Saturday, May 31, 2014

"Shrek: The Musical" at Children's Theatre Company

I don't go to the Children's Theatre often, but when I do I always have a great time watching the show as well as watching the children in the audience watch the show. For a seasoned (one might say obsessive) theater-goer like me, it's a different dynamic when there are so many little ones in the audience. They're so present and vocal about their reactions, whether it's joy or surprise or laughter. Such is the case with Shrek: The Musical. This is a blockbuster-movie-turned-musical done well, with book and lyrics by playwright David Lindsay-Abaire (Rabbit Hole, Good People, Fuddy Meers) and music by composer Jeanine Tesori (who also wrote one of my favorite musicals Violet, now playing on Broadway). I liked it more than I expected to when I saw it on tour a few years ago. For this local production, the Children's Theatre Company has put together a dream team that includes the Theater Latte Da trio of director Peter Rothstein, music director Denise Prosek, and choreographer Michael Matthew Ferrell, as well as a top-notch cast of adults and children. Shrek is a funny and heart-warming story that turns the traditional fairy tale on its head - "true love" is not only for pretty and proper princesses and their handsome knights, but can be just as strong and beautiful between two crass and flatulent ogres. True beauty is simply being yourself.

After being kicked out by his parents at age 7, as is the ogre way, Shrek is living a solo life on his swamp, telling himself he's happy away from the "Big, Bright, Beautiful World." The swamp is soon invaded by a bunch of fairy tale characters, from Pinocchio to the Big Bad Wolf, who were banished from the city of Duloc by the evil Lord Farquaad. Shrek heads to Duloc to try to remedy the situation, and picks up Donkey along the way, his new best friend and a constant source of annoyance. The vertically challenged Farquaad takes the opportunity to send Shrek on a task that he's unwilling to do himself - rescue Princess Fiona from her tower so that he can marry her and become King. Fiona has been waiting all her life for a knight to rescue her, just like in the fairy tales. She's somewhat disappointed when her rescuer is an ogre, but is reassured when they tell her they're taking her to a Lord in a castle. Along the way something unexpected happens - Shrek and Fiona realize they have a lot in common, from their unhappy childhoods (leading to the charming song "I Think I Got You Beat") to their talent in making bodily noises. But secrets, miscommunication, and expectations lead Fiona to go through with the wedding, until Shrek comes to stop it by telling her the truth about his feelings for her and the man she's about to marry. And these two crazy ogres and their wonderfully freakish friends live happily ever after.

Fiona and Shrek (Autumn Ness and Reed Sigmund)
This fantastic cast is led by Reed Sigmund as Shrek and Autumn Ness as Fiona, both so funny and full of life, with great chemistry (not surprising since they're married in real life). Ansa Akyea is gleefully charming as Donkey, and Adam Qualls is deliciously evil as Lord Farquaad. One of my favorite characters in this piece is the dragon, who becomes a sympathetic character through the powerful voice of Lauren Davis as she laments that no one has ever come to rescue her, raised high on some magnificent contraption with huge flowing wings. Which brings me to the other star of this show - the costumes by Rich Hamson (who is also responsible for the delightful under-the-sea world at the Chanhassen). The costumes are ridiculous in a good way - bright and colorful and fantastical, and there are a lot of them. I could not get over the fast and frequent costume changes by the ensemble members; for example, Rachel Weber goes from a villager to a Little Pig to a tap-dancing Duloc guard to part of the dragon to a blind mouse to ogre Fiona and back again. These many crazy costumes and the warm green world with set pieces and flowers rising from holes in the floor are a feast for the eyes (set design by Kate Sutton-Johnson).

Shrek: The Musical is great good fun for cast and audience, adults and children. Check it out before it closes on June 15.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

"Our Country's Good" by Out of Joint and Octagon Theatre Bolton at the Guthrie Theater

Twenty-five years after it premiered, the award-winning play Our Country's Good is being revisited and remounted by its original director and taken on a tour, which includes a stop at the Guthrie Theater for a month or so. Director Max Stafford-Clark and a couple of theater companies out of England, Out of Joint and Octagon Theatre Bolton, are presenting this story about the first English convicts sent to New South Wales (in Australia), the Royal Marines who accompanied them, and the power of theater to enlighten, educate, and "civilize." The fantastic British cast brings life to this part of world history that I know very little about, in a tale that explores ideas of justice, punishment, gender, class, colonization, and the arts.

We follow a group of convicts (some of whose crimes include things as seemingly harmless as stealing food) and marines as they land on the foreign shores of New South Wales and try to build a civilization. Some of the officers want to put on a play with the convicts as actors in hopes of bringing a bit of culture, civilization, and home to this place. Other officers are not so keen on the idea and try to stop it by belittling, beating, and hanging some of the participants. But the show must go on, and although we never get to see what happens after the play is performed, the process of rehearsal improves the lives of these convicts and gives them a new confidence and sense of purpose. Like in prison-based shows such as Oz and Orange is the New Black, the prisoners are humanized as we get to know them, their stories, and how they ended up in this desperate place.

All but one actor in this ten-person cast play multiple characters, many of whom are based on historical figures. Each actor creates such distinct characters that they're almost unrecognizable, not just because of the powdered wigs of the officers, but also because of changes in accent and physicality. It took me until the second act to figure out which convict was which officer. There's not a weak link in this cast, with standouts (if I must choose some) including Nathan Ives-Moiba as the good Lieutenant Clark, director of the play, so hopeful that this play will bring light to this dark world and in love with his star Mary; Tom Andrews as the strong and fair Governor and the word nerd convict who also loves Mary; Richard Neale as one of the cruelest officers and one of the most sympathetic convicts; Jessica Tomchak as the timid Mary who gains confidence and strength through her role in the play; and Victoria Gee as Mary's tough-talking friend Dabby.

It's always fun when the Guthrie brings in theater companies from across the pond to give us a taste of theater from other parts of the world. I initially miss seeing familiar faces on stage, but after spending a few hours with this cast they become familiar faces. They'll be in town through June 29 so you have plenty of time to get to know them. As someone who believes in the power of theater to change the world, the theme of using theater to harmonize and bring people together is one I can get behind.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

"Sister Act" at the Orpheum Theatre

The 1992 Whoopi Goldberg hit comedy movie Sister Act was recently turned into a musical, because that's how most Broadway musicals are made these days. And while I'll always be an advocate for new original musical theater, this is one of the few movie-musical adaptations that actually makes sense because music is central to the original movie; it's about the power of music to bring people together. I saw the First National Tour of Sister Act last night on the first night of its week-long stay in Minneapolis, and I had a great time. It's nothing deep or ground-breaking, but it's funny, heart-warming, and features some great new music (by Alan Menken) with a smooth '70s groove. Sister Act is one of those shows you go to for the fun of it, like a summer blockbuster.

If you're unfamiliar with the movie, here's the general gist of it: in 1978 Philadelphia, aspiring singer Deloris sees her bad guy boyfriend kill someone, so the police send her into hiding in a convent. Needless to say, the Mother Superior does not approve of Deloris, who has trouble giving up her worldly ways to live the life of a nun. But she recognizes Deloris' skill in music and puts her to work with the abysmal choir. Under the direction of Deloris, aka Sister Mary Clarence, the sisters become a fantastic musical act which brings more people into the church and saves it from being sold. Unfortunately it also brings attention to Deloris and allows the bad guys to find her, but Deloris refuses to abandon her sisters before their papal performance. Will Deloris be saved from the crooks, and will the sisters pull off their biggest show yet? It's a musical - what do you think?

