Friday, December 18, 2015

Reviewed in Brief: Purple Cloud

Every now and then a little show comes along that captures your heart. 

So is the case with Purple Cloud, a new, original piece being performed through Mu Performing Arts at the Mixed Blood Theatre.

Written by Jessica Huang, Purple Cloud details the ways that myth and history combine to create our family stories, and how important those stories are to understanding our own identities. Every family has some kind of legend passed on, about someone; Purple Cloud takes those legends and imbues them with life, making a wholly original piece that touches on identity, disorientation, fear, bravery, ingenuity, and so many other things. Purple Cloud is a truly American story and one we need more of; in a time when xenophobia is at an all-time high, it is more important than ever to share stories of our commonalities, our humanity, and our spirits.

Three generations are featured in Purple Cloud: the family's ancestors (four jade pieces played spunkily by Jeannie Lander, Kylee Brinkman, Stephanie Bertumen, and Audrey Park) and Grandfather Lee Huang (Alex Galick); Hapa Girl (Meghan Kreidler); and her father, Orville Huang (Rich Remedios). The cast is entirely solid and moves fluidly between scenes, generations, and stories. Their swift interaction is part of what makes the show so engaging, and it's awesome to have such relatable portrayals of multiple generations, cross genders, etc. on-stage. There is also a lot of gender and character switching, and it's totally effective, proving that anyone should be able to play a part, as long as they can act it well.

Part of Purple Cloud's charm is that it's not over-produced. Sets, lights, and costumes are simple, but leave room for the imagination and still evoke an appropriate setting. My only quibble is that I'd have loved to see something more elaborate for the jade piece costumes (maybe some masques?), but due to the versatility required by each actor playing multiple roles, I understand why they kept things simple.

Purple Cloud is a beautiful play, with the rare kind of script that strikes you instantly with the excellence of its writing. The two hour show time flies by (interspersed with the option of buying some delicious fried rice at intermission!), and it's an awesome way to shake the winter doldrums. It's only running for a few more days, so make sure you go before it closes. What a charming, heartwarming way to end the year.

For more information, please click on this link.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Reviewed in Brief: Cirque Dreams Holidaze

Flashing lights, enormous trees, oversized edibles, jump roping reindeer... all this and more can be found at the Orpheum Theatre during Cirque Dreams Holidaze, a briefly playing, entirely Christmas centered circus show. 

Photo courtesy of Hennepin Theatre Trust.
For anyone who has seen a Cirque or just a circus show in the last 10 years, many favorite tricks are returning here. There are ribbons, the acrobats on a swing, feats of balance, dancers with impressive costume changes, topsy turvey contortionists, and unfortunately cheesy pop singers.
Photo courtesy of Hennepin Theatre Trust.
Two things were of major note for this performance:

  1. There are no safety apparati of any kind. Zero nets, zero harnesses, etc. For some, this can be thrilling to watch; I found it relatively terrifying, but it's extremely impressive nonetheless. These performers are in it to win it and have to go at it with complete confidence, or they'll never make it out alive (literally). 
  2. The music is astonishingly bad. One of the Cirque hallmarks has always been that the music felt otherworldly, Enya-esque, and transported you to another place. I understand that for a holiday show they have to incorporate holiday music, but the corny delivery and strange arrangements are totally cringe-worthy and at times really detract from the amazing feats of the acrobats. Next time, I'd stick with a canned orchestral tape and call it a day. 

Photo courtesy of Hennepin Theatre Trust.
There are some really great vignettes in Cirque, especially (and surprisingly) those on the ground. My personal two favorites were a deceptively difficult dance performance with reindeer jumping rope and double dutch. The speed with which they move is completely amazing, they looked like they were having a blast, and the routine is HARD. It definitely was hip hop inspired but grew a life of its own, and was really fun to watch.

A routine involving audience members playing sleigh bells and a "conductor" was also unexpectedly hilarious. The conductor clearly knew how to get a rise out of any audience member, and managed to parody the players while still not going over the line into mean-ness territory. Everyone had a great time and it was one of the few pieces that felt truly holiday inspired.
Photo courtesy of Hennepin Theatre Trust.
I couldn't help but feel an overwhelming impression of darkness behind this show. Maybe it's a lack of Vitamin D, maybe it's the presence of clowns, but whatever it was, there was something eerily macabre about this performance. You can totally get a peppy, happy Christmas feeling out of it if you want, but I think those most inclined to enjoy Holidaze are the Nightmare Before Christmas and Slayer fans of the world.

If you're going to go, get tickets fast - tonight is the second and last performance. More information and tickets can be found by clicking on this link.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Black Nativity Depicts the Reason for the Season

Joy, Mercy, Compassion, Peace...Couldn't we all use a little more of that these days?

