Wednesday, May 9, 2018

High Fidelity - Minneapolis Musical Theatre at The Electric Fetus

Dear Minneapolis Musical Theatre, you are a genius. 

Staging the musical High Fidelity at Minneapolis's beloved record store The Electric Fetus is truly inspired. (The show plays through May 20--get your tickets now, before they sell out!)

High Fidelity is about Rob, a record store owner who gets dumped by his girlfriend Laura and tries to figure out what went wrong in this and the other relationships in his past. All of this, and everything else in Rob's and his employees' lives, is intrinsically related to music.

Man, I love High Fidelity. Nick Hornby's novel was remaindered when I worked at a book distributor in Minneapolis and the staff all bought and loved it. The 2000 movie starring the perfectly cast John Cusack, Jack Black and Todd Louiso (and Joan Cusack, Tim Robbins, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Lili Taylor--come ON!) still holds up beautifully today. 

High Fidelity, the musical, is perfectly adapted from the source material--so perfectly it seems completely organic. The pedigree is amazing: book by David Lindsay-Abaire (Rabbit Hole, Shrek the Musical), music by Tom Kitt (Next to Normal, If/Then) and lyrics by Amanda Green (Bring It On, Hands on a Hardbody). It closed on Broadway in 2006 after only 13 performances, which is surprising, since it's a completely charming musical with great songs, a strong book and delightful lyrics.

So why didn't it take off? I can't help but imagine that it was because it was not staged at the Electric Fetus. Some site-specific shows work better than others, but MMT's High Fidelity is the perfect combination of material and location. The joy of seeing this show play out in an actual record store more than makes up for any minor inconveniences.

Beyond the perfect setting, it's hard to imagine the musical being performed by a more winning cast than Minneapolis Musical Theatre's. Taras Wybaczynsky as Rob embodies the perfect blend of jerk and potential hero with charisma and a strong voice, and Jorie Ann Kosel plays the challenging character of Laura with aplomb. Maxwell Ward brings incredible sweetness and quirk to Dick, and Dorothy Owen as Liz steals every scene she's in and she has some serious pipes. The entire cast is strong and appropriately quirky in all their roles and sing the heck out of this show.

Kudos to director Sara Pillatzki Warzeha and choreographer Abbi Fern, and to stage manager Miranda Shunkwiler, who make the space work beautifully. Audio designer Abe Gabor sets the sonic atmosphere and makes sure the actors can be heard without the sound blowing the audience away. And Alex Kotlarek's perfect costumes make it easy for the actors to switch characters in moments, right in plain sight.    

In response to your questions: 

Yes, it's really performed at the Electric Fetus. Yes, you do have to stand for approximately two hours (but you can move around and lean against the rows of record racks). There are a few chairs if you need to sit down but sightlines aren't great from those seats. The musical is literally performed in the aisles of the record store. They've put in platforms in a few of the aisles, and the cast has crates that they move around so they can get a little height in during their songs. The band is on a small stage next to the counter, and the sound is surprisingly terrific. Oh, and yes, you can buy things at the Fetus--they'll keep the tills open till about 20 minutes after the show. So support them and their willingness to host this show. Especially since the Franklin Street bridge construction has to be giving them hard times. Also, they have amazing merch. So many adorable socks! Cat skirts! Prince tees!

One of the most charming parts of the show was looking around and seeing the absolutely delighted looks on the audience members--particularly the guys. I'm used to seeing men in the theater looking a bit resigned and patient, but hardly ever this out-and-out engaged and enthusiastic. It was adorable. This show reminded me of a time that I LOVED hanging out in record stores. With the first song, "The Last Real Record Store," the audience was all about this show. Minneapolis Musical Theatre's tagline is "Rare Musicals. Well Done." and it's absolutely true.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

This Bitter Earth at Penumbra Theatre

This Bitter Earth is an absolute must-see. This new play by Harrison David Rivers is having its area premiere at Penumbra Theatre through May 20, and it is an intensely personal look at an interracial relationship during the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. 

