Sunday, December 21, 2014

"Jonah and the Whale" by 7th House Theater at the Guthrie Theater

Friends, the future of Minnesota theater, and perhaps American theater, is here. It can currently be seen in the Guthrie Theater's 9th floor Dowling Studio, where a group of smart, talented, ambitious, dedicated, hard-working young music-theater artists have created a beautiful new original musical, based on the biblical story of Jonah. It's everything I want theater to be - fresh, innovative, delightful, heart-breaking, inspiring, genuine, and epic. This is 7th House Theater's fourth production in less than two years, and they continue to explore new ideas and push the boundaries of what theater can be. They've proven themselves with three low-budget but high-quality productions, and now have the resources of the Guthrie behind them to expand even further in this production. The result is beautiful and breath-taking. If 7th House is the future of theater, we're in good hands.

This Jonah and the Whale is a loose and modernized interpretation of the story of Jonah, set somewhere along the Mississippi River sometime in the last century. Jonah is a well-liked happy man, expecting a child with his beloved wife, and fixing anything that's broken in his small close-knit community, including the town clock. An unspeakable tragedy causes Jonah to run away from his life in search of something - peace, healing, answers, a reason to live. He joins the crew of a riverboat and seems to be making progress, until a storm tosses him overboard. The whale is never explicitly named, but Jonah ends up inside something, where he experiences the culmination of his personal crisis, a revelation, and decides to come home. A simple story really, but profound in its telling.

Jonah with Susan always behind him
(David Darrow and Kendall Anne Thompson,
photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp)
This is a true ensemble piece, with the eight-person ensemble and four-person band (some of whom cross over into the action of the play) taking turns narrating the story and playing various characters in it. At the center of the tale is composer David Darrow, with a heart-breaking and beautifully sung performance as Jonah. Kendall Anne Thompson is his ever-present wife Susan, with a beautiful clear voice that pierces the heart. The rest of the talented ensemble includes Matt Riehle (with a fantastic revival song), Gracie Kay Anderson, Serena Brook, and 7th House company members Cat Brindisi (leading a rousing gospel chorus), Derek Prestly, and Grant Sorenson. Tyler Michaels and Emily King have combined their talents to direct and choreograph this group, and created some really wonderful and innovative movement around the stage.

In just over six months playwright Tyler Mills, along with composer/lyricists* Blake Thomas (a gifted singer/songwriter, check out his music on iTunes) and David Darrow (who gave us a glimpse of his songwriting skills at the Fringe a few years ago) have written what feels like a full and complete musical. The clever, funny, and poignant book has light-hearted homey moments, with plenty of small details added that add color to the characters, as well as intense and personal drama. The score is in the style of "old timey folk/Americana music" (which just happens to be my favorite genre) and includes a gospel chorus, a revival tent song, a bar song, plaintive ballads, and a recurring wordless tune that ties the whole thing together. I'm crossing my fingers that they record a soundtrack; this is music I could listen to endlessly. In addition to the music, there are constant wonderfully inventive sound effects that illuminate the world of Jonah, many created by Mary Fox on various percussive instruments and objects.**

This is definitely the most elaborate set that 7th House has had. The black box theater that is the Dowling Studio is arranged in the frequent proscenium style, with the back of the stage area filled with ladders, barrels, crates, and a moving doorway, creating that early 20th century Americana feel. The simple costumes are also of that Americana dust bowl sort of style, with homespun dresses for the women and worker's coveralls for Jonah (set by Kate Sutton-Johnson, costumes by Mandi Johnson).

Jonah and the Whale is less than 90 minutes long but it feels epic, full and complete and layered, like you've gone on the journey along with Jonah and returned home changed. It's one of those experiences where time stands still and what's happening on stage is the only reality. This is a truly unique and special creation, with so much work and heart put into it by the cast and creative team. It makes my heart glad for the future of theater. I could not be prouder of or happier for the kids at 7th House for their continued success and growth as a company. Go check them out in this show if you can (two shows have been added and limited seats remain), and keep your eye on them in the future.

