Monday, August 6, 2018

I'm Addicted to Theater Mu's Latest Show

When is the last time you saw a show authored by a local playwright? 


Photo courtesy of Theater Mu

How about a local female playwright?

How about a local Hmong female playwright?

I'm with you - Theater Mu's latest world premiere was a first for me too, and if the fun production I saw is any indication, I need to seek out more of May Lee-Yang's work ASAP.

Friday saw the world premiere of The Korean Drama Addict's Guide to Losing Your Virginity (KDAGLYV), a new work commissioned by Theater Mu. It was exactly what I needed to see that night and has all of the hallmarks of my favorite romantic comedies: it's witty, wry, wise, and totally charming.

Photo by Rich Ryan

KDAGLYV tells the story of Gao Hlee, an almost-30 year old personality coach who dreams of finding her partner and starting a family; the problem is that between her workaholism and addiction to Korean dramas, she has almost no time to actually date anyone, and the prospects seem limited. Once Gao begins working for Benedict, a wealthy CEO of a Korean company recently transplanted to Minnesota to build his family's business in the Midwest, everything changes. Gao's blunt
American style captivates Benedict, who undergoes a radical change from his frigid traditional persona. Benedict's right hand man, Secretary Kim, finds a true community in the U.S. and is liberated from the strict role he acquired in Korea, thanks to Gao's best friend Z. Gao's mother illuminates the life of a Hmong immigrant in the U.S.; Benedict's mother Madame Song gets the ultimate ghostly comeuppance (I can't say more, you have to see it to understand - but it's awesome); and Gao's cousin Tou Mong is left alone in his cause for Hmong men's rights.

Photo by Rich Ryan
There's so much more happening in KDAGLYV than that speedy overview can share, but suffice it to say: this show is just so fun! I don't know enough about Hmong life or the life of Asian Americans in Minnesota, and I learned so much from the dialogue between these characters. I'm just beginning to venture into the world of Korean dramas, and the cameos from various Korean drama shows throughout the play were hilarious and really helped lighten the mood. There's some magical realism thanks to the presence of strategic ghosts, and overall I found KDAGLYV to be a totally fresh, unique story that had me invested from the very beginning.

Photo by Rich Ryan

Part of my enjoyment was from the terrific young cast, almost all of whom are totally new-to-me actors. Dexieng Yang is wonderful as Gao Hlee, with a bubbly yet direct quality that reminds me of Reese Witherspoon's demeanor. Brian Kim leads Benedict's character through a radical transition with ease, and he and Yang have just the right kind of chaste chemistry this story needs (and he sings a wicked karaoke number). Clay Man Soo is utterly charming as Secretary Kim, and his youthful naivete is a great foil to Khadija Siddiqui's tough demeanor as the no-bullshit Z. Katie Bradley is delightfully evil as Benedict's exacting mother Madame Song, and Phasoua Vang has a warm, direct delivery as Gao's mother that reminds me of many other real-life immigrant mothers I know.

Photo by Rich Ryan

Like many of my favorite sets from Theater Mu, this one is simple but has clever blocking that always tells you where you're at and provides occasional surprises. Most of the scenic design, by Sarah Brandner, involves different sized boxes arranged to indicate cars, a bar, or office furnishings. Simple but evocative props (by Abbee Warmboe) like steering wheel give us all we need to follow the action. Samantha Fromm Haddow's costume design is classy and colorful, with each character looking sharply dressed throughout. And the lighting and sound design (by Karin Olson and Matthew Vichlach, respectively) provides just enough magic for us to be entranced by Gao and Benedict's unlikely love story.

Photo by Rich Ryan

The Korean Drama Addict's Guide to Losing Your Virginity is just the kind of fresh, interesting new stories that I love to see on stage (and that Theater Mu does so well). It's once again proof that not everything needs to have a giant budget and shiny accouterments to be worthy of watching. Like any brand-new work there are some kinks here, but I wholeheartedly enjoyed myself, and I'm so glad that KDAGLYV exists. May Lee-Yang is an exciting new voice in the playwright world, and I can't wait to see what she dreams up next. In the meantime, I'd love for Netflix to pick up this script and bring it as a serialized show to televisions everywhere - I'd binge the heck out of it. Please stop by Park Square Theatre to see this delicious new play before it closes on August 19; click here for more information or to buy tickets.

Monday, July 23, 2018

The Legend of Georgia McBride is a Summer Smash

I find that when it comes to art, it finds you when you need it most. 


