Monsters in a Mirror a Horror Anthology of Six/Four Short Plays in Uptown

Image by Mohamed Mahmoud Hassan

Monsters in a Mirror is advertised as a horror anthology of six short plays each with a different director. All of the plays are adapted from stories in the collection Monsters in a Mirror Strange Tales From the Chapel Perilous by Phillip Andrew Bennett Low. The thing is by my count, it’s four short plays with four musical performances between them. If the musical performances called “Fast Talking” are considered plays as well, then it’s either five or if they’re counted together, it’s eight. Mathematically what I saw tonight cannot be calculated as six. I’m assuming that two segments were cut, presumably the scary ones. The show clocks in at about 70 minutes, and it definitely should be categorized in the humor column rather than horror. As a horror show it fails, as an evening out, it’s enjoyable. Frankly, it made me curious about the source material. The four “plays”, I think they are using that term loosely, are quite varied and it’s not easy to picture all of them as short stories. For example the bookend, pieces are related to each by a character and are both a little more than sketches. They play very well live but it’s hard to imagine the form they take in the book.

So what you get is eight segments in about 70 minutes, with some downtime (minimal) for staging changes. To go into the plots would be to rob you of the entire experience. The bookend segments Speak Now, or Forever Rest in Peace and The Sleeper, Woke as I mentioned are basically sketches. They are ambiguous as to what is actually transpiring, but that doesn’t matter. The joy in these are all in the dialogue. The jokes and the wit come in a stream of consciousness that’s really very charming as are the performers Rob Ward who appears as Penner in both segments, and Remy Chacon as the Figment in the first. My favorite was the second segment Say Yes. This was the one that had a dark little idea behind it that kept one upping itself in a cleaver twisted way. The third segment, while my least liked, was actually my companions favorite. It’s performed as an old radio show with the cast doing the sound effects on stage. For me, the story wasn’t engaging enough; however, the performers were all strong. The minimal amount of sound effects were a disappointment after attending far more entertaining radio style performances of the Mysterious Old Radio Listening Society at Park Square Theatre. Finally, the musical interludes are short but fun, performed by My Very Friend in a Mask with a Ukulele. The first song of the evening was the best and oddly reminded me of Lou Reed. Although I cannot really defend that statement, it’s just how it struck me at first.

So to sum it up, it isn’t what it’s advertised as, but it’s still enjoyable. I wouldn’t make a special trip into the city to attend it, but if you live in the Uptown area or are there for dinner there’s enough good stuff here to warrant stopping in and checking it out. But don’t go looking for horror, here there be clowns not tygers. For More information and to purchase tickets for Monsters in a Mirror go to maximumverbosityonline.org The Show runs through May 7th at the Phoenix Theater in Uptown Minneapolis.

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Memphis at Artistry in Bloomington a Brilliant Ending to a Month Full of Great Theatre

Photo by Tommy Sar

Memphis Opened this past weekend at Artistry Theater in Bloomington, this is the regional premiere of the musical which won 4 Tony Awards including Best Musical in 2010. It’s my first exposure to the show and I went in with very little beforehand knowledge. Whatever expectations I went in with, have been exceeded. Memphis is a fictionalized history lesson about the birth of rock ‘n’ roll in memphis in the 1950’s. The show has music and lyrics by David Bryan of the rock band Bon Jovi with book and lyrics by Joe Dipietro. One of the things I loved about this show were the period sounding original songs. In that respect, it reminded me of the underrated Allison Anders film Grace of My Heart, which does something similar with the singer songwriters of New York’s Brill Building in the 1960’s. Although a fiction, it’s loosely based on real events and while it has great music and plenty of humor, it doesn’t ignore the social realities of the 1950’s in the Southern United States. Many of the characters are black and this doesn’t shy away from the language of the time. Race is as much a part of this story as music is. This would be a nice jumping off point for parents of teenagers to discuss how things used to be verses how history is written by those in power. As director of Memphis Aimee K. Bryant points out in her program note, many credit Elvis Presley with inventing rock ‘n’ roll, but he learned it from the black musicians on Beale Street in Memphis. Bryant further points out that the play does the same thing, it credits DJ Huey Calhoun with the music taking off, rather than the people who created the music. There is a lot to unpack and discuss with children old enough to understand the use of certain words and phrases in an historical context.

