Monday, August 12, 2019

MN Fringe 2019: IN SUMMARY

My final Fringo card. Not too bad!
Well, that's it. Pretty freaking fantastic 2019 Minnesota Fringe, we have to say. 

We saw 18 shows at 10 different venues over 8 days. For the most part, the shows were outstanding. And if not outstanding, all had something to recommend them. Either we're choosing skillfully, or we've been blessed by the Fringe gods.

Here's what we saw:

A Cult Classic by Sheep Theater
Xena and Gabrielle Smash the Patriarchy By Mermaid Productions
Measure4Measure By Rough Magic Performance Company 
Reverend Matt's Monster Science Presents How to Come Back from the Dead by Monster Science Productions

The Tale of The Bloody Benders By The Feral Theatre Company
#FirstDate By Scammers, Thieves, and The Like


Minneapolis Human Rhythm Project By Keane Sense of Rhythm
Chisago: The Musical By Haute Dish Productions 
Mad as Nell, or How to Lose a Bly in Ten Days By Rinky Dink Operations

Edith Gets High By Devious Mechanics 
Frankenstein: Two Centuries By Mysterious Old Radio Listening Society
Hello Mother By Haunt Armada


Escape This - TheatreX
Size - Somerville Productions 
A Confederate Widow in Hell - Breaker Fixer 
Swan Song - Third Floor Flat Productions

Days Seven and Eight: The Home Stretch
Visitation - DangerVision Productions
Stoopidity - By Ian McCarthy, Michael McKitt, Domino D'Lorion


Shows we especially regret missing:

You Are Cordially Invited to the Life and Death of Edward Lear - The Winding Sheet Outfit
The Lunch Bunch - Snikt! Bamf! Thwip!
A Man's Guide for Appropriate Behavior in the 21st Century - One T Productions

Final thoughts:
  • Loved the multi-show passes. Wish we had bought them online in advance, but they made ticket purchasing go very speedily.
  • Great management of lines. Well-marked lines for ticketing and entering the theater, as well as special Artist Rush Lines. 
  • The volunteers were excellent. Occasionally slightly over-zealous, but for the most part, helpful and friendly.
  • Parking was easy and inexpensive. We didn't pay more than five dollars per Fringe day or night out.
  • Loved the convenience of all the shows at the Rarig, but really enjoyed the hospitality at the Southern, the Ritz and Mixed Blood. (Okay, they had bars, but those theater nights got long!)
  • Wish everyone had printed programs, especially if they haven't shared much info on the MN Fringe website, as it helps the audience member (and blogger) note particularly strong performers and creative artists.
All in all, this was a kickass Minnesota Fringe Festival and our thanks and appreciation go to all the artists, volunteers, and staff who worked so hard to provide an amazing theater experience.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

MN Fringe 2019: Days Seven and Eight: The Home Stretch

Wrapping up the 2019 Minnesota Fringe Festival with two amazing shows.

Visitation - DangerVision Productions (Crane Theater)
Mad props to this show for tackling subjects that people don't often want to discuss: death and grief. A beautifully written collection of stories and scenes, performed by Clarence Wethern, Sophie Javna, Karen Bair, Ben Tallen, Victoria Pyan, and Charles Numrich covered a variety of alternately funny and heart-rending stories about death and grief, accompanied by video projection. The writers include Heather Meyer, Laura Buchholz, Gemma Irish, Rachel Teagle, Sam L. Landman, and Tyler Mills. I hope this show has a longer life than just the Fringe--I'd love to revisit some of these moving stories again.

We had hopes of staying for the one of the hottest shows in the 2019 Minnesota Fringe Festival: Winding Sheet Outfit's You Are Cordially Invited to the Life and Death of Edward Lear. Alas, the show was very sold out.

I have to shout out the volunteer/staff member with the cute short haircut who did such a fantastic job of letting people know that was absolutely, definitely sold out. She stood on the steps outside the Crane and as people approached the theater, called out to them, asking if they had reservations. If they didn't, she politely let them know that the show was full and indicated that they definitely had time to make it over to Strike Theater. Just outstanding customer service.


Stoopidity - By Ian McCarthy, Michael McKitt, Domino D'Lorion (Rarig Center Xperimental)
This was the last show we saw at the Fringe, and what a way to go out. The show is described as "3 blackboys sit on the front stoop of their apartment building, trying to navigate & understand what it means to love deeply. To question tradition. To be queer. To be unapologetically black in the world today." This show was a gorgeous verbal cavalcade of honesty, humor, love and strength. The talent of these (young!) men is staggering. We can't wait to see what they do next.

And that's it! It's all over for another year! Sigh.

MN Fringe 2019: Day Six (and Five) - Locked Rooms, Parlors, and Body Positivity

The Minnesota Fringe rolls on and the shows continue!

Escape This - TheatreX (Ritz Theater Mainstage)
Playwright Rob Matsushita puts a modern spin on the traditional locked room mystery by setting it in an escape room. Two couples (Hannah Bakke, Kyle Doherty and Christy C. Johnson, Ryan Vanasse) are introduced to their escape room experience by staff member Braylee (Ankita Ashrit).In case you haven't been, an escape room is an interactive experience where the players have to solve puzzles and find clues in order to unlock the room. But, as in the traditional locked room mystery, not everything is as it seems and secrets are revealed! It's an interesting twist on a traditional mystery, but could use a little more development. The back page of the program reads: "We promise that most escape rooms are actually pretty cool. Check these ones out," and provides a list of local escape rooms.

Size - Somerville Productions (Theatre in the Round)
Having heard nothing but love for Colleen Somerville's Not Fair, My Lady, we could not miss her show this year in the Fringe. As the show's description reads: "Nothing tastes as good as rejecting bullshit societal standards feels." This is a lovely, inclusive and personal show with semi-staged stories about body shape, weight, diets, and eating disorders performed by fantastic cast. Standouts include Lauren Anderson (of course) sharing a story of being heckled onstage and Linda Sue Anderson, barely containing her outrage--but hilariously--about a gym class from her youth. Skits include a date between two people who've brought along their worst food-shaming critic selves. Funny and truthful, we're complete converts to the cult of Colleen Somerville.


