Triple play Trio of short musicals hits all the right notes

March 28, 2009.By Domonic P. Papatola, Pioneer Press.

The market for short, heady, small-cast musicals isn't exactly a burgeoning one, so Theater Latte Da probably isn't out to create the next Great American Musical with "Passage of Dreams." But the trio of brief works by playwright/lyricist Katie Baldwin Eng and composer Jeff Tang has plenty to recommend it — offbeat and endearing stories, interesting and accomplished musicianship, even an unexpected tug at the heartstrings.

The three works are not linked, per se. They take place, respectively in the past, the present and the future and vary in setting, complexity, wholeness and accomplishment.

The opening offering — "Passage of Dreams" — is sort of a Magritte painting set to music. A bowler-hat-clad businessman, a flower girl and an ethereal woman in white recognize each other in the waking world, but it's only in their dreams that they really connect. The wispy surrealism of the tale is rendered with music that harks to Django Reinhart's gypsy jazz and is reinforced by director Peter Rothstein and his company with some lovely images of pillow-feather snowfalls and aerialist Heather Haugen swinging from the rafters of the Southern Theater.

More a collection of musical monologues than a cohesive thematic work, "Passage" is admirable in its craft, but feels a little too earnest and intellectual; a work designed to impress rather than to entertain.

Bracketing the evening is "Thirst," a piece commissioned by Theater Latte Da and set in a time of apocalyptic drought. Like "Passage," it's an idea that could use some additional flesh on its bones, though it offers the most expansive music of the trio - as well as the single best line of the evening: When a daughter who's never seen rain asks her father what an umbrella is, dad casts a wistful glance in his wife's direction and describes it as "a wily instrument of seduction."

It's the middle work — "Bessie's Birthday" — that really shines. The longest, best realized and most ambitious of the three works presents us with a title character who, cognitively speaking, is forever 6 years old after suffering a seizure. On her 30th birthday, friends and family — including an uptight suburban father, a pyrotechnic-happy neighbor and a cooler-than-thou sister gather around the family pool to celebrate.

The premise sounds cloying, but it's carried off with aplomb and joy. Eng and Tang combine to produce a diverse suite of songs of yearning, of lustful wanderings, even an onomatopoeic ode to the joys of grilling. And the final moments reveal an honest vulnerability that, given the mania that's preceded it, is surprisingly touching.

Rothstein's light-touch direction — given an able assist by Joe Stanley's imaginatively minimalist design — allows the work to shine through. The 10-member cast, which populates all three plays, gives the material both strong voice and solid characterization. Most of the standout performances come in "Bessie" Simone Perrin is the ingenuous yet wise title character; Emily Gunyou Halass is the worldly wise but unsure big sister; Randy Schmeling is the easy-going lefty vegetarian trying to fit in a world of suburban Republicanism.

Theater critic Dominic P. Papatola can be reached at 651-228-2165.

What: "Passage of Dreams," produced by Theater Latte Da

When: Through Friday

Where: Southern Theater, 1420 Washington Ave. S., Mpls.

Tickets: $34-$12

Information: 612-340-1725 or

Capsule: Three short musicals are long on images and ideas

Passage of Dreams / Through Apr. 5 / Southern Theater, 1420 Washington Ave. S., Mpls. / (612) 340-1725 /

March 26, 2009.By John Townsend, Lavender Magazine.

Minneapolis’s Theater Latte Da and New York’s Write/Act Festival are collaborating in three musical one-acts that traffic in aerial feats you typically expect at a Cirque event. A past/present/future montage starts in 1930s Paris, moves to a backyard barbecue in Wisconsin, and concludes with a drought where both faith and water have dried up.

Director Peter Rothstein explains that playwright Baldwin Eng and composer Jeff Tang “are stretching the boundaries of musical theater in dynamic ways.”

Actor Fred Wagner, who wowed audiences last year in the trans drama Looking for Normal, calls Passage of Dreams “a dreamlike excursion. It’s like An American in Paris meets Hairspray, with a little bit of Waiting for Godot in musical form thrown in for fun. This is not your father’s musical comedy.”

Passage of Dreams at the Southern is uncommonly graceful: Piece ebbs and flows between commonplace and transcendent

March 25, 2009.By Quinton Skinner, City Pages.

