Saturday, October 13, 2018

50 Years of Chanhassen Dinner Theatre + Holiday Inn

CDT is the theatrical equivalent of a giant, comforting, cozy bowl of steaming mac and cheese, and I'm totally fine with that. 


Photo by Tom Wallace, 2018

Sometimes I see people take aim at things that are mainstream or inherently positive as if they are somehow unworthy of attention. This frustrates me.

Photo by Tom Wallace, 2018

I love avant garde theater - but I also love the mass produced, flashy shows that fill giant theaters, keep plots simple and spirit fingers wiggling. Growing up in rural small town Minnesota, places like the Orpheum or Chanhassen Dinner Theatre (CDT) were the only way I ever saw professional theater. Sure we had school and community productions, but professional spaces were a solid 360 mile round trip away, not to mention often way outside of the budget of our six person family. If we were really lucky, once a year my family got to go to CDT over the summer when they held the family ticket sale. It was so magical for me, a truly transportive experience that taught me to dream beyond my immediate reality and made a direct line to me starting this blog so I can continue to experience this art I have come to love so deeply. Those experiences at CDT are treasured memories and a big reason that I will always harbor an undying love for that space.

Photo by Tom Wallace, 2018

The thing about mass produced shows shows is that there are people (a lot of people, actually) for whom it is the only way they will access theater at all. They deserve to enjoy the arts too, and if a traveling Broadway show or a musical theater bonanza with a plated dinner is what gets them there - I'm all for it. There are hundreds of union employees who make great money year round working on these productions, and I'm happy to support them (just as I love local companies like Prime Productions or Frank Theatre or Trademark Theater, all of whom have shows running right now).

Photo by Tom Wallace, 2018

The point of all of this is that this year, CDT is celebrating 50 years of existence. For just a little context on how mind blowing this accomplishment is, check this out: since Chanhassen Dinner Theatres opened in 1968, its kitchen has served:

  1. 25 million fresh baked rolls
  2. 2,265,000 grilled to perfection, sirloin steaks
  3. 400,000 pounds of roasted prime rib of beef
  4. 4,250,000 stuffed chicken breasts
  5. 500,000 pints of fresh strawberries
  6. Just shy of 50,000,000 cups of coffee or enough to fill more than FIVE Olympic-sized swimming pools
  7. Chanhassen Dinner Theatres is the nation’s largest professional dinner theatre company. It is one of a handful of professional status dinner theatres still in existence.
  8. In its 50 years, Chanhassen Dinner Theatres has entertained just over 12.5 million guests.
  9. In addition, over that time, CDT has staged a total of 237 productions on its multiple stages.

I'm so grateful that CDT has stuck around this long, weathering recessions, public taste and ownership crises, and I sure hope they stick around for another 50 years. I can't think of a better show to celebrate this milestone than Irving Berlin's Holiday Inn, which opened last night. I loved the film version growing up, which starred Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire, and was the first time audiences heard the now-classic song White Christmas. Holiday Inn is exactly what it sounds like: a musical about a man who leaves show business to run a farm in rural Connecticut. When he proves to be a failure at farming, Jim decides to flip the space into a lodge with musical performances that is only open on holidays (when everything else is closed). There are several straightforward romantic plots woven through the holiday numbers, and everyone leaves with a happy ending. It's a show that oozes nostalgia, and while its plot is a little dated, the rotation of greatest hits songs like Blue Skies, Heat Wave, Cheek to Cheek and, of course, White Christmas provides a delightful immersion in 1940s nostalgia.

Photo by Tom Wallace, 2018

Many of CDT's OG company members are in this show, so you're guaranteed to see many familiar faces. Michael Gruber plays Jim, and while he doesn't quite have Bing Crosby's velvety basso, he does have an endless aura of charm and panache that perfectly fits the 1940s setting. Ann Michels is period-perfect as Jim's love interest Linda; her voice soars through the show, and it's not hard to imagine her having a Ginger Rogers or Andrews Sisters moment if she'd been performing back then. Jessica Fredrickson plays Lila as a true Lina Lamont character, clearly reveling in playing the villainous love interest. And Tony Vierling brings his best Gene Kelly to the role Fred Astaire originated as Ted; it's one of the best things I've seen Vierling do, probably since Singin' in the Rain. Vierling is a true blue, classic Hollywood musical hoofer, and director Michael Brindisi wisely grants him several solo moments to glide across the stage and give the audience a few showstopping dance moves. The company itself is also very strong, especially in dance, and there are plenty of charming cameos you'll see throughout the show.

