How Can we Support Theatres During This Crisis?

As audience members we are disappointed when a performance or event is cancelled, our initial reaction is to think about what we are missing. This is particularly true of live theatre. Live theatre is unlike a concert, for which you can usually listen to the album or a movie, which you can watch at another time. Theatre requires you and the performers to be in the same space sharing a moment in time. Frequently there is no approximation ala CD, Blu-ray, or Streaming that you can fall back on, to at least get a sense of what was missed. So when a production is cancelled, we have to face the fact that something we wanted to see, is lost to time. Usually that’s as far as we take it. Depending on how excited we were for something affects to what degree we will dwell on it. What we probably never do is think about the theatre, the artists, and how the cancellation affects them. That’s normal and in most cases justified, things happen.

Well the Covid-19 crisis is a different matter. I had over a dozen performances on my calendar that have been cancelled, and there will be more. And yes, I am sad for myself and what I’ll be missing. There were a lot of shows that I was really looking forward to (Lizzie, The 39 Steps, The Color Purple, The Last Ship, The Red Shoes, The Rape of Lucretia). Some may be rescheduled, some will just be scrapped. Others, some great shows (Interstate, The Pink Unicorn), had their runs tragically cut short. But with cancellations on this mass level, it shifts the focus away from on what we are missing and onto what theatre companies and the artists have lost. When it’s one production, we tend to just think about what we missed and getting our tickets refunded. When it’s essentially every production we need to shift our focus to the creative community. Think of the time that has gone into each and every production. The weeks of rehearsal, the construction of sets, the hours spent lighting shows, creating costumes, props, makeup, promotional materials, sounds design, everything that goes into a single production. Then think of the two ways in which this crisis has affected the people and institutions who created them. Financially and creatively.

Creatively, imagine spending several months of your life on something, pouring your heart and soul into a work of art and then never getting to share it with an audience. Imagine you are an actor and you’ve been working for a month with a group of people to create something special, you have bonded with these people, made connections on a creative level and then suddenly it’s over. No three weeks of performances and a wrap party to celebrate and find closure, it’s just over. Imagine you’ve designed and had built a set that you are proud of, that you feel is the best work you’ve ever done, and rather than be utilized to help realize an artistic vision, it’s dismantled without ever being performed on. That goes for every artist and craftsperson who has worked on these shows. People who work in theatre generally are not in it for the money, they are involved because they are passionate about theatre and the work they do. They invest not just time and energy, which we all do in our jobs, but creativity. That is a resource that needs to be shared to be completely fulfilling. Of course on top of that is the financial concerns.

Financially, artists, theatres, and theatre companies are all facing uncertainty in this area. There’s a lot of theatres and performance spaces in the Twin Cities and even more theatre companies. I don’t think a week goes by that I don’t see something in a space I’ve never been to before. For every Orphuem, Ordway and Guthrie Theater and the like, there are two dozen smaller theatres. The Ordway for example had to cancel two major touring productions. You might think a large theatre like The Ordway can weather a couple of cancellations, and hopefully it can. But consider that the Ordway is a nonprofit organization and recently had to cancel their summer production Groundhogs Day the Musical because financial partnerships did not come together as they had hoped. Look at Park Square Theatre which had to cancel half of it’s season due to financial shortfalls. Even the seeming Goliath’s of the theatre community struggle financially. Now think of Mixed Blood theatre Company, Illusion Theatre Company, Theatre in the Round Players, The Gremlin Theatre, Nautilus Music Theater, Phoenix Theater, Theatre Elision, etc. I’ve been in theatres that I’m certain seat less than 100 people, a couple I can think of that probably cap at around 50. What does cancelling a show do to one of these smaller companies for whom each tickets sale matters? If they have to refund for every ticket sold how do they pay their rent, utilities, staff, actors, craftspeople? Many that I’ve been in contact with are making every effort to pay the artist, but these are not companies with deep pockets, and it’s hard to imagine that they will all survive this crisis.

