Saturday, February 28, 2015

"Hir" at Mixed Blood Theatre

The English language is in need of a gender-neutral pronoun. Firstly to eliminate the awkward "he or she" and "his or her," but also to refer to people who don't identify with either, or in cases where gender really doesn't matter (which is most cases). I recall reading the suggestion "per" in a Marge Piercy novel years ago. The title of the new play Hir (pronounced here) is playwright Taylor Mac's suggestion for an alternative to her and him, with ze replacing he and she. But to say that Hir is about transgender and gender issues is to simplify it too much. In fact, it's difficult to put into words just what it's about, but I'll do my best. It's epic and brutal and funny and heart-breaking as it explores ideas of not just gender, but also class, domestic violence, the changing order of things, and the effects of war on soldiers and those left behind. It's one of those plays that will rip you open, lay your emotions bare, and perhaps leave you with a bit of a queasy feeling in the pit of your stomach. But this beautifully done, perfectly cast production at Mixed Blood Theatre, known for its challenging and rewarding work, is well worth it.

Hir is about a typical American family - mother, father, son, daughter. But as soon as the curtain opens on the cluttered and messy house, revealing barely-there dad Arnold (John Paul Gamoke) in clown make-up, loony mom Paige (Sally Wingert), daughter Max (Jay Eisenberg) who identifies as a boy, and son Isaac (Dustin Bronson) returning from three years at war serving in the Mortuary Affairs department, it's obvious this family is anything but typical. Dysfunctional doesn't even begin to cover it; this is a family steeped in violence, cruelty, and destruction. But they're still here, together, trying to make sense of the new order of things in the "starter home" they never left. Isaac returns from war to find things have changed greatly in the last three years - Arnold has had a stroke, Max is a he, or ze, and Paige has discovered a newfound freedom after being released from years of violence and oppression at the hand of her husband, and being inspired by her child's determination to move beyond confined gender roles. She has freed herself from all conventions of traditional society, even the conventions of folding laundry and putting dishes away in cupboards, because in her mind, it's all part of the oppressive life she left behind. Isaac is shocked and disturbed by this new non-order, and by the humiliating way his mother treats his stroke-addled father. He cleans up the house and tries to help his father remember who he is. Paige is incensed by the cleanliness and the "normative kitchen table in the kitchen," seeing it as a move back to Arnold's controlling way. She tells Isaac that because of the violence and cruelty of his pre-stroke life, he does not deserve compassion. But is that true? Doesn't everyone deserve compassion? Perhaps, but perhaps it's too much to ask for from the person he hurt most.

Isaac, Paige, Arnold, and Max (Dustin Bronson, Sally Wingert,
John Paul Gamoke, and Jay Eisenberg, photo by Rich Ryan)
Each one of these characters is flawed, courageous, and despicable at times, and at all times real. I found myself changing allegiances many times during the play; I'd empathize with someone in one moment, and intensely dislike them in the next. The person Arnold used to be, and his small movements back there, are truly horrifying, but he's also a lost, sick, damaged man. Max is an infuriatingly bratty teenager, yet hir determination to be who ze really is, despite the conventions of society, is truly inspirational. Isaac, like many returning vets, is forever affected by what he's experienced in the war, and more than anything wants to return to the home he knew, but when he starts to take the place of his father by controlling his mother and her house, it's unacceptable. Lastly, Paige is a fascinating, wacky, and compelling character. It's difficult to watch the way that she treats Arnold, but it's understandable considering their history. And it's obvious that she loves and supports her children, and has done the best for them in a difficult situation. Inspired by Max, she says some really lovely things about moving beyond a world of two distinct strictly defined genders to a world where we can all just be who we are.

These complex characters are brought to vivid life by this beautiful cast, all of whom give such raw, vulnerable, truthful, and at times painful performances. NYC director Niegel Smith brings out the best in each of them and somehow makes sense out of this mess of a family and home. And speaking of mess, kudos to Properties Designer Abbee Warmboe for filling Joseph Stanley's dingy house set with so much clutter in the form of clothes, garbage, dishes, and who knows what else, that I wanted to jump on stage and start cleaning it myself!

One other thing to note: I find it interesting that in a play named after a new pronoun, Isaac is often called I, the first person pronoun. I don't know what that means, but it can't be a coincidence, can it?

Mixed Blood Theatre never fails to challenge, inspire, entertain, and make you think. Hir is no exception. It's not an easy play to watch at times, but it's well worth the effort. If you like your theater risky, challenging, and thought-provoking, head to Mixed Blood between now and March 22. Take advantage of their Radical Hospitality program - just show up and get tickets for free if they're available - or reserve tickets in advance for $20 online or by phone.

This article also appears on Broadway World Minneapolis.

Friday, February 27, 2015

"Pop Up Musical" at Plymouth Playhouse

Musical theater is just the best thing, isn't it? If you agree, head west to the Plymouth Playhouse for the latest incarnation of the delightfully irreverent tribute to the love of all things musical theater, aka Pop Up Musical. Four friends, who just happen to be super talented local music-theater artists, created this show for the Fringe Festival a few years ago. It was so successful that they've expanded it and continue to bring it to various venues in the area (including the Jerome Hill Theater, where I saw it in 2013). The talented cast sings 24 songs from 24 different musicals, 23 of which I've seen on stage. Wow, am I a nerd the target audience for this show! While belting out showtunes, the cast also shares fun bits of trivia in the VH1 Pop Up Video style, using signs and video projections. It's truly a must see for anyone for whom the great American musical theater cannon holds a special place in their heart (and their iTunes).

You may have seen these four performers on stages around town. Jennifer Eckes, Judi Gronseth, Kevin Werner Hohlstein, and Timm Holmly have known each other and worked together for years (we get to learn how they all met through the pop ups during the song "Friendship"). Video screens on either side of the stage display pop ups, as well as images of things related to the song (famous magicians and clowns during "Magic To Do" and "Send in the Clowns," a photo of an actual "Edelweiss"). The cast also holds up signs with pop ups, harkening back to the show's low budget Fringe origins, and these are perhaps the most fun. While someone is pouring their heart out in song, one of their cast members picks up a sign from the big stack on one of the four podiums, and parades it around the stage like Vanna White, facial expression telling all. Signs can also be props - the blue fans of "Sisters," animals for "Circle of Life," and Annie's hair (which gets multiple uses throughout the show).

The pop ups take three forms: fun and interesting trivia about the shows and songs themselves (when it opened, Tonys, stars, backstage gossip), tangential info about a word or idea in the song (we learn that Kleenex is a proprietary eponym during "Suddenly Seymour," and about the invention and cost of champagne during "Hey Big Spender"), and personal info about the cast (Judi was born the year that Sound of Music premiered, Kevin slept on the sidewalk to get tickets to RENT). We learn how many times the words "Tomorrow," "Popular," and "Tonight" are sung in the respective songs (16, 14, and 38!), and some common malapropisms for the opening line of "Circle of Life" ("ingonyama nengw' enamabala," or "penguin mama, penguin has a mama?").

Timm Holmly, Jennifer Eckes,
Judi Gronseth, and Kevin Werner Hohlstein
All of these shenanigans almost distract you from the fact that these four can really sing. They all have powerful, gorgeous voices, and perform with great enthusiasm and delightful camp. Songs come from such beloved and diverse musicals as Avenue Q and Fiddler on the Roof, Xanadu (featuring some impressive roller skating tricks by Kevin) and Les Miserables. The cast fights over who gets to sing one of the most beloved musical theater songs, "What I Did For Love" from A Chorus Line. Who wins? The audience, because they all end up singing it. Unfortunately they sing to a recorded karaoke-like track, but they acknowledge and poke a bit of fun at that. And they sound better than any karaoke singers I've ever heard! Still, I would love to see how the dynamic would change with a piano accompanist replacing the recorded track; it could lead to some fun interplay with a 5th person onstage, as well as greatly improving the quality of the music.

