Friday, October 30, 2015

"The Jungle Book" at Children's Theatre Company

Confession: I've never read The Jungle Book (the collection of stories written by Rudyard Kipling in 1894) or seen the 1967 Disney movie (that I can remember). So I was on the fence about seeing Children's Theatre Company's new adaptation, until I saw the cast list (more on them later). They're about a month into their two and a half month run, and I'm so glad I decided to see the show. This coming of age story that just happens to take place in a jungle is a wonderful tale of friendship, family, community, interdependence with nature, and finally having the courage to strike out on your own. With a sparse adaptation featuring just five actors playing all of the characters (most of them animals), whimsical musical accompaniment and sound effects, and a set that's like the best playground imaginable, The Jungle Book is sheer delight from start to finish.

Even if you, like me, have never read the book or seen the movie, you probably know the story. A young human child is raised by wolves in the jungle, who call him Mowgli. As he gets older, the bear Baloo and the panther Bagheera take him under their wings, er... paws. Mowgli learns to commune with the animals of the jungle, but soon finds out that not all of them are his friends. He has the usual growing pains of any human child, but eventually comes to appreciate his animal family and all they've done for him (there's hope, parents!). Because of their love and guidance, he's able to go off on his own into the human world and find his place in the world.

The delights of this adaptation by Greg Banks, who also directs are many, and include:
  • Eric Sharp joyously inhabits the character of Mowgli from the playful non-verbal child, to the rebellious kid wanting to play with his friends, to the young man who is ready to set out on his own, but grateful to his animal family.
  • The other four actors play three to four animal characters each, and completely physically transform into each one. Highlights include H. Adam Harris' lovable Baloo that any child would want as a friend, Casey Hoekstra's deliciously menacing tiger, Autumn Ness' stern but maternal prowling panther, Nastacia Nicole's smooth and seductive snake, and all of them as the playful and mischievous monkeys.
  • Unlike the Disney movie, this is not a musical, but there is music and sound. Victor Zupanc plays multiple instruments including percussion, accordion, and various whistles and noisemakers, which provides a lovely soundtrack to the story.
  • Joseph Stanley's set is a playground any kid (or adult) would love to play on, with multiple levels, stairs, ladders, swings, and platforms high off the ground. It provides endless possibilities for exits, entrances, and interactions, and the cast is all over it.
  • The costumes (by Alison Siple) are subtly representative of the animals the actors are portraying. There are no full fuzzy stuffed animal type of costumes. Rather the actors are dressed in fairly normal people clothes with accessories that hint at the animal - a gray furry hood for the wolves, a brown fuzzy coat for the bear, a colorful mane and bungee cord tail for the monkeys, and beautiful long silk scarf for the snake. Simple but creative and effective, and most importantly, easy to change as these actors get their workout transforming from one animal to the next.
  • The message of "we're of the same blood" is so beautiful and moving, and perhaps even more important to remember today than it was 100 years ago. We're all part of the jungle that is earth, and The Jungle Book reminds us of that.
This Jungle Book is so fun and playful, with a beautiful message about a family that's not related by blood (or even of the same species) and a connection with nature. Whether you're a child or an adult, a fan of the story or unfamiliar with it, it's impossible not to love it. (Continuing through December 20 in CTC's ground level Cargill Stage).

Mowgli and the monkeys (H. Adam Harris, Casey Hoekstra,
Eric Sharp, Autumn Ness, Nastacia Nicole, photo by Dan Norman)

This article also appears on Broadway World Minneapolis.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

"The Events" by Actors Touring Company at the Guthrie Theater

Playwright David Greig and director Ramin Gray of Actors Touring Company (an internationally touring theater company based in London) created The Events in response to the 2011 bombing in Oslo, Norway and the horrific mass shooting at a children's camp on an island a few hours away. The play, which stops at the Guthrie Theater this month on its world tour, isn't directly about that incident, but rather the terrifyingly frequent occurrence of mass shooting events. It's sobering and thought-provoking and disturbing. It doesn't offer any answers to this recurring crisis, rather it seems like one person's (or a group of people's) attempt to process "the events." This story of one woman dealing with a mass shooting event she witnessed is told in an innovative non-linear way, with the two-person cast interacting with a different community choir every night. It plays through this weekend only but there's still time to catch one of the remaining performances.

Claire (Lesley Hart) is a priest and director of a community choir that offers a home and a community for people who are searching for a place to feel welcome. Through a series of scenes, we learn that this "multiculturalism" became a target for a violent, revolutionary madman who sees this diversity as a threat to his country and way of life. Clifford Samuel plays "the boy," as well as every other character that Claire interacts with on her quest to understand the event - her partner Katrina, her therapist, the boy's friend and father, an author, a politician, and a shaman. He smoothly and seamlessly transforms from one character to another as he helps to tell what really is Claire's story, her story of trying to get her life back after this horrible incident. Will she be able to forgive and let go, or will she find a way to exact the revenge she dreams of?

Lesley Hart and Clifford Samuel (photo by Dan Norman)
The scenes of Claire talking to someone about the shooting are interspersed with choir rehearsals, a new choir that Claire also uses to process "the events." The play jumps around a lot in an episodic, stream of consciousness sort of way that keeps the audience on its toes. In fact the audience seems an integral part of this piece, even more so than theater usually requires. The choir is played by a different local community choir every night, and in a way they play the part of the audience too, spending much of their time on stage watching the play. But they're also asked to sing and do some pretty crazy things, and even read some lines. Both of the actors are so natural and passionate and committed, and playful with the choir. It's interesting to watch the interaction between the cast and the choir, and the fact that the choir is not made up of actors, but just regular people, somehow makes their interactions seem more authentic.

Since one of the characters in this piece is the choir, of course there is music. Kudos to musical director Joe Bunker for working with a new choir every night and confidently leading them through not just the music, but also subtly directing them when to stand or move around the stage or speak. The night I attended, the choir was the Mindekirken choir, and they sounded just lovely singing traditional hymns and original songs (by John Browne). The closing song is particularly moving, the lyrics "and we're all here... we're all in here" sounding like a balm to the soul of the survivors.

These mass shooting events occur so frequently around the world, and especially in this country, that we almost become numb to them. The Events is one attempt to really examine and process a fictional event that feels all too real. (Four performances remaining on the Guthrie's Proscenium Stage.)

