Wednesday, March 30, 2016

"A Night with Janis Joplin" on tour at the Ordway Center for Performing Arts

A Night With Janis Joplin, the short-lived 2013 Broadway musical that's finding new life on tour, is just that. But it's not just a concert featuring one of the all time Rock and Roll greats that was taken from us too soon. This is also Janis Joplin's origin story. In between songs she tells us about her musical influences growing up, mostly female blues singers, with a few musical theater references thrown in for us theater geeks. Thanks to Randy Johnson's well-constructed book, we also get to witness these women sing their signature songs, often followed by Janis' take on the song. This really allows you to see where Janis is coming from and how she adds her own unique sound to the songs that inspired her. It's a celebration not just of Janis, but of the women of blues.

"The Diary of Anne Frank" at Park Square Theatre

Some 32,000 students a year head to Park Square Theatre's two-stage downtown St. Paul space to see theater that is just for them. Many of Park Square's regular shows have a handful of student matinees, but there are also several shows that are primarily for students, with few, if any, evening performances for us grown-ups. But because I'm not a normal grown-up, I was able to get into a student matinee of one of the two shows for students this spring, The Diary of Anne Frank (the other is a captivating 90-minute Romeo and Juliet, which I saw last year). A theater full of hundreds of teenagers creates a much different atmosphere for watching theater, and watching the kids watch the play is almost as entertaining as watching the play itself. The Diary of Anne Frank is a play that must appeal to teenagers, with a main character that is herself just a typical teenager, despite living in hiding during the Holocaust. Anne's story and spirit are brought to life in an engaging production that's a pleasure for kids and grown-ups alike.

Monday, March 28, 2016

"The Normal Heart" by New Epic Theater at the Lab Theater

In just their second season as a theater company, New Epic Theater is tackling not one but two challenging and not often performed political plays with The Normal Heart and Coriolanus, performed in rep (something that's also not often done). It's an ambitious undertaking for any theater company, much less a young one. But in this short time New Epic has already established themselves as a company that does striking work, both visually and emotionally (see also Doubt and One Arm). The first half of this pair of plays opened last weekend, a strikingly beautiful and devastating production of the 1985 Off-Broadway play The Normal Heart about the early days of the AIDS crisis. Friends, this is a piece of theater not to be missed. The Normal Heart returns on April 7, but in the meantime you can see the other piece of the puzzle, Shakespeare's Coriolanus, this weekend, as I will be (ticket information and performance schedule here). Director Joseph Stodola* and New Epic Theater have a unique vision, one that deserves to be seen.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

"Love Person" at Park Square Theatre

"Words are heavy, they're like stones. If birds could talk they couldn't fly." One of my favorite quotes from one of my favorite TV shows, Northern Exposure, came to mind while experiencing Love Person at Park Square Theatre. After premiering at Mixed Blood Theatre in 2008, Aditi Kapil's bilingual play has seen success around the country, and now returns home in this new production, which she also directs. It's a play about the heaviness of words, and how sometimes they beautifully convey feelings, and other times they fall miserably short. Performed in both English and ASL, with a little Sanskrit thrown in for good measure, the play explores the ideas of language, communication, relationships, love, and family. It's a play that requires focus and effort from the audience (you will be reading surtitles during complete silence at times), but that effort pays off in this engaging, poignant, funny, thought-provoking, moving story.

Friday, March 25, 2016

"Shrek: The Musical" at Lyric Arts

"Fairy tales should really be updated." So sings Shrek in the 2008 musical adaptation of the smash hit 2001 movie. And that's exactly what the creators of the movie and the musical (playwright David Lindsay-Abaire, who also wrote Rabbit HoleGood People, and Fuddy Meers, and composer Jeanine Tesori, who is also responsible for one of my favorite musicals Violet, opening soon at Yellow Tree Theatre) have done. Lyric Arts' joyful and colorful new production is my third go-round with Shrek: The Musical, for which I have much affection despite it being a blockbuster movie adaptation. The musical retains and builds on the funny, clever, irreverent tone of the movie, adding a diverse collection of songs. This updated fairy tale for the modern age is well done by Lyric Arts with a fantastic cast, bright and colorful set and costume design, and a joyfully irreverent spirit.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

