Friday, December 21, 2018

KHEPHRA is the Hip Hop Holiday Story You Didn't Know You Needed

Representation has been an increasingly important theme in arts around the world lately. 

Uche Iroegbu

Whether it's melanizing the lily white world of superhero universes (here's looking at you Black Panther) or shaking up the stale genre of rom coms (Crazy Rich Asians ruled the game this summer), groups that were previously left out of the cultural conversation have started to plow ahead with work by, of and for their own with nary a glimpse in the rearview mirror.

And what a great time that makes it to be a lover of the arts! Diversification only generates richer, deeper, more meaningful and interesting stories. I've been thrilled to discover so many new worlds and ideas that I never knew before over the last few years. The quality across the board has been increased such that it can be hard now to find something that *isn't* interesting or fresh, and that's a good problem for all of us to have.

The latest local piece in this fearless tradition is KHEPHRA: A Hip Hop Holiday Story, now showing at the CONN Theater. Created and anchored by local luminary Shá Cage, KHEPHRA tells the story of a young girl as she encounters celebrations from the many countries she lives in in West Africa and transitions to life in America in her teenage years. It's a side door entry into the world of a holiday show - you won't get your typical Christmas Carol or Grinch or Santa or manger moments here (although there are some remixed carols) - which I found totally refreshing and unique. Through puppetry, dance and music, Cage takes us on a tour through KHEPHRA's world and educates all of us on a vibrant blend of cultural traditions and experiences. A helpful insert in the program describes some of the West African terms, people, and songs sung throughout the show for those who are unfamiliar with the cultures presents.

A standout element is that this is clearly a family affair. We learn at the very beginning of the show that the concept for KHEPHRA came after Cage realized her kids were too young to see Christmas Carol and that they wouldn't relate to it anyway. Cage decided to create a show where they could feel seen and represented and hopefully have them perform with her once they were older. Her sons do indeed perform in this show, which is directed by Cage's husband. Cage displays an intimate, joyful familiarity with the two incredible dancers (Destiny Anderson and Johannah Easley) and musicians (Jamela Pettiford, William "Truthmaze" Harris, and Rico Mendez) also performing, and together they create a vivacious and joyful energy. The familial vibe on stage also creates a warm engagement with the audience, who is encouraged to sing along with the performers during the musical numbers and touch some of the West African artifacts Cage introduces throughout the show. I also thoroughly enjoyed the gorgeous abstract paintings in the scenic design by Ta-coumba Aiken that lend a simple but colorful and playful backdrop for the dynamic choreography.

I can't overstate how nice it is to see a plethora of innovative, unique, diverse, talented performers carving their own paths through the arts world these days. It's not easy to create something out of thin air, and much less make it something of quality. The vision Shá Cage demonstrates in KHEPHRA, the joyful atmosphere of the entire experience, and the example she sets for her children (and for all of us, honestly) is one I won't soon forget. If you're feeling down in the holiday dumps or just plain bored with the same ol', same ol' rotations of shows around this time of year, branch out and explore the lovely, cross-cultural world Cage has to offer here. I hope this becomes a holiday tradition of its own - a festivus for the rest of us if there ever was one. KHEPHRA only runs through December 23 (with shows twice a day), so make sure to click here to get your tickets ASAP.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Les Miserables is Timelier Than Ever

What can I say about a show that's been touring the country steadily for over 25 years? 

Photo by Matthew Murphy

Probably simply that things haven't changed all that much in the 150+ years since Les Miserables was first published.

Photo by Matthew Murphy
Anyone who isn't familiar with Les Miserables can find a detailed overview of the plot in my first review several years ago (click here to read), but for the one paragraph breakdown: Jean Valjean became a convict after stealing a loaf of bread to save his dying nephew; after 19 years in French prison, he is released and breaks parole to start a new life. He is hunted ever after by the police captain Javert, a stickler for law and order who refuses to believe in life circumstances or that people can change. Valjean takes in a girl named Cosette after her mother falls from grace after working for him, raising Cosette as his own. Cosette falls in love with Marius, a member of a revolutionary group who tries to overthrow France's wealthy ruling class to help the people (and fails). Marius is the lone survivor of the fight after Valjean saves him; Javert commits suicide after Valjean grants him his life during the revolution; and Valjean joins Cosette's mother Fantine and Marius's lover-that-never-was Éponine in heaven after a life filled with service.

Photo by Matthew Murphy

It's a doozy of a plot (and an incredible book - which more people should read. Yes, I know that it clocks in at over 1,400 pages, but if you do the math even the slowest reader can finish it in a year by reading just a measly 4 pages a day. It's worth it, I promise), and despite sounding overwrought it somehow shines on-stage as a complex, tautly riveting story that lays bare some incredibly difficult subjects via high entertainment. I've always felt Les Miserables to be a timely and relevant piece, but it struck me last night just HOW timely it is. Just look at a few of the major themes and plot points:

Photo by Matthew Murphy

And on and on and on... the parallels are never ending! It's interesting for me to see the relationship audiences have with a show such as this; to me there are such clear ties to problems plaguing our society, and despite the intentional comedic moments I still struggle to be fully entertained and remove myself from those implications. This world is REAL to me in a visceral, heartbreaking way, but it seems most of the general public doesn't feel as connected with the story. There were several moments throughout the night - such as strong laughter after childish Cosette's solo "Castle on a Cloud," which describes her dream of escaping her nightmare of child labor and abuse at the hands of the Thénardiers - where I felt almost in an alternate universe. Was the scene teed up for comedic timing? Yes of course. But was it really funny and worth an audience-wide guffaw? I'm hard pressed to say so.

