Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Bars and Measures at the Jungle Theater

Bars and Measures is a brand new play that opened last week at the Jungle Theater as part of a National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere.

Playwright Idris Goodwin was inspired by a New York Times profile by Corey Kilgannon about brothers who connect through music.

In the play, Eric (Darius Dotch) visits his brother Bilal (Ansa Akyea), in prison awaiting trial. Bilal, who was known as Darryl before his conversion to Islam, is a jazz bassist. Eric is a classical pianist, but the language they both speak is music. And what music! With original music composed for this production by Justin Ellington, the brothers scat through jazz melodies as Bilal teaches Eric his own compositions. Dotch and Akyea have wonderful chemistry as the brothers, trading riffs and arguing over Eric's mastery of jazz. Through their visits and the trial, we learn about the alleged crime, and see Eric's support of his brother waver in the face of the evidence presented.

Taous Claire Khazem, Darius Dotch.
Photo by Dan Norman.
Bilal is given the chance to make a statement in court, and Akyea shows us the conflicting and conflicted sides of his character, making him a relatable person in spite of his circumstances. Dotch has a few stirring moments himself, whether speaking to others about his brother, or addressing the audience at a benefit performance. Two actors play the rest of the roles in this intimate piece. Taous Claire Khazem portrays a singer who works with Eric (as his brother asks, "works with, or works with?"), Bilal's lawyer, and others. Maxwell Collyard plays a number of corrections and law officers, a prosecutor, and others.

The small cast size keeps the focus on the brothers, who create a realistically loving and antagonistic sibling relationship under Marion McClinton's assured direction. The action moves smoothly from Eric's upscale home to Bilal's cell on Andrea Heilman's compact, stark set, accented by Michael Wangen's always-stellar lighting. Trevor Bowen's costumes help to define the characters, particularly in the contrast between Bilal's prison wear and Eric's wonderfully tailored and coordinated outfit.

Perhaps the most impressive scene is the courtroom, which has Eric looking on as the prosecutor and Bilal's lawyer unleash an overlapping barrage of questions and objections and Bilal tries to answer. The effect is like a particularly aggressive jazz improvisation, rather harsh to watch given the content and circumstances, but beautifully staged and performed.

Darius Dotch, Ansa Akyea, Maxwell Collyard.
Photo by Dan Norman.
Bars and Measures is a fascinating play that introduces us to complex, layered characters navigating a complicated relationship. In 80 minutes with no intermission, it raises a number of questions and doesn't offer easy answers.

After the show, "Stay Late" for an open-ended post-show discussion, which the Jungle is presenting after every performance. Particularly for this show, we found hearing the questions and opinions of others helped us to process our own thoughts about this dense piece.

If you want to delve deeper into the subject, there is a reading list, at #junglereads. And for this show, there's also a list of music suggested by the production's composer.

The National New Play Network rolling premiere of this new work means that the show is being produced in several cities this year, each in a different theater with a different cast and director, and even, for this show, different composers. It's fascinating to contemplate how different directors may interpret this work, and we are very fortunate to have the opportunity to experience this wonderful production.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Passing Through Pig's Eye - Flying Foot Forum at Park Square

Photos by Rick Spaulding
Joe Chvala and the Flying Foot Forum present Passing Through Pig's Eye:  It's a mouthful, and not easy to describe.

But here are a few words that come to mind: Enthralling, jaw-dropping, intense, athletic, funny, and engaging.

Oh, and must-see. Here's what the website says:
Joe Chvala and the Flying Foot Forum present a characteristically bold new production throughout downtown Saint Paul inspired by the city’s past. Part enchanting history tour, part splashy dance party, Passing Through Pig’s Eye is a roving romp of wildly entertaining and eclectic dance, music and comedy.
The website description isn't inaccurate, but words are inadequate to encapsulate the experience.

Upon arrival in the lobby at Park Square's Andy Boss stage, guests are asked to choose a path for the evening, by choosing groups named for gangsters famed for spending time (between crimes) in Saint Paul. You can be a part of the Alvin "Creepy" Karpis gang (as we were) or Ma Barker's gang. Much of the evening includes the whole audience, but there are a few times when the groups are separated.