Photo by Dan Norman

Take last week, when I truly had the week from hell. Between wedding planning, multiple family medical emergencies, and a busy work schedule, all of our plans got totally upended. I had to miss out on several things I had been greatly looking forward to, and it absolutely stunk to say the least.

Photo by Dan Norman

So the fact that I made it to The Legend of Georgia McBride at all was not only astonishing, it was a downright blessing. I needed to experience a truly escapist, happy few hours, and boy did this deliver. The Legend of Georgia McBride tells the story of a straight man named Casey who accidentally becomes a drag queen in order to pay the bills for his wife and soon-to-be-born child. Casey's journey into drag begins as an act of desperation, but he quickly realizes that not only does he have a knack for it - he actually really enjoys it. He blossoms under the tutelage of a hilarious, wise queen named Tracy, who is part Norma Desmond, part RuPaul, part Liza Minelli, and all-around fabulous. Casey struggles to place his newfound passion inside his understanding of what it means to be a straight man, an inner conflict that bursts into the public once his wife discovers how he's really been making his money. The end of the show reconciles Casey with his identity in some surprising ways, and overall it's a beautiful testament to the dangers of gender constructs and the power we all can have when we embrace who we truly are regardless of what society tells us we need to be.

Photo by Dan Norman

This cast is small but tight, and I really enjoyed watching their interactions (although I do wish there were more local talent included!). Jayson Speters is eager and winning as Casey in his Guthrie debut. I really came around on his performance; he seemed a little too fresh at first, but he really blossoms (just as Casey does) throughout the show, and it doesn't hurt that Speters is a bonafide snack. Cameron Folmar is absolutely delightful as Tracy and had several scene-stealing moments, especially when performing Tracy's drag numbers. Folmar brings such nuance to his role, and we learn a lot through his grounded performance. Arturo Soria also provides several illuminating moments, both as the feisty drag queen Rexy and the straight but surprisingly open minded Jason, Casey's best friend. Soria truly embodies the saying that there are no small parts, and he really makes the show pop with his performance. Guthrie stalwart Jim Lichtscheidl is hilarious as the club owner Eddie, and the audience was delighted from the moment he stepped on stage. Chaz Hodges is eager and innocent as Casey's wife Jo. I liked her performance on her own, but the chemistry between Hodges and Speters was a little lacking. I don't think it was for lack of effort - maybe there just wasn't a true spark? - and it's still enjoyable, just not 100% believable. I loved Hodges' energy though, and I hope to see her around in future shows.

Photo by Dan Norman

I loved the kitschy scenic design from Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams. She really nails the eclectic world of drag backstage, and the easy transitions between scenes keep the action moving quickly. Patrick Holt's costume designs are an absolute riot; they are so creative and clever, and several had the audience rolling with laughter. Ryan Connealy's lighting design and Scott Edwards' sound design enhance the ambiance to be much richer than it otherwise appears, especially because there aren't really any true set changes. Overall, I appreciated Jeffrey Meanza's direction. There were so many clever details sprinkled throughout the play, from the costumes to the character development to the blocking, and it really is a whole lot of fun.

Photo by Dan Norman

I didn't know I needed The Legend of Georgia McBride in my life, but I can promise you that I really did (and I think you do too). Wrapped up in the eclectic, comedic package of this show is an astonishingly nuanced lesson about sexuality and the gender spectrum, the history of drag queens, the grace of open-mindedness and the ultimate demonstration of the Golden Rule. The Legend of Georgia McBride has everything I love in a show - laughter, love, lessons, and light of all kinds. I can't think of a better way to lift my spirits after a truly horrible week (it happens), and I hope others find as much peace in it as I did. Drag and trans experiences are really having a cultural moment right now, and it's a pleasure to see those stories told as well and fully as they are here (or in shows like Pose - another excellent piece of art worth visiting). The Legend of Georgia McBride runs at the Guthrie theater through August 26; for more information or to buy tickets, click on this link.

Photo by Dan Norman

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

The Top 7 Reasons to See Carmen at the Mill City Summer Opera

When the weather matches the mood of your show, you know you've got something powerful going on. 


Photo by Dan Norman

I have always been a great lover of opera, so it saddens me that I haven't had a chance to see many performances in the last few years! Something always seems to prevent me from heading to St. Paul for the delicious work the Minnesota Opera has been doing lately, so I'm stuck instead listening to recordings and dreaming of sensual production design in my apartment.

I was delighted, then, to receive an invitation to attend this year's Mill City Summer Opera, one of the many unique venue performances that arise throughout the summer and always a fun experience. This year MCSO is performing Carmen; there was no way I was going to pass up an opportunity to go, so I headed over to a dress rehearsal last week to check it out.

