Monday, April 28, 2014

"The Threepenny Opera" by Frank Theatre at the Southern Theater

Prior to my annual theater week in NYC this year, I had never seen the Bertolt Brecht/Kurt Weill ground-breaking opera The Threepenny Opera, and was unfamiliar with the music, except of course for the standard "Mack the Knife." But in a strange coincidence, I saw it twice in a little over a week - at the Atlantic Theater Company Off-Broadway in NYC as well as a production by Frank Theatre in Minneapolis. I'm happy to have the opportunity to see it twice; it's not an easily accessible piece of music-theater but it's worth the effort. I will try not to compare the two productions because they're so different and wonderful in their own unique ways, but what I find most fascinating is how two groups of people can take the same words on a page and turn them into two completely different theatrical experiences. That's the beauty of live theater.*

First produced in 1928 in Berlin, The Threepenny Opera tells the story of a criminal/mobster/thief named Macheath (aka Mack the Knife) in Victorian London. When Mack marries the daughter of his rival Mr. Peachum, head of the beggars, Mr. Peachum retaliates by trying to get Macheath arrested and hung. Despite Mack's many crimes, it's not an easy task since the police chief is Mack's buddy. But eventually, Mack is jailed and about to be hung when he's suddenly miraculously freed. The story is told through a series of vignettes and songs, with each character getting their moment to be heard.

While the Off-Broadway is perhaps a more classical interpretation, with Macheath in a pinstriped suit, bowler hat, and spats, Frank's production, with Macheath in a leather jacket, make-up, and tall boots, is more modern, grungy, and well, weird (in a good way, although I have to say I miss the spats!). It veers a little further into camp, which really works because it is kind of an odd piece.

Here are some highlights of Frank Theatre's The Threepenny Opera:
  • First and foremost: Bradley Greenwald** as Macheath. He's dark and twisted and his gorgeous voice fills every corner of the spacious Southern Theater with no need for amplification.
  • Speaking of - I love it when actors in musicals are not miked, and there's nothing to come between their voices and my ears. It's rare, and perhaps difficult to do when mixing sound with a band (or at least that's the excuse I've heard), but with a small band like this (musical director Sonja Thompson on piano and organ, with actors occasionally joining in on various instruments) and the excellent voices in this cast, it's quite possible and creates a perfectly mixed and unaltered sound.
  • As Mr. Peachum, Gary Briggle is deliciously mischievous and mustachioed, and well-matched by Janis Hardy as the wig-adjusting Mrs. Peachum.
  • Mack's women are all fantastic, from Suzie Juul's absurdly silly Polly Peachum, to Molly Sue McDonald's world-weary Jenny, to Kira Lace Hawkin's slightly crazy Lucy. Particularly excellent is the duet between Polly and Lucy as they're fighting over Mack, hilariously and beautifully sung by both Suzie and Kira.
  • I was delighted to see the reunion of Officer Lockstock (Bradley Greenwald) and Little Sally (Elisa Pluhar) from last summer's Urinetown, although in a very different set of circumstances with a very different relationship!
  • This is a huge cast and they all do great work.
  • The Southern Theater is all decked out with racks of clothing and huge shelves full of tchochkes (set by Joe Stanley), and the costumes (by Kathy Kohl) really help to define the weird and wacky world of this Threepenny Opera.

I've enjoyed my foray into The Threepenny Opera this month, and I have to say I have a greater appreciation of the play and especially the music after a second viewing. Frank's production is well-cast, weird, and entertaining. And with sold out houses that include many theater people, they're obviously doing something right. But be forewarned: with an 8 o'clock showtime and a three hour running time, this is another one that requires a good night's sleep before attending.

*Read my thoughts on the Atlantic Theater Company's production here, and yes I did plagiarize myself for some of the background info.
**Bradley Greenwald will again be singing the music of Kurt Weill (along with two of my other faves, Dieter Bierbrauer and Christina Baldwin) in Skylark Opera's Berlin to Broadway in June, which I hear is also directed by Wendy Knox.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

"Hamlet" and "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead" by The Acting Company at the Guthrie Theater

I think it's safe to say that William Shakespeare's Hamlet is one of the best, most popular, and most produced plays in the world. Tom Stoppard's 1966 play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, made into a movie in 1990, offers us an alternate view of the story from the point of view of two minor characters who, yes, end up dead at the end of the play. The Acting Company, a touring Shakespeare company with close ties to the Guthrie, is currently presenting both plays in repertory. It's a brilliant idea, and since I'm a fan of The Acting Company and I love the idea of repertory (two or more plays with the same cast) I jumped at the chance to see both plays in quick succession - Friday night Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, followed by a Saturday matinee of Hamlet. The former is absolutely hilarious and wildly entertaining, and it gave me a double pleasure in viewing the latter - the great drama and well-known language of Hamlet as well as the "secret" knowledge of what may be going on behind the scenes with poor Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

the fight scene in Hamlet
I'm sure you're all familiar with the tale of the Danish prince whose kingly father was murdered by his uncle Claudius, who then married his mother. It's no wonder he's in a bit of a funk. And that's putting it mildly; basically the play chronicles his descent into madness (or is it sanity?). Hamlet is visited by his father's ghost, who tells him that his death is no accident, so Hamlet plots to kill his uncle/father/ king with the help of his friends and a troupe of players. Let's just say it doesn't go well. It really is a beautiful play, full of drama with a bit of humor as well, with well-drawn complex characters. It's such an important and popular play that many of its lines have worked their way into our pop culture lexicon, including "the play's the thing," "the lady doth protest too much, methinks," "neither a borrower nor a lender be," "to thine own self be true," "brevity is the soul of wit," and my favorite, "the rest is silence." This is a great production, dynamic and compelling with a nice balance of light humorous moments and intense drama. And what a cast! I'll talk about them a bit later.

Hamlet chats with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead
These two minor characters appear only briefly in Hamlet. They're old friends of Hamlet that his mother and uncle send for to help him out of his funk. Basically they're used, both by Shakespeare as a way to move the plot forward, and by Claudius to get to Hamlet and then send him away to England, which is the end of them. Stoppard's reimagining of the story sees them mostly sitting around waiting for their interactions with the world of Hamlet. They have many conversations about topics like death, fate, memory, and probability (the play opens with a long scene of flipping coins, which improbably land on heads 90 times in a row), and play silly games like questions (quickly hurling questions at each other until someone breaks and makes a statement). The main action of Hamlet occasionally interrupts their conversation, as they run into the troupe of players, receive their instructions from Claudius, and talk to Hamlet - a scene that's fast-forwarded as the actors mime words and move quickly while a garbled track of sped-up talking plays. We even see Hamlet's famous "to be or not to be" speech, but we don't hear it as the focus is on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. They seem to exist only within the world of the play; they have difficulty remembering their life before and seem to know that this is the end for them. It's really clever writing by Mr. Stoppard to create this story and these characters in and around the world of one of the greatest plays ever written; he really does add to greatness.

