Tuesday, September 30, 2014

"Radio Man" at the History Theatre

Full disclosure: I'm a huge fan of Garrison Keillor and A Prairie Home Companion (I even worked as an unseen extra on the 2006 movie). He's the Mark Twain of our generation, and is Minnesota's best export. You know how the Dixie Chicks infamously said that they were embarrassed to be from the same state as George Bush? It's exactly the opposite for me where Garrison is concerned - if A Prairie Home Companion is one of the things that Minnesota is most known for, I am proud to be a Minnesotan. So of course, I absolutely love his new play Radio Man, the first he's written. I saw a reading of it early this year as part of the History Theatre's Raw Stages festival and loved it then, but this full production, now playing at the History Theatre, is so much more polished and complete, and really a thing unto itself and not just an episode of A Prairie Home Companion on stage. Yes there is the familiar music, the jingles for Powdermilk Biscuits, rhubarb pie, and ketchup, stories from Lake Wobegon, and beloved characters including Dusty and Lefty and Guy Noir. But there's also a story and a character (the host of a radio show called A Prairie Home Companion who bears a striking resemblance to Garrison) who we get to know as he reminisces about his past and contemplates his future. Radio Man is A Prairie Home Companion come to life before our eyes, but with the added depth of a theatrical story and arc.

the host, present and past
(Pearce Bunting and Jonah Harrison,
photo by Scott Pakudaitis)
Radio Man is comprised of four elements woven together. There is the present reality, in which the host and his guests are performing an episode of a radio program called A Prairie Home Companion. In this reality, he interacts with the stage manager, the head of the radio station, and an old flame. The second element is the coming to life of the stories told in the radio program, from Lake Wobegon to Guy Noir. Another important element is memory; the boy version of the host appears onstage as he reminisces about growing up listening to radio and longing to be part of that world. Finally, the host hallucinates conversations with his characters, such as the "Norwegian bachelor farmer." This may sound confusing, but it's woven together artfully, clearly directed by the History Theatre's Artistic Director Ron Peluso, with costume changes, sets, and music to make clear the transitions. New songs written by Garrison and his APHC bandleader Richard Dworsky are performed both within the radio program (a sister duo and a quartet, both with lovely harmonies) and by the ensemble, musical theater style, as exposition or commentary, with the ensemble doubling as members of the band.

the Hopeful Gospel Quartet (Laurie Flanigan Hegge,
Kendall Anne Thompson, Jon Andrew Hegge, and Jay Albright,
photo by Scott Pakudaitis)
The dream cast includes Pearce Bunting who, as the host, is not just doing a Garrison Keillor impression, but is providing his own interpretation of this character that's so familiar and beloved. A character that is introspective, befuddled, charming, amusing, and ever present as he watches his life and his fictional creations play out before him. Filling the role of Rich Dworsky is Jay Albright who, it turns out, is not just a brilliant comedic actor/singer but also a talented pianist and musical director. Angela Timberman brings her perfect dry humor and withering looks to the role of the beleaguered stage manager, and also steals scenes as a couple of very different characters in the Lake Woebegon story. Rounding out the excellent ensemble and playing multiple characters (and instruments) are Jon Andrew Hegge, Laurie Flanigan Hegge, Kendall Anne Thompson, and Peter Thomson, with a clear-voiced and enthusiastic young Jonah Harrison as the child version of the host and Sandra Struthers Clerc as a woman from his past.

Chris Johnson's set portrays the radio stage like an empty runway, with the two dimensional buildings that form the backdrop slightly askew to hint at the changing realities in the play. E. Amy Hill's costumes are a crisp black and white with touches of Garrison's trademark red, with costume changes taking us to Lake Wobegon or the new Old West.

If you like A Prairie Home Companion, you'll love Radio Man. And if you don't, well, you call yourself a Minnesotan?!  Radio Man is everything we love about APHC and so much more, and is a chance to experience Garrison's unique, folksy, poignant, nostalgia-tinged humor in yet another format (playing now through October 26 at the History Theatre in downtown St. Paul).

This article also appears on Broadway World Minneapolis.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

"Alice in Wonderland" by Flying Foot Forum at the Lehr Theater

Like the rabbit in Lewis Carroll's beloved novel Alice in Wonderland, I ran to the theater last night thinking "I'm late! I'm late!" A combination of forgetting I needed to get gas, construction that caused me to miss my exit, a determination to get my last IceCrema of the summer, and the theater entrance not being where I thought it was caused me to finally arrive where I was supposed to be at just after 7:30. But fortunately, Flying Foot Forum's adaptation of Alice in Wonderland is not your typical theater performance, with everyone sitting quietly in their assigned seat well before the curtain goes up, so I was actually right on time. The show begins not in the Lehr Theater but in the lobby (tip: do not go to the entrance under the marquee on 5th street, but rather the entrance around the corner on St. Peter), where a group of crazily costumed actor/singer/dancers lead you down the rabbit hole into this delightfully mad world.

Like the original, this Alice in Wonderland doesn't make a whole lot of sense and doesn't really have a throughline plot, other than Alice leaving her home in search of something more. Rather it is comprised of a series of odd vignettes with the various characters she meets down that rabbit hole and through the tiny door. From the lobby, we do eventually make our way to the Lehr Theater (named for the incomparable Wendy Lehr), which has been transformed into a Wonderland with colorful cartoonish sets (by Peter Baker, Robin McIntyre, and Joe Chvala) on all sides of the theater. There are just a few chairs for those who need them, otherwise take a seat on the floor or stand in the back, and be prepared to move around. Warning: this show, billed as "a new immersive musical event" is participatory; you will be asked to stand up and dance. And if you're like me, you might not find this amusing, but rather awkward and uncomfortable as you count the seconds until the lights go back down. But I appreciate the spirit of it all, and others seemed to be enjoying it, so consider yourself forewarned and prepare to either jump in with both feet, or find a quiet corner from which to observe the action.

All of our favorite characters are here, the White Rabbit (Ed Williams, Jr., an appealing host and guide), the Cheshire Cat (an incredibly agile Brian Evans who throws himself around the space with irrepressible energy), the Queen of Hearts (a completely unrecognizable Jake Endres), the Dormouse (an adorably sweet and simple Charles Robison), the Duchess (a deliciously creepy baby-tossing Bryan Porter), and of course, Alice herself, represented by the golden voice and childlike wonder of Laurel Armstrong (who is sharing the role with Courtney Miner on alternate dates). The energetic ensemble, who gamely throw themselves into this bizarre world, includes students from the St. Paul Conservatory for the Arts (in which the theater is located) and a rotating cast from area high schools. All are dressed in colorful and wacky costumes (by Mary Anna Culligan, Cindy Forsgren, and Joe Chvala) and outrageous make-up.

