Loony Tunes

April 10, 2002.By Max Sparber, City Pages.

If I have learned one thing in theater this past year, it is this: Black birds are especially natty. First there was Bradley Greenwald’s dapper crow in the Children’s Theatre Company’s The Snow Queen, who sported a tuxedo-styled black topcoat and a white vest emblazoned with oversized letters – as though a page from a storybook had been wrapped around his chest. In Theater Latté Da’s current production of New York Musical Shorts, Julie Madden and Joe Kolbow play blackbirds who share a battered elegance. Costumed by Jeannie Galioto, both are decked out in long black coats and black feather boas, Kolbow also donning a crushed top hat and a long cane topped with an egg-shaped handle. All of the above could be revelers at some goth-themed fetish ball – although all pay a price for their elegance. Greenwald is set up by knife-wielding bandits in The Snow Queen, while Madden and Kolbow must contend with a shotgun-wielding farmer in Musical Shorts.

Madden and Kolbow’s blackbirds appear in a particularly odd musical number titled “The Weather,” written by two musical-theater writing graduated from New York University, Tim Nevits and Ivy Hardy. Despite this pair’s Big Apple credits, their story is set on a failing cabbage farm in Iowa, and tells of a boy (played by Joe Leary) who one day learns he can speak the language of birds. It is a funny and eccentric little story, one of five selected by director Peter Rothstein. The remainder, by other authors, are equally curious. The tales here include a sung monologue about the botched history of blood transfusion, and Edgar Allan Poe story, a look at the fracturing of a romantic relationship when a gay couple adopts a poodle, and a poetic musing on the life of Parisians.

With the exception of the rather humorless Poe piece, Rothstein directs these musical shorts with a welcome lightness. He has on hand some very funny performers, particularly in the persons of Joe Leary, who has a vast reparatory of scowling faces, and Madden, who has a talent for the unexpected line reading. Playing a soused mother in the poodle sequence, she stops the show with her caustic, barely comprehensible delivery of a throwaway line, “Maybe it’s not about the dog.”

The music in this collection, played on piano (with occasional violin and guitar accompaniment), is uniformly good, although it’s often a little twee. This often seems to be the case in musical theater, where composers can’t seem to help but give in to their more precious instincts. A notable exception to this generalization can be found in the musical number “The Skate” in Illusion Theater’s The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin, written and composed by Kristen Childs and directed by Michael H. Robbins. The song is sung by Aimee K. Bryant, who possesses one of the two or three really outstanding voices in Twin Cities musical theater. And it’s just a great soul number, soaring without any reliance on gimmickry.

Black Girl is the semi-autobiographical tale of Childs, who is a Broadway dancer of some renown, and coincidentally, is also an alumnus of NYU’s musical theater writing program. This might also explain her oddball storytelling sensibilities: This show shares both a dark tone and a goofy sense of humor with “The Weather” from Musical Shorts. Childs’ musical opens with a newspaper account of four black girls who died in a burning church in Selma. But as seen through the eyes of Childs’ onstage doppelganger (played by Bryant), the event is taken as evidence that there is something innately wrong with darker skin.

It must be pointed out that Bryant’s character is a very young girl at this moment, favoring her white Chitty Chatty doll over a darker-skinned version and dreaming of a day when she will simply grow out of her own dark skin – a viewpoint that even her doll insists is “fucked up.” Ultimately, Black Girl is a singular look at the confusing and contradictory experience of race in this country, where a black mother will flatten her daughter’s hair with a hot metal comb while her white boyfriend insists that nappy hair is more beautiful, and where an African American performer is only able to audition for a “black” role by channeling the stuttering Southernisms of Foghorn Leghorn.

Theatre Latté Da takes foray into mini-musical form

March 30, 2002.By Graydon Royce, Star Tribune.

