Thursday, March 29, 2018

Thrillist: The Best Easter Brunches in the Twin Cities

What to do on Easter when you've been eating boring Lenten food for over a month? 

Photo courtesy of Thrillist

Or more likely: if you're one of the rest of us undisciplined sinners and just want to on the year's best brunch day, where on earth should you go?

Have no fears, because: igotchu, fam. I did a roundup of the best Easter brunches for Thrillist (click here to see the article), and it's got a kickass list of a wide range of places in a wide range of locations to give you plenty of options to choose from. Even better? Most of these places still have amazing brunch even when it's *not* a holiday, so you can consider this your handy reference guide to brunch for the upcoming patio season.

And while you're at it, make sure to check out the other pieces I've written for Thrillist as well! Click on each title below to head to the article:


Easter is here, Lent is over, and it’s time to live it up. Whether you need to indulge after 40 days of sacrifice or just want an excuse to pig out, we totally have you covered. This list has options to please any mix of people on both sides of the Mississippi, from grandma to your niece to your best hangover buddy to maybe even a fun date. Whatever path you choose, just make sure: Don’t waste the opportunity to enjoy the best brunch day all year outside of Mother’s Day (but without all of the stress).

St. Paul Grill
Downtown St. Paul
Hobnob with St. Paul’s old-money families
Nothing says grandiose better than the hallowed gilt halls of the St. Paul Hotel. Treat your family to the finest downtown St. Paul has to offer with their extravagant brunch, which is beefed up for Easter every year. All of the Grill’s brunch options (which include savory waffles, lemon ricotta pancakes, and a lobster scramble, among other delicacies) come with a complimentary colossal caramel roll and white linen table cloths. #protip: ensure you make reservations ahead of time or you may not be able to find a table, as this is one of the hotel’s busiest brunch days of the year. You should make reservations on Open Table directly through the site.

Cast & Cru
Luxurious buffet mixed with live theater
If you want a side of opulence and some live theater for your Easter brunch, look no further than Cast & Cru. Gorgeous vistas with a pondside view isn’t all they serve. Brunchers can find a luxurious spread including prime rib, multiple kinds of scrambled eggs, bagels and lox, breakfast meats, omelets and eggs Benedict made to order, and even a build-your-own waffle bar. And if you’re dying for a full throttle Easter Sunday outing, head next door to digest during a matinee of the swinging, recently-opened Guys & Dolls at the Old Log Theater, the oldest theater in Minnesota. Easter brunch here is $30 a head and half that for kids. Call ahead at 952-767-9700 for reservations.

Wise Acre Eatery
Farm-to-table fare that lives up to the hype
"Farm-to-table" may be a tired buzzword these days, but Wise Acre Eatery will make it crisp again for you. With all ingredients sourced from their farm just outside the city, you are guaranteed to get the freshest food available. Winter salads, pot pies and a special hash including cornbread, fresh aioli, egg and herbs, and country ham all make appearances on the menu, in addition to many special treats such as house-made spicy ginger beer, hand-churned custards (which you can add fresh-brewed coffee to), and a perfect selection of locally raised meats and dairy products that let you take the party home with you. There are typically long lines for brunch, but Wise Acre prudently allows reservations for Easter and Mother’s Day -- make sure to schedule your reservations in advance by calling (612) 354-2577 to guarantee a seat.

Jax Café
Northeast Minneapolis
Easter brunch, but Mad Men-style
People have waxed nostalgic about the retro vibes of Jax Café for years, and for good reason: with the devastating demolition of the renowned Nye’s Polonaise last year (RIP), Jax is one of the last restaurants standing that does things the old way without a hint of irony. Easter brunch here is a little spendy at well over $40 each per adult, but you’ll get what you pay for: dishes include roast leg of lamb, pineapple glazed ham, seafood salad, poached salmon and a literal “carved steamship round of beefeaster.” And don’t forget -- you can’t buy this kind of period ambiance. Don Draper never had it so good. Make your reservations directly through their website.

Birchwood Café
No-reservation, veggie-forward brunch for the herbivores out there
Long before veganism was on Beyoncé’s radar, Birchwood Café was serving up vegetable-heavy noshes that converted even the most die-hard carnivores. Their brunch options are no different, including creative dishes like sambal-infused beans and rice, perfectly griddled savory waffles, a vegan rendition of biscuits and mushroom gravy stuffed with Cajun spiced-tempeh, and a plethora of burger options for every dietary need. No reservations are allowed during brunch hours (which go until 4pm), so make sure to get someone there early to snag a table for your crew.

Downtown St. Paul
Classic French cooking to fill you up all day
If your idea of Easter brunch is more eat-once-for-the-week than have a simple meal of eggs, we suggest you meander to Meritage in downtown St. Paul for a repas copieux experience. They have all of the standards of course -- eggs Benedict and crepes and brioche French toast among them -- but they also provide perfectly prepared French classics like cassoulet in multiple styles, moules frites, and the best croque monsieur this side of the Atlantic. Meritage is pulling out all the stops for Easter, with an extended brunch service from 10am to 3pm that will include a roasted leg of lamb with white beans, spinach and black olive oil. Their full bar will also provide you with a plethora of options if you’d like a fancy aperitif to prepare for the big meal ahead. Make reservations through their website or by calling (651) 222-5670.

