Review: Chanhassen Dinner Theatres’ “Camelot”

“The best thing for being sad…is to learn something. That’s the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love…There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it.”

The character Merlyn delivers this monologue in T.H. White’s classic fantasy novel The Once and Future King. It’s not usually a part of Camelot, Lerner and Loewe’s 1960 musical adaptation of the work, but it is a welcome addition in Michael Brindisi’s staging of the show now playing at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres. It nicely bookends the evening and conveys the theme of this particular production.

In his Director’s Note in the program Brindisi states his intention to focus on the romantic aspects of the story for this outing (the fourth in Chanhassen’s history, but the first seen by me). This is evident in everything about the production; from Rich Hamson’s lush costumes to Nayna Ramey’s beautiful scenery and Sue Ellen Berger’s evocative lighting design. A popular approach in contemporary reinventions of classic musicals is to focus on the darker, grittier aspects of the story and in the recent past Camelot has been given this treatment. It’s refreshing to see a production that embraces the romantic, lighter fantasy aspects of the story and one unafraid to yearn for that “one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot.”

The well-known story revolves around the legendary medieval love triangle of King Arthur (Keith Rice), Queen Guenevere (Helen Anker) and Sir Lancelot (Zach Keenan Kacey) that brings down the democratic utopia of Camelot. Arthur’s wicked and illegitimate son Mordred (Tony Vierling) makes an appearance as usual, but his part is purposefully given much less significance in order to draw a sharper focus on the ill-fated love story that destroys the kingdom and Arthur’s dreams of peace.

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Keith Rice as Arthur (Photo: Heidi Bohnenkamp)

As the show progresses Rice’s Arthur grows in maturity with it. Even if at the start of the show Rice is a bit too much of a prankster he satisfyingly morphs into the wise and world-weary Arthur at its conclusion. Alan Jay Lerner’s book is often derided for its wordy dialogue, but it was wonderful to see the entire cast, Rice especially, focusing so much on the words Arthur speaks and the ideas he develops and believes in. This classic show is not as creaky as its unwarranted reputation deems it to be.

The regular actor playing Lancelot, Aleks Knezevich, was out for the performance I saw, and taking his place was Zach Keenan Kacey. If not for the replacement notice in the program I wouldn’t have guessed that Kacey was an understudy. It’s easy to make Lerner’s version of Lancelot into a caricature, the braggadocio of his introductory number “C’est Moi” inviting this portrayal. Kacey wisely resists this; his Lancelot is a sensitive and introspective young knight, and his lilting tenor provides a delicate and unique delivery to the show’s most famous ballad “If Ever I Would Leave You.”

Although convivial with both, a bit more chemistry between Anker’s Guenevere and her leading men would be welcome. She has a nice, warm moment with Rice’s Arthur during “What Do the Simple Folk Do?” but the drama needs more – it should be evidently clear that her genuine love for these two men is tearing her apart. The stakes are much less high when this passion is nonexistent.

It is Brindisi’s approach to the role of Merlyn (played by David Anthony Brinkley) that really makes this Camelot what it is. In most productions Merlyn is a throwaway character, one who provides a grand presence in the first scene but once bewitched by a nymph named Nimue disappears for the rest of the show, leaving Arthur to remember his wise words and futilely call upon the wizard when he needs assistance. Giving Merlyn the first monologue at the top of the show, as noted above, provides a much stronger foundation for his integrality to the plot. In the second act during one of Arthur’s darkest moments he hears Merlyn speak these same words and they provide a much-needed lesson, one that Arthur couldn’t have appreciated as much in his youth when Merlyn first spoke them to him.

Tamara Kangas Erickson’s choreography likewise bridges gaps in the narrative to help portray the musical’s thematic vision. Her artistic choice to represent Nimue with not just one, but four graceful dancers during the song “Follow Me” is an inspired one, and again provides unity to the later scene in Act II by bringing back one of these dancers when Arthur reminisces about Merlyn in the forest. The dancers representing horses in the Act I jousting scene are perhaps not quite as effective as their Nimue counterparts, but do serve their purpose in telling that part of the story.

It’s a shame that two wonderful songs featured in the show on its Broadway opening – “Take Me to the Fair” and “Fie on Goodness” are not included in this production. This is not unusual – they were both cut halfway through the show’s original Broadway run to tighten up the running time. The omission of “Fie on Goodness,” however regretful, makes sense with Brindisi’s wish to focus on the love triangle bringing about Camelot’s doom. “Take Me to the Fair,” however, provides necessary characterization for Guenevere as well as an important development in her future love affair with Lancelot. It was reinstated for the film version and really should be for all subsequent stage productions.

