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Minneapolis Scene
by Steven LaVigne
April 2006
Convenience

First, the good news: For the area premiere of “Convenience,” Minneapolis Musical Theatre director Steve Meerdink and musical director Kevin Hansen assembled one helluva good cast.

As Vince, a gay man, J.C. Lippold, and Susan Brodin as Liz, his mother, are both outstanding. Duane Johnson as Abe, Liz’s paramour, is equally terrific. While Shaun Nathan Baer gives his patented exquisite performance as a comfortable young gay man, he could use an acting class to help him explore and develop characters more deeply, and relax that cocky walk that has become almost a trademark. As Young Liz, Alison Mary Forbes does her best to keep up with the remainder of the ensemble.

There are moments when this almost completely sung through show really flies. Its first fifteen minutes gives us people who are genuinely conflicted. Essentially, it is a character study of a gay man fearing the consequences of coming out, and a mother who longs to remarry and move on with her life.

The “Convenient,” “Traitor King,” and “The Ogre and the Wife” sequences are noteworthy. Sometimes composer and author Gregg Coffin follows the Rodgers and Hammerstein standard for musical construction, which he contrasts with the later Sondheim standard. At other times, “Convenience” resembles “Musicals 101” material. That is the problem and the bad news. Played against a nice, efficient kitchen setting, it’s little more than a gay, melodramatic, kitchen sink, musical drama.

There are lots of trouble spots. Half the plot is overdeveloped, which pulls the audience in too many directions, and keeps the show from developing a strong core. Furthermore, the material resembles a late 1980s gay play. It seems dated, no longer topical and, because we have heard and seen this stuff before, it is not compelling. Midway through the first act, “The Revolving Door” serves as an 11:00 number, which picks up the pace, but by this time, the shows lack of dimension and a score that needs more variation have worn the audience down.

Toward the end of Act I, young Vince (Baer) pretends to be Space Boy (his escape from the realities of his home life), with adult Vince pretending to be an Ambassador from outer space. It is meant to be charming and clever, but it is just corny. Abe has a blues number in the second act, which is very nice, but it is out of place, because, by this point, Abe’s become a thankless role.

I give the Minneapolis Musical Theater a lot of credit for producing “Convenience.” It was a nice try. Perhaps with a sharper, restructured script that is about a half-hour shorter, it would be a better show.

70, Girls, 70

I was standing on line at TKTS, planning to see “Confession of a Mormon Boy,” but by the time I got to the box office, it was gone, so I took the advice of a good friend: “Whenever possible, see a production from Encores.” This organization, established by gay director Scott Ellis, presents three musicals, in concert, every Spring. The most successful has been the long-running revival of “Chicago.”

In April, they produced another Kander and Ebb show, the delightful “70, Girls, 70.” Based on the play “A Breath of Spring” and the movie “Make Mine Mink,” this musical version was a failure in 1971, but the Encores production, directed and choreographed by Kathleen Marshall, with Music directed by Paul Gemignani, was smashing!

The ensemble included many film and television veterans, including Olympia Dukakis, Charlotte Rae, Anita Gillette, George S. Irving, Bob Dishy, Carole Cook and Mary Jo Catlett, all of whom had their star turns. The plot involves a group of senior citizens who turn into a gang of thieves, robbing furriers to refurbish their retirement hotel.

I do not know why this show was a failure 35 years ago, because, now, it is a joyful pleasure. Perhaps the Encores production will stimulate interest in a revival. Judging by the audience reaction at New York’s City Center, many agreed with me.

Lestat

I had dinner with the same friend who recommended Encores the night I attended the new musical, “Lestat.” We talked about the musical theatre’s current stable of composers and lyricists who lack talent toward writing musical theatre. Especially missing are hummable songs that advance the plot.

Unfortunately, gay composer Elton John and his writing partner, Bernie Taupin have joined this diminished group. Taupin’s lyrics for “Lestat” are frequently insipid, while John’s loud music doesn’t hide its emptiness.

