Spectacular Spectacular!! Moulin Rouge! The Musical Takes Over the Orpheum Theatre

Photo by Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade.

Moulin Rouge! The Musical is the stage adaptation of the 2001 film by Baz Luhrmann. The film is a favorite of mine and so with that in mind I was both excited and anxious to see this production. There are changes, addition and deletions. Most everything that was new I enjoyed, most of what was omitted I missed. The good news is that you are having such a good time that it isn’t until the walk to the car that you lament that they cut “Like a Virgin” and “One Day I’ll Fly away“. What you ask, could distract you from a missing Madonna song? Probably the most technically elaborate and beautiful production I’ve ever seen. From the moment you enter the theatre you know you are looking at a very expensive production. Before the performance even begins you are blown over by the beauty of the production design. Well at that point, you ain’t seen nothin yet! It makes sense that one of the most visually splendid movies since the turn of the century would also produce an equally spectacular stage adaptation. But underneath all the shine and glitter it is still a story about truth, beauty, freedom, and above all things a story about love.

The story follows Christian an american songwriter who has just arrived in paris. Within hours of his arrival he meets the artist Toulouse-Lautrec and his Argentinian friend Santiago whom he overhears trying to write a song. When he dazzles them with his lyrics they enlist him to pitch his songs to the star of the Moulin Rouge, Satine. If she likes his songs she well help convince the owner of the Moulin Rouge, Harold Zidler to produce the trio’s musical. They go to the Moulin Rouge where Satine mistakes Christian for the Duke she is trying to seduce so he will help Zidler financially, and perhaps elevate her in the world as well. Alone with Christian in her dressing room they fall in love with each other as he sings his song for her. Right before the Duke and Zidler arrive, the mix-up is discovered and to cover his presence, as well as that of Toulouse and Santiago, they convince the Duke that they are there to pitch him on the idea for their musical in hopes that he will finance it. He agrees but in exchange for his financial assistance he wants to own everything, particularly Satine. As the show is being rehearsed Christian and Satine carry on a secret love affair, but the Duke will not be fooled forever.

The songs within the show come from popular music, much of what we hear is new, songs that have come out since the film from artists as varied as Lady Gaga and Fun. But even the songs from the movie like the “Elephant Love Medley” and “Sparkling Diamonds” have additions that enlarge the smile already breaking across your face. Most of the newer music has saturated the popular culture enough that even I have heard of it. But there were a couple of additions that were not familiar such as the mashup of “Crazy” by Gnarls Barkley and “Rolling in the Deep” by Adele, but I’m certain I’m in the small minority on that front. That said even the musical moments that didn’t ring a bell worked within the story. I was always amazed at the perfection in blending lyrics from different songs into one that Luhrmann achieved in his film. The show carries on that tradition with nearly the same level of success. The additional material helps give the show a freshness and probably increases its accessibility to younger theatergoers who were either small children or unborn at the time of the films release. Hand in hand with the music goes the choreography by Sonya Tayeh which is stunningly good.

Speaking of stunningly good, the cast is just that. Top of the list is Conor Ryan, who showed incredibly range and gave a dynamic performance. One of the small issues I had with the production was that I felt his character went a little dark for too long towards the end of the show. But even in those instances when I felt the writing let him down, he didn’t let the writing down. Courtney Reed was good as Satine, though it felt like the songs were at times stretching her range a smidge. Austin Durant as Zidler was an audience favorite he was the perfect ringmaster for this group of bohemians. Andre ward’s Toulouse-Lautrec wisely chose not to attempt to mimic Lautrec’s diminutive stature, that would have been too restrictive. Ward adds a nice energy as the would be leader of the children of the revolution, adding a lot of humor in the conflict with the Duke over the content of the musical. A big round of applause to all the performers, their voices and movement were all integral to creating this breathtaking experience.

The highest of praise goes to the technical teams on this show starting with the set design by Derek McLane. The shows sets from the streets of Paris to the Moulin Rouge and Satine’s dressing room are gorgeous. The highpoint being the elephant Love Medley where we move from Satine’s dressing room to the clouds above Paris and the Eiffel Tower. Working in close synchronization is the spectacular lighting design and effects by Justin Townsend. Sometimes the lighting can go unnoticed if it’s done well with Moulin Rouge there is no way not to take note of the lighting because it is very showy but also perfect for this show. Costume design by Catherine Zuber is also a easily overlooked category, but again in this case they costume are so bold and beautiful that they cannot help but be noticed and admired. This is a rare show that wows us on every single element of the production.