Photo by Matthew Murphy

That said - this production is wholly magnificent and worth a visit for long-term fans and newbies alike. This is a cast of ringers (they need to be in order to perform the gloriously complex score, conducted to perfection by Brian Eads), and no one will be disappointed with their strong work. At the core is, of course, Jean Valjean, played with gravitas here by Nick Cartell. He is partnered with the Ebeneezer Scrooge-ian Josh Davis as *the best* Javert I've ever seen, and together they tussle through an equally matched battle of fates that drives the show with strength. Mary Kate Moore rips through your heart during her solos as Fantine with a truly angelic voice. Paige Smallwood was a crowd-pleaser belting out "On My Own" as Éponine, and Jillian Butler's sprightly coloratura has a future career as Christine Daae as evidenced through her performance as Cosette. The (surprising) star of the whole thing for me, though, was Joshua Grosso in a gorgeously nuanced performance as Marius. Grosso acts through his teeth while blessing us all with a Josh Groban-esque voice on tear-worthy solos like "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables;" he's fresh, young and bombastic, and I cannot wait to see where he goes after this performance.

Photo by Matthew Murphy

This tour is part of the 25th anniversary revival, which includes some different staging from the famous original. Gone are the turntable stages; instead, we have lavish projections and sky-high sets that provide us with three stories worth of narrative power. The facility of these sets allows for the intensely detailed plot to fly by with ease, and it's impressive how fast-paced this staging of Les Miserables feels despite clocking in at a three hour run time. Paired with the nuanced projections and absolutely stunning lighting design, the sets place us in a living, breathing, three-dimensional slice of Parisian history over 150 years old; it's a high achievement and sure to keep you riveted throughout the show.

Photo by Matthew Murphy

Victor Hugo was the Charles Dickens of France, meaning his work is just as evergreen as the Oliver Twists and Christmas Carols of the world. There's a reason Les Miserables has hung around for so long, and I'm tempted to say it's more relevant now than perhaps it ever has been since publication. Once again we live in a world where a few wealthy autocrats control our health and livelihoods; once again many people are thrown into prisons for minor offenses and struggle to re-enter society; once again the sexual assault of women is at the forefront of political consciousness; once again people are trying to rise up for their rights and are squashed by an indomitable political machine. Does that mean we give up? Of course not - as the revolutionary Enjolras sings, "this is the music of a people who will not be slaves again," and it's always worth fighting for "One Day More" - even if today turns out to be a loss. Don't miss the epic saga of Les Miserables, especially with this taut, terrific cast. Click here to learn more or buy tickets before the show closes on December 30 (and word to the wise - it's selling out quickly, so you'll want to nab those seats ASAP).

Photo by Matthew Murphy

Friday, December 7, 2018

Thrillist: The Best Things to Do This Winter (in the Twin Cities)

Whenever someone not from Minnesota comes to visit, I hear the pity in their voice when they talk about living here through the winter. 

Photo courtesy of Thrillist

Inevitably something along the lines of "bUt HOW dO yoU sUrvIvE iT?!?" comes out of their mouths, and all I can do is smile. 

The things is that (believe it or not) the extreme winters here are actually a gift, allowing Minnesotans to get extra creative with how we spend our time. It enables a period of slowing down, cozying up, and generally just enjoying your life a little differently. Can't go swimming at the beach? Go skiing or skijoring. Can't go for a long stroll outside? Hit up the skyway system and explore some of the crazy things available there, including museums, nail shops and excellent sushi and ramen. Patios are closed? Use it as an excuse to plan a themed date night to learn more about other cultures and try food you've never eaten before. 

I had a lot of fun putting together this list of the best things to do in the winter for Thrillist (click here to read the full piece). It actually became hard to narrow this down! If I have a holiday wish for any readers, it's this: get out of the house and try something new this winter. Do a little more reading, home cooking, and pick one new thing every week - or at least every month - that you've never tried before. There are so many fun activities to explore in the winter here and many of them are very affordable - don't let yourself become isolated and grumpy thanks to the weather and darkness. You can do better. 

If there's something I missed on the list (click here), please let me know! I'm always thrilled to be trying new things. Send any suggestions to me at

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Thrillist: The Best Things to Do in 25 of America’s Most Fun Cities

Doesn't #23 seem a little low on the ranking? 

Photo courtesy of Thrillist

How do the Twin Cities stack up when compared with our fellow American metropoles? Let me count the ways.

Thrillist asked me to send in some suggestions for cliched sights in the Twin Cities worth their salt and I came up with the following list. We're pretty lucky here in that very few things are truly overrated - but that doesn't mean there aren't still some standouts. I was sorely tempted to throw in MIA, Landmark Center, some theater, or the riverfront, but the sculpture garden won in the end thanks to its completely free access and Insta-worthy setting.

Check out the rest of my touristy Minnesota thoughts by clicking on this link to read the article, and let me know - what would be your best iconic tourist location to visit? Are there any under the radar events I need to know about? I'm always looking for the next big thing, so please send your suggestions my way to


23. Minneapolis

The Best Iconic Thing - Walker Art Center Sculpture Garden
How many cities can boast an iconic sculpture garden? How many of them can boast that such a venue is 100% free to visit? If museums seem just a little too boring or expensive but you feel the need for some culture in your life, check out the Walker Art Center’s sculpture garden. Recently re-vamped and open year round (yes, even when it snows), this highly visible gem is worth a longer stop than glancing it over while waiting at a red light on Hennepin Avenue. Come for Claes Oldenburg’s iconic Spoonbridge and Cherry statue; stay for the over 40 additional works, including Katharina Fritsch’s Hahn/Cock, a giant electric-blue chicken.

The Best Free Thing - Transmission Dance Nights with DJ Jake Rudh
The Twin Cities are a highly underrated destination for all kinds of arts. In addition to a thriving theater scene (with more theaters per capita than anywhere except New York City), our music and radio scene is equally vibrant. Those familiar with DJ Jake Rudh likely know him from spinning indie classics on Minnesota Public Radio’s hipster station of choice, 89.3 The Current. What they may not realize is that Transmission, Rudh’s scheduled broadcast every Thursday night at 10 p.m., is also a live – and completely free – dance party. With dates scheduled weekly all year round, there’s always an option for club fiends to hear the best mix with their friends and check out some of the Twin Cities best clubbing venues free of charge. Make sure to follow the Transmission Facebook page for more information.

