Monday, November 25, 2013

"2 Sugars, Room for Cream" at the Jerome Hill Theater

Coffee - it's the elixir of life, the glue that holds our society together. OK maybe that's overstating it a bit, but there's no question that coffee plays an important part in our work and social lives. Many important life events include the drinking of coffee - funerals, weddings, reunions, first meetings. How would we get through the work day without a coffee break? Such is the premise of the delightful sketch comedy show 2 Sugars, Room for Cream. In a series of short scenes, some of which are related, writers and performers Shanan Custer and Carolyn Pool explore the nature of life and relationships through encounters over coffee. The result is a funny, poignant, real, engaging, and completely delightful show. In fact, it's so delightful that it keeps returning after starting as a Fringe show several years ago. And Ivey voters agree - the show recently won an Ivey Award for last year's incarnation at Hennepin Theatre Trust's New Century Theatre. Even though I saw that production, I couldn't resist the chance to see it again (and yes, I am going to plagiarize myself).

Shanan and Carolyn are quite charismatic and funny together, with great chemistry whether they're playing sisters, friends who haven't seen each other in twenty years, or people who have just met. They create different characters just by putting on a different sweater or jacket (what Stacy and Clinton would call a "completer piece"). The show opens and closes with one of the two scenarios that are visited multiple times - two sisters at their Uncle Jimmy's funeral drinking bad church basement coffee. They discuss their family and their lives, as the celebration moves to one of the sisters' homes and the coffee makes way for 2 Gingers whiskey, and the next morning, more coffee is needed. The other scenario with multiple scenes is a high school reunion, where two women meet, with one of them clearly remembering their relationship while the other does not. Again, coffee turns into drinking in the car and flirting with former classmates, which turns into hanging out at an all-night Denny's. Other skits include a diner waitress and her needy customer, two new friends discussing how Twilight is damaging to young women (thank you!), a frazzled new mom crying about her baby's tiny head, a period piece set in the '40s, a college professor introducing her class, bosses and their assistants (separately) on a coffee break at work, and a woman recording a touching video for her unborn daughter about how she's going to raise her to be confident and proud of herself. Coffee-themed songs play during scene changes (many of which I know from this CD), and Carolyn and Shanan also sing a few original songs (written by Peter Moore and Drew Jansen).

Shanan and Carolyn are so natural on stage, and are obviously having such a great time, that the audience can't help but enjoy themselves as well. If you're looking for something to do this weekend post-turkey, check out the great deal on tickets at Goldstar and go see some original, creative, wonderfully entertaining and fulfilling theater at the Jerome Hill Theater in the gorgeous 180 East 5th Street building in downtown St. Paul.

Shanan Custer and Carolyn Pool

Sunday, November 24, 2013

"Christmas of Swing" at the History Theatre

The holiday season has begun, at least on theater stages across the Twin Cities. Since I was out of the country for the opening of the Guthrie's A Christmas Carol this year, my first taste of Christmas (other than the bitterly cold weather) is History Theatre's WWII-era musical review Christmas of Swing, featuring the Minnesota trio The Andrews Sisters. The return of this popular show is a fun and peppy showcase of 40s-era popular music (also featuring appearances by Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye), that incorporates real letters from WWII soldiers, paying homage to our veterans of this and other wars.

For the most part Christmas of Swing is a light-hearted show, with a few somber moments acknowledging the hardship of the soldiers. But The Andrews Sisters’ job was to entertain and uplift, not wallow in the sorrows of war, and that they do in abundance. The play, written by Bob Beverage and Artistic Director Ron Peluso, is set at a dress rehearsal for a 1944 Christmas Eve show at a VA Hospital for wounded soldiers. This allows us to see all of the great numbers, as well as witness the banter between the sisters and their band and manager between songs. It also has the light and easy feel of a dress rehearsal; the efforts of the cast do not seem labored, but loose and effortless.

