Monday, March 31, 2014

"The Odyssey" by Walking Shadow Theatre Company at Open Eye Figure Theatre

Charlie Bethel's one-man version of The Odyssey, which he adapted and performs, is an eye opener (no pun intended). I of course was familiar with the Greek epic poem from high school and college lit classes - you remember, it's the the one about the ten-year long sea voyage involving the one-eye Cyclops, the island of the Lotus-Eaters, the evil Circe (Cersei?) who turned men into pigs, the dangerous call of the Sirens, etc. etc. But this version allowed me to see the story in a whole new light. In two hour-long acts, Charlie spins this tale like a master storyteller, making it fun and accessible and compelling. He makes no pretense of the fact that he's telling a story to us, and in that sense it feels like the most ancient form of theater - storytelling. We could have been sitting around a fire or in a cave, except for the modern language mixed with traditional phrasing.

A quick primer for those of you who don't remember your high school or college lit class, The Odyssey recounts the journey of Odysseus as he endeavors to return home to Ithaca after the Trojan War (the subject of another excellent one-man show, An Iliad, starring Stephen Yoakam at the Guthrie last year). Odysseus angers the gods, and they curse him to wander the seas for ten years before he finally makes it home after losing all of his men and ships, only to find his house filled with suitors eating his food and wooing his wife Penelope. It's a story that's filled with much tragedy, as Odysseus watches his men being eaten by a variety of ogres and perishing in the sea, but this version is quite light-hearted. Charlie tells it with a wink at the audience, skipping over parts, giving us hints of what's to come, and pausing the story to explain inside jokes.
His carefully metered speech is a thrill to listen to, every gesture and movement meaningful, as he casts us under his spell. He makes direct eye contact with the audience, thanks us for getting a joke, and encourages us to recite the phrase "rosy-fingered dawn" along with him. He leads us through all of Odysseus' travails, playing all the roles, and casting Odysseus as a bit too curious and bold for his own good. It ends with a poignant reunion as Penelope finally welcomes back her Odysseus, after testing him to make sure he's really who he says he is. The moral of the story is, "You don't give up, because someone needs you bad."

Charlie Bethel spins the tale of Odysseus
(photo by Dan Norma
The small stage at Open Eye is as crowded as I've seen it. Filled with stacks of books, chests and blocks of wood, a classic column, and a ladder that serves to give height to the Cyclops, which tipped on its side functions as a boat. Each prop has its place in the storytelling - a pile of ancient looking paper thrown in the air becomes a hurricane, a worn piece of fabric becomes a scarf or a sail.

I just happened to attend on a night with ASL interpretation, and even though I don't understand the language, it was almost as fascinating to watch the theatrical performance of Claire Alexander as she translated the words into moving poetry as it was to watch Charlie on stage.

Charlie Bethel's unique version of The Odyssey is produced by Walking Shadow Theatre Company and continues through April 6. Check it out for an entertaining journey through a familiar story.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

"Dead Man's Cell Phone" at Theatre in the Round

Cell phones have become such an important part of our lives. Many of us (myself included) feel out of place if we don't have our phone in our hands or on our person, and when you look around any public space (airport, waiting room, or theater) you see people engrossed in their phones. Dead Man's Cell Phone (written by Sarah Ruhl who also penned the delightful In the Next Room) is about what happens when a woman becomes obsessed, not with her own phone, but someone else's. Now playing at the oldest theater in Minneapolis (aka Theatre in the Round), it's an odd, quirky, funny, absurd little play.

Jean is sitting in a cafe minding her own business when she hears a cell phone that won't stop ringing. She asks the phone's owner to please answer it, but when he doesn't respond, she answers it for him. Only then does she realize that the reason he isn't answering his phone is because he's dead. So begin's Jean's journey as she feels obliged to continue to answer this man's phone and speak to his friends, family, and business associates. She meets his mistress, his wife, his mother, and his brother, and helps them grieve their loss (although none of them seems that upset) as she finds out more about this man Gordon. When she eventually discovers the shady details of his business, she's in too deep to escape unscathed.

Colleen Somerville Leeman is a great choice for the lead role of Jean. She's just so personable and relatable that you can't help but go along with her as she take us on this strange journey. Charles Numrich brings the dead man alive as we find out just what kind of person he was. Andrew Troth provides contrast to that character as the brother who's always been in his shadow, in a sweet romance with Jean. Adding humor are Jan Arford as Gordon's self-centered mother and Anna Olson as his wife, with a couple of delightfully silly turns as a drunk and a figure skater.

It's always fun to see theater in Theatre in the Round because it is quite literally in the round. The audience surrounds the stage on all sides, providing many different perspectives of the show, which can be a challenge in staging. But in this show, as others I've seen, I never felt like I was at the wrong angle. The stage is bare, with a few set pieces brought on and off during scene changes, including a round table that can be cleverly separated into four pieces and put together in different ways to represent various tables (set design by Sadie Ward). During those scene changes (which are a bit long at times), light bulbs in greenish cubes provide a soft otherwordly glow (lighting design by Courtney Schmitz).

Dead Man's Cell Phone is fantastical and a bit absurd, but speaks to real-world issues of love, loss, and human connection. Turn your phone off for a few hours and check it out at Theatre in the Round, playing weekends through April 13.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

"The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess" at the Ordway

I loves you, Porgy
Don't let him take me
Don't let him handle me
And drive me mad
If you can keep me
I wanna stay here
With you forever
I've got my man!

This is Bess' song to Porgy, only one of the many beautiful moments in The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess, currently on tour and stopping in St. Paul this week. This classic American opera, first performed in 1935 and breaking ground and barriers with its all-black cast, has been re-imagined as a "Broadway Musical" (whatever that means), winning the 2012 Tony for Best Revival. The line between opera and musical is pretty blurry, so I'm not sure how this would be classified. There is some spoken dialogue, but the music (written by George Gershwin) dominates, and in the hands of this fantastic cast and twenty-piece (mostly local) orchestra, it's exquisite. This a beautiful and emotional story of relationships and community, but the reason to see Porgy and Bess is first and foremost the music.

Porgy and Bess is based on a novel about life in an African-American community on the coast in South Carolina in the 1920s. Bess and her man Crown are in the bad crowd of Catfish Row - involved in drugs, violence, and gambling. When Crown kills a man, he skips town, and agrees that Bess should find a "temporary" man to live with (I guess a woman living alone is out of the question). Porgy is available and willing, so he takes her in. He's beloved by the community, but they think he can never "keep" a woman because he's a "cripple." For some reason Porgy loves Bess completely and unconditionally, and is the only person who can see the good in her. It's a confidence and stability she's never known, and it teaches her to begin to believe in herself. Until her past comes back to haunt her, and she falls back into old ways. The town turns on her, but Porgy refuses to give up on his Bess. The ending is ambiguous, but I have to believe that these two damaged people find each other again.

the cast of Porgy and Bess
The score is absolutely divine and includes several songs familiar to anyone who's grown up in Western culture - in addition to "Summertime," there's "I Got Plenty of Nothin," and "It Ain't Necessarily So." As much as I enjoy seeing a modern band on stage, I geek out over a full and luscious pit orchestra, as this is. They sound beautiful along with the huge cast of strong voices onstage. Nathaniel Stampley is so believable as the pure-hearted Porgy, with a gorgeous voice and a very physical performance - his foot is turned completely in at a 90 degree angle and his whole body leans. He is equally matched by Alicia Hall Moran as Bess, and their duets are a highlight. Alvin Crawford is appropriately menacing as Crown, Kingsley Leggs provides a bit of comedy with his portrayal of Sporting Life, and David Hughey has some standout vocal moments as Jake.

