Wednesday, July 30, 2014

"Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" at the Guthrie Theater

In a lovely bit of symmetry, the Guthrie is closing a season that began with Chekhov's Uncle Vanya with a new play by Christopher Durang that uses Chekhovian characters and themes in a decidedly modern way - Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. Since I'm no Chekhov expert (in fact Uncle Vanya was the first and only Chekhov play I've seen), I'll direct you to the Guthrie's informative playbill (or online play guide) for more explanation on how the two plays are related. Whatever Durang's inspiration was, the result is a hilarious comedy about a dysfunctional trio of siblings and the wacky people that surround them. Even though I'm sure I missed many of the Chekhov and other references, I thoroughly enjoyed the play. It's great fun, with fantastic performances by everyone in the six-person cast.

The titular Vanya and Sonia and Masha are middle-aged siblings, named by their professor and community theater actor parents after characters in Chekhov's plays. Masha is a successful actor living in New York City, and owns the family home in rural Pennsylvania where Vanya and Sonia took care of their aging parents until their death, and where they are now stuck. Masha returns home with her new boy toy Spike to attend a rich neighbor's costume party and to inform her siblings that she's selling the house and they'll have to move out. Aspiring actor Nina, the neighbors' niece, comes over to express her admiration for Masha and gets entangled in the family drama, which includes not only the costume party but a reading of Vanya's absurd semi-autobiographical play. Rounding out this group of oddballs is housekeeper Cassandra, who, like her namesake, is destined to foretell the future and not be believed. The family yells, argues, throws things, and ultimately comes to some sort of comfortable peace with each other and the fact that "their lives are over."

Sonia, Masha, Spike, and Vanya
(Suzanne Warmanen, Candy Buckley, Joshua James Campbell,
and Charles Janasz, photo by Joan Marcus)
Each one of these characters is an extreme, and beautifully portrayed by the actors to broad comedic effect, while still offering glimpses of the humanity beneath the craziness. Charles Janesz is so natural as the poor schlub Vanya, who seems like the calm normal one until he explodes in an exasperated second act rant about the good old days, perfectly delivered so that it seems like he's saying these words for the very first time. The ever hilarious Suzanne Warmanen brings much humor to the role of the long-suffering and melodramatic Sonia, and also makes you sympathize with Sonia as she experiences rare hope (and she does a great Maggie Smith impression). Candy Buckley parades around the stage with all the bravado and self-centeredness of a "movie star." She has this guttural way of emphasizing words that's almost over the top, except that it works and it's hilarious. Boy toy Spike is just what you'd expect, a perfect exterior with not much going on underneath, and Joshua James Campbell (a familiar face from other local stages making his Guthrie debut) plays this vain character with absolutely no vanity, strutting around the stage in various stages of undress. Watching the other characters' reactions to Spike is almost as much fun as watching him (this is not the first time Josh has stripped, or reverse stripped, onstage, anyone remember Theater Latte Da's The Full Monty?). Ali Rose Dachis is all sweet innocence as Nina, a ray of sunlight in this grumpy family. Last but not least, Isabell Monk O'Connor brings great and gleeful energy to Cassandra, snapping into and out of her prophetic statements as if in a trance.

Unlike his gigs at the Jungle where he also designs the set, Joel Sass merely directs here, keeping the hilarity moving but not getting out of control. Todd Rosenthal gets the credit for designing the lived-in, comfortable country home, with community theater posters on the wall and tchotchkes on the tables.

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is a play that doesn't take itself or its characters too seriously, even poking gentle fun at theater itself. Spending an evening with these crazy characters is great fun, and a pleasant end to another wonderful season at the Guthrie (playing through August 31).

This article also appears on Broadway World Minneapolis.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

"A Little Night Music" by Mu Performing Arts at Park Square Theatre

A few weeks ago I wrote that the Guthrie's My Fair Lady is the must-see summer musical. Correction: it's one of two. Mu Performing Arts' production of Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music should also be on your must-see list; it's every bit as good as My Fair Lady. The songs might not be as "hummable and quotable," but they're clever and beautifully complex in a way that only a Sondheim score can be. The music sounds gorgeous, the costumes are luscious, the show is funny but a little sad too, and the cast is fantastic (and by the way, they also happen to be Asian-American). It's another gorgeous production of a classic.