This is the story: Huey Calhoun who seems lost, especially to the patrons in the bar he enters at the beginning of the show. Huey loves the music he hears in the bars and clubs in the areas of town where white men like himself don’t usually go. He hears the owner of the bars sister Felicia singing and proclaims in song that this is “The Music of My Soul”. Huey vows to make Felicia a star, even though he can hardly hold down a job. He convinces his boss at the department store he works at to let him play records over the store speakers in order to sell records. He makes a success of it but is fired anyway because he is playing “inappropriate music”. Huey then sneaks his way into a DJ booth at a radio station and plays some of his own records. Before they can throw him out of the station the phones start ringing off the hook with everyone asking for more of Huey Calhoun. His popularity grows, culminating in his own TV program. Along the way he begins to woo Felicia, much to her brother Delray and his Mother’s dismay. We get a view of history through the eyes of the people we come to care about in the story, we also see how music can bring people together. There is a nice little scene in the middle of the play where we see people getting excited about Calhoun’s show and “his” music. In addition, we see black teenagers and white teachers begin to mingle a little over their shared love of the music.

The cast is stacked top to bottom with stellar performers. Matt Riehle demonstrates a superb voice backed up by a winning performance as the idealistic and color blind, Huey Calhoun. Everyone in the play seems to understand the reality of the time in place in terms of race but Huey. This could have come off as unfathomable, but Riehle sells Huey’s naivete through his idealism. Vie Boheme as Felicia is his match both vocally and in acting. She knows the world and tries and keep Huey from having unrealistic beliefs. Boheme has us feeling with her the frustration in getting him to tone down his expectations and make sensible choices but also when she gets carried away by his optimism. Those two alone would make for a show worth attending, but they are also surrounded by so much talent, one hardly knows where to start unless you are going to run through the entire cast. Dante Banks Murray as Delray and Wendy Short-Hays as Mama Calhoun are standouts as well as is Rudolph Searles III as Bobby Dupree who Huey meets at Delray’s bar and later at the radio station where he works as a janitor only to end up singing on Huey’s TV show. Fun character work from Jay Albright and Rodney Patrick Fair in multiple roles and Carl Swanson at the owner of the radio station. Final mention of Emily Madigan as Gator, this is the third time this month I’ve attended a production that features woman or a non-binary performer in the role of a male character. In each instance it has been my sense that there was no intended comment on the work in such casting. In all three, I thought the casting was spot on and Madigan was perfect. I hope we continue to see casting along these lines which is to say, casting the person whose talents are the best match the role.

Aimee K. Bryant brings everything together with an energy that matches Huey Calhoun’s enthusiasm, which is no small feet. She does a wonderful job of producing a show that doesn’t shy away from some difficult subject matters but also doesn’t get bogged down in them. We still have an enjoyable entertainment, but one we talk and think about as well. A tricky balance no doubt but Bryant walked that tight rope and made it look easy. She’s got a terrific group of collaborators as well in Leah Nelson’s Choreography and Ginger Commodore’s music direction. When I saw stills of the Set Design by Michael Hoover and lit by Lighting Designer Kyia Britts, I wasn’t too impressed, but in the actual production I loved it. I thought the use of different levels whether we are at the DJ booth on the mid-side level or walking down the street on the upper level, created a well defined sense of place. In a moment when Huey and Felicia are at their highest, placing them on that upper level was a nice visual representation of where the characters were at emotionally.

Memphis runs through May 15th at Artistry for more information and to purchase tickets go to https://artistrymn.org/

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Hands on a Hardbody, a Musical Performed in a Car Dealership!

