Preview: “Bob and Reggie Stay Awake” The Stages of MN Fringe of the Day Award Winner Strikes Bake at Bryant Lake Bowl Theater December 29th Through the 31st

One of my favorite shows from last summer’s Minnesota Fringe Festival Bob and Reggie Go To Bed is being remounting and tweaked for four shows at Bryant Lake Bowl Theater. I’ll be there with some friends for the Thursday December 29th performance. I’d love to see some more friends and readers there as well. Here’s what I said about the show after seeing it on my first day at Fringe last August.

Comedy Suitcase presents Bob and Reggie Go To Bed created and performed by Joshua English Scrimshaw and Levi Weinhagen. I don’t know what I was expecting when I entered the theatre for this show but it wasn’t to see my love of silent comedy brought to life, live on stage. Bob and Reggie get ready for bed confronting obstacles that arise with the problem solving skills of Laurel and Hardy. Set in the silent world of a Buster Keaton two reeler, the duo blend physical comedy with a Keatonesque surreal humor. Inventive in the way it keeps building on it’s situations. The humor comes as often from the reveal as it does from their solution to the next snag in their bedtime routine. Just when you think it can’t get any crazier it takes a turn that made me think of Sherlock Jr. The similarities to the silents doesn’t stop at the type of humor but also in the fact there is no dialogue. Just as there was with the silent movies, there is a live score and sound effects, created on stage by Rhiannon Fiskradatz, who adds more than just accompaniment to the proceedings. The final performer in this four person show is Sulia Altenberg as the Tooth Fairy. Scrimshaw and Weinhagen are brilliant in their gag creation and execution. You have to be pretty smart to act this stupid. I only knew Scrimshaw from his work with the Mysterious Old Radio Listening Society and would never have guessed that a genius for this form of comedy was in his or anyone else in the 21st Century’s wheelhouse. This is the perfect show to take everyone and anyone too, old and young, the larger the audience the more fun it will be.

I already knew that one of the downsides of Fringe is that it’s impossible to see everything, there is always the worry of what you are missing. Tonight I discovered another downside, you can’t justify seeing things twice. That’s really frustrating in this case because I want to see Bob and Reggie Go To Bed with everyone I know. If this was not at Fringe and just a normal show on a two or three week run, I’d be organizing group meet ups to enjoy this show again and again. If you could see only one of the three shows I saw today it has to be Bob and Reggie Go To Bed. And so it earns the inaugural, highly coveted and just made up on the fly The Stages of MN Fringe of the Day Award!

August 5th 2022 Post of The Stages of MN

​FOUR PERFORMANCES ONLY
Thursday, December 29 and Friday, December 30, 7pm
Saturday, December 31, 2022, 5pm and 7pm
Price: $15/$12 in advance or with Fringe button/$8 kids, 12 and under
At the Bryant-Lake Bowl Theater in Minneapolis

For more information and to purchase tickets go to https://www.eventbrite.com/e/bob-and-reggie-stay-awake-tickets-466085713917

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. I am also a member of the Twin Cities Theater Bloggers, you can read roundups of shows by my colleagues and I on facebook @TwinCitiesTheaterBloggers. Follow that group, It’s a great way to see reviews for shows I don’t get to. We have some exciting things in the works for 2023 for the TCTB and our readers follows us to be the first to know about those happenings.

The Little Prince is an Imaginative Flight of Fancy and Wonder at the Guthrie Theater

Reed Northrup (Little Prince), Catherine Young (Geographer/Puppeteer), and Steve Epp (Aviator) Photo by Dan Norman

I sort of had to check when the show ended to make sure I was at the Guthrie Theater, this felt like an Open Eye Theatre creation, and I mean that in a good way. The Guthrie is the Premiere Regional Theater, their shows are always well produced and immaculately designed with a budget that makes that possible. Open Eye Theatre also does beautifully designed shows but on a much smaller scale and they are known for their innovative and imaginative stagings. This production of The Little Prince uses the space allowed by the Guthrie’s McGuire Proscenium Stage but also has that unique spark of creative design and wondrous execution of Open Eye. I loved this productions look, feel, and general sense of wide eyed innocence. An unbelievable tale told in such matter-of-fact manner that one is simply swept up in the fantasy