Monday, October 26, 2015

"Yeston & Kopit's Phantom" at Artistry (formerly known as Bloomington Civic Theatre)

There's a new Phantom in town. OK it's not exactly a new Phantom, but rather one that's lived under the shadow of the musical theater juggernaut that is Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera, the longest running show on Broadway and "the most financially successful entertainment event to date." What hope, then, does any other musical adaptation of the early 20th Century French novel have? Maury Yeston and Arthur Kopit (who also wrote the 1982 Tony-winning Best Musical Nine) had already begun their musical adaptation when Webber's premiered in 1986 and took over the world. Consequently, Yeston and Kopit's version never made it to Broadway, but it has had many productions around the world, and now, in Bloomington MN at the newly renamed Artistry. Not being a huge fan of Webber's version (read more about that here), I was curious to see what another version might look like. While it's still not my favorite story, I found Artistry's production of this different sort of Phantom to be lovely, touching, and well performed by the cast and orchestra.

This Phantom follows the same general outline as the book and other adaptations, although they all differ on the details. The general outline: a disfigured man haunts the Paris Opera House, he falls in love with and kidnaps the beautiful young opera singer Christine, and tragic things happen. The details: in this version, the Phantom, aka Erik, has lived below the Opera House all of his life, having grown up there after his mother dies. He tutors Christine in opera technique, and only kidnaps her to save her from the diva who's trying to sabotage her. She seems to genuinely love him, but alas, they can't be happy together, because this is still Phantom.

I've only seen ALW's Phantom once, and I found it to be a bit difficult to follow, slow and draggy in parts, and way too melodramatic. This Phantom doesn't have those problems. It's still a preposterous story (why does someone who basically grew up in a sewer and rarely appears in public go about dressed in pristine tails and a fancy cape?), but Erik's origin story explains more of why is he the way he is, the show moves along with a fairly good momentum, and while it's still dramatic, it's a bit sweeter and with some lighter moments.

Yeston's score is lovely and melodic, with the duet "You Are Music" a highlight. As per usual, Anita Ruth's 20-piece pit orchestra plays it wonderfully, and the cast is full of strong singers. Courtney Groves is radiant as the young Christine, and has a sweet and lovely voice. William Guilness brings great dark and conflicted emotion in his portrayal and his strong deep voice. She's all lightness, and he's all darkness (which I guess is the point of the piece), and they sound beautiful together. Other highlights in the large and talented ensemble are Riley McNutt as Christine's patron, Alan Sorenson as Erik's friend with a secret of his own, and Carl Schoenborn and Angela Walberg as the new owners of the Opera House, the latter adding humor with her diva-like scheming.

One of the main focuses of that other Phantom is the huge chandelier that almost drops on the audience. While there is a dropping chandelier here, it's less of a spectacle, but still impressive, as is the set. The massive two-story structure with movable steps, multiple doors and entrances, and surprising nooks and crannies may be the most elaborate I've seen on the Artistry stage. It doesn't overpower the story but provides the appropriate grandeur for the Opera House (set design by Benjamin Olsen). Ed Gleeman's luscious costumes complete the look of Paris high society.

If you're a big fan of ALW's Phantom, you might want to give this one a try just to see a different take on the story. If you're not a big fan of ALW's Phantom, you might find this one more to your liking. It's less of a spectacle and more of a story, with a beautiful score beautifully realized. Yeston & Kopit's Phantom continues through November 14 (discount tickets available on Goldstar).

Christine and the Phantom (Courtney Groves and William Guilness)

Saturday, October 24, 2015

"An Octoroon" at Mixed Blood Theatre

The word octoroon is defined as "a person of one-eight black ancestry." The Octoroon is a 19th Century play by Irish playwright Dion Boucicault about which Wikipedia says, "among antebellum melodramas, it was considered second only in popularity to Uncle Tom's Cabin." An Octoroon is a new play by playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, who adapted the play and added himself as a character, writing the play and playing all the white male parts in white face, with the original playwright and his assistant playing roles in redface and blackface, while a rabbit seems to pull the strings behind the scenes. Got all that? Believe me, it's a lot to take in, and the play says some pretty profound things about race and racism in the past and present. But despite being a little perplexing and intentionally offensive (in a way that's not really offensive because it's satire), the whole thing is kinda brilliant in a crazy sort of way.

I'm not going to describe the plot of the play to you; it's one of those things you just have to see for yourself (and you should). Suffice it to say, this adaptation actually hews quite close to the original in the middle play-within-a-play bit, in which a kindly slave owner dies and leaves his kindly wife and heir with no money to save the plantation or its slaves, including the kindly dead slave owner's octoroon daughter whom his wife loves and they both treat like a daughter (because that happened). But before we get to all of that, the "black playwright" sets the scene by telling us the origins of this play, and why he was forced to play all the white male parts himself. Then the play begins, done in an exaggerated melodramatic style that points out the silliness of this depiction of the Old South, complete with piano accompaniment to heighten the mood (beautifully and cleverly composed and performed by Eric Mayson). In the fourth act of the play-with-a-play, the playwright and some of the other actors break out of character to describe the scene that's too difficult to stage, and to offer commentary on it. It's all very meta, and also offers some comments on theater itself (as well as some nifty pyrotechnics).

Director Nataki Garrett somehow keeps all of these timelines and realities moving together smoothly and making sense, and the cast fully commits to the melodrama of the piece. William Hodgson gives several excellent performances - as the playwright and both the kindly slaveowner's heir and the evil slaveowner, sometimes playing multiple characters in one scene, and even having a fight with himself (kudos again to Annie Enneking for her fight choreography). Jon Andrew Hegge is ridiculous (in the best way) as the Irish playwright in redface; Ricardo Vázquez portrays every stereotype of blackface; Jamila Anderson, Chaz Hodges, and Jasmine Hughes are amusing as the modern-talking slave women; and Jane Froiland is an absolute hoot as the stereotypical and overly dramatic Southern Belle. Megan Burns as the titular octoroon Zoe is the straight woman in this crazy scene, bringing dignity and humanity to her character. Last but not least, I'm not sure what Br'er Rabbit has to do with any of this, but Gregory Parks is nimble and slightly creepy in that oversized rabbit head (with movements delightfully punctuated by the aforementioned Eric Mayson's music).

William Hodgson and Megan Burns (photo by Rich Ryan)
At one point the playwright character complains that there's no novelty in the theater anymore. Which any theater-goer in this town knows is not true, and this play is Exhibit A. At the end of the play another character says, "we were just trying to make you feel something." An Octoroon will most definitely make you feel something, it will likely make you feel many things, some of them uncomfortable or even unpleasant. But that's not a bad thing in theater, in fact sometimes it's necessary. An Octoroon continues at Mixed Blood Theatre through November 15. Tickets are free through their Radical Hospitality program, or you can reserve tickets in advance for $20.

This article also appears on Broadway World Minneapolis.

