Saturday, January 30, 2016

Right, Wrong, or Bomb! A Dating Musical

Right, Wrong, or Bomb! A Dating Musical has a mouthful of a title and a charming backstory, which you can read more about here. Written and self-produced by three young women, it's a testament to their commitment and perseverance. It is exciting to see a female creative team producing new theatrical work.

We meet Jill (Colleen Somerville Leeman) on a rough morning after a New Year's Eve wedding at which she was a bridesmaid, judging by the hideous dress she is wearing. She's single, but decides to try online dating to break her relationship slump. She is encouraged by her friends Maya (Stephanie Bertumen), a new-agey lesbian in a long-term relationship and Hayley (Katharine Strom), who seems to be expert in one-night-stands. Soon Jill's mother (Debbie Swanson), an extremely busy online dater, is also urging her to take the plunge.

Colleen Somerville Leeman and C. Ryan Shipley performing
at Musical Mondays at Hell's Kitchen.
Jill has a hopeless crush on her not-single coworker Rob (C. Ryan Shipley), but views a lot of profiles and goes on dates with a bunch of guys, played with a variety of hats and demeanors by David Beukema. Watching Beukema's quick changes from one bad match to another is fun, and he does a good job of making each one funny in a different way.

Will Jill meet her match? Well, it's a musical, so...

Shannon McDonald and Brittany Shrimpton have written a script full of the foibles of modern dating, and Rosie Sauvageau's music and lyrics cleverly expand on the script's ideas. The show is fun, if a bit on the light side, and it will be interesting to see what this team takes on next.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Rusalka - Minnesota Opera

Simply gorgeous.
Photo: Dan Norman
That may be all you need to know about this production of Dvorák's opera Rusalka. This was one of Dvorák's last operas and the story is certainly familiar. Rusalka is a water-nymph who falls in love with a human Prince. She desires to be with him and so she goes to a witch to become human. The side-effect of this change is that she has no voice. Sound familiar?

The opera is told in three acts - each about an hour long, yet they never felt long. The curtain rises to a raked stage with stone features and a bridge across a crack in the center. The back and sides of the stage have a projection on them, along with some netting coming down from the fly-space. The whole feel is of being underwater, and we see Rusalka (Kelly Kaduce) fall in love. Soon after the projections change to reflect a forest and we see some dryads are playing and dancing, while also flirting with the water-gnome - Rusalka's father (Ben Wager). Rusalka enters, speaks of her love, sings to the moon and heads off to change her life. That is the essence of Act One but oh, the music and singing!!

Photo: Dan Norman
Act Two starts off in a way I had never thought of. It is made very clear that though the Prince and Rusalka have only been with each other for a week, they are still intimate and passionate - though the Prince's passion is fading. The location is the castle and while some of the rock formations have been moved, the rest of the set is very cold and hard - projections in color with no warmth. The costumes are all in black, white, and grey while Rusalka is in a stunning vibrant red. This act shows the decay of the short relationship, Rusalka's growing unhappiness, jealousy, and despair, the Prince's lack of understanding and his movement towards the next best thing - a human Princess. This act is set at a a party to celebrate the engagement of the Prince to Rusalka, so naturally there are guests and dancing. The guests were paired off and dancing together through most of the act. It was fantastic! Each of the women's costumes was unique and gorgeous. More than that though - each dancer clearly had a character and a relationship with their dancing partner. Through the act these relationships clearly started to falter - sometimes with humor as characters were getting drunk, othertimes with anger and face-slapping. These dancers/actors were a joy to watch - Erin Drummond, Betsy Gaasedelen, Kevin Iverson, Lauri Kraft, James Kunz, Jennifer Mack, Tony Vierling, and Joey Weaver.

Photo: Dan Norman
Act Three - well, I'm sure you have figured out some of the ending by now so I won't go into it. Let me just say that it was just as gorgeous as the first two acts. It has beautiful projections (all by Wendall K. Harrington), gorgeous singing, and a very moving ending. What made this night more memorable is that the man playing the Prince fell ill earlier in the week. So AJ Glueckert stepped in after singing off-stage during the dress rehearsal and learning the blocking the day previous. I love live theatre! The opera may seem like a big show yet the cast was a cast of nine singing roles. They sang their hearts out and provided one of the more generous curtain calls I've seen - calling up not only the conductor but also three other members of the production team. Gorgeous and fantastic production - go see it.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Letter from Chicago - Bel Canto at Lyric Opera of Chicago

Set image from
Recently, we headed to Chicago for the world premiere of Bel Canto, an opera based on Ann Patchett's 2001 novel.