Grand Café
An insta-worthy space with food to match
If somehow none of these options so far sound quite opulent enough for an all-out Easter brunch, try the Grand Café on for size. Menu items include sake bloody marys, a host of raw seafood options, and chicken liver donuts with glitter glaze (yes, this is in fact *a thing*). Throw some caviar or cacio e pepe dumplings in for good measure and you’re living it up Marie Antoinette style. With gorgeous sunny interiors and delicately plated goodies, your social media feed will never have it so good as it will at the Grand Cafe. Make reservations through Open Table or by calling (612) 822-8260.

Betty Danger's
Northeast Minneapolis
Toast to Easter from our signature riverfront Ferris wheel
Although Betty Danger’s hasn’t released an Easter-specific brunch buffet menu, we already know it will be a smashing success. The folks at Betty Danger’s have designed a regular brunch that is so over-the-top awesome that there’s no way they can screw Easter up. For under $20 (a steal!), diners at the Ferris wheel location can get an all-you-can-eat buffet including fried chicken and baby pancakes, and add on bottomless cocktails. The braver among us can take Betty’s “Brunching of Champions Challenge,” which provides a smorgasbord of all of the brunch buffet items plus a literal mini rotating Ferris wheel of burgers and bacon at your table. If your team of four can finish it on time, you are rewarded with a trophy filled with prickly pear slushy margarita and an endless amount of bragging rights. Slide on to Betty Danger’s to add a little extra fun to your Easter service. Make reservations through Open Table ahead of time.

Nicollet Island Inn
Nicollet Island
A Scandinavian-influenced tasting menu to start your morning
For something a little more reserved, head to the Nicollet Island Inn for Easter brunch. Their five-course tasting menu features Scandinavian stalwarts like smoked salmon cakes and Swedish meatballs alongside more cutting-edge offerings like toast skagens topped with poached shrimp salad and crème fraiche. If you’re not quite ready to give up your wintry hygge vibes, look no further: this Nicollet Island Inn Easter brunch is for you. Make Easter brunch reservations directly through their site or by calling (612) 331-1800.

Downtown Minneapolis
A low-key brunch for a low price, with a cocktail included
If you find yourself a little overwhelmed with the many decadent offerings listed here, feel free to temper yourself with a more reserved approach to Easter brunch buffets. Cosmos has all of the rich offerings -- carving stations, bread stations, French toast bread pudding -- as well as lighter fare, like a fresh spring salad, clean and vegetable-heavy side dishes, broiled whitefish and wild rice pilaf, and even a salmon and tuna crudo. Oh, and the buffet’s $38 flat fee includes a cocktail in the price. If you have plans for an active afternoon on Easter Sunday, this is definitely the brunch for you. Just be sure to reserve a table through the site or call ahead at (612) 677-1100.

Capital Grille
Downtown Minneapolis
Brunch, meet steakhouse
If you’re the kind of carnivore for whom no meal is complete without a red-blooded plate of meat, Capital Grille is your Easter brunch of choice. You can get your filet mignon or bone-in aged NY strip steak like any other self-respecting steak joint, but you can also find brunchified takes on classic surf and turf steakhouse dishes like a lobster frittata with truffle hollandaise or jumbo shrimp over white cheddar grits. Bottomless mimosas and bellinis are on offer too, providing an adult indulgence in addition to a respectable children’s buffet option. They really thought of everything, didn’t they? Make reservations directly online ahead of time.

Tongue in Cheek
East Side St. Paul
An aggressively silly, but nonetheless delicious, take on classic options
St. Paul’s East Side has never quite been the same since Tongue and Cheek moved in, and that’s a good thing. With saucy brunch dish names like Croque Hot Damn and Vegasm, you’ll laugh your way through the menu while easily fulfilling everyone’s dietary needs with a delicious culinary triumph. This is also the only brunch menu on this list where you will find proven hangover cures like bacon dashi ramen or steamed pork belly buns (#nojudgement), so choose your brunch wisely depending on your needs from the evening before. Tongue in Cheek also takes brunch reservations for parties up to 10, so you can guarantee a seat even for large groups -- if you plan ahead, that is. Make reservations directly online or by calling (651) 888-6148.

Pickup at the St. Paul Location
Have restaurant-quality Easter brunch... at home
Brasa has been killing it on the take-home front for years, and this Easter is no exception. If you plan ahead, you can order a swoon-inducing spread to pick up and enjoy at home with your crew. This year’s menu includes two kinds of glazed ham, greens with smoked chicken, candied yams, beet-apricot salad, honey-buttered corn bread and a full lemon buttermilk pound cake courtesy of The Buttered Tin. If that’s not enough goodness to have at home, consider swinging by the bakery side of Brasa’s sister restaurant Alma for freshly made hot cross buns, chocolate ginger tarts, everything bagel challah and more. This is the perfect option for introverts, but take note: you must call Brasa or order online ahead of time if you want to go this route, so get your ducks in a row beforehand.

Lyn 65
A special, new brunch menu with a full fried chicken section
Count Lyn 65 among the savvy restaurants who are succeeding in the competitive Twin Cities restaurant market by continuously keeping it fresh. Lyn 65 will be treating guests to a revamped brunch menu on Easter, which was co-developed with input from the entire staff. Standard breakfast items are on offer, but you really should go for some of their more unique dishes like a sunchoke-laden shakshuka, a vegetarian rice bowl, red chorizo frittata, or fragrant pork bone broth ramen. The menu also features a full standalone section for fried chicken (a deserved place of honor) and a curated, intriguing list of morning cocktails with healthy ingredients like avocado and celery bitters, so you can squeeze in some vegetables if your entrée is lacking a little green. Make reservations directly through Lyn 65's website.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Reviewed in Brief: Cochon 555 and 24 Hour Plays

This weekend was the weekend of a la carte. 

