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Minneapolis Scene
by Steven LaVigne
June 2006
For Pride 2006, there were no specific gay theatre productions, but spring and early summer featured a quintet of theatre by gay artists to ease us into these warmer temperatures in the upper Midwest.

Wonderful Town

Unlike the blue plaques scattered around London, New York City doesn’t acknowledge its literary landmarks. One such locale is 14 Gay Street in Greenwich Village where, in the 1920s, writer Ruth McKenney moved into the basement apartment with her actress sister, Eileen. McKenney’s stories were published shortly before Eileen was killed in a 1940 car accident with her husband, novelist Nathaniel West, the day after another literary giant, F. Scott Fitzgerald died of a heart attack.

The stories reached the stage first as a play, but Wonderful Town, the 1953 musical version, written by gay composer Leonard Bernstein along with Betty Comden and Adolph Green, is a refreshing show that places Ruth at the center. Over the years, Rosalind Russell, Carol Channing and Lauren Bacall have played the role. After Wonderful Town was presented by New York’s Encores it was given a revival that starred Donna Murphy and later Brooke Shields as Ruth.

With a pedigree like this, there’s no excuse why it’s not staged more often. The Bloomington Civic Theatre chose to conclude their current season with Wonderful Town, and it was a wise choice, especially following their brilliant production of Follies.

Director-Choreographer John Command has given audiences a delightful time, presented against Robin McIntyre’s cartoonish backdrop, which features such Village sites as Washington Square Park and Village Cigars. The ensemble covers a variety of roles, with standouts including Ryan Halliday, Sho Rich, and Adam Arnold as Wreck. Dean Elwell lends his outstanding musical chops to the role of editor Robert Baker, while Angela Walberg is a marvelously, sexy Eileen.

Sarah Gibson as Ruth is amazing! Tall and slender, she brings to the role just the right mix of cynicism and comic timing. Her command of the stage during the “Conquering New York,” “Conga,” and especially the swing numbers, was worth the price of admission.

With Funny Girl scheduled next season at BCT (along with The Full Monty) let’s hope that Gibson’s back onstage as Fanny Brice. As I get older, I want to see things I haven’t seen before (Mamma Mia is an exception here). Wonderful Town was a great choice and a show I’ll definitely see again.

Farm Boys

What a difference a year makes. When I attended the Great American History Theater’s Raw Staged reading of Farm Boys, dramatized by Amy Fox and Dean Gray from Will Fellows’ book, I was impressed by the story of John, who returns to Colby, Wisconsin from New York with his lover, Kim, a dancer-choreographer. Lyle, a gay veterinarian who has recently died of a heart attack, has left his farm to John. A whispering campaign and the appearance of a closeted high school kid cause conflict, and drive the story to its inevitable conclusion.

The full staging this spring, and directed by John Miller-Stephany, proved the emptiness of the piece by giving us a dull, bland production that was so low key, it was tough to stay awake or to care about the characters. Phil Callen, who appeared in the reading, gave the liveliest performance as Lyle, the dead owner of the farm. Joe Leary worked hard to breathe some life into the choreographer, and Muriel Bonertz did what she could with the deadly role of Lyle’s ex-wife, a Twin Cities teacher and author of a gay children’s book.

Sadly, at the center, Matt Guidry’s one-note performance as John lacked energy or style, and it was tough to buy him as a gay man, so we never cared about him. Farm Boys has been presented throughout the nation and reading the reviews online, everyone seems to be of the same opinion. Perhaps it should only be presented as Reader’s Theatre, because it certainly was better in that style.

Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man

Minnesota Opera cast gay countertenor David Walker in the title role for the American premiere of Lauren Petitgirard’s opera, Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man. Petitgirard’s melodies, while never memorable, provided the right somber backdrop for the material. The libretto by Eric Nonn was a deadly bore. Not taken from either David Lynch’s brilliant film, or the Bernard Pomerance play, the 45 minute first act was all exposition, basically telling us that Merrick was deformed, which, of course, we already know.

The only genuine insight is that Merrick was treated well by Tom Norman, the showman who displayed him until legal troubles forced him to release Merrick to Dr. Frederick Treves. In previous versions, Merrick was maltreated, but evidently Norman was very kind to him.

The most troubling moments came in the Fourth Act as Merrick was dying and singing lyrics that reveal his self-loathing, his hatred of his celebrity and assumes that his death was a suicide, although most accounts state that, because of his desire to sleep like a normal man, Merrick actually suffocated at the age of 27. There’s no indication it was a suicide.