Moulin Rouge! The Musical is play through June 5th at the Orpheum Theatre in Downtown Minneapolis. for more information and to purchase tickets go to https://hennepintheatretrust.org/

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Runestone! A “Rock” Musical Brings a Historical Mystery to Life at the History Theatre in St. Paul

Photo by Rick Spaulding

Originally set to premiere two years ago, Runestone! A “Rock” Musical was definitely worth the wait. The musical tells the story of the Kensington Runestone (KRS) which was found by Olof Ohman on his farm in 1898. This is the History Theatre and as crazy as everything sounds in the play it’s all based on fact. But the question at the heart of this story is what are the facts? Originally thought to be evidence that medieval explorers from Europe had made it to MN and carved the stone in 1362, later Runologists claim that the stone is a hoax and that Olof carved it himself. And the pendulum of popular opinion swings back and forth over the century plus since its discovery. The Musical has Olof as the main character who fights for his reputation even after is death. History Theatre has assembled a cast of fantastic voices to sing life into this telling of a piece of believe it or not MN history. We learn a surprising amount of detail while being entertained. You might think a show about the KRS would be filled with humor, and you are correct, but there is also a tragic side that is well represented as well.

Mark Jensen the writer of the book for this musical actually grew up not far from where the KRS was discovered. Runestone began as a play, which Jensen wrote over twenty drafts of, then History Theatre artistic director Ron Peluso suggested he turn it into a “rock” musical. Composer Gary Rue came on board and the play became the musical. Jensen says that a compelling script kept eluding him and it’s easy to see why. As a straight play there is so much contradictory information that it would be hard to find the dramatic through line. A musical form allows you to step out of the reality and into characters minds, and jump forwards and backwards in time, playing out different possible scenarios. It would be interesting to know if those twenty drafts of the play contained as much humor as the musical, or if that change gave Jensen the freedom to infuse as much humor as he does. Either way the musical feels like the correct path for this story. It is in some ways so absurd and in other ways so tragic that to really pull off the tonal changes and to make the story as entertaining as it is the musical was the missing link Jensen needed to realize his story.

The cast is lead by Sasha Andreev as Olof, whose singing voice overcomes some other obstacles his casting creates. Olof is supposed to be a humble hardworking Swedish farmer, but Andreev looks like Cary Grant only posher. I’m quite sure Andreev could look the part, but his costume, hair, and makeup all seem to emphasis a metro-sexual quality that is incongruous to the role. That combined with an accent that sounds more Irish than Scandinavian and there was the potential for a real trainwreck of a lead performance. What wins the audience over is his powerful and pitch perfect singing combined with his acting, through which no matter how much evidence the KRS deniers throw at us, we believe Olof when he says he did not carve the stone himself. Somehow it works – it shouldn’t, but it does. By Act II you have stopped wondering what this well groomed man is doing around all these small town farmers. Maybe it helps that he’s dead and so it’s easier to accept a well dressed ghost, think Cary Grant in Topper. Still none of that matters as he has the voice of an angel and particularly in the second act when things get a little darker at times, his acting obfuscates his appearance.

The entire cast is amazing vocally. Everyone with the exception of Andreev plays multiple roles, all of them doing a really nice job of making their various roles distinct. Special note goes to Adam Qualls in his main role as Hjalmar Holand, an early supporter of Olof’s who turns the tide back in favor of the KRS being authentic. His comic performance is full of throwaway lines that are tossed off perfectly. My favorite moments were his song at the top of Act II “Rock This House, Part One” and his debate with his opposite number in the KRS is a hoax camp Johan Holvik. Peyton Dixon plays Holvik and deserves special mention as he is replacing a cast member who is out ill. He carries the script with him but still gives a fully realized performance, and does a great job under less than ideal conditions. Two other performers I just have got to point out are Ivory Doublette as among other roles Olof’s wife Karin and Kiko Laureano who’s biggest part is as Olof’s daughter Amanda. As I said the entire cast sounds great, but these two really brought the house down when they had the spotlight.

