Spelling Bee Audience Review—Kylie Schultz

Go see this musical! Go see it right now before it’s too late and you miss out on what I’m sure will be one of the most entertaining performances of 2016.

I had to open with such a demand to accurately convey the serious hilarity and outstanding artistry that make this show one of the best I’ve seen at Lyric Arts.

Unlike many of Lyric Arts’ previous shows, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee does not have a large, intricately beautiful set or a whole company of recognizable Lyric Arts regulars. But in classic Lyric Arts' style, Putnam’s bombastic characters are brought to life through top notch directing, flawless musical direction, and an enormously talented (and mostly freshly-debuted) cast of actors who keep the performance so lively you’ll forget you’re not watching a real Spelling Bee.

William Barfée (Tim Beeckman Davis, right) with the the of the cast vie for the spelling championship of a lifetime.

William Barfée (Tim Beeckman Davis, right) with the the of the cast vie for the spelling championship of a lifetime.

If you’ve never heard of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, you’re in for a humorous awakening. This highly entertaining musical chronicles the lives of six Putnam County students as they compete in the most exciting 25th Annual Spelling Bee.  The Bee is hosted by 3rd Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee winner, Rona Lisa Peretti (Lexi Harper) and formerly disgraced, but “in a better place now”, word pronouncer and Vice Principal, Douglas Panch (Rick Wyman). To comfort the students throughout the competition is “comfort counselor” Mitch Mahoney (Daniel Vinitsky), who sees each student off with a tough-love hug and a juice box as part of his court-mandated community service.

As the Bee commences we meet the students and get joyous glimpses into their colorful lives. Charlito “Chip” Tolentino (Matthew Berdahl) is last year’s winner, with the confidence to match, until he loses his… resolve *ahem* when distracted by Marigold Coneybear in the audience. Olive Ostrovsky (Anna Larranaga) is a quirky, upbeat girl who is desperately trying to save a spot in the audience for her absent dad. William Barfée (Tim Davis), is no-nonsense and brilliantly self-assured in his unique spelling tactic, his Magic Foot. Perfectly overachieving Marcy Park (Alison Rigazio) is charming as she displays decorum and grace in the Bee, until she doesn’t. Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (Callie Shroer) desperately wants to win lest disappoint America, or her overbearing fathers. And giddy, effervescent, delightfully distracted Leaf Coneybear (Kyle Szarzynski) is the Bee’s youngest contestant, homeschooled and hoping to prove he’s smarter than his siblings think he is.

Each student is a larger-than-life, spot-on example of who we all were as children—I  was a Leaf Coneybear—and each backstory is reminiscent of the universal pains and joys that we all traversed growing up. It’s a musical that is as endearing as it is entertaining and as humbling as it is humorous, and simple in it’s complexity. Each performance was immaculate, and every character brought to life with perfect execution and thoughtful integrity. An impeccable cast, infectious score, charming characters, just inappropriate enough humor, and strong direction by Zach Curtis all ensure that you really don’t want to miss this show.  

Kylie Schultz is a Minneapolis local and an Arts Ambassador with Theoroi, a young professionals group of the Schubert Club in St. Paul, MN.

"Bunnicula" Audience Review—Roxy Orcutt

By Roxy Orcutt When I saw Bunnicula up on the marquee at Lyric Arts, I may have let out a little squeal.  The Bunnicula books were one of my favorites when I was a kid, how could they not be?  A not-so-scary vampire bunny that sucked the juice from vegetables rather than the blood from humans was downright delightful.  I was curious as to see how the books would translate to the stage, and Lyric Arts did not disappoint.

The moment Harold the dog opened the show, played wonderfully by Sarah Frazier, I knew this production was going to do the Bunnicula I grew up with justice.  Harold, and his housemate, Chester the cat, played with such perfect feline precision by Brianna Regan, live comfortably with their humans, the Monroes, in suburban bliss.  One night, however, when the Monroe’s come home from seeing a movie and bring back a wayward bunny, Harold and Chester’s lives go from napping on couches and eating table scraps to investigating the unexplained, as only a dog and cat can.

Harold and Chester soon realize this bunny isn’t any ordinary bunny, he’s something downright supernatural.  Through their instincts and a few of Chester’s books, the pair come to the conclusion that Bunnicula lives up to his bloodsucking namesake.