Our lives might feel riddled with mundane fusses and miscues, but looked at from the proper angle they are nothing if not oceanic. Tides of feeling, swells of cognition, and the inky depths that elude understanding: of this are we made. So one concludes, anyhow, after Passage of Dreams, a deeply evocative piece that ebbs and flows between the commonplace and the transcendent with uncommon grace.

This premiere is presented as three short musical pieces (with two intermissions), with book and music by Katie Baldwin Eng and music by Jeff Tang. From the onset, in the half-hour fragment from which the evening's title is derived, we get a sense of appealingly youthful romance. A street flower vendor (Simone Perrin) feels her heart go bippety-bop for Jean (Randy Schmeling), while both sense the spectral pull of Francoise (Emily Gunyou Halaas on a platform high above the stage, striking self-consciously dramatic poses while conveying genuine yearning).

Denise Prosek leads a four-piece orchestra (piano, strings, guitar) in a delicate and precise performance of Tang's music, with Eng's lyrics pushing the narrative along while stopping to luxuriate in moments of reflection. Our characters pine for love's escape, push against the bounds of romantic identity and convention, and ultimately yearn for the transport of the night, of dreams, because "in life you die."

The currents run deep, in other words, though the middle piece, "Bessie's Birthday," grounds itself first with worldly firmness. Delphine (Halaas), a big-city quasi-bad girl, returns home to Wisconsin with new hipster boyfriend Max (Schmeling) in tow. The occasion is the birthday of Delphine's sister Bessie (Perrin), who, it turns out, suffered a seizure and oxygen loss that has left her perpetually with the mind of a child.

Before long, we feel as though the piece might have packed too much into its confines, that it's a longer work of musical theater crammed into a limited time slot, yet it undeniably works. We follow one narrative thread after another, from the firecracker-tossing neighbor Jack (Fred J. Wagner) delivering a hilarious tune with spouse, Grace (Sally Ann Wright), on his fixation with the younger girls' breasts, to Max's shedding his vegetarianism and going native with Delphine's father, Sam (Garry Geiken).

Credit here must go to director Peter Rothstein, whose chops both theatrical and musical are in abundant evidence.

"Bessie's Birthday" somehow sprawls across a short span of time, juggling multiple notions of love (youthful, jaded, impossible) with crosscurrents of culture clash, Midwestern angst, and vulnerability.

Just when you fear matters are going off the rails, for instance, Perrin and Halaas deliver an understated, devastating back-and-forth about the two sisters' love for each other, and their questions about what might have been, that leave one feeling both wrung out and wishing that it would go on longer.

Not so with the third offering, "Thirst," an abstraction about a nuclear family expressing its collectively parched state, praying for rain. We all get a little thirsty sometimes, in body and soul, but it's too easy a metaphor, and not enough is done with it. Some remarkable cloth-aerialist work by Heather Haugen keeps us engaged, though, even if a descent into interfamilial fisticuffs gives off the whiff of out-of-ideas melodrama.

Still, it's hard to walk out feeling unmoved, or unimpressed by the loveliness of all three works as a whole. All night long we're presented with notions of water, of the oceanic depths, from Halaas's turn as a mermaid in "Passage," to Bessie's love of the family swimming pool in the second act, to the ached-for rain of "Thirst." It's as though one has witnessed a series of paper boats, launched into time and space with skill and affection, across the always-uncertain passage of the waves and the leagues of uncertainty that we all navigate.

Passage of Dreams

March 25, 2009.By Jessica Armbruster, City Pages.

This production, presented by Theater Latté Da, is not only a format-buster, but a triple threat. All three segments of Passage of Dreams combine musical theater with storytelling and aerialist stunts, an unusual meeting of theatrical worlds. The first, titular, tale is set on the streets of Paris. It's followed by "Bessie's Birthday," set in a pool in Wisconsin, and Thirst, which explores a world without water. The pieces have been workshopped and read at various venues throughout Minnesota (in 2006 the production was part of the Playwrights' Center's PlayLabs, a festival in which artists present works-in-progress) and New York City, but this show will mark the first full realization of playwright Katie Baldwin Eng and composer Jeff Tang's work. Expect dramatic acrobatics, quirky musical numbers, and playful storytelling. 
Fridays, Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m.; Thursdays, 7:30 p.m.; Mon., March 30, 7:30 p.m. Starts: March 21. Continues through April 2, 2009

A trio takes flight

March 24, 2009.By Tom Wallace, Star Tribune.

