Thursday, February 9, 2017

Black Light at Penumbra Theatre

Black Light: A Soulful Embrace of Life and Love is a unique theatrical event that feels more like a gathering than a performance. Through music and stories, Jomama Jones acknowledges the darkness of the present moment and encourages strength for the struggles to come.
Black Light is not to be missed, especially if you are feeling disheartened by current events. Jomama Jones is here to tell us that we will get through these times together.

Jomama's stories of her high school science classes lead into discussion of black holes and event horizons as well as a vivid definition of a penumbra, in honor of the theater's namesake. (A penumbra is the light that shines around an object that blocks the light, as in an eclipse. She explains it much more beautifully.) Tales of childhood visits to family in the South become a discovery of her Aunt Cleotha's past and present lives as a witness for God. She engages the audience directly, but not in an overwhelming way, asking for responses and returning to those people later.
Helga Davis, Jomama Jones, and Trevor Bachman
Photos by Angela Jimenez for Penumbra Theatre

These stories introduce upbeat and empowering original music with songs (written by Jones, Bobby Halvorson, and Dylan Meek) that reflect Jomama's history as a "soulsonic superstar" and reminded me of the pop/R&B I heard on the radio as a child of the '70s. The strong musical ensemble includes musical director Samora Pinderhughes on piano, and local musicians Benjamin James Kelly on bass, Matt Edlund on drums, and Geoff LeCrone (alternating with Alexander Kosak) on guitar, plus vocalists Helga Davis and Trevor Bachman. There isn't a song list in the program, but the music was from her newest CD, Flowering. There was even a song dedicated to Prince,

Throughout, Jomama Jones is a thoroughly engaging, wonderful and wise presence. She is very funny, and although I was toward the back of the theater, I felt that she was speaking directly to me. Spending time in her presence was like making a new friend, one who finds life to be challenging, beautiful, and funny, even amidst dark times, and who reminds us that all we really have in this world is each other.

Jomama Jones, Trevor Bachman
Photos by Angela Jimenez for Penumbra Theatre
Daniel Alexander Jones, who created and embodies Jomama, has a long history with Penumbra and the Twin Cities, dating back to Penumbra's 1994 premiere of Shay Youngblood's Talking Bones. Also a core member of the Playwright's Center and a company member of both Penumbra and Pillsbury House theaters, Jones last brought Jomama to the Pillsbury House stage in 2011, which I wish I had seen. Prior to the all-too-brief Penumbra run (through February 17), Black Light was performed at Joe's Pub at the Public Theater in New York.

For more information on this fascinating performer, check out her Facebook page, or her YouTube channel, which include several videos including the song "Joy," her tribute to Prince. And Penumbra's webpage for the show includes a video of Jones captivating her audience in a previous show.

And a shoutout to Jones for creating a character who, in high school, could do anything and everything well, but who was especially drawn to science. A wonderful role model for any girl. Or boy. Or anyone who is otherwise defined.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Our Favorite Shows of 2016: An Embarrassment of Riches

We at Minnesota Theater Love recently got together with our theater blogging friends to award the 2016 Twin Cities Theater Bloggers awards. We discussed and debated and voted and even after all that, we still had a few shows to which we wanted to give a little more love.

Here are some of the other shows we LOVED in 2016. (Links go to our original reviews.)

The Beauty Queen of Leenane (Theatre Pro Rata)
The Beauty Queen of Leenane
Sally Wingert in an intimately staged Martin McDonagh play from Theatre Pro Rata. Hilarious and gory and perfect. (I apologize for my non-inclusive use of the term 'spirit animal' in the linked post--I've learned better since then.) 

The Best Brothers
I mean, come ON. Wade A. Vaughn and David Mann as brothers in Loudmouth Collective's production at the Open Eye Figure Theater. Like I suppose you could do any better than that.

David Darrow and Annie Enneking in Lullaby
(Photo by George Byron Griffiths)
We saw this Theater Latte Da show in previews, so we didn't write about it (but here's Cherry and Spoon's take). This lovely new musical is the show that reaffirmed our love for David Darrow and put Annie Enneking on our must-see list. (See also Lasso of Truth.) 

