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Minneapolis Scene
by Steven LaVigne
June 2005

Take Me Out

I saw Richard Greenberg’s award-winning play, “Take Me Out” in New York two years ago, and was thrilled that Mixed Blood would present the area premiere. While not the greatest work of the recent American theatre, it’s an intelligent examination of such learned behaviors as homophobia, ignorance and racism facing us in the current, conservative political climate.

The plot focuses on Darren Lemming, here played by Lindsay Smiling, an African American center fielder for the New York Empires, who startles his teammates when he announces that he’s gay. When Shane Mungitt (Zach Curtis), a remarkable player comes along, Lemming learns something about carefully taught bigotry. Mungitt, whose background of orphanages and group homes has kept him ignorant, reveals his lack of social skills when the press asks about his relationships with his team. His statements lead to tragedy. As the season progresses, Darren forms an unlikely friendship with Mason Marzac, his nervous, shy business manager, who blossoms when he discovers the beauty of baseball. There’s no question that, in an era when serious drama is lacking, Greenberg’s play, no matter how flawed, would take the top prizes and find continued life in regional theatre.

As directed by Stan Wojewodski, Jr., the Mixed Blood production of “Take Me Out” however, the flaws are more prevalent than they were on Broadway. While the play provides sharp, edgy roles for twelve actors, features updated shocks of recognition like casual male nudity, foul language and working showers, this locker room saga is merely a variation of the domestic “kitchen sink” dramas writers like William Inge once produced. On Broadway, the performances of Daniel Sunjata, Denis O’Hare, Frederick Weller and Neal Hoff were strong enough to make the flaws seem minimal, but Greenberg’s play suffers from a poorly executed resolve that could use further development.

A busy local actor told me that he thought it’s because Greenberg was trying to finish the script before it went into production. The question then arises as to why he didn’t fix it in rehearsal. After all, if writers like Kaufman and Hart could add new lines and jokes to their brilliant comedies a few months after they’d opened, what’s to stop Greenberg from fixing his play?

As directed by Wojewodski the chief emotional expression, especially in the second act, is anger, and while the ensemble, especially Smiling, Curtis and Sean Dooley as Kippy, work hard to bring the play to its conclusion, it’s an easy out that has, sadly, become the norm when producing serious drama in local theatre. Even the Guthrie does it. Aren’t the actors better trained to find new methods of playing material like this?

“Take Me Out” has the trappings of what was once termed the “well-made” play, but it needs more work to fulfill that promise.

A Little Night Music

Following their productions of “Company” and “Follies,” gay composer Stephen Sondheim and his producing partner, Harold Prince revived a plan to create a musical with a score made up of waltzes. With a libretto by Hugh Wheeler, based on Ingmar Bergman’s great movie, “Smiles of a Summer Night,” and a cast headed by Glynis Johns, former Guthrie actor Len Cariou, and Hermione Gingold, “A Little Night Music” is a classy, stylish musical, which was the triumph of the 1973 Broadway season. However, because the show was made into a ghastly wrongheaded film starring Elizabeth Taylor, the quality of the property has kept it from regular productions anywhere but the Opera House.

Lakeshore Players, one of the oldest theatrical organizations in the Twin Cities, ended its current season with a lovely production, sharply directed by Doug Dally and Marina Liadova handling the musical chores. Dally’s sure-handed staging focused on the script’s intelligence, while enhancing the sex comedy within the libretto. Set in Sweden on midsummer night’s eve, the story involves the follies of “the young, who know nothing, the foolish, who know little, and the old, who know too much.”

Dally and Liadova were aided in their quest for a superb production by the seventeen members of the ensemble. Leading the cast were Dean Elwell as Fredrik Egerman, the frustrated lawyer married to child bride Anne, who is played by Shanta Hejmadi (in excellent voice). Joseph Guarino is a delightful Henrik, Egerman’s conflicted Lutheran Ministry student. Actress Desiree Armfeldt is played by Jan Joseph, who gives a beautiful, solid performance, specifically when she performs Sondheim’s classic song, “Send in the Clowns.” Lynn Gardow’s knowing matriarch, Madame Armfeldt, is the voice of wisdom within Wheeler’s libretto, while Karlina Beck and the Countess and James Currell as the dragoon, provide much of the musical’s cynical comedy. Another standout is Angela Walberg, whose lusty servant, Petra, vocally expresses her sexuality while understanding her station in life.

This production of “A Little Night Music” was a marvelous chance to welcome Spring in a musical theatre manner.