Based on the famous novella Le Petit Prince by French author and aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and adapted by Rick Cummins and John Scoullar. The tale of The Little Prince is told to us by the Aviator who begins explaining how grown ups do not know how to perceive things. This conclusion is arrived at because when he was younger and drew a picture of a boa constrictor eating an elephant they always just see a picture of a hat. Thus, he did not become a great painter but instead a pilot. When his plane breaks down and he has to land in the desert, he comes into contact with a small golden haired child, whom he soon learns is from another planet. While the aviator tries to repair his plan before his food and water runs out the Little Prince tells him of his world on which has three volcanoes, that he has to clean out weekly, of Baobab trees which he has to constantly pull out or they create problems for his little planet. One day a rose begins to grow, he falls in love with the rose but it becomes jealous and needy of his attention and so he decides he should leave. He travels to different planets of which he tells the Aviator each is inhabited by a single individual, all of them with a negative personality trait. The play is re-enforcing the Aviators stated opinion of adults with all these examples of the ways in which adults are foolish and petty.

Steven Epp plays the Aviator and it’s his performance that sets the tone of the play from his opening moments describing his thwarted attempt to be an artist. He talks simply and with the logic of a child, without being childish, giving us the sense of a man who grew into adulthood without ever losing the clear eyed way of seeing things that the young have. It’s a wonderfully sweet and humorous performance that takes the fantastical events in stride. Reed Northrup is the Little Prince who is inquisitive and searching longing to understand and find connection. Three other actors portray the various other beings the Little Prince encounters on his travels. Nathan Keepers, whose Stanley Kowalski was a stunner at Yellow Tree Theatre this past fall, plays The King, The Snake, and the Fox. Wariboko Semenitari plays the Conceited Man and the Lamplighter, and Catherine Young plays Rose, the Businessman, and the Geographer. All three give humorous turns as these characters that stand in for the personality traits of humans. Keepers is again the standout though, his portrayal of the King alone is worth the price of admission, a silly absurd ruler who’s every word seems designed to save face and declare his power over all around him. His Fox is the first creature the Little Prince encounters on earth and, is the character with whom he makes a connection. It’s a sweet turn that is as different from the other two characters as it could be.

The production is Directed by Dominique Serrand whose creative staging seems to enlarge the space as the play goes on. Starting with a curtain only partially raised and focusing the action around a desk, as the play moves on and the prince tells of other worlds the curtain rises and the actors move out from the desk. As the world of the play opens up, so does the space on which it is performed. The Set Design is by Rachel Hauck, and though the action in the play takes place in a desert and the stories with the play take place on different planets, the design is that of the an imaginary studio from which the Aviator is telling his story. It’s a non literal approach that actually works surprisingly well. Like a studio in the imagination it creates whatever it needs to empart it’s tale. If it needs more space, the imagination creates it. It’s a wonderful job of realizing this concept. The Costumes and Puppet Designer is Olivera Gajic and this is where we really see some of fantastic creation. The look of all these characters are wonderfully realized, from the Businessman whose all body and hat, to the Fox whose tail seems to have a mind of its own. Working in perfect harmony with the look of the show, is exemplary work from Lighting Designer Yi Zhao, whose sunsets are wonderful as they beam through the blinds of the studio windows.

The Little Prince runs through February 5th for more information and to purchase tickets go to https://www.guthrietheater.org/shows-and-tickets/2022-2023-season/the-little-prince/

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. I am also a member of the Twin Cities Theater Bloggers, you can read roundups of shows by my colleagues and I on facebook @TwinCitiesTheaterBloggers. Follow that group, It’s a great way to see reviews for shows I don’t get to. We have some exciting things in the works for 2023 for the TCTB and our readers follows us to be the first to know about those happenings.

Striking 12 Another Winner From Minneapolis Musical Theatre Ends This Weekend and is Worth Your Time!

Nick Manthe and Madeline Kadlec Photo by Unser Imagery

There are two shows that can be directly linked to the genesis of The Stages of MN and one of them just happens to be a Minneapolis Musical Theatre (MMT) production in the Spring of 2019, Be More Chill. So this company has a special place in my heart which is why I feel terrible that I didn’t get to the show until their final week. The theatre company’s tagline is “Rare musicals. Well done.” and so you are almost always going to see something you’ve never seen before, and in my experience it will be done well. Such is the case with their latest offering Striking 12, I’d never heard of, let alone seen it produced before and I had a great time with it. It’s a New Years Eve tale that incorporates Hans Christian Andersen’s, The Little Match Girl into its story of a man who wants to spend the night alone rather than partying with friends. It’s a little SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder), a little funny, and a little sweet with some very good music to round out this eclectic little show. Another plus for a show at this time of year, when we are all so busy, it’s about 85 minutes long and no intermission. So there’s time to take it in and still have time to wrap some presents before bed.