Some highlights of the show are:
The Andrews Sisters (Ruthie Baker,
Stacey Lindell, and Jen Burleigh-Bentz)
read a soldier's (Bryan Porter) letter home
(photo by Scott Pakudaitis)
  • Ruthie Baker, Stacey Lindell, and Jen Burleigh-Bentz as the sisters Patty, Maxene, and LaVerne are just perfection in voice, movement, and personality, all of which blend together beautifully to create some tight harmonies and precise dance numbers. Ruthie gets most of the solos as lead singer Patty, but we also get a chance to hear the other ladies’ voices on their own, and all are lovely solo or in harmony.
  • Bill Scharpen channels Bing Crosby in songs such as "Christmas in Kilarney" and "Here Comes Santa Claus," and Eric Heimsoth does a wonderful impression of the lanky and goofy Danny Kaye.
  • Bill Scharpen also generates some laughs with Mark Rosenwinkel as the comedy duo Abbot and Costello.
  • Bryan Porter and Eric Heimsoth (again) portray many different soldiers as the sisters read their letters, bringing the desperation, longing, and joys of these long ago men to life.
  • The fairly simple set by Michael Hoover features some elaborate pieces that are wheeled out, including a sleigh and a huge two-sided cutout for an amusing number with the sisters and Danny Kaye.
  • The choreography by Jan Puffer is a highlight – fast, sharp, concise, with that 40s swing action, effortlessly performed by the cast.
  • The ever-busy Raymond Berg plays the piano while sitting in for the sisters' actual band leader Vic Schoen, leading the four-person band in a swingin' big band sound.
  • I'm a sucker for period costumes, and these costumes (by Kelsey Glasener) do not disappoint! I love the sisters' black dresses with varying-sized polka dots and red trim and shoes, accented with long black coats with fur trim, red jackets, or authentic military green jackets. The men (who, for a change, have to change costumes much more frequently than the women) are dressed in authentic period uniforms and suits, as well as costumes for their various roles in the show.
  • The sisters sing many Christmas songs, familiar and lesser known, and close the show with their most well-known song, the crowd-pleasing "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy." 
The History Theatre’s Christmas of Swing, playing now through December 22, is a great choice for a holiday show this year. Filled with the Christmas spirit (which I for one am not quite ready for, until Thanksgiving is over and/or we get our first big snowfall), humor, great songs and dancing, an energetic and entertaining cast, and respect for and celebration of vets, it’s a fun and feel-good show.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

"Rancho Mirage" at Old Log Theater

Mirage: noun. 1) an optical effect that is sometimes seen at sea, in the desert, or over a hot pavement, that may have the appearance of a pool of water or a mirror in which distant objects are seen inverted, and that is caused by the bending or reflection of rays of light by a layer of heated air of varying density. 2) something illusory and unattainable like a mirage.

The title of the new play Rancho Mirage by Steven Dietz refers to a gated community outside an unnamed city in a desert area. But the mirage in the title also refers to the lives of three couples. All three have a secret, whether it's financial troubles or marital troubles, that is slowly revealed throughout the course of the play, until they and we realize that their lives are not what they seem, but simply a mirage. Currently receiving its regional premiere at the Old Log Theater, which is under new management and quite obviously stepping up their game, Rancho Mirage is a darkly funny look at American life, embodied by a fantastic cast of local favorites (and one former TV star). It seems that there are now two theaters in the Southwest suburbs worth the drive from my home on the opposite side of town.

The entire play takes place at a dinner party (although no actual dinner is consumed) at the seemingly beautiful and perfect home of Diane (Stacia Rice, now acting opposite her second desperate househusband) and Nick (James Denton). Their guests are Louise (Ann Michels) and Trevor (David Mann), also residents of Rancho Mirage, and Pam (Mo Perry) and Charlie (Joshua James Campbell). The pleasant and friendly conversation among this group of friends soon gets real as it's revealed that Diane and Nick are about to lose their home, Louise and Trevor are separated, and Pam and Charlie are struggling with the decision about whether or not to have children (and in fact vacillate so much between the desire to enjoy their lives without children and a sense of obligation to follow their friends into the expected role of parents, that I had a hard time figuring out who these characters really were). Secrets, mishaps, stories, and arguments all unfold as these six people are forced to face the mirage of their lives. Diane poignantly sums it up when she says, "I used to think that our life was this beautiful thing that hasn't happened yet. But there is no other thing, our life is this." The good news is that now that they see through the mirage, they can work to make their lives more real. (Another way to say this is "no day but today."