The Best Under The Radar Thing - The Minneapolis Skyway System
Many Minnesotans have heard visitors complain that the Twin Cities feel empty, especially in the winter. Looking out the window it would be easy to assume that there aren’t many people living here at all. But you’d be wrong, they’re all living up in the air. A hefty network of rooftop bars and patios, the Skyway System links Minnesotans through buildings via second floor tunnels and footbridges -- it’s like a giant hamster wheel but for people. Minneapolis alone boasts over 13 miles of skyways filled with restaurants, shops, massage parlors, nail shops and banks, including Brits Pub, a fully grassed lawn bowling court with a wall-sized movie screen and three story outdoor bar complex. - Becki Iverson

Monday, December 3, 2018

The Wickhams Brings a New Festivity to Pride and Prejudice

How can you find a new way to indulge your love for Jane Austen? 

Photo by Rich Ryan

You took all the Buzzfeed quizzes about "Which Bennet are you?" and watched every Austen remake to be found thousands of times (here's looking at you, Clueless). What's left at this point to fuel your Austen fire?

Thanks to the ever-visionary Sarah Rasmussen, the Jungle Theater in Uptown has you covered. On the heels of last year's unbelievably successful Miss Bennet, the Jungle is providing #tctheater with another witty world premiere play to keep the story of the Bennets living on after Lizzie's marriage to Mr. Darcy at the end of the beloved book Pride and Prejudice.

Photo by Rich Ryan

While Miss Bennet, which premiered last year (and which I didn't see - but my friends over at Talkin' Broadway have the full scoop, just click here to catch up) focused on the story of the oft-forgotten Mary Bennet, The Wickhams gives us all the juicy details of what Lydia has been up to since her secretly forced marriage to George Wickham. It's an unlikely but visionary entree back into this world, providing a surprisingly fruitful plot line for a lively cast and a delicious piece of fan fiction that left me wanting even more.

Photo by Rich Ryan

Think of The Wickhams as "The Untold Story of Lydia" meets Downton Abbey. Fans of the original book know that George Wickham's famously unscrupulous behavior was the bane of many people's existence. After Mr. Darcy forces Wickham to marry Lydia, Wickham is forever banished from Pemberley Hall. This creates a conflict, of course, when the rest of the Bennet family is in town for the holidays. They can neither leave the Wickhams out altogether nor invite George Wickham, so Lydia travels to Pemberley alone to join her sisters. Lydia is a fascinating character who becomes richer as I get older, and The Wickhams plumbs her potential to the core. We learn that Lydia is much smarter than she receives credit for and presents a silly facade to veneer over her unhappy marriage. Throughout The Wickhams, her true relationship to George is unveiled and great plot twists change their lives forever.
Photo by Rich Ryan

The entire play takes place in the kitchen at Pemberley, where the main characters intermittently seek relief from the holiday festivities and stifling family judgement upstairs, and we get to meet a whole new cast of characters via Pemberley's servants. This approach has the advantage of fleshing out a fuller picture of the true life (and class system) at Pemberley, and gives us a window into how George Wickham became the disastrously immoral character he is in the book. It's not a sympathetic portrait but it's a clear-eyed one, and it lends a surprising level of nuance to the original text. Several juicy side plots, including a blooming romance between Cassie, a new servant at Pemberley, and Brian, a long-time servant who knew Wickham intimately as a child; and general existence of housekeeper Mrs. Reynolds, who brings a sharp wit and a spot-on Mrs. Hughes vibe to the house; kept the audience enthralled as we whirled through this new story.

Photo by Rich Ryan

The standout elements of this show were the impeccable comedic timing, directed to perfection by Christina Baldwin. This ship is run as tightly as a British naval frigate and the cast whips through jokes with casual ease. That cast is small but smart, by the way, and everyone serves their roles perfectly. Standouts include Nate Cheeseman, who miraculously manages to make George Wickham not only totally compelling but downright sympathetic at times; and Roshni Desai as Cassie, with a pitch perfect accent and plenty of sharp insight into the new household thanks to her friendship with Brian (setting a new rom-com standard in Jesse Lavercombe's performance). Sun Mee Chomet is an excellent choice for Elizabeth Darcy and keeps the audience giggling and the charmingly flustered James Rodriguez in line as Mr. Darcy. Anglea Timberman anchors the action as Mrs. Reynolds, and I can't imagine her in another role after the steadfast part she plays here. And Kelsey Didion brings surprising complexity to her role as Lydia, leading us to a sympathy we would never have expected from her character. In all it's a very special cast who are clearly having the best time with this new work, and I would happily revisit Pemberley with them again and again.

Photo by Rich Ryan

The devil is in the details and this production team is stellar. I kept finding new minutiae to delight me with every scene. As previously mentioned the lovely set, designed by Chelsea Warren, stays entirely in Pemberley's kitchen. Glowy burnished copper tools grace the walls, a sturdy table centers the room, and a plethora of doorways and secret hallways allow us to watch the characters spy on frank conversations, hide from each other, and otherwise enjoy far more action than a static set has any right to generate. Sarah Bahr's costume design draws clear contrast between the landed class and the servants, and a smart selection of props from John Novak (such as endless biscuits or steaming cups of tea) make this feel like a cozy working home. The real standouts are the lighting design by Marcus Dilliard and dialect coaching from Keely Wolter. I noticed out the gate that these are some of the best (and most consistently delivered) British accents I've heard on stage in recent years, and the lighting is an absolute marvel. Transitioning from shadowy firelight to candle-lit moments to the garish light of day, Dilliard brings a rare nuance to the lighting that really pushes this show to the next level.

Photo by Rich Ryan

Jane Austen was one of the first authors I was truly obsessed with. Like many of us I devoured Pride and Prejudice (and subsequently the rest of Austen's catalog) with a fervor that has not waned over the years. It's one of the few books I've re-read multiple times, and I adore many of the clever re-imaginings that have graced popular culture over the years (such as the Bridget Jones series or Clueless). The Wickhams leads us into a new level of Austen fan fiction that has infinite depths to plumb, and I am so grateful to the Jungle for not only having the vision to commission a brand new work for the holidays (rather than re-hash the same tired stories we see everywhere else) but to use the opportunity to add new richness and understanding to a familiar story. I can see this series becoming a new cycle of holiday plays traveling the country every Christmas season, and it's a world I won't mind revisiting again and again. For more information about The Wickhams or to buy tickets before the show closes on December 30, click on this link.

