Sunday, December 29, 2013

2013 Twin Cities Theater Wrap-up

It's that time of the year again, time to reminisce about some of the amazing theater experiences I had in 2013. And since this is the first year in the past 13 that I haven't made a trip to NYC, everything I saw was right here in Minnesota. This year I saw over 120 locally produced plays, musicals, dance shows, and even an opera (not counting the nine touring shows and 25 Fringe Festival shows I saw). They range from Aida to Yellow Fever (alphabetically) and from Aida to All is Calm (chronologically; in a strange sort of symmetry, my first and last shows of the year were both Theater Latte Da and Hennepin Theatre Trust collaborations at the Pantages). These shows represent over 50 of our fabulous local theater companies at about 50 different venues, from a small intimate audience of 25 people in the magnificent James J. Hill house, to the 2500-seat historic Orpheum Theatre. So without further ado (and in alphabetical order), these are some of my favorite theatrical experiences of this year (click on the title to read my full thoughts on each show).

The first on my alphabetical list, I'm including The Big Lowdown (a co-production of Bedlam Theatre and Live Action Set) because it’s different than any other theater I've ever experienced: a walking tour of St. Paul’s Lowertown neighborhood with surprise performances of dance, music, puppetry, and theater around every corner and hidden in every shadow. A truly magical and wonderfully unique evening.

I saw some great stuff at the History Theatre this year, including a surprisingly compelling story of two Minnesota Supreme Court justices, Courting Harry. But my favorite was the Baby Case, a musical about the Lindbergh baby kidnapping. Except that it wasn't really about the kidnapping, it was about the media circus that surrounded it, that is only different from today's media circus in terms of format and quantity. With wonderful double-lead performances by Peter Middlecamp and Kendall Anne Thompson, a fantastic ensemble, great original music and choreography, I found it to be "funny, moving, entertaining, informative, relevant, thought-provoking, and with tunes you will leave the theater humming."

I agree with the Ivey voters about the Guthrie's Clybourne Park – a wonderful cast of mostly familiar faces in a brilliantly written Tony-winning play that strikes at issues of race, class, and gender. Sometimes it's a good thing when theater makes you uncomfortable, in this case it's very good. (Other favorite Guthrie shows include: Born Yesterday, Other Desert Cities, Skiing on Broken Glass, and Tribes)

Compulsion or the House Behind by Minnesota Jewish Theater was a fascinating look at a Jewish American writer largely responsible for making Anne Frank's diary known to the world. But the story is not that simple, as his obsession takes over every aspect of his life. A complex true story brought to life by an excellent three-person cast and a truly innovative use of puppetry.
In a year of producing only plays written by women (proving once again that their commitment to diversity isn't just so many pretty words), Mixed Blood presented some great work, including the smart and funny dark comedy Elemeno Pea. But I was most impressed by the ambitious trilogy of plays Displaced Hindu Gods by Aditi Kapil. Three completely different plays built around similar themes, with excellent overlapping casts highlighted by a funny, heartbreaking, and vulnerable performance by Debargo Sanyal as an intersex stand-up comic. This was the only time outside of the Fringe Festival that I've seen three plays in one day, and it was quite a glorious marathon of theater.

Gremlin Theater concluded their run in their space on University in St. Paul with the excellent The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds (they are currently without a permanent home but plan to produce work at other locations beginning early next year). This was one of those experiences in which I didn't know anyone in the cast and had no idea what the play was about, and was blown away. I can't even think about it without starting to tear up. This heartbreakingly beautiful tale of a seemingly awful mother who loves her daughters desperately but doesn't know how to love them hit me right in the gut.

The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical Hair is one of my favorite musicals, and one of the most important in the history of musical theater. This summer it was brought to life by 7th House Theater Collective, a brand new company of some of the most talented young musical theater actors in town (including rising superstars Cat Brindisi and David Darrow). This was a raw and intimate version of the trippy and profound creation that is Hair.

Lyric Arts' The Laramie Project was an all-around beautiful production. This community theater in the suburbs presented an important work of theater that deals with the difficult issue of hate crimes, as well as how art can be used to process, heal, and teach. After seeing this play I wrote, "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." Well done, Lyric Arts.

Everything Bloomington Civic Theatre did this year was excellent (see also Singin’ in the Rain and Cabaret), but I particularly loved their rich production of the epic musical Les Miserables. With a terrific cast led by one of my favorite actors Dieter Bierbrauer as Valjean, and Anita Ruth's big beautiful pit orchestra, I came to appreciate this classic in a way I never had before.

I saw two productions of American playwright Eugene O'Neill's autobiographical masterpiece Long Day's Journey Into Night this year, both within a few weeks of each other. The Guthrie's production was beautiful and completely satisfying, but then I saw The Gonzo Group's production in the great hall of the James J. Hill House. The perfect marriage of story and location, with a real-life family standing in for O'Neill's family (husband and wife Richard Ooms and Claudia Wilkins, and their son Michael Ooms), and an audience of just 25, I felt as if I were an uncomfortable guest in the Tyrone's tragic family home.

In a year full of wonderful one-man shows (see also Sam Landman in Thom Pain (based on nothing), Stephen Yoakum in An Iliad, and Wade Vaughn in Cul-de-Sac), one stands out clearly in my memory. Frank Theatre's production of the Irish playwright Enda Walsh's Misterman was a wild and crazy ride through the mind of one disturbed but sympathetic man. The brilliant performance by John Catron was matched by the detailed set (I’ve never seen the usually sparse Southern Theater look so cluttered) and sound design (many recordings of different voices playing on cue). A complicated combination of elements that fit together seemingly effortlessly.

