Sunday, September 29, 2013

"Steerage Song" by Theater Latte Da at the Lab Theater

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost
     to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

These words (by poet Emma Lazarus) were engraved on a plaque inside the Statue of Liberty in 1903, at the height of immigration to the United States. But soon that welcoming sentiment began to change, culminating in the passage of the National Origins Act in 1924, severely limiting immigration, especially from "undesirable" areas such as Southern and Eastern Europe. Steerage Song, a music-theater piece created by Peter Rothstein and Dan Chouinard, explores these historical themes of immigration through authentic music and text of the time. A semi-staged version of it was first presented two years ago. Much of the cast returns in this fully staged production, with slight changes to text and songs. The result is a truly beautiful expression of ideas at the very heart of America. The (perhaps not so) surprising thing is that the arguments being made against immigration today were also being made 100 years ago, making this piece not just a historical reflection but also extremely relevant to the present.

Peter (who also directs the piece) and Dan (music director) have collected dozens of songs from the American immigrant experience between 1840 and 1924, from various languages and cultures through Europe. They have tied the songs together using text from newspaper articles, speeches, and other historical documents, and constructed them into eight parts representing the journey of the immigrants: The Call; Bidding Farewell; The Voyage; A Sonnet in the Harbor; Ellis Island; The Lower East Side; By the People, For the People; and The Golden Door Closes. The nine ensemble members portray the mostly nameless immigrants as they leave their homelands and find a new life in America. The one character we follow throughout this journey is perhaps the most successful immigrant musician from this period, a 5-year-old Russian Jewish immigrant named Israel Beilin who became one of America's most beloved songwriters, Irving Berlin. Through his and others' stories we witness the courage of the millions of people who left everything behind to come to America and make a better life for themselves and their families, and in doing so made America richer too.

Dan Chouinard and his accordian
lead the cast of Steerage Song
The fantastic nine-person cast includes six from the original production two years ago. All sing beautifully in various languages or accented English (my linguist friend was impressed with the use of language and accents), as well as expressing the emotions of the characters. The ensemble includes: Sasha Andreev (always excellent), Erin Capello (with a voice like a dream), Dennis Curley (evoking tears with his sad Irish ballad), Megan Fischer (little Annie is all grown up and can hold her own among these talented professionals), Alec Fisher (another talented youngster who fits right in), Bradley Greenwald (one of my absolute favorites, any day I get to listen to him sing in German is a good day), Jennifer Grimm (with an emotional delivery of "Bring Me Your Tired, Your Poor," set to music by Irving Berlin), Jay Hornbacher (the talented veteran of the group), and Natalie Nowytski (a natural fit for this piece, she sings in over 40 languages and has studied Eastern European styles of singing). Multi-talented musician Dan Chouinard (I've seen him perform many times and he rarely uses sheet music at the piano) does a great job leading the five-piece band playing various instruments and creating the varied musical styles of the immigrants.

waving goodbye to the homeland
The Lab Theater is a great open space in which to create a world of imagination, put to great use by set designer John Clark Donahue. A stage has been built to resemble a ship, with a wooden plank floor, raised balcony in the back for the band, masts, a rope ladder, and bannisters on the sides. In the second act this ship transforms into the Lower East Side, with laundry hung between the masts and carts rolling up and down the street. Long poles are used as the railing of the ship or form lines at Ellis Island; planks serve as work spaces or lecterns. On either side of the stage are great racks of clothing, with hats, shawls, coats, scarves, and various other pieces that help define and differentiate the many characters in the piece (costume design by Jeffrey Stolz).

It's no secret that Theater Latte Da is my favorite theater company. Musical theater is my favorite art form, and Latte Da does it in an innovative and forward-thinking way. In fact, their tagline this year is "we don't do musical theater, we do theater musically." The thing that elevates Theater Latte Da above many other theaters in town is the impeccable attention to detail, on great display in Steerage Song. Every aspect of the production is of the highest quality: sets, costumes, sound design (actors are miked but in an unobtrusive way), casting, staging, the playbill, lighting, video projections, the use of props, and the talent level of the performers. Nothing is overlooked and it all adds up to a thoroughly enjoyable evening of theater. Playing now through October 20 at the Lab Theater.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

"Perilous Night" at nimbus theater

In Perilous Night, a play by local playwright Lee Blessing currently receiving it's world premiere at nimbus theater, HRH Queen Elizabeth III returns from the future. Of course she's not really a queen, but rather a delusional wealthy woman whose family has placed her in a mental hospital. It's a strange and disturbing little play, featuring not just mental illness but also racism, violence, needlepoint, and castration. I'm not quite sure what to think or write about it, but it's definitely thought-provoking and not boring!

The highlight of the play is Shirley Venard, who is a delight as the regal but addled Elizabeth, intent on her strange needlework. Also entertaining is Dana Lee Thompson as fellow mental hospital patient Harriet, who opens the show with a long monologue while Elizabeth ignores her. Harriet's particular delusion is that she believes the world was perfect and everyone was happy, until the day that she was born. Elizabeth and Harriet discuss the world and the differences between the present, future, and idealized past, while Harriet waits to escape. A couple of guards, Harriet's "boyfriend" (Ross Destiche) and his racist violent friend (Kevin Carnahan) facilitate the escape, but of course things don't go as planned. Elizabeth intervenes on behalf of her new friend; she's not as meek as she seems.

The cast does a good job with the material as directed by Artistic Director Liz Neerland, and the set (designed by the other Artistic Director Josh Cragun) is a perfect setting, with it's tile floor and metal bed frame in sterile hospital style, but I found the play to be a bit odd and perplexing. Perilous Night runs through October 6; go see for yourself.

Shirley Venard as the deluded Queen, intent on
her needlework (yes that's blood on her hand)

"On Golden Pond" at Yellow Tree Theatre

On Golden Pond is a classic American movie. And like many classic American movies, I've never seen it. Also like many classic American movies, it was a successful Broadway play before it was a movie. The 1979 play was adapted by playwright Ernest Thompson into the 1981 movie starring Katherine Hepburn, Henry Fonda, and his real-life daughter Jane Fonda. I'm glad that I haven't seen a lot of these old movies so that I'm able to experience them first in their original form - on the stage. And one of my favorite stages on which to see such work is Yellow Tree Theatre; these small-cast character pieces are what they do best. This play is truly delightful, with real-life married couple and veteran Twin Cities theater artists Jon Cranney (who also directs) and Katherine Ferrrand serving as the heart of the play.