Nixon in China

Ever since the Houston Grand Opera broadcast their premiere production of John Adams’ opera, “Nixon in China,” directed in his classic showman style by Peter Sellars, I’ve wanted the Minnesota Opera to include it in their repertoire. I had to wait 18 years, but I wasn’t disappointed, as they concluded an outstanding season that also featured the North American premiere of “Maria Padilla.” Based on Richard Nixon’s historic visit to negotiate with Mao Tse-tung, a half year before the Watergate break-in, this is not an opera with a melodic score to lull an audience into euphoria. It’s a rousing, presentational piece that documents a media-heavy event that would prove the outstanding achievement by one the most disliked Presidents in recent history.

James Robinson used the media technique as a centerpiece for his magnificent staging, and television screens dominated Allen Moyer’s all-red set design. Robinson’s taken all of Sellars’ trappings out of the opera and along with choreographer Sean Curran, has created a dazzling production that never lets up for a moment. While the sequence where Adams’ brilliant fanfare underscores the flight and landing of the Spirit of ’76 is muted, there is so much to admire here, we can forgive that moment.

As Richard Nixon, Carlos Archuleta is not only in superb voice, but has obviously studied Nixon’s mannerisms, including the way he’d stump forward and make individuals the center of his focus. Angela Fout makes the bland, uninteresting Pat Nixon into a lively, vibrant woman, and Andrew Wilkowske contrasts her as a rather laid-back Kissinger.

The outstanding performance here, however, belongs to Helen Todd, whom, as Madame Mao Tse-tung, has one of those whiz bang operatic entrances in Act 2, when she interrupts an offensive ballet based on her “Red Detachment of Women,” to sing the opera’s rousing aria, “I am the Wife of Mao Tse-tung,” a moment that’s every bit as great as Norma’s “Casta Diva,” or Violetta’s “Un Di, Quando Le Veneri.”

“Nixon in China” was an incredible end to a spectacular season for the Minnesota Opera!

She Loves Me

Two weeks before the Guthrie Theatre opened with “Hamlet” in 1963, Harold Prince, along with his writing team of librettist Joe Masteroff, lyricist Sheldon Harnick and composer Jerry Bock opened “She Loves Me” on Broadway. Based on Miklos Laszlo’s play, “Parfumerie,” this lovely, lilting musical entertainment is set in Budapest, circa 1934. Georg and Amelia are two clerks spar through their workday, never imagining they’re actually falling in love with one another through letters addressed to “Dear Friend.” With a cast that included Jack Cassidy, Barbara Baxley, Daniel Massey and the remarkable Barbara Cook, “She Loves Me” played 302 performances, before it succumbed, unable to compete with the start of the Blockbuster musical era which would begin with “Hello, Dolly!” Prince, Bock and Harnick would join that revolution the following year with their cash cow, “Fiddler on the Roof.”

Gay director John Miller-Stephany, along with Choreography by James Sewell and Musical Direction by Andrew Cooke, the Guthrie has cooked up an enchanting production of this delicious parfait. Garrett Long is a lovely Amelia, while Lee Mark Nelson brings a boyish charm to Georg. They are equally matched by Christopher Carl as the pompous Kodaly and especially by Shanara Gabrielle as the long-suffering Ilona.

In smaller roles, Jason Tam as Arpad, Mark Rosenwinkel as Ladislav, Steve Shaffer as Mr. Maraczek and especially Bradley Greenwald as the Headwaiter all have their moments to shine.

If there’s any criticism, it’s that the pace is too slow and at three hours, ten minutes, this makes the evening too long. “She Loves Me” is a simple, breezy romance, and were the cabaret dance sequence and a song or two trimmed, it would move faster and maintain the spirit of the show.

The Guthrie chose “She Loves Me” as its Spring offering, as they move toward their final season on Vineland Place before moving to new digs on the Mississippi Riverfront in 2006. They follow with John Guare’s adaptation of the classic screwball comedy, “His Girl Friday,” which will star Angela Bassett and Courtney Vance.

Dames at Sea

According to Stephen J. Bottoms’ book, “Playing Underground,” the script for “Dames at Sea” was rescued from a dumpster and produced at the Caffe Cino. It proved so popular that its writers, George Haimsohn and Robin Miller and composer, Jim Wise expanded the material and it moved to a longer run at Off-Broadway’s Theatre de Lys, making it’s leading player, Bernadette Peters, a star.