"Passage of Dreams," a trio of short musicals developed in New York and Minneapolis over the past seven years, made its strangely evocative world premiere Saturday evening at the Southern Theater. Director Peter Rothstein's vibrant cast and aerial acrobatic artist, Heather Haugen, transport us to three vastly different realms: Paris pre-World War II, a Wisconsin barbecue and a drought-stricken wasteland. Composer Jeff Tang and lyricist/book writer Katie Baldwin Eng excavate the subconscious of personal and collective memory in three pieces that will appeal to both general audiences as well as those who prefer the avant-garde.

The title piece, which plays first, reveals a Paris street scene in the style of Dadaism; a suitable approach for a dream that has its own inherent inexorable illogicality. Women in boxes sitting atop scaffolding on rollers elude Jean (Randy Schmeling), a young man in a trench coat with a potted plant perched on his bowler hat. Haugen, stationed in one of the boxes, is aptly named Flight, a romantic fantasy on a trapeze. Joseph Spoelstra’s ethereal guitar accompanies feathers pulled from a bed pillow, signifying snowflakes falling on disenchanted love.

With the second offering, “Bessie’s Birthday,” Eng has crafted an ingenious interplay between goofy characters confined by prejudices. Conflict arises when bohemian Delphine (Emily Gunyou Halaas and boyfriend Max (Schmeling) fly in from New York to Wisconsin for Delphine’s sister Bessie’s 30th birthday barbeque. Janet Hanson and Gary Geiken, pitch-perfect as the uptight parents, sharply contrast Sally Ann Wright and Fred J. Wagner, outrageously hilarious as their loose-cannon best friends.

Simone Perrin’s soulful vocals as Bessie, who suffers the effects of a childhood brain injury, reveal an underestimated woman who fathoms the dysfunction of the adults surrounding her. Geiken relishes a scene where he seduces vegetarian Max into eating meat. Schmeling in turn sings unconscious insults about the partygoers’ politics. Unfortunately, there are no song titles listed in the program. Nonetheless, Tang’s terrific Bessie score often has the wondrously expansive feel of Aaron Copland.

The third offering, “Thirst,” evokes a sense of biblical plague. The setting is a world where water has dried up. While a nuclear family is simply sitting out in the drought, Rain, symbolically played by Haugen, streams in from above the playing area. She twirls lyrically for an extended period on aerial silks up and down a roughly 20-foot drip while music director Denise Prosek’s superb string ensemble and cast vocalists match Haugen to utterly transcendent effect. A waking nightmare becomes a dream come true.

Passage of Dreams @ The Southern Theater

March 23, 2009.By Tad Simons, Mpls.St.Paul Magazine.

These days, the word “musical” conjures visions of green witches and mega-casts—over-the-top productions with soaring symphonic scores, elaborate sets, enough actors to populate a small village, and lots of shrill, brassy singing by people who have somehow figured out how to turn the dial on their esophagus up to “11”.

By contrast, Theatre Latte Da’s new show, Passage of Dreams, features the world premiere of three short musicals, none of which resemble anything you would ever see on Broadway, and all of which are utterly, completely different from each other. The first, Passage of Dreams, is a quiet Paris street scene in which the characters inhabit each other’s dreams. The second, Bessie’s Birthday, has musical elements but is really a short one-act play, one that glorifies (of all things) the suburban Wisconsin lifestyle. And the third, Thirst, takes a semi-apocalyptic look into the future, where water has been global-warmed out of existence and people have all but forgotten what rain is.

As many have noted before, Latte Da founder and director Peter Rothstein is a genius with the musical form. He knows how to sidestep the inherent cheesiness of having people break into song, and has a gift for making the music serve the emotional core of any given scene or story. In the Paris of Passage of Dreams, for instance, there is no dialogue, only actors singing about their dreams. The songs are tinged with melancholy because no one is living the life they dream, and the scenes unfold like an impressionist painting, with the songs and theatrical elements acting like brushstrokes on a canvas.

