Wednesday, September 30, 2015

"To Kill A Mockingbird" at the Guthrie Theater

I don't ever want to read the recently published Go Set A Watchman, which reportedly paints a much less flattering, more complex, and perhaps more realistic portrait of the small-town Southern lawyer Atticus Finch. The Atticus Finch of Harper Lee's 1960 novel To Kill A Mockingbird and the 1990 stage adaptation by Christopher Sergel, now playing on the Guthrie's thrust stage, is just the best man. This is the Atticus I want to know, remember, and celebrate. The lawyer who believes in justice, equality, and fairness for every person, who is a loving yet strict father who raises his children to be smart and independent thinkers who use their own judgement to decide what's right and wrong, that's the Atticus that I, however naively, believe in. And that's the Atticus that it's a bittersweet joy to watch as his story comes to life on the Guthrie stage. Except of course that it's not really Atticus' story, it's his daughter Scout's story as she comes to see that her father and the town she lives in are not exactly what she thought they were. With the clear-eyed innocence and straight-forwardness of a child, she guides us through this story that is representative of a difficult and ugly time in our history, a time that isn't as long ago as we like to think. To Kill A Mockingbird is an American classic and this beautiful production does justice to it.

Even though it's been many years since I read the book or saw the 1962 movie starring Gregory Peck (so long that I had forgotten the ending), the story is familiar to anyone growing up in this country where it's required reading at most schools. In 1935 Alabama, a black man is accused of raping a white woman, and Atticus Finch defends him in court despite the bad will of most of the town against him and his family for defending a black man. All of this is reflected through the eyes of his daughter Scout who, along with older brother Jem and friend Dill, watch the proceedings with curiosity, fascination, confusion, and dismay.

Atticus with Jem, Scout, and Dill (Baylen Thomas,
Noah Deets, Mary Bair, and Issac Leer, photo by Joan Marcus)
I'm not sure I've ever seen three children command the Guthrie stage before like these three kids. There are two sets of the Scout/Jem/ Dill trio, and the ones I happened to see (Mary Bair, Noah Deets, and Isaac Leer) are a charming, precocious, and talented bunch. When they're not on stage alone for long scenes, they're going toe-to-toe with a cast full of beloved Guthrie veterans (of note, only one of the adults has never appeared at the Guthrie before). I am in awe of all three of them and what they're able to do at such a young age! I especially adore Mary Bair as Scout. If I had a daughter I'd want her to be just like Scout - smart, stubborn, curious, independent, brave, sensitive, open-hearted, unafraid to speak her mind and ask questions, and quick to defend herself and her family.

the trial of Tom Robinson (Baylen Thomas, J.C. Cutler,
Ansa Akyea, and Peter Thomson, photo by Joan Marcus)
While these kids own this stage and this story, the adults aren't bad either. That one Guthrie newcomer I mentioned? That would be Baylen Thomas as Atticus, who perfectly embodies all of the wonderful characteristics that I described above, while still portraying the humanity of Atticus behind the icon. There are too many wonderfully strong performances in this cast to mention, but to name a few: Stacia Rice with a warm presence as the neighbor Miss Maudie who serves as a narrator, a clever device by the playwright that allows him to set the scene and include some of Harper Lee's language; Regina Marie Williams as the Finch's beloved housekeeper Calpurnia; Ansa Akya bringing depth and humanity to the accused man; Peter Thomson as the judge, in Mark Twain hair leaning back in his chair chomping on a cigar; T. Mychael Rambo leading a choir as Reverend Sykes; Ashley Rose Montondo, both sympathetic and infuriating as the accuser; and Bruce Bohne as her utterly despicable father.

As per usual at the Guthrie, the set, costume, lighting, and sound design make it easy to suspend disbelief and feel like we're in a small Southern town a century ago. The thrust stage is covered with a worn wooden floor, surrounded by three front porches and one rope swing. The jailhouse is lowered from the ceiling, and the inside of the courtroom comes up from below for that crucial scene that spans the intermission. Lived-in period costumes complete the look (set and costumes by James Youmans and Matthew J. LeFebvre).

I found this to be a really lovely evening at the theater, one that left me with tears in my eyes, a warmth in my heart, and a feeling of injustice, not so much at Tom Robinson's fate (because really, what other ending could there be in the deep South of the 1930s), but that Tom Robinson's story continues to be repeated today. To Kill A Mockingbird is a classic piece of American literature, one that's timely and relevant despite being set 80 years in the past, and this beautiful production and excellent cast of young and old alike bring it to life in an entirely satisfying way. (Continuing through October 18.)

Sunday, September 27, 2015

"Sweeney Todd" by Theater Latte Da at the Ritz Theater

Friends, Theater Latte Da has done it again. They've created a music-theater production that is so stirring and chilling, it's nothing short of brilliant. After the delightfully innovative and stripped-down Into the Woods this spring, they return to Sondheim with a similarly innovative and stripped-down Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. But where Into the Woods was a fun and slightly sinister mish-mash of classic fairy tales, Sweeney is all darkness and death, albeit with a bit of dark humor. Director Peter Rothstein again cast just ten actors in the show, many playing multiple roles and all perfect for the parts, and Denise Prosek leads a pared down orchestra of just four, that still somehow sounds musically full on this gorgeous and disturbing score. With a couple of actors not known for their singing leading this talented cast, and a cohesive look to the set, costumes, and theater space that is well used, this Sweeney is completely engaging and all-consuming, and brilliantly shows what Latte Da can do with not musical theater, but theater musically.

Sweeney Todd is a tale of vengeance and murder, as Sweeney returns to London after 15 years imprisonment for a crime he didn't commit, only to find his wife and daughter gone thanks to the very judge who put him away. His barber business turns deadly as he becomes intent on exacting revenge on those who wronged him. His partner in crime Mrs. Lovett finds a creative way to dispose of the bodies at her pie shop and the two take in the boy Toby, who's just happy to have a home, until he discovers what's really going on. Meanwhile, the young sailor Anthony has fallen in love with Sweeney's daughter Johanna and he and Sweeney team up to get her away from the evil judge. This isn't a happily ever after kind of story so don't expect things to end well, but it's deliciously chilling to watch it all play out.

In Theater Latte Da's production, this sordid story takes place in what looks like a dilapidated carnival. The theme continues from the stage to the lobby of the theater, with slightly off-kilter carnival music playing and donuts sold at the concession stand. Scenic Designer Kate Sutton-Johnson (who also designed the German beer garden fairy tale world of Into the Woods) has built the most terrifying jungle gym you've ever seen on the Ritz Theater stage, complete with ladders, bridges, swings, and a very sinister (yet very cool) slide. The performance space moves beyond the stage as the cast makes great use of the space, wandering through the audience and hanging out with people sitting at the bars on either side. I was afraid they were going to start offering us meat pies (no thank you!). Along with Alice Fredrickson's faded and tattered costumes, and Paul Whitaker's effective lighting design, the whole think has a dark and creepy atmosphere that'll give you chills.

