Friday, December 8, 2017

A Cathartic Polarizing Express

Things these days are just ridiculous, aren't they? 



I mean you have to laugh at what's going on, or you'll go crazy. It seems like every morning we wake up to new news about something horrendous beyond imagination, and if you can't find a way to smile through it you'll never get out of an unshakeable depression.

If you need help finding the silver lining in the absolute absurdity of current events, look no further than the Brave New Workshop (BNW). The longest running satirical comedy theater in the United States, BNW has been bringing a comedic perspective to current events for more than 60 years and is the perfect place to let off some steam in the face of the outlandish state of things. BNW's current show The Polarizing Express blends the holidays and politics to provide an on-point critique and self-flagellation that will give you laughter therapy for days. Here were some of my favorite sketches:


  • The show opens with an incredible spoof on the opening scene of The Music Man. For the uninitiated, this scene involves a series of traveling salesmen bouncing as if on a train while they recite a rhythmic line of gossip about incoming salesman Harold Hill. BNW has taken this intro - some of it verbatim - and slightly twisted it to address current headlines about politics. It's an absolutely hilarious spoof and thoroughly delighted my inner musical theater nerd. 
  • Denzel Belin does a magical number about vogueing through the holidays that had me in stitches. Don't know what vogueing is? Watch Paris is Burning, stat (and shame on you!).
  • Lauren Anderson stars in a sketch about a mom getting high on a marijuana-laced fruitcake that was outlandish and fun and more realistic than any of us would like to admit. 
  • The cast visits Whoville, where the Grinch's relatives the Granch (a health food obsessed Grinch); the Grunch (a brunch cooking Grinch); and the Grench (a trench digging Grinch) surprise Cindy Lou Who. 
  • Ryan Nelson sings a Seth McFarlane-esque ballad to his fears of being alone at the holidays, including his fear of pet cats. 
  • Rhonda, one of Santa's elves, is in charge of Santa's sex toy division. Two elves pay her a visit and are inundated with innuendo (this sketch was so good it could easily star on Saturday Night Live).
  • Per holiday tradition, BNW wraps up the show with a refreshed rendition of the "12 Days of Christmas." This year the featured verses include cats not counting as grandkids; black hipsters; Chewbacca Christmas; nosy neighbors hating on your noisy Christmas lights; marijuana mom; guilt-inducing grandma; Amazon's Alexa; your dad who won't turn up the thermostat; and how the Superbowl will ruin your life (#truuuuuue). 
  • As always, the core cast members (Lauren Anderson, Ryan Nelson and Taj Ruler) are thoroughly hilarious. Denzel Belin, who has become another core team member, seems to have really found his comedic footing and was wonderful in his scenes. Newer cast member Heather Meyer has a very different comedic style that took me a bit to understand but I really enjoyed by the end - it's a more cerebral humor and added some depth to the show that made it fresh. 


For more information about The Polarizing Express or to buy tickets, make sure to head to the BNW website by clicking on this link. And if you want more information about BNW and past shows, check out my previous reviews:

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Caroling Along to A Christmas Carole Petersen

What is the most Minnesotan Christmas show you can think of? 


Photo by Allen Weeks

Most of us would probably select something along the lines of A Christmas Story or Charlie Brown, and that would be understandable. But most of us would be wrong.

Photo by Allen Weeks

To my thinking the award for Most Minnesotan Christmas Performance goes hands-down to A Christmas Carole Petersen, now showing at Theater Latte Da through December 30. An original piece co-written by Latte Da Founder and Artistic Director Peter Rothstein and the show's star Tod Petersen, A Christmas Carole Petersen has everything to make a home-grown Minnesotan wistful over the holidays, with a few unique songs thrown in for good measure.

Photo by Allen Weeks

I'm hard pressed to describe the plot and structure of this show. It's some kind of a mashup between vintage Lawrence Welk meets Bing Crosby Christmas Specials meets your everyman's church basement kid's variety show. The overarching narrative is led by Tod and follows the arc of his personal family Christmases as told through the lens of his mother Carole's love of the holiday. Tod reads vintage family Christmas update letters (which were hilarious; my family has dozens of the same and they do not age well, *which is the point*) and reminisces over major Christmas milestones in his and his family's lives. Interspersed between Tod's time traveling missives are several unique carols sung by Jody Briskey, Ryan Lee, and Dominique Wooten.

