Monday, June 30, 2014

"Walking Across Poland" at Illusion Theater

Illusion Theater's annual new works series Fresh Ink debuted last night with the reading of a lovely new musical called Walking Across Poland. This autobiographical musical written by Illusion's Artistic Director Michael Robins, with music by Roberta Carlson, tells the story of his grandmother through memories, photos, and music. Even though it's still in the early phases of development at just about an hour long, it's already a moving and nostalgic piece, a family story come to life. I look forward to seeing it further developed and fleshed out.

Grandma Sophie immigrated to St. Paul from Russia when she was just 16. The story begins when young Michael is with his family, sitting shiva after Sophie's death. She never talked about her journey to come to this country, and Michael is haunted by what he doesn't know and what his grandmother tried to tell him before she died. The family tells stories of their past, and we see Sophie's life in flashback - her marriage, divorce, children, a portrait of a life. Michael's questions are not completely answered but he does get a better understanding of who she was, as does the audience. She sounds like an incredible woman - strong and smart, determined to make a better life for her family, a survivor of great hardships.

Roberta Carlson again wrote beautiful moving music that moved me to tears (see also My Ántonia). This piece is similar in that it evokes feelings of nostalgia for a longed-for past and people. The music and words of the play are beautifully performed by the seven-person cast - Randy Schmeling as the adult Michael looking back on his past, Spencer Levin as young Michael, Nora Long as Sophie (with her strong clear voice ringing out across the theater), Emily Scinto as Young Sophie and Michael's sister, Sally Ann Wright and Jay Hornbacher as Michael's aunt and uncle, and Ryan Patrick as Sophie's husband.

I've attended several readings of new work this year, including the History Theatre's Raw Stages, Theater Latte Da's Next, and the beautiful new musical version of the movie Sweet Land. It's so exciting to hear new plays and musicals "read" (which really means performed, but with a script in hand) by local talent. It's fun to be part of the development process and to watch these pieces grow and transform. There's one more performance of Walking Across Poland tonight, and the Fresh Ink series continues in July with more new works. Check it out, or contact your favorite theater company to see what they've got cooking.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

"Sasquatched! The Musical" by Imagined Theatre at the Sabes JCC Theater

The new original musical Sasquatched!, written by local playwright and composer Phil Darg, premiered at the New York Music Theatre Festival last year and has now come home to a series of shows in the Twin Cities this summer. It's a fun, silly, family-friendly musical with catchy songs that doesn't take itself too seriously. It's nothing ground-breaking, but it's cheesy good fun for the whole family.

In Columbia National Park in the Pacific Northwest, we meet Arthur, a "Sasquatch American" who doesn't fit the image of Bigfoot. Yes he's big and hairy, but he's also intelligent, well-spoken, and kind, a true gentle giant. He's lost and trying to get back to his family when he meets Sam, a lost little boy. In the tradition of a child befriending an alien creature (see also E.T. and ALF), the two become friends and help each other through their predicament. In the meantime, many people are looking for Sam and "Bigfoot," including Sam's "Helicopter Parents," a park ranger, the hosts of a reality TV show called Modern Monsters, and some locals who are hoping to profit from the discovery of Bigfoot. Eventually everyone works together to protect Arthur from those who are trying to exploit him and his kind, so that he can live a quiet happy life in the Sasquatch community in a remote area of the park.

This production of Sasquatched!, directed by creator Phil Darg and his wife Jules, features a new local cast, and I can only assume it was improved from last year's version by Jim Lichtsheidl's "Storieography" (his word for choreography and movement and such). One way it was not improved is by the use of pre-recorded music instead of a live band. The NYMF production lists a music director and assistant music director, so I assume they had live music. As a former band geek I take offense at that, and frankly, canned music just sounds cheap and karaoke-like. How can you respect a musical with no live music? The show would be greatly improved by ditching the track and adding even just a keyboard, guitar, and percussion.

reality TV show hosts with the local
(Rick Baustian, Daniel Flohr, and Cayla Marie Wolpers)
I love a show that knows what it is (namely, silly campy fun) and doesn't take itself too seriously. It even pokes gentle fun at the medium of musical theater with winking comments to the audience like "it's been three dance numbers since we've seen them," and the song "Rhubarb" in which the chorus sings about, well, being a chorus. The large cast jumps wholeheartedly into this spirit with broad comedic performances. Except for Dylan Omsted as Arthur, who really is the straight man amongst the wackos, the calm center with a big deep voice one would expect from Bigfoot. Young Alex Michuda is pretty adorable as Sam, Cayla Marie Wolpers and Rick Baustian provide a great skewering of reality TV show hosts (the latter is a cross between Bear Grylls and Phil Keoghan with a Kiwi accent), opera-trained Roland Hawkins has a gorgeous voice and tongue-in-cheek performance as the proud seismologist, and Ali Daniels is charming as his love interest, the spunky park ranger. The show also touches on issues such as environmentalism, reality TV, the media, and overparenting, albeit in a pretty light-hearted and not very deep way.

Sasquatched! continues this weekend at the Sabes JCC Community theater, followed by free outdoor performances in Maple Grove, and a two week run at the Old Arizona in late July (click here for details). Bring your family for some fun summer musical theater.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

"Little Shop of Horrors" by 7th House Theater Collective at Open Eye Figure Theatre

The great thing about the Twin Cities theater community is that not only can you see big lavish productions at the Orpheum, Ordway, or Guthrie, but you can also see small low-tech productions in odd or tiny spaces that will surprise and delight you every bit as much as those big productions, or even moreso. 7th House Theater Collective's 7-person (7 must be their magic number) stripped-down version of the cult horror movie turned off-Broadway musical Little Shop of Horrors is just such a show. This darkly funny and surprisingly sweet musical about a man-eating plant and the poor schlub who sells his soul to it, featuring a fun doo-wopy score, has long been one of my favorites, but I've never seen it quite like this. This talented young ensemble of seven (with no director to guide them) has put their own creative spin on this classic and created something fresh and fun and original.