Mark Benninghofen and Sally Wingert
as Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett
(photo by George Byron Griffiths)
Music-theater (as Nautilus and I like to call it) is about character and story first, and music second (even Sondheim himself agrees). With that in mind it makes sense that Mark Benninghofen and Sally Wingert, two of the Twin Cities' best actors but not known for their singing, play the lead roles. Sally already showed us in Cabaret last year that singing is yet another tool in her vast acting toolbox, and her Mrs. Lovett is so funny, cunning, needy, and dangerously motherly. But this is Mark's first performance in a musical, and all I can say is - welcome to the wonderful world of music-theater Mr. Benninghofen, please stay a while! It's almost incomprehensible that someone would decide to do their first musical 30 years into their career, jump right into one of the most challenging and iconic roles, and do so with such aplomb that it seems like he's been performing in music-theater all his life. The entire cast is wonderful, but the show is called Sweeney Todd and it doesn't work without a strong Sweeney, and Mark is that and more. Fierce, ominous, darkly brooding, murderous yet sympathetic, and with a lovely voice too! Mark and Sally together are, as always, a delight to watch and sound like they've been singing Sondheim all their lives, not an easy trick.

Sally Wingert and Tyler Michaels
as Mrs. Lovett and Toby
(photo by George Byron Griffiths)
And now for the rest of the cast, who are known for their singing but are wonderful actors as well. I thought nothing could top Tyler Michaels singing "On the Street Where You Live," but Tyler Michaels as Toby singing "Not While I'm Around" does just that, so soaring and beautiful and moving. And he brings his trademark physicality to the role of this eager limping young lad, and also climbs, jumps, and hangs on the set as a member of the ensemble. The lovely-voiced Sara Ochs is almost unrecognizable and terrifying as the beggar woman with a secret, and also portrays her humanity beneath the madness. James Ramlet makes the Judge a villain you love to hate, and the "Pretty Women" duet is a highlight featuring James' yummy low rumbling timbre on the "bum bum bum bum." Elizabeth Hawkinson's Johanna is delicately lovely, and she sings like a nightingale. Also wonderful are Matthew Rubbelke as Anthony, Dominique Wooten as Beadle (with a bit of humorous pounding on the piano), Evan Tyler Wilson as the pompous barber Pirelli, and Benjamin Dutcher in a number of roles.

If you're a fan of Sondheim, music-theater, or just a really well-told story, Theater Latte Da's gleefully maniacal Sweeney Todd is not to be missed. Everything is perfection, top to bottom. An incredible and fully committed cast, spot-on direction, gorgeous music, and attention paid to every detail (watch for Sweeney's entrance, repeated at the end) to create an all-around stunning production. Playing through October 25, get your tickets now before it sells out.

This article also appears on Broadway World Minneapolis.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

"The Realish Housewives of Edina" at New Century Theatre

I have not watched a single minute of a single episode of any of Bravo's popular Real Housewives TV series (Wikipedia tells me there are seven series, five of which still in production). Don't get me wrong, I love my reality TV, but more of the competition variety (Survivor, The Amazing Race, Top Chef, American Idol). I don't quite understand the fascination of watching "celebrities" in their daily lives, but there's no doubt it's a hugely popular phenomenon, and one that's ripe for parody. So it's a perfect time for this outrageous comedy by playwrights Kate James and Tim Sniffen of The Second City comedy machine. Their intention is for The Realish Housewives of X to play at regional theaters around the country, with slight tweaking for each location. Their first location - Edina. With a fabulous local cast, this show is a hilarious parody of the reality TV phenomenon.

New Century's wide and shallow stage (which can sometimes feel awkward) is a perfect fit for the preview show of the newest series of the Real Housewives-esque show, with cabaret tables in the audience adding to the fun and informal atmosphere. Host and creator Randy (Adan Varela, who also plays multiple other characters) introduces us to each of the housewives (curiously, only two of them have husbands). Ravonka (Kim Kivens) is the vaguely European royalty who carries her tiny dog around in her purse, demands that everyone "pay attention to me right now," and never sees her Baron husband. Claudia-Louise, aka CL (Quinn Shadko), has the perfect family and isn't afraid to tell everyone so. Gwen (Katherine Kupiecki) is an incarcerated politician trying to redeem her image with the public. Ditzy Desiree (Karissa Lade) is a fro yo addict and neck model. Brooke (Anna Hickey) is the newest member of the group, a self-made business woman who has made a fortune selling clothing with writing on the butt. Some of the other members of the group don't accept her "new money" so easily, causing the necessary tension for a show like this.

Anna Hickey, Karissa Lade, Kim Kivens, Quinn Shadko,
and Katherine Kupiecki (photo by Bridget Bennett)
Randy prompts the women to talk about their feelings as he shows them clips from the season, which are acted out in front of us. We see the women visit each others' work places, attend various charity events, and gossip with and about each other. There's a bit of audience participation as CL's husband and Ravonka's daughter are picked out of the crowd and played off of. Everyone in this cast is so loose and playful, yet precise in the characterization of their stereotypical housewife type, I imagine it will only become more fun to watch them play with the audience as the 8-week run continues. Each of these women (and Adan) is a hoot, but Kim Kivens as Ravonka is hysterical. Anyone who's seen her Michelle Bachmann impersonation knows how great she is at these over-the-top caricatures, completely committed with every look and gesture, but here she is absolutely Ravonkulous (meaning ridiculous and fabulous and any other -ulous word that might apply).

the housewives and Randy (photo by Bridget Bennett)
The creators have worked with locals to throw in plenty of Minnesota references, and we love that! From Zumbrota to Spalon Montage to the Galleria, these housewives hit all the local hot spots. Not to judge a book by its fashionable cover, but the opening night crowd seemed to include many "real housewives" types, leaving their husbands and kids at home for a night on the town. In fact, the show could be a brisk 90 minutes if they cut out the intermission, but then they wouldn't sell as many drinks to this crowd that seems intent on having a good time.

The Real Housewives franchise is an easy one to parody. OK I've never seen it, but it seems like there is plenty of fodder for comedy. It's pretty much a slam dunk, especially when played to a crowd that is obviously hungry for it, and this play delivers on that expectation. Funny, ridiculous, over-the-top, and with a cast that gleefully milks every moment. Playing through November 15 at the New Century Theatre in downtown Minneapolis, grab your best girl and guy friends, a few drinks, and settle in for some easy laughs.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

"Dancing at Lughnasa" at Yellow Tree Theatre

Irish playwright Brian Friel's Dancing at Lughnasa is a perfectly lovely play, and a wonderful choice for the perfectly lovely Yellow Tree Theatre. The eight-person cast is actually on the large side for their cozy and intimate space nestled inside an Osseo strip mall, but the warm, humorous, and melancholic tone is a perfect fit. It's a beautiful play and a beautiful cast, and will leave you with a warm and wistful feeling.

