Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The Sound of Music - The Ordway

Billie Wildrick as Maria Rainer.
All photos by Rich Ryan Photography.
Lonely goatherds. 
Brown paper packages tied up in string. 
Spunky postulants. 
Tough but tender Captains. 
A plethora of adorable children. 
Singing nuns!

The Sound of Music. Everyone knows the story. If you are of a certain age, you probably saw the movie every year on television. So is there any reason to see this show again?


There is a reason The Sound of Music has remained so popular, and the Ordway's new production is an excellent example of why. Simply put, it's a great musical, with a stirring story, memorable characters and wonderful songs by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II at the height of their powers. 

I feel like we've spent the whole year raving about the Ordway's productions (and we HAVE), and this show is yet another home run in their string of homegrown musicals. This time, Gary Briggle, last seen at the Ordway as the Modern Major General in The Pirates of Penzance, directs. Bob Richard's choreography is perfectly fitting, with touches of ballet. Music director Raymond Berg leads a substantial pit orchestra (I count 22 pieces!) that bring full depth and color to the gorgeous music.

Beginning with the gorgeous singing of the nun's chorus, we know that musically we are in for a treat. And when we discover Maria on the mountain, Billie Wildrick shows us this young woman relishing the peace and strength she finds both in the mountains and in the music. I heard those lyrics as if for the first time, as Maria trying to express herself.

Caroline Innerbichler, Quinn Morrissey, Chloe Lou Erickson, Josephine Turk,
Bella Blackshaw, Natalie Tran, and Nate Turcotte as the von Trapp children.
When Maria is sent away from the Abbey to care for the von Trapp children (and to test her vocation), we admire her spunk at standing up to the imperious Captain and her wit when meeting the children.

Dieter Bierbrauer is a suitably starchy Captain von Trapp, with an undercurrent of sadness, and when he hears his children singing and joins in, there were tears in my eyes, and in his as well.

The children were adorable—Natalie Tran as Brigitta was a definite standout, but they were all marvelous, including Caroline Innerbichler as Liesl and Nate Turcotte as Kurt. They were very charming to watch even when they weren't the focus of the scene, each clearly conveying character through their reactions. Full marks for Quinn Morrissey as a reserved Friedrich and Bella Blackshaw as the high-spirited Louisa. As the smallest von Trapps, Josephine Turk as Marta and Chloe Lou Erickson and Mabel Weismann as Gretl (I think we saw Mabel on opening night) are just as sweet as can be.

You just get the sense, in this show as in the Ordway's other shows with children, that it's a pretty sincere, kind stage. Sincerity rings through in everything they do, and it's so heartwarming and dear.
Dieter Bierbrauer and Billie Wildrick doing the Laendler,
aka The Austrian Dance of Love.

The heart of The Sound of Music is love. Maria's unconditional love for the children brings them to life, and their happiness allows the Captain to let go of his sorrow and anger. And when the Captain and Maria fall for each other, it's the most natural thing in the world. (It doesn't hurt that Bierbrauer is probably the hottest Georg since Christopher Plummer!)

The supporting cast is also wonderful, from a twinkly-eyed Dee Noah as Sister Margaretta and the other nuns, to Tod Peterson's Franz and Wendy Lehr's Frau Schmidt holding down the Captain's household.

Kersten Rodau as Frau Schraeder with
Chloe Lou Erickson as Gretl.
Despite loving Kersten Rodau in everything this year, I was a bit worried about her as Frau Schraeder. But one of the things that I love so much about the original cast recordings are the fabulous songs that Frau Schraeder sings with Max Detweiler. "No Way to Stop It" and "How Can Love Survive" are not easy songs to sing, and Rodau sang them beautifully. Man, she has PIPES.

James Detmar was a perfectly lovely Max. Sometimes this character can be a bit over the top but I love Detmar's dry humor. He landed his jokes perfectly, but showed real affection for the family, particularly in the contest scene.
James Detmar as Max Detweiler.

The Sound of Music is such a part of popular culture that it is referenced in Broadway's The Book of Mormon (though it's a song from the movie and not the stage play). And ABC is showing a Sing Along Sound of Music on Sunday December 20.

But take this opportunity to see this stellar production of the show, at the Ordway through January 2, and see and hear this old story with new eyes and ears before they say "So Long, Farewell, Auf Wiedersehen, Goodbye!"

All the von Trapps singing their hearts out. You'll be so touched you might be tempted to join them. 

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Between the Worlds - In the Heart of the Beast

Photo by Bruce Silcox.
Sometimes you just need a break from jingle bells, shopping, Santa and all the trappings of Christmas.

Between the Worlds at In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre takes the season back to its origins. This inclusive celebration of the winter solstice is a perennial favorite which won an Ivey Award in 2013 for design.

Featuring music, movement, and puppetry, this meditation of the season features a cast of women of all ages and appearances, The women are supported by five musicians who perform music from many cultures.
The chorus of magnificent, radiant women.
Photo by Bruce Silcox.

One of my favorite things about this show was the audience, which included a wide range of ages, including lots of families, with a few children gleefully chasing each other around the space before the show started.

Sitting right up front was a family with an adorable baby who started to make noise during the first number. The parents were moving to take the baby out when one of the performers stepped forward, smiling, and told them to stay put. "We love that sound!" It was a sweet start to a lovely celebration.

