Saturday, December 30, 2017

Best of 2017: My Favorite Theater Performances and Top Blog Posts

No annual roundup would be complete without a listing of the top performances I saw last year. 

The most exciting exchange I've ever had on Twitter. 

If I had to sum up my feelings about the Twin Cities theater scene in 2017 in just a few words, I'd leave you with these: diverse, general excellence.

It's hard out here at times for someone who sees a lot of shows to write reviews. There are so many companies doing so many different things that they often don't belong in the same categories. The quality in general tends to be very high from show to show and it's quite rare that I see something that I totally despise or just can't support. I hate to sound like a recurring positive broken record, but I genuinely enjoy 90+% of everything I see and I want you all to know how much I love the amazing work amassed by our talented theatrical community as I engage with it.

So with all that in mind, let me introduce you to my favorites of 2017, shows that I can't stop telling people about even months after they've closed and that I desperately wish would return in all of their glory. I'm thoroughly excited for the upcoming seasons from each of these wonderful companies and let me know: what were your favorites? Do you disagree with any of my choices? What are you looking forward to in 2018?

*Note: all shows are listed in order of when I saw them throughout the calendar year. 

**Note: all photos were used with permission from the theater/company and are sourced in my original reviews, which are linked below. Please click through to find credit. 

1. Vietgone (read my original review here

This was the first must-see performance of last year for me and it cemented the extraordinary cast - including perennial favorites Meghan Kreidler and Sun Mee Chomet, as well as new-to-me David Huynh - as must-sees in any upcoming performances. I wrote about Vietgone that it was "Hamilton meets Kendrick Lamarr meets the Vietnam War, and it's sublime" - words I still vouch vociferously for to this day. From the witty dialogues to the sexy, serious subject matter, Vietgone brought an untold American perspective to vibrant, throbbing life.

2. Girl Shakes Loose (read my original review here)

I didn't label Girl Shakes Loose as a must-see when I saw it as I had just posted my Vietgone review and I thought two raves in a row was too many. I've regretted that ever since. This edgy, thoroughly modern world premiere musical told the story of a bisexual millennial in a completely new way (both musically and narratively), and I've thought of it often since it left the stage. Girl Shakes Loose starred many terrific young African American actors who are sure to become stars in the Twin Cities theater scene and the only phrase I can use to describe it appropriately is screaming fresh. Girl Shakes Loose didn't get nearly the amount of press it deserved when it came around last year; here's to hoping it comes back and gets more attention.

3. The Boy and Robin Hood (read my original review here

Is there anyone more ambitious right now than Tyler Michaels (except for Kory LaQuess Pullam, of course)? A cornerstone of an excellent passel of hyper-talented young performers making their rounds in the Twin Cities theater scene these days, Michaels has moved himself from starring roles to working behind the red velvet curtains in the director/producer/choreographer's chair, and the early fruits of his labors are promising indeed. Michaels' new venture, Trademark Theater, is not only performing new work but writing and scoring all of that work at the same time. I was thoroughly impressed with this new take on Robin Hood and it was easily one of my favorites last year. Trademark has a few growing pains to work out but have no fear: the path they are on is fantastic, entertaining, and bright indeed.

4. Little Wars (read my original review here)

I've been so excited to see the explosion of women on stage and behind the scenes, and one of the most promising new developments is the work of Prime Productions. Concentrated on telling the stories of "women of a certain age," Prime Productions got off to a banging start with Little Wars. I was delighted to see such a strong group of female performers and learned so much about a period in history I knew little about. Prime Productions fills a vital hole in our theatrical community, and I can't wait to see what they'll be up to next.

5. Native Gardens (read my original review here)

What can I saw about Native Gardens that I haven't already said? This brilliant, masterful comedy from Karen Zacarias was an immediate standout when I saw it last summer. The set is one of my favorites I've ever seen, but even that was totally outshadowed by the delicious performances from this tight four-person cast. Covering any political issue you can think of (from immigration to women at work to motherhood to gentrification) with finesse and biting honesty, this Guthrie production was pitch-perfect from start to finish.

6. The Immigrant Journey Project (read my original review here)

Mu Performing Arts has always been one of my go-tos for fresh, totally original work, and their Immigrant Journey Project was totally unlike anything I've ever seen. Created with the benefit of grants and participation from local immigrant communities, this show told many diverse, real-life stories of the ways that immigrants came to Minnesota through beautiful vignettes and brightly designed puppets. The unpolished, raw performances from local immigrants, several of which were translated from their tribal languages into American English, were moving and vital, and I thought of them long after the lights turned up. The Immigrant Journey Project was everything that Refugia (which had a much larger budget, profile and press coverage) should have been, and I hope we get a series in this vein with Mu at the helm.

7. In The Heights (read my original review here

Lin Manuel Miranda is the rare example of a celebrity whose praises may actually be undersung. Many people know Miranda for his work on Hamilton and Moana, but before they existed he created In The Heights, a beautifully performed musical at the Ordway this year. In The Heights proved that you don't need to travel to New York City to get a full on, spectacular, Broadway-caliber theatrical performance; instead, you can stay right here and indulge in top-notch work at one of our many theatrical gems. There are few things I would gladly purchase tickets to watch again and again within a limited week-long run; In The Heights was one of them. That is all you need to know.

