W;t at Theatre in the Round is an Emotional Rollercoaster

Joy Donley Photo by B. Russell Photo

Hypnic Jerk Theatre and Theatre in the Round Players (TRP) co-production of the Pulitzer Prize winning play Wit by Margaret Edson. Wit is a wonderfully layered drama that contains a surprising amount of humor for a play about a woman dying of cancer. TRP has become the theatre that can do no wrong this season and Wit continues that streak. A one act play that runs without intermission featuring a powerhouse performance by Joy Donley who, if memory serves, doesn’t get a moment offstage in the nearly two hour runtime.

Telling the story of Dr. Vivian Bearing, a professor of 17th century poetry whose expertise is in the metaphysical poetry of John Donne, is diagnosed with stage IV metastatic ovarian cancer. Bearing begins the play by addressing the audience directly, breaking the fourth wall or since this is Theatre in the Round, breaking walls one through four. The character will transition fluidly throughout the play from being in a scene to addressing us directly. Bearing knows she’s in a play but that distance doesn’t shield her from the ravages of cancer. We the audience know we’re watching a play but that doesn’t shield us from investing our emotions completely. Bearing introduces herself and explains that the next two hours will tell her story from diagnosis to death. She then steps directly into her office visit with Dr. Kelekian who explains her cancer to her and offers an experimental treatment that will consist on eight rounds of full dose Chemotherapy. We will follow Bearing through her treatments and into the past, as flashbacks to a childhood conversation with her father, a conversation as a student with her mentor, and interactions with her own students. All of which inform the person she has become while allowing her to reflect on her life and behavior. Not content to simply tell Bearings story, Edson fleshes out her play with the doctors and nurses whose behaviors allow her to draw parallels and contrasts with Bearing. The single minded research driven Dr. Jason Posen, a former student, is a reflection of her own intelligence but also her emotional distance. The nurse, Susie, is a reminder that there are more ways to measure intelligence than academics, there is an emotional intelligence that is also vital to the human condition.

Vivian Bearing must be one of those roles that actors dream of getting the chance to tackle. She’s a fascinating character, fiercely intelligent but also flawed, a woman who has sublimated her emotional life to that of her life’s work, only to arrive at the end alone and scared. Joy Donley turns in a masterful performance effortlessly projecting the intelligence of Bearing. Throughout the play she discusses Donne’s poems and other aspects of literature and academia. I could barely follow any of it but Donely seemed ready to conduct a lecture on the topic. What Donely does to imbue her character with all of the expertise and at times, arrogance that comes from being the expert. That intelligence isn’t just present in the scholarly moments, it’s present in every side to the audience, in her self reflection, and in her interactions with the other performers. The humor, of which there is a surprising amount, is so effective because it is backed by and flows from that intelligence, we believe her wit. And that is only one aspect of her performance. She spends the entire play deteriorating from cancer, and it’s heartbreaking to see this fortress of thought and perseverance becoming muddled and weak. It’s astonishing, given the fact that she addresses us directly by clearly acknowledging that she is a performer and we are an audience, how authentic every moment of her performance feels.

Donley is the reason to see this show, that and the Pulitzer Prize winning script of course. But, I have to say her supporting cast from the four larger supporting roles to the four actors playing the Lab Techs, Students, Residents are really strong. Those ensemble players are Alex Church, Luke Peterson, Ben Qualley, and Kelly Solberg. They wonderfully capture things as tiny as the indifference of the person who wheels you from your hospital bed to the room they’ll be giving you chemo in. Brian P. Joyce is wonderful as both Dr. Kelekian and Vivian’s father in a flashback. Meri Golden plays Vivian’s mentor E.M. Ashford both as a flashback and in a visit to her hospital room towards the end. Golden understands that Ashford is a variant of the type of person Vivian Bearing. In the flashback she is much as Bearing herself is with her own students, as an older woman, she is what Vivian might have been if she had married and lived longer. In the hospital room, she knows to play her as unsure of how to comfort Vivian, but as someone who has learned how to try. She climbs into bed with Vivian and reads to her, uncertainty is there but also compassion. Dominic DeLong-Rodgers is Dr. Posner and Gillian Constable is the nurse Susie, they are both fantastic, it’s too simplistic to say they are representations of intellect and emotions, the performances are more nuanced than that. I’d happily follow those two characters as played by DeLong-Rodgers and Constable through to another play.

Wit is directed by Kari Steinbach who clearly knows how to stage a show in the round. At times it feels like an episode of E.R., the characters whisking around the hospital. Steinbach’s blocking of the piece adds a frenetic energy at times and at others she slows everything down to let a moment land and sink in. It’s always fluid, flowing at just the right pace from scene to scene form the present to the past. I don’t usually comment on the stage management, but in this case I want to acknowledge the work of Katie Sondrol who makes that fluidity possible by the efficient removal and placement of various set pieces in a show that never stops moving forward. Kudos to Set and Costume Designer Robert L. Graff, Lighting and Sound Designer Shannon Elliot, and Prop Designer Andrew Blake Stam for making this production look and sound amazing.

