Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Also see Arty's recent review of A Pickle
Log Jam is an original musical that takes great liberties with the legend of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox. The tales are familiar to most children as an enduring entry in the canon of American tall tales, but have a special resonance in Minnesota. After all, according to legend, Paul's heavy boots and Babe's hooves created Minnesota's thousands of lakes, and it was Paul who either dug the Mississippi River channel or straightened out the twisty river, depending which version of the tales you read, from its headwaters at Lake Itasca.
This time around, Paul's great statureboth in size and strengthhas been diminished. Incredibly, the big dude has retired and left his stomping grounds at the invented town of Oakpine Falls, Minnesota, for parts unknown, accompanied, as always, by Babe. When the May weather turns unreasonably coldeven for Minnesotaand Lucretia Kensack ends up trapped in a massive sphere of ice, her intrepid daughter Betty journeys to Oakpine Falls for help. The lumberjacks and other locals tell Betty only Paul Bunyan can save her motherif she can find him.
In a series of plot developments that blend the tropes of tall tales, old-time melodrama with a mustache-twirling villain, and "Saturday Night Live" sketch, Betty heads off to locate the once and future hero. We learn about the diabolical plot of said villain, and everyone else joins forces to produce a (spoiler alert) happy ending that is both giddily ridiculous and completely predictable. In a story like this, being predictable isn't a bad thing. The fun is not in guessing the outcome, but in the good-humored antics, wise-cracking dialogue, and high-spirited performances that carry us there.
Open Eye recruited Josef Evans, who has created other works for the company including the acclaimed Strumply Peter, to devise the show. Evans obliged, providing book, music and lyrics. The one-act musical comes in at 65 minutes and seven songs (with one reprise), long enough to feel substantial, but not so long as to wear out a welcome for its rib-poking brand of storytelling and humor. The songs are lively and tuneful, while the lyrics are witty, with occasional spikes of mild bawdiness. "The Legend of Paul Bunyan" offers a comical alternative to the standard tall tale, while "Flap Those Jack" serves as an exuberant call to action.
Open Eye's productions typically incorporate puppetry, from shadow puppets to marionettes to hand puppets, and miniature set pieces that pop out of a suitcase. At their cozy homebase in south Minneapolis, the narrow, low ceilinged theater allows for puppets on a scale that is at most human, and often quite miniature. Outdoors, the sky is literally the limit, put to great advantage with larger than life puppets of Paul and Babe, enormous in their glory days, as well as a tree representing the millions felled by the mighty lumberjack. There are the usual modest sized puppets as well, and a marvelous wrap-around Rolls Royce styled automobile driven by cutthroat tycoon Gundars Helslarsen. The puppets, aptly described as "Puppet Madness" in the program, are the creation of Steve Ackerman.
Producing Artistic Director Joel Sass stages Log Jam with a free spirit of playfulness and an eagerness to please that includes getting great mileage out of a leaf blower. The perfectly groomed rooftop lawn of the Bakken Museum offers a much larger playing area than Open Eye's indoor stage, with the audience seated on folding chairs or blankets around three sides and the sprightly band (Jay Albright, Ellie Fregni and Jared Morgan) sitting beneath an awning on the fourth side. Several musical numbers include dancing, limited to folksy ensemble work but adding to the show's overall high energy. Kathy Kohl has designed comical costumes that draw upon folklore and thrift shopping in equal measure, and does especially splendid work with Babe's furry blue ensemble.
In addition to space for giant-size puppets, the venue has room for a much larger cast than the typical Open Eye production. The performers are totally game to squeeze humorhighbrow and lowand good will out of Log Jam. Maren Ward shows the comic chops of a vaudevillian as the has-been Paul Bunyan, while Antonio Rios-Luna steals the show as Babe. Freed of bondage to the no-longer-giant lumberjack, Babe now spouts socialist and union-organizing credos. Tom Reed, a veteran of Dudley Riggs' Brave New Workshop and no stranger to arch comedy, makes the most of his turn as the villain, Gundars Helslarsen, mugging shamelessly in his solo number "Living Right is Easy." Suzie Juul plays Betty Kensack with the perfect mix of naïve hope and gritty determination.
There were quite a few children in the audience at the performance I attended, and for the most part this show is fine family fare. There are some brief bawdy bits, and double entendres that may or may not go over the heads of small fry, but they seemed to appreciatively understand a few comic bits entailing farts, belches, and other bodily functionsnot my cup of tea, but they go by quickly.
Access to the roof is up a long outdoor staircase, but an elevator is available for those needing assistance. After the performance, audience members are free to exit through the museum and may explore the Bakken's well-mounted exhibits along the way.
The return to live theater in the Twin Cities might have been well served by a classic drama, something by Shakespeare, Shaw, Arthur Miller, or August Wilson, or perhaps one of the great golden age musicals, But hey, there will be plenty of time to have our emotions plucked pondering deep meanings and basking in fabulous production values as our theaters gradually but assuredly return. For now, Log Jam strikes just the right notes. It is a delight, but not heavily taxing, allowing us to relish the profound joy of being back among a live audience and feeling the electric charge of collective laughter and applause.
Log Jam, an Open Eye Theatre production, runs through June 20, 2021, on the rooftop of the Bakken Museum, 3537 Zenith Avenue S., Minneapolis MN. Bring lawn chairs or a blanket. Tickets: adults $30.00; students and seniors $25.00; economic accessibility $15.00. Museum admission following the show is included. For tickets and information, please visit www.openeyetheatre.org or call 612-874-6338.
Safety: Following current guidelines for outdoor events, mask and social distancing are not required during the performance of Log Jam. Masks and social distancing are required inside the Bakken Museum.
Book, Music and Lyrics: Josef Evans; Puppetry: Steve Ackerman; Costumes: Kathy Kohl; Stage Manager: Brian Hirt; Director: Joel Sass.
Cast: Jay Albright (Pie Face Charlie/accordion), Thomas Boguszewski (puppeteer), Ellie Fregni (Pea Soup Shorty/violin), Anna Hashizume (Lucretia Kensack/townsperson), Suzie Juul (Betty Kensack), Jared Morgan (Sowbelly Beaverfat/guitar), Shandi Mortenson (Ma Duffy/townsperson), Tom Reed (Sourdough Sam/Gundars Helslarsen), Antonio Rios-Luna (Babe the Blue Ox), France A. Roberts (Hot Biscuit Slim/townsperson), Eric Smedsrud (Johnny Inkslinger/townsperson), Maren Ward (Paul Bunyan/Okra Tonks), Lizz Windnagel (puppeteer).