In the novel, a world-famous soprano is hired to sing at a birthday party for a Japanese industrialist, held in an unnamed South American country. When the party is taken over by terrorists, the partygoers are held hostage in the home of the country's vice president. It's a perfectly gorgeous novel, and one I've read over and over again. As an opera fan, I think so often of this quote:
"All of the orchestra supports her now, it reaches with the voices, lifts the voices up, the beautiful voice of Roxane Coss is singing her Gilda to the young Katsumi Hosokawa. Her voice vibrating the tiny bones deep inside her ear. Her voice stays inside him, becomes him. She is singing her part to him, and to a thousand other people. He is anonymous, equal, loved."
Photo by Andrew Cioffi
I adore the feeling of the tiny bones in my ear vibrating. To me, this novel is about the transformative power of music (opera!) to bring solace in hard times, to bring people together, and to cross language and cultural barriers. It's a lot to ask of an opera.

And hurrah for new opera! Hurrah for opera companies taking a chance and commissioning new work. Hurrah for composer Jimmy Lopez and librettist Nilo Cruz, both of whom bring their rich culture (Peruvian and Cuban-American respectively) to this traditionally white, European art form. And hurrah for an opera with absolutely marvelous racially diverse characters and performers.

Nilo Cruz and Jimmy Lopez, 
Sir Andrew Davis and Kevin Newbury. 
Photo: Todd Rosenberg
So here's the thing: The premise is of a soprano so talented that a Japanese industrialist goes all the way to an unnamed South American country to hear her sing. Her singing is so transcendent that it changes everyone who hears it. This is a tough task and, frankly, there is a reason why most operas performed are from centuries past--these exquisitely melodic arias have stood the test of time. It is a lot to ask of a contemporary composer to create an aria that shows off the voice and touches the heart as effectively as Dvorak's Rusalka or "O Mio Babbino Caro" from Gianni Schicchi.

And here's the other thing: In the book, the music transcended language. In fact, the primary character emerged to be Gen, the Japanese industrialist's translator. With opera, it can be difficult to distinguish between the languages--especially as they're all subtitled in English. When I heard that Andrew Stenson sang in eight languages, I was astonished. It's hard to really see the singing crossing barriers when a) everyone sings, and b) you can't distinguish languages.

I also feel like there were too many people moving around the stage, and we weren't able to distinguish the characters--the relationships would be hard to determine if you hadn't read the book. And I adore this book, so it's particularly hard to let go of those strong characters. They also took away the unnamed aspect of it and made it more specific to the original incident that inspired the book, which took place in Peru, which took away some of the mystery of the book.

I can actually see Bel Canto more as a play with music. You can still play with language, and bring in the amazing arias, but keeping it less musical would make it more powerful. And I'll say it: I adore this book.

That said, YAY NEW OPERA. I look very much forward to more work by Jimmy Lopez, and more operatic work by Nilo Cruz. And I look forward to seeing what shape this opera takes as other opera companies take it on. I feel extraordinarily lucky to have seen it at the beautiful Lyric Opera House.

Want to know more about this opera? Check out Lyric Opera's handy Online Opera Guide. There's also tons of information on their website including sneak peeks at the music, behind the scenes videos, and book discussion guides.

Sidebar on Lyric Opera of Chicago: This is a fabulous place to see an opera. Gorgeous house and dining room, ample lobby space for mingling and enjoying cocktails, and having seen shows from the second tier and the front row, I can say both are wonderful. And the staff! From box office, to bar, to elevator operator to ushers, they are amazingly friendly and helpful and provide world-class customer service. Also, if you get the chance, take their backstage tour. It's worth it just to see the costume department (oh, those gorgeous Der Rosenkavalier costumes!) up close.

Letter from Chicago - The Heir Apparent at Chicago Shakespeare Theater

We knew only a few things about Heir Apparent at Chicago Shakespeare Theater before going in:
  1. It's at Chicago Shakes, which is a fabulously intimate space on Navy Pier, with one of the best lobby bars ever;
  2. It's written by David Ives
  3. The show art was cute
Technically, David Ives adapted the play from the French Restoration play Le Légataire universel by Jean-François Regnard. Never heard of it? Us neither. 

