Monday, February 29, 2016

"Everyman" at Open Window Theatre

The last time I was at Open Window Theatre, tucked into a warehouse behind the Basilica in Minneapolis, was in their inaugural season. They are now in their fifth season and appear to be going strong. I was glad to finally return to their cool and cozy black box space for Everyman, a 15th century morality play. While the five hundred year old play is a little heavy handed in its moral message, this 90-minute production directed by Jeremy Stanbary utilizes music, movement, and a beautifully diverse cast to make that message feel relevant and almost modern.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

"Richard III" at Theatre in the Round

There's no tale more twisted than that of the English monarchy. Betrayal, murder, illness, disappearances, fierce battles, and marriage between close relatives are common occurrences. King Richard III's brief two-year reign in the late 15th Century was marked by all of the above, and therefore makes for good fodder for historical fiction. I recently read Philippa Gregory's Cousins War series, which was made into the Starz drama The White Queen, and tells Richard's story along with others of that era. One of the things that makes these books so fascinating is that they're told from the very different perspectives of the women in the story, including Richard's sister-in-law Queen Elizabeth, his wife Anne Neville, and the mother of the man who dethroned him, Margaret Beaufort. The first two are also characters in Shakespeare's version of Richard III historical fiction, currently playing at the longest-running Minneapolis theater, Theatre in the Round. I went into the play with all of this background, and therefore unlike a lot of Shakespeare, I was able to follow the many characters and plot twists and quite enjoyed this take on a bizarre and fascinating period of history.

"The Working Dead" at Brave New Workshop

There's a reason workplace comedies are so popular and strike such a chord with so many people. The situation of forced pseudo-friendship that many of us find ourselves in on a daily basis is ripe for comedy. We form this strange little society with its own rules and language. No wonder Brave New Workshop chose it as their new show, entitled The Working Dead. Don't we all become zombies a little bit when we go into the office? Director Caleb McEwen notes in the program (or bulletin as I overheard someone calling it): "We spend most of our time around a group of people with whom we did not necessarily chose to fraternize, and these accidental friends will provide the bulk of our adult interactions. These are the people that will shape how we view and interact with the world around us." But this sounds a little too serious for what is a hilariously fun sketch comedy touching upon nearly every workplace issue, from casual Friday to personality tests to teambuilding to office romances. With over 50 years of history, BNW is like Minnesota's SNL, and I'm embarrassed it took me so long to get there. This might have been my first visit to Brave New Workshop, but it most certainly will not be my last.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

"Iolanthe" by Gilbert and Sullivan Very Light Opera Company at Howard Conn Fine Arts Center

Did you know there's a company in town entirely dedicated to the works of music-comedy geniuses Gilbert and Sullivan? Neither did I, until last year about this time, when I "discovered" the 30-year-old Gilbert and Sullivan Very Light Opera Company through their marvelous production of H.M.S. Pinafore. They followed that up last year with the one-act Trial by Jury at the Minnesota Fringe Festival, where it was one of the top-selling shows. While they may be new to me, they obviously have a very loyal audience, and deservedly so. If you're among that audience, you don't need me to tell you what a wonderful job they do. If you're not, and you're a fan of Gilbert and Sullivan's particular brand of witty, clever, rhythmic comic opera, you might want to check out their latest production. This year they're presenting the lesser known (to me anyway) Iolanthe; or, The Peer and the Peri. And it is, once again, a delightful production of a very funny farce/fantasy/ political satire, beautifully performed by a cast of over 40 and a backstage orchestra nearly as large. GSVLOC fills a unique and specific niche in our rich Twin Cities theater community, one that I'm delighted to have "discovered."

Thursday, February 25, 2016

"Two Gentlemen of Verona" at Jungle Theater

Welcome to Minnesota theater, Sarah Rasmussen! The Jungle's new Artistic Director begins her first full season this year (the Jungle's season runs January to December rather than September to August) and makes her directing debut this month (as AD, she previously directed the lovely In the Next Room a few years ago). Like the Guthrie's new AD Joseph Haj, Sarah makes her directing debut with an innovative and energetic Shakespeare play that originated at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. But unlike the Guthrie's Pericles, Sarah's take on Two Gentlemen of Verona features a mostly local cast, and an entirely female cast (well, except for the dog, more on him later). It's an exciting debut that promises good things to come, while maintaining the high quality of productions that the Jungle is known for.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

