Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Complicated Fun
History Theatre
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of Leap of Faith and Diary of a Wimpy Kid the Musical


Ricky Morisseau (center) and Cast
Photo by Scott Pakudaitis
Complicated Fun, in a world premiere production mounted by History Theatre, is Minnesota's very own jukebox musical. It is a love letter to the treasure trove of rock music written, recorded, and performed by Twin Cities bands during the 1980s. Collectively, this array of music has been called "The Minneapolis Sound," though it ranges in tone from Hüsker Dü's all-out punk to the funk sounds of Lipps Inc. to Suicide Commando's straight-ahead rock to the emotionally dense Replacements. What they had in common was youth, energy, and a nose-thumbing attitude toward the conservative tenor of the Reagan years.

There is a great deal of music in Complicated Fun—the title taken from the name of one of the show's tunes recorded by The Suicide Commandos. Many of the songs are not performed in their entirety, but we are given a good-size sample portion of their sound. Those familiar with the music can fill in the missing parts from their memories, but for those who were not here for the glory days of the Minnesota Sound, the snippets are less satisfying. Fortunately, there are enough songs played through to provide a substantial level of musical entertainment.

While many of the performers featured in the show did receive national attention, performing on late night television, having albums make it to (though not topping) the Billboard charts, and touring around the country, none became major stars beyond their home turf. Prince, the one truly starry name to emerge from the Minneapolis music scene is not represented musically in Complicated Fun. According to program materials, rights to Prince's music were not made available for use in the show. There are, however, numerous references to Prince, including the filming of Purple Rain at First Avenue, the music venue that, thanks in large part to Prince, became the epicenter of the local rock scene. We even see Prince's influence on the apparel worn by young male rockers. Prince's untimely death, just ten days before Complicated Fun's opening night, adds layers of poignancy and import to the occasion of this show.

But what is Complicated Fun, beyond a chance to revisit—or hear for the first time—some great sounds from a few decades back? Playwright Alan Berks has woven a couple of storylines through the play, serving as connective fiber for the musical performances. None of these stories are particularly strong or interesting. The most central plotline is between two characters, called simply "Girl" and "Boy," who are both very young when they meet at a music club. He is a child of the affluent suburbs, being introduced to the wild side by his older rock 'n' rollin' cousin. She is a child of the city, looking for a place to give her life an anchor, and thinking she will find that in the music scene. Throughout the course of the show, he overcomes his shyness and the two become a couple, though she is always pushing to jump further into the maelstrom of the rock world while he keeps one foot safely on the college-prep track. There is sweetness to their touch and go coupling but nothing particularly new being told.

Another storyline follows the back and forth banter between two record store clerks (back when record stores were in abundance) who argue vociferously over which band's sound is superior—often providing cues for a song to be played, as one holds up an album jacket and calls out "Listen to this!" and the band takes over. Their tastes evolve a bit over time, and they learn to appreciate each other's point of view, but that's about as far as it goes, story wise. On a couple of occasions a third record store clerk is seen, an African-American who calls attention to the funkier sounds coming down.

A third storyline follows the emergence of First Avenue as the leading venue for rock music performance in the Twin Cities, describing the art deco building's 1935 origins as a Greyhound Bus Station, transformation into a rock club in 1970 (with Joe Cocker giving the first performance) named The Depot, and it's re-christening as First Avenue in 1981. Long-time general manager Steve McClellan is portrayed as a tortured soul, struggling to balance his commitment to the music as art and social expression with the running of a business. There are also brief snippets about Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis leaving their performing careers in The Time (a group closely associated with Prince) to become music producers, finding major success in their company Flyte Tyme Productions.

It is hard to judge the performances in this scenario, as most of the roles demand little of their characters. Stephanie Bertumen determinedly seeks her place in the world as the Girl, but her character comes across as rather flat. Bowen Cochran provides more nuance as the Boy. He wants her to be in his life, yet is unready to commit to her chosen lifestyle, and Cochran conveys that ambivalence quite well. Erik Hoover and Skyler Nowinski are amusing as the bickering record store clerks, and Josh Carson brings unbridled angst to his performance as Steve.

Dominic Taylor has directed with a focus on the music over any of the storylines. This makes total sense, given that the music is the show's raison d'être. We are drawn to care more about the music than the people who were caught up in creating, promoting, and enjoying it. Along with the abundance of music, there is extensive dancing, usually involving the entire ensemble. The choreography by Carl Flink captures well the spirit of freedom, verging on anarchy, found in the pure rock and roll experience. Everyone is moving, singly, in couples, or groups, using the History Theatre's aisles as well as the stage so that the audience feels enveloped in the frenzy of the music.

Musically, the show sounds great, with the band under music director Nic Delcambre moving adroitly from the sounds of one group to another. The lighting design is an invaluable partner in presenting the music, as lights are so much a part of rock performances. The stage set is a functional gathering of raised platforms, the band perched on the highest platform in the rear. A mural of downtown Minneapolis circa 1980 traverses the rear wall to establish place. Costumes harken back with authenticity to the look of the 1980s.

I can recommend Complicated Fun as a nostalgic look back for those who remember the heady days of the Minneapolis Sound, and as a survey look and listen for those who missed out on being there but want to know what made it all so special. It sounds great, and is lively fun. For anyone seeking a deeper look at social history that might have been revealed through the music, or for those who want a meaty story with characters to care about, Complicated Fun is likely to disappoint. In either case, though, History Theatre is to be commended for honoring this outpouring of musical creativity from our recent past by bringing it to their stage.

Complicated Fun continues at History Theatre through May 29, 2016. 30 East 10th Street, Saint Paul, MN, 55102. Tickets from $25.00 - $45.00; senior (age 60+) discount available; student tickets $15.00 for all seats. For tickets call 651-292-4323 or go to historytheatre.com.

Writer: Alan Berks; Director: Dominic Taylor; Music Director: Nic Delcambre; Choreographer: Carl Flink; Scenic Design: Michael Hoover; Costume Design: Amelia Cheever; Lighting Design: Kathy Maxwell; Sound Designer: C. Andrew Mayer; Properties Designer: Lisa Conley; Muralist: Dee Skogen; Dramaturg: Gina Musto; Stage Manager: Wayne Hendricks; Assistant Stage Managers: Janet Hall and Charles Fraser.

Cast: Stephanie Bertumen (Girl), Josh Carson (Steve), Bowen Cochran (Boy), Mikayla Dates (ensemble), Lynnea Doublette (Sue Ann, others), Chloe Hansen (ensemble), H. Adam Harris (Clerk, Jimmy), Raafael Hoffman-Dachelet (ensemble), Erik Hoover (Byron, others), Joseph Miller (Clerk), Ricky Morisseau (Terry, Alexander), Skyler Nowinski (Clerk), Evelyna Rosario (ensemble), Alexis Sabo (ensemble), Ellen Walz (ensemble), Clarence Wethern (Allan, others), Andrea Wollenberg (Maggie, Cousin, Nancy, others).

Band, also play in cast: Nic Delcambre (music director, keyboards), Mitchell Benson (bass), Blake Foster (guitar), Riley Jacobson (drums).

Songs from recordings by Lipps Inc., The Suicide Commandos, Curtiss A, The Replacements, Greg Brown, The Suburbs, Sue Ann Carwell, Hüsker Dü, Alexander O'Neal, Tetes Noires, Soul Asylum, The Jets, Trip Shakespeare, Babes in Toyland, Mint Condition, and Jayhawks.