If you aren’t already aware of Second Fiddle Productions, a company that produces staged readings of rarely produced musicals each year in the Twin Cities, let me introduce you. This year’s production was of Meet Me In St. Louis, a movie turned Broadway musical about a family living in the city of St. Louis during the World’s Fair in 1903. While the fair was a celebration for St. Louis and became a great source of regional pride, this musical celebrates a year in the life of the Smith family.
What I like best about these staged readings is the bare-boned nature, with actors standing before music stands with script and music in hand, featuring their acting and singing skills with the piece after a very short rehearsal period. With one rehearsal focusing on learning the music and another with a run-through of the piece, the result is always incredible, with wonderful acting and brilliant musicality. The casts feature some of the best of Twin Cities musical theater and this performance was certain no exception:
Esther Smith – Sheena Janson
Mrs. Anna Smith – Kym Chambers
Tootie Smith – Natalie Tran
Grandpa Prophater – Gary Briggle
Rose Smith – Bergen Baker
Katie – Shelli Place
Agnes Smith – Anna Baker
John Truitt – Adam Moen
Lon Smith – Andrew Newman
Mr. Alonso Smith – Bill Marshall
Warren Sheffield – Robbie Droddy
Lucielle Ballard – Ruthie Baker
Eve/Ensemble – Elena Glass
Postman/Motorman/Clinton Badger – Adam Qualls
The reading was directed by Emily England and also featured Kyle Picha as musical director/keyboard, Ellen Hacker on violin, Melissa Nielsen on horn, and Matt Nielsen on drums.
I’ve learned a great deal about musical theater from these staged readings and can’t recommend Second Fiddle enough. Keep an eye out for the upcoming 2018 season as well as a benefit that will happen this fall to help support future readings. And if you’d like to donate so that Second Fiddle can keep staging these rarely produced musicals, please visit their website and learn more about who they are and their past productions!
As I sat at my computer, doing anything but write up my review of Ordway’s production of West Side Story, I realized that I simply couldn’t write the review. I opted to focus on choreography as a way to discuss the layers of feelings I had about the production. But I couldn’t write. I had local actor Ricardo Vazquez’s words, who spoke about the show at a birthday part I attended last fall, of “This is not a show about Latinos that needs to be done anymore” ringing in my head.
This morning I came across a post from ALMA, the Alliance of Latinx Minnesota Artists, on Facebook in response to this article from the Star Tribune. Instead of writing my own post, I am instead sharing their words from their original post which can be found on their Facebook page. I hope that by sharing their post and their words that more people will be aware of the issues in place of this production and wider problems in our theater community.
‘We are the Alliance of Latinx MN Artists (ALMA). Below is our statement in response to the unfortunate words printed in the Star Tribune on April 6th, 2017 in regards to our local Latinx community of artists.
This letter is in response to the article To stage ‘West Side Story,’ Ordway Center decided to grow Latino talents by Rohan Preston published in the Star Tribune on Thursday, April 6, 2017. The article implies our local Latinx artist community is lacking the necessary ability to appear on the Ordway stage in a musical. Ordway Artistic Director James Rocco states, “There are not a whole lot of Latino musical theater artists in town…” More than one year ago our local Latinx community was promised a strong commitment by James Rocco and the Ordway to partner with Teatro del Pueblo to ensure our representation on stage. The only catch was we would need to be trained through weeks of workshops, classes, and seminars in order to be ready for the first round of standard auditions.
Suddenly, Latinx artists ranging in experience from professional union actors with over 30 years of credits to recent BFA graduates were asked to attend the workshops, but told by Teatro del Pueblo that the Ordway was accustomed to a certain standard of excellence. We were told our local Latinx community needed to prove its own value for the wonderful opportunity to play gang members in a 60-year-old musical written by two white men that ends with one of our people shooting the romantic lead and being placed in handcuffs.
In the end, this “commitment to growth” by the Ordway yielded only two local Latinx artists cast, while more than 10 additional roles were filled with out of town actors, clearly stating through action that the Ordway was embarrassed of our local Latinx talent. This was supported by Rohan Preston’s unverified assertion, “There’s a wealth of musical theater artists among African-Americans in the Twin Cities, and to a lesser degree, Asian-Americans. But Latinos? Not so much.”
We are the Latinx actors, directors, producers, dancers, singers, playwrights, educators, and theater artists that seem to be non-existent in the eyes of Mr. Preston, The Ordway Center and, unfortunately, even Teatro del Pueblo.