Wit runs for one more weekend through May 27th at Theatre in the Round Players, for more information and to purchase tickets go to https://www.theatreintheround.org/home/season-placeholder/special-events/

Don’t want to miss a single review from The Stages of MN? You can subscribe and have every post sent directly to your email. To Subscribe on your computer: from the home page on the right, enter your email address and click subscribe. On your mobile device scroll to the bottom of the page and do the same. Also you can follow me on Facebook, @thestagesofmn click follow and on Instagram thestagesofmn.

I am also a member of the Twin Cities Theater Bloggers (TCTB), you can read roundups of shows by my colleagues and I on facebook @TwinCitiesTheaterBloggers. Follow that group, It’s a great way to see reviews for shows I don’t get to or to get another blogger’s take on one I did. We have some exciting things in the works for 2023 for the TCTB and our readers. Follow us to be the first to know about those happenings like our recent Pajama Party at Artistry and our Prom Date with the TCTB that we held on March 4th. If you didn’t make it to that event there’s still time to see the The Prom at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres (CDT) thru June 10th . You can view the TCTB Talk Back that we held on March 4th with the CDT Artistic Director and three of the stars of The Prom here https://bit.ly/promtalkback

The Garden Premieres at the Southern Theater in Minneapolis and Grows Into Something Rather Special

Open Flame Theatre is an all-transgender/gender non-conforming theatre ensemble that has been in existence in some form or other since 2009, but I had never heard of them. Faithful readers will know that the information contained within that first sentence made this a must see for me. With a transgender son, I am always interested in plays representing transgender themes and storylines or feature transgender artists, either on or backstage. I also love finding “new to me” theater companies, it’s a wild card you never know what you’re walking into, amatuer hour or a new favorite. Open Flame Theatre falls squarely in the “new favorite” camp. Their new opera The Garden, is visually captivating and beautifully performed. With a text that is thematically rich, it’s at times very dark, at others quite humorous and ultimately wonderfully uplifting. Do not let the word “opera” scare you, if the press release didn’t state it was an opera, I wouldn’t have used those words to describe it. So if “opera” is triggering for you, rest assured this is not what you’re afraid of. There’s singing, but it’s all clearly understood, in English, and it seemed to me there was as much dialogue as there was singing, if not more. There’s even a song by Queen in it, you don’t need to be worried about the use of music in this piece

The Garden is Part Two of the companies Rewilding Triptych, but again do not worry, the parts are only linked thematically. They’re independant works that don’t rely in anyway on even the knowledge of the existence of the other parts. Created and written by co-Artistic Directors Katie Burgess and Walken Schweigert who also play the main characters. Schweigert is also created as one of the Composers of the songs along with among others Ludwig Van Beethoven and Queen. Schweigert plays Hayden a young trans man who is being subjected to conversion therapy under the care of Dr. Pannish played by Burgess. To escape, Hayden opens a portal to hell where he seeks refuge with the Devil, also played by Burgess. Ok, that part sounds a little like an opera, but trust me. The story follows Hayden back and forth between the hospital and hell and it’s left up to you to determine for yourself if these transportations are literally happening or if it’s in Hayden’s mind that the battle for his soul and identity is taking place. The answer to that question isn’t really important, the result of that battle is what matters. I’ll be honest, I’m not sure I always understood everything that was happening in every moment, but rather than being a detriment to my enjoyment, it only made me want to see it again.

Schweigart has an exceptionally powerful vocal quality that is evident from his first moments singing in the hospital, it just about carries you up and out of the theatre towards heaven near the end when he sings “I Want to be Free.” Schweigart’s performance is equally captivating from a nonvocal perspective. It’s an incredibly vulnerable performance and one feels as though they have seen an actor who has laid his soul bare onstage in the service of creating understanding. Using song, movement, and performance to engender empathy within the audience. Burgess, in contrast to Schweigart’s moving and tortured character, gets to play both the Dr and the Devil as if they are two sides of a coin, the currency being chaos. Burgess begins playing Dr. Pannish straight but with an undercurrent of menace; however, as the show progresses so does her characters journey along the border between reality and absurdity. The Devil character has an almost Beetlejuice quality about her. On the surface the character is very similar to that of Satan in Paul Gordon’s rock musical Analog and Vinyl, but this character is much more detached from any sense of reality. Burgess is excellent at changing gears from moment to moment keeping you completely off balance uncertain what she’ll do next. The cast is rounded out by Dana Dailey and Sri Peck as Nuns, they don’t have much if any dialogue, but they add visually to many scenes and their absence would diminish the whole. The Infernal Orchestra is comprised of Silen Wellington on keys, synth, glockenspiel, and clarinet, and Alma Engebretson on the cello and tambourine.

The Southern Theater is the perfect setting for anything that flirts with the horror genre as the stage area with its battered stone archway, it reminds me of the ruins of Dracula’s castle in Transylvania. The look and the stageing of The Garden, under the direction of Richard Newman make full use of the environments inherent creepiness. Every aspect of the production adds up to a visually impressive whole. The production design is by Katie Burgess with Elisa Sugar, while relatively simple in terms of set pieces, it’s simplicity leads to an abundance of creativity to achieve some really effective moments. The lighting design by Heidi Eckwall is a highpoint creating menace in shadows and silhouettes and assisting in highlighting the puppet work by Orren Fen. There are many striking visual moments from the show that will stay with me long after this show has closed.