It's a good thing the performance was a dress rehearsal because Don Juan was out sick and the performance was cancelled halfway through due to a freakily tempestuous rain storm. It doesn't matter though, because I was still treated to an hour and a half of gloriously romantic music that only whetted my appetite for more. How can I claim that you should go see a show I didn't even get to finish? Let me count the ways:

  1. It's Carmen. I know there are shows and artists that can be over-hyped, but trust this opera lover: Carmen isn't one of them. A true masterpiece by Georges Bizet, Carmen has everything you love in opera (or any good story to be honest) - high drama, romance, swashbuckling masculinity, memorable themes, lyrical arias, and the sexiest damn singers you ever did see. It's like a pirate ship for music, how can you go wrong? 
  2. Flamenco. It's not advertised anywhere on the website and we didn't get programs to confirm, but I'm 90% sure that several of the Twin Cities' resident flamenco studio Zorongo's performers are on stage throughout the performance, including the inimitable, riveting founder Susana di Palma. Di Palma wields a castanet like a weapon, gliding across the stage with impossibly tiny yet sinuous movements that will delight any dance lover. Go see Carmen for the music, stay for the flamenco - it's such a treat, and I wish I had a chance to see it more often. 
  3. Mill City Atmosphere. The urban Mississippi riverfront is finally getting some developmental love, and it's already a pleasure to walk around and just look at all the pretty buildings. But to have the chance to see a live opera in an open air venue as gorgeous as the Mill City Museum? That's icing on the cake. There's not a bad seat in the house - you'll be up close and personal with the performers and musicians, giving you an intensely personal view of opera that normally happens much farther away from your eyes. 
  4. Once In A Lifetime Venue. Have you ever had a chance to attend a museum event after hours, dressed to the nines, and witness a masterful performance that will never be repeated again? Yes, this is a *very* bourgeois thing to say, but it's also true - listening to beautiful opera as the sun sets over the Mississippi river and the milky ruins bathe into a warm glow and the stars appear is a gorgeous experience that you owe it to yourself to have. #treatyoself and get a ticket to a full circle opera experience you'll never forget. 
  5. Incredible Vocalists. From the taste we got last week I can assure you that this is a powerhouse cast, and they're only going to get better as they perform more. I found Audrey Babcock positively riveting as Carmen; she's got the voice you crave for the role, but she also acts through her teeth, dances with charm, and is all-around expressive AF. I loved watching her traipse through the cast, disarming them all with her stacked voice and saucy manners, and any Carmen fan is sure to be delighted with her performance. There are several other musical standouts too - I'll leave you to discover them when you go. 
  6. These Performers Are All-In. Do you have any idea what it takes to stand unflinchingly in 85+ degree heat and 75% humidity for over three hours, singing your heart out, sweating through your costumes, hearing your instruments submit to the humidity - and doing it all over again multiple times a week? These performers are truly fearless and refuse to be intimidated by whatever conditions the weather (or climate change) throws at them. They didn't quit playing until there was a downpour of rain, and they stayed as long as possible so the show could go on to completion even though it was just a dress rehearsal. I promise you after witnessing a night in which just about every bad thing that could have, happened: Audiences will be treated to the absolute best level performance these artists can give, and you're sure to get every penny's worth of value that you spend on a ticket.
  7. A Diverse Crew is Running The Show. Another example of the team dedication? When Don Juan was out sick, three different people stepped in to fill his role - the fight captain, Michael Jerome Johnson; the music leader, Fenlon Lamb; and the chorus master, Lara Bolton. While it was a shame that we didn't get to see the actual performer playing Don Jose, what this afforded was a chance to see people who are usually silently behind the scenes orchestrating everything actually jump into action on stage. It was so awesome to see this diverse group of rock stars leading their crew, and honestly provided a different feel to Carmen that got me thinking about how neat it would be to see this show with even more non-traditional casting. What if Don Jose was actually Don Josefina?  Or Carmen was Carlos? There is already a nice spread of racial diversity represented on stage - could there be more? How else could we play with the show to add new layers of meaning? Hats off to the amazing leaders who stepped in at a tough time and let us all see how the example they set leads to excellence throughout the whole production. 
Photo by Dan Norman

My impression overall? If you already love opera, you'll adore this production of Carmen. If you don't? There is no better gateway into understanding the world of opera than Georges Bizet's luxurious score, and the talented, dramatic acting of this cast will have you sucked in from the first few minutes. Carmen only runs through July 24, so make sure you get your tickets ASAP (they're selling out quickly!). Click here for more information or to nab your tickets.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Electricity is a Riveting Exploration of Life

How do you feel about romantic comedies? 


