Review: Minnesota Opera’s “Rigoletto”

Rigoletto Production Photo
Olafur Sigurdarson and Marie-Eve Munger (Photo by Cory Weaver)

Minnesota Opera’s “Rigoletto” is a timely, thought-provoking new production of a classic opera. First performed in 1851, its tale of men corrupted by absolute power preying on the less privileged is eerily relevant in 2018. Giuseppe Verdi’s timeless and gorgeous music is stunningly played by the orchestra under the baton of Michael Christie.

Director Austin Regan sets his production in a dystopian Mantua, given an appropriately Orwellian physical representation by Scenic Designer Julia Noulin-Merat’s stark and angular set, replete with a descending wall of surveillance cameras, as well as the constant presence of hovering windows through which every character’s action is watched and scrutinized. A misstep in the design is the black plastic-wrap covering most of the walls of the scenery. It’s perhaps a nod to the heroine’s ultimate fate, but overall it’s an odd choice for a bold statement. Paul Whitaker’s dim lighting design is also a hindrance. While lending a foreboding air to the proceedings, it is at times difficult to make out exactly what is happening on stage.

The Duke of Mantua (Joshua Dennis) rules over this totalitarian empire with a nonchalantly predatory behavior towards women; behavior encouraged and gloated upon by the men of his court. This includes Rigoletto the jester (Olafur Sigurdarson) who obliges and abets his master’s exploitative whims, having recently assisted the Duke in seducing and bringing about the societal downfall of the Count of Monterone (Kenneth Kellogg)’s daughter. Because of this, the Count appears at the Duke’s lavish palace and lays a father’s curse upon Rigoletto’s head.

This curse shakes Rigoletto to the core. He has sheltered his daughter Gilda (Marie-Eve Munger) all her life, allowing her only to leave their house to attend church. Little does he know that, in her innocence, she has fallen in love with the Duke whom she has seen at church. Munger is the standout performer of the evening, bringing a sweet and guileless presence to Gilda. She is charmingly exuberant as a young woman in love for the first time, and her rendition of the aria “Caro nome” is a true highlight.

In retaliation of Rigoletto’s constant prankstering the men of the Duke’s court abduct Gilda and bring her to the Duke’s bed. Upon discovery of the abduction Rigoletto makes his way to the palace and begs his daughter’s abductors for her life. Sigurdarson is capable of conveying Rigoletto’s tortured angst through his gorgeous baritone but Regan’s sometimes static staging limits Sigurdarson’s ability to fully encompass the character’s tragic pathos. With this scene in particular, what should be a desperate and heart wrenching moment comes off as stilted by the limited action on stage. Sigurdarson merely sings out into the audience instead of directly addressing and pleading with his daughter’s abductors.

The strongest moments in the production are those that take place between Sigurdarson and Munger as father and daughter. Their tender and playful introductory scene makes their reconciliation after Gilda’s abduction all the more heartbreaking and bittersweet. The heart of “Rigoletto” is the bond between these two characters and it is rightfully the centerpoint of this production.

Now that the Duke has satiated his lust for Gilda, his interest has diverted to new exploits. As the Duke, Dennis gets to perform the most well-known aria from the opera, “La donna e mobile”, and he does it with braggadocio and aplomb. It’s not difficult to imagine the lyrics (“locker room banter”) coming out of the mouth of a world leader or Hollywood mogul. This irony is not lost in this production and the tragedy that ultimately unfolds is made startlingly pertinent.

Despite Gilda’s protestations Rigoletto swears revenge upon the Duke. He hires the assassin Sparafucile (Matt Boehler with a rich, reverberating bass) to kill the Duke. Rigoletto also reveals the Duke’s infidelitous nature to Gilda by observing with her a tryst between the Duke and Sparafucile’s sister, Maddalena (Nadia Fayad), who starts out as her brother’s accomplice in crime but quickly falls under the rapacious spell of the Duke. Maddalena ultimately convinces Sparafucile to spare the Duke’s life and kill instead the first person to show up at their door. The quartet between Rigoletto, Gilda, the Duke and Maddalena is movingly staged through lighting and direction to overcome the physical area the characters inhabit and reflect pure emotion, their voices overlapping and intertwining in their separate yearnings, space and time fluidly merging and dividing throughout the piece of music.

