Monday, September 24, 2012

Once Upon a Roman Holiday

In the era of the 1%, who would give up their wealth and fame to join the uncleansed masses?
Roman Holiday is essentially the classic fairy tale in reverse. Princess Anne is a young European royal, the darling of her people and an unwilling participant in the trappings of monarchy. Her only dream is to live like a “normal” person, and at the end of a European introductory tour, she sneaks out of the embassy to join the plebeians below.
Her plan backfires as she ends up staying at the home of Joe Bradley, a composer who daylights as a journalist to earn cash. Bradley initially doesn’t recognize Anne, but once he does he’s determined to take advantage of her company to write an exclusive expose and earn his passage back to New York City where he can compose full time.
The problem with Bradley’s plan is that he and Anne come to like each other much more than they anticipated throughout their day spent on the streets of Rome. The script is interspersed with songs, dance, cameos from colorful Roman citizens and more, until Anne must return to her life as a princess.
The Guthrie smartly kept Roman Holiday to an exact copy of the 1953 cinema classic, down to crinoline-clad Audrey Hepburn doppelganger Stephanie Rothenberg, vintage Vespas and a life-size Trevi fountain. The effect is delightful even for those who haven’t seen the original Cole Porter-composed film (which you should if you haven’t) that starred Gregory Peck and nabbed Hepburn her first Oscar, launching her into celluloid stardom.
Rothenberg plays an excellent Anne, capturing much of Hepburn’s winsome portrayal. Her Disney princess innocence can at times be a tad frustrating, but most of her performance is spot-on, particularly in “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye.”
Rothenberg is well partnered with Edward Watts, whose Joe Bradley is a bit more Howard Keel than Gregory Peck, but whose confident smile and peppy presence also strongly evoke the original film. Swing classic “Night and Day” is the best showcase for Watts’ voice.
Christina Baldwin is the show’s most winning star as the feisty Francesca, a bodacious Italian babe whose Porsche-caliber curves keep every man on his knees. Baldwin’s strut is magnificent, and her spot on accent keeps the laughs coming.
Roman Holiday’s second star has to be the decadently awesome ensemble cast, who profile some serious swing dance moves every scene or so (the sequence in “Look What I Found” is incredible). Many of them are Chanhassen Dinner Theater transplants, and their musical theater training there serves them well on the McGuire proscenium stage. The enormous ensemble utilizes the extravagant set and costumes to the utmost advantage, providing a live-in-Technicolor feast for the eyes and a beautiful approximation of Rome itself. They bring the cinema to the stage, and any attendees will love their wonderful caricatures.
Roman Holiday might be the musical to see of 2012, and it’s definitely one of the most family friendly shows to grace the Guthrie’s stages in a while. Avante-garde devotees may find its candy coating too much to swallow, but it’s a wonderful show for fans of classic Hollywood cinema, fairy tales or simply an escape from the everyday.

Xany Xanadu: Chanhassen Dinner Theater’s latest effort skates over itself

It seems in musical theater that there are the shows that can, the shows that can’t, and the shows that just don’t give up.

Xanadu, a musical farce of the 1980 movie of the same name, is one of the latter. Despite a weak script, an even weaker premise, and the least amount of flash the Chanhassen has possibly ever seen, the cast heaves this show along with every ounce they have and provide some truly enjoyable moments.

Xanadu tells the tale of an uninspired artist (Sonny), whose depression quickly turns around when he is visited by the leader of the muses (Clio, disguised as Australian Kira). With Kira’s inspiration, he decides to turn a run down theater into an all-arts-allowed space named Xanadu that also houses a roller skating disco.

The more Clio works with Sonny, the more she becomes Kira and begins to fall in love with art and with him, breaking several of the rules Zeus created to regulate each of the muses. Two of Clio’s evil sisters conspire to take over her position as their leader and banish her forever.

I’ll save the ending for curious viewers, but please note that the only thing saving this show is its inherent sarcasm, which comes in spades. The cast is so involved in parodying themselves (sometimes on multiple levels) that otherwise painful moments can be brutally funny. Nowhere is this better seen than in Kersten Rodau’s portrayal of evil sister Melpomene, melting Disney’s Hercules into Ursula the sea witch in a strangely satisfying bad guy way. Her rendition of “Evil Woman” is definitely one of the show’s highlights, and I would love to see her take a crack at Ursula should Little Mermaid ever grace a Twin Cities stage.

As Clio/Kira, Jodi Carmeli is appropriately airy and has a spot-on imitation of Oliva Newton John’s trademark Aussie voice. She works as hard as possible to make Kira relatable and heartwarming, and occasionally succeeds.

Dieter Bierbrauer makes Sonny exactly the kind of annoying, blah hipster that he is. Uptownites, beware: you might find yourself offended by the unflattering (but in ways, true) hipster identity he portrays.

Xanadu’s biggest flaw is its lack of acrobatic dance, which Chanhassen usually pulls off with aplomb (could this be because so many of their regulars are currently kicking their way through Roman Holiday?). One of the most intriguing ideas of Xanadu on stage is that roller disco, and although a few nods are made to it here and there, there is no show-stopping skating number to bring the crowd to its feet.

