Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Elision remained closed, cancelling other scheduled shows, until their return last week with a delightful evening of five short musicals and a bonus, one staged song, calling the aggregate program Flight of Short Musicals - 2022, referring to a similar program they mounted in 2020. I know nothing of the details of the AEA requirements that kept Theatre Elision in shut-down mode for so long while other local theaters, large and small, were staging shows, but that is happily in the past. Theatre Elision is back presenting its unique brand of spare but elegant, thought-provoking work, and its attention to superb singing. Flight of Short Musicals - 2022 was no exception. My lone negative comment is that it was only scheduled for last weekend's three performances.
Each of the five short musicals is introduced and narrated by one of the cast members seated in a comfortable, overstuffed arm chair. The entire set, designed by Lindsay Fitzgerald, who also directed, consists of such furniture lined up at the rear of the stage–chairs, sofas and occasional tables–creating the plush polished wood and leather feel of a private club's lounge. Here the nine cast members–a large company by Elision's standards–are seated, rearranging themselves between each piece, and stepping forward as they have a part to play. It is a quite simple, graceful and effective staging.
Among the short musicals in this "flight" was "Over Texas", from Michael John LaChiusa's First Lady Suite–one of the shows Theatre Elision was to stage this past spring, and still intends to present in the future. Its scenes are built around four of America's first ladies. "Over Texas" draws upon Jacqueline Kennedy, before she added Onassis to her surname, though Mrs. Kennedy (Sara Sawyer) appears only briefly. The piece is primarily about Mary Gallagher (Christine Wade), Mrs. Kennedy's secretary. Gallagher is seated beside Evelyn Lincoln (Vanessa Gamble), President Kennedy's secretary, on Air Force One en route to Dallas on the fateful day he was assassinated. While Lincoln, the epitome of dignity and decorum, busily works on comments for the president to deliver during this important visit, Gallagher whines about her job, dealing with the petty business of making sure the First Lady appears put-together in public. LaChiusa's music often has a dreamlike quality, and "Over Texas" fittingly includes a dream, which alters Gallagher's perspective on her role as Air Force One prepares for landing.
The other four short pieces each have just two primary characters. In "Crossing Over," by Timothy Huang, a young woman, Lily Green (Kaitlin Klemencic), espouses the joy and sanity of being able to work from home–until we come to realize that her gusto for self-isolating in her apartment has gone to a neurotic extreme. When an older neighbor, Cece (Melanie Wehrmacher), comes to Lily's door seeking help, the recluse must grapple with what it is that keeps her in, and what she might be missing. "Blank Slate," by Julia Meinwald and Gordon Leary, begins with peppy shop girl Amanda (Marissa Janelle Ward) in what seems to be a tony antique shop on Manhattan's East Side. A young man (Caleb Cabiness) enters, thwarting Amanda's efforts to be of assistance until he confesses to having no sense of his own identity and asks her for something she was totally unprepared for–to reinvent him. She names him Reynolds, and the song, "That's So Reynolds" is both drolly witty in cataloging his invented attributes, and heartbreaking in Amanda's attempts to give this young man a sense of personhood.
In "People Are Dancing," by Sarah Hammond and Benny Gammerman, a man from Des Moines (Justin Michael Cooke) and woman from New York City (Serena Brook) have met on a flight to Venice and are winding up their week-long stay, apparently having kept steady company. The two have different ideas of how to spend their last night together until a painful admission leads to a deepening understanding of one another. When the man, whom she has called James all week, reveals, in song, that in Iowa no one calls him James–he is Jim, "Just Jim"–there is a riveting sensation of a cardboard character becoming flesh and blood through song.
"Occupy," by James Phillips with music by Rosabella Gregory, was the last, and most powerful of the five musicals. A man (Cooke) works in the basement of St. Paul's Cathedral in London, part of a secret team that files away the voluminous amount of letters that arrives addressed to God. He takes his work as a sacred trust until challenged by a woman (Brook) who wants her letter back. For the first time he questions the meaning of his work. The only song performed by these actors is a hymn offered in the cathedral's great dome. However, Christine Wade, set apart, performs an additional song that reflects on the experience of seeing something very familiar in a new way. As the two set out on a new mission, one aimed at spreading rather than burying joy, hope and compassion, the closing song, which involved the full cast, brought "Occupy" and the entirety of Flight of Short Musicals - 2022 to an uplifting ending.
The song, an interlude between the intensity of "People Are Dancing" and "Occupy," is called "Carol Brown," written by Bret McKenzie and Jermaine Clement, a comedy duo from New Zealand who call themselves Flight of the Conchords. Caleb Cabiness sang in the guise of a callow fellow who has swept through numerous girlfriends. He tells us only one thing about each one–how they left him–ending each verse with the refrain. "Carol Brown just took a bus out of town." Behind him, the rest of the cast, in chorus, responded with why, as opposed to how, they left this clueless guy, as he moves on to yet another girlfriend without an iota of insight. It is very clever, very funny, and upbeat with its lilting bossa nova-like tempo.
Did I mention that every one of the performers on stage sing beautifully? They do, not only tonally, but also expressively. Though it is hard to single out performers among such an excellent ensemble, I cannot deny that Justin Cooke stood out, with a beautiful singing voice and emotive speaking voice, and Marissa Janelle Ward made a strong impression as the guileless shopgirl in "Blank Slate." Harrison Wade performed the entire score on keyboard with aplomb, and Uriyah Dalman's lighting design added atmosphere and tone to the production.
I eagerly await whatever Theatre Elision does next–perhaps that promised production of the full First Lady Suite–and hopefully for a longer stay next time.
Flight of Short Musicals - 2022, a Theatre Elision production, ran through June 9 - 11, 2022, at the Elision Playhouse, 6105 42nd Avenue North, Crystal MN. For information go to www.elisionproductions.com.
Crossing Over by Timothy Huang, Blank Slate by Julia Meinwald and Gordon Leary, Over Texas from First Lady Suite by Michael John LaChiusa, People Are Dancing by Sarah Hammond and Benny Gammerman, "Carol Brown" by Flight of the Conchords, Occupy by James Phillips, music by Rosabella Gregory; Director and Designer: Lindsay Fitzgerald; Music Director and Sound Designer: Harrison Wade; Lighting Design: Uriyah Dalman; Stage Manager: Constance Brevell
Cast: Serena Brooke, Caleb Cabiness, Justin Cooke, Vanessa Gamble, Kaitlin Klemencic, Sara Sawyer, Christine Wade, Marissa Ward, Melanie Wehrmacher;