Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story Rocks at History Theatre in St. Paul

Nicholas Freeman as Buddy Holly Photo by Rick Spaulding

Does everyone know how great Buddy Holly was? I’m serious. This is a conversation I had with my brother after seeing Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story at History Theatre. We grew up knowing Holly’s music, our Dad exposed us to it from a very early age. He had a tangential connection. He grew up in Fargo ND and his neighborhood friend Robert Velline, better known as Bobby Vee, got his big break filling in for Holly at the concert in Moorhead Minnesota on February 3rd 1957, the day the music died. One of the first 10 CD’s I ever owned, I think I was in the 7th grade, was Buddy Holly From the Original Master Tapes. It contained 20 songs, all of them great, and I would discover throughout my lifetime that there were more great songs that weren’t even on that CD. As Minnesotans, we also collectively have a connection since he was flying from our neighbor state Iowa to perform in Moorhead MN. So for me personally, and I suspect for many of us regionally, we are aware of what was lost when the plane carrying Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens Crashed, killing them as well as their pilot. History theatre’s production resurrects the music, if only for a couple of hours. But in those hours we together as an audience experience the genius of Buddy Holly, and I as an individual, felt like I had my Dad there with me again.

Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story is a jukebox musical written by Alan Janes which basically tells the brief biographical rise to fame of Buddy Holly. Holly having Died at the age of 22, there isn’t a lot of story to tell, but that’s OK because the real story is simply the music. It opens with local legend T. Mychael Rambo doing an acapella version of Don McLean’s “American Pie“. It’s a somber note which plants a seed that blossoms into the realization as we watch and listen of what exactly the world lost on that bitter February morning. Because what follows on from that moment is pure joy. We follow Buddy from January 1956 when he gets his first chance at a recording contract through February 1959 when he died at age 22. In three short years, we witness possibly one of the greatest musical outputs of all time. We are left at the end with the unanswerable question, what would have been? The show finds the best possible way to mark the death of Holly and then wisely gives us a flashback to hours before, an encore if you will, so that we can end on a high note with a couple more performances of Holly’s classic songs.

Buddy is played by Nicholas Freeman, this is the fifth time History Theatre has produced the show starting back in 2009 and Freeman has played Buddy each time. There is a reason you cast a man who has to be pushing 50 as a 22 year old, because he looks enough like, and sounds almost exactly like the real Holly. Buddy Holly had a distinctive vocal style which Freeman nails and since the story elements are short and really just a way to get us to the next musical performance, Freeman’s age wasn’t an issue. The show lives and breathes in the performances of the songs which are so good, the entire audience gets clapping along multiple times. Freeman, along with Adam Gauger and Matt Mcinytre who play the founding members of the crickets, actually play their instruments and they sound tight. They are assisted by Brandon Petron as the 4th Cricket on guitar and Jake Endres on keyboards. Their musical talents help to infuse the production with a vintage rock n roll concert feel that leaves you wanting more. Brendan Nelson Finn as The Big Bopper and Fernando Collado as Ritchie Valens are also wonderful at channeling the performances of their real life counterparts.

This was my first time seeing Buddy …, which given my affinity for the music might surprise you. The reality is that before I began reviewing shows, History Theatre was barely on my radar. Once I started and saw that I’d just missed Teen Idol: The Bobby Vee Story I kicked myself, then hoped they would produce it again in the not too distant future. Director Ron Peluso, who has been the Artistic Director of History Theatre for the past 27 years, likely as been fine tuning this show with each subsequent mounting. He’s done a remarkable job, it flows effortlessly and the moment of Holly’s death which I mentioned earlier could not be staged any more poignantly. If there is a stand out creative choice in the show that’s it. As I said the music is tight and that is due in no small part to the Musical Director Gary Rue. The set design by Justin Hooper is somehow perfect to stand in for a TV studio, recording studio, Concert venue and in a cute little moment a office building, with elevator.