8. Man of La Mancha (read my original review here)

Man of La Mancha is one of those revered musicals that has never done much for me. It's fine, whatever, I'm tired just thinking about it - except in relation to the fabulous rendition performed by Theatre Latte Da last fall. Featuring a terrific cast with several new-to-me actors (who I am dying to see come back in roles in other local shows), Man of La Mancha made me fall in love with a musical I thought I'd never care about. The inventive staging, hearty musicality and inventive costumes sold me from the get-go as well as on future productions from Theatre Latte Da.

9. Wedding Band (read my original review here)

Wedding Band was one of the shows I was most excited to see last year, and the Penumbra's production exceeded all of my high expectations. Starring a revelatory Dame-Jasmine Hughes, Wedding Band is the only play I've seen to-date that tells the truth - the whole beautiful, painful, terrifying truth - of interracial relationships in the United States. It moved me from start to finish and gave an articulate voice to many of the struggles I face in my own interracial relationship, and I can't recommend it highly enough if you ever get the chance to see it.

10. The Christmas Carol (read my original review here

I know, I know - how on earth did the Guthrie's perennial holiday show make my list? I'm as surprised as you are, but let me tell you: I was blown away by the fresh staging by this first-ever female directed production. With select performances featuring a woman in the role of Ebeneezer Scrooge, a noticeably diverse cast, an expertly trimmed script and a gloriously lavish set, this Christmas rerun entranced me from the get-go and was one of my most recommended shows over the holiday season.

11. Phantom of the Opera (read my original review here

Another pick that's not the most original, but I make no apologies. Phantom of the Opera has been a favorite show for my entire life, and the re-imagined set in this production (which runs through tomorrow - you can still grab a ticket if you dare!) is still my favorite I've ever seen. In my life. Of all time. It's lavish, it's transportive, and combined with the experience of seeing the first ever African American actor I've seen in the role of Phantom (my favorite second only to Michael Crawford, a testimony in itself), this was a top-notch production that I am not ashamed to ring the bell for.

12. Dot (read my original review here)

Dot was one of the most unexpected surprises on my best-of list this year. The summary - a story about a woman suffering from Alzheimers and her family over the holidays - isn't terribly engaging and sounds downright depressing. But what I found in this lovely gem of a show was education about an increasingly common disease, terrific ensemble performances, and a bevy of hilarious scenarios that brought teeming life and realistic elements to what otherwise would have been a devastating, heartbreaking story. It rung true from my real-life experience with Alzheimer's in my family and is a show that I hope generates more press attention than it's currently received. You can still get tickets (and I highly encourage you to) through early January.

And while I'm at it, here are some other favorite pieces I wrote last year: 

  1. Some thoughts on high-end restaurants and racist servers
  2. Wrestling with Refugia at the Moving Company
  3. Compendium celebrates its 5 year anniversary 
  4. Pixar comes to the Science Museum 
  5. Why everyone needs to see Wonder Woman
  6. Thrillist: The Best Small Towns in Minnesota
  7. Living the podcast dream
  8. The Penumbra Theater celebrates 40 years at the Minnesota Historical Society
  9. The top 10 reasons to see Romeo and Juliet (again)
  10. Why the Lynx deserve more
  11. Thrillist: Best New Restaurants of 2017
  12. The best books I read in 2017

Don't just take my word for it! Don't miss the best of year posts from some of my other TCTB blogger friends below: 

Cherry and Spoon: click here
MN Theater Love: click here
Play off the Page: click here

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Best of 2017: The Best Books I've Read

For one of my favorite annual roundups (books, duh), look no further.

This #shelfie of goodies from my time interning at Graywolf Press is a regular fave. If you've never read any of their books, what are you waiting for?! 

Devoted Compendium readers may remember my post halfway through last year on the best books I read so far (you can find it here if you missed it). There were a bunch of gems listed there, and you should still check it out - but six months later I am wiser, stronger and have plowed through a whole lot more reading material.

With a full year of perspective behind me, what were the best things I read last year? Check out my top 11 below and let me know if you agree or I missed anything big. Please note my usual disclaimer, which is: this is a top list of books I read last year, not that were published last year - so several of these are not brand new books. Still, I really enjoyed them and I think anyone can find something to love on this list. Last year's picks were equally as good - click here if you'd like to see what they were. And if you want to follow my reading adventures in real time, make sure to follow my Goodreads page by clicking here.

Best Book of Wisdom: A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 

Around the time of the presidential inauguration this year I decided I didn't know enough about where we had come from in regards to civil rights, especially about how key victories of that movement were won. I decided to pick up this incredible compilation of work by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and read it as a devotional throughout the year. This is one of the best literary choices I have ever made in my life. Dr. King is often viewed, quite correctly, as a hero of American history, but he is far less monolithic than is often portrayed. King was a man who held many simultaneous contradictions, who welcomed complexity and constructive conflict within his ranks, and who was able to keep a focus on love and judgement at the same time. This rich, rich compilation of all of his writings - from speeches to articles to books to letters - is a fascinating treasure trove of resistance and philosophy, and something that I wish were mandatory to teach in high schools across the country. So many of the problems facing America today are directly tied to the movement King is best known for, and I have learned more from deeply contemplating his philosophy here than I did in any religion or civics class. If you want to know the real Dr. King; learn how to create and sustain a powerful, successful political movement; define the ills and best of American history and policy; or just read the most enriching text I've ever encountered, you must read this book. It's long, it can be heavy, and it's an investment of time and money, but it's one of the best I've ever made.

