Sweet Land

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Source: History Theatre

About this time last year, I got really obsessed with the music from Bright Star, which at the time was still playing on Broadway. While that show has, sadly, since closed, I’m grateful that another beautiful, folk-inspired musical is playing now at St. Paul’s History Theatre.

Sweet Land, based off the film of the same name and Will Weaver’s novel A Gravestone Made of Wheat, is the story of Inge Altenberg (Anne Michels), a woman from Germany who immigrates to US (specifically moving to Park Rapids, MN) in order to marry Olaf Torvik (Robert Berdahl), a man she has never met. However, upon meeting Inge, the residents are taken aback that she is German. Right on the tails of WWI, distrust and prejudice of Germany and Germans is high and the local pastor (Michael Gruber) refuses to marry them. While Inge waits for her references from German to confirm that she can be trusted, she lives with Torvik’s neighbors Alvin and Brownie (Jon Andrew Hegge and Tinia Moulder) who have troubles of their own. Behind on their mortgage payments, the bank is threatening to take away their farm if the don’t pay. While Inge and Torvik fall in love and eventually face ostracism for their relationship, they fight for the community they belong to, even while it excludes them.

This show has a lot of incredible work layered into it. The cast is stellar, full of musicians who double as actors and actors who double as musicians, keeping the musical performers present and fully onstage for the whole show. Michels and Berdhal steal the show, but Gruber gives them a run for their money, making the pastor a wonderful balance between empathetic clergyman recovering from the war and a stiff, antiquated man whose perceptions need changing. The music in this show perhaps really steals it all though, with beautiful, soaring pieces that personify the way the harvest feels, the way the country looks, and expressing the innermost stories of people who otherwise cannot express themselves – especially Inge, who struggles through learning English as the show progresses. The design on this show is wondrous – Joe Chvala’s choreography is spirited and lively, Paula Post’s costuming is rustic and sumptuous, Lee Christiansen’s props, Erica Zaffarano’s set, C Andrew Mayer’s sound and, Mike Grogan’s lighting blend beautifully together to form scenes that include church services, farm house kitchens, barnyards, and train stations. What makes this show even more incredible is that it was created by an all-female team of Perrin Post (director and playwright), Laurie Flanigan Hegge (playwright and lyricist) and Dina Maccabee (composer).

While stories of immigration continue to resound in our current time, I don’t have to harp on why this story feels important at this current time. I do remember during the Raw Stages for this show that the issue of diversity was brought up and I do wish that that the cast itself had been more diverse. But overall the work of this production is staggering. It’s no small feat to create a new musical and to create one that has the . narrative arch of a classic book musical that caters both to conservative romantic stories while also bolstering more liberal (well, socialist – I mean, there’s a socialist in the show and one could argue that it’s socialism that *spoilers* saves Alvin and Brownie’s farm) approaches is especially challenging. This show does it all with panache and, on top of a fantastic season and a coming season that looks even more wonderful, I think History Theatre has yet another hit on its hands (I’m looking at you, Glensheen). So if you’re looking for an uplifting, heartwarming show to enjoy on an evening after spending a day soaking up this wonderful spring weather, this show’s for you.

Sweet Land is directed by Perrin Post, written by Perrin Post and Laurie Flanigan Hegge. It is play now through May 28th. Tickets and show information can be found on the History Theatre’s website.

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The Paper Dreams of Harry Chin

"The Paper Dreams of Harry Chin" - MN History Theatre

Source: historytheatre.com

If you studied American history in the public school system, more than likely you never learned about the Chinese Exclusionary Act. As this article (recently shared on My Performing Art’s Facebook page) describes, much of Asian American history is left out of syllabuses and textbooks. Before I encountered The Paper Dreams of Harry Chin  in History Theatre’s Raw Stages festival in 2016 (then under the title Paper Daughters) I knew very little, if anything, about this period of history. The act, signed by Chester A. Arthur in 1882, prohibited immigration of all Chinese laborers and was meant to last 10 years but instead was renewed in 1902. It was the first law that presented a specific ethnic group from entering the United States. In order to get into the US, Chinese citizens bought documents of other family members, friends, and neighbors who had relatives in the US and assumed these names.

