Saturday, May 13, 2023

"Diamond Jubilee: 60th Anniversary Gala" at The Guthrie Theater

Sixty years ago this month, the Guthrie Theater opened on Vineland Place next to the Walker Art Center. The first production of this experimental repertory theater was Hamlet, directed by founder Sir Tyrone Guthrie himself (read the full history here). The Guthrie is celebrating this momentous anniversary with a new production of Hamlet (closing on May 21), an open house last weekend, and a fundraiser gala earlier this week. While it wasn't the cornucopia of performances and stars that the 2013 50th Anniversary Gala and the 2015 Joe Dowling Tribute Gala were, it was still a wonderful and celebratory night capped with a fantastic concert by Guthrie alum and Tony-winner Santino Fontana. I became a Guthrie subscriber 20 years ago, and I'm certain that without it, I would not be a theater blogger today. Being a Guthrie subscriber introduced me to plays and playwrights I wouldn't have otherwise seen (since as a subscriber you see everything, whether it sounds like something you'd be interested in or not), as well as to other local theater companies they hosted in one of their theaters. I also became familiar with local artists that I followed to other theater companies, beginning the snowball effect that eventually resulted in this wild and wonderful hobby of being a theater blogger and seeing 3-5 shows every week. I'm so grateful that Sir Tyrone Guthrie chose Minneapolis (or rather, as was said at the gala, that Minnesota chose Guthrie) to open his regional theater in the state where I was lucky enough to be born ten years later.

I love a gala, where the dress code is "cocktail attire." I attended at the lowest donation level ($100), so I missed out on the fancy pre-show dinner and cocktail party events. But I arrived in time for the gala performance, which began with a taped package of recorded interviews with current and past Guthrie artists, including Morgan Freeman, Peter Michael Goetz, and Laila Robins, who said "if you want to have your heart broken, be a Minnesota sports fan; if you want to have your heart filled, come to the Guthrie" (as a lifelong Twins fan, I concur). It was a delight to see so many favorites talk about what the Guthrie has meant to them. The live portion of the performance was presided over by Queen Gertrude herself, Regina Marie Williams. She introduced Artistic Director Joseph Haj, who listed some of the Guthrie's accomplishments, such as commissioning the play Clyde's (originally titled Floyd's) by two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage, which was the most produced play in American this season. He also talked about the student programs, both to attend live performances, and the recording of such classics as last year's Raisin in the Sun and this year's Hamlet to be provided to teachers along with curriculum. 

Next, the current Joe presented the inaugural Tyrone Guthrie Distinguished Artist Award to Joe Dowling, the Guthrie's Artistic Director for 20 years who shepherded the theater's expansion into the new building on the Mississippi River. The previous Joe began his acceptance speech by saying "it's good to be home," and went on to call the #TCTheater audience "the best audience I've ever worked for."

A live auction of four fantastic experiences raised money to help fund the aforementioned programs, with the biggest price going for dinner with esteemed local playwright Jeffrey Hatcher (whose adaptation of Dial M for Murder is part of the Guthrie's 2023-2024 season), after which he will write the winner their own play (a steal at $11,000). After another round of donating, it was on to the concert event.

Santino Fontana (with Andrew Bourgoin on piano)
(photo credit: @cherryandspoon Instagram)
I'm here to tell you that Santino Fontana simply couldn't be more charming. After graduating from the U of M/Guthrie BFA program and playing Hamlet in the final production at the old Guthrie, Santino went on to star on Broadway (winning a Tony for Tootsie in 2019), film (the voice of Hans in Frozen, for which he said he worked five days in two and a half years, likening it to being a sperm donor for a child that went on to become president), and TV (Greg in the brilliant musical-dramedy Crazy Ex-Girlfriend). I saw him perform with Laura Osnes at Orchestra Hall in 2016, but this time it was all him, accompanied by Andrew Bourgoin on the piano. He had a list of 20 songs, and asked audience members to choose a number out of a glass bowl. This gave the concert a loose and playful feel, because he didn't know what was coming next, and expressed his true delight or apprehension as each number was drawn. He's a delightful storyteller and had the audience in the palm of his hand as he talked about funny experiences as a working actor in NYC, as well as reminiscing about his time as a student in the Twin Cities. Highlights of his performance include playing the piano on a jazz number (he originally wanted to be a jazz musician, but ironically kept his singing ability to himself when studying acting because he wanted to be seen as a "serious actor"), the title song from She Loves Me (with a shout-out to former Guthrie actor Lee Mark Nelson who starred in the show at the Guthrie, for which Santino was an usher, and which I clearly remember loving even though it was pre-blog), a hilarious version of "I Feel Pretty" from West Side Story as "I am Pretty," a gorgeous "If I Loved You" from Carousel, several Sondheim numbers that he sang for Carol Burnett's birthday (lots of fun name-dropping), and his encore - a lovely unplugged rendition of "They Were You" from The Fantasticks. It was truly a wonderful and highly entertaining concert, and I will never forget when he sang that song on that stage (you had to be there).

The post-show party began after the concert, with food and drinks and party favors and a dance floor complete with disco balls. I didn't stay long, but went home once again feeling grateful for this amazing theater community, of which the Guthrie has been the cornerstone for 60 years. I look forward to what the next decades will bring, and hope to be there to celebrate 70, 80, and more.