The Garden runs through May 28th at the Southern theater for more information and to purchase tickets go to https://southerntheater.org/shows/the-garden-the-only-way-out-of-hell-is-through-it.

Please Note: Masks will be required to attend this performance.

Content Warning: Conversion therapy, live BDSM, sexual content, forced medication.

Don’t want to miss a single review from The Stages of MN? You can subscribe and have every post sent directly to your email. To Subscribe on your computer: from the home page on the right, enter your email address and click subscribe. On your mobile device scroll to the bottom of the page and do the same. Also you can follow me on Facebook, @thestagesofmn click follow and on Instagram thestagesofmn.

I am also a member of the Twin Cities Theater Bloggers (TCTB), you can read roundups of shows by my colleagues and I on facebook @TwinCitiesTheaterBloggers. Follow that group, It’s a great way to see reviews for shows I don’t get to or to get another blogger’s take on one I did. We have some exciting things in the works for 2023 for the TCTB and our readers. Follow us to be the first to know about those happenings like our recent Pajama Party at Artistry and our Prom Date with the TCTB that we held on March 4th. If you didn’t make it to that event there’s still time to see the The Prom at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres (CDT) thru June 10th . You can view the TCTB Talk Back that we held on March 4th with the CDT Artistic Director and three of the stars of The Prom here https://bit.ly/promtalkback

Ain’t Misbehavin’ Produced by Stage North at the Capri Theater in North Minneapolis

Stage North is a relatively new theater company, this is only their third production after launching in the Fall of 2021 and Ain’t Misbehavin’ is its first musical production. Stage North, based in the Capri Theater, is the only professional theater company on the Northside of Minneapolis. The Capri Theater which was built in 1927 and renovated 1921, is a wonderful little theater that is trying to establish a place for the community to come and experience art. The world today is a very difficult environment for established theatre companies and it’s even harder for new companies. Here is a great new company that has produced three fantastic shows in a row but the performance I saw was criminally under attended. Kudos to the amazing cast who performed as if it was a sold out theater. The show is packed with soulful dance moves, toe tappin songs, humor, and amazingly talented artists on and off stage.

This isn’t what we usually think of as a musical, there is no storyline it’s more along the lines of Smokey Joe’s Cafe, in that it’s a musical revue but instead of the songs of Leiber and Stoller, this features the songs of American Jazz composer Fats Waller. Though there is no storyline per se, that doesn’t mean the performers just get up and sing one song after another, in fact each song is like a mini story in itself. The actors play different characters and scenarios with each song and even when they’re not part of a given song, the actors contribute with reactions and looks. Favorite songs include “Mean to Me” which is more somber, is heartbreakingly performed by Angela Stewart. “The Viper’s Drag” is strange and a humorously staged song about marijuana that provides Kevin Brown Jr. a chance to play a hilariously ‘high’ performer. “Yacht Club Swing” has Kia Brown performing like a vocally challenged woman to comedic effect, a characterization she disproves throughout the rest of the show. “Squeeze Me” has Cornisha Garmon vamping it up in a wonderfully sultry manner. Len Jones performs “Your Feet’s Too Big” which is so silly and wonderful you can’t hardly believe it’s a real song. All five performers get a chance to show off their vocal chops and they are all incredible singers. They’re all equally gifted in their physical performances as well, both their facial expressions and comedic delivery along with their execution of the choreography.

The Director and Choreographer is the hardest working woman in theater, Austene Van, who apparently simultaneously choreographed The Defeat of Jesse James at the History Theatre, directed Lady Day at Yellow Tree Theatre, which she also happens to run, while preparing this show. I imagine she also sewed the costumes and painted the sets for a couple of other shows around town. What a talented artist she is. Here her gifts for staging and movement really come to the forefront. “The Viper’s Drag” being a perfect illustration in that we have a surprising appearance of a character in a highly (pun intended) unexpected location, across the theater you have the rest of the cast sitting at a table doing there best to also play into the theme of the song. Van isn’t content to only give Kevin Brown Jr. the spotlight and have him perform this song, which would have been enough. She utilizes the rest of the cast to pull us into the moment making it that much more effective. The physicality and logic of Brown’s movements in retrieving his dropped joint at the end is just so perfectly realized. The Music Director and Pianist in the band on stage is Sanford Moore who seamlessly blends the songs one into the other, his band is tight in the way a jazz band has to be to pull off that loose improvisational feel. The set design by Robin Macintyre, lighting design by Sue Berger, and the costumes by Joe Burch all help to bring the setting of The Shim Sham Club circa 1931, to glorious life.

Ain’t Misbehavin’ is a fun fast paced musical revue that will have your toe tappin and a smile across your face for it’s entire runtime. I urge everyone to get out and see this one while you can it runs through June 4th, for more information and to purchase tickets go to https://stagenorthmpls.org/.

Kia Brown, Kevin Brown, Angela Stewart, Cornisha Garmon & Len Jones – the fantastic cast of Ain’t Misbehavin’ at Stage North

Don’t want to miss a single review from The Stages of MN? You can subscribe and have every post sent directly to your email. To Subscribe on your computer: from the home page on the right, enter your email address and click subscribe. On your mobile device scroll to the bottom of the page and do the same. Also you can follow me on Facebook, @thestagesofmn click follow and on Instagram thestagesofmn.