Jesse (Jon-Michael Reese) is a playwright working on his master's degree, and Neil (Kevin Fanshaw) is from a wealthy family and devotes his time to social justice. The play gradually reveals the course of their relationship through nonsequential scenes that take place over several years. Time and place are indicated by Kathy Maxwell's projections, which become more evocative as the show progresses, covering scenic designer Maruti Evans' beautifully simple set with realistic and symbolic images. All of these design elements combine with Kevin Springer's sound, Abbee Warmboe's props, and Sarah Bahr's costumes, to create a beautiful environment for this story. 

Rivers' script presents characters who speak thoughtfully and disagree articulately, whether about the value of public protests or about issues facing their relationship. Fanshaw plays the more openly demonstrative Neil with a great deal of sweetness and earnestness. Playwright Jesse is more self-contained, and Reese deftly indicates the simmering resentment behind Jesse's flippant manner. The two actors, with director Talvin Wilks, create an achingly real relationship with highs and lows that brought me to tears.  

I recently saw the Guthrie's production of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, and although I did not write about it, I agree with the review over at Cherry and Spoon that the remounting of a story from 1967 lets the audience view the interracial issues from a comfortable distance. I wish everyone who has seen that production would also see This Bitter Earth, and experience some of the same issues in a much more immediate, nuanced, and challenging way. If you haven't seen the Guthrie show, see this one instead! On all levels, from relevance to creativity and impact, This Bitter Earth is the play we need now. 

Monday, April 30, 2018

You're Gonna Love .... May!

You thought February, March and April were crazy jam-packed with good theater? Wait till you see MAYYYYYY.  (And a little bit of June.)

Be sure to put these shows on your theater schedule!

The Good Person of Szechwan - Ten Thousand Things Theater (May 3 - June 3)

What: "A tale, told with music and humor, of a poor woman who receives a bag of gold from the gods and is torn in two as she tries to help all her struggling friends but take care of herself at the same time."

Why: This is Artistic Director Michelle Hensley's last show before turning TTT over to Marcela Lorca in June 2018, AND it's the first show TTT ever did. Also, it features Christina Baldwin, Sun Mee Chomet, Joy Dolo, Tyson Forbes, Elise Langer, Harry Waters Jr, Karen Wiese-Thompson and Max Wojtanowicz.

High Fidelity - Minneapolis Musical Theatre at the Electric Fetus (May 4 - 20)

What: "When Brooklyn record store owner Rob finds himself unexpectedly dumped, his life takes a music-filled turn toward the introspective. Based on the popular novel by Nick Hornby, High Fidelity follows Rob as he struggles to discover how his relationship went awry, and strives to change his life in order to win back his sweetheart Laura."

Why: Love the book, love the movie, heard the musical was underrated and underappreciated. Also, HELLO, it's at the Electric Fetus. HOW COOL IS THAT? Also, MMT does a fabulous job with smaller, less well-known musicals and they've got heart for days.

She Loves Me - Daleko Arts (May 4 - 20)

What: "Shop clerks, Amalia and Georg, more often than not, don't see eye to eye. After both respond to a "lonely hearts advertisement" in the newspaper, they now live for the love letters that they exchange, but the identity of their admirers remains unknown. Join Amalia and Georg to discover the identity of their true loves... and of all the twists and turns along the way!"

Why: Because we LOVE this show. Love the source material, love the gorgeous music, and love that it has a song about a trip to the library. Also, it's got a great cast and Daleko Arts has done some fabulous musical productions (read our crazy gif-laden rave of their production of Urinetown.)

The Princess' Nightingale - Theater Mu and Steppingstone Theatre (May 4 - May 19)

What: "In eighteenth century China, the prince and the princess of the dynasty embark on a magical competition to learn the wonders of their land. Will they be distracted by the glitter of royalty and fantastical entertainment or will they learn the lessons of the Nightingale and see the world with compassionate eyes?"

