Sunday, September 24, 2017

The Abominables Raises Some Questions

The ambitious new musical from the Children's Theatre Company leaves a lot of food for thought. 


Photo by Dan Norman

I'm always excited to see new work. I truly believe that the future of robust ticket sales for theaters of all stripes lies in commissioning new art that reflects the world around us and challenges us within our modern contexts.


So I was very intrigued to see The Abominables, a brand new hockey-centric musical set right in Minnesota. Commissioned by the Children's Theatre Company, The Abominables had a premise just different enough that I had no idea what it would look like.

Photo by Dan Norman

Here's the basics: Mitch Munson (played with verve by Henry Constable) has worked all summer to make the A Hockey Team at his school. Just as tryouts are about to start, the team learns that a new kid has transferred in and he's really good. Why? Because he is in fact a Yeti named Harry (played with heart by Ryan Colbert), adopted by Judy (a vibrant Elie Benson) and Hank (a cocky Bradley Greenwald), mountain climbers who found him in the Himalayas. Harry's quirks offput the school at first, but this is quickly laid to rest when they see how good he is. With visions of grandeur and winning against the Canadian Thunder Bay players for the first time ever, the team moves on with Harry on board and with Mitch on the B Team.

Photo by Dan Norman

This is fine with everyone (except Mitch, of course). Mitch proceeds to spend the show conniving for ways to resume his place on the A Team and rid the school of Harry. Along the way he alienates his younger sisters Tracy and Lily (played with aplomb, wit and charm by Natalie Tran and Valerie Wick, respectively); humiliate his parents Ellen and Charlie (drawn with wicked passive aggression by Autumn Ness and Reed Sigmund); meddle with Harry's adoption by inviting his birth parents to Thunder Bay; and destroy his team's chances of winning after simultaneously sabotaging the B Team and impersonating Harry on the A Team once he finally runs him off. In short, it's a big hot mess, one which is a bit too neatly resolved at the end for the major issues the show raises.

Photo by Dan Norman

As I can see it, at face value The Abominables has three major themes: teamwork (or lack thereof); bullying and feeling like an outsider; and the role parents play in setting a good example for their kids. When addressed separately, they are a mixed package of success. The show does a great job of showing how rotten these parents are on every level; they connive, they sneer, they gossip, they cajole, they fight, and are all around horrible role models for their kids; no wonder their children have gotten the wrong message! This clarion call (should have,  hopefully) hit each of the parents in the audience; there's a lot to learn from here, particularly for the sports obsessed. The importance and lack of teamwork throughout the show is also pretty clear. Mitch doesn't lose friends and become an outcast because he isn't on the A Team; he walls himself off in a bitter prison of his own making and becomes a mean, spiteful person. Who wants to spend time with that? How can a team win when one of the players won't pass? This theme could have been made a little more explicit, but overall I think it comes through.

Photo by Dan Norman

The Abominables really loses its way when coming to the third theme, that of the "other" or outsider. There are so many questions I have after seeing this portion of the show: are we more concerned about the fact that Harry is from a foreign place? That he's not human? That he's adopted? There's a lot going on, and the way it plays out through the plot is clumsy at best. I don't think that the show is trying to make any very negative metaphors about foreign humans being animals or adoption happening because birth parents are lazy or neglectful (at least I certainly hope they aren't; I've never seen such a message from the Children's Theatre Company and I have faith that any such subtext is very unintentional here). But because this story is told from Mitch's perspective (not Harry's), we never get the chance to really understand how Harry feels, which to me is really the person who should be explaining his feelings and addressing the audience. By making Mitch an antihero we lose the chance to straightforwardly address some very heavy (and very relevant) issues such as racism, bullying and adoption, and that's a shame. I don't think the kids who will see The Abominables are going to read all this subtext into the show, but it is something that would concern me as a parent. How would I help unpack some of the issues raised here in a way that a child could understand? What if my child was adopted and saw this show and asked me questions? I really wouldn't know how to tackle that.

Photo by Dan Norman

There are things that I really liked. The cast is tremendously talented across the board and they really work hard to sell the show. Their musical prowess, especially in the case of the child actors, is very impressive. The set, designed by Andrew Boyce, is reminiscent equally of a large timber lodge and a hockey arena, and it's a really unique design that I found highly compelling. The most interesting part of the show is easily the enormous amount of choreography performed on roller blades, a complex maneuver that was beautifully led and executed by Fight and Hockey Choreographer Ryan Bourque and Dance Captain Stephanie Bertumen. It really works on stage, and I'd love to see some of these techniques in future performances on other stages for other shows.