Dashing back and forth in time, in seemingly random order, this two-hander at Pillsbury House Theatre (with the marvelous Jasmine Hughes and Sarah Agnew) perfectly captured the elusive moments that make up life and love.

Silence! The Musical
Minneapolis Musical Theatre had a fabulous year, and this show was outfreakingstanding. Tuneful, hilarious and shocking; every cast member utterly committed, and directed with the perfect tone. LOVED.

Silence! The Musical
(Photo by Unser Imagery)
Basement Creatures
Enormously strange and utterly original, this show left me nearly speechless and a huge Davey T. Steinman fan. (In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre)

The Normal Heart/Coriolanus
New Epic Theater immediately became one to watch with this pair of ambitious and perfectly realized plays performed in repertory at the Lab Theater. Amazing cast, beautifully done.

As usual, Nautilus-Music-Theater knocks it out of the park, casting Wendy Lehr and Gary Briggle as the young lovers and the Baldwin sisters as the fathers. Gorgeously done, and exquisitely sung.

Julienne "Mizz June" Brown and her class
(Photo by Rich Ryan)
Hilarious and heartwarming play about Mama Darleena, a trans woman running charm classes at a LGBQTI community center. Mixed Blood found a wonderful, young, energetic, racially diverse, and non-gender conforming cast for this new play by Philip Dawkins (whose Le Switch at the Jungle Theater was another highlight of the year).

Leap of Faith
Another great show from Minneapolis Musical Theatre, this little-performed musical about a shady preacher perfectly inhabited the often-tricky New Century Theater space, and brought energy for days. Terrific performances all around, but particularly from Matt Tatone, Jill Iverson and Brandon A. Jackson.

Lasso of Truth
This amazing play, written by Carson Kreitzer and performed by Workhaus Collective is association with Walking Shadow Theatre Company, follows the true story of the man who invented Wonder Woman and the lie detector, and lived in a polyamorous relationship. With imaginative, evocative projections by Davey T. Steinman.

Regina M. Williams, Dan Hopman, Jennifer Blagen,
James A. Williams in Scapegoat
(Photo by George Byron Griffiths)
Young New Prague theater company DalekoArts blew me away so thoroughly with their gorgeous, hilarious production of Urinetown that I was left utterly without words and had to write the whole post with gifs.

Christina M. Ham's powerful play about a little-known race riot brings the past and the future together beautifully. Another beautiful work at Pillsbury House Theater, masterfully executed with an outstanding cast.

Trouble in Mind
Alice Childress' 1955 play about racial integration, stereotypical portrayals and prejudice, performed with all the resources available to the Guthrie Theater (yay, new Joseph Haj season!) is spot-on and unnervingly true-to-life today. Beautifully done, with amazing performances from locals and imported actors alike.

Passing Through Pig's Eye
This lovely dance piece by Joe Chvala's Flying Foot Forum at Park Square Theatre explored St. Paul's gangster past through dance, leading the audience through the streets of St. Paul to charming effect.

Although I wish I'd studied up on both Bluebeard and Ibsen's A Doll House before seeing this amazing immersive production set at the James J. Hill House by Combustible Company, the excellent use of a non-traditional setting and wild imagery will stay with me.

The Children 
This show was amazing. How could we have not written about it? As soon as this fascinating and thoughtful new play by Michael Elyanow was over, I wanted to see it again. Pillsbury House Theatre presented an amazing staging with a marvelous cast and excellent use of puppets, designed by Masanari Kawahara, who also designed and brought life to a puppet character in the Jungle Theater's wonderful The Oldest Boy.

This rare comedy about families preparing for a barbecue thoroughly entertains while also asking us to question our prejudices, check our stereotypes, and interrogate the very nature of truth. Another outstandingly important and relevant show from Mixed Blood Theater.

Teenage Misery 
A horror-comedy musical with tons of nods to eighties movies and Stephen King. Written by the marvelously talented Keith Hovis and produced by Revisionary Theatre Collective. A talented, committed cast performed this hilarious, clever and tuneful show. I need a cast recording!