Creator/director/choreographer Joe Chvala (who also appears as Tweedle Dum and others) brings his signature "flying foot" percussive style of dance to some rousing group numbers, from a dance-off at the door of Wonderland to the falling pack of cards. In addition to the aforementioned audience participation, volunteers take part in a dance competition for the queen. All of this is accompanied by fantastic music performed by the band and cast, including the unmistakable vocals of Natalie Nowytski, lending an Eastern European flair to the music.

Flying Foot Forum's Alice in Wonderland is a wonderfully inventive adaptation of  a beloved story. If you've got little ones, bring them along, they seem to love it. Part of the fun was watching the kids watch the show, including a toddler in a leopard print skirt and red polka dot rain boots who was about the cutest thing ever, laying on the step with her chin resting on the stage, complete enraptured. Head to downtown St. Paul to experience this delightfully mad world, playing now through October 12.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

"The Heidi Chronicles" at the Guthrie Theater

Playwright Wendy Wasserstein (whose work was last seen on the Guthrie stage in 2008 with the excellent Third) won a Tony and a Pulitzer Prize for her most well-known work, The Heidi Chronicles. It's an epic play, covering nothing less than the changing role of women in American society in the '60s, '70s, and '80s through the life of one woman. We see about a dozen scenes of Heidi at 2-3 year intervals throughout her life as she struggles to figure out who she is and what she wants in life during a time in America that saw great social change. These snapshots of a life create a complete picture of who this woman is, although I couldn't help but wish we had more time to spend with each different Heidi throughout the years (someone should adapt the play into a TV series, with each scene expanded into a 10-episode season). This fantastic cast of Guthrie faves and newbies bring Heidi's story to life, along with some pretty fabulous period costumes and ingenious set design.

The play opens with Heidi in the present day, aka 1989, giving a lecture on women artists. We then flash back to a high school dance in 1965, and follow Heidi throughout her life as she goes to college, campaigns for McCarthy, becomes an art historian, and watches her friends get married and have children, until we end up back in the present day again. All of these events inform who Heidi has become, from a baby shower to lunch with an old friend to a TV show about baby boomers. We also follow three of Heidi's friends throughout the years: her friend Susan, who goes from a boy-crazy teen to living in a women's collective to a powerful TV executive; her on-again-off-again boyfriend Scoop, magazine editor for the baby boom generation; and her gay friend Peter, successful pediatrician. Their hair and clothing changes drastically over the years, but their friendship, although strained at times, never wavers.

As Heidi, Guthrie newcomer Kate Wetherhead is a likeable heroine, transforming from awkward teenager to confident professor. Fellow newcomers play the men in Heidi's life - Zach Shaffer as the charming and dependable Peter, and Ben Graney as the jerk Heidi can't seem to rid herself of. Local actors make up the rest of the cast, including Tracey Maloney as Heidi's constant friend who continually redefines herself, Stacia Rice as a range of characters from a conservative mother of four finding her liberation to a vapid TV anchor, Mo Perry (making her welcome Guthrie debut) as an early '70s radical and a soft Southern wife, Eleonore Dendy as a naive young woman in the '70s and a "have it all" woman of the '80s, and Sam Bardwell who is, as usual, fun to watch as multiple minor characters, even when he doesn't say anything.

Clint Ramos does a remarkable job with both costume and set design. From mod '60s dresses to '70s bell-bottoms to '80s shoulder pads, this show is like a fashion parade through the decades. Many quick-changes are involved, especially for Heidi who rarely leaves the stage, and marks the passage of years by adding a jacket or removing a headband. The set consists of a huge wall made up of drawers, file cabinets, empty frames, and shelves, with secret compartments that open to reveal signage that helps establish time and place in the rapidly moving years. Huge set pieces are efficiently moved in during scene changes, from massive museum stairs to a TV studio to a living room. Kudos to the stagehands and everyone behind the scenes for making everything run smoothly. The play also uses music well to set the time and tone, with scenes frequently ending with characters singing along to classics.

The Heidi Chronicles continues on the Guthrie Thrust stage through October 26.

Susan and Heidi in the '60s
(Tracey Maloney and Kate Wetherhead, photo by Joan Marcus)

Heidi and Peter in the '70s
(Kate Wetherhead and Zach Shaffer, photo by Joan Marcus)

can you tell it's the '80s?
(Stacia Rice, Mo Perry, Kate Wetherhead, and Tracey Maloney, photo by Joan Marcus)

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The 2014 Ivey Awards at the State Theatre

Last night was the highlight of the theater year - the Ivey Awards. Celebrating its tenth anniversary, the Iveys honor a dozen or so individuals or productions from the last year. Unlike the Tonys, there are no set categories or nominees that people and shows compete in, but rather, exceptional work at any of the 68 participating theaters is honored, based on evaluations by volunteers. But in addition to the actual awards, and perhaps more importantly, the Iveys are a chance for theater artists and theater-goers to gather and celebrate all the brilliant work that has been done in the Twin Cities over the past year.

The hilarious Randy Reyes returned as co-host, along with new host, the fantastically talented Christina Baldwin (who sadly did not sing). They made for a funny, charming, and entertaining pair of hosts, with a running gag that had Randy attempting to share some of his writing, and Christina reigning him in, only to be interrupted by a crazy fight scene. Presenter pairs are typically made up of one winner from last year, along with someone from one of the Iveys' many sponsors. Speaking of which, this year's obligatory sponsor presentation was done with charm and aplomb by Ari Hoptman as a distinguished German man, speaking German with English words thrown in (my fellow study abroad students and I used to call that Germlish, a language in which I am fluent).