Jonah (David Darrow, photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp)

*Listen to Blake and David talk about writing the song "Wondering Wandering" on an episode of Twin Cities Song Story, hosted by Mark Sweeney.
**Mary and Blake have experience creating wonderful, whimsical, innovative sounds on Take it With You, their monthly radio show, recorded live in Duluth, which you can listen to here.

This article also appears on Broadway World Minneapolis.

Friday, December 19, 2014

"4000 Miles" at Park Square Theatre

Is there a sweeter word in the English language than "Grandma?" Maybe it's because I don't have one anymore, but there's something about the grandchild/grandparent relationship that strikes me as so unique and special. Your grandparents are sort of like your parents, only much cooler and wiser. Park Square Theatre's production of playwright Amy Herzog's 2011 play 4000 Miles explores this relationship in a really beautiful way. With a small cast and a simple and profound story, it's perfectly suited to their new thrust stage* in the basement of the historic Hamm Building.

The title refers to Leo's cross country journey by bicycle, starting from his current home in Seattle, through his childhood home in St. Paul, and ending at his grandmother's Greenwich Village apartment. The journey took some unexpected turns, and Leo is suffering from more than just the usual angst of youth. He and his grandma Vera don't know each other well, but he has nowhere else to go. He needs to heal and figure out where to go from here, and Vera helps him do that, just by being there, listening (when she has her hearing aid in), and providing that no-nonsense sage advice of those older and wiser than us. Vera comes to rely on Leo as well and enjoy having him around. They develop a comfortable rapport, but alas, by definition of the relationship the situation can't continue as it is, and once Leo has healed, he's ready to leave the nest again.

Leo and Vera (Gabriel Murphy and Linda Kelsey,
photo by Petronella Ytsma)
Under director Gary Gisselman, this four-person cast really shines. Brief appearances by Becca Hart as the estranged girlfriend and Joann Oudekerk as his date shed more light on Leo's character, but the show belongs to Linda Kelsey and Gabriel Murphy. Linda's performance as Vera is so lived in and real, it's easy to imagine sitting down at her table for coffee and frozen pastry. She gives Vera a vital spirit that's struggling to get through her aging body and mind. Gabriel hits all right the notes as this cocky youngster who thinks he has it all together, slowly peeling back the layers as Leo lets his grandmother (and the audience) see the trauma he's experienced and the pain that he's feeling. The two of them together are just so charming as they portray a really beautiful multi-generational relationship.

This is only the second play in the new Andy Boss Stage, so it's fun to continue to explore what it can look like and be. In this case, scenic designer Rick Polenek has transformed it into a very detailed and realistic NYC apartment. The back of the stage is lined with shelves filled with books and tchotchkes, while dated grandmotherly furniture extends into the thrust part of the stage.

4000 Miles is one of those wonderful plays that's not big on action, but that really digs into relationships and characters, through sharp, funny, poignant dialogue, as well as through things left unsaid. Unfortunately I'm catching this one towards the end of its short run; it closes this weekend. But if you have some free time in your holiday schedule this weekend, it's definitely worth a visit.

*I was not able to see 2 Pianos, 4 Hands, now playing on Park Square's main stage, due to scheduling issues, but I saw it two years ago and found it to be quite delightful! Read more of my thoughts here, and buy your tickets for this year's show here.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

"A Hunting Shack Christmas" at Yellow Tree Theatre

Christmas at Yellow Tree is always a wonderfully wild and ridiculous affair. Now in their seventh season, the little theater that could is continuing in their tradition of hilarious, heart-felt, and very Minnesotan Christmas plays. But this year they're taking a break from their popular Miracle on Christmas Lake series (two installments so far) to venture to a new location - the hunting shack. Yellow Tree co-founders Jessica Lind and Jason Peterson have combined to write and direct, respectively, this funny and charming new play, and have assembled a fantastic cast to bring these quirky and familiar characters to life. I'd tell you to go see it, but it's sold out for the rest of the run, despite the fact that they've added a bunch of shows. So make your plans early for next Christmas, because Yellow Tree Theatre is a wonderful place to be at this time of the year.