Jasmine Hughes, Terry Bellamy, Darrick Mosley,
and Abdul Salaam El Razzac in Jitney. (Photo by Allen Weeks)
Penumbra Theatre, direction by Lou Bellamy, starring a cast of all-time theater greats and wonderful newer faces. August Wilson's beautiful language has never been as beautifully staged and framed. Perfect. I can't imagine anyone doing it better.

We have so much amazing local theater to be grateful for. How can all of this theater magic be all in one year? I can't wait to see what 2017 brings!

Monday, December 19, 2016

Public Exposure by Market Garden Theatre

A bracing antidote to the holiday season's surfeit of sweetness, Public Exposure is a play that starts strong and maintains that drive all the way to the end.

The play is written by Keith Hovis, who also wrote the brilliant musical Teenage Misery. This piece is very different from that tongue-in-cheek horror-musical mashup, but provides ample evidence that Hovis is a playwright to watch.

Produced by Market Garden Theater, the Public Exposure experience starts with a rather adventurous trek to the performance space. In a neighborhood that seems to house mostly artists' spaces, you'll finally find the virtually unmarked but correct building. You'll follow a long series of stairways and hallways to get to the room called Maker Space Northeast. The unconventional space looks like a mess as you take a seat in an assortment of chairs hugging the walls of the space. Seating is truly limited, so definitely reserve tickets and arrive early if you attend.

But then the play begins, and it's all worth it. God bless small theater in unconventional spaces! The play opens and we are in the place where Ford (Nick Wolf) has been living (and partying) since losing his job. His friend and coworker Jen (Marci Lucht) comes to see him and gradually the story unfolds as she tries to interest him in a new business enterprise--basically, the opposite of online reputation defenders. When Hannah, another coworker, (Marika Proctor) drops by, things get increasingly complicated.

More than anything, the beauty in this play is in the tight, acerbic and witty script by Keith Hovis, who is SO on my ones to watch list. Considering this is the first time that this play has been performed, it's amazingly polished. The dialogue feels natural, even as the characters discuss the online ruination of others. And the other wonderful thing about this show is the ability to see such terrific talent up close and in-depth. All three actors do a kick-ass job.

Yay new plays! Yay fresh new talent!

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Miss Richfield 1981 Answers Our Burning Questions!

Gorgeous photo from Miss Richfield 1981's
Facebook page
After seeing the hilarious Miss Richfield 1981 in Trailer House to the State House - Santa-Style! at the Illusion Theater (read our glowing review here), we had a few burning questions for highly acclaimed pageant title holder.

Despite the grueling schedule of her super-hot holiday show, Miss Richfield 1981 graciously agreed to answer a few of our questions with her customary style and verve.

Don't forget! If you missed Miss Richfield 1981 this holiday season, she will be back at the Illusion Theater in February for a sneak preview of her new show: Miss Richfield 1981's 2017 Prog-rum.

On to the Q&A!

Chatting about Fun Home on tour at the Orpheum Theatre

Fun Home national touring company. Photo by Joan Marcus.
I had the opportunity to see the touring production of Fun Home at the Orpheum Theatre this week. Even though it would be my third viewing, I was interested to see how the show would hold up on tour. Fellow theater bloggers Jill of Cherry and Spoon and Laura of Twin Cities Stages had also seen the show in New York, so we thought we'd try something different and chat about our experiences with the show this time around. (Carly didn't see the show this time, but saw it in NY and did some research on the shows.) The slightly edited transcript follows. 

Friday, December 16, 2016

All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914 - Theater Latte Da at Pantages Theatre

2015 Production photo by George Byron Griffiths
Friends, there is a plethora of holiday shows for your theatergoing enjoyment this year, but I promise you:

No show will touch your heart more than All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914 by Theater Latte Da at the Pantages Theater. Nor will you hear more exquisite music and singing.

The curtain rises on a dark stage, and gradually the cast of twelve men take shape through the fog, singing "Will Ye Go to Flanders?"