If you've never seen Little Shop in any of its incarnations (see also the 1986 movie), here's a brief plot summary. Aspiring botanist Seymour finds a strange and interesting plant and brings it into Mushnik's Flower shop, where he works with Audrey. He soon finds out that the plant, named Audrey II, will only grow if he gives it blood, but in return it makes Seymour's life wonderful - the failing flower shop flourishes, Seymour becomes famous, and most importantly, he thinks it makes him look better in Audrey's eyes. But the dilemma comes when Seymour needs to find more sources of blood to satisfy Audrey II's growing appetite. He's sold his soul to the devil and there's no turning back.

On the tiny stage at Open Eye Figure Theatre, 7th House brings this morbidly hilarious world to life in a delightfully inventive and low-tech way, involving an overhead projector, a plastic shower curtain, a skull, fake blood, and a series of increasingly larger cardboard boxes. The show runs about 90 minutes including a short intermission, which feels exactly the right length. Similar to what Ten Thousand Things does in their productions, they've stripped the show down to its bare essentials to get to the heart of the piece, without any unnecessary fluff.

Company member Grant Sorenson plays Seymour with just the right mix of sweetness, lack of self-confidence, and a growing inner determination to do what he has to do to get what he wants in life, mainly Audrey. As Seymour's love, Maeve Moynihan is pitch-perfect, both in her powerful voice and in her portrayal of Audrey's charming ditziness. I've watched Maeve grow up on local stages; just six years ago she was little Carrie Ingalls in a musical version of Little House on the Prairie at the Guthrie, and now she's all grown up and playing one of the most iconic roles in musical theater. In between she was young Violet in my favorite Theater Latte Da show Violet (when I referred to her as "teenage wonder"), and Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz at the Children's Theatre (at which time I said "I only hope that after she becomes a big Broadway star she comes home every now and then to grace us with her talent"). It's a thrill to see her back on stage playing an adult, and I look forward to seeing what her bright future holds. Grant and Maeve make for a completely adorable Seymour and Audrey, and if you don't get chills at the end of "Suddenly Seymour," one of the best musical theater love songs ever written, you probably don't have a soul.

6/7 of the cast of Little Shop of Horrors
(photo by Kelly Nelson)
The other five members of the ensemble play all of the other roles, sometimes at the same time. Gracie Anderson, Liz Hawkinson, and Catherine Noble as the girl group Greek chorus sound fantastic and deliver the campy material the way you need to - with complete conviction. Robert Frost provides most of the musical accompaniment at the piano and serves as Musical Director, as well as occasionally getting in on the action of the show. Company member David Darrow's take on the gleefully maniacal and sadistic dentist, whether abusing poor Audrey, singing to his mother in a Norman Batesian kind of way, or getting high on laughing gas, is a true delight (and oh, by the way, he also plays guitar, trumpet, and percussion). In a clever twist, both Mr. Mushnik and Audrey II are played by the entire ensemble, which is kind of genius and turns what are usually duets into really fun group numbers in "Mushnik and Son" and "Feed Me." Seeing Seymour surrounded by the voice of the plant in several bodies gives it a whole new dimension.

This is only 7th House's third production as a company, after debuting last summer with a groovy production of Hair, followed earlier this year by the smart and sexy Cinephilia. If this group of young talented theater artists who have created a space for their work is not yet on your radar, they should be. Their next show is something that makes me very happy - a musical collaboration between David Darrow and the super talented couple Mary Fox and Blake Thomas*. Blake is one of my favorite musicians and an incredibly talented songwriter, and I got a taste of David's songwriting skills in his Fringe show a few years ago, so the two of them writing and creating together is something I would not miss for the world. Jonah and the Whale will play in the Guthrie's Studio Theater this December. But in the meantime, head to Open Eye to experience this darkly funny and delightfully inventive Little Shop of Horrors (playing through June 29 only).

*Click here to listen to Blake and Mary's radio show, Take it With You, recorded live monthly in Duluth. It's a wonderfully new and fresh take on the old radio variety shows of the past, full of hometown humor, heart, and Blake's original music.

This article also appears on Broadway World Minneapolis.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

"The Heiress" at the Jungle Theater

Last night I saw the classic play The Heiress, about Catherine, a wealthy heiress lacking in social graces with a stern father and an unexpected suitor. I was having a hard time wrapping my head around the play until I had a sudden revelation this morning - Catherine is Peggy. On the exquisite work of art that is Mad Men, Peggy starts out as a powerless secretary and over the course of 7 seasons has slowly gained power in her life and her career, often at the expense of romantic relationships. In one pivotal scene in season 6, the married man Peggy has been having an affair with who promised to leave his wife for her (don't they all) changed his mind and decided to move his family to L.A., far away from the "temptations" of Peggy. He said to her, "one day you'll be happy I made this decision." Peggy replied, "well aren't you lucky, to have decisions." This is perhaps the best line ever uttered on television, and speaks volumes about women's lack of power in the advertising world of the 1960s, or a modern-day women's prison, or the upper-class world of 1850s New York. The Heiress is all about Catherine reclaiming her power, even if it comes at the expense of her own happiness. Catherine's father decides that Morris couldn't possibly love her and therefore she shouldn't marry him. Morris decides that Catherine shouldn't give up her inheritance for him. But in the end, after much heartache and pain, it's Catherine who decides what she wants and what is best for her life.

The Heiress was written by husband and wife playwrights Ruth and Augustus Goetz in 1947, based on Henry James' late 19th Century novel Washington Square. The title refers to a young woman named Catherine who lives with her father Dr. Sloper in a posh house on Washington Square Park in 1850s NYC. Catherine's mother died in childbirth, and like Tyrion Lannister, her father blames her for her mother's death. He continually compares Catherine to her mother and finds her lacking. According to him, Catherine is plain, boring, and possesses no charm or grace. But who could possibly live up to the ghostly image of the perfect woman that he has created in his head? Despite this attitude, or perhaps because of it, Catherine loves her father desperately and would do anything to please him. When Catherine is courted by a handsome young gentleman, Dr. Sloper believes that he only wants her for her money, because who could love such a woman as Catherine? So begins Catherine's struggle between pleasing her father and committing to this man that she loves and she believes loves her. Like Tyrion, Catherine eventually gets her revenge on her father, although with much more subtle tactics than a cross-bow. She finally realizes her own power, and will not let the desires or decisions of either man control her life.

