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Minneapolis Scene
by Steven LaVigne
October 2006
“Tea at Five”

There was good news and bad news as the Twin Cities theatre community headed toward an extremely chilly fall season. The Ordway Center hosted Matthew Lombardo’s play, “Tea at Five,” and the good news is that Stephanie Zimbalist is outstanding as Katharine Hepburn. Zimbalist captured the great star’s laugh and her spirit, although during the first act, a little make-up would have helped highlight her sunken cheekbones, and a girdle might have enhanced her body a bit more.

The first act is set in the Hepburn family Connecticut home in 1938. Having been labeled box office poison because of six failures in a row, Kate discusses her family and career in Hollywood as a storm rages outside, fielding calls from both her ex-husband, Ludlow Smith and her agent, Leland Hayward, who informs her that David O. Selznick has chosen Vivien Leigh over Hepburn for the coveted role of Scarlett O’Hara. The act ends with the storm raging, which will destroy the house, and the arrival of the script for The Philadelphia Story.

In act 2, set in 1983, Hepburn has had a car accident, and her companion, Phyllis Wilbourn is in hospital. Warren Beatty keeps sending flowers as a means of charming her into appearing in his remake of “Love Affair.” She addresses, far too briefly, the people who are gone, including Spencer Tracy. Especially delightful is her opinion of Stephen Sondheim, her neighbor, who kept Hepburn awake while creating the score for “Company.” After discussing her appearance on Broadway in “Coco,” and hopes of retirement, the show ends with her accepting Beatty’s offer.

The show, directed by John Tillinger, moves smoothly and quickly, although the bad news is that Lombardo’s script never progresses beyond surface level. Lifted largely from Hepburn’s autobiography, not much of the private woman is revealed that we didn’t already know. Furthermore, Tony Straiges’ set features artifacts, including African Masks, yet neither the filming of The African Queen, nor Hepburn’s book about it, are mentioned.

Garson Kanin’s biography of Tracy and Hepburn describes the star having a feud with the author, forcing him and his wife, Ruth Gordon, to sell their house to Sondheim, yet there is no mention of the feud, or its aftermath. Let’s just settle on the good news, Stephanie Zimbalist’s performance makes “Tea at Five” a marvelous theatregoing experience.

Ameriprise Ivey Awards

More good news arrived when the Twin Cities community honored its own with the second annual Ameriprise Ivey awards. Hosted by gay playwright Craig Lucas, and actress-writer Isabell Monk O’Connor, the audience cheered as Jack Reuler, Artistic Director of the Mixed Blood Theatre was honored with the Life Achievement Award, and Bradley Greenwald was recognized for his performance as Charlotte von Mahlsdorf in the Jungle Theatre’s production of “I Am My Own Wife.”

The Children’s Theatre was honored for its remarkable onstage silent movie, “Reeling,” with Barry Kornhauser’s script and Dean Holt’s amazing physical performance recognized with the green cone that resembles a lava lamp.

Joel Sass, who directed “I Am My Own Wife,” was honored instead for the set design he created at the Jungle Theatre for “Last of the Boys,” while Theatre Latte Da was honored for Jim Lichtscheidl’s original theatre piece, “Knock.” The Illusion Theatre’s “Sez She,” Youth Performance Company’s “The Talk: An Intercourse on Coming of Age,” Nautilus Music Theatre’s “I Am Anne Frank,” and Gerry Girouard’s choreography for Off-Leash Area’s “Crimes and Whispers” were also honored.

Finally, Christiana Clark was named as “Emerging Artist.” The evening, held at the Solara Restaurant and the State Theatre was genuinely exciting.

La Donna del Lago

Bad news came a week later when the Minnesota Opera presented Rossini’s seldom-performed 1849 opera “La Donna del Lago.” Poorly executed by Chas Rader-Shieber, who will also direct it at New York City Opera, the story, based on a work by Sir Walter Scott. Set in the Scottish Highlands during the revolt against James V, it tells the story of Elena, the Lady of the Lake. She’s in love with Malcom, a rebel warrior, but her father, Douglas of Angus, wants her to marry Rodrigo, leader of the revolt. For some reason, the director decided to update the setting to the same period as the American Civil War. Therefore many of the ensemble got to wear the same costumes they wore in “Orazi y Curiazi” last Spring, when that opera’s setting was updated by a few centuries. The pacing was dreary and toward the conclusion of the first act, dragged terribly.