Musicals needn’t be three hours long, but it helps. Score, song, melody, harmony – and we aren’t even talking about choreography yet – require more dramatic scaffolding than simple spoken word. The payoff is when that non-verbal magic strikes inexpressible tones in our hearts. But, can this inherently inefficient form retain its power when it’s asked to dance with the agility of a terse one-act?

That is the mission of “New York Musical Shorts,” which opened Thursday in a Theatre Latté Da show at the Loring Playhouse in Minneapolis. Artistic directors Peter Rothstein and Denise Prosek stage five pieces – 20 minutes each – drawn from work done for the musical-theater graduate program at New York University.

Despite reservations, this is enjoyable froth. Rothstein, with his eye for pace and staging, and prosek, a terrifically economical music director, guide their talented cast over a range of moods and styles. Gabriel Platica and Ted Vig provide a lovely accompaniment. The material demonstrates both the capabilities and pitfalls of this construction.

Rothstein wisely leads off with the slightest pieces, “Blood Drive.” A slice of life about giving blood, it barely has a beginning and a middle, much less and end, but Julie Madden and Joe Leary keep it funny and light. It overreaches, though, with a third character who seems to have some angsty story to tell but not time to tell it.

“Eleanora” benefits from Edgar Allan Poe’s moody narrative about a young married man haunted by the love of his childhood. The writer and composer wisely chose the high drama of opera in this miniature, painting in dark, epic hues. Adena Brumer, Shannon Warne and Joe Kolboy sing beautifully.

The act smartly closes with “Poodle Rescue.” Composer Rob Hartmann gets it just right, concocting a theatrical sherbet that spin through clear structure with arch wit, fun characters and spanking fun action in a story about two men whose relationship crumbles over pet problems.

“Weather” takes a step backward. This oddball, tongue-in-cheek piece sinks under the weight of its own mythology. Absurdity needs razor-sharp focus – even at its most inchoate moments – and this piece just feels unfinished, with too many ideas at work.

“Passage of Dreams” is theatrically more ambitious than any of the others, but it succeeds because its high-concept fantasy-eschews narrative for ethereal whim, and the evenening’s sweetest music. Warne is a soulful Parisian flower girl whose dreams construct gossamer wings. Rothstein effectively uses Brumer as an exotic, mysterious woman in an upstairs window, with her coal-black eyes and backlit tousled hair. It’s terribly charming.

Latté Da presents ‘Musical Shorts’

March 24, 2002.By Graydon Royce, Star Tribune.

Peter Rothstein has collected five short musicals – each about 20 minutes long – into an evening that he’s calling “New York Musical Shorts.”

Rothstein’s willingness to experiment with form has helped his Theatre Latté Da become a popular presenter of musical work. For example, last spring he added a musical dimension in the person of Shirley Witherspoon to the otherwise angry and depressing Edward Albee one-act “The Death of Bessie Smith.” And for the past two summers, he has collaborated with Rob Hartmann to present a revue for Illusion Theater’s Fresh Ink series featuring an eclectic blend of styles and formats.

One of the pieces sampled last summer was “Blood Drive,” set in a blood-donation center. A small London theater produced the work, but Hartmann lamented to Rothstein that no one routinely stages such “mini-musicals.”

“The only thing I’ve ever seen is the double bill, like ‘Weird Romance,’ or a revue where you do songs from a show but not the whole work,” Rothstein said.

Hartmann, a teacher in the graduate program at New York University, has sifted through hundreds of 20-minute musicals that are part of the school’s requirement. “There’s a huge wealth of material that was pretty obscure,” Rothstein said.

Stylistically, the show’s works range from 1930s Parisian music to short opera to country-western.

Rothstein’s cast includes Adena Brumer and Shannon Warne, fresh form Park Square’s production of “Side Show,” Twin Cities singer Julie Madden, and Joe Leary of Mary Worth Theatre.

“New York Musical Shorts” will run in repertory with Outward Spiral’s extension of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” at the Loring Theater.