Sunday, August 20, 2017

DUNGEON - MN Fringe 2017


By Hit the Lights! Theater Co.
Created by Hit the Lights! Theater Co.
Playing at Jungle Theater
Physical theater/Clowning, Puppetry, Sci-fi/Mystery/Horror, First-time Minnesota Fringe Festival producer, Actors' Equity participants, National/international company

A young man falls into the unknown to rescue the thing he holds most dear. Inspired by kabuki, video games, horror movies, and pixar shorts, DUNGEON builds a world where darkness speaks louder than the light.

I should say, the audience LOVED this show. LOVED it. Me? Not so much. Although the use of puppetry and shadow work was inventive, this show felt like a rough draft. The story was pretty weak, the visuals not quite matching up as intended, and some genuinely confusing moments. What the heck was that lantern thing? Some ingenious ideas to be sure, and I'm intrigued by their work, but it didn't come together for me. I kept thinking of Davey Steinman and his show Basement Creatures, and how well it handled so much of the same material. Note to self: What's Davey Steinman doing these days?

Stranger-er Things: Netflix and Kill - MN Fringe 2017

By Turd Spout Productions
Created by Tom Reed
Playing at Phoenix Theater
Solo show, Sci-fi/Mystery/Horror
Warnings: Adult language.

Parody powerhouse Tom Reed hilariously reenacts season one of "Stranger Things" in a one-man musical romp. This nostalgia and pop culture-infused horror cranks the comedy to Eleven and will leave you dying.

I've seen maybe two episodes of Stranger Things, but my friend Cherry and Spoon LOVES Tom Reed, so we checked it out. Despite not knowing much about the source material, this show was hilarious. This two-man show features Tom Reed acting out all of the characters and situations in the first season of Stranger Things, accompanied by Jon Pumper on the piano. Of course, Tom Reed was energetic and very funny, but we loved watching Jon Pumper accompany Reed and his deadpan reaction shots. I swear, it was nearly as good as watching Reed. Again, these are two more to watch for these fairly Fringe newbies!

Making It Home - MN Fringe 2017

By Delve Theatre
Created by the Storytellers
Playing at Theatre in the Round
Storytelling/Spoken word, Includes artists of color

The largest population of Somalis in North America lives in the Twin Cities. Listen as a local ensemble of storytellers share their experiences of the joys and challenges of creating home in Minnesota.

I love the idea of this show and I love the image depicted in this amazing photo, which sums up so much in one fabulous picture. In this show, somewhat awkwardly told in the round, Somali family members share their stories of coming to Minnesota. The show is put together by Zac Deventhal, who provides background into immigrant stories (perhaps a bit too much) and sums up the show. I admire this show, and I loved hearing these stories. I wish the sound had been a bit better, but so glad I saw it.

Buffy the Bedbug Slayer - MN Fringe 2017

By Spike Tape Productions
Written by Gina Musto
Playing at Theatre in the Round
Puppetry, Sci-fi/Mystery/Horror, First-time Minnesota Fringe Festival producer, First-time producer

Buffy Summers is the Slayer, up against new bloodsuckers – bedbugs and a corrupt landlord named Dennis Drumpf. Who will win in this great battle against evil? This parody celebrates the much-loved TV series.

Full disclosure: The writer of this show is my friend and fellow blogger Gina Musto (The Room Where It Happens) and I'm super excited for her and her first Fringe show (and all the drama and angst and joy that that entails).

Remember last year at the Fringe? So many shows about Donald Trump. It's like it was all a joke then, and now it's all too real and hard to even joke about. But planning for Fringe shows takes quite a bit of time, and the world is changing day to day. So let's talk about the Buffy part! Buffy is retired from slaying, but bedbugs are her newest enemy in the form of a bedbug version of Spike and her evil landlord. The great fun in this show is the spot-on portrayals of Buffy, Spike, Willow and Dawn. "SHUT UP, DAWN" can never be said enough. It's a lovely nostalgic trip for the Buffy fan, plus a little real-life angst in the form of Trump. Fun! Not SAD!

The Last Bombardment - MN Fringe 2017

By Oncoming Productions
Created by Oncoming Productions, fr. the short story by Kenneth Schneyer
Playing at Ritz Theater Mainstage
Physical theater/Clowning, Sci-fi/Mystery/Horror, Literary adaptation, Includes artists of color

Nobody noticed the first bombardment, not when it happened. One morning we woke up as usual, and there were babies on our doorsteps. We chose to take them in. Then the choices got much, much harder. (Horror)

Deeply strange play about a community where babies show up on people's doorsteps, causing all sorts of consternation for those who want children, those who don't, and the sheriff who is trying to figure out what's happening. When those who have taken in the babies sicken and die, as do everyone who comes in contact with the children, things take an incredibly dark turn. Such as, what happens the next time babies show up. The show is told through inventive, spare physical theater (this company performed the Deep Dark at Twin Cities Horror Festival IV) and is truly chilling. I love me some horror, but man, there's a lot of killing babies in this show, which made me really wonder about the source material (a short story by Kenneth Schneyer) and the author's intention. Still, based on this and the Deep Dark, I'll be keeping an eye out for Oncoming Productions.

Blackout Improv - MN Fringe 2017

By Rogues Gallery Arts
Created by Blackout Improv
Playing at Phoenix Theater
Improv, Includes artists of color
Warnings: Adult language, Sexual Content.

Members of this all person of color improv team take on the Minnesota Fringe in a way that only they can, with humor, swag, and a focus on social issues. Each performance will feature an amazing special guest!

Blackout Improv is everything. It is ALL the things. It's hilarious, it's thought-provoking, and it's performed regularly at the Phoenix Theater in Uptown. YAY! I love discovering great shows at the Fringe that I can actually see again once the Fringe is over. Some of the funniest performers in the Twin Cities (like MN Theater Love favorites Joy Dolo Anfinson and Kory Pullam), as well as hilarious performers who are new to us (like the delightful John Grebretatose. who is officially one to watch), get together and perform improv based on suggestions from the audience. But in addition to the improv, each show includes some serious discussion of issues such as social justice, which are discussed in such an engaging way that we longed to join in the discussion. LOVE.