Best YA / Fiction Series: Akata Witch and Akata Warrior by Nnedi Okorafor

One of my absolute favorite finds this year has been the work of Nnedi Okorafor. She strikes the perfect balance between sci-fi, fantasy, and YA work and I am obsessed with her books. Think of Akata Witch as the female-driven Nigerian version of Harry Potter. This has all the same elements: a classic, truly evil recurring villain; an unexpected magical talent; a fully hidden world of magic and spirits placed right alongside that of Lambs, or normal humans (Muggles for the Potter-initiated); a close-knit group of unlikely friends with complementary talents; a strict family; wise mentors; fantastical magical school teachings; and so much more.

We're long overdue for a more global understanding of what constitutes a true canon or mythology or great novels, and the Akata series is a wonderful entree into global fiction for readers more used to literature from Europe or the U.S. There is so much to love about Sunny, the protagonist, and the complex, delightful, macabre world she encounters. This is such a stunningly visual serial and I hope it's made into a movie; it would make a really special film series. I highly recommend this to anyone who loves magical stories, fantasy fiction, mythological tales, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings or any of the similar books of this genre.

Best Cookbook / Self Published Local Author: Sweet Revenge by Heather Kim 

A good friend recently introduced me to this gem of a book and I am still astonished that it is fully self written, self published, self designed. Everything about this book - from the lush but accessible tactile feel, to the quirky and beautiful photos and illustrations, to the perfectly named recipes and easy to follow guides and glossaries - is total perfection. I'm not a baker but even I was intrigued by recipes like the "Bite Me Scum Muffin," "Suck It Up And Grow a Pear Cheesecake" and "Lube Up Guide to Cooking Oils." For anyone with a broken heart this will be a balm to the ego and for everyone else it will be a riotously fun romp through the world of desserts. I've never met Heather Kim, but I can safely say that if this is a taste of the kind of work she outputs she's a damn smart woman and deserves every penny (and then some) she's going to make off of this self-published masterpiece. She's a locally based chef and tattoo artist, so spend a few of your Christmas dollars on buying this and supporting someone who is literally sticking it to the man and revolutionizing the cooking world one stilletto-and-spike-clad step at a time.

Best Essay Collection: We Were Eight Years In Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Coates's work is never easy or quick (if you haven't devoured Between the World and Me yet, get thee to a book store and clear your schedule for a day until you're done), but it's always so rich and thoughtful. I didn't fully realize that the bulk of this book was a re-print of his previously published essays for the Atlantic (most of which I had already read). Each essay is paired with a long introduction to place you exactly where he was at the time of writing and why he wrote the way he did, and to point out any structural inaccuracies. There is also a new, epic, biting epilogue to wrap the book up that chases "My President Was Black" with "The First White President."

Coates is indisputably, in my opinion, our generation's James Baldwin, and reading this was a great exercise in connecting those dots. The arc of his writing takes a meandering but pointed turn, and the last three essays of this book (particularly the razor sharp "The Case for Reparations") are ones that I have already returned to and revisited many times and I anticipate continuing to do so. Even if you're a huge fan of his work already, all of these essays are worth re-reading and anyone can find fresh vantages here, especially in our current political climate. If you do read this make sure to allow plenty of time to let it really seep in. There's so much to unpack in this book and no survey of our current place in American history is complete without it.

Best Business Book: Drop the Ball by Tiffany Dufu 

Drop the Ball reflects a lot of conversations my partner and I had when we first lived together, and I wish I had had a book at the time that so clearly laid out ways in which I was not only failing myself, but failing him. We need to have higher expectations of our partners - it is insulting to treat them like mindless creatures incapable of helping around the home. We need to have higher love for ourselves - we deserve time to rest and recuperate from our busy and stressful lives. We need to get off the perfection hamster wheel - it's unrealistic and completely unnecessary, and life is way too short to get caught up in keeping up with appearances. Here's a sample of the advice Dufu covers: don't be afraid to recruit a "village" to help you. Build and maintain a network to call upon. Release your facade of perfection and meet people honestly with where you are truly at, and accept help when it is offered to you. Build strong relationships with others (especially other women). Be straightforward about your expectations and clear about your needs when you make a request. Stand up for yourself. Practice self care.

Forget Lean In; this is the book that every professional woman needs to read. Drop the Ball is a magnificent testimony to all the ways that women convince ourselves that we fall short and torment ourselves with unnecessary and unrealistic expectations. It is perfect for anyone who is too busy in their day-to-day and struggles to to find time for their real priorities (so... everyone?) and for those with a fierce imposter syndrome. What kind of world could we make if women really freed ourselves from the chains of eternal domesticity, learned to accept a little mess here and there, and instead focused our time and energy on our real passions and drive to improve society? It's an attainable fantasy, and the only people in our way is ourselves. Drop the Ball is vital for women of any age, and their partners should read it too for insight into why their S.O. has the expectations they do/is societally conditioned the way they are.

