Friday, January 31, 2014

"Stop Kiss" by Fortune's Fool Theater at nimbus theatre

In 1998, a young gay man named Matthew Shepherd was brutally murdered in Laramie, Wyoming. This incident increased the conversation about hate crimes and eventually led to changes in legislation (and a really beautiful play). I couldn't help but think about Matthew Shepherd while watching Fortune's Fool Theatre's production of Stop Kiss, which was coincidentally (or not?) written and first produced off Broadway the same year. The defining moment of this play is an act of violence against two women, similar to what happened to Matthew. It's a sweet, funny, and sad play that uses fiction to explore the very real issues of hate crimes and violence against women.

Stop Kiss takes place in the greatest city in the world, New York City, which almost functions as another character. Callie (Ariel Leaf) has lived there since college, when into her life comes Sara (Katie Starks), who has moved to the city on a fellowship to teach children in Brooklyn. Callie shows Sara around town, and the two become friends, and then something more, despite previous (and current) relationships with men. The action of the play flashes back and forth between two timepoints - before and after a pivotal moment in their relationship and their lives. Soon after their first kiss on a park bench, the women are brutally attacked. We see scenes of Callie and Sara getting to know each other and falling in love, building up to that moment, interspersed with scenes of the fallout from the attack. It's quite effective, although the build up seems to go on a little too long (a few of the scenes could have been combined or cut to get to the conclusion quicker). It ends on a sweet note and we never see the violence, but it hangs over the play like a black cloud.

The moment that really struck a chord with me is when Sara's ex asks if the man who attacked her was bigger than him, implying that if Sara had been with a man instead of Callie, she wouldn't have been hurt. Firstly, it doesn't matter how big the attacker is if he has a weapon, but secondly, it's sad that we still live in a world where in some places a woman can't walk alone or with other women for fear of being harassed or worse.

The two leads have a sweet and believable chemistry, with nice turns by the supporting cast, including Andy Chambers as Callie's genial buddy George and Michael Ooms as Sara's grieving ex. The set (by Ursula K. Bowden) looks like a cute and homey NYC apartment, with a curtain drawn to reveal a hospital bed on the side. All in all this is very nice production of a sweet, tragic, and all too relevant play. (Playing through February 8 at nimbus theatre.)

Thursday, January 30, 2014

"Evita" at the Orpheum Theatre

My third opening night on Hennepin Avenue (aka the Broadway of Minneapolis) in just over a week was for the touring production of the recent Broadway revival of Evita. Written by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, this musical about the first lady of Argentina Eva Perón won seven Tony Awards in 1980. It's a compelling story about a woman from a poor family who rose to become one of the most powerful and beloved women in Argentina, with a beautiful and recognizable score ("Don't Cry for Me Argentina," "You Must Love Me"), and this is a lavish production with a great cast. I saw a nearly perfect production by Theater Latte Da a few years ago so I wasn't sure I wanted or needed to see it again. But I love the score (I have the soundtrack from the 1996 movie starring Madonna), so I enjoyed seeing it brought to life by a large and talented cast and orchestra.

In the entirely sung-through musical, Eva's story is told by a narrator known as Che. We follow Eva as she escapes a life of poverty in a small village to run away to Buenos Aires with a musician. There she makes a career as a singer and actress, and eventually meets the politician Juan Perón. She hitches her wagon to his star, and after he becomes president, together they become a powerful force and the celebrity couple of the day. Her legacy is somewhat complicated, as politics mixed with charity and wealth. After Eva went on a PR tour through Europe, dubbed "The Rainbow Tour," she fell ill and died at the age of 33, with a lavish and well-attended funeral. The musical brings us full circle, beginning with a scene from her funeral, and then flashing back to tell her life story, ending at the funeral again. Throughout the highs and lows, Che is there to offer commentary on the issues that her story brings up - fame, politics, celebrity worship, class.

Caroline Bowman, Josh Young, Sean MacLaughlin,
and the cast of Evita
The show may be called Evita, but the star of this show is Josh Young as Che. He gives a completely engaging performance and displays incredible vocal range, from a lovely falsetto to a rich warm tone in the lower register, plus a rocker wail when called for. Che is onstage for almost the entire show, observing and commenting on Eva's life, and confronting her in one captivating waltz. I found myself constantly seeking him out to watch his reactions, and when he wasn't on stage, his absence could be felt. Caroline Bowman is a strong Eva, making a convincing transformation from an ambitious young girl to a well-respected woman with failing health. As Juan, Sean MacLaughlin is smooth and polished. The large ensemble is fantastic; Krystina Alabado is a standout with a beautiful performance of the poignant "Another Suitcase in Another Hall."

The sets and costumes in this Broadway tour are of course impressive, with lovely period costumes and a relatively simple set with one impressive piece - the balcony. The show also features nice use of what I'm assuming is actual video of the time.

If you can only see one of the three musicals currently playing on Hennepin stages, it should be Theater Latte Da's Cabaret at the Pantages Theatre - a stunning display of local talent. After Cabaret, the choice between Minneapolis Musical Theatre's Five Course Love at New Century and the touring production of Evita at the Orpheum depends on what you're looking for - a light and fun show in an intimate space with a small local cast (Five Course Love) or a lavish Broadway production (Evita, playing through this weekend only).

Monday, January 27, 2014

"The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" at Bloomington Civic Theatre

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is a delightful, hilarious, and at times poignant look at a middle school spelling bee. I've seen the 2005 Tony-winning musical four times now, and I never tire of it. Bloomington Civic Theatre's new production is of course perfectly cast and very well executed, with Anita Ruth's small but still beautiful pit orchestra and Joe Chvala's unique eye for movement and direction. It's different than the large-cast traditional musicals they often do, which I love because it shows the full range of what musical theater is and what BCT can do.

The entire show takes place within a spelling bee competition, with a few flashbacks or fantasies to help explain certain characters. But basically it's a spelling bee, following the spellers from the moment they arrive at the bee, through triumphs and defeats, to the crowning of the winner. Along with the six quirky characters in the play, four audience members* are asked on stage to participate in the bee, adding an element of improvisation. Three adults try to wrangle the kids and keep the bee running smoothly, to varying degrees of success.