Photo by Unser Imagery

It’s always fun when a company decides to stage a show in a unique environment. For example, I’ve seen several shows at the James J. Hill House in St. Paul including Minneapolis Musical Theatre’s (MMT) own production of Daddy Long Legs. But tonight may be the most unique experience I’ve had. MMT staged Hands on a Hardbody at Luther Cadillac in Roseville. The space adds some challenges but it also lends the program an energy all it’s own. The show is immensely enjoyable, something we’ve come to expect from MMT, but this one sneaks insight into humanity as well. Here’s an affordable show (the unique seating system allows for everyone’s budget) to take the teenage kids to, where everyone is going to have a good time. It’s also a great way to expose people to the idea that theater doesn’t have to be seats facing a stage in a theatrical building. I think these exercises help to open people’s minds to new creative possibilities. I’m sure the artists behind this production found it challenging at times but I suspect it’s the type of challenges that result in new ideas and get the creative juices flowing in a rewarding way.

Hands On a Hardbody is based on the 1997 documentary film Hands on a Hardbody by S.R. Bindler. Remember when they used to make movies out of musicals rather than the other way round? Well, this is a case where the end results justifies its existence. The premise will be familiar, I’m fairly certain that any sitcom that lasts more than five seasons is required to have a show that uses this situation as a premise. Contestants are required to keep one hand on a pickup truck at all times except for during a 15 minute break every 6 hours. If your hands come off the truck you are out, the last person standing wins the truck. The setting is a Texas town that has seen better days, and the contest means more than just winning a new ride. Each contestant is in it for their own reasons. For one, it is a way to get a degree. For another, a way out of this town. And another, a way to start their own business. We have a nice cross section of people, an older man with some health issues, a soldier, a pair of young people who fall in love, a devout Christian, and of course there has to be a villain, in this case it’s the reigning champion who won a pick-up truck 2 years ago and has some tolerance issues. He’s not the only character that falls into the villain category but all those that do, are not traditional villains anyway. They all get some redemption and are not totally evil people.

I was surprised at the size of the cast considering the limited space, but then the circumstances of the play limit the amount of space needed to stage the show. There are 18 performers listed in the program. To be honest, not all of the performers were really up to the singing requirements. No one was terrible but the results were uneven across the cast. There were definitely some standouts vocally. Roland Hawkins II not only blew our socks of with his singing but he had enough charisma to energize the entire room. James Lane as Benny was another standout. Some performers had to struggle with songs that at times were pushing their range, the songs Lane performed were solidly in his sweet spot and he nailed them. Aly O’Keeffe doesn’t has as large a role as Hawkins or Lane, but she had a beautiful voice when she got the chance to sing. She shares a couple of songs with her characters husband J.D. played by Christian Unser. Unser can sing well, not great, but he compensates and elevates the singing with is acting. His J.D. was my favorite character and his final song with O’Keeffe found me surprisingly close to tears. One final performer I want to take note of is Emily Rosenberg. They play Greg, one half of the young bumper crossed lovers. I’ve noticed them a few times since the theaters reopened through their work with Theatre Pro Rata. Every once in awhile you come across an actor that you can just tell is someone to keep an eye on. Rosenberg has something, I don’t think we’ve seen their best work yet, but it’s coming.

There’s not much to say from a technical standpoint, the set is practically non-existent. One assumes that’s an actual truck and not something whipped up by the Scene Designer. If I’m wrong, then this is the greatest set design of any Twin Cities theater company, ever. But it’s a real truck. The direction by Sara Pillatzki-Warzeha is perfect as it was with her last MMT show Be More Chill. She keeps what is basically a parked truck with people standing around it visually interesting. We get characters moving around the truck allowing us to see all of the characters wherever we may be seated. Some lively dance routines choreographed by Abbi Fern also help to keep the stationary subject matter from becoming static visually. The Ensemble lead by Music Director Jean Orbison Van Heel sounded great. I’m sure that was a relief given the space, you never think about the acoustics of a car dealership showroom. The one area the production did stumble on was the Lighting Design by Jeffrey R. Johnson. I’m sure it’s challenging to tear down and remount the lighting for each show, this is a car dealership that is in business during the day after all. But unless this was just an off night, they need to sort something better out, more than once the cast was left unlit or only partially lit. It was a distraction and the only real shortcoming of an otherwise successful show.