"Watermelon Hill" at History Theatre

The History Theatre in St. Paul is committed to bringing new plays and musicals to the stage, usually inspired by true events in Minnesota history. Their yearly Raw Stages festival, a series of workshops and readings of new works, often results in full productions in the following season or two. But I often wonder, what happens next? After a new play or musical is developed, produced, and well-received, where does it go? In the case of 2001's Watermelon Hill, it comes back again 15 years later. As much as I love seeing new works of theater on History Theatre's stage, I'm thrilled that they brought this wonderful old new work back to the stage, giving it a fresh new production. Inspired by historical events, Watermelon Hill tells the stories of three young women in the mid '60s, pregnant and unmarried, sent in shame to St. Paul's Catholic Infant Home to wait out their pregnancies, deliver their babies, give them up for adoption, and then leave and never look back. Surprisingly light and funny for such a somber topic, the play brings light to the all too familiar tale of the challenges and lack of education and choices facing women in the past, and perhaps to a lesser extant, even today. Along with The How and the Why and Nina Simone: Four Women, it's another fantastic choice of theater to present during Women's History Month.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

"Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" at Pioneer Place Theatre Company in St. Cloud

"Mendacity is the system we live in. Liquor is one way out, death is the other." Oh Tennessee Williams, no one does tragedy quite so beautifully as you! Even though his plays are filled with despair, anguish, and pain, they make me so happy. Especially when the poetic language and tragic relationships are brought to life as beautifully as they are in Pioneer Place Theatre Company's production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Set in the back of a 100 year old building in downtown St. Cloud, "Central Minnesota's Premiere Professional Theatre" often attracts talent from the Twin Cities, as it has for this show. Directed by one of our best directors, Craig Johnson, this Cat features a cast full of Twin Cities favorites. So I happily made the one hour drive through a wintery precipitation mix to St. Cloud (where much of my extended family lives and where I went to college) to take in some quality theater at a new-to-me location (and eat the best pizza in the world at House of Pizza just across the street). If you're a theater-lover in the St. Cloud area, make plans to see this show before it closes this weekend. And if you're in the Twin Cities, I know there's more theater offered than one person could possibly see (believe me, I've tried), but if you're interested in some beautiful Tennessee Williams tragedy, this one is worth the drive.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

"Kingdom Undone" by Bucket Brigade at Art House North

"Tale as old as time" may be a lyric from Beauty and the Beast (now receiving beautiful treatment on the main stage at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres), but the story of Jesus is truly a tale as old as time. Quite literally, as the life and death of Jesus is the event against which we in the Western part of the world measure time. It's a powerful story of love and sacrifice, one that has inspired world-changing movements, both good and bad. Bucket Brigade (whose founders Jeremiah and Vanessa Gamble also helm Theater for the Thirsty) is bringing back their modern, passionate, musical take on the passion play.  I saw Kingdom Undone at the Southern Theater three years ago and was moved by the story. This year's version features some cast changes and a new venue - Bucket Brigade's home theater space Art House North. The story feels less epic than it did at the Southern, but more intimate, as characters make frequent use of the aisles so that the music and story surround you in the former church space. I'm not sure if the play would appeal to people not from a Christian background, but for those who are, it offers a moving and modern take on the familiar tale.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

"Nina Simone: Four Women" at Park Square Theatre

I know next to nothing about jazz singer and Civil Rights activist Nina Simone (other than the recent controversy about casting for the new biopic). But I do know Regina Marie Williams, Aimee K. Bryant, Thomasina Petrus, and Traci Allen Shannon, the four women starring in the new play based on Nina's song "Four Women." So I knew I was in for a treat and an education with Park Square Theatre's world premiere of Nina Simone: Four Women, written by local playwright Christina Ham and directed by Pillsbury House Theatre's Faye M. Price. I was not wrong on either count. Proving once again that everything I know I learned from theater, I now have a greater understanding of the remarkable and talented woman that was Nina Simone, as well as the importance of her music and her voice in the Civil Rights movement. And watching these particular four women, some of the best voices and actors we have here in the Twin Cities, bring full and complicated life to the Peaches, Auntie, Saffronia, and Sweet Thing of Nina's song, is a treat of the highest order.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