Described on Chicago Shakespeare's website as a "cheeky romp" and directed by John Rando, Heir Apparent is about young (and handsome) Eraste (Nate Burger) who must be named as the sole heir by his miserly uncle (Paxton Whitehead) before he can marry the beautiful Isabelle (Emily Peterson). He's aided in his endeavors by his servants Lisette (Jessie Fisher) and Crispin (Cliff Saunders), and occasionally thwarted by Madame Argante, Isabelle's mother (Linda Kimbrough) and diminutive lawyer Scruple (Patrick Kerr).

Adorable lovers Eraste (Nate Burger) and Isabelle
 (Emily Peterson). Photo by Liz Lauren.
Essentially, hilarity ensues, and ensues and ensues, to the point that the woman next to me snorted (in a hilariously unladylike fashion) while laughing and the woman next to my sister said to her at intermission, "You're really enjoying this, aren't you?" And we did. To a person, the cast was spot on and totally committed, despite our catching one of the last performances of a long run. I am putting every single one of them on my don't-miss theater list.

Sidebar: One of the funniest audience interactions I've ever seen happened during this show. At one point, in all of the madcappery, Crispin stops and checks in with the audience to see if they're following the plot. He happened to pick out a couple in the front row--just two rows in front of us--to direct his comments to. The hilarious part is that she was reading her program, I mean, READING her program to the point that she didn't notice him talking directly to her, just a few feet from her. And to add to that, he looks past her and notices that her husband is actually asleep. You could see his glee at that discovery, and the whole interaction was hilarious. (Eventually, someone poked her.)
Genius comedy by Jessie Fisher (as Lisette) and Cliff Saunders (as Crispin).
Photo by Liz Lauren.

Great talk-back after the show as well with the cast. I love Chicago Shakespeare. It's one of those theaters that makes me sigh that it's not located in my town. Can I at least move to Chicago for Shakespeare 400, a yearlong, citywide celebration of Shakespeare's work?

Oh, and did I mention their awesome bar? It's like a miniature pub, and it's the only theater I know that serves Champagne in real glass flutes. It's a classy joint, that Chicago Shakes. (Reviewed by Carly)

Letter from Chicago - Gotta Dance at Bank of America Theatre

We recently caught Gotta Dance at the end of its limited run, and I'm so glad we did.

I mean, how can you pass up an opportunity to see a pre-Broadway world premiere of a new musical? Especially one that is directed and choreographed by Jerry Mitchell (Kinky Boots), with a book co-written by Bob Martin (The Drowsy Chaperone) and starring Lillias White, Andre de Shields, Georgia Engel, Stefanie Power, and Nancy Ticotin. And did I mention Lillias White? You just can't pass that by.

Gotta Dance is inspired by the story of the New Jersey NETSational senior hip hop dance team portrayed in the 2008 documentary of the same name. The show starts at auditions for a senior dance team, and it isn't till our intrepid cast make it through auditions that they realize it's a hip hop dance team. Alison (Tracy Jai Edwards), kicked off her own team for being too old (28, I think), is tasked with whipping these dancers into shape. Cue drama: Do they really have what it takes? (Spoiler: Take a guess.)

I see a lot of theater, and I have seldom seen a show where the audience is so obviously and completely on board. They are all-in from the beginning right through the ending--laughing, sympathizing, cheering on the characters. It was an amazing audience experience, and one I'll remember for a long time. And I was right there with them.

A few things I really loved:

The Characters:
It's a dance team, so there are a lot of characters. Having just seen a lot of indistinguishable characters onstage in Bel Canto, I was a little worried. But Bob Martin and co-book writer Chad Beguelin have created realistic, fully fleshed-out characters with strong and relatable stories. I also love how racially, culturally, age and gender-diverse the cast is.

The Cast:
Come ON. Lillias White? Hearing  Lillias White sing in person is basically on my theater bucket list. And Andre De Shields was so magnetic and mesmerizing. Georgia Engel appears to have a painting in her closet, and her comic timing is exquisite. Every member of the cast was fabulous.

