Thursday, March 23, 2017

Booty and the Beast is Blissfully Blithe

The snarky show hits lots of high notes. 


One day, I would love to be a fly on the wall at a brainstorming session for the Brave New Workshop's (BNW) feature shows. Somehow their comedic crew always comes up with something fresh, on point, and timely.

Their current piece Booty and the Beast: A Tinderella Story fits perfectly into this paradigm, nestling neatly between the release of the live-action Beauty and the Beast (starring every-famous-star-you've-ever-seen) and an explosion of thinkpieces (including Aziz Ansari's excellent Modern Love) about the state of modern dating. Waffling between fairy tale parodies and asides on current dating habits, there is something for everyone to relate to in this hilarious show.

Standout sketches include the opening number, a glorious, perfectly pitched riff on "Belle" from Beauty and the Beast detailing the criticisms a woman goes through when she decides to be adamantly single as well as the target placed on her back by serial harassers. Others include an entertaining jaunt through one gay man's Tinder messages; the vagaries of using Buzzfeed quizzes to determine your life and happiness; a Tinder-based fairy godmother advising fellow fairy tale creatures how to find true love; the strange morals that come from fairy tales; the concept of a programmable robot date for women; and many more. Part of the fun of BNW is the spontaneous feel of the sketches, so I won't list them exhaustively; instead, make sure you go see the show and giggle through every vignette.


It's worth noting that this is the first show I've seen at BNW that is heavily led by the cast's two female leads, Taj Ruler and Lauren Anderson, who carry the show with ease. Taj is always a favorite mine, and she weaves between a myriad of characters with some impressive vocal work and a really lovely singing voice. Lauren is wonderful at making awkward characters (always based on someone you know - everyone has one of those awkward people in their lives at some point) really relatable, using humor to find the heart. Denzel Belin has a larger role in this show and provides a welcome non-CIS perspective to many of the sketches. His sarcastic commentary gives a refreshingly honest perspective to how ludicrous many dating behaviors are. Ryan Nelson and Tom Reed bring the bro into the show and provide an interesting contrast for gendered behaviors and gamely dive into any strange task they are asked to perform. By so happily flipping the script and shining a light on the ridiculousness of arbitrary objectification, Nelson and Reed are able to provide some surprisingly nuanced critiques of patriarchy and the gender roles we all fall into. And I would be remiss not to mention the amazing accompaniment of Jon Pumper, who provides pitch-perfect piano pieces to support each tenor of the sketches.


Booty and the Beast is a sketch comedy and intended to be silly, and it definitely fits the humor bill. But it also crosses into serious satire territory, using the seemingly innocent platform of dating apps and fairy tales to demonstrate some thoughtful reasons that we may all want to pause when considering our society's relationship with relationships. As is said beautifully by Artistic Director Caleb McEwen:

"At times it feels like we are defined less by who we are than we are by the relationships we form. It is as if society has deemed us incomplete, broken things that must be bolstered by others in order to be made whole. It is more natural for a young woman to be locked in a dungeon and slowly coerced into cohabitation with a giant lion-dog than it is for that same woman to be on her own and content in her own individual development. Thus we have a tradition of fairy tales in which princesses are locked in dungeons, towers, glass coffins and fish bodies until a man can save or somehow "fix" the - yet being single is considered odd."

Bravo Caleb! I couldn't have said it better myself.

If you're looking for something really fun to do, feel like you need a good laugh, or simply want to escape the seriousness of the world for a while, check out Booty and the Beast. It has heart, it has brains, it has chutzpah, and it will make you laugh while it makes you think - a total home run. It runs through June 24 and it is absolutely worth a stop. Find more information and purchase tickets by clicking on this link.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Grease is Hot as Lightning

The beloved classic feels fresher than ever in a new staging at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres

Photo by Dan Norman.

What's full of black leather, shiny cars, sizzling tunes and a full frontal spoof of the 1950s?

Why that would be Grease, fully revitalized and hanging out at Chanhassen Dinner Theatre's main stage until October 28.

Photo by Dan Norman.

