Monday, June 8, 2015

"All the World's A Stage" - a Gala Tribute Honoring Joe Dowling at the Guthrie Theatre

The Guthrie Theater knows how to throw a gala. The 50th Anniversary Gala two years ago is one of my favorite theater memories, with amazing performances by many local and national favorites in celebration of 50 years of this national treasure of a theater we Minnesotans are lucky enough to call ours. Last Saturday night the Guthrie held another gala, and instead of just a general feeling of appreciation for the community, all of the respect, honor, and love was directed towards one person, Joe Dowling. Joe is resigning from his position of Artistic Director after 20 years (12 of which I have been a season subscriber), during which he oversaw the move from the original theater to the big blue beautiful building on the river and co-founded the Guthrie/U of M BFA program along with many other accomplishments. He is the longest tenured Artistic Director in Guthrie history (surpassing the previous holder of that record, his predecessor Garland Wright, by 11 years) and the most consistent leadership in the Guthrie's 52 year history. In that time he has worked with hundreds of theater artists, many of whom were on hand to partake in the celebration. The 90-minute performance included over 70 actors and showcased a dozen of the over 50 plays and musicals that Joe has directed in his tenure at the Guthrie, plus original musical and dance performances. But even more than the many wonderful mini-performances we were treated to was the overwhelming feeling of love, gratitude, and respect for this theater, this community, and the man who has helmed this theater for so many years. It was a truly magical night.

