Thursday, January 1, 2015

These Are a Few of My Favorite Things in 2014 Twin Cities Theater

Happy New Year my fellow theater lovers! 'Tis the season when we look back and celebrate the year that was, while looking ahead to an even better year to come. And what a year 2014 was! In my 4th full year of blogging I saw more shows than ever before: over 150 shows, representing over 60 local theater companies at over 50 venues around town (not counting the 37 Fringe shows I saw and the seven shows I saw on my week-long NYC trip in April). I know I'm often accused of being "nice" or "not writing anything negative," but I truly do enjoy pretty much everything I see. Some shows of course I love more than others, and that's what this post is about. I'm not saying they're the best shows of the year, but they're the ones that stayed with me the most, because they made me laugh, or cry, or think, or challenged me, or comforted me, or caused me to see something in a new way. I decided to present them in categories this year, and in no particular order. I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below!

Without further ado, here are a few of my favorite things.

My favorite musicals:
  • I've been a fan of the Ordway's Broadway Songbook series since its inception a few years ago, so it's about time I mentioned it in one of these year-end wrap-ups. This series of entertaining and informative lessons on musical theater history showcases some of the area's best singer/actors performing songs from a particular theme or composer. This year's excellent selections were great American composer George Gershwin, lyricist team Comden and Green, and Broadway's first 100 years. Next up: "Rock and Roll on Broadway," April at the Ordway (get your tickets now, these shows have a tendency to sell out).
  • In another brilliant year for Theater Latte Da, which also included a lovely and folky music-infused production of Our Town and an outstanding performance by Sally Wingert in Master Class, the highlight was their first show. Cabaret was presented as part of the "Broadway Re-imagined" series with Hennepin Theater Trust, and it was everything Broadway should be, but local! A fabulous cast led by Tyler Michaels' stand-out performance as the Emcee (the first of many for him this year), a fantastic on-stage band, sets, costumes, choreography, everything combined to make a nearly perfect show. As I wrote at the time, "There is not one single thing that I would change about the show, other than extending it so that I could spend the rest of my life sitting in the Pantages Theatre experiencing the beautiful and tragic world of Cabaret."
  • I was planning to put 7th House Theater's inventive stripped-down production of Little Shop of Horrors on this list until a few weeks ago, when I saw their original musical creation Jonah and the Whale. Featuring original music written by company member David Darrow and super talented local musician Blake Thomas, with a bittersweet book by Tyler Mills, I wrote, "It's everything I want theater to be - fresh, innovative, delightful, heart-breaking, inspiring, genuine, and epic."
  • This summer, Mu did Sondheim, in a big and beautiful way. This is how I described their production of A Little Night Music on Park Square's stage: "The music sounds gorgeous, the costumes are luscious, the show is funny but a little sad too, and the cast is fantastic (and by the way, they also happen to be Asian-American). It's another gorgeous production of a classic."
  • Ten Thousand Things' musicals are like no other. In their trademark bare bones style, everything is stripped down, including the orchestra. But somehow that makes the music more organic to the story; there is no separation between big splashy dancey song and the dialogue, it's just a continuous flow of mesmerizing storytelling, e.g., The Music Man: "This ensemble of wonderful actors led by Luverne Seifert cast their spell over me just as Professor Harold Hill cast his spell over the people of River City. I've seen a dozen Ten Thousand Things shows over the last several years and love everything they do, but this show is my favorite. So utterly charming, delightful, sweet, funny, and moving, it's a perfectly executed concept."
  • The big musical event this summer was the Guthrie's practically perfect production of the beloved Lerner and Loewe musical My Fair Lady. The nationally cast lead actors (who were all pitch-perfect) were backed by abundant local talent in supporting roles and the ensemble. I wrote that it was "so full of life and energy and dance and music," a truly joyous experience.
  • Next to Normal is a brilliant piece of music-theater, and that's just not me talking, it won a Pulitzer. This fall, Bloomington Civic Theatre took a break from the large-cast feel-good classic musical that they do so well (see: Guys and Dolls) to bring this small-cast intensely dramatic and moving rock musical to their stage. Anita Ruth, queen of the pit orchestra, this time directed an onstage rock band and the six-person cast sang their guts out, in a beautifully heart-breaking way.
  • Speaking of rock musicals, there is Passing Strange. Mixed Blood Theater's production of this short-lived but critically acclaimed Broadway musical was absolutely thrilling, and featured a breakout performance by Nathan Barlow (who broke even further out as the title character in Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet, more on that a bit later). I called it "a completely unique creation that comes from the heart, features an awesome rock score, and is wildly entertaining, poignant, funny, and relevant."
  • Last but not least, I'm always thrilled to see any performance of my favorite musical RENT, and even more so when it's as well done as Lyric Arts production was this summer. Featuring a wonderful ensemble cast, great band, and cool set design, simply put, "Lyric Arts has done Jonathan Larson proud. I can think of no higher praise."

