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Minneapolis by Ed Huyck

Gem of the Ocean, 42nd Street and Forever Plaid


Penumbra Theatre Gem of the Ocean

Gem of the Ocean
Marvette Knight and Cedric Mays
Penumbra starts an ambitious five-year series of the 10 plays in August Wilson's 20th Century Cycle with a special production on the Guthrie's McGuire Proscenium Stage. Set in the early days of the 20th century, it is the first chronologically of the 10 plays (though the second to last to be written), but already the disappointment of promises and potential unfulfilled wash over the work.

The promises of emancipation and freedom have not come to pass for black Americans in the 40 years since the end of the civil war, even in the north. Guilt-ridden Citizen Barlow washes up on Aunt Ester's Hill District door looking to have his soul "washed." Why he's wracked with guilt quickly becomes clear: he has caused the death of an innocent man, a death that has enraged the local population and leaves the community on the edge of disaster.

Wilson uses this to dig into a complex web of expectations and experiences embodied at the heart by Solly Two Kings, a once-slave who not only escaped, but returned to help others on the routes of the Underground Railroad; and Caesar, who has found personal success by embracing a law that oppresses more than it protects.

At turns funny, insightful and ultimately heartbreaking, Gem of the Ocean gets a stately reading in this production, led by burning performances from Cedric Mays as Citizen and James Craven as Solly Two Kings. T. Mychael Rambo crafts a well-rounded character out of Caesar, the closest thing to a villain in the piece, while Austene Van gives Black Mary an amazing amount of quiet strength, important since her character is on as much of a journey as Citizen.

Director Lou Bellamy uses the Guthrie stage well, though I missed the intimacy of Penumbra's home stage. Still, Gem of the Ocean is a deep and engaging work - one that starts the cycle off in grand fashion.

Gem of the Ocean runs through May 18 at the Guthrie Theater, 818 S. 2nd St., Minneapolis. For tickets or more information, call 612-337-2224 or visit www.guthrietheater.org.

Photo: Photo © Michal Daniel, 2008


Chanhassen Dinner Theatres 42nd Street

42nd Street
David Anthony Brinkley and Jodi Carmeli
In a delightfully irony-free production, Chanhassen Dinner Theatres proves there's still plenty of life and energy in Broadway warhorse 42nd Street. Fueled by a talented cast, excellent singing and breathtaking dancing, the production even manages to add a bit of pathos to the proceedings by giving us hints of the Depression-driven desperation of many of the outwardly happy performers.

The stage musical - originally produced in 1980, but based on the 1933 film of the same name - is the quintessential "take the girl out of the chorus and make her a star!" show. The girl in this case is Peggy Sawyer, a young dancer dreaming of Broadway in the heart of the great Depression. Her talents get her a role in the chorus of the latest show produced by Julian Marsh, a crusty producer who has plenty of headaches to deal with on his new show. The biggest would be Dorothy Brock, a talented diva whose sugar daddy is fronting the cash for the show.

There are more complications along the way, the biggest being that Dorothy is injured just before the show opens. Peggy is the only one in the cast with the chops to fill in for the role. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to work out how it's going to end, but that's part of the brilliance of the production. Director Michael Brindisi, making his third pass on the material, crafts a show with nary a wink or nod to the audience about the apparent silliness of the proceedings. In an age where simple, honest and "old fashioned" emotions are rarely played without knowing glances that say "weren't people so silly in the olden days," Brindisi and the cast are able to see beneath the layers of cynicism to the simple and honest heart below.

The cast is terrific, led by Jodi Carmeli as Peggy. Not only is Carmeli a talented singer, dancer and actor, but she adds the right sense of innocence and hidden self-confidence needed for the character. Michelle Barber walks a fine line as Dorothy Brock, making us see the heart that lies beneath the tempestuous exterior. As Julian Marsh, David Anthony Brinkley takes the role far beyond the hard-producer-with-a-big-heart clichés into something far more nuanced - there is a real sense that Marsh is on his last legs here, and wants the hit for the "kids" in the cast as any paycheck or his legacy.

That sense of desperation and sorrow runs behind much of the action in 42nd Street. Hints of the Depression are everywhere and you know that the actors are desperate for the show to be a success - not just to be in a big hit, but also to be able to eat and keep a roof over their heads.

In the end, the show is as much about terrific singing and dancing as it is about the plot. Choreographer Tamara Kangas produces a series of spry and exhilarating pieces, ending with an epic ballet with the show's title piece. And the cast gives it is all during these pieces. Brindisi does well in balancing the two halves of 42nd Street, never letting the serious undercurrents sweep the often-frothy show in the wrong direction.

42nd Street runs through July 26 at the Chanhassen Dinner Theatres Main Stage. For tickets and more information, call 952-934-1525 or visit www.chanhassendt.com


Forever Plaid

The Old Log Theatre kicks off its 69th season with a real winner - the metaphysical musical Forever Plaid. Mixing good-natured humor, hints of lost opportunities and - of course - excellent versions of many classic '50s pop songs, the production not only features great music, but engaging and touching performances as well.

The setup is fairly simple, if a bit "Twilight Zone." The Plaids were a little-known vocal group gigging around Pennsylvania in the early 1960s. An automobile accident sent them to the beyond just before their biggest gig, and the universe has allowed them one last chance to give the concert they've always had inside. Over the course of 90 minutes, the friends - Jinx, Smudge, Frankie and Sparky - share their favorite songs and stories about their careers and the deep love they have for the music.

The story is more than just window dressing for the cavalcade of classic tunes that make up the show. Creator Stuart Ross builds real characters out of our geeky quartet (they met in AV Club for gosh sake). After all, they plied a style of popular music that was far from the hit parade by the time of their untimely passing in 1964, just as the Beatles were about to break big and change the rules forever.

No matter the circumstances, The Plaids soldiered on, dreaming of making hit records (or records at all - one gag has them showing off the fake album jackets they made for music that was never recorded) and playing to sold-out houses beyond the local bowling alley.

Still, director Kevin Barnard doesn't dwell too heavily on the sadness underneath the classic songs or the peppy charm of the four actors. At a vocal level, the quartet - Tim Jay, Ben Thietje, Matthew Atwood and Brian Winter - do a supreme job, blending their strong pipes into an even stronger whole. From the opening "Three Coins in the Fountain" to the closing "Love is a Many Splendored Thing," they showcase the enduring power of these songs and their own talents.

The Plaids are not supposed to be the slickest group, and much of the show's humor is drawn out of their stiff choreography, frequent asthma attacks and breaks for nosebleeds. The actors go for all the silliness with the same gusto they show with the vocals. Thietje's Smudge is often at the center of this, from his awkward dancing to continued confusion about which is his left side and which is his right side.

There is time for sweet evocations for a time long past, from the thrill of watching a needle drop on a 45 in a jukebox to the family détente that took place each Sunday evening when "The Ed Sullivan Show" was on TV. Forever Plaid brings it all back to life, if only for an evening.

Forever Plaid runs through September 27 at the Old Log Theatre. For information and tickets, 952-474-5951 or visit www.oldlog.com.


- Ed Huyck



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