If you weren't there, here's a summary of the wonderful things you missed:
  • The show opened (about 30 minutes past the scheduled 8:30 start time) with a rousing musical number in which a cast of too many favorites to mention sang what I'm assuming is an original song "There You Are," complete with some audience interaction. 
  • We were welcomed by the hilarious lisping weeble-wobble brothers Bobchinsky and Dobchinsky, played by real-life brothers Kris L. and Lee Mark Nelson, reprising their roles from the 2008 production of The Government Inspector.
  • Colman Domingo from the original cast of The Scottsboro Boys returned to serenade us with a beautiful and heart-breaking song from the show, "Go Back Home." The Scottsboro Boys is the brilliant last musical from Kander and Ebb, and played at the Guthrie in the summer of 2010 between stints off and on Broadway. I'm so grateful to Joe and the Guthrie for bringing it to Minnesota.
  • Bill McCallum opened a series of scenes with the opening lines from my favorite play The Glass Menagerie, reprising his role of Tom from the 2007 production. The poetic musings by Tennessee Williams on time, memory, and illusion were the perfect way to start the show.
  • Michelle O'Neill and Stephen Pelinksi performed the scene about choosing caskets from The Merchant of Venice, in which both actors appeared in 2007.
  • This was followed by a selection from Chekhov's Three Sisters, directed by Joe in 2003, with Chloe Armao, Emily Gunyou Halaas, and Michelle O'Neill as the sisters.
  • Joe directed The Importance of Being Earnest twice at the Guthrie, in 1998 and 2009. Hugh Kennedy and Valeri Mudek treated us to a scene from the play.
  • A "dance interlude" by Megan McClellan and Brian Sostek (who also choreographed the show) did not last nearly long enough. When he leapt into her arms and she caught him and spun around, the audience gasped in delight. They are such effortless, charismatic, playful dancers.
  • Master storyteller Kevin Kling delivered a hilarious, touching, and very Minnesotan tale about his work with Joe and the Guthrie.
  • Sally Wingert belting out "Gotta Get a Gimmick" from Gypsy - is there anything better than that? Yes there is, because she sang original lyrics by Mark Benninghofen specific to the occasion and was joined by J.C. Cutler, Robert Dorfman, Jim Lichtsheidl, Tracey Maloney, and Isabell Monk O'Connor, each at their most gimmicky to make us love them. It worked.
  • Another scene montage began with Bob Davis dryly delivering Minnesota fishing regulations from 2013's Nice Fisha play I called "absurd, hilarious, strangely profound, and yes, somewhat inexplicable."
  • A dramatic and star-studded scene from 2007's The Home Place made me wish I had a better memory, or could see it again.
  • Michael Booth recited a monologue from Stoppard's The Invention of Love, directed by Joe in 2003.
  • I will never tire of listening to Tyler Michaels sing "On the Street Where You Live," so I was thrilled that he briefly reprised his role from last summer's hit My Fair Lady.
  • Four fantastically talented women (Helen Anker, Cat Brindisi, Melisa Hart, Greta Oglesby, and Regina Marie Williams) sang a montage of songs titled "Love's What We'll Remember" that included such Broadway classics as "Send in the Clowns," "Broadway Baby," and of course, the entirely appropriate "What I Did For Love."
  • Once again, Jennifer Baldwin Peden made opera seem funny, accessible, natural, and completely effortless. She's sure to win any part she wants with "Adele's Audition Song" from Die Fledermaus.
  • The last scene montage began with a scene from the ghostly comedy Blithe Spirit, last seen at the Guthrie in 1997, with Bradley Greenwald, Laura Esping, and Rosaleen Linehan playing man, ghost, and medium.
  • Helen Carey and Peter Michael Goetz recreated an intense scene from 2002's All My Sons, another one I wish I could see.
  • The scene montages concluded, fittingly, with the heartbreaking closing monologue from The Glass Menagerie, providing a nice bookend to the scene portion of the evening.
  • This was immediately followed by a stirring a capella version of "The Hills of Tomorrow" from Merrily We Roll Along, performed by the ensemble. By the way, I should mention that Music Director Andrew Cooke led a fantastic six-person orchestra throughout the show and provided the arrangements. And Peter Flynn did a beautiful job directing the show and the many disparate scenes as they flowed together to form a whole.
  • More than two dozen alumni from the U of M/Guthrie BFA program and A Guthrie Experience (or as I like to call it, the Guthrie's strong farm system) performed the As You Like It monologue that begins "All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players." They told of the seven ages of man, speaking alone or in small or large groups, from "the infant, mewling and puking in the nurse's arms" through "second childhood and oblivion, sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything." Such great young talent that the Guthrie has sent out into the world.
  • Another U of M/Guthrie BFA graduate, Santino Fontana, who played Hamlet in the final production at the old Guthrie, impassionately sang "I Was Here" from The Glorious Ones.
  • The closing number was the highly appropriate "You're the Top" from Anything Goes, beginning with Bradley Greenwald and Greta Oglesby, and continuing through all of the wonderful and beloved performers on that stage.
Have you ever watched the Kennedy Center Honors, in which great artists are honored by the president and performances from admiring proteges? That's what this felt like. From where I was sitting, I could see Joe sitting on the center aisle about halfway up, just beaming. He came onstage after the final number to give a few brief words, in which he credited Tyrone Guthrie and the other previous Artistic Directors, as well as all the actors who've worked at the Guthrie beginning with Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy in the inaugural season, through Barbara Bryne (who, at 86, was there but in the audience rather than onstage), through the 70+ actors surrounding him onstage. It was such a love fest, and such a thrill to see so many artists whom I love, respect, and admire in one place, Joe Dowling chief among them.

But wait, that's not all! The evening continued with champagne (in real glasses!), dessert, music (the Minnesota Jazz Orchestra set up just in front of the endless bridge), and mingling. I had the chance to talk to so many of my favorite artists, some of whom I'd met before, some of whom I met for the first time. But there were many I didn't dare approach because they're just too intimidatingly amazing. I could have stood there gawking at the crowd all night and basking in the glow of this amazing theater community.

Here are a few photos from the after-party; I'll add more photos as they become available. Also check out my live twitter feed from the event @cherryandspoon.

champagne toast and tuxes
the dessert table - macarons and truffles
dancing to the smooth sounds of the Minnesota Jazz Orchestra
a memento from a magical night - this chocolate is too pretty to eat!