Hands on a Hardbody runs through May 8th. Tickets are limited to only 100 per performance, the range in price depending on your seating preference which includes a bring your own chair option and standing room. For more information and to purchase tickets go to https://www.aboutmmt.org/tickets-2/

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The Mysterious Old Radio Listening Society Returns Us to Those Thrilling Days of Yesteryear Once Again at Park Square Theatre

*(Portions of this entry were taken from my previous write ups of MORLS productions)*

The Park Square Theatre Hosted The Mysterious Old Radio Listening Society again this past monday. If you missed it see the bottom of this entry for upcoming performances. Each show is different – Monday’s show entitled “Future Tense” was a double feature of science fiction tales. “The Veldt” was an adaption from (1951) of the classic Ray Bradbury story for the radio program Dimension X. The second story was “A Logic Named Joe” from a 1955 broadcast on the radio program X Minus One. The Mysterious Old Radio Listening Society are Shanan Custer, Joshua English Scrimshaw, Tim Uren and Eric Webster. This Quartet of radio fanatics bring to life scripts from the golden age of radio. Their performances perfectly emulate the style of the radio programs of suspense, horror, mystery, and science fiction from the 1930’s thru the 1950’s. Along with their vocal work, they also create the sound effects that accompany the tales on stage. Using their voices to paint a picture so vivid that if you close your eyes you can see the action in your minds eye. There’s something magical about stories told this way. It can engage the audience at times even more than TV or film does because we are given the audio in a way that we use our imagination to fill in the visuals, it requires a more interactive response on our part.

I was introduced to the classic radio show Suspense, by my father. He had four little box sets of four cassettes each probably one show on each side, complete with commercials for sponsors of Roma Wines and Autolite Spark Plugs. We would listen to the shows in the car together and we loved them. Like my father before me, I also introduced my kids to this type of story telling when they were younger. My youngest son George used to listen and re-listen to Bradbury 13, a series of radio adaptations of Ray Bradbury stories created in the 1980’s. Tonight, George now almost 19 years of age, accompanied me to the program so that we could experience this live version of “The Veldt” that he used to listen to in those Bradbury 13 days. We both had a great time. George was reminiscing afterwards of listening to “The Veldt” and “The Screaming Woman” to go to sleep to at night, around age 8. Interesting how even an 18 year old can become engaged and be jogged into nostalgia by something that originated 70 years ago.

If you’ve never experienced a performance like this in the style of those old radio broadcasts you really need to check it out. I highly recommend these shows for families, including grandparents who may even remember listening to some of these very shows. It’s a unique opportunity to step back in time and show the younger generation what home entertainment used to look like. I think you’ll be surprised at how well they respond to something that seems so old fashioned. George and I started the MORLS podcast on the ride home from the show, it just left us hungry for more.

Upcoming productions of The Mysterious Old Radio Listening Society at Park Square Theatre:

Friday May 27th 7:30 PM Legends of the Old West

“Death of a Picture Hanger” from Crime Classics (1953) – A true tale of the Old West told with wry wit and a sense of tragedy.

“Matt for Murder” from Gunsmoke (1954) – When Marshal Dillion is accused of murder, the governor sends another legendary lawman to Dodge City.

Sunday June 26th 2:00 PMMore Best of the Worst

“Battle of the Magicians” from Lights Out (1934) – What do magicians, airplanes, and zombies have in common? Absolutely nothing. But logic is no defense against this madcap mystical mash-up from the mind of legendary radio writer Wyllis “Quiet Please” Cooper.

“The Cup of Gold” from Dark Fantasy (1942) – A sports reporter’s investigation into the death of a golf pro leads to a series of shocking revelations! Scott Bishop’s murder mystery turned Surrealist manifesto will keep you guessing (or at least scratching your head) until the bitter, inexplicable end

go Park square theatre for tickets for in person or to stream from the comfort of your own home. Also for more information about these shows as well as an upcoming production at Open Eye Theatre of Rattus Rattus a double feature bill of Rat Centric Stories featuring the classic “Three Skeleton Key” and “The Rats in the Walls” go to http://ghoulishdelights.com/ .