For fans of classic rock-n-roll music and in particular Buddy Holly, you will not want to miss this spectacular production. The show runs through October 30th for more information and to purchase tickets go to https://www.historytheatre.com/2022-2023/buddy-buddy-holly-story

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The Thin Place Explores the Boundary Between This World and the Next at DalekoArts

Monster Month started a day early here at The Stages of MN with a trip down to New Prague for DalekoArts’ season opener The Thin Place. The first thing I always have to ask myself with a show that requires, depending on your location, a 40 to 80 minute drive, is it worth it? The answer, thankfully, in this case is yes! First of all, it’s a lovely drive down to New Prague particularly the last 10 miles or so once you exit 169. It felt like as we got closer to the theater the countryside had decided to begin changing into it’s Halloween costume. The leaves began to change, the small towns we drove through took on a Sleepy Hollow feel. By the time we reached the theater I was primed for a story that delved into the unknown. The Thin Place is not the type of show that tries to wow you with special effects, startle you with jump scares or thankfully, gross you out with buckets of blood. Instead, it tells a very simple intimate story that sucks you in and builds to a very satisfying conclusion, something that the genre fails at more often than it succeeds. This production succeeds because it is first and foremost a study of characters, which also doesn’t work well unless you have a great cast, which DalekoArts has certainly achieved with these actors.

The Thin Place is a relatively new play written by Lucas Hnath who’s play A Doll’s House Part 2 was nominated for a Tony Award in 2017. As with his continuation of Ibsen’s classic he has crafted a drama that focuses on characters, their motivations, and their relationships. The play opens With Hilda speaking to the audience describing her relationship with her Grandmother and the way they would practice communicating telepathically. They did this so that when her Grandmother passed away they would hopefully still be able to communicate. Hilda will continue to serve as narrator throughout the play sliding in and out of scenes that recount her friendship with Linda, a Medium whom she believed can communicate with people who are gone. She wants to communicate with her Grandmother but also with her mother who has gone missing. We sense that she wants to know if she is dead or alive. As Hilda and Linda become close and spend more and more time together we drop in on a party with Linda’s Cousin Jerry and friend Sylvia. What’s wonderful about all four of the characters is how much we learn about them through their conversation and behaviors. Very little is spelt out, one has questions about what exactly the relationships are between Linda and all three of the other characters. I really enjoyed the wonder and watching for clues that would more concretely define the connections.

What a wonderful opportunity for an actor to play these roles, where so much is implied, but left unstated. You really get to dig in and make choices, those choices help to lead the audience. But this cast is a tease, they stop short of doing anything that lets us into the inner circle, which is where Hnath wants us. he wants us to feel like Hilda, to be listeners, to be outside of the inner circle. Kayla Dvorak Feld is brilliant at using quietness to hold our attention. There’s a moment you have towards the beginning of the play where you start to wonder if it will just be this one actress sitting in a chair talking to us. And in that moment you think to yourself thank God she’s this good or it might have been tough going. About that time Lolly Foy enters stage left, Foy’s performance is the perfect contrast to Feld’s. Where Feld is quiet and her quietness draws you in, Foy plays Linda as someone who would be uncomfortable if she wasn’t the center of attention. She’s a real character but completely believable and her English accent sounds genuine, I was surprised to read she’s from Texas, raised in North Carolina. Rounding out the cast are Edwin Strout as Jerry and Siri Hellerman as Sylvia, their party scene interacting with Linda as Hilda watches is perfectly modulated, the three know how to step on each others lines just enough so that it sounds like old friends talking to and over each other.

Ben Thietje directs the play as a no frills affair. The decision to open the show with the house lights up and Feld simply wandering out on stage and beginning to talk with us was inspired. It immediately throws us slightly of balance, but then allows Hilda to connect with us as if we are just hanging out having a conversation. Momentarily, you lose the divide between performer and audience, on stage and off. He trusts in the actors ability to engage us and realizes that there is no need for superfluous stage business. We are with the actors, their performances and the script are all we need for the majority of the play. When the play calls for a little something extra he works it beautifully with the assistance of Ellie Simonett’s lighting design and Kevin Springer’s spare but well utilized sound design. Is it super scary? Well, no. But, it is kinda scary in a couple of parts and it builds ever so nicely. It’s perfect to take the wife who doesn’t like horror movies to as it’s got a little scariness, but not too much. It’s a great story and a fantastic lead performance by Kayla Dvorak Feld and equally impressive supporting work from Lolly Foy.