Book with the Best Ideas: Happy City by Charles Montgomery 

I've recently been very interested in the politics and process of city planning and community layouts, and there was no better introduction to that subject than this beautifully written book. Charles Montgomery leaves no stone unturned in his new vision for how our urban centers could work. He truly inspired me to remember that every single thing in our lives is designed (and designed for a reason) - while this can feel defeating, it also means that it can always be changed. I really appreciated that Montgomery is not afraid to be blunt and straightforward about some of the most harmful aspects of traditional urban design, especially in the form of racism and classism. The good examples he uplifts of cities who are thoughtfully innovating for the future are truly well-rounded. For example, they always include provisions for the traditionally most reviled among us (say, drunk homeless people) in innovative, loving ways that provide spaces for all citizens - and isn't that what we say we want our societies to be in the first place?

Since I have returned to living without a car (for my day-to-day needs, at least) a few years ago, I have been so much happier and healthier. Restricting the design of our cities to be built primarily for cars is honestly tyrannical, and Happy City lays this reasoning out in compelling detail. I would urge everyone to give this wonderful book a shot and open their minds to the possibility of living differently from what conventional wisdom dictates. There are so many more ways to enjoy a rich, vivid life that have nothing to do with working thousands of hours of overtime and spending half your day commuting in a car. Definitely check this little gem of a book out!

Best Memoir / International Book: The Return by Hisham Matar

This book was one of my global book club choices (more here if you want to join too!) and it was so incredibly informational. I didn't realize how little I knew about Libyan history until I picked it up, and it's fascinating and humbling to see how ignorant I was. Matar's story of his search for his father is devastating, but through his grief he has managed to create a gorgeous testimony to the value of Libya, of the reason to fight for your freedom, and the ideal that sacrifice is worth it if the end goal benefits everyone.

If you're wondering why Qaddafi had to be removed from power and where Libya can go from here, Matar has several thoughts to share. I learned so much about North Africa and life under a dictatorship in this lyrical, lovely little book and I would highly recommend this to anyone who wants a primer on what is happening there. There are shockingly few great books about Libya and North Africa in general (tends to be the case when an entire generation's worth of writers and artists are imprisoned by a ruthless dictator... but I digress), so it behooves you to really savor the lyrical prose and rich history Matar presents here.

Best Comic Book: Ms. Marvel Volume 7: Damage Per Second by G. Willow Wilson

I've been reading the Ms. Marvel series (three cheers for a female Muslim superhero - woohoo!) for a while now but this is easily my favorite one yet. Each "issue" is a compilation of several comics, and all of the stories in this edition were so relevant, fresh and tied directly into what is happening politically right now. This is such a great way for kids to learn about issues like cyberbullying, voter fraud, gerrymandering and more (and when is the last time you heard about any of that in a comic book?!?), and I absolutely loved every inch of this top to bottom. If you need a break from your text-heavy tomes, the Ms. Marvel series is an easily digestible, quick entree into a whole new world that will really refresh your literary palate.

Best Celebrity Memoir: We're Going to Need More Wine by Gabrielle Union 

I've learned about myself recently that I really like celebrity books, at least when they have something to say beyond wealth + fame = kewl. They always offer a nice break from the crazier, heavier fare I gravitate towards and can be a nice literary palate cleanser. I loved this new book from Gabrielle Union, which is much more raw and real than you usually see with celebrity memoirs. Union's no-bullshit persona has always made her one of my favorites in Hollywood and she shares so many insights here into her past, the culture of fame, the pitfalls of celebrity, and more. There are a lot of items here that can connect to a higher cultural conversation and I don't think she could have released this book at a better time, particularly in relation to the #metoo movement and omission of stories of women of color within that movement. I've heard of some issues with distribution for this book and it's such a shame, because this deserves to be read as widely as possible. This was one of my favorite recent reads - if you need a break and something relatable, saucy and thoughtful, pick this up!

Best Book for Our Times: Hunger by Roxane Gay 

Roxane Gay is such an important writer that I'm not sure how to even review her bibliography - it's really in a category all its own. I adored Bad Feminist, but Hunger is so different, such a unique piece of work, that it's hard to categorize. It's far and away the best thing I've read either about obesity or sexual assault (and related PTSD), but also includes so many important details about life as a woman, as a woman of color, as a woman of size (not just heft but height), as a daughter of immigrants that I could go on and on.

There is so much incredible detail wrapped into this book, truly encapsulating an intersectional perspective and indirectly demonstrating why it is so hard to talk about intersectional issues. Which part of yourself and your identity does each of your experiences belong to? Which parts of your identity are more important? Are resources equally available to help you depending on race or gender or socioeconomic status? How do you move through pain? How does pain tangentially affect other areas of your life? How do you forgive yourself? Once you've started to heal from your pain, how do you leave it behind after you've carried it for so long?

There are so many rich, rich things to glean from this book, and I think every citizen should read it to have a more compassionate and comprehensive understanding of life as a woman who is obese, survivors of sexual assault, and an enormous range of related issues. Gay is so incredibly brave for writing and sharing this honest, raw book. I can't recommend it highly enough or thank her enough for writing it. We needed it and didn't even know it.