We forget sometimes or take for granted how lucky we are to live in the Twin Cities. I find online claims that the Twin Cities has more Theatre seats per capita than any other US city outside of New York. I also find comments disputing that fact. I think the takeaway is that we are one of the top theatre cities in the US. In large part, that’s because we as a state, fund Art. But grants alone cannot keep this theater scene alive. All of these companies rely on ticket sales and donations to meet their bottom lines. As theatres cancel shows these last few days, the weeks ahead you’ll be receiving a lot of emails giving you options to transfer your tickets to a future date or show or receive a refund. Many are also including the option to donate your tickets to the theatre. They are not asking you to consider this because they want something for nothing. The reality is, they’ve already incurred the costs that the ticket sales were meant to cover. Remember all those sets they had to construct, the hours of rehearsal? I know that not everyone can afford to just donate money to theatres, but I encourage those that can, please do so. Every donation that’s made increases the likelihood that our city will remain the thriving center of art that it is today. You will help to make sure that theatres are able to pay those who have already contributed their talents and skills to these projects. That will help to keep them involved in the arts.

Aside from donating your tickets rather than receiving a refund there are other ways you can help financially. Go to your favorite theatre’s website, most will have a button you can click on to make a donation, do so. Here is a link to Springboard to the Arts, they have a Personal Emergency Relief Fund that helps Minnesota Artists, this fund is going to need additional resources to meet the coming needs. If you want to help financially but are not sure which theatre to donate too, this is an excellent option. We’re all going to be facing our own challenges in the weeks, possibly months ahead. I think it’s important as we socially distance ourselves for the immediate future but keep in mind the importance art plays in our world and take a little time to remember those who bring it to us. It may not seem important in this time of global crisis, but we are weathering this storm so that we can return to our world in safety. But that world will be much less fulfilling if we haven’t cared for those communities that make it a richer more satisfying place. As we necessarily turn inward, let us remember to not turn our backs.

The Bacchae is an Acquired Taste at the Guthrie Theater

Photo by Dan Norman

This was not my first rodeo with The Bacchae at the Guthrie Theater. It first baffled me in 1987 at the age of 15. My Mother used to get a pair of free tickets to a couple of shows a year and that was one of the shows I got to attend with her. I remember being impressed by the set, but feeling it was a bit long and lost. Not nearly as lost as I felt at another of those Guthrie nights around that time, when I saw The Birthday Party by Harold Pinter. It’s a wonder I wasn’t turned off of theater after that one two punch. But mixed in there I distinctly remember seeing The Merry Wives of Windsor, whenever I here “Splish splash I was takin’ a bath”, I think of that production. I digress, maybe because I’m not sure what to say about The Bacchae. I didn’t love it or hate it. For me it was definitely less then the sum of its parts. If you are a fan of Greek tragedies, I suspect you will find a lot to admire in the production. I haven’t had a lot of exposure yet, let’s face it these are not performed as frequently as Shakespeare. So far I’ve only seen Euripides, the two versions of The Bacchae, and a production of Helen in college. I know the story of Oedipus the King and more than just a synopsis, so I suspect I either read the play in college or saw a production at some point but have forgotten where or when. This production of The Bacchae is actually a SITI Company Production.

The Bacchae tells the story of Dionysus son of the Greek God Zeus. Dionysus comes to Thebes when he learns that Pentheus, King of Thebes, has decreed that no one can worship Dionysus anymore, as he doesn’t believe he is the son of Zeus and therefore not a God. Dionysus doesn’t like this news and decides to take revenge upon Pentheus. So he makes all the women go kind of crazy. They all go up on the mountain and do God knows what. Dionysus somehow convinces the King to disguise himself in womens clothing and go up to the mountain and see for himself what is going on. We are later told that the women tore him apart not knowing what they were doing. His Mom even comes home with his head in a bag, though she is under the delusion that it is the head of a lion. The lesson to the audiences of ancient Greece was to respect the Gods.

