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!