As Camelot nears its sad but hope-filled concluding scene it is evident just how timely the show has once again become. In a current political climate of anger, hate and intolerance a Utopian vision of peace, acceptance and inclusivity is something the world needs right now. Perhaps it’s only a pipe dream, but one also possessed by the late John F. Kennedy, who cited Camelot as his favorite musical, forever correlating the title song of the show to his presidential legacy. It’s sad and terrifying that recent and current political leaders have gone the opposite route, promoting endless war, hate and violence – To paraphrase a line of Arthur’s near the end of the show – are we really back where we began? With Camelot Michael Brindisi makes the case for there always being a glimmer of hope in the future, even if that glimmer is “less than a drop in the great blue motion of the sunlit sea,” for some of those drops do sparkle. They do.

5 out of 5 stars

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Review: Minnesota Opera’s “Das Rheingold”

Minnesota Opera’s Das Rheingold is an aural delight, but in an irony that contrasts with its production design, one hampered by uninspired stage direction.

Director Brian Staufenbie gives this Rheingold a futuristic setting with the familiar Norse gods wielding technological power in lieu of the traditional fantasy magic. To aid in this vision, David Murakami’s striking projections are utilized throughout the entire opera. They’re at their best during the transitions between scenes, from river to mountaintop to underworld, but provide little during the main dramatic scenes of the opera. The possibilities of telling this story with technology are limitless, and a more inspired direction would have combined these digital assets with equally arresting physical stage movement to achieve a more cohesive whole. A prime example of this in the production is when a dwarf transforms into a dragon. The underwhelming digital flash that’s provided leaves the audience yearning for some kind of real-life stagecraft.

Richard Wagner wrote this first of his four Ring Cycle operas for an extremely large orchestra, one unable to fit into modern theater orchestra pits. Out of necessity then, the orchestra, in top form and conducted by Michael Christie, is placed right on the stage, a move which necessitates an innovative and imaginative staging. Staufenbie fails at providing this. Many of his singers are given no blocking or movement, leaving the audience with a dramatically inert two and a half hours that, alongside Murakami’s projections, is pretty to look at but theatrically hollow.

In a tempestuous election season it’s hard not to notice the political underpinnings of the power struggle in Das Rheingold. The opera opens in the middle of the Rhine river. Three lovely Rhinemaidens (Mary Evelyn Hangley, Alexandra Razskzoff and Nadia Fayad) protect the precious Rhinegold that, if fashioned into a ring, has the ability to give its bearer unyielding power. A dwarf named Alberich (Nathan Berg) spies them and tries to woo them. The Rhinemaidens mercilessly tease him while also foolishly telling him of the Rheingold’s power. When his amorous attentions are rejected Alberich snatches the Rhinegold away, determined to possess its invincibility.

The story moves to the lofty mountaintop abode of the gods, represented by a large bridge hanging over the orchestra. Wotan (Greer Grimsley), ruler of the gods, is awakened by his wife Fricka (Katharine Goeldner) to discover that construction of their new home, Valhalla, is finished. The two giants who built the hall, Fasolt and Fafner (Jeremy Galyon and Julian Close) arrive, demanding the payment Wotan promised them: Fricka’s sister, the goddess Freia (Karin Wolverton).

The representation of the giants is the most disappointing and frustrating element of the production design. The two singers portraying the giants are positioned below the bridge, on stage with the orchestra. A screen descends and their bodies are projected onto it in a blur of video noise. Because of the distance from their fellow cast members they are unable to interact with them in a realistic and dramatic fashion.

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Loge (Richard Cox), the demigod of fire, arrives and tells the group about the magical ring Alberich has fashioned. Fasolt and Fafner agree to take the ring instead of Freia if Wotan can obtain it. The rest of the opera concerns Wotan and Loge’s descent into the dwarf underworld of Nibelheim and the eventual theft of the ring from Alberich.

Despite the lackluster staging, many of the vocal performances are outstanding. Grimsley and Goeldner provide the regal bearing and authoritarian voices you would expect from rulers of the gods, but it is Berg as Alberich who steals the spotlight. His is by far the strongest and most memorable performance of the evening. Also notable are Cox, who brings a whimsical presence to Loge, Denyce Graves, who makes a short but thrilling appearance as earth goddess Erda, and the trio of Hangley, Razskzoff and Fayad who bewitchingly play the Rhinemaidens.

In short, this Rheingold is notable for its performances by both singers and orchestra, but the staging leaves much to be desired. Wagner’s Ring Cycle operas have the potential to be wonderfully theatrical pieces of art, but only when the director imbues them with an acute sense of dramatic storytelling.

