Sunday, January 1, 2023

2022 #TCTheater Favorites - Finally, a Full Year of Theater!

2019 was a fantastic year of theater, during which I saw over 200 shows. Then came 2020, and a global pandemic that shut down theater for much of that year and into the next. With increasing vaccinations and decreasing infection rates, theater came back in the fall of 2021, but not without cancelled performances and entire productions due to new variants and higher infection rates in the winter months. It hasn't been an easy road, with the COVID requirements put in place by Actors Equity (union) for the safety of artists and patrons, a significant decrease in theater attendance, and financial instability that caused at least two local theaters to suspend all performances. But if there's one thing we've learned the past few years, it's that artists will find a way to make art. I couldn't be happier that in 2022 I finally experienced a full year of theater again, with some really amazing and creative work by our intrepid local theaters. From the Broadway tour of Come From Away in January (during which they flew in cast members from across US and Canada to keep the show up and running in the high Omicron days), to my second viewing of Theater Latte Da's new holiday classic Christmas at the Local on New Year's Eve, I saw about 140 theater performances in Minnesota (not counting a few out of state theater trips and 23 Minnesota Fringe shows in 7 whirlwind days), which is a pretty great bounce-back from the last two years, if not quite up to pre-pan levels. And now I have the difficult task of narrowing down the amazing shows I saw this year to a small list of favorites. Here are my 10 (or so) favorite musicals, plays, new work, and more.

Musicals (in alphabetical order, click the title to read the full review)
  • Way back in January, when Omicron was raging and many shows were cancelled, this small-cast "four chairs and a keyboard" musical [title of show] was able to go on at Lyric Arts. And while their summer regional premiere of the super fun musical-about-musicals Something Rotten! was also fantastic, there was something about "the charming, irreverent, quirky little musical about two guys writing a musical about two guys writing a musical" that was so fun and joyous in the darkness of January.
  • Beauty and the Beast was the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts' triumphant return to original productions. The huge cast was overflowing with local talent (including rising star Rajané Katurah as Belle), the design was wonderfully over-the-top, and the choreography was explosive, leading me to declare, "the whole show is full of such life, energy, and joy that it leaves you breathless." 
  • The Theater Mu / Jungle Theater co-production Cambodian Rock Band was the most unique musical (or play with music) in #TCTheater this year. Lauren Yee's brilliant play uses art and music to tell the story of Cambodia, not just its tragedies but also its humanity. A fantastic cast playing multiple roles in two decades and a fabulous fusion of '70s rock and traditional Khmer music made this one to remember.
  • Ghost Quartet is not new, but this perennial favorite marked Elision Theatre first full production since Islander in summer 2021 (which was my first indoor show in 508 days), and maybe it was the whiskey, but it seems like it gets better every year. With a larger cast and a less immersive set-up, but still including audience participation in the whiskey drinking and percussive instrument playing, this welcome return was even more "musically gorgeous and truly haunting" than ever.
  • Artistry's regional premiere of the 2010 Tony winner Memphis featured the directorial debut of #TCTheater favorite Aimee K. Bryant, a cast that was a true embarrassment of riches (headlined by the dynamic duo Vie Boheme and Matt Riehle), and a great rock 'n' roll / R&B score, while telling a fictionalized version of the real life story of how Black R&B music fueled the rock 'n ' roll movement of the '50s. Sadly, Artistry is currently in a programming hold due to financial difficulties, but hopefully 2023 will bring a return to great shows like this one (visit their Facebook page for updates).
  • Perhaps my most difficult task in writing this favorites list was choosing among Theater Latte Da's yet again consistently incredible work. In a year that featured two new pieces (see below), several cabaret shows at Crooners, the long-awaited opening of La Boheme, and the regional premiere of Jelly's Last Jam (featuring a star turn by Reese Britts), my favorite was the rarely produced Sondheim "flop" Merrily We Roll Along (with another star turn by Reese Britts). A brilliant cast, clear direction, and simple yet effective design made this backwards walk through a disintegrating friendship the show it was always meant to be. Merrily is currently in the middle of a hit Off-Broadway run, moving to Broadway next year, but I can't imagine how it could be any better than this.