Photo by Tom Wallace, 2018

The thing that kept striking me throughout the performance was the attention to detail at every level. There's not a lot of whodunnit to this plot - you'll see all the major points coming - so the charm of the show lies in all of the other little things to see. The set, designed by Nayna Ramey, is the kind of shabby chic rural dream that will have any cabin lover swooning. Tamara Kangas Erickson's choreography is truly masterful, incorporating tiny touches like collective gasps with some spectacular dance scenes (a tap sequence done with jump ropes was especially fantastic) to make it clear that every moment of the show was considered. The band, directed by Andy Kust, has a big brass Count Basie feel, and Russ Haynes' sound design lets us hear everyone's lines just fine. My favorite element, however, had to be the gorgeous hair and makeup design by Paul Bigot and the delicious costumes from Rich Hamson. If you've ever drooled over a chest-width corsage or a perfectly pinned pageboy, you will not be able to stop swooning over these visuals. It's cotton candy for the eyes and even if you don't like the show, you'll find something to like about the gorgeous garb.

Photo by Tom Wallace, 2018

Is Holiday Inn the best show I've ever seen at CDT? No. But it's a perfect choice for their 50th anniversary and to cover the holiday season. Comforting, nostalgic, and flashy enough to engage anyone's interest, Holiday Inn will be a welcome surprise for fans of old Hollywood musicals who haven't seen it, and a refreshing classic for those who have loved the movie for years. I am so glad I got the chance to see it and celebrate CDT's 50th anniversary; cheers to them on 50 more. For more information or to buy tickets, click on this link.

Photo by Tom Wallace, 2018

Friday, September 28, 2018

Is God Is is Literally Killer

CW: This show (and review) discusses violence, assault, sexual assault and abuse. 


Photo by Rich Ryan

Walking out of Mixed Blood Theatre last night, all I could say was HOT DAMN.

For anyone living under a rock, yesterday Dr. Christine Blasely Ford testified in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee about a past alleged assault from the next Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh. It was a stirring, brave, emotional testimony that has rocked the country. Women were seen weeping on public transit, in lunch rooms, and all sorts of other public places; most of those who weren't in tears (like me) were consumed with a passionate rage. Suffice it to say: yesterday was a very, very rough day for a lot of us.

Photo by Rich Ryan

So the headspace I was in when I entered Mixed Blood Theatre to see Is God Is was not exactly a peaceful one. I'd heard a lot of vague but intriguing things about the show - it's horrific but funny? - and wasn't sure what I was in for. By the end, I knew what it was. In a word? Mayhem. I was in for mayhem.

Photo by Rich Ryan

I am trying to tread cautiously about describing Is God Is because the plot twists are so important to the story. I don't want to give it away and ruin all the fun of seeing the show yourself (which you definitely should do). The most succinct description I can give is this: imagine if Kill Bill was written by a black woman, starred only black people, and had a little bit of Breaking Bad's Saul Goodman character thrown in for good measure. It's a quirky, singular experience that has all sorts of campy American film hallmarks - road trips, sister journeys, broken families, vengeance, bloodshed - in a darkly funny (think like, Coen Brothers funny, not ha ha funny) package. It manages at the same time to also discuss some deeply serious issues, many of which are all too common in the #metoo movement we're striding through.

Photo by Rich Ryan

Like watching a Tarantino film or reading a Victorian novel, it took me a solid 15 minutes to adjust to what I was seeing. When I say this show is singular, I mean it: the language, the quirks of the performances, the stark visuals, and more all combine to be totally unlike anything else I've seen on stage. I'm not usually great with violent content, but something about the explicitly performative violence of Is God Is worked for me and kept me intrigued. Maybe it was that unfettered rage after the Kavanaugh hearing; maybe it was the slow burn of #metoo stories that have been building up for the last year; maybe it was just the lived experience of being a woman in a world that seems to struggle to respect my humanity. I really don't know, but what I can say is: something about Is God Is is extraordinarily satisfying to watch. These characters do bad things, and their outcomes aren't good - but they do them for understandable reasons, and something about watching a pair of black women physically beat out their latent anger was wholly satisfying, especially last night.

Photo by Rich Ryan

These are some heavy hitters on stage, and without them this show would be much harder to watch. Dame-Jasmine Hughes and Chaz Hodges star as the twin sisters Racine and Anaia, respectively. Is God Is is their journey, and Hughes and Hodges nail the complicated script through nuanced performances. Hughes is terrific as always, with an explosively physical performance that is honestly a little terrifying. Hodges has a slow burn into her role, and you really won't see the end coming behind her meek persona. Joy Dolo is utterly unrecognizable as She. I have to leave it at that, but her performance is chilling. Kevin West brings a Saul Goodman vibe as the crooked lawyer Chuck Hall; his imitation of drunkenness is masterful, and I found him one of the funnier performers. Jacob Gibson and Kory Pullam are well paired as brothers Scotch and Riley, respectively. Gibson is new to me and I'm excited to learn more about him; Pullam is surprising, comedic and even a little charming as the nerdy Riley. Jessica Rosilyn is awesome as Angie, with a Reese Witherspoon quality that I really enjoyed; she'd be right at home on Big Little Lies. And Kirkaldy Myers is the one I didn't see coming (literally) as Man, with a sinister entrance that will blow your hair back (I couldn't help it and audibly exclaimed).

