Tuesday, November 14, 2017

THRILLIST: Best New Restaurants of 2017

As the weather cools down, date night heats up... 

The brunch at Dalton & Wade is *legit*

And comes indoors. Rather than spending halcyon picnics by the lake or tubing down the river, we must now turn inward (literally) to the cozy warmth of public establishments to break our winter blues. But where should we go?

If you're feeling a little overwhelmed by the state of our unceasingly volatile restaurant industry, join the club. Thankfully, I worked with Thrillist to compile a list of the best new restaurants to grace our local scene in 2017, and there are some fabulous new additions. They may not replace time-worn favorites (R.I.P. Piccolo and Vincent's), but they have some exciting new things to say and are definitely worth a visit. Check out my full list by clicking on this link here, and let me know: what did I leave out? What restaurants are you most excited for in 2018? Let me know what to add to my must-try list!

Monday, November 13, 2017

Sister Act is Again a Surefire Hit at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres

What a difference a few short years can make. 


Photo courtesy of Chanhassen Dinner Theatres

When Sister Act last came to the Chanhassen Dinner Theatres (CDT) it was 2015. The presidential election was just kicking into gear, Charlottesville had never happened, and Harvey Weinstein was still Hollywood's friendliest movie producer.

Oh how times change.

In that first Sister Act, the production was fun but in retrospect a little glib. I enjoyed it quite a lot (you can see my original review here) but it lacked a certain gravitas to really make it sing.

After a hugely successful run then and a couple more years of experience under their belts, most of that original cast has returned (with a few key additions) and wow - what a change. This cast is older, wiser, graver, funnier, and clicks much more soundly than they did before. I'm not going to summarize the plot in this review - again, you can always watch the inimitable Whoopi Goldberg's film original or read my previous review for that - but I do want to detail what's changed and what I really enjoyed.

Photo courtesy of Chanhassen Dinner Theatres

For starters, let's hit the cast. Regina Marie Williams is back in the title role of Deloris van Cartier and wowza what a return! I always enjoy her work (see my thoughts on the perfection that is Nina Simone: Four Women here), and she was good last time, but she really knocks it out of the park in this production. You can tell that Williams has had time to really get comfortable in Deloris's shoes, and the way Williams sashays through each line (and wallops her powerful voice through each song) left such a huge smile on my face. Williams has also clearly worked with the cast to update several of the key jokes, and there are some sly contemporary references here that had the whole audience in giggles.


Several other CDT stalwarts have returned. Norah Long is back as the inimitable Mother Superior and she is an absolute riot. Like Williams, Long is clearly much more comfortable in her role and anchors it with a steadfast gravitas that draws a firm line between her church's walls and the world of sin outside. Britta Ollmann remains fabulous as the shocking soprano Sister Mary Robert. Ollmann absolutely nailed her rendition of "The Life I Never Led" - seriously, it will give you chills, and she's a showstopper. Seri Johnson remains a fine and funky Sister Mary Lazarus, and the eternal Keith Rice is the gift that keeps on giving as a Kanye-sunglasses-clad Monsignor O'Hara.

Photo courtesy of Chanhassen Dinner Theatres
A few new additions really beef up the casts's potential and build this reprise into a towering crescendo. One of my all-time Chanhassen faves Therese Walth (aside: CDT, please, PLEASE reprise Hairspray with Therese - I would do anything to see it again) levels her trademark Nikki Blonsky comedic chops and booming voice at the heart of the role of Sister Mary Patrick, and she's a stitch. Fernando Collado is a welcome surprise as Pablo, especially after his recent lovely turn as Sonny in In The Heights (another piece I wouldn't mind seeing again). Andre Shoals is spot-on creepy as the evil Curtis. It's been a while since he was last seen at CDT, and he's a great choice for this part. Kasano Mwanza remains a scene-stealer as Curtis's nephew TJ, and once again I found myself mourning that he only had a few brief moments in which to shine.

Photo courtesy of Chanhassen Dinner Theatres
The costumes - for the most part nuns in habits, although there are a few choice show costumes sprinkled throughout - are essentially the same as before. The same is true of the set, although it drew me in more than it had circa 2015. The moment when the church's stain glassed windows turn "on" was especially poignant, and the set's economy never holds it back from letting you know exactly where we are in the story. The simplicity of all this musical's accouterments keep the focus on the cast's enormously talented vocals, a wise choice that needs no further explanation. There were a few moments that troubled me in the show, particularly the disrobing of a trans character that was used for laughs near the end of Act I; I wish and hope that the "man in a dress" trope can go away, especially as our trans family faces increasingly dangerous times. Be aware of those moments if you plan to go.

