Wednesday, July 24, 2013

"Fruit Fly: The Musical" at Illusion Theater

One of my favorite shows at last year's Fringe Festival was Fruit Fly: The Musical, an original and auto-biographical musical about the lifelong friendship between a gay man and a straight woman, written by and starring real-life best friends Max Wojtanowicz and Sheena Janson (with music by Michael Gruber and direction by Nikki Swoboda). I found it to be funny, sweet, and refreshingly genuine. An updated version of the piece was presented last weekend as part of Illusion Theater's new works series called "Fresh Ink" (the series continues this weekend with playwright Jeffrey Hatcher's one-man Hamlet, starring himself). A few changes have been made - Theater Latte Da's Peter Rothstein came on board as a director (which always makes everything better), new scenes and songs have been added, and the part of Sheena Janson is now being played by Cat Brindisi. Despite the changes, it's just as fresh, funny, real, and poignant as I remember it. With clever lyrics, catchy tunes, and an honest and heartfelt story of friendship that everyone can relate to, I think the piece has much more life to it. In a way, casting someone else as one of the original creator/characters proves that the piece works on its own (and if I were casting someone to play me in a musical, I'd pick Cat too!). I see this as a [title of show] - a musical based on the creators' real lives, with the creators playing themselves (or perhaps more theatrical versions of themselves), but that still maintains all its wonderful qualities when other actors are cast as these characters.

fruit and fly: Max Wojtanowicz (as himself)
and Cat Brindisi (as Sheena Janson)
Max and Sheena (played by Cat, who smoothly steps in as if she'd been there all along) tell the story of their friendship, from their first meeting in the 5th grade, to the awkward high school years when Sheena's advances are rebuffed, to when Max finally tells Sheena (before his family) that he's gay, to Max's jealousy when Sheena starts spending more time with her boyfriend and less with him. It's incredibly honest and genuine as they reenact some of their most awkward, momentous, and poignant moments on stage for everyone to see. In song! And such great songs - really fast and clever lyrics, with great melodies and catchy hooks. There's the title song (a list song that recites many silly pairs of things), a duet by Max and Sheena's moms who think they're perfect for each other, my personal favorite, "Drinking on a Thursday" (any song that mentions Liz Lemon is a winner in my book), and half a dozen other songs, both solos and duets.

The Fringe version of Fruit Fly was presented in the round, with the main set piece being a round cubby-holed seat-belted table from which various props were pulled. The new version was staged more like a reading, with music stands added to the same table. But rather than ignore the music stands and pretend they're not there, the team cleverly incorporated them as props. Despite being a workshop of a new work, it ran very smoothly. I think it's perfectly delightful and endearing.

I fully expect to see another (even better) version of Fruit Fly: The Musical at some point in the future (and maybe even get the soundtrack to sing along to in my car). Until that time, there's a new Fringe musical by the Fruit Fly team, with the deliciously awkward title of Shelly Bachberg Presents: How Helen Keller and Anne Frank Freed the Slaves: The Musical, playing at the New Century Theatre the first week of August.

Monday, July 22, 2013

"Pride and Prejudice" at the Guthrie Theater

Pride and Prejudice is the final production in the Guthrie's 50th anniversary season, and my tenth season as a subscriber. It's also the first repeated show in that 10 years (not counting the annual production of A Christmas Carol). Pride and Prejudice was the first production in my first season as a subscriber in the summer of 2003 (that has a nice symmetry to it, doesn't it?). It almost didn't work out that way - when the season was announced last year, the final show was Born Yesterday. Earlier this year the decision was made to move that show to this winter, with Pride and Prejudice replacing it. Which I imagine caused a bit of a ruckus, getting all the required ducks in a row for this scale of a production on a shortened timeline, including a last-minute actor change. You wouldn't know it, as this is a gorgeous production, impeccably cast, and a charming rendition of a classic literary love story.