Joshua James Campbell, Mo Perry, James Denton,
Stacia Rice, Ann Michels, and David Mann
I know and love all of these actors (although I'm more familiar with David as a director than an actor), so I'd drive across town to see this cast in anything. Stacia just shines in everything she does (including her role in the locally filmed web series Theater People), and brings depth to the conflicted Diane. Ann is very funny as this over-the-top character, constantly waving her arms and unintentionally insulting her friends. Mo is a master of the look (keep an eye on her as her character patiently waits to be poured a glass of wine). James has grown beyond his TV role into a legitimate member of the Twin Cities theater community (if only the audience would let him, they erupted in laughter so long when he uttered the word "housewives" that it threatened to derail the story, despite the cast's best efforts to keep it on track). Josh is charming as ever as the relatively naive Charlie, and David exhibits dry wit as everyman Trevor (who just happens to have taken up sewing). The cast works and plays well together in this ensemble piece, as directed by Artistic Director R. Kent Knutson.

Rancho Mirage continues through December 7. If you live in the Southwest suburbs, there's no reason not to check out the new Old Log Theater. I found it worth the drive to the charming lake town of Excelsior to see this fantastic cast in this very funny play. Old Log's season continues with A Year with Frog and ToadAlmost, Maine; and Steel Magnolias. I will definitely be keeping my eye on them.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

"Driving Miss Daisy" at the Jungle Theater

Most people are familiar with the 1989 Oscar-winning hit movie Driving Miss Daisy, starring Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman. But perhaps lesser known is the fact that it began as an Off-Broadway play (also starring Morgan Freeman), and earned playwright Alfred Uhry the Pulitzer Prize. This play about the 25-year friendship between a wealthy white woman and her black chauffeur in Atlanta during the middle part of the 20th Century is a gem of a play, worthy of the acclaim. The Jungle Theater's production, playing now through December 22, is perfectly cast, and is simply a beautiful 80 minutes of theater.

I'm sure you all know the story: 72-year-old widow Daisy crashes her car in the driveway, causing her son Boolie to hire her a driver despite her protestations. Hoke shows up at Daisy's home, unwanted by her, but she eventually allows him to drive her to the Piggly Wiggly, temple, family gatherings, and even a dinner honoring Martin Luther King, Jr. Over the years Daisy comes to rely on Hoke, and he becomes more than "the back of a neck" that she stares at in the car. This is a beautiful portrait of a true and lasting friendship, and an unlikely one at that. Quite simply, Daisy and Hoke are family, despite their differences.

Miss Daisy (Wendy Lehr) and Hoke (James Craven)
Wendy Lehr* and James Craven are both excellent as they physically and emotionally embody Daisy and Hoke, and have a wonderfully prickly and affectionate chemistry between them. They age 25 years in 80 minutes before our eyes, and do it gracefully and subtly, with a little more slowness and stiffness in each scene as time progresses. Charles Fraser completes this perfect trio as Boolie, with great love for and impatience with his mother and an unwavering Southern drawl. And like the slow Southern drawl, all of the actors take their time with the piece, nothing rushed or forced, but unfolding in due time.

The Jungle's Artistic Director Bain Boehlke* directs and designed the set, once again allowing for the perfect marriage of story and setting. Four chairs and a steering wheel at the front of the stage represent the car, where much of the drama occurs. The characters mime every window opening and door closing, perfectly timed with sound effects (by Sean Healey). To the right we see Boolie's office, and to the left Daisy's living room, both specifically populated with details. In the center is a video screen showing the car or location, occasionally marking the passage of time from 1948 to 1973. All of these pieces are joined together with a theme of latticework, creating a charming Southern home.

The Jungle Theater's Driving Miss Daisy is a compact and emotionally powerful 80 minutes of theater. Completely engrossing, funny, heart-warming, and utterly charming. Warning: you might want to bring tissues.

*I had the great pleasure of being seated next to Wendy and Bain at the Patti LuPone concert at the Dakota a few months ago. It truly was one of the theatrical highlights of the year for me, to spend a little time with and chat with these two local theater legends.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

"For Sale" by The Moving Company at the Lab Theater

There's a property For Sale at 700 North 1st Street in Minneapolis. Features include: two multi-stall half-baths, 12,000 square feet of space, possible ghosts, genuine Virginia brick, one of two staircases safe for use, an intercom system (that is not as easy to use as you might think), a mail chute, an alley with a tree, and a friendly history-buff caretaker. Trusty realtor Dick Richards and his number two Margie of Dick Richards Realty (keepin' it real!) want to sell it to you! They're holding an open house several nights a week through November 24 and will be happy to walk you through the space and share some development ideas - the possibilities are endless (fitness center, nursing home, end-of-world bunker, farm-to-table restaurant, or just tear it down and build anything!). It's a steal at any price!