Photo by Allen Weeks

Keep in mind that I use the term carol here loosely; these are more songs that have some kind of Christmas or even holiday reference (such as "Mele Kalikmaka," "Feliz Navidad," or on the Hanukkah side "Ikh Bin a Kleyner Dreydl"). The kitschy mix somehow works and is a blessed reprise from the ten thousandth rendition of "Silent Night" that so often graces the stage at this time of year, and if nothing else all audiences are guaranteed to hear something they never have heard before. The musicians are mostly successful and bring a surprising amount of energy to their crooning with a peppy step that can melt even a Grinch's small heart. The standout is anything sung by Mr. Wooten, who brings a lovely tone and musicality to each piece he graces with his voice. Mr. Petersen is approachable and direct as the narrator. I wish to avoid stereotypes describing his performance, but I think I can safely say that any fans of the trope of the dry delivery of a childless Scrooge-y gay man will probably enjoy this show.

Photo by Allen Weeks

I wasn't sure what to expect when seeing A Christmas Carole Petersen for the first time but I knew no matter what that it would be different from the usual fare at this time of year, and it was. What a blessing. The revue style was engaging, and although it didn't totally capture me it enthralled my future mother-in-law, who has continued to talk about the show since we attended. The audience at the Ritz Theater (which is tastefully and beautifully bedecked in jewel-toned and simple but quality Christmas decor) clearly adored the show on opening night, and it was nice to see something that felt so "normal." This is not a Christmas story that will push any boundaries or break any barriers, but it's one that anyone who isn't a card carrying Christmas fan will find something to relate to. As someone who has never harbored a definitive love for this holiday, I really enjoyed Carole Petersen's inspiring message of creating joy for joy's sake and loving everyone regardless of their circumstances. Isn't that really supposed to be the reason for the season? For more information or to buy tickets, click on this link.
Photo by Allen Weeks

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Thrillist: A Best of Business Guide to the North Loop

The North Loop is Minneapolis' retail equivalent of a rags to riches story...


Photo courtesy of Thrillist

And it's one that will be told for a very long time. Once considered one of the most undesirable areas of the city, the North Loop has become one of the hottest real estate markets around. This comes with all the problems that gentrification has to offer, of course, but a few stalwart mainstays are still around after spending years in this area. I worked with a sponsor for Thrillist on this piece featuring some of the awesome legacy businesses that are currently flourishing in the North Loop; read more about it here by clicking on this link, and let me know: what did I miss? What would you add? What do you still want to see in the North Loop? It's an exciting time for the city; let's keep improving it together!

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

A Strikingly Fresh Christmas Carol

Traditions may be so-called for a reason, but it doesn't mean they can't be freshened up a bit. 


Photo by Dan Norman

It's been a long time since I've attended a production of A Christmas Carol.

As any good Minnesotan I've seen the Guthrie's hallowed production before, of course, a few times. It's *fine* but hasn't ever been a source of much excitement for me. I love the work of Charles Dickens and love the book version, but the Guthrie's piece tended to feel like a fusty old show to me, and in a busy holiday season it hasn't often slid to the top of my list of priorities.

Photo by Dan Norman

This year I figured what the heck; it's been a while, my guy's never seen it, so what do I have to lose? May as well check it out again and see what's up.

Let me tell you friends: this was an excellent decision. Why? Let me tell you.

Photo by Dan Norman

Let's start with Director Lauren Keating. She's making her Guthrie debut on this production and it's a stunner. Smart choices, from a lush set to diverse casting to tightening transitions (the entire production clips in at two hours including intermission - be still my Scroogian heart!), abound throughout this show. I kept hearing the audience mention how different this was - no one could quite put their finger on exactly what sets this Christmas Carol apart from prior renditions, but believe me in that it's a long overdue refresh and one that I found charming. Audiences lucky enough to see Charity Jones debut the first-ever (to my knowledge) female Scrooge in one of only four elite performances she's delivering have my full jealousy; I'd adore to see a woman take on this vaunted role and imbue some fresh meaning into it. Guthrie, here's my plea: consider running the role with a female lead (*coughcough*charityjones*coughcough*) next year? And to anyone who is complaining about a woman playing the part: why can't a woman play a stinge too? We are equal opportunity offenders when it comes to selfishness. Give it a shot, you might be surprised how much you love it.