Jane Austin's most popular novel centers on the Bennet family in early 19th century England - five daughters of marriageable age, an exasperated father, and a mother whose only goal is to see her daughters married and taken care of, since none of them can inherit their father's estate under English law. Wealthy gentlemen arrive in the country, and the Bennets are all aflutter. Balls, witty repartee, misunderstandings, scandals, and reconciliations continue for two hours, in a story I'm sure most of you are familiar with (if not - see Wiki). This adaptation by Simon Reade (a different one than they used 10 years ago) stays pretty faithful to the story as I remember it, condensing it nicely for the stage and keeping much of Austin's prose in the form of letters that are read by both the sender and recipient.

Ashley Rose Montondo
and Vincent Kartheiser
as Elizabeth and Darcy
The Guthrie has assembled an excellent cast of familiar faces and new, beginning with Ashley Rose Montondo as our heroine, the smart and spirited Elizabeth. Ashley was a last-minute replacement, stepping in just a month before previews began, and a fortunate one at that. She is so natural and charismatic as Lizzie; it's a star-making turn for someone with a relatively short bio (it's worth noting that Ashley, along with five other cast-members, is a product of the U of M/Guthrie BFA program). As her Darcy, Minnesota-actor-turned-TV-star Vincent Kartheiser* is initially stoic, disagreeable, and cold - as Darcy should be (he is the "pride" in Pride and Prejudice). But as he shows his softer side, Elizabeth warms to him, and so do we (it's lovely to see a natural smile on Vincent's face, something his Mad Men character never quite manages). They make quite a charming pair, and it's easy to root for and celebrate their happiness when it comes at long last. All of the Bennet sisters are perfectly cast, from Christine Weber as the eldest, the sweet and beautiful Jane, to Thallis Santesteban as the amusingly bookish Mary, to Aeysha Kinnenun, stealing scenes as the young and flighty Lydia. Completing the family, Mr. and Mrs. Bennet are played by the appropriately frazzled Peter Thomson and ridiculously silly Suzanne Warmanen. Kris Nelson is excellent as always as the quite creepy Mr. Collins (showing quite the range from his last role - the creepy-in-a-different-way Stanley Kowalski). Hugh Kennedy is charming as always as the good Mr. Bingley, and Anna Sundberg does haughty privilege well as his sister. Last but not least, Sally Wingert has a couple of nice turns as two completely different aunts - the girls' friendly aunt and Darcy's hilariously stern aunt.

The set is dominated by a gorgeous and fascinating moving showpiece (set design by Alexander Dodge). The floor of the thrust stage is cut into concentric circles that rotate in opposite direction, the outer supporting a set of huge stately white columns, the inner a wall with three glass doors. As the circles spin in opposite directions, the set pieces are arranged in seemingly infinite combinations to represent various indoor and outdoor settings. The stairs around the familiar thrust stage are covered with green grass, with green topiary adorning the back of the stage. The only downfall of this relatively simple set is that it's difficult to see the difference between the Bennet's modest home and the more extravagant homes of the Darcys and Bingleys, but that's what the imagination is for. The costumes, hair, make-up, etc. are of course stunning; I expect no less at the Guthrie. Adding a little visual action to the drama, Joe Chvala has choreographed some charming English country dances. I was particularly impressed that Darcy and Elizabeth carry on a complete conversation while effortlessly performing the steps of an intricate dance.

Pride and Prejudice is a great choice to close the Guthrie's landmark season. A classic and well-loved story; a cast that features Guthrie vets, new young local talent, and one of Minnesota's famous sons; and gorgeous production values. I found it to be quite charming.

