Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Calendar Girls at Park Square Theatre

Christina Baldwin, Shanan Custer,
and Charity Jones.
Photos by Petronella J. Ytsma. 
Park Square Theatre has assembled an amazing cast for the local premiere of Calendar Girls, playing through July 24. Playwright Tim Firth adapted the script from the 2003 film, which he co-wrote with Juliette Towhidi. If you have seen the film, you know the story, but the joy of the play is spending time getting to know these realistic women and seeing their friendships develop and deepen.

The play features the talents of actresses Charity Jones, Christina Baldwin, Linda Kelsey, Carolyn Pool, Laurel Armstrong, and Shanan Custer as members of a Women's Institute (WI*) group in Yorkshire, England, who take off their clothes for a charity calendar. The supporting cast is also impressive, including John Middleton and Bill McCallum as two of the ladies' husbands, Ryan Colbert as their photographer, and Julia Cook as the group leader who is always just a little too perfect. Karen Weber, Anna Hickey, and Kory LaQuess Pullam are also strong as some of the people who alternately help and hinder the cause.

(L-R) Laurel Armstrong, Linda Kelsey, Carolyn Pool, Charity Jones,
Ryan Colbert, Christina Baldwin, and Shanan Custer.
The WI meetings seem a bit silly at first, with much talk of broccoli and tea towels, but then we discover that John (Middleton), husband of Annie (Baldwin) is very ill. As time passes, marked by the seasonal activities of the group, the loss felt by all of the women when John dies is apparent. Chris (Jones) and Annie think of a way to memorialize him. Rather than their planned calendar of the bridges of Yorkshire, they will pose nude—tastefully, of course—to raise enough money to purchase a new settee for the family waiting room at the hospital. 

Kelsey, Pool, Armstrong, Jones, and Baldwin raise a glass.
(Possibly more than one.)
Some of the women need more persuading than others, but watching them support each other through this experience is really touching. Oh, and funny! It is a delight to spend a couple of hours with these women through their laughter and tears. In spite of the subject, Calendar Girls never gets sappy. It is a treat to be able to watch these gifted actresses together on stage. While it's not unusual to see a play with multiple juicy roles for middle-aged men, it's not as common for women. And these well-rounded roles give the performers the chance to have their characters grow and develop. I can't say enough nice things about the whole cast, but I have to single out Shanan Custer. Her Ruth is funny from the moment she sets foot on stage, but is also so familiar as a timid people-pleaser that the audience can't help but root for her to stand up for herself. 

Well-paced by director Mary Finnerty, with spot-on costumes by MaryBeth Gagner, the story plays out on a simple set by Michael Hoover that is enhanced by Michael P. Kittel's lighting. All the technical elements support the story beautifully. Calendar Girls is a delightful and touching play that took our audience on an emotional journey that felt like the kind of shared experience that only live theater can provide.

Many thanks to Connie Shaver and Michael-jon Pease for welcoming the Twin Cities Theater Bloggers to participate in a pre-show meet and greet and a post-show discussion at Sunday's matinee. Thanks also to all the actors for sharing their time at the discussion as they were wrapping up a very busy opening week. We had a great time, and hope to participate in more events that expand the conversation around the great theater we have here in Minnesota!

Post-show discussion! Photo by Park Square Theatre
* When I looked for information on the Women's Institute (WI), I found this story about how the organization has been a force for progress in Great Britain for 100 years. It's quite a bit more than tea towels and broccoli!

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

The Bridges of Madison County - National Tour at the Orpheum Theatre

A sweeping romance with a gorgeous musical score, The Bridges of Madison County had too brief a run on Broadway in 2014. It's a rather small story and an unusual musical without large production numbers, which may have made it a hard sell. Fortunately, the touring production is here for a week to show us what we missed.

Based on the 1992 best-selling novel by Robert James Waller, Bridges tells the story of Francesca Johnson, an Italian war bride who has lived with her husband and children on a farm in Winterset, Iowa, for nearly twenty years. She is a devoted homemaker and mother, but is discontented with her life.

