Monday, March 30, 2015

"Anne of Green Gables" at Theatre in the Round

Anne Shirley, the spunky heroine of the Anne of Green Gables, the first of six books in the series by Lucy Maud Montgomery, is one of the most beloved characters in literature. What's not to love about the orphan girl in rural early 20th Century Canada with a flair for the melodramatic and a fierce determination to enjoy life and make the most of it? Theatre in the Round is currently presenting a stage version of the book, adapted by Sylvia Ashby, which brings our beloved Anne to life in a warm, funny, and poignant way.

The play covers four years in Anne's life, which at times feels a bit rushed, like it's trying to cram too much into two hours. Not having read the book(s) in many years and not being that attached to it (the Little House on the Prairie series was my childhood obsession, and OK maybe still is) I wondered how many of the books were adapted into the play. Turns out all of this happens in just the first book, presenting the full arc of Anne's original story (subsequent books take Anne through adulthood and into her 40s). We follow Anne's journey from when she is (reluctantly) taken in by a brother and sister on Prince Edward Island. Marilla and Matthew were hoping for a boy to help out on the farm, but got Anne instead. They soon fall in love with her indomitable spirit, although Marilla tries to impart her no-nonsense practical ways on the girl. Despite her red hair (the bane of her existence), Anne quickly makes friends at school and is an excellent student under the tutelage of her favorite teacher Miss Stacey, she of the fashionable puffed sleeves. Several years pass, filled with adventures, and Anne and her friends go away to school, after which Anne decides to return to her beloved Green Gables. She's all grown up now and ready to take on some new responsibilities, but her bright spirit remains.

Mabel Thomas as Anne
The large cast does a fine job bringing the world of Avonlea to life on the small arena stage. Most fun to watch are the enthusiastic young actors playing Anne and her friends, several of whom are in high school. Most notably, sophomore Mabel Thomas is everything you could want in Anne - melodramatic and earnest and fiery and sweet. She pretty much carries the show on her young shoulders and does so admirably. She also has a nice chemistry with Jane Hammill's stern Marilla and especially Rod Kleiss' Matthew, who's wrapped around her little finger. Also amusing is Holly Windle as busybody neighbor Rachel Lynde, who occasionally pops up on the side of the stage as characters recite "Mrs. Lynde always says..."

With such a large cast, set designer Shannon Morgan has wisely chosen a fairly sparse stage. The in-the-round space has no walls or partitions, just a kitchen table on one side and a bed on the other, with divisions merely hinted at. A few benches and school desks brought in when needed subtly and successfully set the scene. The floor and sides of the round are covered with flowers, bringing a bit of the Anne's cherished outdoors in. (When told to say her prayers, Anne asks, "can't you just walk in the field, look at the sky, and feel a prayer?")

If you're a fan of the book you will most likely enjoy seeing Anne brought to life before your eyes (there were quite a few youngsters in the audience). And even if you aren't familiar with the books, Anne of Green Gables is a heartwarming, funny, endearing story of the joys and traumas, both small and large, of growing up. Playing weekends at Theatre in the Round through April 12.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

"Fruit Fly: The Musical" at Illusion Theater

Have you ever imagined your life as a musical? Lifelong BFFs Max and Sheena have done more than imagine it - they've written it! And since in addition to being best friends, Max Wojtanowicz and Sheena Janson are both super talented music-theater artists* (you may know Max from the Children's Theatre and Sheena from numerous production with Mu Performing Arts), the result is a musical that's not only fun and entertaining, but also brutally honest and from the heart. Fruit Fly: The Musical began as a hit Fringe show in 2012 and has had several workshops and readings since, and is now a full-fledged show at Illusion Theater. Each time I see it, it has a bit more depth, but always retains the beautiful, poignant, hilarious, endearing heart that is this real life friendship.

Max and Sheena have been friends for 20 years, which means they met when they were babies. Just a couple of musical-theater-loving kids in the St. Cloud area, singing and acting on stage and off. The story of their friendship plays out on stage and in song in a somewhat fictionalized way, paralleled with gross science facts about actual fruit flies, not the gay man/straight woman kind. We learn that Max hated Sheena when they first met (there's proof!), Sheena asked Max out (and was gently rebuffed) in high school, their moms thought they were perfect for each other, Max told Sheena he was gay before he told his family, the friendship went through growing pains in the post-college years when Sheena started spending time with her new boyfriend and Max got jealous. But these two just can't quit each other, and the real Max and Sheena's love and respect for each other, as well as their easy, natural, charming chemistry, shines through their characters.

Max and Sheena as Max and Sheena
(photo by Lauren B Photograpy)
Fruit Fly is very meta in a [title of show] sort of way. Max and Sheena are playing themselves but not exactly, portraying their story but not exactly, and it's hard to tell where the real people end and the characters begin. The whole play has a "we're putting on a show, how exciting!" sort of attitude, and at various points they break out of the show to comment on it. It gets pretty intense near the end as their true thoughts and feelings are laid bare, and it feels so real and raw there's a brief moment of "wait, this is scripted, right?"

The show includes 7 or 8 songs, mostly duets but with solos for both Sheena and Max, who both perform the songs with much heart and vocal talent. The fun, clever, fast lyrics** combine well with Michael Gruber's catchy tunes and interesting melodies to create a strong score that stands on its own (dare I hope for a cast recording?). Music director and piano accompanist Jill Dawe has a playful musical repartee with the cast, who are not miked (hooray!). The musical theater references abound in this show about two musical-theater-loving friends. The cast keeps a tally of Sondheim references on the onstage white board, which also adorably diagrams out the scenes and songs in the show.

The best kind of theater is theater that comes from a place of truth, as this show most definitely does. It takes courage to spill your deepest secrets and intimacies of a relationship on stage, but it makes for theater that's so rewarding for the audience, and, I imagine, the creators. Like the aforementioned [title of show], this new musical is a piece that could play on stages around the country with any two actors with the right chemistry. But of course Max and Sheena are the best and most honest Max and Sheena. If you're a fan of musical theater, you really must go see this show that's a love letter to good friends and musicals. Playing now through April 11 at Illusion Theater in downtown Minneapolis (be sure to check out the discount tickets on Goldstar).

*To see more of Max and Sheena's talent and adorableness, check out their monthly cabaret series Musical Mondays at Hell's Kitchen, in which they and their super talented friends sing songs around a different theme each month.
**Listen to Sheena and Max talk about the process of writing a musical about their life on Twin Cities Song Story and Twin Cities Hit Show.

This article also appears on Broadway World Minneapolis.

Friday, March 27, 2015

"The Debutante's Ball" at the History Theatre in Partnership with Mu Performing Arts

The History Theatre excels at taking stories from Minnesota's past and putting them on stage in a way that's full of life and relevant. The latest example of this is The Debutante's Ball by local playwright Eric "Pogi" Sumangil. The play was part of last year's new works festival "Raw Stages" and is now receiving a full production on the History Theatre stage. This story of a milestone in the life of local Filipino-American youths was charming and poignant as a reading, and it's even more so now with the benefit of sets, costumes, and choreography. It feels very real - the playwright based many of the characters and situations on his own experience, and memorabilia from recent Balls are displayed in the lobby. The specific and detailed look at one culture's tradition speaks to the larger theme of how we find and hold on to our culture, family, traditions, and identity in the ever changing modern world.

