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.

Monday, November 30, 2015

"Christmas in the Airwaves" at Lyric Arts

If today's snowstorm doesn't get you in the holiday spirit, Lyric Arts in charming downtown Anoka will! This year they commissioned a new holiday play, Christmas in the Airwaves, which premiered the week before Thanksgiving, and this weekend they open their "Mainly for Kids" (and grown-ups who can't get over their childhood obsession with all things Little House) production of A Laura Ingalls Wilder Christmas. I'll be visiting my friend Laura on Saturday, but first, let's return to the 1940s. A time when men went off to war, women stayed behind to run things (and sing harmony), and radio was king. It's in this idealized world of the '40s that our story takes place. It's Christmas 1944 in a small snowy Minnesota town, as we watch a live radio broadcast, along with the behind-the-scenes lives of the cast and crew of the show. This simple, sweet, charming story with lovely holiday and wartime music is as comforting as hot apple cider on a cold and snowy day.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

"The Night Alive" at the Jungle Theater

The Night Alive is an odd little play. Which is really no surprise - it's Irish. No offense meant, I love all things Irish, including odd little Irish plays. I'm not quite sure what to make of Irish playwright Conor McPherson's newest work The Night Alive, now playing at the Jungle Theater, other that it's funny, tragic, and wholly engaging. This tale of a bunch of misfits in a run-down house in Dublin is brought to gritty life by an endlessly watchable five-person cast speaking with lovely Irish brogues (some more authentic than others) and the Jungle's usual perfection in design. I may have left the theater a little perplexed, but definitely with something to chew on.

"The Wizard of Oz" at Children's Theatre Company

Children's Theatre Company proves again and again that you don't need to be a child to enjoy a "children's show." Maybe it's because children are people just like grown-ups, and CTC treats them that way. Or maybe it's because we were all once children too. With their latest production of The Wizard of Oz, CTC reminds weary grown-ups what it is to experience the wonder and magic of childhood. They have brought one of the most iconic movies of all time to vivid life on stage. It's understandable why this show has a permanent place in their rotation - it's full of heart, color, wonderful music, and a beautiful message of home, family, self-discovery, and friendship. It's enough to restore your faith in humanity, at least for a moment. This so-called children's story is peppered with wisdom such as "It's always best to start at the beginning," "Some people without brains do an awful lot of talking," and "If I ever go looking for my heart's desire again, I won't look any further than my own backyard. Because if it isn't there, then I never really lost it to begin with." And if you don't tear up when Dorothy says her good-bye to her new friends in Oz, you might not have a soul.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

"The Cocoanuts" at the Guthrie Theater

Not being familiar with the Marx Brothers, I didn't know what to expect from The Cocoanuts. In fact, when the Guthrie announced their season this spring, I didn't even know what it was (It's a musical? But I've never heard of it!). Turns out it's a little before my time. The 1925 Broadway musical was written for the Marx Brothers by George S. Kaufman, with music and lyrics by one of the best American songwriters, Irving Berlin. The musical was adapted into one of the first "talkies" in 1929, but has never been revived on Broadway, so I guess I can be forgiven for having never heard of it. Last year the Oregon Shakespeare Festival premiered a new adaptation of this 90-year-old musical (what the Marx Brothers have to do with Shakespeare, I don't know), and that's the production that opened at the Guthrie last weekend. The Guthrie's production features the same actors playing the three most famous Marx Brothers (but with our fabulous local actors taking over most of the rest of the roles), much of the same creative team, and a book that's been slightly tweaked to add in some Minnesota references. The result is a delightfully and ridiculously fun show that pulls out all the comedic stops to entertain the audience, the cast, and even the ushers. A good time was most definitely had by all.

