Friday, July 31, 2015

Fringe Festival 2015: "Pretty Girls Make Graves"

Day: 1

Show: 4

Category: Something Different

Written by: Sam Landman

Location: Phoenix Theater

Summary: Two women meet after a man they both loved died, and bond over '80s bands, boxed wine, and vintage exercise equipment.

Highlights: I never miss a Loudmouth Collective show. They specialize in smart, well-written, intense, small-cast shows that are funny or heartbreaking or both. Written by Artist in Residence Sam Landman (also check out his One-Act-A-Week project) and directed by Artistic Director Natalie Novacek, this new play falls neatly in Loudmouth's wheelhouse. It's one of those two-people-sitting-in-a-room-talking plays, which I love, especially when the talk is this smart and funny and real. After she finds out her boyfriend died, Carla (Emily Dussault) goes to his apartment and meets his sister BMX (Katie Willer). They discuss his love of Jethro Tull, Carla's love of The Smiths, and Carla's love of Duran Duran. But even if you, like me, don't get a single one of the music references (I spent the '80s watching sitcoms, not listening to music), you can still enjoy this little slice of life and exploration of two characters that feels very real, until it takes a surreal turn. See this show for sharp writing, directing, and acting - one of the more professional shows you'll see at the Fringe.

Fringe Festival 2015: "The OzFather"

Day: 1

Show: 3

Title: The OzFather

Category: Comedy

Created by: Peter Potyondy

Location: Intermedia Arts

Summary: A mash-up of the iconic movies The Wizard of Oz and The Godfather, set in Minnesota, with a little Johnny Cash thrown in.

Highlights: It's the first time in the Fringe for this community theater from Cottage Grove, presenting an original play that finds teenage Dottie living with her aunt and uncle after her parents are killed. She, along with her dog Toto (played by an adorably sweet real live dog), wakes up in a place called Comoland populated with small children, meets friends along the way, helps to solve the mystery of a mill fire, and visits a powerful man searching for help to go home. This feels like an amateur production, but in a good way, and really that's one of the beautiful things about this unjuried festival. It gives theater non-professionals a chance to come together out of the love of theater and tell a story to a willing and eager audience. The result may be a bit scattered (mill fire?), but I smiled, laughed, and was entertained. Highlights in the large and enthusiastic cast include a likeable Samantha Smith as Dottie, playwright Pet Potyondy as her adorkable brother and scarecrow reporter, Jeff Heutmaker as the lion figure who for some reason sings like Johnny Cash, and Matthew Thompson with a great Godfather impression (coming from someone who's never seen the movie). It's cute, fun, and short, the kids and dog are adorable, and you get to hear some Johnny Cash!

Fringe Festival 2015: "Arrest Me: A Musical Drama"

Day: 1

Show: 2

Category: Musical Theater

Directed by: Ricardo Beaird

Location: Minneapolis Theatre Garage

Summary: A series of vignettes (including music, dramatic scenes, comedy, and spoken word) centered around the theme of Black Lives Matter.

Highlights: Written by K.D. Howells and featuring a cast of six singer/actors and four musicians, Arrest Me doesn't provide a single narrative, but rather several short narratives or explorations of themes around racism and what it means to be black in America today. Some scenes are better than others, highlighted by the gorgeous vocals of Katie Carney and Roland Hawkins (and a stirring spoken word performance by the latter), as well as some thoughtful monologues and scenes from different perspectives. The piece doesn't attempt to offer easy answers (because there are none), but does stress the need to listen to each other, truly see each other, and work together towards peace and equality. Despite some unevenness, overall it's a very powerful and moving experience.

Fringe Festival 2015: "FRANKENSTEIN"

Day: 1

Show: 1


Category: Something Different

Directed by: Tyler Olsen

Location: Intermedia Arts

Summary: A super creepy cool retelling of the Frankenstein story, in which a young boy becomes obsessed with the book to an unhealthy degree.

Highlights: Victor's story is told in a nonlinear fashion, and just like the original Dr. Frankenstein (and Victor himself), we need to put the pieces together to come up with one disturbing whole. Victor is often the narrator of his own story, and we see flashes back to his childhood mixed with scenes from the present at a dark and scary cabin. Scenes often move from one to the other in the middle of a conversation, with characters disappearing and appearing as if by magic. Tyler Olsen wrote, directed, and designed the show (a remount from last year's Twin Cities' Horror Festival), and has created a terrifying and starkly beautiful world. The whole show is done in the dark with hand-held lights and one floor light, flashed on and off at appropriate times to create some really beautiful images with contrasting light and dark. The sound design adds to the creep factor, from the moment you walk into the theater to the sound of buzzing flies. The excellent cast is fully committed to the creation of this world, centered around a raw and emotional performance by Miles Duffey as Victor, with the nimble Joanna Harmon as his girlfriend, Jay Kistler as a childhood friend, and Garrett Vollmer and Noah Bremer as some pretty scary monsters. The whole thing is really well done and yes, there is blood, and some pretty messy clean-up. Moral of the story: don't let your children read Frankenstein.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

"Kinky Boots" at the Orpheum Theatre

There's something about putting on a beautiful, well-made pair of high heels that makes me feel stronger, more confident, even happier, helping me to literally and figuratively walk taller in the world. But women aren't the only ones who get to experience this pleasure. For drag queens I imagine it's an even greater transformation - donning heels, wigs, make-up, and dresses to create a new persona that perhaps feels more natural than the one society expects of them. The 2013 Tony-winning musical Kinky Boots celebrates this love of shoes and self-identity in a glorious, fun, warm-hearted way. But of course it's about more than just shoes (even if they are "the most beautiful thing in the world"). As with most musicals there's a love story at its core, but this time the love story is a friendship between two very different men who grow to admire and respect each other, encouraging each other to live up to their full potential. With this great story (based on a 2005 movie that was based on a true story) adapted to the stage by Broadway legend Harvey Fierstein with music by music legend Cyndi Lauper, it's a surefire hit!