Friday, November 30, 2018

Marie and Rosetta will Rock your Socks Off

Anyone who knows me even a little knows that one of my great passions is discovering, sharing, and enjoying stories that lie outside of our popular understanding of the world. 

Photos by Petronella J. Ytsma

This is especially true of historical stories, which often tend to center middle aged white dudes writing down what they did all day. What about all of the diverse, dynamic people who lie outside of this tiny box - the women, the people of many cultures, the people across the gender and sexuality spectrum? Where did they all go? Why don't we hear about them more?

Photos by Petronella J. Ytsma

If the explosive success of Hidden Figures two years ago taught us anything, it's that all of us are craving more of these undersold histories - whether we know it or not. Marie and Rosetta, opening tonight at Park Square Theatre, falls smack into this tradition and is an excellent choice for anyone looking to avoid holiday shows, learn about more forgotten historical figures, or enjoy what is easily one of the best musical theater performances on #tctheater stages this year.

Photos by Petronella J. Ytsma

Marie and Rosetta centers on the story of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a legendary musician who is one of the (completely forgotten) founders of rock and roll music and begat a musical legacy that is thriving to this day. Her history is told through her relationship to Marie Knight, a talented gospel musician who recorded with Sister Rosetta for several years in the 1940s. For some quick background: Sister Rosetta was a highly popular musician in the mid-20th century who was a key musical innovator and cross-genre performer. She is not only responsible for being a vital bridge between musical styles as varied as jazz, gospel and popular music, but also for opening up the world of guitar playing to women and innovating guitar style to include electrical instruments. Her work was a primary influence to now-legendary rock and rollers like Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Chuck Berry and even the King himself - Elvis Presley.

Photos by Petronella J. Ytsma

So if Sister Rosetta was so influential, why do so few of us remember her now? I suspect it's for two main reasons: one, that she was a black woman - historically one of the least likely kinds of people to be remembered in print or pop culture, a facet of racism that is tragically still in the process of being (very, very slowly) corrected today. Two, we were blessed with an endless embarrassment of riches of black women musicians during Sister Rosetta's time and she gets a little lost in the shuffle. In a thirty year period or so, just look at the list of giant musical stars who were recording simultaneously: Billie Holiday. Ella Fitzgerald. Etta James. Nina Simone. Diana Ross. Mahalia Jackson. Aretha effing Franklin. And so many, many more whose names are not remembered anymore. It's understandable (although very lamentable) that in a crew of such luminaries, Sister Rosetta might fall somewhat to the wayside.

It's long past time to correct that oversight, and director Wendy Knox has assembled the perfect team to do it. The linchpin of the whole thing rests with Jamecia Bennett, who is superb as Sister Rosetta (and may be my favorite performance all year). Bennett has the look, the swag, the dialogue, and especially the pipes - her voice bellows throughout the theater like a sound tsunami, enveloping each and every audience member in a tight, warm, rich embrace. If you're not in tears by her second number or so, I'm not sure you have a soul. I've often wondered if we feel god's presence through our experiences, particularly musical ones - and if that's true, Jamecia Bennett is the closest sound to god I have maybe ever heard. Rajané Katurah Brown is no slouch as Marie Knight either. She has a full, strong voice that happily disonnates with Bennett's velvety tones, and their harmonies are glorious and could easily sell some records of their own. Brown unveils her character's layers like peeling petals off a rose, and we get a rich idea of Rosetta and Marie's love for each other throughout the short show.

Photos by Petronella J. Ytsma

These two ladies are all you ever see on stage, and it's all you ever need. Against the backdrop of a shabby funeral parlor (designed to the perfect understatement by Joseph Stanley) and some cleverly subtle lighting design choices from Michael P. Kittel, their voices soar in perfect unison. Peter Morrow's sound design masterfully enhances their voices without becoming overwhelming, and thanks to him we hear everything from the luxurious low notes to the high ones soaring to heaven in all their splendid glory. Music director Gary Hines keeps a tight ship, and no one will leave unhappy with the songs they hear in this show - particularly Bennett's melancholy and devastatingly emotional solo on "I Looked Down the Line."

Photos by Petronella J. Ytsma

If you think you're a fan of rock and roll but have never heard of performers like Chuck Berry, Howlin' Wolf, Charlie Patton or Sister Rosetta Tharpe, I *highly* suggest you clear a day (or several) to peruse YouTube archives for their work. Every single rock and roll or popular musician - and I am not exaggerating, I literally mean every. single. one. - owes an unfathomable debt to the spectacular and forgotten black musicians of the American south and Mississippi blues delta who innovated techniques, fearlessly learned new instruments, invented lyricism and taught us all what soul really means in music. As Park Square Theatre's program states, Sister Rosetta Tharpe was the Beyoncé of her day, and it is truly a tragedy that she is so freely forgotten in our own time. The superb performances in Marie and Rosetta will provide you with a Grade A concert in addition to an overdue history lesson, and plenty of ideas to research in the future. I think this is a great choice if you need something to do this weekend, and it's sure to sell out quickly. For more information or to buy tickets before Marie and Rosetta closes on December 30, click on this link. And for an extra treat, check out footage of the real Sister Rosetta in the video below.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Children's Theatre Company's How The Grinch Stole Christmas Remains a Classic + Give to the Max Day 2019

Sometimes things are even better the second time around. 

Photo by Dan Norman

Anyone who knows me even mildly well knows that I am not a re-visitor of pretty much anything. Movies, books, plays - I am almost always a one and done. There are so many new-to-me pieces of art out there that I haven't experienced yet (and want to!) that it always feels a little silly to spend time revisiting something I am already familiar with.

Photo by Dan Norman

I made an exception this year for Children's Theatre Company's (CTC) How The Grinch Stole Christmas (click here for my original review), and I'm here to tell you: it was #worthit. No one does Dr. Seuss like CTC and this was just the thing I needed to usher myself into the holiday season and get in the mood for Give to the Max Day.