Monday, November 23, 2015

"My Children! My Africa!" at Park Square Theatre

As My Children! My Africa! begins to unfold on Park Square Theatre's Andy Boss Thrust Stage, there's a chance this might be a feel-good story about two young people of different race and socioeconomic status becoming friends and bonding over the love of learning. But this is 1985 South Africa at the height of Apartheid. That's not how this story goes. What unfolds instead is a tragic story oppression, rebellion, missed opportunities, lost life, and perseverance through it all. It's a powerful and heavy story, but heart-breakingly beautiful as delivered by this strong three-person cast under the co-direction of Jamil Jude and James A. Williams.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

"Frankie and Johnny in the Clair De Lune" by Casting Spells Productions at the Minneapolis Theater Garage

A short order cook who is an ex-con and reads Shakespeare. A waitress who's given up her dream of being an actress and is afraid to hope for anything more in life. It may seem inevitable that these two NYC diner coworkers get together, but how it happens is a funny, sexy, awkward, bittersweet little dance in the two-person play Frankie and Johnny in the Clair De Lune. From the company that brought us the delightfully disgruntled princesses of Disenchanted comes a very different play, but maybe not so different as it at first seems. In just their second outing, Casting Spells Productions once again delivers a funny, risky, well-cast, and entertaining show. I look forward to seeing what spells they cast in the future.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

"Beautiful - The Carole King Musical" at the Orpheum Theatre

"You've got to get up every morning with a smile on your face, and show the world all the love in your heart." The opening lyrics of prolific songwriter Carole King's "Beautiful" paint a pretty picture, but as we learn in the biographical jukebox musical of the same name, her real life wasn't always pretty. Pregnant and married at 17, divorced by 26, she still managed to become one of the most successful songwriters of the 20th Century with such well-known hits as "Will You Love Me Tomorrow," "Up on the Roof," "You've Got a Friend," and "Natural Woman." Beautiful - The Carole King Musical tells Carole's life story as she finds her own voice, culminating in her Grammy-winning 1971 solo album Tapestry. Although it feels at times like a baby boomer tribute concert, Beautiful truly is just that - beautiful - as it celebrates this remarkable woman's talents and life story.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

"Equus" by Theatre Coup D'Etat at SPACE

A 17-year-old boy blinds six horses. This true event inspired English playwright Peter Shaffer to write the 1973 play Equus, creating characters and a story to explain how and why this might have happened. The result is a fascinating exploration of religion, idolatry, growing up, the child-parent relationship, and the role of therapy. I had never seen the play before (in fact all I knew about it is that it's the play in which Daniel Radcliffe was naked on Broadway), so I went to see Theatre Coup D'Etat's production with no expectations or prejudgments. I found the play to be thought-provoking, disturbing, and engrossing, as seen through this excellent production with a strong cast anchored by two terrific performances.

Monday, November 16, 2015

"C.L.U." by Collide Theatrical Dance Company at the Ritz Theater

My grandparents' attic contained many delights for a kid, particularly a collection of vintage board games from the '50s and '60s that my aunties used to play. My cousins and I spent hours playing Risk, Masterpiece, MonopolyLife, and one of our favorites, Clue. Sometimes we'd even get the adults to join in. I took very detailed notes on my Clue sheet with my own system of shorthand. It was such delicious mysterious fun! Collide Theatrical Dance Company's new original piece C.L.U. captures that fun and mysterious spirit. Created by Artistic Director and Choreographer Regina Peluso along with new collaborator, Director Joshua Campbell, C.L.U. is a fun and entertaining evening of music, dance, and melodrama.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

"Sister Act" at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres

While I was off in NYC seeing a bunch of Broadway musicals last week, Chanhassen Dinner Theatres opened a new show. I missed the Sister Act press night (the best press night in town), but they kindly let me attend last night - on my birthday! (I can now cross the Chan emcee wishing me a happy birthday off my bucket list.) Director Michael Brindisi has once again brought us a polished production, and one that's a lot of fun and also has a beautiful heart, I enjoyed it as much as anything I saw on Broadway last week. This is a relatively short run for the Chan (just four months), so make your plans now so you don't miss this wonderful and heart-warming musical. If you need more reasons to see it, I've got ten - read on.

