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!

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

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

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

Friday, March 16, 2018

Newsies at Chanhassen Dinner Theatre

Chanhassen Dinner Theatre is currently celebrating their 50th season and will be taking the state of Minnesota by storm this summer with their sublime production of Disney's Newsies. I'm one of the few theatre people out there who hadn't seen the musical yet. I have never seen the original musical, which recently had a filmed version in theaters for a limited time. I haven't even seen the original 1992 movie starring Christian Bale. So needless to say, I was in for a treat when I was invited to review Chanhassen's production.

Newsies  is a musical that first aired on Broadway in 2012. This electrifying musical is inspired by the real-life events of the Newsboys Strike of 1899. It takes place in New York City where a group of Newsies try to start a revolution after the New York World publisher, Joseph Pulitzer, raises the prices of the newspaper to maximize his profits. However this move ends up jeopardizing many of the Newsies work to sell the papers. Jack Kelly, known as the leader and almost father/big brother figure to many of the newsies, leads the charge in declaring a protest and strike against the publishing giant. Soon Jack realizes it's going to take more than just his group of friends but the newsies all across the state of New York to take on the publishing company.

First of all, the musical is splendid. The writing is catchy, inspiring and beautifully written. Honestly can you even go wrong with anything written by Alan Menken (The Little Mermaid, Sister Act, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin)? One of the very first songs starts with exhilarating group dance number with one of the catchiest songs in the production, "Carry the Banner." The song really does set the mode for the night with the determined group of young men (and women too! Yes women were newsies too) committed to selling as many "papes" as they can. The sheer volume that this cast reaches is literal music to my ears. They sounded phenomenal.

This cast really threw down the gauntlet this summer for musicals across the Twin Cities. The choreography was single handily the best I have ever seen. Yes that includes traveling  Broadway casts. Despite the size of the stage compared to some other theaters, choreographer Tamara Kangas Erickson brilliantly composes group numbers that look clean, concise and consistent. After the opening number dance, I thought "Can it even get better?" and it did. Again...and again...and again.

That being said, a choreographer is only as good as the actors she or he works with. This ensemble is everything that is right with Twin Cities theatre. They prove that the theatre scene here is thriving, bustling and shows how spoiled we are to witness it. Aleks Knezevich plays Jack Kelly and is so charming I almost fell out of my seat. He's the perfect amount of charisma and almost sleazy all wrapped into one. His voice is beautiful with a stunning tone that echos through out the entire space. Kersten Rodau plays the swanky theatre owner, Medda Larkin. Her voice is classic and her belt has an almost old time Broadway flair that I absolutely fell in love with. Ruthanne Heyward plays the female lead, Katherine who is the real feminist icon of this production. Despite some wanting her to lead a life of luxury and being a socialite, she refuses by wanting to be a reporter with a career.

This show has a really important theme that I want to touch on as well. It is obvious that this story is more relevant now than it probably ever was. It's about a group of young people who see the injustice, greed and wrongs of society. Do they whine and complain about it? No. They stand up for what they believe in. They fight for what they believe in and courageously don't stop when the going gets tough.

CDT just gets it when it comes to musical theatre. They know exactly what they are doing from all aspects of performance and hospitality with the overall goal of surprising and delighting their patrons. The staging of this musical is spot on due to the real life images that are projected behind the actors at some points during the show. What I adore about CDT is the moments when the actors come into the audience. It just sort of adds that one extra special flair to the production that makes it memorable and fun.

There are plenty of chances to see this production as it runs through the end of September. This production doesn't get produced often so I highly suggest seeing it if you are debating it. Tickets can be purchased here.
*Photos by Rich Ryan Photography.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

School of Rock at Hennepin Theatre Trust

I'll be honest, when I first heard that the hit 2003 movie School of Rock was being developed into a musical I thought " could work." When I heard Andrew Lloyd Webber was the one creating it I thought "Wait...really?" I honestly didn't know what to think about it. On one hand it's a pretty good movie and had some really iconic lines including "You're tacky and I hate you," one of my personal favorites. However Webber? The same guy who wrote music for iconic Broadway productions like The Phantom of the Opera and Jesus Christ Superstar. Could it work? Would it work? Guess worked.