Set in Sweden at the turn of the last century, the 1973 multi-Tony-winning musical A Little Night Music is a story about love, loss, regret, and second chances. Desiree is a glamorous actress who has left her teenage daughter to be raised by her mother in the country. Her former lover Fredrik walks back into her life after seeing her in a performance and wants to rekindle their relationship. But there's a complication. Well, several complications. Fredrik has a new young wife Anne, who has so far refused to consummate the marriage. And his son Henrik is in love with her. Desiree has a married lover, who's very jealous and possessive of both his wife and mistress. When the entire group is invited out to Desiree's mother's house in the country, much hijinks ensue, as you can imagine. Lovers meet and break up, hearts are broken and repaired, and everyone has a lovely, if bittersweet, time. This is a comedy, almost a farce, but one with an undercurrent of sadness, longing, regret, and weariness of life.

Desiree and Fredrik
(Sheena Janson and Randy Reyes, photo by Michal Daniel)
The show is so beautiful and elegant, beginning with the onstage six-piece orchestra, which sounds gorgeous playing this gloriously complex and stunning music. Sondheim is not easy to pull off, but under the direction of Jason Hansen, these musicians and singers do so flawlessly. Musical highlights include the first act closer "A Weekend in the Country," the solos "Now," "Later," and "Soon" which combine to become an intricately layered trio, and of course, the sad and beautiful ballad "Send in the Clowns." The music is accompanied by subtle and lovely choreography by Penelope Freeh.

Anne and her stepson Henrik
(Suzie Juul and Wes Mouri,
photo by Michal Daniel)
The cast is just perfection, under the direction of Rick Shiomi (and they look gorgeous in the gowns and tails designed by Lynn Farrington). There's Randy Reyes (Mu's Artistic Director) with his usual charm and humor as Fredrik, the always delightful Suzie Juul as the bubbly innocent Anne, Wes Mouri as the tortured and in love Henrik, Alex Galick as Desiree's pompous lover, and Lara Trujillo as the wise grandmother who has lived long and learned much, and isn't afraid to share it. And then there's Sheena Janson, who so perfectly conveys Desiree's wry humor and realism, but also shows her vulnerability and longing for something deeper. Sheena's rendition of "Send in the Clowns," a song that has been covered by everyone from Bing Crosby to Olivia Newton-John, is a thing of heartbreaking beauty. The leads are backed by a wonderful ensemble, especially the sort of Greek chorus of five singers that wander through the show, sometimes commenting on the action, sometimes singing the characters' songs back at them. They even move set pieces gracefully.

It's become a bit of a summer tradition with Mu to cast a classic American musical with Asian-Americans (see also: Little Shop of Horrors and Into the Woods). It gives these wonderful actors a chance to play roles that they otherwise might never be cast as, and they absolutely flourish in the opportunity. It's a beautiful thing to see. Head to downtown St. Paul between now and August 10 to see a beautiful production of a classic Sondheim musical (discount tickets available on Goldstar).

This article also appears on Broadway World Minneapolis.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

"Cinderella" by Mounds View Community Theatre at Irondale High School

There are dozens of community theaters in the Twin Cities metro area performing at high schools and community centers. In this relatively quite summer theater season, I decided to check out my local community theater, which is Mounds View Community Theatre, now in their 31st season. I heard great things about their production of Les Miserables last year (which I missed, in part, because I knew I was going to see a spectacular production at BCT in the fall), so I was curious to check out their production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella this summer. Unfortunately the stormy weather interfered with my plan to bike to nearby Irondale High School, but it was still a fun thing to do on a summer afternoon. The show is quite charming and adorable with several standouts in the cast. Moral of the story: get out and support your local community theater!

