Tuesday, June 30, 2015

"SAFE: A Benefit to End Gun Violence" at the Capri Theater

Gun violence is unfortunately never far from our consciousness. Gun deaths occur daily, and mass shootings like the recent killing of nine people in a church in Charleston seem to be happening with greater frequency in this country. I'm not one to get political on this theater blog, but it's clear that we have a problem, and it cannot be solved until both "sides" let go of their firmly held beliefs and meet in the middle to come up with a solution to stem the epidemic. A group of local music-theater artists, led by Joshua Campbell, held the third annual benefit in support of Protect Minnesota, an organization working to end gun violence right here in our home state. The goal of the evening was to raise money for the organization, but also to start a conversation, because that's truly the way that change will happen. And of course, to enjoy some fabulous performances. Mission accomplished on all fronts!

Similar to the benefit I attended two years ago (I missed last year), the evening was structured as performances of songs from musical theater and pop culture, interspersed with relevant readings. The text this year came from a play called The Gun Show by EM Lewis. The excerpts (read passionately and emotionally by Ann Michels, who didn't sing much because she's saving it for her other job) made me want to see the entire play. EM Lewis is one of those people who is in the middle - she grew up with guns in rural Oregon and still owns a gun, but recognizes that there needs to be some changes in the way we think about, legislate, and handle guns. The play is funny, honest, and thought-provoking.

The music (with direction and piano accompaniment by John Lynn) was centered around the theme of "safe." The five performers are some of the Twin Cities best music-theater actors - Aimee K. Bryant, Jennifer Grimm, Kasono Mwanza, Rudoph (Tré) Searles III, and Katie Bradley. It was a treat to hear them sing, especially these highlights:
  • Aimee and Tré dueting on "Two Lost Souls" from Damn Yankees (which Tré recently appeared in at the Ordway)
  • Katie singing about opera- and jazz-singing neighbors and showing she can sing it too
  • Katie and Kasono on one of my favorite musical theater songs, "Suddenly Seymour" from Little Shop of Horrors (which Katie appeared in with Mu Performing Arts a few years ago)
  • Aimee once again channeling Celie from The Color Purple with the song that's guaranteed to bring tears to my eyes, "I'm Here"
  • Jennifer (who I'm pretty sure is a time traveler from another era) singing songs like "Someone To Watch Over Me" the way they were meant to be sung
  • Two lovely duets from Kasono and Tré
  • The fantastic group numbers - the Beatles' "With A Little Help From My Friends" and John Legend's "Humanity (Love the Way It Should Be)"
In addition to the performances, there was also a raffle of theater tickets, a speech by a local pastor, and a remembrance of the nine victims of the recent Charleston shooting. A great show for a great cause, what's better than that?

To find out more about Protect Minnesota, visit their website. And start a conversation, perhaps with someone you don't agree with, in an attempt to help find a shared solution.

Ann Michels, Rudolph Searles III, Kasono Mwanza,
Katie Bradley,Aimee K. Bryant, and Jennifer Grimm

Monday, June 29, 2015

"The Music Man" at Guthrie Theater

The Guthrie Theater's production of The Music Man is the reason why people who love musicals love musicals. And since I'm a person who loves musicals, I love everything about it! I loved the movie as a kid, and recently fell in love with the piece anew when I saw Ten Thousand Things' sublimely sparse and spellbinding production last year. On the opposite end of the spectrum is the Guthrie's big, bold, glorious show, with a huge cast of old and new favorites, breathtaking sets and costumes, those beloved familiar songs, spirited dancing, and a real live marching band! Meredith Wilson's story and music is such a beautiful and moving celebration of the power of love, music, hope, community, and a shared goal. And this production brings out every wonderful thing in his work. In a word, this Music Man is scrumptious.

You all know the story - a con man comes to a small Iowa town to sell them band instruments, uniforms, and a false promise of musical instruction, bringing music and new life to the stolid town, all the while planning to skip town after he collects the money, until he unexpectedly "gets his foot caught in the door on the way out," realizing that he needs these people to believe in him as much as they need someone and something to believe in. Professor Harold Hill is an expert salesman with a knack for knowing exactly what people need to hear and telling it to them in the most appealing way. He wins the town over person by person, giving the children something to focus on and look forward to, convincing the bickering school board to become a barbershop quartet, prompting the busybody ladies to form a dancing society.  But music teacher and librarian Marian, a proud, guarded, and bookish "old maid" with high standards is not so easily won over. She knows the truth about Professor Hill, but when she sees her troubled and withdrawn little brother begin to blossom under his friendship, and the town come together as one, she sees that "the truth" about Professor Hill doesn't really matter. What matters is the joy that he's brought to the town, and even if he does skip town, he will leave them better than he found them.

I love our local actors so much that I'm always a little disappointed when cast lists are released with unfamiliar names at the top. But I need to learn to trust the Guthrie casting department, because they always find just the right person for each role. For as soon as these newcomers stepped on stage, they made me fall in love with them against my will! And truly, this 40+ person cast is a beautiful mixture of about half Guthrie veterans, a half dozen newcomers from the national scene, and even more Guthrie newcomers from within our own talent base, including many of our most above average children.

Marion and Professor Hill lead the dance
(Stacie Bono and Danny Binstock, photo by T. Charles Erickson)
Moments after stepping onstage, or rather, revealing his identity after the opening train scene (more about that later), Danny Binstock had me under his spell as much as Harold Hill has the River City-zens under his. Smooth-talking, -moving, and
-singing, with boundless charm, an ever-present spring in his step, and a knowing roguish smirk on his face (and looking a bit like Joseph Gordon-Levitt), he simply is Professor Hill. Stacie Bono is everything you'd want in Marian the librarian, sensible, smart, and proud, slowly letting her hair down (figuratively and literally) as she lets this man into her life. And her golden soprano voice will give you chills on such songs as "My White Knight" and "Till There Was You." Danny and Stacie are a charming pair with oodles of chemistry and lovely harmonies.

the marvelous cast of The Music Man (photo by T. Charles Erickson)
I cannot possibly mention all of the wonderfulness in the ensemble, but I'll just point out a few, starting with the littlest (the child roles are shared between two actors). Soren Thayne Miller is sweet and adorable as Winthrop; the moment when he begins to talk excitedly about his scrumptious solid gold coronet always gets me. Rising star Natalie Tran is equally adorable as the spunky Amaryllith. Moving on to the grown-ups, Richard Ruiz has played the role of the Professor's buddy Marcellus four times around the country, and it's easy to see why - he's a dead ringer for Buddy Hackett from the movie, and his big song "Shipoopi" is just as fun. Peter Thomson is hilarious as the bumbling mayor (in Peter's words, he thinks himself the Teddy Roosevelt of River City, but possesses the intellect of Spiro Agnew). Barbara Marineau is a hoot as his wife Eulalie, performing in ever more ridiculous get-ups with her dancing ladies (all of whom are wonderful). James Ramlet, Joel Liestman (filling in for an injured T. Mychael Rambo), Robert O. Berdahl, and Robert DuSold comprise a barbershop quartet sent from heaven. Margaret Daly is a warm and funny presence as Mrs. Paroo, and Brandon Timmons is a wonderfully high-stepping, baton-twirling, band-leading drum major.

the train rolls into River City (photo by T. Charles Erickson)
The talent in the large ensemble bursts off the stage, and director John Miller-Stephany does a wonderful job keeping everything organized and moving, and bringing out the huge heart in this piece. The busy and spectacular group numbers are nicely balanced with quieter character moments. Speaking of spectacular group numbers, Joe Chvala's choreography is, as always, an absolute delight and so much fun to watch, even though there's so much going on onstage it's impossible to take it all in in one sitting (lucky for me I'm going back to see the show again with my family in August). The opening number is particularly ingenious, as the salesmen rap about the art of selling ("you've gotta know the territory!") while moving as one, so realistically depicting the motion of a train that I almost got nauseous just watching them! Another highlight is "Marian the Librarian," depicting probably the most fun that's ever been had in a library.