Photo by Dan Norman

In case you haven't seen one of the myriad movies, plays, or somehow also missed the book, here's the short version of A Christmas Carol: Ebeneezer Scrooge is the embodiment of miserly selfishness. From the pauper's wages he pays his employees to his utter loathing of Christmas and general happiness, Scrooge terrifies and upsets every person he encounters until one Christmas he is visited by his former business partner Jacob Marley's ghost. Marley, who exhibited the same greedy qualities of Scrooge while he was alive, has been doomed to purgatory in the afterlife. Marley warns Scrooge to change his ways before befalling a similar fate and that Scrooge will be visited by three ghosts in the middle of the night: one of Christmas Past, one of Christmas Present, and one of Christmas Future. Through his journeys with these ghosts we learn of the source of Scrooge's horrible personality, see a softer side to the man, and witness a full change of heart. He emerges from the experience a completely changed person and becomes the personification of generosity with everyone he meets.

Photo by Dan Norman

Part of this production's excellence is due to its all-star cast. Nathaniel Fuller returns to the Guthrie for his 80th role, this time as Ebeneezer Scrooge. He's an inspired if predictable choice and perfectly captures the bipolarity of Scrooge's nature. His entrance at the start of the show is downright terrifying, and witnessing the breadth of Fuller's emotional scope is a pleasure. Meghan Kreidler and Kris Nelson serve as Mrs. Cratchitt and Bob Cratchitt, respectively, and they provide a warm contrast to Scrooge's cold heart. Ryan Colbert is perfectly cast as Scrooge's nephew Fred, spreading joie de vivre and compassion throughout his role. Kendall Thompson is marvelous in her Guthrie debut as the Ghost of Christmas Past, with a fiery delivery that lights a new spark to this part. Ansa Akyea is warm as ever as the Ghost of Christmas Present, and John Catron is a terrifying, terrific Jacob Marley.

Photo by Dan Norman

The set, designed by Walt Spangler, may be the most lavish I've seen yet at the big G. No, really: this has it all, from the snow dusted trappings of a 19th centruy London street to Scrooge's dank office to his chilly, spare bedroom. The entire building of Scrooge's home does a full 360 degree rotation (very hard to explain but extremely cool in real life) and an innumerable amount of props and furniture pieces are whisked throughout the show. There are lots of special lighting effects from Christopher Akerlind that lend a ghostly air to the whole production. Mathew LeFebvre's costumes are gorgeous, perfectly suited to each role and especially imaginative in the form of the ghosts. And although he's tucked away at the back of the program, I suspect Assistant Director Tyler Michaels' fingerprints are all over the reasons why this production seems just a little bit different (and a little bit better) from years before.

Photo by Dan Norman

As I was re-watching A Christmas Carol tonight I found myself wishing the story wasn't so intrinsically tied to a single holiday. After all, there are many Ebeneezer Scrooges scattered throughout the world today; I'm willing to bet we all know at least one. It's wonderful to uplift the ideas of love, joy and charity at this time of year, but shouldn't we do that year round too? A Christmas Carol has such a wonderful message of forgiveness, second chances, giving as receiving, valuing love above material goods, and so much more that is always timely to share. I loved seeing this production get a refresh and take a step towards reflecting a diverse, inclusive society on stage. Hats off to Ms. Keating for a stellar directorial debut - please stick around and provide some more amazing work for us here in #tctheater! A Christmas Carol runs at the Guthrie through December 30; for more information or to buy tickets, click on this link.

Waitress is Wonderful

Could Waitress have arrived in Minneapolis at a better time? 