  • The simple and profound little story of love and music that is Once was the perfect choice for DalekoArts this spring. A talented ensemble of singer/actor/musicians worked and played well together in the cozy onstage pub, with a gorgeous sound and an intimate feel as if we're just all hanging out in the pub with them. I also loved their endearing production of White Christmas (the big show made more intimate on their small stage) and the spooky ghost story The Thin Place, but Once was the highlight in another great year in New Prague. I only hope we get to see their cancelled production of Lonestar Spirits in a future season. (P.S. I was lucky enough to see Once twice this year; the even longer drive to Duluth was well worth it to see Duluth Playhouse's Once, which was also just grand.)
  • The original run of Ten Thousand Things' Thunder Knocking on the Door was interrupted by a little thing called COVID, but two years later, they brought it back! I saw it at the Capri Theater in the usual TTT setup - a square on the floor surrounded by a couple rows of chairs and All the Lights On.  Up close and personal with a terrific cast and a couple of musicians, it was a "rollicking, feel-good, fairy tale of a "bluesical" that was worth the two-year wait."
Plays (in alphabetical order, click the title to read the full review)
  • Gremlin Theatre's return after nearly three years reminded me why I missed them. The Boys Room was an intense family drama with stellar performances from the cast, including three #TCTheater veterans and a "one to watch" newbie. This raw, real, intense slice-of-life play put the fun in dysfunctional.
  • After a couple of years of great virtual productions, I was impressed by my first in-person play by new #TCTheater company Melancholics Anonymous. Copenhagen was exactly the kind of talky sciencey play that I love, performed by a strong three-person cast in the intimate space of the Crane Theater studio.
  • The slow but steady return of Park Square Theatre began with the hilariously touching air-guitar competition play Airness, continued with another great summer Sherlock Holmes mystery, and reached the high point with the regional premiere of the 2016 Tony-winning play The Humans. Director Lily Tung Crystal added another layer to the story by casting the daughters of this Irish-Catholic family as Korean adoptees, a familiar family structure in Minnesota. Her direction, the excellent cast, and stunning design of the two-story Chinatown apartment brought out all of the emotions of this painfully beautiful human family story.
  • Lucky for us, when Omicron reared its ugly head early this year, Yellow Tree Theatre did not cancel their planned production of Sarah Ruhl's smart, funny, feminist play In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play), they simply rescheduled it to summer. Directed by Artistic Director Austene Van (who was in the Jungle's production ten years ago), featuring a talented cast (even the understudies!), and lovely design of period costumes and set, this excellent production in Yellow Tree's intimate space was even more effective and delightfully squirm-inducing.
  • Theater Mu also made a triumphant return to live productions this year with the dark comedy Man of God. This "funny, entertaining, thought-provoking, heart-breaking play" about a Korean-American Christian youth group on a mission to Bangkok was "a brutal look at sexual abuse, harassment, and living under the male gaze." Perhaps the funniest play about such a dark topic this year.
  • Minneapolis' oldest theater Theatre in the Round had another strong year, my favorite of which was the period dramedy Perfect Arrangement. What started out as a fun and funny spoof of the '50s featuring two neighboring couples took a dark turn when it was revealed that the two married heterosexual couples were a cover for two homosexual couples (the wives and the husbands), and the sacrifices that they had to make to keep their lifestyle going became too much. The direction and cast were spot on in contrasting the '50s farce with the real drama behind it, making for a perfect arrangement, indeed.
  • Another "ghost show" (what I like to call the shows that were cancelled in March of 2020, some literally hours before opening) finally had its debut! The Redwood set never left the stage at Jungle Theater, and this February it was finally filled with this funny, thought-provoking, moving play about acknowledging our histories and past traumas, both personally and globally, and moving forward, with a little help from the ancestors.
  • Prime Productions' odd couple dark comedy The Roommate was a recipe for success: directed by local comedy legend Greta Grosch and starring two veteran stage actors Greta Oglesby and Alison Edwards. The result lived up to it with "impeccably timed" comedy and "sparkling chemistry" between these two very unlikely roommates who engage in some criminal activities as a way to assert themselves as women in their prime.