Friday, November 13, 2015

"Doubt" by New Epic Theater at the Lab Theater

Friends, I know that there are a lot of theater companies in the Twin Cities, so many that it's hard to keep track of them all and impossible to see them all. But you would be wise to take note of New Epic Theater. With just their second production outside of the Fringe Festival and their first full season of programming, they've already established themselves as one to watch with smart, intense, risk-taking, aesthetically beautiful productions. Their new production of John Patrick Stanley's 2005 Tony-winner Doubt re-imagines the new classic with inventive staging that brings the themes of doubt vs. certainty, racial and gender inequality, and the power hierarchy of the Catholic Church into almost painfully sharp focus.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

"The Storms of November" at nimbus theatre

What I love about nimbus theatre is that they often present original work, usually based on history, that, while not always flawless, is always interesting and thought-provoking and sheds new light on their subject. Such is the case with their newest work The Storms of November (written and directed by Co-Artistic Directors Josh Cragun and Liz Neerland, respectively), about sailors, ships, and shipwrecks on Lake Superior. November is a notoriously dangerous month on Minnesota's great and mysterious inland sea, and this play explores the lives of fictional characters on and off the ships, inspired by real people and events.

"emilie/eurydice" by Transatlantic Love Affair at Illusion Theater

I love Transatlantic Love Affair, the Fringe Festival darlings who often work with Illusion Theater to continue to develop a piece after the Fringe. What they do is so unique and special, telling a story with no set or props, using their bodies and voices to create everything in a very specific world. The result is often achingly beautiful. Their new piece, emilie/eurydice, did not appear in the Fringe (maybe because they didn't get in last year) and is instead premiering at the Illusion. This original story of a woman in a coma and those who love her is another example of the beautiful storytelling that TLA does.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

"Allegiance" at Longacre Theatre on Broadway

Last night marked the opening of Allegiance, the new Broadway musical about Japanese internment camps in WWII era America. Book writers Marc Acito, Jay Kuo (who also wrote the music and lyrics), and Lorenzo Thione were inspired by the childhood experience of actor and Star Trek legend George Tekei, but created a new story and characters within the context of this unjust and often overlooked part of American history. I was fortunate enough to see a preview last week, when my friend snagged what were probably the last two tickets on the sold out opening weekend. Although as a musical there are some weak spots (I have to agree with the reviews that came out this morning, that use words like generic, heavy-handed, and cliche), the huge cast consisting mostly of Asian-American actors is wonderful and it's such an important story to tell. And as the smash-hit musical Hamilton proves, what better way to tell a story about American history than through the quintessentially American art form that is musical theater?

George Tekei was five years old when his family was forced to live in an internment camp for almost four years (watch a PBS interview with George here). But the fictional family of Allegiance consists of a brother and sister in their 20s, with their widowed father and grandfather. They try to make a life for themselves under less than ideal circumstances, banding together with other camp residents to demand improvements ranging from medication to a community dance. Sammy decides to join the Army as soon as he's allowed, proving himself a loyal American, while his sister Kei works for justice from within camp. She falls in love with Frankie, who takes an opposing stance to Sammy, refusing to fight for a country that has imprisoned him and his people. Similarly, Kei and Sammy's father is moved to a harsher prison because he will not swear allegiance to a country that treats him so unjustly, while their grandfather plants a garden to improve life in the camp. Each character tries to make life better and fight for justice in their own way, big or small. When Sammy returns from war, he is upset with the choices his family made, resulting in a decades long estrangement that is eventually healed - but at what cost?

the cast of Allegiance
Despite the fact that an internment camp is a new setting for a musical, the plotlines and characters within the larger context are fairly traditional and a bit predictable and formulaic. But there are some lovely moments and wonderful performances. George Tekei is a delight and has the audience in the palm of his hand, pulling double duty as the elderly Sammy and the revered grandfather, a twinkle in his eye that can be seen clear up to the mezzanine. Lea Salonga is a gift to Broadway and it was a pleasure to finally see her live onstage (not counting the time she brought me to tears singing "On My Own" at a soap opera fan event). Her strong performance as Kei brings out every emotion in the character. Telly Leung is excellent as young Sammy, as is Katie Rose Clarke as his love interest. The two share a sweet love story and sound gorgeous singing together (even if the interracial relationship is never really explored). The entire cast is fantastic and one of the best things about this show is that it's giving opportunities to so many talented Asian-American triple threats to be seen on the Broadway stage.

The mostly traditional musical theater score is pleasant enough, peppered with some Japanese elements, and the creators take advantage of the '40s time period for some fun "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" type music and dance numbers (the only good part of WWII was the music). The dance scene is particularly fun, as is the baseball scene, in contrast to the war scenes which are jarringly disturbing.

