Wednesday, June 27, 2018

A New Take on Phantom in Love Never Dies

Sometimes, all you want is a good B-list sequel. 

Photo by Joan Marcus

I was raised on the original Phantom of the Opera Broadway soundtrack. At 12 years old, when I got my first boombox #datedmyselfalready, I owned three CDs: Celine Dion's greatest hits; Barbra Streisand duets (including a glorious one with Michael Crawford himself); and The Phantom of the Opera soundtrack. I must have blown through that CD hundreds of times, entranced with Crawford and Sarah Brightman's expressive, lush vocals. It helped spark my interest in real operas and is a show I've loved returning to through the years, particularly the excellent 25th anniversary redesigned production (click here to read my review of the show last December).

Photo by Joan Marcus

So when I learned that there was an Andrew Lloyd Webber-penned sequel, I wasn't sure what to think. Would it ruin the original for me? How could it possibly live up to its predecessor? Do we need another Phantom story? How could it feel fresh when the original story felt so exhaustively explored already?

Photo by Joan Marcus

I'm happy to say that Love Never Dies, now showing at the Orpheum, is actually pretty enjoyable. I'd liken it to the Brendan Fraser Mummy movies of the late 1990s - not classics, not profound, but genuinely enjoyable and full of enough quality to keep you interested. I don't want to give away too much of the story as I approached it with totally fresh eyes and was genuinely surprised by the ending, but a brief summary goes thus: It's been 10 years since the dramatic events of The Phantom of the Opera. Raul has gone totally broke and Christine comes out of musical retirement to perform in America to earn enough money to pay their debts and care for their son. It turns out that years before, the Phantom escaped to America with Madame Giry and her daughter Meg in tow and has since been holding court on a dark corner of Coney Island. Once the Phantom learns Christine is nearby he of course cannot help but try to entrance her all over again, and the ensuing action totally rearranges our previous understanding of the relationships between these main characters.

Photo by Joan Marcus

I found the music pretty, interesting and different from the original while still holding that eerie Phantom feeling. It almost felt a little oriental at moments (that Mummy movie vibe all over again), and there are a couple knockout songs on the show (including "Devil Take the Hindmost," a dark duet between the Phantom and Raoul, and the stunning flagship song "Love Never Dies"). There are several real-life opera performers in this cast, a wise choice that allows each aria-like song to truly soar. Gardar Thor Cortes is glorious as the Phantom; his expressive and wide ranging tenor is beautifully paired with the lush baritone tones of Sean Thompson as Raoul, and their duet was a highlight for me. Meghan Picerno's soprano is a total knockout as Christine Daae, and she can act too. Picerno gives a rich performance throughout the show and has great chemistry with both male leads; she really hits new heights in the second act, which was much more interesting than the first and included her glorious solo on "Love Never Dies." The true star of the cast is young Jake Heston Miller as Christine's son Gustave, who is spectacularly talented and knocks his role out of the park. Miller has the falsetto of angels, and he is very impressive for being so young. The roles of Madame Giry (played by Karen Mason) and Meg Giry (Mary Michael Patterson) are played with equal strength; there really isn't a vocal weak link in the cast, a pleasure since these latter roles often feel like they receive less attention at casting calls. Mason and Patterson have great chemistry and their layered acting really helps this sequel feel fresh, a feat for building off of such a well-known story.

Photo by Joan Marcus

The set is much simpler than that of the thrilling revival of the original, which was a bit disappointing but also not that big of a deal. It mostly consists of various frameworks to give the suggestion of Coney Island without being cumbersome, and it's effective if relatively uninspiring. There are a few titillating moments where we get some magical Phantom sightings, but the main showpiece was the revolving stage. The constant motion made the otherwise simple set feel much bigger than it was, and there is some impressive choreography that really utilizes the full capabilities of that stage. The costumes are beautifully colored and have some lovely detail; I wish I could have seen them more up close, especially some of the gowns worn by Meg and Christine. Check through the pictures I posted here and you'll see what I mean.