Photo by Mike Pingel

I, for one, love them unabashedly. I used to feel ashamed of this, but no more. It's HARD to write a script that is equal parts funny, sweet, tense, winsome and winning (don't believe me? You try it). Good romantic comedy is a genre that has never received enough respect; done well, it can tell us all a little truth about the human condition and provide something beautiful to lift our spirits at the same time, and that's a service we need in our troubled world now more than ever.

So what if I told you that tonight I saw a beautiful new-to-me romantic comedy named Electricity that deserves everyone's attention and only plays in the Twin Cities for one more night? I hope it would motivate everyone to show up and give it a shot - I think you'll be surprised how much you like it.

Photo by Mike Pingel


Let me tell you a little more. Electricity was beautifully written by Terry Ray (who also stars in the show) and tells the story of two men named Gary and Brad who reconnect in 1983 at their 10 year high school reunion. They are the only two gay men who grew up in their small town high school class, and reliving their memories is painfully awkward but reveals some stirring truths that build a surprisingly deep, instant connection between both men. For the next 90 minutes the play takes us through successive reunions - first 20 years, then 30, then 40 - and revisits the relationship between Gary and Brad at each interval. They grow a little grayer, a little older, and a little more complex at each meeting, revealing deeper layers of the importance of their relationship with each other, the pain of their experiences as gay men living through (and literally surviving) the horrific AIDS crisis and small town homophobia, and the amazing ways society can evolve to support formerly marginalized populations. It's a stirring evolution, one that moved me deeply more than once, and one that I think does a lovely job of honoring a specific gay experience while still telling a story that anyone of any sexuality can connect with.

Photo by Mike Pingel

Terry Ray's writing is the anchor of the show, and his sensitive, deft script has so much heart and character. His acting as Gary is not to be overlooked either, and it's clear he has a strong connection to the source material. Ray is easily the funnier of the two actors, and he brought so much charm to his part that immediately won me over. He is a slight caricature without being cartoony - a hard balance to find - and gives a beautiful, nostalgic performance that I thoroughly loved. Mel England is flawless as the messy, troubled Brad, and I was really blown away by his performance. The initial messy persona he exposes at the beginning of Electricity had me a little on edge, but England confidently leads the audience through Brad's transition into a reflective, flawed but considerate figure that was truly moving to see. I had the pleasure of briefly chatting with England after the performance and can say that he also deeply connects to the source material, and he brings every ounce of that passion and depth to his performance.

Photo by Mike Pingel

Ray and England's chemistry is the kind seen in the best of romantic comedies. Like some of my absolute favorite romantic comedy films - Silver Linings Playbook or Some Like It Hot or His Girl Friday or The Big Sick come to mind - Electricity is a fully realized romance in a sweet and sour package. It's well-balanced, witty and has a lot of important things to say without seeming preachy. By showing instead of telling us of the experiences of Gary and Brad, we are able to follow their life journey and invest in their intermittent romance. I truly believe this is a story that can appeal to any people no matter their sexual orientation, and I encourage all readers to make a date night of it tomorrow to show out for this stirring show.

Photo by Mike Pingel

Electricity only runs at Camp Bar for one more night, which isn't nearly enough time for local audiences to savor this delightful show. The proof is in the pudding: normally I like to give shows time to mentally digest a little so I can truly sort out my thoughts before writing about them, but I literally went straight home after viewing to post this review in hopes that the more time it was up, the more people could find to come to the final performance on July 14. I'd love to see these two talented performers close their show to a packed house - I think this is a story that really deserves a great audience and wide viewership, and where better to chill on a Saturday than the always delightful Camp Bar? Go a little early, order some tasty food from Keys Cafe next door and a strong cocktail from one of the several helpful barkeeps, and settle in for a riveting 90 minute performance that will fill your whole heart with love. For more information about Electricity and to buy tickets, click on this link.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

My Favorite Reads of 2018 (So Far)

Some excellent #beachreads for your consideration


I'm always game for a good #shelfie

Reading roundups have become one of my favorite perennial posts, and for good reason. I'm an avid reader and started tracking the books I read on Goodreads a few years ago to have a better way to remember my thoughts about everything I was reading. After faithfully logging 100+ books read annually for a few years in a row, I wanted to share some of the highlights with the world - after all, what's the point of reading so much if you don't have a way to engage with each text? What's been especially interesting is tracking how my tastes in books have changed over time. This is a much "fluffier" list of books than I might have read in the past, but all of them are books that have genuinely thrilled me and that I think anyone can enjoy and benefit from reading. All opinions are my own and reflect books I've read in the calendar year 2018, so there will be items that were not published this year but are still awesome. Take a look at my choices and let me know - what are some of your recent favorites? And to see everything I read, follow the books tab here on Compendium, or click here to follow me on Goodreads.