Photo courtesy of the Penumbra Theater.
I have to admit, Christmas is pretty low on my happiness totem pole.

Between the incessant consumerism, revolving door of the same old story, and inevitably problematic weather, I much prefer hiding in my Grinch-cave and waiting out the season to diving into the parties. Which is not to knock people who enjoy it; I know for most, Christmas is the best time of year. More power to you friends, but I'm going to hole up with my eggnog and call it a month.

That being said, it's always nice to see someone give a run at the season that takes a new path.** Such is the case with Black Nativity, now showing at the Penumbra theater.
Photo courtesy of the Penumbra Theater.
Black Nativity is a retelling of the biblical nativity story through 1960s-era Langston Hughes. Set in an almost call-response format (between brief narrations, there are spiritual choral performances), Hughes imbues the story with his trademark cool; there isn't much to the narration, with the exception of a few beautiful poetic interludes. The Penumbra's version is a shortened edit of the original.

The choir, performed here by Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church choir and led by the spunky, fah-bu-lous Yolande Bruce, takes a short while to warm up but then carries the show away. There is a thoughtful mix of traditional Christmas pieces and some jazzier new versions, but the message is conveyed anyway. Each soloist is excellent, particularly Jamecia Bennet, whose Jennifer Hudson-esque voice brings down the house. Dennis Spears is present (as always, in his most distilled self), as is Penumbra founder Lou Bellamy as the narrator.

There is also some gorgeous, heavily Alvin Ailey-inspired choreography from Uri Sands. I found myself wishing there was a lot more of this; Penumbra, in future productions can you please up the dance ante? The contemporary movements were evocative and inspiring, and I'd love to see more.
Photo courtesy of the Penumbra Theater.
For those of us who were raised outside of the African American community, it behooves us to encounter their traditions, particularly in the current political climate. I'm not an explicitly religious person any more, but it was nice to see the familiar story I grew up with presented in a different way. It was also nice to spend a brief moment away from the hurricane of conflict that exists in the world now and simply enjoy an evening celebrating peace, joy, mercy, compassion, and all the other values that are supposed to define us. Lately it seems we could all use a reminder of that.

Black Nativity runs at Penumbra through December 20; click here to get your tickets.

**I do have to make a quick aside: for many of you in the black community this is an annual tradition, which is awesome. This was my first time, so I'm coming at it with fresh eyes - but know that it could get a completely different look depending on who is in the audience.**

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Heads Up: Cirque Dreams Holidaze

It's that time of year again...

Photo courtesy of Hennepin Theatre Trust.
...when you are inundated with The Holidays. Insanity ensues; between the cooking, traveling, gifting, getting, gabbing, and all the rest, it's tough to find the bright side.
Photo courtesy of Hennepin Theatre Trust.
Some people, however, relish this time of year. If that's you, or you just can't stomach yet another performance of A Christmas Carol or How the Grinch Stole Christmas or The Nutcracker (I hear you people, I really do), then check out the upcoming Cirque Dreams Holidaze at the Orpheum. It's only running for two nights (December 11 and 12), so get your tickets lined up and take a moment for yourself amidst the crazy-ness of the season!

More information and tickets can be found by clicking here.

Friday, November 20, 2015

A Breathless Beautiful

Carole King finally gets the full spotlight

Photo courtesy of Hennepin Theatre Trust.

Beautiful follows the rich career of Carole King, a sort of pop music savant who started in the business at age 16 and continues to work today. King wrote hits for a huge number of stars, including the Drifters, the Shirelles, Aretha Franklin, Bobby Vee, and dozens more. She started out as a songwriting team and wife with Gerry Goffin, but after the dissolution of her first marriage (which comprises the bulk of the show's plot), branched out on her own, moved to California and produced a stunningly successful solo album.
Photo courtesy of Hennepin Theatre Trust.
I knew a lot of Carole's music but was unfamiliar with her story, and it makes for a great show. This is not least becuase it is highly accessible; King came from an extremely ordinary background and made her career special by making it her own. She was strong and vulnerable; talented yet doubtful; winsome and fierce; and her ability to stay in touch with the world around her made her a lasting talent.

King is played expertly by Abby Mueller. Mueller has a deceptively awesome voice and displays King with a wide emotional range. Mueller especially shines in her solo pieces near the end of the show, especially on a gorgeous rendition of "Natural Woman."
Photo courtesy of Hennepin Theatre Trust.
The whole cast is vocally talented. The rest of the core group of King's circle, Liam Tobin (a  moody Gerry Goffin), Becky Gulsvig (always optimistic and forward-thinking Cynthia Weil) and Ben Fankhauser (hypochondriac Barry Mann), provide a sound emotional base for the show's drama and many of its better harmonic moments.