In Bessie’s Birthday, there isn’t much singing—but there are plenty of laughs, and the few songs that do serve the story emerge so organically from the dialogue that it’s hard to even remember them. Thirst takes yet another approach, mixing song and stagecraft with a Cirque de Soleil-style aerialist who represents rain, and who hovers over the heads of a family desperate for just one drink of pure, uncarbonated, unsweetened water (all they have to drink is Coke or Pepsi).

Taken together, these three pieces demonstrate the versatility of the musical form and represent something unique in the theater world: the triumph of small, intimate, song-based theater. Rothstein uses only as many props as necessary, and knows how effective a ribbon of cloth can be to illuminate metaphors and illustrate elements, like raindrops, that don’t need to literally fall from the rafters.

Indeed, it’s better if they don’t.

Passage of Dreams continues at the Southern Theater through April 5.

'Passage of Dreams': strong work by Theatre Latté Da

March 23, 2009.By Ed Huyck, MinnPost.

Though unified by layers of fantasies, the real glue amid the trio of pieces in "Passage of Dreams" is the clever writing and music from the team of Katie Baldwin Eng and Jeff Tang, and the equally clever staging by Theatre Latté Da. Mixing musical styles and theatrical formats, ­ including a striking turn by aerialist Heather Haugen, ­ the pieces work best when they drive right for the heart.

The evening opens and closes with a pair of short playlettes. The title work shows a series of interlocking dreams of ordinary folks, while "Rain" takes us into an absurdist's end time, where the very mention of water is seen by some as an obscenity.

The middle work, "Bessie's Birthday," is the most conventional of the pieces -- ­ you can see where it easily could be expanded into a full play ­ but still retain the dream-like qualities. In it, a woman returns from New York to Wisconsin for he sister's 30th birthday. Though the characters are broadly drawn, I can honestly say that in my 15 years of living in the Cheese State, I knew every single person here. And at the play's center is a complex heart, full of disappointment, pain and genuine love.

The ensemble is universally strong, with Emily Gunyou Halaas turning in the performance of the night as Delphine, the sister coming home in "Bessie's Birthday." Meanwhile, Haugen steals the finale with her striking aerial work. All of this diverse work is held together by Peter Rothstein's strong direction and Joe Stanley's lovely sets. The only real flaw is that the intermissions ­ necessary for changing scenery and costumes ­ interrupt the evening's flow, and break the spell. That's a minor quibble in the face of another strong work by a top local theater.

"Passage of Dreams." through April 5. Southern Theater, 1420 Washington Ave. S., Minneapolis. $12 to $34. For tickets, call 612-340-1725 or visit online.


March 20, 2009.By Graydon Royce, Star Tribune.

Peter Rothstein's dilemma had nothing to do with art. Sitting down to talk about Theatre Latté Da's "Passage of Dreams," he admitted that marketing three one-act musicals is tough business.

"Part of the trick is finding a unifying theme," he said candidly. "Or are they three totally distinct works?"

Time will tell on that score, as the triptych of new musicals opens tonight at the Southern Theatre with a cast that includes Simone Perrin, Emily Gunyou Halaas, Randy Schmeling and Janet Hansen. Latté Da is billing the program as "three aerial musicals." Rothstein is more circumspect in his assessment: The pieces mix aerial choreography, storytelling and theatrical fantasy. However, his enthusiasm is undimmed no matter how they are described.

"I really like them," he said.

"Passage of Dreams" takes its title from the first of the three pieces. It was one of several short works featured in 2002 in Latté Da's "New York Musical Shorts." At the time, Rothstein was producing in the Loring Playhouse and its 12-foot ceilings prevented him from fully exercising writer Katie Baldwin Eng's intentions that a character soar through the air in her dreams. Instead, the singer stood on a chair and looked out a window in 1930s Paris. The Southern allows for the flight of fantasy with aerialist Heather Haugen.

The second entry, "Bessie's Birthday," came from a visit Eng made to rural Wisconsin. It is about a woman who suffered a brain injury that stalled her development at age 6. When friends gather to celebrate her 30th birthday, they jump into a swimming pool.

"When everyone is underwater, it's the only time she feels simpatico with the others," Rothstein said.

Or, as Eng puts it, "She becomes another person when she's swimming."

