Monday, June 26, 2017

"Might as Well Be Dead: A Nero Wolfe Mystery" at Park Square Theatre

Shortly into Might as Well Be Dead: A Nero Wolfe Mystery, I had a feeling of déjà vu. But this was a world premiere play, how could I have seen it before? Eventually it dawned on me - three years earlier I saw another Nero Wolfe play. The Red Box was the first adaptation of this popular NYC detective series by author Rex Stout, and Might as Well Be Dead is another (a fact that was somehow lost to me before I sat down in the theater). Playwright Joseph Goodrich once again adapted the book into a play, Peter Moore returns to direct on a very similar set designed by Rick Polenek, and several cast members reprise their roles. Hence the feeling of déjà vu. Yes, the story is formulaic, but it's a formula that works. A curmudgeonly yet noble hero detective, his charming sidekick, a series of murders, and suspects a-plenty. If you're a fan of mysteries and noir crime thrillers, this one's for you.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

"Sunday in the Park with George" at the Guthrie Theater

Of late, the Guthrie Theater has had a tradition of producing a classic crowd-pleasing musical every summer (most recently: South Pacific, The Music Man, and My Fair Lady). But inexplicably, they have never produced a musical by the great Stephen Sondheim on the main stage. Perhaps it's because Sondheim is not easy, to do or to watch; not as readily familiar and accessible as the classics of the '50s. But Sondheim is the Shakespeare of musicals, and it's about time the Guthrie remedied this gross oversight. They do so in splendid fashion this summer with their stunning production of what is perhaps the musical theater master's greatest masterpiece, Sunday in the Park with George, directed masterfully by Artistic Director Joseph Haj. Sondheim and frequent collaborator James Lapine first joined forces on this piece that won them a Pulitzer Prize, getting their inspiration from the 19th century painting "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte" by Georges Seurat, one of the leaders of the Impressionist movement. Artists being inspired by the work of another artist who lived a century earlier to create art about art. It's pretty meta, and no surprise that it's a favorite among musical theater artists. The Guthrie has assembled a sparkling cast and created a gorgeous design that brings this work of art about art itself to brilliant life.

Monday, June 19, 2017

"Ghost the Musical" at Old Log Theatre

Old Log Theatre's contribution to the summer blockbuster musical is Ghost the Musical, based on the popular 1990 movie. It premiered on Broadway in 2012 and ran for only a few months, and when I saw the tour the following year I was not impressed. At the time I wrote, "At its core, Ghost is a small intimate love story, but Ghost the Musical is a big splashy techno-heavy 'show,' in which the beauty of that story gets lost. The story would be better served with less tricks, a smaller cast, fewer showy songs, and a greater focus on what we really care about - the relationship between Molly and Sam." I'm thrilled to report that Old Log has done just that. The score, which is quite good, the story, and the relationships between the characters are more the focus of the show, with lower tech effects that serve the story rather than drawing attention away from it. If you're looking for a satisfying summer musical experience, head out to Old Log Theatre, one of the oldest theaters in Minnesota, in lovely Excelsior on Lake Minnetonka.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

"Milly and Tillie" at Open Eye Figure Theatre

A 2013 Ivey Award winner for Overall Excellence returns this summer! Open Eye Figure Theatre's delightfully silly Milly and Tillie is playing at their charmingly intimate space in South Minneapolis through June 25, and then moves to Artistry in Bloomington July 8 through August 13. Like the silliest public television show for kids brought to full and vivid life, sisters Milly and Tillie Silly will delight their guests, the audience, for just under an hour, at which point you will be sad to say good-bye to them. The website says "recommended especially for grade school children and toddlers as well as parents and grandparents!!" I am none of the above, and I still enjoyed watching the Silly sisters, and only slightly less, I enjoyed watching the tiny humans who were completely enraptured by them.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

"Don Giovanni" by Skylark Opera Theatre and Angels & Demons Entertainment at the Woman's Club of Minneapolis

For five years, I spent one or two nights at Concordia University's E.M. Pearson Theatre watching opera/operetta/musical theater as part of Skylark Opera's Annual Summer Festival. Last year, the festival was abruptly cancelled as the company went through financial and leadership challenges. I'm happy to report that Skylark is back, rebranded as Skylark Opera Theatre, now with their second show under new Artistic Director Robert Neu. The Summer Festival has not returned, but Skylark's commitment to presenting accessible opera in English hasn't changed. Their second production (after The Tragedy of Carmen earlier this year) is a site-specific production of Mozart's Don Giovanni, with new English translation by Robert Neu and Gabriel Preisser, who also plays the title character. It bears more than a little resemblance to last summer's site-specific Mozart (The Marriage of Figaro in the James J. Hill House) by Robert Neu's other company, Angels and Demons Entertainment, a co-producer of this show. Like Marriage of Figaro, this Don Giovanni is an intimate, immersive experience that one doesn't usually get with opera.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

