Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Also see Arty's reviews of Foshay, The Kung Fu Zombies Saga: Shaman Warrior & Cannibals and Godspell
This year's edition, Romeo and Juliet, is not based on Romeo and Juliet by Charles Gounod, presented several times by Minnesota Opera, most recently in 2016. No, this Pickup Truck Operetta is based on the less well known I Capuleti e i Montecchi (The Capulets and the Montagues) by Italian composer Vincenzo Bellini with the original libretto by Felice Romani. For most of us, the title refers to the respective houses into which Romeo and Juliet are born, houses that are sworn enemies, dooming Romeo and Juliet to the fate of star-crossed lovers. In Bellini's rendition, the two camps are not different "houses," but warring political factions, which accounts for a narrative somewhat different than most theatre or opera goers are familiar with, and adds a smattering of relevance in terms of or current political landscape.
Also, I Capuleti e i Montecchi begins with Romeo and Juliet having already met and in love with one another, so there is not a ballroom scene with its spellbound encounter between the two naïve strangers, nor a balcony scene in which Romeo and Juliet forswear their love in the most effusive terms. Further, when the play begins, Romeo has already killed Juliet's brother in battle, denying us a chance to witness Juliet confronting Romeo for this deed, only to have her love prove to be the stronger force. Nonetheless, this version of the story has an abundance of drama, conveyed by Bellini's luminous score and by selected pop songs associated with Fleetwood Mac, Fugees, Genesis, Lauryn Hill, and The Pixies.
To put a contemporary twist on the characters, the adaptation devised by Denzil Belin, Scotty Reynolds, Gary Ruschman, and the Mixed Precipitation team has Romeo and Juliet heavy users of social media. Juliet is described as a "social media darling," certainly one who fancies herself an influencer. Romeo is called a virtual stunt sensation. The pair of lovebirds seem to get off on striking poses for one another's snaps, then looking approvingly at the results on their phone screens. Lorenzo, akin to Friar Lawrence in Shakespeare's version, is now Juliet's sympathetic life coach. Juliet's father Capellio is CEO of CapuletConglomerate.com, a media production firm, and Tabaldo is Capellio's "assistant associate producer," who is chosen by Capellio to be Juliet's bridegroom. Juliet's love for Romeo is a secret, known only to Lorenzo, who tries his best to help the two lovers sidestep Capellio's demand that she marry Tabaldo and to keep Romeo safe from Capellio's wish to avenge his son's death.
Mixed Precipitation uses selected musical passages from the opera sung in the original language, in this case Italian, with no proscenium arch on which to project super-title translations. Instead, they have made a practice–or, more truly, an art–of finding clever ways to present translations to the audience. These can be such devices as props that unfold or drop down to reveal the translations, a cape or drapery that unfurls with words written upon it, or long scrolls that are unwound by a cast member or are set into a case of some sort and turned by a crank. In Romeo and Juliet, a large share of the translations are on such a scroll, installed in such a case. About a third of the way into the second act at the performance I attended, the scroll jammed and could no longer unwind. That left most of the lyrics untranslated for the duration of the show. I have full confidence this problem has been repaired for upcoming performances, but the remarkable thing is that, owing to the emotive power of the actors' voices, and a general familiarity with Romeo and Juliet, I was able to discern what the characters were saying through the music, even without understanding the words. I'd say that scores an extra "bravo!"
The five principals in the cast all give winning performances. One of the unique features of Bellini's I Capuleti e i Montecchi is that the composer wrote the part of Romeo to be sung by a female, in a mezzo-soprano register. The Pickup Truck production retains that practice. With most of the parts double cast, it was Kara Morgan as Romeo at the opening performance, and she is truly marvelous, her voice crystalline and forceful, her acting persuasive, and her presence, whether in romantic scenes or in combat with her rival, is formidable. In "Ascolta!," Morgan sings with yearning of Rome's desire to sue for peace with the Capulets so that he and Juliet can be joined together, and in "Sì, fuggire," a duet with Juliet, Morgan conveys the urgency of Romeo's desire for Juliet to flee with him before it is too late. Corissa Bussian gives an outstanding performance, both in voice and in expressing the agonizing dilemma of feeling loyalty to her family, love for Romeo, and revulsion at the idea of a forced marriage to Tabaldo, movingly expressed in "Oh! quante volte" and also in "Sí, fuggire."
