Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

The Clemency of Tito's Tennis Club
Mixed Precipitation
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's review of Rent

Anna Hashizume, Lauren Asheim and Jim Ahrens
Photo by Clare Nieto
Mixed Precipitation is making its eleventh annual tour of such verdant settings as nature centers, wineries, and community gardens throughout the Twin Cities and greater Minnesota to present their totally unique mash-ups of pop music, opera, buffoonery, and tasty food sampling they call a Picnic Operetta. This year's edition is called The Clemency of Tito's Tennis Club, based ever so loosely on Mozart's La clemenza di Tito (The Clemency of Titus). It includes several stunningly beautiful segments from the score of the opera along with songs with a 1980s vibe, recorded by the likes of Devo, Pat Benatar, Yaz, and other musicians.

The original work, with an Italian libretto by Caterino Mazzolà, is set in ancient Rome at the ascendance of Tito Vespasian as Emperor in 79 CE, and peopled with his followers as well as followers of the deposed Emperor Vitellio, and their paramours. All become entangled in a web of jealousy, deceit, betrayal, arson on an epic scale, and lions in the colosseum which against all odds ends in an astonishing act of forgiveness and redemption. Though written in Italian, La clemenza di Tito was commissioned for the occasion of the coronation of Leopold II as King of Bohemia, and premiered in Prague on September 6, 1791, just 24 days before the premiere in Vienna of Mozart's final opera, The Magic Flute. In keeping with its sponsor's intent, La clemenza di Tito presents an absolute monarch who acted with charity and benevolence, keeping at bay the anti-royal sentiments stirred by the French Revolution.

Like so many plots in the realm of opera, the plot of La clemenza di Tito is extremely far-fetched, but it works within the internal logic of the piece. Scotty Reynolds, Mixed Precipitation's artistic director, and Gary Ruschman, this summer show's music director, have adapted that storyline to the unlikely world of competitive tennis—though still in the ancient Roman empire—with Tito newly installed as team manager, to the disgust of Vitellia Rose, a former tennis star desperate to regain her dominance of the sport. Her character parallels Mozart's Vitellia, daughter of the deposed emperor who schemes to bring down Emperor Tito.

In both opera and picnic operetta, Vitellia has a romantic partner named Sesto. Emperor Tito chooses Servillia, Sesto's sister, to be his empress; in the parallel universe of picnic operetta, tennis manager Tito chooses Servillia Jean King as his star player. Emperor Tito sends a courtier, Annio, who is in love with Servillia, to tell her she must marry Tito. Team Manager Tito draws Servillia away from her besotted doubles partner Annio to become a star singles player. Other tennis players, a pair of sports reporters, the team statistician Publio, and an apothecary round out the cast, with the ensemble also filling in as sports fans.

The mayhem is played out as a send-up of the melodrama that often is built up around professional sports, as well as mocking the tone of sword and sandal epics, striking out against one's enemy in the name of honor. There are ten scenes, with a dozen highlights of Mozart's score interspersed among them, and seven pop tunes that whip the proceedings back to contemporary mode, with songs just old enough to also set off the nostalgia button for what now feel like simpler times. At six points throughout the show a subtle reference or play-on-words in the text is enough to bring out a troop of servers who pass out trays of delectable food and beverage samples, with plenty to go around, all using fresh seasonal ingredients in keeping with the light and breezy atmosphere. I was especially partial to the caramelized zucchini bruschetta. Kudos to production chef Tracy Yue.

The roles of Tito, Servillia, Annio, Vitellia, Sesto and Publio carry the operatic singing duties, and all six characters are cast with actors possessing strong, well-toned voices. Anna Hashizume, as Sesto, impresses mightily with a gorgeous presentation of the soul-searching "Parto, parto, ma tu ben mia," drawing a sustained ovation from the audience. Lauren Asheim, as Vitellia, shares a lovely opening scene duet, "Come ti piace," with Hashizume, and delivers the "Non piu di fiori" with heartfelt emotion in the penultimate scene. Jim Ahrens demonstrates Tito's commanding stance as the new tennis team manager with "Del piu sublime soglio." Joni Griffith, as Servillia Jean King, plays the tennis star's love of the limelight with campy gusto.