Catherine at her needlepoint with her aunt looking on disapprovingly
(Katie Guentzel and Wendy Lehr, photo by Michal Daniel)
The world of The Heiress is brought to life on the Jungle stage through impeccable design and a fantastic cast. Director Bain Boehlke has made the tiny shoebox stage look like a large and luxurious drawing room, with stairs ascending in the back and an unseen front door. Amelia Cheever has designed absolutely gorgeous period costumes, each of the many outfits perfection from head (top hats!) to toe (spats!). I don't usually notice lighting and sound, but in this case they're so lovely they must be mentioned - the warm glow of lamps turned on one by one, the morning sunlight streaming through windows, and the very important sound of horse-drawn carriages passing by on the street outside (lighting by Bill Healey and sound by Sean Healey).

To play the title role, Kate Guentzel reigns in her usual effervescent charm and transforms into this plain and timid woman, who blossoms with love, grows through pain, and shows her strength at the end through subtle changes in voice and demeanor. One of my favorite playwrights, Jeffrey Hatcher, makes a rare onstage appearance as Catherine's stern and pragmatic father and proves he's just as good on this side of the stage. The incomparable Wendy Lehr plays Catherine's fluttery aunt who so desperately wants her to marry Morris, regardless of his true intentions. Kate's real-life husband John Catron plays Catherine's suitor Morris, and is so delightfully and falsely charming that one wonders how awkward that ride home is every night. The rest of the cast fill their roles well, even if only onstage for a short time, including Valarie Falken as the family's ever-present Irish-accented maid.

The Heiress is a remarkably feminist piece for a play written in the 1940s based on a book from the 19th Century. While Catherine might not have a happily-ever-after ending, at least it's on her own terms. The Heiress continues at the Jungle Theater through August 10.

This article also appears on Broadway World Minneapolis.

"The Red Box" at Park Square Theatre

I love a summer mystery at Park Square Theatre. Taking a break from Sherlock Holmes (The Adventure of the Suicide Club last year and The Ice Palace Murders next year), this summer's mystery comes from American author Rex Stout, who wrote over 70 novels and short stories over a period of 40 years about his crime-solving hero, Nero Wolfe. Nero is similar to Sherlock in that he's a brilliant and quirky character who relies on his sidekick to help him function in the world. Although Stout's stories have been adapted into numerous films and TV shows, this world premiere production of The Red Box is the first stage adaptation. Smartly written by playwright Joseph Goodrich, sharply directed by Peter Moore, with beautifully detailed period costumes and set, and energetic, precise, yet loose and comfortable performances by the entire cast, The Red Box is fun and entertaining summery mystery theater.

The Red Box is the fourth Nero Wolfe novel and is set in 1936 in Nero's NYC brownstone. Nero rarely leaves the house, preferring to spend time with his orchids, his beer, and the delicious gourmet meals prepared by Fritz, his personal chef. Instead, he sends his "boy Friday" Archie Goodwin out into the world when required. In the case of the titular red box, Nero is hired by a young man named Lew Frost who's concerned about his cousin Helen's safety after her friend is poisoned. Soon Lew's father and Helen's mother get involved, as well as family friends. What unfolds is a complicated family drama full of secrets and half-truths. Nero attempts to untangle this mess and get to the truth of the murder(s) by interviewing the parties involved, while Archie dutifully takes notes and adds his two cents. He also works with a police inspector, although it's unclear who's helping whom. It's a suspenseful mystery that will keep you guessing, but the real fun is watching these characters as they navigate the waters of this story.

This fine nine-person cast is led by E.J. Subkoviak and Sam Pearson, both of whom are on stage for most of the show. E.J. is just perfect as Nero Wolfe - smart and stoic, thoughtfully pouring and drinking his beer, taking pleasure only in the descriptions of the meals he's about to eat. Sam is obviously having a great time playing Archie Goodman, which means he's great fun to watch, delivering the prologue and epilogue directly to the audience with a smirk and a wink, doling out one-liners with an arched brow and a flip of his hair. Other standouts in the cast include Michael Paul Levin as the frazzled police inspector, and Jim Pounds, in a dual role as Nero's chef/butler and the mysterious Frenchman.

the cast of The Red Box on the set
The set by Rick Polenek is a beautifully detailed reproduction of Nero's NYC brownstone office, full of fine furniture, books, and artfully placed objects. I'm a sucker for period costumes, and these (designed by A. Emily Heaney) are gorgeous. From the men's three-piece suits and fedoras, to Archie's sweater vest, to the women's demure dresses and hats. The whole production is top-notch; even the scene changes are done well - the lights dim, characters remain in character as they leave or enter the room, Fritz comes through to clear glasses and rearrange props.

The Red Box is about halfway through its six-week run at Park Square Theatre in lovely downtown St. Paul. It's smart, sharp, funny, suspenseful, and entertaining - the perfect summer mystery play.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

"Ghost: The Musical" at the Orpheum Theatre

Ghost: The Musical is one of those touring Broadway shows that I would normally skip, not being a fan of the disturbing trend to turn movies into musicals rather than take the risk on a new original piece of musical theater. But there is one reason that I wanted to see it. Local actor Steven Grant Douglas, who impressed in several shows with Theater Latte Da* last year, is playing the lead role of Sam (i.e., the Patrick Swayze role). Steven is super talented and has a gorgeous voice, and very deserving of this opportunity, and I'm all about supporting our local actors (even when they leave us for bigger stages!). I knew that he would be great, and suspected that the musical would ho-hum, and I was right on both counts. When the thing people talk about after seeing a show is the illusion of someone walking through a door (or a falling chandelier), that doesn't point to a great piece of music-theater in my book. I'm reminded of something my favorite musical theater director Peter Rothstein says about musicals - content dictates form. That is not the case with this piece, which is perhaps its biggest flaw. At its core, Ghost is a small intimate love story, but Ghost: The Musical is a big splashy techno-heavy "show," in which the beauty of that story gets lost. The story would be better served with less tricks, a smaller cast, fewer showy songs, and a greater focus on what we really care about - the relationship between Molly and Sam.