Highlights of the show include:

  • Real life husband and wife Nicholas Leeman and Colleen Somerville play the adults presiding over the bee. Nicholas plays Vice Principal Panch with the perfect dry wit and occasional exasperation (and he's also the improv master as he deals with whatever the audience members throw him). Colleen's lovely voice is put to good use as former spelling bee champ Rona Lisa Peretti, with maternal fondness for the spellers and nostalgia for the bee. Not surprisingly, they have great chemistry, although Ms. Peretti does not return Mr. Panch's growing affections.
  • As the bee's "comfort counselor," opera-trained Dominique Wooten cuts an imposing figure and can really belt (see also Les Miserables), and brings heart and humor to the paroled prisoner trying to help these kids deal with the disappointments of life.
  • Six twenty-somethings convincingly play tweens and are all perfectly cast. Like she did in Carrie: The Musical for MMT last fall, Jill Iverson plays a complex and troubled teenager with a difficult relationship with her mother, but Olive is a bit lighter than Carrie and her story has a much less devastating outcome. Ryan London Levin is quite funny as former champ Chip, who's eliminated under unfortunate circumstances. Andrew Newman is adorable as the loopy and sweet Leaf Coneybear who knows he's "Not that Smart" (a role originated by Modern Family's Jesse Tyler Ferguson). Marcy Park is the least-developed character among the kids, but Hope Nordquist makes the most of her moment, a very active and busy "I Speak Six Languages." Andy Roemhildt plays all of the quirks of the singularly unique William Barfee to the hilt. Finally, Maisie Twesme is a standout as Schwartzy, with a lisp and a facial tic that never waver and a knack for engaging the audience spellers.
  • The songs are mostly fun and light, with clever lyrics and catchy melodies. But occasionally the score is quite lovely and heart-wrenching; the musical highlight is the gorgeous three-part harmony in a fantasy sequence with Olive and her distant parents, with the three strong voices of Jill, Colleen, and Dominique blending beautifully together.
  • This is an unusually small orchestra for BCT, but that's what the piece calls for, and as per usual it's spot-on. Joe Chvala's choreography captures the awkward movement of pre-teens, not quite in control of their bodies.
  • I like to go to BCT on days when they have a post-show talk-back and listen to the cast and creative team talk about the experience. My favorite moment was when the cast was asked why they do this if they're not paid (much), and Ryan responded, "theater is crack!" As someone who saw over 150 shows last year, I heartily agree!

As Anita pointed out in the talk-back, this sort of light comedic show is harder than it looks. It takes a lot of work to make the precisely timed comedy look as effortless and natural as this. If you've never experienced the unique delight of Spelling Bee, do yourself a favor and head out to Bloomington between now and February 16 (discount tickets available on Goldstar). And make your plans for next season at BCT which was just announced. It looks like another great one; I'm particularly excited about Next to Normal (which I've seen several times and love) and Carousel (a classic I've never seen but have been wanting to).

*The audience spellers are given obviously easy or difficult words depending on if the script requires them to stay or leave. But they don't always comply, which is part of the fun. The cast told of someone who misspelled an easy word, which caused them to have to rearrange the song order. And there's always that one person who's a great speller and gets even the hardest words right. At the show I attended they finally had to trick him with to/too/two (which reminds me of the 30 Rock joke about the game show Homonym).

"Five Course Love" by Minneapolis Musical Theatre at New Century Theatre

Minneapolis Musical Theatre's Five Course Love is billed as "a tasteful tasty musical comedy." This is truth in advertising - it's definitely not a tasteful show, with lots of raunchy, campy, over-the-top comedy, but it is quite tasty, with fantastically committed performances by the three-person cast and clever, funny, and occasionally lovely songs.

The evening plays out as five different love stories set in five theme restaurants, with three actors playing a different character in every scene. Amanda Weis and Ryan McGuire Grimes are the couple in love (or something), and Joseph Pyfferoen is the waiter, although these characters take different forms in each scene. All three actors are excellent at a very difficult skill - singing for comedic effect while still sounding fantastic (the gold standard of this skill is of course Sara Ramirez as the Lady of the Lake in Spamalot). They do some pretty crazy things with their voices (accents and affectations), but they always sound great. The "love stories" include a blind date, an affair, a love triangle, and unrequited love. They're played to pretty broad effect, some funny, some sweet, and some just plain ridiculous. The music follows the style of the restaurant, from Country-Western to Italian to German to Mexican to '50s. It's equal opportunity offensive comedy, as all ethnicities are exaggerated and made fun of. But the commitment of the actors makes it work as they play it for camp, and the songs for the most part are catchy and clever. My favorite are the catchy '50s-themed diner songs (with shades of Grease), the lovely and melancholy "The Blue Flame," and the show opener and closer "A Very Single Man" and "Love Looking Back at Me," as things come full circle.

Amanda Weis, Joseph Pyfferoen, Ryan McGuire Grimes
The set (by Darren Hensel) looks like a Valentine's Day card exploded. Five doors open to reveal the name of the five restaurants in which the scenes take place. The quick-change costumes (by Joshua Stevens) help the actors and the audience differentiate the characters, so that you almost forget it's the same actors in every scene. The three-piece band keeps things moving along.

In an interview with Broadway World, Gregg Coffin, creator of the piece (which premiered Off-Broadway in 2005) was asked, "When the audience leaves the show, what do you want them to take away?" His response was:
The thrill of three incredible actors running you through a mine-field of love as quickly as they possibly can. And love would be good, it would be good if they took love away from it all. And maybe if they were humming something from the show as they went off into the night. That would be icing on the cake.
Mission accomplished on #1 and #3, #2 not so much, but it's definitely an entertaining ride and I went off into the cold night humming. And sometimes that's enough. Minneapolis Musical Theatre's Five Course Love runs through Valentine's Day weekend at the New Century Theatre.

Coming up next for MMT is the most anticipated (by me) show of their season - the very funny political satire as emo-rock musical, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. I'll definitely be returning to the New Century this summer for some "Populism, Yea, Yea!"