I found myself wishing that the creators had told George Tekei's story, rather than trying to cram in so many elements of history that it ends up being a watered down generic story (Fun Home is a great example of the idea that the more specific a story is, the more universal it is). But despite its shortcomings, Allegiance is well worth seeing for the wonderful performances, excellent Asian-American cast, and the telling of an important story in American history.

Read more of my Broadway reviews here.

"Fun Home" at Circle in the Square on Broadway

The new original musical Fun Home made history this year as the first musical created by a team of women (music by Jeanine Tesori, book and lyrics by Lisa Kron) to win the Tony. It's about time, right? But that's not a reason to go see it. Well, it's not the only reason. The reason to see Fun Home is that it's a tragic and funny true story beautifully told through music and cleverly constructed as a memory play, with multiple timepoints intermingling to create a whole and complete picture of a life. That life is Alison Bechdel, cartoonist and author, upon whose autobiographical graphic novel the musical is based. This story that is part coming of age, part family drama, part self-discovery, part coming to terms with the past, feels so real, raw, and intimate. The day after seeing Hamilton and thinking "look what we can do" at the grand scale of it all, Fun Home made me think "look what we can do" on the other end of the spectrum. That is, tell a small, intimate, specific yet universal story through music and theater.

As the story unfolds, we watch a present-day Alison writing her novel, a memoir of her life. Her memories come alive in front of her as she observes, comments, and sometimes interacts with them. She sees her child self, growing up in a seemingly happy family in the '70s with an actress mother and a teacher/funeral home director father. But something is off that young Alison can't quite grasp, and current Alison struggles to understand as she writes her book. Alison also sees her college age self realizing she's gay and coming out to her parents, only to find out that her father, too, is gay, living in the closet and causing complications and heartaches for his family (and himself) through all of the secrets and lies. This is not a happy-go-lucky kind of musical, but one that has moments of humor and moments of grief, sometimes inseparable, like life.

Watching this musical is almost like reading the graphic novel upon which it is based (which I just ordered), as present-day Alison paints a picture of her life for the audience - all the good, bad, and ugly of growing up in a loving yet complicated family. As they say, the more specific something is, the more universal it is. And this story, which is specifically Alison's, is universal in its themes of belonging, growing up, trying to figure out who you are, changing relationships with parents, and remembering the past and accepting it while not letting it define you. In the latter point Fun Home reminds me one of Jeanine Tesori's other musicals, Violet (one of my favorites) - an intimate and personal story of a woman coming to terms with her past and her complicated relationship with her father, told beautifully and poignantly with a small cast and orchestra.

the cast of Fun Home
Six or so months after opening, the original cast is mostly intact, except that the child understudy Gabriella Pizzolo (one of those kids that was born for the stage) has taken over as young Alison. She fits right in with this wonderfully cohesive cast that brings this story to life in such a very real way, especially the three actors playing Alison at various ages - Beth Malone, Emily Skeggs, and Gabriella, like three phases of a single life experience. Playing Alison's father earned Michael Cerveris won a Tony Award, and it's obvious why he won for his performance of this complicated and conflicted man as he alternately infuriates and engenders empathy. The rest of the nine-person cast are all wonderful in their roles, adult and child alike.

The in-the-round staging of Circle in the Square is perfect for this show as the scenes transition quickly and seamlessly across distance and decades, set pieces gracefully sliding on and off stage or disappearing into the floor. Director Sam Gold utilizes the space well. The one-level arena-like seating means that even if you're sitting in the back row, as I was, you feel like you're watching this story from within. As a band geek, I enjoyed watching the wonderful six-person on-stage band (with the percussionist seemingly backstage somewhere), under the direction of Chris Fenwick. And any child of the '70s will recognize and love/hate the bellbottoms and turtleneck sweaters (scenic and costume design by David Zinn).

The best theater is that which comes from a place of truth, and this story is painfully, beautifully true. Thank you Alison for sharing your story with us, and Jeanine and Lisa for bringing it to life in the way that speaks most clearly to me - musical theater. (Order tickets here, or get them at the TKTS booth like I did.)

Read more of my Broadway reviews here.

