Friday, November 30, 2018

Marie and Rosetta will Rock your Socks Off

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

Photos by Petronella J. Ytsma

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

Photos by Petronella J. Ytsma

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

Photos by Petronella J. Ytsma

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

Photos by Petronella J. Ytsma

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

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

Photos by Petronella J. Ytsma

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

Photos by Petronella J. Ytsma

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

Thursday, November 15, 2018

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

Sometimes things are even better the second time around. 

Photo by Dan Norman

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

Photo by Dan Norman

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

Photo by Dan Norman

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

Photo by Dan Norman

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

Photo by Dan Norman

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

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

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

Photo by Dan Norman

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

Photo by Dan Norman

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

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

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

Photo Courtesy of Genesia Williams

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 5, 2018

Hot Funky Butt Jazz Defines True Inclusion

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

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

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

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

Photo courtesy of Interact

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

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