Tommy (Brandon Simmons) leads the band as the crowd cheers
(photo by T. Charles Erickson)
A musical about a band has to have a great band, and do they! Music director Andrew Cooke is the first person onstage, taking his place in a mini-pit at the front of the stage, only his shoulders and head visible as he leads the cast and backstage band performing this beautiful, rousing, clever, lovely score with too many great songs to mention. And when the River City band marches on stage at the climax of the play, it's truly thrilling, and so moving as these loving parents think the warbled sounds of these unrehearsed children is as sweet as a symphony. That's love.

Grant Wood's Young Corn
The inspiration for Todd Rosenthal's set design is, appropriately, Iowa artist Grant Wood. Yes, there is an American Gothic moment, but the larger inspiration is the painting Young Corn. Not only are the backdrop and scrim painted in the style of Young Corn, but the buildings are as well. Director John Miller-Stephany said in a post-show discussion that this emphasizes the importance of the rural farming community in this small Iowa town. In addition to the massive buildings (some of which might look familiar to those who saw My Fair Lady last summer), there is large square in the stage floor that lowers to the bowels of the Guthrie* to change the set pieces from the train, to the town square statue, to the Paroo living room, to the gymnasium, to the hotel, to the library, and finally to the footbridge. Mathew J. LeFebvre's costumes are a feast for the eyes, from flouncy dresses to well-tailored suits to brightly colored band uniforms.

It's obvious that Meredith Wilson wrote The Music Man as a loving homage to his home city of Mason City, Iowa, using people and places he knew as inspiration for the piece. And the Guthrie's production continues in that spirit. As much as we Minnesotans like to make fun of Iowa, we're really not that different, and the values of home, community, pride, and family ring true. If you're a person who loves musicals, you won't want to miss this Music Man that will remind you of why you love musicals. That is, familiar and beloved songs, a huge and hugely talented cast of familiar faces and new, fantastic set and costumes that bring you right into that world, humor, and most important, a meaningful and poignant story told with much heart. The Music Man continues through August 23, but get your tickets soon before they sell out.

*The Guthrie offers backstage tours, in which you can visit the bowels of the Guthrie and see how the stage mechanics work, as well as tour the rehearsal spaces and costume and set shops.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

"Two Gentlemen of Verona" by Classical Actors Ensemble at Lake of the Isles

The best thing about living in Minnesota is: a) theater, and b) lakes. Combine those two, and you have about as perfect of a Minnesota experience as you can have. Classical Actors Ensemble is presenting Shakespeare's comedy Two Gentlemen of Verona at Lake of the Isles (and other select locations) this summer. I saw the matinee yesterday, and it was a lovely way to spend a picture perfect Minnesota summer afternoon. The show is utterly charming, and something about doing it outdoors in a public space makes Shakespeare seem more immediate, natural, and real, like this is a story that's happening in our world here and now. I sometimes have a hard time getting into Shakespeare, but this company makes it extremely accessible and so easy to become engaged in the stories, characters, and Shakespeare's beautiful words, which sound modern and fresh in this context. Their mission is: "Classical Actors Ensemble is dedicated to engaging audiences by capturing the spirit in which plays of the English Renaissance were originally performed - with immediacy, passion, and as popular entertainment." Mission accomplished.

the cast of Two Gentlemen of Verona
Walking down the hill by the lake towards the stage area feels like walking into the Renaissance Festival. A dozen or so young people are cavorting in Renn Fest peasant garb, talking, singing, playing instruments. The pre-show show is a going away party for Valentine, who's leaving Verona to find his fortune in Milan (which they adorably pronounce MILL-un). It feels like a modern day outdoor party among friends, except for the charming dances to Beetles and other pop songs played in Renn Fest style. The cast is comfortably chatting with each other and the audience, and as showtime approaches, the language suddenly switches to Shakespeare and the play begins, but that modern immediate feeling is never lost. The show is playful, loose, and fun, full of youthful exuberance, but not at the expense of the material. On the contrary; it feels like this is how Shakespeare is meant to be done. It's not supposed to be stiff and formal, but, like their mission says, "with immediacy, passion, and as popular entertainment."

the royal Silvia with outlaw Valentine
(Megan Volkman-Wilson and Daniel Joeck)
Verona is portrayed as a provincial little town (Renaissance Festival), and Milan the slick big city (as the wardrobe changes to a sharp black, gold, and pink, with a '20s flair). Valentine leaves fair Verona and his best friend Proteus behind, and finds love in Milan in the form of Silvia, daughter of the Duke. Proteus soon follows his friend to Milan, leaving behind his own beloved, Julia, and being a fickle man soon falls in love with Silvia too. But Silvia's father already has a husband picked out for her, and banishes Valentine from Milan, whereupon he falls in with a band of outlaws. Proteus' attempts to woo Silvia come to naught, and she goes in search of her love Valentine. Proteus follows with his page (Julia in disguise), finds Silvia and Valentine, who is none to happy with his friend's behavior. But this is a Shakespearean comedy, so the appropriate couples are reunited, and all's well that ends well!

the clowns Speed and Lance
(Marci Lucht and Michael Ooms)
Everyone in the cast is great and so much fun to watch, and these well trained young actors project beautifully over the noises of traffic, animals, and people to the small crowd gathered on the hill. As the titular gentlemen, Daniel Joeck (Valentine) and Joseph Papke (Proteus) portray a great bromance and are charming in their individual stories as well. Marika Proctor makes the bespectacled Julia appealing and empathetic, while Megan Volkman-Wilson is posh and sophisticated, but no less true in her love. As usual, the servants get the funniest, smartest lines, and Marci Lucht (Speed) and Michael Ooms (Lance) deliver them with gusto. Marci is a wisecracking tomboy, and Michael is an endearing goofball (not unlike his father). As Silvia's foppish suitor Turio, Timothy Daly is over-the-top (in a good way). But perhaps the biggest scene-stealer in this cast is the dog Karma, playing the role of Lance's dog Crab. Following along where he's led, doing as he's told, playful and adoring of his master (I'm loving the recent trend of live animals in theater!).

bespectacled and in love - Proteus and Julia
(Joseph Papke and Marika Proctor)
Director Hannah Steblay nicely reigns in the chaos of people, animals, music, and the natural elements to create a focused and engaging story. And just because it's outdoors doesn't mean they skimp on costumes and set. Several large wooden platforms are moved around, flipped over, and stood on end to create the different settings. The provincial Renn Fest costumes give way to the sleek city wardrobe of smart suits, fedoras, and flapper dresses. (Scenic design by Shannon Morgan and costume design by Sarah Sakry.)

