Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
This year's Pickup Truck Operetta is a fractured version of The Magic Flute, and it's the company's best effort yet. It features some of the notable melodies Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart composed for this fanciful piece, one of the most popular in the cannon of opera, along with a generous selection of tunes from 1990s pop stars such as Bjork ("Army of Me"), Blind Melon ("No Rain"), Gwen Stefani ("Just a Girl"), They Might Be Giants ("Birdhouse in your Soul"), Des'ree ("You Gotta Be"), and C+C Music Factory, with their funkadelic demand that "Everybody Dance Now!"
Mixed Precipitation's work reliably takes on a topical theme and adapts their opera of choice's narrative to properly skewer the topic du jour. This year's The Magic Flute takes on workplace issues, such as employee burnout, income inequality, trendy "woke" perks, and especially the tension between the public and private sectors. The new narrative, crafted by the Mixed Precipitation team, pits underfunded public education led by ambitious administrators against resource-rich private firms that promise new-age work environments in exchange for long hours and impossible deadlines, while directing their riches towards top tier management.
In other hands, this might be the makings of a serious look at the failings of our economic structure. With the Mixed Precipitation gang at the helm, it is a stew of jokes, pot-shots, sight gags, clowning, ingenious stage business, and song. It scores its political points, but with a lightness that ensures such weighty matters will not spoil the fun. Example, the CEO of a hip-culture corporation claims they have solved the conflict of work and life balance by combining them into one thing: "worklife," which for short they call wife–and declares that "everyone should have a wife." They get the laughs and hit the mark over and over again.
The story ever so lightly resembles the Mozart and librettist Emanuel Schikaneder's fairy-tale plot. The opera's central wandering hero, Tamino, is now Mr. Tamino, an idealistic new teacher ready to cultivate young minds on the first day of a new year at Strange Land Middle School. His nemesis, the Queen of the Night, has transformed into Principal Von der Nacht, and the Queen's three subservient ladies are now three puppet-masked assistant principals. The Queen's lovely daughter, Pamina, abducted by Sarastro, who may or may or may not be a villain, is now a teacher frustrated by the lack of classroom resources who is recruited by Sarastro to work at SarastroCorp, his educational technology company. Papageno, the eccentric bird-catcher who becomes Tamino's confederate, is now the school's janitor. Papagena, an old lady who becomes the original Papageno's love interest, is now a janitor at SarastroCorp.
Performed outdoors at a variety of sites around the Twin Cities–following a number of performances at outstate locations to make them a truly state-wide resource, I viewed this year's Pickup Truck Operetta at my personal favorite of their venues, Dodge Nature Center in West Saint Paul. Their staging makes use of the open ground around the central performance space, which in this case is the mighty pickup truck, which serves as Strange Land Middle School, and a flatbed trailer hitched to the truck, on which an arched frame is the headquarters of SarastroCorp. Director Taous Khazem has the cast climbing all over these two set pieces–through the truck's windows, atop the SarastroCorp arch, and pretty much everywhere else. Our attention is constantly being redirected, like balls in a pinball machine, but instead of the metallic "dings" of a pinball, we are rewarded with musical moments. The operatic pieces are beautifully sung–make no mistake, these performers have trained voices that do justice to Mozart's majesty–while the pop songs are performed with joyful abandon.
Some of the pop songs are offered only in part, but enough to pepper the occasion with lightness and swagger. As for the opera, it is sung in the original German, but fear not–written English translations, or at least a greatly condensed version of them, will cleverly appear, another of these productions' many charms. The music is played by a talented if modest (compared to what Mozart had in mind) band of five musicians, two of whom are also actors with major roles in the show. The bare-bones arrangements, worked out by music director Gary Ruschman, for two violins, a guitar, a cello, a flute, and percussion are perfectly matched with the show's scrappy playfulness.
The cast includes several Picnic/Pickup Truck Operetta veterans along with some new faces. If a most valuable player award is to be given out, it goes to longtime company member Joni Griffith, whose virtuoso violin playing has long grounded these productions, but here she also has a major presence in several roles, totally transforming herself for each one, including the delightfully chill janitor, Papagena. Rudolfo Nieto's beautiful bass voice can be heard on a variety of Twin Cities stages throughout the theater season; here it is applied, both in song and in speech, as corporate mastermind Sarastro. Roland Hawkins delivers the whiff of virtue and innocence as the newbie teacher, Mr. Tamino, with a lovely voice to match.
As Papageno, Loki Graham is a delight to watch, enfolding the original character's eccentricities within the smart-aleck demeanor of a janitor who takes no guff. Corissa Bussian brings a lovely voice along with a defiant attitude to her portray of Pamina. Lizz Windnagel is terrific as the autocratic principal, and her beautiful voice delivers a stand-out take on the Queen of the Night's aria, always a highlight of a performance of The Magic Flute. Jäc Miller has a splendid time playing Mono-Toast, a project manager who plots to gain power SarastroCorp.
Miller also contributes the choreography, which looks like an awful lot of fun to perform. Rhiannon Fiskradatz has designed costumes that are as playful as everything else about this lark of a show, while Lizz Windnagel and Woody Timberheart have created puppets that are used to wonderful effect.
I know some theatergoers are still leery of returning to indoor performances with the pandemic continuing to simmer among us, so this opportunity to see an outdoor production is a special gift. Do bring a blanket or folding chairs, and whatever else makes you comfortable outdoors. If you have seen one of Mixed Precipitation's summer productions before, I don't need to say it twice, but for those who haven't had the pleasure, this comes highly recommended.
The Magic Flute runs through September 11, 2022, at varied locations as a Pickup Truck Operetta by Mixed Precipitation. All performance sites are outdoors. Donation of $10 - $20 is suggested. For more on performance dates, locations and reservations please visit mixedprecipitation.org.
Music: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; German Libretto Emanuel Schikaneder, adapted by Francisco Benavides, with contributions from Scotty Reynolds, Gary Ruschman, Taous Khazem and the Mixed Precipitation team; Additional music: Dumont and Stefani, Des'ree and Ingram, Flansburgh and Linnell, Graham/Smith/Shannon/Thom/Rogers, Gudmundsdottir, Simon, Massey, Howie B, Clivillés and Williams, Konishi Yasuharu, Law/Wheeler/Romeo/Hooper, Adams and Engelen, Francis and Ernest; Director: Taous Khazem; Contributing Writer: Francisco Benavides; Music Director and Arranger: Gary Ruschman; Choreography: Jäc Miller; Scenic Artists: Alex Hathaway and Boo McCaleb; Costume Design: Rhiannon Fiskradatz; Costume Assistant: Kalea Ott; Puppet Design: Lizz Windnagel; DRAGON Puppet Design: Woody Timberheart. Stage Manager: Brian Hirt; Production Manager: J?c Miller; Producer: Scotty Reynolds.
Cast: Corissa Bussian (Pamina), Uchenna Chidozie (cello flute), Julia Engel (ensemble), Loki Graham (Papageno), Joni Griffith (Papagena, Vice Principal, Receptionist, violin, percussion), Roland Hawkins (Mr. Tamino), Jennifer LeDoux (ensemble) J?c Miller (Mono-Toast, Vice Principal), Rudolfo Nieto (Sarastro, acoustic guitar), Scotty Reynolds (ensemble), Gary Ruschman (guitar), Gina Watson (violin), Lizz Windnagel (Principal Von der Nacht).