Friday, March 31, 2017

"To Begin With" at the Historic Wesley Center

"Marley is dead, to begin with." So begins Charles Dickens' classic story A Christmas Carol. It's also the source of the title of local playwright Jeffrey Hatcher's new play about the author, To Begin With, now playing at the Historic Wesley Center in downtown Minneapolis. In it, we learn a little about the man, his writing process, and specifically his book The Life of Our Lord, an adaptation of the Christian gospels. He wrote this book for his children and never intended for it to be published, which it wasn't until 64 years after his death. Jeffrey Hatcher imagines the motivation behind this, and as portrayed by Dicken's great-great-grandson Gerald Charles Dickens, paints a lively portrait of an intelligent and witty man dedicated to faith, family, and his work.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

"Matilda" Broadway Tour at the Orpheum Theatre

Matilda is a wildly successful musical (both in England where it originated and here in the States) based on the 1988 children's book of the same name. But I had no familiarity with either the source or the musical when I arrived at the Orpheum Theatre yesterday, which is often the best way to experience theater. I found Matilda to be charming yet dark, with some breathtaking physical and acrobatic scenes. And the children of the cast are so good, I almost suspect they're just short adults and not really people who have lived on this planet less for than a dozen years. There were lots of kids in the audience too, and while it's a pretty late night on a school night, and perhaps a bit dark for the young ones, it's a wonderfully thrilling musical for any age.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

"Twisted Apples: Stories from Winesburg, Ohio" at Nautilus Music-Theater

I first experienced Nautilus Music-Theater's lovely new piece of music-theater Twisted Apples: Stories from Winesburg, Ohio about five and a half years ago, when they presented one of the three acts at the 2011 Minnesota Fringe Festival. It was actually the first time I saw Nautilus' work, and I was immediately hooked. I saw another piece of the work at the 2012 Fringe Fest, and have been waiting for the full three-act work ever since. The wait is over! Nautilus specializes in developing new works of music-theater (a term that I've stolen because it can be used to describe anything on the spectrum of play with music/musical/opera without forcing it into a box). To that end, they hold classes and workshops for composers and playwrights, and present readings of new works roughly the second Monday and Tuesday of every month in their "Rough Cuts" series (watch their Facebook page for details, usually announced a week or two prior). Every once in a while they mount a full production of one of these new works in their tiny studio space in Lowertown St. Paul, and now, finally, it's Twisted Apples' turn to have its moment. But hopefully not its last; it's a gorgeous piece that I hope will live on and continue to be performed beyond this nine-show small space run that closes this weekend.

Monday, March 27, 2017

"Citizen: An American Lyric" by Frank Theatre at Intermedia Arts

Frank Theatre describes their latest production as follows:
A searing representation of the current American zeitgeist, CITIZEN: AN AMERICAN LYRIC [by Claudia Rankine] is a boundary-bending work of poetry/prose/criticism, adapted for the stage by Stephen Sachs. A 6-member "ensemble piece... floats between dream and reality, narration and performance, and challenges its audience's perceptions," as it examines the ways racism pervades daily life in America, from highly visible news accounts to the daily microaggressions that render certain citizens invisible in our culture.
That's a pretty apt description for this piece that is more than theater, it's a lesson for how to be in this world. But it doesn't feel like a lesson, it doesn't feel preachy, rather it lays bare the flaws in our society in the way that we deal with race, historically and currently. Only four more performances remain this weekend, and if you're interested in a powerful, disturbing, and transfixing piece of theater that goes beyond mere performance, I recommend that you reserve your tickets now (the show I attended was sold out).

Sunday, March 26, 2017

"Goodbye Cruel World" by Theatre Pro Rata at the Crane Theater

Theatre Pro Rata's Goodbye Cruel World closes today so if you haven't seen it already, I'm afraid you're out of luck. (Sorry about that, blame NYC.) But for the record, it's a fun and wacky ride ably driven by six actors playing multiple characters, often in the same scene. A modern adaptation of Russian playwright Nikolai Erdman's The Suicide, which was banned by the government and not produced until after his death, it's a farcical look at a man down on his luck who offhandedly wonders if he would be better off dead, only to be taken seriously by his wife, neighbors, and eventually the whole town. Everyone from the church to the intelligentsia, a post man to an artist, wants Semyon to promote their cause in his suicide note. His neighbor decides to turn it into a lottery, but in the end Semyon realizes he doesn't want to die, much to everyone's disappointment. Read on for some highlights of the show.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

"Macbeth" at Park Square Theatre

Macbeth. There I said it. In addition to being one of Shakespeare's darkest, bloodiest, and most violent plays, Macbeth has also inspired a silly theater superstition in which it's bad luck to say the name in a theater. But it's certainly not bad luck to produce it, also being one of Shakespeare's most popular plays. Wikipedia tells me that "it dramatizes the damaging physical and psychological effects of political ambition on those who seek power for its own sake." Which is something we still see examples of today. While it's not as bloody good fun as I remember the Guthrie's 2010 production being (one of my favorites of that year), Park Square Theatre's Macbeth is intense, intimate, and striking.