Some gloriously fun things about the show:
  • As Deloris, Ta'rea Campbell is, as her character sings, "Fabulous, Baby!" She and Hollis Resnik as the Mother Superior made a dynamic comedy duo. All of the women playing the wise-cracking nuns are great too, especially Florrie Bagel as the perpetually happy Mary Patrick and Ashley Moniz as the young postulate who find her voice.
  • The bad guys are super '70s cool, including Melvin Abston as Deloris' velvet-voiced boyfriend and Charles Barksdale as his dimwitted nephew TJ. The guys' Temptations-like numbers, singing about killing Deloris ("When I Find My Baby") and seducing nuns ("Lady in the Long Black Dress"), are a highlight, with groovy choreography by Anthony Van Laast.
  • Special mention goes to Chester Gregory as Deloris' high school friend "Sweaty Eddie" who's now a timid cop. He exhibits remarkable vocal control in his big number "I Could Be That Guy," transforming from Steve-Urkel-awkward to John-Travolta-in-Saturday-Night-Fever-cool with the vocal stylings that go along with it.
  • Other musical highlights include "Take Me to Heaven," Deloris' Motown song about a woman singing to her man that becomes the nuns singing gleefully about their God, and "Raise Your Voice," when the sisters find their individual voices and sing gloriously together.
  • The costumes (by Lez Brotherston) are pretty fantastic too, from sequined habits to halter tops to bell-bottoms. I'm always amazed when the most elaborate costumes only come out for the curtain call; it seems like such a waste that they're only seen for a few minutes, but it's worth the pay-off.
  • As a person who was raised Catholic and went to Catholic grade school, I enjoy a little Catholic humor. But I don't think it's disrespectful. Similar to The Book of Mormon or Altar Boyz, the fantastic musical about a Catholic boy band, they make fun of some of the rituals and habits (no pun intended) while still being respectful of the faith behind it.
  • I like that the driving story is not a romance, but a sisterhood. Maybe it's a little hokey, but it's a lovely message about friendship, togetherness, and helping our fellow humans. And as Deloris and the Mother Superior debate, whether that's God or just being human or both, it's a hopeful message.
The sisters are celebrating at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis through Sunday June 1, click here to join the joyous celebration.

the final bow
(photo by Joan Marcus)

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

"Sweet Land" Presented by Buffalo Gal Productions and Cardinal Theatricals at Art House North

I've seen several readings of new work this year, including The History Theatre's Raw Stages festival and Theater Latte Da's NEXT: New Musicals in the Making. They've all been so creative and interesting and diverse, but I think my favorite is Sweet Land, a new musical based on the lovely little Minnesota-made movie. It's a simple but beautiful story about early 20th Century immigrants making a life on Minnesota farmland, full of humor, heart, and nostalgia for a time gone by. Creators of the musical Perrin Post (book), Laurie Flanigan Hegge (book and lyrics), and Dina Maccabee (music) have done a wonderful job retaining what was so special about the film while adding music that feels organic to the story. It was presented last Sunday by a cast of talented local actor/singer/musicians as it continues in the development process. More than any other new work I've seen this year, I hope to see Sweet Land in a full production sometime soon.

If you've never seen the 2005 movie Sweet Land, you should go directly to Netflix or Blockbuster or however you get your movies and watch it! Filmed near Montevideo, MN and including cameos by local actors (including the Stephens D'Ambrose, Pelinski, and Yoakam), it's the quintessential Minnesota story of Norwegian and German immigrants forging a life on the farm, with all the difficulties and rewards that entails. In this particular story, Norwegian immigrant Olaf Torvik needs a wife, so his family in Norway send him one. When Inge arrives, Olaf is surprised to find out that she is actually German, which is not well accepted by the community so soon after WWI - Germans are the enemy and she could could be a spy. The pastor refuses to marry the couple, and Inge is forced to stay at the neighbors farm with Frandsen, his wife Brownie, and their many children. It doesn't take long for Inge to get fed up with this crowded living arrangement and long for a space of her own, so she makes her way across the field to Olaf's farm and take up residence there, helping him with the farm. Despite the fact that Olaf sleeps in the barn, this arrangement is frowned upon and the couple is shunned by the community, until their hard work, perseverance, and generosity slowly win everyone over. They are accepted and allowed to live their life together as man and wife and an important part of the community.

The creators of the musical have stayed true to the plot of the movie, with many of my favorite moments and lines represented or even turned into song. The good-natured Frandsen calls Inge "ducky" and she doesn't quite understand, which has been turned into a fun light-hearted song. At the end of the movie, after living and working together for so long, Inge declares that she and Olaf are already married without any ceremony or legal documents necessary, which has become a beautifully moving ballad. The moment when Olaf first really looks at Inge through the camera lens, the auction, Olaf's declaration that "farming and banking don't mix," the threshing scenes, Inge's rebellious bath, all of these are songs. They really did take all of the best and most memorable moments in the movie and turn them into songs, which is really the best way to make a musical. The music is all wonderfully Americana, with a couple of guitars, a fiddle, an upright bass, and an accordion in the band (directed by Matt Riehle). The intention for the full production is for the band members to double as ensemble members, playing some of the smaller roles and joining in on the singing. This is similar to the new musical Once, also an adaptation of a sweet and simple but lovely movie, in which the musicians are also the ensemble; perhaps this multiple Tony winner has defined and allowed for a new type of musical. A musical like this one in which there is no differentiation between actor, singer, and musician, with a style of music that strays far from "Broadway" into territories of folk, country, and Americana.

With only about twenty hours of rehearsal, this amazing cast, directed by Andrew Rasmussen, has managed to bring this piece and these characters and songs to life in such a way that it's not difficult to imagine a full production. Ann Michels is the perfect Inge, with the spark and strength and humor of the character, while also showing her vulnerable longing side. Robert Berdahl is also wonderful as Olaf, a typical Norwegian farmer hiding his feelings deep down inside but allowing them to come to the surface at pivotal moments. As Frandsen and his wife Brownie, Bradley Greenwald and Tinia Moulder bring heart and humor. Rounding out the ensemble are Tod Peterson as the pastor and Cat Brindisi and Brian Sostek as all other characters. This is truly a top-notch cast and I hope they all continue in future productions of this piece.

Sweet Land is such a special little movie, a small story but one that's so moving and timeless and beautiful. It's a piece of our history as Minnesotans, one that I, as a descendant of German immigrant farmers, feel a special connection to. The musical is everything I hoped it would be, retaining what was so special about the movie and its wistful, funny, romantic tone, and only adding to it with the wonderful new original music of the Americana style that I love so well. I am confident we will see this again. Visit the Sweet Land musical website or become a fan of their Facebook page for more information about the piece, future productions, and how you can help with the next phase of development.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

"The Odd Couple" at Bloomington Civic Theatre

Neil Simon's 1965 play The Odd Couple is an American classic. How many Broadway plays are made into not just a movie, but also a TV sitcom? Everyone knows the story of the two bachelor friends Oscar and Felix living together despite the fact that they're complete opposites and drive each other crazy. Famous Oscar/Felix pairs you may remember include Walter Matthau and Art Carney from the original Broadway version, Matthau and Jack Lemmon from the movie, Jack Klugman and Tony Randall from the TV series, or even Pat Harrington and Tim Conway from a late '80s tour (which I saw, if only I could remember it!). Bloomington Civic Theatre presents another great Odd Couple team in Sam Landman and Wade A. Vaughn (truthfully, the only reason I made the 25 mile drive to see it). Along with the great supporting cast, they present a very funny and entertaining interpretation of a classic.