Harry Chin (Song Kim) does just that. When we meet him, it is the 1970s, he is living with his daughter Shelia (Meghan Kreidler) and struggling to work at the restaurant where he is a chef. Throughout his days, ghosts of his American wife, Laura, (Sandra Struthers), a poet who did not make it through immigration (Sherwin Resurreccion), and his wife in China, Yuet, (Audrey Park) haunt, tease, and torment him. As the ghosts send him into flashbacks of his past – falling in love with Laura, the harrowing immigration process with a monstrous immigration officer (Rolando Martinez), and writing to Yuet whom he will never see again, Harry grapples with being a father and an immigrant, trying to come to terms with his past and his present.

The cast is marvelous and captures the humor, heartbreak and the haunting of this tale wonderfully. Struthers and Park and particularly wonderful as the wives and Resurreccion brings a playful humor into his ghostly poet. Language shifts greatly in Jessica Huang’s script and accents appear and disappear (Harry speaks unaccented English when he is speaking Chinese, his accent appears when he is speaks English to Shelia and Laura; the immigration officer speaks in unintelligible garbled noise to convey Harry’s inability to understand and the officer’s crude, abrasive behavior) and it’s fascinating to see it all interwoven together. I am particularly fond of shows that provide challenges in terms of design and general theatricality and this production does just that. Sandra Struther’s first ghostly appearance – appearing inside the chassis of a car – is spine-tingling and brilliant. With the wandering ghosts, the jumping between a ship at sea, Shelia’s home and Harry’s new apartment, the kitchen of a restaurant, and all the places in between, each locale generates its own atmosphere and emotional quality for Harry. With spectacular lighting design by Wu Chen Khoo, powerful scenic design by Joel Sass, beautiful costuming by Trevor Bowen (including some stunning ghost costumes in the second act), beautiful sound design by Katherine Horowitz, and wonderful props design by Abbee Warmboe, this is truly a dream team of designers (so much so I thought I could feel the temperature drop in the room as ghosts appeared and smell chow mein as Harry cooked).

It’s easy to remark on the timeliness of this production – with current immigration policy trying to prohibit another specific group from being allowed into the US, its place in the season is almost uncanny. While timely and relevant sound like operable words, it’s more than just that. Stories like this keep repeating themselves and American history is full of them. It’s timely because prejudice and xenophobia never stopped being a problem and because it’s a story we still fail to remember. However, Harry Chin’s will haunt you, just like the ghosts who fill up his kitchen. You won’t be able to forget him once you leave the theater. And, like me, you might walk out feeling hungry – for knowledge, for diversity, for answers, for change. Harry Chin hungered for a new life, a better life, and sacrificed much in the process. What must we sacrifice in order to make sure his story is told? So others like him can be welcomed to our country? So that ghosts of all of our pasts stop clamoring for our attention and can actually be recognized?

The Paper Dreams of Harry Chin is written by Jessica Huang and directed by Mei Ann Teo. It is playing now through April 9th at the History Theatre in St. Paul. Ticket and show information an be found on the History Theatre’s website.

And if you go, be sure to check out the “Gateway to History” exhibition by photographer Wing Yong Huie both inside and outside the building of the theater, showing those who were personally affected by the Chinese Exclusionary Act.

Teen Idol: The Bobby Vee Story

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Source: facebook.com/historytheatre

Almost two years ago, I saw History Theatre’s production of Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story for the first time and, in some incredibly coincidence, was lucky enough to sit right behind Bobby Vee during the show. I was delighted to see the staged reading of Teen Idol, a new musical about Vee’s life, during Raw Stages last winter and very excited to see this story now staged at the same theater.

Beginning with Vee’s rise to fame right after Holly’s plane crash, Teen Idol follows the story of a teenage boy (Tyler Michaels) who cares deeply about his family and making music. After being offered a record deal with Snuffy Garret (Josh Carson), Vee enters the world of recored producing and works to balance his career with the needs of his family, including his girlfriend, Karen (Eleonore Dendy). Including many of the musicians Vee worked with and weaving their music with his into a sound montage of the time, Teen Idol is a fun, musically-driven new show that, as Jeff Vee described in the pre-show discussion before hand on opening night, is a personal story that tells more about Vee than just his hits and his connection with Buddy Holly.

