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.

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.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Why I Love In the Heights (and you should too)

With the news Lin-Manuel Miranda's 2008 Tony-winning musical In the Heights is part of the 2017-2018 Ordway season, it just reminded me of how completely obsessed I was with this show when I first saw it on Broadway in July 2008.

The Ordway is presenting In the Heights in collaboration with Teatro del Pueblo from September 12-24, 2017. Don't miss it!

Okay, back to me. I mean, OBSESSED.  So obsessed that I avidly followed an In the Heights message board. So obsessed that we went back to New York in February 2009 just to see Lin-Manuel Miranda's last performance as Usnavi.

And so obsessed that I watched every single video about the show. Even back then, Lin-Manuel Miranda knew how to work social media. He posted fabulous, hilarious, insider videos and his genuine love for his work, the show and the theater came through in every one.

Here's a few must-watch videos to get you psyched for In the Heights at the Ordway:

'In the Heights' - 2008 Tony Awards Performance - 96,000
Where it all started. "96,000" from In the Heights, performed on the 2008 Tony Awards.

In The Heights - Recording Session, 2008 Grammy Award Winner (Best Cast Album)
Gorgeous backstage look at the recording session for the cast album. See and hear the cast sing the heck out of this fabulous show.

Dreams Come True ... In the Heights 
For every musical theater nerd who sang the hell out of a cast recording in their bedroom, here's a holiday gift from the cast of In The Heights in December 2008.

I'm not crying, you're crying.

Okay, we're both crying.

Legally Brown: The Next Search for the Next Piragua Guy (link goes to the whole series playlist)
Lin-Manuel Miranda's faux reality series about the search for the next piragua guy is freaking hilarious, and features so many fabulous (and self-mocking) Broadway cameos and references. Including the "ubiquitous Seth Rudetsky"!

Seth Rudetsky Deconstructs Andrea Burns from In the Heights
The ubiquitous Seth tells us all about how fantastic Andrea Burns is. It's also a fabulous look at the complexity of the gorgeous music of In the Heights.

To Life; Vanessa's Wedding Surprise
So, Lin-Manuel Miranda married his Vanessa in 2010, and put together this fabulous wedding surprise. So stinking cute.

Super crazy deep musical theater cut of Seth, Joshua Henry (who you'll see in Hamilton in Chicago), and Andrea Burns showing off Joshua Henry's fabulous musical theater improvisation that he does backstage during "Home" at In The Heights.

Happy watching! And listening!

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

A Christmas Carole Petersen at Theater Latte Da

After an absence of eight years from Twin Cities stages, Theater Latte Da reprises a favorite from the theater's early days.

I admit a nostalgic fondness for the scrappy little startup theater's shows produced in the tiny, inaccessible, but charming, Loring Playhouse. We first caught A Christmas Carole Petersen there in the mid-2000s, and were so charmed by it that we returned with our own mom and dad.

This year, Latte Da brings us an early holiday present at the theater's new home, the Ritz Theater.

A Christmas Carole Petersen is back, and it's a joy to see Tod and all the Petersens back onstage. Tod Petersen takes us back to his childhood in Mankato, where he is part of a boisterous family led by the wonderfully warm and sweet Carole Petersen. Tod takes on the persona of his mother, reading from her annual Christmas letters and providing calm and thoughtful support to her husband and four children.

We learn about Tod's first brush with the theater (and his first crushing disappointment) and laugh at his re-creations of childhood memories, from his first audition to family celebrations. By way of illustration, Tod and the Carolettes sing a variety of holiday songs, from traditional carols, through the dreidel song, to new numbers written by Tod Petersen himself, director Peter Rothstein, and music director Denise Prosek.

Tod Petersen, Sara Ochs, Ryan Lee, and Dominique Wooten.
Photo by Emilee Elofson.
Sara Ochs, Ryan Lee, and Dominique Wooten are all impressive performers in their own rights, and, as the Carolettes, they provide able support to the show, filling in as family members and revelers, playing a variety of instruments, and each taking a solo turn or two.

Though the Ritz is larger than the Loring, Michael Hoover's set for the show wisely keeps the performers close to the audience and feels quite cozy. As in previous years, music director Denise Prosek accompanies the production on piano from the stage, and is clearly a part of the show. An impressive number of additional instruments appear, from guitar and drums to ukelele and flute, played well by Prosek and the ensemble.

Tod Petersen, a well-known local performer, has a long history with Latte Da and an even longer history with director Peter Rothstein, who saw Tod playing his younger self and his mom at a party and thought there might be a show in it. The rest, as they say, is history.

The stories are funny and sad and heartwarming, and the music beautiful and cheery. The joy radiating from the stage is contagious; I can't recall being in an audience so ready to join in the fun! By the end of the show, you'll feel like you've spent a lovely time getting to know Carole Petersen and her very special and oh-so-relatable family.

The Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical - Minneapolis Musical Theatre at Camp Bar

Jodi Tripp, Betti Battocletti and Holli Richgels.
All photos courtesy of Unser Imagery.
Minneapolis Musical Theatre's tagline is "Rare Musicals. Well Done." Truer words were never spoken.

Watching MMT's The Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical (now at Camp Bar through December 23), I was reminded of what I love best about MMT: No matter what they do, they always give 120%. They commit.

In The Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical (let's call it TGATPCM), we travel to Armadillo Acres--North Florida's premier mobile-living community--to join the characters introduced in The Great American Trailer Park Musical. (Didn't see the first one? No worries, you can still follow the action.) There's some plot business about winning a decorating contest and amnesia, but the delight in this show is in the fabulous and endearing cast and the clever, hilarious songs.

Look at that gorgeous mullet.
Matthew Englund and Alex Kotlarek.
I looked at the cast photos in the program and was a little baffled. Who are these attractive, contemporary-appearing men and women? It's amazing what a very bad mullet wig (and a whole lot of commitment) can do. Betti Battocletti (Betty) plays the grande dame of Armadillo Acres with a will of iron and perfect accessories. Her two partners in crime, Jodi Tripp (Lin, short for Linoleum) and Holli Richgels (Pickles) are just as funny and winning, and the three sing beautifully--especially when they sing together.

I'm thinking of suggesting a new category to the Twin Cities Theater Bloggers for their annual local theater awards (coming soon--watch for them!): Most committed to a wig and facial hair.

Matthew Englund (Rufus) wears the hell out of his beautiful, blond mullet and acts with every inch of his body. Alex Kotlarek (Darlene) switches between being the wicked witch of the trailer park and a sweeter, amnesiac version of herself with ease and charm. She also gets the award for most amazing decolletage, which explains why Adam Rice (Jackie) is so devoted to her, what with his thriving 'breasteraunt' Stacks (it's a pancake place). Having just seen Rice in the fabulous Teenage Misery, it's lovely to have his fabulous voice added to this wacky mix.

Oh, cripes. Those OUTFITS!
Jodi Tripp, Alex Kotlarek and Holli Richgels
This cast works together beautifully. You can feel the genuine affection behind the tough talking Betty, Lin and Pickles, and when (amnesiac) Darlene starts to soften towards Rufus, they sell the chemistry perfectly.

Directed by Ryan McGuire Grimes, TGATPCM is set on a spare and appropriately tacky set, and the spareness allows the hilarity of the show, the wonderful performances, and the great music (music direction by Anthony J. Sofie) to come through clearly. And the costumes, by Kecia Rehkamp, are pitch perfect, down to the sheen of the leggings and the sag of Rufus's jeans.

TGATPCM is a delightful show for your holiday season. Not for the easily offended--there's a lot of creative swearing--although the characters transcend their stereotypical origins. The cabaret at Camp Bar is the perfect setting for this story about down-to-earth folks celebrating Christmas in their own way. If you haven't been to Camp, don't be intimidated by the presence of fabulous gays, Camp feels more like Cheers than any place I can think of. It's warm and friendly, and the bar is open for you to enjoy some adult-beverage holiday cheer with your entertainment. Support the fabulous Minneapolis Musical Theatre so they can keep bringing us these rare musicals, very well done.

So here's the thing: Listening to this show, both my sister and I were reminded of a song from one of our favorite Carols for a Cure collections. BTW, if you don't know, every year, the casts of Broadway shows record a show-themed holiday CD. These collections are wonderful and benefit the fabulous Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS Carols for a Cure. Highly, highly recommended!

Anyhoo, my sister did a little research and discovered a connection between TGATPCM and Carols for a Cure. Here she is, going down a musical theater nerd rabbit hole.

MMT didn't include the show credits on their program, so this is from the official show website.
With Music and Lyrics by David Nehls and Book by Betsy Kelso, The Great American Trailer Park Musical began its journey as a series of staged readings and workshops, followed by a sold-out run at The New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF) in 2004, which led to the 2005 Off Broadway run. In 2013, the Christmas-themed sequel opened in Houston, Texas - The Great American Trailer Park CHRISTMAS Musical, also by Nehls and Kelso.
Buy this cd. It is AMAZING.
And we were right, the music did sound familiar. David Nehls wrote the music and lyrics to the gorgeous "Christmastime on Highway 13" (on Carols for a Cure: Volume 5). "Christmas in my Mobile Home" is on Carols for a Cure: Volume 7. It says it's from The Great American Trailer Park Musical, so I think it predates the Christmas show. "The Coming of Christmastime" (also performed in TGATPCM) was done by the Thoroughly Modern Millie cast on Volume 5.

