Fact or Fiction Explored in Theatre in the Round Production

I have been a volunteer at Theatre in the Round for at least eight years.  During this time I have seen many productions, most of which I really enjoyed, some I was indifferent to and just a few that I would not have recommended.  However, I have never seen a production that I felt compelled to write about until this past weekend when I saw The Drawer Boy.Since I am associated with Theatre in the Round it would not be appropriate for me to write a review.  This is my reflection on a production that I felt was top notch in all areas from the acting to the directing to the set and sound design. The Drawer Boy, written in 1999 by Michael Healey, tells the story of two friends and how their lives are changed by the eager young actor who arrives at their farm to do research and ends up causing the two to revisit their past.  This production is directed by Jamil Jude, with set design by Laura Tracy and sound design by Christy Ellis. Angus (Keith Shelbourne) and Morgan (Bob Malos) have been friends since childhood.  They grew into young adults and entered the Second World War together thinking they would find adventure.  Instead in Europe they found the friendship of two English women, “one tall and one taller” as the story goes while doing their best to avoid battle.  Angus was injured during an air raid and suffered permanent brain damage which caused a loss of memory.   For years Morgan has told Angus the story of their life and their love of the two women they met.  His story ends tragically and leaves Morgan and Angus continuing to live on the farm for 30 years with Morgan taking care of his friend Angus. One day Miles (Mike Swan) knocks on the door of their farmhouse.  His acting troupe is writing and performing a local play and he wants to live with them for a few weeks to learn about the life of a farmer.  As he spends time with the two friends and hears their story, his reactions and questions help Angus to dredge up some old memories.  These memories cause Miles to question their story and lead to a surprising revelation and a truth that is in many ways more compelling.  The three actors are all convincing in their roles and the story within a story is clearly told through their performances. After seeing the play I began to think about the coverage of NBC’s Brian Williams possibly telling a different version of a story that took place in 2003 during his coverage of the Iraq War.  We have to ask ourselves how much of the telling of our life story is shaped by the reactions we receive and/or our desire to protect ourselves and those we care about.  Is telling a good story better than telling a true story?    Continue Reading

THEATER REVIEW | “The Incredible Season of Ronnie Rabinovitz” at History Theatre: About much more than baseball

The Incredible Season of Ronnie Rabinovitz is now playing at the History Theatre in St. Paul. Not a recognizable title by any means since this is the world premiere of this production. When someone asked before the show what I was seeing, I honestly could not remember the title—just that I wanted to see it because it told the story of the friendship between a young boy, Jackie Robinson and John Kennedy.When the show was over, I felt disappointed in myself—I had focused on the fact that Jackie Robinson played baseball so this would be a baseball story. While Ronnie Rabinovitz and Jackie Robinson’s friendship started over a letter written by a young boy to his baseball hero, by 1960 Robinson had retired from the game and was traveling the country to speak on behalf of the burgeoning civil rights movement.John Kennedy’s relationship with the Rabinovitz family began with Ronnie’s father, David, who was supporting Kennedy in the Wisconsin primary during his campaign for the presidency. Kennedy was very interested in getting the support of Jackie Robinson for his election bid and that is how the lives of all the key players intersected in Sheboygan, Wisconsin in 1960. Adding to the unrest was the often violent strike against the Kohler Company, which became the longest strike in American history. David Rabinovitz was legal counsel for the union.In retrospect, I realized that I got to see a slice of history that includes an inside look at the beginnings of the civil rights movement, an understanding of the hardship a strike brings to workers, and a look at the maneuvering that goes on behind a political campaign. Continue Reading

THEATER REVIEW | “A Don’t Hug Me Christmas Carol” at the New Century Theatre: A Minnesotan twist on a classic