I am also a member of the Twin Cities Theater Bloggers (TCTB), you can read roundups of shows by my colleagues and I on facebook @TwinCitiesTheaterBloggers. Follow that group, It’s a great way to see reviews for shows I don’t get to or to get another blogger’s take on one I did. We have some exciting things in the works for 2023 for the TCTB and our readers. Follow us to be the first to know about those happenings like our recent Pajama Party at Artistry and our Prom Date with the TCTB that we held on March 4th. If you didn’t make it to that event there’s still time to see the The Prom at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres (CDT) thru June 10th . You can view the TCTB Talk Back that we held on March 4th with the CDT Artistic Director and three of the stars of The Prom here https://bit.ly/promtalkback

Murder on the Orient Express at Guthrie Theater

Gavin Lawrence as Monsieur Bouc assists Andrew May as Hercule Poirot in his investigations Photo by Dan Norman

I’ve been an Agatha Christie fan for as long as I can remember. The great thing about that is, since she is the best selling fiction writer of all time, as a fan you’re never short of new adaptations on stage and screen to enjoy. The downside can be that as a fan, who has read most of her works and seen most of the film and television adaptations and at least a dozen stage shows, I almost always know the solution to the mystery. I still enjoy most of them to some extent, but for me it becomes about the production itself, more howdunnit than whodunnit. The Guthrie Theater’s new production of Murder on the Orient Express understands that you cannot change the solution to the mystery when adapting a classic like this. Only Christie herself can do that, as she did in changing the ending between the book and play of And Then There Were None, for example. If you are unfamiliar with the mystery, it’s a good one and you’re in for a real treat. The good news is, if you do remember the story, and I think that’s probably quite a large segment of the population with it being one of Christie’s most frequently adapted novels, your still in for a highly entertaining evening! The show is a marvel of production design and features a cast filled with local favorites and a unique take on the great detective himself.

Ken Ludwig has adapted the novel for the stage and in doing so has remained faithful to the mystery of the novel while also putting his own spin on things. Ludwig does a nice job of pairing down the number of suspects from 12 in the original novel to eight for his play. This allows us to get to know and keep straight the different characters, yet still a large enough pool of suspects that it’s never obvious who the real killer is. There’s room to devote a little introductory scene to each of the characters without bogging the play down, in fact it barrels along like a runaway train. Running 2 hours and 20 minutes (including intermission) it feels much shorter. Ludwig’s biggest change, what makes it very entertaining, is the addition of humor. There is a healthy dose of the comedic thriller without crossing the line into Clue territory. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a mystery comedy but the humor that is there comes from the performances of the cast and it marks the biggest departure for Poirot himself

With a character like Hercule Poirot, who has been played to faithful perfection by David Suchet on TV, it’s a losing battle to attempt to be even more faithful. The best way for a a new adaptation to go, try and bring a fresh approach to the character. Andrew May brings Poirot back from the land of caricature and makes him more of a real person. By not leaning into the characters idiosyncrasies, he creates a Poirot that we can identify with rather than just sit in awe of. It humanizes the great detective which allows for moments of humor that work for this play but would be out of character in a more faithful portrayal. The reason we restage and reinterpret Christie is no different than the reason we do so with Shakespeare. Because the choices made by playwrights, directors, and actors affects the whole, brings out new aspects of a piece new meanings or even just new avenues of entertainment. I liked the choices May made as Poirot, it gave me a version of the character I hadn’t seen before. Gavin Lawrence as Poirot’s old friend Bouc, who happens to run the company that operates the Orient Express, is the perfect sidekick for this new Poirot. He could very easily have been the blank slate to whom the detective shares his thoughts in order to keep the audience informed, but he’s so much more than that. There is a palpable friendship between the men, Lawrence is particularly good with the humorous reactions and shared looks with May. The entire cast is great, I always love to see Tyler Michaels King in anything, same with China Brickey and Peter Christian Hansen who plays two different roles so well, that I didn’t realize he was both characters until I went to the program at intermission. Once again proving herself to be one of the best actors working the Minnesota stages, Sally Wingert gets the biggest laughs in a performance that contains more layers than are at once obvious.

Director Risa Brainin keeps the show moving right along, there’s never a moment that seems wasted or overstays its welcome. I loved her staging of Poirot’s summation where he walks us through how he solved the mystery. Brainin has the lights go down with a spotlight on Poirot as he recounts what happened and the actors recreate the moments from earlier in the play. In fact, there are a lot of clever lighting cues from Lighting Designer Michael Klaers that add an almost cinematic quality to the production. There’s also effective use of Projection which was designed by Miko Simmons, it adds realism to some scenes and a theatricality to others. The costumes by Devon Painter are period appropriate, Painter eschew going full dandy with Poirot, which compliments the choices May has made with his characterization. The star of the production though, the real WOW! is the set design by Rob Koharchik. It’s elegant in its appearance and incredibly versatile and inventive in its utilization. I’m not sure what I was expecting but when the train cars began to move, I knew that wasn’t what I was expecting. It really is one of the best sets in terms of inventiveness and ingenuity that I’ve seen in a long time.

