Tuesday, March 31, 2015

A Magical Mary Poppins

It's a jolly holiday at the Chanhassen Dinner Theater

Photo courtesy of Chanhassen Dinner Theaters

Is there a more beloved actress than Julie Andrews?

Over the years, Andrews has been responsible for a plethora of iconic roles - who can forget fresh as the driven snow Maria von Trapp? Or the two faced Victor/Victoria? Or the Queen of Genovia?

But perhaps no role has been more defined by Andrews than that of Mary Poppins, which has yet to be re-imagined or even become one of Hollywood's ubiquitous film re-makes; it's that good.

So it's hard, then, for other actresses to be their own 'Mary's on stage, without constantly being compared to Dame Andrews herself. Thankfully for Chanhassen Dinner Theaters (CDT), it becomes quickly apparent that this won't be their problem in their new staging of Mary Poppins. Ann Michels is delightful in the title role, and has a magnificent voice (and the rosy cheeked spunk) that brings this iconic character to technicolored life.

Photo courtesy of Chanhassen Dinner Theater
The rest of the cast is fun to watch as well. While this show doesn't have quite the ensemble heft of recent productions such as The Little Mermaid, it still brings the quintessential CDT joie de vivre, with innovative staging (company members as living statues, a movable bag from which Mary removes her furniture) and enthusiastic song. Standout pieces include a gorgeous rendition of "Feed the Birds" and a new-to-me piece called "Brimstone and Treacle," in which Mary faces off with Mr. Banks' evil nanny Miss Andrew.

Many CDT favorites are back for this production: Mark King brings his dancing shoes with him as the loveable Burt; Keith Rice lends his typical guff to Mr. Banks; Janet Trow is appropriately simpering as Winifred Banks; and Michelle Barber stands out as the Bird Woman on the street.
Photo courtesy of Chanhassen Dinner Theater

Unfortunately, CDT simply doesn't have the facility to recreate some of the spectacular tricks in the Broadway production (which is a shame, because they have the talent to pull them off); that doesn't mean, however, that they haven't made up for it. There is a lot of magic to be found in this staging as long as you don't approach it with the hopes that it will be a carbon copy of other productions. As always, this Mary bears the classic CDT stamp of innovation and bonhomie, and it works.
Photo courtesy of Chanhassen Dinner Theater

Mary Poppins will play at CDT through the summer (ending August 29, 2015), and there are some fantastic family deals to be had. For more information and to buy tickets, click on this link.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Beauty and the Beast is Back

Be the guest of Hennepin Theater Trust at their latest off Broadway offering

Photo Courtesy of Hennepin Theater Trust
It's amazing how the older one gets, the more one realizes how little they know.

Take Disney for instance. Like most children in the United States, I grew up watching their cartoons, particularly the princesses. Cinderella, Belle, Jasmine, Pocahontas and Ariel were each a vibrant part of my childhood.

As I got older I felt detached from Disney and stopped watching most animated films altogether. It began to feel too simplistic and easy, and I stayed away for years... until I saw Beauty and the Beast on stage this week.

All of a sudden, there's new life to be found in this story I grew up with. The execution of this production is a bit careworn; it's pared down from its Broadway extravaganza self, and the actors seem a bit more battle hardened than usual. But the props still sparkle, the songs still please, and the effects still awe. This ain't Broadway, but it's still a hell of a lot of fun.

Photo Courtesy of Hennepin Theater Trust
Standouts as always include "Be Our Guest" and a particularly feisty Gaston, played by Cameron Bond. Bond truly puts the Elvis into his character, and it's a hoot to watch. Belle (Jillian Butterfield) and Mrs. Pots (Emily Jewell) also have great voices that display familiarity with their cartoon doppelgangers. Surprisingly, the best song (vocally) of the entire show is the relatively new addition "Human Again," on which the ensemble cast sounds terrific. "Human Again" anchors a super fun second act; keep an eye out for it.

I am going to safely assume all readers have been exposed to this story, so I won't repeat the plot.
Photo Courtesy of Hennepin Theater Trust
And I'm not going to become a Disney apologist either; there are some very real criticisms that have been made of Disney stories (particularly in regards to racial and sexual orientation portrayals) that are incredibly important to keep alive in the cultural firmament in order to keep propelling their future storytelling forward.

I will add, however, that we shouldn't throw the baby out with the bathwater. There are plenty of political incorrections one can find in a story like Belle's, but there are good things I learned as a child, too. I learned to love to read, and that being a smart girl was a positive thing. I learned that it's important not to judge people by their appearances but instead by the way they treat others. I learned that it's important to be a good host, a gracious guest, and to give love and assistance to those who need it most.

Those things are still important, and I hope that kids in the future can still learn lessons like that from the stories I once loved. There's still magic to be found in the Beauty and the Beast, and it's worth a visit. For more information and ticket pricing, please click on this link.

Reviewed in Brief: Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus

There are certain cultural events that one can't help but remember; Toy Story, Harry Potter (the movies or the books), Michael Jordan playing for the Bulls... 

One of mine is the release of Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus (MAFMWAFV) ((good lord could there be a longer acronym?!)) in the 1990's.

I've never read it, but even as a little kid I remember hearing it being discussed. It was EVERYWHERE. News, Oprah, coffee club chats - you name it, someone had an opinion about it.

This stayed somewhere in a dusty file at the back of my mind until the appearance of a comedic, partially animated one-man show of the same name appeared at the Pantages last weekend. I knew I had to see it, if only to know what the heck all the grownups had been talking about years ago.

It turns out that there was something to all the hype. As told by Peter Storey, MAFMWAFV is valuable because it gets quarreling couples to think outside of their own perspective. And despite the narrative's heavily heterosexual/pro-marriage preferences,** the point is something we all should remember: you yourself are never the center of anything.

There are always multitudes of perspectives, and problems, and blessings to consider in any relationship, and a number of ways of expressing oneself in regards to them. Happiness is achievable in any relationship as long as both parties approach it as a work in progress, keep lines of communication open, and from time to time can truly lay down their swords to hear and respect what the other partner needs.

Storey presented his information with a wink, and it was a gratifying way to spend a Saturday evening. I would love to see this come around again and for a longer time, but be expanded to reflect more relationship and gender-ed perspectives. Underneath the stereotypes, there is a lot of truth to be found here, and it deserves to be shared.

**Not that there's anything wrong with either of those things - just that more perspectives need to be validated and included, such as homosexual relationships or transgendered partners or expanding the definition of what a 'man' or a 'woman' is.