The show was written by Brendan Milburn, Rachel Sheinkin, and Valerie Vigoda, and I can see influences of everything from A Christmas Carol to Rent. In structure, it’s not dissimilar to Theater Latte Da’s Christmas at the Local. Again, we have a group of performers, many of them playing instruments combining songs with the retelling of a classic piece of literature. The difference here is that the actors acknowledge they are performing a show and also have a story to tell with characters alongside The Little Match Girl telling. The show opens with the cast coming into the theater and chatting with the audience, then they begin with a song about turning off your cell phones and unwrapping your candies now. The modern story being told is about a man who has had it with the year, he’s decided he just wants to spend New Years Eve on his own. There is a knock on his door and it’s a persistent woman who is trying to sell strings of SAD therapy Christmas lights door to door. Their conversation leads to the mention of the Andersen story, which the man cannot remember how it ends. So he grabs it from his shelf and we get the telling of the tale through narration and song interrupted by phone calls from friends, and in one inspired moment the talking down of the drummer who wanted to do “The Little Drummer Boy” instead.

There is something about these shows where the cast play the instruments that I really enjoy and while most of the musicians in this production have minor moments of dialogue there is one exception and it’s the captivating performance of the Bassist and Little Match Girl, Madeline Kadlec. Kadlec takes center stage for a decent portion of the show and really has a wonderful voice and seems, to my untrained eye, quite good on the bass guitar. I don’t recall seeing her before in anything, but she seemed very at home on stage and I hope we’ll be seeing more of her locally, she’s one to watch that’s for sure. Also quite good and unfamiliar to me was Nick Manthe as the grump who wants to avoid other people on New Years Eve. The role called a very wide vocal range that while staying in the middle for the most part did go to the upper and lower extremes. Manthe only struggled to be heard when called to go into the very deep registers, but that was a line or two in one song. The entire ensemble has to do a lot of high fiving and pretending they are having a good time performing, it’s one of my least favorite bits of stage business, but they generally make it as painless as possible. There is a real misfits quality to the cast that is super endearing and they sounded great together.

The show is co-directed by Kari Steinbach and MMT Artistic Director Joe Hendren with Jean Orbison Van Heel handling the music direction. Aside from the theme park, ‘aren’t we all having a great time’ aspects, which I think could be dropped, they did a wonderful job. There are 11 performers and the story is constantly changing from the modern to the Little Match Girl, moments of breaking down the fourth wall, phone calls, narrators moving us along and commenting on the action. With all that going on, the team keeps everything clear in our minds as to what is happening at any given time. There isn’t much in the way of set design or costuming to comment on, but I did note some really nice lighting queues designed by Kurt Jung. I’m thinking particularly of a moment timed perfectly to the music where first one and then a second string of the darker almost orange Christmas lights came on, just a little moment of perfection between sound and light.

Striking 12 Closes This Sunday December 18th so get your tickets quick. My Thursday night performance on a day of heavy snow was very well attended so I wouldn’t be surprised if they sell out some of these last few performances. It’s a show that’s really worth taking, you never know when or if you’ll get another chance. For more information and to purchase tickets go to https://www.aboutmmt.org/2022-23-season/

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. I am also a member of the Twin Cities Theater Bloggers, you can read roundups of shows by my colleagues and I on facebook @TwinCitiesTheaterBloggers. Follow that group, It’s a great way to see reviews for shows I don’t get to. We have some exciting things in the works for 2023 for the TCTB and our readers follows us to be the first to know about those happenings.

Mary’s Wonderous Body at the Elision Playhouse

Isabella Dunsieth Photo by Seth Campbell

Mary’s Wondrous Body is billed as a dark comedy, the plot description reads like a comedy, it is not a comedy. I hate to disagree with the creators, there are definitely humorous moments and the situation devoid of the graphic details we are given certainly would support such an idea, but a comedy? No. So don’t book this for a laugh, you will better appreciate it’s intent if you go in knowing what to expect. What you get is a so bizarre it must be true type historical oddity told by an amazing cast. It’s dark, it’s difficult, there is some humor, but it’s intent is to shine a light on stories of the womb. Through this strange moment from the past, we are led to reflect on where we are in the world today in terms of reproductive rights. The more you understand about these dark ages of medicine as covered in this production, the more your reflect on the events of the last couple of years and you get a sense that the sun may be setting on the age of enlightenment, such as it is.