Throughout the evening, we learn pieces of Saint Paul's history, from its original namesake, Pierre "Pigs Eye" Parrant, through the gangster years, and even into the future. But the history lessons are decidedly overshadowed by the amazing dancing. Chvala and his talented company of dancers and musicians showcase percussive dance in a tremendous variety of forms and styles, ranging from traditional Broadway-style tapping to full-body contact. I don't really know the vocabulary to describe it, but it's amazing to watch. Along the way, we also learn that the rhythms the dancers create with are not so mysterious, but something we all can connect to. (Yes, that means audience participation, but it's very gentle.)

From the theater, the performance moves to different spaces and out to the streets of Saint Paul. The website suggests dressing comfortably and traveling light. There is some walking, and some standing, but there are elevators and chairs available for those who need them. And if audience participation is not your thing, know that, aside from the occasional stroll, any participation is strictly voluntary on your part. And if audience participation is your thing? You will love it.

Just some of the terrific cast of Passing Through Pig's Eye
Michelle Lemon, Joe Chvala, Molly Kay Stoltz, 
Ayana Dubose, Karla Grotting, Rush Benson. (Photo: Rick Spaulding)
This dance evening is extremely approachable, even for a dance novice like me, and the cast are engaging. I particularly enjoyed several pieces performed by Rush Benson and Brian J Evans, who displayed amazing athleticism and remarkable teamwork as well as wonderful acting and comic timing in their duets.

The audience is encouraged to return and see the show again on the alternate track. Twenty minutes in, I knew I already wanted to see it again. How can you be unhappy watching tap dancing? This show certainly kept me grinning for the full 2 1/2 hours (which flew by).

Passing Through Pig's Eye runs through September 11 at Park Square Theatre, Wednesday through Sunday with post-show discussions following the Friday evening performances and ASL interpretation for the Saturday, September 10 performance. Tickets are limited to keep tour group sizes reasonable, so do reserve in advance. Several people were turned away on opening night because the show was sold-out, so get your tickets while they last!

For a sampling of what you'll see at the show, check out this video from Three Minute Egg:

Joe Chvala convenes his Flying Foot Forum through a Pig's Eye tap dance from 3-Minute Egg on Vimeo.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Chess - Second Fiddle Productions

All photos from the London Playbill
One of the things I love most about these Twin Cities is having so many options when it comes to theater. Yes, we have all of the great community theater, along with theater companies, comedy troupes, puppets, children's theater, touring shows....and then the ones that few people know about. The Playwrights Center (which hosts new work, works in progress, etc), and Second Fiddle Productions.

Second Fiddle Productions, according to the message from Ruthie Baker (Artistic Director & Founder), was created to breathe life into uncommon and rarely produced musicals. It also strives to give artists a chance to collaborate with fellow artists, go after dream roles and have input on show selection (adapted from the back of the program.) These productions are done at Camp Bar in downtown St. Paul. There is a stage, chairs, music stands, microphones and a small band - which is really all you need for a staged reading. Drinks are available through out the show, and the space is intimate and perfect.

The latest reading they had was of the 1984 pop-musical Chess. From the notes written by the dramaturg Gina (from The Room Where It Happens), the show was first conceived by Tim Rice in 1979. He wanted to do a musical about the Cuban Missile Crisis and approached Andrew Lloyd Webber. Webber was working on Cats and suggested Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus of ABBA fame. They started working on it in 1983 and released a concept album in 1984. That was when the world first heard (and made a hit out of) "One Night in Bangkok" as well as a few other songs. In 1985 Michael Bennett started working on a production in London. Due to his failing health it was taken over by Trevor Nunn and opened in 1986. I had the great pleasure of seeing it on Jan 24th, 1989. Looking back there were clearly moments of Bennett genius that stuck with the show, and in my memory - it was a great show! I also had the pleasure of seeing and hearing Anthony Head (Giles from Buffy, the Vampire Slayer) sing the role of Freddy Trumper, the American. Of course, I didn't know him at the time but it was a great voice!

