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

The Snow Queen

snow queen book
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.

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.

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.

“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:

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. 

Tea for Two

by Kyle Kepulis

Note: This preview article on the 2003 Viterbo production of “No, No, Nanette” was published in the Viterbo University student newspaper, The Lumen.

The sounds of music and tap dancing will fill the Fine Arts Center main stage this weekend when the musical No, No, Nanette premieres at Viterbo.

A wild, flippant, and innocent look at the roaring twenties, the show boasts an amusing score that features two well-known hits.

Its raucous, exuberant story revolves around Nanette, the ward of Jimmy Smith, a Bible publisher. Three quarters of a millionare, Jimmy loves to spend money. His wife Sue, however, does not. This causes friction between the two, a friction that is not lessened by Jimmy’s chance meeting of three beautiful girls on his travels. He secretly lavishes gifts of money upon them, and does not want Sue to find out. In the musical’s final act all of these characters end up meeting each other, and lots of entanglements ensue, what director Susan Rush calls “a big mix-up in love.” In essence, the story is a farce with music and dance.

The two most memorable songs from the score are “Tea for Two” and “I Want to Be Happy.”

No, No, Nanette premiered on Broadway in 1925, was revived in a hugely successful 1971 Broadway production, and made into two separate motion pictures in 1930 and 1940 respectively.

Rush said there were several reasons why this particular musical was chosen for production this year. The first and foremost was because it has dance. “We haven’t had a musical that really featured a lot of dance before, and we want to start promoting it,” she said.

Rod Reiner, the choreographer of Nanette, has been with Viterbo for three years, another reason for incorporating more dance into the next musical theater production.

“Almost all of the cast has to move well and be able to learn dance,” Rush told Lumen, “Rod is able to teach students who haven’t had a large amount of experience with dance.”

Commenting on the styles of Viterbo’s past musicals, Rush said that “The show also has a specific style that we haven’t had yet.” The types of musicals that played in the twenties are no longer seen on many modern theater stages. There are many differences between musicals of the twenties and musicals of today: for example, No, No, Nanette is played in three acts. Today, almost all musicals are performed in only two.

“We don’t see these kinds of musicals anymore,” Rush said, “Thoroughly Modern Millie, which is now running on Broadway, makes fun of these kinds of musicals. It’s educational for especially the theater and musical theater students to see the original style that Millie parodies.”

Because of the twenties-style script, there have been a few challenges for the cast in rehearsing the musical. “There are old-fashioned jokes, and not as much freedom for the actors in their parts,” Rush explained, “I’m directing more with this piece than others I’ve done. The piece is not organic, it’s very specific.”

But Nanette has much more to offer than just an educational look at the musicals of the past. Rush said that the kind of dancing featured in the show will be new to La Crosse: “It is truly a dance show.”

Rush said that “There will also be a great, full orchestra. Some of the best musicians in town are going to be playing. And that matters a lot. If we have a musical without a good pit, all our work is for naught.”

Nanette offers a charming night away from the bustle and stress of the fall semester. Rush concluded that “there’s nothing dark and deep about it. It moves quickly, and there are a lot of musical numbers. And it’s always wonderful to watch tap dancing.”

No, No, Nanette runs October 10-12 on the Main Stage. Tickets are now on sale at the box office.


Chanhassen Dinner Theatre’s production of Swing! is a contagiously energetic evening of effervescent song and dance. While the amazing dancing is the primary focus of the evening, the singing is also top-notch and astounding. The orchestra, led by George Maurer, is loud and brassy just as it should be. I couldn’t help but wish they were a bit closer to the audience so they could be more visible, but I suppose that would leave no room onstage for the dancing. The set is also necessarily sparse, but the lighting design by Sue Ellen Berger is evocative and always sets the right mood for the songs.

I went into the theatre expecting a show completely built around dance, but a lot of the evening is dedicated to the vocal performances of several beloved standards. Standouts are “Skylark” and “Cry Me a River,” both sung by Erin Marie Capello with her vibrant, clear soprano. But Kate Margaret steals the show with her jaw-dropping torch-song renditions of “Blues in the Night” and “Stompin’ at the Savoy.” She truly brings down the house every time she appears on stage. “Blues in the Night” is especially electric – Michael Fielder and Beverly Durand’s sexy pas de deux is the perfect complement to Margaret’s aching vocals. It is easily the highpoint of the evening.

Kate Margaret also has two delightfully amusing duets with Fred Steele, the first, “Bli-Blip,” being a clever musical dialog that substitutes scat phrases for genuine English. It’s a cute moment that, even though it doesn’t feature any dance, nonetheless feels like it definitely belongs in the show.

The dancing ensemble swings their hearts out to the more brassier numbers like “G.I. Jive” and “In the Mood/Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree,” and of course the immortal “It Don’t Mean a Thing.” It was also nice to see the different variants of swing dancing that have fused out of the traditional form, like Latin and 1990’s Retro Swing.

Only a few minor quips about the show – Kenn and I couldn’t help but wish that “Boogie-Woogie Bugle Boy” had been performed the traditional way with a group of three girls ala The Andrews Sisters. Fred Steele does a fine job with the song, but I think I would’ve enjoyed the girls better. I also found absolutely no connection with Country Western dancing and swing dancing. Why was a whole segment dedicated to Country Western Swing? I didn’t think such a thing even existed. The choreography in no way showed the similarities to it and traditional swing.

Besides these quips, though, the evening was definitely an enjoyable two hours of dancing and singing, well worth the price of admission. It’s really the first show I’ve attended that isn’t plot-driven and I was delighted to discover how enjoyable it was. I’ll have to keep an eye out for more dance shows.