Friday, October 23, 2015

"The Cubicle" by Bucket Brigade at Art House North

I've spent the better part of the last 16 years working in a cubicle, until I lucked into a job that allows me to work from home most of the time. I don't miss the daily grind of fighting traffic, making small talk with coworkers, and worst of all - spending the majority of your waking hours sitting in a small sterile box. The new-ish theater company Bucket Brigade is reprising their 2005 Fringe show The Cubicle (the company may be new to the scene but the players are not) at their new home Art House North - an old church in St. Paul's West End neighborhood that has been converted to a theater and art space. While the show pokes fun at the office life, it also goes a little deeper than just jokes about coffee and deadlines. It's part office comedy, part existential crisis, and part physical and dance-like representation of the daily grind.

The Cubicle was created and is performed by Jeremiah Gamble (Bucket Brigade Artistic Director) and Corey Mills, with direction by Matthew Greseth. Jeremiah and Corey play two employees of Gigasoft Software, a giant software company started by a man named Bill Jobs. The stage is bare except for two three-sided cubicles on wheels, which they cleverly arrange to represent not just cubicles, but also cars, an elevator, treadmills, a stroller, and even a pulpit. It's like an office ballet, and it's obvious that the two actors have spend a lot of time with this piece in the easy and graceful way they move around the space with cubicles and chairs.

Corey Mills and Jeremiah Gamble
All of the rituals of office life are parodied as we follow these two characters through one week of their work lives. Monday progresses to Fridays and the routines (and employees) become increasingly harried and rushed. We also begin to peek inside the lives of these two "work friends," whose conversations never go much deeper than "how's the family?" and "fine." They both have more going on in their out-of-the-office lives that they're reluctant to share over coffee in the break room. One is dealing with a strained marriage, the other with a sick father and a brother in prison. We follow each of them into their individual lives, and meet some of the people in their lives (both actors play multiple characters, differentiated by a small change in wardrobe, an accent, or a different physicality). Events culminate on the weekend, and at least one of our characters learns that perhaps life is more than just traffic and coffee breaks.

One of the fun things about the show is the inventiveness they use to represent the different parts of daily life, which is enhanced by Jeremiah's sound design (complete with elevator music and daily announcements) and Courtney Schmitz's lighting design (I was impressed with the flexibility and variety achieved in this non-traditional theater space). This office world is so engrossing that the intermission only servers to interrupt the flow, and doesn't seem necessary with the short running time.

Unfortunately, I got to this one late - it closes this Saturday! If you're looking for something to do tonight or tomorrow, head to this unique St. Paul theater space to see an inventive, funny, and poignant little play about life inside and outside the office. (See the Bucket Brigade website for more info.)

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

"The Most Happy Fella" - A Reading by Second Fiddle Productions

Wikipedia says Frank Loesser was "an American songwriter who wrote the lyrics and music to the Broadway hits Guys and Dolls and How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, among others." I, like many people, have seen and love both of these shows (click on above titles for details of how I love them). But I had never seen or even really heard of The Most Happy Fella, one of those "among others" that Loesser wrote (and for which he also wrote the book). What a perfect choice, then, for Second Fiddle Productions, "a reading series that breathes life into uncommon and rarely produced musicals." Last night they presented a one-night only reading of the show at Camp Bar, featuring some of the Twin Cities brightest music-theater talent. And I'm so glad they did so that I could experience this lovely musical!

The Most Happy Fella is a love story, if a bit of an unusual one. It goes something like this: boy (Tony, played by Bill Marshall) meets girl (called Rosabella, played by Elizabeth Reese) in a San Francisco restaurant and leaves her a tie pin and a love note instead of a tip, girl doesn't remember boy but begins a correspondence with him, boy is afraid girl will reject him so he sends her a photo of a younger boy (Joe, played by Aleks Knezevich), girl agrees to marry boy and arrives at his Napa farm, girl is disappointed that boy lied to her and has a dalliance with the younger boy, boy and girl fall in love, girl finds out she's pregnant with younger boy's baby, boy is crushed but ultimately decides he loves girl and accepts the baby as his own (that last bit is actually very similar to a current storyline on The Bold and the Beautiful). A little convoluted, but it's actually a very sweet love story.

The most well-known song in the score is "Standing on the Corner," which doesn't sound as much like sexual harassment when sung in sprightly four-part harmony. A few of the other songs seemed vaguely familiar to me, but most of the songs I had never heard before. The show skews towards the opera end of the music-theater spectrum, about which Loesser said "I may give the impression the show has operatic tendencies. If people feel that way - fine. Actually all it has is a great frequency of songs. It's a musical with music." There's definitely an operatic feel to the score - sweeping and romantic with soaring melodies. The hero of the story, Tony, is an Italian immigrant, so some of the songs are partly in Italian, which only makes it more fancy. But mixed in with this opera-like music are some down home Country-Western feeling songs, both on the Napa farm and when Rosabella's friend Cleo is talking about her hometown, "Big D (Little-A Double-L-A-S)." It's a strange and lovely mix of musical styles that's quite pleasant to listen to.

the cast of The Most Happy Fella (photo by Second Fiddle)
Also quite pleasant to listen to is this 13-person cast crammed on the small stage at Camp Bar, accompanied by a 4-piece band. Even though they have the script and score in front of them, they all give full performances not just of the music, but also of the emotions of the characters. And many of them are doing this on their day off! On stage were Ruthie Baker (Artistic Director) and Adam Qualls, currently appearing in the fabulous new musical Glensheen just a few blocks away at the History Theatre. A few blocks beyond that at Park Square Theatre is where you can see Music Director Nic Delacambre as one half of the delightful musical murder mystery Murder for Two. Randy Schmeling recently performed in the Ordway's latest Broadway Songbook, and Aly Westberg just finished a short run of Murder Ballad with Minneapolis Musical Theatre. Everyone in the cast can be seen on various stages around the Twin Cities; in fact there was so much talent on that stage that much of it was underused (like the always adorable Suzie Juul). Bottom line is - these are all busy people who come together to learn this show for just one night!

The Most Happy Fella marks the final show in Second Fiddle's second season. Hopefully next year will bring another selection of rare and delightful musicals "read" by super-talented artists. If you want to help make that happen, remember them on Give to the Max Day, coming up on November 12.

Monday, October 19, 2015

"The Spitfire Grill" at Lyric Arts

"There is a balm in Gilead, to make the wounded whole." So says the old spiritual, and so too is there a balm in the fictional town of Gilead, Wisconsin, the setting for the 2001 Off-Broadway musical The Spitfire Grill, based on the 1996 movie of the same name. Yes, this story of an ex-con finding redemption in a small town feels a little like a Hallmark movie, with an unrealistically idealistic portrayal of small-town life, but it's also poignant and touching and filled with stirring and moving music. In the new production by Anoka's Lyric Arts, the story is beautifully brought to life by a winning cast, and is a decidedly warm-hearted, feel-good musical that will leave you humming the tunes as you wipe away tears.