After the Cold War ended, but while the London production was still playing, Trevor Nunn decided to revise the show for Broadway. They added some new music, some backstory and sent it out into the world...which did not care for it at all. However it did have some great performers - Judy Kuhn, David Carroll, Richard Muenz, and Jessica Molaskey were all involved. This production was revised again before it was sent on tour in 1990. I also saw this production and while I enjoyed the music, it was not a good production...despite great performers like Carolee Carmello, Gregory Jbara, and Barbara Walsh.

Since then it has been reworked a bit more. While it may not be known well in the US, they still love it in Europe. There was a 1994 Concert recording, there was a Danish tour in 2001, a Swedish production (which I believe is also available on DVD and is quite good) in 2002, then the revised performance here in the States. It was a one-night Actors Fund benefit concert performance that eventually in 2008 became the concert version from the Royal Albert Hall - with Josh Groban, Adam Pascal, and Idina Menzel. Since then it has had another tour in Denmark, as well as Hungary.

The cast from the Second Fiddle reading included so much amazing local talent - Ruthie Baker sang the role of Florence, while Ben Bakken killed it in the role of Freddie Trumper (what an amazing voice). Singing across from Ben was John Brink (as Anatoly) and Zoe Pappas as his wife (both previously seen at the Ordway in the Kander & Ebb Songbook). Jim Ramlet sang Molokov with a very lovely bass voice that just rang through the room. The remainder of the cast was top-notch and very comfortable with a very wordy and difficult score. It is even more proof that Second Fiddle knows exactly what it is doing and how to do it so well - even with a very limited rehearsal period. It was a joy hearing this wonderful music again, and the performances were just incredible. I will continue to attend their shows and support them in any way I can. By the way, if you still want more info about Chess, this may be the book for you.

Monday, August 22, 2016

The Church Basement Ladies in Rise Up, O Men at Plymouth Playhouse

Oh, cripes! Have you been down to Plymouth see the Church Basement Ladies? Let me tell ya, it's real fun and it's real, real cute. Oh, those gals are funny!

L-R: Dorian Chalmers, Jeff March, Peter Colburn,
Greta Grosch, Tim Drake, and Janet Paone. Photo by Paul Nixdorf. 
And this time around, it's not just the gals ... there's men, too.

The Church Basement Ladies in Rise Up, O Men just opened at the Plymouth Playhouse this weekend. What's it about besides churches and basements? I'll let the Playhouse tell you:
"A Lutheran take on the classical 'hero' journey, Rise Up, O Men is the story of men (and women) who become larger than themselves; it's the story of a group of farmers and John Deere dealers, and church basement ladies, who rise up to the requirement of heroism in order to help their community and its future."
But as with all of the Church Basement Ladies shows, it's more about the delightful, gentle humor poking fun at Midwestern quirks and institutions. In fact, the the Church Basement Ladies themselves are practically a Minnesota institution.

The stories in the basement all began in 2005, when Curt Wollan commissioned Jim Stowell and Jessica Zuehlke to adapt the book Growing Up Lutheran (by Janice Letnes Martin and Suzanne Nelson) into a play with music and lyrics by Drew Jansen.

Rise Up, O Men is the sixth of the Church Basement Ladies shows. Written by Greta Grosch, with music and lyrics by Dennis Curley (who I remember fondly from Theater Latte Da's Beautiful Thing), it features additional material by Graydon Royce. You know, Graydon Royce, our retiring local theater critic. Intriguing!

The show is set in 1964, and features the original Church Basement Ladies: Greta Grosch as Mavis Gilmerson, Janet Paone as Vivian, aka "the widow Snustad", and Dorian Chalmers as Karin Engelson. I'd be perfectly happy to spend a nice long funeral lunch in the kitchen with these ladies--they are hilarious, and they do sing so beautifully.