In the end Gilda decides to make the ultimate sacrifice for the Duke and the love she still feels for him. She takes the Duke’s place at the end of Sparafucile’s knife and, in this production, Sparafucile deposits her in a trash bag that he intends to throw in the river. Rigoletto, his thirst for revenge not yet fully sated, insists on disposing of the body himself, only to discover, by hearing in the distance the strains of the Duke singing, that it is not the Duke inside the sack but his own daughter. Rigoletto embraces Gilda in her last moments of life, the Count’s curse having now fully descended upon him.

It’s appropriate that director Regan’s most profound staging choice takes place at this moment – with a chorus of men literally turning their backs on the tragedy they’ve helped instigate. As the stage lights go out and the house lights come up, we as an audience are left with the realization that the Duke’s Mantua, not so very different from our own world, is no longer a habitable place. As Yeats so eloquently put, “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold.” It’s no longer acceptable to turn our backs and let injustice, persecution, and preventable deaths go unacknowledged. The time has come for change.

4 out of 5 stars

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.

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

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.


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

Review: Theater Latte Da’s “Gypsy”

Michelle Barber Gypsy
Michelle Barber as “Rose”

Now playing, Theater Latte Da‘s Gypsy is a big, bold and brassy production of a classic musical, one that hearkens back to the art form’s Golden Era. It’s nice to see local productions of this grand scale on a Minneapolis stage.

The story of Gypsy centers around the destructive relationship between infamous Burlesque performer Gypsy Rose Lee and her mother, Rose. The musical dramatizes Lee’s adolescent years, when she was simply “Louise”, touring in a Vaudeville act created by her mother and starring her sister, billed as “Baby June”. Rose’s grand theatrical ambitions create a rift between herself and her daughters and she becomes the quintessential overbearing stage mother. This ultimately drives Louise into Burlesque. How this relationship is resolved and how Rose justifies her actions as a mother lie at the heart of Gypsy.

Back in 2006 I was privileged to attend Theater Latte Da’s first outing of this Gypsy, and was delighted to see that director Peter Rothstein retained some staging elements of it for this one. However, the 2006 production played at the intimate Loring Playhouse and that space lent a distinct and ghostly air to the proceedings. It felt like the audience was witnessing the ghosts of Vaudeville haunting the confines of a now closed theater. The new production is much slicker and more traditional. I couldn’t help but miss the rawness and vitality of that original production.

Indeed, the pacing of this particular production seems off. It speeds by at a clip and the staging thus feels rushed. I wish the actors were given a bit more room to breathe and space to dwell inside their characters. Some very dramatic book moments are over in the blink of an eye and have much less of an impact as a result, which is unfortunate. Gypsy is a long show, and I can understand a director’s desire to fit it into a traditional two-and-a-half hour running time, but such shortening of dramatic conflict is a detriment to the whole and should be reconsidered.

In spite of this, great performances abound. Tyler Michaels provides a wholesome turn as loveable Tulsa, the chorus boy Louise has her heart set on. His surprise appearance as a very different character in the second act provides him growth as an actor and a laugh or two from the audience. As Rose’s gaggle of chorus children, Carley Clover, Mario Esteb, Zoe Hollander, Andrew Imm, Peder Lindell, Duncan Reyburn, Josie Turk, Alejandro Vega and Victoria Wyffels are all an absolute delight. They light up the proceedings every time they tread the boards. Cat Brindisi brings a timid sweetness to Louise in the first act and a powerful, commanding presence to Gypsy Rose Lee in the second. I only wish there was some gradual transformation between the two during Louise’s big strip number “Let Me Entertain You”. Without it, it’s hard to believe the two personas are indeed the same character.