A Confederate Widow in Hell - Breaker Fixer (Southern Theater)
We saw this show at last year's Twin Cities Horror Festival but were persuaded to see it again by the charmingly persuasive actor and co-creator Joseph Fletcher, who promised that at least two-thirds of the show was new. In this atmospheric, funny, and inventive dramedy, a widow from the "War of Northern Aggression" (the brilliant Willi Carlisle) regales the audience with her memories about her life and the South, as well as some pretty fascinating reflections on the legacy of the South on present-day America. Fletcher also stars as her headless accompanist (you have to see it! It so works!).

Swan Song - Third Floor Flat Productions (Southern Theater)
Hey! It's another twist on the traditional locked room mystery. In this show, five actors and one stage manager meet at an isolated country house for a play rehearsal. But it turns out that someone has a nefarious plan and the cast is speedily dispatched. An engaging premise with some solid performances made this a lovely show to end a late night of Fringing.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

MN Fringe 2019: Day Four - Hovis, Old Radio and SCARES

Day Four was another amazing day at the Minnesota Fringe Festival. It doesn't hurt that every show we saw was at Rarig. (Now if they only had a bar....) And such a good line-up!

Edith Gets High By Devious Mechanics (Rarig Center Arena)
What can we say about Keith Hovis that we haven't already said? You know, like this: "Keith Hovis, playwright and composer, is a master of mixing the macabre and the funny with clever, melodic songs" (TCHF VI: A Morbid History of Sons and Daughters). Or perhaps "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." (Fringe 2017: Jefferson Township Sparkling Junior Beauty Pageant).  "The lyrics are marvelously clever, the music is tuneful, the melodies are memorable, the arrangements are beautifully done." (Teenage Misery) We could GO ON. So go see it already!

You're still here? Fine. Debra Berger is endlessly engaging as Edith, Ryan Lear is wildly hilarious, and the entire ensemble (Lizzie Gardner, Kiko Laureano, Cameron Reeves, and Colleen Somerville Leeman) brings humor and harmonies for days. Director Allison Witham creates a video game world with minimal props and inventive movement, and her work makes the most of the challenging Rarig Arena space. So go!


Frankenstein: Two Centuries By Mysterious Old Radio Listening Society (Rarig Center Thrust)
The Mysterious Old Radio Listening Society celebrates the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein with two original radio scripts, performed with live music and sound effects. The first script, by Tim Uren, is in the style of the radio show Escape! and is a dramatic depiction of a scenario after the end of the novel. The second script, by Joshua English Scrimshaw, is sillier and lighter, incorporating other monsters from the Universal horror movies. This script is in the style of Inner Sanctum, a show that (according to MORLS--check out the podcast!) was extremely popular. The punny banter between The Host and the Lipton Tea Lady is kind of bonkers in a delightful way, and Scrimshaw and Shanan Custer make the most of it. All of the cast, including Eric Webster, Uren, and Joe Weismann are excellent, and the music and sound effects complete the picture. Even thinking about the effective breaking neck sound effect makes me cringe a day later. Also, Shanan Custer as Elsa Lanchester is genius and we'd happily watch that performance for days.


Hello Mother By Haunt Armada (Rarig Center Xperimental)
Hello Mother was created by Haunt Armada, a group that knows from scaring people. What starts as an urban legend/ghost story told during a power outage becomes frighteningly real for two stepbrothers (Phillip Zawieruszynski and Zane Perren) who don’t get along. The group finds ways to use the entire Rarig Xperimental space, so there might be a figure appearing from a hidden space, or another breathing creepily behind you. They also use light–and the lack of light–very effectively, and perform the simple scene changes with a speed that keeps the tension high. The story itself isn’t terribly original, but a ghost story doesn’t have to be if it’s as scary as this one. Not for the faint of heart, but if you enjoy a good scare, it’s a winner! Also, there's skittering. SKITTERING!

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

MN Fringe 2019: Day Three - Dance, Musical Parody, and Historical Hilarity

Day three of our Minnesota Fringe Festival adventure--a pretty kick-ass day at the theater(s). We started our day by catching one of the Family Fringe shows.

Minneapolis Human Rhythm Project By Keane Sense of Rhythm (Barker Center for Dance)
We brought our favorite five-year-old and the rest of the family to this Family Fringe show. Created by Cathy Keane Wind of Keane Sense of Rhythm and Edna Stevens of Universal Dance Destiny, this show is "a celebration of dance by and for all ages, abilities and ethnicities," and it's a treat. This show was a jam-packed 50 minutes of tap, African, K-Pop, and break dancing with live drumming and ended with a dance jam (with the audience ) on stage. Inclusive, accessible, and utterly delightful, I wish more families could see these wonderful Family Fringe shows.


Chisago: The Musical By Haute Dish Productions (Rarig Center Thrust)
We have to be honest: although this Chicago musical parody was a strong contender for our must-see list, we were a little worried about it being cheesy or pandery. No worries, though. Written and directed by Kendra Braunger and Carissa Christenson, who also star as Roxie and Velma respectively, this Minnesota-focused parody of Kander & Ebb's classic musical is witty and sharp. In this version, Roxie moves from Orlando to Chisago County with her husband, his hometown where they'll be close to his mother. Cue the very clever references to hot dish, long good-byes, passive-aggressiveness and Minnesota Nice. The show affectionately and skillfully parodies Minnesota quirks ("Ope! I'm just gonna squeeze by you here") while still providing an appreciation for the original musical. Most of the excellent cast is from Mankato; we're definitely adding Mankato's Merely Players Theater to our greater Minnesota theater must-sees. BTW, if you, like us, were left appreciating what a great musical Chicago is, Theater Latte Da is presenting the show this fall.