Ooh, also during the Fringe they featured a number of special guests. We were lucky enough to see the charming Gregory Parks, a clown, improviser and all around fascinating guy.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Sevlin & Devlin Presents: Seven Evans in Heaven - MN Fringe 2017

ShowSevlin & Devlin Presents: Seven Evans in Heaven

By Ferrari McSpeedy Theatrical Productions
Created by Ferrari McSpeedy Theatrical Productions
Playing at Ritz Theater Studio
Physical theater/Clowning, Includes artists of color
Warnings: Violence, Adult language.

Join your hosts Sevlin and Devlin as they present the story of the battle for one Evan's soul. A very weird show in a very small venue.

Our friend Cherry and Spoon really liked this show. You should go read her review of it. 

Belatedly, I realized that John Gebretatose from Blackout Improv was in this show, and he's awesome. I also liked Rita Boersma, who has a lovely singing voice, and engaging comic timing. The audience really loved this show, and laughed like crazy. To me, it felt like it was relying on the familiar charm of the performers instead of anything else, but it clearly worked for the audience.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Repertoire Dogs - MN Fringe 2017

By Ideal Productions
Created by Dana's Boys
Playing at Mixed Blood Theatre
Magic, Improv, Literary adaptation
Warnings: Adult language, Sexual Content.

A high-energy hour of celebrity impressions and cartoon voices "recast" into iconic movie scenes, plays, music, and more! Featuring a panel of well-known local performers and hosted by Josh Carson!

In Short: Light and funny show devoted to impressions of celebrities (and a few Muppets). A few of the highlights from the evening we saw it included Fozzie Bear and Kermit doing the 'Royale with Cheese' scene from Reservoir Dogs, and an Owen Wilson impression contest, where he's reading from Fifty Shades of Gray. Lots of "Wowwww"s. The cast we saw included Allison Witham, Jay Melchior, Joe Weiner, Kelsey Cramer, and Brad Erickson. (No program, so this is based on memory.) This show is fun and funny, but the best thing about the show is watching Josh Carson crack up.

Couple Fight 3: Weddings! - MN Fringe 2017

By Weggel-Reed Productions
Created by Anna Weggel-Reed and Tom Reed
Playing at U of M Rarig Center Thrust
Physical theater/Clowning, Improv, Storytelling/Spoken word
Warnings: Adult language.

"Couple Fight 3: Weddings!" features real couples reenacting their real fights centered around love, weddings, marriage and friendship. Relate to the joys of relationships for better or for worse.

In Short: 
Although there have been two previous editions of Couple Fight, this was the first one we've seen. Wedding stress seems to be universal, but each couple has a different trigger point, causing meltdowns that were probably not amusing at the time. But with the benefit of hindsight, each brief scene takes a stressful situation and brings out the funny. Married or not, we've all had stupid fights, or at least known someone who's gone a little nuts over their nuptials. This fast-moving show packs a ton of laughs, and proves that "one day you'll laugh about this" can come true.

Jefferson Township Sparkling Junior Talent Pageant: A New Musical - MN Fringe 2017

By Devious Mechanics
Written by Keith Hovis
Playing at Mixed Blood Theatre
Opera/New Music
Warnings: Violence, Adult language, Sexual Content.

Twenty years after a freak accident ended the Jefferson Township Sparkling Junior Pageant, three contestants will settle the score and see who should've won by finishing the pageant, in all its pre-teen glory.

In Short: Go see this. Keith Hovis is a young genius, and this show is just as dark and delightful as his Teenage Misery. The music is fun and the lyrics are hilarious. And the CAST. Kelly Houlehan plays and sings crazy like no one else, and Ryan London Levin, as her reluctant partner in crime and pageantry is delightful to watch. Leslie Vincent is frighteningly perfect as the small town beauty queen hanging on to her crown with all her might. Zach Garcia is perfect as the ex-jock who might just be the most level-headed of the group. Amazingly, in the span of an hour, Hovis fits a clear story, fully-realized characters, and oh, so many jokes! You'll laugh, you'll cry, and you'll laugh again.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Getting My Fringe On - My 2017 Minnesota Fringe Festival Don't Miss List

Friends, this year, I am FRINGING with a vengeance.

I'm taking vacation from the day job and utterly dedicating myself to see all the 2017 Minnesota Fringe Festival shows that I can.

Won't you join me (and my fellow theater bloggers) in this fantastic theater celebration that runs August 3-13 at a variety of venues about town?

Step One: Read Cherry and Spoon's tips for newbies, which has helpful information like this:
"You'll need a daily wristband (sold at the box office at each location for $16 on weekdays or $22 on weekends), which will get you into any show that day. Once you have a wristband, get a token for the show from a volunteer, and get in line for the theater."
C&S also recommends sunscreen which makes me a bit trepidatious--what am I, camping?

Step Two: Comb through the helpful Minnesota Fringe website and add promising-sounding shows to My Queue.  Right now, I have sixty shows in My Queue. Apparently, math says you can only see 56 shows, so it's an ambitious start.

Step Three: GET ORGANIZED. I believe math and geography will be involved.

And now, to help you plan your Fabulous Fringe Experience, here are the shows that I am most looking forward to:
Jefferson Township, etc. "Sparkle, baby!"

Jefferson Township Sparkling Junior Talent Pageant: A New Musical - by Devious Mechanics
Twenty years after a freak accident ended the Jefferson Township Sparkling Junior Pageant, three contestants will settle the score and see who should've won by finishing the pageant, in all its pre-teen glory.
Why I'm In: This musical is written by Keith Hovis, a writer/composer/actor whose work we've loved lately (Teenage Misery, Public Exposure). Also, it stars Ryan London Levin and Kelly Houlehan. Plus, a beauty pageant! Sparkle, baby!