The "celebrity cameos," in which actors impersonate famous performers of different eras, are also fantastic. There are really too many good ones to name, but trust me, they'll have you grooving in your seat. In particular "That Loving Feeling" and "On The Boardwalk" are standouts. I also want to give Beautiful props for featuring a pretty diverse cast; it IS possible to create a historically accurate portrayal that also includes a range of appearances! What a thought.
Photo courtesy of Hennepin Theatre Trust.
The set is low-key but effective, as are costumes and makeup. It's enjoyable to see the decades pass with clear distinction and a highly efficient track floor. King's character is a fascinating mix of Peggy Olsen (from Mad Men) meets Janice Joplin, while Gulsvig could be Betty Draper with an attitude.

If you love shows that can double as sing-alongs or are a fan of music created sometime between the 1950s and 1980s, you will love Beautiful. Carole King has been active much longer than that, of course, but her greatest hits occurred in that time frame, and I'm willing to bet that almost every person would recognize at least one song in the show. Beautiful runs through November 29; make sure you get your tickets by clicking on this link.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

An Absolutely Magical Wizard of Oz

The best show of the year is on stage at the Children's Theatre now

Photo courtesy of the Children's Theatre.
How did I go so many years without attending the Children's Theatere? Seriously?

I've been hearing amazing things about their productions for a long time, but it wasn't until I was introduced to their spectacular production of Peter Pan last spring that I experienced it for myself. What. A. Shame. I have been missing out big time!

An even better production just opened and will run through the holidays: The Wizard of Oz.
Photo courtesy of the Children's Theatre.
It's always tricky pulling off a stage production of a popular film, particularly one with as many visual effects as Wizard. People get attached to things being and looking a certain way, and it can be tough to avoid disappointment.

Have no fear - this production is so close to the film that it's almost creepy. And not only is it faithful to the original, but it's also an absolute delight on its own.

Dorothy is played by an effervescent Traci Allen Shannon, who glides through her role as if she's in, well, ruby slippers. Her lovely rendition of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" kicks off the show and man, does it set Wizard up for success. She also expertly interacts with Toto (a real, expertly trained dog that entranced everyone in the audience, adult and child alike). Shannon is proof that in our modern age, casting is about finding the right talent, not the right skin tone. She is a perfect Dorothy, and bravo to the Children's Theatre for casting the right person, not just the white person, for the part.
Photo courtesy of the Children's Theatre.
The rest of the cast is equally excellent. Bradley Greenwald is amazing as the Tin Man. He perfectly portrays the stiff movements but warm demeanor of our favorite rusty friend. Dean Holt makes for an expertly rubbery Scarecrow, with some mind boggling choreography. I have no idea how he moves the way he does, but it looks great. Perhaps my favorite of the traveling troupe is Reed Sigmund as the Cowardly Lion, who has clearly mastered the bluffing gruff of the cuddly fellow. Sigmund shows amazing emotional range and deftly anchors the friend group.
Photo courtesy of the Children's Theatre.
Sets are sparse but deceptively lush, with small but innovative touches whisking us to Oz. A particular favorite involved a stunning centerpiece of apples hanging from the ceiling (some of which were rigged to fall) and a simple stand of four "trees" (with people inside of them) in the middle. The trees were set on a turntable and between the forward motion and the moving trees, multiple scenes were set with the same pieces. It was simple but still gave a complex view of what was happening - brilliant staging.
Photo courtesy of the Children's Theatre.
Costuming and makeup is also especially great in this production. The incredibly fast and highly intricate makeup changes performed by the major cast members is impressive, the more so for the expressive abilities retained even with head to toe makeup and costumes covering potions of their faces. There are multiple assistant directors on this production and they participated in a master class of expert stage management, from lighting and sound design to quick turnovers and clean staging. It's worth mentioning because it's so rarely this flawless, and it makes the show whiz by with ease.
Photo courtesy of the Children's Theatre.
Special effects are equally worth a special mention, because they are all here. The only major effect, in fact, missing from the movie rendition is the horse of many colors. EVERYTHING else - the wizard, the castles, flying witches, flying monkeys, fiery broomsticks, crystal balls with people in them, snow and the infamous tornado - is here, and it is enormously entertaining. Keep a special eye out for the farm animals in the tornado; they were a hoot.
Photo courtesy of the Children's Theatre.
This is easily one of the best productions I have ever seen, and it was a wonderful way to spend quality time with family. I have many fond memories of the original Wizard of Oz, which I would have found any play hard to live up to - but this one blows them all out of the water. There is no better way to spend an evening over the holidays, and this is a show that will work for kids of any age - 9 to 90, they will love this Wizard. Run, don't walk, to get your tickets by clicking on this link.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Best of: Magical Magic Flute Returns to MN Opera

Sometimes you can't get enough of a good thing

And there's nothing wrong with that! Many of you may remember the MN Opera's visually spectacular production of The Magic Flute, an opera classic that has become one of the most innovative stage productions of the last decade, if not longer.