*I have to admit, when Vincent Kartheiser was announced as Mr. Darcy, I was very excited. You see, before I was a theater junkie, I was a TV junkie, and I still am. I believe Man Men to be the highest form of the art that television can be. And I love it when my fellow Minnesotans make it big on the national scene and then come home to share their gifts. I met Vincent a few weeks ago at the Guthrie's 50th Anniversary Gala and made a blithering idiot of myself, so in shock I was to see him live and in person instead of on my TV screen in 60s period garb. It took a minute to get used to him in a different role, but I saw no traces of Pete Campbell in Mr. Darcy. He's in a position of success where he has many choices before him, and the fact that he chose to do a play in his hometown is a pretty cool thing.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

My 2013 Fringe Festival Must-See List

This list is way too long. While I do have press accreditation so I can see as many shows as I want, I also have a day job and other responsibilities that keep me from seeing as many shows as I want. I'm aiming for 20-30, we'll see what happens in a few weeks...

I based this list on the artists involved, the show description, and/or performances at last night's Fringe-For-All. I have not yet thoroughly read through all 176 shows, so this list could change several times before the Fest begins on August 1. For more information on any of the listed shows, click on the title. And for all things Fringe, please see their website.

Here's a list of shows that I want to see, and a brief reason why (I will most likely not be able to see all of the shows listed, but this is what I'm working with as I prepare my schedule):
(NEW shows added on July 24)

In addition to the above, I have about a dozen or so maybes that I will use to fill in where needed, since I like to see a block of shows in one location rather than driving all over the city.

Repeated from last year, some tips for the Fringe newbie:

  • Buy a button and make sure you have it with you, it's required for entry to all shows.
  • If you're going to multiple shows, buy a punch pass, available in quantities of 5 or 10, or unlimited if you plan on seeing more than 20 shows. It saves you $2 per show. Once you buy a pass, you can reserve a seat at any show for $1, or just show up and present your pass (see below).
  • If a show is particularly popular, or you really really want to see it, consider buying (or reserving a seat) in advance. You can also take your chances and just show up.
  • All shows are general admission, so get there early for best choice of seating.
  • Shows typically run just under an hour, with a half hour between shows.
  • Bring snacks, water, reading material, and sunscreen (you will be waiting in line, probably outside).
  • Keep an open mind - some of what you'll see is really weird. But that can be a good thing!

Happy Fringe-ing!

*It has come to my attention that there are two J. Scrimshaws (this was just added to the Fringe shows). Turns out they're brothers. (I apologize, I'm a relative Fringe novice, this is only my 3rd year at the fest.)

Saturday, July 13, 2013

"Camino Real" by Girl Friday Productions at the Minneapolis Theatre Garage

I love the plays of Tennessee Williams - from the well known A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, to the lesser known Summer and Smoke, to one of my favorite plays - The Glass Menagerie. He has a gift for creating these very real worlds full of complex characters (women especially), stories of such tragedy and beauty and emotion, set in a specific time and place in history. At first glance Camino Real, in a rare local staging by Girl Friday Productions, bears no resemblance to the Tennessee Williams plays I know - surreal instead of naturalistic, with a huge cast of characters, some drawn from literature, no linear storyline, set outside of time and place. It's a strange trip through the 16 blocks of the Camino Real (purposely mispronounced as CAMino REal). At the end of it I was a little perplexed, but also moved in a way I couldn't quite explain. Camino Real is about death, love, fear, loneliness, hope, just like all of Williams' plays, only in a more abstract sort of way. Stick with it through all the craziness, and you might just find those moments of beauty, truth, poignancy, and tragedy that Tennessee Williams does so well.

