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Minneapolis Scene
by Steven LaVigne
April 2004

Rupert Holmes is something of a Renaissance man. If you visit his Web site, you learn that he’s an author, playwright, composer, lyricist and so much more. [] Besides “The Piano Colada Song,” he’s collaborated on several albums with Barbra Streisand. His play, Say Goodnight Gracie was a highlight of a recent visit to New York, and its star, Frank Gorshin, was robbed of a Tony nomination. Which brings us to the Minneapolis Musical Theatre and their production of Holmes’ The Mystery of Edwin Drood.
  • Based on Charles Dickens’ last, unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood was produced on Broadway by the Public Theatre in the mid-80s, where it won a heap of Tony Awards and ran a year. It has rarely been produced since its’ premiere. A wildly inventive show, Holmes transforms Drood, as it’s commonly known, into a “theatricale” presented at the tacky Music Hall Royale, thus defining the style of presentation. Mr. William Cartwright, serves as Master of Ceremonies and covers the role of Mayor Thomas Sapsea.

    The plot centers on choirmaster, John Jasper, who’s in love Miss Rosa Bud, who is engaged to Jasper’s nephew, Edwin Drood. The show basically follows the trappings of Victorian melodrama, but, as stated above, it’s presented as a Music Hall entertainment, which gives the show it’s form and substance.

    This is also where the problems with MMT’s production lie. It’s an irresponsible shame when a director doesn’t do their homework and it’s evident that Steven J. Meerdink hasn’t done his. The production comes nowhere near the Music Hall tone the material so desperately requires. It’s not difficult to learn about the British Music Hall. There are recordings with such stars as Gracie Fields and Flanders and Swann. In her early career, Cleo Laine, who starred in the original production of Drood was a Music Hall regular and Julie Andrews grew up there. Where is the research which should have driven this production?

    One can forgive the MMT some things. They’re famous for the cheesiness of their shows. However, something could have been done to improve Timothy McVean’s terrible lighting plot, and as usual, Meerkink’s staging features blocking problems. While there are good performances, Drood should have been better than it is.

    It needs to be much more smart ass and clever, and the cast needs to have fun with it. Furthermore, some of the company members, who’ve been in umpteen MMT productions need to come up with new schtick, because what they always do is old and tired. Meerdink needs to give the show’s ending more attention as well.

    Because Dickens died before the novel was completed, the audience gets to choose the murderer. However, the show limps along lifelessly to its finale, and many in the audience just lost interest.

    There are standout performances from Eddie McNulty (Cartwright), Larine Price (Edwin Drood), Marline Rothe (Reverend Crisparkle), Jacob Mahoney (Master Nick Cricker and Aaron Gabriel). Stacey Lindell (Rosa) and Randy Latimer (Princess Puffer) are slightly less so. Most of the other performances are middling, and Ryan Paul North, costumed in a Liberace reject that screams “look at me” gives new meaning to the word amateur. He’s trying to be evil, but he’s just saying lines, and can’t figure out what to do with his arms. He’s in need of a serious acting class.

    MMT prides itself on staging rare and quirky shows. I’m excited that they’ll do the area premiere of Bat Boy: The Musical next season, because it’s the kind of edgy offbeat stuff they do well.

    If I can make a suggestion, a nice little musical that’s seldom done is Richard Rodgers and Stephen Sondheim’s Do I Hear a Waltz? It’s Italian setting would be ideal for the Hey City Theater as well.

  • Minnesota Opera has continued the mini-Sondheim festival which includes Pacific Overtures and Company, with a production of the rarely performed musical, Passion. Hearing a work by the master of somber, often painful and abusive musical themes in an operatic context changes things considerably, and it’s a pity that the material doesn’t come close to an opera’s standards.

    Based on the novel Fosca, and its 1981 film version, Passion d’Amore, this is a bizarre love story, the sort to which Sondheim is easily attracted. It follows the relationship of Giorgio, a captain in the army of the 1860s, and Fosca, a woman dying of a broken heart in a remote Italian post. Giorgio, a captain, is also carrying on an affair with Clara, a married woman in Milan.

    The first act is filled with woe, and it’s so dreary, I seriously contemplated spending Act 2 in the lobby. (My partner liked the show). I went back inside for Act 2, and things were better, but not enough.

    The three leads, especially Patricia Racette (Fosca), and Evelyn Pollock (Clara) were marvelous. William Burden (Giorgio) sang well, but his acting was out of a tin can. Peter Halverson (Col. Ricci) and Stephen D’Ambrose (Doctor) were excellent.

