Friday, July 21, 2017

Spring Awakening by Park Productions & Performing Institute of Minnesota (PiM)

For being the huge musical theater junkie that I am, I have never seen a production of Spring Awakening. I knew it was a show that was taboo with some people because of the sexual content of the show however that is really all I knew and that Lea Michele and Jonathan Groff were in the original Broadway productions. Because of this, I was extremely excited to see this production because I had nothing to compare it to.

Before I jump into the production, I want to explain what Park Productions and PiM are all about because I think it's pretty amazing what they do. Park Productions was founded to create summer performance opportunities for students at Main Street School of Performing Arts to work alongside emerging artists from around the Twin Cities. Performing Institute of Minnesota (PiM) is a performing arts school by day but will engage in professional productions by night. The community is invited and encouraged to engage in evening dance classes, music lessons, workshops, performances, and gallery presentations. Artistic collaborations like the one I attended are paving the way for the community to engage in the arts (lifted from the program).

Wendla by Molly Peterson
Photos by: Jessic Zerby
Spring Awakening is set in late 19th-century Germany. It is based on Frank Wedekind's groundbreaking and controversial play (once banned in Germany) and is about the story of a sexual awakening, youth revolt, and self-discovery into a new century. Headstrong Melchior and naive Wendla stumble into each others' arms, passionate and curious, while anxious Moritz struggles to live up to society's standards. With only each other for guidance, the group of young men and women travel the fraught and rocky path of adolescence, discovering their bodies, their minds, and themselves along the way.

After comprehending what the show as about and realizing that many of these performers were still in, or recently out of, high school I was fairly impressed. The show deals with some heavy subject matter including sexual content, physical and sexual abuse, and (SPOILER ALERT) suicide. Whether they were young or not each and every actor paid attention to the script and did it justice. While it may seem fun to be able to sing a song that says "fuck" multiple times and pretend to touch one's self on stage, they were honest about it. No actor went over the top to the point where it was goofing off. They played the roles realistically and as a fellow actor I appreciate that.

Melchior played by Tristan Sima and Company
Photos by: Jessica Zerby
Spring Awakening has an interesting genre of music. It is not your typical Broadway music with belts but it isn't a rock pop opera like RENT. It really is in a league of its own with ballads, anthems and even with a bit of folk in it. Everyone had pretty fantastic voices with not only singing but emoting with the music, and again never going over the top with it. During the ensemble numbers I was so pleased to hear the beautiful harmonies of this score. No actor was fighting to be heard. Everyone was singing their part without all singing melody as well. While individually just about every actor had a nice voice, sometimes soloists would slip in the back. At times I wouldn't hear them which caused me to lose some of the meaning of a few songs. I don't know if this was a technical issue with mics or actors not singing out enough but when they did sing out, they sounded great. Tristan Sima, who played Melchior, seemed to have too quiet of a voice at times. It wasn't until the song "The Mirror-Blue Night" when he really started to sing out that I noticed how rich his tone was. He need not be shy when singing cause his voice was beautiful. 

Molly Peterson was a wonderful Wendla. This part was originated on Broadway by Lea Michele and I think Peterson did it justice. She was the perfect amount of naive yet curious. The way she acted when she realized she had these feelings for Melchior was, I'm sure, all too nostalgic for many of us in the audience. You could see the gears turning in her head as she slowly realized things about herself that she didn't know before. Many of us can remember the first time we had a crush on someone. The butterflies the constant questions like "Does he like me back? Is he looking at me? What is he thinking" and Peterson captured those feelings perfectly without even having to say a word at times.

Photos by: Jessica Zerby
A stand out scene for me was when the actresses who played Martha and Ilse (Marley Ritchie and Elizabeth Schuetzle) sang The Dark I Know Well.  I enjoyed this scene as a whole very much despite the horrors of what the song is about. It is about the sexual abuse that one of the girls endures by her father. While the Ritchie and Schuetzle stood with microphones singing the lyrics on heightened platforms on either side of the stage, two soloist danced around the center of the stage. That brings me to the choreography by John Mark. It was something that I think a lot of musical theatre lacks now a days and that is simply modern dance. The song is already one of the most powerful songs in the score but Mark found a way to heighten this scene even more by adding these two skilled dancers with this beautifully choreographed dance.