While Harold, Chester, and the Monroes, are all played by a phenomenal cast of humans, (Mr. and Mrs. Monroe, played by Bailey Hess and Jason Stone, are particularly hysterical in their straight-outta-the-vintage-sitcoms Mom and Dad) Bunnicula is brought to life by the use of puppetry.  When Bunnicula goes into vampire mode, his eyes glow red and his fangs come out in full force, but not too scary to illicit nothing more than giggles from the mostly-kids audience.

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One of the best elements of the play was the music and lighting.  We are taken through several days as the play unfolded, all communicated through the great use of light and musical cues.  There is one piece of music used just off-stage to a great foreboding, and humorous, effect that may have been my favorite part of the play.

I was downright charmed by this entire production.  I brought along my four-year-old daughter whose eyes never left the stage and has since told everyone we see about the vampire bunny that turns the vegetables white.  I would recommend this play to all ages.  Like I mentioned, the audience was filled with mostly children, and not a single one of them seemed to lose interest or get antsy during the rapid-fire, entertaining 70 minute production.

Roxy Orcutt
Roxy Orcutt

Roxy Orcutt, The Halloween Honey, is a local author and theater enthusiast. Her book, “History and Hauntings of the Halloween Capital,” explores Anoka, MN, its spooky tales, colorful characters, and why it is named the “Halloween Capital of the World.” It is available for sale online at www.HalloweenHoney.com.

"Young Frankenstein" Audience Review - Roxy Orcutt

I was thrilled to be in audience of Lyric Art’s production of Young Frankenstein this opening weekend for a number of reasons. One: Lyric Arts is awesome, Two: Young Frankenstein is awesome, and Three: I was sharing the evening with my 13-year-old stepson Quinn, who has yet to experience the mad genius of Mel Brooks, Gene Wilder OR Lyric Arts, for that matter (outside of a workshop or two) and I was looking forward to watching his reaction to the show. Young Frankenstein may be the perfect show to bring young person with a great sense of humor to. While the jokes were crammed full of innuendo, of course, it was so fun to not only get a kick out them myself, but watch Quinn laugh along too. It’s a testament to the writing of Gene Wilder holding up all these years (Young Frankenstein was originally produced in 1974!) that a glued-to-his-Smartphone teenager could laugh at Roll is Ze Hay, among others, but it’s also a testament to Lyric Arts creative and technical team as well. There wasn’t a dull moment. From the opening scene of the villagers merrily dancing in front of Victor Frankenstein’s castle in Transylvania to the absolutely show-stopping Puttin’ on the Ritz number, Lyric Arts truly knocked it out of the spooky graveyard with this production.

Having just seen the majority of the cast in Rent this summer at Lyric Arts, it was truly impressive to see these actors totally disappear into their roles in Young Frankenstein. I didn’t see an ounce of Mark from Rent from Kyler Chase as he portrayed Fredrick Frankenstein, and his eyebrows may have well leapt off his face and become characters of their own. In fact, as I was watching the show, I heard an audience member behind me whisper “he even sounds like Gene Wilder.” High praise, indeed. Nykeigh Larson as Inga and Brendan Veerman as Igor (who I adored in Barefoot in the Park) were also highlights for me. But, the show was completely stolen when our Monster came to life in the form of Tom Goerger-who was not only amazing and hilarious, but also a dead ringer for Peter Boyle.

In nearly every review I write for Lyric Arts, I can’t help but praise the set design. And, again, the Young Frankenstein set was spectacular. The castle and hidden passageways, the cottage the set must be for a brief, hysterical scene, among other transitions-the grace and technical skill it takes to make these set changes so flawlessly and clever are beyond reproach.

Recalling Young Frankenstein as I am writing this, I am seeing the show in black and white. Trust me, it was full color when I saw it, and my vision is just fine, but I find it interesting that black and white, like the original film, is how I am seeing Lyric Arts production in my mind’s eye. It may be a trick of my subconscious, but I think it is further proof that the stage production is on par with the classic movie it is based on. Not that the Lyric Arts production of Young Frankenstein is a scene-for-scene re-enactment of the film, it truly is its own wonderful entity unto itself, but if you are going to be compared to a movie, let it be a Mel Brooks movie.

The audience couldn’t have asked for a better Halloween-season show from Lyric Arts, and I was so pleased to share the experience with Quinn, and help foster a new generation Young Frankenstein (and theater, and satire) fans.

Roxy Orcutt
Roxy Orcutt

Roxy Orcutt, The Halloween Honey, is a local author and theater enthusiast. Her book, "History and Hauntings of the Halloween Capital," explores Anoka, MN, its spooky tales, colorful characters, and why it is named the "Halloween Capital of the World." It is available for sale online at www.HalloweenHoney.com.

