Theatre Elision in Crystal Offers something new and refreshing in Islander

Photos by Jessica Holleque

Islander is a two woman show that intimately creates an entire island community and soundscape far beyond that of what one would think possible. Music and Lyrics by Finn Anderson and Book by Stewart Melton, Islander Won Musical Theatre Review’s Best Musical award at the 2019 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. It weaves together the story of of a Scottish island going through an economic crisis and island myths of a long separated race that live in the seas. The songs are heavily influenced by Scottish folk music and have a beautiful lyrical quality to them. Though the two performers each play multiple roles, the two main characters are Arran played by Deidre Cochran, and Eilidh played by Christine Wade. Emily Dussault understudies both roles and performs them at some performances. Eilidh is a young islander who has stayed behind on the island with her Granny when her mother had to move to the mainland for work. A lonely girl, the last young person left who must do “distance learning” because the school has been closed. Arran is a girl around the same age who has washed ashore and is not what she appears to be.

The thrilling and unique aspect of Islander is the use of a looping machine, to expand the soundscape beyond what two performers would normally be capable on their own. Not only does the use of this technology add layers to the songs and sounds being heard but it amplifies the always present risk inherent in any live performance. The creation of the loops and layers of sounds is all done live and it adds a level of appreciation to what you are experiencing. What’s almost as fascinating as the beautiful sounds this produces, is the fact that watching them create it doesn’t take you out of the story but actually draws you further in. It becomes less an act of watching a performance and feels more like hearing storytelling as it may have been done hundreds of years ago around a fire with words, characters, and songs. It’s as if modern technology has created a pathway back to an earlier time of storytelling, where myths and reality intermingled.

Cochran and Wade’s voices are perfectly tuned to one another, the music they make together is wonderful. I used the word lyrical earlier and at times that can also lead to a monotony or a lulling to tiredness, but that is never the case here. No songs ever wear out their welcome and they all add resonance and mood to the story being told. The dialogue moves the story along adding humor in just the right amount. People who live on the island can be hard set in their ways, but they also know how to play a trick and have a laugh. There is also an environmental message in the show. It doesn’t beat you over the head. But for my money acknowledging what we have done to the planet is something that should be discussed and brought into our stories and entertainments. Both performers shine in their main roles. Wade’s Eilidh has the most stage time of any single character and as such seems the most fully formed, with Wade capturing the spirit of a young girl who as the last child on the island has more or less free rein but it also very lonely. Cochran really gets a chance to sparkle as Eilidh’s Granny, providing the perfectly timed moments of humor and also wisdom.

Islander runs through July 31st at the Elision Playhouse in Crystal. The runtime is approximately 75 minutes with no intermission. for more information and to purchase tickets go to https://www.simpletix.com/e/islander-tickets-68313

Stages Theatre in Hopkins offers outdoor family fun with a pleasant production of You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown

Stages Theatre Company in Hopkins, MN is staging the Peanuts based musical You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown. Adapted from the popular comic strip by Charles M. Schulz with Book, music, and lyrics by Clark Gesner and additional material written by Andrew Lippa and Michael Mater. It is basically a series of vignettes that play like reenactments of the daily comic strips but with songs along with the through line being Charlie Brown’s struggles with his self esteem. It’s pleasant as with the cartoons the source material has also spawned, there are jokes for the older audience and those for the smallest. None of the songs are going to make it onto your showtunes playlist, but they also do not drag, they’re pleasant. It’s a safe show to bring everyone to and the venue makes for an enjoyable night out.

Most of your favorite characters get a chance to shine; however, of the favorites Peppermint Patty and Marcie get the least to do but they fare better than Pigpen who is present, but unless I missed it, that’s it. One of the interesting aspects is that there are two sets of casts, The “Joe Cool Cast” and the “Flying Ace Cast”. I saw the “Joe Cool Cast” and was pleased with the talents on display*. It’s a great idea to have two casts for a summer show like this where the performers are all between the ages of 12 and 18. It gives more young people the opportunity to be in the show and it allows the cast time off in the summer as well.

