Friday, December 8, 2017

A Cathartic Polarizing Express

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



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

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


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


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

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Caroling Along to A Christmas Carole Petersen

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


Photo by Allen Weeks

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

Photo by Allen Weeks

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

Photo by Allen Weeks

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

Photo by Allen Weeks

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

Photo by Allen Weeks

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

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Thrillist: A Best of Business Guide to the North Loop

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


Photo courtesy of Thrillist

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

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

A Strikingly Fresh Christmas Carol

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


Photo by Dan Norman

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

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

Photo by Dan Norman

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

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

Photo by Dan Norman

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

Photo by Dan Norman

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

Photo by Dan Norman

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

Photo by Dan Norman

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

Photo by Dan Norman

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

Waitress is Wonderful

Could Waitress have arrived in Minneapolis at a better time? 


Photo courtesy of Hennepin Theatre Trust

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

Photo courtesy of Hennepin Theatre Trust

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

Photo courtesy of Hennepin Theatre Trust

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

Photo courtesy of Hennepin Theatre Trust

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

Photo courtesy of Hennepin Theatre Trust

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

Photo courtesy of Hennepin Theatre Trust

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

Sunday, November 19, 2017

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

Broadway isn't always better.



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

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

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


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

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

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

How The Grinch Stole Christmas Steals the Show

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


Photo by Kaitlin Randolph

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

Photo by Kaitlin Randolph

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

Photo by Kaitlin Randolph

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

Photo by Kaitlin Randolph

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

Photo by Kaitlin Randolph

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

Photo by Kaitlin Randolph

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

Photo by Kaitlin Randolph

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

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

THRILLIST: Best New Restaurants of 2017

As the weather cools down, date night heats up... 

The brunch at Dalton & Wade is *legit*

And comes indoors. Rather than spending halcyon picnics by the lake or tubing down the river, we must now turn inward (literally) to the cozy warmth of public establishments to break our winter blues. But where should we go?

If you're feeling a little overwhelmed by the state of our unceasingly volatile restaurant industry, join the club. Thankfully, I worked with Thrillist to compile a list of the best new restaurants to grace our local scene in 2017, and there are some fabulous new additions. They may not replace time-worn favorites (R.I.P. Piccolo and Vincent's), but they have some exciting new things to say and are definitely worth a visit. Check out my full list by clicking on this link here, and let me know: what did I leave out? What restaurants are you most excited for in 2018? Let me know what to add to my must-try list!

Monday, November 13, 2017

Sister Act is Again a Surefire Hit at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres

What a difference a few short years can make. 


Photo courtesy of Chanhassen Dinner Theatres

When Sister Act last came to the Chanhassen Dinner Theatres (CDT) it was 2015. The presidential election was just kicking into gear, Charlottesville had never happened, and Harvey Weinstein was still Hollywood's friendliest movie producer.

Oh how times change.

In that first Sister Act, the production was fun but in retrospect a little glib. I enjoyed it quite a lot (you can see my original review here) but it lacked a certain gravitas to really make it sing.

After a hugely successful run then and a couple more years of experience under their belts, most of that original cast has returned (with a few key additions) and wow - what a change. This cast is older, wiser, graver, funnier, and clicks much more soundly than they did before. I'm not going to summarize the plot in this review - again, you can always watch the inimitable Whoopi Goldberg's film original or read my previous review for that - but I do want to detail what's changed and what I really enjoyed.

Photo courtesy of Chanhassen Dinner Theatres

For starters, let's hit the cast. Regina Marie Williams is back in the title role of Deloris van Cartier and wowza what a return! I always enjoy her work (see my thoughts on the perfection that is Nina Simone: Four Women here), and she was good last time, but she really knocks it out of the park in this production. You can tell that Williams has had time to really get comfortable in Deloris's shoes, and the way Williams sashays through each line (and wallops her powerful voice through each song) left such a huge smile on my face. Williams has also clearly worked with the cast to update several of the key jokes, and there are some sly contemporary references here that had the whole audience in giggles.


Several other CDT stalwarts have returned. Norah Long is back as the inimitable Mother Superior and she is an absolute riot. Like Williams, Long is clearly much more comfortable in her role and anchors it with a steadfast gravitas that draws a firm line between her church's walls and the world of sin outside. Britta Ollmann remains fabulous as the shocking soprano Sister Mary Robert. Ollmann absolutely nailed her rendition of "The Life I Never Led" - seriously, it will give you chills, and she's a showstopper. Seri Johnson remains a fine and funky Sister Mary Lazarus, and the eternal Keith Rice is the gift that keeps on giving as a Kanye-sunglasses-clad Monsignor O'Hara.