"Young Frankenstein" Audience Review - Gary Davis

By Gary Davis

         Gary Davis

         Gary Davis

Leave it to Lyric Arts Main Stage, in the heart of the Halloween Capital of the World, to produce this year’s best Halloween destination, in the form of Young Frankenstein, the musical.

I am not a big fan of turning popular movies into stage musicals but I have to admit this one hits the mark.  The score is very catchy and complements the libretto, rather than re-stating it, which sometimes happens in adapted musicals.  I had not heard the score before attending and found Igor and the Doctor’s duet “Together Again for the First Time” hilarious.  Dr. Frankenstein’s fiancée, Elizabeth, scores a homerun with her “Please Don’t Touch Me”, which includes one of the more interesting dance sequences I have seen in some time.

Director Matt McNabb and his production crew have turned loose a cast of 18 skilled and energetic performers that rock the house from the opening number to the final curtain call.

For fans of the 1974 hit movie, it’s all there:  the puns, the risqué humor, the fabulous character parts.  Add to that a raucous score, a tight ensemble, wonderful choreography, an imposing but versatile set and over 300 light and sound cues and you have a mahvelous evening at the theatre.

All I can say is Wow!  For one, Puttin’ on the Ritz is about 1,000 times better than in the movie.  Watching the Monster (Tom Georger) dancing in 4 inch platform boots with the rest of the cast tapping around him is one of the highlights of the evening.  If you like good, old-fashioned production tap numbers, you don’t want to miss this.

I hate singling out performances when a cast is so uniformly excellent, but here we go.  The leads in this show have done an excellent job of reminding us of the folks in the movie while still making these characters their own.  The trio of of Dr. Frankenstein (Kyler Chase), Inga (Nykeigh Larson), and Igor (Brendan Veerman) work together like a Swiss timepiece.

Kudos as well to Kate Beahen for her understated Frau Blucher (whinnee) and her excellent comedic timing.  Also to Brad Bone for his over the top blind Hermit and Nick Menzuber in the dual roles of Victor Von Frankenstein and Inspector Kemp.

This show was extremely challenging from a technical perspective and I want to recognize a few of them here.  Brian Proball’s set design, with its imposing Castle Frankenstein, sets the mood from the minute you walk in the door.  Choreographer Ann Marie Omeish met the challenge of several full ensemble dances in varying styles, culminated by the Puttin’ on the Ritz tap extravaganza.  That scene alone is worth the price of admission.

Jim Eischen (lights) and Jeff Geisler (sound) have teamed up to provide a seamless technical framework for the show.  Finally, Samantha Fromm Haddow and her crew:  thank you for the excellent costume plot.

Young Frankenstein plays through November 2.

Gary Davis is a local actor/director who is a big fan of theater.

"Godspell" Audience Review - Virginia Louden

by Virginia Louden

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I had the pleasure of attending Godspell at Lyric Arts Main Street Stage in Anoka on Saturday night. I have attended quite a few plays at Lyric Arts over the years and I can honestly say that they have yet to disappoint me. For a small town theater, they truly know how to deliver the goods just as well as any of their big city rivals. While we all waited in anticipation, I heard someone behind me mention how small the cast was while they perused their program. Size truly didn't matter. The lights went dim, the ten person cast came out and during their opening number I felt goosebumps appear all over my arms. I knew right then that I was in for a treat.

Godspell, originally written in 1970 but recently adapted with a much more modern twist and feel, is a light and lively string of parables straight out of the Bible. Whether you are a religious person or not, watching this play, you won't be able to help but leave feeling energized and uplifted. Colin Hutchins, who plays Jesus, does a wonderful job delivering the stories and lessons graciously. I never felt like I was being preached to and I was kept on a wonderful roller coaster ride of giggles, chills and laugh out loud fun.

Director Robert Neu chose a fabulous cast of characters and they did a truly amazing job. Watching them was like watching VBS hopped up on a case of Redbull. Seriously. The energy coming from the stage was contagious. The live band was spot on and flowed through all of the songs and genres so smoothly. During the ensembles' group dances, there wasn't a toe out of line. And even more exciting were their harmonies. Oh, the harmonies! You truly have to experience them for yourself. The actors were all great singers individually, but the harmonies they created together were most inspiring.

I would like to spotlight a couple actors that stand out in my mind. Joshua Paul Smith surprised me with his control and power as a vocalist. I enjoyed his performance very much. Nicholas Kaspari was very fun to watch. His dance moves were superb and when combined with his comedic timing, it's sure to keep you rolling on the floor. And if you haven't seen Zach Marleau yet, you really should. I couldn't believe it when I read that he is only a junior in high school. He was absolutely hilarious and I cannot wait to see him in other productions. All in all, it was a fantastic show and I hope you get a chance to enjoy it, too.