The pop tunes are occasions for the ensemble to join in, with numbers given sprightly arrangements by Ruschman and simple but engaging choreography devised by Jacob Miller. Devo's hit "Girl U Want" (by Glen Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh) provides a good first scene baseline as the athletes await Tito's pick as star player. All of the songs selected fit well into the context of the plot, with the Matthew Wilder song "Break My Stride" an apt anthem for charting the success of Tito's team across the empire, "What's On Your Mind? (Pure Energy)" by Kurt Harlan Larson and Paul Robb dramatically setting the stage for Sesto's confession, and Pat Benatar's hit "Love is a Battlefield" (by Holly Knight and Mike Chapman) a splendid choice for wrapping the whole shebang up with high energy.

The four-piece band led by Ruschman includes Laura Asheim doing double duty in her role as Vitellia by playing guitar and ukulele. Ruschman (who plays guitar and melodica) and the other two band members, Luke Pickman (clarinet and cello) and Ginna Watson (violin), also pitch in as ensemble members in some scenes. Pickman particularly stands out with the beloved clarinet accompaniment Mozart composed for "Parto, parto ma tu, ben mio."

Jacob Miller and Scotty Reynolds directs The Clemency of Tito's Tennis Club with obvious affection for their material and their performers, who include several youngsters in the ensemble whose presence adds to the homegrown spirit of the enterprise. What they lack in technology they make up for in imagination, including a marvelous depiction of an oracle speaking wisdom from on high, and the way in which the English translations for Mazzolà's Italian libretto are provided. Rhiannon Fiskradaatz provides witty costumes that begin with track suits and tennis garb, laughably accessorized to reflect Roman Empire chic.

This troupe is bright, talented, and thrilled to offer an evening that delivers the high art of opera and the campiness of parody while feeding their guests in the balmy cusp of summer. They went a step further on opening night at Dodge Nature Center, when a rainstorm erupted as scene three was ending. Rather than cancel the rest of the show, everything—set pieces, band instruments, cast and audience—moved into much tighter quarters in the indoor meeting space. With some time out to regroup, the show resumed where it had left off, with actors improvising new blocking and making it work like a charm. That's the kind of high-spirited enthusiasm that makes Mixed Precipitation's picnic operettas a wonderful way to while away ninety minutes, surrounded by the bounty of both nature and creative artists at play.

The Clemency of Tito's Tennis Club, through September 24, 2019, at various locations around the Twin Cities, with several in out-state Minnesota. All performance sites are outdoors. Donation of $10.00 - $20.00 is suggested. For performance dates, locations and reservations, visit For ticket sales only, call 1-800-838-3006 (Brown Paper Tickets).

Music: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; Libretto: Caterina Mazzolà; Music and Libretto adopted by: Scotty Reynolds and Gary Ruschman, with contributions from the cast and creative crew; Director: Scotty Reynolds and Jacob Miller; Music Director and Arrangements: Gary Ruschman; Choreography: Jacob Miller; Set Design: Duane Tougas; Costume Design: Rhiannon Fiskradaatz; Production Chef: Tracy Yue; Artistic Associate and Production Manager: Asher Edes; Assistant Stage Manager: Renn Ekins. Additional music and lyrics by Glen Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh; Greg Prestopino and Matthew Wilder; Vince Clarke; Andrew Mann, Clive Farrington and Michael Floreale; Kurt Harland Larson and Paul Robb; John Crawford; Holly Knight and Mike Chapman.

Cast: Jim Ahrens (Coach Tito), Lauren Asheim (Vitellia Rose, guitar, ukulele), Julia Chelimsky (Suetonius), Will Dierenfield (ensemble), Asher Edes (ensemble), Renn Elkins (ensemble), Joni Griffith (Servillia Jean King), Anna Hashizume (Sesto Piquet), Harper Hawley (Locus ta), Jessica Luna (Britannicus). K.T. Magnolia (Annio Armstrong). Jacob Miller (ensemble), Sophie Negrete (Flavio), Andrew Niemi (ensemble), Chris Noel (Publio), Ani Peichel (ensemble), Luke Pickman (ensemble, cello, clarinet), Gary Ruschman (ensemble, guitar, melodica,), Gabe Salmon (Tranquillus), Ginna Watson (ensemble, violin).

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