Chefs everywhere! 

I've been getting some great product sample offers lately (more to come in a forthcoming post!) which has been a really fun new venture for me. Something about being on the forefront of new technologies, new foods, and new ideas just appeals to me greatly.

The stuff I was up to this weekend, then - namely sampling a bevy of the best in food and drinks the Twin Cities has to offer, as well as a bunch of one-time-only theater performances - really fit within this theme. Let me break them each down for you:

Cochon 555

Everything pork and everything delicious. 

This event nearly snuck by me, but I was lucky enough to get a chance to attend and WOW - what a stellar show. If you're not familiar with the Cochon program, you can click here for the website. Basically, it was founded 10 years ago as a way to educate about and celebrate heritage breed pigs. It takes the form of a contest in which the top chefs of a chosen city are each given a pig and very short time frame to process it and cook six unique dishes. The public buys tickets to sample each dish from each chef and vote upon their favorites, and all proceeds are given to a farm sanctuary that raises and shelters heritage breeds of pigs. Many cities host a sommelier competition in tandem - the Minneapolis event did so as well as a party punch competition, both of which rocked - and everyone is treated to a culinary experience that really sparks innovation and exciting new ideas. Local winners are then catapulted to a national competition against the top voted chefs from other cities and receive a slew of really cool prizes like an all-expense paid trip to Rioja, Spain.

This year's competition was stiff; competing chefs included Timothy Fischer of Loew's Hotel; Daniel del Prado of Martina; Russell Klein of Meritage; Remy Pettus of Bardo; and Karyn Tomlinson of Corner Table. Tomlinson took home the prize (yay female chefs!!) with a menu of:

  • Swedish Meatballs with Sauce Supreme, Dill and Caviar; 
  • Blood Pudding with Crispy Cured Pork Jowl, Lingonberries and Lady Apple;
  • Sunday Ham Sandwich  with Milk Roll, Pleasant Ridge Mornay and Black Truffle;
  • Swedish Spareribs with Allspice, Apricot and Black Poplar Mushroom; 
  • Assorted relishes and Chicharron Toffee for the table and 
  • Apple Pie made with Lard Crust topped with Liver Ice Cream and Pancetta Caramel

Lucky me! I also got to sample the winning wine - which was a spectacular sparkling rose called Les Capriades, NV Méthod Ancestrale ‘Pynoz’ Rose from the Loire Valley, France and was chosen by another smart lady, Sommelier Erin Rolek of Bachelor Farmer - that totally made my night (literally the best wine I've ever had. I want to drink it in gallon buckets). My favorite punch of the night was not a winner, but the champion - Dustin Nguyen of Martina, who crafted a “Murakami Tea” combining milk-washed, tea infused Breckenridge Bourbon, makrut liqueur, spearmint, hibiscus, citrus and carbonated water - was certainly no slouch either.

It was a totally luxurious spread and I tried a ton of dishes I've never had before. The room was absolutely packed and it was so much fun to see local chefs be challenged and celebrated for their incredible work. My guy is a chef (so I get the inside scoop on this stuff!), and it was so refreshing to hear his excitement about an inclusive, judgement-free zone for people to get extra creative with their dishes. I think this is such a great idea and I'd love to see this happen with different kinds of foods - say an all vegan or vegetarian competition, seafood based, pasta, poultry, etc. Chefs of America, please unite and make this happen!

24 Hour Plays 

The next festival was the 24 Hour Plays. I attended the inaugural Minneapolis session last year - click here for more info - and it's interesting to realize how much an event can change based on who's involved. I mean objectively art always changes when different people are involved, but I felt that this year was such a leap (into being kind of a downer) from last year. There are many reasons this might be - my money lies squarely on our political climate, the specter of which was deeply embedded throughout these shows - but either way it just felt less fun than last year. There were still some great moments, but overall the tone was so much more somber, and it felt like the artists were a little more jaded than they otherwise might have been. This is a shame, but it can't be helped.

My favorite sketches were the last two in Act II - a riff on a mashup of Romeo and Juliet and a Shape of Water-style monster love story that only succeeded thanks to the tireless efforts of Tyler Michaels and Stephen Yoakam; and a Pink Panther-style kidnapping parody that started with a huge bang and a delightfully devilish Tony Vierling but unfortunately veered too quickly into overthinking itself. The standout of the first act was a somber, modern remniscence of The Wizard of Oz in which actors of color lost their voices and identities and had to seek them from a wizard; it had lots of potential and a super talented group of artists all around.

Either way, the 24 Hour Plays supports the great cause of arts education, and it allowed me to see my first ever Laura Osnes performance and discover the Hornheads, an absolutely spectacular small brass group that has me eagerly googling any and all upcoming gigs. It's always a delight to be in the Pantages, which is to my mind one of the most underrated venues in the Twin Cities, and it's awesome for these artists to have a chance to spin their creative wheels and try something risky and new. I do want to emphasize how HARD this is to participate in. Writing a play under the most luxurious of circumstances is difficult, but to fully realize something in literally a single day is a huge feat, and the fact that anyone is willing to even try it is miraculous. Even if I didn't find these to be masterpieces they are still a worthwhile and exciting endeavor, and a huge round of applause to all of the artists on and behind stage who donated time, sleep and sanity to move this program forward.

Monday, March 19, 2018

MUST SEE: Danai Guriria's Magnificent "Familiar" at the Guthrie

As an immigrant or a refugee, where does your allegiance belong? 