Blackout Improv - by Rogues Gallery Arts
Members of this all person of color improv team take on the Minnesota Fringe in a way that only they can, with humor, swag, and a focus on social issues. Each performance will feature an amazing special guest!
Why I'm In: Because Blackout Improv has some of the funniest performers in the Twin Cities and I am too old and sleepy to go see their usual late-night shows. AND social justice plus improv! AND fabulous special guests! PLUS swag! WHAT.

Much Ado About Nothing (as told by Dogberry and Verges). - by Rough Magic Performance Company
Shakespeare's classic comedy of love/hate relationships made modern by 6 women and 2 puppets. A hilarious and moving tale of love, jealousy, trickery, and redemption with a fresh and feminist perspective.
Much Ado About Nothing. Plus side eye.
Why I'm In: Directed by Sarah Agnew and featuring six fabulous actors (Taj Ruler, Sara Richardson, Catherine Johnson Justice, Alayne Hopkins, Elise Langer and Kirby Bennett). Plus, love Much Ado.

It Can't Happen Here - by Sinclair Lewis Productions
A small-town news editor struggles with the election of a fascist demagogue to the US presidency in this Federal Theatre Project's 1936 adaptation of Sinclair Lewis' bestselling novel. Abridged for the Fringe.
Why I'm In: Because did you see that description? It's eerily appropriate. Maybe Sinclair Lewis has some words of wisdom for us.

Making It Home - by Delve Theatre
The largest population of Somalis in North America lives in the Twin Cities. Listen as a local ensemble of storytellers share their experiences of the joys and challenges of creating home in Minnesota.
Making It Home. Best show promo photo EVER.
Why I'm In: I still don't know enough about Somalis and Somali culture and life. I firmly believe in the power of hearing someone's story, and I really appreciate people who are willing to share their stories.

ODD MAN OUT - by Underdog Theatre
The death of a family patriarch summons James to his hometown in South Texas. Once he arrives, James is confronted with issues of the past and present. Nothing is left on the table in this world premier drama.
Why I'm In: Cause it's directed and written by Kory LaQuess Pullam, an incredibly talented young theatermaker and I firmly believe it getting in earlyish, so you can say, "Oh, I saw that award-winning playwright's show at the Fringe. I think it was back in oh, 2017?" Also, fabulous cast.

Thrill to two classic tales of terror from the radio's golden age, "The Shadow People" and "The Gibbering Things," performed in the style of an old-time radio broadcast, including announcements and commercials!

The Ghoulish Delights with their eyebrow game ON POINT.
Why I'm In: Love the podcast of the same name, and love tales of terror from any age. Also! Eric Webster and Shanan Custer, who are also featured in Couple Fight 3: Weddings!

Facility - by Imagined Theatre
An elderly man suffering from dementia struggles to understand his situation and maintain a relationship with his daughter, even as he forgets how he ended up in a senior care facility.
Why I'm In: Although it's a challenging topic, it's also incredibly timely and worthwhile. And terribly close to home.

The Memory Box of the Sisters Fox.
Also, can we bring foxy back?
The Memory Box of the Sisters Fox - by The Winding Sheet Outfit
A circle. A seance. A story. A memory. A tale of two sisters who spoke to the dead.
Why I'm In: I find the story of the Fox sisters eternally fascinating. Also, the excellent photos on the MN Fringe write-up indicate a charming aesthetic.

Sevlin & Devlin Presents: Seven Evans in Heaven - by Ferrari McSpeedy Theatrical Productions
Join your hosts Sevlin and Devlin as they present the story of the battle for one Evan's soul. A very weird show in a very small venue.
Why I'm In: Joe Bozic, Mike Fotis, Erin Sheppard and Ryan Lear. Directed by Jason Ballweber. And is every actor really playing Evan? Hmm. I'm listening.

Repertoire Dogs. Repertoire is hard to spell.
Repertoire Dogs - by Ideal Productions
A high-energy hour of celebrity impressions and cartoon voices "recast" into iconic movie scenes, plays, music, and more! Featuring a panel of well-known local performers and hosted by Josh Carson!
Why I'm In: Fabulous cast including the unmissable Allison Witham.

The End of the World Sing-Along Hour - by The Heavy Mettle Assembly
Has "Resisting" lost it's zip? Collapsing under all the crazy? Has your passion for protest paled? Let's fix that with SINGING! We'll sing lots of great, and two pretty stupid, songs. Let your voice be heard!
Why I'm In: Jennifer Eckes and Kevin Werner Hohlstein, who perform a charming cabaret act around town (often at Honey). Also, SINGING.

DUNGEON - by Hit the Lights! Theater Co.
A young man falls into the unknown to rescue the thing he holds most dear. Inspired by kabuki, video games, horror movies, and pixar shorts, DUNGEON builds a world where darkness speaks louder than the light.
Why I'm In: Cause that description sounds super neat. Sometimes it's just that easy.

There are SO MANY more shows to talk about, but it's time for me to start figuring out how in heck I'm going to see them all.

Happy Fringing, y'all!! 

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Native Gardens at the Guthrie Theater

Native Gardens tells a deceptively simple story of mismatched neighbors that touches on topics from immigration and white privilege to local ecosystems and colonization. And it's funny!

Karen Zacarías's play is so new that the ink is still dry. After premiering in Cincinnati, the author and director (Blake Robison) came to the Guthrie to work on a script that will be the version that other theaters can license. And they should, because it's a winner.

In a posh neighborhood of Washington D.C., two houses stand right next to each other. One is meticulously kept, with an elaborate garden. The other looks worse for wear, with a dry and barren backyard. We meet the new residents of the fixer-upper: the very pregnant Ph.D. student Tania Del Valle (Jacqueline Correa) and her lawyer husband Pablo Del Valle (Dan Domingues). Both are excited by their new house--Tania to create a beautiful garden of native plantings and Pablo to have a home base from which he can work towards partner in his office.
Jacqueline Correa, Dan Domingues, Sally Wingert and Steve Hendrickson.
Photo by the incomparable Dan Norman.
Fantastic set by Joseph Tilford.
They are excited to meet their next door neighbors, the Butleys. Virginia (Sally Wingert), a retired defense contractor, and Frank (Steve Hendrickson), who works for "the Agency." Frank's great goal in life is to win the local gardening competition and obsessively cares for his pristine English garden. When Pablo and Tania plan a new fence to divide the yards, taking down the existing eyesore, they find that their property extends a few feet farther than they thought--directly through Frank's flower beds. Conflict ensues.

