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Minneapolis Scene
by Steven LaVigne
October 2007
From the Guthrie to the Ordway (and elsewhere), opera, or at least operatic material, filled the air of Twin Cities theatres as autumn came upon the upper-Midwest in fits and starts, including one of the warmest first October weeks on record.

Jane Eyre

The playbill is bringing a much more diverse selection as audiences warm to the new Guthrie Theatre, now in its second year on the river. Adapted for the Guthrie’s page-to-stage program by Alan Stanford, the area premiere of Charlotte Bronte’s literary masterpiece, “Jane Eyre” is a magnificent achievement.

At first, the script is off-putting because the story is narrated by Margaret Daly as an older Jane. Why it’s not Charlotte Bronte leaves those familiar with the book questioning, but they soon warm to it, as Stanfords’ script emerges an excellent, compelling dramatization, and an outstanding evening of theater. Gay director John Miller-Stephany has wisely kept the production sparse, allowing the story and characters to cast a radiant glow. This is further enhanced by Patrick Clark’s simple sets and authentic costumes, which perfectly capture the period.

While Shelby Flannery as young Jane has articulation and accent problems, Lucy Lawton is marvelous as Helen Burns, the orphan who befriends Jane, and whose early death helps to shape Jane’s approach to life. The scene in which Bertha sets fire to Rochester’s bed builds dramatically, but is theatrically limp and needs more intensity, but these are easily overlooked.

Sean Haberle as Edward Rochester has his moments, but wisely underplays the role, because he realizes this is Jane’s story (his is told to great effect in Cold Sargasso Sea). In Act 2, the scenes, after assorted plot revelations are revealed, are especially good for Haberle. Stacia Rice has allowed Bronte’s character to embody her heart and soul, and her Jane is remarkable.

At the British Library, there’s a room with the manuscripts for classic British literature. The original Jane Eyre is there, open to the page which begins, “Reader, I Married him.” This is where Stanford ends his script, rather wisely leaving out Bronte’s “happy ending.” As stated above, this Jane Eyre is a magnificent achievement, and an amazing evening of literary theatre.

The Little Foxes

While her relationship with blacklisted writer Dashiell Hammett was well-documented in her trilogy of autobiographies, the gay side of Lillian Hellman’s sexuality, questioned since the success of her play “The Children’s Hour,” has been debated for decades. Hellman was, however, a remarkable playwright and her masterpiece, “The Little Foxes,” is a milestone of the American theater which has had a renaissance within the past few years. In a season dedicated to women writers, Starting Gate Productions opened with a smashing rendition of this classic, staged by gay director (and former Mr. Leather) David Coral.

Based on actual people and events from Hellman’s past, The Little Foxes is the story of the Hubbards, a family who has cheated others, because they want to “inherit the earth.” Ben and Oscar and their sister, Regina, will go to any lengths to achieve their goals, too. Oscar has abused his wife, Birdie, to the point that she’s become an alcoholic and hopes that their moronic son, Leo, will someday marry Regina’s daughter, Alexandra, a girl who loves her father, Horace Giddens, a man suffering from heart problems in 1901 Alabama.

While Will Slayden’s set and Carolann Winther’s costumes don’t necessarily reflect the shabbiness of the Hubbards, this is remedied by a first-rate cast. The leads are Kathleen Hardy (as Addie), Charles Numrich (as Oscar), Ellen Apel (as Regina), and Thom Pinault (as Ben). Standout performances are made by Linda Sue Anderson as Birdie, and Jane Froiland as Alexandra. Only John Middleton, tall, lean, and much too young, sticks out like a sore thumb as a miscast Horace.

Both Hellman’s play, and gay composer Marc Blitzstein’s operatic treatment, Regina, have returned to audience attention, and, if they’re as good as the one by Starting Gate, that is, indeed, satisfying news.

Un Ballo in Mashera

Verdi’s opera, “A Masked Ball,” if done properly, is a glorious theatrical experience. It is extremely loosely based on the assassination plot of Sweden’s king Gustave III. In this opera, the king is in love with his secretary and best friend’s wife, Amelia, and their affair leads to his death. There are beautiful musical moments along the way, the standout being the Grotto love scene in Act 2, and the “Masked Ball” itself can be one of the most gorgeous sequences in the operatic canon.

