Hormel Girls, A Christmas Carol and
Also see Elizabeth's review of Of Mice and Men
For six years after World War II, a literal band of saleswomen cris-crossed the United States, selling housewives, grocery store owners and supermarket managers on the potential of Hormel's famed line of canned meats and other dishes. Yet that was only half of their job. On the weekends, the women would give concerts in the towns they visited. Their work eventually led to a popular Saturday morning radio show before the enterprise quietly said its goodbyes in 1953. This is a great piece of nearly forgotten Americana and a fine foundation for a musical. Playwright Laurie Flanigan and composer Hiram Titus bring the story to life in Hormel Girls, currently receiving its world premiere at St. Paul's History Theatre. It's a fun evening full of engaging characters, great anecdotes and fine music that is probably one edit away really gelling.
The story is told through the eyes of six of the Hormel Girls - young performers, some veterans of the services, others just entertainers - along with manager Bud and mastermind J. C. Hormel. We follow them as they learn how to be salespeople, deal with close company on long road trips and weave their way through a world unsure of women working outside of the home. Along the way there are romance and revelations, as well as lots of good old-fashioned charm.
The ensemble does good work throughout, especially Jen Burleigh-Benz's silently commanding Meredith and Mark Rosenwinkel's nuanced Hormel. The ensemble as a whole works well together, both in crafting their characters and in song, especially on the standout tunes like "Face-to-Face" and travel-weary "I Need a Break."
Flanigan's script - drawn from numerous interviews with surviving Hormel Girls and various other archival sources - is packed with the details of everyday life. And Titus' music beautifully evokes the era without ever sounding schmaltzy or derivative. There's really just too much of a good thing here. The show runs 2-1/2 hours, which is too long for the somewhat slight story. A shorter piece may leave some delightful moments on the floor, but it would make what remains stay in the mind all that much longer.
Hormel Girls runs through Dec. 23 at the History Theatre, 30 E. Tenth St., St. Paul. For tickets and more information, call 651-292-4323 or visit www.historytheatre.com.
Like any production of Dickens' holiday ghost story, the actor playing Scrooge carries a heavy burden. Scrooge is the engine that makes A Christmas Carol go. Thankfully, the Guthrie has a terrific Scrooge. Veteran actor Raye Birk returns once again to the Wurtele Thrust Stage. His Scrooge is a complex man, one who is not just a mere miser, but a person haunted by his past long before Jacob Marley makes his ghostly appearance. On stage for nearly the entire show, Birk's energy never fails, and his Scrooge continues to evolve - to the point that his final transformation into a giddy human being at the end is that much more moving.
The balance of the Barbara Field-adapted/ Gary Gisselman-directed show largely remains from past years. There's a nip here and a tuck there that helps the material move along, but the experience - from the story-theater-like telling to the occasional carol - is largely the same.
Alongside Birk there are plenty of prime performances, from Hugh Kennedy's strong reading of the young Ebenezer to Elizabeth Stahlmann's haunted turn as Scrooge's young love Belle to Vern Sutton's hobbit-like Mr. Fezziwig. Not to mention the entire Cratchit clan, who act and feel like a real family, and Nathaniel Fuller's chain-rattling rendition of Jacob Marley.
No one is expecting great surprises from A Christmas Carol. Instead, they want a familiar tradition played out before their eyes once again. In that, the Guthrie production rises to the challenge and even goes beyond that, due to the supreme work by Raye Birk.
A Christmas Carol runs through Dec. 29 at the Guthrie Theater, 818 S. 2nd St., Minneapolis. For tickets and more information, call 612-377-2224 or visit www.guthrietheater.org.
Photo: © Michal Daniel
Using excerpts from Shakespeare and poems by Yeats and Eliot, and lesser-known works that still pack a wallop, Keating delves into the complexities of getting old and the importance of experiences that have been left behind. I and I is somewhat of a rambling piece - kind of like the mind in that regard - but Keating's observations (such as the story of watching George Ostroska die on stage in a production of Macbeth in St. Paul in 1970) are sharp, and his readings, no matter the source, are spot on. A very short run, but worth catching if you can.
I and I: The Sense of Self runs through Dec. 2 at the Dowling Studio in the Guthrie Theater, 818 S. 2nd St., Minneapolis. For tickets and more information, call 612-377-2224 or visit www.guthrietheater.org.