I love the use of music throughout the play in appropriate places, as the band consisting of various combinations of horn, accordion, guitar, and voice play Renaissance-style pop songs. Perhaps the most appropriate is the curtain call song "Why Do Fools Fall In Love?" which could be a theme song for just about all of Shakespeare's comedies. In this play as in others, it's a mystery why these fools fall in love, and then fall out of love, and then fall back in love again. But we love to watch them! These two gents are a particular joy to watch - a charming and energetic production in the unparalleled setting of the great Minnesota outdoors. Be sure to put this one on your Minnesota summer to do list! They perform Fridays at 7 and Saturdays and Sundays at 2 through July 12, mostly at Lake of the Isles but with a few other Twin Cities locations sprinkled in (see their website for details).

my view of the stage - could it be more charming?!

Saturday, June 27, 2015

"Sherlock Holmes and the Ice Palace Murders" at Park Square Theatre

The old adage "the show must go on" was tested last night. On the day that Park Square Theatre's world premiere play Sherlock Holmes and the Ice Palace Murders was scheduled to open, Steve Hendrickson, aka Sherlock himself, underwent surgery for an aneurysm. The good news is he's going to be fine and will hopefully return to the show soon, but what to do about opening night? Director Peter Moore to the rescue! With one emergency rehearsal and script in hand, he took the stage to embody one of the most iconic characters in literature and film. And it was a success. Even though he often looked at the script (not even a show biz vet like Peter Moore can learn an entire play in a few hours), he never broke character and was able to convey that distinct Sherlock Holmes-ness. It probably helps that he's surrounded by a great cast playing multiple characters, acting a script written by one of Minnesota's best playwrights Jeffrey Hatcher, based on a novel by Larry Millett, based on the characters created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. That's a recipe for success that's able to withstand last-minute challenges.

In Larry Millett's story, Sherlock Holmes and his trusty partner Watson are on a three-month tour of the US in 1896. They're about to depart Chicago to head back to London when they read about the strange disappearance of a wealthy groom in St. Paul. The mystery is too much for Sherlock to resist, so they take a detour to St. Paul to see what they can find. What they find is a daughter and son of wealthy businessmen with a stake in the Winter Carnival, about to be married in the Ice Palace until the groom disappears and the bride suspiciously returns her wedding dress. Holmes and Watson team up with a local barkeep/ex-cop named Shadwell Rafferty, along with journalist Miss Pyle who wrote the article enticing them to come to St. Paul. They discover a horrific scandal in the groom's past, and secrets that the bride is keeping as well. Suspects abound, from family members to Ice Palace workers to the town burglar. It's great fun to watch these two sleuths uncover the truth, especially in the second act as the clues start falling into place with greater speed.

Steve Hendrickson has played Sherlock multiple times on Park Square's stage (most recently in The Adventure of the Suicide Club two years ago), so those of you who see the show after his recovery are in for a treat! But even now, Peter Moore does a fine job filling in for him, and Bob Davis is so comfortable in the skin of Dr. Watson (a role he has also played multiple times) that it seems like a quite natural pairing. As their new partner/friend/adversary Rafferty, E.J. Subkoviak is a delight with his Irish-by-way-of-Boston accent and roguish charm. Tamara Clark and Taylor Harvey do as much as they can with the roles of the plucky reporter and the bride with secrets (the world of Sherlock Holmes has always been a boy's club, but it's too bad a modern update doesn't have better roles for women). The rest of the cast ably plays multiple roles, including Neal Hazard as the affable driver and the grieving father; Jason Rojas, reveling in the opposite roles of the bride's spurned and moody lover and her spoiled rich boy brother; James Cada, almost unrecognizable in his three roles of the Swedish Ice Palace guard, the father of the bride, and the gruff police chief; and Stephen Cartmell, deliciously creepy as the cross-dressing burglar and mysterious as the ice sculptor.

The stage is mostly empty, surrounded by a scroll frame, with images that look like book illustrations projected on a screen at the back of the stage to set the scene. There are some creepy cool effects in this murder mystery, and a charming sled (scenic design by Lance Brockman). Amy B. Kaufman's period costumes are lovely, especially the hats worn by the would-be bride.

Despite the opening night set-backs, Sherlock Holmes and the Ice Palace Murders is a smart, funny, and entertaining mystery, with plenty of local references and jokes. The audience also seemed to enjoy the references to other Sherlock Holmes stories that I didn't get, not being a huge fan of the series. If you're a fan of Sherlock Holmes, or if you're looking for a light and fun summery mystery (set in the winter), you might want to check this one out (continuing through July 26).

Sherlock Holmes and the Ice Palace Murders from Park Square Theatre on Vimeo.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

"You Can't Take It With You" at the Jungle Theater

About a year and a half ago, I cut down the hours on my day job so that I would have more time to do what I love - seeing and writing about theater. Which essentially means I took a pay cut in order to have more time to enjoy my life. This means that my bank account is a little smaller, but as the man said, you can't take it with you! It's a motto I live by, but had yet to see the play by that name until last night. I was pleased to discover that it celebrates this very spirit - doing what you love, surrounded by people you love (no matter how crazy they might be), and not sacrificing these things for a paycheck. Granted, not everyone is in a position to reduce their paycheck to spend time blogging, or dancing, or making fireworks, but it's a good thing to assess how you're spending your time (more precious and rare than money) every once in a while. Jungle Theater's production of You Can't Take It With You is funny, quirky, heart-warming, and with a cast so delicious it'll make you drool.

Hugh Kennedy and Anna Sundberg
(photo by Kerri Pickett)
It's 1937 New York, and the extended Sycamore family is about as eccentric as they come. Grandpa quit his job 35 years ago because he didn't enjoy it, and spends his time raising snakes and attending commencements. Daughter Penny and her husband Paul keep busy writing plays and making fireworks, respectively, while their daughter Essie, who lives in the house with xylophone-playing husband Ed, studies dance and makes candy. Various other oddball friends and employees fill the house, with daughter Alice as the only seemingly "normal" one. She works in an office on Wall Street, and falls in love with the boss' son. As you can imagine, when Alice brings Mr. Kirby and his conservative wealthy parents home to meet the family, much hilarity ensues. Will these two very different families ever make peace so that these two crazy kids can get hitched?

