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Minneapolis Scene
by Steven LaVigne
February 22, 2005

Macbeth

Now that the holiday entertainment blitz is over, the Twin Cities can get back to serious theatre. The Artists Shakespeare Festival got things off to a zesty start by producing a lively, sexy and entertaining production of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.” Jeffrey Alan Haas delivered a production that was outrageous. Basing his show on the political climate when King James, the gay son of Mary, Queen of Scots, became James I of England, Haas found a deeply sexual gay sub text and played it at the top, with a slant toward the eclectic. There weren’t any Scottish accents, but there were kilts from Ragstock.

Still, through it all, Haas concentrated on an authenticity in the text and production, that was both startling and refreshing. His Malcolm, for example, was based on King James, and he had a sexual relationship with the invented character Lord Jameson Stuart. While this could have been further developed, it added a unique dimension to this always fascinating play.

Among the highlights: some of the acting, especially Brendan Brandt’s Macbeth, David P. Schneider’s Banquo, Bud Prescott’s crusty old Rosse, redhead Jolie Mesbesher’s pretty in pink, but lethal Lady Macbeth, and Mic Weinblatt’s Porter. While Brandt (who resembles Dennis Christopher) had a diction and over-articulation that was distracting, he had a schoolboy charm that was disarming and strangely effective.

Among the notable items were the painstaking influence of Quentin Tarentino on the play’s violence, apparently lifted from the “Kill Bill” movies. Banquo’s murder scene, was especially vivid, while the bloodied hands of the Macbeths following Duncan’s death were excessive. Haas took things a bit too literately with “Is this a dagger I see before me?” — especially when Duncan visually stabbed himself, rather than having Macbeth do it.

The witches orgy was filled with fascinating overindulgence and luscious male nudity. It led into a clever staging for the succession of Scottish Kings, after which, the male witches sodomized Macbeth. Still, with so much violence and bloodshed on stage, why was none of Macbeth’s blood spilled at the production’s climax?

Haas didn’t always succeed at blending the various schools of acting among the ensemble. For example, Mephistor, the head witch played by Trevor Hartman, had line deliveries too obviously taken from the William Shatner school of acting, while Todd O’Dowd overacted as usual. Couldn’t the costumer bring an iron to press Lady Macduff’s dress and do something to Banquo’s kilt so it will hang better?

Treemonisha

Until 1973, when his musical rags were used to underscore “The Sting,” African-American composer Scott Joplin (1868-1917), had been forgotten. Three years after the country embraced Joplin’s music, the Houston Grand Opera produced the first complete production of Joplin’s folk opera, “Treemonisha.” The North Star Opera has chosen to celebrate African-American History month with this lovely piece of Americana, and what a treat it is!

The story is slight. Set in 1884 Arkansas, Treemonisha, who was “found” under the “Sacred Tree” by Monisha and her husband, Ned is kidnapped by a Conjurer, for taking business away from him. She’s rescued by Remus, who lives here. When she returns, Treemonisha leads the ensemble in Joplin’s “A Real Slow Drag,” as the curtain falls. Wisely, the show is done without interval.

Staged by gay director Rick Thompson, with Steven Stucki conducting the orchestra, this is possibly the best production I’ve ever seen at the North Star Opera. Thompson’s vision is evident throughout the evening. For one thing, he encouraged his actors to think through the characterizations. While it’s a little slow in places, this delicious blend of rag, gospel and traditional opera — Joplin was influenced by Richard Wagner — is filled with treasures to behold.

As usual, T. Mychael Rambo as Zodzetrick, the conjurer, leads the company, all of whom are spectacular. Among the standouts are Johanna Harley as Monisha, E. Mani Cadat as Remus, Julius C. Collins III as the Parson, and especially Lisa Butcher as Treemonisha. Butcher’s clear soprano carries us through a great evening of opera.

La Boheme

I’m not a fan of Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924), but I’m beginning to change my opinion. One reason is Theatre Latte Da’s splendid “La Boheme.” Perhaps inspired by Baz Luhrmann’s recent staging, which moved the story to the 1950s, gay director Peter Rothstein has taken the kinks out of this warhorse.