Mark does a lovely job of incorporating classic synchronized group numbers during songs like "All That's Known" and "Bitch of Living." Even when a song utilized almost all the actors, like "Totally Fucked," there is an air of organized chaos in the choreography which I absolutely loved. When it came to the artistic staff I also want to give a shout out to director Rachel Brady.

Brady takes on quite the challenge with this musical. It is a musical that is not done often, no doubt because of the subject matter. Add on not only professional actors but also high school actors and you run into quite the risk. That being said I think Brady's risk paid off. The trust the entire artistic and technical teams, including the performers, was shown onstage last night for their opening night.

Spring Awakening plays a limited run through July 29th. Tickets can be bought here.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Anything Goes at Lyric Arts Main Street Stage

Lyric Arts recently opened their closing production of their 2016-2017 season, Cole Porter's Anything Goes. I've seen multiple productions of Anything Goes including the touring production from Roundabout Theatre Company which can be found here.

Anything Goes is a musical about antics abroad the "S.S. American," a ship on its way to London from New York. Reno Sweeney (Jaclyn Juola) is a swanky nightclub singer who boards the ship where she runs into her friend, and stowaway, Billy Crocker (Ty Hudson). Billy hopes that by stowing away on the ship, he can win over the heiress Hope Harcourt (Elizabeth Cassidy) who is aboard the ship with her fiance Lord Evelyn Oakleigh (Kyler Chase). Aboard the ship as well is Public Enemy #13 Moon Face Martin (Robert Zalazar) and Erma (Rachel Hudson).

Ty Hudson as Billy Crocker and
Jaclyn Juola as Reno Sweeney
If you've never been to a Lyric Arts production, let me start by saying how much I love their space. It's an intimate 228 space. Scenic Designer Jadyn Vasquez does something different with the set of this production and that is she alludes to the ship being on stage. Most productions of Anything Goes consists of a giant ship in the back ground while her design shows the railing and steps but it is more abstract in a sense. It's beautifully painted with symmetrical colors and I must say I was absolutely in love with it. A huge shout out to Lauri Kraft for her impeccable choreography as well. As I mentioned, Lyric Arts is an intimate space which means it is a little smaller than a lot of stages however Kraft's choreography never once looks messy or too busy in the space. It is clean, precise and, most importantly, so fun to watch!

The Sailor Quartet with Reno Sweeney
The talent in this show is spectacular in every sense of the word. Ty Hudson as Billy Crocker had me swooning in my seat. His voice was smooth and he added the perfect amount of charm to the role. Bob Zalazar as Moonface Martin? Could we have asked for a better casting? Zalazar is hilarious in every role he's cast in. Jessica Scott who played Mrs. Evangeline Harcourt, Hope's mother, brought brilliant caricature facial expressions to her role that you could see all the way from Main street. While Beth Cassidy, as Hope Harcourt, had a beautiful voice and dancing, I felt that her acting to be a little underwhelming and had a lack of choices being made. There seemed to only be one or two levels she was playing on. Reno Sweeney's Angels (Falan Dahl Nuhring, Tara Schaefle, Sommer Walters, and Hannah Weinberg-Goerger) were all wonderfully casted as well as they had the perfect amount of sex appeal without going over the top. The Sailor Quartet (James Ehlenz, Alex Johnson, Josh Palmquist and Armando Ronconi) were some serious all-stars in this show as well. During scene changes they were often acting little mini scenes to distract the audience from the changing scenery, and it worked. I rarely noticed the scenes changing.

