Sunday, April 29, 2018

Jersey Boys at Hennepin Theatre Trust

Jersey Boys is probably one of the biggest and well known Jukebox musicals. It had a significantly long run on Broadway from 2005 to 2017 and has garnered two U.S. tours. In 2014, Clint Eastwood (Yup...Clint Eastwood) directed a movie adaptation. In 2006 it was nominated for a plethora of Tony awards and even won four of them including Best Musical. I was extremely excited to see this show because of the style of music (and to take my mom who is a huge fan of the movie). I must say that it's a pretty amazing show with it's perspective of storytelling along with how it effortlessly weaves their hit songs into the story.

Jersey Boys is based on the true story of how four boys living in New Jersey grew up and became one of the most well known quartets in musical history. The story revolves around the entire Four Seasons group and the book writers Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice let each one narrate a specific time in the groups climb to fame. The first part of the show (Spring) involves Tommy DeVito. DeVito narrates how the group came to be and even shows how he is the one who "found" Frankie Valli. The second part of the show (Summer) is narrated by Bob Gaudio and shows how the group began their rise to fame with the release of their first hit "Sherry." The group rapidly begins to pick up steam as they release more hits, begin appearing on shows like "American Bandstand" and really begin to see their careers take off however it isn't long until it begins to fall apart. 

As the first act closes, we see that Tommy owes a large sum of money to a gang. As "Fall" approaches, and the second act begins, we see Nick Massi take over the narration and shows how Tommy's ill decisions has put a large strain on the group. The group agrees (some more reluctantly than others) to pay off Tommy's debt, however Tommy must be sequestered in Las Vegas so the mob can keep an eye on him. While the strain becomes to much for Nick, he admits he wants out of the group and we move into the final part of the show, "winter." During this final period, we see Frankie Valli take the rains on narration and shows how he and Bob find replacements to keep the group a quartet. Soon it seems as if Frankie's life has finally taken a turn for the better as he pays off Tommy's debt but his daughter, Francine, dies from a drug overdose. The show ends with Bob Crewe narrating the original group members coming together for the Four Seasons' 1990 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. As the lights fade out, each group takes a moment to explain sort of a "what happened and where are they now" moment.

I think what makes this show so spectacular is the wide range of audiences it can reach. Parents and older generations will love hearing these hits that they grew up on while the show also takes the time to reintroduce an era of music to a younger generation. This was a similar that happened in MoTown: The Musical play as well. I think that's important and to bring it forward in such a unique way like this is amazing. 

The entire cast is pretty phenomenal. The show has a pretty small ensemble cast along with the main four actors playing the Four Seasons. Understudy Ben Bogen steps in for Frankie Valli and is an absolute treat to watch. His infectious energy and gorgeous falsetto, what Valli was known for, had the entire audience bopping their heads and tapping their feet. Corey Greenan plays the rough Tommy DeVito who's New Jersey dialect is flawless and oddly charming. Tommasco Antico plays Bob who landed quite the amount of funny jokes, and Chris Stevens as Nick Massi who really didn't have that much stage time compared to the other three.

Jersey Boys is a great show for audiences of all ages. There is plenty of songs that no matter what generation you come from, you'll recognize it and instantly remember a simpler time in music. All of your favorite Four Seasons songs including "Sherry," "Walk Like a Man," and "Big Girls Don't Cry." The story is also a story that many of us know too well and it's the story of rags to riches. Let's be honest, we all love a great rags to riches story...especially with attractive men in suits who sing like angels and dance well enough to make me swoon in my seat.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Follies at Artistry

Sondheim will forever always be my favorite composer. His musicals transcend the human experience and emotions unlike any other writer...and he does it through lyrics. He does it through empowering ballads and amazing lyrics. Whether it's the first time seeing a Sondheim show or the 20th, I always know I'm going to be put through an emotional rollercoaster. Although I felt slightly confused during parts of this recent production of Follies at Artistry theater, after a little reading and research I now realize how utterly brilliant it is.