What sets this particular production apart is it's intensely innovative staging, which creates a silent film effect. It can easily feel like you're watching Valentino in his prime, but in fact are experiencing a modern take on a 300 year old opera. It's incredibly unique, and anyone who can experience it, should.

The production was so successful two years ago that MN Opera is bringing it back for a second round of performances. Magic Flute opened last weekend and will run through this coming weekend; make sure you check it out by going to their website.

Unsung Heroes: Stagehands, Costumers, Set Designers, and More

It is a truth that ought to be universally acknowledged that without the efforts of those we do not see, stage magic would not exist at all. 

Photo courtesy of Hennepin Theatre Trust.
Much like the dishwasher is the most important employee in any professional kitchen (ask any chef, it's true), the most important players in a theatrical production aren't the actors or the directors or the musicians. They're the people you never see - lighting designers, set designers, stagehands, and most important of all, stage managers.

The Star Tribune is currently running an excellent piece about Dave Marietta, the mastermind who engineers most of the spectacular productions we lucky Minnesotans attend regularly. A jack of all trades, Marietta is indispensable to the running of the theater, and the man we should thank for the Orpheum's continued success as a bastion of the performance arts in the United States.

I highly recommend all readers check out the article - you can find it by clicking on this link - to learn more about how those fun special effects are made and who does their making.

I also want to thank all the countless unnamed technicians, managers, designers and more who work behind the scenes to provide the amazing productions we get to see. I could never name them all, but they know who they are. Fly on guys.

Monday, November 9, 2015

A Celestial Sister Act

Bless us, oh Lord, for these Thy gifts which we are about to receive. And yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of no food, I will fear no hunger. We want you to give us this day, our daily bread. And to the republic for which it stands, and by the power invested in me, I pronounce us ready to eat. Amen.

Photo courtesy of Chanhassen Dinner Theatre. 

It's a good time to be Catholic thanks to a fun production of Sister Act at the Chanhassen Dinner Theatre.

If you haven't seen the excellent film version starring Whoopi Goldberg (for shame! It's awesome, make sure you watch it ASAP), here's what goes down: A worldly woman named Deloris accidentally witnesses her boyfriend Curtis killing someone. To keep Deloris quiet, Curtis tries to kill her, but she manages to escape to a witness protection program. Thinking it the least likely place Curtis will look, the police hide Deloris in a convent until the she can testify at the trial. Never a wallflower, Deloris proceeds to reinvigorate the church from top to bottom by bringing its lackluster choir into the disco soul era. Religious witticisms fly all over the place, Deloris gets too famous for her own good, and everything turns out well in the end.
Photo courtesy of Chanhassen Dinner Theatre
Sister Act is a little slow to start, but once it picks up, you'll be swept away. The second act packs a big musical punch with some beautiful solos, including a powerful rendition of "The Life I Never Led" by Britta Ollmann as Sister Mary Robert, and an emotional performance of "Sister Act" by Regina Marie Williams.
Photo courtesy of Chanhassen Dinner Theatre.
This production suffers from some minor miscasting, in particular the relegation of the excellent Kasano Mwanza to the proverbial corner as the quiet cousin TJ. Mwanza's gorgeous voice and comedic tendencies would be better served in a more central role, perhaps the hidden gem of policeman Lt. Eddie Souther. Reginald Haney has a more Barry White-esque voice and does a serviceable job in the role, but it would really shine with Mwanza's charm.

Some casting, however, is spot-on, such as Regina Marie Williams in the title role as Deloris Van Cartier. Williams always shines and this is no exception. Her emotional range fits beautifully into the subtle changes Deloris undergoes the longer she remains in the convent, and her beautiful voice fits the songs well as long as she doesn't try too hard to over-sing. Keith Rice, a perennial favorite, is hilarious as the Monsignor.
Photo courtesy of Chanhassen Dinner Theatre.
It's a pleasure to see a rare production featuring a cast of almost all women, and for that reason alone Sister Act holds a special place in the theatrical pantheon. This ensemble clicks well, hitting every nun stereotype you could expect. The hip hop nun (Seri Johnson) and Hairspray-ed soul sister (Therese Walth) performances are probably the standouts, but each actress does a fine job.
Photo courtesy of Chanhassen Dinner Theatre.
Sister Act is a family friendly show that reminds us all that, rather than complain about the state of the world outside our walls, we would be best served by channeling our energy into making the world outside a better place. We are always best served when connecting positively with others and embracing them with true empathy. It's a lovely lesson as we enter the holiday season, and one we can all do best to keep in the front of our minds.

