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Minneapolis Scene
by Steven LaVigne
August 2005
== London Events ==

Mary Poppins

In “Opera News,” composer Michael John Lachiusa considers the decline of the American musical. American musicals may be endangered, but the magnificent show currently at the Prince Edward Theatre challenges Lachiusa’s theory.

Cameron Mackintosh has collaborated with the Disney Organization, and brought P. L. Travers’ “Mary Poppins” to the stage. It’s not a stage version of the movie either. Julian Fellowes has expanded the libretto, fleshing out characters and plot, eliminating several memorable moments, and the Sherman Brothers’ score is enhanced by new songs and additional music and lyrics by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe.

Directed by Richard Eyre, with choreography (and co-direction) by Matthew Bourne, I liked the show so much, I saw it twice. “Mary Poppins” is, quite simply, one of the best musicals I’ve ever seen.

I’ve rarely enjoyed the blend of ingredients that go into a musical so much. Bob Crowley’s scenic and costume design blend imaginatively with Eyre and Bourne’s concepts as they reinvent the story. Mrs. Banks (Linzi Hateley) is no longer a suffragette, but is, instead, a retired actress. There’s no tea on the ceiling with Uncle Albert, and of course, the animation sequences are gone.

Bert (Gavin Lee), (whose appearance is brief in Travers’ book), leads us into the story. Katie Nanna has left the Banks household and a new nanny must be found, and Mary Poppins (Laura Michelle Kelly) arrives, magically setting up the nursery, while revealing in song that she’s “Practically Perfect” in every way.

The “Jolly Holiday” here becomes a celebration of Poppins’ personality, as the statues in the park come to life; the Bird Woman of St. Paul’s (Julia Sutton) is beautifully recreated, and the “Spoonful of Sugar” sequence has been magically expanded.

The highlight of Act I, of course, is the show’s most popular song, “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” Here, Mrs. Corry (Melanie La Barrie), whose story is the most vivid in Travers’ book, is placed where she belongs, at the center of the show. She’s the woman who put words in the mouths of William the Conqueror, but at her store, she’s out of words. There are only letters and they are combined to create “the biggest word you’ve ever heard.” This leads into an exciting audience sing-along enhanced by sign language. (Bourne’s partner, Arthur Pita, is hearing-impaired.)

One might think that so dynamic a first act couldn’t possibly be topped in Act 2, but it is! Mr. Banks’ (David Haig) nanny, Miss Andrew (Rosemary Ashe) is given short-shrift by Mary Poppins, and the marvelous chimney sweep number, “Step in Time” includes Bert defying gravity as he walks around the walls and ceiling of the stage. Of course, a happy ending is assured.

The performances are outstanding, especially those of Laura Michelle Kelly, Gavin Lee, David Haig and Linzi Hately, with fine smaller roles performed by Gerald Carey as Robinson Ay, Kevin Williams as the Park Keeper, Melanie La Barrie’s Mrs. Corry, and Stuart Neal as the statue Neleus. At the second performance, Poppy Tierney played the title role, and she was just as marvelous as Kelly.

The final moment of the show (which I won’t reveal) ensures “Mary Poppins’” place among the greatest children’s shows of all time, but this is far more than a kid’s show. “Mary Poppins” will remain one of the greatest musicals ever, and I hope it continually disproves Lachiusa’s theory.

Telstar

Joe Meek might have remained the most enigmatic man in pop music. However, Nick Moran and James Hicks brought his story vividly to life in their play, “Telstar” playing a limited engagement at the New Ambassador’s Theatre. Meeks was the genius behind “Telstar” a popular theme, named after the information satellite launched in 1962. Meeks worked in the kitchen of his north London flat, situated over Mrs. Shenton’s handbag shop in Holloway Road. He was the power behind such bands as The Tornadoes and The Honeycombs, turned down opportunities to work at Abbey Road and to promote Tom Jones, however, he was arrested for sexual soliciting with men, was sued for copyright infringement by a French composer, and addicted to prescription medications. In 1967, just as his life was turning around, Meek murdered his landlady before committing suicide.

