Review: The Knight of the Burning Pestle

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Source: theatreprorata.org

I first heard of The Knight of the Burning Pestle from a friend of mine who read it in college and lauded its humor and parodying of Renaissance theater. Written and performed in 1607, it references Shakespearean tropes and Cervantes-esque drama and chivalry and I was elated to see that Theatre Pro Rata was doing it this season.

If you loved Four Humor’s Don Quixote, enjoy spending time at the Renaissance Fair, and/or have any interest in bawdy Elizabethan humor and penis innuendo, this show is for you. A play within a play format, the show begins with the Prologue (David Schlosser) introducing the performance, The London Merchant, only to be interrupted by theater patrons George, a grocer (Ben Tallen) and his wife Nell (Rachel Flynn). Concerned that they are about to be bored and insulted, they take over the show, inserting their apprentice Rafe (George Dornbach) into the performance. The actors portraying the love story of Jasper (Grant Henderson) and Lucy (Julie Ann Nevill) struggle to compete with Rafe’s story line of assuming knighthood, becoming the Knight of the Burning Pestle (an interesting choice of allegiance which leads to phallic references) who is used to prevent Jasper and Lucy’s union, as the grocer and his wife thinks Lucy is better suited for the merchant Humphrey (Andrew Troth). Amidst other stories of the Falstaff-like Master Merrythought who continually breaks into song (Andrew Troth) and his wife (Julie Ann Nevill) who runs off with her favorite son (Davide Scholosser) and the family fortune, Rafe’s story line is inserted again and again as the grocer and his wife make a running commentary almost like Statler and Waldorf from The Muppets or and Renaissance RiffTrax and quite literally steal the show, despite attempts by the stage managing apprentice (Becca Hart) to keep them in line.

The show is chock-full of references to other theater of the time. Rafe’s courageous battle sequence and cheering to St. George is reminiscent of a speech from Henry V and his journey into knighthood and battling giants is very Don Quixote (as is his devotion to his ladylove, Susan). Merrythought is a Falstaff caricature, and Jasper and Lucy are somewhat reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet (though the grocer is clearly in favor of Rosalind). There are many other references, I’m sure, but as I’m no Elizabethan expert, I leave that to the better studied scholars to establish. (And if you are looking for more fun tidbits about the show, check out Pro Rata’s play guide put together by the wonderful dramturg Christine/Kit Gordon. Not that I’m biased or anything.)

I’ve never been in Dreamland Art’s space before but it’s wonderfully suited for the Globe-like setting designed by Gabriel Gomez and audience-interactive performance.(Okay, so this show was actually first performed in Blackfriars Theater, but the pillars of the set draw a strong resemblance in my mind to the Globe.) Filled with music, a variety toy instruments produce much of the sound played mainly by Becca Hart and produce as vibrant soundscape as the personalities portrayed. With lush rich costuming by Mandi Johnson, illuminating lighting by Julia Carlis, clever props by  Abbee Warmboe, and humorous and well-orchestrated fight choreography by Carin Bratlie Wethern, the piece comes together as a delightful montage that celebrates and mocks the themes of the times while showing how adaptable performance can be. The entire cast is wonderful and on point, with timing that wonderful hits home jokes and added audience heckling that is recognizable and hilarious to those who have ever experienced a show with patrons who simply don’t understand certain etiquette, such as opening a noisy snack in the middle of a kissing scene is probably a bad idea (not that I’ve ever experienced this). Tallen and Flynn wonderfully steal this show (for the audience, not just the performers) with their antics and reactions throughout and their reflections on the characterizations, especially Nell’s outcry against Merrythoughts’ treatment of his wife (which, if you’ve ever struggled with Shakespeare’s depiction of women, is much appreciated). Most of all, George and Nell capture what I as an audience member have often longed to do – to insert myself on stage and interact with the characters. Instead of restraining themselves from this yearning, George and Nell create immersive theater well ahead of their time and insist on becoming a part of the story as much as they insist on allowing Rafe his moment of glory onstage.