Sister Act runs at the Chanhassen Dinner Theatre through February 27. Click here for tickets or more information. 

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Reviewed in Brief: The Jungle Book

Photo courtesy of the Children's Theatre
Good news for kids: the Jungle Book has been extended for a second time at the Children's Theatre.

The beloved classic gets a new musical treatment in this production, which stars one of the most diverse casts I've ever seen. Each actor plays multiple roles, with nimble costume changes switching between different animal characteristics. The set is also gorgeous, evoking a jungle but allowing the actors high mobility and visibility.

I hate to admit I was a little disappointed with this... but I was. Due to the necessity of having each actor portray multiple characters, there was little in the way of elaborate makeup and costuming that I was hoping for. I was also looking for some of that Disney flair, which is obviously not present here. Still, the kids in the theater didn't seem to mind, and the fresh faced actors made the show more accessible and a little less scary to them than it would otherwise have been.

Fans of the Disney film may be disappointed if they attend this show expecting the same, but lovers of good children's productions and creative production design will enjoy this greatly. For more information about the show or to buy tickets, click on this link.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Celebrating the Sea

The Little Mermaid lights up the Orpheum

Photo courtesy of the Hennepin Theatre Trust.
It's great to see some fresh Disney grace the stage. As beloved as classics like The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast are, they come so often that it's easy to forget what an awesome, deep catalog of shows Disney has to offer. The Little Mermaid is just such a show, bringing the natural world magic of The Lion King with a princess story worthy of Tangled to the stage. 

I will assume that most readers are familiar with the story, so I won't repeat the plot, but please take note: Alan Menken (who wrote the music for the film version of The Little Mermaid) added in a plethora of new songs for this stage adaptation, so things will be a little different than you might expect. Some of the new songs are the best of the bunch, including "She's In Love" and the gorgeous four voice harmonies of "If Only." The classics are here in full display as well, including beautiful performances of "Part of Your World" and "Poor Unfortunate Souls." "Under the Sea" has an explosion of vibrant seafaring costumes, including a spectacular pair of jellyfish; the kids will adore it.
Photo courtesy of the Hennepin Theatre Trust.
This production features a starry cast of Disney veterans. Alison Woods is not only Ariel; she also provided the animation reference for the Rapunzel character in Tangled. Woods is Disney through and through, with the wide eyed wonder and freshly expressive voice that clearly denotes Ariel's innocence and charm.

Jamie Torcellini (who I did not have the pleasure of seeing as Scuttle) served various roles in Tarzan, Pocahontas and Aladdin. Ennis O'Bannion was a decent sub in for Scuttle, but it was clear he didn't have the effortless delivery of a regular.
Photo courtesy of Hennepin Theatre Trust.
The star power doesn't stop there. Melvin Abston, who plays a plucky Sebastian, has a strong resume of Broadway and television roles; hunky Eric Kunze (playing Prince Eric) could literally have stepped straight out of the cartoon, and Jennifer Allen (a visceral Ursula) have equally strong Broadway resumes; and on and on it goes. If you're looking for star power, this is definitely the show to find it.

Standout characters go to the "bit parts": Adam Garst is delightful as Flounder, bringing a pouty, punky Green Day vibe to the beloved fish. Jeff Skowron is riotously funny as Chef Louis in "Les Poissons," one of my favorite pieces of the show and a performance to watch for.

Photo courtesy of Hennepin Theatre Trust
The set is definitely a highlight of the show, utilizing gorgeous scrims, effervescent bubble pieces and a heavy amount of "flying" to lend the actors an underwater effect. The illusion is relatively seamless and set changes are lighting quick, so keep a close eye if you like to track transitions.

I will say for those who saw the Chanhassen rendition a couple of years ago: that innovative production was really on par with this. This Little Mermaid isn't a must see, but it's still a fine version of the original, and will be a lot of fun for kids and grownups alike. The Little Mermaid runs through October 18; for more information or to purchase tickets, please click here.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Edina Becomes Reality

Reality television gets local in The Realish Housewives of Edina

Photo courtesy of the Hennepin Theatre Trust
Come on, admit it: You love reality television.

Who doesn't? Reality shows like The Real Housewives of [insert here], Keeping Up With the Kardashians and 19 Kids and Counting may have started as the laughingstock of the entertainment world, but that is true no longer. With Kim passing Beyonce* as the most watched person on the web and the million (and extremely profitable) spin-offs that have followed these shows, no one is laughing any more - unless it's on the way to the bank.

