Friday, December 21, 2018

KHEPHRA is the Hip Hop Holiday Story You Didn't Know You Needed

Representation has been an increasingly important theme in arts around the world lately. 


Uche Iroegbu

Whether it's melanizing the lily white world of superhero universes (here's looking at you Black Panther) or shaking up the stale genre of rom coms (Crazy Rich Asians ruled the game this summer), groups that were previously left out of the cultural conversation have started to plow ahead with work by, of and for their own with nary a glimpse in the rearview mirror.

And what a great time that makes it to be a lover of the arts! Diversification only generates richer, deeper, more meaningful and interesting stories. I've been thrilled to discover so many new worlds and ideas that I never knew before over the last few years. The quality across the board has been increased such that it can be hard now to find something that *isn't* interesting or fresh, and that's a good problem for all of us to have.

The latest local piece in this fearless tradition is KHEPHRA: A Hip Hop Holiday Story, now showing at the CONN Theater. Created and anchored by local luminary Shá Cage, KHEPHRA tells the story of a young girl as she encounters celebrations from the many countries she lives in in West Africa and transitions to life in America in her teenage years. It's a side door entry into the world of a holiday show - you won't get your typical Christmas Carol or Grinch or Santa or manger moments here (although there are some remixed carols) - which I found totally refreshing and unique. Through puppetry, dance and music, Cage takes us on a tour through KHEPHRA's world and educates all of us on a vibrant blend of cultural traditions and experiences. A helpful insert in the program describes some of the West African terms, people, and songs sung throughout the show for those who are unfamiliar with the cultures presents.

A standout element is that this is clearly a family affair. We learn at the very beginning of the show that the concept for KHEPHRA came after Cage realized her kids were too young to see Christmas Carol and that they wouldn't relate to it anyway. Cage decided to create a show where they could feel seen and represented and hopefully have them perform with her once they were older. Her sons do indeed perform in this show, which is directed by Cage's husband. Cage displays an intimate, joyful familiarity with the two incredible dancers (Destiny Anderson and Johannah Easley) and musicians (Jamela Pettiford, William "Truthmaze" Harris, and Rico Mendez) also performing, and together they create a vivacious and joyful energy. The familial vibe on stage also creates a warm engagement with the audience, who is encouraged to sing along with the performers during the musical numbers and touch some of the West African artifacts Cage introduces throughout the show. I also thoroughly enjoyed the gorgeous abstract paintings in the scenic design by Ta-coumba Aiken that lend a simple but colorful and playful backdrop for the dynamic choreography.

I can't overstate how nice it is to see a plethora of innovative, unique, diverse, talented performers carving their own paths through the arts world these days. It's not easy to create something out of thin air, and much less make it something of quality. The vision Shá Cage demonstrates in KHEPHRA, the joyful atmosphere of the entire experience, and the example she sets for her children (and for all of us, honestly) is one I won't soon forget. If you're feeling down in the holiday dumps or just plain bored with the same ol', same ol' rotations of shows around this time of year, branch out and explore the lovely, cross-cultural world Cage has to offer here. I hope this becomes a holiday tradition of its own - a festivus for the rest of us if there ever was one. KHEPHRA only runs through December 23 (with shows twice a day), so make sure to click here to get your tickets ASAP.


Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Les Miserables is Timelier Than Ever

What can I say about a show that's been touring the country steadily for over 25 years? 

Photo by Matthew Murphy


Probably simply that things haven't changed all that much in the 150+ years since Les Miserables was first published.

Photo by Matthew Murphy
Anyone who isn't familiar with Les Miserables can find a detailed overview of the plot in my first review several years ago (click here to read), but for the one paragraph breakdown: Jean Valjean became a convict after stealing a loaf of bread to save his dying nephew; after 19 years in French prison, he is released and breaks parole to start a new life. He is hunted ever after by the police captain Javert, a stickler for law and order who refuses to believe in life circumstances or that people can change. Valjean takes in a girl named Cosette after her mother falls from grace after working for him, raising Cosette as his own. Cosette falls in love with Marius, a member of a revolutionary group who tries to overthrow France's wealthy ruling class to help the people (and fails). Marius is the lone survivor of the fight after Valjean saves him; Javert commits suicide after Valjean grants him his life during the revolution; and Valjean joins Cosette's mother Fantine and Marius's lover-that-never-was Éponine in heaven after a life filled with service.