Despite being a fan of all things Irish, I don't believe I'd ever seen a Brian Friel play, other than his adaptation of Checkhov's Uncle Vanya at the Guthrie a few years ago. In his story of the five Mundy sisters living together in a small farmhouse in County Donegal in 1936, he has captured the mix of joy, sadness, music, and family that is uniquely Irish. The sisters are a loyal and devoted family, yet are all individuals searching for something, something they never quite find. It's a bittersweet joy to watch their struggles towards a better life.

the sisters dancing
Dancing at Lughnasa is a memory play in the spirit of The Glass Menagerie. Michael, the son of youngest sister Christina, narrates the story as his adult self, while his 7-year-old 1936 self is never seen but is often talked to and about by the Mundy women, who obviously dote on the fatherless child. Or rather, the child of a father who's never around except for occasional visits, including during the events of the play. Gerry stirs up all of the women, especially Chris, with a hope that can never be fulfilled. Also throwing their world into disarray is the return of their older brother, the "leper priest" Jack, from 25 years of serving in Uganda, where he became a bit too enamored of the native ways for the Church's liking. These two events, along with developmentally disabled sister Rose's possible romance, the closing of the knitting factory where she and Agnes work, and the family's new wireless, create a moment in time that Michael remembers as one of the last happy times in the family, soon to be followed by work, sadness, and tragedy. The play is a lovely and bittersweet exploration of this family and their relationships in a changing world.

the cast of Dancing at Lughnasa
Under the direction of Jon Cranney, this wonderful cast feels like a family, with all the love, connection, and annoyance that goes along with it. Katherine Ferrand, Jessica Lind Peterson, Carolyn Trapskin, Rachel Weber, and Melanie Wehrmacher play these five very different sisters, and throughout the course of the play we get to know and love each of them, despite their shortcomings. Jason Ballweber's Michael is a warm and likeable guide through the story, Michael Lee is the charming absent father, and Patrick O'Brien is appropriately befuddled as the newly returned Father Jack. The ninth character in this play is Jeffrey Petersen's set, which somehow transforms the small thrust stage at Yellow Tree into the Mundy's entire world - the warm and rustic farmhouse and the rich green of the Irish countryside.

Dancing at Lughnasa is a great beginning for Yellow Tree Theatre's 8th season, which continues with a remount of last year's holiday hit A Hunting Shack Christmas, the smart and funny Raisin in the Sun follow-up Clybourne Park (last seen at the Guthrie), and one of my favorite musicals - Violet. It's a good time to go to Osseo!

This article also appears on Broadway World Minneapolis.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The 2015 Ivey Awards at the State Theatre

On Monday night I attended my 9th Ivey Awards. Yes, even before I started Cherry and Spoon in 2010 and started getting press tickets to the event in 2013, I was still a theater geek (read all the words I've written about the Iveys here). The Ivey Awards are my favorite theater night of the year, not so much for the awards themselves, but because it's a celebration of another year of amazing local theater that gathers all of my favorite theater artists in one room. Even though I've met many of them, I still get starstruck when I walk through the crowd and every other face I see is someone I've enjoyed watching on stage. I love to watch awards shows on TV so it's a thrill to get all glammed up and actually attend one in person. I even painted my toenails with a glittery green called "One Short Day" - appropriate because of its musical theater geekiness and and because this event that I look forward to all year goes by in a whirlwind of people and honorees and loud music and conversations. And now it's over for another year, but more great theater is still to come which we will be celebrating next year!

The super talented Christina Baldwin and Regina Marie Williams hosted this year's awards ceremony. They performed a funny and topical musical opening number, did bits and introductions throughout the show, and closed with Regina dressed as a nun (she's playing the Whoopi Goldberg role in Sister Act at the Chanhassen this fall) and Christina dressed as a WWII Army soldier from Sisters of Swing (get it - they're both sisters!). The awards were presented by past winners and representatives from the night's sponsors. In between awards we were treated to scenes from musicals and plays from the last year.

The Iveys don't have set categories and nominees, rather they award exceptional work wherever they see it. This year 11 awards were given out, representing 12 productions. I saw all but two of them - perhaps my highest percentage to date! And the winners are:
  1. Walking Shadow Theatre Company's WWII drama Gabriel, about which I said "so captivating, horrifying, chilling, and completely engaging that it hangs with you well after you leave the theater."
  2. Steve Tyler for music direction of the gorgeous Pirates of Penzance at the Ordway
  3. Shá Cage for her "tour de force" performance in the one-woman show Grounded by Frank Theatre
  4. One of the two honored shows I missed was Green T Productions' Prince Rama's Journey, for which Joko Surtisno was honored for music direction
  5. Claudia Wilkins and Barbara Kingsley for their work in Gertrude Stein and a Companion at the Jungle, a show they've performed in several times over the last 20 years, prompting Claudia to say "maybe this time we got it right!"
  6. The lovely and charming dancing couple Brian Sostek and Megan McClellan for their delightful, funny, and innovative creation Trick Boxing, seen many times on many stages around the country but most recently at Park Square Theatre
  7. Another show I missed, Nothing is Something at Open Eye Figure Theatre
  8. The ensemble of Pillsbury House Theatre's Marcus, or the Secret of Sweet, seen at the Guthrie studio last fall
  9. Peter Rothstein wins again (deservedly), this time for his direction of Ten Thousand Things' Romeo and Juliet
  10. Matthew LeFebre was doubly awarded for his costume design of The Mystery of Irma Vep at the Jungle and A Christmas Carol at the Guthrie (both remounts)
  11. Last but not least, Live Action Set was honored for the super creepy and very real production design of the walk-through experience that was Crime and Punishment at the Soap Factory
Every year Ivey honors an artist at the beginning of her or his career and one who is further into their career and has made many contributions to the local theater scene over a number of years. This year's Emerging Artist had already been honored as part of the cast of Marcus (my first thought was Nathan Barlow, but nope, maybe next year) - Mikell Sapp. I've seen him a couple of times on stage and definitely taken notice; I look forward to seeing more of him. In perhaps the only predictable award of the night, recently retired 20-year Artistic Director of the Guthrie Joe Dowling received the Lifetime Achievement Award. He was beautifully celebrated in a grand gala and performance earlier this year, and it was nice to once again celebrate his accomplishments over the last 20 years.

