Tuesday, May 31, 2022

"Back to Workshop; Or, Everything's Fine!" at Brave New Workshop

More than two years after they had to shut down due to a global pandemic (remember that?), Brave New Workshop, the longest running improv/sketch comedy troupe in the country, is finally back! Because everything's totally fine now, right?! In addition to everything we've all been through over the last two years, BNW also went through a transition; their founder Dudley Riggs died, and the company and theater space on Hennepin Avenue in downtown Minneapolis was bought by the Hennepin Theatre Trust, which also oversees the historic Hennepin Avenue theaters - Orpheum, State, and Pantages. The first show coming out of this new partnership, Back to Workshop; Or, Everything's Fine!, is business as usual for BNW. The business being hilariously funny, smart, and topical satire, and just all around silly comedy entertainment. If you're having a tough time transitioning to this new world (and who isn't?!), Back to Workshop will help you feel not so alone in that, and maybe even help you process things or look at them in a new light. But mostly, you'll just have a really great time. Workshop plays weekends (Fridays and Saturdays, plus some Thursdays) through August 6.

Saturday, May 28, 2022

"Charlie (Brown) Black" at Pillsbury House Theatre

In his first solo show, #TCTheater artist Mikell Sapp tells the story of his life, career, and experience working in the local theater community. The 2015 Ivey's Emerging Artist has not had as smooth of a path as one might expect is granted to such an award-winner, which he talks about so openly and honestly. He's as funny and charming as he is vulnerable and heart-breaking, engaging and personable throughout it all. In just 90 minutes we learn so much more about this artist, who's been appearing on stages around the Twin Cities for 11 years, as he explores the ideas of grief, self-doubt, dating, family, perseverance, and what it's like to be a young Black actor working in theater today. See Charlie Brown Black through June 12 at Pillsbury House Theatre.

Friday, May 27, 2022

"Moulin Rouge!" Broadway Tour at the Orpheum Theatre

In general, I'm not a fan of movie-to-musical adaptations, but Baz Lurhmann's 2001 film Moulin Rouge! was crying out to be a stage musical. Everything about it is big, bold, and theatrical, and it cleverly weaves pop songs into the storytelling (it's one of my favorite movie soundtracks). The only surprising thing is that it took 18 years for it to get to Broadway, where it won ten Tony Awards in the covid-shortened 2020 season, including best musical. And now, three years later, it has finally arrived on Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis for a three-week stay. It's a successful adaptation of the movie, staying very close to the storyline of the passionate but doomed love story, and the group of misfits trying to save their community from the rich and powerful Duke. Like the movie, the stage musical also cleverly weaves pop songs, from a single line to the whole song, into the storytelling. Most of the songs from the movie are still there, with some fun additions. Like it was on the screen, Moulin Rouge! on stage is big in every way - big emotions, big songs, big dance numbers, big hats, big set pieces - and the audience just laps it up. Visit the Moulin Rouge in Minneapolis now through June 5 (click here for the official ticket site).

Wednesday, May 25, 2022

NYC Theater Trip 2022: "The Music Man" at the Winter Garden Theatre

Show*: 5

Title: The Music Man

Location: Winter Garden Theatre

Written By: Richard Greenberg

Summary: A big, beautiful, colorful, life-affirming, revitalizing, traditional (with a few tweaks) revival of the 1957 classic, only the second Broadway revival.