On Golden Pond takes place one summer at the family cabin, something many of us Minnesotans are familiar with. Even though the original play and movie were set in New England, it feels very Minnesotan. In fact, they've changed a few place names so that this version does take place in Minnesota, which feels very natural. Anyone who visits a cabin "up north" knows that it's a special place, a place of respite, away from the busy life of the city. Aging couple Norman (Jon Cranney) and Ethel (Katherine Ferrand) have spent summers at their cabin on Golden Pond for over 40 years. This particular summer, their daughter Chelsea (Melanie Wehrmacher) visits from California to celebrate Norman's 80th birthday, bringing along her boyfriend (Stephen Pearce) and his 13-year-old son (Jack Alexander). Mailman and family friend Charlie (Michael Lee) completes the picture of life at the lake. Not a lot happens, other than fishing, skinny-dipping, and drinking coffee, but much is explored in the relationships between father and daughter (they never got along), mother and daughter (mother is frustrated that daughter can't get along with father), grandfather and step-grandson (they become fast friends and fishing buddies), and husband and wife (Norman suffers from ill health including heart problems and memory loss). It's a lot like being at the cabin, you don't really "do" much, but life is full.

Norman and Ethel (Jon Cranney and Katherine Ferrand)
looking out on Golden Pond
At the center of this very fine cast are Jon and Katherine, who, understandably, are very natural as the long-married couple. Jon is appropriately cantankerous with a dry wit, and Katherine is simply radiant. Michael provides much comic relief and character as the mailman who's really more like a member of the family. Melanie, Stephen, and Jack complete this family well.

As usual, Yellow Tree makes the most of their small space, which is jam-packed with rustic furniture, books, hats, games, and other cabin accoutrements. The set (designed by George Marsolek) is so inviting that I wanted to take a seat on one of the comfy chairs, dig into one of the books on the shelf, and have a cup of coffee and a biscuit with honey and butter.

On Golden Pond is the first play in Yellow Tree Theatre's sixth season and continues through October 13. The five-play season includes a remount of the original version of the hugely popular holiday series, Miracle on Christmas Lake, and concludes with the hilarious 39 Steps next summer. If you have yet to take the trip to Osseo, now is the time to "be here." And for dinner before the show, I recommend Ethnic Foods Company's new restaurant Collage Global Cafe, in the space previously occupied by Nectar Wine Bar. They've only been open a week or two so they're still working out a few kinks in service, but what doesn't need work is their food, which is delicious, local, fresh, and healthful. It makes for a great "dinner and a show" night in Osseo!

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The 2013 Ivey Awards at the State Theater

It's the morning after the Ivey Awards, and I have a happiness hangover. It was another great night of celebrating the Twin Cities theater community, through awards given out to select artists and productions, performances from this year's shows, and another fun post-show party hob-nobbing with some of my favorite theater artists. There's nothing better than introducing myself to one of them as "Jill from Cherry and Spoon" and having them not only know who I am, but seem almost as excited to meet me as I am to meet them! It's so lovely to hear that my work here is appreciated, so thank you to everyone I met. I look forward to seeing more of your work in the coming year.

Let's get right down to it. Twelve Ivey Awards were presented this year (to 11 productions, 7 of which I saw), plus the Emerging Artist and Lifetime Achievement Awards. Last year's winners and representatives from corporate sponsors served as presenters. Returning host, the delightfully funny Shanan Custer, was joined by the always entertaining Randy Reyes (Artistic Director of Mu Performing Arts). In the same way I would like Neil Patrick Harris to host every televised awards show, I think Shanan and Randy should host the Iveys every year! There are no two better people to guide us through this night.

The 2013 Ivey Award recipients are (for shows that I've seen, click on the title to read my thoughts about the show):

  • Peter Brosius for his direction of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie at Children's Theatre Company.
  • Raymond Berg for the musical direction of this summer's fantastic musical hit Urinetown at the Jungle Theater.
  • The uber talented cast of Clybourne Park at the Guthrie.
  • Playwriting team Katherine Glover, Alissa M. Shellito, and Jeri Weiss for Freshwater Theatre Goes Back to High School at Freshwater Theatre Company.
  • Milly and Tillie at Open Eye Figure Theatre (overall excellence).
  • Michael Croswell for sound design of Frank Theatre's crazy brilliant one-man-show Misterman (I was kind of hoping for an Ivey for John Catron, but I'll take this).
  • Michael Matthew Ferrell for his delightful choreography of Singin' in the Rain at Bloomington Civic Theater (I got to hold his Ivey!).
  • The incredibly smart and funny and touching In the Next Room at the Jungle Theater (overall excellence).
  • Peter Beard and James Napoleon Stone for their direction of Hamlet at Theare Coup d'Etat.
  • A very deserving Craig Johnson for playing the title role in Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde at Walking Shadow Theatre Company.
  • Ivey host Shanan Custer and Carolyn Pool for their utterly charming show 2 Sugars, Room for Cream (which you can see next month at the Jerome Hill Theater).
  • Dean Holt for playing the mouse in If You Give a Mouse a Cookie at Children's Theatre Company.

I was pleasantly surprised to hear Ricardo Vazquez announced as this year's Emerging Artist. I think he's super-talented (e.g., as Gabe in Mixed Blood's Next to Normal, filling the space at Open Book with his powerful voice in The Seven for TTT, and directing a really cool musical at the Fringe). I'm looking forward to seeing what the future has in store for this emerging artist.

Prolific and talented local playwright Jeffrey Hatcher won this year's Lifetime Achievement Award and gave a very funny speech deserving of an award-winning playwright. I've seen many of his plays over the last few years, my favorites of which include lat year's Ivey-winner Compleat Female Stage Beauty and Turn of the Screw. Whenver I see Jeffrey Hatcher's name on a play, I know it's going to be good.

In between all of these awards we were treated to performances from past, present, and upcoming productions (accompanied by the fantastic band led by music director extraordinaire Denise Prosek) that really showed off the diverse talent in this abundantly rich theater town:

  • A celebratory tone was set by the opening number, a selection from Illusion Theater's musical review Love & Marriage, featuring cast members from last year's original and this year's update, "What a Difference a Year Makes," now playing at Illusion (I'm seeing it next week).
  • We were treated to an excerpt from one of the trilogy of plays Displaced Hindu Gods, opening next weekend at Mixed Blood. A stand-up comedy routine, accompanied by Ivey Award-winning actor Peter Christian Hansen on electric guitar (as host Randy said, "what the what?").
  • I was very excited to see an encore of Nautilus Music-Theater's Ordinary Days, which I had just seen the day before and completely fell in love with. It's playing for two more weekends - go see it!
  • Miss Minnesota Rebecca Yeh, who recently won Miss America's talent competition, played a lovely song on the violin as we remembered local theater artists we lost in the last year.
  • The Ivey Award-winning cast of Clybourne Park performed a scene from the modern-day second act of the play (and I was slightly relieved when the scene ended just before the telling of offensive jokes began!).
  • Mike Fotis and Lauren Anderson performed a ridiculous (in a good way) super-hero skit incorporating the names of the corporate sponsors.
  • I was so thrilled that Yellow Tree Theatre's new original musical Stay Tuned made an appearance at the Ivey's, with show creators and performers Blake Thomas, Mary Fox, and Andy Frye presenting a scene and a song from the fictional radio show. Most of the evening was pretty high energy and almost frantic with excitement, so "Love Will Lift You Up" was a welcome calm moment, a chance to take a breath, enjoy the simple beauty of the song, and recharge for the excitement of the evening yet to come. (Blake Thomas' music is available on iTunes, I highly recommend Flatlands for a start.)
  • I cannot think of a better closing number than the super fun and high energy "Run, Freedom, Run" from the Ivey Award-winning production of Urinetown, performed by this talented cast. A great end to the show that fired us up for the post-show party!