At the heart of this story is the teenager Ana (an appealing Stephanie Bertumen), who moves out of her parents' home because they want her to be an assimilated American and can't understand why she longs to learn more about her Filipino heritage. She finds the Valentine's Day Ball and the weekly classes to prepare for it, taught by the strict and traditional Tita Belinda (Sherwin Resurreccion, showing us the heart behind the tough exterior). There she meets other Filipino youth who are participating for different reasons, and are the typical range of high school characters - the awkward nerd, the cocky jock, the spoiled popular girl (played with youthful charm by Kylee Brinkman, Joelle Fernandez, Alex Galick, Maxwell Thao, and actual high schooler Jeric Basilio). The language is natural; these kids talk like real teenagers talk, with a few Tagalog words thrown in. Ana struggles to balance work, friendship, money, and her relationship with her parents, but with the help of her new friends is able to accomplish her goal of participating in the Debutante's Ball. Through this experience she learns something she hasn't been able to learn from her endless research - what it's like to really be part of a community and be proud and confident in who you are.

Part of Ana's research into her heritage is to watch videos, which we see played out by the cast onstage as Ana watches from the aisles. A cheesy soap opera that mirrors her parents' experience, a comedy routine, a children's story, a rap that explains the origins of the Ball. It's a clever device that allows the audience to learn about Filipino culture along with Ana. Another tradition we see onstage is a boy serenading a girl he likes outside of her house, a sweet and tender moment of young and innocent love.

the debutantes at the ball (photo by Scott Pakudaitis)
The play is called The Debutante's Ball - so there better be dancing and pretty dresses! Rest assured, there is. After spending two hours getting to know these characters I almost felt like their parents must, a sense of pride at what they've accomplished and how grown-up and mature they are. The girls look lovely in their matching white flowy dresses (costumes by Kathy Kohl), the boys handsome in their tuxes. The story culminates in a dance (choreographed by Pogi) that's quite beautiful on the surface, but goes much deeper knowing the tradition, stories, and people behind it.

The Debutante's Ball is a universal story of a young person coming of age and trying to figure out who they are, where they came from, and where they fit in the world. Continuing at the History Theatre through April 12 (discount tickets available on Goldstar).

Sunday, March 22, 2015

"Nature Crown" by Theatre Forever at the Guthrie Studio Theater

I went to see Theatre Forever's newest creation Nature Crown not knowing what it was about. I left the theater still not knowing exactly what it was about, except that it's lovely, delightful, innovative, poignant, creative, and incredibly moving. The original fairy tale deals with the ideas of home, place, and change, but I'll let creator and director Jon Ferguson explain it: "It's about returning to a source or place of origin, honoring that place and letting it go, all at the same time. It's about love and change and re-connection. And that's what I hope for everyone. Through the experience of this play I hope that this story and this place becomes yours. I hope that we find parallels between us, to better understand each other, and ourselves, in order to live better together."

The story centers around a typical working man named João (Diogo Lopes) who is fired from his job, sending him off on a life-changing adventure (or dream?) in a village on the other side of the woods. He meets a mysterious woman (Aimee K. Bryant) who he later learns is Nature or the Earth herself, and chases a boy (13-year-old Lorenzo Reyes) to a quaint little village preparing for a once in a century celebration, at which point everything is destroyed and life begins anew. After presenting himself to the King (Brant Miller) and Queen (Catherine Johnson Justice), João remembers the village and doesn't want it to change, so he believes the royal assistant Rupert (Tony Sarnicki) when he tells him he must slay a monster in the woods to prevent the village's destruction. Things don't go as well, but "this is a fairy tale, so everyone gets what they need." João returns to his life forever changed, with the memories of this place and this experience bringing a new energy and joy to his life.

the villagers (photo by Eric Melzer)
But this plot summary does not even tell one-tenth of the story. This is one of those pieces that's difficult to put into words, because what is created in that in-the-round space by the 14 members of the ensemble, four musicians, and the six-member Artemis Chamber Choir* is beyond words. It's so creative, and playful, and physical, and fun, and unabashedly sincere and hopeful. The village is created by little houses mounted on backpacks, so of course the castle is a suitcase. It's England so there's lots of tea pouring and drinking. Two young villagers (Paul Rutledge and Ben Mandelbaum) learn to transform themselves into trees and logs and rocks. A mysterious backpacked man (Peter Lincoln Rusk) and his apprentice (Nick Saxton) help to guide the events as they're supposed to happen. Flower petals represent leaves and blood, depending on what's called for. Things pop up out of the floor when needed. A spoon is a recurring motif. None of it makes any sense, but somehow it all makes sense.

"Home is where the heart is," the saying goes. Or perhaps the heart is where home is. We all carry places around inside of us, places that meant something to us at different times in our lives. Places that we may never see again, or places that we may return to and find them not at all how we remember them. "You can never go home again," goes another saying, but this piece seems to say that we can carry the memory and spirit of that place inside us, to give us courage for what lies ahead.

If exploring the ideas of home and change and courage ("be brave or you'll miss everything") with music, movement, delightful props, heartfelt performances, and much theatrical innovation is intriguing to you, go see Nature Crown, and be reminded of those places that lie inside your heart (continuing in the Guthrie's Dowling Studio through April 4).

*The Artemis Chamber Choir performs in the lobby of the Dowling Studio before the show, and the acoustics of the space combined with lovely harmonies create something quite haunting.

This article also appears on Broadway World Minneapolis.

Bernadette Peters in Concert at the Ordway

It's true, there is nothing like a dame. Especially when that dame is Broadway legend Bernadette Peters. She performed last night as part of the Ordway's "Rock the Ordway" celebration to commemorate the opening of their new Concert Hall in place of what used to be the McKnight Theatre. But she actually performed on the Ordway's main stage, a nuance that was lost to me until my companion and I waited in the crowd in the Concert Hall lobby, only to be told we were in the wrong theater. At which point we scurried across the lobby to find the doors closed and the concert already begun. Oh well, I only missed one song, and got a brief glimpse the pretty new theater. Meanwhile, Bernadette and her 11-piece band, led by Marvin Laird on piano, filled up the larger main theater with music, emotion, inspiration, joy, and sheer talent. Bernadette is a true master of her craft, and since her craft happens to be my favorite art form musical theater, it was a heavenly night. I've been lucky enough to see her perform several times in the past, including with the MN Orchestra in 2009 and on Broadway in Gypsy, A Little Night Music, and Follies, but she's one of those performers that I will see any and every chance I get because she always brings it.

Over about 90 minutes that felt like 20, Bernadette sang 16 songs, 10 of them written by the great Stephen Sondheim (counting the missed opening number "Let Me Entertain You" from Gypsy, for which he wrote the lyrics only). Sondheim and Peters is a match made in musical theater heaven. She's performed in five Sondheim shows in her 50+ year Broadway career (yes, she was a young child when she started). Sondheim's lyrics are so rich, clever, and meaningful, matched with interesting and inventive melodies, and Bernadette is a master at delivering them in a way that brings out every aspect of the song. No matter what she's singing, she knows how to wring every drop of emotion out of the song, whatever emotion the song calls for, whether that emotion is joy ("Mr. Snow" from Carousel, which I had just seen for the first time the night before), desire ("Fever"), heartbreak ("Losing My Mind" from Follies), hope (Disney's "When You Wish Upon A Star"), regret ("Send in the Clowns" from A Little Night Music), or anything in between. She feels every note, every word, every breath of the song and makes the audience feel it too.

