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Minneapolis Scene
by Steven LaVigne
February 2004

It’s a genuine pity that, when a striking and inventive production appears on the world stage, it doesn’t become international news. One such example is Der Nederlandse Opera’s magnificent staging of Händel’s Samson. Presented in December 2003, director Mirjam Koen created an adaptation that brilliantly brings the work into the 21st Century.

Handel’s oratorio, of course, follows the title character after he destroyed the Temple of Dagon and had been imprisoned. Now blind, Samson must pay for the crimes, which lead to his downfall, and death. A key piece is Gerrit Timmers’ astounding camera obscura-based sets, which vividly captures the oratorio’s images and explores areas of the text which Handel could never have conceived.

There are pole dancers, and in one scene, as Samson is being harassed, Harapha does leg lifts and works out on a chest press. The performances are extraordinary, and John Mark Ainsley’s Samson brilliantly captures how the mighty man has fallen, while Judith Howarth’s tartish, damaged Dalila is a heartfelt, sensational rendering of this villain.

The Winter Carnival moved all of its activities, including the ice palace, to downtown St. Paul. Along with the frigid temperatures, this kept audiences away from both Park Square Theatre and the Ordway.

While Stephen Sondheim may be one of the most successful people in the modern musical theatre, some of his work is surprisingly, obscure. The Twin Cities had a mini-Sondheim festival this winter, and I saw two of these productions. (I deliberately avoided a production of Company, a musical I like, but, because I’ve seen increasingly awful productions, have chosen never to see again.)

His 1976 Kabuki musical, Pacific Overtures is one such obscurity. With a libretto by John Weidman, Pacific Overtures focuses on the opening of Japan to Western culture beginning with Commodore Perry’s arrival in 1853. Against this historic pageant is the story of two men, Kayama and Manjiro, fishers whose friendship grows after “the foreigners” arrive, and whose fates end tragically.

As inventive in its own way as Der Nederlandse Opera’s Samson, the musical, produced in St. Paul by Park Square Theatre, in association with Theatre Mu, should have been an exceptional experience, but, because the production was staged by Gary Gisselman, with choreography by Myron Johnson, it was a dreadful mess.

Because Sondheim’s score is so difficult to sing, much of the focus was, rightly, on the music. However, the director largely ignored the script, so what should have flowed like a well-oiled machine, was a series of misguided vignettes. The production never found an emotional core, so Zachary Drake’s Reciter, Arnold F. Felizardo’s Kayama, Shewin F. Resurreccion’s Manjiro and several others in the ensemble appear at sea, rather than a part of a seamless whole.

I’ve been assured that this is a good show, and I suspect, under different circumstances, it is, so Park Square’s production shouldn’t be taken as anything more than a poor variation on the original.

Minnesota Opera produced a magnificent production of Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia. At the performance I attended, artistic director Dale Johnson announced that it will no longer struggle to fight these outdoor activities, and will no longer schedule an opera in January. This brought cheers from an audience who had trouble getting to the Ordway Center. The weather affected the health of Greek singer Irini Tsirakidis, hired to sing the title role, and she missed the final performance.

It hardly mattered, because resident artist Evelyn Pollock took over and delivered an outstanding performance. David Edward’s staging, set against Tom Mays’ series of drops based on Renaissance paintings, was deceptively simple, yet compelling, as the story, drawn from Victor Hugo’s play, Lucrece Borgia, explores a tragic relationship between mother and son.

The hated Lucrezia unwittingly arranges for her own son’s death, revealing her true identity to him in the opera’s final scene. Along with Pollock’s sensational Lucrezia, Bruce Ford’s Gennaro, Vivica Genaux’s Orsini and Dean Peterson’s Don Alfonso made this performance an extraordinary production by Minnesota Opera.

Actress and playwright Regina Taylor is all over the map these days. Drowning Crow, her revision of Chekhov’s The Seagull, is playing at the Manhattan Theatre Club. She is preparing the libretto for the new musical version of The Color Purple. And, at assorted theaters around the country (including The Guthrie Theatre), her play Crowns is being staged to sellout crowds and thrilled audiences. Based on photographer Michael Cunningham and writer Craig Marberry’s book, Taylor’s play has been smashingly directed by Timothy Bond, with choreography by Patdro Harris.

Crowns takes a fascinating viewpoint on a simple topic, the importance of the hat in the African-American community. Yolanda is a young Brooklyn girl who moves to the South after her brother dies in a street killing. She has trouble relating to her grandmother’s fascination with hats, but she listens as other women in the congregation share their family history, coupled with rousing renditions of gospel music. We learn that many of these women would go to church naked, but not hatless. The hat represents struggle, survival and “hattitude,” a strut in the carriage as you wear a nice hat that makes one feel special.

Crowns features some of the Twin Cities’ finest African-American performers together in one show. Jevetta Steele’s rendition of “His Eye is on the Sparrow,” and Barbara D. Mills’ gospel-trained voice throughout this exquisite production are special highlights. Crowns is scheduled to play throughout the U.S., and is not to be missed!

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