Monday, October 27, 2014

"New Jerusalem" by Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company at Hillcrest Center Theater

Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company has introduced me to a fascinating man in New Jerusalem. I'd never heard of 17th century Portuguese-Dutch-Jewish philosopher Baruch De Spinoza before, but his thoughts on God, Nature, religion, science, and society, as expressed through one historical incident in his life, feel so familiar it's as if I did already know him. This play by David Ives focuses on Spinoza's expulsion from the Jewish community, called cherem, in 1656. The interrogation plays out before the audience, who plays the part of the congregation. Spinoza tries to explain his beliefs to his friends, family, and rabbi, but is unsuccessful in convincing them he is not a heretic. It's a dense play, with much to digest and contemplate, brought to vivid life by the cast.

The mid-17th century was a time of persecution of Jews (not unlike most times in European history). Amsterdam was relevantly tolerant, but as is stated in the play, there are limits to this tolerance. Meaning no public worship and no talking about religious matters with Christians, sort of a "don't ask, don't tell" policy. Which is a problem for Spinoza, because there's nothing he likes better than discussing religion, God, nature, science, and philosophy with anyone who will listen, including his friend Simon and the (Christian) woman he loves, Clara. This lands him in hot water with the city as well as Rabbi Mortera, his beloved teacher and father figure. He is called to the synagogue to answer for his crimes, where he is interrogated by Jewish and Christian officials, and his opinionated sister. The house lights come up, as we the audience are meant to play the role of the congregation, listening to Spinoza's arguments and eventually passing judgement on him. As history tells us, he is expelled, and that's where the play leaves us. But I wasn't quite able to let him go, so I went to Wikipedia to find out the rest of the story. He continued to philosophize for another 20 years but never joined another religion, becoming "the first secular Jew of modern Europe."

Spinoza was an early advocate of the separation of church and state, the idea upon which this country was founded (although some people like to forget that if it suits their particular religion or belief). In the play, he is quoted as saying, "a state without religion is the only state in which religion can flourish." He also speaks of the unity of God, nature, and all things, "nothing is not God," which sounds like a Unitarian to me (no wonder I found myself agreeing with much of what he says). He often talks of the French philosopher and mathematician Descartes and the interrelatedness of science and religion, which seems to coincide with my personal belief that science and religion are flip sides of the same coin, and the laws of science and math can help inform and explain our understanding of the spiritual world. Or as Galileo said, much more elegantly that me, "mathematics is the language with which God has written the universe." Sorry for the digression, but this is the kind of thinking and discussion and philosophizing that this play engenders.

James Ramlet, George Muellner, Michael Torsch, and Rachel Weber
(photo by Sarah Whiting)
Under able the direction of Kurt Schweickhardt, the cast does a great job with this heavy material, injecting life and humor into it. Michael Torsch plays Spinoza as a wide-eyed idealist and a dreamer, and makes Spinoza's words and ideas make sense in an appealing way. As his friends, Briana Patnode and Alex Brightwell showcase the human side of Spinoza. Rachel Weber is a spitfire as his sister Rebekah, barging into the proceedings and letting her opinion be known. James Ramlet and Skyler Nowinski play Spinoza's interrogators, at times frustrated, angered, bewildered, and silenced by his answers to their questions. Last but not least, George Muellner gives a sympathetic performance as the rabbi torn between this young man he thinks of as a son and his lifelong beliefs.

New Jerusalem continues through November 9 at St. Paul's Hillcrest Center Theater (construction appears to be nearly complete and the parking lot on Ford is open again). I highly recommend it if you enjoy thought-provoking discussions about God, Nature, science, religion, philosophy, and everything in between. I will warn you that it's long, nearly three hours, so take a nap or have some coffee before the show, especially if you go to an 8 pm performance. As fascinating as it is, it's a challenge to stay engaged in a philosophical discussion for that long, but it's well worth the effort.

"Ring of Fire" at Plymouth Playhouse

"Hello, I'm Johnny Cash." This is how the country legend began all of his concerts, and it's also how the jukebox musical based on his life begins, as all eight members of the ensemble repeat this line. Ring of Fire loosely tells the story of his life, with the ensemble taking turns as the voice of Johnny, interspersed with over two dozen of his songs and other country classics. I grew up listening to country music (my dad is the biggest Johnny Cash fan I know); other families went to Disneyland on vacation, we went to Nashville, the Grand Ole Opry, and Dollywood. I'm not such a fan of current country music (preferring the folk/Americana genre), but I still love that old time country sound. Ring of Fire taps into that nostalgic love of old time country and features a fantastic cast of talented vocalists and multi-instrumentalists. I'm not sure I learned anything new about Johnny (except for his Scottish heritage), but it's a wonderful celebration of the Man in Black and his music.

Ring of Fire played briefly on Broadway in 2006 but it didn't last long. That's not too surprising; it feels like a show that's more suited to smaller theaters across the country than a big Broadway stage. It's been playing at Plymouth Playhouse all summer, returning after a successful run last year. This was my first trip to the Playhouse, and despite the somewhat odd entrance through a hotel, once you get into the basement theater it's a cozy and intimate little space, perfect for this show. Half of the cast were in the National Tour, and the experience and familiarity with the music and the subject are evident. In this show there is no differentiation between band, singers, and actors. All eight cast members play at least one instrument, most of them several. And they all sing and take turns playing Johnny, June, and members of their family. It's well constructed into four sections, with Johnny's songs appropriately chosen to match the mood of the story. We don't really get a lot of details, his first marriage and children and are glossed over, and how he made the transition from farm boy to country music star to drug addict to religious devotion is never really explained. But through the music and a few key points in his life, we get a picture of the man. Johnny's "Boyhood Years" are marked by hard work on the farm, a close-knit family, and the death of his brother. During "Opry and Fame," Johnny meets June and performs on the Opry stage, "Dark Years" touches on his drug use and prison records, which somehow morphs into "Redemption and Celebration." Along the way we hear many of Johnny's hits, including "Flesh and Blood," "Daddy Sang Bass," " Cry, Cry, Cry," "Get Rhythm," "Folsom Prison Blues," "I Walk the Line," and "A Boy Named Sue."

I was impressed with the terrific musicality displayed by this cast, as they smoothly make the transition between instruments, and from lead to back-up vocals, trading the spotlight fairly equally among the eight. They play over a dozen instruments: drumset, washboard, acoustic and electric guitar, upright bass, banjo, fiddle, mandolin, ukelele, accordion, dobro, autoharp, piano, and spoons. The entertaining ensemble currently includes Andy Carroll (bass), Dorian Chalmers (with a fantastic full-throated voice), Jacob Aaron Cullum (a charming young Johnny, with a pretty voice), Tim Drake (on drums, washboard, and more), Candice Lively (a lovely voice), Charlotte Matis (a mean fiddler), Chad Willow (the piano man with a deep voice), and Chet Wollan (with a great smile and an appealing tenor voice).

The Plymouth Playhouse stage is fairly wide and shallow, with about a half-dozen or so long rows (with ample leg room) in a soft curve around it. At the center of the stage is a rotating sloped circle which is not overused, but adds interest to the staging. At the edges of the seat are placed some barrels and crates to lend that authentic country feel. The costumes also do that, with Western shirts, fringed skirts, cowboy hats, and of course - plenty of black (set by Susan Holgersson and costumes by Katrina Benedict).

Johnny Cash and classic country fans are sure to enjoy this show. Ring of Fire continues through November 23 so you have about another month to catch it. Up next at the Playhouse is the holiday show The Alley Cats in A Doo-Wop Christmas, followed next year year by Pop-Up Musical, which I saw last summer and is a must-see for musical theater fans.