If you, like me, obsessively listen to musical theater cast recordings, define your life in terms of musical theater milestones, and constantly quote showtunes, this is a show for you. Because Jennifer, Judi, Kevin, and Timm love musical theater as much as you and I do. But unlike you and me (well, me anyway), they have the talent to sing and perform these songs and entertain an audience with their non-verbal written-on-signs banter. Pop Up Musical plays in the cozy theater in the basement of a Best Western for just three more weekends, don't miss it! See the Plymouth Playhouse website for more info, and visit Goldstar for discount ticket deals.

This article also appears on Broadway World Minneapolis.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

"In the Age of Paint and Bone" at nimbus theatre

nimbus theatre's newest original theatrical creation, In the Age of Paint and Bone, deals with the very oldest of recorded history. Tens of thousands of years ago, the earliest humans painted on the walls of caves, many of which have been rediscovered in the last century or two. Co-Artistic Director Liz Neerland directs and wrote this piece, along with the ensemble in their unique workshop process. It's a fascinating subject, and one of those plays that makes me want to know more (fortunately the playbill includes a reading list, gotta love that!). I've long been fascinated by the pre-historical era, and used to be a bit obsessed with the Earth's Children series (aka The Clan of the Cave Bear books), which are part cheesy romance novel and part historically accurate description of a time long past. In the Age of Paint and Bone brings this era to life, but subtly and not in sharp focus, as we don't really know what these pre-historic people were like. The play also looks at the people who first rediscovered the paintings, and what they mean to us today.

In the Age of Paint and Bone takes place in three time periods, the present, the ancient past, and the recent past when the caves were rediscovered. The nimbus stage has been transformed into a cave, with paintings either drawn on the wall or projected. Before the show the audience is invited to explore the area, while actors, in the form of museum tour guides, answer questions. The play begins as a presentation in a museum, and we flash back to the discovery of the cave paintings in Altamira, Spain in 1879. An amateur explorer and his daughter find the paintings, but his belief that the paintings are ancient are disbelieved, until he's finally proven right after his death. We also witness the accidental discovery of the cave paintings in Lascaux, France in 1940 by a couple of teenage boys. But the most fascinating scenes of the play are the flash-way-backs to the people who created this art. The light is dim, music is playing, and we never hear them speak (perhaps they didn't speak in the way we currently do). But we see them painting (including a cool trick of projection that shows the lines of one of the drawings appearing as the artist moves his brush), performing rituals, and communicating with each other.

a painting of a bison in Altamira
The seven members of the ensemble (Timothy Daly, Erin Denman, Jeffery Goodson, Shira Levenson, Derek Meyer, Brian O'Neal, and Alyssa Perau) play multiple characters in all time periods, and change in and out of the varied costumes so quickly it feels like there are more than just seven actors. Brian Hesser's multi-level cave-like set, Mary C. Woll's ancient, period, and modern costumes, and Caitlin Hammel's inventive video design all combine to define these specific worlds.

This piece doesn't answer any questions about why the paintings were created (probably for the same reason anyone creates art, which are many and varied), but rather it plants a seed of interest in the audience, or at least it did in me. What a different life our long ago ancestors lived, but maybe they're not that different from us than we think. Minnesota has its own version of cave paintings in the Jeffers Petroglyphs, which are carvings rather than paintings, that I hope to visit someday. What fun this piece must have been to explore and create. I wish I could take a leave of absence from my day job to re-read the Clan of the Cave Bear books and some of those suggested in the playbill. But if you don't have time for that either, you can spend 70 minutes in nimbus theatre's exploration of the Age of Paint and Bone (playing now through March 1).

a progression of light in the three time periods
(photo by Mathieu Lindquist)

"Duets" by Alive & Kickin' at the Varsity Theater

Alive & Kickin' is billed as "the Twin Cities' premiere rockin' senior ensemble group." I'm not sure there's a whole lot of competition in that category, but the women and men of Alive & Kickin' are most definitely awesome. For the past five years, Michael Matthew Ferrell (Theater Latte Da's resident choreographer) has led this talented group of singers ranging in age from 60s to 90s, with music direction by Jason Hansen. With talent like that behind them, this group is no joke. They sing a variety of classic rock and pop songs, or as this musical theater geek likes to call them, Glee songs. In fact, Michael Matthew Ferrell is a little like the Mr. Schuester of senior citizens. I imagine them gathered in their choir room every week, learning a life lesson through the music of Queen or Katie Perry or Lady Gaga. Except in this case, it's the seniors who are the teachers with their years of life experience. One of Alive & Kickin's goals is to give voice to senior citizens, an important but often ignored segment of our society. This week they performed at the Varsity Theater with some of the Twin Cities' top talent from the world of music and theater, sponsored and emceed by myTalk 107.1, to raise money for a permanent choir room, er... rehearsal space.

Highlights of the show include:
  • The rock songs like "Stayin' Alive" and "I Love Rock and Roll" are fun, but the quieter "Blowin' in the Wind" really showcased the talent of these singers, joined in beautiful harmony. The epic song "Bohemian Rhapsody" was also a treat!
  • In addition to singing, two of the senior shared their inspirational stories that remind us just how much we still have to learn from our elders, including one man's experiences in Vietnam in 1969, and a woman growing up in the segregated South.
  • It's a near impossible task to upstage the hilarious powerhouse Erin Schwab, but 90-year-old Katherine did just that in their duet of "Rehab." Later, Erin took the stage alone in a very funny "dirty song" about a dentist.
  • Damn that Ben Bakken can sing! I almost forget, until I see him again, what a powerful rock voice he has, in this case on the Glee songs "Dream On" and "Somebody to Love." I wonder if he's ever played Roger in RENT? I bet his "One Song Glory" is quite something.
  • A couple of music/theater crossovers in Lisa Pallen (of Belladiva) and Michelle Carter wowed with such songs as "I Wanna Know What Love Is" and "A Change is Gonna Come."
  • Two greats from the local music scene, neither of which I've seen live before but both of whom I've heard of, loaned their considerable music talent to the event. Brian Leighton (aka GB Leighton) is kind of like Minnesota's Springsteen, singing an original song and a cover of "Lean on Me" with the ensemble. Allison Scott has a gorgeously soulful and sultry voice, singing "Waterfalls" and "Piece of My Heart," back by the Alive & Kickin' women.
  • The band, led by Jason Hansen, is pretty awesome too. Sax, electric guitar, tambourine, so much enthusiasm and great support of the singers!
  • A big part of the fun of watching Alive & Kickin' is Michael Matthew Ferrell's unique direction style. Part interpretive dance, part cheerleader, part expressive conductor, and all energy. It's obvious he cares a lot about his seniors and making them look and sound the best they can.
If you're interested in supporting this wonderful ensemble, visit their website for more info. You can also find details about their next performance, Winds of Change at Bloomington Civic Theatre this June.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

"The Woman in Black" at Yellow Tree Theatre

The Woman in Black, a two-person play that's another perfect choice for Yellow Tree Theatre's intimate space, is a story-within-a-story. It takes a minute to figure out what's going on and really get into it, but once you do, it doesn't let you go. The story that's being told is a spooky ghost story, beautifully told through the structure of the play, the two marvelous actors, and the extremely effective lighting and sound effects. It's a deliciously chilling experience that had me squirming in my seat!

