Tuesday, June 28, 2016

A Most Capital Calendar Girls

Theater is changing.....and all for the better.

Photo courtesy of Park Square Theatre.
As evinced by this year's Tony Awards, the face of theater is changing - and I couldn't be happier. We are being treated to so much great and progressive art, be it in the form of Broadway hits like Hamilton, Shuffle Along, The Color Purple or Eclipsed, or our fabulous local productions such as Nina Simone, The How and the Why, and just about anything from Mu Performing arts or the Penumbra or Mixed Blood Theater.

A welcome addition to this increasingly diverse pantheon is the Calendar Girls, currently running at Park Square Theatre. It's a wonderful, female driven production and one that everyone should see (no, not just women "of a certain age" - I see you, trolls). The audience of all ages roared with laughter and held back tears, women and men alike, demonstrating a universal appeal - you should go, now!
Photo courtesy of Park Square Theatre.
Calendar Girls is based on the true story of a group of middle-aged women in Britain who completely revolutionized the world of charity calendars. The ladies get this idea after the spouse of one dies of a terrible bout with cancer. Due to his ribald sense of humor, they get the idea to raise money for a settee to place in the guest wing of the hospital where he was treated by posing tastefully nude in the images rather than insert photos of local buildings. None of them are prepared for the calendar's runaway, worldwide success, which allows them to donate far more money than they aimed for to support more research, treatment and facilities for other cancer patients. To-date, the real Calendar Girls have raised more than £3 million for Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research (click on that link to read more).

I've seen the film version of this story and enjoyed it, but something about the stage production sparked real, vibrant joy in me. Each of the actresses has great chemistry with the others and really owns her role. It was so inspiring to see a cast of women working through real life issues with real life bodies and real life solutions. It is so rare to see a show of such heart with so many female protagonists, and it left me with a long-lasting smile. My only quibble is that I would have liked to see some women of color up there too - maybe a future production can add some?
Photo courtesy of Park Square Theatre.
There is a lot of emotional depth to plumb in this show, and no one does it better than Christina Baldwin as Annie, the bereaved wife of John (John Middleton) and the woman whose need to act starts the whole calendar business. Baldwin and Middleton have wonderful chemistry and as Annie's grief drives the whole show, their story deeply resonated with the audience. Charity Jones is wonderful as Annie's best friend Chris and the architect of the calendar project. Shannon Custer (Ruth), Laurel Armstrong (Cora), Linda Kelsey (Jessie) and Carolyn Pool (Celia) each share their stories and provide true-blue portrayals of women, as they struggle through marital issues, aging, their children growing up, and more. This cast as a whole is so very talented, and it's really a joy to watch them not only excel in their portrayals but to have such a damn good time doing it.
Photo courtesy of Park Square Theatre.
The set is relatively simple, mostly taking place in the building of the Women's Institute (WI) that brings the group together. Occasionally, beautiful projections of fields and sunflowers are made to displace them into the English countryside, and it does a good job of lightening the atmosphere. Costume changes are made astonishingly quickly and all feature a wry sense of humor (particularly a choice "Bunny Rabbit" and of course the strategically positioned place settings for the calendar photo shoot). Production materials do warn of nudity, but it has to be said: this is a pretty vanilla production. Anyone who has seen 15 minutes of Game of Thrones has seen far more T and A than they will get here, so don't stay away if you're worried about that.
Photo courtesy of Park Square Theatre.
I was surprisingly moved by this performance and it left me longing for more shows with this kind of heart and reality. It's always fun to escape into fantasy land for a while, don't get me wrong, but it's so refreshing to see a story that actually could be (and happened to be, in this case) true. It's easy to feel starved for representation as a woman and fan of popular media, and the Calendar Girls is one of those rare stories that really does the female experience justice. It's also so great to see middle aged women who look and talk and sound like middle aged women represent themselves; no offense to Hollywood, but I don't think anyone could make an argument for reality of appearances inside that golden bubble.

So for women and men and everyone on the spectrum in between, please go see this show. It has the biggest heart you'll find anywhere, will make you laugh and cry, and generally show you the future (I hope, at least) of theater and the arts. Stage shows are leading the way to progressive representation, and I can think of no better celebration of this than a viewing of the Calendar Girls. For more information or to buy tickets, click on this link.

And as an additional aside: The performance I attended was the first gathering of the Twin Cities Theater Bloggers, complete with a talk back. Thanks SO much to Park Square Theatre for hosting, the other bloggers for being fabulous co-workers (I think that's what we are? Not sure yet...), and to the audience for attending! It was a great time and I hope we can organize more meet and greets and talk-backs soon. 

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

A Brokenhearted "Bridges of Madison County"

From Book to Movie to Musical 

Photo courtesy of Hennepin Theatre Trust.
Some stories seem to be everlasting, and that of the brokenhearted lover seems to be one of them.