In addition to a special Ivey for the man who started this whole crazy wonderful thing ten years ago, Scott Mayer, and the usual Emerging Artist and Lifetime Achievement Awards, ten translucent green conical pyramids were given out honoring work in ten productions. I'm proud to say that I saw eight of these ten productions, which might be a record high percentage of Ivey winners attended for me. But it's not about me, so on to the awards (but it's still a little bit about me, so click on the titles to read my full thoughts on each show).
  1. The first award of the night went to Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company's production of Rose, a one-woman show starring the divine Sally Wingert which was performed just last month in homes around the Twin Cities. I called it "inspirational, horrifying, funny, charming, disturbing, brutally honest, and utterly compelling." Ivey voters agreed.
  2. Seraphina Nova was honored for her work as playwright of Candid Theater Company's Dogwood, which I called "a compelling and entertaining dark family drama."
  3. Proving that the Iveys have a long memory, the next award went to a musical from last year that actually performed at last year's Ivey Awards. I absolutely loved Nautilus Music-Theater's Ordinary Days and its intimate staging and incredibly talented four-person cast, and called it "everything I want musical theater to be."
  4. One of the two shows I sadly did not see is In the Heart of the Beast's Between the Worlds, for which Sandra Spieler and Julie Boada were honored for their properties design.
  5. Perhaps the most surprising and exciting moment for me was this one, when my favorite theater in the 'burbs Yellow Tree Theatre received their much deserved first ever Ivey Award. Director Anne Byrd was recognized for The 39 Steps, a show I called "brilliantly choreographed and flawlessly executed."
  6. A special award was given to Scott Mayer, not for his theatrical work but for his ten years of work putting on this annual fabulous event we call the Iveys (incidentally, the Ivey Awards gets its name from the Ivey Restaurant, the theater hangout of early 20th Century Minneapolis).
  7. For their performances in Driving Miss Daisy at the Jungle last fall, the "perfect trio" of Wendy Lehr, James Craven, and Charles Fraser received an award, although only Wendy was there to accept it.
  8. In the one sure thing of the night, an Ivey was awarded to Theater Latte Da and Hennepin Theatre Trust's "Broadway Re-imagined" production of Cabaret, aka "musical theater at its best."
  9. Because one was just not enough, Yellow Tree's The 39 Steps received a second award, this one for the brilliant comic performances of Nathan Cousins and Tristan Tifft, who "stole the show."
  10. Eduardo Cincago received an award for costume and set design of Cinderella at Children's Theatre Company.
  11. The final award of the night went to the incomparable Sally Wingert, recognizing her four brilliant and distinct performances in four shows over the past year, two of which also received Iveys for the production, thanks in no small part to her performances. Sally played the mother of a dysfunctional family in Tribes at the Guthrie, the title character in Dark and Stormy's The Receptionist, Fraulein Schneider in the Ivey-winning Cabaret, and an 80-year-old Jewish woman who lived an incredible life in the Ivey-winning Rose. It's "a good time to be middle-aged," a good time to be Sally Wingert, and a good time to be a theater-goer who gets to witness her incredible and varied work.
Two years ago I called Tyler Michaels my favorite new artist of the 2012, and I'm thrilled that the Iveys finally caught up with me, handing him a much deserved Emerging Artist Award. Just this year he thrilled audiences and "rocked my world" as the Emcee in Cabaret, made his charming Guthrie debut as Freddie in My Fair Lady, and was featured in two shows at the Chanhassen (and can currently be seen there in Hello, Dolly!). Singing, acting, comedy, drama, aerial work, physical theater - there seems to be no end to this young man's talents.

All nine previous Lifetime Achievement Award winners were honored with creepy cool huge puppets by In the Heart of the Beast, and this year's award went to Michael Robins and Bonnie Morris for their 40 years as Illusion Theater's Executive Producing Director and Producing Director, respectively. I'm a big fan of Illusion and the work that they create there; you should definitely check them out if you haven't yet (next up: last year's Ivey Lifetime Achievement Award winner, playwright Jeffrey Hatcher, in his one-man version of Hamlet).

Because this is a theater awards show, there were of course wonderful performances, excerpts of past and upcoming shows. There's no better way to start any show than with Tyler Michaels descending from the ceiling, as he did in "Wilkommen" from the aforementioned Cabaret, accompanied by the entire fantastic cast. Other performances included a hilarious performance of Men-Struation by Brave New Workshop; a really cool song from Freshwater Theatre's Archival Revival; and Regina Marie Williams as Shug Avery singing "Push Da Button" from The Color Purple, coming to Park Square Theatre in January. To close the show, the cast of Bloomington Civic Theatre's just closed Guys and Dolls shared their energetic version of "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat," sending us out into the beautiful fall night to the fun of the after party.

And with that, another Ivey Awards show and another season of spectacular theater comes to a close. But the good news is that great theater never stops in this town. So get out and see some local theater. Stay tuned to Cherry and Spoon for suggestions and info on what's available!

Sunday, September 21, 2014

"If We Were Birds" by 20% Theatre Company at nimbus theatre

This is a tough one, friends. 20% Theatre Company's production of the new play If We Were Birds is not easy to watch, but it is so worth it if you can steel yourself to sit through what might be the most realistically brutal scenes I've ever seen on stage. There is a rape scene, actually more than one, that is so painful and difficult to watch that it almost seems gratuitous if it were not for the fact that too many women live this experience every day, on college campuses, in the military, at the hands of trusted friends, or in the spoils of war, which is the focus of this piece. Based on the Greek mythical characters, sisters and princesses of Athens Procne and Philomela, the play is, as director Lee Hannah Conrads notes in the program, "a classical interpretation of a contemporary tragedy."

Beloved daughters of King Pandion of Athens, Procne and Philomela live a happy and comfortable life. Younger daughter Philomela seems especially blissful and ignorant of the troubles that those who are not in her privileged position face. When celebrated soldier King Tereus of Thrace brings a gift of slaves to Pandion, Philomela is shocked at what they have to say and defensive of her father and way of life. To reward Tereus for his victories in battle, Pandion gives him his oldest daughter's hand in marriage. Procne must leave her sister and home to be a wife of the king. After a few years of a mostly happy life, Procne asks her husband to return to Athens and bring her sister for a visit. Tereus obliges, but on the return voyage he finds that he wants Philomela, so he sets her up in a cabin where he repeatedly rapes and tortures her. When Procne finds out, she vows revenge, and the sisters serve him up some black-eyed peas... or something. Something so dark and twisted only the Greeks could think it up.

Procne (Jill Iverson)
Philomela (Suzi Gard)
The talented cast includes six women playing the Greek Chorus, each of whom represents a victim of sexual violence in a 20th Century war (or so the program notes; I didn't get that from the play itself, perhaps due to my own ignorance of foreign affairs). Dann Peterson is the warm loving father who reluctantly gives his daughters over to this man he admires a bit too much, Ethan Bjelland is menacing and frightening in his portrayal of the utterly reprehensible Tereus, and Jill Iverson gives a fierce performance as the protective older sister. But the star of this show is Suzi Gard as Philomela. Hers is a fearless performance, full of vulnerability and strength, and incredibly brave. She is literally thrown and dragged across the stage, wearing next to nothing, exposing herself physically and emotionally. Suzi's Philomela makes a believable transition from a carefree happy young woman to something scarred and broken, yet resilient. Kudos to fight coordinator Jessica Smith for making it all look so painfully real.

Tereus is a soldier who is unable to turn off his violent side when away from the battle field. I couldn't help but think of the recent allegations of domestic abuse and violence against NFL players, men who are also trained to be violent and aggressive at their jobs, some of whom seem unable to turn it off when they get home. This is definitely not a play that resides only in the past.

