Wednesday, December 23, 2015

"The Great Work" by 7th House Theater at the Guthrie Theater

It could be considered an act of hubris to name a new piece of music-theater The Great Work. But in the case of 7th House Theater's new original musical, their second in two years and just the fifth production in the short life of the company, it's a fitting title. This small and lovely story of an Austrian composer returning home, with his estranged late-in-life daughter in tow, is beautifully and poignantly told in just over an hour through stirring original music and innovative use of movement, props, and set design. A fruitful collaboration between 7th House company members (music and lyrics by the uber-talented David Darrow, book by Grant Sorenson, choreography by Cat Brindisi, directed by all three), the wonderful eight-person ensemble, the gorgeous six-person orchestra (directed by Jason Hansen, who also did the orchestrations), and creative set designer Kate Sutton-Johnson, this truly is a Great Work. I know these next two weeks are busy for many of us, but if you can spare an hour in your schedule to see this show, you will be rewarded (be sure to get your tickets soon before they're gone).

Saturday, December 19, 2015

"Sunshine" by Dark & Stormy Productions at Grain Belt Warehouse

After a string of 11 holiday shows, it was time for a palate cleanser. Dark and Stormy Productions once again fulfills that space with their "anti-holiday programming," this year with the dark comedy Sunshine by William Mastrosimone (whose much darker and much less comedic Extremities they tackled this summer). But at its heart this really is a sweet story about two (or three) people who are looking for love in all the wrong places (to quote a great old country song). Presented in an intimate and appropriate non-theater space, with a terrific three-person cast, this is another strong showing from Dark and Stormy that serves as a nice cap to their third season.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

"All Is Calm" by Theater Latte Da at the Pantages Theatre

This is my fourth time seeing and writing* about Theater Latte Da's annual holiday show All Is Calm, presented with Hennepin Theatre Trust at the Pantages Theatre. This true story about peace in the midst of war is so beautifully told by creator/director Peter Rothstein, using period music and authentic writing from the time, that I could easily see it every year. It is the 11th holiday show I've seen this year** and my favorite because it best represents the true spirit of the season - connection, community, forgiveness, peace. The show underwent a significant change in this, its eighth year. The marvelous vocal ensemble Cantus is no longer in the show. Instead, Peter has cast a dozen talented singer-actors. I wasn't sure how this show would work without Cantus because they were such an integral part of the experience. But I needn't have worried, because if anything, it's even better than it was before. The music (brilliantly arranged by Erick Lichte and Timothy C. Takach) sounds just as gorgeous, and the addition of a cast full of actors, now sharing the stirring words of soldiers amongst all of them rather than just a few, humanizes the stories even more. The result is a piece of music-theater that's just about as perfect as one could be - a story told simply, effectively, and beautifully in a way that perhaps comes close to the beauty of the real experience of the Christmas Truce of 1914.

Monday, December 14, 2015

"Miss Richfield 1981's Christmas Cone of Silence" at Illusion Theater

To complete my marathon five-show holiday theater weekend, I finally saw the legend that is Miss Richfield 1981. Or rather, experienced. For Miss Richfield is more than just a show, it's an interactive night of outrageous comedy! For her 17th year of performing at Illusion Theater, she shares with the audience the Christmas Cone of Silence. Meaning a frank discussion just between her and the audience (the biggest I've seen at Illusion) about the things you're not supposed to talk about. Since I'm quite happy in my own cone of silence, I took a seat at the back of the theater where I was (barely) safe from her questions. Interactive theater is great fun, as long as I'm not the one being interacted with! Miss R is fantastic at talking to the audience, drawing people out, and making anything they say seem funny. But politically correct she's not; she's an equal opportunity offender, so be prepared to be a bit shocked at some of the things she says. But mostly, be prepared to laugh and have a good time.

"Nutcracker (not so) Suite" by James Sewell Ballet at the Cowles Center

"Once upon a time, not tutu long ago,
On the Upper East Side, lived Marie and mother Flo.
With loads of her Barbies, nothing meant more,
to Marie who'd spend hours behind the closed door.
But the Eve is upon us. It's Nineteen Sixty Three!
Marie's run away but doesn't get far,
while crossing the street she's bumped by a car.
Dreams dark and scary race through Marie's mind,
But Barbie is coming, Ken's not far behind!"