I'm so glad I finally made it out to the Plymouth Playhouse. They put on some great entertainment, and I look forward to seeing more there in the future.

the touring cast of Ring of Fire, half of whom are currently in the Plymouth production

Saturday, October 25, 2014

"33 Variations" at Park Square Theatre

33 Variations is part fascinating music history, part poignant family drama, and part classical music concert, which adds up to an entertaining evening of theater. Park Square's production of the Moisés Kaufman play satisfies on several levels - intellectual, emotional, musical - and features a great seven-person cast (plus one talented pianist) who bring the past and present together in an intriguing way. This is just one of two shows currently playing at Park Square (I'm looking forward to seeing the first production on their new stage, The House on Mango Street, next week). St. Paul is the place to be.

From 1819 through 1823, Ludwig van Beethoven composed 33 variations on a 50 second waltz by music publisher Anton Diabelli. It is one of the last works he wrote before his death in 1827, written at a time when he was almost completely deaf. In one of the world's greatest ironies, this brilliant composer who created some of the most beautiful music in existence eventually could not hear his or anyone else's music, except in his head. Playwright Moisés Kaufman uses this particular moment in music history as a jumping off point for his play, in which a modern-day music scholar, Dr. Katherine Brandt, becomes obsessed with this work and researches it as one of the final works of her own career. The lives of these two geniuses, Beethoven and Katherine, play out in parallel as both feel the time running out and become increasingly desperate to finish their work, to leave something behind that matters.

In the play we see scenes from the 19th century with Beethoven, his trusty assistant and biographer Anton Shindler, and Diabelli, interspersed with scenes from today with Katherine, her daughter Clara, Clara's boyfriend and Katherine's nurse Mike, and Katherine's German colleague Gertrude. Recently diagnosed with ALS, Katherine decides to spend her remaining healthy days in Bonn, Beethoven's birthplace and location of many of his papers, conversation books (used to talk to friends after his hearing deteriorated), and musical sketches. Katherine and Clara have a tenuous relationship; Katherine is one of the most respected and successful people in her field, while Clara flits from job to job, causing her mother to worry that she's living a "mediocre" life. Despite the prickliness of their relationship, Clara loves her mother and is concerned that she is doing too much and not taking care of her health. She and Mike eventually join Katherine in Bonn as her health declines. In her final days, Katherine is forced to let go of some of her assumptions about about Beethoven, music, her daughter, and the idea of success. Katherine's fate is tragic, yet it's a beautiful journey that this family experiences together.

Kaufman beautifully weaves together the two narratives, highlighted at the end of Act I when the three realities - 19th century Vienna, Katherine and Gertrude in Bonn, and Clara and Mike in NYC - collide and all keep repeating, "time is scarce," "this is my last opportunity, "I must be allowed to finish the work," each meaning something slightly different, yet the same. At the end of the play, Katherine finally meets the object of her obsession as she dreams of Beethoven and the two have a conversation. Katherine realizes that what Beethoven has done with his variations is slow down time - turn a 50 second waltz into a 50 minute composition so that the listener can hear every beat, phrase, and moment in the music. A fine example for life, but so difficult to do in today's busy modern age.

Edwin Strout as Beethoven and Karen Landry as Katherine
The Ordway's Artistic Director James Rocco has ventured across Rice Park to direct this play with music, and juggles all of the many pieces well. It all plays out on a mostly bare stage with various levels and boxy tables and chairs, with three video screens displaying the backdrop of the scene or the musical sketch being discussed. Every time a specific variation is commented upon, we hear it played by pianist Irina Elkina, on a piano that almost disappears into the background when not being played. The music adds so much to our understanding of the discussion and really brings it alive. I know next to nothing about classical music, but I found it beautiful and fascinating, and now I want to hear all 33 variations.

On the non-musical front, Karen Landry gives a brave and fully committed performance as Katherine, taking her from a stubborn, determined, independent woman to that same spirit trapped in a failing body, forced to accept help. Her physicality and speech slow down as Katherine's ALS takes hold of her. Karen has great chemistry with Jennifer Maren as Katherine's daughter Clara, with Jennifer portraying Clara's frustration with her mother and reluctance to accept that she's failing (and we also get to hear her beautiful voice). Also great are Michelle Myers as Gertrude, with a lovely German accent, and Nate Cheesman as the charming and steady Mike. Back in the 19th century, Edwin Strout plays Beethoven as a larger-than-life character, just how we imagine those creative geniuses to be - temperamental, loud, selfish, demanding, but somehow tolerated because of the greatness he achieves. Robert-Bruce Blake plays the enigmatic Anton Schindler in a such way that we don't really know if he's telling the truth, or what his motives may be. Rounding out the cast is Peter Simmons as the vain Diabelli, providing some comic relief.

33 Variations continues on Park Square's proscenium stage (i.e., the "old" one) through November 9. If you like smart, funny, historical, relevant, poignant, moving, well-written and -acted theater, with beautiful music as an integral part of the story, you'll want to add this one to your list. Stay tuned to Cherry and Spoon for a report on the new stage.

This article also appears on Broadway World Minneapolis.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

"A Steady Rain" by Odyssey Theatre Ensemble at the Guthrie Theater

The Guthrie is currently hosting L.A.'s Odyssey Theatre Ensemble in the Dowling Studio Theater for their production of A Steady Rain. It's an engrossing 90 minutes of theater in which two buddy cops tell their story, at times directly to the audience, or in conversation with each other. The stories they tell are harrowing, and sadly not all that different from what you hear on the news: cops shooting an unarmed teenager, taking bribes, planting evidence, leaving a boy to die at the hands of a serial killer. This is a heavy play, relentless and brutal, but well written and acted and extremely relevant.

The action takes place on a stage that's completely bare except for two wooden office chairs on wheels, like you see in TV police offices, and three screens projecting abstract and fuzzy images to set the scene. Although perhaps "action" is the wrong word. There's really not much action; it's two guys talking. Writer Keith Huff calls it a duologue, in which the two characters give alternating and interrelated monologues, sometimes talking to each other, sometimes talking about each other to the audience. I found it to be a unique and interesting means of storytelling.

Joey (Thomas Vincent Kelly) and Denny (Sal Viscuso) have been best friends since they were kids growing up in Chicago, and are now partners in the Chicago PD, frustrated in their hope to make detective. Denny is a classic bully, repeatedly beating on and belittling Joey, and pretty much everyone else, but somehow they remain friends. Denny has it all - a beautiful wife, two kids, and a home with several TVs. He's even been selected as a Nielson family! But of course it's not as perfect as it appears; Denny cheats on his wife and lies to her about where he's getting the extra money from bribes. Joey is a recovering alcoholic who's become like a member of Denny's family, until after a tragedy Denny's wife comes to rely on him a little too much, which is understandable because Joey is sensible and stable while Denny is a hothead. A series of incidents land the partners on suspension with their relationship strained. Will they stick together to weather the crisis, or turn on each other?

Since the playwright is a TV writer, and director Jeff Perry and both actors are all veteran TV actors in that I-know-I've-seen-them-in-something kind of way, I'll mention two TV shows that this play brings to mind. The first is HBO's True Detective, in the sense that these guys are partners and best friends who love each other, but you get the sense that they hate and envy each other at times. One is married with children, a seemingly happy family, and the other is a bachelor living in a poorly furnished apartment. The cases that they work on tie them together inextricably, for better or worse. The other TV show brought to mind is the new Showtime series The Affair, in which two people remember the same events but in slightly but significantly different ways. There's a little of that here, as Joey and Denny sometimes tell slightly different versions of the same events. A Steady Rain feels a little bit like an episode of a TV cop drama, but a really good one.

The Guthrie's black box studio theater is an intimate place to see theater, which in this case means there's no where to hide from the violence and ugliness of the story, as well as the deep emotion felt by the characters, fully and painfully brought to life by the actors. In some of the more tense scenes, the audience was so quiet you could hear a pin drop. It's not an easy play to watch, but it's compelling and well-done (playing now through November 2).