The thrill of seeing these two plays back to back by the same company is that the same actors play the same characters in both plays, so it really does seem like you're see flip sides of the same coin. The star of the shows is John Skelley as Hamlet. An Acting Company alum who's also frequently seen at the Guthrie (see last summer's gorgeously intense Long Day's Journey Into Night, for example), John is one of my favorite actors to watch because he's such a natural and present actor. This is no exception; his Hamlet is charming and funny at one moment, and crazy intense the next. In Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, he's able to play it a little looser and more comedically; he has less to do but is able to have more fun with it, almost as if he's playing two versions of the same iconic character.

The other stars of the shows are the brilliant comedy team of Grant Fletcher Prewitt and Ian Gould as the slow-thinking Rosencrantz and the fast-talking Guildenstern. They work so well together and have such an easy and fun chemistry, perhaps because this is the end of their 6+ month tour. They're like Abbot and Costello, and somehow their interactions are made funnier by the fact that one is short and one is tall, one slow and one quick. Even their brief appearances in Hamlet are played to maximum comedic effect, or maybe it's just because I already knew and loved them. They even get to bring their comedy relationship to the roles of the gravediggers in Hamlet. I was originally hoping to see Hamlet first followed by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, but I'm glad I saw Rosencrantz and Guildenstern first because it allowed me to seek for and find the comedic moments from that play in the more serious one.

The three leads are well supported by a great cast, including Andy Nogasky as Polonius (quite the comedian himself in both plays), Angela Janas as the sweet Ophelia driven to madness, and Patrick Lane and Jacqueline Correa as the king and queen. I find it interesting that each show has a different director (John Rando for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and The Acting Company's Artistic Director Ian Belknap for Hamlet), because there is some overlap of scenes. Obviously they worked together closely; sometimes scenes are played out very similarly in both shows, sometimes the same action but with a different tone, and sometimes quite differently. The technical personnel is the same as both shows play on the same set, comprised of classical arches and stairs (designed by Neil Patel), with the same gorgeous costumes by Candice Donnelly.

Sadly, The Acting Company is only in town for two weeks with these two great shows, through May 4. If you like classic Shakespeare, go see this fine production of Hamlet. If you like clever and fast comedy, go see Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Or do yourself a favor and see both on the same day or back-to-back days for a deeper appreciation of both plays.

Friday, April 25, 2014

"Nacirema: Stories of Color" at nimbus theatre

"I don't see race. People tell me I'm white and I believe them because (insert hilarious quip here)." This is one of my favorite Colbert Report bits, because it shows just how ridiculous it is to claim to be color-blind. We're not color-blind and we shouldn't be, we should see and celebrate all our beautiful colors, despite the difficulties that may come along with it. nimbus theatre's new original work Nacirema (American spelled backwards) explores this and other ideas about race in America. Presented as a series of vignettes written by nimbus' Artistic Directors Josh Cragun and Liz Neerland, along with the seven-person ensemble, it's a modern, thoughtful, innovative, and entertaining take on the issue.

This seven-person cast (consisting of Ernest Briggs, Alsa Bruno, Suzie Cheng, Nastacia Nicole Foster, Dana Lee Thompson, Jesse Villarreal, and Simone Williams), most of whom were unfamiliar to me, all do a wonderful job bringing their unique perspectives and talent to the piece. On a mostly bare stage with a screen to display images or video, with large panels occasionally covering it to provide the backdrop (scenic and video design by Josh Cragun), a dozen or two short scenes played out. Some are funny, some poignant, some a bit shocking, all raw and true. My favorites include:
  • The show begins with the cast visiting Nacirema Travel Agency, illustrating the mostly horrible ways people ended up in this country.
  • A spoof of local news shows us how skewed it can be, with hilariously sing-songy voices by Ernest and Simone, and stories featuring homicide, sports, and weather.
  • A QVC sale of the "token friend of color" is funny and dead on and might make you squirm a little.
  • A scene on a bus with few words spoken shows us what's really going on inside people's heads as characters hold up signs that display their thoughts. It's quite telling, moving, and disturbing.
  • In some of the most beautiful scenes, each of the seven ensemble members describes her or himself in terms of food, which I assume they had at least a part in writing. These monologues are all lovely, diverse, and poetic, like spoken word performances.
  • What starts out as a fun dance party with Alsa calling movements and the cast performing them turns into a sobering police encounter.
  • Alsa's painting show (think Bob Ross painting a crack house) is really funny, playful, and surprisingly poignant.
  • Dana and Nastacia embrace and celebrate beautiful natural hair!
  • The cast stands at the front of the stage and takes turns saying some of the stupid and insensitive things people say.
  • A lovely song by Dana and the cast ends the show, with beautifully diverse images of famous Americans displayed on the screen.
I'm a little late to this party - nimbus theatre's Nacirema closes this Sunday. But if you have time this weekend, I recommend checking it out for some entertaining, thought-provoking, challenging, creative theater.

the cast of Nacirema

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

"If/Then" at Richard Rodgers Theatre on Broadway

Original RENT cast members Idina Menzel and Anthony Rapp reunite in a new original musical on Broadway? I'm in! Written by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, the creators of the brilliant musical Next to Normal, If/Then stars Idina as a woman who moves back to NYC after a divorce to start a new life with old friends and new. The Sliding Doors-esque plot follows her on two different paths, each resulting from a different choice made on her first day in the city. Two different realities unfold, both filled with love and heartbreak. It's a more traditional musical than Next to Normal and doesn't come close to the same brilliance (but what could, I don't envy them having to follow the success of their Pulitzer Prize winner), but it's entertaining with a well-constructed story, thought-provoking themes of chance and fate, and a score I want to listen to again. It's so refreshing to see a new original musical when so much of Broadway is revivals, jukebox musicals, and movie adaptations (I saw six musicals during my week in NYC and this was the only new original musical), and an absolute joy to see a woman at the top of her craft.

Elizabeth is a city planner who has spent the last twelve years in Phoenix in an unhappy marriage. The two divergent paths find her teaching, marrying a soldier, and starting a family in one (where she's called Liz) and forging a successful career redesigning NYC, flirting with her married boss, and getting involved with her bisexual ex-boyfriend in the other (known as Beth). While the story elements are less than original (surprise pregnancy, husband going off to war), at least they're arranged in a clever and unique way. And it's an interesting thought - how different your life would be if you had made one small choice differently (as Moritz Stiefel says - all I had to do was say yes). In the end I'm not sure which reality wins out, but Elizabeth is a woman who is going to come out on top with a little help from her beautifully diverse group of friends.

The story seamlessly flows back and forth between the two realities, sometimes within the same scene, with little confusion. A quick wardrobe change and her friends calling her by two different nicknames helps. The set is incredibly technical, with stairs and balconies moving in and around, creating many different spaces in NYC, which functions as another character in the story. I really enjoyed the modern pop/rock/musical theater score, mixing poignant ballads with funny up tempo numbers, and am looking forward to the cast recording being released this summer.