The costumes and set are a stark departure from past shows, full of ice cream pastels and a congregation like setup that audience members can pay an extra fee to sit in onstage as the show plays on. The mythical character montage during “Have You Never Been Mellow?” is a testament to the genius of Chanhassen’s costume department, featuring wildly inventive centaur, cyclops and Medusa costumes.

Xanadu is as light as a whipped fat-free yogurt sundae, and attendees shouldn’t expect the serious, heart-tugging melodrama of usual musical fare. For anyone with a group of pals who enjoy silly parodies or fantastical fantasies, it’s a good group way to spend a hot day inside. Anyone looking for drama, plot or a standard musical should skip it in favor of other fare.

Tune out to Noises Off!

Like an overfermented wine, Noises Off! promises all the features of a fantastic show, but leaves the audience coming away with a tinny taste in their mouth. It’s not necessarily a bad flavor, but it’s disappointing compared to what one expected.
Noises Off! is the same story retold three times from different vantage points. It opens on a British cast as they run through their dress rehearsal of a (terrible) play called Nothing On, which is essentially a ‘focus on sardines and slamming doors.’ Tensions run high as cast members stumble through set pieces, forget their lines and blocking, and reveal multiple romantic tensions.
The second act reveals the strained effect of this awful production from a behind-the-scenes vantage point, turning the meta- “play on play on play” feel up one more notch. The cast is clearly at their wits’ end, and all manner of fights and sabotage take place as we watch them attack each other backstage during their performances.

The third act finds us once again watching the play from the front as its audience. The cast clearly no longer cares to feign an interest in performing, and finally gives up on the whole shoddy interaction with an exhausted collapse.
The farce has some extremely funny moments, such as a lingerie-clad search for a lost contact, a cantankerous director bellowing from the tech booth, and Bradley Greenwald’s extraordinary facial expressions. The concept of flipping the action between performance and backstage action is also entertaining, and the context this contrasting perspective provides is helpful in enjoying the play.
Photo: Michal Daniel
But, ultimately, (and I’m going to get in trouble for this), Noises Off! is simply too long. The show’s repetitive nature and physical comedy lends itself to a lean, quickly paced script. A brisk 90 minute condensation of the current material would be more than enough to provide the audience with the same amount of humor and understanding of the plot. But instead, after two full intermissions and three dragging acts, the truly golden bits of Noises Off! become lost amidst a mountain of uninspiring pyrite.
The Jungle brought in a stellar cast of regulars for Noises Off!, and they do as much as they can with their roles. Standouts include EJ Subkoviak as surly director Lloyd Dallas, Bradley Greenwald as the simpering Frederick Fellowes, and the unabashed ballsery of Summer Hagen as resident ditz Brooke Ashton. These three manage to provide timely gutbusting pacemakers to break up the lengthy monotony of the script, particularly in the first and third acts.
Neal Skoy finally returns to the stage as Tim Allgood, and I hope he comes back in another show that allows him more stage time. Cheryl Willis (Dotty Otley), Kirby Bennett (Belinda Blair), Ryan Nelson (Garry Lejeune), Kimberly Richardson (Poppy Norton-Taylor) and Stephen D’Ambrose (Selsdon Mowbray) round out the cast, and each heaves as much humor out of their lines as possible.

Noises Off! is a classic example of Jungle programming, with a solid cast, interesting set, and clear direction. Unfortunately, the resistance to judicious editing prevents what might have been a great play with a few tweaks into an okay performance following the original to a T.

Blue Man Group Lights-up the Orpheum

[View the gallery of the Blue Man Group teaching percussion at The School of Rock in St. Paul]
 Irreverence: there could be no other take away from watching the aptly named Blue Man Group’s latest show at the Orpheum. A 21st century mime trio, Blue Man Group mixes cerulean body paint with shades of the Three Stooges, modern technology and the stunts and flash of musical groups like Daft Punk.

Their claim to fame, and the highlight of their concerts, is the extraordinary percussion pieces performed on little more than artfully sculpted PVC pipe. Vacuum tubes that look like corneal blood vessel marching drums and Tim Burton-y xylophones show that almost anything can be musical with enough creativity. Their variation in timbre and unique sound is truly inspiring.

Technological gag jokes comprised another third of the show, riffing on Apple’s extraordinary ubiquity with “Gipod” takes on touch screens, digital dress-up and sound mixing. Personally, I preferred their old-school physical comedy routine better, but the electronic teasing had the audience roaring.

The other third of the show featured Blue Man Group’s fusion of commentary on modern art and its creation. Paintings made of wet splatters from drum heads and paint filled gumballs were fun to watch and became cool souvenirs for the front rows. The best piece, however, was a “statue” made of innumerable marshmallows that one of the blue men swallowed as they were tossed at him. The corresponding price tag he used after disgorging said marshmallows onto his canvas made the best possible pantomime of many forms of abstract art (sorry Walker Art Center).
Photo by Paul Kolnik
Photo: Paul Konlik
The show closed with streamers and enormous light up bouncy balls cascading over the audience, with the on-stage backup band tossing their black light skeleton duds and outrageously large hair as frequently as they scaled their instruments. It was quite a sight. Anyone sitting in the front rows should be prepared to participate at their own peril. Several audience members were called to the stage to help eat twinkies, make body paintings and more.
Blue Man Group is a great show for anyone to see once, and an excellent way to introduce kids and teens to thinking more deeply about the worlds of percussion, art and technology. It can be a bit tired for those who have experienced it before, but is definitely a performance you can only enjoy fully from a seat in the theater.