The play begins when Nathaniel Fuller, one of the aforementioned marvelous actors, both of whom have been acting on stages around town for decades, enters the crowded dusty stage that looks like a cluttered attic, full of old furniture, crates, and boxes. He sits there in awkward silence for several minutes while the audience waits for the action to start. It was in this moment of silence that J.C. Cutler popped up behind me and spoke the first words of the play, scaring the bejeebers out of me (a feeling that was only just beginning). It soon became clear that Nathaniel is playing a man called Arthur Kipps who has decided to work through a traumatic event in his past by writing it down as a play. J.C. is the actor who helps him tell his story. Eventually we get to the meat of the story, with the actor portraying Kipps as he journeys to a remote part of England to close the estate of a recently deceased client. Kipps himself plays all of the other roles in the story, and as the play-within-a-play goes on he gets more and more comfortable in the telling. The two occasionally break out of character to discuss things, or if Kipps is too upset with the subject matter, hinting at the terror to come. It's a clever way to tell the story, on the one hand the characters are sort of outside of it, but on the other hand they're totally immersed in it.

Nathaniel Fuller (photo by Keri Pickett)
And the story they're telling is a spooky one. I won't go into details because the unfolding of it all is too much fun. But suffice it to say it involves an unwed mother, a remote location, a horrible accident, thick mist, and a not very nice ghost. All of it is told in such vivid detail that you can almost see the deserted old house on the island. The lighting and sound design are crucial to the telling of the story. The play goes from full lights to complete blackness, and everything in between, with lights occasionally illuminating areas behind curtains onstage, including a cemetery and a child's bedroom, or flashing to reveal the woman in black herself appearing as if out of nowhere. Sounds seem to come from all directions, whether it's the sound of a horse trotting, or the house creaking, or a woman screaming. Suddenly you're on high alert, starting at every sound in the theater, even if it's just someone rustling in the seat next to you. Add to this two actors who can so easily slip into the skin (and specific accent) of these characters and take you along on their journey, and a director (Jon Cranney) who knows how to put all the pieces together, and you have a thoroughly chilling effect (lighting design by Sue Ellen Berger, sound design by Montana Johnson, and set design by Robin McIntyre).

J.C. Cutler (photo by Keri Pickett)
The Woman in Black is a fine example of the power of storytelling to transport you to another place and time. And scare the crap out of you. I haven't been this scared at the theater since this other spooky ghost story a few years ago. It's kind of fun to be terrified in that good old-fashioned ghost story kind of way, as opposed to the real and scary things in the world today. Head to Yellow Tree Theatre in Osseo for some spooky storytelling at it's finest (playing now through March 8).

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

"Pippin" at the Orpheum Theatre

The revival of the 1972 Stephen Schwartz/Bob Fosse musical Pippin ran on Broadway for almost two years, closing just a month ago, and won four Tonys and had audiences and critics raving. I saw it last spring and fell in love with the score and the spectacular circus energy of the revival. The circus has since hit the road and I was thrilled to have the chance to see it again, as it stops in Minneapolis for one short week. There's nothing small or subtle about Pippin, it's truly spectacular in the best possible way. Many different artforms are combined - circus, Fosse-style dance, a great score, even a sing-along! And the result is a fantastically creative and entertainingly unique evening of entertainment.

Pippin is very very loosely based on the historical figures Charlemagne, a King in the Middle Ages, and his first-born son Pepin, a "hunchback" who was passed over for his father's thrown. But in this version, Pippin is a lost young man who's dissatisfied with life and searching for something to make his life meaningful. He tries war, the pleasures of the flesh, and an ordinary life, flitting from one thing to the other, but still feeling empty and unfulfilled. In the original production, the story was told through a performance troupe, but in this version it's a circus, complete with contortionists, trapeze, balancing acts, and acrobatics. It's hugely fun and light-hearted, like a musical/comedy/circus version of Game of Thrones with a touch of Monty Python's Spamalot, where dead men talk and come back to life, and battles are a beautiful dance. But the ending takes a dark turn, and we find out that this circus isn't all fun and games; Pippin was being manipulated into playing a part that was already laid out for him. He rejects this role along with the bright lights and magic of the circus life and instead turns to a simpler life defined by him. But there's always someone else waiting to fill the role, and the circus continues without Pippin. I'm not certain if this is an allegory for the allure of show business, or perhaps more generally, the roles that are laid out for us by society that we're expected to play, but that sometimes need to be rejected to find something that's more individually fulfilling.

Sorry for getting serious for a moment there, for the most part Pippin is just a whole lot of fun. The large ensemble cast is a mixture of singers, actors, dancers, gymnasts, and circus professionals, most of whom are some combination thereof. The stage looks like the inside of the Big Top, with poles and ladders that the performers constantly climb on and jump off of in thrilling feats of daring. Magic tricks, fires, trapeze, hoop-jumping, knife-throwing, amazing one-handed handstands, and so much more delight the audience. Revival choreographer Chet Walker has choreographed some brilliantly cool Fosse numbers to the fun and poppy '70s score.

The role of the Leading Player, a sort of ringmaster, is the only role that has earned a Tony for a man (Ben Vereen in the original) and a woman (Patina Miller in the revival). Those are some big shoes, or rather, knee high black boots, to step into, and Sasha Allen does so brilliantly. She owns the stage, as this character must as she directs the plot and manipulates the players to do her bidding. She also has a big gorgeous voice and looks cool doing the Fosse dances. As the title character, Sam Lips is charmingly awkward, sweetly confused, and extremely likable. A couple of Broadway vets shine in supporting roles, including the original Pippin, John Rubenstein, who 40 years later is playing the role of Pippin's father. He obviously has such a level of comfort with the show, and has so much fun with the role. Priscilla Lopez was also seen on Broadway 40 years ago, in the original cast of a little show called A Chorus Line. In what has got to be a dream role for a woman of a certain age, she gets to hang upside down on a trapeze and lead the audience in a sing-along as Pippin's grandmother, and she looks and sounds fabulous while doing so. Also great are Sabrina Harper as Pippin's step-mother, a not so typical housewife (unless you consider Cersei Lannister and Norma Bates typical housewives), and Callan Bergmann as Pippin's spoiled and favored half-brother. Last but not least, the cast features a Minnesota native in Kristine Reese, who is delightfully loopy as the woman who eventually steals Pippin's heart.

The first national tour of the Tony Award-winning Broadway revival of Pippin plays at Minneapolis' Orpheum Theatre through this weekend only, so get your tickets now if you don't want this circus to pass you by.

Monday, February 16, 2015

"A Midsummer Night's Dream" at the Guthrie Theatre

Yesterday I sat on the famous thrust stage of the Guthrie Theater and watched a bunch of soldiers, lovers, and fairies dance, sing, fly, converse, love, hate, and generally cavort around in a bare circular space. Or was it all a dream? Such is the Guthrie's latest production of perhaps Shakespeare's best loved romantic comedy, A Midsummer Night's Dream, that after three hours of spellbinding theater, you're not quite sure if what you saw just happened, or perhaps, as Puck suggests in his epilogue, it was all just a dream. Artistic Director Joe Dowling has returned to an old favorite in his final season at the Guthrie, assembling a gorgeous and talented cast of local favorites with a few national talents thrown in. It's no wonder that he returned to this show (a version of which was last seen in 2008); this Midsummer is a dream of a production, with plenty of spectacle in the form of dancing, flying, singing fairies, humor in the form of typical Shakesperean hijinks, and heart in this sweet romance that ends with a neat happily ever after. Everything about it is truly a delight.