In addition to the music, the production is all-around stunning. The simple set consists of a raised wooden platform with a working water pump (much of the action takes place around the community watering hole). The choreography is wonderful, so evocative of the time and place, not too smooth and polished but organic to the people and the situation, from the carefree picnic scene to the tense fight scenes. The costumes are simple but also help to explain who these people are, with Bess changing from a form fitting red dress to a soft floral dress as she becomes an accepted part of the community.

If you're a music-theater lover, The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess is one that you don't want to miss. It's historic, epic, moving, and engrossing, and features exquisite music performed by dozens of talented musicians. The tour moves on after this weekend, so get there while you can!

Monday, March 24, 2014

"Abe Lincoln and Uncle Tom in the White House" by Carlyle Brown and Company at the Guthrie Theater

Like the last play I saw in the Guthrie studio, the new play Abe Lincoln and Uncle Tom in the White House, written and directed by Carlyle Brown, is an imagined conversation between two men in history (or in this case, literature). On the eve of signing the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln receives a visit in his White House office from the fictional character Uncle Tom from Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, written in 1852 as a protest against slavery. Abe and Tom discuss slavery and what its end would mean, as well as issues of grief, loss, and faith. It's a fascinating new way to look at an age-old issue - the continuing effect of slavery on this country.

Although the phrase "Uncle Tom" has a negative connotation today as a submissive black man, at the time the book was published Uncle Tom was seen as "a noble hero and praiseworthy person." That is the version of Uncle Tom we see in this play, as he encourages Lincoln to sign the Proclamation, despite his doubts about what it will achieve. It feels like a real conversation between two equals who understand and respect each other. The two men are interrupted by Lincoln's grieving wife and her seamstress/confidante Elizabeth, showing Lincoln's human side as he continues to grieve his son and try to comfort his wife in her grief.

President Lincoln and Uncle Tom share a toast
(Steve Hendrickson and James A. Williams)
This four-person cast is stellar, each one well-suited to their role. Steve Hendrickson is a most excellent Lincoln; he's just how we imagine him to be, with the weight of the world on his shoulders. James A. Williams is his equal as he conveys Tom's confusion at how he ended up here, as well as his strong faith and human dignity that allow him to survive. India Gurley has the least developed role as Elizabeth, but she's there to support her friend. Last but not least, Jodi Kellogg is outstanding as the fragile Mrs. Lincoln, all raw nerves and desperation as she tries to make sense of what her life has become.

The look of the president's White House office is efficiently achieved with just a few set pieces. Three large white frame windows hang in mid-air to represent one wall, with grand white doors opposite them. Just a desk, sofa, and two chairs adorn the space along with a few rugs (set design by Joseph Stanley).

This brief look into the life of Lincoln, a president we know so well, and Uncle Tom, a fictional character we think we know so well, offers a fresh perspective and an opportunity to explore some important issues in a new way. I've never read Uncle Tom's Cabin but I'm now intrigued, and might have to pick it up sometime. In the meantime, you can visit Abe Lincoln and Uncle Tom in the White House in the Guthrie's Dowling Studio from now through April 6.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

"Cyrano" at Park Square Theatre

The story of Cyrano de Bergerac is one everyone knows, even if you haven't seen one of the many dramatic interpretations of this 17th Century French poet's life. Despite being familiar with the story (Cyrano is in love with Roxane but fears that she could never love him back because of his unusually large nose, so he agrees to supply the poetic words of love to the handsome Christian that cause Roxane to fall in love with him), I hadn't seen the play before last year (although I have seen the 1987 Steve Martin/Daryl Hannah flick Roxanne, if that counts). Bradley Greenwald's musicalized translation of the original late 19th Century play, presented as part of Theater Latte Da's new work initiative last year, was my first exposure to the full story. Park Square Theatre is currently presenting another new-ish translation by Michael Hollinger, and with a fantastic cast, impressive set, and "immediate, rhythmic, and lively" language (as the playwright himself notes in the program), it's a wonderful interpretation of this story that is a great mix of comedy and tragedy.

There's a feeling of a-play-within-a-play as actors wander on stage before the show begins and start prepping, dressing, and adjusting wigs. The character of Le Bret (Shawn Hamilton) functions as a sort of narrator, setting the stage and introducing characters. Cyrano (J.C. Cutler) and Christian (Sam Bardwell) are soldiers in the same regiment, the former known for his skill with words and the sword, and the latter a bit of an unknown as newcomer to the regiment. Cyrano is in love with his beautiful cousin Roxane (Emily Gunyou Halaas), so when she tells him that she loves the handsome Christian, he agrees to look out for him. Unbeknownst to Roxane, he also agrees to write letters to her from Christian, who is not blessed with the gift of poetry as Cyrano is. Roxane continues to fall in love with Christian through his (Cyrano's) letters, culminating in a lovely balcony scene reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet. The second act sees Cyrano and Christian going off to war, with Roxane in pursuit, unable to be parted from her love. When she tells Christian that she loves him for his soul, and would love him even if he were ugly, he realizes that it's Cyrano she truly loves, not him. It's a tragically bittersweet ending, as truths are revealed too late.    

Roxane and Cyrano
(Emily Gunyou Halaas and J.C. Cutler)
There are many reasons to see this show, but the number one reason is J.C. Cutler's beautiful and nuanced performance as the titular hero. His impressive talent (see also last season's Red) is a perfect fit for Cyrano; he's everything you want Cyrano to be. His voice is loud and commanding or soft and gentle, he's smart and witty, an ace swordsman, and speaks entrancing words of love. It's easy to see why Roxane falls in love with him, albeit unknowingly. The always great Emily Gunyou Halaas is a Roxane worthy of his affections, smart and spirited. Sam Bardwell is perfectly charming as Christian; even though he may not be able to put words together very well, there are still plenty of reasons to love him, and you almost wish that Roxane could see and love him for who he really is.

This wonderful cast of nine seems much larger, as everyone except for J.C. plays multiple roles, quickly coming and going from the stage with dizzying speed. Of special note are Jon Andrew Hegge and Craig Johnson who each create such different characters they're almost unrecognizable from one to the other, with fast and fantastic costume changes happening backstage. Jon transforms from the town drunk to the kindly nun, and Craig from the theater owner to Roxane's over-protective and fluttery pastry-loving nurse, and several characters in between.

When the director is also a choreographer as Joe Chvala is, you know that movement is going to be an interesting and integral part of the show, as it is here. One example is Cyrano's famous battle against 100 thugs, which is a delight to watch (with fight choreography by Annie Enneking). The period costumes (by Matthew J. LeFebvre) are gorgeous, from Roxane's flouncy dresses to the men in tall boots and capes. The set (by Robin McIntyre) is dominated by two large set pieces with stairs and a balconies that move and turn to create different shapes and spaces on stage. Lastly, there are also a few musical interludes that feel organic and are quite fun and lovely.