Photo by Rich Ryan

The set design looks at first glance like a sheer white wall and projections, but is used ingeniously throughout the show to reveal many layers of setting. Christopher Heilman got so creative with his design, and I keep running it over in my mind and finding new things to enjoy about it. Trevor Bowen gives every performer a distinctive personality through his costume design that will clue you in to their meaning. Mixed Blood always has great effects in their shows, which continues to be true here through the absolutely striking tech direction from Bethany Reinfeld; lighting design by Mary Shabatura; sound design by Phillip O'Toole; and fight choreography and effects by Bruce Young. Finally, Tessie Bundick's makeup design is intrinsic to the story (which you'll learn more about when you go). I wish we got a chance to see the detail closer up.

Photo by Rich Ryan

Is God Is is such an unparalleled experience, and it couldn't be better timed. Between the ongoing #metoo and #timesup movements and the arrival of Halloween season, it hits all sorts of sweet spots between horror, vengeance, women-centric and escapist stories. This is not the kind of show I'm in the habit of watching or recommending, but I gotta say: Is God Is swept me up with its manic energy and gave me a lot more to chew on than I ever expected. It's a wild experience to have live in the theater, and the incredible cast really pushes this performance over the edge. I recommend this very highly, especially to anyone who is feeling the need to vent some rage over recent political events. Please keep in mind, however: this is very definitely NOT a show for children. Make this one an adults-only date night. Is God Is runs at the Mixed Blood through October 14. For more information or to find your tickets, click on this link.

Photo by Rich Ryan

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Some Thoughts on the Inaugural MN Theater Awards

Does an awards show even need actual awards? 



Last night marked the first ever MN Theater Awards, aka The Little Show That Could that took over after the Ivey Awards folded abruptly last year. Many people in the #tctheater community were disappointed by the loss of an event to recognize the excellent work done here every year. Thankfully, Four Humors stepped in to fill the void and reinvent the awards show to make it less difficult (and expensive) to sustain. The approach seemed to be "what would an awards show look like if none had existed before?" I fully support this kind of exercise, and there were lots of changes from previous Ivey Awards ceremonies. Check out the awesome list of nominees here:


Because this year had such an unusual set of circumstances (the Iveys disappearing, a late scramble to put something together), it doesn't feel right to do a full retrospective as I normally would have for the Iveys. Instead, I wanted to jot down some thoughts about the event and things to think about while planning next year's ceremony. I want to preface all of these comments with a huge thank you to Four Humors for creating and hosting the show. Events this large are never easy to plan in the best of circumstances, and they took the project on with no budget and little time to plan. The fact that they pulled off such a respectable event really deserves credit - so many thanks to them for assuming the responsibility of putting this on!

Things I Loved 


  • The casual atmosphere. Removing the awards from a gilt theater and expanding the dress code allowed for a welcome breath of fresh air in the general attitude of the attendees. Don't get me wrong - tons of people still got dressed to the nines and the people watching was on point - but just allowing people to move around freely, grab drinks during the show, etc. made it feel so much more inclusive and fun to be there. 
  • Inclusion was the theme. The committee behind MN Theater Awards re-opened nominations less than a month before the ceremony because they felt the submissions they'd received were not reflective enough of our diverse theater community. BRAVO to that. There was much wider attendance and a much larger pool of nominees last night than I'd expected for a first attempt at this process, and that is largely due to the committee's insistence that they get the nomination process right. I'm sure they will refine this further next year but: I'm so grateful they pushed for inclusivity, and their efforts really showed. 
  • Women were front and center. There were a ton of women represented in all of the categories, and I think the collective impact of having theater practitioners nominate each other had a lot to do with it. The most impressive part of this? Of the six people nominated for best individual performance, five were women and several were women of color. It was really great to see so many women taking center stage and getting recognized for their often-overlooked efforts. 
  • More celebration for under-recognized contributions. There were a few awards that flipped the typical categories on their head, and they were thoughtful additions to the usual categories of best performance or actor. A few that come to mind immediately: a specific recognition for stage mangers, who are notoriously overlooked when it comes to the hard work of putting on a show; a category for performative direction that included nominees for skills like dance choreography, fight choreography, conducting or projection design; and a long overdue award celebrating companies focusing on accessibility, which encourages all theaters to do a better job of serving diverse communities. 
  • Awesome graphics! Whoever did the video clips celebrating each nominee did a masterful job, to the point that even still photos appeared almost animated. It was totally riveting and I would love to know how they did it. Definitely keep that up for next year. 
  • No hierarchy in recognition. At first I thought it was odd that there were no individual winners of every category, but it made more sense the more I thought about it. The point of an awards show is to recognize excellence, right? Who says an award needs to go to just one "winner" in order to count? It also removes the pressure of trying to judge between say, a one woman show or a 200 person flagship Ordway musical, which is daunting to say the least. This way a spectrum of excellence and diverse offerings can be equally celebrated, something I can totally get behind. 
  • No speeches. Removing the need for each winner to give a speech definitely helped save time in the overall ceremony, which was truly welcome for anyone attending who had to work the next day. This was a great choice. 

