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Minneapolis Scene
by Steven LaVigne
August 2004
It wasn’t a dream, but in midsummer, I found myself taking in the theatrical riches of London’s West End. My first stop was the TKTS booth in Leicester Square, and the Duke of York’s Theatre, where Claudia Shear’s “Dirty Blonde” had recently opened. Jo, an actress meets Charlie, a curator at Mae West’s grave. They form a friendship that’s interspersed with scenes from West’s life (her beginnings in vaudeville; her arrests on moral charges while performing on Broadway and her life in Hollywood are included).

Charlie, who met West while in high school, occasionally dresses up as West, and Jo must come to terms with this. Bob Stillman and Kevin Chamberlin play multiple roles to Shear’s Jo and her Mae West. The highlight is the first act finale, when Shear, costumed in Susan Hilfrey’s Merry Widow corset, puts on the dress, hat and feather boa to become the personification of Mae West. “Dirty Blonde” is a brilliant tribute to one of Hollywood’s greatest gay icons.

It’s an unwritten rule that that London theatergoers need to see at least one Shakespeare play. Tickets to the Globe Theatre are difficult to come by, but Trevor Nunn’s production of “Hamlet” at the Old Vic was available. Nunn took a contemporary approach and used actors who are the right age for their roles. Tom Mannion’s Claudius and Imogen Stubbs’ Gertrude are a completely self-absorbed political couple, while Ben Wishaw’s Hamlet is thin, gangly and aimless.

As the drama unfolds and the political intrigue is brought to light, there were outstanding performances by Nick Jones as Polonius, Rory Kinnear as Laertes, Jotham Annan as Horatio, and Sidney Livingstone as the Player King. Samantha Whittaker played Ophelia as part schoolgirl/part party girl, developing a deeply moving performance, with an especially effective mad scene. Winshaw’s Hamlet was carefully calculated as his Hamlet knowingly drew strength. In the play’s final, tragic moments, Winshaw emerged triumphant.

Tennessee Williams’ “Suddenly Last Summer” was given a fine revival directed by Michael Grandage and starring Diana Rigg and Victoria Hamilton. Mrs. Venable is a wealthy woman whose gay son, Sebastian, died a cannibalistic death suddenly last summer. Mrs. Venable wants her niece, Catherine, who witnessed his death, to have a lobotomy. Rigg seemed to be channeling Katharine Hepburn, while Victoria Hamilton as the niece, was amazing! Her Catherine was a sensible woman who’s been seriously wronged, and Hamilton delivered a carefully controlled performance building to Catherine’s powerful final monologue.

With R. C. Sherriff’s World War I drama, “Journey’s End,” director David Grindley has created an ensemble cast of great performances from Philip Franks as Osbourne, and David Sturzaker as Stanhope, the Captain who drinks to cover his pain. Into the trench comes Toby Kebbell as Lt. Raleigh. Raleigh idolizes Stanhope, who is engaged to his sister. This riveting play deals with the decisions made under the pressures of war. Jonathan Fensom’s set captures the play’s claustrophobic, tense themes, and Jason Taylor’s deliberately dim lighting enhances the moods of Sherriff’s brilliant play.

Now starring David Soul, “Jerry Springer, the Opera,” at the Cambridge Theatre is a show that’s often silly, somewhat shocking and enormously entertaining. Oh yes, it’s offensive, too! The first act is pretty much what you’d expect: trailer trash airing their dirty laundry. There’s even a chorus of tap-dancing KKK members. In Act 2, the show literally sinks into hell where Satan asks Jerry to serve as mediator while he demands an apology from Jesus. An embarrassment on TV, “Jerry Springer, the Opera” takes on a surreal element that’s entertaining.

There are flaws, especially in the second act, and the authors will need to rework it here and there before coming to Broadway, but overall, “Jerry Springer, the Opera” is a lot of fun!

Back in the USA, I saw another production of “Dirty Blonde,” at Park Square Theater in St. Paul. Shear’s play requires three skillful actors and a versatile director. Park Square had that with actors Jodi Kellogg, David Silvester and Peter Vitale and director Joel Sass.

Because I saw it in London, I have to make comparisons. LaPine kept the show simple and minimalist, focusing on the versatility of the ensemble and featuring the text. Sass took the script literally, focusing on the biographical passages of the text.

West’s image dominated the stage, both in Sass’ set design and Jodi Kellogg’s impersonation. Shear also played Jo softer, with more contrast, while Kellogg took the Brooklyn girl further. There was little differentiation between her characters. Both Silvester and Vitale use their multiple roles, from Charlie to W.C. Fields, Frank Wallace and Mr. Edward, “hairdresser to the stars,” to give their acting abilities quite a workout.