Monday, October 20, 2014

"Next to Normal" at Bloomington Civic Theatre

Diverging from the usual feel-good classic musicals, Bloomington Civic Theatre is currently presenting Next to Normal, one of the few musicals to win a Pulitzer Prize for drama and perhaps the most brilliantly written musical of this century. Unlike shows like Guys and Dolls or Singin' in the Rain, you won't leave the theater feeling happy and carefree. You'll leave feeling emotionally exhausted and perhaps continuing to think heavy thoughts for several days. Next to Normal is not an easy show to watch, but it's such a rich and rewarding experience. I couldn't be happier that there are not one but two local productions if it this season, at BCT now through November 15, and at Yellow Tree Theatre next spring (which is sure to be a much different show with their small intimate stage). This was my fifth time seeing Next to Normal, and BCT's production is as beautiful and heartbreaking as ever.

Next to Normal tells the story of what at first appears to be a normal American family, until the cracks begin to show. Diana and her husband Dan married young and started a family. They suffered a great tragedy that triggered Diana's bipolar disorder, which she's been dealing with for years. Everyone in the family suffers in their own way. Dan has to be the strong one as Diana falls apart, and therefore never gets the chance to deal with his own feelings about what happened. Their children, Gabe and Natalie, live in the shadow of the tragedy and are trying to deal with it on top of the normal problems that come with adolescence. Natalie's afraid that she'll follow in her mother's footsteps, and Diana's unable to be the mother that she wants to be. Diana hits rock bottom and undergoes ECT, aka shock therapy. It erases her memories, both the good and the bad, and she struggles to get her life and family back. One of the things that this show does is play with the idea of "normal." There is no such thing as a "normal" family; all families look different and are dealing with their own unique issues, both big and small. As Natalie sings, "I don't need a life that's normal, that's way too far away, but something next to normal, would be OK."

Karen Weber gives a raw and fearless performance as Diana, taking her to all her highs and lows, a voice full of emotion. Sean Dooley broke my heart as Dan, the caregiver in the family who sacrifices himself to take care of everyone else. Like he did in RENT, Blake Rhiner gives a passionate and powerful performance as their son Gabe. Aly O'Keeffe (née Westberg) brings her effortlessly beautiful voice to the role of daughter Natalie, imbuing her with all the angst, despair, and hopefulness of a teenager. Rounding out the six-person cast are Erin Patrick Miller, sweet and funny as Natalie's "perfect for you" boyfriend, and the powerful-voiced Dominique Wooten as the doctors.

Music director Anita Ruth usually helms a big traditional pit orchestra, but in this show she directs a six-piece onstage rock band, which is fantastic. Director Joel Sass also designed the set (as he does at the Jungle), and it's really cool. The use of levels, representing different rooms in the house, is continued from the original Broadway set but on a more manageable scale. The sharp clean lines of a modern and orderly home contrast with the chaotic inner life of this family. Barry Browning's bold lighting highlights the changing tones of the songs.

Next to Normal is a truly brilliant musical, but a heavy one, dealing with issues of mental illness, codependency, drug abuse, suicide, and grief, albeit with moments of humor (a great relief to the audience). It's a perfect example of what musical theater can do; it can be so much more than just light frothy entertainment (although there's a place for that too). Next to Normal is real, relevant, poignant, smart, funny, deeply emotional, and yes, profound. Check it out at Bloomington Civic Theatre through November 15, just don't expect big colorful dance numbers (discount tickets available on Goldstar).

This article also appears on Broadway World Minneapolis.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

"1984" by Theatre Pro Rata at Intermedia Arts

"Big Brother is watching." We're now 30 years beyond the dystopian world imagined by George Orwell in his novel 1984, and its themes have become eerily familiar and not too far outside of our current reality. Written over 60 years ago, 1984 predicts a world where the government controls what information the public receives, and knows our every thought and action. This adaptation by Michael Gene Sullivan focuses on the interrogation of "thought criminal" Winston Smith, and this well-done production by Theatre Pro Rata makes for a gripping and squirm-inducing evening.

Entering the theater at Intermedia Arts, the audience is immediately thrown into the world of 1984. On a bare stage, a man is handcuffed and curled up inside a square on the floor. A recording warns us, "system observers are prohibited from interacting with the subject." The play begins when the interrogators come on stage and jarringly shut off the house lights. The main interrogator is at first only heard, as he instructs the man known as 6709 Smith to confess his crimes. The four "party members" act out scenes from his life as he recounts them. Smith works for the Ministry of Truth, and his job is to change past documents to match the current party line. He's secretly disgruntled with the party, led by someone called Big Brother who may or may not be real, and longs to join the resistance, known as the brotherhood. He meets a woman who feels the same way and they embark on a clandestine affair, trying to hide from the telescreens that are in every home and workplace, observing and recording everything that happens. He is eventually captured, along with his incriminating diary and a book about the brotherhood. The goal of the interrogation is to break him of his "thought crimes" and restore in him a believe that Big Brother is right and good. When the torture moves past electrical shocks into making real his worst nightmare (involving rats, the most squirm-inducing moment), Smith is broken. Big Brother wins again.

6709 Smith (Grant Henderson)
The story plays out in reenactments, as Smith is forced to watch the highs and lows of his recent life as he recounts them. At times he participates in the scenes (although never leaving his square on the floor), at other times his role is taken over by one of the party members, some of whom seem to get caught up in the story they're telling, others of whom are increasingly angry at having to take part. It's a clever and effective storytelling device that not only conveys the facts of the story (or at least as Smith remembers them), but also gives us more insight into the main character and the nameless characters who play the roles.

Impressively, Grant Henderson as Smith never leaves the stage, or his shackles, from before the show, through intermission, to curtain call. He takes Smith from a man who's upset but strong enough to fight back, through the devastation of betrayal, to something so broken it's difficult to watch. As the voice of the interrogator, John Middleton is eerily calm and insistent, and later shows up in person to give an even greater presence to this cold and relentless embodiment of evil. As the unnamed party members, Brian Columbus, Emily Dussault, William Goblirsch, and Kory LaQuess Pullam all create personalities for these characters and the characters they play. Director Carin Bratlie keeps the action moving along and the tension ever increasing.

Theatre Pro Rata's 1984 is thought-provoking, compelling, creepy, disturbing, and a little too real. Check it out at Intermedia Arts in Uptown through next weekend.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

"Romeo and Juliet" by Ten Thousand Things at Open Book

No one does Shakespeare like Ten Thousand Things. They manage to boil the text down to its bare essentials, and convey the heart of the story in a way that feels fresh and modern. This season they bring their unique Shakespeare style to perhaps his most well-know play, the story of star-crossed lovers that inspired all others, Romeo and Juliet. In the typically minimalist production (since TTT performs on location at prisons, homeless shelters, and community centers, the paid public performances are also in a small, fully lit room with little in the way of sets and costumes), director Peter Rothstein and his fantastic cast of eight playing multiple characters bring this familiar story to life in a unique way.

You all know the story so I won't recount it here. Several scenes stand out in this production. The party scene where Romeo and Juliet first meet is nicely done in the small space, with the cast dancing around the audience. The balcony scene is sweet and charming (how do you create a small and easily portable balcony? with a chair on top of a table). The fight scenes are dynamic (choreographed by Annie Enneking), made all the more real because of the close proximity and the perceived danger of an injured party falling into the front row of the audience. The final death scene is beautiful and heartbreaking.

the famous balcony scene
(Anna Sundberg and Namir Smallwood)
As the titular lovers, Namir Smallwood and Anna Sundberg are a compelling pair. Namir gives Romeo a passion and single-mindedness in being with his love, and Anna portrays Juliet as a modern young woman, speaking the Shakespearean language naturally. Six other actors portray all of the characters necessary in this stripped down version. Regina Marie Williams is Juliet's somewhat flighty mother, in contrast to her portrayal of the stern-faced Prince. Bob Davis expresses Juliet's father's love for her, and frustration when she doesn't do his bidding. Karen Wiese-Thompson is entertaining as always as the comic relief nurse, the apothecary, and a mustachioed servant. Dennis Spears is always interesting to watch, and here plays the helpful Friar and Juliet's slain kinsman. David Darrow makes his TTT debut, nicely differentiating the young rebel Mercutio from the nerdy Paris (both with great death scenes). Kurt Kwan is Romeo's sturdy friend Benvolio and a blustering servant.