The musical Cinderella is unique in that it was written for TV (originally airing live in 1957, starring Julie Andrews), and only arrived on the Broadway stage last year with a rewritten book (and starring Minnesota native Laura Osnes). It tells the familiar story of the poor, hard-working, good-hearted young woman who wins the love of the prince and escapes her unhappy home to live happily ever after. I'm too old and jaded to believe in fairy tales, but even I couldn't help but be caught up in the magic of the show. The set and costumes are bright and colorful, with two-dimensional pieces designed to look like Warner Brothers cartoons, which creates an appropriate fantasy-like world. The Cinderella dress transformation is done simply and effectively and creates a moment of awe and wonder. (Set design by Robin McIntyre and costume design by Cindy Forsgreen.)

Cinderella and her Prince
(Mari Holst and Mason Henderson)
As Cinderella, Mari Holst is truly the star of the show. She just shines onstage, with her beautiful voice and natural, charismatic stage presence (plus, I love a princess with short brown hair - take that Disney!). She's well-matched by Mason Henderson as Prince Christopher (really? Christopher?); they sound beautiful together. Other standouts in the cast include Haley Garland as the Fairy Godmother and Anissa Lubbers and Erika Sawyer as the very funny stepsisters. The ensemble does a fine job, and the littlest members of the cast are the most enthusiastic and fun to watch. And, as always, I was thrilled to see and hear a large live pit orchestra (ah, if only I hadn't given up the clarinet!).

It was fun to see so many kids in the audience. Community theater is an easy and relatively inexpensive way to expose children to theater at a young age, both as audience members and performers. If you're in the Mounds View area, go check out Cinderella, playing through July 27. If not, go see your local community theater. A couple of examples: Minnetonka Theatre is doing Mame and Spelling Bee (and they're also hosting Tony winner Karen Olivo, who now lives in Wisconsin, in an auditioning workshop), and Chaska Valley Family Theatre is doing the comedy Laughing Stock. Theater is everywhere - check your local paper or community bulletin board to find it.

Friday, July 18, 2014

"Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" at the Minnesota Centennial Showboat

The University of Minnesota produces summer shows at the Minnesota Centennial Showboat, a permanently docked historic boat on Harriet Island across from downtown St. Paul. This is my first year attending, and it's great fun. Stepping onto the Showboat is like stepping back in time, as student actors in costume greet you and show you to your seats in the charming on-board theater. The show is usually a melodrama, and they encourage audience reaction in the form of cheers and boos. This year's show is Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, played to deliciously campy effect by the young, talented, and enthusiastic cast. It's truly a delightful and fun evening of theater on the river.

In this version of the well-known tale of the man with two very different sides, the handsome and sophisticated Dr. Jekyll is engaged to the lovely Agnes Carew when her mother is murdered by a stooped and scary man named Mr. Hyde. An inspector investigates the murder, with all signs pointing him towards Dr. Jekyll's residence. Agnes thinks that her betrothed is protecting the man that killed her mother, but only Jekyll knows the truth, that he and Hyde are one in the same, and he can only control the transformation with a drug that he cannot find. He has withdrawn from Agnes to protect her from his evil side, but the truth eventually and tragically comes to light.

Christian Boomgaarden as Dr. Jekyll
and Katherine Fried as Agnes
The cast, under the direction of Peter Moore, plays the melodrama to the hilt and appears to be having as much fun as the audience. Katherine Fried is a delight as Agnes, with her wide eyes and expressive face. Christian Boomgaarden is so convincing as the suave Jekyll and demonic Hyde that it's hard to believe it's the same person, with transitions happening ever more quickly as the (melo)drama increases. Bear Brummel is charismatic as Jekyll's friend and confident, who also happens to be in love with Agnes.

Dramatic scenes are interspersed with musical olios, directed by Vern Sutton and accompanied by "master of the piano" Anton Melnichenko, who also provides a constant soundtrack to the action. The olios are all silly and fun and well performed; highlights include Tori Smith's gift-giving dilemma "I Dunno" and the gentleman singing about a beauty for each month, with the ladies parading in ridiculously elaborate costumes and headdresses. Speaking of, the costumes (by Matthew J. LeFebvre) are quite beautiful and add much to the show, especially impressive when some only appear onstage for a few minutes. The sets (by Rick Polenek) consist mostly of two-dimensional backdrops on the tiny stage, which look quaintly old-fashioned, and provide a bit of humor when the cast pretends they're three-dimensional.

