Monday, April 27, 2015

Carmen at Minnesota Opera: Review Round-Up

Carmen is one of the great, crowd-pleasing operas that opera companies know will sell tickets, and from all reports, the sales for Minnesota Opera's current production are thriving.

Never seen Carmen? Missed it the last time Minnesota Opera performed it in 2004-05? (Or before that in 1996-97, 1990-91, 1987-88, or 1980-81?)

Here's the scoop from one of my favorite opera books: Weep, Shudder, Die: A Guide to Loving Opera by Robert Levine, who sums it up as "the story of a doomed-yet-hot cigarette-factory-worker-slash-smuggler and her crazed soldier-boy lover." If only all opera summaries were as succinct and descriptive! A bit more from Levine:
"When Carmen first appeared more than a century and a quarter ago, it sent shock wavers through decent society everywhere. Women were fighting and smoking onstage, and the heroine was the most brazen and unrepentantly sexual creature audiences had ever seen. ... By today's standards, Carmen seems a free-spirited young woman with a somewhat dubious taste in boyfriends. Jose, however, is obviously a sexually repressed lunatic who had never been out of the clutches of his mother and virginal girlfriend, filled with angers and frustrations just waiting to explode. Ripped from today's high school headlines."
Here's the thing: I love that Minnesota Opera is selling lots of tickets to this opera--I love that it will give them a good basis for doing more engaging, challenging work, such as last season's staggeringly perfect The Magic Flute, as well as new operas such as The Manchurian Candidate.

Christian Zaremba and Andrew Lovato in
Girl of the Golden West. Photo by Michal Daniel.
And keeping it all about theaterlove ... I am SO glad to finally see Christian Zaremba, Minnesota Opera Resident Artist, in a role (Zuniga) that gives him more to do. He's appeared in a number of small parts all season, and has always done a fabulous job. He's not a focus-stealer in any way, he just embodies his characters beautifully and lends gravity and depth to all productions.

Mark my words: This guy is one to watch. He can act, he has a strong physical presence, he is exceedingly comfortable on stage in a variety of roles, and he can really sing. I think he could be one of the great new opera stars, and I will be very excited to brag that I spotted him way back. (He even showed up on the hilariously admiring Barihunks blog and Twitter feed--I assume a tee shirt will be coming his way soon.)

Siena Forest, Kyle Ketelsen, and
Bergen Baker. Photo by Michal Daniel
More love? Kyle Ketelsen, who was last at Minnesota Opera in Anna Bolena, plays Escamillo, and as soon as he steps on the stage (or is driven onstage), the energy level jumps. He's an amazingly riveting performer, with a strong, confident voice and presence, and something that is too often lacking in opera stars--actual sex appeal. I still remember (okay, it was only two seasons ago) his love scenes as Enrico VIII in Anna Bolena. They were astonishingly hot--especially for opera, which is often pretty low on the temperature scale. He's fabulous but is on stage for far too short a time.

As for the rest of the production, the Director's Notes in the program say it all: "A Boogie Nights Carmen." You can read more here.

Set in the 1970s, the primary aspect that reflects this concept is the costuming. The range of costumes spanned from 1940s housedresses and aprons to ill-fitting hip-huggers to Carmen's Missoni-like dress. When the smugglers all gathered in the mountains (quite a lot of them), it looked like the Manson Family has turned to smuggling--vintage Playboys, no less. Also, I love you Minnesota Opera, but that was some of the worst fake smoking I've ever seen.

That said, I'm happy for Minnesota Opera to have a great-selling show. I hope this encourages more people to come see their other work, especially The Magic Flute, a fabulous production that they're bringing back next season.

Here's what reviewers are saying about Carmen:

'Carmen' Review: Minnesota Opera Shifts Story to '70s, and It Soars - Pioneer Press
"Any significant flaws can be attributed to the opera itself, which tests your capacity for compassion with its opportunistic heroine, abusive hero and no real romance to speak of, just libidos run amok."

Minnesota Opera's 'Carmen' is Disappointing - Star Tribune
"It would be nice to report that the company’s new “Carmen,” unveiled at the Ordway Center on Saturday as the season’s final production, moves forward, offering a compelling vision for the next 20 years. It doesn't." 