Charlie (Steven Booth) and Lola (Kyle Taylor Parker)
(photo by Matthew Murphy)
In this fictionalized version of the true story, Charlie inherits his father's shoe factory in Northampton England. The business is in trouble and Charlie is faced with the prospect of firing his friends and neighbors, until he gets a brilliant idea. Through a chance encounter with a drag queen named Lola, he discovers a niche market - high-heeled boots for men. He convinces Lola to help him design the line and make samples for an upcoming fashion show in Milan. Like any good love story, the two share their deepest feelings (bonding over not living up to their fathers' expectations), have fun together (dancing, singing, and creating beautiful shoes), and argue (Charlie feels the pressure of the business and lashes out at Lola's choices), only to resolve their differences just in time to save the day. It's a beautiful, uplifting, fun story.

One might think it's a given that the woman who gave us "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" and "Time After Time" could write a Tony-winning score. But not all successful pop musicians can write a successful Broadway musical (cough-Spiderman-cough). It's a different beast. But Cyndi Lauper has the musical, lyrical, and emotional chops to write for musical theater, as evidence by this fantastic pop-rock score with fun singable anthems and beautiful ballads. I just downloaded the cast recording, and it's sure to become my top-down summer soundtrack. "Everybody say yeah!"

the cast of Kinky Boots (photo by Matthew Murphy)
The cast of this first national tour is quite fantastic. It's a difficult task to step into the high-heeled boots of Billy Porter (who won a Tony for his performance and is still in the show on Broadway after a few brief hiatuses). But never having seen Billy's performance, I can say that in this show, Lola is completely Kyle Taylor Parker's role. He displays incredible vocal and emotional range, playing the over-the-top drag queen, the modest and unsure man behind her, and everything in between. He looks  and sounds gorgeous, whether in men's or women's clothes. Completing this sweet bromance is Steven Booth as Charlie, a charming boy next door (if you live in Northampton) who also sings the heck out of these songs. Standouts in the ensemble are, of course, the six beautiful Angels supporting Lola, and Lauren Nicole Chapman as a factory worker with a crush on Charlie, whose "The History of Wrong Guys" is a crowd-pleaser.

I've never seen anyone dance on a conveyor belt before, but the cast of Kinky Boots does, and it's amazing. It's so much fun to watch, and this, along with the fabulous drag numbers and a slow-mo fight scene, is the reason director/choreographer Jerry Mitchell won a Tony for his choreography.

A musical about shoes, drag queens, and blue collar workers in England, with a heart-warming story and a fantastic pop-rock score. What's not to love? Playing through this weekend at Hennepin Theatre Trust's Orpheum Theatre.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

"Best Little Whorehouse in Texas" at the Old Log Theatre

Having opened in 1940, The Old Log Theatre is the oldest theater in Minnesota. But it's also a long drive out to Excelsior, so I don't get there as often as I'd like. They've stepped up their game in the last few years, pulling in top area talent, adding a new restaurant, and remodeling the lobby. There were a number of shows this season I wanted to see, but just wasn't able to work the 70-mile round trip into my busy theater schedule. So I was happy that I finally made it out there this weekend for their fun and energetic production of the charmingly corny 1978 Broadway musical The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (later made into a movie starring Dolly Parton* and Burt Reynolds).

The title pretty much tells you what this show is about. But you may not know that it's based on the story of a real life Texas brothel known as the Chicken Ranch (during the Depression the Madam would accept chickens as payment) that was largely tolerated by law enforcement and government until a TV reporter investigated and demanded it be shut down. In the musical version, Miss Mona (a strong performance by Julia Cook) runs the Ranch with a strict set of rules and presides over her girls, most of whom seem happy to be there, although some have dreams of a better life. Ed Earl (an excellent Jefferson Slinkard) is the sheriff and her sometimes beau, and is torn when given orders to shut the Ranch down after it's exposed by the TV star reporter Melvin Thorpe (a very funny Jon Andrew Hegge in a Colonel Sanders wig). It's a sad ending as the girls all move on, but there's plenty of fun to be had before that with cheerleaders, football players, and a general hoedown atmosphere.

Miss Mona (Julie Cook), Jewel (Whitney Rhodes), and the girls
This is one of those musicals where many supporting characters get one song, and everyone in the large and talented cast steps up. Highlights include Whitney Rhodes as Jewel singing "Twenty-Four Hours of Lovin'," Maisie Twesme's lovely "Doatsy Mae," Britta Ollman and the girls singing my favorite song in the show, the poignant "Hard Candy Christmas," and John Paul Gamoke's brief but memorable appearance as the Governor in the hilarious and all too true song "The Sidestep." All of the songs have a twangy Country-Western sound (which I happen to love, as I did the great old Country songs played before the show and during intermission). John Lynn directs the band behind a screen at the back of the stage.

the boys high-stepping it
With Regina Peluso as the choreographer you know there are going to be some fantastic dance numbers, especially with several members of her company (Collide Theatrical Dance Company) in the ensemble. The group numbers are lots of fun and well performed by the cast. As you would expect of a musical set in a whorehouse, there is a bevy of scantily clad women, but the boys have a shirtless singing and dancing number, which is only fair. ;) Sara Wilcox's costume design takes advantage of the '70s era (I love a jumpsuit!) and gives each character a distinct personality.

The Texas accents are so much fun to listen to. I don't know how accurate they are to reality, but they sound like the Southern accents you hear on TV (in fact the entire show is almost like an episode of Dukes of Hazzard). Greg Eiden is especially good at it in his dual roles as a senator and a diner patron, milking every line for laughs, and getting them.

If you live in the East metro like I do, Excelsior is a bit of a hike, but it's worth it to see the work that Old Log is doing, and this fun summer musical in particular. I recommend heading over to the charming lake town in the afternoon to avoid traffic (if such a thing is possible in this busy summer construction season), checking out the shops or sitting by the lake, and dining at one of the many area restaurants (I had yummy vegetarian sushi at Yumi's Sushi Bar) before seeing the show. It's a great idea for a staycation and checking out another beautiful part of the Twin Cities metro area.