The summer theater season can be a little quiet, but the Showboat is a great option for some fun, light, summery entertainment in a lovely spot on the river. Assuming the flooding season is over, shows continue through August 22 (Goldstar discount tickets are currently sold out, but check back in case more are added).

Thursday, July 17, 2014

"Crazyface" by Shadow Horse Theater at nimbus theatre

Wow, I don't know where to start with this one. Clive Barker, who is mostly known for writing and directing horror films (of which I am not generally a fan), has also written plays, including the epic mess Crazyface. Shadow Horse Theatre's ambitious production is not without redeeming qualities, including a darkly beautiful aesthetic and some fine performances, but this is a play that could use some editing. At three hours long with dozens of characters, including some who show up and then leave, never to be heard from again, it mostly just left me perplexed at what I just saw.

Set in medieval Europe, Crazyface tells the story of a fool who goes by that name. He is on the run with his mother, who loves him dearly, and the three wives of his brother, also a fool, but a much darker one. Crazyface is visited by an angel, who is really more of a devil, and because of this is not accepted by society. This was a time when people who were different than the norm weren't just bullied, they were hung. But Crazyface is actually the most sane and sympathetic character, it's everyone around him who's scary in the way that they treat him. Crazyface leaves his family to wander around the countryside, encountering many strange characters, and eventually finds himself in possession of a secret box that everyone wants (you won't believe what it contains!). The evil Mengo sends Crazyface's brother Lenny, whom he is keeping captive and torturing for some unknown reason (think Ramsey Bolton and Reek), to find and kill Crazyface. But Crazyface, who is not as foolish as he appears, survives to return to his mother. Lots of other weird stuff happens, but that's the gist of it.

Andy Schnabel as Crazyface
Andy Schnabel as Crazyface is a wonderful centering force through this strange maze, and makes this fool someone to root for and believe in. Derek Meyer is charismatic as the angel/devil on his shoulder, Matt Saxe is chilling as Mengo, and Matthew Kelly is the scariest as Lenny. Lots of other actors play lots of other characters that I had a hard time keeping track of, but they managed to, with the help of the period costumes by Barb Portinga. The simple set (by Theresa Akers) is dominated by a huge twisted tree trunk, upon which the angel perches, and a church that's shaped like a coffin.

If you're a fan of horror films and weird macabre storytelling, you might want to check this one out. Playing at nimbus theatre in Northeast Minneapolis through July 26 (discount tickets available on Goldstar).

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

2014 Minnesota Fringe Must-See List

The Minnesota Fringe Festival can be intimidating. I know, I avoided it for years because it was just too overwhelming. 169 shows - how can you pick which ones to see?! The answer is - just jump in and go. You'll likely see some duds, but you also will probably see something that will inspire, amaze, or delight you. The Fringe has a fantastic searchable website with info on all shows and venues, so I highly recommend spending some time there and looking for familiar artists or just browsing through shows to see what catches your eye.

If you need some advice, here are a few shows on my must-see list. I make no guarantees, some of these could be awful! But at this time they look promising to me, based on the cast, creative team, show description, or impression at the Fringe Preview this week (there's another one next week). I reserve the right to edit this list as I continue to review the spreadsheet (yes, as a member of the press I get a beautifully sortable and searchable spreadsheet) and attend more previews. Did I miss any must-sees? Add them in the comments below.

(NEW shows added July 22.)

11:11, SaMi Productions: many Fringe shows are played for broad comedy, which is fun, but it's refreshing to see something that's sincerely moving and poignant, as this story about a woman whose life changed in an instant seems to be.

A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant, The Catalysts: this Obie Award-winning Off-Broadway musical, brought to you by the people who created past Fringe hits Fruit Fly and Shelly Bachberg, sounds like Book of Mormon for Scientology. And that's a good thing.