Idina Menzel and Anthony Rapp reunite in If/Then
It's no accident Idina was part of two of the biggest musical theater phenomenon of the past twenty years - RENT and Wicked. She is a true one-of-a-kind talent and deserves to be famous for more than having her name grotesquely mispronounced. My theater buddy and I were sitting in the very last row of the theater (having snagged the last two tickets on our last available night) and I'm certain Idina's voice would have easily reached us without the aid of amplification. Her voice is a force of nature, and lucky for us, she chooses to use it "For Good." It's particularly lovely to see her reunited with her RENT co-star Anthony Rapp almost twenty years later, who is charming and funny as her best friend/ex-boyfriend, and gets a few great songs of his own.

While I unfortunately can't say that If/Then is a fantastic new musical (it's a little too precious and movie-of-the-week), it is a good one, with compelling characters, a catchy score, and a fantastic cast led by Idina the Great. It's definitely worth checking out on your next trip to NYC.

Idina Menzel quickly and efficiently signed every
Playbill she could get her hands on

"The Threepenny Opera" at Atlantic Theater Company Off-Broadway

Prior to my annual theater week in NYC this year, I had never seen the Bertolt Brecht/Kurt Weill ground-breaking opera The Threepenny Opera, and was unfamiliar with the music, except of course for the standard "Mack the Knife." But in a strange coincidence, I will see it twice in a little over a week - at the Atlantic Theater Company Off-Broadway in NYC as well as a production by Frank Theatre in Minneapolis. I'm happy to have the opportunity to see it twice; it's not an easily accessible piece of music-theater but it's worth the effort.

First produced in 1928 in Berlin, The Threepenny Opera tells the story of a criminal/mobster/thief named Macheath (aka Mack the Knife) in Victorian London. When Mack marries the daughter of his rival Mr. Peachum, head of the beggers, Mr. Peachum retaliates by trying to get Macheath arrested and hung. Despite Mack's many crimes, it's not an easy task since the police chief is Mack's buddy. But eventually, Mack is jailed and about to be hung when he's suddenly miraculously freed. The story is told through a series of vignettes and songs, with each character getting their moment to be heard.

Laura Osnes and Michael Park
The Threepenny Opera is gorgeously staged at the intimate Atlantic Theater Company stage in the Chelsea neighborhood of NYC. The wonderful orchestra is placed in a little room at the back of the stage, alternately hidden and revealed by a drawn curtain. At the front of the stage is another curtain, but not a typical luxurious theater curtain, just canvas hanging on a wire that is opened and closed manually by the cast as the scene requires. Clutter resides on the edges of the mostly bare stage with furniture moved in when necessary - tables, chairs, a jail cell. The costumes are gorgeous, from the pristine finery on Mack and his bride Polly to the mismatched rags worn by the prostitutes Mack visits. (Set by Robert Israel and costumes by Donna Zakowska.)

This is a wonderful cast, including TV/film/stage vet F. Murray Abraham as Mr. Peachum and Mary Beth Peil as Mrs. Peachum (see also Follies). I was thrilled to see Michael Park as Macheath, since I've long been a fan of him on stage (his voice is on the original cast recordings of Smokey Joe’s CafĂ© and Violet, and I saw him in How to Succeed a few years ago) and screen (his Emmy-winning performance as Jack on the dear departed soap As the World Turns). This is a great role to showcase his many talents; his Macheath is a charming rogue with a sinister presence on stage that can silence or beguile with just one look, and his voice is divine! Minnesota's own Broadway star Laura Osnes sings like an angel as Polly Peachum. She's come a long way since I last saw her seven and a half years ago on the Chanhassen stage as Sandy in Grease, becoming a regular on the Broadway boards and racking up two Tony nominations. I'm so proud of her success and happy I finally got to see her perform in NYC, and meet her and chat about Minnesota theater. The entire ensemble is just wonderful, especially Sally Murphy as Jenny, Mack's one-time love who turns him in.

Atlantic Theater Company's production of The Threepenny Opera is seedy, sexy, raw, earthy, and gorgeously staged and sung by the talented cast. I'm so grateful I had the chance to see it during it's two-month run, and I'm looking forward to seeing The Threepenny Opera again soon back home in Minnesota.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

"Hedwig and the Angry Inch" at the Belasco Theatre on Broadway

autographed by Neil Patrick Harris
(lower left) and Lena Hall
I've always known I would see Neil Patrick Harris on Broadway one day. I've loved him for over twenty years, from Doogie Howser, MD to How I Met Your Mother and various points and hosting gigs in between. But I didn't know it would be in such a special creation as Hedwig and the Angry Inch. John Cameron Mitchell created the character and along with Stephen Trask (music and lyrics) developed the piece in clubs throughout the '90s, eventually landing Off-Broadway in 1998. Mitchell also adapted, directed, and starred in the 2001 film which catapulted Hedwig into a cultural phenomenon, but she's only now receiving her Broadway debut. I've only seen the movie once, and the stage version once as well (at the Jungle Theater in 2008, for which Jairus Abts won an Ivey Award), but it's left a lasting impression on me. It's one of those rare pieces of art that once you experience it, it stays with you forever. And with Neil Patrick Harris stepping into Hedwig's high heeled gold boots, not an easy task but one he accomplishes with grace and ease, seeing Hedwig and the Angry Inch on Broadway was and will always remain a theatrical highlight of my life.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch plays out as a 100-minute concert and is almost a one-person show (although with great support from the four-piece band and Lena Hall as Hedwig's husband Yitzhak). This allows Hedwig to speak directly to the audience, playing, flirting, and arguing with them. There is room for nightly changes and ad-libbing (something Neil is a master at from his many hosting gigs), and current pop cultural references have been added. Hedwig sings her songs for us and tells us the story of her life. And what a story! Born a boy in East Berlin to a cold German mother and an American GI who abandoned them, Hedwig later falls in love with another American GI and has a botched sex change operation (hence the "angry inch") so that she can marry him and move to America. Shortly thereafter she finds herself divorced and broke. She falls in love with a young man, nurtures him and writes songs with him, whereupon he leaves her and becomes a famous rock star using her songs. This leaves Hedwig a bit angry with her lot in life, but through the course of this one evening she's able to work through it and come to a place where she's not angry anymore, she's able to be herself and let those around her be who they are (including Yitzhak). It's a transformative experience for Hedwig and for those of us lucky enough to go on this journey with her.

Hedwig's concert takes place on the abandoned set of the fictional Hurt Locker: The Musical (which sadly isn't too far outside the realm of possibility with the direction Broadway has been going lately). Through the course of the evening the set gets pushed aside as Hedwig makes way for her own show. In one particularly lovely moment, a scrim is lowered at the front of the stage and cartoons illustrate the beautiful mythology of "The Origin of Love." It's gorgeously staged so that it looks like Hedwig is part of the illustrated world. Much of the original creative team contributed to this production, including Arianne Phillips' gorgeous costumes and Mike Potter's fabulous wigs and make-up design. Because Hedwig wouldn't be Hedwig without her iconic look.

And now let me rave about Neil Patrick Harris. There are not enough superlatives to describe his performance. As an audience member, I was emotionally and physically exhausted at the end of the show, I cannot imagine how he feels. He pours everything he has into this performance. He is so strong and powerful, yet raw and vulnerable, funny and heart-breaking, emotionally and physically naked. It's an incredibly challenging role, vocally (he sings nearly every song of this punk-rock score), emotionally (conveying all of Hedwig's highs and lows), and physically (literally climbing all over the set), and he's fully committed to every moment. And this was only a preview (official opening on April 22), he's only going to get better as the run continues - more comfortable and playful and deeper into the character. I would love to be able to see the show again near the end of its run, but I feel so lucky to have seen it once that twice is just too greedy. Neil is once again hosting the Tony Awards this year, and is all but guaranteed to be nominated as well.