Based on the novels of Anne Rice, Linda Woolverton’s libretto is a mess. Attempting to create a linear story line, the first act covers how Lestat becomes a vampire, and his experiences in Paris with Armand after turning his mother into a vampire. He is sexually attracted to his friend Nicholas, and tries to make him into a vampire, but fails. Nicholas, played gamely by Roderick Hill is, for all practical purposes, a thankless role, and “Lestat” is, essentially, lifeless.

Set in New Orleans, the opening of the second act has the only lively moments when a Creole-inspired number energizes things for a while.

Jim Stanek as Louis, unfortunately, resembles Brad Pitt and this distracts from his performance, but the real mistake is the manner in which Allison Fischer’s Claudia, the little girl Lestat turns into a vampire, is literally made up to look — and directed to act — like Patti MacCormick in “The Bad Seed,” which is pretty much what Act 2 becomes. While Allison Fischer has two good songs, “I Want More” and “I’ll Never Have That Chance,” somehow, they don’t feel right for the show.

Robert Jess Roth, who staged Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” a decade ago is the director of credit, but he was replaced by a show doctor, so any creativity is disjointed, weak and unoriginal.

The worst thing about “Lestat,” however, has to be its lack of blood. How can a vampire musical have no blood? For all the money poured into it, “Lestat” is little more than “Sweeney Todd Lite!” For the record, Hugh Panaro does his best as Lestat and Carolee Carmello is excellent as his mother, Gabrielle, but they’re trying so hard to make the show work, it never appears that anyone is enjoying what they’re doing.

La Traviata

Based on Alexandre Dumas’s novel and play, “La Dame Aux Camelias,” Verdi’s “La Traviata” is, arguably, the most famous opera staged worldwide on a regular basis, but a beautiful, inspired production is difficult to come by. To paraphrase Mart Crowley, it takes a gay man to make something pretty, and Franco Zefferelli’s production of Verdi’s “La Traviata” at the Metropolitan Opera is an example of the beauty that emerges when every element of production is superbly in place.

It is based on the true story of Violetta Valery, a prostitute, who becomes the toast of 19th century Paris. At a party in her salon, she meets Alfredo Germont and falls in love. Alfredo takes Violetta, suffering from consumption, to his country estate. Giorgio, his father, explains how the family has been compromised, and Violetta returns to Paris. Her illness grows worse, but, in true romantic style, she dies in Alfredo’s arms as his father realizes the mistake he’s made.

An illness making its way through the Metropolitan Opera company has brought understudies onstage, but Jose Luis Duval, the cover for Alfredo was terrific, as was the always magnificent Dwayne Croft as Giorgio Germont. In the leading role, Hei-Kyung Hong is a revelation, one of those great voices for which we will be forever grateful that opera exists. She made such an impression on me that I am already planning to visit the Met next season to hear her sing Liu in Zefferelli’s production of Puccini’s “Turandot.”

Tryst

Playwright Karoline Leach is anything but conventional. She is an expert on how the work of Lewis Carroll is interpreted, so it is a bit strange that Tryst, her first play produced for American audiences turns out to be conventional.

Based on real events and playing at the Promenade Theatre off-Broadway, “Tryst” follows George Love, who has used his charm and good looks to entice lonely women into marriage, for a quarter century. The tall tails he spins leaves lonely women satisfied after the wedding night, when he has departed, their bankroll in his pocket, and memories of sexual pleasure from a gentleman on their minds.

He meets Adelaide Pinchin, a milliner's assistant who is aware of his lying schemes because she has been victimized by her father. She plans on holding George to their marriage vows by keeping him at arms length when they arrive at Weston Super Mare, the seaside resort where they will begin their life together. Stuck with his foot in the door, George isn’t prepared for this and is left at odds with himself.

Director Joe Brancato gives audiences plenty of chances to see Maxwell Caulfield’s chiseled torso as he works the suspenders of his cheap suit. Caulfield never takes off the trousers. Still, this is one method Brancato uses to explore George Love’s seductive methods. As Adelaide, Amelia Campbell is every bit the match that’s needed for this enjoyable, if not totally effective two-hander.


Summer is coming and, in Minnesota, that means assorted festivals, and the opening of the Guthrie Theatre’s new venue along the riverfront.


“Maybe if we start listening, history will stop repeating itself.” - Lily Tomlin


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