Lessons Learned


  • Get a Grade A sound system. The Aria space is large and hard edged, making it a veritable echo chamber. As much as I enjoyed the casual atmosphere, it did mean that people talked (and rather loudly) throughout the show; by the end of the night, it was literally impossible to hear what anyone was saying on stage. Next year, can a local theater company please donate better speakers / microphones / sound equipment / tech to help improve this? There was such excitement in the room and it was a shame that the nominees weren't able to hear their own names called. If only one thing changes for next year, this would be my pick
  • More tables or seating would help organize things. Attendees were warned that seating would be limited, and I think that worked ok for the most part. Considering all drinks were served in real glassware, however, I think it would really have helped to have a few more cocktail tables and seating areas strewn around the basic floor area. This also may have helped with the noise problem if people were broken down into smaller clumps / less likely to move through chatting with each other as the presentations were happening. It doesn't need to have formal seating, but more organization around where people are might be helpful. 
  • Could we get a few short performances? The main thing I missed from the Ivey Awards were the short performances given by nominated companies. It was always so nice to give everyone a chance to see why each show was so special, and it always broke up some of the more tedious events of the night. I'd love to see this come back in some form next year - maybe as a special people's choice award? 
  • No speeches should mean no speeches. Through the second half, there was an odd tribute to the Jeune Lune that took a solid 10+ minutes to get through. Not only did this bog down the momentum of the show, it felt a little odd considering there were dozens of other theater companies represented in attendance. I understand the sentimentality of being in the former Jeune Lune space for the show, but since no other companies were afforded the opportunity to extemporize, it didn't feel right to allow a company that folded 10 years ago to do so. Next year I'd keep that policy consistent for everyone. 
  • Shorter introduction speeches to each award. It felt a little odd to announce that no one would be giving speeches.... and then have very long banter to introduce the nominees. If the process is to be streamlined, I vote to streamline it all the way through. I don't think anyone would miss it - most people are there to clap for the nominees and network anyway.
  • Seek more outstate nominees. By expanding the name of the awards show to all of Minnesota (a smart choice), it would be nice to see more out-state theaters represented in the nominees. Due to this year's abridged time frame I'm sure it was difficult to get word out - but it would be great if the committee could work with the MN Theater Alliance to get more representation from groups outside of the Metro area next year. 


All in all? I think this was a very promising evening. I'm so grateful that Four Humors took it upon themselves to keep the spirit of appreciation for our local arts practitioners going. It was so fun to see everyone networking and celebrating their hard work over the past year, and to help raise the profiles of some deserving people and companies who are often overlooked. The inaugural MN Theater Awards proved that you don't need fancy sets and trophies to have an awards ceremony; all you need is a happy audience, some willing hosts, and a great crew of nominees to celebrate. I hope this event comes back again next year and am sure it will be better than ever. If you want to follow progress of this group and planning efforts, make sure to follow their Facebook page by clicking here.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Finding the Feeling in Frankenstein - Playing With Fire

It seems 2018 is the year of historic anniversaries. 


Photo by Dan Norman

First we had the 150th anniversary of Louisa May Alcott's delightful Little Women. It's the 50th anniversary of the ridiculously eventful 1968, which is featured in a star exhibit at the Minnesota History Center. Park Square Theatre is celebrating 43 years with an exciting exhibit at the Landmark Center. And now it's the 200th anniversary of the publication of Frankenstein. How are we all supposed to keep up?

Photo by Dan Norman

In honor of Frankenstein's publication, the Guthrie has dusted off an original commission from 1988 called Frankenstein - Playing With Fire. It's a highly esoteric adaptation, with half of the show concentrating on a metaphysical conversation between Dr. Frankenstein and his creation, half taking place in flashbacks between the characters' memories of the inception and early life of Frankenstein's monster. It's less an adaptation of the novel and more of a behind-the-scenes, filling in the emotional gaps between the book's flagship events.