For anyone born after Grease debuted on Broadway in 1972 who has been living under a rock, here's a synopsis: Grease follows a troupe of too-cool-for school gangs, the Pink Ladies and the T-Birds, through their senior year at Rydell High School. The story focuses particularly on Sandy, a new goody-two-shoes, and Danny, Rydell's resident bad boy, as they navigate peer pressure after a summer of innocent love. Their friends, featuring ribald Rizzo and Kenickie; overweight but loveable Jan and Roger; 16 going on 36 Marty; and ill fated Frenchy, Doody and the Burger Palace Boys; are also navigating their own transition to adulthood with varying degrees of success. The music and plot entirely center on spoofing the ridiculously wholesome facade the 1950s painted over itself and allows the characters to dive into some surprisingly deep themes, including teen pregnancy, slut shaming, choosing between violence and your reputation, managing addiction and general societal expectations.

Photo by Dan Norman.

Grease is most famous of course for the film version in 1978 starring Olivia Newton John and John Travolta (the highest grossing movie musical), as well as recent iterations including a live version staged on NBC a couple of years ago. I have to say that as much as I enjoyed those renditions, this live version gives the films a definite run for their money. There are some key differences; for example, there is no car race as in the film's famous rumble scene at the end of the movie; many of the more nuanced interactions with Sandy and the pink ladies have been removed; and a lot of the fluff in the story has been eschewed for a lean, streamlined performance (that runs under two hours without an intermission!). I *really* like this pared down version and the clippy speed with which it progressed, but if you're devoted to the film just note that there will be differences.

Photo by Dan Norman.

The cast is wonderful, and one of the best things about this restructured plot is that each person gets a chance to shine rather than having such a heavy focus solely on Danny and Sandy's relationship. Starring as Danny and Sandy are Aleks Knezevich and Caroline Innerbicheler, respectively. Both have a charming chemistry and gorgeous vocals. Innerbicheler absolutely owns her performance of "Hopelessly Devoted to You," and Knezevich has a Travolta twitch in his hips that will keep you giggling throughout the show. Their opening rendition of "Summer Nights" is a knockout. Other great pairs include Evan Tyler Wilson and Therese Walth as Roger and Jan who have a hilarious (but poignant) moment with "Mooning." Although the song is silly, their vocals are seriously incredible, and Wilson's lyrical Irish tenor is a gorgeous companion to Walth's spunky harmonies. "Mooning" was one of my favorite pieces from the show and I'd love to see it again.

Photo by Dan Norman.

Ruthanne Heyward is much darker than we're used to seeing her as Rizzo; Heyward brings a much more adult, jaded attitude than what we've seen from her in previous turns at CDT as Belle, and the sober tenor really suits her. She brings a heavy (and literal) tear to "There Are Worse Things I Could Do" and lends a necessary serious note to the whole production. Ben Bakken is fully in the James Dean attitude as Kenickie, and he has a fabulous version of "Greased Lightning" that gets him literally swinging from the stage. Keith Rice's dulcet tones serenade the audience throughout scene changes as radio maven Vince Fontaine, and it's a fabulous place for his rich voice. And Shinah Brashears is thoroughly winning as Frenchy, the ill fated beauty school dropout with easter egg colored hair.

Photo by Dan Norman.

Speaking of beauty school dropouts, I'd be amiss not to mention the show-stealing, go-for-this-one-performance-only drop-dead antics of Kasano Mwanza as the Teen Angel who serenades Frenchy with "Beauty School Dropout." Long the bane of the film for me, I didn't expect much of  this number, but Mwanza exceeds every possible expectation in his role, strutting out with flappable wings and a Prince-meets-Ru Paul attitude that sells the shit out of the whole song. I've never thought of the piece with such a snarky attitude, and it's a glorious show stopper for act two. Mwanza also anchors a rich rendition of the flagship "Grease Is The Word" song to close the show. I know he has a side career as a musician and other things to do, but Kasano, PLEASE: come sing in every local production of everything, ever. (Yes, I realize what hysteria that sounds like but I can't emphasize enough: this is a very, very talented young man. Go watch. You'll have zero regrets).

Photo by Dan Norman.

Grease has never been a favorite show of mine, but I really enjoyed this new production at CDT. It's sharp, it's smart, it's short, and the cast is immeasurably talented. Please note that this is not a show for little kids; there are lots of adult themes and language, and they won't be watered down. But that's all the better; take your partner on a fun date night for dinner, drinks, and an (excellent) show and be back home in less than three hours from start to finish. I would happily re-watch this production at any time, and I may do just that; there's plenty of time to go since it runs through October 28. Go like Greased Lightning to get your tickets as I'm sure this will be a top seller. For more information or to buy tickets, click on this link.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Cool Show Announcement: THE 24 HOUR PLAYS

THE 24 HOUR PLAYS is coming to Minneapolis for the first time, and it looks to be a doozy of a show. #24HRMPLS


Photo courtesy of Hennepin Theatre Trust.