"An American in Paris" Broadway Tour at the Ordway Center

The 2015 four-time Tony-winning Broadway musical An American in Paris is currently touring the country, stopping at St. Paul's Ordway Center for the Performing Arts for just one week. Based on the classic 1951 movie of the same name, this is a movie-to-musical adaptation that makes sense. The film itself (which I admittedly have never seen) was inspired by music, George Gershwin's "jazz-inspired symphonic poem" An American in Paris, and is filled with several other of Gerswhin's songs (with lyrics by Ira Gershwin) and dancing. Lots of dancing. The stage version (with book by Craig Lucas and direction/choreography by Christopher Wheeldon) has slightly adapted the story, added and removed Gerswhin songs, and thereby turned the movie into a thoroughly enjoyable dance musical. I've heard that the reason to see this show is the dancing, but I found a few more reasons to see it. Read on to find out.

Monday, June 12, 2017

"Persuasion" by Aethem Theater Company at the Wellstone Center

"Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands." These words were written by Jane Austen 200 years ago, spoken by Anne Elliot, the heroine of Persuasion, but they're just as true today. OK maybe we've evened things out a little bit in the last 200 years, but women's stories told by women are still in the minority. Fortunately, Jane Austen was able to tell her story despite the obstacles, a story of strong women who are determined to decide their own fate despite living within the confines of early 19th Century English society. One of the less common iterations of this story, her final novel Persuasion, has received a new adaptation by local theater artist Kayla Hambek for Aethem Theatre Company, and it's just delightful. Full of the Jane Austen charm, the familiar story of a strong, determined, principled woman who won't settle for less than her heart's desire, brought to life by a large wonderful cast with creative use of movement to convey emotions - it's a must-see for Janeites.

"Moonlight and Magnolias" at Lyric Arts

Although it became and still remains the highest grossing film of all time (adjusted for inflation), Gone with the Wind had an infamously difficult beginning. Producer David O. Selznick bought the rights to the popular book shortly after it was published in 1936, and spent years obsessing over every detail of the production, hiring and firing directors and screenwriters along the way. The play Moonlight and Magnolias, which premiered at Chicago's Goodman Theatre in 2004, imagines one week in this years-long process in which Selznick locks himself in his office along with screenwriter Ben Hecht and director Victor Fleming to rewrite the script after filming has already begun. The play is part hilarious look at Hollywood and what makes it tick, part recap of the popular movie, and part exploration of the balance between making a movie you can stand behind and giving the people what they want. Lyric Arts' production is fast and funny, with a strong four-person cast that works and plays well together.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

"Fly By Night" at Jungle Theater

A new original folk-rock musical? It's like Fly By Night was created (by Will Connolly, Michael Mitnick, and Kim Rosenstock) and brought to the Jungle (by director Sarah Rasmussen) just for me. The rare bird that is the new original musical is my favorite thing in the world, and folk-rock/folk/Americana is my favorite genre of music. I was primed and ready to love this show, and love it I did. Charming and funny yet poignant, with a fantastic score played by greats from the local music scene, and a cast that couldn't be better - what's not to love? Well maybe a few things - a bit of the ending I didn't love, and a confusing timeline issue.* But other than that I loved everything about this show that is right up my alley, and I hope to get back to see it before it closes on July 23.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

"Romeo and Juliet" by Mission Theatre Company at the Crane Theater

As of this week, I've seen Romeo and Juliet nine times in some form or other (not counting West Side Story, its most successful adaptation). Not because I particularly love Romeo and Juliet (although I still remember a few lines I memorized in high school English class many years ago). But because it's done a lot (the Guthrie is opening their season with it this fall). So why do it again? Why see it again? Romeo and Juliet still fall in love at first sight. Romeo still kills Tybalt. Romeo and Juliet still react to his banishment with despair rather than just running away together. And the friar's stupid messenger still fails to deliver the message, resulting in the senseless death of both of these teenagers. But there's a reason it's done so often and has inspired so many adaptations (the latest being James Corden and Emily Blunt's musical version). It's a story of love, crazy stupid irrational love, in the face of hate and violence. Mission Theatre Company promises a Romeo and Juliet like you've never seen before. And they deliver, with an energetic and physical adaptation that builds from romantic comedy to tragedy over two intense hours with no intermission.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