Photo courtesy of Chanhassen Dinner Theatres

I'll be honest: I was initially hoping the next show at CDT would be something I hadn't seen before, so I felt a little blue when it was announced that this was coming back. But on viewing I found myself quite moved by this production of Sister Act, bringing us full circle to the importance of societal context. To sit in my church (a darkened theater), communing with fellow patrons at the altar of a group of magnificently talented women who celebrate sisterhood; band together to protect themselves from the violence of bad men; who strive with unceasing personal sacrifice to bring more peace and beauty and faith to a world in pain - well, what message could possibly be more timely than that? I can't remember the last time I saw so many women on stage at once, and it was really inspiring to see such a critical mass; what a wonderful experience it must be for all of these actresses. There is such a pure joy to this show, which is bolstered by the clear camaraderie between these castmates, that truly served as a balm to the soul in our troubled times. We all deserve a little more peace of mind, and I can guarantee that you will find it here at Sister Act. Sister Act runs through the end of February 2018; for more information or to buy tickets, click on this link.

Friday, November 3, 2017

Reviewed in Brief: Collide's Dracula is a Campy Delight

If you liked Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, you will LOVE this show.


Dracula from COLLIDE THEATRICAL on Vimeo.


Cross necklaces? Check. Vampy face paint? Check. Perfectly tailored pleated pants? Check. Moody emo rock band? Check. Ubiquitously smeared eyeliner paired with thin strapped halter tops? Check, check, check.

If there was any doubt that the 1990s are back in full force, Dracula, now showing at the Ritz Theater, sweeps it straight into the trash. This campy reimagination of the traditional horror story shouldn't work but somehow it does, and the firmly planted 1990s roots definitely help.

The story here is an extremely simplified version of Dracula with a few twists. There is no dialogue; in fact, the entire show is told through modern dance and covers of carefully chosen pop songs. Everything is set in the modern era (I'd place the influence in the 1990s, but the aesthetic is right at home with today's latest Kendell Jenner lewks). In this light, Dracula comes off more as a whiny stalker than a virile vampire king, and the effect is oddly... heartwarming?

I love things that expand my mind and are hard to describe, and this definitely fits the bill. Clocking in at a tight 90 minutes (INCLUDING intermission - why even bother at that point? Just skip it!), it had my jaw open from the get-go and really won me over. The performers are clearly passionate about the show and fully invested in making it sing, and that is key to making this work. The musicians are quite talented, especially Michael Hanna as Dracula. Hanna lives everyone's dark twisted fantasy of being a shadowy rock god slicing his vocals over the surprisingly solid rock band like fangs in a virgin's neck (sorry guys, I had to). He'd be perfect starring in a focused musical about Queen, and he is able to narrate the show through his few songs.

The other half of the performance is composed of some eccentric, captivating modern dance (when is the last time you heard that word combo?). The show begins with what I can only describe as a balletic grunge club mash-up, devolving about halfway through the show into a brilliant parody of a Sia music video and culminating in a Thriller-esque group sashay near the end. Like the music it's an extremely random combination of elements, but it works. I found myself drawn to the dancers' consuming physicality and as an avid fan of Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, I was grinning from ear to ear by the time we left.

If you want something 100% unique, performed by a highly talented mix of young performers and straight from the brain of a mad theatrical scientist, Dracula is for you. It sounds strange (and I suppose it is), but it made for a great date night and plenty of conversation after the show. I'm eager to see what else the new-to-me company of Collide has up their velvet sleeves. Dracula runs at the Ritz Theater through November 12; for more information or to buy tickets, click on this link.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Finding Neverland is Filled With Magic

It's always fun to get a peek behind the scenes. 


Photo by Jeremy Daniels

I mean, who doesn't want to feel like an in-the-know insider? With the ubiquitous ability to be a voyeur just about anywhere these days thanks to social media, is there anything we don't already know?

Photo by Jeremy Daniels

When it comes to pre-internet works, the answer is: absolutely. Finding Neverland, a lovely new show now playing at the Orpheum, tells just such a story about the origins of much-beloved Peter Pan. It's miles better than the recent movie and well worth a stop if you want to escape our early November snow.

