"Bessie's Birthday" by Theater Latte Da at the Lab Theater

April 20, 2013.By Jill Schafer, Cherry and Spoon.

When I walked into the Lab Theater last night for the final selection in Theater Latte Da's new works project "NEXT: New Musicals in the Making," they were playing Dolly Parton. I took that as a good sign. Not that I needed one, I've really been enjoying NEXT and this is the one of the three pieces that I've seen before, as part of a triptych of one-act musicals called Passage of Dreams, presented in 2009 and one of my favorite shows of that year (and this was my favorite of the three pieces, which I thought at the time would make a great full-length musical). Like the music of Dolly Parton, Bessie's Birthday is funny, homespun, sweet, and surprisingly poignant at times. Writers Katie Baldwin Eng (book and lyrics) and Jeff Tang (music) have worked with director Peter Rothstein and music director Denise Prosek to continue to develop and expand Bessie's Birthdayover the past few years, with the results being presented for three shows this weekend.

Like Theater Latte Da's most recent full production, Light in the PiazzaBessie's Birthday is about a young woman who is emotionally still a child because of brain damage suffered in her youth. But that's where the similarity ends. Light in the Piazzais a love story set in Italy in the 1950s, with a gorgeous, almost operatic score to match. Bessie's Birthday is about a family in Wisconsin in the present day, with a score appropriate to the story. The songs are funny (when the men sing about grilling meat), or touching (the sisters sing to each other), or both (splash!). There's not a whole lot of action, but we get to know this quirky little family. Bessie (Caroline Innerbichler, who was in Passage of Dreams but not this piece) is turning 30, even though she's still a little girl in many ways. Her sister Delphine (Elizabeth Griffith, who was also in last week's C.) is returning home to Wisconsin with her New York boyfriend (Sasha Andreev) in tow. Their parents May (Janet Hanson, the only returning cast-member from the 2009 production) and Sam (James Detmar) are throwing the usual summer pool party for Bessie. The only other guests are funny neighbor Jack (John Gamoke) and his wife Grace (Julie Madden), who provide much of the comedy. They prepare for the party, have conversations, light fireworks, tell jokes, and toast the birthday girl.

Bessie loves to swim, and is most at home in her pool. It gives her the freedom to be herself and see the world in her own particular way. Bessie's birthday tradition is to push her guests into the pool, fully clothed. In an effective story-telling device, as each character gets pushed into the pool, they freeze for a few moments in mid-air and speak their truth. Funny or poignant, whatever it is, but very real. The entire play has been building to this moment, and it's a satisfying ending to the story, while still knowing that the stories continue in these characters lives. As has been the case throughout this series, the entire seven-person cast gives fully realized performances, despite the scripts and music stands before them. Caroline portrays Bessie with a sweet innocence and a lovely voice to match. I think I like Elizabeth even more than I did in C., she's very in the moment. Sasha is genuine and likeable as the outsider trying to make sense of this new environment. Janet brings much heart to the role of a mother trying to protect her daughter and afraid to let her go off on her own (another similarity to Light in the Piazza), and James Detmar nails the part of the typical Midwestern dad. Last but not least, John and Julie are a hoot as the crazy neighbors (as was Julie inCompany last fall - she's a great comic singer).

There was a lot of talk in the post-show discussion, from the creators and audience members alike, about how this is a quiet and delicate story, not your typical big and splashy musical. It's still short for a musical, about 75 minutes with no intermission, but perhaps that's what best serves the story. It's the little moments that touch the heart, the simplicity of the story and interaction between the characters. I could easily spend two hours with these characters, but not at the expense of those quiet moments of poignancy. That's the challenge.

Whenever I happen upon a post-show discussion, I almost always stay, along with typically about 10% of the audience. It's worth noting that all three of the NEXT shows I've attended have had a much larger retention rate for the post-show discussion, probably about 75%. Perhaps the type of audience that's drawn to the reading of a new work is more invested in it than the average theater-goer. The creative teams have seemed very interested in what the audience has to say, as that's a big part of the development of a new work. I would be happy to see any of these three pieces - When the Moon Hits Your EyeC., or Bessie's Birthday - as a full production. If I had to pick just one, I would choose When the Moon Hits Your Eye. The characters and their stories really drew me in, I loved the use of music and mix of styles, I found the characters reading stage direction and descriptions of other characters to be a fresh and interesting story-telling method, and I can imagine lots of interesting possibilities for staging (the three levels of the apartment building, the sunset at the end). But even if I don't see any of them again, being a part of the creation of these three diverse new works has been a great experience. I look forward to next year's NEXT!

Caroline Innerbichler Stars in BESSIE'S BIRTHDAY at Theater Latte Da, Beg. Tonight

April 26, 2013.By Broadway World News Desk.