The show is directed by Tyler Michaels King, whom I know primarily as a performer. Here is evidence that there probably isn’t anything in the theatre that he can’t do well. I thought the show was well paced and staged. Michaels uses the entire theater having characters enter and exit at times from the back of the theatre. I loved the placement of the band onstage, for most of the time they are behind what looks like an animal skin with a giant “R” on it. It looks like something that might have been used by Native Americans to tell their stories, which I thought was a nice thematic tie in with the Runestone. At times the curtain is raised and we see the band and other times the screen is lit from behind and we see the silhouettes of the band. The lighting in that instance and so many others by lighting designer Karin Olson is inspired. It changes the appearance of the set at times in unexpected and evocative ways. The set design by Joel Sass is wonderful. I particularly like the corn stalks on either side that somehow seem to disappear and then suddenly with a change of Olson’s lighting they become a focal point. Last but not least music director Brian Pekol and his band deftly provide the musical support for their vocalists to soar upon.

Runestone! runs through May 29th for more information and to purchase tickets got to https://www.historytheatre.com/. Can’t make it in person purchase tickets to stream the show from May 24th through May 29th here streaming tickets.

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MN Opera’s Production of Bizet’s Carmen at The Ordway in St. Paul

Photo by Cory Weaver

I return to the MN Opera to take in a classic of the artform Georges Bizet’s Carmen. I am growing a greater and greater appreciation of opera. This is my 5th opera of 2022 which nearly ties the number of opera’s I’d see pre 2022. It’s my third MN Opera production after The Shining many years ago and Flight in 2020. It may be my growing appreciation for opera but this was the most enjoyable of the three. This so far is the closest I’ve come to that vision we novices have of what Opera is from ads for the Metropolitan Opera and scenes set at operas in films. I’m still waiting for that opportunity to see a large scale classic opera done in period costume with lavish sets. Until that opportunity arrives, this will do. I found Carmen to be very accessible, and I was thoroughly engaged in the characters and found the music enjoyable and familiar.

Carmen with music by Bizet, Libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halevy, is the story of a soldier Don Jose who falls in love and becomes obsessed with Carmen, a Romani girl for whom love only exists on her terms. Carmen behaves like a femme fatale form the film noirs of the 1940’s. She’s involved in a knife fight with another woman and when Don Jose is charged with guarding her, she convinces him to let her go. He is then sent to prison for letting her escape. Upon his release he meets up with Carmen and as things heat up between the two of them, he hears the bugle call which is the signal that he must return to the barracks. Carmen, not having been satisfied, demands that if he loves her he will go away with her. Don Jose refuses to desert but in the end, his Lieutenant Zuniga, finds them and Carmen’s smuggler friends tie him up. Don Jose is forced into the decision to go with them. Now he’s dishonored and on the run as a deserter. Some time later Carmen has grown tired of Don Jose who becomes increasingly jealous of other men. At one point Escamillo, the famous bullfighter, becomes Carmen’s new lover. Don Jose is unwilling to go home as Carmen suggests, but finally relents when he receives word that his mother is dying; however, before he leaves, he tells Carmen he will return. When he sees her again, it’s at Escamillo’s bullfight and when she will not take him back, he kills her. Carmen and Don Jose are archetypes of the self-centered manipulative woman and the jealous obsessive man in a dysfunctional relationship. We see this trajectory played out in theatre, film, and sadly real life over and over. Like much great art, Carmen holds a mirror up to reality and in doing so in this case illustrates the tragedy of certain human emotions and personalities.

I’ve written before about not having the terminology and tools to comment on the operatic style of singing. I can only say that I was in awe of all of the performers voices and the amazing performances they gave. Zoie Reams as Carmen had a commanding presence whenever she was on stage. Both her seductions and her indifferences came across as visceral making the reactions to them by the other characters feel genuine. Rafael Moras as Don Jose was equally compelling, making his infatuation, his jealousy, and finally despair and anger feel authentic. Other performances that stood out were Symone Harcum as Micaela, Don Jose’s hometown girlfriend. Allen Michael Jones as Zuniga and Aaron Keeney as Escamillo impressed with their performances as well.

I have praise and issues with the set design by Riccardo Hernandez and Costumes by Oana Botez. These designers works are flawless, the issue is with the director Denyce Graves choice of setting the opera in a modern time period. It feels like everytime I see a piece of classical theatre or opera it is set in a different period from which it was written for. Sometimes there’s an interesting reason for doing so style wise, other times it is because the time period adds a new dimension to the story or the work is used to comment on that time and place in history. Personally, I didn’t see what was added to this story by setting it out of the period in which it was written. But that said, the set is amazing as are the costumes. One thing that always impresses at MN Opera productions is the sense of scope in the sets they always feel larger than life and next very solid and real. With Carmen, one thing that adds to that sense of scale is the skillful lighting design by Amith Chandrashaker and Robert Wierzel. Finally Bizet’s music which surprised me by being familiar. You may not know Carmen the opera, but trust me you know some of the music. It’s an accessible and enjoyable score beautifully played by the orchestra conducted by Elias Grandy.

