"Beautiful Thing" by Theater Latte Da at the Lab Theater

March 1, 2012.By Jill Schafer, Cherry and Spoon.

Make your own kind of music Sing your own special song Make your own kind of music Even if nobody else sings along

This song by the 1960s group The Mamas & the Papas closes Theatre Latte Da's production of the play with music,Beautiful Thing.  It's a beautiful and hopeful ending to the show and really gets to the heart of what it's all about.

Beautiful Thing tells the story of two teenage boys in a working-class neighborhood of London who fall in love.  Jamie lives with his single mother who works at a pub, and is struggling to fit in with his peers who think he's "weird;" even his own mother tells him that.  Ste lives next door with his abusive alcoholic father, and sometimes takes refuge at Jamie's place when things get too bad at home.  On the other side of Jamie lives Leah, who has been kicked out of school and spends all her time listening to and singing along with the music of Mama Cass.  She's a bit of a jerk, but it soon becomes apparent that she's lonely and struggling to find her place in the world, just like the boys are.  And when Jamie and Ste find their place in the world through each other, it truly is a beautiful thing.  Jamie's mother is upset when she finds out about the boys' relationship, but comes to accept it.  She may not be the best mother (at one point literally rolling around on the ground with her son as they fight), but she loves her son and does the best she can for him.  We never see Ste's family, but from the way they're talked about it's hard to believe they'd be very accepting.  I like to believe he somehow escaped from their orbit.

Beautiful Thing reminds me a little bit of the movie Billy Elliot (later turned into a stage musical): a young boy from a working class family in England finding himself in an unconventional way.  But while Billy falls in love with dancing and his own artistic expression, Jamie falls in love with Ste, and is able to figure out who he is through that love.

Because this is Theater Latte Da, there is music in this play, and the music conveys what mere words cannot.  Erin Schwab embodies Mama Cass and walks through the scenes, singing and bringing to life the songs in Leah's head, accompanied by the fabulous band hidden below the set.  Before seeing this show I was only marginally familiar with The Mamas & the Papas, and even less so with Mama Cass.  She is a fascinating character herself, and yet another incredible voice who left this earth way too early (she died at the age of 32).  I'm enamored of the sound and the look of the 1960s, so it's not too surprising that I just downloaded the soundtrack from the 1996 movie version of Beautiful Thing (plus a few additional songs that weren't included).  Here's a way that Theater Latte Da could improve (something I thought impossible) - offer downloads of songs from their shows.  I would definitely buy a soundtrack of this show featuring the songs of Mama Cass in Erin Schwab's fabulous voice (with Dennis Curley's lovely harmonies).

As with all Latte Da shows, this show is perfectly cast.  (And they all do such a great job with the working-class London accent that I really had to pay attention to catch what they were saying, not to mention learning new words such as slag and knackered.)  Steven Lee Johnson (a student with the esteemed U of M/Guthrie program) and David Darrow* (who recently moved here from NYC, where he won an Innovative Theatre Award) are perfect as the young lovers Jamie and Ste, believable and natural and sympathetic.  Anna Sundberg (one of my favorite artists of 2011) is, as usual, fully committed to creating a distinct and layered character.  Jennifer Blagen gives depth to Jamie's tough-talking mother, and Dan Hopman is charming as her boyfriend of the moment, who's also pretty nice to the kids.

This is the first Theater Latte Da production not directed by Artistic Director Peter Rothstein; he handed the reigns over to Jeremy B. Cohen.  I also don't remember a show without Denise Prosek as musical director (Dennis Curley takes the baton here).  And if I hadn't known it, I would never have guessed it was anyone other than Peter and Denise pulling the strings (I think that's the biggest compliment I can give).  The set (by Michael Hoover) is really cool (and smells of new construction).  It consists of the outside of three side-by-site flats, elevated to allow room for the band below, with some scenes occurring on the floor in front.  The Lab Theater is such a great space.  Big and open, allowing for any number of diverse worlds to be created within it (I'll next be seeing The Moving Company's new work Werther and Lotte there).

This play was written almost 20 years ago, but is still timely with the recent rash of gay bullying, and the impending vote on the Minnesota Marriage Amendment.  Jamie and Ste's relationship is like any other young love - unsure, passionate, hesitant, sweet, and true.  Maybe I'm dense, but I just don't see how that could be a threat to anyone.  Theater Latte Da has allowed students and their parents to see this show for free, as a way to facilitate conversations and healing.  That is most definitely a beautiful thing.


Beautiful Thing at the Lab Theater

February 29, 2012.By Ed Huyck, City Pages.

Jonathan Harvey's Beautiful Thing is set just two decades in the past, but it seems to be a whole different world. There are no cell phones or internet, and the television seems to offer only an endless array of quiz shows. Amid the crowded and noisy porches of a South London housing project, two 15-year-old boys discover their attraction for each other and try to explore that in a place with no secrets.

Theatre Latte Da and guest director Jeremy B. Cohen meld this gritty but also warm and funny drama with the music of "Mama" Cass Elliot, bringing in a sixth onstage character to sing the music that runs as an undercurrent through the show. It's a conceit that doesn't entirely work, but the power of the story, the performances, and the singing render that concern largely moot.

Designer Michael Hoover's two-tiered set fills the cavernous Lab with the concrete edifice of the Thamesmead estate. But while the exteriors are built of formed concrete, it appears that the walls between the apartments are made of little more than paper. Everyone knows each other's business among the three apartments, which means trouble for those exploring "forbidden" thoughts.

