be Mr. Darcy" (news flash - Vincent is an actor and Pete is just one of the characters he inhabits). He very humbly assured me that the play would be good, if not Mr. Darcy. I'm afraid I was a blithering idiot, but what a thrill to meet one of the best actors from perhaps the best drama ever on television!

That's it friends, thanks for sticking with me through this long story. Last night will live on as one of the theatrical highlights of my life that I will remember forever. I have enjoyed every show (some more than others) of my last ten years as a Guthrie subscriber, and even more I love that it has served as a way in to this deep and rich theater community we call home. And I believe it's only going to get better. As my friend Whoopi said - see you in 50!

a letter from the Kennedys
upon the opening of the Guthrie in 1963

a letter from the Obamas
commemorating the Guthrie's 50th anniversary

costumes from past Guthrie shows were on display,
including this one from the 2009 '50s themed
Two Gentlemen of Verona

Christina Baldwin's gorgeous bustled dress
from the 2004 production of Pirates of Penzance

Saturday, June 22, 2013

"Psst!" by off-leash area at the Cowles Center

The Ivey Awards are the Twin Cities version of the Tonys. But not only do they hand out big shiny awards to certain artists, productions, or companies, they also celebrate the rich and diverse theater community in Minnesota. One performance at last year's awards show was this: "A truly bizarre and wonderful little scene from Psst! by off-leash area, a strange little workplace romance in which the actors wear not just masks, but full animal heads." This production won an Ivey Award a few year prior, and this weekend off-leash area is reviving the show at the Cowles Center for three performances only. I was lucky enough to attend opening night and experience the full show that I got a taste of last fall. It's not like most theater I attend, which I find refreshing. Psst! combines theater, dance, mask work, music, and painting to tell a story without words. It's a series of "vaudevillian vignettes," some of which are charming, some odd, some funny, some heartbreaking, some creepy, some sweet, but all of it interesting and creative.

It turns out this "strange little workplace romance" is just a part of the larger story. We follow our two main characters, identified as Janitor and Secretary (embodied by off-leash's Artistic Directors Paul Herwig and Jennifer Ilse, who also created the show), in a typical day. They wake up in the morning and get dressed just like all of us, accept that they have the over-sized heads of cartoon animals. We follow them as they travel to work (on stilts!), go about their jobs, take a lunch break, and fall in love. Their lovely frolic in the park is interrupted by Death, in a scary scull mask, who takes the secretary away. Janitor attempts to follow to the other side and bring her back, but has anyone ever been successful in that attempt, even in art?

Besides our two main characters, an ensemble of ten actors in masks populates this black and white cartoon world (the look and characters are inspired by Norwegian graphic novelist JASON). Because the actors don't have words or facial expressions to rely on, they convey emotions through deliberate, exaggerated movements. The masks (also made by Paul) are expressive but in a sort of blank way, so that they take on the emotion of the actor's body. The set pieces are charmingly simplistic, as if they've been lightly sketched on white paper (sometimes in real time). Inventive theater tricks are employed, such as thought bubbles above characters' heads with a shadow puppet representing their thoughts, and an impressively long scroll backdrop as Janitor falls into the underworld. All of these elements combine to tell a full and complete story without a single word spoken.

Psst! has two performances remaining at the Cowles Center. Check it out if you're looking for something creative, inventive, charming, and a little odd.

the Janitor and Secretary fall in love in the park

Monday, June 17, 2013

"The Fantasticks" and "The Mikado" by Skylark Opera (in collaboration with Mu Performing Arts)

It's (sort of) summer, which means it must be time for Skylark Opera's Summer Festival! Every year they present two shows in repertory, typically classics from musical theater or operetta. The last two years I've attended one of the two shows, but this year I was able to see both. Unlike in past years, there is no overlap in cast or orchestra between the shows. Another new feature this year is that The Mikado is being presented in collaboration with Mu Performing Arts, which continues their tradition of the past few summers of putting a new and Asian-American spin on a classic (they've previously done Into the Woods and Little Shop of Horrors). This year they reinvent Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado, famous for not only its music but also its stereotypical representation of Japan. But first up - the world's longest running musical.

The Fantasticks

This small-scale musical opened Off-Broadway in 1960, where it has played almost continuously ever since. I saw it there four years ago in the Jerry Orbach theater (named after its most-famous and well-loved original cast-member), and was absolutely charmed by it. I'm happy to report that Skylark Opera's production is just as charming, funny, silly, smart, wacky, and entertaining.