Andrew Samonosky (Robert) and Elizabeth
Stanley (Francesca). Photo: Matthew Murphy.
When Francesca's husband Bud, and children Michael and Carolyn, load up the truck to show Carolyn's prize steer at the state fair in Indianapolis, she is left behind, looking forward to spending some time not taking care of others. A National Geographic photographer looking for directions pulls up to her house and changes her life. She takes him to the covered bridge he's seeking, and ends up cooking him dinner. Robert Kincaid is an enigmatic loner, but drawn to this woman whose rich inner life has been sublimated by her years on the farm.

The story is simple, and the original book is not universally beloved. What elevates this adaptation is the music. Jason Robert Brown has amassed a following among musical-theater aficionados as the composer of musicals including Parade, Honeymoon in Vegas, and The Last Five Years (which was made into a movie starring Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan, which I highly recommend).

Brown's music for Bridges does a wonderful job of delineating characters and story. Rather than an overture, Francesca sings of her life in "To Build a Home," which is full of unexpected turns of melody and phrase. Much simpler are the songs given to the rest of the Johnson family and their neighbors, who express themselves through songs inflected with folk and gospel. When Robert arrives, his duets with Francesca are soaring melodies that clearly show the heights of emotion that their relationship brings about.

Mary Callanan (Marge) and Elizabeth
Stanley (Francesca). Photo: Matthew Murphy.
The music is beautifully performed, particularly by Elizabeth Stanley as Francesca and Andrew Samonosky as Robert. Separately, they convey worlds of longing, and their duets feel like the completion of an unfinished chord. The supporting cast are wonderful, particularly Mary Callanan as an inquisitive but supportive neighbor, and Cullen R. Titmas as Bud, the husband who never quite understands his wife. Caitlin Houlahan and understudy Bryan Welnicki were excellent as Francesca's very American children, with their own preoccupations.

The staging is spare, with just the suggestion of bridges, farmhouses, and other scenes set against a backdrop of wide open sky, suggesting the Iowa farmland. Set pieces moved on and off the stage by the ever-present townfolk lend a fluidity to the proceedings as one scene fades into the next and settings overlap, from the Johnson's kitchen to the pay phones her family use to call home from the road. Although the scale of the show is small, I look forward to seeing even more modest productions when the rights become available to smaller companies (Theater Latte Da, perhaps?). The only extravagance necessary for this story is an excellent group of singers and musicians to do justice to the magnificent score. This production has those qualities in abundance, and should not be missed.

Francesca and Robert against the Iowa sky. Photo: Matthew Murphy.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Le Switch by Philip Dawkins at the Jungle Theater

If you are looking for the perfect play to celebrate Pride, to follow Two Boys Kissing, or even to see where the anger from The Normal Heart finally got the GLBTQIA community - Le Switch at the Jungle Theater is the one. In fact, in my view, Le Switch may be a perfect play. I know that is a LOT of pressure to put on a play, and on a review, but here are my thoughts.

The plot is fairly simple. David (played by Kasey Mahaffy) is commitment-shy, and not sure what he makes of marriage equality. He falls back into the comfort of his home of unopened, antique books and his deep friendship with his roommate. Frank (played by Patrick Bailey) is a father-figure, activist, and grieving the loss of his longtime companion. David's best friend Zachary (Michael Wieser) is getting married, and is holding the bachelor party in Montreal. When David gets to Montreal, he is swept off his feet by a gorgeous, young florist Benoît (Michael Hanna). In the months that follow, David and his non-traditional family, including his sister Sarah (Emily Gunyou Halaas), have to figure out what commitment and marriage really mean to them, while also realizing what it means to be queer.

David is a librarian who is focused on classification, and cataloging. He likes things being where they should be. He knows who he is as a queer man of a certain age, and what he believes about marriage. At the same time, he collects books and leaves them unopened because then there is a mystery about them, they could be anything and he can believe them to be anything. There is a fantastical aspect of David. I think the cross-cultural romance helped bring this out even more. After all, when we travel aren't we usually able to be more ourselves? Free from the roles we have imposed on ourselves back at home?