A Don’t Hug Me Christmas Carol, currently playing at the New Century Theatre in Minneapolis, is another opportunity for Minnesotans to laugh at themselves—something we seem to be very good at.A Don’t Hug Me Christmas Carol tells the story of Gunner, a down-on-his-luck bar owner in northern Minnesota who can no longer find joy in life or love in his marriage. On Christmas Eve he takes his snowmobile out on the lake and falls through the ice. While in a coma in the hospital he is given the chance to observe his life with the help of visits from the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present and Christmas Yet To Come. Unfortunately for Gunner the ghosts are all embodied by Sven (budget cuts in the ghost world!), his old band partner and love rival. The five actors in A Don’t Hug Me Christmas Carol are all veterans of musical theater in the Twin Cities and this production is a great showcase for their musical and comedic talents. Bonni Allen, Doug Anderson, Michael Lee, Jennifer Maren and Ross Young are each able to bring their character’s distinct idiosyncrasies to life to such a degree that this over-the-top story of Christmas redemption seems totally natural. Continue Reading

THEATER REVIEW | History Theatre’s “Christmas of Swing” pays homage to veterans

The Andrews Sisters and Bing Crosby are once again performing together at the History Theatre in Christmas of Swing.The Andrews sisters were born in Minnesota and formed their singing group when LaVerne was 14, Maxene was 9 and Patty, who was the lead singer, was only 7. Five years later they won first prize at a talent contest at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis where LaVerne was playing piano accompaniment for silent film showings.  In 1934 their parents closed the restaurant they owned to devote themselves to their daughters’ career.  After touring with Larry Rich and his orchestra for 3 years, the sisters began performing as a trio and in 1938 found success with their first No. 1 hit on the Billboards chart.In the 1940s the sisters became the most profitable stage attraction in the United States and only Bing Crosby sold more records. During this time the sisters became very active in wartime entertainment, volunteering to entertain for the troops in America as well as participating in an 8-week USO tour in 1945. They were dubbed the “Sweethearts of the Armed Forces Radio Service.” It was during this time that they recorded the song almost everyone recognizes–“Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.”Christmas of Swing finds the Andrews Sisters in rehearsal for one of their shows for the hospitalized troops recovering stateside. Joining them in the show are Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye and Abbott & Costello. Christmas of Swing is a mixture of holiday songs, swing tunes and comedy sketches. The sisters decide to include in the show the reading of letters from the troops that families have sent them (with the show using excerpts from real letters written by World War II soldiers).  The letters are often read by actors Eric Heimsoth and Bryan Porter who portray the soldiers sharing their longing for home and concerns for their safety.I felt like I was back in 1944 watching the USO show that was performed on Christmas Eve, with a peek at the back stage preparations. All of the songs in the show are authentic for the time. The set, designed by Michael Hoover, has been expanded since the last time this show was performed at the History Theater in 2005 and there is now a full band on stage which is a great addition. The props designed by Kirby Moore and the costumes designed by Kelsey Glasener are appropriately kitschy and seasonal.Ruthie Baker as Patty, Jen Burleigh-Bentz as LaVerne and Stacey Lindell as Maxene are all returning to the History Theater this year to again play the Andrews Sisters. They are obviously great entertainers and flawlessly bring the Andrews Sisters’ energy and upbeat personalities to the stage. Bud Scharpen’s portrayal of Bing Crosby was excellent down to his pipe and cardigan sweater. Another nice addition is the recognition of WWII veterans, and all other veterans, in the audience before the show. Also, after intermission Baker comes on stage and reads the names of WWII veterans that audience members left at the box office prior to the show. She then asked the audience to call out the names of other WWII veterans and I was moved by the number of people who had a loved one they wanted to pay respect to in this way.Christmas of Swing runs at the History Theatre through December 22.  If you are looking for old-fashioned holiday fun and a chance to pay respect to the many veterans who have served so faithfully, add this to your holiday calendar.Coverage of issues and events that affect Central Corridor neighborhoods and communities is funded in part by a grant from Central Corridor Funders Collaborative. Continue Reading

My chosen view of life

My long-neglected blog is titled The Knothole View – a term that I have always believed originated in baseball referring to fans who stood outside the wood fence and watched the game through the knotholes.   Interestingly, when searching the internet for it today the only thing that came up was my blog!  Exciting, but strange. Continue Reading

THEATER REVIEW | At the Plymouth Playhouse, the Church Basement Ladies serve “The Last (Potluck) Supper”