Photo by Dan Norman

But I'd be lying if I said I left the theater feeling anything but uneasy. There's a lot going on in The Abominables, and its ambitious scope has so much potential. I hope since this was an original commission that there might be opportunity to straighten out some of the kinks. I may be making a mountain out of a molehill; maybe I'm reading too much into the show and it can be taken at face value as a story of teamwork, and left at that. But with kids I believe you have to be careful and direct, and the confusing questions left by the treatment of Harry, particularly with his adoptive parents, has really kept me pondering. I'd love to hear what your thoughts are.

Photo by Dan Norman

If you want to see what you think of The Abominables for yourself (and I always encourage this; the crowd seemed very engaged at the show and if they liked it, you might too), you have ample opportunity before it closes on October 15. More information and tickets can be found by clicking on this link.

Aladdin Amazes at the Orpheum

The latest iteration of Disney's classic cartoons has some fine moments.


Photo by Deen van Meer

The crowd at the Orpheum was getting restless. Two songs before the Act 1 finale we were informed that there was a technical issue and the action briefly paused. What on earth could we be waiting for?

Turns out it was the spectacular Cave of Wonders (where Aladdin finds the Genie, remember?), and boy, was it ever worth the wait. It's the most spectacular set I've seen on a traveling Broadway stage, and once the action was in play we could all see why; scene drops, fireworks, flame bursts, magical tricks, and a whole lot more effects summed up to make the number a showstopper and the audience forget all about the quick pause. It was easily my family's favorite part of the show, and I'm glad the production staff took a moment to make sure the action could safely proceed before dazzling us with the spectacle.

Photo by Deen van Meer

Let's back up for a minute though. I'm sure you've heard of Aladdin (if not, get thee to a garage sale to find an inevitable VHS copy and watch it, stat), which is one of Disney's most beloved cartoon films. It was the first animated film to really generate discussion of nominating an actor's voiceover work for major awards like the Oscars thanks to Robin Williams' ingenious depiction of the Genie, which is to this day one of the most manic, unbelievably entertaining moments in children's film, ever.

Photo by Deen van Meer

Think of Aladdin as the Arabian Robin Hood, just with more magic, more romance, and way better music. Aladdin is a streetwise orphan struggling to live in poverty in Agraba; Jasmine is a gorgeous princess who feels trapped by her riches and royal expectations. Their worlds abruptly collide when Jasmine sneaks out of the palace one day, landing them both in the cross-sights of Jafar, the evil adviser to the Sultan. Jafar, consumed with the idea of ruling Agraba, manipulates Aladdin into getting him a magic lamp so that he can use a Genie's power to overthrow the Sultan. Things hit a snag when instead Aladdin becomes the owner of the lamp and enlists the Genie to help him win Jasmine back. The rest of the story is a tussle between these two plot lines, and as always Disney delivers a happy ending with a wink and a smile.

Photo by Deen van Meer

The magical element is one of the main reasons I am sure it's taken so long to bring Aladdin to stage; after all, how do you convincingly pull off flying carpets, enlightened animals, and all the panache a Genie has to offer? Most of this translated pretty well in this production, sans animals (sorry everyone, no Rajah or Abu to be found here). Instead, these characters are replaced with human companions for both Jasmine and Aladdin, along with several new songs. The effect works, but I have to say: I did miss our animal friends. The new music is good, but the showstoppers are still the original songs from the 1992 film, and they're still the main reason to go now.

Photo by Deen van Meer

The charm of this production lies heavily on the leads, and it's a good thing that they fit their bills perfectly. Up first is Adam Jacobs as Aladdin, and he couldn't be better cast. Jacobs has a knockout, trademark Disney voice, with all the swagger and charm Aladdin's character deserves. Watch out for him - he could be making some serious moves in the future. Anthony Murphy is reminiscent of Titus Burgess as the Genie; it's a different take than the Robin Williams version, but let's be honest: who is going to live up to that standard? Murphy's new direction is charming and well suited to the stage, and the audience loved him from his first opening note. Jonathan Weir is delightfully cartoony as Jafar (read my interview with him here) and it's easy to see how he has made a career owning the Disney villain trope. JC Montgomery has the show's most surprisingly awesome voice as the Sultan; I wish he had more songs so we could have reveled in his deep bass tones just a little longer. And Isabelle McCalla brings a fierce, feminist bent to her role as Jasmine with a touch of Idina Menzel; it's awesome to see a Disney princess providing a strong, kickass role model to all of the little girls in the audience.