The play opens on a weekly poker game at newly divorced Oscar's messy eight-room NYC apartment. He and his colorful poker buddies (Dave Gangler, Eric Knutson, Joel Raney, and Ben Tallen, all distinctly hilarious) are worried when Felix doesn't show up. A phone call to his wife informs them that he hasn't been heard from since she threw him out the day before, when he vaguely hinted at suicide. When he finally does arrive, they tread gingerly around him and pretend they don't know what has happened, even though it's obvious he wants their attention and support. They finally give it to him, and Oscar invites Felix to stay with him until he gets back on his feet. Fast forward two weeks, and the boys have settled into their routine, which mainly involves Felix cooking and cleaning and badgering Oscar when he strays from the newly defined rules. Oscar decides it would be a good idea to double date with the Pigeon sisters (Dawn Brodey and Katie Willer, delightfully giggly and weepy in their mod dresses and go-go boots). Needless to say things don't go as planned, which leads to a falling out between Oscar and Felix. But the two friends, despite not being able to tolerate living together, are still supportive of each other as they navigate their new lives as divorced men.

Felix and Oscar
(Wade A. Vaughn and Sam Landman)
This really is genius casting by director David Mann, who I believe got the idea after seeing both Sam and Wade in their terrific one-man shows with Loudmouth Collective last year (Thom Pain and Cul-de-Sac, respectively). Sam's cigar-smoking, sarcastic, sloppy, gruff Oscar plays very well off of Wade's sensitive, fastidious, tidy, emotional Felix. It's hugely entertaining to watch the two of them together or with the rest of the cast, in some nicely choreographed poker party scenes. Add Neil Simon's fast and funny dialogue, and you have a great night at the theater.

The Odd Couple is virtually sold out for the rest of it's run through June 8, but you might be able to snag a few seats if you call the box office. While the play feels dated, especially in the depiction of the women, it's great fun, and it is a comfort to return to that familiar world of '60s movies/TV (aided by a very detailed set designed by Tamatha Miller and great period costumes by Cindy Forsgren). I've long been a fan of BCT's musicals, but they're doing great work on the play side as well. They have some great shows on the line-up for their 2014-2015 season, both plays and musicals, which may see me making that drive to Bloomington more often.

Friday, May 23, 2014

"One Flea Spare" by Theatre Coup D'Etat at the Soap Factory

"Our lives are but a splash of water on a stone. I am the stone they fell upon, and they have marked me." So ends the hauntingly beautiful play One Flea Spare by Naomi Wallace. Theatre Coup D'Etat's production, currently playing in the cold dark basement of The Soap Factory*, an art gallery near St. Anthony Main, is one of those theater experiences that will stay with me long after the lights go up. Focusing on four people trapped in a house together in 1665 plague-infested London, the play takes a hard look at who people really are when the everyday distractions of life are removed, and there's nothing left but themselves and each other. It's a harsh but beautiful view of humanity.

A 12-year-old girl named Morse begins and ends the story for us. She has broken into her neighbor's home, that of the well-to-do Mr. and Mrs. Snelgrave, after everyone in her home perished from the plague. A sailor named Bunce has also sought refuge in the house, which has all been boarded up except for one room, the only room in which no one has died. After discovering this break-in, the guard Kabe, their only contact with the outside world, has ordered them to say inside for 28 days to ensure none of them are infected. So begins a long process of these strangers getting to know each other, and the long-married couple facing their long-buried issues. We're told by Morse at the beginning of the play that not everyone survives, so we wait to see who dies and how, like a 17th Century deadly version of Survivor.

Morse (Briana Patnode), Mr. Snelgrave (Jim Ahrens),
Bunce (Peter Beard), and Mrs. Snelgrave (Ellen Apel),
It doesn't get much more intimate than this space, with just a few rows of seats on three sides of the small square that serves as the stage. There's nothing between the audience and the actors, and all of their performances are almost too real. I was completely drawn in by them, almost to the point of feeling uncomfortable as if you're eavesdropping on some very intense conversations. As their true colors begin to show in this small room with nowhere to go and nothing to do, we learn that Mr. Snelgrave is hard and cruel, Mrs. Snelgrave is lonely and suffering from a long-ago hurt, Bunce the sailor is kind and tender-hearted, yet unwilling to tolerate Mr. Snelgrave's classist attitude, Kabe the guard is a selfish opportunist, feeding off the dead, and little Morse is curious and precocious, innocent yet knowing more of the pain of the world than any little girl should.

James Napolean Stone does a beautiful job directing this fine cast and so vividly creating this world. As Morse, Briana Patnode is utterly captivating and appealing, with her ever-changing emotions displayed plainly on her open face. Peter Beard's Bunce has a raw intensity boiling just below the surface of his calm demeanor. Ellen Apel is as sympathetic as Mrs. Snelgrave as Jim Ahrens is vicious and appropriately unlikable as her cruel husband. Last but not least Brian Joyce brings the right mix of humor and creepiness to the guard who occasionally shows up at the window. Helping to set the tone is the sparse set by Meagan Kedrowski, which consists of two chairs and one boarded up wall with a window. The surroundings are well-incorporated into the set, most effectively in the concrete floor of the basement that is momentarily marked by the water that is splashed on it, until it drinks it up. The beautiful period costumes by Barb Portinga range from shabby to elegant and help to define the characters (there's even some clothes-swapping as roles are reversed). I particularly loved Morse's too-large dresses, ragged and dragging on the floor.

"Our lives are but a splash of water on a stone. I am the stone they fell upon, and they have marked me." And this play has marked me. You can't ask for much more than that from theater - a beautifully written, thought-provoking, disturbing play with wonderfully real and raw performances by the small cast in a space that adds to the tone of the show, that has a lasting impact on the audience. It's playing for two more weekends and I highly recommend that you check it out as one example of the fine work being done by small theater companies in unusual spaces.

*It really is chilly in the basement, so bring a sweater. There is street parking around The Soap Factory, but leave a little extra time to drive around and find a spot.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

"Macbeth" by Mission Theatre Company at the Minneapolis Theater Garage

Macbeth is one of Shakespeare's most well-known tragedies. You know the story, it's the one about the Scottish general who receives a prophesy that he will be king, so he kills a bunch of people with the help of his wife until they both go crazy. It's a typical Shakespeare tragedy, full of battles and death and insanity. Mission Theatre Company's production is a creative interpretation of this classic, with music, drumming, and very physical performances from the cast.