Greta Grosch plays Mavis with vigor as a stalwart and cheerful soul who doesn't mind rolling up her sleeves and putting on a tool belt. One could imagine Dorian Chalmers' Karin as the pretty, popular girl who never really left that persona behind. And Janet Paone is an absolute delight to watch. Vivian is the queen bee of the church kitchen, and she knows her power. But she wields her power as often to tease as to scold, and her sly smile lets us know she is enjoying the company her friends provide. Paone is also a singer with serious chops, and to hear her glorious soprano ringing through the basement is an unexpected joy.

But wait, there's more: Jeff March plays husband of Karen, Elroy Engelson, Tim Drake plays Pastor, and Peter Colborn plays handyman Carl. The guys also play other roles, but it feels a bit spoilery to tell you which ones. March has a lovely voice, and a wonderful gravity, and Drake plays the slightly neurotic Pastor to perfection. As for Peter Colborn, he plays two roles so differently that I was actually thinking there was an actor in the program that I missed; that there couldn't be an another actor his exact height. It sounds daffy, but it's true and amazing.

The songs are at times cute and funny, and at times really moving, such as the standout tune: "And Now These Three" which features the three Ladies singing together so beautifully that you don't want them to stop.

Oh, and the set was wonderful--very familiar to anyone who's spent any time in a church kitchen. The set was perfectly period-appropriate, although we heard that an audience member had found something on the stage that was from 1965, not 1964.Try as we might, we could not track it down. The costumes were also great--why did housedresses ever go out of style? They look very comfortable. Plus, aprons. More aprons, I say!

The Plymouth Playhouse hosted the Twin Cities Theater Bloggers on August 19th, which included our friends from local theater blogs Artfully Engaging, Play Off the Page, and Compendium.

After the show, there was a delightful post-show discussion, and the charming Dennis Curley warmed up the crowd.

Photo by MN Theater Love
It was a little surprising to see the actors come out on stage. I kept thinking, but where is the cast? Who are these attractive, modern-looking people? Not an apron or collar in sight!

Photo by MN Theater Love
The post-play discussion itself was very interesting, with lots of fascinating points about what it's like to return to these characters, and the process of putting together a brand-new show.  Lots of engaged and enthusiastic audience members, and Dennis Curley and Greta Grosch moderated the discussion beautifully and kept things moving.

Thanks much to the Plymouth Playhouse for hosting us! We had a lovely time! I'm a little surprised we weren't sent home with some leftover bars, but we didn't want to be any bother. Wink!

Read more about this fun event at Artfully Engaging, Play Off the Page and Compendium!

Rise Up, O Men plays through November 13 at the Plymouth Playhouse and will return after the holidays. From November 16-December 31, the Christmas-themed Church Basement Ladies show, Away in the Basement, takes over the stage.

(co-written by Jules and Carly)

Friday, August 12, 2016

Paint Your Wagon at the Ordway

 For a perfectly delightful summer night at the theater, go see Paint Your Wagon, the new Lerner and Loewe musical that opened Thursday night at the Ordway (playing through August 21).

Wait, what? Paint Your Wagon is a new musical? But wasn't it a movie where Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood sang? And a hilarious musical joke on The Simpsons? Yes to all of the above.

Paint Your Wagon was the 1951 Broadway follow-up for Alan Jay Lerner (book and lyrics) and Frederick Loewe (music), whose Brigadoon was a hit four years earlier. The show had book trouble from the start, and when it was made into the 1969 film, the story was thrown out and a new plot accompanied the songs, which were always the strength of the show.

The show has never been revived on Broadway, and doesn't get a lot of productions, due in part to the lack of a compelling storyline. The Ordway has partnered with Seattle's Fifth Avenue Theatre to commission a new book by Jon Marans, the Pulitzer-nominated author of Old Wicked Songs. The production was first performed at Fifth Avenue and now comes to the Ordway as the first show in the 2016-2017 season. 

Grim times in No Name City.
(Production photos by Tracy Martin.)
Despite being a huge fan of musical theater, I didn't know much about the previous iterations. What's wonderfully refreshing about the new book is that it 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.