And that's it, another Ivey Awards has come and gone, and some pretty incredibly theater too. I am so grateful to be a part of this theater community and to have the privilege to witness the great work of our local Minnesota theater artists. Now let's go see some local theater!

Sunday, September 22, 2013

"Ordinary Days" at Nautilus Music-Theater

Warning: this is one of those gushing posts. I apologize in advance.

The new musical Ordinary Days is everything I want musical theater to be - original, authentic, relevant, moving, and compelling. In these days when the trend of movies-turned-into-musicals is getting out of control, Ordinary Days gives me hope for the future of musical theater. As long as up-and-coming musical theater composers like Adam Gwon continue to write and get their work produced (on Broadway, off-Broadway, regional theater, in a garage, wherever), and theater companies like Nautilus Music-Theater continue to seek out and foster new work such as this, I think we'll be OK.

Ordinary Days, which premiered off-Broadway in 2009, is "two love stories in 21 parts." With virtually no spoken dialogue, four very real characters and their lives and relationships are introduced through song. We get to know and love these characters as they express themselves to us and each other with music. Jason (Doug Sholz-Carlson) is moving in with his girlfriend Claire (Kersten Rodau), but something is holding her back from letting him in. Aspiring artist Warren (Max Wojtanowicz) and frustrated grad student Deb (Jill Anna Ponasik) have a "meet cute" moment, but not in the way you expect. We watch these two relationships change and grow and intersect through a series of vignettes about "ordinary days" - getting coffee, going to a museum, moving boxes. The fifth character is New York City, the greatest city in the world. The characters walk down Broadway, visit the Met, ride in a taxi or on a train, view the city from their balcony. If it sounds simple, it is, but it's also beautiful and profound, funny and touching, amusing and heart-breaking.

I don't have the words to describe how much I love the score. The songs are conversational and get right to the heart of the sentiment, even when the words describe coffee or the rain or wine. I was surprised that I recognized one of the songs, "Favorite Places." I remember loving the song when Randy Schmeling sang it at Latte Da in the Park a few years ago; it's a really beautiful and unique love song. The first thing I did when I got home from today's matinee is look to see if a cast recording exists, which it happily does (available on iTunes). I'm sure I'll be listening to it obsessively for the next few weeks.

Nautilus is producing this piece in their new space, which is just downstairs from their old space in St. Paul's artsy Lowertown neighborhood. I love listening to music in small intimate spaces (just 40 seats) with no amplification, nothing between the audience and the voices, especially when the voices are as good as these four! Kersten has an incredibly powerful voice that effortlessly fills up the space, but can also pull it back and make me cry in the tender moments. Max is one of those actors I'd watch in anything because he makes everything better with his commitment and his believability in the moment. Doug sounds beautiful on my now favorite song and is so convincing as Jason, who only wants Claire to love him as much as he loves her. Jill is perfect as the woman with the perfect plan for a life she doesn't want. And the four of them together, accompanied by musical director Mindy Eschedor on piano, create a beautiful sound in that space.

Director Ben Krywosz describes it best in the note in the playbill, "Ordinary Days dances elegantly between two extremes: the desire we all have to 'only connect,' and the possibility that we might find the sacred in the secular, discovering there is magic in the mundane." This piece is anything but mundane, but there is much magic in it. It's one of those shows that fills me up and stays with me as I leave the theater, and hopefully, for days to come. If you want to see what the future of musical theater looks like, go see Ordinary Days. Fortunately there are 11 remaining performances over the next two weekends, I hope each one of them sells out (and at just $25 a ticket, it's much cheaper than Wicked).

"The Belmont Hotel" by COLLIDE Theatrical Dance Company at the Southern Theater

COLLIDE Theatrical Dance Company is a new company whose mission is "to create original Broadway-style jazz dance musicals that engage and entertain audiences." It's a cool concept, and for a musical theater geek like myself who doesn't know much about dance, it's a great way to experience the beauty and storytelling power of dance in an accessible and familiar format. Like a musical without words, the story and emotions of the characters are conveyed simply and powerfully through movement and physical expression. Their inaugural production Lot of Living to Do told the story of prostitutes in the '30s trying to better their lives, and their new production, The Belmont Hotel, tells of a hotel owner with a failing business in 1929 who turns to bootlegging, and the effects that has on his family. Directed and choreographed by company founder Regina Peluso and featuring a talented ensemble of dancers, a fabulous on-stage five-person band, and two fantastic singers, it's a highly entertaining evening (free drinks from sponsors Stella Artois and Whiplash Wines don't hurt either).

The story of The Belmont Hotel is fairly simple. Losing money due to the Great Depression, hotel owner Frank (a light on his feet Jeff Quast) decides to go into business with a bootlegger (a smooth and seductive Patrick Jeffrey), introduced to him by the nanny (an appealing Renee Guittar). The money starts rolling in, but his wife (director/choreographer Regina Peluso) and daughter Lily (the precocious Dora Dolphin) are not happy with the change. A crisis neatly leads to a change of heart, the family is reunited, and everyone's happy again. Let's dance!

Dora Dolphin, Regina Peluso, and Jeff Quast
as the (sometimes not so) happy family
And what dancing there is! Regina's choreography is classic and fresh at the same time, beautifully executed by the leads and ensemble. But the youngest dancer steals the show; Dora Dolphin is already a star* at a young age, and is completely charming in Lily's dance with her daddy and alone on stage in her angry neglected dance. The ensemble numbers are also a highlight, especially the Act I closing number "Feeling Good" and the final number "Sing Sing Sing," and include some pretty amazing acrobatic tricks that I wished I could rewind and watch again!

