Review: Dear World

Ten Thousand Things Theater Company is unique in many ways. With simplistic sets, touring shows that visit places such as shelters, prisons, and mental health clinics, and performing pieces in fully lighted spaces, they produce shows that resist certain theater norms. Dear World is no different. A show that hit Broadway in 1969 starring Angela Lansbury and closed after only 132 performances, Dear World was a flop. It was criticized for being impossible to follow and that the score composed by Jerry Herman was too bombastic for the delicate story. However, in Ten Thousand Things more than capable hands, under the direction of Sarah Rasmussen (new artistic director of the Jungle Theater), this production roots out what is at the heart of the show and performs the piece with simplicity, poise, and a lot of heart.

The show opens with a cafe waitress, Nina (Sheena Janson), looking through a champagne glass and marveling at the “fascinating view” around her. In a theater-in-the-round setting and with the lights fully up, her view is at the audience and instantly immerses us in this unique version of Paris. From there on, we are no longer in a world quite the same as ours – it is a place where oil can be found underground in Paris, where sewer men can sing beautiful ballads, where villains do not conceal their misdeeds but celebrate them in a fully array of evil, and where the mystical and reasonable interweave. It is beautifully fable-like: it isn’t quite real but it is a world that certainly mirrors ours.

The plot is relatively basic: a prospector (Kris Nelson) discovers that a cafe owned by the eccentric Countess Aurelia (Janet Paone) hides a great wealth of oil beneath its surface. Rather than proceed with any traditional business maneuverings, the prospector and three manipulating big-business politicians known as the Presidents (Fred Wagner, Thomasina Petrus, and Christina Baldwin) decided to handle things directly and horrifically – they will simply blow-up the cafe. They coerce their intern of sorts, Julian (JuCoby Johnson), to deliver the bomb but, instead, he throws it into the river. Thinking he is about to drown himself, a policeman (Fred Wagner) saves him and brings him to the cafe where Aurelia, Nina, and Alain (Shawn Vriezen) help him. Upon seeing each other, Nina and Julian instantly fall in love.

After discovering that such an evil plot exists, Aurelia must come to terms with the fact that her world is not as beautiful as she wishes it to be. Disgusted that the wonderful Paris could be blown to smithereens by people who care only for money, Aurelia sets out to save her cafe, the city, and the whole world, employing the help of Madame Constance and Madame Gabrielle (Thomasina Petrus and Christina Baldwin) and a sewer man (Kris Nelson), to help put things right and to give Nina and Julian a world in which their love can exist.

Admittedly, there are moments where the weakness of the script appear and it is easy to see how a large-scale Broadway production did not succeed. However, this production works through the weaknesses with rich characterization, audience interaction, and humor. The character of Alain (who is deaf and not even given a name in the original) has been expanded and the use of ASL is explored throughout the show, used to bring out important moments of dialogue and paired wonderfully as choreography during the title song. With simple orchestrations of accordion, keyboard, drums, woodwinds, and strings, as well as musical sound effects, the minimizing of the score shows the true beauty of the composition and discovers the delicacy that was wanted in the Broadway production.

On top of all of this is a powerful message – though the Presidents and prospector are humorous and over the top, they clearly represent real issues in our current world. Full of environmental, political, and humanitarian concerns, Dear World captures the longing for change and shows how such change is possible, although it is not without cost. It is timely show and the ability for Ten Thousand Things to perform this for a wide variety of audiences is wonderful. Overall, the show exhibits hope that things can – and will – get better if we care to fight back. As Aurelia says at the end, “Nothing is ever so wrong in the world that a sensible woman can’t set it right in an afternoon.”

 

Dear World is performing through January 31st at Bedlam Lowertown in St. Paul and from February 4-7 at Open Book in Minneapolis. Ticket and show information can be found at the Ten Thousand Things website.

Want more information on the original production of Dear World? Check out the book Not Since Carrie by Ken Mandelbaum, a collection of stories about 40 years of musical flops.

Advertisements

Review: Lullaby

At the Ritz Theater in northeast Minneapolis, Theater Latte Da is presenting a world premiere new show, Lullaby. A play with music directed by Jeremy B. Cohen and written by Michael Elyanow, this show is a tour de force. With four actors, two guitars, and a world of emotions, Lullaby tells the story of a single mother, Cassie (Adeline Phelps) who is dealing with the loss of her husband Craig (David Darrow) to suicide. Afraid of what will happen now that her two-year-old son no longer has Craig to play him to sleep, she vows to learn the guitar, saying, “I can’t have my boy growing up thinking that when someone you love dies, they take the music with them.” Convincing bar owner and musician Thea (Annie Enneking) to teach her to play, she finds a new friend who helps her come to terms will her loss, understand her own illness, and better communicate with her father, Gabriel (James Eckhouse) about her strained relationship with her mother.

Lullaby is a refreshing new face in musicals that discuss emotional hardship. While some sugarcoat or romanticize mental illness or become a how-to on “how to love someone with mental illness,” this show takes a different path. Cassie’s insomnia and persistent visions of her dead husband are shown with stark understanding. There is no questioning of sanity – what she sees is real and it is understood as such. Though she struggles to understand her loss and Craig’s death as well as how she should love him, there is no questioning that he deserves her love. This is powerful enough on its own for those who battle their own mental illness and it is refreshing to see onstage a refusal to accept the ideas that pop psychology present to us.

Also revolutionary is the friendship between Cassie and Thea. Never on stage or in any medium have I seen a relationship between a straight woman and a lesbian presented where they actually remain good friends. With humor, honesty, and vulnerability, the two grow together in a way that speaks volumes about recovering from loss and learning to understand each others’ hardships.