Over the past nearly twenty years, Hedwig has become a heroine and an inspiration, not just for gay and transgender people but for everyone who feels like a misfit or a freak at one time or another, and who doesn't? In her journey to find her place in the world and her complete self, Hedwig teaches us that there is a place for all of us in this world, that it's OK to be just who we are, with no shame or apologies. "And if you've got no other choice, you know you can follow my voice, through the dark twists and noise of this wicked little town." I will and I do, Hedwig.

Know in your soul
Like your blood knows the way
From your heart to your brain
Know that you're whole.
And you're shining
Like the brightest star
A transmission
On the midnight radio.
And you're spinning
Like a 45
Dancing to your rock and roll.

"Cabaret" by Roundabout Theatre Company at Studio 54 on Broadway

Even though I recently saw a nearly perfect production of the brilliant classic musical Cabaret by Theater Latte Da (twice), I couldn't pass up the opportunity to see Alan Cumming reprise his role as the Emcee at Studio 54. And even though this is the fifth production I've seen in less than four years, there really is no limit to the number of times I will see Cabaret on stage (eight and counting - the most I've seen any musical on stage other than my favorite RENT). And it was, of course, one of those unforgettable theater experiences.

This is my fifth time writing about Cabaret on Cherry and Spoon, a record for this blog, so there's not much that I can say about it that I haven't already said. You can read my full thoughts on this genius musical here, but suffice it to say that Kander and Ebb's Cabaret is one of the best musicals ever written. Not only is it wildly entertaining with a fantastic score, but it actually means something. It's a timeless piece about the horrors of the Holocaust specifically, and genocide, intolerance, oppression, and hate in general, issues that are sadly as relevant today as they were in 1930s Berlin and 1960s America. That being said, I'll focus the rest of this blog post on the specifics of this legendary production (which officially opens on April 24 and is scheduled to run through August).

Alan Cumming's iconic Emcee
When you think about actors who've played the Emcee in Cabaret, two immediately come to mind - Joel Grey, who originated the role in the 1966 Broadway production and the 1972 movie, and Alan Cumming, who redefined it for a new generation in the 1993 London and 1998 Broadway Sam Mendes-directed productions. The Broadway revival ran for six years and became fodder for stunt casting, with some notable actors playing the role, but there's no one like the original. Alan has been playing this role for over twenty years, and it shows. He's so comfortable in his role, it oozes out of every pore. He just is, effortlessly, the Emcee, whether performing at center stage, walking through the audience and flirting with the crowd, or silently sitting on stage and observing. It's a beautiful thing to see a performer in a role with which he is so identified and in which he is so at home.

Other than Alan's incomparable performance, highlights of this production include:
  • The look of Studio 54 is perfect, the entire first floor seating consists of cabaret tables with a red lamp on each that lights, dims, and darkens on cue. Ushers and waiters are dressed as if they're part of the show. The small bare stage has three doors at the back and spiral staircases leading up to the second level, where the band sits behind a large frame.
  • The Kit Kat boys and girls double as orchestra members, and are as talented as they are gorgeous.
  • Film actor Michelle Williams is a fine Sally Bowles, but she's a little too polished and precise next to Alan's organic ease of being. This being previews, she has time to loosen up into the role.
  • One of our Broadway faves Danny Burstein (from South Pacific and Follies) is the best Herr Schultz I've seen, despite being too young and singing too pretty for the role. Linda Emond, who appeared at the Guthrie a few years ago in Tony Kushner's Intelligent Homosexual's Guide..., is also wonderful as Fraulein Schneider (although she's no Sally Wingert).
Since I missed him the first time around, I'm so grateful I was able to see Alan Cumming in this iconic role. Just one of the highlights of this incredible week of NYC theater.

Monday, April 14, 2014

"Pippin" at The Music Box Theatre on Broadway

The revival of the 1972 Stephen Schwartz/Bob Fosse musical Pippin debuted on Broadway last year and won four Tonys and had audiences and critics raving. It was on my list of shows to see this week, but not very high up because of all the new shows coming out this season. It was actually our second or third choice when we got to the TKTS window Saturday night, but after some indecisiveness, it's what we ended up with. Turns out it may have been the best decision we made all week! Pippin is truly spectacular in the best possible way. Many different artforms are combined - circus, Fosse-style dance, a great score, even a sing-along! And the result is a fantastically creative and entertainingly unique evening of entertainment.

Pippin is very very loosely based on the historical figures Charlemagne, a King in the Middle Ages, and his first-born son Pippin, a "hunchback" who was passed over for his father's thrown. But in this version, Pippin is a lost young man who's dissatisfied with life and searching for something to make his life meaningful. He tries war, the pleasures of the flesh, and an ordinary life, flitting from one thing to the other, but still feeling empty and unfulfilled. In the original production, the story was told through a performance troupe, but in this version it's a circus, complete with contortionists, trapeze, balancing acts, and acrobatics. It's hugely fun and light-hearted, like a musical/comedy/circus version of Game of Thrones with a touch of Monty Python's Spamalot, where dead men talk and come back to life, and battles are a beautiful dance. In the end, Pippin rejects the circus for his real life, but the circus lives on in our imaginations, always there when we need it.

Ciara Renee and Kyle Dean Massay
have taken over the roles of Leading Player and Pippin
The huge ensemble combines artists of many talents - circus performers, Broadway dancers, and singers. Most of the original cast remains one year later, with three important exceptions. Patina Miller and Andrea Martin, who both won Tonys for their portrayals of the Leading Player and Pippin's grandmother, and Pippin himself. Annie Potts (if you're a fan of 80s sitcoms like I am, you'll remember her from Designing Women) took over the role of the grandmother in January, and she's fantastic, literally singing while hanging upside down from a trapeze (I told her I want to be her when I grow up). Ciara Renee as the Leading Player and Kyle Dean Massey as Pippin are only in their second week of performances, but you'd never know it. Ciara owns the role and is a commanding, confident, and entertaining ring leader of this crazy circus. Kyle's beautiful voice (I saw him Next to Normal a few years ago) is perfection on these songs, and he has the awkward grace of this boy who becomes a man. Also fantastic are original cast-members Terrence Mann as Pippin's father the King, Charlotte d'Amboise as his stepmother (with some head-spinning quick changes), and Rachel Bay Jones as the charmingly loopy woman who wins Pippin's heart. And then there are a couple dozen gorgeous and talented women and men moving around the stage in all kinds of wonderful ways, and one precocious little boy (Ashton Woerz) who sings a capella alone in the center of a Broadway stage.