Are you a fan of improv? Observing the creative process? Making the magic happen? Are you an artist or creative who needs a little inspiration?

If so, you really need to run to the Pantages Theater on Monday night to see THE 24 HOUR PLAYS, which is coming to Minneapolis for the first time (it's previously been held in New York City, Los Angeles, London, Chicago, Dublin, and Germany).

Photo courtesy of Hennepin Theatre Trust.

The concept of THE 24 HOUR PLAYS is simple: get the best of the best in theater to come together for one day only to create and perform completely original works and use the proceeds to give back to good causes. For the Minneapolis event there are a series of 40 of the Twin Cities all-star local actors, directors and writers; two all-star high school students; and two celebrities (Melissa Gilbert, known from her work in The Little House on the Prairie television show; and Timothy Busfield, a veteran director and producer of dozens of television shows such as The West Wing, Entourage, and Lipstick Jungle) participating. What do I mean by all-star actors? Just LOOK at this cast list - it practically reads as a "who's who" of Twin Cities theater:

Photo courtesy of Hennepin Theatre Trust.

Sasha Andreev, Michelle Barber, Denzel Belin, Warren C. Bowles, Michael Brindisi, Cat Brindisi, Serena Brook, Timothy Busfield, Nicholas Freeman, Melissa Gilbert, Osh Ghanimah, Michael Gruber, Devin Kelley, Justin Kirk, Ryan McCartan, Tyler Michaels, Ann Michels, Kasano Mwanza, Hope Nordquist, Tod Petersen, Kory Pullam, Stacia Rice, Tim Sitarz, Ricardo Vasquez, Tony Vierling, Tatiana Williams, Sally Wingert; directors Jamil Jude, Lauren Keating, Christy Montour-Larson, Peter Rothstein, Bill Payne; writers Alan Berks, Michael Elyanow,Julia Jordan, Christina Ham, Harrison Heather Meyer. David Rivers; musical guest David Darrow.  The cast also includes Rachel Williams (Apple Valley) and Reese Britts (Andover), students at UMD School of Fine Arts and former Spotlight Education Triple Threat Award winners.

Photo courtesy of Hennepin Theatre Trust.

This incredible group of thespians will split into six distinctive teams on Sunday night and collaborate over the next 24 hours to create a distinctive play to perform the next evening. The process begins with the actors presenting possible props to inspire the writers. The writers then break to create their scripts; the following morning, the directors will "bid" the scripts they want to work on, which are then rehearsed throughout the day and performed in the evening. Throughout the process the writers vie for various actors to perform their pieces, helping divide the casting out.

Photo courtesy of Hennepin Theatre Trust.

Monday, March 13 at 8 p.m., the public will attend the performances of the six shows at the Pantages Theater for one-time only. Unfortunately the creation and rehearsal process isn't open to public viewing, but don't be dismayed: if you're interested in being a fly on the wall and following the process, several members of the Twin Cities Theater Blogger crew will be on-hand to live blog the entire 24 hours on social media. Tickets to Monday's performance range from $35 to $50, with all proceeds going to support the Hennepin Theatre Trust's Spotlight Education program, which helps provide theatrical opportunities for high school students across Minnesota.

Photo courtesy of Hennepin Theatre Trust.

The concept behind THE 24 HOUR PLAYS is straightforward, but don't think it's easy. As a creator myself, I can attest: writer's block is a real thing, and the idea of writing, rehearsing and producing an entire show from start to finish in less than a day absolutely blows my mind. I am so excited to see this unique art form come to Minneapolis, and I can't wait to see what the artists produce. Please join me! Come see the show on Monday, March 13 at the Pantages Theater in Minneapolis at 8 p.m. You can find more information and purchase tickets by clicking on this link. And if you can't go but want to follow along, have no fear - you can just follow the hashtag #24HRMPLS to see all the inside scoop on social media. 

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Reviewed in Brief: Oyate Okodakiciyapi

Aloha 'oe, aloha 'oe
E ke onaona noho i ka lipo
One fond embrace
A ho'i a'e au
Until we meet again

Photo courtesy of Ordway Center for the Performing Arts.