Like the Christmas Lake plays, A Hunting Shack Christmas centers on a relatively normal couple facing a possibly life-changing event who encounters some ridiculously Minnesotan characters. Charlie and Jennifer live a perfectly comfortable life in "The Cities," but perhaps one that's lacking a bit of adventure. On the eve of their 10th anniversary vow renewal, Charlie skips town to head to his grandfather's hunting shack to contemplate his life and the changes he's being forced to make. Jennifer is upset that he left, and follows him to the rustic shack. Much to their surprise, Charlie's eccentric uncle Paul and (sort of) aunt June and cousin Ham are squatting in the cabin, and are none too happy to have their lives interrupted by this "citiot." Charlie and Ham bicker like boys, and even engage in some hilarious slow-mo childish fighting. But at the insistence of Aunt June, everyone makes peace with each other, and Charlie and Jen decide to make a change for the better. This oddball family lives happily ever after in their cozy hunting shack (at least until the sequel).

John Haynes, Greta Grosch, and
Sasha Andreev (photo by Keri Pickett)
A Hunting Shack Christmas is told in informal narration, with narrator Charlie often speaking directly to the audience and fully acknowledging that we're in the theater, directing the sound and lighting and calling for memories. This structure allows a charming and likeable Sasha Andreev to play with the audience and draw us into the story. Daisy Macklin Skarning (in a role that's the complete opposite of the one she played in Gremlin Theatre's Rocket to the Moon this spring) also brings great charm and enthusiasm to the role of Jennifer, making Charlie and Jen a couple to root for. The character of Ham tells the audience he's the comic relief, and understudy Joseph Pyfferoen is just that, committing fully and hilariously to the role of this oddball young man who lives with his parents, wants to start a jerky company, and is engaged to marry a woman from Norway who rides a reindeer. Greta Grosch and John Haynes both have a strong comedy/improv background, which they bring to the roles of Aunt June and Uncle Paul. Greta especially is a hoot as this stereotypical hotdish-making kombucha-growing Minnesota woman. The entire cast works and plays well together with a great energy, showing no signs of the exhaustion one would think might set in when doing so many added shows.

I've never been to a hunting shack, but Katie Phillips' set design looks pretty authentic to me, in fact it looks quite appealing (minus the alleged smell, anyway). Walking into the theater you go through the entry way of a typical cabin (or Minnesota home), with various coats, jackets, snowsuits, and other warm weather gear. The stage is populated with an ugly couch with mismatched afghans, a wood-burning stove, and kitchen appliances that looks rustic and barely functional. And oh yes, there are the deer heads and mounted fish one would expect at a hunting establishment. Lori Schwartz's costumes are entirely appropriate to this world, from the citiots' puffy vests to the comfy nightwear to the warm but not so stylish outerwear.

Yellow Tree Theatre has done it again - created an original holiday show, written by someone* who obviously has familiarity with and affection for Minnesota, that delights and entertains its loyal audience. Their last play featured a couple of Ivey winners, and their next play stars a brilliant actor currently playing Scrooge at the Guthrie, but Yellow Tree hasn't forgotten who their audience is and what they want to see at the holidays. With A Hunting Shack Christmas, they've delivered a thoroughly enjoyable play worthy of its popularity.

Sasha Andreev and Daisy Macklin Skarning (photo by Keri Pickett)

*For more of Jessica's funny and folksy Minnesota writing, check out her blog
Unfamous Minnesota Girl.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

"The Longest Night" at Open Eye Figure Theatre

There's one holiday that no one can escape at this time of the year, at least not those who live as far from the equator as we do here in Minnesota. And that is the solstice, the longest night of the year. It is a holiday that predates Christianity by millennia, a time when our ancient ancestors wondered if the sun would return from it's long sleep, and celebrated when it did. These solstice celebrations form the basis of modern holiday celebrations in many diverse cultures; they all begin with this simple fact of nature. Right now, here in Minnesota, we have less than nine hours of daylight, and it's decreasing every day. But soon, after December 21, that will turn around and the days will begin to lengthen to their summer height. What better reason to celebrate is there than that? The wonderfully talented local music-theater artist Bradley Greenwald has created a one-man show around this idea, and it's completely delightful. Accompanied by Sonja Thompson on the piano (and himself on the baritone), he regales the audience with songs, stories, and poems of the solstice, this winter season that we're right in the middle of. Part science lesson (complete with visual aids), part history, part mystical spirituality, The Longest Night is the loveliest of celebrations of the season.