The plot of Midsummer is familiar to most theater-goers, being a frequently produced play. Lysander loves Hermia and she him, but her father Theseus, duke of Athens, has betrothed her to Demetrius, who also loves her although she does not return his love. Lysander and Hermia vow to run away together, and Helena, whose love for Demetrius has recently been rejected, tells him so that he will follow, and she in turn follows him. As we know, strange things can happen when you go into the woods, especially in this case as the young lovers encounter a group of mischievous fairies, who delight in nothing more than creating havoc among humans (if you've ever found an object in a different location than you left it, that might be fairies at work). Through a series of mix-ups, both Demetrius and Lysander are bewitched into believing they love Helena, who, like a nerdy teenager tired of being the butt of jokes, does not believe them. Hermia is confused, devastated, and then furious at this turn of events, and the mayhem continues until the fairies decide to set things right again. Another subplot follows a troupe of actors rehearsing for a play, suffering from the most horrible and hilarious actorly cliches, which allows for some delightful poking fun at oneself. Oh, and one of them is turned into an ass and is wooed by the queen of the fairies. It's a whole lot of silliness that allows for some wonderful encounters, fights, conversations, and dances among the large cast of characters.

Puck and the flying fairies (photo by Dan Norman)
And what a cast it is. It's so lovely to see so many familiar and beloved faces on one stage, while discovering a few new favorites who are thrown into the mix to keep things fresh. First among the many delights is the fairy King's attendant who is responsible for causing much of the mayhem. Tyler Michaels brings his unique physical consciousness to the role of Puck, creating a character that's not quite human, almost reptilian, with a bit of Gollum thrown in. Tyler seems unbound by the laws of gravity that inhibit us mere mortals, as he bounds around the stage with deep knee bends, head cocked to one side as he gleefully watches the mischief he has created, thoroughly enjoying "what fools these mortals be." He's like a mischievous loyal pet of Oberon's, who is given a long leash but sometimes needs to be pulled back when he goes too far, not for malicious reasons, but just to see what will happen. (And there's even an inside joke for those of us who saw and loved Tyler in My Fair Lady last summer.)

the Actors (Jay Albright, Peter Thomson, Andrew Weems,
Kris L. Nelson, Angela Timberman, and Michael Fell,
photo by Dan Norman)
As the first fairy, Nike Kadri is making her Guthrie debut after making an impression on stages around town. She looks and sounds fantastic, singing a few songs and leading the fairies in their dance (although not a musical, there are a handful of original songs by Keith Thomas, with some brilliant choreography by co-director David Bolger). Christina Acosta Robinson (who returns to the Guthrie after participating in the Guthrie Experience a few years ago) is absolutely regal as both Titania and Hippolyta, fairy and human royalty, and Nicholas Carrière (a Guthrie newcomer) effortlessly transitions from the stern and slightly square Duke Theseus to the powerful and cool Oberon.

the Lovers (Emily Kitchens, Casey Hoekstra, Zach Keenan,
and Eleonore Dendy, photo by Dan Norman)
The troupe of actors is comprised of a bunch of local comic geniuses (including the always hilarious Jay Albright and Angela Timberman), with East Coast actor Andrew Weems (also seen at the Guthrie as Uncle Vanya) as the buffoonish and blustering Bottom, delivering the most ridiculously drawn-out comic death scene I've ever seen. In fact, the entire play-within-a-play is hysterical as performed by the "Community Theater of Athens." The four lovers could not be more charming (or look better in underwear) than local actors Eleonore Dendy, Casey Hoekstra, and Zach Keenan, along with Twin Cities newcomer Emily Kitchens as the eager and slightly awkward Helena.

For this production, the Guthrie has added a half dozen rows of bleacher seating around the back of the thrust stage, creating an in-the-round effect, almost like you're at the circus. If you're lucky enough to snag one of these seats (available online or call the box office for details), you're led down a stairway and into a secret hallway through the bowels* of the Guthrie, and suddenly you arrive on the stage. There are plenty of ushers and signs along the way so that you don't "accidentally" wander off into a restricted area. It's a great place from which to watch the show, although some of the effects of the video projections at the back of the stage are lost because you have to tear your eyes away from the stage (a difficult task) to look behind you at the screen. One of the reasons it's so difficult to turn away from the stage is Fabio Toblini's gorgeously rich costumes, from Hippolyta's elegant gowns, to the lovers' modern clothing, to the actors' silly get-ups, to the fairies' barely there tribal pieces.

It may be dreary bitter midwinter here in Minnesota, but it feels like warm and colorful midsummer on the Guthrie's thrust stage. The magical, mystical, mischievous dream continues through the end of March. It's not a short play (clocking in at about three hours including intermission), but it's chock full of delights for the eyes, ears, mind, and heart.

*If you want to see more of the bowels of the Guthrie, take a backstage tour, offered most weekends.

This article also appears on Broadway World Minneapolis.

"Stars of David" by Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company at the Highland Park Center Theater

In 2007, journalist Abigail Pogrebin interviewed dozens of famous Jewish-Americans about their experiences being Jewish in this country, and compiled them into a book called Stars of David. People like Senator Al Franken, actresses Lauren Bacall and Sarah Jessica Parker, actors Jason Alexander and Dustin Hoffman, director Stephen Spielberg, and playwright Wendy Wassserstein. A book of interviews does not exactly scream "musical theater," yet it has been turned into just that, with much success, and Minnesota Jewish Theater Company has brought it to Minnesota. It's not so much a musical as it is a musical review, featuring four actors telling these personal stories in the form of a dozen or so new original songs by various successful musical theater composers. The result is an entertaining, educational, funny, and poignant 90 minutes of musical storytelling.

Bryan Porter, Daisy Macklin Skarning, Laura B. Adams,
and David Carey (photo by Sarah Whiting)
Director Michael Kissin has assembled a great cast and arranged the show nicely in the circular stage space designed by Michael Hoover. Names of the book's subjects are projected onto the set, along with a brief photo as each one is introduced. The onstage four-piece band directed by Kevin Dutcher sounds terrific on these varied songs. Cast members Laura B. Adams, David Carey, Bryan Porter, and Daisy Macklin Skarning, dressed in black to more easily slip into the skins of these famous people, are all very engaging with beautiful voices. Singing solo, with or without backup, or in group numbers, these four singer/actors tell stories that are funny, tragic, moving, or all three.

Highlights include:
  • Bryan sings a cute and then sad story about how Leonard Nimoy's childhood magician dreams are crushed by bigotry.
  • As my favorite TV writer Aaron Sorkin, David sings a funny song about "Smart People."
  • Laura has the unenviable job of being both Fran Drescher and Joan Rivers, two of the most recognizable voices in show business, and she pulls them both off. Joan's song is a sweet one in which she conveys the feeling of being able to just be herself on the "High Holy Days," and Fran's song is as funny and determined as she is, "What Do They Know?"
  • Leave it to Next to Normal composer Tom Kitt to write a melody that made me cry, along with lyrics by book writer Abigail Pogrebin. "As If I Weren't There" tells the story of Ruth Bader Ginsburg being unable to grieve her mother in the traditional way she wanted, beautifully sung by Daisy.
  • Another familiar musical theater composer, Duncan Sheik, wrote a song that's very reminiscent of his most famous work, Spring Awakening. "The Darkening Blue" features those same hauntingly gorgeous harmonies, as it relates Kenneth Cole's struggle with how to pass on his heritage to his children, who are being raised as Christians.
  • In addition to telling his own story, Michael Feinstein wrote the music and lyrics for playwright Tony Kushner's "Horrible Seders," a fast, funny, and poignant song well sung by Bryan.
  • Laura and Daisy sing Gloria Steinem's song, which is of course powerful and meaningful and woman-affirming. "The Women Who Had No Names" celebrates all of the women who came before.
  • Gwyneth Paltrow is Jewish? "Who Knew?"
  • David leads the cast in the moving closing song "L'Dor V'Dor," which means "from generation to generation." 
In this country that prides itself as a "melting plot," all cultures get lost through the generations. This book and musical are a way for people of Jewish heritage to hold on to some of that culture that they grew up with and share it with others of their and future generations. But it's about more than being Jewish, it's about how to hold on to and celebrate who you are and who your ancestors were in a world that's trying to make us all the same.