Photo by Dan Norman

Should you forget where you were born? Should you bide your time until you can return again? Should you try to assimilate where you have moved if you never intended to live there in the first place? Will you be left behind, and in which world? Who are you, really?

Photo by Dan Norman

These are some of the many complex questions asked in the marvelous staging of Familiar at the Guthrie Theater. Familiar is written by Danai Gurira, who most people have become familiar with through her role as the fearsome warrior General Okoye in the current global phenomenon that is Black Panther. Black Panther is a terrific movie, and no knocks against it or Gurira's performance - she's a knockout, and I loved the film - but it's a bit of a shame if that's all you know about her. Gurira's first real claim to fame comes through her work as a playwright, first on the Broadway hit Eclipsed, and then to subsequent plays, the most recent being Familiar. What you also may not know is that Gurira was born in Iowa and lived for several years in Minnesota, making her intimately familiar with this part of the Midwest, where Familiar is set. Gurira is an awe-inspiring writer, and the all-around excellence of Familiar is a testament to her sharp wit and a wisdom beyond her years. Ferociously funny, heartbreakingly poignant, and all around entertainment at its best, Familiar is a must-see and has shot to the top of my list of favorite shows of 2018 so far. 

Photo by Dan Norman

With two feet solidly packed in snow-laden Minnesota, Familiar tells the story of a family of Zimbabwean immigrants as they prepare for the marriage of their daughter Tendi to Chris, a white Christian boy from Minnesota. Tendi tries to surprise her mother by bringing her aunt Anne from Zimbabwe to perform a traditional marriage ceremony called roora (or loosely translated, "bride price") to honor her heritage - but everything goes terribly wrong the second Anne walks in the door. Through several hilarious circumstances, deep family secrets are revealed that change all of their lives forever. The plot twists are the best part of this show so I don't want to reveal any more, but just trust me - anyone will love this play. I was laughing so hard I was weeping by the end of Act I, and the entire audience leaped to their feet the second the curtains were drawn by the end.

Photo by Dan Norman

A spectacular cast is all you need to elevate this sound script to perfection, and Familiar has it. Shá Cage and Aishé Keita anchor the cast as sisters Tendi and Nyasha, respectively. They read just like real sisters, with dynamic personalities and a bruising fight in which neither holds back. Cage rips through a "sex" scene with joyful abandon and Keita surprises with some beautiful music towards the end of the show. Their parents Donald and Marvelous, played by Harvy Blanks and Perri  Gaffney, respectively, round out their family perfectly. Blanks has an exquisitely expressive face that conveys mountains without a word; he was one of my early favorites in the show, and he plays a vital role in navigating Familiar's emotional arch. Gaffney is stoic and steadfast in her part, and she does a wonderful job with the big reveal in Act II. Local legend Austene Van is saucy and gentle as Prof. Margaret Munyewa, one of Tendi's aunts; she is absolutely regal in this show, and I loved her mediating presence on stage. Wandachristine truly goes all out as the eccentric aunt Anne, bringing the tribal world to Minnesota with ironclad ambition. Quinn Franzen is great as the surprisingly likeable Chris; the open-minded example he sets throughout the family's roller coaster fight is a great example to follow. And Michael Wieser gives perhaps the most shockingly delightful performance as Chris's brother Brad; his character is just the touch of spontaneity that keeps the action unpredictable, and Wieser milks his part to the fullest from the second he steps in the room.

Photo by Dan Norman

I was a little underwhelmed with the production value overall, but that's ok - this play doesn't really need to be over-the-top. The scenic design by Adam Rigg looked to me like a mashup of Park Square's Dot and the Guthrie's own Blithe Spirit from last year - it was fine, but not particularly inspiring. I did enjoy the vibrant costumes from Karen Perry, which were pitch-perfect and really helped delineate the characters. Major props go out to the vocal coaches Lucinda Holshue and Kecha Nickson, who clearly worked hard to get the cast's accents right - especially the lines spoke in Shona. And I also want to specifically commend Marcela Lorca, who worked with the cast on some of the incredibly intimate physical choreography. It's clear that these actors trust each other and know exactly what they're doing, resulting in a great performance but also a good experience working with each other, and that's work to be celebrated. Bravo overall to the direction from Taibi Magar, who just knocked this play out of the park. The vision from start to finish is excellent, and it's a fabulous way to bring Familiar home to Minnesota.

Photo by Dan Norman

What made Familiar so special to me was the way it captured life as an African immigrant in America, and the completely separate - but equally difficult - questions that each generation wrestles with while living here. I have a window into that world through my in-laws. Their story is not mine to tell here, but I will say that Familiar nails so many aspects of what that experience is like. The biggest question, "Where do I belong?", is certainly not unique to African immigrants, but it is a very important one and something that is more starkly drawn in a state like Minnesota, where so much of our general population is homogenously white and removed from their European immigrant roots. Are you a traitor for leaving your country behind? What obligations do you have to your roots back home, especially your extended family? What about the children who are born here and know no other life - where do they fit? Are painful memories best left buried? What about when your children start marrying people of different faiths and cultures - how do you preserve your cultural heritage without alienating them or their new partners?

Photo by Dan Norman

Familiar has every element of great art - you will laugh until you weep, audibly gasp in shock and surprise, lean forward into difficult conversations, clap with applause at the hard truths that are honestly said, and celebrate the deserved recognition of just how much our immigrant neighbors struggle with sacrifice and identity every day. It's a masterpiece, and one that I strongly urge everyone here to see. Familiar opens a fresh, vital perspective not just on cultural elements we all take for granted here in Minnesota, but onto the deep, endless, painful struggle that all of our refugee and immigrant neighbors are grappling with every day. It tells this struggle with light and humor and strength and dignity, and that is the best way I can think of to deliver this important message. To see a perfect play (and learn a lot in the process), ensure you click here to get your tickets to Familiar and learn more about the show.