The Old Log has an interesting line-up for next season, and I'm particularly excited that they're producing the regional premiere of the smart, funny, poignant two-person play The Velocity of Autumn, which I saw last year during it's too-short Broadway run. Starring Melissa Hart as a 79-year-old woman who has barricaded herself in her Brooklyn home and Paul de Cordova as her son who climbs in the window to try to talk her down, it's definitely going to be worth the drive.

*I was seriously derailed in writing this blog when I went down a black whole of Dolly Parton youtube videos, starting with "Hard Candy Christmas" and ending with the best country duet of all time, "Islands in the Stream."

Saturday, July 25, 2015

"Stage Kiss" at the Guthrie

As someone who has never worked in theater but is enamored of the whole theater world, I'm often curious about the rehearsal process and how a piece of theater is created. Sarah Ruhl has given us a peek inside that world in her play Stage Kiss, now playing on the Guthrie's Proscenium Stage. I don't know how accurate it is, but it's a pretty hilarious look at the entire process of creating a performance, from audition, to first read-through, to blocking, to dress rehearsal, all the way to opening night. The writing, as delivered by this fantastic cast, is laugh-out-loud funny and the play (which Sarah notes is "for actors") is a loving send-up of acting, theater, and love.

Stage Kiss is one of those play-within-a-play shows (actually two-plays-within-a-play), providing multiple levels and nuances for this great seven-person cast to play with under the sharp direction of Casey Stangl. As opposed to the character of the director, who doesn't seem to have a clue what he's doing in directing a 1930s flop called Last Kiss in a New Haven theater. He seems flummoxed whenever he's asked a question, and often talks about the "slippery" tone of the play, in which a wealthy married woman finds out she's dying, sends for her first love, and is reunited with him, only to watch him run away with her daughter. Complicating the rehearsal process is that the actors playing the woman and her lover are former lovers in real life, with some unresolved feelings about their relationship. The line between art and reality begin to blur as they find themselves drawn to each other, remembering why they fell in love so long ago, until they remember why they broke up. The play has some fantastical elements, as characters in the "reality" portion of the play step out to speak their feelings, or break out in song, while seeming perplexed that they're singing. There's nothing slippery about the tone of Stage Kiss, it's the humor of heightened reality.

Todd Gearhart and Stacia Rice (photo by Joan Marcus)
Six of the seven actors in this cast have multiple roles to play, both in the play world and in the "real" world, and all appear to be having a blast with the wide range of duties, from sitting bored in a rehearsal room to over-the-top acting as characters in the play-within-a-play. Stacia Rice is so funny and natural as the actress, in contrast to the delightfully exaggerated play roles. A dreamy Todd Gearhart is a great match as her lover on stage and off. Michael Booth plays the actress' husband both in the play and in the real world, like flip sides of the same coin. Grant Fletcher Prewitt (half of the great comedy duo that was last year's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern) is a scene-stealer with his genius physical comedy skills, eliciting laughter from the audience just from walking onstage in his second act getup. Cat Brindisi and Rebecca Hurd provide great support in multiple roles, both real and deliciously over-the-top. Charles Hubbell is the one member of the cast who exists only in the "real" world, as the amusingly daft director.

the cast of Stage Kiss as the cast of Last Kiss
(photo by Joan Marcus)
Devon Painter should be commended for displaying great range in her costume design, which includes cute and chic modern wear, the glamorous world of the '30s, and outrageous '70s costumes in the second act play-within-a-play (entitled I Loved You Before I Killed You, or Blurry, it's too ridiculous to be described). Todd Rosenthal's set design is also quite versatile with lots of moving pieces and startling transformations. We're taken from the bare stage and brick walls of a theater rehearsal room, to a sleek '30s living room, to a shabby '70s apartment. It's fun to watch the progression of sets and costumes in the ongoing rehearsals in the first act, beginning with street clothes and markings on the floor, slowly adding a wardrobe piece here or there, or a representative piece of furniture or two. If you've ever pored over the rehearsal photos that the Guthrie often includes in their playbills, you'll recognize the idea.

The Guthrie is a busy place this summer with the scrumptious smash hit The Music Man causing larger than usual crowds. I just hope that visitors to River City also check out the Guthrie's many other great offerings, Stage Kiss among them. While The Music Man is a heartwarming and overflowing production of a classic musical about small town America in the last century, Stage Kiss a very funny and modern new play that is an homage to the theater world we love so well (playing now through August 30).

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

2015 Minnesota Fringe Festival Must-See List

Last night I attended the second Fringe preview, in which 30 shows presented a three-minute excerpt. I've also read the descriptions of all 175 shows. I give them all a +, ?+, ?, or -. Right now I've got over 50 +s, which isn't really feasible (if you go to every timeslot, that's 56 shows, but I'm not quite that insane). So I've still got some work to do to get my list down to a manageable schedule of 30-40 shows. But these shows for sure are going to make the cut (scheduling gods willing).

105 Proof or the Killing of Mack "The Silencer" Klein: the physical theater company Transatlantic Love Affair returns to the Fringe after a one-year absence with this story set in the Prohibition era. But the story doesn't really matter, what matters is that TLA tells stories in an achingly beautiful way. They are not to be missed.

Collyard / Nelson's Guide to Reviewing Fringe Festival Shows & Other Tips to Help Keep Your Cool In the White-Hot World of Amateur Criticism OR "So You Kept Their Postcard; Now What?": as a bit of an "amateur critic" myself, I can't resist hearing what they have to say about it. Plus, "fringe legends."

Couple Fight: Tom Reed is one of my Fringe faves with his one-man musical spoofs, so this creation with real-life wife Anna Weggel-Reed is a must-see in my book.

Edgar Allan: I missed this new musical about an 11-year-old Edgar Allan Poe at last year's Fringe, so I'm glad I have a second chance to see it.

FRANKENSTEIN: I'm not really a horror fan, but the preview was creepy and cool, and with three of the minds behind last year's creepy cool hit Crime and Punishment, I've got to check this one out.

High Flight: the preview for this piece was incredibly moving, with Theatre Pro Rata's Artistic Director Carin Bratlie introducing the show as a tribute to her father, who disappeared on a solo flight to Duluth, told through music (a brass quintet!) and dance.