Friday, November 6, 2015

"Something Rotten!" at the St. James Theatre on Broadway

My third Broadway show this week (and second Broadway press comps ever) was the super fun musical spoof Something Rotten! What I'm loving about my week of NYC theater is how different all the shows I've seen are. From the intimate and exquisite new production of Spring Awakening, to the hugely ambitious and layered Hamilton, to the silly and entertaining Something Rotten! What this loving spoof of the musical lacks in depth it more than makes up for in fantastic performances, clever and groan-worthy puns, and musical theater references galore. It's definitely a musical for people who love musicals, but aren't afraid to laugh at the concept.

Something Rotten! is a broad campy comedy about the making of a musical, similar in feel to The Producers and Spamalot. The musical-within-a-musical concept allows the creators to satirize the form while still remaining true to it. Our story takes place in the late 16th Century ("Welcome to the Renaissance"), the blossoming of art and culture, as well as toilets that flush (into the street). Playwright Nick Bottom needs a hit, but Shakespeare is hogging all the glory. So Nick pays a soothsayer to tell him what the next big thing is theater is going to be, and this Nostradamus sees Shakespeare's greatest work Hamlet, as well as the birth of musical theater. Except that he gets things a bit jumbled (fortelling the future isn't an exact science), so what Nick ends up writing, with the help of his sweet lovesick poet brother Nigel, is a mash-up of Hamlet and popular musicals from Annie to Phantom. Which is great fun for the Something Rotten! audience, but not so much for the Omelette: The Musical audience and investors. Or Shakespeare, who dons a disguise (like many of his characters) to sabotage the play. But as the Bard says, all's well that ends well, and in this case that means the Bottoms head to America, where musical theater is truly born.

the super cool Christian Borle as Shakespeare
Like my first two shows this week, this performance featured an understudy filling in for a big name role. I was looking forward to seeing Brian D'Arcy James again after his wonderful appearance at the Guthrie's 50th Anniversary Gala a few years ago. Unfortunately Brian had the night off. But Matt Wall soon won me over with his talent and charm, and if I hadn't know he was an understudy, I never would have guessed. The other big name in this show is Tony winner Christian Borle, and it was a treat to finally see him perform live. He is effortlessly cool and charismatic, and plays Shakespeare like a British rocker, in love with himself and the attention he gets, even if it is "Hard to Be the Bard." Other highlights in the cast include John Cariani as the adorkable Nigel, Kate Reinders as his sweet and equally nerdy love interest, and the powerful-voiced Heidi Blickenstaff as Nick's loyal and feminist wife.

Brian D'Arcy James and Brad Oscar with the cast
Since this is a spoof of musicals, they can get away with big dance numbers that have nothing to do with anything other than showing off the talent of the ensemble and director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw's big and beautiful Broadway style choreography (the tap duel between Shakespeare and Nick is a highlight). Scott Pask's elaborate scenic design features many moving parts as colorful buildings and structures move smoothly on and off stage. Gregg Barnes' bright and colorful costumes make the 16th Century look like a fun time to be alive!

Something Rotten! is a really fun show, and if you love musicals you'll have a good time catching all of the references in the dialogue, music, and movement. It may be overshadowed by some other popular shows in town right now, but it's still an excellent choice if you're looking for something to see in NYC, and tickets will be easier and cheaper to come by. Check for discount tickets at a number of websites, or the TKTS booth in various locations.

Read more of my Broadway reviews here.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

"Hamilton" at the Richard Rodgers Theatre on Broadway

"Look around, look around, how lucky we are to be alive right now!" Fans of the American musical are very lucky to be alive right now. Lin-Manuel Miranda is the future of music-theater, and the future is now. Hamilton is a quintessentially American piece of art: musical theater is an American art form, Alexander Hamilton's story, from orphan immigrant to founding father, is a quintessentially American story, the score is a modern American rap/hip-hop/pop/musical theater style, and the cast is a beautifully diverse representation of this country. Lin-Manuel has taken this part of American history that most of us have forgotten and created something so immediate, compelling, epic, human, and utterly modern. In short, Hamilton is everything musical theater should be.