The performances are often the funnest part of the night. This year they included a pre-show warm-up by the beautiful, talented, and athletic young men of Mixed Blood Theatre's Colossal. We also got a brief history of the Iveys from the Church Basement Ladies (celebrating their 10th anniversary this year at Plymouth Playhouse). Next, a couple of past Emerging Artists performed. Ricardo Vázquez led the cast of History Theatre's River Road Boogie in Minnesota rock & roller Augie Garcia's appropriately titled big hit "Ivy League Baby" (Ricardo can currently be seen at Park Square in the moving and powerful portrait of a soldier, Elliot, A Soldier's Fugue). And in the most adorable moment of the night, Tyler Michaels and the cutest lost boys ever bounced around the stage singing "I Won't Grow Up," from Children's Theatre Company's delightful Peter Pan (watch Tyler take on another iconic role in Theater Latte Da's Sweeney Todd, opening at the Ritz this weekend). Not all the performances were musicals; we also saw a montage of scenes from four excellent plays - Jeffrey Hatcher's Hamlet (the playwright's latest work, the musical Glensheen, can be seen at History Theatre beginning next weekend), Thurgood (the previous two plays both presented at Illusion Theatre), Penumbra's Detroit '67, and Frank Theatre's Grounded (giving the audience a taste of why Shá Cage received the Ivey). The always sobering and poignant In Memoriam section was accompanied by a lovely song "We Are the Wandering Wondering" from the new original musical Jonah and the Whale by 7th House Theatre (who are presenting another new original musical at the Guthrie studio this winter). In what has come to be one of the most cleverly entertaining segments of the show, Shade's Brigade managed to work all of the sponsors into their radio drama. The disgruntled princess of Casting Spells' Disenchanted sang a (not so) happy tune, and the evening was brought to a delightful close with Ann Michels and the cast of Chanhassen Dinner Theatres' Mary Poppins singing and dancing their way through "Supercalifragilisticexpialodocious!" And then it was time for the party!

One of my favorite things in this past year is that I've gotten to know several of my fellow bloggers. We're a strange breed, and it's nice to know that other people understand the stress, obsession, and pure joy of being a theater blogger in this town. Last night I had such fun hanging out with Laura (One Girl Two Cities), Stephanie (phenoMNal twin cities), Julie (Minnesota Theater Love), Todd (l'etoile), and Kendra (Artfully Engaging) - check them out! I also had the great pleasure of chatting with many of my favorite theater artists, including but not limited to: Sally Wingert working the check-in at the pre-show party (see her as Mrs. Lovett in Theater Latte Da's Sweeney Todd opening this weekend); Kim Kivens handing out programs at the State (one of The Realish Housewives of Edina, opening at the New Century Theatre this weekend); Adam Qualls (with whom I geeked out about the new musical Glensheen that he's in, opening at History Theatre next weekend); Rachel Weber (whom I will see Dancing at Lughnasa at Yellow Tree tonight); Ivey winner Shá Cage (go see her powerful one-woman show U/G/L/Y at the Guthrie this weekend!); Sam Landman (who seems to have recovered well from his recent health scare); and the Nature people (who totally deserve an Ivey, be sure to catch one of the last two stops on their 2015 tour). There were more people I wanted to talk to but my feet were not getting along with my beautiful golden shoes, so my night had come to end shortly before midnight, just like Cinderella.

So there you have it. Another year of brilliant, funny, clever, challenging, strange, delightful theater, and another wonderful celebration of these beautiful cities we are lucky enough to call home. Were all of my favorite shows from this past year honored? Of course not, but you'll have to wait until my end of the year wrap-up in December for more on that. Until then - happy theater-going!

This article also appears on Broadway World Minneapolis.

P.S. ICYMI, here's the Cherry and Spoon Twitter feed from Awards night:

Monday, September 21, 2015

"Nature" by TigerLion Arts at the St. John's University Arboretum

Nature is truly one of the most special and unique theater experiences I've ever had, and I've had a lot of theater experiences in the last five years of writing this blog, and in the years before. This "outdoor walking play" about the lives, writings, and friendship of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau was created in 2010 by TigerLion Arts' Tyson Forbes (a descendant of Emerson) and Markell Kiefer, et al., and has continued to be developed into its current form as the touring production known as Nature for the Nation. With the state of our global and local environment, it's quite obvious this that Nation needs Nature, and this piece is a beautiful way to connect to, explore, and comment on Nature. And beyond that, it's an incredibly inventive and unique piece of theater that is a perfect illustration of the concept "content dictates form." When your content is the very personal and yet infinite idea of Nature herself, there is no better form that getting the audience out in Nature while watching, and participating in, this experience. Nature is everything I love about theater, combining comedy, drama, music, physicality of performance, physicality of the audience in walking through the space, creativity, an inspiring true story, and a stunningly gorgeous natural location.

Nature leads the way through the SJU Arboretum
I first saw Nature last year at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum in Chanhassen, where it played for several weekends in the late fall. It's definitely one of those shows you can see multiple times; it's such a rich and full experience with so much to take in, and it's different every time due to the main character, ever-changing Nature. This year's tour presents multiple opportunities to see it again. I was invited to the opening in Minneapolis, but I decided I'd rather see it at St. John's University, my alma mater (technically I went to St. Ben's, but they're really the same school). Every fall I visit the SJU campus with my family (most of whom live in the St. Cloud area, many of whom attended or are attending CSB or SJU) to walk through the woods and have a picnic by the lake. This is one of the places where I have felt a connection to Nature over the years, so I wanted to experience Nature there. And to make it even more special, my super-talented 16-going-on-17-year-old cousin and goddaughter Greta was part of the community chorus, and it was a perfectly gorgeous fall day, making it well worth the 150-mile roundtrip.

the cast of Nature at the Arboretum last year
As at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum last year, the play took place in four locations at the SJU Arboretum, a place I'd never visited in my 20-year history with the campus. The community chorus (gathered from local volunteers at each location who rehearse on their own and briefly with the cast, which in this case happened to also include Mark McGowan, co-founder and former member of my favorite a capella group Tonic Sol-Fa) led us to the first location - a church. It was there that the play began with the introduction of Emerson and Thoreau and their early lives. We followed them to a prairie hill with grasses blowing in the breeze as we watched the friends take a walk, something they loved so dearly. Next we paid a visit to Thoreau's Walden Pond cabin, where we learned more about the complicated friendship between these very different men who shared a love of and respect for Nature, but went about it in different ways. Finally we watched Thoreau working in the fields, while "progress" started to overtake Nature, much to his dismay and disgust. This is where the conflict set in, as we followed the story back through the various locations and ended where we began - at the church. We have traveled with this story through time and space and Nature, and come full circle having experienced something truly beautiful.

Emerson (Tyson Forbes) and Thoreau (John Catron)
Most of the cast from last year returns to the tour this year, forming an absolutely delightful, playful, and endlessly watchable ensemble that includes Kate Guentzel as Emerson's wife Lydian, Kimberly Richardson as his aunt Moody (and choreographer), and too many wonderful people to mention (check the tags at the end of this post for a few). Tyson Forbes and John Catron are Emerson and Thoreau once again, and are the perfect embodiment of these two men and their friendship. For at its heart, this really is a love story - in the friendship of these two men and their love for a third party that drew them together. No, not Lydian, although there was a bit of a soap opera love triangle there. Their most important love was for Nature herself. And I cannot imagine anyone else as Nature than Norah Long. She is Nature personified, with her golden halo of curls blowing in the breeze, a look of absolute serenity and oneness on her face, and a voice like the goddess herself (and my cousin tells me she was also wonderful working with the chorus in their rehearsals and the performances). The music provided by Norah (she also plays by the violin), Andrew Forbes (playing bagpipes, flute, guitar, etc.), the cast, and the chorus is so lovely and transporting and perfectly appropriate to the time period and the setting.