Upon being released from prison for a crime that is later revealed, Percy (short for Perchance) decides to move to the small town of Gilead based solely on the photo of the fall colors along the creek she finds in a newspaper, and the desire to make a fresh start somewhere new. Local Sheriff Joe acts as her parole officer and sets her up with a room and a job at the Spitfire Grill, run by Hannah, who begrudgingly agrees. Percy also meets Hannah's nephew Caleb and his wife Shelby, and mail carrier/town busybody Effy. She soon learns that small-town life is not as idyllic as that newspaper photo makes it out to be, with residents suffering from grief, abuse, and the longing to get out. But Percy also learns, perhaps for the first time in her life, what it is to be part of a community, to be needed, to experience trust and friendship. As is often the case in these fish-out-of-water stories, Percy is the catalyst for change in this community that has been stuck in a rut for too long.

Christy Jones, Martha Wigmore, and Katharine Strom
(photo by Michael Traynor)
 The story and character development are told largely through music. And my favorite kind of music at that - a sort of folky/Americana, mixed with some Broadway sound. The off-stage five-piece orchestra led by Music Director Mary Cay Stone includes mandolin and fiddle, as any good folky band should. I really enjoyed the score (by James Valcq and Fred Alley) which evokes a definite sense of place - small-town America - and includes some lovely and interesting melodies that are designed to pull at the heartstrings. And everyone in this seven-person cast sounds fantastic and imbues the music with much emotion.

James Ehlenz and Katharine Strom (photo by Michael Traynor)
Katharine Strom has impressed in a few over-the-top comedic roles both musical and non-musical, but this is a star turn for her. She brings such depth, toughness, and raw heart to her earthy and earnest portrayal of Percy. Her voice is crystal clear and lovely, and brimming with emotion. Christy Jones also sounds lovely as Shelby, and the two portray a believable friendship. Martha Wigmore is tough and tender as the Grill's owner with a secret of her own, James Ehlenz is charming as Sheriff Joe who takes a shine to Percy, Patrick Jones is appropriately unlikable as the controlling husband Caleb, Shana Eisenberg provides comic relief as the busybody Effy, and Brad Bone brings humanity and pathos to the role of the mysterious visitor.

Gabriel Gomez's scenic design brings the beautiful Midwest fall outdoors inside the theater. The only indoor set is, appropriately, the charming and rustic Grill, with about half the stage filled with trees and leaves and representations of nature, an important character in the play. Adam Raine's lighting design casts a warm glow on the cast and the town of Gilead, making it a place you'll wish you could visit.

The Spitfire Grill reminds me a little of the musical Violet, and that's a very good thing. Both feature Americana music and a small cast and band, and tell the story of a young woman on a quest to heal her past and make a new start for a better future, positively affecting those she meets along the way. This is a story of friendship, of healing, of second chances, of community, of forgiveness. In this cynical time, it is indeed a balm to escape for a few hours into the simpler world of Gilead, where there are troubles aplenty, but where hard work, friendship, and community offer a chance for hope and healing. (Playing now through November 1.)

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

"Broken Bone Bathtub" by Siobhan O'Loughlin in a Bathroom

Broken Bone Bathtub is not your typical night at the theater. This 2015 Minnesota Fringe hit is back in Minnesota, taking place in bathrooms in volunteers' homes around the Twin Cities for the next three weeks. I didn't see it at the Fringe because, I admit, I was scared by the interactive nature of the piece and the idea of helping a stranger take a bath. But I loved Siobhan O'Loughlin's 2014 Fringe show, Natural Novice, and I've heard that Broken Bone Bathtub is not nearly as scary as it sounds, so I'm glad I got a second chance to see it. It's a lovely, funny, poignant, and immersive experience that explores the connections we share every day, big and small.

Siobhan's website explains the show thusly: 
Broken Bone Bathtub is an immersive theatre project taking place inside a bathtub. After a serious bike accident, a young woman musters up the courage to ask for help, and shares her story, exploring themes of trauma, suffering, human generosity and connection. The audience takes on the role of Siobhan’s close friends; not only listening but sharing in their experiences, and assisting the cast-clad artist in the actual ritual of taking a bath.
I was one of six people in the audience, but we weren't so much audience as participants in the story. From her bubble bath, Siobhan tells us the story of her bike accident, injury, and recovery. She shares moments when she felt alone, and other moments when she felt not so alone. She talks to the audience in a conversational way, and somehow gets us to share our stories as well. Believe me, I'm the last person to volunteer for "interactive" theater, but somehow it feels more like opening up to a friend. In a strange way I feel bonded to the other six people in the audience, even though I'll probably never see them again and have already forgotten their names, because each one of us shared an intimate experience, whether an injury, a physical insecurity, or a difficult phone call to mom.

Last year when I saw her in Natural Novice, I wrote that Siobhan was "charming and disarming" while discussing body hair. So it really shouldn't be any surprise that she's charming and disarming while talking to a group of strangers while sitting in a bathtub, asking them to help wash her hair and back. She easily draws you into her story and prompts you to think of similar situations in your own life. Times when you felt helpless, or jealous, or alone, or comforted. In other words, she explores what it is to be human and connect with other humans.

So be brave, go sit in a bathroom with a bunch of strangers and have a conversation, think about life in a different way, and maybe feel a little less alone. Broken Bone Bathtub is playing in a bathroom near you through the end of the month.

"Musical Mondays" at Hell's Kitchen, October 2015

Last night was "Gentleman's Night" at Musical Mondays at Hell's Kitchen. Which means that this installment of the almost 3-year old monthly cabaret series featured five fabulous men. Hosted by real-life and onstage BFFs Sheena Janson and Max Wojtanowicz (see their original autobiographical musical Fruit Fly for more on their relationship), Musical Mondays is a great way to support local talent, mingle with the theater crowd, and enjoy some amazing performances of musical theater songs beloved and new.

In addition to the music, Hell's Kitchen (located on 9th Street in downtown Minneapolis) offers a nice beer selection and some tasty appetizers and meals to enjoy while you watch. The event is free, with a $5 suggested donation that goes to the performers. In exchange you're entered into a raffle to win tickets to current shows, which this month included:

As a special treat this month, the Twin Cities Public Television series MN Original was there filming for an upcoming feature. If you've never seen MN Original, I highly recommend you check it out to see the amazing work of Minnesota artists, not just theater artists but all art forms, some you didn't even know existed (all episodes available online).