In 1849, gold is discovered in California, and settlers converge on a desolate place that they call No Name City. The travelers include Jake Rutland, a businessman accompanied by his slave, Wesley. When they cross paths with free black man H. Ford, Wesley starts to see a different future for himself. William has come from Ireland to make his fortune and return to his wife back home. As more men come to No Name City, Jake opens a saloon. Even on the frontier, where cooperation means survival, Jake segregates his clientele, who also include prospectors from China. But it's clear that not everyone agrees with his strictures, and much of the push and pull of the story involves these disparate people learning to live together and accept each other - or not. 

Armando (Justin Gregory Lopez) and a nicely cleaned up
Ben Rumson (Robert Cuccioli)
Of course, it's a musical, so there is also romance. Grizzled trapper Ben Rumson comes to the aid of Armando, whose Mexican family and their land were lost to the influx of white settlers. They arrive at the same time as a Mormon swindler with his two wives, one of whom is purchased by Ben to keep her out of Jake's hands. The town is livened up later by the arrival of some showgirls and Ben's daughter. As time passes, the town's fortunes rise and fall, some people learn to get along, others allow fear to turn to hatred, and everyone has to deal with the vagaries of the gold supply and the weather. 

It's a compelling chronicle of a fascinating time, but of course is held together by the music. "They Call the Wind Maria" and "Wand'rin' Star" are the most familiar tunes, but all of the songs, newly arranged for this production by Ian Eisendrath, are effective and catchy expressions of the time and place. 

Girls! Gold! Wigs!
Lerner and Loewe had a gift for writing to their setting, whether the Scottish Highlands in Brigadoon or the court of King Arthur in Camelot, and once again, the songs here are particularly appropriate to the tine and place as well as the characters. The energetic "I'm On My Way" and "Whoop-Ti-Ay!" show off the talented ensemble, while "Wand'rin' Star" and "Cariño Mio" are examples of songs that fit the characters perfectly. The fourteen-piece orchestra provides beautiful accompaniment for the gorgeous singing. A simple set perfectly sets off the wild, energetic choreography.This show has some serious fluid and powerful movement. And not a moving staircase to be found!

Robert Cuccioli, whose many Broadway credits include originating the title role(s) in Jekyll and Hyde, has a wonderful larger-than-life presence as Ben. From his introduction as a bushy-bearded, beaver-trapping loner to the complex married man trying to find a way to live his life, you cannot take your eyes off of him. His rich and robust voice utterly soars in "They Call the Wind Maria" and "Wand'rin' Star," two of the best-known songs in the show. I was pleasantly reminded of John Raitt.

Armando (Justin Gregory Lopez) and
Jennifer (Kirsten DeLohr Helland) get cozy

As Armando, Justin Gregory Lopez has a crystalline tenor voice and endearing comic timing. He creates a wonderfully layered character, and his relationships with Ben and Ben's daughter Jennifer are complex and moving. As a bonus, his voice blends beautifully in duets with Kirsten deLohr Helland's Jennifer.

A few standouts: Rhett George plays free man of color (and barber) H. Ford, and with his rich voice, comic timing, and strong character, was the heart and soul of the show. Jared Michael Brown plays the (mostly) villainous Jake Rutland with tons of wicked charm, as well as a beautiful head of hair. Twin Cities favorite Ann Michels plays Cayla Woodling, Ben's love interest--they have wonderful chemistry together, and they sing real pretty too.

The Ordway has created (and co-created) some fabulous productions in recent years (including The Sound of Music, The Pirates of Penzance, and Damn Yankees) and their excellent work continues to inspire and entertain. 

Paint Your Wagon honors the beautiful songs of Lerner and Loewe while simultaneously telling a modern, thoughtful story of a moment in American history when people from a range of origins all came together. Representation matters, and it's so exciting to see it onstage at the Ordway.

(co-written by Jules and Carly)

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Sensory-Friendly Lion King at the Orpheum Theatre

Dear theater friends, I need to tell you about an amazing performance--one that transformed the way I think about theater.