Theater Latté Da announced the cast for Bessie's Birthday, book and lyrics by Katie Baldwin Eng, music by Jeff Tang. This musical comedy is being developed as part of NEXT: New Musicals in the Making, a major new work program to develop new musical theater in the Twin Cities.

Bessie's Birthday features Caroline Innerbichler as Bessie, ElizaBeth Griffith as Delphine, Janet Hansen as May, John Gamoke as Sam, Julie Madden as Grace, Jim Detmar as Jack, and Sasha Andreev as Max. Public readings of Bessie's Birthday will take place tonight, April 26-28 at The Lab Theater in the Minneapolis Warehouse District.

This hilarious and insightful new musical, Bessie's Birthday, is set in rural Wisconsin and reunites a family for its annual celebration of Bessie's birthday. Although Bessie is turning 30, she suffered a seizure as a child that has left her perpetually six years old, or so they think. But this year's party is different; Bessie is on the cusp of change, ready to take the plunge. In the end, everyone is indeed changed as they all leap into the family pool.

Theater Latté Da presented a 40-minute version of Bessie's Birthday in 2009 as a part of Passage of Dreams, a triptych of new musicals at the Southern Theater. NEXT allows Eng and Tang to develop the piece into a full-length musical. Baldwin says, "Peter Rothstein is both intelligent and brave which allows him to be respectful of the creative process and let it unfold organically."

NEXT will provide Twin Cities' audiences the opportunity to get in on the ground floor of the creative process and witness new musicals in the making. Peter Rothstein, Theater Latté Da Artistic Director, sits on the board of directors of the National Alliance for Musical Theatre and has been highly involved in their festival of new musicals. NEXT enters Theater Latté Da into this national arena and fulfills the organization's commitment to the next generation of the American Musical Theater.

Rothstein says, "I have been attending and assessing new work festivals for a number of years. I believe NEXT will put playwrights, composers and lyricists at the center of the process and engage our audience as a key collaborator. It's a thrilling step for the company."

Theater Latté Da is a Twin Cities theater company recognized for its ability to connect story, music, artist and audience through diverse stories and theatrical innovation. Theater Latté Da specializes in advancing the art of musical storytelling through emotional, visceral and intellectual performances that resonate with our current world. The company's bold approach expands the genre by originating new works, radically reinventing classics from the musical theater canon, and experimenting with unusual forms, musical styles and storytelling techniques.

"C." by Theater Latte Da at the Lab Theater

April 20, 2013.By Jill Schafer, Cherry and Spoon.

The 1897 French play Cyrano de Bergerac has been adapted many times and in many forms, so much so that everyone knows the story of the poet Cyrano and his unusually large nose, who writes the words for a handsome but ineloquent man to woo his love Roxane. After musicals, operas, and countless movies (including the 1987 movie Roxanne, the only version of the story I've seen), it may seem like there's nothing new to say. But Bradley Greenwald's new musical adaptation (with composer Robert Elhai), presented as part of Theater Latte Da's new works initiative NEXT, strives to do just that. It lies somewhere in the intersection of theater, musical, poetry, and opera, emphasizing the music and poetry that is in the original piece. Or as Bradley writes in a note in the playbill, "It's the story of Cyrano and music, of Cyrano andpoetry, and the story of what music and poetry mean to Cyrano, Roxane, Christian, me, you, all of us in this room right now." Still in its earliest form (they've been working on it for less than a year, and I saw the very first public presentation - how cool is that?), it feels a little rougher than the last week's NEXT piece, When the Moon Hits Your Eye, but it also feels like it has great potential. There's a lot going on, with many characters (a 13-person cast, many of whom play multiple characters, plus someone reading a few stage directions) and a fairly ambitious staging, so it's quite remarkable that in just two weeks the creators, cast, director Peter Rothstein, and music director Denise Prosek have gotten it into the shape that it is. They're still making changes, they mentioned in the post-show discussion (which is a big part of NEXT - getting audience feedback to make the work better) that another song will be added after the curtain call tonight. I feel privileged to have seen it in this early form and look forward to seeing where it will go from here.

As I said, we all know the story. Cyrano loves Roxane, a childhood friend, but she loves Christian. Cyrano reluctantly agrees to help Christian woo her by giving him words to say ("we poets always have epistles to our imaginary lady loves in our pockets"), because he is unable to express himself in the poetic way that Roxane desires. Roxane falls even more deeply in love with Christian from the letters that he sends her when he's away at war, not realizing that who she's really falling in love with is Cyrano. When she tells Christian she would love him even if he were ugly, he realizes that she doesn't really love him, and is devastated. He begs Cyrano to tell her the truth, but tragedy intervenes. (Not at all like the happy ending I remember from Roxanne!)

