Sunday, January 3, 2016

2015 Twin Cities Theater Wrap-up: What I'm Most Grateful For

This is the seventh year that I've listed my favorites in Twin Cities theater, and it's getting harder and harder to keep the list at a reasonable number. In 2015 I saw over 200 shows by about 70 different theater companies at over 50 venues around the Twin Cities (including the 44 Fringe shows I saw in one crazy week in August). Going through this long list of plays, musicals, comedies, dramas, and everything in between, my initial list of favorites numbered over 50. "This is going to be impossible!" I thought. But then I realized this post isn't about shows that I liked, or even shows that I loved. This is about shows that left me with the feeling of - theater is the most wondrous and magical thing in the world, and I'm so grateful that I get to do this! After five and a half years of writing about Twin Cities theater, I'm in the fortunate position of being able to see just about any local show that I want to - for free! How lucky am I?! So the theme of this year's favorites list is gratitude. This is my thank you to the theater artists that create such beautiful work, the many PR people I work with who kindly arrange for my tickets, and all of you who read, comment, share, and otherwise support Cherry and Spoon. Here are the things I'm most grateful for this year (click on the linked show title to read the original post).

I'm grateful for musicals big and luscious, or small and lovely:
The Color Purple (Petronella Ytsma)
  • The Color Purple at Park Square Theatre: the 2005 Broadway musical adaptation of Alice Walker's poignant story that never fails to move me to tears is currently being revived on Broadway, but I'm quite satisfied with Park Square's production earlier this year. Featuring a gorgeous and talented local cast led by Aimee K. Bryant and Regina Marie Williams, a fantastic gospel/jazz/African score, and creative and diverse choreography, this was one of the most moving musicals of the year.
  • Daughter of the Regiment by Mill City Opera: my first experience of outdoor opera against the stunning historical backdrop of the Mill City Museum, but definitely not my last. There's nothing better than a fully and gorgeously staged opera under the midsummer Minnesota sky, and this light and silly romantic comedy fit the bill.
  • Hairspray at Artistry: the theater formerly known as Bloomington Civic Theatre got off on the right foot with this show. As I wrote back in August, "Hairspray is a show that's been done many times in the last 13 years, so you might wonder, why now? Artistry answers that question by bringing a feeling of relevance and immediacy to this poignant and moving story wrapped up in fabulous '60s song and dance."
Into the Woods (Heidi Bohnenkamp)
  • Into the Woods by Theater Latte Da: it was another stellar year of "doing theater musically" at Latte Da, including the reimagined Oliver! and a gleefully maniacal Sweeney Todd. But my favorite was the German forest-set Into the Woods, in which director Peter Rothstein and team "pared down this big Broadway musical to something that feels intimate and innovative, using a small cast and orchestra, and inventive and thoughtful choices in every detail of the production."
  • The Music Man at the Guthrie Theater: falling under the "big and luscious" category, the huge and talented ensemble was filled with familiar faces and led by a couple of out-of-towners, the lovely Stacie Bono and the charming Danny Binstock. It was a scrumptious celebration of music, love, family, and community. As I wrote back in June, this is "the reason people who love musicals love musicals."
Sister Act (Heidi Bohnenkamp)
  • Sister Act at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres: what more can I add to my original description of the show - "truly joyous and an all around good time, but might also bring tears to your eyes with it's message of faith, sisterhood, community, and standing with the ones you love in the face of danger and fear."
  • The Snow Queen at Park Square Theatre: following the delightful new trend of musicals in which cast and band are one, eight actor/musician/singer/dancers told Hans Christian Anderson's charming winter tale with joyful innovation. It was a truly magical and spellbinding evening of storytelling.
The Sound of Music (Rich Ryan)
  • The Sound of Music at the Ordway Center: 2015 was the year that the Ordway proved without a doubt that you can produce Broadway-style musicals utilizing the amazing talent we have right here in the Twin Cities. First came that ode to baseball Damn Yankees, then came the boisterous Pirates of Penzance, and last but not least was a dream of a production of The Sound of Music, a nostalgic favorite of mine. "The show cast a spell over me from which I didn't want to ever awake!" But they're not done yet; next up - A Chorus Line, and I'm crossing my fingers for more original productions to be announced for next season.
  • The Spitfire Grill at Lyric Arts: and finally, we get to the small and lovely category. I'd never heard of this 2001 Off-Broadway musical or the 1996 movie that inspired it, but I was completely charmed by the troubled-girl-in-a-small-town story and the folky score, with a star turn by Katharine Strom in the lead role.
