Saturday, February 20, 2016

Only One Sophie at Illusion Theater

The world premiere of the new musical Only One Sophie opened last week at Illusion Theater. The show opens with Bradley Greenwald alone on stage and singing. In that moment, the musical had me.

Bradley Greenwald as Michael Robins and Kersten Rodau as Sophie.
Photo by Lauren B. Photography.
Only One Sophie is a personal story and an obvious labor of love, as it tells the story of Illusion Theater co-founder Michael Robins' grandmother. As we learn by watching this show, Sophie Robins was a fascinating, complicated, loving, strong woman with amazing fortitude. Robins wrote the book and lyrics and Roberta Carlson wrote the music and additional lyrics, and they both do justice to Sophie's memory.

The show opens with an adult Michael (the aforementioned Bradley Greenwald) visiting his grandmother Sophie's grave. The show takes us into Michael's memories of his grandmother, from her youth in Russia (where she is played by Elizabeth Hawkinson), to her young married life and her adult life as a mother-in-law and Michael's grandmother (the stunning Kersten Rodau), to her death and the week Michael's family spend sitting shiva.

Sometimes new musicals can be hard--there are so many moving parts. Not only do you have to have a great story (check), full and rich characters (done), and music and lyrics that move and move the story along, but you need to do it all at one time with a talented cast of singers and actors, not to mention the orchestra, the lighting, the set, whew! There is a point in the first act when the full cast sings in chorus (and another gorgeous one at the end) that I thought, "Ah, yes. That's it. That's the sound of a beautiful musical."

Bradley Greenwald plays Michael as a child and as an adult, something Greenwald does beautifully and truthfully, seamlessly transitioning from adult to child and back with subtle adjustments to his physicality. To be honest, it's a little uncanny to see Greenwald on stage as Michael Robins, looking a perfect match of the mildly disheveled Robins who just walked through the theater.

Sophie’s daughter-in-law Linda (Bonni Allen) with her children
Richard (
Benjamin Wagner),  Michael (Bradley Greenwald) and
Pamela (
Elizabeth Hawkinson
). Photo by Lauren B. Photography.
The entire cast does beautiful work, but there are a few standouts. Jay Hornbacher and Beth Gilleland play the feisty and touching Sam and Clara, Sophie's brother and sister-in-law. Sam's solo song, "Say the Names" is a high point in a very strong show. It's not easy to be the character that a show completely revolves around (especially when you start the show already passed on), but Kersten Rodau's amazing presence and gorgeous voice make Sophie the welcome center of this show. Randy Schmeling, Bonni Allen, and Benjamin Wagner also lend authenticity to their performances as family members. Elizabeth Hawkinson is impressive as both Michael's sister Pamela and as the younger Sophie. Rodau and Hawkinson share an energy and intensity that makes them really feel like two versions of the same person.

And above all else, this show is about family. A million moments will feel familiar and touching, from Greenwald and Wagner talking while they're supposed to be sleeping, to being unsure about how to behave at a funeral, to adjusting to in-laws, and to remembering those who have passed on with love. This show captures all of this in a moving, funny, poignant way.

The theme of family continues beyond the stage with the Sophie Series, a variety of pre- and post-show workshops, special events, and educational panels. Still to come in the series are talks on memoir and documentary, immigration and the Jewish immigrants of Saint Paul's West Side. One of the tastiest-sounding is Grandma's Recipe Crawl at the Gourmet Gallery at Art Institutes International Admission to these events is free with a ticket to the accompanying performance, but space is limited for the Recipe Crawl. Check the website for more information and to buy your tickets to experience this wonderful show.

(co-written by Carly & Jules)