If We Were Birds is beautifully written by playwright Erin Shields; it feels epic and mythical, but also fresh and modern. The subject is a difficult one but one that's important to witness and examine, something that this production and this cast do well. It's a short run and playing through this weekend only, so get their quickly to experience this challenging and rewarding piece (discount tickets available on Goldstar).

Saturday, September 20, 2014

"Middle Brother" by Mu Performing Arts at the Southern Theater

I love Mu Performing Arts' unique take on classical musicals with Asian-American casts, most recently a gorgeous production of Sondheim's A Little Night Music. But what they do best is foster and produce new work about the Asian-American experience, which is of course part of the American experience. Middle Brother, written by frequent Mu actor and their Marketing Coordinator Eric Sharp, is one such piece. Eric draws on his own experience as a Korean adoptee who returns to Korea as an adult and tells a similar story about a character named Billy in a funny, poignant, fantastical, imaginative way.

Middle Brother is not so much a linear story as a series of vignettes, dreams, scenes, and fantasies. We meet Billy as he's about to leave his home state of Iowa to visit Korea for a few months, hoping to learn more about his heritage and blend into society. Of course it's not that easy, as he finds himself not quite fitting in, a feeling with which he's familiar. In addition to Billy (played by the playwright), five actors (Audrey Park, Michael Sung-Ho, Sara Ochs, Sherwin Resurreccion, and Su-Yoon Ko) portray a sort of Greek Chorus, or in this case Korean Chorus, as well as other characters in the story. The play starts out almost interactive, with the Chorus speaking directly to the audience and defining the two worlds in a clever way. We see scenes of Billy interacting with his younger brother, also adopted from Korea but with little interest it. In Korea, he learns that he also has a biological older brother (hence the title), who he meets and begins to learn about his family. Or does he? Interspersed with these scenes are fantasy sequences about Billy being born to the royal family and he and his prince brother playing (like when Annie sings "Maybe," imagining what her biological parents were like). My linear logical brain had a bit of a hard time understanding which parts were "real" and which were "fantasy." I wanted to know what really happened to Billy, his brother, and his parents, but maybe the point is that answers in transnational adoptions aren't so easy to come by.

the cast of Middle Brother (photo by Michal Daniel)
This piece features an inventive use of space, props, and storytelling. One large set piece dominates the space at the Southern theater, a raised platform with arches that the actors climb on and crawl under. A matching smaller piece on wheels functions as a literal bridge between the two worlds, a plane, and a hospital bed (set and props by John Francis Bueche). The recurring original song "Holy Crap, Here I Am*" sung in Korean Karaoke style expresses Billy's feelings more than mere words can.

I was surprised to read in the program that over 100,000 children have been adopted out of Korea since 1953. This play doesn't offer answers to the issues that adoptees face so much as share one person's experience. It's amusing, entertaining, and effective, if a bit difficult to understand at times for the literal minded. Playing now through September 18, with discount tickets available on Goldstar.

*Listen to Eric talk about writing the song "Holy Crap, Here I Am" on the new music-theater podcast Twin Cities Song Story.

Friday, September 19, 2014

"The Rainmaker" at Yellow Tree Theatre

Sometimes something or someone comes along in life that changes everything. Such is Starbuck, aka The Rainmaker, to the Curry family in Depression era middle America in N. Richard Nash's play 60-year-old play. Yellow Tree Theatre is mounting a lovely new production of this play with an all-star team of YTT regulars and newcomers. It's funny and sweet, hopeful and devastating, a prime example of the beautiful theater that Yellow Tree has been doing for going on seven years, made only richer by the influx of talent from the larger Twin Cities theater scene.

The Curry family consists of patriarch H.C., smart and capable daughter Lizzie, older son Noah who runs the ranch, and the youngest, the easygoing Jimmy. The boys are worried about Lizzie's future and try to marry her off, first by sending her to a nearby town to stay with a family with six sons, then by inviting the local deputy over for dinner. But Lizzie isn't like other the other girls in town, flighty and flirty and intent on "getting a man the way he needs to get got." She speaks her mind, and thinks that no man would want her because she's always been told that she's plain. One hot, dry night, a stranger shows up and offers them something they're all craving - rain. Gullible Jimmy believes him, practical Lizzie and Noah do not, but H.C. wants to give it a chance just in the hopes of something happening.

Something does happen, maybe not what they expected, but something that changes all of their lives. Whether or not Starbuck is a rainmaker as he claims remains to be seen, but what he is is a dreamweaver, a catalyst for change to get them out of this rut they've fallen into. He's Professor Harold Hill, come to sell River City, or in this case, the Curry family, something more than a big band or rain, something much more vital - hope for the future, faith in something, and a belief in oneself. He teaches Lizzie to say "I'm pretty" and mean it, but it's not really about being "pretty," it's about believing she's a beautiful woman deserving of love and happiness and all that life has to offer. Even though the plotline about "marry her off before she becomes an old maid" could seem sexist and offensive, it's a product of its time and really represents any longed for and almost given up dream.

Lizzie and Starbuck (Dawn Brodey and
Peter Christian Hansen, photo by Keri Pickett)
Ivey Award winning director Craig Johnson brings out the best in this excellent cast. When Peter Christian Hansen's Starbuck says that he can bring the rain, I believe him, so perfectly does he portray this con man's confidence and determination, but also his uncertainty and insecurity that he only reveals to Lizzie in quiet moments. I've been a Dawn Brodey fan for a few years, but this may be the best I've ever seen her - so real and raw and natural; you can read Lizzie's every thought and emotion in her facial expressions and body language. Pat O'Brien brings a warm compassion to the role of H.C., who only wants the best for his three very different children. Nathan Cousins is adorable as the simple young Jimmy, and provides much of the humor, while James Rodriguez as the pragmatic Noah is the strong center of the family who may act like a jerk sometimes but has the best of intentions. Rounding out the cast are Tim Tengblad as the friendly town Sheriff who talks Jason Peterson's reluctantly charming Deputy File into letting go of past pain and his life of solitude for something more.

the Curry family at breakfast (photo by Keri Pickett)
Yellow Tree's intimate stage is crowded with furniture in the cozy Curry home, with an elevated part in the back as the Sheriff's office and, later, the tack room, allowing for easy and subtle transitions between scenes (scenic design by Eli Schlatter). It's so wonderful to be in that small intimate space, where you can see the expressions on the actors' faces up close and personal. There's nowhere to hide and no need to; each of them is so present in every moment, you could spend the entire show just focused on one of their faces and get a full experience of the story, although a slightly different one depending on who you chose.