Most of the songs in the program are selections from beloved musicals, but she often chooses an unexpected song, i.e., ones that she would likely never sing in a show because they're typically sung by men. Her rendition of "There is Nothing Like A Dame" (from whence came my opening statement) is fun and sexy and unlike I've ever seen it performed before. She sounds lovely singing "Joanna" from Sweeney Todd and holds the note on the word "hair" incredibly long. Instead of choosing the song I expected her to sing from Company, "The Ladies Who Lunch," she sang "You Could Drive A Person Crazy" (a crazy fast song written for three people) and the absolutely thrilling "Being Alive."

Bernadette Peters epitomizes what musical theater is. It's not about vocal histrionics or perfection (although she certainly has that too), it's about conveying emotion, character, and story through song. There are few people on the planet who can do that as well as Bernadette Peters.

The Ordway's "Rock the Ordway" celebration concludes today. And while this was the only event in which I partook, I think it's safe to say: Ordway, consider yourself rocked.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

"Carousel" with the Minnesota Orchestra at Orchestra Hall

One of the greatest musical theater composing teams, Rodgers and Hammerstein, had a smash hit with their very first show - Oklahoma!, based on the play Green Grow the Lilacs. For their sophomore outing they chose another play, the Hungarian Liliom, and adapted it into Carousel, which was a bit of a gamble due to the darker nature of the story and not-so-happy ending. But the risk payed off; Carousel was another rousing success and ranks among R&H's big five musicals. Shockingly, this musical theater geek has never seen the show in any form or listened to the score, an omission that is and will be corrected by two productions this spring. Bloomington Civic Theatre is doing the show next month, but first up is Minnesota Orchestra's semi-staged production of it with the full orchestra and a large ensemble cast, directed by Robert Neu. I can think of no better way to first experience this classic piece of music-theater than in this musically rich production, where the focus is on the score, which the orchestra and cast beautifully bring to life on the newly remodeled Orchestra Hall stage.

Being unfamiliar with the story, I found in it familiar bits from other works of theater. At first it reminded me of Porgy and Bess, until it turned a bit Our Town-ish in the second act, although it's also not dissimilar to Oklahoma! in some of the characters and themes (imagine if Laurey had ended up with Jud Fry instead of Curly). This is the classic good girl falls for bad boy story, in which the good girl sees the best in the bad boy, and the bad boy tries to be a better person for the good girl, but ultimately fails despite his love for her. In this case the good girl is mill worker Julie Jordan and the bad boy is carnival barker Billy Bigelow. They both sacrifice their jobs to be together, which unfortunately does not lead to happiness for the pair. Because of its themes of poverty and domestic violence, it's a difficult story, one that I have some issues with (including one particularly disturbing line in which Julie tells her daughter it's possible to be hit hard and not feel it - unacceptable), so I'm glad I have a chance to see it again next month and let it sink in a bit.

But now, on to the best part - the music! As a former bank geek (once a band geek always a band geek?), I'm always thrilled to be in the presence of an orchestra, and don't get the chance nearly enough. Our Minnesota Orchestra, conducted by Sarah Hicks, sounds marvelous playing this sweeping melodic score. And the cast, comprised of mostly local talent, is a dream. As Billy, Gabriel Preisser has a gorgeous and resonant voice, and brings out every emotion in the famous "Soliloquy" song. Sarah Lawrence sings beautifully sweet as Julie, and makes us feel her deep love and pain. It's great to see so many familiar faces and voices among the supporting players and ensemble, including the always great Kersten Rodau, Paul R. Coate (overheard in the audience: "Mr. Snow has the best voice"), Kathleen Humphrey, Riley McNutt (providing a bit of comic relief as charming rapscallion Jigger), and Gary Briggle. The finale song "You'll Never Walk Alone" (which I didn't know was from Carousel, or if I did know I'd forgotten it) sends chills down the spine and brings tears to the eyes.

I'm not sure what's "semi" about this staging, other than the absence of large set pieces, which are not missed. The small set pieces (benches, crates, and darling hand-held but almost full size carousel horses) are really all that's needed to hint at the scene, with the dialogue and music and our imaginations doing the rest. There's nothing "semi" about Samantha Fromm Haddow's lovely costumes, which include the working folks' garb, a wide range of carnival costumes, and ballerina Louise's light and flowy dress with matching jacket. Nothing "semi" about the choreography by Penelope Freeh either (who also gracefully dances as Louise), with the ensemble ably performing charming group dance numbers. And the staging makes good use of the area behind and in front of the orchestra.

I now understand what all the fuss is about over Carousel, and I'm glad that this gorgeous production was my first introduction to it. I look forward to getting to know it a bit better at Bloomington Civic Theatre next month. In the meantime, if you can make it to Orchestra Hall this weekend, do so.

Monday, March 16, 2015

"H.M.S. Pinafore" by Gilbert and Sullivan Very Light Opera Company at Plymouth Congregational Church

Such is the breadth and depth of the Twin Cities theater community that a company such as Gilbert and Sullivan Very Light Opera Company has existed for over 30 years and I, an avid theater-goer who prides herself on knowing just about every company in town, have never heard of it. True, it skews a little more towards the opera end of the music-theater spectrum than I usually venture, but that's no excuse. I've seen several G&S operas and am enamored of their fast, witty, tongue-tying, clever lyrics and intricate rhythms. I attended my first production by this company yesterday, and while it might have helped that this year they're doing H.M.S. Pinafore, a show I'm familiar with from the Guthrie's boisterous production a few summers ago, I found it to be absolutely marvelous! A cast of over 30 and orchestra of over 30 performing a classic piece of music-theater in a straight-forward and energetic manner? Oh joy, oh rapture!

H.M.S. Pinafore, or, The Lass That Loved A Sailor, takes place on ship somewhere off the coast of England. While the piece was written in the late 19th Century, the costumes and the presence of a radio places it in the 1940s. A Captain reigns over a crew of sailors, one of whom, the bright and earnest Ralph, has fallen in love with the Captain's daughter Josephine. She has also fallen in love with him, but is betrothed to Sir Joseph, "the ruler of the Queen's navy." Ralph and Josephine decide to marry despite the difference in their stations and her father's disapproval, when a long-held secret is revealed that turns the situation on its head. It's a whole lot of silliness that allows for many great songs with Gilbert and Sullivan's trademark repetitive pitter-patter lyrics. As director Lesley Hendrickson notes in the playbill, "Don't ask how old Little Buttercup is supposed to be. Don't even think it." Just go with it and enjoy the fun and frivolity.

the young lovers Josephine and Ralph
(Victoria Valencour and Kai Brewster)
Many of the cast members seem to have been members of the company for many years, which is obvious in how well they sing and play together. One such long-time member is Waldyn Benbenek who beautifully sings the role of the Captain. He's joined by Tom Berg as the stuffy and very funny Sir Joseph. Kai Brewster and Victoria Valencour sound lovely and are very convincing as the young star-crossed lovers. Ryan Johnson is quite funny and a bit scary as the villain Dick Deadeye, remarkably his first acting role as an adult. Caitlin Wilkey is the charming Little Buttercup, she of the mysterious age and holder of the secret. Stephen Zehr and Amanada Weis ably lead the wonderful chorus of sailors and sisters/cousins/aunts, respectively. The entire cast is really impressive in singing these songs with precision. When 30+ voices are joined together in harmony, it's really quite thrilling.