Nehls wrote and arranged a lot of other songs as well as acting as the Musical Director/ Composer/ Arranger/ Musical Supervisor for Carols for a Cure for the years 1998-2005. If we'd known that, we probably would have known we'd like the show!

Another fun fact:

Impressive folks in the original off-Broadway cast of the first show. The original Off Broadway cast featured Marya Grandy (Linoleum), Linda Hart (Betty), Shuler Hensley (Norbert), Kaitlin Hopkins (Jeannie), Leslie Kritzer (Drama Desk Award Nomination for her role as Pickles), Orfeh (Pippi) and Wayne Wilcox (Duke).

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Twelve Shows of Christmas!

You can't throw a snowball in the Twin Cities and Minnesota without hitting a holiday show.

In order to help you sort through the massively rich choices, here is our list of the shows we are most looking forward to and enjoying this holiday season!

A Very Asian Xmas 2016: The Holiday Party
Where: A-Mill Artist Lofts
When: Dec 12, 2016
Why We're In: Because last year's show left my cheeks hurting from smiling, and it made me want to go home and sing. I love that in a show.  Read last year's review here!

Where: Illusion Theater
When: Dec 2 - 17, 2016
Why We're In: Because this year, more than any other year, I need to remember that there is utter hilarity in the world. Read our review here!

The Unscripted Minnesota Holiday
Where: Danger Boat Productions at Bryant Lake Bowl
When: Dec 1, 3, 8, 10, 17, 2016
Why We're In: Improv plus holiday plus musical theater. PLUS, this cast/creative: Lorna Landvik, Dane Stauffer, Max Beyer, Heather Meyer, and Lizzie Gardner. Music by Dennis Curley. Directed by Tane Danger.

Snowed Inn
Where: DalekoArts
When: Nov 25 - Dec 18, 2016
Why We're In: Even though the show is probably sold out completely by now, I want to give it a little love because of the fabulous premise: "After failed screenwriter Archie Je┼żek leaves the glitz and glamour of 1930s Hollywood to return to the small, Minnesota town where he grew up to run the family hotel, his dreams of a quiet, steady Midwestern life quickly devolve to madcap holiday hijinks and mayhem." Yes, please.

Where: James Sewell Ballet at The Cowles Center
When: Dec 2 – 18, 2016
Why We're In: Because how fun does this sound? "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. The production is full of colorful characters all accompanied by a musical mash-up of hip-hop, R&B, contemporary tracks, and Christmas carols."

Black Nativity
Where: Penumbra Theatre
When: Dec 1 - 23, 2016
Why We're In: This IS our holiday tradition. We've been with Black Nativity from the many happy years at the Fitzgerald Theater to the current run at Penumbra, and no matter what else changed, this is always a show of love and gorgeous music. Read last year's review here!

Where: Theater Latte Da at the Ritz Theater
When: Nov 30 – Dec 23, 2016
Why We're In:
Because this sweet, affectionate show about Tod Petersen's real life Christmas memories is hilarious and poignant by turns. Also, sugar cookies! Read our review here!

Where: Open Eye Figure Theater
When: Dec 8 - 23, 2016
Why We're In: From our good friend Cherry and Spoon: "Part science lesson (complete with visual aids), part history, part mystical spirituality, The Longest Night is the loveliest of celebrations of the season."
Where: Minneapolis Musical Theatre at Camp Bar
When: Dec 2 - 23
Why We're In: Because Minneapolis Musical Theatre is having an amazing run of amazing shows. Plus, Camp is a super fun place to see a show AND is in St. Paul. Read our review here!

Where: Wurtele Thrust at Guthrie Theater
When: Nov 16 - Dec 30, 2016
Why We're In: It's never been a tradition for us, but with the fabulous racially diverse casting and all of the wonderful Guthrie resources on display AND only two hours with intermission, how can you go wrong? Read our review here!

The Norwegians
Where: Dark & Stormy Productions at Grain Belt Warehouse
When: Dec 8 - 30, 2016
Why We're In: Dark & Stormy always ends up on our holiday theater list. Sometimes, there's only so much sugar plums and 'bless us, every one' that you can take, and D & S always has the cure. Plus, a show about really nice hit men? Yes, please.
Where: Ordway Center
When: Dec 8 - Dec 31, 2016
Why We're In: Look at the adorable Dieter Bierbrauer and Brian Sostek. How could we possibly not be in?

Okay, so that's twelve and I still have SO MANY SHOWS to tell you about! I'm turning things over to a few of our Twin Cities Theater Bloggers friends for a lightning round of recommendations.