As always, Peter Vitale has created a soundtrack that sets the mood for the story, whether a party scene or a fight, with help from Jason Hansen on multiple instruments. Boxy black and metal stools and tables are the only set pieces, cleverly arranged as mentioned above to create the balcony, as well as Juliet's bed and tomb (designed by Erica Zaffarano). Trevor Bowen's costumes are modern yet classic, with touches of red for the Capulets and purple for the Montagues, with lovely youthful dresses over leggings for Juliet.

Every time I see Romeo and Juliet I think, why doesn't Juliet just run away with Romeo when he's banished? Why doesn't the stupid Friar get the message to Romeo? Why doesn't Romeo wait a moment longer before taking the poison? But to great frustration, it never changes. Another thing that never changes is Ten Thousand Things' high quality budget productions. The absence of the usual bells and whistles of theater allows the acting and the story to shine.

Romeo and Juliet plays through November 2 at Open Book and the MN Opera Center. With a loyal audience and small performance spaces, shows have a tendency to sell out, so you'll want to order tickets in advance.

This article also appears on Broadway World Minneapolis.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

"Colossal" at Mixed Blood Theatre

"Clear eyes, full heart, can't lose." The excellent TV series Friday Night Lights is about all I know of football, and all I care to. But I still went to Mixed Blood Theatre's football-themed play Colossal, partly because I thought I heard rumors of a marching band (wrong, no band, just a three-person drumline), but mostly because it looked intriguing. Like Friday Night Lights, there's much to enjoy and appreciate about Colossal even for those of us who don't like football. Also like Friday Night Lights, the plot centers around a star player who was paralyzed during a game. It's a powerful story, beautifully told, with great innovation in the timing of the play and in the feats of athleticism on display. In fact it's so good, it almost made me like football, and that's saying something.

The audience is seated five minutes before game time, I mean showtime, with the sound of the drums and the football players' pre-show cheers. Mixed Blood's black box theater has been turned into a mini football field, with bleacher seats for the audience. Before the show, coach Stephen Yoakam puts eight strong, fit, athletic young men through a series of drills - catching, blocking, running - while an older man does yoga. For the first time I appreciated the athleticism of football; it's really quite beautiful in its own way, like a kind of a dance. The pre-show gives way to the start of the play, which is structured as four 15 minute quarters, with the time counted down on the scoreboard. One of the most remarkable things about this production is that the scenes end exactly on time. If they go too fast, there's dead air while we wait for the clock to run down. Too slow and they run out of time. But that never happened. And despite the short run time and the presence of the ticking clock, nothing feels rushed, there are still quiet moments of stillness filled with emotion. The logistics of the whole thing work like clockwork, but the artistry of the story is never sacrificed.

Mike (Toby Forrest) and the team
And the story that is told is beautiful, poignant, and tragic. In dueling realities, we see Mike after his accident (quadriplegic actor Toby Forrest, in a moving and heartfelt performance) and young Mike pre-accident (Torsten Johnson, full of energy and brash confidence). Young Mike appears like a devil on Mike's shoulder, keeping him from moving on and healing from the hurt. In addition to the physical injury, Mike is also hurting from a broken heart; he was in love with one of his teammates (like if Jason Street were in love with Smash), who hasn't come to see him since the accident almost a year ago. Mike's dancer father (the yogi, gracefully played by David Deblieck) doesn't know how to help him, and his physical therapist Jerry (the always excellent Ansa Akyea) tries, but Mike isn't willing. He continually watches a tape of his accident, as the football players and young Mike reenact it for us, pausing as Mike presses pause on his remote, unwilling to go past the impact to what happens next. Memories of Marcus (a charismatic Darius Dotch) and the relationship they had also hold him back. Over the course of an hour (unlike a football game, it really does only last an hour), Mike works to let go of the hurt so he can move forward with the life he has now.

a pre-injury Mike (Torsten Johnson) is flying high
Many artforms combine to create a truly innovative piece of theater. The drumline provides the soundtrack for the drills and game scenes. A beautiful dance entertains us at halftime, performed by Mike and his dad along with a troupe of dancers. The actors playing Mike's teammates run around the stage like athletes, and look like real football players in a real practice (at least to my football-ignorant eye). The entire theater has been transformed, from the set to the bleacher seats to the ushers in football jerseys. All woven together with a beautiful script by Andrew Hinderaker (who wrote this play in response to an "unproducible play" challenge) and smoothly brought to life by director Will Davis. There's a palpable energy in that room that's quite different from anything I've felt at the theater before.

I'm apparently one of the few Americans who doesn't like football (I haven't attended a game since high school, when I was forced to because I was in the marching band, hence my hope to see a marching band at halftime). But this play isn't about football. It's about a passion for something you love and sacrifice everything for, family that supports you no matter what, falling in love and making stupid decisions because of it, getting stuck in the past and having the courage to move past it, letting go of what was and embracing what is (aka "no day but today").

Don't expect to see me at a Vikings game anytime soon (or ever), but I do have a greater appreciation for the sport of football and its place in our culture, as well as the damage that it can cause. Whether you like football or not, head to Mixed Blood Theatre between now and November 9 to experience some truly unique theater. And you can't beat the price - all tickets at Mixed Blood are free thanks to their Radical Hospitality program (although donations are accepted, and advance reservations are $20).

"Nice Work If You Can Get It" at the Ordway

"Nice work if you can get it, and if you get it, won't you tell me how!"

The first thing that comes to my mind when I hear this song is the theme song for the '90s TV sitcom Cybill. But it also makes me think of what I do here at Cherry and Spoon. It's not really work, because I don't get paid, but people give me free tickets to come see their shows. That's a pretty sweet gig. But of course, this well known Gershwin brothers song was not written for Cybill Shepherd or for me, but for the Fred Astaire movie A Damsel in Distress. It's also the title of the new jukebox musical Nice Work If You Can Get It, which features this and a dozen or so other songs by one of America's best songwriting teams, George and Ira Gershwin. George (the composer) and Ira (the lyricist) both collaborated with other people, but this musical focuses on the songs they wrote together (I learned about George from the Ordway's Broadway Sonbgook, and Ira from a play at Park Square). And like the title says, it's a nice show. There's not a whole lot of substance, but the songs are undeniably great, and they're well performed by the cast and full orchestra. Add in some fantastic dance numbers, gorgeous sets and costumes, a very loose plot to tie it all together, and you have a pleasant evening at the theater.

A jukebox musicals is a musical with no original music written for the show, but rather the creators incorporate music from a musical artist (like Abba in Mamma Mia) or theme ('80s rock songs in Rock of Ages). Like most jukebox musicals in which a story is conjured up to fit the already written songs, the plot of Nice Work If You Can Get It is pretty silly, and really just an excuse to get the songs in. But it's entertaining enough, sort of a combination of Anything Goes and Guys and Dolls. Famous (female) bootlegger Billie Bendix meets wealthy playboy Jimmy Winter in 1920s New York. When she hears that he has a large house on Long Island that no one ever uses, she decides to stash 400 bottles of hooch in the cellar. But the next day, Jimmy shows up with his new bride Eileen, "the finest interpreter of modern dance." They assume that Billie's partner-in-crime Cookie McGee is the butler, because he has dressed in the butler's clothes in case the police come by (OK, sure). The obligatory crazy hijinks ensue when Jimmy's girls, Eileen's senator/reverend/judge father, his temperance advocate sister, and the cops show up. And of course, admidst all this, Billie and Jimmy fall in love.

