Thursday, December 11, 2014

A Creme de la Christmas Story

The classic holiday film gets a surprisingly great musical makeover
Photo courtesy of the Ordway

"My kid brother looked like a tick about to pop."

"He looks like a demented Easter bunny."

"My father worked in profanity the way other great artists worked in paints or clays."

Photo courtesy of the Ordway
Recognize any of these lines? They're among the many, many gems to be found in perennial TBS Christmas Eve 24-hour special A Christmas Story.

One of the most beloved holiday films ever, A Christmas Story is a delightfully narrated tale of one

boy's (Ralphie's) quest to get a Red Rider BB Gun for Christmas in his idyllic yet modest 1940 childhood. Woven in are fabulously funny side stories, including the beating up of a bully, sticking of a tongue to a flagpole, a drunk Santa with demented elves, and the infamous leg lamp (or as Ralphie's father puts it "Major Award").

This live-on-stage musical version, then, was a tricky bet; it's always difficult to transition a good film into a good show, and adding music could have been a mess. Thankfully, it wasn't.

A Christmas Story has its hiccups, but on the whole this was a funny, heartwarming rendition. It follows the movie very closely, and has plenty of fun in the process. The songs are not only fine, but some are terrific; "Ralphie to the Rescue" was a particularly enchanting spoof on classic "western" phrases heard in the likes of Aaron Copland scores and John Wayne/Clint Eastwood films.

Photo courtesy of the Ordway
The cast has solid musical chops. Jake Goodman shines as Ralphie, and his fantastic voice (seriously, this kid can't be more than 12, and he's got Idina Menzel's vocal swagger down pat) carries the show. This might be the Achilles heel of A Christmas Story; I can't imagine the show being quite as enjoyable with a lesser talent playing Ralphie.

Photo courtesy of the Ordway
Another shining star is Billie Wildrick as Ralphie's mother; she has terrific moments on "Just Like That" and "What a Mother Does." The ensemble of children, as well as Dieter Bierbrauer as Ralphie's Old Man, are solid as well. And although lacking some of the snap of the narrator in the film, Gary Briggle is warm and inviting as the narrator Jean Shepherd, whisking us through the story in a comfortably husky tone.

The set is of note as a period appropriate, festive piece. It snows, has a shiny Olds, sepia-ed gifts, itchy sweaters - the whole package, in other words. There are even live dogs to play the Bumpus Hounds, who cavort across the stage in highly entertaining fashion.

A Christmas Story on stage is just as enchanting as it is on film. It's funny, warm, heartening, and absolutely worth a visit. It's also appropriate for all family members. Take a break from the holiday madness and sit for a few hours in Ralphie's world; I promise you won't regret it.

And, because I can't help it at all, here's a mashup of the songs (I really did love them!!):

For more information on tickets and the show, click here.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

A Wonderful "White Christmas"

Fans of the classic 1954 film starring Bing Crosby will not be disappointed with this lively stage version.

Photo Courtesy of Hennepin Theater Trust

If you have't figured it out yet, I'm a sucker for musicals. Especially those hailing from the golden era of Hollywood (say 1935-1960, in my book), and the cheesier, the better.

Yes, I know they're predictable. Yes, I know they're derivative. Yes, I know they're silly.

But I just can't help being captivated by stories set in a time when things were simpler, people were happier with less, and all we needed to cheer up was a reminder of the things in life that matter: people we love, and fun experiences.

White Christmas falls squarely in the middle of that genre. Essentially a remake of an earlier film (Holiday Inn, in which the enormously popular song "White Christmas" first debuted), White Christmas is really nothing more than a shameful attempt by MGM to make even more money off of the song and the holidays.

But it works.

Photo Courtesy of Hennepin Theater Trust
And so does the stage version currently running at the Orpheum Theater. It manages to make a few (necessary) song upgrades (for example, swapping out "mod"-ern numbers in the film such as "Choreography" for swing classics such as "Blue Skies"), while still retaining the soul of the story (for those who don't know: famous male singing duo meets talented sister singing duo; they work together to save the inn of a former commanding WWII General over the Christmas holidays; love, wedding bells, and many snowflakes ensue).

This show has a great cast. While James Clow is certainly ain't Bing Crosby as Bob Wallace, he still has a rich, lovely baritone that happily slides amongst the swingier numbers and the especially lovely "Count Your Blessings." Love interest Betty Haynes is played nimbly by Trista Moldovan, whose powerhouse voice hides until she blasts through "Love, You Didn't Do Right By Me."

Photo Courtesy of Hennepin Theater Trust
Castmates Jeremy Benton (playing Phil Davis) and Kaitlyn Davidson (Judy Haynes) aren't quite as
strong, and that's okay; they play up their comedic angles and provide some fabulous dance sequences.

And the dancing is of note; it's rare to see so much tap in a show and particularly featuring a meticulously balanced 15+ person troupe. It's a real pleasure to see this return to this lost art so beautifully portrayed, and choreography alone makes this worth a visit. It's also worth noting, however, that the elaborate sequences do elongate the show - it closes out at a little over three hours.

White Christmas is just one more fabulous stop in this year's excellent Broadway season at Hennepin Theater Trust (HTT). It's a wonderful way to get in the holiday mood, and I'd highly recommend this to any Bing, holiday, or general musical fans - make sure to flex your guilty pleasure muscles and give it a go. Click here for more information about HTT and tickets to the show.
Photo Courtesy of Hennepin Theater Trust

Also, while you're at it: Make sure you make a stop at some of the fantastic (and FREE) Made Here exhibits along Hennepin Avenue. HTT is doing some amazing work filling empty storefronts and getting local visual artists on the map; help support their work and enjoy a free show anytime. Click here for more information about Made Here.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

A Dazzling Dirty Dancing

You'll be moving your mambo from start to finish. 