We are professional artists. We are not in need of charity, workshops or instructions on the fundamentals, but rather regular and consistent opportunities. It is a fact that our presence on stage is not as visible as in other major theater towns, though not due to the lack of talent or unwillingness, but because opportunities to play roles are infrequent and inconsistent. We will not tolerate organizations who feel they have the right to label an entire community as unworthy to be represented on stage.
While we are pleased that the Ordway is helping new actors learn how to become professionals, we are not all new at this. Just because the Ordway and Teatro del Pueblo, for very different reasons, do not see us work, it does not mean that we are all amateurs in need of fundamental skill development. This community of Latinx theater artists ranges from members of Actors Equity to more recent graduates of excellent conservatories and training programs including our own University of Minnesota/Guthrie Theater BFA.
We would also like to speak about the Ordway’s partnership with Teatro del Pueblo. The onus of finding local talent was solely placed on Teatro-a smaller less-resourced organization. This assumes that only Latinx organizations can know Latinx talent and if they are unable to provide a roster, then it is Teatro’s fault and not the Ordway’s. In addition, no one organization such as Teatro del Pueblo represents the Latinx community nor should any individual such as Al Justiniano ever feel the right to speak for an entire community of people.
The Ordway has a track record of contentious relationships with local communities of color. The 2013 production of Miss Saigon drew widespread condemnation from members of the Asian American community and eventually elicited an apology from then President and CEO Patricia Mitchell: “I want to acknowledge and apologize for the hurt that presenting this work has caused.” The Ordway’s ethics have been called into question more recently by organizations such as Mu Performing Arts (this was covered by Marianne Combs in her article Smaller, diverse groups swim against arts-funding tide.) If the Ordway is truly trying to reach our communities, it is time to listen to us about how these issues can be addressed and eliminated.
We wish the cast of West Side Story a successful run. Moving forward, we hope the Ordway, Teatro del Pueblo, and Star Tribune recognize and embrace the incredible wealth of talent of our Twin Cities Latinx community. We also hope James Rocco, Al Justiniano, and Rohan Preston continue to discuss this article with us because the only way to true community empowerment is by working together through conflict and disagreement. We invite all of you to join us in a panel discussion on Monday June 5th to expand on this letter (more details to follow). We look forward to the opportunity to develop real partnerships, exhibit our talents, bring authenticity to the stage, and help institutions like the Ordway be proud to showcase local talent in order to combat the larger issue of systematic exclusion.
In this together,
The Alliance of Latinx MN Artists (ALMA)
Almost two years ago, I saw History Theatre’s production of Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story for the first time and, in some incredibly coincidence, was lucky enough to sit right behind Bobby Vee during the show. I was delighted to see the staged reading of Teen Idol, a new musical about Vee’s life, during Raw Stages last winter and very excited to see this story now staged at the same theater.
Beginning with Vee’s rise to fame right after Holly’s plane crash, Teen Idol follows the story of a teenage boy (Tyler Michaels) who cares deeply about his family and making music. After being offered a record deal with Snuffy Garret (Josh Carson), Vee enters the world of recored producing and works to balance his career with the needs of his family, including his girlfriend, Karen (Eleonore Dendy). Including many of the musicians Vee worked with and weaving their music with his into a sound montage of the time, Teen Idol is a fun, musically-driven new show that, as Jeff Vee described in the pre-show discussion before hand on opening night, is a personal story that tells more about Vee than just his hits and his connection with Buddy Holly.
Tyler Michaels really carries this show (even the program reflects this) and, while the other musicians Vee collaborated with are featured in the show, Vee is the most prominently featured. With Michaels’ skill and charisma, he’s the perfect Vee, capturing the enthusiasm and talent of the performer. However, other musicians such as Chubby Checker, Del Shannon, Little Anthony, the Ronettes, the Shirelles, and Dion and the Belmonts are featured and we see how all of these performers collaborated and influenced each other (Note: if any of you saw the staged reading of this show during Raw Stages last winter, I’m really sad that we lost the Carole King sequence. But I’m happy the song she wrote for Vee still appears in the show for the final number). Because this is such a strong and multitalented ensemble comprised of Peter Middlecamp, Ben Bakken, Leslie Vincent, Bowen Cochran, Kenny Watson, Kasono Mwanza, and ShaVunda Brown (just to name a few of this stellar group) I wish there had been more reoccurring appearances of certain characters they performed, though I did love see them move seamlessly and easily from one characters to another in each scene. With so much talent there, it’s hard to not want to see more of them.
The largeness of the cast is a new musical is unusual at the theater, as director Ron Peluso noted before opening. Originally the show was written on a much smaller scale to feature 9 actors instead of the 26 actors and musicians that now take the stage. However, the growth in size was done to feature the variety of experiences Vee had working with different people and works to not only only add more richness to Vee’s story but also create a large-scale musical with a lot of really fabulous people, the likes of which I haven’t seen in a long time.