Angela Timberman, John Middleton, and a kitty!
(photo by Kerri Pickett)
This is a huge and star-studded cast, with many favorites from the Jungle and other local stages, including three real-life married couples (although only one of them actually plays a married couple). And there's not a weak link among them, including the two kittens! Each actor is so committed to the role and bringing out each character's delightful and specific quirks, while still making them seem like real people. In fact I don't know where to begin in singling out individual performances, for fear of leaving someone out! But I'll give it a go:

Angela Timberman, Cathleen Fuller, Hugh Kennedy,
Nathaniel Fuller, and Julia Valen
(photo by Kerri Pickett)
There's Angela Timberman as the loveable flake of a mother (I don't think it's possible for a human to upstage her, but a kitten can, especially when it starts playing with her earring!); John Middleton as her fireworks-obsessed husband; Cathleen and Nathaniel Fuller as the stiff and conservative Kirbys, both of whom have a little more life inside them than initially seen; Anna Sundberg as the sweet and relatively normal Alice; Hugh Kennedy, as charming as ever as her Mr. Kirby; Elisa Pluhar and Peter Lincoln Rusk as a couple of loyal employees that fit right in with this odd family; Charity Jones as a boozy actress who spends most of her time onstage collapsed in a heap; the delightful Julia Valen as Essie, constantly dancing and fluttering in her ballet slippers, frequently getting up on those toes; sharing a cute and easy chemistry with Max Wojtanowicz as her husband who accidentally distributes communist messages; Jay Albright, goofy as ever as Paul's fireworks buddy; Allen Hamilton as the frighteningly intense Russian dance teacher; Wendy Lehr as the Grand Duchess who makes blintzes, a third-act appearance that's worth the wait; Gabriel Murphy as the shocked IRS agent who enters the home and doesn't know what he's getting into; and last but not least, Raye Birk who, like Grandpa, is the heart and center of the show. Phew! Trust me, they're all fantastic and play together so well under Gary Gisselman's direction that every performance is a joy to watch. In fact there's often so much goodness going on at once on different parts of the stage that it's impossible to take it all in!

All of this craziness takes place in the Sycamore home, beautifully designed by Tom Butsch to use every inch of the Jungle's small stage. There's a foyer, office area, alcove for Ed's xylophone and printing press, stairway, dining table, and several doorways with set decoration continuing outside the doors. The walls are covered with framed photos and artwork, and every corner is crammed with books and tchotchkes. Amelia Cheever's '30s period costumes are beautiful (including several pairs of shoes I would like to own) and perfectly suited to each character. The lighting by Don Darnutzer and sound by Montana Johnson complete this specifically defined world (including several fireworks tricks on and off stage), with period music playing during intermissions and a post-curtain call song that perfectly sums up the evening: the best things in life are free!

What else can I say about You Can't Take It With You than it's an absolute delight and utterly joyful. Head to the Jungle between now and through August 9 for a pick-me-up and to revel in the good things in life.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

"Once" at the State Theatre

There's no big opening number, no splashy dance with dozens of chorus girls and boys, no pit orchestra, no large moving set pieces, no colorful glamorous costumes. Once is not your typical musical. In fact, according to The Cherry and Spoon Music-Theater Spectrum1 it's not a musical at all, but rather a play with music. Yet this atypical not-really-a-musical musical won eight Tony Awards in 2012. Why is that? Why was this quiet and quirky musical based on a little Irish movie awarded Broadway's biggest prize? Perhaps because it is different from other musicals. Perhaps the voters awarded the creative and organic way music is used to tell this beautifully simple and non-traditional love story. Once is a new kind of music-theater, and proves that musicals don't always have to be big and loud to have a profound effect on the audience. Once is quietly, beautifully stirring.

This is the second time that the First National Tour of Once has stopped in Minneapolis, with largely the same cast, although this time it's making its home in the slightly more intimate State Theater2. The tagline for this tour is "once is not enough," but for me, thrice is not enough as I would gladly go see it again every night of its brief one-week Minneapolis stay! Perhaps I'm biased - Once is one of my favorite movies and my favorite movie soundtrack, and it introduced me to my favorite musician Glen Hansard. But even without that prior attachment, it's easy to see that Once is something truly special. The music is raw and passionate, performed by a cast of 13 quadruple threats - they act, sing, dance (or at least move in a choreographed way), AND play an instrument. This folk-rock score written by the stars of the movie, Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, is not the kind of music you usually hear coming from the Broadway stage; it's quieter, less polished, and more real3. The story is simple and quiet - boy meets girl, boy fixes girl's Hoover, girl encourages boy to record his songs and follow his dreams, boy and girl go on with their separate lives, better for having met one another. John Carney's original story was adapted for the stage by the beautifully twisted mind of playwright Enda Walsh, retaining that unique Irish spirit4. The result as a whole is lovely, poignant, moving, and grand.

the loveable oddballs of Once
Since this is largely the same cast as last year, I'll repeat what I said then: As the guy, Stuart Ward has big shoes to fill - both those of Glen Hansard and Steve Kazee, who won a Tony for the role. And fill them he does, although in a different style than either of these predecessors. He possesses a gorgeous voice that's more musical theater than folk-rock, a moody intensity, and great stage charisma. The character of the girl changed so much from movie to stage that all thoughts of Marketa Irglova are gone, but Cristin Milioti (aka the surprisingly short-lived "Mother") left a great impression. Dani de Waal fills those shoes nicely in the quite tricky role of the girl, charming and sweet but not too perky. And when Stuart and Dani sing together, as on the Oscar-winning song "Falling Slowly," it's wondrous. The two are well supported and enhanced by ten wonderful actor/singer/musicians (and one adorable little girl). Standouts include Evan Harrington as the good-natured but tough music store owner, Scott Waara as the guy's sweet Da (with a really lovely pre-show song), and Matt DeAngelis, providing comic relief and powerful percussion as Svec (you know you're a true musical theater geek when you recognize touring cast members, as I did Matt; I clearly remember him as Woof in another musical obsession of mine, Hair, and in American Idiot).

The set is a pub that never changes, with tables and chairs brought out to represent different settings. Through it all, most of the cast remains on stage, watching from the sidelines. Dingy mirrors surround the stage and offer other angles of the action. The movement and choreography is so beautiful, subtle, and organic. There are no typical "dance numbers," just characters moving organically as the music moves them. Even the scene changes are beautifully and elegantly carried out, as not a moment is wasted.

The show begins before the show begins; the audience is allowed onstage to visit the pub and drink an overpriced beer through a straw. But it's worth it because the cast of musicians soon comes onstage for a traditional Irish session which you're able to witness up close and personal. After the audience is escorted off the stage, the session continues as the cast trades songs, until the musical baton is passed to the guy in the scarf, he belts out an impassioned "Leave," and the house lights go down. Just like that, reality fades and the world of the play takes over, and is so engrossing that it's like a dream. One that I hated to leave.

Stuart Ward and Dani de Waal
Unlike what Hollywood and Broadway usually tell us, not everyone gets a happily ever after kind of love, and maybe that's not even the ideal kind of love to strive for. If we're lucky, we get an hour, or a day, or a week-long encounter with someone who changes our life and pushes us forward when we've become "stopped." Maybe that's what life is, a series of moments, encounters, relationships, that might not last a lifetime although their effects do. That's what this story is about, and that's what these two people do for each other. It's a perfect love story, even though it may not end in the way that we're taught to expect. And it's also a love story about Ireland and its rich and unique culture, that the girl describes as "speaking and singing of what it is to be human." She tells the guy that he has "heart and soul," and this unique music-theater creation has heart and soul in spades, and speaks and sings of what it is to be human, with all the heartbreak, joy, disappointment, passion, connection, difficulties, and wonder it entails.

Once continues at the State Theatre in downtown Minneapolis through this weekend only. Whether it's once, twice, thrice, or more, it's a grand experience that's not to be missed.