Theater Latte Da had a strong year of regular programming (including Aida, Light in the Piazza, Steerage Song, and All is Calm), but what I loved best was their new works series NEXT: New Musicals in the Making. They presented staged readings of three new music-theater pieces, all so different and so wonderful in their own way. When the Moon Hits Your Eye is a play about eccentric characters living in a NYC neighborhood with a diverse selection of songs. C. is a new musical adaptation of the classic French play Cyrano de Bergerac, written by and starring the multi-talented Bradley Greenwald (with music by Robert Elhai). Finally, Bessie's Birthday is an expanded version of a short piece presented in 2009, a funny and poignant musical about a quirky family in Wisconsin. When I’m dismayed by the proliferation of inane movies being turned into a musicals, Theater Latte Da gives me hope for the future of musical theater.

Speaking of original musical theater, there is Ordinary Days. I absolutely loved Nautilus' production of this musical in a series of vignettes about the intersecting life of four New Yorkers. Listening to four fantastic voices (belonging to Jill Anna Ponasik, Kristen Rodau, Doug Sholz-Carlson, and Max Wojtanowicz) with no amplification in a small intimate space was thrilling. It filled me with the pure joy than only truly good musical theater can.

Another entry in the category of the new original musical is Yellow Tree Theatre's Stay Tuned, featuring music by one of my favorite local musicians, Blake Thomas (when he's not composing for musical theater, he's a pretty amazing country singer/songwriter). I wrote at the time, "Stay Tuned is a charming story about American music and its changing forms (from radio and record albums to podcasts and downloads) with really lovely and diverse original music performed by talented singer/actor/musicians."

A great year at Park Square Theatre (see also the funny and intense Good People and the delightful baseball musical Johnny Baseball) was highlighted by Stick Fly, one of those dysfunctional family stories that are so compelling to watch, as they delve into issues of race, class, gender, education, and relationships with smart and fast dialogue. In short, "This is a smart, engrossing, challenging (with several jaw-dropping moments of - they did not just say that!), thought-provoking, emotional, funny, and very real play."

Ten Thousand Things does theater like no other, and everything they do is top-ten-list-worthy. I really loved their brilliant Greek tragedy as hip-hop musical The Seven, but my favorite of their work this year is A Streetcar Named Desire. It's a play I've seen several times before, but never quite like this. In typical TTT fashion, it's stripped down to the bare essentials, with the awesome four-person cast (particularly Kris Nelson as the brutish Stanley and Austene Van as the fragile Blanche) fully embodying these classic characters in Tennessee Williams' gorgeous Southern tragedy. It was "a brutally real and emotionally affecting two hours that's at times difficult to endure. Seeing Williams' tragic story so up close and personal is almost too much to bear. In other words - they did it right."

This was another strong year for the Jungle Theater. I could put every one of their five shows on this list, but I'll narrow it down to Urinetown (an absolutely fantastic ensemble cast led by the always wonderful Bradley Greenwald, interesting and intriguing choreography, smart and funny lyrics, and just plain fun) and Venus in Fur (Anna Sundberg and Peter Christian Hansen in a smart, sexy, funny, Tony-winning play, what more do you need to know?). Although I also loved the tense thriller Deathtrap, the gripping Fool for Love, and the absolutely lovely Driving Miss Daisy. The Jungle is at the top of its game.

Besides these favorite local shows, two events this year deserve special mention. The Guthrie Theater celebrated its 50th anniversary with an amazing concert called BEHOLD featuring beloved Guthrie vets in person (Peter Michael Goetz!) and on video (Christopher Plummer!) as well as theater greats (Whoopi Goldberg descending from the ceiling! Brian D'Arcy James singing a song written by Jason Robert Brown just for the occasion!). It was a truly wonderful celebration of the Guthrie Theater and our outstanding theater community.

Of the non-local shows that I saw this year, I was most touched by Billy Crystal's one-man show 700 Sundays, in a short run at the State Theatre before its return to Broadway. I was expecting a laugh riot, and it was that, but I wasn't expecting it to be so incredibly moving. Billy was extremely personal and vulnerable, and opened himself and his life up to share with the audience - truly beautiful and special.

Every year I pick a few of my favorite artists, not for just one performance, but for multiple remarkable works throughout the year. I really struggled with my choices this year; my list of favorites is long and there are so many artists whose work I loved this year. But in the end I narrowed down to these few:

She may be the daughter of Twin Cities theater royalty (Dad is the Chanhassen's Artistic Director Michael Brindisi, Mom is the fantastic actor Michelle Barber), but Cat Brindisi is a true talent in her own right. Here are a few things I've written about her this year: "never less than 100% committed to whatever character she's inhabiting" (Displaced Hindu Gods); "if I were casting someone to play me in a musical, I'd pick Cat too!" (Fruit Fly); "someday when Cat Brindisi wins her first Tony Award, I'll be sitting at home on my couch cheering her on and remembering the day I heard her sing "Easy to be Hard" in a sweaty little garage space in Minneapolis" (Hair); and "Simply put, Cat Brindisi is a star" (Aida). I look forward to what she will show us in 2014 and beyond.

The Artistic Director of Gremlin Theatre (see Gamma Rays above), Peter Christian Hansen, had a great year on several stages around town (including three of my favorite shows listed above). First was the smart and sexy Venus in Fur at the Jungle, followed by a short and sweet play about Minnesotans in the Civil war, put on by the Minnesota History Center and reuniting him with his Venus co-star Anna Sundberg (who, by the way, was one of my favorite artists of 2011). He played two roles in the Ivey-winning Clybourne Park at the Guthrie, and also appeared in two of the three plays in the Displaced Hindu Gods trilogy at Mixed Blood. He's always so compelling on stage, and I always enjoy the Gremlin's work, so I hope to see more of both of them in 2014. (You can see Peter next as C.S. Lewis in Freud's Last Session at the Guthrie in February.)