Here's the story in a nutshell: artist Molly and banker Sam are blissfully in love, until one night they're mugged and Sam is killed. He becomes a ghost that for some reason cannot pass on. He soon discovers that there's more to his murder than a random robbery. The man who killed him is after something, and Molly is in danger. Sam finally finds someone who can hear him, the psychic Oda Mae, who reluctantly agrees to help Sam save Molly and bring his killer to justice. The supernatural aspects of this story are brought to life on stage through illusions (credited to Paul Kieve - is there another musical with an Illusionist credit?) that show people and objects flying through the air, and yes, Sam walking through a door. The movie-ness of Ghost is replicated by a liberal use of the scrim and video projections.

Steven Grant Douglas and
Katie Postotnik at the infamous
pottery wheel
Ghost: The Musical is most successful when it focuses on the relationships, rather than the big dance numbers that, while entertaining with the rhythmic, robotic choreography by Ashley Wallen, well executed by the large ensemble, don't seem to fit and took me out of the story. Steven as Sam and Katie Postotnik as Molly have great chemistry and they both have gorgeous voices, especially when singing together. Also fun is the relationship between Sam and Oda Mae, played with delicious energy and verve by Carla R. Stewart. The scene in which the subway ghost teaches Sam how to "Focus" is a highlight, with Brandon Curry rapping and leaping around the stage in a way that you can't tell how much is illusion and how much is his great physicality.

Two things that fans of the movie will insist on are both included in the musical - the song "Unchained Melody" and the pottery scene, although the latter plays out differently than it does in the movie. "Unchained Melody" is used in a clever way, with Sam jokingly singing it to Molly early in the show, and the reappearance of several phrases woven into the score later in the show. The original songs in the score range from lovely ("With You," Molly's song about grief and loss), to powerful (Sam's desperate cry "I Had A Life"), to gratuitous ("I'm Outa Here," a fun Oda Mae song that has no place in this show).

Ghost: The Musical continues at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis through the weekend. It's pretty much what you think it is, with some nice moments and great performances wrapped up in a techno-heavy show that fails to impress, as hard as it tries.

*Theater Latte Da's Peter Rothstein cast Steven in three shows last year, and now he's playing the lead in a national Broadway tour, proving once again that Peter has a great eye for talent.

Monday, June 16, 2014

"My Ántonia" by Illusion Theatre at The Lab at The Lowry Building

Willa Cather's 1918 pioneer novel My Ántonia is required reading in many schools, and with good reason. It beautifully brings to life a period in American history that might otherwise be forgotten, with language so poetically descriptive that you can see the landscape and feel the heartbreak of the characters. Several years ago, Illusion Theatre and playwright Allison Moore adapted My Ántonia into a play that perfectly captures the spirit of the novel. The original production won two Ivey Awards in 2010, and lucky for us Illusion continues to bring it back every couple of years and take it on tour around the Midwest. This year the production with an all-new cast visited Cather's Nebraska hometown and the farmhouse of the woman who was the inspiration for the character of Ántonia. Sitting in the Lowry Lab Theater in downtown St. Paul, I was swept away into the prairies of Nebraska, tears streaming down my face; I can't imagine how much more impactful this piece must be in the place and surrounded by the people that it so lovingly describes.

My Ántonia tells the story of a young immigrant girl in late 19th century Nebraska, through the eyes of her childhood friend Jim. The adult Jim narrates the story as he's returning home to visit, and his memories of his time on the frontier and the girl that he loves come to life on stage. We watch Jim and Ántonia grow from children playing on the prairie to young adults making their way in the world. Even though Jim and Ántonia's life paths diverge (he goes to Harvard and becomes a big city lawyer, she stays home and raises a family and a farm), they share a connection that cannot be broken by time or distance. Jim's nostalgia for the Nebraska prairie is inextricably intertwined with his memories of the girl that he knew and the boy that he was.

Andrea San Miguel as Ántonia
(photo by Lauren B. Photography)
While I missed the original production, I did see the show two years ago and was so emotionally affected by it. I was eager to see it again and see if it's as good as I remember. It is. The wonderful new cast is led by Andrea San Miguel as Ántonia, a bright and enthusiastic young girl who grows up and goes through hardships, but never loses her love of life. Zach Keenan is the naive young Jim, while Dan Hopman is the older and wiser version of the same character, watching scenes from his past with great affection and wistfulness. This piece is a true ensemble piece, with the small cast ably playing the many roles of townspeople and their various accents; one standout is Anna Hickey as Antonia's proud and fast-talking (in Czech!) mother and farm girl turned dressmaker Lena.

A big part of the success and emotional impact of this piece is the music by Roberta Carlson. The three-piece off-stage orchestra provides a constant soundtrack to the story, and so specifically brings you to that time and place, tinged with memory. The language of the play (which I assume was largely taken from the book) paints such a picture I that almost wanted to close my eyes to better see it, but then I would have missed the simple but effective images of waving grass or a plow against the sunset projected onto the backdrop. The writing, acting, direction by Michael Robins, music, and images combine to create a feeling of nostalgia for a past I never knew, but that as a descendant of pioneer immigrants is in my bones somehow.

This incarnation of My Ántonia continues for two more weekends at The Lab at The Lowry Building.* It's a beautiful piece of theater with all elements combining to bring to life this time and place and these characters. There's a reason this one keeps coming back. It'll make your heart ache in the best possible way. (Discount tickets available on Goldstar.)

*You can park in the Lowry ramp (entrance on Wabasha between 4th and 5th) and walk right from the ramp into the theater space.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

"Berlin to Broadway with Kurt Weill" and "Candide" by Skylark Opera at E.M Pearson Theatre

For their annual summer festival, Skylark Opera is presenting the Leonard Bernstein classic operetta Candide and the musical revue Berlin to Broadway with Kurt Weill. The two shows run in rep, with just four performances each over two weekends. I've attended the festival for several years now, and as a musical theater geek who doesn't know much about opera, I always appreciate seeing shows that fall on the more opera side of the music-theater spectrum, presented in an accessible way (Skylark always performs in English) with fantastic casts and musicians performing beautiful music. This summer's shows are both wonderful examples of that.