Photo Courtesy of Hennepin Theater Trust
We all need eye candy, right?

For fans of sci-fi, there's Star Trek; for those who prefer a side of violence with their story, it's Spartacus or Game of Thrones; and for musical and arts and general groupies of true hunks everywhere, it's Dirty Dancing.

For the uninitiated, Dirty Dancing follows the 1963-set summer camp love story of Baby, the privileged daughter of a doctor, and Johnny, a hunky (not to overemphasize, but HUNKY) dance instructor. Baby accidentally learns that Johnny's dance partner is pregnant, and not only helps her pay for an abortion but volunteers to learn her routine to allow her time to recover. Over the next two weeks, Baby and Johnny work in close enough quarters to succeed with the dance and to fall in love.

There are more details I could share, but let's be honest: this show is written for a *certain kind* of audience, and they come for one scene and one scene only: the famous "lift" at the end of the show in Baby and Johnny's dance routine. All I'll say is that they certainly deliver; the audience went wild.

Photo Courtesy of Hennepin Theater Trust
Dirty Dancing isn't a traditional musical in the sense that each character sings, and I found that disappointing as the cast has great voices. This is particularly true of Jennlee Shallow (Elizabeth) and Doug Carpenter (Billy Kostecki)[both pictured, left], who provide vocals for the show's most famous tracks, including "(I've Had the) Time of My Life." Their fab vocal chemistry adds an extra level of excitement to Dirty Dancing's universally superb dance sequences, and I craved a lot more of it.

The leads Jillian Mueller (Baby) and Samuel Pergande (Johnny) have even better chemistry and fit their parts well; Mueller is winning and winsome as idealistic Baby, and Pergande positively oozes the Patrick Swayze-an sex appeal that Johnny's character exudes from every pore. (And as a side note, ladies/gents who are so inclined: the supporting cast isn't half bad to look at either).
Photo Courtesy of Hennepin Theater Trust

On a heavier note, I have to say: Dirty Dancing was never one of my favorite movies, but this show hits just the right note between silly, romantic, and serious. I'd honestly forgotten the story's more serious subplot (regarding abortion, birth control, and who takes responsibility in relationships), and as I'm learning with other shows in revival, these old themes die hard; we live in a world where a fight over abortion's legality and desirability is constantly in question, and I found it refreshing to see that rather than indicting one perspective or another, Dirty Dancing chooses to portray a relatively honest depiction of what happens when the option isn't legally available at all. It's a perspective that is too often buried and/or forgotten, and bravo to this cast for giving the subject the delicate but serious treatment it deserves.

Dirty Dancing is great eye candy and perfect for a girls' night out getaway, even for those who think they won't enjoy it - I didn't. Catch it while you still can by clicking on this link for tickets and more information about the show.

Also, for those who are interested: I couldn't upload the video I had due to size constraints on Blogger (dumb), but the audio still works - so check it out if you're interested:

Reviewed in Brief: Eating Raoul

How far would you go to fulfill a dream? 

Photo Courtesy of Hennepin Theater Trust
That's the question Mary and Paul Bland are faced with in Eating Raoul, a musical that just debuted at New Century Theater. Faced with surmounting debt and depleting income, Mary and Paul are about to give up on their dream of owning a restaurant until Paul accidentally kills a man who attempts to sexually assault Mary in their home. When they discover his pockets are filled with cash, they realize that they can make a lot more money off of "bopping" the ever revolving door of swingers next door than they ever could the honest way.

Their plans are almost foiled when they are discovered by a suspicious but sexy charmer named Raoul, who makes it his mission to help the Blands - while also seducing Mary and skimming an extra profit for himself, of course. When Paul finds out Raoul intends to kill him, he takes matters into his own hands, and the Blands fulfill their dream.

Eating Raoul is admittedly a strange show, and while the description sounds serious and sordid, it attempts to be all laughs, all the time. It doesn't always deliver, but the show is performed with total commitment from each actor and retains a cheery tone despite the heavy subject matter.

Photo Courtesy of Hennepin Theater Trust
The cast is hit-or-miss. Jessica Holtan Breed (playing Mary) has a wonderful voice, and it's easy to see how she could launch into larger, more familiar musical roles (Disney princess, much?). Gregory Adam slips in and out of his disguise as the wiley Raoul more comfortably than a pilates instructor and her Ugg boots.  And although not the strongest in the vocals department, Anthony Sofie fits the bill as the hesitant but adoring husband Paul.

The supporting cast is enthusiastic but inconsistent, particularly in some more pitchy vocal moments. Still, they give the show all they have, and their exuberance goes a long way towards making Eating Raoul a fun experience.

Eating Raoul is great for anyone who loves campy shows - fans of the original Buffy, Rocky Horror Picture Show, or virtually any other seedy 1980s cult classic will eat this show up. More information about Eating Raoul and purchasing tickets can be found by clicking on this link.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Hooray for "Dolly"

The classic musical gets the royal treatment at Chanhassen Dinner Theater. 

Photo Courtesy of Chanhassen Dinner
Based on the play The Matchmaker by fellow Midwesterner Thornton Wilder, Hello Dolly describes an eccentric but loving widow who functions as New York City's resident matchmaker at the turn of the century. After spending several years away from the Big Apple in the small town of Yonkers, New York to arrange a match, Dolly decides to marry again to the wealthiest man in town (Horace Vandergelder). Matters are complicated when Vandergelder's niece wishes to marry an artist, his former engagement falls through, his staff runs away from his general store, and other shenanigans ensue, but Dolly achieves her goal regardless and with panache. 