Photo by Joan Marcus

Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by Love Never Dies, and it continues to grow on me after the curtains closed. At intermission I was feeling decidedly tepid about it; the second act really redeemed the show overall and made me more engaged. Since I saw it I haven't been able to stop humming along to the tunes, and I have a feeling that the more time I have to sit with Love Never Dies' lyrical orchestration, the more I'll like it. If I had my druthers I'd still make some edits - I think they could cut a few first act songs and shorten it to run without an intermission in a way that would really strengthen the story and make the pacing feel a bit quicker - but it's not at all bad as it is. If you love the original Phantom of the Opera and want to see something that will leave you happy and satisfied (like a boring but delicious chocolate chip cookie), I think Love Never Dies fits the bill. Hurry to go if you plan to, because it closes on July 1; click here for more information or to buy tickets.

Photo by Joan Marcus

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Perfect Non-Boozy July 4 Treats + June-only Hotel Deals

When the world heats up, you need something to cool you down. 

Who loves supporting #Minnesota business? 

One of the joys of being a blogger is that occasionally someone offers to send you product samples. These can be hit or miss, but there have been a few I've tried in the past few months that have been really special, and I have to share them with you! I have vetted each of these brands and they are things that I love to support with my own time and money, so know that I'm not schilling any weird stuff that I don't actually use. As a disclaimer: all products were initially sent to me free to try, but all opinions listed here are true and are my own.

Popsicles - Jonny Pops

First up: Jonny Pops. I am not a dessert person, not by a long shot - I'll take a cheese plate over a piece of cake every day of the week. But I got a few different boxes of these to try and let me just tell you they are GOOD. Really good. Each popsicle is creamy, smooth and bursting with flavor. The ingredients are quite clean for treats; for example, the list on the Strawberries & Cream flavor includes strawberries, heavy cream, cane sugar, purified water and salt - that's it. They're great for portion control (if you want that kind of thing), but you'll probably just end up bingeing through a box at a time because they're too delish to put down. My resident chef is as much (or more) a fan as I am, and we've become lifelong customers since trying them.

Honestly these are SO delicious. I cannot rave enough #sorrynotsorry.

Even better? The Jonny Pops brand is 100% local to Minnesota, so by buying a box you'll be supporting the local economy and gaining a fab new dessert all at once. Each popsicle stick is stamped with a positive message that you can read when you finish the popsicle portion, which makes eating them super fun, and the mission behind the company - to pay it forward in the world by spreading more kindness, love and cheer to all - is one that I can 100% support. These are great for all ages and events, and I definitely recommend you pick up a box (or three). Surprisingly my favorite flavors are the fruity ones; I'd go straight for the Mangoes & Cream, Strawberries & Cream, or the Cherry Chocolate & Cream for a perfect summer treat. I've bought many, many boxes of these since my initial sample, so trust that these are worth having. The Jonny Pops website has a fab tracker to find their products near you; you can click here to access it and get a box! 

Cold Brew Coffee - Blackeye Roasting Co.

I also had the opportunity last spring to tour the new roasting and canning facility for Blackeye coffee, which was not only fun but really informative. Since their process is proprietary I wasn't able to take photos or videos to share, but it's a really innovative process that keeps the coffee super fresh and single-sources the process. As these coffees are bottled hot you can drink them right off the line, or wait until they're nice and cold for a chilly caffeine jolt that's perfect for hot summer days. I will add a disclaimer that the caffeine content of these bad boys is no joke, so definitely pace yourself as you work through each flavor. Flavors include White Chocolate, Nitro Cocoa, and plain ol' Nitro Cold Brew. I found the Nitro Cocoa to be the most palatable, but they're honestly all good (even a little dessert-y).

I sure hope they offer these sample boxes to the public because this was so fun!