It's rare that one person writes the book, music, and lyrics of a musical; most are written by pairs or teams of artists. It's even more rare that that person also stars in their creation. Who does that?! Lin-Manuel Miranda, that's who. Hamilton is his singular, cohesive, brilliant creation. And even though his excellent understudy Javier Muñoz filled in for him in the title role in the matinee on a two-show day that I saw, I still feel like I saw Lin-Manuel Miranda because this show is him. That's not to say he didn't have help - director Thomas Kail to keep the huge train that is the show on track, Andy Blankenbeuhler's sharp and modern and super cool choreography, Paul Tazewell's stunning period costumes with a modern twist, David Korins' design of a relatively simple but versatile and kinetic set, and of course, this amazing cast that brings Lin-Manuel's vision to vivid life.

Daveed Diggs as Thomas Jefferson with the cast
I love theater that makes me want to rush home and read more about the topic, and this show makes founding father Alexander Hamilton seem like the most fascinating person I never knew (history class was a looooong time ago). From George Washington's right-hand man during the Revolution, to Secretary of the Treasury, to author of the Federalist Papers, to a family man caught in a love triangle with two sisters, to the center of America's first political sex scandal, to death in a dramatic duel. But even thought this is a historical piece, the themes of politics, family, legacy, and striving to make this country better against opposition are extremely relevant to every time period, especially today.

The Hamilton cast recording was released recently and I was torn about whether to get it and listen to it, or wait and see the show first. I chose the latter, and now I cannot wait to download the album and listen to it obsessively. There are just so many words, and no matter how closely you pay attention (and you have to pay attention), you cannot catch them all on first viewing/listening. In fact, my stats friends at counted - Hamilton contains 3-4 times as many words as other musicals. That's insane. And brilliant. But it's not just the words, there are some great melodies too, that haven't left my head yet and likely won't for a long time.

Aaron Burr with the Schuyler sisters
(Leslie Odom, Jr., Phillipa Soo, Jasmine Cephas Jones,
and Renée Elise Goldsberry)
As I mentioned, I did not have the pleasure of seeing Lin-Manuel in the title role, but Javier Muñoz soon made me forget I was watching an understudy as he completely made this complex, layered role his own and seamlessly fit in with the huge and amazing cast. Highlights include Phillipa Soo as Alexander's wife Eliza; Renee Elise Goldsberry as her sister Angelica, Alexander's close confidante (the best love triangles are those in which there is love in all directions, as there is here, creating some achingly beautiful moments for all three); Leslie Odom, Jr. as rival Aaron Burr, who functioned as a sort of narrator; Daveed Diggs as a cool and funky Jefferson; and last but not least, Andrew Rannells, who is an absolute hoot as King George, the spurned lover of America who has rejected him (if you have to replace Jonathan Groff, Andrew Rannells is the only way to go).

In summary, everything you've heard about Hamilton is true. It lives up to the hype, and so much more. I was expecting to laugh and be wowed, but I was not expecting to be moved to tears. This is a show that's both big and epic, and also intensely intimate and emotional. It'll make you laugh, think, cry, and feel every emotion under the sun. This is what musical theater can do, and this is a prime example of why musical theater is my favorite thing in the world. Thank you Lin-Manuel Miranda.

(Note: The only way to get tickets is to buy them well in advance from the show's website. This is one of those shows that is never going to have discounts available. So just do it, it's worth every penny.)

Read more of my Broadway reviews here.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

"Spring Awakening" at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre on Broadway

Hey Minnesota friends, I'm in New York City! To celebrate my 15th year of annual visits to my favorite city in the world and my 15th year of running, I ran the NYC marathon (raising $4500 for the MS Society in the process). Now that those amazing, excruciating, inspiring 26.2 miles are done, it's time to see some Broadway shows! Last night I received my first ever press comps for Broadway (after 5 years of this blogging thing, does that mean I've finally made it?). And I could not have chosen a better show for this milestone than the absolutely exquisite revival of one of my favorite musicals, Spring Awakening. But this new production by Deaf West Theatre in L.A. is less of a revival and more of a re-imagining of the 2006 original Broadway hit (to borrow a phrase from our own Theatre Latte Da, who did a pretty amazing re-imagining of this show a few years ago). Director Michael Arden and his team (including ASL Masters who translated the songs and dialogue into ASL) have created something truly unique and original with this Spring Awakening, which not only examines the sexual awakening of teenagers in late 19th Century Germany (which perhaps isn't all that different from today), but also the treatment of deaf children in the same time period, when, according to the Director's note, sign language was banned in schools. This has brought more layers and a new urgency to this already powerful, poignant, devastating, moving, and beautiful story. In short, if you're planning to be in NYC sometime before January 24, go see this show. Even if you've seen Spring Awakening before, you've never seen it like this.

