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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miranda Shaughnessy Photo by Dan Norman

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

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

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

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

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