Michelle Barber is radiant as Dolly, in a role that finally fits her quirky charm. With a twinkle that never leaves her eye, Barber sashays around twirling waiters, skips to the railroad and commands the audience with a single wave. Costar Keith Rice (as the pompous Vandergelder) is again in his element, lending his signature wit to the role.
Photo Courtesy of Chanhassen Dinner Theaters
Other familiar faces are prominently featured as well: Tyler Michaels shines, as usual, as store clerk Cornelius Hackl; Kersten Rodau, once again cracking us up as Ernestina; Mark King leading fabulous dance ensembles; Thomas Schumacher as fahhhhh-bulous head waiter Rudolph; and many more.

A cast standout is Cat Brindisi (yes, yes - she is related to *that* Brindisi) who is absolutely marvelous as hatmaker Irene Molloy. Her lovely, deep voice wends through the chromatics of several pieces (including "Ribbons Down My Back" and "It Only Takes A Moment," a wonderful duet sung with Michaels), and it's a pleasure to watch her - she'll be around for a while.
Photo Courtesy of Chanhassen Dinner Theaters
Set and props are imaginative as always, including a human steam train that had the audience in loud applause. The choreography is marvelous, especially the restaurant scene near the end of the show - or really, any scene featuring the wait staff. They pirouette and jeté from curtain to curtain at dizzying pace, and their scenes are the most fun of the show.

Hello Dolly is another hit for Chanhassen, and one that is certain to brighten your mood throughout the winter months. It runs through February 21; for more information or to buy tickets, click on this link.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Reviewed in Brief: My Fair Lady

The classic musical gets delightful treatment as the Guthrie's 2014 musical production

Sometimes there are shows that sell themselves. 

With a story (and music) as delightful as that of My Fair Lady, it's easy to sell seats - but it's much harder to live up to that packed audience's expectations. 

Fans have nothing to fear of the latest rendition of My Fair Lady currently being performed at the Guthrie. All of the classic elements of the famous musical - down to the soot smeared faces, Cockney accents, and glowing streetlights - are included here, as well as a fabulous cast that includes local musical wunderkind Tyler Michaels, a host of familiar faces who have migrated from Chanhassen Dinner Theaters for this production, and a sterling cadre of British actors to play the lead roles. 

Every lead is strong: Helen Anker is magnificent as Eliza Doolittle, Tony Sheldon is uproariously funny as Colonel Pickering, Jeff McCarthy is appropriately blustery as the long winded Professor Higgins, Michaels brings a new comedic side to his portrayal of Freddy, and Donald Corren is, as Higgins puts it, "deliciously low" as the blustery Alfred P. Doolittle.

The backup cast is no slouch either, singing in lovely harmonies (their interludes in fact comprise the show's musical highlights), and the set and costumes are just as elaborate and magical as one has come to expect of the Guthrie. The choreography is crisp and whimsical, and every detail seems to have been well and lovingly thought-out. 

This show is a must-see; but it won't be around for much longer! Run to get your tickets before it closes on August 31 by clicking on this link

Monday, June 2, 2014

A Spunky "Sister Act"

The endearing story of singing nuns rocks the house. 

Photo courtesy of Hennepin Theater Trust

What happens when two worlds collide? 

In the best case scenario, the result is something like Sister Act, a story of a witness protection program particiapent who revolutionizes the stuffy nunnery she's brought to. 

Deloris Van Cartier is an aspiring night club singer who has hit rock bottom - truly. When she accidentally witnesses her married lover Curtis killing a man outside of the club she auditions at, she immediately seeks safety from the police. Eddie Souther, one of the policemen and a former high schoool classmate, knows of a quiet nunnery nearby that is the last place Curtis will seek Deloris. 

Disguised as a nun, Deloris tries to adapt to life in the cloister but can't help shaking things up a little bit. She ends up participating in the choir, which sorely lacks soul - and Deloris has that in spades. Deloris' infusions of modern soul and pop sound into the stuffy choir revolutionize the church, bringing the singing nuns fame and a profitable congregation - but also blowing Deloris' cover. 

Ta'Rea Campbell has a voice and aura big enough to fill a church up (and more), and she shines as Deloris. It takes her a while to warm up, but once she's going - watch out. 

Photo courtesy of Hennepin Theater Trust.

The chorus of nuns are no slouches either, and the power behind their vocals as they gain confidence is breathtaking. Slight Ashley Moniz, playing novice Mary Robert, is particularly fabulous on the solo "Life I Never Led." Moniz has a rock 'em sock 'em voice packed in a tiny frame, and she's fun to watch. As Mother Superior, Hollis Resnik shows the sorrow of life as a modern day nun, and her musicality conveys a deep yearning for peace and simplicity.

Photo courtesy of Hennepin Theater Trust.
Sister Act's biggest surprise though, has to lie in Chester Gregory as Eddie Souther. Gregory plays Souther's loveable awkwardness to no end, only to unleash a powerhouse voice that is the epitome of soul on his standout "I Could Be That Guy." Keep an eye on him - he's a star. 

On its face, Sister Act is a fun show with great music that lets you romp through church in a way real life would never allow. But there is so much more to be found here - finding quiet in the busyness of modern life; proving that although differences are important - be they racial, musical, or otherwise - they are less important than what we have in common; and most of all, that there is nothing more meaningful in life than loving people and expressing it. 

Monday, April 14, 2014

"Once" Deserves a Repeat

"You've got to love Dublin for dreamin', 'ey boys?"

What would you do if you had only one chance for true love?