How much do you know about colonialism? Particularly the specific brand practiced by the United States in which native people are pushed aside and their culture whitewashed over? That was the question asked by the provocative Oyate Okodakiciyapi dance program at the Ordway last weekend, and boy did it deliver.

The program opened with Pohaku, a beautiful story told by Christopher Morgan about his Hawaiian lineage, the history of U.S. presence in Hawaii, and the journey he has taken to discover his heritage. The program was a mix of live music, dance, projected historical footage, and narrative from Morgan. The compendium was part lecture, part mystic transformation, and it was a lovely introduction to the culture of Hawaii as well as a profound overview of the ways that descendants of Native populations have struggled both to find their place in modern society and to reclaim their lost heritage. Three cheers for Wytold, who performed live cello and sound looping, giving this entire performance an absolutely gorgeous soundtrack that wove together Bach and Hawaiian songs; it was a transcendent pairing and I would love to hear more in the future (it was seriously MN Orchestra caliber). The program included a fabulous piece of program notes for Pohaku and I *wish* they were available online, as they included a magnificent amount of information; here's hoping they include them later!

The second piece, NeoIndigenA, was an intense, heated solo performance from Santee Smith. This piece featured solely recorded music and dancing in a nonstop journey between spiritual worlds and communing with different bodies between those worlds. Smith was consumed in her role, alternately shaking, trembling, growling, leaping, crawling and crying through this highly emotional piece. The effect was simultaneously profound and spiritual, as well as troubling and dark. There were many ways to interpret the vignettes Smith performed, and her use of animistic props (particularly horns), difficult postures and full physical commitment from head to toe drove the audience to commune with her on this journey. I wish there had been a more full history in the program of the Native traditions informing this performance; there was clearly so much rich symbolism and I wasn't able to catch it all. NeoIndigenA is definitely a piece you could watch many times over and come away with new insights and nuances every time. Santee Smith is one to watch, particularly because she made her piece solely for and of herself and her tribe. Resisting the temptation to fall into the white gaze as an artist is a difficult one, and she pulled it off beautifully. I am looking forward to learning more about her and seeing where she goes in the future.

Seeds: Re Generation was a natural commentary on natural regeneration, particularly the feeling that water is life. The piece was dedicated to the allies and water protectors of the Standing Rock protests and gave a profound look into the natural, spiritual and animistic traditions that inform many tribes' spiritual beliefs. This was a team effort with more elaborate photos, narration, video, costumes and background soundtracks, and it showed. After such focused solo work it was a nice break to see a team dance effort, and it was a wonderful way to close the show.

These performances were part of an overall series from the Ordway spotlighting Native American artists and activists; find more information here at the Ordway's site, or on my coverage of their announcement. The Walker Art Center is also doing an amazing film festival featuring Native American work; find more information by clicking on this link.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Walker Art Center Presents INDIgenesis: Indigenous Filmmakers Past and Present

Photo courtesy of the Walker Art Center.

Right on the heels of the amazing announcement celebrating Indigenous performances from the Ordway (which kicks off this weekend - don't miss it!) comes the announcement from the Walker Art Center that they will be presenting a film festival this month celebrating Indigenous filmmakers. The series will begin TONIGHT with The Daughter of Dawn, a silent film from 1920 featuring more than 300 members of the Comanche and Kiowa tribes, and culminates in a discussion with those documenting the ongoing activism surrounding the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock.

The press release had wonderful information detailing the event, so I'm sharing it here. Many of these events are free or extremely affordable ($10 or less), so make sure you stop by the Walker Art Center to check this out!

Several filmmakers will be present through the run of INDIgenesis to talk about their work including, Lyle Corbine, Missy Whiteman, Zack and Adam Khalil, Heather Rae and Cody Lucich. Picture the classic western The Searchers set in Nunavut. Find yourself in the Minneapolis neighborhoods of Missy Whiteman's newest film. Pay tribute to American Indian Movement peace warrior John Trudell and enjoy the Pines' music video on which he and Whiteman collaborated. Join an exploration of ancestry and language in a program of shorts, learn the Ojibwe tale of the Seven Fires Prophecy, and more.

Reflecting upon the series, Whiteman says, "We are in the beginning of a new era in Native cinema, a place where our ancestors are given life, our voices rise, and we return to our traditional ways of being through the lens." INDIgenesis builds upon the legacy of the Two Rivers Native Film and Video Festival and is programmed in collaboration with Whiteman (Northern Arapaho and Kickapoo Nations), a writer, filmmaker, and digital media consultant whose films incorporate indigenous teachings and values as a means of revitalization and preservation.