Billie and Jimmy (Mariah MacFarlane and Alex Enterline)
This production is luscious, from the big full orchestra, to the fantastic dance numbers by Kathleen Marshall, to the gorgeous 1920s period costumes (the shoes!), to the elaborate set of the mansion, with beds, baths, and tables rolling in and out as needed. And while the plot may not be stellar, the cast is. The leads all have fantastic voices and are quite entertaining as they ham it up. Reed Campbell as Cookie is the most guilty of ham, in the best possible way. He's an absolute scene stealer, so much fun to watch as he finagles his way around the mansion and the rich people. Our romantic couple both sing beautifully. Alex Enterline as Jimmy is a charmer, and Mariah MacFarlane as Billie has a sweetness to her voice that's juxtaposed nicely with Billie's tough exterior. Rachael Scarr is also great as Jimmy's new wife Eileen, who is so conceited that she sings a love song to herself.

Nice Work if You Can Get It continues at St. Paul's Ordway Center through this weekend only. If you enjoy the music of the Gershwin brothers, big dance numbers, and gorgeous sets and costumes, you might find this a pleasant evening at the theater (discount tickets available at Goldstar).

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

"Rough Cuts: Empire Builder" by Nautilus Music-Theater at the Landmark Center

I love going to readings of new works, especially works of music-theater. I've seen some great ones this year (including this and this), but strangely enough I don't believe I have attended Nautilus Music-Theater's monthly Rough Cuts series before. I always love the work that they do and the innovation they bring to the art form of music-theater, and Rough Cuts is a great way for artists to further their creations and test them out in front of the audience. It also allows us audience members a chance to peek inside the creative process. I highly recommend checking out this or one of the many other new works series around town, or ask your favorite theater if they ever do readings of new work. The rich theater talent in this town is not just seen in performances, but also in the creation of new and lasting work.

The subject of this month's Rough Cuts, which kicks off the 21st year of this series, is a new piece called Empire Builder, with book and lyrics by Anne Bertram and music by George Maurer. An excerpt of the show was presented a few years ago, but this is the first reading of the full show. It tells the story of three characters as they take the train called The Empire Builder from Chicago to points west, some as far as Seattle. I took this train from St. Paul to Montana years ago, and I can understand why the creators chose it as their inspiration for this musical. It's a wonderful way to travel, see the country, and meet people who are all on journeys of some kind. On this trip we meet Sky Wolf, a Native American given up for adoption as a child, returning home to see his dying Grandfather, the recently laid off and frustrated with life Jimmy Masterson, and sociology professor Dr. Beatrice Holder, who's considering leaving academia to take a high paying job. These three characters are all at a crossroads in their lives, and make a connection with each other on this journey. But this Empire Builder is not just any train, it's a time-traveling train that makes stops in the past. Most of these have to do with Sky's history; he steps off the train and into the lives of his ancestors. One stop is in Dr. Holder's past, as she meets her grandfather, a porter who faces racism. But this is mostly Sky's journey, and as he learns about his past he's able to move forward and forgive his grandfather.

This piece has great promise and I hope to see it develop further in future productions. A few things still need to be worked out, as pointed out in the post-show discussion (another fun feature of readings - audience feedback). I agree with the comment that it feels odd to have one stop in the past that has nothing to do with the main story; it would be nice to have it somehow connected, or maybe drop it and dig even deeper into Sky's story. A lot is covered in this piece, including Native American history, Civil Rights, Affirmative Action, the effect of wars, and the history of the railroad. That's a lot to chew on in just a few hours; narrowing of the focus might help the musical feel more cohesive. George Maurer's music is gorgeous, with various styles woven into it and recurring themes. There's a hint of Native American sound in Sky's lullaby, but I would love to hear even more of it, and in general more of the Native American culture (which may come in with casting and sets/costumes/props in future productions).

As with most readings I've attended, the cast does an amazing job performing this new material. I assume they haven't had much time with it, and they mostly read/sing from the script, but that in no way inhibits their performance and their emotions as they bring these characters to life. Dieter Bierbrauer sings beautifully (as always) as Sky, and brought me to tears with his emotional journey from resentment to acceptance to forgiveness. Max Wojtanowiz provides the comic relief as sidekick Jimmy, but also has some emotional moments of his own. Completing this excellent trio is Thomasina Petrus as Dr. Holder, strong but conflicted. The ensemble holds great talent too as they bring richness and fullness to the music and story, in the form of Jay Albright, Susan Hofflander, Ann Michels, Kasono Mwanza, and Dane Stauffer. And the five-piece orchestra, led by the composer on piano, sounds fantastic.

There is one more reading of Empire Builder - tonight at 7:30 at Walker Community Church in Minneapolis. Go see this promising new work, beautifully performed by talented musicians and actors. Or check out next month's Rough Cuts (held on the second Monday and Tuesday of the month), or one of the other new works series in town.

Monday, October 13, 2014

"Master Class" by Theater Latte Da at the MacPhail Center for Music

I don't know opera, and I don't believe I had ever heard the name Maria Callas before seeing Theater Latte Da's Master Class. But I have been educated. I now know that Maria Callas was one of the most talented, dedicated, and fascinating artists of the 20th century. Her paintbrush was her voice, her canvas was the stage, her creation was opera. She sacrificed everything for her art, and had very strong opinions about what art is and what it isn't. She shared those opinions in a series of master classes at Julliard in the early '70s. Playwright Terrence McNally used those classes as the backdrop against which to tell the story of who this woman was in his 1996 Tony-winning play. Her attitude towards art may not lead to the healthiest and happiest of lifestyles, but it does in some cases lead to some exquisite art, both in her singing, and in this magnificent production by Theater Latte Da.

The brilliance of this play is that it's constructed as a music school lecture, with Maria Callas as the instructor and we, the theater audience, as her audience. This allows her to speak directly to us, which is a bit terrifying as she's not an easy teacher, but also extremely engaging as it immediately draws us into the world of the play. Maria takes the stage and begins imparting to us her wealth of knowledge about opera and show business in general, gained from thirty years of performing at the best opera houses in the world. One by one she calls three students in to instruct them as we watch, teaching them that it's about more than just the singing, you have to feel every emotion. Through her direct instruction to the audience, her harsh critiques of her students (that is really more about her than them), and through flashbacks or memories of certain trying times in her life (including her relationship with Aristotle Onassis), we get a clear picture of who this woman was, and it's quite fascinating. She was the type of person for whom the word diva was invented, but it was all at the service of her art.

I'm feel like I'm running out of words to describe Sally Wingert's performances. She recently won an Ivey for not one but four brilliant performances over the last year, all of which I saw and loved. And yet she continues to amaze me each time I see her. How does she do it? She has created so many very different, complex, fascinating, layered, real women. Sally absolutely commands the stage as Maria Callas; she's strong, opinionated, funny, vulnerable, and so present. When you watch Sally you don't feel like you're watching a performance, you feel like you're watching a person. Maria would approve of Sally, she doesn't "act," she "feels," she "is." I felt like I was attending a very important lecture about art and life, and I should be taking notes. I'm not sure who was giving the lecture, Maria Callas, or Sally Wingert, or director Peter Rothstein, who does another beautiful job with this production. Likely it's some delicious combination of all three.