Photo courtesy of Chanhassen Dinner Theatres
A few new additions really beef up the casts's potential and build this reprise into a towering crescendo. One of my all-time Chanhassen faves Therese Walth (aside: CDT, please, PLEASE reprise Hairspray with Therese - I would do anything to see it again) levels her trademark Nikki Blonsky comedic chops and booming voice at the heart of the role of Sister Mary Patrick, and she's a stitch. Fernando Collado is a welcome surprise as Pablo, especially after his recent lovely turn as Sonny in In The Heights (another piece I wouldn't mind seeing again). Andre Shoals is spot-on creepy as the evil Curtis. It's been a while since he was last seen at CDT, and he's a great choice for this part. Kasano Mwanza remains a scene-stealer as Curtis's nephew TJ, and once again I found myself mourning that he only had a few brief moments in which to shine.

Photo courtesy of Chanhassen Dinner Theatres
The costumes - for the most part nuns in habits, although there are a few choice show costumes sprinkled throughout - are essentially the same as before. The same is true of the set, although it drew me in more than it had circa 2015. The moment when the church's stain glassed windows turn "on" was especially poignant, and the set's economy never holds it back from letting you know exactly where we are in the story. The simplicity of all this musical's accouterments keep the focus on the cast's enormously talented vocals, a wise choice that needs no further explanation. There were a few moments that troubled me in the show, particularly the disrobing of a trans character that was used for laughs near the end of Act I; I wish and hope that the "man in a dress" trope can go away, especially as our trans family faces increasingly dangerous times. Be aware of those moments if you plan to go.

Photo courtesy of Chanhassen Dinner Theatres

I'll be honest: I was initially hoping the next show at CDT would be something I hadn't seen before, so I felt a little blue when it was announced that this was coming back. But on viewing I found myself quite moved by this production of Sister Act, bringing us full circle to the importance of societal context. To sit in my church (a darkened theater), communing with fellow patrons at the altar of a group of magnificently talented women who celebrate sisterhood; band together to protect themselves from the violence of bad men; who strive with unceasing personal sacrifice to bring more peace and beauty and faith to a world in pain - well, what message could possibly be more timely than that? I can't remember the last time I saw so many women on stage at once, and it was really inspiring to see such a critical mass; what a wonderful experience it must be for all of these actresses. There is such a pure joy to this show, which is bolstered by the clear camaraderie between these castmates, that truly served as a balm to the soul in our troubled times. We all deserve a little more peace of mind, and I can guarantee that you will find it here at Sister Act. Sister Act runs through the end of February 2018; for more information or to buy tickets, click on this link.

Friday, November 3, 2017

Reviewed in Brief: Collide's Dracula is a Campy Delight

If you liked Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, you will LOVE this show.


Dracula from COLLIDE THEATRICAL on Vimeo.


Cross necklaces? Check. Vampy face paint? Check. Perfectly tailored pleated pants? Check. Moody emo rock band? Check. Ubiquitously smeared eyeliner paired with thin strapped halter tops? Check, check, check.

If there was any doubt that the 1990s are back in full force, Dracula, now showing at the Ritz Theater, sweeps it straight into the trash. This campy reimagination of the traditional horror story shouldn't work but somehow it does, and the firmly planted 1990s roots definitely help.

The story here is an extremely simplified version of Dracula with a few twists. There is no dialogue; in fact, the entire show is told through modern dance and covers of carefully chosen pop songs. Everything is set in the modern era (I'd place the influence in the 1990s, but the aesthetic is right at home with today's latest Kendell Jenner lewks). In this light, Dracula comes off more as a whiny stalker than a virile vampire king, and the effect is oddly... heartwarming?

I love things that expand my mind and are hard to describe, and this definitely fits the bill. Clocking in at a tight 90 minutes (INCLUDING intermission - why even bother at that point? Just skip it!), it had my jaw open from the get-go and really won me over. The performers are clearly passionate about the show and fully invested in making it sing, and that is key to making this work. The musicians are quite talented, especially Michael Hanna as Dracula. Hanna lives everyone's dark twisted fantasy of being a shadowy rock god slicing his vocals over the surprisingly solid rock band like fangs in a virgin's neck (sorry guys, I had to). He'd be perfect starring in a focused musical about Queen, and he is able to narrate the show through his few songs.