At the center of the show is Michael Kelley as Macbeth, with an intense, mesmerizing, fully committed performance as he takes Macbeth from a happy and optimistic general in love with his wife, to a desperate, grief-stricken, ghost-seeing crazy person. Also good is Amy Vickroy as Lady Macbeth; the two have a real connection onstage. The prophetic "weird sisters" (played by Abby DeSanto, Anneliese Stuht, and Andrea Rose Tonsfeldt) are deliciously weird and creepy, always onstage (even as the house opens before the show), striking statue-like poses, speaking rhythmically in unison ("double double toil and trouble, fire burn and cauldron bubble"). A few gender changes are done very well. Macduff is a woman (well played by Meagan Kedrowski), and (spoiler alert) it's her husband and children who are killed at their home while she's the one to avenge them and kill Macbeth. And King Duncan's daughter, not son, eventually becomes "King of Scotland" when the dust settles.

Penelope Parsons-Lord directs this capable cast in their matching hairstyles of braids and fauxhawks, and has also designed the aesthetically pleasing and functional costumes - good for running, rolling around, and fighting but still looking regal or soldier-like. And as if giving a great performance as Macbeth isn't enough, Michael Kelley has also designed the sparse but effective set in the large blank slate of a space that is the Minneapolis Theater Garage, and is responsible for the fight choreography. It's some of the most intense, brutal, realistic, intricately choreographed stage fighting I've seen, with the copious blood elegantly represented by red ribbons.

Mission Theater Company's Macbeth is a creative interpretation of a class that remains true to the story. But being Shakespeare, it's still quite long, almost three hours with intermission. I wish they had pared down the story to a more manageable two hours or so (like the Guthrie did several years ago), but maybe that's just my sleep deprivation talking. If you're a fan of the Bard, you might want to check out what they've got going on (playing through May 24).

P.S. There's also a really cool art exhibit in the lobby, so check that out if you go.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

"Rocket to the Moon" by Gremlin Theatre at the New Century Theatre

They get me every time. Gremlin Theatre, that is. I've seen everything they've done over the past couple of years and it's always been a play I've never heard of and know nothing about, a seemingly obscure little known work. And they're always just absolute gems that reach in and grab me in the heart, gut, funny bone, or all three. Their current production, Rocket to the Moon, is no exception. It's a tragic love story set in a dentist office in 1938, but it's really about a handful of complex characters that we grow to know and care about over the course of a few hours despite, or perhaps because of, their flaws, all so beautifully and vulnerably brought to life by this excellent cast.

New York City dentist Dr. Ben Stark is offered a chance to move his practice to a bigger and better location, but is talked out of it by his pragmatic wife Belle. Part of her reasoning is that the money for the move comes from her father Mr. Prince, whom she despises. Ben has no confidence or ambition, and after ten years of marriage does everything his wife tells him to. As one character says, his unhappiness has become a habit he's not even fully aware of; he's "like an iceberg, three-quarters under water." His father-in-law is his exact opposite, a man of means brimming with confidence, who knows what he wants and goes after it. He encourages Ben to do something to shake things up, maybe even have an affair with his pretty young assistant Cleo. Which he eventually does, not because "Papa" told him to, but because Cleo is as full of life as Ben is devoid of it. She has hopes and dreams and believes she will achieve something wonderful in her life, despite her unhappy home life which she continually lies about. But this is not a happily ever after kind of play; these are all sad damaged people, some of whom make choices that may move them towards happiness, and some of whom continue to be stuck.

Dr. Stark (Peter Christian Hansen) and Cleo (Jane Froiland)
(photo by Aaron Fenster)
This is such a great cast, directed by Ellen Fenster (who is also responsible for making me weep at last year's The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds). It's truly a joy just to sit in the audience and watch them work. Peter Christian Hansen is able to reign in his usual magnetic stage presence to portray the unassuming dentist who's just going through the motions of life, emotions deeply hidden, until he begins to wake up with Cleo. Jane Froiland is effervescent as Cleo, and while I usually don't root for a man to cheat on his wife, I so wanted her and Ben to find happiness together. Ben's wife could be seen merely as the shrew who holds him back, but Daisy Macklin Skarning makes her a sympathetic character as well, a woman who's known deep grief and is surviving the only way she knows how. Craig Johnson is, as usual, an absolute delight as Mr. Prince. True he's given the best lines, speaking in unusual and descriptive metaphors, but his delivery is scrumptious. He makes Mr. Prince's offer to Cleo really quite attractive; a girl could do worse than a smooth-talking well-dressed charming older gentleman whose only goal in life is to woo her! Nicely rounding out this seven-person cast are David Coral as Ben's alcoholic partner, another sad and lost man; Jason Rojas as Ben's friend, challenging him yet protective of him; and Edwin Strout, stealing scenes as the flamboyant dance director.

I love what Gremlin has done with the New Century Theatre. The usual stage is so wide and shallow that it almost looks two-dimensional, which works for some shows but less well for others. This is definitely a piece that is more than two dimensions and needs room to breathe. Scenic and lighting designer Carl Shoenborn and his team have built out a square thrust stage with plenty of space for Ben to get as far away from his fears as possible. He's filled it with vintage office furniture and accoutrements, with evocative lighting relaying the time of day or emotion of the scene. Costumes by A. Emily Heaney add to the period feel, from Mr. Prince's smashing three-piece suits to Belle's lovely dresses and hats to Cleo's efficient uniform.

Rocket to the Moon continues at the New Century Theatre in the City Center in downtown Minneapolis through June 1, with half-price tickets available on Goldstar. This play is another one of those theatrical gems that Gremlin has plucked from obscurity and polished to it's most achingly beautiful form. It would be a shame to miss this one.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Summer 2014 Must-See Musicals

It's hard to believe with the weather we've had, but summer is just around the corner. And if you're a musical theater fan like I am, it's going to be a great one! Here are a few summer musicals I'm looking forward to this year. I realize most people aren't able (or willing) to see as much theater as I do, so take a look at the list and see what piques your interest, and go see some local musical theater! (Click on the title to find out more info about the show and how to order tickets.)

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Minneapolis Musical Theatre, June 6 - 29
I saw this hilarious and smart political-satire-emo-rock-musical on Broadway in the fall of 2010 and absolutely loved it. I've been waiting for a local theater company to do it, so I'm thrilled that Minneapolis Musical Theatre chose it as their final show of the 2013-2014 season.
Update: read my review of the show.

Candide/Berlin to Broadway, Skylark Opera, June 13 - 22
I've enjoyed attending Skylark Opera's summer festival for the past few years because it introduces me to shows I'm not familiar with, typically musicals that veer a little more towards the opera side. This year they're doing Bernstein's operetta Candide and a celebration of composer Kurt Weill (The Threepenny Opera). And the fantastic casts include some of my faves: the fabulous Baldwin sisters (Jennifer Baldwin Peden in Candide and Christina Baldwin in Berlin to Broadway), Bradley Greenwald, and Dieter Bierbrauer (both in Berlin to Broadway).
Update: read my review of the shows.

Little Shop of Horrors, 7th House Theater Collective, June 20 - 29
The uber-talented young musical theater artists who last summer brought us a raw and real production of the ground-breaking musical Hair return this summer with Little Shop of Horrors, the dark comedy about the man-eating plant. With just seven performers (including the band), it's sure to be another wonderfully sparse reinvention of a classic. (Ticket prices are a mere $12, but if you can afford more, you can help support them through their fundraising campaign.)

My Fair Lady, The Guthrie Theater, June 28 - August 31
The Guthrie's summer blockbuster is everyone's favorite rags to riches story, My Fair Lady, which includes such gems as "I Could Have Danced All Night," "On the Street Where You Live," "Wouldn't It Be Loverly," "Get Me to the Church on Time," and "The Rain in Spain." While none of the lead actors are local (boo), the supporting players and ensemble include many local favorites (yay), including Robert O. Berdahl, Angela Timberman, and superstar Tyler Michaels. It's sure to be a big beautiful production.