Best Comedy Book: You Can't Touch My Hair by Phoebe Robinson 

I discovered Phoebe Robinson through the podcast 2 Dope Queens, and I'm so glad I did. Not only have I now been introduced to Phoebe's solo podcast Sooo Many White Guys (best. intro. song. ever.), but she is absolutely hilarious, so thoughtful and well rounded, and is truly helping to create an innovative new space for women and comics of color. I was really excited to read this book and it didn't disappoint, beginning with her vernacular. This casual feel allows her to really dig in to meaty issues but with humor and finesse, and she has a lot to add to many conversations (particularly around intersectionality and feminism) that are vital to our progress today. I think for women of color this book will feel familiar - none of the issues Robinson discusses will be new ones - but they still might be a hilarious new spin on old woes. As a white woman, I found a lot of what she said to be important information to me and in learning to listen to other voices and to respect/understand/honor the differences between us. For any ladies who went to the women's march and want to learn more about intersectionality and some of the specific difficulties WOC face today, this is a great primer - I'd encourage you to pick it up.

Friday, December 22, 2017

MUST SEE: Dot at Park Square Theatre

This late in the season, I generally think it unlikely to find something so fresh and powerful and amazing that it blows my socks off.

Photos by Petronella J. Ytsma

But I can happily testify that that is the case after seeing Dot, a new work at Park Square Theatre, last night. Dot is a delectable mix of sweet and savory, serious and saccharine, and I hope is a model for what is to come from new scripts on stages across America.

Photos by Petronella J. Ytsma

Created with support from the American Brain Foundation and the Alzheimer's Association Minnesota-North Dakota, Dot tells the story of a family as they try to navigate their mother Dot's quickly advancing Alzheimer's disease during the holidays. Shelly, Dot's oldest child, has been doing most of the care for her mother by herself and is extremely stressed out. Shelly has received little help from her sister Averie and brother Donnie, both of whom continue to tell themselves that Dot's condition isn't as bad as it is. Adam, Donnie's husband, is very gentle with Dot and despite having some marital arguments is a logical voice in the family conversation about how to best care for Dot. Fidel is the family's barely legal caretaker hired to care for Dot, with whom he shares a unique connection and experience as "the other." Jackie is the family's long time (and somewhat crazy) neighbor and friend, and her dramatic personal problems allow for a break in the drama unfolding around Dot. The most important character, Dot herself, moves throughout the high drama surrounding her with a slow, uneasy gait that demonstrates how much her condition directly affects her and how difficult it is for her to see her memories (and sanity) steadily slipping away.

Photos by Petronella J. Ytsma

The show wouldn't be possible without a believable demonstration of an Alzheimer's patient, and Cynthia Jones-Taylor is remarkable in this role as Dot. She is able to convey so many emotions - seeming simplicity, heartbreak, laughter, confidence, fear, and more - and she makes Dot such a winning force in the show and so much more complex than what might otherwise seem to be a crazy old woman. Her children are very well cast as well. Yvette Ganier is the show's emotional rock as Shelly and does a beautiful job of showing how difficult being a full-time caretaker can be, especially for those who are simultaneously caring for parents and children. Dame-Jasmine Hughes is hilarious as Averie and demonstrates why it is so important not to underestimate younger family members; while she seems irresponsible on the surface, Averie's heart and empathy provide a soothing advocacy for her mother's needs. Ricardo Beaird is hilarious as Donnie and really the epicenter of all of the show's exterior drama. Between Donnie's marital problems, Jackie's unbelievably inappropriate attachment to him, and the terror over truly understanding how his mother feels, Beaird manages to keep Donnie human and connected throughout the show. Anna Letts Lakin does a good job of demonstrating Jackie's pendulum-wide emotional swings, and while her character felt unnecessary to the fuller narrative, Lakin makes the part into a needed break from the devastating impact of Dot's disease as it unfolds. And Maxwell Collyard brings an unexpected warmth to his part as Fidel, proving that you never can judge a book by its cover.

Photos by Petronella J. Ytsma

The set is cozy and familiar, detailing two rooms - a kitchen and Christmas-clad living room - inside a home that could belong to any family, although this one does to Dot in West Philly. Park Square always does a great job of making intimate settings feel real, and small touches like a working sink and stove in the kitchen, messy dishes left in between scenes and a bevy of household props place us squarely inside of Dot's home and family drama. There's nothing really "special" about the wardrobe and costumes, but that's exactly why I enjoyed them; the familiarity of the set and costume design makes the drama of the show much more piercing and mundane, an important factor in the show's goal of raising awareness of the prevalence and severity of Alzheimer's.

Photos by Petronella J. Ytsma

Full disclosure as to why I enjoyed this show so much and think it's so important to see? I adore this cast first of all - they seem like a real family and have such terrific chemistry. It's a truly mixed, messy family with interracial relationships, homosexual relationships, single parents, grieving grandparents and more, and I think those real-world ties are important to see represented in front of us. The script is modern and fresh and could have come off of a new Gabrielle Union or Kerry Washington movie, and it was a joy to see such a narrative on-stage. The design is good and overall this is seasonal without being too Christmassy.