Saturday, January 25, 2014

"Maggie's Brain" by Off-Leash Area at the Cowles Center

In Maggie's Brain, theater/dance company Off-Leash Area expresses one family's struggle with schizophrenia through movement. The piece, which was originally presented in 2007, was created by Off-Leash Co-Artistic Directors Jennifer Ilse and Paul Herwig based on Jennifer's experience growing up with a brother with schizophrenia and the effects it had on her family. I couldn't help but be reminded of the 2009 Tony and Pulitzer Prize winning musical Next to Normal, about a family whose mother suffers from mental illness and the devastation that brings to everyone in the family. While there are some similarities (chaos around the dinner table), this piece gives the audience a better idea of what it's like inside the brain of a schizophrenic. It's a moving piece, beautifully performed by the 11-person cast of dancer/actors.

The play opens with a familiar family dinner scene - parents and two daughters. But there's an empty chair, and it's obvious something's off. When Maggie (Taja Will) finally comes to the table, she's obviously disturbed and has a hard time just sitting down to dinner. In one of the most effective sequences of the piece, the action then rewinds, and the scene replays from Maggie's perspective. Even the table is turned around giving us a new perspective. We see the five very different voices in Maggie's head, personified by dancers in bright clothing (as opposed to the drab grey clothing of the real people). We see exactly what Maggie is reacting to when she freaks out - things that the voices are telling her. The family keeps talking about their day, oblivious to what's going on inside Maggie's brain.

Maggie tries to keep her voices at bay with orange tape, which they seem to stay behind. Maggie dances solo and free in the middle of the stage as the voices stay at the perimeter, until the tape no longer works and they break through. Maggie is hospitalized, and her relationship with her therapist is expressed only through dance, first with the two of them going in opposite directions, then pushing and pulling, and finally dancing together. Maggie's voices are still with her in the hospital, but they're quieter and they all move in harmony together (representing the fact that some schizophrenics continue to have symptoms even as their disease is treated, but at a controllable level). In the final scene of the piece, Maggie's family visits, after first going through a chaotic dance of their own, as each family member of a schizophrenic has their own journey to go through. There's a feeling of hope at the end, that perhaps Maggie and her family can heal and lead healthy normal lives.

I really admire artists who bring their personal truths to their work; it often leads to the most moving and real theater. That's definitely the case here. Jennifer has let her personal experiences with schizophrenia inspire her to create a beautiful piece of art that will hopefully inspire and educate about the topic of mental illness. This is a short one-weekend-only run, with just two remaining performances.

Friday, January 24, 2014

"Cartooon" at In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre

I was tired and crabby last night when I made my way out into below-zero temps to attend In the Heart of the Beast's Cartooon. I had gotten in late the night before from a busy three-day business trip, which was preceded by six straight days at the theater. Due to a mix-up that afternoon I thought that the performance had been cancelled, and I was secretly relieved because that meant I could curl up on the couch and watch the new Sherlock, and then go to bed early. So I was a little disappointed when I found out that my rare night off was not to be. But I went anyway, because that's what I do. And I soon learned that it's impossible to be crabby while watching the delightfully creative and absurd Cartooon. My mood was completely turned around moments after stepping into the cold and musty-smelling theater, and with a 7 o'clock showtime and a running time of just over an hour, I was still home in time to go to bed early. As for Sherlock, he'll still be there waiting for me.

I had never attended a performance by In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre, but of course I've heard many wonderful things about them. I therefore had high expectations, and I was not disappointed. Cartooon is like a live-action cartoon acted out with two-dimensional puppets and countless crazy and creative props (everything AND the kitchen sink!), with the story told by a narrator (Maren Ward) and music provided by a ten-piece orchestra (led by music director and sound effects man Matt Larson) and a twelve-person choir (directed by Elizabeth Windnagel). The cartoon follows "Tummy da Talking Turtle" and his crocodile nemesis (think the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote), and a woman known as "bouncy bouncy," represented only by a pair of legs in red shoes.

The plot of the cartoon mostly consists of the two frenemies one-upping each other with physical insults, chasing each other around the world, blowing up dynamite, and other crazy machinations. It's reenacted three times with successively larger puppets. First hand-held (multiple versions), then life-size, then over-sized. Typical cartoon things happen, like a piano or anvil falling on someone, or a character running through a brick wall and leaving a hole the shape of their body, or eyes bulging and tongue rolling out (sometimes all the way to the taco place next door) at the sight of a beautiful woman. The way all of these things are represented is incredibly creative and inventive. Four puppeteers - Steve Ackerman (who also created and directs the show), Lauren Anderson, Jon Mac Cole, and Carly Wicks - manipulate all of these shenanigans at an incredibly fast pace, utilizing all areas of the theater in the chase around the world. The gags keep getting bigger and bigger (literally and figuratively), and the action happens faster and more furiously, until the whole thing devolves into a wonderfully chaotic mess by the end of the show. It probably takes them four times as long to set up the incredibly intricate workings of the show than it does to tear it all down again. But I'm certain the latter is much more fun.

I'm not sure I've ever seen anything like Cartooon before. Mind-boggling creativity, silly fun, with the audience in stitches the whole time. In short, it's utterly charming and completely absurd. So even if you're tired and crabby and it's freezing cold out (or maybe especially if that's the case), Cartooon is just the thing to brighten your day and warm you up. Just four performances remain this weekend, so get there while you can.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

"Radio Man" by the History Theatre at Minnesota History Center

The final installment of what has been an excellent new works series sponsored by the History Theatre is Radio Man, by Minnesota’s own radio man Garrison Keillor. In case you've been living under a rock for the past 40 years, Garrison is the creator/writer/host of a radio variety show called A Prairie Home Companion. This 40-year Minnesota institution has spun off countless books, CDs, DVDs, a movie (for which I was a never-seen extra), and now - a play. I admit I'm biased because I love Prairie Home in all of its form, so I can't objectively view it as simply a play, as someone who's unfamiliar with the show would. Having said that, I found it to be another great way to experience the truly delightful world of A Prairie Home Companion.

Radio Man is like watching an episode of APHC play out on stage, with the addition of glimpses into the back-stage goings-on, as well as musings about the host's childhood. Led by a very familiar seeming host, we meet other familiar characters such as cowboys Dusty and Lefty and private eye Guy Noir. The host's child self also appears onstage, telling stories about the origin of his love of radio and his desire to live and work in that world. The "Lake Wobegon" story about the death of Byron Tolefson blends into the real life of the play as the ghost of Byron appears and ponders the meaning of life and death. In addition, the host is confronted by the station manager, his sister, and a woman from his past. Over the course of one evening and one episode of this ongoing radio show, the host experiences something much more - an existential rumination on life itself.