Through it all is woven the music, balancing between lullabies, haunting acoustic melodies, and punk-style tunes that reminisce of The Replacements and other such 80s bands. Playwright Michael Elaynow describes in the program that in this show, “music is used in all different kinds of ways: as lullaby, as lament, as celebration, as anger.” Like Leonard Cohen’s famous “Hallelujah,” which means many different things to many people, the music in this show mean many different things in the moments they present. Likewise, this show presents many different ways to understand and relate to the events and the characters. Some may see this as a father-daughter story, as the struggles and repeated cycling through the grief process over the loss of a loved one, of being haunted by someone you love who is no longer present in your life, of better understanding friendship, psychology, sexuality… The opportunities are endless.

However you choose to see it, this show is a beautiful work that holds great promise. Like all new shows, there are moments that could be tweaked, but overall it is a powerful, masterful piece that captures the audience from the first guitar chord and doesn’t let go until the last one at the close. Whether you cry through most of the show as I did or are simply moved by the performances, it is a show not to be missed.

 

Lullaby is playing at the Ritz Theater from now through February 7th. Show information, show schedule, and ticket prices can all be found on Theater Latte Da’s website.

Review: Sondheim on Sondheim

I’m changing things up for the first review post, as this show isn’t a local production as I’d usually see. I was visiting Boston and was fortunate enough to get tickets to Lyric Stage Company’s production of Sondheim on Sondheim. Stephen Sondheim is perhaps my favorite Broadway composer and a personally a life-savor, so seeing this show meant a great deal to me.

And what a show it was. As the Boston Globe describes in their article, Sondheim becomes a sort of ninth character in this eight person revue that includes a breadth of songs across his career and prerecorded interviews and conversations with him about his personal life and work, projected on screens above the ensemble. This show, however, is more than just a showcase or jukebox-style musical. It exhibits the journey of a person and growth of an artist through the interweaving of biographical elements and performed songs from much-loved shows. The use of music isn’t so much biographical as it is an exhibit of Sondheim’s skill and power of creating character and story, though it ties wonderfully into Sondheim’s personal recollections, and allows the performers (and audience members) to pay homage to someone who is likely one of their biggest inspirations. Not only did I learn a great deal about Sondheim and his work habits, I got to relish in both the technical and emotional impact of pieces such as “Being Alive,” “The Gun Song” and “Send in the Clowns,” as well as hearings songs cut from various shows.

The cast was wonderful and, while I’m no native Bostonian familiar with the actors, they seemed to know each other well and this added a wonderful, close-knit element to the performance. I would love to see this show performed in the Twin Cities and allow our artists to celebrate Sondheim in the same way.

 

 

 

Theater in the Twin Cities

I’m a rather new member of the theater community here in the Twin Cities, only being highly active for the last year and a half or so. I started with an internship at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis during the spring and summer of 2013, but it took me a while to find my way back, eventually through an internship and job working front of house at the History Theatre in St. Paul in 2014. Now I’m juggling box office at the Guthrie, freelance dramaturgy throughout town, and moving into playwriting.

minneapolis-city-lights-mark-goodman

Occasionally, I meet someone who is confused as to why I’m in Minnesota. “If you want to do theater, why don’t you move to New York? There’s so much theater there. Isn’t that the place to be?”

Without debate, New York is the place to be for theater. But it’s not the only place and it isn’t necessarily the best place for me. The Twin Cities offers a tight-knit yet diverse community with numerous theaters in town. It’s claimed that we have more theaters per capita than any other city in North America, aside from NYC (via localwiki and word of mouth) but this is hotly contested and not quite accurate. That being said, for not being the most recognizable city in the Midwest, we do pretty well for ourselves with touring productions, local shows, and producing new works and talented artists.

While we are rather well renown, I find the community very approachable as a newcomer, whereas New York would involve me moving to a completely new city where I don’t know anyone at all, is an incredibly competitive and, in the opinion of some I know, a cutthroat place to be. As a beginner, it’s much easier to get one’s foot in the door in a place like Minneapolis, where I can easily meet with people who are willing to share their experiences with me and give me advice and networking opportunities.

As this blog grows, discussing theater here in town will be a large part of this blog, as well as what makes theater in the Twin Cities unique. With our cold winters, landlocked setting, and Scandinavian roots, what caused such a hotbed of theater arts to appear? Ponder that, read Peg Guilfoyle’s book Offstage Voices (a great introduction to Twin Cities theater, including the perspectives of local artists), and look for more thoughts in the weeks to come.

I Wanna Be In The Room Where It Happens

This blog, as you might have guessed, is titled after a song by the same name from the sensational musical Hamilton. I, however, am in no way affiliated with the production (as much as I would like to be). I’m a Minneapolis-based dramaturg and writer relating to Burr’s longing to be in a room where great things happen as my own desire to be a part of the theatrical process. To me, the room where it happens is the rehearsal room – where a sheets of paper become a three-dimensional production that audiences will see. But there are many rooms – there’s the theater space itself, the room where marketing and advertising is planned, the room where a new season is plotted out, the room where fundraising goals are made, the room where actors are cast, the room where props and sets are made, the room where actors down a cup of coffee between scenes…

The list goes on and on. All of these rooms effect the other and all of these rooms have their own certain character. The goal of this blog is to peruse these spaces, discuss my experiences and experiences of those I know, and hopefully hear from you all in your experiences. I delight in the exchange between artists, creators, producers, and audiences, and I hope that this blog can be a forum for this. Eventually. Right now, this is day one. And if this is the rehearsal process, then we’re starting out with introductions and a simple read-through.

So let’s get started.