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.