  • My final choice also features a dynamic comedy duo - Avi Aharoni and Nathan Keepers in Two Jews Walk into a War… at Six Points Theater. As the last two Jews in Afghanistan, whether they were bickering, arguing, working together, or rolling around on the floor, they were endlessly entertaining to watch as they both gave hilarious, poignant, and very physical performances. Not just a simple comedy, this gem of a play also explored "some pretty deep issues of faith, community, tradition, identity, and the meaning of home." (With honorable mention for Six Points' production of Uncle Phillip's Coat, featuring a tour de force performance by #TCTheater favorite J.C. Cutler.)
New Work (in alphabetical order, click the title to read the full review)
  • A primarily youth cast led this beautiful, heart-breaking, difficult play, an adaptation of the book All American Boys and a co-production between Stages Theatre Company and the Capri Theater. So raw and open and engaged as they told this story of a school rocked by police violence against one of their own, a Black teenager. Giving voice to these kids who are growing up in this world of racial violence and police injustice was such a powerful and moving thing.
  • Pillsbury House Theatre produced the first solo piece by #TCTheater artist Mikell Sapp, directed by acclaimed director Talvin Wilks. In Charlie Brown Black, Mikell explored "ideas of grief, self-doubt, dating, family, perseverance, and what it's like to be a young Black actor working in theater today." He "bared his life story and his soul on stage, in such an open and vulnerable way, which is a beautiful thing to witness."
  • I loved pretty much everything at the Guthrie Theater this year, as they returned to full programming just in time for their 60th anniversary season. They premiered not one but two brand new plays, Pulitzer Prize winner Suzan-Lori Parks' Sally & Tom, a brilliant play-within-a-play about the former president and the woman he owned and had a relationship with. But my favorite experience in the big blue building on the river this year was the premiere of Kate Hamill's new adaptation of Jane Austen's Emma. I've seen several of Kate's funny, feminist, modern, and sometimes absurd adaptations of Jane Austen, but this was by far my favorite, as it "strikes the perfect balance between the source material, modern social relevance, and delightful silliness; a summer confection as delicious and juicy as the red ripe strawberry on the cover of the program."
  • New #TCTheater company Stage North produced just their second show this year - the new play The Family Line by playwright Lee Blessing. This pandemic-set road trip play about a newly introduced grandfather and grandson (played by always great #TCTheater veteran Bob Davis and talented newcomer Hunter Reeve) tapped into a lot of those early COVID days fears, as well as the racial inequities and other flaws in our systems that were exposed.
  • Speaking of Jane Austen, there's never been a play I that wanted to live inside of as much as Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon's Pride and Prejudice fan fic series Christmas at Pemberley. Seen on the Jungle Theater stage every holiday season since 2017 (pandemic excepted), this year they co-commissioned the final (sad face) installment in the trilogy, Georgianna and Kitty. This one featured not just one but two dreamy romances, and more importantly, strong female friendship and sisterhood, and women supporting each other in their artistic and other endeavors. I want to go to there.
  • Mixed Blood Theatre's first production back in the firehouse, and the last under founding Artistic Director Jack Reuler, was an imaginative and inspirational new play called imagine a u.s. without racism. Playwright and director Seema Sueko interviewed people across the country and put their responses together into this story about a classroom discussion turned neighborhood drama, and showed us, "in a non-preachy, non-judgmental, and non-threatening way" that if we imagine a world without racism, we can make it happen.
  • Nautilus Music-Theater's full productions are rare, and always lovely. Such was the case with #TCTheater's favorite singing sisters Christina Baldwin and Jennifer Baldwin Peden's ode to their mother, Moonlit Walk Home. Along with director Ben Krywosz and composer Daniel Nass, they set their mother's poetry to music, creating a beautiful song cycle about "finding poetry and beauty in the simple and mundane things of everyday life."