So what works and what doesn’t? First off, it’s 90 minutes but it seems like two hours. It’s very talky, it tells you what happens rather than shows you. For Example Dionysus is arrested, but escapes. We hear about the escape rather than see it. We see Pentheus go off in a dress to the the mountain. Then we hear about how he was observing the women and suddenly they were ripping him apart. Now I’m not advocating for showing us the extreme and graphic violence. But there’s a lot you can show us here that would be more engaging. If I ran the zoo I’d probably do an evening of Greek Classics, run it as 2 acts each act is a condensed version of one of the plays where you show the narrative rather than tell it and a 15 minute intermission between the two plays. What does work are some of the design and lighting elements by Brian H. Scott. The design is simple, mostly some curtains, but it gives it a epic feel as they are very large curtains, and they make an even bigger statement at the end of the play. Given that they tell rather than show so much it makes sense that they don’t need intricate and detailed sets. Another aspect that worked for me was a sort of self awareness and modern pop culture element that seemed to flourish at times and at others be completely forgotten. It may be the decidedly 20th century music that opened the show, or the way Dionysus played by Ellen Lauren breaks the fourth wall and talks to and mentions the audience. The production also excelled at movement, the work they do with these martial arts staffs is precise and graceful.

The Bacchae plays through April 5th on the McGuire Proscenium Stage. For more information and to purchase tickets go to https://www.guthrietheater.org/ .

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.

Iron Hearted Violet at Stages In Downtown Hopkins

Photo by Fischeye Films

Whenever I see a show aimed specifically at young people I try and see it with the intended audience. For example seeing a weekday matinee with a bunch of students, or if I can find one, bring one with me. Today I brought my 7 (8 in a month) year old Nephew, who is dinosaur obsessed. Why? Because with this type of show, if at all possible I want to see how the intended audience reacts to it as well as seeing how well their parents/teachers will do with it. I also have rules for reviewing plays with student actors, which you can read at the end of this entry*. I also like to take young people to the theater in an effort to lower the mean age of theater audiences in general. I believe strongly in the arts as a means by which we come to understand others and our world. For this reason it is important to expose young people to the arts and encourage them to also participate in them. A venue like Stages Theatre Company in Hopkins is a great place for that to happen. Most of the cast of the show are elementary to high school aged. For young people in the audience, that can be invaluable to their understanding and something they can explore too.

Iron Hearted Violet tells the story of the refreshingly, not beautiful princess, Violet. Violet and her best friend Demetrius while exploring the castle discover a hidden room. Within the hidden room there is a book from which they unwittingly release Nybbas, an ancient God of evil into their world. They don’t realize they have done this at first but things begin to change in their world. Demetrius leaves to go with the king and his men to capture a dragon that has been reported in the nearboy kingdom of the mountain king. When they return with the captured dragon, Violet and Demetrius are at odds. In his absence Violets mother has died, and she says she will never forgive him for being away when that happened. The forces trying to pull the two friends apart are more than what we see on the surface. There are unseen but heard characters who are working behind the scenes to try and stop the growing darkness that Nybbas is spreading through the castle. Violet and Demetrius will need to to work with these unseen aids and the dragon if they hope to save their world.

The set design by Sarah Brandner is very effective, it allows for action on multiple levels, creating a sense of more space then we see. Kids will find the castle scenes that are played on the upper levels impressive. Portions of the set are also easily moved, shifted and turned to create new locations such as other areas of the castle and the mountains. I’m not sure who to credit with the creation of the dragon which is basically the head portion, though it’s wings do make an appearance as well. The Costume and Make Up Designer is Samantha Fromm Haddow and the Prop Designer is Bridget Gustafson. Whoever created it, it was hands down my nephews favorite part of the show. It was a very impressive design, a head that was fully created giving the sense of reality, but shows the kids a more conceptual version of the rest of the dragon, helping them bridge the gap between seeing things fully presented for them and suggesting the rest allowing them to use their imaginations as well. The last element that I want to draw attention to was the Sound Design by Peter Morrow. The use of directional sound in the play was very effective in emmersing the audience in the play. Much of the audience were looking around to see where certain sounds came from, creating a sense that the story was all around them not just limited to the stage.