Michael Hanna & Kasey Mahaffy
Photo by Dan Norman
The script, written by Philip Dawkins, is fast-paced, funny, smart, honest, timely and real in so many ways. He knows how to tell a story that affects multiple generations to a multi-generational audience. The question of marriage equality has many responses from the personal to the political. There are some in an older generation who are against marriage equality because it is a heternormative institution that "queers" should never want to follow. They pride themselves on being and staying different. There are others who fully accept and want equality because they are finally allowed something they never thought they would be allowed. This script shows all of these sides while never sounding preachy, yet keeping it honest and real. Along with that there is the question of what does it mean to be queer? If you have been feeling different all your life but suddenly you are no longer different...how do you deal with that? (there is a perfect line for this that I wrote down...but might have had the cap on my pen...darn.)

David goes on a journey, not only to Montreal, but to a different person. In the same way, the set (by the always amazing Kate Sutton-Johnson) goes on a journey as well. It starts very realistic but suddenly walls are rotating during transitions, jutting out for new locations, furniture sliding on and off stage - all with great lighting by Barry Browning, perfect sound design by Sean Healey, and fantastic projections by Daniel Benoit. What starts as one thing, ends as another. David starts as one thing and with a great magical realistic ending...well...go see for yourself.

I may say this too much but I can't think of a better cast. Emily Gunyou Halaas (looking like a young Patti LuPone) plays David's twin sister Sarah practically perfectly. There is a comfort between she and Kasey Mahaffy in their conversations and interactions onstage. Kasey is...well my initial notes say 'I can't even" so that says something. He is funny, moving, honest to the character, truthful and open. David's best friend Zachary is played by the extraordinary Michael Wieser. He is funny, stunning, sassy, and though his character may be on the outrageous side, he is solidly grounded and so clearly loves David. Patrick Bailey as Frank is also grounded and grounding. He seems to be a touchstone for David, someone who has been there for a long time and has helped David grow into the person he is. Bailey is wonderful and funny. Bringing magic to the stage is Michael Hanna as Benoît--brilliant in English and French--challenging David and yet remaining totally true to his character. Hanna and the rest of the cast are perfect really. Part of the perfection is the direction by Jeremy B Cohen. He kept the show moving, consistently real and truthful, finding time and place for humor and emotion helping make it a perfect production.

Le Switch plays at the Jungle Theater through July 31. Go see what I consider to be a perfect play in a fantastic production.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

tot: THE UNTOLD, YET SPECTACULAR STORY OF (a filipino) HULK HOGAN - Mu Performing Arts at Boss Thrust Stage / Park Square

Photo: Keri Pickett
Wow - what a long title! Mu Performing Arts is celebrating the 50th World Premiere with this work, as well as helping to celebrate 50 years of Asian American Theater.  In 1965 the East West Players was founded in Los Angeles. It started as a place where Asian American actors could explore parts outside of the stereotypes that were prevalent in the 1960's Hollywood. This theater company ended up becoming a major player in Asian American Theater along with Seattle's Theatrical Ensemble of Asians, San Francisco's Asian American Theatre Company, and Pan Asian Repertory Theatre in New York City. Mu Performing Arts has continued the work that these four companies has started.

tot: THE UNTOLD, YET SPECTACULAR STORY OF (a filipino) HULK HOGAN is the latest of 50 World Premieres that Mu Performing Arts has produced, as well as being the final production of this season. It is the first full-length play by Victor Maog, and is directed by Artistic Director Randy Reyes. It tells the story of a young boy who travels from the Marcos-era Philippines to the San Francisco Bay Area to meet his long lost parents. He travels from a country full of strife and military rule only to find himself in America, lonely, hiding in his bedroom and conjuring a pro wrestling fantasy to escape his new life.