Photo by Dan Norman

I'll be honest: this had a really slow start for me. Despite starring a pair of formidable, seasoned actors (Zachary Fine as Dr. Frankenstein and Elijah Alexander as Frankenstein's creature) the meandering conversation that was essentially between Frankenstein and, well, Frankenstein got a little tedious. I want to be clear that I place the blame on the script for this - these two are fine performers who bring a lot of subtlety to their performances, but even they can't make some of the long exchanges engaging. Things picked up considerably once Ryan Colbert appeared as the young Victor Frankenstein in the flashbacks. I've been following Colbert's career for a while now and will confidently say that this is his star-making turn. He steals the show in every scene, flashing through the tedious philosophical arguments with charisma and an expressive face that reminded me of a young Jim Carrey. It's been so fun to watch him grow in his roles on various #tctheater stages, and with Frankenstein he has totally arrived. Jason Rojas brings an Andy Serkis bent to his work as Adam (or "baby Frankenstein"), and his chilling naivete really hits home how lost this monster was once he was created and how totally abandoned by his maker.

Photo by Dan Norman

The scenic design (Michael Locher) and staging (Cat Starmer on lighting; sound design by Cliff Caruthers; and costumes by Raquel Barreto) is likely the biggest draw to the show. A slick piece of black "ice" wends around the Wurtele Thrust Stage, an ominous harbinger of the dark emotion of the Frankenstein story. It's an intriguing piece but unfortunately blocks a little too much of the background for my taste, which lights up with some really interesting pieces to bring the flashbacks to life - I would have liked to have a better view of them. The lighting really sets the emotional tone for the show, alternately bathing the stage in deep hues that reflect the feeling of the action on stage. There are all sots of creepy sound effects that usher us right into Halloween season, and some well chosen props provide a focus for the zany activities (such as say... animating dead bodies?) that we see before us.

Photo by Dan Norman

I think by now we're all clear on how much I love Victorian literature, so I just want to throw in here that it's hard to overstate how important Frankenstein is to the history of books. The novel as we now know it was barely invented by the time an 18 year old Mary Shelley got her hands on it, and it's mind-blowing to think about how such a young woman produced such a big book in an era where most of the population barely read, let alone considered a vision for literature beyond orally told fairy tales and governmental treatises. Frankenstein has such longevity not only because it is an engaging novel - and it really is, a truly thrilling read from start to finish to this day - but because it so elegantly dismantles so many conventions both on and off the page. It invented a genre overnight and managed in less than 300 pages to successfully critique so many powerful assumptions - that the wealthy and educated are somehow morally superior to the rest of us; that science and knowledge are infallible pursuits; that empathy is a waste of time; and that men's ambitions are never to be questioned. It's a captivating story that's riveted audiences now for 200 years, and it is certain that what we think of as literature and movies and television and art itself would not be the same without Frankenstein's existence.

Photo by Dan Norman

I've been struggling to pinpoint what it was about this show that nagged at me, and I think it was the fact that this particular script really dances around the points I just raised. By placing our focus squarely on the sanitized conversation between Frankenstein and his Creature, we ignore their collateral damage. We can get into some important questions of the self - What IS the self? What makes a human human? - but the true effects of Dr. Frankenstein's arrogance are left by the wayside. I suppose that one could argue that Frankenstein himself was the person who most suffered from his creation, but is that really the best we can do? Frankenstein has been such a cultural caricature for so long that we can easily overlook some of the more subtle details of the story that I would argue are more important than the freakshow element. By over-intellectualizing we forget the point of the book - to focus on love and empathy, that intelligence is not a holy grail, that science is indeed fallible, etc.

Photo by Dan Norman

Ultimately, I think this is a mixed bag. The actors really work the most out of their parts, and Ryan Colbert is a bright spot in the show. Although initially jarring, the "time travel" aspect really helps pick up the pace and often provides the most engaging portions of the whole performance. There are some interesting questions asked throughout the show that I think can intrigue fans of the original book. If you come looking for a live action refresh of the horror movies so captivated by the monster aspect of Frankenstein, you might be disappointed. If you have the bandwidth, I think it's worth reading the book, seeing this show and thoroughly reflecting on Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's masterpiece. Frankenstein runs at the Guthrie through October 27. For more information or to buy tickets, click on this link.

Photo by Dan Norman

Sunday, September 23, 2018

MUST SEE: For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow is Enuf

Lush. Lavish. Generous. Honest. Humbling. 


Photo courtesy of the Penumbra's website

These are just a few of the words that come to mind when I try to describe the full circle experience that is the Penumbra's latest show, Ntozake Shange's seminal for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf (for colored girls).

The show begins with three young girls (the future) as they sit on a playground. Their hangout crescendos to a delightful copy of Beyonce's Homecoming performance at Coachella (which got the audience to erupt into applause), at which point the rainbow women come in. Somewhere between a beneficent spirit or fairy godmother, the rainbow women describes a riveting range of women of many races, colors, shapes, hairstyles, tones and personalities who watch over the young girls. They then take turns telling stories familiar to women all over the world and specific to women of color - stories of heartbreak, childbirth, sexual awakenings, sexual violence, fear, strength, confidence, movement and so much more. It's a breathtaking display of the feminine experience and a striking visual that stays with you long after the show ends. This is the first time I've ever seen for colored girls and I always wondered if the rainbow part was a little gimmicky. I'm ashamed now that I ever had that thought, because the full bore strength of seeing this true rainbow of women and the power of their performances is stunning and undeniable. It's a brilliant way to celebrate the differences that already exist between us and show how they can blend into harmony.