The Mrs.: they had me at Shanan Custer. But also, the preview was really funny, like a comedy version of Big Love that also spoofs TLC's increasingly trashy reality shows. This one is called PolyGIMME a Break.

Oregon Trail: The Musical: like other children of the '80s, Oregon Trail was the first computer game I ever played. And now someone's turned it into a musical?! That is the very definition of must-see.

Parent Observation Day: have you ever seen a kids' dance class perform? There's always a kid who's totally in their own world, another performing every step enthusiastically, another who's always one step behind the group. The preview for this show was exactly like that, except that adults (who you can tell are actually good dancers) are playing the adorably awkward kids.

The Picture of Dorian Gray: Tennessee Williams last year, Oscar Wilde this year. New Epic's One Arm was one of my favorites of last year's festival, so I will definitely be checking out their new production.

Pretty Girls Make Graves: I never miss a Loudmouth Collective show, whether Fringe or not. Always smart, unique, and well done, whether funny or heartbreaking, and since this one is written one of my favorites Sam Landman it's a definite must-see.

Shelly Bachberg Presents: Orange is the New POTUS: The Musical: this sequel to 2013's ridiculous musical spoof of a certain former Minnesota congresswoman is set in a prison a la Orange is the New Black. If that's not reason enough, the cast is fantastic.

To the Moon: a modern reimagining of the fairy tale genre sounds lovely, but the important thing is that it stars Debra Berger (from the quirky and charming 2013 Fringe hit Hello Stranger), Emily King (a gorgeous dancer as seen in Love's Labour's Lost), and local superstar Tyler Michaels (he's in everything), and was written by Tyler Mills (the lovely and poignant Jonah and the Whale).

Total Eclipse of the Heart: produced by The Peanut Butter Factory which only does good things, based on an awesome '80s song, and featuring an adorable kitten as the show photo. Come on.

Trial by Jury: I discovered The Gilbert and Sullivan Very Light Opera Company, which has existed for over 30 years, just this year. They're appearing in the Fringe for the first time with this one-act operetta from musical comedy geniuses Gilbert and Sullivan (whose work can also be seen in the Ordway's production of Pirates of Penzance, opening annoyingly right in the middle of Fringe).

Underneath the Lintel: if you missed Pat O'Brien's lovely one-man show about a librarian on a quest at the 2011 Fringe, now's your chance to see this moving and poignant show.

We Do Every Show in the Fringe: last year it was called Four Humors Does Every Show in the Fringe, but judging by the show photo, the concept and performers are the same - a hilarious improv show in which the cast performs a randomly drawn Fringe show based on the picture and description. (This is one you might want to make reservations for, see below.)

My annual tips for the Fringe newbie:
  • Buy a button and make sure you have it with you, it's required for entry to all shows. You can buy them in advance on the website or at any venue.
  • If you're going to multiple shows (and why wouldn't you?), buy a punch pass, available in quantities of 4 or 10, or unlimited if you plan on seeing more than 20 shows. It saves you $1-2 per show. Once you buy a pass, you can reserve a seat online at any show for $1.75, or just show up and present your pass (see below).
  • If a show is particularly popular, or you really really want to see it, consider buying (or reserving a seat) in advance. You can also take your chances and just show up. I typically only make reservations for a handful of shows that look like they might be busy (you can check the show's page to see if it's in danger of selling out).
  • All shows are general admission, so get there early for best choice of seating.
  • Shows typically run just under an hour, with a half hour between shows so it's feasible to get from any theater to any other in that time. But it's good to plan to see a bunch in one location to minimize transportation time; the highest concentration of theaters is in the West Bank neighborhood, with 6 theaters within a few blocks (4 in the same building - the Rarig Center on the U of M campus).
  • Bring snacks, water, reading material, and sunscreen - you will be waiting in line, probably outside. And be aware of what line you're in, often there's one line to check in and get tickets, and another to enter the theater and get your seat. Ask one of the friendly volunteers in the Fringe shirts if you need help with anything.
  • Keep an open mind - some of what you'll see is really weird. But that can be a good thing! And if you see a dud, well, that's part of the Fringe experience.
  • Each show has five performances, and on the last night of the Fringe (Sunday August 9), the show in each venue that has sold the most tickets receives a sixth show. Keep an eye out for the announcement late Saturday and check out a popular show you might have missed.
  • The Fringe website has pretty much all the info you'll need, so bookmark it on your smart phone for easy on-the-go reference!

Happy Fringe-ing!

Sunday, July 19, 2015

"Grease" at Lyric Arts

I love the 1978 movie Grease - '50s nostalgia, an adorable pre-Scientology John Travolta, the golden voice of Olivia Newton-John, and an endlessly singable soundtrack. It's the perfect fun and mindless movie musical. But the 1971 stage musical on which it was based is something different. Wikipedia says "In its original production in Chicago, Grease was a raunchy, raw, aggressive, vulgar show. Subsequent productions sanitized it and toned it down." With their new production, Lyric Arts and director Christine Karki move closer to the original concept than the movie it ended up becoming. It's a little darker and less bubble gum look at teenagers in the '50s. The fantastic young cast breathes new life into these familiar characters to create a Grease that's still great summer fun, but with a little more weight.