Photo courtesy of Hennepin Theatre Trust

With all of the sexual harassment allegations swarming the cultural conversation, women coming forward every day to tell stories of abuse and hardship, and an increasing focus on telling women's stories, what better than to enjoy this positive, aggressively normal story of women supporting each other and emerging from their damaging pasts?

Photo courtesy of Hennepin Theatre Trust

But I'm getting ahead of myself. First, a quick overview: Waitress tells the story of Jenna, a master pie baker who married too young and is stuck waitressing at a diner, where she bakes each of the pies they sell fresh every day. We immediately learn that Jenna is recently pregnant by her abusive, deadbeat husband Earl, a fact she thoroughly laments. The rest of the story takes us through Jenna's pregnancy as she conducts an affair with her doctor, watches her waitressing friends find love and affairs of their own, and plans to enter a national pie baking contest in order to win enough money to leave Earl behind. Things don't go exactly as Jenna plans but they do improve her circumstances; while this is no fairy tale, isn't that how life goes?

Photo courtesy of Hennepin Theatre Trust

Does this sound like a rather platonic, boring story? It's not. I was immediately swept into Jenna's narrative (the exceedingly catchy orchestration by Sara Bareilles doesn't hurt) and the familiar, loving characters surrounding her life. The cast really sells this script, starting with Desi Oakley as an incandescent Jenna. Oakley has a deceptively big voice for such a small frame, and she trills with ease through every Bareilles-penned musical flourish. Charity Dawson is magnificent as Jenna's friend and co-waitress Becky; my only lament is that she only had one solo (give her her own show, please! She has talent in spades). Lenne Klingman is absolutely hilarious as the third waitress Dawn, especially when paired with Dawn's lover Ogie. Jeremy Morse knocks the socks off of Ogie's role, and as my date said: Morse's songs, played to utmost comedic effect, are the highlight of the show.

Photo courtesy of Hennepin Theatre Trust

Ryan Dunkin brings great swagger to his role as Cal, the waitress' boss, and Larry Marshall embodies the trope of the benevolent old man as Joe. Bryan Fenkart is probably the weakest link as Jenna's lover Dr. Pomatter, but his soft-spoken delivery and awkward characterization endear him to the audience even in the back row. Nick Bailey is despicable as Jenna's husband Earl, to the point that the audience booed him at the curtain call. And Minnesota native Prewitt Anderson is hands-down adorable as Jenna's daughter Lulu in a gorgeous reveal at the end of the performance - she did great for being only five years old.

Photo courtesy of Hennepin Theatre Trust

The set and props for Waitress are shockingly complex considering how quickly they are removed and arranged. This is a fully operative diner with every small (and working!) accouterments, down to refillable ketchup and mustard bottles, coffee pots and creamers, silverware, and of course Jenna's myriad baking supplies. It's a dizzying amount of items to track, and hats off to the stage hands for keeping everything perfectly in place and quickly re-set. The band delightfully sits on a track on stage and periodically takes a trip across, giving us a full view of the music at work. There are several beautiful scrims at work here as well, including a vista at a rural bus stop, a shitty mobile home, and the latticed crust of a cherry pie. Costumes by contrast are exceedingly simple and mostly kept to uniforms for each character's respective profession. The overall effect is to make this seem a familiar, warm world which comes alive with the lovely performances. It's perfect for the holidays and especially well suited to Thanksgiving week.

Photo courtesy of Hennepin Theatre Trust

I've always been a fan of stories about "normal" people. I get frustrated in the amount of escapism prevalent in our media; while it's nice to fantasize, most of us are never going to possess Kardashian-level riches and that doesn't make our lives terrible! Jenna's heartbreaking story of abuse, reluctant motherhood and inability to change her circumstances is one that faces so, so many people in this country, and it was really great to see it get a chance to shine. Through Jenna's baking escape we are able to see that everyone has a gift to share with the world; you don't need a lot of things to be happy, just inner peace; with the help of your community you can leave abusers and demand better for yourself; and being nice to everyone you meet is never a bad strategy to get ahead in life. Pretty perfect summation of the reason for the season, #amiright? Waitress runs through the holiday and closes at the Orpheum on November 26. It's a great family show and well worth a visit if you need to get out of the house this weekend. For more information or to buy tickets, click here: https://hennepintheatretrust.org/.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Better than Broadway: Mixed Blood's Curious Incident of a Dog in the Night-Time

Broadway isn't always better.