The Thin Place only runs for 5 more performance Oct 1, 2, 7, 8, and 9. Friday and Saturday performances are at 7:30 with Sunday matinees at 2:00 PM. It is recommended for ages 16 and older, I imagine that is due to the language more than anything else. For more information and to purchase tickets go to https://www.dalekoarts.com/season-11

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You’ll be Swept Away by Merrily We Roll Along at Theater Latté Da

Reese Britts, Becca Hart, Dylan Frederick. Photo by Dan Norman

Theater Latté Da once again reminds us why it is one of our favorite theaters in the Twin Cities. Their production of the lesser known Stephen Sondheim musical Merrily We Roll Along is another feather in a cap already weighed down by an abundance of plumage. I was unfamiliar with this show going in. My Sondheim exposure, I’m beginning to realize, is not as extensive as it should be but I’m sure a few more years of 100 + shows and that will correct itself. It wasn’t a success when it first opened on Broadway in 1981 and it’s hard to imagine why.

Merrily We Roll Along has a book by George Furth and music and lyrics by the late great Stephen Sondheim. The story is told in reverse chronological order following the relationships and careers of three friends Frank and Charley who collaborate on musicals together, and Mary who is a writer. So we start with a Hollywood party celebrating the release of Frankie’s new movie. His old friend Mary is there and they discuss their friend Charley who does not appear, as he and Frank are estranged. Mary drinks too much, it’s revealed that Frank is having an affair and he and his wife are not happy together. Ultimately, Frank declares that if he could go back to the beginning to write with Charley and give all his success up he would, because he’s not happy. Each successive scene is a time jump backwards. We see the moments that destroyed friendships and marriages and then we see the ones that began to fracture them. The play ends with a projected text stating “The Beginning” and was preceded by the moment the that Charley and Frank met Mary for the first time.

In a way this feels like Sondheim’s commentary on the musical form. He has the theatrical producer Joe comment of Frank and Charley’s musical audition saying that they need to add a melody to the songs, give the audience something to hum and tap their toes too. This attitude is presented as the sellout comercial view. Frank and Charley’s songs reflect Sondheim’s own approach to music which is far more complex than verse, bridge, chorus. The structure is a 50 year-old realists version of the way to give your show a happy ending. The older we get the more we come to terms with, like the characters in Merrily We Roll Along, what our life has been and what it’s leading towards. Rarely do we realize all of our ambitions, rarely does our love life play out like the great romance we envision when it begins. The way to achieve the happy ending that a musical audience wants but maintain the reality of world, is to tell it in reverse. Begin with the old disillusioned, drunk, and absent then end with the young, idealistic, and hopeful. It’s the age old cautionary story of the cost of success. Frank is successful at the beginning, but at the cost of many things, most dearly of which is happiness.

Theater Latté Da continues to attract the most talented people on stage and behind the scenes. To start with every single member of the cast it outstanding! How wonderful to behold but how boring to read I know. But it’s true. So let me limit my praise to the three leads for the most part. Reese Britts is Frank, it’s a character who on paper makes a lot of mistakes and could be an unlikeable character in lesser hands. Britts plays him in a way that allows us not to see him as his flaws but to understand his choices. He’s a reflection of a lot of artists who struggle to find the balance between their artistic principles and making a living. It’s Britts skill that allows us to understand that struggle for the character. Dylan Frederick’s Charley is the loyal friend who puts up with a lot. He has the right instincts but Frank frequently drowns him out and he out of loyalty and friendship acquiesce to his friend. Frederick doesn’t allow that quality to let his character appear weak, he plays it as a virtue. Becca Hart gets to shine right out of the gate giving a drunken toast that rings true in a way stage drunkenness rarely does. While all of the cast, particularly the leads had great voices, Hart for my money edged out the others. A quick mention of the two supporting players that really stood out Charlie Clark as the producer Joe and Britta Ollmann as Beth, Frank’s first wife.

