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."