Highlights: I unabashedly love The Music Man, the story of a con man who "gets his foot caught in the door" on his way out of town, because someone saw through his slick veneer to his true self, and loved him anyway. He's not selling a band, he's selling hope, a common goal, community, and something to believe in. Marian is a woman with standards, and finally meets an intelligent man who meets them, and brings life back to her family and town. This production is a joyous celebration of all of that. And maybe it is corny and old-fashioned, but that's OK with me. This lovely, talented, diverse, and huge cast is such fun to watch, especially the young ones who are unbelievably confident and capable amongst the pros. Hugh Jackman is an absolute charmer, a spellbinder who has everyone in River City and the theater believing his every word, a twinkle in his eye that can be seen from the last row of the theater (or at least the 2nd to last where I was sitting). He has a great match in two-time Tony winner Sutton Foster, whose Marion doesn't suffer fools. She's tough and smart, and watching these two warm to each other and their easy natural chemistry is a joy. Meredith Wilson's beloved classic score sounds simply scrumptious as played by the 20+ piece orchestra tucked under the stage; I stayed to hear every last note. There are a couple of rewritten lyrics, most notably in "Shipoopi" to make it a little more palatable in the #metoo era, and a new (or old) intro to "My White Knight." The choreography (by Warren Carlye) is divine. "76 Trombones" is the highlight, absolutely stunning as each group of (mimed) instruments comes forward and takes turns, the groups of dancers weaving together and creating a beautiful symphony. The library scene is also a delight, as is the final tap number. As expected, costumes are luscious, overflowing with bustles and hats and flounces, and sets are genius, with a "curtain" made up of the red planks of a barn. It opens in various ways and rises into the ceiling, revealing two-dimensional backdrops and set pieces in the Grant Wood style (set and costumes designed by Santo Loquasto). This was my final show of the trip, and it left me on a high, marveling at the wonder and magic of theater. Everything about it is so wonderful, a balm to a world-weary soul. I had tears in my eyes throughout the show, at the beauty of the story and the storytelling, and remembering how long we had to live without it. Only one of the five shows I saw didn't have an understudy in a lead or featured role, but we're finding a way for the show to go on safely. Broadway is unquestionably back, and The Music Man represents that traditional musical that we love so much.

*Once again, I'm using an abbreviated Fringe-style summary for my NYC 2022 trip, since I am in the greatest city in the world with much more exciting things to do than write! Click here to see all of my Broadway-related blog posts.

NYC Theatre Trip 2022: "A Strange Loop" at the Lyceum Theatre

Show*: 4

Title: A Strange Loop

Location: Lyceum Theatre

Written By: Michael R. Jackson

Summary: In the 2020 Pulitzer Prize winner for drama (just the tenth musical to do so), a queer black writer is writing a musical about a queer black writer writing a musical about a queer black writer writing a musical…

Highlights: This very meta theater play features a unique voice and a unique story that needs to be heard. Composer/lyricist/playwright Michael R. Jackson's "emotionally autobiographical" story features a self-described queer black fat boy, with an inner white girl, working as an usher at the Lion King while writing his show. As he's writing the show, he's discovering and living the hard truths he's writing about. Truths about his career (should he sell out and write a Tyler Perry gospel play, which would make his mom happy?), his family life, his love life (or lack thereof). In a clever storytelling device, his embodied thoughts help and hinder him along the way, representing those ugly little voices all of us have in our heads. It's a very specific story, with very graphic language and subject matter (my friend and I wondered what they could possibly sing on the Tony's), but with universal and relatable themes of family, identity, and finding ones place in the world. I saw an understudy in the lead role, Kyle Ramar Freeman, who did a beautiful job filling in for Tony nominated Jaquel Spivey, so endearing and sympathetic, with a great voice and stage presence. Six talented and hard-working actors play his "thoughts" and multiple other characters, dressed in chic neutral athleisure wear with added pieces to create characters. (Side note: #THTheater actor Jon-Michael Reese is an understudy for several of these roles and recently made his Broadway debut, much deserved!) The story takes place primarily on a simple set consisting of six open doors and a few set pieces, which are later removed to reveal the set of the much talked about and finally seen Tyler Perry gospel play (set design by Arnulfo Maldanado, costume design by Montana Levi Blanco). A Strange Loop may not appeal to the tourist crowd (that's OK, they have plenty of jukebox musicals and revivals to choose from), but it's an exciting and unique new musical that pushes the boundaries of what music-theater, and in particular Broadway musicals, can do and be and say.

*Once again, I'm using an abbreviated Fringe-style summary for my NYC 2022 trip, since I am in the greatest city in the world with much more exciting things to do than write! Click here to see all of my Broadway-related blog posts.