What’s also unique about this show is the longevity of the career it follows – Vee is still alive and there’s a great deal to cover in his life. I realized after watching it how rare it is to see a bio piece about a musician in which they don’t die young and how unfortuantely prominent that narrative is in our culture. Instead, we get the rare narrative that covers both youth and old age and follows the joys and hardships throughout many years of life. The show doesn’t shy away from dark periods, focusing on Vee’s mother and brother’s mental illness, the suicide of Del Shannon, as well as Karen and Bobby’s health issues, such as Bobby’s diagnosis of dementia.
This show has an almost cinematic feel with its quick transitions and movement between time and space in an incredibly clever stage design. The number “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes” which replicates the filming of the music video includes projections from a live camera showing the ensemble dancing and is full exhilarating choreography which exhausted me just to watch. The show is rather long – it was opening night and I always find openings run a bit long, but it was at least a full 2 1/2 hours of show – yet it never dragged or lost pacing. My only wish? A rather petty one – I’ve grown accustomed to seeing the band onstage during Buddy and in Complicated Fun and, while we do see the Shadows perform with Bobby and the offstage band makes an appearance onstage for the recording room scenes and as Bobby’s sons, I really love a band present onstage at all times.
While this show’s core audience is likely those who were alive for Bobby’s rise to fame or followed his career in their youth, this performance isn’t exclusive to that audience – it’s a little nostalgia filled, but jam-packed full of music I grew up on (the Ronettes, Chubby Checker, etc) and music history. The 1960s and 70s were a time of integration in the music scene, as well as American at large, and Vee’s work plays an important role in it. I wish this thread was delved into more and handled with more care, but I’m happy to see it there. Overall, this show is a ton of fun, full of really dynamic talent, and a wonderful tribute to a musical legend.
Teen Idol: The Bobby Vee story is playing now through October 30th at the History Theatre in St Paul. It is directed by Ron Peluso, written by Bob Beverage, arranged and music directed by George Maurer, and choreographed by Jan Puffer. Show and ticket information can be found on the History Theatre’s website.
Dear America: You need to see Theater Latte Da’s Ragtime right now. It’s your past and your present. And if we don’t change things, it’ll continue to be your future.
Ragtime is based off the E.L. Doctorow novel of the same name and tracks three different story lines that interweave with each other throughout the course of the early 20th century. Mother (Britta Ollmann) is a young woman taking care of her brother (Riley McNutt), her grandfather (James Ramlet), and son (Soren Thayne Miller) while her husband, Father (Daniel S. Hines), is on Admiral Perry’s journey to the North Pole. While gardening one day, she finds a baby in the ground. The baby belongs to Sarah (Traci Allen Shannon), an African-American woman who is the lover of Colehouse Walker (David L Murray Jr), a ragtime pianist. In love with Colehouse but afraid of what having his son means in their relationship, Sarah disappears from him without a trace and tries to get rid of her son. The police catch Sarah after Mother finds her baby but, instead of having her handed over the police, Mother accepts responsibility for Sarah and the child. Sarah lives with the family while Colehouse looks for Sarah to convince her to come back with him. Meanwhile, Tateh (Sasha Andreev) and his daughter (Georgia Blando) have immigrated from Latvia and struggle to survive in the harsh tenement houses of New York. Around them, the world is captivated by the story of Evelyn Nesbit (Emily Jansen), the magic of Harry Houdini (Benjamin Dutcher), and the success of Henry Ford and JP Morgan (James Ramlet and Daniel S Hines). Through all of this, Booker T Washington (Andre Shoals) and Emma Goldman (Debra Berger) call for change against the racism and income inequality in America while Colehouse fights for justice after the unthinkable happens.
I don’t want to give away the full story in this summary, but so much happens in the first act that it feels like a stand-alone story of its own. Despite the fact that this musical takes place over one hundred years ago, it strongly reflects our modern world of racial strife, xenophobia and immigration issues, white privilege, and escapism from the world. It was impossible for me to watch the show and not think about how Tateh could represent Latino, Syrian, or Somalian immigrants today or how the stories of Colehouse and Sarah appear in the news day after day after day.