So.... this show is written by Josh Carson, Kelsey Cramer, Shanan Custer and Allison Witham. It's directed by Josh Carson. It stars Kelsey Cramer, Shanan Custer, Addie Phelps, Allison Witham, Aisha Ragheb, Josh Carson, Tim Hellendrung, James Detmar, and Sue Scott.

Are you good? Do you need any more info?

All I can say is I was watching this show and just marveling at how much amazing freaking talent we have here in the Twin Cities. It's absolutely astonishing. Mad as Nell tells the true story of Nellie Bly's undercover investigation into the Women's Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell's Island and I just don't understand how a show that is so hilarious can have so much actual heart and relevance. (I mean, I understand it--I'm just incredibly, incredibly impressed by it.) And in case you weren't won over enough, the producers are dedicating this show to the memory of Beverlee Everett, the mother of Matthew Everett (aka Single White Fringe Geek), who passed on earlier this year. And they write: "Though we'll miss your laugh today, we know that you're still watching." All the hearts.

MN Fringe 2019: Day Two - Dating and Killers

Taking it easy on day two, we spent our time at Strike Theater in beautiful Northeast with gorgeously ample street parking. We were a little sad that their weird Laffy Taffy and Skittles-rich concession stand wasn't open, but we got over it.

The Tale of The Bloody Benders By The Feral Theatre Company (Strike Theater)
A notorious family of serial killers in 1870s Kansas, the Benders makes a fascinating subject for a true crime-inspired Fringe show. Braden Joseph, playwright and director, begins the show with a campfire storytelling session that leads into an interesting depiction of the Bender family and their unique murdering style. Although short, this is a show with a lot of promise.

Plus, since it was short, we had some time to walk over to Indeed Brewing for a quick drink. (Tattersall Distilling is right in the building, but it's prohibitively crowded and loud for a good post-theater discussion fest.)

#FirstDate By Scammers, Thieves, and The Like (Strike Theater)
We headed back to Strike, suitably fortified and ready for some online dating-based comedy. #FirstDate is a long-form improv show, directed by Molly Ritchie, who created the hilarious improv show Family Dinner, which can be seen at Huge Theater, as well as a number of other improv shows. Advertised special guests include Breanna Cecile, John Gebretatose, and, at our performance: Allison Lonigro. A game cast of improvisers (Nicole Fende, Jackson Melius, Ed Timek and Allison Lonigro) tries to persuade online dater (Patience Nallick) to swipe right on them. An incomplete bio in the program made us wonder about Nallick's background in improv comedy. Or perhaps the intention was for her to play it straight as to set off the improvisation, but it actually tended to take the energy out of the comedy, despite the daters best attempts to engage. That said, Allison Lonigro's farmer girl dater was an absolute treat and a delight to watch.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

MN Fringe 2019: Day ONE - Cults, Cons, Shakespeare, and DEATH

We leapt into the 2019 Minnesota Fringe Festival on Friday with a full line-up in Seven Corners/West Bank under the guidance of our friend Cherry and Spoon (who will see seventeen thousand shows--check her blog!).

A Cult Classic By Sheep Theater (Southern Theater)
"The world is really really loud and complicated" read the flyer we were handed as we entered the Southern Theater for Sheep Theater's tale of a doomsday cult. Despite focusing on Mindful Actualizationalism, members of the cult are lost when their leader is missing. They attempt their ultimate ascension (thanks to a foul Cosmic Elixir), but alas, things are not working out so well. A simple set, endearing and funny cast (well-loved by the wildly enthusiastic audience), and an interesting premise made this a great start to our Fringe.

Xena and Gabrielle Smash the Patriarchy By Mermaid Productions (Theatre in the Round)
That title! That promo picture! How could any fan of syndicated action dramas of the 1990s miss this show? We sure couldn't. The perfectly dressed and coiffed Ariel Leaf (as Xena) and Nissa Nordland Morgan (as Gabrielle) are going about their warrior princess and companion business, fighting off bad guys and whatnot, when they come into possession of Circe's magic cup. The cup transports them to a present-day SF/fantasy convention, where they are mistaken for really dedicated cosplayers. Suffice it to say, Xena and Gabrielle kick some ass. Whether it's con staff member Alpha (a hilarious Heather Meyer), unenlightened Ted (Matthew Kessen) who needs a little Xena schooling in his interactions with Leah (Elora Riley), and Coraline (Katie Starks), who is less than happy with Leah's slave girl ensemble, plus Richard "Doc" Woods and Nicholas Nelson, the cast is outstanding.

The script (by Nissa Nordland Morgan) includes plenty of deep show references, tons of fandom jokes, thoughtful exploration of issues, and even song and dance. Director Katy McEwen makes excellent use of the Theater in the Round space and the timing was tight, even at the first show. Whether you're a fan of Xena or not, this show is an utter delight with some excellent substance as well. (And if you are a fan, you will be DELIGHTED with a certain reveal halfway through the show.) Seriously, don't miss this. It's a treat and let's be honest: the patriarchy could use some serious smashing.



Measure4Measure By Rough Magic Performance Company (Southern Theater)
A six-woman cast performs this perfectly trimmed adaptation of William Shakespeare's Measure For Measure--as they call it, the original #MeToo play. Having just seen an excellent full production last season at American Players Theatre, we can say that this version covers all the important parts of the story while emphasizing the powerlessness of a woman against a powerful man. "Who would believe you?" is a chilling line every time it's uttered. Under Sarah Agnew's direction, the terrific cast includes Ashawnti Sakina Ford, Alayne Hopkins, Catherine Johnson Justice, and Mo Perry carrying the heavy drama, with welcome moments of levity from Elise Langer and Taj Ruler. It's a great production, whether you're familiar with the play, or need an introduction to this story. Also, we'd like to see this amazing cast perform all of the Shakespeare, please and thank you.