Photo by Dan Norman

Friday, March 16, 2018

Healing a Nation with The Great Divide II

Pillsbury House Theatre's latest series is original, local, and a true product of our times

The show comes with several interactive elements like a quiz on the truthiness of news headlines and a vote of confidence in different media sources - brilliant stuff. 

Is there anything that can get our sharply divided political parties to cross the bridge towards each other?

It's so easy these days to feel like compromise is dead, forgiveness is nonexistent and everyone is going batshit crazy. Amid the deafening din of voices screaming endlessly into the yawning political void, it's very easy to feel like there isn't a single person out there just listening anymore.

The Great Divide II at Pillsbury House Theatre, a sequel to last year's The Great Divide, is attempting to change that - at least a little. Pillsbury commissioned five local playwrights - some of my favorites! - to write short plays around this theme of political dissonance and our so-called "post-truth" (RIP) era, attempting to find some clarity in the mess. It's an ambitious project with mixed success, and I really admire the attempt to try to sort us all out.

Photo courtesy of Pillsbury House Theatre

The plays written are by Jessica Huang, Stacey Rose, Tim J. Lord, Christina M. Ham, and Andrew Rosendorf, respectively. All are acted by a tight-knit cast of four, including Tracey Maloney, Audrey Park, Mikell Sapp, and Ricardo Vázquez. This is a talented crew altogether and the cast is the perfect choice to reflect these plays. They each take a turn in the spotlight and play a variety of roles swapping genders, motivations and back stories. It truly enhances the understanding of how trivial so many of our perceived differences (or casting choices tbh) are - honestly, are assumptions about people with a variance in skin color really the thing we want to hang our ideological hats on? - and it allows these strong actors a chance to really shine and make the most of the material.

It feels weird to write a "traditional" review of this show, so instead I'm going to summarize each short play with a couple of my thoughts:

Photo courtesy of Pillsbury House Theatre

The Journalist's Creed: (Actual) Emails from a (Brief) Career in News by Jessica Huang: 
It took me a while to sift this one out and I think I'm still sifting. I assume this is somewhat autobiographical based on the title and the feel of the show, but it was a little hard to follow. The same stylistic choices that are performatively delightful - for example the emphasis on spelling out asides such as "dot dot dot" (aka the etc. dots you see in punctuation like this --> .... ) - also make it a little hard to follow the action because so much has been redacted, literally. When it begins it feels edgy, but transitions into confusion. Still I think this really conveyed the mass turmoil that has roiled the journalism industry and helps shine a light on how little due diligence journalists are able to perform anymore. Strong independent journalism is a vital function of a democracy but it's been under attack, and losing, for years now. It's going to take a lot to bring it back from the brink.

Photo courtesy of Pillsbury House Theatre

Sven, Ole & The Armageddon Myth by Stacey Rose: This was the biggest surprise. Stacey Rose was new-to-me completely and I am totally seeking out her work from now on! This was super creative, almost a drug-fantasy-murder-mystery, and it kept adding twists and surprises that had me guessing and engaged. There's a lot of plot development despite the short length, and it was unexpectedly quite funny. The overall vibe was to me something of a reverse-Get Out - my partner disagreed and thought it more related to American Psycho - but either way, this was really fresh and inventive, and I enjoyed it a lot. It felt a little disconnected from the overall theme of "news," instead focusing more on the general overt hostility afflicting the American populace, but I didn't mind and would happily watch it again.

Photo courtesy of Pillsbury House Theatre

Wild Creatures by Tim J. Lord: This had something of a feminine, mystical energy that was interesting coming from a dude writer. It also had a bit of a murderous bent to the plot (a theme?). I got a little bit lost in the legend Wild Creatures was trying to create. I think it was trying to do some sort of high level fantasy about Hilary Clinton, very abstractly so, but I can't be sure. It was definitely entertaining, and I enjoyed the weirdness of the narrative - I'm just really not sure how this one tied directly into the theme. I'll keep thinking about it.

Photo courtesy of Pillsbury House Theatre

Mt. Rushmore by Christina Ham: Christina Ham was the main draw for me to see this anthology and she delivered. I thought this was the most fully fleshed story and provided the most context for the conversations my POC friends are having right now about politics. The story centers around a mixed group of friends who go to visit Mt. Rushmore and have a frank, and frankly uncomfortable, conversation about the legacy of the presidents we've enshrined there. It has a lot of heat and a lot of nuance packed into a short space, and I could definitely see this expanded into a larger work (maybe even combined with Stacey Rose's piece? It would be super interesting!).

Photo courtesy of Pillsbury House Theatre

Breathe by Andrew Rosendorf: This was the most abstract of the pieces. It again wandered away from the central theme of news, but the tangential focus to climate change and modern environmental movements was different from the others and still enjoyable. It features some really striking puppet work from three of the actors who tag team to embody a giant polar bear (with a shocking amount of nuance, I might add - it was a really gorgeous effect), who pleads with a wandering hiker to help her find food so she can regain strength to feed her cubs. There is no polar bear food in Minnesota, of course, and the polar bear is sore outta luck. It was a surprisingly emotional story, and I thought it did a nice job of embracing nature's perspective on the hot mess humans have made of the planet without getting too cutesy or cartoony.