On a set that looks more West Side Story than Grease, the lives of these teenagers unfold on the gritty streets of Chicago as they deal with relationships, friendships, pregnancy, gangs, and school dances. The cast is mostly made up of high school and college kids, or recent graduates, which brings some very believable teen angst and youthful energy to the show. Jordan Oxborough is a natural as Danny, with the slicked back dark hair, pretty falsetto, and charm that all the ladies fall for. With her performance as Sandy, Megan Fischer proves that little Annie is all grown up. She's sweet and naive but with an underlying feistiness. And the two of them sound gorgeous together on the Danny/Sandy duets (just don't expect to hear "You're the One That I Want," written for the movie). Jill Iverson is a standout as Rizzo - tough on the outside and tender on the inside - and her beautifully nuanced rendition of "There are Worse Things I Could Do" is a definite highlight (she's excelled at playing misunderstood teens before). As the mooning Roger and constantly eating Jan, Michael Conroy and Christine Walth are adorable and funny. And Lucas John Beach sings "Beauty School Dropout" like an angel.

oh, those summer nights! (photo by Mike Traynor)
Of course Grease isn't Grease without the car called Greased Lightning, and this version is a pretty cute little car that actually drives around the stage and threatens to upstage the actors. The cast makes good use of the multi-level set (with the onstage band sitting upstairs), hanging off the stairs and climbing around (set by Brian J. Proball). Samantha Kuhn Staneart's '50s period costumes are, like the rest of the production, less pretty and more realistic, expressing the distinct personality of each character.

The ending of the movie has always bothered me, in which Sandy changes who she is in order to "win" Danny. But this feels less like that and more like a young woman who's growing up and trying to figure out who she is and what she wants. It's a more believable transition.

While it doesn't top last year's summer hit RENT (nothing ever could in this RENThead's opinion), Grease is another fun and edgy summer musical at Lyric Arts Main Street Stage in Anoka. Due to popular demand, it has been extended through August 9 but the additional shows will sell out fast if they haven't already, so make plans soon.

"20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" at Children's Theatre Company

Children's Theatre Company's latest offering 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea isn't what we usually think of as theater. But it is the best game of make-believe ever, and what is theater if not an elaborate game of make-believe? CTC is an expert at playing to their target audience while still creating art that we grown-ups can enjoy as well. And kids are quite familiar with playing make-believe, acting out their favorite stories, TV shows, books, or movies. That's pretty much what this show is - fan fiction (created by the wonderfully inventive team of Ryan Underbakke and Nick Ryan) about Jules Verne's novel with a fantastic team of actors playing the characters and leading the audience, who are also playing characters, through the story. It's an exercise in the collective power of imagination, something that comes naturally to kids, but that's necessary for adults to take part in occasionally as well. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is a super cool and totally unique experience.

I don't want to tell you too much about the experience, because the uncertainty and surprise is part of the fun. But you should know that you will be required to get physical, running, crouching, doing jumping jacks, as you are led through backrooms, staircases, and hallways of the theater (a great way to see some theater and get in a good workout at the same time!). The premise is that the 20 or so audience members on each "launch" (see website for times) are on a mission to capture Captain Nemo aboard her (yes, her) submarine Nautilus and rescue Professor Arronax (having never read the book, I found a quick perusal of the Wiki page to be helpful). You'll be in spaces large and small (claustrophobics beware), dark and bright, with cool electronic equipment that looks like something out of Star Trek, sometimes projecting scenes going on in other rooms. And there's one particularly detailed and homey looking Victorian designed room. The scenic and projection design (by Jorge Cousinea), lighting design (by Craig A. Gottschalk), sound design (by Sean Healey), and costume design (Annie Cady) all combine to create a completely immersive multi-media underwater experience so lifelike I almost wish I had taken Dramamine!

The cast and creative team merges CTC veterans with artists from the physical theater/comedy/improv world. The roles of the two mission guides are double cast (likely due to the frequent launch times), and I was happy to be guided by Isabel Nelson (whom I will gladly follow wherever she leads me, underwater or with her lovely and inventive company Transatlantic Love Affair) and Matt Spring (of the hilariously clever Four Humors). Both give performances so committed and real that even though my plan was to let the kids go first, I found myself rushing to the front to follow their commands. Watch for CTC company members Dean Holt as the good (?) professor and a completely transformed (as usual) Reed Sigmund in a scarily convincing performance. Jame Froiland's strong performance as Nemo makes the audience question just what side we're on. And in fact, we're asked to make a choice at the end, like a live action Choose Your Own Adventure book.

Immersive walk-through theater is a bit of a trend right now (see the recent Crime and Punishment, and NYC's Sleep No More), and CTC is doing an amazing job bringing it to children, perhaps its most susceptible audience (I heard parents whispering, "don't be scared, it's just pretend"). Part of the fun of the experience is watching the wide-eyed children as a totally in character actor gets down to their level and speaks directly to them (don't worry parents, you're not asked to respond or do anything, just follow along and obey commands). For kids and adults alike, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is the awesomenest game of make-believe you've ever experienced (the mission continues through August 23).

Captain Nemo and her crew (photo by Dan Norman)

This article also appears on Broadway World Minneapolis.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

"The Matchmaker" by Girl Friday Productions at Park Square Theatre

Girl Friday Productions is a theater company that specializes in large cast classic American plays. The bad news is they only do one production every two years. The good news is it's worth the wait. In their first time partnering with Park Square Theatre, they're presenting Thornton Wilder's comedy The Matchmaker (which you may know in its musical version as Hello Dolly!, seen at the Chanhassen just last fall). With a funny and poignant story about love, money, and adventure, smart period set and costumes, a cast that is sheer perfection, and direction that keeps it all running smoothly, this Matchmaker is an absolute delight from top to bottom, start to finish. It's my favorite of the three Girl Friday shows I've seen (also including the sprawling drama Street Scene and Tennessee Williams' most bizarro play Camino Real). Go see it now (playing through July 26), or wait another two years for your chance to see this great company.

Widow Dolly Gallagher Levi is the matchmaker here, and then some. She makes a living providing necessary services, but she's tired of the hard work and sets her sights on wealthy client Horace Vandergelder. What Dolly wants, Dolly gets, even if it takes some master manipulation to get there. Caught up in her web are Horace's niece Ermengarde, who longs to marry the artist Ambrose Kemper against her uncle's wishes, Horace's hard-working employees Cornelius Hackl and Barnaby Tucker, who long for adventure outside of their Yonkers store, and Horace's prospective match Irene Molloy, a widowed hat maker who runs her store with the help of flighty Minnie. Their paths all cross on one wild night in New York City. It's a grand adventure for one and all.