Photo by Jeremy Daniels

Finding Neverland begins with J.M. Barrie, the author of Peter Pan, strolling in Kensington Gardens as he brainstorms plots for his newest play. He runs into a woman named Sylva and her bevy of boys, whose boisterous playtime and honest assessment of his work rigorously reinvigorates his imagination. Enchanted with the vivacity with which they approach life after the death of their father, Barrie begins to spend more and more time with Sylvia and her sons, alienating his wife Mary to the point that she leaves J.M. Barrie completely. The theater Barrie works at is in dire straights and desperately needs a new play to bring in revenue. Barrie writes the stories he tells the boys into a manifesto to childhood named Peter Pan; the company initially resists the story but changes their minds when they see the magic it contains. Sylvia contracts consumption and dies shortly after the play is released, and J.M. Barrie continues to partake in the boys' lives after their mother dies.

Photo by Jeremy Daniels

I wasn't sure what to expect from this. I watched the vaunted 2004 film of the same name but I gotta be honest: I was not very impressed, despite a terrific cast that included Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet. I expected much of the same here, but I'm happy to report that the stage version is SO much better than the film. Something about the film lost all of the magic and whimsy to me. Broadway has infused that absent magic and whimsy into the stage version in spades, and this production is utterly charming. It helps that it's set to a really gorgeous soundtrack, with new-to-me songs like "All That Matters," "Neverland," "Stronger," and "When Your Feet Don't Touch The Ground" soothing my ears. The aural aesthetic is like a mashup of the soundtracks of Titanic, Once, Mary Poppins and British pub songs, and it's an appealing mix that will have you tapping your toes in time.

Photo by Jeremy Daniels

The cast is perfectly suited to their roles, beginning with Billy Harrigan Tighe as J.M. Barrie. Tighe is lithe and lustrous of body and song, and his mischievous performance captures Peter Pan's endlessly youthful spirit in spades. Lael Van Keuren is a perfect match to Tighe as Barrie's muse Sylvia. Van Keuren has a gorgeous voice that soars through the show with a warm delivery and a loving touch. Their sinuously backlit duet on "What You Mean To Me" is easily one of the best moments of the show, as is Van Keuren's glittering, balletic exeunt for Sylvia's death at the end of the show. Whoever paired these two knew what they were doing - they are the new Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers!

Photo by Jeremy Daniels

The rest of the cast is equally exciting. John Davidson is wonderful as theater owner and inspiration for Captain Hook Charles Frohman. Davidson has a gruff yet approachable demeanor that helps infuse the many sad moments with honest comedy, and he's a natural anchor of the cast. The children playing Peter, George, Jack and Michael (rotating every night) are absolutely wonderful and will impress your pants off, particularly in the gorgeous a capella performance of "We're All Made of Stars." The rest of the ensemble cast is great as well, although one quibble: the magnificent baritone of Dwelvan David never really gets the chance to shine, and as the only person of color in the cast with speaking lines, his casting as Nanna at the end of the show was particularly alarming. I'm sure it was innocently intentioned, but it's a bad look, and I truly wish they had managed to arrange it differently (he'd make a marvelous Captain Hook - let him at it, Broadway!).

Photo by Jeremy Daniels

The production team did a beautiful job of making a warm, inviting environment for this creative play, in the truest sense of the word. The choreography is deceptively elegant, adding so much to the story with just a few thoughtful gestures. There are some true dancers among the cast, and it's a pleasure to watch them pirouette through the stage. Sets alternate between vibrantly painted scrims and several lush projections. Props land the audience squarely in varied environments ranging from a decadent park to a formal dinner party to a children's performance in a back yard and are quickly whisked in and out. The costumes are straightforwardly gorgeous, featuring that early 20th century aesthetic I so enjoy and rich textures you can see even from the back of the hall. And small attention to detail, like the impressive use of shadows and negative space, or the clear influence of the resident "air sculptor" (I don't even know what that is but it's in the program and it definitely paid off), bring out the child in all of us.