Fela! displays all of the qualities that a musical should be, featuring gorgeous music, riveting visuals and an explicit and carefully relayed political message to boot.

What does it take to break a person? How much violence, slander and abuse can be taken before one gives up on the goodness of life? 
In Fela Kuti’s case, it turns out that it takes quite a lot. Kuti was a Nigerian musician and social activist and the Ordway’s latest musical Fela!, which tells Kuti’s life story, is a testament to the exuberance and resilience of the human spirit.  
Fela!, mainly set in Kuti’s famous club the Afrika Shrine, displays all of the ups and downs of Kuti’s role as a renowned symbol of African protest against corrupt regimes. Weaving back and forth between Kuti’s time in America, London and his homes in Africa,Fela! clearly displays Kuti’s inspirations as he creates Afrobeat, finds bravery and purpose in the Black Power/Black Panther movement and devastation at the hands of Nigerian military aggression.  
Sahr Ngaujah’s portrayal of Fela Kuti is marvelous, and he has received well-deserved Tony and Olivier award nominations for his performance. Ngaujah shimmys, whoops and bounds across the stage, using every inch of space available to him to demonstrate Kuti’s struggles and bravery. He’s no musical slouch either, with a red velvet voice and a set of spectacular chops on the saxophone.  
As often seems to happen, Fela!’s most powerful musical moments came from cameos, this time of Kuti’s mother Funmilayo (played by Melanie Marshall). Marshall wields her voice across ungodly extremes, with an enormous, powerful range and a host of sound effects that are the vocal equivalent of kazoos. Her songs are riveting and alone worth the ticket price. 
The rest of the cast shares strong vocals as well, although focus more naturally draws to their furious dance skills. Stomping, chanting, krumping, “clocking,” tap dancing and more, they don’t let the audience’s eyes rest for a moment. A particularly fascinating highlight is their portrayal of a Yoruba religion dream sequence through dance, a flashmob-like introduction to orishas, shamans and spirituality. 
Each member of the band, which is ever-present on stage, helps set the pace for Kuti’s exuberance or despair, hitting pitch-perfect tempos and inducing the audience to their feet to dance along. It’s a shame there aren’t more spectacular instrumental groups like this in clubs these days. 
Musical highlights include the gorgeous adaptation of “Trouble Sleep,” an extraordinary tenor sax solo from Ngaujah on “Zombie” and those otherworldly tones from Marshall in “Rain.” These three tunes are some of this year’s musical standouts on stage, and the rest of the score is also delightful. 
Fela! displays all of the qualities that a musical should be, featuring gorgeous music, riveting visuals and an explicit and carefully relayed political message to boot. Many (if not most) shows that discuss racial issues could stand to learn from this deftly maneuvered play, and I’d love to see Fela!’s careful consideration spread.
Fela! is a must-see, so catch it while you can.

Naiku: Ahead of the Learning Curve

The tech revolution has fully infiltrated communication and information consumption, but its reach has somehow glaringly missed the field of education. Now, one Minneapolis company is aiming to bridge that gap by bringing to the classroom the methods that make consumer services like iTunes and Facebook so effective and appealing.
Formed in 2010 by Corey Thompson, Adisack Nhouyvanisvong and Kevin Sampers (a former computer programmer, educational tester and marketer, respectively) Naiku is an interactive test and assessment platform that helps teachers engage students, collaborate with other teachers and better understand kids’ individual needs and strengths, while attempting to mimic more closely the way young people receive and interact with information today.
Naiku’s creators recognized that today’s tech-savvy students learn in a way that may render some testing methods obsolete or irrelevant. (Think: blue-book exams.) So, Naiku, which is being implemented in school districts across the Twin Cities, allows students to take tests and quizzes on computers or mobile devices, with files easily transferable between formats and media—features that make the testing process as painless as it can be for all parties and engage students in ways that are familiar to them.
“Many sites [students] are used to interacting with—Facebook, Amazon, Google, Foursquare—personalize the experience, and students expect this level of service,” Thompson explains. “Today’s students [better] engage with school when instruction is personalized to some degree.”
In addition to the benefits it offers students, Naiku offers something often lacking in standardized testing: an emphasis on teachers’ role in student assessment. (The company’s name, after all, comes from the Lao word for “teacher.”)
“The relationship a teacher provides is critical to help motivate and nurture the student,” Thompson says. Using the Naiku system, teachers can virtually create, administer, collect and score data for assessing students’ performance. They can then link that data with past assessments for a comprehensive, customizable look at students’ progress. Teachers can also collaborate using Naiku to create consistent exams and scoring rubrics, a feature that streamlines test-administration and grading processes, thus freeing up time for teachers to use elsewhere (like at the front of the classroom).
The benefits to time- and energy-strapped teachers is one of the reasons Edina recently rolled out Naiku in its schools. “Edina likes Naiku because it will make life easier for [its] teachers,” Thompson says. “[Naiku] will reduce the amount of time it takes to administer and grade tests and quizzes.” The company has also partnered with multiple educational organizations, including Technology Information Education Services, an education technology cooperative owned by 46 Minnesota school districts, in order to more seamlessly bring technology into the classroom to better both the student and educator experience.
If the recognition Naiku is receiving is any indication (the company won a High Tech Division award from Minnesota Cup, a statewide new-venture competition, and has been praised by technology- and education-focused publications), it seems like those little blue books may go the way of the Dodo—in favor of something a little more recognizable in the world of iPads and Androids.