Photo by Matthew Murphy

It's a doozy of a plot (and an incredible book - which more people should read. Yes, I know that it clocks in at over 1,400 pages, but if you do the math even the slowest reader can finish it in a year by reading just a measly 4 pages a day. It's worth it, I promise), and despite sounding overwrought it somehow shines on-stage as a complex, tautly riveting story that lays bare some incredibly difficult subjects via high entertainment. I've always felt Les Miserables to be a timely and relevant piece, but it struck me last night just HOW timely it is. Just look at a few of the major themes and plot points:


Photo by Matthew Murphy

And on and on and on... the parallels are never ending! It's interesting for me to see the relationship audiences have with a show such as this; to me there are such clear ties to problems plaguing our society, and despite the intentional comedic moments I still struggle to be fully entertained and remove myself from those implications. This world is REAL to me in a visceral, heartbreaking way, but it seems most of the general public doesn't feel as connected with the story. There were several moments throughout the night - such as strong laughter after childish Cosette's solo "Castle on a Cloud," which describes her dream of escaping her nightmare of child labor and abuse at the hands of the Thénardiers - where I felt almost in an alternate universe. Was the scene teed up for comedic timing? Yes of course. But was it really funny and worth an audience-wide guffaw? I'm hard pressed to say so.

Photo by Matthew Murphy

That said - this production is wholly magnificent and worth a visit for long-term fans and newbies alike. This is a cast of ringers (they need to be in order to perform the gloriously complex score, conducted to perfection by Brian Eads), and no one will be disappointed with their strong work. At the core is, of course, Jean Valjean, played with gravitas here by Nick Cartell. He is partnered with the Ebeneezer Scrooge-ian Josh Davis as *the best* Javert I've ever seen, and together they tussle through an equally matched battle of fates that drives the show with strength. Mary Kate Moore rips through your heart during her solos as Fantine with a truly angelic voice. Paige Smallwood was a crowd-pleaser belting out "On My Own" as Éponine, and Jillian Butler's sprightly coloratura has a future career as Christine Daae as evidenced through her performance as Cosette. The (surprising) star of the whole thing for me, though, was Joshua Grosso in a gorgeously nuanced performance as Marius. Grosso acts through his teeth while blessing us all with a Josh Groban-esque voice on tear-worthy solos like "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables;" he's fresh, young and bombastic, and I cannot wait to see where he goes after this performance.

Photo by Matthew Murphy

This tour is part of the 25th anniversary revival, which includes some different staging from the famous original. Gone are the turntable stages; instead, we have lavish projections and sky-high sets that provide us with three stories worth of narrative power. The facility of these sets allows for the intensely detailed plot to fly by with ease, and it's impressive how fast-paced this staging of Les Miserables feels despite clocking in at a three hour run time. Paired with the nuanced projections and absolutely stunning lighting design, the sets place us in a living, breathing, three-dimensional slice of Parisian history over 150 years old; it's a high achievement and sure to keep you riveted throughout the show.

Photo by Matthew Murphy

Victor Hugo was the Charles Dickens of France, meaning his work is just as evergreen as the Oliver Twists and Christmas Carols of the world. There's a reason Les Miserables has hung around for so long, and I'm tempted to say it's more relevant now than perhaps it ever has been since publication. Once again we live in a world where a few wealthy autocrats control our health and livelihoods; once again many people are thrown into prisons for minor offenses and struggle to re-enter society; once again the sexual assault of women is at the forefront of political consciousness; once again people are trying to rise up for their rights and are squashed by an indomitable political machine. Does that mean we give up? Of course not - as the revolutionary Enjolras sings, "this is the music of a people who will not be slaves again," and it's always worth fighting for "One Day More" - even if today turns out to be a loss. Don't miss the epic saga of Les Miserables, especially with this taut, terrific cast. Click here to learn more or buy tickets before the show closes on December 30 (and word to the wise - it's selling out quickly, so you'll want to nab those seats ASAP).

