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 marriage...by 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 written...at 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...no...the 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!

Monday, March 26, 2018

Leslie Odom Jr. at Orchestra Hall

Minnesota and the Twin Cities area is extremely fortunate to have an extremely large arts presence in our area. Often we take it for granted for the many fantastic theaters we have however there is another venue that I had the lovely chance to visit and attend a fabulous concert with a Tony-award winning singer and the always spectacular Minnesota Orchestra.

Last Fall, Leslie Odom Jr. was supposed to have a concert at Orchestra Hall. This was apart of his tour in which he sang original and, of course, Broadway classics. Due to a scheduling conflict, which he later admitted during the show that he was invited to sing at the Victoria Secret Fashion Show, it was rescheduled for March. So the devoted and die hard fans were finally able to witness him, and all his glory, in the flesh!

Before I dive into Odom himself, I really want to highlight this gorgeous venue. Orchestra Hall really is stunning and great space. It's always nostalgic for me to go into this space as I was able to perform on it...twice! Once with my high school orchestra where we opened for the Minnesota Orchestra, and the second was with my high school choir. Yes, I was a hardcore music kid and still am. The chairs are comfortable and the service was impeccable with friendly ushers and guest services reps. Kudos to the Orchestra Hall staff!

Now to the performance which was absolutely divine. Odom, winner of the 2016 Best Actor Tony Award for his role as Aaron Burr in Hamilton, is even dreamier in person than he is in his recordings. As I mentioned before, he performed a well rounded mix of Broadway, jazz and pop hits. It was nice to see him sing something other than just Broadway, which I'm sure many fans were hoping for. This provided him the opportunity to almost reintroduce himself to many of his fans as someone who is more than just "Aaron Burr."

I was pleasantly surprised when he began the concert with the Hamilton hit, "Wait for It." I felt that he would have kept those songs towards the end however he sprinkled a few other Hamilton songs through out the concert which I thought was brilliant. It kept the audience engaged but also allowed us to see him as more than just a musical theatre performer but as an artist. His cover of "Unforgettable" had me melting in my seat with his beautiful tone. At times the Orchestra did drown him out a tad bit however his voice was so beautiful and rich that it didn't bother me too much.

Here is one of the biggest picture themes of this show that I really want to call out: the younger audience. There were so many younger people in the audience that I saw. Kids from elementary to high school. Orchestra Hall has managed to create a demographic and audience of all ages, genders and backgrounds by bringing in concerts like this. In the past they've gotten other Broadway performers (including Kristin Chenoweth who will be returning in January of next year) which gives Orchestra Hall a chance to introduce classical music to a new audience.

Speaking of classical music, the Minnesota Orchestra sounded absolutely beautiful. Their full ensemble of brass and string was the perfect accompaniment to Odom's beyond amazing voice. I was happy to see that before Odom came out (as well as before he came out again in the intermission) they were able to perform a piece just them, led by conductor Sarah Hicks.

I'm really excited to be able to bring you this post. Orchestra Hall is a treasure within the Twin Cities and often I feel it's overlooked with big flashy performances by other venues. Expanding to content like this is what I really want many readers to see. When you're in the area again, take a chance. Try something different. Purchase a ticket to Orchestra Hall. Whether it's seeing a Broadway performer, the phenomenal Minnesota Orchestra, or seeing their new Concert Live to Film series, you surely won't be disappointed.

For more information, visit http://www.minnesotaorchestra.org/




Sunday, March 25, 2018

She Loves Me at Lyric Arts

This past Friday, the Lyric Arts Main Street Stage officially transformed into a lovely perfume shop. This is all due to the opening of their Spring musical, She Loves Me. Whether you're new to this lovely suburban theatre, which was recently highlighted in the Star Tribune (link), or a devoted familiar fan, you will have an absolutely delightful night out when seeing this musical. It's charming, warmly romantic and just downright entertaining. 