Turning Dance On Its Head: David Zambrano's Walker Art Center performance mixes show tunes, circus atire and eclectic choreography

Watching David Zambrano’s company perform Soul Project last Friday was like watching the regular performers of the Gay 90’s act in Baz Luhrman’s wet dream.

Don’t believe me? Witness the Moulin Rouge-like costumes, complete with circus clown hair and makeup; a set of faahhhh-bulous show tune covers by the likes of Gladys Knight, Patti Labelle, Aretha Franklin and Tina Turner; and choreography that swiftly alternated between strained, stoic poses, krumping and feats of breakdancing athleticism.

Like most every element of David Zambrano's Soul Project, even the viewing experience was turned on its head.
During its recent two-night stay at the Walker Art Center, there were no stadium seating or spotlights present; instead, a softly-colored club scene was inhabited by the audience, who were led from the traditional vantage point through the backstage door to crowd around the performers on stage behind the curtain, creating an unpredictably amorphous sightline.
And what did those in attendance see exactly?
Dancers in Moulin Rouge-like costumes comprised of a host of carefully “found” objects, complete with circus clown hair and makeup, a set of faahhhh-bulous show tune covers by the likes of Gladys Knight, Patti Labelle, Aretha Franklin and Tina Turner, and choreography that swiftly alternated between strained, stoic poses, krumping and feats of breakdancing athleticism.
I’m not entirely sure what to say about the choreography itself. It was clearly intentional and thoroughly rehearsed, and in infrequent moments, such as a buoyantly lithe “I Will Survive,” it was inspirational. But too many times it felt like a self-induced seizure moment, something one might witness during a revelrous evening around a hippy campfire, but not after buying an expensive ticket to watch an internationally renowned dance company.
I must be missing something, though, because the show has been touring internationally since 2006 and has seen a veritable stampede of dancers prance through its run. If Lady Gaga had never happened, if the maudlin and macabre was no longer pop music’s swan song, Soul Project might seem a breath of fresh air, a rejection of the strict conformity so often ascribed to dance, and I could see some appeal. But as it was, it seemed tired, the kind of show patrons see to pat themselves on the back about their open-mindedness and edgy taste.
To anyone who enjoyed Soul Project, I salute you. You found the emperor’s clothes, and maybe you can help me find them next time.
+ Learn more about David Zambrano at; for a calendar of events coming up at the Walker Art Center visit

Guthrie Theater's "Are You Now or Have You Ever Been?"

A suiting introduction to Langston Hughes and the McCarthy era

Sometimes there’s blood in the Georgia dusk
Left by a streak of sun
A crimson trickle in the Georgia dusk
Whose Blood? …Everyone’s
No phrase more appropriately describes Are You Now or Have You Ever Been? better than this stanza from Langston Hughes’ poem “Georgia Dusk.”
Like so many of this year’s shows, Are You Now or Have You Ever Been? details the problems of race and politics in the 1950s. This story, at the Guthrie Theater’s Dowling Studio through May 20, follows Hughes through his trial in front of the McCarthy committee during the Communist witch hunt in Washington, when so many of the nation’s great artists, politicians and citizens had careers, lives, families and more destroyed at the merest breath of a ‘heretical’ opinion.
Throughout the first half of the show, Hughes (played winningly by Gavin Lawrence), describes the political climate as he simultaneously writes “Georgia Dusk.” Between these two narratives, he also interjects full and partial recitations of his other poems. The second half is entirely comprised of Hughes’ Senate hearing, where both defendant and prosecutor face the audience with grim determination.
The conclusion of Hughes’ hearing is never fully revealed, although his feelings about the process certainly are. Lawrence does an excellent job of enacting the fragile line Hughes had to walk between keeping himself from a deadly incrimination and refusing to compromise his values for a corrupt political system. His frustration and determination are explicit, and when the final poem is projected at the end of the show, it clearly reinforces Lawrence’s portrayal of Hughes’ inner conflicts.
As a whole, Are You Now or Have You Ever Been? is a perfectly adequate show. There isn’t anything particularly surprising about the narrative, but there doesn’t need to be. Lawrence is wholly sympathetic, just as his senatorial foes (portrayed by Steve Hendrickson, Matt Rein, John Middleton and Peter Rachleff) are offensively brash and accusatory. And Carlyle Brown is a silent, stoic presence as Hughes’ lawyer Frank Reeves. Lighting, sets, costumes, etc. are all true to the period and well arranged.
But while this may serve as a good introduction to Hughes and the McCarthy trials for viewers who are relatively unfamiliar, it may be too simplistic for those who already know this story and its protagonist.
It would have been nice to see a more diverse, contemporary reaction to Hughes’ poetry than solely the McCarthy opinion, and to hear the words of other artists who were persecuted for their views. Eloquent as Hughes is, he was the only one to get swept up in the red storm, and a fleshed out context would enhance the show for viewers unfamiliar with the subject.
The blood from McCarthy’s prosecutions, both physical and emotional, still courses through American culture today. As the prescient Hughes wrote, it has “scattered hate like seed,” and as Are You Now or Have You Ever Been? displays, only when we can atone for McCarthy’s legacy will we be able to return to a less suspicious form of politics.
+ Are You Now or Have You Ever Been? is a Carlyle Brown & Company production It continues at the Guthrie Theater’s Dowling Studio through May 20. For more information visit