Jaclyn Juola as Reno Sweeney
Now let's talk about the leading lady Reno Sweeney, played by Lyric Arts new comer Jaclyn Juola. I was blown out of the water. Her portrayal of Reno was something I'd never seen before. With classical musicals like this, it becomes increasingly hard for actresses, especially young actresses, to not copy other portrayals of the character. Reno Sweeney has been played by many great actresses like Patti LuPone, Sutton Foster and Rachel York. That is not the case with Juola. She still manages to create and allow Reno to become her own character. Juola plays this role a bit more swanky and charming than I've seen before versus a total sex pot. Her tone in her singing is beautiful and again, not an exact copy of any of the soundtracks. After the show I managed to introduce myself and confessed I'd love to see her in a Sondheim show sometime. To be able to belt after an intense tap scene is a remarkable skill and perfect for many Sondheim shows. She is easily one of the best Reno Sweeney's I've ever seen. She is certainly a name that I will be looking for in future productions around the Twin Cities.

Lyric Arts continues to shine through out each production. For anyone who has seen a show here before they will know that Lyric Arts consistently produces extremely high quality work and casts some of the most talented performers in the Twin Cities. That being said, this is one of the best productions I've seen on the Lyric Arts stage.

Anything Goes plays at Lyric Arts Main Street Stage through August 6th. Tickets can be purchased here.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Motown the Musical at Hennepin Theatre Trust

This is one of those productions that is a perfect musical for anyone who loves these tunes but may be new to the world of theater. Sometimes it is more fun to see a musical that you do not have to think too hard about. There is a linear story, with fantastic acting, outstanding singing, and phenomenal dancing and that is what this production is. It tells the story of Motown founder Berry Gordy. Gordy is responsible for helping to launch the careers of some of the biggest names in music including Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, the Temptations, Lionel Richie, and many more.
I want to start by giving my readers a few quick facts about this musical (generously put together by Hennepin Theatre Trust). Motown was founded in Detroit in 1959 and was originally nicknamed "Hitsville, U.S.A." Later, it opened a Los Angeles office and eventually moved its headquarters there in 1972. Gordy first worked on an assembly line and was fascinated by using this structure but for producing music. His hope was to have a no body off the street walk in and walk out a well-known artist. 
Chester Gregory as Berry Gordy and
Allison Semmes as Diana Ross
Photos by Joan Marcus

The plot centers around a 25-year reunion for Motown, before jumping back in time to explain the history of how it started. It effortlessly incorporates many Motown songs both as the actor singing the song as a concert within the musical and also as the actor singing the song written into the plot (like what we are mostly used to). First of all, there is no weak link in this production. Countless of actors play a large variety of Motown singers (including 450 different costumes appearing on stage) while some played the same for the entire production. Chester Gregory, who played Berry Gordy, had the vocals that made me, quite literally, swoon in my seat. At times it was smooth but powerful and full of emotion. 

Allison Semmes, who played Diana Ross, was the highlight of the production for me. As a huge Diana Ross and the Supremes fan, I was mouthing along to each and every one of their songs. Semmes was an outstanding Diana Ross. She had the voice (both singing and talking) along with her mannerisms. She quite literally was Diana Ross on stage. The entire ensemble had the audience often humming their favorite tunes under their breath. At times they would encourage the audience to clap, sing along or help them sing some of the tunes. 

The Temptations
Photos by Joan Marcus
In the past, I have expressed my distaste for projections. I think they take audience members outside of the magic of theater. I've never been a huge fan of them since I saw my first one in Wizard of Oz. However, the one used in this production I was pleasantly surprised with. The set included a fairly blank stage with minimal furniture and props coming on and off stage. It included a large screen that was able to have projections on it as well as moving pillars. They heightened the performance and story but it was not relied on and that is when I am happy with a production using projections. 