Cyrano is many things in one play - great comedy, a tragically beautiful love story, sword fights and epic battles, and beautifully poetic language. This impressive production is playing at Park Square Theatre now through April 6.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

"The Big Show" by Theatre Forever at the Southern Theater

I grew up on game shows. Shows like The 10,000 Dollar Pyramid, Hollywood Squares, The Joker's Wild, and my favorite, Family Feud. Theatre Forever's The Big Show hearkens back to those good old days, and it's great fun. But it also digs a little deeper as popular host Jackie Cartwright takes the opportunity of his final show to look back on his life and the sacrifices he made to get where he is. In addition to being funny and entertaining, The Big Show is also sad and poignant at times, with some really beautiful images created in the gorgeous space that is the Southern Theater. Unfortunately the show is closing tonight, so let me get right down to it:
  • Brant Miller as Jackie Cartwright is, as always, so funny and inventive and totally committed to his character. Jackie is a combination of every game show host from the 70s, with more than a little Richard Dawson and his penchant for kissing the ladies and the catch phrase "survey says!" But there's a desperation just underneath the big personality, as he contemplates what his life will be like now that the show is ending after he pushed everything aside for it.
  • This wonderful ensemble (who also helped to create the piece along with director Jon Ferguson, Dominic Orlando, and Brant Miller) includes Joanna Harmon and Tony Sarnicki as game show contestants, as well as Jackie's wife and son; Katelyn Skelley and Leslie O'Neil as the game show assistants/dancers with their perfect 70s hair; and Mark Benzel and Robert Haarman as a couple of stagehands that help to set the scenes both in the game show and in Jackie's life.
  • The trippy 70s vibe is fantastic, and the women's costumes are especially fab, from the flowy pastel dresses of Jackie's assistants, made for twirling, to Joanna's super cool floral jumpsuit.
  • The lighting (designed by Per Olson) helps to create the mood of reflection, with some really lovely effects created by the hanging light bulbs and light bulbs on sticks wielded by the cast. Various props are also put into effect, my favorite being the single feather that softly and elegantly falls from the ceiling. Jackie has an obsession with the night sky, which comes into play in the beautiful ending. 
A note in the program summarizes the impetus for the show as such: "Brant wanted to make a game show, Jon wanted to make a piece about afterlife, and Dominic wanted to make a piece about a nervous breakdown on television." Mission accomplished on all fronts. Fresh and original, with a touch of nostalgia, tons of humor, and some really lovely moments such as the one below.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Park Square Theatre's Season 2014-2015 Announcement

I had a great St. Paul theater day this past Sunday. In between seeing two powerful plays at the History Theatre (The Things They Carried and Lonely Soldiers: Women at War in Iraq), I stopped in at Park Square Theatre for their new season announcement. They have an exciting and ambitious new season planned, which includes opening a second stage, named for one of the theater's biggest supporters, Andy Boss, who passed away last week.

Park Square will put on 19 productions on the two stages, a crazy number of shows for one theater in one season. This new space in St. Paul is coming at a great time, since we recently lost the Ordway's McKnight Theatre on the other side of Rice Park. The new stage will house both Park Square productions and productions by other theater companies. In particular, Park Square has a three-year partnership with three nomadic theater companies - Theatre Pro Rata, Sandbox Theatre, and Girl Friday Productions.

After mingling in the lobby (or in my case, local theater celebrity spotting) with free drinks and food, the crowd moved into the theater where Artistic Director Richard Cook and Managing Director Michael-jon Pease led an informal discussion of the upcoming season, allowing the audience (mostly made up of artists and season subscribers) to ask questions. But first - a performance from the truly innovative and delightful Trick Boxing by Sossy Mechanics, a show so good I cannot wait to see it again on the Boss stage early next year.

A few other shows I'm looking forward to next season:
  • The Color Purple: I saw the Broadway touring production several years ago and wept like I never have before or since at the theater. Alice Walker's story is so moving in book and movie format, and adding music just pushes the emotions over the top. I cannot wait to see it with an all-local cast, and if I were in charge of casting, I'd choose Brittany Bradford as Celie and Austene Van as Shug Avery.
  • Sherlock Holmes and the Ice Palace Murders: The brilliant and hilarious playwright Jeffrey Hatcher is adapting this novel by Larry Millett which re-imagines Sherlock Holmes in Minnesota. I'm not sure what this means for the whole is Benedict Cumberbatch coming to Minnesota controversy, but it's sure to be good fun.
  • Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol: A returning favorite in which one actor plays all of the roles in A Christmas Carol. I can only hope that the one actor is again Jim Lichtsheidl, master of transformation.
Most of the other shows I'm not familiar with, but I look forward to discovering. Finally, the discussion ended with another excerpt from an upcoming show, the very funny, silly, and poignant 2 Sugars, Room for Cream. In this new scene, writer/performers Carolyn Pool and Shanan Custer worked out a custody arrangement for the Ivey they won last year. This is a show I will gladly go see a third time.

And that's it. Some good stuff is happening in St. Paul. You can see the full list of shows on their website, where you will also find info about the various season ticket packages. I wish them much success with this new venture. See you in St. Paul!

Monday, March 17, 2014

"The Things They Carried" and "Lonely Soldiers: Women at War in Iraq" at the History Theatre

The History Theatre is currently producing two plays in rep, both dealing with the effects of war on the soldiers who fight in them. The Things They Carried is based on the semi-autobiographical collection of short stories by Tim O'Brien, a Minnesota man who was drafted out of college in 1968 and sent to Vietnam. Lonely Soldiers: Women at War in Iraq is also based on a book - a series of interviews with women who served in the Iraq War. I saw both plays in one day, which makes for a pretty heavy day. But it's a nice pairing of plays that show different perspectives of war. Both tell really powerful and important stories and feature fine acting, but one affected me much more deeply.

Lonely Soldiers: Women at War in Iraq
After seeing this play I was completely devastated. I had a hard time shaking it. It was one of the most powerful experiences I've had at the theater in quite some time. Because it's not just theater, and it's not just history (both of which the History Theatre does so well), it's about very real and devastating issues facing women in the military. Based on the 2009 book by Helen Benedict, who also wrote the play, Lonely Soldiers tells the stories of seven women who served in the military in Iraq. Helen spent countless hours interviewing these and other women over a period of several years, and their words form the text of the play. The result is a very real and brutal examination of how our military, and our society in a broader sense, tolerates harassment and assault of women.

The play is constructed as a series of monologues using the women's own words. They speak directly to the audience, sharing their varied reasons for joining the military (economic, family pressure, rebellion) and their experiences that were so different from their expectations. Each story is different, yet they're all the same, as they all experience various forms and degrees of harassment from their male counterparts and superiors, with no one to talk to about it. The stories unfold separately, and it's not until the end, when they're home and trying to process what they've been through, that the women start to look at each other and talk to each other, and there's a feeling of relief that can finally share their stories, with each other and with the audience.

the cast of Lonely Soldiers (photo by Scott Pakudaitis)
This cast of seven women (and one man, Santino Craven, who has the thankless job of portraying the mostly not-so-nice men in the women's stories), so completely embodies these characters that you almost believe that they are them. Jamecia Bennet, Shana Berg, Dawn Brodey, Hope Cervantes, Tamara Clark, Meghan Kreidler, and Rhiana Yazzie all give such devastatingly real performances, under the direction of Austene Van, who noted in the program, "The notion that someone who takes on the responsibility to serve and protect with their very lives is left unprotected and damaged forever by those who should be trusted is difficult to fully grasp." Indeed. These women's lives is so far from my experience, I can't even imagine a world like that, but now I don't have to because this play allowed me to experience a little bit of it. And that's about as close to war as I ever want to get. I had tears in the back of my eyes for the entire ninety minutes, and I don't even know anyone in the military.