The Daughter of Dawn  
Directed by Norbert A. Myles
Friday, March 3, 7:30 pm

Shot in the summer of 1920 in southwest Oklahoma, the film features more than 300 members of the Comanche and Kiowa tribes who integrated personal objects into the story of two suitors vying for the affections of the Kiowa chief's daughter. A live score accompanies the screening. 1920, US, silent, 87 minutes.


Mekko 
Directed by Sterlin Harjo
Saturday, March 4, 7:30 pm

A thrilling redemption quest inflected with shades of the supernatural, Sterlin Harjo's third feature follows Mekko, a recent parolee who encounters Bill, a malevolent figure he suspects might be a shape-shifter. 2015, US, 84 minutes.


The Searchers  
Directed by Zacharias Kunuk and Natar Ungalaaq
Friday-Saturday, March 10-11, 7:30 pm

In this reimagining of John Ford's classic western of the same title, gorgeously set in Nunavut circa 1915, an Inuk man tries to find the invaders who destroyed his home and kidnapped his wife. 2016, Canada, in Inuktitut with English subtitles, 94 minutes.


DNA/Memory: Storytelling and Cultural Heritage  
Director Lyle Corbine in Person
Saturday, March 11, 2 pm
Free

Using storytelling to address erasure and preserve traditions for future generations, these short films beautifully express filmmakers' examinations of ancestry, language, and history. Program includes Shimásáni by Blackhorse Lowe, Anishinabemowin Nagishkodaading by Eve Lauryn-Lafountain, and Shinaab by Lyle Corbine


Area Premiere!   
The Coyote Way: Going Back Home  
Director Missy Whiteman in Person
Thursday, March 16, 7:30 pm
Free

This sci-fi docu-narrative follows Charlie, who is forced to make a difficult choice. Featuring an entirely Native American cast, the film was shot in the Minneapolis neighborhoods of Phillips and Little Earth. 2016, US, 30 minutes.


INAATE/SE/ (It Shines a Certain Way. To a Certain Place. It Flies. Falls.) 
Directors Zack and Adam Khalil in Person
Friday, March 17, 6:30pm
Saturday, March 18, 7:30pm

This experimental documentary explores the Ojibwa story of the Seven Fires Prophecy, which has been interpreted as predicting the arrival of the Europeans and subsequent destruction. Bold, smart, and unflinching, the film examines the relationship between cultural tradition and modern indigenous identity. 2016, US and Canada, 75 minutes.


Trudell  
Director Heather Rae in Person
Friday, March 24, 7:30 pm
Free
Preceded by the music video "Time Dreams"

This intimate portrait of poet and American Indian Movement leader John Trudell is the result of 12 years of extensive research and features interviews and archival footage. He passed away in 2015, and the screening pays tribute to his life and influence. 2005, US, 80 minutes.

"Time Dreams" 

Resulting from a collaboration with John Trudell and featured as the closing track on the Pines' 2016 album Above the Prairie, "Time Dreams" serves as a grace note to a life of inspiration, activism, and preservation of the human spirit. The video is a collaboration between the musicians and Missy Whiteman of Independent Indigenous Film and Media.


Views from Standing Rock  
Filmmakers Heather Rae and Cody Lucich in Person
Saturday, March 25, 7:30 pm
Free

Native filmmakers Heather Rae (director of Trudell), and Cody Lucich discuss documentary filmmaking, activism, and representation and present footage from a forthcoming documentary about the global, indigenous uprising born at Standing Rock in North Dakota.

We Are Proud to Present is Profound

For a visceral understanding of colonialism, look no further than the Guthrie's latest offering. 


Photo by Dan Norman.

We Are Proud to Present: A Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, From the German Südwestafrika, Between the Years 1884 - 1915, currently playing at the Guthrie's Dowling Studio, is probably the most specifically-named show you will ever come across. It is also one of the most confounding in terms of categorization. Is it history? Is it performance? Is it fiction? Is it scripted? Does any of that even matter if the point gets across?

Photo by Dan Norman.

We Are Proud to Present begins with a brief history of German and English colonialism in Namibia (the German version of which took place between 1884 and 19195, after which the colony was taken over by the British during WWI). It then circles back to the beginning of this history in 1884, examining the lives of the colonialists through letters of the Germans sent to the colony as they wrote (and thought) of home. The performances of these letters are meant to guide the audience to truly understanding the massacre of the Herero Tribe and the horrors the Germans committed in the name of progress, but they immediately hit multiple problems that seem wholly unanswerable as the cast discusses them.