I'm not going to go into the brilliance of this Steven Sater/Duncan Sheik-penned musical based on the 19th Century German play by Frank Wedekind, and how they took this ahead-of-its-time play and made it modern and relevant. I've written enough words about that here and here. Instead I'll focus on the brilliance and uniqueness of this particular interpretation.

Whenever I happen to be at a theater performance with ASL interpretation, I have a hard time taking my eyes off the interpreters because they're so expressive. With this production, I didn't have to. ASL has been incorporated into the show not as an addendum, but as an integral part of the storytelling. Even if you don't understand a single sign, the sign language adds so much depth to the words and music. Musicals express a heightened reality, where things that cannot be expressed in words are expressed through music. Here, things that cannot be expressed through words or even music are expressed through sign language, which may be the most beautiful and expressive language in the world. It's like a dance, and for a show that featured repeated hand movements and choreography in its original form, ASL is a perfect fit. Many of the roles (including Wendla and Moritz) are double-cast with one actor playing the character and signing, and another actor speaking and singing in the background, not just providing the audible voice of the character but also the inner voice. It's like the two actors are playing two parts of the same person, often interacting with each other like we all interact with that inner voice in our heads. At some point I lost track of who was singing and who was signing as it all joined together to create one singular voice.

Melchi und Wendla (Austin P. McKenzie and Sandra Mae Frank)
The original Broadway production of Spring Awakening featured a cast of talented young unknown actors who have gone on to become stars on stage and screen, including Lea Michelle, Jonathan Groff, and John Gallagher Jr. Similarly, this cast is full of talented young people, most of whom are making their Broadway debuts, some of whom also play instruments, and many of whom are destined to become our next generation of stars. I'm curious what's going to happen when the Tony nominations come out, if two actors will be nominated together for the shared roles, because it's impossible to separate their performances. Sandra Mae Frank is so wonderfully appealing as the sweet, innocent, and curious Wendla, and Katie Boeck provides a lovely voice for her. Daniel N. Durrant beautifully portrays the confused and tormented Moritz, signing in a speaking world adding to the characters frustration. Alex Boniello provides his voice and inner rocker. As Melchior, Austin P. McKenzie is a special kind of triple threat - acting, singing, and signing combining to create this character who thinks he has it all figured out but has much to learn.

The entire ensemble of young people is wonderful, singing, signing, acting, playing guitar or piano or bass (in addition to the four band members). The four adult actors are great too, including Camryn Manheim (from one of my favorite TV shows of the past, The Practice) in what appears to be her stage debut, and Alexandria Wailes (filling in for Marlee Matlin at the performance I saw). Another remarkable thing about this show is that it features the first actor in a wheelchair on Broadway, which I find astounding (Broadway could learn could learn a thing or two from Mixed Blood Theatre). Ali Stroker (whom I recognized from another favorite TV show of the recent past, Glee) is a delight and adds another layer of inclusiveness and representation to this production.

the beautiful cast of Spring Awakening
The show is cleverly put together in terms of how ASL and spoken or sung English are combined, and when and where surtitles are used. In one particularly effective scene between Moritz and his father, there is audible silence as the elder Herr Stiefel berates his son for being a "failure" in angry ASL and we read the painful words projected onto the back wall of the stage. The rare moments in which a deaf person screams or speaks are particularly heart-wrenching because it only happens when they feel like they cannot be heard any other way ("why didn't you tell me everything?!"). The multi-level set provides a great playground for this energetic and physical cast, and the simple period costumes contrast nicely with the more modern garb on the inner voices (scenic and costume design by Dane Laffrey).

Spring Awakening is a beautiful, inventive, and inclusive production of a brilliantly written musical, and a wonderful start to my week of Broadway. Get your tickets now (or check out the TKTS line in NYC). Next up for me: a pretty rotten two-show day seeing Hamilton and Something Rotten!

Read more of my Broadway reviews here.

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.