The soundtrack to the story is a selection of jazz standards like "Stormy Weather" and "Mack the Knife (with a little Beyonce and Beatles thrown in for good measure), performed by the band with vocals on some songs. Katie Gearty has a dusky voice that's perfect for these songs, and Cameron Wright has impressive vocals, most evident in an a capella unmiked version of "It Don't Mean a Thing" that fills the cavernous space of the Southern Theater stage. I'm not sure there is a better stage for dance in the Twin Cities than the Southern, with its wide open stage, gorgeous brick arch backdrop, and excellent sightlines from the audience. Costumes are period appropriate (with the exception of an inexplicable untucked plaid shirt and khaki pants ensemble) and still allow the dancers to move freely and beautifully.

This is a short run so act quickly if you want to catch this production of the new original jazz dance musical The Belmont Hotel - only four more performances remain this weekend (discount tickets available on Recommended for dance aficionados and novices alike. COLLIDE's next production is Romeo and Juliet next spring. I cannot imagine Romeo and Juliet as a jazz dance musical, but I trust this company to make it work!

*Her bio notes that Dora will be in Gypsy at BCT next spring. From what I've seen of her, she will be a perfect Baby June!

Saturday, September 21, 2013

"Good People" at Park Square Theatre

The first production of Park Square Theatre's 2013-2014 season is the new play Good People, which had a short run on Broadway in 2011 (but long enough to win Frances McDormand a Tony). Written by David Lindsay-Abaire, it's sharp, funny, intense, and heart-breaking at times, full of complex characters, most of whom are not particularly likeable, but are certainly entertaining. The tone is reminiscent of Lindsay-Abaire's most well-known play Rabbit Hole; both deal with some pretty heavy issues with realism and humor. Joel Sass directs a solid cast of six (and designed the beautiful set), who bring to life this complicated story with its issues of class and gender, echoing the real-life stories heard on the nightly news.

Good People is centered around the tough and vulnerable Margaret (a strong performance by Virginia S. Burke) as she's fired for her job as cashier at a dollar store by Stevie (Sam Pearson, making the most of the small role). Margaret is a single mother of a developmentally disabled adult daughter and has never been able to climb out of the lower-class life into which she was born. With the help of her friends (scene stealers Jane Hammill and Angela Timberman) she decides to approach childhood friend Mike (James Denton, best known as another very different Mike on Desperate Housewives, making his welcome debut on the Minnesota stage). Unlike Margaret, Mike has gotten out of South Boston and is now a wealthy doctor with a young wife and daughter and a seemingly perfect life. He's unable to offer Margaret a job, but he does reluctantly invite her to his birthday party at his home in the nice part of town. Margaret shows up at his house and meets his wife Kate (an appropriately polished Hope Cervantes), where the pleasant reminiscing about the good old days turns ugly when they discuss why one of them was able to "get out of Southie" while the other wasn't. It's not just "hard work" as Mike says, but also good luck, family support, and gender privilege (sometimes it's easier for a man to leave his past behind than it is for a woman to leave hers behind). This second-act discussion is almost too intense; it feels like you're eavesdropping on a very personal argument.

Jane Hammill, Angela Timbermann, Virginia Burke,
and Sam Pearson play bingo (photo by Petronella Ytsma)
The cast works together very well, and despite only having three weeks of rehearsal they realistically act as old friends, and have conquered the South Boston accent. James Denton fits in well with our local theater actors and I was happy to discover that his natural charm on-screen translates to the stage. But Virginia Burke is the star of this show; her layered performance as Margaret makes you sympathize with her despite some questionable choices. The rapport between the three Southie women is priceless as they bicker, cajole, and support each other, particularly in the highly entertaining bingo scenes. Angela Timbermann never fails to crack me up, as Miss Hannigan or Scrooge's boozy housekeeper, and this play is no exception (in fact I think she was cracking up some of her castmates as well). There are plenty of laughs to balance out the uncomfortably intense confrontations.

things get heated (Hope Cervantes, Virginia Burke,
and James Denton, photo by Petronella Ytsma)
Director Joel Sass (who often works at the Jungle Theater, which has the best sets in town) designed this very cool set, which is actually comprised of five very different sets that float on and off stage, four of which only appear once. All are detailed and realistic, from a garbage-strewn alley to a downtown doctor's office, from a very lived-in kitchen to a pristine upper class living room. As each scene ends, the set moves away and reveals another behind it, as we peel back the layers of the story.

A well-written and relevant new play, a great cast that plays well together, and excellent set design - another winner for Park Square Theater (playing now through October 6).

I couldn't resist a photo op with Jamie!
You can also catch him as host of the Ivey's pre-show party.

"Wicked" at the Orpheum Theatre

Wicked is not just a musical, it's an international phenomenon. Ten years after it opened on Broadway, it continues to sell out both on Broadway and on tour, and is number 11 (and climbing) on the list of longest running Broadway musicals. It has spectacular sets, fantastical costumes, and a huge moving dragon above the stage. But as many musicals have demonstrated, a big flashy production does not make for a great musical. The truly wonderful thing about Wicked is that in addition to all of the hoopla, it's a really great piece of theater. The Stephen Schwartz score is fantastic, with clever lyrics and endlessly singable tunes, the story is inspirational, and the characters are relatable; it's both showy and satisfying. I've seen it four times now, and listened to the score hundreds of times, and it never fails to move me. Several moments in the show are guaranteed to give me chills and bring tears to my eyes (namely, when Elphaba first takes flight in "Defying Gravity," and when she and Glinda sing about their friendship in "For Good"). Whether it's your first time seeing it or your 100th, Wicked is an unforgettable experience. In short, it's a nearly perfect musical.

The National Tour of Wicked is stopping at the beautiful and historic Orpheum Theatre in downtown Minneapolis for a six-week run through the end of October. In case you've been living under a musical theater rock for the last ten years, here's a brief plot summary. Wicked is based on the book of the same name by Gregory Maguire, which is a re-imagining of The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum. In this new mythology, before Dorothy and her house land in Oz, Glinda the good witch and Elphaba the wicked witch are two young women who find themselves roommates at school and become unlikely friends and allies. All is not right in the land of Oz; human-like Animals are seeing their rights and voices taken away. Elphaba discovers that the Wizard is behind all of this, and becomes a fugitive as she works against him to free the Animals. Glinda is seemingly on the Wizard's side, but the two never lose their connection, despite both loving the same man. The romance is compelling but it is refreshingly not the focus of the show; Wicked is really about the friendship between these two very different women and each of them discovering who they are, and helping each other in that discovery ("Because I knew you, I have been changed for good"). Anyone who's ever felt like an outcast in any situation can relate to Elphaba; she's a wonderful inspiration, especially for girls to grow up as strong women ("I'm through accepting limits, 'cause someone says they're so. Some things I cannot change but 'til I try I'll never know"). Wicked explores the ideas of good and wicked ("are people born wicked, or do they have wickedness thrust upon them?") and the fact that in real life (and sometimes in musicals) it's never as simple as good and wicked, there's a lot of room in between where most of us live. Like Fiyero, Wicked is much deeper than its beautiful exterior might imply.