  • No theater in town is more committed to developing, commissioning, supporting, and producing new work than the History Theatre. In longtime Artistic Director Ron Peluso's final year with the theater, the new works included the second half of a pair of plays about racism in local housing and the two years postponed super fun Runestone! A Rock Musical about a bizarre incident in Minnesota history. But their most memorable was prolific #TCTheater playwright Harrison David Rivers' Parks: A Portrait of a Young Artist. The story of photographer, musician, and filmmaker Gordon Parks' time living in St. Paul as a young man was told with music, movement, imagery, and a breakout performance by Kevin Brown, Jr. leading a terrific ensemble.
  • Illusion Theater also returned to live productions this year, in their new home at the Center for the Performing Arts (moving from their home for many years in Hennepin Center for the Arts in downtown Minneapolis). This fall's Five Minutes of Heaven was a taut and intense new state adaptation of the film about "The Troubles" in Northern Ireland. But it was local playwright Carlyle Brown's A Play by Barb and Carl that gave me all the feels. Created by him and his wife and longtime dramaturg Barbara Joyce Rose-Brown, it was a very personal, tragic, and ultimately hopeful story about their relationship and how it was affected by a stroke that left her unable to speak.
  • I'm not sure there are two more creative, open-hearted, risk-taking artists in #TCTheater than Emily Michaels King and Debra Berger, aka E/D. Their twice-postponed production of the original work The Show was a sparkling pink wonder of a thing, an "emotionally raw, thoughtfully executed, and completely engrossing" show about our past, present, and future, and the joy and pain of being a human and being a woman.
  • Trademark Theater is another #TCTheater company that's dedicated to new works, and they spent the pandemic developing several projects. The first to come to fruition was the music/theater/concert/spoken word piece Stone Baby, created by local band Kiss the Tiger, fronted by multi-talented #TCTheater artist Meghan Kreidler. Megan (who is nothing short of a superstar) and the band told this fantastical story about an artist who choses art above all else using dialogue with constant underscoring, interspersed with a series of songs by Kiss the Tiger. The performance venue, The Icehouse (this theater nerd's first visit to the cool Minneapolis music venue), made it feel like more than theater, more than a concert, but something else entirely. 
  • I loved Theater Latte Da's new holiday piece Christmas at the Local so much that I saw it twice, and I'm hoping it'll become an annual tradition. But their most impressive accomplishment was adapting the classic play/movie Twelve Angry Men into a musical. I know, weird, right? But it worked so beautifully that it feels like a story that was always meant to be a musical. An ingenious jazz-infused score that isn't always pretty but always emotionally true, combined with the incredible performances by the talented and diverse 12-man cast (they weren't allowed to change the gender of the cast, to which TLD's women responded with a Twelve Angry Women cabaret show at Crooners), and a book that doesn't change the era from the 1950s but somehow speaks clearly to issues of justice and civil discourse as they relate to the present era, made this piece "adaptation done right."

Outdoor / Site-Specific (in alphabetical order, click the title to read the full review)
  • Wayward Theatre Company has done several memorable site-specific productions at the James J. Hill House, but somehow none of them seems as perfectly suited to the grand old mansion as Christmas Carol: A Ghost Story. In a virtually sold-out month-long run, small groups of audience members literally followed Scrooge throughout the mansion as he was visited by multiple ghosts, making this classic beloved tale feel more real (and scary) than ever.
  • Once again, Skylark Opera Theatre reinvented a classic opera, Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin, decreasing the size of cast (nine) and orchestra (grand piano only), singing in English, and performing in the intimate corridor space at the The Museum of Russian Art (festooned in Ukrainian flags in March, the early days of the war). This is how I like my opera: stripped down, accessible, in English, but still incredibly moving and musically gorgeous.
  • Born out of the pandemic and hopefully now an annual tradition, Open Eye Theatre's silly fun original musical (with puppets!) on the gorgeous green roof of the Bakken Museum across the street from Bde Maka Ska is a winner! Following last year's Paul Bunyon tale, this summer we got HAIR BALL! A Bigfoot Musical Adventure, which I declared "the sweetest, cutest, funniest, silliest, naturiest, heart-warmiest 80 minutes of music-theater you could see!" Great performance by the cast and band in the open air, magical puppetry and costumes, and a sweet tale about love and nature, all while immersed in nature! I could ask for nothing more on a summer's night.