This play marks the opening of Yellow Tree Theatre's 7th season in the little strip mall in Osseo. I've been with them since the 3rd season, and it's been a pleasure to watch them grow and succeed. They have a wonderful pool of talent that they regularly pull from, but to see them bring in the likes of Ivey Award winners Craig Johnson and Peter Hansen says a lot about how far they've come. I love to see the mixing and mingling of talent at theaters around town; I think it makes everyone better, as can be seen in this piece. The Rainmaker is a beautiful play and a beautiful experience at the theater. Head up to Osseo and spend some time with these warm, funny, stubborn, flawed, relatable people as someone comes into their lives and shakes things up so they'll never be the same.

"Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet" by Pillsbury House Theatre and The Mount Curve Company at the Guthrie Theater

With programming on three beautiful and very different stages, the Guthrie Theater provides a great opportunity to see multiple shows, even on the same day. And with free wifi, multiple dining options including a lovely little coffee/snack bar, and plenty of cozy places to sit, the Guthrie is an inviting place to spend the day. I took advantage of this opportunity this week and saw a matinee of The White Snake in the Proscenium Theater followed by an evening performance of Pillsbury House Theatre and The Mount Curve Company's Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet in the Dowling Studio (next week: The Heidi Chronicles on the Thrust Stage). Neither of these two shows are Guthrie original productions, but both are such beautiful and unique expressions of what this thing we call theater can be, from a Chinese legend of a snake that takes human form, to a new and very modern play that draws from Nigerian mythology. You can read my thoughts on The White Snake here, but now - Marcus.

I've been eagerly awaiting the conclusion of Tarell Alvin McCraney's Brother/Sister trilogy, having seen the first two installments presented by Pillsbury House in the Guthrie's Studio theater in the last few years. All three tell universal stories of love, loss, family, and relationships through a specific set of characters in Louisiana, who are named for gods in the Yoruba mythology of Nigeria. We first meet this interrelated cast of characters in the first play, In the Red and Brown Water, which focuses on a young track star named Oya and the choices she is forced to make. The Brothers Size is a smaller cast, focusing on Oya's ex-lover Ogun, his brother Oshoosi, and their friend Elegba. Marcus returns to the large cast format, with the title character being the son of Elegba, long deceased (a handy family tree in the program helps explain the characters and relationships). Many of the characters from the first play, or their offspring, return in this one. The three plays are each stand alone pieces, but seeing all three of them provides a richer understanding of this world that is so specifically created in McCraney's unique voice.

Marcus and the boys
(Nathan Barlow, Mikell Sapp, and Aimee K, Bryant)
This play is a coming of age story about 16-year-old Marcus, who is dealing with the death of a family friend, questions about the father he never knew, growing independence from his mother, an impending storm, and coming to terms with his homosexuality. Marcus' father Elegba, who may also have been "sweet," could dream the future, and Marcus might have inherited that skill. He dreams about a man in a rain storm and doesn't know what it means. This short 90 minute play feels epic and mythical, with Marcus' universal story told in specific detail. This play has a much more hopeful ending than the previous two plays, as if finally Marcus can realize the dreams of those that came before him. Dreams of happiness and love and a life fully realized.

This excellent ten-person cast shines under the direction of Marion McClinton (who has directed all three Brother/Sister plays for Pillsbury House). Rising young talent Nathan Barlow is excellent as Marcus, conveying all the uncertainty of a young man struggling with his identity and his family, as well as the determination to come out on top of that struggle (someone referred to this as his "breakout performance," they obviously didn't see Passing Strange). Lauren Davis and Joy Dolo give a couple of spirited and charming performances as Marcus' best friends, one of whom is more accepting of his truth than the other, and Thomasina Petrus is strong and powerful as Aunt Elegua, who knows more about Marcus than she shares. James A. Williams is the only cast member to appear in all three plays, and his presence is warm, welcome, and familiar as he provides a connecting link between the stories in Ogun Size.

Talented young playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney has such a unique vision and voice, and these three plays create such a specific world with people that are familiar and beloved. A unique feature of McCraney's writing is that the characters speak stage directions (Marcus smiles, Ogun exits), which may take a minute to get used to but really give more insight into the characters. When characters are not in a scene, the actors sit on the sidelines in lawn chairs observing, continuing to witness the story.

Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet continues through October 5. You needn't have seen either of the previous Brother/Sister plays to enjoy this beautifully written and acted play. But definitely if you did see either of the two previous plays, you'll want to see Marcus to see how the story ends and continues. The final moments are a beautiful payoff.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

"The White Snake" at the Guthrie Theater

With programming on three beautiful and very different stages, the Guthrie Theater provides a great opportunity to see multiple shows, even on the same day. And with free wifi, multiple dining options including a lovely little coffee/snack bar, and plenty of cozy places to sit, the Guthrie is an inviting place to spend the day. I took advantage of this opportunity this week and saw a matinee of The White Snake in the Proscenium Theater followed by an evening performance of Pillsbury House Theatre and The Mount Curve Company's Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet in the Dowling Studio (next week: The Heidi Chronicles on the Thrust Stage). Neither of these two shows are Guthrie original productions, but both are such beautiful and unique expressions of what this thing we call theater can be, from a Chinese legend of a snake that takes human form, to a new and very modern play that draws from Nigerian mythology. First, The White Snake (read my thoughts about Marcus here).

The Chinese legend of The White Snake has taken many forms in literature and the arts. This new adaptation, written and directed by Mary Zimmerman, premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival two years ago and has made several stops around the country before landing in Minneapolis for a month or so. This wonderful legend is told with such creativity and innovation; it's truly unlike anything I've seen before. The result is fun, charming, moving, poignant, whimsical, and magical.

The titular snake lives high on a mountaintop and has studied for thousands of years to become immortal. But her friend the Green Snake, younger and not as advanced in her studies, longs to be among the human world and convinces the White Snake to join her down in the city, just for a day. They transform themselves into human form and pose as a lady and her servant. The White Snake falls in love with a pharmacist, marries him, and runs a successful business with her skills in the healing arts. But a monk from the monastery on the mountain knows of her true nature, and is jealous of her success. He goes to great lengths to end her human experiment, but doesn't know the force he is up against. In the end, the love between the snakes and the humans wins out.

the White and Green Snakes
(Amy Kim Waschke and Tanya Thai McBride, photo by Liz Lauren)
Much of this cast has been with the production since the beginning, and it shows. Amy Kim Waschke is commanding as the powerful and elegant White Snake, and Tanya Thai McBride is so energeticly charming as Greenie, and with deft manipulation of the green snake puppet, gives it life and a personality as charming as her own. As the White Snake's husband, Jake Manabat easily portrays the love he feels and the doubt he struggles with. The rest of the ensemble play all of the other roles, from animals to townspeople to gods. Adding greatly to the charm and poignancy of the piece is the three piece orchestra, creating timely sound effects and lovely music.