The Songs:
I tend to judge new musicals by whether I'll remember any of the songs when I've left the theater, or if I'd want to listen to the cast recording months later. The songs in Gotta Dance (music by Matthew Sklar and lyrics by Nell Benjamin) easily passes those tests. I particularly loved how specific to each character the songs were, and how much they developed already full characterizations. And don't forget the excellent beats and the rousing group numbers.

This is a funny, touching, sweet and fun show. I'm hoping for a strong and healthy run on Broadway (opening in Fall 2016) and beyond.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

The Best Brothers - Loudmouth Collective

There's still a little time to catch Loudmouth Collective's production of The Best Brothers, playing through Sunday, January 24 at Open Eye Figure Theater.

And if you can see it, you should.

This is a small play in the best ways. The script, by Daniel MacIvor, focuses on just two people coping with an event that affects them both. Kyle (Wade A. Vaughn) and Hamilton (David Mann) Best are brothers who are not close when we meet them. When a tragedy brings them together, they - and we - learn more about their relationship through clever dialogue that gradually reveals the characters and their situations.

Wade A. Vaughn, David Mann/
Justin D. Gallo Photography
Vaughn and Mann are perfectly cast as brothers, very different people who are more alike than they would probably admit. No one pushes your buttons like a sibling, and these brothers feel real.

The story itself is simple, but watching these two interact is just delightful. To see their dramatic and comedic acting in such an intimate space is a true pleasure.

Natalie Novacek's direction, with lighting by Courtney Schmitz, perfectly set the scenes on a simple single set credited to the company. Simple and quick changes of A. Emily Heaney's costumes are effective in showing the passage of time and place as well.

Loudmouth has done wonderful work in the past, including a riveting production of MacIvor's solo show (Cul-de-Sac) in 2013, starring Vaughn. The Best Brothers is another excellent example of this company's work and a welcome reminder to keep track of this company and their stellar work.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Country Roads: The Music of John Denver - Plymouth Playhouse (Guest Post)

© 2015 by Ruth Mason. All Rights Reserved
“There’s the Green Mill . . . There’s the Ramada Hotel . . .  is there really a theater here, right by 494?” A bit confused, I finally noticed the small neon sign that pointed the way past the hotel lobby, made my way down the steps and into the Plymouth Playhouse. Imagine my surprise to discover an intimate 200 seat jewel box of a theater with nice wide rows, great lighting and warm sound in the middle of Western Suburban Minneapolis.

I was also a bit confused at the beginning of Country Roads: The Music of John Denver. Where is this going? What kind of show is this? Is this a play or a concert? They started with a few favorites though and I was soon sucked in by the energy and talent of the performers (I hesitate to say “cast”) starring the multi-talented Dennis Curley and led by guitarist and banjo picker Tony Wirth. Country Roads is easy to enjoy. Curley’s vocals are toned beautifully for Denver’s songs, the musicians are very connected with one another and I was frankly a little jealous of the fun they seemed to be having on stage. Obviously they’ve played together before and truly enjoy the music. At best when really rocking on songs like "The Eagle and the Hawk" and "Calypso," the ensemble’s tight harmonies shine beautifully in the more contemplative "Fly Away" and "Perhaps Love," especially in duets between Curley and vocalist Dorian Chalmers. Amy LeGrand’s fiddle solo in "Annie’s Song" is a particular highlight as well as the ensemble’s vocals on "Back Home Again." I also feel the need to call out the lighting in general but especially during "Sunshine On My Shoulders." ISWYDT (see note), designer Jim Eischen!

Calypso — by John Denver from Dennis Curley on Vimeo.

Country Roads is more of a jukebox concert than a play or musical. The songs are interspersed with Curley’s personal reflections, stories from friends about their John Denver memories and audience groups/birthday call outs a la Prairie Home Companion. What’s missing in Country Roads is the story of John Denver himself. As a fan, I welcome information about his life (good and bad), what led him to write particular songs, his activism, and/or his relationships. I think this also is a missed opportunity on the part of the production to bring in those people in every audience who are along for the ride - not really John Denver fans but with someone who is or just riding along with their group to see a nice show. Hearing about John Denver’s life would make the show more meaningful and could only serve to create more fans.

