Friday, January 3, 2020

2019 #TCTheater Favorites

Happy New Year #TCTheater friends! This is the 10th year-end wrap up I have written on this blog; this summer I will mark 10 years of writing about theater in Minneapolis and St. Paul. That's a lot of theater, and a lot to love. This year I saw about 200 shows (not counting 29 Fringe shows), and I would like to share with you some of my favorite experiences of the year.

As I started to put together my list of favorite shows, a few theaters kept popping up over and over again. Instead of just listing them repeatedly, I decided to summarize each of their years individually.

Chicago (photo by Dan Norman)
It's no secret that Theater Latte Da has long been one of my favorite theater companies, but this may be their best year yet, with six gorgeous examples of doing theater musically.  It's impossible to pick a favorite in a year that included a lovely production of Sondheim's A Little Night Music, a musically stunning and cleverly staged production of Bernstein's Candide (a co-production with VocalEssence), the brilliant and transformative rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch (featuring a star turn by Tyler Michaels King), and a heartbreakingly beautiful new play by Harrison David Rivers, To Let Go and Fall, made even more emotional by the cello duo Jelloslave. And that was just the first half of the year! This fall brought us a dynamic Chicago like I've never seen before, and a return of the beloved (and my favorite) holiday show All is Calm.

School Girls (photo by Dan Norman)
I've long been a fan of Jungle Theater, but since artistic director Sarah Rasmussen took the helm a few years ago, it seems like they can do no wrong. Their seven shows, performed on two different stages, included two remounts (the incredibly smart, relevant, and successful play The Wolves, and the only Jane Austen fan fiction I ever need - Miss Bennet Christmas at Pemberley). They also produced four regional premieres and one world premiere, the hilarious new comedy Stinkers featuring the ingenious use of puppets. The Children explored the aftermath of a nuclear disaster with a trio of stage dynamos; School Girls, or the African Mean Girls Play brought us a smart, funny, nuanced look at teenage girls in Africa (that perhaps foreshadowed the historic wins of black women in all five major beauty pageants); Small Mouth Sounds said so much about humanity with so few words; and Ride the Cyclone is everything I want in a new original modern musical.

A New Brain (photo by Devon Cox)
With plays and musicals big and small, Bloomington was the place to be this year. Artistry begin their year with She Loves Me which, although not an original choice in #TCTheater of late, was a charming production of a darling musical. They followed that up with what is an original choice, the regional premiere of Victor/Victoria. This musical written for Julie Andrews premiered in Minneapolis over 20 years ago, but has a timely message for 2019 of love, identity, and community (and featured #TCTheater star Ann Michels leading a huge and talented cast). Artistry's pair of plays included the regional premiere of Tinkers to Evers to Chance, using baseball as a metaphor for life, love, and heartbreak (hello 2019 Minnesota Twins), and a frequently produced classic Our Town that felt fresh and meaningful as ever. The cherry on the sundae of Artistry's year was the absolute perfection of A New Brain, an infrequently produced late '90s bio-musical by Falsettos composer/lyricist William Finn.

Smokey Joe's Cafe (photo by Dan Norman)
In 2019 the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts brought us two fabulous original and (mostly) locally cast musicals (the modern tap dancing extravaganza 42nd Street and the musically delicious Smokey Joe's Cafe), a new Ordway Cabaret series that explores the history of musical theater through the talented local performers' personal histories (the next installment "Gotta Dance" is coming up in February), and the pre-Broadway run of the fabulous, modern, feminist musical SIX, destined to become the next big thing. 

Peter and the Starcatcher (photo by Dan Norman)
This year, I made a record high three visits to the darling little theater DalekoArts in New Prague at the very Southern edge of the Seven-County Metro Area. I'm more and more impressed by the work they do; they make great choices in projects for their space and community, always well executed. From a delightfully inventive Peter and the Starcatcher, to an original outdoor walking history comedy play, to a remount of sorts of a hit Minnesota Fringe Choose-Your-Own-Adventure dating comedy. If you're not making the beautiful drive to New Prague 1-4 times a year, you're missing a #TCTheater gem.

Sisters of Peace (photo by Scott Pakudaitis)
One of the most exciting trends of recent years is more work by female artists. No one exemplified that more this year than the the History Theatre, which rebranded as HERstory Theatre early this year, producing three new works by women about women. Stewardess told the true story of a local hero in the women's rights movement, Sisters of Peace featured four Minnesota sisters and Sisters who have dedicated their lives to working for peace, and Dirty Business was a fun and inspirational musical about real-life female spies in World War II. HERstory continued this fall with the regional premiere of the hit Off-Broadway play/discussion circle Gloria: A Life, about living legend Gloria Steinem, and a remount of History Theatre's original play with music Beyond the Rainbow: Garland at Carnegie Hall. Here's hoping HERstory never ends!