3 out of 5 Stars

The Snow Queen

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The “Amoco” Giveaway

Weird but true: my relationship with Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale “The Snow Queen” started with a gas station. A small children’s book edition of the tale was given out as part of a promo at Amoco gas stations in 1989. This is the first time I’d ever read the story and it started a lifelong love affair.

First published in 1844, “The Snow Queen” is one of the unique fairy tales that Hans Christian Andersen penned himself. Unlike the Grimm Brothers who collected traditional folktales told in their country, Andersen most often wrote brand-new, original stories in the same vein. Many of the most famous fairy tales today, such as “The Little Mermaid”, “The Emperor’s New Clothes” and “The Ugly Duckling” we owe to Andersen’s brilliant imagination as they have no antecedent in traditional folklore.

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Illustration by Kay Nielsen

Told in seven parts, the story of “The Snow Queen” begins with two children, Kai and Gerda, who are neighbors in their small town. Their houses are connected by a small garden between and they love to play and tend roses there together. One winter’s day a piece of enchanted mirror flies into Kai’s eye and it distorts his vision so that everything beautiful in the world appears to him as ugly. He turns his back on his friendship with Gerda and becomes mean and cruel. While playing with a gang of rough-and-tumble neighborhood boys he unknowingly hitches his sled onto the sleigh of the evil Snow Queen and she drives him off to her wintery palace. Gerda sets out after them, resolute in her desire to free Kai from the Snow Queen’s icy clutches. She travels far and wide on her quest, meeting princesses, ravens and robbers along the way. Finally, standing within the frozen halls of the Snow Queen’s polar palace, Gerda discovers that the power of love is the only thing that can destroy the Snow Queen’s formidable hold over Kai.

Over the years Andersen’s story has been adapted for nearly every art form – theater, music, film and opera to name a few. As part of my fairy tale year I explored many of the most significant adaptations throughout the month of March and wanted to share a few of my favorites here.

The 1957 Russian animated film was the first movie adaptation of the story. I watched the 1990’s English dub for the first time last month and I was impressed at the level of artistry on display. It’s not surprising to discover that master Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki credits it as one of his inspirations for working in the field. The film adheres very closely to Andersen’s original storyline and I can’t help but wish that Disney’s Frozen had similarly stayed true to its original source material. Frozen has been acclaimed for its supposed feminist stance but Andersen’s original is even more so in the fact that the story involves a girl saving a boy.

4421670Joan Vinge’s 1980 novel adapts the tale for adult science fiction readers and was one of the first in the genre to include a cast of almost-exclusively female main characters. In the book Gerda and Kai are transformed into the characters Moon and Sparks, two lovers literally separated by time and space by the all-powerful Arienrhod, the Snow Queen who rules their planet. In her quest to reunite with Sparks Moon must uncover and confront numerous secret political machinations. She holds not only Sparks’s fate in her hands but that of their entire world. Andersen’s tale works well in this retelling as an epic journey across an alien landscape. Vinge’s novel starts out a bit verbose and flowery but soon becomes action-filled and tightly-paced. It’s shocking that such a vast and sprawling yarn can fit into less than five hundred pages and demonstrates Vinge’s masterful storytelling.

The 2002 film Snow Queen is the sweet, modern take on the tale you would expect from a Hallmark production. On my first viewing I appreciated the development of the relationship between Gerda and Kai in the first half, but this time around I found the second half more intriguing. Screenwriter Simon Moore (The 10th Kingdom) cleverly ties the main parts of Gerda’s journey to save Kai into the revolving seasons – in this version Gerda meets the Snow Queen’s three sisters who rule each of the other seasons respectively. From each she learns a different aspect of maturation: the Spring Witch wants to keep Gerda an eternal child; the Summer Princess possesses an adolescent preoccupation with choosing a mate; and finally, the Autumn Robber teaches Gerda the strength and courage she’ll need as an adult. This helps develop Gerda’s character and amplifies the importance of her relationship with Kai. Gerda and Kai’s eventual return home at the end is deservedly emotional and richly satisfying.

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Tiffany Amber Knight as the Snow Queen

Composer Paul K. Joyce’s lyrical 2003 concert oratorio The Snow Queen was adapted for film by the BBC in 2005 with mixed results. I purchased the CD of the score when it was released prior to the film and was enchanted and moved by Joyce’s music. James Andrew Hall was responsible for the film adaptation and most of what’s wrong with it resides in his teleplay. Many of the most moving musical passages in the score are either eliminated (“The Mirror and Its Fragments”) or marred by dialogue (Kai’s rescue by Gerda during “The Snow Queen’s Palace”). Luckily the best song, “Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep” is retained and filmed adequately if not profoundly. Much was made at the time of the CGI special effects. They do give a “moving storybook” feel to the film but more often than not they seem to hinder the action rather than enhance it. Tiffany Amber Knight, however, is dazzling in her glorious CGI raiment as the Snow Queen.

