Before I begin this post, I’d like to provide a frame of reference for where I was mentally when I saw this show (I think it’s important, as a reviewer, to be honest about what you’re entering the theater with, as it’s different for everyone). I’d had a long day, starting with helping out at a student matinee at the theater I work at, as well as a full hectic day of work, and exhaustion from anxiety struggles earlier in the week. I’m sad to say that I entered this show already feeling fatigued and not very energized. I was hoping the show would lift my spirits. It didn’t.
I have never left at the intermission of a show before, but I did this night. I hesitate to call this an actual review since I didn’t see the whole show but it did provoke me quite a bit and I have thoughts I feel are important to share about the production. My issues are not with the quality of the production, the acting, or the theater itself (all of which are wonderful) but rather the script and the show’s story,
The writing was lacking for me. While I haven’t seen the previous play this one is a sequel to, I didn’t feel that seeing it would have helped me understand the characters or situation better. Henry and Alice are camping to save money instead of staying at an expensive hotel. It was all pretty simple – and that was the beginning of the problem for me. While there was conflict and some sense of urgency, I could find Henry or Alice likable or interesting. Diana I liked and could relate to in some ways, but she was supposed to be an annoying bother, and I couldn’t understand why. Her entrance made me interested, for a while, until she became a stereotypical hippie, “too wild” for Henry and Alice” (if too wild is a “carpe diem” tattoo, I hate to think what my eight tattoos reads as in this world).
I also didn’t appreciate some of the jokes – the swingers misconception had potential, but I felt like it was still dismissive or stigmatizing to actual swingers (as a supporter of polyamory and other nontraditional lifestyles, this could have been an educating or embracing moment and it didn’t read that way). I’m over the “breathing into a paper bag because I’m hysterical” gag. Panic attacks are real. I have them. Please don’t trivialize them (or at least make it a larger part of the character, ala Leo Bloom in The Producers). I’m also pretty sure that g*psy is a slur now, so I don’t know why this was used at all.
I’m just being prescriptive now, which is against everything I’ve been taught in playwriting. But I’m disappointed in this play. Really disappointed. It’s by a female playwright, it’s a new show. It’s everything I want to support in theater. But while sitting and listening to Alice and Henry bicker and not being very interested, I realized a large part of the problem for me. I don’t live in Henry and Alice’s economic world. I don’t live in a place where people retire early or where being laid off means you need to formulate a budget and you can’t shop at Pottery Barn any more. I live in a world where people work until they day they die and a world where, if you’re laid off, your house gets foreclosed. I am not upper middle class. I’m not middle class. I’m lower middle class at best, and most of the time I’m working class. Theater is not a wealthy industry to work in, despite what Broadway might like to depict it as. I make minimum wage, I’ve spent a lot of money for my degrees that has not left me with debt (yet) but has for most of my generation. As a millennial watching this show, I was stunned by the presentation of wealth and money. It made no sense to me that in order to save money, Henry and Alice went camping. If you haven’t been to an REI or a Cabella’s recently, go and check out camping gear – it’s not cheap. At all. Saving money for my family when I was growing up wasn’t changing our vacation – it was not going on vacation at all (it was the same for both of my parents growing up as well). It made no sense that Alice, who clearly worked hard for what she had, wouldn’t understand why her husband was concerned about her spending habits or why her horror story became having to live on a budget instead of, well, maybe being homeless. The fact of the matter is that Alice and I live in completely different worlds. And it’s something I think we need to start talking about.
