The Music Man at the Chanhassen Dinner Theatre

Photo by Dan Norman, 2020

Seeing The Music Man at the Chanhassen Dinner Theatre was a trip down memory lane in more ways than one. As a child I’m guessing between the ages of 8 and 10 it seemed like the film version of The Music Man starring Shirley Jones and Robert Preston was on cable 24/7. Whenever I came across it I tuned in, I had that film memorized. I haven’t seen it in years. The other thing I hadn’t done in years, 31 to be exact, was visit the Chanhassen Dinner Theatre. I was last there in 1989 with either my High School Choir or the High School Show Choir, we saw Kiss Me Kate. I don’t know why I haven’t gone. Maybe it feels like Chanhassen is a long way to go, but I’ve lived in Hopkins for the last 8 years and it took approximately 17 minutes to get there. So if the thought that it is too far out is keeping you away, realize that the world shrunk and it’s closer than you think. And I must say, their production of The Music Man is worth the trip, even if you don’t live as close as Hopkins.

For those who don’t know, the music man of the title is Professor Harold Hill, Gary Conservatory of Music, Gold-Medal class of Aught-Five. Or at least that’s what he wants the citizens of River City Iowa to believe. In reality, he’s a flim-flam artist who works his way across the country town by town, selling the idea of a boys band. The idea is the key word there, because he sells them the instruments and the uniforms, and then skips town with the money without teaching the boys to play a note. In fact, he doesn’t know one note from another. What he can do is keep everyone off balance long enough that they don’t realize there is never going to be a band. His first step is to create a need for a boys band. When he learns that the town has just gotten its first pool table, uses that to rile up the citizens by pointing out the slippery slope to corruption that pool tables represent to the youth of River City. For as he points out in the song “Ya Got Trouble” Trouble with a capital T and that rhymes with P and that stands for pool. Well, it’s hard to argue with logic like that. His second step is to introduce at a town gathering the idea of keeping the young boys out of the pool hall by exposing them to a more morally enriching activity like , oh I don’t know, a boys band?
Step three, keep the Music Teacher off balance so that she doesn’t expose him as a fake before he collects and gets out of town. Of course the Music Teacher isn’t like the others he’s come across in his travels, this is “Marian The Librarian” and he will find himself as off balance as she is by the end.

Michael Gruber as Harold Hill has the silver tongue and charisma to do the character right. He plausibly, within the fantasy world of this classic musical, gets the 4 members of the school board, who can’t stand each other, to become an inseparable barber shop quartet. They are played by Aleks Knezevich, Evan Tyler Wilson, John-Michael Zuerleinm and Shad Olsen and they make beautiful harmonies together. Ann Michaels Plays Marion, she has a fabulous voice and an easy chemistry with Gruber and with Peggy O’connell, who plays Mrs. Paroo, her mother. The cast is quite good in every role. A couple of the cast, Michelle Barber as Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn and the aforementioned Peggy O’Connell as Mrs. Paroo seem to have stepped out of the film version of my youth. They look and sound exactly like I remember the performers in the film version did in those roles. That might seem like a slight, I don’t mean it to be, I really liked that. I’m glad every role wasn’t as spot on to my memory as those two were, but in a way that was really comforting to have those touchstones, besides it’s hard to imagine a better take on those two roles.

The Music Man is one of a few musicals where the book, music and lyrics were created by one person Meredith Willson. It is brimming with memorable songs “Iowa Stubborn”, “Goodnight My Someone”, “Wells Fargo Wagon”, “Till There Was You” and all time rouser “Seventy-Six Trombones” as well as many others. Michael Brindisi directs the show with a natural fluidity. Many shows, when they feel they need to have performers go out into the audience, do so in a way that feels forced. CDT’s production of The Music Man employed this technique throughout the show but in a way that never felt anything but organic and engaging. The Choreography by Tamara Kangas Erickson was top notch. The teen boys and girls of the of the town are balletic in their moves. Gruber and Tony Vierling playing Hill’s old partner Marcellus, whom he is surprised to find settled down and going straight in River City, share a tap dance that is impressive. As are their respective dancing during the song “Shipoopi”. I was very pleased with the entire production from the Scenic Design by Nayna Ramey and costumes by Rich Hamson. The Musicians under the direction of Andy Kust filled the auditorium perfectly without overpowering the vocals.