Photo by Dan Norman. 

We know what these soldiers include in their letters, but what about what they don't include? Does the fact that no written accounts of the Herero's experience survive make their experience less valid or true? Does imagining what happened to the Herero cheapen the horror of their situation? Over 80% of the Herero people were massacred in the drive to seize Namibian lands for Germany; how does that compare to modern genocides like the Holocaust or Armenian or Rwandan tragedies? Does the fact that the extermination of the Herero wasn't physically documented in videos and photographs somehow make it less important than the others? We Are Proud to Present's uncomfortable honesty lies in the fact that it doesn't provide the answers to these troubling questions for you. Instead, by commissioning the audience to directly engage with the actors as they "rehearse" through multiple scenarios, it directly engages us with this difficult history and ties us completely to the devastating actions that eventually close the play.

Photo by Dan Norman.

This show would be impossible to perform without a strong cast, and thankfully it has one here. The experience is guided by Nike Kadri, who narrates the show, serves as the "Artistic Director" of the rehearsal, and plays the parts of black women in the colonial vignettes. Kadri is forceful and well rehearsed, and her strong personality is able to guide the experience with a necessary firm hand. Nika Pappas plays the white female characters and supports Kadri in the role of peacemaker between the male characters. Pappas is lithe and energetic and provides some desperately needed comedy throughout the performance.

Photo by Dan Norman.

The biggest tension of the show lies in the fraught discussions between the two white male (Sam Bardwell and Quinn Franzen ) and two black male (JaBen Early and Lamar Jefferson) characters. Each has a different perspective that directly conflicts with the others and makes consensus on the truth of the narrative they are trying to portray impossible. From the white men:

  • Thinking themselves modern and thus unconnected to colonial history
  • Sharing fond (but troubling) memories of their white immigrant ancestors
  • Assuming historical omissions are a sign of historical truth; 
From the black men:

  • Not knowing their specific African heritage as descendants of slaves
  • Empathizing with the horrific experiences the Herero experienced, as a person of color in a white power world
  • Having a lot of differences with each other despite having the color of their skin in common and struggling to provide a united front) .

The strong tensions as these fine actors discuss the progress of the play and the appropriate ways to process their individual traumas is deeply illuminating. Each man presents his perspective with conviction and verve; you can feel the audience react viscerally as each unravels more of himself and sometimes aggressively confronts his fellow characters. Watching their confrontations is frankly quite uncomfortable, but it's necessary: these are the kinds of conversations bubbling to the surface in America today, but without this specific kind of honesty, it is difficult to see how they can be resolved. Sometimes a flagrant honesty is required to reach the root of a troublesome truth, and only once it is confronted can it be rooted out, warts and all.

Photo by Dan Norman.

If you're uncomfortable with the removal of the fourth wall, this show will be very tough to watch. Its blurred lines between lecture and fiction, performance and rehearsal, and distinction between history and today makes it impossible to remove yourself from the implications this incisive examination of racism and colonialism raises. That, however, is entirely the point; history is never "dead." We are all living, breathing products of those who came before us, and we carry the legacies of our ancestors with us. It is only when we can confront those legacies head on and tear them down, brick by brick, that we can begin to rebuild a better, fairer world for us all. We Are Proud to Present is a powerful call to self-examination, and it's one we need now more than ever; everyone should see this and confront their personal demons. We Are Proud to Present runs until March 12; for more information or to buy tickets, click on this link.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

The King and I is a Lavish Delight

Despite the show's problematic history, it's a lovely immersion into a complicated world of splendor.


Photo by Matthew Murphy.

There's no such thing as an untouchable classic. I have always been a firm advocate of judiciously editing stories from the past (even Shakespeare); they still have something to say to us, but we don't need to swath ourselves in the racism/homophobia/colonial perspective of the time they were written in, and sometimes they're just too damn long.

On this vein of thinking, a great case is currently being made for prudent pruning of the cultural behemoth that is the catalog of Roger's and Hammerstein musicals. I was raised on the 1940s and 1950s movie versions of these shows. I have a strong love for the catchy tunes and sunny dispositions of these film versions. But many of them, written in the last dying throes of the colonial era, really need a refresh to retain the good in them but give a more realistic view of the stories they try to present.