There are so many wonderful things about Nature that I can't even begin to tell you about all of them (the whimsical sound effects, the exaggerated apple-eating, the charming letter delivery). It truly is something you need to experience yourself. Return to Nature, take a walk, watch the sky through the trees, be embraced by the earth, and let this talented group of artists take you on a journey that you'll never forget. There are two more stops on the 2015 Nature for the Nation tour, south of the Twin Cities at Gustavus and Carleton Colleges (more info here). But Nature never ends, and hopefully neither will Nature. They're hoping to take it on a National tour, eventually arriving in Concord in 2017 for the 200th anniversary of Thoreau's birth.This beautiful and important story, so well and appropriately told, needs to be heard and is an absolute joy to experience.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

"Elliot: A Soldier's Fugue" at Park Square Theatre

A quick Google search presented me with two definitions of the word fugue: "a contrapuntal composition in which a short melody or phrase (the subject) is introduced by one part and successively taken up by others and developed by interweaving the parts" and "a state or period of loss of awareness of one's identity, often coupled with flight from one's usual environment, associated with certain forms of hysteria and epilepsy." Quiara Alegria Hudes could not have chosen a better title for her play Elliot, A Soldier's Fugue, now playing on Park Square Theatre's main stage. This story of three generations of soldiers is like a great fugue composition, variations on the personal and devastating effects of war, woven together through time and space. While the soldiers depicted aren't exactly in a fugue state, they definitely struggle with loss of identity, flight from their environment, and maybe even a kind of hysteria as they deal with the aftereffects of being in combat. As brought to life by this terrific four-person cast, Elliot, A Soldier's Fugue is a powerful, poetic, and sobering look at war.

Elliot in his mother's garden
(Adlyn Carreras and Ricard Vázquez, photo by Petronella J. Ytsma)
We first meet Elliot as the returning war hero after his first tour in Iraq, welcomed and celebrated by his family and throwing out the ceremonial first pitch at the Phillies game. He has a week to decide if he's going to return for his second tour, despite an injured leg. He seems raring to go on the surface, but as the playwright peels back the layers of Elliot and his close-knit Puerto Rican family, we see that things aren't as simple as they seem. Elliot's grandpop played the flute in the Korean War, and his pop served in Vietnam, where he met Elliot's mom, an Army nurse. We see flashes of each man's time in the service, often in parallel at the same time, as each tells their similar but unique story. Elliot's mom also talks about her wartime experiences and the effects on the men that she loves. She has created a beautifully wild garden, an oasis for the family. Hudes expertly weaves the scenes from the three different wars together with the present to create a moving portrait of a soldier.

Elliot is injured (Ricard Vázquez with Pedro R. Bayón,
Rich Remedios, and Adlyn Carreras, photo by Petronella J. Ytsma)
First time Park Square director Robert Rosen, with a background as a performer trained in physical theater, is an interesting choice for this production. The physicality of these characters is so important, the strong young soldiers, the injured returning vet, the stooped old man. All four actors, relatively new to the Park Square stage, step up to the task in this challenging piece, giving strong and committed performances. None more so that Park Square Artistic Associate and recent Ivey Emerging Artist Ricardo Vázquez as the title character. Ricardo is always a treat to watch, whether as a lisping little boy or the godfather of Minnesota Rock and Roll, and here he gives a beautifully layered performance. He's strong and arrogant as the returning young soldier, showing moments of pain and confusion when alone with his injury, and heart-breaking as he's lying injured on the battle field, crying out for his mom. This believable family unit is completed with Rich Remedios as Pop, Pedro R. Bayón (who played Ricardo's father in River Road Boogie earlier this year) as Grandpop, and Adlyn Carreras as Mom.

Kit Mayer's simple and eloquent set design begins with a bare stage painted with American colors and five large rotating panels. On one side is a natural wood representing the desert of Iraq, the jungle of Vietnam, and the cold landscape of Korea. On the other side is the colorful and tropical garden of home. Panels are organically turned as appropriate, or left partially open to create a third effect. The bare stage gradually becomes littered with letters, leaves, and other remnants of war.

Elliot, A Soldier's Fugue is one of those 90-minute no intermission plays that fully immerses you in their world for a short period of time, creating a full and epic experience (while still allowing for an early bedtime). Playing now through October 4, it's definitely worth checking out to see a moving portrait of a solider and ruminations on war and returning vets, a topic that sadly never goes out of style. (Find discount tickets on

"Things of Dry Hours" by Frank Theatre at the Playwrights' Center

Playwright Naomi Wallace's One Flea Spare, staged by Theater Coup d'Etat, was one of my favorite theater experiences last year. So I was eager to see more of her work in Frank Theatre's production of Things of Dry Hours. Frank always does interesting, thoughtful, meaningful work, and this one is no exception. Dealing with communism, racism, and sexism in 1930s Alabama, Things of Dry Hours doesn't on the surface bear much resemblance to One Flea Spare, set in plague-ridden 17th Century London. But it's another dense, poetic, and thought-provoking piece by this playwright and this company.

Tice Hogan is a communist in 1932 Birmingham, one of the few places in that time and city where black and white people could come together as equals. He tells us in the opening monologue that he owns two books - a big Bible, and The Communist Manifesto, a slim volume but just as important to him. But being a member of the party could also get him in trouble with the local mining company, so when an unknown white man comes knocking at the door of the house he shares with his daughter Cali, saying the party sent him, he's suspicious. Corbin was fired from the mine and hit the man who fired him with a steel pipe, probably killing him. He gives Tice the name of a mutual friend who says that he could shelter him. Tice reluctantly agrees to let him stay for one week until things cool down, and eventually begins to teach him about communism. Cali gives him porridge in the morning and soup in the evening, but Corbin wants more from her, first a kind word, then a kiss. Cali takes a shine to him too, but knows that nothing good can come of that.

There's a lot going on in this play. The idea of communism and the struggle of the working people to be treated fairly, the extreme and overt racism of 1932 Alabama, and gender inequality. I found the most powerful of these to be Cali's stories about life as a poor black woman who earns a living doing laundry for rich white people, gathering bits and pieces of their lives where she can. She's able to briefly turn that power dynamic on its head in a bit of play-acting with Corbin, so perhaps just for a brief moment he can understand what it's like to be her.

Hope Cervantes, Warren Bowles, and Sam Bardwell
Director Wendy Knox and her three-person cast do a great job bringing this complicated story and layered characters to life, including Hope Cervantes as Cali, Sam Bardwell as Corbin, and Warren C. Bowles, stepping into the role of Tice just the day before the first preview. Other than the fact that he relies on the script in a few scenes, there's no sign of this last-minute change, the three actors work together well. John Beuche has created a simple and lifelike set for them to play on, with a raised wooden floor representing the living space of the cabin with runways leading to it from either side, and bare trees in the space outside the cabin. Completing the scene is the wonderful soundtrack of what I like to call old-timey music playing before the show and at intermission (sound design by Dan Dukich).