Stars of David plays Saturdays and Sundays only through March 8 at the Highland Park Center Theater on Ford Parkway.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

"The Unsinkable Molly Brown" by Ten Thousand Things at Open Book

No one does musicals like Ten Thousand Things does musicals. And even though it defies everything we know about musical theater, after seeing a TTT musical I think that maybe that's the way musicals should always be done. The music, like everything else about the show, is stripped down to the very basics, extraneous layers removed to reveal the very heart of the matter. A one-man orchestra provides the minimal accompaniment, and the small cast imperceptibly transitions from speaking to singing, so that you can't even tell where songs end and begin, it's just all one seamless story. And above all else, Artistic Director Michelle Hensley and all of the artists at Ten Thousand Things are storytellers. Whether it's Shakespeare or a classic American musical, they share the story in a pure and unadorned way so that all of their audiences, whether prisoners or seasoned theater-goers, can hear it and see themselves in it. One such masterpiece is their latest musical venture, The Unsinkable Molly Brown, a reprise of their very first musical venture 15 years ago. It's lovely, spirited, sweet, funny, moving, heart-warming, and real.

I had never seen the 1960 musical The Unsinkable Molly Brown (with music and lyrics by Meredith Wilson, who also wrote The Music Man, which happens to be TTT's last musical), nor heard any of the music. The only thing I knew about Molly Brown is that she was on the Titanic (remember Kathy Bates in the movie?). But now she's my new hero. Or at least, this fictionalized version of her as played by the indomitable Maggie Chestovich. I'm not sure how much of it is Molly and how much of it is Maggie, but this character has so much spirit, determination, and hope wrapped up in a tiny package. She wants a better life for her and her pa, and she goes out and gets it. From humble beginnings in Missouri, she decides to move to the big city of Denver, stopping at the mining town of Leadville to earn some money as a waitress and singer. There she meets Johnny Brown (Tyson Forbes, tall and lanky with plenty of aw-shucks charm), who eventually woos her with the promise of riches as well as happiness. He delivers on both, but eventually it becomes obvious that they want different things in life. Johnny wants a simple life in Leadville with his friends, while Molly longs for riches and high society. It drives them apart, but Molly is a woman who doesn't stay down for long and always gets what she wants. And after she survives the great disaster, she decides she wants Johnny.

Johnny and Molly Brown (Tyson Forbes and
Maggie Chestovich, photo by Paula Keller)
Maggie and Tyson make a most charming pair in one of the sweetest love stories I've seen in a while (the song "I'll Never Say No" is irresistible). But don't worry, it's not cloyingly sweet, these are two strong people who know what they want and don't always agree, but also love each other. The wonderful leads are backed by a fantastic ensemble who each play multiple characters and are all just a delight in each one. Highlights include H. Adam Harris as the genial bar owner, George Keller as Denver and European royalty, Eric Sharp as Molly's loving father, Austene Van as the friendly princess, Max Wojtanowicz as the nasal butler and charming prince, and the always entertaining Kimberly Richardson as a particularly snooty Denver socialite, who might just be hiding a bit more depth underneath it all. And as always in a TTT production, another character is the sound, even more so in a musical. The one and only Peter Vitale plays a banjo, a toy piano, and everything in between, and manages to create a full and complete soundscape for this world (with occasional support by Max on trombone). Like the music, the choreography (by Kimberly) is also simple and organic to the story, but ever so charming, including a delicious slow-mo fight scene, an intense wrestling scene, and a bit of party dancing.

Perhaps I should mention, for those of you unfamiliar with Ten Thousand Things (seriously, where have you been?), that in addition to paid performances at Open Book and other locations, they routinely tour their shows to prisons, homeless shelters, and community centers in the area. This requires them to travel light, literally and figuratively. Performances are in a small fully lit room with just a few rows of chairs creating a square on the floor where the magic happens. Actors look you in the eye from just a few feet away, or brush past your knees with swaying skirts, creating an intimacy and connection between audience and cast unlike any other. Set pieces are minimal and easily transportable, leading to some wonderfully creative choices. In this case, that means tiny furniture mounted on wavy poles, which the actors adorably lay a finger on to represent sitting. Costumes must also be minimal and easily transitioned between, and for this show range from drab rural clothing, to fashionably black, to European gold, and of course, Molly's red silk dress. (Sets by Stephen Mohring and costumes by Sonya Berlovitz.)

I'm quite certain that The Unsinkable Molly Brown is ruined for me as a musical now. If I ever see the typical full production of it, I might not even recognize it. But if I did, I'm sure it would pale in comparison to this sparsely lovely version that, like all TTT shows, strips away the unnecessary and serves us up a simple, unadorned, beautifully true story. See it for yourself - performances continue through March 8.

This article also appears on Broadway World Minneapolis.

Friday, February 13, 2015

"Into the Woods" at Lyric Arts Main Street Stage in Anoka

The more I see the Stephen Sondheim/James Lapine fairy tale mash-up musical Into the Woods, the more I like it. I'd seen it on stage twice (BCT and Mu) before the big star-studded movie came out a few months ago, which I also enjoyed, but seeing it on stage again is even better. Like most pieces written for the stage, it works better as a stage experience. With repeated viewings, I'm able to appreciate even more Sondheim's clever lyrics and complicated melodies and Lapine's funny and poignant book, which can be best summed up by the statement "be careful what you wish for, you just might get it." A new production* opens tonight at Lyric Arts, a community theater in Anoka that has continued to improve over the last few years. This show continues on that trajectory and is perhaps the best thing I've seen at Lyric Arts, except of course for the fantastic production of my favorite musical RENT last summer. The cast is all-around excellent with not a weak link among them, the production design includes inventive puppetry, and Sondheim's gorgeous and intricate score sounds so beautiful it sent me out of the theater singing and inspired me to finally download the cast recording (OBC, of course). If you have not yet made the drive out to Anoka to visit Lyric Arts, this might be a good time to start.

Into the Woods is a mash-up of familiar fairy tales, but with a twist. We have Cinderella with her handsome prince and missing shoe, Jack and his beanstalk that leads to a kingdom of giants, Rapunzel with her unusually long and strong hair, and a little girl in a red cape going to visit her Granny. Tying these stories together is a Baker and his Wife, who long to have children but were cursed by their neighbor, who happens to be a witch. The witch promises to reverse the spell if the couple completes a series of tasks, which will allow her to become the beautiful young witch she once was. Everyone heads into the woods to accomplish their task, where their stories intersect. At the end of the first act, everyone seems to have accomplished their "happily ever after." But the second act shows us what happens next. Happiness is complicated, actions have consequences, and things are not always what they seem. It's a little like growing up; as children we're told these fairy tales, but when we grow up we learn that life is not like fairy tales, it's complicated and messy, and "sometimes people leave you halfway through the wood." But the good news is, "no one is alone," not even witches and giants.