In addition to the snake puppets, effects are also created with an elegantly floating billowy white cloth (clouds), soft pale blue ribbons of fabric falling from the sky (rain), a pharmacist cabinet rising from the floor that doubles as a bed chamber, beautiful lighting and video projection, and wonderful colorful costumes from gods to animals (particularly a spectacular crane) to traditional Chinese dress (set by Daniel Ostling, costumes by Mara Blumenfeld).

The White Snake is such a beautiful story, so delightfully told, with an ending that brought tears to my eyes (don't be afraid, it's impossible to die alone). The central love story has a beautiful message: the White Snake's husband learns that he loves her as she is, she doesn't need to hide parts of herself, even those parts she thinks might be repulsive to him. I'm grateful to the Guthrie for bringing this truly delightful and unique production to Minneapolis for us to experience and enjoy (playing now through October 19).

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

"Lake Untersee" by Workhaus Collective at Illusion Theater

Lake Untersee, a new play by local playwright Joe Waechter, is odd and beautiful, sharply realistic and wildly fantastical. It's a little bit difficult to reconcile those two sides and figure out what is actually happening, but it's probably best not to worry too much about it and just enjoy the lyricism of it all, and this well-done production by Workhaus Collective (which with I was previously unfamiliar).

Rocky (Michael Thurston)
(photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp)
On a bare stage hung with plastic tarps and one big sheet of ice, we meet Rocky (a compelling Michael Thurston, a student at St. Paul Conservatory for Performing Arts). Rocky is a typical teenager who has trouble communicating with his divorced parents. Rocky's relationship with his parents, who are too busy with their own separate lives to pay much attention to him, is very realistically drawn. Most teens and parents of teens can probably relate to this family, even though Rocky takes it to the extreme and literally grunts at his parents when he doesn't know what else to say. Perhaps not so typical is that Rocky is in love with someone, or something, that he believes is trapped under the ice in Antarctica. The letters he writes to this being he calls Charlie are just beautiful, even if I didn't understand who or what they were directed to. Maybe that doesn't matter, maybe it's just Rocky expressing feelings he wishes he had for someone.

Jason, Gale, and Phyllis (Michael Booth,
Adelin Phelps, and Jennifer Blagen)
(photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp)
Rocky's mother Phyllis (Jennifer Blagen), a writer with writer's block, can no longer handle him, so she allows him to move in with his father Jason (Michael Booth) and his new girlfriend, the artist Gale (Adelin Phelps). Gale seems to be the only adult who allows Rocky to be who he is, and doesn't put pressure on him to have a girlfriend or go to college. The adults are dealing with their own issues - career, relationships - and don't seem to notice that something is really wrong with Rocky, until he has a breakdown in a clothing store dressing room that will break your heart. It's at this point that the fantastical element of the play kicks in, as they all end up in Antarctica looking for Charlie. Or maybe it's all part of Rocky's hallucination. Either way, it's only in this world that Rocky's parents show him the unconditional love and support that he so desperately craves.

I'm not sure what this play means, or what actually happens. But the writing is beautiful, the characters and situations relatable and relevant, all well-performed by this four-person cast. Dive into Lake Untersee and see for yourself, continuing through September 29.

Monday, September 15, 2014

"The New Electric Ballroom" by Frank Theatre at the New Century Theatre

Enda Walsh seems to be a perfect match for Frank Theatre. Their mission is "to produce unique work that stretches the skill of the artists who create the work while simultaneously challenging the everyday perceptions of the audience." In other words, they do weird stuff, but weird in the best possible way, in the way that challenges the audience and encourages us to look at things in a new way, even if we don't quite understand it. Irish playwright Enda Walsh also writes weird and interesting and challenging and utterly unique plays. Hennepin Theatre Trust is marketing The New Electric Ballroom as "from the author of Once." Please don't go to this expecting to see OnceThe New Electric Ballroom is most definitely not Once. Enda Walsh did not create the world or the characters in Once, he adapted a film, putting his gritty Irish stamp on it. But the worlds he creates himself are much more dark and twisted and complex. As with last year's Ivey award-winning Misterman, Frank once again does beautiful work with this weird, challenging, disturbing, completely engrossing, crazy brilliant play.

Much like in Misterman, The New Electric Ballroom features characters that are trapped in the past. More specifically, in one pivotal day in the past. Sisters Clara and Breda, in their 60s, reenact a traumatic experience they had when they were teenagers, relating all of this to their younger sister Ada, who encourages them to keep telling the story even when it's almost too painful to continue. They put on make-up and the clothes they were wearing that day as they go through the story for what seems like the thousandth time, a story that involves a long bike ride, a handsome singer, a town dance, and an event so traumatic that Clara and Breda have not left the house since. It's difficult to understand Ada's place in the story, the one sister that leaves the house to go out in the world, and why she forces them to do this repeatedly. On this one particular day, they invite the fishmonger Patsy, their one contact with the outside world, to play a part in their story. Patsy has his own issues, and a surprising connection to the story. There's a glimmer of hope for a way out of this endless cycle, but it's quickly squashed, and the sisters' sad life continues as before.

sisters Breda (Melissa Hart), Ada (Virginia Burke), and
Clara (Katherine Ferrand) contemplate eating the cake
as Patsy (Patrick Bailey) looks on (photo by Tony Nelson)
This four-person cast could not be better, nor could Wendy Knox's direction. Each actor is so immersed in their character, and each character is more than she or he seems. Katherine Ferrand is a thing of fragile and disturbed beauty as the childlike Clara. Melissa Hart is also excellent as the somewhat stronger and more together sister Breda. Virginia Burke is the sane center of this family as Ada, until we learn that she has her issues too. Irishman Patrick Bailey with his authentic accent is a delight to listen to as he tells the sisters his stories, and later reveals a deeper and darker side to Patsy. These four characters don't so much converse with each other, as recite long monologues, repeating their part of the story or talking to themselves, often not hearing what the other has said. Several passages are repeated throughout the play, creating a harshly beautiful rhythm.

This is the second play I've seen at the New Century Theatre where the stage has been built out, and I've come to see that it's a must for most plays. Even though a few rows of seating are lost, the usual wide and shallow stage often just doesn't work. In this case, Andrea Heilman has designed a shabby but neat little home on the square stage, with vintage kitchen appliances and tape players.

The New Electric Ballroom continues for only two more weekends, so get there soon if you like complex, layered, disturbing, engrossing, tragic, beautifully performed theater.

This article also appears on Broadway World Minneapolis.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

"Nature" by TigerLion Arts at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum

I went for a walk today. The sky through the trees caught my eye. The sound of music floated in and out between the calling of the birds, and the smell of the late summer prairie was all around me. I followed Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau through their lives, studies, and friendship. I thought about nature not as something to be visited occasionally, but as something we live in the midst of daily, whether we're aware of it or not. Sometimes her voice is obscured by the busyness of modern life, but she's always there if we take the time and listen hard enough.