Teenagers Jamie and Ste are neighbors and friends. Ste loves to spend time in the pool or on the football pitch and attend West Ham United matches. Jamie, on the other hand, hates sports, skipping school to avoid P.E. The two are also in the midst of the usual teenage sexual awakening, but they find that their attractions are turning to each other.

That's fraught with real danger, however. Gayness isn't part of their working-class reality, and it's not like the two can turn to an online forum for advice and support. Instead, they have to blunder along together, trying to keep their growing relationship secret amid the thin walls and finding escape in the listings for gay clubs in magazines.

The changes are noticed by those around them, especially by Jamie's mother, Sandra, who does her best to provide a brighter life for the two of them. Unlike her neighbors, whose concrete porches are decorated with a piece or two of broken-down furniture, Sandra has created a garden of potted and hanging plants as a way to give extra definition to her life.

Though Erin Schwab does a fantastic job singing, the Cass Elliot songs themselves don't completely mesh with the drama. When they connect—as with the Act One closer "The Right Somebody to Love" as Jamie and Ste finally share an intimate moment together—the songs are a fantastic addition. When they don't, they provide unneeded speed bumps when all we want is to spend more time with our fully rounded characters.

Harvey's script provides plenty for the performers to work with, but it is ultimately their hard work that brings this quintet to life. The cast is led by a pair of promising youngsters,Steven Lee Johnson and David Darrow, who bring the confusion and pure joy of first-time love to brilliant life. Though both actors are obviously older than the characters they play, they are able to find and embrace that early teenage spark that makes their first fumbling attempts at intimacy so engaging.

Jennifer Blagen's task as Sandra is a very different one. Over the course of two hours, she slowly uncovers what makes her character tick. Coming off as harsh and angry—considering Sandra's place in life, that's not surprising—Blagen removes layer after layer of hard stone to reveal the loving mother beneath. She's playing a character who is far from perfect, but Blagen makes it clear that Sandra wants nothing more than a better life for her and her son, and who he is sleeping with doesn't make any difference in her mind.

Anna Sundberg and Dan Hopman get less to work with as next-door neighbor (and the Mama Cass enthusiast) Leah and as Sandra's latest lover, Tony, but they still make the best of what they are given. Sundberg, who probably could read the minutes of the Minneapolis Regulatory, Energy, and Environmental Committee and make them a thrill ride, is handed a character who is on the border of crazy. She takes that and runs, going deep into the crazy side but still giving the character depth.

An onstage experiment that doesn't quite work is by no means a failure. Beautiful Thing's merging of music and drama isn't perfect, but the power of the original script, the quality of the acting, and the strong singing definitely make it worthy.

Latte Da's staging is a 'Beautiful Thing'

February 29, 2012.By Renee Valois, Pioneer Press.

There's a lot of ugliness in the low-end working-class world of Thamesmead, London, in which Jamie and Ste find themselves - and each other. Their budding relationship is the "Beautiful Thing" of their play's title, and it colors their complicated lives with hope in Theater Latte Da's absorbing regional premiere of Jonathan Harvey's play.

Given the national attention the Anoka-Hennepin School District has been receiving on the topic of gay bullying, the production is very timely - in spite of the fact that it was originally written in the 1990s.

The show takes place in front of the flats where 15-year-old Jamie lives with his barmaid mother, Sandra, between drop-out Leah and her mother, and Ste and his abusive, alcoholic father. Leah is obsessed with the late singer Mama Cass and Ste is into sports - which Jamie avoids because it leads to bullying by his classmates.

After Ste suffers a particularly bad beating, Sandra invites him to stay overnight with them - where he shares a bed with Jamie. The boys treat each other with tenderness in a world that has often been cruel - and they begin to fall in love.

Steven Lee Johnson as Jamie and David Darrow as Ste earn our empathy with strong, sensitive performances and Jennifer Blagen does a stellar turn as Sandra, the tough barmaid who is wounded by her son's moves toward separation and new love, but never stops pursuing her ambitions for a better life.

Director Jeremy B. Cohen pulls plenty of passion and sparks out of his fine performers, especially during a knock-down physical fight between Jamie and Sandra that ironically shows the depths of their love in their fury to hurt each other.

Cohen's addition of Mama Cass as a character who supplies commentary-like songs between and during scenes illuminates the show in an inspiring new way. Erin Schwab's cheerful face and sweet singing add strands of hope every time she steps on stage, relieving some of the darkness with tunes such as "Safe in My Garden," "Make Your Own Kind of Music" and "Dream a Little Dream of Me."

The monolithic scenic design by Michael Hoover is a presence in itself, lifting the flats high above the audience, with lots of dark space underneath for the band to inhabit. The towering set allows Cohen to make as much use of the vertical space as the horizontal in the Lab Theatre's cavernous old warehouse.

But it also puts the cast much further away from the audience than is typical - making them feel a bit removed, as if we are watching a movie versus a live play. Only the few scenes in Jamie's bedroom take place on the closer floor of the theater, making them feel more intimate.

Ultimately, Cohen's risks pay off. His fresh staging of the story of young gay love adds engaging elements that deepen its appeal - which is a beautiful thing.


Too much of a “Beautiful Thing”? Not possible.

February 28, 2012By Matthew A. Everett, TC Daily Planet.

