Tuesday, February 13, 2018

The Humans at Hennepin Theatre Trust

Hennepin Theatre Trust continues their trend in bringing the Tony Award winner for Best Play to the Twin Cities. I believe last season was the first time they did this with the play The Curious Incident of the Dog at Night Time. This year Stephen Karam turn with his award winning play, The Humans. I was very intrigued going into this production for one main reason: it was a play...and it was at the Orpheum. I personally have never seen a play there before. I'm used to big flashy musicals with dance numbers and numerous costume changes. This was an interesting change of pace for what I'm normally used to seeing.

The Humans takes place in an apartment in New York City, specifically lower Manhattan, during a families seemingly harmless Thanksgiving dinner. Erik Blake, the father of the family, breaks tradition and changes it up this year by bringing the family to his daughters apartment in NYC versus having everyone over to theirs in Pennsylvania. As the day continues, the Blake family soon realizes that everyone has their secrets and their deepest fears soon come to reality.

Let me start by saying that I've been writing for many years. I work in public relations which means I basically write and communicate for a living. However my skill level as a writer is no where near the caliber it should be to explain how utterly amazing this play is.This beautiful script is written by Stephen Karam and deserves every award it won including Best Play for the Tony Awards, New York Drama Critics Award, Drama Desk Award, Outer Critics Circle Award and the Drama League Award. A semi finalist for the Pulitzer for Drama as well!

The production was a refreshing take on the human connection, especially between family members. It deals with sickness, loss, religion, the economy and more themes that no matter where you come from, you'll end up saying "Oh that so sounds like my family." This new American classic will, and should, be studied in every single theatre undergraduate class available with it's riveting dialogue and exceptional raw scenes. It was relatable, real, raw and full of emotion that had me hooked from start to finish. I will admit, I don't see plays too often. A large majority of the shows I see are musicals and this play rejuvenated my drive to see more powerful stories like this.

While it was full of emotion, it had a lot of comedic moments as well which I loved. Some of the lines a little darker than others but the comedic timing and acting of the cast made it simply superb. Speaking of the cast, could they have been more incredible? There family dynamics and chemistry were so on point, you'd think they were actually real life blood related. The cast really brings Karam's scenes to life as they fight one moment only to laugh and change the topic the next. I think we can all relate to these scenes so well with our own families which makes this production all the more relatable.

Couple highlights from the cast specifically include Pamela Reed who plays the mother, Deirdre Blake, of the family and she's probably my favorite. Her delivery, dedication to her kids and love for them shined through the entire production. Richard Thomas plays the father, Erik Blake, and proves to be a perfect father figure with the perfect amount of love for his daughters. Together these two form a beautiful couple, who despite their issues (won't spoil it) they seem to always try to put their family first. Lauren Klein plays, who plays Fiona "Momo" Blake, is the ailing grandmother with Alzheimer. While she is quiet or sleeping for a majority of the show, her character is so important to the overall dynamics between everyone. She also was in the original cast on Broadway!

The Humans runs about 95 minutes and has no intermission. Typically Broadway plays don't go on a National Tour so you know that it's got to be fantastic just for that fact alone. Tickets for this production are still available and can be bought here. The Humans runs through Feb. 13 - Feb. 18.

SIDE NOTE/FUN FACT: I think it's hilarious that on the eve of Valentine's Day (aka Galentine's Day) I saw a play with Pamela Reed who plays Leslie Knope's mother on the hit show Parks and Recreation.

Monday, February 12, 2018

The Wiz at Children's Theatre Company in collaboration with Penumbra Theater

What could be better than a critically acclaimed Children's theatre and a nationally recognized African American theater company? Well that answer is here and it's when they put their heads together for a truly awe inspiring collaboration between Penumbra Theatre and Children's Theatre Company with a production of The Wiz adapted from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum.

The Wiz is a different take on the classic tale of Dorothy and Oz. This original Broadway production was nominated for 8 Tony Awards in 1975 and won 7 of them including Best Musical, Best Original Score and Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a musical. Due to it's critical success, this musical was considered a breakthrough for large-scale big-budget musicals featuring an all-black cast and laid the ground work for musicals like Dreamgirls to succeed. A mere 3 years later, a film adaptation was released with some reprising their roles and Diana Ross playing Dorothy. Jump forward to the late 2010's when big networks began broadcasting live productions of these musicals and NBC produced The Wiz, Live! with big names like Queen Latifah, Elijah Kelley and Mary J. Blige.

