Sweet Land

sweetland

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

bobby2

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.

 

Black History Month in Theater

It’s Black History Month and what better way to celebrate with some great theater? Here’s three shows not to miss in the Twin Cities Area:

Ruby!: The Story of Ruby Bridges at Steppingstone Theater – With a charming cast of local actors (including Charla Maria Bailey, Misti Koop, Nic Delcambre, and Joseph Miller) and young actors from Twin Cities schools (featuring Rylee F Armstrong and Danyelle Robinson as Ruby), Ruby! tells the often forgotten tale of Ruby Bridges, the first African American student to attend an all-white elementary school in the South. Her story of courage and fortitude, told through song and dance, is moving and aimed towards children, providing a great way to introduce them to the history of the Civil Rights Movement.

Bright Half Life at Pillsbury House Theater – Looking for some modern history? While it isn’t exactly a Black History play, Bright Half Life deals with the ups and downs of Vicky (Jasmine Hughes) and Erica (Sarah Agnew) in a mixed-race relationship that extends decades. Jumping back and forth between the past, present, and future, this play explores the challenges of love and portrays the relationship with poignancy and grace. Perfect for Valentine’s Day, this show is heart-warming and beautiful.

George Bonga at History Theater – In a new work premiere, this show follows the story of George Bonga (James Williams), a voyageur and pathfinder in the Boundary Waters of Minnesota, who was given the task of tracking down an Ojibwe man (Jake Waid) accused of murdering a white man. This intense show delivers a a deep conversation about race and the complexity of labels, especially in 19th century Minnesota. It’s a fascinating look at a little known bit of Minnesota history.

Ruby! is written by Christina Ham and directed by Anya Kremenetsky, with music by Gary Rue. It runs now through February 28. Ticket and show information can be found on Steppingstone’s website.

Bright Half Life is written by Tanya Barfield and directed by Ellen Fenster. It runs now through February 21. Ticket and show information can be found on Pillsbury House Theater’s website.

George Bonga is written by Carlyle Brown and directed by Marion McClinton. It runs now through February 28. Ticket and show information can be found on History Theatre’s website.