Alison Luff and Jenn Gambatese as the
unlikely best friends
The original Broadway cast is a tough act to follow (including Idina Menzel, who won a Tony for playing Elphaba, Kristin Chenowith, Norbert Leo Butz, and Joel Grey), but this cast does a phenomenal job of living up to the standards they set. Alison Luff is the star of the show as Elphaba, with a powerful voice and a believable transition from green misfit to political-activist-slash-wicked-witch. Jenn Gambatese is perfectly Glinda-like, which is delightfully bubbly but with a bit more depth as she discovers that getting your dreams is a little more complicated than it seems. Curt Hansen (from the first national tour of Next to Normal) is an appealing Fiyero who understandably makes all the girls fall for him. A couple of TV stars shine on the stage. Guiding Light's Kim Zimmer is enthusiastically evil as Madame Morrible, and '80s game show host John Davidson (who still has that gorgeous head of hair, now turned white) is a charmer as the Wizard who isn't what he seems, providing much of the biting social commentary ("there are precious few at ease with moral ambiguities, so we act as though they don't exist"). Supporting them is a huge ensemble of talented singer/dancer/actors who embody everyone from the green-clad citizens of Oz to flying monkeys.

As I mentioned, the sets and costumes are incredible. From the school uniforms at dear old Shiz, to the black and white party outfits (men in skirts!), to the circus-like green-hued wardrobe in the Emerald City, the costumes (by Susan Hilferty, who won a Tony for her work) just keep getting better throughout the show. The more spectacular elements of the set (by Eugene Lee, another Tony-winner) include the aforementioned dragon (who doesn't really figure into the plot, but looks cool), a bubble transport device for Glinda, and the huge talking wizard head. A clockwork motif runs through many of the sets, as if you're in the inner workings of some huge machine.

Wicked features over the top sets and costumes, but it has a fantastic score and great story and characters to back it up. The production doesn't overwhelm the content, but enhances it. It's that rare musical in which all of the different artistic pieces come together to form a wholly satisfying theatrical experience. Unfortunately it's the most expensive theater ticket it town, which makes it inaccessible for some people. But if you can afford it, it's worth the money. (Or try your luck for $25 tickets in the daily lottery.) Unlike the first time it came to town seven years ago, it is not completely sold out, although weekend tickets are scarce. Visit Hennepin Theatre Trust's page to find more info about how to get your ticket to this wonderful world of Oz.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

"Proof" at Bloomington Civic Theatre

I've attended a half dozen or so musicals at Bloomington Civic Theater and have always enjoyed what I've seen, but I've never been to their Black Box Theater to see a play. Bloomington is a bit of a drive from my home in the Northeast suburbs, so it took a special play to get me there for a non-musical. That play is Proof, my second favorite math play (the first being Tom Stoppard's Arcadia). Of course it's not really about math; math is the backdrop against which a very real and powerful story about family, identity, and metal illness is told. It's a beautifully written play (by David Auburn), and director Alan Sorenson and his able cast do a good job of bringing it to life. I was wiping away tears at several points during the play, which speaks to the emotions in the written words as well as in the performances.

Proof premiered on Broadway in 2000 and won the Tony for Best Play. I saw it on tour in 2002, which is proof (sorry) of it's popularity since Broadway plays don't go on tour as often as musicals. It tells the story of a young woman named Catherine whose father, a renowned mathematician, has just died. She took care of him in the final years of his life as his mental health deteriorated. In that time he filled 100 notebooks with gibberish, or is it mathematical genius? Similar to the movie A Beautiful Mind (based on the biography of mathematician Jon Nash), he sees patterns and codes everywhere, and it's difficult to decipher the difference between madness and genius. One of his former students, Hal, comes over to the house to go through the journals to see if there's anything of value. At the same time, Catherine's sister arrives from New York and tells her she's sold the house, and wants Catherine to move to New York with her. When Hal discovers one beautiful, complicated, ground-breaking proof, Catherine says that she wrote it. No one believes her since she's had little schooling; she dropped out of college to take care of her father. It's obvious she has inherited her father's mathematical skill, but has she also inherited his mental illness? That's the question that Catherine struggles with as she tries to figure out who she is without her crazy genius father to take care of and define her life.

This is Catherine's story, and Erin Mae Johnson is up to the task of conveying her varying emotions, from devastation at the loss of her father, to excitement at the possibility of new love, to betrayal when those closest to her don't believe in her. Scott Keely is excellent as her father, seen in flashbacks and hallucinations, becoming more and more unraveled as he descends further into his illness. Also good are Bailey Murphy as the businesslike sister who wants to wrap everything up neatly and move on with her life, and Zach Garcia as the enthusiastic math scholar Hal who befriends Catherine as he tries to glean something from what her father left behind.

Proof is a fantastic play, emotional and powerful and funny at times, presented nicely by BCT. You don't have to be a math nerd like me to enjoy it, but if you are, you'll learn some interesting facts about prime numbers and mathematician Sophie Germain, and enjoy a few inside jokes, like the one about a song called i. Proof is playing now through October 6 in BCT's Black Box Theater (discount tickets available at

Sunday, September 15, 2013

"Moon Show 143" at the Guthrie Studio Theater

"That was the most interesting and weird performance." I heard these words in the elevator ride down from the Guthrie's 9th floor Dowling Studio Theater, and I really can't think of a better or more succinct description of Moon Show 143. Seattle-based Kyle Loven brings his unique creation to the Guthrie for just four performances. He uses a combination of movement, puppetry, and sound to tell stories of the moon, without words. It's truly bizarre, at times perplexing, at other times beautiful.

Kyle is the main performer, joined by Paurl Walsh as a sort of D.J., mixing sounds electronically and providing sound effects. Dressed in black and with a face painted white, Kyle represents the moon in various forms. The piece is divided into four parts, as the large square metal frame is turned so that each side faces the audience, setting up a new scene. Various props hang from the frame, from articles of clothing to body parts to miscellaneous apparatus. The four stories show different sides of the moon. A sweet little boy puppet, represented by a head, hand, and Kyle's feet, learns the lesson "Don't point at the moon or the moon will cut your ears off." A man (a torso-only puppet) attempts to get to the moon using various techniques. The moon looks at herself in a mirror and is surprised by what she sees. An elderly couple rediscover their youth. Or at least that's what I got out of it; what's actually happening is a little unclear and open to interpretation, which is not a bad thing. It doesn't follow the usual structure of theater, so that the ending was unexpected and the audience seemed to linger for a bit, not really sure if it was over.