The cast was accompanied by the master Jerry Rubino on keyboard, Bill Crean on bass, and Bob Beahen on drums. The full set list from last night's show is available on the Musical Mondays Facebook page, but here are a few of my favorites:
  • Tre Searles beautifully sang "Can't Help Lovin' That Man" from Show Boat, and an inspiring anthem called "Belief" with which I was unfamiliar.
  • Sherwin Resurreccion was a charming "Mr. Cellophane" (from Chicago), and led the cast in the always fun "Sit Down You're Rockin' the Boat" from Guys and Dolls, which I still remember him singing at a Mu Gala years ago.
  • Kevin Leines sang a lovely rendition of "Try to Remember" from The Fantasticks (and he looks a little like Jerry Orbach too!).
  • Andrew was adorable singing the title song from She Loves Me, and also sang a song from Jonathan Larson's Tick Tick Boom.
  • Matt Goinz was the one member of the cast unfamiliar to me, but if his favorite musical theater song is "Being Alive" from Company, and he can sing it this dreamily, he's OK in my book.
  • The guys combined for a couple of duets, including Kevin and Matt's beautiful "Lily's Eyes" from The Secret Garden, and Andrew and Tre on "Just True" from Yank.
  • In addition to giving us chills with "Finishing the Hat" from Sunday in the Park with George, Max also made us laugh while serenading his newly married co-host Sheena with a song he'd written to the tune of "Somewhere That's Green" (possible new chapter of Fruit Fly?).
  • The cast of MMT's Murder Ballad sang a number from the show, which made me wish I could see it! Unfortunately with just three Friday night performances, my schedule would not allow it. But you should go see the last performance this Friday at Bryant Lake Bowl!
Before closing the show, the guys told us where we could see them next. Tre will be in Sister Act at the Chanhassen, opening next month; Andrew will be singing in Second Fiddle's one night only staged reading of The Most Happy Fella next Monday; Matt performs with the excellent vocal ensemble Cantus; Sherwin will be serving delicious food on his food truck; and someone needs to hire Kevin so we can see more of him!

That's it for this month. The next Musical Mondays will be an anniversary celebration on November 2, and it sounds like a fantastic line-up! (Unfortunately I won't be able to make it because I'll be in NYC, recovering from having run 26.2 miles, and seeing as many shows as I can!) Stay tuned to the Musical Mondays Facebook page for information on upcoming shows, as well as when you can see the MN Original feature.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

"Henry IV Part I" by Ten Thousand Things at Open Book

Typically, if I heard "Shakespeare's Henry IV Part I," my immediate reaction would be - ugh. Sounds heavy and difficult and confusing and exhausting. But given the Ten Thousand Things treatment, with Michelle Hensley at the helm and an incredibly brilliant cast of eight women, it's anything but. Sure there are still a heck of a lot of characters with weird names, and alliances more difficult to keep straight than the latest season of Survivor, but TTT always breaks things down to get to the truth of the story, characters, and emotions at play. So while maybe I wasn't always clear on who was warring with whom, I was still caught up in the power of the story. And with a cliffhanger ending suitable for any movie franchise, I found myself wondering, when's Part II?

As assistant director Per Janson told us in the traditional pre-show spiel (filling in for Michelle Hensley, who is in San Francisco being named to the YBCA 100, because she's awesome), Henry IV Part I is about King Henry IV of England, who recently took the crown from Richard II. But it's really the story of his son, Prince Hal, and whether he will decide to back his father or join with the rebels who are springing up all over England to remove him from the throne. Michelle notes in the playbill:
The stark choice faced by Prince Hal in this 400-year-old play is actually one still facing many young men today: to become a leader in an often ruthless world of competition, dominance, and conquest - whether in business, politics, sports, or war - or to rebel against it all through a life of thievery, drunkenness, and debauchery. We decided it would be interesting to look at this story through the lens of an all-female cast.
Interesting, indeed. Eight women (some of the Twin Cities' finest actors) play over 20 characters and tell this layered story of conquest, loyalty, rebellion, and the complicated politics of 15th century England. The aforementioned "Ten Thousand Things treatment" means that we watch the play in a small, fully lit room, with minimal sets and costumes, Peter Vitale's evocative and eclectic soundtrack, and none of the usual tricks of the theater to come between cast and audience. We are all a part of this experience, which somehow feels more real and immediate.

I'm not going to bore you with a complicated plot summary, Wikipedia can tell you that. Instead I'll tell you that Michelle Barber reigns over the proceedings as a fierce and indomitable King Henry; recent Ivey-winner Shá Cage is empathetic as the conflicted Prince Hal; Thomasina Petrus is the King's loyal comrade; Anna Sundberg and Austene Van are strong as rebel leaders; Meghan Kreidler, making her TTT debut, plays a number of roles and fits right in with her expressive spirit; George Keller is a very entertaining drunk, among other characters; and Karen Wiese-Thompson is, as always, a comic delight, here as the foolish knight Falstaff, spot-on hilarious in every choice she makes. And may I say, it's such a treat to see these amazingly talented women, without the glamorous make-up, hair, and wardrobe usually associated with the theater, and looking all the more beautiful and strong because of it.

One more thing I need to tell you - there are some really brutal and real-looking fight scenes, sometimes several fights happening at once. It's so real and close that at times I almost feared for the actors' and the audience's safety, except that I know these people are pros. Kudos to fight coach Annie Enneking for her intricate choreography and to the cast for pulling it off.

Go to the Ten Thousand Things website to see a fun and cool trailer for the show and to purchase your tickets. Seating at Open Book is limited so make plans soon!

Saturday, October 10, 2015

"Broadway Songbook: The '70s Songbook" at the Ordway Center

In the 12th installment of the Ordway's fun and educational "Broadway Songbook" series (and the 11th I've seen), host and co-writer (along with Jeffrey P. Scott) James Rocco and Music Director Raymond Berg present the songbook of the '70s. Unlike other shows in the series, the songs in this show don't all come from musicals. Rather, the theme is singer/songwriters of the '70s that had an effect on Broadway. Or something like that. The rules for inclusion seem a little loosey goosey - no Xanadu because the movie on which it was based came out in 1980 (despite the fact that two of the stars of the Chanhassen's 2012 production are in the cast), yet "Can You Feel the Love Tonight" from the 1994 movie The Lion King, brilliantly adapted for the stage in 1997,* is fair game because Elton John was a songwriter in the '70s? And no mention of one of the most popular and long-lasting musicals that came out of the '70s - Chicago, or songs from Mamma Mia, another popular jukebox musical based on Abba songs from the '70s. And if we're just singing great songs from the '70s, where's John Denver and The Carpenters (my favorite '70s musicians)? As a musical theater nerd, I would prefer more musical theater songs and fewer pop songs. But that being said, Broadway Songbook: The '70s Songbook is still a fabulously performed, fun, entertaining, and educational evening of music.