In short this is The Music Man, it’s not radical or revolutionary. It’s a classic of musical theatre and just plain fun. It may be old, but it is still a crowd pleaser and I had a great time with it. There is a reason it’s now tied with Fiddler On The Roof as the most frequently produced and most popular of the shows at Chanhassen. In fact as a testament to its continued ability to entertain and draw audiences, it will be staging a revival this October on Broadway starring none other than Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster. What’s also nice about this show, it’s fun for the whole family. I was only 8 when I fell under its spell. For more information and to purchase tickets go to https://chanhassendt.com/. it’s a little more expensive than your average local show but that’s because it includes a dinner, and the quality of the show absolutely justifies the price.

WORLD PREMIERE!!! The Next Great American Musical as it Turns Out, is Actually a Queer Asian Musical. “Interstate” Floors it at Mixed Blood Theatre.

Kai Alexander Judd and Rose Van Dyne in INTERSTATE Photo by Rich Ryan

Interstate is why I do this. This entire blog’s genesis was around the idea of having a way to let people know when there was great theater happening in our state. This is it boys, girls, and they/them’s – this is the one. Interstate, which is having its world premiere at the Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis is undoubtedly the best original musical to come along in years. A perfect cast brings the music, words, and hearts of its creators Melissa Li and Kit Yan to life. This is their story specifically, but it speaks to all of us. We talk about representation in the arts whether it be theatre, a TV show, movies, whatever. Interstate is about representation on every level from characters to casting. It’s also just great theatre, filled with songs that find a way into your heart immediately. A story set in 2008 that’s timely and important right at this moment in history. A tale that has to be told and these are the people to tell it.

Interstate is the story of Dash an Asian transgender spoken word poet and Adrian a lesbian singer songwriter. Together they form the Asian queer duo, Queer Malady. Queer Malady is on a cross country tour sharing their music and words with fans and building followers through their YouTube videos. Being Asian, queer, and having a desire towards activism, they have different priorities that will cause friction as they continue across the country. Their story is intercut with that of Henry, a South Asian Transgender 16 year old, living in Kentucky who has discovered Queer Malady on YouTube and found a hero specifically in Dash. Henry is not out to anyone but begins a blog to chronicle his journey and to connect with others who are on similar journeys. We blog to know we are not alone. Through Henry, we are shown the importance of seeing yourself reflected in the world around you, he is lost and confused and unsure how to be his true self until he discovers Dash online. When he finds Dash and Queer Malady’s music he sees a way forward.

The entire cast is excellent and should move immediately from here to Broadway after the show closes. The three leads deserve special mention. Kai Alexander Judd plays Dash to Rose Van Dyne’s Adrian, together they make Queer Malady seem like a duo that has been performing together for years. They both have excellent voices that ideally complement each other. They have a great chemistry on stage, believable as best friends whether they are joking around or screaming at each other, there is never a false note. They are superb, and as great as they are, it is Sushma Saha who plays Henry that is going to knock your socks off. They have a voice so beautiful that I found tears on my cheeks before their first song ended. Saha is not just a great voice though, there is a scene that takes place at Henry’s church. I don’t recall them even having a line of dialogue in the scene, but using just their eyes, broke my heart with their performance. All three actors impress with their commitment and willingness to go to very vulnerable places. The show doesn’t flinch away from dealing with aspects of transgender life that are not as well known, such as binders, top surgery, T-injections, and neither do the performers.

Sushma Saha in INTERSTATE Photo by Rich Ryan

The Book for the show co-written by Melissa Li and Kit Yan, music and lyrics by Li and poetry, and additional lyrics by Yan owes something to Rent. There are some stylistic similarities but it is an original and unique story. Those similarities are its strengths and only goes to prove what an influential show that was. Interstate also shares that sense of power and importance that Rent has. Li and Yan are committed to representation, their characters are on tour to reach out to and speak for the Asian Queer community, and the show itself holds to those values. Steadfastly, casting artists that represent the characters as written, the importance of which is echoed in one of Henry’s lines in the show, he says he’s starting the online blog because it’s the only place he sees someone like himself. The truly amazing aspect is how perfectly it flows within the narrative of the show. These are the themes and they are served well in the telling a very human and moving story. Often times a show that you might say has an agenda leads with it’s message and becomes self important. Interstate is a story about characters that we come to empathize with tremendously and through their tale, their message is conveyed. Li and Yan’s lyrics are some of the richest I have heard, songs that are so well crafted are rare even in big hit broadway musicals. A version of the show in progress played at the New York Musical Festival is where it won the award for Outstanding Lyrics.

Directed by Jesca Prudencio and assisted by Shannon TL Kerans the productions speeds along like Queer Malady roaring down the interstate highway. Scenic and Projection Designer Justin Humphres does a great job with what amounts to not a lot in the way of a set. Good use of projection and some really clever elements such as the car headlights in the floor are all that is needed. The rest is handled with Genoveva Castaneda’s well chosen props. It’s simple without feeling simple. We don’t need elaborate sets that evoke the details of the real world, the story and music have already transported us there.