My favorite adaptation of the tale also premiered in 2005 at Victory Gardens Theater in Chicago. It’s a folk musical version created by Michael Peter Smith. As a birthday present my partner bought us tickets to see the recent Park Square Theatre production in Saint Paul, Minnesota and I was enchanted by how beautifully it captured the spirit of the story. A talented ensemble of actor/musicians, haunting music and gorgeous physical design brought the tale to life and I felt like a child again, discovering the story for the first time. It was a truly moving experience that brought tears to my eyes several times.

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“The Snow Queen” at Park Square Theatre

Emily Gunyou Halaas brought a warm presence to her multiple roles including the Narrator and Mother. I especially enjoyed the lovely lullaby she sang as the Finn Woman to Gerda right before the climactic scene in the Snow Queen’s castle. Similarly, Caroline Amos and Silas Sellnow were perfect as Gerda and Kai and Sara Ochs provided a memorable turn as the Sami Woman who led the hilariously punny “Fish Song”.

It’s unfortunate that no official recording has been made of the show since the score is absolutely beautiful. Luckily I was able to find a YouTube video of one of my favorite songs, a duet between Kai and the Snow Queen. It’s a great way to close out my fairy tale month of March:

Film Review: 10 Cloverfield Lane

10 Cloverfield Lane is that rare breed of sequel that surpasses the original in quality. Released in 2008, the original Cloverfield was by no means a bad movie – it breathed fresh life into the found-footage horror film, a genre still in desperate need of new ideas. The story of that film concerned a Godzilla-like monster attack on New York City, this time told from the viewpoint of the citizens of said city. It was a riotous, action-packed thrill ride that kept you on the edge of your seat.

10 Cloverfield Lane takes a vastly different approach and ends up delivering a more satisfying and suspenseful thriller in the process. Instead of a chaotic romp though various New York burrows, this installment is set in one confined and intimate space. Similarly, while the original Cloverfield‘s characters were merely one-dimensional fodder for the alien creature, 10 Cloverfield Lane provides three interesting, nuanced characters that are well-developed and sympathetic.

The story revolves around Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead),  a woman who gets in a car crash after packing up and leaving her significant other. She wakes up in what she later discovers to be a bomb shelter created by a man named Howard (John Goodman). He explains that he brought her there after discovering the wreckage of her accident and that they can’t leave the shelter because of an air-borne chemical attack that’s occurred up above.

Michelle doesn’t believe Howard at first, but after meeting Emmett (Tony-winner John Gallagher Jr.), the only other inhabitant of the bunker, she starts to change her mind. As time slowly passes in the hatch, further mysteries unravel that leave Michelle questioning not only the fate of the world above but also the motives of Howard himself.

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Mary Elizabeth Winstead and John Goodman

John Goodman provides a virtuoso turn as Howard, a man we never completely learn the truth about. Thanks to fine writing and Goodman’s sensitive performance the character has depth and substance that would be lacking in an inferior production. Hopefully this opens doors for new opportunities in Goodman’s acting career. He obviously has a lot of unexplored potential.

Michelle is the central figure of this story, however, and it’s invigorating to see a female character on screen that is readily able to fight and outwit any obstacle thrown at her. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is more than up to the challenge and memorably makes the role her own. Near the end of the film she delivers a much-earned expletive that earned several sympathetic laughs from the audience at the showing I attended.

By shifting the intent and focus of the original film for this installment, writers Josh Campbell, Matthew Stuecken and Damien Chazelle cleverly toy with our pre-conceived notions of movie sequels and what we expect of them. This approach works two-fold: for viewers who have seen the original, the added knowledge of what’s going on in the world above provides a sense of forbidding doom to the film; but for those who have not, this strange mystery only adds to the already intense atmosphere. Because of this, 10 Cloverfield Lane is one of the few sequels that can be easily watched without having viewed the original, and might actually be a more satisfying experience going in “cold-turkey”.

The ending of 10 Cloverfield Lane leaves things open for another continuation, but it’s hard to believe that another installment in this franchise could be as electrifyingly fierce as this one. Knowing his track record, however, there is hope that producer J.J. Abrams will throw another curveball and redefine movie trilogies in the process.

5 out 0f 5 stars.