I count every one of the five members of this super talented cast (Dieter Bierbrauer, Caroline Innerbichler, Kersten Rodau, Randy Schmeling, and Erin Schwab) among my favorite music-theater performers in the Twin Cities, so it's a treat to hear them sing any song, no matter where it comes from or when it was written. They each get their moment in the spotlight, and back each other up for those dreamy '70s harmonies. Accompanied by an awesome four-piece band led by Raymond Berg on piano, there's no doubt that this show contains many amazing musical moments. Here are a few of my favorites:
  • The women combine for a gorgeous and stirring rendition of "At the Ballet" from the ultimate musical about musicals, A Chorus Line.**
  • The Donna Summer/Barbra Streisand song "No More Tears (Enough is Enough)" has a pretty loose connection to Broadway, but Erin and Kersten rock out on this super fun disco song.
  • You talk about Stephen Sondheim's Company with Dieter Bierbrauer onstage, and don't have him sing "Being Alive" - my favorite version of one of the best musical theater songs ever written? I guess I'll have to settle for a beautifully sad and poignant "Sorry-Grateful."
  • Speaking of Dieter, I was getting concerned that he didn't have any solo moments after "Sorry-Grateful," but he must have been saving it up for an awesome performance of "Eli's Coming" (a song known only to me from that one episode of Sports Night) and leading the cast in a lovely version of the aforementioned "Can You Feel the Love Tonight."
  • Proving that there really is nothing she can't do, the hilarious and uber-talented Erin Schwab pounds the keys as Carole King, accompanying herself on piano on "Beautiful."***
  • Randy also accompanies himself, on an adorable tiny piano, on "Fill in the Words" from They're Playing Our Song (which we learn is written about two of the songwriters whose music this show features). He also makes a great Pippin in "A Corner of the Sky."
  • Despite being the only member of the cast not yet born in the '70s, Caroline Innerbichler best embodies the '70s vibe with her long, flowy, beachy hair and easy breezy delivery on such songs as Joni Mitchell's "Help Me" and Laura Nyro's "Wedding Bell Blues."
  • Kersten Rodau lends her powerful voice to Sondheim's "Could I Leave You" from Follies (I was lucky enough to see the recent stunning Broadway revival) and Carly Simon's "Nobody Does It Better."
  • The show includes several songs from the original JT, James Taylor, including Randy on "Traffic Jam" (which is actually from a musical from the '70s - Working) and James on "Fire and Rain."
  • The gorgeous harmonies of Simon and Garfunkel are heard on "Homeward Bound" (by Randy and James) and "Cecilia" (by Dieter, Kersten, and Erin).
Despite being a little light on the Broadway, I really enjoyed this show, as I do all "Broadway Songbook" shows. It features some really incredible performances of those great '70s songs, and it did teach me something new about Broadway musicals. Rest assured that the next "Broadway Songbook" will return to its roots, featuring the music of Kander and Ebb next summer.

*The Lion King returns to Minneapolis, where it made its pre-Broadway debut, next summer.
**The Ordway is producing A Chorus Line next February, with a (hopefully) mostly local cast.
***The national tour of the Carole King musical Beautiful stops at the Orpheum in November.

Friday, October 9, 2015

"Pioneer Suite" by Freshwater Theatre at nimbus theatre

A new original musical, Minnesota history, a gorgeous score written in an early Americana style, a wonderful cast, beautifully rustic period costumes and set, and the real stories of three women who are given a voice. What's not to love about Freshwater Theatre's aptly titled Pioneer Suite? This piece, that is in effect three one-act musicals woven together with a similar theme, time period, and musical style, was written by Keith Hovis, who also music directs and plays keyboard in the three-piece band. I loved Keith's Minnesota Fringe musicals Teenage Misery and Shakespeare Apocalypse, which were both fringey delights, but Pioneer Suite is on a whole different level and proves that he can do more than write catchy songs and a silly and entertaining story. Pioneer Suite is a beautiful and fully formed musical, with moments of humor, darkness, depth, desperation, and heart.

The first act, or movement, is about "Mrs. Housel* of Suicidal Fame," and was presented as part of Freshwater's Archival Revival. Kelly Matthews performed this song at the Ivey's last year, and I'm so glad those of us who missed the original production have a chance to see it again, and more! Based on a newspaper clipping about a woman who attempted suicide nine times, Mrs. Housel is finally able to tell her own story, in her own words. It's obvious that Kelly has spent time with this character, as she makes the audience feel every note and emotion in Mrs. Housel's tragic story.

In the second act we meet Martha Angle Dorsett, the first woman lawyer in Minnesota. Actually we meet two Marthas, one at the ripe old age of 36 (Kendall Anne Thompson), and one a youthful 26 (Gracie Anderson). The younger Martha is facing a decision by the judge whether or not to admit her to the bar, which seems like the most important thing in life. The older Martha has decided to quite practicing law, and tries to convince her younger self that there's more to life than "success." They have some interesting song-conversations, and combining the powerhouse voices of Kendall and Gracie leads to some gorgeous sound. Philip Matthews as her husband Charlie completes the charming trio.

The final act is about Mary (Gail Ottmar), a farmer's wife, who has suffered great loss in her life and would most likely be diagnosed with clinical depression today. But in the late 19th century, all her husband (Jim Ahrens) and son (Zach Garcia) know is that mother spends a lot of time in bed. The visit of a beloved daughter (Libby Anderson) and her fiance (Lars Lee) serves to cheer her up for a time, until she learns that they're leaving the city to start their own farm, the same difficult life that has nearly destroyed Mary. This family drama provides some nice moments for everyone in the cast, from the sweet young couple in love, to the family eagerly preparing for the visit, to Mary singing about her "Melancholia."

Each one of these three mini-musicals could stand on its own (and I'd have a hard time picking a favorite), but putting them together creates an even more powerful and fulfilling experience. The music really evokes that pioneer feeling of the late 19th Century Midwestern frontier, and it's a beautiful thing to hear the stories of three everyday women, who didn't necessary do anything newsworthy in their lives, except that they lived. The closing song allows Mrs. Housel, the Marthas, and Mary to sing together about the power of telling one's story and being heard. I definitely won't forget these three remarkable women soon. Head to nimbus between now and October 18, and you won't either.

*Listen to Keith Hovis talk about the process of writing Mrs. Housel on the Twin Cities Song Story podcast, hosted by Mark Sweeney.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

"Murder for Two" at Park Square Theatre

I do not advocate murder, unless it's of the fictional and musical variety. Then I'm all for it, especially when it's as delicious as Theater Latte Da's brilliant production of the Sondheim classic Sweeney Todd, as darkly hilarious as History Theatre's new original musical Glensheen, or as just plain fun as Park Square Theatre's Murder for Two, now playing on the Andy Boss stage. This two-person musical/comedy/mystery is funny, entertaining, and impressive to watch with its multitude of characters seen and unseen, and musical tricks by these two multi-talented performers.

