Saturday, July 20, 2019

Minnesota Family Fringe - Don't Miss It!

Whether you're a hard-core Minnesota Fringe Festival fan or new to the Fringe, do not miss Family Fringe!

What Is Family Fringe? 
"Family Fringe offers children and families interested in new and adventurous work the ability to see shows presented by companies creating multi-generational productions. 

Family Fringe is a separate, juried festival taking place over two weekends (July 26-28 and August 2-4) in tandem with the Minnesota Fringe Festival." (Fringe website) 

Why You Need To Go:
Families, friends: this is an amazing and rare opportunity to see a wide variety of theater that is created specifically for families by talented, local artists.
  • Each Family Fringe show is chosen by a jury of talented theatermakers. 
  • Ticket prices are crazy reasonable. Only $6.00 for children under 12. If you’ve visited the largest children’s theater in town, you know that $6.00 will barely get you a coffee there. 
  • Each Family Fringe show is under one hour long. Perfect for short attention spans!
  • All Family Fringe shows are performed at the (very accessible) Barbara Barker Center for Dance on the West Bank.
ALSO: Family Fringe will include two relaxed performances especially tailored for patrons affected by autism or those with sensory-processing sensitivities. More info about  these performances and other accessibility options here:

Having checked out the Family Fringe Preview Nights at Ramsey County Library, we can safely say you are in for a treat with these shows. There's something for every family! (Text in italics is from the Fringe website.)
Super Drag Story Time
If You Love Musicals, Books and GLAMOUR, check out:

Super Drag Story Time by Storyland Magic Carpet
Camp, Color, Puppetry, Music and Dance collide in this Glamourous and uplifting Storytelling event featuring local Drag Queens and Kings. Fun for the kids and the parents as well. Hosted by Martina Marraccino!

Because ... 
If you've not seen Lady Martina (aka Martino Mayotte) before you're in for a treat. We first discovered Lady Martina at the Twin Cities Horror Festival and have been big fans ever since. In this show, Martina (and friends) brings her gorgeous voice and fabulous wit to drag story time, featuring books like Julian Is a Mermaid. AND, Storyland Magic Carpet has two sensory-friendly performances (August 2 and 3 at 10:00 a.m.)
Minneapolis Human Rhythm Project
If You Love Dance, Rhythm, and Adorable Kids, don't miss:

Minneapolis Human Rhythm Project by Keane Sense of Rhythm 
A celebration of dance and rhythm. African , K-pop, Break, Tap, Taiko Drumming, live music and dancers with special needs. A celebration of dance by and for all ages, abilities and ethnicities.

Because ... 
The Minneapolis Human Rhythm Project is a collaboration between Keane Sense of Rhythm, which has twenty years of experience in training tap dancers, and Universal Dance Destiny, which focuses on traditional west African dance with live drumming accompaniment and contemporary African dance. Multigenerational and diverse, this delightful show celebrates dance from all around the world.
Paws 'n Effect
If You Love Dogs, Cities, and Sweet Stories, you need to see:

Paws 'n Effect by Off-Leash Area
This is a comic & enchanted story about a misunderstood little girl in the big city, who runs away from home and meets a magical dog in Central Park. Movement/projected animation/an original score - and a dog!

Because ... 
It has a dog! A super cute dog! Also, the combination of animation and score with live action as we follow the adventures of Lucy and Lily as they explore the city makes for a delightful multi-media experience. Plus, a dog!
Hodge Podge
If You Love Physical Comedy, Clowning, and Amazing Juggling, you really mustn't miss:

Hodge Podge by Benjamin Domask
Benjamin Domask uses the bits and pieces collected from his brain around the ideas of play, curiosity, and exploration to make the experience that is HODGE PODGE.

Because ... 
Don't think you like mime? Benjamin Domask's seemingly magical juggling and physical comedy skills will win over any possible mime skeptic. Interactive and engaging, the show description includes this charming note: "Disclaimer: Balls will be juggled, feathers will be balanced, a projector will be used."
Destination: Everywhere
If You Love Mime, Audience Interaction, and Silent Storytelling, try:

Destination: Everywhere by Broken Box Mime Theater
Comprised of original tales and interactive shorts by NYC's favorite silent storytellers, DESTINATION: EVERYWHERE is a boisterous, hour-long adventure that invites families to journey through invisible worlds.