My favorite plays:
  • It was another great year at the Jungle (and also happens to be founding Artistic Director Bain Boehlke's last in that position), including the engaging one-woman show Shakespeare's Will, the heart-breaking The Heiress, the wacky The Mystery of Irma Vep, and the sweet and touching On Golden Pond. But perhaps my favorite was the outrageous dark comedy Detroit, featuring a perfect foursome in Angela Timberman, John Middleton, Anna Sundberg, and Tyson Forbes as neighbors in anywhere, America. "The Jungle never lets me down and this is a perfect example of why - a smart, funny, relevant play, fantastic cast, and perfect execution of difficult technical elements."
  • Frank Theater and Irish playwright Enda Walsh seem to be made for each other. Misterman was on my favorites list last year, and New Electric Ballroom was one of my favorites this year. Frank beautifully brought to life the small, sad, and disturbing world of three Irish sisters trapped in the past and the fishmonger who's their only contact to the outside world. In other words, "Frank once again does beautiful work with this weird, challenging, disturbing, completely engrossing, crazy brilliant play."
  • In the cold, dark basement of the Soap Factory, Theater Coup d'Etat created a hauntingly beautiful experience with One Flea Spare, about a handful of people trapped by the plague in 17th century London. So real and raw and intense was the experience, I still get chills just thinking about it. "You can't ask for much more than that from theater - a beautifully written, thought-provoking, disturbing play with wonderfully real and raw performances by the small cast in a space that adds to the tone of the show, that has a lasting impact on the audience."
  • Torch Theater's production of the new play Prints, by ubiquitous local actor John Middleton, was just plain fun. This very funny and at times chilling gangster story featured a fantastic cast, sharp and clever writing, a local connection (the 1933 kidnapping of St. Paul tycoon William Hamm), and spot-on set and costumes. Pure entertainment.
  • 2014 feels like the year that Yellow Tree Theatre was deservedly recognized for the great work they've been doing in a strip mall in the suburbs. After winning two Ivey Awards for their fast and funny production of The 39 Steps, they opened their new season with a lovely, sad, beautiful production of The Rainmaker, featuring Ivey winners and YTT newcomers Peter Christian Hanson and director Craig Johnson (who, BTW, also directed Prints). "It's funny and sweet, hopeful and devastating, a prime example of the beautiful theater that Yellow Tree has been doing for going on seven years, made only richer by the influx of talent from the larger Twin Cities theater scene."
  • In their first year without a permanent home, Gremlin Theater produced two gems, as they are wont to do. Tennessee Williams' A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur found a home in an apartment next to Open Eye, and was funny and a little tragic. But A Rocket to the Moon, at the New Century Theatre, was the one that really got to me. "It's a tragic love story set in a dentist office in 1938, but it's really about a handful of complex characters that we grow to know and care about over the course of a few hours despite, or perhaps because of, their flaws, all so beautifully and vulnerably brought to life by this excellent cast."
Most heart-wrenching: Failure: A Love Story was not only my favorite Fringe show of the 37 I saw this year, but also one of my favorite shows of the year. "Director Joshua James Campbell and this beautiful eight-person cast have created the perfect tone for the show, walking that delicate line between lighthearted quirky comedy and heartbreaking and heartwarming love story. This show is everything I want from a Fringe show, really everything I want from theater - funny, quirky, whimsical, musical, poignant, touching, surprising, moving, and utterly heartbreaking. I was reduced to a weepy mess at the end of this show because it touched me so deeply in so many ways with its true and beautiful depiction of love in its many forms. 'Just because something ends doesn't mean it wasn't successful.'"