In this delightfully silly murder mystery caper, Nic Delcambre is local cop Marcus who tries to solve the murder so he can make detective, and Andrea Wollenberg is everyone else. She is the wife of the victim, a murder mystery novelist who was shot in the forehead at his surprise party, as well as all of the guests at the party, including a ballerina, a grad student studying criminology, a bickering couple, a psychiatrist, a fireman, and a boys choir. They're all suspects, and Marcus interviews each of them in turn, with Andrea deftly transforming herself with a simple accessory, a change in voice, and a new physicality. It's quite a feat, and she pulls it off beautifully. The two actors seem very comfortable and playful with each other and the audience, ad libbing on occasion and making sure everyone is having a good time. And we are.

Nic Delcambre and Andrea Wollenberg
Oh, and did I mention that they both play the piano masterfully? And sing beautifully (or not, depending on the character)? Accompanying themselves and/or each other, playing together or separately or seamlessly switching in between, it's another challenging piece of the puzzle that is this crazy good show. Director Randy Reyes and his team (including Music Director Stephen Houtz) have intricately choreographed the show, executed in such a way that it looks easy breezy, which takes an incredible amount of skill, concentration, and practice.

For an extra treat, I saw the show on a "2 Sugar Tuesday." Those of you who've seen the charming and poignant Ivey-winning show 2 Sugars, Room for Cream, written and performed by Shanan Custer and Carolyn Pool (aka the Tina Fey and Amy Poehler of the Twin Cities), know just what a treat this is. In a new program, Shanan and Carolyn play hostess for one performance of many of the shows at Park Square this season. A mere $20 dollars gets you a ticket to the show, a pre- and post-show performance/ discussion/chat with the 2 Sugars ladies, and a free drink! Just look for the "T" on the calendar on each show's page on Park Square's website. Last night before the show Carolyn and Shanan told us a few things about the show and performers, and asked for questions from the audience. After the show, they facilitated a discussion with the uber-talented performers. All while being funny and charming and silly. It's a great deal, and a fun way to bookend an already fun show!

So, to review, go see Murder for Two for a delightfully silly murder romp performed by two nimble actor/singer/pianists/comedians. Then when the next show opens at Park Square, go to the "2 Sugar Tuesday" performance for a fun and unique theater experience. Got it?

Sunday, October 4, 2015

"Glensheen" at the History Theatre

Americans love a good true crime story. And truth doesn't come any stranger than the story of the elderly heiress and her nurse who were murdered in Duluth's most famous mansion. The murder weapons: a silk pillow and a candlestick. The murder location: the old woman's bed and the grand staircase, where a violent struggle occurred. The prime suspect: the heiress' son-in-law, allegedly acting out the wishes of her daughter who was desperate for money to feed her insane spending habits. The key evidence: an envelope mailed to the son-in-law from Duluth containing a valuable stolen coin. The result of two of the most sensational criminal trials in Minnesota history: both suspects go free, one to later commit suicide, the other to leave a string of suspicious deaths and fires in her wake. I mean really, you cannot make this stuff up. Truth is indeed stranger than fiction. What better subject for a new musical at the History Theatre, known for developing new work that explores important events in Minnesota history? This bizarrely fascinating story practically writes itself, so when talented and prolific Minnesota playwright Jeffrey Hatcher applies his biting and clever wit to the story, along with songs from the famed Minnesota musician Chan Poling of The Suburbs1 and The New Standards, what you get is dark comedy-musical gold. The potential was there at the reading of the new musical last year as part of History Theatre's annual "Raw Stages" festival,2 and it's a pleasure to see how that potential has blossomed into a fully formed piece of music-theater. It's dark and delicious, hilarious and musically entertaining, poignant and tragic.

If you're not familiar with the story of Chester Congdon, the East Coast lawyer who very wisely invested in iron ore in late 19th Century Duluth, you should visit the grand estate on Lake Superior that he built for his family (wife Clara and seven children) and left to the University of Minnesota - Duluth upon the death of his last child. Which happened to be his youngest daughter Elisabeth, who never married and lived at Glensheen her entire life, adopting two daughters with whom to share her life, love, and fortune. It's her daughter Marjorie (named for Elisabeth's beloved older sister) upon whom this little tale hinges. Diagnosed a sociopath as a teenager, Marjorie had an insatiable spending habit that put her in constant debt and eventually, allegedly, led her to convince her second husband Roger Caldwell to kill her mother in order to receive her inheritance. The details of the story are too strange to be believed, except, of course, that it's true.

Marjorie Congdon sings her story
(Jennifer Maren and cast, photo by Scott Pakudaitis)
The musical begins on a modern-day tour of the historic Glensheen mansion. The people on the tour become a little too curious about the famous staircase and the tour guide tries to steer them towards the architecture of the house, but to no avail. This fabulous cast of seven then leads us on a tour of bizarre and tragic life of Marjorie and those around her. The musical stays fairly close to the facts of the case, although of course some is conjecture or rearranging to make a compelling story. But don't worry, at the end of the show they tell us exactly what was made up and what wasn't.3 It's all very tongue-in-cheek and darkly comedic, done in the heightened reality style of musicals, but with some grounded and poignant moments that remind us these were real people who suffered great tragedy. The tone walks the fine line of being campy, funny, and outrageous, while not disrespectful to the lives that were lost. The show engenders sympathy not just for the two women who died that night, but also Marjorie's husband Roger, who certainly didn't know what he was getting into when he married her, and perhaps even Marjorie herself. Perhaps.

Highlights of the show are many, including:
  • Rick Polenek's rich set looks like a mini-Glensheen, a reproduction of the famous staircase leading up to the stained glass window on the second floor, with stately furnishing and lush carpeting that extends into the audience.
  • Director Ron Peluso and his cast make great use of the multi-level stage and the aisles in the audience, drawing us into the story, even at one point using us as potential jurors.
  • Musical Director Andrew Fleser (whose piano is dressed out as a bar) leads the just barely visible band through a really great score with big ensemble numbers, soaring ballads, quiet plaintive songs, and some fun and rousing songs, accompanied by Tinia Moulder's choreography.
  • Most of the fantastic seven-person cast play multiple roles - maids, cops, detectives, lawyers, reporters, etc. - except for Jennifer Maren, who brings Marjorie to life in all her murderous, arsonous, seductive, sad little girl glory. She's an endlessly fascinating villain, the kind that you love to hate.
  • Dane Stauffer is great as the drunken patsy Roger, without making him a caricature. We also see Roger's human side in his confession and death - just another one of Marj's victims.
  • Stealing scenes in a multitude of roles, including Elisabeth, her nurse (with a sad and lovely song), and, briefly, Agatha Christie, Wendy Lehr is a delight to watch, most especially in her gleeful turn as a rock and roll defense attorney who may or may not be known "Beshmesher," shimmying her way through a rollicking defense of Marjorie.
  • Ruthie Baker, Gary Briggle, Adam Qualls, and Sandra Struthers Clerc gamely jump into whatever role is asked of them, and the seven-person cast seems much larger with all the characters in the story.
  • The costumes (designed by E. Amy Hill) help define the various characters and place it in that '70s/'80s timeframe. Marj's wardrobe is particularly fabulous (I'm not sure the real Marj is this fashionable), always in red, reminding us of the blood and fire she leaves in her wake. Barry Browning's lighting design bathes the stage in a red glow when appropriate, as well as creating some startling lighting strikes.
Glensheen is a fantastic new original musical, based on one of the most fascinating true crime stories in Minnesota history. It's a sordid and epic tale just ripe for some kind of theatrical treatment, and Jeffrey Hatcher and Chan Poling have given it just the right kind. A dark and campy musical about a stranger than fiction true crime story? Yes, please! (Playing through October 25.)