One of my favorite parts of touring Blackeye's facility was getting to meet the founder of the brand and hear his clear vision for Blackeye. This is one smart cookie, and the way he is scaling and expanding is truly impressive. In the few months since I toured they've expanded from convenience store markets to Target - no small feat - and demand seems to keep on growing. They've got a crack team and I definitely recommend getting a tour if you're ever able to squeeze one in. Blackeye has a single skyway level storefront in downtown Minneapolis that's fun to visit and learn more about the brand, and is now sold in stores throughout the Midwest including Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Tennessee, Kansas, Missouri, Indiana - so if you're hoping to get a summer road trip under your belt, make sure you grab a few of these to stash in the car on the way.

Blackeye is already being sold in Target, so make sure you grab some cans next time you're there!

Blue Velvet Cake - Radisson Blu Bloomington

Finally, the Radisson Blu - Bloomington is celebrating their fifth anniversary in business this June and has all sorts of crazy deals on offer. First it was a $5 hotel room flash sale (yes, you read that right); there have been all sorts of other special offers available throughout the month, and you still have time to check them out! Follow them on social media (Twitter or Facebook) to stay in the loop. And if you happen to be dining at their excellent on-site restaurant (a long time fave in both the Bloomington and downtown Minneapolis locations, I've had countless happy hours at both), FireLake Grill House & Cocktail Bar, you'll want to grab some of their blue velvet cake in honor of their fifth birthday. It's probably the most over the top cake I've ever had and the buttercream frosting is as authentic as it gets. For the smurf in your life, consider getting a slice before the end of June and the special is no longer available. 

#buttercream, #amirite?
From their press release: Radisson Blu Mall of America is calling all guests to join in the 5th Birthday celebrations with its “Celebrate Your Unbirthday with Blu” package available for booking now through Saturday, June 30. The package features a number of party favors to help guests create their own birthday or unbirthday celebration in room, including two slices of FireLake’s Blu Velvet Birthday Cake for a sweet treat; a present-shaped piñata; birthday hats; and additional party flare and room décor. The package starts at $209 per night plus tax and is available for booking on Radisson Blu Mall of America’s website.

For more information or to make a reservation, guests are invited to visit: For more information regarding FireLake Grill House & Cocktail Bar, please visit:

Sunday, June 24, 2018

The Importance of Watching West Side Story with Context

Have you ever questioned your memories?

T Charles Erickson

Let me tell you a story: it's 2006 and I'm a junior in high school in a small town up north. The school musical is announced and it's West Side Story. I'm thrilled because it's one of my favorite shows, ever.pointblank.omg., and I get a shot at what I consider the peach part of all theater: Maria. Magically I am cast in the role despite my stage fright and go on to have the hardest, most fulfilling artistic experience of my life. I grow leaps and bounds in that production in so many different ways, and it is a cherished memory. That is... until I leave my small (mostly white) town for the Big City of Minneapolis, go to college, and begin to listen to voices other than those I grew up with - voices who were hurt by the stereotypes presented in the script of West Side Story, voices who even advocated that it no longer be performed.

T Charles Erickson

I'm telling you all of this because I want you to understand the massive cognitive dissonance I hold around this show, something that I am still (and maybe always will be) working through, and something I don't have answers for. The place West Side Story holds in my heart will be there forever - young loves always are, and I can't turn back the clock on my past experiences. But the older I get, and the more voices I listen to, the more I question my participation in that show and the general fervor that surrounds it globally. It is not a thing I take lightly, and it is not a pleasant exercise to re-examine my youthful memories in the harsh light of my current perspective, but it's something that feels irresponsible not to do now that I've heard from those voices (for more context, be sure to check out this incredible piece in Howl Round; this piece in the Washington Post; and this blog piece about the interracial relationship aspect of the story).

T Charles Erickson

So with this context in mind, let me talk about the latest rendition of West Side Story to hit #tctheater stages, this time at the Guthrie. First things first: from a production perspective it's gorgeous, which is no surprise. No expense was spared in the scenic design (by Christopher Acebo), which is much more modern than I've seen in other productions. This is a New York City not of warm brick tenement buildings but cold steel beams and buzzing neon lights (part of Bradley King's thoughtful lighting design). It's clean and harsh and it really works, providing a stark contrast to the lavishly colored costumes (produced with a flourish by Jen Caprio) and pushing the audience's context for the show forward. The sound design from Elisheba Ittoop is perfect, allowing us to hear each note and each voice in turn without drowning anyone out or blasting us from over-programmed speakers. Maija Garcia's choreography adds a modern dance touch on top of the classic Jerome Robbins choreography, allowing the dynamic young cast to explode off the stage. Mark Hartman expertly conducts the orchestra to glorious heights; it's a showstopper of musicianship on an extraordinarily difficult score, and they nailed it.