Photo by Jeremy Daniels

Finding Neverland hits the full emotional spectrum and arrives at the perfect time. Things can feel so dark and dreary these days, both in the weather and society at large. The holiday season is so often completely overwrought and quickly becomes more about things and stuff and to-do lists than the reason it supposedly exists: giving thanks, appreciating your blessings, and sharing time with loved ones. If there's one message of Finding Neverland (and Peter Pan, too), it's that no matter what bad things you might face in life, there's never an excuse to live it without a little magic and gratitude. Finding Neverland is something kids can enjoy but grownups will enjoy even more, so keep that in mind when buying tickets. Stories about Peter Pan have always been of mediocre interest to me, but Finding Neverland captivated in a totally unexpected way. It was a sweet surprise, and one I'd encourage you to check out if you can. For more information or to buy tickets, click on this link.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

The Stunning Show Wedding Band Tells the Whole Truth About Interracial Relationships

"Ain't too many people in this world get to be loved - really loved."

Photo by Allen Weeks

These graceful words sum up the heartbreaking finale to Wedding Band, a powerful show now running at the Penumbra. I want to state up front that this show was very personal to me, and I can't possibly leave that out of my thoughts. I have included more of myself in this review than usual, and I hope that's okay. 

Photo by Allen Weeks

Wedding Band is, in an oversimplified summary, about the struggles of interracial lovers in North Carolina in 1918. Julie and Herman have been a couple for 10 years, and they are still very much in love - but boy if it isn't difficult. Interracial marriage is still illegal in the American South, and no one on either "side" of the racial divide is pleased about their relationship.

Photo by Allen Weeks

A more accurate description of this beautiful script from Alice Childress, but harder to pinpoint neatly, is that Wedding Band's real moral lies in how it so pointedly captures the nefarious, myriad ways that this country's horrific racial history works to poison interracial relationships at every step. Our protagonists Julie and Herman love each other, true: but love is not enough. Love is not enough to afford tickets to a place where Julia and Herman can legally marry and be together. Love is not enough to protect Julia from gossip in her community and physical threats from other white men who view her as an available dalliance. Love is not enough to make Julia into a member of Herman's family, who are totally unable to accept her despite their own outcast status as Germans during a World War. Love is not enough to allow Julia to call a doctor or care for Herman when he becomes ill, a sickness from which he later dies - because the scandal his sleeping in a black woman's bed might incur is more important to his family and community than saving his life.

Photo by Allen Weeks

This not-enough-ness is what is so hard about interracial relationships and so hard to explain to those outside of one, even today. I am blessed to be half of a beautiful, strong, intimate interracial relationship. It is the pride of my life that my partner and I have found each other. We are great communicators, and luckily we don't face many of the challenges Julia and Herman do in Wedding Band. Our partnership is challenging and bracing and inspiring and so very worthwhile. But moments of this play struck me deeply with their relevance, even though we exist 100 years after this play takes place. Anyone in a committed partnership knows how much work it takes to understand each other and maintain a healthy common ground; imagine fighting for your relationship in tandem with hundreds of years of racial oppression and baggage at the same time.

Photo by Allen Weeks

So much has changed for the better since the time in which Wedding Band is set; 50 years ago the Loving vs. Virginia case made it crystal clear that interracial marriage was legal nationwide; the Civil Rights movement passed the Voting Rights Act and many other important pieces of legislation; the South was theoretically desegregated. But changing laws is not the same thing as changing hearts and minds, and that is the tragedy that confronts interracial couples to this day. I am legally allowed to marry my partner - for which I am extremely grateful - but I have still walked down the street with him and faced threats, been spit on, and been angrily confronted - yes, even here in "liberal" Minneapolis. We still have to carefully code where we live to make sure neighbors will not view one of us a threat. We still have to consider whose name to put on joint accounts and purchases, knowing that if it is mine it will likely receive better fees and interest rates. We have to face the possibility that if we should one day have children, they will be thoroughly planted in two completely different worlds, and that their "otherness" could make them a target of harassment.

Photo by Allen Weeks

It's such a shame that any of those things need to be true here, but they are. And it won't get better until we look these problems straight in the face and say yes, I see you; yes, we will fix this; yes, we will all do better. The denouement of Wedding Band falls when Julia is ready to leave Herman after 10 years of dedication, because the rest of it, of life outside of their locked bedroom door, is just too much. She can't talk about lynchings with him; she can't talk about her loneliness. It is so difficult just to see each other that their time cannot be used for anything other than loving each other, and while that is beautiful, it can't make up for the rest of the horrors Julia ceaselessly confronts as a black woman living in the American South in 1918.