    Otherwise, the show is such a bore, the question is raised, was all this worth it?

    Minnesota Opera continues with Mozart’s Magic Flute in May, and their 2005 season, in addition to the tried and true Carmen and Madame Butterfly, also includes a rare Donezetti and John Adams’ rousing, exciting opera Nixon in China.

  • I dislike putting movies on the stage as musicals, although, of course, this seems to be the way of the future. Sometimes, though, it works. Before seeing the national touring production of Hairspray, I pulled out my copy of John Waters’ book, Crackpot, because, technically, the stage version is based on Waters’ essay “The Nicest Kids in Town.”

    In this piece, Waters relates the history of Baltimore’s variation on American Bandstand, which he developed into the script for the 1988 movie. Hairspray is a treat from the moment Carly Jibson (Tracy Turnblad), hops out of bed as a pair of rats run by and says “Good Morning Baltimore,” to the final movements of “You Can’t Stop the Beat.”

    The show follows traditional musical comedy themes as Tracy Turnblad, an overweight high school hair hopper, becomes a local celebrity when she spearheads efforts to integrate Baltimore’s “Corny Collins Show,” and thus, makes an impact during the Civil Rights Movement. The stage version changes the story a bit: Velma Von Tussle is the producer of the TV show, thus eliminating the characters played by Mink Stole, Sonny Bono, and Divine (as a man). Another change: one of the Council Members is pregnant, thus opening a spot for Tracy. The libretto by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan, offers far more character development.

    Furthermore, the national tour has been blessed with such remarkable talents as Austin Miller (Link), Jordan Ballard (Amber), and Sandra Denise (Penny), Terron Brooks is a magnificent Seaweed J. Stubbs, and Todd Susman brings a lot of heart to Wilbur. Former Harlette Charlotte Crossley is outstanding as Motormouth Maybelle, while Bruce Vilanch is an understated Edna Turnblad. He sings better than Harvey Fierstein (on the cast recording) and wisely gives the show to the aforementioned Carly Jibson, who, as Tracy Turnblad, is really the star of the show. Since her performance in Minneapolis, it’s been reported that Jibson will take over the role on Broadway alongside Michael McKean, when Harvey Fierstein and Kathy Brier leave the show on May 2. Good for Jibson!

    While Hairspray isn’t as perfect an adaptation to the stage as was The Full Monty, it’s an enormously pleasurable evening of theatergoing though.

  • Lanford Wilson has always been a difficult playwright to read. His work is ever changing and he’s consistently changing his style to challenge his audience. Perhaps his most famous work is the Talley family trilogy which began with his beautiful, Pulitzer Prize-winning play Talley’s Folly, a romantic comedy about Sally Talley being romanced by Matt Friedman on Independence Day, 1944.

    He followed this with the second piece, Fifth of July. Set 30 years later, Ken Talley, a handicapped Vietnam veteran and his lover, Jed, are planning on selling the homestead to an old college friend and aspiring pop star and her manager husband, while Aunt Sally wanders around the homestead where she’s come to scatter her husband’s ashes. Both Talley’s Folly and Fifth of July are fully realized plays that stand well on their own. Not so the third, and weakest entry in the trilogy, Talley & Son. This seldom-produced work has been given a decent staging by Brad Donaldson at the Lex-Ham Community Theatre in St. Paul.

    Taking place at the same time that Sally is down at the boathouse with Matt, the play focuses on the turmoil in the family the day they learn their son, Timmy, has been killed in the South Pacific. (His ghost consistently comments on the action) There is plenty of debate about transferring the local family-owned businesses, a textile factory and the bank, to postwar production, as the Calvin Stuart Tally, Patriarch of the family, settles accounts while hiding behind a veil of senility. There are scandals, personal battles and the anguish of death in this turbulent household. Fine performances are delivered by George Farr (Calvin), Rose Johnson (Netta), Frank Blomgren (Eldon), Natalie Westreich (Lottie), and Tim Hagedorn (Timmy).

    Talley & Son is not a very good play because it requires a working knowledge of the action in the other parts of the trilogy. It often appears to be more a tribute to Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes, or Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, than a well-rounded addition to the trilogy. Of course, Wilson had trouble with this one: A Tale Told, a previous version of the material, failed in its original staging, thus sending Wilson back to the typewriter for this version. After all is said and done, it’s best that theatres continue producing the better of these works and leave this one behind.

