Tuesday, June 27, 2017

A Sunny Sunday in the Park With George

Taking a risk is almost always a good thing. 

Photo by T Charles Erickson

That was my thought while watching Sunday in the Park With George, the Guthrie's latest mainstage offering. For the past several years since they really started focusing on producing extraordinary summer musicals, the Guthrie has chosen to stick with relatively safe classics a la standards like Rogers and Hammerstein's South Pacific, My Fair Lady and The Music Man. As much as I love those shows I've seen them a million times, so I was grateful this year for a breath of fresh air with the new-to-me Sunday in the Park With George by Stephen Sondheim, incredibly the first time a Sondheim show has been produced at the big G.

Photo by T Charles Erickson

A truly postmodern musical, Sunday in the Park With George is really two separate stories. Act I imagines what is passing through the mind of Georges Seurat as he paints his now infamous pointilist classic A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, a true epochal piece in the span of the impressionist era that moved painting forward into a more abstract realm. Act I sees the characters of this painting step outside of the frame into vibrant, breathing life and not only imagines each of their stories and personalities but how they are interrelated. A special focus is George's love affair with Dot, a muse whose inner strength ultimately can't allow her to spend her life languishing in a dark studio amongst the absence of George's affections. Act II fasts forward 100 years or so to George's grandson George 2.0, also a visionary artist (although of modern sculpture), as he reconnects with his roots on his predecessor's home soil and learns of his filial connection with Seurat through his grandmother's beautiful stories.

Photo by T Charles Erickson

As always, the Guthrie outdid itself with the set. Designed by Jan Chambers, the bulk of the action is set against an enormous empty painting frame. For Act I, a sinuous, billowing sheet cascades through one side of the frame and hosts a myriad of painterly projections; for Act II, several lovely objects (such as young George's modern light sculpture and an unbelievably well-made copy of A Sunday on La Grande Jatte) are suspended in front of it. The simple staging has the effect of making the characters truly seem to step to life out of the painting, and it was my favorite part of the show. Set pieces otherwise are nearly non-existent and consist of simple furnishings popped up whenever we are in the elder George's house. The costumes are period-specific and lavishly outlandish (but wonderful); outsized bustles, precariously tied corsets, a plethora of parasols and the most superb 1980s wigs I've ever seen fly around the stage, and they bring rich color to the otherwise starkly colorless set. Wigs off to costume designer Ton-Leslie James; her work is inspired and I hope we see more of her.

Photo by T Charles Erickson

The cast is quite talented, particularly the riveting Erin Mackey. Mackey stars as Georges' lover Dot in Act I and George's grandmother Marie in Act II, and she easily has the most lovely solos of the bunch in both roles. She is vivacious, captivating and pitch-perfect; Erin, please stay in the Twin Cities! Randy Harrison is dry and difficult as the elder George but much more engaging as the younger George in Act II. Something about his overwhelming beard in Act I really dulls the emotion of his character somehow, but his zest and passion are much more apparent in Act II. The company includes a tour of other well-played characters. Sasha Andreev is the comic standout as Franz; Ann Michels is perfectly snobby as Yvonne; Paul Nakauchi is imperious as Jules; and Emily Gunyou Halaas is vibrant as the Nurse for George's mother, played with nuance by Christine Toy Johnson. There weren't many musical standouts for me in this show aside from Mackey's perfect dictations; the melodies were not nearly as interesting as the story. Still, the cast sings with gusto, and if you happen to already love the songs of Sunday in the Park, you'll be well pleased with their efforts.

Photo by T Charles Erickson

I have a hit and miss relationship with Stephen Sondheim, who won a Pulitzer for writing Sunday in the Park With George. I tend to enjoy his work in film much more than on stage, and at first I thought that was the case with this show. With the passing of a few days and some time to let it sink in, however, I have found that Sunday in the Park With George really lingers with me. I think it's because of the show's focus on the nexus between dreams and reality, something that all of us struggle with (although not always in such sharp relief as it is depicted here). How do you choose between disparate things which you love equally? Can you die of a broken heart? Is pushing your intellectual vision at the expense of your spiritual happiness really worth it? Why does knowing your heritage matter? Sunday in the Park With George is steeped in a certain pomposity that can be a little difficult (Is it true that making art is "extremely difficult" in the realm of this show's bubble? Sure. In the greater scope of all human life on earth? Hell no, let's be real). But if you can get over that hump and into the park with the Georges, you just may find some questions worth answering on your own.