There is no simpler way to describe The Bridges of Madison County, currently running at the Orpheum Theater, than that. Based on the book (and later Clint Eastwood/Meryl Streep film) of the same name, The Bridges of Madison County follows Francesca, a lonely, Italian-born housewife, as she engages in a passionate love affair with a National Geographic photographer named Robert while her family is away.
Photo courtesy of Hennepin Theatre Trust.
Though their time together is short, Francesca and Robert's love burns hot, lasting for years after they part ways. While Francesca and Robert are enjoying each other, her husband Bud is watching their children Michael and Carolyn as they compete in a national farm competition. These fair-based, country-strong scenes are interspersed throughout the love story and help ground the show in a semblance of reality.
Photo courtesy of Hennepin Theatre Trust.
Elizabeth Stanley perfectly captures Francesca's pensive nature and has a gorgeously pitched voice, although it is hard to understand at times. You catch her gist by the third time around, but it does take some concentration to discern her lyrics. Andrew Samonsky is perfectly cast as Robert, hitting all of the right musical and physical notes. He perfectly conveys the forlorn wanderer, and has the lanky physique to go with it. Cullen Titmas grows into his role as Bud and his countri-fied voice is a fine contrast to the more Josh Groban-esque nature of Robert's songs. Mary Callanan and David Hess are absolutely hilarious as Bud and Francesca's neighbors Marge and Charlie (respectively). Seriously: this show cries for some humorous perspective, and those two have it in spades. They totally save the day.
Photo courtesy of Hennepin Theatre Trust.
This is not your average Broadway musical. You won't find any sequins or dazzling lights, no jazz hands or tap dance numbers. The core of The Bridges of Madison County, and its strength, is in its quiet presence, echoing Francesca's entire existence. It slowly pulls at you like waves lapping on a shore, taking you in with lyrical, almost operatic, atonal music. The contrast between the remorseful strings and soaring passion of the lovers' songs and the downright po-dunk but heartfelt nature of the fairgrounds and family is pretty stark, and best appreciated by true music nerds.

A facet of interest to Minnesotans is that this entire tale is set in Iowa. It was refreshing to see the Midwest displace the shiny, grimy cities of so many other musical dreams, and it definitely lent a more severe character to the set. The single scrim was painted in a simple cornfield that was periodically washed with gorgeous lighting to depict times of day, including some truly lovely sunsets. Set pieces consisted of a bed, the bones of a kitchen, and a backlit tree whose simplicity suited the quiet of the story, and Iowa.
Photo courtesy of Hennepin Theatre Trust.
Something about this show lingered with me, and I think that quietness is it. The Bridges of Madison County is searingly anti-climactic. There is no large conflict, no rending of garments, no packing of bags and fleeing of towns. Francesca and Robert's affair is just that - a brief moment, remembered fondly and often, but not enough to break up a family over. It lacks the heated nature that tends to drive so many stories, but in that way more mirrors real life. It's well suited to the Midwest, and I hope it has a good run here.

The Bridges of Madison County is a treat for music lovers and fans of true blue romance. For more information or to buy tickets, click on this link.

Monday, June 20, 2016

A Spectacularly Told "Spectacular Story of a Filipino Hulk Hogan"

Curiouser and curiouser, as Alice once said.

Photo courtesy of Mu Performing Arts.
This is my first year covering Mu Performing Arts, and if it's any indication of every other year, I'm in for a treat regardless of which shows I see.

The special thing about Mu's pieces is that they all have a unique, strongly presented take on the American experience - particularly the experience of immigrants to America. Much like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie re-defined the experience of blackness in America as an immigrant (American-African vs. African American, for those in the know), Mu's work is re-framing the experience of Asian immigrants in a way that is complex, rich, complicated, pensive, difficult, and heartbreaking.
Photo courtesy of Mu Performing Arts.
All of these emotions are present in Mu's latest offering, The Untold, Yet Spectacular Story of (a Filipino) Hulk Hogan. The story follows TOT, a boy being raised by his beloved grandmother Lola in the Philippines, as he is moved to America to join his parents and leaves Lola behind. The transition is a painful one, not only for TOT but for Lola, left alone, and for his parents, whom TOT struggles to create a relationship with. As TOT grows, he becomes more and more interested in the subculture of World Wide Wrestling, particularly Hulk Hogan. TOT channels his experiences through Hogan's character (much like autistic children have been known to communicate through Disney characters). Although never quite finding peace, he does come to understand his parents a little better and that they have also struggled with the move to America.
Photo courtesy of Mu Performing Arts.
This play is told in an unconventional style, with the action entirely taking place inside of a wrestling ring and the audience seated 360 degrees around it. "Referees" announce scene changes, and actors play multiple characters. It can be a little hard sometimes to see the line between TOT's fantasy and reality, but that is part of this play's genius: it creates an uncomfortable tension in the audience that helps them to truly grasp the discomfort TOT and his family feel as immigrants to a country that promised them everything, but doesn't seem to really want them once they are there.
Photo courtesy of Mu Performing Arts.
Randy Reyes is great as TOT, managing to keep a childlike demeanor throughout the play. The most enjoyable are Eric "Pogi" Sumangil as TOT's father and the Announcer and Mary Ann Prado as Lola/TheMother Superior. Sumangil brings a perfectly imitated swaggering cowboy bravado to his role, making it all the more moving when his facade collapses in front of his son. Prado brings a gorgeous humanity to her role as TOT's grandmother, filling the stage with warmth and comfort. Her death at the end of the play is incredibly stirring, and will have more than one audience member swiping back tears.

