Saturday, November 28, 2015

A Very Asian Xmas 2015 - Mu Performing Arts

For two shows only (11/28 and 11/29), Mu Performing Arts celebrates the holidays with A Very Asian Xmas 2015: The Mu-Lan Rouge at the Southern Theater. This show is a completely delightful way to kick off your holiday season.

The fun begins before you even enter the theater, since your Mu ticket price includes drink tickets for the bar as well as a lovely buffet with food by Tea House and Funfare Global Street Eats. The atmosphere feels much more like a party than a conventional show in a most charming way.

The show itself, hosted by Jasmine (Randy Reyes--spoiler!) with a French-inspired flair, includes a line-up of musical numbers that are way too delightful to spoil here. Suffice it to say that the numbers, ranging from holiday medleys, musical theater songs--classic and new, and even a little opera (exquisitely sung by Francesca Dawis and Isabella Dawis) range from funny to poignant to sweet to rockin'. Musical backing is provided by musical director Stephen Houtz, Doug Nelson, Brian Glenn, and KT Thompson.

And Mu Daiko! Having just seen my first Mu Daiko show (and having LOVED it), I was excited to see Jennifer Weir, Susan Tanabe, and Jeff Ellworth again. I truly think their drumming is good for the heart and soul, and I love how much fun they all seem to be having.

All the performers were wonderful, hence I'm naming them all here. In addition to Reyes and the Dawises, we had Katie Bradley, Sheena Janson, Sherwin Resurreccion, Stephanie Bertumen, Kylee Brinkman and Hope Nordquist. Some familiar to me, some less so, but all completely delightful.

If I can get a little personal up in here, I will tell you honestly that my cheeks totally hurt from smiling, and it made me want to go home and sing. I call that a successful show!

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Spend Your December at the Theater! (2015 Holiday Theater Preview)

What better way to spend the dark, cold nights of December than in a theater, seeing something amazing. And holy cats, are there some good shows coming up! Here are a few shows we are super psyched to see.

QUICK!  This Weekend Only:
A Very Asian Christmas - Mu Performing Arts at the Southern
When: November 28, 2015 - November 29, 2016
Why It's On My List: Because it's written, directed and starring Randy Reyes (as Jasmine), who is freaking hilarious. Also starring fabulous local actors like Alex Galick and Sara Ochs. And Mu Daiko!

The Night Alive - Jungle Theater
When: November 6 - December 20, 2015
Why It's On My List: Nothing says the holidays to me like a dark Irish drama. And the cast is can't miss (including Stephen Yoakam, Sara Richardson and Tyson Forbes).

Christmas in the Airwaves - Lyric Arts
When: November 20 - December 20, 2015
Why It's On My List: Old-time radio in a World War II setting at Christmastime? Yes, please. (Link goes to a Remember WENN episode of the same name. Why is this show not on dvd yet?)

Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story -  History Theatre
When: November 21 – December 20, 2015
Why It's On My List: It's a charming show, and it features the adorable Ricardo Vasquez and two new favorite actors: Brant Miller (from Four Humors' Mortem Capiendum) and Kory LaQuess Pullam (from Pillsbury House's Prep and Guthrie's Choir Boy).

Snow Queen - Park Square Theater
When: November 27 - December 27, 2015
Why It's On My List: It's a less oft-told holiday tale, and features musical direction by Denise Prosek, who does such beautiful work with Theater Latte Da.

Liberty Falls, 54321 - Moving Company at the Lab Theater
When: November 27 - December 20, 2015
Why It's On My List: Baldwins, Nathan Keepers and even the picture of Stephen Epps makes me laugh out loud.

Black Nativity - Penumbra Theatre
When: December 3 - December 20, 2015
Why It's On My List: Because I spent years working at the Fitzgerald Theater and T. Mychael Rambo and company's music was my holiday soundtrack. Also, I love this from their website:
"Penumbra’s treasured holiday tradition returns with a focus on compassion, connection, and community. Civil Rights leader and theologian Dr. Howard Thurman suggested that “the work of Christmas” begins after we return to our everyday lives. This work is “to find the lost, to heal the broken, to feed the hungry, to release the prisoner, to rebuild the nations, to bring peace among brothers, to make music in the heart.” What makes your heart sing? How will you dedicate your energies during the New Year? This Christmas, the most radical expression of love is justice. Be the light."
Purple Cloud - Mu Performing Arts at Mixed Blood Theatre
When: December 4 - December 20, 2015
Why It's On My List: Because Mu has become one of my go-to theater companies in town. Enough said.