2013 was the year of Sally Wingert (but isn't every year?). At the Guthrie she played the mother of not one but two deliciously dysfunctional modern families (in Other Desert Cities and Tribes), a 19th century Russian mother trying to marry off her daughter well (The Primrose Path), and two very different aunties in one play (Pride and Prejudice). The cherry on the sundae of her work this year was her very funny and very real portrayal of the title character in Dark & Stormy's darkly funny The Receptionist. Oh, and did I mention she also gracefully hosted BEHOLD (along with Greta Oglesby)? Not a bad year's work. (Next up: Fraulein Schneider in Theater Latte Da's Cabaret.)

One of the stars of Ordinary Days (see above), Max Wojtanowicz shined in this and several other projects on and off stage. On stage he was a member of the ensemble of the delightful baseball musical Johnny Baseball at Park Square, and also played a rare serious non-musical role in the clever Six Characters in Search of an Author at the Gremlin. But even more impressive is his creative work. The charming autobiographical musical Fruit Fly that he wrote with best friend Sheena Janson was presented as part of Illusion Theater's Fresh Ink series, in which he also starred. Lastly, he was one of the brains behind the hilarious political satire musical Shelly Bachberg Presents: How Helen Keller and Anne Frank Freed the Slaves: The Musical at this summer's Fringe (with music by Michael Gruber for both musicals). He's a great talent onstage and behind the scenes, with more to come I'm certain.

Lastly, my "one to watch" of 2013 is Bryan Porter. I didn't know who he was a year ago, but I've seen him five times this year on five different stages around town, which is a credit to his talent and his commitment. He's endlessly watchable, whether he's portraying Cliff in Cabaret at BCT, a reality TV producer in Six Characters in Search of an Author at the Gremlin, multiple characters in Walking Shadow's Gross Indecency and History Theatre's Christmas of Swing, or a mysterious prince in Sherlock Holmes at Park Square. And he has a lovely voice (see him next in the Ordway's Broadway Songbook in January). I think he has great potential and I look forward to watching him grow on stages around the cities.

That's it, my friends. The year that was in Twin Cities theater. And it was grand, wasn't it? I'm looking forward to even more great theater in the coming year, and I'm particularly excited about 2014 because I've decided to cut back on my hours at my "day job" so that I have more time to spend on Cherry and Spoon, and perhaps grow and expand it. I have a few ideas of things I'd like to do, but I'd love to hear your feedback. What would you like to see on Cherry and Spoon? What do you love, what do you think could improve? Comment below, send me a Facebook message, or email me. Thanks for your support, and I wish you a Happy New Year filled with health, joy, and much wonderful theater.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Top 15 Cherry and Spoon Posts of 2013

I never know when something I write is going to "go viral" (for me that means a few hundred page views, not a few million). I'm as surprised as anyone when I compile the list of Cherry and Spoon posts that have received the most views this year. Which one was your favorite? I'm kind of partial to BEHOLD. What an incredibly special night! And I'm glad I have this written account (with photos) to aid my failing memory.

Here are most viewed Cherry and Spoon posts of 2013:

  1. Hello, Dolly! at Lyric Arts
  2. My 2013 Fringe Festival Must-See List
  3. Aida by Theater Latte Da at the Pantages Theatre
  4. I Love to Eat at Illusion Theater
  5. Broadway Songbook: The Words and Music of Cole Porter at the Ordway McKnight Theatre
  6. Deathtrap at the Jungle Theater
  7. BEHOLD: 50th Anniversary Gala Performance at the Guthrie Theater
  8. Death of a Salesman at Lyric Arts
  9. Lot of Living to Do by Collide Theatrical Dance Company at the Southern Theater
  10. The Last Five Years by Flip Theatre Company at the Minneapolis Theatre Garage
  11. The Laramie Project at Lyric Arts
  12. Power Balladz at the Chanhassen Dinner Theatres
  13. Taming of the Shrew and Twelfth Night by Propeller Theatre Company at the Guthrie Theater
  14. Stay Tuned at Yellow Tree Theatre
  15. Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at the Chanhassen Dinner Theatres

Saturday, December 21, 2013

"All is Calm" by Theater Latte Da at the Pantages Theatre

If you see one Christmas-themed theatrical event this year, let it be All is Calm. Unlike most Christmas shows, there is not a red and green banner, brightly wrapped present, or figgy pudding in sight. It does not present the usual frenetic cheery energy associated with the holiday. Instead it is quiet and lovely, joyous and melancholy, celebrating a remarkable event when soldiers put down their weapons and shared the spirit of peace across enemy lines for one brief and beautiful moment. Created by Peter Rothstein and presented annually by Theater Latte Da and Hennepin Theatre Trust, All is Calm tells the story of the 1914 Christmas Truce during the first year of WWI, in which soldiers along both sides of the trenches on the Western Front stopped fighting and met in no man's land to exchange photos and stories, bury the dead, play football, and sing carols. This story is told simply on a bare stage with only some wooden platforms and crates as set pieces, with three actors bringing to life the words from actual letters, articles, and other historical documents, illuminated by songs performed by the marvelous nine-man a capella vocal ensemble Cantus. It's a perfect marriage of music and storytelling, not the story of specific people or characters, but rather the story of peace in the midst of war. What better representation of the spirit of the season?

The piece runs a short 75-minutes, a seamless flow from beginning to end. The songs are structured to tell the story of young men enthusiastically heading off to war, experiencing the fear and drudgery that is the reality of war, finding a brief reprieve one snowy Christmas day, and then being reluctantly forced back to reality as the cease-fire ends. Traditional British, French, and German Christmas carols like "Good King Wenceslas," "Bring a Torch, Jeannette, Isabella," and "Es ist ein Ros entsprungen" (one of my favorites), are combined with war songs both spirited and somber. The songs are perfectly chosen to evoke the feeling at each point in the story, and complement the words spoken by the actors sporting a wide variety of accents (Matt Rein, David Roberts, and Alan Sorenson).