Once tells the story of just that: a brief but inopportune moment when two people fall deeply into a love they cannot consummate. It's the best-worst kind of heartbreaking, stealing small pieces of your hope for Guy and Girl to just be together until eventually disappointing that hope in the way that only real life unrequited love can. Once's resistance to the happy ending is its greatest strong suit, and as hard as it is to watch, it's a lovely tale and totally relate-able to anyone who's had a broken heart (probably all of us).

Fans of the film may find some differences in the stage version, but it still retains its winsome charm. The music is really the star of the show here, almost all of it haunting and lyrical. "Falling Slowly" is the most famous track from Once, and it's expectedly lovely, but other tracks (such as "If You Want Me" are equally, if not more, winning.

The voices (and talents, as all of the actors play their own instruments live) are across the board great in this show; my biggest issue with Once in fact is that they sing as an ensemble so rarely (it's magic when they all ratchet up). Stuart Ward (Guy) and Dani de Waal (Girl) do an excellent job of anchoring the cast, he with a raw rock growl and she with an almost mystical, lilting Eastern European soprano.

The set and costumes are appropriately spare, with one single large mirror in the back of the bar-set providing a 180 degree vantage point for some of the more complex choreography. In addition to providing an extra perspective, the mirror almost seemed to suggest it was reflecting the audience's experiences into the show, tying all of us together in Once. It's an appropriate metaphor for the equal parts of sadness and joy that love can bring to all of us, that there is always more than one point of view. Once reminds us of all of those things, and it's a great reminder to tell people you love them - you never know when they may have to leave.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Review in Brief: Porgy and Bess

Summertime....when the living is easy.....

But is the living easy? It's unlikely that it was for Porgy and Bess in the musical of the same name, recently featured at the Ordway. 

Porgy and Bess is West Side Story meets Oliver meets Ella Fitzgerald, and I've never seen anything like it. Porgy, a crippled man, falls in unlikely love with Bess, a "loose" woman who turns to him for help after her lover kills another man. After a brief period of blissful happiness, they are separated when the negative aspects of living in poverty in the inner city come back to haunt them, and we never learn if they find each other again.

Porgy and Bess is a relatively unknown musical, which is a shame. With an extremely complex score by the magnificent Gershwins, it's also only the second musical I have ever seen with an all-black cast. I suspect this is part of the reason it's rarely performed; all I can say is that I hope it becomes a more standard part of the standard musical theater circuit.

This cast takes no prisoners, lamenting the story's sad events with haunting voices that pierce straight to the heart. Nathaniel Stampley is excellent as the perseverant Porgy, with a gorgeous voice that shines on pieces such as "I'm on My Way." David Hughey is another great voice, booming through the chorus as Jake. Alicia Hall Moran injects a coloratura tone into Bess, soaring over Stampley in duets such as "I Loves You Porgy."

Aside from the eternal classic "Summertime," other standout songs include a gorgeously robust "It Takes a Long Pull" and a beautiful spiritual interlude as the characters mourn the loss of those who die in a hurricane. The set and costumes are appropriately barebones, with some excellent lighting tricks (particularly an awesome shadow effect during "Leaving for the Promised Land"). 

Although the standard musical rotation featuring classics like Les Miserables and The Lion King is fun, it's always great to see something shake things up. Porgy and Bess deserves a wider audience, as does this cast. If you can, be sure to check it out.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

A Pleasant Peter

For fans of Peter Pan, Peter and the Starcatcher is a bit hit-or-miss.

Things are not always as they seem. 

Or at least that's the conclusion I came to while watching Peter and the Starcatcher, the newest iteration of the creation of Peter Pan. 

Peter and the Starcatcher is a story explaining why Peter became Peter Pan. It follows a shy, nameless orphan  boy on the wrong boat who suddenly runs into an extraordinary girl named Molly. Molly is a starcatcher, one of an elect group of specially trained people who keep powerful magical elements from ending up in the wrong hands. When two corrupt captains overtake their ship and battle for control of the treasure Molly is safekeeping, the boy becomes her right hand. In the process, he earns the name Peter Pan and is covered in magical dust, which gives him the confidence to go off on his own. 

There are many more details to the story, of course, but that is the gist. And on the whole, it's an intriguing concept. Unfortunately, the first half of the show spends most of its time demonstrating how lonely Peter is in the bowels of the ship, and less explaining the more compelling details of the Pan transition. Which is a shame, because the very comedic second act proves that the potential for this development is there. 

That's not to say that the cast doesn't give the show all they have, though. Molly (Megan Stern) is the most fun to watch, imbuing her young 'starcatcher' role with a sort of steampunk Wednesday Addams vibe. It's completely unexpected, and it definitely keeps the audience on their toes. Joey deBettencourt is appropriately sullen as the nameless boy who becomes Peter Pan, and provides a vivid contrast to the mischievous imp we all traditionally know. 

John Sanders is the most fun to watch, though, creating an absolutely riotous caricature of Black Stache (the predecessor to Captain Hook, of course). Sanders is a total ham, and singlehandedly rescues the show on more than one occasion. 

Surprisingly, there isn't much music to be found in Peter and the Starcatcher. What is there is great, and I wish they'd add more of it. Props are really creative, particularly in the use of simple ropes to create the illusion of doors, walls, stairs, furniture, and other assorted built items. The set is also fun, either evoking the dark but mysterious bowels of a ship or the hot, steamy air of an island (which we all could use a little more of in Minneapolis right now). 

I imagine that the myth of Peter Pan will always be a beloved one, and there's a lot of fun to be found in this creative portrayal of how Peter came to be. Could it be shorter? More musical? More closely tied to the original story? Sure, on all counts. But Neverland will always be a magical place to visit regardless, and any fans of Pan's owe it to themselves to add this tale to their memories of him. 