Miss Richfield's Christmas Cone of Silence - Illusion Theater
When: December 4 - December 20, 2015
Why It's On My List: It's been ages since I've seen Miss Richfield, and she's a Minnesota classic. Also, sometimes (especially during the holidays), you just need to laugh.

Nutcracker (not so) Suite James Sewell Ballet at The Cowles
When: December 4 - December 20, 2015
Why It's On My List: Myron Johnson's "highly inventive and irreverent production is set in the 60’s, beginning on the Upper-East-Side and careening into a beatnik downtown vibe with a life-size Barbie doll." Fabulous.

A Midwinter's Night Revel - Walking Shadow Theatre at Red Eye
When: December 4 - 30, 2015
Why It's On My List: Cause it's "an enchanting Yuletide revel ... in the spirit of A Midsummer Night's Dream."

The Sound of Music - Ordway Center
When: December 10, 2015 - January 2, 2016
Why It's On My List: Because some of the best shows I've seen this year (Damn Yankees and The Pirates of Penzance, not to mention last year's A Christmas Story) have been Ordway productions.

The Holiday Pageant - Open Eye Figure Theatre
When: December 11 - 21, 2015
Why It's On My List: 'Cause not enough holiday shows star Lucifer. Also, the cast includes Sarah Agnew and Luverne Seifert, I'm so sold.

Sunshine - Dark & Stormy Productions at Artspace Grain Belt Warehouse
When: December 16, 2015 - January 9, 2016
Why It's On My List: Too much cheer? Too much laughing? How about checking out a nice "funny, frightening, and poignant" play in a unique setting?

The Great Work - 7th House Theater at the Guthrie (Dowling Studio)
When: December 20, 2015 - January 3, 2016
Why It's On My List: Cause it's 7th House Theater, a fairly new theater made up of young, ingenious, and talented artists like David Darrow, Grant Sorenson and Cat Brindisi.

Happy holiday theatergoing!!

Note: Edited to add Liberty Falls, 54321 and The Sound of Music, thanks to reminders from Cherry and Spoon.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Hip Hop Nutcracker at the Ordway

If you like great dancing and incredible feats of flexibility and athleticism, see the Hip Hop Nutcracker! It's a short run, just two nights at the Ordway. The show, produced by The New Jersey Performing Arts Center, combines hip-hop music and dance with the classic melodies of Tchaikovsky.

The show starts with an introduction to old-school hip-hop from DJ Boo with Special Guest MC Kurtis Blow, a trailblazing artist who was the first rapper signed to a major record label. Not just a legend, Blow got the Minnesota crowd hyped up, which is saying something. Speaking of the crowd, it was amazingly diverse, not just ethnically, but by age. There were white-haired folks waving their hands in the air and little children dancing in their seats, and it was great to see.

Image from
After the opener, violinist Mathew "Mattviolinist" Silvera and DJ Boo riff along with Tchaikovsky before the dancers come out and the action, set on the streets of New York, begins. The dancing is primarily performed to a straightforward recording of "The Nutcracker."

I admit to very little experience with hip-hop or classical dance, but the movement was amazing to watch, and included a lot of moves I recognized from breakdancing videos back in the day. In addition to moving beautifully, the eleven-member cast convey the emotions of the story and the projected backdrop and costumes set the scene for recognizable characters like the mouse king and the snowflakes.

I don't think I'm giving this show its due, but it's a hugely enjoyable evening of really impressive dance and wonderful for audiences of all ages.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Beautiful on Tour at the Orpheum: The Grinch Review

If you'd like to read a generous, even-handed, objective review of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical tour, now at the Orpheum Theatre, go read Jules's review.

Want to read a slightly bitter rant wherein I denigrate all that is good in the world and brings people joy? Here you go.

I realize that a whole lot of people worked hard to a) put this show together, b) get it to our fair city, and c) perform it with dedication and heart. I respect that and appreciate it. Also, I am a proud owner of (and singer-alonger-to) Tapestry. I think it's a beautiful album. 

But to be totally honest: I don't think Beautiful: The Carole King Musical is a good show.

Let's start with the book, written by Douglas McGrath, who also wrote a vapid adaptation of Jane Austen's Emma starring Gwyneth Paltrow in which he rewrote Austen's dialogue to unsurprisingly ill effect. I found the book incredibly thin, with barely sketched out characters and relationships. The dialogue was simplistic and cliched, with little wit or insight. King's story is probably a fairly interesting one, but it's not depicted this way on stage.