Once again, an extremely professional and talented cast of actors breathes life into the written words. Pearce Bunting plays the host, with a spot-on Garrison Keillor impression. From the red socks and the glasses, to the way he holds his hand to his face while talking, to the shuffling dance as he's taken by the music. The adorable Noah Deets plays the host's 10-year-old self, with remarkable maturity and ability in this unusual format for someone so young. Various characters real and imagined are portrayed by Jon Andrew Hegge, Laurie Flanigan-Hegge, Jake Endres, Summer Hagen, and the dryly hilarious Angela Timberman. Of course APHC would not be complete without music, and there's much of that here, successfully woven into the story in the form of jingles and performances by guests (with musical direction by Andrew Cooke).

In the post-show discussion (a lovely feature of Raw Stages that allows the audience to share feedback with the creators), Pearce was asked what it felt like to play a real person who was sitting in the room. Pearce responded that Garrison's words resonate with so many of us because he's telling our story, so in a way he's in all of us, or all of us are in him. He said if he continues in the role (which I sincerely hope he does), the trick will be to find a little bit more of himself in the character and less of Garrison. A few other people pointed out that the ending went on a little too long. I agree with that, but after a little tightening and restructuring (Garrison was busily taking notes throughout the reading), this has the potential to be a charming play about a familiar and beloved Minnesota institution. I consider Garrison to be the Mark Twain of our generation, a folksy humorist telling stories of Americana that ring true. It's lovely to hear that voice coming from a theater stage through the mouths of actors, and to experience the wonderfully quirky world of A Prairie Home Companion in a theatrical format.

This was my first time attending History Theatre's annual Raw Stages festival, and I enjoyed it so much and was very impressed by the creators and actors putting together such professional and entertaining readings in such a short time. Each one of the four works presented is so different, showcasing great variety in the history of Minnesota and in its theater. I hope to see each one of them further developed and given a full production. (Read about all four plays here.)

Sunday, January 19, 2014

"Cabaret" by Theater Latte Da at the Pantages Theatre

What good is sitting alone in your room?
Come hear the music play.
Life is a cabaret old chum,
Come to the cabaret.

Truer words were never spoken, or sung. If you are reading this sitting alone in your room, immediately book your ticket to see the newest Theater Latte Da and Hennepin Theatre Trust collaboration - Cabaret. The brilliance of this classic Kander and Ebb musical combined with the singular talent of Theater Latte Da in breathing new life into the genre of musical theater, plus the extra resources that partnering with Hennepin Theatre Trust can provide, make for an outstanding theatrical experience. Cabaret is seductive - it lures you in with it's fun, sexy, bright entertainment. But after you get sucked in, the dark cloud hanging over 1930s Berlin begins to descend, and you see that the show is really about much more than scantily clad dancers and entertaining songs. There's nothing more horrific than the Nazi rise to power in 1930s Germany, and Cabaret brings that horror to life as it begins to affect these characters that we've come to love. Life is not just a cabaret, it's a broken, damaged, heart-breaking, but incredibly beautiful thing.

The 1966 musical Cabaret is based on Christopher Isherwood's semi-autobiographical novel about Berlin in the early 1930s. Much of the action is set in a cabaret called the Kit Kat Klub, a mecca of art, creativity, music, love, sexuality, expression, joy, and life, at a time just before the beautiful city of Berlin entered the darkest period in its history, which resulted in the death of all of these things. This world is seen through the eyes of an American writer named Cliff, who moves to Berlin to work on his novel. He soon meets Sally Bowles, the star of the Kit Kat Klub, and begins a complicated relationship with her. He also befriends his landlord Fräulein Schneider and the other residents of the boarding house. They're happy for a while living in the decadence of the time, until reality comes crashing down around them. As Cliff says, "It was the end of the world, and I was dancing with Sally Bowles and we were both asleep."

Like all Peter Rothstein shows, this show is impeccably cast. Either Peter has a great eye for talent, or he's the kind of director that can bring out the best in his cast (I suspect it's some of both). Each actor is pitch perfect in his or her role, from Adam Qualls as the mysterious but seemingly friendly Ernst to Aeysha Kinnunen as the "working girl" boarder. Sean Dooley is sweet and charming at the heart of the show as Cliff, and Kira Lace Hawkins is fierce and vulnerable as the loveable mess that is Sally Bowles, closing the show with a crazy, wide-eyed, running mascara, drug-addled performance of the title song. As Fraulien Schneider, Guthrie regular Sally Wingert adds musical theater to her list of talents and proves there really is nothing she can't do. Maybe she's not a trained singer, "so who cares, so what?" Musical theater is about character and story, and no one can give full expression to a character better than the StarTribune's 2013 artist of the year. James Detmar is her equal partner as Herr Schultz in the sweet and tender later-in-life love story. Last but not least, the show doesn't work without the gorgeous and talented Kit Kat girls and boys (and in between), each one of whom is fantastic and endlessly watchable.

Tyler Michaels as the emcee
(photo by James Detmar)
I haven't yet mentioned the most pivotal character in the piece, the emcee, because he deserves a paragraph all his own. Tyler Michaels rocks my world. There's no limit to this young man's talent. Just two years ago he was my favorite newcomer, and he's exceeded my expectations. No matter who he is playing (from Snoopy to one of Joseph's brothers) he feels the character in every cell of his body. This is a perfect role for him to express his many talents - singing, acting, moving, dancing, crawling all over the scenery, even trapeze and aerial work. As the emcee of the Kit Kat Klub he presides over every scene, observing from the sidelines where you can read his thoughts and reactions on his face (made up in purple glitter) and in the way he holds his body. There are so many wonderful little touches that make this such a full and rich performance, but I don't want to spoil them. Instead I'll just say - keep your eyes on Tyler, in this and future shows (including The Little Mermaid at the Chanhassen and My Fair Lady at the Guthrie). I just hope we can keep him in Minnesota for a little while longer before he goes off to conquer the world.