Peter Rothstein’s direction and set design are as bold and innovative as the shows structure. Opening the show with a curtain call and having the cast on the fully visible wings before and after their entrances. Even during the intermission the surrounding structure of the stage is like the dressing rooms of a theatre and the cast uses it as such. It somehow acknowledges that this is a theatrical presentation without robbing us of our emotional investment in the story. It’s a choice that seems to underline the commentary on the Musical and artists that the show is making. Grant E. Merges’ lighting design catches us from the very opening when the band starts playing the the dressing room lights flash in time with the music. It’s a effective way to open the show and a nice contrast to some of the more subdued and mood enhancing lighting of later scenes. Sondheim’s more complex moments are handled with ease under the musical direction of Jason Hansen his band. Like so many shows at Theater Latté Da there is a technical excellence in all departments that is flawless.

Merrily We Roll Along is a fantastic production. From it’s stunningly talented cast to the innovative set and direction this is Sondheim done to perfection. Engaging, funny, moving, and thought provoking it makes us confront our own unfulfilled dreams but also gives us a happy ending. The production runs through October 30th for more information and to purchase tickets go to. https://www.latteda.org/merrily-we-roll-along

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There’s No Doubt: A Parable Should be Seen at Theatre In the Round Players

TRP’s 2022-2023 season opened last Friday with the type of small intimate drama that is well suited for the space. This looks to be one of the strongest season I can remember for the oldest community theatre in the Twin Cities. They are off to solid start with Doubt: A Parable. A tight 90 minute drama, a play about challenging moral issues on the surface but underneath it’s about how we perceive things, approach them, and how that can alter our capacity to achieve certainty. It’s a superbly crafted script that doesn’t waste a single word, everything has meaning, even if it isn’t apparent in the moment. This is a show to attend with your favorite debater, afterwards there will be some fun “discussions” about what happened, there are likely to be some differences of opinion. If you enjoy a play that makes you think while also entertaining, you’ll find Doubt a rewarding experience. The more you think about and discuss it the more you discover about it.

Doubt: A Parable is the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and Tony Award for Best Play winning work from Multi-hyphenate John Patrick Shanley. In it, Sister Aloysius is the principal of a Catholic school who believes that the Priest for the local parish has had an inappropriate relationship with one of the male students. She tells one of the teachers, Sister James, to keep an eye on Father Flynn. This leads Sister James to report something that is very possibly innocent. Sister Aloysius takes this information and though she has no facts to back up her suspicions, she has only her certainty, she attempts to confront Father Flynn and plans to have him removed. Why? The play gives us several explanations, depending on what you perceive to be the truth. It could be because he threatens her outdated ideas of how the church and school should be run and the ways in which to engage with the community and students. It may be because of some small interaction she witnessed that gave her a bad feeling. What’s wonderful about the script is there are so many ways to interpret everything that happens as long as we are open to seeing more than one point of view.

A Parable definition: A usually short fictitious story that illustrates a moral attitude or a religious principle

Merriam-Webster website

Within the play one of the characters, Father Flynn, tells a parable during his sermon. It’s short, fictitious, and tries to teach a lesson about not bearing false witness. The play itself, as the title suggests is sort of a parable as well, but it’s the long version. The lesson it tries to illustrate is not as simple or straightforward. It tries to show us that sometimes we can never really know things for certain, and that we have to accept that. We all want to know what is true, but when we become obsessed with it, that very determination can blind us to the real truth. Trying to interpret the play itself is an example of this. As the penultimate scene plays out your idea of what is true changes from moment to moment. And in the final scene, the character who was warned at the beginning that her innocence would make her susceptible to deception is the one who knows what she believes to be true, but does she? The person whose certainty never waivered may be left with doubts about her actions.

The four person cast is led by Miriam Monasch as Sister Aloysius in what is the standout performance. Her timing and exactitude are crucial to establishing her unquestioning dominance over Sister James’ character. She plays it so that we see her characters fierce intelligence and respect it, while also seeing the fallibility of her philosophies. Corey Boe as Father Flynn plays the character as he must in a way that allows us to both believe the best or the worst of him. Kelly Solberg plays the innocence and sublimation to her superior nicely. We can see her love for her job in the early scenes and we watch as she loses that along with her ability to sleep as she is dragged further into the conflicts the accusations create. Finally, Marshonda Austin, while only given one scene as the mother of the boy Father Flynn is accused on interfering with, she makes an impression. It’s a character that is brought in to add another layer of complexity to what at first seems like a straightforward dilema.