Beautiful starts with King performing at Carnegie Hall. We go back in time and meet King as a precocious, grade-skipping, songwriting teenager selling her songs to Don Kirshner in New York. She meets Gerry Goffin and despite a lack of any chemistry or any onstage relationship-building, she gets knocked up, they get married and a songwriting team is born.

Despite some fun performances of their work by the artists who made them famous, things lag a bit. King is caring for their infant daughter, Goffin is working a day job (King was also working, but they left that out), and Goffin is getting tired of the domestic life and marital fidelity.

Enter Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann--a real-life songwriting team who are so entertaining, I assumed they were fictional. Comic second leads have a long history in musical theater (see Oklahoma!, Carousel, Showboat), but their presence in this show serves to show how not interesting King and Goffin are. I could feel the authorial hand in adding them to the show to perk things up.

And it does. But if the person that you are writing an entire musical about is not interesting enough to carry the show ... maybe the show doesn't need to be written. And yet, I think she IS interesting. She wrote over 400 songs performed by over 1,000 artists! That's amazing! (I found the number in my internet 'research', by the way. It's not in the show.)  Her body of work should be a strong, dramatic part of the plot, with an amazing a-ha moment where the audience realizes the powerful cultural impact of her work. In this show, that moment never happens.

So blah blah blah, Goffin cheats on her incessantly and is, in general, a complete jerk. It's hard not to think less of King for spending time (and money--she bought one of his mistresses a house--also not depicted in the show) with him. She really comes off as a doormat, and I think the fact that they wrote this with her blessing means that they had to whitewash things a bit. And because of the whitewashing, everything is a little more faded and less intense.

Plotwise, there's almost no there there. Basically, in the second act she moves to the suburbs, finally splits up with Goffin, writes her own songs, moves to California, writes Tapestry and performs at Carnegie Hall. Again, the cultural impact of this concert does not come across in the show. I felt no emotional arc in the narrative, despite the fact that we travel through musically vivid time periods, and her actual arc is one of female liberation and power.

On to performances. When you have a show where the book is weak, the actors need to work extra hard to overcome the book--to add interest and engagement where the book has failed them. Having seen snippets of her performance, I have no doubt that Jessie Mueller transcended the material to create King. I'm hoping that Scott J. Campbell as Gerry Goffin did as well.

I'm not a Broadway snob--I've seen at least two touring productions (Little Shop of Horrors starring Jonathan Rayson and Tari Kelly and the first national tour of The Book of Mormon starring Christopher O'Neill) in which I greatly preferred the performances of certain tour cast members to the original Broadway cast. But in this case, I did not feel that Abby Mueller and Liam Tobin transcended the material and the characters remained flat.

I will give a massive amount of love to Becky Gulsvig as Cynthia Weil, Ben Fankhauser as Barry Mann, and Curt Bouril as Don Kirshner. When Gulsvig came on stage to sell her songs to Kirshner, the show got a wonderful boost of energy. And the relationship between Weil and Mann (a marvelously dry and hilarious Fankhauser) had all of the energy and interest that the King/Goffin pairing was lacking.

I love seeing a racially diverse cast, and cheers to the ensemble, who were wonderful. I adored the men who played The Drifters (Josh A. Dawson, Paris Nix, Noah J. Ricketts, Dashaun Young) and their dazzlingly energetic and tight performances. I wished there was a musical about them! But why was the vastly white audience laughing during their performance? Was it the wigs? The mannered dance steps? I found that disturbing. Wonderful performances by The Shirelles--Ashley Blanchet (also an adorable Little Eva), Britney Coleman, Rebecca E. Covington, Salisha Thomas--as well. And John Michael Dias was charming as Neil Sedaka, popping in occasionally to sing "Oh, Carol!"

The costumes were beautiful, particularly the gorgeous dresses and suits on The Shirelles and The Drifters, and excellent period costumes for King, as she goes from frumpy teenager to semi-frumpy housewife to self-actualized California free spirit. The wigs were amazing and they must have hundreds backstage.

The set?  Not so much for me. I found it aggressively ugly and unimaginative. The backdrop for 1650 Broadway, where much of the songwriting time is spent, is brown and consists of vaguely patterned recording equipment. And even the straight-up performance numbers are marred by curtains of light with unfortunate color choices. See below.

Photo by Joan Marcus. See that backdrop?