The set (designed by Kate Sutton-Johnson) is like a giant jungle gym for the actors to play on. Tarnished bronze pipes forms railings, stairs, poles, and ladders in the two story set. Dingy and broken stained glass windows in muted browns and blues serve as backdrops and set pieces, with scene transitions happening smoothly and seamlessly as the Kit Kat boys and girls in various stages of undress, often with a cigarette hanging from the corner of their mouth, move furniture on and off stage. The costumes are unbelievably skimpy, but what there is of them is rich, bold, seedy, and delicious, and the actors move in them with complete confidence. These movements are choreographed brilliantly by Michael Matthew Ferrel; each number is a feast for the eyes with so much going on you can't possibly take it all in in one sitting. And of course, the six-piece orchestra lead by Fräulein Denise Prosek is, indeed, beautiful.

Not since 2012's Ivey Award-winning Spring Awakening has Theater Latte Da created such perfection in musical theater. There is not one single thing that I would change about the show, other than extending it so that I could spend the rest of my life sitting in the Pantages Theatre experiencing the beautiful and tragic world of Cabaret. I don't often say "go see this show," but I'm saying it now. Go see this show, playing now through February 9. It's musical theater at its best, and a fantastic display of our brilliant local talent.

Start by admitting from cradle to tomb
Isn't that long a stay.
Life is a cabaret old chum,
Only a cabaret old chum,
And I love a cabaret!

the fabulous cast of Cabaret
(photo by James Detmar)

Saturday, January 18, 2014

"School for Lies" at Park Square Theatre

The School for Lies is a new adaptation of the classic French comedy The Misanthrope by Moliere; the title comes from the line "society is nothing but a school for lies," which summarizes the play quite well. This version, written by Venus in Fur playwright David Ives, maintains the setting (17th century France), characters (the French aristocracy), and plot (man disapproving of said aristocracy nevertheless finds himself falling in love with one of them), but recasts the story in modern language and delightful rhyme. Like all rhythmic language (see also Shakespeare), it requires some concentration on the audience's part (no sitting back passively here). But once you get into the flow of it, it's really quite clever, and this cast (directed by Walking Shadow Theatre's Amy Rummenie) does a marvelous job of bringing life to the language and the story.

The play centers around the widow Celimene and her court, including her cousin Eliante and three suitors. Into this mix Philinte brings his friend Frank, who has no patience for the pretenses of society and proceeds to offend everyone. Except for the women, who fall in love with him (sometimes with the help of lies). Celimene is facing a trial for slander, and asks Frank to defend her against her rival Arsinoé. Much comedy, mix-ups, and romance ensues, along with many spilled canapés.

The fantastic cast is led by Kate Guenzel, truly delightful as Celimene, and John Middleton, just terrific as Frank, the one grounded and real character amidst the silly fools. As Celimene's suitors, David Beukema, Brandon Bruce, and John Catron are each appropriately and uniquely buffoonish (one continually picking his nose, one a horrible poet, and one happily stupid). Also great are Anna Hickey as the sweet and charming Eliante, Jason Rojas (whose beautiful hair puts the wigs to shame) as the sincere Philante, and Andrea Wollenberg as Celimene's ugly stepsister-like rival. Last but not least is the scene stealer Skyler Nowinski as two beleaguered servants, relatively minor characters but the ones that get the biggest laughs.

Walking into the theater, the stage reminded me of something from Behind the Candelabra - glitz and gold everywhere. The costumes are outrageous in the best possible way, not to mention the wigs! Completing the looks are an epidemic of moles and warts. (Set by Robin McIntyre, costumes by Susan E. Mickey, wigs by David Hermann.)

The School for Lies continues at Park Square Theatre in cold and lovely downtown St. Paul through February 2 (discount tickets available on It's a crazy fun romp through 17th century France, in a fresh and modern way. Check out the video below for a taste of the madness:

The School for Lies from Park Square Theatre on Vimeo.

Friday, January 17, 2014

"Glensheen" by the History Theatre at the Minnesota History Center

I love historic old mansions that have been turned into museums, and my favorite is the Glensheen Mansion in Duluth. A gorgeous house and beautifully manicured grounds right on the shores of Lake Superior, the story of a New York lawyer who got rich in the local mining industry and built this house for his wife and many children, plus a murder mystery! I have to admit, I am more than little fascinated by the story of how elderly millionaire Elisabeth Congden and her nurse were found dead in 1977, one smothered by a satin pillow and the other beaten to death with a candlestick (an actual candlestick!). Yes it's gruesome and tragic, but it's also one of those "truth is stranger than fiction" stories that is so captivating. Playwright Jeffrey Hatcher and composer Chan Poling have taken this fascination with this weird and wonderful story and turned it into a musical, presented as the third show in the History Theatre's Raw Stages Festival. Or at least it's the beginnings of a musical. After working together for only a few days, the creators and the fabulous cast they have assembled presented just over an hour of material. They had meant to have more, "but it snowed" (Jeffrey is extremely dry and funny, see also his Lifetime Achievement Ivey Award acceptance speech). It's definitely still in the "raw" stage of the development process, but almost every song and scene is terrific, the tone of "ironic comedic cynicism" is spot on, and it has much potential to be a fantastic new original musical (my favorite thing in the world!).

In a short intro, Jeffrey explained that the musical is supposed to be a "non-realistic break the fourth wall" sort of thing, with "a spirit of theatricality." Our way into the story is through a modern day tour guide at the mansion (a bubbly Aly Westberg). She calls the head docent (Norah Long) in a panic when one of the guests takes a forbidden photograph in the stairwell where one of the bodies was found. Through a series of flashbacks we meet Elisabeth Congden and her two adopted daughters - Jennifer, the sweet and pretty one (Norah again) and Marjorie (the always fabulous Jody Briskey), who epitomizes the phrase "black sheep of the family." Marjorie meets her second husband Roger (an adorably awkward and "sad sack" Robert O. Berdahl) and introduces him to the family. He (with or without Marjorie's assistance and knowledge) plots to kill Elisabeth, is convicted, confesses to secure his release from jail, and commits suicide. Marjorie is never convicted and goes on to rack up charges of fraud, arson, bigamy, and even murder. The action flashes back and forth between moments in the past and the present day, where we also meet a "cub reporter" (Randy Schmeling) and a wacky detective (Jim Ramlet). The only part of the piece that didn't quite work for me was the ending, with a long exchange about the camera or phone used to take the picture. I was confused about who this woman was (Marjorie? the ghost of Elisabeth?), and the reveal that she was some sort of Marjorie fanatic didn't quite seem to fit. I only nitpick because the rest of the show is gold, just waiting to be polished and fleshed out and put together in the most shiny way possible.

