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.