Why: Cause it's music, dancing, puppetry and Theater Mu has been killing it lately. Also, we love their new Pay As You Are pricing: "Pay As You Are pricing asks those who routinely pay $35-$40 for theater tickets to choose to pay that; it is the actual fair market value of the ticket. If an audience member needs to pay less, they can choose to pay less – as little as $5 per ticket."

Under This Roof - Full Circle Theater at Guthrie Theater (May 4 - 20)

What: "A world-premiere drama set in the late 1940s during America’s post-WWII recovery, this four-character, two-act play takes place in the segregated black neighborhood of Central Cleveland, which Mamie and Raymond Warren call home. When Mamie desperately needs household help after her husband has a serious accident, she takes a friend’s advice and hires a down-on-her-luck woman named Bessie, whose arrival brings surprises and new challenges."

Why: Because Full Circle Theater is a fairly new theater, with an admirable mission and core values  and an impressive collection of core artists. Also, this is a way to support the production of challenging work on Guthrie Theater stages. Plus, tickets are only $9.00.

Prescription Murder - Ghoulish Delights at Phoenix Theater (May 4 - 13)

What: "Six years before Peter Falk stepped into the role on television, Columbo existed on stage. Ghoulish Delights is thrilled to bring this script to the stage again—not with the intention of recreating a television show in a theater—but rather, to bring one of the most iconic detectives ever created to life. And it is our goal to do so in a way that is new and original, while staying completely faithful to the original characters and story."

Why: The fun cast includes: Riley McNutt, Heidi Berg, Boo Segersin, Craig Johnson, Lana Rosario, with Sam Landman as Lt. Columbo. We tend to enjoy most things Ghoulish Delights do, including their delightful podcast: The Mysterious Old Radio Listening Society. Also, it just looks fun. Yay fun!

Marisol - Theatre Coup d'Etat at Springhouse Ministry (May 4 - 19)

What: "Winner of the 1993 Obie Award, Marisol is an apocalyptic urban fantasy which urges society to "wake up" and somehow find a way to recover the long-lost and much-needed compassion for our fellow man, as this is the only way to save our world. Angelic warfare, mental illness, and the disintegration of modern society are the themes of Marisol as we follow Marisol Perez, a young Puerto Rican woman, through a disturbing and disorienting world that pushes the boundaries of conventional theology, biological sex, personal relationships, and the pathology of fear and paranoia."

Why: They had us at "apocalyptic urban fantasy" and cinched the deal by having actual characters of color. Plus, that description! Dang!

Lord Gordon Gordon - History Theatre (May 5 - June 3)

What: "1871. An imposter going by the name of Lord Gordon Gordon wanders into Minnesota and causes such a stir that he nearly ignites a war with Canada. A fake. A fraud. A snake-charmer. This con-artist would dazzle and swindle his way into the hearts and wallets of some very well-to-do Minnesotans and then take them on a journey as twistedly bizarre as Glensheen."

Why: Unusual new musical with music and lyrics by Chan Poling with a fascinating subject and an amazing cast. Yay, new work!

Happy Theatergoing and enjoy MAAAAAAAAAYYYYYYYYYY!

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Some Shows We Saw in March/April 2018

Here's a round-up of some of the shows we've seen lately.

The Skriker - Fortune's Fool Theatre

This seldom-performed play by Caryl Churchill is one of those plays that is incredibly enjoyable to watch, even if you're not entirely sure what's happening on stage. So let's let Fortune's Fool tell us what we're seeing!

"Mankind is destroying the Earth and the Skriker, a malevolent shape-shifting fairy and death portent, is pissed as hell. In her search for revenge, she leaves the underworld to pursue two teenaged girls in London: Josie, who has murdered her young child, and Lily, who is pregnant. Speaking in riddles, changing her shape at every new encounter, alternately promising glorious wishes and threatening physical harm, she seeks ownership of their souls by any means necessary. A wild chorus of dancing, pounding, singing, wailing spirits, drawn from English folk tales, serves the Skriker in her pursuit of the girls."