1. The Cherry and Spoon Music-Theater Spectrum (TM pending): in a musical, characters sing in character, expressing their emotions and moving the plot forward. In a play with music, the music takes place in context, with characters singing in a way that would make sense in real life, and don't sing as the character. If you take the music out of a play with music, it still makes sense, although some of the impact is lost. If you take the music out of a musical, the story no longer makes sense.
2. Find out more about the State, Orpheum, and other local theaters in my "Review of Venues."
3. If you like the music of Once, check out Glen and Mar's follow-up album Strict Joy under their band name The Swell Season, or their solo albums Rhythm and Repose and Muna (among others), or the upcoming album commemorating the 25th anniversary of Glen's band The Frames.
4. For another taste of that unique Irish spirit, go see Guthrie departing Artistic Director Joe Dowling's loving ode to his homeland, the beautifully tragic Juno and the Paycock.

This article also appears on Broadway World Minneapolis.

Monday, June 22, 2015

"Choir Boy" at the Guthrie Theater

What do you get when you combine a talented young playwright, an excellent cast that includes five up-and-coming actors and two beloved veterans of local stages, stirring a capella gospel music arranged by a local musical legend, and the Twin Cities' best director of "theater musically?" You get Choir Boy, a lovely and affecting play about a young gay man coming of age in an African American boarding school. The playwright is Tarell Alvin McCraney of the excellent Brother/Sister trilogy that Pillsbury House Theatre has produced in its entirety in the last several years. While those plays have an epic, mythical quality, Choir Boy is more grounded in reality, but just as beautifully written. Add in musical direction and arrangement by Sanford Moore and direction by Peter Rothstein, an expert at using music in the best possibly way to enhance the theatrical storytelling, and you have something quite special going on in the Guthrie's Dowling Studio.

Choir Boy centers around five young men at Drew Prep School, a fictional African American boarding school (of which, the playbill tells us, only four exist). We witness their lives over the course of a school year, beginning with graduation at which Pharus (John-Michael Lyles) proudly leads the choir in the school song, until distracted by some homophobic heckling by his classmate Bobby (Darrick Mosley), who happens to be the nephew of the Headmaster (James Craven). This causes some tension in the choir room when the boys return to school in the fall, and newly appointed choir leader Pharus kicks Bobby off the choir, while allowing his sidekick Junior (Kory LaQuess Pullam) to stay. Pharus has a sweet friendship with his roommate AJ (Ryan Colbert), and some unspoken history with David (Nathan Barlow). A new (white) teacher (Robert Dorfman) comes in and tries to shake things up, challenging the boys to think about things in a new way. As graduation rolls around again, these five young men are in a different place in their lives, a bit older, a bit wiser, a bit more lost or a bit more found. It's really a slice of life kind of play, where you can imagine these characters' lives existing before the actions of the play, and continuing after the actions of the play, in a direction that's not clearly spelled out. We don't know the full stories of their lives, but getting to watch a year of their lives over the course of 90 minutes is a fulfilling and rewarding experience.

This play truly depicts the universal struggle of being a teenager and trying to figure out who you are and what your place is in this world, when so many external sources are telling you what to do, be, and think. This is conveyed through the specific challenges of being a young gay man in a strict Christian African American boarding school. And the music, which is absolutely beautiful and essential to the piece, really helps to create the specific world. Under the direction/arrangement of Sanford Moore, these five young men create some beautiful harmonies and fascinatin' rhythms on these traditional gospel and spiritual songs with a modern twist. The music is placed perfectly to enhance the storytelling, whether the song is mournful or joyful, and happens organically in scene transitions, rehearsals, or performances.

the Choir Boys (Darrick Mosley, Ryan Colbert,
John-Michael Lyles, Nathan Barlow, and Kory LaQuess Pullam,
photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp)
John-Michael Lyles is the one member of this excellent seven-man cast who's new to the Twin Cities theater scene, and he's just perfect for his role. He creates a real and well-defined character in Pharus, alternately frustrating and sympathetic (if the Drew choir is Glee, Pharus is Rachel Berry, full of talent and not afraid to say it). The four other young men are bright young local talent seen on various stages around the Cities in the last few years, and it's nice to see them all shine as individuals and as a group in this piece. James Craven always makes everything better, here as the stern Headmaster who truly cares for these boys at the same time he's frustrated, perplexed, and annoyed by them. Last but not least is Robert Dorfman, his portrayal of the eccentric teacher in nice contrast to the otherwise strict boarding school environment and providing some comic relief - bumbling, putting his foot in his mouth, but passionate about his job and reaching young minds.

Michael Hoover's sharp set simultaneously represents five different settings (dorm room, Headmaster's office, showers, classroom, and yard) on multiple levels, making great use of the upper story balcony in the Dowling Studio. And what was it that Chekhov said? If you show a shower on stage, you must have a shower scene? Both Damn Yankees and Choir Boy deliver on that promise, although the latter with more realism.

I saw Choir Boy last Saturday night at the Guthrie Theater, home of three stages in one building. It also happened to be the first preview of The Music Man, and the joint was jumping! Even though I was annoyed to find my usual parking level full, and people clogging the escalator, hallways, and bathrooms, like the man I rode the elevator with said, it's nice to see so many people out supporting the arts. And three such different plays on the three stages - a 90-year-old Irish play that is departing Artistic Director Joe Dowling's swan song, one of the most beloved American musicals, and this exciting new play about young African American men coming of age. Some 2000 people, all gathered together in one space to share in the experience of live theater - what a beautiful thing (thanks again Joe Dowling!). Choir Boy continues through July 5.

This article also appears on Broadway World Minneapolis.

Friday, June 19, 2015

"Damn Yankees" at the Ordway Center

In the fall of 1987, I was in my second year of junior high, a time that's not kind to a quiet, smart girl with glasses, braces, and frizzy hair. But something happened that made all of the bad stuff go away. The Minnesota Twins won the World Series. My parents had been taking me to Twins games since I was a wee one. I even have vague memories of the old Met Stadium, and clear memories of my first time in the then-un-air-conditioned Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome ("If they don't put air conditioning in here I'm never coming back," said the stubborn young redheaded girl). I loved my Twins, but I didn't realize just how wondrous and exhilarating baseball could be until that late October night in 1987 when Gary Gaetti threw across the diamond to Kent Hrbek to record the final out of Game 7. There's nothing quite like that feeling when the team that you've loved, supported, and cheered for your whole life comes out on top, and the world knows what you've always known, that the Twins are the best team in the world. Little did I know that that magic event would occur again just four years later when the 1991 Twins brought home another championship in a breathtaking, nail-biting, riveting, ten-inning Game 7. The only two times in my lifetime that the Twins had made it to the playoffs, they won the World Series. So imagine my surprise when the baseball gods turned their faces away from my beloved Twins. Even though we've seen a few playoff stints in the early 2000s, it's been more than 23 long years since we've had a World Championship baseball team in Minnesota. So would I sell my soul to the devil to relive that '87/'91 magic in 2015? I don't know - make me an offer.