Also thrilling is this huge orchestra, perhaps the largest orchestra I've ever had the pleasure of listening to at a music-theater production. Way too big for a pit, they're crammed backstage out of sight, but I knew were there because Music Director and Conductor Randal A. Buikema was introduced before the show and shook hands with the first violin, like a real orchestra. As a former member of the pit orchestra, I'm quite happy to see the orchestra so prominently featured and sound so wonderful.

If you like your opera very light and beautifully sung and played by cast and orchestra, this company should definitely be on your radar, as they are now on mine. They typically only perform one full opera per year, in the spring, but they also present a summer concert at the Lake Harriet Bandshell (a wonderful place to listen to music in the great outdoors) and this year are planning to participate in the Fringe Festival.

While it's my first time seeing this company, they obviously have a loyal audience as performances frequently sell out. Order your tickets now if you're interested in seeing this wonderfully performed and entertaining classic.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

"Breaking Up is Hard to Do" at St. Croix Off Broadway Dinner Theatre

"Theatrical musings in Minnesota and beyond." That's the tagline for Cherry and Spoon, but I rarely venture outside of my beloved home state of Minnesota (except for my annual trip to NYC, the greatest city in the world). But this weekend I paid a visit to our neighbors in Wisconsin, specifically Hudson just across the St. Croix River. Tucked in a ballroom at the Hudson House Grand Hotel is the St. Croix Off Broadway Dinner Theater (way, way off Broadway). The space is cozy, the staff is friendly, the food is pretty good, the cast is enthusiastic, and the show is fun. I'm not sure it's worth the drive from the Twin Cities with the plethora of theater offerings, but if you're in the area you might want to check it out for a pleasant evening of food and entertainment.

Breaking Up is Hard to Do is a jukebox musical featuring the music of singer/songwriter Neil Sedaka from the Brill Building school of music, which also produced Carole King, whose catalog was recently turned into a successful Broadway musical Beautiful. But unlike Beautiful, it does not tell the life story of the songwriter, but follows the Mamma Mia jukebox musical model with a fictional story made up to fit the songs. The story is set in a resort in the Catskills in 1960 (think Dirty Dancing but without the darker storylines about classism and abortion). Instead of Johnny and Baby, we have Marge (Jennifer Jacober) and Lois (Lydia Olson), two young women from Manhattan. Marge has recently been left at the altar, and Lois insisted that the two friends take her honeymoon trip. Lois ensures that her friend has a good time by convincing the charming playboy lounge singer Del (Joe Keith) to woo her and let the two women in his act. It's a big weekend for Del; the TV show American Bandstand is coming to check out Del's music as a potential act for the show. We also meet Gabe (Greg Lund), Del's cousin and resort handyman, Esther (Jessica Breed), the proprietor of the resort, and Harvey (Wayne Peterson), comedian and singer in the show. The girls find out what a cad Del is, and in her rejection Marge sees what was obvious to the audience, that she's more suited to fellow dentist-in-training Gabe. Esther and Harvey's relationship also deepens, Lois gets a job singing at the resort, and everyone lives happily ever after. The plot is pretty predictable and trite, but the charm of the performers carries it through.

the cast of Breaking Up is Hard to Do
A cast of six is about as much as you can fit on this small stage, but they fill it well. Especially good are Lydia as Lois, the stereotypical ditsy blond complete with charming malapropisms; Jennifer as Marge, the stereotypical smart and nerdy girl with glasses who may not win the guy but wins the audience's hearts; and Joe as the smarmy showman Del. They all sound great singing these classic songs - in addition to the title song, the book writers were able to fit in "Where the Boys Are," "Stupid Cupid," "Solitaire," "Laughter in the Rain," and the rousing final number "Love Will Keep Us Together." Lydia and Joe also created fun choreography for some of the numbers.

As I've said before, the one unforgivable sin in musical theater is the use of a recorded track in place of a live band, which unfortunately is the case here. An integral part of musical theater is live music; a recorded track just cheapens the show and distracts from the talent of the vocalists. In addition, the mics of the singers were sometimes echoey, perhaps due to the challenges of the room, further decreasing the sound quality. If they ditched the canned music and had a piano accompanist, and maybe a guitar player and percussionist if they want to get fancy, it would greatly improve the sound of the show and allow the really great vocals of the cast to shine. In that case the cast might not need to be miked in the intimate space, or they could sing into the old-fashioned mic that's used as a prop. (I'm told that the theater does employ live musicians for some of their shows.)

Despite the sound challenges and lack of live music, Breaking Up is Hard to Do is charming and fun and features some classic well loved songs. It continues through May 30.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

"Boeing Boeing" by Torch Theater at the Minneapolis Theatre Garage

Boeing Boeing is the perfect screwball comedy. Though this tale of an American playboy in Paris with three "air hostess" fiances was a hit in France, the English translation flopped on Broadway in 1965. But the revival over 40 years later was a hit and spurred a flood of regional productions around the country. Fortunately for Twin Cities theater-goers, Torch Theater chose it as one of it's 2015 shows at the Minneapolis Theatre Garage. With a stellar cast, spot on direction, and a swinging '60s vibe created by set, costumes, and music, it's practically perfect in every way (to quote that other big show). I can't remember the last time I laughed so much at the theater!

Bernard lives in a swanky apartment in Paris with his three international fiances, none of whom know about the other two. He tells his friend Robert, visiting from Wisconsin, that he's able to pull this off due to careful planning and paying attention to the time tables of the women's three airline employers, and of course with the begrudging help of his organized maid Berthe. Everything runs swimmingly and all parties are happy with the arrangement until a perfect storm of weather over the Atlantic and faster planes causes all three women to be in the apartment at the same time. It was bound to happen sooner or later. Bernard, Robert, and Berthe go to great lengths to keep the women apart for as long as they can, which results in lots of physical comedy and door slamming. It's like a shell game trying to keep track of who's in which room. But of course it can't go on forever, and the truth, or some version of it, eventually comes out.

Stacia Rice, Zach Curtis, and Sam Landman
(photo by Thomas Sandelands)
I can't decide who in this six-person cast is my favorite; they're each my favorite in different moments. Director Craig Johnson has set the perfect campy tone with precise comedic timing that the cast executes brilliantly. Sam Landman as Bernard is the picture of a cool and confident '60s playboy, until his perfect plan starts to fall apart and he becomes increasingly more desperate. As square Wisconsinite Robert, Zach Curtis* literally throws himself around the set in service of the comedy. Mo Perry's* expressions as put-upon maid Berthe are priceless; add to that her impeccable line delivery and she's quite the scene stealer. And the three air hostesses are all hilarious and fabulous. Stacia Rice (Torch's Artistic Director) is the master of the entrance, making Italian Gabriella's presence known with an arm flung elegantly over her head, her cape and gloves thrown down, commanding attention. As American Gloria, Rachel Finch is smart and confident, walking around the apartment doing exercises and eating her pancakes with ketchup. German Gretchen is embodied by Sara Richardson with her wide expressive eyes, her head cocked perfectly to the side in her short blond wig as she pauses for laughter, sweet one minute and sour the next.