If you've never seen Cantus before, you are in for a treat. They are nine gorgeous voices perfectly blended in multi-layered harmony so beautiful, it's tempting to just close your eyes and let it wash over you (purchase music here, including the soundtrack of All is Calm). But the men of Cantus are not just singers here, they're actors as well as they play the parts of soldiers. Actors and singers are dressed alike in warm black layers, adding hats and gloves as the weary night continues. They fill the space in beautifully staged movement, sometimes standing at attention, sometimes laughing and joking and shaking hands.

All is Calm is one of those shows that induces a trance-like state, aided by the fact that it's constructed with no applause breaks. The cycle of song - applause - song - applause can break the flow of the story, and there's none of that here. Just one long swell of music, words, and emotion. When the show was over, the trance continued as I walked out into the dark night with snow softly falling, the strains of "peace on earth" reverberating in my ears, the lovely and bittersweet feeling of the show remaining with me. This is the third time I've seen the show, and I think I love it more each time I see it. Only four performances remain, two today and two tomorrow. Take a break from the frantic holiday season to soak in the peace and beauty of All is Calm.

Friday, December 20, 2013

"The Phantom of the Opera" at the Orpheum Theatre

Before this week, I'd never seen "the most popular musical of all time," Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera (it's the longest running show in Broadway history and has the largest worldwide gross of any musical). I was strangely proud of this; to me Phantom represents everything I don't like about musical theater - over-the-top, melodramatic, set-heavy and plot-light. But I decided I should see it at least once to prove my assumptions right or wrong. I'm glad I saw it and it was quite a sight to see, but in short, it was pretty much as I expected. A lavish spectacle of a production with amazing sets and costumes (and yes, the famous chandelier doing tricks), a little hard to follow, a little slow and draggy in parts, but with some beautiful musical moments.

If you have seen Phantom before, this show will be new to you; it's a new production of the 27-year-old musical about an angry disfigured man who haunts an opera house and falls in love with an ingenue, making her a star, but at a terrible cost. But since I've never seen the show before, I can't speak to what has changed, only what I saw. So let's break it down:

The good:
  • Hearing those famous organ chords that begin the title song is nothing less than thrilling. The pit orchestra is pretty fantastic in general, and the three most well-known songs are beautifully performed (the title song, "Music of the Night," and "All I Ask of You").
  • The costumes are stunning, the women in their bustled hoop-skirted confections good enough to eat, and the men in white tie and tails (even the Phantom, despite living in a dungeon, manages to look pristine and elegant). The masquerade ball is also great fun. (Costume design by Maria Björnson.)
  • The set pieces are technically amazing. Yes the chandelier drops (I was really glad I wasn't sitting directly under it!) and throws off sparks, but even more impressive is the huge rounded wall that slowly turns around the stage to reveal different sides and hidden rooms, with stairs appearing out of nowhere. (Set design by Paul Brown.)
  • All of the members of the cast give committed performances, including Mark Campbell as the tender-hearted monster, Julia Udine as his obsession Christine, and Ben Jacoby as her suitor Raoul. But my favorite is Jacquelynne Fontaine, who is quite fabulous as the resident diva who gets upstaged by the young Christine.
The bad:
  • While I do love spectacular sets and gorgeous costumes, they alone do not make a show. I found the plot a little hard to follow (a little more dialogue would be nice) and slow in parts, and I never really understood who the Phantom was and how he became who he was (a psychically deformed man somehow became a learned scholar and artist, then was caged in a traveling circus, and then escaped to haunt an opera house?).
  • Other than the three well-known songs, I didn't love the score, but it skews a little toward the opera side which is not my favorite.
  • It's sooooo melodramatic. Lighten up a little! To quote the wacky and wonderful musical Xanadu, "What is the word for which I search? You know, when something is so grand and so earnest yes ultimately so preposterous that one has to laugh. What does one call that? Andrew Lloyd Webber." The Phantom of the Opera is very grand and very earnest.
The ugly:
  • The Phantom. He seems mysterious and handsome with the mask on, until it comes off to reveal his heavily scarred face and whispy white hair. Still, I felt for him, he's not such a bad guy.
If you're someone who loves The Phantom of the Opera, go see this new production, I'd love to hear how it compares. It is a beautiful lavish production, and a spectacle for sure. But that's not what musical theater is to me (my kind of musical theater is this, and this, and this), although judging by it's popularity, I'm in the minority!  The Phantom continues to haunt the Orpheum Theatre in downtown Minneapolis through January 5.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

"The Receptionist" by Dark & Stormy Productions at The Traffic Zone Center for Visual Art

Dark & Stormy Productions continues their tradition of short, smart, sharply written plays performed by excellent small casts in non-traditional spaces with The Receptionist, a dark comedy about life in a not-so-typical office. Walking into the space above the Traffic Zone Center for Visual Art in the shadow of Target Field, it feels a little like going into the office. The receptionist desk, calendar, coffee maker, copy machine, and those cheesy motivational posters on the wall feel all too familiar. But the good news is when you walk into this particular office, instead of working you get to watch four actors at the top of their craft telling a familiar but wacky story. It's a short, crisp 75 minutes of theatrical entertainment.

The "Northeast Office" seems like a typical office that will feel familiar to anyone who's ever worked in an office environment. Beverly the receptionist (Sally Wingert) and employee Lorraine (Sara Marsh) participate in normal daily activities like making copies, drinking coffee, answering phones, filing papers, bickering over office supplies, and chatting about family and relationships. The boss, Mr. Raymond (Harry Waters, Jr.), is noticeably absent when a Mr. Dart (Bill McCallum) shows up from the Central Office looking for him. It slowly becomes apparent just what the business of this office is, and it's not as typical (or as pleasant) as it seems.

Bill McCallum, Sara Marsh, Sally Wingert,
and Harry Waters, Jr.
This four-person cast is top-notch, as directed by Benjamin McGovern (also credited designing with this very real space). First and foremost is Guthrie favorite Sally Wingert as the titular receptionist. I would watch her in anything, she is always such a delight, completely immersed in her character. And in this case that character is a stereotypical receptionist, answering phones, gossiping, keeping a close eye on the office supplies, and in general at the center of everyone's business. Also wonderful are Dark & Stormy's Artistic Director Sara Marsh as the co-worker with relationship issues, Bill McCallum (another Guthrie favorite) as the mysterious Mr. Dart, and Harry Waters, Jr. as the boss who's become disillusioned by his work, with disastrous consequences.