For more information about tickets or the rest of Hennepin Theater Trust's excellent upcoming season, click on this link

Monday, March 17, 2014

A Magnificent Little Mermaid

For those who can't get enough under the sea: this show is for you. 

Photo Courtesy of Chanhassen Dinner Theater

The Little Mermaid is the first movie I ever saw in my life.

I tell you this to let you know two things: one, that I have a love of the Disney film that is unmatched, and two, because of this, I have extremely high standards for any reproductions I may have come across. 

It's great news, then, that Chanhassen Dinner Theater, which recently debuted the musical on stage for the first time in the midwest, passes those high standards with almost universal flying colors. 

Quick rundown for the few of you who aren't familiar with the story: Ariel is a rebellious teen mermaid princess who refuses to follow her father King Triton's directive to stay away from humans. Triton is predictably angry when he realizes Ariel has fallen in love with a human prince, then despairs when he learns that she has sold her voice to her evil aunt Ursula in order to become a human and be with Prince Eric. Ursula blackmails Triton into giving her his royal power into return for Ariel's freedom, but Ariel and Eric save the day and become happily married shortly thereafter.

Let's start with the superb cast: first and foremost is local musicale wunderkind Tyler Michaels (as Prince Eric), who at this point I am convinced cannot fail at anything with a spotlight and a live orchestra. His voice is pristine, he gets to *briefly* use his wonderful circus experience, and despite a short amount of time on stage, he is, as always, a delight. 

Photo courtesy of Chanhassen Dinner Theater

The surprise of the night went to Caroline Innerbichler, who presented a pitch-perfect Ariel (no, for real: I was actually in nostalgic tears the second she started singing). Innerbichler has the hair, the innocence, and especially the voice to lead the audience through the story. Parents and fellow mermaid-ers, listen up: see. the. show. for. her. 

The rest of the show is also well-cast; other highlights include Kersten Rodau as a deliciously devious Ursula and Jay Albright in a hilarious turn as Scuttle. Andre Shoals is a bit hit or miss as Sebastian, but his solos (including the always delightful "Kiss the Girl") are right on point. 

Due (presumably) to space limitations, this Little Mermaid doesn't have *quite* the Broadway flash that one might expect of a Disney production, and it's the only possible weak spot in the show. While inventive, costumes and sets can feel a little overly cartoonish. But this is a small quibble; the voices and characterizations in this show are so enchanting that a little extra padding and lamé aren't even noticeable.

Photo Courtesy of Chanhassen Dinner Theater

The entire show is musically strong, but standouts include "Part of Your World," "Sweet Child," and "One Step Closer." This Little Mermaid is also surprisingly funny, particularly in "Daughters of Triton" and "Les Poissons." 

Long story short: any fellow Ariel-philes should dive, not doggypaddle, their way to Chanhassen to see one of the most youthful, refreshing plays I've ever seen. It's great fun for people of any age, family and date friendly, and the food is good to-boot. It's also bound to be one of the only times you'll see a full cast this strong all together (Michaels is already slated to head My Fair Lady at the Guthrie this summer), and it's worth taking advantage of. If you want to know more about the Little Mermaid or purchasing tickets, click on this link.

Monday, March 3, 2014

A Voluptuous "Valentino"

What happens when an entire industry is waylaid by the advent of technology?

In a way, American society is experiencing this phenomenon today. Outsourcing has eliminated hands-on, uneducated work; offices are emptied due to overseas call centers; machines are able to perform the essential tasks of a blue-collar employee. 

While Valentino, the new feature at the Minnesota Opera, isn't quite about societal advancement or displacement (a la Singing in the Rain or The Artist), it very much showcases what happens when a human commodity of any sort (be it an actor, secretary, CEO, or mechanic) becomes unwieldy and ultimately replaceable. 

Based on the life of the silent film superstar Rudolph Valentino, the opera Valentino chronicles an immigrant's rise to and epic fall from the entertainment firmament. Valentino's blessing at the start of his career (a firm belief in his talent and value) becomes his downfall (a pride unable to be overruled despite good reason). As a beautiful, untarnished young man, Rudolph is a highly desirable property in the emerging visual juggernaut of Hollywood. When several moguls and savvy players seize upon this potential, Rudolph's internal character (and thus his career) are destroyed by the mechanics of fame.

In many ways, Valentino is a new venture for the Minnesota Opera. The most obvious reason is that it is naturally set in a far more modern era than those in which most opera is portrayed; as such, the set is much harsher, more electric, and cold than the lush backdrops of, say, the 18th century royals might be. In this, as always, the Minnesota Opera succeeds; the set perfectly backdrops the narrative, and for any opera goer it is an exciting departure from the usual trappings. 

Musically, it's also a departure - but not a favorable one, in my opinion. The orchestra and vocalists both provide lovely performances, but rarely seem to agree in their efforts. I'm not sure if it's a musical attempt to echo the times and/or Joyce (aka an intentionally dissonant and abrasive tone), or simply a difficulty with the range of the original cast, but Valentino struggles with cohesion.

That's not to say that it's bad, though - there are still lovely moments, particularly between James Valenti (Valentino, *appropriately*) and Brenda Harris (as June Harris, and who, notably, last had a SPECTACULAR turn as Queen Elizabeth in Mary Stuart).  Their duets are the star of the story, and it's a pleasure to watch them interact. 

The Minnesota Opera has a fabulous cast, fabulous set and costume designers (in my opinion, some of the best in the Twin Cities, in fact), and this is an engaging narrative. Is it what you would expect from an opera, particularly musically? Not at all. But it is still enormously engaging, and very worth a trip. Check out the details and the rest of the season here by clicking on this link.