Photo by T Charles Erickson

You have plenty of time to see Sunday in the Park With George, as it runs at the Guthrie through August 20. It's something I'd definitely recommend attending to fill a rainy day, maybe coupled with a visit to one of the excellent museums in the Twin Cities. This unique show will give you a lot to contemplate in addition to some gorgeous staging to enjoy along the way. For more information or to buy tickets, click on this link.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Reveling in the Mystery of Nero Wolfe in Might As Well Be Dead

Nostalgia can be a beautiful thing. 

Photo by  Petronella J. Ytsma

Continuing our cinematic theme for the month of June, I have to tell you another little bit of my past: I am obsessed with Hollywood's "golden age." Nothing makes me happier than a snowy day, a great glass of wine and a series of Thin Man films lined up on my projector. I can happily bathe in the luminous sepian tones of Myrna Loy, William Powell, Clark Gable and Jane Greer for hours without pause, and I regularly enjoy dipping my toes into work by authors like Dashiell Hammett and Ian Fleming on the regular.

Photo by  Petronella J. Ytsma

This explains why I was so delighted to enjoy the premiere of Might As Well Be Dead at Park Square Theatre on Friday, a world premiere commission for a new story in the Nero Wolfe* mystery series. Surrounded by fellow cinephiles (and hardcore murder mystery fans, including the delightful Wolfe Pack), I reveled in this marvelous new story that will please any fans of old Hollywood, murder mystery, detective shows and plain old good storytelling.

Photo by  Petronella J. Ytsma

Might As Well Be Dead picks up in private detective Nero Wolfe's apartment as a woman commissions him to find her long-estranged son. The case seems hopeless, but Wolfe uses his intuitive understanding of initials and missing persons to find the man, who is currently on trial for a murder he did not commit. Loathe to inform his client of this disappointing turn of events and risk losing his retainer, Wolfe sets out to prove the man's innocence. Along the way he meets a motley crew of local socialites; brushes with some high rolling gangster forces; discovers many illicit romantic trysts; and enjoys some absurdly luxurious meals. I should mention that the footwork here (as well as the narration) is committed by Wolfe's amiable assistant Archie Goodwin, a charming fellow who glosses over Wolfe's more brusque demeanor. The crime is eventually solved - although I won't tell you how - and many captivating details are strewn throughout to lighten the mood, like a clever tango dance and the elucidation of those lavish menus.

Photo by  Petronella J. Ytsma

E.J. Subkoviak stars as Nero Wolfe and brings just the right gruff bluster to his part, preening over his sitting room like the peacock Wolfe is. He's well partnered with Derek Dirlam as Wolfe's assistant Archie. It takes a while for Dirlam to warm up, but once he does he proves to be a seamless guide through the narrative. Michael Paul Levin is hilarious as Wolfe's foil Inspector Cramer, with just the right comedic timing and over-the-top outrage at being passed up at every turn of the investigation. And the women of the cast really light up the stage; it was so lovely to see a diverse group of women well utilized (even though one could have made a case that historically they were irrelevant; new writers, take note! You can absolutely improve upon history. This casting was inspired.). Am'Ber Montgomery sashays through scenes as Wolfe's secretary Dol and Suki Molloy, the secretive wife of the dead man. Austene Van is marvelous as several characters, including Wolfe's haughty client Mrs. Herrold. And Marisa Tejeda is vivacious as the informant Delia Brandt, lighting up the stage every time she comes on.

Photo by  Petronella J. Ytsma

The set is static but extremely well utilized, covering every ounce of vertical space. The focal point is Wolfe's office, which has the overstuffed furniture, plethora of books and dim lighting one would expect of such a private and intelligent man. To either side are an apartment overhang for investigating Suki and a curved staircase that is used in multiple ways. The vignettes are passed between quickly and elegantly, and the strategic lighting helps poise them as asides in the action. I really enjoyed how thoughtfully it was laid out, and it kept the pace moving quickly and focus on the action onstage. Costumes evoke that well-heeled 1940's aesthetic I love so much, and everyone seemed chic but comfortable.

Photo by  Petronella J. Ytsma

I can't overstate how much fun I had seeing Might As Well Be Dead. It tickled all the elements of my old Hollywood funnybone that I love so much, and it was so wonderful to have a truly escapist night at the theater. I love the story behind the origin of the show, too - the playwright originates from Minnesota and the entire process was crowdsourced through Park Square's Mystery Writers Producers Club, further proving why having general audience input in the creative process is a really good thing. Might As Well Be Dead is fun, imaginative, enticing and a breath of fresh air. As we all know I love socially conscious art and I think it's a really good thing to hash out social issues on stage, but sometimes you need a break from all the seriousness in the world. Might As Well Be Dead is the perfect example of such an escapist show, done to pitch perfection by Park Square and ready to suit anyone's gumshoe tendencies. There are so many cute touches throughout the theater (like voting for the culprit with pearls at intermission - make sure you don't miss it!), and I am sure audiences of any age can enjoy this wonderful show. Might As Well Be Dead runs through July 30 at Park Square Theatre; for more information or to get tickets, click on this link.