The Fantasticks is a fantastical story that also rings true. It's a love story, but with a sharp edge so that it's not too sappy. A boy (the charming and charismatic Matt Berdahl) and girl (the equally charming Quinn Shadko, with a lovely voice) fall in love, living next door to each other on opposite sides of a wall. The wall was put up by their fathers (Jeffrey Madison and Paul R. Coate, who are hilarious and sound fantastic together), seemingly to keep them apart. But it's a bit of reverse psychology, as the two are pals who really want their offspring to marry. They arrange a kidnapping with the smooth and seductive bandit El Gallo (Gabriel Preisser, possessing the necessary height, deep voice, and devilish smirk). Everything goes as planned and the couple are happy together. Until the second act, when they get bored with and annoyed by each other. They go their separate ways to experience the world on their own, and find out things aren't so great out there after all.

This is a small cast for a musical, with a small onstage two-person orchestra (Min Kim on harp and Andrew Fleser on piano). There is a bit of stage magic in the use of props and confetti, all supplied by the graceful Penelope Freeh, who never utters a word as she guides the story along (she also nicely choreographed The Mikado). In addition to a lovely and lively score which includes the wistful "Try to Remember" and the love song "They Were You," the play also features some poetic monologues by narrator El Gallo. It's a strange and delightful mix of a play, with music, sword fights, slapstick comedy, a sense of melancholy, a bit of cynicism, and also the hope of young love. No wonder it's the longest running musical in the world!

There is a curious paradox that no one can explain.

Who understands the secrets of the reaping of the grain?
Who understands why spring is born out of winter's laboring pain?
Or why we all must die a bit before we grow again?
I do not know the answer
I merely know it's true
I hurt them for that reason
And myself a little bit, too.

The Mikado

The English writing duo Gilbert and Sullivan are famous for their fast and clever lyrics and witty satirical send-up of the British establishment (see also HMS Pinafore). They set one of their most popular works, The Mikado, in Japan, which "allowed Gilbert to satirise British politics and institutions more freely by disguising them as Japanese" (Wikipedia). In doing so, they also play on stereotypes of Japan, and many productions throughout its history have employed yellowface (casting Caucasian actors as Asian characters). Mu has attempted to remedy the situation by rewriting some of the libretto and casting Asian actors in the main roles, thereby eliminating the offensive stereotypes while keeping the charm and wit of the original piece. I've never seen another production of The Mikado so I can't speak to what has changed, but I like what I saw, and I trust that Mu did it right (because they usually do).

In the fictional town of Titipu, the son of the emperor (or Mikado) is disguised as a traveling musician (a second trombone). Franki-Poo (Phong Nguyen) is looking for his love, Tum-Tum (the adorable Isabella Dawis). Sadly for the lovers, she is the ward and betrothed of the Grand High Executioner Co-Co (Randy Reyes, hamming it up in the best possible way). Because of the complicated laws of the land (which include a mandatory punishment of beheading for the crime of flirting) and Franki-Poo's desire to die if he can't be with Tum-Tum, Co-Co grants them permission to marry for a month, after which time Franki-Poo will be executed and Tum-Tum can marry Co-Co as planned (do you follow?). This crazy plan is approved by Co-Co's right hand man Pooh-Bah (from which we get the term pooh-bah), played by the very entertaining Alex Ritchie. The Mikado himself (an impressive James Ramlet) appears in the second act and plans must be changed. Co-Co woos Franki-Poo's previous betrothed Katy Shaw (Ashley Cutright, with a voice that fills the theater) so that Franki-Poo can confess his true identity, marry the woman he loves, and not be executed (still following?). Yes, it's a silly and convoluted story, but it's great fun. 

The songs are fast and funny, especially those that have been rewritten with modern references. This huge cast of over two dozen sounds amazing when they all join their voices together. Along with the gorgeous 20-piece pit orchestra (directed by Steve Stucky), the sound coming from these singers and musicians is full and lush and layered. I appreciate that Skylark presents their productions "without artificial amplification." In the proper room, with people who know what they're doing, no mics are needed, and it's a refreshing change to hear the pure and natural sound of music.

I would say that if you only have time to see one show in Skylark Opera's Summer Festival, it's a tough choice which one to pick. The more intimate musical with a lovely score and whimsical nature, or the full and lush operetta with the huge cast. But since The Mikado is completely sold out, the choice is easy - see The Fantasticks (which, if pressed, I might choose as my favorite of the two). Only two of the total three performances remain, so act fast! Perhaps Skylark needs to consider a longer run for next year's festival. After creating these beautiful shows, it a shame that more people don't get to see them!