Or if, in this case, you're attending the most local iteration of the Housewives franchise. Thanks to some spiffy writing from the folks at Second City in Chicago**, there are some new Housewives on the block - from Edina.
Photo courtesy of Hennepin Theatre Trust
The show is cleverly tailored to long circulating urban jokes about the suburbs***, for this show the heavily gentrified area of 50th and France. There are tiny dogs, big purses, bloody mary fountains, and sequins galore. Like the reality show itself, there's not much of a plot or a set, just concentric rings of trifling interpersonal conflict set on a couch whilst drowning in champagne. But no matter. Not all of our entertainment can be serious, nor should it be: sometimes it's nice to drink too many martinis thinking about someone else's made-up problems.

It's also nice to see a show flipping the usual casting and featuring almost entirely female actors. Each actress approaches her role with ferocity, best evidenced by the absolutely hilarious performance of Kim Kivens as Ravonka. Kivens carries the show with rude comments made in a pitch-perfect "Eastern European" accent, and it is delightful to watch her snipe at the rest of the cast.

New Century veterans Karissa Lade (Desiree), Quinn Shadko (Claudia-Louise), and and Adan Varela (Randy) are all familiar with the up-close-and-personal style of the theater, which is arranged as a comedy club for this performance. They have a great time as they weave through the audience and cajole each other, and their chemistry is great.
Photo courtesy of Hennepin Theatre Trust

Anna Hickey is another standout as Brooke, the butt-writing businesswoman who brings gravity to the housewives and provides Ravonka with an excellent foil. The director, Matthew Miller, is also of note. With a hit web series and a hot new television show about to debut on TV Land, Minneapolis is lucky we snagged him for this.

The Realish Housewives of Edina is a perfectly candy-coated show, great for a blitzy happy hour with girlfriends****, clocking in at under two hours including intermission. It's an affordable, entertaining microcosm of the insane state of entertainment today boiled into a relatable***** format. It has a long run (through November 15), so make sure to get your tickets by clicking this link.

*Yes, THAT Beyonce
**Which has spawned the careers of giants such as Stephen Colbert and Chris Farley, among many others.
***Admit it: you do that, too.
****Although my boyfriend did enjoy it.
*****Geographically, at least.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

A Charming Cinderella

Roger and Hammerstein's beloved version gets classy treatment in the new production at the Orpheum

Photo courtesy of Hennepin Theater Trust
With its illustrious history, it's surprising that Roger and Hammerstein's Cinderella seems to often fall in the back of the minds of musical fans. Originated on television by a then-unknown Julie Andrews in 1957 on CBS, and repeated in a much beloved 1997 ABC television broadcast (with a spectacular cast that included Brandy, Whitney Houston, Whoopi Goldberg and Bernadette Peters), it hasn't seen much stage time.

Thanks to Minnesota native Laura Osnes, that has all changed. Osnes revived the role on Broadway to critical acclaim two years ago, and the show is now traveling (alas, without Osnes or her successor Keke Palmer in the title role) around the country.

It's a good thing, too. This Cinderella is not the Disney cartoon most of us remember from our childhoods. There are modern, witty jokes; Cinderella is not only determined and intelligent, but political; and the special effects have been upgraded. This is particularly noted in a series of spectacular costume changes for Cinderella, in which she twirls on-stage and her costume magically becomes something else. I've seen a lot of theater, but I have no idea how they do it. The trick never gets old and is a special draw for the show.

Photo courtesy of Hennepin Theater Trust
The cast is solid, but can be a bit disappointing for those who are fans of the earlier televised versions. It would be nice to see a little more diversity among the cast; with such loaded political lyrics, it would certainly add a depth of subtext to the script.

That being said, the main cast has excellent voices. Paige Faure is winningly winsome as Ella (aka Cinderella), and moves with a fairy tale grace. Andy Huntington Jones has a beautiful voice as Topher the Prince, although I wish he had the dance training to match Faure; he moved a little too stiffly for such a dance-heavy show. Kaitlyn Davidson is equal parts hilarious and heartwinning as Ella's good stepsister Gabrielle. In fact, Davidson is the show's brightest comedic star; I wish we had a little more of her.

The sets are gorgeous, evoking Disney's iconic hand-painted film without being too literal. They are also surprisingly nimble, considering they include a three sided house, full forest and palace staircases. Sets and stunts are some of the main draws of this show, so make sure to take note of them.

Photo courtesy of Hennepin Theater Trust
It's wonderful to see this charming show brought back to life. It's not one of Rogers and Hammerstein's best, but it is a classic. With a little modern magic, this pumpkin turns into a golden carriage - and it won't change back at midnight. Make sure to stop by, especially if you have kids. It's good to show them that there is more to fairy tales than the Disney version. Cinderella runs at the Orpheum theater through September 13. Click here to get your tickets.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Kreatively Kinky Boots

Cyndi Lauper's musical sashays its way into Minneapolis

Photo courtesy of the Hennepin Theater Trust
With the rise of Caitlin Jenner and passage of landmark LGBT legislation in the last few months, Kinky Boots couldn't be touring at a better cultural moment.