Last but not least is my favorite musical RENT. It's a show I will go see anytime, anywhere (I've seen it 13 times over the past 17 years). I'm super excited that Lyric Arts in Anoka is doing it this summer; I've been pleased by everything I've seen there so I think they'll do a great job. No day but today!


A Little Night Music, Mu Performing Arts, July 25 - August 10
I forgot about this one when I was writing my list last month, but obviously, Mu + Sondheim = must-see. Two years ago they set Sondheim's fairy-tale inspired Into the Woods in the woods of Asia with an all Asian-American cast, and it was truly delightful. I can't wait to see their take on another Sondheim classic. Send in the clowns!

This article also appears on Broadway World Minneapolis.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

"Dirt Sticks" by Ten Thousand Things at Open Book

What Ten Thousand Things does better than any other theater company I know is harness the power of collective imagination to transport the audience to another world. Because they often perform in prison cafeterias and community centers, they cannot rely on the usual theatrical tricks of lighting, costumes, and set. The audience can clearly see what's going on and that this is make-believe, which somehow makes it even more magical when we willingly forget our surroundings and go on this journey with the cast, who are always so fully committed to and immersed in the story they're telling. In the case of Dirt Sticks, a new play written by playwright in residence Kira Obolensky, the experienced theater audience is in the same boat as TTT's inexperienced theater audiences - we're all approaching the show with no prior knowledge of the piece. It's a rare and wonderful thing to go to the theater with no idea of what to expect, and to be thoroughly entertained and completely transported to another world.

Henry Wand (H. Adam Harris) and
his mother (Sun Mee Chomet)
Dirt Sticks tells the story of a young man named Henry Wand, an orphan raised by his aunt, whom he calls Mother Spindle because she's tightly wound. He and Laurel, another stray that Mother Spindle has taken in, work in a ladder factory. They live a pretty uneventful life, until a peddler comes to town with the full moon. Along with the usual goods, he sells visions of the future and the past. Through this, the story of Henry's birth is told as his mother's ghost visits her sister and son. Henry's life is changed forever as he learns the truth of his history. It's a simple story really, but feels like an ancient fairy tale as it unfolds in front of us, occurring somewhere outside of time and space.

the peddler (Stephen Cartmell) and
Mother Spindle (Thomasina Petrus)
This five-person cast is just delightful and very interactive with the audience (if you're sitting in the front row, be prepared to be asked to buy a penny for a nickel). Stephen Cartmell is absolutely mesmerizing as the mysterious peddler, spinning tales as peddles his wares. Kimberly Richardson is her usual nimble clownish self, particularly when Laurel buys the magical dancing shoes that never rest. Sun Mee Chomet is lovely as Henry's ghost mother, full of life, happy to be alive again, and trying to entice Henry to join her. Thomasina Petra is the stern Mother Spindle, eventually revealing a softer side with a long ago hurt. And last but not least, H. Adam Harris is charming as our hero Henry Wand, so curious about life and his past, eager to move forward.

Helping to create this magical world are the extremely sparse set pieces by Irve Dell, including a whimsical flying pigeon (manned by Stephen Cartmell), a lopsided ladder, and a large bowl in which Mother Spindle cooks soup and her healing elixir. Peter Vitale again creates the sound world of the story, which almost makes you want to close your eyes and just listen. These elements and this cast under the able direction of Artistic Director Michelle Hensley create a very specific world that is a pleasure to live in for a few short hours.

Dirt Sticks continues through June 1 in an upstairs room at Open Book. These shows have a tendency to sell out so get your tickets now. I've said it many times before and I'll say it again - if you're a Twin Cities theater fan and you've never seen a Ten Thousand Things show, you're missing a huge part of what makes this community so special. Check out Dirt Sticks, and then come back  next season for Romeo and Juliet, The Unsinkable Molly Brown, and another new Kira Obolensky play, The New Don Juan.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

"Drunken City" by Dark & Stormy Productions at the Lyric at Carleton Place

New theater company Dark & Stormy Productions is really hitting their stride; they've become one of those theater companies that I rely on to never let me down. Their fourth production in just under two years continues their tradition of short, intense, real, small-cast, smartly written plays in unusual locations. Drunken City (written by Adam Bock, the same playwright as their last show, the hilarious dark comedy The Receptionist) introduces us to three recently engaged girlfriends out for a wild night in the city. The seemingly innocent good time turns into more as the three women, and the men that they meet, ponder life and relationships, and whether or not they are where they want to be in both. Spend 75 minutes with this fantastic cast (directed by Associate Artistic Director Bill McCallum, who's more often seen on stage) for a fun, entertaining, and surprisingly deep night at the theater.

As they explain to the audience in the opening scene of the play, Marnie (Sara Marsh, founder and Artistic Director), Linda (Tracey Maloney), and Melissa (Adelin Phelps) have all recently gotten engaged. They have a history of destructive nights of drinking "in the city" (Linda drinks too much), but that doesn't stop them from going back again to celebrate Marnie's bachelorette party. They predictably drink too much (Linda couldn't resist the pretty pink drinks) and run into a couple of guys from their town, Eddie (Paul de Cordova) and Frank (Kris L. Nelson). Marnie promptly begins kissing Frank, much to her friends' dismay. Marnie's not sure she wants to get married after all, and Melissa and Linda have their own reasons for insisting that she does, reasons that are more about them and their insecurities than they are about Marnie and what's right for her. The girls call their reliable friend Bob (Benjamin McGovern) to come and help them get Marnie home and away from Frank. As the six characters wander through the streets of the drunken city, we learn a little about each of them in conversations and short monologues. This is where the surprisingly deep part comes in, as their hopes, fears, and dreams about their lives and relationships echo our own.

a drunken night in the city (photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp)
It's truly a joy to watch this cast perform this smart and funny play, playing characters that seem familiar from our own lives. They're all so wonderful and funny, partly because most of them play drunk for most of the play, and do it well. But also because they bring depth to these characters and make them more than what they first appear - Sara as the runaway bride in over her head, Tracey as the woman who drinks too much to mask her deep fears about life, Adelin as the tough-talking friend who insists that Marnie's marriage work out because hers didn't, Kris as the sad-sack Frank who so sweetly listens to Marnie, Paul as Frank's hilariously mumbling friend Eddie, and Benjamin as everyone's best friend who opens up and learns a thing or two about love. All of these characters are changed by this one drunken night, for better or worse.

The play takes place in a cool, modern, brightly-colored theater space in the Lyric at Carleton Place, a new apartment complex on University in St. Paul (with free parking across the street). Make a date to spend a night with these six friends before the party ends on June 7 (drunkenness optional).

Friday, May 16, 2014

"Horizon" by Theater Latte Da at the Lab Theater

The final installment in what has been a wonderful new works series presented by Theater Latte Da is a musical re-imagining of the Eugene O'Neill play Beyond the Horizon. It was his first play to be produced on Broadway and the first to win a Pulitzer Prize, but is little seen today (I was previously unfamiliar with it). New York City based musical theater writers Chip Klose (book) and Michael Holland (music and lyrics) are re-telling this story through music, in a brand new piece receiving its first workshop and public performances this weekend with Theater Latte Da. Like all of the NEXT works, it has great potential and is beautifully presented by our local talent, with direction by Peter Rothstein.