As a lover of theater and of those all-too-rare instances of well-told stories of gay life in unexpected places (aka the "real world" rather than some gay enclave), I was reminded recently that Jonathan Harvey's play Beautiful Thing ranks right up there for me with Tony Kushner's Angels In America. Yes, in many ways they couldn't be more different, but they have one big thing in common. I will never tell anyone not to see a production of them when they come along.

As strange and misbegotten as some productions of Angels In America have been which have crossed my path, the play itself is still brilliant. It resists directors' bad ideas and valiantly pushes through most layers of crud some people pile on it (often with the best of intentions). Circling back, I must hasten to say that Theater Latte Da's production of Beautiful Thing now playing at The Lab Theater is neither strange nor misbegotten. It is, in fact, quite lovely. Do I have some problems with it? Sure. Should you still go and see it? Absolutely.

"There's no such thing as just a kiss."

Why go? Let's start with the fact that Beautiful Thing has been kicking around the theater scene since 1993 (and the popular film adaptation since 1996) but despite a thriving theater community and gay community, I can't recall anyone having produced it here in the Twin Cities before now (theater geeks, feel free to set me straight on that count if I'm forgetting something). So Latte Da and director Jeremy B. Cohen are to be commended simply for doing the play at all. (Even if someone has done it before, I'd argue that, just like Angels In America, we can't see Beautiful Thing enough either. I'd love to someday get to the point of bemoaning, "Oh dear, not yet another production ofBeautiful Thing." We ain't there yet. So bring it on.)

But it's much more than that. Jonathan Harvey's ode to gay puppy love that springs up unexpectedly in the low-income housing projects of London is a transcendent little modern day fairy tale (no pun intended). The affection that grows between awkward young Jamie (Steven Lee Johnson) and his athletic neighbor Ste (David Darrow) is an almost impossibly fragile thing, like a flower pushing up out of a crack in the concrete. The fact that their love survives in such a potentially hostile environment is a valentine to anyone, gay or straight, who could use a happy ending or two these days.

"Are you gay?" 

"I'm very happy. I'm happy when I'm with you."

If you're a sucker for a good love story (as I am), watching Darrow and Johnson do their tentative mating dance will cast its gentle spell on you in short order. A sly compliment here, an act of kindness there, a stolen kiss—inching slowly over the boundary between friends and boyfriends. Gay boys—in fact, teenage boys in general—are often their own worst enemies in making their feelings known to someone they care about. They spook easily. The actors get here each shy, self-conscious beat just right. Compliments, too, for not shying away from the intimacy between Ste and Jamie, emotional or physical. You believe these boys are smitten, and half the time have no idea what to do about it. It's sweet and charming, the fluttering heartbeat of a fine piece of theater. When Jamie tells his mother late in the play "He's good to me," you more than believe it. You've seen the evidence with your own eyes. They're a wonderful pair, better and stronger together than apart. The romance between these two characters is the kind of thing that makes me want to see the show all over again, and that's a rare thing indeed in the theater-stuffed calendar I keep. It's fun getting swept away by theater like this. Doesn't happen nearly enough.

"Things just stop like that. Feelings."

Another thing I love about Beautiful Thing is that it's not just about love between two boys, but also about love between a mother and a son. Jamie and his mother Sandra (Jennifer Blagen) have a prickly, complicated relationship that often devolves into name-calling and literal brawling. But underneath it all is a powerful bond between two people who are trying to grow up, and trying to find a way to continue to love and support one another even when the other person seems to be impossible to deal with. Anyone who's ever been on either side of a mother-and-teenage-son argument can recognize themselves when Blagen and Johnson start going at it.

"I work all the hours God sends to keep you in insults."

Sandra also has to tend with another young man in her life, her latest ardent suitor Tony (Dan Hopman). Tony is always trying just a little too hard to please, and to fit in, and to help. One could argue we should all be so lucky to have a problem like Tony in our lives, but one can also understand Sandra's resistance. She's got her ways of getting through life all set up. It's hard to factor another person into that equation, no matter how well-meaning they are, or how much you might want it.

"When have you ever had to fight for anything in your life?!"

Sandra's also got a pretty full plate in front of her. Not only is she raising Jamie on her own, she's taken on Ste as well. Ste's unseen father and older brother abuse him relentlessly, to the point where Ste often has to retreat to Sandra and Jamie's place to hide, and heal. Plus, there's their other next door neighbor, the mouthy Leah (Anna Sundberg), who keeps getting kicked out of school, and has an obsession with the life and music of the late Mama Cass Elliot.

"You can't wrap yourself up in a dead, fat American git for the rest of your life."

Both the original play and the movie version make copious use of the music of Mama Cass. Director Cohen and Latte Da have decided to make Cass manifest here in the added role of a musical narrator, sung by powerhouse vocalist Erin Schwab, backed up by a live band (Dennis Curley, Leo Lenander, Andy Carroll and Sheila Earley) tucked underneath the set. The musical interludes with Schwab are meant to act as connective tissue between the scenes, providing moments of meditation. Here's where we start to address the central struggle of this production, which is that it's almost too much and too beautiful a thing for the good of the story.

"I hate old people."

"You like Mama Cass."

"It's OK if they're dead."

The Lab Theater is cavernous. Michael Hoover's impressive two-story set is sprawling and massive. In order for Mike Wangen's lighting design to illuminate all this space, things get bright and cheery indeed. Even the dark of night never really takes hold. And Scwhab even gets one of those tiny headphone mics to be sure we can hear her over the band.