Photos by Petronella J. Ytsma

But the real reason Dot touched me so is that I can attest to its authenticity. I had a grandmother who died of Alzheimer's disease, and watching Dot's decline reminded me so vividly of her and the difficult struggles my family went through to care for her. Although Alzheimer's affects approximately 5.5 million Americans today you almost never see it directly discussed or represented in mainstream media, especially for people of color. Alzheimer's is a growing problem and one that will affect more and more of us as life expectancies increase, and without talking about it and learning how to care for those who suffer from it (as well as their caregivers), we are going to be at a serious societal loss. It is always difficult to watch a loved one suffer from any medical condition, but to see their mind - their their essence, their memories, their spirit, their kindness - dissolve into the ether is a special kind of suffering that cannot be described. It's a death before the physical death, and the point at which your parent no longer knows who you are is the most heartbreaking thing I can imagine, a scene that is poignantly, heartrendingly displayed in Dot.

Photos by Petronella J. Ytsma

I don't want to scare anyone off by making Dot seem like a serious, difficult show. The subject of Alzheimer's alone is agonizing but Dot is legitimately funny, and for every moment of sadness there are so many moments of laughter and joy, especially from Dot herself. The beauty of Dot lies in how it is able to so thoroughly demonstrate all the subtleties of a very difficult subject but in a way that is authentic and relatable and lighthearted. It's a masterful bit of writing and one that would be at home on the silver screen any day. I think anyone can find something to love about Dot, but I especially think that families struggling to understand their relative's Alzheimer's disease in any capacity - care, empathy, implications, finances, all of it - could really find some support and love by attending this show. I hope it reprises all over the country and raises awareness about Alzheimer's to new heights. Dot runs at Park Square Theatre through January 7; to learn more or buy tickets to this must-see show, click on this link.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Thrillist: Best New Bars / New Year's Eve Bars

'Tis the season for festivities and debaucheries of all stripes...

Red Cow's drink menu is considerate and thoroughly on point. 

If you're looking for some hot new places (and reliable favorites) to grab a cocktail or delish small snack this holiday season and beyond, look no further than my latest piece for Thrillist about the best bars in the Twin Cities. It's got a little bit of everything, from sports bars to breweries to wine bars, fermentation bars, and everything in between.

You can find the whole piece by clicking here, but I also wanted to point out a few new options that popped up since this posted (or didn't make my editor's cut) that are always great possibilities. And let me know; what did I miss? Is there a favorite haunt not included here? I'd love to hear any additions you have!

Red Cow: Serving the Best Hi-Low Atmosphere 

I was lucky enough to visit Red Cow in the North Loop last week to preview some of their upcoming wine and cocktail options and let me tell you: there are some stunners available. The seasonal cocktail menu ranges from herbal infused cocktails to unusual ingredient mixes to one kickass hot toddy; who doesn't need a good hot toddy this time of the year? As impressive as the cocktails was the thoughtful, accessible array of wines, almost all of which can be sampled by the glass. Budding oenophiles like myself are really lucky to have access to one of Red Cow's five locations, as it allows you to try a range of high quality wines served exactly as they're supposed to be without having to commit to a full (and often expensive) bottle. Red Cow is doing extensive wine and cocktail trainings for their staff, and here's to hoping they open the series up to the public very soon. The fact that you can get an excellent burger (I had the Spanish burger with manchego, prosciutto and smoked aioli - oh yeah) with your snobby and delicious drink is the icing on the cake. Definitely check this out for an affordable yet reliable place with something to please anyone.

Brother’s Bar: Sports with a Side of Sass

There’s a reason that Brother’s is packed to the gills every weekend. From the clubby basement atmosphere on Saturday nights to the low-key sporting events, Brothers has something for everyone. This chameleon of bars can offer drink specials or a full on dining experience depending on your preferences. It’s also an excellent haunt for any swinging singles who need a reliable place to go to get their grind on. If you’re not quite ready for a quiet wine bar atmosphere but too old for basement frat parties, Brothers is here for you. If you’re going for New Year’s Eve plan on long lines and a packed atmosphere.

Punch Bowl Social: If You Can’t Find a Game Here to Love, You Never Will 

What if your New Year’s Eve crew has a group of people who are wildly difficult to please? No one can come to a consensus on drinks, or games, or snacks, and they certainly don’t want to brave inner city traffic to have a good time. Look no further than Punch Bowl Social, one of the many indoor, adults-only gaming bars to grace the Twin Cities. Punch Bowl Social has everything you could want, from bowling to ping pong to giant Jenga and board games of all stripes. A plethora of servers and two separately located, fully stocked bars also mean that despite busy crowds you’re sure to have a short wait between drink and food orders. For picky, difficult groups (or if you just don’t feel like leaving the Western suburbs), look no further: Punch Bowl Social is here for you.