I really love this score, even though I'd never heard any of the songs before, and will definitely be downloading it. There's Pippin's lovely ballad "Corner of the Sky," the singalong "No Time at All," and the 70s-feeling "Love Song." There are some pretty incredible Fosse-inspired dance numbers, and one jaw-dropping moment after another. It's just good old-fashioned entertainment. Even though I'm a fan of the smaller, more intimate music-theater pieces (like Violet which I saw earlier in the same day), a big beautiful spectacle of a show like Pippin can be so much fun when performed to creative perfection as this one is. It's a revival (directed by Diane Paulus, with her third brilliant revival in a row - see also Hair and Porgy and Bess) that manages to pay tribute to the original and still bring something fresh and new and original to the piece. If you find yourself in NYC, this show is one that cannot be missed. But don't worry, Pippin is coming to us in Minneapolis - the tour will stop at the Orpheum for a week in February next year. Trust me, you'll want to get your tickets to this one as soon as you can!

"Violet" by the Roundabout Theatre Company at American Airlines Theatre on Broadway

I fell in love with the musical Violet four years ago after seeing Theater Latte Da's beautiful production in the Guthrie Studio. Produced on a sparse stage with a small cast and three-piece band, I found it to be so beautiful, raw, poignant, and relatable, that I went back and saw it again. It's one of my most listened to soundtracks, and is definitely in my list of top ten, maybe even top five, musicals (a list which I have yet to officially compile). So I was beyond thrilled to year that Violet would be having its Broadway premiere (after premiering Off-Broadway in 1997) during my annual trip to NYC, with an official opening on April 20. Since apparently the world, or at least the tourists cramming into Times Square,  has yet to discover the wonder that is Violet, it was easy to get good seats at TKTS for the Saturday matinee. Despite the differences from the last production I saw - more elaborate set, larger band and cast, and a new song, it's still that same beautiful piece of original music-theater that so moves me.

Based on a short story, Violet is about a young woman on a journey across the South in 1964, from her home in the mountains of North Carolina to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where she hopes that a TV preacher can heal the scar she received in a childhood accident. Growing up with this disfiguring facial scar has made Violet tough and independent, and she's not afraid to look people in the eye and tell them what she thinks, even if they're unable to return her gaze. She befriends several people on the long bus trip, including a couple of soldiers named Monty and Flick. While journeying to what she hopes is a new beginning, she remembers her past journeys, and we see flashbacks of the young Violet. The two realities merge when Violet meets the preacher, doesn't find what she hoped she would, and is forced to face her past on her own. Like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, she has to go an epic journey to learn that she had the power all along to heal herself.

The strong cast is led by Sutton Foster as Violet, with a voice perfectly suited to this bluegrass/country/folk score and the combination of vulnerability and strength that Violet needs. Also strong are Colin Donnell and one of my Broadway faves Joshua Henry (he appeared in Scottsboro Boys at the Guthrie) as her suitors Monty and Flick. Emerson Steele is wonderful as the young Violet, mirroring Sutton's portrayal of the adult Violet but with her own spirit. Standouts in the ensemble include Ben Davis as the preacher and several other characters, and Broadway vet Annie Golden, stealing scenes as an old lady on the bus and a hotel hooker.

The score, written by Jeanine Tesori with lyrics by Brian Crawley, is a combination of Appalachian mountain music, country, folk, Memphis, and gospel, played by the onstage band that includes fiddle, banjo, and steel guitar. Which happens to be my favorite kind of music - another reason I love this piece. The songlist is exactly the same as the Off-Broadway version, with one exception: Monty's song "You're Different," in which Monty explains what he likes about Violet - that she's different from other girls, has been replaced with a new song called "Last Time I Came to Memphis," which is basically an ode to one-night stands. I neither understand nor approve of this choice, but fortunately all of my other favorites are still there - the country ballad "Who'll Be the One," the fun poker song "Luck of the Draw," the lovely "Lay Down Your Head," Flick's anthem "Let It Sing," and the most poignant moment in the show, adult Violet's confrontation with her father, "That's What I Could Do."

What I love most about Violet is that it's such a universal story. Everyone has a scar or a wound from their past that they need to heal. A repeated theme in the music is "look at me," which is what Violet most wants (and what everyone wants) - someone to look at her, see the real her, and love her for it. This is such a rich piece, dealing with issues of race, gender, celebrity worship, focus on appearance, forgiveness, family. It's so wonderful to see an original musical on Broadway (this is a great season for original musicals after a bit of a dearth), I hope it's successful and I know it will receive many Tony nominations this spring.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

"The Velocity of Autumn" at the Booth Theater on Broadway

I’m in NYC for a week to visit friends and see as much theater as I can. On my first night here I ended up at the Booth Theatre to see the new play Velocity of Autumn because my friend is friends with one of the producers. I knew nothing about it, but when I saw that it stars the legendary Estelle Parsons and Stephen Spinella, I was in! And it turned out to be a great way to kick off a week of NYC theater. As my friend said after the show, “this is why this exists, this is why there is theater.” Velocity of Autumn is one of those two-people-sitting-in-a-room-talking plays, and it’s beautiful. Very real and honest, rich and full. It’s really a character study of two people at a pivotal moment in their lives, and explores their connection as well as their individual life goals and choices.

The play opens on 79-year-old Alexandra (played by 86-yeal-old Estelle Parsons), who has barricaded herself in her Brooklyn home, armed with home-made explosives. Her children are trying to remove her from her home and put her in a nursing home, so she’s refusing to let anyone inside. Her long absent youngest son Chris (Stephen Spinella) climbs a tree and into her window in the hopes of talking her down. What follows is an intense and revelatory conversation between these two people, both at a crossroads in their lives and unsure of what’s going to happen next. What Alexandra is really trying to barricade out of her life is age – the loss of herself. Chris is the one of her three children that is most like her, an artist and a free spirit, which is how she raised him. He gives her what she needs – someone to listen to her and acknowledge her fears. Chris has recently experienced a life-changing event of his own, which is why he’s decided to come home, for a chance to “do the right thing.” As they talk about their shared past, and the uncertainty of the future, they come to a bit of an understanding, although nothing is resolved for certain. It’s a clear and precise depiction of one moment in these two people’s lives, lives that existed before this moment and will continue to exist after.

I attended a post-show discussion and an after party at Sardi’s, and it was so illuminating to hear that so many people have a similar story to Alexandra’s in their life. The director Molly Smith made a really great point, that the action of this play is not just on stage but in the stories of the audience and how they relate to what’s going on on stage. Which allows for Estelle and Stephen to be “listening, responding, and living together on stage.” That’s the absolute best kind of theater. These two actors are so comfortable with each other and their characters (the production recently moved from the Arena Stage in DC), Estelle especially is just a genius at inhabiting the skin of this complex and fascinating woman.

A few words about the set by Eugene Lee, because it’s important to visually create this world. The lived in and once comfortable apartment is surrounded by bottles of flammable liquid, with most of the furniture against the door. Looming over it all is a huge tree with autumn leaves, a tree that Alexandra loves and has fought for and lived with for years. It’s a tree that is strong and rooted in that place, but that is quickly moving through autumn towards winter, just like Alexandra. 