Photo by Joan Marcus. Fabulous Drifters, ugly lights
I never considered myself to be a jukebox musical snob. But I have strictly avoided Jersey Boys, and any show where the audience might be tempted to sing along. I don't go to musical theater to hear the hits of my youth--although I would have totally gone to see Our House: The Madness Musical. This kind of musical makes me long for something more. Say what you will about Mamma Mia!, at least they ingeniously worked the songs into the narrative. In this show, they are simply plopped in with little rhyme or reason. The audience doesn't marvel at the connection these songs have to the narrative, but is excited just to hear the songs they know. I have a dark, curmudgeonly soul, but I find it unsettling. Jules put it beautifully here.

This show made me long for new musicals, for shows with complicated characters and relationships, with unexpected twists and turns, with songs I may like or I may not, with a narrative enhanced by song, not one that exists purely to hang songs upon.

There you are. Rant over. Grinch review completed. If you loved the show, excellent. We are all different and that is what makes us special. And I'm not just saying that.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Beautiful on Tour at the Orpheum

The national tour of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical is playing at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis through November 29. The musical tells Carole King’s story from her start as a teenaged songwriter through her marriage and collaboration with Gerry Goffin, to her success as a singer-songwriter with the smash hit album “Tapestry.”

As far as “jukebox musicals” go (Jersey Boys, Mamma Mia), Beautiful has a better melding of story and song than most. When (then-named) Carol Klein goes to pitch her song to publisher Don Kirshner, the building is full of studios showing all kinds of music being made and performed. It places the audience immediately in the Brill Building era of pop music. 

Abby Mueller as Carole King, Liam
Tobin as Gerry Goffin.
Photo by Joan Marcus.
Klein (who changes her name professionally) connects with college classmate Gerry Goffin, an aspiring playwright, to put words to her music, and they are off and running, personally and professionally. The best idea of playwright Douglas McGrath is to immediately introduce King and Goffin’s friendly rival songwriting team, Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann. The teams compete to sell songs and for chart positions, which gives some pushback to King and Goffin’s success and allows the script to incorporate some of Weil and Mann’s hits.

As both teams write their songs, pieces of their relationships appear in the lyrics, and the people around them shape the songs, which we see when the hits are performed by the Drifters, the Shirelles, Little Eva, and the Righteous Brothers, among others. The songs only get more personal as King and Goffin’s relationship falters.

Mueller, Becky Gulsvig as Cynthia Weil, Ben Fankhauser as Barry Mann, Tobin.
Photo by Joan Marcus.
Abby Mueller is effective as King, from a teenage success and young mother to her emergence as a recording artist. She’s got enough of King’s sound to recall her without the performance feeling like an impersonation. To this untrained eye, she also looked like she could have actually been playing the piano, which is a good thing, since she spend most of her time at the keyboard. The supporting cast is very good, with special praise to Becky Gulsvig and Ben Fankhauser as Weil and Mann. Their partnership in music and life is entertaining to watch, and they get most of the show’s laughs.

Above all, Beautiful is about the music, and that was very well done, although opening night was marred by occasional feedback and volumes so loud that the sound was distorted, which I hope has been corrected. I found the performances entertaining, and enjoyed the way the songs melded with the lives of the songwriters.

Abby Mueller. Photo by Joan Marcus.
However, the majority of the audience seemed to be watching the show as if it were an oldies concert, howling with recognition when familiar tunes began and cheering as if watching the actual stars. By late in the second act, they were cheering the characters on, even during the dialogue scenes. I felt like a bit of a pill, but I just wanted people to calm the heck down and appreciate the show. It made me wonder if the response on Broadway was similar, or if it’s just Midwestern enthusiasm. I thought Mueller deserved a standing ovation for her performance, but the audience was on its feet as soon as the curtain call began.

Like Jersey Boys, Beautiful appeals to an audience recalling the music of its youth, and the show is a smashing success on that front, but there’s an interesting life happening between the hits, as well. That’s the Beautiful that I enjoyed the most.   

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Review - The Storms of November by Nimbus Theatre

Pictured: Alyssa Perau, Brian O'Neal, Heidi Berg, Zach Morgan
Photographer: Todd Craig
T. S. Eliot states that "April is the cruelest month." If you are a ship on one of the Great Lakes, however, November is the cruelest month.

November is the month for storms on the Great Lakes. The odd thing is that the 10th and 11th seem to be the worst. The Storms of November, written by Josh Cragun and directed by Liz Neerland, tells the story of one of the big ships and storms. Ships alone on a big lake, solitary, storms, relationships between the crew, hints of a mystery...all making for a really good story. So how do you show all this on stage?