Plot Profusion: Nimbus Theater's "The Gold Ass" delivers a multi-layered story about a man who turns into a donkey, and back again

Liz Neerland’s adaptation of Apuleius’ The Gold Ass, now showing at the Nimbus Theater in Northeast Minneapolis, brings the ancient into today.
A story within a story within a story (and so on),The Gold Ass is a bit like a mythological live version of Inception. As the show progresses, viewers are taken into multiple layers of fables and true events, all of which tie back into a single campfire story about one man’s experiences after being turned into a donkey by a witch.
Some of the events the man proceeds to relate about his journey before becoming a man again include falling in with robbers, listening to old women read, being celebrated as a hero, and finding salvation from a goddess. Each story is brief and delightfully human, creating a very accessible tale.
As the Ass and main narrator Lucius, Joel Raney does a fine job. His donkey mimicry is uncanny, and his gently lolling pacing is an easy usher through The Gold Ass’ multiple plots.
The ensemble cast does a great job of rotating through multiple roles, narratives and costumes with equal panache. They have a great chemistry, and their enthusiasm (and sometimes sarcasm) brings a friendly warmth to The Gold Ass.
The handmade, customized costumes and sets are also lovely, and very creative. In particular, the Ass’ ensemble, fashioned out of a hoodie and repurposed walking canes, was an ingenious bit of stage magic. The set is a soft, rolling panorama of an idyllic countryside, with inky towns in the distance and watercolor fields close by, and it is a bit reminiscent of the Lemony Snickett book covers.
The Gold Ass is a charming production, and audiences of any ilk can find something to enjoy, perfect for a lazy Sunday afternoon full of ancient fables and good stories.
+ The Nimbus Theater’s The Gold Ass continues through May 20. For more information

No Doubt About It: Park Square Theatre's "Doubt: A Parable" combines strong cast tight writing to create one taut, cohesive whole

You know how sometimes you sit in a restaurant, take one look at a menu, and one whiff from the kitchen, and know you’re in for a truly sublime meal?

Doubt, the newest production at Park Square Theatre, is a lot like that. One look at the set and cast, and I knew I was in for a great show -– and I wasn’t disappointed.
Made into a film with a stellar cast (including Ms. Meryl Streep), Doubt is one of those few scripts with such excellent, tight writing that are impossible to bungle.
It follows the story of St. Nicholas school in the Bronx in 1964, when tensions in the Catholic church and the country were reaching a fever pitch. The school is torn between its fearsome principal, Sister Aloysius Beauvier, and its kind, progressive parish priest, Father Flynn. Aloysius becomes convinced that Flynn is sexually abusing the school’s only black student, Donald Muller. Her conviction of Father Flynn’s guilt causes her to wreak havoc on the stability and mental health of her staff, students and parishioners, and the show ends with everyone still left in doubt.
Linda Kelsey (featured in our March issue) is a delight to watch as scratchier-than-pumice Sister Aloysius. Kelsey flaps about the stage like a malevolent crow, hissing all who come her way into submissive puddles of fear or panic, and it’s a deliciously dark performance.
Regina Marie Williams, as Mrs. Muller, proves once again that she is the Viola Davis of Minneapolis stage. Regardless of the size of her roles, the era or the country they are set in, or any other determining factor, Williams steals every scene she performs. Doubt is no exception; her one moment on stage, as she reveals her son’s harsh home life and pleads Aloysius to drop her crusade, is emotionally fraught and truly riveting.
David Mann provides a strong Father Flynn. He clearly articulates Flynn’s imperfect but kind character, and it’s hard to watch his downward spiral.
Anna Sundberg makes an equally convincing Sister James, whose lovely, innocent spirit is no match for the force that is Aloysius. Her broken innocence, like flowers after a thunderstorm, is scattered throughout the show like so many shredded petals on soggy soil. It’s a true growth performance, and it’s exactly right.
Great staging mechanisms – a compact, yet lush set, focused and nuanced lighting, and spot-on costumes – all work together in this production to elevate it from simply a well-written show to a dynamic performance. All the elements of Doubt work together to form one taut, cohesive whole, and I am hard-pressed to think of another show this year that has been so unified.
Doubt is also mercifully brief, once again proving that in most cases longer is not only not better, but not even necessary. With a 90-minute run time and no intermission, Doubtcontains nothing unnecessary or overdrawn.
Doubt is a wonderful show, and Park Square’s production is exemplary. It’s a definite highlight of the 2012 season, perhaps the best production put forward this year. Check it out before it closes on May 13.
+ For more information visit  