At least that was my thought upon watching A Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, the latest (terrific) offering from Mixed Blood Theater. I was lucky enough to see the touring Broadway production of this show last year (you can read my review here), and as much as I enjoyed it then the humbler origins of Mixed Blood's version made the story much more alive for me than ever before.

I'll skip the plot overview this time (a detailed one can be found by clicking here for last year's review), but I want to point out the facets of this production that really impressed me. Chief among them is the stunning performance by MacGregor Arney as Christopher, the main character. Arney's performance is riveting and career-making. He has clearly done his homework, blasting through the show with a kinetic energy that grips you by the throat. Arney has a relatively short resume to-date but I imagine that's about to change after this terrific, star-worthy performance, which is what really sets this production apart from the Broadway version I saw last year. The flashing lights and fancy tech of that production may have had all of the bells and whistles theater can possibly offer, but Arney's immersive, thoughtful take on Christopher in Mixed Blood's production is truly next level and really encapsulates Christopher's character. Go see Arney - you won't regret it.

Another favorite was new-to-me Regan Linton as Christopher's teacher Siobhan. Linton has a warm, comfortable stage presence that enfolds the entire narrative in the emotional equivalent of a plush blanket. It was so wonderful to see a differently abled performer (listen to the TCTB convo about the challenges faced by such performers on our YouTube channel here) on stage with no fuss or irony, just allowed to give a strong, profound performance - and Linton really delivers. I hope she sticks around the Twin Cities for a while, we need more of her.


Zack Myers is back at Mixed Blood (last seen in How to Use a Knife) as Christopher's father Ed. Myers reprises the darker energy of his last role, this time tempered with the frustrated love of a besieged parent at their wit's end. I'm really coming to enjoy Myers' restrained masculinity on stage, and he's a great choice for this part. Miriam Laube is perfectly cast as Christopher's estranged mother Judy. Laube brings real tears and an accessibly broken heart to her performance, and she and Myers make powerful foils for each other as the plot progresses.

There isn't much set to speak of for this performance other than a few artfully arranged cubes that can serve intermittently as doors, tables, beds, etc., and a number of psychedelic projections. It's Mixed Blood's signature spare delivery, and I honestly didn't mind the lack of embellishment. The performances in this show are so necessarily vivid and vital that a lavish staging would take the focus away from where it needs to be, and this approach allowed the audience to fully engage with Arney's showstopping acting. Props are cleverly handled and selected by Abbee Warmboe, and the ingenious idea to embed the extras in the audience throughout the show (thanks to Movement Director Brian Bose and Producer/Director Jack Reuler) not only keeps the energy going at a fast pace but further enhances the feeling that the audience is truly a part of this story.

To my mind, the most extraordinary element of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is the way in which it fully embeds us into the head of "the other." Christopher is someone we "normal" people (although what even does that mean, really?) encounter all the time but don't always know how to understand or reach. By placing us squarely into Christopher's perspective and forcing us to engage with the world through his eyes, we are all exposed to the wonderful things he sees and able to access far more compassion and admiration for his condition than we otherwise might. The miraculous revelations sprinkled throughout this show like so many magical breadcrumbs really do change your perspective after you leave the theater, and there's a lot to think about thanks to Arney's magnificent performance. Mixed Blood always delivers thoughtful, important work, and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is planted squarely in their wheelhouse. Take an extended date night and make sure to check out this emotional play before it closes on December 3; for more information or to buy tickets, click on this link: https://mixedblood.com/on-stage/curious/.

How The Grinch Stole Christmas Steals the Show

I'm always blown away by companies who manage to make true fiction come to life on stage.


Photo by Kaitlin Randolph

Especially when the art is abstract. To my mind, adapting an animationS auteur like Dr. Seuss to the stage would be a nearly herculean task - between the eye popping colors and truly abstruse shapes and silhouettes, it seems like something that would be very difficult to replicate accurately.