Photo by Dan Norman

I won't recap the plot because 1) I'm pretty certain everyone knows it already and 2) you can just read my original review for a full re-hash. I will say that the full charm of this production remains intact one year later, thanks to the return of the superb cast and all of the delightful tricks that make this such a charming stage show. Reed Sigmund continues to be a marvel as the Grinch, with a low leering growl and thoroughly expressive face that perfectly embody this iconic character. The best part is watching his total mastery of the children in the audience, many of whom were well under 10 years old; Sigmund is a wizard at captivating their usually short attention spans, and you could have heard a pin drop as the show progressed. He had those kids laughing, gasping and playing games at the drop of a hat. He's so good, in fact, that he makes this performance look easy. I'm here to tell you that it's not easy at all, and major kudos to his expertise (and his partner in crime Dean Holt, who narrates the show with finesse as the Grinch's dog Max) in spreading the magic of live theater to new generations of kids every single night.

Photo by Dan Norman

The delightful special effects (let's be honest - the best part of any show like this) are back this year too and they tickled me just as much the second time around. The scene where the Grinch steals the Who's Christmas trappings is worth the price of your ticket alone - between the hilarious sports sketches, lighting effects, and incredibly creative ways of stuffing presents up the chimney (that include magnets and bouncy balls), it's one of the most iconic scenes I've seen in ages and certain to delight audience members of any age. Congrats to Peter Brosius for directing this show with such vision and finesse (and to choreographer Linda Talcott Lee for providing some nail biting choreography that carries a Jim Carrey physicality to it, one of the highest compliments I can give).

Photo by Dan Norman

My favorite part about seeing How The Grinch Stole Christmas this year was taking my parents, both of whom are educators who have a deep love for Dr. Seuss and had never been to CTC. Watching their pure delight in the excellence of this production and joy at the full engagement of the auditorium filled with young kids was all the holiday cheer I needed to raise my spirits. Dr. Seuss's stories resonate because they (and especially the morals they share) are truly timeless, and How The Grinch Stole Christmas is perhaps the most timeless of them all. With all of the chaos surrounding us these days it's always appropriate to remind ourselves of the importance of gratitude, joy and treating others with kindness and respect. And grown-ups: let this story be a lesson to you of the soul sucking powers of extreme negativity. Things are stressful for all of us right now, but don't be *that guy* ruining everyone else's seasonal cheer just because you're having a bad day. Grab an extra cup of eggnog, take a walk, and do a little extra act of kindness for your fellow humans to snap yourself out of it. After all, as Dr. Seuss himself says:

Maybe Christmas, he thought, doesn't come from a store.
Maybe Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more!

For more information about How The Grinch Stole Christmas and to buy tickets (either as a fabulous gift or a well-deserved #treatyoself moment), click on this link. Make sure to use the code INFLUENCER for 20% off of your tickets if you order before December 1!  A little fine print for those: Limit of 5 tickets per purchase. Not valid on preview performances. Not valid on VIP, Price Level C, previously purchased tickets or in combination with any other offer.  All sales are final, no refunds or exchanges.  Other restrictions and fees may apply.  Discounts are not transferrable.

Photo by Dan Norman

And before you go - today is Give to the Max Day! This is such a great opportunity to maximize any charitable donations you're making this year. There are tons of worthy arts and theater organizations that can be found by clicking here. For my shameless personal plug: please consider donating to Aeon, a group helping to fight homelessness here in the Twin Cities. I'm a member of their Young Professionals board and have my very own fundraising page up - click here to help me raise funds to keep more of our neighbors in housing through the cold winter that's coming upon us. 

Photo by Dan Norman

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Reveiewed in Brief: Waafrika by 20% Theatre Company + Saving Minnsky Theatre

I hate it when I'm late to the party... 

Photo Courtesy of Genesia Williams

But that was definitely the case at Waafrika last week. Unfortunately this little gem of a show is already closed - it was only on stage for a two week span - and I went late in the run with a friend. I wish I would have gone sooner, because there were so many great things to share with you!

Waafrika reminded me a lot of Cardboard Piano, a haunting new show at Park Square Theatre last season. It similarly tells a story of interracial queer love, this time set in Kenya in the early 1990s. Awino is the eldest daughter of a chief and chafes at the expectations put upon her by her tribe, especially regarding her sexuality. She falls in love with a local Peace Corps worker named Bobby and as word spreads of their romance life gets infinitely more difficult. Awino's father does what he can to protect her in the scope of his influence, but it's not enough - by the end of Waafrika, the tribe descends on Awino and Bobby and no action, no matter how drastic, is enough to save them.

The main difference I found between Cardboard Piano and Waafrika is that this time the show is written by and for people of color and queer people, and that difference really showed. The cast featured multiple trans and queer actors, only one white cast member, and an unabashedly direct story. This plot did not shy away from the dire consequences - which still exist to this day in many parts of Africa - that come from being proudly out in that region of the world. Characters endure female circumcision, rape and assault; thankfully, the cast did a masterful job of letting innuendo do most of the heavy lifting rather than graphically re-enacting these acts.

The striking thing about Waafrika that I keep ruminating on is how it was able to remain grounded despite the horrific circumstances in some of the scenes. This is a cast that clearly trusted each other implicitly; their connection felt genuine and I'd be willing to bet good money that several detailed conversations regarding consent were had before any love scenes entered the picture. There is also an implicit focus on beauty and goodness and intentional nuance. I can tell you with confidence that too many of the stories we see about Africa - or other areas designated as "third world" - focus solely on poverty and death and destruction. This is neither a fair nor honest representation of those regions. Imagine if all art about America focused solely on Flint's poisoned water system or the endless mass shootings we endure? It would hardly represent America as a whole. We do a great disservice to other people when we assume their lives can only be filled with bad things based solely on their zip code. In Waafrika, despite the hard circumstances these characters laugh, smile, reminisce, spark joy and just generally enjoy each other. Several direct asides address the audience on issues like female circumcision, complicating the running Western narrative that audiences bring to shows like this and forcing us to see such traditions through the characters' eyes. It was a refreshingly complex script that had a lot to offer, and I wish there was a clear way to share it with a wider audience now that it's closed.