Saturday, June 15, 2013

"Sylvia" at Yellow Tree Theatre

Have you ever wondered what your pet would say if it could talk? Playwright A.R. Gurney did, and he wrote a play about it. The result is a funny, sweet, slightly wicked, and very entertaining story that will resonate with anyone who's ever loved an animal. Yellow Tree Theatre is bringing back Sylvia from their first season, starring Yellow Tree favorite Mary Fox as the titular dog. It's a perfect role to showcase her many talents, and the play is a perfect fit for Yellow Tree's small and intimate stage.

I've never had a dog, but one of my two cats (the one that's not named after a character from a musical), is somewhat dog-like. He always has to be next to me, he comes when I call him, he drools, he can never get enough attention, he loves everyone, and he's bigger than some dogs. Nobody loves me like my Maxie, and such is Sylvia's feeling for Greg when he finds her as a stray in the park and brings her home. But the difference is that Sylvia can express her feelings in words, and boy does she! And the humans she interacts with can understand her, which makes for an interesting exploration of the relationship between a man and "man's best friend." Unfortunately, Greg's wife Kate is not as keen on the idea of a dog, having recently moved to the city after the kids left home for college. She reluctantly agrees to keep Sylvia, but begins to get jealous when Greg spends more time with the dog than with her. His version of a mid-life crisis is skipping out on work to walk the dog. Sylvia knows that Kate doesn't like her, and vacillates between trying harder to win her love, and flaunting her relationship with Greg. After many walks in the park, a painful spaying, heated arguments, and a therapy session, the situation comes to a head and Greg is forced to choose between his dog and his wife.

like most dogs, Sylvia makes a beeline
for the one person in the room who
doesn't like dogs
Mary Fox is one of those actors that I love to watch in whatever show she's in. She's a very natural actor and is always doing something interesting. She's very expressive, and this role allows her fully explore that as she embodies all the emotions of a dog - love, fear, frustration, pain, joy. All the emotions of humans, only bigger. She's dressed in human clothes (costume design by Sarah Bahr) that match her mood - fresh from the groomer, missing her master, sore from surgery. Sylvia's human family are played by Sean Byrd and Katie Wodele, who realistically portray the varying emotions of the situation. Tristan Trifft is a scene stealer whenever he appears as one of three completely different characters - the macho dog owner doing calisthenics at the dog park, Kate's cultured (woman) friend, and the ambiguously gendered therapist with some unexpected advice.

As per usual at Yellow Tree, the choice of music for scene changes is perfect. From "I Want You to Love Me" and "I've Got a Crush On You" to various dog songs ("Hound Dog," "Me and You and a Dog Named Boo") at intermission.

man's best friend (Mary Fox and Sean Byrd)
Sylvia is the final show in Yellow Tree's 5th season, which was expanded from their usual four to five shows. Judging by the packed house on a Thursday night when I saw the show, they're doing all right. It's really exciting to see a thriving theater in an unremarkable strip mall in the suburbs, and to experience the community that they've built around it. Next season looks to continue this trend, opening with the classic family drama On Golden Pond and closing with the hilarious 39 Steps. Although my theater group's favorite pre-show dinner spot, Nectar Wine Bar and Bistro, has closed (hopefully temporarily), it's still and always worth a trip to Osseo to see some great theater in a cozy and intimate setting.

"War Horse" at the Orpheum Theatre

It's a simple story really - boy meets horse, boy loses horse, boy finds horse again. But the hit play War Horse (which opened on London's West End in 2009 and won the 2011 Tony on Broadway, where it's still playing) is more than just this simple love story, and the moving story of the devastation of war. The true stars of this show are the massive life-size and life-like puppet horses. I'm not really interested in spectacle at the theater (think the chandelier in Phantom or the helicopter in Miss Saigon), but this is different. This is true artistry, both in the creation of the puppets and the manipulation of them by the puppeteers. It's really a perfect example of art meets technology. These horses are magnificent creatures and seem to have emotions, thoughts, and a soul as much as real animals do. They're effectively used to tell a beautiful story, but the reason to see this play (the Broadway Tour is stopping at the Orpheum through June 23) is for this incredible puppet show, unlike any you've seen.

The play is based on the children's novel of the same name, as is the 2011 movie (which I've just recently seen - there are slight differences in plot and character, although the overall story is the same). It tells the story of a boy named Albert whose father recklessly buys a thoroughbred horse, of little use on the family farm. Albert falls in love with Joey, as the horse is called, as he trains him to earn his keep on the farm. Then the Great War happens, and Albert's father sells Joey to the English cavalry. Albert is devastated, and soon follows Joey into the war despite being a few years too young for service. Both Joey and Albert see much death and destruction in the trenches of World War I France, but both also experience friendship with people they meet along the way. Boy and horse are eventually reunited, forever changed by their wartime experiences, and if you don't tear up at least a little bit at that moment, well, you've probably never loved an animal or felt their unconditional love in return.