Photo: Keri Pickett
The work sounds fascinating on paper, and was interesting to watch on stage. The raised stage is set as a Wrestling Arena, with a single rope surrounding all four sides, audience on all four sides, and a sunken space in the middle of the stage. Lights are set under the two steps leading up to the top level. The action starts with tot (Randy Reyes) talking to his lola - grandmother (Mary Ann Prado) about wanting to see his parents, while at the same time not wanting to leave his home and all his friends. Quite a bit of the dialogue during this time is in a patois mix of English, Spanish, and Tagalog (I think - there is no information, nor translation provided). He asks at this time, and often through out the show, why his parents left him in the Philippines, and why he has to go to America. When he arrives in America, he finds that his parents Hope Nordquist, and Eric "Pogi" Sumangil) are not as he had expected or hoped. He also has to contend with a new sister (Stephanie Bertumen - Reyes's actual sister). The parents disagree often, and seem to have little regard for the bullying that tot deals with at school and in the neighborhood. tot falls in to his imagination and creates a pro wrestling fantasy to help him escape his troubles. These fantasies are filled with Mother Superior (Prado), The Dame (Nordquist), The American Dream (Bertumen), The Announcer (Sumangil), and the hero - The Orbiter (Torsten Johnson). Michelle De Joya and Kyle Legacion fill out the rest of the cast playing the chorus, as well as two "ring announcers" who carry signs around the ring telling the audience where the scene is set and/or what it is about.

Photo: Keri Pickett
The cast, and the performances are solid and good. All the various characters are singular and distinct. It is interesting to watch the various relationships and see how they play out. The difficulties I had were mainly with the script. When the wrestling aspects began it was not clear that these were fantasies, or something that the father in America was working on as he also played the announcer. I also didn't see the character of tot changing or growing during the show until the resolution at the end when they show him as a grown-up. The character, as I saw it, remained as a child - petulant, self-absorbed, and not worrying about who he may hurt when he fights with his sister, or wrestles with her. Towards the end of the work there is an extended scene of domestic abuse that I found very troublesome to watch - to the point where I turned away. So, let this be a trigger warning to some of you. The director's notes state that tot explores "immigration, imagination, domestic violence, the American dream, bullying, and misogyny, all through the theatrically violent professional wrestling world." I felt that the showed all these things but didn't go much deeper. Though thinking back I could see where some of the "wrestling" moments could be understood as a metaphor for what tot was going through - but it wasn't clear to me.

I think work like this is important. All of our stories should be told and shared on the stage. I love that Mu Performing Arts is here in the Twin Cities providing a different perspective, while also being a big part of our community here. While I may not have liked this show, I still am looking forward to seeing more of their work.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Two Boys Kissing at Twin Cities Gay Men's Chorus

I can't imagine a better way to celebrate the LGBTQ community and Pride than seeing Twin Cities Gay Men's Chorus's (TCGMC) World Premiere of Two Boys Kissing

Composed by Joshua Shank and based on the book by David Levithan, Two Boys Kissing follows the stories of Harry and Craig, two gay teenagers who decide to break the world record for the longest kiss; Avery and Ryan, two teens falling in love; and the story of Cooper, who lives his life online until his secrets are discovered by his parents. 

And here's the part that is so very touching: These stories of family, and first love, and bravery, and pain are all watched over and commented on by a Greek Chorus of gay men who have died of AIDS. Men who were taken from this world too early, who are observing how much has changed--and how much has not.

Act One of this concert (running only this weekend: June 17-19 at Ted Mann Concert Hall) starts with a selection of various musical numbers. The show starts beautifully. The curtain opens to reveal the entire TCGMC holding candles and singing a beautiful song by Joseph M. Martin called "The Awakening." As the song progresses, the lights slowly come up to reveal the faces of the chorus. It's gorgeous and moving.

The first act features "The Body" by the TCGMC Chamber Singers, commissioned in honor of their 35th Anniversary Season (with poetry by Joyce Sutphen). OutLoud performs a few numbers (a gorgeous "It's a Grand Night for Singing", and "Embraceable You"), as well as a few lovely numbers by the full chorus. The act ends with "Boys and Girls Like You and Me" and I'll let my musical theater nerd/historian sister tell you about that.

Jules here! I thought "Boys and Girls Like You and Me" was an offbeat choice of song. It's a Rodgers and Hammerstein number that isn't that well known. The concert program (and the R&H website) lists it as being from State Fair, but it was originally written for Oklahoma! but cut before the show opened. It has been included in some of the stage versions of Cinderella, and in the stage version of State Fair that opened on Broadway in 1996. When I went to look this up, I found that the song had been recorded by Judy Garland for Meet Me in St. Louis, and by Frank Sinatra and Betty Garrett for Take Me Out to the Ball Game, though it was cut from both those movies. So this is a song that has never really found a home. But hearing it sung by the chorus made it a touching anthem for love of all kinds:
Boys and girls like you and me
Walk beneath the skies
They love just as we love
With the same dream in their eyes.
Act Two is Two Boys Kissing.  If you've not read the novel by David Levithan, please do so. I'll wait while you request it from your local library, or order it from a reputable local independent bookseller (such as the adorable Addendum Books in St. Paul).