Jacqueline Correa, Dan Domingues. Photo by Dan Norman.
Contemporary dramas and comedies that involve neighbors and conflict are nothing new (see Detroit, God of Carnage), but the delight in Native Gardens is that it's not just hateful white people shouting at one another. For a play that runs a tight ninety minutes with no intermission, Native Gardens covers a lot of ground (hee hee). It's a play about identity and privilege, of Americanism (or North Americanism), land, and culture. But it does all this while still being dang funny.

Playwright Karen Zacarías, co-founder of the Latinx Theater Commons, has also written musicals (in addition to her plays) and you can hear the music in her writing. Her dialogue feels natural, but musically rhythmic and a treat to listen to, particularly when performed by such a great cast. Dan Dominguez and Jacqueline Correa create an endearing and charming (but certainly not perfect) couple, and Dominguez has fantastic comic timing. You can't ever go wrong with Sally Wingert as an uptight white lady, and Steve Hendrickson is in turns infuriating and pathetic as Frank. The landscape technicians who toil silently in the background (Reyna Rios, Pedro Juan Fonseca, Brandon J. Cayetano and Guillermo Zermano) provide a fantastic additional layer to the action, and even more realism and humor.

Steve Hendrickson, Sally Wingert, Jacqueline Correa,
Dan Domingues. Photo by Dan Norman.
Director Blake Robison, who came with the play from the Cincinnati Playhouse, hits the perfect tone with this play. So much of the audience at the Guthrie (particularly on opening night) has far more in common with the Butleys than the Del Valles, and Robison keeps the perfect edge on the humor so that the audience never tips over into identifying too much with the Butleys. It's a fine, fine line, but Robison and Zacarías do a gorgeous job with it, and I'm so pleased to have this hilarious and thought-provoking show at the Guthrie (through August 20!).

(co-written by Jules and Carly)

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Maria de Buenos Aires at Mill City Summer Opera

Maria (Catalina Cuervo) and that DRESS.
Photo by Dan Norman.
As we've said before, Mill City Summer Opera provides one of the most unique and special experiences in local theater. Fabulous music in a gorgeous setting makes for a not-to-be-missed experience for theatergoers.

This year, due to the repairs at the Mill City Ruins Courtyard, their summer show has moved to a historic industrial spot in Northeast Minneapolis called the Machine Shop. This hip venue turns out to be a perfect setting for Maria de Buenos Aires for this intimate opera-tango-drama, with its urban feel made even more atmospheric by a heavy layer of fog, adding a sultry feel.

With text by Horacio Ferrer and music by Astor Piazzolla, Maria de Buenos Aires premiered in Buenos Aires in 1968. At this production, Mill City Summer Opera artistic director David Lefkowich, in his pre-curtain speech urges the audience to let the music wash over them, try not to work too hard to understand the story. The supertitles are not direct translations of the text, but "help to navigate the surreal poetry and the tango will provide a heartbeat and a mood" (according to the Director's Note.)

Luis Alejandro Orozco and Catalina Cuervo
Photo by Dan Norman
However, I still like to understand a story. This New York Times review of a 2013 production at Les Poisson Rouge gives a nice overview:
The work is more of an oratorio than an opera. Written in the key of “Ay! minor” (Ferrer’s libretto is laced with musical puns), it’s a Passion play in which the central character, María, represents both Jesus and the Virgin. She sleepwalks through scenes of sexual violence, her burial and dreamlike confessions to a chorus of psychoanalysts until, resurrected, she gives birth to a new version of herself.
So THAT's what happened! The performers are uniformly excellent and inhabit the roles as if they've played them many times before--which they have. The main actor/singers have played these roles multiple times and do so beautifully. The voices of Maria (Catalina Cuervo) and Payador (Luis Alejandro Orozco) are rich and gorgeous, and El Duende (Milton Loayza) narrates the action with the perfect mix of menace and sadness.

Also, noted in the program as one of four main cast members is JP Jofre as the Bandoneon player. Hey, what's a bandoneon, you ask? Here's some info that the very musical among you may understand. All I know is that it creates a beautiful sound and watching Jofre's expressive performance was one of the great pleasures of this show.

See that guy in white? That's the star of this show, JP Jofre.
Photo by Dan Norman.
I was also delighted to see Brian Sostek and Megan McClellan among the stylish dance ensemble, who apparently did a lovely marionette routine.

Here's the sad news. Theatermaking friends, can I remind you that when you put action on the floor with the audience on risers, sightlines can be challenging. Although we could see most of the action beautifully, as soon as the performers dipped to a certain level, the audience was leaning and straining to see the action. We missed the last scene with Maria entirely and couldn't see the beautiful sparkly dress she was wearing, much less what she was doing.

But in total, Maria de Buenos Aires was atmospheric, delightfully site-specific, with amazing performers and gorgeous music. As usual, Mill City Summer Opera is creating unique, engaging theater and is an utter delight. Also as usual, this is a short and sold out run, so put Mill City Summer Opera on your list for next summer!

Friday, July 21, 2017

Ten Reasons to See Jesus Christ Superstar at the Ordway. Like, NOW.

I believe in the restorative power of theater. If you need your spirit restored, I highly recommend seeing the Ordway's new production of Jesus Christ Superstar, which runs only through July 30.

Although I could gush for days about how amazing this show is, I will keep it short, so nothing will get in your way of seeing this show. Cause, GO. Also? Go.

p.s.? Go.

But Minnesota Theater Love, you ask, why should I go? It's summer and I am spending time outdoors with family and friends and nature. Theater is BORING! And Jesus Christ Superstar? Isn't that a tired old show?