Carmen - Aisle Say Twin Cities
"MN Opera's 'Carmen' set in post-Franco Spain, is saucy, dazzling, and you'll be singing the "Toreador" song for days."

Carmen - The Minneapolite
"This is a lush, sexy world and every inch of the stage seems to pulse with that sensual energy. Embrace a bit of tragic yearning and don't miss Carmen."

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Chicago - A Carousel for the Ages

A whirlwind weekend trip to Chicago yielded an embarrassment of theatrical riches. Four shows in two days! But the reason for our trip? Carousel at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. And it was everything we'd hoped it would be.

Ever since hearing the first casting news, we wanted to see this show. Having seen Steven Pasquale in A Man of No Importance back in 2002, and hearing him sing The Bridges of Madison County, he seemed perfect casting for Billy Bigelow. And our hometown girl, Laura Osnes, seemed ideal as Julie Jordan. And the more actors were announced, the better it sounded. Opera star Denyce Graves as Cousin Nettie, Jenn Gambatese as Carrie Pipperidge, Charlotte D'Amboise as Mrs. Mullin, Tony Roberts as The Starkeeper, Jarrod Emick as Jigger Craigin. Amazing!

The Civic Opera House, where the Chicago Lyric Opera performs, is a huge house, seating over 3,500. We found a deal and splurged a bit on front-row seats, but a friend of ours sitting further back on the main floor enjoyed her seat just as much. Fittingly, this is a big production. The chorus is huge, filled with talented singers and dancers. The play has been re-set from the early part of the century to the Depression-era 1930s, which works well, especially since Mullin's Carousel has been expanded to a traveling fair. The set, designed by Paulo Ventura, fills the vast space, and allows director and choreographer Rob Marshall to create some gorgeous stage pictures.

It's been a long time since I've seen a professional production of the show, and I loved the way the show started. After The Carousel Waltz started playing, the lights came up behind the scrim to show us Billy and then Mrs. Mullins emerging from her trailer en deshabille. Soon, the traveling show is setting up around them, with clowns, a stilt walker, dancing girls, and the carousel. This allows us to see Billy in his element, charming the girls who line up to see him at the carousel, and we see his interaction with Julie before we even hear a word. It was very effective!

This is one of the most beautiful musical theater scores ever written, and it's certainly done justice by the 37-piece(!) orchestra as well as the singers. Pasquale is a properly tortured Billy, and he really made me understand how conflicted he is within himself and why Julie stands by him. And Laura Osnes shows not only the incredible sweetness of the Julie we first meet at the carousel, but the steely determination beneath that, which allows her to take the chance to be with Billy and to keep believing in him.

Laura Osnes as Julie and Steven Pasquale as Billy.
Photo: Todd Rosenberg 
/ Chicago Now 
Jenn Gambatese was a sweet and funny Carrie, and far less silly than others I've seen in the role, which easily tips over into caricature. Matthew Hydzik was a wonderful Mr. Snow, with all of his high-mindedness and ambition but also a weakness for Carrie that lasts into their married life. Denyce Graves was a bit formal as Cousin Nettie, as many opera singers are when they tackle musical theater, but then she would sing. Her big numbers, "June is Bustin' Out All Over" and "You'll Never Walk Alone" sounded amazing in her wonderful opera voice.

Jarrod Emick is a bit of a puzzle as Jigger Craigin. I found his giant bushy beard and cuffed jeans quite distracting. He resembled an old prospector who wandered into coastal Maine. But he was convincing at luring Billy away from the straight and narrow, and an effective roadblock for Carrie and Mr. Snow, and that's what he needs to be. Tony Roberts was fine as the Starkeeper, but there's not much to the role. (I never really saw the point of the song "The Highest Judge of All" before this production.) Charlotte D'Amboise was a slinky, desperate Mrs. Mullins, and got to show off her dancing. The ballet was performed beautifully by Abigail Simon, with able assistance from Martin Harvey as a carnival worker who looked a little too familiar to Billy.