At the beginning of of the play we meet the familiar Don Quixote and his sidekick Sancho Panza. They somehow end up on the Camino and see some scary things, but Quixote decides to stay, sleep, and dream. So begins this strange and surreal trip, with Quixote often watching from the edge of the stage and occasionally wandering through the action. The play is broken up into 16 blocks, or scenes, which are announced by the narrator and man in charge of the Camino, Gutman (the only one who looks and sounds like he belongs in a Tennessee Williams play). The closest thing we have to a main character is Kilroy, representing the typical American from the 50s in a grease-stained white t-shirt, blue jeans, and a boxing champ belt. Kilroy has just left his wife, the woman he loves, to spare her grief when his sick heart (as big as the head of a baby) eventually gives out. He finds himself on the Camino and has to figure out how to survive in this strange world, with hopes of getting out. Other characters include Casanova and the woman he loves, the courtesan Marguerite Gautier, whose only desire is to get out; the poet/rock star Lord Byron; a gypsy and her daughter; a pair of "street cleaners" who function as Death; and various other odd creatures that populate the street. Eventually the dreamer (Quixote) wakes up and leaves, with these final words:
Don't pity yourself! The wounds of the vanity, the many offenses our egos have to endure, being housed in bodies that age and hearts that grow tired, are better accepted with a tolerant smile - like this! - You see? Otherwise what you become is a bag full of curdled cream - leche mala, we call it! - attractive to nobody, least of all to yourself!
the cast of Camino Real
(don't worry, no crazy make-up
or purple capes in the show
There's not a weak link in the 14-person cast, ably directed by Benjamin McGovern (who also designed the sparse and surreal set). Eric Knutson is a great Kilroy, the likeable and relatively normal presence that leads us through the crazy trip. Alan Sorenson is smooth as the all-knowing Gutman, and Craig Johnson is compelling as the dreamer explorer Quixote, as well as in an amusing turn as an old man. Kimberly Richardson is always entertaining as she physically transforms into one odd character or another. The hauntingly beautiful voice of Laurel Amstrong adds to the ambiance of the Camino. John Middleton and Kirby Bennett (Girl Friday's Artistic Director) play out the most emotional scenes, between Cassanova and Marguerite, who bears the closest resemblance to the familiar Williams heroine - desperately trying to get out of the situation she's found herself in.

I haven't read any yet, but I've heard that this play has received mixed reviews, with some critics loving it, and some not so much. If anything that made me more excited to see it and decide for myself. It's definitely odd, and I wouldn't say it's my favorite Tennessee Williams play, but I appreciate the opportunity to see more of his work, especially this piece that's so seemingly different, yet has moments of familiarity. I found a lot to like. But it's weird for sure, and I can see how it's not everyone's cup of tea. For a theater company that only does one production every two years, this was a big risk for Girl Friday to take, and I have to admire that. This is a much different Street Scene than the one they presented two years ago. In my opinion, the risk paid off, and I can't wait to see what 2015 brings! If you're also intrigued by the response and want to see what the fuss is about, the play continues through July 27 at the Minneapolis Theatre Garage, with discount tickets available on Goldstar.

"When a Man Loves a Diva" at the Lab Theater

When a Man Loves a Diva is a simple but clever concept - three powerhouse male singers take on songs typically sung by a woman, a Diva to be precise. The result is a fun and entertaining evening of music and comedy, full of new takes on familiar songs. Led by musical director Sanford Moore, singer/actors Ben Bakken, Julius Collins, and Dane Stauffer sound fantastic on these songs. They all perform with super high energy and don't take themselves too seriously, but they do take the music seriously. The show returns to The Lab Theater after a successful run last year and continues through August 3.

Highlights of the show:
  • The show begins with old-school Divas - the great girl groups of the 60s. From "Leader of the Pack" to "He's So Fine" (back-up singers only), the guys then turned Madonna's "Like a Virgin" into a do-op girl group song.
  • All of the one-name Divas are covered - Aretha, Whitney, Adele, Cher, Britney, Gaga. Even someone as pop music illiterate as me knew all of the songs (even if I only knew the modern ones from Glee).
  • I don't know that I would call Patty Griffin a Diva, but she is a brilliant songwriter, and Ben's version of "Heavenly Day" is the highlight of the show for me. Unless it's when he sings Bonnie Raitt's "I Can't Make You Love Me" (if being one of two women named to Rolling Stone's list of 100 Greatest Guitarists doesn't qualify you as a Diva, I'm not sure what does).
  • As Dane was pouring emotion into Dionne Warwick's ballad "Anyone Who Has a Heart," an audience member got up to leave, and Dane called after her - "don't go!" It was perfect timing, and only one example of how the men interact with and engage the audience.
  • What Diva medley is complete without "I Will Always Love You," written by one Diva (Dolly Parton) and made famous by another (Whitney Houston)? Not this one - Julius performs a quiet and beautiful version of the song.
  • These three guys all have their unique talents - Dane is a great comedic singer, Ben has the ability to give any song that rock edge, Julius can finesse a song beautifully - and complement each other very well. It's obvious they're having a great time together, which always helps the audience to have a great time too.
  • Bottom line - a great song is a great song, no matter who sings it. And "You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman" is no less great when sung by three men.