First of all, quit asking questions. I'm trying to write a coherent blog post about this show, and you aren't helping. Secondly, I'll TELL YOU WHY.

Ten Reasons Why You Should See Jesus Christ Superstar. Like NOW.

Randy Schmeling in JCS. Melting faces. Photo by Rich Ryan. 

1) Randy Schmeling. I've seen Randy Schmeling in a million shows locally over the years. I first remember him from Theater Latte Da's Gypsy in 2006, but have loved him in everything. He's adorable, and funny, and really should have played Bobby in the Jungle Theater's Urinetown (but that's a story for another time). Oh, and dude can SING. Judas is one of my favorite musical theater roles of all time, and he sings the bejeezus out of it. The term face-melting comes to mind. He acts the hell out of the role (see what I did there?) and sings his heart out in a way I never expected.

2) Jesse Nager as Jesus Christ. I am a jaded theatergoer and given to viewing standing ovations with judicious side-eye. But at the end of Nager's performance of "Gethsemane" in the second act, I was ready to leap to my feet. In the middle of the show! This song made me wish that musical theater followed the tradition of opera in demanding immediate aria encores. In addition to his fantastic voice, Jesse Nager is charismatic, compelling, and plays Jesus with real humanity. He and Schmeling create marvelous chemistry and tension--which plays out delightfully in the curtain call.

Lauren Villegas and Jesse Nager in JCS, moments before
Judas kills the buzz. Again. Photo by Rich Ryan.

3) The Whole Dang Cast.
Way too much love, but in short: Dieter Bierbrauer in a skirt also singing his face off. Erin Schwab as Herod? Utter genius. James Ramlet and John Brink perfectly cast as Caiphas and Annas. Lauren Villegas, performing Mary Magdalene with a powerful, but exquisite voice, and bringing depth and heart to a role which can be passive and inert. More love for Julius Collins, Kersten Rodau--fantastic as always--and Rudolph Searles as Peter, who performs a gorgeous "Could We Start Again, Please?" with Mary M. And the entire ensemble--utterly amazing.

(Shoot, I'm running out of adjectives and I'm only on number three. Rats!)

4) The Orchestra. Musical director and conductor Andrew Bourgoin gets the most out of his fantastic 16-piece ensemble. I don't think I've heard the Ordway rocked that profoundly since the first tour of Rent came through. The music was tight, hot, and a whole bunch of other words that sound vaguely dirty.

Terance Reddick and the amazeballs ensemble.
Photo by Rich Ryan.

5) Dancing.
Remember earlier, when I said I wanted to leap to my feet for a mid-show ovation? I also almost leapt to my feet after "Hosanna" and "Superstar", two numbers which featured unbelievable dancing. The energy! The movement! The fact that the ensemble is also singing while dancing like mad? Ah. May. Zing. I can't even call out a few favorites (like Rush Benson, Wes Mouri and Kayla Jenerson) because the entire ensemble kicked butt, directed and choreographed beautifully by James Rocco.

5a) Direction by James Rocco. My more rational co-blogger demands I give James Rocco some love. To wit: "I think he pulled together a fabulous show, starting with the amazing cast and design team. The visuals were powerful, but not overwhelming, and he knew when to let the singers be the focus. The huge shifts in tone from exuberant joy to painful sorrow, which could have been jarring, all seemed to flow naturally. And I suspect from some of the moments he created that he’s been thinking about this show for a long time, and what he wanted it to look like and achieve. Good direction is often overlooked because it doesn’t draw attention to itself, but this show was masterfully directed." Done and done!

6) The Set. Scenic and lighting designer Paul Whitaker creates a simple but wonderfully dynamic set. Beautifully lit, and featuring some amazing feats of theater magic. Spoiler: the bit with the cross is really powerfully done.

7) The Audience. Again, I am a jaded theatergoer and heartily sick of--yet resigned to--the uncivil behavior of theater audiences. The audience when I saw this show, though? Fantastic. I didn't hear anyone chatting during the show (yay loud shows), I didn't see anyone texting or even checking the time on their phone, and very few people left and reentered the theater during the show. The audience was RAPT. Totally in, totally on board. Emotionally leaning forward in their seats (though not physically, cause if you do that, people behind you can't see. PSA over.)

All hail Erin Schwab. But not Herod. He's a bad dude.
Photo by Rich Ryan.

8) Erm, the Actual Show?
ALW (Andrew Lloyd Webber to you) frequently gets a bad rap--often from me. But this show made me remember that Jesus Christ Superstar was my first grown-up musical theater obsession. My best friend and I listened to her mother's record of the 1970 studio album over and over again until we could replicate every last bit of phrasing and intonation. I still love the show, and this production made me remember that love. This show ROCKS.

Me at the curtain call. Nope, sorry, it's Jesse Nager and
Randy Schmeling. Photo by Rich Ryan.

9) Children! Adorable children! Singing and being cute. In small doses!

10) Randy Schmeling. In case I didn't make the point strongly enough the first time around. Go see this fantastic actor and singer in this true star turn. I will be going again. You'll recognize me cause I'll look like this:

Jesus Christ Superstar. At the Ordway through July 30. Go. See. It. Love, your friends at Minnesota Theater Love.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Ghost the Musical - Old Log Theatre

Last weekend, some of the Twin Cities Theater Bloggers gathered at the Old Log Theatre to take in their new production of Ghost: The Musical

Before you ask--yes, it is based on the 1990 movie that starred Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze as Sam and Molly, a cohabiting couple in which the boyfriend (Sam) dies and then has to save her (Molly) from his murderer.

The stage version, with book and lyrics by Bruce Joel Rubin, who wrote the movie's screenplay, and music and lyrics by Dave Stewart (Eurythmics) and Glen Ballard (cowriter and producer of Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill), premiered in England in 2011 and opened on Broadway in 2012.

The film of Ghost is still a cultural touchstone. You know, "Unchained Melody" by the Righteous Brothers, romantically messy pottery scene, "I love you", "Ditto", and a single, precious tear rolling down Demi Moore's perfect cheek.