The delightfully bizarro Nutcracker (not so) Suite is described thusly. While I admittedly have never seen the original Nutcracker ballet (disclaimer: I'm a theater geek who doesn't know much about dance), the plot sounds fairly similar - after a Christmas Eve party, a young girl dreams of strange and enchanting things. But this Nutcracker, originally created by Myron Johnson for his company Ballet of the Dolls and presented this year by James Sewell Ballet, is set in late '60s NYC. The young girl in question is the neglected only daughter of a boozy mother, and the dolls she dreams about are her beloved Barbie dolls. For any little girl (or boy) who ever dreamed her (or his) Barbies to life, this Nutcracker is a bewitching delight.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

"The Sound of Music" at the Ordway Center

Confession: The Sound of Music is a sentimental favorite of mine for many reasons, and I cannot possibly be impartial when watching any version of it. I just love it, plain and simple. Firstly, when I was growing up in the olden days before the internet, cable, or even VCRs, we were at the mercy of TV programming what movies we watched over and over. Fortunately The Sound of Music was one that was played every year, so I grew up loving it as a child loves it. Then I had the pleasure of playing in the pit orchestra for my high school production (the most fun this nerd ever had in high school), which gave me a whole new level of appreciation for Rodgers and Hammerstein's beautiful score. Finally, I had the great opportunity to study abroad in Salzburg, so that now watching the movie is like a nostalgic trip to my European home-away-from-home. So you see, The Sound of Music is beloved to me, and the Ordway bringing it to life on stage with a mostly local cast chock full of favorites is a dream come true. While there is nothing really new or revolutionary about this very faithful production (directed by Gary Briggle and choreographed by Bob Richard) of a well-known classic, or maybe because of that very fact, the show cast a spell over me from which I didn't want to ever awake!

Saturday, December 12, 2015

"The Holiday Pageant" at Open Eye Figure Theatre

Continuing with my marathon weekend of holiday shows (read more about that here), last night I saw Open Eye Figure Theatre's Holiday Pageant. Like Black Nativity is to Penumbra Theatre, The Holiday Pageant is Open Eye's annual tradition. And like Black Nativity, I had never seen it before this year. The show began as an entertainment for family and friends in the home of Open Eye Co-Founders Susan Haas and Michael Sommers (who wrote, directed, and designed this version), and has since expanded into the show currently on the charming, intimate, adorably tiny stage of Open Eye. The production values may have increased, with beautiful sets and costumes and a 12-person choir singing original songs by Victor Zupanc, but it still has that homey feel of a family pageant. We're luck that Susan and Michael have invited us into their home and family to experience this oddly sweet little gem.

"Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol" at Park Square Theatre

A few days ago I said, 'tis the season for holiday shows. At the time I had seen five shows with Christmas or winter themes (Christmas in the Airwaves and A Laura Ingalls Wilder Christmas at Lyric Arts, Penumbra Theatre's Black Nativity, Snow Queen at Park Square Theatre, and Walking Shadow's A Midwinter Night's Revel). But now it truly 'tis the season - I'm seeing five holiday (ish) shows in four days this weekend! Park Square was nice enough to let me attend a preview of Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol (playing downstairs from the magical and musical Snow Queen) so I could fit everything in. And even though I'm not seeing the Guthrie Theater's large and luscious production of A Christmas Carol this year (it's pretty much the same show as last year, read my thoughts about it here), I've seen it 10 of the last 12 years and I love Dickens' story of redemption and second chances. This one-man-show tells that same story but with much less pomp and circumstance. It's less of a spectacle and more of a simple story, but with the same humor and heart.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

"A Midwinter Night's Revel" by Walking Shadow Theatre Company at Red Eye Theater

'Tis the season for holiday shows. The true and ancient reason for the season is the coming darkness of the Winter Solstice, so Walking Shadow Theatre Company's contribution to the holiday theater season seems most appropriate. A Midwinter Night's Revel, a sort of sequel to Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream (on glorious display at the Guthrie earlier this year), is a celebration of the darkness of the season, and the waiting and hoping that carries us through it to the sunnier days ahead. In fact this Shakespearean sequel, written and directed by Walking Shadow Artistic Directors John Heimbuch and Amy Rummenie, respectively, is so successful in recreating the characters and tone of the original, albeit it a bit darker and more bittersweet as appropriate to the setting of WWI-era England, that I wonder why we haven't seen more such sequels. I suspect it's not as easy as the cast and creative team of A Midwinter Night's Revel make it look. It may be true that it's hard to be the Bard, but you wouldn't know it from this delightful show.