As cute a theater as the Plymouth Playhouse is, I couldn’t help but want to see this show in a different venue. Toes tapping and heads bobbing, the audience sang along softly. But despite the valiant attempt to get us riled up, it felt a bit closeted in a dark basement on a cloudy and cold Thursday afternoon. This show (and the natural imagery in Denver’s music) deserves bright warm sunshine, cold beer and a crowd free to sway and sing along at the top of their lungs. As they’ve done with past shows, I hope they’ll take Country Roads to the MN State Fair or other fairs and festivals this summer to open it up to a more diverse audience who might not think to attend theater at all, let alone in Plymouth, Minnesota. There’s good to be found in John Denver’s ability to turn an appreciation for nature and love into beautiful music. And there’s good to be found in little suburban basement theaters like the Plymouth Playhouse. Hopefully fans of John Denver will be led to The Plymouth Playhouse and vice versa. The existence of both, make Minnesota a great place to experience entertainment.

Thank God I'm A Country Boy — by John Denver from Dennis Curley on Vimeo.

Previewing now and playing through May 1. (contributed by Michelle St. Hilaire)

note: I See What You Did There

Seldom done Shakespeare - Pericles at the Guthrie

front of program - krl
Pericles is a seldom performed Shakespeare (maybe - see note) that is playing at the Guthrie Theater. It is the first production directed by the new Artistic Director of the Guthrie - Joseph Haj. He had previously directed this at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and this production is a done in association with that Festival. The casting was done via the Oregon Shakespeare Festival as well so while it is the directorial debut at the Guthrie of Joseph Haj's, I get the sense that it is the same production he directed in Oregon.

And it is a great production worth doing again!! The set is a multi-level set in shades of grey and black. The back of the stage has a cyclorama that is used for projections. There are also clouds set across the top of the cyclorama. When the lights go down, the stage and backdrop are covered in stars. The stars slowly move up to the cyclorama and spread out in circles. At times through out the play, the stars come back in an actual star shape - giving the idea that certain events that take place are fate and written in the stars.

Pericles (Wayne T. Carr) is the story of the Prince of Tyre (not based on the historical Pericles), who decides to try to marry a certain Princess, the daughter of the King of Antioch. To marry her, he must first answer a riddle. However the answer to the riddle speaks to the fact that the King of Antioch is in an incestuous relationship with his daughter. When Pericles realizes that, he also realizes that he can't answer the riddle out loud, nor can he continue living in Antioch without fearing for his life. He leaves via the sea. A storm takes down his ship and he is washed ashore in Pentapolis. Here he is found by fishermen who tell him the King of Pentapolis is holding a tournament for the hand of his daughter. Pericles wins the hand of Thaisa (Brooke Parks), and within a verse or two from Gower (the narrator), time has passed and Thaisa is expecting.

view from bridge - krl
The rest of the story - well, I don't want to give it all away. The story is told in a very episodic manner, with Gower (Armando Duran) telling us where we are in the narrative and whose story line we are going to see next. The play itself starts with "To sing a song that old was sung..." and so there is quite a bit of music by Jack Herrick in this work. Some of the verse is sung, and often there is underscoring to scenes. I found the music and singing to be very good, yet at the same time I thought perhaps it wasn't as necessary. The show is 2 hours and 20 min. long, and while it was very good - I also think the singing extended it longer than it needed to be. That written though, it was very enjoyable. The costumes and set were at the usual Guthrie standards - simple effects to show the ocean, storms, near-drowning, etc. Each actor in the cast was very good. They were all making their Guthrie debuts and it was good to see new faces on the stage, especially some actors of color. The cast was far more mixed than the audience - though there were some school groups which were good to see on a Wed. night.

The play is a comedy. Traditionally this means that no one dies at the end instead of the newer meaning of being a laugh-riot. The play is also one of Shakespeare's Romances so it has some fantastical aspects, including the goddess Diana. This helps provide a great ending that is simply gorgeous and moving. So should you go? Of course!! The quality of work that is done at the Guthrie is incredible, and this comedy is not done that often so you should certainly give it a shot. Personally, I would rather see a "new" Shakespeare than another Hamlet or Midsummer. As good as his plays are to read, they were written for the stage and so they should be seen when possible.

note: according to the notes in the program, there was a prose narrative published in 1608 by George Wilkins. Since Pericles is generally dated around 1607-1608, some scholars believe that Wilkins collaborated with Shakespeare on this work. Others believe that he just drew heavily on the play to write his own version.