Jamecia Bennett and cast in The Wiz
Photo: Dan Norman
The story is a story we all know and love involving a girl from Kansas who is caught in a storm and wakes up in a beautiful and colorful land called Oz. In this production, P/CTC re imagines Oz as New York City. According to the director Lou Bellamy, this production pays homage to the "great migration" made when thousands of African Americans from rural areas made the move to urban living. This is reflected beautifully in Vicki Smith's incredibly designed set. As a huge New York City fan it was so fun seeing popular landmarks like Coney Island and Central Park while still paying respect to the whimsical land of Oz. Many who read my reviews know my feelings on projections. Sometimes they are great and sometimes they are horrible...spoiler alert: this one was great. Craig Gottschalk utilizes a backdrop projection screen just the right amount. It serves its purpose in elevating each scene without the actors and audience relying on it too much.

Greta Oglesby in The Wiz
Photo: Dan Norman
Costume Designer Mathew LeFebvre also creates a stunning array of costumes from loud, colorful and vibrant munchkins attire to the definition of "serving looks" with ensemble Emerald City citizens. My absolute favorite was the stunning black and red gown that the Wicked Witch of the West, Evillene was wearing. If I were P/CTC I would highly suggest getting MIA to create an exhibit around these costumes and production in general because the costumes are easily one of my favorite things.

This whole production had a lot of "firsts" for me. I've never seen The Wiz. I've never heard the music. I've also never seen a production by Penumbra Theatre (their media manager will be getting an email from me by the end of the week begging to add me to their media list). With all that as well, I did not recognize a lot of the names on this cast list which is always fun because it keeps the show nice and fresh bursting with talent and reminds me how fortunate I am to be living in the Twin Cities where we protect and nurture such talent. That being said, this cast was...I can't even begin to describe how utterly fantastic they were. I really want to make as many shout out's as possible to such a phenomenal cast so here I go:

  • Paris Bennett plays Dorothy flawlessly. Her combination of sass and power belting left me literally wanting her to sing "Home" over and over again. I'd pay money to watch her sing that song on an empty stage, that's how good it was. Her delivery and comedic timing were spot on too.
    • Also through out the entire production I kept thinking "How old is she?" because of her willingness to fully act like a young girl but with a voice of a well trained and seasoned actress. Spoiler Alert: She's 29 but doesn't look a day older than 18. Age is just a number but it was quite a fun little fact I learned.
  • Greta Oglesby sets the mood right away in the beginning of the show that this was going to be  with the first number, a powerful ballad titled "The Feeling We Once Had"
    • She also played Evillene with such charisma and spice with a evil laughter that all villains should try to replicate. It's such a weird little thing to comment on but all I can think of was how amazing it was.
  • Rudolph Searles III plays the Lion and has not only a gorgeous belt but also has a rich tone to his voice that blended so well with the other principal roles.
  • Dwight Leslie plays the Scarecrow and wins the award for never letting his energy or character fall once. His characterization and physicality of the role was simple but so effective and really had me believing he was a scarecrow. 
  • Aimee Bryant plays one of the witches named Addaperle and is a delight to watch on stage, bopping and never missing an opportunity for a huge laugh from the audience.
    • Also shout out for another beautiful and memorable costume that was the definition of a full blown cotton candy fantasy.
  • Dennis W. Spears plays Uncle Henry and the Tinman. His physicality was spot on too with amazing robotic moves.
  • The ensemble is all brilliant in their variety of roles including the best group number "A Brand New Day" which had me smiling and bopping along the whole time.
  • Jamecia Bennett plays Glinda (and is the real life mother of Paris who plays Dorothy). Her rendition of "Believe in Yourself" had me reaching for the life alert button that I don't own because my heart stopped at how utterly life changing it was. Magnificent! 
Dennis Spears, Rudolph Searles and Dwight Leslie
Photo: Dan Norman
Hey Twin Citie's Theatre Bloggers! Can I start the ballot for next year's awards because I've got some nominations from this show! This collaboration between Penumbra and Children's Theatre Company runs January 23 through March 18 and surely is a fantastic way to star the new year of 2018. After a few week break from seeing theatre (due to work responsibilities) this was the perfect show to jump into. It's not only a fantastic score with a well adapted story but also features some of the most impressive singing I've seen. Ticket information can be found here.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

The Last Five Years at Artistry

The Last Five Years is a musical that has been on my list of shows to see probably since high school. I was in a cabaret and a fellow friend sang "Climbing Uphill" and since then I've wanted to see the show. I purposely avoided the movie that came out a few years ago and tried to avoid the soundtrack so that when I saw the production for the first time I'd be surprised. I'm glad I did because when I heard that Artistry was producing it as their first production of 2018, I was stoked to see it!