"The How and the Why" by Theatre Unbound at New Century Theatre

Full disclosure: I'm a statistician in my day job. I believe in science, I believe in data, I believe in biology, and I believe in humans' abilities to discover the how and the why of things through science. So the latest offering from Theatre Unbound (a company committed to presenting theater by women for women) is right up my alley. In fact, I was wearing a T-shirt that said "Got data?" last night when I saw the play, having just come from my company's Pi Day celebration. And what better way to continue to celebrate science, as well as Women's History Month, than with the new play The How and the Why about the relationship between two women scientists. This is one of those two-people-sitting-in-a-room-talking plays that I love so much (see also Freud's Last Session), especially when the talk is so smart, fascinating, engaging, and thought-provoking. This play may be about women and created by women, but it's one that can be enjoyed by anyone, and I'm grateful to Theatre Unbound and Hennepin Theatre Trust for bringing it to us.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

"Dracula" by Collide Theatrical Dance Company at the Ritz Theater

Collide Theatrical Dance Company is now in their fourth season of creating "original Broadway-style jazz dance musicals." As a theater geek who doesn't know much about dance but loves to watch it, Collide provides an accessible and theatrical way to get into dance. I've seen all of their productions over the last four seasons, and their newest creation Dracula may just be my favorite of them all. Collide is at their best when they let the dancing do the talking, as they do here, telling this modernized story of the iconic Dracula strictly through movement and music. A live band accompanies this fantastic troupe of dancers as they perform innovative and evocative choreography to a wide variety of popular songs reinvented to fit the story. Created by Artistic Director and choreographer Regina Peluso and director Joshua Campbell, this Dracula truly is a perfect collision of dance, music, and theater to create a new and exciting form of storytelling.

"Beauty and the Beast" at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres

Of all the Disney heroines, the odd girl with her nose stuck in a book is the one that I relate to most, especially since the 1991 movie Beauty and the Beast came out when I was a teenager and at my most odd bookishness. Belle is a heroine for all us normal girls who feel like we don't quite fit in. She meets another odd soul (who conveniently happens to be a handsome prince inside) and they make a connection, bringing out the best in each other. Yes it's a typical Disney fairy tale that ends in a wedding, but at least it's a meeting of equals who rescue each other. A few years after the movie, Beauty and the Beast was adapted into a successful Broadway musical (the 9th longest running musical on Broadway), and in 2005 Chanhassen Dinner Theatres was one of the first regional theaters to mount a production. Now, 11 years later, director Michael Brindisi and his team are revisiting this classic and beloved fairy tale with an energetic show that is flawlessly cast and beautifully designed. My inner odd bookish teenage girl (who's never very far beneath the surface) was quite pleased.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

"If/Then" on tour at the Orpheum Theatre

I saw the new original musical If/Then on Broadway two years ago, written by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey (who also wrote Next to Normal), directed by Michael Greif (who also directed RENT), and reuniting RENT's original Maureen and Mark, Idina Menzel and Anthony Rapp. While it doesn't match the brilliance of the Pulitzer Prize winners Next to Normal and RENT (both tough acts to follow), it is wonderful to see a new, original, ambitious, modern, grown-up musical on Broadway. Seeing it on tour last night (sans Idina but still starring the wonderful Anthony), I find I enjoyed it even more the second time around. Exploring intriguing themes of fate, chance, and choice, it's about how one seemingly insignificant choice can change our lives in ways we can never comprehend. And while it can be fun, or devastating, to wonder "What If?" as this musical does, at the end of the day we are where we are in life for whatever culmination of reasons. This is the life we have to live, and the characters in this musical, despite their flaws, do it to the fullest. The messages "no day but today" from RENT and "the price of love is loss, but still we pay, we love anyway" from Next to Normal are both present in this exciting new work.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