Murder on the Orient Express is a classic mystery told in a very entertaining way, with an excellent cast and knock your socks off production design. I highly recommend it whether you are new to this Christie classic or know the story, either way you’re in for a very entertaining night at the theater. Murder on the Orient Express runs through July 2nd for more information and to purchase tickets go to https://www.guthrietheater.org/shows-and-tickets/2022-2023-season/murder-on-the-orient-express/

Don’t want to miss a single review from The Stages of MN? You can subscribe and have every post sent directly to your email. To Subscribe on your computer: from the home page on the right, enter your email address and click subscribe. On your mobile device scroll to the bottom of the page and do the same. Also you can follow me on Facebook, @thestagesofmn click follow and on Instagram thestagesofmn.

I am also a member of the Twin Cities Theater Bloggers (TCTB), you can read roundups of shows by my colleagues and I on facebook @TwinCitiesTheaterBloggers. Follow that group, It’s a great way to see reviews for shows I don’t get to or to get another blogger’s take on one I did. We have some exciting things in the works for 2023 for the TCTB and our readers. Follow us to be the first to know about those happenings like our recent Pajama Party at Artistry and our Prom Date with the TCTB that we held on March 4th. If you didn’t make it to that event there’s still time to see the The Prom at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres (CDT) thru June 10th . You can view the TCTB Talk Back that we held on March 4th with the CDT Artistic Director and three of the stars of The Prom here https://bit.ly/promtalkback

The Defeat of Jesse James The World Premiere at History Theatre in Downtown St. Paul

Photo by Rick Spaulding

The biggest disappointment of the summer was the news that the new mystery play Holmes/Poirot co written by Jeffrey Hatcher was cancelled when Park Square Theatre had to end their 2022/2023 season early. Hopefully we’ll still get a chance to see that play in an upcoming season. Luckily, fans of Hatcher will still have plenty of opportunity to see productions of his work in the coming months. History Theatre is bringing us two musicals from the team of Jeffrey Hatcher and Chan Poling. Later this summer they’re bringing back one of History Theatre’s most popular shows, the musical Glensheen. But first, we get the world premiere of a new musical, The Defeat of Jesse James. This is not your standard musical, it’s more of a concert that tells the story of Jesse James through it’s songs and through dialogue interaction between the characters. Some of it acted out, but none of it meant to be taken as an actual scene being played out at specific locations. It’s filled as History Theatre shows always are, facts about its subject, some of which is common knowledge to the average theatregoer, but a lot of interesting pieces of information that I wasn’t aware of. It’s also full of humor and some catchy songs, all of which makes for a fun and informative night at the theatre.

Jesse James, like many famous figures from history, has been obscured by the legends and myths that have sprung up around him. Hatcher and Poling’s new musical acknowledges this and does it’s best to cut through the baloney and give us the facts, though definitely with tongue planted firmly in cheek. The duo use humor in the script and in the songs to relay the facts but keep them from getting to gruesome. An example, what happens to Mother Zerelda’s arm, just the fact of it is awful but the representation gets a big laugh. It’s a joke that gets called back to a few times and never really loses its ability to pull a laugh from the audience. Another excellent use of humor is the song “Two Unlucky Stiffs”, which is sung by two members of the James gang that weren’t, as the title indicates, very lucky. The reality of the James gang is dark stuff and choosing to present their story with humor allows them to sidestep several problematic elements. There are no realistic looking firearms used in the production, the rule is established early on with the characters using their hands in the shape of guns. You couldn’t tell Jesse James’ story without the use of guns and if you tell it seriously they’d have to look real, but if you go the humorous route it can just be their hands in the shape of guns. Let’s face it, given today’s world, anytime we can avoid seeing firearms in the theater, is a win. It’s a clever choice, it adds humor while at the same time being mindful that it’s time to take a step back from realistic depictions of gun violence whenever possible. Theatermakers have to be conscious of their audiences by adapting to the times and reflecting the world in which we live today, even when telling stories from the past. Another element that deliberately speaks to our world today is a song performed by the character Perry Samuel, Jesse’s half Step Brother who was of mixed race. A reminder that despite over 100 years of film and television westerns that seemed to suggest the wild west was white, BIPOC were part of this country’s history as well.

Adam Qualls headlines The Defeat of Jesse James as the titular character playing it with just the right mix of bravado and humor. He has the look and swagger of a Country Music star which fits well with the style of most of the songs. My favorite performer in the entire show was Angela Timberman who plays Jesse’s mother Zerelda. Primarily for comedic relief, that arm moment I mentioned earlier is one of many moments that Timberman plays to perfection, not only in her line delivery but in the gestures she utilizes. That is the moment that will stay with me long after the details of this show have been lost under the mountain of shows that have fallen. She also gets to sing one of the shows jaw dropping songs “House Full of…” Timberman alone is worth the price of the ticket, but we get so much more including not one, not two, but three veterans of All is Calm which is a personal favorite from Theater Latt√© Da. Sasha Andreev in particular really gets a chance to shine along with Jen Burleigh-Bentz as reanimated corpses singing the song “Two Unlucky Stiffs. The entire ensemble though is quite good and seem to be on the same page in realizing the tone being set by Director and the new Artistic Director of the History Theatre Richard D. Thompson.