Mark Billy is excellent as Lorenzo, extolling the worthiness of love above all else as he urges Romeo and Juliet to seize a chance to be together in "Ma rendi pur contento," and in his brave efforts to protect the two lovers from Capellio's wrath. As Capellio, Nick Miller conveys the malevolence that can arise out of partisanship, even at the expense of one's own child. Paul Coate, scheduled to appear in every performance, is terrific as Tabaldo, cultivating his vanity and scheming to rise up the power chain. Coates' voice is exquisite, triggering the opera's momentum with his plot to ruin Romeo in "È serbata a questo acciraro." Coates also plays guitar, contributing to the band's ebullient sound, which was ably led at the opening by Natalie McComas Gallacier, filling in for music director Gary Ruschman.
The pop songs selected are well matched to the emotional tenor of the scenes in which they are placed. As examples, Genesis' "In the Cage" is a precise fit for expressing Juliet's trapped feelings, while Fugees' hip-hop "Ready or Not" grimly sets the tone for a flashback narration of Romeo's slaying of Juliet's brother. "The Chain," a Fleetwood Mac song, follows up, expressing the hateful energy that drives Romeo out of the Capulets' camp. The Pixies' "Wave of Mutilation" matches the curtain of grief that falls when it is discovered that Juliet appears to be dead, and "Landslide," by Stevie Nicks, sweetly conveys the abyss of loss Romeo and Juliet feel in their final moment together.
If you wonder why these productions are called Pickup Operettas, it's because a pickup truck is used to move the show from venue to venue, and also provides one of the performing spaces in the shows. (This took the place of the previous Picnic Operettas, in which tasty treats were passed out to the audience during the performance, a practice that ended with the onset of COVID). This time, though, the truck barely makes an appearance, unlike the past two years in which it became an integral part of the show. Surprisingly, I missed the truck. Rhiannon Fiskradatz has designed jaunty costumes that lighten the tone of what is, basically, a tragic affair.
That last point is something to bear in mind when (not if, but when) you make it to one of the locations hosting this year's Pickup Truck Operetta. There is no getting around the fact that the tale of Romeo and Juliet is a downer. Tara Moses' adept staging enlivens the scenes, and the clever creation of a social media milieu provokes laughter. The operatic selections and the pop music are admirably performed by an exceptionally talented cast. It is absolutely worth seeing. Still, in past years I left in high spirits, buoyed not only by the nature of the production but the outcome of the story it told. This year, my heart was torn–hooray for the inventive production values and the "let's put on an opera" zest that animates Mixed Precipitation's work, but, oh, poor Romeo and Juliet.
Romeo and Juliet runs through September 10, 2023, at various locations as a Pickup Truck Operetta by Mixed Precipitation. All performance sites are outdoors. Sliding scale donation of $15 - $45, $30 suggested. For youth ages 12-20, sliding scale donation of $10 - $20, $15 suggested. For performance dates, locations and reservations, please visit mixedprecipitation.org.
Music: Vincenzo Bellini; Original Italian Libretto: Felice Romani, adapted by Denzel Belin, Scotty Reynolds, Gary Ruschman, and the Mixed Precipitation team; Additional music: Buckingham, Nicks, Fleetwood, McVie, Rutherford, Hackett, Gabriel, Collins, Francis, Hill, Newton and Rushman; Director: Tara Moses; Contributing Writer: Denzel Belin; Music Director and Arranger: Gary Ruschman; Movement Director: Jäc Miller; Set Design: Alex Hathaway; Costume Design: Rhiannon Fiskradatz; Costume Assistant: Kalea Ott; Props Design: Woody Timberheart. Stage Manager: Brian Hirt; Production Manager: Jäc Miller; Producer: Scotty Reynolds.
Cast: Mark Billy (Lorenzo: August 24 - September 10), Corissa Bussian (Juliet: August 30 - September 10), Paul Coate (Tabaldo), Will Dierenfield (swing), Joshua Eidem (Lorenzo: August 3 - 20), Alijah Goetting (Chorus), Jennifer LeDoux (Juliet: August 3 - 27), Jacob Miller (Chorus), Nick Miller (Capellio (August 3 - 13 and August 23 - September 10), Kara Morgan (Romeo: August 17 - 27 and September 8-10), Scotty Reynolds (Chorus), Eric Smedsrud (Capellio: August 17 - 20), KrisAnne Weiss (Romeo: August 3-13 and August 30 - September 3).