"The Paper Dreams of Harry Chin" at History Theatre

I just got back from my annual trip to NYC, "center of the universe," where I saw six Broadway shows in five days (read my mini-reviews here). While I was there, I also took a walking tour of the Lower East Side through the Tenement Museum, which I highly recommended if you're in the city. The tour was fascinating and served to reinforce the idea that the history of the Lower East Side, the history of New York City, the history of America is an ever-changing story of immigrants. Immigrants who have come to this country in search of better opportunities and better lives for their families. Unfortunately, our history also includes an ever-changing story of prejudice and discrimination against immigrants. Today, it's Muslim and Mexican immigrants that face the brunt of it. But the idea of keeping immigrants out due to fear is not a new one; in 1882 the first legislation against the immigration of a specific race was passed - the Chinese Exclusion Act. Local playwright Jessica Huang's new play The Paper Dreams of Harry Chin tells the true story of one Minnesota family affected by this legislation. In keeping with the History Theatre's commitment to tell the untold stories of all Minnesotans, it's a beautiful and affecting look at the very timely and relevant issue of immigration through the very specific story of one family.

Monday, March 20, 2017

NYC 2017 Trip: "Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Coment of 1812" at the Imperial Theatre

Show*: 6

Title: Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Coment of 1812

Location: Imperial Theatre

Written By: Dave Malloy

Summary: A musical adaptation of Tolstoy's novel War and Peace that is neither about war nor peace, but rather focuses on the love triangle between Andrey, Natasha, and Anatole, told in an immersive style.

NYC 2017 Trip: "Sweat" at Studio 54

Show*: 5

Title: Sweat

Location: Studio 54

Written By: Lynn Nottage

Summary: A new play about a community dealing with the closing of a steel plant in Reading, Pennsylvania in 2000.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

NYC 2017 Trip: "Come From Away" at the Schoenfeld Theatre

Show*: 4

Title: Come From Away

Location: Schoenfeld Theatre

Written By: Irene Sankoff and David Hein

Summary: An incredibly moving new musical telling the untold stories and singing the unsung heroes of 9/11 in the small town of Gander, Newfoundland, where 38 planes carrying 7000 people (and a few animals) were diverted.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

NYC 2017 Trip: "Dear Evan Hansen" at the Music Box

Show*: 3

Title: Dear Evan Hansen

Location: The Music Box

Written By: Steven Levenson (book), Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (music and lyrics)

Summary: A brilliant new, original, and thoroughly modern musical about grief, loneliness, the pain of growing up, and finding connection in the social media age.

Friday, March 17, 2017

NYC 2017 Trip: "Hello, Dolly!" at the Shubert Theatre

Show*: 2

Title: Hello, Dolly!

Location: Shubert Theatre

Written By: Michael Steward (book), Jerry Herman (music and lyrics)

Summary: A yummy new revival of the 1964 classic musical based on Thornton Wilder's play The Matchmaker, about an ambitious woman in NYC at the turn of the last century who "meddles" in everyone's life, and is also looking for some happiness for herself.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

NYC 2017 Trip: "War Paint" at the Nederlander Theatre

Show*: 1

Title: War Paint

Location: Nederlander Theatre

Written By: Doug Wright (book), Scott Frankel (music), Michael Korie (lyrics)

Summary: A new musical from the Grey Gardens team about Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubenstein, two pioneers of the make-up and skin care industry who were among the very few women who owned their own company with their own name on it in the mid 20th Century.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

"Six Degrees of Separation" by Theater Latte Da at the Ritz Theater

Theater Latte Da "we do theater musically" is closing out their brilliant 2016-2017 season (which also included an exquisite Ragtime, the return of favorites A Christmas Carole Petersen and All is Calm, and a delightfully playful Peter and the Starcatcher) with Six Degrees of Separation. If you're thinking - wait, that's not a musical - you're right. But Latte Da has added music sparingly and organically to make the storytelling better and clearer. There's so much depth in this piece that I haven't yet been able to unpack it all. It reminds me of Mad Men - the highest form of the art we call television. Watching Mad Men, I always felt like everything meant something - every prop, every costume detail, every camera angle, every word, every pause. I may not have known what it meant, but I could tell that every detail was intentional. That's how I feel about Theater Latte Da and director Peter Rothstein in general, and this production in particular. Every detail of design, direction, acting, means something. I might not know what it all means, at least not upon first viewing, but I appreciate the amount of thoughtfulness that goes into every choice.