Tyler Michaels really carries this show (even the program reflects this) and, while the other musicians Vee collaborated with are featured in the show, Vee is the most prominently featured. With Michaels’ skill and charisma, he’s the perfect Vee, capturing the enthusiasm and talent of the performer. However, other musicians such as Chubby Checker, Del Shannon, Little Anthony, the Ronettes, the Shirelles, and Dion and the Belmonts are featured and we see how all of these performers collaborated and influenced each other (Note: if any of you saw the staged reading of this show during Raw Stages last winter, I’m really sad that we lost the Carole King sequence. But I’m happy the song she wrote for Vee still appears in the show for the final number). Because this is such a strong and multitalented ensemble comprised of Peter Middlecamp, Ben Bakken, Leslie Vincent, Bowen Cochran, Kenny Watson, Kasono Mwanza, and ShaVunda Brown (just to name a few of this stellar group) I wish there had been more reoccurring appearances of certain characters they performed, though I did love see them move seamlessly and easily from one characters to another in each scene. With so much talent there, it’s hard to not want to see more of them.

The largeness of the cast is a new musical is unusual at the theater, as director Ron Peluso noted before opening. Originally the show was written on a much smaller scale to feature 9 actors instead of the 26 actors and musicians that now take the stage. However, the growth in size was done to feature the variety of experiences Vee had working with different people and works to not only only add more richness to Vee’s story but also create a large-scale musical with a lot of really fabulous people, the likes of which I haven’t seen in a long time.

What’s also unique about this show is the longevity of the career it follows – Vee is still alive and there’s a great deal to cover in his life. I realized after watching it how rare it is to see a bio piece about a musician in which they don’t die young and how unfortuantely prominent that narrative is in our culture. Instead, we get the rare narrative that covers both youth and old age and follows the joys and hardships throughout many years of life. The show doesn’t shy away from dark periods, focusing on Vee’s mother and brother’s mental illness, the suicide of Del Shannon, as well as Karen and Bobby’s health issues, such as Bobby’s diagnosis of dementia. 

This show has an almost cinematic feel with its quick transitions and movement between time and space in an incredibly clever stage design. The number “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes” which replicates the filming of the music video includes projections from a live camera showing the ensemble dancing and is full exhilarating choreography which exhausted me just to watch. The show is rather long – it was opening night and I always find openings run a bit long, but it was at least a full 2 1/2 hours of show – yet it never dragged or lost pacing. My only wish? A rather petty one – I’ve grown accustomed to seeing the band onstage during Buddy and in Complicated Fun and, while we do see the Shadows perform with Bobby and the offstage band makes an appearance onstage for the recording room scenes and as Bobby’s sons, I really love a band present onstage at all times.

While this show’s core audience is likely those who were alive for Bobby’s rise to fame or followed his career in their youth, this performance isn’t exclusive to that audience – it’s a little nostalgia filled, but jam-packed full of music I grew up on (the Ronettes, Chubby Checker, etc) and music history. The 1960s and 70s were a time of integration in the music scene, as well as American at large, and Vee’s work plays an important role in it. I wish this thread was delved into more and handled with more care, but I’m happy to see it there. Overall, this show is a ton of fun, full of really dynamic talent, and a wonderful tribute to a musical legend.

Teen Idol: The Bobby Vee story is playing now through October 30th at the History Theatre in St Paul. It is directed by Ron Peluso, written by Bob Beverage, arranged and music directed by George Maurer, and choreographed by Jan Puffer. Show and ticket information can be found on the History Theatre’s website.

 

Putting It Together: Complicated Fun

complicated

Source: historytheatre.com

I’m writing this post only days after the death of Prince and, let me tell you, it’s surreal and very strange. To be working on a show that is so heavily influenced by Prince, mentions him multiple times, and likely would not exist with out him is difficult to deal with but also a place of solace and comfort. Prince created the Minneapolis Sound and defined our local music scene in many ways. His loss only makes me realize how important music is in my life and the life of so many others. And that’s exactly what the show is about – the influence of music on a whole generation. 