I'm grateful for plays that made me laugh, cry, and feel everything in between:
Annapurna (Dan Norman)
  • Annapurna at the Jungle Theater: two exes with unfinished business come together in a play that uses mountain climbing as a metaphor for a relationship. On director Joel Sass' detailed and realistic trailer set, Angela Timberman and Terry Hempleman bared body and soul in "90 minutes of taut, natural, funny, heart-breaking, real, beautiful dialogue."
  • Boeing, Boeing by Torch Theater: I'm not sure I laughed more at the theater this year than during this perfectly executed screwball comedy. If the original 1965 Broadway production had had Craig Johnson at the helm and this brilliantly talented cast that gave everything they had, it would not have flopped. Pure comedy genius.
  • Detriot '67 at Penumbra Theatre: the timing of this play could not have been better (unfortunately). As Penumbra presented the story of a family and music set amidst one of the largest riots in US history, a story that was "as much fun and entertaining as it is sobering and thought-provoking," a similar state of unrest due to years of racial injustice erupted in Baltimore. History repeats itself until we learn how to do better.
Forget Me Not (Paula Keller)
  • Forget Me Not When Far Away by Ten Thousand Things: I don't think I've ever had a favorites list without a TTT show on it, so unique and special is their pure and raw theater style. This year my favorite was Kira Obolensky's playful and poignant fairy tale about a soldier (a strong and appealing Ron Menzel) returning home from war. But this story really belonged to the women - over 20 characters played by just five brilliantly versatile actors (Shá Cage, Sun Mee Chomet, Annie Enneking, Elise Langer, and Karen Wiese-Thompson).
  • The Gospel of Lovingkindness at Pillsbury House Theatre: there's no way around it, 2015 was a tough year in our country, with increasing racial tension and gun violence. Marcus Gardley's new play tells the story of one black teenager's death and his mother's response in a way that somehow left me with a bit of hope. As I wrote at the time, "it's beautifully and poetically written, full of life and humor that balances out the devastation and death of the situation."
Hir (Rich Ryan)
  • Hir at Mixed Blood Theatre: this dysfunctional family includes a nearly catatonic father, a loony mom, a son suffering from PTSD, and a transgender teenager who prefers to be referred to as hir. It wasn't an easy play to watch, but so worth it: "It's epic and brutal and funny and heart-breaking as it explores ideas of not just gender, but also class, domestic violence, the changing order of things, and the effects of war on soldiers and those left behind. It's one of those plays that will rip you open, lay your emotions bare, and perhaps leave you with a bit of a queasy feeling in the pit of your stomach."
  • Liberty Falls 54321 by The Moving Company: this company is another regular on my year-end favorites list, with their crazy brilliant creations that are like no other. This story of a racist old woman's birthday party in small town Wisconsin is really just an excuse to create a bunch of oddball characters, including Steven Epp as said racist old lady, Nathan Keepers at his most Nathan Keepers, and the Baldwin sisters singing - badly! It was "absurdly funny, surprisingly musically delicious, awkwardly cringe-worthy, and just plain ridiculous."
  • The Matchmaker by Girl Friday Productions: they do one show every two years, but it's always worth the wait, never more so than with this spot on production of a classic. "With a funny and poignant story about love, money, and adventure, smart period set and costumes, a cast that is sheer perfection, and direction [Craig Johnson again] that keeps it all running smoothly, this Matchmaker is an absolute delight from top to bottom, start to finish."
Mockingbird (Joan Marcus)
  • To Kill a Mockingbird at the Guthrie Theater: wow, what a year at the Guthrie! In a year in which we said good-bye to one Artistic Director (more on that later) and hello to another, we got the aforementioned The Music Man, the powerful and affecting The Crucible, the charming Stage Kiss, and the hilarious Cocoanuts, to name a few. But I must bring special attention to the classic American story To Kill a Mockingbird, my first time seeing it on stage. It "left me with tears in my eyes, a warmth in my heart, and a feeling of injustice, not so much at Tom Robinson's fate (because really, what other ending could there be in the deep South of the 1930s), but that Tom Robinson's story continues to be repeated today." And those kids absolutely owned the stage.
  • Woman in Black at Yellow Tree Theatre: it was another great year at my favorite theater in the 'burbs, including a fantastic production of the brilliant modern musical Next to Normal, and the perfectly lovely Irish play Dancing at Lughnasa, but my favorite was the creepy storytelling of Woman in Black. I literally jumped in my seat and got chills down my spine. This two-person play starred veteran Twin Cities actors J.C. Cutler and Nathaniel Fuller, aided by lighting and sound design for some good old-fashioned spooky storytelling.