T Charles Erickson

The cast is unimpeachable as well and features an explicitly mixed-race cast on both sides. Marc Koeck and Mia Pinero have good chemistry as Tony and Maria, respectively. Koeck in particular soars through his solos with a winning romanticism, and Pinero nails each high note without flinching. They are convincingly youthful and fresh, and they do their predecessors proud. The gangs overall are full of smart new talent and poised performances; listing them individually would be exhausting, but suffice it to say each person is really well chosen for their parts. The performers who really blew me away? Ana Isabelle as Anita; Isabelle is a fabulous Puerto Rican actress who blows up the stage every time she struts on. You can really feel the emotion in her voice and every move, and she is literal dynamite. Darius Jordan Lee was also unbelievable as Riff; every sinew of his being is flexed with tension throughout the show, and he was an unexpected but inspired choice for the part.

Overall: fans of West Side Story will not be disappointed with this production. The Guthrie has spared no expense, the cast is incredibly talented, the choreography thrills, the design is fresh and interesting. I'm sure it's going to be a great success and I wish the performers all of the best - they've worked so hard and they're doing great work.

T Charles Erickson

But I can't shake my cognitive dissonance. I have often heard West Side Story described as a masterpiece of universal moral meaning, but is that really true? The score is undeniably an incredible piece of art if we can lay the story aside - no one will argue that. But the trouble with West Side Story is that the story is integral to the entire experience. You can't divorce it from the music and it would be very difficult to rewrite. Viewers are taught to understand this narrative as a meeting of equals and see that both sides suffer from mutual wrongdoing; the trouble is that if we're really honest with ourselves, these gangs did not start on the same foot or context. The American legacy of legalized racism, mass incarceration, and unequal immigration policies does not shape the lives of white Americans in the same way that it does people of color, and presenting their experience on the same footing does do a disservice to those who suffer from those policies. Authorship matters, a lot, and in the case of this show it changes all of our understandings of who is represented and how.

T Charles Erickson

So if you want to go see a beautifully produced show, please do. The production itself is wonderfully done; several thoughtful changes have been made (such as not arresting Chino at the end of the show, a great choice) and there has clearly been some intentional internal dialogue at the big G about how to handle some of the recent controversies surrounding the show. I appreciate the effort they put into the production and I think there are many people who can still get a lot out of it. The music is incredible, undoubtedly.

It just broke my heart to feel my soul soar with every note of that glorious orchestra and know how much work is still left to be done, how many people still suffer under our institutions, and how little interest many in our nation seem to have in really giving everyone an equal playing field to live on. If you want to go, go see it and enjoy it - just make sure to call your senators when you get home to tell them to take care of real-life Puerto Ricans, to end mass incarceration, and to vote for policies that make the horrific events in West Side Story truly nothing more than a fairy tale. West Side Story runs at the Guthrie through August 26; for more information or to buy tickets, click on this link.

Baskerville Offers a Sublimely Comedic Rendition of Sherlock Holmes

Every once in a while, someone surprises theatergoers with a sublimely fresh take on an old story. 

Ken Ludwig's Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery (Baskerville), the latest in Park Square Theatre's annual mystery series, offers a totally new perspective of The Hound of the Baskervilles, perhaps the most famous of the Sherlock Holmes stories. I was first introduced to the narrative as a kid watching Wishbone (I'd LOVE to see a fresh remake of that classic children's show FYI); later in many film iterations; and a couple of times on various theater stages. It's always been presented to me as a serious, eerie, almost horror-esque piece. Normally this is Not My Thing, but I love Sherlock Holmes and have always found it interesting to compare takes, so I roll with it.