Reverend Matt's Monster Science Presents How to Come Back from the Dead by Monster Science Productions (Mixed Blood Theater)
If you follow our blog at all, you know we are big fans of Reverend Matt's Monster Science and his blend of well-researched monster lore, well-chosen images (in Powerpoint!), and crack comic timing. This time around, Rev. Matt gets in depth on how to achieve immortality, whether as a vampire, zombie, mummy or a variety of other obscure (but well-explained) creatures from a variety of cultures. Despite being billed (at the Fringe website) as a solo show, Rev. Matt (Matthew Kessen) has a new addition, junior Monster Scientist/graduate student/wannabe vampire (?) Elora Riley (Elora Riley). Although the idea of adding someone to play off of is an intriguing one for this often solo performer, to be honest, we felt that it reduced the amazing connection that Rev. Matt has with his audience and his fantastic solo timing. But that's a small quibble, as Rev. Matt's shows are always hilarious. (And when you see it, can we talk about a certain vampiric Mayberry-denizen joke that is GENIUS?)

And that is IT for Fringe: Day One (since they just REFUSE to do shows 24 hours a day--I guess artists need to sleep?)

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Reimagining Done Right: 42nd Street at the Ordway

The Ordway caps its 2018-2019 Broadway season with a smashing production of the old-fashioned musical 42nd Street, playing through August 11.

42nd Street isn't the classic Broadway musical you might think it is: It didn't open on Broadway until 1980, the year after Andrew Lloyd Webber's Evita  premiered.

More about the show's history later, but first, the big question: how do you reimagine a musical that was already a period piece when it opened on Broadway?  You revisit the music and the dance.

This "Ordway Original" 42nd Street reprises a version first performed at Chicago's Drury Lane Theatre in 2017, directed (as is the Ordway's production) by Michael Heitzman. The production features the 2017 show's exciting new musical arrangements and orchestrations by Everett Bradley and amazing choreography by Jared Grimes.

42nd Street is a classic backstage musical, in which a talented newcomer shows up at a Broadway audition and manages to impress the creative team and the cast. When the leading lady can't perform, the ingenue becomes a star. Although the story is, as always, set in 1933, the musical arrangements are jazzier than we are used to hearing, and rather than using just the classic line of time-stepping chorines we expect, the tap dancing of the ensemble is loud, percussive, athletic, and thoroughly exciting to watch.

Friday, July 26, 2019

So You Wanna Fringe: Our Best Bets at Minnesota Fringe 2019

Friends! It's almost time for the Minnesota Fringe Festival, eleven crazy days of wild, adventurous theater fun.

But DON'T PANIC. Even though there are 142 shows in the 2019 Minnesota Fringe & Family Fringe Festivals, we have your Fringey back (ew--you should really do something about that). 

Plan Accordingly: Note that you can only see 62 different shows (in 76 time slots out of 735 performances of 142 possible productions (thanks for the stats, Fringe!), so no need to get overwhelmed. You'll need to make some serious choices. We can help.

Trust the Experts: Follow our friend Cherry and Spoon, an utter Fringe fanatic, and check out the rest of the Twin Cities Theater Bloggers on Facebook for even more Fringetastic reviews and news.

Ease In: By starting off with the Family Fringe, which runs July 26-28 and August 2-4 at the very accessible Barbara Barker Center for Dance on the West Bank. Read more about Family Fringe here!

Need To Know Basis: Here's your link to the Full Festival Line-Up,  the Daily Schedule, Accessibility, and the Box Office and Ticket Info.

Enough Backstory! And now, without further ado, here is our highly personal list of the 25 shows we cannot wait to see at 2019 Minnesota Fringe Festival, divided by genre for your Fringing convenience. Plus, a few more shows that intrigue us. (Text in italics is from the Fringe website.) Let's DO THIS!

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Theater by the River - Great River Shakespeare Festival

Last weekend, we headed down to beautiful river town Winona with some theater blogger friends to pay a visit to Great River Shakespeare Festival on the campus of Winona State University.

Although this is only our second year visiting, it's on our can't-miss theater list. (Check out what our friends Cherry and Spoon and Twin Cities Stages had to say about our trip!)

The mixed media piece Sarah Johnson created for the 
16th Season of Great River Shakespeare Festival is 
her interpretation of the varied productions. Learn more here
Great River Shakespeare Festival is truly a thoughtfully programmed theater festival, and each season has a theme with plays and education events that center around that theme. This year's theme, according to the GRSF literature:

"'Don't judge a book by its cover' - it's a tale that, turns out, really is as old as time and one that appears in many of the themes of our sixteenth season. The juxtaposition between what's without and what's within is explored in terms of outward title versus inward nobility, physical appearance versus internal identity, what the world perceives versus what happens behind closed doors and myriad other situations."

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Minnesota Family Fringe - Don't Miss It!

Whether you're a hard-core Minnesota Fringe Festival fan or new to the Fringe, do not miss Family Fringe!

What Is Family Fringe? 
"Family Fringe offers children and families interested in new and adventurous work the ability to see shows presented by companies creating multi-generational productions. 

Family Fringe is a separate, juried festival taking place over two weekends (July 26-28 and August 2-4) in tandem with the Minnesota Fringe Festival." (Fringe website) 

Why You Need To Go:

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Summer Theater for DAYS - Jefferson Township etc.

Leslie Vincent and Kelly Houlehan in
Jefferson Township Sparkling Junior Talent Pageant
Periodically, the utter abundance of fabulous theater in the Twin Cities gets a little overwhelming. In order to help you, our dear readers, sort through the opportunities, here's our list of what we're looking forward to this summer.