In this version of O'Neill's story, brothers Travis and Robbie are in love with the same girl. Book-smart Robbie is about to go to college on a scholarship when he finds out that Amy is pregnant. He decides to stay, and Travis, Amy's old love, joins the marines as a means to leave town and family behind. Robbie and Amy live with his parents and struggle to make a life, as everyone feels Travis' absence. Although plot points have been changed, this is still an O'Neill story and therefore not a happy one, but one with great emotion and complicated family dynamics, the perfect fodder for music-theater.

I loved the music in this piece, and would probably love it even more in its intended orchestration - a few guitars and a fiddle. The creators describe the style as "incorporating pop, rock, folk, and country elements with echoes of Appalachia," but it's hard to achieve that with just a piano (even when the pianist is Denise Prosek). But even so, it's a great score with intricate harmonies, giving each character their moment to shine. And you couldn't ask for a better cast than this one - Eric Morris and Jared Oxborough as the brothers (the former stepping into the role just the day before the first performance!), Cat Brindisi as Amy, and Kevin Leines and Betti Battocletti as the boys' parents. I'm always amazed at how full these NEXT performances are despite the fact that the actors have only had a week or two with the material and have the script in front of them.

If you're free this weekend and interested in witnessing the future of music-theater, head to the Lab Theater for one of the two final performances of Horizon. This has been another great year for NEXT: New Musicals in the Making. From The End of September, a very Minnesotan story with a wonderfully complex score, to the hilarious improvised musical Some Assembly Required (aka Used Pontoon), to Horizon, a re-imagining of a classic American play, I've really enjoyed witnessing these unpolished gems and hope to see all of them again in the future.

Monday, May 12, 2014

"Gypsy" at Bloomington Civic Theater

What better time to see the classic 1959 musical Gypsy than on Mother's Day weekend? Based on the memoirs of Burlesque star Gypsy Rose Lee, it features the quintessential stage mother in Rose, who puts all of her hopes and dreams into her daughters as she guides them through their Vaudeville career. There's nothing really new or noteworthy about Bloomington Civic Theatre's production, it's just a good, solid, classic interpretation of one of the best musicals ever written, full of great songs and complex characters.

We first meet Rose and her daughters Louise and June in an audition, as she famously calls out directions including "sing out, Louise!" Baby June is the star, a pretty and precocious little girl in blond ringlets, and Louise is the older and less talented daughter forced into the shadows. Rose promises her girls she will make them stars, and travels around the country getting them bigger and better gigs with the help of Herbie, their manager who's also an unofficial husband/father figure to the family. Louise and June soon outgrow the little girl act but their mother refuses to let them grow up. A teenage June runs away with one of the boys in the act to form their own act. Herbie and Louise encourage Rose to walk away and concentrate on their family, but Rose is not someone who gives up. She turns all of her focus to making Louise a star in a recycled version of the old act. But Vaudeville is dying, so the act ends up in a Burlesque theater. Rose promises that this will be the last gig and she will marry Herbie and walk away when it's over. But when given the chance to make Louise a star in the Burlesque world, she takes it, and shoves Louise into the spotlight. Surprisingly, Louise takes to this new role and shines, not needing her mother any more. In one of the most famous musical theater songs, Rose makes one final plea to the universe, asking when it will be "Rose's Turn" after all she's sacrificed.

Here are some great things about the show:
  • Everyone in the cast (which includes a lot of new faces at BCT) does a fine job, but there is one star in this show and that is Sally Ann Wright as Rose. As one audience member behind me noted, "she's perfect for the role." With a strong voice and commanding presence, she simply is Mama Rose. 
  • Another who's perfect for the role is ten-year-old Dora Dolphin as Baby June. Already a veteran of Twin Cities stages (see also This Side of Paradise at the History Theatre and Collide Theatrical Dance Company's Belmont Hotel), the role of an adorable, precocious, talented young blond who's about to become a star is one she was born to play.
  • Also great are Kristen Husby, who believably takes Louise from the tomboy-ish second fiddle to the elegant stripping star; Paul Reyburn as the solid and steady Herbie, the calm in the middle of the storm; and Martino Mayotte who makes a charming Tulsa and dances divinely on one of my favorite numbers in the show, "All I Need is the Girl."
  • In one of the highlights of the show, the three strippers in the Burlesque club are all fantastic and play their "gimmick" well - Emily Jansen's "bump it with a trumpet" Mazeppa, Jessie Ladig's "do it with finesse" Tessie Tura, and Megan Love Warner's enlightening Electra.
  • All the technical elements are spot-on, as per usual at BCT. Lots of set parts moving in and out (designed by Tiffany Fier), great choreography by Shannon Roberg, that big full pit orchestra that I love to see on these classic musicals with Anita Ruth at its helm, a large cast playing multiple roles, all under the direction of Zach Curtis.
  • This is one of my favorite musical theater scores (music by Julie Styne and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim), with such great and memorable songs as "May We Entertain You," "You'll Never Get Away From Me," "Everything's Coming up Roses," "Together Wherever We Go," "You Gotta Get a Gimmick," and "All I Need is the Girl."
Gypsy continues at Bloomington Civic Theater through May 25 (with discount tickets on Goldstar). If you've never seen this classic on stage, this is a great production to introduce you. And even if you've seen it many times, it's still fun to revisit old favorites. 

BCT has announced their 2014-2015 season and I'm super excited to see that they've chosen the brilliant new rock musical about a family dealing with mental illness, Next to Normal. I think it's great that they sometimes venture out of their comfort zone of classics that they do so well, which next season include Guys and Dolls, La Cage Aux Folles, and Carousel - one I've never seen but have been wanting to. But first - the final play this season is The Odd Couple, which I am going to see for two reasons - Sam Landman as Oscar and Wade Vaughn as Felix. Trust me, you don't want to miss these two.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

"Some Assembly Required" by Theater Latte Da at the Lab Theater

In the second production of Theater Latte Da's series NEXT: New Musicals in the Making, there is Some Assembly Required. That assembly is done in front of the audience's eyes and with their help by comedy/music/theater/improv experts Jill Bernard, Madde Gibba (who, sadly, did not perform the night I saw the show due to weather-related travel difficulties), Brian Kelly, Doug Neithercott, and Michael Ritchie, with improvised musical accompaniment by Todd Price. The result is a fun, silly, and surprisingly cohesive one-of-a-kind musical.

The show begins with a text solicited from someone in the audience. For the show I saw, this text was "do you know anyone who could sell us a used pontoon?" (only in Minnesota, right?). The cast then ran with the theme of "used pontoon," which is actually a pretty cool title of a musical. I can just see the marquee: Used Pontoon: The Musical (the ubiquitous tag added so that people don't think it's a watercraft sale). Three of the performers made up a song on the spot, ranging from sad ("I feel as useless as a used pontoon," my personal favorite)  to spirited (building an army and overthrowing a dictator on a used pontoon). The audience voted and chose the latter as the basis of the musical. And so the show begins.