As for the production itself, there are a lot of challenges built into the job of director Sandy Boren-Barrett. Firstly, two separate casts of young actors to rehearse and stage. Secondly, staging the show outside of the Theatre where you would have had more control. One can imagine the little vignettes working more effectively with the use of spotlights and a darkened stage. The trade off, after a year of isolation and some lingering uncertainty when the production was planned concerning Covid, the outdoor venue probably weighed heavily in that regard. Plus, it’s nice to be able to safely gather outdoors for a live performance. I also want to point out the scenic design by Jim Hibbeler, it captures the comic strip perfectly and the white panel frames used periodically to frame characters like panels in the strip are well designed and utilized. Costumes by Christa Ludwig also capture the look of the characters we all know so well and that is the right choice, straying from what we expect in this case would have been the wrong call. Laura Mahler’s choreography was well chosen it allowed for all the performers to succeed and gave those with perhaps an extra bit of experience a place to shine from time to time.

The musical is being staged outdoors at Hopkin’s Downtown Park. There are hills to place blankets on and some benches but most of the audience wisely brought their own camp chairs. The show runs about 60 minutes and is recommended for all ages. Performances run through August 8th. For more information and to purchase tickets go to https://www.stagestheatre.org/.

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

Collide Theatrical’s WonderLand is a Unique and Entertaining Twist on Alice In Wonderland With Some Real World Gravitas.

Photo By Wells Film & Photo

Collide Theatrical Dance Company Is staging a dance interpretation of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland at two outdoor locations. The show runs 5-15-21 thru 5-31-21 outdoors at the James J. Hill House in St. Paul before transfering to the Mill City Museum for shows 6-5-21 thru 6-20-21. The seating is socially distanced which limits the size of the audience per show so it’s recommended that you purchase your seats early. For more details and to purchase tickets go to https://www.collidetheatrical.org. I think of this as phase one in getting back into the theater for shows. It’s spring and with summer on the way, hopefully by fall we are able to gather indoors for shows regularly.

I was looking for something special to mark my return to reviewing shows. Readers of the site will probably be familiar with the name Miranda Shaughnessy. A young dancer, actor, singer, choreographer, videographer who wowed this reviewer from the first time I saw her perform very early in this blogs existence. When I was alerted to her attachment to WonderLand, I realized this was the show to begin phase one with. WonderLand was created by Regina Peluso, directed by Peluso and Heather Brockman, and choreographed by the company. Shaughnessy who plays Alice displays the physical talents which originally brought her to my attention over a year and a half ago. Precision dancing accompanied by a stage presence and facial expressions that telegraph to the audience exactly what we need to know about her character in the moment. She is surrounded by a talented cast of dancers Jarod Boltjes, Rush Benson, Renee Guittar, Chelsea Rose, Patrick Jeffrey, Heather Brockman, and in a voice over roll Ryan Colbert.

The twist of this production is that the setting is a mental Health inpatient facility. The familiar characters from the well known tale all representing different psychological issues. The characteristics that we identify with those characters fit well into these diagnosis and the company also finds ways in which to make their dance styles accent them as well. The White Rabbit for example suffers from anxiety manifesting itself in his frantic tap dancing. The doctor who is trying to treat them all by remaining calm and in control performs ballet. The dancing and musical choices are fun and energetic and the reveals of each characters backstories are well done. What struck me most surprisingly was the contrast between these moments of energetic dance with moments of real pathos as the root causes were revealed for each character particular difficulties. The reveals for the White Rabbit and the Red Queen sticking out as especially well realized. If you enjoy dance and are missing your regular theater fix, you will not be disappointed by Collide Theatricals WonderLand.

Crossover: A New Pop Musical is Virtual Theatre Worth Your Time.

From top left clockwise Chelsea Cylinder, Boris Dansberry, Ali, Walker, and Taylor J. Mitchell. Virtual Production Design by Tristan Horan

Theater, live theater, and those who make their careers and livelihoods in theater have been decimated by Covid-19. Many artists have searched for ways to continue their work in some way. Producing virtual shows has been a way for many actors, writers, directors and other artists to forge ahead during these dark times. While this is a great solution to our current situation, it’s generally less than ideal. I long for the days when I can be in the same room with performers who are sharing the same space. Good actors performing via zoom can raise the performance above the level of a table read but they can never achieve the connection that is forged with each other and with a live audience virtually. Crossover, a new musical by Danielle E. Moore is positioned better than most shows to succeed virtually, and the best example I’ve seen of a show overcoming the obstacles of theatre of the virtual.