We first see Joey as a foal, with three puppeteers standing next to him to manipulate the front and back legs and head. Just as you get used to this sweet little thing, little Joey is gone and full-grown Joey takes his place, and then you see just how amazing are these creations by Handspring Puppet Company. With two adults almost standing upright inside the horse, and a third person at the head, Joey towers over the humans on stage. All three actor/dancer/puppeteers (for they truly are all three, including Minnesota native Rob Laqui) move together to give life to the bits of aluminum and cane. Ears, tail, mane, backbone, legs, neck, all move in perfect harmony to express fear, joy, fatigue, pain. But Joey's not the only animal on stage, he also has a friend (well, frenemy), a big black horse named Topthorn. The world is also populated with several other less elaborate horses to represent the cavalry and a few winged creatures. (Read a little more about Joey and watch a video here.)

Despite being overshadowed by the horses, the humans are pretty good too. Alex Morf (an Olie!) plays Albert and gives him much depth and warmth, with a genuine feeling of love for his horse. The charming Andrew May, as German Captain Friedrich Müller, shows us that the guys on the other side can be sympathetic too. He makes friends with a lonely French girl who reminds him of his daughter, played with spirit by Lavita Shaurice. Another lovely feature of the play is the use of music. Ensemble members John Milosich as "song man (vocal)" and Nathan Koci as "song man (instrumental)" provide musical accompaniment to the action, singing period war songs, sometimes accompanied by the cast in beautiful and haunting harmony.

The artistry and engineering on display in War Horse are really something to see. The play felt a little long to me (maybe because I was tired and they started late on opening night), but it's a beautiful and moving story about love and friendship (both human and animal), war and death. And the horses - wow.

Monday, June 10, 2013

"The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds" at Gremlin Theatre

Over the last few years I've seen several gems at Gremlin Theatre (Sea Marks, After Miss Julie, A Behanding in Spokane). As of July they're moving out of their current space on University in St. Paul, and will join the other nomadic theater companies in town until they find a permanent home. Their final production in this location is the awkwardly titled 1964 play The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds*, and this one is a heart-breaker. Like many of the plays I've seen at the Gremlin, I knew nothing about this play going into it, and that's often when I have the best experiences at the theater. With no expectations or preconceptions you can just let the story unfold purely, and as this one did I was overcome by the emotions of this beautiful and tragic story. This is another gem, friends, and if you've never experienced the Gremlin, now is a great time to start.

The play opens on the shabby and cluttered family home of Beatrice and her two teenage daughters. It doesn't take long to realize that this is a damaged family. Beatrice is a woman who has been beaten down by life, and her daughters have troubles of their own. But this is a play that doesn't spell out every detail of these characters lives and histories. The characters themselves are very well defined and complex, but their lives are loose sketches, with the audience left to fill in the gaps. Beatrice may be an alcoholic, and a hoarder, and is most certainly suffering from depression or some other mental illness. Beatrice's job, it seems, is something like an in-home hospice service, but the care she shows the elderly Nanny who lives with them is questionable. Elder daughter Ruth seems like a typical rebellious teenager, but we soon learn that suffers from an undefined mental or physical illness, which is spoken of in terms of "going crazy" or "going into it." She experiences seizures which are brutal to watch. Finally, there's Tillie, the one ray of light in this dark situation. She's a good student and loves science, despite the fact that her mom often keeps her home from school, with few friends other than her pet rabbit, Peter (played by an adorable live rabbit who's on stage for much of the evening).

Tillie's science project, "The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds," is her sole joy, and she is chosen to compete in the science fair. Instead of being met with congratulations and enthusiasm, Tillie's mom is upset that she has to appear on stage, with everyone looking at her. Beatrice is quite a fascinating character. Most of the time she's infuriating as she belittles her daughters, but there are moments when she expresses vulnerability and sadness, and it's clear that she desperately loves her daughters. They love her too, in spite of everything, and crave her approval. They are each other's whole world, and it's a sad world. But the beautiful thing about this story is that in the midst of this hopeless situation, Tillie remains hopeful. Her mother says, "I hate the world," but remarkably Tillie loves the world, specifically the atom from which the world is built. When she talks about science, her face lights up with the beauty and wonder of it. This story had me fighting back tears for much of the evening, but in the end it's a beautiful and uplifting story.