Follies takes place in 1971 and the legendary Weismann Theater is slowly falling apart after a triumphant run. The theater will be taken down and Broadway impresario Dimitri Weismann arranges a reunion to celebrate its former glory. The reunion features actors, singers, dancers, and people who made famous Follies in the years. As patrons continue to file in for a night of memories, they sing some of their favorite numbers they used to perform as the younger ghost versions of themselves dance around them. That being said the story focuses primarily on two unhappy married couples and the lengths they will go to be happy.

The show opens on the torn down theater. With this idea it can be really easy to make this look terrible and torn down but I think scenic designer Eli Sherlock hits the mark perfectly with an almost organized destructive look. It could have very easily looked trashy and terrible but he goes above and beyond with the second act as the theatre goes back in time to when the curtain was red and not ripped along with a clean white staircase for plenty of dramatic entrances.

The main four leads really are the ones who stand out for me the most however I really want to focus on the two leading ladies as they made the biggest impact for me personally. Starting with Caitlin Burns who plays Sally Durant Plummer. Burns perfectly encompasses this role as someone who longs for the old days and her past life but hiding it through a smile that is about to crack any second. Burns really held the audience in the palm of her hand during the power ballad "Losing My Mind." The raw emotion she had on stage was perfection.

Next to Burns, the next highlight for me was Wendy Short-Hays who played Phyllis Rogers Stone, Sally's old friend and also the wife to her current...crush/ex-lover. I think this is probably the best role in the entire production just due to the sheer complexities of her character. She's a woman who has been married for what seems like an eternity to a man who she feels does not love her anymore, and yet she stays with him. Her song "Could I Leave You?" is hands down one of the best written songs in the production, probably next to "Losing My Mind." During this song Hays portrays a wide variety of emotions from long lost love, nostalgia and bitterness to her marriage. She embodies the empty shell that the emotions of the outside world cannot crack until she finally does at the end of the play.

The show is so rich and generous in providing older seasoned veterans of the stage an opportunity to hop back on and to me that's very important. It's refreshing to see older actors get a chance to shine on stage for an entire production versus a quick scene or two with a monologue of wisdom and then never to be seen again. That being said, it isn't done often.

Follies is one of the most complex musicals I've seen in quite some time. The relationships between the characters (whether it's deep or through a few interactions in one scene) are real, raw and unique. It begins to feel even more complex when the younger versions of themselves are on stage with them. A critic from one of the revival productions on Broadway stated once that there is no "on the fence" with Follies, either you are a passionate fan or hate it. While this production didn't leave me absolutely blown away, I think they still did a decent job with the complex ideas that the story brings. Follies is a production that isn't done often so if you've never seen it or experienced the music I certainly recommend seeing it before they take their final bow.

*Photo Credit: Devon Cox

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner at the Guthrie Theater

Even the horrible weather this past week could not keep me from a lovely evening at the Guthrie Theater on Friday for the opening night performance of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. This play, by Todd Kreidler, is based on the screenplay by William Rose. The iconic film from 1967 originally starred Spencer Tracy, Sidney Poitier and the wonderful Katharine Hepburn. The film at the time was one of the few films around the time period that depicted an interracial marriage in a positive light. It was also nominated for an outstanding 8 Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor to name a few. Guess Who's Coming to Dinner is also a lovely addition to the Guthrie's season as they recently closed the show Familiar which also deals with the differences in humane society when they are confronted with another culture that differs from their own.

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, which takes place in the 60's, tells the story of a young lady named Joanna who returns home from Hawaii a few days earlier than expected. She surprises her parents, Matt and Christina Drayton, a progressive middle-aged couple living in San Francisco, when she walks through the door with Dr. John Prentice, an African American doctor who is 11 years older than her. After telling her parents how in love they are, they hope to receive their blessing for the end of the day. While her parents are extremely liberal they must put their values to the test and put their money where their mouth is when it is confronted within their own family.