Overall, Motown The Musical is a fun production for everyone. Whether you're familiar with Motown music or not, whether you're an active theater viewer or not, there is something for everyone in this production. There is a reason why each and every one of these actors are on that stage. They are all magnificent and completely dedicated to their craft. Motown The Musical is a mixture of a jukebox musical and also a step back in time. It's a thoroughly delightful production that everyone can enjoy whether you love the soulfulness of Steview Wonder or the harmonies of the Supremes.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Sunday in the Park with George at the Guthrie Theater

A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte
by George Seurats
Stephen Sondheim is not only one of the great musical theater composers to ever live, he is also my absolute favorite. So you can imagine my excitement when I was invited to review Sunday in the Park with George at the Guthrie Theater. As much of a super fan of Sondheim as I am, I must admit this was my first time ever seeing or hearing a production of Sunday in the Park with George and (SPOILER ALERT) I loved it. It was beautiful, moving and included wonderfully done direction by director Joseph Haj.

Sunday in the Park with George is a musical inspired by George Seurat's famous painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte. With music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, a book by James Lapine, Sunday in the Park with George originally opened on Broadway in 1984 and starred Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters. The musical won the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and nominated for a total of 10 Tony Awards (winning Best Scenic Design and Best Lighting Design).
The cast recreating A Sunday Afternoon on Island of
La Grande Jatte
Photo by T Charles Erickson

The musical takes a deep look into what it is like to be an artist. The word artist is a very subjective term as both acts of the show take different approaches to the definition. The first act revolves around George Seurat (played by Randy Harrison) who is a dedicated and serious painter. His latest masterpiece engulfs his entire being and even risks his relationship with his lover, Dot (played by Erin Mackey). The second act takes place a century later, where George's great-grandson is working as a more contemporary artist.

I fell almost immediately in love with the set upon walking into the Wurtele Thrust, designed by Jan Chambers. It had the perfect amount of simplicity and sophistication for this Sondheim production. A large white outline frames part of the plain blank stage. Behind that a large white cloth hangs from on the stage left side and behind that a black scrim, hiding the orchestra. It's an obvious yet brilliant metaphor for a design. As the actors moved around on stage, they themselves were painting scenes across the white canvas of the stage and it quite honestly was one of my favorite parts of the entire production. As the first act ended, George began moving different actors around the stage, in the outline of the canvas, in a frantic way that left some audience members confused. It wasn't until they were all set that a larger version of the famous painting flew in behind the actors that the audience understood and cheered.
George as he paints Dot
Photo by T Charles Erickson

The performances by all the actors were remarkable. It is the famous Guthrie Theater after all, did I expect anything less than superb? As someone who has performed in two Sondheim shows myself (Rapunzel's Prince in Into the Woods and Charles Guiteau in Assassins), I know how difficult his music is. His harmonies and master of the English language is difficult and rewarding. The entire ensemble of actors had their work cut out for them with this musical and they were fantastic. Everything from Dot's mouthful of words and clear control of breath support in the opening title song to the staccato ensemble verses in "It's Hot Up Here." Harrison's singing is not to go unnoticed as well. It was soft and tender at times while his belts filled the performance space beautifully.

The overall tone and mood of this production is really something special. As I mentioned before, I had never seen Sunday in the Park with George and I was quite surprised as to how many times I found myself laughing out loud. Mackey had the audience in the palm of her hand the entire time, as we laughed with her comedic timing but also felt for her during her times of sorrow. While Harrison's character often was not trying to be funny, it was his blunt honesty that made me laugh.

Photo by T Charles Erickson
Sometimes theater is not for everyone, and I believe this show might be one of those...or at least those who are not willing to try. I heard a few audience members say they did not enjoy the time skip along with the fact that they didn't understand how George could see his ancestors and the people who originally posed for the A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte painting. At times like this audience members really should follow, what I believe to be a common practice for theater goers, suspension of disbelief. Now there is a difference between suspending disbelief and just lack of a plot that makes sense however this is the exception that if you're going to see this production, you need to be willing to just go with it.

Sunday in the Park with George is a beautifully painted production of Sondheim's beloved masterpiece. The music is stunning and the actors bring so much a production that many would die to be apart of. It is the production to see this summer. Sunday in the Park with George plays June 17 through August 20. More information can be found here.