Photo courtesy of the Penumbra's website

I'm honestly not sure how to even describe the cast - they are all so different and work so beautifully in tandem that it surely cheapens the show to somehow divide them up. I do, however, want to give each of them individual props for their stunning performances - so here is a small slice of my thoughts:

  • Lady in Red: I've only seen Audrey Park in a couple of other shows, and I definitely need to seek her out more. In addition to rocking an unbelievably fabulous haircut (#truestory), she has a lithe athleticism that brings so much energy to her monologues. Her energy definitely matched her color as the Lady in Red. 
  • Lady in Orange: Cristina Florencia Castro has been acting and writing in the Twin Cities for a long time, and I'm ashamed to say this is the first time I think I've seen her in a show. She brings a raw, open-hearted emotion that moved her (and the audience) to tears as she performed. Brilliant. 
  • Lady in Yellow: Rajané Katurah Brown is fresh out of college and already becoming a formidable performer on #tctheater stages. I've seen her in a couple shows at the Children's Theater, but this was the first time I've seen her really take wing on her own. She gives a sexy, physical performance that riveted me from her first monologue, and she exudes complete and total confidence at all times. Keep an eye on this one. 
  • Lady in Green: What more can I say about my love for Sun Mee Chomet? She's been a favorite of mine for years, and this performance is a perfect example why. On this stage of colorful, profound performances and fierce actresses, she still stood out - even going so far as to bring the audience into her final solo piece and getting a spontaneous ovation in the middle of the show. Chomet has a kinetic, can't-look-away energy that grabs you immediately and never lets go. 
  • Lady in Blue: I waxed poetic about how much I adored Khanisha Foster's delicious Joy Rebel at the Penumbra last year, and I would happily do so again. She clearly inhabits this material and brings a softer, wiser perspective to her monologues. It's easy to see how she's a great mentor for the other young actresses on stage, and her presence really grounds the show. 
  • Lady in Purple: Am'Ber Montgomery is also relatively new to me and another magnetic stage presence. She comes in quietly like a panther, slowly building her performance until she has you totally in her power by the end of the show. She has a grounded physicality and a tempered delivery that I really enjoyed. 
  • Lady in Brown: Ashe Jaafaru is another woman who's been around for a while and I've somehow missed - not again. Her sinuous performance is the definition of movement, and she slithers and slides throughout her monologues. She has an extremely expressive face that shows every emotion, and I really enjoyed getting to know her. 

Photo courtesy of the Penumbra's website

There's not a lot of traditional "production value" here, which is smart - it keeps the focus on the gorgeous narrative coming from our rainbow of performers. Vicki Smith's set is essentially a multi-layered set of sheer panels. The women pass between them like ghosts in between each monologue, and with the subtle lighting by Kathy Maxwell we get the full color spectrum and a deceptively wide range of effects despite the simple setting. My favorite element had to be Mathew LeFebvre's costume design, which puts each woman in a distinctive jumpsuit matching the color of her character. The vibrant tones are incredibly striking on the otherwise subdued palate of the set, and I was green with envy at how stylish and comfortable each jumpsuit looked. The Penumbra should definitely think about selling those online! They are so flattering and truly made me wonder why all women's clothing can't be like that. Drea Reynolds gives us a solid sound design that lets every word be heard throughout the ebb and flow of the show's energy. And I loved the singular choreography by Ananya Chatterjea. I don't have the right words to describe the movement in for colored girls, but it has a supple quality that I just loved. From crawling like a leopard to joyous dance sequences to sensual celebrations of curves and femininity, the choreography truly enhances the full-throated experience of this show.

Photo courtesy of the Penumbra's website

Director Sarah Bellamy clearly approached for colored girls with so much love and care, and in her stewardship it crescendos to a glorious and instructive celebration of women of color. There are so many gems to be found in this rich text, and I can't think of a better show to uplift in our #metoo era than this one. So often the problems we face in society can be solved simply by being better listeners, and if there's one lesson in for colored girls it's just that: listen to women of color, celebrate their experiences, and help them with what they ask for. for colored girls is a moving, generous, delicious slice of humanity that will hold anyone in its grace. I think it's a must see show, especially in our current cultural moment, and especially with this powerhouse cast of young actresses who are poised to take the world of theater by storm. This really is a lovely show and the kind of thing we should be better at uplifting - so please click here to get more information and to buy your tickets before for colored girls closes on October 14.

