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Minneapolis Scene
by Steven LaVigne
October 2008
Minnesota Fringe Festival

Shows with queer content were pretty slim pickings, as more and more family entertainment took over at the Minnesota Fringe Festival last August. In spite of this, there are a couple of gay tales to tell.

Gay Tale One - Angry Booty

Gay storyteller Les Kurkendaal has, in the past several years, become something of a Fringe Festival staple. His latest piece, “The Attack of the Big Angry Booty,” focuses on his job as a floating program director at Jenny Craig, which Kurkendaal says he got because he gives “good phone.” Kurkendaal researched the Baby Food diet, de-toxing with the "Master Cleanse," as well as tried diets including gelatin or cabbage soup.

Collecting research from clients, coworkers, and by eavesdropping, Kurkendaal rarely got to see the end results. However, he tells us about a few, such as Mary, who was angry when she only lost 1.5 pounds in a week. Helen, an unhappy woman, lost weight and dumped her jerk of a husband. However, he’s his own best subject, integrating his experiences into the script.

After he put on 20 pounds following a show tour, and parties, he goes on the program himself, only to find a cancerous, but benign tumor. Applying the concepts of the program helped him recover. “The Attack of the Big Angry Booty” is the best show Les Kurkendaal has presented, and I look forward to his continued participation in future festivals.

Gay Tale Two - Horror Musical

There is a lot of talent involved in the creation of the very gay “Great American Horror Movie Musical.” The bad news is that too many cooks have spoiled the broth, because the result is 55 minutes of hell on earth. The show centers on a group of movie people who are planning to do a docu-musical about Eric Robert Rudolph, a serial killer hiding in a national forest. The premise, written by MFA playwright Jonathan Howle, is standard Fringe fare.

The show is rarely inventive, and is full of many bad, insider gay jokes, so the gay audiences got them, and the straight audience members laughed along with us. Paul Whittemore spends a lot of time with his shirt off, furthering a trend in gay-themed shows here.

So, the bad jokes, low comedy, and pointless male partial nudity guaranteed to have audiences hooting, but leaving the intelligent theater patron with far too many questions. When Andrew Rasmussen’s choreography isn’t corny, it’s the most creative thing onstage. Somehow Jonathan Peterson and John Bruce manage to create and maintain good characters, but the rest of the cast wastes their time and ours.

London - Brief Encounter and 39 Steps

A visit to London turned up two marvelous productions worth noting.

First, there it the Cornwall-based Kneehigh Theatre’s presentation of a stage version of Noël Coward’s “Brief Encounter.” Performed at the Haymarket Cinema, where the film premiered in 1946, the play was adapted and directed by Emma Rice, and presented in the style of a Music Hall, with Coward songs, both familiar and obscure as part of the entertainment.

The play is an expansion of “Still Life,” a one-act from “Tonight at 8:30.” Featuring a cast that included Naomi Frederick (who bears a striking resemblance to Celia Johnson) as Laura, and Tristan Sturrock as Alec, this is an entertaining and loving tribute to Coward who was gay and successful as a writer, composer, and performer in film, theater, and audio recordings.

The second noteworthy production was down the street, at the Criterion Theatre, where writer Patrick Barlow and director Maria Aitken have adapted John Buchan’s novel and Alfred Hitchcock’s film, "The 39 Steps" for the stage. Presented in a highly theatrical style, with a quartet of actors playing all of the characters, this imaginative, queer-oriented production is a loving tribute to Hitchcock’s film, featuring marvelous performances from its ensemble, especially Jo Stone-Fewings as Richard Hannay, and Josefina Gabrielle as Annabella Schmidt.

The 39 Steps is presently on Broadway as well, with the possibility of an upcoming national tour scheduled, so “The 39 Steps” is an outstanding addition to theater must-see lists.

Bright Lights, Big City

Now ensconced in their new home at the Illusion Theatre in the Hennepin Center for the Arts, Minneapolis Musical Theatre is presenting the area premiere of Paul Scott Goodman’s “Bright Lights, Big City.” Adapted from the pop novel by Jay McInerney, this is a lively and energetic, hip 1980s rock musical. It follows the principal character, Jamie Conway and his nightlife activities in Manhattan’s clubbing hotspots, where the young, gay and straight, dance the night away, while drinking, snorting cocaine, and searching for love. Jamie’s life unravels after his wife leaves him, his mother died, and he is losing his job.

Cleverly staged by gay Artistic Director Steven J. Meerdink, “Bright Lights, Big City” is a smashingly good show. Among the highlights of the production is Meerdink’s smart use of his ensemble as they move the show along. Emily Brooke Hansen as Amanda, the wife who chooses a modeling career over marriage is superb, especially in her two biggest scenes. Christine Karki, a performer who’s often been a standout in MT productions, adds to her growing list of terrific roles as Jamie’s mother. Joseph Bombard gives a vocally exciting performance as Jamie’s brother, Michael.

Patrick Morgan as Jamie is the primary purpose for seeing this excellent show. He seldom leaves the stage, and finds the emotional core in this self-destructive character. Furthermore, since most of the show is sung through, there’s not a lot of character development, but Morgan has managed to deliver a remarkable performance.

There are difficulties with Gordon’s libretto. Those who haven’t read the book may have problems following the plot. Characters like Tad, who is Jamie’s best friend and drug supplier, have little to do here. Also, there are repetitious elements in the score.

It is often hard to concentrate on this superb physical production due to Andrea Heilman’s exceptional multimedia, where pop imagery advances the show, but too often distracts. Nonetheless, Bright Lights, Big City manages to pack quite the emotional wallop.


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