School of Rock: The Musical is about a rock star wannabe, Dewey Finn, who gets kicked out of the band that he originally started. Lost and saddened by losing his band he also receives more flack from his best friend/roommate's fiance who pesters Dewey about paying rent and needing to get a real job. After taking a call, meant for his roommate, he worms his way into a substitute teaching job at a very extravagant private school. One day he overhears the class in their music room and soon puts together a rock band with the students to compete against his former band in the 'Battle of the Bands' contest. The journey they take will change all of their lives as a result.

The cast rocks harder than anyone I've ever seen. Never did I think I would be attending a musical production where midst performance people would be holding up their hands with the "Rock On" symbol instead of clapping. The pre-show announcement addressed probably one of the most asked questions about the production and it's "Do the kids really play these instruments?" The answer? Absolutely they do. The show features quadruple-threat kids between the ages 9-12. That's elementary school students for those keeping track at home. Not only do they sing, act and dance but they also play the instruments which makes for an even more fun performance.

Dewey is played by Rob Colletti and really is perfectly cast. I don't want to say he was just like Jack Black (who was the original in the film) but he had his moments that almost seemed homage to Black's performance. His high pitch scream was one of the most notable but he still managed to make the role especially finding moments of compassion and love for the kids involved in the newer scenes that the musical featured. Lexie Dorsett Sharp plays the uptight (who later let's loose) principal who has a really beautiful voice both in a power ballad and aria opera solo. Matt Bittner, who plays Ned, and Emily Borromeo, who plays Patty Di Marco, Ned's fiance, have a hilarious chemistry together as Patty pulls off the overbearing and controlling girlfriend.

The students really are the scene stealers in this production, of course and each have their moment. The kids really do work as a well oiled ensemble letting each student have their spotlight moment with the audience.

  • Ava Briglia, who plays Summer, is absolutely hilarious and annoying at the same time as the know it all student that we all know oh too well from school.
  • Gianna Harris, who plays Tomika, has stunning vocals and plays the shy character until she finally learns to speak up. She is also adopted by two men, something not featured in the original musical, and it's nice to see a same-sex couple even if it isn't the main part of the plot.
  • Phoenix Schuman, who plays Zack, is probably the one who rocks the hardest out of everyone as the band's lead guitarist. His numerous solo's had me honestly wanting to stand mid performance and crowd surf through the audience...but I won't cause audience etiquette is a thing.
  • Theodora Silverman, who plays Katie, has a hilarious physicality of her role as the band's bassist. She often had a grunge rock style facial expressions that had me thinking of a rock version of Wednesday Addams. It was hilarious.

Andrew Lloyd Webber and Glenn Slater (Lyrics) really do create a dynamic and engaging score. The music includes numbers that feel very much like Broadway and a musical but also could easily be performed at a rock concert. Probably the anthem of the show is titled "Stick It to the Man" and really does encompass everything that the show is about which is basically show everyone what you're made of and never give up. The movie also features original songs from the movie like "School of Rock" which the band performs at the 'Battle of the Bands' contest.

While this show is absolutely incredible from the entertaining music to the wickedly talented kids, it does deal with a rather important theme and that's music education. Something that is particularly interesting about the production is that it parallels the story behind Webber's first production Jesus Christ Superstar which was written for a school and performed in a school. In 1992, Webber set up the Andrew Lloyd Webber Foundation which supports the arts, culture and heritage in schools. This really resonated with me and I'm sure with many of the audience members who studied the arts in school. I was a proud music kid who sang and played an instrument and also acted in the schools theatre department (shout out to Ms. Johnson and Ms. Kjellberg!). To me, that's one of the most important things the musical touches on.

I think that's what makes this production work so well. It keep's the original film's comedic moments, funny and popular lines and the overall zest for music it served. While it does this, it also highlights important themes like the one I mentioned previously and also brings more insight to the relationship between kids and their parents. The musical really focuses more on the fact that these kid's parents push them to learn, what some would say, more useful skills in life. I don't want to get to political but the kids in this production reminded me of the kids who are organizing the march to end gun violence after the shooting in Florida. They stand up for what they believe in and what they want their lives to be and that is truly inspiring.

School of Rock: The Musical is not only funny but it's inspiring and full of hit songs that had me bobbing my head and tapping my foot all the way home. For anyone who is a fan of the movie, I highly suggest you see this. It's a perfect production for new theatre fans and hopefully pulls in new theatre goers into our lovely word of art. School of Rock: The Musical is at the Orpheum Theatre in downtown Minneapolis through March 11th. Tickets can be found here.