Girl Friday has assembled a dream cast, under dream director Craig Johnson (who, BTW, won an Ivey for his direction of the aforementioned Street Scene). Karen Wiese-Thompson is a brilliant comedic actor (seen frequently on the Ten Thousand Things stage, er... floor) and therefore a perfect choice for Dolly, bringing all of her biting humor, warmth, and spirit to the role. Alan Sorenson is wonderfully grumpy as Mr. Vandergelder. His employees Cornelius and Barnaby couldn't be cuter than Dan Hopman, oozing with aw shucks charm, and Vincent Hannam, the only unfamiliar face in the cast but fitting right in as the adorably naive youngster. Lindsay Marcy's Irene is strong and funny and determined to find adventure, while Christian Bardin creates a delicate, flighty, high-voiced, hilarious character in Minnie with every look and movement. Elizabeth Hawkinson and Sam Pearson are charming as the young lovers Ermengarde and Ambrose, and the former is blissfully less shrill than her musical counterpart typically is. Sam Landman is, as always, a joy to watch as the New Yawk accented assistant with questionable motives, who delivers an amusing and not unwise speech about nurturing one but only one vice. Girl Friday Artistic Director Kirby Bennet makes a fourth act cameo as the delightfully loopy Mrs. Van Huysen. Last but not least, David Beukema and Dana Lee Thompson play multiple roles with gusto and personality, and several quick changes - sometimes onstage!

Lindsay Marcy, Dan Hopman, Karen Wiese-Thompson,
Alan Sorenson, Christian Bardin (photo by Richard Fleischman)
Park Square's basement Andy Boss stage had been transformed into charming old NYC with images of city streets on either side of the stage and a screen that's lowered between the four acts to announce the setting, with changing displays in the openings at the back of the stage to further define the four locations (set by Rick Polenek). The thrust stage is put to good use, especially in the several soliloquies delivered by various characters as they walk around and look directly at the audience. Kathy Kohl's costumes are scrumptious (if I may borrow a word from that other American classic playing on the other side of the river), especially the women, dressed in flounces, bustles, and hats.

The characters in The Matchmaker are searching for happiness and finding it in different ways - love, money, adventure, employment, a home. Young Barnaby gives the closing speech, wishing the audience the right amount of adventure and sitting at home. Perhaps he's stumbled on the key to happiness - finding that correct balance between adventure and sitting at home. Some people need a lot of adventure to be happy. For others, like Bilbo Baggins, one great adventure can last a lifetime of sitting quietly at home. Girl Friday's The Matchmaker is definitely an adventure worth leaving home for. Funny, entertaining, poignant, well-written, -acted, and -directed - an all-around delightful production of an American classic (playing now through July 26 at Park Square Theatre).

This article also appears on Broadway World Minneapolis.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

"The Daughter of the Regiment" by Mill City Summer Opera at the Mill City Museum Ruins Courtyard

One of the best things about summer in Minnesota is outdoor theater and music. A few weeks ago I saw Classical Actors Ensemble's charming and playful Two Gentleman of Verona at Lake of the Isles, and last night I continued my outdoor theater pursuit with The Daughter of the Regiment by Mill City Summer Opera. This is my first time seeing seeing them, but it's only their 4th season so I don't feel too bad about that. Now, when I think of outdoor theater or opera, I picture it as a little more casual, a little more informal. But this is a full-out opera, with orchestra, sets, costumes, and a huge cast, that just happens to be performed in the starkly beautiful Ruins Courtyard behind the Mill City Museum. I'm not an opera aficionado, but I was truly impressed by the quality of this production. And this piece is a perfect choice for summer opera - a light and silly romantic comedy. I'd tell you to go see it for a perfect Minnesota summer evening (after a lovely dinner at one of the many area restaurants, including my favorite Spoonriver) but the remaining three performances are sold out. I did see a sign for rush tickets so you might have some luck with that, otherwise mark your calendars to get your tickets early for next year's show.

I'm not sure why Italian composer Gaetano Donizetti wrote an opera set in the Tyrolean Mountains (now a part of Austria) in which everyone sings in French, but he did. It makes sense for the French regiment (this is during the Napoleanic Wars), but it's a little odd to see these Austrian mountain peasants in dirndls, lederhosen, and alpine hats singing about the terrors of the French army... in French. But whatever, it sounds pretty. And all of the dialogue (of which there's not much) has been translated into English, which I found helpful (there are, of course, surtitles on a screen hanging above the action to translate the French libretto). The plot reads a little like a soap opera, in which an abandoned baby girl was raised by a regiment, only to be reunited with her wealthy and stuffy family years later. They want her to marry a duke rather than the poor peasant soldier she loves, but this is one of those happily-ever-after operas (as opposed to the operas where everyone dies), so the lovers are reunited. The plot is pretty much an excuse for some beautiful and varied music, from rousing battle songs to lovely ballads.

As the titular daughter, Leah Partridge is absolutely radiant, performing the role of this rebellious tomboy with such spirit and grace. Chad Johnson performs the role of her lover with a Billy Magnussen-esque boyish charm. Rounding out the trio is Nathan Stark as the regiment's Sergeant, with great chemistry with both of the above. Cindy Sadler is also great as the pampered and flounced Marquise. Local favorite Bradley Greenwald (who can do pretty much everything - straight plays, musicals, operas, comedy, drama, foreign languages, one man showswriting a new musical adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac from the original French) is a hoot and a half as the servant Hortensius, milking every moment and making jokes about "ruins" with a knowing wink to the audience. He introduces party guests with a series of ever more ridiculous names (my favorite - Baron Fahrvergnugen von Volkswagen). I only wish his character had more than a few lines to sing solo, because his voice is incomparable. Another local favorite, Claudia Wilkins, makes a brief cameo as the prospective groom's proud aunt.

One of my favorite parts of this experiences is that there is not a microphone or a speaker in sight. Maybe they were there and well hidden, but it's a rare treat to hear the music flowing directly from the instruments and singers to the audience's ears, unfiltered by anything but the heavy Minnesota summer air. Speaking of which, I know it's hard to keep instruments in tune in varying environmental conditions, so kudos to conductor Brian DeMaris and his 30+ piece orchestra for playing outside in all kinds of weather and sounding spot-on and beautiful through it all.