I loved the innovative, economical set. The wrestling ring setting really focused the action and kept the play clipping by (at 90 tight minutes), since it needed no set changes. The lighting, alternating between the beachy warmth of the Philippines, the sterile fluorescence of the United States, and the sparkling flashbulbs of a wrestling arena, truly changed the mood. Costumes were equally simple, but also squarely grounded the show between humdrum life and exotic fantasy.
Photo courtesy of Mu Performing Arts. 
In the hullaballoo of the coming presidential elections when everything is hyped to new extremes, it's easy to forget the simple things about what it means to be American. Chief among them is the incontrovertible fact that this is a nation of immigrants, even if we haven't always done a good job of welcoming them equally. This problem has faced people of all colors, and the innovative storytelling from Mu Performing Arts beautifully captures this diverse, difficult, humbling experience. The Untold Yet Spectacular Story of (a Filipino) Hulk Hogan is a strikingly original show and one that you will definitely remember seeing. It only runs for one more week. Make sure you get your tickets and more information by clicking on this link.

Monday, June 13, 2016

The Melodious Ballad of the Pale Fisherman

Poetry in Motion

It's always a joy to see something truly original, especially as a critic. Chances often are you've seen a show multiple times, or a new piece is imbued with familiar tropes/portrayals/settings, and it can get boring to see the same thing over again.

Such is joyfully not the case with the Ballad of the Pale Fisherman, a revived piece from Transatlantic Love Affair (TLA) that is currently running at the Southern Theater. Ballad was first run five years ago as TLA's first piece at the Fringe Festival, and then had a (very) successful run as a full show a year later.

Ballad of the Pale Fisherman is styled after misty British/Celtic/Nordic fairy tales, where a man falls in love with a Selkie, or a woman who is also a seal. It's a tale of lost loves, moon lapped dreams and wistful song, one that immediately places the audience back a couple hundred years to the beaches and mythology of our Anglo ancestors. The plot is simple so I won't say much more, but trust that for any fans of romances, love long lost or lyrical storytelling, this show is for you.

The most striking aspect of Ballad is that it has no props, sets or costume changes. Instead, the entire story is told with body shapes, cast-driven sound effects and eerie lighting. Although simple, the effect is lovely, and it causes you to pay close attention to each detail of the production. Particularly gorgeous are the haunting interludes of song, which somehow perfectly evoke the seal/woman/sea connection, and the watercolor-like wash of the lights, which gently lap us in and out of land and sea. The lighting is painterly, and definitely a highlight of a show in which every detail counts.
The ensemble cast is wonderful and clearly has great chemistry. Each actor weaves in and out of multiple characters and "set pieces," and their seamless interaction keeps the show moving (clocking in at a brisk 75 minutes of total run time) and the story tight.

It's always a good idea to support small, local entities, be they farmers, shops or theater companies. It's a privilege to do so when those community groups can be so talented and fun to participate in. Transatlantic Love Affair's production is original, stirring and lyrical, a perfect transition from winter to summer and a joy of a show to watch. I highly recommend this for all theater goers; if you're interested, make sure you check it out soon. Ballad of the Pale Fisherman closes next weekend on June 17. For more information or tickets, click on this link.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

The Tonys Are Coming!

And they're going to be magical.

We have had an incredible year for theater on Broadway and off, and this year's Tony Awards is destined to highlight an amazing cross section of innovative, integrated and straight out fabulous performances.

For those who are die-hard fans or may not have access to Broadway or a TV to watch the awards, it's worth checking out some of the pre-show action, particularly the above nugget from James Corden.

Corden's classic carpool karaoke scheme gets a huge adrenaline shot with a Broadway show-tune theme and the addition of Lin Manuel Miranda (Hamilton), Audra McDonald (Shuffle Along), Jane Krakowski (She Loves Me) and Jesse Tyler Fergusen (Fully Committed). They are powerhouses and hilarious to watch cranking out Broadway classics (although Corden's no slouch himself).

Check out the video above and make sure you watch the Tony Awards this Sunday, June 12 at 7 p.m. central on CBS; Corden is hosting and it looks sure to be great!