And of course, the last thing to mention is the "Soliloquy." It's the Mount Everest of musical theater leading man songs, and Pasquale scales it beautifully. There's an odd choice to have an enormous set piece move onto the stage while he's singing, which does set up for a nice final picture at the end of the first act, but in spite of that, the song was riveting. This is a Carousel to remember. I know that I will.

But PLEASE Lyric Opera, find a way to record it! I know it couldn't come to Broadway in its current form with this huge cast and 37 musicians, so I hope they are able to give us some lasting memory of it.

Until then, I'll watch and rewatch this clip of Osnes and Pasquale performing the bench scene ("If I Loved You") in a rehearsal studio. (Yes, it's a rock wall in this production, but it's always called the bench scene. It just is.)

Versatility is key, while less is more: Hapgood by Six Elements Theater at Nimbus Theatre

When I go to the theatre, I love a good story. Something that catches me and involves me right away, and keeps me involved and interested through out. Along with keeping me interested, if it makes me think and introduces me to new ideas and concepts - even better. To paraphrase the Bard himself, "the script is the thing..."

Hapgood by Tom Stoppard is exactly such a script. It is currently being performed at Nimbus Theatre by Six Elements Theater.  In my limited experience with Stoppard, I know that he writes dense scripts - usually combining philosophy, science, mathematics with a love story, or historical drama, or even Shakespeare. In the case of Hapgood, he combines a great, thrilling spy story with physics. How? Well, take my advice and go see this show. The opening scene is worth the price of admission itself, and the remainder of the show does not falter or disappoint. Russian spys in Britain during the Cold War - can you ask for more?

The script is solid, the acting was fantastic and it is truly a very enjoyable evening in the theatre, as well as one that will keep you on the edge of your seats. The cast is great with consistent Russian and British accents through out. The story moves quickly, even though it is a talky work (like most Stoppard). I sat in the back row and there were a few times that I had trouble hearing some actors, but I was leaning forward in my chair far more because I was truly intrigued by what was happening, and involved.

What also caught my attention was the scenic design. The show opens in a pool changing room with showers on one side, changing stalls with doors, two entrances, and a sink at the front. Following scenes took place at the zoo, the shooting range, an office space, and an apartment. These are a LOT of locations, yet each one was realistic. On a big budget, this would be easily down with fly space and lots of off-stage space. Nimbus doesn't have that. The design was similar to those flashy metallic cubes that are connected at the center so you can keep opening it up and it changes, but stays the same. After the opening scene, the changing stalls come apart, and are turned around to create walls, the shower curtains fold against the wall, and suddenly the set is totally different. It was a brilliant design that was simple, yet totally versatile. With each scene change needing a bit more time, they were covered by some great 60's spy-movie style music, along with a stagehand/actress making sure everything was where it should be, then putting hand to ear as if listening to orders from someone off-stage. It was a really good idea. The other thing that kept the scene changes fluid is that actors from the new scene would enter while the change was happening, and begin playing in the space - putting flowers in a vase, straightening files, etc. Fantastic way to keep the audience involved in what was happening.

If you want a good theatre experience, go see this show. So smart and thrilling - twists and turns through out. Delicious.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Ten Tips for Your Post-Show Discussion (from your audience member)

Pillsbury House + Theater Breaking Ice Series
One of the best things about theater is the opportunity to continue the discussion past the curtain call, whether through social media, sharing experiences and thoughts with other theatergoers, or via the more formal post-show discussion.

I LOVE a good post-show discussion. I love that it gives the audience members an opportunity to share the effect that the show had on them, and the questions they may have about the work and how it was created and performed. I always appreciate the investment in time that the company is willing to give to discussions like these--it shows a lovely generosity of spirit and willingness to actively engage.

A few theaters stand out for me for their consistently engaging, thoughtful post-show discussions: Pillsbury House Theater (such as their recent Death Tax discussions that focused on various aspects of the health care system), Penumbra Theatre (always engaging and thoughtful), Theater Latte Da (especially in the Next: New Musicals in the Making series and even the Guthrie Theater (where else could you chat with Mark Rylance and Tony Kushner?).
Students listen to live discussions about Penumbra Signature plays. Photo by Asha Shofner

Having said that, I'd like to present my dream list of what I, as an audience member, love to see in a post-show discussion.