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Passing Strange at Yellow Tree Theatre in Osseo.

Photo by Tom Wallace

There is a gem of a theatre up in Osseo Minnesota called Yellow Tree Theatre that has put on some really good productions the last few years. Passing Strange is perhaps their most accomplished production that I’ve seen. A Tony Award winning (Best Book) musical that takes the musical form in a unique direction. Breaking the fourth wall from time to time and eschewing traditional musical style songs, we’re taken on a journey rather than being told a story. The journey is of a young man, a songwriter, and his quest to find what is real. The way Passing Strange is narrated, it’s easy to see its influence on Hadestown. I also saw the influence of Rent on Passing Strange. It is through these connective tissues that we try and understand something like Passing Strange that feels familiar and yet wholly new. Passing Strange will speak to young artists just starting out. Those of us who are older will see a lot of truth and it reminds us of what it felt like to be young and searching.

Malo Adams plays the Narrator, the role originated by the co-author of the musical Stew. Adams stands on a stage behind a music stand holding a guitar which he plays throughout the show as he tells us through song and dialogue about our hero, the Youth. Right from the start we’re all in with Adams because, well frankly, he’s so damn cool. You could almost sit and watch him perform the show without anyone else. When he breaks the fourth wall and speaks to the audience, you feel like the cool kid whom, you didn’t think even knew your name, does and is trying to engage you in some friendly banter. Adams performance alone is worth the cost of admission. He’s accomplished in everything he does on stage and this feels like a an opportunity to see someone special doing something great, and those chances don’t come along very often. The Youth is a young black man growing up in L.A. who revolts against anything he sees as phoney, which includes the people at the church his mother drags him to. The Youth, who is male in the story is portrayed by Valencia Proctor who is female. I didn’t sense that the gender change was done in order to open up new ways of looking at the work as it was in the Guthrie’s recent production of The Tempest. I may be wrong but I took it to be a positive step towards breaking down gender barriers in casting. Having seen Proctor’s performance, I’m assuming she was simply the best person for the role. I’m sure most audience members had to listen closely at the beginning to make sure we understood that an actor who was clearly female was playing a male character. Once I was clear that’s what was happening, I was able to forget about it and view Proctor as the Youth. And in case it wasn’t clear, she was fantastic in the role.

We follow our hero as he joins the church youth choir not because he wants to be in the choir, but because the hot girl who normally wont give him much notice, appears excited when she thinks he is joining. An example which is one of many throughout the play about the paradoxical nature within the youth. He hates going to church and doing normal things because it’s phoney, but when faced with an attractive girl, he is willing to be something he isn’t. This will be repeated throughout as he moves from L.A. to Amsterdam then onto Berlin. We don’t criticize him for these hypocrisies, because we recognize the idealism of youth living in conjunction with the reality of desires and needs. Whether it’s misrepresenting his past in order to avoiding being kicked out of the house, he’s staying in or adopting a style for his music that doesn’t reflect inner artist, he’s doing what we all do. He’s putting on a different face for different situations and it isn’t being a phoney, it’s being human. Part of the joy of the show is all the different people he encounters on his journey. There are four actors who play multiple roles in L.A., Amsterdam, and Berlin each of them making the new characters distinct, some radically opposed to the last one they played. It’s a talented cast who appear to be having a great time with each new character and accent.

Passing Strange was co written by Stew and Heidi Rodewald and this production was directed quite inventively by Austene Van. Jeff Bailey is the Music Director and his band who is on stage and in view of the audience is really good, some of them even have some funny bits of dialogue. The Scenic Design by Justin Hooper gives the impression of the band and narrator playing in a club in front of a brick wall looking a little above the performers below, suggesting they have a little distance and perhaps time from what we are seeing and can comment more truthfully on what is transpiring. Lighting Design by Sarah Brandner did a nice job of reinforcing this perspective, guiding our eyes with her lighting as Adams directed our thoughts with his voice. All around, this is a first rate production of a Musical that I was unable to see before now, this isn’t going to play at Chanhassen, and when it’s produced again in the Twin Cities, it will most likely not feature Malo Adams. For this reason, you should get out to it while it’s on stage at Yellow Tree Theatre.