In a Stand of Dying Trees (photo courtesy of Uprising)
I would also like to commend newish #TCTheater Company Uprising Theatre for the work that they do. They may not be on your radar, but they should be. Uprising dedicated their year to plays about gun violence, including original and established work. I saw three of their four plays, and all were thought provoking and relevant, followed by post-show discussions that allow the audience to process what they've seen. They also partner with local nonprofit organizations for every production, such as Moms Demand Action, to make their work extend beyond the walls of the theater. In 2020 they will produce four plays written by transgender or non-binary playwrights, voices that we need to hear more of, and continue to work with local nonprofits.
    And now on to a listing of other individuals shows I loved this year:

    • Actually, Minnesota Jewish Theater Company - an incredibly timely and important exploration of consent between two college students.
    • Aubergine, Park Square Theater -  a very relatable story of a Korean American family bonding through food that made for a heartbreaking dramedy.
    • Benevolence, Penumbra Theatre - a sequel to the incredibly powerful Ballad of Emmett Till that tells the other side story, and is just as powerful and devastating.
    • The Brothers Paranormal, Theater Mu and Penumbra Theatre - a historic co-production that was the most deliciously frightening experience I had at the theater this year, and also told a poignant story of the immigrant experience.
    • Caught, Full Circle Theater - a trippy story about art and politics that kept the audience on its toes with its meta play within a play format. 
    • Father, Gremlin Theatre - a devastating look at a family affected by dementia that put the audience inside the mind of the person with dementia, a confusing and frightening place to be.
    • Jimmy and Lorraine: A Musing, Pillsbury House Theatre - a compilation of the writings of James Baldwin and Lorraine Hansberry that created a beautiful dance of a story.
    • Metamorphoses, Guthrie Theater - playwright Mary Zimmerman returned to the play she wrote over 20 years ago to direct an enthralling and dreamlike retelling of classic myths.
    • Pipeline, Penumbra Theatre- a powerful, relevant, and devastating look at racial inequality in our schools.
    • Roe, Mixed Blood Theatre - a brilliantly constructed new play about the women behind the historic Roe v Wade court decision and the arguments that are still happening to this day.

    • Be More Chill, Minneapolis Musical Theater - a fun and modern musical with an enthusiastic young cast and one of the younger audiences I saw at the theater this year.
    • Bright Star, Lyric Arts - a regional premiere of the Edie Brickell and Steve Martin-penned bluegrass musical, a production full of heart and soul.
    • A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder, Old Log Theater - another regional premiere in the suburbs, this fabulous production of the Tony Winning Best Musical makes murder more fun than it should be (and is still running, closing in February).
    • Heaven, Flying Foot Forum at Park Square Theater - the gorgeous return of one of my favorite pieces os 2011, a dance musical about the Bosnian War shouldn't work, but somehow it does as it brought out all of the complicated and varied emotions.
    • Into the Woods, Ten Thousand Things - one of Sondheim's most beloved and frequently produced musicals received the classic stripped-down TTT treatment that let the heart and biting wit of the story shine.
    • Jefferson Township Sparkling Junior Talent Pageant, Park Square Theater - a remount and expansion of the hit Minnesota Fringe Festival millennial musical by local composer/playwright Keith Hovis that hit all the right notes.
    • Legally Blonde, Lyric Arts - I wasn't expecting to love this movie adaptation as much as I did, but the storyline felt very appropriate for 2019, and this Ben Thietje-directed production was bursting with joy and humor.
    • Mamma Mia!, Chanhassen Dinner Theatres - a show so popular it's been extended to an almost unheard of year-long run, and deservedly so because of the excellent ensemble cast, fun music and choreography, and beautiful story of female friendship (playing through February).
    • Man of La Mancha, Mounds View Community Theatre - how lucky am I that this Joe Chvala-directed and -choreographed production played in my neighborhood this summer? The foot-stompingly earnest production of this moving musical was as good as anything I saw on professional stages this year.
    • The Most Happy Fella, Skylark Opera Theatre - this rarely done charming old-fashioned love story received a few minor tweaks that made all the difference.
    • Sea Cabinet, Theatre Elision - another rarely produced (in fact a US premiere), small cast, one act musical with a mostly female cast and creative team from Elision, this was a hauntingly lovely and beautifully performed song cycle about love, loss, and the sea.