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Speaking of little girls: I took my nieces and nephews to see this, and they loved it, but be warned: this Aladdin is a little more grownup. It's probably best suited to kids age 8 and older; younger can still enjoy it, but it's they may miss out on the humor. The age range for our kiddos was 9 to 13, and it was the perfect spread for enjoying this show.

Part of this maturity comes from the stunningly beautiful cast members, who traipse across the stage in varying states of sexy Agrabanian fashions and make winking asides to the audience. Dance Captain Michael Callahan has clearly coached them to the nines, and all of the dance numbers are lit with a whirlwind of choreography by Casey Nicholaw. Coupled with the costumes by Gregg Barnes, which are almost radioactive they're so colorful, it's quite an effect to behold. No expense was spared on Bob Crowley's scenic design, which includes the aforementioned Cave of Wonders, but also the show's most stunning effect: a real, working magic carpet that glides through the air in front of a sky of a million stars and radiant moon. It's a gorgeous effect that has the audience lost in time and space, floating weightless through the clouds with Aladdin and Jasmine; that single scene was worth the entire admission for me. I wish there were a few more moments that outstanding through the rest of the show, but either way: that flying carpet will give you your money's worth, and then some.

Photo by Deen van Meer

I forgot how wonderful the music from the original Aladdin was, and thanks to the superb direction of Conductor Brent-Alan Huffman I won't be likely to make that mistake again. Huffman leads the pit orchestra to literally burn through the songs, filling the Orpheum with lively jazz and swing and bringing the magic to numbers like "Friend Like Me," "Prince Ali," "Arabian Nights," and "A Whole New World." I loved seeing that the pit also used local musicians to supplement the orchestra, and it was great fun to take the kids down to look at the musicians at intermission (a practice my father started with me as a kid and that I highly recommend everyone do at least once).

Photo by Deen van Meer

There's nothing like a Disney show on stage. The company spares no expense in converting these stories to the theater, and it clearly shows throughout their shows. Aladdin retains a lot of the Disney magic that is seen in eternal favorites like Beauty and the Beast and Mary Poppins. I wouldn't rate Aladdin quite as highly as The Lion King - again, it's not really a fair comparison - but we had a great time going with the family and the kids each said they really enjoyed it. The Cave of Wonders and flying carpet are spectacular moments that I will be thinking of for some time to come, and I look forward to seeing what Disney has up its sleeves next. Aladdin runs through October 8; for more information and to buy tickets, click on this link.


Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The Top 10 Reasons to See Romeo and Juliet at the Guthrie

Or: The Most Millenial Review of the Most OG Millennial Play, Ever.


Photo by Jenny Graham

Who knew Romeo and Juliet could be funny?

I really mean it; WHO KNEW?

Certainly not me. I'll be the first to say that performances of Shakespeare tend to bore me to tears with productions that are far too reverent, slow, and dry; that are filled with emphatic, unnecessary pauses; and tend to feature audiences so quiet (and constrained) that you could could hear a pin drop. They're not fun. Shakespeare in general (at least for the majority of productions I've seen in my lifetime - Ten Thousand Things excluded) tends not to be fun, and it can really turn me off.

Knowing this, you can imagine my jubilation at attending Romeo and Juliet at the Guthrie last night, a spectacular production that billows fresh, vivacious life into this overdone play and opened my eyes to new facets of the show that I'd not seen before, despite how many times I've seen it.

I'm not going to recap the plot of Romeo and Juliet here; I think by now we have all seen the show (or some iteration of it) aplenty. I do want to focus this piece on all the ways this production stands out from others I've seen with a list of my top 10 favorite elements. One request of the Guthrie before I start: can you please, please add some Tweet seats for this (and future) shows? I was DYING for a live tweet of this modern adaptation and I really think it could enhance the engagement, especially for younger audiences. Please consider it! 

And without further adieu, here are the top 10 reasons to see Romeo and Juliet:


Photo by Jenny Graham


1. The Nurse. Typically I'm a little over the servant and supporting roles in plays like this; their speeches feel unnecessary, overlong, and boring. Thankfully, none of these adjectives describe Candace Barrett Birk, the ingenious woman playing the Nurse here. Birk is the ultimate town gossip, deliciously sharing salacious tidbits of her mind and leaving us hanging on her every word. It's the OG Real Housewives word-of-mouth style, and it feels delightfully naughty to eat up every tidbit Birk drops. She's absolutely marvelous, and you'll adore her portrayal.

