Sunday, April 23, 2023

Othello: The Remix at Minneapolis Musical Theatre

Minneapolis Musical Theatre's mission is to present rarely seen musicals, which has brought more than 40 area premieres to the Twin Cities. Their newest show is a gem of a musical, Othello: The Remix (playing April 21-May 7 at the Phoenix Theater).

Shakespeare's stories are always ripe for retelling, but the tragedy of Othello hasn't been explored as much as, say, Romeo and Juliet. This version, written by Q Brothers (GQ and JQ) and developed by Rick Boynton, was commissioned by Shakespeare's Globe and Chicago Shakespeare Theater and premiered in 2013. 

In Othello: The Remix, Othello is a rapper who used his rhymes to rise out of poverty. At the top of his game, he's put together a crew that includes his oldest friend Iago and up-and-comer Cassio. As the story begins, Othello hears a voice that inspires him--that of the diva Desdemona--and proceeds to collaborate with her personally as well as professionally. His rap crew is threatened by this new partnership, especially Iago, who is also jealous of Othello's favoring of Cassio, and tragedy ensues. 

Although Othello is a tragedy, it's also a comedy. The show is almost entirely sung/rapped through, accompanied by Glorius L. Martin, a.k.a DJ Huh? What?? (amazing name, btw!) The classic tale unfolds in hip-hop verse that moves incredibly quickly but not too fast to catch the hilarious rhymes and references. Just four talented performers play all of the characters and provide narration to guide you through the story, with hilarious asides to the audience. 

Alex Church, Miles Scroggins, Umar Malik, Alaster Xan-Elias (Unser Imagery)

Othello is played by Umar Malik, who provides a confident, grounding presence, believable as both a rap superstar and the leader of his crew. Miles Scroggins plays both Cassio, here the up-and-coming rapper resented by Iago, and Iago's love-starved wife, Emilia. Alex Church has an early comedic turn as Desdemona's father Brabantio before digging fully into the conniving Iago. 

Alex Church, Umar Malik (Unser Imagery)

Alaster Xan-Elias creates four characters including nerdy romantic foil Roderigo, Cassio's clingy girlfriend Bianca, and record label exec Loco Vito. Each character is specific and distinct, and all have lots of laughs, but the tennis-crazed Loco Vito, with his far-out references to Boris Becker and John McEnroe, provides the most unexpected giggles. 

Considering we saw the show on its second night, the chemistry between these engaging performers already felt authentic and lived-in. And holy cats, is it hilarious! Director Denzel Belin makes the most of the script and the timing is lightning quick. Maia Maiden's music direction and choreography serves the story, and is especially entertaining when Emilia gets her moment in the spotlight. The show runs only 90 minutes with a 15-minute intermission, and you can see why the performers need the break. If the show paused at all for laughter, it would be a lot longer. But you've got to keep up. And see it twice!

Performed on a spare stage with simple sets (which they use every bit of) and minimal costume changes as the performers shift between characters, it reminded us of Ten Thousand Things, another local theater company that makes Shakespeare accessible by focusing on performance and text. (How amazing would it be for this show to travel to underserved audiences as TTT does?) Special shoutout to Scenic Designer/TD Vicky Erickson for the ingenious depiction of the never-seen but heard Desdemona, to Lighting Designer Grant E. Merges for inventive lighting choices, and to Audio Designer/Technician Abe Gabor for helping us hear all of those amazing rhymes. 

We've long loved Minneapolis Musical Theatre for taking chances on shows that are rarely performed here. This entire season (Striking 12, Analog and Vinyl) has featured retellings of classic tales and with Othello: The Remix, they are really raising their own bar. It's an amazing end to their season and we can't wait to see what they have in store next season!

Othello: The Remix plays at the Phoenix Theater from April 21 - May 7.