Don't expect to hear the usual holiday songs, the ones repeated on endless repeat on radio stations and in the mall. I did not recognize more than a few songs, but they are all perfectly appropriate to the theme. From Carole King's "So Far Away" (the sun is so far away at this time of the year!), to "The Cold Song" from the opera King Arthur, to Dar Williams' "The Christians and the Pagans," to "Let the Sunshine In" from HAIR, along with the writing of Margaret Atwood, William Blake, and Ogden Nash, each selection is a celebration or a lament of this cold dark winter season.

Bradley has a gorgeous opera-trained voice and elevates every song he sings, and turns poetry and prose into music. He closes the show with a song by one of my favorite local musicians, Peter Mayer's "My Soul." Bradley turns this poignant and simple folk song into a glorious anthem that will send chills down your spine. It's always a thrill to listen to this "baritone with a baritone," never more so than in this hand-picked collection of songs and stories around a very relevant theme.

When you're doing a show about darkness and light, the lighting must be paid attention to. And it is here. From total darkness to soft candlelight to the bright light of the returning sun, Darren Hensel's lighting design highlights every point in the show. And Sean Healey's sound design allows Bradley to sing harmony with himself - if there's anything better than one Bradley Greenwald singing it's multiple Bradley Greenwalds singing!

Open Eye Figure Theatre is a lovely space but one with not a large audience, and the return of this popular show is almost sold out. But if you can beg, borrow, or steal to get yourself in that room, do so. It's a truly heart-warming experience that will help get you through the long, dark, cold nights to come. Like the cycle of the sun, we can let go of the past and begin again. (Playing through Monday, December 22 - a newly added show that has the best availability.)

Monday, December 15, 2014

"The Hothouse" by Dark and Stormy Productions at the Artspace Grain Belt Bottling House

I admit it - I don't get Pinter. Dark and Stormy's production of The Hothouse is the third play I've seen by English playwright Harold Pinter, and the third time I've left the theater (or in this case the bottling house) with a feeling of "what just happened?" Pinter plays are absurd, don't spell things out clearly, and are open to interpretation. But that's not a bad thing. In fact in this case it's a good thing. Dark and Stormy's production of this bizarre and funny little play is entertaining, engaging, and thought-provoking. And like all of their work (this is just the 5th play they've done over the past few years), it's brilliantly cast with some of the Twin Cities' top talent, and presented in a unique nontraditional location.

The title refers to an institution where the play takes place. It's called a "rest home," in contrast to a "convalescent home," but the details of how patients come to be in the institution and what kind of treatment (or punishment) they receive is unclear. What we do know is that there's a clueless boss (an absolutely delightful Robert Dorfman, making the most of every moment), a seemingly sycophantic but secretly ambitious second-in-command (Mark Benninghofen), another employee who seems to be his rival for the boss' attention (Bill McCallum), a new and eager employee (John Catron), the lone woman on the staff who seems to be in a relationship with several of the men (Artistic Director Sara Marsh), and a lower level employee who walks around turning off lights and moving furniture (Bruce Bohne). The play takes place on Christmas Day, which is neither here nor there, but what is noteworthy is that one patient has recently died and another has given birth. The staff tries to get to the bottom of this, but seems to be more concerned with their own place in the institution. The newbie becomes the scapegoat, which makes me wonder if he's actually a patient and just thinks he's an employee.

the cast in rehearsal in the Grain Belt Bottling House
The location of this play is truly unique - a large open atrium in the Arthouse Grain Belt Bottling House. It very much feels like a cold institution - cement floor and gray walls, with doors around the perimeter on both levels. Sparse office furniture populates the set, with four rows of chairs on one side for the small audience. Sound escapes and echos in this sort of a space, so the solution Dark and Stormy came up with is mics on the actors and headphones for the audience. It's a very odd and cool way to experience theater, one completely new to me, with the sound right in your ears even though the actors may be whispering in a far corner of the space. This allows for subtlety in delivery that can be heard in full detail, while the echos in the larger space can still be heard through the headphones. It all makes for an innovative and fascinating theatrical experience (sound design by C. Andrew Mayer).