Carmen is performed in French with English captions projected above the stage. I wish they would project them just below the stage as well. With the height of set it’s impossible to keep the action on the stage in view at all while reading the captions. The production runs through May 22nd at the Ordway for more information and to purchase tickets go to https://mnopera.org/season/2021-2022/carmen/

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Airness Nearly Achieves Said State at Park Square Theatre in St. Paul

Photo by Richard Fleischman

Airness opened this week at Park Square Theatre in the heart of downtown St. Paul, it marked the return of live theatre to the venue after it’s winter show Marie and Rosetta was cancelled due to concerns over Covid-19. Before the show began last night, Executive Director, Mark Ferraro-Hauck spoke briefly. He talked about how gathering for live theatre is a way back from the isolation and disconnect we all experienced. Airness perfectly reflects that idea. It’s a show about finding your people and connecting through your art, and of course achieving “airness”. The story of a group of air guitar competitors and their journey to make it to Nationals, all competing for the Championship. Like a sports movie but with imaginary musical instruments it’s as much about the characters and their relationships as it is about the competition. The stellar lead cast of six create fully realized characters that we come to love in a mere 104 minutes on stage. I laughed, I cried (faithful readers know what a soft touch I am) at this play about finding the inner airness inside.

The story follows Nina O’Neal who is new to the world of competitive air guitar. She arrives at her first regional competition and meets a group of friends who travel across the country trying to secure a slot to the nationals and a chance to defeat last years champion “D Vicious”, not his real name. As the group explains to Nina when they are in the venue, they are known by their air guitar personas. There’s “Shreddy Eddy” who will agree to tutor Nina in the ways of the air guitar, in exchange for her buying his drinks for the rest of the qualifying circuit. There is “Golden Thunder” who’s performances focus on creating a unified political and social statement. “Facebender” is a throwback to the 1970’s which you get the feeling were very good to him. Finally, “Cannibal Queen” who is dating “D Vicious” and is a classically trained guitar player. She is trying to break the glass ceiling of the air guitar world. As Nina slowly transforms into “The Nina”, it becomes clear she has an ulterior motive for competing. As we wait to learn what is driving Nina, we learn about the members of this community what drives them and what air guitar means to them. They are competitors once they hit the stage, but before they do, they do everything they can to help each other succeed. They show Nina that her dark plans are unworthy of air guitar, that it’s about higher ideals and finding yourself, not beating others. Only through truly finding yourself and expressing it, can one attain true airness.

Look, I know how silly this all sounds, but it stops seeming silly somewhere midway through the show and you are half convinced that this may be the last pure artform. Chelsea Marcantel’s script is full of wit and wisdom as well has wonderful character details that help ground what seems like a ridiculous premise in a unique reality. As good as the script is, it’s the superb cast which bring these characters to life in a way that allows us to invest emotionally in characters with names like “facebender” and “Shreddy Eddy”. A cast this good it’s hard to pull out individual performances, part of the brilliance is the way in which they interact naturally and feel like a community on stage. The standout is Daniel Petzold as “Facebender”. Under a wig that should undercut every line, Petzold instead projects the characters soul and every line rings true. He gets a nice scene where he explains to Nina why he does air guitar, it’s a moment that elevates the script and the character. Petzolds comic timing is so spot on you almost forget to laugh you are in awe of it. Julia Valen as Nina finds the perfect notes to act as our surrogate in this world of competitive air guitar. Her journey from smirky eye roller to genuine convert mirrors our own. Neal Skoy as “Shreddy Eddy” projects sincerity and idealism in equal measure with a sappy charm that makes him a credible potential love interest for Nina. Michael Terrell Brown’s “Golden Thunder” is fabulously out there at home pontificating about the importance of having a social commentary in your 60 second air guitar performance as he is performing it. Shae Palic as “Cannibal Queen” is all attitude at the opening, we form an opinion about her character but learn as Nina does that first impressions can be misleading. Palic does a nice job of playing it so that each impression as well as the reversal work. Eric “Pogi” Sumangil plays “D Vicious” as less of a villian and more just a guy who’s ego has gotten the better of him. Sumangil does a nice job in the middle section of establishing a sympathy for his character that actually has you wondering for a minute or two if the the real villain could be Nina.