[Before I share more about this special performance, a note: If you'd like to read a review of the show itself, which runs at the Orpheum Theatre through August 7, check out Twin Cities Theater Bloggers for a Review Roundup.]

This past Saturday, July 30, Hennepin Theatre Trust presented a Sensory Friendly production of Disney's The Lion King. 

Designed specifically for individuals with sensory, social and learning disabilities and their families, this performance is intended to provide families the opportunity to enjoy live theater in a welcoming and supportive environment.

This welcoming and supportive environment began even before we reached the Orpheum Theater. Theatergoers were met on the street by smiling, trained volunteers in brightly colored HELPER tee shirts, standing near the theater to direct and welcome theatergoers. This was clearly not going to be an everyday trip to the theater.

As we entered, we had a gentle security check of our bags. To the right, was a first aid station--to the left, the ever-popular merchandise stand. The concession bars were mostly closed (which helped with crowd management in the lobby) and the open ones appeared to just sell water and coffee. The women's restroom was transformed into a family restroom, and accessible restrooms were available and well-marked. And everywhere you looked, smiling volunteers in HELPER tee shirts were ready to guide and help families.

AUSM Table in lobby.
A table in the lobby from the Autism Society of Minnesota featured fidgets, noise cancelling ear muffs and a Social Narrative (picture book) called "We Are Going to the Theater" that takes participants through every element of their visit to the theater. Maps of the theater provided a floor-by-floor snapshot of all the resources--including restrooms, first aid and quiet areas--were readily available and prominently displayed. The friendly volunteers were actively and gently promoting and offering these items to families.

Activity Area (and snacks!)
An activity area in the skyway on the second floor (sponsored by Creative Kids Stuff and YOXO) had craft activities, boards where kids could write their feelings about the show, as well as snacks and juice boxes. 

Thought boards at the Activity Area.
The theater also featured large screens in the lobby so that if families needed to exit the seating area, they could still see the show.

As we entered the house, we saw still more volunteers. Although there were some empty seats (which seemed to be strategically spaced out), the theater was quite full. It was a pleasure to see that the outreach efforts were successful, and the Hennepin Theatre Trust certainly reached the target audience for this performance. 

The theater was abuzz with the excited voices of children and their caregivers as they settled into their seats with the assistance of the tee shirt-clad helpers. Theater staff and volunteers alike were friendly and welcoming to all patrons, answering questions, providing directions, and pointing out interesting elements like the orchestra pit. Even Conductor Rick Snyder sweetly visited with audience members before the show and during intermission. (Also, during intermission, volunteers led physical exercises for the audience. I could get behind this.)

Two of the fabulous volunteers. (Neither are Cassie.)
Cassie Okell, one of the volunteers, shared with us a little background on her experience (emphasis mine):
Despite the fact that many of us volunteers are professionals in the special education and autism spectrum field, we did in fact have a two-hour training at the beginning of July. We also had many email communications during July to make sure we were well prepared.
Two of the coolest things that were done, in my opinion, that you may not be aware of is that the Hennepin Theatre Trust hosted a "meet your seat" opportunity about a week ago so kids had the opportunity to get familiar with the space proper to the sensory rich show. And also on the webpage for this special performance was a link to a downloadable social story about the day of the show to help kids know what to expect.
To me, these things (along with the free snacks and juice boxes, noise cancelling headphones, quiet spaces and active space) really put this event above and beyond! I love how accepting and supportive and thoughtful the whole process was! I really hope we have more in the future! 
The show went up a bit late, and the volunteers took their seats in the house, still at the ready to assist families. The house lights dimmed, but did not go completely dark. The show began and the audience's excitement was clearly evident. If you've seen The Lion King, you know that one of the most amazing spectacles in all of theater is the entrance of the animals in the "Circle of Life" number.

Photo from
Personal sidebar: I was fortunate enough to see the very first World Premiere performance of Disney's The Lion King here in Minneapolis. I was in awe of all the Disney execs in suits I saw--I'm sure I saw Michael Eisner. We were seated in the back row of the main floor, and were some of the first people to see the animals entering through the house. The music, the amazing stagecraft, the beautiful voices, and the utterly thrilling originality ... I've never forgotten that moment and that feeling--not ever. And it was nineteen years ago.