The Adaptation by Playwright and Director Jeannine Coulombe is the weakest link. Their ideas at play in terms of the role of “story” also a link to mirrors and the world in which the story takes place. I sort of got the ideas behind these elements but it was all a bit too unclear, I suspect these were elements that were important thematically in the book by Kelly Barnhill. They probably seemed like they were too important to leave out, but they are lost in the translation and only seem to muddy the story. I was a bit unclear on those elements and my nephew found the play enjoyable but confusing. He thoroughly enjoyed the play though as did I, I think most parents and children will enjoy it. At 80 minutes in length I’d recommend paying attention to the age recommendation of this one, which is 7 and up. Based on your child you might want to think of it more on the 8 or 9 and up scale. For more information and to purchase tickets go to https://www.stagestheatre.org/

*In general I do not review the performances of young actors. I feel it is important for young people to take part in the arts. I want them to participate in theatre because they love doing it, not for the feeling they get when someone praises what they have done. On the flip side I don’t think they need to hear criticism of their performances at such a young age. A negative comment can be hard on a mature performer but it goes with the territory, as an adult actor you have to develop a thick skin and accept that not everyone is always going to like what you’ve done. But young artists are not always equipped to deal with that. Be sure that if the acting was terrible it would be reflected in the quality of the production itself, which is what my review will be. As a rule In a show dominated by young actors I will tend to simply avoid performance discussion in general including the adults in the cast.

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.

My Fair Lady at the Orpheum Theatre is an Elegant and Joyfully Fun Revival of a Classic of Musical Theater

My Fair Lady PHOTO BY © JOAN MARCUS

Revivals of classic musicals don’t always work. I was not a fan of The King and I when it came around a few years ago. It was a beautifully mounted production, but something just didn’t really work for me. It may have been the songs, of which there were only a couple that were really memorable. I’m happy to say My Fair Lady is a smashing success. Reminding us that great material never goes out of style. This is a richly designed and wonderfully performed production of a musical masterpiece. Filled with great songs and, as it always has, shines from a rich vein of humor. It’s easy to see why its revival was nominated for 10 Tony Awards, and difficult to see why it lost Best Musical Revival to Once on This Island, which I saw recently and while good, it doesn’t hold a candle to My Fair Lady.

My Fair Lady is a musical adaptation of the George Bernard Shaw 1913 play Pygmalion. It tells the exact same story only with musical numbers. Cockney Flower girl Eliza Doolittle is taken on as an experiment by Professor Henry Higgins a phoneticist. He will attempt to turn her into a proper english speaking woman in 6 months time. He is accompanied on this seemingly impossible task by fellow language enthusiast Colonel Pickering. But the road will not be easy, for even when they succeed in how she sounds, they have to contend with what she says. For their first test they will take Eliza to the horse races, she sounds perfectly elegant and proper, while she relays her belief that someone “done in” her relative. This “new small talk” as Higgins tries to pass it off as, acquires a devoted suitor for Eliza in the form of Freddy Eynsford-Hill. Who will spend much of his time thereafter hanging out “on the street where she(sic) lives”. We will also get to know Eliza’s Father who comes looking for money from Higgins to allow her to stay with him. He’s a man with a unique morality and strange logic, which will improve his station in life much to his consternation. At the end of the six months Professor Higgins presents Eliza at an Embassy Ballroom to see if anyone can tell she is not of their class. When the experiment is done, the reality sets in, Eliza should be on her way, but to where and what is she now fit for?

Eliza is played my Shereen Ahmed, she has a lovely voice, and handles the challenging speaking role well. Imagine having to master a nearly indecipherable Cockney accent and then a uber correct posh and proper english voice in the same show. Her standout song is “I Could Have Danced All Night”. As good as she is the real star of this production is Laird Mackintosh as Professor Henry Higgins. In a show full of accents and linguistic acrobatics, his is the crystal clear and concise voice that cuts through everything. He sings well and almost more importantly he has the perfect touch when it comes to the humor. The meld perfectly in his song “Why Can’t the English?”. However, the best voice in the company belongs to Sam Simahk who play Freddie, he gets the most romantic song to sing “”On the Street Where You Live”. In terms of comic acting Adam Grupper, delivers the goods as Eliza’s Dad Alfie.