The Tortiose and the All-Stars

Fusion is still in.
Like a kimchi Reuben or steak sushi, Tortoise + Minneapolis Jazz All-Stars merged two disparate groups of musicians from two different cities (Chicago and Minneapolis) into one large superband last weekend for a special performance at the Walker Art Center.
The idea sprouted from a similar concert Tortoise– a highly acclaimed jazz quintet with an inimitable style and sound – performed in their hometown a few years ago with a group of similarly eclectic group of local musicians.
The Minneapolis Jazz All-Stars were chosen from various venues around the Twin Cities to form a similarly talented and edgy local foil to Tortoise. Their talents meshed well sonically, with Tortoise providing a solid rhythm/techno base and the Minneapolis Jazz All-Stars the brass, string and wind flavor to build upon it.
I’d love to be able to describe the set list, but it was never announced and wouldn’t really be applicable anyway. Tortoise + Minneapolis Jazz All-Stars was one non-stop music fest, each piece melting into the next, like a cheese laden kimchi on that reuben.
The obvious jazz charts were a treat to listen to, containing interesting twists on traditional jazz chord progressions. The squeaky door transition periods were less to my liking, although I suspect that many an abstract art or music fan enjoyed them just fine.
Preferences aside, there is no doubt that each musician was highly talented. When determining excellent musicians, look no further than their rhythm section. This show was no exception, where standouts included Tortoise drummer John Herndon, whose emotionally punctual strokes provided an indestructible driving force for the rest of the musicians. Similarly, Tortoise guitarist Jeffrey Parker strummed, plucked, scratched and roared his guitar through the set, with beautiful tone and mood-setting pacing.
Local musician-of-all-trades Douglas Ewart was undoubtedly the show-stopping highlight of the performance. I truly believe the man can play any instrument he lays a hand on, and the assortment presented in this performance included oboes, flutes, a saxophone, multiple hand percussion, a conch, and more. Anyone who can make a standard double reed sound like a circular breathing Kenny G on bagpipes is not to be ignored, and he did it unreservedly.
The other musicians were also excellent, although at times they hit the pitchy end of the spectrum. Many have played with high draw national tours (such as Bon Iver), and the influence of said tours was apparent in each of their solos.
As difficult as the abstraction of jazz can be for an ear accustomed to traditional music, it’s almost always a refreshing way to retrain your ear and musical expectations, and certainly more fun when the musicians you watch play it are world class. Tortoise + Minneapolis Jazz All-Stars was just such a reset kind of show, and a worthy accompaniment to the abstract modern art that the Walker is famous for.
+ Learn more about Tortoise at and see what’s coming up at the Walker Art Center at

The Cure For the Common Campaign

As the presidential election bombardment begins, it’s always good to take a step (or five) back and try to view the season with humor.
Because let’s face it -- few things are more miserable than month upon month of dirty attack ads, unproductive debates, and differences of opinion so strong that they nearly upend marriages.
The Kinsey Sicks accomplished said distraction with aplomb in their new show, Electile Dysfunction, at the New Century Theater last week. Acting as if Mitt Romney’s campaign had been suspended, the Kinsey Sicks nominated themselves the new Republican candidates for president. While this nomination could seem business as usual, it was flipped on its head after it was revealed that not only are the Kinsey Sicks drag queens (Andrews Sisters meets Gilbert and Sullivan style), but each had a sordid secret to hide.
Most of Electile Dysfunction was sung to the audience, with famous songs from artists such as Frank Sinatra and Lady Gaga getting an acapella treatment and rewritten lyrics. A word to the wise if it returns to the stage: don’t see the show if you’re easily offended. The Kinsey Sicks made no bones about targeting all race, age, political and religious demographics and more. Their satire was often bitingly funny, but it could hit a bit too close to home.
Among the better numbers were Sinatra’s “My Way” sung as “Vote for Yahweh,” Michael Jackson’s “We Are the World,” as “We Arm the World,” and Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love” as “Restrain Your Love.” The Sinatra spoof was by far the best piece and a commentary on the intersection of religion and politics. Jackson’s song was spoofed in a debate about United States military policy, and Soft Cell’s parody a tongue lashing regarding homosexuality and gay marriage.
There was a mild element of participation (as there seems to be in all New Century shows), so many audience members (including yours truly) were lassoed up to read canned questions or be targeted for their appearance. As drinks are always more than welcome at New Century, it was relatively easy to bolster courage for squeamish audience members.
The Kinsey Sicks each had great timing and lovely voices, often reaching falsettos many female vocalists could only dream of. As nothing but a singing act, they were fun to watch, and definitely worth a visit.
Electile Dysfunction’s run is over for the moment, but keep your eye out in case it returns for a last hurrah before November. Fans of ribald humor and singing queens will have a jazzy time.
+ Learn more about the Kinsey Sicks at and see what's coming up at the New Century Theatre at

Straight A's For Alvin Ailey

Reviewing Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is a little bit like trying to assess the infamous (and now closed) El Bulli, long considered the world’s finest restaurant.