This was also the first time I've been to Minnsky Theatre, a total shame since it's a total gem and is currently facing dire financial circumstances. One of the last spaces truly available to indie performers, it's definitely worth saving. The good news is - you can help with this! There's a fundraiser coming up on November 17 (more details by clicking here) to raise enough money to pay their outstanding debts. If you get a chance, please throw them a few spare dollars to keep their inclusive work going.

And I highly encourage you to check out the work 20% Theatre Company is doing. They always have unique stories to tell and performers who often don't get to star in other stages around town, and I promise you they're worth the trip. It's too late to see Waafrika, but you can click here to check out more about their mission and details about their next upcoming show in February 2019, Controlled Burn.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Hot Funky Butt Jazz Defines True Inclusion

"Folks always tryin' to kill what they can't understand, for whatever reason"

Photo courtesy of Interact
It's rare, but sometimes something comes at me so fresh and so unexpectedly that it takes my breath away.

I had the pleasure of just such an experience last weekend at Hot Funky Butt Jazz, a new musical by Interact theater on stage at the Guthrie's 9th floor studio space (meaning: $9 tickets to all performances!! #getatit). I went to the show because I love jazz and the hook of the plot - the real history of New Orleans jazz as told by infamous voodoo queen Marie Laveau - was just way too tempting to turn down. It was clear, however, that I was in for so much more from the very opening scene, depicting a second line jazz funeral for Laveau that included the most diverse range of faces and bodies that I've ever seen on stage.

If  I'd really done my research, this wouldn't have surprised me at all. This performance is put on by Interact, which "creates art that challenges perceptions of disability." The gorgeous array of humans in this performance certainly upholds that mission and provided so many delightful cameos. The cast is easily the largest I've ever seen in the black box space, as well as the most diverse. Performers ranged from able bodied to people with physical disabilities to people with downs syndrome and more, each a part of the story in a totally organic way that allowed their talents to shine. It was a pleasure to see everyone incorporated so naturally, almost at detriment to the plot at times (there are a lot of asides) - but it was fine, because everyone clearly had such a good time and brought such joy to the audience. This is also a show that takes intentional, responsible risks - such as honestly portraying the history of minstrelsy, Jim Crow dance and even black face without actually using black face - a fact which I really respected and a model I think other theaters who get caught up in being literal (but not always thoughtful) could learn from.

Photo courtesy of Interact

Hot Funky Butt Jazz wouldn't be possible without the spectacular talents of Zena Moses, who oozes swagger as Marie Laveau. Moses has a luscious contralto that comes straight from New Orleans' shores, and I could have listened to a solo concert of just her all night long. The additional musicians playing live - Jeremy Phipps, Eugene Harding, and Kymani Kahlil - do a great job of livening the stage with their bright instrumentation. The rest of the cast shares pretty equal time with one another despite its large size, but there were still a few additional standouts. Naa Mensah (featured in the first photo of this article) brings *all* the heat as Essie. She has several interludes of spunky dance solos that got the audience really engaged. And Messiah Moses Albert is totally charming as the adorable young Louis Armstrong. I hope he retains his interest in theater as he gets older.

I went to Hot Funky Butt Jazz expecting to hear some delicious jazz music, learn a few things I didn't know, and have a pretty standard night at the theater. Like jazz music itself, what I got was a far messier but more beautiful reality. The array of truly diverse performers having the time of their lives is something that will stick with me for a long time, and provided a new standard for what inclusive art really looks like. It's a fun performance that will teach you about the history of jazz music, have you in and out in less than 90 minutes, and spark all sorts of ideas about the unexplored possibilities in representation. It's a reminder that you can be responsible and truthful about the dark times of the past, and still engaging and positive all at the same time - and don't we need more of that attitude in the world? I think it's definitely worth scooting to the Guthrie to see this before it closes on November 18. For more information about Hot Funky Butt Jazz or to buy tickets, click on this link.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Just the Right Kind of Weird: Theatre Elision's Ghost Quartet

Fledgling artists take note: Theatre Elision's zany theatrics and guerrilla social media strategy is changing the game in #tctheater

Photo from Theatre Elision's website

How do you write a review about a show described like this: 

“Ghost Quartet” is a song cycle about love, death and whiskey from Dave Malloy, the Tony-nominated creator of the Broadway hit “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812.”  A camera breaks and four friends drink in an interwoven tale spanning seven centuries, with a murderous sister, a treehouse astronomer, a bear, a subway, and the ghost of Thelonious Monk.  The story draws from several fairy tales and "ghost stories", including Snow White and Rose Red, Edgar Allen Poe's Fall of the House of Usher, and One Thousand and One Nights (commonly known as Arabian Nights). There may also be some Princess Zelda references you might recognize. Cast members present the story and music as a "concept album" and accompany themselves on keyboard, violin, ukulele, guitar, mandolin, and percussion.  The audience may also be called upon for additional percussion and whiskey drinking.  

There's literally no way to sum it up! There's literally no way it should work! Who even comes up with such a thing? 

Turns out it's all Theatre Elision, and yes it works (swimmingly, in fact), and you'll leave this taut 90-minute performance happy but not entirely sure why. This fledgling theater company came banging straight out the gate for their first season last year and show no signs of slowing down. I'm so excited to see what they have up their sleeves for future productions, and I'm grateful that they are filling a niche we didn't even know we needed. There's no better time to check out their work than to see Ghost Quartet, showing at the North Garden Theater in St. Paul through November 3, and a perfectly strange way to celebrate Halloween this week. 

