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.