Berlin to Broadway with Kurt Weill
Rather than a traditional musical or opera with characters and plot, this piece is a compilation of songs by German-American composer Kurt Weill. I have only recently become familiar with Weill, first at last year's Patti LuPone concert in which she sang several of his songs, and then just this spring, when I saw not one but two productions of Weill's most well-known work, The Threepenny Opera. What I liked best about Threepenny was the music, and the more I hear it the more I like it. Berlin to Broadway is a beautiful showcase of the work of this great composer and his complex, interesting, and gorgeous melodies. It's the kind of music that the more time you spend with it, the more you appreciate it.

Four singer/actors and a six-piece band, under the direction of Sonja Thompson, lead us through the life of Kurt Weill, from the beginning of his career in Berlin, to his exile in the Nazi era to Paris and eventually America, to his growing success in his new homeland. The songs are structured chronologically, with one or another of the actors giving a short explanation to establish place and time. Several songs from each piece are presented together, giving us a taste of what the show is like. Wendy Knox, who also directed Frank Theatre's recent production of Threepenny, directs the piece and has truly created a whole that's greater than the sum of its parts. Songs and shows flow from one to the next, with visual interest created by slight costume changes and movement around the stage. It's almost like seeing several little shows in one great show.

Christina Baldwin and Bradley Greenwald
(photo by John Engstrom)
This four-person cast is a dream - Christina Baldwin, Dieter Bierbrauer, Vicki Fingalson, and Bradley Greenwald. This is my first time seeing Vicki onstage, but she fits right in with the other three who I already knew were wonderful. Each of these four voices is stunning on its own, and all of them joined together in four-part harmony is something quite special. But these professionals don't just sing the songs, they also act the songs, adding humor or pathos where required. Some of my favorite moments from the show are: the entire Threepenny section because that's the music I'm most familiar with; Dieter and Bradley singing the rousing "Bilbao Song" (Bradley Grünwald und Dieter Bierbrauer singen auf Deutsch, es war das Schönste auf der Welt!); Christina singing the classic "Pirate Jenny;" Bradley singing the poignant "September Song;" Dieter's absolutely lovely rendition of "Lonely House;" Vicki's sweet love song "That's Him;" and the comic highlight - Christina's hilarious "Saga of Jenny" backed up by Dieter and Bradley.

In short, Berlin to Broadway with Kurt Weill a wonderful exploration of the life of an important musical composer, one I didn't previously know much about, with gorgeous music sung by four impeccable voices.

Leonard Bernstein is another great American composer, and this 1956 operetta is one of his most celebrated works. Unfortunately it was bogged down by a troublesome book that went through several rewrites over the years. Skylark is presenting a combination of two more recent and more successful revisions. Based on the 18th Century novella by Voltaire, Candide is a satire that skewers the establishment of both 18th Century France and 1950s America. In the broadly comical plot, the bastard Candide is thrown out of his uncle's castle after falling in love with his cousin, the lovely Cunegonde. War breaks out, the castle is destroyed, everyone thinks everyone else is dead, the lovers reunite and travel the world looking for a place to be happy. Lots of other crazy things happen, which eventually disavow the optimist teachings of Dr. Pangloss, that we live in "The Best of All Possible Worlds" and everything that happens is perfect and wonderful. It's a wild romp accompanied by beautiful music.

Jennifer Baldwin Peden, Gary Briggle, and Peter Middlecamp
(photo by John Engstrom)
The huge cast and twenty-plus piece orchestra create a rich and luscious sound, with only three microphones hanging overhead to provide additional amplification of these beautiful trained voices. As the title character, Peter Middlecamp sings like a dream. Jennifer Baldwin Peden (yes, Christina and Jennifer are sisters - such talent in one family!) is adorable and hilarious as Cunegonde, and does unbelievable things with her voice, especially in the famous aria "Glitter and Be Gay." Gary Briggle plays Voltaire, a sort of narrator and guide through the show, and he's wonderfully ridiculous in the other characters he plays. All of these elements combine and build to the stunningly gorgeous finale, "Make Our Garden Grow." This song almost feels like it's from another show; up until then all of the songs are comic and tongue-in-cheek, but this song is unabashedly sincere and completely lovely.

The two productions share much of the same creative team, including set designer Ann Gumpper, with the moving staircase set pieces being used for both shows. Costume Designer Lynn Farrington has put the Berlin to Broadway cast in classy period clothing, with a few accessories for some of the roles being played. The wardrobe for the Candide cast is more colorful and cartoonish, with the ensemble wearing Converse tennis shoes.

If you're an opera lover, then Skylark Opera's Summer Festival should be on your must-see list. If, like me, you're a bit of a novice when it comes to opera, don't be intimidated. Skylark makes opera fun and accessible, and has chosen two important 20th Century American composers in Kurt Weill and Leonard Bernstein, brought to life by not one but two groups of talented singer/actor/musicians. Both shows have just a few more performances this weekend, pick one or both and go see some opera on a summer evening.

This article also appears on Broadway World Minneapolis.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

"Broadway Songbook: Comden and Green" at the Ordway Center

"Make someone happy, make just one someone happy." What makes this someone happy is an entertaining and informative lesson on musical theater history from James Rocco, Artistic Director of the Ordway and genial host of the Broadway Songbook series. The final show in this third season of the series focuses on lyricist team Betty Comden and Adolph Green, famous for such classic musicals as On the Town, Wonderful Town, Bells are Ringing, and Will Rogers Follies, not to mention such films as Singin' in the Rain. Along with talented local singer/actors Elena Glass, Amasia Gordon, Reid Harmsen, Peggy O'Connell, Carl Shoenborn, Erin Schwab, and Kirby Trymucha-Duresky, and a three-piece band led by pianist and Musical Director Raymond Berg, James presents yet another fun show celebrating musical theater history. There's really no better way to spend a rainy afternoon.