Director Kari Steinbach has done a nice job overall, even the one thing that gnawed at me from the opening I’ve sort of talked myself into accepting. I’m not sure if it was direction, script direction, possibly actors choice but in the sermon by Father Flynn that opens the play, he comes out from behind the pulpit during his sermon. That struck me at the time as something a priest in 1963 wouldn’t do. But now I’m thinking that Father Flynn was all about being more welcoming and reaching out to the community, so maybe it isn’t out of place. If you’ve ever been there you know that the stage is not large and surrounded on all sides by the audience. Devyn Becker’s clever set design utilizes the space in such a way that we essentially have three different settings without scene changes other than a podium being wheeled in and out twice.

Doubt runs through October 16th at Theatre in the Round Players in Minneapolis. For more information and to purchase tickets go to https://www.theatreintheround.org/home/season-placeholder/current_season/doubt/

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Vietgone is a Raucous and Inventively Entertaining Show to Launch the Guthrie Theater’s 60 Year Celebration.

Viet Vo (Ensemble), Eric Sharp (Nhan), Hyunmin Rhee (Quang) Photo by Dan Norman

Vietgone opens the Guthrie Theater’s 2022-2023 theatre season, which is their celebration of 60 years of creating theatre in the Twin Cities. If this is the sort of thing they have in store for us this year it’s going to be an amazing season in the blue building by the river. Vietgone is the most original and innovative production I’ve seen at the Guthrie in a long time, always a bastion of quality theatrical productions, but not always the biggest risk takers. This feels like the Jungle Theater and Theater Mu were given the Guthrie’s budget and told to do what their hearts desired. Perhaps I’m thinking along those lines because the show this reminded me of in a way was the coproduction last season by Jungle and Mu of Cambodian Rock Band. While this is entirely it’s own thing there are similarities. They both tell uniquely Asian stories, both have a basis in real life and gave me a surprising new perspective on the history of their countries, and they both utilized music that I’m not overly familiar with in a way that completely engaged me. Vietgone is a stunning production from the story it tells to the way in which it tells it. Bursting with creativity from staging to production design to a script that somehow tells a cohesive story despite feeling at times like it’s flying every which way at once, shifting in time, and between reality and moments of heightened reality.

The Script is by Qui Nguyen with original music by Shane Rettig. The play opens with a note from the Playwright telling us that this story and it’s characters have no relation to anyone living or dead. So if you know his parents don’t tell them anything about this. The play is of course based in part of his parents story. Quang is a member of the South Vietnamese Air Force on the night of the fall of Saigon. He and his best friend Nhan pilot a helicopter full of refugees to an awaiting U.S. transport. Quang intends to unload the refugees and then fly back to fetch his wife and children. That isn’t possible and he ends up in a refugee camp in Arkansas. Tong is an embassy employee and as such she is allowed to evacuate with the armed forces and bring one person along. She wants to bring her younger brother but he will not leave without his girlfriend, so she brings her mother, Huong, who doesn’t really want to leave. Quang and Huong both plan to make their way back to Vietnam to rejoin their loved ones. Nhan and Tong realize that is not a viable option and will try and make the others understand this. For much of the play it’s like we are following two stories being told in parallel. Once the two groups meet, a third thread is picked up in which we follow Quang and Tongs relationship as it blossoms from one of benefits to friends with benefits and finally love. What the above attempt at setting up the plot doesn’t hint at is the humor and spectacle with which the story is told. Nor does it touch on the fact that at times the characters break into rap. What the show also did that was the most profound and completely unexpected, it showed me a different perspective on the Vietnam war. I saw it through the eyes of Quang, and that was a perspective I had never even considered.

If I had one complaint about the show it would be one in principle only, and that is that all but one of the five cast members is not local. I think we have an amazing pool of Asian actors in the Twin Cities and I would have liked to have seen a more balanced ratio of local to out of towners. But as I mentioned that’s only in principle because it’s hard to deny that the entire cast was stellar. I certainly can’t say that anyone on that stage didn’t deserve to be there. Hyunmin Rhee stars as Quang and is the only performer who doesn’t play multiple roles. He fits the role of the hero aviator well, and we believe his desire to face almost certain death in order to get back to his family. Emjoy Gavino is Tong and plays her with the confidence and sentimentality that the role needs. She also seemed the most at home with the rapping segments of the show. Rebecca Hirota plays Huong. She gets a lot of the laughs as the elderly mother trying to hit on Quang and her bluntness about Americans. Viet Vo seems to have the most roles, several of them as Americans who speak in Mericanese, basically random words strewn together, like cheeseburgers waffles football. His best character is a tough looking biker that Quang and Nhan have a couple of run-ins with. Eric Sharp, who we’ve seen on many local stages and most recently in Trademark Theater’s short film What you Can’t Keep Part 1 & 2, does great work with two particularly juicy supporting roles. One is Nhan and the other is Tong’s brother Khue.