You will weep during this show – I cried through a great deal with it and was not ashamed. It’s impossible to hide your tears in this production and you’re not meant to. The heavy silence and discomfort at the end of the first act is one of the most powerful moments I’ve ever beheld in a theater this year, and possibly in a theater ever. This show is utterly devastating, beautiful, and desperately needed. Every once in a while, a revival is staged at just the right cultural moment, and that is precisely what Peter Rothstein has done with Ragtime. In another production done with less heart and intellect, these characters could become shallow representations of cultural issues. Instead, the boldly represent what is at stake both in the election and in the world in general. If you don’t understand why so many of us are clamoring for justice, for change, for hope, see this show. There is no way you won’t understand it afterwards.
Ragtime is written by Terrence McNally, Stephen Flaherty, and Lynn Ahrens. It is directed by Peter Rothstein, music directed by Denise Prosek, and choreographed by Kelli Foster Warder. It is playing now through October 23rd at Latte Da’s new home in the Ritz Theater. Ticket and show information can be found on Latte Da’s website.
This previous weekend, I had the utter pleasure of joining Jill of Cherry and Spoon and Carol and Julie from Minnesota Theater Love for a little theater road trip to Duluth. Along with lots of delicious food, local brews, and local tunes, we attended Renegade Theater’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins in the lovely Zeitgeist Arts Space.
Full disclosure – I have wanted to see Assassins for years. It’s come up in a number of ways and might be the one thing that links all the different hats I wear in the theater world. It’s a dramaturg’s dream and incredibly inspiring as a playwright and I was elated to see it being done in Minnesota (with the added benefit of it being in Duluth. Because who doesn’t love an excuse to spend a weekend in Duluth?).
I was not disappointed. This dark, fierce, and wildly funny show traverses a strange territory – a carnival outside of time where eight successful and would-be presidential assassins meet in a shooting gallery to share their stories – often through the eyes of a character known only as the Balladeer – and questions what it means to win and lose, succeed and fail, and strive for the American Dream in a world of myths. At the heart of this is a dark, frightening root that doesn’t waver from the violence and cruelty of the assassins’ acts. But with Sondheim and book writer John Weidman’s skill, this musical unfolds to be a very different beast than one that just focuses on how the killing occurred or trying to understand why the killing happened, ala a few History Channel documentaries I’ve tried to sit through (you know the one. Where they try and tell you John Wilkes Booth didn’t really die and he spent the rest of his life on a plantation in the South. Tell me one of you knows what I’m talking about). This doesn’t try to understand or empathize. It doesn’t try to forgive or explain away their actions. At the end of the show, they are still killers. But they are killers that look an awful lot like us.
Renegade did marvelous work with a very difficult show. There’s a lot of moving parts and only 90 minutes to reveal them all in. Andy Bennett is wonderfully compelling and persuasive as John Wiles Booth, Joe Cramer is a beautifully moving Czolgosz (especially in a moment in which Czolgosz describes his work making bottles in a factory), Nathan Payne is equally funny and frightening in his portrayal of Charles Guiteau, and Emily Bengston and Mary Foxy share a wonderful show-stealing scene with their interactions as Squeaky Fromme and Sara Jane Moore (respectively). Jack Starr (Proprietor), Abe Curran (Balladeer), Alec Schroeder (Giuseppe Zangara), Matais Valero (John Hinckley), and Matt Smith (Sam Byck) are also great, leading us on the uncomfortable, down the rabbit hole-like path where things no longer look as clear and certain as they did at the start. Ensemble members Ole Dack, Kendra Carlson, Tonya Porter, and Kyle McMillan are also fantastic. With a strong band that dives into the unusual harmonies and shifting tempos led by Patrick Colvin, this performance did a marvelous job capturing the nuances and complexities in this script (however, I have to admit, I was not a fan of the intermission. I love the drive through to a climatic end and the 10 minute break threw me off).
Unless you’re a fanatic like me (or really, really well-versed in your presidential history), there’s a lot of assassins you won’t have heard of before in this performance. Most of us only know Booth and Oswald and, until I took a class in college that introduced me to this show and Sam Byck, I only knew those two as well. One reason I love this musical is because it presents to us history we all think we know – and shows us how much more there is to it, not just what we think we know, but what we don’t know and what cannot be known. And if you’re looking to learn more about the assassins (as I was after I first heard about the show) then there’s some really great books out there to help you out such as American Assassins by James W. Clarke, Destiny of the Republic by Candace Millard (on the assassination of Garfield), and The President and the Assassin by Scott Miller (on the assassination of McKinley). (These are just a few I’ve read. I’m continually looking for more, especially since I’d love to dramaturg this show. Hell, I’d love to direct it too.)