NUMBER ONE: 

Jefferson Township Sparkling Junior Talent Pageant
Jun 14 – Jul 28, 2019
Andy Boss Stage at Park Square Theatre

Why we're excited: We saw this at the Minnesota Fringe in 2017 (twice) and here's what we had to say and we'll say it again and LOUDER.
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.
NOTE: This was sitting in our blog drafts for an age and we're just coming back to it. We were going to add a bunch more shows, but although there is a lot of great theater coming up, we were not remotely as excited about them as we were about this one! So go!! Darn it!

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Guys and Dolls - Guthrie Theater

Why is the show logo cards when the
whole story revolves around a craps game? Hmm.
Although Love is in our name, sometimes we are not full of love. Sometimes we are killers of joy. Sometimes we can't just sit back and take in a show without giving it serious consideration--even if it's summer, even if it's a classic musical, even if it's at the Big G.

That said, here are three things we liked about Guys and Dolls (playing through August 25 at the Guthrie Theater):

1) Represent! Loved the racial and body diversity of the chorus--particularly the Hot Box girls. Yay for a diverse creative team as well. Well done, G.

2) New Faces! Lots of Guthrie debuts from local actors seen often on other stages. Gabrielle Dominique, although not new to the Guthrie, was a fabulous addition. Also, how can this possibly be comic genius Karen Wiese-Thompson's Guthrie debut???

3) Jon Andrew Hegge! Whether playing a hilarious Harry the Horse or as part of the chorus, he was one to watch. His dancing and pratfalls as the drunken gambler were fabulous, as were his subtle (for the show!) characterizations of Harry the Horse. Hegge is always a delight.

Photo by T. Charles Erickson
Which brings us to the rest of the show, which was pretty disappointing. We've got no issue with the Guthrie and their big summer musicals--after all, they get butts in seats. But we expect more of the Guthrie and all the resources they have on tap. If they're not offering either a fresh take on the musical or really leaning into the classic, then what is the point?

In recent years, the Ordway has presented modern takes or spins on classic musicals to wonderful effect. 2016's Paint Your Wagon featured a new book framing the gorgeous musical numbers that "populates the Gold Rush setting with a cast of characters seldom seen in a classic musical. The racial and cultural diversity here isn't window dressing, but is central to the story in a new and refreshing way." Damn Yankees (in 2015) used its diverse casting to start discussions on interracial relationships and the history of black baseball, while honoring the hell out of the musical. And Theater Latte Da has a great track record of reimagining musicals, such as 2017's Man of La Mancha, with its contemporary detention center setting.

Another option? Do it straight. Last year's Broadway revival of Hello, Dolly, which we saw with Bernadette Peters, was an absolutely perfect production of the musical. Gorgeous design, beautiful costumes, fantastic dancing, and top of the line performances. The Ordway's production of Jesus Christ Superstar in 2017 was another production that played it mostly straight but utterly honored the original show.


Photo by T. Charles Erickson
Guys and Dolls is already a nearly perfect musical. The book, written by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows, captures the unique tone and character of the 1930s Damon Runyon short stories it's based on. The music and lyrics of Frank Loesser provide one show-stopping number after another. The show has been a much-revived musical theater classic since 1950. Even the book holds up surprisingly well, due mostly to the strong characters: Nathan Detroit, organizer of the "oldest established permanent floating crap game in New York" (Rodney Gardiner), his fiancée (of 14 years), dancer Miss Adelaide (Kirsten Wyatt), Sergeant Sarah Brown of the Save Our Souls mission (Olivia Hernandez), and Sky Masterson, tough guy gambler (Jeremiah James).

Guys and Dolls is a fable of Broadway and takes place in a specific, stylized New York setting with very distinctive language. The Guthrie production, directed by Kent Gash, brings the show forward to the mid-1950s, but one has to wonder why. Is it only so that the opening number "Runyonland" can incorporate coy nods to fifties icons like Marilyn Monroe (and the subway grate) and an Annie Get Your Gun lookalike? And why is Lt. Brannigan dressed like Dick Tracy, complete with two-way wrist radio? This choice doesn't even fit with the character, as Brannigan is a cop who cannot manage to shut down a craps game and Dick Tracy was a successful detective going after big-time criminals. Our biggest peeve about these sight gags is that Damon Runyon's world is very specific, and interpolating random pop culture characters dilutes the effect without adding anything.

Photo by T. Charles Erickson
And although the crowd applauded it at first sight, we didn't love the giant lighted "Guys" and "Dolls" signs hanging over the stage. Understanding that it's not a realistic set, it's still hard to fathom why those words are hanging over the characters during the show. If there were other Times-Square type signage and those words stayed lit at the end of the show, it might be clever. But as a standalone element used seemingly randomly to generate applause, it didn't work for us. Yes, we're picky. What's your point?

The whole thing could have used a bit more subtlety and left us with many questions. Do women have to be wearing visible garter belts to be identifiable as prostitutes (in the opening scene)? Was a drop with rows of pictures of old cars (which looked like shabby chic art from Home Goods) really appropriate shorthand for the underwhelming "Havana" setting? Why did one of the characters in "Runyonland" have a 1960s beehive complete with can of hairspray? Why is the tape outline on the floor so visible? Why is there no explanation of why the show is re-set in the mid-1950s?

Photo by T. Charles Erickson
Don't get us wrong: Kirsten Wyatt was very delightful as the loveable Miss Adelaide, but her histrionics made her seem to be suffering from more than a psychosomatic cold (although her sneezes were adorable). The rest of the main characters felt too contemporary, to the point that Runyon's very specific syntax was lost. Rather than seeming natural (in Runyon's unnatural, stylized way), lines like "She is a beautiful doll, all right, with one hundred percent eyes," felt forced.

There's very little that we require of Guys and Dolls. Having seen myriad productions of the show from Broadway revivals to community theater, we just need two things: 1) The show to honor the material, the gorgeous arrangements and songs, and 2) For our two couples to have chemistry ("Chemistry?" "Yeah, chemistry.") and believable relationships.