The Room Where It Happens on A Very Die Hard Christmas
"If you need a pick-me-up this holiday season and want to see a wildly funny take on a classic 80s film, this show’s for you."
(at Bryant Lake Bowl through Dec 17)

Cherry and Spoon on A Gone Fishin' Christmas
"There's a reason that Yellow Tree's original Christmas plays are so popular and sell out virtually every performance - they are a perfect mix of heart and humor wrapped up in local jokes that we love so well, with a talented cast that makes these characters and the sweet and silly story sing (literally and figuratively)."(Yellow Tree Theater through Dec 11)

One Girl, Two Cities on The Averagers -  Christmas War
"I’ll be the first to admit that it doesn’t take much to make me laugh. But it’s not often that I cry from laughing so hard..."(Comedy Suitcase at Bryant Lake Bowl through Dec 11)

Compendium on What the Elf?
"I mean come on, we all love The Christmas Carol and A Christmas Story, but every single year? Sometimes you need to mix it up a little."(Brave New Workshop through January 28)

Miss Richfield 1981 in Trailer House to the State House – Santa Style! at Illusion Theater

What can you say about Miss Richfield 1981 that hasn't already been said? She's a Minnesota institution, and her holiday show is one of the hottest tickets in the Twin Cities.

Her newest holiday offering, Miss Richfield 1981 in Trailer House to the State House, runs December 2 through 23 at the Illusion Theater.

According to my (legit bad) math, this is Miss Richfield 1981's seventeenth annual holiday show and let me tell you, the audience is devoted. As we waited for the show to begin (with our $9.00 drinks--what is this, Broadway?), the audience was lit up with cell phones as groups and friends and family and couples all got their selfies on. I don't know if I've ever seen so many pre-show selfies.

Photo courtesy of Miss Richfield 1981
Michael Robins (Executive Producing Director at the Illusion, and director of this show) hopped on stage and welcomed the audience. He gave one instruction that was, frankly, a bit perplexing: Don't turn off your phones. WHAT. It's true, and as the show started and several people began to record the show, all of my theater instincts rebelled. I had to actively resist the urge to glare and sniff disapprovingly. But I managed to control myself. Also, the show was ON.

The show started with a hilarious video that talked about Miss Richfield 1981's failed attempts to run for President. It turns out, Miss Richfield 1981 is planning on running for president of Minnesota instead and is letting us behind closed doors on her upcoming campaign.

Photo courtesy of Miss Richfield 1981
As always, the former beauty queen cracks wise about current events, cheerfully loading her act with casually biased remarks about all demographics. Somehow, she manages to say shockingly un-PC things without it ever feeling mean-spirited, managing to insult and entertain her victims at the same time. She also has a gift for tackling divisive issues in a hilarious way, poking fun at all sides of an argument but sneaking in her own opinions without insulting those who may disagree.

In the second half of the show, Miss Richfield's costumes change from the red, white, and blue of the politically-tinged first act to the red and white of Christmas, which is obviously a favorite. The traditional Christmas song sing-along is always a hit, with a few new twists that nod to events in the news. Above all, her show allows the whole audience to laugh with her, even if it's at themselves, creating a communal joy that is a lovely start to the holiday season.

The beauty of Miss Richfield 1981 for me is what an amazing show woman she is. From the first moment that she clomps (sorry, Miss R: struts) across the stage, the audience is in the palm of her hand. She makes it look so easy (much like Grant MacDermott in Sex Tips for Straight Women from a Gay Man) that it's easy to underestimate her amazing skill at working the audience.

And work the audience she does. From the very beginning, asking the audience where they're from (with a great running joke about Chanhassen) to the actual folks that she chats with in the audience about gay marriage, she finds the humor in every possible interaction. When reminding herself of an audience member's name ("Was it Mariah?" "MARA." "I don't need the tone.") or referring to two longtime married lesbians as Trisha and Dennis, her skill at working the crowd is amazing. And always affectionate, even when shutting down some loud schmucks in the back ("I really need to raise ticket prices.").

After the presidential election and so much vitriol in the world, I'm cheered by the fact that there is Miss Richfield 1981 in the world. In the worst of times, sometimes we are treated to the best entertainment. Go see Miss Richfield 1981 and find the joy in the season.

Friday, November 25, 2016

A Christmas Carol at the Guthrie Theater

Perfect night at the Big G.
As I headed to the Guthrie Theater for A Christmas Carol , the first snow of the season began to fall. Snow and a marvelous Christmas Carol: what a beautiful start to the Christmas season!

Walking into the theater, I was immediately struck by the beauty of the set. A Victorian London street, two-story buildings, frosted shop windows, and artistic drifts of snow on the stage all made me wonder if the theater ever offers photo ops on stage. Wouldn't that make a great Christmas card?

When the impressive set (designed by Walt Spangler) opened up to show the two-story interior of Scrooge's house, I was delighted. It's amazing to see a theater with world-class resources use them so wonderfully. Every single aspect of this production is top-notch, from set, lights and sound, costumes, wigs and the amazing cast.