The other half of the performance is composed of some eccentric, captivating modern dance (when is the last time you heard that word combo?). The show begins with what I can only describe as a balletic grunge club mash-up, devolving about halfway through the show into a brilliant parody of a Sia music video and culminating in a Thriller-esque group sashay near the end. Like the music it's an extremely random combination of elements, but it works. I found myself drawn to the dancers' consuming physicality and as an avid fan of Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, I was grinning from ear to ear by the time we left.

If you want something 100% unique, performed by a highly talented mix of young performers and straight from the brain of a mad theatrical scientist, Dracula is for you. It sounds strange (and I suppose it is), but it made for a great date night and plenty of conversation after the show. I'm eager to see what else the new-to-me company of Collide has up their velvet sleeves. Dracula runs at the Ritz Theater through November 12; for more information or to buy tickets, click on this link.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Finding Neverland is Filled With Magic

It's always fun to get a peek behind the scenes. 


Photo by Jeremy Daniels

I mean, who doesn't want to feel like an in-the-know insider? With the ubiquitous ability to be a voyeur just about anywhere these days thanks to social media, is there anything we don't already know?

Photo by Jeremy Daniels

When it comes to pre-internet works, the answer is: absolutely. Finding Neverland, a lovely new show now playing at the Orpheum, tells just such a story about the origins of much-beloved Peter Pan. It's miles better than the recent movie and well worth a stop if you want to escape our early November snow.

Photo by Jeremy Daniels

Finding Neverland begins with J.M. Barrie, the author of Peter Pan, strolling in Kensington Gardens as he brainstorms plots for his newest play. He runs into a woman named Sylva and her bevy of boys, whose boisterous playtime and honest assessment of his work rigorously reinvigorates his imagination. Enchanted with the vivacity with which they approach life after the death of their father, Barrie begins to spend more and more time with Sylvia and her sons, alienating his wife Mary to the point that she leaves J.M. Barrie completely. The theater Barrie works at is in dire straights and desperately needs a new play to bring in revenue. Barrie writes the stories he tells the boys into a manifesto to childhood named Peter Pan; the company initially resists the story but changes their minds when they see the magic it contains. Sylvia contracts consumption and dies shortly after the play is released, and J.M. Barrie continues to partake in the boys' lives after their mother dies.

Photo by Jeremy Daniels

I wasn't sure what to expect from this. I watched the vaunted 2004 film of the same name but I gotta be honest: I was not very impressed, despite a terrific cast that included Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet. I expected much of the same here, but I'm happy to report that the stage version is SO much better than the film. Something about the film lost all of the magic and whimsy to me. Broadway has infused that absent magic and whimsy into the stage version in spades, and this production is utterly charming. It helps that it's set to a really gorgeous soundtrack, with new-to-me songs like "All That Matters," "Neverland," "Stronger," and "When Your Feet Don't Touch The Ground" soothing my ears. The aural aesthetic is like a mashup of the soundtracks of Titanic, Once, Mary Poppins and British pub songs, and it's an appealing mix that will have you tapping your toes in time.

Photo by Jeremy Daniels

The cast is perfectly suited to their roles, beginning with Billy Harrigan Tighe as J.M. Barrie. Tighe is lithe and lustrous of body and song, and his mischievous performance captures Peter Pan's endlessly youthful spirit in spades. Lael Van Keuren is a perfect match to Tighe as Barrie's muse Sylvia. Van Keuren has a gorgeous voice that soars through the show with a warm delivery and a loving touch. Their sinuously backlit duet on "What You Mean To Me" is easily one of the best moments of the show, as is Van Keuren's glittering, balletic exeunt for Sylvia's death at the end of the show. Whoever paired these two knew what they were doing - they are the new Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers!

Photo by Jeremy Daniels

The rest of the cast is equally exciting. John Davidson is wonderful as theater owner and inspiration for Captain Hook Charles Frohman. Davidson has a gruff yet approachable demeanor that helps infuse the many sad moments with honest comedy, and he's a natural anchor of the cast. The children playing Peter, George, Jack and Michael (rotating every night) are absolutely wonderful and will impress your pants off, particularly in the gorgeous a capella performance of "We're All Made of Stars." The rest of the ensemble cast is great as well, although one quibble: the magnificent baritone of Dwelvan David never really gets the chance to shine, and as the only person of color in the cast with speaking lines, his casting as Nanna at the end of the show was particularly alarming. I'm sure it was innocently intentioned, but it's a bad look, and I truly wish they had managed to arrange it differently (he'd make a marvelous Captain Hook - let him at it, Broadway!).