There is a lot going on in this show, even in the off-stage parts with the actors of The London Merchant sleeping, messing with costumes, trying to control their outrage at the unraveling of the established script, and complaining to stage manager Clara Costello for the grocer and his wife’s intercessions. Amber Bjork’s wonderful directing really shows in handling layers that occur and keeping everything flowing smoothly with the understanding that there isn’t always just one center of attention onstage. This production is really a delight and a perfect way to spend a tranquil summer evening.

 

The Knight of the Burning Pestle is by Francis Beaumont and directed by Amber Bjork. It is playing now through June 19th at Dreamland Arts in St. Paul. Show and ticket information can be found on Theatre Pro Rata’s website.

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Putting It Together: Complicated Fun

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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.

 

Review: The Fantasticks

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source: nautilusmusictheater.org

I’ve had the opening line to T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land stuck in my head the last several days: “April is the cruelest month.” Given the cold, blustery day I found myself at Nautilus Theater to see The Fantasticks, it was fitting. But this lovely play took me out of April’s cold cruelty and right into the warm, romantic days of September.

In this production, director Ben Krywosz breathes new life into this classic show with shifting the typical casting. The lovers Matt and Luisa are played real-life partners Gary Briggle and Wendy Lehr, taking on roles meant for ingenue/ juvenile actors. Seeing established actors play these parts is a dream come true – I’m a massive fan of their work and the nuances they bring to younger characters being older and more worldly is brilliant. Playing the parts of the fathers Hucklebee and Bellomy are Jennifer Baldwin Peden and Christina Baldwin. Having these roles taken on by women makes these characters more focused on being parents and guardians, rather than playing into any patriarchal roles or gender-specific parenting attitudes. William Gilness is suave and cunning as the narrator, El Gallo, and Brian Sostek is a delight as the Actor Who Dies. This all-star cast has marvelous chemistry and, in this fable-like musical, portray the story with poise and mastery.

Nautilus’ intimate theater space – though small it may be – works brilliantly for this stripped-down production. The simple but lovely set designed by Victoria Petrovich and built by John Hegge is clever and captures the fantastic nature of the story without a lot of bells and whistles. The music, directed by Jerry Rubino, is performed by piano and harp and balances wonderfully with the vocal ranges of the cast, as well as having some wonderfully done transposing (according to the talk-back afterwards sticking to the original keys despite the different ranges for the fathers).

This show is an absolute delight. Attending on an industry night, it was wonderful to hear the discussion afterwards of how the story not only resonated with the audience, but the use of different generational casting, allowing for a deeper romantic story to take place that looks at how age affects relationships and how different roles are performed based on age. From the moment “Try to Remember” begins at the top of the show, I was swept off my feet into a delightful, poignant, heartfelt world that truthfully acknowledges the difficulties of growth and changes in relationships. With El Gallo’s throwing Matt and Luisa into a world no longer full of simple romance but also cruelty, and hardship, the show grapples with the struggles of growing up, the harshness of the world, and also the ability of relationships to grow back together even after heartbreak. This musical is full of hope and, in the cruelness of April, there’s nothing more marvelous than remembering September.

The Fantasticks is playing at Nautilus Musical Theater in lowertown St. Paul now through April 19th. Ticket and show information can be found on Nautilus Theater’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.

Review: A Night With Janis Joplin

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Source: Ordway.org

A crossover between tribute concert and musical theater, A Night with Janis Joplin at the Ordway is a unique, mesmerizing performance. Using the concert format as a source to tell Joplin’s story, this show uses conversations to the audience between songs (some of my favorite parts of concerts) and Joplin’s music and music of those who influenced her to convey her presence as an artist. Mary Bridget Davies makes a stunning Janis and blows the audience away with her vocals. Hitting the robust growl perfectly, her voice is a perfect impression of Joplin’s skill and timbre.

Also taking stage are various actresses playing the parts of Joplin’s influencers – Bessie Smith and Odetta (Cicily Daniels), Etta James (Tawny Dolley), Aretha Franklin and Nina Simone (Q. Smith), and a woman known as Blues Singer (Jennifer Leigh Warren). In what feels like a dream concert inside Janis’ mind, she interacts with the women who made music one of the most important parts of her life and taught her about the blues. The concert itself is an exploration of what the blues is and what it means to Janis.