I'm grateful for new musicals and the incredibly talented people who wrote them, the theaters that supported their development and produced them, and the wonderful casts who brought them to life. Most notably this year were Chan Poling and Jeffrey Hatcher's darkly hilarious Glensheen (History Theatre) based on Minnesota's most infamous true crime story; Keith Hovis' trilogy of one-act musicals Pioneer Suite (Freshwater Theatre) telling the stories of real historical Minnesota women, and David Darrow and Grant Sorenson's lovely and grand The Great Work (7th House Theater).

Extremities (Heidi Bohnenkamp)
I'm grateful for site-specific shows that brought theater to unconventional spaces, like Theater Coup d'Etat's Art in the Muse Event Center, where I watched three men discuss the value of art while curled up in a big comfy leather chair; Dark and Stormy's Extremities at the Grain Belt Warehouse, where James Rodriguez spent an hour or so trapped in a fireplace being tortured (deservedly so) by Sara Marsh; and the Live Action Set/Dangerous Productions/The Soap Factory co-production Crime and Punishment, in which I made my way through the dark and creepy and all too real world of Dostoyevsky's novel.

I'm grateful for companies that reimagined Shakespeare this year. From a couple of all-female productions (Theatre Unbound's Hamlet and Ten Thousand Things' Henry IV Part I), to Park Square's 90-minute Romeo and Juliet for students that cut out all the fluff and got right to the heart of the story, to Mu's playful and musical Twelfth Night, to my favorite of the year, Classical Actors Ensemble's charming, accessible, and engaging Two Gentleman of Verona performed in area parks.

I'm grateful for the Minnesota Fringe Festival, where Dustin Bronson and Katie Kleiger created the most beautifully and painfully real portrait of a relationship I've ever seen on stage; I followed Keely Wolter and Rachel Petrie around the West Bank neighborhood and reminisced; I laughed at a bunch of average heroes; two brothers talked and sang and played games while telling the most profound story about I'm not even sure what; a survivor of post-WWII Berlin shared her unthinkably horrific story; three musician/comedian/actor/acrobats did all kinds of crazy things; I was riveted by the story of a Nazi war criminal that was about so much more; one woman's journey to become herself was clearly portrayed by three actors; everyone's favorite fake politician Shelly Bachberg returned in an Orange is the New Black homage; I traveled to the moon and back; and hung out underneath the lintel.

One Arm (Heidi Bohnenkamp)
I'm grateful for exciting new theater companies like New Epic Theater. In what was really their first year as a theater company, they've established themselves with three highly stylized, inventively staged, wonderfully cast, and seriously powerful shows. This spring they remounted of one of my favorite Fringe shows from 2014, Tennessee Williams' beautifully tragic story One Arm. For this year's Fringe they produced a sleek and cool adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray. They completed the trifecta with an almost painfully sharp presentation of the Tony-winning play Doubt.

I'm grateful for "discovering" a theater company that's been around for over 30 years - The Gilbert and Sullivan Very Light Opera Company. Dedicated to the work of comedy operetta geniuses Gilbert and Sullivan, their marvelous production of H.M.S. Pinafore this spring was followed by their first foray into the Fringe with the fun and fully operatic one-act Trial by Jury.

These Old Shoes
I'm grateful for the unique physical theater company that is Transatlantic Love Affair, with a style so achingly beautiful it often brings me to tears. This year they showed their range with three very different original works: the sweet and poignant story of second chances These Old Shoes, the dark Prohibition era crime drama 105 Proof or The Killing of Mack "The Silencer" Klein at the Fringe, and the modern story of a woman in a coma and the people who love her, emilie/eurydice.