There were plenty of queer theatre offerings at the 2004 Minnesota Fringe Festival. They weren’t all successful, but here are some highlights (Alphabetically):

    “Agog” - Spoken Word Fringe
    A works in progress with performers doing short pieces. Swiftly moving, Eli Weintraub discussed a misguided, multicultural college production; Allegra Lingo had a three-part piece titled “Lemons,” wherein a wedding becomes just another theater production; Lane McKiernan’s “Isn’t It Intriguing,” related the aftermath of her coming out and her relationships with her two grandmothers.

    “Alien Potluck” - Corcoran Park Players
    These Lutheran Lunch Ladies have gathered to plan the annihilation of all the evil aliens in the universe. Directed by Douglas Dally, this was an hilarious collection of crazy, off-the-wall situations. A quartet of scenes explored “Elevator Etiquette;” a man frustrates his buddy as they talk about “Fly Fishing and Selling Bras,” and Richard Simmons, makes a new exercise video, wherein he surrounds himself with residents of a nursing home. The final sequence, “Attack of Lutheran Lunch Ladies’ was by far the funniest. Three of the women sit idly by, as the fourth serves their “hot dishes.” When they think she’s been eaten herself, they leave, commenting that Doris was a good cook. The audience must think so, too, because a woman in the audience commented “She was” as the stage was cleared. This was a delightful ensemble show!

    “Axis Mundi” - Aggravated Assault
    The plot, while set in a future society was basically medieval, but it hardly matters. This highly disciplined ensemble performed an exquisite ballet of stage combat. It would be fascinating to see them perform such classics as “The Mystery Plays, Jacobean drama or the works of Christopher Marlowe.

    “Boldly Going Nowhere” - Illusion Theatre
    Todd Petersen’s collection of short pieces featuring characters blithely moving through life, while boldly going nowhere. Patty Ann, a beauty queen who has her first orgasm in a lesbian experience on a forbidden trip to New York City; Derek, a “Saloon Sissy,” abandoned on an island where he survives on canned pineapple and reading and especially Sean, a pothead who reconnects with his brother at their father’s funeral and learns the secret to becoming clean and sober at the Grand Canyon are among the characters in this outstanding work, that he should develop further.

    “Dandelion Snow” - Out On Stage Productions:
    Matthew A. Everett’s script was filled with double entendres as two gay men, Ash (William T. Leaf) and Dana (David Schlosser) meet at the ruins of their old elementary school. Dana has moved in with the self-absorbed Julian, while Dana has “played the field.” After meeting Aiden, a delivery boy, they begin a relationship, but Ash’s love for Dana is undying and Aiden is a bit of a jerk. “Dandelion Snow” was nothing great, but it was efficiently directed by Brendan N. Perry, and the writing was sharp, with a clever cell phone conversation sequence and an outstanding performance from Grant Henderson.

    “Miss Biracial Upper Midwest 1984” - Theatre Mojo
    Heather Wilson and Leah Nelson have created an hilarious musical comedy that owes a lot to that terrific little movie, “Drop Dead Gorgeous.” Set in the Superior Lounge, this blatantly funny satire on beauty pageants features ridiculous musical numbers like “Xanadu,” (complete with bubble machine) as the reigning queen reluctantly gives up her crown; a contestant who’s attracted to the innocent girl from Iowa; weak jokes from the M.C. and a “wardrobe malfunction.” Costume Designer Wilson even recreates the outfit Cher wore when she won her Oscar! Even though it could have been smoother and more solid, this one was a lot of fun.

    “Patrick and James: A Love Story” - The Artsy Guy, Inc.
    I have nothing against love stories, but I think they often need better writers. Written by Michael D. Snyder, (who also plays James), this play follows the development of a gay relationship. Because, evidently no director was involved, the performance space itself created blocking problems. Furthermore, the characters were uninteresting and Snyder the actor, gangly and awkward, doesn’t know what to do with his body. He needs training in both acting and the dynamics of playwrighting.

    “Seussical” - Front Porch Theatre
    Gay composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahren based this on works of Dr. Seuss. I’ve long been a champion of this show. This production focused on letting the music tell story of Horton the Elephant, who hears voices on a dust speck, and sits on the egg of the arrogant Mayzie LaBird, when she can flies off to socialize. Dearly loved by his neighbor, Gertrude McFuzz, even when she grows a long tail, Horton doesn’t notice her. The Cat in the Hat and helps narrate this colorful, enjoyable production.

    “Tales of the Nether Regions” - Spoken Word Fringe
    This collage of performers doing either works that are part of their Fringe shows or new works include Les Kurkendaal, discussing how he promoted his show with New Zealand drag prostitutes; Howard Lieberman telling us about his first sexual experience in the cab of a 1958 Chevy pickup, and Joan Calof’s tale about visiting an African Hamaam. Sadly, while her story is interesting, Calof has a rather monotonous delivery style, so the story loses the audience before its conclusion.