Photo by Allen Weeks

Julia and Herman discuss these problems frankly, and although extremely painful it's the most authentic delineation of an interracial relationship that I've ever seen on stage. These are harsh, vicious, honest words, but they are the only words that could get Julia and Herman through. We like to think today that as a society that we are in some sort of post-racial utopia, that the end of slavery or the end of Jim Crow was enough to make race an arbitrary thing. We like to think that people who bring up race are just making a mountain out of a molehill, but if Charlottesville has taught us anything it's that we are never "over" America's racial sins. Until those sins are cleaned, until we take full ownership and apology and repentance for them, the rest of us will continue to flounder in the mire left in its wake. Julia and Herman cannot be just man and wife; they have to be a white poor man and an orphaned black woman in the American South, and those identities can never leave them despite how many doors they try to shut to lock them out.

Photo by Allen Weeks

Dame-Jasmine Hughes stars as Julia, and she's a revelation. Hughes savors her lines like chocolate cake, slowly wending them out; it's a pleasure to see an actress who has such grace and poise, and she lends a Gabrielle Union quality to her role. Hughes has a cadre of equally delightful actresses to tell the story with her. Ivory Doublette is charming and heartwarming as Mattie, bringing a shining warmth to the stage in her Penumbra debut. Austene Van is sincere and welcoming as Lula, and it's a pleasure to watch her mentorship over these fine young actresses. George Keller is the woman you love to hate as Julia's landlord Fanny, and her vibrant acting plunges the audience into a complex, difficult, rich narrative of the legacy that racism left to many people of color in the form of rigged property ownership, colorism and prejudice. Laura Esping is absolutely chilling as Herman's mother, and spits her dialogue with unmatched venom. It's a hard part, especially if you don't identify with the material, and Esping really knows how to hone her lines. Peter Christian Hansen is appropriately loving as Herman. Darius Dotch crackles on stage as Lula's son Nelson, and delivers several powerful lines about the place of black men (and particularly black soldiers) in U.S. society. Bob Beverage is horrifyingly familiar as the abusive Bell Man, demonstrating an invasion of privacy that is as chilling as it is unfortunately commonplace.

Photo by Allen Weeks

The set, designed by Vicki Smith, is relatively low-key. One half details the inside of Julia's bedroom; the other, Lula's front porch. The economy is comforting, and you never feel displaced or confused as to the place in the action. Every prop, considerately selected by Amy Reddy, feels well worn and well used, and it's clear that the cast is at home in their surroundings. The costumes are deceptively simple as designed by Mathew LeFebvre, and I really enjoyed the thoughtful details he placed on each. They're beautifully evocative of the early 1900s and well-suited to the character's various professions. Mike Wangen's lighting gently takes us through the time cycles of each day, and Lou Bellamy's masterful overall direction infuses this tautly drawn drama with dynamic gravitas.

Photo by Allen Weeks

Wedding Band is a raw, gorgeously told story that is vital to understanding interracial relationships and the devastating heritage of America's racial sins. If you want to understand how we got here (and how we can fix it); if you need a look in the mirror to see your own flaws and tribulations; if you simply want to see a show with powerful, nuanced performances and gripping dialogue; then you must attend Wedding Band. It runs at the Penumbra through November 12; I highly recommend it for any audience. You may not want to see it, but you should see it, and that alone makes it worth the trip. For more information or to buy tickets, click on this link.

Monday, October 23, 2017

A Modern, Tenacious Take on Hamlet

Shakespeare is getting all kinds of fresh beginnings these days. 


Photo by Amy Anderson

And what a joyful trend it is! First we had the stunningly modern take on Romeo and Juliet at the Guthrie (read my review here - one of my faves I've written lately); now we have a strikingly fresh rendition of Hamlet at Park Square Theater.

Photo by Amy Anderson

Hamlet has proven to be one of theater's most enduring scripts. Why? Something about this backstabbing family speaks to the human condition. As an extremely quick overview: Hamlet is the son of the freshly buried King of Denmark. His uncle has married his mother in an incestuous plot to become king, and Hamlet is having none of it. Things should have ended at Hamlet simply living his life with a surly attitude - but instead, he discovers that his father's ghost is roaming the castle. The ghost tells Hamlet that his father was murdered by his uncle; upon receiving that knowledge, Hamlet wholeheartedly dedicates himself to revenge. Like all Shakespearean tragedies, the plot only gets worse from there for our poor hero; much suffering and death faces the players until finally their lives are all spent and our emotions rung clear through.