Amateur Hour, English Scrimshaw Theatrical Novelties: Fringe artists performing their very early work, including Joshua Scrimshaw reading bad poetry with perfect delivery - what's not to love?

Crime and Punishment, Live Action Set: this is one of the new "site-specific" Fringe shows and will take place in the dark and creepy basement of the Soap Factory. I love Live Action Set for their innovative storytelling style, but honestly this one scares me a little. I guess that's not a bad thing at the Fringe.

Failure: A Love Story, Campbell Productions: as if the director (the multi-talented Josh Campbell) and cast (Nathan Barlow, Andrea San Miguel, Emily Madigan, and Kim Kivens) weren't enough to convince me to see this show, the three-minute preview was also quirky and musical and fun.

Four Humors Does Every Show in the Fringe, Four Humors: It's a Fringe miracle! After the lottery back in February, the smart, funny, clever, and slightly bizarre people at Four Humors were number 54 on the wait list. And just this week they were added to the list of 169 shows! So what are they going to do? Randomly pick another Fringe show and perform it based on the image and show description alone. I might have to go to this one more than once.

From Here to Maternity, Shanan Custer & Joshua English Scrimshaw: need I say more than "created and performed by Shanan Custer and Joshua English Scrimshaw?" I thought not.

Hour Town, Dana's Boys: Thornton Wilder's classic play Our Town re-imagined as A Prairie Home Companion, complete with a spot-on Garrison Keillor impression? I'm in!

Into the Unreal City, Catalog Models: this site-specific show is a "musical walking tour" that begins in the Rarig Center, but who knows where it will lead? Sounds cool, right? Plus, I found Mark Sweeney's 2013 Fringe show The Unknown Matters to be quirky and lovely.

Jumpin' Jack Kerouac, Electric Otter Productions: Windy Bowlsby has choreographed a dance show starring a bunch of nerdy Fringe writers, which is sure to be awkward fun.

Kitty Kitty Kitty, Loudmouth Collective: who doesn't love kitties?! And you should also love Loudmouth, because everything they do is sharp, smart, funny, and perfectly cast. I expect this to be no exception.

NEW Mainly Me Productions' Our American Assassin; or You Can't Handle the Booth!, Malcolm & Jorge: the preview of this show about the assassination of Lincoln as seen from the perspective of the actors in the play he was seeing had me laughing more than any other preview I saw that night.

Marie-Jeanne Valet Who Defeated La BĂȘte du Gevaudan, Sandbox Theatre: for those of you mourning the fact that Transatlantic Love Affair did not get into the Fringe this year, this one might ease your pain (you should also go see a reading of their new work at Illusion this weekend). Maybe it's just the inclusion of TLA company member and Sandbox Artistic Director Derek Lee Miller, but I see a similarity in the physical and imaginative kind of storytelling they both do.

Native Man the Musical, New Native Theatre: after the Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson controversy last month, I'm excited to see a New Native production and get the other side of the story.

One Arm, Perestroika Theater Project: an adaptation of an unproduced work by one of my favorite playwrights (Tennessee Williams), accompanied by original music, with a cast full of people I like (Aeysha Kinnunen, Bryan Porter, Adam Qualls)? Yes, please!

Reach, Nautilus Music-Theater: because of their fine track record in creating and producing new original music-theater, I will see everything by Nautilus that I can, including this anthology of new work by various artists.

Sex and Sensibility, Houdini Productions: I'd pay $12 just to watch Dawn Brodey play a woman bitterly bungling a reading at her ex's wedding again, so hopefully the full show will give us more of that hilarious biting humor!

NEW Shakespeare Apolalypse: A New Musical, Devious Mechanics: there's just too much goodness to pass up: the writer of last year's super fun Teenage Misery, a bunch of people singing about their dislike of the Bard (an opinion which I sometimes share), and a high energy cast that includes Carrie and Andrew Jackson.

Tales at Twilight, Actors Alliance Project: this group of actor/storytellers and one musician had me spellbound for three minutes by their unique story-theater experience, fun for all ages.