There was a talk-back after the show I attended, with the playwright, director, and cast onstage to answer questions. There were several women vets in the audience, and those who worked with them in their recovery, and some of them stood up and told similar stories to what we had just heard, which brought another level of reality to the experience. Because of the book and the documentary that it inspired, The Invisible War, there is hopefully more awareness now of how women are treated in the military, but it's certainly still going on.

The Things They Carried
In this one-man show directed by Leah Cooper, Stephen D'Ambrose plays Tim O'Brien, the author of the book. He begins by sitting at his desk writing, and soon speaks directly to the audience, telling stories of his time in Vietnam. It's as if he's reliving the stories as he's writing them down. He occasionally repeats a line as he goes back to his desk to write it in his notebook, almost as if he's telling it for the first time and wants to get it down on paper before he forgets it. As he's telling the story, Stephen also plays many other characters, including his buddies, his family, and the man who "saved his life."

Stephen D'Ambrose in The Tings They Carried
 (photo by Scott Pakudaitis)
Many stories and vignettes are told in the two-act play, but the most compelling are about his trip to the Canadian border shortly after he was drafted, where he contemplated leaving the country to avoid going to war. It's an extremely compelling story, well-told by the author and actor. The second act largely focuses on the death of his best friend, and his journey back to Vietnam 20 years later to attempt some closure. All of the stories are told with beautiful, almost poetic language (most of which I assume comes from the book), wonderfully delivered by Stephen. This is theater at its most basic form - storytelling.

Since the two plays alternate dates over the next several weeks, they share the same basic set (designed by Sarah Brander). The sand-colored floor and weathered wooden slat backdrop works for both. The steps and rock formations in Lonely Soldiers are replaced by office furniture in The Things They Carried. It's an efficient sharing of space.

These two plays really fit well together, but if you can only see one of them, I would recommend Lonely Soldiers. Stories from Vietnam, although still important and relevant, have been told in many forms over the past 40 years. But the stories told in Lonely Soldiers have only recently begun to be heard, and they need to be heard. See the History Theatre website for more info on both plays (and you can find discount tickets for Lonely Soldiers on Goldstar).

Sunday, March 16, 2014

"Our Town" by Theater Latte Da at the Lab Theater

Thornton Wilder's Our Town is an American classic, first produced over 70 years ago, and continuing through the years with frequent productions in theaters and schools around the country. It's a simple story really; its three acts explore the ideas of "Daily Life," "Love and Marriage," and "Death and Dying" through the interconnected residents of Grover's Corners. But it's really quite profound in its simplicity, the final act being especially poignant as it forces us to look at the beauty of every day life and communion with our fellow human beings, something that is often overlooked in the busyness of life. Theater Latte Da adds their usual musical style to the piece, with direction by Peter Rothstein and Music Direction/ Arrangement by Denise Prosek, in a way that enhances but never detracts from the story. The result is truly a beautiful experience that transcends mere theater.

The play is written in an unusual style, in which a character known as "Stage Manager" (played by the incomparable Wendy Lehr, recently named the McKnight Foundation's Distinguished Artist of 2013) serves as narrator, and fully acknowledges that this is a play, introducing scenes and cutting them off when time is short. He, or in this case she, speaks directly to the audience as she tells us the story of this extraordinarily ordinary town. We meet many people in the town, from the milkman to the constable to the town drunk, but the focus is on the Gibbs and Webb families. George Gibbs and Emily Webb (David Darrow and Andrea San Miguel, both utterly charming and charismatic) are teenagers and best friends in the first act, and the second act features their wedding at a young age. The third act takes place in the cemetery, with the deceased observing and commenting on the living. Emily has died in childbirth, and wants to relive one mundane day in her life, against the advice of the other residents of the cemetery. She chooses her 12th birthday, but finds that it's too painful to watch the careless way her family goes about the day, not realizing how precious each moment is, and begs to be returned to her grave.

the cast of Our Town (photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp)
Theater Latte Da "does theater musically," so they've added music to their production of Our Town in a really effective and organic way.* It's not a musical where characters break out into song, in fact songs never interrupt the flow of dialogue. Occasionally there is a soft musical undertone in some of the scenes, adding ambiance and color to the story, but most of the music comes before the show and during the two intermissions, when the cast (most of whom play instruments) sings and plays songs of the American Songbook, from traditional folk songs to Stephen Foster and Irving Berlin. It's as if we're watching a community celebrate and share music in between telling us their story (although it belies the line about there not being much interest in art and culture in Grover's Corners).

Our Town is meant to have minimal sets, but this production takes it to the extreme. Walking into the gorgeous open space at the Lab Theater, the stage area contains only musical instruments and a few stools. Not much more is added during the play, other than a few chairs, benches, and ladders. It's extremely minimal, allowing the focus to be on the story and the music. The audience sits on both sides of the stage area, adding to the community feeling. The simple light bulbs hanging from the ceiling, occasionally lowered or darkened as the scene calls for, completes the mood of the piece.

Nineteen actor/singer/musicians portray the residents of Grover's Corners, diverse in age, ability, and race. They often sit in the audience while not onstage, or come through various aisles, as if the audience makes up some of the rest of the 2642 residents of the town. It's such an incredible ensemble, each one of whom breathes life and color into their character and the story. A few favorites include:
  • Warm and wonderful performances by all four actors playing the parents - Brian Grandison and Sara Ochs as Dr. and Mrs. Gibbs, and Isabell Monk O'Connor and Dan Hopman as the Webbs.
  • Blake Thomas' authentic country voice and great musicianship on the slide guitar, banjo, fiddle, etc. (he's one of my favorite local musicians - check out his albums on iTunes).
  • Tod Peterson's trademark humor as the alcoholic choir director. A sad story with a sad ending, but it's hard not to laugh at Tod's carefully practiced walk barely disguising the drunken stagger.
  • Mary Fox's animal sounds coming from the audience and hilarious wedding outbursts.
  • The surprisingly sweet Irish tenor of David Carey.
  • The adorable and talented children, especially 9-year-old Natalie Tran and her sweet brother/sister relationship with David Darrow's George.
  • A heartbreakingly beautiful solo by David towards the end of the second intermission, setting the tone for the somber final act.
Our Town continues at the Lab Theater through April 6. Don't miss this chance to see an American classic in a fresh new music-enhanced production. It's simply beautiful.

*For me, Our Town naturally comes with musical accompaniment, since the only other production of the play I've seen, at Yellow Tree Theatre three years ago, also had music. Blake Thomas and Mary Fox also appeared in that production, and are currently creating a live radio show from Duluth called Take It With You, to premiere next month. Check out their website and Stay Tuned to Cherry and Spoon for more info.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

"A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur" by Gremlin Theatre in an Apartment Next to Open Eye Figure Theatre

I love site-specific theater, when a play is produced not in a traditional theater space, but rather in a location where it might actually take place. A dark office comedy in an office, a relationship drama in what looks like a Brooklyn apartment, or an early 20th century story of the wealthy and the help in the basement kitchen of the James J. Hill House. These very real locations make it easier to suspend disbelief, so that you feel like you're actually witnessing real happenings in a real environment. But as Gremlin Theatre found out last week, this sort of site-specific theater is not as easy as it looks. They were set to produce Tennessee Williams' A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur in a house in St. Paul, when they were informed of occupancy and legal issues just a day before performances were supposed to start. They were forced to suspend the production indefinitely, but were luckily able to quickly secure another location, an apartment owned by Open Eye Figure Theatre, proving the old adage of theater - "the show must go on!" And it just so happens that this is the perfect location for this funny, touching, and wistful little play set in a St. Louis apartment. Kudos to director Jef Hall-Flavin, technical director and scenic designer Carl Schoenborn (who can currently be seen onstage in Savage Umbrella's Rapture), the excellent four-person cast, and the entire Gremlin team for making a seamless transition in such a short time. The play looks as if it was always meant to play in that space. I have really come to appreciate Gremlin Theatre over the last few years, everything they do is so well-done and they make interesting and unexpected choices, so I'm happy to see them continue on after losing their permanent home last yearA Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur is a wonderful production and a welcome return.