Ailey and his dancers are so dominant in the genre (if only for the vice grip he still retains on patron’s imaginations over 20 years after his death) that it can be hard to feel that there is anything new to say. Are their performances emotive? Well matched? Essentially flawless? Yes, yes and yes. Who wants to read that review?
Alas, I find I must join the legion of admirers continually flocking to Ailey’s praise. It’s just that good. And since they don’t visit Minneapolis very often, I’ll recommend right off the bat that anyone with even a fleeting interest in dance check out their last performance at the Orpheum Theatre tonight.
Take Revelations, Ailey’s claim to fame and the troupe’s show-stopping last number. The piece debuted in 1960, shortly after Ailey formed his company, and tells the story of African-American history and influences (although it really transcends all of that). From slavery to the Carribean to a sweaty Baptist church, Revelations somehow marries Roots and The Color Purple to pop culture before all of that even existed. It is the world’s most performed dance piece in history, and it’s easy to see why.
Revelations is paced by its music, and its clear standout is the brief and highly charged “Sinner Man.” Three acrobatic male dancers jete, pirouette and blaze across the stage in a mad frenzy, and it is riveting. Better than the Olympics, in some ways.
The rest of the show is comprised of much shorter vignettes, each of which was equally a joy to watch. Journey, a tribute to deceased choreographer Joyce Trisler, is a ghostly and pelican-like strut. Home, the opening piece, starts slow and picks up to a tribal infused classical hip hop frenzy. Home is also a new commissioned piece about the solace found in clubbing by people who were infected with AIDS at the beginning of the epidemic.
Company Artistic Director Robert Battle’s programming is flawless, and thankfully also included two pieces he choreographed, both of which were clear audience favorites.Takademe and The Hunt were heavily influenced by precise martial arts. Set to a soundtrack of heavy drums, The Hunt was martial arts-meets-hip hop-meets-ballroom dance, and its primal nature was offset with some gorgeous skirted costumes.
Historical and contemporary, moving and thrilling, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is a safe bet for a good time and family friendly to boot. If you can’t make it tonight, too bad -- you might have to wait a few more years until they come around again.
+ Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, presented by Northrop Dance, returns to the Orpheum Theater on Wednesday, May 2. For tickets and more information

Collaborative Carmina: Carmina Burana a fitting tribute on Minnesota Dance Theater’s 50th anniversary, and another sign that Cowles Center breeding creativity

Although brief, the performance ofCarmina Burana, at Minnesota Dance Theater’s 50th Anniversary Gala last weekend showed how vital having a dedicated dance space like the Cowles Center is to generating an enormous variety of creative and interdisciplinary art.
Carmina mixed the Minnesota Dance Theatre with the Carmina Burana Chorus, along with a few local actors and musicians for good measure. It was in a way reminiscent of watching the Minnesota Opera, minus the lavish sets and with a far heftier dance focus.
Minnesota Dance Theatre was well-rehearsed and fun to watch. While they didn’t have the sizzle of a Ballet Prejcolaj, it was another reminder of how lucky we are in the Twin Cities to have so many formidable arts organizations. I look forward to seeing them perform a more familiar narrative (Moulin Rouge as a ballet? Hey, dreams can happen). The geometric aspects of their choreography, most evident in the opening and closing numbers, were particularly fun to watch.
Bradley Greenwald has already displayed his theatrical prowess in hit shows such as the Jungle’s I Am My Own Wife, but who knew he also had a set of knockout pipes? Greenwald was radiant as Carmina’s reining baritone, displaying a deft, nuanced understanding of his part and playing it to full comedic and dramatic effect. As good as he is in theater, Carmina proves he should definitely spend more time on the choral side of the aisle.
Jennifer Baldwin Peden, anchoring the sopranos, also displayed a lovely voice, particularly with her aria at the end of Carmina. She also maximized the show’s simple costumes and setting, standing out in a vermillion dress that left no doubt where all focus should be placed. Tenor Justin Madel was a bit warbly for my taste, but still pulled through his parts with aplomb.
The choir and accompanying musicians provided a sound foundation for the soloists and dancers to build upon, although some of their choreographed herding was clumsy. Other than a few minor exceptions, there were no costumes or sets to speak of, and with all of the bodies on stage it was likely better that way.
Carmina Burana was a great anchor between the gala’s other events, which included a silent auction and dinner. Cheers to the Cowles on a successful first season and the Minnesota Dance Theater on an astonishing fifty years, and here’s to hoping they have many mre collaborative works like this in their future.
+ The Cowles Center’s 2011-12 season continues with performances by the Zenon Dance Company, TU Dance, Keigwin + Company, and the Cantus Vocal Ensemble. See the complete schedule at Learn more about the Minnesota Dance Theatre at