NEW The Frat Party: A Comic Opera in One Act, The Really Spicy Opera Company: I initially put "no" next to this one after reading the description (I'm way too far from my college days to want to spend 60 minutes at a frat party), but the preview changed my mind. It's entirely sung in operatic style, which creates a delicious juxtaposition with the modern topic of a frat party.

NEW Twelfth Night/What You Will, Rough Magic Company/Renegade Play-Reading Company: this is something I've never seen before at the Fringe - two complementary shows using the same cast and set, telling two sides of the same story - Shakespeare's Twelfth Night (sounds a lot like Hamlet/Rosencrantz and Gildenstern Are Dead, so brilliantly done in rep by The Acting Company earlier this year). I'd like to see the two shows back-to-back, but they only have performances on the same day once during the 11-day run of the fest, so I might have to settle for back-to-back days.

Repeated from last year, some tips for the Fringe newbie:
  • Buy a button and make sure you have it with you, it's required for entry to all shows. You can buy them in advance on the website or at any venue.
  • If you're going to multiple shows (and why wouldn't you?), buy a punch pass, available in quantities of 4 or 10, or unlimited if you plan on seeing more than 20 shows. It saves you $1-2 per show. Once you buy a pass, you can reserve a seat online at any show for $1.75, or just show up and present your pass (see below).
  • If a show is particularly popular, or you really really want to see it, consider buying (or reserving a seat) in advance. You can also take your chances and just show up. Of the 25 shows I saw last year I only had reservations for a handful, and probably only needed them for a few (you can check the show's page to see if it's in danger of selling out).
  • All shows are general admission, so get there early for best choice of seating.
  • Shows typically run just under an hour, with a half hour between shows so it's feasible to get from any theater to any other in that time. But it's good to plan to see a bunch in one location to minimize transportation time; the highest concentration of theaters is in the West Bank neighborhood, with 8 theaters within a few blocks (4 in the same building - the Rarig Center on the U of M campus).
  • Bring snacks, water, reading material, and sunscreen - you will be waiting in line, probably outside. And be aware of what line you're in, often there's one line to check in and get tickets, and another to enter the theater and get your seat. Ask one of the friendly volunteers in the Fringe shirts if you need help with anything.
  • Keep an open mind - some of what you'll see is really weird. But that can be a good thing! And if you see a dud, well, that's part of the Fringe experience.
  • Each show has five performances, and on the last night of the Fringe (Saturday August 10), the show in each venue that has sold the most tickets receives a sixth show. Keep an eye out for the announcement late Saturday and check out a popular show you might have missed.
  • The Fringe website has pretty much all the info you'll need, so bookmark it on your smart phone for easy on-the-go reference!

Happy Fringe-ing!

Monday, July 14, 2014

"RENT" at Lyric Arts

RENT gets me every time. Seeing it for the 14th time is just as thrilling, emotional, and epic as the first time I saw it 17 years ago. I can't even put into words why it has such a strong grip on my soul (and so many others'). It's just such a beautiful message of love, hope, community, and life, made all the more poignant by creator Jonathan Larson's untimely passing (or eerily timely - he died suddenly the night before the first Off-Broadway preview in 1996). Lyric Arts' new production is truly beautiful; the cast is energetic and talented, the sets and costumes have that cool rock show vibe, and the staging is different enough to make it feel fresh and original, but similar enough to the Broadway version to feel familiar to RENTheads like me. RENT is a brilliantly written piece of music-theater (it's one of only eight musicals to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama), and Lyric Arts has done Jonathan Larson proud. I can think of no higher praise.

Jonathan Larson used the Puccini opera La Boheme as a framework to tell a story about a community of young artists living in Manhattan's Lower East Side and dealing with issues of poverty, identity, creativity, relationships, and AIDS. It's a story he lived (several of the characters are named after friends of his who died from AIDS), which is perhaps why it feels so real and vital. At the center of RENT are roommates Mark, a struggling filmmaker, and Roger, a rock musician still reeling from his recent HIV diagnosis. Into Roger's life comes Mimi, who convinces him that there is still life to live. Their friends include Mark's ex-girlfriend the performance artist Maureen, who is living with her new girlfriend, the lawyer Joanne; disgruntled college professor Collins; his new love the sweet transvestite Angel; and their old roommate Benny, who has sold out by marrying a rich woman and moving out and up. Over the course of a year these friends argue, love, break up, reunite, die, but most of all live. The characters in RENT don't have easy lives, but they cling to that life and each other because it's the only thing they have. How can a piece about death, disease, poverty, and drug abuse be so uplifting and inspiring? Because it cuts through all of the pain to celebrate the joy of life; that's the genius of it.