*Photo credit to Matthew Murphy

The Pirates of Penzance at Park Square Theatre

When I was high school (shout out to Andover High School Theatre and Ms. Johnson!) I attended many immersion theatre days at Park Square Theatre. These days were full of fun, learning and then, of course, a performance. Since then I've gone off to college, graduated and now am a college grad of coming on two years. That means I haven't seen a show there since 2012! So I was absolutely delighted to finally be able to return to Park Square for a production that has been getting rave reviews from fellow theatre lovers, and that's The Pirates of Penzance.

Gilbert and Sullivan's hilarious, hopeful farce follows young Frederic, an orphan who has mistakenly been apprenticed to an ineffectual but raucous band of pirates. He disavows the pirates' way of life and falls for the beautiful Mabel. Frederic's melodious tones win over the heart of Major-General Stanley's songbird daughter, Mabel, but when the Pirate King discovers that General Stanley has lied about being an orphan to keep the pirates from stealing all of his belongings and carrying off his bevy of beautiful daughters, an "ingenious paradox" may prevent the budding romance and lead to the death of "The very model of a modern Major-General."

First off this is the first Gilbert and Sullivan show I've seen and it was a delight. The craftsmanship in the writing, both dialogue, and music is spectacular. It's charming, witty and, of course, hilarious. The writing of each song is so carefully crafted but every line still serves a purpose, whether it's setting up a joke or landing it. This is an old opera that has been beautifully updated and modernized with new verses, more clever jokes and plenty of modern references. Director Doug Scholz-Carlson does a phenomenal job in keeping this show fresh by updating it and blending the history behind the show's creation and the actual show itself.

One of the most famous songs in the production is "I am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General" which is the epitome of a tongue twister. Christina Baldwin plays Helen Lenoir the Scottish producer who performs this song and plays the General. This was a fresh take on this song and role because it is normally not played by a woman. Not only that, but the song calls for a verse to be updated with a more modern and current reference. This song (along with a few other jokes and songs through out the production) added a feminist twist by referencing "Never the less, she persisted" made famous by Senator Elizabeth Warren. When she said those famous words, I just about jumped out of my seat. It's a brave decision to make a political joke in this current political climate but I thought it was absolutely brilliant. Brilliant decision. Brilliant casting in Lenoir. Just brilliant, brilliant, brilliant!

The whole cast really is on fire the entire production as the show originally is 10 roles plus an ensemble, Scholz-Carlson casts the best of the best and does this show with only 9 people. This 9 person cast embodies everything that is right and hilarious about this production. Their comedic timing is dynamite and their dedication to making the audience laugh is nonparallel. Some highlights in this cast include:
  • Bradley Greenwald plays the Pirate King like a drunken sailor with some slurring, hilarious dialogue and a swash-buckling physicality of the role, very much like Johnny Depp's Captain Jack Sparrow. 
  • Elisa Pluhar, who plays Ruth, has an incredibly beautiful voice both embodying a little bit of modern typical Broadway belt with a mixture of tone that the score originally intended. 
  • Victoria Price, Elizabeth Hawkinson and Alice McGlave all play the General's daughters (including serving as Pirates and Policeman). Their voices are absolutely magnificent and blend so well together, I can't imagine a more perfect trio for these roles.
  • Special shout out to Alice McGlave, who played Mabel, for her stunning arias! 
  • Max Wojtanowicz, a Twin Cities acting favorite who played Frederic, is not only charming but also kept me in stitches the entire time with his asides to the audience and wicked humor. Definitely an actor that I'd go to a show solely for the reason to see him!
Last but certainly not least is the set designed by Ursula Bowden. What I loved about this set is the ever changing set pieces. Never did I get bored with it because of the amount of large set pieces that were so three dimensional with different looks on each side. As the actors moved them around and spun them to reveal new sides, it consistently felt like a new scene, set or moment. I really applaud this effort and think that Scholz-Carlson's directing had the actors using the stage and set magnificently. 

The Pirates of Penzance is a hilarious farce that was the perfect production to see with all the snow in Minnesota. It made for a great and spirit lifting evening for a night at the theater full of laughs and smiles. A wonderful production for anyone, especially theater lovers who may have not seen the production live before! 