1) It's All In The Timing. 
Give audience members who aren't interested in participating time to exit the theater, but not too much time. Wait too long to get the discussion started and you may lose engaged audience members who are tired of waiting.

2) Who Are You Again?
Introduce everyone who is participating in the discussion (on the theater side). Facilitators, company members, creative team, everybody. Please give us your full names and your role in the company or discussion. You may think we all know you, or don't care who you are, but we do. Knowing who is speaking lends much needed context to the discussion.

3) Why Are We Here? 
What is the intent behind your post-show discussion? Are you looking for compliments and comments? Do you want something deeper to help you mold and shape your production? Do you want to give audience members an opportunity to process what they saw and provide insight? How about providing insight into your process? Let us know the purpose of the post-show discussion, so we can do our part effectively. We want to be useful!

4) A Gentle Start. 
Occasionally, post-show discussions start with the facilitator simply asking for comments about the play. It can be hard for audience members to throw out their opinions immediately without having some sense of where the discussion is leading. Also, sometimes it takes us a bit of time to process what we're feeling and thinking and feel comfortable sharing. I love a discussion that starts with a little background from the company about the show and the creative process. It seems to spark effective discussion.

5) Speak Up! 
It's true that theater audiences are aging. If you have a microphone, use it. If you don't, repeat questions or statements that audience members say so everyone can hear it. You can do it! You've got those lovely classically-trained voices. (That said, I personally hate in any setting when someone in the last row complains they can't hear. Move up, man!) It's nice to encourage people to come to the front rows for the discussion--even shy and retiring theatergoers.

6) Get Involved. 
It doesn't hurt to make sure that your facilitator is prepared to lead the discussion totally on their own. Sometimes an audience just isn't responsive, or aren't prepared to discuss what we just saw. But they're interested! That's why they are staying for the discussion. Also, if you've gotten the entire cast to stay for the discussion, make sure they are involved as well. Often, it's just director and writer talking about the process. We love to hear from the actors as well.

7) Actively Listen. 
I understand there's a school of discussion that involves just listening to comments without responding in any way. I find this baffling and frustrating. Responding and building off comments and questions is the work of excellent facilitators and helps the discussion feel like more of a two-way street. Even if a question or comment is out of left field or unproductive (see number 8), it's nice to make sure the member knows that their comment was heard (see numbers 5 and 10).

8) Don't Be Delicate.
"Now for my favorite part of the show....What does that say? Talk to the audience! Ugghhh, this is always death..." -- Krusty the Clown, The Simpsons: I Love Lisa (4.15)
You've invited the audience for a discussion and you are directly inviting their comments. Try not to be too sensitive. You may not hear what you want to hear and you may get unexpected criticism but try to accept the comments with grace and an open heart.

I know! It's easy for me to say that. I didn't put my heart and soul and hours and hours of my time into creating a theatrical work only to have people criticize some tiny point about it. But remember, these people not only paid to come to your show, they are interested enough to stay afterwards and engage with you in a discussion. They mean well. (Usually.)

9) Keep It Short. 
Your audience has already invested a few hours in your theater, and has voluntarily offered to stay even longer. Everyone wants to feel that they are using their time productively. Letting the discussion drag on past a productive point is hard not only for us, but for your company. We want their time to be used effectively as well. If you keep the discussion short, you will leave us wanting more and pursuing these conversations in our own lives (and encouraging our friends and family to come to your show! Bonus!)

10) Appreciate It.
Nothing wrong with a few thank yous--on both sides. If, as audience members, we've been terribly moved by a production (I'm thinking specifically of These Old Shoes at Transatlantic Love Affair), it's wonderful to have the opportunity to thank the company for their work and give them some props. And we like to be thanked too, for our comments and time. We love feeling that we've contributed in some way (apart from the time, money and attention that we've already willingly and joyfully invested.)

So once more ... on behalf of your audience members, thank you to all the theaters who invest time, energy, passion and thought in these post-show discussions. Thank you for including us and giving us the opportunity to make theater a two-way street.