Because ... 
You saw Benjamin Domask's Hodge Podge and decided you want more mime, dang it! Also, audience interaction and the opportunity to learn a little mime yourself. Amaze your friends!

If You Love Improv, and Dream of Bringing Your Kids to Second City, why not check out:

Bedtime Stories by Brave New Workshop Student Union
Bedtime Stories is an improv show featuring teen students of the Brave New Workshop Student Union. Come along for the ride as they create fully realized children's stories based on audience suggestions!

Because ... 
It's teens! Improvising! Can they make it through without swears? Come and see!

That's it! Six great shows, two weekends!

What You Need to Know:
This year, Family Fringe takes place July 26-28 and August 2-4, slightly before and during the Minnesota Fringe Festival, which takes place August 1-11, 2019. All performances will be at the Barbara Barker Center for Dance on the West Bank.

Ticket Info:
Tickets to all Minnesota Fringe Festival (including Family Fringe) shows are $14.00 each. Youth under the age of 12 qualify for the $6 admission price. Infants in laps do not need tokens, but toddlers do. More info about tickets and multi-show passes is at the Fringe Festival FAQ page.

And One More Reminder Why Family Fringe is Awesome:
“[Family Fringe] programming offers young audiences and their care providers new and adventurous options that are hard to find and/or underrepresented in traditional theater spaces." (Family Fringe website) 
Don't miss these fabulous shows! 

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Summer Theater for DAYS - Jefferson Township etc.

Leslie Vincent and Kelly Houlehan in
Jefferson Township Sparkling Junior Talent Pageant
Periodically, the utter abundance of fabulous theater in the Twin Cities gets a little overwhelming. In order to help you, our dear readers, sort through the opportunities, here's our list of what we're looking forward to this summer.


Jefferson Township Sparkling Junior Talent Pageant
Jun 14 – Jul 28, 2019
Andy Boss Stage at Park Square Theatre

Why we're excited: We saw this at the Minnesota Fringe in 2017 (twice) and here's what we had to say and we'll say it again and LOUDER.
Go see this. Keith Hovis is a young genius, and this show is just as dark and delightful as his Teenage Misery. The music is fun and the lyrics are hilarious. And the CAST. Kelly Houlehan plays and sings crazy like no one else, and Ryan London Levin, as her reluctant partner in crime and pageantry is delightful to watch. Leslie Vincent is frighteningly perfect as the small town beauty queen hanging on to her crown with all her might. Zach Garcia is perfect as the ex-jock who might just be the most level-headed of the group. Amazingly, in the span of an hour, Hovis fits a clear story, fully-realized characters, and oh, so many jokes! You'll laugh, you'll cry, and you'll laugh again.
NOTE: This was sitting in our blog drafts for an age and we're just coming back to it. We were going to add a bunch more shows, but although there is a lot of great theater coming up, we were not remotely as excited about them as we were about this one! So go!! Darn it!

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Guys and Dolls - Guthrie Theater

Why is the show logo cards when the
whole story revolves around a craps game? Hmm.
Although Love is in our name, sometimes we are not full of love. Sometimes we are killers of joy. Sometimes we can't just sit back and take in a show without giving it serious consideration--even if it's summer, even if it's a classic musical, even if it's at the Big G.

That said, here are three things we liked about Guys and Dolls (playing through August 25 at the Guthrie Theater):

1) Represent! Loved the racial and body diversity of the chorus--particularly the Hot Box girls. Yay for a diverse creative team as well. Well done, G.

2) New Faces! Lots of Guthrie debuts from local actors seen often on other stages. Gabrielle Dominique, although not new to the Guthrie, was a fabulous addition. Also, how can this possibly be comic genius Karen Wiese-Thompson's Guthrie debut???

3) Jon Andrew Hegge! Whether playing a hilarious Harry the Horse or as part of the chorus, he was one to watch. His dancing and pratfalls as the drunken gambler were fabulous, as were his subtle (for the show!) characterizations of Harry the Horse. Hegge is always a delight.