Best Book of 2018: Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows by Balli Kaur Jaswal



I realize this headline might be slightly hyperbolic, but I just finished this book and can't relinquish my excitement. Rarely have I read something so truly original, and this delighted me from cover to cover. I have quickly learned to always listen to Reese Witherspoon's book recommendations (much like we do with Ms. Oprah), and I don't think I could have found this book on my own without her. This book has everything - it's super sexy, funny, winsome, has a murder mystery, is modern, ageless, and truly, totally unique. It's begging to be made into a movie (which will hopefully happen soon - this was optioned by Ridley Scott's Scott Free Productions and Film4, a British TV channel) and I cannot wait to go back and read Jaswal's earlier books. The characters in Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows (isn't the title alone just so delightful?!) are so well rounded and it really reminded me how little we think of "women of a certain age." Despite the fact that this reads like stereotypical chick lit, it actually has a lot of really thoughtful things to say about race, ageism, immigration, cultural differences, traditional values vs. modernity, and so much more, and it says them in a way that never feels forced or heavy-handed. I was absolutely delighted with this rich novel and couldn't put it down (I actually had to pace myself as I read to savor every word). This is truly a perfect summer read, make sure you pick it up! 

Best Nonfiction: So You Want to Talk About Race? by Ijeoma Oluo



If there is one book that everyone needs to read *right now,* it's this one. Oluo has a beautiful, approachable yet frank writing style that perfectly handles the difficult subject of race. I've heard from so many people, especially white people, that they don't know how to sensitively and intelligently talk about racial issues; this book beautifully does all of the heavy lifting for you. Oluo breaks down some of the FAQs of fraught racial conversations like "Why can't I say the N word?" "Why do we need affirmative action?" and "What is white privilege?" in a way that anyone can understand and connect to. She heads off tangential arguments, speaks to both sides, and begins each chapter with her own lived experience, humanizing each issue in a way that sets you at ease and gets you seeing the world through her eyes. Racial equality is a work in progress, one I work on every day and I constantly fail at, but I keep trying - because it's so very important. I've never seen a better definition of why we have to try, how to do so, and how to pick yourself up after making a mistake than this book. I genuinely wish I could afford to buy 1,000 copies of this and just hand them out on the streets to people. If you're struggling with how to cross divides, understand racism in America (especially in its more subtle contemporary forms), or finding the words to explain exactly why certain things are worse for some and not all of us, read this book. It will put things elegantly and plainly to help you navigate this and find inclusive solutions to the problem. 

Best YA Fiction: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas



I've seen people raving about this book for months and I can now understand why. Like the work of J.K. Rowling or John Green, The Hate U Give is a great example of how YA fiction is increasingly complex, thoughtful, and empowering and for way more readers than just children. There are so many serious themes, particularly about the effects of poverty and police brutality on communities of color, that are not trivialized or simplified here; instead, Angie Thomas trusts that the teenagers she writes for can not only handle the truth but use it to make the world a better place. I was captivated for the full 450 pages of this book and easily could have read more if Thomas wanted to write it. Though this was technically written for teens I think adults can really benefit from reading and enjoying The Hate U Give. And if you're not the reading type, you're in luck - the film version, starring Amandla Stenberg, just released the trailer and will come out in October 2018.

Best Family Drama: Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng



This is another Reese Witherspoon recommendation that I couldn't put down. Little Fires Everywhere is not a book I would have picked up on my own but I was riveted from start to finish. I literally devoured this whole book in one sitting - the same way I did watching Big Little Lies last year, another narrative that I would have said I didn't like if I judged it based on a blurb. Little Fires Everywhere is engaging, intriguing, poignant, and has such a pull of mystery throughout every page.  I am beyond thrilled that Reese and Kerry Washington are co-producing (and starring in) a TV series adaptation of this and I cannot wait to see it. If you like thrillers, mysteries, family dramas, outsider stories, etc. then you will enjoy this, but I'd encourage anyone to pick it up even if they think it sounds boring and watch themselves be pleasantly surprised.