Photo by Kaitlin Randolph

Thank goodness then for the Children's Theatre Company (CTC), who makes live action Dr. Seuss seem effortlessly easy. This was most clearly evident last weekend as I attended How The Grinch Stole Christmas, a beautifully adapted version of the classic Christmas story that had the audience literally gasping out loud with delight at the beautifully designed show.

Photo by Kaitlin Randolph

For a brief recap in case you live under a rock, How The Grinch Stole Christmas tells the story of an evil creature named the Grinch who lives alone atop Mount Crumpet, overlooking a small village named Whoville. Christmas is the biggest day of the year in Whoville and the Grinch absolutely hates it. After decades of lamenting the existence of Christmas, the Grinch discovers a way to kill the holiday off completely by sneaking into the Who's homes and stealing everything - their presents, their food, their trees, even the logs for their fires. What the Grinch doesn't reckon with is encountering a small Who child named Cindy Lou Who. Cindy Lou treats the Grinch with greater compassion than he has ever known and begins to melt his icy cold heart. Cindy Lou's kindness, coupled with the fact that the Whos celebrate Christmas anyway by singing carols even after all of their trimmings are gone, leads the Grinch to realize that true happiness and joy lie in healthy, loving relationships, and not in things. He decides to bring all of the stolen goods back to Whoville and reintegrates into the town, abandoning his lonely perch on Mount Crumpet and becoming a member of society once again.

Photo by Kaitlin Randolph

Anchoring this cast is Reed Sigmund as an absolutely superb Grinch. I've seen Sigmund in several roles (including as a hilarious ugly stepsister in last year's Cinderella, or in last season's performance of another Dr. Seuss classic, The Sneetches), but he was born to be the Grinch. From every sinister glance to every deliciously drawn-out line, Sigmund signs off every Grinch-y scene with a flourish. The audience literally gasped with delight when he first emerged from his Mount Crumpet cave, and I can't think of a better embodiment of this role. Fellow CTC company member Dean Holt is also lovely as the narrator, the elder version of the Grinch's pet dog Max. Holt has a warm, comforting presence that helps balance some of Sigmund's inherently freaky delivery (some very small kids may be scared; Sigmund is really good at being Grinch-y), and Holt is exactly the narrator the show needs to stay on familiar footing.

Photo by Kaitlin Randolph

The rest of the cast is composed of several other regulars, who are equally delightful. Natalie Tran is perfectly poised as the Young Max, lending a crystal clear voice to her role. Mabel Weismann is the embodiment of charm as Cindy Lou Who, with several lovely solos that melted not only the Grinch's heart but those of everyone in the audience. Max Wojtanowicz and Sara Ochs are hilarious as Grandpa and Grandma Who, respectively, and Autmn Ness and Dwight Leslie reprise their parental roles as Mama Who and JP Who, respectively.

Photo by Kaitlin Randolph

The orchestra, led by Conductor Victor Zupanc, does a lovely job with each song and provides a thorough soundtrack for the show, keeping it firmly in approachable kiddo territory. The sets, designed by Tom Butsch, and costumes, designed by David Kay Mickelsen, are swoon-worthy and will please even the most die-hard Dr. Seuss fans. I can't praise them highly enough: from the gently sloped and curving Christmas trees to the shockingly cerulean fur of the Grinch, it's a stunning achievement, and the eye candy alone is worth seeing this show.

Photo by Kaitlin Randolph

The Grinch has been a mainstay in America's cultural firmament for decades for a reason, and this production is a a perfect representation of why. We all know (and we all contain) a little bit of the Grinch, and it's always worth a reminder to value people and love above things. Although this is technically a Christmas story the lessons the Grinch teaches us can apply year round. After a year of extreme political polarity, natural disasters, stress and general malaise all around, isn't it lovely to have the opportunity instead to focus on the things that unite and fulfill us? Delight your kids and inspire your better self with this pitch-perfect adaptation of How The Grinch Stole Christmas, which shows at CTC through January 7. For more information and to buy tickets, click on this link.