Apparently there are no limits to Bradley Greenwald's talents. He has an incredibly gorgeous voice, and could easily make a career doing nothing but musicals and opera. But he doesn't just rest on that effortless voice, he also does non-musical theater - from drama, to comedy, to an Ivey-winning performance in the one-man show I am My Own Wife. Adding to that list of talents, he did his own translation of Cyrano from the original French, so as not to be influenced by anyone else's interpretation of the work (I knew he could speak and sing German, but French too!). He's taken this literal translation and formed it a fresh new perspective on the story. The original play is all in verse, but Bradley chose to have only Cyrano speak in verse to distinguish his poetic voice from the masses. He focuses on the music that's in every scene, so when we hear music it feels organic to the story - the first scene takes place in a theater, another with a group of composers in the next room, another at war where soldiers sing to keep their spirits up. The plan for a fully staged production is to have the musicians be on stage and part of the action, rather than a separate band or orchestra. After all that creative muscle, Bradley also sings beautifully and expressively, and has a glorious death scene.

Bradley has a large and talented cast supporting him, some of whom I know from other shows and some who were new to me. One of the latter is Elizabeth Griffith, who is sweet and serene as Roxane, with a lovely voice, but also shows her longing and grief. Sean Dooley (whom I don't think I've seen since the 2004 Michael Brindisi production ofHair, one of my favorite local theater memories) is a great choice for Christian. His voice doesn't have the depth and richness of Bradley's (but whose does?), rather, his voice is like Christian's own words - simple and straight-forward and from the heart. Cyrano speaks in poetic flourishes, with a singing voice to match, and it makes sense that when Christian sings, his voice also matches his words. He's charming and sweetly awkward when trying to express himself and falling short, showing that Christian really does love Roxane as much as Cyrano does. "I love you and want you to always know it, that's the best I can say it, I'm no poet."

The music, composed by Robert Elhai, is comprised of a variety of styles, which he chose to do to give the piece a timelessness, or as Peter Rothstein said, "immediacy." There's a marching-off-to-war-WWI-ish song, a charming Renaissance era duet between Cyrano and Roxane recalling their childhood, a rousing duel song (in which Cyrano appears to be making up the lyrics as he goes), a touching love song "Love Lies Waiting," and what sounds like a folk song from Gascony. It's a nice collection of songs that fit the story and enhance it.

The two pieces I've seen so far in Theater Latte Da's "NEXT: New Musicals in the Making" have been so different, but equally intriguing, satisfying, and promising. When the Moon Hits Your Eye is an intimate and modern story with just seven characters, each of whom we get to know and love, featuring songs from the public domain. C. is more epic and timeless, with a huge cast of characters (sometimes difficult to keep track of, especially without costume changes to give us a clue), and original music that feels like a real part of the story. So far NEXT is showing the great diversity that can be found in music-theater, and I can't wait to complete the trilogy next week with Bessie's Birthday. But you still have two chances to see C. - don't miss out! For more information and to purchase tickets for this weekend and next weekend, see Latte Da's website, or just show up at the Lab Theater (a great setting for this series because of its vast open space like a blank slate).

"When the Moon Hits Your Eye" by Theater Latte Da at the Lab Theater

April 16, 2013.By Jill Schafer, Cherry and Spoon.

Continuing their mission to "create new connections between story, music, artist, and audience by exploring and expanding the art of musical theater," Theater Latte Da is presenting three new works as part of "NEXT: New Musicals in the Making." The creators spend two weeks workshopping the piece with Theater Latte Da's Artistic Director Peter Rothstein, Music Director Denise Prosek, and a talented cast of local actor/singers. At the end of that period they present the work to audiences, who are invited to give feedback on what they've seen. For a musical theater fan like myself, it's an exciting opportunity to observe and maybe even take part in the creation of a new piece of music-theater.

The first installment, When the Moon Hits Your Eye, was presented last weekend at the gorgeous Lab Theater. This "play with music" was written by playwright Jon Marans (who also wrote Old Wicked Songs, which Latte Da did at the Guthrie Studio in 2008) and features several diverse songs in the public domain. It's a slice of life in the neighborhood known as Hell's Kitchen in NYC, specifically the corner of 48th Street and 9th Avenue. It's a fantastic neighborhood that's rich with stories (if you're in NYC to see some shows, do not eat anywhere near Times Square, instead head over to 8th or 9th Avenue, where the real people live, work, and eat). Our characters include engaged couple Natalia (Emily Gunyou Halaas) and Larry (Rudolph Searles III), Natalia's mother Felizbella (Michelle Cassioppi), her ex Matthew (Steven Grant Douglas), and the grieving Debbie (Sara Ochs), all of whom live in the same building. Their landlord Gian Carlo (Raye Birk) also works in the barber shop on the ground floor, and the widow Liz (played by Nancy Marvy), who used to teach in the neighborhood, is friendly with the residents. These seven characters make up a little family, and the play shows us a few days in their intersecting lives - weddings, affairs, first dates, illnesses, break-ups, career changes, and other usual stuff of life. And of course, music accompanies their life. Music as diverse as an Italian opera, the plaintive Boll Weevil song ("lookin' for a home"), a haunting Scottish border ballad, a Mongolian love song, and a Portuguese celebratory song. The characters narrate each others' actions (partly due to the fact that this is a reading, partly as a story-telling choice), but in a really interesting and interactive way. They don't just blankly read the narration, rather they convey their feelings about what's going on through the reading. The language is beautifully descriptive; you can easily visualize the action as it plays out in different areas of the building. All of these pieces combined to tell a really lovely story, funny, poignant, and completely engaging. I think the creators have something really special here, and I'm excited to see where it will go next. Although I might call it a musical rather than a play with music. Characters sing to each other in character, espressing their emotions, and walk down the street singing. That, to me, is the very definition of a musical.