Imagine my surprise then when Holmes and Watson strut onto Park Square's stage played by female actors, surrounded by an unapologetically diverse cast, and the show is downright... campy? Within minutes the whole audience was teetering with laughter, and by the end of the play we'd all gotten out several belly laughs. It was totally unexpected but it worked for me, and hats off to the actors and crew for committing 100% to a big risk that really pays off.

A quick summary of the play goes like this: Dr. Mortimer appears at 221B Baker Street and implores Holmes to investigate the untimely death of his patron Charles Baskerville and protect the new heir to the estate. The suspicious circumstances of Baskerville's death are too tempting for Holmes to leave behind, and she and Dr. Watson set out at once to investigate. Their case leads them quickly to the eerie Baskerville manor on a moor in Devonshire, where they meet a host of shady employees and suss out multiple suspects. It seems that everyone living on the moor has a secret to keep, and as we learn more about said secrets it becomes increasingly clear that the biggest of all is hiding in plain sight. I can't say too much more - most of the fun is in figuring out whodunnit after all - but it's a wild ride involving people in disguise, convicts, burned letters, ghostly figures, and a plethora of accents.

I'll be honest: right away I found the over-the-top comedy to be a little much. It felt like it was cheapening the story and overacted, and I wasn't on board. But the more we got into the show, the more genius this vision from director Theo Langason felt. Much like the pleasant revelation that Romeo and Juliet could be funny (click here to read my review of the Guthrie's excellent production last year), I began to think: why *couldn't* Sherlock Holmes be a funny story? I mean at this point the character is somewhat of a cliche, and if there were any story to spoof, Baskerville would be it. The entire narrative - from the ghastly mastiff that frightens the Baskervilles to death, to the macabre manor on a moor, to Sherlock's impossibly adept deductions - is so over the top that it makes for a perfect parody. That's not to say that this production doesn't have its serious moments; there are many times when we are held in suspense and still feel the creepy vibes radiating from Devonshire. But the overall mood was light, which I frankly welcomed, and really allowed this talented cast to showcase their many gifts.

This rendition could only work with people who are supremely talented and all-in, and this cast delivers. Anchoring the action are McKenna Kelly-Eiding and Sara Richardson as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, respectively. Their chemistry is terrific and they make an awesome pairing. Kelly-Eiding has a droll delivery that retains Holmes' serious nature while still being a whole lot of fun; Richardson has a posh, spot-on accent and wide-eyed narration that I found positively delightful. The rest of the cast plays multiple characters each - I'd say at least 5 or 6 characters per person - in a dizzying order that lifts the tempo of the show. Ricardo Beaird brought a Keenan Thompson quality to his parts, and I found his farcical acting really hilarious. Eric "Pogi" Sumangil brought a self-aware attitude to his caricatures, and his masculine strutting had me in stitches. The biggest surprise was new-to-me Marika Proctor, who disappeared into each part and delivered perfectly pitched accents for each and every character. She disappeared into her roles and was totally delightful, and I hope I get to see her in more productions soon. It's clear overall that this cast had a total blast getting into character, and it was fun as an audience to see them clearly enjoying themselves so much; it helps us all feel in on the joke, and there's no way such a preposterous take on this story could work otherwise.

The basis of the set (designed by Eli Sherlock) is a wall of portraits in wealthy manor, with large portrait frame-style entrances that various sets are pushed through as the show progresses. It cycles through a dizzying range of settings - from offices to 221B Baker street to rooms in the manor and the moor itself. For as many set pieces as there are, you can double (or triple!) the number of costumes (designed by Mandi Johnson) and props (by Sadie Ward) that cycle through the show. It's an astonishing amount of work to keep track of, but the usage is pretty seamless and allows us to keep being surprised as each new character and location is unveiled. Hats off to the all-female crew led by Laura Topham (three cheers for that!) who keep track of all of this and swiftly transition us between vignettes. Baskerville clocks in at a little under two and a half hours, and it would feel really long if it weren't for their expert work. There are several nice lighting moments as well from Michael Kittel that truly set the mood, working in tandem to direct us to the intended emotion with the flick of a switch.