It's hard to pick out standouts in this large ensemble cast that is excellent across the board, under the direction of Matt McNabb, who also directed the aforementioned RENT, as well as the outrageous Young Frankenstein. Alyssa Seifert is a lovely Cinderella, Nykeigh Larson is at her most adorable as Little Red Ridinghood, Molly Jo Hall is the angelic voice in the tower as Rapunzel, Kyler Chase and Daniel Vinitsky are hilariously pompous and shallow as the dueting princes in "Agony," Joseph Pyfferoen and Kelly Matthews bring much humanity to their roles of the Baker and his Wife, Sam Sanderson is a sweet and open-faced Jack, Lara Trujillo's witch is creepy and deliciously over-the-top, and last but not least, 13-year-old Carter Skull is a great narrator, leading us through this story, always onstage, observing or taking part in the action.

In addition to the great cast, the production elements are all well done. The stage is dominated by a large tree, with wooden stairs and platforms leading from the floor of the stage to the top of the tree, all well-utilized by the cast (set design by Ben Olsen). The animals (and some of the humans) are represented by charming puppets reminiscent of Avenue Q. Most of the puppets don't have legs, and the puppeteers are visible and as much a part of the performance as the puppets. The wolf is particularly fun, with two puppeteers manipulating the puppet and performing an intricate waltz (Kyler Chase and Gabriel Gomez, who also designed the puppets and plays Milky White). Finally, Jeff Geisler's sound design creates some ominously loud giant steps, as well as cool and mysterious echoing effects.

Lyric Arts is a community theater, but their productions are often at professional levels. Now that Bloomington Civic Theatre has transitioned from a community to a professional theater (which seems to be a bit of a blurry line in most cases), Lyric Arts is stepping up to be the top community theater in the region, one that serves as a stepping stone for new young talent. I really can't ask more of a production of one of Sondheim's best musicals than a talented, enthusiastic, and dedicated cast, music that sounds beautiful (music director Louis Berg-Arnold leads a nine-person off-stage orchestra), and creative sets, puppets, sound, costumes, and choreography.

Into the Woods is a musical that tickles your funny bone, tugs at your heartstrings, and challenges your brain, all set to beautiful music. If you've only seen the movie, you owe it to yourself (and the show) to see it on stage, where it was meant to be seen. Into the Woods opens tonight and continues Thursdays through Sundays through March 8 at Lyric Arts on Main Street in Anoka (if you've never been to this theater before, check out my venues page, with info and tips on thirty venues around town).

*Lyric Arts' Into the Woods is the first of two local productions this year. Theater Latte Da will be presenting their version of the show, set in a German beer garden, at the Ritz Theater, opening in March.

Monday, February 9, 2015

"God Girl" at the History Theatre

We all know that during the Women's Rights Movement of the '60s and '70s, women fought for equality on all fronts. But one such front that may be a bit lesser known is the ministry. One would think that institutions that are supposedly dedicated to faith and community might be more accepting of the idea of equality. As it turns out, not so much. In fact, religious institutions seem to be some of the last remaining bastions of male power. Minnesotan Kristine Holmgren was among the first wave of women to attend seminary in the '70s, and became one of Minnesota's first Presbyterian pastors. But it was not an easy road; she faced much discrimination and sexual harassment on her path. Lucky for us, she's also a playwright, and has turned her experiences into the new play God Girl, premiering at St. Paul's History Theatre. Her story makes for a compelling, engaging, inspiring, and relatable (judging by the extremely responsive audience) stage play.

The play begins with an introduction from Kristine's mother (a delightful Peggy O'Connell), who serves as a narrator and sounding board for Kristine (an extremely likeable Summer Hagen, portraying a character who's complex and real) throughout the play. She tells us that Kristine was always curious and loved the church, and never wanted anything other than to work in the ministry. The play mostly takes place during Kristine's first semester at an unnamed Ivy league seminary. She and her fellow female students, including Southern belle Cathy (Hannah Benedict) and sensible Unitarian Debi (Meagan Kedrowski) face daily harassment from their male classmates and belittlement from their professors. Kristine is excited to start her field internship with the well-known pastor McGovern (Sean Dooley, whose charm soon turns to creepy). At first he seems quite supportive and helpful, until it eventually becomes obvious that the attention is inappropriate from a married mentor and pastor. But Kristine and her friends "hang on for the blessing;" she endures what she shouldn't have to endure, completes her education, and begins the career she always dreamed of, paving the way for the women behind her.

the God Girls (Meagen Kedrowski,
Hannah Benedict, and Summer
Hagen, photo by Scott Pakudaitis)
Even though it takes place in the '70s, this play is not dated. It's so important to remember what this first generation of feminists went through. I attended college and received a degree in math (also a male-dominated field) a mere 20 years after this play takes place, but I faced none of the discrimination and harassment that Kristine and her classmates did. In fact the idea of women being told not to ask questions in class, or receiving multiple proposals from their male classmates, or being propositioned by their professors, is almost unthinkable today. Not to say that it doesn't happen, perhaps in more subtle ways, or that we don't still have work to do, but the world really has changed for women over the past 40 years. And it's thanks to the brave and determined women like Kristine.

But the play isn't all serious, there are some light-hearted moments and the always popular Minnesota and Unitarian jokes (a la Garrison Keillor). And the '70s setting means fun costumes - bell bottoms and flowered dresses mixed with conservative minister attire (by Kelsey Glasener), and a groovy soundtrack, complete with dancing scene changes, contrasting with Rick Polenek's stately church-like set.

I was lucky enough to attend the show on a day when there was a post-show discussion with the playwright and a few experts. She's so smart, thoughtful, and articulate that it gives me hope for the world, that women like Kristine Holmgren continue to lead the way towards a more egalitarian future. Bring your daughters (and sons) to the History Theatre to see God Girl, the all too true story of a real pioneer (as her mother rightly called her).

Pastor Kristine (Summer Hagen, photo by Scott Pakudaitis)

Sunday, February 8, 2015

"Oliver!" by Theater Latte Da and Hennepin Theatre Trust at the Pantages Theatre

Theater Latte Da and Hennepin Theatre Trust have formed a beautiful partnership called "Broadway Re-Imagined," in which they combine the resources of the Trust with the creativity and innovation of Latte Da to produce a Broadway-sized musical with all local talent and that special Latte Da twist. After the powerful rock musical Aida and the brilliant Ivey Award-winning Cabaret, they return this year with Oliver!, the 1960 musical based on Charles Dickens' novel Oliver Twist. But don't let all those adorable moppets dancing around the stage and singing upbeat tunes fool you. Oliver! is not a light and fluffy happy musical, well, not solely anyway. It's also a dark and somber look at such serious issues as child abuse and neglect, the desperation of poverty, and violence. But fortunately, after all the death and darkness, the curtain call ends with a reprise of a happy number, so we can all leave the theater with that happy musical feeling. But perhaps we also leave with a deeper thought about the relevance and seriousness of what we just saw, wrapped up in a gorgeous musical theater package, to ponder further at a later date.

As you probably know from the book or one its many adaptations, Oliver is an orphan boy in 19th Century London. He's sold from the workhouse where he was left as a baby to a coffin maker, from whom he runs away. He joins a merry band of pickpockets, led by a man called Fagin who teaches his boys how to steal and makes sure they don't go hungry. Oliver is arrested on his first day on the job, and offered a better life. But Fagin and his partner in crime Bill Sykes worry that he'll snitch, so Bill kidnaps him and brings him back, with the reluctant help of his girlfriend Nancy. In a bit of an Annie situation, Oliver's true family discovers him with the help of a locket and attempts to get him back, but not without cost to Fagin's gang.