The wonderful songs with clever and funny lyrics include the Sweeney Todd-esque "Ballad of Haunted Glensheen," a song between the two sisters, one good and one bad, a Marjorie/Roger duet  - a "mismatch made in hell," a very funny and drunken Roger singing about the "murder plot," Marjorie's swan song "Burn it Down," and what seemed to be the favorite of the audience - nurse Velma's* sad and sweet song in which her husband begs "stay with me" when the recently retired nurse is called back to work that fateful night.

I loved this piece so much. It's my favorite of the Raw Stages festival so far even though it's also the most raw. It's exactly the kind of musical I like - funny, satirical, witty, a little wacky, about a topic I'm already fascinated by. I cannot wait to see it further fleshed out and produced with lavish sets and costumes and a full orchestra. I hope they keep every one of these seven cast-members who were just perfect in their roles, maybe adding a few more actors to fill out some of the roles. Judging by the sold-out crowd, there is definitely an audience anxious to see Glensheen: The Musical, myself included!

The History Theatre's Raw Stages Festival concludes with a new play by Garrison Keillor this Sunday. But if you don't already have tickets, you're out of luck - it's sold out. But don't worry, I'll be there and will tell you all about it!

the Glensheen Mansion, definitely worth a visit
next time you find yourself in Duluth

*Velma's grand-niece was in the audience and gave her approval of the show in general and Velma's song in particular.

"Debutante Ball" by History Theatre at the Minnesota History Center

The second new work presented as part of the History Theatre's Raw Stages Festival is Debutante Ball, about a group of Filipino-American youth preparing for the traditional Debutante Ball, and the strict but supportive woman who guides them through the process. Written by Eric "Pogi" Somangil and directed by Randy Reyes (newly crowned Artistic Director of Mu Performing Arts), it's a charming look at young people and the usual struggle to find yourself at that age, along with the added struggle of trying to figure out what it means to be Filipino-American.

We meet six teenagers, three girls preparing for the Debutante Ball (played with youthful charm by Jöelle Fernandez, Suzie Juul, and Noelle Trovela) and the three boys who will serve as their escorts (the equally youthful and charming Patrick Faunillan, Alex Galick, and Kenneth Gonzales). Anna is participating despite her parents' objections, who have chosen to forget their Filipino heritage and raise their daughter as an assimilated American. But she longs to know more about her culture, so she moves in with a friend, gets a job, and decides to do this on her own. She spends time with her new friends (typical teenagers like the spoiled rich girl, the smart and independent girl, the cocky jock, and the nerdy awkward boy) and Tita Belinda, the community auntie who is hard on the kids as she teaches them to dance, but has a soft spot underneath for her charges (the character is based on a real person). The highlight of the show is a fully realized and completely entertaining performance by Arnold Felizardo as Tita.

The play features very natural language, with the teenagers talking like real teenagers talk. They also mix in some words from the Filipino language in an organic way. The history of the Debutante Ball, and the Philippines in general, is told in a very clever and well-done rap by the entire cast. Because it came early in the show, I was expecting there to be more music in the play than there was. A few lines were later sung as the boys serenade one of the girls, but it was quickly replaced by a recording of DaHil Sa 'Yo. I would love to see more live music incorporated into the next incarnation of the show, in this section and also the dancing scenes. One thing there is much of in this play is humor; I particularly enjoyed the argument about why hobbits are Filipino.

Another night at the Raw Stages Festival, another well-written and promising new play brought to life by a talented cast. Hooray for the History Theatre for fostering new work that is specific to this place, giving all Minnesotans a chance to tell their story. I appreciated the opportunity to learn a bit more about the Filipino-American culture that is so active right here in Minnesota (see the Fil-Minnesotan website to learn more).

there's something so exciting about a bare stage,
where anything can happen!

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

"Boundary Waters" by the History Theatre at Minnesota History Center

Last night I attended the first of four new works being presented by the History Theatre as part of their Raw Stages festival. On a bare stage with just a few chairs and music stands, actors read the play from the script. But with fine accomplished actors such as these, it becomes something more than just a reading, although not a fully staged production. In a reading with no visual stimulation, it's all about the words, and in this case they are beautiful descriptive words that paint a picture of a landscape and the people who inhabit it.

Boundary Waters, written by Carlyle Brown and directed by Marion McClinton, uses a real-life event in Minnesota history as a metaphor for exploring several ideas. George Bonga was a fur trader of African-American and Native American descent living in Northern Minnesota in the 19th century who became a legendary figure. One of his more famous exploits was tracking down and capturing a suspected murderer, an Ojibwe man named Che-ga-wa-skung, who was then sent to trial at Fort Snelling. This event is at the center of the play as we learn how these events changed the two men and bonded them.

The play opens in the late 1860s (post Civil War and US-Dakota War, both of which are referred to), when George Bonga (beautifully voiced by James A. Williams) is being haunted by dreams about the man he once tracked across the frozen Minnesota winter. He tells his wife (George Keller) the story, and the action flashes back to the chase in 1837. After capturing Che-ga-wa-skung (who, thanks to the writing and Jake Waid's talent in bringing him to life, becomes a sympathetic character despite being a murderer), the two have many deep discussions as they try to survive the cold. Che-ga-wa-skung asks Bonga a simple question, "who are you?" Bonga doesn't really have an answer, he's always living on the boundaries, the son of an Ojibwe mother and a black father, and living the "white ways" as a fur trader. Bonga struggles with the question until the two men meet again later in life and continue the discussion. Rounding out the cast are Jon Andrew Hegge as two colleagues of Bonga's, and Michael Terrell Brown in a too small role as Che-ga-wa-skung's brother.

I very much enjoyed the reading of this new play; it's a fascinating exploration of a chapter of Minnesota history I was previously unfamiliar with, as seen through two well-drawn characters. That's not to say my mind didn't wander on occasion during the dense political sections, but for the most part the captivating and descriptive language held my attention and painted the world so well that I could almost see it. The lakes area north of Brainerd is one of my favorite places on the planet, where I've spent many peaceful and contemplative weeks. It's a thrill to hear that place come alive and to learn a bit more about the region's rich and complicated history. Most of all, I love getting a glimpse into the creative process of what it is to have an idea, write a play, and bring it to life. I look forward to the next incarnation of Boundary Waters.