As always, I need to call out this absolutely beautiful and spectacle set that is designed by Matt Saunders. The set honestly makes the Wurtele Thrust Stage look even bigger than it already is. It's spacious and inviting with a 60's flair of color and decoration, yet it feels refreshingly modern with geometric angles and shapes. This is another perfect example of how the Guthrie can transport it's audience into the play as we looked out the giant dining room windows upon the Golden Gate Bridge. 

The script itself is well times. I'll get to the negative later. I will admit that it does start quite slow however that being said, once the action starts it does not stop and continues through the end of the second Act. While this show is a very though-provoking show and deals with themes of racism, family dynamic and love, it is still labeled as a comedy through side-eye moments, hilarious clap backs and even jokes through uncomfortable situations. The cast does a phenomenal job in keeping a light air while still getting the point across with the more serious and dramatic themes. It's a fantastic balance of comedy and drama. 

To bring something like this to the stage for hundreds of people to see, you need to have a stellar cast that can get this point across without becoming too preachy. I think Director, Timothy Bond, does that beautifully. Regina Williams, who plays the families maid Tillie, is the biggest comedic anchor in this show. Without her, I think the show falls apart. Sally Wingert, who plays Christina Drayton, is the next best thing about this production for me. Wingert balances those comedic moments so naturally and really roots them in a sense of realism. LaBen early, who plays Joanna's fiance Dr. John Prentice, is my next "actor to watch out for" because his performance is absolutely brilliant. His monologue to his father about being a man is truly inspiring and something everyone should see. 

Other highlights in this cast include Michelle Duffy, who plays the subtly racist Hilary St. George, is a terrible character...but played by a phenomenal actress. I think a lot of people know a Hilary. She's the definition of the type of person we all may know who says "I'm not racist but..." and she plays it wonderfully. David Manis plays Matt Drayton whose character is conflicted with what he preaches and what he may actually believe without realizing it. Peter Thomson plays Monsignor Ryan and is the biggest "voice of reason" in the show as he is a man of faith and calls Drayton out on his harbored prejudice. There is also Maeve Coleen Moynihan who plays Joanna Drayton. Personally I thought Moynihan lacked energy and a variety of choices in the first act but picked it up in the second.

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner is a fantastic production however it does have some flaws. I think at times the audience didn't get it with some of the darker themes of the show. As I mentioned, it is considered a comedy however it's rooted in realism. These conversations did happen back in the 60's and I'm certain it happens still now. At times I felt the script pushed the comedy too much to the point where it overall out shines the biggest theme of all and that's the idea that many of us preach acceptance but some do not walk the walk.

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner is still a fabulous production and I really recommend everyone to see it. There are some fantastic moments through out the show. This adaptation of the iconic film will be playing at the Wurtele Thrust Stage through May 27. Tickets can be found here.

*Photos by Dan Norman

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Something Rotten at Hennepin Theatre Trust

I will waste no time in saying that Something Rotten is one of the best original musicals that has come out in some time. I had the pleasure of seeing it two years ago in New York and let me tell you, it's even better the second time around. This musical (about the creation of musicals during the Renaissance) encompasses everything I love about theatre. It's got your typical flashy musical numbers, catchy songs that will have you humming down the street, and gut busting lines that had me gasping for breath. It really is the perfect musical and I can honestly say one of my top five favorites.

Something Rotten is the hilarious tale of two brothers and their quest to write the next great theatrical classic. Nick and Nigel Bottom are always second best with their theatrical writings and are stuck in the shadow of a bard, William Shakespeare. When Nick, the older of the two, decides to attempt to get ahead of Shakespeare, he hires a soothsayer (or psychic) to predict what the next big thing in theatre will be. He is shocked to discover that theatre will soon evolve to include productions with singing, dancing and acting...all at the same time. The brothers set out to write the world's first musical however they manage to run into a few bumps along the way. 