The set is sparse but more than I expected. Most of the action occurs on a raised platform, with tree trunks and a rustic hut reminding us we're in the wooded hills of Tyrol. Things get fancied up a bit in the second act, when a few furniture pieces and some drapes are added to represent the castle on the mountain (set design by Jo Winiarski). Jessica Jahn's late 18th Century period costumes are gorgeous, colorful, and incredibly detailed. I don't want to think about how much the actors are sweating under all of those layers of skirts, ruffles, flounces, jackets, vests, wigs, and hats. The regiment looks sharp (see below), the Tyrolean peasants made me homesick for Salzburg (where I studied abroad), and the second act party scene is the pièce de résistance (ooh look, I spoke French!). The women's gowns are extravagant, only topped by their ridiculous headpieces (spotted - a cherry and spoon!). All of this takes place against the stunning backdrop of the ruined walls of the Washburn A Mill, leftover after a 1991 fire of the abandoned mill. A historic spot in the city of Minneapolis, built by flour mills, now remarkably turned into a space for education and great art.

Marie is torn between two worlds (Bradley Greenwald, Cindy Sadler,
Leah Partridge, Nathan Stark, and the regiment, photo by Rich Ryan)
Outdoor music-theater in Minnesota, there's nothing better so enjoy it while it lasts! Next up - Mixed Precipitation brings operetta and delicious food tasting to a park near you!

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

"Sweet Land" at the Lundstrum Center for Performing Arts

I've been following the progress of the new musical Sweet Land, based on the Minnesota made movie of the same name, since the first reading I attended last spring.* If you've seen the movie, you know what a beautiful, sweet, funny, simple, honest story this is. Creators Perrin Post (book), Laurie Flanigan Hegge (book and lyrics), and Dina Maccabee (music) have done a wonderful job adapting Sweet Land and retaining that wistful, nostalgic, romantic tone, only enhancing it with the addition of music. But their work isn't done yet. With an Artist Initiative grant from the MN State Arts Board, they've continued to develop the work in recent months, culminating in a week-long workshop with actors and musicians and a public staged reading. Songs have been cut and added, but perhaps the biggest change is the addition of movement, created by my favorite local dancing pair Megan McClellan and Brian Sostek. Another addition is orchestration and music direction by Robert Elhai (who was nominated for a Tony for a little show called The Lion King). The reading was very much a work in progress (they would occasionally stop, explain, and set up the next segment), but it's quite obvious even at this phase that this musical is a unique and special gem. I cannot wait until it is polished into a full production that I'm certain will be thrilling!

If you've never seen the 2005 movie Sweet Land, you should go directly to Netflix or Blockbuster or however you get your movies and watch it! Filmed near Montevideo, MN and including cameos by local actors (including the Stephens D'Ambrose, Pelinski, and Yoakam), it's the quintessential Minnesota story of Norwegian and German immigrants forging a life on the farm, with all the difficulties and rewards that entails. In this particular story, Norwegian immigrant Olaf Torvik needs a wife, so his family in Norway send him one. When Inge arrives, Olaf is surprised to find out that she is actually German, which is not well accepted by the community so soon after WWI - Germans are the enemy and she could could be a spy. The pastor refuses to marry the couple, and Inge is forced to stay at the neighbors farm with Frandsen, his wife Brownie, and their many children. It doesn't take long for Inge to get fed up with this crowded living arrangement and long for a space of her own, so she makes her way across the field to Olaf's farm and take up residence there, helping him with the farm. Despite the fact that Olaf sleeps in the barn, this arrangement is frowned upon and the couple is shunned by the community, until their hard work, perseverance, and generosity slowly win everyone over. They are accepted and allowed to live their life together as man and wife and an important part of the community.

The creators of the musical have stayed true to the plot of the movie, with many of my favorite moments and lines represented, or better yet - turned into song. The good-natured Frandsen calls Inge "ducky" and she doesn't quite understand, which has been turned into a fun light-hearted song. At the end of the movie, after living and working together for so long, Inge declares that she and Olaf are already married without any ceremony or legal documents necessary, which has become a beautifully moving ballad. The moment when Olaf first really looks at Inge through the camera lens, the auction, Olaf's declaration that "farming and banking don't mix," the threshing scenes, Inge's rebellious bath, all of these are songs. They really did take all of the best and most memorable moments in the movie and turn them into songs, which is really the best way to make a musical.

The music is all wonderfully Americana, with a couple of guitars, a fiddle, an upright bass, and an accordion in the band. In this year's reading, they moved closer to the intention for the full production, with band members doubling as ensemble members, playing some of the smaller roles and joining in on the singing. This is similar to the new musical Once, also an adaptation of a sweet and simple but lovely movie, in which the musicians are also the ensemble; perhaps this multiple Tony winner has defined and allowed for a new type of musical. A musical like this one in which there is no differentiation between actor, singer, and musician, with a style of music that strays far from "Broadway" into territories of folk, country, and Americana.

Much of last year's cast returns, with a few changes/additions in the 7-person cast and 5-person band (who are really also part of the cast). Ann Michels is once again the perfect Inge (and in fact is the muse for this piece), with the spark and strength and humor of the character, while also showing her vulnerable longing side. Robert Berdahl returns as her Olaf, a typical Norwegian farmer hiding his feelings deep down inside but allowing them to come to the surface at pivotal moments. Tinia Moulder once again brings heart and humor to the role of Brownie, this time with Jon Andrew Hegge as comic relief Frandsen. New ensemble members include Michael Gruber, Holly Schroeder, and Jefferson Slinkard, and doing double duty as band and ensemble were Matt Riehle, Kellie Rae Nitz, Mathias Becker, Ben Wagner, and Sarah Burk. (It should be noted that these busy performers took time off of their "day job" to do this - Ann is in the middle of a many months long run as the Chan's Mary Poppins, Robert, Tinia, and Michael are in the Guthrie's scrumptious production of The Music Man, and Jon, Jefferson, and Mathias can be seen at the Old Log in Best Little Whorehouse in Texas).