Adding incredible solos and support to this work is the band, who not only personify the era by their dress and physicality, but also switch between genres to express the mood of the blues and personality of Joplin’s influencers. The band, directed by Mark Berman, acts as much as they perform the music and provide more than just accompaniment. The lighting design of the show is also brilliant, creating the mood of the 60s in a concert environment along with projections behind the stage to add to Joplin’s story.

Though the show is more concert than musical theater story, there were moments I wish the piece had stayed in longer – Joplin’s grappling with a world that kills blues artists (in this instance, Bessie Smith, who I had just happened to read about before seeing the show and learned she died after a car accident because the hospital she was taken to refused to treat her due to her race), Joplin’s wanting to be like Zelda Fitzgerald but to not end up with her fate, her struggles with how being with a man has never been as good as the feeling she gets being front of an audience, and her conflict between wanting to be in a relationship but not wanting to put her musical ambition and her life on the road aside for it. The show poignantly touches on all of these, but I would have loved more thoughts from Janis on them, to hold to those conflicts a little longer. However, much of the music does that work as well, and we do experience those moments throughout her powerful, bluesy songs.

Though Joplin’s death is hinted at, it never is mentioned in the show. Instead, it focus on her life and her legacy and gives a possible answer, as the Ordway’s website asks, “what might have been” had Joplin lived beyond age 27. It works with how we remember people and how we tell their story and, instead of making it about Janis’ death, it makes it about her life. I’ve never seen a show get standing ovations throughout the show, but this one got them several times. It’s a lot of fun and a great tribute to an incredible artist.

A Night with Janis Joplin is written and directed by Randy Johnson. It is playing now through  April 3rd at the Ordway Center of Performing Arts in St. Paul. Ticket information and prices can be found on the Ordway’s website.

The Rehearsal Room

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My rehearsal inspiration board for Nina Simone.

For the last couple of weeks, I haven’t be seeing any shows as I’m working on one myself. I’m dramaturging for Park Square’s Nina Simone: Four Women, which as been a phenomenal experience so far and a show I’m very excited about. I thought I’d take the opportunity to talk about the rehearsal process a little bit and describe what my part of this looks like, for those who aren’t personally in this aspect of theater or those who might be curious what a dramaturg does.

Day 1 (5pm -10pm)

The actors, director, playwright, music director, costume designer, set designer, stage manager, and I all meet in the rehearsal room. Introductions are made and the most updated copy of the script is handed out (as this is a new work, we didn’t receive this until the first day – usually scripts are sent out at least a couple of weeks in advance). The artistic director and director of education at the theater come down to welcome us and inform the actors about certain aspects of this show, such as student matinees. I have a made an informational packet about Nina Simone’s life and the Civil Rights Movement, which has already been sent out to the actors to help them prepare. The set designer gives us an overview of what the space will look like, using a model to clarify any questions the actors and director have. The costume designer shows us sketches of what the attire is planned to look like for each character. We do a read-through of the script and I read stage directions. We discuss the script, suggest changes, and break for the day. Having met on a Monday – usually a day off due to equity regulations, our stage manager notes that we will have the following Sunday and Monday off.

Days 2-5 (roughly 11am-4pm)

Our rehearsals are during the day, as our stage manager has a show going on in the evenings at another theater. I work my day job several of these rehearsal days and arrive late. On day two, another read-through has taken place and some changes have been made. Day three, we receive and updated script and I read stage directions again for the new read-through. By day four, the actors are on their feet and begin blocking (or learning where they will stand and move throughout the space as the show progresses). A simple set with furniture is brought in and props begin to appear as they are found/requested. I begin to bring in photos to post on a board to inspire the actors, focusing on women involved in the Civil Rights Movement and 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL. Our music director begins to arrange songs and work on what musical interludes should appear and what they should sound like throughout the show. Our costume designer takes measurements and brings in accessories such as hand bags for the actors to use. Additional changes are made to the script and questions are asked to clarify interactions between the characters. In my evenings after rehearsal, I continue to do research, either looking up information I am asked to find during rehearsal or adding to the photos in the rehearsal room. I beginning planning a lobby display I hope to showcase, getting in contact with the marketing director at the theater to see what my options are. In between all of this, I manage to grab eat dinner (either brought from home or from Afro Deli), catch A Chorus Line at the Ordway, and also catch a cold.