The sense of confinement, of these people living on top of one another, of a hard-scrabble struggle for a decent standard of living on the margins of society—that essential grittiness is missing. We have the flower pushing up, but we don't have the concrete fighting it. Neither the set nor the costumes really look lived-in.

In the course of the story, Jamie receives two gifts: a new soccer ball from Tony, and a bright red baseball cap from Ste. These two bright shiny new things should look completely out of place in Jamie's world. They should stand out. But there's no contrast. Everything here looks bright and shiny. Despite the glum color scheme of their surroundings, everyone looks like they have simple but nice things around them at all times. Part of the joy of this fairy tale should be that it arises in an environment that seems completely antithetical to its emergence.

"You're on your own when you're swimming."

Plus, this whole cast has the enviable problem of being entirely too pretty. For instance, this is the second time in less than six months that I've seen Anna Sundberg cast in a role where everyone claims she's fat or ugly because the script tells them to, and I don't buy it at all. Sundberg is a beautiful young woman, and a fine actress, and she clearly goes to the gym on a regular basis. Reality is fighting with the play here. If my eyes don't believe something is true, repetition of words, even Sundberg's fine acting, isn't going to undo that.

"Are you all right?"


The cognitive dissonance around Leah is exacerbated by the choice to use Erin Schwab as an actual Mama Cass stand-in. On the page, Leah bonds with Cass and her music because Cass was overweight and yet still could be sexy due to her one-of-a-kind voice, which was undeniable. Not having Leah be a physical as well as social outcast undercuts that connection. And not using Cass' voice, still with us decades after her death, to call out to Leah further undercuts that. Leah doesn't have an imaginary friend who appears to her (as this production suggests). She just has music into which she retreats. It's that compounded isolation which leads Leah to strike out at others the way she does.

"If she was so happy being fat, why did she choke to death on a sandwich?"

Schwab's Mama Cass/Narrator figure is also problematic because she disrupts the natural flow of the story. There are a couple of times when giving the story a little musical room to breathe actually works—as when Jamie is allowed to sit and watch Ste sleep, and the music relieves the tension that a silent moment or two of staring would bring. The music also helps boost the romance quotient.

More often than not, however, it feels like the production is just marking time during these musical interludes. The actual physical transitions of actors and set all take place swiftly, and then people do a fair amount of wistful staring off into space, pondering their lot. A little of this goes a long way. Schwab has a lovely voice (to be honest, I'm not even sure that mic is necessary, she's got a powerful set of pipes). It just doesn't seem like this concept is utilizing either her talents or the music well.

This was especially clear during an extended sequence of character interactions in the second act which went uninterrupted from one to the next for many minutes. I found myself enjoying the rhythm of the scenes as they built on one another, set free from the stop and start structure of live musical insertions. Also, the character of the narrator never amounts to anything. Her contributions in both music and onstage presence don't ultimately lead anywhere. This simply adds to the feeling of it all being tacked on, rather than integrated into the story. Not the fault of the performer, just a production concept that doesn't pan out.

"Am I like my dad?"

"No. You're like me."

And I'm not complaining, but you can easily spot a show with a gay sensibility when the women are putting clothes on to be sexy, and the guys are taking off their shirts. (Let me stress, no problem with this aesthetic in the least.) Jennifer Blagen as Sandra gets some really slinky, low class numbers to wear in Kathy Kohl's costume design, and Blagen wears them well. I know she's a mother herself in real life, but the years just seem to slip right off her. It's a nice challenge to have. Everyone's mother should look so hot at "that age" (well, some teenage sons would argue otherwise).

"Four letter word: love."

And tank tops on David Darrow are distracting enough, but when he and Dan Hopman keep taking off their shirts and I can quite literally count the abdominal muscles from the back row of the theater, how do you expect anyone to concentrate on the story? (Once again, wonderful problems alike for actor and audience to have. Keep 'em coming.) (Yes, I'm shamelessly pandering to get you into the theater. All true statements. See for yourself.)

"Some things are hard to say." 

If you haven't smiled and sighed over something cute and funny lately, do yourself a favor and go see Beautiful Thing. It lives up to its title in more ways than one. Highly recommended.

Love blooms in a drab high-rise in ‘Beautiful Thing’

February 27, 2012.By Graydon Royce, Star Tribune.

Sandra, played by Jennifer Blagen, and her son Jamie, played by Steven Lee Johnson in “Beautiful Thing,” Photo: Marisa Wojcik, Star Tribune.

In the drab, featureless slabs of concrete that make up a south London housing project, there are but two manifestations of life: Sandra's flourishing collection of green houseplants, and Jamie's budding affection for his neighboring schoolmate, Ste.

Sandra's ivies need no more than a garden hose to thrive in the urban drear; Jamie and Ste nurture something far more fragile: a schoolboy relationship that allows a beam of tender love into this stultifying environment. Their friendship is the "Beautiful Thing"indicated in the title of Jonathan Harvey's 1993 play. Theater Latté Da opened a production Saturday that aptly reveals the charms and flaws in this slim drama.

Jennifer Blagen portrays Sandra, a tough and randy barmaid who seems happy only when she has her legs wrapped around a man. Her current hunk of flesh is Tony (Dan Hopman), a charming pot-smoking slacker whom Sandra wishes were a Bohemian artist. Next-door neighbor Leah (Anna Sundberg) poses and snarls -- a rebellious tart who has been kicked out of school. Her over-the-top drug trip provokes a dramatic crisis that oddly distracts more than it resolves.