Mollie Fischer/Frank Moran
Photo Credit: Old Log Theatre
However, full disclosure: The movie never did a thing for me. Want a romantic comedy about love after death with great music? Try Truly, Madly, Deeply with Alan Rickman and Juliet Stevenson, complete with cello/piano duets and true, realistic love and grief. However, here's a tip: Don't call it the "Thinking Person's Ghost" to someone who likes Ghost. They get offended.

Anyhoo, back to Ghost: The Musical. Directed by Eric Morris, and featuring a surprisingly racially diverse cast, the show was diverting and pleasant to watch. But similar to the movie, it's not a show that spoke to me. There simply isn't enough there there.

The musical seems to be relying on the audience's knowledge of the movie to shortcut the story. When Sam dies, it's hard to feel any emotion at Molly's loss, as the story focuses on Sam realizing he's still around as a ghost. The music, mostly forgettable, doesn't add any emotional resonance. Despite being well-acted by a cast of engaging performers, the actors were undercut by the lack of character.

Caitlynn Daniels/Heather McElrath/Emily Janson/
China Brickey. Photo credit: Old Log Theatre
Which brings me to Heather McElrath as Oda Mae. How can you have this kind of powerhouse role and not write her at least two show-stopping, roof-raising numbers? Heather is so amazing, and it was sad to see how the musical underuses her character, as well as the characters of Clara and Louise.

That said, the Old Log is a lovely place to see a show, out in the woods of Excelsior, and the staff at the theater were completely wonderful. I hope to have the opportunity to see more substantial material there in the future, material that is more worthy of the skilled direction and acting.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Don Giovanni - Skylark Opera Theatre at The Woman's Club of Minneapolis

Dear Skylark Opera,

In regards to your recent production of Don Giovanni, presented in partnership with Angels & Demons Entertainment and performed at the The Woman's Club of Minneapolis:


I could not be more pleased that one of my all-time favorite companies is back and better than ever. 

I've loved Skylark Opera since they were NorthStar Opera, and their summer productions have always been a highlight of my theater summer. As a lover of opera and musical theater, operetta hits my sweet spot beautifully, and Skylark Opera has created some gorgeous productions over the years.

Sadly, most of their productions pre-date this blog, but they live on warmly in my heart: 2014's gorgeous Candide, 2013's The Mikado (in partnership with Mu Performing Arts), 2011's fantastically cast On the Town, and 2009's The Desert Song, which was stunning. I could SO go on, thanks to Skylark Opera's Past Production list. Ooh, Wonderful Town with the Baldwin sisters, and a beautiful She Loves Me. Okay, I'm done.

Things have been a bit challenging for Skylark Opera in past years, and the Star Tribune wrote a great summary of their travails and their resurgence. Understandably, they are moving away from operetta and towards more opera productions, but if Don Giovanni is any indication, they are heading in a marvelous direction.
Gabriel Preisser as Don Giovanni (veramarinerstudio)
Mozart's 1787 opera Don Giovanni is based on the legendary character of Don Juan and "brings humor and tragedy" [to] "the essentially grim story of a serial seducer who escapes all retribution except death" (thanks, DK Opera Eyewitness Companion!). 

The original libretto was by Lorenzo Da Ponte and my favorite sassy opera book comments that "the great thing about Mozart and Da Ponte's take on the story is that the opera's music and text are somewhat more complicated: the don can be seen as a truly oversexed, amoral hell-raiser, a randy young guy who is merely having a good time, or a boastful creep; he does not consummate any sexual act during the opera--it's all hearsay, flirting, and bluster. Maybe." (Weep, Shudder, Die by Robert Levine).

However, Gabriel Preisser (of Angels & Demons) and Robert Neu (of A&D and Skylark Opera) have written a completely new translation, which fits in beautifully with the 1930s time period and the gorgeous setting of Woman's Club of Minneapolis.

Andrew Wilkowske (veramarinderstudio)

The opera starts in the lounge of the Woman's Club, with staff passing hors d'oeuvre, and a conveniently located bar. Don Giovanni himself (Preisser) is already wandering about, looking appropriately louche. 

Want to know the whole story of Don Giovanni? I recommend checking out the Met Opera's synopsis. (And NOT on your phone during the show while you're in the front row, bald man with glasses with woman with dark topknot and white sweater. People, man.)

Here's your TL; DR of Don Giovanni. 

Act One: Donny G--playah extreme--'seduces' Donna Anna. Her dad, the Commendatore, challenges Don to a duel, which Don wins. Anna demands her fiance avenge her dad's murder, then Don's ex Elvira shows up, pregnant. Meanwhile, Don's bestie Leporello fills us in on all the haps. Then a wedding! Don is all over Zerlina (the bride) and gets rid of Masetto (the groom) temporarily. Elvira shows up and is all, 'Girl, don't even,' with Zerlina. Anna figures out that Don killed her dad, there's a party and masks and a gun.

Act Two: Don and Leporello disguise themselves as one another and seduction, singing and confusion ensues. Then we're at a cemetery and the Commendatore's statue haunts Don. More singing, more confusion, and then the statue appears. Bad news for Donny G as he refuses to repent and is consigned to hell. And we're out.

Andrew Wilkowske and Tess Altiveros.
Leporello/Donna Elvira fanfic anyone? (veramarinerstudio)
The performers are all amazing, and the voices are universally exquisite. Although it can be occasionally challenging to make out the words, to hear these beautiful voices in such an intimate setting is truly a gift. There is NOTHING like intimate opera.

Gabriel Preisser is a marvelously smooth and semi-sleazy Don Giovanni. Andrew Wilkowske, who I tend to adore in everything, is a delightfully humorous and touching Leporello. And he plays guitar in a lovely scene with Tess Altiveros, who is a perfectly gorgeous Donna Elvira. Altiveros handles the role of the wronged woman with wit, strength and considerable charm. Benjamin Sieverding as Masetto and the Commendatore has not only impressive hair, but is genuinely chilling in the last scene as the Commendatore. Quinn Shadko, Karin Wolverton and David Blalock also provide wonderful performances, as does the six member ensemble. And can I just say: Preisser's Wilkowske impression is ON POINT.