As a playwright, I’ve been thinking about what makes theater different and what can be done onstage that can’t be done in a book or a poem. Setting the story in a shooting gallery is something that works best visually and audibly, with the flashing lights, the targets with images of presidents on them, and sounds of gunshots. Theater can play with time and space and allow this upside-down place where assassins come together from all different times and make an argument for their perspective. This show takes on an added weight in the midst of a discussion on gun violence (especially in “The Gun Song”) and argue that guns don’t right wrongs – but there’s still a belief that that can and will.
I’m so happy to have seen Renegade’s work and I look forward to seeing their performances in the future (I see from their webpage that I missed Murder Ballad and [title of show] which kind of breaks my heart). I’m excited to see what their next season might bring – and possibly another theater road trip.
Assassins is written by Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman and directed by Katy Kelbacka. It is playing now through September 17th at Duluth’s Teatro Zuccone in the Zeitgeist Arts Space. Ticket and show information can be found at Renegade Theater’s website.
Thursday was a really awful day in the universe, especially for residents of the Twin Cities. If you haven’t heard about the shooting of Philando Castile in Falcon Heights (right on the heels of the shooting of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge and soon to be followed by a shooting resulting in the death of several police officers at a protest in Dallas), then you have insulated yourself in a much more peaceful world than I currently find myself in. I am very angry and very sad and very scared, and it was not an easy feat for me to leave my apartment and go see a show on Thursday night. But I’m very, very grateful that I did.
I don’t believe it’s possible to see a show in a vacuum. Each one of us brings a certain perspective in with us when we see a performance and I certainly had a very grim and heavy on when I entered the Orpheum to see The Lion King. But if I could have seen any show, I am so happy it was this one. For years, people have been telling me how mesmerizing, how breath-taking, how utterly stunning this production is. And they’re not wrong. I could go on for days about how beautiful the costuming, the lighting, the staging, and the composing is, not to mention the puppetry and performances by the actors themselves. And while these aspects certainly should be given their due, I’d like to focus instead on the wider effects of this musical for me as an audience member on a day like Thursday.
What was powerful about seeing The Lion King when I did is that it is simultaneously escapist and making a commentary on the world around us. It is a beautiful, spectacular show that drew me in and made me leave behind the problems of the world around me for a few hours. But it also commented on those issues, showing what happens when a lion pride is torn apart by greed and injustice. Our world is fraught with pain and to see this pain represented in way that is tolerable and can be dealt with, in a story familiar to me from my childhood, was a great comfort.
The Broadway production of The Lion King celebrates Africa, not as a singular entity but as a diverse continent. Throughout the show, different costuming and dance elements weave different traditions from around the globe into a collage that helps the audience traverse Simba’s story across the savannah, to the desert, to the jungle, and back again. Though it isn’t easy to pinpoint exactly which cultures were being represented, the differences were notable, especially the inclusion of six different languages (Swahili, Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho, Tswana, Congolese) in music and dialogue. Most powerful of all were the number of actors of color onstage, creating this story of hope and joy. On a dark, grim day, this alone made things better.
Our world is a troubled place and no amount of hiding from our problems or wishing it away will cure it. Simba’s recognition that living hakuna matata can’t truly exist if he doesn’t help to change his world certainly echoed a deeper meaning in my mind and one that I’m happy to see is still being told to children of a younger generation. This tour could not have come to Minneapolis at a better time, though I can’t help but wonder if it’s difficult for the actors and crew to be here now. Regardless, I’m grateful to have seen this and hope for a successful run for the show.
The Lion King is playing now through August 7th at the Orpheum Theater. A sensory-friendly performance is being performed on July 3oth at 2pm, the first of its kind to come to Minnesota. Read more about it in my post here and buy tickets/find more about the show at Hennepin Theatre Trust’s website.
Jason Robert Brown is one of my favorite musical composers of the 21st Century and I’m delighted that his 2014 Tony- Award winning musical The Bridges of Madison County has stopped in Minneapolis on its national tour. Winner for best score in 2014, this musical with music and lyrics by Brown and book by Marsha Norman tells the story of Francesca (Elizabeth Stanley), a war bride from Naples, Italy, discontent with her life on an Iowa farm. While her children Michael (John Campione, Bryan Welnicki in the performance I saw) and Carolyn (Caitlin Houlahan) prepare to go to the Indiana State Fair to hopefully win a blue ribbon for their prize steer, Francesca is homesick and feeling distant from her husband, Bud (Cullen R. Titmas) and from a farming life that she never envisioned for herself. Enters Robert (Andrew Samonsky), a photographer from the National Geographic who’s come to town to take photos of a covered bridge that’s a local landmark. Francesca drives him to the bridge and, while watching him take photos and hearing him recount his travels in Naples, she falls in love with him. Amidst phone calls from nosy neighbors Charlie and Marge (David Hess and Mary Callanan) and her husband calling to check on her, Francesca has a four-day affair with Robert that reawakens the person she once was and causes her to question whether she is leading the life she really wants.