Tillie and her mother
(Caledonia Wilson Jodi Kellogg)
I can't say enough about this cast. Directed by Ellen Fenster, they create a believable family of unique and complex individuals. Jodi Kellogg plays every layer of this difficult, infuriating, damaged, crazy mother and makes you feel many different emotions for her. Eleonore Dendy (of the U of M/Guthrie BFA program) is charming and spirited as Ruth. I don't know how old Donna Porfiri is, but as Nanny in the wig and make-up, hunched over a walker, she looks about 90 years old, and manages to convey Nanny's pain, frustration, and moments of relief without ever saying a word. Elise Sommers makes a brief but amusing appearance as a rival student (and looks a little too much like a young me for comfort!). Last but not least is the radiant young actor Caledonia Wilson as Tillie. She lights up when she talks to the audience about her science project, and is quiet and reflective with her family, her silence hiding a depth of emotion. If there were a Spotlight Showcase for high school non-musical theater students, she would most certainly be the star of the show.

The set is incredibly detailed, with clutter in every corner, dirty and shabby walls, newspapers over the windows, and old furniture and appliances. This looks like a house that has been lived in for years. The lighting nicely highlights Tillie's happy moments talking about science, as the room darkens and the spotlight illuminates her already shining face. (Set and lighting by Carl Schoenborn, currently appearing onstage in the Jungle's Urinetown.)

If you're looking for a light and fun night at the theater, or a bit of escapism, go see Urinetown. But if you're up for something emotionally challenging, heartfelt, and painfully real, this might be the play for you. Gamma Rays is playing for only two more weekends, and there are discount tickets on Goldstar. A mere $10 to see this talented cast in this heartbreaking and beautiful story - best theater deal in town.

*The play was made into a 1972 movie directed by Paul Newman and starring his wife, Joanne Woodward, and their daughter.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

"Urinetown" at the Jungle Theater

The Broadway musical with the unfortunate title became a hit and won three Tony Awards in 2002. I saw the first national tour almost ten years ago and loved it. I don't remember much about the actual production, but the soundtrack has become one of my favorites and I've been waiting for a local theater to do a production of it. The wait is over! The Jungle Theater's new production is everything I could have hoped for. What is Urinetown? This Urinetown is biting social and political commentary, an homage to musical theater history and form, a fantastic score, great and inventive choreography, a truly wonderful local cast of almost two dozen, and hilarious. I told you a few days ago that Clybourne Park should be number one on your summer to-do list. Number two should be Urinetown. Or, well, I guess number one would be more appropriate. Either way, these two are both must-see shows!

Officer Lockstock (Bradley Greenwald)
Little Sally (Elisa Pluhar)
(photo by Michal Daniel)
Urinetown is set in a dystopian future in which an extreme water shortage and corrupt businessmen and politicians have resulted in private bathrooms being illegal. Everyone must pay to use the "public amenities," with ever-increasing fees. The difference between the haves and have-nots is extreme, with the populace living in poverty and saving every penny, while the owner of Urine Good Company, which controls the amenities, and his pals live in luxury. (You see why this story is so great, and a little scary?) The story is narrated by Officer Lockstock (the incomparable Bradley Greenwald, who is blessed with a gorgeous singing voice as well as great comedic talent). His sidekick, Little Sally (the adorable Elisa Pluhar), is constantly asking him tough questions. Their conversation frequently breaks the 4th wall as they comment on the show at hand. As Ms. Pennywise (the always fantastic Kersten Rodau) fiercely enforces the fees, the hero of our story, Bobby Strong (a likeable Patrick Morgan), decides that people shouldn't have to pay to pee, and leads them in a revolution to take back the toilets. Along the way he falls in love with the innocent and trusting Hope (a sweet -voiced Tiffany Seymour), daughter of the evil Mr. Cladwell (Gary Briggle, who revels in his character's dastardly demeanor). As we're told, this is not a happy musical. We don't get the happy ending we expect, but it sure is fun to watch it all unfold.

A few of my favorite things:

  • Officer Lockstock beating the crowd with his club in slow motion. Perhaps the most beautiful and hilarious slo-mo fight choreography I've ever seen. I'm not even sure what else was going on in that scene, I couldn't take my eyes off the beating!
  • All of the references to musicals in the choreography and score, including Les Miserables, Fiddler on the Roof, and West Side Story, with uncontrolled finger-snapping (my second-favorite West Side Story parody).
  • Bradley's ridiculously long extended run on the phrase "down and out."
  • Remembering that my favorite song in the score, "Run Freedom Run," is ever so much better live. This is the moment when Patrick completely won me over in his portrayal of Bobby. I wanted to stand up and join the chorus the he so enthusiastically directs!
  • Every word that Little Sally says. So funny to hear such smart things come out of a "little girl."
  • This: "Don't you think people want to be told their way of life is unsustainable?"
  • The hugely talented ensemble that sounds amazing in the Jungle's intimate space - a full, gorgeous sound.
  • Kertsen's delivery of my favorite lines - "it's blinding me!" and "you get it out of the clouds!" She's hilarious with a seriously powerful voice.
  • The choreography by John Command (who also directs), which features many different styles and references. The Jungle's is a small stage, but this large cast moves with controlled chaos around it.
  • The five-piece orchestra directed by Raymond Berg that sounds bigger than it is on this score with several different musical styles.
  • The costumes (by Kathy Kohl), which range from charming but realistically shabby rags for the have-nots to slick suits for the haves. One of my favorite details was the signature pattern for the UGC, present in some small way on every employee.
  • The clever character names, some of which are never heard onstage (that I remember). Lockstock and Barrel, Caldwell B. Cladwell, Hot Blades Harry, Penelope Pennwise, Little Becky Two-Shoes, and of course, the aptly named Hope.
  • Last but not least, the set by Bain Boehlke. I can never not mention the set of a Jungle show because they're always so perfect. In this case, the stage is made as large as possible with scaffolding, ladders, boxes, and other junk around all sides. The public amenity door spins around to reveal Mr. Cladwell's office.