Overall, this is a really inspiring body of work! Between the playwrights, actors, DJ and production team you are able to see some really exciting and up and coming artists in The Great Divide II. I think continuing to try to be of-the-moment in our reflections of art is a really important thing to do these days, and this was a pleasantly short, accessible way to get my juices flowing. If you want to see something totally new and unique and that may help you make sense of what is happening (or at least feel like someone "gets it"), hit up The Great Divide II at Pillsbury House Theatre before it closes on March 25. Click here for more information or to buy tickets.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Chanhassen Dinner Theatre's Newsies Is Timely and Terrific

Few things are more powerful than an idea whose time has come. 


It's been a little over two years since I saw Broadway's rendition of Newsies at the Orpheum (read original review here). It was the first opportunity I'd had to see the show live, and I greatly enjoyed it - but what a difference two years can make.


At the time I first saw Newsies, the primaries for the presidential election were just gearing up; there was no Women's March or Parkland Students or #resistance; and the seeds of our current collective discord were just beginning to be sown. I won't re-hash the intricacies of Newsies' plot - you can click here to read my initial summary for a low-down - but suffice it to say, there seems to be far more current parallels between the Chanhassen Dinner Theatre's (CDT) excellent new production of Newsies and our current state of affairs than was true in 2016. Themes of social justice, collective resistance, the David vs. Goliath battle between capitalism and the people who serve it reverberated powerfully throughout the audience, and Newsies' inspiring end led to a collective sigh of relief and gratitude by the end of the show.


This new staging is perfect case of right cast in the right parts at the right time, beginning with Aleks Knezevich in his most star-turning role to-date. Knezevich is born to play the part of Jack Kelly, with an inimitable Noo Yawhk accent and a charming swagger. His gorgeous voice soars through songs like "Santa Fe" and "Something to Believe In," and he had the whole audience swooning by the end of Act I. Ruthanne Heyward makes a lively partner for Knezevich as Katherine Pullitzer, an undercover reporter who sheds light on the newsie strike. Heyward shares her trademark pluck in this role, and she and Knezevich have great chemistry. An even better vocal pairing for Knezevich is the glorious voice of Alan Bach as Davey, co-leader of the strike. I'm not sure if I just wasn't paying attention to him in past productions or what, but Bach has a terrific voice that feels made to sing these songs - especially the rousing solo in "Seize the Day."


Tanner Zahn Hagen is one to watch and a CDT newbie as the young Les, and he has a bright future ahead. Kersten Rodau has a standout solo as the vaudevillian Medda Larkin, and I wish we had more of her throughout the show. Keith Rice is similarly scene-stealing in his quick cameo as Teddy Roosevelt, and Lucas Wells is fabulous as Crutchie, with a heartrending solo on "Letter From the Refuge." The rest of the ensemble features several exciting young new artists, and their electric dancing and exquisite harmonies soar through the score (my faves? The thoroughly magnetic "The World Will Know" and hum-inducing "Seize the Day").


The costumes, designed by Rich Hamson, are spot-on to the time period and don't get in the way of the marvelous choreography by Tamara Kangas Erickson. I've always thought of Newsies as a more dance-heavy show and I was not disappointed; with the amount of spins and flips and grand jetés on this stage, we could almost be back at the Olympics! The scenic design from Nayna Ramey is quite understated and has the heaviest usage of projection I've seen in a CDT show, which made me simultaneously bummed out and fascinated with the series of historical photos they scrounged up to share. The sound design from Russ Haynes is a perfect blend between voice and the orchestra, beautifully directed by Andrew Bourgoin. And clever lighting design from Sue Ellen Berger allows actors to seamlessly slip in and out of the spotlight, keeping the feel of the show at a brisk pace.


I can't think of a better way to kick off CDT's 50th anniversary season (yes, 50 years - such an incredible achievement!) than this beautifully rendered production. Anyone who knows me knows that I have a huge soft spot for stories like Newsies. I love to see examples of the collective power of united citizens triumphing over overwhelmingly bad odds. Strikes like the Newsboys' Strike and the March of the Mill Children, the true stories that provide the foundation for the plot of Newsies, are some of our nation's best such tales, and it's never a bad time to revisit the lessons they contain. So many of the workplace benefits we enjoy today - like 40 hour work weeks, weekends off or paid national holidays - are directly correlated to collective action and union bargaining, and it's no coincidence that we have seen workers rights trampled as the state of unions has collectively decreased. Maybe it's time for us to seize our own day and fight for more rights - if Newsies can't inspire you to harness your power as an American citizen, nothing can. The terrific Newsies runs at CDT through September 29; for more information or to buy tickets, click on this link.


Wednesday, March 7, 2018

School of Rock Hits All the High Notes

When is the last time you indulged your inner rebel? 

Photo by Matthew Murphy

You know the one - the one that told you not to come into work today, or to sleep in a little later, or to skip the pleasantries and really be honest about how you feel?

Photo by Matthew Murphy

For most of us, it's probably been a little bit too long. As we grow older and get deeper into our careers and the responsibilities pile up, we can - and often do - easily lose the rebel magic that made our younger years so exciting. In that context, it's always timely to remind ourselves of the importance of re-evaluating our overloaded lives and making sure we have time to do things that we truly love and inspire us. For that reminder, there is no better place to look than School of Rock, now showing at the Orpheum Theater.