Oliver! has a wonderful score (by Lionel Bart) filled with many great tunes, several of which were familiar to me even though I'd never seen the show before: "Food, Glorious Food," "I'd Do Anything," and "As Long as He Needs Me" (a song that's much too beautiful for the ugly situation - a woman singing about standing by her abusive boyfriend). Other songs range also the poignant "Where is Love" to the peppy "Consider Yourself." And it goes without saying that the music in a Latte Da production sounds fantastic, in the hands of this excellent ensemble cast (which includes the Minnesota Boychoir as the workhouse orphans) and the six-piece orchestra in a traditional pit, led by Latte Da's resident Music Director Denise Prosek.

Fagin and his band of merry pickpockets
(photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp)
It also goes without saying in a Latte Da production that it's perfectly cast. Director Peter Rothstein has once again chosen the right actors for each part, and guided them all into wonderful, specific, imaginative performances. Perhaps most importantly, he's found a sweet and pure Oliver Twist in sixth grader Nate Turcotte, with a voice to match. There were some technical issues with his mic on opening night and he handled it like a pro. All of the kids in the show, who range from tiny to teens, are so stinkin' cute! They perform Michael Matthew Ferrell's lively choreography with such energy and spirit it makes me tired. Ah, youth! A standout among them is Alec Fisher (who already has a pretty lengthy bio in Twin Cities theater at the ripe old age of 14) as the charming rapscallion known as The Artful Dodger.

The adults in this show aren't half bad either. James Ramlet's deep and commanding voice makes Mr. Bumble a figure to be reckoned with, and plays nicely off of Lolly Foy's Widow Corney. As Nancy, Lauren Davis has a beautifully powerful voice and turns "As Long as He Needs Me" into a desperate cry for love. In a role that's the complete opposite of the bumbling dad he played in A Christmas Story at the Ordway just a few months ago, Dieter Bierbrauer is downright menacing as the cruel and violent Bill Sykes. There are really too many delightful performances in the ensemble by favorites and newcomers alike to mention them all, but suffice it to say there's something wonderful going on wherever you look on the crowded stage.

Nate Turcotte as Oliver with Bradley Greenwald as Fagin
(photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp)
I've saved the best for last - the divine Bradley Greenwald. I don't have enough words to describe how amazing he is, in everything he does and in this role specifically. His Fagen has a mischievous spirit but also a depth and humanity; despite the fact that he's using these boys, he seems to have real affection for them. Bradley turns "Reviewing the Situation," in which Fagen ponders leaving the life of crime, into a real ethical dilemma. "Pick a Pocket or Two" is just delightful and fun, but with a few tender moments as he puts Oliver to bed. From the moment Bradley appears on stage (which is really when the show takes off) to when he slowly exits to a new life at the end of the show, he's just an absolute delight in every moment. And he performs some pretty astounding magic tricks too!

The "Broadway-sized" part of the show comes into play with the sets (by Rick Polenek) and costumes (by Christine A. Richardson), which are a feast for the eyes. Both have a steampunk flair, but not in an obnoxious way that takes away from the story or the setting in 19th Century London. Gears and clockwork appear on the massive set pieces that include various stairways and ladders connecting the two levels, and a bridge that lowers from the ceiling. Fagin's boys are dressed in colorful rags, and the women are adorned in bustles, flounces, and outrageous hairstyles.

Theater Latte Da and Hennepin Theatre Trust's "Broadway Re-Imagined" series is a great way to experience what we think of as "Broadway" theater, right here on Minneapolis' Hennepin Avenue featuring our amazing local talent. I love New York City and Broadway, but in my unbiased opinion, they've got nothing on the Twin Cities in terms of the quality, breadth, and depth of theater. Minnesota can do Broadway too! Oliver! continues Thursday through Sunday at the Pantages Theatre through March 1 (if you're thinking of bringing little ones, just make sure they're old enough to handle a couple of brutal onstage deaths - spoiler alert!).

This article also appears on Broadway World Minneapolis.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

"The Coward" by Walking Shadow Theatre Company at Red Eye Theater

Nick Jones' 2010 play The Coward is a spoof of that gentlemanly period in England when it was appropriate, nay necessary, to challenge a man to a duel if he in any way besmirched your honor. It's a play with a lot of men fighting, and one woman to fawn over them as they fight. Walking Shadow Theatre Company has turned this idea on its head, casting women in all the male roles and a man in the one female role. It's an interesting twist that makes these proud and silly men look even more silly, maybe because we all know women are too smart to get involved in such petty and deadly disputes. It all amounts to a lot of bloody good fun.

The young gentleman Lucidus is pressured by his father to participate in duels to defend the family honor (which, by the way, got his two older brothers killed). But Lucidus would much rather classify butterflies by their beauty or go on a pie-tasting picnic with his friends, dressed in top hats and tails. He eventually agrees to a duel, but is afraid to fight it. He goes to the town pub to hire a man to fight for him, and finds Henry, who is happy to fight as long as he can do it by his rules. I don't want to spoil the outcome of the duel, but when there's a "blood designer" and two "blood assistants" listed in the credits, it's safe to say there will be blood. And lots of it. Henry gets a taste for dueling as Lucidus, and begins challenging people all over town, much to Lucidus' dismay. The situation gets even worse when Lucidus' father discovers the ruse and decides he likes Henry better, and adopts him as his son while disowning Lucidus. Lucidus agrees to one final momentous battle to settle the matter once and for all.

Linda Sue Anderson, Briana Patnode, Suzie Juul, and
Shelby Rose Richardson (photo by Dan Norman)
This wonderful cast of women (and one man) gleefully revels in the concept and the bloodletting, under the direction of Walking Shadow's co-Artistic Director Amy Rummenie. The always excellent Briana Patnode makes Lucidus likeable despite his cowardice. Jean Wolff is strong and pompous as his stern father, and Charlotte Calvert is a delight as the duel-loving Henry. Also having great fun are Suzie Juul and Shelby Rose Richardson as Lucidus' pals, and Chase Burns, the lone man in the cast, as Lucidus' haughty love interest. Last but not least, Linda Sue Anderson is a hoot as an addled old man and Lucidus' loyal butler.

This very pretty and proper set, in shades of red and pink surrounded by a in gilt frame (designed by Eli Schlatter), becomes the backdrop for some beautifully disgusting blood flow. Let's hope they have a dry cleaner on standby for Sara Wilcox's gorgeously rich costumes.

The Coward is a silly, fun, lighthearted romp through proper English duels, highlighting just how ridiculous the concept is, with a terrific cast that appears to be having as much fun as the audience. Playing through February 28 in the Red Eye Theater.

"By the Way, Meet Vera Stark" at Penumbra Theatre

In By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, now playing at Penumbra Theatre as part of their "Womansong" season, the title character is a black actress in 1930s Hollywood who gets her big break playing a loyal slave in an antebellum Southern melodrama (think Mammy in Gone with the Wind, for which Hattie McDaniel became the first African American to be nominated for and win an Academy Award). She imbues the stereotypical role with as much humanity and depth as possible, and so begins a long and successful career, until she mysteriously disappears from the spotlight. Much like Hattie, who famously said she'd rather play a maid than be one, Vera is a controversial figure because on the one hand her characters perpetuate the stereotypes seen in movies, but on the other hand she makes her characters as real as possible and has built a successful career for herself and opened doors for black actors in Hollywood. The play examines these issues in a funny, entertaining, innovative way, jumping across time and using video of Vera's first movie.

The first act of the play takes place in 1933, where we meet Hollywood starlet Gloria Mitchell and her former Vaudeville partner Vera, who works as her maid while trying to break into pictures (doesn't everyone who lives in Hollywood want to be in pictures?). Gloria is up for a role in The Belle of New Orleans, and Vera is desperate to be cast in it as well. Gloria is too preoccupied with her own life to help her friend, so Vera takes matters into her own hands when the studio head and director come to Gloria's apartment, playing into their stereotypes and getting cast. The second act jumps forward in time 70 years to a seminar about the legacy of Vera Stark in which the panel discusses her life and work while watching clips from the movie (pre-recorded video) and a 1973 talk show appearance (live reenactment) that reunites Gloria and Vera.