J.C. Cutler (Ebenezer Scrooge) and Robert O. Berdahl (Jacob Marley).
Photos by Dan Norman.
Director Joe Chvala keeps the show moving along at a good pace. The play runs a brisk two hours including one intermission. He is a master of misdirection, which keeps the ghosts' appearance delightfully surprising.

The story itself is as classic as ever. Crispin Whittell's script includes all the classic lines you expect to hear, without making them sound hackneyed. The cast makes the most familiar and even ridiculous-seeming characters feel like real people. The cast-sung interludes of classic carols range from heartbreakingly plaintive to joyful (and triumphant. Whaaaaaat!).

Scrooge in a rare moment of frivolity.
The whole cast is excellent, and I was so excited by the racially diverse cast. Looking at recent Christmas Carol cast lists, it appears to be a new development this year. Nearly a third of the actors are actors of color, and it's great to see so many of the new faces belong to performers I've seen and enjoyed at other local theaters (such as Eric Sharp, Ryan Colbert, Meghan Kriedler, and the amazing Regina Marie Williams).

J.C. Cutler is a perfectly unpleasant Scrooge from the start. Robert O. Berdahl is a terror as Jacob Marley, with a Medusa-like wig. Though they are not specifically noted in the program, the Guthrie's wig shop does a great job as usual, particularly in helping the actors to distinguish between the multiple characters they portray. And the costumes, by Mathew J. LeFebvre, are gorgeous, particularly The Ghost of Christmas Past, which Tracey Maloney wore to death.

Scrooge's bird's-eye-view of his life is touching, funny, and heartwarming. At the end of the play, it feels like a benediction not just on the world of the play, but on all of us, when Tiny Tim says, "God bless us, everyone!" And I begin to understand why people revisit it year after year.

It's truly a gift to sit in a packed theater with so many families and children, and to hear and feel the appreciation the audience has for the spectacle--and for theater.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The Passage - 7th House Theater at the Guthrie

Alejandro Vega (and Bob Beverage.)
Photo by Amy Anderson.
The Passage: or, What Comes of Searching in the Dark is a personal and touching new musical by the ambitious young company 7th House Theater,

With music, lyrics and book by company member David Darrow, The Passage is at Guthrie's Dowling Studio (now through December 4). 7th House Theater, which previously created The Great Work and Jonah and the Whale, works in a very collaborative process--the show is credited as created and directed by 7th House Theater

Eleven-year-old Albert comes home from school to a house with a monster in the basement, so he spends a lot of time in his backyard tent when he isn't braving the perils of the cracked driveway to take out the trash for his harried mom. His new next-door neighbor, Cassie, decides to help him find and fight the basement monster.

Alejandro Vega is perfectly cast as Albert. He has an impressive roster of stage credits, including as Danny in the Minnesota Opera's recent premiere of The Shining. He plays both the childlike enthusiasm and the onset of maturity with aplomb. As Cassie, Mary Bair is almost eerily mature, spouting off facts and algorithms with the same calm she uses to discuss her absent father. Lara Trujillo and Bob Beverage play Albert's parents,

Grant Sorenson (Ensemble), Lara Trujillo (Mom), Alejandro Vega 
(Albert Grissom),and Cat Brindisi (Ensemble). Photo by Amy Anderson.
A bare stage with just a few moving pieces represents Albert's house, backyard, Cassie's house, and the far reaches of Albert's imagination. A barefoot, gray-clad ensemble act as narrators and other characters, building, populating, and narrating the scenes.

The Passage is very much about growing up and coming to terms with the non-imaginary dangers of real life. Along the way, childhood beliefs and memories are celebrated and challenged in songs.

The music is lovely, and the sparse instrumentation (orchestrated by Thomas Speltz) seems to fit the style perfectly. The three musicians (John Lynn, piano; Kristian Anderson, guitar; and Courtney van Claff, cello) provide just enough sound to allow the beautiful harmonies of the ensemble (Cat Brindisi, Derek Prestly, Grant Sorenson, and Kendall Anne Thompson) to soar.

The show is not long (about 75 minutes with no intermission), but feels like it tries for too many layers of metaphor. Just as the show should be easing Albert toward reality, it adds unnecessary and somewhat heavy-handed symbolism. The Passage is an ambitious new work, but would benefit from some streamlining to emphasize the heart of the story.

If you are undecided whether this show is for you, note that it is part of the Level Nine Initiative and tickets are only $9. Try something new! Check out the promo video below:

Saturday, November 19, 2016

The Oldest Boy at the Jungle Theater

Did you know that this production of The Oldest Boy marks the first time an Asian man has been on stage at the Jungle Theater?

True story. Just sit with that a second.