Thompson creates this concert feel that effortlessly segways into bits of story and than back again, reminding one of the types of popular comedic music shows one might catch at Opryland or Silver Dollar City. Set Designer Joel Sass has created a space that plays into that theme and it’s really a stunner. I loved the fabric wall panels and the ‘Applause’ sign that lights up at all the right moments. Like all great storytelling concerts, the Lighting Design is critical and Karin Olson’s work here beautifully alters the look and feel of the stage as we move from upbeat to more quiet moments. The costumes by Sonya Berlovitz are a nice blend of traditional cowboy garb crossed with the Country and Western performers wardrobe. It’s a production that really has all of its elements working together toward a unified tone and purpose. It would seem that History Theatre is in good hands with Richard D. Thompson

The Defeat of Jesse James runs through May 28th at History Theatre in St. Paul. For more information and to purchase tickets go to https://www.historytheatre.com/2022-2023/defeat-jesse-james

Don’t want to miss a single review from The Stages of MN? You can subscribe and have every post sent directly to your email. To Subscribe on your computer: from the home page on the right, enter your email address and click subscribe. On your mobile device scroll to the bottom of the page and do the same. Also you can follow me on Facebook, @thestagesofmn click follow and on Instagram thestagesofmn.

I am also a member of the Twin Cities Theater Bloggers (TCTB), you can read roundups of shows by my colleagues and I on facebook @TwinCitiesTheaterBloggers. Follow that group, It’s a great way to see reviews for shows I don’t get to or to get another blogger’s take on one I did. We have some exciting things in the works for 2023 for the TCTB and our readers. Follow us to be the first to know about those happenings like our recent Pajama Party at Artistry and our Prom Date with the TCTB that we held on March 4th. If you didn’t make it to that event there’s still time to see the The Prom at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres (CDT) thru June 10th . You can view the TCTB Talk Back that we held on March 4th with the CDT Artistic Director and three of the stars of The Prom here https://bit.ly/promtalkback

Bright Star Shines Bright as DalekoArts’ Swan Song

Jake S. Nelson (Billy) and Abby Holmstrom (Margo) Photo by Dan Norman
Ruthie Baker (Alice) and Daniel Greco (Jimmy Ray) Photo by Dan Norman

A love affair that began a year ago has come to an end. It was for DalekoArts’ spring musical in 2022, Once, that I finally made my way down to New Prague, a little theatre on Main Street. It’s small unassuming theater in a sleepy little town that by all rights, shouldn’t have been even half as good as it was. Me? I was a wide-eyed blogger just getting my theatre legs back after a worldwide pandemic. When the house lights went down and the stage lights went up, seemly dozens upon dozens of musicians took to the 15 X 15 foot stage and made beautiful music. There was no “Falling Slowly” about it, I fell hard and fast. Before I knew it I was trying to work a second show into my busy schedule. Fate, that cruel organizer of near misses, conspired between a sell out show and a case of Covid to keep us apart. It wouldn’t be until fall when I made it down for their next production and every production onward, except for White Chrismith. How naive I was, thinking we had all the time world that there would be plenty of shows in our future. But alas, DalekoArts, thou hast cleft my heart in twain. After 11 seasons the founders of DalekoArts have decided it’s time to take on new challenges and pursue new adventures. 11 seasons, and they were right there but I didn’t know about them until 2022. Of course by “right there” I mean about an hour south of the Cities. 11 years but only one year in my orbit. In that small time, mostly greatly shone this Bright Star of New Prague. DalekoArts will always be the one that got away. But as the man says, if you gotta go, go out with a bang. I’m thrilled to report that DalekoArts remained true to the last, and while the first kiss lasts forever, there is still witchcraft in Daleko’s lips.

This was not my first exposure to Bright Star, I had seen the production Lyric Arts in Anoka mounted in the fall of 2019, in fact it was the second review I ever wrote for what was at the time called Stages of the Twin Cities. The show written by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell is inspired by a true story. You can Google Iron Mountain Baby and read the Wikipedia page to learn about the true story that inspired the plot of this musical. But, I encourage you to do so after enjoying the show. The story follows two tracks, one set in 1945 after the end of WWII and one in flashback to 1923. The show opens in 1946 with Alice Murphy, a publisher in Asheville North Carolina singing “If You Knew My Story”. It’s sets the stage that this is Alice’s story which we’ll see told through flashbacks. It also introduces us to the the style of music that the musical utilizes which is bluegrass. The 1940’s story begins with young Billy Cane who has returned home from the war, set on pursuing a career as a writer. He’s encouraged by his friend and wanna be best girl, Margo, who has been reading the stories he’s sent her. Billy learns upon reaching home that while he was away his Mother passed away. The show balances it’s plot on these moments of joy and optimism followed by incidents that temper the joy. This happens again and again throughout the plot and in that way, the story mirrors the feel of the bluegrass music that is underscoring it. The music can be very rousing and upbeat but it can also have a beautiful melancholy aspect to it. It’s sorrowful without being depressing or downbeat. Billy, who had always been timid about his writing, realized when he was knee deep in the mud wondering if he would survive the war, if he did, he was going to follow his own “Bright Star”. So he heads to Asheville to try and get Alice Murphy to publish his stories in her magazine The Asheville Southern Journal. She agrees to read his stories. In a conversation with her two employees Daryl and Lucy, who try and convince her to come out with them after work, she comments that she did always used to be so no-nonsense. This leads into the flashback to 1923 and her love story with Jimmy Ray Dobbs. Again, we have the young Billy who was reticent to engage with the world, choosing to go out and try and get what he wants from life. Meanwhile Alice who used to be outgoing and joyful, now appears to focus entirely on work. The parallels between the characters and the light and dark moments are intentional and it makes for intriguing characters and an engrossing story. The songs with little if any exceptions are fantastic. I’m not a bluegrass aficionado, but I’ve had this album in my rotation regularly since I saw that production at Lyric Arts. There are some really powerful scenes as the play progresses but I don’t want to rob them of that power, so I’m going to keep those plot points to myself.