A Magical "Mamma Mia"

Sometimes, a musical isn't about the music at all. 


There. I said it. 

This might be musical theater heresy, but I had to admit it: sometimes shows that are not vocally strong are just as or more enjoyable than shows featuring players with a bright set of pipes. 

The recent return of Mamma Mia to the Orpheum Theater (and Hennepin Theater Trust's latest Broadway season) is just such a show. I can think of scads of performances I've seen with better vocalists. But were they as much fun as this one? Unlikely. 

For those who don't know, Mamma Mia is the musical designed to stitch a narrative into Abba songs, resulting in a hippy-fied storyline of a fatherless daughter, an independent and lonely mother, three past suitors (and possible fathers), and six best friends of varying character and age converging upon an idyllic Greek island to put on a true white wedding. 

Sophie (the fatherless daughter, played this time by Chelsea Williams) is the definition of a young rebellious persona. Raised by her mother and with no clue to her paternal parentage, Sophie reads her mother's diary and invites every candidate she believes might be her father to attend her wedding, hoping it will result in a sudden epiphany about her life. As you might imagine, shenanigans ensue.

Williams feels a bit old for the role of Sophie, although after she warms up (it takes a little while) she anchors the show vocally. When paired with Chris Stevens (Skye, Sophie's fiance), they present a mildly frat-life couple; odd considering Mamma Mia's flower love mentality, but still appropriately in sync with each other. 

As Donna, Sophie's freewheeling mother, Georgia Haege is a lot of fun. Like much of the cast, her voice seems a bit untraditional for a nationally touring musical; but she still provides musical highlights (such as a gorgeous rendition of "Slipping Through My Fingers") and, more importantly, creates a fairly realistic/believable portrayal of Donna. 

This is important: when so much of musical theater lies in the fantastic and imaginative (and nothing's wrong with that; everyone wants to take a turn down the yellow brick road or see singing teapots at some point), it's pretty rare to find a show (and more importantly a cast) who feel like they're not only having fun, but portraying real, live, people. This Mamma Mia always retains that feel; the audience seems to have stepped straight into a real family, with real heartbreak, and real joy, and it gives this Mamma Mia a well-loved patina that is enjoyable no matter how many times you've seen it. 

Ironcially perhaps, the cast's standouts are in fact Dona's past suitors, as witnessed immediately upon their appearance in "Mamma Mia!". As Donna's long lost love Sam, Don Winsor somehow hits the perfect aesthetic median between Pierce Brosnan and Steve Carell and showcases way better pipes on either side. Donna's other suitors, Harry (Mark Harmon) and Bill (Michael Colavolpe) are equally fun to listen to. 

Donna's best friends Tanya (a magnificently blunt Gabrielle Mirabella) and Rosie (powerhouse Carly
Sakolove) provide fabulously funny segues between scenes. Mirabella's vocals aren't standouts, but she is deliciously raunchy and absolutely hilarious; she had the audience cavorting out of their seats. Sakolove provides the hands-down best female voice of the show, and her terrific rendition of "Take A Chance on Me" is one of Mamma Mia's best. 

Musically, other standouts include "Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!" (far and away the most Abba-like of the show), "One of Us," and the closing notes of "I Have a Dream."

Set and costume-wise, there's not much to add to what's been said about previous shows; it hasn't changed much. Costumes in particular are still a riot, and first time attendees will love the fab encore ensembles. 

Mamma Mia has always been a heart-warmer, and this rendition is no exception. Check it out and find further information about the Hennepin Theater Trust's wonderful season by clicking on this link.

Reviewed in Brief: "Shakespeare's Will"

Sometimes, all it takes is a first impression. 

Photo courtesy of the Jungle Theater.
Shakespeare's Will is gorgeous from the start, with a starkly different set than one often sees at the Jungle. Spare, sparse, and periodically accurate, it provides a perfectly inconspicuous backdrop to direct the audience's full attention toward Cathleen Fuller, whose engaging personification of the independent medieval woman's life struggle directs the entire show. 

Maybe I should back up: Shakespeare's Will isn't actually about Shakespeare at all. Instead, it is grounded and narrated entirely by his wife Anne Hathaway (Fuller), who (as is widely accepted) Shakespeare left abandoned in their hometown of Stratford in order to seek fame and fortune in London. In the show, Shakespeare has died not long ago and left a will, which Hathaway refuses to read, instead telling the complicated story of their life together.

Fuller is fully up to the task of embodying an independent, strong portrayal of Hathaway, luring the audience into her scintillating Stratford life with darkly comic and suggestive asides. According to this Hathaway, neither Shakespeare was an innocent, neither happy, but both lead the fullest, most independent lives they could afford at the time - and the life Fuller breathes into it is a strong demonstration of her acting prowess.

Hathaway's strength makes her utterly likeable, and the subsequent disappointing revelation we find at the end, inside Shakespeare's will, is infuriating. At a clippy 90 minutes or so, the show is well worth a quick side trip and is another fascinating guesstimation of the life of one of the most storied men - and more importantly, his wife - in history. More information about the show and the Jungle's season can be found by clicking this link.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

"Evita" Blows Sunshine Through the Polar Vortex

If your days were numbered, how would you choose to live?

Just such a question faced Evita Peron, "Spiritual Leader" of Argentina and a notorious public face of the 1940's. While she never lacked ambition, her numbered days certainly gave her extra drive. 