Tsering Dorjee Bawa, Masanari Kawahara and
Eric "Pogi" Sumangil (photo by Dan Norman)
Once that has sunk in, let's celebrate the fact that Sarah Rasmussen is dedicated to creating a new Jungle Theater. This past season has featured a female and racially diverse cast Two Gentlemen of Verona, a hilarious and sweet new play about gay marriage (Le Switch), and Bars and Measures, which tackled issues of prison, terrorism, Islam and brotherhood. 

The 2016 season ends with The Oldest Boy, a play by Sarah Ruhl that depicts a family whose young son is believed to be a reincarnated Tibetan lama.
Masanari Kawahara's gorgeous "Oldest Boy" puppet

As the unnamed mother, Christina Baldwin is heartrending. She tells the story of meeting her Tibetan husband (Randy Reyes) in his restaurant, the family disapproval they faced, and the courthouse wedding they had when she was already pregnant. She dotes on three-year-old Tenzin, who is played by master puppeteer Masanari Kawahara and the amazingly lifelike puppet he created of the boy. (We've admired his compelling work in Crow Boy at In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre.)

The puppet and puppeteer, as playwright Ruhl intended, allow Tenzin to be both small and childlike and then wise and worldly as he recalls his past existence.

As the monks who come to find the lama, Eric "Pogi" Sumangil is charmingly cheery, while Tsering Dorjee Bawa is more serious, but with a smile that lights the room when he recognizes the boy as his old friend.

Bawa also served as cultural consultant for this production, providing guidance on Tibetan language, music, and tradition, which he also did for the original Lincoln Center Theater production of the show. His contribution here is amazing, for the play touches on cultural and religious traditions that we have not seen portrayed on a Minnesota stage. The authenticity also means that we can really identify with the mother as she considers whether to send her son to a monastery in India to be educated.

Director Sarah Rasmussen stages the show beautifully, allowing the love, fear, and hope to emanate from the stage. It's a wonderful production of a terrific, thoughtful show that challenges us to consider the cultural context of the lives around us in a deep way. This might be our only chance to experience this work, and I can't imagine a better production, so please do not miss The Oldest Boy - it runs now through December 18.

The Jungle Theater provides a host of fascinating information to add to the audience experience. The program includes selections from Sarah Ruhl's Afterward of The Oldest Boy, which immediate tackles two intriguing questions: "How did a Catholic white girl from Illinois come to write about Tibetan Buddhism?" and "Why puppets?" Also, they offer a number of opportunities to explore the play in depth with their Come Early, Stay Late series.

The night we attended the play, the post-play discussion centered on Creating Cross-Cultural Theater, led by Artistic Associate Katherine Pardue and featuring Sarah Rasmussen, Noel Raymond and Randy Reyes. It was a fascinating discussion that touched on a number of current and compelling facets of theater and culture--I hated to see the conversation end. (Twin Cities Theater Bloggers, let's keep this in mind for future discussions!)

Come Early, Stay Late Upcoming Conversations:
Storytelling Through Puppetry with Masanari Kawahara - December 1
Traditional Tibetan Music & Dance with Tsering Dorjee Bawa and Yeshi Samdup - December 8
The Politics and Culture of Tibet & The Diaspora with Tsering Dorjee Bawa - December 15
Remember, you don't need a ticket to these performances to attend the discussions.

Plus, Books!
Also, check out the fabulous #JungleReads list of suggested reading in partnership with Magers & Quinn Booksellers. Hot Tip: If you bring your #junglereads Magers & Quinn receipt to the theater, you'll get a free beverage at concessions. Win/win!

Sex Tips for Straight Women from a Gay Man at the Ordway

Had a rough couple of weeks? Despondent about the state of the world? I can't imagine any better antidote than seeing Sex Tips for Straight Women from a Gay Man at the Ordway (November 18-19).

This show makes you remember that there are still good things in the world, like theater that makes you throw your head back and laugh with your whole body.
Grant MacDermott and Rachel Moulton
(from the NYC production; image from Broadway
Sex Tips started off-Broadway in 2014 as a play adapted by Matt Murphy from the book by Dan Anderson and Maggie Berman. It's been running ever since at the 777 Theater on 8th Avenue. The tour stops in St. Paul for only two days, but I wish it was staying longer.

We open at St. Paul Community College, where the audience is attending a 'meet the authors' forum. Due to the untimely demise of the usual moderator, shy, awkward (and single) Robyn is facilitating the event. Oh, and the book they're discussing? Sex Tips for Straight Women from a Gay Man by Dan Anderson. Technical help during the show is provided by Stefan, one of Robyn's employees who is helping with lights and sound (and much more).