Days 6-9 (3:30-9:30pm on days 6 and 7, 4pm-9pm on days 7-8)

After a two-day break, we’re back to blocking and pacing, getting a feel for how the show will unfold, what the major arcs are and what needs to be emphasized. I continue to research (having mostly recovered from my cold) and am now putting together a timeline of the events of 1963 to have displayed in the lobby. As far as the script goes, all major changes are done, minus a few word tweaks. Our music director is given specific time in the rehearsals to practice songs, assign harmonies, and work through a capella pieces and improv components. Our costume designer takes additional measurements and continues bringing in wardrobe pieces – especially shoes – to see if they will work for our cast. I’m bouncing back and forth between my day job and rehearsals and miss part of rehearsal on day 7 in order to see a performance at my theater for work. Rehearsal is cancelled on day 8 due to a cast member’s absence for a family obligation and I have the evening off to do some writing, finish the timeline, and do some errands.

Days 10 and 11 (12pm-8:30pm on day 10, 12pm – 6:30pm on day 11)

Our two longest days in rehearsal are in front of us and give us the opportunity to really dig into material. Songs are run and rerun, particular scenes are focused on to see what isn’t working, to bring out important emotional components, and to focus on what is giving the actors trouble. We begin to work a song that includes choreography and sound elements performed by the actors, getting help from another artists in the community to help work this scene. I’m given the task of researching accents, something that usually would be given to a dialect coach, but as there isn’t one for the production (and the Birmingham accent isn’t as difficult to learn as a South African accent, for instance) I’m happy to help. I scour internet resources and Youtube videos, trying to put together a guide for vowel and specific word pronunciation. Watching Spike Lee’s Four Little Girls documentary after rehearsal on day 10 becomes my most useful source of pinpointing the accent while also expanding my knowledge of the historical root of the show.

Day 12 (3:30pm-9:30pm)

After a day off, we review what we worked – focusing on accents, remembering new blocking, and tracking props. At the top of rehearsal, the actors are fitted for microphones and new underscoring ideas are tried for the musical elements of the show. We run certain portions and focus specifically on a difficult song.

Day 13 (4pm-10pm)

Our first day onstage. I’ve received the materials I need for my lobby display and I post it while the actors warm up and practice music while on mics. This rehearsal focuses on memorizing lines, exploring the space, and working on blocking to aid sight lines in the space. I wander about the theater, sitting in various locations where the view isn’t as good to see how the show looks from these spots.

From here on out Days 14-17 are tech days. This is when lighting and sound elements are worked into the show along with the actor’s lines and movements. Costumes are worn and refitted and certain make-up and wig elements are tested. This process is very slow going at first, going from cue to cue to make sure that each sound element and lighting effect properly sets the mood and tone. It feels a little bit like stop-motion, tweaking each moment to get it right. I stick around to help with sight lines in the theater as well as to stay on book and take line notes for the actors as they continue to memorize and practice their lines. These days are long and exhausting but it’s incredible to see all the pieces fall into place during this process.

That’s the process! Interested to know more or have a specific question? Feel free to ask. If you want a more specific look at dramaturgy, please check out my guest post on my friend Kendra’s blog – and check out the rest of her amazing blog while you’re at it!

And come see Nina Simone: Four Women at Park Square Theatre in St Paul. The show starts previews on March 8th, opens March 11th, and runs through the 26th. Ticket information and prices can be found on Park Square’s website.

Review: A Chorus Line

 

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Source: Ordway.com

A Chorus Line has had a certain allure to me since my grandmother complained about seeing a local production of it in her hometown. She hated it, deploring the foul language and sexual subject matter. Naturally I assumed it was right up my alley.