The cast created scenes and characters and slowly built a plot that mostly made sense, sort of. The Russian generalissimo living in a castle tower is planning to conquer the small village lying at the foot of the tower, as a present for his wife. The scrappy townspeople gather together to find the generalissimo's weakness and stop him from destroying their little town. There are secrets, betrayals, acts of bravery, a recurring theme of earthworms, a love story, and a really awkward Dallas Buyers Club reference. All of it made up on the spot, although the cast did have time to converse and plan for Act II during the short intermission. It's really remarkable to watch them create something brand new and entertaining right before your eyes. But remember, these are professionals, don't try this at home!

One final performance of this music-theater experiment remains, which will differ slightly from the two previous performances in that they will take the best bits from each and put them together in a somewhat planned, although still improvised, musical. If you're free tonight - check it out for a one-of-a-kind music-theater experience.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

"Detroit" at the Jungle Theater

The Jungle Theater's production of the outrageous dark comedy Detroit is in the middle of its six-week run, so lucky for you there's still time to see it if you haven't yet. This play by Lisa D'Amour is about two couples living next door to each other in any suburb in America. They meet and develop a friendship, despite the fact that none of them are who they seem to be. It's crazy and funny and poignant at times, as it explores relationships and neighborliness in modern America.

Ben (John Middleton) and Mary (Angela Timberman) invite their new neighbors in the run-down house to a barbecue in the spotless backyard of their charming home. Ben and Mary seem like the average suburban couple, he works at a bank and she works as a paralegal, except that Ben has been laid off and is working on starting his own financial planning business, so he spends a lot of time at home on the computer, much to Mary's annoyance. Sharon (Anna Sundberg) and Kenny (Tyson Forbes) are fresh out of rehab and starting their life over with nothing but a great attitude towards life. Over the course of the nearly two-hour (with no intermission) play, many conversations are had, relationships formed, and secrets revealed. It's a beautiful friendship that changes everyone for good, although maybe not for the better. This cast is perfection, and the four actors work and play together so well that one would almost think that they really do live next door to each other. They're all so funny and devastating and completely in the moment, no matter what crazy thing their character is doing. It's really great fun to watch.

As per usual at the Jungle, the director and set designer are one in the same, in this case Joel Sass. He has designed a set that's not just beautiful, with the contrasting facades of the two houses and the perfectly or imperfectly manicured lawns, but is technically impressive as well. I don't want to spoil anything, but do keep an eye on how the set changes scene to scene. The blackout periods between scenes can get a little long, but considering some of the changes that have to happen it's a wonder they're not even longer. Things get broken and repaired, water comes out of the hose, and the grills actually cook the meat. Things turn destructive in the final party scene, leading to what must be an arduous clean-up and resetting of the stage for the next show.

The Jungle never lets me down and this is a perfect example of why - a smart, funny, relevant play, fantastic cast, and perfect execution of difficult technical elements. This is a neighborhood you don't want to live in, but it sure is fun to visit for a few hours (just watch your head and your step). Playing now through May 25.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

"End of September" by Theater Latte Da at the Lab Theater

There's something pretty rare and special happening at the Lab Theater this month. In a time when new original musical theater is becoming an endangered species on Broadway (as it's taken over by jukebox musicals, revivals, and movie adaptations), Minnesota's own Theater Latte Da is investing in the future of musical theater with their second annual new works series NEXT. Each of three new works is workshopped over a week or so and has three public performances, often with changes in between. Audiences are invited to participate in a discussion with the creators after the show to help them continue with the development process. It's a really fun opportunity for the audience to get a peek into the process of creating a new original musical.

The first of this year's new works is The End of September by Aaron Gabriel. This very Minnesotan story focuses on a woman in small-town Minnesota who experiences a crisis of faith in regards to her religion, friends, family, community, and the native people she thinks she understands. She's the kind of character that is so set in her beliefs and confident in her world view that you know something is going to come along and shatter it. That something is a devastating revelation about her friend and preacher, and comes fairly late in the second act. Things are not neatly wrapped up, but rather left as a new beginning of sorts for this woman and her family.

The End of September features new music ranging from beautiful harmonic hymns to Ojibwe chants to songs influenced by mid-Century composers (or so Aaron said, I'm not that knowledgeable). These are not easy songs to sing, with complex rhythms and melodies. I find that interesting because you can't predict what note or phrase is coming next (similar to Sondheim's complex scores). The work is read and sung by a fantastic cast of local musical theater actors, and in fact is not just read but beautifully and emotionally performed, with direction by Latte Da's Artistic Director Peter Rothstein and musical direction and accompaniment by Barbara Brooks.

I think this piece has great potential, and as a native Minnesotan I recognize the characters from my own life and family. I look forward to seeing it in its next carnation.

The next new work featured in NEXT is Some Assembly Required, a completely improvised musical by local comedy improv actors. The series ends with Horizon, featuring "southern rock and bluegrass" music. For more information and to purchase tickets, see Theater Latte Da's website.

Monday, May 5, 2014

"The Working Boys Band" at the History Theatre

In the early 20th Century in Minneapolis, when children were forced to work long hours in factories, a marching band was formed to keep these boys off the streets and improve their lives through music and teamwork. This is a subject that is begging to be made into a musical, and the History Theatre has obliged with The Working Boys Band, directed by Ron Peluso, with book and lyrics by Dominic Orlando and music by recently deceased local composer Hiram Titus. Part Newsies, part The Music Man, and part Dead Poet's Society, The Working Boys Band isn't a particularly original musical, but it is a fun and feel-good musical about the power of music as it played out in local history.

Like Professor Harold Hill did for the people of River City, Professor C.C. Heintzman (based on a real person) gave the working boys in WWI era Minneapolis a love of music and sense of community and teamwork. In other words, "manliness, integrity, intelligence, and kindness" as the song goes. He faced obstacles - unruly boys coming late to rehearsal, 21-year-old Franky who joins the band to dodge the draft, and a community board that wants to fire him because of his German heritage - but he and the music came out on top in the end (as required in any feel-good musical such as this).

Here are a few highlights of the show:

  • The History Theatre stage is teeming with talented young men (and women!) of all ages and sizes playing the dozen or so boys in the band, a mix of professional actors and children studying music and/or theater in school. They're all fantastic, hitting their marks and saying their lines on cue with great energy and enthusiasm, staying present in the scene even if they don't have lines. The true joy of this show is watching these youngsters gleefully perform.
  • After so many supporting roles, it's nice to see Jon Andrew Hegge in the lead role of the Professor. He really shines in the spotlight, creating a strong and sympathetic character. And Kendall Anne Thompson as Harriet, the woman working with the boys and falling in love with the professor, is always welcome with her lovely voice.
  • Jen Burleigh-Bentz gives a deliciously nasty performance as the Cruella De Vil-esque Mrs. Winter. I didn't quite follow all of the politics involved, but all you need to know is that she's the bad guy trying to spoil the fun and stop the music, while adding to the fun of the show, giving the boys and the audience a villain to root against.
  • Like he did in Ten Thousand Things' truly delightful production of The Music Man, Ricardo Vasquez once again plays a young man whose playing of the coronet in the band gives him confidence and a sense of purpose. Franky is a bit older than Winthrop, but both are suffering the absence of a father and a feeling of being lost.
  • Christian Bardin is our plucky drum major Andy, who just happens to be a girl disguised as a boy to more safely live on the streets, and so of course she falls in love with Franky. This leads to some confusion and a really lovely quartet "Moonlight, Loring Park" by Andy, Franky, Harriet, and the Professor.
  • A standout among the kids is Keegan L. Robinson as Bjorn, the first chair coronet player, with a strong voice and confident stage presence.
  • The music is typical musical theater stuff, and the choreography (by Cat Brindisi, adding to her already long list of talents) is organic to the story and characters.
  • The rough and rustic two-story set by Rick Polenek and beautifully polished or unkempt period costumes by Kathy Kohl create the world in which the story takes place.
  • I love a marching band, and happily the boys do get it together to play and march around the theater like a real marching band. I would have loved to have heard even more from them!