I really liked the Set Design by MJ Leffler and Projection Design by Kathy Maxwell. The video of rock band style video game graphics during transitions was an inspired choice. Costumes by Ash M. Kaun especially those for “Golden Thunder” and “The Nina’s” final qualifying performance were particularly well done. There were two small issues that kept Airness from achieving “airness” and they are related to the competition segments. Firstly, the Sound Design by Eric M. C. Gonzalez was fine in every respect except the air guitar performances themselves. The volume is too soft in the performances, the performance tracks need to hit us as a wall of sound, if they had been louder we would have been more engaged in those moments. The second issue is the Choreography by director Angela Timberman of the air guitaring itself. The performances felt unchoreographed, they seemed like the cast was winging it, these could have been “wow” moments but as such, it looked like your friends air guitaring in the basement. Nothing wowed the audience in the way it seemed to the characters in the play. That said, air guitar performances are a very small part of this production, it’s still a really good show, we just didn’t quite achieve that state of mind known as “airness”.

One final work of warning, this show is a lot of fun, and going with a group of friends would be a great night out. But, know your group, the show is filled with profanity a lot of “F” bombs are dropped and the “C” word, and I don’t mean cancer. I was not offended, but I was aware of it. Like I say, know your group. This isn’t one to take your young teenagers to if you have strong beliefs in the use of profanity or grandma if she’s one that constantly comments on why they have to say such things in movies these days. Airness runs through June 5th, for more information and to purchase tickets go to https://parksquaretheatre.

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The Bucket List of Booze Club at the Crane Theatre

Photo by HM Photography, LLC

Freshwater Theatre was ready to mount this play in 2020 but then the pandemic put those plans on ice. Now it’s spring of 2022, the ice has melted, and the play must go on. For women of a certain age, The Bucket List of Booze Club is the perfect show for a night out with your oldest girlfriends. I’m not trying to sound sexist, I just think that’s the group for whom this play will resonate the most. That said, I, as a man of a certain age and my 18 year old son, whom was my companion last night, both thoroughly enjoyed the production. Fans of shows like Steel Magnolias and The Dixie Swim Club are going to find themselves in familiar but welcome territory here. The story of four friends from high school, now in their 50’s, each facing the realities of the path they chose in life. Wisely, the theatre company has kleenex packets for sale before the show and at intermission, there will be tears, but before the tears there will be laughs a plenty.

The titular Booze Club is a group of four women who have known each other since high school or earlier, now in their early 50’s. They gather weekly to try a new and different adult beverage at the request of Collette, who is battling ovarian cancer, and believes you should try everything once. Bringing the weekly bottle is Jennifer who is a successful lawyer who put career before love and isn’t too impressed with who’s left in the dating pool now. Amy is the homemaker who brings a different homemade dessert each week, and finally there is Mary Ann who is dating a man almost 20 years her junior. Present for the meetings of the Booze Club is Collette’s daughter Ree-Ree, who looks up to and followed in her Godmother Jennifer’s footsteps becoming a lawyer, which has left Collette feeling a little jealous. Providing a hint of the male perspective are appearances by Mary Ann’s boyfriend Eric and Collette’s ex-husband Barry who dropped out of her and Ree-Ree’s life after their divorce. From that description of characters you can probably sense the general outline of where the story goes, and from whence the humor and tears come.

Written by Maureen Paraventi the plays considerable strengths and minor weaknesses are in the writing. Paraventi’s dialogue flows naturally establishing the characters and is filled with genuine humor. Opening with a scene of Jennifer on a first date with someone from an online dating app. The man’s dialogue in the scene consists entirely of “blah blah blah blah”. Lazy? Nope, brilliant! It opens the play with wit in a scene that establishes a conceit used sparingly throughout of breaking the fourth wall as Jennifer translates what her date is saying. From that scene we flow naturally into a meeting of the Booze Club where Jennifer is recounting the date to her friends. A perfect transition from the writer, though the transition on the stage takes longer than it should. From the notes in the program, I gleen that this is director Rachel Flynn’s first time directing a full length play. I think the transitions lack the confidence of a more experienced hand. Paraventi has already established in the first scene that the characters can break the fourth wall. Rather than dimming the lights for about 10 seconds too long have the character change some costume elements as she walks to the adjoining set already in dialogue with her friends. I think that pattern would have eliminated the slight sense of interrupted flow that pervades the production. Aside from the transitions Flynn shows that she knows how to direct actors and I think she has a career ahead of her in direction if she chooses to pursue it. The writing opens strong and maintains its naturalistic dialogue throughout, construction wise decidedly a play of two halfs. The first half has an easy flow, craftily developing the characters and their relationships. The second half seems more forced in that it has so many beats to hit story wise losing a little of what makes the first half so enjoyable. That said it still delivers plenty of laughs and the dramatic moments land solidly as well. Yes, you will want to fork out for the kleenex packets for sale in the lobby.