We'll say it again: This is the Guthrie. As a "leading 21st-century arts organization", which "creates transformative theater experiences that ignite the imagination, stir the heart, open the mind, and build community through the illumination of our common humanity" (Guthrie website), we expect BETTER.

If you're going to play the show straight, then play the show straight. The rearrangements were unnecessary and undercut the gorgeous material. The rich harmonies ending "The Oldest Established" and "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat" didn't get their due with so much focus on movement rather than musicality. Simply not taking back the minks at the end of "Take Back Your Mink"--especially when they left the final line ("Well? Wouldn't you?") does not create a feminist take. Why are cast members stepping? And why, oh WHY is the Guthrie squandering the talents of Regina Marie Williams, Katie Bradley, Robert O. Berdahl, Caroline Innerbichler, Karen Wiese-Thompson, and Angela Timberman? ANGELA TIMBERMAN, y'all. Come on.

And if you're not going to play the show straight, nor are you going to add new layers (as the Ordway has done so successfully), then why do Guys and Dolls? Why not bring the Guthrie's considerable resources to a show that isn't as well known? Hundreds of musicals debuted during Broadway's Golden Age, so tackling one of the others would be a real challenge. Or HEY, what about one of the many, many amazing musicals produced in the sixty-nine years since the debut of Guys and Dolls.

But maybe that's the point. Maybe neither the Guthrie nor its audience wants to be surprised and delighted by a musical. But we do.

Leslie Vincent and Kelly Houlehan in Jefferson Township
Sparkling Junior Talent Pageant
And that's why we're recommending to you to skip Guys and Dolls and head over to Saint Paul for Keith Hovis's Jefferson Township Sparkling Junior Talent Pageant (through July 28 at Park Square Theatre). You have the opportunity to see a new, charming musical by a future prize-winning writer, performed by an amazingly talented cast. Trust us. Go see this instead.


And hey, since this show made us long to hear T. Mychael Rambo sing "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat," why not check out 42nd Street at the Ordway (July 23 through August 11 at the Ordway) starring Rambo, Tyler Michaels King, and Jamecia Bennett?

There's a great big world of theater out there. Take a chance!

Saturday, June 1, 2019

May Round-Up: We Saw a Bunch of Plays

Sherwin Resurreccion and Regina Marie Williams in
The Brothers Paranormal (Photo by Jeff Wheeler)
So, we saw a bunch of plays but got really busy and completely forgot to tell you about them. Sorry!

We were forced to tell people individually
about the plays we loved, which is inefficient at best and ever so tedious.

So here's a retroactive recap:

The Brothers Paranormal - Penumbra Theatre Company and Theater Mu coproduction
Written by Prince Gomolvilas and directed by Lou Bellamy, this gorgeous play is a both a spooky ghost story and a haunting meditation on grief. Brothers Max (Sherwin Resurreccion) and Visarut (Kurt Kwan) are ghost hunters engaged by Delia (Regina Marie Williams) and Felix (James Craven) to explore mysterious happenings at their house.

The Brothers Paranormal is a marvelously crafted play with rich, full characters. The performances are outstanding by the entire cast, including Leslie Ishii as the boys' mother and Michelle de Joya as Jai. In particular, the chemistry and affectionate teasing between Williams and Craven is #relationshipgoals. And a big shout out to the wonderful Sherwin Resurreccion who is one of the most fascinating actors to watch--any time we get to see him act is an utter delight.

Ordway Cabaret: Rise Up - Ordway Center for the Performing Arts
Before he left his position at the Ordway as producing Artistic Director, James Rocco created a series of musical theater revue shows called the Broadway Songbook. Sharing his own love for musical theater, a talented cast performed a variety of musical theater numbers organized around a particular theme. In his absence, the Ordway has continued these revues, now in their Ordway Concert Hall, and their recent Ordway Cabaret: Rise Up is a treat. Directed by Kelli Foster Warder, this thoughtful performance provided "an evening of songs from ground-making Broadway musicals that shine a light on revolutionary moments in time" (from the director's note). And if you think that doesn't include Hamilton? You'd be wrong.

In this iteration of the Ordway Cabaret, the cast shared their own personal stories and sang songs that represented their heartfelt stories. The cast was comprised of Aimee K. Bryant, David Carey, Deidre Cochran, Brianna Graham, John Jamison, Hope Nordquist and Max Wojtanowicz and everyone was outstanding. I would be eternally happy to just listen to Aimee K. Bryant and John Jamison sing--alone or together. Don't miss the Ordway Cabarets--it's a rare treat.

La Traviata - Minnesota Opera
Although the popularity of the great classics allows Minnesota Opera to put on exciting and engaging new work, sometimes I sigh when they come up in the rotation. But sometimes, a production reminds me why these became the great classics. A lovely spare production, this La Traviata featured an amazing cast. Nicole Cabell as Violetta and Jesus Leon as Alfredo sang beautifully, acted the hell out of their parts, and had real chemistry. Add in Joo Won Kang as Alfredo's father Giorgio--whose voice was STAGGERINGLY rich and vibrant--and we had a powerhouse trio leading this opera. Also, and not incidentally, it was a treat to see such racial diversity represented on stage. YAY, MN Opera and keep it up!

Five-Fifths of Mary Poppins - Minnesota Fringe Festival at Park Square Theatre
Minnesota Fringe Festival's annual fundraising benefit performance is a yearly treat. This is only the second we've seen, but we're on board for all future performances. Read more about this and past performances at our friend Cherry and Spoon's blog. Long story short, The Fringe takes a movie, cuts it into five parts and asks five artists to interpret it using their own unique approach and style. This year's offering, Mary Poppins, was interpreted by Shrieking Harpies (music improv), Sheep Theater (theater), Oncoming Productions (theater), Javier Morillo (storytelling), and ALL DAY (dance). So fun, and such a great kickoff to the annual Fringe Fest.