I encourage everyone to see and take advantage of the opportunity to see this show. We’re so fortunate that something this great is having its world premiere here. In a perfect world, this show with this cast would move from here to Broadway, but the world isn’t perfect, so don’t miss the opportunity. This is one of those rare productions that you want to capture on film so you can view it over and over, but that is not what live theatre is. You have to seize the day, don’t miss it! Lastly, don’t wait until the last showing; there’s a good chance you’ll want to see it again or tell someone else to. I’ve already booked to see it again this Wednesday. For more information about Interstate and to purchase your tickets go to https://mixedblood.com/. Content warning. There is strong racial slurs and trans and homophobic language. There is also a scene of fairly graphic sexuality, no nudity but you should be aware of it. It is probably appropriate for anyone over 16 for those under that age, you know your own child best. I’d offer as guidance that it is on par with Rent in terms of these depictions, hopefully that helps guide you.

A Flight of Short Musicals at the Elision Playhouse in Crystal. Drinks included.

image created by Megan Gooden

My first visit to the Elision Playhouse was a mixed bag, I didn’t enjoy the show, but I was impressed with the Performers. So I was excited to see what they did next. The current production is a series of 6 short musicals complemented by a flight of beverages. It’s a fun idea and the cast executes it well. You sign up when you buy tickets whether you want wine, cocktails, or Non-Alcoholic drinks. Based on what you chose, you get a different wristband or no wristband. As you enter the theater you get your first beverage. I chose the Non-Alcoholic version, and I enjoyed all three of my drinks, the first was a warm caramel apple cider and it really helped to take the chill off the MN winter evening. The second was a mocktail with Palm Juice, Ginger Beer and Lemon I believe, it was served by the cast after the first two musicals. The Third was my favorite, a virgin Mai Tai served between the second two and final two musicals. Logistically this sounds crazy, but the serving of the drinks works pretty efficiently. The Musicals are not fully staged productions. If you’ve ever been to Musical Mondays, the first Monday of every month at Lush in NE Minneapolis, you’ll be able to picture what it like. The performers basically stand behind music stand and perform their parts. Usually one cast member is off to the side reading the stage directions. That might sound disappointing but if you accept it and move on, you’re in for a very enjoyable evening. The entire program ran about 1 hr and 45 minutes, including the drink serving. Because each piece is so short to describe much of the plot would be to give everything away. So I’ll be brief and light on the synopsis.

The Manifesto a musical about the writing of the Communist Manifesto by Germaine Shames and Nadav Amir-Himmel. This was my least favorite, which is to say it was still very enjoyable. A good one to start out the evening, it’s maybe the driest and a bit political, but I really enjoyed the ironic touches and the reactions of the other characters when one would be singing, just because they are standing behind music stands doesn’t mean they didn’t interact. This one seemed a little operatic musically and tonally.

Five Minutes – written by local playwrights/composers, Ben Larson and Eric “Pogi” Sumangil. this one edges out 2 others as my favorite. I don’t want to give anything away about this one, but I will say it got a little dusty in the theater. It deals with someone who is going to be meeting her birth mother in 5 minutes. This was probably the shortest of the musicals and it above all the others, I could see being turned into an entire full length musical. There is basically one song in this one and that song could be at the beginning, the middle or the end of a larger story. I really responded to this one.

Der Strunkenwhitenlieder written by Scott Guy. it’s like a elongated Schoolhouse Rock segment titled “Apostrophe”. This was one of those in the running for best in show. It’s also the one I wish I had a video of, as it’s very useful for keeping apostrophe usage straight. And when I say elongated I mean it, this is a 8 act musical, which was very amusing.

Missing Karma is by Timothy Huang. This is one that starts out as one thing and seems to turn into another altogether. But really, both the beginning and the ending are about saying goodbye. It starts with a couple in a park burying their dog, named Karma. This contained the best acting performances in the show. I was really surprised how real it got at times, kudos to Anna Hickey and Justin Michael Cooke. Unfortunately, Cooke was clearly struggling with a head cold or sore throat and his vocals were not very strong or on key, but an A for acting and for embodying the show must go on credo.

Jenny by Flight of the Conchords. Christine Wade and Harrison Wade who are the Vocal Director and Music Director/Pianist of the show perform this piece. Which is basically a girl running into a guy that she has met before, he doesn’t remember it at all and keeps trying to save face and fake his way through it. Apparently the Wades are recently married in real life and performed this at their wedding reception. It went over so well that they decided to include it here and we are lucky they did, it is really delightfully awkward and absurd.