What works in Crossover‘s favor is that it is about a televised singing competition in the style of American Idol. Many sections of the script take place as segments of the show and those in particular work well. The plot revolves around four finalists that tie for the west coast slot on the show. They are given the choice of splitting their allotted time on the show separately, giving them each 1 minute as solo artists, or to form a group so they have the 4 minutes allotted for the west coast semifinalist. They opt to form a group, ‘Four-Way Tie’. The hook of the competition is that every week they have to perform in a different style, the aim is to crown someone who has the most “crossover” appeal. Each of the four women specializes in a different genre. Reggie is a Soul singer, Max is into EDM, Hallie is the Country singer, and KC is the Rocker. What sways them to reluctantly team up is the idea that they can utilize each others strengths to help them all maximize their “crossover ” credibility.

The shows strengths are it’s cast and the songs. All four of the leads Taylor J. Mitchell as Reggie, Boris Dansberry as Max Green, Chelsea Cylinder as KC, and Ali Walker as Hallie all create individual characters that are not simply their style of singing. The four characters develop a relationship out of necessity which turns into a friendship. It’s a testament to the writing and the performers that that friendship doesn’t seem forced, rushed or false. All of the characters are given something to do outside of their interactions as the group. Two of the group are also given a romantic relationship together. These side stories for each are part of what gives their characters depth and the romantic relationship gives the show it’s heart. Only the character of KC whose side story is that her mother was a very successful musician and has never encouraged her seems to be let down. Her mother makes an appearance but the moment felt like it needed to be built up a little more. There are actually several areas of the script that could be tweaked, but in most cases those tweaks would really work only in a live situation. I suspect those moments where something more would drive the emotion or the scene home would contain that element if the actors could actually interact.

Moore’s songs are very impressive they are slightly let down by the virtual experience. I was able to airplay the performance from my phone to my TV, but four vocal performances mixed via video, as abely as it is done, the lyrics just get lost. One can tell that in a live situation all of the performances from Four-Way Tie would be knockouts, virtually, they suffer from being indistinguishable. This is the challenge for anyone trying to mount a musical in this era of virtual performances, you are at the mercy of every single persons audio/video equipment, from cast recording themselves to audience playing it back in different ways. It’s a challenge and Crossover does it’s best to meet it, but the vocal complexities of these four part songs is to much at times. What works much better are the duets and solos songs. I sort of hate to single any of the leads out because they are all really good, but the performer that really stuck out for me was Boris Dansberry as Max. They have a duet with Donovan Lockett who plays Max’s idol Shea Stone that was very impressive. Their solo performance was also my favorite of the 4 leads in their introductions to us. It seemed to me that Boris’ voice came through the best audio wise, it may have been their equipment or the pitch of their voice or my equipment being best suited to them, but things were noticeably clearer when they were singing. Taylor J. Mitchell’s voice seemed hardest hit by technology in the group songs, but then was also quite strong in her solo “Traitor”, which was her moment to shine.

So yes Crossover does fall prey to some of the downfalls of virtual theater, but it does a surprisingly good job of overcoming many of them as well. Praise is deserved for director Amanda Pasquini for finding the best way to mitigate the worst of the usual pitfalls. Using creative staging for some of the songs, having the actors in profile, mixing things up here and there keeping it from looking too static. The show also uses graphics and editing in creative ways to keep things looking interesting and fresh avoiding that ‘Zoom’ look – Credit to Graphic Designer Jeff Buterbaugh and editor Tristan Horan for their work. Crossover had it’s work premiere in September as part of the 2020 Philadelphia Fringe Festival and will be available to live stream Saturday December 12th 7:00 PM CST as part of the 2020 Rogue Theater Festival. Tickets are $12.00 and are available through the Rogue Theater Festival’s Show Page here https://www.showtix4u.com/events/RogueTheaterFestival.