Photo by Amy Anderson

This production has an exceptionally young cast. This has the effect of not only making the tightly edited action (the original play is near to five hours or so long, but this production clocks in at around 2 1/2 hours) pop, but really enlivens the material. At the center is Kory LaQuess Pullam as Hamlet. Long a rising star in the Twin Cities theater scene (check out this wonderful recent feature at the Strib), this production seals Pullam's place in Minnesota's thespian zeitgeist; stay tuned for much more from him. Pullam captures Hamlet's heated angst and lends a surprisingly funny gallows humor to the part. His style, mirrored in the rest of the cast, is almost conversational, and his intimate delivery really helps the material feel modern.

Photo by Amy Anderson

Surrounding Pullam is a tight, smart team of fellow young actors. Maeve Coleen Moynihan was my absolute favorite as a shiver-inducingly good Ophelia. Moynihan's delivery is truly haunting and horrifying, and you won't easily forget the finale of her powerful performance. Wesley Mouri is swift and brave as Ophelia's brother Laertes. Mouri shares all of the swashbuckling appeal of a Disney prince, and he charms here in this part. Kathryn Fumie is steadfast as Horatio, and brings a warmth and love to her role that helps enliven Pullam's Hamlet. Charles Hubbel and Sandra Struthers are expertly poised as King Claudius and Queen Gertrude, respectively. Their years of acting experience really shows, and Struthers' understated performance in particular sparkles amidst the more dynamic action on stage. My only unfulfilled request? I wish we could have seen Theo Langason in person as the king's ghost - his vocals are great but the physical representation of the ghost, with his face swathed in black fabric (??) is quite awkward and anathema to the straightforward modernity of the rest of the cast.

Photo by Amy Anderson

The set and staging of this production was truly unique, an it hit a lot of references home for me throughout the performance. The entire set is an enormous off-kilter cube, framed with beaming lights and paved with rough stones, in the middle of the stage. The back-center of this cube is a constant change of projections to move the scenes and intermittently used for closeup videos of the actors, almost as a giant TV set. It's really reminiscent of a mashup of the Ethan Hawke 2000-era film version of Hamlet and basically anything Baz Luhrmann made in the millennial era. It's eerie but effective, and the clean, harsh presentation yanks the audience straight out of fusty traditional territory. Costumes are very Matrix-level, with pleather coats, combat boots and dark sweatsuits attiring the heated actors.

Photo by Amy Anderson

Overall, I enjoyed this production. The first act drags a little despite Director Joel Sass's aggressive cutting; I'm not sure why. They make up for this in the second act, which races into a tempestuous fight scene that ends the show with breathless tension. I really appreciated the fresh take on long-hallowed lines (yes, despite the heavy cutting you will hear your To Be Or Not To Bes and Good Night Sweet Princes) that removed their precious reputations and imbued them with a deeper feeling. It was awesome to see more non-traditional casting and an intentional - and mostly successful - attempt to imbue this very dark plot with a healthy dose of humor. I'm excited to see where this dynamic, fresh acting crew heads after this production. They are the future of our local theater scene, and what a promising prospect we have to look forward to. Hamlet runs at Park Square Theater through November 11. For more information or to buy tickets, click on this link.

Marching Along to The Music Man

Yes, sir. Yes, sir. The piper pays him. 


Photo courtesy of Artistry

Long before Lin-Manuel Miranda made spoken word (aka hip hop) the hottest trend on stages anywhere, Meredith Wilson penned the iconic opening number of The Music Man (quoted above), where a peck of salesmen jostle on a "train" while sitting on their sales suitcases. The salesmen gossip as they sit in this simple staging, their words wringing together into a deftly musical number that turns elongated vowels into notes and texturizes the sound of the show.

The rhythmic opening leads straight into a theatrical time capsule full of unexpected wit and charm, and it holds up surprisingly well in a new production at Artistry in Bloomington. While a story about a con man who hoodwinks an entire community into giving him money and power with a wink and a smile might be just a bit cringe-worthy these days, The Music Man has a sunny smile to share that will give you hope for a way out of our current political mess.