Photo by Jenny Graham

2. Straight Up Street Swagger. It should be pretty well established by now that the men of the Capulet and Montague gangs are all big mouth, dick swinging showoffs whose incessant meddling in things that are not their business is the whole reason this mess of a plot is pushed into action in the first place. Their incessant bawdiness is perfectly played up here with a punk rock wardrobe and robust performances from Lamar Jefferson and Kelsey Didion, who play Benvolio and Mercutio, respectively. Jefferson is utterly charming as Benvolio, and it's easy to see how he can talk Romeo (or pretty much anyone) into anything. He explodes into the shining heart of every ensemble performance, and it's thoroughly engaging. Didion is surprising as Mercutio, bringing a sinful delight to each of her lewd lines. Her casting is an inspired choice, and Mercutio's braggadocio bears a whole new meaning when played by the ballsiest woman in the game. Stan Demidoff is excellent as the quietly evil Tybalt, clearly relishing playing the man we all love to hate. This is the definition of a Mötley Crüe (in every sense of that phrase - band included), and it really works. 

Photo by Jenny Graham

3. The Wardrobe. I often relish the Guthrie's costuming, and this is no different. The gang's aesthetic is somewhere between The GodfatherThe Matrix, Green Day and the Hobbit, which sounds bizarre but really works against the set's pale wash.The entire cast is swathed in shades of black, white and grey, literally leaving the play's heavy handed morality in your face at all times. Small touches, such as a shirt cut just low enough to reveal a giant chest tattoo, or an exquisitely bedazzled capelet for a ball scene, push these looks over the top. Each costume is exquisitely tailored and imbues a Milanese precision to the characters, and I can safely say that I wish I owned every piece of this wardrobe (even the men's duds, which are just as finely crafted as the women's.) 

4. Diverse Casting. This Romeo and Juliet is chock full of interracial couples, women in men's roles, men displaying stereotypically effeminate qualities, and so much more. I dig it. 

5. Juliet climbs her own damn balcony. 


Photo by Jenny Graham

6. Appropriate Emotional Maturity Levels. In all the brouhaha that typically surrounds Romeo and Juliet, it can be *really* easy to forget that the protagonists are only 15 years old. FIFTEEN. YEARS. OLD. They are immature, naive, impulsive, and completely unprepared for the gigantic life choices they are making. This production never loses sight of this, fully emphasizing the immaturity of Romeo and Juliet while also showing the overwhelming irresponsibility of their elders and the direct role their dysfunction has in the doomed couple's destruction. It clearly cuts the action, and there is no way you will leave this production confused about who did what and why it was wrong. 

Photo by Jenny Graham

7. Ryan-James Hatanaka as Romeo and Kate Eastman as Juliet. These two are perfectly paired and thoroughly embody what Romeo and Juliet is all about. Their charming repartee is equal parts winsome, delightful, heartbreaking, idealistic, naive and bombastic. They are totally adorable and trust: by the end of this, you will be 'shipping them, so hard. Also, they're gorgeous. Never hurts to have a little eye candy, and these two fulfill all your sappy romantic dreams in droves. 

8. Papa Pope in the House. I mean not really, but Scandal fans (shout out to the Shondaverse!) will be *living* for the no bullshit, Joe Morton-as-Papa-Pope truth bombs that James A. Williams expertly drops throughout the play in his role as Friar Lawrence. Is Friar Lawrence an enabler who is directly responsible for the mess in the Capulet tomb at the end of the play? Sure. But you can't say he didn't warn everyone multiple times in multiple ways, and his wisdom stands up today, over 400 years after the show was first performed. 

Photo by Jenny Graham

9. The Set. I know, I know. I wax poetic about almost every Guthrie set I see. I mean, they have one of the biggest budgets in town, so there's definitely an unfair advantage they have when it comes to raw resources. But I'd be lying if I didn't admit that I am always dying to see what their set team is up to, and this play has an absolutely gorgeous full size castle on a turnstyle that revolves into multiple rooms and views of Verona and Mantua, depending on how it is positioned. The effect is really stunning against the sky wash in the background, and when coupled with thoughtful details like a working fountain in the town square, sturdy vines for climbing Juliet's balcony, and a richly filled closet in Juliet's bedroom, it really knocks your socks off. 

Photo by Jenny Graham

10. It's Relevant. The idea that Shakespeare is timeless is literally the most tired of theater cliches, but it can be easy to forget in dry performances that suck the life out of the scripts, which are hundreds of years old and can always use a little judicious trimming. The Guthrie was clearly unafraid to make some edits here, juxtaposing scenes on top of each other and playing up the modern themes with contemporary deliveries that make many stanzas sound almost like beat boxing. Coupled with very trendy 1990s film references (chiefly Baz Luhrmann's Romeo and Juliet and The Matrix), and the ubiquitous plot (which, after all, is really just about gang violence and opposites attract, just about the most universal thing ever), this rendition of Romeo and Juliet could easily stand next to Hamilton in contemporary audiences' esteem if it gets that chance.