Photo by Jeremy Daniels

The production team did a beautiful job of making a warm, inviting environment for this creative play, in the truest sense of the word. The choreography is deceptively elegant, adding so much to the story with just a few thoughtful gestures. There are some true dancers among the cast, and it's a pleasure to watch them pirouette through the stage. Sets alternate between vibrantly painted scrims and several lush projections. Props land the audience squarely in varied environments ranging from a decadent park to a formal dinner party to a children's performance in a back yard and are quickly whisked in and out. The costumes are straightforwardly gorgeous, featuring that early 20th century aesthetic I so enjoy and rich textures you can see even from the back of the hall. And small attention to detail, like the impressive use of shadows and negative space, or the clear influence of the resident "air sculptor" (I don't even know what that is but it's in the program and it definitely paid off), bring out the child in all of us.

Photo by Jeremy Daniels

Finding Neverland hits the full emotional spectrum and arrives at the perfect time. Things can feel so dark and dreary these days, both in the weather and society at large. The holiday season is so often completely overwrought and quickly becomes more about things and stuff and to-do lists than the reason it supposedly exists: giving thanks, appreciating your blessings, and sharing time with loved ones. If there's one message of Finding Neverland (and Peter Pan, too), it's that no matter what bad things you might face in life, there's never an excuse to live it without a little magic and gratitude. Finding Neverland is something kids can enjoy but grownups will enjoy even more, so keep that in mind when buying tickets. Stories about Peter Pan have always been of mediocre interest to me, but Finding Neverland captivated in a totally unexpected way. It was a sweet surprise, and one I'd encourage you to check out if you can. For more information or to buy tickets, click on this link.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

The Stunning Show Wedding Band Tells the Whole Truth About Interracial Relationships

"Ain't too many people in this world get to be loved - really loved."

Photo by Allen Weeks

These graceful words sum up the heartbreaking finale to Wedding Band, a powerful show now running at the Penumbra. I want to state up front that this show was very personal to me, and I can't possibly leave that out of my thoughts. I have included more of myself in this review than usual, and I hope that's okay. 

Photo by Allen Weeks

Wedding Band is, in an oversimplified summary, about the struggles of interracial lovers in North Carolina in 1918. Julie and Herman have been a couple for 10 years, and they are still very much in love - but boy if it isn't difficult. Interracial marriage is still illegal in the American South, and no one on either "side" of the racial divide is pleased about their relationship.

Photo by Allen Weeks

A more accurate description of this beautiful script from Alice Childress, but harder to pinpoint neatly, is that Wedding Band's real moral lies in how it so pointedly captures the nefarious, myriad ways that this country's horrific racial history works to poison interracial relationships at every step. Our protagonists Julie and Herman love each other, true: but love is not enough. Love is not enough to afford tickets to a place where Julia and Herman can legally marry and be together. Love is not enough to protect Julia from gossip in her community and physical threats from other white men who view her as an available dalliance. Love is not enough to make Julia into a member of Herman's family, who are totally unable to accept her despite their own outcast status as Germans during a World War. Love is not enough to allow Julia to call a doctor or care for Herman when he becomes ill, a sickness from which he later dies - because the scandal his sleeping in a black woman's bed might incur is more important to his family and community than saving his life.

Photo by Allen Weeks

This not-enough-ness is what is so hard about interracial relationships and so hard to explain to those outside of one, even today. I am blessed to be half of a beautiful, strong, intimate interracial relationship. It is the pride of my life that my partner and I have found each other. We are great communicators, and luckily we don't face many of the challenges Julia and Herman do in Wedding Band. Our partnership is challenging and bracing and inspiring and so very worthwhile. But moments of this play struck me deeply with their relevance, even though we exist 100 years after this play takes place. Anyone in a committed partnership knows how much work it takes to understand each other and maintain a healthy common ground; imagine fighting for your relationship in tandem with hundreds of years of racial oppression and baggage at the same time.