Moon Show 143 is definitely strange and bizarre, and not really my kind of theater, but it is quite captivating. It's creative and inventive, which I always admire, even if I don't quite get it. If you're looking for something out of the ordinary, this is it.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Patti LuPone in Concert at the Dakota Jazz Club

Broadway legend Patti LuPone brings her "Far Away Places" tour to the Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis, playing two shows each this Thursday and Friday night. I was fortunate enough to attend the first show on Thursday, and it was fantastic. I've seen her twice before - in Sweeney Todd on Broadway, and at Orchestra Hall a few years ago. Listening to her tonight I realized that she is truly a master of her craft, and her craft is telling stories. Each song she sings is like a little play that she performs, and when she's singing, you get the feeling that she believes every word. After over 40 years working on Broadway, she knows how to work a crowd and has supreme control over her instrument. She has a way of caressing a phrase that's so unique and utterly spellbinding.

The last time I saw Patti, at Orchestra Hall, I seem to remember that she sang mainly musical theater songs, so that's what I was expecting tonight. But this is a different concert. The only musical theater songs on the set list are "By the Sea" from Sweeney Todd and a few numbers from her most recent Broadway show (which she called was a daring misfire, and seemed to have great affection for), Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. The majority of the set list is comprised of standards, most of which I was unfamiliar with (my table mate* pointed out that several of them are Kurt Weill songs). While I was hoping that she would belt out a "Don't Cry for Me Argentina" or "Everything's Coming Up Roses," I couldn't possibly be disappointed. She sold me on every song she sang and had me completely hooked by her expressive and effortless delivery of these great songs, some fast and funny, some sad and beautiful. (She recorded this concert live at 54 Below, available here.)

Patti has two more shows Friday night at the Dakota (tickets available here); go check it out to witness a master at work in a lovely space (with delicious food and beverages available throughout the show). And if you're in the St. Cloud area, you can see her at my alma mater, St. Ben's, this Saturday night for her "Coulda, woulda, shoulda... played that role" concert (featuring more musical theater selections, click here for more info).

*By some stroke of good fortune I was seated at a table with Bain Boehlke, Artistic Director of the Jungle Theater, and frequent collaborator Wendy Lehr (soon to be playing the title role in Driving Miss Daisy at the Jungle). I'm happy to report that these two Ivey Lifetime Achievement Award winners are lovely people in addition to being talented theater artists. It was an extra treat to share this wonderful evening with them!

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

"Fool for Love" at the Jungle Theater

The Jungle Theater continues their excellent 2013 season, following the smart and sexy Venus in Fur, the thrilling Deathtrap, and the hilarious Urinetown with Fool for Love, an intense exploration of love, loss, and the complicated relationships of family. Written by Sam Shepard (see also True West), it's like a modern-day Western - stark and gritty and strangely beautiful. In a note in the playbill, director and set designer Bain Boehlke calls it "one of the greatest examples of theater poetry in the 20th Century," and after seeing it, that makes perfect sense. It's only an hour long (keep that in mind as you're paying your parking fee), but leaving the theater I felt like I had witnessed something epic. It's one of those theater experiences in which the world created is so real, so intense, that when the play is over, the lights come up, and you're spilled out onto the streets of the city, it's jarring. I found myself shaking my head in an attempt to readjust to my surroundings. Sitting there in the theater, the world of the play becomes the only reality, so that when it's over it's like a spell has been broken and you're not quite sure where you are or what just happened. This was perhaps the most gripping and intense hour of theater I've ever experienced.

The story centers on ex-lovers Eddie and May. After years of suffering in their tumultuous relationship, May has run away and taken up residence in a seedy motel. Eddie drives thousands of miles to find her and convince her to come back to him. She refuses, but can't bear for him to leave either. There's so much more to their relationship that unfolds over the hour. In the midst of it, May's date Martin shows up to take her to the movies, bringing the intensity to new heights. And through it all, an "old man" is sitting in a rocking chair on the side of the stage (and has in fact been sitting there since the theater doors opened), sometime telling stories, sometimes interjecting or commenting, even entering the action. There's a harsh realism to the play, even surrealism with this character who's sort of there, but not really. And there is a sort of beauty. At one point, Eddie tells a long story about a walk through town with his father in language that is beautiful, but in a stark, gritty, Larry McMurtry kind of way.

This four-person cast is totally in the moment and fully invested in their characters. Jennifer Blagen gives a fearless performance as May, swinging from one emotion to the next, about to crawl out of her skin. Terry Hempleman is intense and riveting as Eddie. Jason Peterson perfectly plays the nervousness and uncertainty of poor Martin, who doesn't know what he's gotten himself into. And Allen Hamilton is a little too creepy as that "old man" sitting just beyond the story but at the very center of it.

Jennifer Blagen, Allen Hamilton, and Terry Hempleman
The set is, as per usual at the Jungle, perfection. Grimy greenish walls surround the bare space, which holds only an iron frame bed, a table with two chairs, a bare light bulb, and a ceiling fan that looks like it hasn't worked in years. Lighting (by Barry Browning) and sound (by Sean Healey) add to the atmosphere, with strange and beautiful shadows cast on walls, and a loud thunderclap perfectly choreographed to every time someone slams a door or hits a wall (which happens often). Each character's wardrobe (by Amelia Cheever) perfectly suits them, from May's too short dress, to Eddie's blue jeans and duct-taped boots, to Martin's plaid pants and bolo tie. There's great attention to detail in every aspect, which creates a very real universe in which the story takes place.

This is a play I could definitely see again; it's just so full. (If only I weren't fully booked with theater for the next several weeks.) Sharply written, wonderfully acted, with detailed perfection in all elements of the production, it's a very rich hour of theater.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

"The Laramie Project" at Lyric Arts

I believe in the power of theater to change the world, and The Laramie Project is a great example of that. Shortly after the brutal murder of a young gay man named Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming, a theater company led by playwright Moises Kaufman went to Laramie and conducted over 200 interviews with the townspeople. In the midst of a media frenzy, they gave these people a voice, people who knew Matthew personally during his life or were affected by his death. They listened to them and told their story, as simple and profound as that. The result is a play called The Laramie Project, compiled from interviews, company members' journal entrees, and news reports. The play is not just about Matthew's life and death, and this unspeakable hate crime that sparked a national debate, but it also examines the anatomy of a town, a town that's just like any other town in America. It doesn't offer answers or reasons why, but it sheds light on what happened, allows these people's truths to be known and heard, and begins a dialogue that may eventually lead to healing. I believe that is the best that theater can be and do. Lyric Arts' new production, beautifully directed by Robert Neu and featuring a talented cast of 12 playing over 60 roles, does this story and the project justice. It's a story that continues to need to be heard.