*For the uninitiated (like me), Nero Wolfe has been around for quite some time. I'd encourage you to check out some of his amazing book series, or the television adaptation of his stories (which you can find for free here on YouTube!). It was great Sunday viewing and a whole lot of fun. 

Friday, June 23, 2017

Thrillist: The Best Small Towns in Minnesota 

Can you even really say you're American if you haven't spent time in a small town? 

I mean between country songs, pickup trucks, watery beers, and endless road trips, what else really is there? 

As a girl who proudly grew up in small town Minnesota, I have no shame in declaring that I loved writing and researching my latest piece for Thrillist. It was fun, full of heart, and brought me home in all the best ways. 

Summers are made for enjoying the gorgeous landscapes we have so readily available in Minnesota. For an extremely short time investment you can really get out of the city and into the world of clear lakes, river tubing, green spaces and pig races. What's not to love about all that?

Please take advantage this year and road trip it out to one of these rural gems! Your dollar goes a lot further there and I promise you will have the best time. To read my piece about the best small towns to visit in Minnesota, click on this link.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

FREE ALERT: New Indigenous Direction Partnership at the Guthrie NEXT WEEKEND

More and more Native American artists and characters seem to be lifted up into the mainstream these days...

Photo by Mark van Cleave

And it's so incredibly exciting to me! It was one of the first things that stood out to me about Wonder Woman, and I hope this trend continues. I know shamefully little about the Native American diaspora, and any chance to be more immersed in it is something I'm interested in.

So when the Guthrie released their announcement today that they are partnering with Indigenous Direction to bring FREE shows to the Dowling Studio next weekend, I was thrilled. This is a continuation of the Level 9 series program that started last summer under Artistic Director Joseph Haj to provide more diverse, accessible (read: free or discounted ticket prices) programming. I loved the pieces I've seen so far under this program (see my reviews for Acting Black and Hold These Truths here - both thought provoking, rich performances), and I can only say that this new program promises to be very interesting. Here's a description from the press release:

"Curated by award-winning Indigenous artists Ty Defoe and Larissa FastHorse, Water Is Sacred combines ceremony, music, text, dance and discussion to honor and celebrate water and to recognize the ways it has been threatened on Indigenous lands. Since this past winter, Indigenous Direction has worked with the Guthrie to create a community-centered, community-driven presentation of local Indigenous artistry that highlights the relationship between Native communities and water rights in Minnesota. FastHorse (Sicangu Lakota) and Defoe (Oneida/Ojibwe), the founders of Indigenous Direction, have both worked extensively in the Twin Cities area as artists and community builders. Water Is Sacred will be followed by community discussions with Defoe and FastHorse, and Indigenous artists will sell merchandise in the Pohlad lobby on the Guthrie’s ninth floor."

With the disappointing reports (and inspiring global solidarity from indigenous communities worldwide) coming out of the Standing Rock protests and more environmental tussles to come, as well as the controversy over the Walker's Scaffold piece, the time couldn't be better to bring Native American artists to tell their own stories on stage at a primetime arts institution. You can click here to find more information about this upcoming performance and instructions to acquire tickets (all tickets will be FREE, but you have to reserve them in advance). I'd love to see these performances sell out and encourage the Guthrie to bring more Native Americans in to create their own individual work (maybe on the main stage next time?) - please help get the word out!

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Ghost: The Musical Glitters at the Old Log Theater

Let me tell you of my love for big Hollywood films that are adapted for the stage. 

Photo courtesy of Old Log Theatre

It all starts with my childhood. I grew up in rural Minnesota, where even movie theaters were few and far between, much less fancy theatrical shows. The most theater I was exposed to generally would be a single annual community theater production of a family favorite such as Beauty and the Beast or Oliver! or, when I was really lucky, I got to see a show at the Chanhassen Dinner Theatre on a school trip. I also grew up in a large family, which meant that buying tickets to shows (or even movie theaters) could get very expensive, very quickly. 