The cast is just fantastic, from the moment Ruthie Baker came out as Alice Murphy and launched into “If You Knew My Story” it was clear they had found a performer who could do the vocalizations justice. Baker is most fitting in the role during the 1945 period. When she is playing the 1920’s aged Alice she leans a little to much into the young giddy teenager, most of the time it’s fine, but there are a couple of moments that just go a little too broad. When the darkness comes in 1923, she brings the pain handling some really difficult emotional scenes brilliantly. Equally wonderful is Daniel Greco who plays her love interest Jimmy Ray Dobbs. Greco as with Baker is clearly a gifted vocalist and he also gets a couple of moments, one in 1924 and one in 1945 to show that he has the dramatic chops to go with the voice. Jake S. Nelson as Billy Cane and Abby Holmstrom as Margo, make a cute match, they both deliver everything you could want and they make the most of a slightly underwritten love story, managing to provide a moving climax to that thread of the story. Other favorites among the cast were Grant Hooyer as Daryl and Amanda Mai as Lucy, they get some fun comic relief moments and a fun song in “Another Round”. Ryan Lee as Billy’s Daddy. Warren R. Sampson as Jimmy Ray’s Daddy, and Luke Aaron Davidson as Alice’s Daddy all do wonderful work, with each getting a moment to showcase a moment of gravitas. Lee even gets to help out the band part of the time on his guitar as does ensemble player Nora Sonneborn on an instrument to be named later.

The production is directed by one of DalekoArts’ founders Amanda White. This stage is not really 15 X15 as I joked earlier, it’s actually a bit smaller. Seriously though, it’s a small stage and as with Once last spring, they have a fairly sizable cast. White and her Choreographer Kyle Weiler have done some really interesting work to keep the size of the space from impeding the production. They have gone for a more representation approach, chairs spaced to represent the train car. a cast member sitting in a chair to represent Billy’s mothers grave and the angel statue his father placed at it. The actress has movement during that particular scene, it isn’t meant to represent reality is an impressionistic interpretation that is meant to suggest the physical world while also acknowledging the emotional undercurrent and mood of the moment. They have really done some interesting things with movement, there is a sense that in some ways as we enter the 1920’s flashback that elements of physicality among the performers are meant to emphasize the fact that this is a memory and as such there are almost dreamlike aspects to certain transitions. It’s a really interesting and successfully executed approach. Bradley A. Beahen is the Musical Director and he and his band are up in the loft playing, they are fantastic and my only criticism is that we cannot see them playing, Bluegrass, just seems like the kind of music you want to see the musicians playing the instruments. Robin McIntyre Scenic Design utilizes the space surprisingly well, giving us two upper level platforms that some scenes are performed on to add a little visual freshness. Everything is constructed with bare wood which gives it somehow and first half of the 20th Century bluegrass feel to it.

Bright Star runs through May 21st it’s also basically sold out, but click here to get on the waitlist for cancellations https://www.dalekoarts.com/season-11. Bright Star is a worthy final bow for this theater and it’s passionate crew. You enriched our lives, and for that we are grateful. We will cherish the memories you gave us and mourn your loss. It’s OK to take a moment and grieve but, we cannot rest for long, our theatres are under siege on multiple fronts. And so, we cannot sit at home and wallow in lost loves, we have to get back out there and find new theatre’s and support them. Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more!

Don’t want to miss a single review from The Stages of MN? You can subscribe and have every post sent directly to your email. To Subscribe on your computer: from the home page on the right, enter your email address and click subscribe. On your mobile device scroll to the bottom of the page and do the same. Also you can follow me on Facebook, @thestagesofmn click follow and on Instagram thestagesofmn.