In seventy breathtaking minutes, we hear the story of the Christmas Truce of 1914, where British and German soldiers met in No Man's Land and played football, took photographs, exchanged addresses and buried their dead. And they sang.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

White Christmas at the Ordway

Nature cooperated with the Ordway this week, providing a suitable snowy setting for its new staging of Irving Berlin's White Christmas. Based on the 1954 holiday film, the stage version is relatively new, having first played at the Ordway in 2006, in a memorable production that landed on Broadway two years later.

The Ordway's new production resembles that production, right down to costume and set designs. The musical introduces Bob Wallace (Dieter Bierbrauer) and Phil Davis (Brian Sostek) serving in WWII under General Waverly (James Detmar). Skip ahead ten years, and now it's 1954, where Wallace and Davis have turned their Christmas variety show into an act that is often featured on the Ed Sullivan show, where another of their Army buddies, Ralph Sheldrake (the always-delightful Randy Schmeling), is a producer.
Jenny Piersol as Judy Haynes and Ann Michels as Betty Haynes.
(Photos by Rich Ryan Photography)

As a favor to yet another army buddy, the guys check out his sisters in their act (it's always about who you know!). They're impressed with the Haynes sisters, and Phil conspires with Judy Haynes (Jenny Piersol) to throw Bob and Betty (Ann Michels) together. Soon they're all on a train headed to Vermont, where the sisters are booked for the holidays.

Unseasonable heat is ruining business at the inn, which happens to be owned by General Waverly. Wallace and Davis decide to move their holiday show rehearsals to the inn to help out their old commanding officer. Rehearsal scenes allow plenty of opportunity for the cast to perform many of Irving Berlin's loveliest tunes.
Valerie Wick as Susan Waverly, Dieter Bierbrauer as
Bob Wallace, and Thomasina Petrus as Martha Watson.
And when Thomasina Petrus takes the stage as Martha Watson, the General's second-in-command at the inn, the show kicks into high gear, Thomasina Petrus is a joy to behold. In addition to running the inn, Watson has a history in show business. Her show-stopping rendition of "Let Me Sing and I'm Happy" makes me wish for the days when characters would reprise a show-stopping song.

The "let's put on a show" part of the story means that most of the songs can stand alone rather than being shoehorned into the plot, which is a relief after seeing some other jukebox musicals. A highlight at the top of the second act is "I Love a Piano," danced beautifully and athletically by Phil and Judy with the ensemble. Brian Sostek is a local treasure for his ability to combine dance and comedy, and it's great to see him really master this very traditional musical theater role. Jenny Piersol matches him step for step in the dances.
Brian Sostek as Phil Davis and Jenny Piersol as Judy Haynes.

Songs are sung, misunderstandings cause rifts that will later mend, and there are some corny jokes. It's a very traditional, family-friendly musical comedy with all the pretty costumes and tap dancing that a show can handle. The small ensemble does a good job of not making the stage feel too empty, but I did wish for more men to round out the scenes where the audience is meant to be made up of the soldiers from Waverly's unit.

The cast of White Christmas
The nineteen-piece orchestra does a wonderful job with the jazzy arrangements of the seventeen or so songs, from the well-known title tune, "Blue Skies," and "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm" to the less-familiar but very charming "Snow" and "Falling Out of Love Can Be Fun." All of the songs are good; Berlin was no slouch as a songwriter. I've been listening to the 2006 cast recording for years and enjoy the whole thing.

White Christmas is a crowd-pleaser, and if it didn't quite live up to my personal memories of that first Ordway production, it's still an uplifting and entertaining evening of beautiful music and dance.

Musical Theater Rabbit Hole:

Thinking about the first White Christmas at the Ordway reminded me of these videos that the cast made while they were in St. Paul. It helps if you remember when the Saturday Night Live video "Lazy Sunday" was a big deal. Jeffry Denman played Phil Davis in that production and headed up this project.

There are even follow-up videos from 2007 in Boston and the 2008 New York production, if you're into theater people being weird. Also, Denman wrote a good book about a year in the life of a working Broadway actor called A Year With The Producers: One Actor's Exhausting (But Worth It) Journey from Cats to Mel Brooks' Mega-Hit. 

When I looked to see what he was up to these days, I found this nifty video of "Cool" from West Side Story, danced all over Central Park. Glad to see he's still out there making beautiful things.