Photo by Matthew Murphy

Based on the film of the same name starring Jack Black, School of Rock tells the story of Dewey, a freeloading, couch potato "rock star" who is on his band, roommate Ned, and Ned's girlfriend Patty's very last nerves. He is simultaneously kicked out of his band and threatened with eviction on the same day, so what does he do? Impersonates Ned to get a job substitute teaching at a nearby prep school in hopes of making enough money to make that month's rent. The stuffy halls of Horace Green are initially a horrible fit, but once Dewey learns the students are musically gifted he realizes he has one last shot at stardom - turning the kids into a rock band to make a last ditch effort at winning the upcoming Battle of the Bands contest. Under the school's radar, Dewey turns the kids into rock stars, unleashes their creativity, and along the way develops a romance and - gasp! - responsibility. The show ends with the students performing at the Battle of the Bands and giving a concert that no one will soon forget.

Photo by Matthew Murphy

It's a funny and heartening story, which is totally sold by the (huge!) cast. Rob Colletti truly channels Jack Black in his role as Dewey, not only displaying a tubular set of pipes but the quirky sense of humor that makes Dewey such a loveable character. Lexie Dorsett Sharp brings a Christina Hendricks-meets-Linda Ronstadt vibe to her role as Principal Rosalie, with a haunting solo in "Where Did the Rock Go?" and rich insight into a character who could have otherwise easily become a parody. The kids in the band are absolutely stellar - yes, they do play all of their own instruments live - and knock the show out of the park. It was such a treat to watch them "grow" on stage, and they make School of Rock truly special. A shoutout too to whomever decided to cast the "parents" of this show - they intentionally display interracial families, same-sex parents, involved fathers and more. It was a subtle but refreshing message of progress, and I really appreciated the unironic way those modern families were presented. As progressive as the casting is, there are a couple of hiccups in the script itself - some unsavory jokes about weight and implications for trans characters among them - and I hope they can fix those to make this more inclusive as School of Rock continues to tour.

Photo by Matthew Murphy

The set almost magically weaves in and out through a dizzying series of stages, from the vaunted halls of the school to Dewey's bedroom to a dive bar and concert halls. It's efficient but still evocative, and I appreciated the efficiency of the design. The costumes are mostly school uniforms and pretty straightforward, but I did enjoy the creative twist made on the uniforms by the end. The lighting design is really fun and brings you straight into a rock show from the get-go. The choreography was fresh and youthful, and despite clocking in at around a three hour run time, the show never feels slow or boring.

Photo by Matthew Murphy

I was really surprised how moved I was by School of Rock. I come from a family of music educators, and it was so touching to see that role truly celebrated on stage. Dewey might be an accidental (and highly unorthodox) teacher, but he intuitively understands the most important role of that profession: it's not test scores or homework or parent teacher conferences, but creating and supporting an environment where children can grow and thrive. Structure is great, but it's not everything.

Photo by Matthew Murphy

In an age where the value of keeping arts in schools is constantly under attack, School of Rock has a very important message to share. It's important for kids - and adults too! - to have a place to explore their creativity and learn about themselves. Abstract thinking is an important skill to develop and imagination is not a waste of time. Music can give a voice to those who otherwise struggle to speak up, and it has so many benefits beyond the concept of play. We've gotten so wrapped up in test scores and over-scheduled activities that we've forgotten to just let kids be kids. Busyness can be just as much a sin as sloth, and it's important to let your hair down once in a while and let loose. Don't always take things at face value; challenge the ones that don't make sense and, as they say, stick it to the man.

Photo by Matthew Murphy

School of Rock touches on so many important themes about the power of youth and the bright futures we will all have if we can just learn to get out of their way. We live in a time when children are leading the way on many important issues - thank goodness they've found their voices. Should we -will we? - listen? School of Rock has a great answer for that. For more information or to buy tickets, click on this link.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Park and Lake Hits All the Sweet Spots

What if I were to tell you... 

Graphic by Ten Thousand Things

...That there is a show penned by a local female playwright that is set entirely in a car wash, features a highly eclectic spectrum of characters, and it's totally fabulous?

I would be describing Park and Lake, the terrific new play on offer from perennial favorite Ten Thousand Things. The show's concept is relatively simple: an immigrant car wash owner receives an offer he can't refuse when a major corporation offers to buy his property. He plans to accept, but the employees who depend on his employment will be completely left behind. The motley crew refuses to accept their fate and bands together to make every effort to buy the car wash themselves and transform it into an inclusive, economically responsible space that takes better care of them and the whole community. There are two possible endings - this is a choose-your-own-adventure story, so each audience sees a different show depending on the choice - so I can't tell you how it turns out, but suffice it to say I really enjoyed the ending at the production that I saw, and it gave me a lot of hope for the future to see the whole room get on board with it.

The cast was involved in creating their characters and it's clear that they really love what they collaboratively developed. There is something in the water at Ten Thousand Things that brings out the full charisma of each performer, and it was truly a delight to watch this cast "click." This starts with Kimberly Richardson as the delicious Jack, an understated, kind soul who is most affected by the possible closing of the Park and Lake car wash. George Keller is saucy and inspiring as the assistant manager Lolly, and it's easy to imagine her leading a protest. Karen Wiese-Thompson is hilarious as Pony Boy and brings a poignant perspective to what could have been a stereotypically butch role. Pogi Sumangil sets the stage as car wash owner Manny, and his guidance expertly leads the show. Luverne Seifert brings his best cultish axe-murderer persona to the role of Dale Selby and Thomasina Petrus swans through as the musician Teela. Stephen Cartmell is absolutely hilarious as Greeken, the resident octopus interpreter (don't ask; just watch the show and you'll know what I'm talking about), and H. Adam Harris expertly provides the show's intellectual foundation as J, the car wash world's biggest James Baldwin fan.