Friday, January 8, 2016

The Beauty Queen of Leenane - Theatre Pro Rata

Amber Bjork and Sally Wingert. Photo by Charles Gorrill.
(Pay no attention to the frying pan.)
Martin McDonagh is my spirit animal. In his work, flowing, lilting language, interspersed with cutting remarks and colorful cursing, combines to create the funniest and most disquieting dark humor--and then things get a little darker.

The Beauty Queen of Leenane, by Theatre Pro Rata and playing now at the Andy Boss stage at Park Square Theatre (through January 24), is an excellent introduction to Martin McDonagh's work.

Mag and Maureen Folan, spiteful mother and bitter spinster daughter respectively, live together in a small house in Leenane, locked in a poisonous relationship. When Maureen's long lost crush returns to Leenane, she starts to envision a different future for herself. However, as Theater Pro Rata puts it, "In his first published work, master tragedian Martin McDonagh proves that when cruelty is met with cruelty, all promises of civility are forfeit." I'd also add that in addition to being a master tragedian, Martin McDonagh writes some of the funniest dialogue and situations I've ever seen on stage.

Photo by Charles Gorrill
Director Carin Bratlie Wethern keeps the pace brisk and the tension high--relieved only by more laughter than you'd expect. Local treasure Sally Wingert, playing the mother, alternately put-upon, vicious and sneaky, captures the sly nature of McDonagh's language perfectly and hits every subtle and hilarious note. Amber Bjork ably holds her own as daughter Maureen, spinning from bitter daughter to free spirit to something much more dark and mysterious. Taylor Evans as Ray, and Grant Henderson as Pato alternately adds bits of humor, menace and sweetness. And the accents were spot on--with McDonagh's language, you've got to get the Irish right.

The staging is well-done, with most of the action centered around Mag in her rocking chair. The continuously playing television and radio lend even more tension to the scenes (sound design by Jake Davis) as do the visible stove (and poker), and the lighting (by Julia Carlis) sets the tone beautifully.

Go see it--you seldom see this beautiful combination of humor and darkness done so beautifully. You'll leave the theater tired from laughing but shaking off a bit of a macabre chill. Theatre Pro Rata is fast becoming one of my favorite theaters in town.

A note: There's a quick language guide in the program, but for those questions that you may be left with (What is Mag eating and drinking?), check out their Online Play Guide. It'll be after saving you a bit of Googling, to be sure. There is a ton of additional information on their website--well done, Theatre Pro Rata. I love an online program.

One more note: Dear MN Theaters: Please do more Martin McDonagh plays. Thanks, me. Also plays by women and from communities of color. Okay, I'm done now. Thanks for everything, love, me again.

Razzle Dazzle 'Em - The Phipps Dance Theater

The Phipps Center for the Arts is expanding its horizons. Crossing the river from Hudson, Wisconsin, the Phipps Dance Theater has brought its latest show to the Southern Theater in Minneapolis.

Razzle Dazzle 'Em: A Tribute to Bob Fosse is a celebration of the director/choreographer's work, performed with panache by thirteen talented performers. Director Mackenzie Lewis, with choreographers Melissa Huber and Christina Leines, re-creates Fosse's dances in iconic numbers from shows including Chicago, Sweet Charity, Pippin, and The Pajama Game, as well as his autobiographical film All That Jazz.

The Southern provides the perfect setting for these dances, with no frills to distract from the precision of the dancing. Fosse's dance style is all about the details, and the dancers do not disappoint. The music is recorded, but much of the singing is live, including solos that break up the dance numbers.

"Cell Block Tango" 
A highlight for me was the "Cell Block Tango" from Chicago, which was sung, acted, and danced to perfection. Though the songs and dances are familiar, it's exciting to see them performed live and close up. Cabaret's "Mein Herr" and The Pajama Game's "Steam Heat" were also wonderful to see, as were all the dances. A few interstitial scenes devised to give the dancers time to change are not quite as successful, but then we are right back into the dance.

The one number I was really looking forward to most was a terrific finale. "The Rich Man's Frug" from Sweet Charity is a wonderfully iconic dance, and the performance of it was everything I hoped for. It's full of the signature Fosse moves from the exaggerated full-body leaning of the dancers to the precise wrist-twisting finger snaps.