Photo by Matthew Murphy


Friday, December 7, 2018

Thrillist: The Best Things to Do This Winter (in the Twin Cities)

Whenever someone not from Minnesota comes to visit, I hear the pity in their voice when they talk about living here through the winter. 

Photo courtesy of Thrillist

Inevitably something along the lines of "bUt HOW dO yoU sUrvIvE iT?!?" comes out of their mouths, and all I can do is smile. 

The things is that (believe it or not) the extreme winters here are actually a gift, allowing Minnesotans to get extra creative with how we spend our time. It enables a period of slowing down, cozying up, and generally just enjoying your life a little differently. Can't go swimming at the beach? Go skiing or skijoring. Can't go for a long stroll outside? Hit up the skyway system and explore some of the crazy things available there, including museums, nail shops and excellent sushi and ramen. Patios are closed? Use it as an excuse to plan a themed date night to learn more about other cultures and try food you've never eaten before. 

I had a lot of fun putting together this list of the best things to do in the winter for Thrillist (click here to read the full piece). It actually became hard to narrow this down! If I have a holiday wish for any readers, it's this: get out of the house and try something new this winter. Do a little more reading, home cooking, and pick one new thing every week - or at least every month - that you've never tried before. There are so many fun activities to explore in the winter here and many of them are very affordable - don't let yourself become isolated and grumpy thanks to the weather and darkness. You can do better. 

If there's something I missed on the list (click here), please let me know! I'm always thrilled to be trying new things. Send any suggestions to me at compendiummpls@gmail.com.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Thrillist: The Best Things to Do in 25 of America’s Most Fun Cities

Doesn't #23 seem a little low on the ranking? 


Photo courtesy of Thrillist

How do the Twin Cities stack up when compared with our fellow American metropoles? Let me count the ways.

Thrillist asked me to send in some suggestions for cliched sights in the Twin Cities worth their salt and I came up with the following list. We're pretty lucky here in that very few things are truly overrated - but that doesn't mean there aren't still some standouts. I was sorely tempted to throw in MIA, Landmark Center, some theater, or the riverfront, but the sculpture garden won in the end thanks to its completely free access and Insta-worthy setting.

Check out the rest of my touristy Minnesota thoughts by clicking on this link to read the article, and let me know - what would be your best iconic tourist location to visit? Are there any under the radar events I need to know about? I'm always looking for the next big thing, so please send your suggestions my way to compendiummpls@gmail.com.

Monday, December 3, 2018

The Wickhams Brings a New Festivity to Pride and Prejudice

How can you find a new way to indulge your love for Jane Austen? 


Photo by Rich Ryan

You took all the Buzzfeed quizzes about "Which Bennet are you?" and watched every Austen remake to be found thousands of times (here's looking at you, Clueless). What's left at this point to fuel your Austen fire?

Thanks to the ever-visionary Sarah Rasmussen, the Jungle Theater in Uptown has you covered. On the heels of last year's unbelievably successful Miss Bennet, the Jungle is providing #tctheater with another witty world premiere play to keep the story of the Bennets living on after Lizzie's marriage to Mr. Darcy at the end of the beloved book Pride and Prejudice.

Photo by Rich Ryan

While Miss Bennet, which premiered last year (and which I didn't see - but my friends over at Talkin' Broadway have the full scoop, just click here to catch up) focused on the story of the oft-forgotten Mary Bennet, The Wickhams gives us all the juicy details of what Lydia has been up to since her secretly forced marriage to George Wickham. It's an unlikely but visionary entree back into this world, providing a surprisingly fruitful plot line for a lively cast and a delicious piece of fan fiction that left me wanting even more.

