My first experience with Theater Latte Da was last fall’s production of Once. I was impressed with the little theater, the space was perfect in that there could be a decent sized audience but even the seats at the back were decent, which is where we were for the first half of last season’s shows. My greatest theater experience, not just there but probably ever, was their production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which I saw once from the third row and twice more from the first. This is a theater that puts on productions that rival The Guthrie, in terms of talent on and off stage. Theater Latte Da houses itself at the Ritz Theater, situated in a Northeast Minneapolis neighborhood, with a lot to offer in terms of before and after show dining and drinks. Just down the street is a great place for Fish and Chips The Anchor, or if pizza is more to your liking, we tried Young Joni just a few blocks away and rated the Cauliflower appetizer on a scale of 1 to 10 a solid I want to eat this everyday.
We enjoyed the front rows so much for Hedwig that we decided for Chicago to go one step further and sit on the stage. This is not a new idea, I sat on the stage a few years back at The Jungle Theater when they put on Two Gentlemen of Verona. It is a fun way to make the live theater going experience even more immersive. There are twenty seats on the stage, they are general admission, so if you were lucky enough to get one, do yourself a favor and come early, first in gets first choice. The set is designed like a speak easy and you are sitting at the bar which becomes the stage, with space for your drink, much like a strip club. And that is not where the comparisons end. The performers are performing right in front of you, as well as behind you, and also directly too you. They are also frequently wearing very little and what they are wearing is designed to titillate. I found myself unsure where to look at times. Do you make eye contact, do you allow yourself to look at the legs and other things that clearly you are supposed to be admiring. When you do catch yourself admiring something other than the lively faces of the performers, you immediately become aware that the rest of the audience, those not seated on the stage, can see you. And you also realize, they can tell where you are looking. These are not the seats for introverts.
Chicago is a show I am only familiar with from the film adaptation, and of course a couple of the songs which have seeped into the cultural consciousness such as And All That Jazz. I liked the film, but had heard from others that the show could be a little harder to like, filled as it is with mostly despicable characters. This productions largerly overcomes it’s lack of likable characters with a wealth of likable performances. Rather than play up the seedy side of the characters, they play those aspects with a nudge and a wink and that allows us to enjoy their amorality rather than be appaled by it. The show plays like a series of vaudville routines like those it’s style was based on. By not playing it as rea,l it lets us off the hook, we are allowed to be entertained. Once you relieve the show of it’s immorality and all that jazz, it becomes fun. Instead of being appalling, the characters are playing appalling. That allows for more humor than I anticipated.
The story focuses on Roxie Hart played flirtingly, at least with me, by Britta Ollmann who shone last season as the girl in Once. Roxie opens the play by killing a man for trying to break off an affair with her. The show follows her through her time in Mama Morton’s women’s prison with her fellow inmates, all seemingly trying to win their trials and launch careers as celebrities. She hires the slickest defense attorney in Chicago to get her off, Billy Flynn. Billy Flynn is played like a vaudeville barker or a game show host by Robert O. Berdahl. Roxie and Billy manipulate everyone from the press to Roxie’s sad sack husband Amos Hart to get what they want . Somehow the show manages to jettison our judgement about the characters while still leaving our hearts intact so they can be broken by Reed Sigmund’s portrayal of Amos Hart. True, this character as written is halfway to breaking your heart straight out of the gate. But that shouldn’t diminish the work of an actor who is able to capitalize so completely on that characters arc. When Sigmunds’ Amos leaves the story for the last time the audience audibly pitied him. The other standouts in a uniformly good cast are Regina Marie Williams as Mama Morton and Michelle De Joya as Velma Kelly.
One change I would encourage the director of the show, Peter Rothstein, to consider before the show exits the preview stage is the curtain call. It maybe the stage, it maybe that there are audience members onstage, but for some reason the curtain call was not designed to allow the audience to fully show the actors and musicians the appreciation they wanted too. All of the featured actors deserved a bow of their own. The performers did a fantastic job, give us the opportunity to show them how much we appreciated their work.