The cast adds to the natural feel of the dialogue creating a sense that these really are old friends. As Jennifer, Jean Wolff is a force of nature on stage, her comedic timing and stage presence launch us into the play on just the right footing. She has the showiest role and is at her best when she is holding court and being center stage. Two performances that are noteworthy more for their reactions than there actions are are Julie Ann Nevill as Amy and Ali Daniels as Ree-Ree. Watching these two as they reacted to the other performers was a reminder that good acting is listening and reacting. They both conveyed more genuine emotion in their non-verbal reactions than the other performers did during their dialogue scenes. Wini Froelich as the more and more weakened Collette was at her best when she was displaying her annoyance with Jennifer. The weary bitchiness of those exchanges were her best moments.

The Bucket List of Booze Club runs through May 15th at The Crane Theatre in Northeast Minneapolis for more information and to purchase tickets go to https://www.freshwatertheatre.com/bucketlist/

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A Raisin in the Sun at the Guthrie Theater As Relevant Today as it Was 60 Years Ago, Sadly

Tonia Jackson (Lena Younger), James T. Alfred (Walter Lee Younger). Photo credit: Tom Wallace

A Raisin in the Sun Opened this week at the Guthrie Theater along the Mississippi River in Downtown Minneapolis. This is a classic of the American stage, a landmark show when it premiered on Broadway in 1959, being the first play produced on Broadway written by a Black woman Lorraine Hansberry and the first with a Black director, Lloyd Richards. The play earned four tony Award nominations and in 1961 was adapted for film utilizing the original Broadway cast, which included Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, and Claudia McNeil. This is an important dramatic work that reflected the issues that Black American families faced in the 1950’s and 60’s. We produce great works like A Raisin in the Sun or Shakespeare again for many reasons. One reason is because the people mounting a new production feel that it has something to say to us now. Another reason is to give current performers a chance to interpret the roles and share these stories with new audiences. These are the two reasons to see the Guthrie’s new production. A Raisin in the Sun absolutely has something to say to us in the 21st century. It was and is a powerfully written play and it will remind you of where we were at that time in this country and make you reflect on where we are now. But powerful words have little effect unless they are channelled through performers capable of making those word resonate with an audience. This cast Takes Hansberry’s words and boosts the signal creating a piece of theatre that speaks not just to the past but to the present and future as well.

It is the story on the Younger family who live together in a two room apartment in chicago’s South side. Led by matriarch Lena who is expecting a check for $10,000, the life insurance money on her husband who passed away. She plans to use part of the money towards medical school for her daughter Beneatha and the rest on a downpayment on a house for the family to move into. Her son Walter Lee, who works as a chauffeur to a white man, wants to convince his mother to give him the money to invest in a liquor store with his friends. Walter Lee’s wife Ruth discovers she is pregnant with their second child. Their son Travis, as we discover in the opening of the play, sleeps on the couch in the living room. Their day begins with everyone being pleaded out of bed by Ruth so they will be able to get through the shared hallway bathroom and off to school and work before the neighbors get in. There are several themes being played out throughout the play. One is about assimilation and is explored through the character of Beneatha and her two “boyfriends.” One is the son of a wealthy black family, the other is a student from Nigeria. These characters will represent the struggle Beneatha feels between assimilating into white culture or embracing her African roots. Another theme is about pride and it’s importance to our self esteem and our relationships. Walter Lee is a man who is a husband and father but has no authority, all of that resides with his mother. He feels trapped by his work in service, he dreams of being his own boss and becoming wealthy but he has no agency with which to enact this change. He feels that no one understands him and his need to strike out on his own. This has created a distance between him and his wife. When she learns she is pregnant she meets with a local woman and puts down a deposit on an abortion. An echo from the past that reverberates especially with recent news. Lena realizes that by controlling the family she has relegated Walter Lee from a role of leadership within the family that has fed his craving for wealth which he sees as freedom. When the money arrives she goes and uses $3,500 to put a downpayment on a house in a white neighborhood. It was the best house she could get for the least amount of money. She then gives Walter Lee the remaining money telling him to go to the bank and put $3,000 of it into a savings account for Beneatha’s schooling and open a checking account with the remaining $3,500 which he will control. Before long a representative from the White neighborhood, Karl Lindner comes to visit the Youngers with an offer from their community association to buy them out so they will not move into their all white neighborhood. Complications ensue.