So it goes without saying that I didn't grow up going out very often. When we did it was a real event, even if the "trip" was just to go see a movie. Most of the movies that got us out of the house were big blockbusters like Harry Potter, Star Wars or Lord of the Rings (Wonder Woman would have fallen neatly into this theme). Often our weekend entertainment was watching movies on syndicated cable channels, which is how I first saw Ghost

Photo courtesy of Old Log Theatre

I can't help but think of this history every time I see such a film adapted to the stage. Are these shows cheesy? Of course. Are they overwrought? Duh. Do I love them? Almost always. Every time I get to see a Ghost or The Bodyguard (which, seriously guys - if it comes back, go see it! So good, my review will tell you), it reminds me of the fun I had seeing such movies - any movie - with my family and friends in my small town. I also think such shows are a great entree into the world of theater for people who are generally intimidated by the concept. The stories are friendly and familiar, they're guaranteed to have great pop songs or special effects, and it feels like less of a burden to make an hours-long-one-way-drive to go see it in the big city than something more frou frou like Cabaret or Les Miserables. Don't get me wrong, I love those too, but let's be real: the everyman's show they ain't. 

Photo courtesy of Old Log Theatre

For anyone who feels like me (or just needs something escapist to watch), Ghost: The Musical is currently playing at the Old Log Theater through September 21, and it's the perfect way to beat the heat this summer. If you're unfamiliar with the film (but it's got Patrick Swayze, Demi Moore, Tony Goldwyn before Scandal and even won Whoopi Goldberg an Oscar so get on it!), here's the plot: Sam Wheat is a man leading a charmed life with his live-in girlfriend Molly Jensen. He has a great relationship, successful job, good friends and beautiful new apartment in pre-gentrified Brooklyn. All of this takes a dark turn, however, when Sam is mugged one night and killed in the process. It turns out the mugging isn't a simple robbery and instead was a set-up from someone he never would have expected. In order to avenge his untimely death and protect the love of his life, Sam haunts this person until the full circumstances behind his murder are revealed, all of the wrongs are righted, he kisses Molly goodbye, and he is able to assume his rightful place in heaven. Along the way he befriends an eccentric psychic named Oda Mae Brown, whose clairvoyance is instrumental in helping Sam attain justice. 

Photo courtesy of Old Log Theatre

In Old Log's production, Frank Moran stars as the buoyant Sam Wheat. Frank was previously seen as Elvis in Million Dollar Quartet, and he brings the same swivel-hipped swagger to his role here. Frank serves surprisingly well in Patrick Swayze's iconic role, and I was impressed by the energy he brought to his performance. Starring alongside Frank is Mollie Fischer, playing Sam's girlfriend Molly Jensen. Mollie can be a little pitchy but has a lot of heart, bringing more strength and independence to her role here than the original on screen; her portrayal will appeal greatly to any country music fans. Mathias Becker is fitfully villainous as Sam's friend Carl Bruner, with the appropriately snobby attitude (and abs to match). Heather McElrath is delightful as Oda Mae Brown and provides many of the show's most comedic scenes with a winsome smile. The rest of the cast makes the most of their many appearances as tangentials and ghosts, and they manage to really make the stage into a slice of New York City with their energy and verve. 

Photo courtesy of Old Log Theatre

There is a lot going on here set and effects-wise. The set (which is constantly moving) is backdropped by inner-lit panels of window that change colors or receive projections periodically to help place the action in separate boroughs. Sam's apartment features the requisite pottery wheel (which is used to great effect in Act 1), and everything is used efficiently. The staging can get really busy at times, so be prepared, but there are some really cool moments too (for example, in the way everyone "rides" an elevator together early in the show). I think a lot of this will settle down as the performers get more comfortable. There were also some severe sound issues at our performance - turn down that keyboard! - but again, nothing that can't (and I'm sure won't) be fixed quickly. 

Photo courtesy of Old Log Theatre

Ghost is a relic of cinema in 1990 that has aged surprisingly well. The story is still pretty engaging and it was nice to see an old faithful on stage (there may have been some teary eyes at the end of the show). There are some elements here that trouble - some of the stereotypes in portrayal of the extras, for example, and do we *really* need to have a white woman parody a Latina? Really? - and it's a little hard to tell if those are scripted or directorial choices at all times. Still, Ghost represents a huge step forward for the Old Log. At the Twin Cities Theater Blogger talk back after the show I counted 7 women and 5 people of color on stage out of a total cast of 12 - that's a ratio that many theaters in Minneapolis or St. Paul struggle to achieve - and while I don't think this cast is always utilized to their fullest potential, it's still a great progression to see.

Let's be clear: Ghost is never going to be the next Les Miserables. But that's okay! It doesn't have to be. For anyone who thinks theater is too snobby or elitist or needs something a little more candy-coated than the usual fare, Ghost: The Musical provides all the star-studded treacle you could ever want. For more information or to buy tickets, click on this link

And while we're at it, check out some other famous films that I enjoyed on stage: 
And plenty more - check the archives at right! 