Best one-woman show: Sally Wingert has had a pretty remarkable year in a remarkable career. Perhaps most remarkable was her portrayal of an 80-year-old Jewish woman telling her story in Minnesota Jewish Theatre's Rose. She just sat there in someone's living room and talked to the audience of about 40, and completely transported us to her world. Good news - if you missed this Ivey award-winning show, you can catch one of the encore performances this January. It is "inspirational, horrifying, funny, charming, disturbing, brutally honest, and entirely compelling."

Best two-hander: In Pillsbury House Theatre's Gideon's Knot, Aditi Kapil and Laura Esping played the mother and teacher of a 5th grade boy who has recently died. The interaction between these two women played out in real time, and both actors' performances were so real and raw it was almost painful to watch. It was intense, gripping, extremely compelling theater.

Best pairing of two plays in repertory: Hamlet and Rosencrantz and Gildenstern are Dead are just begging to be performed in rep, aren't they? Lucky for us The Acting Company complied, showing us two very different but intricately related sides of the popular story of the doomed prince at the Guthrie this spring. The same story played out on the same stage with the same cast playing the same characters, the latter play smart and hilarious as only a Tom Stoppard play can be, the former familiar play seen with new eyes. John Skelley gave a doubly great performance by showing us two sides of Hamlet, and the brilliant comedy duo Grant Fletcher Prewitt and Ian Gould were like the Abbot and Costello of Shakespeare. Shakespeare shouldn't be this fun.

Best physical theater: Transatlantic Love Affair does theater like no other company. With just the actors on a bare stage with no set or props, they create a world and invite the audience into it. Early this year they remounted their Fringe hit from a few years ago, a very loose retelling of the Cinderella story called Ash Land, and it was as lovely and moving as the first time I saw it. Coming up: the remount of another Fringe hit, These Old Shoes, at Illusion Theater in January.

Guthrie highlights: I've been a Guthrie season subscriber for over ten years, and I'm never disappointed by what the cornerstone of this theater community has to offer. In addition to the aforementioned My Fair Lady, highlights this year include the thought-provoking conversation in Freud's Last Sessionthe inspirational The Mountaintopthe Southern family dramedy Crimes of the Heartthe super fun Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spikethe charming and innovative The White Snakethe gripping drama A Steady Rainand the highly entertaining The Cocktail Hour, which earned me my very first Guthrie quote.

Best use of location: Tiger Lion Arts' Nature was something truly unique this year. An "outdoor walking play," this lovely cast shared the real life friendship of Emerson and Thoreau, played out in the most perfect setting - the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. Walking through the fields and flowers, hearing the birds chirping overhead, watching this story of friendship and communion with nature, was nothing less than magical and mystical and grand. "For the song of nature is everywhere if we take the time and listen hard enough."

Best completion of a trilogy: This trilogy doesn't involve hobbits and dwarves and elves, but it's even more compelling. Three years ago, Pillsbury House Theatre presented the first of Tarell Alvin McCraney's Brother/Sister plays, which tell universal stories of love, loss, family, and relationships through a specific set of characters in Louisiana. In the Red and Brown Water was followed by The Brothers Size in 2012, and this fall, we finally saw the conclusion in the next generation of characters - Marcus; Or the Secret of Sweet. It's an epic undertaking, played out over three years, but the conclusion was oh so satisfying.