Monday, December 7, 2015

"Purple Cloud" by Mu Performing Arts at Mixed Blood Theatre

In celebration of 50 years of Asian American theater, Mu Performing Arts is presenting their 49th (if memory serves) world premiere play about the Asian American experience. That's an incredible commitment to new work, and to giving voice to stories that might not otherwise be heard. And while Purple Cloud is a specifically Asian American story, it's true what they say that the more specific a story is, the more universal it is. This "hapa" (meaning mixed) girl's search for identity, family, and a place in the world is something everyone can relate to in some way, and told in an innovative, imaginative, fantastical yet grounded way by playwright Jessica Huang.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

"Liberty Falls 54321" by The Moving Company at the Lab Theater

The Moving Company has done it again. With their newest work Liberty Falls 54321, they have yet again created a crazy brilliant original piece of theater that is absurdly funny, surprisingly musically delicious, awkwardly cringe-worthy, and just plain ridiculous (in the best possible way). The story of a 105-year-old woman's birthday celebration in a small town in Wisconsin, created by the company and directed by Dominique Serrand, is really just an excuse for these specifically defined oddball characters to gather and show off their quirks and talents, skillfully brought to life by this dream cast. If you've never experienced the unique genius that is MoCo, let Liberty Falls be your introduction.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

"A Laura Ingalls Wilder Christmas" at Lyric Arts

I'm a little bit obsessed with all things Little House on the Prairie, and I'm not ashamed to admit it! The TV show started the year after I was born, and I don't remember a time when I didn't watch it and love it. When I was old enough to read, the Little House books were a favorite, although I soon discovered just how different the TV and book worlds are. I've re-read them as an adult, along with several other books about Laura Ingalls Wilder, most recently the excellent Prairie Girl: An Annotated Autobiography. And when I took a road trip across South Dakota a few years ago, I made sure to stop in De Smet, and Walnut Grove on the way back into Minnesota. On the live performance front, I loved the Guthrie's 2008 musical adaptation of Little House on the Prairie (starring Melissa Gilbert!), and I even saw Alison Arngrim's comedy performance of her funny and touching memoir Confessions of a Prairie Bitch. So it's obvious I will consume Laura Ingalls Wilders' writings in any form I can, and I couldn't resist Lyric Arts' "Mainly for Kids" production of A Laura Ingalls Wilder Christmas. Playwright Laurie Brooks has turned a few pages in Laura's original memoir that never made it into her children's series, about their time spent in Burr Oak, Iowa, into a sweet little 65-minute play in keeping with the Little House theme of family and frontier life.

"The Snow Queen" at Park Square Theatre

Inside Park Square Theatre on 7th Place in lovely downtown St. Paul, magic is happening. It's the magic of storytelling, something that has been happening for ages on this planet. Friends sitting around a campfire, telling stories of good and evil, trials, and friendship, with words, music, dance, puppets, tears, and laughter. This musical adaptation of the Hans Christian Anderson story The Snow Queen is something truly unique and special. It's so charming, whimsical, funny, creative, and yes, magical. But with a creative team that includes Doug Scholz-Carlson (director), Denise Prosek (music director), and Jim Lichtsheidl (choreographer), I would expect nothing less. They have assembled a terrific eight-person cast of actor/singer/ musicians (half of whom are new to me) to bring this charming fairy tale to life in an innovative and inspired way.

Friday, December 4, 2015

"Black Nativity" at Penumbra Theatre

Friends, it's been a rough week. With devastating news here at home (the Children's Theatre lawsuit) and around the country (yet another senseless and horrific mass shooting, this time in San Bernadino, CA), on top of all the other painful things we've been dealing with lately, it's almost more than anyone can take. It was under this cloud that I saw Penumbra Theatre's annual production of Black Nativity for the first time. Yes, even though this is their 28th year, I've never seen Black Nativity before. I'm not sure how that happened, but this was the perfect time to first experience this truly joyful celebration. The story, the music, the dancing, the feeling of joy and faith and togetherness in that room, was a balm to my soul and did much to restore my faith in humanity. Maybe in times like this, the first and best response is to "be the light," and let that light lead us into appropriate action to heal the wounds of society and prevent things like what happened this week from happening again (and again and again) in the future.