Monday, March 13, 2017

"Urinetown" at Lyric Arts

A wealthy businessman controls the money and the laws in a land with an extreme division between the haves and the have-nots, and he trains his beautiful and fashionable daughter to continue in his legacy by learning to manipulate great masses of people. Though it was written over 15 years ago, the hilarious and terrifying satirical musical Urinetown has never been more relevant. It's a huge warning about what happens when the earth can no longer sustain our way of life, when the poor become so poor that they refuse to take it any more. It would be a heavy and depressing piece, if the music weren't so happy and the jokes so liberally sprinkled in. In one of the better shows I've seen at Lyric Arts recently (they keep topping themselves), Urinetown is presented in all it's golden glory with a fantastic cast and really cool and grungy design. It'll leave you humming and tapping your feet, with a subtle thought in the back of your mind that we're in serious trouble if things keep going the way they have been. Just think of the happy music!

"The Gondoliers" by Gilbert and Sullivan Very Light Opera Company at the Howard Conn Fine Arts Center

If you like your opera very light, and very silly, and very enthusiastically and traditionally performed by a large cast and orchestra, Gilbert and Sullivan Very Light Opera Company is for you. I only "discovered" this 30+ year old company a few years ago, but since then I've learned that Gilbert and Sullivan, everyone's favorite 19th Century musical-comedy-operetta composing team, wrote many more shows that just the frequently produced H.M.S. Pinafore and Pirates of Penzance. GSVLOC's annual spring show (is it spring?) this year is The Gondoliers, or The King of Barataria. Director Lesley Hendrickson notes in the playbill that it's "probably the most joyous of the G&S operettas" and that it was "the very first theatrical performance requested by Queen Victoria at Windsor castle after the death of her beloved Prince Albert" (fans of Victoria on Masterpiece, take note). I think the queen would be pleased with this production as well.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

"Grease" at the Chanhassen Dinner Theatres

Friends, I am here to tell you that in the southwest suburb of Chanhassen, Grease is most definitely the word of the summer. And yes, it may be 20 degrees with below zero wind chills and late winter snowstorms in this upside down weather world we now live in, but Grease is here to take you into spring, through summer, and even into early fall with a super high energy, gorgeously cast, supremely fun show. There's nothing subtle about this production that goes for big performances, big high notes, and big laughs. Grease is a guaranteed crowd-pleasing seat-filler, but the Chan doesn't just rest on the easy nostalgia of the piece. Instead, they've put in every effort to make this production the best it can possibly be.* It's very likely to sell well for them for the next seven months (who doesn't love Grease?), and it deserves to because it's pretty much the most fun you can have in a theater.

Friday, March 10, 2017

"Safe at Home" by Mixed Blood Theatre at CHS Field

NFL player Colin Kaepernick started a controversy when he chose not to stand during the National Anthem at a football game last year, saying "I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color." Imagine if a star starting pitcher chose to take the mound in Game 7 of the World Series and not throw a pitch to draw attention to the issue of immigration reform. Professional athletes are idolized in this country, and their words and actions speak loudly. Should they then use the opportunity to speak out on issues that matter to them, or simply play the game they're paid to play? Such is the subject of Mixed Blood Theatre's immersive, site-specific, ambulatory play Safe at Home. In nine short scenes, this story of a baseball player using his celebrity to make a statement is told in various locations in and around CHS Field, the beautiful new ballpark of the St. Paul Saints. It's an incredible one-of-a-kind theatrical experience, and I'd love to see this world premiere play created by Gabriel Greene and Alex Levy and directed by Jack Reuler performed at ballparks around the country. But in the meantime, head to St. Paul's Lowertown neighborhood to experience this engaging mix of baseball, politics, and theater.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

A Reading of "The Sea & The Stars" at the Playwrights' Center

"Now in its 12th year, the Ruth Easton New Play Series gives selected Core Writers 20 hours with collaborators to workshop their script—to write, rewrite, experiment, and shape their work. For playwrights, this means great leaps forward for their plays. For audiences, this means a thrilling and intimate night of theater."