While it’s wisely sung in Italian, the ensemble is small, but full of good voices done by a young and energetic cast. I found the result far more refreshing than Zefferelli’s overproduced 1982 Metropolitan Opera staging, featuring multi-layered sets and a Mimi whose throat was closed until the Third Act, and was nowhere near the 21-year-old victim of T.B. called for in the script.

Based on Henri Murger’s “Scenes de la Vie de Boheme,” the plot focuses on poet Rodolfo, painter Marcello, philosophy student Colline, musician Schaunard, and Marcello’s old flame Musetta. She has allowed a wealthy man to take care of her. On Christmas Eve, Rodolpho meets Mimi, a seamstress, and they quickly fall in love against the background of the Nazi occupation of Paris.

Rothstein uses clay sculptures arranged on the same table which will serve as Mimi’s deathbed as his vista of the City of Light. Little things, here and there capture the mood of the period, but it’s the quality of this glorious cast which must be celebrated. Daniel Cardwell’s Rodolfo, Aaron Larson’s Marcello, Rob Woodin’s Schaunard, and Roy Kallemeyn in several roles, lead the marvelous ensemble of men, while Bryan Boyce, whom I’ve seen in several University Opera productions, is a triumphant Colline.

There are few moments in the opera vernacular that marvel an audience like “Musetta’s Waltz,” even in “Rent,” that travesty which passes for a modern variation on this tragic romance. In Rothstein’s version, Jill Sandager is accompanied by an accordion, and it’s a highlight of the evening. Meghann Schmidt’s Mimi is luscious and beautiful, and hers is a voice of which I hope to hear more in future.

Joseph Schlefke is to be commended for his brilliant orchestration. He’s arranged the score for a five piece combo of street instruments, and it enhances this valentine of a production. “La Boheme” has been extended through at the Loring Playhouse.

Sweet Charity

Like its creator, Bob Fosse, “Sweet Charity” has had open heart surgery. However, the heart has been removed.

Based on Fellini’s “Nights of Cabiria,” this story of a dance hall hostess who “runs her heart like a hotel” only to fall in love with a normal guy. It was originally conceived it as a showpiece for Gwen Verdon. It spawned tours with Chita Rivera and Juliet Prowse. A film version with Shirley MacLaine was released in 1969, and, in spite of a downbeat ending, “Sweet Charity” is fondly remembered. Indeed, Fosse died en route to a performance of the revival.

“Sweet Charity” has returned, thanks to the production team involved with the smashing revival of “Chicago,” and what’s on stage features a small ensemble headed by TV’s Christina Applegate as Charity and Denis O’Hare as Oscar, the nice guy she meets in an elevator. However, thanks to director Walter Bobbie, choreographer Wayne Cilento and librettist Neil Simon, Fosse’s vision has been eliminated.

Gone are the overture’s opening vamp, Charity’s black dress and heart-shaped tattoo, much of the original, sexily stylish dancing, as well as most of the character and plot development. It resembles a tired bus and truck company, not a first-class tour heading for Broadway.

While he keeps “The Rich Man’s Frug” intact, Cilento is clearly the wrong choreographer for the show, because his work is far too subtle, better suited to “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas,” than Cy Coleman’s jazzy score or Dorothy Fields’ knowing lyrics. Why Ann Reinking wasn’t hired is anybody’s guess.

By truncating the script, there are no real people on stage, and everything seems rushed. It’s like Bobbie didn’t trust the material or couldn’t wait for audiences to see what could be done with the big moments. When a scene like the one in the elevator is played, it looks out of place, because it doesn’t fit into this seriously edited text.

Furthermore, while Coleman added a song for O’Hare to sing after his first date with Charity, it’s hardly necessary, while the charming and funny “I Love to Cry at Weddings,” has been reduced to one verse, replaced by another song that’s out of place, because everything about the people singing it has been eliminated.

To be fair, Applegate’s charm grows on the audience, but because her training is all from television, she doesn’t project much energy across the footlights and, because she hasn’t been given a lot of direction, she’s channeling MacLaine’s performance. Charity, after all, isn’t that big a stretch from Kelly Bundy.

The show is headed for Chicago and Boston, but unless it goes through a serious overhaul, and the heart is returned, this “Sweet Charity” will be chewed up by audiences and critics like a piece of old candy.


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