Written, produced and directed by Madeline Wall the production tells the story performance and song of Mary Toft who in 1726 after suffering a miscarriage stumped the the medical world by pretending to give birth to rabbits, or pieces of them at any rate. It was thought by some in the medical profession that it was the result of maternal impression which was the belief that the mother’s imagination could have a direct influence on how a baby formed in the womb. Yep, as I write, I hear how it sounds like a comedy. Mary’s mother-in-law Ann is the midwife and after the miscarriage she her daughter Mags, a neighbor who is in labor, and Mary all conspire to try and get some money from the nearby surgeon with the faked rabbit births. This is born not out of greed but a desire to eat and stay alive. Being in a family with the local midwife and living in a time before contraceptive products, much of these women’s lives revolve around having and raising children. And so we hear of miscarriages and infant deaths but they discuss these things matter of factly as women who deal with these things daily would. I repeat this is not a comedy. Wall’s script wisely doesn’t shy away from the graphic and earthy nature of their discussions. It is through these realities that the power of the play resides. In 1726, life was hard, particularly if you are a woman. Olive is faced with the fact that if her labor is quick and the baby is born that day that tomorrow she will need to be out working the fields. Mary and her family and friend actually think stuffing parts of dead rabbits inside of her in hopes of earning money from gullible physicians is a hardship worth going through with, because life is that hard in 1726. Dark comedy indeed.

Two performers don’t have very large parts, one is Nick Miller who has a couple of short scenes but is mostly there for musical accompaniment. The other is Caleb Wagner who plays Mary’s husband and has more scenes but isn’t given much to do. This is really the story of Mary, Ann, Mags and Olive and the show belongs to the actors playing those roles. All four are incredible, their voices in song power the way in which they move through the performance with commitment and purpose. Isabella Dunsieth is Mary who does the performance acrobatics of playing in character and then seamlessly coming in and out of something like a stand up comedy act, where she addresses the audience while holding a microphone. It’s a great technique to add a relatability to the performance and also to give us some much needed momentary distance from the hardness of the past. Sarah Broude is Ann, she plays her with a hardness that feels appropriate for the times, when being hard is how you kept yourself and your loved ones alive. Emily Rosenberg is Mags, they play the most sympathetic of the women, perhaps she is softer because she is younger. Rosenberg has been on my one to watch for awhile now and once again they reminded me why, towards the end of the show they have a moment of song that was beyond anything I’d seen or known they were capable of before. Laila Sahir plays Olive the neighbor who gets a brilliant little scene towards the end when she is faced with a little bit of survivors guilt when Mary returns from London and they have to address the rabbit in the room, that Olives child has lived whereas Mary’s died. Sahir plays that moment beautifully, for the first part of the scene her back was to me, when she turned around the power in the moment came flooding in with one look into her eyes.

In almost every respect this is an accomplished production, the cast is perfect and the script and musical moments are are powerful and beautiful. There are a couple of things that worked while also sort of not working. The space, when one performer was singing the acoustics were phenomenal, it was like hearing them all singing in the shower. But, when they were speaking and not facing towards you, a lot of the dialogue was lost, even more so when they were speaking over each other as they do at several points. The message and themes of the work are powerful, important, and relevant, but why on earth are you producing this at the holidays? This is a February show if ever I saw one. When I’m asked to recommend one show to someone this holiday season, as top notch as this production is, it isn’t going to be Mary’s Wondrous Body. This is the kind of show people should see, these are stories that need to be shared because they get us thinking about our world and what is happening around us. But it’s the time of year people want to see Christmas at the Local or one of the Christmas’s at Pemberley plays. I think the show will suffer unfairly from being released now, and maybe by hammering home the fact that it is not a comedy, I’ve contributed to that. But, I also want those who do attend to know what they are getting so they are in the right frame of mind to appreciate it. You should also be aware that the language is quite strong, it’s not an issue for most of us in this day and age but there are several uses of the “C” word for example, I think it’s effectively used, but for some that is one of the more offensive words in the english language and so better to know going in.

Mary’s Wonderous Body runs through December 18th at the Elision Playhouse for more information and to purchase tickets go to https://minnesotaplaylist.com/calendar/show/marys-wondrous-body

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. I am also a member of the Twin Cities Theater Bloggers, you can read roundups of shows by my colleagues and I on facebook @TwinCitiesTheaterBloggers. Follow that group, It’s a great way to see reviews for shows I don’t get to. We have some exciting things in the works for 2023 for the TCTB and our readers follows us to be the first to know about those happenings.

Nimbus Presents: A Count Up to Christmas. A Parody of Hallmark Movies That Had Me Laughing Out Loud.