The elusive third leg

Eng and composer Jeff Tang had done a third piece, and Rothstein helped get the package into the Playwrights' Center's development festival, PlayLabs 2007. Rothstein said he was particularly heartened by the response to "Bessie."

"People were very moved by it but they were unable to articulate why they were crying," he said. That told him the piece struck a deep chord.

For reasons fairly arcane, the third piece of the program was dropped and Eng and Tang began what she called an endless search for a replacement. The quest led to "Thirst," an absurdist tale set in a future without water. When the rain comes, members of a family have differing reactions -- both physically and symbolically. Eng said she wrote the piece and then put it on the shelf "because it sort of confused me.

"It's a strange piece, written from an unconscious place, and I was scared of it and not sure what it all meant," she said.

Rothstein nonetheless dove in and talked through it with Eng and Tang. The rain represented humanity and spirituality, Rothstein said. A son in the family sees it as a sexual awakening, the mother recalls memories of the days when water was plentiful, and the father gathers buckets to hoard the rain. It struck Rothstein as a sort of ritual with the mechanics of prayer and dance. Too, it called for aerialist work to represent the rain.

So there you have it: a Parisian fantasy, a contemporary Wisconsin birthday party and a futuristic "Waterless World."

"We weren't sure how we would thematically link them," Eng said.

But now she and Rothstein have been living with these pieces for a while and they each have found threads to pull them together.

"Each of these shift perspective," Rothstein said. "Flying in the first, underwater in the second, and with rain in the third."

Eng said she doesn't see an obvious link in the music or the individuals, but all three pieces involve "characters who are searching for a sacred space in their lives -- not religious so much, but they are trying to connect, and I hate to sound so New Agey, to the Earth and each other."

Marketing aside, Eng notes that it's rare to see new, short musical work that is not a calculated commercial prospect. Instead, these one-acts are just the product of "our wacky dreams."

There it is. Now that's a great slogan.

Musical collaborators think 
just alike – in their dreams

March 20, 2009.By Dominic P. Papatola, MinnPost.

Remember back in school, when you got thrown together with some study partner you probably wouldn't have chosen and had to do a big project together?

That's how Jeff Tang and Katie Baldwin Eng started making musicals.

While graduate students in New York University's musical-theater writing program, they were assigned to collaborate on a 20-minute musical with a maximum of three characters. The result of that assignment, "Passage of Dreams," is one of three short musicals that will premiere this weekend at the Southern Theater under the auspices of Theater Latte Da.

It wasn't exactly a professional match made in heaven. "We didn't always get along working on that first project," conceded Eng, the playwright-lyricist, from her Manhattan home during a conference-call conversation with her composer collaborator, who lives in Brooklyn. "We communicated a lot. We fought a lot. It seemed like the more aggravated he got, the more beautiful was the music that he wrote."

"It wasn't the easiest collaboration," Tang agreed, beginning with the age-old chicken-and-egg question of whether the music or the words come first in writing a musical. "We share different aesthetics. We're both interested in creating the same stylistic worlds, but we come at it from different directions."

In the end, though, the collaboration worked. "Passage of Dreams," a story about three people whose main means of connection come through their dream lives, won good critiques from the NYU students and faculty. It also drew the attention of Latte Da artistic director Peter Rothstein, who brought the pair to the Twin Cities in 2002 as part of "New York Musical Shorts," a collection of brief musicals by NYU students. The pair's efforts were further workshopped in the summer of 2006 during the PlayLabs festival at the Playwrights' Center.

"It started with Jeff's music," said Rothstein, who commissioned the pair to write a third short work that forms the loosely connected triptych. "He's a really sophisticated composer but is completely unafraid of beautiful melodies that fit well on the voice. That's not something you find with contemporary composers. As a writer, Katie doesn't work in the traditional dramatic structure, but if she did, she wouldn't be able to create these worlds she imagines. Her lyrics are always surprising and without an ounce of pretension."

The kind of work Tang and Eng create doesn't qualify as standard musical fare. "Bessie's Birthday," the second work on the program, concerns the 30th birthday of the title character, whose cognitive development stopped after she suffered a seizure at the age of 6. "Thirst" takes place in the not-too-distant future, when the world's water supply has been tapped out.