I first saw Something Rotten from the front row in New York City in the Fall of 2016. The musical itself is so well written, clever and witty that I still can't believe someone thought of it. It is one of the few musicals that I love where I can listen to the whole soundtrack and not skip one. single. song. They are all fabulous. The actual book too (written by Karey Kirkpatrick and John O'Farrell) is one of the wittiest I've ever heard. The humor is so smart and clever that it sets a bar on what it means to be a witty show. Whether it's the musical references or the overly accidental sexual lines by Brother Jeremiah, I was hooked. It's surprising that they didn't win more Tony awards. The original Broadway production was nominated for 10 Tony awards, including a win for Best Featured Actor with Christina Borle as Shakespeare. However it was a tough year that year with revival of The King and I and the original musical Fun Home

The set is a wildly and colorful 2D set that is just magnificent to the eyes. Designed by Scott Pask, it includes a multitude of layers that really bring depth to each and every scene. Gorgeous backdrops help complete the transition from scene to scene and really sell the overall look and feel of this show. The ensemble help create that illusion tremendously with their high energy. There is single handily not one weak link in the entire case. Everyone shows up and is ready to make a great and memorable experience for the whole audience.

The principal cast is on their a-game the entire night as well. This musical is so energetic that it can't be easy to keep up and they all do it wonderfully. When I saw it, Adam Pascal was out (who plays Shakespeare) and Rob McClure was out (who plays Nick Bottom). Before I get into the specifics of how fabulous each actor was in their respected role, I want to take the opportunity to call out the fabulous understudies. Being an understudy is not easy, trust me. I know. I am a veteran actor. Being an understudy on a touring Broadway show? Even harder! Having to know sometimes multiple roles (sometimes multiple principal roles) and needing to jump into that role with sometimes little to no rehearsal time? That is not an easy feature and these two hit it out of the park!

The show opens with one of my favorite songs on the soundtrack, "Welcome to the Reniassance" where the ensemble really gets a chance to shine along with the Minstrel, who does most of the solo work in this song. The Minstrel, played by Nick Rashad Burroughs, was quite the dancer. I'm wondering if the MN weather got to him because his voice did sound a bit quiet but his dance moves were on fire and made up for it. Nick Bottom, played by Scott Cote, was hilarious and so energetic during every moment on stage including bigger flashier songs. Nigel Bottom, played by Josh Grisetti is so freakishly charming that I wish the role was bigger! His passion for writing comes through so much that you can't help but feel for the guy when the going gets tough.

Other highlights include Brother Jeremiah, played by Joel Newsome, has some of the funniest moments as he plays a uptight puritan preacher who believes theaters are the sins of the earth. However he consistently makes sexual puns through out the show that were the best written lines in the entire script! The campy diva attitude and physical feminine characterization he emotes is hysterical. Portia, Brother Jeremiah's rebellious daughter who is played by Autumn Hurlbert, is a perfect combination of sweet and innocent but also hilarious when she gets a taste of rebellion. Her adorkable moments with Nigel really touch the heart.

I think the biggest for me was Daniel Beeman, who played Shakespeare. The role is completely redefined as a leather pants wearing, provocative dancing, and sexual bard. In other words, Something Rotten turns Shakespeare into a sort of sex symbol rock star. It's comical because at the time of his real life, he really was treated like an equivalent to a rock star. Beeman plays this role perfectly and honestly has a great air about him. I can't imagine how fun this role must be but he certainly seemed to be enjoying himself!

The bottom (puns) line is that Something Rotten is a hilarious and uproarious dose of geniune fun for all audiences. The creators of the show originally set out to make it even funnier for Broadway fans as it references many of our favorite shows (including Les Miserables, Rent, Chicago, Seussical, South Pacific, Chicago, Annie, A Chorus Line and more). However the beauty of it is that it is still extremely enjoyable for non-Broadway fans. So no matter who you are, you're in for a treat!