Photo courtesy of Artistry

The Music Man tells the story of Harold Hill, a traveling salesman who is more con artist than businessman. Hill traverses the United States selling instruments and uniforms to form a boy's band in small towns, leaving the second the payments come through without actually teaching the kids to play. His devious approach to sales leaves a scorched earth environment for the salesmen who follow him, and his reputation precedes him on a journey through Iowa. The people of Iowa are notoriously stubborn and difficult to pitch to, so Hill decides to tackle the challenge. He is ultimately successful in forming a boy's band, but not before serious investigation from townfolk who are determined to find out Hill's true motivations and past. Along the way Hill falls in love with the town librarian Marian Paroo, his fiercest critic who becomes his fiercest advocate. He also unites the city council into a barbershop quartet; herds the town gossips into a rousing rendition of incessant chatter entitled "Pick-a-Little, Talk-a-Little;" and brings the joy of music and imagination to a community starved of both.

Photo courtesy of Artistry

It's somewhat amazing that this show is as charming and positive as it is, considering the fact that Hill is horrifyingly selfish, manipulative and narcissistic. Some of Hill's overtures to Marian are downright rapey (witness the musically delightful but politically cringe-worthy "Marian the Librarian"), and it's easy to see how his reputation might be in trouble. And yet.... there is so much joy in these lighthearted songs such as "76 Trombones," "Goodnight My Someone" and "Ya Got Trouble"; despite Hill's manipulation the townfolk are so much happier by the end; and it's so fun to see a bunch of stuffy old Midwesterners loosen up; that you can quickly forget the less savory parts of the script as it unfolds.

Photo courtesy of Artistry

Artistry's production is quite successful, thanks to primarily to the tireless work of Michael Gruber, who stars as Harold Hill and also orchestrated the choreography. One of the best parts of this show is the cast's nimble footed dancing, and there is never a moment where the blocking hasn't been considered. Gruber has done wonders in arranging this cast, and it translates through to his performance as well. Gruber isn't the best singer of the bunch, but he doesn't need to be. His assured, suave physicality thoroughly encapsulates Hill's unfettered self-confidence, and Gruber's graceful delivery has a Gene Kelly quality that is thoroughly appealing. He is perfectly paired with Jennifer Eckes as a radiant Marian Paroo. Eckes has a gorgeous voice that anchors the cast's musicality, and the two of them light sparks all over the place as the action continues.

Photo courtesy of Artistry

The whole cast does a great job. Notable standouts include Wendy Short-Hays with a hilarious portrayal of Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn, the mayor's wife; Liam Beck-O'Sullivan is utterly charming as the lispy, adorable Winthrop Paroo; Lolly Foy wields the best Irish accent I've ever heard on stage as Marian's mother Mrs. Paroo; and France Roberts aims a beaming smile that blazes straight through the audience as Hill's friend Marcellus Washburn. Elly Stahlke does a great job leading the dance efforts as Dance Captain, and Anita Ruth leads the pit orchestra with a firm hand. The musicians really set the pace for the whole show, and they did a great job of keeping up with the action on stage.

Photo courtesy of Artistry

The scenic design from Joel Sass shares interesting qualities with this summer's Sunday in the Park with George at the Guthrie. Here we also have a  fixed, floating portrait frame and pointillated lights. This production utilizes far more props and small set pieces around these elements, such as a revolving ladder, librarian's desk, front porch door and the infamous kissing footbridge. The effect is enough to keep the action quickly moving yet provide a surprising amount of detail, and it places us squarely in early 20th century Iowa. I also enjoyed the dynamic costumes from Ed Gleeman, who keeps the production deeply rooted in tradition. The fashion is colorful and evocative, and it perfectly suits the story.

Photo courtesy of Artistry

The Music Man has so many surprising ties to the darker sides of our political arena today - manipulation, falsehood, harassment, crowd mentality, gossip. However, through its lighthearted delivery The Music Man makes these issues seem surmountable. We learn that not everything needs to be taken so seriously; sometimes we need to be tricked into seeing life a little differently; and happiness can be more important than steadfast decorum. Even the worst among us are capable of doing good things, and it behooves us to find that good in each person as often as we possibly can. Artistry's lovely performance of The Music Man is sadly nearly sold out, but if you can manage to get a ticket before they close on November 5 I definitely think you should. For more information about the production, click on this link.