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Minneapolis Scene
by Steven LaVigne
April 24, 2005

The Wild Party

When Joseph Moncure March published his epic poem, “The Wild Party” in 1926, he had no idea it would inspire an outstanding evening of musical theatre, having its area premiere at the Fitzgerald Theatre under the banner of Cardinal Productions.

The plot focuses on Queenie, a vaudevillian and her lover, Burrs, whose affair has grown stale. They host a bash in their Greenwich Village digs on a hot summer night. Among the guests are Kate, who’s attracted to Burrs and Black, who recognizes Queenie’s abusive situation and tries to talk her into leaving Burrs. The party builds to a fever pitch before its ultimate, tragic conclusion.

Under the sure-handed direction and choreography of Andrew Rasmussen, Andrew Lippa’s faithful adaptation is a smashing time indeed. It’s clear from the start that both Lippa and Rasmussen have respect for their source material. Rasmussen uses a lot of old, tried and true staging techniques, but it’s sharp and fresh within the context of the show, which keeps it looking great and very sexy. Among other things, he leans toward the German Expressionism that Bob Fosse gave us in both the film “Cabaret,” and the original production of “Chicago.” (Indeed, under Rasmussen’s direction, one questions how Fosse himself missed using this material, because it has everything he loved).

While no one is credited with the production design, it’s nice to see a revolve and set pieces that are used so efficiently, rather than just taking up space. They don’t make gin in the bathtub, but Kate opens Act 2 singing “Life of the Party” while lounging in it.

It is the cast that makes “The Wild Party” the terrific, exciting evening of first rate theatre we get, because the actors, no matter how small their roles, have done their homework, and they understand the period, and how they fit within the framework of the show. Among the more outstanding performances are those of David Andrew Anderson as Burrs, Tony Vierling as Jackie, the aforementioned Jodi Carmeli as Kate, Darius Ewing as Black, E. Mani Cadet as Sam, and Kevin Werner as Oscar. Werner would be matched by JP Fitzgibbons as Phil, if he’d just articulate a bit more during the show’s opening sequences.

There are two standout performances in “The Wild Party.” Jen Burleigh Bentz as Queenie is in superb voice, and her movement is nicely detailed. How she maintains her energy throughout the show is the gift of a talented performer. As Madeline True, the lesbian, Nancy Marvy is simply magnificent and her rendition of “An Old Fashioned Lesbian Love Story” is a highlight. “The Wild Party” is a refreshingly original evening of modern musical storytelling.

As You Like It

The first professional Shakespearean production I ever saw was “As You Like It” at the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre. Future TV star and gay activist Judith Light appeared as Celia, done in a relatively small space, with a real tree plopped in the midst of clear lucite tiles. A pan of beans was cooked on stage using lights under the stage floor, but, except for Light’s performance, the production didn’t leave a lasting impression on me.

Joe Dowling’s has reset the play in the American 1960s at The Guthrie Theatre. Carnaby Street clothes and a mixture of pop and folk music serenade this comedy of young men and women banished along with the important father figure in their lives, to the Forest of Arden, where love conquers all.

Alas, it’s all for naught, because rather the stylish Richard Lester movies it was meant to emulate, this production, instead resembles those poor, later episodes of “The Beverly Hillbillies,” with Jethro playing Robin Hood” in Griffith Park. This “As You Like It” was not designed for a thinking audience, nor was is it an especially convincing adaptation.

What we get instead is a production designed as an audience pleaser, as represented in the wrestling scene. One of the actors copies Martin Short’s performance in “Father of the Bride,” and Mel Marvin’s score is closer in style to “Godspell” than to the work of Bob Dylan. There’s one sequence, toward the end of Act I, when the staging actually mocks one of the lasting fads from the period, “Meditation,” rather than presenting it in a favorable manner.

Perhaps it’s saddest crime, however, is that the actors aren’t having much fun with it, and rather than being a groovy time, the show is ultimately tedious and uncool.

Bianca Amato as Rosalind, Ryan Michelle Bathe as Celia, Stephen Pelinski as both Duke Frederick and Duke Senior, and Drew Cortese as Orlando, attempt to bring some joy to the proceedings, and James Noone’s chrome designed forest has a 60s look, but maybe Judith Light, a real tree and a pan of beans actually cooked on stage might have left me feeling more than numbed by this poor rendition of “As You Like It.”