Tennessee Williams (one of my favorite playwrights), is most well-known for the American Southern tragedies he wrote in the '40s and '50s - Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, A Streetcar Named Desire, and my personal favorite, The Glass MenagerieCreve Coeur, written in 1979, is one of his later works but definitely bears a resemblance to those earlier plays. Set in St. Louis in the 1930s and focusing on one day in the lives of four women, it features the obligatory desperately and tragically in love Southern woman. Dotty has recently moved from Memphis to teach Civics in the local school, and is rooming with Bodey, a German woman intent on setting Dotty up with her twin brother (the title refers to the location of a picnic she's planning). But Dotty is in love with the school principal, and spends the day waiting for his phone call. Her friend and fellow teacher Helena drops by to collect money for the apartment they're planning to share in the nicer part of town. Helena looks down on Bodey and her shabby and colorful apartment. Bodey is fiercely protective of Dotty (and her plot to marry her to her brother), and tries to prevent Helena from telling her some devastating news. Complicating the situation is a visit from the upstairs neighbor Sophie, grieving the recent death of her mother and afraid to be alone in her apartment. There's no happy ending for any of these women (this is Tennessee Williams, after all), but as Dotty says, "We must pull ourselves together and go on. Go on, we must just go on, that's all that life seems to offer - and demand."

Suzanne Warmanen and Sara Richardson
The show is well cast. Suzanne Warmanen is always hilarious (see also: Pride and Prejudice and her many appearances in A Christmas Carol), but also gives Bodey a depth of feeling and heart beneath the busybody exterior. Sara Richardson, who can do broad comedy as well as intense drama, walks the line between the two and is pitch perfect as the classic Tennessee Williams Southern woman ala Blanche and Maggie the Cat. Sara takes Dotty from a happy and carefree young woman doing her daily exercises to a woman who's dreams have been crushed. As Helena, Jane Froiland is appropriately haughty, while also giving us a hint of what's underneath the polished exterior (see Jane in the hilarious locally filmed web series Theater People). Last but not least, Noë Tallen is equal parts humor (rushing to the bathroom because of what coffee does to her digestion) and pathos (wailing that she's "alein in der Welt" - "alone in the world") in her portrayal of poor Sophie.

All of this takes place in a very realistic apartment, because it is a real apartment. Walking through the door next to Open Eye, you are presented with a long narrow room with high ceilings. First are few rows of chairs and stools for the audience, followed by the living room area opening up to the kitchen behind. Stairs on the right go up to the upstairs apartment. Colorful wall hangings and props adorn the space, and it's hard to tell which came with the space and which were brought in for the production, so organic does it feel. The four women move around the space, from the open door letting in cold air behind the audience, to the living room, kitchen, stairs, and even bathroom (which the audience members can use before the show and during intermission). Bodey really fries chicken (you can hear and smell it) and makes deviled eggs in the kitchen. The period costumes (by Clare Brauch) also feel authentic, from the frumpy housedresses of the German women, to Helena's beautiful period dress and hat, as pretty and proper as she is, and Dotty's simple but pretty new dress. It all feels very real.

I once wrote "Tennessee Williams did not write comedies," although maybe he did, as this play is much lighter than his usual southern tragedy. But there are still elements of that tragedy, in a woman grieving her beloved mother, another desperately in love with a man who is not who she thinks he is, another hanging all of her hopes for happiness on someone else's possible relationship, and one who seems cold and selfish but is really just longing to not be alone.

With just 40 seats and a reduced performance schedule, tickets may be hard to come by (the performance I attended was sold out), but it's worth the effort. There are a few discount tickets left on Goldstar, otherwise call or get your tickets online at the Gremlin website. Don't miss this chance to see a lesser known work by one of America's greatest playwrights, brought to very real life by a great cast in an authentic location.

"Rapture" by Savage Umbrella at nimbus theatre

What is art? Who is an artist? Why do some works of art sell for millions of dollars while others end up at a garage sale? Such are the questions explored in the new play Rapture by Savage Umbrella, currently playing at nimbus theatre's NE Minneapolis space (which has been hosting several theater companies over the last few months). The premise of the show is that there has been an "artist rapture," in which ten percent of the world's population - the artists (actors, painters, crocheters) - has disappeared. But what about the people left behind, those that consider themselves artists but are now questioning that, and are seen by the world as frauds? It's a fascinating idea, one that's nicely explored by playwright and director Tanner Curl with a solid cast playing quirky characters. It reminds me a little of one of my favorite plays of 2012 - Red, about painter Mark Rothko (who's mentioned in the play) - in that it discusses the very nature of art, although in a more fantastical way.

Famous painter Evelyn (Mary Cutler) is one of those left behind, but her stoic and business-like nature doesn't allow any insecurities or doubts to show. Her granddaughter Lucy (winningly portrayed by Adelin Phelps) is her exact opposite, wearing her heart and her doubts on her sleeve for the world to see. An art student, Lucy's whole world has collapsed with the rapture, including the disappearance of her "best performance friend forever" Sloane (Mason Mahoney). She bonds with Evelyn's assistant Eddie (Russ Dugger), and together with the eccentric neighbor Ann (Karen Bix, a hoot), they try to break through Evelyn's icy veneer. They convince her to go on the cable TV show hosted by Terry (Laura Leffler-McCabe) to defend herself and her art. Meanwhile, Evelyn is being visited by the ghost of her old friend, a characterization of real-life artist Thomas Kinkade (Carl Schoenborn), who's also helping her to work through her issues. In the end, I'm not sure that any of the questions are answered, but it's the asking and the working through them that counts.

Adelin Phelps and Mary Cutler
You can see from the cover of the program above the great contrast between the two main characters Evelyn and her granddaughter Lucy, a contrast which is nicely portrayed by Mary and Adelin. Adelin's training in physical theater (she's a founding member of Transatlantic Love Affair) shows in the way that the character of performance artist Lucy invades her entire body, nervously tapping the desk, making over-the-top movements, even in the way she moves her bare feet. The show opens with one of Lucy and Sloane's "performances," quite clever and well-done and at the same time poking gentle fun at "performance art," and ends with an expressive freedom dance as Lucy embraces her art despite what the rapture says.

The costume design (by Christina Forga) helps to create the characters, from Lucy's colorful and crazy wardrobe, to Evelyn's muted gray work clothes, to eccentric Ann's hippy skirts and sweaters, to TV host Terry's smart suits. The clean and precise set (designed by Shannon Morgan) fits Evelyn's manner - organized shelves with paints and brushes neatly aligned, her "gray" series of paintings (an homage to Rotho's reds?) hung evenly across the top. For the beach scene there's even real sand for Lucy to dig her toes into.

This was my first time attending a Savage Umbrella production, and I liked what I saw. A thought-provoking new play, solid cast, and all around well-done production. They also display art by local artists in the lobby, which adds to the evening of contemplating art. In the end, I couldn't help but think of my favorite musician Glen Hansard's Oscar acceptance speech - "Make art, make art!" (Rapture plays now through March 22.)