Photo by T. Charles Erickson
Which brings us to the rest of the show, which was pretty disappointing. We've got no issue with the Guthrie and their big summer musicals--after all, they get butts in seats. But we expect more of the Guthrie and all the resources they have on tap. If they're not offering either a fresh take on the musical or really leaning into the classic, then what is the point?

In recent years, the Ordway has presented modern takes or spins on classic musicals to wonderful effect. 2016's Paint Your Wagon featured a new book framing the gorgeous musical numbers that "populates the Gold Rush setting with a cast of characters seldom seen in a classic musical. The racial and cultural diversity here isn't window dressing, but is central to the story in a new and refreshing way." Damn Yankees (in 2015) used its diverse casting to start discussions on interracial relationships and the history of black baseball, while honoring the hell out of the musical. And Theater Latte Da has a great track record of reimagining musicals, such as 2017's Man of La Mancha, with its contemporary detention center setting.

Another option? Do it straight. Last year's Broadway revival of Hello, Dolly, which we saw with Bernadette Peters, was an absolutely perfect production of the musical. Gorgeous design, beautiful costumes, fantastic dancing, and top of the line performances. The Ordway's production of Jesus Christ Superstar in 2017 was another production that played it mostly straight but utterly honored the original show.

Photo by T. Charles Erickson
Guys and Dolls is already a nearly perfect musical. The book, written by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows, captures the unique tone and character of the 1930s Damon Runyon short stories it's based on. The music and lyrics of Frank Loesser provide one show-stopping number after another. The show has been a much-revived musical theater classic since 1950. Even the book holds up surprisingly well, due mostly to the strong characters: Nathan Detroit, organizer of the "oldest established permanent floating crap game in New York" (Rodney Gardiner), his fiancĂ©e (of 14 years), dancer Miss Adelaide (Kirsten Wyatt), Sergeant Sarah Brown of the Save Our Souls mission (Olivia Hernandez), and Sky Masterson, tough guy gambler (Jeremiah James).

Guys and Dolls is a fable of Broadway and takes place in a specific, stylized New York setting with very distinctive language. The Guthrie production, directed by Kent Gash, brings the show forward to the mid-1950s, but one has to wonder why. Is it only so that the opening number "Runyonland" can incorporate coy nods to fifties icons like Marilyn Monroe (and the subway grate) and an Annie Get Your Gun lookalike? And why is Lt. Brannigan dressed like Dick Tracy, complete with two-way wrist radio? This choice doesn't even fit with the character, as Brannigan is a cop who cannot manage to shut down a craps game and Dick Tracy was a successful detective going after big-time criminals. Our biggest peeve about these sight gags is that Damon Runyon's world is very specific, and interpolating random pop culture characters dilutes the effect without adding anything.

Photo by T. Charles Erickson
And although the crowd applauded it at first sight, we didn't love the giant lighted "Guys" and "Dolls" signs hanging over the stage. Understanding that it's not a realistic set, it's still hard to fathom why those words are hanging over the characters during the show. If there were other Times-Square type signage and those words stayed lit at the end of the show, it might be clever. But as a standalone element used seemingly randomly to generate applause, it didn't work for us. Yes, we're picky. What's your point?

The whole thing could have used a bit more subtlety and left us with many questions. Do women have to be wearing visible garter belts to be identifiable as prostitutes (in the opening scene)? Was a drop with rows of pictures of old cars (which looked like shabby chic art from Home Goods) really appropriate shorthand for the underwhelming "Havana" setting? Why did one of the characters in "Runyonland" have a 1960s beehive complete with can of hairspray? Why is the tape outline on the floor so visible? Why is there no explanation of why the show is re-set in the mid-1950s?

Photo by T. Charles Erickson
Don't get us wrong: Kirsten Wyatt was very delightful as the loveable Miss Adelaide, but her histrionics made her seem to be suffering from more than a psychosomatic cold (although her sneezes were adorable). The rest of the main characters felt too contemporary, to the point that Runyon's very specific syntax was lost. Rather than seeming natural (in Runyon's unnatural, stylized way), lines like "She is a beautiful doll, all right, with one hundred percent eyes," felt forced.