There are lots of detail-oriented production decisions that really elevate Park and Lake, starting with the awesome musical accompaniment provided by Theo Langason. Langason expertly weaves a bevy of sound effects throughout the show that animate the story and provide an extra, delightful touch of whimsy. The clever costumes from Trevor Bowen and props from Nancy Waldoch paint a surprisingly full picture of the world of the car wash, and it's a joy to see the many creative ways the cast engages with their work.

Park and Lake is really successful because it provides the best of what comedy can offer: a hilarious, inventive set of performances tied to real-life issues. Park and Lake doesn't shy away from addressing tough problems like addiction, poverty, exploitation of workers, immigration, capitalist expansion and abusive relationships, but it is able to honestly relate those stories with a smile and a laugh. The light touch removes the fear the audience might otherwise have in directly addressing these issues, and it's a really successful experiment in getting people to practice participating in devising solutions to such major problems. As usual, Park and Lake features excellent performances from the Ten Thousand Things acting crew, and it's sure to delight any audience. There is only one more week to attend this so make sure to click here to get tickets - they are selling fast!

Princess Ida is Practically Perfect

The Gilbert & Sullivan Very Light Opera Company brings precision and sass to this timely piece. 

Photo by Stephen Hage

How much do you know about Gilbert & Sullivan

If you're a fan of musicals you've likely seen the Pirates of Penzance at some point in your life, but did you know that Gilbert & Sullivan actually penned 14 operattas? The definition of dynamic theatrical duos long before Rogers & Hammerstein came onto the scene, Gilbert & Sullivan have a mostly fabulous catalog of works (although not without some deserved controversy; read: The Mikado) that were true parodies of British culture and politics in their heyday. What has surprised me upon recently re-encountering some of these works is how well several of them have aged. It's a treat to see something well over 100 years old still generating conversation and laughter; done well, a Gilbert & Sullivan production can be a sharp addition to any theatrical season today. 

I was delighted to attend my first such production, Princess Ida, from The Gilbert & Sullivan Very Light Opera Company (GSVLOC), a longstanding local tradition that was regrettably new to me! I came expecting to see some enthusiastic fans indulging their love of this genre and quickly realized that I had thoroughly underestimated this group. The production opens with a powerhouse orchestra and a full throttle chorus that keeps the pedal on the gas throughout the rest of the show. Despite two intermissions (normally a hard no for me), the entire production clocks out in a bit shy of two and a half hours, keeping the action moving reasonably quickly and the audience engaged. 

Photo by Stephen Hage

Most of that engagement is thanks to the story, which has aged surprisingly well. Princess Ida tells the story of the marriage of Prince Hilarion and Princess Ida - or rather, the lack thereof. Ida and Hilarion were betrothed at the age of 1 and 2, respectively, and it has been 20 years since their engagement. On the day she is promised to marry, Ida does not appear with her father King Gama in Hilarion (and his father King Hildebrand's) court. We learn that she has determined to live a life completely free of men and has barricaded herself into a castle and university, where she only accepts (and leads) a cadre of female students. Determined to get his bride at any cost, Hilarion sneaks into the university and finds that he quite likes Ida as well as the work she does. It takes some time for Hilarion and his compadres to be discovered - long enough for his father Hildebrand's army to come calling for Ida's hand with force - and by the time the final conflict arrives, parties on both sides of the issue have begun to reconsider their former positions. The show ends with some surprisingly feminist statements from Hilarion, an ensuing agreement from Ida to marry him, and overall the happy Gilbert & Sullivan ending that has pleased audiences for 130+ years. 

One of the things that sold me on Princess Ida out of the gate was the gorgeous, steampunk inspired production design. Hats off to Set Designer Larry Rostad; Costume Designer Barb Portinga; Props Designer Katie Philips; and Stage Director Joe Andrews. There was a clear vision for this show from the get-go, and everything from the cork bottle goggles to the clever corset and blind-drawn skirts to the sci-fi inspired laser guns is both witty and satisfying to watch. The cohesive presentation makes watching this Princess Ida almost feel like you're participating in a clever fin de siecle video game, and several adroit lighting tricks from Lighting Designer Alex Flinner (such as the ship projection "sailing" between territories during the overture) really enhance that effect. 

Photo by Stephen Hage

The other major selling point? This is a terrific, musically powerhouse cast. I was stunned from the second the music started at how excellent it was - from the full orchestra to the giant chorus, there isn't a weak link in this bunch. Normally I try to list out favorites and I'm not going to do that here, as the size of the cast and orchestra would make this post book-length! Just trust me overall: you are in very, very good hands when it comes to this show, and any musical aficionados will find many things to appreciate. I hadn't realized how much I've been craving a traditional orchestral musical experience and Princess Ida really fulfilled that need for me! This crew was blowing the walls off their small theater, and you will be immersed in a lush aural experience from start to finish. 

I've been on a tear lately attending shows by new-to-me companies in the Twin Cities (like Uprising Theater and Open Eye Figure Theater), and it's been so fun! My time with GSVLOC was a perfect addition to this series and I'm so glad I attended. Princess Ida was a new-to-me show and it really blew me away. I loved this production and I will definitely be back for future shows. I'd encourage anyone to see Princess Ida - come for the gorgeous music, stay for the inventive production design and modern storytelling. The show is on through March 25 at the Howard Conn Fine Arts Center, so you only have a couple more weeks to check it out - click here for more information and to buy tickets