The M/V Marie Kearns arrives in port
Photographer: Todd Craig
Nimbus Theatre has done a fantastic job building the front of a ship on the stage. It takes up almost three-quarters of the stage and is almost overpowering, yet it is used so well. The rest of the stage is set as a small cafe in a Northern Minnesota harbor town.

The story starts with a shipwreck and the saving of a young girl who is found floating in Lake Superior. From there it covers a lot of ground (or water, in this case), from business changes, to family issues, the best path from one harbor to another, how to survive a storm, and more. It was thoroughly interesting and kept my attention for the two-hour running time. The cast is great throughout, even while changing characters.

It is clear that Josh Cragun has a true love for the story and the setting. His comments in the program are really interesting and explain a lot about his view. I'm afraid that his love for the story may overshadow the script by trying to include too much history and myth. The history and myth is fascinating, there is no doubt, but it takes some focus away from the throughline of the story.

That being said, please go see this production while you can. It is a good solid show and Nimbus Theatre is a great theatre company. Nimbus is losing their current space at the end of the year, so please help support them now and wherever they end up.

Review - The Magic Flute at MN Opera

from the MN Opera Website
There is so little that needs to be said about this production other than GO SEE IT!

The Magic Flute by Mozart, currently playing as part of Minnesota Opera's 2015-2016 season, is a charming opera that is about love, revenge, trials and rewards. It is probably best known for the Queen of the Night aria, and possibly the charming duet between Papageno and Papagena. The first time I heard anything from this opera was in the film Amadeus. I also saw a wonderful production at Theatre de la Jeune Leune back in the day.

from the MN Opera Instagram
When this production (a co-production between the German Komische Oper Berlin and the British theater group 1927) was first performed here in the Twin Cities a few years ago, I heard nothing but rave reviews. After seeing it opening night, I would happen to agree with these reviews. It was an amazing and fun production.

from the MN Opera Instagram
What made it so good? Beyond the fantastic singing by the leads and chorus, and the amazing playing of the orchestra - it is the production. It is set as a 1930s silent film.

I realize this sounds crazy so let me explain. The set is a simple white wall with certain portions that turn around to reveal actors. Everything else is projected on the white background. You can see from this backstage pic how it works. And from an audience view, it works great! It allows for some really great visuals, and some very funny moments. Papageno has a pet cat that keeps showing up, and watching the actor interact with the projection is just charming.

One of the aspects of this production I really enjoyed were the recitatives. This may sound odd except they kept the silent film style so the actors pretended to speak while the projections showed what they had said. All of this was done to a harpsichord (piano?) that sounded like a player piano from a silent film. It was imaginative, never boring and gorgeous to watch.

So, if you have any doubts - go see it and judge for yourself. If you need further evidence, check out this trailer. It is a fantastic production!

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Transatlantic Love Affair's emilie/eurydice at the Illusion

What can I say about Transatlantic Love Affair that I haven't already struggled to say? I'm out of superlatives.

The vitals from Transatlantic Love Affair:
Conceived and Directed by Isabel Nelson
Created by the Ensemble.
November 5-21 2015
Emilie/Eurydice, a new work, investigates themes of enduring love and ambiguous loss in the modern world. When a young woman (Emilie) falls into a coma following a catastrophic accident, her loved ones must walk the line between impossible hope and inexorable grief; learning when to fight, and how to let go.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the veil, Emilie embarks on a journey apart...
I love theater for so many reasons, and I choose among the majillion offerings in the Twin Cities for equally varied reasons. Maybe it's a musical I've never seen (this week's tour of Beautiful) or a particular actor whose work I love (Frankie and Johnny at Casting Spells).

And then there are the theater companies whose work I will see--no matter what. Transatlantic Love Affair is at the top of my list. They could title their shows like Woody Allen titles his works-in-progress, "Transatlantic Love Affair 2015 Show" and I would still line up to see it.

Transatlantic Love Affair describes themselves as "a physical theatre ensemble. As an artistic community, we value the role of collaboration in the creation of original work; we commit ourselves to the imaginative telling of relevant stories; we believe the human body to be the ultimate theatrical instrument."

This means no sets, no props, minimal costuming and the actors tell the story through their physical selves, the lighting (exquisitely done as usual by Mike Wangen), and music (Emily Dantuma on cello).

I hate to say too much about this particular show--with TLA, the joy of discovery is a great part of the art. I will say this: If you have ever spent time with a loved one in a hospital room, this play will be familiar, poignant and a little bit funny. Even the smallest details of life in a waiting room are given new humor and perspective in this play.