James describes the typical Comden and Green song as "short, sassy, happy, and a little impudent." Lyrics are often fast and clever, and occasionally sad and poignant. Highlights of the show include:
  • The company presents a selection of songs from Comden and Green's first musical, the 1944 classic about three sailors on leave for one short day in NYC, On the Town. Songs include the most famous song from the show, "New York, New York," with Reid, Carl, and James playing the sailors, "I Can Cook Too," with Kirby stepping in at the last minute for an ill Regina Marie Williams, "Carried Away," a very funny duet by Reid and Elena, and the poignant final song, "Some Other Time."
  • The quite fabulous Peggy O’Connell* sings a funny and sad rendition of "The Story of My Life" from Wonderful Town, as well as a hilarious Carol Channing-esque version of "I’m Going Back" from Bells are Ringing.
  • High school student Amasia, whom James "discovered" in an audition for this year's holiday show A Christmas Story, impresses with a couple of solos – "Hallelujah Baby" and "Being Good."
  • Kirby and Erin duet on "Ohio," in which Erin filled in for Regina and cracked her cast-members up, as well as the audience. She's also quite funny in the super-fast "If."
  • Carl gives the villian's perspective in "Captain Hook's Walz," with the cast and audience cheering him on.
  • The choreography is quite impressive; they don't just stand there and sing. Of particular note is the terriffic tap-dancing by Reid and Elena in "Comes Once In A Lifetime" and the fast and fancy red and blue-gloved hand motion for "Our Favorite Song."

If you're a musical theater fan, the Ordway's Broadway Songbook series should be required viewing. I love musical theater more than anything but there's so much I don't know about it, and this series helps fill in the gaps in my knowledge. The show takes place entirely on the stage of the Ordway's main theater, meaning the audience sits on stage too, which is a unique perspective. Broadway Songbook: Comden and Green runs this weekend only so act fast. Or plan ahead for the next installment, The First 100 Years, which unfortunately falls right in the middle of the Minnesota Fringe Festival (although on second thought I may be the only person in the intersection of Broadway Songbook and Fringe Fest).

*I don't believe I've ever seen Peggy on stage but she seemed familiar to me, and I realized why when I read that she had a recurring role on my favorite TV show of all time, Northern Exposure.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

"Take It with You," a Radio Show Broadcast from The Underground Theatre in Duluth

"Welcome to Take It with You, live radio theater from Duluth, MN. I'm Blake Thomas, your host, bartender, chief troubadour, and general roustabout. Enjoy the show."

So begins the first episode of a new radio show created by local music-theater artists Blake Thomas, Mary Fox, and Andy Frye, who have recently left the Twin Cities to take up residence in beautiful Duluth. You may know this trio from the new original musical Stay Tuned that they created, which premiered at Yellow Tree Theatre last spring and received an encore performance at last year's Ivey Awards. Stay Tuned is about a fictional radio show, and they've taken that idea and applied it to this real life radio show, broadcast from their new hometown and featuring local artists and celebrities. I just listened to the first hour-long episode (available free on their website, with episode two coming shortly) and found it be full of great music, humor, and hometown charm.

Here's the description from their website:

Blake Thomas brings his original music to the airwaves in this new radio variety show described as “CHEERS meets A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION meets AUSTIN CITY LIMITS.” Recorded monthly, the one hour radio play follows Blake, the owner of a tavern & music venue in Duluth, MN, and a colorful group of his multi-talented friends, patrons, and employees. Each episode features original music, comedy, science, and a dash of politics.
The exploits of these friends and coworkers are told in short scenes interspersed with songs from Blake's collection of fantastic albums (available on iTunes), the Stay Tuned score, and a few new songs that I haven't heard before. Blake is one of my favorite musicians because of his clever and original lyrics that combine whimsy and melancholy, haunting or driving melodies, and authentic country voice. In addition to the music, the scripted show includes a storyline about Blake and friends, as well as a couple of regular features, including "Steve and Jamie," the too cool for school hipsters, and "Ask Brooks," in which Blake calls his theoretical physicist brother to ask him science questions sent in by the audience. I'm excited to check in with these characters every month and see what new adventures they get into.

Take it With You is a wonderfully new and fresh take on the old radio variety shows of the past. If you're a fan of A Prairie Home Companion, folk-country-Americana music, or hometown humor, give it a listen and see what you think. And if you live in Duluth, know someone in Duluth, or are planning a trip to Duluth, you might even want to go see a live show (click here for the schedule).

the Take It With You gang at the Underground

Monday, June 9, 2014

"Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson" by Minneapolis Musical Theatre at New Century Theatre

If you have a toe in the local theater world, you've probably heard about the controversy surrounding Minneapolis Musical Theatre's production of the 2010 Broadway musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. I saw the show on Broadway and found it to be sharp political satire and social commentary wrapped up in a great emo-rock score. Just a few days before this local version opened, founder of New Native Theatre Rhiana Yazzie posted an open letter on Minnesota Playlist criticizing the piece as offensive in its depiction of Native Americans, and expressing disappointment in MMT for making the choice to produce it in Minnesota (read the full letter here). She organized a protest to be held at the New Century Theatre on opening night. While the letter and protest did not deter me from seeing this show I had long been looking forward to (and included on my summer must-see list), it did give me something extra to think about while seeing the show for a second time. It's important to remember that this is not just a light and fun romp through history, but rather a pretty serious commentary on a very ugly period in American history.

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson tells the story of the seventh president of the United States of America, from his humble beginnings on the frontier of Tennessee, to “hero” of wars against the Spanish, English, and Indians, to the White House. Andrew Jackson has dreams of overthrowing the Washington “elite” (sound familiar?) and becoming “the people’s president,” but he soon discovers that a president has to make the hard decisions, and is never going to please everyone. One of the things Jackson is most known for is “Indian removal,” having convinced many Native American tribes to sign treaties under false pretenses and move west, resulting in the infamous Trail of Tears (the song "Ten Little Indians" recounts the number of ways that Native Americans died at the hands of the white man). As the narrator of the piece says, historians are still debating whether Jackson was a hero or a genocidal murderer. The musical deals with this serious subject matter in a satirical, campy, and over-the-top way. Young Andrew is portrayed as a petulant teenager, and the politicians as idiots. It's a ridiculous and fantastical mash-up of history that's intended to entertain and make a statement about our past and present.