The show is both a loving tribute to and a spoof of the Busby Berkeley musicals produced at Warner Bros. in 1933, specifically “42nd Street.” The stars of those features were Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell, and the show centers on Ruby, a talented girl from Utah, who arrives in New York, ready to conquer Broadway. At a theatre destined for demolition, she replaces a chorus girl, falls in love with Dick, a songwriting sailor. who’s being manipulated by the star of the show. The wisecracking character who would be played by either Ginger Rogers, Una Merkel or Joan Blondell is here named Joan, and she’s in love with a sailor named Lucky. Of course, the show builds to a happy ending.

The difference with the Gaydar Production of “Dames at Sea” is the secret to its success: Director-choreographer T.S. Lewis has staged the show with an all-male cast. Ruby is now played with delight by Doug Anderson; Joan by Paul Brekke, and Mona Kent, the star, by Gregg Peterson. This talented trio is matched by Shaun Nathan Baer as Lucky, Jonathan Knick as Dick and Kevin McLaughlin in the duo roles of Hennessey, the producer and as the Ship’s Captain.

Lewis has wisely kept his show simple, so Susan Krekelberg’s costumes and Andrew Owen’s set don’t intrude and it’s easy to relax and enjoy “Dames at Sea.” With Kyle Nelson at the piano, one can revel in such delightful moments as Dick’s fine rendition of “Broadway Baby,” the feather boa snaking across the stage as Mona sings about “That Mister Man of Mine,” Ruby’s lament, “Raining in My Heart,” Joan and Lucky’s “Choo-Choo Honeymoon,” and the hilarious finale, which looks like something from a Bette Midler concert.

No one understands camp better than gay men, and the Gaydar Production of “Dames at Sea” is a delight from start to finish, so it’s camp status is guaranteed. It continues at the Loring Playhouse through Gay Pride weekend. It’s a good thing this one was rescued from the garbage.

Applause

The joke goes that, if you’re a gay man who hasn’t seen “All About Eve,” you can have your gay card taken away. Joseph L. Manciewicz’s film about an apprentice actress who uses an established star as a steppingstone toward fame is a cinematic masterpiece, not only because it’s brilliantly written and acted, but because it revived Bette Davis’ career and introduced her to Gary Merrill, whom it’s said, “fell in love with Margo Channing but woke up next to Davis.” With a cast that includes Celeste Holm, Thelma Ritter, George Sanders and Marilyn Monroe in one of her first roles, the movie was the Oscar winner for Best Picture of 1950.

In the early 1970s, Betty Comden and Adolph Green adapted the libretto for their friend, Lauren Bacall, who was making her musical stage debut. Charles Strouse and Lee Adams, who also wrote the score for “Bye, Bye, Birdie,” did similar work for “Applause,” which, along with its star, took Tony Awards in the 1970 Musical categories. Considering the only real competition was Katharine Hepburn in a biography of Coco Chanel, this wasn’t surprising. On its own merits, “Applause” is a satisfying musical. Steven J. Meerdink and Kevin Hansen realized this and the Minneapolis Musical Theatre is closing its current season with much-needed smashing revival.

Comden and Green moved the plot forward to the 70s, with references to the Tony Awards, smoking “grass” and Birdie, the Thelma Ritter character changed into Duane, a flamboyant gay hairdresser. MMT has used this as the basis for their production, filling the stage with bell bottoms, leisure suits, fringe and leather. Jay Schueller’s set looks just spiffy, too. Overall, “Applause” is the slickest, most professional looking show they’ve ever done.

The performances, for the most part, are very professional as well. Karen Weber is an elegant and exciting Margo, while Gary Keast is a relaxed and loving Bill. Karen Wiese-Thompson finds a bubbly quality in Karen Richards that Celeste Holm used on-screen. As Howard Benedict, Marline Rothe is a smooth-talker, and Windy Bowlsby does a fine job leading the ensemble through the title song. Aaron Gabriel brings a lot of energy and presence to Duane.

Phil Losacker needs to do further character development before we can buy him as a professional playwright. Christine Nelson captures Eve Harrington in the early scenes, she’s got some work to do before she makes the second act work to her advantage.

This is the fourth production I’ve seen, (the best of them was in 1972, with Gretchen Wyler as Margo and Linda Kaye Henning stealing the show as Eve), but this production made me appreciate moments I never had before. “Who’s That Girl?” for example, was written for Bacall to satirize herself, with references to her appearance in “To Have and Have Not,” one of the sexiest ever seen on the screen.

Meerdink has stolen some of the choreography from the movie version of “Sweet Charity,” also set in the 1970s, but that’s a minor detail. He eliminated the “Oklahoma/Oh! Calcutta!” strip sequence, and “She’s No Longer a Gypsy” seems repetitious, but Margo and Bill’s corny love song, “One of a Kind” is a pleasurable moment.