A few performances by the marvelous TLA ensemble are worth singling out: Allison Witham, as Emilie's regular nurse, has the perfect friendly but professional demeanor that makes you wish for a nurse like her. It's so delightful to see Joy Dolo as well. She adds touches of humor to even the toughest scenes--her timing is fabulous. And of course, as Emilie, Heather Bunch both plays infinite stillness with seeming ease, and a range of emotions. She is utterly lovely and heart-rending in this role.

I can't say more. You should go. This is exquisite theater that speaks straight to the heart.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Review - The Night Alive at the Jungle Theater

This may sound crazy but after almost 20 years I finally made it to the Jungle Theater. All my theater-going friends think I am crazy for waiting this long, and I now am agreeing with them. My first show there was The Night Alive--also my first Conor McPherson show, but certainly not my last.

L-R: Aimee (Sara Richardson), Doc (Patrick Bailey
and Tommy (Stephen Yoakam)
PHOTO CREDIT: Heidi Bohnenkamp
First off, the theater is gorgeous - both the lobby and the house itself. I like that it looks large but is still intimate. I also love how the seats are set up. I was sitting in the front row of the "back section" and loved the leg room. The house is comfortable. The audience was somewhat mixed regarding age however not much else. Now, what about the show?

This is the third Conor McPherson show that the Jungle Theater has produced. Previously they produced "Shining City" which deals with a ghost, "The Seafarer" about the Devil, and now "The Night Alive." Having not known or read any of Conor McPherson's work, I was expecting some shocks, something supernatural, some violence - everything that lends itself towards a great play for a cool autumn night.

The story is about Tommy (Stephen Yoakam), who lives in the drawing room of an Edwardian house that his uncle Maurice (Martin Ruben) owns. On occasion his friend Doc (Patrick Bailey) crashes on the cot in the corner of the same room. One night, Tommy brings home Aimee (Sara Richardson), who was beat up by someone. She is bloody and bruised and he takes care of her. They form a friendship and it seems like it is becoming more than a friendship. On the other hand, Doc states that Aimee is a prostitute.

And I think that is all I'm going to say - or all I can say without giving away too much of the plot. The set of the drawing room fills the stage, and is very the point of having running water on stage.

It is a single set show, just over 90 minutes with no intermission. It was near perfect. Stephen Yoakam was fantastic and also on stage for the majority of the work. The relationships between him, Doc and Maurice are clear and yet you can see subtle changes to them as the play progresses. Tyson Forbes plays Kenneth - wow. He is a giant on stage and was truly amazing. I had only seen him in TigerLion Arts production of Nature previous to this. I will see him in anything he does from here on out. In fact, the whole cast is solid and a true joy to watch on stage.

The script has its funny moments but also reminded me quite a bit of Pinter - in the sense that you think you know where it is headed then suddenly a violent action takes place and things change. That was how I saw the show - showing us how random acts can affect our lives in good and negative ways. And yes, there is violence. Not to the point of Martin McDonagh (from what I know) but still shocking and bloody.

Go see this show. It plays through Dec. 20th and was a really intense and enjoyable piece to watch.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Review - Sister Calling My Name by Buzz McLaughlin

I had my first, though not my last, experience with Open Window Theatre recently. The space is a versatile space that was set up in a thrust design for this show. The chairs are comfortable, wide and have tall backs. Personally I felt they leaned back a bit too much, making it difficult to be comfortable when sitting on the sides of the thrust - especially the front row. However the show I saw kept me interested and in thrall despite that fact. The space has good acoustics and is set in a building that is tucked away just north of 394 in downtown Mpls, yet was easy to find. So...on to the show itself.

The show "Sister Calling My Name" was written by Buzz McLaughlin and was the winner of the 1996 National Play Award. It is the story of Michael (Jeremy Stanbary) who has to face his past when his mentally disabled sister Lindsey (Elizabeth Efteland) is starting to get recognized for her artistic talent. He has cut her out of his life for over 18 years and now he has to come back to deal with her. What he finds out is that her caretaker is Sister Anne Frances (Vanessa Gamble) - who he used to have a romantic relationship with before she broke his heart, and possibly his faith. The play is a memory play so it changes time and location often, yet every change is very clear. The changes are smooth and clear with each actor making very clear and clean choices in how to show their younger selves. The direction by Kari Steinbach and Jeremy Stanbary was clear and concise. The set was a minimal set with three playing areas on three different levels. It has two desks and a few props but not much more. Sometimes a minimal space can be difficult in a memory play because the direction and acting has to make it clear that there is a change in time and location. In this production there was never any doubt where we were. The play perfectly shows the power of family and love, as well as the ways we are connected to one another. It spoke strongly of God's love but never in a preachy way. If you have a chance to see a production of this show, I would recommend it highly.