There's very little that we require of Guys and Dolls. Having seen myriad productions of the show from Broadway revivals to community theater, we just need two things: 1) The show to honor the material, the gorgeous arrangements and songs, and 2) For our two couples to have chemistry ("Chemistry?" "Yeah, chemistry.") and believable relationships.

We'll say it again: This is the Guthrie. As a "leading 21st-century arts organization", which "creates transformative theater experiences that ignite the imagination, stir the heart, open the mind, and build community through the illumination of our common humanity" (Guthrie website), we expect BETTER.

If you're going to play the show straight, then play the show straight. The rearrangements were unnecessary and undercut the gorgeous material. The rich harmonies ending "The Oldest Established" and "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat" didn't get their due with so much focus on movement rather than musicality. Simply not taking back the minks at the end of "Take Back Your Mink"--especially when they left the final line ("Well? Wouldn't you?") does not create a feminist take. Why are cast members stepping? And why, oh WHY is the Guthrie squandering the talents of Regina Marie Williams, Katie Bradley, Robert O. Berdahl, Caroline Innerbichler, Karen Wiese-Thompson, and Angela Timberman? ANGELA TIMBERMAN, y'all. Come on.

And if you're not going to play the show straight, nor are you going to add new layers (as the Ordway has done so successfully), then why do Guys and Dolls? Why not bring the Guthrie's considerable resources to a show that isn't as well known? Hundreds of musicals debuted during Broadway's Golden Age, so tackling one of the others would be a real challenge. Or HEY, what about one of the many, many amazing musicals produced in the sixty-nine years since the debut of Guys and Dolls.

But maybe that's the point. Maybe neither the Guthrie nor its audience wants to be surprised and delighted by a musical. But we do.

Leslie Vincent and Kelly Houlehan in Jefferson Township
Sparkling Junior Talent Pageant
And that's why we're recommending to you to skip Guys and Dolls and head over to Saint Paul for Keith Hovis's Jefferson Township Sparkling Junior Talent Pageant (through July 28 at Park Square Theatre). You have the opportunity to see a new, charming musical by a future prize-winning writer, performed by an amazingly talented cast. Trust us. Go see this instead.

And hey, since this show made us long to hear T. Mychael Rambo sing "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat," why not check out 42nd Street at the Ordway (July 23 through August 11 at the Ordway) starring Rambo, Tyler Michaels King, and Jamecia Bennett?

There's a great big world of theater out there. Take a chance!

Saturday, June 1, 2019

May Round-Up: We Saw a Bunch of Plays

Sherwin Resurreccion and Regina Marie Williams in
The Brothers Paranormal (Photo by Jeff Wheeler)
So, we saw a bunch of plays but got really busy and completely forgot to tell you about them. Sorry!

We were forced to tell people individually
about the plays we loved, which is inefficient at best and ever so tedious.

So here's a retroactive recap:

The Brothers Paranormal - Penumbra Theatre Company and Theater Mu coproduction
Written by Prince Gomolvilas and directed by Lou Bellamy, this gorgeous play is a both a spooky ghost story and a haunting meditation on grief. Brothers Max (Sherwin Resurreccion) and Visarut (Kurt Kwan) are ghost hunters engaged by Delia (Regina Marie Williams) and Felix (James Craven) to explore mysterious happenings at their house.

The Brothers Paranormal is a marvelously crafted play with rich, full characters. The performances are outstanding by the entire cast, including Leslie Ishii as the boys' mother and Michelle de Joya as Jai. In particular, the chemistry and affectionate teasing between Williams and Craven is #relationshipgoals. And a big shout out to the wonderful Sherwin Resurreccion who is one of the most fascinating actors to watch--any time we get to see him act is an utter delight.

Ordway Cabaret: Rise Up - Ordway Center for the Performing Arts
Before he left his position at the Ordway as producing Artistic Director, James Rocco created a series of musical theater revue shows called the Broadway Songbook. Sharing his own love for musical theater, a talented cast performed a variety of musical theater numbers organized around a particular theme. In his absence, the Ordway has continued these revues, now in their Ordway Concert Hall, and their recent Ordway Cabaret: Rise Up is a treat. Directed by Kelli Foster Warder, this thoughtful performance provided "an evening of songs from ground-making Broadway musicals that shine a light on revolutionary moments in time" (from the director's note). And if you think that doesn't include Hamilton? You'd be wrong.