This was actually my first visit to In the Heart of the Beast, surprisingly. I wasn't sure what to expect, and the warm welcome and family feeling were lovely. Between the Worlds is a charming antidote to the commercial aspects of the season for the whole family.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Purple Cloud - Mu Performing Arts

Purple Cloud by Jessica Huang, now playing at Mixed Blood Theatre, is the 49th world premiere presented by Mu Performing Arts! By the end of this, Mu's 24th season, they will have logged 50 world premieres with their production of Tot: The Untold, Yet Spectacular Story of (A Filipino) Hulk Hogan. This is an impressive roster for a small theater company in the Midwest. But it's also a necessity, since the history of Asian American theater in the US only dates back 50 years.

With Purple Cloud, Mu adds to the relatively young canon of theater by and about Asian Americans. In this case, the main character is "hapa," a name derived from the Hawaiian word for "mixed." At 18, she wants to know more about her family heritage, but her widowed father doesn't want to talk about the history of the Huang family. Adopting the Chinese name given to her by her grandfather in a mysterious letter, Hapa Girl sets out to learn about her ancestors.

Hapa Girl and her father (Meghan Kreidler and Rich Remedios).
Photo: Keri Pickett.
Guided by four jade pieces embodied by Jeannie Lander, Kylee Brinkman, Stephanie Bertumen,and Audrey Park, Hapa Girl and the audience learn about Grandfather Lee's journey from Shanghai and Lee's son (Hapa Girl's father), and their differing ways of dealing with their cultural identities.

Under Randy Reyes' direction, the four jade pieces become characters in the Huang family saga, from the ancient origin story of the clan to Lee's final journey home. Simple set pieces and minor costume changes create amazing transformations of scene and character.

Grandfather Lee with the four jade pieces (from left):
Stephanie Bertumen, Jeannie Lander, Alex Galick,
Audrey Park, and Kylee Brinkman. Photo: Keri Pickett.

I found the story quite educational regarding the Asian American experience, but more importantly, a very moving story about three generations of this particular family. Meghan Kreidler is believably surly as the rebellious teenage Hapa Girl, and Rich Remedios touching as her father. Portraying Lee at ages from preteen to old age, Alex Galick is wonderful at showing the patriarch's journey from China and his subsequent struggles to make a place for himself and his family in America.

Purple Cloud is a fascinating look at a family's multiracial identity, beautifully told.

For more background on the play, check out this KARE 11 interview with director Reyes and playwright Huang.

And check out the atmospheric trailer!

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Black Nativity - Penumbra Theatre: Music for the Soul

"There is a sound that comes from gospel music that doesn't come from anything else. It is a sound of peace. It is a sound of 'I'm going to make it through all of this.'" ~Yolanda Adams, gospel singer
After seeing Black Nativity at Penumbra Theatre, I found myself searching for words to describe how the music in this show makes me feel.

As a society, we are going through unbelievably hard times. Mass shootings, racial tensions heightened, and the ugly spectacle of an upcoming presidential race. It's disheartening, to say the least.

Penumbra Theatre has been performing Langston Hughes' Black Nativity for twenty-eight years.Through this time, the show has seen a wide variety of productions, from a simple story told in barn, to a glossy spectacle starring Jennifer Holliday and back around to a concert presentation. (More on my all-time favorite version below.) This year's Black Nativity, billed as A Tradition of Love and Light, is a beautiful but simple production that highlights the spiritual healing in music.

The Christmas story is narrated by Lou Bellamy, Penumbra Theatre founder. A few scenes are underscored with lovely, heartfelt dance by dancers Taylor Collier and Randall Riley as Mary and Joseph (choreographed by Uri Sands). The rest of the show is just beautiful song. The Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church Choir takes the stage, along with musicians led by Sanford Moore, and Yolande Bruce directs them in song. And sing they do.

They are joined by soloists Dennis W. Spears and Jamecia Bennett. Spears is well-known to local theatergoers for his amazing vocal talents, and lends his unique, jazzy phrasing to his songs. Bennett, who was so amazing in Park Square's The Color Purple this year, has the most exquisite voice. It's rich and clear, and climbs to amazing heights, but it never becomes about the singing--it's always about the praise. And Yolande Bruce, leading the choir with her whole body, is a show unto herself.

If you've seen Black Nativity before, you'll be familiar with some of these songs, as well as Hughes's words. I have never wanted to sing along at a show so much in my life (and trust me: singing along unasked at theater drives me crazy). And I seldom see a show where not only does the audience keep clapping until and after the band finishes playing, but keeps clapping long after that.

I love the joy that the entire cast takes in not only their performances, but in everyone else's. It is truly a joyful celebration of Christmas, peace, love, and song.

Author unknown
Sidebar: I will always have a soft spot in my heart for Black Nativity. Years ago, when I worked at Fitzgerald Theater, the show was the soundtrack of my holiday season. I'll never forget hearing the whispered count right before the cast began to sing "Go Tell It On the Mountain" as they entered the theater through the house. I still get goosebumps thinking about it. And wandering out into the lobby and seeing the Three Kings in all their gorgeous regalia. And T. Mychael Rambo will always be my preacher of choice; I loved hearing him sing the house down every night.

Watching this year's production of Black Nativity, I couldn't help but remember the wonderful performers who are no longer with us, including Joe Carter, singing "I Wonder As I Wander" and Kathryn Gagnon, lending her age, authority and humor to every scene. I love that this show helped me to remember these amazing performances and add new memories to the old.

In short, this show will feed your heart and soul this holiday season. Lean back, bask and let your heart be filled up by this beautiful music and message.