Doug Verone is to be commended for his inspired production which included eight dancers representing Merrick’s expressions and emotions. As the nurse Mary, Alison Bates was in lovely voice for what is basically a thankless role. As Treves, Christopher Schaldenbrand serves the role well, although like much of this opera, it’s underdeveloped.

Walker as Merrick was outstanding, and it will be a treat to see him in other roles. Perhaps the Minnesota Opera will consider casting him as Cherubino in their 2007 revival of “The Marriage of Figaro.”

If Joseph Merrick is to survive in the world’s opera houses, it requires a better libretto than this.

La Cage Aux Folles

No matter how hard you try, you just can’t get away from La Cage Aux Folles. While the poorly dubbed English language film version of Jean Poiret’s French boulevard farce is rarely shown, not a week goes by without The Birdcage, Mike Nichols’ 1996 American remake, playing somewhere on cable, as I saw when I got home from the Minneapolis Musical Theatre dazzling production of the musical. International drag shows and bars are named after this show, and it has had tremendous impact over the years. Before you know it, this could be NBC’s latest gay sitcom.

Composer Jerry Herman, librettist Harvey Fierstein, and director Arthur Laurents created this popular Tony Award-winning smash, and MMT’s director Eric Johnson has given audiences a show that’s just the right blend of tacky, glitzy and glamorous, so this will, no doubt, be a crowd-pleaser. MMT Artistic Director Steve Meerdink’s costumes for La Cagelles are both staggeringly brilliant drag and dreadful dreck.

With regard to the performances, Johnson’s concentrated on the two leading characters, and placed Meerdink, who wisely underplays Georges as the heart at the center of the story. He is equally matched by Kevin Johnson as Albin/Zaza. Hansen’s talented enough to know that screeching your way through the part, as Nathan Lane did on film, is not the way to warm an audience’s hearts. He’s absolutely marvelous, and his stirring rendition of “I Am What I Am,” is the highlight of the evening. Both leading men deliver a lovely, romantic “Song on the Sand,” and they’ve scored personal triumphs here.

Robbie McNamee has lots of fun as Jacob, the housekeeper, especially during the “Anne on My Arm” number, when he dances with Shaun Nathan Baer as Georges’ son, Jean-Michel.

This brings me to the show itself. I’ve never liked this musical, because, underneath the drag, there’s the story of an ungrateful son who goes out of his way to piss off his parents. No matter how hard Baer tries to soften the role, it doesn’t hide the problems. Johnson’s direction tends to rush through the book scenes, so they’re a bit drab, with frivolous attempts to raise it up making you realize what once was daring hasn’t aged well.

Sondra Norland plays a whiny, goofy Anne, and Brent Teclaw has lively moments as the Stage Manager, and one of Johnson’s cleverest bits of casting was to place a man — built like a linebacker — as one of La Cagelles.

MMT’s 2006-2007 season includes Chess, Zombie Prom and Kiss of the Spider woman.

Iolanthe

Whenever audiences settle in for an evening with Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe, (or The Peer and the Peri), they’re guaranteed an enchanting evening, because everyone in the operetta winds up a bewitched. This is exactly what happened to audiences who attended North Star Opera’s delightful production, presented at Concordia University.

One of G & S’s minor masterpieces, the plot involves Strephon, a young man who’s of mixed heritage. His father is human and his mother, Iolanthe is a fairy, who’s been exiled by the Queen of the Fairies. Strephon is in love with Phyllis, a Ward of the Chancery. The entire House of Lords is also in love with her, especially Tolloller and Mountararat, while the Lord Chancellor makes comical remarks. Troubles arise when Phyllis observes Strephon with his mother (fairies never age) and she thinks he is two-timing her. Things finally work out and the Queen transforms everyone into a fairy.

Trying to explain the plot of a G & S operetta isn’t nearly as much fun as seeing it. Under the sure-handed guidance of director Gary Briggle, and musical director Steve Stucki, the North Star Opera was everything an audience deserves and more. Jeff Madison’s Strephon, Susan Hofflander’s Queen, Imani Anderson’s Iolanthe, Aaron Larson’s Mountararat, Dennis Petersen’s Tolloller, and Vicki Fingalson’s Phyllis were all outstanding, but the real treat was Steve Hendrickson’s show stopping Lord Chancellor. His rendition of the patter song, “When You’re Lying Awake” was the highlight of this marvelous production, one of North Star’s all-time best.

Among their upcoming productions will be Kurt Weill’s Lost in the Stars.


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