The wordplay in this play is so complicated and beautiful that I wish I had a copy of the script with me to read along or open captioning so as not to miss a word. Ariel Leaf delivers this dialogue beautifully as the titular character and turns in a charismatic performance with humor and menace--a beautiful combination. Another standout in the cast is Gabrielle Dominique as Josie. The makeup and costumes are perfectly done, and the music by Keith Hovis adds an extra otherworldly feel. 

A couple comments about the Crane: the low lighting in the lobby made it hard to read the displayed material about the creatures included in the play. Also, they could use better sound containment if they are going to have two shows playing at once. At times, it was hard to lose oneself in the atmosphere of The Skriker with a comedy show playing only a few feet away. Still, it was a really fascinating, spooky show that has really stayed with me. 

The Wolves - Jungle Theater

The Wolves is selling out like crazy and adding performances and we couldn't be more pleased for the Jungle. This beautiful, modern, contemporary play is what theater should be. Plus, it's a female playwright, female director and an all-women cast. Go TEAM!

From the moment that The Wolves starts, with a girls' soccer team stretching and bs-ing, it is ON. The dialogue is fast and overlapping and profane and heartfelt. As the girls show up for practices and games, we get insights into the issues they're facing, but never in a heavy-handed fashion. The performances are astonishing and the 90 minutes, no intermission show flies past in a flash. The language is beautiful, the characters are realistic and well-drawn, and the issues are real. Just freaking wonderful, and we're so excited for this production's amazing success.

Photo by Robert Stacke (from Twin Cities Arts Reader--thank you!)
Trojan Women - Mission Theatre at Urban Growler

A play in a tap room? In Saint Paul? Yes, please. It's always a little daunting when the director's note indicates that "many have struggled to appreciate the Trojan Women" by Euripides. Ooh, boy. But Mission Theatre does a beautiful job of bringing this story into an unidentified contemporary world. 

TL;DR from Wikipedia: "Euripides's play follows the fates of the women of Troy after their city has been sacked, their husbands killed, and as their remaining families are about to be taken away as slaves. However, it begins first with the gods Athena and Poseidon discussing ways to punish the Greek armies because they condoned that Ajax the Lesser raped Cassandra, the eldest daughter of King Priam and Queen Hecuba, after dragging her from a statue of Athena. What follows shows how much the Trojan women have suffered as their grief is compounded when the Greeks dole out additional deaths and divide their shares of women."

The show has a wonderfully strong start, with a hilarious Twitter exchange between Athena and Poseidon depicted on screen. We soon move to a contemporary and familiar-feeling Troy, and the women who have been captured. The cast is committed and engaging, with Annette Kurek providing a strong, grounding performance as Queen Hecuba and Gary Dancui as conflicted villainTalthybius. The costumes (by Krista Weiss) are perfectly done, in a found/reclaimed fashion. The temporary feel of Urban Growler's back room, decorated with hanging blankets and quilts wonderfully depicts a refugee camp. Projections, lighting, and sound design (such as utilizing helicopter sounds to indicate the arrival of ships) work really well, considering the limitations of the space. And in short, I love their energy and enthusiasm. Yay, newish theaters!

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Thomas Tallis - Orchard Theater Collective

Orchard Theater Collective's promotions are AMAZING.
Damian Leverett as Thomas Tallis.
You may not know the name Thomas Tallis--unless you're a follower of Tudor-era liturgical composers (and aren't we all?)--but you've definitely heard his glorious music.

In this new play, we meet Thomas Tallis in the atmospheric setting of Calvary Baptist Church, where he explains his creative motivation, to create music more beautiful than silence, to glorify God.

