Wednesday, October 31, 2018

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

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

Photo from Theatre Elision's website

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 29, 2018

Reliving the Past with The Laramie Project

Here's to hoping history stops repeating itself. 

Photo by Shannon TL Kearns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

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

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

Photo by Dan Norman

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

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

Photo by Dan Norman

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

Photo by Dan Norman

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

Photo by Dan Norman

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

Photo by Dan Norman

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

Photo by Dan Norman

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

Photo by Dan Norman

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

Saturday, October 13, 2018

50 Years of Chanhassen Dinner Theatre + Holiday Inn

CDT is the theatrical equivalent of a giant, comforting, cozy bowl of steaming mac and cheese, and I'm totally fine with that. 

Photo by Tom Wallace, 2018

Sometimes I see people take aim at things that are mainstream or inherently positive as if they are somehow unworthy of attention. This frustrates me.

Photo by Tom Wallace, 2018

I love avant garde theater - but I also love the mass produced, flashy shows that fill giant theaters, keep plots simple and spirit fingers wiggling. Growing up in rural small town Minnesota, places like the Orpheum or Chanhassen Dinner Theatre (CDT) were the only way I ever saw professional theater. Sure we had school and community productions, but professional spaces were a solid 360 mile round trip away, not to mention often way outside of the budget of our six person family. If we were really lucky, once a year my family got to go to CDT over the summer when they held the family ticket sale. It was so magical for me, a truly transportive experience that taught me to dream beyond my immediate reality and made a direct line to me starting this blog so I can continue to experience this art I have come to love so deeply. Those experiences at CDT are treasured memories and a big reason that I will always harbor an undying love for that space.

Photo by Tom Wallace, 2018

The thing about mass produced shows shows is that there are people (a lot of people, actually) for whom it is the only way they will access theater at all. They deserve to enjoy the arts too, and if a traveling Broadway show or a musical theater bonanza with a plated dinner is what gets them there - I'm all for it. There are hundreds of union employees who make great money year round working on these productions, and I'm happy to support them (just as I love local companies like Prime Productions or Frank Theatre or Trademark Theater, all of whom have shows running right now).

Photo by Tom Wallace, 2018

The point of all of this is that this year, CDT is celebrating 50 years of existence. For just a little context on how mind blowing this accomplishment is, check this out: since Chanhassen Dinner Theatres opened in 1968, its kitchen has served:

  1. 25 million fresh baked rolls
  2. 2,265,000 grilled to perfection, sirloin steaks
  3. 400,000 pounds of roasted prime rib of beef
  4. 4,250,000 stuffed chicken breasts
  5. 500,000 pints of fresh strawberries
  6. Just shy of 50,000,000 cups of coffee or enough to fill more than FIVE Olympic-sized swimming pools
  7. Chanhassen Dinner Theatres is the nation’s largest professional dinner theatre company. It is one of a handful of professional status dinner theatres still in existence.
  8. In its 50 years, Chanhassen Dinner Theatres has entertained just over 12.5 million guests.
  9. In addition, over that time, CDT has staged a total of 237 productions on its multiple stages.

I'm so grateful that CDT has stuck around this long, weathering recessions, public taste and ownership crises, and I sure hope they stick around for another 50 years. I can't think of a better show to celebrate this milestone than Irving Berlin's Holiday Inn, which opened last night. I loved the film version growing up, which starred Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire, and was the first time audiences heard the now-classic song White Christmas. Holiday Inn is exactly what it sounds like: a musical about a man who leaves show business to run a farm in rural Connecticut. When he proves to be a failure at farming, Jim decides to flip the space into a lodge with musical performances that is only open on holidays (when everything else is closed). There are several straightforward romantic plots woven through the holiday numbers, and everyone leaves with a happy ending. It's a show that oozes nostalgia, and while its plot is a little dated, the rotation of greatest hits songs like Blue Skies, Heat Wave, Cheek to Cheek and, of course, White Christmas provides a delightful immersion in 1940s nostalgia.

Photo by Tom Wallace, 2018

Many of CDT's OG company members are in this show, so you're guaranteed to see many familiar faces. Michael Gruber plays Jim, and while he doesn't quite have Bing Crosby's velvety basso, he does have an endless aura of charm and panache that perfectly fits the 1940s setting. Ann Michels is period-perfect as Jim's love interest Linda; her voice soars through the show, and it's not hard to imagine her having a Ginger Rogers or Andrews Sisters moment if she'd been performing back then. Jessica Fredrickson plays Lila as a true Lina Lamont character, clearly reveling in playing the villainous love interest. And Tony Vierling brings his best Gene Kelly to the role Fred Astaire originated as Ted; it's one of the best things I've seen Vierling do, probably since Singin' in the Rain. Vierling is a true blue, classic Hollywood musical hoofer, and director Michael Brindisi wisely grants him several solo moments to glide across the stage and give the audience a few showstopping dance moves. The company itself is also very strong, especially in dance, and there are plenty of charming cameos you'll see throughout the show.

Photo by Tom Wallace, 2018

The thing that kept striking me throughout the performance was the attention to detail at every level. There's not a lot of whodunnit to this plot - you'll see all the major points coming - so the charm of the show lies in all of the other little things to see. The set, designed by Nayna Ramey, is the kind of shabby chic rural dream that will have any cabin lover swooning. Tamara Kangas Erickson's choreography is truly masterful, incorporating tiny touches like collective gasps with some spectacular dance scenes (a tap sequence done with jump ropes was especially fantastic) to make it clear that every moment of the show was considered. The band, directed by Andy Kust, has a big brass Count Basie feel, and Russ Haynes' sound design lets us hear everyone's lines just fine. My favorite element, however, had to be the gorgeous hair and makeup design by Paul Bigot and the delicious costumes from Rich Hamson. If you've ever drooled over a chest-width corsage or a perfectly pinned pageboy, you will not be able to stop swooning over these visuals. It's cotton candy for the eyes and even if you don't like the show, you'll find something to like about the gorgeous garb.

Photo by Tom Wallace, 2018

Is Holiday Inn the best show I've ever seen at CDT? No. But it's a perfect choice for their 50th anniversary and to cover the holiday season. Comforting, nostalgic, and flashy enough to engage anyone's interest, Holiday Inn will be a welcome surprise for fans of old Hollywood musicals who haven't seen it, and a refreshing classic for those who have loved the movie for years. I am so glad I got the chance to see it and celebrate CDT's 50th anniversary; cheers to them on 50 more. For more information or to buy tickets, click on this link.

Photo by Tom Wallace, 2018