Inspired by the book Growing Up Lutheran by Janet Letnes Martin and Suzann Nelson, the original Church Basement Ladies premiered in 2005. Since then there have been four sequels, all produced by Troupe America Inc. and premiering at the Plymouth Playhouse. The highly successful musicals have all gone on to tour nationally, and continue to be performed at theaters across the country.With the premiere of The Church Basement Ladies in The Last (Potluck) Supper, written by Greta Grosh with music and lyrics by Drew Jansen, it is time to say goodbye. The ladies’ church has run into financial difficulties and a decision is made that there is no choice but to disband the congregation. The show begins with a centennial celebration set in 1979 and ends with an auctioneer selling off the church inventory to pay the final bills—but a mysterious bidder has the audience wondering if there is a future after all for the church and its hundred years of memories.Much of the show consists of flashbacks going as far back as 1897 when the congregation was voting whether to hold their services in English and deciding it was time for the women and men to sit together in church. Continue Reading

THEATER REVIEW | “Country Roads” with Dennis Curley: At the Bryant-Lake Bowl, John Denver’s music is as sweet as ever

Dennis Curley brings the music of John Denver to the Bryant-Lake Bowl in Country Roads: Dennis Curley Sings the Music of John Denver. If you are not familiar with the theater at the Bryant-Lake Bowl, let me tell you that on May 4 I felt like I was sitting in Curley’s living room surrounded by friends and family. This is the magic of John Denver’s music: it connects people to a simpler time and to shared memories. Not to mention that the audience did consist of friends and family of Curley and the four musicians who shared the stage with him—along with people like me, who love the music of John Denver.I saw a much different show at the State Theatre when members of John Denver’s band reunited for a tour that included video of Denver performing as a backdrop to their live performance. That show got me thinking about John Denver the man: how forward-thinking he was in the causes he championed but what a troubled personal life he had. However, I did not feel nearly as connected to Denver the musician as I did when I listened to Dennis Curley sing.I appreciated the fact that Curley covered many of Denver’s best-known hits but also introduced me to several songs that I was not familiar with. Continue Reading

THEATER REVIEW | “Ring of Fire: The Life and Music of Johnny Cash” honors the legend at the Plymouth Playhouse

Plymouth Playhouse is currently showcasing the life and music of Johnny Cash in a Broadway show–Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash. 
Ring of Fire is really more a concert than a play. An ensemble of eight musicians, Tim Drake, Steve Lasiter, Candice Lively, Brittany Parker, Amberly Rosen, Jason Uhlmann, Chad Willow and Chet Wollan, put on an amazing show of talent. They share the narration that gives the audience the backbone of Cash’s life while not attempting to dramatize the individuals. Each speaks the voice of Cash. The real story of Johnny Cash is told in his music which is not presented chronologically in the show but instead categorically. Dividing the show into four parts–Boyhood Years, Opry and Fame, Dark Years, Redemption and Celebration–gives the audience the chance to see the influence that Cash’s life experiences played in the creation of his music. The majority of the songs were written by Cash or in collaboration with another writer. Continue Reading

MUSIC REVIEW | John Denver’s memory lives on at the State Theatre

John Denver: A Rocky Mountain High Concert came to the State Theatre in Minneapolis on Sunday, February 17 for one evening. The concert, a tribute to John Denver, gave those in attendance the opportunity to pay homage to a much-beloved singer, songwriter, humanitarian and conservationist. 
John Denver began his music career in Los Angeles in 1963, spending several years performing as a member of most notably the Chad Mitchell Trio. Eventually, he decided to pursue a solo tour and released his first album. At the same time a song he had written was renamed Leaving on a Jet Plane, and became a hit for Peter, Paul and Mary. This initial success led Denver to launch a promotional tour through the Midwest, playing for free wherever he could find an audience and selling his records. This tour convinced RCA to give him a contract and created a solid fan base that stayed with him throughout his career. While performing at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, MN he met his first wife Annie Martell. They were married and lived in Edina, MN from 1968–1971. 
Denver relocated to Aspen, Colorado in 1971 and lived in the same home there until his death in 1997. Continue Reading

Minnesota Opera premieres a compelling “Doubt”

The Minnesota Opera is presenting the world premiere of Doubt, an opera based on the play and movie of the same name written by John Patrick Shanley. Shanley had the idea of doing an opera because of the depths of emotion and conflict in this story. He approached the Minnesota Opera and collaborated with composer Douglas Cuomo. Continue Reading