Mamma Mia! Over the Top In the Best Way Possible

You know how sometimes a movie can be a little bit better than a book/film/play, and you feel guilty but can’t help yourself? Mamma Mia! is a little bit like that.
The current stage version, at the Orpheum Theatre through April 29, is on the whole a just-fine production and a worthy tour. But I couldn’t help but wish for a little more Meryl Streep-ColinFirth-Amanda Seyfield magic.
Created around a soundtrack of Abba’s best hits, the plot follows Sophie, a young woman about to get married at her Greek tavern. Sophie is trying to learn who her father is so that he can walk her down the proverbial aisle. Posing as her mother, she invites three paternal candidates (Bill, Sam, and Harry) to join her at the wedding, all of whom accept the invitation.
But, as always, things do not go according to plan. Sophie and her mother, Donna, are completely overwhelmed by the presence of Donna’s past lovers and multiple emotional breakdowns ensue. The show ends with a complete role-reversal in the wedding, and although Sophie never learns exactly who her father is, she gains the family she’s always wanted and more.
Mamma Mia!’s first act flies by in a riot of song, color and dance. Highlight numbers include “Lay All Your Love On Me,” with a squadron of hilarious (and sizzling hot) dancing scuba divers, and “Voulez Vous,” a dancefest orgy so sexually charged it leaves the audience a bit titillated themselves. It’s an LSD trip back to the seventies, and it’s a whole lot of fun.
Unfortunately, the second act doesn’t fare nearly as well. By nature, following such an energetic whiz with emotive song after emotive song is a mood killer, and it’s hard to regain the first act’s buzz. Singing got notably pitchier as the show went on as well. Some numbers, including a fantastic “Does Your Mother Know,” work hard to redeem it but can’t quite overcome the slog towards the end.
Mamma Mia!’s standouts are clearly Mary Callanan and Alison Ewing. Callanan, playing Donna’s dumpy and endearing best friend, has a knockout voice and hilarious stage presence. Ewing, as Donna’s feisty, gold-digging friend Tanya, spices the show with her Real Housewife carriage and is the focus of all of her scenes.
Kaye Tuckerman gives a two-sided performance as Donna. Her fierce appearance and angular voice are alternately completely fitting and too harsh for the part. Chloe Tucker, fresh out of college, is lovely as Sophie. Her moods, voice, and carriage are all filled with youthful exuberance and naïveté; Tucker couldn’t’ have played it better.
Donna’s lovers are a mixed bag. Christian Whelan (Sam) is disappointing, with a pitchy, over-vibrato-ed voice. John-Michael Zuerlein flings his Crocodile Dundee-esque role as Bill around without reserve. Zuerlein can overdo it at times, but what would Mamma Mia! be without over exaggeration? Paul Deboy does Harry well, hitting the middle-aged-but-still-“hip”-gay-man spot on.
Mamma Mia!’s sets leave something to be desired, and are too spare to invoke the lush atmosphere of Grecian isles. The costuming makes up for the set’s deficit with outrageously campy threads. This show is inseparable from those David Bowie-meets-Teletubbies monstrosities, and that’s okay.
Thought it is cheesier than Velveeta chili dip, Mamma Mia! is still an enjoyable time. Nostalgic fans, lovers of the film, and those obsessed with campy, corny musicals should have no problem enjoying themselves. Despite its flaws, the first act alone is reason to go, and anyone who can’t find a reason to enjoy any part of Mamma Mia probably has a Grinchian hole somewhere inside of themselves.
+ Mamma Mia continues at the Orpheum Theatre through Sunday, April 29. For tickets and more information visit

Good to the Bone: The National Marrow Donor Program might not get as much attention as some other cancer-fighting causes, but it’s just as laudable

Cancer has become one of the most popular causes around, receiving millions of dollars in donations,  and promotional products and celebrity endorsements by the truckload. The Susan G. Komen campaign and Lance Armstrong’s Livestrong organization lead the pack, but there are a number of other foundations quickly catching up to these powerhouse fundraisers. With so many organizations to choose from, how does one know which to support?
Consider the excellent—and relatively unknown—Be The Match Registry, where individuals can register their bone marrow for use in research and life-saving transplants. Minnesota and the National Marrow Donor Program recently celebrated a huge milestone: Miah Winterfeldt of Shakopee, a 19-year-old college student, was the 50,000th marrow donor from the registry.
Why does this matter? All of the research and materials generated by this program benefit people suffering from blood cancers such as leukemia and lymphoma, which are particularly virulent cancer strains. And even though more than nine million people are currently registered with the NMDP as potential marrow donors, only one in every 540 registrants actually makes a donation. That means that of the nearly one million people estimated by the American Cancer Society to currently have some form of blood cancer, only about 16,600 will have the chance for a life-saving transplant.
Because blood cancers most often affect minorities, donors who identify as Hispanic, African American and Pacific Islander are especially needed. Age is also an important factor, and donors aged 18 to 44 are considered ideal.
Registering for a marrow match is about as painless as it gets: Go to to get a cheek swab kit from the NMDP mailed to you, swipe the inside of your cheek once and mail the kit back. Once you are on the organization’s list, you’ll remain on it until the age of 61, which is the cut-off point for consideration. Actually giving the marrow is also far less invasive than one might think. Donations come in the form of marrow removal from the pelvic bone by a hollow needle or from a simple blood draw—no surgeries or invasive procedures involved.
If the idea of losing bodily fluids doesn’t appeal to you, financial donations are also accepted. Because the NMDP gives out the donor kits free of charge and each new donor registration costs about $100, the organization needs help funding the process.
So, along with the pink lipsticks and rubber wristbands, take a look at another organization that is integral to saving people’s lives from cancer, one donor at a time.