You still need to see the movie if you want to keep your gay card, but in the meantime, this smashing production of “Applause” is a marvelous copy of the original.

Die Fledermaus

Because of it’s second act party scene, Johann Strauss II’s “Die Fledermaus” is an opera is often presented during the Winter holidays, but because this is the same show with which they opened, the long-running North Star Opera chose to close their 25th season with an early summer production, which was, indeed, a marvelous party.

Using the Ruth and Thomas Martin translation, the plot, of course, is a trifle. Dr. Falke, humiliated after a masked ball, creates an elaborate ruse to get even with his friend Eisenstein, whose wife, Rosalinda, is pursued by Alfred, an old flame, while the police commissioner pretends to be a Frenchman. Rosalinda discovers the ruse and joins in at Prince Orlofsky’s delightful gathering. At the city jail the following day, the drunken jailer adds to the confusion, which is resolved amicably.

Previous outings with North Star Opera have brought questionable, often inadequate results. “She Loves Me,” “The Chocolate Soldier,” and especially Noel Coward’s “Bittersweet” have been disappointments. This is different. Never has gay director and choreographer Randy Winkler done such fine work, and it’s evident throughout this production, because “Die Fledermaus” is a gem, filled with beautiful images and marvelous performances.

As Alfred, Mark Calkins is in fine, full voice and he’s matched by Norah Long’s lovely, resonant Rosalinda. Peter Halverson’s Dr. Falke weaves the elaborate spell beautifully, as Charles Schwandt’s marvelous vocal qualities lend themselves very well to the role of police commissioner Frank, as do Marcus McConico’s for the role of Eisenstein.

Top notch performances however, belong to the remarkable Jennifer Baldwin Peden who gives an Imogene Coca quality to the role of the chambermaid, Adele; Jill Anna Ponasik is a perfect Prince Orlofsky, and Luverne Seifert is a scene-stealing Frosch, the drunken jailer.

If there are criticisms, they are difficulties with articulation (a North Star standard problem) and that the noisy stage floor full of shuffling feet often distracts from the stage movement. Nevertheless, “Die Fledermaus” is a lovely parfait and a superb segue into summer theatregoing.

Elizabeth Rex

Theatre during Gay Pride is, as seen above, filled with musicals, but The New Place has chosen to present the area premiere of the late, gay, Canadian playwright Timothy Findlay’s “Elizabeth Rex,” a drama built around Queen Elizabeth I’s torment after she sentences her lover, Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex, to death for treason. History informs us that she hosted the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, Shakespeare’s company to perform at court, although which play went unrecorded. This leaves Findlay free to create a situational piece, wherein “Much Ado About Nothing” is presented because he believed the monarch would relate to Beatrice, one of the Bard’s strongest women.

He also strengthened his plot with a debate between the Queen and Ned Lowenscoft, a fictitious character representing the actors who portrayed Shakespeare’s women. Set in a barn on the palace estate on Shrove Tuesday, 1601, the Queen keeps some of the players up all night as she awaits Essex’ beheading. Ned is dying of a “pox,” (syphilis) and Findlay adds a sensitive sequence wherein Ned and the Queen show one another how to become themselves, while Elizabeth maintains that it’s her responsibility for England to survive. There are dubious references to the possibility of Shakespeare’s romantic involvement with Essex’ coconspirator, Harry Wriothesley, Earl of South Hampton, as well.

As produced by The New Place ensemble, “Elizabeth Rex” is full of contradictions, and it’s frequently uninspired. This is due, in part, to the playwright not being available to make changes. So much of the writing early in the second act merely rehashes what the audience already knows while not advancing the plot. With writing like this, it’s no wonder that some of those on the ensemble took the material too seriously, finding little joy in performing. At one point, the Queen asks Shakespeare, “Is this a play we’re in?”

One wishes the direction was better. There appears to be no sense of the fourth wall, and it’s tough to concentrate when scenes are played with actors’ backs to the audience. For the record, Emily Anderson as Kate Tardwell, Jeff Huset as Ned Lowenscroft, Keith Reed as Percy Gower, Bob Webster as Shakespeare, and Robin Johnson as Queen Elizabeth I, breathe life into their performances. They are well supported by H. Wesley McClain as Lord Cecil, and Isabel Nelson as Lady Mary Stanley. Mik Mikula’s set design is far too busy for such an intimate play, while Sarah French’s Costumes are for the most part, superb. This production had been in the works for two years. One just wishes that, after so much planning, “Elizabeth Rex” had served it’s audience better.


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