“Telstar” is written in the style of a “kitchen sink” drama that is equally part John Osborne and part Joe Orton (who tragically was murdered the same year as Meek). Directed by Paul Jepson, this play is brought to vivid life by its cast, which features Gareth Corke as Geoff Goddard, Tarl Caple as Chas Hodges, and Joseph Morgan as Heinz Burt. Linda Robson is a marvelous, understanding Mrs. Shenton, but it is Con O’Neill as Joe Meek who is, rightly, the strength behind this production.

Let’s hope that “Telstar” crosses the pond, because this is an outstanding, powerful evening of theater.


== Back to Minneapolis Events ==

His Girl Friday

Howard Hawks can be credited with refining the screwball comedy. “Bringing Up Baby” is the penultimate picture of the genre. His revision of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s newspaper play, “The Front Page” with Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell and, in a nice performance, Ralph Bellamy, remains fresh and funny six decades later. “The Front Page” been through many incarnations, including four film versions, several television productions (including a series) and the musical, “Windy City.”

John Guare (“The House of Blue Leaves”) was commissioned to write a play for London’s National Theatre. He transferred Hawks’ film to the stage, resetting it in 1939, tossing historic events and relevant political issues into the sub text while trying to bring freshness to a play that’s essentially a warhorse. Sharply staged by Joe Dowling, “His Girl Friday” has been given its American premiere at the Guthrie Theatre.

Renowned film performers Courtney B. Vance and Angela Bassett have assumed the roles played on-screen by Grant and Russell. Walter Burns is the editor of the “Chicago Examiner” and his ex-wife, Hildy Johnson, his star reporter. Having returned from Reno, Hildy is planning to marry Bruce Baldwin, an insurance salesman, and settle in Albany. She walks into the press room where reporters have gathered to cover the hanging of Earl Holub, an immigrant factory worker, on death row after killing a policeman.

Holub’s been labeled a terrorist. Because it’s an election year, there’s plenty of corruption within the political system. One of the show’s finest moments comes toward the end of Act I, when the reporters gathered to cover this hanging, return to the press room after a prison break, and ignore a chorus of ringing telephones.

One would like to report that this all works, but there’s something off, and one must first blame the script. Because Guare fleshed out the story, homophobic, sexist and racist insults, kept at bay by the Production Code, are freely used. Roy V. Bensinger, the reporter for the “Chicago Tribune,” is an obvious gay character, but here he’s just a hypochondriac stereotype intended strictly for laughs. Bruce’s mother, is drawn as an anti-semitic bigot, while Bruce is a brainless Mama’s boy. Furthermore, so much background material needs to be covered, the pace frequently slows and throws the show’s rhythm off. The show loses all of its steam midway through the second act.

While there are terrific performances from Vance as Burns, Jim Lichtscheidl as Bensinger, Zach Curtis as Diamond Louie, and Kate Eifrig as Molly Molloy, the Clark Street tart in love with Earl, too many characters are little more than caricatures. As Hildy Johnson, Angela Bassett’s energy is false. She’s far too broad from the moment she steps on stage, so her performance misses the style and wit. She overacts, never finding the character’s desperation.

Guare’s revised the ending making it “happy,” but it feels forced and untrue to the source material, although somehow it leads to the right conclusion.

Hawks’ movie takes 90 minutes. Dowling’s production is twice as long. With judicious editing, stronger pacing and more dynamics in the acting, it could be a better show.

The Jungle Book Kids

With “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Lion King” and now “Mary Poppins” mining gold in the musical theater, it was inevitable that Disney would adapt other animated features for the stage. “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” was presented in Germany, while “Tarzan” and “The Little Mermaid” are in the works for Broadway. The Children’s Theatre Company will stage “Aladdin” in December. “Cinderella” and “101 Dalmatians” are available for production, although, due to competition from the touring Cathy Rigby production, “Peter Pan” is a theme park attraction.