Some of the scenes in this year's reading included movement, with minimal and efficiently used props consisting of suitcases, trunks, old chairs, and a child's wagon. Highlights of these scenes include the baseball/church social/dance scene, which very specifically created the world of the play, and a small taste of the church/threshing scene that only whet the appetite for more. At the end, Brian and Megan also presented an option for the opening of Act II, in which Olaf and Inge wordlessly become closer through shared living and working. This piece is so rich, with so much potential, it's just a matter of figuring out the best way to tell this lovely little story. And I have faith that they will do so.

Sweet Land is such a special little movie, a small story but one that's so moving and timeless and beautiful. It's a piece of our history as Minnesotans, one that I, as a descendant of German immigrant farmers, feel a special connection to. The musical is everything I hoped it would be, retaining what was so special about the movie and its wistful, funny, romantic tone, and only adding to it with the wonderful new original music of the Americana style that I love so well. I am confident we will see a full production, hopefully in the not too distant future. Visit the Sweet Land musical website or become a fan of their Facebook page for more information about the piece, future productions, and how you can help with the next phase of development.

*Much of this post is copied from what I wrote about last year's reading.

Monday, July 13, 2015

"The Little Mermaid, Jr." at Stages Theatre Company

A bunch of my cousins from Northern Minnesota were in town last weekend for a visit. We did the usual touristy stuff (Mall of America, Water Park of America, Como Zoo, Target Field), but when it came to showing them my favorite part of living in "the Cities" (as Minneapolis, St. Paul, and the surrounding communities are known in out-state Minnesota), it meant only one thing: theater! Since the group included lots of little ones, I took the opportunity to make my first visit to Stages Theatre Company in Hopkins for their production of The Little Mermaid, Jr. With a familiar and beloved story and music, enthusiastic performances by the talented young cast, and just over an hour running time, it was a hit with my group, the little ones aged 3 to 10 as well as the adults.

I saw the full Little Mermaid musical at Chanhassen last year (you can read about that here), but this is Little Mermaid, Jr. Which means that it was trimmed to a shorter running time. The good news is that the songs that were cut from the full-length musical are the new ones that did not appear in the movie, so all of the old favorites are still intact - "Part of That World," "Under the Sea," "Kiss the Girl," and the like. And while things wrap up fairly quickly at the end, the condensed story works well. The movie is only 83 minutes long, so it's quite possible to tell this story in an hour or so.

Tori Tedeschi Adams at Ariel
Having never been to Stages before, I was surprised to find that almost the entire cast is made up of teenagers. And such talented, enthusiastic teenagers! Everyone in the large ensemble is so engaged and present, and performs with great energy. As Ariel, Tori Tedeschi Adams gives an effervescent performance, with a strong and lovely voice. Ellie Turk is adorable as her sidekick Flounder. Adults Reginald D. Haney (with a deep voice and regal presence as King Titan) and Brittany Parker (quite fabulous as sea witch Ursula) anchor this young cast, and director Sandy Boren-Barrett does a wonderful job keeping everything moving. Including the quick set changes, in which large pieces are rolled on and off stage or turned around to reveal various underwater treasures (prompting the 5-year-old in my group to ask, "are they changing the channel now?"). Both sets and costumes are bright, colorful, engaging to the eye, and create an underwater feel (set design by Benjamin Olsen, costume design by Samantha Fromm Haddow).

Stages Theatre Company's The Little Mermaid, Jr is a charming, entertaining, and brisk production. If you have little ones, or suddenly find yourself with little ones to entertain, this is definitely a great choice, and a great way to expose kids to theater at an early age. Continuing through August 2 (including a trip to Bigfork this weekend).

Thursday, July 9, 2015

"George" at Bedlam Lowertown

Grilled cheese, fries, a beer, and zany, topical, funny, original theater. Is there a better way to celebrate the independence of this great nation? Our foremothers and fathers fought the British and won our freedom 239 years ago so that someday, their story could be told in a light-hearted and irreverent way in front of an audience enjoying good food and drinks. I'm joking of course, but in all seriousness one of the great things about this country is that we can freely make fun of ourselves and use theater and art to entertain and make commentary. George does exactly that and makes for a fun and festive night out.

I had been in Bedlam Theatre's newish space, the restaurant/bar/performance space known as Bedlam Lowertown (located in St. Paul's Lowertown neighborhood, obviously), but this was my first time actually seeing a show there. It's a similar idea to the Bryant Lake Bowl, with full menu and bar service before, during, and after the show, except that the layout is a little more friendly and its primary focus is theater. The menu's interesting, the beer selection is good, and it's kind of fun to eat while watching a show, although I did feel a little awkward chomping my fries a few feet away from the actors doing their thing (note: this is an exception to my no eating at the theater rule). After the show a musician took the stage, and with events happening just about every night, this is definitely a place you should check out.

On to the show. Written by Joey Hamburger and directed by Michael Hugh Torsch, both of whom also appear in the show, George tells the story of Independence Day in a slightly, well, different way. Part Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson (it's not a musical, but there is music accompaniment by John Hilsen), part Weekend at Bernie's, part Drunk History, it reimagines George Washington (played by the playwright with a bit of Andy Samberg zaniness) as a hapless, clueless, but good-natured fellow. When an accident caused by his two "squires" Thomas Jefferson (Michael Rogers) and John Hancock (Kevin Callaghan) leaves him dead, they prop him up and carry on the business of wooing heiress Liberty Freedombell (Laura Hickey) and defeating King George (Patrick Latterell, pompous and spoiled), hoping that an electrical trick they learned from Benjamin Franklin (a scene-stealing Jacob Mobley) will bring him back to life.

George is funny, clever, and irreverent, with jokes about the many things America is best at (giving speeches, celebrating) and how it's OK to lie if it's for the good of the country (which seems to be the motto of most politicians and the entire cast of Scandal). Unfortunately the short run concludes this Friday, so go soon if you're going! You can also catch this writer/director team at the Fringe, and keep your eye on the Bedlam Lowertown website for future events