Mo Perry and Sara Richardson
(photo by Thomas Sandelands)
Since the characters come from different countries they all speak in accents, but they're not meant to be realistic. They're the delightfully exaggerated accents of comedy - French, German, Italian - even American Gloria speaks with a tony East Coast accent, and Wisconsinite Robert sounds decidedly Midwestern (read Stacia's thoughts on the accents in this article in the Pioneer Press). Every aspect of the show is over the top, yet somehow you still seem to care about these characters and want to see them end up happy.

Eli Schlatter's set design looks like something out of a '60s sitcom: clean lines, bar stools, black leather furniture, a globe bar, corded phone, and a bright orange bean bag that gets much use. Katherine B. Kohl has created mod faux stewardess uniforms that are to die for, complete with matching hats, coats, gloves, shoes, and what looks like authentic vintage bags from TWA, Alitalia, and Lufthansa. The music playing before the show and during intermission is the icing on the cake, perfectly completing the cohesive '60 theme of the show.

Staging a play from the '60s about a man with three fiances during Women's History Month could be a mistake, but somehow it doesn't seem sexist. It's clear that the women have the upper hands in this polygamous relationship, and they all get what they want in the end. It seems that Bernard really does care for them all, even if he is lying to and manipulating them. And in the '60s, "air hostess" was one of the few careers open to women that allowed them to be independent and travel the world; these women are no pushovers.

Boeing Boeing is a hilarious broad comedy, perfectly executed by the Torch Theater team. If you're looking for a good laugh, go see it between now and April 4 (discount tickets available on Goldstar).

*It's worth noting that Mo Perry and Zach Curtis are doing double duty; they're concurrently appearing as Mrs. and Mr. Capulet in Romeo and Juliet at Park Square Theatre, which is mostly performed during the daytime for students. So it's logistically quite possible, but also probably creates a bit of whiplash going from the great romantic tragedy to this high comedy. On second thought, that probably makes it easier.

This article also appears on Broadway World Minneapolis.

Friday, March 13, 2015

"Death Tax" at Pillsbury House Theatre

In a world with an aging baby boomer population and advances in medicine that see people living longer than ever before, the new play Death Tax is a timely look at the elderly and how we treat them. It's a fitting choice for Pillsbury House Theatre, which often produces timely and relevant work that connects to the larger community around them. In just five short scenes (nicely spelled out for us by playwright Lucas Hnath), with four actors typically in two-person scenes, and an extremely sparse set, this play brings up many issues around this topic but, like any good play, doesn't provide easy answers. Rather it provides much food for thought and conversation.

Tina and the daughter
(Regina Marie Williams and
Tracey Maloney, photo by Keri Pickett)
The playwright has written short introductions to the play and each scene, delivered by Regina Marie Williams. She tells us that this is a play with five scenes, and gives a brief description of the setting and characters, including her own, a Haitian nurse named Tina. The setting is a nursing home, where Tina cares for a wealthy woman named Maxine (Wendy Lehr, presiding over the first and last scenes and creating a full and complex character without ever leaving the bed). Maxine does not have a good relationship with her only daughter, to put it mildly, and suspects that she's paying Tina to speed her death along so that she can receive the full inheritance without paying the penalty of the new estate taxes in effect after the first of the year. Despite Tina’s reassurances, Maxine insists that this is what's happening, and offers Tina a great deal of money to keep her alive. Tina needs the money for a custody battle to bring her son back from Haiti, so she accepts, and enlists the help of her boss and ex Todd (Clarence Wethern). When Maxine’s daughter (Tracey Maloney) comes to visit, she tells a different story about her relationship with her mother. Things get complicated, Tina and Todd argue over the plan, but we never get to find out how it turned out. The last scene fast forwards twenty years; Maxine is still there, but her money has run out and the tables have turned.

Todd and Tina (Clarence Wethern
and Regina Marie Williams,
photo by Keri Pickett)
None of these characters is completely likeable, but all are relatable in some way. In particular, I found Tina to be an extremely sympathetic character, I wanted her to succeed in getting her son back and building a life for the two of them. I don't blame her for taking the money; if you desperately needed money for your family and someone offered you two hundred thousand dollars, would you turn it down? In this play, as too often in real life, money is power, and these characters either have money and power or they don't, and do questionable things to hold on to them or achieve them.

Tina cares for Maxine
(Regina Marie Williams and
Wendy Lehr, photo by Keri Pickett)
Director Hayley Finn sets a great tone and pace for her excellent cast, in a play with dialogue that sounds natural, the way real people talk. John Francis Bueche's set is completely bare and colorless, the theater was even a bit chilly so that it felt like a cold and sterile institution. Blank gray walls center on a bed with neutral bedding; the only other furniture on stage is a desk on the left with a few papers.

One of the uniquely great things about Pillsbury House is that their post-show discussions include a community group that deals directly with the issues discussed in the play. For this play they're partnering with ArtSage, which brings art to senior citizens (see also Alive & Kickin'). They're also presenting workshops about heath care directives and estate planning, things no one wants to think about in relation to themselves or their family, yet it's vital that we do so (see Pillsbury House's website for more info).

Death Tax is a smart, funny, thought-provoking, well-written and well-acted play. It continues at Pillsbury House Theatre in South Minneapolis through April 4. If you've never been there, it's definitely work checking them out to see what they're all about. In addition to producing great theater, Pillsbury House also serves as a community resource center (for more info on this and other theater venues around town, check out my Venues page).

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

"The Woodsman" by Theatre Pro Rata at nimbus theatre

I'm not sure there's a more detested group of people than child molesters. It's one of the few things that everyone can agree on, that taking advantage of an innocent child in that way is unforgivable. Or is it? Can child molesters change? Can they become valuable members of society again after serving their time and paying for their crime? Do they deserve a second chance? Steven Fetcher's play The Woodsman (which was made into a 2005 movie starring Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick) grapples with these difficult questions. It's not an easy play to watch, but Theatre Pro Rata's production is so well done, thought-provoking, and impactful, that it's worth the effort.

Walter (Adam Whisner) has recently been released from prison after serving 12 years for molesting little girls. How many little girls? "One too many" is his response. As he tries to integrate into society, his only friends are his therapist Rosen (Ben Tallen), who he begrudgingly talks to, and his brother-in-law Carlos (James Rodriguez). His sister is unwilling to see him, or more importantly, let him near her children. Walter swears he'll never do it again, but doesn't seem to quite believe it's possible. He's harassed by a cop (William Goblirsh) who doesn't believe it either, and is just waiting for Walter to fail. At work, Walter meets Nikki (Katherine Kupiecki) and begins to open up to her. He tells her his deep dark secret, assuming she'll run away. But she doesn't. She's shocked, but is able to see past Walter's crime to the man he is. The only apartment Walter can afford is across the street from an elementary school, just outside the 100 feet his child molester status allows. As he watches the school and the kids from his window, he notices another man watching the children, and recognizes his behavior. In the park, Walter meets a 12-year-old girl named Robin (Lillie Horton), causing dangerous old feelings to resurface. Will he be able to make a different choice this time?