TigerLion Arts' outdoor walking play, Nature, is more than just theater, it's an experience. The story of the life of writers, philosophers, scholars, and friends Emerson and Thoreau would make for an interesting piece of theater if presented in a traditional indoor setting, but it would not be nearly as effective without the most important character in the play - nature. The beautiful grounds of the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum in Chanhassen is the perfect setting for this site-specific work of theater, music, and storytelling.

The experience takes place at four sites on the vast grounds of the Arboretum, far away from the busy main buildings. We follow our characters from a church, to the cabin on Walden Pond, to a grassy hill, to the fields, and back again. We learn about Waldo and Henry's early lives, their meeting, and their deep but tumultuous friendship. This is one of those plays that will inspire you to do further reading, so I won't begin to try to describe these two great men's work, but suffice it to say that they found common ground in their reverence for nature. This work of theater beautiful expresses that reverence.

friends Waldo and Henry on a walk
(Tyson Forbes and John Catron)
The eleven-person cast and community chorus lead us through the experience, dressed in authentic looking period clothing (costumes by Christine A. Richardson). Waldo and Henry are perfectly personified by Tyson Forbes (who also created and co-wrote the piece) as the tall, elegant, well-dressed minister and lecturer, and John Catron as the bearded and unruly-haired nature-lover who eschews the trappings of modern society. They're like yin and yang, two different expressions of the same idea. Norah Long beautifully embodies Nature herself, golden flowers in her shining curls, a glowing expression on her face as she lovingly looks upon her boys, her pure clear voice singing the songs of nature ringing out across the prairie. The rest of the ensemble portrays all of the other characters as well as inanimate objects in a very physical style of theater. Perhaps the most charming moment is when the audience watches Waldo and Henry far across a grassy hill as they exaggeratedly pantomime their actions and words while the ensemble provides their voices and sound effects.

It may be a bit of a hike to get to the west side of town, but it's well worth the trip. Pick one of these beautiful Minnesota fall days, bring your family, and spend the day at the Arboretum. Walk the grounds, take a deep breath, visit the exhibits and gift shop, have a bite to eat at the cafe, and let these wonderful actors lead you on an experience with nature. And then continue that experience on your own, either at the Arboretum, or in the mountains of New Zealand, or in your own backyard. For the song of nature is everywhere if we take the time and listen hard enough.

the cast of Nature in the open air cabin where several of the scenes take place

"Hello Dolly!" at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres

Everyone loves Dolly. The title character of the popular musical Hello Dolly! is a matchmaker, dance teacher, entrepreneur - basically a woman who knows how to get things done. She "puts her hand in" here and there, and makes people's lives better with her helpful manipulative ways. You can't help but love her, and you can't help but love the Chanhassen's shiny new production of this 50 year old musical. It's charmingly old-fashioned, with a fantastic cast from the lead to the supporting players to every last member of the ensemble, wonderful dance numbers, gorgeous period costumes with those all important extravagant hats, and familiar music beautifully played by the orchestra. It's silly and fun and adventurous - a grand old time.

It's the late 19th Century in New York City, and Dolly is tired of working to make everyone else's lives better at the expense of her own. She decides to marry the noted "half a millionaire" Horace Vandergelder, and asks her beloved deceased husband for a sign to move on. In order to catch the gentleman, who is one of her clients, she sabotages the other matches. He's supposed to marry the widow Irene Molloy, owner of a hat shop, but Dolly quickly squashes that. Instead Irene falls in love with Horace's employee Cornelius who, along with his friend Barnaby, has come to New York City for an adventure. Said adventures include a parade, a dinner they can't pay for, a quick trip to jail, and falling in love. But this is Dolly's story, and when Dolly decides she wants something, she gets it, for better or worse.

Highlights of the show include:
the mother/daughter act - Michelle Barber
as Dolly and Cat Brindisi as Irene
  • As I said, this is Dolly's show, and Michelle Barber owns the role and ably leads the show. The highlight is Dolly's moment "Before the Parade Passes By," her declaration to live her life to the fullest. But another wonderful moment is the title song, when Dolly is being serenaded by singing waiters. Michelle is so easy and comfortable in the role as she makes her way across the stage and through the audience, shaking hands, kissing my table-mate on the head, sharing little asides and knowing winks with the audience. She just is Dolly.
  • The Chanhassen has always been a family affair, and never moreso than in this show. Michelle's husband, by the way, is the Chan's Artistic Director and director of this show, Michael Brindisi. And their daughter, Cat Brindisi, is making her adult debut on the stage on which she grew up, after proving that this is no act of nepotism with brilliant turns in such shows as Aida and Hair (by a theater company she co-founded). As Irene Molloy (a role her mother played the last time the Chan did this show), Cat is strong and spirited, and provides a quiet, lovely moment in the otherwise busy and high energy show with the song "Ribbons Down My Back." As my companion said, I only wish she had a chance to sing more.
  • "It Only Takes a Moment" to fall in love with Tyler Michaels and his unique performance style, and if you haven't already done so in one of his previous appearances, most recently as the Emcee in Cabaret, Prince Eric in the The Little Mermaid, or Freddie in My Fair Lady, you will here. Watching him dance badly as Dolly teaches Cornelius to dance is more fun than watching most people dance well. He brings an awkward grace and boundless enthusiasm to the role of this young man who's determined to have the night of his life.
the boss and his hard-working employees
(Keith Rice, Adam Moen, and Tyler Michaels)
  • Who else but Keith Rice, a longtime favorite at the Chan, could play Horace? Even though "It Takes a Woman" may be the most sexist song in musical theater history, it's somehow almost charming coming out of the mouth and person of Keith Rice. The last time I saw Helly Dolly! I did not get the appeal of Horace at all, but I do now. Of course no man is quite good enough for our Dolly, but he'll do.
  • Several actors shine in smaller roles. As second fiddle Barnaby, Adam Moen holds his own with Tyler and is quite charming himself, and the two often dance and move in perfect unison. Jessica Fredrickson is sweet and adorable as Irene's assistant and friend, and as Horace's niece Ermengarde, Krysti Wiita wails perfectly on pitch. As per usual, Kersten Rodau steals her few brief scenes as Horace's (mis) match Ernestina, turning her beautifully powerful voice into something hilariously grating.
  • All elements of the production are top-notch, from Tamara Kangas Erickson's choreography perfectly and precisely performed by the ensemble (oh, those dancing waiters!), to Rich Hamson's gorgeous costumes (spats! hats! gowns!), to the simple set by Nayna Ramey that lets the show shine, to Andrew Cooke's always wonderful onstage orchestra (with banjo!).
This fun, charming, entertaining, perfectly cast, and well performed classic musical plays all winter. The weather may be getting colder, but it's always warm and pleasant at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres*. Dolly will never go away again... until February, when Mary Poppins takes her place.

the cast of Helly Dolly! (all photos by Heidi Bohnenkamp)

*If you happen to go in the next month or so, you should also head over to the Arboretum for TigerLion Arts' lovely and poignant outdoor walking play Nature, about the friendship of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.