  • It really doesn't get much more site-specific than the musical Hands on a Hardbody, based on a real-life competition in which people stand next to a truck and the last person touching it wins, performed in an actual car dealership. No one other than Minneapolis Musical Theatre "rare musicals, well done" could dream up such a crazy brilliant thing. They're truly one of the scrappiest theater companies in town, performing with such earnest enthusiasm, but also abject silliness (I also loved their unusual holiday-ish offering Striking 12). A large and talented cast, an appropriately unusual venue, a fun and surprisingly poignant story, and a musical we haven't seen in #TCTheater before. Welcome back, MMT.
  • Mixed Precipitation can always be counted on for a fun outdoor music-theater experience. After years of their "Picnic Operetta," they've moved into "Pickup Truck Operas" - have opera, will travel (literally, they went all over the state). This year they performed a mash-up of Mozart's Magic Flute with '90s discotheque in, on, and around a 2011 blue Ford pickup truck. This troupe always makes opera fun, playful, relatable, and accessible. A #TCTheater summer is not complete without them.
  • Unfortunately, after just a handful of years of operation, Stillwater's Zephyr Theatre experienced some financial difficulties this fall that resulted in them cancelling upcoming programming (see their Facebook page for details and updates). But luckily, before that happened, we got to see the fantastic regional premiere of the musical School of Rock in the "Broadway by the Bridge" series, on a stage set up right by the river in charming Stillwater. Featuring a star turn by Reed Sigmund (who else?!) in the Jack Black role and a whole passel of talented kids, it was "fun and feel-good celebration of music and the way it can bring people together and inspire a sense of confidence, purpose, and self-worth." Here's hoping Zephyr gets things figured out in time for next summer's "Broadway by the Bridge."
My favorite new #TCTheater company this year is The Birth Play Project. Their new original play Mary’s Wondrous Body performed to small audiences in Elision Playhouse's lobby space for a few weekends in December so it might have flew under your radar. But take note. Based on a true historical story of a woman who claimed to give birth to rabbits, but speaking to very modern issues of women's reproductive health and the dangers of childbirth, this was a thoughtfully executed play with original music that made me excited to see more.

2022 was a great year for festivals, returning and new faves. Minnesota Fringe had their first fully in-person festival in three years, and even more than the amazing shows I saw (my favorite of the 23: Endometriosis the Musical, which I truly believe has much more life in it - stay tuned), was the return of that wonderful feeling of community in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, surrounded by people who are all there for the same reason - theater. I also saw a few great shows at Twin Cities Horror Festival, a fantastic festival (even for people like me who aren't into horror). And I returned to the best little music festival in Minnesota - Storyhill Fest in Deerwood, for two days of great music in the great outdoors (tickets on sale for August 2023!).

I also traveled to two Shakespeare (plus) festivals, which is a great way to see a bunch of theater away from the distractions of normal life. Great River Shakespeare Festival returned to outdoor shows for the first time in three years, offering three shows including a super fun and colorful Twelfth Night, Carlyle Brown's epic historical play The African Company Presents Richard III, and my favorite show of the weekend, Always... Patsy Cline. On the invitation from my friends at Minnesota Theater Festival, I also made my first visit to American Players Theatre in the middle of nowhere, Wisconsin. I was completely blown away by this absolutely magical experience. With 8 shows performed in rep on two stages over their 4-month season, an incredible company of actors (including some familiar faces from #TCTheater), gorgeous design, and a setting that calls to mind Middle Earth, APT is a must-do experience for any Midwest theater lover. I look forward to returning to both of these "theater camps" in 2023.

And that concludes my year-end wrap-up. A year not without its challenges, but a year of great art produced by the #TCTheater community and elsewhere (I also saw five wonderful shows on Broadway this spring). I look forward to an even better 2023! See you at the theater.