“My Boyfriend is an Alien, and I’m OK with that”.  Written by Christine Toy Johnson and Bobby Cronin. This was the final musical of the evening and deals with exactly what the title implies. This has a sort of early 60’s feel to it, complete with three of the women in the cast singing backup. It’s the weirdest and silliest of the three, and a fun note to end the evening on.

The entire cast of this production are good singers and even though it’s basically staged as a reading they all know how to perform the parts just enough to add humor and emotion when required. What was fun about this evening was that if you didn’t care for one of the pieces it’s no big deal it will be over shortly and you’ll have another musical to connect with. The strength of the evening is that you never feel that way about any of the shows, they are all enjoyable, fun well written and catchy. I wish this was playing for at least one more weekend. The show closes Saturday Jan. 25th. I think most fans of musical comedies would get a real kick out of these shows, and I can only hope that Theatre Elision repeats this show again, or mounts another flight. For more information and to snatch up the last few seats for Saturday’s performance go to https://www.elisionproductions.com/short-musicals

Jesus Christ! Superstar is Not the Second Coming at the Orpheum

Photo by Matthew Murphy

I don’t love the show Jesus Christ Superstar but I like it, I love several of the songs. The last time I saw a production of JCS was in a church in South Minneapolis and I’m sorry to say this production for all it’s money and production values falls short of that production. The show runs 90 minutes with no intermission. That’s a relatively short run time, so why was I thinking just kill him already at the one hour mark? I’m not sure what it was, I see that this revival has won some major awards, so there must have been something there once. Maybe the spark has died, perhaps they actors are feeling like they should have reached the end of the tour by now. You know the story is loosely based on the Gospels and follows Jesus through the last weeks of his life focusing on his relationship with Judas Iscariot. Most of which, there is no basis for but it’s a rock opera and it makes for an interesting take on an old story. I went to Sunday school as a child and I’ve seen films about this time period and know the broad strokes quite well and can follow what is being represented throughout the show. My companion for the show was raised in a religious home but had no Sunday school and has never seen a film about Jesus. The thing is, with this production, maybe with all productions of this show, if you don’t know the basics, this show doesn’t give them to you. The Production assumes you know the story of Christ beyond the bare fact that he was the son of God and was crucified on a cross. It assumes you know the Apostles, who Judas was, what he did, and who Mary Magdalene was. All of these things are assumed. I didn’t even realize that until we were discussing the show afterwards. My companion thought this was probably the worst show she’s ever seen. I wouldn’t go that far, but I knew what was going on. Maybe the show doesn’t have to work for people who don’t know the story of Jesus’ last days. Shouldn’t a show work without beforehand knowledge? How is this show going to work for the generation coming up now? Sure a lot of them still go to Sunday school, but I bet if you asked the churches around town they would let you know that while the population in the country has increased the number of people, attendance in church has decreased. You don’t have to be a statistician to draw the conclusion.

I didn’t feel this cast was committed to this production or capable of it. There are several good singers Jenna Rubah as Mary and Eric A. Lewis as Simon are the best. But Rubah doesn’t seem to know the role she is playing. She sings well enough, but she is smiling throughout two of the best songs “Everything’s Alright” and “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” and these are not songs her character should be smiling through. The result is a nice performance of the songs but no acting, no character. But somehow that’s better than Aaron LaVigne as Jesus and James Delisco Beeks as Judas, who seem to remember to act, but suspect they need a rest.

The production Design by Scenic designer Tom Scott and lighting design by Lee Curran are the best part of the show, a little basic but an oversized cross on the floor that is used to throughout the show is dynamic looking. The Choreography by Drew Mconie did nothing for me. Honestly when Jesus’ followers are dancing around I suddenly pictured the kids in the orphanage in Annie singing “It’s a hard knock life”. I don’t know who deserves the criticism for the portrayal of Jesus as a hipster, I suspect that falls on the director Timothy Sheader. If that is their attempt to update this show for the 50th Anniversary, it needed more than that and the other smallish bones it throws out to try and make it seem modern and hip. After seeing this production I think the only way this show can be relevant again is to completely reimagine it. Instead of trying to make it contemporary, I think they should go the other direction and make it more of a traditional musical than it has ever been. It was designed originally to be a rock opera performed as a concert, not as a musical. Someone needs to turn it into a real musical, using the same songs. The original songs were not broken, but embody the show with real emotion and actually tell this story so that someone who doesn’t know it already can learn it. Perhaps add dialogue if needed, there is a lot going on in these songs, but you have to know who the characters are and what their relationships are in order for the inherent emotions in them to play correctly.