Baskerville is such a great example of what happens when you get a diverse, talented team together and enable them to really let their imaginations run wild. It's one more gem in Park Square's growingly progressive portfolio, and I was totally charmed by this fresh take. I think even purists can get in on the joke if they come with an open mind. It's Victorian-mystery-novel-meets-Wes-Anderson-films-meets-Scooby-Doo, and who doesn't want to see that?! Baskerville runs at Park Square Theatre through August 5; for more information or to buy tickets, click on this link.

Friday, June 8, 2018

Reviewed in Brief: Chicago

If there were one sentence to describe Chicago, it would be "sex on stage."

I've seen many sultry shows in my time, but little compares to the sensual explosion that is Chicago. From the barely there costumes to the musical sighs to the iconic Bob Fosse choreography, Chicago oozes sex through every pore.

Photo by Paul Kolnik

If you're not in the loop, Chicago tells the story of the murdering women in the Cook County Jail in the 1920s. There are women there for many reasons; some had cheating partners; some had men with annoying habits; only one of them is innocent. The plot centers on the competition between two inmates, Velma Kelly and Roxie Hart, as they try to parlay the fame generated from their crimes into showbusiness careers (once they get free from jail first, of course). It's a riveting competition, one that predicted the incredible fame grabbing happening among social media influencers these days (#kardashians), and it's impossible not to be sucked into the all-out lengths each woman would go to in order to maximize her paparazzi moment.

Photo by Paul Kolnik

It's been a while since I've seen the stage version and I was excited to check out the Broadway tour at the Orpheum this week. All of the classic elements are there, from "All That Jazz" to "Cell Block Tango," and the audience went wild for it. However: I'm not sure why, but this cast didn't hit my sweet spot. I thought Dylis Croman had a great sly delivery as Roxie Hart and Jennifer Fouche had a delightful swagger as Matron "Mama" Morton. The dancers are all extremely talented and step in time. But something about Terra MacLeod as Velma Kelly just didn't do it for me. I've been a solid fan of Chicago since I saw the incredible 2002 film with Catherine Zeta Jones, and I think I was looking for a performance closer to hers. MacLeod isn't bad, but it's much more of a physical performance than a vocal one - just not quite for me. Several of the men's performances felt a little dialed in and the chemistry just wasn't there. The audience loved it, so I'm likely alone in my feelings, but this one was missing the spark that always made Chicago such a spunky surprise for me.

Photo by Paul Kolnik

One thing I did really enjoy? The set. In a bit of a twist, the band is on stage on a tiered performance platform so we can always see them playing, just like we would a live jazz band in a steamy club. It gives a concert-like effect to the show and definitely helps keep things paced more quickly since no sets need to be moved. I loved watching the conductor interact with the actors as they performed their numbers; it reminded me a lot of watching my dad interact with the high school students acting in the plays he conducted pits for while I was growing up. I don't think pit orchestras often get as much credit as they deserve, so it was awesome to see this one being celebrated front and center.

Photo by Paul Kolnik

I was also troubled by some of the audience reactions to the show. It seemed like most of them found Chicago to be... funny? The plot is certainly told with a giant sly wink, and there's a lot of sarcastic banter throughout the show. But the idea of celebrating women for committing murders troubles me; as much as the show has a darkly comic side, the point has always seemed to me that it sheds light on the enormous injustices of our criminal justice system. Innocent people are often incarcerated and punished for crimes they didn't commit; even the most guilty person can get out of sentencing with enough money and influence. Several heartbreaking conclusions are made throughout the show, and even Velma and Roxie come to see the double edged sword of their fame by the end. I must be getting old or something, because I've had similar qualms with other seriously-themed shows playing locally lately. I hate to be a negative Nancy but... I just didn't feel right about the overly jovial atmosphere. I love Chicago; I love that it allows women to be more than precious saints / angels / mothers and embraces the darker side of their complexities; but I also think we can hold that in a more thoughtful place. I'm probably being a Grinch, but I have to be honest.