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Virginia Louden is a local Anoka blogger and a full-time mom who has attended multiple Lyric Arts productions.

"Godspell" Audience Review - Gary Davis

Prepare the Way...Indeed

ComingSoon_Godspell

by Gary Davis

‘Prepare ye the way,’ the Baptist tells us after the prologue in Lyric Arts’ current production of Godspell.

I must admit I was not prepared.  However, I was impressed.  Enough so that I plan on visiting this show again later in the run to see how it changes, as all good shows do over time.

I WAS prepared for yet another production of a show that dots the seasons of high school theatres across the country and perhaps around the world.  I WAS prepared for young actors and lots of energy (which was delivered).  I WAS prepared for the standard school playground set (which was not).

What I wasn’t prepared for was a veritable 3 ring circus of humor, magic, vaudeville, choral mastery, and an OUTSTANDING ensemble of 10 actors and actresses that took this show, and its audience, by the throat and never let go from the opening modern-day Tower of Babble society attached to cellular devices to the dirge-filled removal of Jesus’ body after his crucifixion.

For those not familiar with Godspell, it is a musical born of the 1960’s counter-culture and a subsequent re-examining of the Christian religions that brought both Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar to the stage in 1971.  Godspell started out as creator John Michael Tebelak’s master’s thesis, but found its present form after Steven Schwartz rewrote the score.

When Godspell opened in 1971, it pre-dated the opening of Jesus Christ Superstar by several months and played to mixed reviews.  Where Superstar was a BIG musical, Godspell was a simple show, based on parables mostly taken from the Book of Matthew.

Clive Barnes of the New York Times found the show “naïve and platitudinous”, while Tony Mastroianni in the Cleveland Press had this to say:  “It is a very loving show and while it sometimes exhibits evangelist fervor it is never in anger. This is not a message of anger, but of love.”

Many will look at Godspell and agree with Mr. Barnes, asking why should we produce this musical now? Others, including director Robert Neu and composer Steven Schwartz, place the message of Godspell right here and right now. Schwartz put it this way: “there seems to be an increasing inability to come to any national consensus about anything. Godspell, at its heart, is about the formation of a community out of disparate people” through observance of some simple rules embodied in Biblical parables as seen through a very interesting lens…

While the individuals in the show are all given moments to shine, it is the ensemble that drives this production to excellence. Only one number, “Beautiful City” is a true solo, sung simply, effectively, and with minimal staging by Colin Hutchins (Jesus).

I don’t want to describe the show in a blow-by-blow manner, but rather give you a taste of what you would miss if you don’t see it. The fact is, this show is all about the team. I hope the cast will forgive me, but I feel to single out any of them would be to slight an excellent performance by each of the others. Believe, me there are no weak links to the chain here. Kudos, by the way, to Scenic Designer Kirby Moore, for not having that chain link fence.

First, it is obvious from the beginning that this cast loves working together. The interactions are honest and they play to each other and the audience with apparent ease.

Second, the staging is entertaining. Director Neu has found all of the humor he could to bring the parables to life and added some entertaining touches, such as in the baptism of the disciples. I was also pleasantly surprised by the use of footlights (yes, footlights), in “All for the Best”, a vaudeville number, led by Colin and Charles Goitia (John/Judas).

The other numbers, while having featured soloists, all are made much more effective by the ensemble, both physically and musically. Musical Director Mary Cay Stone and her assistant Ben Schrade have delivered a feast for the ears full of intricate harmonies and playful syncopations.

Choreographer Penelope Freeh and assistant Molly Jo Hall have sculpted a combination of production number dances and organic movement that complement the music seamlessly. A couple of numbers that stand out are the use of unexpected props in “We Beseech Thee” and the use of set pieces in “Bless the Lord”.

Which brings us to the set. When I entered the theatre, I was taken aback by the concrete-ness of the set. As admonished by director Neu in his program notes, I kept an open mind and was rewarded for doing so, as the set turned out to be extremely flexible and utilitarian in supporting the music and action. It helped make the technical elements of this show as seamlessly joined as the actors and musicians performing it.

So, is there a place for a 40 year old, counter culture musical telling a story more than 2,000 years old in today’s theatre? When it is done this well, the answer is a resounding yes.

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Gary Davis is a local actor/director who is a big fan of theater.