The production did bring up a question for me personally though. In the theatre world there is a lot of talk and action on race and ethnicity - making sure that characters of a specific race/ethnicity are being played by actors of the same. The question this show brought up is this. Can and should disabled characters be played by disabled actors? I think we are beginning to lean towards that, especially with the amazing press the Deaf West production of Spring Awakening is getting. I guess we'll see what happens in this city.

That being written, I was very taken by this production and this theatre. They had artwork in the lobby that was provided by Partnership Resources and I felt it fit the show perfectly. And looking at the season for Open Window - I know I will be back. The one thing the theatre could do better is with social media. There was an ad in the program asking the audience to share their experience via social media. However there was no information on what the twitter handle, hashtags, etc to use. Just a small issue in the big picture of how good this theatre is. I look forward to their production of "The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe" coming up!

Review - Disney's The Little Mermaid

Quite a number of weeks ago I went to the Orpheum to see the new touring production of "Disney's The Little Mermaid." It is a production by Houston's Theatre Under The Stars and is a re-imagining of the original Broadway production.

So I am pretty sure I don't need to go over the story of The Little Mermaid. What I will mention is that there are a few changes between the animated movie and the stage production. I think most the most important change is that Ursula (Jennifer Allen) and King Triton (Fred Inkley) are siblings. You find out the story in the great song "I Want The Good Times Back" but in short - the sea was divided between Triton and Ursula. Triton also received the trident, while Ursula received a magic shell. This change creates more drama because it isn't just an Evil Witch doing bad - there is more to it, and it makes the character of Ursula more rounded. The other change is that Flounder (Adam Garst) is teen-aged and has a crush on Ariel (Alison Woods). While this detail does help in a song called "She's In Love," I think it takes away from the power of friendship that the movie shows. It also makes Flounder a less noble character because it is clear he is helping Ariel only because of his crush, not because they are real friends. 

From what I know of the original production on Broadway, everyone wore Heelys so that they could move around smoothly. The merpeople (or at least Ariel) also had a a long skirt to cover their legs along with a built-up tail piece. The photos I have seen of the original production are imaginative but a bit confusing. This new production though was imaginative and simple - two of my favorite theatrical devices. All the merpeople wore robes with long side panels that they continually moved back and forth while also moving their body. This continual movement perfectly characterized underwater movement. Flounder, being a teen-age boy, was using a hoverboard to get around, and looked a bit like a punk with a mohawk. Ursula was in a large octopus dress with her legs being moved around by Flotsam and Jetsom. These two eels were the only ones in the production wearing Heelys - and they really don't work well in showing continual movement. 

The show itself was charming. There were a few songs that stood out - "Under the Sea" and "Poor Unfortunate Souls" but nothing too exciting. Sebastian (Melvin Abston) has a great voice and uses it well. He knows how to lead a showstopper. Ursula was fantastic in both of her big numbers. She had a great big voice and knew exactly how to use it. I also have to give kudos to Jamie Torcellini who played Scuttle. The role is a true comic role, and his number at the top of act two "Positoovity" was fantastic! I mean - tap-dancing gulls with a kickline? Who can resist?

I found the overall production to be very good. They dealt with the movement/swimming problems very well. I believe both Eric and Ariel had some time flying/swimming on wires (or at least their doubles did) which allowed for some quick scene changes with the lead actors still in the correct role. All in all, I am glad I saw the show to see how some problems can be solved, but I doubt I would see it again. However, the house was filled with plenty of kids who were quiet and paying attention through the whole show so that right there says more than this review ever could.

ps: I missed press night so photos are from the original cast recording, and the program.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Frankie and Johnny from Casting Spells Productions

Shanan Custer and Charles Hubbell
I thought the Minneapolis Theater Garage was closing, but fortunately, this intimate space is still hosting shows, at least for now.

The newest resident of the Garage is Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, playing through December 6 and directed by James Detmar.

The two-person, one-set play fits perfectly into the compact space, designed by Jane Ryan as a (rather spacious) walk up apartment in New York's Hell's Kitchen Clinton neighborhood. Sid Korpi's props help bring the action back to 1987, when the play premiered.

The play opens on Frankie (Shanan Custer) and Johnny (Charles Hubbell), coworkers at a diner who have just hooked up after a date at Frankie's apartment. We hear the end of their lovemaking as the show begins.