Given my love of baseball and musical theater, one would think that the 1956 Tony-winning musical Damn Yankees would be on my favorites list. This story about a fan of the Washington Senators (who became the Twins when the franchise moved to Minnesota in 1961) who sells his soul to the devil to become a home run hitter who leads his team to the championship is right up my alley. But despite having uttered the phrase "Damn Yankees!" many a time in my lifetime of cheering on the Twins, I had never seen the show before last night. I'm happy to report that the Ordway's production of Damn Yankees is exceedingly fun and completely satisfying for anyone who loves baseball and/or musicals, capturing the pure love of baseball in the fantastical story, catchy score, and fabulous performances by both national and local talent. It's truly a summertime treat.

"You Gotta Have Heart!" (Allen Fitzpatrick,
Randy Schmeling, Dieter Bierbrauer, and Reid Harmsen)
For those of you unfamiliar with the story, here's what you need to know. Joe Boyd is an avid fan of the Washington Senators, and disappears for "Six Months Out of Every Year" as he lives and dies by his team. His wife Meg puts up with it because she loves him. The Devil shows up in the form of a Mr. Applegate (in this case, the devil wears black with red pinstripes) and offers to turn Joe into a home run hitter for the Senators. Joe agrees, leaving his wife behind, but only temporarily until he can beat the Yankees! Despite his success on the field, Joe misses his wife and his old life, so Mr. Applegate brings in Lola to seduce him. Choices are made, scandals are uncovered, lives are changed, and games are won and lost. But will the devil win out? (What do you think, it's a musical!)

Written in the '60s, the show is a bit dated, with husbands sitting in armchairs watching baseball while their wives bemoan the fact that they're not paying attention to them and the meals that they cook. But at least there are a few women baseball fans. And in this production, the hero Joe is African American, something that's barely even noteworthy in a time when the baseball field is one of the most diverse places in the country, but surely was not what the creators envisioned just a few years after Jackie Robinson broke the baseball color barrier. The interracial relationships also (hopefully) don't raise any eyebrows today, but the diversity serves to make the show feel a bit more modern and relevant.

Tari Kelly as Lola
The Ordway has brought in national talent to play most of the leads, and as much as I love my local favorites, it's hard to argue with success - the show is really well cast. Lawrence Clayton and Ann Morrison have a sweet chemistry as the long-married couple. Thay Floyd is a charmer as young Joe, with a voice that will give you chills! With just a few Broadway credits, he seems like a star in the making. A star fully made is Tari Kelly* as Lola. Sexy and funny and strong and sweet, I pretty much want to be her. After all, "Whatever Lola Wants, Lola Gets!" Monte Riegel Wheeler is appropriately creepy and devilish as Mr. Applegate, and performs some crowd-pleasing light magic. Filling out the supporting characters and ensemble are too many talented local singer/actor/dancers to name, including Kersten Rodau as a plucky reporter, Dieter Bierbrauer, Reid Harmsen, and Randy Schmeling as ballplayers, and Regina Marie Williams as Meg's baseball-loving friend. Honorable mention goes to the adorable young Mario Esteb, the only kid on stage who holds his own among these professionals and represents every little girl and boy who grew up loving baseball.

The Ordway is all decked out in the baseball theme, from the ushers in baseball caps who look more like Target Field ushers than theater ushers, to the familiar voices from Target Field making announcements, to a display of memorabilia from the Washington Senators in the lobby. The relatively simple set (by J Branson) is dominated by the fabulous onstage orchestra directed by Jeff Rizzo, with various set pieces brought out in front of them, including lockers and showers for the clubhouse scenes. The setting is further delineated by pop art-like illustrations projected on a screen behind the band, which also displays vintage baseball footage before the show and during intermission. The '50s period costumes (by Lynda L. Salsbury) are luscious, from the authentic-looking baseball uniforms, to the women's full '50s skirts, to Lola's sultry black and red dresses (always with red shoes!). A couple of fun dance numbers are nicely choreographed (by co-director/choreographers James Rocco and Sharon Halley) in a jazzy, swingy, Fosse kind of style, smartly performed by the cast.

James Rocco worked with his team to make the show "faster and funnier" (the words of book writer and original director George Abbott), and they succeeded. This is not one of those musicals that, even though you love it, plods on just a little too long. It's one of those musicals that ends and you think "is it over already?" It is fast (just over 2 hours including intermission) and it is funny. The run is fast too - the show closes on June 28 so make plans fast to catch this delicious summer treat. With a post-curtain call audience singalong to "You Gotta Have Heart," it'll send you out to the streets happy and ready to cheer on the home team! (Discount tickets available on Goldstar.)

*Read my Broadway World colleague Kristen's interview with Tari Kelly here.

Monday, June 15, 2015

"The Illusion" by Theatre Pro Rata at Park Square Theatre

In Tony Kushner's The Illusion, an adaptation of a 17th Century French play, you're never quite sure if what you're watching is reality or illusion. But this is the theater, so it's all illusion anyway, isn't it? The Illusion plays with ideas of reality, theatricality, illusion, truth, perception, and imagination. Theatre Pro Rata's production, now playing at Park Square Theatre's Boss Stage as part of their "Theatres in Residence" series*, playfully dives into these themes and delivers a funny, entertaining, and engaging play.

In the opening scene of the play, we meet a man who has come to a secret cave to ask a magician about the son he kicked out years ago. For a fee, the magician obliges and shows him the life of his son acted out before him behind a line he cannot cross. Three different scenarios are presented, related but with slightly different circumstances and ever-changing names for the people involved. In the first scene we see the son in pure, young, innocent love; in the second scene he's involved in a love that makes him do desperate and perhaps unwise things; and finally, we see the son with a love that's become tired and jaded. Throughout it all, the man, the magician, and his assistant watch the stories play out. It's unclear, to them and to us, how these three are stories related and which of them is true, if any. After all, you can never really trust a magician to tell you the truth. And what would the man do with the truth anyway? Perhaps he wants to imagine his wayward son as something other than what he has actually become.

The fantastical nature of the magician's illusions are brought to life with colorful, almost cartoony, sets and costumes (which makes even more sense when the "truth" is revealed, which I won't spoil for you). Simple two-dimensional set pieces are carried on and off the bare stage by the characters in each scene, who are dressed in the flouncy skirts or knee pants we associate with 17th Century French society. Set against a backdrop of a curtain in a frame, the effect is very much that we're watching a scene play out for the viewers, who sit on one side at the back of the stage and watch the events unfold with varying reactions (set design by Sadie Ward and costume design by Mandi Johnson).

As the play went on, I became more and more convinced of the excellent casting of the actors who play father and son and who really look the part. Paul de Cordova and Michael Fell share the traits of thick dark hair, a thin face, and a lanky build. Or perhaps it's just their acting that makes me think they look alike, Paul as the father, a little older, wiser, and regretful of past mistakes, Michael as the son, full of energy and acting against his father's rejection. The two never meet (or do they?), but the two performances anchor the two sides of the story and provide a connection. As the magician, Charles Hubbell is appropriately mysterious and a bit creepy, and Tim Uren is amusing as his silent assistant who later takes part in the action. All of the actors in the revolving scenarios, including Michael, bring the stories to heightened life, and play slightly different versions of the same character in each. Abby DeSanto is the beautiful and desired lover with a will of her own, Kelsey Cramer is the mischievous maid whom you almost want to win out over her mistress, Ben Tallen is the pompous rival, and Bryan Grosso is the delightfully over-the-top comic foil.