**As another note: the Penumbra always puts together spectacular study guides for each show. The study guide for for colored girls is a particular gem; learn more by clicking here to read it


Photo courtesy of the Penumbra's website

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Little Women Packs a Big, Beautiful Punch

Adapting favorite childhood stories to a new medium can be tricky business. 


Photo by Rich Ryan

The unique mix of nostalgia and ownership that childhood characters breed can wreak all sorts of havoc on an adaptation's profitability. For example: despite coming from an eternally beloved book series and boasting a cast of Hollywood's most thoroughbred All Stars, the His Dark Materials trilogy was never fully adapted to the silver screen after fans deemed the first installation, The Golden Compass, not faithful enough. It was a colossal failure and huge financial loss for the studio that has scared off any other future attempts in the foreseeable future.

Lately (or at least locally), it seems people are getting much better at transitioning such stories to new formats. The Children's Theater has been nailing literary adaptations for years now, particularly with their Dr. Seuss shows (see my thoughts on The Lorax here and How The Grinch Stole Christmas, which reprises this December, here). Little Women, now showing at the Jungle Theater, is one more jewel to add to this collection and a beautiful piece that any fans out there need to explore.

Little Women tells the story of the four March sisters, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy, as they grow up during the Civil War. Each of the March sisters has a different characteristic - Meg, strength and mothering; Jo, independence and drive; Beth, kindness and sweetness; Amy, tradition and a concern for reputation and public opinion. By focusing a big book on their "little stories" we learn quite a lot about life in the U.S. in the mid-19th century, and even more about what it was like to be a women and / or relatively poor. The March sisters lead us by example with their care for ending slavery, carving out space for women in society, and demonstrating an innate charity towards their immigrant neighbors. I read (and loved) this book as a child, but I have to admit that I'd forgotten several details and the story is remarkably fresh and contemporary in this staged version. There have been a few mild changes made to play up certain dynamics in the original text, especially those around gender roles. I think even purists should be ok with them, and I really enjoyed the new insights into an otherwise familiar story that this renewed perspective provided me.

Part of the vitality of this particular Little Women is due to the delightful cast, who features a treasure trove of local actresses and a warm chemistry that perfectly mimics that of a home of girls (I am the oldest in a family of four girls so trust me - they really got that dynamic right). C. Michael Menge was my runaway favorite as Jo March. I always loved and identified with Jo, and Menge delivers a deliciously spunky performance that is the beating heart of this show. Michael Hanna's amorous performance as Laurie is a perfect foil to Menge's more masculine energy as Jo, illuminating the confines created by traditional gender roles and shedding new light on his character (one I never liked much in the books). The rest of the ensemble is just perfectly cast and really delineates between the unique traits of each character: Christina Baldwin is the ultimate mother as Marmie; Christine Weber has a stoic optimism as big sister Meg; Isabella Star Lablanc absolutely radiates placidity as the fragile Beth; and Megan Burns is deliciously, horrifically selfish as the bombastic Amy.

On the production side, it's a tight ensemble effort; hats off to Sarah Rasmussen for assembling such a rock star team and communicating such a crystal clear vision for this show. From the second the show opens we are IN the March home, swept away to the 1860s with nary a gloomy cobweb in sight. The costumes (designed by Rebecca Bernstein) are kept to one or two changes per character, as befitted the March's economic status. They are period appropriate and so much fun, each saying just as much about the character as the performance itself. The set is simple, and Chelsea Warren's design radiates the warmth and well-worn comfort of the March home. The lighting by Marcus Dillard is equally warm and inviting, and the sound design by Sean Healey gives us access to the full range of the March girls' emotions.

Little Women is remarkable for several reasons: it's still one of the best known books by a female author of the time (I recently learned that a translated version is still taught in France today!); it is unapologetically abolitionist and feminist in an era when it wasn't very easy or popular to be either of those things; and I would classify it as a true female bildungsroman that helped define a genre for generations of subsequent female authors.

This production is such a great example of many good things, but I have especially been ruminating on the importance of context and imagination when it comes to interpreting and envisioning stories. With such a rich text as this there are so many gems of wisdom and insight to be found, considered and learned from. If I'm entirely honest, I wouldn't have thought Little Women worth re-reading until I saw this lively new production that reminded me how much context I missed when reading it as a child. I've now been inspired to step even further into Louisa May Alcott's world, reading the lesser-known sequel Little Men and some of the rest of her impressive bibliography. It also reminded me how many great stories women author that never get the credit they deserve. As much as I love (and I TRULY love) Jane Austen, can't we start adapting some of the other great female writers for stage and film? Louisa May Alcott stands with a treasure trove of other ladies of that era such as Harriett Beecher Stowe, Olive Schreiner, Evelyn Nesbitt, Ella D'Arcy and so very many more who deserve to see their day in the sun just as much as the George Shaws, Mark Twains, Herman Melvilles and Oscar Wildes.