Director Mina Morita does an amazing job staging this show, the transitions between scenes flow amazingly well. This is a very theatrical show and she embraces that and uses it to her advantage. It is her skill that keeps our bearings straight as we shift in time and place with ease, never once unsure of how what we are seeing fits into the larger picture. Pulling together all of the design elements there are several scenes that really stand out as brilliant. The handling of Quang and Nhan’s cross country motorcycle trip is fantastic. The fight with the biker and his back ups at a gas station is a highlight of the ingenuity at work, a testament to the skill of Fight Director Aaron Preusse, and worth the price of admission alone. Every aspect of the production seems to have pulled out all the stops. Scenic Designer Lex Liang, Lighting Designer Masha Tsimring, and Projection Designer Nicholas Hussong must have worked together extremely well. It’s hard to know where one begins and the other ends, it all blends and works together so brilliantly. Movement Director Darrius Strong and Rap Consultant Oscar Pagnaroth Un’s work give the rap segments a unique feel from the rest of the show, helping to establish that these are moments that step out of the narrative and I read them as almost interior character monologues.

I highly recommend Vietgone, but it is a bit on the adult side. I’d think most mature 13 year olds who are ok with profanity and the concept of sex would be fine with it. The production runs through October 16th for more information and to purchase tickets go to https://www.guthrietheater.org/shows-and-tickets/2022-2023-season/vietgone/.

Don’t want to miss a single review from The Stages of MN? You can subscribe and have every post sent directly to your email. To Subscribe on your computer: from the home page on the right, enter your email address and click subscribe. On your mobile device scroll to the bottom of the page and do the same. Also you can follow me on Facebook, search @thestagesofmn and click follow and on Instagram thestagesofmn.

Come See The Humans at Park Square Theatre

Photo by Dan Norman

The Production photo for The Humans above isn’t the best photo of the ones I had to choose from. I went with it because it showcases the two things that make this a production worth your time and attention. First The entire cast is represented and they all deserve a spotlight for their work here. Even the local favorite Angela Timberman, who has to spend most of the running time napping, and isn’t given much else by the script to do. At first I thought what a waste of her talents, but then I realized, the character makes an impression, I don’t think that would be the case if a less talented performer were cast. The second element of this production that really needs to be seen is the set designed by Erik Paulson. Look at that cross section of a two story New York apartment. It’s an impressive set in person and also brings up a good point. I usually choose to sit front row whenever I can. You do not want to sit in the first two rows for this show, trust me row three at the closest, I’d say rows F, G,and H would all be ideal.

The Humans written by Stephen Karam was a finalist for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and won the Tony Award in 2016 for Best Play. Set in the New York apartment of Brigid and Richard on Thanksgiving, they have just moved in but most of their belongings are still trapped in the snow on a moving truck. Coming to spend the holiday with them in their new home are Brigid’s parents Erik and Deirdre Blake, her Grandmother “Momo” who suffers from dementia, and her sister Aimee. All families have dynamics that are uniquely their own, throughout the run of the play we will come to understand the dynamics of the Blake family. Their quirks, the buttons they push with each other are at once universal generalizations but at the same time specific enough that while we recognize them they are different enough in detail from our own that we can laugh at them. As the play goes on we get a glimpse into the lives of these people, through the things they say and the things they don’t say we come to understand their struggles, their fears, their realities. It’s a look into an American family, how they deal with aging, their economic realities, their love lives, their health, careers, philosophies, and religions. At times bitingly funny, but also blisteringly cruel.