  1. For more about The Suburbs and other bands of early '80s Minneapolis, go see Complicated Fun next spring, another new piece developed through the "Raw Stages" festival.
  2. The History Theatre's "Raw Stages" Festival takes place in mid-January. So when the weather is cold, go see what's hot in new historical theater (including a reading of my favorite new musical Sweet Land).
  3. If this story fascinates you as much as it does me, I highly recommend the book Will to Murder, written by former Duluth crime reporter Gail Feichtinger with input from the lead investigator and prosecutor, so it's chock full of details and evidence.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

"Prep" at Pillsbury House Theatre

It's been quite a week. Both in the real world, with yet another tragic mass shooting at a school, and in my theater world (which sometimes feels more real to me than the real world does). I started my week in theater with the Guthrie's beautiful production of the American classic To Kill A Mockingbird, about the wrongful conviction of a black man in 1930s Alabama. I followed that up with Roger Guenveur Smith's virtuoso performance in the one-man-show he created about Rodney King, whose brutal beating by LAPD officers in the early '90s led to one of the most deadly riots in our nation's history. While both of these events take place in the past, and one is fictional, there are striking parallels to the events of today that led to the Black Lives Matter movement. So it was with a heavy heart at the state of the world that I showed up at Pillsbury House Theatre last night. Having seen Tracey Scott Wilson's Buzzer twice, I knew that her new play Prep, commissioned by Pillsbury House and written after "extensive interviews with students, parents, and residents regarding racial tension in Minneapolis," would not be easy. But I was pleased that after this week of violence and injustice in the real and theater world, this one left me with a bit of hope. Yes there's plenty of work to do, but maybe, through the kindness and attention of individual to individual, we can all get along.

Prep actually reminds me more of The Gospel of Lovingkindness, seen at Pillsbury House earlier this year, than Buzzer, in that the three characters mostly speak to the audience in monologues (often responding to recorded voices), rather than speak to each other. Even when two of them are in a scene together, they often speak to the audience about each other. This device really lets us get inside each character's head to know what they're thinking and feeling. The first character we meet is "Miss" (Jodi Kellogg), the principal of an underprivileged school in an unnamed city, who sends her children to Ivy-league-like school a few miles away. But she genuinely cares for her students and wants them to succeed. She's taken a special interest in Chris (Kory LaQuess Pullam), a good student who is struggling after the recent death of his friend in a drive-by shooting. He has some disturbing ideas about how to make a statement and spur change in the community. He tells his friend Oliver (Ryan Colbert) about it, which angers him and causes a fight, leading to events that change the three and the school for good. But not in the way that you think.

Ryan Colbert, Kory LaQuess Pullam, and Jodi Kellogg
Tracey Scott Wilson has written the play with a rhythm and rhyming scheme that makes one think of Shakespeare. These three actors are all wonderful at speaking her words lyrically, yet still making them sound like natural speech. Joseph Stanley's sparse set with chain-link fence on the back wall and two raised platforms creates a simple and colorless backdrop for the story. Director Noël Raymond guides her actors well through the rhythm of the words and the story, and lets each establish their character in their own space on the stage, until they start intermingling in space as their storylines connect.

In just over an hour, Pillsbury House Theatre's Prep tackles some heavy themes of racism and violence in a realistic yet poetic way. It doesn't offer solutions so much as a ray of hope and a way to think and talk about the issues. Playing now through October 18.

Friday, October 2, 2015

"Rodney King" at Penumbra Theatre

"Can we all get along?" This famous plea uttered by Rodney King during the 1992 L.A. Riots, a reaction to the acquittal of the four LAPD officers who severely beat him a year earlier, is often what he's most remembered for. I admit that after more than 20 years, I had forgotten many of the details, and didn't even realize that he died three years ago. But in this one-man show written and performed by Roger Guenveur Smith, Rodney King's story comes alive again - the good, the bad, and the ugly. It's a virtuoso performance that is poetic and lyrical, harsh and disturbing. Roger has performed this piece around the world and has brought it to St. Paul's Penumbra Theatre for just two weeks. It's definitely something to see.

Roger doesn't tell Rodney's story in a linear fashion, but rather in an impressionistic sort of way. Standing barefoot on a bare stage in the middle of a square of light, speaking into a hand-held microphone with a long cord, and using a combination of poetry, spoken word, rhythm and rhyme, repeated phrases, singing, rapping, and an intensely felt physicality, he makes this a visceral experience for the audience. In just over an hour, we travel with him to that fateful night when police officers struck Rodney 56 times with a baton, that just happened to be caught on videotape by someone in a nearby apartment. Then we're right in the middle of the riots as Roger tells the brutal and heart-breaking stories of just a few of the 53 people who were killed. He ends the show with Rodney's famous "can we all get along speech," beautifully delivered. This show is completely engaging and you feel like you're right there in the midst of the violence, which is not a comfortable place to be.

Roger Guenveur Smith in Rodney King
Rodney King is one of those pieces that transcends theater and becomes a vital part of the world we live in. It will challenge you, it will make you rethink your opinions, it will anger you that 20 years later this is still happening and we're still struggling to find a way to get along. In an ironic bit of theater scheduling, this week I watched the fictional story of the conviction of a black man in 1930s Alabama for a crime he didn't commit, and the true story of the acquittal of police officers for severely beating a black man in 1990s L.A. It's been a sobering week.

If you can get to Penumbra in the next two weeks, I highly recommend you spend an hour remembering Rodney King. Partly for the importance and relevance of the story, and also to witness Roger Guenveur Smith's masterful performance of this artfully constructed and utterly captivating piece of theater. I think the super-talented Dennis Spears, who happened to be sitting behind me, said it best. As the theater went dark and Roger left the stage, he uttered a simple two-syllable "damn." That pretty much says it all.

This article also appears on Broadway World Minneapolis.