The moment the Prologue began, my eyes filled with tears and the tears did not abate through the entire performance. Narrators tell the stories of the teens, as well as the thoughts of the chorus watching over them, interspersed with gorgeous choral numbers by the entire chorus. So beautiful, so emotional.

A bit from the book that touched me deeply in both the book and performance: 
"If you are a teenager now, it is unlikely that you knew us well. We are your shadow uncles, your angel godfathers, your mother's or your grandmother's best friend from college, the author of that book you found in the gay section of the library. We are characters in a Tony Kushner play, or names on a quilt that rarely gets taken out anymore. We are the ghosts of the remaining older generation. You know some of our songs. We do not want to haunt you too somberly. We don't want our legacy to be gravitas. You wouldn't want to live your life like that, and you won't want to be remembered like that, either. Your mistake would be to find our commonality in our dying. The living part mattered more. We taught you how to dance."
A few months ago, New Epic Theater presented Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart (in repertory with Coriolanus--both were amazing). Two Boys Kissing feels like such a natural (and lovely) follow-up to The Normal Heart--and David Levithan cites it as one of his influences. Check out his website for more of his influences in writing this book. I'd add, as I always do: the Tales of the City series by Armistead Maupin, a delicious series of novels which follows a group of gay and straight friends in San Francisco from the 1970s to the present.

If you're not convinced yet that you need to see this show (or at least buy the cd online from TCGMC), here's one more bit from the book that I loved:
"One of the many horrible things about dying the way we died was the way it robbed us of the outdoor world and trapped us in the indoor world. For every one of us who was able to die peacefully on a deck chair, blanket pulled high, as the wind stirred his hair and the sun warmed his face, there were hundreds of us whose last glimpse of the world was white walls and metal machinery, the tease of a window, the inadequate flowers in a vase, elected representatives from the wilds we had lost. our last breaths were of climate-controlled air. We died under ceilings. 'Either that wallpaper goes, or I do.' It makes us more grateful now for rivers, more grateful for sky."
Two Boys Kissing is for anyone who believes in the power of song to convey the most intense emotions, for anyone who's fallen in love, for anyone who's been hurt by love, for anyone who has lost a loved one, and for anyone who still believes in love and still believes in hope.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Broadway Songbook: Kander & Ebb & All That Jazz at Ordway

If you are looking for a delightful evening of song and dance, you better hurry and get tickets to the Broadway Songbook: Kander & Ebb & All That Jazz.

This is a musical revue of, you guessed it, Kander & Ebb songs. Now, who are Kander & Ebb? John Kander and Fred Ebb were the composer and lyricist (respectively) of many shows from the 1960s through 2015. They are mainly known for the shows Cabaret and Chicago -- though they also wrote the song "New York, New York." They were (Ebb died in 2004) the only writing team that worked together for as long as they did. Most of the other writing teams worked with other people: Rodgers and Hart became Rodgers and Hammerstein, and Rodgers even wrote a musical with Sondheim. Kander & Ebb were always Kander & Ebb - so much so that they both felt that they were one word "kanderandebb."

This revue, playing at the Ordway, is a charming and delightful evening of song and dance...even though the lyrics can be a bit dark. Put together by Jeffrey P. Scott and James A. Rocco, the show is hosted by Rocco. He tells a lot about the songwriting team, their history, the shows, and is a perfect host throughout. Rocco also joins the rest of the cast for a few numbers and has two solos including a very nice "New York, New York." This is one of the very small problems with the work of Kander & Ebb: the songs that everyone knows and loves are so connected to certain people. For example, the minute you read "New York, New York" you probably started hearing the voice of Frank Sinatra. When you read the word Cabaret, you may have heard Liza Minnelli, which is fitting because she has often stated that she would not be who she is without Kander & Ebb.