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

"Peter and the Starcatcher" at the Orpheum Theatre

The Broadway tour of Peter and the Starcatcher,* which recently landed at Hennepin Theatre Trust's Orpheum Theatre, is not your typical Broadway show. And that's why I love it. Not that I don't love typical Broadway shows, but Broadway is not usually the place to see innovations in theater and storytelling, especially lately with the increasing trend of turning every movie into a musical. Peter and the Starcatcher, despite being based on a book and a prequel to the well-know and much-adapted story of Peter Pan, is completely original and refreshingly innovative. Incorporating music (a few songs accompanied by keyboard and percussion, which also provide a soundtrack to the action), elements of physical theater (similar to Minnesota's Live Action Set and Transatlantic Love Affair), low-tech stage illusions, and good old-fashioned storytelling, it's a delightfully successful theatrical experiment.

Peter and the Starcatcher is based on the 2004 novel Peter and the Starcatchers by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, a prequel to the Peter Pan story we're all familiar with. The play was written by Rick Elice and is directed by Roger Rees and Alex Timbers (who, along with several members of the creative team, was also responsible for the wacky and fun satire Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, which can be seen this summer in a production by Minneapolis Musical Theatre). Much of the story is explained to us in narration by the twelve-person ensemble. The title character is an unnamed and unloved orphan who's sold into slavery along with two other boys. They're being transported on the ship Neverland, captained by Slank and his rough and rowdy crew. Also on board are 13-year-old Molly and her nurse. Molly's father, the well-to-do and important Lord Aster, has entrusted her to the captain while he travels on a more dangerous route aboard the Wasp, on a mission for the queen. He's transporting a trunk of the mysterious "starstuff" that unbeknownst to him has been swapped with a similar trunk of worthless sand by the devious Captain Slank. Aster's ship is overtaken by pirates, namely the dastardly Black Stache, and much hijinks and hilarity ensue as the pirates try to get the treasure and Molly and the boys try to save it and her father. The action continues in the second act as they all land on a colorful tropical island. All of the trunk-swapping and devious machinations are a little convoluted and at times difficult to follow, but it's a sweet and engaging story with a heroine and a hero to root for. Through it all runs the theme of home and friendship and belonging, as the unnamed boy becomes the legend that is Peter Pan.

This is a true ensemble piece; each member of the twelve-person cast has many roles to play and is fully committed to the storytelling. They form walls and doors, provide sound effects, and create a window or the waves of the ocean from a simple rope, a friendly bird from a rubber glove, and a bright fairy from a spot of light. In a crowd-pleasing scene to open Act Two, this mostly male cast dons costumes and sings about how "starstuff" turned them into mermaids. As Peter and Molly, Joey DeBettencourt and Megan Stern (the sole woman in the cast) are strong and charismatic, and Benjamin Schrader is a delight as Molly's nurse. Black Stache (aka Captain Hook) is a scene-stealing scenery-chewing kind of role (it won Christian Borle a Tony), and John Sanders is up to the task, stretching out every word and gesture to its most hilarious effect, culminating in a several minute long rant in which he repeats "oh my God" what seems like hundreds of times, conveying a range of emotions with just those three words.

What I appreciate most about Peter and the Starcatcher is that it's a really creative and fresh form of storytelling. When children's entertainment is done well, and doesn't talk down to them and spoon feed them easily digestible morsels, but rather engages their brains and imaginations as participants in the storytelling experience, it's something that children of all ages, including the hated grown ups, can appreciate. Peter and Molly and the boys are only in Minneapolis through the weekend, so get there soon to experience another side of Broadway.

*I saw the Broadway production of Peter and the Starcatcher the last time I was in NYC, and borrowed much of this post from what I wrote then.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

"Opera Demystified" by Skylark Opera at the Landmark Center

Christina Baldwin and Jennifer Baldwin Peden
perform Opera Demystified at a school
Two of Minnesota's best music-theater actors just happen to be sisters: Christina Baldwin and Jennifer Baldwin Peden. Both are incredibly talented and appear in everything from opera to musicals to plays, with theater companies all over town. If either one of them is in a show, it's guaranteed to be good, so the two of them together is double the thrill! I haven't seen them perform together since my favorite Guthrie show ever, Pirates of Penzance, in which Jennifer played Mabel and Christina played her sister, naturally. So I was not going to miss an opportunity to watch a free performance with the two of them at St. Paul's beautiful Landmark Center. They presented a version of the program that they do in schools called Opera Demystified. I am a musical theater geek, but I can count the number of operas I've seen on one hand, so this was a great education for me as well. And it really makes me want to see more opera (who needs a night off?).

Jennifer and Christina started the show with a medley of opera "hits," familiar even to an opera novice such as me, which proves that opera is a part of our popular culture. They then launched into an interactive mini history of opera, complete with dates, facts, musical snippets, and silly made up statements by Jennifer, sure to entertain kids (and adults). True to the title of their program, they make opera completely accessible, understandable, and enjoyable. Some of their lessons include singing "Wrecking Ball" in an operatic style to demonstrate that opera is not appropriate for every song and situation, explaining that vibrato was developed to help singers be heard over the orchestra before the days of amplification (thanks, electricity!), and translating well known pieces into English to show that opera really is telling a story. As sisters, Christina and Jennifer have such a great rapport and are quite amusing to watch, in between blowing the audience away with their gorgeous voices.

The Baldwin sisters have a bit of help with this program, including Steven Stucki on piano and audience plant Aaron Larson, whom they brought up on stage and pretended to teach about opera, until he began to sing and it was revealed that he's an accomplished opera singer himself.

the stage in the stunning atrium
of the Landmark Center
Skylark Opera sponsors Opera Demystified, and also hosts a summer festival which I've attended for the past few years. Jennifer and Christina will both be performing in this year's festival, and gave us a little taste of what we'll see at Concordia University's E.M. Pearson Theatre in June. Jennifer will be appearing in Leonard Bernstein's Candide (which I've been wanting to see since getting a taste of it at a Broadway Songbook last year), and Christina in From Berlin to Broadway, featuring the music of Kurt Weill. In addition, two other songs featured in the history lesson are operas you can see locally in the coming weeks. The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess is coming to the Ordway at the end of March, and Frank Theatre is doing The Threepenny Opera in April.

If you work with a school (high school, middle school, or elementary) and are interested in exposing the students to the arts, I highly recommend you contact Skylark Opera to inquire about the Opera Demystified program. It's highly entertaining and educational, and guaranteed to create a few new opera fans.  It worked for me!

Sunday, March 9, 2014

"Rhythm in Motion" by Mu Daiko at the Cowles Center

I wanna be a taiko drummer. What a thrill it must be to carry a big stick, hit something as hard as you can, and make a beautiful noise with your friends. It certainly is a thrill to be in the audience and experience all that wonderful energy coming from the stage! Mu Daiko, the drumming ensemble part of Mu Performing Arts, presented their seventeenth mainstage production at the Cowles Center this weekend. I've seen them perform several times over the past few years, and they never cease to absolutely thrill me with their precise rhythms and gracefully powerful choreography. You owe it to yourself to see them perform at least once; it's a thrill that engages the mind, body, and soul and leaves you feeling invigorated and energized (perhaps not the best choice of performance for the night before the time change!).