Maria instructs young Sophie while Manny looks on
(Andrew Bourgoin, Kira Lace Hawkins, and Sally Wingert)
As commanding as Sally is, she's not the only one on stage. With her the whole time is music director Andrew Bourgoin as accompanist Manny. I was lucky enough to be sitting near the front on the piano side of the stage, where I could watch his hands bouncing off the keys or softly caressing them. As Manny, he also provides a nice foil for Maria, mostly listening quietly and occasionally interrupting reluctantly to keep things on track. Kira Lace Hawkins, in Jan Brady hair, has a nice turn as student Sophie, with a voice as rich, smooth, and delicious as melted chocolate. Opera singers Benjamin Dutcher and Kelsey Stark O'Emilio also lend their gorgeous voices to the roles of eager students Anthony and Sharon.

Theater Latte Da could not have picked a better location for this play. Antonello Hall at the MacPhail Center for Music is a gorgeous, high-ceiling, pristine, sparsely furnished room that was built for sound. One of my favorite things that Maria says is "I don't believe in microphones, people have forgotten how to listen, if you can't hear me it's your fault." No amplification is necessary in this space with these trained artists, and the sound is exquisite. I also appreciated the costumes (by Willene Mangham). They definitely have a '70s vibe, but it's subtle and doesn't overpower the simple directness of the story.

Theater Latte Da's Master Class is everything. It's funny, completely engaging, poignant, touching, entertaining, and features beautiful music. In short, a smart, funny, clever, meaningful play, sublimely executed by Theater Latte Da. Head to the MacPhail Center for Music in downtown Minneapolis between now and November 2 to experience this exquisite production.

I'll leave you with a quote from Maria Callas: "The only thanks I ask is that you sing properly and honestly." A great motto for not just art, but life.

This article also appears on Broadway World Minneapolis.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

"Class of '85" by Collide Theatrical Dance Company at the Southern Theater

"Live music. Dance. Complimentary drinks. Like totally radical!" I can't say it better than that. The newest original jazz-dance musical by Collide Theatrical Dance Company, which in the past has created more serious pieces such as Romeo and Juliet and a story about prostitution in the '30s, is a fun and light-hearted look at high school in the '80s. But while the topic may be a little lighter, this show is like their past shows in that it is beautifully danced, features a great selection of pop music performed by a live band and singers, and offers free beer and wine before the show. As someone who doesn't know much about dance or see dance productions very often, I always enjoy Collide's ability to tell a story, whether heavy or light, deep or fun, purely through dance and music.

In Class of '85, eight dancers portray the usual high school stereotypes - the spoiled princess, the cheerleader, the nerd, the jock, the rebel. As the audience is filing into their seats before the show, the dancers are mingling with the audience, totally in character. It was almost a little too realistic and started to give me an uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach (I was in high school in the '80s and I have no desire to go back there!). Soon the principal (aka director/choreographer Regina Peluso) calls everyone to order and announces nominations for Prom King and Queen (the audience gets cast their vote at intermission). We follow these familiar characters through a school day, Saturday detention (similarities to The Breakfast Club and other '80s movies are intentional), and the all important Prom night. Short scenes with dialogue help to set the scene, but most of the story is told through dance. Company dances alternate with solo dancers, in which we get to know each character a little better, and see that they're more than how they're perceived. The choreography and the dancers (who are surprisingly good actors too) do a beautiful job of conveying all the angst, pain, confusion, uncertainty, and joy of being a teenager.

Singers Michael Hanna (who also plays the Young Republican a la Alex P. Keaton) and Deb Brown (a teacher) alternate solos and sometimes duet on this list of '80s hits. From Tiffany to Madonna, Whitney Houston to Michael Jackson, Twisted Sister to Guns and Roses, all '80s bases are covered. Highlights include "Under Pressure," a powerful expression of the pressure that teenagers feel from all sides; the girls vs. boys dodgeball dance-off medley; "I Think We're Alone Now," in which the characters don't actually dance but let us get a glimpse into their souls; and the fun final number danced to, what else, "Footloose." Regina Peluso's choreography is fantastic, flawlessly performed by this beautiful company, many of whom I recognize from past Collide shows.

"Live music. Dance. Complimentary drinks. Like totally radical!" If that sounds good to you, head to the Southern Theater (the best dance venue in town) and take a little trip back to high school. It'll make you feel nostalgic or uncomfortable, depending on your high school experience, but either way it's a fun night filled with beautiful dancing that tells a familiar story (now through October 19, with discount tickets available on Goldstar).

yes, I voted for the nerds - my people

"Young Frankenstein" at Lyric Arts

I've never seen Mel Brooks' classic comedy horror spoof Young Frankenstein, which he adapted into a Broadway musical in 2007. But I am a fan of his other movie-to-musical (-to-movie), the much more successful The Producers, which won a record twelve Tonys. So I went to Lyric Arts' invited preview of Young Frankenstein with no knowledge or expectations, which doesn't happen often and is sometimes a fun way to see a show. What I discovered was a super-fun, crazy, campy, over-the-top comedy with fun and clever songs, well performed by an enthusiastic and totally committed cast, with elaborate set and costume design. This is an ambitious show and Lyric Arts' largest production to date, in terms of cast, sets, and costumes, and they manage to not only pull it off but create something hugely entertaining.

The title refers to the grandson of the infamous Dr. Frankenstein, who brought a dead man back to life and created a monster. A well-respected doctor in New York who denies any connection to his grandfather, Young Frankenstein travels to Transylvania upon the death of his grandfather. There he finds it a little harder to ignore his heritage, and with the assistance of his buxom assistant Inga, helpful hunchback Igor, and grandpa's stern girlfriend Frau Blücher, he continues his grandfather's work. All of this is mostly an excuse for whole lot of silliness, but it works.

The show is really well cast; everyone from the leads to the ensemble are fully committed to the camp of the piece, as directed by Matt McNabb. And that's absolutely necessary for successful camp, you can't do it halfway, wide eyes and exaggerated gestures are required, and the cast delivers. As the young Dr. Frankenstein, Kyler Chase is the straight man surrounded by crazy characters, and his reactions are priceless. Katharine Strom appears to be new to the Twin Cities theater scene and I look forward to seeing more of her because she absolutely nails the role of Frankenstein's fiance Elizabeth, playing up the camp to the hilt and flirting with the audience. She's got that rare talent of singing well comedically, the gold standard of which is Sara Ramirez in Spamalot. No one has every come close to matching her genius, but Katharine is well on her way. Nykeigh Larson is a hoot as Inga, and performs quite a feat singing the yodeling song "Roll in the Hay" while bouncing around on a hay wagon and never missing a note. Brendan Veerman is hilarious as the helpful, limping, English-accented Igor with a mysteriously moving hump, as is Kate Beahen, another master of the reaction shot as the stern and stoic Frau Blücher, hiding a great deal of passion for her departed boyfriend and loyalty to his work. Last but not least, Tom Goerger makes a menacing monster, who transforms into a fine friend and tap-dancer.

The look of this creepy Transylvanian castle is created by set designer Brian J Proball and costume designer Samantha Fromm Haddow, with over 100 costumes for the 18 actors, from lab coats to evening gowns to village attire to monsters. There are huge moving set pieces, including the aforementioned hay wagon with some kind of gyrating mechanism, and a contraption that lowers from the ceiling to connect to a table with strange moving gears and lift it in the air (it's a bit noisy and moves slowly, something they make fun of). There are a lot of moving parts and pieces and it all happens fairly smoothly, and I expect it will only get better with practice. The ensemble dance numbers, including "Transylvania Mania" and the tapping number "Puttin' on the Ritz," are highlights of the show (choreography by Ann Marie Omeish).

Young Frankenstein is a silly and ridiculous musical comedy from Mel Brooks, with a similar tone to The Producers and Monty Python's Spamalot. Lyric Arts does a great job with this big show, so check it out if that's your thing (playing now through November 2).

