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."

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

The Golden Record Project - Sandbox Theatre

We've never seen anything like The Golden Record Project at Sandbox Theatre (through May 4). An art installation and a performance piece set simultaneously in the past and the future, this truly immersive show is, frankly, mind-blowing.

Pro Tip: When you go (NOT IF), go early so you can explore the installation fully before the performance begins. And book your tickets now. Audience space is limited and tickets are going fast!

Here's the backstory: When NASA sent the Voyager spacecraft outside our solar system in 1977, a team led by Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan prepared a recording to accompany the probe. The idea was to provide an introduction to the people of Earth to any intelligent beings that may find the craft.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

US

I digress from our regularly scheduled theater programming to tell you that I read a bunch about Jordan Peele's fantastic horror film Us.

Here are a few articles I found particularly interesting.

WARNING: THIS IS SPOILER CENTRAL.

MUST MUST MUST READ:

Wikipedia Brown on Twitter: Things I Missed the First Time Around,  @eveewing
 Mar 29More~ RTed this thread so you should go ahead and assume that all my interpretations are correct 😎

‘Us’ Review: Jordan Peele’s Creepy Latest Turns a Funhouse Mirror on Us, Manohla Dargis, New York Times 
In “Us,” Peele uses the metaphor of the divided self to explore what lies beneath contemporary America, its double consciousness, its identity, sins and terrors. The results are messy, brilliant, sobering, even bleak — the final scene is a gut punch delivered with a queasy smile — but Jordan Peele isn’t here just to play.
 A Thinkpiece About Thinkpieces About Us, Michael Harriott, The Root
Good black films can’t be about regular black people. For a black film to be a critical darling, it must be centered in whiteness. The pain, the heroism or the story must be relatable to white people. The film must have a white savior or teach us an existential lesson about the universality of mankind. Black people are only seen as human when they are suffering from black shit (slavery, oppression or injustice).
Us: We Discuss Jordan Peele's New Psychological Thriller, Wesley Morris and Jenna Wortham, Still Processing (podcast)
We dissect Jordan Peele’s new psychological thriller, “Us,” and discuss the film’s central question (WITHOUT SPOILERS): Are any of us ever truly free from the past?
 Empire Podcast Us Spoiler Special Ft. Jordan Peele, Chris Hewitt, Empire Magazine (podcast)
This movie’s about maybe the monster is you. It’s about us, looking at ourselves as individuals and as a group.

What Is ‘Us’ About? Here Are Some Interesting Theories, Kyle Buchanan, New York Times
Is Jordan Peele’s “Us” a metaphor for our politically polarized moment, a rallying cry for the dispossessed 99 percent or simply a nifty home-invasion movie?
This horror hit from the director of “Get Out” is designed to keep audiences guessing, and each viewer is likely to leave with his or her own interpretation of what the film really means. (Perhaps we should have known when the first image Peele released for “Us” was of a tantalizing Rorschach blot.)
 How Jordan Peele Builds Suspense in ‘Us’Mekado Murphy, New York Times
The film’s writer and director discusses a haunting scene where members of a family meet their terrifying doubles.
Why Lupita Nyong’o’s ‘Us’ Voice Sounds So Creepy, Reggie Ugwu, New York Times 
The sound has provoked strong reactions in audiences and critics. In his review, New York magazine’s David Edelstein described it as “the whistle of someone whose throat has been cut” and “a rush of acrid air from a tomb.”
On the trail in Austin, Nyong’o was recalling how she fell in love with acting when something — someone — broke her focus. It was a large man in a faded T-shirt and white earbuds walking behind us, talking so loudly that we were struggling to hear one another. Nyong’o stopped and turned around. As the man passed by, she gave him a look of such elegant and devastating ferocity that I thought he might evaporate mid-stride, leaving only the earbuds behind. The bodyguards may not have been necessary after all.
‘Us’ Took Hands Across America and Made It a Death Grip, Erik Piepenburg, New York Times
“There’s something cultlike about the imagery that makes me think of the Manson family singing folk songs as they leave the courtroom,” said Peele, who was 7 when the nationwide gathering happened. “There’s like an insistence that as long as we have each other, we can walk blindly past the ugliness and evil that we may be a part of.”
After ‘Us,’ Jordan Peele Crosses Over to ‘The Twilight Zone’, Dave Itzkoff, New York Times
But in this tale of unlikely parallels, Peele has been shadowing Serling’s trajectory all along, whether or not he wants to admit it. He, too, has used genre entertainment to convey otherwise unpalatable truths to his viewers, deploying sketch comedy to comment on police brutality or horror movies to skewer self-satisfied liberals.
“It’s been good to me,” he said. “‘5 on It’ blew up, and it’s blowing up again, which is crazy because it’s 24 years later.” If that’s what being a one-hit wonder means, he joked, “I’ll be a one-hit wonder.”

Monday, April 8, 2019

The Drowning Girls - Freshwater Theatre

This weekend, we saw two shows in which women played real historical figures, but looked at their stories with the benefit of hindsight. The plays are very different, but both allow the women to tell their own stories, with the help of other women. Two may not be a trend, but if it is, we are here for it.

The first was Velvet Swing by Umbrella Collective (check out our rave here) and the second is The Drowning Girls by Freshwater Theatre at the Crane through April 14 (only!!)

Walking into the Crane theater space, we were greeted by a spare set featuring three old-fashioned clawfoot bathtubs with running shower heads. (The lovely box office staff warned us that there's a lot of water in the show and no intermission, so .... check out the restrooms in advance!)  The sound and the set beautifully sets the scene for a spare, haunting play.

Sunday, April 7, 2019

Velvet Swing - The Umbrella Collective

Although Women's History Month is over, Twin Cities theaters are still filled with fascinating, thought-provoking plays examining women from history. YAY!

Case in point: the ingenious and inventive Velvet Swing by Umbrella Collective at Bryant-Lake Bowl (through April 27).

Before seeing this play, my knowledge of Evelyn Nesbit was limited to her appearance in the musical Ragtime, based on the book by E.L. Doctorow.