If you like classic, traditional musicals, Urinetown might not be the show for you. But if you like smart, funny, edgy, relevant musicals, go see what is sure to become the hit musical of the summer. Playing now through August 11, so you have no excuse not to get there.

Bobby Strong (Patrick Morgan) leads the people
(photo by Michal Daniel)

Thursday, June 6, 2013

"Clybourne Park" at the Guthrie Theater

The Tony Awards will be presented this weekend in New York City. But if you want to catch last year's winner for best play, Minneapolis is the place to be. Bruce Norris wrote Clybourne Park as a follow-up to one of the most important American plays of the 20th century, Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun (which I saw four years ago, a co-production with Penumbra Theatre also in the Guthrie's Proscenium Theater). The 1959 play about an African American family buying a house in an all-white neighborhood deals with issues of racism and desegregation. In Norris' follow-up, we see how things have changed since then, and how they haven't. The first act of the play is set in 1959, in the very house that A Raisin in the Sun's Younger family buys, as we see the other side of the story that play told. We follow the one white character in Raisin, a neighborhood representative named Karl who tries to buy the family out, as he talks to the homeowners and tries to convince them not to sell to the Youngers. Act II jumps forward in time 50 years but the place remains the same. The house has become run-down, the neighborhood working class and mostly black. The tables are turned as a white couple meets opposition from neighborhood residents to the changes they want to make to this house in a neighborhood that is undergoing gentrification. Clybourne Park is a really well-written and well-constructed play, funny and smart and sharp, and the dream cast includes some of the best actors in town. In other words - it's a definite must-see.

1959 (photo by Michael Brosilow)
The house in question is owned by Bev and Russ. Or rather, was, as they're selling to move to a new location and a better life. Bev is busy packing boxes with the help of her black housekeeper Francine, while Russ sits by eating ice cream and reading a magazine. They've had sorrow in this house, the specifics of which unfold throughout the first act. The couple is visited by a few friends, including Pastor Jim, and Karl and his deaf wife Betsy. Karl pleads with Bev and Russ not to sell to a "colored family," as his patient wife sits by not following much of the conversation. He pulls Francine and her husband into the discussion, who politely refuse to take part and make their exit. Things get heated as Karl won't give up and Russ won't give in. The house is sold, and 50 years later, we see the same cast inhabiting different, although sometimes slightly similar, characters. A white couple has bought the house and is planning to make significant changes. They are meeting with an African American couple who lives in the neighborhood and has brought a petition against them. Both couples have brought their lawyers and are trying to work through the petition, which never seems to happen as other discussions take place. The discussion soon devolves into a trading of racist jokes, reminding me of the satiric song from Avenue Q ("Ethnic jokes may be uncouth but you laugh because they're based on truth. Don't take them as personal attacks, everyone enjoys them, so relax"). Both acts feature awkward, uncomfortable, and down-right ugly conversations about race, and it's fascinating to observe the differences and similarities between the two time periods. The way that the sexes and the races interact with each other differs greatly between 1959 and 2009, and the language they use is different, but many of the underlying themes are the same.