Photo by Jenny Graham

If you have some extra time, get thee to the Guthrie and see a stunning rework of an old, comfy fan favorite before it closes on October 28. The cast is clearly having so much fun, and they'll sweep you into their auras posthaste. If you're really clever about it you can see this excellent rendition for only $10 per ticket; click on this link to learn how to do so. For more information or to buy tickets, click on this link

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Want $10 Tickets to Romeo and Juliet at the Guthrie? Yeah, Me Too.

DEAL ALERT! DEAL ALERT! 


Photo by Mark vanCleave

Just popping in on a *very* busy theater month with this amazing deal for tickets to Romeo and Juliet at the Guthrie! There will be a special 1 p.m. matinee on Sunday, October 8 where all tickets are $10. This is definitely a deal to take advantage of; mainstage tickets normally run from $20 to $54 per pop for this show.

This event is part of the Guthrie's 19th Annual Shakespeare Classic, whcih was established in 1999 to help encourage more young people to attend these shows. There will also be a meet and greet with the cast in the lobby after the performance; this is a definite win-win-win!

For more information about the show itself (if you really don't know.... is that even possible?), check out the press release:

It’s a story so well-known it scarcely needs an introduction, yet surprisingly the Guthrie has produced it just twice before. Set in Verona where the rival houses of Capulet and Montague have had a long-standing feud, Romeo and Juliet is Shakespeare’s famous tragedy of star-crossed lovers, filled with all the passion of young love. Underscored by ingenious wit and astonishing beauty, the play pits the bitterness of resentment against the intensity of romance.

Tickets to the popular annual event are just $10, and every order must have at least one but no more than two adults for every young person. Tickets for the Shakespeare Classic are available through the Guthrie Box Office at 612.377.2224 or toll-free at 877.44.STAGE. This performance is not available for purchase online. 

Theater Latte Da's Man of La Mancha is Not to be Missed

Sometimes in life, all something needs is a fresh political climate to feel brand new again. 


Photo courtesy of Theater Latte Da

This was my main thought while watching Man of La Mancha, the premiere musical of Theater Latte Da's 20th anniversary season. I'm sure we've all heard at least a portion of the story of Don Quixote and you'd be hard pressed to find a musical lover who has yet to hear a raucous rendition of "The Impossible Dream," and I'll confess: I wasn't sure we really needed another staging of Man of La Mancha.

Photo courtesy of Theater Latte Da
Post-performance, I will happily admit that I was very, very wrong. Clipping in at an intermission-less 110 minutes of non-stop action (be still my expediency-loving-heart!), Man of La Mancha Latte Da-style is engrossing, emotional, and even (dare I say it?): a little avant garde.

For an overview of the story as quick as Latte Da's staging, lest any reader missed their Wishbone: Man of La Mancha is the musical re-imagining of the story of Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes' eternal novel that launched a thousand literary copycats. Don Quixote is the self-appointed name of Alonso Quixano, a lesser nobleman who spends his retirement immersed in literature about the long-gone traditions of knighthood and chivalry. Somewhere along the way Quixano become convinced he actually IS Don Quixote, and sets forth to return Spain to the days of chivalry and manners and jousting and vigils. Alongside Don Quixote is his faithful companion Sancho, who is firmly rooted in the real world and able to help his friend safely navigate the visions he summons at every turn. They meet giants disguised as windmills; a castle disguised as a lowly inn; and a beautiful lady Dulcinea disguised as a lowly prostitute named Aldonza.

Photo courtesy of Theater Latte Da

Don Quixote's illusions are relatively harmless to anyone but himself and are even found charming by several he encounters, until it becomes clear that the line between reality and fiction is becoming too unbearable for those around him to maintain. This mainly affects Aldonza, who struggles to marry her painful life of suffering with Don Quixote's endless adulations. Things come to a head when Don Quixote is finally tricked out of his madness by his nephew and enters the end of his life a much "saner," but unhappier, man. Woven throughout the action for this production is a trial of Cervantes himself, who performs the story of Don Quixote as his defense. Although it sounds a little weird, the intermittent trial really helps to keep the narrative moving and allows us to hear some of Cervantes' thoughts on his master work that bring even more relevance to the story of Don Quixote today.