If I hadn't read it ahead of time, I'm not sure I would have known Things of Dry Hours was written by the same playwright as One Flea Spare. I don't see a lot of of similarities, other than obscure titles and a strangely poetic analogy that ties the story together. In One Flea Spare it's water on stone, in Things of Dry Hours it's an apple (which I admit I didn't completely get, it would require a bit more contemplation on a better night's sleep). But it's a fascinating and well-done story that's worth the effort (continuing at the Playwrights' Center through October 4).

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

"A Lie of the Mind" by Theatre Pro Rata at nimubs theatre

An all too real depiction of the real-life hanging of a circus elephant. A disturbing adaptation of a well-known dystopian novelA devastating and thought-provoking portrait of a child molester. And now a deep dive into an abusive relationship. Theatre Pro Rata doesn't shy away from the tough stuff. After a brief trip to the lighter side with The Illusion at Park Square this summer, Pro Rata returns to the dark side with a sobering look at abusive and dysfunctional families in Sam Shepard's A Lie of the Mind. This dark fable of a modern day Western offers little hope, but once again Pro Rata offers a beautiful, well-acted and -directed, and disturbing evening of theater.

The play begins shortly after Jake (a frighteningly good Nate Cheeseman) has beaten his wife Beth (a frail yet strong Amy Pirkl) so badly that she ends up in the hospital with brain damage, and has to relearn how to walk and talk. This is not the first time this has happened, and Beth's brother Mike (Bear Brummel) and parents (Don Maloney and Delta Rae Giordano) take her home to recover in Montana where she grew up. Similarly, Jake's sister (Joy Dolo) and bitter mother (Kit Bix) take him in while his brother Frankie (Gabriel Murphy) travels to Montana to check on Beth and make sure she's not dead, as Jake feared. What follows is an exploration of three dysfunctional families. Beth's father is the stereotypical head of the household, spending all his time in the hunting shack and ordering his wife to apply oil to his dry and cracking feet. Jake's mother has never recovered from her husband leaving and his tragic death. And we know how Jake and Beth ended up.

Nate Cheeseman and Amy Pirkl
as the not so happy couple
(photo by Charles Gorrill)
This is one of those plays that makes one happy to be single. What's the point of getting married if all you do is make each other miserable, and raise miserable children who go out to make other people miserable? None of these characters are particularly likeable, but all are beautifully brought to life by the strong cast under the direction of Carin Bratlie Wethern. Perhaps the least hateful of these miserable people is Beth, who, like many so-called simple-minded characters, speaks simple and eloquent truth in her blunt and mixed up speech. And Frankie seems like a good guy, trying to make up for his brother's sins. But maybe looking for good guys isn't the point of the play. Maybe it's to recognize the bad guys within all of us. And then hopefully not marry one.

The starkly beautiful West of Sam Shepard's imagination is well represented on nimbus' intimate stage by scenic designer Ursula Bowden. The stage elegantly and seamlessly combines three very different sets - a hotel, hospital room, and childhood basement bedroom - with a painted Western backdrop tying them together. The former two sets are replaced by the Montana living room, which shares some of the same space with the basement bedroom. In fact they almost seem to exist in the same space, even though they're presumably hundreds of miles apart, as Jake and Beth can almost seem to see each other across the distance.

The last Shepard play I saw was only an hour long, so I was expecting this one to be short as well. It's not, coming in at almost three hours with intermission. That's a long time to spend with these miserable people in their miserable lives, but it's a compelling and engaging play despite the misery. A Lie of the Mind continues through September 27.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

"The Little Pilot" by Sandbox Theatre at the Southern Theater

Even though this is only my 4th Sandbox Theatre show (a company that is celebrating their 10th anniversary), I know enough about them to expect the unexpected. Their work is highly inventive and unusual, combining many different artforms to tell a story in a unique way. Their newest work, an exploration of the life of famed French author and pilot Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (I'd never heard of him either), is no exception. Part adventure, part romance, part coming-of-age, part war experience, The Little Pilot tells this story in a non-linear way through theater, music, movement, aerial work, and video projections to create a strikingly lovely picture of a life.

As with most of their work, this piece was created by the ensemble, along with director Theo Langason and Project Leads Evelyn Digirolamo (aerial artist) and Kristina Fjellman (visual artist). Evelyn is joined in the ensemble by five other artists (Christian Bardin, Mark Benzel, Jonathon Dull, Katie Kaufmann, and Patrick Webster), each of whom play Antoine at some point in the play. Antoine's story is not told in a straight-forward way, rather we see snippets or memories of important moments in his life. His mother telling him a story, falling in love, flying in WWII. The actors playing him share several repeated hand gestures that tie their performances together. And they all take turns on the three aerial silks that are the only set pieces in the cavernous Southern Theater space.

Stirring video projections of the earth and the cosmos are displayed on the aerial silks and the beautiful brick backdrop at the Southern. This is a highly physical performance, not just on the silks but also on the ground, as the ensemble creates some stunning images. The combined athleticism and grace of the aerial work is so thrilling to watch, and a perfectly fitting way to convey the life of a man who spent much of his life flying through the air.

It's difficult to describe Sandbox's work in general, and this piece in particular. If you're looking for theater that's out of the ordinary, that combines several different artforms, that pushes the boundaries, you'll definitely want to check out The Little Pilot, presented as part of the Southern's ArtShare program. Five more performances remain at the end of this month and early October, so get it on your calendar, and maybe check out what else is playing at the Southern (I also recommend the clever and hilarious Four Humor's Lolita: A Three Man Show).

"The Velocity of Autumn" at Old Log Theatre

Last spring, I was lucky enough to see Eric Coble's smart, funny, poignant, relevant new play about aging and family, The Velocity of Autumn, during it's short Broadway run. Despite earning Estelle Parsons a Tony nomination, the play didn't last long on Broadway, perhaps because the small, intimate story is better suited to Off Broadway or regional theater than the tourist-bait that Broadway has become. The Old Log Theatre was smart enough to snap up this gem and be the first to bring it to Minnesota to open their 2015-2016 season. The Old Log has really stepped up their game in the last few years, but it's still difficult for me to make the 70-mile round trip from my home in the Northeast suburbs to lovely lakeside Excelsior. But for this play, I was determined to go to my first Old Log opening night. And boy, was my determination rewarded! It was a truly remarkable experience, something I've never seen on stage before, and one that will not soon be forgotten.