As our story starts, Henry VIII (Ben Shaw) is on the throne of England, and he is still feuding with the Pope over the refusal to grant Henry a divorce, which led to England's split with the Catholic church and the founding of the Church of England. Henry has summoned the Pope's favorite singer, a young castrato, to perform. The young man's anxious attempts to please the king don't save him from Henry's vengeance, but his song impresses the king.

Henry sends for the composer, Thomas Tallis (Damian Leverett), and makes him the court composer. When Henry sacks the monasteries, Tallis's friend, a priest, refuses to renounce the pope and is forced into hiding. But Tallis allies himself with the new church, claiming his highest duty is to be able to serve God by creating music to praise Him. But God may be easier to please than Henry, who demands absolute loyalty and declares that the new church will worship and sing in English. Tallis adjusts to the orders of the king and composes angelic polyphonic church music, until Henry's son Edward VI (Kayla Peters) ascends to the throne and insists upon simple music without harmonies or complexity. His protest that the music has too many notes recalls Emperor Joseph II in the movie Amadeus.

After Edward, the throne is held by Mary, Queen of Scots (also Kayla Peters), a Catholic who once again encourages a return to polyphony. But when she is dethroned by her sister, Elizabeth I (Elizabeth Efteland), a Protestant austerity returns to the church.

As Tallis deals with the challenges of working with the changing demands of of his patrons, we also see his friend the priest (Ben Shaw), trying to survive and to minister to the hidden adherents to the banned Catholic church. It's not clear that the two journeys are parallel, though both men follow the path dictated by their beliefs.

What you need to know is THIS: Set in the lovely Calvary Baptist Church, lit by candlelight and with no amplification other than the church's natural acoustics, with Thomas Tallis's gorgeous music sung by the choir (Emily Garst, Joe Allen, Jim Ahrens, Grace Warren and Naomi Karstad), and a strong, endearing cast, this is a unique, gorgeous, compelling show. See it, support it, love it.

SIDE NOTE on why we love Thomas Tallis: Because of this utterly gorgeous art installation in 2013 at the Cloisters in NYC. One of the most amazing art experiences EVER.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

The Mermaid Hour: Remixed at Mixed Blood Theatre

The world premiere* production Mermaid Hour: Remixed is playing at Mixed Blood through April 29, and it's essential viewing. It's the intimate story of a family dealing with the challenges of adolescence. In this particular family, mom Pilar (Thallis Santesteban) and dad Bird (Michael Hanna) are trying to make the best decisions for and with their transgender daughter, Vi.
Vi (Azoralla Arroyo Caballero) and Jacob (Meng Xiong).
Photo by Rich Ryan.

Azoralla Arroyo Caballero plays Vi with touchingly realistic uncertainty, sweetness, and touches of rebellion in the young actor's professional theatrical debut. Vi's relationship with gay best friend Jacob (Meng Xiong) becomes strained when she develops a crush that isn't returned, and Vi finds comfort in an online community of "mermaids" whose videos encourage her to find beauty and happiness in herself. When Vi runs away, she finds the maker of those videos, who takes her back to her parents. As Crux, Catherine Charles Hammond shows great compassion for Bird and Pilar, and brings an otherworldly quality to the merperson Vi admires.

Crux/Merperson (Catherine Charles
Hammond). Photo: Rich Ryan.
Bird and Pilar have their own clashes about Vi's life, and also encounter Jacob's mother, Mika (Sheena Janson), who doesn't want her son's life to be any more complicated than it already is.

My favorite thing about the play is that there aren't any bad guys in David Valdes Greenwood's script. Each character is doing the best they can to navigate circumstances they don't always feel equipped to handle. And sometimes, especially with Bird and Pilar, the strain leads them to lash out at each other. Director Leah Anderson and the cast show us a variety of relationships, all nuanced and very real.