Jesus Christ Superstar Plays through Sunday January 26th at the Orpheum theatre in Downtown Minneapolis, for more information or to purchase tickets go to https://hennepintheatretrust.org/events/jesus-christ-superstar-broadway-tickets-minneapolis-mn-2020/.

Theater Latté Da presents Bernarda Alba

Photo by Dan Norman

Theater Latté Da’s production of Bernarda Alba is an Aesthetic triumph. Scenic Design, Costuming, Sound Design and lighting are is such accordance that the sense of oppression becomes a character itself. I would be highly surprised if these elements were not in the conversation for the best of 2020 next January. Aided by a top notch cast, Bernarda Alba almost transcends the tragedy and gloom of its story. Theater fans are going to find a lot to admire in the production, there are very few things that don’t work perfectly. This is a great company doing great work in service of a truly downbeat story. I don’t mean to discourage you from attending, not all shows or even musicals have to be upbeat. I think it is important to understand going in that you are going to get very little light at the end of the tunnel. For some people that is not how they want to spend their time out, but I think for most knowing that going in you can appreciate the work on it’s own terms.

The Words and Music are by Michael John LaChiusa based on the play The House of Bernarda Alba by Frederico Garcia Lorca. The story revolves around Bernarda Alba played by Regina Marie Williams, the newly widowed Mother of 5 daughters. Bernarda rules her daughters and her house with an iron fist. The daughters are like prisoners in the estate, they all long to be free and to marry. The main plot incident is the engagement of the oldest daughter Angustias played by Kate Beahen, the one child by Bernarda’s first marriage, to Pepe, a local suiter. The engagement causes conflict between the daughters, particularly when it becomes obvious that Pepe is in love with another daughter Adela, played by Stephanie Bertumen. He is only marrying Angustias because she has a dowery from her late father, as the father of the other girls was not wealthy. This is the primary conflict and it doesn’t change throughout the play. There is little in the way of new information fed to the audience, more like a confirmation of what we’d already assumed. The story seems underwritten in general, we get mood instead of conflict. I’m not sure this needed to be adapted into a musical. There are some good songs, and of course all of the music is performed and sung beautifully. There is one odd element of the songs, a technique at the end of certain lines to screech out the last word. I’m not familiar with this technique and hope I never become to. Thankfully, it is sparingly used as it just seems odd and unnecessary. This seems like a show that treads water for a significant portion of Act 2. and the songs only add to the feeling of padding. It helps that the show runs only about 90 minutes, but there is no intermission, and I think that might be one of the few missteps. A break might have lessened the feel that we seem to be living with the same information without really any new developments for too long.

As I said, the the material is lacking but the production itself is flawless. The entire cast is good, a few standouts for me were; Meghan Kreidler as Martirio, supposedly the ugly sister, perhaps some make up to at least try and get that across visually would have helped. Kreidler is such an intelligent and striking performer, that it’s hard to remember she’s supposed to be ugly and thus unlikely to ever marry. She has the largest emotional swings of the daughters and sells every new emotion or thought completely. Regina Marie Williams commands the stage as completely as her character does the household when she speaks, characters and audience alike take notice. Aimee K. Bryant as Poncia the housekeeper, with the wisdom of an outsider on the inside, shines as a character who in so many different things, making those transitions seamlessly, from protector, to voice of reason, to underling. Finally, Kim Kivens as Maria Josepha, Bernarda’s aged mother who is kept locked away most of the time. Her appearances make clear the motivations of Bernarda, which are all about appearances. She is a tragic character, who has obviously began to fall into dementia. Kivens brings an air of innocence to her her ramblings that we see her as really another daughter being locked away by an overbearing mother.

Photo by Dan Norman

The Scenic design by Kate Sutton-Johnson is another of Theater Latté Da’s brilliant sets. Large wooden beams dominate the ceiling making the set feel like a fortress, keeping the world out and the family in. The Lighting Design by Mary Shabatura does as much as the set, performers and music in creating the atmosphere of grief, oppression and tragedy. It is masterful in directing our eyes and manipulating our mood as we watch. Alice Fredrickson’s costumes are another homerun, of particular note was a white dress Bernarda wears in a number. It begins as a normal dress and unfolds into to parachute size that spins around her as she rotates within. The sea of white fabric all of a sudden after so much black and darkness is one of the most breathtaking moments in the show. The music Direction by Jason Hansen and the Sound Design by Kevin Springer round out the exemplary technical team, that creates a production that is soaked in atmosphere.