I honestly can't improve on the summation they have above - Ghost Quartet is truly that unique and plotless, there just really isn't an easy narrative to describe it with - so instead, check out this ordered steam of consciousness list of related sounds / images / etc. that I wrote as they performed that the various songs reminded me of: 
  • Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera
  • Pirates of Penzance / anything George Bernard Shaw
  • Witchy / gypsy vibes a la Stevie Nicks
  • Moulin Rouge?? 
  • Prairie Home Companion (but only episodes without Garrison Keillor)
  • Aladdin's "Arabian Nights"
  • Baz Luhrmann-esque spectacle
  • Sweeney Todd / Stephen Sondheim-meets-Tim Burton realness
  • Robert Plant / Alison Krauss's masterful duet album Raising Sand
  • Medieval madrigals
  • Social media guru Gary Vaynerchuck's strategy moniker, aka take your audience on a journey with you (this relates to the fact that the musicians engage the audience in playing various percussion instruments along with them on more than one song)
  • Swedish sister duo First Aid Kit 
  • Julie Taymore's Across the Universe
  • Prince-meets-the B-52's "Rock Lobster" style
  • Rufus Wainwright
  • Chris Thile in the Nickel Creek days

I mean it when I say that the above is the best conglomeration I can think of to describe this weirdly witchy and atonal show. Ghost Quartet defies description but ends up being so much more than the sum of its parts. I'm not really a spooky / Halloween-y person, but something about this was just mystical enough that it worked for me. It helps that these musicians are just so damn talented - Kellen McMillen, Quinn Shadko, Tristen Sima and Christine Wade are shockingly good performers, and without their expert musicianship there's no way this could work. Shadko in particular is a vocal marvel. I've seen her in a few other things before, but never realized what incredible vocal dexterity she has - her ghostly vocals on "The Photograph" are truly next-level, and her articulate versatility overall reminded me of a velvety Bernadette Peters. 

Theatre Elision produces taught, simple, eclectic pieces that always surprise me in how much I enjoy them. Their musical excellence is bar none, and it's fun to watch music nerds like the ones I grew up with have such a good time doing exactly what they clearly love (and were born) to do. The only drawback is their shows have pretty limited runs, so you'll have to work quickly to snag tickets. Ghost Quartet only runs through November 3, so make sure to click here to learn more and get in line before they are all snatched up - word on the street is their presale this year already outsold all of last year's run, and they've sold out at least one performance already. And make sure to tune in to Theatre Elision's bustling social media channels - they're on top of the online strategy game and there are lots of things we all can learn from their effective hustling. 

Monday, October 29, 2018

Reliving the Past with The Laramie Project

Here's to hoping history stops repeating itself. 

Photo by Shannon TL Kearns

It's always amazing to me how imperfectly progress on social issues is made. Causes will fight for decades on an issue with little to no improvement - or maybe even sustain severe setbacks - only to jolt society light-years into the future with a single strategic win in the courts or passing of a radical piece of legislation.

The slow pace of moving towards a better world is important to remember in times like these, when so many of us feel like we are slipping further and further into the dark ages. It's not uncommon for things to get worse before they get better, and a great way to remind ourselves of that is to pay tribute to the epochal moments that catapulted us forward in the first place.

To make an imperfect parallel as an example of such a moment: if the Stonewall riots were the LGBTQIA movement's iteration of Martin Luther King Jr.'s march to Selma (thanks to Marsha Johnson - whose name we all should remember vividly), the murder of Matthew Shepard might have been its Emmett Till. The persecution of LGBTQIA people has always been a part of our history - nothing proved that like the lack of urgency surrounding treatment and research for AIDS victims - so there isn't really a visible reason that Shepard's death should have resonated so widely. Yet, often it takes the mundanity of violence to finally reveal just how awful human nature is and how strongly it must be corrected. Reports of Shepard's last hours of suffering after a brutal beating, documented after a biker found Shepard zip tied to a fence and fatally abused, shocked and horrified the nation and marked the beginning of a shift in attitudes that culminated in passing civil rights protections based on gender and sexual identity, legalizing same sex marriage, and an ongoing national feud over protections for transgender people across the whole political spectrum.

The thing that fascinates me most about this is: why Shepard? Why do we care so much about him, specifically? Why not one of the other many thousands of LGBTQIA folks who have been hounded, killed, or assaulted over decades? I'm not sure anyone can ever develop a clear answer for this. The Laramie Project, part one of The Laramie Cycle and now under performance from Uprising Theatre Company, is probably the best attempt to frame Shepard's death in a way we can understand. It's a clear-eyed look at the tragedy through a collection of journal entries, interviews, and observations made by a theatrical team shortly after Shepard's death caught national attention in 1998. It's a fascinating show that reminds me a little of Season 1 True Detective, a foray into the world of #truecrime that gives us a far more nuanced view of middle America and the issue of violence against LGBTQIA people than we often hear elsewhere in the media. There isn't really a star or even a main character; instead, by collecting a wide range of perspectives about who Matthew Shepard was and what was so different about Laramie, Wyoming (the city in which he was killed), we get a telescopic point of view that might illuminate just why we can never take current freedoms for granted.

One of the things I like about Uprising Theatre Company is they always include a fresh face on stage. This is truly an ensemble cast, and they weave through the various narratives swiftly and delicately. There are several brand new actors to #tctheater performing here - Bruce Manning, Juliette Aaslestad, and Michael Novak all do a great job. Directors Sarah Catcher and Ashley Hovell expertly blend these fresh faces with more experienced performers like Tia Tanzer, Jessica Thompson Passaro, Seth Matz and Baku Campbell. The result is a cast with a wide representation, mimicking Laramie's surprising diversity and keeping each transition between monologues fresh. I really enjoyed these performers, who approach this difficult subject with finesse and a total lack of artifice that gives it a heightened emotional impact.

This impact is facilitated by the nearly nonexistent production design, which is essentially a collection of black boxes, a screen, and a few strategically chose small props. Combined with the simple lighting design from Jake Otto; intermittent projection design from Daniel Mauleon; and basic costume pieces that are easily changed between characters right on stage, it allows us to pay attention to the developing narrative and strips away anything that might distract from the purpose of The Laramie Project: Matthew Shepard's life and legacy in changing hearts and minds.