Rather than a reenactment of events, the play is structured as a series of monologues, taken from actual interviews with the real people of Laramie. The theater company members also serve as characters in the play and as narrators, introducing each speaker. All of these interviews put together provide a narrative of events, as well as illustrate life in Laramie, a typical American college town, before and after the tragedy. The simple and bare sloped stage with 12 chairs allows space for the story to be told, as the actors move themselves and their chairs around the space in different formations.

the cast of The Laramie Project
There's not a lot of interaction between the characters, but the play still manages to give us several fully developed characters that we begin to care about. I hesitate to call out anyone in this beautiful cast because they all do a remarkable job creating several characters each, differentiated by a scarf, hat or glasses, or the tone of voice. But if I must mention a few, I will say that I was particularly moved by Ty Hudson as the charismatic bartender and one of the last people to see Matthew alive, Beth King as the strong but sensitive police officer first called to the scene of the crime, Corey Okonek as a friendly limo driver and Matthew's father, Emily Picardi as Matthew's spunky friend turned political activist Romaine Patterson, Jarome Smith as an enthusiastic theater student who was deeply affected by Matthew's story, and Debbie Swanson as two different college professors.

My first experience with The Laramie Project was a staged reading in October of 2008, the 10th anniversary of Matthew's death, directed by Peter Rothstein and featuring T.R. Knight and a cast of local talents. Matthew's mother Judy, who has turned her personal tragedy into a career in activism and righting the wrongs that lead to Matthew's death (including the passage of The Matthew Shepard Act in 2009), was in attendance that night. So I was fully aware what a powerful and important piece of theater this is, and I couldn't be more pleased that a community theater in Anoka is tackling this project and doing such a beautiful job. With the exception of some candlelight choreography at the end that went on a bit too long for me, the whole production is extremely well-done, from the simple set to the subtle intricacies of the costume changes to the sound and lighting setting the scene.

Two quotes from the people of Laramie stick with me. One is by Romaine, who said that the people of Laramie (and, I think, this country) need to own this tragedy and not just ignore it or pretend it didn't happen. Another character said about the perpetrators, "we don't grow children like that here, but obviously we do grow children like that here." At its best, theater can give us a forum to understand and explore the most difficult and important issues of our time, and that's what this play does. I highly recommend that people get out and see this important work of theater (playing at Lyric Arts now through Sept. 22); trust me, it's worth the drive to Anoka (discount tickets available on Goldstar).

Monday, September 2, 2013

Storyhill Fest 2013

Every year on Labor Day weekend, at a beautiful site in the wooded lakes area of central Minnesota, magic happens. It's been happening for five years now, and I've been lucky enough to be a part of it for four. This magic goes by the name of Storyhill Fest, and it's the best music festival in Minnesota (granted I've only been to a few music festivals, but I just can't imagine anything better). Local folk duo Storyhill (about whom Garrison Keillor recently said "setting a new high standard for male duet harmony") invite a dozen or so of their closest friends, who also happen to be incredible musicians, to hang out and play music for a few days. And lucky for us, we are invited to come and watch. Not just watch, but take part in, by participating in songwriting, guitar playing, or poetry workshops, joining in the nightly group campfire sing, or mingling with the artists between shows or in the food line. In short, it's my favorite weekend of the year. Connor Garvey (the fest's first act) summed it up best when he said, "we have made it through the year, all the meaningless days, and we're back at Storyhill Fest." That's exactly how I feel about it. Of course not literally (just scroll down this page to see the many meaningful ways in which I've spent the last year), but the sentiment is true. So without further ado, I present Storyhill Fest 2013.

The music started at 3 pm each day and the concerts continued hourly (or so) until Storyhill's show at 8 (or so), after which the music continued until the wee hours of the morning at the campfire. A dozen or so musicians performed at this year's festival, hailing from Maine, Texas, Nashville, L.A., Portland, Colorado, New Jersey, and right here in Minnesota. One of the cool things about this festival is that the artists all seem to be friends, and frequently join each other on stage to sing or play together. If you'd like to know more about a particular artist, please click their name to be taken to their website, where you'll find information about how to purchase music, see them perform live, or otherwise support them.

Connor Garvey
As previously mentioned, Connor Garvey opened the festival with some wise words and his wonderful music. I've been listening to Connor's music since I first heard him at my first Storyhill Fest three years ago. His songs are hopeful, thoughtful, clever, silly, or some combination thereof, and listening to his music just makes me happy. He's working on a new album (with the help of Kickstarter), so it was fun to hear some new stuff in addition to some old favorites. He brought his new toy, a looper, and sang a multi-part a cappella version of "Stand By Me" that was very cool. I also enjoyed his first "Irish Song," an amusing little ditty about embracing (or not) his heritage.

Cary Cooper and Tom Prasada-Rao
Next up was Cary Cooper, accompanied by her husband Tom on various instruments and Justin Roth playing percussion (more on him a bit later). She has a quirky sound, sometimes plays the ukulele, and sings funny or moving story-songs. Each song is preceded by an introduction telling the audience about how and why she wrote the song, which I always appreciate. My favorite was a song about a yellow VW bug. Cary recently participated in the TV docudrama Troubadour, TX, which I'm now going to have to check out.

Robby Hecht with The Sea, The Sea
One of the two emcees, the gorgeous-voiced Carrie Elkin (who, along with her poet singer fiance Danny Schmidt, performed on the newly added Friday night, which I sadly missed), introduced Robby Hecht as one of her favorite singers, with "a voice like butter." Coming from Carrie, that's high praise, and I have to agree. He has a beautiful, smooth voice, and his songs are sort of sad and wistful (a sound that I love). He was backed for a few songs by the duo The Sea, The Sea (more on them later too), creating some gorgeous three-part harmonies. Another highlight was a duet with Amy Speace that they co-wrote, a love song between the sea and the shore, which we fortunately got to hear again the next day during Amy's set. In the video below, Robby is joined by a bunch of other singers for "A Reckoning of Us."

At this point the outdoor segment of the day concluded as the rain came in (it might have been a "Good Rain," but we were not waiting for it). After about an hour's delay, the music continued in a covered pavilion, at which point the rain naturally stopped. But it turned out that the pavilion was a cozy and cool place to listen to music.

Tim and Kate (aka Sweet Talk Radio)
The first of several male/female duos that we would hear during the festival was Sweet Talk Radio. Tim and Kate have very different voices that blend together beautifully, and both play the guitar (Tim also backed up several other artists on the electric guitar). Kate has a very unique sound that I don't have words to describe, but my friend (who is more musically knowledgeable than I) said that she has a rich alto tone with some similarities to Billie Holiday. In fact, they sang a song called "Dance With Me" that they had been tasked with writing to sound like a well-known song, perhaps this one. Their newest album State of the Union is not about politics, but rather about relationships. They also sang a completely charming version of "If I Only Had a Brain."

