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.

Trademark Theater’s World Premiere Production The Hollow at the Tek Box in Minneapolis, three years in the making and well worth the wait.

Two couples, four creators Jenna Wyse, Joey Ford and Emily and Tyler Michaels King (photo by Dan Norman)

The Hollow which opened last week at the Tek Box in Minneapolis is described as “A concept album performed live with movement and dance”. That sounds kind of out there doesn’t it? The show began life three years ago, with the music created by husband and wife team of Jenna Wyse and Joey Ford, who wrote and perform the music. Original attempts at mounting it were as an adaptation of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow but no matter how they tried to make that work in the words of one of it’s creators, Tyler Michaels King, “The Hollow wanted to remain headless”. And so, other than a few lyrics pulled from different portions of the Washington Irving tale, there is nothing left to remind us of the connection except the feeling inherent in autumn that seems to be shared between them. Well, and the word Hollow. Now it rejects any sense of traditional narrative, it is on one hand a concert and on the other hand a series of modern dance movements designed and performed by the other married team of creators Emily Michaels King and Tyler Michaels King. Did I scare you there? Maybe there is a little more left of the Headless Horseman than we thought. But trust me there is no need to be frightened. I understand your apprehension, I had some too.

The Extent of my exposure to modern dance is that I’ve seen Wim Wender’s Documentary film Pina, which was really interesting. But that’s it, that’s what I know, so next to nothing. In fact until I saw this show I’d completely forgotten I’d seen that film. Now, I knew going into tonight that I was going to enjoy the music. I’d been able to attend a sneak preview of some of the music in a paired down version a couple of weeks ago. I knew I loved the music and vocals of Wyse and Ford, but I wasn’t sure how I would react to the dancing. Let’s get the scary part out of the way first so we can relax. The dancing isn’t boring, the dancing isn’t silly, the dancing isn’t pretentious. The dancing is astonishing in it’s precision, breathtaking in it’s athleticism, and alluring in it’s seductiveness. There is a moment towards the end of the show where the movements of the Dancers is so perfectly timed with a lighting effect that they actually appear to be levitating, it is one of several moments of actual awe that the evening afforded.

The music was created and performed by Wyse and Ford, who are accompanied onstage by three vocalists Annie Schiferl, Antonia Perez and Jennifer LeDoux, drummer Marcus Bohn, and on Marimba Matt Silverberg. The Musicians are tight and the Vocals sounded amazing if not always clearing understandable, one of the dangers of performing unknown songs live. That didn’t affect my enjoyment of the music, I caught most of the lyrics and as I stated before there is really no traditional narrative. I found that I understood what I needed of the words and found the music more about the mood, tone and themes rather than the explicit details. I love the sound of Wyse and Ford’s voices together and that is quite enough to carry you through the piece. As focus drawing as the Dancing is, at times I struggled where to look as the singers are also very engaging. Jenna Wyse particularly cannot help but express her joy at performing this music, and joy can be a very captivating quality.

The Hollow is anything but hollow, and yet, it is also hollow. Full of beautiful music and movement that is filled with emotions. But what those emotions represent is left to each individual member of the audience. It gives you so much yet leaves itself open to be filled and interpreted by our own experiences. My mind initially approached the program as it would any other show, trying to discern the narrative even though I was aware there wasn’t an concrete story being told. Our minds are conditioned to approach things in a certain fixed way and gravitates towards that automatically. So engrossing is the program the elaborate and precise nature of the movement that I quickly lost myself in what I was seeing. When I did that and stopped trying to actively project a narrative, however simple onto what I was seeing, that is when I started find myself and my experiences onstage. Included along with the program is a booklet of the songs lyrics. I’ve glanced it, but want to peruse it later after the evening has settled a little. I don’t want any detail within to contradict my interpretation just yet. I will enjoy it in a little while as the poetry it is.

AS for what I brought to the show, that is for me, as it should be for everyone. My sharing with you my thoughts on what the show meant or was about might hinder your minds creativity as you experience it for yourself. I know from speaking with the Michaels Kings after the show that they have, as you would expect their own motivations for the movements. But, it is very much intended for the audience to bring what they carry with them. What was unique about tonight in my experience was being allowed to tell myself my own story through their work, rather than simply being told one. A stronger degree of connection was formed with the performers as you feel you have a role to play besides that of appreciation. This may sound challenging, but it isn’t. It is a uniquely freeing experience. We all interpret it for ourselves and we can chose to share that or keep it to ourselves. There are no right or wrong interpretations. “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

This was my first experience at the Tek Box. It seemed to be what I would classify as a performance space. The staff sold concessions and Izzy’s before the show and chatted with patrons until the house opened. There was not much in terms of set but impressive effects and transitions were created simply through the lighting designed by Karin Olson. the clean Intimate space helped create that essential link between the artists and the audience, which is exactly the right environment for this show.

The Hollow plays through Oct. 20th at the Tek Box in Minneapolis tickets and more information about the show are available at http://www.trademarktheater.org/

Preview of The Hollow Trademark Theater’s new World Premiere

Jenna Wyse and Joey Ford accompanied by drummer Marcus Bohn, performing songs from The Hollow and others

I had the pleasure of attending a happy hour hosted at La Doña Cerveceria tonight to showcase Trademark Theater’s upcoming world premiere The Hollow. After some visiting and star spotting, time for those inclined to belly up to the bar for samples of La Doña Cerveceria wonderful brews, Jenna Wyse and Joey Ford took up their instruments and began playing. What followed was about an hour of listening to two of the most perfectly matched voices since Simon and Garfunkel. Wyse and Ford, a wife and husband team who have written all of the songs for The Hollow over the past three years, played selections from The Hollow, other original songs, and a beautiful rendition of Bob Dylan’s Girl From the North Country.

I got a chance to visit briefly with Tyler Michaels King, founder and Artistic Director of Trademark Theater, to get a better idea of what to expect when The Hollow later this week. The description on promotional materials describes it as a Concept Album/Contemporary Performance Hybrid. Michaels King described a show that while not telling an explicit story there is a through line or arc of the performers. The show is the collaboration of two couples, Jenna and Joey and Tyler and his wife Emily Michaels King. The musicians and singers will be on stage and performing their songs while Tyler and Emily will be performing a cross between modern dance and performance art to accompany the music.

I cannot speak to the dancing as this was a music only sampling of what was to come. Now a brewery taproom is not the best environment for listening to live music. But even with less than ideal acoustics, noises from brewery operations, and another event occuring at the other end of the bar. Based on what I heard tonight, Tyler and Emily can stand in one place jumping up and down and it will still be worth every penny. Once the Hollow closes one can only hope that Wyse and Ford immediately embark on a tour of small theaters and bars playing their original songs and hey, a few Dylan songs wouldn’t be out of line.

The Hollow Opens this Friday Oct. 4th, with Preview Performances Wednesday and Thursday. It runs through Sunday Oct. 20th at The Tek Box in The Cowles Center. You can purchase tickets from the Trademark Theater website at this link http://www.trademarktheater.org/current-season I will be attending the show Oct 11th, if you are there please stop over and say hi.

Wyse and Ford were joined onstage for several songs From The Hollow by Jennifer LeDoux