Photo by Matthew Murphy. 

The King and I, currently running at the Orpheum Theater, is a perfect example of how this can be done. For new viewers, The King and I tells the story of a Anna, a widow of a British colonial officer in the 1860s who travels to the kingdom of Siam to serve as a teacher to the king's children after her husband dies. Siam (now known as Thailand) is the only kingdom in Southeast Asia that has yet to fall to a colonial power, and Anna is retained to help the king and his family navigate the treacherous waters of international politics in the nineteenth century. There are many growing pains in this relationship, as Anna remains relentlessly Western and independent; the king and his family try their hardest to cling to an ancient world that is rapidly slipping away from them; and the unending drumbeats of progress drive them all to a series of cultural compromises. The story remains multiplicitous, a great thing in our current age of oversimplifications. The King and I resists reducing Anna and the King's relationship to a storybook romance, and with its updates lessens the impact of cultural whitewashing, demonstrating the profound conflict within a man who must keep his kingdom, people and heritage alive without leaving them to be swallowed by the march of Europe across the world.

Photo by Matthew Murphy.

This Broadway tour pulled no stops with its casting, featuring a set of all-star players. Laura Michelle Kelly is a Broadway and West End regular and knocks it out of the park as Anna Leonowens. Kelly has a gorgeous voice (think Marni Nixon meets Julie Andrews), and her subtle acting makes Anna into a subversive, complex character. She is beautifully paired with Jose Llana as the King of Siam. Llana starred in the Tony-winning revival of this show before it went on tour, and his thoughtful performance demonstrates the distress of a King under attack. Llana really bridges the show's cultural divide, and he was wonderful.

Photo by Matthew Murphy.

The ensemble cast (featuring mostly people of color, always a pleasure and too often a rarity, especially in traveling shows) is too large to name individually, but they really support the show. Joan Almedilla is wonderful as the King's first wife Lady Thiang; another Broadway superstar, Almedilla perfectly navigates the audience through the space in between Anna's staunch Westernism and the King's traditional upbringing, showing the warm side to two stridently separate perspectives. She also has a rich, lovely voice that weaves beautifully with the rest of the cast. Manna Nichols is excellent as the renegade Princess Tuptim, driving the story's political themes into stark relief. Kavin Panmeechao is delicious as Tuptim's lover Lun Tha, which a gorgeous, lyrical voice and the sparkling eyes of a lover to match. And Anthony Chan is powerful as the young Prince Chulalongkorn, a boy who too soon is forced to become a king. Chan has the proud demeanor befitting such a prince, and he is a wonderful addition to the cast.

Photo by Matthew Murphy.

One of the absolute best parts of the show is the gloriously gilt, colorful set and costumes. The entire show is replete with silks and golds and deep colors and shining Buddhas. Michael Yeargan (set designer) and Catherine Zuber (costume designer) are Tony Award winners for a reason, and you won't be disappointed by what they have to offer here. The orchestra, conducted by Gerald Steichen, is similarly wonderful and provides a powerhouse sound. And the choreography (Christopher Gattelli) is marvelous, particularly in a thorough, riveting sequence of Thai dancing during "The Small House of Uncle Thomas" ballet. The sequence is the best of the show, and you will consumed with the delicate, ornate dancing.

Photo by Matthew Murphy.

While the shroud of unexamined white privilege still hangs over this story, don't dismiss The King and I too quickly. Nestled within catchy, joyous songs such as "I Whistle a Happy Tune," "Shall We Dance" and "Getting to Know You" are some really important themes. It is not often we are graced with an examination of slavery from the perspective of a non-Western, non-white perspective. It is not often we are shown an inside look into the problems of colonialism from the perspective of those who it would replace. And it's not often we see a white main character treated as a minority, forced to reckon with her cultural assumptions and wrestling with her place in two very different worlds. The script has been updated and it could (and probably should) have gone further; but I still greatly enjoyed The King and I, and for many audience members is a good first step to understanding white and Christian privilege, colonialism, and just how quickly things have changed in the last 150 years.

I highly recommend going to see The King and I before it closes on March 5; the cast is wonderful, the sets and costumes are spectacular, and it's a true glimpse into what might have been if we had only taken the time to observe other cultures rather than destroy them. The show is long but thoughtful, and sure to provide a great date night. See more information and buy tickets by clicking on this link.