I would love to see this play produced in Minnesota soon. I spoke to the playwright Eric Coble, who was inspired to write the play after an encounter with a neighbor but also drew from personal experiences, and he said he hasn’t had much of his work produced in Minnesota, despite being based in Cleveland. They were lucky enough to get their first choice for the role of Alexandra, but he said that every community has their Alexandra. I think our Alexandra is Ivey Lifetime Achievement Award winner and McKnight Foundation Distinguished Artist Wendy Lehr, and I would love to see her tackle this role at the Jungle Theater. In the meantime, if you find yourself in NYC, forgo the usual big splashy musical (which, don’t worry, I will see on this trip) to see this beautifully written, fantastically acted, poignant, relevant, smart, funny play.

Friday, April 11, 2014

"Romeo and Juliet" at the Lab Theater by Collide Theatrical Dance Company

The idea of a jazz-dance musical version of Romeo and Juliet may sound a little weird, but in the hands of theater-dance company COLLIDE Theatrical Dance Company, I wasn't worried. A new company, they presented two original pieces last year, Lot of Living to Do (set in a 1930s brothel) and The Belmont Hotel (about bootleggers in the late 20s). Both of these told the story entirely through dance (with the help of a short explanation in the program), accompanied by a live band and vocalists. For Romeo and Juliet, some of Shakespeare's original text is included, interspersed with scenes told by dance alone. While I don't think all of it worked, the choreography by Artistic Director Regina Peluso is fantastic and beautifully executed by the eleven dancers, who successfully convey the emotions of the iconic story through music.

In a note in the program, Regina explains that the piece is inspired not only by the original play but also Baz Luhrman's movie and West Side Story, which placed Shakespeare's tale in a 1950s gang war. Of the three pieces, I am most familiar with West Side Story, which brilliantly told the story through Jerome Robbins' choreography, so that's where I saw the most similarities. This version mostly follows the original plot but sets the story in 2005 Brooklyn, with characters dressed in modern clothes and texting on flip phones (I finally know why Romeo never got the message from the Friar about the plan to have Juliet fake her death - no cell service). The music is comprised of pop songs played by a string quartet, upright base, and percussion. Two narrator/vocalists (Sasha Andreev and Emily Grodziak) occasionally sing along and also play characters (Officer Krupke/the Friar for Sasha, with Emily as Juliet's stylish nurse) and act out a few scenes opposite the dancers. This works best when it's just a line or two, to place the scene within the context of the familiar story, such as "my only love sprung from my only hate" or "Tybalt is gone and Romeo banished" as we flow from one dance to the next. But the longer speeches and lengthy dialogue scenes, although well performed by the two talented actor/singers, drag down the momentum of the piece. I would love to see them go all the way with the concept and tell the story strictly through dance with little to no dialogue. As it is it's a bit of an awkward mix of traditional Shakespeare and contemporary jazz dance that sometimes works and sometimes doesn't. Another complication is that at the preview I attended, the amplification of the singers was too loud and somehow muffled, so hopefully they'll work out the sound mix as they go along.

Patrick Jeffery and Julie Hatlestad
as Romeo and Juliet
Now on to the good stuff - the delicious dancing and gorgeous music! The choice of songs is spot on for the
various scenes: "Poker Face" for the masquerade ball, "Bad" when Romeo and Juliet's friends are discouraging their love affair, "Rolling in the Deep" for the rumble, I mean fight, scene, and "Angel" for Juliet's faux death. Similarly, the choreography beautifully expresses the anger, love, excitement, or grief the characters are feeling. I especially loved the fight scenes, the party scene, and the power of the percussive dances with little or no musical accompaniment. The talented company of dancers is led by Patrick Jeffery and Julie Hatlestad as the charming star-crossed lovers.

While COLLIDE's previous two productions have been at the Southern Theater, the Lab is a great place for dance too.  Plenty of space for movement, with stairs leading to the requisite balcony, underneath which the musicians are perched. The modern costumes range from graphic black and white for the gang fights to colorful dresses and shirts for the ball.

My third COLLIDE production and I finally get where the title comes from - the collision of multiple art forms including dance, theater, and music. Romeo and Juliet truly is a beautiful and inventive creation of music-theater-dance, even if it doesn't all quite work. Playing now through April 20 (a few discount tickets still remaining on Goldstar).

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

"Dogwood" by Candid Theater Company at The People's Center Theater

One of the most fun parts about being an independent theater blogger is getting to see theater by many different companies in many different venues. I've seen work by over 60 local theater companies (click here for the full list), but there are still some that I've never seen. Last weekend I saw one of these theater companies I'd never seen before (although it was founded 15 years ago) in a location I'd never been to. Candid Theater Company's new play Dogwood, written and directed by Founders Seraphina Nova and Justin M. Kirkeberg, respectively, is a dysfunctional family drama, complete with secrets, illness, affairs, arguments, dark humor, and love.

The Dogwoods are a family living in suburban Milwaukee. Dad is retired and spends most of the day in a fog watching his "programs," while Mom flutters around pretending everything is OK. Daughter Evelyn lives just down the street and has put her own life on hold to take care of her parents (or is she using them as an excuse not to live a fuller life?). Rachel and Nathaniel have moved away, and their trips home are becoming fewer and farther between. They all congregate at the family home for Dad's favorite holiday, Independence Day. Rachel brings her assistant instead of her husband, and Nat arrives without his much talked about but never seen fiance. Secrets come out and old grievances come back around as this not-so-happy family finds themselves under the same roof again. After the holiday is over, not much has changed, except perhaps a better awareness of the situation.

James Napoleon Stone, Katherine Preble, and Angela Walberg
as the Dogwood siblings
The cast does a fine job with the material and feels like a comfortable family. Angela Walberg is painfully sympathetic as the responsible daughter Evelyn, and along with James Napoleon Stone and Katherin Preble form a believable sibling trio. As the parents, David Roberts and Meri Golden are excellent, David poignantly playing the extremes of a dead-eyed stare and an anger and frustration at the situation he finds himself in, and Meri is all motherly love and concern hiding a deeper pain. And kudos to the talented Michael Terrell Brown who just joined the cast a few days before opening and seems like he's been with the group all along. This play does not have a happy ending, as there is an impression that things will only get worse, especially for Evelyn as she's left to care for her parents after her siblings leave. In the end I wasn't quite sure what I was supposed to take away from the play, other than frustration that this poor girl is destined to live a lonely life caring for her aging parents while her siblings enjoy their independent lives hundreds of miles away.

The new-to-me venue is The People's Center Theater. It's a nice intimate space on the third floor of the People's Center Health Services' Cedar Riverside Clinic. The set looks like a typical lived-in Midwestern home, with blankets on the couch and tchotchkes on the shelf. At one point during a heated scene the table broke, and the cast dealt with it so well I thought it was part of the script.

Dogwood is a compelling and entertaining dark family drama. If, like me, you're unfamiliar with Candid Theater, check it out to take a chance on something new (discount tickets available on Goldstar).

