Church & State At Phoenix Theater in Uptown is Must See Theater!

photo by Scott Pakudaitis

The Phoenix Theater in Uptown is another of these small local theaters that make up the diverse artistic landscape of the Twin Cities. As with most it serves the usual beverages and nibbles. The lobby is more like a rundown community college lounge/cafe than you usually find, but that feels like the old uptown I first knew in the 90’s and I kinda dug it. The program says the shows runs 90 minutes without an intermission, I clock it as closer to 75 minutes. You are out around 8:45, plenty early for a late bite to eat, perhaps some pretzel bites with nacho cheese, the thought of them may become planted in your head during the show. Good news is you are in Uptown, there is no shortage of places to grab a tasty treat and a coffee or other drink afterward. You may find yourself wanting to discuss what you just saw. The show itself was anything but community college.

Church & State written by Jason Odell Williams premiered in LA in 2016 and is very topical, perhaps even more so today then when it first ran. It opens in the green room of the Stewart theater on the campus of North Carolina State University where Republican Senator Charles Whitmore is about to go out and give a speech for his reelection campaign. Before going out he has to tell his wife and his campaign manager about an interview he gave that morning to an independent journalist (blogger) when caught off guard at a funeral. His response is likely to cause waves in his campaign and his personal life. He is a Senator who’s slogan is “Jesus is my running mate” and he basically said he didn’t see the point in turning to prayer when faced with the tragedy that resulted in the funeral he is attending. That tragedy was a shooting at the school his own sons attend, the funeral was to bury two boys who were friends of his sons. This has shaken him to his very core which is his faith. The dilemma he is discussing with the women who run his life is whether he should follow his heart and speak what he feels or go out and give his usual safe speech. To continue with a synopsis would steal some of the fun that awaits. Suffice to say this is a play that tackles some very difficult topics such as gun control, politics, and religion.

From the above you are probably imagining a talkie play about ideas and moral questions and left politics. Something full of long speeches and the inevitable winning over of doubters, perhaps something a bit predictable. Well it isn’t that straight forward and there will be some twists. There is also a surprising amount of humor. This is a play about big questions that we all have to grapple with in today’s world, but it puts a very human face on these questions. The Senator is played by Andrew S. Troth and he broke my heart into little pieces as he came near to tears several times during the performance as he spoke of how he felt the day of the shooting and of his own sons and their relationships with those who were killed. His wife was played by Mame Pelletier and she’s a smasher! She has moments of emotion as well but she is the play’s trump card. This is a performance overflowing with humor and humanity. She takes what could easily have been a caricature of the God fearing wife of a southern Senator, which she is, and creates a person we can understand and even in an odd way identify with. The four person cast is rounded out by Ariel Leaf who plays the Senators Campaign manager who has her work cut out for her even getting the Senator and his wife to stop adding “the” in front of Twitter and facebook. Finally there is Matt Saxe who plays three different roles, sadly without enough time to really make much of an impression with any of them, a bit of a thankless role, but he has a few moments as Tom, the largest of the three parts.

The production is directed by Scott Gilbert who finds interesting ways to transition in time and space, including the use of video projection. One very interesting idea is the tallying of a Senate vote while we watch a speech being given in flashback. Another inspired bit of staging was to have the Senator tell his story of the interview that is the inciting incident of the play. As he says what he said he turns away from his wife and manager and towards the reporter, as if we are seeing him in flashback to that morning as it happened, this is actually very effectively done and humorous. The real genius of the show though is the script. Williams takes an idea that could easily be preachy and instead presents it in a way that grounds it. His choice of making the Senator a Republican from the South seems like an easy target, but what he does is instead of making these characters targets he makes them human. He doesn’t portray them as you might expect, they don’t convert to democrats but the tragedies they endure help them to look at certain issues in a different way. The Senator is like any politician concerned about reelection but he is also shown to be a good man, a man that even his New York Democratic Jewish Campaign manager comes to believe in. His wife Sara at first seems like a loud joke of a woman, and there is much humorous in the character, but there are more layers to her than we see at the start. This is a play about gun control. At the beginning I mentioned that I think it may be even more relevant now than it was in 2016 when it was first performed. That isn’t because there have since been more instances of gun violence in America, of course there have been. But I say this because our political system seems more partisan than ever. This play cuts through that by casting the voice of reason as a Republican and doing so in such a way that the change is believable and organic. There is more to say on this but I will leave the politics there and let you pick it up and discuss with whomever you see the show with.