The production tells the story of a relationship that is thriving...but also falling apart at the same time. Cathy, a struggling actress, and Jamie, a successful writer, meet in their early twenties and fall in love. As the story progresses you see their struggles, personal issues and triumphs as their marriage slowly fails and they eventually separate. Now while this story is a pretty normal story about love and heartbreak, it's how the story is told that really makes it a unique and brilliantly written musical.

The show begins with Cathy reading a letter about how her husband is leaving. It starts off as a rather sad and quickly turns happy as she leaves the stage and Jamie eagerly runs around the stage talking about how impressed someone on the phone was with the draft of his first novel. The two contrast each other. As the show continues, the audience slowly realizes that Cathy is narrating their relationship from the end of it moving backward and Jamie is narrating it from the beginning. Around the middle of the show, they finally meet on stage and get engaged. Cathy continues to go backward and as the show ends she is at the beginning of the relationship and Jamie is writing the letter that Cathy originally read at the beginning of the show. It's lovely and brilliantly written. It sounds like such a simple concept but Jason Robert Brown (music, lyrics, and book) crafts and intertwines the story so intricately.

The show is a two-person cast features Ryan London Levin as Jamie and Aly Westberg O'Keeffe as Cathy. Levin acts the part of Jamie wonderfully. He really did a wonderful job of painting a picture of who Jamie is, especially in a musical where the dialogue is hardly there and a large majority of the plot is sung through solo songs. While his acting was great, I wasn't a huge fan of his singing. He hit the right notes and belted a bit here and there but he sounded as if he was pushing too hard. His vocals would get that rough "scruff like" low singing and I don't think it fits the character. However, he did have some wonderful moments.
Now Westberg was breathtaking. Westberg is a frequent cast member in many Artistry shows and for obvious reasons. I've seen her perform before but never to this magnitude and leading a show like she did tonight. Westberg is captivating and perfectly captures the heartbreak that Cathy feels when discovering Jamie's letter and by the end completely transforms to someone who is completely gitty about a new relationship. Speaking as someone who studied theatre, to be able to work backward like is a real talent. To start the show sad and angry really shows off how much she knows. Westberg also has some of the best vocal control I've seen in the Twin Cities showing off plenty of belts and tender quiet moments with soft flicks of vibrato.

The Last Five Years is a simple but beautifully crafted story. Artistry produces this production in their Black Box space which adds even more intimacy to the production and is probably one of my favorite parts about it. It runs through Feb. 11 but tickets are going fast! It was sold out a few months ago and Artistry even added a few more dates which are close to being sold out.

Tickets can be purchased here.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Superior Donuts at Lyric Arts

 On February 2, 2017 a new American sitcom premiered on CBS. However, before that, an American playwright by the name of Tracy Letts had his new play premiere on Broadway in 2009 by the same name. That play was Superior Donuts. Fast forward to this past weekend where Lyric Arts made the brave decision to produce this play...and it so paid off.
The play focuses on the relationship between Arthur Przybyszewski, a former 1960s radical who owns a rundown donut shop in Uptown, Chicago, and Franco, his energetic but troubled young African American assistant who wants to update Arthur's shop. While Franco helps to modernize the shop, Arthur is insistent of keeping it the way it is and spending the day reminiscing about his Polish immigrant father. These two begin forming an unbelievable friendship as it gets pushed to the test when previous mistakes from the past come to the surface. 

First of all, let's go back to something I mentioned earlier. Lyric Arts made a brave decision. This is a time for Entertainment when a lot of audiences and companies are pushing for diversity and this show features two African-American characters, a polish immigrants son, and two immigrants from Russia as well. Shows like this are important, especially when we live in a time when the current President of the United States calls other countries "shithole countries." I applaud Lyric Arts for making this decision.

The cast tells this story so well with each actor giving their given moment. Peter Aitchison keeps the audience chuckling as Max Tarasov, the next door neighbor who owns an electronics store. Martha Wigmore even catches some funny lines here and there as the homeless Lady Boyle. She has a wonderful moment towards the end of the show that had the entire audience in awe and silence. You could hear a pin drop. 

Our two leads are both phenomenal. They include Jeffery Goodson as Arthur and Malick Ceesay as Franco. Actors who want to learn how to act in silence should go see this show. They all can learn just from watching Goodson. He knows how to act his way through complete silence while also still getting every single emotion, thought and memory through to the audience. He was brilliant and certainly an actor I'd like to keep track of for shows around the Twin Cities. 