Bernarda Alba runs through February 16th at the Ritz Theater in North East Minneapolis for more information and to purchase tickets go to http://www.latteda.org/

2019: A Look Back at The Year I Got Serious About Theater.

2019 will be a hard year to top when it comes to theater. It has been a life changing year. The obvious change has been this blog which I started this past September with the opening of the 2019-2020 theater season. Since my first review Smokey Joe’s Cafe at the Ordway I have written reviews of 36 shows. Through the blog I have met some amazing people in the theater community and joined the Twin Cities Theater Bloggers (TCTB). It was earlier this week, as I sat with a couple of my fellow Bloggers to finalize our TCTB Awards nominees list. It struck me how much my life had changed this year and how much of that could be traced back to theater. And these changes were not just professional, if that’s what you would call writing these reviews, but also personal.

It was through theater that I reconnected last February with someone I hadn’t seen in almost 25 years. My friend Brent Brandt, some claim he invented the selfie, while others say he just perfected it. Brent and I met in the summer of 1993 while I was working Promotions for The Straw Hat Players, The University of Minnesota Moorhead’s Summer Theater Company. Brent was a graduate by then and selling billboard space. We were introduced by the late great Ted Larson. We took in a couple of movies over the next year or so and then I moved away. It wasn’t until the advent of facebook, that we reconnected. He would comment on my posts at shows and message me to see if I wanted to attend a show he was coming down to see. It was always shows I already had tickets for until this last February. Brent was organizing a group to see Rock of Ages, pit seats at the Orpheum, then a charity event and Night Ranger concert. I was hesitant, here’s a guy I’m supposed to know, but really don’t. That felt awkward to me, but my wife encouraged me to step out of my comfort zone, she’s really good at that.

Since Noon on February 9th 2019, I’ve seen Brent at least once a month for a show, a movie, a meal, sometimes all three. That’s kind of a lot considering he lives in Fargo. There is no bigger theater enthusiast than Brent, and I’d be surprised if anyone in the Twin Cities puts more butts in theater seats than he does in any given year. With Brent I’ve experienced a lot of great theater this year, I saw things I wouldn’t have known about like Be More Chill, which is now one of my favorite new musicals. My wife and I loved it so much that for her birthday we went a second time and took a group of 12 to it. Brent also ruined the balcony for me. Ever since we experienced sitting on the Pit for Rock of Ages, I want to be front row for everything. Thanks to Brent we were able to take my brother and his wife and sit on the Pit for RENT, which is one of all of our favorites. But it isn’t just the shows, Brent has moved from acquaintance and facebook friend to a real friend. He’s also brought a wonderful collection of new people into my life. His fantastic wife Kristi and their brilliant daughters Gabbie and Sydney, Aunt Sissy, Doug, and my designated plus one in a pinch, Kati. All of these people adding to the experiences and the joy of life.

I saw 70 different shows in 2019, There were a lot of great productions and if I started to try and list a few, I’d probably end up listing 30 different shows. So I’m going to keep it to two shows which I did not write about as they were both last spring. They are both shows that I just had to see multiple times, and they are both shows that made me want to share theater with others. The first is the aforementioned Be More Chill produced by Minneapolis Musical Theatre and directed by Sara Pillatzki-Warzeha. This isn’t the kind of musical that makes you think or moves you with it’s beautiful melodies. Be More Chill couldn’t be more fun. This is the kind of show that a smile appears on your face during the first song and doesn’t leave until you are home getting ready for bed. The songs are smart, funny and infective. The production was anchored by a fantastic cast lead by Maxwell Emmett Ward as Jeremy, who from the first note he sang, had me taking notice. There is a moment in that first song “More than Survive” as Ward sings “I feel my body moving through the air” the cast picks him up and carries him forward as he moves his legs as if he is walking a foot off the ground. In that moment I knew we were in strong hands, there is such confidence in that moment. It is such a perfect choice, I’ll always remember that single movement as a highlight of the year. Jim Belden singing “Michael in the Bathroom” was another standout moment. So relatable and so heartbreaking.