The History Theatre's Raw Stages festival continues at the Minnesota History Center tonight with Debutante Ball (about a Filipino-American Valentine's Day ball), followed by Glensheen (a musical retelling of the murder in the mansion) and Radio Man (a new play by one of my favorite Minnesotans, Garrison Keillor).

Monday, January 13, 2014

"Picnic" at Lyric Arts

The 1953 play Picnic* by William Inge is an American classic, straight out of the pages of Americana. Crisply drawn familiar characters, a small-town rural setting in which everyone knows everyone's business, strictly defined life paths to follow that the characters struggle against as they long for something more in life. Inge is a bit like a Midwestern Tennessee Williams (which is a good thing in my book). And as I've come to expect from Lyric Arts, the "big city theater with hometown charm," they do a really nice job presenting this classic. The ensemble piece is very well-cast, with each actor bringing their best to these deceptively complex characters. And the lovely green and floral set makes you forget for a moment the crisp white coldness outside.

Picnic takes place over about 24 hours or so in the hot late summer of rural Kansas, where the most exciting that happens is a picnic with returning teachers and students. As it turns out, this simple picnic and the events surrounding it set off a series of decisions in several characters' lives, changing them forever. The action takes place in the shared yard of Mrs. Potts and Mrs. Owens. The latter is the mother of two teenage daughters - older sister Madge, "the pretty one," and younger sister Millie, "the smart one." Madge has a wealthy college-educated boyfriend Alan, whom her mother hopes will marry her. But both girls have bigger dreams for their future. Dreamy Madge is dissatisfied with only being "pretty," and wonders what else there is for her, and tomboy Millie wants to read and learn and move to New York. Their father's absence is never explained, but it's hinted that he left them in some way. Mrs. Owens has taken in boarders, including "old maid schoolteacher" Rosemary. The appearance of a young man, who turns out to be a fraternity pal of Alan's, begins to stir things up. They all plan to go to the picnic together, but whisky, dancing, and frank conversations change those plans. Morning dawns, with a heartbreaking and beautiful conclusion full of raw emotion, as Madge cries out in anguish, "What do you do with this love that you feel? Where is there that you can take it?"

Madge (Sarah Frazier) and Hal (Jarome Smith)
Standouts in the cast include Kate Beahen, whose beautifully layered performance shows us that Rosemary is not as happy being an "old maid schoolteacher" as she pretends; Anthony R. Johnson as her reluctant boyfriend Howard (overheard in the audience, "he's perfect for this role"); Randy Niles, who plays Alan as clean cut and charming in a Pete Campbell surface kind of way; Nykeigh Larson, a spitfire as Millie; and Sarah Frazier and Jarome Smith as the charismatic young lovers. The charming set (by Brian J. Proball) features a sloping green turf lawn, many plants and flowers, a white picket fence, and the facades of two farmhouses. The lighting (by Matt McNabb) reflects the changing daylight, from the hot sun of daytime, to the warm glow of sunset reflecting off the actors' faces, to the dim and cool moonlight. And I loved the period costumes (by Samantha Fromm Haddow) with matching hats, purses, shoes, and gloves!

Picnic continues at Lyric Arts in Anoka through January 26. Check it out for a well-done community theater** production of an American classic.

*Fun fact: the original Broadway production of Picnic featured the debut of a young actor named Paul Newman as Alan.
**I do view theater differently at a community theater vs. a professional theater, because they simply are not working with the same resources. But I often admire artists who work in community theater more because most of them do not get paid; they do it "for the love." And it's often just as enjoyable and engaging, which is what it's all about.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

"Fuddy Meers" by Loudmouth Collective at nimbus theatre

It's fun to see multiple works by the same playwright, and look for similarities and differences between them. Loudmouth Collective's Fuddy Meers is the third play by David Lindsay-Abaire that I've seen in the last year. I could easily see the similarities between Rabbit Hole and Good People; both are intense family dramas dealing with serious issues with humor and realism. At first glance Fuddy Meers seems to be a bit of an anomaly. The situations are surreal and wildly comic - a woman who wakes every morning with amnesia, the damaged and crazy man who kidnaps her, her mother who speaks in mostly nonsensical sentences, a man who speaks through a sock puppet. While one could easily see oneself and one's friends and families in the characters and scenes in the former two plays, it's a bit of a stretch with Fuddy Meers. But by the end of the play, I could more easily see how it fit with the others - the same relatable and real characters, just in more absurd situations.

Fuddy Meers is part mystery, part madcap comedy, and part touching family drama. The mystery comes in as we join amnesiac Claire (Noë Tallen, very charming and open) in her journey to discover who she is and what happened to her. She wakes every morning with no memory, and is therefore happy and childlike, with no memory of the pain she's experienced. Her genial husband Richard (Leif Jurgensen) patiently explains the situation to her, while her surly teenage son Kenny (a completely natural Spencer Harrison Levin) just wants to go about his normal surly teenage life. Claire is surprised by a man (an effectively creepy Matt Sciple) who claims he's there to rescue her from her husband, and takes her to her mother Gertie's house. Gertie has suffered a stroke and has trouble forming sentences (in a quite brilliant performance by Karen Weise-Thompson, who believes every word she's saying, even if the words make no sense). They soon meet the crazy man's friend/accomplice Millet and his hand puppet (Paul Rutledge, equally good as both). Meanwhile, Richard and Kenny go looking for Claire and are waylaid by a cop (Katie Willer). They all end up at Gertie's house, which is where the madcap comedy ensues as the plan goes wrong, guns go off, puppets disclose truths, and everyone reaches their wit's end. The puzzle pieces begin to fall into place, and we learn just what happened and how everyone fits in. In the end, the touching family drama can be seen through the man who loves his wife and the son who loves his mother, and just want her to return to them, which has become a daily process.

Loudmouth Collective is a newish theater company, in just their second season, but all of their work that I've seen has been great - interesting choices of smart, well-written, complex plays, and wonderful actors. This cast of seven is large for them; previous pieces have been one- or two-person shows. It's a nice ensemble and they work and play well together, as directed by Artistic Director Natalie Novacek. A fun feature are the dancing scene changes which keep the mood light and the momentum going, and keep the audience from getting bored as furniture is shuffled about.