The eleven-member ensemble (including two interns) presented twelve pieces in two acts, composed by Mu Daiko Founder Rick Shiomi, Artistic Director Iris Shiraishi, and members Jennifer Weir, Heather Jeche, and Craig Schultz. As difficult as it must be perform, I cannot imagine all that goes into composing one of these pieces, not just creating rhythms and dynamics for multiple instruments, but also the intricate choreography that accompanies each sound. Instruments include multiple sizes and types of drums, flutes, and stringed instruments. Some pieces are quiet, still, and graceful, some are fun and playful, and some are explosive. Sometimes the entire ensemble is onstage, sometimes just four drummers. It's a really nice variety and I appreciate all of the pieces, but it's the loud and fast ones that are the crowd-pleasers and really get the blood pumping. In the final number, composed by Jennifer Weir, drummers sit on the floor and lean back while pounding on the drums, in what must be the best ab workout ever. By the end of the song they are all grimacing and shouting, in pain or ecstasy or both. A fantastic ending to a wonderful display of music, dance, talent, and artistry.

my abs hurt just watching this!
(photo by Michal Daniel)
A lovely feature of this concert is that all nine full members of Mu Daiko spoke a little bit about how they started with taiko and what it means to them. It was truly inspirational to listen to their different stories, most of which started with "I went to see Mu Daiko perform, took a class, and was hooked." They spoke of a deeper connection with fellow members and the audience and oneself, an exchange of energy, and the rewarding challenges to mind, body, and spirit.

Jennifer Weir leads the way
(photo by Michal Daniel)
A taiko drumming performance is not out of place on a theater blog. There are quite a few theatrical elements. While there's no story per se, each piece is built around a theme or idea, and the drummers are actors too, almost playing characters as they egg each other on and toss the rhythm back and form. They most definitely are dancers, not just in the perfectly synchronized movements of the drumming, but also in the traditional dancing that accompanies some of the songs. The lighting is theatrical, as are the costumes - the traditional red and black uniforms in the first act (and these strange sock/shoes that look like cloven hooves), and the modern and individual white clothing with a touch of red in the second act (barefoot!).

It's so much fun to watch this wonderful ensemble as they work and play together, and see the expressions on their faces. In particular, it gives me so much joy to watch Jennifer Weir, an original member of Mu Daiko. She is a great example of a true artist lost in her art, in the creativity and expression and sharing with others of her talent. What she and all of the members create in that space is truly a thing of beauty. Unfortunately the performances of this concert are over, but check their website for future performances and for information on how you, too, can become a taiko drummer!

Saturday, March 8, 2014

"The Little Mermaid" at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres

The Little Mermaid was the first of the new Disney movies, and my favorite. I was a teenager when the movie came out in 1989, and "Part of Your World" is the quintessential teenage girl anthem (before my theme song was "I Don't Do Sadness" or "I'm Not That Girl," it was "Part of Your World"). Every kid I babysat at the time had the VCR tape (yes, VCR), so I've probably seen the movie hundreds of times. The soundtrack was the first cassette tape (yes, cassette tape) I ever owned, and I listened to it constantly, and even played "Under the Sea" in band because my tuba-playing band director loved the calypso rhythm and the bass parts ("guess who's going to be on the plate"). Even though I haven't seen the movie or listened to the music in many years, it all came right back to me while watching Chanhassen's production of the stage version of the movie. Now, as you might know if you read this blog with any regularity, I'm not crazy about the trend of turning every Disney movie (and every movie, for that matter) into a musical; I think it's an easy and risk-free way for Broadway producers to recoup their investment, and not necessarily about making art. Whether or not The Little Mermaid should have been made into a stage musical can be debated (the Broadway production ran for less than two years and received mixed reviews), but since it was, there's no place I'd rather see it than at the Chanhassen with a local cast that is perfection. They bring the movie and the wonderful songs to life with the usual Chanhassen flair, fun, and color.

The stage musical The Little Mermaid is based on the Disney movie, which is based on the Hans Christian Anderson story about a mermaid who falls in love with a human Prince and exchanges her voice for a chance to be human. In the Disney version, Ariel is a precocious teenager who doesn't feel at home under the sea with her father King Triton and six sisters. She longs to be part of the human world, and collects trinkets and visits the shore against her father's wishes. After rescuing Prince Eric from a shipwreck, she makes the fateful deal with her aunt Ursula, the evil sea witch, and must charm the Prince and get him to kiss her within three days, or she's doomed to an underwater hell. Unlike the original story, in this Disney version Ariel banishes the sea witch, gets her Prince, and lives happily ever after. A typical Disney fairy tale story, but with the following wonderful features:
  • Caroline Innerbichler is so perfect for the role of Ariel. When you're a musical theater actress with long curly red hair and a lean torso, you're destined to play this role. Fortunately Caroline has the chops to back up the looks, not just a siren-like voice, but the spunk and awkward grace of this fish-turned-woman. The way that she tentatively takes her first steps on her new legs is really well done, and once she learns to walk, she runs and dances across the stage with ease. Caroline is also able to convey everything about the character while not speaking for most of the second act, although she does sing a few songs to show us what's going on in Ariel's head and heart.
"Kiss the Girl!" Caroline Innerbichler and Tyler Michaels
(photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp)
  • Tyler Michaels never fails to impress in any role, large or small. On the heels of a brilliant (and perhaps, career-making) turn as the Emcee in Cabaret, he does a 180 to play a wholesome Disney prince, and once again transforms into the character. He's so charming as this prince fighting against his role, and even gets to throw in some of his aerial (no pun intended) tricks as he hangs upside down from a rope when Prince Eric falls off the ship. Rest assured that was put in specifically to play to Tyler's talent, anyone else plays this role and they'd do the scene differently (which makes me wonder what they'll do when he leaves the role to make his Guthrie debut as Freddy in My Fair Lady this summer, perhaps his replacement is already studying the art of aerial work).
  • I am convinced there is not a better actress in Minnesota to portray Ursula than Kersten Rodau. Her deep, rich, and powerfully strong voice is perfectly suited to the temperament of the sea witch and the song "Poor Unfortunate Souls," and she's proven she can do broad comedy to great effect (see also Xanadu and Urinetown). My one disappointment is that my favorite line from the movie, uttered by Ursula, appears to have been cut: "Life's full of tough choices, isn't it?" dripping with sarcasm. (Kersten - can you please just ad lib that sometime?)
"Poor Unfortunate Souls!"
Michael Gruber, Caroline Innerbichler, Kersten Rodau, and Tony Vierling
(photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp)
  • As usual, Jay Albright is an absolute scene stealer as the know-it-all sea gull Scuttle. The slow and practiced bird walk to exit the stage every single time and the way he mangles words is hilarious. Anytime he's onstage, it's impossible to notice anything else.
  • Other perfectly cast supporting characters include Derek Prestly as the adorably sweet Flounder, the fish with an unrequited love for Ariel; a regal Keith Rice as King Triton, with his big beautiful booming voice; Michael Gruber and Tony Vierling as Ursula's deliciously evil and electric sidekicks; and Andre Shoals as Sebastian the comic relief crab (although the role was played as a bit too much of a fool for my taste, with the "uh oh" catch phrase verging into bad sitcom territory).
  • Honorable mention to the six talented women playing Ariel's sisters (Ann Michels, Julianne Mundale, Emily Madigan, Emily King, Maura White, and Laura Rudolph), small roles that they each make the most of, swishing their tails with attitude. And they double as Eric's hilariously horribly voiced suitors in the Bachelor-like competition for his hand.
  • About ten new songs were written for the stage musical by original score composer Alen Menken, with varying degrees of success. My favorites are "Positoovity," mostly because it gives Jay Albright a great opportunity to do his shtick; "Her Voice" because it gives Tyler more to do (when I heard he was playing the role I was concerned because I couldn't remember Eric singing much, if at all, in the movie, but rest assured he sings plenty here), and the lovely Ariel/Eric/Sebastian/Triton quartet "If Only." Some other numbers, including the hokey dancing song "One Step Closer," are forgettable. It's a little like going to see your favorite band, and you want to hear all their hits, but interspersed with the hits they play a bunch of new songs you've never heard, and you just want them to get back to the hits. I mostly just sat through the new songs waiting to hear the likes of "Kiss the Girl" and "Under the Sea" and "Poor Unfortunate Souls."
  • The underwater world is presented quite successfully, and the costumes (by Rich Hamson) are superb. The mermaid effect is created with the tail sticking out behind the actress, over flowy light blue pants which blend into the pale blue set. They walk with tiny quick steps to skim across the stage; if you squint your eyes you can almost see them floating. Sebastion is in a full orangey-red crab costume, and octopus Ursula's darkly gorgeous dress ends in eight tentacles, two of which are connected to her hands and in constant motion. Birds, eels, fish - all fantastical and fun.
  • Two highlights of the show are the ensemble numbers "Under the Sea" and "Kiss the Girl," with the cast adorned in crazy aquatic costumes wandering through the audience - dolphins, sea otters, starfish, seahorses, and the most colorful fish I've ever seen. In a show that's sure to draw a lot of children, it's a nice touch to have the cast in the audience so much, bringing the colorful underwater world a little closer.
  • I view the story a little differently as an adult than I did as a teenager, but I'm not going to bring you down with the misogynist symbolism of a woman giving up her voice to win a man, or how frustrating I find the "fairy tale" ending that implies a woman's only goal is to get married. That's Disney for you, and this is Disney's The Little Mermaid.
The Little Mermaid is playing through August at the Chanhassen, so you have plenty of time to see it, with or without kids. But I do recommend you catch it before Tyler Michaels leaves the show, probably in May sometime. It's a colorful, fun, light, happy show with great music, familiar to those of us who grew up with the movie, performed by an energetic and talented cast. Six months is a long time to do the same show night after night, but if I know the Chanhassen, they'll continue to find fun and playful moments every night to keep it fresh.