Norah Long as Gloria as Marie and Crystal Fox as Vera
as Tilly, in the classic "tightening the corset" scene in
The Belle of New Orleans (photo by Allen Weeks)
The play verges on camp at times as it spoofs old Hollywood and TV talk shows, which is great fun, but still manages to make the characters, especially Vera and her friend Lottie, real and grounded people. This cast is divine, they all play their role(s) to the hilt under the direction of Lou Bellamy. Crystal Fox's Vera is smart and determined, someone it's easy to root for as she goes after her dreams, and then becomes a larger than life version of herself after 40 years in movies. Norah Long is perfection as she plays several different sides of Gloria - the image of a Hollywood starlet that the studio wants her to be, the real person who swears and drinks, the selfish and thoughtless friend, and Gloria's dying Southern belle character in the movie. Greta Oglesby steals every scene she's in as Vera's friend Lottie, especially when she sings her mournful slave song to win a part. Jamila Anderson is fun as Anna Mae, who's trying to pass as Brazilian to win a man and a part, and the modern day tough-talking poet on the panel. This play really is about these four women, but the men are great too - Kevin D. West as Leroy, who befriends Vera and helps her in her quest, Peter Moore as the studio head and the Donahue-like talk show host, and Paul De Cordova as the eccentric director and a trippy '70s British rocker.

The production elements on this play are as divine as the cast. Mathew LeFebvre's gorgeous costumes span the range from glamorous '30s Hollywood, to real working women in that era, to the fabulously colorful '70s, and modern day specific types. C. Lance Brockman's versatile set easily transforms from Gloria's luscious apartment to Vera's working class apartment to a studio back lot with just a change of furniture and the flipping of panels in the walls. A really fun feature of this play is that we actually get to see the movie that's talked about so much. A quite lengthy clip of The Belle of New Orleans is played on a big screen in which the four women play roles in this deliciously melodramatic movie.

By the Way, Meet Vera Stark is a really fun, entertaining, funny, beautiful to look at play on the surface, but on a deeper level says some important, thought-provoking, and relevant things about black actors in Hollywood, then and now. And it's quite timely, coming a few weeks after the announcement of this year's Oscar nominations, which included not only the snub of the film Selma, but the first all-white group of nominated actors since 1998. Hollywood, and we its audience, still have much to learn from Vera Stark (playing through March 1).

This article also appears on Broadway World Minneapolis.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

"Musical Mondays" at Hell's Kitchen, February 2015

Musical theater loving friends, if you're not at Hell's Kitchen on the first Monday of the month, you are missing out. This is when Sheena Jansen and Max Wojtanowicz gather a few of their friends, who just happen to be among the most talented musical theater artists in town, for a little cabaret show. They've been doing it for over two years now, and it just keeps getting better and better. Each month has a theme, and this being February, the theme for this month's show was love. And as much as I love hearing my favorite musical theater songs, I also enjoy the choices made by this crew that are perhaps a bit more obscure. It was a fabulously entertaining night of musical theater, and it also served as a preview for shows to come this spring and summer. Read on for highlights and to find out where you can see the cast on stages around town.

This month's performers are a veritable Who's Who in the local musical theater scene. In addition to hosts Max and Sheena, performers include Aly Westberg O'Keefe and Dominique Wooten from last fall's brilliant production of Next to Normal at Bloomington Civic Theatre; two of the Andrews Sisters from History Theatre's Christmas of Swing, Ruthie Baker McGrath and Jen Burleigh-Benz (whom you may also know as Snow White from last fall's delightfully irreverent fairy tale Disenchanted); Radames/Joseph/et al. Jared Oxborough; and everyone's favorite, who's been in too many wonderful shows to recount here, Bradley Greenwald. They performed solos, duets, and group numbers, all accompanied by the maestro Andrew Cooke on keyboard. The show lasted about two hours, with a brief intermission, with food and bar service available throughout the night. It's also a fun place for people watching, as over half of the audience are theater people.

Highlights of the show include:
  • Group numbers are always fun, including the opener, "It's Love" from Wonderful Town, and the closing number, the entirely appropriate classic
    L-O-V-E. But that's not to say that the night was fully of lovey-dovey songs. Read on...
  • Listening to Bradley Greenwald sing Cole Porter's "Begin the Beguine" is worth the price of admission alone (which, BTW, is a super cheap $5 suggested donation). Swoon!
  • File under the category of "my favorite musical theater songs" - Ruthie's delightfully hopeful "I'm in Love With a Wonderful Guy" from South Pacific, Dom's powerful "Somewhere" from West Side Story, and Jen's terrific rendition of that little known song "Don't Rain on My Parade" from Funny Girl.
  • Yes, I own the Moulin Rouge soundtrack, so I was delighted to hear Dom and Aly sing "Elephant Love Medley" in a most charming way.
  • Jared sang a lovely rendition of "Hey There," a song from The Pajama Game that has become a classic.
  • The cast showed off their talent for harmony with a couple of strong quartets and a trio - "Poor Child" from Wild Party (Dom, Jared, Jen, and Sheena), "Dear One" from Kiss of the Spider Woman (Bradley, Dom, Jen, and Ruthie), and "I've Decided to Marry You" from the last year's Tony winner Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder (Aly, Bradley, and Ruthie).
  • I'd never heard the song "Lying There" from the song cycle Edges, but Aly brought tears to my eyes with her beautiful and moving rendition.
  • Somebody needs to cast Jen and Bradley in a show together, because they looked and sounded gorgeous together on "Carried Away" from On the Town, with oodles of chemistry.
  • Somebody needs to cast Sheena and Max in a show together, because they looked and sounded gorgeous together on "Where Would You Be" from from one of those aforementioned obscure musicals The Roar of the Greasepaint, with oodles of chemistry. Oh wait, they've cast themselves in a show together, that they wrote!  Which brings me to...
The cast's upcoming shows (click on show title for more info):
  • About his beautiful silver hair Bradley Greenwald joked, "I used to have brown hair, but I've been in tech for a week." He stars as Fagen in the Theater Latte Da/Hennepin Theatre Trust co-production of Oliver!, opening at the Pantages Theatre this week.
  • Max Wojtanowicz is making his Ten Thousand Things debut in The Unsinkable Molly Brown, which opens next week. It's worth noting that TTT's last musical ended up on my favorites list last year.
  • Chanhassen Dinner Theatre's resident Music Director Andrew Cooke begins rehearsing his cast and orchestra this week, for the new production of Mary Poppins. Performances begin on February 27 and run through the summer.
  • Max Wojtanowicz and Sheena Jansen bring their charming, funny, and poignant auto-biographical musical Fruit Fly, a Fringe hit in 2012, to Illusion Theater this March.
  • Forcing me to make the long drive out to Excelsior once again, Jen Burleigh-Benz is starring in Old Log Theatre's Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, also opening in March.
  • Dominique Wooten is Bloomington Civic Theatre's Billy in their production of the classic musical Carousel, opening in April (can you believe I've never seen it?!).
  • Ruthie Baker McGrath announced that she will be in a little show called The Music Man at the Guthrie Theater this summer.
And that's it for this month, folks. The next Musical Mondays takes place on March 2 and will feature the music of Cy Coleman (I know, I don't really know who that is either, so this one is sure to be educational as well as entertaining!). "Like" the Musical Mondays Facebook page for updates and more information.

This article also appears on Broadway World Minneapolis.