Photo courtesy of Theater Latte Da

The excellence of this performance is a testament to the wonderful cast, who are punchy and precise in their delivery and keep the action humming along. Anchoring the cast is the tremendous Martín Solá. Solá has a ravishing voice and emphatic delivery that instantly make him sympathetic, and it's impossible to resist being captivated by his noble, charming rendition of Don Quixote (and as an aside, can I just say: how refreshing to have someone who actually has a Spanish heritage play this role?!). Meghan Kreidler is perfectly paired with Solá as the fiery Aldonza, bringing her trademark strength and vitality to Man of La Mancha's most difficult scenes to watch. Her devastating performance provides a strong antidote to Quixote's charms, and it is through her pain (and later adoration) that we can see the strongest heights and pitfalls of Don Quixote's impact.

Photo courtesy of Theater Latte Da

The rest of the ensemble sylphs nimbly between multiple roles and constructs a rock-solid melodic foundation for the rest of the show. This is a cast so musical that you can hear their singing as they speak, from Rodolfo Nieto's thundering basso to McKinnley Aitchison's trilling (and thrilling) soprano. Jon-Michael Reese provides some much-needed comedic relief as the Padre, hilariously mediating a scene at the confessional and showing empathy for Don Quixote's plight when others are only ready to laugh. Andre Shoals bring mesmerizing presence as the Governor who puts Cervantes on trial, and Sara Ochs lends operatic gravitas to her role as the Housekeeper. The ensemble's impressive musical prowess is on full display by the end of the show, in which a rousing reprise of "The Impossible Dream" leaves the audience with full hearts and damp cheeks.

Photo courtesy of Theater Latte Da

The costumes are ingeniously designed by Rich Hamson and feature delightfully macabre masks for each scene set in the fictional La Mancha. I was fixated on the masks, which are somewhere between a Hamlet skull and Dia de los Muertos attire and are utterly transformative. The swift costume changes are simple but completely metamorphic, and Hamson's work is a testament to the value of truly thoughtful design. Hamson's work is greatly assisted by the fabulous lighting from Marcus Dilliard, which transports the story to new dimensions. Deceptively complex operations such as placing the characters into top-lit chessboard squares or washing the entire frame in a violent crimson hue instantaneously alters the tone and provides the transition feeling usually assigned to scene changes, which aren't really present here. Mason and Dilliard's work in concert is all the cast needs to elevate Man of La Mancha to a whole new level, and they succeed swimmingly.

Photo courtesy of Theater Latte Da

It's amazing how context changes the tone of everything, and this Man of La Mancha is no different. It's become a tired, overused cliche to talk about the difference in the world since our recent presidential transition. I don't mean to harp on it, but Don Quixote's apparent madness really seems so much more complex in light of current events. What could seem more pressing than the story of a man who is so delusional that he lives in a totally alternate universe, to the consternation of all who encounter him? Or conversely, and perhaps more relevant: how mad is it, really, to turn away from the cruelty and suffering of the real world and instead work with all of your heart and might to create a better, more beautiful one, even if it should cost you your sanity in the end? After all, as Cervantes writes:

“When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies? Perhaps to be too practical is madness. To surrender dreams — this may be madness. Too much sanity may be madness — and maddest of all: to see life as it is, and not as it should be!” 

This Man of La Mancha is not to be missed; the music is lovely, the staging is tight as a drum, and you'll see a whole new side to a classic work of literature and theater. Man of La Mancha runs at the Ritz Theater through October 22; for more information or to buy tickets, click on this link.

Monday, September 18, 2017

~ [almo$t equal to] almost makes it

For my first ever visit to Pillsbury House Theatre, I was lucky enough to see ~ [almo$t equal to], a newly translated Swedish play. 

Photo by George Byron Griffiths

Making it's premiere on this side of the Atlantic (with the help of the always-excellent American Swedish Institute), ~ [almo$t equal to] uses the interwoven stories of three people's lives to make a point about capitalism, assumptions and kindness. The play opens with a short lesson on sociological equations that evaluate happiness. Can you quantify happiness by boiling it down into a simple equation? What makes a thing or experience truly worth your investment of time and money? How can you evaluate?

Photo by George Byron Griffiths

From there, the audience explores these questions through the life of Peter, a homeless man; Andrej, a volatile poor young man looking for a job (and failing); Martina, a privileged woman who chooses to live a humbler life than her family raised her with; and sundry characters who surround and encounter each of these people and help provide color to their stories. These can include a job coach, reverend, liqueur store employees, a long term life partner, or even the id of a character herself. 