The play opens on 79-year-old Alexandra (Melissa Hart), who has barricaded herself in her Brooklyn home, armed with home-made explosives. Her children are trying to remove her from her home and put her in a nursing home, so she’s refusing to let anyone inside. Her long absent youngest son Chris (Paul de Cordova) climbs a tree and into her window in the hopes of talking her down. What follows is an intense and revelatory conversation between these two people, both at a crossroads in their lives and unsure of what’s going to happen next. What Alexandra is really trying to barricade out of her life is age – the loss of herself. Chris is the one of her three children that is most like her, an artist and a free spirit, which is how she raised him. He gives her what she needs – someone to listen to her and acknowledge her fears. Chris has recently experienced a life-changing event of his own, which is why he’s decided to come home, for a chance to “do the right thing.” As they talk about their shared past, and the uncertainty of the future, they come to a bit of an understanding, although nothing is resolved for certain. It’s a clear and precise depiction of one moment in these two people’s lives, lives that existed before this moment and will continue to exist after.*

Paul de Cordova and Melissa Hart (photo credit: Old Log Theatre)
Melissa Hart is veteran Broadway and regional theater actor - she played Sally Bowles during the original run of Cabaret and received a 1970 Tony nomination for the musical Georgy - and lucky for us, she now calls Minnesota home.  I first saw her in a return to Cabaret, this time as Fraulein Schneider in Frank Theater's delectably gritty production on the Showboat four years ago, and have seen her many times since on various stages around town including Illusion and the Guthrie. Melissa as Alexandra and Paul de Cordova as her son Chris are a dream team to bring this talky two-person play to life. This play demands great listening and presence from both actors as each delivers long monologues, along with overlapping dialogue written in the way people actually talk, and Melissa's and Paul's individual and combined performances are one of the best examples of that I've ever seen at the theater.

Alexandra is continually losing parts of herself, as happens with aging, from bodily functions to words. On opening night, Melissa Hart lost her words, and read from a script for the last half of the show. But she never lost the character, and if anything, it made her performance that much more real and poignant. And Paul was right there with her the whole time, listening and responding and helping her through. The character of Alexandra is flustered and struggles for words and memories, yet has moments of crisp clarity about her life and situation. It was indescribably moving to watch Melissa truly live Alexandra's struggles and triumphs for that brief moment in time. It was the truest example of one of the most poignant lines in the play, "there's beauty and art in the coming apart." Melissa took what she was experiencing in the moment and made it serve the character and the play, that's what a pro does. I'm certain that if you go see this play (and you should), you will see a much smoother performance, but no more beautiful than the one I saw.

An important part of this play is the setting - Alexandra's beloved brownstone in Brooklyn, which is beautifully and realistically represented on the Old Log stage. While the leaves outside the Old Log are not yet changing, I attended the show on a perfect fall day and it seemed that the picturesque setting outside the theater had been brought inside. A huge tree with autumn-tinted leaves is seen behind the large window, and is sturdy enough for Chris to climb on. Tree branches and leaves also frame the stage, which contains a cluttered, homey, lived in apartment with furniture stacked against the door and dozens of Molotov cocktails surrounding the perimeter (scenic and lighting design by Erik Paulson).

Having now seen The Velocity of Autumn twice, at different theaters and with different casts, I'm even more convinced what a beautiful and timely play this is. As the Baby Boomer generation ages, we all have Alexandras in our lives, an aging and beloved parent or aunt who seems to be on the verge of not being able to take care of him or herself. It's a difficult thing to navigate and this play provides one example of one family going through it, without providing any simple answers, because there are none. As medical advances allow us to live longer and longer, we all have to deal with our own aging and that of our loved ones, and hopefully we do so with grace, kindness, and acceptance.

The Velocity of Autumn continues through October 24 and it's well worth the drive out to Excelsior to see this smart, funny, poignant, relevant, beautifully written and acted play.

*Once again, I plagiarized myself by copying the description of the play from what I wrote last year.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Audra McDonald with the Minnesota Orchestra at Orchestra Hall

Audra McDonald (photo by Autumn de Wilde)
How many chances do you get to see a six-time Tony winner perform? Not many, since Audra McDonald is the only one. I was lucky enough to see her brilliant performance in The Gerswhins' Porgy and Bess a few years ago, and was thrilled to find out that she'd be opening Minnesota Orchestra's 2015-2016 season right here in Minneapolis. Plus, it's a great excuse to go see the beautiful Minnesota Orchestra, something I'm not often able to do with my busy theater schedule. This opening concert of the season was a wonderful mix of composers and musical theater selections, which is great for someone who's not that familiar with orchestral and classical music. With so many talented musicians, under the animated direction of Osmo Vänskä, and the added gloriousness of Audra McDonald, it was a thrilling evening of music! And it will be repeated tonight - there are a few seats still available so act quickly if you'd like to experience this wonderful event.

The orchestra performed seven pieces (sans Audra) from a variety of composers, including a lovely 9-11 tribute (the concert was on the 14th anniversary) comprised of Aaron Copland's Letters from Home and Samuel Barber's stirring Adagio for Strings. Jacques Offenbach's familiar Overture to Orpheus in the Underworld was also a crowd-pleaser. But as marvelous as the orchestra is, I was there to see Audra, so her seven songs were the highlight of the evening for me.

Dressed in a beautiful floor-length black gown  with sheer panels on the skirt (BTW, the orchestra members looked pretty swanky too in their tuxes and evening gowns), Audra joined the orchestra for a selection of songs from musicals, several of which I was unfamiliar with. She started with the happy and hopeful love song "When Did I Fall in Love?" from Fiorello!, followed by a heart-breakingly sad love song "I Had Myself a True Love" from St. Louis Woman. With Audra's great skill she's able to make the audience feel every emotion of each very different song. She told us that she never wanted to sing "I Could Have Danced All Night" from My Fair Lady because it was just too popular and cliche for a soprano. But thanks to advice from a friend, she "got over herself" and started singing it. But because it is so popular, she asked the audience to join her. When Audra asks you to sing, you sing, even if you can come nowhere near those high notes!

After the intermission, Audra came back with the lovely and melancholy "Moon River" from Breakfast at Tiffany's (a song Audrey Hepburn really did sing, as opposed to My Fair Lady) and the super fast and fun "I Can't Stop Talking About Him" from the Fred Astaire movie Let's Dance. Then Audra shared with us her feelings of loss and confusion after 9-11, and sang for us her musical balm and answer to her question "what's it all about, what really matters?" - "Make Someone Happy" from Do Re Mi. Finally, Audra concluded her portion of the concert with a sentimental favorite of mine, a song that she sang live on TV during NBC's live broadcast of The Sound of Music*. Audra was the best thing about the show (read more of my thoughts on that here), and it was an absolute thrill to hear her sing "Climb Ev'ry Mountain" live and in person, instead of just live and on TV. This is a song that always gives me chills, especially in this performance with Audra and the magnificent orchestra.

So there you have it folks, a beautiful opening to a beautiful new season at Orchestra Hall! They have lots of great things planned (including a "Beethoven marathon") so be sure to check out their website to find one or twenty concerts that pique your interest. A few things that pique my interest are "See Jane Sing!"- a cabaret show starring Glee's Jane Lynch, "Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs" (self-explanatory), and "Rodgers and Hammerstein at the Movies" (replacing the previously announced South Pacific due to "licensing issues," perhaps because the Guthrie is doing it next summer?). There's a wide array of concerts and events offered, so you're sure to find something to love.