In this iteration of the Ordway Cabaret, the cast shared their own personal stories and sang songs that represented their heartfelt stories. The cast was comprised of Aimee K. Bryant, David Carey, Deidre Cochran, Brianna Graham, John Jamison, Hope Nordquist and Max Wojtanowicz and everyone was outstanding. I would be eternally happy to just listen to Aimee K. Bryant and John Jamison sing--alone or together. Don't miss the Ordway Cabarets--it's a rare treat.

La Traviata - Minnesota Opera
Although the popularity of the great classics allows Minnesota Opera to put on exciting and engaging new work, sometimes I sigh when they come up in the rotation. But sometimes, a production reminds me why these became the great classics. A lovely spare production, this La Traviata featured an amazing cast. Nicole Cabell as Violetta and Jesus Leon as Alfredo sang beautifully, acted the hell out of their parts, and had real chemistry. Add in Joo Won Kang as Alfredo's father Giorgio--whose voice was STAGGERINGLY rich and vibrant--and we had a powerhouse trio leading this opera. Also, and not incidentally, it was a treat to see such racial diversity represented on stage. YAY, MN Opera and keep it up!

Five-Fifths of Mary Poppins - Minnesota Fringe Festival at Park Square Theatre
Minnesota Fringe Festival's annual fundraising benefit performance is a yearly treat. This is only the second we've seen, but we're on board for all future performances. Read more about this and past performances at our friend Cherry and Spoon's blog. Long story short, The Fringe takes a movie, cuts it into five parts and asks five artists to interpret it using their own unique approach and style. This year's offering, Mary Poppins, was interpreted by Shrieking Harpies (music improv), Sheep Theater (theater), Oncoming Productions (theater), Javier Morillo (storytelling), and ALL DAY (dance). So fun, and such a great kickoff to the annual Fringe Fest.

Friday, May 10, 2019

The Play That Goes Wrong - National Tour at the Orpheum Theatre

This is the way the logo is used in marketing materials. It's wrong, you see.
One of the rare non-musical touring shows to come to the Twin Cities this year is The Play That Goes Wrong. The show is an all-out slapstick comedy about a play that suffers from one mishap after another. Even before the curtain goes up, members of the crew are in the theater, trying to repair the dilapidated set.

The play we see is a standard-issue British murder mystery called The Murder at Haversham Manor, a production of the Cornley University Drama Society, which somehow ended up as a major touring production in the U.S. More on that later. The curtain rises on a not-quite-dead body, falls again, and rises on the actor still trying to get in place as the deceased. The fact that the supposedly dead man ends up moving himself around the stage elicits many of the first laughs of the evening. The set falling apart, actors forgetting or mispronouncing their lines, props going missing, and actors inappropriately playing to the crowd are some of the issues this play faces.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Pop Goes the Noggin - S.O.S. Theater

Our experience at Pop Goes the Noggin by S.O.S. Theater at Gremlin Theatre in St. Paul (through May 12) began with an utterly fabulous spring afternoon on the patio at Lake Monster Brewing with fantastic food by Reverie Mobile Kitchen.

Can all plays be at Gremlin Theatre, please? Particularly in the summer? THANKS!

Anyhoo. Pop Goes the Noggin began with a curtain speech (by the playwright Michele Lepsche, we think--she didn't introduce herself) wherein we were told that the play was in rough shape and then she (Lepsche) got sick. Luckily,  director Kari Steinbach and dramaturge (and cast member) Greta Grosch came through to help her out and the show was completed. It's a strangely honest way to kick off your opening night.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Be More Chill - Minneapolis Musical Theatre

Minneapolis Musical Theatre's production of Be More Chill is a rare opportunity to see one of the hottest shows on Broadway right here in Minnesota.

And let us tell you friends, we VASTLY preferred MMT's version to the Broadway version. Read on to discover why!