It must be challenging to take such an iconic piece of music-theater history and put your own spin on it so that it feels fresh and new, while still staying true to the beloved original work. But that's exactly what Lyric Arts has done. Matt McNabb's direction, Penelope Freeh's choreography, Brian J. Proball's scenic design, Stacey Palmer's costumes, and every one of the large ensemble's performances are familiar to the RENT world that I know and love, but have allowed me to experience it in a way I never have before. For example, I was shocked when the cast stood up during "La Vie Boheme" instead of doing the usual seated dance, but I loved it. The Lyric Arts stage has never looked cooler; they've knocked out all the walls and filled the stage space with scaffolding, pipes, stairs, graffiti, and the obligatory three long tables moved around the space to create various pieces of furniture. I only have one disappointment with the show, and that is the lack of racial diversity in the cast. While I don't think it's necessary to exactly match the racial composition of the original cast, I do think that diversity is a part of what makes RENT special, and is necessary to accurately represent the Lower East Side.

That being said, the show is very well cast. Kyler Chase is wonderfully charming and likeable as my favorite character Mark, our reliable narrator who describes the action he longs to feel a part of. Blake Rhiner* was born to play Roger. He's got killer pipes, looks like a rock star in skinny jeans, a leather jacket, and crazy hair, and is so passionate and angsty you can feel Roger's pain. Courtney Groves is fearless and vulnerable as Mimi. As on-again-off-again lovers Maureen and Joanne, Kendall Anne Thompson and Kate Beahen** are perfection; their duet "Take Me or Leave Me" is a highlight, and Kendall's beautifully ridiculous "Over the Moon" is something I've never seen before. Patrick Jones makes his welcome Minnesota debut as the tender-hearted Collins, and did his job by making me cry in the second act reprise of "I'll Cover You." I've always felt that Angel is the heart of the show, and Kyle Szarzynski fills that role well. Last but not least, Maurice Britts gives a strong performance as Benny, the one we love to hate. The ensemble members are all fun to watch, but special mention must be given to Molly Jo Hall for knocking it out of the park with the solo in "Seasons of Love." Chills.

For people who think that RENT is dated or no longer relevant, consider this: there are currently over a million people in the US living with (living with, living with, not dying from) HIV, with about 50,000 new cases every year. And the idea of living life to the fullest, being present in every moment, and loving the people around you can never go out of style. I commend Lyric Arts for taking on this challenging and important piece of music-theater, and for continuing to challenge their audience in a season that started with a beautiful (and somehow controversial) production of The Laramie Project. RENT needs to continue to be produced and seen. Jonathan Larson created something powerful and special, and the team at Lyric Arts have done the same with this new production. Get yourself out to Anoka by August 3 to see this wonderful creation. No day but today!

*I'm looking forward to watching Blake Rhiner bring his raw talent and passion to the role of Gabe in another Pulitzer Prize winning rock musical, Next to Normal, at Bloomington Civic Theatre this fall.
**If you need more evidence that Kate Beahen is a star, Peter Rothstein has cast her as the Baker's Wife in Theater Latte Da's production of Into the Woods next spring. Case closed.

This article also appears on Broadway World Minneapolis.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

"My Fair Lady" at the Guthrie Theater

There's a reason My Fair Lady is one of the most beloved musicals of all time. Not only does it feature a bunch of wonderful songs by Lerner and Loewe that have become classics (including "Wouldn't it be Loverly," "Get Me to the Church on Time," and "I Could've Danced All Night"), but it's based on the George Bernard Shaw play Pygmalion that deals with issues of class, gender, societal expectations, and the intersection of wealth and power. It's a musical that has style and substance. The Guthrie's gorgeous new production does well by this classic. The show is perfectly cast, the familiar music sounds great, the choreography is fantastic, and the sets and costumes are luscious. This hugely entertaining show is definitely a must-see summer blockbuster musical.