"Eye of the Lamb" by Workhaus Collective at the Playwright's Center

How have I never heard of Gertrude Bell? She sounds like my kind of woman. Born in 1868 to a wealthy British family, her life sounds like one constant stream of adventures. She was a writer, explorer, mountaineer, archaeologist, and politician in an era when few women were given the opportunity to do any of those things, much less all of them. Of course she wasn't just an admirable heroine; history is rarely that cut and dried. She was also heavily involved with Britain's colonization of Arabia and helped to draw the borders of modern Iraq, for better or worse. But according to Wikipedia, she was "one of the few representatives of His Majesty's Government remembered by the Arabs with anything resembling affection." That's something, I guess. Her life would make one epic play, which is perhaps why playwright Trista Baldwin decided to focus on a few years at the end of her life, when she's serving as Oriental Secretary, i.e., a liaison between the British and Iraqi governments. Of ill health, she begins to gather her writings together, and the reminiscing provides a portrait of a life. Aided by live music and excellent performances by Annie Enneking and the rest of the cast, Eye of the Lamb is a fascinating play about a remarkable woman who should be remembered.

Monday, February 22, 2016

"You for Me for You" by Mu Performing Arts at the Guthrie

You for Me for You. Judging by the title I wondered if this was a play about former American Idol judge Randy Jackson. But of course it's not, rather this regional premiere by Mu Performing Arts is about North Korea, a subject I (and most Americans) know less about than American Idol. I was fortunate enough to attend the play when there was a post-show discussion with the playwright Mia Chung and director Randy Reyes, facilitated by the Star Tribune's Rohan Preston (read his review here). Hearing from the playwright, the director, and the cast about their experiences creating this piece gave me greater insight into the story. Mia shared that because there is so little known about what North Korea is actually like, she felt freedom in creating this world through "magic realism" and really tried to focus on the human aspect of the story. She succeeds beautifully, as I was completely engrossed in the lives of these characters as brought to life by Mu's strong cast (the first to feature Korean actors in the three lead roles). This specific story of North Korean refugees is also universal in its themes of family, love, and sacrifice, themes that will feel familiar to any audience.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

"Gypsy" by Theater Latte Da at the Pantages Theatre

2016 is the fourth year of Broadway Reimagined, the partnership that combines the resources of Hennepin Theatre Trust with the innovation of Theater Latte Da to create a new interpretation of a familiar Broadway musical. This year's selection is a beloved classic of the American musical theater canon, the 1959 Jule Styne/Stephen Sondheim/Arthur Laurents creation Gypsy, based on the memoir of burlesque entertainer Gypsy Rose Lee. Theater Latte Da did this musical almost ten years ago in their old home The Loring Playhouse (only my second Latte Da show, I've seen nearly everything they've done since). Even though two actors reprise their roles, as do the director, music director, and choreographer, this is a different show in a bigger venue. And I'm convinced there is no better venue for this show in the Twin Cities than the beautifully restored Vaudeville theater that is the Pantages, where the historical characters in the play very likely performed nearly 100 years ago. There's a sense of history in this show which, along with Theater Latte Da's usual attention to detail in every aspect of the production, creates a beautiful, realistic, moving look into the world of show business and the quintessential stage mother/daughter relationship. As the song says, let Theater Latte Da entertain you, you will have a real good time, yes sir!

Saturday, February 20, 2016

"Silence! The Musical" by Minneapolis Musical Theatre and Bitter Boy Productions at the Lab Theater

A musical about silence? That seems paradoxical. But of course Silence! The Musical is not about silence itself, it's a parody of the 1991 Jodie Foster/Anthony Hopkins movie The Silence of the Lambs. A movie I've never seen. My friends at Minnesota Theater Love told me I should see the movie before seeing Minneapolis Musical Theatre's production of the off-Broadway musical, but I didn't have time, because... theater. Also I decided that the musical should be able to stand on its own; you shouldn't have to see a movie first to enjoy a musical. And for the most part the musical does stand on it's own, aided by the fact that the movie is so much a part of our pop culture that even I'm familiar with Hannibal the cannibal and the weird teeth-sucking sound he makes, along with a few other high points of the movie. Although this over-the-top campy horror-parody isn't really my kind of humor, I can appreciate that director Steven Meerdink and his talented cast commit fully to it and deliver an entertaining show.