This is the second production of The Humans I’ve seen, the first was the National Touring production at the Orpheum in Minneapolis which featured Richard Thomas as Erik Blake. It was neat to see “John Boy” in person, but I have to say I enjoyed this production more. The Orpheum is too large a space for a play like this. This is a small family drama and Park Square Theatre’s space is a much better fit for the material. You need to feel like you are in the apartment with the characters and in this production, I did. That is, in large part, also due to the solid work by a true ensemble cast. No one outshines anyone else, everyone is playing on the same level which with a show like this, is crucial. There are no favorites in the cast or the characters. The cast, because they are in synch, and everyone of them seems perfectly suited for their role. The characters because they each have human moments. That is to say they all have moments where their good qualities show and they all have moments where their flaws move to the forefront. They are all deeply human.

The technical team and behind the scenes personnel on The Humans are equally responsible for the success of the show. Led by Director Lily Tung Crystal, you get the feeling that she has an inherent feel for some of these family dynamics. The set, as already mentioned, by Erik Paulson is so detailed and perfect. From the exposed drain pipes to the bars on the window, everything feels real and it helps put us in this place with these characters. Karin Olson’s lighting design helps to sell the illusion, and also plays an interesting role towards the end of the play. As does the Sound design by Katharine Horowitz, it announces itself right off the bat in the form of noises heard from the apartment above. But there is something about the lights and the noises that I think may relate to a story someone tells during the play. There are things that happen towards the end that I don’t want to spoil but that open up the scale of this small family drama, almost adding another plane of existence to the world of the play.

The Humans is playing now through October 9th at Park Square Theatre in downtown St. Paul. For more information and to purchase tickets go to https://parksquaretheatre.org/

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Fringe Hangover Provides a Chance to Virtually Catch Come of the Best Fringe Shows Including Several The Stages of MN Fringe of the Day Winners Thru Sept 25th

The Minnesota Fringe has made available for a short time video versions of 28 Fringe productions that were recorded during the festival. The price for each stream is determined by the Producer so they will vary from show to show. The great news is that 100% of the that goes to the artists. This is a fantastic way to support Fringe artists and to catch shows you may have missed. Click here for more information and a full list of available shows https://minnesotafringe.org/hangover

Six of the shows I chose to award the unprestigious The Stages of MN Fringe of the Day Award are included in the list and I’m sharing my short reviews of each of them below. These all come highly recommended by me.

Endometriosis the Musical. It’s a musical about Jane Smith and her ongoing struggles with extremely painful menstrual cycles. Making things worse she lives in our world where far too often women’s health issues are controlled by men. This has all the makings of an intense social drama but instead it’s an hysterically funny musical. Written by Maria Bartholdi and Kristin Stowell this is sure to be one of the hottest tickets of this years Fringe Festival. Featuring a brilliantly expressive and all in cast lead by Abby Holmstrom that brings the house down with every song. Nothing is off limits and it confronts the sad truth that for many people, the subject of this production is something that should not be mentioned above a whisper and definitely not during dinner at Applebees. I urge you to reserve your seats now this one feels like a sell out.

Who’s Afraid of Winnie the Pooh? In which Pooh and Piglet attempt to crush each others souls while Christopher and Hunny watch on in horror. Combining the world of Winnie the Pooh with the bitter marital games of Edward Albee’s classic play is anything but obvious. They seem like strange bedfellows but once you see it, well, it fits so perfectly it seems shocking that no one thought of it before. But then you think, who in the hell would EVER think of doing this? Thank God writer Alexander Gerchak did! The script, the performances, and the cross pollination of these disparate ideas is dead brilliant. Endlessly inventive, the premise never runs out of steam and holds true until the very end. It shouldn’t work but, it really works! Word of mouth should turn this into a hit. It’s easily the most accomplished script and production I’ve seen so far at Fringe. The entire cast is great but a special shout out to Thomas Buan as Winnie, best dramatic performance so far. Knowledge of the works of A.A. Milne regarding Pooh Bear and Edward Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? are not required but will greatly enhance your enjoyment of the play.