The production itself is a gorgeousity to be sure. The sets by Michael Yeargan are very detailed and beautiful. The London street scene at the beginning starts everything off right. Designed using perspective and layered flats Yeargan creates a sense of scale that’s truly remarkable. The set for Higgins’s home is very cleverly designed on a turntable. You can follow the characters as they travel from room to room while the set spins. The backgrounds for the streets as well as at the ballroom are exquisite. However the ballroom does bring to mind the one design flaw I spotted. In that scene there are four, 2 dimensional flats that hang from the ceiling. They represent chandeliers, but they do not fit, they look like cardboard flats. Aside from that minor quibble, the look of the sets is remarkable. Complimenting them nicely is the lighting design by Donald Holder adding texture and mood to every scene. Of course the great source material from the celebrated collaborators of Lerner & Loewe is what really makes the show dazzle. All of these elements are brought together seamlessly under the flawless direction of Bartlett Sher.

My Fair Lady runs through March 8th for more information and to purchase tickets visit https://hennepintheatretrust.org/

Convert From Frank Theatre is Powerful Drama.

Photo by Tony Nelson

Convert written by Danai Gurira and playing at the Gremlin Theatre in St. Paul is an insightful look into British colonialism in south Africa. Focusing on the spread of Christianity and its effects on the native tribal people of Rhodesia where the play is set. A bit on the long side, it avoids outstaying its welcome thanks in part to the compelling conflict between Christianity and the tribal ways which is beautifully illustrated by the story’s main character Ester. A beautiful looking production that is packed with a talented cast, I found it mesmerizing.

Set in the late 1890’s, the play opens with Jekesai a young girl from the village being brought by her cousin to the home of Chilford for whom her aunt is housekeeper. Chilford is native to the area as well but he has been raised since a young boy and educated by white colonists, he hopes to one day become a Jesuit priest. Jekesai has been brought to him in hopes he will take her in and spare her from being traded as a wife to an old man for some goats by her uncle. Her aunt convinces Chilford that she wants to come there so she can learn about Jesus, which is the most important thing in the eyes of Chilford. He decides to take her in and teach her to speak English, to read, write and above all, how to be a Christian. Along with that, he gives her a new name, Ester. There is pulling over time between the Christian beliefs and the tribal ways of Ester’s people. This adds tensions between the native people and the colonizers, an increasing sense that revolt is coming. Convert is complex in it’s ideas but told in such a way that they’re made clear to the audience. There’s a simple logic to the way in which Ester interprets her world, but she is anything but simple. A woman of intelligence in a world that does not value that in a woman or a black person.

Leading the cast are Ashe Jaafaru as Ester, and Yinka Ayinde as Chilford. Jaafaru portrays Ester at first as a desperate scared girl, but as her lessons progress she has a way of conveying to the audience the connecting of dots. She reasons that because she said she wanted to learn about Jesus and thus was delivered from her fated marriage, that Jesus saved her. Later, she will use her superior knowledge of the scripture to correct a white Father. Chilford tells her she must never do that again but she debates him using logic that’s hard to argue with. Unfortunately, because of the times and her position, even though she is right, she learns that she’s wrong. Though her understanding of that again shows ultimately her higher intelligence. When the end comes she will prove to also have superior morality. Ayinde makes some interesting choices as Chilford, he’s a very moral character, but at times he uses his authority to override Ester and her Aunt. Ayinde will signal an end to his patience with a change in tone, and just for a moment let us see that as good intentioned as Chilford is, he is still just a man. His fondness for Ester and his pride in her accomplishments are shown, and though there’s never a hint of an attraction between them, Ayinde finds a way to make it felt that if there’s one woman he could love, it would be Ester. She’s the only person for whom his morality falters in the end.

Credit needs to also be given to Foster Johns as Dialect Couch. No one really speaks the Queen’s English in the play, many of the characters speak a mix of English as a second language and Shona. All amazingly consistent and credible. The other highlight of the show was the set design and lighting design. Joe Stanley’s set design is simple, everything takes place in the main room of Chilford’s home. Though The Gremlin Theatre is a relatively small black box theater, the set convincingly transports us to another country and another time. This transportation is aided greatly by Tony Stoeri’s lighting design. Stoeri creates moods with the lighting, highlighting the feel of the scenes. Creating shadows of different colors through the windows to evoke hope or danger depending on what is needed.

Convert plays through March 15th at the Gremlin Theatre for more information and to buy tickets go to http://franktheatre.org/