Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Also see Arty's review of Imbroglio
About a year ago, after seeing Open Eye Theatre's delightful production of Hair Ball presented on the grassy rooftop of the Bakken Museum, I expressed hopes that, it being the second year in a row the company had produced an original music-comedy romp at that location, it was on the way to becoming an annual tradition. Good news in the land! We now have three in a row, with this season's exuberant, musically slick, and wonderfully zany Loch Mess. I am now ready to declare that this is indeed a tradition.
Loch Mess has book, music and lyrics by Josef Evans and is directed by Joel Sass, the same duo responsible for last season's Hair Ball and 2021's Log Jam. Further, I am happy to report that Loch Mess is their best rooftop musical comedy escapade with puppets yet. Like its predecessors, it takes the bare bones of a tall tale–in this case the Loch Ness monster–and transports it to a Minnesota regional setting, this time the churning waters of Lake Superior, with an affectionately caricatured versions of the denizens of that turf–or surf.
The story ... well, the story barely matters, since the reason for the show is to have a good time while celebrating over-ripened regional folklore. Still, the story takes us back to olden days–the precise time not really defined, but by the costumes I would say it's the gay nineties, which turns out to be an apt description. Beatrix Barnes is a young woman living on Lake Superior's North Shore who spurns the pursuits available to the fairer sex, for all she desires is to be captain of a Great Lakes steamship. Beatrix doggedly pursues her dream, butting up against gender bias until she is finally hired as a last-minute replacement for a stagehand for Lillian LeGrande, a washed-up showbiz phenom on board to provide entertainment on a passenger steamer out of Duluth bound for Sault St. Marie.
Among the passengers is a kilt (a very short kilt) wearing, bagpipe blowing Scotsman named Dangus MacMacaroney, who attracts the attention of Captain Handy. That leaves First Mate Tate in charge when the Loch Mess monster attacks the ship. The crew is terrified by the attacking monster, but Beatrix is unphased, proving her mettle on the high seas, er, lakes, while Lillian LeGrande and her manager Barrymore J. Davenport continue with "the show must go on" bravura. There is a forced landing on the wild, inhospitable land called "Wisconsin" and a second attack on the ship, but there is never a doubt about the happy ending waiting on the wharf at the end of this voyage.
Evan's book continues his track record of creating goofy, implausible plot twists laced with plenty of wordplay and broad humor, which is exactly right for this summer rooftop confection. His score this time around is actually a step up from past years, with the pop-rock songs holding their own very nicely. There is an up-tempo song for Beatrix to make her case to the world, "Beatrix Barnes (from Beaver Bay)," a song for Beatrix's wonderment upon arriving in the big city ("The Bright Lights of Duluth") that may be a cousin to Wicked's "One Short Day (in the Emerald City)," and "You Gotta Put on a Show," a hilarious production number led by Lillian LeGrande with support from Beatrix, Barry, and Captain Handy. Beatrix, Captain Handy, and Dangus assert that "You Must Be Brave," an anthemic response to the dangers facing the ship, while the entire company describe what happens "When Your Heart Explodes," as love seems to be stronger than sea serpents. The final spectacle is a "Dance into the Deep," with the Queen of the Kelpies front and center. When all comes to its safely harbored conclusion, Captain Handy sums up "What It Is to Be Strong."
Joel Sass directs with a mischievous sense of what will undermine any hint of seriousness in the plot, guiding the narratives instead to the province of parody and hokum. Like the songs, the choreography also seem a notch above the previous two rooftop shows. This time out, Heidi Spesard Noble is on hand with spunky choreography that involves rhythmic movement in and out of cleverly devised group formations. Kathy Kohl's costumes contribute to the show's high spirits and good humor. Then there are the truly marvelous puppets, designed and created by Sass. If nothing else has you splitting your sides with laughter, just wait till you see the formidable blow-up Loch Mess monster wrapped around intrepid Dangus MacMacaroney.
Speaking of Dangus, that's Tom Reed sporting the Scot's kilt and having the time of his life. Reed, who also portrays irascible backwoodsman Torbjorg Lothbrok, has been in all three of Open Eye's shows atop the Bakken, as has Antonio Rios Lio, who appears here as Captain Handy, and France Roberts as Lillian's devoted manager Barrymore J. Davenport. All three actors insert a variety of comic genius into their work that pushes foolishness just to the brink but never succumbing to excess, so that the merriment remains aloft.
Abilene Olson returns from last year's Hair Ball to play Beatrix Barnes the heroine, with a heroine's lilting soprano that is giddily at odds with the ridiculous situations she encounters. Another veteran of the past shows, Lux Mortenson, brings a big voice and big presence to Lillian LeGrande, an indefatigable showbiz diva if ever there was one, and goes all operatic as Queen of the Kelpies. May Heinecke makes a swell First Mate Tate, and Jared Morgan, perched in a white lifeguard station, adds to the fun as a droll narrator, guitarist and, when called for, disciplinarian.
Like its predecessor shows, Loch Mess is about nothing but fun and uses a generous assortment of theatrical arts and tools to succeed at that aim. Just finding yourself on the grassy roof of the Bakken Museum will put you in a mindset to have a good time, and it all gets better from there. Now that we have clearly established that Open Eye Theatre's summer show on the Bakken rooftop is indeed a tradition, I encourage you to get in the habit by catching Loch Mess before its run runs dry.
Loch Mess, an Open Eye Figure Theatre production, runs through July 16, 2023, on the green rooftop of the Bakken Museum, 3537 Zenith Avenue S., Minneapolis MN. Bring lawn chairs or a blanket. Tickets: adults: $30, students and seniors: $25, $20 children 12 and under, a limited number of economic accessibility tickets: $15. Unsold tickets, if any, are available at the door on a pay as you can basis. The ticket fee includes free Bakken Museum admission from 6:00 - 7:00 PM. For tickets and information, please visit www.openeyetheatre.org or call 612-874-6338.
Book, Music and Lyrics: Josef Evans; Director. Puppet Design: Joel Sass; Choreography: Heidi Spesard Noble; Costumes: Kathy Kohl; Sound Design: Nathaniel Glewwe; Orchestrations: Dan Dukich: Sound Engineer: Abe Gabor; Production Manager Lead: Chesare ; Co-Production Managers: Gonzales, Anna Schloerb, Emery Todd.
Cast: Chesare Cipriano (ensemble/puppeteer), Rene'e Gonzales (ensemble/puppeteer), May Heinecke (First Mate Tate/ensemble), Antonio Rios Luna (Captain Handy/Pa Barnes/ensemble), Jared Mogen (Guitarist/Narrator), Lux Mortenson (Lillian LeGrande/Ma Barnes/barfly, ensemble ), Abilene Olson (Beatrix Barnes), Tom Reed (Torbjorg Lothbrok/Dangus MacMacaroney), France Roberts (Barrymore J. Davenport/Barkeep/ensemble), Anna Schloerb (ensemble/puppeteer), Emery Todd (ensemble/puppeteer).