Finger Licken’ Good. For me, this was the most anticipated show heading into the Fringe Festival. I’ve seen many of these artists before both on and backstage and have really responded to and admired their work. It tells the story of Colonel Harland David Sanders and his rise to become the founder of KFC and the undisputed chicken king of America. It’s hilarious, at times a little risque, and when it comes to Colonel Sanders the play leaves little to the imagination. There are some portions of the story that don’t seem quite right, but luckily Shannon Custer is there as the fact checker to keep things more or less on the up and up. This cast loaded with local talent like Custer, Duck Washington, and co-writers/performers Heather Meyer and Nissa Nordland Morgan does not disappoint, nor does Meyer and Morgan’s script. The show belongs though to the incomparable Sam Landman, in what can only be described with the euphemism that he gives a very brave performance. Director Mike Fotis whom I’ve seen perform at Huge Improv does an amazing job as the show seems to fly by, so many fun choices like having Landman on stage as the audience comes in laying on a Chicken skin rug in a red silk robe and hardly anything else. To the staging of the Colonel’s last moments in what one might call poetic justice. Everything from costumes and props to the occasional musical number work together to make one of the wildest and enjoyable shows at Fringe.

Moonwatchers. It’s a hilarious show about two moonwatchers whose job it is to turn on the moon each night and manage various night sky activities like having the cow jump over the moon and a comet fly by. It’s all pretty routine until one night they discover the moon has been stolen. While one of the moonwatchers subs in for the moon the other goes off in search of the moon rustler who made off with it. Yes, you read that right – they are not just a myth, there really are moon rustlers. This show gives you everything: comedy, music, comets, cows, and if that isn’t enough it gives you the moon as well, literally. It’s the kind of show that sinks or swims on the personalities of it’s two performers. Nigel Berkeley and Corey Quinn Farrell are two very charming moonwatchers.

WHOOSH! The Civil War Mythology of Michael Hickey and His Perilous Precipitation Over St. Anthony Falls.! is… Wow! What a performance by Andrew Erskine Wheeler. Portraying multiple characters throughout, each is a brilliant characterization, distinct and fully realized. It’s a story that incorporates so many different elements. The Civil War, post war, Artist Douglas Volk, it’s part ghost story, part comedic tale of an Irish immigrant and his survival going over the St. Anthony Falls. It’s so many different things yet it tells a cohesive and well structured tale. Allison Vincent does an amazing job directing the show. The timing and staging of how and when to move, pull props out, refer to visual aids, subtle changes in costume, all done brilliantly. Which brings us again to Wheeler’s performance, It is absolutely the best piece of acting I’ve see at Fringe, a true tour de force and a master class in stage acting. Saturday he has performances back to back, if you haven’t gotten to it, make sure you do. Frankly, I’m staggered by the thought of him performing twice with but 40 minutes between them, it is such a physical and intense performance it hardly seems possible.

Jesus Qhrist A phenomenally funny and politically savvy show. Christopher Kehoe is a very charismatic performer which when you think about it is a perfect fit for Jesus. It’s humorous without being insensitive to any thinking person’s beliefs. It uses the character of Jesus to give the audience a feel for the spirit of his teachings. Then it takes a turn and it uses someone else’s words as a contrast. In doing so, it shows how the words of that second person are not compatible with the character of Jesus we have gotten to know or his teachings. It’s so effective even though it’s obvious to most of us. It seems that even the unthinking should be able to see that you cannot reconcile those words with Jesus and be able to see the truth. But, of course they will not even see the play will they?

I also highly recommend the show He-Man is The Devil & Other Satanic Panic Tales is a one man show written and performed by Kyle B. Dekker based upon his own childhood. I’ve learned as a parent of a transgender child that what is more powerful in terms of opening people’s minds and hearts is not news stories or social media memes but telling your own story directly to people. I have certainly been aware of many of the things in Dekkers play, but for the first time I didn’t just hear them, I felt them. It’s a well constructed assemblage of stories of his upbringing in an ultra right wing religious family. that vividly illustrates a childhood that sounds exactly like what the adults in his life were supposedly trying to save him from. I want to applaud Dekker for his skill in taking a childhood full of stories like the ones he shares and selecting the perfect examples for creating something that flows like a narrative. I also want to thank him for sharing so much of himself. After the performance Dekker remarked to the audience that this was the first time he had ever performed at Fringe, in the past he produced and wrote shows. I’m so glad he chose to perform the show himself, it made it so much more powerful. Telling our stories directly to people like this is what creates understanding and empathy.