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Thrillist: The Definitive List of Summer Movies in St. Paul and Minneapolis

Are you broke? 

Photo courtesy of Thrillist

If you are (like many of us), you need free things to do that are also fun. Thank goodness it's summer so there are a plethora of options available at your fingertips.

One of the best free things to enjoy in the summertime in the Twin Cities is the extensive outdoor movie series. I mean outdoor picnics, steamy screenings, shared enjoyment of some of the most palatable films ever made - what's not to love?

My latest piece for Thrillist compiled all of the movies available this summer in St. Paul and Minneapolis. It's an exhaustive list - seriously guys, they knocked this out of the park - so make sure to head over to Thrillist and check it out! It includes classics like the original Star Wars, Rogue One, Hidden Figures, Fences, 42, Drop Dead Gorgeous, Clueless, and way, way more. You can find the link here.

Friday, June 9, 2017

My Thoughts About the Twin Cities Theater Bloggers Refugia Panel

Hard conversations seem to be happening simultaneously all over Twin Cities arts organizations these days.

Photo courtesy of the Guthrie. 

First it was the controversy over the Walker Art Center's Scaffold piece in the new sculpture garden. Then it was a truly excellent panel hosted by ALMA at Mixed Blood Theatre to discuss the recent production of West Side Story at the Ordway. And last night it was a conversation at the Guthrie Theater regarding their recent production of Refugia, which closes this weekend.

The panel was organized between the Guthrie and the Twin Cities Theater Bloggers (TCTB) (full disclosure if you don't know already: I'm a member of that group; second disclosure: all opinions included here are solely my own and do not represent the group as a whole). This was the first time TCTB has reached out to try to organize such an event and to my knowledge the first time a reactionary panel has been set up to discuss a Guthrie season performance. I had a few thoughts moving forward about the process and conversation and I didn't want it to end with that single panel, ergo this post.

The panel moderator asked some really interesting questions of the audience during the Q and A session, and I didn't feel like we got the time to fully dive in as deeply as we should have. The most interesting to me was "What do you want to get out of this discussion?" I was glad to see this posed, as I think often when concerns are raised about a piece of art/action/event, it can feel like there is a lot of complaining without proactive solutions or that there isn't a clear end goal in sight. Speaking only for myself, there were two main goals I wanted to see coming from the Refugia panel, and they were:

1. To bring the Guthrie to the table to discuss the creative process. 

This goal was obviously successful with the creation of the panel. I was so glad to see the G be open to having a conversation rather than refusing to address serious concerns many in the community had about the piece (for reference, please check out Laura Van Zandt and Kory Pullam's excellent pieces, linked here and here). From what I saw, the process of creating the panel was relatively smooth and it was prioritized on the Guthrie's end, and that was really good to see. Although the makeup of the panel was lopsided in the end - I would have liked to see more parity in numbers between those who had concerns with the piece and the creators of the work itself - the fact that it happened at all is a win in my book. I hope this won't be the last time the Guthrie or The Moving Company hold such a conversation with the public if/when concerns are raised about future production.

2. To create proactive guidelines and plans to try to have an inclusive, intentionally diverse process for creating new works. 

This is the goal that I'm not sure has been achieved and was the muddiest takeaway (for me) from the Refugia panel conversation. Although the Guthrie and the Moving Company know that there are issues the community has with the piece, the discussion felt to me a little more like a brush off than a really difficult dive into evaluating the creative process. I would have really liked to see a more specific set of changes in play to create a transparent set of guidelines for creating new work and helping people not to be alienated in the process. As an institution that receives public funding (and as the recipient of a large amount of those funds), I do think the Guthrie and Moving Company, respectively, are beholden to try to maximize the use of those dollars in a way that is helpful for all communities moving forward, not just a niche set of patrons. Those conversations may be happening behind closed doors - we don't know! - but I didn't see much explicit address of this publicly in Wednesday's panel, and that was disappointing.

So where do we go from here? These questions - about how public funding is used for the arts, who is prioritized in those choices, how to address concerns once they are raised in an inclusive and respectful way, how to self-evaluate when something is not received as you wanted it to be, how to respect free speech while also being accountable - are all incredibly important, and no matter what I don't think a one hour (or even a 10 hour!) panel conversation could truly address all of those things. Personally, I'd love to participate in some ongoing conversations to proactively talk about how we set up projects (and receive them) from the ground up. Would you be interested in joining me? Please comment and let me know.