Oh, yeah: In addition to the singing characters, two of the three mini-musicals feature aerialist Heather Haughan.

It's the ability to do that kind of unconventional work that brought Tang (who started out wanting to compose for films) and Eng (a one-time journalist who began her theater career in performance) to the theater.

"The thing that was most attractive to me about theater is that you can tell your own stories," said Tang. "I wanted to create my own stories and not just create window dressing for someone else's stories, which is a lot of what you do when you compose for film."

"I didn't even like musicals," Eng added. "I was introduced to the (NYU) program by another playwright friend of mine, and at first I thought, 'This is not for me.' But once I actually tried the writing, I was totally hooked. And once you're bitten by that bug, practicality goes out the window."

Well, that's something they agree on, anyway.

Theater critic Dominic P. Papatola can be reached at 651-228-2165.

What: "Passage of Dreams," produced by Theater Latte Da

When: Opens tonight; performances continue through April 5

Where: Southern Theater, 1420 Washington Ave. S., Mpls.

Tickets: $34-$12; pay-what-you-can night at Sunday's performance

Information: 612-340-1725 or

'Passage of Dreams'

March 19, 2009.By Jahna Peloquin, Star Tribune.

Musical theater company Theater Latté Da has established itself with solid, quirky takes on little-known works. But for the world premiere of "Passage of Dreams," it adds an unusual twist: The three-part series of musicals will be staged without its performers ever touching the ground. In essence, the triptych combines musical theater with trapeze and aerial performance. Latté Da commissioned the work in partnership with New York University's Write/Act Festival from the New York-based team of playwright Katie Baldwin Eng and composer Jeff Tang, and the results promise to be a feast for eyes and ears alike. hosts an opening night reception 6:30 p.m. Saturday at the Red Stag Supperclub.

Theatre Latté Da finds new space in ‘Passage of Dreams’

March 19, 2009.By Ed Huyck, MinnPost.

Theatre Latté Da is headed into a new dimension with its latest show, "Passage of Dreams," ­ right to the heights of the Southern Theater. For the trio of short musicals by Katie Baldwin Eng and Jeff Tang, the company has employed aerialist Heather Haugen to bring the show into the air.

"It's been a bit of a crash course for me in how that world works," says director and Latté Da artistic leader Peter Rothstein. "We have been rehearsing in our normal space, but also holding some of our rehearsals at a gymnastics gym. It was quite a sight having a keyboard, violin, cello and guitar and a cast of 10 singing and dancing on 2-foot-high gymnastic mats: Two worlds collide."

Theatre Latté Da’s connection to the material runs back to 2002, when the title piece was part of an anthology produced by the theater. "We fell in love with Jeff and Katie's work, so approached them about creating companion pieces for 'Passage of Dreams,' " Rothstein says.

Since then, it’s been a matter of workshops and development, including a stint in the 2007 Playlabs at the Playwrights Center and a "big workshop incorporating the aerialist and orchestrations in fall 2008," Rothstein says. "We are still making changes this week. It's an exciting and intense process." You can view a video about "Passage of Dreams" here.

Part of the evolution of the piece has to do with the aerial element. Playwright Eng has a background in the art form and wanted to include it in the show, but physics interceded. "She started with lots of aerial possibilities but quickly realized that it is impossible to sing and do aerial work at the same time -- the stomach muscles need to be doing contrary things most of the time," Rothstein says.

Instead, the aerial moments were incorporated to be "a surprise rather than the norm. In one of the pieces the aerialist represents rain. She descends from the ceiling on a piece of white silk," Rothstein says. "We have designed the scenery so everything recedes upstage except for the woman who remains standing on a high platform. On another part of her stage a trapeze artist is revealed dressed as her double. She is literally having an out-of-body experience."

And if this sounds a bit like a certain French-Canadian company -- well, it’s not intentional. "It's not attempting to be Cirque du Soleil but to incorporate aerialism as just one of the theatrical tools we employ in creating a cohesive whole," Rothstein says. "The choices were less about the wow factor and more about trying to capture the metaphor of what is happening dramatically or thematically in a provocative way."

"Passage of Dreams." March 19 through April 5 (premiering March 21). Southern Theater, 1420 Washington Ave. S., Minneapolis. $12 to $34. For tickets, call 612-340-1725 or visit online.