I may not be The Playbill Collector, but I do have scrapbooks full of them and enjoy the artistry of them. Dark & Stormy is very clever in their playbill design. For their last show, Speed-the-Plow, set in the movie industry, the playbill was fashioned as a typewritten movie script held together by brass fasteners. For this show the playbill is constructed as an office memo, complete with rigid margins, bullet points, and a confidentiality note ("For Northeast Office Use Only"), held together with a single staple in the corner. Nice attention to detail and continuing the office theme.

Part of Dark & Stormy's mission is to bring more young people (age 18-35) to the theater, and looking around the audience I'm not sure how successful they are in that, but they are very successful at creating smart, entertaining, intimate, all around high quality theater that anyone can enjoy. The Receptionist continues through January 4. One visit to this office will make your own office seem not so bad after all!

"The Lower Depths" at nimbus theatre

The Lower Depths, an early 20th century Russian play about people living in poverty in a homeless shelter, is pretty dark and depressing, but it's also a fascinating exploration of the universal themes of life, truth, and relationships. As director and adapter Josh Cragun notes in the playbill, "fundamentally, it is a show about humanity and what it really means to be human." The nimbus theatre production places the story in Depression-era America. This large cast of diverse characters, embodied by a talented ensemble, lives in a run-down building, with only a bunk to call their own, and shares the joy and desperation of life with each other. Plotlines include a love triangle, illness, alcoholism, and depression, but more important are the ideas and the characters that are drawn. The ending offers no closure, but instead seems to say that this life and these people continue on.

In a beautifully run-down and cluttered shack of a building (nicely designed by Zach Morgan), we meet a group of people down on their luck (as many people were in the Depression). Among them are an immigrant couple, an actor, a shoemaker, a formerly wealthy society lady, and a prostitute. Keeping them in line are the dysfunctional family of the landlord, his wife, and her sister. Into their midst comes a self-described pilgrim, affectionately called "old man" or "gramps" by the others. He listens to the residents, comforts them, and tells them what they need to hear to soothe or provoke them into action. Love, abuse, camaraderie, death, and celebration all have their place here in the lower depths. One of the residents happily exclaims that all you need is "food, drink, music, and friends," but there's a desperation hiding beneath the surface of the frivolity of drinking and the daily routines of shopping and sweeping. As the Wikipedia page nicely sums up, "The theme of harsh truth versus the comforting lie pervades the play from start to finish, as most of the characters choose to deceive themselves from the bleak reality of their condition."

the cast of The Lower Depths
(photo by Mathieu Lindquist)
This is truly an ensemble piece, and nimbus has assembled a really nice ensemble of 14 actors. All of them have their moment to shine, particularly in the second act when plot gives way to a series of monologues about life, truth, and the human condition, and they all use it well. It seems a shame to call out any of them because they all do a fine job. But if I must: standouts include Andrew Sass in his intense portrayal of Karl (at the apex of the love triangle), Art Peden as the kind and gentle old man, a sympathetic Emily A. Grodzik as the abused sister, Nicholas Nelson as the tormented actor (of whose opera-trained voice we only hear a sample), and Brian Hesser as the genial drunk. The appropriately shabby and lived-in costumes (designed by Barb Portinga) help to create the characters, and the tone is set by Depression-era music playing before and after and the show and during scene changes, and all too briefly sung by the cast.

The Lower Depths plays at nimbus theatre's space in Northeast Minneapolis through December 22. It's nice counter-programming to the likes of A Christmas Carol, and deals with some of the same themes of poverty and generosity, but in a more somber way. I'll leave you with another quote from the director:

In a time when issues of class disparity, morality and social welfare are taking the spotlight in our national conversation, this 110-year-old work has never felt like it had more to say. But the remarkable part about this play is that it does not preach. It simply shows. A world, a diverse set of characters, and their diverse set of views on truth and the human condition. Each one has insights, Each one has weaknesses. we are left to come to our own conclusions.

Monday, December 9, 2013

"Words By... Ira Gershwin and the Great American Songbook" at Park Square Theatre

Park Square Theatre's Words By... Ira Gershwin and the Great American Songbook is a little like an installment of the Ordway's Broadway Songbook series come to life. In it, we learn about the less famous Gerswhin brother Ira, the one who wrote the words that accompanied many of his brother George's timeless melodies. But unlike Broadway Songbook in which a narrator regales the audience with stories and facts about the chosen subject, in Words By... the stories and facts are relayed by Ira himself. Or at least, an actor (Ari Hoptman) playing him. He also sings a few of the songs, along with the fantastic singers T. Mychael Rambo and Jennifer Grimm. The result is an educational, fascinating, entertaining, and inspiring two hours of music and theater.

Before seeing the show, I didn't know much about the Gershwin brothers, and in fact was only vaguely aware that they were brothers. The children of Russian Jewish immigrants growing up in Brooklyn in the early 20th century, younger brother George was a prodigy on the piano from an early age. Not wanting to capitalize on his brother's success, Ira began writing lyrics with other composers under a pseudonym, only later working with his brother after he had established some success of his own. As told by Ira in the play, the brothers had a wonderfully collaborative working relationship writing for musical theater (including the first musical to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama, Of Thee I Sing) and movies. Sadly, this collaboration was cut short when George died of a brain tumor at the age of 38. Ira continued working with other composers, but many of his great works (and the majority of the songs in the play) were written with his brother.