The Hothouse continues through January 4. Check it out for a truly unique experience of this bizarrely funny and inexplicable Pinter play. UPDATE: The Hothouse has been extended through January 10.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

"A Christmas Story" at the Ordway Center

St. Paul's Ordway Center for the Performing Arts is returning to its tradition of an original and (mostly) locally cast production during holidays, rather than the touring productions that often come through.  In fact, the last Ordway Original holiday production was 2011's Cinderella. This year's production of the new musical based on the cult holiday movie A Christmas Story is worth the wait. I am usually skeptical of movies turned into musicals, because often it doesn't work or it just simply isn't necessary. But I saw a preview of A Christmas Story (which officially opens on Friday and runs through December 28) last night and was pleasantly surprised; I enjoyed it much more than I thought I would. In fact I loved pretty much every minute of it. The creators (book by Joseph Robinette, music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul) did a wonderful job of retaining the movie's unique tone of humor, silliness, and nostalgia while creating something new that stands on its own merits, whether you're a fan of the movie or not. And best of all, director James Rocco and his team have created a wonderful production that showcases some of the Twin Cities' finest talent, as well as giving a chance for talented local youngsters to play and shine on stage. The Ordway's A Christmas Story is a wonderful, fun, extravagant, poignant, top-notch production of a new musical based on a beloved classic.

In the musical, the familiar story of the 1983 movie is narrated by the author on whose writing the movie was based, Jean Shepherd (played with much warmth and humor by Gary Briggle). He takes us back to that time in his (or anyone's) youth when the most important thing is getting that gift you desperately want. In this case, young Ralphie wants a BB gun. Specifically, a Red Ryder carbine-action BB gun. His every moment revolves around convincing his parents, his teacher, Santa Claus, anyone, to give him this gun. His quest seems hopeless as he is constantly told, "You'll shoot your eye out!" But he perseveres, as we see several little vignettes of 1940s childhood play out - dealing with bullies, changing a flat tire with your dad, getting your mouth washed out with soap, Christmas shopping and visiting Santa at the mall, writing an essay for school, getting in a fight, daring a kid to lick a flag pole, a family dinner. All told with the seriousness of a child living through these seeming calamities, but with plenty of humor and nostalgia as the narrator (and we adults) know that those really were the good days. In the end, it's really a touching look at family, youth, and fading memories of days long gone.

Ralphie (Jake Goodman) and pals
This mostly local cast of over 40 adults, children, and dogs is a joy to watch. In fact there are so many familiar faces among the ensemble that I barely caught a glimpse of some of them. There is a huge amount of talent on that stage, much more than we're able to see in a mere two hours or so. The Ordway held an open casting call, from which many of the kids were cast, and they're all so stinkin' cute. Is there anything cuter than a bunch of kids in PJ's singing and dancing? Not that I've seen in a while. Our hero, Ralphie, is played by Jake Goodman, who is not a local kid but one who has tremendous talent - stage presence and a fantastic voice - and a bright future. His mother is played by Seattle's Billie Wildrick (last seen at the Ordway as Adelaide in Guys and Dolls), an embodiment of idealized 1940s motherhood, singing the show's most poignant song, "Just Like That." As Ralphie's "old man," local fave Dieter Bierbrauer is quite funny as this hapless dad and sings as gorgeously as always, even when singing about winning a "major award" that everyone else sees as a tacky leg lamp (yes, the leg makes an appearance and even gets its own song and dance number!). And I must mention the always hilarious Erin Schwab, stealing scenes as Ralphie's teacher Miss Shields who sings and dances in his fantasies.

The sets are really fun and fantastical, with an idyllic suburban house that splits in half to move in and out, complete with a bunk bed bedroom above and Santa on the roof. Other set highlights include the family's vintage car, and a huge slide for the mall Santa. It's all very Christmassy and very retro, right down to the gift tags surrounding the stage that look exactly like the ones we had as a kid. The period costumes are great and fun, especially when the kids get to dress up in zoot suits and flapper dresses (sets by J Branson, costumes by Lynda L. Salsbury).