(Sidebar: We were lucky enough to see the Broadway production of the show starring Stanley Tucci and Edie Falco, which was wonderful, but Tucci was naked for so long that it got a little bit hilarious.)

Back to Minnesota! Fortunately, as the Theater Garage is a quite intimate space, when the lights go up, they get dressed.

Cute promotional card
Frankie is already regretting this evening, and is ready for him to leave. However, Johnny's decided that they are meant to have a real relationship and spends the rest of the night trying to convince her to give him a shot. Of course she's been hurt before and he has his own secrets.

McNally's script has funny and poignant moments, but gets a bit repetitive, and has some elements of stalking that have not aged well over the years. Charles Hubbell gives a masterful performance that hits every note of Johnny's complex personality. Always an engaging performer, Hubbell is mesmerizing in this play.

Shanan Custer's Frankie comes off less well. Although Custer is a well-regarded comedienne (recently of Two Sugars, Room for Cream), Frankie is a pretty tough part (remember Michelle Pfeffer in the movie?) as the character tends to be the straight man to the vivid Johnny. Plus, I think Custer had a cold on opening night, which has to really suck as a performer. No calling in sick on opening night!

Eric Webster* also is heard in this play as the radio announcer. Webster, who is married to Shanan Custer, also acts regularly around town including a radio drama show called Shades Brigade--also starring Custer.

Casting Spells is branching into drama after being best known for their production of the musical fractured fairy tale mash-up Disenchanted. I'm looking forward to checking out their work in the future.

*PS by Carly: That would be the dulcet tones of Eric Webster, who used to host my favorite show on KLBB (formerly KLBB 1400 aka The Old People's Station), The Two-Martini Lunch. If you love standards, swing, jazz, the great American songbook, this was YOUR show. I still miss it!

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Twin Cities Horror Festival IV: Martina's Broadway Horror Cabaret

I may have mentioned in the last post that I love horror films. My other great love? Musical theater!

So I was all on board for Martina's Broadway Horror Cabaret. From the description at Twin Cities Horror Festival IV:
Come enjoy an evening of Broadway frights and Halloween sights as Martina (with the help of her Sister-Wife-Witches) join Bat Boys, vampires, zombies, and a cast of holiday icons to sing, dance, entertain and turn on their head a barrage of Broadway’s biggest hits and most horrifying flops. The evening promises to be a night of Fun, Fright and Fabulous!
Sold! Spooky, horror-themed musical theater and a little drag? Yes, please.

The show absolutely lived up to its promise. With a cast of fifteen--including co-artistic directors Martino Gabriel-Mayotte as Martina Marraccino and Seth Gabriel-Mayotte as Bat Boy--and over twenty songs, this is a jam-packed hour-long show.

I don't want to spoil any of the surprises in case they reprise the show (and they SHOULD, every year), but a few of the ingenious musical numbers included:

-- "True Colors" (from Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) sung to Norman Bates (Jesse Frankson) as he dresses up as Mother

-- "Number 918" (from Altar Boyz) sung to Regan from The Exorcist

-- "To Keep My Love Alive" (from A Connecticut Yankee) sung completely straight by a marvelous Rebecca Gebhart

-- "Love Is An Open Door" (from Frozen) sung with amazing chemistry by the married Gabriel-Mayottes

-- Everything done by Emily Grodzik, who has a fabulously expressive face and a strong voice, but particularly: "Kind of Woman" (from Pippin)

--Daniel Vinitsky was an amazingly committed zombie, who also knocked "Puttin' on the Ritz" from Young Frankenstein out of the park (along with Andrew Newman, Martina and Seth)

How fabulous is Martina?
As a massive musical theater fan, it was delightfully refreshing to hear songs I wasn't familiar with, and also to hear the first strains of those I knew well.

Closing out the show was the only good song (IMHO) from The Addams Family: "Death is Just Around the Corner."

This song was appropriate and a little sad, as it the last show I caught at the Twin Cities Horror Festival. Sigh. Do I really have to wait another year for this fabulous festival to return?

Happily for me, I'll be able to see many of these fabulous performers and companies around town, which reminds me:

To find more about Martino and Seth Gabriel-Mayotte's upcoming work, check out Silver Slipper Productions, "created in 2006 by Seth and Martino Gabriel-Mayotte to create exciting Queer and Gender-Neutral theatre experiences!!" and their YouTube Channel with lots of videos of past performances.

You can catch their shows at Bryant-Lake Bowl and coming soon to Lush in Northeast Minneapolis, and you should. They are fabulous! And do we ever have enough fabulous in our lives?