Best Fantasy Series: The Broken Earth by N.K. Jemisin



I'd seen oodles of glowing reviews of The Broken Earth series and finally had to read it for myself. I immediately dove into the first book and finished it in less than a day. This is an accomplishment because a) the book was nearly 500 pages and b) I hadn't read a book that long that quickly since high school, I think. This pattern quickly followed suit with the final two books, leading me to read almost 2,000 pages in less than three days. Jemisin really is such an original writer; you can't help but be captivated by the detailed, totally new worlds she constructs. I like to think everyone would love this series, but I think this is an especially great fit for fans of dystopian books, fantasy, sci-fi, magic, mysteries, inter-generational narratives, and totally original stories. There are shades of all the great fantasy writers here - Octavia Butler, Ursula Le Guin, Tolkein, Rowling, even a little George R.R. Martin. N.K. Jemisin has jumped near the top of my long list of women of color who are absolutely killing it in the literary game these days - between she and Nnedi Okorafor, I think I've been spoiled forever to really great science fiction. If you're feeling a little lackluster about your reading list (or just the news in general these days) and want to escape to a beautifully described, totally engrossing fictional story, look no further - this series has it all!

Best Sci-fi Series: Binti by Nnedi Okorafor



For the sci-fi genre the Binti books are quite short, but don't let that fool you into thinking they are simplistic. I love all of Okorafor's books but this is now second only to the Akata series - Binti is so unique and a really rich saga that belies its length. Interestingly, I like the sequels even better than Binti #1, as they beautifully connect Binti's new and old worlds. I love the way that Okorafor seamlessly connects ancient African tribes to hyper futuristic and alien worlds. There is a lot of Ursula LeGuin in the Binti books, but in a fresher, newer, more Star Trekkian way that I really enjoy. This story is extremely cinematic and I can imagine a vivid, velvety shooting that is part Dune, part Issa Rae. I'd love to see Janelle Monae option this and make it into a film or TV series as she'd be a perfect shepherd of the narrative. Binti is a must-read for sci-fi fans.

Most Meditative Book: Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer


I'd seen this highly recommended by several people I know and finally threw it on my to-read shelf. What a joy this book was! It is beautifully written and very meditative. I found myself savoring every page and almost feeling as if I was having a spiritual experience while I read. The tone is part memoir, part scientific, part devotional, and I really engaged with every essay. I was lucky enough to grow up in a rural small town and vividly remember being raised in woods similar to the ones Kimmerer describes. Every sentence brought me back to the delicious smell of pines and oaks and loamy soil and my youthful obsession with identifying plants and flowers. I connected so readily with her poetic writing and scientific mind, and I learned so many things about botany, about the Northwoods, about Native American cultures and languages and history - the list goes on and on. I read this at the same time as the Sioux Chef's cookbook and it was a perfect pairing, with Kimmerer's deeper insight into the ecological and historical perspective paired with Sherman's culinary histories. I'd recommend this book for anyone who loves nature, history, learning about different cultures, celebrating Native Americans, beautiful writing, poetry, ecology and botany, and more. 

Best Book That Will Break Your Heart: An American Marriage by Tayari Jones



What is it lately with exciting writers putting out amazing books that totally shatter you? This wandered my way (I suspect like most other people) because of Oprah's book club, and I decided to check it out. Turns out I pretty much read it straight through in a single sitting and couldn't put it down; the writing is so rich and compelling. I love how Jones switches the chapters between perspectives of each major character; often it feels messy when writers do this, but her writing is so tight that it works flawlessly and really helps make the story fully well rounded so that you never totally align with any one character. I will caution that if you prefer happy stories, you'll definitely be getting teary by the end of this one. It's still absolutely worth reading, and it completely broke my heart. I could pretty much sum this book up by saying "Oprah is never wrong" and leave it at that - this is a beautifully written book and it's a perfect beach read for the summer. I've also made it a goal to support more small publishers and this is a stunner out of new-to-me Algonquin; if you click the link in the header you'll go to their website, which is more than worth a perusal for some unique literary gems from diverse voices that you're sure to love. 