The Mounds Theatre and it’s Performing Arts Youth Conservatory has presented the Area Premiere of Disney’s “The Jungle Book Kids,” adapted from the 1967 feature, which was the last film on which Walt Disney placed his personal stamp prior to his death. Suggested by Rudyard Kipling’s “Mowgli Stories,” (later published in two-volumes as “The Jungle Books,”) the story follows Bagheera, a panther, whose taken it upon himself to take the “man cub,” Mowgli to the man village, because Shere Kahn, a vicious tiger, has threatened the child’s life.

Mowgli, on the verge of puberty, is searching for an identity. After encounters with Kaa the snake and Col. Hathy and his military herd of elephants, Mowgli is befriended by Baloo, a carefree bear (although what a brown bear is doing in the jungles of India is never explained), and a pair of melancholy vultures. Of course, being a Disney enterprise, a happy ending is inevitable.

It’s to the credit of The Mounds Theatre’s talented trio of gay men that the large and talented cast is involved in a delightful, entertaining production. Director Jefferson Feitek has delivered a lively variation of the animated classic, and allows his cast of create strong characterizations beyond the page, while Douglas Dally’s inventive choreography, especially the “Elephant’s March,” “I Want to Be Like You,” and the show’s renowned “Bare Necessities” sequences, are highlights of this fantastic production.

Musical director Benjamin Lacina keeps the rhythm and pace going as his superb ensemble displays remarkable vocal qualities. Ursula Bowden’s sets and Jen Anderson’s costumes are just right. Among the standouts in the cast are Ian Buck as Mowgli, Jonathan Decker as Shere Khan, Samuel Patrick Faunillan as Col. Hathi, Britney Hayes as Bagheera, Sean Kelly as King Louie, and Billy North as Baloo.

If there are faults in “The Jungle Book Kids,” and their are flaws in just about everything in the theater these days, one must criticize Marci Heisler, who is responsible the adaptation and additional lyrics. While she’s retained much of the original material, including the terrific score by the Sherman Brothers and Terry Gilkyson, the script is surprisingly uninspired. This is especially disappointing considering how marvelous (not to mention improved) the stage adaptations of “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Lion King,” and “Mary Poppins” have proven to be.

Heisler’s eliminated much character detail and memorable moments from the film, trimming a half hour from the 78 minute film.

No matter how hard a talented production team works, and The Mounds Theatre and the Performing Arts Youth Conservatory certainly have that, sadly, unless Disney revises the material again, the show itself is disappointing. Still, this “Jungle Book Kids” is a genuine treat!


== Minneapolis Fringe Events ==

Because venues were spread far apart, attending events wasn’t easy, and too may shows failed to deliver what their advertising promised. With exposed male buttocks a regular feature of network television, I don’t consider this nudity. In terms of quality, from best to worst, here are the highlights from “My Fringe.”

Gilgamesh

Having been mesmerized, twice, by Charlie Bethel’s brilliant presentation of “Beowulf,” I was excited to see “Gilgamesh” at the Illusion Theater. Everybody will need to see this show twice, because there’s so much material, brilliantly played, that it can’t be grasped just once. Fortunately, Bethel will repeat the show this fall at the Bryant-Lake Bowl.

“Gilgamesh” features “language so old” that no one is quite sure how to pronounce the names of some characters and locations the epic story begins in ancient Mesopotamia, where “sex is important to the gods, because it keeps them fit.”

Bethel has redefined the characters in a modern, entertaining fashion. He’s become far more animated, and his style has grown, too, as he plays upward of twenty characters. World Literature, from the Biblical tale of Noah, to Homer’s “Odyssey” to the legend of “Rip Van Winkle” owe so much to the legend of “Gilgamesh,” and Bethel’s solo work surpasses our expectations.

London After Midnight

Although it’s been “restored” using production stills, one of the greatest losses to film history is Tod Browning’s “London After Midnight,” a silent horror film starring Lon Chaney as a vampire terrorizing Victorian London. The Hardcover Theatre has revised “London After Midnight,” subtitled “Episode 1: The Dead are Missing from Their Graves” as a tongue-in-cheek gothic thriller that’s loads of fun.