Brooks Christopher (headshot by Matthew Murray
Grant MacDermott plays Dan (the titular gay man) and he has the audience is in the palm of his hand almost immediately. He is engaging and hilarious and makes this interactive show seem unbelievably easy and charming. Jacklyn Collier is charmingly awkward and nervous as Robyn (the titular straight woman) and Brooks Christopher is hunky Stefan, who does a beautiful job of being wildly objectified, but in an affectionate way.

The energy level of this show is intense. The performers go all-out to bring the audience into the performance, and it was fun to see their reactions to some of the audience members they brought up on stage. Christopher did a particularly good job of staying stoic in the face of ridiculousness and good-naturedly accepting so much prurient attention.

Not your average merch table, no?
And yes, if the title didn't tip you off, this is a show that acknowledges the existence of sexual activities (as the NPR disclaimer goes). Much of the humor comes from the frank and funny airing of topics not usually heard about on the Ordway stage.

The charming MacDermott makes the Ordway Concert Hall feel intimate, and his winks and reactions to his own and others' naughtiness are priceless. Collier takes the audience on her journey from discomfort to enjoyment, and Christopher is quite funny as well as being very easy on the eyes.

[Kooky sidebar: In researching the show and looking for photos with the touring cast, we found this amazing story of the time Jacklyn Collier went on a date with Martin Shrekli: My Tinder date with "Pharma bro" Martin Shkreli]

Above all, Sex Tips for Straight Women from a Gay Man is a show that helps me remember that:

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Das Rheingold at Minnesota Opera

From the very first notes of Wagner's beautiful overture coming from the super-sized orchestra on stage of the Ordway in Minnesota Opera's production of Das Rheingold, I was IN.

The musicians had to be on stage, since they number about twenty more than can fit into the Ordway's orchestra pit. Director Brian Staufenbiel turns this necessity into a strong production design that fits the material perfectly. Hearing Wagner performed live is an experience not to be missed.

Alberich (Nathan Berg) and the Rhinemaidens
Gorgeous production photos by Cory Weaver.
The musicians are periodically behind a scrim, but always in view. When the action starts, the Rhinemaidens frolic in the "pool" of the orchestra pit, with stage fog and watery reflections projected on the scrim to set the scene. This also puts the singers front and center, and it's wonderful to hear the voices so clearly. Mary Evelyn Hangley, Alexandra Razskazoff, and Nadia Fayad sound gorgeous and move beautifully, playfully spurning the advances of the Niebelung, or dwarf, Alberich (Nathan Berg in a fantastic performance), who wants the gold the maidens guard. (The great Anna Russell calls the Rhinemaidens "a sort of aquatic Andrews Sisters" and you really must check out her recap of the opera if you haven't seen it already.)

In the underworld, where the Niebelungen live, the gold gives Alberich the power to control others, including his brother Mime, sung by Dennis Petersen, who is very watchable, resembling Andy Serkis in his almost insectlike costume, herding an adorable bunch of supernumeraries as the other dwarves.

When the story moves above ground to visit the gods in Valhalla, they appear on a high catwalk above the orchestra, placing them physically and vocally above the rest of the cast.

And the cast is outstanding. Greer Grimsby is solid and in charge, and perfectly embodies Wotan, ruler of the gods. His relationship with Katherine Goeldner's Fricka feels affectionate and intimate. Richard Cox as the demigod Loge is a solid presence in his antler-like headgear, even as we doubt his intentions. Late in the opera, the magnificent Denyce Graves emerges as Erda, Goddess of the Earth. She wears a wonderful nature-inspired costume, and I was tempted to start entrance applause for her. I only wished the role were bigger and that we could have heard more of her glorious voice. 

Denyce Graves as Erda
The costumes and production design are steampunk-inspired, but not in a gimmicky way. Cameras make the giants Fasolt and Fafner (Jeremy Galyon and Julian Close, both wonderful) seem larger than life. The projections throughout are terrific and really add to the otherworldly setting.

The opera is performed as written, without an intermission, and runs two hours and 33 minutes. Surprisingly, I only saw one person leave their seat during the opera, and I'm pretty sure they were having a coughing fit. The opera's program includes a succinct synopsis and a handy family tree that traces the complicated relationships that proceed through the entire Ring cycle, of which Das Rheingold is only the first of four operas.

If this production is deemed a success, we may be fortunate enough to see the rest of the cycle in Minnesota Opera's coming seasons, and I truly hope that happens. Personally, I love Wagner's operas because of the complex mythology and the fact that things happen, unlike many operas where people just sing incessantly about love. [Editor's note: Some of us like people singing incessantly about love. ;)]

Gods and giants and dragons, oh, my!
As usual, Minnesota Opera have done a wonderful job of compiling supplementary information on the their website, including photos, costume sketches, and music.