"We got no troubles, life is the bubbles, under the sea!"
(photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp)

Sunday, March 2, 2014

"The Music Man" by Ten Thousand Things at Open Book

"There were bells on the hill, but I never heard them ringing, no I never heard them at all, 'till there was you." So sings Marian the librarian in the classic musical The Music Man when Professor Harold Hill comes into her life and her town, bringing music and community and hope along with him. And this is how I feel about The Music Man after seeing Ten Thousand Things' production. Even though I saw it on stage once before and am very familiar with the movie, I never realized what it was really about until Ten Thousand Things stripped away all of the unnecessary fluff to reveal the true heart of the piece. I was lucky enough to attend a dress rehearsal a few weeks ago, and saw the full production last night (although there was very little difference except that the audience was larger). TTT applies their usual bare bones, straight-to-the-heart-of-the-matter style of theater to the classic musical about a con man salesman and the small Iowa town forever changed by his visit, and it is, in a word, spellbinding. This ensemble of wonderful actors led by Luverne Seifert cast their spell over me just as Professor Harold Hill cast his spell over the people of River City. I've seen a dozen Ten Thousand Things shows over the last several years and love everything they do, but this show is my favorite. So utterly charming, delightful, sweet, funny, and moving, it's a perfectly executed concept.

Marian the librarian and Professor Hill
(Aimee Bryant and Luverne Seifert)
Luverne Seifert is an absolute charmer as Professor Hill, as he easily wins over the town with his smooth-talking ways, and stern Marian the librarian a little less easily. I knew Luverne was a comic genius and the best kind of clown, but I have to say, I fell in love with him a little in this performance. He's a true romantic leading man, a role I've never seen him in before. He shares great chemistry with Aimee Bryant, who conveys Marian's strength of character and longing for something more, and lends her lovely voice to such songs as "Goodnight My Someone." Dennis Spears is a delight as her mother (in a great example of TTT's color- and gender-blind casting, an African American man plays an Irish woman). Recently crowned Ivey Emerging Artist Ricardo Vasquez plays Marian's little brother Winthrop (whose lisp was made famous by little Ronnie Howard). Ricardo completely transforms into a ten-year-old boy, and not just any ten-year-old boy, but a sad, lost, troubled ten-year-old boy. When he begins to open up thanks to music and the band and friendship, it's a thing of beauty. Rounding out the cast as salesmen, townspeople, school board members, and dancing ladies are Bradley Greenwald, literally waving his tail feathers as the mayor's wife; Jim Lichtsheidl, especially funny as the blustering idiot of a mayor (Bradley and Jim work so well together they should always play a married couple!); Sarah Agnew as the Professor's Shipoopi buddy and a fawning teenage girl (ee gads!); and Kimberly Richardson, charming in the piano lesson scene as the breathy little girl with a crush on Winthrop.

Luverne Seifert and the cast of The Music Man
The wonderful thing about musicals as performed by Ten Thousand Things is that because it's quite stripped down (just a two-person band in this case - Jake Endres on keyboard and Peter Vitale on a myriad of instruments), the music feels very organic to the characters and story. Unlike typical musicals in which there's a clear differentiation between full-blown musical numbers and straight dialogue, the actors flow naturally back and forth between speaking and singing, with the band subtly coming in to support them. The Music Man is a good choice for this sort of style, with it's rhythmic talky songs. The fast and lyric-heavy opening number on the train* ("you gotta know the territory!") is extremely well-done by the cast, as is "Ya Got Trouble," and everything with the barbershop quartet and gossiping ladies - the same four actors switching back and forth, often within the same scene! But my favorite moment is the most famous song in the show. How do you create the sound of 76 trombones with just two musicians? You don't even try, you do it as a soft, gentle, reverent plea. In the dress rehearsal I was sitting a few feet from Luverne and could see the awe and wonder in his eyes as he softly spoke of this marvelous band, and I fell completely under his spell as much as the townspeople did. The speaking eventually becomes singing, with the musicians chiming in as it grows into the familiar big band song.

The sparse set (by Joel Sass) and costumes (by Mary Anna Culligan) are so charming and effective. Each of the four corners of the square that is the Ten Thousand Things stage holds a weathered white post on which various signs are hung to represent the billiard hall, the Peroo home, the Wells Fargo Wagon, or the city gymnasium. Costumes are of a pale muted hue one night wear in the hot Iowa summer, and provide a great base for accessories to differentiate characters. In the blink of an eye, the actors change hats or add a shawl and transform into someone else entirely.

There's a reason The Music Man is such a classic. It's a beautiful story about the power of music, storytelling, family, friendship, community, and having a common goal. Professor Hill gives River City hope and something to strive for, and Marian's love and faith in him help him become the man that she thinks he is. With direction by Lear deBessonet and choreography by Jim Lichtsheidl, this is a wonderfully unique and delightful interpretation of this familiar story. Ten Thousand Things productions are always extremely professional, yet retain a playfulness and laid back feeling that draw the audience in, whether that audience is comprised of prisoners or seasoned theater-goers. Only five public performances remain and they're entirely sold out, but they do sell a limited number of 4th row seats at the door (yes, 4th row are the "bad seats" in this intimate staging). If you don't already have tickets, I highly recommend you show up and take a chance on these seats. This is a show not to be missed!

*I once saw Bradley Greenwald perform the opening number by himself, and it was quite impressive!