"Musical Mondays" at Hell's Kitchen, March 2016

American Idol might be ending this year, but Musical Mondays at Hell's Kitchen is still going strong after 3+ years! You don't need some TV talent search to see talented performers, you can head down to Hell's Kitchen in downtown Minneapolis the first Monday of the month to see some of our very own top talent. While I've only attended 7 of their 36 shows, this cabaret show featuring beloved and obscure songs from musical theater never disappoints. 

Sunday, March 6, 2016

"DJ Latinidad's Latino Dance Party" at Mixed Blood Theatre

I don't know what I was thinking. The words "dance" and "party" are right in the title, two words that strike instant fear into my heart! But I love Mixed Blood Theatre, so I took a chance on their new creation DJ Latinidad's Latino Dance Party, knowing it was probably not my thing. I was not wrong. Standing in a corner of Mixed Blood's open space where the theater usually is brought back that very specific terror of a junior high dance, which is when I stopped going to dances. But obviously this theater nerd/blogger/introvert is not the target audience for this piece. If you're someone who likes dancing, parties, and loud music, you'll probably have a great time, as most of the crowd seemed to. Me, I'll stick to sitting in the seat of a dark theater watching a story play out in front of me at a safe distance.

"The Seagull" by Theatre Novi Most at the Southern Theater

Chekhov's The Seagull is a classic of the theater, but I had never seen it. That's not exactly true, it was actually the first play I ever saw at the Guthrie, but being almost 25 years ago, I have no recollection of it. So it was as if I'd never seen it when I sat down to yesterday's matinee production of The Seagull by Theatre Novi Most, a company that specializes in Eastern European theater, as part of the Southern Theater's ARTShare* program. It took me a few minutes to get into this story of many inter-related characters with strange sounding names, but by intermission I was completely under its spell. This is one of those shows that is so completely captivating that it's hard to shake when you leave the theater. Funny, tragic, odd, and completely enchanting.

Friday, March 4, 2016

"The Dutchman / The Owl Answers" at Penumbra Theatre

In one of those strange theater-going coincidences, the night after I saw two one-act plays at the Guthrie, I attended opening night of Penumbra's presentation of two one-act plays. Both paired plays by different playwrights linked by a common theme. But unlike the theater comedies The Critic and The Real Inspector Hound, The Dutchman and The Owl Answers are dense and meaty dramas dealing with heavy issues. They might not make you laugh (except, occasionally, uncomfortably), but they will definitely make you think. Written in the '60s as part of the Black Arts Movement, these plays take an unforgiving look at the racism, sexism, and classism of the day, that still have implications in today's world. A stellar ensemble cast and top-notch production design tie the two very different plays together and highlight the playwrights' messages. Though they are not easy to watch and I can't say I understood everything that was going on, I certainly came away with much to chew on, and a greater understanding of our shared history. Which is pretty much a given at Penumbra Theatre.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

"The Critic / The Real Inspector Hound" at the Guthrie Theater

Two one-act comedies, written by two of my favorite playwrights, covering the topic of theater criticism? I'm in! While I don't consider myself a "critic" I do spend a considerable amount of time seeing theater and writing about it. So these two plays that skewer theater critics (and poke a bit of fun at theater in general) are right up my alley! The pairing of Richard Brinsley Sheridan's The Critic (adapted by Minnesota's favorite playwright Jeffrey Hatcher) and Tom Stoppard's The Real Inspector Hound, written 200 years apart, is genius. This fruitful collaboration between the Guthrie and Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington D.C. features a fantastic cast (that includes actors from both communities) playing in these two very different worlds that both deal with the relationship between theater and theater writing. The result is a hilarious farce, or rather two hilarious farces (or maybe four hilarious farces as both plays feature a play-within-a-play) that is enjoyable for anyone who loves theater. And if you don't love theater, you're in the wrong place.