The Ordway's A Christmas Story has everything you want in a Christmas musical - humor, nostalgia, warmth, singing and dancing children, dogs, catchy songs (that are still running through my head), big dance numbers, and plenty of the holiday spirit without being too schmaltzy. Bring your kids or your parents, your favorite aunt or your best friend, or go by yourself and revel in the awkwardness and wonder of youth, and those memories we hold especially dear at this time of the year. (More info here, or check out the discount deals on Goldstar here.)

the lovely and talented cast of A Christmas Story

Monday, December 1, 2014

"Buddy - The Buddy Holly Story" at the History Theatre

"That'll Be the Day." "Peggy Sue." "Oh, Boy." "Maybe Baby." These iconic songs by '50s rocker Buddy Holly are so much a part of our culture that everyone knows them, even those of us born long after his tragic death in a plane crash in 1959. Buddy - The Buddy Holly Story, a jukebox musical that uses Buddy Holly's music to tell his story, premiered in London in 1989 before crossing the pond to be seen on stages around the country. It's a fitting choice for the History Theatre, which brings varied and sometimes obscure pieces of Minnesota history to life on stage. What does Buddy Holly have to do with Minnesota? His doomed plane was on its way from Clear Lake, Iowa to Moorhead, Minnesota when it crashed, killing Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper. This production, which premiered at the History Theatre a few years ago, is back this year with much of the original cast of actor/musicians and director Ron Peluso. It's a fun celebration of the all too short life and career of this pioneering rock-and-roller, enjoyed equally by those who remember first-hand his life and death, and those who only know the legend (although the audience skews much more towards the former).

The show follows Buddy's life from his early days in Lubbock, Texas, breaking out of the country-western genre and creating something entirely new, through a failed recording contract, his unprecedented string of hit songs, a whirlwind romance and marriage, and finally, to that fateful last concert in Clear Lake, Iowa. Along the way we hear many of his best hits, along with other songs of the era, including Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper's biggest hits, "La Bamba" and "Chantilly Lace," respectively. Despite the fun music, there's a slight sense of foreboding as the audience knows how the story ends, even as Buddy and friends move towards it unaware of their fate. But we're not down for long, a brief moment of silence with a single spotlight illuminating a frozen Buddy in his final concert, and we're back to the party, with several songs continuing through and after the curtain call to leave the audience in a good mood.

Nicholas Freeman as Buddy, and the ensemble
Nicholas Freeman returns as Buddy, and fully embodies the rocker's spirit, voice, and trademark glasses (even if he does look a little more like Stephen Colbert than Buddy Holly). His experience with and dedication to this show are evident, as he brings this long ago legend to life and makes him seem like a real person. He's supported by a large and talented ensemble, many of whom are current or former students at the McNally Smith College of Music, with which the History Theatre shares a building. The students dancing on stage before the show and in the aisles during some of the numbers bring an authentic youthful energy to the show. Buddy's drummer and bass player are played with great musicianship and personality by Zac Spicer and Ryan Janssen. Lynnea Monique Doublette and Munyaradzi Tirivep embody the spirit of the legendary Apollo Theater in Harlem and rouse the crowd with "Shout!" The excellent ensemble includes Charles Fraser as several music industry people; Andrea San Miguel, charming as Buddy's sudden wife; Four Humors' Brant Miller as the Big Bopper et al.; Bryan Porter, making the most of several small roles; and Mariah Trimm, with a hilariously Midwestern version of The Star-Spangled Banner.

Refreshingly for a musical, the actors are not miked, but use retro style microphones for the big numbers. This also allows for a few lovely unplugged moments, including Buddy singing to his new wife. The stage is set up to look like a '50s stage, and the period costumes include poodle skirts, crinolines, and bow ties galore (sound by C. Andrew Mayer, set by Justin Hooper, and costumes by Lynn Farrington).

If you remember where you were on "the day the music died" and long to reminisce about the days before that loss of innocence, you'll want to catch this show before it closes on December 21 (or later, I hear it's going to be extended). If you only know of it from the song (or, for you other children of the '80s, the 1987 movie La Bamba about Ritchie Valens), this is a chance to learn a little bit more about the legend and imagine what it was like to be a bobby soxer. Either way - a good time was had by all.