Evita is essentially a musical biopic, following the life of one of the most legendary political figures of early post-colonial Argentina. Evita (Eva) Peron was born into the working class, and through strategic connections and a knack for the radio climbed her way to the upper echelon of Argentinian society. Her political ambition knew no bounds and was only restricted by terminal cancer, of which she died at age 33. 

Of course, Evita cannot be separated from politics, and the darker elements of post-colonial South America underpin the entire show. It helps to enhance how Evita's young, bright facade could make an entire country turn a blind eye so quickly. 

It's a sexy story and great fodder for a stage musical (and movies starring Madonna, and...). Argentina itself is almost a character in Evita, and every moment hums with the conviction that things are done differently there. 

It takes a while for Caroline Bowman to warm up to her role as Evita, but when she does, watch out. Bowman sines on solos "You Must Love Me" and the post-mortem "Lament," which is her best moment of the show. She's also well matched with Sean MacLaughlin (Peron), and their duets (including "I'd Be Surprisingly Good for You") are lovely. 

Josh Young is a mixed bag as narrator Che. Young has a wonderful voice, which stands out in "Peron's Latest Flame" (among others); but at times his voice appears almost TOO powerful, battling with the rest of the company. 

The show's biggest surprise, however, is a spectacular turn by Krystina Alabado as the nameless Mistress. In just one song ("Another Suitcase in Another Hall"), she manages to inject all of the clarity and feeling that the rest of the first act lacks. It's a stunner; make sure to look out for it.

Dancing is a particular highlight of Evita, compiling the best of Argentina's rich history of tangoes into one sensuous, sexy whole. "Buenos Aires" marks a definite dance showstopper.

Act II definitely surpasses the first act, with a wonderful solo by Che on "And the Money Kept Rolling In" and a nice turn by Peron on "She is a Diamond." Part of the first act's slowness is inevitable due to perplexingly muddy sound mixing, which makes it nearly impossible to decipher the lyrics and dialogue. It's frustrating, especially for those previously unfamiliar with Evita's story; here's hoping that it gets ironed out at the next tour stop.

In our mire of snow and cold, it's nice to escape for a while to sunnier climes, however fleeting or tempestuous they may be. Evita provides just such an escape, and a welcome one.

Friday, January 31, 2014

"Out There" with Clement Layes

Never ask "why?" at the Walker. 

Photo Credit: The Walker
As an avid devotee of their "Out There" series, I have learned that it is best to lay all pre-conceived notions of the structure or content of a show at the door, instead leaving my mind open as a blank slate to whatever it is I'm about to see. 

And it's a good thing I did when watching Clement Layes in his one man show Public in Private. With 35 of the 45 minute show performed in total silence as Layes inexplicably paced the stage with a water glass on his head, continually dumping water into and out of buckets, bottles, and jars, wiping a chalkbboard, soaking up puddles, and rearranging a table nad a samll plastic tree, there was little else to go upon. 

Essentially a living infographic, Public in Private can be virtually summed up in Layes' brief monologue at the end of the show, which finished with these words:
"I work, I sleep, I dance, I'm dead."

Public In Private is really a series of symbolic, metaphorical equations which use time, attention, mechanics, technology, and life - among other things - to explain virtually any natural phenomena or experience. It would help the audience immensely to have an infographic or pictorial definition of the meaning of each prop, but as it stands, is still a totally new way to convey a political message, merging spoken word, lighting, sound, movement and novelty into an engaging sequence. 

A delightful experiment in terms of theatrical possibility, "Out There" is required viewing for avid theater goers, introducing them to new and endless ways live theater can be portrayed and stories can be told. "Out There" is currently performing its final show; for more information, click on this link.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Run to see "Cabaret"

Peter Rothstein's magnificent adaptation of the classic musical is a must-see show. 

Credit: Hennepin Theater Trust
How would you behave if the world was ending? 

The question may seem silly or extreme, but it was a real one facing Germans as they neared the end of the Depression, the rise of Hitler, and headed towards another (but unthinkable) world war. Their answer was often to live brashly and vivaciously, as told magnificently through art, theater, and film. 

Sandwiched between two world wars, Weimar Germany is often forgotten in history lessons that focus on the American experience of the great Depression - which is a pity, considering how rich and utterly unique a subject it is. Thankfully, the world of music theater remembers.

Cabaret is a complex, fascinating snapshot of life in Berlin in late Weimar Germany, where sex and politics were boiling in every crevice of the city. Led by a clownish Emcee, the audience creeps through Berlin's seedy underbelly as we follow Clifford Bradshaw (Sean Dooley), an aspiring American author who lands at the Kitty Kat Club in the middle of this turbulent environment. Cliff engages in a doomed relationship with nightclub performer Sally Bowles and unhappily witnesses the rise of Nazism before returning to America. It's a sad story, although true (at least in its larger political details), and an enlightening exploration of human nature.

Credit: Hennepin Theater Trust
Tyler Daniels (last seen stealing the show as Fyedka in Fiddler on the Roof at Chanhassen) is dynamite as the Emcee, finally starring in a role that can display his incredible talent (as a notable aside: you can understand every. single. word. that he sings). As usual, Daniels' voice is gorgeous, lubing up the audience to allow the final harsh realities of the show to make a softer landing. He's particularly good in the show's best number "I Don't Care Much," in which he slithers through the song while performing acrobatics on a swing flying above the tense and violent action on stage below him. Daniels takes his time through every scene, making the high paced action feel as if it's just another stroll in the park. He makes it look easy, and every moment is sinfully delicious. 