Logan Greene and Philip C. Matthews
(photo by Byron Ritter)
The large and energetic young cast breathes great life into this crazy story. As our (ironically) sexypants president, Philip C. Matthews is charismatic with a great rock voice. Aly Westberg as his wife Rachel is extremely sympathetic and gives a gorgeous rendition of the poignant song "The Great Compromise," about the difficulties of political life for the family left behind. Not only is Amanda Weis hilarious as the doomed storyteller, but she also steps into the band to play keyboard on a number of songs. Besides Amanda, the band consists of just a couple of guitars and percussion, led by Darren Hensel who occasionally takes part in the action and dialogue of the show. The ensemble members all bring great specificity and humor to the many roles of various presidents and politicians.

The show looks and feels like a rock concert, with bright lights, microphone stands, and modern rock costumes with an Old West twist. Unfortunately there were some sound issues on opening night, with headset mics going in and out or sounding muffled or staticky. Hopefully they'll work these issues out, but I would prefer that they lose the headset mics altogether and just use the hand-held mics for the more loud, rocky songs. I believe Philip's mic went out halfway through the show and I'm not sure it ever came back on, but you could still hear him and he sounded fantastic. The advantage of a small space like New Century is that you don't necessary need to mic everyone all the time.

the cast rocks out (photo by Byron Ritter)
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is a musical that deals with issues of corrupt politics, elections, compromises made by politicians and their families, racism, slavery, and the near extermination of an entire race of people. Maybe the creators bit off more than they could chew in a mere 90 minutes and therefore were not able to give each issue the weight it deserved, but it's an ambitious attempt to bring light to these issues in an accessible rock musical kind of way. It's not a bad thing for art to be controversial sometimes; I much prefer a controversial piece like this to a bland inoffensive movie-musical adaptation. At the very least, it began a dialogue that will hopefully continue. I greatly appreciate hearing Rhiana's perspective on the piece and look forward to seeing some New Native Theatre shows next season. MMT responded gracefully to the controversy with a note in the playbill, a brief post-show statement, and a planned post-show discussion on Thursday June 19 (the show runs through June 29).

Even though this is a hugely entertaining and fun show, it goes deeper than that. At the end of the show I was left with a feeling of sadness, that this is the way our country was built. The beautifully poignant song "Second Nature," which plays over a video montage of pivotal moments in our nation's history, says it best:
The grass grows, a prairie
A wilderness across a continent
And we take it
We clear it out and make it
In our image 
The backyards, the driveways
The covered wagons rushing
Through the high planes,
The motels on the canyon
They make a second nature 
And what was it for, this country
the farms and the blood across a prairie
the nation we became as we build a second nature

This article also appears on Broadway World Minneapolis.

Friday, June 6, 2014

"Crimes of the Heart" at the Guthrie Theater

If you have not seen Crimes of the Heart at the Guthrie in the last month, you have just over a week to catch it before it closes. I was previously unfamiliar with this tragicomedy set in the South in the 1970s and was delighted by what I saw. It's darkly funny and features a very real, somewhat dysfunctional, but loving family fully and comfortably inhabited by this six-person cast.

The Magrath sisters grew up in the small town of Hazlehurst, Mississippi with their grandparents following a tragedy. As often is the case, the eldest Lenny stayed behind to care for her ailing grandparents as the other two went off into the world. Youngest sister Babe married the successful town lawyer, while middle sister Meg went off to Hollywood to find her fortune as a singer. After Babe shoots her husband, for reasons that unfold over the course of the play, the sisters reunite in their grandparents' home to "get through these real bad days here" together. The "getting through" is complicated by cousin Chick, who's always resented the sisters and is more of a hindrance than a help, and Meg's encounter with an old boyfriend. At the end of the play we don't know if Babe will go to jail, if Meg will reunite with Doc, or if Lenny will be able to stop playing family caregiver and be happy with her new boyfriend, but we do know that for better or worse, the Magrath sisters will be there for each other.

Georgia Cohen, Maggie Chestovich, and
Asley Rose Montondo
As the three sisters, Maggie Chestovich, Georgia Cohen, and Ashley Rose Montondo create very full and different characters in Lenny, Meg, and Babe. Maybe it's because they've been performing the piece for a month, but the familial bond between them is palpable. Sarah Agnew is a hoot as cousin Chick, strolling into the house like she owns it and bossing the sisters around. David Darrow brings a great energy and physicality to the role of Babe's lawyer Barnette, literally jumping around the stage in excitement. Sam Bardwell usually plays the role of Meg's old boyfriend Doc but was out on paternity leave the night I saw the show, so understudy Dustin Bronson filled in. I consider it a privilege to see understudies perform; it's so wonderful to watch someone step into a cast that has been performing together for some time and seem like they've always been there, and you know they're going to give it their all since it's one of the few times they get to perform the role. Such is the case here. This is a cast that works and plays well together, centered on the three sisters.

This is one of those Guthrie sets that I wanted to climb right into and sit down with a glass of lemonade. James Youmans designed the cozy and lived in Magrath home with see through walls, so that you can see the blue sky and power lines behind it. The '70s period costumes by Clint Ramos are super cool, from Meg's Charlie's Angels outfit and classic wrap dress, to Barnette's three piece bell-bottom suit, to Chick's perfectly tailored bright-colored suits with matching shoes.

Crimes of the Heart is funny, tragic, poignant, and engrossing. Go visit these sisters at the Guthrie before they depart and move on with their crazy lives.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

"Musical Mondays" at Hell's Kitchen, June 2014

Mondays are typically the worst day of the week, but not when it's the first Monday of the month. Because on the first Monday of the month you can end your dreary Monday with a little musical theater cabaret - and what's better than that? Best friends Max Wojtanowicz and Sheena Janson (who chronicled their friendship in their adorable musical Fruit Fly) started this series, called Musical Mondays at Hell's Kitchen, in November of 2012 and it's still going strong. Surprisingly, last night was my first time attending the event. It's everything I love, great musical theater songs performed by some of my favorite musical theater artists, so now that I know the lay of the land, I'm sure I'll be back.