Based on the novel by Robert James Waller (and known for the film directed by Clint Eastwood), this musical does an exceptional job of adapting the tale. Though I’m not as familiar with the source (I was born in 1990 so I missed its high point of popularity by being too young), I am familiar with the general story and am impressed how the staging delicately balances the internal struggle of the characters. All the actors do an excellent job and I was especially enthused to see Samonsky perform, as he was recently in La Jolla Playhouse’s adaption of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (which I’m a little obsessed with). Stanley’s portrayal of Francesca was also lovely and I was particularly pleased to hear an Italian accent on stage that more or less sounded accurate (and after hearing accents like those in The Most Happy Fella, this is much appreciated change.)
The story itself is an interesting one, a different look at an affair that doesn’t just show guilt but presents the sudden romance as understandable. In his notes on the show, Jason Robert Brown says, “We can love in many different ways, and we can love different things simultaneously. It is hard – it is insane – to place one love above another.” The show grapples beautifully with that struggle, showing Francesca’s inability to leave her family but her inability to stop feeling what she does for Robert. Though this may feel comfortable or comforting for our cultural perceptions of monogamy or relationships, it does provide a powerful look at the question of “What if?”
Though the emotional intensity isn’t as high as I desired it to be throughout the entire show, the performance of “It All Fades Away” is absolutely marvelous. “Another Life,” a piece in which Marian (Katie Klaus) sings in an unknown place about what her ex-husband Robert might be doing now, while in this same moment he falls in love with Francesca, is beautiful, especially given how the characters interact in the space, walking to their locations by crossing through the farm house, like ghosts in the room or thoughts projected by the other characters into physical form. Best of all are the amazing orchestrations of this piece, with a haunting cello solo at the opening and close of the show and some fantastic guitar work. Brown describes that, “The piano reflects my energy back at me, neurotic and complicated – I know the instrument so well by now that I sometimes have to wrestle with it to make it surprise me, and I knew that the skittery and dense music that the piano and I traditionally made together wasn’t the right sound for this piece.” I agree with him – the timbre of the guitar perfectly captures the world this story takes place in and the romantic, whirlwind summer romance expressed throughout. It’s no wonder that this show won a Tony for best score. Under the musical direction of Tom Murray and Keith Levenson, the orchestra becomes the heart of the piece, keeping Robert and Francesca’s romance alive even when they must part. And given the photographic elements of the show, the lighting design by Donald Holder is particularly wonderful, dramatically showing sunrises and sunsets and the shifting perspectives of the characters.
I greatly enjoyed this show (despite some distraction audience behavior around me) and, while I did wish for something more – whether it be in emotional engagement or just wanting to know more of the story (why did Francesca never contact Robert again? Why did he never contact her? Why did people seem to like Bud when I disliked his character quite a bit?) – this a wonderful romance to enjoy on a summer evening. Catch it if you can!
I’m writing this post only days after the death of Prince and, let me tell you, it’s surreal and very strange. To be working on a show that is so heavily influenced by Prince, mentions him multiple times, and likely would not exist with out him is difficult to deal with but also a place of solace and comfort. Prince created the Minneapolis Sound and defined our local music scene in many ways. His loss only makes me realize how important music is in my life and the life of so many others. And that’s exactly what the show is about – the influence of music on a whole generation.
So, I thought I’d do another behind the scenes look as I’m in rehearsals again, by taking a look at music in a show. And what better show to focus to use for this exploration than Complicated Fun. This show, described by playwright Alan Berks as 55% music, combines a variety of genres with 26 different songs by 16 different artists. It explores not only the punk scene but also R&B, funk, folk, pop, and styles that transcend genres in Minnesota music. It’s unique sort of musical – it doesn’t always follow the typical expectations of music in shows (being sung by characters, replacing dialogue with songs, etc.), it isn’t a juke box musical, but neither is it a tribute concert or play with music. It’s been dubbed a mix-tape musical and, dramaturgically, that’s the perfect way to describe it.
The process for this show started back in January 2015 during the History Theatre’s Raw Stages. I wasn’t a part of this process but I did watch the show as a house manager from the back of the house, in awe of how the ensemble had learned the music in only a week. In the spring, I came on as dramaturg to prepare for the summer workshop on the script, which took place in July. Music director Nic Delcambre played all of the music on guitar and piano and sang the majority of the music. This process was focused on the writing of the script, the story involved and how certain events progressed, what music to include, and how music was integrated into the work. Another workshop was done again in January 2016 (which I wasn’t present for and can’t speak to) and more time was taken outside of these workshops for the our director, playwright, and music director to discuss the music in the show.