Basing this tale of “Varney the Vampire” on the original Penny Dreadfuls (which first emerged in the 1840s, it cleverly throws in little footnotes of information about the literary history behind the material. It features such personages as Professor James Moriarty (an invention of Arthur Conan Doyle in his “Sherlock Holmes” stories) and Henry Gray, whose textbook “Gray’s Anatomy” is now a standard. According to the script, Moriarty helped Gray obtain cadavers for research. A character known as Jack, “the Baron,” presumably Jack the Ripper, is also present.

The script uses Sir Robert Peel’s effort to interest Queen Victoria in creating the Metropolitan Police to protect innocents from fiends who lurk around London After Midnight, and with a cast that features Tony Brown, Sean Byrd, Robert Gardner, Lindsay Goss, Arnie Roos and Shanan Wexler, this is fresh, funny and intelligent theater, and the greatest ensemble work in the Fringe!

Mustapha’s Bride

Aggravated Assault’s “Axis Mundi,” a futuristic examination of violence, focused specifically on stage combat, was one of the most exciting shows at the 2004 Fringe Festival. Director Michael Sokoloff has adapted Jean Genet’s prison rape work, “Mustapha’s Bride” into a bewitchingly erotic seduction. Featuring Bryan Burgess as Danny, Lucas Salazar as Diva and Ryan Karloff as Paulie, “Mustapha’s Bride” is a game of sexual violence. It’s a pleasure to see actors who listen to one another. “Mustapha’s Bride” is outstanding theater.

Color Me Naked, Volume 2: Big Black and Sassy

I’ve long been a fan of Les Kurkendaal, and his revised solo show, “Color Me Naked, Volume 2: Big, Black and Sassy” is an extended essay on subtle racism. Kurkendaal speaks of Oprah Winfrey’s encounter of this theme in Paris and relates it to himself when experiencing job interviews, housing issues and sometimes, even simple walks down the street. While he’s used some of this material before, this is a very enjoyable and very professional show, which is thoroughly enjoyable.

The Candy Ass Club

Growing up gay will never be easy, but fortunately, there are artists who share their experiences with delightful shows like “The Candy Ass Club.” This is a lively celebration of junior high geeks, those who were picked last for gym class sports, as they experience the rites of passage into gay adulthood. Among these activities are buying that first jockstrap, boys who aren’t too old for sleep overs, prom night and that first visit to a gay bar.

The highlight of the show is a birthday party where 70s TV theme songs are presented. “The Candy Ass Club” works best when its talented cast, John Trones, Aaron Gabriel, Jennifer Grimm, Drew Jansen, Edward Williams, Jr. and Gregg Peterson, perform this collection of sketches, but weakens when it develops a plot. I found the show quite entertaining.

Do Not Pass Go

Not even pretending to be a play, Bobaloo’s “Do Not Pass Go,” is essentially stand up comedy performed by a relaxed and professional performance artist who cares deeply about entertaining his audience. Presented like a Comedy Central special, Bobaloo talks about his life being an ongoing collection of “games you can now only get on eBay.” There are card games, board games and puzzles, as Bobaloo discusses growing up Catholic in Milwaukee where he found various men as role models who weren’t necessarily gay. There was the gross-out game “You Love Roach,” which he played with his brother as they victimized a classmate. He even gets audience participation while discussing his love for “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”

Now in his early 30s, Bobaloo has great advice for parents who know their children are gay. They should let their kids in on it when they pass on the information about Santa.

“Do Not Pass Go” is a most satisfying 40 minutes of Fringe entertainment!

For the Rest of My Life

Esera Tuaolo is a talented and charming man. His solo piece, “For the Rest of My Life,” presented by the Illusion Theatre opens with the Samoan native dressed in traditional warrior garb, as he leads the audience into his own, compelling coming out story. His pop star way with a song is exciting, too.

Why then, is the show a disappointment? For one thing, this thematic work features too much similarity in material and presentation. It needs a sharper, more polished script that won’t distract from these powerful themes. Tuaolo also needs a director he can trust, who will help him polish the show, forcing him to stand still and not meander around the stage. As it stands now, “For The Rest of My Life” edges dangerously toward theater as therapy. One recommendation for Tuaolo might be to watch the DVD of Elaine Stritch’s solo show, or better yet, catch Les Kurkendaal at the Fringe, as an example of comfortable solo professionalism.