Friday, February 19, 2016

"A Chorus Line" at the Ordway Center for Performing Arts

The 1975 smash hit Broadway musical A Chorus Line truly is a singular sensation. After winning nine Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize (one of only eight musicals to do so), it ran for 15 years, making it the longest running musical on Broadway at the time (it still ranks as number six). But why would this musical about dancers auditioning to be in the chorus line of a musical be such a popular success? Theater people can surely relate to it, but what about the rest of us mere mortals who've never stepped foot on a stage? The reason for its long-lasting success is that it's not just an inside look at the world of musical theater; its themes of adolescence, acceptance, figuring out who you are and what you want to be, and dedicating your life to something that you love are universal, told with raw honesty and unabashed sincerity. And the dancing is pretty terrific too. I've been waiting almost seven years for a local production of A Chorus Line, since seeing the Broadway revival tour in 2009. The Ordway Center for the Performing Arts has finally fulfilled my wish, and it's well worth the wait. Featuring a fabulously talented cast of over two dozen legit triple threats, about half of whom are local, co-directed and co-choreographed by A Chorus Line expert Kerry Casserly and Artistic Director James Rocco, this show hews very close to the original. There's no re-imagining here, this is a beautifully faithful production of the singular sensation that is A Chorus Line. If you call yourself a musical theater fan, it's a must-see.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

"The Tale of the Allergist's Wife" by Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company at Highland Park Center Theatre

Sometimes theater can be profound, thought-provoking, or even life-changing, and sometimes it's just highly enjoyable entertainment. There's room for both, and Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company's production of the 2000 Tony-nominated Broadway play The Tale of the Allergist's Wife falls squarely in the latter category. It's a chance to laugh at ridiculous people in this very funny play, presented with sharp direction by Warren C. Bowles and fantastic comedic performances by the five-person cast. The theater at the Highland Park Community Center was packed on a Wednesday night, and a good time was had by all. Sometimes that's everything you need.

Monday, February 15, 2016

"George Bonga: Black Voyageur" at the History Theatre

Two years ago the History Theatre presented four new works related to the history of our fair state of Minnesota, as they do every year under the title Raw Stages. The class of 2014 has now all seen full productions, telling Minnesota stories as diverse as a Filipino Debutante's Ball, Minnesota's strangest and most infamous true crime story, a Minnesota boy who grew up to do a little radio show, and a black voyageur in Minnesota's pre-statehood frontier days. These stories are all part of our history as Minnesotans and as Americans, and I appreciate the History Theatre's commitment to developing and producing these Minnesota stories. The last play from the 2014 Raw Stages festival to make it to the big stage is George Bonga: Black Voyageur (previously titled Boundary Waters). It's a fascinating story of friendship, survival, and identity in a world that existed less than 200 years ago, but seems so very far away. Born of an African American father and an Ojibwe mother, George Bonga became a well-known fur trader who straddled the worlds of the Native and White cultures, and was one of the first black men born in what would become Minnesota. The play covers one incident in this man's eventful and historic life, and the implications of that event in his life and the larger community.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

"The Arsonists" by Frank Theatre at the Ritz Theater

"That was a strange one." This comment overheard as I was leaving the Ritz Theater last night pretty well sums up Frank Theatre's latest venture The Arsonists. It's weird, even for Frank. I typically love Frank's brand of weird; their work is always challenging and thought-provoking and usually delightfully bizarre. But this one was a little too out there for me, although I can appreciate the artistry of what director Wendy Knox and her team have created. And after sleeping on it and reading about the play, I have an even better appreciation for it. If you can hold on for the ride, this absurdist play has some funny and thought-provoking moments. But it is most definitely a strange one.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

"Only One Sophie" at Illusion Theater

They say that the more specific something is, the more universal it is. That's certainly the case with the new original musical Only One Sophie by Illusion Theater's Artistic Director Michael Robins. Based on the life of his grandmother, the musical tells a very specific story about an American family centered around a strong, independent, loving Russian Jewish immigrant woman. But this tale of love, grief, family, and memories is a universal one that brings to mind one's own family history and memories. The specifics may be different, but we all have family traditions and memories and, if we're lucky, a loving grandmother that will never be forgotten. Only One Sophie a beautiful, funny, poignant, inspiring story brought to life through lovely original music (by Roberta Carlson) and a terrific eight-person cast. If you're interested in sweet, simple, heartfelt stories told musically, head down (or rather, up) to Illusion Theater's 8th floor stage in the Hennepin Center for the Arts between now and March 5.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