Annick Dall, Derek Dirlam, Tara Lucchino Photo by Emily Barrera

Nimbus Presents: A Count Up to Christmas is simply good old fashioned silly fun. A parody of the Hallmark Channel’s annual Countdown to Christmas campaign wherein they air 742 Christmas themed movies based on 4 not dissimilar plots, but featuring characters with completely different names, living in differently named but identical looking towns. Look, this isn’t the show to see if you can only see one Christmas show and finances are not a concern. But if you’re looking for a show to take the whole family to, that’s fun and won’t break the strained holiday budget, this one would be hard to beat. A target primed to be lampooned, Nimbus pokes fun at these films without being cruel. Playing with the tropes so that we knowingly laugh along, and you will laugh out loud throughout this clever little show.

The story centers around Caroline, a lesbian marketing person from the city, who two weeks before Christmas is fired from her job and dumped by her fiance. Her assumedly gay best friend swoops in to try and cheer her up sending her off to the small town of Wannacutatree for a week of relaxation. But it turns out that Wannacutatree is in the midst of its own crisis, the annual Christmas Festival on which the local businesses depend is drastically under attended due to lack of funds for advertising. Caroline who has never seen, let alone driven in snow, ends up with her car in the ditch. To the rescue is Deputy Sheriff Buck Sterling who gives her a lift into town and introduces her to award-winning Gingerbread Baker and Innkeeper Mavis. Buck is frequently and inexplicably accompanied by the ultra precocious Reggie, he’s eight, who is not his son but has assisted the deputy sheriff in solving several murders. Frequently and startlingly popping up is Mayor Chase Nulty who looks to Buck to help solve the city’s crisis. The town businesses, all of which seem to be owned by Charlene Larch are desperate to save the Christmas Festival. On Caroline’s first day in the town, she comes across the bookstore owned by Casey who shares her taste in authors. Will Casey help the town solve their marketing crisis? Will she fall in love with one of the townspeople? Will she learn to embrace peppermint spice and sprinkles? How old is Reggie? He’s eight, but for the rest of the questions you’ll have to see the show to find out. Though if you’ve ever seen one of those Hallmark Channel’s Christmas movies you can probably guess the answers.

The script for A Count Up to Christmas is by company co-founder Josh Cragun and is filled with inspired comedic ideas. One of which is the periodic commercial breaks in the play proper where we get commercials for upcoming movies including a Twin Peaks parody featuring the Yule Log lady. It’s a fun script with a lot of elements that work but several that fall flat, though, most of those those have potential. For example, the Mayor has a habit of startling the other characters by his sudden appearance, not a bad idea but it needs to be reworked for greater effect. Likewise, the Mayors almost sinister insistence jolliness & holiday cheer, it’s an idea that’s played with but probably should have been developed further or cut all together. More could also have been made of the Charlene Larch character who owns seemingly every business in town. Thou in that instance it feels as if a tweak to the performances could have played that up better. Most of these are the types of things that you only really get a sense of once you see a show up and running. It would be great to see Cragun take another pass at the script for a future run. If he does so, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to add more Reggie, he’s eight, particularly in the final quarter of the play when he seems to more or less disappear.

Speaking of Reggie, he’s eight, but played by the cherubic adult Alex Stokes, who completely steals the show out from under the leads. In a play filled with laughs, the loudest are always due to the performance of Stokes whose line delivery and reactions are comedic gold. When you have a character as hilariously well-written as Reggie, he’s eight, you have to have an actor with Stoke’s comedic gifts to cash in on it. The wrong performer could easily squander the potential, it has to be a hard role to cast and find the perfect tone for, luckily they found Stokes as he nails it. The cast in general is fine, there were a couple who seemed to barely have their lines memorized, and as such had no time to actually develop a character, leaving us with someone more or less just speaking lines so that we have the necessary information. Annick Dall, as Casey the bookstore owner, however was more than fine giving the most natural and winning performance. She generates enough small town charm and wisdom to create enough chemistry for both her character and Tara Lucchino’s Caroline to make you feel all warm inside and happy as their relationship develops.

I suspect that Director Liz Neerland would have loved another week’s worth of rehearsal. There’s so much that works here that it’s a shame the show has to settle for being “very good” when it has the potential to be “great”. But sometimes that’s the nature of theatre, we do the best we can with the time and resources we have and Neerland has done just that. Kudos as well to Scenic Designer Gaea Dill-D’Ascoli, this is certainly the most elaborate set I’ve seen yet at the Crane theater. One half of the stage is an indoor set that doubles for bookstore and the Inn. The other half is the outdoors complete with Christmas tree lot and sledding hill. The Sound Design is by Jacob M. Davis and Lighting Design by Jon Kirchhofer help set the mood and the tone. I recommend getting to the theater a little early in order to enjoy the fun Christmas songs chosen to play before the show begins. Also, don’t forget to pick up a bingo card and crayon on your way into the theater if you play along you could win a prize!