Rocco and Scott arranged the order of the songs so that there is a great flow from unknown songs to big hits. Both acts start with relatively unknown numbers and end with a smash. The cast of seven (which includes Rocco) handled every song perfectly. Lisa Bartholomew-Given (who also choreographed), John Brink, Reid Harmsen, Caroline Innerbichler, Zoe Pappas and Thomasina Petrus created a great ensemble cast - working hard to get the voices of Liza, Frank, Chita, and Gwen out of your heads, while offering new interpretations of some of my favorite songs.

Petrus and Pappas were fantastic in the numerous songs they did solo, or with others. Bartholomew-Given and Innerbichler were great in the Chicago medley that closes Act One - singing and dancing their hearts out. Bartholomew-Given and Harmsen did a fantastic duet of "Money (Makes The World Go Round)" toward the top of Act Two - dancing and singing so hard I was afraid of a wardrobe malfunction.

Act Two also gave us a mini-version of the show Curtains which is a great, yet little-known show. Maybe the Ordway is looking to do a production? Clearly Rocco loves the material. John Brink has a fantastic voice that really carried his two solos - "Sometimes A Day Goes By" and the final number "The Day After That." The Broadway Songbook series are usually held in the smaller space, making it more intimate and informal. This production is in the main theater and yet there is so much amazing talent on stage that the hall was filled with energy, yet also retained an intimate feel.

It plays tonight and tomorrow - and I think you should go check it out. Especially if you have never been to a Broadway Songbook show - this is a good one to start with! Now at the Ordway till June 12th - three shows left.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

The Ballad of the Pale Fisherman - Transatlantic Love Affair

Transatlantic Love Affair brings an enchanting fable to life (again) at the Southern Theater through June 17. The Ballad of the Pale Fisherman first appeared in the 2010 Fringe Festival, and the company expanded the piece for Illusion Theater's Lights Up! festival in 2011. At that point, I had not yet seen and fallen in love with this group's work, so I was thrilled that they brought it back and I could actually see it.

The story is based on Scottish and Irish legends of the selkies, who live in the sea as seals, but can shed their skins and assume human form on land. But the call of the sea is strong, even when the selkie finds love on dry land. In a fishing village on a remote island, tales of the creatures abound, and a fisherman casting his net might pull in more than he bargained for.

If you have not seen a Transatlantic Love Affair show, this is a lovely introduction to their work. On a bare stage, seven ensemble members create the whole world of the show, from the fishermen at work, to the women mending nets, to the harbor bell and the sea itself, with just their bodies, voices, and faces. Our collective imagination fills in the details, which is something exciting to experience, though a little hard to describe.

As always, the ensemble is superb under the direction of Isabel Nelson. Diogo Lopes portrays a young boy who grows to be a fisherman, following in his family's footsteps. Emily King is wonderful both as the slightly ethereal young woman and as the sea creature. Heather Bunch and Adelin Phelps are comic and tragic as the elders of the village who have seen a lot in their time. As both an old fisherman with a story of his own and a young one eager to leave the island, Alex Hathaway is alternately wistful and brash.

Allison Witham, always one of our favorites to watch, has amazing physicality as an old woman, a bartender, and even a seal. But all of the ensemble play many roles; human, creature, and objects we think of as inanimate. Derek Lee Miller provides an original accordion score and serves as the narrator, who knows the story all too well. Anna Reichert's costumes are a backdrop for the many roles of the players. The only non-human effect on stage is the gorgeously evocative lighting from Mike Wangen, the Twin Cities' theater lighting MVP.

Transatlantic Love Affair is absolutely one of our favorite theater companies in the Twin Cities, and The Ballad of the Pale Fisherman is an enchanting fable beautifully brought to life in the company's distinctive and arresting style.

BTW: If you want to dive into the world of selkie stories on film, there's a great list here, which includes The Secret of Roan Inish, the 1994 John Sayles film which introduced me to this fascinating legend.