Photo by George Byron Griffiths

These seemingly simple elements combine to create a surprisingly rich script. Andrej at first appears a sympathetic character but we become horrified as we learn how far he's willing to go to avenge his perceived lack of privilege and opportunity. Martina seems noble but becomes much more complex as we learn how resentful she is of her chosen life of poverty. Perhaps the most complexing moral quandary arises in our views of Peter, through whom we see every shade of perception from a lazy opportunist posing as a homeless person to a victim of violence to a mourning brother to a person of character. It is through our reaction to the way our perception of Peter changes (and the surrounding characters' reactions to his presence in various scenarios) that the audience is forced to really reconcile with their notions of fairness, support, and charity. It's a humbling exercise, and I'd venture a guess that many in the audience were surprised and uncomfortable with their reactions to the many sides we see of Peter's experience. 

Photo by George Byron Griffiths

There are a few frustrating elements to ~ [almo$t equal to]. The first two acts clip along at rapid pace and really pull the audience into this morality play. The third act gets a little lost as it tries to tie up each loose end, with some of the tension dissolving into a subplot that muddies the characters' relationships. I wish the ending was a little tighter, explicitly confronting and continuing the focus on Peter and Martina and the way their disparate realities were in conflict. An odd pause between the second and third acts also provides a jarring gap in the action and really interrupts the momentum of the show, which flows beautifully until that point. There were some excellent elements that stood out, too. The total ignorance of stereotypical gender roles - each actor played a variety of parts without a second thought - was really refreshing. The sleek stage design was simple but streamlined and was perfectly adequate for the performance. The appearance of a 19th century sociologist at the beginning of the show is charming and reminiscent of your favorite historical YouTube artists. And the actors speak as if breathing, with a conversational tone that really warms up the relationships on stage. 

Photo by George Byron Griffiths

Still, those are personal preferences, and the writing and staging has nothing to do with the terrific cast. Each person plays multiple characters in the show, and their skill at quickly transitioning between roles really shows. Sun Mee Chomet remains a perennial favorite in multiple appearances, always lending a comedic edge (and often a hefty dose of poignancy as well) into each of her parts. Randy Reyes is equally charming in multiple supporting roles, and he does a good job of serving as a narrator of sorts throughout the show. Jay Owen Eisenberg is punchy and volatile as Andrej, and brings a real edge to his acting. Tracey Maloney is deceptively convincing as a young teenage boy and sickeningly convincing as the kleptomaniac Martina. Paul de Cordova, however, was my surprise favorite in multiple roles but especially as Peter. de Cordova really had me examining my relationship to the homeless and needy in my own life, and he expertly manipulates the audience's stereotypes with a broad range of portrayals. I was really impressed with his work and I look forward to seeing him again in future productions. 

Photo by George Byron Griffiths

~ [almo$t equal to] is an excellent foray into the dangers of assumptions and the limits of capitalism when it comes to happiness. It's true that money is not the key to happiness; it's also true that there is nothing sexy or glamorous about poverty. What we are all seeking lies somewhere in a delicate balance between these two things, and it's an evaluative process that never really ends. By forcing the audience to truly confront their assumptions about what is good or bad; who is or is not deserving of help or sympathy; and revealing the deeper story behind the basic assumptions we all make daily about those we encounter,  ~ [almo$t equal to] makes room for a deeper, more thoughtful exploration of what it really means to be a human in society today. ~ [almo$t equal to] runs at Pillsbury House Theatre through October 22; more information and tickets can be found by clicking on this link

MUST SEE: In The Heights at the Ordway

What was Lin-Manuel Miranda up to prior to Hamilton


Photo courtesy of the Ordway

If you don't know the answer to that question, you could be forgiven. Hamilton has become such a ticket sales juggernaut that its reputation has eclipsed a host of other excellent new musicals of the last 10 - 15 years; which is a shame, because there are a lot of excellent pieces out there that deserve a little more love.

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In The Heights, Miranda's first musical (and a Best Original Score winner at the Tony Awards in 2008), is one such piece. Detailing the story of a vibrant, richly drawn neighborhood in the Washington Heights area of New York City, In The Heights is a clear precursor to Hamilton (and Miranda's success) and a testament to the value of uplifting new artists who are reinventing the definition of Broadway and what "belongs" on stage.