Nimbus Presents: A Count Up to Christmas runs through December 18th at the crane theater in Northeast Minneapolis for more information and to purchase tickets go to https://nimbustheatre.com/productions/count-up-to-christmas. I know I pointed out some flaws above but to be honest that’s only because the show is already good and that’s a potential to be even better. I had a lot of fun with this show and laughed an awful lot, I think you will as well.

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. I am also a member of the Twin Cities Theater Bloggers, you can read roundups of shows by my colleagues and I on facebook @TwinCitiesTheaterBloggers. Follow that group, It’s a great way to see reviews for shows I don’t get to. We have some exciting things in the works for 2023 for the TCTB and our readers follows us to be the first to know about those happenings.

A Servants Christmas at History Theatre in St. Paul

Photo by Rick Spaulding

John Fenn’s play A Servant’s Christmas has been staged at History Theatre 16 times since it premiered in 1980. In 2004, Fenn worked with Composer Drew Jansen to create a new version of the play A Servant’s Christmas – A Holiday Musical. So in one form or another they’ve been sharing this story every 3 years or so over the last 42 years. This was the first play that retiring Artistic Director Ron Peluso directed for History Theatre and fittingly, it’s his last; it makes for a wonderful bookend to Peluso’s tenure. Oddly, this was my first exposure to the work and I found it charming. While this isn’t a particularly edgy piece, there is still a message to it and it’s one that sadly, is becoming more and more important to remind people of. I don’t want to touch on that message because it involves a plot point that we are not clued into until the second half of the story. While the story isn’t groundbreaking, it’s well told and the lively cast really involves the audience in the characters lives and situations. So much in fact that I was surprised to find tears in my eyes at the end.

Without giving away too much the basics of the story center around the Warner household one of the great homes on Summit Avenue in St Paul in December of 1899. The servants of the title are Frieda the Cook, the Butler Eric, Miss Pettingill the Governess, and the new maid/second girl, Monica Leary, who arrives to help lighten the load shortly after the play opens. Mr. Warner is a widower whose wife died in childbirth in recent years leaving him to raise his two surviving children Richmond and Anne. Mr Warner runs a strict household, somewhat reminiscent Captain Von Trapp in The Sound of Music, his children complain that the only interactions he has with them involves their school work and their Bible study. Everyone in the house feels the absence of Mr Warner’s late wife Angelina. Most of the characters have a scene where we see them interacting with Angelina, not as an actual flashback and not as a ghost, but in a way that conveys to us that they are thinking of and missing her. The arrival of Monica somehow acts as a catalyst for change and this well-oiled household begins to break out of its rut, much to Mr. Warner’s dismay. We learn early on that Monica has a secret but we are not clued in to what that is and while perhaps it isn’t a spoiler, because it is covered in the promotional materials, I feel it’s a more enjoyable experience if you discover her secret during the play so I’m not going to reveal it here. The strength of play really isn’t in the plot details, it’s in the interactions between the characters and the relationships they develop.

Gary Briggle is Eric the wise Butler who runs the household, juggles the personalities, smooths the ruffled feathers, and plays surrogate father to everyone. Briggle is fantastic in the role, he has just the right tone with each of the other characters. You can see that he’s playing a different role with each them and it’s Briggle’s skill that what we see is Eric the Butler playing those different roles. He also acquits himself well with the songs, a particular favorite is the song “Where Did You Get That Hat?”. The song is performed with Norah Long as a famous actress Lillian, whom Eric knew when he was younger, and tread the boards back in England as a “promising juvenile”. Long enters the show rather late but certainly makes an impact. Doing wonderful character work is Cathleen Fuller as Frieda the cook from Deutschland, whose bark is worse than her bite. Monica is played by Serena Brook who doesn’t seem to really come alive as a character until after she stops hiding her secret which is nearly at the end of the show. Showing some real chops are two promising juveniles, Sullivan Cooper as Richmond Warner and Nicola Wahl as Anne Warner. One interesting casting note I actually suspected, that the role Lillian and that of Miss Pettingill played in fact by Jen Burleigh-Bentz was the same actress playing both roles. They never appear on stage together and Miss Pettingill wears glasses and is very prim and proper while Lillian has an elaborate hairstyle and is made up rather glamorously. Add to that not seeing them next to each other, they seem to be about the same height and size and their hair coloring is similar. I’m actually rather surprised that the actor doesn’t double in both roles and suspect other stagings have utilized that in order to save on resources.