Monday, June 6, 2016

The Knight of the Burning Pestle - Theatre Pro Rata at Dreamland Arts

The Knight of the Burning Pestle - sounds crazy, no? To be honest, it was a bit crazy, and clever, and funny - oh so funny. Written by Francis Beaumont in 1607, yes, you read that correctly - 1607, this play is known to be one of the first English Parody's - mainly making fun of Elizabethan theater. According to the vast knowledge on the interwebs (and yes, I am talking about wikipedia), the play satirizes chivalric romances, and parodies two other plays from that period: The Four Prentices of London (written by Thomas Heywood in 1592) and The Shoemaker's Holiday (written by Thomas Dekker in 1599).
Rachel Flynn, George Dornbach, Ben Tallen.
Photo by Charles Gorrill

I was a bit concerned thinking that the language and story would be hard to follow. After all, Shakespeare can be tough with some of his language play so I imagined that a parody of Shakespeare could be more tough. Wow - I was so wrong. The show starts with the cast of 'The London Merchant" coming on stage, walking around, warming up, making sure everything is in place. This takes place as the audience is coming in as well...or as most of the audience is seated. David Schlosser, Grant Henderson, Julie Ann Nevill, Andrew Troth, and Becca Hart take this time to do what they need to while in full view of the audience. Becca Hart (playing the Musician and Apprentice - but NOT a boy) really makes the most of it. She is on the floor picking up bits of dust, cleaning the legs of chairs, etc. It seems that they are all waiting for all the audience to get seated. When this happens, Becca blows a horn and the Prologue begins....at which point three more characters enter. George (a citizen played by Ben Tallen), Neil (his wife played by Rachel Flynn), and Rafe (their apprentice played by George Dornbach) all enter late and disrupt the prologue. George pulls out a bag of money, tells Prologue (David Schlosser) that he wants his apprentice Rafe to be on stage in a heroic role, gives him money and tells him to make it happen.

The remainder of the show is a very funny clash of needs. The cast of "The London Merchant" just want to perform the play they have been asked to perform and be done with it. Yet at every step, every scene - George and his wife either interrupt, or make demands to see Rafe do a certain bit. This combustion of desires plays out so well on the stage of Dreamland Arts. The casting is perfect, as is the direction. Every humorous moment is played seriously (which makes it more funny), and yet never milked for laughs. The frustration of the "London Merchant" cast slowly becomes more evident as George and Neil keep making demands and portraying truly bad audience behavior (but nothing you haven't seen in the current theater scene). Though the show was written in 1607, there is still plenty for a current audience to get out of seeing it. Theater and art have truly not changed as much as we may think it has - often time art is at the beck and call of those who fund it.

Ben Tallen and Rachel Flynn as George and Neil are fantastic. George Dornbach as Rafe...well, perfect...boyish and charming, has great skill with vocabulary, and really knows how to work his hair. The cast of "The London Merchant" is also...perfection. David Schlosser in all three roles (Prologue, Venturewell, and Michael) is great. His playing Michael is note-perfect, and a bit Oedipal. The chemistry that he and Grant Henderson (as the dashing and handsome Jasper) have shows that this acting troupe performing "The London Merchant" have been working together for a while. There is love there but also a bit of friction that is played so well. Julie Ann Nevill (as Lucy and Mistress Merrythought) is everything you could want for this role. Playing each character so differently, yet maintaining the classic Elizabethan acting style (as did the rest of the "LM" cast), and giving such great reaction faces...and singing! I have seen Julie Ann in a few things but was not aware of her charming singing voice. And speaking of singing - Andrew Troth (plays Humphrey and Master Merrythought) is also very funny. All of Master Merrythought's lines are sung and Andrew makes the most of them - playing to the audience of George and Neil, taking their demands in stride...so good. Finally Becca Hart is incredible. She plays the Apprentice so downtrodden - looking down, cowering almost, knees turned in; and yet the minute the Apprentice steps on stage in a character part - she is a different person. And such skill playing a variety of small instruments. So many moments that she made me laugh just by a small gesture, or look.

Honestly, a very funny, timely and smart comedy. This is one you may not ever see again so take the chance now. It plays at Dreamland Arts through June 19th. It is a small house so get your tickets early. And if that doesn't convince you - 90 min, no intermission. Our favorite.