I'm grateful for learning about history through nimbus theatre's original works In the Age of Paint and Bone (pre-historical cave dwellers), From Darkness (the NYC art world of the mid-20th Century), and The Storms of November (the Lake Superior shipping world in the recent and less recent past). nimbus is leaving their theater space in NE Minneapolis; here's hoping they find another location soon so they can continue to explore history (and provide a space for many nomadic theater companies too).

20,000 Leagues (Dan Norman)
I'm grateful for the completely immersive experience that was Children's Theatre Company's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. After running, jumping, crouching, and creeping through the hallways and back rooms of the theater, I was willing to follow my guides (Isabel Nelson and Matt Spring) anywhere they led me! It was the best game of make-believe ever, and what is theater if not an elaborate game of make-believe?!

I'm grateful for experiencing a classic musical I'd never seen or heard before, not once but twice this year. My first experience with Rodgers and Hammerstein's Carousel was a semi-staged concert version at Orchestra Hall, where the score sounded gorgeous as played by the Minnesota Orchestra and sung by a wonderful cast led by Gabriel Preisser and Sarah Lawrence. Then, just a month later, I was able to dig a little deeper into the piece upon second viewing at Bloomington Civic Theatre (now called Artistry), with another wonderful cast led by Dominique Wooten and Elizabeth Hawkinson. Thanks to these two complementary productions I now have a much better appreciation of this complicated classic.

I'm grateful for witnessing the theater magic that occurred on opening night of The Velocity of Autumn at Old Log Theatre (my first Old Log opening night). Veteran actor Melissa Hart may have lost her words, but she never lost the character, and somehow watching the actor struggle to find the words made Eric Coble's story of a woman afraid of losing herself in dementia even more real and poignant. Costar Paul de Cordova was right there with her in every moment, as was the audience, in what was a truly communal experience. As they say in the play, "there's beauty and art in the coming apart."

Woodsman (Charles Gorrill)
I'm grateful for back-to-back powerfully subtle performances by Adam Whisner in Loudmouth Collective's A Bright New Boise and Theatre Pro Rata's The Woodsman  (both all around excellent productions). Whether playing a recovering cult member who isn't quite ready to let go of his beliefs, or a convicted child molester desperately trying to rebuild his life after prison, Adam's performances of these very complicated, at times unlikable, yet somehow also sympathetic men were both beautifully and painfully real, and made you feel there was so much more going on inside.

I'm grateful for Monday night informal musical showcases featuring some of our best music-theater artists, including Second Fiddle Productions' readings of rarely produced musical work (such as Blood Brothers and The Most Happy Fella) and the monthly cabaret series Musical Mondays at Hell's Kitchen, hosted by everyone's favorite BFFs Sheena Janson and Max Wojtanowicz.

I'm grateful for a whirlwind of 11 holiday shows that concluded with the quiet, lovely, and poignant All is Calm. This new version of a classic that featured an all-new cast of talented actor-singers was even more affecting that before, with a message of peace sorely needed in this world of increasing violence.

the Dowling Gala (Tom Wallace)
I'm grateful for the chance to celebrate Joe Dowling's 20 years as the Guthrie's Artistic Director at the gala performance All the World's a Stage this summer, and his beautiful swan song Juno and the Paycock. The star-studded gala performance of dance, music, and theater featured beloved veterans and up-and-coming young talent. It was such a unique thrill to be in that room that was filled with so much love, for Joe, for the Guthrie, and for this beautiful theater community that is forever changed because of him.

And although this post (and this blog) is primarily about Minnesota theater, I cannot conclude my 2015 theater gratitude list without mentioning my trip to NYC this fall. I'm grateful for the two pairs of press comps that I received (my first in NYC), to the exquisite revival of Spring Awakening and the hilarious musical spoof Something Rotten! And I'm beyond grateful for having seen Lin-Manuel Miranda's singular genius creation Hamilton - something entirely new in the world of musical theater. Look around, look around! How lucky I am to be alive right now to experience the incredible work of this amazing Minneapolis/St. Paul theater community.