That leaves us Sandra's son, Jamie (Steven Lee Johnson), and neighbor Ste (David Darrow). Ste's sodden dad beats him. Here is where the play's heart beats, amid an otherwise raucous and empty script.

Johnson and Darrow find the innocent, halting charm of two boys discovering and reacting to their sexuality. It is simple and poignant.

Director Jeremy B. Cohen has put this collection of what "proper society" might call losers up on an elevated set, with Dennis Curley's four-piece band tucked beneath. This set, designed with colorless flat lines by Michael Hoover, helps to bisect the cavernous Lab Theater, although it puts the action at some distance from the audience.

The resulting coldness makes us wonder if "Beautiful Thing" works better as a film (for which it was adapted in 1996). The camera allows a softer perspective, more intimate and personal. Cohen's staging promises something almost epic -- larger than Harvey's dialogue can support.

Cohen smartly chose singer Erin Schwab to weave through the action as a detached narrator channeling the spirit of Mama Cass Elliot (Leah digs Cass's music). Schwab's voice and presence provide a perfect commentary on the action.

There is a still, small center in "Beautiful Thing," which emerges ever so tenuously in Latté Da's staging. It is the sweetest part of life.


Crazy Little Thing Called Love

February 27, 2012.By Ellen Burkhardt, MN Monthly.

It’s a tricky thing, falling in love—especially when you’re a teenage boy. And when you’re falling for your neighbor. And your neighbor also happens to be a teenage boy.

This complicated tug-of-war between fear and courage, denial and truth shapes the core of Jonathan Harvey’s Beautiful Thing, currently being produced by Theater Latté Da at Minneapolis’s Lab Theater. Twin Cities newcomer—and Latté Da’s first-ever guest director—Jeremy B. Cohen directs the emotion-driven drama, and does an excellent job to ensure the script’s sincerity doesn’t get drowned out by stereotypes or exaggeration, both of which could easily have sunk the play into the realms of a hyper-hormonal teenage melodrama.

For the most part, Beautiful Thing is just that: beautiful. David Darrow and Steven Lee Johnson play Ste and Jamie (respectively), longtime next-door neighbors growing up in a blue-collar London neighborhood in the early 1990s. Ste is athletic, headstrong, and stoic—traits that help protect him from his abusive father. Jamie is more sensitive and insightful. Although he doesn’t immediately admit to himself (or others) that he’s homosexual, it’s clear he knows such is the case. Ste, on the other hand, needs Jamie’s reassurance and guidance to accept this truth—one that ultimately gives him the freedom his life has lacked for so long.

Jennifer Blagen plays Jamie’s flirtatious mother, Sandra, a woman more concerned with her latest love interest, Tony (Dan Hopman), than learning to cook or figuring out why Jamie is getting picked on at school. Their neighbor, Leah (2011 Ivey Award-winner Anna Sundberg), rounds out the dysfunctional neighborhood. A high-school dropout, Leah is constantly experimenting with drugs and losing herself in the music of Mama Cass, whose songs are used as a sort of backdrop for the story at large.

If the cast list were to end here, Beautiful Thing would have little to no weaknesses: the actors all play their roles with depth and sincerity, delivering the coming-of-age story with a well-rounded mix of humor, poignancy, and relevance. But one more character bounces on and off Michael Hoover’s well-designed set: Erin Schwab, dubbed the “narrator,” plays a dynamic Mama Cass. Schwab is a superb entertainer with a powerful, beautiful voice. But her presence on stage distracts from rather than enhances the show. Using Mama Cass’s music to segue between scenes and exemplify the emotions being experienced isn’t a bad idea, but the execution falls short.

The main message of the production stays strong, however. This is the story of two young boys facing the scary notion that their lives are about to change forever. Both come from broken homes and live in a neighborhood where just getting by is considered a success. But what good is surviving if you're living a lie? It's within this place of vulnerability and acceptance that the show's heart lies. By embracing their love, Ste and Jamie prove that it's more important to risk everything and be true to oneself than conform to the expectations of others and lose yourself in the process.

Chemistry and sincerity are crucial in making a production a success, and both these elements are largely present in Beautiful Thing. The small cast fills the industrial Lab Theater with an abundance of energy, passion, and emotion, and the award-winning script leaves no character undeveloped, no storyline unfinished. Ironically, the one thing that could make the play even better is the one thing that comes not from the stage, but the audience: to see two boys’ love for one another not as controversial, but rather as what it is—beautiful.

Beautiful Thing produced by Theater Latté Da at the Lab Theater

February 25, 2012.By Janet Preus, HowWasTheShow.

Theater Latté Da has stepped to the edges of its musical milieu with the local premier of Beautiful Thing by Jonathan Harvey, with Playwrights’ Center artistic director, Jeremy B. Cohen, making his local directing debut. It’s a wonderfully entertaining play with tangy characters, crackling dialogue and a heartfelt message.

The story involves neighbors packed in row houses in a London working class neighborhood, who battle it out day-in-day-out with the abuses life hurls at them. The skirmishes extend beyond family and spill unrestrained into the small patches of a garden outside the door of each.