Image from

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Carousel at Lyric Opera: A Master Class in Preshow Buzz

When Lyric Opera of Chicago announced months ago that they would be presenting Rodgers and Hammerstein's Carousel starring Steven Pasquale (April 10 through May 3), that was it.

I've loved Pasquale since seeing him in 2002 in A Man of No Importance at Lincoln Center on my very first trip to NYC. BTW, if you've not listened to him sing "The Streets of Dublin" for a while, I highly recommend it.

So we were in. Bought the tickets, figured out travel and lodging. No way were they doing this show with this cast in the Midwest and we were missing it.

In the interim, more cast has been announced and every one a gem. I mean, look at this cast: Laura Osnes, Jenn Gambatese, Matthew Hydzik, Denyce Graves (loved her in Doubt at Minnesota Opera), Jarrod Emick (loved him in The Full Monty in London and The Boy from Oz),Charlotte D'Amboise (just saw her in Pippin), and Tony Roberts (saw him in Xanadu, but love him from Annie Hall).

Anyway, as the big day approaches, Lyric Opera is offering amazing teaser videos and content that is ramping up excitement to previously unforeseen levels. Here's a taste:

Promotional video.  Warning: Just a touch spoilery ... (insert wink at spoilers for a musical written in 1945):

Then, of course, here's the cast urging you to come and see the show, which appears to be a bit heavy on the beards:

Not excited yet?  Try Lyric Opera's Insider's Guide to Carousel, which includes behind the scenes videos with director Rob Ashford, behind the music with conductor David Chase, Q and As with the cast, and of course, Eight Reasons to Love our Carousel stars.

You can even access the program online and read the cast bios and various articles to your heart's content.

Also, check out their great social media postings. I mean how cute is this:

And then there's this.  You know, whatever!  Maybe that might make you want to see the show. Not me, I'm in cause I love great musical theater, of course.

Photo by Todd Rosenberg
A theatery digression: I think about how much I loved Hairspray, my very first Broadway show, and how I looked and looked for information about the show. I think I may have bought magazines off Ebay that had articles about it!  I researched it using online databases at my library!

I would have loved to have had this kind of information at my fingertips, not to mention accessibility to insider knowledge from the creative and cast via social media, not to mention a communication with other theater lovers across the country.  It's such a different world, but I love it. What a remarkable age this is!  It's a real fine clambake, that's for sure.

Friday, April 10, 2015

The Debutante's Ball and Ethnic Heritage: Father and Daughter Weigh In

Please enjoy this guest post by my friend Jay and his teen daughter Juno about what Mu Performing Arts/History Theatre's play The Debutante's Ball means to them:

Jay: As a first generation Filipino immigrant raised outside the Minnesota Filipino community, and largely isolated from Filipino traditions, I was thrilled to discover Eric "Pogi" Sumangil's comic documentary on preserving ethnic heritage. 

Without being overly sentimental, the play still managed to evoke my sympathy for the young characters struggling to define their own racial identity. I laughed with and never-quite-pitied the character I saw the most of myself in, an awkward and geekish young man who played the Harana (Filipino serenade) for the female protagonist. I would have liked to explore the theme of "nisei" having an "ethnic" channel to direct universal themes of teenage awkwardness, and how they often make an asset of innate bi(or greater)-culturism.

Image by Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune
The thin Good Friday crowd of History Theater regulars and supporters blended comfortably with Filipino families, easily identified by their uproarious laughter during the targeted ethnic insider jokes. Though not provocative, the overall atmosphere reminded me poignantly of feeling like a square peg in a round hole, gently but not painfully reconciling mutually strange foods, accents, and jokes with my parents' white Minnesotan friends at 70s and 80s dinner tables, the place settings slightly outdated, the humor never dead-on, but ample.

Juno: When I found out that we were going to see this play, I was a little hesitant. I haven't ever been immersed in the  culture, and honestly, I had no idea what to expect. Sure, I identify as part Filipino, but I was sure that every reference or joke would go right over my head - I was wrong. I didn't need to speak Tagalog, I didn't have to go to social gatherings, I didn't even have to do anything but sit and watch. I was able to laugh and enjoy it as it happened, and so was everyone else in the Theater.