NYC Theater Trip 2022: "Take Me Out" at Second Stage at the Hayes Theater

Show*: 3

Title: Take Me Out

Location: Second Stage at the Hayes Theater

Written By: Richard Greenberg

Summary: In this very funny and loving tribute to the best sport in the world - baseball - a superstar player comes out as gay in the middle of the season, leading to all sorts of drama, and even tragedy.

Highlights: I loved this play so much I just bought the script. As a lifelong Twins fan, I am familiar with the joy and the heartbreak that is baseball. And this play, while covering lots of relevant social issues, is at its heart an ode to baseball. Will people who don't like baseball like this play? I couldn't say, because I could never understand a person who doesn't love a game that's so perfect, so symmetric, so democratic. Jesse Tyler Ferguson (who was on Broadway long before he became known as Mitchell Pritchett) plays a business manager who starts watching baseball when he takes on said superstar, Darren, as a client (played by Grey's Anatomy's Jesse Williams in his Broadway debut), and over the course of half a season, he falls in love with the game. He has a couple of fantastic soliloquys (the play is framed by narration directly to the audience, mostly by Darren's best friend, played by Suits' Patrick J. Adams) about the beautiful oddities of baseball, and the many reasons we love it so much (I need a t-shirt with the quote "baseball is better than democracy" but sadly there was no merch table). But back to the drama. After the superstar comes out publicly as gay (which, BTW, no active MLB player has ever done, although a couple of minor leagers and retired players have, including Billy Bean, current MLB VP and special assistant to the commissioner), a recent call-up from double-A (Michael Oberholtzer) makes a racist and homophobic statement to the press (think John Rocker, or rather don't think about him). He's suspended and suddenly Darren finds himself at the center of a movement, something he never wanted; he just wants to play ball as usual. More drama unfolds over the course of the season, some of it shocking. The season ends and so does the play, after exploring baseball as a microcosm of America, the good, the bad, and the ugly. The fantastic cast (Jesse Tyler Ferguson in particular is such a gem, so funny and natural on stage, and deserves to win his first Tony for this) on the simple but cool set comprised of a set of clubhouse lockers that turn around to form a backdrop for projections, and showers with actual running water (which yes, means they're naked, as people usually are in the shower), makes it feel like you're really in the clubhouse with these guys as they journey through this unexpectedly eventful season. 

On that eventual day, and it will come, when the MLB accepts openly gay players and allows them to be themselves without threat of ridicule, retaliation, or damage to their career, I will only love baseball more than I do now. I'll leave you with the closing lines of the play, the lament of every Twins fan at the end of every season throughout history except for two ('87 and '91!):
This season was tragic.
What will we do until spring?!

*Once again, I'm using an abbreviated Fringe-style summary for my NYC 2022 trip, since I am in the greatest city in the world with much more exciting things to do than write! Click here to see all of my Broadway-related blog posts.

NYC Theater Trip 2022: "Paradise Square" at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre

Show*: 2

Title: Paradise Square

Location: Ethel Barrymore Theatre

Written By: Christina Anderson, Craig Lucas, and Larry Kirwan (book), Jason Howland (music), Nathan Tysen and Masi Asare (lyrics)

Summary: A new original musical (with ten Tony nominations) about Irish immigrants and free Black people living together in the Five Points neighborhood of NYC, until various factors including the draft riots of 1863 brought it to an end.