The set is designed by Rick Polenek and it’s a rather elaborate set that turns 160 degrees on a giant turntable as the play opens. It’s tall, essentially becoming a three-story affair allowing for multiple different locations with lots of entrances and exits available. So, while we might not see the library we know it’s through these doors which adds a sense of space, it’s a great use of real estate. The music director is David Lohman who also plays the piano along with the only other musician Zelda Younger on the clarinet. It’s a decidedly Lo-Fi approach but it works. To be honest, I’m not sure this needs to be a musical. There are several musical moments that could stay in the show even if all of the others were cut out and I think that would work just fine. The show is long, at 2 hours and 40 minutes with an intermission and cutting some songs might help. I’d be interested to see the play version of the show or if that version has no singing in it. Perhaps a hybrid where we still get Monica’s traditional song at the end, Lillian’s solo song, and the song where Eric and Lillian perform “Where Did You Get That Hat?”, and maybe the children singing the song their mother taught them. Don’t get me wrong, the rest of the songs are fine, the opening number “Double Up” is actually quite fun, The song “Stereopticon” is a good idea for a song but somehow didn’t grab me like it should have.

A Servant’s Christmas – A Holiday Musical Runs through December 18th at history theater downtown Saint Paul for more information and to purchase tickets go to https://www.historytheatre.com/2022-2023/servants%E2%80%99-christmas

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. I am also a member of the Twin Cities Theater Bloggers, you can read roundups of shows by my colleagues and I on facebook @TwinCitiesTheaterBloggers. Follow that group, It’s a great way to see reviews for shows I don’t get to. We have some exciting things in the works for 2023 for the TCTB and our readers follows us to be the first to know about those happenings.

Les Misérables Stuns With the Power and Brilliance of its Sights and Sound! Perhaps the Greatest Touring Production I’ve Ever Seen.

Christine Heesun Hwang as Éponine Photo: Matthew Murphy & Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade

I’ve seen some fabulous touring productions over the years, I’ve even seen this touring production of Les Misérables when it was at the Orpheum in 2018. I recall enjoying the that production and being particularly taken with the set design, but this time was different. Perhaps it was the cast or possibly not being in the balcony as I was last time, but instead down close and centered on the main floor. Whatever the reason, this time I was completely swept up and amazed by the overwhelming beauty of Les Misérables. A jaw droppingly gifted cast including homegrown actor Christine Heesun Hwang and featuring a production and lighting design that makes every scene look like a Rembrandt painting come to life. Inarguably one of the greatest musicals of the late 20th century, every note of music, every lyric is perfection. A powerful story, the message of which seems especially pertinent given the ever-increasing inequity in the distribution of wealth and the dispensation of Justice. For a show nearly three hours in length there is not a single moment that doesn’t drive the story forward or feel completely necessary. I’ve no idea why I was so stunned by this production for I knew what I was getting into, I’ve seen it before, yet somehow I was unprepared for the power and artistry that unfolded before me.

Les Misérables for the unfamiliar is a musical based on the novel by Victor Hugo with music by Claude-Michel Schonberg, lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer. Set in France in the first half of the 19th century, Les Misérables tells the story Jean Valjean who after spending 19 years on the Chain Gang for stealing a loaf of bread is finally paroled. Finding himself free only to discover that no one will give him a chance at a fresh start. Beaten down and starving, he’s taken in by a Bishop, given food and a place to rest, but out of desperation he steals some silver. When he is caught and brought before the Bishop by the police, the Bishop lies to the police saying that the silver cups were gifts. Given this reprieve from being sent back to the Chain Gang, Jean Valjean breaks his parole and changes his name in order to start a new life. The story then moves eight years into the future where Jean Valjean has become a factory owner and the Mayor. In his Factory we meet Fantine, who is soon dismissed unfairly, beginning the downward spiral which results in her having to sell everything she can including her hair and her body to stay alive and to send money for her daughter Cosette’s care. When she fights back against a wealthy man who is abusing her, she is on the verge being taken to prison by Javert when Jean Valjean comes to a rescue and has her taken to the hospital instead. A chance accident with a cart causes Jean Valjean to rescue a man. His act of strength reminds the policeman Javert of his former prisoner Jean Valjean he tells the Mayor of the similarity and comments that Jean Valjean has just been arrested. Jean Valjean realizing if he doesn’t say something then an innocent man will pay for his crimes goes to the court and confesses. Before he is taken back into custody Jean Valjean promises Fantine on her deathbed that he will look after Cosette. Overpowering Javert, he escapes again. He goes and finds Cosette, who is living with the unscrupulous Thenardiers, an innkeeper, his wife, and their young daughter Eponine. After paying them off he and Cosette head out to make a new start. The story picks up nine years later in Paris where all of these characters along with a few new ones converge. Cosette falls in love with young student Marius whose in turn loved without his knowledge by Eponine. It’s a time of unrest in the city and a group of students seeing themselves as revolutionaries build a barricade to have a standoff with the authorities. All the key players come together and their fates are all intertwined. It all seems terribly complicated but somehow the story is quite easy to follow. It also all sounds terribly depressing but it isn’t, it’s uplifting, it’s powerful, it is wonderous.