Best Graphic Novel: Baddawi by Leila Abdelrazaq



Palestine was a recent stop in my Around the World book club and this was the perfect choice. After some dry, difficult translated books it was nice to have a graphic novel to enjoy, and this one manages to pack so much substance into a short amount of space. Telling the story of the conflict in Palestine through the eyes of a child, Baddawi really hits home how much the Palestinian people have suffered over the last 80 years. To be stateless, without a passport or country recognized by other nations, is quite an unfathomable hardship - you are never a legal resident anywhere, you can't travel, and there are so many things blocking you from fulfilling basic needs and safety. It was impossible not to think of the Arab of the Future books or Persepolis while reading this - Baddawi fits comfortably into that niche. I actually wished this was longer and could have included more detail as the story is beautifully told and impactful. Baddawi is an important, accessible read for anyone looking to understand the conflicts surrounding Israel in the Middle East. I highly encourage you to pick it up. 

Monday, July 2, 2018

Locally-Made Boozy Musts for July 4th Celebrations

There's never been a better time to #drinklocal


Be honest, what's better than a strong cocktail on a rooftop on a gorgeous day? Nuthin'

We're in the throes of #libation season, a favorite time of year for me, and I couldn't resist sharing some of my favorite new finds ahead of the coming holiday. If you're off on Independence Day and planning a celebration (aren't we all?), there are some kickin' local breweries and distilleries you should source some of your drinks from. I've tried selections from each of these brands and can confidently say that there is something good for everyone here. Supporting local business is always a good idea - read about some other locally-made, family-friendly treats here.

The new Finnegans taproom has so many kickass new flavors!

Finnegans: Beer for a Worthy Cause
The delightful new Finnegans tap room has received oodles of local press, and for good reason. This delish local beer brand has been brewing up a storm since well before the current craft beer craze exploded. Donating 100% of profits to charities that provide food for the hungry, Finnegans is a perfect model of having your cake and eating it too (literally) - you get affordable, delicious beer that supports the local economy, and in turn your money helps provide meals for those who don't have enough to eat. What is there to lose?

Finnegans is truly mission driven in the best way possible

I *highly* recommend you check out Finnegans gorgeous new space in Downtown Minneapolis when you get a chance (and even consider becoming a member of their exclusive Brewer's Den; more details here), but if you don't have time to do so before the holiday, pick up a case or two of one of their beers (my favorites? the Irish Ale or the Cluster Truck IPA) to sample with friends at your July Fourth cookout. I can testify that the beer is awesome and it's the perfect conversation starter to help you feel good in more ways than one.

Can't stop thinking about these gorgeous liquors

Crooked Water Spirits: Perfect Cocktails

Adhering to specific liquor brands was never really my thing, but I might change my tune after sampling the wares from Crooked Water Spirits. First things first: this line of eight spirits is good - really good. In fact, it's the first ever whiskey I've liked to drink straight, and their pre-mixed Old Fashioned has become my go-to housewarming gift for friends who drink. Their gins are made with local herbs and mix beautifully into light, summery cocktails, and you can't go wrong with just about any combo you make with their products. I've been keeping a bottle of the gin in my freezer and it's a delicious, chilled nightcap for warm days.

Heather Manley = literal #girlboss

The fact that this is the first ever certified women-owned distillery in the U.S.? That's just icing on the proverbial rum-soaked cake. I've met the founder Heather Manley, and she's a straight up #girlboss who is going to totally transform the liquor industry one barrel at a time. This line is well priced for the quality and I highly recommend you check it out. You can buy Crooked Water Spirits online by clicking here, or physically find it in Minnesota (and in many other states!) on liquor store shelves at Target, Walmart, and other local purveyors. Oh, and don't forget to follow the Crooked Water Sprits Instagram account - it will give you serious #FOMO and some awesome cocktail ideas.

Ale Asylum has a huge line of beers for every palate

Ale Asylum: A Lighter, Diverse Range of Wisconsin Beers 

For a long time Ale Asylum's brand was exclusive to Wisconsonites, but no more. With their launch at Republic last fall, Ale Asylum cracked into the Twin Cities market and has charged faithfully forward ever since. I have sampled a few of these beauties and while they're not going to knock the door down a la other local brands like Dangerous Man or Surly, they are totally drinkable, really good fits for summer outings. They've got a robust listing of different varietals - so it's not all big, hoppy IPAs if that's not your thing - including a giant range of seasonal beers. Buyers take note: these are some high ABV beers and can quickly creep up on you, so if you're outside in the heat drinking them make sure you hydrate too. If you want to know how to find a case or two to keep on the boat (#YOLO), check out Ale Asylum's awesome beer finder (click here) to search by zip code and type.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

A New Take on Phantom in Love Never Dies

Sometimes, all you want is a good B-list sequel. 


