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.
Information: 612-340-1725 or southerntheater.org
Capsule: Three short musicals are long on images and ideas