Passing Strange runs through May 8th for more information and to purchase tickets go to https://yellowtreetheatre.com/passing-strange.

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A Play By Barb and Carl at Illusion Theater is a Powerful New Play Featuring Masterful Performances.

Kimberly Richardson and JoeNathan Thomas as Barb and Carl. Photo by Alex Clark

A Play by Barb and Carl could have the tag line “based on the incredible true story”. And while it’s based on fact that would sensationalize a story, it’s about the intimate lives of two people in love who are dealing with a situation that isn’t fair or just, it just is. The play is written and directed by Carlyle Brown and is inspired by him, his wife, and dramaturg Barbara Joyce Rose-Brown’s experience. A couple that worked closely together around a common shared love of language. The play is a snapshot of Barb and Carl’s life from the time she takes a fall in the hallway suffering a stroke which leads to her Aphasia. Aphasia is having a moment in the spotlight recently due to actor Bruce Willis’ retirement after being diagnosed with the condition.

Aphasia is a condition that affects your ability to communicate. It can affect your speech, as well as the way you write and understand both spoken and written language.

from the Mayo Clinic’s website https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/aphasia/symptoms-causes/syc-20369518

Barb’s right side is paralyzed and she can no longer speak much more than No and OK. But the play allows her to speak to us in moments, letting her explain what is happening to her. The play was written with Rose Brown acting as dramaturg accomplished the program says by “working in a room with actors and creative team”. I’m not sure how that worked specifically, but what it resulted in was Barbara having a way for her voice to be heard. I think having the character of Barb able to share her inner dialogue with us was a way to honor Barbara’s contribution and to let her be heard.

Kimberly Richardson, who wowed me last fall with her performance of all the characters in The Red Shoes, does it again in the role of Barb. Most of what little humor there is in the show comes from Richardson, but it’s her dramatic work that we are seeing showcased here. In a scene where she has fallen and cannot get up and must wait until Carl gets home, she is allowed her voice to share her thoughts in that moment. She invites us into the soul of someone whose mind is trapped in a body that has betrayed them. One of many moments that makes an impact on the emotions of the audience. Richardson is well matched in JoeNathan Thomas as Carl. One might think it’s the intimacy of the space allowing for a very subtle and natural approach, but the fact is these are high caliber actors who know how to “be” on stage. Thomas’ performance is on a level that can make other performers look like they are pretending. Thankfully, not his costars in this show. There is beauty and truth in the realness of these characters, we are not just shown their love and support for each other. We also see them fighting, and yes, Barb can fight. It’s showing the reality that makes the moments where the love shines bright all the more moving. Because Brown hasn’t written a fairytale about love conquering all, he has written a truth about how we can fight, struggle, want to give up, even want to die. Love doesn’t solve any of that, but it’s why we go through it.

Aside from Carl and Barb, the cast includes Laura Esping as a Healthcare Worker, she plays more than one and is the stand in for those in the medical field that interact with Barb and Carl. Esping does a good job with what’s really a role to fill in information. The show runs about 65 minutes, the material could definitely be expanded to a 90 minute runtime. There could be more for the Healthcare Worker to do, and we are left wanting more time with Barb and Carl. I would have no problem spending an Act 2 with Barb and Carl as they get the idea for and figure out how to collaborate on a play about the situation. I’m not criticizing Brown’s play, which I think is deeply moving and effective, I’m encouraging him to tell us more. The performance space is small and intimate with not much in the way of set, but for a large painting hanging behind the actors that shows us a representation of neurons. The painting changes with the lighting effects with red and blue flashing lights when the ambulances are on their way with sirens blaring. It’s simple but a nice way to symbolize the role the brain has played in what has transpired and suggest things that would be impractical to show. The Scenic Design is by Dean Holzman, Lighting by Alex Clark, and Sound by C. Andrew Mayer.