In the hottest month of the summer, "It's Raining Men" at the Lab Theater, and these men can sing! Take a break from the heat for some light, fun, summer entertainment. (Discount tickets available on Goldstar.)

Monday, July 8, 2013

"Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Suicide Club" at Park Square Theatre

I must admit, I'm not that familiar with the stories of Sherlock Holmes (although I have been to the site of his literary death - Reichenbach Falls outside of Meiringen, Switzerland). I've never read any of the four books or 56 short stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle that form the basis of the popular detective story, or seen any of the countless movies (unless you count the recent Robert Downey Jr. version). My only real familiarity with the story is the fantastic new show Elementary, CBS's modern-day NYC-set take on the story. So I don't have a lot of attachment to or knowledge of the mythology of Sherlock Holmes. Fortunately that is not required to enjoy Park Square Theatre's current version, in which prolific and talented local playwright Jeffrey Hatcher takes the familiar characters from Doyle's stories and applies them to Robert Louis Stevenson's trilogy of short stories The Suicide Club. The result is a new creation that is amusing, clever, and deliciously suspenseful.

As in most of the original stories, this tale is narrated by Holme's trusty sidekick Watson (ably portrayed by Bob Davis). As the story begins, Holmes is despondent (by his own admission) and exasperated, a little worn down by the trials of life and his work. But he's still at the top of his game - curious, observant, and clever. Steve Hendrickson easily slips into the skin of the titular character (the third time he's played the role at Park Square), creating a character just as memorable as he the one he played in another mystery play, Deathtrap at the Jungle earlier this year. Holmes finds himself investigating a group called The Suicide Club, in which people who want to take their own lives but are unable to do so agree to kill each other in a random fashion. They draw billiard balls from a hat - the one who draws the black ball is the lucky one to die, and the one who draws the red ball does the deed. (One wonders how such a club that meets every night keeps their membership up.) Club member Prince Nikita (a charismatic as ever Bryan Porter) alerts Holmes to some suspicious happenings in the club, which seem to lead back to the mysterious Club Secretary (Charity Jones, sleek as a cat). But who is she really working for? Watching Holmes decipher clue after clue to lead him to the answer is half the fun of the play.

There's not a weak link in this multi-accented cast. In addition to those mentioned above, highlights include Nathan Christopher as the cream puff-eating club member who invites Holmes into the club, Bruce Bohne as the wheelchair-bound and uber supportive club member, and Karen Wiese-Thompson as Holmes' landlady and several other characters. All the men are dressed in top hats and tails (costumes by Andrea M. Gross); why not dress up for death?

Michael Hoover (set design) and Todd F. Edwards (projection design) have together created a very clever and effective backdrop for this familiar story. At first glance the Park Square stage looks empty - with few set pieces and trapezoidal screens of varying sizes in the background. But as the scenes change, still images fill the screens to create a specific world - Holmes' book-cluttered apartment, the billiard hall, the dark and lonely London streets. It's an elegant way to affect the change of scenes without moving a lot of bulky set pieces around, which makes for smooth scene transitions (accompanied by appropriately creepy music).

I'm catching this one near the end of its run - only five performances remain. If you're able, check it out this week for a fun and thrilling take on the classic detective genre.