Bird (Michael Hanna), Pilar (Thallis Santesteban), and Vi
(Azoralla Arroyo Caballero). Photo: Rich Ryan.
Eric Mayson's music beautifully illustrates how people, even in loving relationships, can be talking but not really listening to one another. When the songs move from ideas sung in counterpoint to a more unified sound, we realize the individuals are coming to understand each other. The playwright's lyrics don't deal in heightened poetic language, but sound more like everyday speech that just needs to be sung.

Although Vi is at the center of the story, Mermaid Hour: Remixed tells us more about the thoughts and feelings of her parents than about Vi's. This feels appropriate, since Vi seems more sure of who she is, at least at this point in her life, than her parents do. Although the play gives voice to a multicultural family with a transgender child and has a wonderfully diverse group of characters, many viewers will find commonalities with their own families and relationships.

Vi (Azoralla Arroyo Caballero). Photo by Rich Ryan.
*This production is a National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere. Mixed Blood is one of four theaters nationwide which are all producing the play. Each theater develops its own production with its own artistic team, so the same script can be interpreted differently by each group. In the case of Mermaid Hour, when artistic director Jack Reuler and director Leah Anderson first read the script, they thought the show could be performed as a musical. Playwright David Valdes Greenwood agreed to try it, and worked with composer Eric Mayson to make the play sing. Of the four productions premiering, this is the only musical version. Eventually, this could be the version of the play that other theaters produce in the future. And it started right here!

Mixed Blood is also hosting a special event on April 28. On Our Own Terms: Voices at the Intersection of Transgender Experience and Mixed Blood Theatre will feature a full day of programming, including a discussion of transgender inclusivity in theater, two short plays, and a performance of Mermaid Hour: Remixed. Follow the link for more information.

Don't forget that cost shouldn't be a barrier to seeing a show at Mixed Blood. Through Radical Hospitality, admission is FREE on a first come/first served basis starting two hours before every show, OR Advanced reservations are available online or by phone for $25 per person. Visit or call 612- 338-6131 for more information.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

887 - Ex Machina/Robert Lepage at Walker Art Center

Photo courtesy of Erick Labbe
Having read the New York Times review of Robert Lepage's 887, I immediately bought tickets when I saw it was coming to Minneapolis. Like, IMMEDIATELY.

What is 887? Here's the program description of this difficult to describe work:
"887 is a journey into the realm of memory. The idea for this project originated from the childhood memories of Robert Lepage; years later, he plunges into the depths of his memory and questions the relevance of certain recollections. Why do we remember the phone number from our youth yet forget our current one? How does a childhood song withstand the test of time, permanently ingrained in our minds, while the name of a loved one escapes us? Why does meaningless information stick with us, but other more useful information falls away? 
How does memory work? What are its underlying mechanisms? How does a personal memory resonate within the collective memory? 
887 considers various commemorative markers—the names of parks, streets, stelae and monuments—and the historical heritage around us that we no longer notice. Consequently, the play also focuses on oblivion, the unconscious, and this memory that fades over time and whose limits are compensated for by digital storage, mountains of data and virtual memory. In this era, how is theatre, an art based on the act of remembering, still relevant today? 
All of these questions are distilled into a story where Lepage, somewhere between a theatre performance and a conference, reveals the suffering of an actor who—by definition, or to survive—must remember not only his text, but also his past, as well as the historical and social reality that has shaped his identity."
Photo courtesy of Erick Labbe
Yes, yes, all well and good. But JEEBUS, the way the story is depicted is astonishing.

Lepage starts on a bare stage, talking casually to the audience, then shows a few family photos. Then, he introduces us to his childhood apartment home, which is a large revolving set piece, that is alternately the front of the childhood home, his current modern kitchen, his father's taxicab, a diner, and yes, a library where the fronts of the books are removed to reveal small dollhouse rooms.

A combination of film and dolls, live video (captured by Lepage's phone), and unbelievable theatrical art and magic creates a unique and wildly compelling production. SO freaking glad I saw it.

The Walker's website has a teaser video of the performance. You should watch it. It's AMAZING.