Can Can Wonderland: Indoor Minigolf, Alcoholic Milkshakes, and a Boardwalk Arcade

If you want all the fun of Up-Down or Punch Bowl Social but can’t venture that far west, I got you: head to St. Paul’s Midway neighborhood and check out Can Can Wonderland. Can Can Wonderland specializes in indoor minigolf, but also features a flank of arcade games that fulfill anyone’s inner nostalgia. Simple is not the name of the game here (although you can order that too, if you want): Can Can Wonderland’s menu is stacked with a dizzying array of specialty cocktails, punch bowls, high balls, and our personal favorite: super boozy malts and milk shakes. For those who want to turn up super hard on New Year’s Eve, this is also a perfect pick. Can Can Wonderland is celebrating NYE with three sets by none other than the Brass Messengers and a NYE Vaudeville Spectacular that includes champagne towers, a balloon drop, wearable art, artist-designed mini golf, individual party favors, artist-made custom environments and photo ops, face painting, butler service noshes and more. 

Dangerous Man Brewing: Bringing a Spirit of Service and a Paul Bunyan Aesthetic to the Local Craft Brew Scene

It can be difficult to distinguish between the dozens of breweries that have sprung up after the passing of the Surly Law, but Dangerous Man Brewing clearly stands above the rest. Why? For one, the beers (brewed on-site just down the street from Young Joni) are universally excellent, from the standards like Session IPA to seasonals like Peanut Butter Porter or Pecan Brown Ale. Dangerous Man also makes a clear point of being heavily involved in their community. Between donating proceeds of certain beers to local causes to working with Brewing a Better Forest and hosting weekly volunteer events that include free beers, what’s not to love? Put on your warmest skull cap and fluffiest beard and head to Dangerous Man for a holistic and charitable beer lover’s experience. 

J. Selby’s: Making Veganism Accessible

J. Selby’s has exploded onto the local dining scene with their encyclopedic vegan menu that appeals to even the most die hard carnivores. From biscuits and gravy to protein packed veggie and rice bowls to corn dogs and falafel burgers, J. Selby’s works hard to prove that anyone can enjoy vegan food. What occasional patrons may not know is that you can order a side of alcohol with your meal, taking the restaurant’s appeal from novelty foods into fine dining territory. At the moment, most of the offerings stick to a straightforward list of wine and beers (locally produced, if possible, and always using vegan manufacturing methods). An interesting standout includes canned wines, which might be the first time I’ve seen this new trend on an official restaurant menu. Give veganism a shot with a trip to J. Selby’s, and order a drink to share to keep your spirits high (see what I did there?). 

Monday, December 18, 2017

An Absolutely Phenomenal Phantom of the Opera

Who says old dogs can't learn new tricks? 

Photo by Matthew Murphy

Or perhaps it would be more appropriately phrased: who says old musicals can't learn new tricks?

Photo by Matthew Murphy

Long time Compendium readers (thank you, wherever you are!) will remember my review four years ago (how?!?) of the Phantom of the Opera, which was the first time the revamped, re-staged 25th anniversary production swing through Minneapolis. The production value was absolutely astonishing then and one of the highlights of my year, so I knew what to expect this time around. What I wasn't prepared for was an even better cast and pit orchestra, where smart choices have clearly brought this production firmly into the 21st century.

Photo by Matthew Murphy

I won't replay the plot of Phantom here - you can read my previous thoughts here for that - but I want to review my favorite elements here for anyone who might be on the fence about attending. First up is the effervescent, flawless performance of the Phantom from Derrick Davis. Davis gives a sinuous, bombastic, nuanced performance (serving Tyra Banks-era face through that difficult face mask and heavy makeup) that left the audience in chills. He's an inspired choice for the part, and believe me when I tell you he's terrific: I was raised ad nauseam on the OG Phantom soundtrack starring Michael Crawford, so I am extremely picky about this role and Davis is absolutely magnificent. He is also the first African American I have seen in this role, a casting choice which lends renewed depth and thought to the Phantom's complicated past (which includes being abused and locked in a cage). I found every aspect of Davis's performance riveting, and he's worth the admission price alone.

Photo by Matthew Murphy

Luckily Davis is matched with an exquisite soprano in the form of Eva Tavares as Christine Daae. Tavares has that ineffable talent of a Julie Andrews or Barbra Streisand where every note she sings seems as natural as breathing, and she trills through Christine's difficult arias with blissful ease. She and Davis are well matched, and their spark keeps the show burning. Jordan Craig fully embodies Raoul's steadfast love and support for Christine, and Craig gives the role the swashbuckling heroism it deserves. As Madame Giry, Kristie Dale Sanders could be plucked straight out of the novel, with a biting delivery and the perfect winged cat eye. Trista Moldovan is splendid as the fiery Carlotta Giudicelli, swanning around the stage at every opportunity and deliciously lampooning the caricature of an opera diva. And the rest of the cast is delightful too, luxuriating in their rich costumes and thorough backstories to paint a luscious tapestry with this story that leaves so much to savor as the show unfolds.

Photo by Matthew Murphy

Normally I would say to just go see something and that it wouldn't matter where you sit, but for this particular show I beg you: buy the best tickets (aka closest to the stage) that you can. The production design of this particular Phantom of the Opera is bar none, and you will be absolutely blown away the better you are able to see the luscious attention to detail at every step of this production. From the brightly bejeweled costumes to the spooky set effects to the innumerable props to the breathlessly embellished stage, no stone is unturned in making this the most over the top production design you've ever seen. I can't rave about it enough (so I'll make myself stop here), but if you're a junkie for truly out of this world design, crazy special effects, and unparalleled attention to detail: this is definitely the show for you.