So, I thought I’d do another behind the scenes look as I’m in rehearsals again, by taking a look at music in a show. And what better show to focus to use for this exploration than Complicated Fun. This show, described by playwright Alan Berks as 55% music, combines a variety of genres with 26 different songs by 16 different artists. It explores not only the punk scene but also R&B, funk, folk, pop, and styles that transcend genres in Minnesota music. It’s unique sort of musical – it doesn’t always follow the typical expectations of music in shows (being sung by characters, replacing dialogue with songs, etc.), it isn’t a juke box musical, but neither is it a tribute concert or play with music. It’s been dubbed a mix-tape musical and, dramaturgically, that’s the perfect way to describe it.

The process for this show started back in January 2015 during the History Theatre’s Raw Stages. I wasn’t a part of this process but I did watch the show as a house manager from the back of the house, in awe of how the ensemble had learned the music in only a week. In the spring, I came on as dramaturg to prepare for the summer workshop on the script, which took place in July. Music director Nic Delcambre played all of the music on guitar and piano and sang the majority of the music. This process was focused on the writing of the script, the story involved and how certain events progressed, what music to include, and how music was integrated into the work. Another workshop was done again in January 2016 (which I wasn’t present for and can’t speak to) and more time was taken outside of these workshops for the our director, playwright, and music director to discuss the music in the show.

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The full band rehearsing Tetes Noires’ “American Dream.” (author’s photo)

A unique caveat to a show like this that includes music written by other people is that all rights for the songs performed must be obtained in order to use it. This affected what songs could be used and what artists – when you see the show, you’ll note that Prince is referenced but never performed beyond a few phrases. Rehearsals for the band began shortly before the cast began in April, with our musical director teaching the band the songs and transcribing and adapting them for the ensemble. The full band includes Delcambre on guitar and keyboard, Blake Foster on guitar, Mitchell Benson on bass, and Riley Jacobson on drums/percussion. Added elements to the band are the use a drum machine for synthesized percussion effects and a sound module controlled by the keyboard and produces all the sound from it, in a variety of electronic timbres (and can be especially heard in “Funkytown” and “Let Me Let You Rock Me”).

A primary focus throughout the process was to keep the sound of the arrangements as close to the original songs as possible to stay true to the work  and style of the artists. There are certain songs that have been arranged differently than the original for musical theater effects – for instance, Husker Du’s “Don’t Want To Know” is slower and more lyrical to create a certain mood for the scene it appears in. The actors were given access to the original recordings in order to learn the songs and hear the unique qualities of each piece and each artists in the show. On the first day of rehearsal for the cast, a full read-through of the script was done with all the music being performed by the music director on piano and two guitars. As rehearsals progressed, time was taken to teach specific parts to the cast members (such as the Tetes Noires’ piece “American Dream,” which has two cast members singing and one of our ensemble members singing and playing violin). Transitions into pieces – especially the switch from the Replacements’ “I Hate Music” to Greg Brown’s “Downtown,” which requires a change from electric to acoustic guitar and the addition of finger picks – and vamping during scene changes also became an important part to work, as did cueing in the band, especially through character cue (record clerks putting on a tape or record, a physical gesture from a singer, etc). Once the band joined in rehearsals right before tech week, it became especially important that cues were clear so everything could be kept tight and neat.

When we started tech, we began focusing on how sound appears and runs through the the show, such as the timing of when music comes in, making sure that the song fits into the action onstage, and lining up choreography and lines so that everything fits together just right. Another large part of this process was the technical aspects – fitting actors and musicians for mikes, balancing their sound levels against the instrumentals, and balancing spoken dialogue over musical moving parts. The glorious brilliance of going from a loud punk party to being able to hear a conversation in the party is an impressive feat that the band, our sound designer C. Andrew Mayer, and electrician Josh Stallings deserve serious kudos for. 

The use of the band in this show is really wonderful and unique – they stay onstage during the entire show and produce what in film would be called diegetic sound, or sounds coming from the particular scene or location, rather than added behind as underscoring or sung by the characters to convey the story. The band itself represents certain bands in the Minneapolis scene at this time, paying homage to the Suicide Commandos with the use of a Les Paul, having band members represent the Replacements and Husker Du, and incorporating certain members itself into characters in the show.