Be More Chill is a theatrical sensation. With music and lyrics by Joe Iconis, book by Joe Tracz, and based on the 2004 novel of the same name by Ned Vizzini, this new musical premiered at Two River Theatre in Red Bank, New Jersey in 2015. Last year, the extended off-Broadway run at New York's Signature Center picked up a cult following, and in February 2019, the musical opened on Broadway. The show has been compared to Dear Evan Hansen for the way it speaks to young people, who are the show's most fervent fans.
The cast of Be More Chill. Set design by Robin McIntyre. Photo by Scott Pakudaitis.
We witnessed this wild affection for ourselves when we caught Be More Chill in previews on Broadway. The show, however, left us cold. If it wasn't for our affection and respect for Minneapolis Musical Theatre's excellent work (like last year's amazing High Fidelity), we probably would have skipped it altogether. We are so glad we didn't!

Maxwell Emmett Ward as Jeremy.
Photo by Scott Pakudaitis.
Be More Chill is about a young social outcast named Jeremy Heere (Maxwell Emmett Ward), who lives at home with his divorced father (Christian Unser) and hangs out with Michael Mell (Jim Belden), his best friend and fellow outcast. Jeremy has a crush on Christine Canigula (Caitlin Featherstone) and gets involved with the school play to get closer to her. Jeremy is casually bullied by popular Rich Goranski (Nick Manthe), but Rich nonetheless shares with Jeremy his secret of social success: an oblong gray pill called a squip. You can pretty much guess the rest, if you've seen a movie.

Even though Broadway is considered to be the pinnacle of theatrical entertainment, there are times when a show just doesn't work for us on Broadway. Spring Awakening was a show we couldn't stand on Broadway, but Theater Latte Da's production with the U of M was a revelation. The same with Be More Chill. The Broadway production was over-produced with lots of flashing lights, no heart, and little humor. MMT's version could not be more different.

For one thing, Jeremy is played by Maxwell Emmett Ward, who we last saw as Dick in MMT's High Fidelity. He not only gives sweetness and realism to Jeremy, he is also fantastically funny, with devastating timing. Did we mention his incredible voice?

Jim Belden as Michael.
Photo by Scott Pakudaitis
As Jeremy's best friend Michael, Jim Belden kills "Michael in the Bathroom," one of Be More Chill's most memorable numbers. Caitlin Featherstone perfectly captures Christine Canigula's quirky and endearing personality. The chemistry and relationships between all three give this production its heart and soul. There are apparently changes in the script as well, with MMT using the off-Broadway script that was made available for licensing. But the changes didn't stand out, except that we felt much more connected to the characters and invested in the outcome in this production.

Ward with Caitlin Featherstone as Christine.
Photo by Scott Pakudaitis.
The scene that really exemplifies the difference in the shows is "Two-Player Game," where Jeremy and Michael express their friendship through a video game. On Broadway, the song was accompanied by lights and projections simulating the game, but MMT's version, the two characters connect through their physicality in wielding their game controllers in coordination.

Also notable is the physical coordination between Jeremy and the embodiment of his Squip (Mike Tober). Ward really seems like the Squip is controlling his movements against his will, which is both funny and scary.

Director Sara Pillatzki-Warzeha, who also directed High Fidelity (which we saw three times), brings the best out of the talented young ensemble. The actors feel like the teenagers they are playing, and they enthusiastically perform Abbi Fern's choreography. A kick-ass band, conducted by Anna Murphy, adds to the fun.

Go see this and support Minneapolis Musical Theatre. They are doing beautiful work, and they imbue all of their work with talented artists and plenty of heart.

When: April 5 - 28, 2019
At: Illusion Theater
Running Time: Two hours and some?

And in case you're wondering how MMT's excellent production compares to the Broadway one, here's the New York Times review of Be More Chill by Ben Brantley:

"This all sounds like more fun than it is — at least for anyone over the age of 21. (That’s a generous cutoff point.) The acting, singing and dancing (choreographed by Chase Brock) are all, to put it kindly, frenetic. The set (by Beowulf Boritt), lighting (Tyler Micoleau) costumes (Bobby Frederick Tilley II) and projections (Alex Basco Koch) bring to mind bright fan fiction comic books drawn in fluorescent crayon."