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In The Heights follows Usnavi, a bodega owner, as he observes the neighborhood he's grown up in all his life. Raised by his "Abuela" Claudia (an elderly Cuban woman who took him in after his parents died), Usnavi cares for his cousin Sonny and pines after the beautiful Vanessa, a woman who has dreamed all her life of leaving the Heights but is anchored by her dysfunctional mother. Vanessa works for Daniela, a vivaciously colorful salon owner who also hired Carla. Living next door is Nina, who has recently left Stanford after a difficult year of being unable to afford tuition. Nina lives with her parents Kevin and Camilla Rosario, who have built up a local limousine taxi business and are devastated to learn of their daughter's plans to stay at home. Nina falls in love with Benny, the dispatch worker in her parent's business, and together they plan for the future and change her parents' minds about the plans for Nina's life.

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Got all that? Good, because that is essentially the show. There are some major plot lines - such as Abuela Claudia winning a $96,000 lottery ticket that creates a small crisis in Usnavi and Sonny's future plans, and a city-wide blackout that wreaks havoc in the neighborhood left without power - but really, at it's heart In The Heights is a story about relationships. Every person in this show has a purpose and a meaning to another. There are not really true extras or a chorus - we come to know (and love) everyone in these Heights, right down to the frozen ice vendor walking down the street. It's a gorgeously drawn, complex, heartbreaking, inspiring melee, and I can't say enough about how captivating this world is.

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Part of that is due to the profoundly beautiful music, which features Miranda's trademark hip-hop style mixed with an encyclopedic melange of sounds from every Latin American influence imaginable. We hear salsa, bachata, tango, mambo, merengue, rumba, samba, perrero, and the sounds of giants such as Celia Cruz, Gloria Estefan, Selena, Thalia, Tito Puente, and so much more. The score explodes with life and the interwoven sounds of the islands, and it belies the surprisingly small pit orchestra. Hats off to this group (expertly led by conductor Eugenio A. Vargas), who really made this production shine through vivacious numbers like "96,000," "Paciencia y Fe," and "No Me Diga."

Photo courtesy of the Ordway

The mostly locally-grown cast is also excellent and a testament to the power of working with local arts organizations to help grow and sustain talent right here in the Twin Cities. Justin Gregory Lopez absolutely captures Miranda's spirit as Usnavi, with a lyrical delivery, heartwarming smile and so, so much heart. Debra Cardona is magical as Abuela Claudia, lending a gravitas and serving as the beating heart of the show; her exit in Act II had the audience in tears. Emily Madigan and Lauren Villegas are side-splittingly hilarious as salon ladies Carla and Daniela, respectively, and their fabulous performance of "Carnaval del Barrio" had everyone dancing in their seats. Pedro Bayon and Lara Trujillo are perfectly paired as Kevin and Camila Rosario. Fernando Collado is winning as Usnavi's young cousin Sonny and Val Nuccio struts her stuff as Vanessa. My personal favorites were Aline Mayagoitia as Nina and Stephen Scott Wormley as Benny; their chemistry was off the charts and their voices beautifully interwove in duets such as "Sunrise" and "When the Sun Goes Down." Mayagoitia also had the standout song of the show in her portion of "Alabanza," a gorgeous dirge that has lingered in my head for days.

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The set and costumes for this show are colorful and evocative, another perfect blend of the decidedly international flavor of Washington Heights. Dingy tenement buildings are adorned with colorful produce, vibrant flags and clear love and respect by those who reside in them. Clothing is colorful and in constant motion, with flowing skirts and interesting shapes exploding with every hue of the rainbow. There's not a lot of props to speak of - the production wisely focuses instead on the lavish choreography from Alexander Gil Cruz, which covers every dance style imaginable and is breathlessly executed.

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If you can't tell by now, In The Heights had me captivated from the first 30 seconds. I make it a policy not to research new-to-me shows before I see them, as I believe any story should be clear without needing an encyclopedic amount of research to understand it before I even sit down. The world of In The Heights is so clearly drawn, so relevant to our times, and so extraordinary in its ordinariness that I couldn't stop engaging, even long after the last curtain fell. When is the last time that you heard a song about student loans and affording college on stage? Or saw people dream over winning not a million or billion dollars, but $96,000, just enough to comfortably catch them up on their bills? When is the last time you saw new immigrants really celebrating their lives in America, but not without simultaneously explicitly discussing the difficulties they've faced since arriving - gentrification, police violence, poverty, and more?

Photo courtesy of the Ordway

Watching the Ordway's main stage blossom into a radiant bouquet of melanin was one of my favorite theater memories there to-date, and I hope that In The Heights marks a turning point in terms of doing more contemporary, diverse stories (utilizing locally nurtured talent). I would happily revisit this production again and again, and I can confidently state that you will get a definite bang for your ticket dollars. Please fill this theater to capacity every night - let's have more In The Heights in our futures! In The Heights runs at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts through September 24; more information and tickets can be found by clicking on this link.