Friday, May 10, 2019

The Play That Goes Wrong - National Tour at the Orpheum Theatre

This is the way the logo is used in marketing materials. It's wrong, you see.
One of the rare non-musical touring shows to come to the Twin Cities this year is The Play That Goes Wrong. The show is an all-out slapstick comedy about a play that suffers from one mishap after another. Even before the curtain goes up, members of the crew are in the theater, trying to repair the dilapidated set.

The play we see is a standard-issue British murder mystery called The Murder at Haversham Manor, a production of the Cornley University Drama Society, which somehow ended up as a major touring production in the U.S. More on that later. The curtain rises on a not-quite-dead body, falls again, and rises on the actor still trying to get in place as the deceased. The fact that the supposedly dead man ends up moving himself around the stage elicits many of the first laughs of the evening. The set falling apart, actors forgetting or mispronouncing their lines, props going missing, and actors inappropriately playing to the crowd are some of the issues this play faces.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Pop Goes the Noggin - S.O.S. Theater

Our experience at Pop Goes the Noggin by S.O.S. Theater at Gremlin Theatre in St. Paul (through May 12) began with an utterly fabulous spring afternoon on the patio at Lake Monster Brewing with fantastic food by Reverie Mobile Kitchen.

Can all plays be at Gremlin Theatre, please? Particularly in the summer? THANKS!

Anyhoo. Pop Goes the Noggin began with a curtain speech (by the playwright Michele Lepsche, we think--she didn't introduce herself) wherein we were told that the play was in rough shape and then she (Lepsche) got sick. Luckily,  director Kari Steinbach and dramaturge (and cast member) Greta Grosch came through to help her out and the show was completed. It's a strangely honest way to kick off your opening night.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Be More Chill - Minneapolis Musical Theatre

Minneapolis Musical Theatre's production of Be More Chill is a rare opportunity to see one of the hottest shows on Broadway right here in Minnesota.

And let us tell you friends, we VASTLY preferred MMT's version to the Broadway version. Read on to discover why!

Be More Chill is a theatrical sensation. With music and lyrics by Joe Iconis, book by Joe Tracz, and based on the 2004 novel of the same name by Ned Vizzini, this new musical premiered at Two River Theatre in Red Bank, New Jersey in 2015. Last year, the extended off-Broadway run at New York's Signature Center picked up a cult following, and in February 2019, the musical opened on Broadway. The show has been compared to Dear Evan Hansen for the way it speaks to young people, who are the show's most fervent fans.
The cast of Be More Chill. Set design by Robin McIntyre. Photo by Scott Pakudaitis.
We witnessed this wild affection for ourselves when we caught Be More Chill in previews on Broadway. The show, however, left us cold. If it wasn't for our affection and respect for Minneapolis Musical Theatre's excellent work (like last year's amazing High Fidelity), we probably would have skipped it altogether. We are so glad we didn't!

Maxwell Emmett Ward as Jeremy.
Photo by Scott Pakudaitis.
Be More Chill is about a young social outcast named Jeremy Heere (Maxwell Emmett Ward), who lives at home with his divorced father (Christian Unser) and hangs out with Michael Mell (Jim Belden), his best friend and fellow outcast. Jeremy has a crush on Christine Canigula (Caitlin Featherstone) and gets involved with the school play to get closer to her. Jeremy is casually bullied by popular Rich Goranski (Nick Manthe), but Rich nonetheless shares with Jeremy his secret of social success: an oblong gray pill called a squip. You can pretty much guess the rest, if you've seen a movie.

Even though Broadway is considered to be the pinnacle of theatrical entertainment, there are times when a show just doesn't work for us on Broadway. Spring Awakening was a show we couldn't stand on Broadway, but Theater Latte Da's production with the U of M was a revelation. The same with Be More Chill. The Broadway production was over-produced with lots of flashing lights, no heart, and little humor. MMT's version could not be more different.

For one thing, Jeremy is played by Maxwell Emmett Ward, who we last saw as Dick in MMT's High Fidelity. He not only gives sweetness and realism to Jeremy, he is also fantastically funny, with devastating timing. Did we mention his incredible voice?

Jim Belden as Michael.
Photo by Scott Pakudaitis
As Jeremy's best friend Michael, Jim Belden kills "Michael in the Bathroom," one of Be More Chill's most memorable numbers. Caitlin Featherstone perfectly captures Christine Canigula's quirky and endearing personality. The chemistry and relationships between all three give this production its heart and soul. There are apparently changes in the script as well, with MMT using the off-Broadway script that was made available for licensing. But the changes didn't stand out, except that we felt much more connected to the characters and invested in the outcome in this production.

Ward with Caitlin Featherstone as Christine.
Photo by Scott Pakudaitis.
The scene that really exemplifies the difference in the shows is "Two-Player Game," where Jeremy and Michael express their friendship through a video game. On Broadway, the song was accompanied by lights and projections simulating the game, but MMT's version, the two characters connect through their physicality in wielding their game controllers in coordination.

Also notable is the physical coordination between Jeremy and the embodiment of his Squip (Mike Tober). Ward really seems like the Squip is controlling his movements against his will, which is both funny and scary.

Director Sara Pillatzki-Warzeha, who also directed High Fidelity (which we saw three times), brings the best out of the talented young ensemble. The actors feel like the teenagers they are playing, and they enthusiastically perform Abbi Fern's choreography. A kick-ass band, conducted by Anna Murphy, adds to the fun.

Go see this and support Minneapolis Musical Theatre. They are doing beautiful work, and they imbue all of their work with talented artists and plenty of heart.

When: April 5 - 28, 2019
At: Illusion Theater
Running Time: Two hours and some?