Photo by Rich Ryan

Think of The Wickhams as "The Untold Story of Lydia" meets Downton Abbey. Fans of the original book know that George Wickham's famously unscrupulous behavior was the bane of many people's existence. After Mr. Darcy forces Wickham to marry Lydia, Wickham is forever banished from Pemberley Hall. This creates a conflict, of course, when the rest of the Bennet family is in town for the holidays. They can neither leave the Wickhams out altogether nor invite George Wickham, so Lydia travels to Pemberley alone to join her sisters. Lydia is a fascinating character who becomes richer as I get older, and The Wickhams plumbs her potential to the core. We learn that Lydia is much smarter than she receives credit for and presents a silly facade to veneer over her unhappy marriage. Throughout The Wickhams, her true relationship to George is unveiled and great plot twists change their lives forever.
Photo by Rich Ryan

The entire play takes place in the kitchen at Pemberley, where the main characters intermittently seek relief from the holiday festivities and stifling family judgement upstairs, and we get to meet a whole new cast of characters via Pemberley's servants. This approach has the advantage of fleshing out a fuller picture of the true life (and class system) at Pemberley, and gives us a window into how George Wickham became the disastrously immoral character he is in the book. It's not a sympathetic portrait but it's a clear-eyed one, and it lends a surprising level of nuance to the original text. Several juicy side plots, including a blooming romance between Cassie, a new servant at Pemberley, and Brian, a long-time servant who knew Wickham intimately as a child; and general existence of housekeeper Mrs. Reynolds, who brings a sharp wit and a spot-on Mrs. Hughes vibe to the house; kept the audience enthralled as we whirled through this new story.

Photo by Rich Ryan

The standout elements of this show were the impeccable comedic timing, directed to perfection by Christina Baldwin. This ship is run as tightly as a British naval frigate and the cast whips through jokes with casual ease. That cast is small but smart, by the way, and everyone serves their roles perfectly. Standouts include Nate Cheeseman, who miraculously manages to make George Wickham not only totally compelling but downright sympathetic at times; and Roshni Desai as Cassie, with a pitch perfect accent and plenty of sharp insight into the new household thanks to her friendship with Brian (setting a new rom-com standard in Jesse Lavercombe's performance). Sun Mee Chomet is an excellent choice for Elizabeth Darcy and keeps the audience giggling and the charmingly flustered James Rodriguez in line as Mr. Darcy. Anglea Timberman anchors the action as Mrs. Reynolds, and I can't imagine her in another role after the steadfast part she plays here. And Kelsey Didion brings surprising complexity to her role as Lydia, leading us to a sympathy we would never have expected from her character. In all it's a very special cast who are clearly having the best time with this new work, and I would happily revisit Pemberley with them again and again.

Photo by Rich Ryan

The devil is in the details and this production team is stellar. I kept finding new minutiae to delight me with every scene. As previously mentioned the lovely set, designed by Chelsea Warren, stays entirely in Pemberley's kitchen. Glowy burnished copper tools grace the walls, a sturdy table centers the room, and a plethora of doorways and secret hallways allow us to watch the characters spy on frank conversations, hide from each other, and otherwise enjoy far more action than a static set has any right to generate. Sarah Bahr's costume design draws clear contrast between the landed class and the servants, and a smart selection of props from John Novak (such as endless biscuits or steaming cups of tea) make this feel like a cozy working home. The real standouts are the lighting design by Marcus Dilliard and dialect coaching from Keely Wolter. I noticed out the gate that these are some of the best (and most consistently delivered) British accents I've heard on stage in recent years, and the lighting is an absolute marvel. Transitioning from shadowy firelight to candle-lit moments to the garish light of day, Dilliard brings a rare nuance to the lighting that really pushes this show to the next level.

Photo by Rich Ryan

Jane Austen was one of the first authors I was truly obsessed with. Like many of us I devoured Pride and Prejudice (and subsequently the rest of Austen's catalog) with a fervor that has not waned over the years. It's one of the few books I've re-read multiple times, and I adore many of the clever re-imaginings that have graced popular culture over the years (such as the Bridget Jones series or Clueless). The Wickhams leads us into a new level of Austen fan fiction that has infinite depths to plumb, and I am so grateful to the Jungle for not only having the vision to commission a brand new work for the holidays (rather than re-hash the same tired stories we see everywhere else) but to use the opportunity to add new richness and understanding to a familiar story. I can see this series becoming a new cycle of holiday plays traveling the country every Christmas season, and it's a world I won't mind revisiting again and again. For more information about The Wickhams or to buy tickets before the show closes on December 30, click on this link.