As Ira, Ari Hoptman is incredibly personable and believable, to the point where I almost forgot it wasn't Ira himself telling the stories. His stories and recollections are accompanied by photos show on a screen, and of course, the songs themselves. Songs with fast, clever, lovely lyrics like "Fascinating Rhythm," "'S Wonderful," "How Long Has This Been Going On?," "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off," and "They Can't Take That Away From Me." The songs are performed by a wonderfully jazzy four-piece band led by Joseph Vass on the piano (who also wrote the show) and two incredible singers. T. Mychael Rambo is always such a dynamic performer with a beautifully smooth voice, so it's no surprise that he is that here. But I was kind of blown away by Jennifer Grimm. I've seen her a few times before, but nothing like this where she takes center stage and just owns in (in a series of fabulous dresses). Her gorgeous voice is no better on display than in the Act I closing number "The Man That Got Away," a song that Ira and Harold Arlen wrote for Judy Garland (to whose voice Jennifer's is not dissimilar). Another highlight is Mychael and Jennifer singing songs from the Gershwin brothers opera Porgy and Bess (the new revival is coming to the Ordway in March).

Words By... continues through December 29. It's truly a treat to hear these classic songs performed by such talented artists, accompanied but the wonderful stories about how they came to be, and to learn a little about the art of writing lyrics. Ira describes it with this quote by his friend Yip: "Words make you think a thought, music makes you feel a feeling, a song makes you feel a thought." If you love the standards, or are interested in the history of American music, this show is a must-see (discount tickets available on Goldstar).

Saturday, December 7, 2013

"The Wizard of Oz" at the Ordway Center

The Wizard of Oz is an iconic movie, beloved by old and young alike. Every moment is so well-known that it is ingrained in our culture, from "I'll get you my pretty, and your little dog too" to "There's no place like home." It's almost impossible to imagine it any other way, so when I heard that there was a new Andrew Lloyd Webber stage adaptation (being not the biggest ALW fan), I was a little skeptical. But I was also curious, so I eagerly, although somewhat trepidatiously, attended Blogger Night at the Ordway last night. And I'm happy to report that a few minutes into the first scene I was completely won over. I found the show to be a clever adaptation with innovative use of video technology and some great new songs that add to the story, along with the familiar tunes we all know and love so well. It's such a thrill to hear those familiar songs played by a live orchestra, with the beloved characters coming to life before our eyes. The Wizard of Oz is definitely a family affair (I saw more than one little girl dressed like Dorothy), but it sure to be enjoyable for anyone who loves the movie (and really, who doesn't?).

Since this is my third blog post of the day, let's jump right into it. Highlights of the show include:

  • Danielle Wade couldn't be more perfect as Dorothy. Her voice is a powerful instrument and she exhibits incredible control over it; her "Over the Rainbow" is a thing of beauty. She also possesses the charm and likeability necessary in the beloved heroine.
  • Dorothy's three Oz friends are perfectly delightful, from Jamie McKnight as the adorably scattered Scarecrow, to Mike Jackson as the tender tin man with the beautiful baritone, to Lee MacDougall as the tough but cowardly lion (who's a proud friend of Dorothy!). And they also exhibit their specific characteristics while in Kansas mode, which is fun to observe.
  • The witches are wonderful and manage to differentiate themselves from both the movie and that other Oz musical adaptation (e.g., instead of pointy hats, they have pointy hair). Robin Evan Willis makes a lovely Glinda and Jacquelyn Piro Donovan is deliciously evil as the Wicked Witch (with one green leg sticking out from her dress ala Angelina Jolie).
  • The opening number, a new song called "Nobody Understands Me," is a great song, a little more earthy and rustic than the Oz fantasy songs (this is Kansas, after all) and sets the stage well. Professor Marvel gets a new song, as does the Wizard and the Wicked Witch. I found the closing number "Almost Home" to be a little cheesy, but all-in-all I thought there was just the right amount of new songs and they all served a purpose.
  • The effective but not too elaborate sets use perspective and colors painted on two-dimensional pieces to create the various worlds of the play. The special effects, including the tornado and flying monkeys, are created with the use of video projections on both the backdrop and scrim, with lights shone both on stage and into the audience for dramatic effect. It's extremely clever and well-done. Don't get me wrong, I don't want to start seeing videos every time I go to the theater, but in this production, it works (sets designed by Jeremy Sams, video by Jon Driscoll, and lighting by Hugh Vanstone).
  • The munchkins are completely adorable. Actors of normal height (or maybe a little on the short side) stand in such a way (slightly bent at knee and waist) that they appear to be smaller without looking awkward. Kudos to the ensemble that plays everything from munchkins to soldiers to ozians. And they're pretty fantastic dancers too in some great big dance numbers. The choreography (by Arlene Phillips) is fresh and new, but also familiar.
  • The costumes are beautiful, from the blue-toned and playful munchkin costumes, to the sleek green dresses and suits of the ozians, to the familiar looks of Dorothy and friends.
  • Last but not least, little Toto is played by a real dog, a consummate professional who hits every mark and does everything he (or she?) is supposed to.

Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Wizard of Oz is playing now through December 29. This production is the movie come to life, with new bits that add to the story and make it even more wonderful.

"The Sound of Music" Live on NBC

On Thursday December 5 NBC broadcast a musical live on TV, which hasn't been done (so they say) in 50 years. It was much more common in the '50s; e.g., Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote Cinderella for TV and it was originally broadcast live. I think it's an intriguing idea, even if something gets lost in the transmission. So intriguing that I watched it live (I almost never watch TV live anymore) and live-commented on the Cherry and Spoon Facebook page. You can read my commentary in the bulleted list below, but first, my overall thoughts on the show.