Michelle Barber is the force to be reckoned with during the evening. Her Rose packs a punch, especially during the character’s two signature songs, “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” and “Rose’s Turn”. That finale, especially, is unforgettable. Barber brings a surprising humanity to Rose, a character often portrayed as simply a monster. I was thankful to witness a characterization with such depth and texture. I wish the rest of the production, as a whole, was allowed to provide that as well.

4 out of 5 stars.

As a closing note, this was the first time in my theater-going experience when I was required to be wanded by security before entering the theater. It started out the evening on a very tense note for me and left a pall over the rest of the proceedings. Theater should be a welcoming environment, but the ushers and security guards left me, as an audience member, feeling that it was anything but. If this is the new standard practice for Hennepin Theatre Trust shows, I will no longer be attending. 

A “Summer” Easy to Forget

Jennifer Eckes and Cade Bittner - Photo by Roy BlakeyMinneapolis Musical Theatre’s production of the 2001 Off-Broadway musical Summer of ‘42 opened Friday night, March 7th. While an entertaining evening of theatre, this production ultimately doesn’t live up to its potential.
The show is based on the famous 1971 feature film inspired by the memoirs of Herman Raucher. It centers on the last summer of boyhood for Hermie (played by Cade Bittner in the MMT production), a fifteen-year-old vacationing with his family on a small island off the coast of Maine during World War II. While experiencing some adolescent misadventures with his two best friends Oscy (Nick Sahli) and Benjie (C. Ryan Shipley), Hermie finds himself drawn to a young war bride named Dorothy (Jennifer Eckes). Her husband has just left to go overseas, and she is all alone the island. Hermie befriends her and finds himself infatuated. At the heart of the show is this relationship and Hermie’s ultimate loss of innocence.  

The stage version of Summer of ‘42 focuses much more on the comedic side of the story than does the movie. This is the most apparent problem with the book for the show, written by Hunter Foster. In focusing so much time on the shenanigans of Oscy and the comedy to be found in that subplot, the central coming-of-age story is pushed aside and ultimately lacks any kind of significance.

Bittner and Eckes do their best with the roles they are given. While Bittner looks the part of Hermie, his acting is sometimes a bit broad and he doesn’t find the deeper, more introspective side of the character. Eckes fairs better in her part, but again there’s something lacking in her delivery. They both at times are drowned out by the band. Their final scene together, dancing in Dorothy’s house after her world has fallen apart, is the one moment when they finally seem to click, and the scene is delivered beautifully. If only the build-up to it could be as good.

Since the comedy is such a key element to this show it is sad to see it fall flat in this production. The comedy that should be vibrant and energetic feels uninspired and strained in director Kevin Hansen’s staging. Most of the comedic timing is off, especially in the more understated, subtly humorous dialogue between Bittner and Eckes. Sahli and Shipley bring charisma and charm to their roles but they don’t have much to work with in terms of stage direction. Most of the direction itself seems rushed and short-sighted.

The set design doesn’t help either. While the wooden pier that stretches across most of the stage is fine, the real sand glued to the floor of the stage could’ve been dispensed with. The crunching sound distracts during pivotal quiet scenes.

The major highlights of the production are the roles of Aggie, Miriam and Gloria, wonderfully played by Mariya Maragos, Colleen Somerville and Courtney Miner. They have several fine musical moments, singing songs reminiscent of the Andrews Sisters’. Somerville and Miner’s hilarious scene with Bittner and Sahli in a movie theater is also the most engaging one of the evening.

The epilogue at the end of the show comes in the reprise of a song introduced in the opening, “The Summer You’ll Always Remember.” Unfortunately it is not nearly as haunting or wistful as the musical theme to the movie, “The Summer Knows,” and brings no real sense of resolution to the piece. The lyrics are trite and far too simplistic.
Similarly, this production is one I’ll hope to soon forget.

Summer of ‘42 runs through March 30th at Hennepin Stages in downtown Minneapolis.