That said, the rest of the audience went wild for this Chicago, and if you're a previous fan I think you could truly enjoy it. Chicago runs at the Orpheum through June 10, so make sure to get your tickets very soon if you want to check it out. Click on this link for more information or to buy tickets to the show.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Sally Wingert Shines in Underneath the Lintel

Some people are just made for certain parts. 

Photo by Dan Norman

Robert Downey Jr. was born to play Iron Man. Denzel Washington was thoroughly destined to be Malcom X. Who but Idina Menzel could have originated Elphaba? Or who could have breathed life into the Phantom other than Michael Crawford?

Sally Wingert's latest performance as The Librarian in Underneath the Lintel at Theater Latte Da is just such an epochal turn. This one woman show can only succeed with an eccentric, charismatic personality at its core, and Wingert turns in a magnetic performance that carries the show with aplomb. It's impossible to imagine someone else fitting the bill, and I'd call it a star-making turn if Wingert weren't already such an established local #tctheater legend.

Photo by Dan Norman
Underneath the Lintel begins with Wingert making a harried entrance through a hallway side door. Laden with a cadre of eclectic baggage, she quickly disassembles the pile of aged props on stage - dusty chalkboard, chipped desk, manual slide projector - into a war room of sorts. Thus equipped, The Librarian leads the audience on a whirlwind quest to solve the mysterious identity of the patron who returned a 113 year overdue book through the library's mail slot. With a determined air and a series of unbelievable calculations, The Librarian does find an answer to her quest - but not without enormous sacrifice and difficulty along the way. I don't want to spoil the mystery of the show by saying any more (after all, isn't the caper effect the whole point of the fun?), but suffice it to say: the answer involves a thoroughly mystical figure that will leave you with some spooky chills as it is revealed.

Photo by Dan Norman

As I mentioned, Underneath the Lintel really requires charisma to sell this part. The Librarian is difficult, headstrong, particular and erratic, and to feel engaged with her character we need to trust our actor. Wingert is an ideal choice, granting a direct delivery and no-bullshit attitude that appear capable instead of rude (an important distinction), and we are buying into her riddle from the get-go. Dan Chouinard and Natalie Nowytsksi remain eerily obscure as the silent musicians throughout the show, and they provide a supernatural soundtrack that well-suits the plot. There isn't much set or costuming to speak of - this one-act show is done without a change of scenery or costume - which is deceptively simple and evocative. Wingert's expert wielding of the mountain of evidentiary props keeps things from getting too dull, and it's amazing how quickly she places us in myriad settings with just a few small objects, effects, and some vivid monologue.

Photo by Dan Norman

What's interesting about this show is that for such a light on-stage presence there is a veritable Ferris Wheel of people on the production team. As the director, Peter Rothstein appears to have (wisely) let Wingert run her own show and surrounded her with a crack team to provide whatever animation she preferred. Barry Browning's lighting design and John Acarregui's sound design are probably the two standout design elements. Combined with the exhaustive props design from Abbee Warmboe, they speed up the action by creating diverse effect with little on-stage change, and it's a great demonstration of how important effective background work is in pulling off even a seemingly straightforward performance.

Photo by Dan Norman

There are some cringeworthy elements of Underneath the Lintel's script (particularly in references to people of different races and cultures) that haven't aged particularly well. That isn't the fault of the performers, however, and if the opportunity arose to tweak them it would fix any small quibbles I have with the show. If you're a big Sally Wingert fan (and honestly, who isn't?) you will not be disappointed with Underneath the Lintel. I've never seen a show like it and it will definitely keep your wheels turning while you watch. For more information or to buy tickets to see Underneath the Lintel before it closes on July 1, click on this link.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Theatre Elision Ends Season on a High Note with Ain't It A Grand and Glorious Feeling

This is such an exciting time to be an artist. 