In this story about the often overlooked Generation X, the collaborative importance of theater has never been clearer.  With an incredible cast, band, and production team, I am continually in awe of the work that is being produced. This is the largest show I’ve worked on in terms of people involved and it’s been amazing. We’ve got an amazing production group with set designer Michael Hoover, choreographer Cark Flink, prop designer Lisa Conley, costumer Amelia Cheever, and lighting designer Kathy Maxwell. It has been such a joy to be a part of this process and I know it will be an absolutely brilliant production. But don’t take my word for it – come see it yourself!

Complicated Fun is written by Alan Berks and directed by Dominic Taylor. It opens April 30th and runs through May 29th. Tickets can be purchased on the History Theatre’s website.

 

A Sneak Peak at “Complicated Fun”

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The band of Complicated Fun. (author’s photo)

Currently in rehearsal at the History Theatre is the new show Complicated Fun, written by Alan Berks, directed by Dominic Taylor, and music directed by Nic Delcambre. Focusing on the 1980s music scene in the Twin Cities, this slice of living, local history involves a vibrant look at the Minneapolis sound, the history of First Avenue and bands such as the Replacements and Husker Du, and a passionate story of an often overlooked generation. I’m lucky enough to be the dramaturg for this production and it’s a piece that’s very near and dear to my heart. Whether you’re a fan of 89.3 The Current and First Avenue, passionate about Minnesota history, or just curious to learn more about the diversity of music in our state, this show is a must-see. And, to give a taste of what’s headed your way come April 30th, the History Theatre hosted a special preview event with the band, cast, Chris Osgood of The Suicide Commandos, who set the scene for punk in Minneapolis and throughout the US, and Steve McClellan, former manager of First Avenue during the 1980s.
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Chris Osgood and Steve McClellan discuss the 1980s music scene. (author’s photo)

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Director Dominic Taylor and playwright Alan Berks discuss the play. (author’s photo)

Performing Curtiss A’s “Laugh It Up,” Husker Du’s “In a Free Land,” the Replacements’ “Here Comes a Regular,” and The Suicide Commandos’ “Complicated Fun” (the namesake for the show) was the show band, with Nic Delcambre and Blake Foster on guitar, Mitchell Benson on bass, and Riley Jacobson on drums. Part of the cast, including Stephanie Bertumen, Bowen Cochran, Erik Hoover, Andrea Wollenberg, Joseph Miller, and Skylar Nowinksi, performed two excerpts from the show focusing on the community and music scene.
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Music Director Nic Delcambre performs “Here Comes a Regular” by the Replacements. (author’s photo)

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The cast performs a scene from the show. (

Featuring 26 songs by 16 different artists, and a wide breadth of genres, this show is all about the music. And it’s all Minnesota music. If you ever had a song change your life, discovered a mixtape that perfectly expressed how you felt, or found a band or music scene that expressed who you were or what you wanted to be, you’ll love this show, even if you aren’t familiar with the bands featured. And if you are familiar with the bands, then you need to see this show like you need air to live. (This is an exaggeration, but only slightly.)
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The band performs Curtiss A’s “Laugh It Up”

If the music alone doesn’t entice you, then the talent certainly will. The cast is incredible and lovely and, while we’ve only been rehearsing for a week, it seems the script already feels comfortable. Then again, much of the cast has been work-shopping this show since January of 2015. I also cannot praise the band enough. Last night was the first time we saw them perform together (as they’ve been rehearsing separately from the cast) and I think I can speak for us all and say we were all incredibly impressed. Even if you’re the biggest Husker fan and thinks that no one can shred like Bob Mould (and you are most certainly entitled to your opinion), you’ll love these covers that are incredibly faithful to the original. Don’t take my word for it – check out an audio clip with part of the band performing at Roseville Library. And if you still aren’t convinced that you need this show in your life, then come for the choreography. There will be stage diving. And a routine to the Jets’ “Crush On You.” But seriously, why are you still reading this? Go get tickets already!
Complicated Fun is playing at the History Theatre from April 30th through May 29th, with previews April 28th and 29th. Ticket prices and show information can be found on the History Theatre’s website.