Avenue Q

The big apple is crowded. The city never sleeps because it’s noisy, although there are quiet locations like “Avenue Q.” Robert Lopez, Jeff Marx and Jeff Whitty’s award-winning musical is a big hit and it’s terrific theatergoing.

This adult variation on “Sesame Street, follows Princeton, who’s just arrived with “a B.A. in English,” and big dreams. At a building that’s managed by TV’s Gary Coleman, Princeton meets Rod, a closeted gay Republican and his roommate, Nicky, (based on Bert and Ernie); Brian, a comedian, who’s engaged to Christmas Eve, an Asian psychologist, while Kate Monster, Lucy Slut, and Trekkie Monster are other denizens.

Princeton falls for Kate, whose dream is to open a Monstersorie School. “It Sucks to Be Me,” “Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist,” and “Schadenfreude,” are songs about politics, internet porn and money troubles among these young characters. Barrett Foa, Stephanie D’Abruzzo, Rick Lyon and Jennifer Barnhart are actor/puppeteers who blend in brilliantly and “full puppet nudity,” is part of a show that has almost as many laughs as there are people in New York. “Avenue Q’ continues at the John Golden Theatre.

Monty Python’s Spamalot

“Monty Python and the Holy Grail” is one of the funniest movies ever made and now, Eric Idle and John Du Prez were transforming it into a stage musical, “lovingly ripped off from the motion picture.” It’s not a literal translation, but there’s enough rollicking humor to keep audiences entertained. As directed by Mike Nichols, “Monty Python’s Spamalot” is a party, that plays like the greatest college musical ever written, celebrating many of Python’s highlights, with others that Idle has pulled from the trunk.

The Arthurian legend is only part of the plot, while the Python’s fish-slapping dance, flatulence jokes and rapid wordplay are cleverly performed by an ensemble that features Hank Azaria as a gay Lancelot (complete with a musical number inspired by “The Boy From Oz”), David Hyde-Pierce as a marvelous Sir Robin and headed by Tim Curry as King Arthur.

Political activist Dennis washes off his “lovely filth” to become Sir Galahad, but his encounter with the vixens of the Castle Anthrax is missing. The Black Knight and the Knights Who Say “Ni” are present, but Sir Bedevere’s logical solution to the witch problem is gone.

The Swamp Castle scene is recreated almost intact, while a video homage to animator Terry Gilliam includes the Trojan Rabbit, John Cleese provides the voice of God, and the audience gets to sing along with “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” interpolated from the film, “Life of Brian.” Some astounding things are done with cocoanuts and the Killer Rabbit not only shows up onstage, but you can buy Killer Bunny Slippers at the souvenir stand!

In a star-making role, Sara Ramirez as the Lady of the Lake (with her backup Laker Girls), has the shining moment of Act 2, with “The Diva’s Lament,” although she’s revealed, not as Vivienne, but instead she’s Guinevere as “Monty Python’s Spamalot” moves toward its happy ending.

Performances are sold out, and a Trojan Rabbit filled with Tony Awards is almost certain. The show isn’t the terrible mess that Mel Brooks made from “The Producers,” nor is it the theme-park attraction that “Beauty and the Beast” has become. “Monty Python’s Spamalot” is loads of fun. It will continue to play at Broadway’s gem, the Shubert Theatre for a long time.

A Streetcar Named Desire

Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire” is one of the masterworks of the American Theatre, because it examines changes in the class struggle of the deep South following World War II. Following the loss of her ancestral home, the disillusioned Blanche du Bois arrives in New Orleans’ French Quarter, where her sister, Stella, lives with her husband, the brutish Stanley Kowalski. His best friend, Mitch, is almost seduced by Blanche, but when Stanley uncovers her scandalous past Blanche succumbs to insanity.

Williams’ play made a star of Marlon Brando, and its first film version earned Oscars for Vivien Leigh, Karl Malden and Kim Hunter. The play is continually revived because there are meaty roles for actors.

