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Minneapolis by Elizabeth Weir

Two knock-out productions enliven Minneapolis' Holiday Season

The Jungle's Fully Committed comes one delicious bite after another

If you want to be sure of a reservation at the Jungle Theater's delectable Fully Committed, you'd better call early; tables at this hip watering hole could sell like, well ... hot jicama-smoked Scottish wood squab.

Some 40 larger-than-life characters fairly sizzle on stage in Becky Mode's witty comedy, but just one young actor, Nathan Keepers, plays them all and plays them with such frenetic panache that they felt as present to me on opening night as the unfortunate Sam.

Twenty-two yearold Keepers plays Sam, an aspiring actor who works as a reservationist at Manhattan's most swanky restaurant. It's the "in" place to dine and, from mobsters to socialites, New York celebs demand tables in spite of a two-month-long waiting list. Not only must Sam deal with narcissistic clients who threaten, bribe, wheedle and weep down the phone, but he must cope with the overblown egos of the chef and maitre d.' Then there's Sam's actor buddy, who has received an enviable second call-back from Lincoln Center, his desultory agent, his lonely widowed father, and a fellow reservationist who skips work and phones in to harass Sam.

You get the picture, and with lightening-quick shifts in body language, accent or tone of voice, Keepers flips from Sam to the person on the other end of his telephone and captures the essence of each one. Mrs. Vandevere reeks of privilege and old money. Carolann Rosenstein-Fishburn drops huge names. Mrs. Sebag abuses everyone within her range. Bryce, of indeterminate gender, negotiates the menu, lighting and placement of the table for his/her supermodel boss, and Mrs. Watanabe struggles to get beyond spelling her name.

Shades of darkness deepen Mode's delicious script, as the likeable Sam progresses from exploited employee to counter-exploiter in his own right.

Under the polished direction of Eye of the Storm Theater's Casey Stangle, Keepers vaults from being a young actor known for his aerial physicality in Theatre de la Jeune Lune, Children's Theater and Guthrie productions to establishing himself as an actor of proven range.

Jungle artistic director Bain Boehlke designed the superbly detailed set of a cluttered desk and spiral staircase in the dingy basement below the restaurant. It's a chronic sort of space of too much work and not enough time, where Sam has rigged up multiple old lamps to give it an air of intimacy.

Set right before Christmas, Committed is a seasonable tour-de-force that shouldn't be missed. Don't get caught without a reservation for this treat. Fully Committed, November 22 - December 29. The Jungle Theater, Lyndale Avenue S., Minneapolis. $18-$28. Call: 651-822-7063.

The Wizard of Oz swirls Children's Theater audiences off to Oz

Just like Dorothy, I was carried off to a land of enchantment by director and choreographer Mathew Howe's The Wizard of Oz at the Children's Theatre Company (CTC.) The acting, singing and dancing is strong down to the youngest performer, the show stuns the eye, music director Victor Zupanc and his orchestra play the familiar music with verve, and there's substance enough in L. Frank Baum's 1900 story to captivate children and adults alike.

Oz tells the tale of Kansas farm child Dorothy and her dog Toto, who get swirled off to magical lands by a prairie tornado. In Munchkinland she meets both a good and a bad witch, and begins a journey along the yellow brick road to ask the Wizard of Oz to help her return to Kansas. Along the way, she teams up with a scarecrow who longs for a brain, a tin man who yearns for a heart and a lion who wants courage. For each, it turns out to be a journey of self-knowledge and growth.

The talented Britta Ollmann, a senior in high school, leads the cast as Dorothy with a powerful voice and all the confidence of a seasoned performer. Dressed in blue gingham and wearing pig-tails, Ollmann works seamlessly with the appealing Toto, played by either Cullen or Buck, both Cairn terriers. This Toto is highly motivated by his stomach and follows Dorothy around, head cocked, waiting for the frequent rewards that she slips his way.

A cast of uniform depth slides easily between their roles as Kansas farmers and the creatures of the magical dream world. Particularly pleasing are Bradley Greenwald as the Tin Man, Dean Holt as the Scarecrow, Reed Sigmund as the roly-poly lion and Almira Gulch as the archetypal and genuinely scary Wicked Witch of West.

Quite apart from the main characters, director Howe fields a 25-member singing and dancing ensemble, many of whom are very young and very accomplished. All dance his exquisite choreography with precision and grace, but nothing quite beats the bizarre eye-candy dance of the Munchkin children and squat Munchkin adults.

Scott Bradley's spare opening set of a gray prairie sky and lean, wind-seared farm porch belies the glories that follow. Munchkinland and the poppy field riot with color and texture, the gnarled apple tree trunks scare and convince like a Victorian Arthur Rackham illustration and the Emerald City unfolds in the pea-green elegance of art deco.

Lighting design by Beverly Emmons floods the sets with mood and brilliant washes of color, and Chris Heagle's dramatic sound design blows a terrifying stage storm into being.

Helen Huang's superb costumes range from homespun period farm clothes to petal-like flower dresses and the frosty splendor of Glinda (Kirsten Sevig,) the Good Witch of the North. All told, CTC's Oz is a superb retelling of a classic American fairy tale that has the added delight of being live theater. The Wizard of Oz, November 21 - January 12. The Children's Theatre Company, 2400, Third Avenue South, Minneapolis. $14-$31. Call: 651-874-0400.


Be sure to check the current schedule for theatre in the Twin Cities area


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Elizabeth Weir



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