I think what was most appealing to me was that it didn't beat around the bush about anything. Yes, Filipino's are blunt, touchy, and ambiguously ethnic, and there isn't a point in the show where you don't see that. Instead of being a play about trying to fit in with the crowd, it's a play about being comfortable with who you are, even if you look or act differently than the people around you. It wasn't a crazy assimilation-promotion  play, it was straight forward, and documented (accurately) what it's like to grow up Filipino-American in Minnesota. 

Sunday, April 5, 2015

The World Goes 'Round at the Jungle: Race, Revues and Reverb

Waiting in the Jungle Theater lobby for the house to open at The World Goes 'Round*, I overheard two patrons discussing changes in the local theater scene, including Sarah Bellamy's becoming the artistic director at Penumbra Theatre. And this is what they said: "She's so light-skinned--you'd never guess she was ... (slightly lower tones) African-American." Really.

Issues of race and racial equity are in the forefront of every sphere of life and culture right now. MPR's Marianne Combs recently hosted a fascinating discussion with Randy Reyes of Mu Performing Arts, Toni Pierce-Sands of TU Dance, and C. Michael-jon Pease of Park Square Theatre about the future of diversity (racial and cultural) in Minnesota arts and how to bring people of color into theater audiences. Ten Thousand Things Theater's Ambassador Program works specifically to bring in audiences of color to their paid shows.

With issues like this in mind, I tend to scan theater audiences for their demographic make-up and seeing how well people of color are represented in the audience. As many audiences at shows I attend are primarily older, and pretty darn white, I love to see an audience with representation across the board. For example, I was so pleased by how racially (and age) diverse the audience was at The Color Purple at Park Square Theatre. #Representation rocks.

And representation rocks not only in the audience, but on stage as well. One of the reasons it was so great to see a racially diverse audience at The Color Purple was that the stage was filled with fabulous actors of diverse racial backgrounds. There's something about an all-white audience viewing a show made up of actors of color (particularly singing) that smacks of white privilege and makes me uncomfortable. What can I say? These issues are challenging, sensitive and very personal.

The World Goes 'Round (at the Jungle Theater now through May 24), a revue of the songs of John Kander and Fred Ebb, was conceived by Scott Ellis, Susan Stroman and David Thompson and originally performed in the early 1990s.

It's hard to look at the Jungle's production of this show, which is a revue and contains material from twenty-six years of musical collaboration, and not see any representation by actors (or musicians) of color. The band is made up of seven white men, and the cast of three men and four women is uniformly white.

(Side note: I just fell down an internet rabbit hole while looking up race-blind/color-blind casting. Several hours later, I'm back. Whew. Be sure to look into August Wilson's thoughts on the matter.)

There's nothing wrong with an all-white cast, but when so many perceived barriers to non-traditional casting involve the 'jarring departure from reality' of casting siblings of different races or casting actors of color in positions of power in historical times, shouldn't a revue be easy to cast with at least a little non-traditionality?  I'm hoping Lin-Manuel Miranda's critically praised and wildly successful musical Hamilton, in New York now and transferring soon to Broadway, will help pound a nail in the coffin of those arguments to diverse casting.

Can we also talk about revues? Many revues create a narrative that creates a framework for the songs (such as the wonderful I Love a Piano, staged in 1996 at the Ordway Center), some simply group the songs by theme or era. Chris Caggiano of Everything I Know I Learned on Broadway expresses the challenges of the revue beautifully in his review of Ten Cents a Dance:
The songbook revue is both the easiest and the hardest type of theatrical show to pull off. "Easiest" because you seemingly just throw together a bunch of songs and let the audience revel in waves of nostalgia. "Hardest" because, if you don't want the audience tuning out after the first few numbers, you need to come up with some kind of through line or production concept to hold people's attention.
Yes.  And a revue plucks the song from its context in its musical and asks the performers to sell a story through that song.  If you'd like to see the revue done beautifully, don't miss the Broadway Songbook series at the Ordway. Hosted by James A. Rocco and written by James A. Rocco and Jeffrey P. Scott, the Songbook focuses on a songwriting team, an era or a particular style. Featuring a revolving cast of talented performers (including performers of color), the cast sells the hell out of the songs. Next up is Broadway Songbook: Rock & Roll on Broadway (April 17-18). With their great affection for the genre and amazing performers, these shows are necessary viewing for any musical theater fan.