Chicago at Theater Latte Da in Northeast Minneapolis

My first experience with Theater Latte Da was last fall’s production of Once. I was impressed with the little theater, the space was perfect in that there could be a decent sized audience but even the seats at the back were decent, which is where we were for the first half of last season’s shows. My greatest theater experience, not just there but probably ever, was their production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which I saw once from the third row and twice more from the first. This is a theater that puts on productions that rival The Guthrie, in terms of talent on and off stage. Theater Latte Da houses itself at the Ritz Theater, situated in a Northeast Minneapolis neighborhood, with a lot to offer in terms of before and after show dining and drinks. Just down the street is a great place for Fish and Chips The Anchor, or if pizza is more to your liking, we tried Young Joni just a few blocks away and rated the Cauliflower appetizer on a scale of 1 to 10 a solid I want to eat this everyday.

We enjoyed the front rows so much for Hedwig that we decided for Chicago to go one step further and sit on the stage. This is not a new idea, I sat on the stage a few years back at The Jungle Theater when they put on Two Gentlemen of Verona. It is a fun way to make the live theater going experience even more immersive. There are twenty seats on the stage, they are general admission, so if you were lucky enough to get one, do yourself a favor and come early, first in gets first choice. The set is designed like a speak easy and you are sitting at the bar which becomes the stage, with space for your drink, much like a strip club. And that is not where the comparisons end. The performers are performing right in front of you, as well as behind you, and also directly too you. They are also frequently wearing very little and what they are wearing is designed to titillate. I found myself unsure where to look at times. Do you make eye contact, do you allow yourself to look at the legs and other things that clearly you are supposed to be admiring. When you do catch yourself admiring something other than the lively faces of the performers, you immediately become aware that the rest of the audience, those not seated on the stage, can see you. And you also realize, they can tell where you are looking. These are not the seats for introverts.

Chicago is a show I am only familiar with from the film adaptation, and of course a couple of the songs which have seeped into the cultural consciousness such as And All That Jazz. I liked the film, but had heard from others that the show could be a little harder to like, filled as it is with mostly despicable characters. This productions largerly overcomes it’s lack of likable characters with a wealth of likable performances. Rather than play up the seedy side of the characters, they play those aspects with a nudge and a wink and that allows us to enjoy their amorality rather than be appaled by it. The show plays like a series of vaudville routines like those it’s style was based on. By not playing it as rea,l it lets us off the hook, we are allowed to be entertained. Once you relieve the show of it’s immorality and all that jazz, it becomes fun. Instead of being appalling, the characters are playing appalling. That allows for more humor than I anticipated.

The story focuses on Roxie Hart played flirtingly, at least with me, by Britta Ollmann who shone last season as the girl in Once. Roxie opens the play by killing a man for trying to break off an affair with her. The show follows her through her time in Mama Morton’s women’s prison with her fellow inmates, all seemingly trying to win their trials and launch careers as celebrities. She hires the slickest defense attorney in Chicago to get her off, Billy Flynn. Billy Flynn is played like a vaudeville barker or a game show host by Robert O. Berdahl. Roxie and Billy manipulate everyone from the press to Roxie’s sad sack husband Amos Hart to get what they want . Somehow the show manages to jettison our judgement about the characters while still leaving our hearts intact so they can be broken by Reed Sigmund’s portrayal of Amos Hart. True, this character as written is halfway to breaking your heart straight out of the gate. But that shouldn’t diminish the work of an actor who is able to capitalize so completely on that characters arc. When Sigmunds’ Amos leaves the story for the last time the audience audibly pitied him. The other standouts in a uniformly good cast are Regina Marie Williams as Mama Morton and Michelle De Joya as Velma Kelly.

One change I would encourage the director of the show, Peter Rothstein, to consider before the show exits the preview stage is the curtain call. It maybe the stage, it maybe that there are audience members onstage, but for some reason the curtain call was not designed to allow the audience to fully show the actors and musicians the appreciation they wanted too. All of the featured actors deserved a bow of their own. The performers did a fantastic job, give us the opportunity to show them how much we appreciated their work.