*Be sure to mark your calendars for The Ordway's production of The Sound of Music this December featuring a fabulous local cast.

"The Explorers Club" at Lyric Arts

"To Science!" Such is the rallying cry of the fictional Explorers Club in the new play by Nell Benjamin (co-writer of the musical Legally Blonde). But it's not just fiction; the real-life Explorers Club is an organization founded in 1904 and still going strong, a group of scientists committed to "the scientific exploration of land, sea, air, and space." The play is a riff on this idea, taking it to farcical extremes and exploring what happens when one of the members dares to propose that a woman join the group. The result is a silly, witty, and fun play well executed by Lyric Arts with a strong cast and fantastically detailed set design. Not a bad way to open the season!

I doubt that the real members of the Explorers Club are as ridiculous as their fictional counterparts. Explorer Percy (Peter Ooley) insists that he has discovered the "East Pole," botanist Lucius (Brandon Osero) grows poisonous plants named after the women he loves because he's afraid to tell her how he feels, Professor Sloane (Leigh Webber) is intent on finding The Lost Tribes, and Professors Walling (Grif Sadow) and Cope (Robert Zalazar) are so affectionate with their animal subjects that they've lost any scientific objectivity. Into their midst comes Phyllida Spotte-Hume (Jessica Scott), discoverer of a lost city and the object of Lucius' affections. The other members of the club are aghast at the idea of a woman joining their ranks, thinking she'll be too distracting to their work (reminiscent of the #iammorethanadistraction movement against school dress codes). But she also brings excitement and adventure in the form of the native Luigi (a highly physical and newt-like performance by Brendan Veerman) who unwittingly offends the queen, bringing Sir Humphries (Warren Sampson) and the British Army to the Club's door. Along with Irish assassins and killer monks, they create quite a ruckus. It's quite a far-fetched and ridiculous situation, but it's all in good fun!

the Explorers Club is in session! (photo by Mike Traynor)
The other star of the show is the set (designed by Brian Proball) and props (Emma Davis et al.) that look like they came right out of the Librarian movies. The set (dominated by a huge set of doors, stairway to the second floor, and a bar) is chock-full of authentic-looking artifacts including a mummy's case, a full suit of armor, shrunken heads, a large plant that grows, a giant rhino head, elephant leg stools, and weapons of every sort. All of the elements come together smoothly and with great comedic timing under the direction of Matt McNabb, highlighted by some thrilling and intricate drink choreography that is flawlessly performed by the cast (one wonders how long they had to practice catching those drinks, and if they use their new found skill to impress their friends at parties).

The Explorers Club is all light and fun silliness, a strong start to Lyric Arts' 20th anniversary season that includes, among others, A Laura Ingalls Wilder Christmas (a must-see for LIW fanatics like myself), the small and quirky musical The 25th Annual Spelling Bee, the huge and boisterous musical Shrek, and the classic comedy The Odd Couple. The Explorers Club continues through September 27 at Lyric Arts Main Street Stage in Anoka (discount tickets available on Goldstar). So raise a glass to science, comedy, and theater!

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

"Rodgers + Hammerstein's Cinderella" Broadway Tour at the Orpheum

This is not your grandmother's Cinderella. Gone is the pretty and powerless young girl whose only goal is to marry the prince. In the updated version of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella (the only musical they wrote for TV, debuting in 1957 starring Julie Andrews), the would be princess is a smart, thoughtful, confident, and kind young woman who is concerned about social justice, and perhaps most shockingly, good friends with her stepsister. OK so she also wants to marry a prince, but at least there's a little more to this story. If we're going to dress up our daughters as princesses, let's at least instill in them a belief and a confidence that they can do more with their crown than just look pretty and be a bride. In 2015, the world has much more to offer girls and women than that, and it's nice to see this big beautiful Broadway musical at least hint at that. And it is big and beautiful in the grand Broadway style, with Rodgers and Hammerstein's gorgeous music played by a full orchestra in the pit, luscious costumes including some theater magic to create Cinderella's dress transformation, glorious dancing, and a perfect cast.

In the new book by Douglas Carter Beane, Prince Topher is going through an existential crisis, returned from school to rule the kingdom after his parents' death (why are the parents always dead?), but unsure and unsatisfied with his life (see also Pippin). In comes the poor and pretty Ella, who winds up at the ball thanks to her fairy godmother, and before the clock strikes midnight tells Topher about the troubles of his people and that he should do something to help him. In another change to the traditional story, one of the stepsisters is nice, and she and Ella are friends and confidantes - a lovely addition to show that friendship is also a love worth having. She's in love with the cute revolutionary Jean-Michel, and Ella arranges for him to meet the Prince and discuss the issues of the people. Topher not only listens to them just like a regular guy, he also apparently invents democracy, calling for an election for a Prime Minister to advise him on such matters. In the end, it's still about the slipper (done in a tongue-in-cheek sort of way), the love story, the wedding, and the fairy tale, but in this case, the princess saves the prince as much as the prince saves the princess.

the positively dreamy dance at the ball
(photo by Carol Rosegg)
The language used by the characters is definitely more 21st Century than Renaissance era, or even mid-20th Century, which lends a freshness to the story (they even use + instead of & in the title to show how hip and modern the show is). In addition to the sisterly friendship, another lovely addition is the idea of kindness instead of ridicule, which is refreshing in the day of anonymous internet bullying. What if we did all practice kindness, something that seems to come so easily to Ella but can be practiced by everyone if we just put a little effort into it? Even the villains receive forgiveness in the end rather than revenge.

Cinderella and her family in a happy moment of togetherness
(photo by Carol Rosegg)
In last night's #intermissiontweets (follow Cherry and Spoon on Twitter) I wrote "I wanna put on a ball gown and be swept across the dance floor by a handsome prince." True story. The dancing at the ball at the end of Act I is positively dreamy! Impossibly full skirts make it seem like the women's feet never touch the ground as the men twirl and lift them around the stage. This is only one example of Josh Rhodes enthralling choreography. The cast is pretty dreamy too - Paige Faure is an appealing heroine, Andy Huntington Jones makes a swoonworthy Prince, and both have effortlessly lovely voices. Standouts in the fantastic ensemble are Will Blum as the adorkable Jean-Michel, Liz  McCartney as the Fairy Godmother, and Beth Glover, Kaitlyn Davidson, and Aymee Garcia as the evil steps which maybe aren't so evil after all.

And then there's the dress. There are several "how did they do that?" moments of dress transformation which seem truly magical. I knew they were coming and tried to watch closely, but I still couldn't figure out how they do it. I suspect the answer is clever costume design (by William Ivey Long), the most important magic trick - distraction, and practice, practice, practice!

Maybe Cinderella represents something more than just a pretty princess bride, maybe she can be a role model for "every girl who wants to change the world she's living in," as her Fairy Godmother tells her. Either way, Rodgers + Hammerstein's Cinderella is a sweet, funny, charming take on a classic (continuing through this weekend only at Hennepin Theatre Trust's Orpheum Theatre in downtown Minneapolis).