Let me preface this by saying that The Sound of Music is one of my all time favorite movies and musicals. When I was a kid back in the dark ages before cable TV or even VCRs, the 1965 Julie Andrews classic was one of the movies that was constantly on TV, so I saw it a million times as a kid and loved it. In high school, I was in the pit orchestra for my high school production of the musical, and it was such a thrill to play that familiar music on my clarinet and develop a whole new appreciation for it, as well as sit in the pit for every rehearsal and performance. Finally, I spent four months living in Salzburg studying abroad, which makes the movie even more beloved to me because of the nostalgia for that beautiful city, which I was lucky enough to call home for a short period of time. Because of all of these things, I'm extemely biased towards loving any production of The Sound of Music, and this is no exception (which doesn't mean I can't see the faults in this production, well at least some of them).

The good:

  • Let's start with the best part of the show - the divinely talented 5-time Tony-winner Audra McDonald as the Mother Abbess. Obviously she sounded beyond amazing in the always-thrilling "Climb Every Mountain," but it was her acting chops that made every one of her scenes a cut above the rest. 
  • Carrie Underwood has a gorgeous voice, and sounded beautiful singing these songs.
  • Broadway vet Laura Benanti (previously known to me only from her recurring role in Royal Pains, a light and fun show that has the benefit of filming in the NYC area and hiring lots of theater actors as guests) as the Baroness Schrader was so effortlessly good that I was hoping for her to end up with the Captain. Which is also a bad thing because that's not the way the story is supposed to go.
  • Recent Tony winner Christian Borle was an absolute delight as Max, one of my favorite characters and the acerbic comic relief in the show. He elevated every scene he was in (although he might have benefited from an in-studio audience, see below).
  • Every one of the seven children playing the Von Trapp kids did a fantastic job. Great job by the casting department to find this collection of unknowns that became a family.
  • The best scenes were the ones that featured the children, or these three:
  • Yes the mountains and the trees looked fake, but that didn't bother me, it almost made it feel more like a classic '50s televised musical. I thought the Von Trapp family home was beautiful, with clever transitions between stages.
The bad:
  • There's no way around it, Carrie Underwood is not an actor. I don't blame her, she tried her best to do the job she was hired to do, and I thought the singing part of the job was practically flawless. But when you hire a non-actor to act, you can't really be surprised when you get a stiff and emotionless performance. The most important thing in musical theater is not the music but the story. If you can't feel for the characters and become invested in the story, it doesn't matter how beautiful the music is.
  • A big part of live theater is the audience, witnessing something special in the presence of others and hearing their reactions mingle with yours. The jokes and dramatic moments fall a little flat in a completely silent studio, with nothing but thin air to greet the performances.
The ugly:
  • Come on, you know me, I'm not going to say anything was ugly!

All in all I think this was a successful experiment (with huge ratings), but like all experiments, lessons must be learned to improve the next iteration. I would love to see NBC do this again next year (they already have the sets and costumes and have figured out the logistics, so it's sure to be much cheaper). My suggestion for casting the leads - look no further than the other actors in the cast. Laura Benanti has played Maria on stage and proven herself in this unique genre, so I'd love to see her take on the role next year. As the captain I would cast Michael Park, who played the party guest who delivered the classic line "I'm not a German, I'm Austrian!" A veteran of TV and the stage, Michael can be funny and charming, as well as stern and forceful, and has a beautiful voice. Audra should continue to play the Mother Abbess as long as she's willing, and Christian should play Max in every production of The Sound of Music ever. And have a big casting call for the kids every year to give fresh new talent an opportunity to shine. Yes, I'd love to see this become an annual event.

So here it is, my live commentary:
  • It's time! Turn on your TV, friends, The Sound Of Music is about to start, live from a studio on Long Island! It's been almost 15 years since I've seen it on stage, but before that I was in the pit orchestra for my high school production (clarinet), so we'll see how much I remember about the stage version. If I recall correctly, the show opens with some beautiful chanting in the convent.
  • It's Audra McDonald! Here's an awkward stage door photo with her after The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess on Broadway last year, when I said a bunch of rambling gushing things about how much I love her. She's won 5 Tonys.
  • One of my favorite lines. "Religious life is no place for the pious." "You mean the pretentiously pious."
  • Carrie's a better actor when she's singing.
  • It's Vampire Bill! I mean, Captain Von Trapp. I wonder how long before I'll stop waiting for his fangs to pop out?
  • Did you catch that, kids? "I wasn't in the Imperial Navy." "Too bad, you could have made a fortune." 
  • How cute are those kids? Fun fact: Kurt is played by a young man named Joe West, whose parents Maura West and Scott Defrietas met on the set of the dear departed soap As the World Turns, where she played Carly (and won several Emmys) and he played Andy. Maura is currently appearing on General Hospital as Ava.
  • Rolf's kind of dreamy, isn't he? Until he turns into a Nazi. Don't you hate it when the guy you're crushing on turns into a Nazi?
  • Here's a difference between stage and movie versions - "Lonely Goatherd" instead of "My Favorite Things." Poor Carrie, each one of those kids is a better actor than she is!
  • The hilarious and talented Tony-winner Christian Borle! Perfect casting for Max.
  • I have a feeling I'm going to be rooting for Elsa (Tony-winning actor Laura Benanti) instead of Maria to win Georg's heart.
  • "I'm not a German, I'm Austrian!" That's the wonderfully talented and super sweet actor Michael Park, three-time Emmy winner and Broadway actor. Here's a photo of Michael and I on the set of How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying a few years ago. (For more of that story, see:
  • Best moment of The Sound Of Music so far - Audra McDonald singing "Climb Every Moment." Chills!!
  • I call a foul! In the original stage musical Georg and Maria sang a song called "An Ordinary Couple." "I Must Have Done Something Good" was written for the movie. "An ordinary couple, is all I long to be, for all I want of living is to keep you close to me. To laugh and sing together, as time goes on its flight, to kiss you every morning and to kiss you every night. An ordinary couple." (wow, that came right back to me after 20+ years)
    • Response from Jennifer Eckes (who knows a thing or two about musical theater trivia, as seen in Pop-Up Musical): "I think the general consensus is that "Something Good" is the better song, much like "You're the one that I Want" always gets used in productions of GREASE since the movie. Plus it is easier for the singers to sing."
  • I lived in Salzburg for four months when studying abroad, so one of my favorite parts of watching the movie is pointing out the geographical inconsistencies (e.g., if you climb the mountains outside Salzburg, you end up in Germany, not Switzerland). I went back to Salzburg a few years ago and took the Sound of Music tour and saw lots of filming locations. The church where the wedding was filmed is not in Salzburg, but a little town outside of Salzburg. Mondsee I think?
  • The sets and costumes are quite lovely. The outdoor scenery looks pretty fake, but it's impossible to recreate the beauty of Salzburg in a studio!
  • The city of Salzburg. Wunderschön!
  • In musical theater, I think it's better to cast a good actor who's not a great singer (Stephen Moyer) than a good singer who's not a great actor (Carrie Underwood). I can forgive vocal imperfections if the emotions of the character are there, but if the character's not there, it doesn't matter how beautiful the singing may be.
  • Why is Rolf still wearing shorts when they're all bundled up in coats, hats, and scarves?
  • Well that's it folks, the three-hour event that was The Sound Of Music LIVE is over, and we made it through! Thanks for playing everyone, this was fun! I'll have more thoughts tomorrow, but in general I think it was a success, with the exception of the horrible miscasting of poor Carrie Underwood. And it made me realize that a big part of live theater is the audience. Without someone to laugh, applaud, or otherwise react, it falls a little flat. The highlights were Audra McDonald who sounded incredible, and Christian Borle who was just delightful as Max. The kids were all great too, and logistically everything seemed to go off without a hitch. A fascinating experiment in live televised theater. I hope they learn from it (lessen one: cast theater actors) and do it again!