I saw my first Theatre Pro Rata show just over a year ago, and I've been impressed by everything I've seen since then. It's all been pretty intense (the real-life hanging of a circus elephant, an adaptation of a frightening dystopian novel, and a convicted child molester trying to reintegrate into society), which I appreciate, but it's fun to see a lighter, more playful side to the company in The Illusion, while still being thought-provoking and captivating. The Illusion continues through June 28.

*Park Square Theatre's "Theatres in Residence" series also includes Sandbox Theatre, whose War with the Newts was recently seen on the Boss Stage, and Girl Friday Productions, debuting on the Boss Stage with The Matchmaker next month.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

"Putting It Together" and "La Rondine" by Skylark Opera at E.M. Pearson Theatre

One of the theatrical highlights of the summer, Skylark Opera's Annual Summer Festival, is upon us! As usual, the two shows playing in repertoire include one that's more of a traditional opera (but always in English) and one that skews a bit more towards musical theater: Puccini's La Rondine and the Sondheim musical revue Putting It Together (put together by Sondheim himself). As someone who loves musical theater but doesn't venture into the world of opera very often, Skylark's Summer Festival offers a fun, easy, accessible way to enjoy to dip my toes into the opera scene and indulge my love of musical theater. Both shows are highly entertaining with excellent casts and orchestras. But the runs are short with just four performances of each show. So read on, take your pick, and get your tickets before this all-too-brief Summer Festival is gone like the all-too-brief Minnesota summer!

Putting It Together
A terrific five-person cast, a fantastic eight-piece orchestra, and over 30 of Sondheim's greatest songs. What could be better?! Written in the early '90s, Sondheim pulled together songs from over a dozen of his musicals (including some that were cut from the original shows) and tied them together loosely with the story of two couples, one that's been together a long time and one that's just starting out. This allowed him to use many great relationship songs from the likes of Merrily We Roll Along, A Little Night Music, Company (my personal favorite, and perhaps Sondheim's as well because he included five songs in this revue), Follies, and the movie Dick Tracy. (Does anyone remember that Sondheim wrote five original songs for the 1990 movie? Me neither, but he included four of those five songs in this revue, maybe because it was so recent.) There's not much of a story here, so much as a study of relationships, and all of these diverse songs work surprisingly well to explore different facets of these relationships and give us a picture of who these people are (although some work better than others - the wolf's song from Into the Woods doesn't really fit in any context outside of the woods, although it is a commentary on a certain kind of relationship).

On a set that looks like a posh and sparse NYC apartment with a terrace, the long-married couple, the new couple, and their butler/commentator have a dinner party, dressed of course in tuxes and gowns. Each song is like a little story in itself, exploring a different facet of the relationships. There's little to no dialogue tying them together, although the commentator does declare the theme of certain segments, like "seduction," "desperation," and "competition." The long-married couple is full of regret ("The Road You Didn't Take" from Follies) and desperation ("The Ladies Who Lunch" from Company), the new couple full of hope ("Marry Me a Little" from Company) and sweetness ("Unworthy of Your Love" from Assassins). The men talk about women ("Have I Got a Girl for You" from Company, "Pretty Women" from Sweeney Todd) and the women talk about men ("Every Day a Little Death" from A Little Night Music). And then there are some silly songs that don't have much to do with anything but are fun nonetheless ("More" from Dick Tracy, "Buddy's Blues" from Follies).

Jeffrey Madison, Emily Gunyou Halaas, Paul Coate,
Vicki Fingalson, and Gabriel Preisser (photo by Matt Bellin)
The original 1993 Off-Broadway production starred Julie Andrews. Despite having Julie Andrews' cute pixie cut, Emily Gunyou Halaas is not known in this town as a singer, but rather as a talented actor in straight plays. I suspect that will change after this performance, in which she proves that singing is another tool in her acting toolbox that is readily available to her. I've always thought she has a melodious speaking voice, and she sings like she talks. Not only is her voice lovely, rich, and pleasant to listen to, but she brings all of her acting talent to the song, making us feel every emotion in Sondheim's intricate lyrics, which is perhaps the most important part of musical theater. She tackles some of the most difficult songs in this show ("Could I Leave You" from Follies, "Getting Married Today" and "The Ladies Who Lunch" from Company) and comes out on top every time.

The rest of the cast more than holds their own, and they all sound beautiful individually and in various combinations of duets, trios, and group numbers. Commentator Paul Coate nicely delivers "Invocations and Instructions to the Audience" from Frogs (which sounds a lot like my recent audience DOs and DON'Ts post) and the super fast and funny "Buddy's Blues" from Follies. As the husband, Jeffrey Madison hits some poignant and creepy notes, respectively, in "The Road You Didn't Take" from Follies and "Hello, Little Girl" from Sweeney Todd. The new couple Vicki Fingalson and Gabriel Preisser share a lovely duet in "Unworthy of Your Love" from Assassins, as well as some nice solo moments including Vicki's seductive "Sooner or Later" from Dick Tracy and Gabriel's triumphant "Marry Me a Little" from Company. And of course, no Sondheim revue about relationships is complete without one of his best songs on the subject, "Being Alive" from Company, a song I've heard many times but never quite like this, as the entire company joins in on a beautiful five-part version of the song.

With direction by Robert Neu and music direction by Andrew Fleser leading this terrific cast and orchestra through some of Sondheim's best work, put together by the man himself, Putting It Together is a must-see for fans of Sondheim, and music-theater in general.

La Rondine
Perhaps most famous for La Boheme (this inspiration for my favorite musical RENT), Puccini called La Rondine "perhaps, my best music" (per a note from director Ben Krywosz of Nautilus Music-Theater). Written in the early Twentieth Century, Skylark sets the story in 1920s Paris. The three acts depict different phases in the life of our heroine, Magda. The first act takes place in her posh Paris apartment (reusing some of the set pieces from Putting It Together). At a dinner party with friends, she reminisces about an exciting and romantic encounter with a man long ago. But now she has settled for a comfortable but loveless life with her patron (or sugar daddy, to put it in modern terms) Rambaldo. The second act takes place in a crowded dance hall, where Magda has decided to go in disguise for a bit of excitement. There admidst the dancing and revelry she meets the charming young Ruggero and they fall instantly in love (because such things happen in opera). She decides to leave Rombaldo and run away with Ruggero to the country, where we see them living blissfully in act three. But alas, their love cannot last because... something about Magda's shameful past? She doesn't think his mother would approve? They ran out of money? It doesn't quite ring true that in 1920s Paris these two crazy kids would conform to social standards and not be able to make it work. But tragedy is as sure to happen in opera as sudden all-consuming love, and the story ends on a tragically beautiful note.

the cast of La Rondine (photo by Matt Bellin)
Cecilia Violetta Lopez is a star as Magda. Not only does she have a stunning voice, but she makes you feel Magda's every emotion, from dissatisfaction to hope to resignation. As Ruggero, Won Whi Choi is her match. They both have huge voices, and when they sing in harmony it's really quite something. The large supporting cast is great and creates some stirring sounds when their voices join together on this gorgeous score. Lindsay Russell provides some comic relief as Magda's spunky and ambitious maid Lisette, and Norman Shankle is lovely and charming as Madga's poet friend and Lisette's secret lover. Paul Hindemith does a good job with Rambaldo, despite the distracting and borderline offensive old man make-up (is "oldface"a thing?).