But back to the show at hand ...

I've listened to the 1991 Original Cast recording of And the World Goes Round (which features five actors including Karen Ziemba, Jim Walton, and Brenda Pressley--who happens to be an actor of color), and despite the best intentions and talent, I don't think it's a very successful show. Starting with an overwrought "The World Goes 'Round" from New York, New York, moving on to a frenetic "Coffee in a Cardboard Cup" from 70, Girls, 70, this revue maintains an exhausting heightened emotional state. It's all hills and no valleys. The new arrangement of "Cabaret" (think Manhattan Transfer on the Lawrence Welk Show) and the closing version of "New York, New York" (sung in a number of languages) just don't work for me.

With all this said, the cast of the Jungle Theater production performed gamely and with great commitment. They worked hard to sell the songs, and I wish the show had served them better, particularly Bradley Greenwald (impeccable as always) and Emily Rose Skinner (a great comedienne who made the most of the intimacy of the Jungle).

But there's no way around this: the show is way too loud. The on-stage band is miked, the performers have both body mikes and handheld mikes (with obvious sweetening), and it is LOUD. The sound, combined with the unnerving tendency for the performers to aim over the audience's head to balconies that don't actually exist, made me feel that the show was staged for a much larger venue. (Say, Bloomington Civic Theater?) One of the things that I have always loved best about the Jungle is its warm intimacy, and it's a shame to be blasted out of that lovely space.

I wonder if the loudness of the show (and the revue format) contributed to one of the strangest experiences I've had in the theater. After each number, audience members (a few--let's not get crazy) whistled shrilly (as if they were at a rock concert), and if a cast member did some sort of move, there was woooooooo-ing. It was really odd, and perhaps contributed to the actors' energy and intensity being turned up to eleven. Possibly twelve.

* So what's the actual title?  The program reads "And the World Goes Round", while the website lists the show as "The World Goes 'Round." According to Peter Filichia at MTI, the surviving creators prefer the latter, and that's how MTI licenses it.  So that's what I'm calling it! 

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Drawn to Fruit Fly

They had me at the title: I love my gay male friends and appreciate the unique qualities of our relationships. I don't know how I missed the previous iterations, but I was not going to let the newest version of Fruit Fly pass me by!

The show is the brainchild of Sheena Janson and Max Wojtanowicz, I've appreciated each of them on stage separately, including Sheena's touching Desiree in the Mu Performing Arts production of A Little Night Music and Max in the Nautilus Music-Theater production of Ordinary Days. In addition to being talented in their own rights, the pair have been friends for a lifetime, and they built this show around the framework of their friendship.

The simple set on the Illusion Theater stage includes a large whiteboard, on which is written the progression of the show, a guide to the jokes and references in the show, and a space in the upper left corner marked "Sondheim References." With that, they already had me charmed. Most musical theater has its fair share of Sondheim references, so I loved to see them addressing it so directly!

Max and Sheena start the show amid a squabble that clearly illustrates their beyond-comfortable relationship. They are witty and charming, and so are the songs, with music by Michael Gruber that occasionally evokes Sondheim, especially when the singers are racing through their snappy, wordy, and funny lyrics. And yes, there were a few humumumumumable melodies. (And if you get that reference, this show's for you.)

From members of the children's chorus in a production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and on through high school and college, their friendship grows, hitting a few bumps along the way but seeming to thrive as they live their adult lives. Of course, there is a crisis, and it's a biggie. When one of the pair gets involved in a serious romantic relationship, the other feels left behind. This part of the show went on a bit too long for me, though it was so well performed that it's amazing that they willingly relive such a traumatic breakdown. (Also, it's not exactly suspenseful. If they hadn't stayed friends, we wouldn't be watching the show, right?)
See the Sondheim References on the board? And doesn't Sheena
look great in yellow? Photo: Lauren B Photography

Overall, it was a delightful 90 minutes (no intermission--get your box wine before the show)  of laughter, a few tears and a lot more laughter. I think anyone will see their own long-term friendships reflected onstage, as the joys and strains are universal, while still being wonderfully unique to Sheena and Max.