The rest of the cast are no schlumps, either. Kira Lace Hawkins lends a Chicago-an Catherine Zeta
Credit: Hennepin Theater Trust
Jones flavor to Sally Bowles, with a riotous voice and saucy British humor. She's delightful and a perfect fit. Veteran Sally Wingert is excellent as Fraulein Schneider, and although her singing never quite catches up to the rest of the cast, she is the solid moral ground that the show stands on. James Michael Detmar is heartrendingly winning as Herr Schultz and a wonderfully hopeful foil to Wingert's realistic pessimism.

Rothstein's direction is precise yet expansive, with the show clipping along at a little over two hours (not including intermission) yet never feeling hurried. In fact, that is probably one of the most remarkable elements of this Cabaret; with the enormous range in musical numbers, costume changes, plot twists, and so on, it never once feels rushed, instead letting the audience luxuriate in the complex incongruity that the world of Weimar cabaret requires.

The set is lovely, equal parts Moulin Rouge and Chicago, and it's used acrobatically to great effect. It helps that this production is in the Pantages, a spectacularly gorgeous theater that was used for vaudeville and closed in 1930 as the world of cinema swept the country (don't worry; it was beautifully renovated in 2002 and is worth the trip alone). Costumes are changed constantly and are about as suggestive as it gets (if you're not a fan of unconcealed ass or the bra-less, this is not for you), lending a necessary flash of color to the otherwise muted set. Mention must also be made of the superb lighting, which made the stage appear water-colored at all times.

Since seeing is believing, I encourage you to check out either of the Hennepin Theater Trust's great videos behind the scenes as Cabaret was rehearsed. This one features Micheals:

Cabaret is equal parts campy hilarity and heart-tugging realism, and absolutely a theatrical highlight of 2014. Be sure to check it out (it runs through Feburary 9); more information can be found by clicking on this link.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

"Out There" with "The Room Nobody Knows"

Pan's Labrynth? Child's play. 

If you want to see magical realism from an Eastern perspective, look no further than Niwa Gekidan Penino's The Room Nobody Knows

Credit: The Walker

I jest somewhat, but there really is a Guillermo del Toro-ness to Penino's play that simultenously lends it a familiar yet impossible feel. 

Set inside the dreams of a young man,  The Room Nobody Knows portrays everything from prison like cells to horned elf-slaves to ubiquitous phallic imagery to a highly eroticized relationship between two middle aged brothers. It's entirely in Japanese, entirely improbable, and entirely captivating. 

I'm not sure how to describe a "plot" as such, since this play is a dream sequence - but let's just leave it as a man's unhealthy obsession with his brother manifested as a room created explicitly for erotic hero worship. Oh, and there are penis flutes, which are played by elves and humans alike in a rousing rendition of "Pachelbel's Canon."

Credit: The Walker

It is highly probably that the world Niwa Gekidan Penino has created for The Room Nobody Knows is unlike anything you've seen on a stage before. The horizontally split set is at once jarring but fascinating, and something I'd like to see more productions use. The vertical interplay (rather than the typical horizontal staging with asides) lends itself to creating the dream effect, suggesting an almost Inception-like quality.

At a brisk 60 minutes long, it's an in-and-out kind of show, but one that will leave you pondering for much longer. The Room Nobody Knows is a Japanese twist into the world of magical realism and fantasy - check it out if you get a chance.

With the end of Penino's run, the Walker's "Out There" series is halfway complete. A delightful experiment in terms of theatrical possibility, "Out There" is required viewing for avid theater goers, introducing them to new and endless ways live theater can be portrayed and stories can be told. "Out There" runs through the end of January; for more information, click on this link.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

"Out There" with Wunderbaum/LAPD's "Hospital"

The Walker is known for nontraditional performances, and Wunderbaum/LAPD's Hospital production fits right in. 

Credit: Walker Art Center
Equal parts spoof of the fetishization of the medical world in television (a la Grey's Anatomy) and serious commentary on flaws in the international health care system, Hospital touches on everything from birth/labor to accidents to emergencies to end of life care. Told essentially through the perspective of John Malpede, Hospital weaves the medical staff and personal experiences that Malpede encounters as he ages into a larger timeline of healthcare milestones in America (think Medicare being installed, the creation of the HMO, Obamacare, etc.). Politics are also obviously involved, perhaps culminating in a (rather confusing) "cameo" from Ronald Reagan. 

What could be Hospital's selling point and most powerful argument for a more comprehensive healthcare system (Malpede's personal struggles with lack of healthcare coverage and the sky high cost of medical care) is also unfortunately its Achilles heel. Malpede gets consumed in his own narrative, and as the play progresses he sounds less upset about legitimate flaws in the system and more like someone who is frustrated that no one is taking care of him. There is an endless amount of examples of ways the American health care system has not served its patients well, but it seems a bit odd for someone who appears rather proud to not have purchased healthcare for himself as a young man to then complain that young people today are not participating in a healthcare system that would subsidize him now in older age. Just a thought. 

As far as production goes, however, Hospital is exciting. The use of videocameras in particular is fascinating, with action-packed scenes co-existing with close up camera zooms that give viewers an intimate view into what patients and doctors in extremely tense conditions must see. It's the closest I've seen theater come to a television medical drama, and it's fantastic.

Credit: Walker Art Center
The acting is a mixed bag (the Dutch component (Wunderbaum) is a professional company; LAPD is not quite as much), but it's enjoyable regardless. Several of the Dutch actors lend a much needed comedic flavor to Hospital, and it helps lighten the heavy personal load Malpede drops on the audience. 

The Walker's annual "Out There" series is always a delightful experiment in terms of theatrical possibility. Even when featured shows aren't the most enjoyable, they open your eyes to the endless ways live theater can be portrayed and stories can be told, and for that, it's a must-see. "Out There" runs through the end of January; for more information, click on this link. Or, for a visual sampling, check out the video below.