9/11 Tranny

Elijah Rose is a very brave man. A middle-aged female-to-male transexual shares assorted journal items, from giving birth to his son, to his first time in a men’s locker room and learning to shave. It’s a daring, exciting piece, and if the tech gets fixed — including the dildo, a “packer” moving across the stage in a remote control car to the distortions on the soundtrack — this will be a better balanced and outstanding Fringe offering.

Lick!

Offering audiences “A fifty-five minute orgasm,” Mechanical Division’s “Lick!,” written and performed by Ben Thietje and a collection of Mankato theater graduates is about an egocentric “bad boy” dance troupe with plenty of backstage trouble. The show begins with a lot of brouhaha about dedication to art and sexiness (which is, frankly, never delivered).

We learn that the leader of this quartet has left for another Fringe show, and left them with plenty of choreographic moves that resemble everything from boy bands to Michael Flatley and Riverdance to gay bar strippers. The duet performed to “Total Eclipse of the Heart” is more than a little homoerotic, although it goes on too long and wears thin, as the show employs basic acting 101 techniques.

The characters are little more than the kids from “South Park” grown up. Trying hard to be smart and clever, “Lick!” is basically a half-hour sketch that needs scope, a mission and judicious cutting. If this was an orgasm, I certainly didn’t ejaculate!

A Fairy’s Tale

I’m so disgusted by Fringe performers think that being “edgy and Fringy” means wasting an audiences’ time with material that plays at being campy and funny, but, in general, has no director, script or point of view. “A Fairy’s Tale” is just such a show. An attempt to present a hip variation on the “Cinderella” theme, it features a fairy godmother in drag, who projects a bored attitude as he smokes a cigar and drinks a beer.

Chip, the lead character, yearns for his prince and hopes to be the Corn Husk Princess of 1954. The show provides few laughs as it moves from stupid, to offensive and homophobic. Not even the double entendres are delivered for laughs. Not even basic Directing 101 techniques are evident. With so much else to select at the Fringe, it’s not worth wasting time on something this awful.

The Actor’s Nightmare

It’s official! “The Actor’s Nightmare” is now a warhorse. Like “Fiddler on the Roof,” it’s been done to death. Christopher Durang’s curtain-raiser to his masterpiece, “Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You,” follows the antics of George Spelvin, an accountant who finds himself in the title situation. It’s a satire on the theatrical styles of Noel Coward, Samuel Beckett, Shakespeare, and Robert Bolt with a little Clifford Odets thrown in.

Directed in a passionless fashion by Christopher Teipner, for an organization called “4 Outta 6 Productions,” the Coward sequence was deadly, there was an unnecessary cornball moment with a Marilyn Monroe cutout, Henry Irving was played as a flamboyant gay character, and one questions if any of the ensemble did research to learn about who Sarah Siddons, Ellen Terry, Sarah Bernhardt, or Irving were, and why they’re respected world class actors. This was a dreadful nightmare. This was dreadful.

A Little Princess: Sara’s Journey

I understand the need for family theater in the Fringe Festival, but some criteria needs to be established. This obvious crowd pleaser, with its huge cast of children, many of them with little or nothing much to do save showing off particular talents in the opening scene, is awful. It features an incoherent script that presumably updates Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic Victorian novel, to the Blitz (although no character displays either fear or threats due to the bombings).

To save those involved any embarrassment, I won’t name names, but the score is redundant, and doesn’t fit the period. The production’s been poorly directed, with no effort to take into account the specifics of the Whitney Center’s thrust stage, thus making dialogue and lyrics unintelligible. Vocal projection and dialects go in and out of character. The schoolgirl costumes resemble something from an over-cast production of “Grease.” This monstrosity is little more than a mediocre school play, complete with flashing proud parental cameras and lots of stage mothers.

At Least One Shoe

Tell me you haven’t seen this before. Solo artists read from their journals. You’ve heard the lesbian who met her first girlfriend in Junior High? The woman who’s taught ESL in Central America. So have I. There’s not enough variation in delivery or point of view, so “At Least One Shoe” didn’t offer anything new or hold my interest.


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