The cast is nothing short of amazing Nick Cartell plays Jean Valjean with a vocal range equally astonishing in the deeper registers as he is in the upper. Powerful and passionate in the song “Who Am I?” where he contemplates whether to let the innocent man be tried in his place for his supposed crimes. Then, angelic in the higher pitched “Bring Him Home” where he sings to God to spare the life of Marius. I expected him to be pushing his voice to the limits but surprisingly it seemed perfectly within his range resulting in a tremendous round of applause from the audience. Everyone is of that quality in the cast. Haley Dortch as Fantine delivers one of the shows signature songs “I Dreamed a Dream” with all the tragedy and heartbreak of her character seeping into every line. The stand out (this was in my mind before I did my post show reading) was Christine Heesun Hwang as Eponine. Hwang, it turns out, is no stranger to Orpheum stage where as a student at Minnetonka High School she was part of Hennepin Theatre Trust Spotlight Showcase Program, winning Triple Threat her Junior year. It’s not hard to see why, if the character of Jean Valjean is the conscience of the show, Eponine is the heart. When she sings “On My Own” it veers towards a misstep as we genuinely find ourselves hoping that she will get together with Marius as opposed to Cosette. Vocally and performance-wise Hwang is as good as any performer I’ve seen on the Orpheum stage and better than most. Devin Archer is grand as the leader of the students, rousing the them stoking their anger at injustice. Hayden Tee is suitably dogged as Javert and gets one of the biggest moments of audience amazement in his final scene, which I will not spoil, but will say I gasped in wonder. Matt Crowle and Christina Rose Hall play the scheming M. and Mme Thenardier adding some well timed and much appreciated comic relief.

Not only does this show contain one of the most talented casts I’ve seen in one show but its production design including everything from the sets, the lighting, projections, and costumes creates one of the most beautiful looking shows I’ve ever seen. On one side of the stage there’s a doorway, on the other side there’s an a Stone Archway, those elements remain constant. Throughout the play those sides Push out to varying degrees and somehow these two openings come to look like completely new structures. It is a fascinatingly versatile set. It’s large and impressive solid-looking and yet, it seems to flow and change and reconfigure fluidly. Set and image design is by Matt Kinley they’re inspired by the paintings of Victor Hugo. Paule Constable is the lighting designer and he doesn’t just direct and point lights he seems to paint with light. There’s such a melding of physical set design and lighting in this show and it is through this marriage of these two art forms that this painterly aesthetic it’s achieved. And yes, when the set and the lighting design look this good it is absolutely an art form. Having just seen some of the least successful bigger scale projection use last weekend at the Ordway, the projection is this show realized by Finn Ross and Fifty-Nine Productions was a reminder how well it can be used. This is a judicious use a projection that effectively enhances the environment and created some breathtaking illusions.

Les Misérables runs through December 18th at the Orpheum Theatre in Downtown Minneapolis As part of the 2022 – 2023 Bank of America Broadway on Hennepin season. For more information and to get tickets go to https://hennepintheatretrust.org/events/les-miserables-broadway-tickets-minneapolis-2022/ A word of warning if you are one of those folks who can’t seem to be in your theater seats when the show begins prepare to wait in the lobby until an approved late seating interval. From what I’ve heard the production enforces some fairly strict policies in this regard. Frankly if you can’t be on time I don’t care if you miss 15 minutes of the show, but I do feel sorry for the people you disrupt when you are allowed to take your seat.

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. I am also a member of the Twin Cities Theater Bloggers, you can read roundups of shows by my colleagues and I on facebook @TwinCitiesTheaterBloggers. Follow that group, It’s a great way to see reviews for shows I don’t get to. We have some exciting things in the works for 2023 for the TCTB and our readers follows us to be the first to know about those happenings.