Skylark's Artistic Director Steven Stucki conducts the 20+ piece orchestra through this lovely and luscious score. Lynn Farrington's costumes recreate that '20s flapper look for both the high society crowd and the dance hall revelers with dropped waist dresses, smart hats, headbands, and jewels. Kit Meyer has designed a flexible set of faux-marble columns and pieces that can be rearranged for the necessary sets in both shows.

Both shows in Skylark Opera's Summer Festival are perfectly lovely and a wonderful summer treat. Head down to St. Paul's Concordia University campus in the next week to see one or both of these very different but equally satisfying shows.

This article also appears on Broadway World Minneapolis.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

"Jacques Brel: When We Have Only Love" at Open Eye Figure Theatre

I had never heard of Belgian singer/songwriter Jacques Brel before attending Open Eye Figure Theatre's new original musical revue Jacques Brel: When We Have Only Love. But I have heard of (and been a longtime fan of) three of the four creators of the show, so this one was definitely on my must-see list. I did not recognize any of Brel's songs in the show, despite the fact that many wide-ranging singers have recorded them over the years, from John Denver to Sting. But I found the songs to be beautiful, funny, heart-breaking, and/or delightfully silly, all well-performed by this excellent cast, with an interesting and very human story tying them together.

Jacques Brel: When We Have Only Love was written, arranged, directed, and designed by talented singers Bradley Greenwald, Diana Graselli, and Prudence Johnson along with master pianist Dan Chouinard (with additional musical accompaniment by Michelle Kinney on cello and Tim Sparks on guitar). The four take turns telling the story of Jacques Brel's life, from his birth in Brussels in 1929, through the war years, through his early career singing in cabarets in Paris, through international fame and success. And of course, along the way there is music. The cast performs over two dozen of Brel's songs, either the original lyrics in Brel's native Flemish-tinged French (with English translations displayed on a screen above the stage), or in English translated by various people with various degrees of success (including a couple of new translations by Bradley Greewald - yes, all that talent and he's multilingual too!). Images and photos are also displayed on the screen, helping to set the scene and tone of wherever we are in the story. The creators have done a great job weaving together songs and story to create a portrait of a man who was not always likeable, but was passionate, expressive, funny, clever, human, and a beautiful storyteller.

Diana Grasselli, Prudence Johnson, Bradley Greenwald,
and Dan Choinard
Even though I don't speak a word of French, my favorite songs were those sung in French, because there's just something so beautiful and poetic about Brel's original lyrics and the French language. Even the best possible translation loses some of the nuances of the original language, and many of the English translations were far from best, completely changing the meaning of the song. Brel's biggest pop hit was "Seasons in the Sun," released by Terry Jacks in 1974 (which most of the audience seemed to know as it turned into a singalong). We heard both versions of the song, and trust me, the original is much different - funnier, more poignant, and less cheesy. Another favorite moment was when Bradley sang Brel's French translation of "The Impossible Dream" from Man of La Mancha, which Brel brought to Paris in 1968 and starred in.

Jacques Brel's music is romantic, playful, witty, lovely, and very Parisian. It's the sound of sitting in an outdoor cafe in Paris, sipping coffee or drinking wine, listening to music waft through the sweet warm air. Or at least that's what I imagine it to be, I've only spent about a day and a half in Paris, 20 years ago (not counting the two hours last winter that my friend and I spent trying to navigate our way through the twisted and crowded streets to the highway in a rental car without GPS or a decent map, but that's a story for another day). Listening to this music makes me want to go to Paris, or at least Jacques Brel's Paris, if such a place exists anymore.

Jacques Brel: When We Have Only Love is a wonderfully entertaining trip through the life and work of a prolific songwriter who was previously unknown to me. I'm glad I got to know him a little. The show continues through next weekend only and tickets are going fast, so act now if you, too, would like to go on this lovely little journey.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

DOs and DON'Ts for Theater Audiences

I see a ton of theater (obviously), and in doing so I witness a lot of rude audience behavior. I wouldn't think that I'd need to explicitly call out what is and isn't appropriate in a theater audience, but judging from the atrocious behavior I witnessed last week, I do. In speaking with some theater friends we decided that audience behavior is only getting worse. "Whatever happened to class?"

Here are a few friendly tips for my fellow audience members (all inspired by true events). Feel free to add your own in the comments below. (Updated with comments from readers.)

What not to do when in an audience at the theater:
  • eat a cheeseburger
  • eat anything, except for cough drops to suppress a cough or hard candies for blood sugar issues (but please unwrap said candies before the show)
  • the only exception to the no eating rule is if you're at a dinner theater or bar/restaurant type place (but please try to chew quietly); general rule of thumb is that if there's not a table in front of you, you should not be eating
  • shuffle a deck of cards
  • hog the arm rests
  • tap the floor, kick the seat in front of you, or perform any other repeated motion that is annoying to your neighbors
  • explain the show to your companion while the show is going on (that's what the ride home is for)
  • bring a toddler to show that's not designed for children and sit in the front row, allowing the child to run back and forth across the aisle, distracting the audience and possibly the cast with her cuteness (note to theaters: please have and enforce age limits when called for)
  • leave your cell phone on (even if it's on vibrate, we can still hear it)
  • talk on the phone, scroll through Facebook or Twitter on your phone, check your email on your phone, check the score of the game on your phone, do anything on your phone (superseded by the above)
  • the only exception to the no phone rule is if you're in designated "Tweet Seats," and if so, please be mindful of the location and rules of the promotion
  • complain loudly about the temperature or the play or anything else
  • speak in a voice above a whisper
  • speak in a whisper
  • touch the actors or sets or props
  • talk to the actors, unless it's an interactive sort of thing and they talk to you first
  • get up in the middle of a scene and exclaim "this is dumb" while clumsily and loudly exiting the theater (no one is asking you to sit through a play if you're in any way uncomfortable, but please wait for a scene transition if possible and make your way to the nearest exit as quietly as possible)
  • sing along to musicals, unless it's a designated singalong a la Pippin
  • file your nails, clip your toenails, or perform any other type of personal grooming
  • arrive late
  • take photos or video
  • fall asleep and snore (get a good night's sleep and drink coffee if need be)
  • get drunk before or during the show (save it for the after party)
What to do when in an audience at the theater:
  • be attentive
  • be engaged
  • be open
  • be on time
  • laugh if so moved
  • cry if so moved
  • applaud if so moved
  • exclaim appropriately if so moved
  • be considerate of your fellow audience members who, like you, gave up their time and money to be there, and deserve to have their own experience undisturbed by your opinions or behavior
  • be respectful of the many artists on stage and off who put in much time, effort, talent, and heart to create this piece of art you're viewing; you don't have to like it, but you do have to respect it (this one is not optional, and if you follow this simple rule, all of the above follows)

Thanks for your cooperation, and in the immortal words of Ellen, be kind to one another.