The Pirates of Penzance  runs through March 25 at Park Square Theatre in St. Paul. Tickets and more information can be found here
*Photo credit goes to Petronella J Ytsma

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Indecent at the Guthrie Theatre

This past winter I attended a production of Blithe Spirit at the Guthrie. My best gal pal, Sofie, was in town visiting from New York and saw in her program that the Guthrie was producing Indecent by Paula Vogel in 2018. I remember how excited she was not only that the play was being produced but that I would have the chance to see it. After seeing how excited she was, and she hadn't even seen it personally in NYC, I knew I had to experience it for myself.

Indecent is inspired by the Yiddish playwright, Sholem Asch and his widely produced, yet ultimately censored, 1906 play The God of Vengeance. The God of Vengeance is the story of a Jewish brothel owner who lives with his wife, a former prostitute who used to work for him, and their overprotected daughter who has a reputation of being the purest of girls. The family lives above the father's brothel and soon his daughter falls in love with one of the girls downstairs. 

However Indecent is an emotional and captivating, multilayered script about behind the curtain anThe God of Vengeance came to be and ultimately how it was censored. It tells the story of what the acting troupe had to go through to have success on Broadway ultimately leading to their arrest after their debut. Even two days after seeing this script, I'm still trying to grasp how to put into words, what I saw. What I experienced. Lately, I've been seeing a lot of powerful plays that leave me utterly speechless. I said it in my last review of The Humans but I feel as if my writing isn't up to par with the pure genius that is this play. Stella Adler once said "The theatre was created to tell people the truth about life and the social situation" and that quote perfectly captures what this play is and was.

As you can probably tell already, I was in awe. I absolutely loved this production. I'll be honest. I was very branded as an "only musical theatre type guy." But this production reawakened my love for plays. It was technically "a play with music"  Right away, upon walking into the theatre I had already begun analyzing the stage through the huge broken down theatre that was built on the Wurtele Thrust Stage. This play-within-a-play literally has...a theater-within-a-theater and it's lovely. You can even see a time-lapse video of it here. What I loved about the set, designed by Arnulfo Maldonado, was how it complimented every aspect of the production. Cast members hauntingly sat in the abandoned seating as audience member took their seats. Piles of abandoned suitcases, pictures and other items scattered across the edge and back of house. This, at least to me, made so much sense after the production as it was a tribute and reminder to those who lost everything during the Holocaust, a subtle plot point towards the end of the production.

Projections were cast on the different pieces of the set by projection designer, Alex Basco Koch. The projections serve multiple purposes including letting the audience know when time has passed or what language the cast is speaking at that moment (usually Yiddish or English). This was an amazing detail because it was fascinating to see this brilliant cast flip on a dime. It truly shows how talented they are as they speak perfect English through the whole production, symbolizing the character's native Yiddish language, but then broken English at times symbolizing them trying to speak English. It's hard to write out but trust me, it was fantastic. The projections almost serve as stage directions for the audience, something I've never seen done before. Whenever the cast actually did speak in Yiddish (mostly when they sang), the English translations would flash across the screen while the actual Yiddish writing shined on the floor.

The cast was six actors with three musicians (who almost served as actors in the show as well). The cast served as multiple roles and I thought they all did a superb job in differentiating the difference between each character. They were passionate and respectful while portraying these people. Sally Wingert, always a Twin Cities favorite, makes an appearance in this production as well and adds the perfect amount of zing and spice to each role. She kept me from absolutely sobbing through the entire production with her well timed comedic moments. Ben Cherry (below) plays Lemml, one of the leading characters and leading people who kept The God of Vengeance playing.

Cherry was also in the original Broadway production and now making his Guthrie Debut. What a production to debut your talent to the Twin Cities. He was absolutely incredible. Whether it was making the audience laugh as he tried to learn English or making us cry (I cried a lot...) through his pleas and desperation to continue his work, I was completely drawn in. Never once did he let the audience look away from the stage.

Paula Vogel, the playwright of this marvelous production, should be very proud. The dialogue and relationship she's created with another playwrights work is truly a masterpiece that should be forever taught in theater classes around the world. Indecent is one of the most important pieces of theater I've ever seen in my life time and I mean that 100%. It's powerful and a story that everyone should know. It's the epitome example of how art can start a revolution, can change lives and create change. Indecent is story-telling at it's finest. I honestly can't say more great things about it. I fully intend on seeing it again before it leaves.

Indecent plays at the Guthrie Theater through March 24th in the Wurtele Thrust Stage. Ticket and more information can be found here.
*Photo Credit to Dan Norman and provided by Guthrie Theater.

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.