I'm not sure the obligatory plot summary is necessary here; even if you think you aren't familiar with the story, you probably know it. It's been retold many times, from the original Shaw play (which was in turn based on a Greek myth) to the Julia Roberts movie Pretty Woman. A gentleman takes a lower class woman and transforms her into a "lady." In this case, the gentleman is Professor Henry Higgins, who studies phonetics and is intrigued by flower girl Eliza's poor accent, and makes a bet with his colleague Colonel Pickering that he can transform her into a lady in six months time. Eliza does indeed learn to be a "lady," but retains her spirit and even teaches 'Enry 'Iggins a bit about being a human being in the process.

Higgins, Eliza, and Pickering celebrating their success
(Jeff McCarthy, Helen Anker, and Tony Sheldon,
photo by Joan Marcus)
Most of the lead roles are played by non-local actors from around the country and the world, and even though I'm biased towards our wonderful local community of theater artists, they're all fabulous. Helen Anker, from England, is so charming and spirited as Eliza, and believable in the transformation from Cockney flower girl to sophisticated lady. Jeff McCarthy is the perfect Henry Higgins - even though he's thoughtless, selfish, prideful, and kind of a jerk, there's something so appealing and charming about him that you love him even as he annoys you with the stupid things he says. I just wish that this was more of a singing role, because unlike the original Higgins, it sounds like this guy can really sing. Rounding out the trio is Aussie Tony Sheldon as a delightfully amusing Pickering. And of course, we can't forget about Eliza's pop, a charming rogue as played by Donald Corren.

The large ensemble is full of too many familiar faces to mention, all of whom are great fun to watch. And they create some full and gorgeous harmonies (e.g., the "Loverly Quartet") under Andrew Cooke's musical direction, accompanied by his six-piece just barely off-stage band. Featured roles played by some of our local favorites include Robert O. Berdahl as the hair-flipping Hungarian, Angela Timberman (who can still crack me up with a single look) as Higgins' loyal yet exasperated housekeeper, and Melissa Hart as Higgins' mother, the only one who truly has his number. And then there's Tyler Michaels. His rendition of on "On the Street Where You Live" is a definite highlight of the show; I wanted to reach for the remote and rewind so I could watch it again! (Luckily he comes back for a brief reprise in the second act.) Not only does Tyler have a great voice, but he brings a unique physicality to every role he plays, including this one. Freddy has an awkward grace, he's a bit of a clutz around Eliza, but the love he feels for her flows out of every pore. I've never seen this song performed so comically and physically before - leaping across the stage, standing on top of props, dancing with bicycles and flowers and whomever wanders into the scene. It's truly joyous.

Joe Chvala's flying foot choreography, well performed by the ensemble, shines in the elaborate and busy group numbers. He incorporates percussive slapping and clapping, as well as the use of props from brooms to parasols. The prim and proper ladies and gentleman at the races create some beautiful images as they move delicately and gracefully across the stage. In contrast, the entire street comes boisterously alive in the audience's favorite scene (judging by the applause that continued for several minutes), "Get Me to the Church on Time." Fabio Tobloni's costumes are gorgeous as expected (the extravagant hats! the spats!), and the set by Walt Spangler is truly impressive, with three massive moving pieces that turn to reveal different facades, including Higgins' two-story library with spiral staircase. All of these pieces come together beautifully under Joe Dowling's direction to create a feast for the eyes and ears.

My Fair Lady continues through the end of August. It's sure to be a big hit, and deservedly so. The show is so full of life and energy and dance and music, it's almost impossible to take it all in in one sitting. Lucky for me I get to see it again with my season ticket, so I'll have a chance to relive the many wonderful moments.

This article also appears on Broadway World Minneapolis.