Adam Whisner as the title character
(photo by Charles Gorrill)
This is a strong six-person cast, as directed by Erik Hoover. Adam Whisner's performance as Walter is particularly affecting as he creates a layered character that's alternately guarded and fully vulnerable, sympathetic and detestable. I found myself rooting for Walter and wanting him to be "cured," for his sake as well as for any potential victims. Another highlight in the cast is young Lillie Horton as the friendless bird-watching girl Robin. The scene between the two of them is so quietly scary and emotionally draining that you almost forget to breathe. The entire cast does a great job of bringing the many sides of this issue to life, without providing any pat answers to the problem.

The backdrop consists of black drawings of a tree and playground equipment on a white background, with shadow puppets representing the man and children across the street. Both set and puppets (designed by Derek Lee Miller) are at the same time lovely and slightly creepy, which sets the perfect tone for the play.

The Woodsman is an unsettling play, but one that deals with important and thought-provoking issues of rehabilitation and forgiveness. Playing now through March 22 at nimbus theatre.

Monday, March 9, 2015

"Thurgood" at Illusion Theater

It seems entirely appropriate that on the 50th anniversary of the march in Selma, I attended a play about Thurgood Marshall. While Martin Luther King Jr. was leading people in the community in civil disobedience and inspiring them with his speeches, Thurgood Marshall fought for Civil Rights from the other side, from within the legal system. "The law is my weapon," he said several times during the play, a play that's as much about the man as the public figure, a lawyer who argued many cases before the Supreme Court (including the landmark desegregation case Brown v. Board of Education) and later sat on the Supreme Court. In this one-man play, James Craven inhabits the man in all his humanity and greatness.

The play takes place at Thurgood's alma mater Howard University upon his retirement from the Supreme Court in 1991 at the age of 83. He tells the story of his life, growing up in Baltimore, being unable to attend the law school he wanted to because they did not allow black students, becoming a lawyer and fighting for Civil Rights through many court cases (his most personally meaningful being a voting rights case in Texas, Brown v. Board of Education, and winning a case against the law school to which he was denied entry), joining the staff of the NAACP, and eventually being appointed to the Supreme Court. It's inspirational to hear all of this man's accomplishments and the impact he had on Civil Rights and the legal system.

James Craven as Thurgood Marshall
But this isn't a dry lecture. James Craven brings much warmth, humor, and humanity to the role, so that you see Thurgood as a person instead of just an icon. He relays his grief at his first wife's death, and his joy at finally having children. He tells a few jokes and funny stories, as well as some truly scary ones about traveling the country to remote areas to argue cases. Images projected onto the large screen behind the podium show real pictures of the people and places Thurgood is discussing. And James is such a wonderful actor that it's a pleasure to listen to him speak and watch him walk around the stage with the gait of an 80-year-old man. He doesn't hurry through this long monologue, but lets the story unfold and the weight of it sink in.

I was lucky enough to attend on a day when there was a post-show discussion led by director Michael Robins, who did more than the usual amount of work to find this piece and bring it to Illusion, and Val Jensen of Diversity in Practice, an organization dedicated to recruiting and retaining lawyers of color in the Twin Cities. The discussion was alternately depressing (much of the legislation Thurgood helped put in place is being dissolved) and hopeful (great strides have been made and there are still people willing and able to fight the fight). The beautiful thing about this play, and about what theater can do in general, is that it reminds us of our history and opens a dialogue about issues today.

Thurgood plays for one more weekend only, so get there quick to experience this inspiring man's story on stage.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

"Into the Woods" by Theater Latte Da at the Ritz Theater

I first saw the Stephen Sondheim/James Lapine musical fairy tale mash up Into the Woods four years ago, and have seen it several times since then, including the recent star-studded movie. Every time I see it I like it more. I think Sondheim is like Shakespeare in that it has a very specific rhythm and cadence to it that takes a minute to get used to, but the more time you spend with it, the richer and deeper it becomes. Such has been my experience with Into the Woods, so I was primed to love my favorite theater company Theater Latte Da's production of it. But it has exceeded my expectations, and even Sondheim newbies will be enthralled by this brilliant staging of a brilliantly written musical. Latte Da has pared down this big Broadway musical to something that feels intimate and innovative, using a small cast and orchestra, and inventive and thoughtful choices in every detail of the production. This, my friends, is Broadway re-imagined, or at least how I would like to see Broadway re-imagined. Simply put, it's sublime.

Where better to set Into the Woods than in Germany, birthplace of fairy tales as we know them? And why not make it a beer garden for extra fun and specificity? The stage is set the moment you walk into the lobby of the charming Ritz Theater, where a sign reading "Theater Latte Da präsentiert Ab in den Wald" hangs over the concession stand, which sells delicious Bauhaus beer and pretzels, or as the German nerd in me likes to say, Bier und Bretzeln (yes, I was the one on Opening Night wearing the Austrian hat I bought in Salzburg 20 years ago when I studied abroad there). The stage itself has been laid bare with no walls or backdrops; you can see the whole stage area, back to the unfinished walls. There is no backstage, everything happens in front of you, including costume changes and sound effects, which are cleverly created by the cast. Trees are constructed by what looks like wooden fencing spiraling to the sky, and after the giant comes through, half of the trees fall creating obstacles that each character maneuvers in their own specific way, athletically, carefully, or clumsily (set design by Kate Sutton-Johnson). All prop pieces look organic to the scene, including chandeliers made of antlers and the most adorable cow, constructed from an old-fashioned buggy with a wooden pail for a head and a piece of rope for a tail, and a little bit of imagination (properties design by Benjamin Olsen). Actors walk out on stage RENT-like with the house lights still up, and then begin to tell the story, making the audience feel like we're all in this together.

the beautiful cast of Into the Woods(photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp)
Director Peter Rothstein has made a genius decision to cast just 10 actors in these 20 roles, and once again has chosen the perfect actors for each part, with clever pairings of characters to an actor. It's such a delight to watch the über-talented David Darrow transform from the hard-working earnest baker to a pompous and shallow prince in a matter of seconds as he doffs one hat and dons another behind a tree; or the young star-in-the-making Brandon Brooks kill Jack's mother as the steward in one scene and mourn her as Jack in the next; or Peter Middlecamp go from the evil stepmother to the charming prince and back again several times within one scene (not to mention his deliciously devilish wolf, Hollywood - you can keep Johnny Depp, I'll take Peter Middlecamp any day). Dan Hopman is a wonderful narrator and emcee, slightly detached and observing, until he's forced into the story. Britta Ollmann only has one role to play, Cinderella, but she does it beautifully. Kendall Anne Thompson and Shinah Brashears are excellent as the stepsisters as well as the witch's sheltered and absurdly long-haired daughter Rapunzel and the fearless and spirited Little Red, respectively. Kate Beahen is warm and human as the Baker's wife, and also climbs inside a tree to voice Cinderella's mother. Elisa Pluhar brings to life both Jack's exasperated mother and Little Red's doomed Granny. Last but certainly not least, Greta Oglesby is a commanding voice and presence as the witch, in both of her forms.