Church & State is a powerful play, smart, genuinely funny, warm, shocking, moving, and thought provoking. I cannot recommend it highly enough. Church & State Runs November 8th thru the 24th At Phoenix Theater for more information and to buy tickets visit https://www.phoenixtheatermpls.org/project/church-state/ And trust me you want to buy tickets. When we talk about art and its ability to promote social change, this is what we are talking about. The fact that it does so with so much warmth and humor is a rare thing indeed.

Smokey Joe’s Cafe at The Ordway in St. Paul

I hadn’t been to The Ordway in St. Paul for several years until this last summer when I saw their production of 42nd Street. I only went to that because local favorite Tyler Michaels King was in the cast. After today’s performance of Smokey Joe’s Cafe I feel confident in saying that The Ordway specializes in putting on first class productions for small audiences. I saw 42nd Street on a Saturday night and Smokey Joe’s Cafe a Saturday matinee. Both seemed woefully under attended. I’m not sure if I just hit the wrong performances or if that is the norm. If it is the norm, based on the two performances I saw I’m at a loss to understand why. I guess I’ll find out as I’m a season ticket holder this year. One last thought on The Ordway as a venue, they are the first theater that has ever had the bathrooms right. Maybe it was the low number of patrons, but it seemed to this audience member that there were plenty of urinals and stalls. If you’ve ever been to the theater and needed to use the restroom at intermission, you’ll appreciate this aspect of The Ordway.

The ship has sailed on on 42nd Street and if you missed it, you missed some really impressive footwork. But Smokey Joe’s Cafe runs through Sept 22nd, so let’s talk about it. The show is the songs of songwriting duo Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. And that is exactly what it is. There is no story. This isn’t Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, where you have a bio-play about her life filled with the songs she wrote. Nor is it a Mama Mia, where they tell a story using the songs of ABBA. This is nine performers, almost all of them local talent, singing and dancing the songs of Leiber and Stoller. So if you like a plot or a story with your musicals you are out of luck with Smokey Joe’s Cafe. Now many of the songs tell a little story of their own, as if they are music videos, so it isn’t just actors singing or doing dance choreography. Each song is performed by some combination of these 9 performers, occasionally solo’s,but most are performed with multiple members of the cast and several utilize the entire cast.

The show contains 36 songs, one leading right into another. They include such timeless classics as Stand By Me, Jailhouse Rock, Yakety Yak, There Goes My Baby, Hound Dog, Love Potion #9 and On Broadway. I could list 29 more titles but you can google that if you really want to know. The truth is if I listed the rest, chances are you’d think you know about 8 of the other titles, and you’d really only know 5. This show is wall to wall songs, most of which sound familiar, but that’s probably because they either inspired a more well known song or are emulating a more well known song. I spent probably 1/2 of my radio listening time in Jr. High and high school listening to the oldies channel, which at that time was 50’s and 60’s and just starting to creep into the early 70’s. If you are in your 60’s you may remember more of these songs, but if you are late 40’s and younger unless you’ve spent 75% of your radio time on the oldies, or for some reason a follower of these songwriter’s specifically you’re going to top out at about 15, that’s where I landed. The first song I’d heard before was the 10th one in the show, Kansas City. The good news is, just because you don’t know them doesn’t mean you wont like them. There are songs that must have been just on the cusp of joining the collective memory the way that Stand By Me has. A lot of the songs feel like the B sides of number 1 hits, good enough to have been a hit but overshadowed by the greatness on the flip-side.

Should you see the show? Absolutely!!! They are not the greatest songs ever recorded in rock and roll history, but there isn’t a bad song in the playlist. Besides the star of this show, isn’t the songs, sorry Leiber and Stoller, it’s the cast. I’d like to single out the most exceptional members of this cast, but I can’t, they are all fantastic! This is an incredible assemblage on talent. When they are singing, you do not care that you don’t know the song they are singing, it doesn’t matter, you are wowed by their talent and their stage presence. I mentioned that while there is no linking story elements most of the songs do tell a little story, through the staging or performances. The cast makes every song enjoyable beyond just what they do with their voices, Mostly via humor or their footwork. Joshua Bergasse who directed and choreographed the show has really done an amazing job of giving each song it’s own flavor and identity, brilliantly coaxing humor out where appropriate and just plan coolness in every moment. Hats off as well to the scenic Design by Beowulf Boritt and lighting design by Jeff Croiter, I took a photo of the set but am not sure if it is appropriate to post. If anyone can give me an answer to that I’d love to share it, as it bowled me over from the moment we entered the theater.