It’s difficult to believe that either artistic director, Dale Johnson (whose sexual orientation was revealed in a recent issue of Lavender) and James Robinson whose breathtaking productions of “Turandot” and “Nixon in China” were among MN Opera’s highlights could allow the shambles that appeared onstage at the Ordway pass, because it was clearly below their usual standards. For one thing, Allen Moyer’s set design consisting largely of a moveable platform, limited the actor’s movements, and his backdrop highlighted the drabness onstage rather than its splendor.

Fortunately, the vocal performances were superb. Outstanding performances were given by Evan Bowers as Gustave, Cynthia Lawrence as Amelia, and Charles Taylor as Ancharstrom. Let’s hope that Rossini’s “Italian Girl in Algiers” will redeem this ghastly horror.

Jerry Springer, the Opera

I first saw Richard Thomas and Stewart Lee’s hilarious contribution to modern opera, “Jerry Springer, The Opera,” in London. David Soul played the leading role, and at the time, for these pages, I described it as “often silly, somewhat shocking and enormously entertaining.” Minneapolis Musical Theatre, under the direction of Steven J. Meerdink, has staged the area premiere, and seeing the show again, I was able to revel in the treats that are presented onstage.

This may, very well, be the funniest opera ever written. For the most part, it is a surrealist dream. Act I is a typical Springer show, with the usual band of trailer trash guests: a woman who badly wants to become a pole dancer against her husband’s objections; a man who wants to be babied, and another who’s two-timing not only his fiancé, but his mistress with a transsexual. Upset with the performance of his warm-up man, Springer fires Jonathan Wierus, only to be shot. Act 2 literally sinks into Hell, where Springer is asked to moderate a debate between Jesus (played by the “baby” man) and Satan, who is evidently Wierus’ alter ego.

Meerdink has treated the material in an operatic fashion which results in an exceptional production that is, first and foremost, musically superb. It’s also an opportunity for MMT’s resident company to blow off some steam and have some fun onstage. The staging is inventive, and extremely unconventional, from the tap-dancing KKK (an evident tribute to Mel Brooks) to rousing show-biz finale, but MMT just keeps improving with every show.

Both Derek Blechinger as Jonathan and Carl M. Schoenborn as Jerry Springer lead a fine ensemble, and there’s not a bad performance. The standouts include Kim Kivens as Peaches and Baby June, Bart Ruf as Tremont, Thomas Karki as Montel, Christine Karki as Shawntel, Tim Kuehl as Chucky, and Susan Brodin as Zandra and Irene.

The show suffers from the same flaws it had in London. The top of Act 2 is slow and it really could stand to be tweaked here and there, but the music is certainly challenging, and Meerdink has given it great spirit, even in its dreariest moments. “Jerry Springer, the Opera” is a lot of fun; perfect for Halloween.

The Most Happy Fella

Many a composer of show music longs to write an opera or operetta, but not everyone succeeds. The above-mentioned Marc Blitzstein, George Gershwin, Stephen Sondheim and Andrew Lloyd Webber are among the more accomplished. In the years between writing “Guys & Dolls” and his Pulitzer Prize-winning score for “How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying,” Frank Loesser focused on “The Most Happy Fella.” Based on Sidney Howard’s play, “They Knew What They Wanted,” Loesser jettisoned the politics and focused on the love story of Tony, an elderly Italian who owns a Napa Valley vineyard and Rosabella, a waitress he encountered in San Francisco. Fearing that she won’t like him, he substitutes the picture of Joe, his foreman for his own, and when his mail order bride arrives, troubles rear their heads at every turn.

Gay performer and director Vern Sutton, who’s done similar work with “Lady in the Dark,” adapted the musical for a concert presentation by VocalEssence, with Philip Brunelle leading the chorus and orchestra and outstanding leading performances by Jennifer Baldwin Peden as Rosabella, Peter Halverson as Tony and Bradley Greenwald as Joe. While the script was trimmed a little too deeply, so the development of Joe and Rosabella’s relationship was given short shrift, it was Patty Nieman, in the secondary role of Cleo, the tired waitress, who stole the show. Her bright red hair reminded us of Shirley MacLaine, Gwen Verdon or Carol Haney, and she caught the audience in the palm of her hand from the moment she belted “Oh, My Feet.” Along with Brian Ohnsorg’s Herman, the production number, “Big D” was a smashing showstopper.

The Most Happy Fella is a Broadway opera that’s not performed often enough, and it was a pleasure to see VocalEssence perform this marvelous work!

Oh, that more music were in the air this chilly fall season in the upper Midwest!

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