So this is all to say, even if the opera had been performed in a traditional setting, it would have been beautifully done. But it's being performed at The Woman's Club, which was built in 1928 and has history seeping from every cornice and corner. The opera ranges through several floors of the building, from the lounge to the ballroom to the dining room and into the theater. Your ticket price comes with the aforementioned hors d'oeuvre, as well as some intermission nibbles, and a lovely after-opera dessert. Plus, the opportunity to wander about in the beautiful Woman's Club building.

I would urge you to go see this, but I'm pretty sure the remaining performances are all sold out. Which bodes well for the future of Skylark Opera. Yay!!

Monday, May 29, 2017

A Weekend in Chicago - Chicago Shakes, Lyric Opera and a little show called Hamilton

I need to start off this Chicago theater trip recap with a massive shoutout to the League of Chicago Theatres.
Dear League of Chicago Theatres: 
We recently traveled to your fair city to see a few shows, but we had not made a lot of advance plans. After a cursory online search, we had a lot of options, but was having trouble deciding. We stopped by the Hot Tix location on 72 East Randolph and had a lovely chat with the Hot Tix 'theater geniuses.' They described the various available shows, provided incredibly helpful directions (including train stops) and helped figure out if we could make it from one show to another in ample time. The next day, we stopped by the Block Thirty Seven Shops on State Hot Tix booth to decide on our final show of the trip. The charming and hilarious theatre genius helped us pick out a show that was relatively unknown to us, but turned out to be an amazing experience.
Thank you for all the awesome theater help, 
Kate McGonigle in Shakespeare in Love.
Photo by Liz Lauren
Your friends at Minnesota (and now more than a little Chicago) Theater Love
More about the League below, but now on to the shows!

Shakespeare in Love - Chicago Shakespeare Theater
Luigi Sottile in Shakespeare in Love.
Photo by Liz Lauren
Despite the fact that we didn't really love the movie that this play is based on, we absolutely love Chicago Shakes and will take any opportunity to see a play there. Love their beautiful house, the gorgeous location on the lake, and the fabulous lobby bar that looks like a miniature British pub. They also do beautiful theater--we adored previous shows like Heir Apparent, Sense & Sensibility: The Musical and even way, way back to Pacific Overtures.

Directed by Rachel Rockwell, with scenic design by Scott Davis and costumes by Susan E. Mickey, Shakespeare in Love was beautifully put together. Kate McGonigle was a delightful Viola, and led a strong ensemble cast. I wish Will Shakespeare was a stronger character--he didn't have much to add to the action despite being the lead character. The action picked up immeasurably when Luigi Sottile as Ned Alleyn leapt onto the stage. His energy and enthusiasm, as well as a charming personality and mad fight skills brought the entire show up to a new level. He will be one for these Minnesota Theaterlovers to watch. A few musical interludes showcased amazingly strong voices, and made me wish the entire play was a musical. Still, Chicago Shakes rocks and we are always happy to be there.

Bonus! Check out this completely adorable interview with Luigi Sottile and his dog Dash, who also stars in the show.

Marry Me A Little - Porchlight Music Theatre at Stage 773
Recommended by the folks at Hot Tix, we took the train out to Lakeview to Stage 773 to check out this charming (and short!) musical created by Craig Lucas and Norman Rene and comprised primarily of songs cut from Stephen Sondheim musicals. This two-person musical directed by Jess McLeod stars Bethany Thomas and Austin Cook (who also serves as the musical director) is about two urban singles living in the same apartment building and the full arc of their romance, with the song lyrics telling their story. The two terrific actors don't need dialogue to create their characters, and it's interesting to see how the context can change the meaning of these songs. Porchlight has a great graphic on their website showing where the songs in the show originated.

Next up was the whole reason for the trip: My Fair Lady at Lyric Opera of Chicago, which had us at Richard E. Grant playing Henry Higgins. Add in Bryce Pinkham and Lisa O'Hare, so fabulous in A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder on Broadway, and there was no way we were missing this. This sumptuous production premiered in Paris, which may explain the fashion-forward costumes. It's nice to see a colorful Ascot scene, and Eliza's dress (see pic above) is to die for. O'Hare is a forceful and gorgeously sung Eliza, and Grant makes a rather charming Higgins, managing to seem more absent-minded than purposefully mean. And it's rather thrilling to see the show with an enormous singing and dancing chorus. Lyric Opera is knocking these musicals out of the park lately. We adored their Carousel (with Steven Pasquale and Laura Osnes). Next year's big Lyric Opera musical? Jesus Christ Superstar.

Photo by Joan Marcus. 
Do you believe in theater miracles? We do. Good timing paid off when we stopped by the Private Bank Theatre and bought two second-row tickets to Hamilton for that afternoon at face value. We'd seen Hamilton back in September 2015 and couldn't even really absorb what we were seeing. To see it again, with an amazing cast that included Daniel Breaker as Aaron Burr, Karen Olivo as Angelica Schuyler and ton of (new to us) other fabulous performers. And to see it so close? Amazing.

FYI: The show holds UP y'all. A couple of outstanding cast members that join Luigi Sottile and Bethany Thomas on our must-see list: Samantha Marie Ware as a fun-to-watch Peggy/Maria, Jin Ha as a hilarious King George, Colby Lewis as Lafayette/Jefferson (Daveed Diggs is pretty tough to compete with but Lewis made the role his own), Wallace Smith as a magnetic Hercules Mulligan/James Madison, and Jose Ramos as a heartbreaking Philip Hamilton. Really, the whole cast was fantastic. You should see it. But don't buy resale tickets. All that does is benefit evil ticketing companies and promote scalping. Boo hiss.