Best old-fashioned comedy: There's a reason Neil Simon's 1965 comedy The Odd Couple was made into a sitcom; it's a veritable joke factory. Bloomington Civic Theatre staged this classic with a dream team of Sam Landman as the cigar-smoking, sarcastic, sloppy, gruff Oscar and Wade Vaughn as the sensitive, fastidious, tidy, emotional Felix. With a stellar supporting cast and a detailed set design, it was like watching the best TV sitcom on stage.

Most promising new work: I love attending readings, it feels like you're getting a sneak peek at something new and even participating in the development process, as many readings conclude with a feedback session. My favorite new work in development this year was the new musical Sweet Land, based on the 2005 Minnesota-made movie. Last spring I wrote: "Sweet Land is such a special little movie, a small story but one that's so moving and timeless and beautiful. The musical is everything I hoped it would be, retaining what was so special about the movie and its wistful, funny, romantic tone, and only adding to it with the wonderful new original music of the Americana style that I love so well." The development process continues with a selection of songs presented as part of Nautilus Music-Theater's Rough Cuts Series next week.

Most thrilling set revelation: nimbus theatre's Ghost Sonata, a delightfully bizarre and surreal Strindberg play, featured an unforgettable moment involving the set. At the beginning of the third and final act, the large formidable wall that was the backdrop for the first two acts fell forward in a slow, graceful, and powerful swoosh that literally and figuratively blew my hair back, revealing a floral wonderland behind it. The play also featured great acting and lovely haunting original music, but it was this one moment that is one of the most memorable of the year.

Most devastating experience: Presented in rep with another war play at the History Theatre, Lonely Soldiers: Women at War in Iraq was a deeply affecting experience. At the time I wrote, "After seeing this play I was completely devastated. I had a hard time shaking it. It was one of the most powerful experiences I've had at the theater in quite some time. Because it's not just theater, and it's not just history (both of which the History Theatre does so well), it's about very real and devastating issues facing women in the military." One of the beautiful things about theater is that it can give voice to people whose stories are not heard often or loudly enough, such as the real stories of these brave women.

Best football play for people who don't like football: I haven't watched a football game, in person or on TV, since I was forced to go to games in high school because I was in the marching band. But like one of my favorite TV shows Friday Night Lights, Mixed Blood Theatre's Colossal was not really about football. It was a gut-wrenching story of a young man whose expected future was taken away from him, all told in an innovative way within the confines of four 15 minute quarters and a ticking clock, and with great athleticism and grace.

Most ambitious programming: Park Square Theatre opened their second stage this fall and began a season of nearly twenty productions, both their own productions and collaborations with other theaters around town, and a commitment to greater diversity and outreach to youth. It's exciting to see this theater expansion in lovely downtown St. Paul, and I look forward to spending more time there in the coming years.

Most exciting new theater company: After 7th House Theater's fantastic production of Hair in the summer of 2013, I figured there was a 50/50 chance that we'd see them again. After all, their name comes from a Hair lyric, so maybe they just came together for that one show and would be a one-hit wonder. But this group of young, talented, smart, creative, ambitious theater artists returned this year with not one but three innovative and forward-thinking productions: Cinephelia, a smart and sexy four-person drama staged in an apartment building; an inventive production of Little Shop of Horrors, in which the plant was represented by a cardboard box and an overhead projector was used to illustrate points; and last but not least, their first original creation - the lovely new musical Jonah and the Whale (see above). It seems these kids are here to stay, and I couldn't be happier about it or more excited to see what they do next year.

So there you have it - a few (OK, more than a few) of my favorite things this year. 2014 was also the year that I cut back my hours at my day job so that I would have more time to spend doing what I love - going to the theater and sharing my thoughts and experiences on this here blog. I make no money doing this, other than free theater tickets (thanks to all of the theaters that offered me press comps this year!), but it makes my life fuller and richer and happier. Looking back over this past year, I am filled with gratitude for all of the amazing theater I experienced, the wonderful and talented people I met, and the fact that I was able to share it all with you. I would love to hear your thoughts on my choices, and your own favorite things this year, in the comments section below. Here's to an even better 2015!