Sunday, December 6, 2020

The History Theatre's Virtual New Works Festival "Raw Stages," Fall 2020

Every January, the History Theatre hosts a new works festival called "Raw Stages." Most of their programming is original works, so they rely on these annual workshops and readings as part of the development process. Faced with a long closure of the theater space due to the current and seemingly never-ending pandemic, they decided to hold another "Raw Stages" festival this year - virtually. Workshops and readings are done over Zoom, with the each of five recorded readings available for streaming for a week, spread out about a month apart. I missed the first one, Not In Our Neighborhood (which was supposed to premiere in the spring of 2020), but I've watched the other four. The most recent and currently streaming is the delightful Betty Crocker Musical, with a live talk-back on Friday. Read on for details of all five new works and how you can watch them.

Each reading can be viewed for $15. Click here for details and to purchase tickets. Also be sure to check out the conversation series "Spilling the HT" on History Theatre's Facebook page. They have been releasing episodes periodically throughout this extended intermission, and are adding new ones featuring the cast and/or creative teams of these new works.

Not in our Neighborhood! Streaming Aug 7-13
by Tom Fabel and Eric Wood
Directed by Richard D. Thompson
1924. All-new version. This drama recounts the horrific events and shameful history of housing segregation in St. Paul’s Groveland Park neighborhood. William and Nellie Francis, both civil rights advocates and leading citizens in St. Paul’s growing African-American community, dared to move from their home in the Rondo neighborhood to the “home of their dreams” in this all-white neighborhood. Little did they know, neighbors would burn a cross in their front yard in an attempt to terrorize them and force them to abandon their dreams.

Diesel Heart Streaming Sept 4-10
by Brian Grandison
In collaboration with Melvin Carter, Jr.
Directed by H. Adam Harris
Melvin Carter Jr. is a true son of St. Paul, as was his father and hero, Melvin Carter Sr. Melvin grew up in the Rondo neighborhood in the 1950s and '60s. He experienced firsthand the decimation of the radiant, vibrant Rondo community for the construction of Interstate-94.
My thoughts: A great and personal story about someone from the destroyed Rondo neighborhood (see History Theatre's 2017 play The Highwaymen), this reading presents the first act of the play. It mostly covers Melvin's childhood, a good kid who was constantly getting into scrapes, and eventually makes the choice to join the Navy. It's kind of a long set up for the second act of the play, which I look forward to seeing, that will get into his time in the Navy as well as his career in the St. Paul police force, where he was one of the first Black officers.

Wilson's Girl Streaming Oct 2-8
Based on the memoir, Packinghouse Daughter by Cheri Register
Adapted for the stage by Eva Barr
Directed by Laura Leffler
An emotionally charged recounting of the turmoil in Albert Lea during the 1959 Wilson’s meatpacking strike as seen through the eyes of a teenager.
Note: this was part of the "Raw Stages" festival in January (click here for my thoughts on it)
My thoughts: This cleverly written fourth-wall breaking play travels with the author Cheri Register from the present, reflecting on the events of her childhood, to the past when she experienced a strike in 1959 in Albert Lea. It seems to flow a little more smoothly than the last time I saw it. And it feels even more relevant, with this pandemic highlighting (among other systemic flaws in our nation) the poor working conditions at meat-packing plants. The play doesn't just illuminate the need for unions, from a laborer's child's perspective, but also the reason that so many people who grow up in small towns love it, but still choose to leave.

The Boy Wonder: Stassen Musical Streaming Oct 30-Nov 5
Book, music and lyrics by Keith Hovis
Directed by Ron Peluso
Musical direction by Brian Pekol
How do you define a legacy?
In 1938, Harold Stassen was dubbed Boy Wonder and future of the Republic party after being elected the Governor of Minnesota at age 31. By 1992, Stassen's political career ended as a perennial candidate who sought, and lost, his bid for the Republican presidential nomination a record nine-times. What came in-between is the story of a war hero who helped create the United Nations and served as a key player in the Eisenhower administration. But also the story of a man who routinely fought to redefine a party that was not ready for change, defying those he needed most to make it to the White House. From writer/composer Keith Hovis comes a new musical that explores the life of a man who was supposed to be president. Until he wasn’t.
My thoughts: This is sort of like Minnesota's Hamilton. The story of a historical politician told with fresh, modern, exciting music, that makes you feel nostalgic for a time when elected officials worked for the people they served, rather than for their own career advancement and political goals. They present the first act of this musical commissioned from one of #TCTheater's most exciting young musical theater writers, Keith Hovis (one might even call him a boy wonder). If you thought a musical was impossible over Zoom, well, they found a way to make it work. Every song that's sung (a few are only spoken, which makes me wonder if Keith always writes the lyrics first) is fantastic - clever lyrics, interesting rhythms, matching the plot and period yet sounding new and exciting. At 2+ hours for just the first act it could use some editing, but the show has great potential and I cannot wait to see the finished product on stage someday.

The Betty Crocker Musical Streaming Nov 20-26
book and lyrics by Cristina Luzarraga
music by Denise Prosek
Directed by Austene Van
Musical direction by Jason Hansen
Dramaturgy by Susan Marks
This new musical explores the ever-changing roles of women over the last century through lens of Betty Crocker, America’s first lady of food. “Born” in 1921 to the company that would become General Mills, Betty was a marketing invention––not a real person––but she came to represent far more than just flour. In 1945, Fortune Magazine named Betty Crocker the 2nd most popular woman in America. Originally depicted as white, blue-eyed, and middle-aged, Betty morphed over time as society grappled with questions of race and gender. At once a radio personality, a letter-writing confidante, a cheerleader and a scold, Betty taught a nation how to “add an egg" and much, much more.
My thoughts: This disappointingly short excerpt gave us a taste (no pun intended) of what a full-length musical could be. Disappointing because I wanted more than just a half hour of this playful bio-historical look at a fictional woman. Featuring a talented and diverse nine-woman cast, who are all Betty Crocker in some way, the songs are charming and witty and gloriously harmonious (I don't know what app they used to make the virtual harmonies, but it worked). This bit of the first act takes us from the invention of Betty through her radio show, and also shows us the real women who worked in the Betty Crocker test kitchen, while commenting on society's expectation of women's role at the time. I can't wait to see more.