Highlights: This show reminded me a lot of Theater Latte Da's original musical Five Points, with similar themes, characters, setting, and dance styles. But while Latte Da's story centered around two historical dancers, Paradise Square is a fictional story about two Irish siblings married to free Black people and working together to run a pub called Paradise Square. Sister Annie (Chilina Kennedy) is married to Reverend Sam (Nathaniel Stampley), who works with the Underground Railroad to ferry escaped slaves to Canada, and brother Willie O'Brien (Matt Bogart) is married to Nelly (Tony nominated Joaquina Kalukango), who inherited the pub from her father. Things get even more complicated when Willie goes off to fight in the Civil War (easy to guess how that goes); the O'Briens' nephew Owen (Tony nominated A.J. Shively) arrives from Ireland needing work and a place to stay; the family takes in an escaped slave who takes the name Washington (Alan Wiggins beautifully filling in for the third Tony nominated actor in the cast, Sidney DuPont); politicians try to force Nellie out of her bar; and a draft is announced, causing unrest among the poor population who can't afford to pay the $300 fee to get out of it. The drama centers around a dance competition at the pub that will hopefully earn enough money to save it, with Owen and Washington competing to win the money and secure their freedom. There's a lot going on, perhaps too much, but this look into an early American multi-cultural society is interesting and inspiring, and the manipulation of the populace by businessmen and politicians once again reminds us that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Six people collaborated to write the music, book, and lyrics, pulling in many different voices to tell this story. Both the score and the choreography (by Bill T. Jones) combine the influence of Irish, African, and Black American traditions, and the dancing is truly phenomenal and thrilling, impeccably performed by the large and talented cast. How often do you see Irish step-dancing in a show that isn't Riverdance?! Lastly, the impressive set (designed by Allen Moyer) features a rotating two-story piece that represents the pub, inside and out, plus three narrow three-story pieces representing the tenement buildings. This epic and truly American story has a depressing ending, but "the door is always open to Paradise Square" provides a moment of hope.

*Once again, I'm using an abbreviated Fringe-style summary for my NYC 2022 trip, since I am in the greatest city in the world with much more exciting things to do than write! Click here to see all of my Broadway-related blog posts.

NYC Theater Trip 2022: "The Minutes" at Studio 54

Show*: 1

Title: The Minutes

Location: Studio 54

Written By: Tracy Letts

Summary: A small town city council meeting turns ugly when truths about the town's past are revealed, but not accepted by the people in power.

Highlights: Tracy Letts wrote and stars in this 90-minute very funny and real little play that you think is one thing, until it turns into another. The writing, direction (by Anna D. Shapiro), and performances by this fantastic cast (also including Jessie Mueller, Noah Reid of Schitt's Creek, Blair Brown, and scene stealer Austin Pendleton) are full of little details that define these specific characters and fill out the world in the town of Big Cherry, USA. Combined with a detailed and realistic set (designed by David Zinn), from the water stains on the ceiling, to the rolling snack cart, to the ambiguous mural, it feels like we're eavesdropping on a real meeting. The trouble arises when the newest council member returns from a week away, only to hear that something big happened last week resulting in one of the members being ousted from the council. The titular meeting minutes are not available, but he keeps digging until finally they're produced, revealing an argument about the annual heritage festival. The ousted member had produced the statement of an indigenous person that contradicts the local legend about the hero who saved the town from the "Sioux uprising" (which might sound familiar to those of us in Minnesotan, and really anywhere in the US). The mayor will not accept this, and goes to extreme lengths to make sure his version of history is the one that stands ("who lives, who dies, who tells your story"). What starts as an odd and funny little character study of a town and its residents (think Parks and Recreation) turns into a not so subtle statement about the true history of this country. 

*Once again, I'm using an abbreviated Fringe-style summary for my NYC 2022 trip, since I am in the greatest city in the world with much more exciting things to do than write! Click here to see all of my Broadway-related blog posts.

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

"A Raisin in the Sun" at Guthrie Theater

The American classic A Raisin in the Sun premiered in 1959, making Lorraine Hansberry the first female Black playwright on Broadway, but it's anything but dated. Unfortunately, racism, discrimination, and unjust practices like redlining are still very much a part of our world, as evidenced by the recent racist and anti-Semitic fueled mass shooting in Buffalo, and the fact that in Minnesota 77% of White families own their homes compared to only 26% of Black families. This is the legacy of the world Hansberry wrote about that we're still experiencing. The Guthrie's production of this ever-relevant piece is beautifully wrought, from the detailed set to the raw and emotional performances by the entire cast. You can see it now through June 5 on the Guthrie's proscenium stage.