And in case you're wondering how MMT's excellent production compares to the Broadway one, here's the New York Times review of Be More Chill by Ben Brantley:

"This all sounds like more fun than it is — at least for anyone over the age of 21. (That’s a generous cutoff point.) The acting, singing and dancing (choreographed by Chase Brock) are all, to put it kindly, frenetic. The set (by Beowulf Boritt), lighting (Tyler Micoleau) costumes (Bobby Frederick Tilley II) and projections (Alex Basco Koch) bring to mind bright fan fiction comic books drawn in fluorescent crayon."

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

The Golden Record Project - Sandbox Theatre

We've never seen anything like The Golden Record Project at Sandbox Theatre (through May 4). An art installation and a performance piece set simultaneously in the past and the future, this truly immersive show is, frankly, mind-blowing.

Pro Tip: When you go (NOT IF), go early so you can explore the installation fully before the performance begins. And book your tickets now. Audience space is limited and tickets are going fast!

Here's the backstory: When NASA sent the Voyager spacecraft outside our solar system in 1977, a team led by Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan prepared a recording to accompany the probe. The idea was to provide an introduction to the people of Earth to any intelligent beings that may find the craft.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

US

I digress from our regularly scheduled theater programming to tell you that I read a bunch about Jordan Peele's fantastic horror film Us.

Here are a few articles I found particularly interesting.

WARNING: THIS IS SPOILER CENTRAL.

MUST MUST MUST READ:

Wikipedia Brown on Twitter: Things I Missed the First Time Around,  @eveewing
 Mar 29More~ RTed this thread so you should go ahead and assume that all my interpretations are correct 😎

‘Us’ Review: Jordan Peele’s Creepy Latest Turns a Funhouse Mirror on Us, Manohla Dargis, New York Times 
In “Us,” Peele uses the metaphor of the divided self to explore what lies beneath contemporary America, its double consciousness, its identity, sins and terrors. The results are messy, brilliant, sobering, even bleak — the final scene is a gut punch delivered with a queasy smile — but Jordan Peele isn’t here just to play.
 A Thinkpiece About Thinkpieces About Us, Michael Harriott, The Root
Good black films can’t be about regular black people. For a black film to be a critical darling, it must be centered in whiteness. The pain, the heroism or the story must be relatable to white people. The film must have a white savior or teach us an existential lesson about the universality of mankind. Black people are only seen as human when they are suffering from black shit (slavery, oppression or injustice).
Us: We Discuss Jordan Peele's New Psychological Thriller, Wesley Morris and Jenna Wortham, Still Processing (podcast)
We dissect Jordan Peele’s new psychological thriller, “Us,” and discuss the film’s central question (WITHOUT SPOILERS): Are any of us ever truly free from the past?
 Empire Podcast Us Spoiler Special Ft. Jordan Peele, Chris Hewitt, Empire Magazine (podcast)
This movie’s about maybe the monster is you. It’s about us, looking at ourselves as individuals and as a group.

What Is ‘Us’ About? Here Are Some Interesting Theories, Kyle Buchanan, New York Times
Is Jordan Peele’s “Us” a metaphor for our politically polarized moment, a rallying cry for the dispossessed 99 percent or simply a nifty home-invasion movie?
This horror hit from the director of “Get Out” is designed to keep audiences guessing, and each viewer is likely to leave with his or her own interpretation of what the film really means. (Perhaps we should have known when the first image Peele released for “Us” was of a tantalizing Rorschach blot.)
 How Jordan Peele Builds Suspense in ‘Us’Mekado Murphy, New York Times
The film’s writer and director discusses a haunting scene where members of a family meet their terrifying doubles.
Why Lupita Nyong’o’s ‘Us’ Voice Sounds So Creepy, Reggie Ugwu, New York Times 
The sound has provoked strong reactions in audiences and critics. In his review, New York magazine’s David Edelstein described it as “the whistle of someone whose throat has been cut” and “a rush of acrid air from a tomb.”
On the trail in Austin, Nyong’o was recalling how she fell in love with acting when something — someone — broke her focus. It was a large man in a faded T-shirt and white earbuds walking behind us, talking so loudly that we were struggling to hear one another. Nyong’o stopped and turned around. As the man passed by, she gave him a look of such elegant and devastating ferocity that I thought he might evaporate mid-stride, leaving only the earbuds behind. The bodyguards may not have been necessary after all.
‘Us’ Took Hands Across America and Made It a Death Grip, Erik Piepenburg, New York Times
“There’s something cultlike about the imagery that makes me think of the Manson family singing folk songs as they leave the courtroom,” said Peele, who was 7 when the nationwide gathering happened. “There’s like an insistence that as long as we have each other, we can walk blindly past the ugliness and evil that we may be a part of.”
After ‘Us,’ Jordan Peele Crosses Over to ‘The Twilight Zone’, Dave Itzkoff, New York Times
But in this tale of unlikely parallels, Peele has been shadowing Serling’s trajectory all along, whether or not he wants to admit it. He, too, has used genre entertainment to convey otherwise unpalatable truths to his viewers, deploying sketch comedy to comment on police brutality or horror movies to skewer self-satisfied liberals.
“It’s been good to me,” he said. “‘5 on It’ blew up, and it’s blowing up again, which is crazy because it’s 24 years later.” If that’s what being a one-hit wonder means, he joked, “I’ll be a one-hit wonder.”

Monday, April 8, 2019

The Drowning Girls - Freshwater Theatre

This weekend, we saw two shows in which women played real historical figures, but looked at their stories with the benefit of hindsight. The plays are very different, but both allow the women to tell their own stories, with the help of other women. Two may not be a trend, but if it is, we are here for it.

The first was Velvet Swing by Umbrella Collective (check out our rave here) and the second is The Drowning Girls by Freshwater Theatre at the Crane through April 14 (only!!)

Walking into the Crane theater space, we were greeted by a spare set featuring three old-fashioned clawfoot bathtubs with running shower heads. (The lovely box office staff warned us that there's a lot of water in the show and no intermission, so .... check out the restrooms in advance!)  The sound and the set beautifully sets the scene for a spare, haunting play.