Saturday, May 29, 2021

"LOG JAM! A Paul Bunyan Musical Spectacular" by Open Eye Theatre on the Bakken Museum's green rooftop

My second outdoor* theatrical production this year (and hence only the second show I've seen live in 2021) is Open Eye Theatre's delightful new original musical LOG JAM! A Paul Bunyan Musical Spectacular, performed on the beautiful green rooftop of the Bakken Museum** overlooking Bde Maka Ska. The scheduled opening night turned out to be a cold and rainy spring day, but the actual opening night one day later was a gorgeous, sunny, cool evening. In just over an hour this group of talented performers, including many familiar faces I've greatly missed seeing in the last 15 months without theater, told a sweet and silly story about Minnesota legend Paul Bunyan, and I smiled through the entire show. Fun, safe, and accessible, great for kids and grown-ups alike, LOG JAM is another exciting step in the return of our vital performing arts community (continuing through June 20).

If you grew up in Minnesota, or have spent any time here, you've heard about Paul Bunyan, the mythical giant lumberjack accompanied by the blue ox Babe. In this retelling (book, music, and lyrics by Josef Evans), Paul (played with much gusto by Maren Ward) chose to become a regular human for the love of a woman, and now has pretty much retired from his heroic life, while Babe (a charming Antonio Rios-Luna) still lives with Paul but is pursuing a scholarly life. That is until Betty (the always effervescent Suzie Juul) comes to find him and bring him back to her small Minnesota North Woods town to save her mother (the radiant Anna Hashizume) from freezing and the town from the evil businessman they call the Big Swede (Tom Reed, hilarious as always). In this heart-warming tale of community, of course our heroes prevail, with some commentary about the coming spring and people being together again after a long time apart that feels very relevant and poignant right now.

the cast of LOG JAM (photo by Galen Fletcher)
Under director Joel Sass (Open Eye's new Artistic Director), the terrific ensemble (also including Shandi Mortenson, France A. Robert, and Eric Smedsrud) is playful and present, obviously taking as much joy in performing again as the audience does in watching them. Accompanied by a three-piece band (Jay Albright, Ellie Fregni, and Jared Mogan), the cast sings without amplification (my favorite thing) and sounds wonderful (overhead planes notwithstanding). The half dozen or so songs are fun, catchy, and clever, and will leave you humming. 

While they may have dropped "Figure" from their name, Open Eye Theatre has a strong history of puppetry, which is on full display here. Created by Steve Ackerman, the array of puppets big (a giant Paul Bunyan) to small (tiny figures of our heroes travelling across the landscape) is astounding and endlessly entertaining, as are the props from giant axes to the Big Swede's Model T car. Costume designer Kathy Kohl has clad these quirky characters in equally quirky costumes - fun and colorful and with every kind of plaid imaginable. The whole thing is a feast for the eyes.

I can't tell you how thrilled I am to go back to the theater again after a very long extended intermission, outdoors for now, indoors soon. LOG JAM! A Paul Bunyan Musical Spectacular is super fun for all ages and a reminder of what I love about theater - talented artists doing something unique, creative, imaginative, silly, heart-warming, and entertaining. 

the green rooftop stage (photo from @cherryandspoon Instagram)

*For a full list of outdoor performances in 2021, click here.

**The Bakken Museum, "a historic mansion, unique collections, medicinal gardens, dynamic exhibits, and rich education experiences," is open before and after showtime for audience members to explore. There is a parking lot for the museum, and street parking available in the neighborhood.