"Clybourne Park" at Yellow Tree Theatre

As a follow-up to their fun, light-hearted, crowd-pleasing holiday show A Hunting Shack Christmas, Yellow Tree Theatre is presenting Clybourne Park, a darkly funny and challenging play dealing with heavy and timely issues of race, class, gender, and gentrification. This is one of the things I love about Yellow Tree; they don't pander to their suburban audience with easily digestible fare, they challenge them with plays that might take them outside of their comfort zone. One of the biggest areas of improvement for Yellow Tree, now in their 8th season and taking their place among the heavy hitters in town, is increasing diversity on their stage (and in the audience). I'm thrilled that they've chosen two plays this season that tackle race head on (this play and the upcoming musical Violet), and hope that this trend of diversity, and even non-traditional casting, continues. But back to the play at hand - Clybourne Park is a funny, edgy, brilliantly written play (it won the Tony in 2012) and this production does it justice with a top-notch cast and director.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

"Newsies" on tour at the Orpheum Theatre

I'm just a little bit too old to be among the ranks of teenage girls that fell in love with the 1992 Disney movie musical Newsies. Loosely based on the historical newsboys strike of 1899, the movie starred a young Christian Bale and was a flop at the box office, but found success among said teenage girls through the burgeoning home video market. So it seems inevitable that Disney would capitalize on this popularity by bringing the movie musical to the stage, as they did with the 2012 Broadway hit that ran for four years and launched a tour that is finally landing in Minneapolis this week. While it's very much a Disney production and I'm still a little too old to completely fall in love with it, I thoroughly enjoyed Newsies because of the fantastic dancing by a huge cast of charismatic young men (this is not a show that employs a lot of women), impressive set, rousing songs, and charming performances by all. But it's only here for a week, so embrace your inner teenage girl and head on down to the Orpheum Theatre.*

"Let's Get Down and Thirty" at Lush Bar featuring a reading of "For Tonight"

One of the very first things that I wrote about when I started Cherry and Spoon back in the summer of 2010 was a very fun and entertaining cabaret/comedy show called Where's My Tony?, created, written, and hosted by Whitney Rhodes and Josh Campbell. I've enjoyed watching both of them over the last five and a half years wherever their careers took them, and I was thrilled to watch Whitney host a show of her own this past Monday. Every year, she very generously uses her birthday celebration to raise money for a cause she cares about. This year for her 30th birthday, the money raised went to Mixed Blood Theatre, where she currently works as the Development Manager. Mixed Blood is celebrating their 40th birthday this year, so it seems quite appropriate to celebrate these two milestones with a great evening of beloved and new musical theater.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

"Rough Cuts" at Nautilus Music-Theater: "Bold in Their Breeches" and "The Lady with a Lapdog"

Have you ever been to "Rough Cuts," Nautilus Music-Theater's monthly series in which they present readings of new works of music-theater? Even though they've presented 170 "Rough Cuts" over 23 years, you're forgiven if you've never been, or even if you've never heard of it. Their website is uninformative (but it appears they're working on improving it) and while they are on Facebook and Twitter, they're not very active on either. Maybe they like it that way, because even with this lack of publicity there was a standing room only crowd at their small studio space in St. Paul's Lowertown neighborhood last night. But that's why I'm here, to let you know about delicious well-kept secrets in the local theater world such as "Rough Cuts."

Monday, February 1, 2016

"Country Roads: The Music of John Denver" at Plymouth Playhouse

Shortly into Country Roads: The Music of John Denver, creator and host Dennis Curley tell us a story about his aunts and uncles sitting around the living room laughing, telling stories, and singing songs of the great singer/songwriters of the '60s and '70s, including John Denver. Dennis has successfully recreated that experience on the stage of the Plymouth Playhouse. He's not trying to imitate John Denver, or tell John Denver's life story, he's simply singing the songs that he loves and sharing what this music means to him, his friends and family, and the audience. There's really no theater here; it's a casual concert of one John Denver fan (and his awesome band) singing to a roomful of John Denver fans, who are encouraged to sing along. If you're a fan of John Denver, Country Roads is a must-see to experience all of that John Denver goodness. If you're not a fan of John Denver, well, you're missing out on some great music!