  • The Gilbert and Sullivan Very Light Opera Company staged a revival of Iolanthe or The Peer and the Peri, the delightful operetta when everyone winds up “a fairy,” and it was a smashingly good time. One of the most successful of the Savoy musicals, the show pokes fun at the aristocracy and the hierarchy within the magical world.

    The plot focuses on Strephon, a shepherd in love with the charming Phyllis, Ward in Chancery to the Lord Chancellor. We learn that Strephon is only half human and his mother, Iolanthe, has been banished because she married a human. In typical G & S style, the plot is resolved, but not before we’ve been entertained by some delightful story twists, melodies, patter songs.

    The evening is made especially delightful by director Lesley Hendrickson, music director James Straka, Donald Barbee (Lord Chancellor), David Morris (Private Willis), Christopher Silsby (Strephon), Kathryn Larsen (Queen of the Fairies), and especially Lara Trujillo (Iolanthe).

    After last season’s dreadful Grand Duke, the GSVLOC has wisely chosen to stage Ruddigore in a concert version, and will present The Gondoliers as their main stage production next season.

  • One of the best kept secrets in the Twin Cities is the University Opera and their production of Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffman. It fulfilled the promise made with The Dangerous Liaisons. While Artistic Director David Walsh has given the opera a rather odd new English Translation, the production, based on three of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Tales, the staging and vocal performances were remarkable.

    Walsh moved the opera to the 20th Century, (and has switched around Acts 2 and 3), beginning in Luther’s Nuremberg Wine Bar during the interval of an Opera, circa 1925. The villain of the piece, Lindorf, is hoping to observe Hoffman’s downfall as three romantic tales are related:

    • In 1990, Hoffman falls in love with Olympia, a mechanical doll, until the evil Coppelius destroys it, with Hoffman being blamed.
    • In 1970, the ailing opera singer, Antonia, has been warned not to sing or it will prove fatal. Encouraged by the mean-spirited Dr. Mirakel, Antonia does, indeed, sing and she dies, Hoffman accused of causing her death.
    • The third act takes place in the brothel of Dapertutto’s cohort, the beautiful courtesan, Guilietta in the 1950s. Because, Dapertutto is really a demon, with Guilietta’s help, he wishes to steal Hoffman’s reflection, thereby gaining his soul. His plan backfires and Hoffman, overcome with the sadness of his romantic experiences, rejects earthly love, favoring the glories of art instead.
    While Bill Murray’s villains were all of fine voice, he lacks the maturity that the role requires. The the standout performances include: Jeffrey Hess (Hoffman), Carrie Shaw (Muse/Niklausse), Kristin Root (Olympia), and Anna Brandsoy (Guilietta). One is astounded by the vocal techniques of Andrea Korago’s mezzo in the role of Antonia’s mother. And even more putstanding is Tara Leberge (Antonia), who has a voice opera fans frequently quest. We’ll be hearing from her again.

    In spite of Walsh’s strange adaptation, Tales of Hoffman was an outstanding production.

  • Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, playwrights with links to the Twin Cities, spent hours interviewing Death Row inmates who’d been exonerated, and their extraordinary, award-wining reader’s theatre piece, The Exonerated is also “Theatre of Testimony,” and the show presently on a national tour starring Lynn Redgrave, Brian Dennehy and Bruce MacVittie.

    Taken from transcripts, letters, public records, and interviews, we hear the true stories of six people wrongfully convicted of murder, and later released without so much as an apology or any financial arrangements:

    • Gary Gauger was convicted of murdering his parents, until he was exonerated after learning that two bike gang members had committed the crime.
    • Kerry Max Cooke was imprisoned for 22 years before DNA proved his innocence.
    • Robert Earl Hayes spent seven years on death row before a lock of hair changed his fate.
    • Sunny Jacobs remained in prison an additional 16 years after her innocence was proven, just because the courts ignored the evidence.
    • David Keaton was 18 years old when he faced a trumped up robbery/murder charge. Upon release, this former Seminary student had lost his spark for life.
    Poet Delbert Tibbs is the heart of the play’s center, convicted of rape and murder, but later freed when it was discovered he wasn’t even in the city where the crime occurred. The script continually returns to his commentary as audiences hear testimony about the American criminal justice system gone horribly wrong.

    As directed by Bob Balaban, the ensemble, which features Nell Balaban, David Brown, Jr., William Jay Marshall and Trish McCall, along with the aforementioned performers, is a fine, powerful intermission-less evening that’s not soon forgotten. Because it’s a well-honed ensemble, the performances are all equal, although Marshall, Redgrave and MacVittie deliver the standout performances. The Exonerated continues across the U.S. and is not to be missed!

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