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Matthew Morrison with the Minnesota Orchestra at Orchestra Hall

I am proud to admit that I am a Gleek - a fan of the musical TV show Glee. But I was a fan of Matthew Morrison long before he began appearing on the show as the beloved teacher Will Schuester, in fact he's the main reason that I started watching the show and that I continue to watch it. I saw him play Lieutenant Cable in an absolutely luscious production of South Pacific at Lincoln Center in 2008, and even before that I fell in love with his voice as the original Linc in Hairspray and the original Fabrizio in Light in the Piazza (a role that earned him a Tony nomination). So it was an absolute thrill to see him perform live again, this time with our very own Minnesota Orchestra, that has recently reunited after a much-too-long absence due to contract issues. Whatever those issues were, I'm glad they worked it out because there's not much better in the world of music that a full orchestra, especially when joined by such a talented singer and performer as Matthew Morrison!

The concert began with a few musical theater selections performed by the orchestra, conducted by Sarah Hicks and her fantastically toned arms. Their song selection was a great preview for things to come this summer - the Overture from Leonard Berstein's Candide can be heard again this summer when Skylark Opera performs this epic and historic music-theater piece, and the medley of songs from Lerner and Loewe's My Fair Lady got me all excited to hear all these great songs in the Guthrie's production this summer. They closed with a medley from The Sound of Music, because who doesn't love The Sound of Music (you know I do!)?

Matthew's set list was comprised almost entirely of songs from his most recent album, Where It All Began. He sang all but one of the songs on the 12-track album, which features songs from musical theater and standards. It's a terrific album that I listen to often, and it was great to hear those songs in person, plus a few other standards. No Glee pop songs here, Gleeks! (Personally I was hoping for my recent favorite Mr. Schue song, "Danny's Song," but that desire was satiated by the practically perfect finale of TV's most underrated sitcom Raising Hope). Matthew's voice is gorgeous and effortless, with a style perfectly suited to this genre of music. But that's not all - he also dances! He occasionally set the mic down to do a full dance number, but even while singing, his every movement, big or small, matches the music. He's a true performer and entertainer.

Here are just a few of the many highlights of the concert.

  • Matt joked that this was the dress rehearsal, as he took the red eye Friday night after a full week of filming and only arrived in Minneapolis that morning.
  • Musical theater highlights include "Younger than Springtime" from the aforementioned South Pacific, the gorgeously sad Sondheim song "Send in the Clowns," and a medley of songs from one of my favorite musicals West Side Story.
  • The dance moves in "It Don't Mean a Thing" and "Singin' in the Rain" were fantastic, he's so smooth!
  • He looked pretty smooth too, in a tux with a black fedora that was as much a prop as an accessory.
  • Matt started to dedicate "The Lady is a Tramp" to all the ladies in the audience, but then took it back thinking it would be offensive. Not at all, this is my theme song ("she gets much too hungry to eat dinner at eight, she adores the theater, but won't arrive late"), especially when he changed the line to "she thinks the Twins are divine!"
  • The one "Mr. Schue song" he sang was the Dean Martin classic "Sway," in which he jumped off the stage and danced with one lucky audience member.
  • I was tickled to see Glee's resident piano player Brad Ellis as the music director/arranger/piano player. I love him on Glee because he's always just suddenly there when they need him, and never speaks, but conveys much with his facial expression. Turns out he's a talented musician too!
  • Matt promised us that there will be no more snow, which I'm choosing to believe.
  • This was my first time in the newly renovated Orchestra Hall, and it's gorgeous. The lobby is light, open and airy.

My only complaint about this concert is that it was too short; I could have sat there for hours listening to Matt sing and watching him dance. But he's a busy man with a TV show to film. I'm excited to see what he'll do after Glee's final season next year. In my opinion they have woefully underutilized his immense talent, as Mr. Schue is too often seen merely cheering on the kids and not allowed to sing and dance nearly enough. As he said, Glee has been a wonderful way to share musical theater songs and musical theater actors with a larger audience, but I hope to see him back on a Broadway stage soon! It's quite obviously what he was born to do and what he loves to do.

Matthew sings with the Orchestra (photo by Greg Helgeson)

... and he dances like a dream!
(photo by Greg Helgeson)

"Naked Darrow" at Illusion Theatre

Friends, I have a confession to make. If you had asked me last week, "Who is Clarence Darrow?" I would have answered, "Um... a lawyer?" I didn't know much about one of America's most famous lawyers, but in the tradition of "everything I know I learned from theater," after seeing the one-man show Naked Darrow at Illusion Theater, my eyes have been opened. Gary Anderson has spent years perfecting his performance as the famous lawyer in the play that he wrote, and it shows. He's not so much acting as being Clarence Darrow.

Naked Darrow takes place in 1937, near the end of his life, when he was deep in the clutches of dementia (and possibly Alzheimer's disease). In a 90-minute stream of consciousness, Darrow talks to people who aren't there (including his wife and mistress), relives some of his more famous trials (including his own, for jury tampering), and gives some of his most compelling closing statements. He recalls moments from his childhood, time with his first and second wives, and in the most touching sequence, he visits his newborn granddaughter and sings her to sleep with "Solidarity Forever" (Darrow was a prominent labor lawyer). The play shows us the personal side of the famous public figure and the personal costs of being a lifelong public servant. The most compelling scenes are the ones in which Darrow delivers his famous speeches. He was an eloquent and persuasive speaker, and Gary Anderson portrays this very well. This is where he really shines as he commands the theater as Darrow legendarily did the courtroom. He transforms into the character so that no "acting" is visible to the audience; it's like you're watching the man himself.

The play was last presented in the Twin Cities at Park Square Theater in 2011. It has since been revised and performed around the country, including Off-Broadway. This production features direction by Illusion's Artistic Director Michael Robins, and a sparse set by Dean Holzman, with set pieces of a desk, a few chairs, a window, and a bookcase floating in the empty space as if in a dream. Lighting by Michael Wangen helps set the mood, and images projected on the window give us a visual of the various defendants and places being described (projection design by Jonathan Carlson).

If you're a legal buff, or just want to learn a little bit more about this famous and influential American, with a lived-in portrayal by Gary Anderson, get to Illusion Theater's lovely 8th floor theater space in the Hennepin Center for the Arts before Naked Darrow closes on April 12 (bonus - discount tickets on Goldstar).

Saturday, April 5, 2014

"Othello" at the Guthrie Theater

Shakespeare's Othello, now playing at the Guthrie Theater, is billed as "an astonishing epic of sweeping passions and murderous ambition – a thrilling meditation on the power of love and the destructiveness of suspicion, all triggered by one of literature’s most seductively manipulative villains." It's the kind of Shakespeare play where half of the characters end up dead in the epic final scene, a delicious drama. Unfortunately it also requires a level of focus and concentration that I did not have after too many late nights out at the theater; the three-hour running time was just too much for me. But I was still able to appreciate that it's a beautiful production with marvelous performances by the large cast of Guthrie favorites.

The basic plot of the play is this: Iago hates Othello, his superior in the Venetian army, and plots to bring him down. This plot involves making him think that his new wife Desdemona is having an affair with his lieutenant Cassio. The plot succeeds, in a way, but Iago is not left unscathed.