I know this is supposed to be about the work, but without the fabulous performances by every one of the seven cast-members, you cannot appreciate or even really see the work. They spent about two weeks with this material, and though they had scripts in front of them, they were able to create fully rounded characters with a wonderful chemistry and sense of family between them. Steven and Emily's duet on the border ballad is an absolute dream, Sara sings gorgeously in Mongolian, and Rudolph's Italian opera is thrilling. Raye and Michelle portray a sweet and tender later-in-life love story, and Nancy's character is the heart of the building. And did I mention that they all speak in authentic-sounding accents, and sing in multiple languages? This wouldn't be an easy piece to do with four weeks of rehearsal, how much more challenging with only two weeks and a constantly changing script!

As anyone who reads this blog knows, musical theater is my favorite thing in the world. But I think I love it most for what it can be, and often isn't in whatever movie has been most recently adapted to the Broadway stage. Theater Latte Da strives to elevate the art form that is musical theater and move it into the future. That's what NEXT is all about, and judging from the first selection, it's going to be an amazing three weeks at the Lab Theater. Up next is C., a new musical adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac by Robert Elhai and Bradley Greenwald. Following that is Bessie's Birthday, which has been expanded from the one-act musical presented as a part of Passage of Dreams four years ago (one of my favorite shows of the year). I remember thinking when I saw it that it could and should be expanded into a full-length musical, so I'm thrilled that they're doing just that.

If you're a fan of music-theater, or just enjoy seeing the creative process at work, I highly recommend you attend one or both of the remaining selections in "NEXT: New Musicals in the Making."

Raye Birk and More to Star in Theater Latte Da's 'When the Moon Hits Your Eye' - Full Cast Announced!

April 10, 2013.By Broadway World News Desk.

Theater Latté Da opens its inaugural year of NEXT: New Musicals in the Making with When the Moon Hits Your Eye by Jon Marans.

When the Moon Hits Your Eye is a multi-ethnic play with music set in an old tenement walk-up in Hell's Kitchen, New York City. The drama/comedy, tells the story of a widowed ItalIan Barber, who finally wants to marry the true love of his life - Felizbela Carvalho - his mistress for the past twenty-five years. However, the course of true love never runs smoothly. The barber, his mistress and the other five off-beat lovebirds in this play find themselves consumed with the churning, inner turmoil of passion.

When the Moon Hits Your Eye is not a musical but a play infused with music, much like Marans' play Old Wicked Songs, for which Theater Latté Da won the 2009 IVEY Award for Overall Excellence. Marans states, "With this new initiative, Theater Latté Da is one of the rare theater companies that have the expertise and the interest to help writers explore the musical aspects of a show, to allow and to help guide a show to find both its emotional center and its musical voice."

When the Moon Hits Your Eye by Jon Marans will runApril 12-14, 2013, Starring Raye Birk, Michelle Cassioppi, Steven Grant Douglas, Emily Gunyou Halaas, Nancy Marvy, Sara Ochs and Rudolph Searles III, with Denise Prosek on piano. Directed by Peter Rothstein and Benjamin Shaw.

The festival will feature readings of three new ventures into musical storytelling. Audiences will have the opportunity to get in on the ground floor of the creative process and witness new musicals in the making. The other musicals included in the festival are...

C. Book & Lyrics by Bradley Greenwald Music by Robert Elhai Adapted from the play Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand April 19-21, 2013

Bessie's Birthday Book & Lyrics by Katie Baldwin Eng Music by Jeff Tang April 26-28, 2013

Performances at The Lab Theater, 700 North 1st Street, Minneapolis. Tickets: 3-Show Passes are only $25 and allow you to see a reading of each new venture into musical storytelling. Single tickets to each reading are also available for $14 each.* *Single ticket price includes a $2 processing fee.