Photo by Alastair Muir

I also want to make a special shout out to the shockingly lean yet full-sounding pit orchestra, lead by the expert direction of Jamie Johns. Many local musicians were featured in the pit and they played beautifully throughout the show, which includes some previously recorded stanzas - not the easiest feat for live, reactive musicians, and especially for those who are newcomers to the tour. I was able to snatch several glances of the musicians as they played and it was such a joy to see how dedicated and thorough they were throughout the performance. Another local tie comes from Mark Emerson, who grew up in Anoka and is on stage as the auctioneer in the very first scene.

Photo by Matthew Murphy

Phantom of the Opera has long been a favorite of mine for a reason. The music is just so damn good - undeniably so - and although many studios have tried to make film adaptations and all sorts of other iterations, nothing beats the Andrew Lloyd Webber score sung live on stage in all of its glory. The quality of the remastered design of this anniversary production is bar none, and with the addition of much more melanin to this cast than we have seen in previous tours, there is nothing I would change about this production. Derrick Davis is hauntingly perfect in this role, and although they will be switching between phantoms throughout the tour, the rest of the cast more than does him justice. If you're already a Phantom of the Opera fan you are guaranteed to love this production; if you've never seen it, it's a great gateway drug into the world of musical theater (even if you think you don't like musicals). Snatch up tickets before this closes on December 31; it's well worth the price (and even a little extra for kickass seats, I promise you won't regret it!). For more information or to buy tickets, click on this link.

Photo by Matthew Murphy

And if you're a die hard fan who wants a taste of what you're in for, don't miss the timelapse video below of the show.

A Mysterious Blithe Spirit

I'm not sure why it never occurred to me before, but ghost stories seem to be really popular in the holiday season. 

Photo by Dan Norman

Or maybe it's just a new trend this year? Either way we always have A Christmas Carol, of course, and several edgy new ghost tales have popped up on stage as detailed by other Twin Cities Theater Bloggers. The latest to appear is Blithe Spirit at the Guthrie Theater. Scheduled to be a companion piece to the emphatically more somber and chillingly emotional Watch on the Rhine, Blithe Spirit lifts the audience out of World War II doldrums and into a zany comedic atmosphere involving past wives, infidelities, crystal balls and seances galore.

Photo by Dan Norman

I'm a little loathe to describe the plot in detail as I think most of its power is sustained in figuring out the story as you go, but for a brief synopsis: Charles Condomine is researching psychological mediums for his new book. He and his wife Ruth invite Madame Arcati to their house for a demonstration, which they fully expect to be a sham. With fellow invited guests Dr. Bradman and his wife Edith, the Condomines are prepared for a riotous night - when all of a sudden the event goes awry and become far more real than any of them had bargained for.

Photo by Dan Norman

Sally Wingert stars as Madame Arcati, and although she's not the central focus of the story she most certainly carries the show. I've described Wingert before as the Twin Cities' Meryl Streep, and for good reason; she can make any ridiculous action or whimsical role seem as engaging and grave as the deepest Shakespeare. She's a joy to watch on stage, and it lights up whenever she enters. Suzanne Warmanen plays the Condomine's maid Edith, and her psychical comedy and pronounced facial contortions play well with Wingert to up the comedic ante.

Quinn Mattfeld is Charles Condomine and perfectly embodies the bland persona of a moneyed socialite. Heidi Armbruster is sharp as Charles' wife Ruth, bringing an edge typical of a Bette Davis or Myrna Loy to her lines. Together, Mattfeld and Armbruster make a comfortable pair who will feel familiar to anyone who has watched many film versions of similar screwball comedies from the 1940s. Elia Monte-Brown is spooky as Elvira, and her entrances always had the audience surprised.

Photo by Dan Norman

Production design is good as always. This time around the scenic design is provided by Jo Winiarski and costumes by Meg Neville. They are what you'd expect of a lavish, moneyed environment, and everyone is always very smartly dressed (true props out to the gorgeous green velvet smoking coat Charles wears in the second act and Ruth's impeccably tailored summer dresses). Most intriguing for me was the lighting design by Xavier Pierce, which incorporated many ghostly elements and had full barred lighting echoing throughout the stage in several thunderclap moments; it was a spooky but riveting effect, and I'd loved to see more use made of it. Vocal Coach Jill Walmsley Zager has clearly been working deeply with the cast, who delivered a pitch perfect nasally tone that was well suited to the era.

Photo by Dan Norman

So what was my final verdict? I'm a big fan of the aesthetic and concept behind this show, and I was thrilled to see a comedy (which is the genre I crave most and find most difficult to find, especially non-Christmas related at this time of year). The show was well performed, but it was long for me - almost three hours - and I wish it had been trimmed a little to help tighten up the jokes. For theatrical purists, though, I think there is a lot to like, and Noel Coward fans in particular I think will enjoy this production. It's nice to see a totally new story on stage that I've never seen before, and if you are craving more Sally Wingert after last season's magnificent production of Native Gardens (and honestly who isn't - that show was mind blowing), you'll get a tantalizing taste of her in Blithe Spirit.

Photo by Dan Norman

Blithe Spirit runs at the Guthrie Theater through January 14; for more information or to buy tickets, click on this link.