She Loves Me is a musical by Joe Masteroff with lyrics and music by Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock. It revolves around Georg Nowack and Amalia Balash who, despite being consistently at each other's throats at work, are completely unaware they have a lot more common than they think. They are secretly each other's pen pal's met through a lonely-hearts club. The musical originally opened in 1963 but more recently had a successful 2016 revival. The revival was nominated for 8 Tony awards and featured the talents of Zachary Levi, Laura Benanti, and Jane Krakowski, who if you haven't seen perform in the Tony awards medley, please do. Krakowski drops into the splits and gets dragged across the stage whilst still singing. 

I was quite unfamiliar with this show until now. I roughly knew what it was about and knew the soundtrack featured a song called "Vanilla Ice Cream," but other than that I was pretty clueless. I was pleasantly surprised by how quickly I fell in love with it. Each and every song was engaging and not only fun for the actors but also for the audience. The plot is very simple but somehow so endearing that you can't help but fall in love with it. You know how much I love a show where sometimes I don't have to think about the complexities or themes but more so just sit back and enjoy.

Resident Director Scott Ford cast an absolutely brilliant cast for this musical. There are many familiar faces including James Ehlenz, Kayla Hambek, Brandon Osero, Armando Ronconi, Brendan Veerman and Maxwell Ward. Next to them are more familiar faces and even new ones, making their Lyric Arts debut including the two leads. Katherine Fried plays Amalia Balash and is wickedly talented. An important feature of this musical is the lead female role is a soprano. Many get lost in the flashy vocal styles of new age musicals with belts that last for measures upon measures. However, this one has a soprano and Fried hits it out of the park! Her voice is superb and effortlessly transports you back to perhaps when the musical was first on Broadway. Fried literally had my jaw drop when she hit the highest and purest note in the show, at the end of the song "Vanilla Ice Cream." 

Next to Fried is her leading man, Joseph Hitchock who plays Georg Nowack. Hitchock's tone and portrayal of  Nowack is so dreamy I melted in my seat....multiple times. His voice transcends the meaning of deep and rich. I am extremely excited to see what these two can do in the cities and surrounding suburbs. I will certainly be keeping my eyes on cast lists for their names. Karissa Lade plays fellow clerk, Ilona. Unfortunately, when I saw the show, she could not speak due to illness. However the show must go on and she took that to heart when she walked, danced and mouthed the lyrics and dialogue while Kate Beahen did all the vocals. The joys of live theatre! They both did very well and despite the short rehearsal time they may have had, were both very in sync with each other. 

Another cast highlight for me was Maxwell Ward as the delivery boy, Arpad. I think he was easily a crowd favorite, and certainly was mine. I've had the pleasure of seeing Ward before in Lyric Art's previous holiday show Plaid Tidings and he did not disappoint this time around either. Ward not only delivers each line with humor and excitement but even when the scene does not feature him, he still manages to steal my attention without taking the full spotlight. With multiple comedic bits here and there, I almost want to see it again just to watch him the entire time.

Scott Ford also knows how to pace a show, which is one of the biggest compliments I can give. One of my biggest complaints with many directors is the pacing. At times I feel a show dragging on but Ford directing keeps it moving along. It also helps that I noticed later majority of the song is pretty short, averaging maybe less than 2.5 minutes. A 14-piece orchestra, directed by Louis Berg-Arnold, sounds beautiful despite a few technical sound issues. 

She Loves Me is such a charming musical that it's the perfect show to start spring off. It's light-hearted, joyful and hilarious, the perfect musical rom-com. The cast clearly enjoys the production and performs it with such passion that I really do wish I could go back. Lyric Arts musicals tend to sell out quick so I'll save myself from purchasing one so that someone else can see it!

She Loves Me plays at Lyric Arts through April 15. Tickets can be found at Lyricarts.org.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Familiar at the Guthrie Theater