"Born Yesterday" at the Guthrie Theater

The 1946 Broadway play Born Yesterday was adapted into a 1950 movie that has become a classic. True to form, I've never seen it, so I had the great pleasure of experiencing it for the first time on stage, with no expectations or comparisons. I absolutely loved it and now understand why it's such a classic. Smartly written by Garson Kanin, funny, taking serious digs at the corruption of politics that is more true today than it ever has been, and featuring some classic characters, it's a beautiful piece of theater expertly brought to life by the Guthrie and this perfectly cast ensemble of actors.

If, like me, you've never seen the movie, here's a brief plot summary. Harry Brock, a very wealthy and corrupt "business man" (he's a "junk dealer," which I think means he buys and sells scrap metal and such), moves into a hotel in Washington DC in order to buy a senator or two to make things go his way. His entourage includes his mistress, former chorus girl Billie, his lawyer Ed, and his personal assistant/cousin/bartender/body guard Eddie. Harry is worried that Billie's unsophisticated ways will be a hindrance while he's trying to schmooze the senator, so he hires journalist Paul to educate her. The plan backfires on him when Billie proves to be much smarter than he thinks and falls in love with learning. She is no longer willing to go along with his schemes (he's signed much of his property over to her on the advice of his lawyer) and along with Paul, devises a way to get out from under his thumb.

Judy Holliday originated the role of Billie on Broadway and won an Oscar for reprising the role in the movie. I hear that her performance is iconic, but since I've never seen it, I was able to enjoy Guthrie newcomer Alexis Brokovic's brilliant performance without comparison. She's an absolute joy to watch in every moment - her voice, the way she moves around the stage, the perfect looks and line delivery, the way she sorts her cards during an intense game of gin rummy. She makes Billie an incredibly sympathetic and real character as we witness her growth from a woman who's told daily that she's dumb to a woman who sees her own worth and realizes that she deserves, and desires, a better life that this empty one she's been living. At one point Harry laments, "All this trouble just because some dame read a book." Exactly. Born Yesterday is about a woman realizing her own power, and claiming it, through knowledge.

Harry (Jeff Still), Paul (John Patrick Hayden),
and Billie (Alexis Bronkovic)
The rest of the cast (directed by John Miller-Stephany) does a wonderful job as well, each one as perfect for their role as Alexis is for Billie. Two more Guthrie newcomers fill the roles of Harry and Paul - Jeff Still is so good as the tough-talking and at times menacing Harry that I wanted to boo him at the curtain call (but since I'm a Minnesotan I didn't), and John Patrick Hayden is charming as Billie's teacher and friend who opens her world. Familiar faces fill out the rest of the cast - Mark Benninghofen shows us lawyer Ed's increasing disgust with himself and the things he does for Harry, and Zach Curtis hits the right note as Harry's man Eddie, who knows his place. I also like that they cast students in the U of M/Guthrie BFA program in non-speaking roles; the Guthrie has a great farm system and uses it well.

Walking into the Proscenium theater before the show, I had to pause several times on the stairs to take in the incredible set (designed by Todd Rosenthal). Looking every bit the opulent hotel suite (that costs $235 a night!), with a high ceiling and grand staircase leading to the bedrooms on the second floor, everything is round - the chandelier, the table, the stools, the centered doorknobs, the walls of the room, even the shape of the stage itself - mirroring the US Capitol seen through the windows.

As I've mentioned before, my season seat in the Guthie's Proscenium theater is in the front row (aka the cheap seats). I like to call it shoe level, because the stage is directly in front of my eyes. This is a great show to be sitting at shoe level. The period costumes (by Matthew J. LeFebvre) are stunning, especially Billie's wardrobe of about a half dozen outfits, each more gorgeous than the last. The men's clothes aren't too shabby either, from Harry's flashy and colorful suits to the more classic look of his lawyer.

Kanin was asked in the 80s why his play was so popular. He answered, "The reason was Watergate. When the play was written it was a fable, but after Watergate it became a documentary." It really is a brilliant play in a top-notch production by the Guthrie (playing now through January 5). I'll leave you with my favorite quote (of many):
To all the dumb chumps and all the crazy broads, past, present, and future, who thirst for knowledge and search for truth, who fight for justice and civilize each other, and make it so tough for sons of bitches like you.