Such is the premise of The Moving Company's new original creation For Sale. This is a theater company whose every show I have to see. I never know what to expect (it could be sweet and lovely, or crazy and over-the-top, or a combination of the two), but I'm always entertained by what I find. For Sale falls into the crazy category; it's simply a lot of fun, and definitely unlike anything I've seen before (which is pretty much a MoCo guarantee).

who wouldn't want to buy a building from these two?
The evening is set up as described above, with the audience walked through the gorgeous space at the Lab Theater. Our guides are Dick Richards (Luverne Seifert) and Margie (Sarah Agnew). They have all sorts of things planned - a power point presentation, the pontoon of possibility, fresh-baked cookies, and musical numbers. Unfortunately things don't run as smoothly as they had planned, and we learn a little too much about Dick's personal life (hint: it's not going well). I don't want to give too much away because part of the fun is not knowing what's coming next, but I must mention a musical theater moment that is completely inexplicable, but that I absolutely loved.

This is an unconventional show, but don't be scared, it's not really interactive, you won't be asked to do anything other than walk around and point an arrow. And with the comic genius that is Luverne Seifert, and the fantastic and fully committed actor Sarah Agnew, you're in good hands. Also look for inspired appearances by Chrissy Taylor and Nathan Keepers (who also directs, and co-wrote the piece with Steve Epp).

The Lab Theater is the perfect space for this piece; I don't think it would have worked as well anywhere else. It's as bare as I've seen it, covered in plastic and with just a few items scattered around. They make great use of the space (although I was hoping to get a tour of some of the unseen parts of the building). If you've never been to the Lab before, it's worth seeing the show just to get an up close and personal look at it. If this building really were for sale and I won the lottery, I would buy it, it's a gorgeous space and I have seen much amazing theater there.

If you're looking for a fun and unconventional theatrical experience, a little wacky but highly entertaining, look no further than For Sale by The Moving Company, playing now through November 24 (and wear comfortable shoes - you will be on your feet for a good part of the show).

"Skiing on Broken Glass" at the Guthrie Theater

A hit 2010 Minnesota Fringe show is currently being remounted in a full production in the Guthrie's Dowling Studio Theater. The Guthrie's Artistic Director Joe Dowling* saw Skiing on Broken Glass at the Fringe and has worked with writer David Goldstein over the last few years to develop it into this expanded version, adding characters and developing relationships. The result is a tragically beautiful love story between two very different people who need each other. With a fantastic four-person cast of three Guthrie veterans and one welcome newcomer, this is a wonderful production of a great new play.

In the first scene of the play, we meet Mark (Michael Booth), a successful writer in his 40s still grieving the loss of his partner 12 years ago. He has "accidentally" brought home a young prostitute named Todd (David Darrow), and the two develop a relationship that progresses over the next several years (with the time displayed on the wall at the beginning of each scene). Mark offers Todd kindness when he's in trouble, and the two eventually discover that they love and need each other. Their relationship is complicated by the fact that Todd continues to work as a prostitute despite Mark's suggestion that he go back to school, as well as Mark's discomfort in introducing his new young boyfriend to his successful established friends. His good friend Edith (Michelle O'Neill, who directed the Fringe production) visits from London and tells Mark exactly what she thinks of Todd - that he's taking advantage of him and it can't possibly be love. She introduces her fiance Thomas (Bill McCallum) to Mark and Todd, which adds another layer of complication and tragedy. Even though none of their friends quite understand, these are two lonely and broken souls who need something the other can give. Even though they may not be able to stay together, they've changed each other's lives for good, and I think, for the better.

Mark and Todd in a happy moment (Michael Booth and
David Darrow, photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp)
Michelle gives a wonderful performance as the woman concerned for her friend, as does Bill as the stuffy Englishman who turns into something more sinister. But the play belongs to Michael and David as they beautifully portray this complicated relationship. Michael reveals layers of Mark as he tries to see in Todd what he wants to see, and slowly accepts who he is. The highlight of the show for me is an incredibly emotional and raw performance from David Darrow. He's a true talent, and now that he's made his debut at the Guthrie I think we'll be seeing a lot more of him on the Guthrie stages (the shirtless scenes are a great audition for the role of Spike!).

The black box studio is set up in my favorite arrangement and the one that feels the most intimate, with audience on three sides of the square stage, mimicking the Guthrie's thrust stage. I think this is my favorite of the five Michael Hoover sets I've seen in the last month - a gorgeous Frank Lloyd Wright-esque home, with a living room I'd like to live in and stairs to a second floor with multiple doors.