I attended the fourth of the five readings in the 2016-2017 series last night. 
I'm loving this monthly series; every play has been so interesting and wonderful in its own unique way (see also December's Wink by Jen Silverman, January's queens by Martyna Majok, and February's Eden Prairie 1971 by Mat Smart). This month's new play receiving a workshop and two-night-only reading was the post-break-up romantic comedy dramedy The Sea & The Stars by PWC core writer and board member Harrison David Rivers.

Monday, March 6, 2017

"Mere Trifles" by Theatre Unbound at SteppingStone Theatre

The month-long celebration of Women's History continues with Theatre Unbound's collection of four one-act plays written by women about women's stories. From a 100-year old play by a little known but important female playwright, to two new plays by local playwrights, to a play from the '90s by a nationally known playwright about to make her Broadway debut, the connecting thread of these plays is women making sometimes difficult decisions to better their lives and control their own destiny. Director Kate Powers leads the versatile six-person cast (Adam Gauger, Brian Joyce, Delinda "Oogie" Pushetonequa, Lynda Dahl, Nicole Goeden, and Pedro Juan Fonseca) through the stories, with short intros to each piece that provide interesting commentary but sometimes lead to awkward transitions. Below is a short summary/reflection on each piece.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

"An Intimate Evening with Kristin Chenoweth and the Minnesota Orchestra" at Orchestra Hall

Kristin Chenoweth, star of Broadway, TV, and film, performed with the Minnesota Orchestra last night and it was something to behold. We all know that she has an incredible voice, a vocal powerhouse that belies her petite 4'11 frame, and acting chops to spare. But it turns out she's also a genial and charming host and storyteller. She titled the show "An Intimate Evening with Kristin Chenoweth," and it did indeed feel like that. Entertaining and engaging the crowd with stories, introducing songs and sharing what they mean to her, flirting with the orchestra, chatting with audience members, it felt like we got the real Kristin with no pretense, not some role she was playing. It was her first time performing at Orchestra Hall and she was very humble and gracious about the honor and privilege of performing in such a place with the amazing musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra, and let it be known that she would love to come back. Anytime Kristin!

"The Awakening" by Savage Umbrella at the Southern Theater

The 1899 novel The Awakening by Kate Chopin was ahead of its time. It depicts a woman who feels constrained and unsatisfied within the strict confines of the gender roles of the time, namely as wife and mother (like a precursor to Betty Draper). Only after Kate Chopin's death was The Awakening appreciated for the feminist work that it is, and it's appropriate that Savage Umbrella is bringing us their version of the story during Women's History Month, adapted by director Laura Leffler-McCabe and created with the ensemble. With a large cast utilizing physical theater techniques, live music performed by an onstage three-person band, and beautiful production design, The Awakening is a truly lovely and moving story of a woman's struggles to find her place in a world that doesn't accept her.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

"The Red Shoes" at Open Eye Figure Theatre

You may be familiar with the Hans Christian Andersen story The Red Shoes, in which a vain little girl with pretty red shoes is cursed so that her shoes will never stop dancing. But you may not recognize what the ingenious minds of Joel Sass and Kimberly Richardson have turned it into. Yes there are a few (hilarious) runaway dancing scenes, but their 80-minute show at Open Eye Figure Theatre is more 20 Century creepy noir thriller than 19th Century fairy tale. I'll let director Joel Sass describe it to you: "Equally humorous and hair-raising, our adaptation of The Red Shoes draws inspiration and influences from the vintage detective novels of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, case studies of amnesia and multiple personality, and black and white film noir movies of the 1940s. Like that cinematic genre, The Red Shoes evokes a highly stylized landscape of convoluted mystery, subconscious manacle, fever dreams, and existential crisis." My immediate thought at the end of the show was, "how do people think of such things?" The Red Shoes is something so curious and unique, odd and chilling, inventive and charming, it's thoroughly captivating from start to finish.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

"The King and I" Broadway Tour at the Orpheum Theatre

Last night I finally had the opportunity to see the one musical of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Big Five that I hadn't seen - The King and I, the Tony winner for best musical in 1951. The national tour of the 2015 Broadway revival (also a Tony winner) has landed in Minneapolis for the week, and it's a gorgeous production. Another beautiful Rodgers and Hammerstein score, played by a big and wonderful pit orchestra, luscious costumes and impressive set, and a talented cast that includes the most Asian-American actors I've seen on stage since... Mu Performing Arts and Park Square Theatre's production of Flower Drum Song (another R&H musical) last month. While it's pretty old fashioned (it's not the most feminist piece and suffers from the white savior complex), it is a classic, beautifully presented, and makes for quite the luscious feast.