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?

From the Poem “Harlem” by Langston Hughes 1951

The extract above from Langston Hughes’ poem is one of the central questions of Lorraine Hansberry’s play, making it the perfect title. Like Hughes, Hansberry was a social activist and her play A Raisin in the Sun addresses the realities facing Black communities at the time. Sadly, while the details have changed, it is far too easy to see how the overall issues are still with us as a society. The disparity in wealth and opportunity still exist. On the surface it would appear that things are much better now, 60 years on, and maybe it’s unfair to say they haven’t changed. But in 60 years they should have improved far more than they have. It feels that what has improved at a far greater rate was our ability to hide the disparity. There is a scene in the play when Karl Lindner comes to try and talk the Youngers out of moving into his neighborhood. He tries to put a pleasant face on what he is doing, if you took his words at face value, you might almost think of him as well meaning. But he is doing what we still do in this country, we cover up what we are really doing with excuses that almost sound valid until you do a little critical thinking. In the play it’s fairly easy for the Youngers to see what Lindner is really saying, and in this way we as a society have really progressed in the intervening 60 years. We’ve gotten so it’s a lot harder to see the racism. This is why this is still a relevant play, this is the enduring power of Lorraine Hansberry’s work.

Austene Van, who recently impressed me with her direction of Passing Strange at Yellow Tree Theatre, once again displays her significant talents with her skillful direction. Scenic designer Regina Garcia has created an impressive set. The focus is on the Youngers apartment which is presented in detail, the rest of the apartment building is suggested with isolated details. A set of stairs, a room from another apartment including a portion of the exterior wall, windows hanging in space. We are given a sense of the larger space as an idea so we can understand that this is one apartment among many, this is one specific story in this larger world. This is a remarkable cast led by James T. Alfred as Walter Lee and Tonia Jackson as Lena. Both give powerful performances. Alfred has to play multiple sides of Walter Lee, not all of them endearing, but his performance helps us to understand all of them. Jackson as well needs to deliver a multilayered performance, the wise matriarch, the angry mother, The sassy neighbor, the concerned mother-in-law. Both Alfred and Jackson have to give several speeches which could easily feel too on the nose or preachy in lesser hands, but they both handle them masterfully, finding the truth rather than just relaying the message. Nubia Monks as Beneatha is wonderfully versatile, her part and her strengths are in the way she interacts with the other characters. She isn’t given the longer dramatic speeches but she is given various characters to play off of and like a real life person she behaves differently depending on who she is interacting with. Some of her best moments are her reactions and interactions with the two love interests. The most promising relationship in the entire show is between her and Ernest Bentley as Joseph Asagai the Nigerian student. In two scenes Bentley creates an indelible character that is an audience favorite. In a scene which has be reinstated into the play having been removed in its initial Broadway run Jamecia Bennett provides some comedic relief as the upstairs neighbor Mrs. johnson. Including the scene was a wise choice by director Van, it gives us a much needed moment of comic relief not just in her scene, but by the fact the scene was included that meant there was an actor hired for that role that could then be used as a silent presence in the battle of the shared bathroom. Her racing up and down the staircase helped add clarity to those moments that might have felt a little ambiguous otherwise.

A Raisin in the Sun runs through June 5th for more information and to purchase tickets go to https://www.guthrietheater.org/raisin

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“Once” at DalekoArts is Worth the Journey to New Prague. It Would Actually be Worth a Trip to Fargo.

Based on the enchanting film by John Carney, Once loses none of it’s charm in the transition to the stage. In fact, this particular production may have picked some up. I’d like to just say it’s fookin brilliant and leave it at that, but I think you expect a little more than that from me. That’s essentially what it boils down too. This blog was born in part from two experiences at the theatre in the spring of 2019. I saw two shows that blew me away and had me going back multiple times, bringing new people with to each performance. The energy I felt after those shows and desire to share it with others gave birth to the idea that became The Stages of MN. Tonight I’m feeling that same energy, that same desire to go again and bring everyone I know with. These shows that get you this high are rare. I’ve seen a lot of really good theater in 2022 already, fantastic shows, but something about this one has that special feeling. That desire to take everyone you know to it and remind them of how involving, joyful, and moving live theater can be. I had never been to DalekoArts in New Prague, probably because it’s in New Prague. If this is the kind of work they’re regularly putting out, I’ve made a huge mistake and denied myself some great theatre. In my defense, I hadn’t really heard of it until right before the pandemic. For me, it’s a 40 minute drive but hey, so is St. Paul when the traffics a little heavy. DO NOT LET THE DISTANCE STOP YOU.

