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.