There are four more chances to see Razzle Dazzle 'Em through January 10. It is indeed a dazzling night of dance, and I hope it brings more attention to the Phipps, which offers classes, theater, dance, music, visual arts, and more. It's just a short trip from the Twin Cities to experience all kinds of art in their beautiful facility in picturesque downtown Hudson.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Dreadfully Delightful - "A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder"

Photo by Joan Marcus
What a deliciously, deathly, dreadfully delightful show! Playing for a short time at the State Theatre, "A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder" is based on the film "Kind Hearts and Coronets." The story is about a man who finds out, after his mother has died, that he is a member of the D'Ysquith family...a well-off, aristocratic family. His mother married for love and was disinherited so the penniless Monty Navarro decides to see if he can change destiny. There are eight members of the D'Ysquith family between him and the family fortune. He decides, for love, to kill off the family until he becomes Earl.

Photo by Joan Marcus
Yes - this is a light comedy that tends towards operetta (which I don't like but I loved this score). Yes - it is a very black light comedy. Yes - there are only eleven cast members. and Yes....ONE actor play all the eight members of the family that get killed. The cast was fantastic, and John Rapson as the "D'Ysquith Family" was astounding. The quick changes that took place between one of his characters exiting, and another walking on must be a blast to do backstage! Every quirky character was perfectly played - each very distinct and yet clearly all related, and mostly clearly all played by the same actor. I did wonder, at times, if there were audience members who didn't look at the program and thought that there were different actors for some of the family members. That is how different some of the D'Ysquith family members looked. Simply astounding.

Photo by Joan Marcus
The set and costumes were just gorgeous as well. The set had a jewel-box proscenium set in the center of the stage. Most of the action took place on that stage, though the actual stage was also used at times. The staging utilized a perfect mix of classic theater tricks, and computer projections on the back wall. As an example, there is a scene that takes place while characters are ice skating. The back projection has a lovely winter scene on it, the set has very fake looking trees and mounds of snow creating levels (yet lovely to look at), and some of the actors made crosses behind the set. These crosses were made to look as if the actors were on ice skates by way of some board on wheels. A very simple trick that was well utilized. So, classic theater tricks mixed with modern technology. It is a great combination. As for costumes, I believe the photos clearly show how gorgeous they are. There are two love-interests for Monty and both of them had the most stunning costumes.

Photo by Joan Marcus
Musically it was also gorgeous. It was a small orchestra of twelve creating a very classic sound appropriate to 1909, the year the show is set. Vocally the cast was fantastic as well. The diction and sound was great with only a few lines being lost to laughter. Honestly, I really can't say much more besides go see it. It is charming and delightful, funny and well, to use some lyrics from the opening number - "blood may spill, spines may chill, it's ghastly" and yet so much fun!

Note: The Broadway production is closing in a few days so take this chance to see it on tour.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

The Great Work - 7th House Theater

Unfortunately, it's the end of the run for 7th House Theater's new production, The Great Work, which closes Sunday, January 3 at the Guthrie's Dowling Studio. I wish I'd seen it earlier!

Andy Frye and Shinah Brashears.
StarTribune photo by Amy Anderson.
7th House company members David Darrow (music and lyrics) and Grant Sorenson (book) wrote this brief (65 minutes) but intense new musical. A cast of eight performs the story of an aging composer (played by David Carey) sharing a piece of his past with his grown daughter (Kendall Anne Thompson). As a young man in Vienna, Hans (played as a young man by Andy Frye) experienced great love and great success. Bergen Baker uses her terrific soprano voice to great effect as his love interest. The music is lovely, though a couple of songs become a bit repetitive. The 6-piece orchestra, led by Jason Hansen, fills out the sound, and a variety of roles are played by the ensemble (Shinah Brashears, Aleks Knezevich, Maeve Moynihan, and Adam Moen), who sound wonderful, particularly in an a capella segment that shows off both the music and the voices.

I hope the group continues to develop the show and that we get a chance to see it again. This production seemed a bit overwhelmed by the physical staging. The piece is strong enough on its own that it doesn't need a lot of frills to be effective. It's strengths are in the story, music, and performers.