Some thoughts on the show:

  • I didn't understand why Iago hates Othello so much, or why Othello so gullibly believes Iago when he tells him Desdemona is cheating on him. It's like on Survivor when one tribemate tells another that someone wants them out, and they believe it when it's so obviously a manipulative lie. (Yes, I just compared Shakespeare to Survivor, my apologies.)
  • I've recently been watching the Netflix series House of Cards, and couldn't help but be reminded of Kevin Spacey's slimy manipulative politician when watching the lengths Iago goes to and the many people he manipulates to get back at Othello.
  • The costumes by ESOSA (aka Project Runway contestant and Tony-nominated designer Emilio Sosa) are gorgeous, especially Desdemona's parade of dresses that would make Queen Marjaery jealous. Emilia's bold orange gown is also stunning, as are the men's multi-layered costumes. And the wigs are really nice as well.
  • The fight scenes are great fun to watch, and also frightening as they often end in tragedy.
  • Every member of this huge cast of Guthrie favorites does a wonderful job with whatever role they're given, large or small. Stephen Yoakam is deliciously dark and evil as Iago; Peter Macon (who I so clearly remember kneeling with blood streaming from his eyes in Oedipus) has a beautiful commanding voice, and plays the range from giddy in love to devastated and rageful; John Catron is the charming Cassio with another great drunken scene; the three women in the cast - Tracey Maloney as Desdemona, Regina Marie Williams as Iago's wife and Desdemona's lady-in-waiting, and Sun Mee Chomet as the courtesan in love with Cassio - are all wonderful; Kris L. Nelson provides some comic relief as Iago's pawn Roderigo who's in love with Desdemona (fun fact: he's married to her in real life!).

Othello, playing now through April 20, is worth seeing for this wonderful cast directed by the always great Marion McClinton. But if, like me, you are not a Shakespeare expert, I recommend you read a plot summary before you go (you can do that here), and if, like me, you are not a night person, consider seeing a matinee and/or getting a good night's sleep before seeing the show.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

"Once" at the Orpheum Theatre

I've taken some pretty incredible trips, but one of the most memorable was my hiking adventure in Ireland almost ten years ago. It was my idea of a perfect vacation - days wandering through the rugged beauty of the Irish countryside, and evenings drinking Guinness and listening to music in small pubs. One of my favorite memories is of one evening in the tiny town of Annascaul on the Dingle Peninsula, sitting in a crowded pub that seemed to hold every resident of the village, with everyone from the busboy to my fellow hikers trading songs. Because in Ireland, everyone is a musician. The musical Once (based on the 2007 indie movie of the same name, featuring music composed by its stars, Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova) brings a small taste of that spirit to the Broadway (touring) stage. The stage is set up as an Irish pub, with audience members allowed on stage before the show and during intermission, where you can listen to music and even drink a Guinness (through a straw - OK that part's not authentically Irish). The musical Once is a refreshingly different type of Broadway musical (I actually think it's more like a play with music*), in that the music is more folky that Broadway scores normally are, with music performed by the cast, all of whom play one or more instruments. This eight-time Tony winner is a sweet, simple, soulful love story fueled by the raw power of Glen Hansard's music.

I should also mention that Once is one of my favorite movies, and that Glen Hansard, whose music I first heard in that movie, has become my favorite musician (check out his brilliant first solo album Rhythm and Repose, released in 2012). Which on one hand makes me predisposed to love the musical Once, but on the other hand makes me critical of the adaptation and what has been changed from the beloved original, although I try to view the movie and the musical as two separate entities created for two very different artforms. When I saw it on Broadway two years ago,** I wrote: "The musical is different from the film; where the film is subtle and internal with much left unspoken, the music is more cutesy and external with things more obviously spelled out (sometimes literally). But the film is so sparse that I suppose they have to fill it out for a live audience. I think it's quite successful and well done; the magic of Once is retained on stage, if in a slightly different form." The first national tour, currently stopping at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis, features a different cast but that same undeniable magic.

The general plot of Once, both film and musical, is this: a street musician who works at his dad's vacuum repair shop has recently gone through a bad breakup and is disenchanted with life. He meets a young Czech immigrant woman who's full of life and encourages him to make music and get his girl back. In the movie, this encouragement is more subtle, but in the stage musical the girl is relentless in convincing the guy to move on (the characters have no names). They record a demo together of the guy's songs, and forge a deep and intimate connection through the music they make. But what I love about the movie, that thankfully they've kept in the musical, is that these are two people who meet and have an intense connection that profoundly changes the direction of each of their lives, and then they continue on different paths. In a Hollywood movie, they would end up together, but this seems much more real and poignant somehow. It's a true love story, but one that you don't often see on screen or stage. This quote by Albert Schweitzer reminds me of this show: "In everyone's life, at some time, our inner fire goes out. It is then burst into flame by an encounter with another human being. We should all be thankful for those people who rekindle the inner spirit." That's what these two people did - rekindle each other's inner spirit.

As the guy, Stuart Ward has big shoes to fill - both those of Glen Hansard and Steve Kazee, who won a Tony for the role. And fill them he does, although in a different style than either of these predecessors. He possesses a gorgeous voice, more musical theater than folk-rock, a moody intensity, and great stage charisma. The character of the girl changed so much from movie to stage that all thoughts of Marketa Irglova are gone, but Cristin Milioti (aka the surprisingly short-lived "Mother") left a great impression. Dani DeWaal fills those shoes nicely in the quite tricky role of the girl, charming and sweet but not too perky. And when Stuart and Dani sing together, as on the Oscar-winning song "Falling Slowly," it's wondrous. The two are well supported and enhanced by ten wonderful actor/singer/musicians (and one adorable little girl). Standouts include Evan Harrington as the good-natured but tough music store owner, Donna Garner as the girl's strong and supportive mother, Raymond Bokhour as the guy's sweet Da, and Matt DeAngelis, providing comic relief and powerful percussion as Svec (you know you're a true musical theater geek when you recognize touring cast members, as I did Matt; I clearly remember him as Woof in another musical obsession of mine, Hair, and in American Idiot).

As I mentioned, the set is a pub that never changes, with tables and chairs brought out to represent different settings. Through it all, most of the cast remains on stage, watching from the sidelines. Dingy mirrors surround the stage and offer other angles of the action. The movement and choreography is so beautiful, subtle and organic. There are no typical "dance numbers," just characters moving organically as the music moves them. Even the scene changes are beautifully and elegantly carried out, as not a moment is wasted.

The eight-time Tony winning musical Once is only in town for a week. Although the weather outside is atrocious, if you can make it through the snow to the Orpheum Theatre, I promise you will be rewarded with warmth, music, Guinness, and a lovely and unique evening of music-theater. (Click here for more info and to purchase tickets.)

* My two criteria for differentiating a "musical" from a "play with music" are this: 1) in a musical, characters sing in character, and 2) in a musical, songs move the plot along, so that if you removed the songs, the plot would no longer make sense. In a play with music, removing the songs does not change the plot, although it will diminish the effectiveness and impact of the piece. In Once, all of the songs are sung in context (street musician, open mic at a pub, a recording session), characters don't break into a song and sing their thoughts and feelings. Hence I believe it's a play with music. The Tony eligibility committee obviously disagreed with me.
** Yes, I plagiarized myself again. You may call it lazy, I call it being efficient.  ;)