And if you want to know even more about The Ring Cycle, check out the fab documentary Wagner's Ring, about the Metropolitan Opera's recent staging of the entire cycle. It's a fabulous look at a massive production and all of the backstage drama therein.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Company - Shoot the Glass Theater

Stephen Sondheim's Company is an ambitious project for a new theater company, and Shoot the Glass Theater is aiming high for their second production. Company is playing through November 20 at the New Century Theatre in Minneapolis

The company has assembled a talented cast, backed up by six on-stage musicians, who provide a full sound of brass, woodwinds, strings, and percussion. The musicians and music director Randy Buikema are right on stage, watching and engaged with the action on stage. As the show progresses, they even interact with the cast, which is kind of fun.

The New Century space is not ideal for a musical, with its shallow thrust stage. Limited set pieces sketch out locations that quickly change. Sometimes, the presentation is a bit too front-forward for the thrust stage, and the view from seats to the side was not the best. Lauri Kraft's choreography worked, but I wish there had been more of it, because the show can be kind of static.

The company of Company
There are a number of good performances here, including Kaitlin Klemencic as Amy, performing perhaps the fastest "Getting Married Today" I've ever seen, which, if you know Company, is impressive.

Ultimately, although there are great songs in the show, it hasn't aged all that well since its 1970 premiere. It's never really clear why all of these people are so enamored of central character Bobby, and it's a pretty homogenous group of straight, (mostly) white people who make you wonder that they don't have any more variety in their social circle.

This production of Company covers the basics, but it made me wish for a stronger vision to bring it into step with modern times.

Monday, November 14, 2016

A Raisin in the Sun - Park Square Theatre

The new production of A Raisin in the Sun at Park Square Theatre is a welcome revival of a classic which unfortunately serves to illustrate how little some things have changed in the half-century since the play premiered on Broadway.

The play depicts a moment in the life of the Younger family, with all the action taking place in their cramped shared apartment. Widowed matriarch Lena is expecting an insurance check following the death of her husband. She wants to use the money to buy a house, to give her family something to hold onto for the future. Her son, Walter, wants money to invest in a liquor store. Walter's wife, Ruth, works hard to take care of her husband and their son, Travis. Walter's sister, Beneatha, will be able to continue her studies toward a medical degree with the money. As always when resources are short, so are tempers.

Aimee K. Bryant, Darius Dotch, and Am'Ber Montgomery.
(Photos by Petronella J. Ytsma)
At first, the Andy Boss Thrust Stage seems like an odd fit for a traditional script like A Raisin in the Sun, with its realistic-looking sets. In fact, from the side seats, it wasn't possible to see the upstage doors to a bedroom, a closet, and the hallway. But the staging, by Warren C. Bowles, ensures that the important action is visible from all angles. And the layout, with the stage at floor level and few barriers between stage and audience, makes the action of the play more intimate and immediate. Rather than observing the family in their apartment, it feels as though we are right in it with them.

The house Lena has found is in Clybourne Park, a primarily white neighborhood. When a representative from the neighborhood association visits to pay the family not to go through with the sale, his repeated use of the phrase "you people" felt like a slap all the way out in the audience. Sadly, his agenda was identical, if sometimes phrased more delicately, to the objections of St. Cloud residents to an influx of Somali immigrants, as covered by This American Life several weeks ago.

Greta Oglesby couldn't be more perfect as Lena Younger, a woman who rules her family and holds them to her high standards. Darius Dotch is all frustrated energy as Walter, trying to stake out his own place in the world. Aimee K. Bryant is sweet and resigned as Ruth, and Andre G. Miles is the repository of so many of the family's hopes as Travis. Am'Ber Montgomery's Beneatha tries to embrace her African heritage as she juggles two suitors, played with nice contrast by Cage Sebastian Pierre and Theo Langason. The performances and pacing are perfection.

Aimee K. Bryant, Greta Oglesby, and Andre C. Miles

Park Square Theatre invited the Twin Cities Theater Bloggers to attend a matinee of the show and participate in a conversation after the show. Jamil Jude, Artistic Programming Associate at Park Square Theatre, led the discussion with Becky of Compendium and Gina of The Room Where It Happens. This discussion was what the theater is calling Park Square Musings, where audience members can stay after the show and discuss it without the cast or production team's input. The format worked wonderfully for this show, the play brings up a lot of issues that people don't often have a chance to discuss in a safe space.

The show is selling fast, but if you can get tickets before it closes on November 20, you'll be glad that you experienced this classic at this tumultuous time.

Check out what our blogger friends had to say about the show at the links below!

Cherry and Spoon, Compendium, The Room Where It Happens, Say Entirely, Play Off the Page, Twin Cities Stages.

And here's director Warren Bowles talking about the intimacy of the Boss space.

Warren C. Bowles, Director, A Raisin in the Sun from Park Square Theatre on Vimeo.