No matter who you are, where you've been or where you come from, you'll see yourself and some of your family in this new relatable and hilarious comedy. Whether you’re black or white. Whether you’re single or married. Whether you have siblings or are an only child. There is something for everyone in the Guthrie’s newest production. Familiar opened at the Guthrie last week and I can honestly say it’s one of the wittiest shows I’ve ever seen. It’s written by Danai Gurira (Black Panther, The Walking Dead) and is a testament to just how talented of a writer she is. In 2015, she made her writing Broadway debut with Eclipsed which made headlines for it’s all female and black cast and creative team. While Eclipsed had more of a darker tone to it, Familiar is quite the opposite with sharp wit, hilarious dialogue and an all-around relatable family, no matter where you come from.
Familiar takes place in a suburb of Minneapolis, Minnesota during the late winter season. The story opens on a Zimbabwean family that is getting ready for their eldest daughter’s wedding, Tendikayi (or Tendi). Nyasha, the youngest daughter, is a free spirit and musical artist who just returned from a trip to Zimbabwe to attempt to learn more about her family’s culture while her mother, Marvelous, attempts to keep them rooted in their new American life. One by one more family arrives at the house including Tendi, her fiancĂ© Chris (who happens to be white), and Marvelous’ two sisters Margaret and Anne. Tendi surprises her mother with the arrival of her aunt Anne as she is to perform the Roora (or bride price) in honor of her family’s heritage before the wedding. The journey of the evening takes plenty of twists and turns from jaw-dropping family reveals to hilarious interactions that almost had me falling out of my seat.
Before I dive into how utterly fantastic this show was, I want to give recognition to this marvelous set design by Adam Rigg. I saw a tease of the set on the Guthrie’s Instagram a few days before and was blown away. The overall design is simply gorgeous and has the perfect amount of elegance with the dark wood accented throughout the railings and living room. You can tell whoever decorated it (in the script’s sense) clearly has good taste and has worked hard to keep it maintained. It perfectly captures the mother and father of this family and everything they’ve had to do to survive and make a name for themselves. I quite literally saved the Instagram photo so down the road I can give it to an interior designer and say, “I’d like this please.”
The cast is marvelous, and I truly mean that in every sense of the word. Each actor full embodies their character and respects them as if they are a real person they know. Because of this I can’t simply write about one or the other, so I must take the time to quickly mention how fantastic each and every actor was in their role. Harvy Blanks plays the patriarch of the family, Donald Chinyaramwira and really does pull at the heart strings towards the end of the show. Sha Cage plays Tendi and is perfectly cast and must go through a tremendous amount of emotional range throughout the two acts. She does this beautifully and effortlessly. Quinn Franzen plays Chris and is so stupidly charming that I think I went weak at the knees even whilst sitting. He really does care for Tendi no matter what the situation is and manages to stick by her side throughout the crazy evening.  
Perri Gaffney plays Dr. Marvelous Chinyamurindi and is one of the most relatable characters in the entire production. She’s the type of mother that will do anything for her children and no matter how bothersome she may be to her children, you know she does it out of love and only wanting the best for her kids. Austene Van plays Professor Margaret Munyewa (Marvelous and Anne’s other sister) and really does a wonderful job of keeping the mood light when the going gets tough. Aishe Keita, who plays Nyasha, is head strong and eager to continue learning about her families past and heritage. She honestly reminded me a lot of myself. Wandachristine, who plays Anne Mwarimba, is the comedic anchor of this show. Her timing is spot on and lends her self to each scene being a force on stage. Last, but certainly not least, is Michael Wieser who plays Chris' brother, Brad. While Brad isn't on stage as much as the rest, he still manages to be one of the most memorable with the hysterical Act I finale, which I won't spoil, while also being extremely endearing to Nyasha. 
One of the heaviest themes of the show that I wanted to touch on is not only family but sisterhood. The younger generation mirrors the older generation in such unique and intricate ways. Tendi is the one who leads a “normal American life” as a lawyer and yet she is the one who initially reaches out to her Aunt Anne, who currently still lives in Zimbabwe. Tendi teters on the balance of her families roots and her families values now in America. Meanwhile there is a power struggle between Nyasha, who wishes to reconnect with her families roots while her mother wants nearly nothing to do with it. It’s an interesting balance of seeing where all these women are with their connections to their family’s heritage.
Familiar is a witty, hilarious and touching show about what it means to know your family’s history. Taibi Mager, the director, leads a cast that has impeccable comedic timing and pacing of the show. Gurira fabulous writing shows off how versatile of an artist she is. Familiar plays at the Guthrie through April 14, 2018.
*Photo Credit: Dan Norman