A Play by Barb and Carl runs through April 30th at the Center for Performing Arts in South Minneapolis. For more information and to purchase tickets go to https://www.illusiontheater.org/.

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The Prom at The Orpheum is For Everyone!

Photo by Deen Van Meer

The Prom opened last night at the Orpheum Theatre as part of the Broadway on Hennepin theatre season. This show is simply the best! A musical about inclusiveness that never feels like a lecture. A musical that pokes gentle fun at the actors profession while not making you feel like an outsider. It has powerful songs, funny songs, Zazzy songs, fantastic dancing, and at the center of it all is an unruly heart that brought this theatergoer to tears, tears of joy. The Prom shows us peoples worst traits and behaviors and then shows how we overcome those tendencies. It gives hope that we can all do better and it does it in a way that makes you want to get up and dance the night away. I haven’t left the theater this high on a show since Come From Away, and before you say that wasn’t that long ago, I’ve seen 30 shows since then. This is a show I wish I could attend every night of it’s run bringing a different group of friends with me each time. I had seen the film version and I really enjoyed it. I’ve also been listening to the cast recording for about two or three years so I knew it would be good. It exceeded my expectations, it’s everything you want in a modern musical comedy. It’s everything you want from a night at the theater. Go early and go often, you’ll always regret it if you don’t go to The Prom.

The Prom tells the story of a small town in Indiana that has cancelled prom rather than let a high school student, Emma take her girlfriend as her date. It opens with Dee Dee and Barry, actors who are past their prime, headlining a show, Eleanor! The Eleanor Roosevelt Musical, whose opening night is also going to be its closing night. They grasp onto the story in Indiana as a way to raise their profiles and rehab their image. Along with fellow actors Trent and Angie, thespians descend upon a meeting where Emma along with her Principal Mr. Hawkins are trying to convince the PTA to reverse their decision. What begins as a co-opting of Emma’s dilemma for their own narcissistic reasons, will ultimately help all of them deal with their own issues. Emma will have her ups and downs as will her closeted girlfriend Alyssa Green, whose mother is the head of the PTA. It’s a story that pokes gentle loving fun at theatrical types while also dealing with the very real issue of intolerance towards and the need for inclusion of LGBTQ identifying indivuduals.

The outstanding cast is spearheaded by Kaden Kearney as Emma, they are the outstanding. The best surprise was their dancing skills, during the songs “Zazz” and “It’s Time To Dance” that gets spotlighted, moments of pure joy. Playing off veteran performers Courtney Balan as Dee Dee and Patrick Wetzel as Barry, Kearney more than holds their own. What is interesting watching the performances is that for a show that devotes a sizeable amount of time displaying the selfishness of stars, watching these actual actors performing you really feel that they are rooting for each other. Balan plays the self absorbed two time Tony Award winner with the stage presence and vocal chops of, well a two time Tony Award winner. Wetzel has a blast as the gay actor for whom Emma’s situation feels very personal. He plays it campy but not to over the top, he gets us to laugh at the self absorption of the Broadway star but also allows us to care for him.

The Prom was based on a real life incident the book is by Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin with music by Matthew Sklar and lyrics by Beguelin. It’s brilliantly structured, it’s basically a good natured parody of theater actors and a message play about what it is like to be an LGBTQ identifying teenager in middle America. Somehow it weaves these two disparate things into a perfectly flowing musical that never feels anything but organic. The theater groups songs are mainly comical, the songs focusing on Emma and Alyssa are more emotionally rewarding, but that isn’t to say they are not fun. Sklar and Beguelin have created half a dozen truly memorable songs with lines like “Note to self, don’t be gay in Indiana” and “And nobody out there ever gets to define the life I’m meant to lead with this unruly heart of mine”. There is not a single song I don’t like in the entire show and on my musical playlist where I usually try to limit myself to no more than three songs from any one show it occupies six slots. When you leave the theatre, you’ll be adding them to your playlist as well.

The Prom runs through April 17th at the Orpheum Theatre in downtown Minneapolis for more information and to purchase tickets go to https://hennepintheatretrust.org/broadway/.

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