I was thrilled to see that the Ordway would be including it in their season this year and I’ve been looking forward it for quite some time. This show does something I haven’t seen onstage before – creating a love story focused on those who are usually overlooked in a performance, those who are not cast as leads but in the chorus. Through the stories of these performers, A Chorus Line weaves a stunning, touching tale of what people do for their work and their love of art, specifically dance.

Set in the midst of an audition to find four male and four female dancers, twenty-four hopeful dances dancers – cut down to seventeen at the top of the show – share their stories of finding dance as they are called upon by the director, Zach (Tom Berklund). Focusing on what called people to dance, whether it’s escaping a poor family life and yearning to have beautiful (“At the Ballet”) or because their family danced and they enjoyed it (“I Can Do That”), the characters are literally fleshed out through their physicality and movement.

There are moments of utter frankness in language and body that are apparently still shocking to some people (including the very uncomfortable couple sitting next to me that left early). But this show is so much more than its language or portrayal of sexuality, though that is central to the story lines of several of the characters. It is, however, focused on the body and the physical aspects of performance as well as the mental aspects. It’s easy to forget how much theater physically demands of its performers and this show reminds of it at every moment. It especially highlights the more superficial aspects and how they hurt their performers through typecasting and focusing on what a dancer looks like. In “Dance: Ten, Looks: Three” Val (Maria Briggs) humorously and bitingly explains how she couldn’t get cast in any show until she had plastic surgery. Her flaunting of her new body and her attempts to convince how easy it is to obtain – “just go out in buy it” stand in stark contrast to the stories of those who use dance to feel better about their bodies, especially Paul (Omar Garibay) who’s story of using dance to come to terms with his sexuality is touching and powerful.

In the end, the story of Cassie (Molly Tynes), a lead dancer who went to Hollywood only to find she couldn’t get any work and has returned to audition for chorus, is one of the most powerful. Questioned by Zach how she could possibly return to the chorus, Cassie responds that she would be proud and honored to be in the chorus. Zach is confused and asks “Don’t you want to be special?” To which Cassie retorts that each and every person in the chorus is special. They all have their own story and their own style and, while they come together and dance the same, they all have their own unique character. By the end of the audition, with each character struggling to figure out what they will do when they can no longer dance, they in some ways decided it doesn’t matter – what does matter is that they had this opportunity to do “what they did for love,” for the love of dance, and that they don’t regret it.

There are aspects of the show that feel a bit dated and some of the characters sound a bit cliched, but by the end, an array of complexity and the uniqueness that Cassie cherishes is realized. In some ways, this show is now a period piece, providing a look at what it was like working Broadway in the 1970s. In other ways – the anxiety around auditioning, the desperate need to get work, the worries of what Broadway theater are becoming – are timely.

The Ordway’s staging is clever and somewhat immersive, stationing Zach at an audition table in the front of the mezzanine section of the theater (the upper level of the main orchestra area). As he goes back and forth between the stage and the table, it’s almost as if the audience isn’t there and an actual audition is taking place. Taken into this staging is a way of showing love to other unsung voices in theater who are overlooked just as much as the chorus. The lighting in this show is incredible and the costuming manages to capture each character’s personality while still keeping inside the bounds of dance audition gear. The orchestrations are gorgeous and the pit, led by Raymond Berg, sound phenomenal. And while there isn’t much of a set, the set pieces of mirrors that are used add a wonderful compliment and glamour to the performance. And of course there’s choreography – something that even I am guilty of overlooking in performances. This show makes you pay attention to choreography as it’s all about it – the dance, how the body moves, and how people can be characterized by movement.

What’s best about this show is that you don’t have to be a member of the theater community to love and understand what it’s about. It it especially easy for artists to relate to but even those who took dance in their childhood, have ever interviewed for their dream job, struggled to understand their bodies in their teenage years, or had issues with a teacher in a field they loved will appreciated this show. And if you did take dance in your youth, it’ll make you wish you’d never stopped.

 

A Chorus Line is playing now through February 28 at the Ordway Theater. Ticket information and the show schedule can be found on the Ordway’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.

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.

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.