    “The Great Masturbators” - Only Child Productions
    Paul von Stoetzel’s biography of the Spanish Surrealist movement is sexist, homophobic and lacks serious passion, with the exception of Amirali Raissnia’s performance as Salvador Dali. Instead it’s largely an exercise in mental masturbation.

    “These Pumps Are Killing Me” - DragIn Productions
    Patrick Braucher brought his drag personality, Coco Fondue to the Fringe. There were more costume changes than at a Mitzi Gaynor show, but the material wasn’t especially compelling. It was basically theatre as drag therapy as he played an onstage a game of “Guess Who He’ll Lip-synch to Next.”

    “The Valets” - Outward Spiral Theatre Company
    Where does Outward Spiral find this stuff? While the script was an attempt at a gay history lesson, featuring two generations of gay men: Lovers vs. Sex Buddies, it was really good actors struggling with an incoherent script. After this show, I was officially “fringed out!”

    “Vertograph” - Marvel Ann Productions:
    The Marvel Ann Theatre enters the major leagues with Dennis LeFebvre’s “Vertograph,” a jim dandy futuristic comedy. Set in the 1960s sitcom Anderson household, Barbara, the “perfect housewife,” copes with her rebellious daughter, Debbie, her gay son, Timmy and ignores her husband, Ted. Paying far too much attention to soaps and commercials, Barbara is losing it. When Timmy gives his sister a game of Vertograph for her birthday, Barbara finds herself transported into a Vonnegut-style parallel universe, where its inhabitants, Timmy and Debbie among them, achieve enlightenment. Barbara finds the “Secret Door,” and reaches a sort of nirvana. With a first-rate cast, this is Marvel Ann Theatre’s most creative, original work so far. It’s a delightful little gem!

    “Whiskey Bars” - Big Empty Barn Productions
    This solo musical was one of the finest offerings at this year’s Fringe. Bremner Duthie played a bisexual performer being interviewed by a reporter about his comeback. Begging for a good review, he explained his love for Weimer Cabaret Music. Playing the first half in a bath towel, then black boxer briefs, Duthie rendered a stunning, stirring “What Keeps a Man Alive?” and his “Mack the Knife” was slow and seductive, because “it’s a song for a bad boy.” Weill’s music is both sacred and profane at the same time, and “Whiskey Bars” was smart, sexy and a bit sad.

When producer Ross Hunter failed to wrest the film rights to Sandy Wilson’s 1920s musical “The Boyfriend,” he commissioned Richard Morris to write an original 1920s story for Julie Andrews. In it, Millie Dillmount, a young lady from Kansas, finds adventure in New York City. Using a score of period standards, “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” featured Mary Tyler Moore, Carol Channing, John Gavin and the incomparable Beatrice Lillie. The movie is remembered as being better than it really was.

Shortly before his death, Morris collaborated with gay writer Dick Scanlan on a theatrical treatment with new lyrics to music by Jeanine Tesori (openly stealing from Arthur Sullivan, Victor Herbert and Tchaikovsky). Somehow this thing won the Tony for Best Musical over the far superior “Urinetown.”

The road company, playing at the Ordway Theatre conveys both what is good and bad about this material. Therer are terrific performances by Darcie Roberts as Millie, Richard Roland as Jimmy and Stephanie Pope as Muzzy Van Hossmere. Ann Warren impersonates Mary Tyler Moore and David Gallo’s Manhattan scenery has been influenced by the art of Joseph Stella and Georgia O’Keeffe. Much of Rob Ashford’s choreography is clever, although “The Nuttycracker Ballet” is a little too much like Michael Kidd’s “Girl Hunt Ballet” from “The Band Wagon. Gay director Michael Mayer has created a smooth, slick and professional production.

But there’s something seriously wrong with all this, and it’s the basic plot. Millie’s adventure includes uncovering a white slavery ring masterminded by her landlady, Mrs. Meers. Women were kidnapped and abused. If they weren’t murdered, they were forced into drug addiction and prostitution. Few ever escaped, becoming instead, part of China’s faceless masses.

No matter how clever and fancy you make it, trivializing it is offensive. Furthermore, the way that the characters were expanded for the stage is offensive. Mrs. Meers (Pamela Hamill) uses a racist Asian speech impediment, and the treatment of her henchmen, (Andrew Pang and Darren Lee) even more unsavory. The story of women entrapped by white slavery is a worthy topic for a dramatic musical, but not something intended to be a celebration of a bygone era. With such a good-looking show, it’s a pity that “Thoroughly Modern Millie” isn’t better that this.

Outward Spiral’s new play, “In the Garden,” Minneapolis Musical Theatre’s area premiere of “Bat Boy: the Musical,” The Guthrie’s production of Shaw’s “Pygmalion,” and the Minnesota Opera’s umpteenth revival of “Madame Butterfly” are among the highlights for the Fall season here in the northland. We’ll see how things fare this fall.

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