So if you haven’t seen the film Once, it’s set in Dublin and follows the story of a guy and a girl who meet on the street when she hears him playing his guitar and singing a song. She is also musical and recognizes his talent, but recognizes that he’s about ready to give up on his music and himself. She doesn’t let him and they grow close in a very short amount of time. She learns about his life, losses, the girl he wrote the songs for has gone away to New York, his Mother has died, and he works with his father repairing Hoovers. He learns about hers as well, she is a Czech immigrant living with her mother, young daughter, her husband has gone home to Czeckloslovakia and things are not good between them right now. She convinces him that they should make a Demo of his songs and he should take it to New York to be with his girl and share his music. They raise the money for the demo and with the help of their friends make the demo, but all the while their feelings for each other grow stronger. The book is by Enda Walsh and it takes some liberties with Carney’s original story but they all work to create a tighter community within the world of the play and a sense of community is what is so remarkable about this production. That and the songs carried over from the film including the Oscar winning “Falling Slowly” most of which are by the stars of the film Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova.

Before the show proper begins the members of the orchestra and most of the cast are on stage performing songs. This has a very relaxed and spontaneous feel to it which carries directly into the show. Every member of the cast appears to be an accomplished musician. At any given time there are three or four guitars in use along with various other stringed instruments that I cannot name but I may have seen in an episode of Star Trek as a kid. Throw in a violin or two, a cello, a couple of pianos, and various percussion instruments, and assume probably anyone on stage at any given moment can play any of them. And when they do, but they do it so well, and here’s the key to the shows success they seem to do it on a whim. Like they are listening to someone perform and decide, hey I’m going to grab and instrument and join in. My first assumption when I saw the sheer number of guitars in play was that Chris Paulson who plays “Guy” probably couldn’t play and so he would fake strum along and the other guitars would handle the actual music. Nope, he’s not only a fantastic singer he’s really good on the guitar too. The Music Director and pianist in the orchestra Bradley Beahen is also on stage and again I thought maybe Leslie Vincent who plays “Girl” can’t really play the piano very well so she’ll be miming it as Beahen plays. Nope, not only does she have a great singing voice, but she can play piano very well. Folks what I’m saying is these are not The Monkees, these people are playing their own instruments, and singing, and acting, and there’s a little dance too. The music is sublime, kudos to Director Amanda White and Beahen for assembling such a musically gifted cast.

Aside from the film I have seen the stage musical Once before at Theatre Latte Da when they mounted a production in 2018 or 2019. I’m a big fan of the film and I enjoyed the Latte Da’s production as well. But there was something about this small theater, with a stage about 1/4 the size of The Ritz Theater. With just as many performers that created an atmosphere that surpasses what Latte Da with a budget probably 10X DalekoArts’ was able to conjure. I was in my favorite spot front row center, and you feel like you are part of the show, that you are just part of this environment where people just sort of grab a guitar and join in making fantastic music. This is why we restage shows, why we can go see a show at one theatre and go see the same show at another theatre. Different productions even with the same quality or musicians and performers can feel totally unique. This cast is perfect top to bottom. I’m a soft touch, but they moved me to tears of joy on at least three separate occasions. It isn’t just Paulson and Vincent either, though they are beyond perfect in the roles, it’s every single one of them. Even the ensemble player Shelby Lengyel, who has a short scene as the guys ex-Girlfriend brought me to tears in what, a 90 second scene. This cast and this production are off the hook. White’s direction keeps the show flowing like a winding river that doesn’t seem to know where it’s flowing to but still gets to exactly where it needs to be at exactly the right time. The casual atmosphere allows for transitions between scenes to feel organic and natural. You never forget you are in a theatre, but you do forget you are watching a scripted performance at times. In short it’s fookin brilliant.

DalekoArts is located in New Prague MN, the theatre is general admission get there early I think the performance I attended was sold out other than a single here and there, I saw a couple of parties have to split up. I also highly encourage you to sit as close as you can, front row is not too close, but really the theatre is so small there isn’t a bad seat in the house. For more information and to purchase tickets you can go to https://www.dalekoarts.com/home

Don’t miss a single review from The Stages of MN, 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. Also Follow me on Facebook, search @thestagesofmn and click follow and on Instagram thestagesonmn.