A unique caveat to a show like this that includes music written by other people is that all rights for the songs performed must be obtained in order to use it. This affected what songs could be used and what artists – when you see the show, you’ll note that Prince is referenced but never performed beyond a few phrases. Rehearsals for the band began shortly before the cast began in April, with our musical director teaching the band the songs and transcribing and adapting them for the ensemble. The full band includes Delcambre on guitar and keyboard, Blake Foster on guitar, Mitchell Benson on bass, and Riley Jacobson on drums/percussion. Added elements to the band are the use a drum machine for synthesized percussion effects and a sound module controlled by the keyboard and produces all the sound from it, in a variety of electronic timbres (and can be especially heard in “Funkytown” and “Let Me Let You Rock Me”).
A primary focus throughout the process was to keep the sound of the arrangements as close to the original songs as possible to stay true to the work and style of the artists. There are certain songs that have been arranged differently than the original for musical theater effects – for instance, Husker Du’s “Don’t Want To Know” is slower and more lyrical to create a certain mood for the scene it appears in. The actors were given access to the original recordings in order to learn the songs and hear the unique qualities of each piece and each artists in the show. On the first day of rehearsal for the cast, a full read-through of the script was done with all the music being performed by the music director on piano and two guitars. As rehearsals progressed, time was taken to teach specific parts to the cast members (such as the Tetes Noires’ piece “American Dream,” which has two cast members singing and one of our ensemble members singing and playing violin). Transitions into pieces – especially the switch from the Replacements’ “I Hate Music” to Greg Brown’s “Downtown,” which requires a change from electric to acoustic guitar and the addition of finger picks – and vamping during scene changes also became an important part to work, as did cueing in the band, especially through character cue (record clerks putting on a tape or record, a physical gesture from a singer, etc). Once the band joined in rehearsals right before tech week, it became especially important that cues were clear so everything could be kept tight and neat.
When we started tech, we began focusing on how sound appears and runs through the the show, such as the timing of when music comes in, making sure that the song fits into the action onstage, and lining up choreography and lines so that everything fits together just right. Another large part of this process was the technical aspects – fitting actors and musicians for mikes, balancing their sound levels against the instrumentals, and balancing spoken dialogue over musical moving parts. The glorious brilliance of going from a loud punk party to being able to hear a conversation in the party is an impressive feat that the band, our sound designer C. Andrew Mayer, and electrician Josh Stallings deserve serious kudos for.
The use of the band in this show is really wonderful and unique – they stay onstage during the entire show and produce what in film would be called diegetic sound, or sounds coming from the particular scene or location, rather than added behind as underscoring or sung by the characters to convey the story. The band itself represents certain bands in the Minneapolis scene at this time, paying homage to the Suicide Commandos with the use of a Les Paul, having band members represent the Replacements and Husker Du, and incorporating certain members itself into characters in the show.
In this story about the often overlooked Generation X, the collaborative importance of theater has never been clearer. With an incredible cast, band, and production team, I am continually in awe of the work that is being produced. This is the largest show I’ve worked on in terms of people involved and it’s been amazing. We’ve got an amazing production group with set designer Michael Hoover, choreographer Cark Flink, prop designer Lisa Conley, costumer Amelia Cheever, and lighting designer Kathy Maxwell. It has been such a joy to be a part of this process and I know it will be an absolutely brilliant production. But don’t take my word for it – come see it yourself!
Complicated Fun is written by Alan Berks and directed by Dominic Taylor. It opens April 30th and runs through May 29th. Tickets can be purchased on the History Theatre’s website.
I’ve had the opening line to T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land stuck in my head the last several days: “April is the cruelest month.” Given the cold, blustery day I found myself at Nautilus Theater to see The Fantasticks, it was fitting. But this lovely play took me out of April’s cold cruelty and right into the warm, romantic days of September.
In this production, director Ben Krywosz breathes new life into this classic show with shifting the typical casting. The lovers Matt and Luisa are played real-life partners Gary Briggle and Wendy Lehr, taking on roles meant for ingenue/ juvenile actors. Seeing established actors play these parts is a dream come true – I’m a massive fan of their work and the nuances they bring to younger characters being older and more worldly is brilliant. Playing the parts of the fathers Hucklebee and Bellomy are Jennifer Baldwin Peden and Christina Baldwin. Having these roles taken on by women makes these characters more focused on being parents and guardians, rather than playing into any patriarchal roles or gender-specific parenting attitudes. William Gilness is suave and cunning as the narrator, El Gallo, and Brian Sostek is a delight as the Actor Who Dies. This all-star cast has marvelous chemistry and, in this fable-like musical, portray the story with poise and mastery.