Thursday, October 9, 2014

"Dirty Dancing" at the Orpheum Theatre

Full disclosure: Dirty Dancing is one of my favorite movies. Like most teenage girls in the late '80s, I fell in love with this story of dance and love and growing up the first time I saw it, and I longed to be Baby. Now, more than 25 years and multiple viewings later, I still love the movie and am instantly taken back to that feeling the moment I hear any of the songs from the awesome soundtrack, an odd mix of '60s pop tunes, Latin instrumentals, and '80s songs (which I own, along with a DVD of the movie). When I heard that there was a stage show of the movie, I was concerned. Why mess with perfection? But I had to see it for myself, so I went to the show, along with another fan of the movie, and we loved it. I was worried that they would turn it into "Dirty Dancing: The Musical" with a bunch of cheesy new songs, and Baby and Johnny singing earnestly to each other. Thankfully that's not what this show is. Instead it's a faithful recreation of everything we love about the movie, translated to the stage. If you're not a fan of the movie, there's probably no reason for you to see this show. But if you, like me and countless women of my generation, love this movie, you might enjoy getting to experience all of the music, dancing, and passion of the original as performed live by a talented cast of dancers, actors, and singers.

I'm going to forgo my usual plot summary, because if you don't know the movie, you don't need to see this show. Just scroll down the page and pick one of the other amazing (local, original) shows going on in this town. But for those of you who do know and love the movie, rest assured that all of the best lines are here, from "I carried a watermelon" to "nobody puts Baby in a corner." It's kind of amazing how faithfully they've recreated all of the iconic scenes, using video projections against slatted wooden blinds to provide the various backdrops, indoors and out. But it shouldn't be surprising since Eleanor Bergstein adapted her own screenplay, which was loosely based on her experiences at a resort in the Catskills. We see Baby's first exposure to the Kellerman's staff party, the balance and lift practice on a log and in the water, "most of all I'm scared of walking out of this room and never feeling the rest of my whole life the way I feel when I'm with you," Baby and Johnny crawling across the floor lip synching to "Love is Strange," Baby's conversation on the porch with her father, Baby's sister Lisa's awkward hula song, and of course, the final dance. I really wanted Johnny to jump off the Orpheum stage, I wanted Baby to run down the aisle to him for the big lift, I wanted all of the dancers to come out into the audience and pull us (me) to our feet to dance with them in one big final dance party. Sadly that didn't happen (probably due to safety and viewing concerns, whatever) but I was satisfied with the recreation of it on stage. This is a movie that gets into your very bones, and the stage show did that for me as well.

According to the Cherry and Spoon Music-Theater Spectrum* this is not a musical, it's a play with music. Songs from the movie, plus some additional ones that they were unable to get the rights to at the time, are all in their right places, either with the original recording played, or more often as performed by the fantastic on-stage band. There were moments when the music swelled and I was afraid someone would break out into song (please, don't make Johnny sing "She's Like the Wind"), but thankfully that never happened. The characters do not sing; the singing is left to a few singers - Jennlee Shallow, Jerome Harmann-Hardeman as Kellerman singer Tito Suarez, and Doug Carpenter, who out of nowhere brought the house down with a gorgeous rendition of "In the Still of the Night." Jennlee and Doug create a beautiful duet on the show's theme song "I've Had the Time of My Life."

Baby and Johnny
(Jillian Mueller and Samuel Pergande)
As expected in a show with the word dancing in the title, the dancing is the definite highlight of Dirty Dancing. Some of the acting and scenes are so-so, but the dancing scenes are perfection. All of these dancers are phenomenal, and many of them are trained ballet dancers. Choreographer Michele Lynch has recreated much of the original choreography in the movie (by Kate Champion). The dancing is iconic, and Dirty Dancing wouldn't be Dirty Dancing without it. This is the kind of show that makes me want to take dance lessons. I want to mash potatoes, I want to do the twist, I want to do a crazy backbend.

It's an impossible task to step into the shoes of Jennifer Grey, Patrick Swayze in his most memorable role, and Broadway legend Jerry Orbach. The cast does a fine job, but I'm not going to compare them because that would be unfair; of course no one can play those roles better than the originals. That being said, Jillian Mueller is a perfect Baby, aided by the curly hair, but more importantly she has the combination of naivete, idealism, and fierce determination to save the world. In the all important role of Johnny Castle, ballet dancer Samuel Pergande is beautiful and dances like a dream, even if I might have wanted a little more emotion in some of the non-dancing scenes. Emily Rice is a scene-stealer as annoying Lisa, and has all her awkward movements and self-centeredness down pat.

It's important to note that the subtitle of Dirty Dancing is not "the musical," which would most likely be horrific, but "the classic story on stage." There's nothing original or innovative about it (except maybe in the way that they make these filmed scenes in various locations work on stage), but it's true to the source. And those of us who love the movie are grateful. Why leave your house and pay the not cheap ticket price when you can watch the movie in your living room? Because there's something about live performance, even or maybe especially of something familiar, that's thrilling. There's wonderful energy on that stage and in that room, and seeing this beloved story come to life before your eyes is a joy. Dirty Dancing fans - make your way to Minneapolis' Orpheum Theatre, now through October 19. Everyone else, just go about your business and let us have our fun.

*The Cherry and Spoon Music-Theater Spectrum (TM pending): in a musical, characters sing in character, expressing their emotions and moving the plot forward. In a play with music, the music takes place in context, with characters singing in a way that would make sense in real life, and don't sing as the character. If you take the music out of a play with music, it still makes sense, although some of the impact is lost. If you take the music out of a musical, the story no longer makes sense.

Monday, October 6, 2014

"Gabriel" by Walking Shadow Theatre Company at the Minneapolis Theatre Garage

As I left the theater yesterday afternoon, I clutched my sweater close around me to ward off the chill. Not the chill in the crisp fall air, but the chill from the play I had just seen - Walking Shadow's Gabriel. This story about a little known facet of WWII history is so captivating, horrifying, chilling, and completely engaging that it hangs with you well after you leave the theater. The excellent cast and realistic set make you feel like you're right there, as this family fights for survival on a Nazi-occupied British island. It's only playing for one more weekend, but it's well worth it if you can make it. You won't soon forget this beautifully done, powerful play.

It's 1943 on the island of Guernsey, a British Island just off the coast of France. After the British troops abandoned it and much of the population fled to England, the Germans occupied it without a fight, leaving the remaining population to live under their rule. They've watched their homes and cities be taken over by the Nazis, with rumors of "camps" striking fear into their hearts. One particular family, consisting of the widow Mrs. Becquet, her young daughter Estelle, her secretly Jewish daughter-in-law Lily (son Miles is a pilot in the British army), and their housekeeper Mrs. Lake, has recently moved out of their home, which is now serving as a barracks for the German soldiers, and into a small cottage. They do what they can to survive, including selling food on the black market and Mrs. Becquet making nice with the officers. Two things threaten this delicate balance - the arrival of a new Nazi commander, von Pfunz, who is smarter and more vicious than he seems, and a naked and unconscious young man washed up on the beach, whom Lily brings home. The mystery of just who this young man is, whom they call Gabriel, lingers throughout the play. In fact we never find out for certain who he is, but his presence changes things for everyone involved. Estelle thinks he's an angel who has come to save them from the Nazis, Mrs. Lake calls him "my boy" and tenderly cares for him, Lily sees in him the husband gone so long she can barely remember him, Mrs. Becquet finds him a dangerous nuisance and wants him out of her house, and von Pfunz suspects he's a German due to his fluent speech (there are several conversations in beautiful German). What enfolds as Gabriel tries to remember who he is and Mrs. Becquet tries to save her family from the evil von Pfunz will keep you on the edge of your seat.