Fifteen-year-old Jamie (Steven Lee Johnson), a likeable kid, has little interest in football and other sports, unlike his neighbor, Ste (David Darrow), who’s a natural athlete, although football is not rescuing him from the blows of his drunken father, an unseen presence in the play. Jamie’s mother, Sandra (Jennifer Blagen) manages a bar, an appropriate environment for her brassy persona. Jamie has grown up with Sandra’s boyfriends coming and going, which Sandra tosses off after they’ve served their usefulness. There’s fire licking the edges of Blagen’s Sandra all the time, a lusty lover, to be sure, but she’s even feistier as a mom.

Jamie quite accurately predicts the demise of the latest boyfriend, Tony, played by Dan Hopman, who is the only questionable casting in the show. Hopman is a fine actor, but with his rich, sonorous voice he sounded like he should be spouting Shakespeare rather than the choppy cadence of what I presume is London’s East End.

Johnson and Darrow charm as the two adolescents, the picture of puppy love—a cute couple who find themselves in the awkward position of not only being very young, they’re also gay. Their fears and angst, their sparring and their budding feelings are played with a good ear for the verbal ticks peculiar to kids. Their budding relationship flows with a natural rhythm of fits and starts, anticipation and completion.

Latté Da is stretching the definition of “musical theater” with this production by attaching the music of The Mamas and Papas to a play. There’s a good reason for this. Leah, the troubled kid next door played by Anna Sundberg, is obsessed with Mama Cass. Sundberg dangled her performance over the top at times, but in the end delivered some powerhouse moments, and a completely lovable character. Yes, Leah, somebody does care about you.

Music director, Dennis Curley backed up singer/narrator, Erin Schwab, both top shelf musicians. Schwab has a peaches-and-cream voice and a winning presence, belting out one familiar hit after another, but every time she made an entrance—up the ramp, popping out of this door or the next, smiling at the audience—I wondered again, “What’s she doing here?” Instant disconnect. The idea for the songs made sense, but she just needed to be somewhere else so that all we had to focus on was the lyric and how it spoke to that moment in the play.

The Lab Theater, a converted warehouse, seems a less-than-ideal choice for producing a play that hinges on its intimate moments, and the large space required that the actors shout their lines more than the dialogue dictated. Further, the bulk of the action was on an elevated platform and ramp, turning the floor of the theater into a kind of moat separating audience and action. The metaphorical reason for waiting until late in the play to make more use of the space on the floor in front of this platform is clear enough, but I don’t think it was reason enough. I felt distanced from the characters, and was relieved when they finally descended to a more normal level. This might have influenced the large picture decisions, which seemed odd to me. The “close-ups,” however, were riveting, even from a distance. This is where the play truly succeeds.

One might argue that with so much that’s chaotic in these characters’ lives, real love seems a particularly precious thing, and indeed that turns out to be the case. This play isn’t so much about gay teens who fall in love; it’s about loving people the way they are, and that’s a beautiful thing. The show runs through March 18.

Their Own Kind of Music

February 23, 2012.By Graydon Royce, Star Tribune.

The timing could not be more apt for Theater Latté Da's production of "Beautiful Thing." Jonathan Harvey's play centers around teenage boys whose affection for each other survives bullying in a blue-collar London suburb. In the Twin Cities, the Anoka-Hennepin school district has spent a painful season wrestling to find the best method to prevent bullying -- with a particular focus on GLBT students.

Teens' discovery of their sexuality both contributes to and is magnified by an anxious period when even small bits of experience seem overwhelming. Harvey's 1993 play, which Latté Da opens this week at the Lab Theater in Minneapolis, offers a sympathetic treatment to Jamie and Ste, the youngsters fumbling through the emotions. The plot thickens with Jamie's mother, Sandra, who has as many plans to get ahead as she has lovers. A nosy neighbor, Leah, pitches in to the turmoil with threats of disclosure.

Latté Da's cast includes Steven Lee Johnson and David Darrow as the teenage boys, Jennifer Blagen ("God of Carnage" at the Guthrie last year) as Sandra and Ivey winner Anna Sundberg.

The play was turned into a film in 1996.

"Jonathan took the world of gray south London concrete and let these moments of hope shine through," said Jeremy Cohen, who is directing the show.

Cohen, producing artistic director of the Playwrights' Center in Minneapolis, is the first director not named Peter Rothstein to stage a production in Latté Da's 15-year history. This is his first directing job in the Twin Cities since he arrived here in 2010.

"It's daunting to be helming the first non-Rothstein production over there," Cohen admitted. "But this is a bucket-list play for me."

"Beautiful Thing" is a play infused with music but is not a musical. That is unusual but not unprecedented for Latté Da. "Burning Patience" in 2003 used music as a cinematic soundscape; Robert Schumann's work was a central part of 2008's "Old Wicked Songs," which focused on the poignant relationship between singer and teacher; one year ago, "Song of Extinction" had a central character who was composing a work for cello.

Mama Cass, the outsider

In "Beautiful Thing," music comes in the form of Mama Cass Elliot of the Mamas & the Papas. The character Leah constantly plays her mother's old records, and in the movie, Mama Cass numbers such as "Make Your Own Kind of Music" and "Dream a Little Dream of Me" provide a backdrop. Singer Erin Schwab will portray Mama Cass for Latté Da, stitching scenes together with songs that comment upon and propel the action.

"It's the sound of the Mamas and Papas but also a lot about Cass herself," Cohen said. "If you know anything about her and her journey, her chaos with the band, there is something about what happens to outsiders."

For Cohen, one need not squint very hard to see a link between the hope expressed in "Beautiful Thing" and the fact that three of the five characters are supposed to be teens.