For more info, there are some cute introductory videos posted to the Fruit Fly event page on Facebook, where you can also get info about two special performances featuring a boxed wine tasting on Friday, April 3 and a fruity drink tasting on Friday, April 11.

If you fall in love with Sheena and Max in this show (and you will, unless you already love them), you can catch more of their work at the monthly cabaret they created and host on the first Monday of each month at Hell's Kitchen. Musical Mondays is a fun night for seeing theater people from all over the Cities performing musical theater songs in a variety of themes, It's the closest we have here in Minnesota to NYC's fabulous 54 Below, and it is a can't-miss event if you love musical theater,

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Boeing Boeing at Torch Theater

There are certain performances in the theater that you will never forget.  You know, even as you are watching the play, that you will remember and think fondly of that performance every single time you see that actor in another play. And with this one? You will also laugh.

If you're looking for flat-out slapstick fun, don't miss Torch Theater's production of Boeing Boeing at the Minneapolis Theatre Garage. A welcome breath of spring and fun, it's winding up all too soon (runs through April 4th). 

Written by Marc Camoletti in the mid-60s and directed by Craig Johnson, Boeing Boeing is about a smooth player (Sam Landman) who juggles three air hostesses (Rachel Finch, Stacia Rice and Sara Richardson) with the help of his airline timetables, his naive hometown friend (Zach Curtis), and his imperious maid (Mo Perry). Naturally, romantic mix-ups, luggage mishaps, pratfalls and slamming doors abound. A flop on Broadway when it premiered in the 1960s, a revival in 2008 won Mark Rylance (recently seen here in the Guthrie's Nice Fish) a Tony for his portrayal as the player's friend.

Now, back to that performance ...

Image by Thomas Sandelands - Star Tribune
I don't know what on earth Sara Richardson (as Gretchen) is doing, or how she does it. She's so completely absurd and over-the-top, but completely sincere and committed at the same time. The physicality with which she expressed her character was both repressed and contained, but at the same time wildly expressive. Combine this physicality with her German accent and manner of speech, and a very flippy wig and the results were just incredibly hilarious. It's one of those performances you can't describe--you just have to see it. Her most indelible performance for me was in Pillsbury House Theatre's Buzzer (premiered here, but now in NYC at the Public)--it's amazing to think it's the same person, (I know it's what actors do, but I love to see such range.)

The entire cast is just as committed to the slapstick and the comedy in this piece.  Sam Landsman is wonderfully smooth, a lovely contrast to the somewhat grotesque character he played in Sexy Librarian, (Note to self: use caution when Googling that title.) Zach Curtis throws himself so fully into his character and his pratfalls that if he makes it through the run unscathed, I'd be surprised.  Stacia Rice had me from the moment she entered and threw her bag against the door--her exaggerated Italian accent and affectations were hilarious. Mo Perry is always delightful and hilarious, but I would have liked to see her character go a bit smaller in contrast with the rest of the proceedings. (I know, it's a farce. Small doesn't come into it!) The glasses that she wore also hid her wonderfully expressive face.
Image by Thomas Sandelands - Star Tribune

Speaking of costuming, the clothes were gorgeous. The air hostesses wore the heck out of their capes and their smart little dresses--not to mention the vintage flight bags. The pre-show samba-ish music set the stage beautifully for the show to come.

All in all, it's a completely delightful show, and the audience was wholeheartedly engaged and laughing like crazy. The woman next to us kept slapping her leg and saying, "Oh, no!" in an adorable way. It's a lovely little trip to the swinging 60s.

Total Tangent: After the show, I couldn't get "Swinging Nordwest", the kicky song that Jim Lichtschiedl used in his show Knock! (with Theater Latte Da) out of my head. It just seemed to fit in so perfectly with the aesthetic. Also, when the show was recently on Broadway, they worked with Kathleen Marshall to choreograph a curtain call dance (inspired by Rylance's work with the Globe and their dancing curtain calls). Very charming!