    • The Beldenville Troll, Open Eye Figure Theatre - a tour de force (and mostly wordless) performance by Neal Skoy with such detailed design and direction by Joel Sass that I thought Beldenville was a real place.
    • Flowers for the Room, Yellow Tree Theatre - an emotional and inventive new musical about a woman in a coma and those she left behind, written by YTT's talented in-house playwright Jessica Lind Peterson with music by one of my favorite local songwriters Blake Thomas.
    • Floyd's, Guthrie Theater - Lynn Nottage's sequel to her Pulitzer Prize-winning play Sweat (coming to the Guthrie this summer) was lighter and funnier, but still took a serious look at the effects of incarceration.
    • The Hobbit, Children's Theater Company - I first read The Hobbit when I was 12 years old, and this new five-actor adaptation filled me with the same wonder and delight as reading it for the first time.
    • The Hollow, Trademark Theater - billed a "a concept album, performed live on stage, combined with movement," the combination of original music by Jenna Wyse and Joey Ford, and movement choreographed and performed by the Michaels Kings (Emily and Tyler) was hauntingly beautiful and unique.
    • Hot Asian Doctor Husband, Theater Mu - a hilarious laugh out loud comedy that also thoughtfully and poignantly explores race, identity, and community? Yes please!
    • How It's Gon' Be, Underdog Theatre - up-and-coming #TCTheater actor JuCoby Johnson wrote what I called "a funny, sweet, poignant coming of age tale with characters that feel real and modern, beautifully brought to life by a terrific cast."
    • Immaculate Heart, Freshwater Theatre - a thoughtful, sensitive, and very real exploration of the complicated issues surrounding faith and sexuality.
    • Into the Darkness, Collective Unconscious - my first experience with this company, and I was moved and delighted by their retelling of fairy tales using original music and puppetry.
    • My Beautiful Infinity, Chameleon Theatre Circle - discovered through their annual new play festival, this trippy sciencey play was right up my alley, and well executed by the team.
    • The Pathetic Life and Remarkable Afterlife of Elmer McCurdy, the Worst Robber in the West, nimbus theatre - nimbus is known for their original devised work, and this wacky Old West sort of true comedy was one of their best (and definitely their funniest).

    • Autonomy, Mixed Blood Theatre - in the most ambitious example of site-specific theater, Mixed Blood took audiences on a literal journey around the River Center exhibit hall, filled with classic cars, in an incredibly timely play about climate change and autonomous vehicles. The logistical feat with multiple scenes happening at the same time, requiring precise timing, was flawlessly executed
    • Boston Marriage, Arrow Theater - this new theater company, under the direction of talented young #TCTheater artist Grant Sorenson, brought us a hilarious David Mamet play in an intimate space inside a gorgeous historic home in Minneapolis, where the fading summer light magically gave way to candlelight.
    • Crowns, New Dawn Theatre - in an exciting debut of a new theater company helmed by #TCTheater favorite Austene Van, the all African American cast that was a Who's Who of the local music-theater scene nearly brought the roof down in the Summit Avenue church.
    • Macbeth, Wayward Theater Company - the experts in site-specific theater produced the Scottish play in various rooms in the James J. Hill House, as if we were in the Macbeth castle itself as all the dirty deeds happened all around us. Eerie and mesmerizing.
    • Nature, TigerLion Arts - always and forever my favorite site-specific theater, Nature returned after a one-year hiatus, telling the story of the life, work, and friendship of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson set against the backdrop of Nature herself. It doesn't get any better than that.

    photo by Dan Norman
    Every year I like to name a few favorite new and/or established artists. It feels strange to refer to Becca Hart as One to Watch because I've been watching her, and calling her a Star, for several years now. But 2019 could be her breakout year, if only for her brilliant and gravity-defying performance in Ride the Cyclone. But that's not all, she was also one of five actors who brought to life the complicated world of Tolkien's The Hobbit, reprised her role in The Wolves, and was part of the expert comedy/drama ensemble of Small Mouth Sounds.

    photo by Devon Cox
    A true One to Watch, I didn't know much about Reese Britts before this year. But I do now. He absolutely stole every scene he entered in our Artistry's Footloose, was part of the fantastic ensemble of A New Brain, and made the role of Mary Bennett's adorkably bookish suitor his own in the Jungle's remount of Miss Bennet Christmas at Pemberley.

    photo by Dan Norman
    Lastly, I named this artist One to Watch in 2012, a few years before he was named the Ivey's Emerging Artist. I think it's safe to say that many people have been watching Tyler Michaels King in the years since. He is now the Artistic Director of the new company Trademark Theater that he co-founded, for which he co-created The Hollow (see above) and debuted a new alter ego, aging crooner F. Amos Lee, in a workshop performance. This was after beginning his year with a performance in the title role of Hedwig and the Angry Inch that was everything, followed by a completely different but equally moving performance in To Let Go and Fall. And then he spent the summer hoofing it up in 42nd StreetCan I pick 'em or what?

    Whew, that's more amazing theater than one person could even ask for, and that was only in the Twin Cities! I also made my annual pilgrimage to New York City where I saw seven fantastic shows on and off Broadway, including the first Tony-winning Best Musical written and directed by women, Hadestown, a revolutionary revival of Oklahoma, and Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish like it was always meant to be. I made my second visit to the Great River Shakespeare Festival in Winona for four excellent plays and some great discussions, and saw the heartbreakingly beautiful Minnesota premiere of another Tony-winning Best Musical, Fun Home, at the intrepid Renegade theater in Duluth.

    Wishing you all a healthy, happy, and theater-filled 2020!