Photo by Joan Marcus

I was raised on the original Phantom of the Opera Broadway soundtrack. At 12 years old, when I got my first boombox #datedmyselfalready, I owned three CDs: Celine Dion's greatest hits; Barbra Streisand duets (including a glorious one with Michael Crawford himself); and The Phantom of the Opera soundtrack. I must have blown through that CD hundreds of times, entranced with Crawford and Sarah Brightman's expressive, lush vocals. It helped spark my interest in real operas and is a show I've loved returning to through the years, particularly the excellent 25th anniversary redesigned production (click here to read my review of the show last December).

Photo by Joan Marcus

So when I learned that there was an Andrew Lloyd Webber-penned sequel, I wasn't sure what to think. Would it ruin the original for me? How could it possibly live up to its predecessor? Do we need another Phantom story? How could it feel fresh when the original story felt so exhaustively explored already?

Photo by Joan Marcus

I'm happy to say that Love Never Dies, now showing at the Orpheum, is actually pretty enjoyable. I'd liken it to the Brendan Fraser Mummy movies of the late 1990s - not classics, not profound, but genuinely enjoyable and full of enough quality to keep you interested. I don't want to give away too much of the story as I approached it with totally fresh eyes and was genuinely surprised by the ending, but a brief summary goes thus: It's been 10 years since the dramatic events of The Phantom of the Opera. Raul has gone totally broke and Christine comes out of musical retirement to perform in America to earn enough money to pay their debts and care for their son. It turns out that years before, the Phantom escaped to America with Madame Giry and her daughter Meg in tow and has since been holding court on a dark corner of Coney Island. Once the Phantom learns Christine is nearby he of course cannot help but try to entrance her all over again, and the ensuing action totally rearranges our previous understanding of the relationships between these main characters.

Photo by Joan Marcus

I found the music pretty, interesting and different from the original while still holding that eerie Phantom feeling. It almost felt a little oriental at moments (that Mummy movie vibe all over again), and there are a couple knockout songs on the show (including "Devil Take the Hindmost," a dark duet between the Phantom and Raoul, and the stunning flagship song "Love Never Dies"). There are several real-life opera performers in this cast, a wise choice that allows each aria-like song to truly soar. Gardar Thor Cortes is glorious as the Phantom; his expressive and wide ranging tenor is beautifully paired with the lush baritone tones of Sean Thompson as Raoul, and their duet was a highlight for me. Meghan Picerno's soprano is a total knockout as Christine Daae, and she can act too. Picerno gives a rich performance throughout the show and has great chemistry with both male leads; she really hits new heights in the second act, which was much more interesting than the first and included her glorious solo on "Love Never Dies." The true star of the cast is young Jake Heston Miller as Christine's son Gustave, who is spectacularly talented and knocks his role out of the park. Miller has the falsetto of angels, and he is very impressive for being so young. The roles of Madame Giry (played by Karen Mason) and Meg Giry (Mary Michael Patterson) are played with equal strength; there really isn't a vocal weak link in the cast, a pleasure since these latter roles often feel like they receive less attention at casting calls. Mason and Patterson have great chemistry and their layered acting really helps this sequel feel fresh, a feat for building off of such a well-known story.

Photo by Joan Marcus

The set is much simpler than that of the thrilling revival of the original, which was a bit disappointing but also not that big of a deal. It mostly consists of various frameworks to give the suggestion of Coney Island without being cumbersome, and it's effective if relatively uninspiring. There are a few titillating moments where we get some magical Phantom sightings, but the main showpiece was the revolving stage. The constant motion made the otherwise simple set feel much bigger than it was, and there is some impressive choreography that really utilizes the full capabilities of that stage. The costumes are beautifully colored and have some lovely detail; I wish I could have seen them more up close, especially some of the gowns worn by Meg and Christine. Check through the pictures I posted here and you'll see what I mean.

Photo by Joan Marcus

Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by Love Never Dies, and it continues to grow on me after the curtains closed. At intermission I was feeling decidedly tepid about it; the second act really redeemed the show overall and made me more engaged. Since I saw it I haven't been able to stop humming along to the tunes, and I have a feeling that the more time I have to sit with Love Never Dies' lyrical orchestration, the more I'll like it. If I had my druthers I'd still make some edits - I think they could cut a few first act songs and shorten it to run without an intermission in a way that would really strengthen the story and make the pacing feel a bit quicker - but it's not at all bad as it is. If you love the original Phantom of the Opera and want to see something that will leave you happy and satisfied (like a boring but delicious chocolate chip cookie), I think Love Never Dies fits the bill. Hurry to go if you plan to, because it closes on July 1; click here for more information or to buy tickets.

Photo by Joan Marcus