"It can be a myopic time of life and hard to see your way out," he said. "People talk about the two boys as the center of the play but it's about class and what opportunities are available."

Still, he understands that the strongest message will be about Jamie and Ste, who fend off the stigma of universal disapproval.

"I know we're having a lot of LGBT kids coming," he said. "And also with the excitement around [Theater Mu's] 'Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them' that happens after we close -- which is also a play about gay teens -- that there is this moment, with all that's happening in Anoka but really everywhere. And we love that we have so many teens and young adults coming who are going to be part of that conversation."

Beautiful Thing

February 22, 2012.By Ed Huyck, City Pages.

What makes a musical? Over the past two seasons, Theater Latte Da has explored the outer edges where theater and drama merge, first with last season's Song of Extinction, and now with its production of Jonathan Harvey's Beautiful Thing. Harvey's gay coming-of-age tale takes place amid the gritty confines of a south London housing project in the early 1990s. In the original script and subsequent film, the music of Cass Elliot and the Mamas and the Papas is featured. For the Latte Da production, the music becomes a true player, as the songs are sung live to underscore and expand the action onstage. It was a risky move, admits director Jeremy Cohen, but one that has brought out the work's intense emotions in fresh ways. For him, the play had long been on his bucket list. The production "is an experiment. We've taken a piece of gritty narrative, but married it to the element of the music. The music is another piece of the puzzle," says Cohen, who is also the producing artistic director at the Playwrights' Center. All of this doesn't distract from the central themes of the play, or lessen their impact. In fact, having a piece written from a past perspective may put the central issues of the play in sharper relief, Cohen says. The company, which includes Steven Lee JohnsonDavid DarrowJennifer BlagenDan Hopman, and Anna Sundberg, features a mix of young and veteran performers. Working with the distinct culture and dialect of the London projects has aided the actors. "It's like they've been on an Outward Bound program together," he says. The play is in preview on Thursday, and opens Friday.

Wednesdays-Saturdays, 7:30 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. Starts: Feb. 24. Continues through March 18, 2012

Cast ready for challenges of Latté Da's 'Beautiful Thing'

February 21, 2012.By Ed Huyck, City Pages.

For the young leads of Theater Latte Da's Beautiful Thing, there has been a lot to consider. "The writing of the play is so meticulous," says David Darrow, who plays Ste. "Every day, we would run it and add a little more."

"I'm in the same place as David," says Steven Lee Johnson, who plays Jamie. "The play is so rich, so having these first two weeks to really dive in is a treat that a lot of actors don't get. We've had a really nice amount of time to bite into this play."

That work has prepared them to bring the show to life for its opening this weekend. They've not only had to learn the ins and outs of life in a British housing project in the early 1990s, but there have been accents to learn and complex characters to flesh out.

Jonathan Harvey's piece about two gay youth coming of age in the  London Thamesmead projects is dense with issues and characters. Latte Da has also expanded the scope of the music in the play. The original script -- and the film version -- used the recorded music of Cass Elliot and the Mamas and the Papas to help tell the story. Here, it will be sung live by Erin Schwab. The cast also includes Jennifer Blagen, Dan Hopman, and Anna Sundberg.

Director Jeremy Cohen, the producing artistic director at the Playwrights' Center, spent months listening to the Mamas and the Papas and Cass's solo recordings to find the right songs to use in the production.

"It's a really hopeful play, and the music adds levity when some of the scenes get heavy," Darrow says. "It's great to have that music before we dive right back in."

Those issues include the sexual awakening of the two teenagers at the play's center. The work not only delves into their relationship, but also the real and potential bullying the characters face for being out of step with the other youth and the expectations of their families. It's a play with a strong resonance for the Twin Cities right now, Cohen says.

"There is the gay issue and the poverty issue, but once we started rehearsing, it all took a back seat. This is a play about five people trying to understand each other. It makes it a lot more complicated than having a bad guy," Darrow says.

The script mixes in humor with the drama, often with the characters jabbing and digging into each other. "In this culture, it is okay to love somebody and be ripping them apart at the same time," says Johnson.

Bringing the specific culture to the stage has been one of the challenges for the company. Cohen sees that as a way that the cast has bonded, as they've explored and worked together to give the particular rhythms, accents, and world views of the characters life. Though it is only set 20 years in the past, the environment of these characters is quite different than even the one experienced by the current inhabitants of the council estates.

Johnson was able to get some firsthand experience before rehearsals began. "I spent the semester before I started in London, so I visited Thamesmead and also recorded people," he says.

The two performers have settled in the Twin Cities from out of state, with Johnson still studying in the University of Minnesota/Guthrie Theater BFA program.

"It's a great place for young people to be, because there is so much work," Darrow says.

"There's also diverse work in town," Johnson adds. "There are a lot of different kinds of theater audiences. A lot of work that wouldn't get supported elsewhere gets supported here."


Teenage Gay Love Becomes A Beautiful Thing

February 9, 2012.By John Townsend, Lavender Magazine.

To an American ear, Thamesmead may sound like some hoity toity affair for posh Londoners. But in Jonathan Harvey’s play Beautiful Thing it’s a depressed housing project where two teenaged boys struggle with sexual identity and tune into the music of American Mama Cass to get them through the angst. Jonathan Harvey’s gritty 1993 gem has drawn comparisons to the late Sheilagh Delaney’s groundbreaking A Taste of Honey, which over three decades earlier dealt with youthful anguish and gay themes among Britain’s poor working class. In 1996 Beautiful Thing was turned into an acclaimed indie film and in 2006 was revived in London to great reviews once again.