Kinky Boots tells the story of a man named Charlie who takes over the operation of a failing shoe factory after his father, the owner, dies. Charlie is at a loss for ideas to save the factory and the jobs it helps support, until he stumbled into a drag queen club. After learning from Lola, the club's manager, that the women's shoes the Queens purchase aren't sturdy enough to support their male frames, Charlie decides to convert the factory to supply their niche needs.

There are many bumps along the way, but the shoes are a smash hit at a final showing in Milan where international buyers are floored by their unique qualities. The show is slow to start, but if you can make it past the first 20 minutes or so you'll be drawn in by Lola, who changes the shoe factory and Charlie's life for good and provides the moral compass of the show.
Photo courtesy of Hennepin Theater Trust
There is no doubt that as Lola, Kyle Taylor Parker carries Kinky Boots to its steely stiletto heights. Parker's incredibly flexible voice alternately hits the flexible styles of Mary J. Blige, Lionel Richie, and Cyndi Lauper, and his expressive delivery infuses the music with magic. It's clear too that Parker inspires his fellow Queens, and the energy and cohesive harmonies they bring are keys to making the show click.
Photo courtesy of Hennepin Theater Trust

Lindsay Nicole Chambers is a cast standout as Lauren, who is hilariously in love with Charlie. Her wholesome portrayal grounds the show and provides an anchor for the rest of the drama to float around. Joe Coots is equally hilarious as the clearly hetero Don, who added a heartwarming element of true change of heart to the show.

The pit was fabulous, and any fans of Stevie Wonder/Daft Punk style bass lines will find themselves grooving in their seats. Sets were minimal, essentially comprising the interior of  the factory, but were fully utilized with interlocking "rooms" changing the audience's perspective. And costumes were drab, with the exception of Lola and her crew, who pranced around in togs worthy of Queen Bey herself.

There are lots of great 'moral moments' in this show, and its message of true acceptance is a timely one. We live in an age of intense political conflict and starkly drawn lines of belief, and we could all use a little more of Lola's favorite challenge: Accept someone for who they truly are. You don't have to like it, or agree with it - but accepting them as a human being worth value and your interest is the least you can do.
Photo courtesy of Hennepin Theater Trust
My only criticism of the book is that it could learn a little from its own message. Kinky Boots has a more diverse cast than most shows (although that is thankfully changing), but it is certainly true that the diverse members of the cast tend to be pigeonholed into specific kinds of roles (read: gay, drag queens, poor/marginalized members of society, etc. etc. etc.). I don't say this to knock the performance of Lola and her queens - they were fabulous and did an amazing job, and the show wouldn't have been the same without them - but to simply ask, were those the only roles they could have been offered? Why couldn't Charlie, his girlfriend, or a factory worker also been cast with a non-white actor? Food for thought.

Kinky Boots runs at the Orpheum through August 2; to buy tickets, click this link.

Monday, June 29, 2015

"Once" Worth Revisiting

One of Broadway's most compelling love stories returns to the State Theater

Photo courtesy of Hennepin Theater Trust
It's always nice to have too much of a good thing.

A perfect example of this is Once, which is in the middle of a return tour to Minneapolis. It's a beautiful show, and it retains all (if not more) of its charm the second time around.

Once is based on the movie of the same name, an Oscar winning story of almost-requited love. A Guy and a Girl, both facing hardships in their own lives, come together to record an album and help each other heal from their past wounds. While they don't quite move forward in a future together, they do make progress with their emotional lives, and each leaves the relationship with something beautiful to learn from and treasure in the future.

Most of the cast from previous tours is returning here, and they haven't lost anything over time. Musical standouts include the ethereal "If You Want Me," raucously fun "Ej, Pada, Pada, Rosicka," and a gorgeous a capella rendition of "Gold" from the ensemble. The entire ensemble is strong, playing instruments themselves (there is no pit orchestra for Once) as they sing and dance. It's a lot harder than it looks, and they do an amazing job.
Photo courtesy of Hennepin Theater Trust
It is worth mentioning that leads Stuart Ward (Guy) and Dani de Waal (Girl) seem to find this material as fresh as their first performance. Both have kick ass voices that never waver, and their unrequited yearning for each other is evident in every breath they display on stage. It's a rare chemistry, and carries the show to believability.