"RENT" 20th Anniversary Tour at the Opheum Theatre

If you've read my "About Me" page or seen that recent article in the Pioneer Press (or my left forearm) you know that RENT is not just my favorite musical, but one that will forever hold a special place in my heart. I can't explain why. Part of it is timing; I was in my early 20s when it premiered in 1996, just like the characters, living on my own for the first time and trying to figure out this thing called life (which I'm still trying to figure out). But more than that I just connected to the story, the emotions, and the message of the piece. A beautiful message of life, love, community, and light in the face of the darkness that surrounds us, one made even more poignant by the death of its creator Jonathan Larson the night before RENT's first performance off Broadway. I never tire of seeing it and never pass up an opportunity to see it - I've seen every tour that has come through the Twin Cities since the first national tour in 1997, I've seen it once on Broadway and once off, and I've had the pleasure of seeing two local productions. Now RENT is on the road again with the 20th anniversary tour, a production filled with as much life, heart, and energy as ever. And it's stopping in Minneapolis for just one week only. Whether it's your first, or 15th, or 100th time seeing it, RENT is a joyful, moving, inspirational experience.

Monday, June 5, 2017

"Baltimore Waltz" by Theatre Coup d'Etat at SpringHouse Ministry Center

On a hot, sticky. busy, loud, crowded afternoon in Uptown (which is quickly becoming my least favorite neighborhood in which to see theater due to the never-ending traffic, construction, and parking difficulties), I found a cool, sweet, pleasing oasis in the SpringHouse Ministry Center. Theatre Coup D'Etat's production of the one-act 1990 Off-Broadway play The Baltimore Waltz is a funny, charming, poignant little waltz of a play. Playwright Paula Vogel wrote the play in response to her brother's death, and that sense of nostalgia, grief, and the ephemeral joy of life permeates every scene. The appealing three-person cast in the intimate setting sweep the audience up with them in this fantastical journey of the imagination.

"Arcadia" by The Chameleon Theatre Circle at the Ames Center

22 years, 5 months, and 5 days ago, I was a math major studying abroad in Salzburg, traveling around Europe during the winter break. While in London, my friend suggested we go see this play called Arcadia (she was a fan of the playwright Tom Stoppard because of his play Rosencrantz and Gildenstern Are Dead, which was made into a movie in 1990). We did, and I immediately and absolutely fell in love with it, so much so that the next day I bought the script from a bookstore (to date the only script that I own). I've only seen it twice since then - once at my alma mater a few years after I graduated, and once at Theatre in the Round 14 years ago. I re-read the play a few months ago in anticipation of Chameleon Theatre Circle's production this month, and was once again entranced by Stoppard's brilliantly clever mix of math, landscaping, poetry, romance, academics, and comedy. Last night, I was thrilled to watch it come alive before me in Chameleon's excellent production with a really wonderful cast, elegant design, and clear direction. It's quite a treat to revisit a play I fell in love with 22 years ago, and discover I love it even more now.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

"Pike St." at Pillsbury House Theatre

Pillsbury House Theatre is hosting New York based theater artist Nilaja Sun's acclaimed one-woman show Pike St. for three weeks, and my Minnesota theater friends - this is an opportunity you don't want to miss. A native of the Lower East Side, Nilaja brings all the beauty, diversity, community, and difficulties of her neighborhood to life in a show so all-engrossing, it's a shock to the system to be returned to reality after 90 minutes. She tells one specific story of a family in a hurricane, playing all of the different characters, but it's so much more than one family's story. It's about returning war vets, the joys and frustrations of living in a close community, the joys and frustrations of caring for a child with special needs, family, love, loyalty, and New York City - "the greatest city in the world.*" Pike St., which Nilaja also wrote, is a remarkable piece, and hers is a remarkable performance. Reserve your ticket now, it's the best $5-25 you'll spend today.

Friday, June 2, 2017

"365 Days/365 Plays" by Full Circle Theater at Penumbra Theatre

About 15 years ago, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks gave herself a challenge - write a play every day for a year. New #TCTheater company Full Circle Theater (they've been around a couple years but this is just their second production) has chosen to produce a "remix" of 46 of these plays in just over two hours. The result is a mishmash of stories, characters, and conversations, seemingly unrelated, but with some common threads to be found. Full Circle is intentionally multiracial, with a mission "to produce heartfelt, groundbreaking theater that artfully addresses issues of human nature and social justice for 21st century audiences." A wonderful goal, and 365 Days/365 Plays is an interesting, perplexing, thought-provoking step towards it.