But this is Sondheim, so let's talk about the music. Music Director Jason Hansen on piano leads just two other musicians (on cello and wind instruments) in this sparse three-piece orchestra that, despite being a significantly trimmed down orchestration, leaves nothing to be desired. The ten singers all sound gorgeous, alone and in delicious harmony. There's not one false note, moment, or performance in the entire show. Listening to David and Peter duet as the pompous princes complaining about their women is the opposite of "Agony," in fact it's a highlight in a show that's one highlight after another. The "No One is Alone" quartet is poignant and beautiful, as is Greta's rendition of perhaps the most well-known song, "Children Will Listen." And any song that has all 10 cast members on stage singing and moving at the same time is the best. In fact, the cast never leaves the stage (no backstage, remember?), and simply sit in a chair on the side of the stage when not in the scene. Costume changes happen in full view of the audience, which seems to say "hey, we're putting on a show," and invites us to use our imagination to play along.

Speaking of costumes, Samantha Haddow's costumes beautifully suit the theme, with the aforementioned hats, lederhosen, peasant gowns, and most importantly, pieces that can easily be added or removed and instantly define the character.

Theater Latte Da's inventive and sublime interpretation of Into the Woods continues through March 29. If you're a fan of music-theater, it's a must see.

This article also appears on Broadway World Minneapolis.

"Mary Poppins" at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres

Mary Poppins is a classic and beloved movie. What child growing up in this country in the last 50 years didn't grow up with the no nonsense magical nanny? The surprising thing is that this original movie musical released in 1964 wasn't adapted for the stage until 40 years later. But when it finally was, it was a success; the Broadway production ran for six years and toured the country, including a stop in Minneapolis in 2013. While it's not a perfect adaptation, the stage musical does retain the magical quality of the movie and many of the most loved moments and song. Chanhassen Dinner Theatres' new production of Mary Poppins: The Broadway Musical is delightful and charming with a huge and talented cast.

The familiar story we know and love from the classic movie is mostly there on stage, except, sadly, the floating to the ceiling with laughter scene and the women's suffrage subplot. Mary shows up to the Banks family in London because they need her. Father George is too busy with his important job at the bank to spend much time or thought on his children Jane and Michael, who are acting out and scaring all the nannies away, and mother Winifred doesn't know what to do to help the situation (pretty much the definition of first world problems). Enter Mary Poppins, who takes the children on fantastical outings while teaching them to be more considerate and responsible. After a crisis at the bank, George learns to appreciate his family, and with the family unit healed, Mary Poppins departs as quickly as she arrived, on to help the next family.

When I saw Mary Poppins on tour two years ago, I thought it was too long, especially for a show that will draw a lot of kids. The songs, scenes, and storylines that were added are just not as compelling as those we're familiar with from the movie. I was hoping that director Michael Brindisi would trim some of the fat, but I don't know how much freedom a regional theater has to make changes when licencing a work such as this. So I'll blame the creators of the piece for making it feel a bit bloated and draggy in parts. But it certainly doesn't overshadow the wonderful moments in the show, which are many:
Ann Michels as Mary Poppins
(photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp)
  • It's not easy to step into Julie Andrews' sensible shoes in her iconic portrayal of Mary Poppins, but the Chanhassen has found just the right actor to do so. There's no practically about it, Ann Michels is perfect in every way - her voice, her posture, her attitude, her comic timing, her look, even the way she holds the umbrella. She's an absolute delight to watch in this beloved role.
  • As young Jane and Michael Banks, Isabelle Erhart and Jay Soulen (who share the roles with two other actors) are adorable, very present and expressive with lovely voices who fit right in with the veteran cast.
  • Fantastic dancer Mark King plays Bert, who serves as a sort of narrator of the story, often on stage observing the action as well as taking part in it. He has a sort of melancholy about him, as if he knows that Mary will soon leave.
  • Seri Johnson is, as always, hilarious as the frazzled housekeeper Mrs. Brill. She and Scott Blackburn, as butler Robertson Ay, make for quite the comedy team, like a warped version of Mrs. Hughes and Carson.
  • Even though the Mr. Banks at the bank story is not very interesting, Chan favorite Keith Rice is a joy to watch as he transforms from a prickly and absent father to a more devoted family man, with the help of Janet Hayes Trow's sweet and caring Mrs. Banks, who I wish had more to sing about than "Being Mrs. Banks."
  • Michelle Barber only has a few short scenes on stage, but her "Feed the Birds" is a lovely and quiet moment in the busy show.
Mary, Bert, and the children
in the sky (photo by
Heidi Bohnenkamp)
  • Tamara Kangas Erickson's choreography shines in a couple of group numbers. In "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious," the cast spells the crazy long word in song and with their bodies, and it's a thrill as the speed increases and the precision never wavers. "Step in Time" is a tap-dancing delight, with chimney sweeps popping up as if by magic in the audience and slowly making their way onto the stage for the ever increasing energy of the number.
  • The entire show has a sort of magical, dreamlike quality. The set is dominated by a large moon, with ladders climbing to the sky. Low-tech theatrical tricks create the illusions of flying and large objects coming out of Mary's bag. Hundreds of tiny lights twinkle on the ceiling in the formation of the constellations, making one want to lean one's head back and get lost in the stars (set design by Nayna Ramey, lighting design by Sue Ellen Berger).
  • The Chanhassen's resident costume designer Rich Hamson (who recently had his own moment to shine on stage) has clothed the cast in a wide array of London street garb, living life-size toy costumes, and other fantastical getups.
  • Last but not least, I would be remiss if I didn't mention Music Director Andrew Cooke and his always fabulous onstage band, making this (mostly) familiar music sound great.
The Chanhassen's Mary Poppins is a joyful production (even if it is a bit too long), filled with great performances and plenty of theatrical magic. Playing now through the end of August, so you have plenty of time to get out to the suburbs and experience the magic.

It's a Jolly Holiday! (photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp)

Friday, March 6, 2015

"Zoot Suit Riots" by Collide Theatrical Dance Company at the Lab Theater

Collide Theatrical Dance Company is a bit of a step out of my comfort zone as a theater blogger. But I do love to watch dance, and Collide (named for the collision of various art forms, including dance, theater, and music) allows this theater geek to get a dance fix in the form of storytelling, which is what theater is all about. Their latest original jazz-dance musical creation is Zoot Suit Riots, based on the historical riots in 1943 Los Angeles that spread to other parts of the country. This version of the riots takes place in Harlem in a dance hall similar to the historic Savoy Ballroom, and while the story may be a bit thin, the dancing is spectacular and does a wonderful job of expressing emotions and defining characters.