The second show I saw three times, bringing new people with me each time. It was also the single best live theatrical experience of my lifetime. It was Theater Latte`Da’s production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. I’d seen the film of Hedwig and having a son who is transgender, it’s a show I was familiar with even though I had never seen a live production of it. Nothing prepared me for Tyler Michaels King’s performance or the sheer genius of every aspect of this production. The costumes, the set design, and the lighting were all dead brilliant. I could write all night and never fully express the brilliance of this production. I can still see Tyler Michaels King standing atop his trailer a silhouette as flood lights shine from behind him. I can still feel the the swell of emotion as Jay Owen Eisenberg as Yitzhak reappears transformed and takes the spotlight with Hedwig’s blessing during “Midnight Radio”. The simple but beautiful use of an overhead projector during “Origin of Love”. The Angry Inch playing a few songs before the show began. Tyler Michaels King owned that role and he will always be Hedwig to me. I didn’t know who he was, but Brent knew him as he went to the same college we did, just many years later. Brent tries not to ever miss a show Tyler is in and I must say, I now feel the same way. what a talent he has and Hedwig perfectly showcased it.

There was one other performer I saw this year that blew me away. I first noticed her in Cole Porter’s 1928 Ambassador Revue at the Minsky Theatre. Her name is Miranda Shaughnessy. Here is what I wrote in that review

“One dancer who must be singled out is Miranda Shaughnessy (I had to track someone down after the show to get her name). Shaughnessy caught my attention from the first song, she was clearly the best dancer in the cast and as such was featured in many songs. She had the smile and ability to project in every moment the joy she was feeling. No one’s face shone as a performer the way hers did during every second on stage, this is a great gift for a dancer and an actress. Ms. Shaughnessy at times impressively tapping at others performing exquisite ballet, all of it beautifully executed.”

Cole Porter’s 1928 Ambassador Revue -The Stages of Mn  October 4, 2019 by Rob Dunkelberger

My admiration only grew when I saw her last month in Minnesota Dance Collaborative’s production of HoliDaydream. This is her sixth year performing as Marie in this annual show. She started when she was 10 and now she is 16, the character ages a year along with her in a sort of theatrical version of Boyhood. The astonishing thing about Ms. Shaughnessy is at 16 she is not only an accomplished dancer and charismatic performer, but she also choreographed or co-choreographed a number of dances in both shows. She has it, and she is another performer whose career I am going to be watching very closely.

So here it is 2020 and as I look back on the year that was. I see a throughline that began with me reaching out and connecting. Brent and his enthusiasm caught on, and I saw even more shows. Some of those awoken a desire in me to share them with others. I mourned the closing of Hedwig, I regretted only seeing it three times, I thought of all the people who never even got to see it once. We had a blast bringing a group of teenagers and friends to Be More Chill. And the idea started to form, to try and share this love of the live theatrical experience. These productions that come and go, and if you miss them you are out of luck, there is no DVD you can pop in whenever you want. It’s a unique moment, every night of every show. What memories I’ve made this year. And what a gift it has been to begin to share those shows with you. I started small and found my feet, I’m still designing the website and adding to it when I have time. There are a lot of pages along the top that are blank right now but are glimpses of what is to come. I intend to review a lot more shows in 2020, conduct interviews with some of the artists behind these productions, preview pieces on festivals and upcoming shows, and profiles of theaters and theater companies. I’ll focus more on the big local theaters, I learned as I went through the nomination process this year for the TCTB awards that there were a lot of blind spots in my year, which I intend to correct. But I also want to leave room in my schedule to see some of the smaller shows, that frankly have made up the majority of my reviews this fall. With that in mind I encourage anyone who is mounting a show to reach out if you’d like me to review your production. I want to continue to explore all of the little theaters in the Twin Cities, of which there are many, and sometimes they are doing the most creative work.

I’ve Seen the Future and it’s Miranda Shaughnessy. Starring in Minnesota Dance Collaborative Production HoliDaydream at the Southern Theater in Minneapolis.

Miranda Shaughnessy Photo by Dan Norman

Minnesota Dance Collaborative’s presentation of HoliDaydream is in residence at The Southern Theater in Seven Corners area of Minneapolis. I spent close to a dozen hours at the Southern this fall at the Twin Cities Horror Festival. It’s a very atmospheric theater perfect for horror plays and, as it turns out, Christmas dance fantasy’s as well. The performance space is broad and deep allowing the dancers plenty of room, and this company makes excellent use of it. I’ve written before about the joy of exploring new forms of theatrics, out of my comfort zone, such as Opera and Dance. HoliDaydream is primarily a dance piece but it has dialogue and some singing as well. It’s something of a special show. When I was told about it, I immediately thought of the great Richard Linklater film Boyhood. This is the sixth year that they have done a variation on this show. The main character Marie has been played all six years my Miranda Shaughnessy. She first played the role when she was age 10 and is now 16. Every year the show follows her through another Christmas, her character another year older. Referencing previous years, just enough to hint at the continuity for the repeat audiences but not so much to make you feel like you came too late to the show if you are a newcomer like me. I love this idea, and I do grieve the fact that I cannot attend the previous five years performances.