If you're looking for a fun, feel-good musical with great performances by professionals and kids alike, look no further. The Working Boys Band is playing at the History Theatre through June 1 (discount tickets available on Goldstar).

the Professor with the boys
(photo by Scott Pakudaitis)

Saturday, May 3, 2014

"Fair Game" at Yellow Tree Theatre

This is another late viewing of a local show due to my week-long NYC trip. Unfortunately Yellow Tree Theatre's new original play Fair Game (written by Theater for the Thirsty's Jeremiah Gamble) closes this weekend, but if you happen to be free and are looking for a cute, fun, and very Minnesota play, this is the one for you! There's nothing too deep or thought-provoking about this story of a fictional reality show that puts five Minnesotans in an ice house for the duration of the State Fair, but it's clever and entertaining with a great small cast that is obviously having as much fun as the audience.

The play begins with a voiceover, in which we learn about the five contestants of Fair Game, a radio and online reality show which awards $50,000 to the person with the most tickets by the end of their stay in the small but cozy ice house (this is not nearly enough money to get me to spend twelve days trapped in a small space with four strangers!). There's tough-talking working class Desi from a small town outstate (Bonni Allen, with a perfect rural Minnesota accent), her high school frenemy Brenda, a yogi from the suburbs whose life is not as perfect as it seems (Vanessa Gamble, bringing some heart and soul to the comedy), Rea, a spoiled teenager from Edina (the delightful Tara Borman), Zander, a thoughtful post-grad whose grand ideas of making the world a better place are put to the test (Nathan Cousins, transforming from sweet and sincere to ruthless and fed up), and typical Minnesota farmer Elden, who needs the money to care for his sick wife (an appropriately grumpy Peter Simmons). As in most reality shows, personalities clash and alliances form as the five compete in various tests for prizes and more of the coveted tickets, which must be spent for bathroom privileges, food, and water. Contestants scam, scheme, argue, and have heartfelt conversations. Not much else happens, and things are wrapped up a little too neatly at the end. But I was happy to spend a few hours with these quirky characters well-portrayed by the cast under the direction Kurt Schweickhardt, making his directing debut after starring in last year's excellent Circle Mirror Transformation. In fact I see some similarities between that play and this; both feature five people forced to spend time together, during which much is brought to light about their lives and relationships.

As always, Yellow Tree makes the most of their small performance space. Scenic Designer Katie Phillips has created a darling little ice house with bunks, bench, table, and biffy with walls that the audience (although not the characters) can see through. I would happily spend twelve days in this tight little cabin (although without the annoying reality show contestants). The cast fills out this space well, and during a clever montage of freeze-frame scenes (like the one pictured here), we witness the passage of time and some of the silly tests and prizes (a corn dog!).

As I'm sure is obvious, I'm a big fan of Yellow Tree Theatre and the community that its founders Jessica and Jason Peterson have created in a strip mall in Osseo. They make smart choices in plays, balancing more traditional works with plays that challenge their audience and new works such as this, many of which highlight our beloved state of Minnesota. If you can't make it to Osseo this weekend, don't worry, you'll have another chance to experience their unique brand of theater with The 39 Steps, opening at the end of the month. I've seen it a few times, and called it "a wild, zany, fun ride." Another great choice, and I can't wait to see what they do with it!

"The History of Invulerability" by Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company at the Hillcrest Center Theater

Superman. That one word brings up iconic images of the superhero in the red and blue suit, saving the day. But have you ever wondered where he began? I certainly haven't, maybe because I'm not a fan of comic books or superheroes. But you don't have to be a superhero superfan to enjoy Minnesota Jewish Theater Company's play The History of Invulnerability (although it probably doesn't hurt - I saw more young men in the audience then I've ever seen at the theater). The play is a fascinating look at the question of Superman's origin, telling the story of Jerry Siegel, who created the legendary figure along with his friend Joe Shuster. It's a relatable and very human story about art and creation, success vs. failure, and a man trying to make a life that he and his family can be proud of.

The History of Invulnerability plays out as a deathbed fantasy of Jerry Seigel's, as he's visited by his creation in his final hours. Jerry and Superman himself tell us this tragic story, in which Joe and Jerry created the character in the 1930s, struggled to find a publisher, signed away their ownership rights, watched Superman's rise in popularity as they were pushed out of the creation of the comics, unsuccessfully sued to have their rights restored, and were forced out of the comic book business. They both struggled for years, and it wasn't until the 1978 movie that they were able to use public support to get some kind of recognition and remuneration from the owners of Superman. The play is really about one man's struggle with his creation, coming to terms with what it has become and what he has sacrificed over the years, and for what purpose?

As a child of Jewish immigrants writing in the late 1930s, Jerry was greatly affected by what was happening to European Jews, and perhaps used the comic as an outlet - a strong and powerful man standing up for the powerless and the oppressed. Playwright David Bar Katz shows us Jerry's story interspersed with the story of prisoners in a concentration camp, including a young boy who believes that Superman will come to save them. Unfortunately not even Superman could stop the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis, and the play ends in a shocking scene as neither of these two parallel stories have happy endings.

The comic book nature of the story is cleverly used in the production. Cartoons (drawn by Sam Smith) are projected on a screen at the back of the stage to set the scene or illustrate what is being discussed. On several occasions, the cast acts out comic book scenes, creating perfect tableaux in freeze-frame sequences. And the cast does a fine job bringing these and the more sober scenes to life. As Jerry, the always wonderful Jim Lichtscheidl is a sympathetic everyman who just happens to have created the most famous superhero in the world. Dan Beckmann makes a convincing Superman, with perfectly coiffed hair, feet planted widely, shoulders back and chest out, hands firmly on hips. The dozens of other characters are bought to life by the ensemble which includes Alex Brightwell (Jerry's partner Joe and his son), Charles Numrich (the bad guy comic book publishers), Dustin Valenta (a touching performance as the boy in the concentration camp), Joanna Harmon (Jerry's mother and the model for Lois Lane, whom Jerry eventually married), and Maggie Bearmon Pistner.

The ending of the play feels a little unfinished, in fact when Superman came out after the last scene I was sure there was going to be another scene, but nope - curtain call. The subplot about Jerry abandoning his son at the age of five and never seeing him again is not satisfactorily explored, and doesn't seem to fit with the rest of the portrait of this man. It's an ambitious play with a lot going on, but the talented cast and creative team make it work, for the most part. And it's fun and fascinating to see the untold story of one of the most well-know characters ever created. Playing now through May 11 at the Hillcrest Center Theater.*

*The Hillcrest Center is under construction so it's a bit of a mess. Tip: drive around behind the baseball fields and park opposite the playground. The path through the playground leads to the lower door of the Center, from which you need to find your way up the stairs to the theater.