Let's start with the music. The five-piece band, directed by Bob Beahen on percussion and also including keyboard, upright bass, guitar, and my favorite jazz instrument the clarinet, sounds super smooth and cool and jazzy. The song selections are mostly standards from the era like "Moondance" and "You Can't Take That Away from Me," with a little Queen and Lady Gaga thrown in for good measure. Singing these songs are two amazing vocalists, Katie Carney and Ben Bakken (did someone say Queen?), solo and duet. The choice of music is, as always, spot on, and it's fun to hear modern pop music played and sung in the '40s jazz style.

the company and the band (photo by V. Paul V.)
Hand in hand with the music is the dancing, which is awe-inspiring to this non-dancing theater geek. Directer/ choreographer/creator of the piece Regina Peluso combines various styles of dance (jazz, ballet, tap, Fosse, contemporary) to create something unique and so much fun to watch. Whether solo dances or group numbers, the dances perfectly suit the music which perfectly suits the moment in the story. In fact, the dancing is so expressive and tells the story so well that I wish they would eliminate the short scenes with dialogue, which are a bit stilted. These dancers are better actors when they're dancing; when they're dancing I know who they are and I believe them. Some of Collide's earlier pieces had no dialogue and told the story entirely through music and movement (with a short story summary in the program), and were the stronger for it.

Galen Higgins flies high (photo by V. Paul V.)
The ten dancers in the company are all beautiful, graceful, strong dancers (including familiar faces Renee Guittar, Riley Thomas Weber, and Jeffrey Robinson in the lead roles), but the standout in this show is Galen Higgins as a hard-nosed, fierce-tapping Marine. His tap dance (which he also choreographed) is huge and fast and explosive. Lastly, there's no costumer listed in the credits, but I'm always amazed how the dancers can move so well in what look like street clothes, and look stylish while doing so.

Zoot Suit Riots officially opens tonight and continues through March 15 at the gorgeous Lab Theater, a great space for dance. (Discount tickets available on Goldstar.)

Thursday, March 5, 2015

"Romeo and Juliet" at Park Square Theatre

Romeo and Juliet is the ultimate ode to the all-consuming foolishness of young love. Who gets that better than teenagers? After all, Romeo and Juliet are teenagers themselves. Someone at Park Square Theatre must have made that connection, because they're currently producing a condensed version of Shakespeare's best loved romantic tragedy, mostly to student groups. But this isn't theater light, it's Park Square's usual high quality production with a fantastic cast. I was lucky enough to attend one of these student matinees (even though I'm many years removed from being a student), and was caught up by the story as much as the kids were. It's a pretty cool thing for young people to be exposed to theater like this, and as a bonus, they can return to Park Square for free if they bring an adult.

Director David Mann has adapted Romeo and Juliet into a succinct 90 minutes. I'm no Shakespeare scholar, but I have seen this play a fair number of times in various incarnations, and I can't identify anything that was cut, other than Romeo's encounter with Paris at the crypt. Characters like Paris and the never seen but much talked about Rosaline always felt extraneous to the story anyway, so it's smart to cut some of that out and focus on the star-crossed lovers. All of the famous lines are still there, as well as plenty of fight scenes, love scenes, and general tomfoolery (all of which appeal to the teen set). In fact, this adaptation is so successful it makes me think Shakespeare should always be 90 minutes long!

Romeo and Juliet meet
(Michael Hanna and Aeysha Kinnunen)
Michael Hanna and Aeysha Kinnunen are the epitome of young lovers with their impassioned facial expressions and physicality and their impossibly beautiful hair; they're quite the charming pair. Jason Rojas and Kory LaQuess Pullam are crowd favorites with their energetic frat boy portrayals of Mercutio and Benvolio, and Nate Cheeseman gets quite a few laughs from his crowd interaction as the servant Peter. Come to think of it, the entire cast is great at engaging the audience, speaking directly to them in their monologues. The adult set's not too shabby either. Zach Curtis is fearsome as Juliet's controlling father, Mo Perry is regal and aloof as her mother and stern and compassionate as the Prince, John Middleton is the lovers' only friend in the Friar, and Laura Esping is Juliet's loving Nurse and the Chorus. She also delivers an inspirational pre-show message to the audience about how theater is ephemeral and a joint creation between cast and audience. It reminded me of why I love theater and do what I do, and no doubt inspired a few new theater fans in the audience, as did the 90 minutes that followed.

Only a handful of evening performances of this fast-paced, intense, captivating Romeo and Juliet remain, but student matinees continue for the next two months. If you know a teenager or work with teenagers, contact Park Square to see how they can take part in the student program.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

"The Drawer Boy" at Theatre in the Round

The 1999 play The Drawer Boy by Canadian playwright Michael Healey is apparently one of the most produced plays in Canada and the US, but I had never heard of it. I admit I was confused by the title; is this about a boy who draws, or a boy who lives in a drawer? It's of course the former, but this boy is much more interesting than just being a drawer. He grows up to fight in WWII with his best friend, where a brain injury destroys his short-term memory. After returning home to rural Canada, the two men settle into their lives as bachelor farmers. Not much changes until an actor arrives to write a play about them, and it forces them to reexamine the story they've been living and telling for 30 years. This production by Theatre in the Round (now in their 63rd season, the oldest theater in Minneapolis) tells this story well and sweetly.

We meet lifelong friends Angus (he of the brain injury) and Morgan at the same time city slicker Miles does. It soon becomes obvious to Miles and the audience that Angus is... special. Although he remembers Morgan from the pre-war days, and after years of repetition and practice he knows how to do things like make sandwiches (lots of sandwiches) and drive a tractor, he can't remember new things or people. Miles has to reintroduce himself every day as he follows the farmers around with his notebook, gathering material for the play he's working on (interestingly based on a true event in Canadian theater in 1972 called The Farm Show). Morgan has a good time with the gullible actor, asking him to perform tasks like washing rocks and rotating the crops at 3 am. Every night Angus asks Morgan to tell him a story, the story of their life. Miles overhears this touching story of love, friendship, and loss, and puts it into the play. When Angus and Morgan go to the rehearsal and hear Miles' rendition of their story, Morgan is angered, but Angus is delighted. And more importantly, it triggers something in his injured brain and he begins to remember. It changes the delicate balance in Angus and Morgan's life, of which Morgan has always had control. But as painful as it is to hear, perhaps it's better for both of them to know and speak their true story.

Bob Malos, Keith Shelbourne, and Mike Swan
(photo by Richard Fleischman)
The three-person cast does a wonderful job of bringing this story to life, under the direction of Jamil Jude who makes great use of the in-the-round space. It really is an interesting and unique way to see theater; it provides a three-dimensional, 360-degree, more realistic view of the story. Keith Shelbourne is sweet and sympathetic as the addled Angus, and believably portrays his reawakening and longing for something more. Bob Malos is the epitome of the bachelor farmer (something we Minnesotans are also familiar with), a no-nonsense hard worker with little time for frivolities, but hiding a depth of feeling for his friend and deep pain at their shared past and the loss he carries for both of them. Mike Swan is also great as the eager actor who teaches the other two men a bit about storytelling.

The play is set in 1972, which you wouldn't know from the farmers' timeless uniform of Levis and plaid shirts, but the city kid actor displays a fun array of '70s fashion. The farm set fills up the in-the-round space, with short walls between the indoor kitchen and living room and the great outdoors, and open spaces hinting at doors and windows. The lighting nicely highlights the time of day, from nighttime star-watching to the morning sun glowing warmly through the imaginary windows (costumes by Amy B. Kaufman, set by Laura Tracy, lighting by Andrew C. Kedl). I also quite enjoyed the pre-show, intermission, and between-scenes soundtrack - a mix of '70s and acoustic folk and country.

Theatre in the Round's poignant production of The Drawer Boy continues through next weekend only.