We are living in the most economically disparate time since the 1920s (or so I learned my first year in my MFA program). Never before has there been such a large difference between the wealthiest of people and the poorest in our country. In the world of theater, we of course need money (especially donors) to fund our work and make things happen (there are of course arguments agains that, but I won’t tackle those here). But we also want to open our doors to most diverse audience, especially those who can’t often afford to attend theaters. I couldn’t help but think about the students I saw at the student matinee I helped at, who were awed at the expensive look of the building they were entering, and started thinking about how they might feel about Alice complaining about not being able to buy stuff. Perhaps how it was how I was raised, perhaps it was my college education, hell, maybe it’s my fondness for Brecht – regardless, classism is never far from my mind. It’s not that I don’t think shows can’t just be entertaining or have wealthy characters – they certainly can, but it’s important in how you talk about it and discuss it in the show. It’s also about creating more diverse work about diverse people. But in this case, it was how money was discussed. I didn’t stay around for the second act and maybe it’s resolved and Alice learns materialism isn’t so important and Henry learns not to be so uptight. But that’s not really the issue. The issue is that I don’t ever believe there’s that much to lose. It all felt hollow to me because in the world around me, the stakes are much different. If all Alice is going to do is not get her trip to Europe, I don’t feel a connection with that. I would love to go to Europe – but right now I’m worried about paying my rent that’s going up in December because Minneapolis is being filled with expensive luxury apartments that cost as much as half a semester of my grad school tuition per month and everything is getting more expensive. Alice can’t buy her Pottery Barn furniture? I know people who can’t afford medication they need, who don’t have health insurance, and if they do have insurance, they are or are afraid they will lose coverage.
Theater doesn’t exist inside a vacuum. And for me it’s impossible not to see what’s happening in the world around me when I attend a show. I can’t just sit back and relax and shut off everything else – I wish I could, But the play I’m attending is always in dialogue with the world around me. And I think that’s a really important function of theater. A show can be really entertaining and make you forget your troubles but also teach you something really important or make you realize something. And what bothers me is that this play does touch on some really wonderful stuff – Alice’s hard unappreciated work as a stay at home mother, trying to care for an aging parent, and the affect the economy and lay offs have on personal relationships. But I just don’t understand why it used story to work with those issues.
I also have to ask what kind of audience was this for. I was one of the youngest members of the audience on a relatively full weeknight and, yes, it was a mostly older, white, seemingly middle class audience. This is not a critique of Park Square alone but a theater-wide issue. There’s a contention between the subscriber base and the urging to bring in younger and more diverse audiences. I feel bad criticizing this show because I really love the cast – John Middleton, Carolyn Pool, and Melanie Wehrmacher are absolutely wonderful. Mary M. Finnerty is a fine director. And I’m looking very forward to the season ahead, especially to Hamlet. I could simply admit I’m not the intended audience for this show. It’s not about my world. But I also want to know what happens when not the intended audience enters the room and what happens then. How do we deal with that? How do we recognize their feelings without brushing it off as a overreaction? I admit that I’m emotional about this, but I hope it shows it’s because I care. I love theater too much to let it continue to be overwhelmed by classism, I’m tired, so tired of this fight on many levels – there’s a great intersectionality with economic status that affects age, gender, race, sexuality, etc and it too often gets overlooked. I want to challenge theaters to consider classism more when discussing seasons, marketing, access to patrons, etc. We need our wealthy patrons who are willing and able to support our shows, but we also need patrons of different economic levels to enjoy what is produced, to feel inspired, and see their stories shared onstage.
I want to end this (very) long post with a final thought on why I am so passionate about this. The first theater show I ever attended was “The Wizard of Oz” at Wagon Wheel Theater in Warsaw, Indiana. I never in a hundred years thought that one day, after seeing that show with my grandmother, I might one day write a play myself. While they were community theater actors, I saw them in a professional light – partly because I was six and anyone who was an adult was cool and partly because theater lighting has the power to make anyone look incredible and magical. Seeing someone onstage puts them in a privileged position – in Western theater, we’re sitting the dark focused on them, while they have the floor to speak and we’re quiet (well, different levels of quiet depending where you’re attending theater). Regardless, they literally have the mic – and what they say matters and resonates. I think it’s too easy to think theater is just another art form that people consume and shrug off. It’s like any other – some of it we always we remember, others not so much. But unlike other art forms, it’s happening in real time. And it has the capability to speak to us immediately, presently, as a collective of different people with different experiences. It is one of the most magical experiences I’ve ever been privy to. I’ll always remember seeing “The Wizard of Oz” in the theater and not the first time I saw the film, because seeing it with a group of people who also were afraid of the flying monkeys and were mesmerized by Glinda and gasped at the Wicked Witch’s wickedness is downright incredible. What we make matters. We know that. I just hope that we continue to broaden our idea of who it matters to.
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.
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.
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.
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.