I am also a member of the Twin Cities Theater Bloggers (TCTB), you can read roundups of shows by my colleagues and I on facebook @TwinCitiesTheaterBloggers. Follow that group, It’s a great way to see reviews for shows I don’t get to or to get another blogger’s take on one I did. We have some exciting things in the works for 2023 for the TCTB and our readers. Follow us to be the first to know about those happenings like our recent Pajama Party at Artistry and our Prom Date with the TCTB that we held on March 4th. If you didn’t make it to that event there’s still time to see the The Prom at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres (CDT) thru June 10th . You can view the TCTB Talk Back that we held on March 4th with the CDT Artistic Director and three of the stars of The Prom here https://bit.ly/promtalkback

Bright Star (May 2023) Final production of DalekoArts 2012 – 2023 Photo by Dan Norman

The Tourist Trap: A Midwestern Gothic at the Crane Theater

Ghoulish Delights chief ghoul, and member of The Mysterious Old Radio Listening Society (the MORLS), Tim Uren writes and directs this revised and expanded version of his Minnesota Fringe Festival production from 2014. Not having seen the original production, I can’t speak to what changed whether added or subtracted. I can say, the version I saw runs close to the timing of a Fringe show but contains a 10 minute intermission. The Tourist Trap is a fun little horror play that lays out its own original mythology. It also poses the question, what does it mean to be from somewhere and who is the real native of this little area of South Dakota where the play is set. Above all, Uren reminds us with this piece is when you visit South Dakota, there will be blood.

When a group of friends visits a tourist museum in the Black Hills of South Dakota, devoted to a 19th century murderous cult leader named Marcus Bingham, they discover a whole new meaning to the term “tourist trap”. Uren’s script nicely lays out the backstory of the subject, the museum which is layered upon and enriched by the set Design of Devyn Becker. This “historical” basis for the museum is really well developed and actually sounds plausible. Horror works best when it builds from a believable starting point and this is The Tourist Trap‘s biggest asset. Uren starts the play the moment we enter the theater where we are encouraged to explore the museum exhibits (on stage). I recommend getting to the theater with at least 10+ minutes to take in what is on display. You won’t need the information as the tour guide as the characters will provide all the necessary exposition; however, it adds to the richness of the experience. I don’t really want to say anything more about the plot, not knowing which path this horror show will take is part of the fun.

The cast is filled with local performers who have popped up in all manner of shows over the years. If you’ve been to the Minnesota Fringe Festival, The Twin Cities Horror Festival (TCHF) or any of the 10,000 local theaters you’ve likely seen and enjoyed many of them in other productions. They all do do nice work here and you can tell their past experiences have prepared them for what they need to bring to a horror show. Two of the cast Jay Kistler and Sean Dillon performed in what I thought was the best show at the 2022 TCHF, Duck Washington’s All Your White Darlings. But I have to confess the true Draw for me aside from Uren was Shanan Custer who plays Dianne, the owner operator of the Museum. I’ve always loved Custer’s performances with the MORLS and have been enjoying her other roles on and off stage for decades. One of my oldest sons earliest theater experiences was the serialized London After Midnight shows she was a part of at Bryant Lake Bowl Theater. What a blast to see Custer tackle something dark and disturbing, unlike anything I’d seen her do before. She’s all in and still manages to get the biggest laugh without shifting the tone or breaking the mood of the piece. Fans of this Twin Cities Theatre Goddess are not going to want to miss this chance to see her go dark, very dark.

Uren script is the winner with the direction in need of a little tightening up. The tension is a bit lax with the character remaining a little too rational as things begin to go south. I like everything that happens, but the actors needed some stronger motivations at times for the characters movements or lack thereof to feel earned. It all stays a little too tame when things go crazy. On one hand, it was probably for the best as my wife was able to enjoy the show and will be able to sleep tonight. But I think there’s room to make what happens felt more viscerally by the audience, therein can also be a distraction from some characters in action or the motivation for it, that they are in shock. The lighting Design Ariel Pinkerton who also plays Joelle in the play, creates some extra tension with a sudden lights-out moment between the acts. Until the house lights come up, you’re on the edge of your seat. The blood and other effects are well handled, I’m guessing that is the work of Violence Coordinator, Jena Young. You’ve been warned, there are some mildly gruesome moments and a fair amount of blood in the show.

Overall, this is a really well thought out script with a underlying mythology that feels as real as the Blair Witch legend did back in 1999. Horror fans will find this a bloody good time. The Tourist Trap runs through May 20th at the Crane Theater in NE Minneapolis. For more information and to purchase tickets go to https://www.ghoulishdelights.com/#tourist. You can also find out about the MORLS live performances and their podcast and if you haven’t taken in one of their performances done in the style of old radio broadcasts, I highly recommend it!

Don’t want to miss a single review from The Stages of MN? You can subscribe and have every post sent directly to your email. To Subscribe on your computer: from the home page on the right, enter your email address and click subscribe. On your mobile device scroll to the bottom of the page and do the same. Also you can follow me on Facebook, @thestagesofmn click follow and on Instagram thestagesofmn.

I am also a member of the Twin Cities Theater Bloggers (TCTB), you can read roundups of shows by my colleagues and I on facebook @TwinCitiesTheaterBloggers. Follow that group, It’s a great way to see reviews for shows I don’t get to or to get another blogger’s take on one I did. We have some exciting things in the works for 2023 for the TCTB and our readers. Follow us to be the first to know about those happenings like our recent Pajama Party at Artistry and our Prom Date with the TCTB that we held on March 4th. If you didn’t make it to that event there’s still time to see the The Prom at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres (CDT) thru June 10th . You can view the TCTB Talk Back that we held on March 4th with the CDT Artistic Director and three of the stars of The Prom here https://bit.ly/promtalkback