2009 (photo by Michael Brosilow)
I just can't say enough about this cast, most of whom portray two different characters in two different time periods. Jim Lichtsheidl is the bad guy in both stories, but even when he's bad he's good! He's the same character but different manifestations of him appropriate to the time, and he manages to give each of them a specific way of moving and talking. Playing his wife in both acts is Emily Gunyou Halaas, who clearly delineates the 1950s submissive wife (who's deaf and relies on her husband to translate for her) from the modern wife who's an equal partner and not afraid of telling her husband he's an idiot. Bill McCallum has the most diverse characters - the 1950s depressed husband and father much different from the sweaty unsophisticated construction worker - and wrings the most life out of both. Kathryn Meisle is sympathetic as the concerned and nagging wife, and hilarious as a modern-day lawyer who has to make everything about her. She absolutely cracked me up with her every word, every look, every gesture. Peter Hansen, another favorite, plays a sort of peacekeeper role in both acts - Pastor Jim who tries to smooth things out between his friends, and one of the lawyers trying to facilitate the discussion. Shá Cage easily transforms from the 1959 polite but knowing housekeeper into 2009's strong woman standing up for her neighborhood. Ansa Akyea is her supportive husband in both, the same but different. All of these actors (and a late appearance by talented young actor Steven Lee Johnson) work so well together; it's just a joy to watch them dig into this meaty material.

The set, designed by Rachel Hauck, is truly incredible in the way it is transformed from the beautiful home in the first act to the run-down wreck in the second. The bones are the same but the surface shows wear - peeling wallpaper, dirty and stained walls, doors and fixtures no longer where they were. I would love to watch that transformation take place behind the curtain!

Clybourne Park is the kind of play that I love - smart, funny, and well-written, it made me laugh, and feel, and think, and squirm in my seat a little. It takes a big bite out of current issues without offering pat answers, but gets the audience thinking. What more can you ask of a play? I know I like pretty much everything (I'm a bit of a stamp tramp like Marshall on How I Met Your Mother), but this is the best play I've seen in months, maybe even all year. I hope this play is a smash hit this summer, it deserves to be. I hope people go see it and then have those uncomfortable conversations, it's the only way we can hope to move past them. Clybourne Park officially opens this weekend and runs through August 4 - put this play first on your list of things to do this summer.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Spotlight Showcase at the Orpheum Theatre

The most fun I ever had in high school was when I played the clarinet in the pit orchestra for a couple of musicals. Even then I loved musicals, and to sit in the pit for every dress rehearsal and performance, and to be a part of it, was something kind of magical for me. And even though I didn't end up making a career of it, I consider my involvement in the arts (which also included concert band, marching band, and various other band-related activities) to be an invaluable part of my education that helped to make me a well-rounded person. Hennepin Theatre Trust's Spotlight Musical Theatre Program sponsors such involvement in the arts, specifically musical theater, through various programs throughout the year culminating in the Spotlight Showcase. I attended the 8th such Showcase last night and was quite impressed by the talent of the young people of Minnesota. It was a little like attending a show choir competition on Glee, but this wasn't so much as a competition as a celebration of achievement. Over a dozen high schools performed selections from a show that they did this year, as well as group numbers by individuals deemed "outstanding." With very funny emcee Greta Grosch, music director extraordinaire Denise Prosek, and choreographer Julianne Mundale (a fantastic Chanhassen dancer), the kids got to work with some top professional talent. In a town with such a strong professional theater community, it's great to see them giving back and fostering Minnesota's own young talent.

Apparently the high school musical theater canon hasn't changed too much in twenty years; both of the shows that I participated in were represented at the Showcase - The Sound of Music (by Wayzata High School, with a stirring rendition of "Climb Every Moment," a song that never fails to give me chills) and Anything Goes (by White Bear Lake High School, with a fantastic tap number). Along with other classics such as Guys and Dolls and Hello, Dolly!, it was nice to see some of the newer musicals represented too, like 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (Moorhead High School's performance was my favorite of the night, perhaps because a middle school spelling bee is an appropriate subject for kids, and also because these kids seemed to be having a great time playing the quirky kids of the Bee), Urinetown (performed by Maple Grove High School and Washburn High School, a fun preview of the show opening at the Jungle this weekend), and Aida (Minnetonka High School's performance of "The Gods Love Nubia" to end Act I was the showstopping moment of the night).

The "outstanding" orchestra members also got to perform, although both selections were non-musical theater songs (a medley from the Queen jukebox musical We Will Rock You, coming to the Orpheum this fall, and "Thank You for the Music" from the Abba jukebox musical Mama Mia). If only Spotlight had existed when I was in high school, how I would have loved to perform on the Orpheum stage!

Finally, the twelve "Triple Threat Award" finalists performed a medley of musical theater songs, and somehow the evaluators chose two of these talented kids to win a theater trip to NYC.