Photo from Lookingglass Theatre
To finish off the trip, the Hot Tix theater geniuses recommended Beyond Caring at Lookingglass Theatre. When we asked why we should see the show over another choice, we learned that it originated at the National Theatre in London and was having its US premiere, plus it was the last night, and we were sold. Set in the break room of a manufacturing plant amongst the temp, minimum wage workers and their supervisor, this immersive performance featured amazing performances and a fascinating, thought provoking script. Written and directed by Alexander Zeldin, this was the perfect, meaty, marvelously acted play to finish off our trip.

Love you, Chicago. We'll be back soon!

As promised above, here's more about The League of Chicago Theatres - "The League of Chicago Theatres is proud to serve a membership of more than 200 theaters, a rich and varied theater community ranging from storefront, non-union theaters with budgets under $10,000 to major cultural centers with multi-million dollar shows."

Looking for a show to see in Chicago? Check out ChicagoPlays, the League's comprehensive theater listings.

Hot Tix booth on Randolph.
How about a deal on tickets? Try Hot Tix, both available online and in person at the following locations (highly recommended!):
72 E. RANDOLPH, Chicago
(Between Michigan Avenue and Wabash Avenue, across the street from Chicago Cultural Center)
Open Tuesday-Saturday 10am-6pm and Sunday 11am-4pm
108 N. STATE, Chicago
(in Block Thirty Seven Shops on State, first floor Guest Services)
In the Downtown Chicago Theater DistrictOpen every day: Monday-Saturday 10am-6pm and Sunday 11am-5pm
Happy theatergoing!

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Speed Dating through a Bunch of May Theater

Y'all, we've seen a LOT of plays lately. And we have fallen down on our mission to share these works with you, our loyal and devoted readership. In an attempt to win your hearts again, and to start the summer theater season with a clean slate, here is our speed dating recap of recent local theater.

Five Fifths of Jurassic Park - Minnesota Fringe benefit at Ritz Theater
How have I NEVER been to any of these shows before? I am appalled at myself and my co-blogger Jules. Here's the scoop: They pick a script, divide it into five parts and give it to five local theater companies to put their own spin on it--one night only.

This year's companies were Shanan Custer with the Mysterious Old Radio Listening Society (listen to their podcast--it is MOST fun), Lounge-asaurus Rex (who I will now be following avidly, and not just for his impeccable taste in suitwear), Wayward Theatre Company (totally new to me--yay, new discoveries!), Blackout Improv (absolutely amazingly hilarious), and Erin Sheppard Presents (always fabulous and their costumes were ON point.) So fun and such a great teaser for the Fringe (August 3-13, 2017)!
Ann Michels in Sweetland
(photo by Rick Spaulding)
Sweetland: The Musical - History Theatre
Based on the lovely movie of the same name, which was based on a short story by local author Will Weaver, and with music by Dina Maccabee, and lyrics by Laurie Flanigan Hegge, and directed by Perrin Post .. With such a lovely pedigree and as it is such a labor of love, we wanted to like it more. However, our friend Cherry and Spoon loves it deeply, so please check out what she had to say!

Red Velvet - Walking Shadow Theatre Company
A really interesting premise from a well-regarded theater company, and a new play by a female playwright of color, Lolita Chakrabarti. (Fun fact: In London and New York, her husband Adrian Lester played the leading role). How can you go wrong? Although this was a very watchable play, and featured some strong performances, we ultimately found the play lacking. Single White Fringe Geek does a great job of outlining where we felt the play fell short. And although we adore JuCoby Johnson, this role didn't feel like the right fit for him.

Next on the calendar was Medea at New Epic Theater, but that show was cancelled. As we've seen great work from them in the past, we hope they sort out their issues and return to making theater.

Nate Cheeseman, Thallis Santesteban, John Catron, and
Christian Bardin in Lone Star Spirits (photo by Dan Norman)
Lone Star Spirits - Jungle Theater
Which we saw on its LAST DAY. So not helpful to anyone, particularly since the show was GENIUS. Dang it! The play, by Josh Tobiessen, was brought to life by director Sarah Rasmussen with a terrific ensemble of Terry Hempleman, John Catron, Christian Bardin, Nate Cheeseman, and Thallis Santesteban. Set and costume designer Sarah Bahr created the perfect small-town atmosphere, and the show ran a tight 80 minutes. So glad they extended a week and we were able to see it. 

Eric Sharp in Charlie, etc
(photo from Mu Performing Arts)
Charles Francis Chan Jr.'s Exotic Oriental Murder Mystery - Mu Performing Arts
Lloyd Suh's script examines and critiques Asian American stereotypes using a play-within-the play to bring unspoken assumptions into the light. Randy Reyes directs this funny, thought-provoking, and challenging piece with a wonderful cast. And the show is in the Dowling Studio at the Guthrie, so tickets are just $9! Catch it before the show closes on May 28.

Broadway Songbook: Hollywood and Broadway - Ordway Center for the Performing Arts
Though the show started a bit slowly, with songs best known as standards rather than theater music, the talented cast brings zing to songs from shows from 42nd Street to Grease to Legally Blonde. The Songbook series has been a wonderful addition to the local theater scene, and we hope it continues after James Rocco leaves the Ordway later this year.

Refugia - The Moving Company
This new work, playing on the Guthrie's McGuire Proscenium stage, aims to explore "exile, borders and the displacement of people," but we found the piece problematic, seeming to focus on white characters and stories and to underuse its few actors of color. Our friend Laura from One Girl, Two Cities wrote a wonderfully thoughtful post on this show, which has sparked an amazing amount of discussion in the local theater community.

Intimate Apparel - Ten Thousand Things Theater
Playing at Open Book through June 4, this gem of a play by Lynn Nottage is sensitively staged by Austene Van in TTT's trademark stripped-down style. The excellent cast is led by a luminous Aimee K. Bryant as a seamstress at the turn of the century who yearns for love and seems to find it by corresponding with a man working on the construction of the Panama Canal. As always, the cast is superb, and though I had seen this play when the Guthrie did it in 2005, I had forgotten what a wonderful script it is. 

Whew! Now, on to more theater-watching! Happy theater-going, friends!!