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Minneapolis by Ed Huyck

Mixed Blood Theatre, The Mad Dancers

Playwright Yehuda Hyman certainly doesn’t lack in ambition. In The Mad Dancers, Hyman attempts to connect disparate Jewish traditions from around the world through the power of storytelling. The show, which opened Friday at the Mixed Blood Theatre, does a remarkable job of keeping all of the disparate bits together. Much of that is due to the strong production led by director Stan Wojewodski, Jr. and a commanding performance by Brain Sostek as the traveler Elliot.

Using the tale of “The Seven Beggars” as its core, The Mad Dancers travels far and wide. It centers on Elliot Green, a lowly worker in the data mines at IBM. A series of encounters on a seemingly normal Friday morning lead him on an epic journey around the globe. At each turn, he finds a new guide for his journey – a journey he is always hesitant to take any further.

Throughout, we see his story as told by Rebbe, a 19th century rabbi attempting to keep his own story going as he lies on his deathbed. It doesn’t take long for the two stories to begin to merge, as Elliot’s journey to save a wounded princess (or prince in his case) mixes in with the Rabbi and his followers' own journeys nearly two centuries before.

All of this could easily descend into some all-too-polite cultural morass, but Hyman keeps the attention on the story, letting the different cultures – separated by geography and time – have their moments on stage.

It helps to have fine performances from the eight members of the cast. The focus throughout is on Sostek, who brings his dancer's grace to this most nebbish of characters. The changes in Elliot’s demeanor are subtle, but Sostek slowly works them into the character, making his journey through this fantastical show perfectly natural.

The balance of the cast is also strong, especially Sally Wingert, who plays the ancient Rebbe with plenty of chutzpah, but never falls into cliché. That’s true throughout the cast. It would be easy to rely on cultural expectations, but all are careful to make each character breathe with life.

The Mad Dancers is a dense and complex cultural and emotional stew, but one centered on the power of stories and words. When faced with the task of keeping an overloaded helicopter aloft, the pilot asks Elliot if he knows any jokes. Why? “We need to lighten the load.” The Mad Dancers runs through Oct. 30 at Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis. Call 612-338-6131 for more information.


Fifty-Foot Penguin, Debbie Does Dallas: The Musical!

A welcome sight and sound for theatergoers who have suffered through an endless parade of bad movies made into even-worse musicals, Debbie Does Dallas: The Musical! takes a journey into previously uncharted territory: soft-core porn.

That’s not necessarily a disadvantage, as this Fifty Foot Penguin production proves. After all, the original has a stronger plot than Footloose and more character development than Starlight Express. And by putting its soft focus on the halcyon days of the turn of the ‘80s, it can even provide a little nostalgia for an era when sex was still rampant and porn bothered with plots.

There is one major change. Though still loaded with sexual situations, there’s no sex in Debbie Does Dallas: The Musical! Oh sure, there is lots of simulation, but the only skin is showed off by football star Rick (played with great, oh God I can’t believe I’m writing this, cheekiness by Carson Lee).

And the plot? Debbie is a small town girl who is close to reaching her dream - of being a Dallas cheerleader. But she doesn’t have the money. So she and her friends conspire to make the money, basically by giving men what they want. So they do it. A lot. Oh, there’s some conflict between the girls, especially from somewhat pure Debbie and Lisa, “the bad one.” But mainly this is a comedic romp through the active libidos of the various characters.

Creators Erica Schmidt, Andrew Sherman and Susan Schwartz do an admirable job by taking the, lets face it, parts of the movie no one really was paying attention to, and crafting a breezy and fun 80-minute show. Give credit as well to the nine performer cast, led by Kristen Husby as Debbie and Joanna Jahn as Lisa, who are willing to do just about anything on stage to get a laugh. This is most clear in the near show-stopping “The Dildo Rag,” which ... ah, I’ll just leave it to your imagination.

Interestingly enough, while the production numbers (full of theatrical in jokes) are a blast to watch, the music itself is probably the weakest link in this musical. Unlike other parodies of recent years (Avenue Q and Urinetown come to mind), these songs don’t live in the mind beyond their time on stage.

In the end, Debbie Does Dallas: The Musical! doesn’t need memorable songs to make a fun evening. Instead, it relies on its active cast and fresh take on a tired genre. It’s even kind of heartwarming, in a “is that the only dream you possibly could have?” kind of way.

Debbie Does Dallas: The Musical! runs through Oct. 22. For more information, call 612-381-1110


Minneapolis Music Theatre, The Who’s Tommy

To paraphrase an old joke, as the writer of an opera, Pete Townshend is a great guitarist. That problem lies at the core of Tommy: Great playing, some fantastic songs, and a story that even for the tripped out 1960s, doesn’t make a lot of sense.

Those issues get transplanted into the musical version of the show, currently receiving an uneven reading from the Minneapolis Musical Theatre. There’s little character development, and the story arc – which is pretty thin to start out with – isn’t really helped by putting it on stage. After all, the visuals are right there in the songs, leaving the performers to sing about what they are doing as they are doing it.

The MMT production rises and falls, then, with the music. The original album’s highlights, such as “Pinball Wizard,” “I’m Free,” “Go the Mirror, Boy” – you know, the ones that get played on classic rock radio – are plenty of fun. That leaves long stretches of show that aren’t as interesting, as they are given mainly to telling the story instead of allowing us inside the characters, even one teeny tiny bit.

The performances are generally solid. As the first act narrator and adult Tommy, Patrick Morgan shows good range in his voice. His on-stage strutting works best in Tommy’s later, messianic stage. Shaun Nathan Baer has plenty of fun as Tommy’s nasty Cousin Kevin, and has probably the best moment of the night as he joins his “lads” in a thrilling performance of “Pinball Wizard.”

Still, there is a lot that screams “community theater” here. Though the pinball-inspired set was fun, individual set pieces at times wobbled or were difficult to negotiate on stage. (And a note to the set designer: if you have a piece that is central to the concept of the show – say a mirror – it’s wise to make sure the entire audience can see it.)

There were other production issues the night I attended, including uneven vocals in the mix and inexcusable 15-minute delay in starting, that should have been ironed out before bringing in a paying audience.

The Who’s Tommy is essentially a two-hour karaoke show, as an energetic and excited cast sings and acts out some great songs, some not-so-great songs and some “what were you thinking?” songs. The same goes for the production, which has its moments, but never comes together as a coherent entertainment.

The Minneapolis Musical Theatre production of The Who’s Tommy runs through Oct. 30 at Hennepin Stages. Call 952-544-1372 for more information.


- Ed Huyck



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