"Sexy Laundry" at Park Square Theatre

St. Paul's Park Square Theatre has an exciting and ambitious 40th anniversary season  planned that includes the addition of a second stage, partnership with three small but well-respected theater companies, and a concerted effort to produce new works and hire diverse casts. It's big and exciting, but it all begins on a smaller scale. The first show of the season is the two-person relationship dramedy Sexy Laundry. This smart, funny, relevant play by Canadian playwright Michele Riml is a great way to ease into the season that could make Park Square one of the leading forces in this theater community.

Alice and Henry have been married for 25 years, have three kids, and have fallen into a rut. In attempt to get out of it, they have checked themselves into a swanky new hotel with a copy of Sex for Dummies. They play, argue, make progress, falter, vow to break up, and come back together again. In the busyness of life, family, career, and home, Alice and Henry need this time to reconnect not only with each other, but with themselves.

Henry and Alice find new ways of communicating
(John Middleton and Charity Jones)
The under 90-minute run time flies by as we come to know, love, be frustrated by, and perhaps see ourselves in these two people. This two-person cast, directed by Mary M. Finnerty, is comprised of the perfect pair in John Middleton and Charity Jones. John excels at playing the beleaguered everyman, a hardworking husband who just wants to watch the news when he comes home. Charity brings depth and vulnerability the role of the wife who wants something more than kids and laundry. The two have an easy comfortable chemistry with each other; it's easy to believe that they're an old married couple. Michael Hoover's crisp clean lines provide the hotel backdrop and playground on which the story plays out.

Sexy Laundry continues through the end of the month. Check it out for a smart and funny look at modern relationships. There's a sequel to Sexy Laundry called Henry and Alice: Into the Wild. Here's hoping that Park Square brings John and Charity back next season so we can find out what happens after that pivotal weekend in the hotel.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Musical Mondays at Hell's Kitchen, September 2014

If you haven't been down to Hell's Kitchen on the first Monday of the month, you're missing some great musical theater fun. BFFs (and authors of the charming auto-biographical musical Fruit Fly) Max Wojtanowicz and Sheena Janson invite a few of their friends, who just happen to also be super talented singer/actors, to sing a few songs cabaret style centered around a different theme each month. It's kind of an insider event, with the majority of the audience being actors themselves, which means it's a great chance for theater-goers like you and me to see a good show and also perhaps spot some of your favorite actors sitting at the table next to you. If you've never been, I highly encourage you to like their Facebook page (where each month's themes and scheduled performers are posted, as well as the song list the following day) and check it out sometime.

This month's theme was rock musicals, and so of course the music director/ accompanist was Jason Hansen, the go-to guy for rock musicals. When I think rock musical, I think Hair (the original rock musical), RENT, Next to Normal*, Spring Awakening, etc. But Musical Mondays doesn't usually serve up the expected; they dig a little deeper and often choose newer hipper selections rather than classics. So sadly there was no Hair or RENT, but instead we heard Heathers, Bonnie and Clyde, and 35MM. The full set list is available on Musical Mondays' Facebook page; I'll just share a few highlights here.
  • Two songs from Footloose?  Come on guys, you know that's not a real musical, right? But I'll allow it, because Suzie Juul singing "Let's Hear It For the Boy" was about the cutest thing I've ever seen. She never stops being adorable, and not only that, she has a killer voice with impeccable control, that she seemingly effortlessly transforms to fit whatever she's singing.
  • Once is a rock musical? Folk-rock, I guess. Either way, any chance I get to hear the brilliant music of my favorite musician Glen Hansard, I'll take it. Despite never having seen the musical or the lovely little movie upon which it was based, Randy Schmeling sang a beautiful rendition of the song "Leave." It's such a great song, gritty and raw and emotional, with the rough edges smoothed out by Randy's pretty voice.
  • It should be noted that Philip Matthews was the only performer who got up on stage with no sheet music. He had all these songs, and one suspects, many more, in his head. Rather than doing a song from the rock musical he starred in this summer, he sang a selection of quirky songs, with great power, emotion, and charm.
  • There was a time when Zoe Pappas was in everything, but after playing the title role in Theater Latte Da's Evita four years ago, she disappeared. I wondered where she went, and now I know the answer: Hawaii. She was briefly back in town, and it was great to see and her hear again. She did a couple duets with the boys, and beautifully and emotionally performed a Jason Robert Brown song "I'm Not Afraid."
  • The talented young Ryan London Levin sang a couple of songs from musicals I'm not familiar with: "Raise a Little Hell" from Bonnie and Clyde, and "The Streets of Dublin" from A Man of No Importance. He's got a great voice and I'm looking forward to watching him grow as a performer.
  • I've saved the best for last: Erin Schwab. This woman is so crazy talented - hilarious, with a powerhouse voice that can make you cry as well as laugh, and just all around entertaining. On Monday night she cracked me up just with the way she took the stage, and then brought me to tears with a lovely rendition of "Wicked Little Town" from Hedwig and the Angry Inch. She also brought the house down with "Love Will Stand when All Else Fails" from Memphis. I need to see her cabaret show sometime, because I'm certain it would be fantastic.
Finally, as a special treat, Ann Michels and Matt Riehle performed a couple of songs from my favorite new musical from this year - Sweet Land, based on the beautiful Minnesota-made film. I attended a reading of the show this spring and was so impressed by how the creators (book by Perrin Post, lyrics by Laurie Flanigan Hegge, and music by Dina Maccabee) retained what was so special about the film while adding music that feels organic and only enriches the storytelling. They're continuing to work on the piece and hope to have another reading sometime next year. Visit the Sweet Land musical website or become a fan of their Facebook page for more information about the piece, future productions, and how you can help with the next phase of development.

In the meantime, mark your calendar for Monday October 6, when Musical Mondays will return to Hell's Kitchen with another bunch of talented performers singing about things that scare them. (Dare I hope for some Sweeney Todd?)

the cast of Musical Mondays: Randy, Erin, Suzie, Ryan, Zoe, and Philip

*If you have never seen the Pulitzer Prize winning rock musical Next to Normal, you're in luck! There will be two productions of it this season - at Bloomington Civic Theatre in October and at Yellow Tree Theatre next spring. Pick whichever is geographically more convenient, or see them both as I plan to!