There couldn't be a better time to pull this show off; after all, this year marks the 20th anniversary of Shepard's death (almost to the day), and it feels like we receive daily stories of rights and protections, so recently won and so hard fought for, being stripped away with ease. It's easy to take for granted that the rights claimed by previous generations are an immutable certainty, but the fact is that we are always at risk of sliding backwards. Without intentional, consistent advocacy to continue to push our boundaries further we will never achieve the fair world that Matthew Shepard (and so many others like him) truly deserved. Learning about the people of Laramie, Wyoming and Shepard's life is one of the best ways I can think of to understand where we need to go to change hearts and minds and protect our LGBTQIA family. I enjoyed viewing this important piece of work, and I can think of no better tribute to Matthew Shepard than to stop by Plymouth Congregational Church to see this show (or its followup partner, The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later - you can see both as part of the full Laramie Cycle) before it closes on November 17. For more information or to buy tickets, click here.

And don't forget: if you want to know what you can do to protect rights already hard-won, it's pretty simple to start: Make sure you vote on November 6. Learn more about where and how by clicking here

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

MUST SEE: Children's Theatre Company's I Come From Arizona

If I could take a billboard out to make the world a better place, it would say something like: stop underestimating children. 

Photo by Dan Norman

I think we have a tendency to think that just because kids are small sized humans and have limited vocabularies that somehow they're not capable of comprehending the world around them. Therefore, we tend to not explain things, or to oversimplify them, and instead leave kids to make their own assumptions about what is happening. I think that is a patently bad idea.

One of the greatest tragedies of our current political chaos is that it's leaving children in a messy, unexplained space. They may not have the context to understand the nuance of what is happening, but they certainly know the basics - and it's not good for them. Schoolkids hear overhear television news, their parents talking, radio news, newspaper headlines, photographs, and all sorts of gossip from other kids at school; thousands of other children are literally stuck in political crosshairs - such as those who are still in detention centers, indefinitely left without their parents - and are even worse off. It's a mess.

Photo by Dan Norman

This is why I think the Children's Theatre Company's world premiere show I Come From Arizona is so incredibly brave, necessary, and another must see in the #tctheater community. Who is better poised to help provide children with context about the border crisis than those whose entire mission is literally to create "extraordinary theatre experiences that educate, challenge, and inspire young people and their communities"? It's the boldest show I've seen from this company yet, beautifully executed, and full of important subtext that isn't dumbed down but is still accessible to children. It provides kids with a framework to understand the issue of immigration and what it means to them, while still leaving the space to form their own perspectives.

Photo by Dan Norman

I Come From Arizona tells the story of a girl named Gabi as she learns about her family's legal status. Gabi is beginning school at the best public high school in Chicago just as her father leaves to visit his own father, who is dying. Gabi has always been told that her family is from Arizona, but she gets suspicious due to the mysterious circumstances of the trip her father takes. Thanks to a school assignment about family heritage in her global studies class, Gabi is forced to engage her mother about their past, ultimately revealing that rather than being American citizens as she has always assumed, Gabi's parents are undocumented. As she and her younger brother continue to hear reports about ICE raids - on the news and from friends whose parents are taken - the immigration crisis becomes terrifying and immediate. Gabi has to come to terms with her family's identity in a legal, safety, and emotional sense, and the show ends as her father attempts another border crossing to get back home to his children. It's a powerful, visceral ending that will linger with you long after the curtain closes.

Photo by Dan Norman

One of the elements I loved so much about I Come From Arizona is that it is unabashedly bilingual, effortlessly slipping between Spanish and English. It doesn't require you to have a knowledge of Spanish to understand, and I find it a testament to this great cast that they can move with such ease between both languages. Ayssette Muñoz is terrific as Gabi, guiding the story with a confident touch and a deep emotional range. She pulls you in with magnetic gravity, and I really enjoyed her performance. Luca La Hoz Calassara was impressive as Gabi's younger brother Jesús, channeling the mature subject matter with a skill far beyond his age. Nora Montañez was striking as Gabi's mother, especially with her beautiful monologue about the journey from Mexcio to the U.S. Shá Cage is terrific as Gabi's teacher Ms. Chan; her character's assignments are the driving force of so much of the plot, and Cage guides the audience through difficult conversations with empathy and finesse. The ensemble cast is full of similarly bright cameos, each with something to teach us and a smile to share.

Photo by Dan Norman

I also really enjoyed this production design, beginning with a spectacular mural. It anchors Yu Shibagaki's scenic design and provides a stunning focal point when paired with the evocative lighting design from Paul Whitaker. Trevor Bowen's costume design is straightforward and clever, and provides a full picture when compared with Victor Zupanc's sound design. We are fully enmeshed in Gabi's world from the very outset of the show; we feel her fear from her apartment as she babysits her brother, her anxiety traveling through the halls of a new school, her shyness as she boards a cross-Chicago city bus, all thanks to this great team. Congrats to the vision of director Lisa Portes, who packs a fully realized universe in less than two hours; I Come From Arizona is easily the best thing I've ever seen on stage about the issue of immigration, and thanks to Portes we are all able to join the conversation.

Photo by Dan Norman

I've always wondered if the immigration crisis continues because people can't visualize or personalize the issue, and I Come From Arizona places you squarely in the shoes of the people most affected. It forces you to look with both eyes wide open and ask: Are children really better off without their parents? Do we really want to deport American citizens to countries they've never known? Are parents really so evil for wanting to provide safer places for their children to live? Don't these kids deserve a fair opportunity at education and a prosperous life - the deified American dream - just as much as a child who was lucky enough to be born here to legacy American citizens? Are we really so stuck on technicalities that we can't see and value humans for being just what they are - other people with hopes and dreams, just like we have?

Photo by Dan Norman

I Come From Arizona will confront you with these questions and force you to witness the human toll of our current policies. It articulates what so many children are enduring right now and provides context for kids who are overhearing conversations about this issue. Although intended for kids age 8 and up, I think adults may be the people who need this show even more. As always, Children's Theatre Company does a beautiful job with their program, providing exercises to talk about the issue and engage further with the subject of immigration once you head home. I Come From Arizona is an honest portrayal of a complicated problem, which manages to tell the truth without taking obvious sides (there are characters in this show on both sides of the spectrum). It's a great piece of writing, an incredibly moving story, and one that can't help but compel you to action once you've seen it. I highly recommend this for grownups and children alike - please make sure to go before it closes on November 25. For more information and to buy tickets, click on this link; and if you want to help the families trapped literally between borders, please consider a donation to Raices by clicking here.