a strong little girl in saddle shoes stands up to a Nazi
(Katherine Kupiecki, Lily Wangerin, and Wade A. Vaughn,
photo by Dan Norman)
There is not a weak link in this excellent six-person cast, beautifully directed by Amy Rummenie. Katherine Kupiecki is the proud and haughty Mrs. Becquet, who may not seem like the best mother but will do whatever she has to to protect her family, however distasteful. Janet Paone is a welcome comic relief as Mrs. Lake, who's as much a part of this family as any of them. Miriam Schwartz brings both strength and vulnerability to the role of Lily, who sees something in this strange young man, portrayed by Ross Destiche as a lost soul with innate goodness in him. Wade A. Vaughn gives yet another brilliant and fully committed performance as the Nazi commander von Pfunz, an evil, twisted, disturbed man, outwardly charming, quietly threatening, and a menace to them all. Last but certainly not least is star in the making Lily Wangerin, who can't be more than ten years old but holds her own with these professionals. Adorably precocious and spirited, she's so present and engaged in every moment, and impressively goes toe-to-toe with Wade in an intense interrogation scene. It's a heavy play and a large role for a little girl, and she handles it gracefully. The entire cast works and plays together very well, and has a great chemistry. Their playground is the realistic and detailed cottage set by Steve Kath, including a kitchen with working sink, stocked pantry, and stove, and an attic bedroom.

Head to the Theatre Garage this weekend for one of the four remaining performances of Gabriel to see this chilling, mesmerizing, beautifully acted play. It's a bit long at nearly three hours with intermission, but it doesn't feel long; every moment is captivating and gripping. It's just devastating, and truly one of the best plays I've seen recently.

This article also appears on Broadway World Minneapolis.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

"Miss Julie" by Theatre Coup D'Etat at the American Swedish Institute

In a perfect marriage of play and location, Theatre Coup D'Etat is presenting Swedish playwright August Strindberg's play Miss Julie on the third floor of the gorgeous Turnblad mansion at the American Swedish Institute, in conjunction with their Strindberg exhibit. This intense three-person drama that examines issues of class, gender, love, and power in late 19th century Sweden plays out perfectly in the grand room. Photos of Strindberg's sets are on display, and there's even a quote from Miss Julie on the wall: "no matter how far we travel, the memories will follow in the baggage car." This may sound like a sweet and sentimental quote, but this is not a sweet and sentimental play. In context, the quote is more about these characters being unable to leave their past behind them, so trapped are they in the roles they were born into, no matter how hard they struggle to climb out of them.

The play takes place in the kitchen of a Swedish estate in the 1890's on a midsummer's eve. There is a party going on upstairs in which Miss Julie, daughter of the count, dances with the servants. She's particularly fond of Jean, the count's valet, and follows him to the kitchen, much to the annoyance of Christine, the cook and Jean's fiance. Here the power struggle between Jean and Julie begins, as Christine looks on helplessly. At first Julie has the upper hand and commands Jean to do her will, testing him to see how far he'll go. Later, after intermission during which Julie and Jean have gone to his room, and all that that implies, he has the upper hand and is unspeakably cruel to her. She bows to his will, but then remembers who she is and takes back control. It's a constant power struggle with each of them having the upper hand at different times, but in the tragic ending, there is no winner. Gender roles, sexual politics, and most of all the class structure that defines their lives all play a part in this intense and brutal drama.

"Kiss my shoe," Miss Julie commands, and Jean is forced
to oblige, while Christine sleeps unawares
(Kelly Nelson, Brie Roland, James Napoleon Stone)
The three-person cast lays their emotions bare in this intimate space, under the direction of Peter Beard. As the title character, Kelly Nelson portrays Julie's haughty confident demeanor hiding a lost and damaged young woman, desperate to find her way out. James Napoleon Stone's Jean is at times courteous and polite, sweet and loving, and cruelly opportunistic. Completing the trio is Brie Roland, who brings a grounded and sympathetic humanity to the role of Christine, who wants to return to her simple and straight-forward life before the events of this evening. The characters are quietly established in the first act, but things really heat up in the second act, as desperate emotions reach the boiling point.

Miss Julie continues in the Turnblad Mansion through October 26. It's a wonderful example of the site-specific theater that seems to be happening more and more often (see also Gremlin's production of After Miss Julie in the James J. Hill House a few years ago). The authentic setting aids greatly in suspension of disbelief, and the small cast in close quarters with the few dozen audience members makes you feel like you're eavesdropping on a real conversation. If you're able, take the stairs instead of the elevator to the third floor and peek into the dark and mysterious rooms of the mansion on your way up and down, and imagine the real dramas that occurred in this beautiful house and others like it a hundred and more years ago. (You can also, of course, tour the mansion during the daylight as part of the ASI museum.)

Saturday, October 4, 2014

"Seedfolks" at Children's Theatre Company

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world." This Margaret Mead quote (which continues, "indeed, it's the only thing that ever has") greeted me upon exiting the theater after seeing Children's Theatre Company's Seedfolks. I don't know if this quote is always in their lobby, or if it's specific to this show, but it is the perfect summation of this beautiful play. Paul Fleischman's 1997 novel tells the story of a vacant lot in Cleveland being transformed into a community garden from the perspective of multiple different characters. In CTC's adaptation,* all of these characters and more are portrayed by one woman - Sonja Parks. She brilliantly transforms from a young Vietnamese girl, to an elderly Romanian woman, to a Guatemalan boy, and everything in between in the course of just over an hour. It's an epic journey of a neighborhood that transforms from one of fear and distrust to one that, while it might still have those things, is more deeply connected and supportive, all due to the growing of plants. A small group of thoughtful, committed citizens change the world, or at least their small corner of it.

The journey begins with a nine-year-old Vietnamese girl who, in memory of the farmer father she never knew, decides to plant a few dried lima beans in a vacant lot strewn with garbage. Others in the working-class, mostly immigrant neighborhood take notice of this little girl and her growing plants, and decide to join in. Some miss the feeling of growing something in the ground that they had in the old country, some want to earn money for college, some want to impress a girl, some need to heal from a past hurt, some just like bringing people together. One woman lobbies the city to remove the garbage from the lot, making more room for plants to grow. At the end of the summer, when the harvest comes in, the community joins together to celebrate, sharing food, music, and stories. Then winter comes, the plants die off, snow covers the garden, and everyone retreats into their individual homes (sound familiar?). But when spring returns, will the garden, and with it, the community?

Sonja Parks (photo by Dan Norman)
Sonja Parks gives a brilliant performance in this one-woman show, playing over a dozen characters of varying age, gender, and ethnicity. Under the direction of Peter C. Brosius and with help from dialect coach D'Arcy Smith, she makes each character a distinct and specific fully formed person, from a grieving little girl, to a wounded woman, to a swaggering young man, to a strong mother and teacher, to an excited boy. I only wish the play were longer so we'd have more time to spend with each of them. Lighting changes help distinguish scene and character, and video projections on three long narrow screens provide the backdrop on the simple set (set and projections designed by Jorge Cousineau). The almost video game-like animation is sure to appeal to pre-teens and teens, and really makes the neighborhood come alive (although if you're prone to motion sickness, like me, you might have to close your eyes during some of the moving sequences).

This is different than any other CTC show I've seen, which granted has not been many. It's not a big, splashy, colorful, fun musical. It's more quiet and intimate, but just as mesmerizing for older kids and adults (recommended for grades 3-8, you might want to leave the squirmy little ones at home, or take them to the other show playing at CTC right now, Busytown the Musical). Head to the Children's Theatre between now and November 16 to see this beautiful inspiring story brought to vivid life by Sonja Parks (Aimee Bryant will take over the role on November 7, and is sure to bring her own wonderful spin to the characters).

*Adaptation written in a collaboration between Peter Brosius, Sonja Parks, and director of new play development Elissa Adams.

This article also appears on Broadway World Minneapolis.