Performances continue this weekend and next at nimbus theatre's NE Minneapolis space, with ticket prices just $15 (or $10 with a Fringe button). Definitely worth checking out for an inexpensive and entertaining night at the theater.

Friday, January 10, 2014

"Hospital" by Wunderbaum and LAPD at the Walker Art Center McGuire Theater

I've never seen theater at the Walker Art Center, in fact I haven't been there since before the Guthrie moved from their original location next door to their current home on the river eight years ago. The Walker's annual Out There series, "a monthlong festival featuring new global performances, workshops, dialogue sessions, salons, and other activities," was recommended to me, so I decided to take in a performance. I also took advantage of the Target free Thursday nights to visit the museum for a few hours before the show. I have to admit, I know very little about art, and even less about modern art. But I do love to stroll through art museums and be surrounded by the creativity of artists, even if some of it I just don't get. But enough about that - on to the show.

The first of four shows in Out There 2014: New World Visions is a piece called Hospital, a collaboration between L.A. based Los Angeles Poverty Department (LAPD) and Wunderbaum, a theater company from Rotterdam. Hospital explores the ideas of health care, health insurance, and the medical field through the real life of one man - John Malpede (LAPD's Founding Artistic Director). It's not so much a play as it is a series of reenactments of events in his life related to his experiences with health care, interspersed with information about the history of health care in this country (and the Netherlands). Three or four cameras onstage capture the action, which is displayed on a large video screen along with photos and videos. Four actors from each of the two companies play a variety of roles (except for John Malpede, who only plays himself). Hospital and office equipment fill the tables that line the edges of the stage, with actors answering phones, shuffling papers, and searching through binders to represent the endless bureaucracy of the health care system.

The show opens with John's birth in 1945 and continues through his time as an artist in NYC in the 60s and his move to L.A. in the 80s, tying events in his life to the development of the health care system. In L.A. he began working with the homeless living in Skid Row (I didn't realize there was an actual place called Skid Row, I thought it was a general term to apply to places that fit the description). John later had emergency surgery while living in the Netherlands, which caused problems with his insurance company upon returning to the U.S. The show concluded with a celebration at the coming of ObamaCare, with a few comments from the audience about their experiences.

I enjoyed my first exposure to Out There, although it may be a little too out there for me. It definitely is creative, with great performances by the company and an innovative use of video. It was also very informative and an entertaining way to learn about the history of health care (although at times it felt a little too much like a lecture). If you're interested in some innovative, "out there," global theater, check out this or upcoming shows in the Out There series.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

"Broadway Songbook: George Gershwin" at the Ordway Center

Just last month, I learned about the Gershwin brothers, and lyricist Ira in particular, in Park Square Theatre's excellent play with music Words By... Ira Gershwin and the Great American Songbook. My education was furthered this weekend with the latest in the Ordway's always entertaining Broadway Songbook series, featuring the music of composer George Gerswhin. Ordway Artistic Director James Rocco tells the story of George's life and career, interspersed with relevant songs performed by some of the top musical theater talent in the Twin Cities. And it's a great story at that - an American success story with a tragic ending. Sons of Russian Jewish immigrants, the Gershwin brothers grew up in Brooklyn, where George was a prodigy on the piano. He soon found fame as a composer for Broadway and movies, collaborating with Ira and other lyricists. George died at the age of 38 from a brain tumor, but forever changed American music in his short but prolific career.

This Broadway Songbook features a significantly larger cast than past Songbooks. Ten singer/actors, each one of them a true talent, are accompanied by Raymond Berg on piano and Eric Solberg on upright bass (for an extra touch of class and jazz). With the likes of Christina Baldwin, Dieter Bierbrauer, Gary Briggle, Isabella Dawis, Jennifer Eckes, Joel Liestman, Ann Michels, Bryan Porter, Kersten Rodau, and Therese Walth, the cast does not simply sing the songs, they perform them and truly embody the humor and emotion in each composition. The benefit of having this large cast is the gorgeous full sound that they're able to achieve in the group numbers, but the bad news is that with such a large cast, each of them only has one or two solos, which in many cases left me wanting more. Such is the danger of having so much talent on one stage and only two hours to display it!

James has chosen a selection of Gerswhin songs from the familiar ("I Got Rhythm") to the obscure ("When You Want 'Em"), but all serve a purpose in the narrative. Surprisingly, there are no selections from the opera Porgy and Bess, but James did take the opportunity to plug the tour of the 2012 Broadway version coming to the Ordway in March (I second that - I saw it on Broadway and it's absolutely stunning). The evening includes too many wonderful moments to mention, but a few of them are: Christina and her boys (Joel, Bryan, and Dieter) singing the playfully seductive "Do It Again," the gorgeous ballads "How Long Has This Been Going On" (Kersten) and "Embraceable You" (Ann), some seriously great scatting by Jennifer in "Stiff Upper Lip," Christina's mic going out towards the end of "By Strauss" with her unamplified voice filling the theater (which makes me wish they'd do a song or two unplugged), the beautiful harmonies on "Love Walked In" (arranged by Raymond), and the comically drunk "Vodka" by Kersten.

The highlights of the show are the two group numbers. The casts presents a medley from the 1931 Pulitzer Prize winning musical Of Thee I Sing. Not only do we get to hear some of the witty songs in this political satire, but we get a glimpse of what the whole show would be like. The show closes with a unique original vocal version of Gershwin's masterpiece Rhapsody in Blue. The story of George's life and career in words (written by Albert Evans and arranged by Raymond) set to this iconic and instantly recognizable music is truly stunning.

This is another great installment in the Broadway Songbook series, which has taught me so much about the history of musical theater - my favorite thing in the world. I've attended all but one of the shows presented in the past three seasons and it's building up to be quite a nice curriculum. And if you're a musical theater fan, it really is required curriculum. Great stories and information accompanied by iconic music wonderfully performed by local favorites. Only one performance remains tonight, if you're brave enough to dare going out in the subzero Minnesota winter. Otherwise, make your plans for the final Broadway Songbook of the season, featuring the composing team Comden and Green, in June. I can't wait to see what next season will bring to further my education!