In Minneapolis, Theatre Latte Da presents its first local staging of Harvey’s play at the Lab. It will include live vocals of Mama Cass songs sung by the beloved Erin Schwab. Peter Rothstein, Latte Da’s Artistic Director, has been advising regarding the production’s conceptualization but the actual director is Jeremy Cohen, the Producing Artistic Director for the Playwrights’ Center.

Cohen asked “what would happen if music were intentional and performed live, not necessarily by an actor playing Mama Cass, but that there was another energy, another voice, a storyteller of sorts that kind’ve moved us from one place to the next? What would happen if we created scenically this world where she is between the scenes, sort of not seen by the characters, but wanders around in the midst of them - bringing the audience from one emotional or funny moment to another?”

Rothstein is struck by what he calls “the juxtaposition of this realistic, urban drama and this iconic music. We (at Latte Da) are constantly searching for new and provocative ways for story and music to intersect.”

Schwab has loved her research, since that has required lots of listening to Cass Elliot: “Lucky me. I have loved her spirit and her voice ever since I heard Dream a Little Dream of Me in high school. I think she has such an amazing ability to tell a story so honestly. You start to feel like she is speaking your thoughts and knows your feelings. I have always been amazed by the way music can speak for us when the words are difficult to say for ourselves.”

Music Director Denise Prosek says that ”Mama Cass’s music both as a solo artist and as a part of the Mamas and the Papas, reflects an era of storytelling and invokes the power of an individual to instigate change. That is the message of Beautiful Thing. As a part of society, Ste and Jamie are immersed in discovering who they are, and how do they love each other as gay men? And how do their friends, neighbors, and parents accept their choices? By immersing themselves in Mama Cass and her messages of love and truth, the characters transform into their true selves as part of the world.”

Indeed the Mamas and the Papas signify the essence of social change in a world stuck in negativity. In Beautiful Thing that negativity springs largely from the poverty and its subsequent ignorance and lack of opportunities. Cohen observes the “gritty sense of British naturalism. Jonathan Harvey wrote it as a sort of in your face work from the British theater movement that was happening at the time. The play, unlike the film, takes place primarily in a very public space and that’s a real class thing. It’s not like they’re all in there drinking red wine and talking what if my kid was gay?”

Cohen also stresses how class differences stringently affect the very feasibility of coming out. It’s one thing to live in a sophisticated urban area that reflects affluence and progressive attitudes. But, what if, he muses “you live in Mora, Minnesota or north Minneapolis or Harlem? Class fits into how people come out. Issues of masculinity really come through because it’s not just these kids and their families. It’s also watching them in relationship with one another. It’s why we’re routing for them to fall in love and get together. Ste starts in Act One saying ‘look Jamie, if you only sort of butched up a bit nobody would pick on you.’ There’s very little for Jamie (Steven Johnson) and Ste (David Darrow) to grab onto, so they turn to each other.”

Johnson sees Beautiful Thing as being “about first love for the boy next door and his schoolmate, Ste. Sort of a modern day Romeo and Juliet. Also, Jamie’s relationship with his mother, Sandra (Jennifer Blagen) is loving but strained. She has to work all night at the pub to make ends meet and whenever she brings a new man into her life, it usually ends up being a pretty big disappointment for Jamie. He is starting to get to know Sandra’s new flame, Tony (Dan Hopman) and his Mama Cass-loving neighbor and friend, Leah (Anna Sundberg). They watch rainbows while he’s dodging gym class.”

As for Ste, Darrow says “his struggle lies in getting through each day. He has an abusive family and is often beaten. The difficult home life makes him ambitious about one day having a job and moving away. But it also causes a lot of fear when he realizes he has feelings for another boy. In the second act, he says he is sure that his father would kill him if he ever found out about the relationship. He has to constantly struggle to find safety and understanding in unforgiving living conditions.”

However, Jamie’s living conditions present another sort of problem. Blagen shares “For Sandra, the core issue is not so much that her son is gay, but that she is losing her son Jamie, her best friend, to someone else. I think the relationship between Sandra and her son is especially close, and her concern for him before he comes out to her is that he’s not fitting in, that he might not be able to cope in the world. The world they live in is very tough and the system is not tilted in their favor, but Sandra has a fierce ambition and the ability to transcend her beginnings. She wants the same for her son.”

Moreover, in Sandra’s case, homophobia is actually not the issue: Blagen feels “when Jamie reveals his sexual leanings to her, she feels most betrayed that he has felt unable to share this with her, that she wasn’t a sounding board. She is also hurt that he prefers the company of 16 year old Ste to her, even though she actually thinks highly of Ste because he is a thriver. I think ultimately she is even a bit relieved to learn that Jamie is gay because it means that his difficulties at school have a tangible cause, and do not arise from being broken in some way.”

Playing a youth who has had such difficulties has heightened Johnson’s awareness. He notes that “bullying and violence toward gay youth is a major theme in the play. Minnesota has some of the worst anti-bullying legislation in the country and a major group of people that suffer from these poorly defined laws are GLBT teens.”

Johnson adds “falling in love is an awkward and sexy and scary and confusing and exciting and I think Beautiful Thing captures all of those elements and not just the romantic cliche ones. I love that even though the play is set in ’90s London, there is just something so universal about falling in love for the first time, that I think anyone -- regardless of sexual identity -- will be able to see themselves in the characters.”