Nautilus’ intimate theater space – though small it may be – works brilliantly for this stripped-down production. The simple but lovely set designed by Victoria Petrovich and built by John Hegge is clever and captures the fantastic nature of the story without a lot of bells and whistles. The music, directed by Jerry Rubino, is performed by piano and harp and balances wonderfully with the vocal ranges of the cast, as well as having some wonderfully done transposing (according to the talk-back afterwards sticking to the original keys despite the different ranges for the fathers).
This show is an absolute delight. Attending on an industry night, it was wonderful to hear the discussion afterwards of how the story not only resonated with the audience, but the use of different generational casting, allowing for a deeper romantic story to take place that looks at how age affects relationships and how different roles are performed based on age. From the moment “Try to Remember” begins at the top of the show, I was swept off my feet into a delightful, poignant, heartfelt world that truthfully acknowledges the difficulties of growth and changes in relationships. With El Gallo’s throwing Matt and Luisa into a world no longer full of simple romance but also cruelty, and hardship, the show grapples with the struggles of growing up, the harshness of the world, and also the ability of relationships to grow back together even after heartbreak. This musical is full of hope and, in the cruelness of April, there’s nothing more marvelous than remembering September.
The Fantasticks is playing at Nautilus Musical Theater in lowertown St. Paul now through April 19th. Ticket and show information can be found on Nautilus Theater’s website.
Currently in rehearsal at the History Theatre is the new show Complicated Fun, written by Alan Berks, directed by Dominic Taylor, and music directed by Nic Delcambre. Focusing on the 1980s music scene in the Twin Cities, this slice of living, local history involves a vibrant look at the Minneapolis sound, the history of First Avenue and bands such as the Replacements and Husker Du, and a passionate story of an often overlooked generation. I’m lucky enough to be the dramaturg for this production and it’s a piece that’s very near and dear to my heart. Whether you’re a fan of 89.3 The Current and First Avenue, passionate about Minnesota history, or just curious to learn more about the diversity of music in our state, this show is a must-see. And, to give a taste of what’s headed your way come April 30th, the History Theatre hosted a special preview event with the band, cast, Chris Osgood of The Suicide Commandos, who set the scene for punk in Minneapolis and throughout the US, and Steve McClellan, former manager of First Avenue during the 1980s.
Performing Curtiss A’s “Laugh It Up,” Husker Du’s “In a Free Land,” the Replacements’ “Here Comes a Regular,” and The Suicide Commandos’ “Complicated Fun” (the namesake for the show) was the show band, with Nic Delcambre and Blake Foster on guitar, Mitchell Benson on bass, and Riley Jacobson on drums. Part of the cast, including Stephanie Bertumen, Bowen Cochran, Erik Hoover, Andrea Wollenberg, Joseph Miller, and Skylar Nowinksi, performed two excerpts from the show focusing on the community and music scene.
Featuring 26 songs by 16 different artists, and a wide breadth of genres, this show is all about the music. And it’s all Minnesota music. If you ever had a song change your life, discovered a mixtape that perfectly expressed how you felt, or found a band or music scene that expressed who you were or what you wanted to be, you’ll love this show, even if you aren’t familiar with the bands featured. And if you are familiar with the bands, then you need to see this show like you need air to live. (This is an exaggeration, but only slightly.)
If the music alone doesn’t entice you, then the talent certainly will. The cast is incredible and lovely and, while we’ve only been rehearsing for a week, it seems the script already feels comfortable. Then again, much of the cast has been work-shopping this show since January of 2015. I also cannot praise the band enough. Last night was the first time we saw them perform together (as they’ve been rehearsing separately from the cast) and I think I can speak for us all and say we were all incredibly impressed. Even if you’re the biggest Husker fan and thinks that no one can shred like Bob Mould (and you are most certainly entitled to your opinion), you’ll love these covers that are incredibly faithful to the original. Don’t take my word for it – check out an audio clip with part of the band performing at Roseville Library. And if you still aren’t convinced that you need this show in your life, then come for the choreography. There will be stage diving. And a routine to the Jets’ “Crush On You.” But seriously, why are you still reading this? Go get tickets already!
Complicated Fun is playing at the History Theatre from April 30th through May 29th, with previews April 28th and 29th. Ticket prices and show information can be found on the History Theatre’s website.