This month's theme was Pride and featured women singing songs usually sung by men, and vice versa, as well as some LGBT-themed songs. Max and Sheena (who are wonderful hosts and a great comedy duo) were joined by their talented friends C Ryan Shipley, Debra Berger, Justine Bergevin, Kasono Mwanza, and Kim Kivens, accompanied by Jerry Rubino on keyboard, Bill Crean on bass, and Bob Beahen on drums. The performers sang solo and in groups, mostly songs from the musical theater canon. Highlights include:

  • Kim took part in a couple of hilarious duets - "We're Just Friends" with Ryan and "A Woman's Touch" with Debra. Kim never fails to crack me up, except when she's singing a lovely rendition of my favorite Sweeney Todd song, "Not While I'm Around."
  • Kasono gave a couple of powerful performances, including the moving "Not My Father's Son" from Kinky Boots (coming to the Orpehum next summer) and "Fabulous, Baby" from Sister Act, which was in Minneapolis just last week.
  • Ryan sang a lovely version of another song typically sung by a woman - "The Music That Makes Me Dance" from Funny Girl, which I did not recognize despite having seen the movie (when is a local theater going to do Funny Girl?!).
  • The boys were very entertaining singing "Something Better Than This" from Sweet Charity.
  • Debra used this opportunity to sing a beautiful ballad usually sung by a man, "Younger than Springtime" from one of my favorite musical theater scores, South Pacific. And it's just as beautiful when sung by a female voice!
  • They all sound great individually, but the group numbers are especially fun, including a gender-reversed "Brotherhood of Man" from How to Succeed, the inspirational "I Know Where I've Been" from Hairspray, and "All Over the World" from one of my recent faves, Xanadu.
  • We were treated to a preview of 7th House Theatre Collective's upcoming Little Shop of Horrors. Seymour and Audrey, aka Grant Sorenson and Maeve Moynihan, sang "Suddenly Seymour," with David Darrow on guitar, and it was amazing. Little Shop is playing for just two weekends at the end of June so get your tickets now!
  • Three lucky raffle winners walked away with tickets to Little Shop, Skylark Opera's Summer Festival (which this year includes Candide and From Berlin to Broadway), or Minneapolis Musical Theatre's Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, opening this weekend. I didn't enter the raffle, because I already have tickets to all three shows.  :)

Next month's Musical Mondays will occur on July 7 and feature previews of musicals that will be in The Minnesota Fringe Festival (which takes place July 31 - August 10). "Like" the Musical Mondays Facebook page to keep up to date on the schedule and performers. If you're a fan of musical theater and/or our plentiful local musical theater talent, you will definitely want to put this one on your schedule. (It's also great people watching - most of the audience are theater people!)

Sunday, June 1, 2014

"The 39 Steps" at Yellow Tree Theatre

Yellow Tree Theatre concludes their excellent sixth season with the zany British spy thriller comedy The 39 Steps, in which just four actors play dozens of characters and employ many delightful theater tricks to tell a story and entertain. It's another great choice for Yellow Tree's intimate stage, with its small cast, period feel, and fast and funny dialogue. The terrific four-person cast, director Anne Byrd, and the design team have obviously worked hard to make all of the tricks and transitions run smoothly and look effortless. The result is great fun and good old-fashioned theatrical entertainment.

The 39 Steps is based on the 1935 Hitchcock movie of the same name, in which Richard Hannay, a bored English gentleman with dark wavy hair, piercing blue eyes, and a pencil mustache, gets involved with a spy and goes on a cross-country adventure to save the world from some unknown evil. And since this is 1935, evil has a German accent. But the details of the plot and the chase really don't matter, it's the fun of the way that the story is told that matters. I've previously seen the show in larger venues (Off-Broadway and the Guthrie), so I was curious to see how a smaller production would handle the tricks of illusion. In some ways the low-tech version is even more fun; we can see the actors manipulating the effects, often with a wink to the audience, which only adds to the entertainment. There's a free-standing spinning door that represents the change of rooms, a puppet show of a plane with crash and burn effects, a car created by a trunk and a few chairs, a chase that requires imagination to follow the actors and their flapping coats to the top of a train, empty frames that create the illusion of windows, and invisible blinds. The scene changes are done quickly, with set pieces rolling on and off stage with remarkable speed. This is one of those shows that would be just as entertaining to watch from backstage.

Tristan Tifft, Stephanie Cousins, Sean Byrd,
and Nathan Cousins go for a drive 
And now a word about the cast, all of whom have been seen on the Yellow Tree stage before. Sean Byrd only plays one character but he does it well - the smooth and charming Richard Hannay. Stephanie Cousins excels at playing three very different woman who each become involved with Richard in different ways. But Nathan Cousins and Tristan Tifft steal the show as the "clowns" who each play dozens of characters of all ages and genders. They're able to create distinct characters not just through a quick wardrobe change, but also through change of voice and physicality. Sometimes they play multiple characters within the same scene, with just a quick spin and a different hat and accent to mark the change. Kudos to Peter Lerohl for designing a flexible set with lots of hidden tricks and to Carolann Winther for the ever-changing costumes that help the actors create the many characters. The whole escapade through city, planes, trains, automobiles, moors, and theater is brilliantly choreographed and flawlessly executed.

The 39 Steps continues at Yellow Tree Theatre in Osseo through June 22. If you're a Yellow Tree fan I'm sure it's already on your schedule. If not, this is a good time to become one - head out to the suburbs and see what great theater you can find there (discount tickets available on And stay tuned for Season 7 which includes a classic play directed by an Ivey Award winner, a new Christmas play by the playwright of Miracle on Christmas Lake, and one of my favorite new musicals of this century.

This article also appears on Broadway World Minneapolis.