Malick Ceesay is another actor that I'd love to see perform again. He never skips a beat on keeping the energy high for a large majority of the show. The contrast of his character from the first to the second act showcases his acting chops very well. Ceesay is one who I hope continues to audition and see cast at Lyric Arts. 
The actual show itself is touching. It's been described as a "...soulful play, full of humor and humanity" by Variety and I would agree with that to a certain amount. While I absolutely loved the story of cross-racial and cross-generational friends, there was one thing I didn't quite like. Lett's is an amazing writer when it comes to dialogue. The dialogue in his other plays is phenomenal however Superior Donuts has a few problems in terms of the climax of the production. I try not to spoil exact plot details when I review productions however one of the biggest conflicts of the show seemed to come out of nowhere and then wasn't mentioned again until close to the end. It wasn't the conflict I had problem with, it was just the way it was introduced. 

There are some other significant highlights from this show that I want to say and they include:
  • The scenic design, by Gabe Gomez, is wonderful and nostalgic of your favorite bakery that you would go to as a kid. 
  • Matt McNabb once again directs another fantastic production for Lyric Arts. This production also marks McNabb's 15th production. You can learn more from one of Lyric Art's blog post which is apart of their "Director's Take" series here.
  • The donuts used in the show were provided by Hans' Bakery, a very amazing bakery located not far from the theatre in Anoka. I love to see theatre's join forces with other businesses. It show's a lovely supportive relationship and I loved it.
Superior Donuts opened on Friday, January 12 and runs through Sunday, January 28. This regional premiere is intended for mature audiences and discounted ticket prices through GoldStar, click here.

If Goldstar is sold out, you can buy tickets on the Lyric Arts website and those can be bought here.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Blithe Spirit at the Guthrie Theater

A night at the Guthrie? Always a treat. A performance with Sally Wingert? An even more delicious treat. Noel Coward's classic, Blithe Spirit is currently playing at the Guthrie for the next few weeks and I highly suggest you see it. It's one of the most entertaining and comedic shows I've seen in 2017 and I'm so happy it was the last one I saw of the year.

Blithe Spirit takes place in the summertime and Charles Condomine is working on his latest novel. As part of his research he and his wife Ruth host a seance with an eccentric medium known as Madame Arcati. Soon the evening takes a supernatural turn when Arcati conjures Charles' deceased first wife who doesn't have plans on leaving. Throughout the rest of the show, Charles slowly believes he's losing his sanity as he tries to get read of his first wife while also ensuring Ruth he is actually sane.

Starting with the absolutely gorgeous and stunning visual elements of this production. Starting with the scenic designer, Jo Winiarski this set is amazing. The colors are beautiful and the dressing in details in simply superb. While the show is considered a comedy, with the elements of the afterlife you'd think maybe the set would be a bit darker but it's full of bright whites, blues, and grays. Meg Neville designs absolutely breathtaking costumes as well including Madame Arcati's fabulous seance garb.

The cast is a dynamite cast and all new to me (with the exception of Sally). As many Twin Cities Theatre goers know, Wingert is an absolute treasure and it really is a treat to see her in anything but this one takes the cake. She is zany and wild as she acts out the incredibly hilarious Madame Arcati. The best part of this performance by Wingert is she never goes too over the top. I can easily see many actresses taking this role too far but she is completely in her element and never goes too far to the point where it's not believable anymore. Her characterization as the misunderstood psychic is spot on.

Heidi Armbruster plays Ruth and is probably my favorite thing about this entire production. Her transformation from doting, kind, gentle and controlled wife to wild, yelling and slightly chaotic wife is hilarious. She never rushes comedic moments or the transformation as she slowly realizes her husband is telling the truth and he does, in fact, see the ghost of his dead first wife. Her chemistry with Quinn Mattfeld (who plays Charles) is marvelous and I'm thrilled to hopefully see her in a multitude of productions in the future.

At times the pacing felt a little slow. Whether it's a long show or the pacing is anyone's guess. This show is about 2 and half hours long with a normal intermission and a quick "stand and stretch" intermission. Personally, I'd rather they just keep going but that's just me.

Overall though this production is a must-see for the new year. It's entertaining, dynamic and hilarious for all ages. There really isn't much more to say about this production because I could really ramble for hours about it. The cast knows exactly what they are doing to ensure the audience is enjoying every bit, every second.

Blithe Spirit plays at the Guthrie McGuire Proscenium Stage through January 14th. You can get tickets here.