Skiing on Broken Glass continues through November 17 in the Guthrie studio. I really loved this play; I think it's so beautiful and heart-breaking, well-written with strong acting from the four-person cast. The playwright says it best in a note in the playbill:
Skiing on Broken Glass is about following your heart though others may judge you harshly. Ultimately, there is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to the people we love and the relationships we pursue. And it's about the bounds of friendship and the responsibilities that come with it. 
At its most basic level, Skiing on Broken Glass is about the universal need to give and receive love, to have profound and selfless feelings for another person in the deepest recesses of our hearts. It is about love in all its forms: healing and hurting. Lost and mourned, Bought and sold. Vulnerable and irrational. Selfish and unconditional. Love as a weapon. Love as salvation.

*Read this interview with Joe Dowling for more about the development process and casting.

"The Last Five Years" by Flip Theatre Company at the Minneapolis Theatre Garage

The Last Five Years is a two-person musical by acclaimed composer Jason Robert Brown* that had it's off-Broadway debut in 2002. It's come to the forefront again this year with an off-Broadway revival and an impending movie. It also happens to be one of the favorite musicals of my blogger friend Bartley, aka The Playbill Collector, so I was eager to see the local production of the show by one of the newest theater companies in town, Flip Theatre Company, founded by actor Ben Bakken and director John Lynn (who directs this piece). I went into it knowing next to nothing about the show and never having heard the music, which is often a great way to experience a musical. I really enjoyed it - it's a beautiful score, with a sad love story (my favorite kind), two great performers, and a very well done production.

The Last Five Years tells the story of a relationship in a unique way. Cathy beings at the ending of this intense five-year relationship, when the two have decided to go their separate ways, and song by song works back to the beginning. Jamie starts at the beginning, when their love is fresh and new, and works his way through the hard times to the end. They meet in the middle at their engagement/wedding, and for one brief moment we see couple on the same page, together and happy. Otherwise it's a one-sided story, with the other person either off-stage or sitting quietly in the shadows, simply a prop but not reacting. It's an interesting and innovative way to tell a story. But because the two never really interact, I had a hard time really feeling their connection or understanding why and how it was broken.

Britta Ollmann (Cathy) and Bobby Gardner (Jamie)
(photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp)
I'm thrilled to see the return of Britta Ollmann to the Twin Cities stage. She was in one of my favorite shows of 2010Violet, and when she sang I was taken right back there to that show.  Britta is so appealing with a strong, gorgeous, clear voice. She sings with emotion that cuts right to the heart, whether sad or happy or trying to convince herself that she's happy, so I easily sided with Cathy in the break-up. Bobby Gardner also sounds great as Jamie but I found his character less sympathetic (a newly married man complaining about all the beautiful women hitting on him is not going to garner sympathy from female audience members), but he almost won me over with the heartbreaking "Nobody Needs to Know." I've never heard any of these songs before but they're great - emotional or funny, hopeful or despairing. I think I need to listen to the score a few more times to truly appreciate them.

The music sounds great with the fabulous five-piece band directed with energy and precision by Jason Hansen, as always. But I wish the actors weren't miked. Maybe there are technical reasons involving the band that require them to be miked, but in the small space of the Garage with an intimate show like this, the story might be better served with no amplification. It's so rare that a musical is unmiked, but I find there's a much greater emotional impact when there's no amplification to come between the story and the audience (see Ordinary Days by Nautilus Music-Theater, which admittedly is a smaller space with just a piano accompaniment).

They've made great use of the space at the Theatre Garage, which has become one of my favorite places to see theater. The on-stage band is separated from the action by a bunch of empty frames hanging in mid-air. Two city stoops with doors are converted into a pier or a mantel, and various other set pieces are brought in for certain scenes. There are a lot of moving pieces but it's done relatively smoothly, keeping the momentum going through the scenes. The fast and frequent wardrobe changes (costumes by Suzanna Schneider) help to convey the progression of time.

This is a promising debut by Flip Theatre, and I look forward to their next venture. I hope they continue to do small, intimate, lesser-known musicals with a high-quality production, like The Last Five Years. This is a short run - just two weekends - so get there fast if you're interested (discount tickets available on Goldstar).

*This summer, the Guthrie commissioned musical theater composer Jason Robert Brown to write a song for their 50th anniversary. "Hamlet 3.2" was performed at the Gala Performance by Brian D'Arcy James and an ensemble of local talent, and it was fantastic.