But that pie though... I still dream about it, and I'm not even a dessert person! 

Thanks to the power of the internet, social media and crowdfunding, artists are more empowered than ever to really flex their creative muscles, and how lucky are all of we to enjoy it? From Donald Glover to Mindy Kaling, there are so many examples right now of artists who are augmenting their creative crossover using new technologies and tools to truly maximize their impact, and it's a blast to watch. 

Theatre Elision is a homegrown success story of just such a thing that I'm thrilled to talk about. Founded by a cadre of smart, driven young women, Theatre Elision is filling a gap that I didn't even know #tctheater had, but has been fascinating to explore. The company produces and / or reimagines long lost theater classics (their sweet spot seems to lie in the ragtime era, but they do branch out) with a simple eye but powerful musical chops. Their first piece (and an original!) was Ragtime Women (click here to read my review) last year; they've now come full circle with the delightful Ain't It A Grand and Glorious Feeling to close out their 2017 - 2018 season. 

Ain't It A Grand and Glorious Feeling takes several classic pieces from the "Princess Musicals." Do not, like me, assume that these are related to Disney princesses (although I still think that could be a cool show); instead, these are so-named because they were originally performed at the Princess Theatre in New York City in the years between 1915 and 1918. The content is the typical lighthearted romantic comedy you might see in a summer blockbuster or Rogers & Hammerstein musical, just with a softer touch. 

What I greatly appreciated about this particular show was that it has been completely repackaged from the original without losing its integrity. Taking their preferred songs from several different Princess Musicals, the writers have made a new musical that feels shockingly modern considering the style of the music. This is aided by the truly witty production staging, by which I mean: there really isn't any staging at all, and it totally works. Ain't It A Grand and Glorious Feeling is set in the Mojo Coffee Gallery (which serves a delightful meal - complete with some bombdiggity apple pie pictured above - prior to the show. I HIGHLY recommend choosing this option with your ticket), a choice that initially confused me but later felt like a brilliant strategy. 

Rather than perform for us, the performers ARE us, sitting at coffee shop tables, weaving amongst the crowd, and making their relational drama feel familiar and personal. It keeps you constantly on your toes, allows the actors to be really comfortable and engaged, and when paired with the hilarious text message screenshots projected on the coffee house television provides a really witty and contemporary performance that I found just delightful. The performers also work hard to keep things moving, clicking through 21 songs and associated plot lines in less than 90 minutes - a feat that I desperately wish they'd train other theaters in accomplishing. This is definitely a workshop in learning-best-practices-from-Michelle-Hensley, and I thoroughly approve. 

One of the things that's always impressed me about Theatre Elision is the strikingly deep vocal talent they showcase. These are not pop songs that anyone can autotune their way through, and despite the accompaniment of a sole piano they can be deceptively complex. Each of the four performers in Ain't It A Grand and Glorious Feeling has a knockout voice that is the centerpiece of the show (as it should be). With such a barebones production it's important that the music be excellent, and it really, truly is. Standouts for me included "Ain't It A Grand and Glorious Feeling" to open the show; a very nuanced rendition of "The Sun Shines Brighter;" the virtuosic closing of "Wedding Bells Are Calling Me;" and the delightfully tongue-in-cheek "It's A Hard, Hard, Hard World for a Man" that ends with a spontaneous tap dance that had the audience bursting into simultaneously spontaneous applause. I think these spunky artists can sell just about anyone on these 100 year old songs, and I dare you to see the show and not be impressed. 

It's so heartening to see that there really is room for all kinds of art. The bright young artists of Theatre Elision are hustling hard to make their dreams come true, and it's really inspiring to see how far they've come in just one year. I can only imagine what lies in store for future seasons, and I would really encourage any readers to go support their work. Starting a new company is never easy, but if the last season is any sign, there's nowhere to go but up. There is only one more weekend to see Ain't It A Grand and Glorious Feeling, so make sure to get your tickets prior to the last performance on June 10 (and seriously get the food - it's so worth it, and the chef is so charming!). For more information or to buy tickets, click on this link