The story begins as I suspect each year has with Marie writing a letter to Santa. This year at 16 she is thinking less about all the “things” she wants and more about what is really important, like Bernie in the White House. Then she suddenly has a vision of herself in the future and she is down and depressed and it seems like she has ruined Christmas for everyone. The rest of the show Marie and her friends search the past for clues as to how or why she has ruined Christmas. This is where they reference the previous years adventures and based on those hints, there have been some really interesting themes explored in past years. The story elements lend themselves to dance sequences, first off they are dancers, so they go to a dance studio. But there are also dreams and conversations with people inside Marie’s head, which flow smoothly into dances. The show is filled with dancing, more on that below, but it’s also populated with a wonderful assortment of characters including the Dance studio headmistress and Marie’s Mom, both played with gusto and humor by the Writer and Artistic Director Shelli Manzoline, who created this idea of revisiting Marie every year.

The dancing. I cannot do justice to the beauty of the dancing with the words at my disposal. I don’t want to turn anyone off with all the dance talk. It doesn’t matter who you are, you will be amazed and entertained by this dancing. This is not boring or inaccessible at all. It’s incredibly entertaining and engaging. Minnesota Dance Collaborative doesn’t focus on merely one style of dance, they do everything from ballet to hip-hop. Like previous dance performance I’ve seen, I was amazed at the synchronization and sheer athleticism involved. The first dance number “Back in Time” showcased the precision of the entire company, 14 dancers all moving together quickly and flawlessly. “The Nutcracker Battle Compilation” telling a story solely in movement, expressing not only actions but also emotions with their entire bodies. I even got a few callbacks to earlier in this first season of reviewing shows. The first was a number called “Christmas Calamity” and it’s a parody of “Cell Block Tango” from Chicago, which I reviewed the Theater Latte Da production of. This is one of the few songs in which the dancers actually sing and they all did nice vocal work as well. Second was “Time Warp” from The Rocky Horror Show, which was done at Park Square this fall. There was even a mention of not saying the “M” word in a theater, referencing of course MacBeth which I saw the Wayward Theatre Company mount as well this fall. Heck, they even mention Fargo ND which is where I grew up! So while Marie was having her trip down memory lane it felt like I was as well. It’s hard to single any of the dancers out as the program does not have picture and bios, but they are all very talented. One Dancer I spoke with briefly after the show was Grace Sjolander who plays Marie’s sister Lucy. Sjolander has been dancing in competition throughout her life and it shows in the precision she brings to here dancing. There are only two male dancers Lawson Sharrer and Cade Kaiser, both of them in the 14 to 16 year old age range I’d guess, both had the dance steps down, both did some fun line readings. Lawson sharrer has that little extra that could develop into something special, he had that little added bit of grace in his dancing and the ability to sell everything with his face.

Speaking of Something extra, earlier this year I reviewed a show at the Minnsky Theatre. In that review I singled out one dancer. In fact, I was so taken with her dancing and performance that I tracked someone from the cast down after the show to get her name so I could mention her specifically. Her Name is Miranda Shaughnessy and she’s a smasher! There is a line from the film Sunset Boulevard, where a retired film star talks about her days in silent films. Norma Desmond says “We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces!”. Shaughnessy has the face and the gift of a great silent film actress. Do not mistake me, she can act with dialogue and I’m not referencing the inaccurate cliche of the overacting silent performer. She has the gift of conveying so much with her face that dialogue is superfluous. Equally effective with drama and comedy. She has the same talent in her dancing, watching her move you are never at a loss to know what her character is feeling. Watching her dance is to understand the beauty of movement. Watching her face is to understand the joy of dancing. One of the joys of seeing as much theater as I do is running across talents like this. I have a small list of local performers that I will make it a point to see everything they are in. Miranda Shaughnessy is now on that list. At sixteen years old she is six years into playing the lead in an annual Holiday production. Of the 13 dance numbers in the show she either choreographed or co-choreographed five of them. There will come a time when this talent will head to New York or LA, but she told me after the show she would want to come back at this time of year to continue her journey as Marie. I hope she’s able to do that. Not many actors get the opportunity to own a role like this, to revisit a character yearly, in a new show with the character aging with them. That’s a rare thing in the world, and it’s something I think she should continue as long as she can. I’m not sure once she goes out into the larger world how long that will be, because she’s going to be big.

HoliDaydream runs at the Southern Theater through December 22nd for more information and to purchase tickets go to https://www.southerntheater.org/