Raina Rose lights up the pavilion
The last time I saw Raina Rose, at Storyhill Fest 2011, she was pregnant, and now she has the most adorable curly-haired little boy. But other than that, it was the same old Raina, which is to say a lovely, warm, lilting voice and beautifully written songs. Entertaining, personable, and a great storyteller, it's such a treat to listen to her, whether on her own or joined by Storyhill's Johnny or her good friend Carrie (on clarinet!). Her beautiful new album Caldera came out a few months ago.

ellis joined by Chris and Johnny
Past Storyhill Fest participant ellis was not officially on the schedule, but that didn't stop her from showing up when the guys called, sharing just a "sprinkle" of songs between sets. And I'm so glad she did. She has the most joyful spirit and conveys that joy through her music. Even my friend who had never seen or heard her before agreed that she's a unique spirit. She's completely disarming with her adorably awkward laugh, and sings songs that are both simple and profound. ellis radiates pure joy in a way I've never seen.

At this point we were about two hours behind schedule, but the evening concluded as planned with a nice long set by the stars of the weekend, Storyhill, and a shortened (at least for me) campfire session. The second day of Storyhill Fest 2013 was a welcome 20 degrees cooler than the first day, with no rain to speak of, so all concerts could be held outside under the partly cloudy sky, trees, birds, and later, stars.

Kim and Quillan Roe
The last time I saw day two's first artists, the Minnesota-based Roe Family Singers, they were performing with Dan Chouinard in his Trail of Two Cities concert last year. Husband and wife Quillan (banjo and guitar) and Kim (auto harp and Appalachian clog dancing) were accompanied by a couple of musicians on bass and fiddle. The band has a wonderful "old-time" sound, unique at the fest which mostly consisted of modern and traditional folk. And when they say "old time," they mean it; they sang a traditional song that was over 600 years old! With a mix of genre standards (like Bill Monroe and Johnny and June) and original tunes, delivered in a playful and engaging way, I found them to be quite enjoyable. See for yourself in this video of "Jackson."

Justin Roth
Justin Roth is another frequent Storyhill Fest participant, having known Chris and Johnny for 20 years, although he's missed the past few years. He's an incredibly talented guitar player, and the only artist to perform not one but two solo instrumental songs. Justin is also a great singer/songwriter, so much so that two of his songs have been featured on the number one soap opera (and my personal favorite) The Young and The Restless - "Surrender" and "Now You Know." (The intersection between folk music fans and soap opera fans may not be very big, but it includes at least one person.) He was joined on stage by several of his friends, creating gorgeous harmonies on the song "Shine."

Mira Stanley and Chuck E. Costa,
aka The Sea, The Sea
I first heard the duo The Sea, The Sea, consisting of Mira Stanley and Chuck E. Costa, on the radio show Mountain Stage a few months ago, and was instantly captivated by their sound. Knowing that they were on the Storyhill Fest line-up, I bought their one and only album and have been listening to it ever since. Unlike some of the other duos, Chuck and Mira have a very similar tone to their voices, so much so that in "Boat Song," when they sing alternate words, it almost sounds like one person singing. Maybe that's why when they sing harmony, it sounds so right. They're also multi-instrumentalists (electric and acoustic guitar, banjo, percussion). I look forward to hearing more from these young artists, who have written a palindrome song:

Amy Speace
And now - a theater connection! I loved listening to Amy Speace sing and tell stories, because she spent many years as an actor and playwright in NYC (-ish, aka New Jersey) before deciding to go the folk singer route. Her background in theater is obvious in the songs that she writes, which are like little plays in themselves, and she often talked about the play (mostly Shakespeare) that inspired the song. She also told us the beautiful and heart-breaking love story of her grandparents, that also inspired a song. And besides her songwriting skill and her great stage presence, she has a beautiful voice that's somewhat reminiscent of Judy Collins. No surprise that Ms. Collins chose her for her record label and covered one of her songs.

John Gorka sings as the sun sets
I feel like I must have seen Minnesota-based John Gorka before (possibly opening for Mary Chapin Carpenter or at a MPR Morning Show concert). I've certainly heard his music on Radio Heartland (the only radio station I listen to), and I love his cover of "Just Like a Woman" on Redhouse Record's Bob Dylan tribute. So I was looking forward to seeing him as the penultimate show of Storyhill Fest 2013, and I was not disappointed. With 11 albums (some of them recorded in the late 1900s), he was the most experienced musician to take the stage, and it was great to hear a selection of his many songs. In addition to these songs and his soothing mellow voice, he's incredibly entertaining and very funny; he had me cracking up for the whole show. He's quite the storyteller, and his light-hearted banter is a bit of a contrast to his admittedly more sober songs. John dedicated one of his songs to the other artists, and it perfectly describes Storyhill Fest: "when you sing, you make the world a better place."

Storyhill and friends
And now we come to the musicians for whom the festival is named - Storyhill. I've run out of words to describe how much I love their music, so I'll just say that they're my favorite local artists and I never tire of listening to their music. Whether I'm happy or sad or anything in between, listening to Storyhill always makes it better. Chris and Johnny have a decades-long camaraderie that is evident on stage, as if singing together has become second nature for them. As Garrison Keillor said, their harmonies are incomparable, and their songs are often nature-based and invoke feelings of wide open spaces (they grew up in Montana), wistful nostalgia, love, regret, simple joy, and even sometimes a spiritual connection to the universe. On the final night of the fest, the concert continued at the campfire, where they sang another half dozen or so songs, before other artists arrived and started trading songs across the campfire. The magic of Storyhill Fest is most evident at these campfires, with the unamplified music from voices and guitars ringing out into the clear Minnesota night air. There's nothing else like it.

Storyhill Fest has ruined me for all other concerts; any other venue pales in comparison to this festival. As usual, I left Deerwood with a handful of CDs to make the two-hour drive home a little more interesting, including some "new" Storyhill music - their 2005 cover album of 1970s duos, which I did not previously know existed (how I've lived this long without hearing Storyhill sing the Carpenters, I'll never know). I'll be downloading a few more albums this week I'm sure, as I try to make the magic last a little longer.

So there you have it. Storyhill Fest is over for another year, but it sounds like it's going to happen again next year. Until then, I'll have to find something else to do to fill the 360 or so meaningless days in between. Maybe some of these artists will be passing through Minnesota again in that time, and although they didn't mention it this weekend, Storyhill took the year off of touring to focus on writing for a new record that's supposed to come out next year, so hopefully I'll be seeing them before next fall. And besides that, I'm sure there will be some brilliant, innovative, moving, hilarious, entertaining, heart-breaking, fascinating, thought-provoking, unsettling, comforting, creative, heartfelt, amazing local theater to help me fill the time.

one of the benefits of staying in the VIP lodge
is a private Storyhill concert

View these and other concert videos on the Cherry and Spoon youtube channel. I also found some great Storyhill Fest videos here.