Tuesday, June 14, 2022

"Twelve Angry Men" by Theater Latte Da at the Ritz Theater

I know what you're thinking: the classic American film and play Twelve Angry Men... as a musical?! It sounded pretty odd to me too when I first heard about it a few years ago, but after seeing Theater Latte Da's world premiere musical adaption (on stage at the Ritz through July 17), I'm sold! It just goes to show that literally any subject can be made into a musical, if done well and thoughtfully by talented artists. Check, check, check. Telling this story that was originally a TV show in 1954 through a modern and musical lens heightens the themes of justice and productive communication. It's still the 1950s on stage, but the cast and creators are aware that it's 2022 in the audience, and this story needs to speak to now, which it pretty geniusly does. Combined with a really interesting jazz score that's seamlessly woven into the dialogue, a simple and classic design, and a diverse cast of 12 talented men, and it feels like this story was crying out to be a musical all along.

For those of you unfamiliar with the story (as I was; I've never seen the movie, and the play only once about 15 years ago), the entire play takes place in real time inside a jury deliberation room. They are deciding the fate of a young, poor, Latino man who is charged with killing his father. The opening vote is 11 guilty, one not guilty, and therein lies the drama. Over 90 minutes, the men debate the case trying to come to a consensus, and in doing so they discuss issues of race, class, duty, the justice system, and family dynamics. They argue, disagree, challenge, acquiesce, change their minds, and change them back again as they talk and more importantly, listen to each other. The question at hand is not what really happened, but does the evidence presented prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused is guilty and deserves to be sentenced to death.

the cast of Twelve Angry Men (photo by Dan Norman)
The jazz score (written by Michael Holland) sounds almost conversational at times, as characters go from speaking to singing and back again. The sound is at times dissonant and uncomfortable, at other times lovely and melodic, these 12 performers singing in gorgeous I-don't-know-how-many-part harmonies. Director Peter Rothstein is a master at controlling audience applause (see also All is Calm), meaning that as a song ends that would typically cause the audience to applaud, the following dialogue comes so quickly that we don't have time. And that's a service to the piece; applause would interrupt the flow and momentum of the storytelling. The five-piece band is off-stage, so as not to distract us with their presence in a jury room, but still sounds fantastic (music director Denise Prosek, associate music director/pianist/conductor Russ Kaplan).

The creators of the piece (also including book writer David Simpatico) have been very thoughtful about the racial diversity, which adds another layer to the stories, characters, interactions, and themes of justice. While it may not be historically accurate that a jury was this diverse in the 1950s, that's where theater gives us room to imagine and explore what if. But this isn't just color-blind casting where they blindly put people of different races into historically White characters without thinking about how it affects the story they're telling. This is not a situation where actors of color play White characters, they're playing Black, biracial, Asian, or Latino characters in this time and space. The creators worked with the cast to incorporate their experiences and life history into the piece, so that the characters and their stories feel authentic.

It's worth noting that the author's estate did not allow the creators to change the gender of the characters, which allowed them to delve into issues of masculinity (toxic and otherwise) and the way that men communicate with each other. But never fear, Theater Latte Da's women Elissa Adams, Kelli Foster-Warder, and Denise Prosek are putting together a companion cabaret piece called Twelve Angry Women, which you can see at Crooners July 7-9. Because women are allowed to be angry too (and sing about it!).

Curtis Bannister as Juror #8 (photo by Dan Norman)
This dreamy cast includes many familiar faces, and a few new ones. In the pivotal role of the initial dissenting juror (which Henry Fonda played in the movie), Latte Da has cast #TCTheater newcomer Curtis Bannister (specifically casting an actor of color in the hero role to avoid yet another "White Savior" story). He is so wonderful in this role, fully embodying the calm dignity and fierce determination of the character, with a gorgeous and powerful voice. The entire cast is just excellent, including Matt Riehle as the reluctant foreman; Riley McNutt as the eager and naïve juror; Charlie Clark as the last holdout, with a convincingly emotional breakdown; Sasha Andreev as a by-the-books juror; Brian Kim McCormick as a juror who grew up in a similar neighborhood as the defendant; Adán Varela, a Mexican juror who can also empathize with the defendant; Wariboko Semenitari as the one who just wants to get to the baseball game; T. Mychael Rambo as the elder statesman who supports the dissenting juror; James Detmar in the thankless role of the most egregiously racist juror; Bradley Greenwald as the thoughtful German-born juror (with a lovely solo song); and Reese Britts as the slick ad exec. Each one of them creates a character so specific and lived in, they could each have a spin-off of their own.

the men get angry (photo by Dan Norman)
The Ritz Theater stage is open to the bare walls of the theater, with the large courtroom framed in but
with no walls, just a few doors and shelves hanging in mid-air. The jurors sit in 12 mismatched chairs at a long center table that rotates during some of the songs, allowing the audience different views. But they don't just sit at the table the whole time, director Peter Rothstein has them moving around the stage, with interesting character groupings, natural movement accompanying the songs rather than traditional dancing. They're all dressed in period suits, but with slight variations and specific accessories that give us hints about each character. Big stadium lights hang at the back of the stage, used on occasion for effect, with mostly subtle lighting shifts (and a few lightning strikes) to set the mood. Before the show we hear a ticking clock, creating an ominous feeling as the story begins, and later sounds of thunder fill the theater as the storm roles in. (Choreography by Kelli Foster-Warder, scenic design by Benjamin Olsen, costume design by Matthew LeFebvre, lighting design by Paul Whitaker, sound design by Nicholas Tranby.)

While adapting movies to musicals is in general a disturbing and disappointing trend, that's not the case here. It's clear that the creators had something to say, and that this American classic can still speak to us in new, different, and surprising ways. This adaptation very much reflects and speaks to the current time, while still staying true to the original story. The music is added thoughtfully in a way that enhances the emotions and themes of the story. In short, it's adaptation done right.

You can (and should) see the world premiere musical Twelve Angry Men at the Ritz Theater in Northeast Minneapolis through July 17. And for more on how this musical came to be, check out #TCTheater artist and musical theater aficionado Max Wojtanowicz's edutainment "Pin Spot" series, which delves deeper into the history and making of the show - June 27 only!