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

"Airness" at Park Square Theatre

Park Square Theatre finally returns from their extended intermission with a really fun and feel-good play about a national air guitar competition. It sound ridiculous, but truth is stranger than fiction - this is actually a real thing. LA-based playwright Chelsea Marcantel has set Airness within this world where people travel the country to compete with 60 seconds of playing an imaginary guitar. But like any story, it's not really about air guitar; air guitar is the backdrop against which is set this sweet and funny story of community, friendship, finding your people, and pursuing your passion. The fantastic cast embodies this lovable group of oddballs so well that you find yourself rooting for them and becoming invested in their story. With the stage appeal of a rock concert and the heart of a chosen family story, Airness is a great welcome back for Park Square (continuing through June 5).

Sunday, May 15, 2022

"The Labyrinth and the Minotaur: The Incarceration Play Project" by Wonderlust Productions at Mixed Blood Theatre

Four years in the making, Wonderlust Productions' newest piece The Labyrinth and the Minotaur: The Incarceration Play Project reimagines the myth of the Minotaur and the Labyrinth in which it is kept as the Minnesota Corrections system. For this project they collected  stories from over 230 people who live and work within this system, and the huge cast (perhaps the largest I've ever seen) includes many of these people, alongside seven professional actors. It's a really beautiful, inspiring, and thought-provoking piece about an incredibly relevant issue - this country's broken, cruel, and racist system of incarceration. This is a theater company dedicated to elevating the voices of the unheard, and there are few voices less heard than those of the incarcerated. Here they get to tell their own stories in an empowering and powerful way. Although the play is a bit too long (three hours and 15 minutes on opening night) and would benefit from some editing, it's very worthwhile and important. See it through May 22 at Mixed Blood Theatre; only five more performances remain.

Saturday, May 14, 2022

"Once" at DalekoArts

I finally made the gorgeous springtime drive out to New Prague to see DalekoArts' production of the 2012 Tony-winning musical Once in its sold-out final weekend. Just the second #TCTheater production*, Once is a perfect choice for the scrappy little theater in the far-out suburbs, the stage packed with singer/actor/musicians and the intimate house making it feel like we're all in a cozy Irish pub together enjoying some good craic. It's such a beautiful story, and a unique kind of musical that's really more of a play-with-music. All of the music in this Irish folk-rock score (by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, who also starred in the 2007 movie from which the musical was adapted by Irish playwright Enda Walsh) is in context, in a pub or recording studio or music shop. The music is woven so naturally into the story that there's not a lot of applause during the show, not wanting to break the spell of the story being woven on stage. A multi-talented 12-person cast plus three band members embody this charming and bittersweet Once.

Friday, May 13, 2022

"Moonlit Walk Home" at Nautilus Music-Theater

Nautilus Music-Theater's second new original piece of music-theater this season is the lovely song cycle Moonlit Walk Home. It turns out that #TCTheater's favorite singing sisters Christina Baldwin and Jennifer Baldwin Peden have a talented poet for a mother, which isn't really that surprising; artistic talent often runs in families. Fern Green Baldwin put her writing aside to raise eight children and numerous plants and animals on 36 acres in the Minnesota River Valley outside of Jordan, Minnesota. She finally got back to writing in her 70s, and published her first book of poetry Moonlit Walk Home at the age of 80. Her daughters have adapted it into a song cycle, along with stage director Ben Krywosz and composer Daniel Nass. The result is a really beautiful collection of music that is not only a love letter to their mother, but also to finding poetry and beauty in the simple and mundane things of everyday life. 

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

"Two Jews Walk Into a War..." by Six Points Theater at Highland Park Community Center

Two Jews walk into a war. No, that's not the set-up to a joke, it's the title of a play. But it is funny, as much as a play about the beleaguered nation of Afghanistan and the millennia-long story of the persecution of the Jews can be funny. Seth Rozin's play is a fictionalized account of the last two Jews in Kabul, who hated each other but were forced to work together. He uses the humor of this cantankerous relationship to delve into some pretty deep issues of faith, community, tradition, identity, and the meaning of home. See this sweet, funny, heart-breaking little play at Six Points Theater through May 22.