Film Review: Snow Queen

Note: This is a review I wrote when Hallmark’s “Snow Queen” was first released on DVD back in 2003. Since I just revisited the film for my Fairy Tale Year I thought it was worth republishing my initial thoughts here.

As a cold, icy winter storm brews outside my window I can think of no better time to experience Hans Christian Andersen’s classic fairy tale The Snow Queen, which was just recently made into a fantastic new television mini-series by Hallmark and the Halmis.

The new film aired on the Hallmark Channel in December, and has just recently been released on home video and DVD.

This new adaptation of the classic tale is definitely an inspired re-imagining. Outwardly it bears little resemblance to its fairy tale counterpart, but it still retains the integral themes and messages inherent in the work. I love fresh new interpretations of fairy tales. That’s what keeps them alive and makes them so powerful. They can be retold in an infinite number of ways and still be vibrant and new.

The original fairy tale revolves around two childhood friends, Kai and Gerda. One day a piece of enchanted mirror falls into Kai’s eye and he starts acting viciously towards Gerda. Their friendship disintegrates, leaving Gerda alone and wondering what has happened to Kai. When the magical enchantress the Snow Queen spirits Kai away to her winter palace Gerda knows she must trek after them and bring Kai back home. She has many adventures until finally reaching the gates of the Snow Queen’s palace and the destiny that awaits both her and Kai.

The film Snow Queen attaches a new prologue to the story—it shows Gerda’s mother being killed by an icy winter storm dealt out by the Snow Queen. Gerda grows up a shy and quiet young girl, obviously affected by this traumatic experience.

The first half of the story now takes place at a remote hotel. Gerda’s father runs the hotel and Kai is the new bellboy just hired by him. The film translates Kai and Gerda’s age as much older—they are now teenagers. Kai and Gerda fall in love until the Snow Queen gets in the middle of their blooming relationship.

The story of the film is really about growing up, specifically for those children who have suffered from loss. Interestingly, this theme has also been dealt with in two other Hallmark mini-series: Snow White and The 10th Kingdom. The struggle to let other people in and be loved is beautifully dealt with in the film through story, symbolism, and imagery. Both Kai and Gerda learn to break free of their pasts and let in their future. They both learn what it is to love.

The first half of the three-hour running time is the strongest. The writing is very good and presents the viewer with a sense of mystery and foreboding. Simon Moore, who wrote the enchanting teleplay, also wrote the teleplays for Dinotopia and The 10th Kingdom. The world he creates in this film is much different than either of those in the two previously listed films. This is a much darker, surreal, dream-like world, where there aren’t always happy endings. Snow Queen has its light moments but those are more reserved for the second half of the film.

The second half is more action-packed, and I think suffers because of this. It’s a stark contrast to the more subdued, peaceful, but with a touch of foreboding atmosphere that marks the first. The addition of a rather annoying talking polar bear character in the second half is also tedious and unnecessary, but I suppose Moore had to think of something for Kai to do while waiting for Gerda in the Snow Queen’s palace.

In short, I think the movie could have been shorter. Two hours would have been sufficient. Tacking another hour on to the running time made it a bit long, I think. This is a fault I found with another Simon Moore script, The 10th Kingdom. I love the themes and ideas expressed in that work and this one, but both stories could have reached their denouements much faster. Otherwise they come across as a bit stretched-out, and they seem to lose sight of their original purpose and intention.

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Jeremy Guilbaut and Bridget Fonda

What really holds the film together, though, are the outstanding performances. Jeremy Guilbaut brings a haunting, tortured spirit to Kai, while Bridget Fonda exudes a cold, icy chill as the Snow Queen. Their scenes together are quite sexually tense for a family film. But I mark that as a good quality—sexuality is present without one inch of provocative skin being shown.

Chelsea Hobbs does a fair job of portraying Gerda, but she could have done more. After a while she comes across as rather whiney and helpless, which is exactly the opposite of what her character is supposed to be. She has some charming moments near the beginning of the film with Guilbaut. Too bad there aren’t more of them in the film.

I’ve been toying around with the idea of writing my own version of The Snow Queen for about two years now. I haven’t done it yet, but it seems Hallmark’s Snow Queen comes fairly close to what I would do. It’s a pleasant surprise.

The Halmis (Roberts Sr, and Jr.) are responsible for producing a new batch of wonderful family television movies, including Snow White, Dinotopia, Arabian Nights, The 10th Kingdom, Alice in Wonderland, Merlin, and Gulliver’s Travels. Let’s hope they don’t stop. Films that spark the imaginations of kids and make them want to read are rare to find these days.