As Artistic Director Sarah Rasmussen says, "Literature is alive. And it belongs to all of us." I couldn't have said it better myself. This adaptation of Little Women positively teems with life and warmth and joie de vivre, and you are certain to leave the theater feeling better about the world than when you entered (which is quite a feat these days). It's like a cozy fall sweater that you never want to take off. Treat yourself to this lovely little show before it closes on October 21. For more information or to buy tickets, click on this link.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Theater Latte Da's Once is Worth Re-Watching Again

Falling slowly sing your melody
I'll sing along


Photo by Dan Norman

Meditation. Wellness. Intention. Thoughtfulness.

There are so many Wellness Buzzwords floating around these days, and no wonder. In the cacophonous cultural din of modern day politics, a White House almost literally in flames, a well documented rising national stress level, the unending sonorous buzz of ever more electronics humming from ever more outlets in ever more clinically white noisy open office working spaces, it's no wonder that our collective imagination is craving the peace of a true silence, or at least a break from the madness.

Photo by Dan Norman

Few experiences can instantly center you in the quiet liminal space between the chaos as well as Once, a musical I've written about before and that finally has left its Broadway tour to grace local stages around the country. Once is the unlikely story of an Irish man named Guy, literally at the end of his rope, who meets a beautiful Czech immigrant named Girl. Girl is captivated by Guy's music and refuses to let him give up hope, not only convincing him to continue playing his original songs but completely turning his life around. Within one short week, Girl has arranged a band, found a recording studio and funding to pay for it, and filled Guy with freshly renewed hope for the future. They (understandably) begin to fall in love with each other as the musical project progresses, but not enough to overcome their looming responsibilities - Guy to follow his previous love to New York City, Girl to attempt to mend things with her daughter's father.

Photo by Dan Norman

It's a beautifully written show that exists solely in the gray areas, the spaces in between - a literal pregnant pause or baited breath that tugs slowly at the audience until we are emotionally unraveled like a pool of salted zoodles by the end. The frustration (and genius) of Once lies in the fact that it resists every effort to be made into a predictable romance. As heartbreaking as Guy and Girl's inability to let themselves fall into a relationship is, it's nice to see a realistic depiction of relationships and especially of a truly generous love - one that actually considers a person's needs and best interests, rather than one's own selfish impulse for happiness - get center stage for once. It doesn't hurt that the score is hauntingly lovely, an improbably successful blend of Irish folk, hard rock and Czech traditional music that will be stuck in your head for days afterward.

Photo by Dan Norman

The first time I saw Ben Bakken in a lead role, in last season's Five Points (also by Theater Latte Da), I literally said "He needs to be in Once." How awesome then that he is playing Guy in this production! It's the main reason I wanted to see the show, honestly, and he doesn't disappoint. Bakken has just the right raw timbre that sears through you like a knife blade, and he suits Guy's rough teddy bear persona perfectly. Britta Ollmann is lovely as Girl, and while her voice had a few kinks in the performance I saw, she knits a quiet chemistry with Bakken that makes their love story totally believable. The rest of the ensemble, all of whom play instruments live on stage as they are dancing, provides a strong chorus to back their story up. Reed Sigmund is especially delightful as Girl's friend Billy, with some welcome comedic relief that keeps Once from getting too emotionally laden.

Photo by Dan Norman

The set designed by Michael Hoover is two stories and static, loosely reminiscent of a train station / bridge / pub / natty boardwalk. The star of the show (literally) is a gorgeous projected moon and some strategically placed lightbulbs, which mimic a starry night when lowered from the ceiling. It's an elegant effect, and one that fully suits the winsome nature of the show. The costumes reflect the characters' cash-poor status, lived in and comfortable, and Mathew LeFebvre gets them right. The choreography by Kelli Foster Warder is undulating and entrancing, and I was so impressed that the musicians never missed a beat as they two stepped through their songs and played. Grant E. Merges' lighting is key to the ambiance (especially with the limited props, designed by Abbee Warmboe), and the sound design by Kevin Springer keeps everyone together.

Photo by Dan Norman

To be entirely honest, I came into Once knowing I'd already like it (because I love the show's writing so much). Ben Bakken is a fine anchor for this narrative, and I'm so glad he got the chance to take this part on. The rest of the cast isn't quite the specific dream team I'd hoped for, but they do a really fine job, and any fans of the show are sure to leave happy with the performance and humming the songs for days on end. If you can't make it (I'm sure this run will quickly sell out), make sure you check out the 2006 film this is based on - Once is a remarkable story that everyone deserves to experience, at least, well... once. For more information or to buy tickets before Once closes on October 21, click on this link.