The innovative choreography and set use remains here as well, incorporating a vertically split stage and the heavy use of mirrors. It's a subtle element, but a special one; the mirrors lend a multi-camera perspective to the audience, allowing new views of the performers faces and instrument-playing, giving a feel of being "inside" the action. It's easy to overlook, but pay attention: the mixed perspective is really worth it.
Photo courtesy of Hennepin Theater Trust
Once is such a refreshing love story, avoiding the stereotypical happy ending for a more realistic, if brokenhearted, view of relationships. The gorgeous soundtrack and this solidly awesome cast are always worth revisiting. If you go, make sure you get in line to stand on stage before the show and grab a beer. It's an unusual chance to see a set up close firsthand, and the instruments each character plays.

For more information and for tickets, please click this link.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Lots of Laughs at Damn Yankees!

A pleasantly modernized Damn Yankees! hits the stage at the Ordway 

Photo courtesy of the Ordway.
It's always nice to see stories evolve.

In the musical world, it can be easy to get stuck in the 'golden age' of Hollywood, where everything was squeaky clean and hunky dory, and the messier sides of life in America were swept neatly behind the figurative overstuffed davenport.

Thankfully, the new production of rarely performed  Damn Yankees! at the Ordway does not fall prey to such a trap. While the story retains its wholesome plotline, innovative casting and a cast clearly enjoying themselves sweep the dust off.

For those uninitiated, Damn Yankees! follows a middle aged man named Joe who is the biggest fan of the Washington Senators. Disappointed with their poor performance and consistent losses to the Yankees, he makes a deal with Mr. Applegate, the devil's right hand man, to be transformed into a the world's best baseball player in order to lead his team to victory.
Photo courtesy of the Ordway.
The only problem is that he misses his wife and home - a lot. Too much. Joe succeeds in helping the Senators win the pennant, but resists all temptation (including a tailor made temptress named Lola) of fame and the trappings that go with it to return to his wife and cozy home.

Lawrence Clayton and Thay Floyd are excellent as the old and young Joe, respectively. They are eerily well paired physically and sonically, and both feature gorgeous voices with a great range of expression. They're Broadway transplants, and it shows; I wish they were sticking around for more local productions.

The rest of the cast is less excellent but holds their own. Ann Morrison is sweet as Joe's lonely wife Meg; Kersten Rodau brings her signature spunk to reporter Gloria Thorpe; Allen Fitzpatrick is loveably gruff as the Senator's coach Van Buren; and Monte Riegel Wheeler is delightfully flamboyant as the devious Mr. Applegate.
Photo courtesy of the Ordway.
It's worth noting here that subtle casting choices can make a break or show; they certainly elevated this one. It was refreshing to see Meg and Joe's relationship be interracial (more of that please!), and Mr. Applegate portrayed with a more complex sexuality than a 1950's audience would have preferred. Small details like this made the show feel modern, and certainly strayed from St. Paul's stiff-upper-lip, white class reputation. I'd love to see this continue in future productions.
Photo courtesy of the Ordway.
Damn Yankees! is no Bernstein masterpiece, but it's a fun show all the same. It's nice to see it getting some attention, and to see the casting choices reflect modern life. More productions could stand to cast the best people for their roles, instead of the most "historical" choice. Damn Yankees! runs through June 28, 2015; make sure you check it out if you get a chance!

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Reviewed in Brief: Jersey Boys

The crowd went wild for Franki Valli and his crew

For those who love popular music, there are few bigger hits than Franki Valli. Although many today would have trouble recalling a photo of one of pop's most consistent heavy hitters, it's likely that almost everyone in America knows at least some of the words to one of his tunes, or at the very least his unbelievably high voice. Among the hits are:
  • Big Girls Don't Cry
  • Walk Like a Man
  • Sherry
  • Rag Doll
  • I've Got You Under My Skin
  • C'mon Marianne
  • December 1963 (Oh What a Night)
  • Who Loves You
So it's natural that a Broadway show about Valli and the band that made him famous, The Four Seasons, is a hit parade. Audiences have loved it for years, including a film version released by Clint Eastwood last summer.

Unfortunately, this Jersey Boys read more like a Wikipedia entry than the groovy concert I was hoping for. Much of this is likely due to the insanely difficult nature of Valli's role (played with mixed success by Hayden Milanes); his vocals are so deceptively hard, often beginning out of pure silence, that I imagine it would be nearly impossible to find someone to play the role consistently if it played more like a cover concert, especially in the grueling environment of a touring show.

Still, there was a lot of fun to be found in this show, and the audience adored it. The fellow Four Seasons (Drew Seeley, Matthew Dailey and Keith Hines)  were a pleasure to listen to and had great chemistry, and the action moved smoothly throughout the spare set. If you can manage it, make sure to get a ticket; you won't regret it.