How then, does the revival, produced by the Roundabout Theatre Company at Studio 54 fare? Staged by British director Edward Hall, this “Streetcar” leaves much to be desired. It’s evident, almost from the start that Hall understands neither the play nor the poetic rhythms Williams brought to his writing. Far too many questions are raised in the audiences’ minds which are unanswered because Hall hasn’t done his homework. This paces far too great a burden on the actors.

Natasha Richardson won a Tony for her performance in the Roundabout’s revival of “Cabaret,” and while she’s right for the role of Blanche, Richardson’s been so poorly directed, comes nowhere near the tragic heroine Williams wrote. As Stanley, John C Reilly is an interesting choice, but he’s hopelessly miscast. He doesn’t have the magnetism the role requires, and would have served the role of Mitch far better, especially since Chris Bauer is simply awful as Mitch.

This leaves only one worthwhile performance, that of Amy Ryan as Stella, to carry this production. Stella is often a thankless role, but Ryan finds the heart of this character and gives the only truly worthwhile performance. The Roundabout’s production of “Streetcar is only scheduled for an engagement of 17 weeks, but audiences would be better off with a DVD of the 1951 film version, or, should it become available, the 1984 TV production starring Ann-Margret.

King of Hearts

Back in the 80s, a guy was loudly complaining to his girlfriend because he’d been dragged to a screening of Phillipe de Broca’s “King of Hearts” at the Uptown Theatre. I told him to be patient and he’d enjoy the movie. Along with films of Godard, Demy and Truffaut, the 1966 “King of Hearts” is a masterwork of the French New Wave. It features Alan Bates’ finest performance and introduces us to the outstanding (if underused), Genvieve Bujold.

Set during World War I, the story concerns Pvt. Charles Plumpick, who’s been assigned to disconnect a bomb planted by German soldiers (Hitler has a cameo) in a small French town. Chased by Germans, he hides in the insane asylum, where the inmates are certain that he’s the King of Hearts. He falls in love with Coquelicot, a tightrope walker, but, while trying to save them from disaster, he must come to terms with his dilemma.

A decade after its release, “King of Hearts” was adapted to the musical theatre with a libretto by Steve Tesich, lyrics by Jacob Brackman and music by Peter Link. On Broadway, it acquired a script by Joseph Stein, and lasted six weeks, but the Goodspeed Opera later gave it new life. In the musical, Plumpick becomes Johnny, an American soldier, and the story occurs the day before the Armistice. Coquelicot becomes Jeunefille, a dancer, and the inmates of the asylum largely resemble circus performers.

I’ll praise the Theater Latte Da and Interact Theatre production before I bury the show. The production team did a smashing job assembling this production. Stylishly directed by Peter Rothstein, with the music beautifully done by Denise Prosek against John Clarke Donahue’s gorgeous set, “King of Hearts” is a real audience pleaser.

Every character has some lovely moments. Joel Liestman as Johnny and Stacey Lindell as Jeunefille, are beautifully matched and Tod Petersen is having a ball as the Bishop. Josette Antomarchi as Madame Madeleine, David Roberts as Genevieve and the trio of German soldiers, who are portrayed in Mel Brooks fashion via the Three Stooges, are utterly delightful, and there are times when the show is musical theater entertainment at its best.

Now I must bury the show itself, because, in spite of everything, this is a terrible musical. There’s a simple reason. A charming movie, “King of Hearts” doesn’t translate, because what works easily on film can’t be captured on the stage, and the score gets in the way of the material so the stage version pales by comparison. While the score tries serving the story, Jacob Brackman’s lyrics are below par musical exposition. Johnny’s opening number, “Here Comes Mine,” for example, is an example of below par musical comedy exposition for a story that requires a little more depth. Little wonder he never wrote another show.

Steve Tesich’s script is frequently arch and mean-spirited, nowhere near what de Broca intended, and it’s full of stereotypical characters, some of them, like Joe Leary’s Barber, bordering on offensiveness. The show isn’t at all P.C.

That couple I mentioned above, like everyone else who has seen the movie, left starry-eyed, because “King of Hearts” is one of the most enchanting films ever made. I wish I’d left the Loring Playhouse starry-eyed but, after all is said and done, the musical version will best be forgotten.

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