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

"Runestone! A Rock Musical" at History Theatre

Who else but the History Theatre can take a bizarre Minnesota legend and turn it into a super fun, entertaining, and even thought-provoking musical? Who else would even attempt such a thing? In the vein of their smash hit Glensheen (returning to St. Paul this summer after a tour through outstate Minnesota), History Theatre brings us the new original musical Runestone! A Rock Musical, a show many years in the making about the Kensington Runestone. I first saw a reading of it in 2019 and was so intrigued that I visited the original Runestone in its museum the next time I was in Alexandria. The musical's 2020 premiere was postponed along with so many things, but it's finally seeing the stage in a terrific production continuing through the end of the month.

Sunday, May 8, 2022

"The Bucket List of Booze Club" by Freshwater Theatre Company at the Crane Theater

In their first production in over two years, Freshwater Theatre Company is bringing us a new play by Michigan-based playwright Maureen Paraventi called The Bucket List of Booze Club. An odd title for a sweet and salty, funny and poignant play about female friendship and the mother/daughter bond, which couldn't be more appropriate for this Mother's Day weekend. This very real and relatable story is beautifully brought to life by the cast and creative team at Freshwater. But only 6 performances remain in this short run, so bring your closest friends, a parent or child, or yourself to the Crane before it closes on May 15 (click here for info and tickets). 

Saturday, May 7, 2022

"Celebrating Sondheim, Act II" by Theatre Latte Da at Crooners Supper Club

My favorite Sondheim interpreters, Theater Latte Da, return with Act II of their Celebrating Sondheim cabaret series at Crooners Supper Club. And the good news is - there are still some tickets remaining for today's two shows! Click on this link right now to snag one before they're gone, so that you too can experience this beautifully curated selection of songs from arguably our greatest music-theater creator.

Thursday, May 5, 2022

"Miss Woodhouse Presents" by Aethem Theatre Company at Elision Playhouse

In a delightful piece of Jane Austen fan fic, Aethem Theatre Company brings us the new play Miss Woodhouse Presents, written and directed by their Managing Director Kayla Hambek. It's a sort of mash-up of all of the novels, in the form of a British reality TV show. In just 90 minutes, we see love lost and won among the Dashwoods, the Bennets, and more familiar characters. Fans of Austen, who are not too precious about it, are sure to enjoy. The short run ends this weekend; you have just three more chances to see this charming play at Elision Playhouse in Crystal (click here for info and tickets).

Sunday, May 1, 2022

"Diary of a Wimpy Kid" at Children's Theatre Company

To close out their 2021-2022 season, Children's Theatre Company is bringing back their original musical adaption of the popular book series Diary of a Wimpy Kid. I saw 2016 premiere, and although I had no prior experience with the source material, I was thoroughly charmed by it. The creative team has updated the show to add new scenes and songs, but my memory is not good enough to notice which ones, although I did note a Tik-Tok reference, which wasn't a thing six years ago. So they've tweaked the show a bit to make it feel fresh and new, but what hasn't changed is the incredible talent of #TCTheater youth (plus a few out-of-towners) in bringing to life this "clever and musically diverse score, universally relatable story of a kid trying to find himself in middle school" (as I wrote six years ago). "Whether you're a kid stuck in the middle (school), or a jaded grown-up, Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Musical is simply irresistible." What follows is my 2016 review, plus a few tweaks for the current production, which continues through June 18.

"All American Boys" by Stages Theatre Company and Capri Theater

Stages Theatre Company (Hopkins) is partnering with The Capri Theater (North Minneapolis) on an adaptation of the book All American Boys, a story of how a school and its students are affected by police violence against a Black teen. It's an incredibly inspiring and insightful look at one of the biggest and toughest issues we're facing right now, and these kids (it's primarily a youth cast, like most of Stages' work) do such an amazing job. It's hard enough to be a teenager, but a teenager living with all of the uncertainties of today's world, a Black teenager living with the knowledge that they could be beaten or killed for simply trying to buy a bag of chips, it's unthinkable. This play and these incredibly talented and open-hearted young actors do a beautiful job of bringing that experience to life. Really the only thing that gives me hope these days is our young people; they can show us the way out of this mess if we just let them, and listen to them. You can do that now through May 22 at the beautifully renovated Capri Theater (click here for info and tickets).