This was my first time attending the Showcase, and I really enjoyed seeing the amazing talent that exists in Minnesota's young people. I hope to see some of them on professional stages in the future! Although the show was too long and a bit draggy in parts (as high school awards events usually are), I recognize that it's important to give as many kids as possible the chance to shine on the big stage. And boy did they! For more information on the Spotlight Musical Theatre Program and how to get your school involved, check out their website.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

"Sunset Boulevard" by Minneapolis Musical Theater at New Century Theatre

I'm really not much of a movie buff, spending most of my time at live theater. I've never seen the 1950 classic movie Sunset Boulevard, about a delusional aging Hollywood star and the younger screenwriter whom she takes as her lover while he helps her edit her screenplay that she believes will be her comeback. The movie was turned into a musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber and opened in 1993 in London, with by a Los Angeles premiere later that year, and Broadway the following year. The three productions starred, at various times, such legendary actors as Patti LuPone, Betty Buckley, Glenn Close, Elaine Page, and Rita Moreno. Minneapolis Musical Theatre has taken this big lavish production and stripped it down to fit on the small stage at New Century. But the story still remains big, and Sarah Gibson as Norma Desmond does an incredible job filling the shoes of the women mentioned above. I'm not the biggest Andrew Lloyd Webber fan (as they say in Xanadu, "so grand and so earnest but ultimately so preposterous that one has to laugh"), and this show is very Andrew Lloyd Webber. But if there's one reason to see this show it's Sarah's delightfully exaggerated and completely committed performance as this complex, manipulative, crazy, and somehow sympathetic woman.

If you're one of the two other people on the planet who have never seen the movie, here's a brief plot summary. Circa 1950, struggling writer Joe Gillis ends up at the grand estate belonging to silent film star Norma Desmond when his car breaks down. She lives there alone with her butler (and ex-husband) Max. When she finds out that Joe is a screenwriter, she shows him the screenplay that she has written, and convinces him to help her get it into shape to submit to the great movie-maker Cecil DeMille. It's awful, but Joe does his best. He moves in with her and she showers him with gifts, and they eventually become lovers ("I get suits, and she gets hope"). Norma is a master manipulator; she has Max wrapped around her little finger, and all it takes is a little uncontrollable weeping or a suicide attempt to get what she wants out of Joe. She sends DeMille her screenplay and goes back to the studio where she was once a fixture, and prepares to make her comeback, unaware that everyone's laughing behind her back. Meanwhile, Joe has been working with a young screenwriter named Betty to adapt one of his stories. Although she's engaged to be married, the two fall in love, until Norma calls Betty to tell her where and how Joe has been living. Disillusioned, Joe tells Norma that her comeback is a joke, and plans to leave Hollywood for good. But Norma is not about to let that happen.

Like many Webber shows, the musical is mostly sung-through; there's little spoken dialogue. It reminds me a little of Evita, with similar musical sounds and plot structure, with Joe serving as a narrator as well as a character in the story. I didn't think I knew the score, but the song "With One Look" is familiar to me, and of course I know "As If We Never Said Good-Bye" from that episode of Glee in which Kurt sings it. Both songs are beautifully delivered by Sarah. I've seen her in several shows in the past (most recently in a supporting role in Theater Latte Da's Light in the Piazza) and have always been impressed by her, but this is a star-making performance. First of all, she looks like a movie star out of old Hollywood (maybe because I've only seen her in period roles). In this show, her every gesture, every word (I particularly like how she enunciates "picture"), every movement, every cell of her body down to her little finger, is imbued with Norma Desmond-ness. In heavy eye make-up and red lipstick, wearing feathers and fur, animal prints, flowy sleeves, headwraps, and jewels, she plays the role to the hilt. But if Norma is the star of the show, Joe is our tour guide through this weird world. Tim Kuehl (who looks like Vince Gill and sings almost as sweet) ably carries the show from Norma's creepy world to the world of young Hollywood, representing the audience as a bit of an outsider in both. His version of the title song, somewhat desperate and sarcastic, is another highlight. The lovely-voiced Aly Westberg is charming as the bright young writer Joe falls in love with, as they sing a sweet duet "Too Much in Love to Care." There are also several nice group numbers performed by the capable ensemble.

An interesting feature of this production is the use of video. Screens on either side of the wide and shallow stage show still shots of Norma's house or the studio lot, adding to the sparse set decoration to set the scene. Oftentimes an onstage camera tracks Norma's movements and displays them on the screen. The shaky close-ups, on which Sarah's wide-open eyes are even more apparent, ramp up the creepiness of the story. Nice period costumes on everyone, but Norma's get-ups are obviously the standout (costumes by Rian Berberich). Last but not least, a shout-out to the great slightly-off-stage band (directed by Lori Maxwell).

This is only my second MMT production (the other being Gilligan's Island: The Musical, which couldn't be more different from Sunset Boulevard), and so far I like what I've seen (and I'm super excited about their summer show next year - the brilliant political satire Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson!). Sunset Boulevard is a co-production with Hennepin Theatre Trust, and plays now through June 23.