Photo by Allen Weeks

So much has changed for the better since the time in which Wedding Band is set; 50 years ago the Loving vs. Virginia case made it crystal clear that interracial marriage was legal nationwide; the Civil Rights movement passed the Voting Rights Act and many other important pieces of legislation; the South was theoretically desegregated. But changing laws is not the same thing as changing hearts and minds, and that is the tragedy that confronts interracial couples to this day. I am legally allowed to marry my partner - for which I am extremely grateful - but I have still walked down the street with him and faced threats, been spit on, and been angrily confronted - yes, even here in "liberal" Minneapolis. We still have to carefully code where we live to make sure neighbors will not view one of us a threat. We still have to consider whose name to put on joint accounts and purchases, knowing that if it is mine it will likely receive better fees and interest rates. We have to face the possibility that if we should one day have children, they will be thoroughly planted in two completely different worlds, and that their "otherness" could make them a target of harassment.

Photo by Allen Weeks

It's such a shame that any of those things need to be true here, but they are. And it won't get better until we look these problems straight in the face and say yes, I see you; yes, we will fix this; yes, we will all do better. The denouement of Wedding Band falls when Julia is ready to leave Herman after 10 years of dedication, because the rest of it, of life outside of their locked bedroom door, is just too much. She can't talk about lynchings with him; she can't talk about her loneliness. It is so difficult just to see each other that their time cannot be used for anything other than loving each other, and while that is beautiful, it can't make up for the rest of the horrors Julia ceaselessly confronts as a black woman living in the American South in 1918.

Photo by Allen Weeks

Julia and Herman discuss these problems frankly, and although extremely painful it's the most authentic delineation of an interracial relationship that I've ever seen on stage. These are harsh, vicious, honest words, but they are the only words that could get Julia and Herman through. We like to think today that as a society that we are in some sort of post-racial utopia, that the end of slavery or the end of Jim Crow was enough to make race an arbitrary thing. We like to think that people who bring up race are just making a mountain out of a molehill, but if Charlottesville has taught us anything it's that we are never "over" America's racial sins. Until those sins are cleaned, until we take full ownership and apology and repentance for them, the rest of us will continue to flounder in the mire left in its wake. Julia and Herman cannot be just man and wife; they have to be a white poor man and an orphaned black woman in the American South, and those identities can never leave them despite how many doors they try to shut to lock them out.

Photo by Allen Weeks

Dame-Jasmine Hughes stars as Julia, and she's a revelation. Hughes savors her lines like chocolate cake, slowly wending them out; it's a pleasure to see an actress who has such grace and poise, and she lends a Gabrielle Union quality to her role. Hughes has a cadre of equally delightful actresses to tell the story with her. Ivory Doublette is charming and heartwarming as Mattie, bringing a shining warmth to the stage in her Penumbra debut. Austene Van is sincere and welcoming as Lula, and it's a pleasure to watch her mentorship over these fine young actresses. George Keller is the woman you love to hate as Julia's landlord Fanny, and her vibrant acting plunges the audience into a complex, difficult, rich narrative of the legacy that racism left to many people of color in the form of rigged property ownership, colorism and prejudice. Laura Esping is absolutely chilling as Herman's mother, and spits her dialogue with unmatched venom. It's a hard part, especially if you don't identify with the material, and Esping really knows how to hone her lines. Peter Christian Hansen is appropriately loving as Herman. Darius Dotch crackles on stage as Lula's son Nelson, and delivers several powerful lines about the place of black men (and particularly black soldiers) in U.S. society. Bob Beverage is horrifyingly familiar as the abusive Bell Man, demonstrating an invasion of privacy that is as chilling as it is unfortunately commonplace.

Photo by Allen Weeks

The set, designed by Vicki Smith, is relatively low-key. One half details the inside of Julia's bedroom; the other, Lula's front porch. The economy is comforting, and you never feel displaced or confused as to the place in the action. Every prop, considerately selected by Amy Reddy, feels well worn and well used, and it's clear that the cast is at home in their surroundings. The costumes are deceptively simple as designed by Mathew LeFebvre, and I really enjoyed the thoughtful details he placed on each. They're beautifully evocative of the early 1900s and well-suited to the character's various professions. Mike Wangen's lighting gently takes us through the time cycles of each day, and Lou Bellamy's masterful overall direction infuses this tautly drawn drama with dynamic gravitas.

Photo by Allen Weeks

Wedding Band is a raw, gorgeously told story that is vital to understanding interracial relationships and the devastating heritage of America's racial sins. If you want to understand how we got here (and how we can fix it); if you need a look in the mirror to see your own flaws and tribulations; if you simply want to see a show with powerful, nuanced performances and gripping dialogue; then you must attend Wedding Band. It runs at the Penumbra through November 12; I highly recommend it for any audience. You may not want to see it, but you should see it, and that alone makes it worth the trip. For more information or to buy tickets, click on this link.