The good news is that vocally, “La Donna del Lago” was magnificent. It may have been better to perform this work in concert. Maureen O’Flynn was a superb Elena, with outstanding support from Barry Banks’ Uberto, Kyle Albertson’s Douglas and Yeghishe Manucharyan’s Rodrigo. Minnesota audiences were honored to have Ewa Podles in the trouser role of Malcom. Her arias in both acts made the bad news about this production tolerable. It’s a pity New York audiences won’t see anything better than this. Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffman arrives later this autumn, and hopes are higher for that astounding work.

“Sylvia”

The Jungle Theatre had good news when its 2001 production of A. R. Gurney’s comedy “Sylvia” received a lively and exhilarating revival at the Pantages Theatre. The story follows Greg, whose mid-life is in crisis. He picks up Sylvia, a stray dog, in Central Park. His ambitious wife, Kate, whose method of dealing with empty nest syndrome is too focused on her career, doesn’t want a dog, but Sylvia has a way of nosing her way into the couples’ entire existence.

The really good news is that the ensemble is extraordinary and goes beyond its best for the audience. Besides Bob Davis’ fine performance as Greg, Sally Wingert makes the thankless, villainous role of Kate, the long-suffering wife, human. Kirsten Frantzich is simply incredible as Sylvia, and Fred Wagner, as Tom, a fellow dog owner; Phyllis, Kate’s matronly Upper East Side best friend, and the gender confused therapist, Leslie, creates three memorable and distinct characters.

The bad news, however, is that “Sylvia” isn’t an especially good play. It’s a slight, extended one-act boulevard farce, and with only a few moments in Act 2, gay director Bain Boehlke’s staging is broadcast rather than performed. Subtlety, which could have added much-needed grace and charm to the show, is missing, and the pacing of Act I disrupts the flow. It needs to be played fast and furious so audiences aren’t given a chance to think about the ridiculousness of it all. Alas, with the exceptions of Wagner and Wingert, who are both voices of reason, Frantzich’s hi-jinks aren’t enough to keep the energy high enough for the production to succeed.

“Chess”

It’s always good news when the Minneapolis Musical Theatre challenges itself, and their newest one is “Chess,” Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaerus’ first foray into theatre, followed by the exquisitely entertaining “Mamma Mia.” The pre-show buzz at MMT included a lot of “What is this about?” The score has a pop-rock theatre sound, with homages to Kurt Weill, Stephen Sondheim and of course, Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Lyricist Tim Rice has provided the worst lyrics of his career, and Richard Nelson’s libretto is merely serviceable, attempting to be clever, but it doesn’t work. The script lacks the passion and emotional hook needed to draw the audience into the story. The plot focuses on an arrogant American chess champion, who travels to Bangkok for a match with his opponent, a Russian who’s planning on defecting.

The problems with the show itself are no matter, because the Minneapolis Musical Theatre production of “Chess” is one terrific show! Yes, I’m serious. Steven J. Meerdink, the gay Artistic Director of MMT, along with musical direction by Suzanne Reyburn, it’s been given an creatively efficient production that moves lightning quick, never allowing the energetic performances to wind down. This new approach to theatre becomes MMT very much.

Among the more assured performances, Sean Nathan Baer as the Arbiter, Joseph Bombard as the appropriately devious publicist Walter DeCourcey, Michael Jurenek as Alexander Molokov, Emily Brooke Hansen as Florence Vassy and Marissa Joy Selvig as Svetlana are outstanding. As the Russian champion, Anatoly Sergievsky, Thomas Karki, is terrific, and as the villainous Freddy, the American Chess champion, Tim Kuehl is sensational. Freddie is a very unlikable character, but he adds a much needed oppositional dimension to the show.

This production of “Chess” is very good news and made those chilly nights worth going out to the theater.


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