On Saturday, I saw something that even eclipsed this amazing moment. Because the house lights were at half, and because we were seated in the front rows, we had a beautiful view of the audience as we turned around to see the animals enter. And what we saw was a theater filled with wonder. We saw children and people who were in awe of the spectacle, and we saw parents and grandparents and volunteers and friends who were in tears. I think about it now and it still brings me to tears. It's one of the loveliest things I've ever seen in a theater.

I'd love to know what the actors thought of this performance. It's unusual for them to perform in a half-lit theater, and they must see so much more of the audience than usual. The show has a number of scenes where the cast enters through the house, or comes down into the house, and it was wonderful to see the actors waving at children and making connections. Even Mufasa, entering through the house to yell at Simba, smiled at children with genuine warmth on his way.

Tahni, Josiah and Joe Cullen
I'm saving the best for the last here. I want to share what it's like for a parent to attend this performance.

Joe and Tahni Cullen attended with their son Josiah (see Josiah's Fire on Facebook), and Joe shared his thoughts (again, emphasis mine).
My son Josiah is 10 years old and is on the autism spectrum. We’ve been fortunate to attend many sensory-friendly plays and movies throughout the Twin Cities over the last few years. He’s been to many productions now at the Children’s Theatre as well as some high school musicals too. When I first saw that The Lion King was back in town my first thought was how much my son would love it if only they had a sensory-friendly offering of it. Within a day I saw the advertisements for such a performance and our family was so excited.
The production today certainly did not disappoint! We all enjoyed it, especially our son Josiah. He was clapping, laughing, and in awe the entire time. For us, these sensory-friendly productions are such a blessing. Josiah is usually well behaved in public but it just gives us the peace of mind that we’re in a non-judgmental environment…if he makes noise or is a little too wiggly, no one is going to mind. For instance today he seemed very fascinated with the hair on the lady’s head in front of him and tried touching it a few times. She turned and instead of a disapproving look she just smiled and said, “It’s no big deal. I totally understand.” We can just relax and enjoy the show.
And from the smiles on Josiah’s face from the beginning to the end of The Lion King today I would say he definitely enjoyed it! He cracked us up at one point too. He doesn't have many words right now but at one point when Scar was up to no good he yelled out "No!" LOL!
I had a hard time finding the right words to describe how amazing yesterday was for our family...and all the sensory friendly offerings for that matter. My wife and I met while doing plays together and college and we always imagined bringing our kids to plays one day. To have these opportunities has meant the world to us.
Disney and the Hennepin Theatre Trust worked for months with a Sensory Advisory Committee of local Minnesota educators, therapists and community experts and partners such as Fraser, the Autism Society of Minnesota, and the Minnesota Autism Center, and received financial assistance from funders such as the Minnesota State Arts Board to make this special performance happen.

There is no doubt: Disney's The Lion King is a beautiful show. The cast is marvelous and sang, danced, and acted beautifully. The artistry and music is staggeringly creative and inventive.

But more than anything, every element of this special performance displayed a kindness and inclusiveness that I don't often see in the theater, and certainly not enough in our everyday lives.

The supportive, non-judgmental atmosphere at this show was astonishing--it will change the way I attend and view theater. Kudos to the Hennepin Theatre Trust, their partners, and to all of the marvelous volunteers who created such an amazing day. I hope to experience performances like this again and often, and I hope to see them at theaters that are welcoming audiences of all abilities.

(co-written by Carly and Jules)

See Also:

Interested in catching a Sensory Friendly theater performance? Check out the Sensory Friendly Performances at Children's Theatre Company and the 2016-17 Season at Stages Theater Company in Hopkins, MN. Find more Sensory Friendly Activities at the Autism Society of Minnesota's Community Events page, and all kinds of accessible arts events at VSA Minnesota: The State Organization on Arts and Disability