Thursday, August 29, 2019

The Original Antifascist

By the way, I was an antifascist before fascists like Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly and Donald Trump had ever heard the term.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Lest We Forget...

Never underestimate the fascists. They are authoritarian sociopaths who want a feudal society with themselves as the unchallenged aristocracy. Even if you're uncomfortable with terms like “evil,” these boys are basically a working definition of it — willing to crush centuries of civilization and human progress under the limo wheels.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Church Basement Ladies: Dancing, Yet Stationary

By Dan Hagen
You wouldn’t expect much to happen in a story about Lutheran lady cooks in some small-town 1960s church — and it doesn’t.
But I suppose that’s the secret of the success of Church Basement Ladies, a musical directed by Therese S. Kincade now closing out the 2019 summer season at Sullivan’s Little Theatre.
It’s part of that increasingly popular trend that might be called “innocuous theatre,” of which the 1985 musical Nunsense is the prime example. An audience can rest assured that not one of its comfortable assumptions will be challenged in these shows, and many audiences find them greatly enjoyable for that very reason.
But the nuns in Nunsense actually, accidentally and rather cheerfully killed a bunch of people, as you may recall (Sister Julia, Child of God, offed 52 poor souls with her tainted vichyssoise). Lutherans would never get up to anything so showy, however.
When the dramatic era of a show includes the year 1968, you know it’s going to be at least in part about “change,” because 1968 was an American watershed in terms of civil rights, war-making, trust in government, you name it.
What’s surprising about Church Basement Ladies is that while tide and time are referenced here, they never actually manage to wash ashore in the tiny Minnesota town where the story is set. The musical is finally about a fear of change that turns out to be completely unfounded (beyond the regrettable replacement of the black hymnals for red ones, of course).
The naturalistic set by Michael Mason works well, with its period fridge, ovens and freezer, and a prominently displayed cookbook called The Joy of Butter. The cabinets are all a homey color my friend Bart Rettberg calls “country blue.”
Into this slice of vintage Americana slides a tight cast of five whose talent overtakes the material without breaking a sweat.
The minister is Rory Dunn, the ingénue is Brittany Ambler, her mom is Equity actress Heather J. Beck, their funny friend is Bonner Church (who must enjoy sharing her name with the show) and the beneficent battleaxe Mrs. Lars (Vivian) Snustad is played by Equity actress April Woodall.
The plot, thin at best, gets pulled like taffy before a particularly implausible scene wraps up the show. In fact, having run out of funny things to say about Lutherans per se, the show falls back on a number comparing Lutherans to Catholics (who are, let’s face it, funnier).
But forget all that. The comedy here is at its best when it’s at its broadest, a Carol Burnett skit level of funny. And that makes the audience roar with a satisfactory frequency.
The ladies warm up with a song about the glorious blandness of their cuisine, Pale Food Polka (“People might take offense if your table’s too intense… Keep it light! Keep it gray! Keep paprika far away!”). But they really hit their stride with a big band-type number spearheaded by Beck being brassy, Get Down to Business (“Rattle the roaster! Bang on the bowls! Tell ’em the Tupperware’s set at a supper where we can redeem some hungry souls!).
Ambler shines in a number about the change that never happens, Sing a New Song. Church wows ’em with a song about menopause, My Own Personal Island, although that medical term is never used (And “Fargo” is rhymed with “Key Largo”). Church also has a darkly funny running bit about her husband’s slow dismemberment in farm accidents.
But I confess that that old stick in the Minnesota spring mud Woodall is my favorite in this production. Imagine Thelma Ritter strutting her stuff in a chorus line, and you’ve got something of the effect.
Woodall’s best number — and the funniest in the show, for me — is The Cities, her baleful warning about those Sodoms and Gomorrahs of the Midwest, Minneapolis and St. Paul.
Kincade has conjured herself another crowd pleaser here.
Incidental Intelligence: This musical, which premiered in 2005, has a book by Jim Stowell and Jessica Zuehlke and music and lyrics by Drew Jansen. The show was inspired by the 1997 book Growing Up Lutheran, written by Janet Letnes Martin and Suzann Nelson.
The musical has spawned no less than six sequels: Church Basement Ladies 2: A Second Helping; Away in the Basement: A Church Basement Ladies Christmas; The Church Basement Ladies in A Mighty Fortress Is Our Basement; The Church Basement Ladies in The Last (Potluck) Supper; The Church Basement Ladies in Rise Up, O Men and The Church Basement Ladies in You Smell Barn (which premiered last year).
This production has costuming by Pippen Calame, lighting by Noel Rennerfeldt, musical direction by Kevin Long and choreography by Mandy Modic. It runs through Aug. 25.

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Thanks, Stan! Nuff Said

All superheroes should be inspirational, aspirational figures. They are not really role models. They are symbols of moral aims.

Friday, August 16, 2019

Some Sense on Guns

PLUS any gun owner whose firearm ends up in the hands of a child does jail time, without exception.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

You Tell 'Em, George!

I've been cutting through comforting, dangerous illusions with Occam's razor blade for many years. I'm used to it.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Fascist America, Circa 2019

Open-carry ammosexual right-wing thugs parading around everywhere. Militarized police. Universal police-state surveillance combined with increasing government secrecy. For-profit prisons eager to lock people up. Unjustified wars. Unpunished Wall Street crimes. Torture. Propaganda channels branded as “news.” Unlimited corporate power that has the courts and the lawmakers in its oily grasp. I can understand people being afraid to face what all that adds up to, but closing your eyes won’t stop the boot from coming right down on your face, will it?

Monday, August 5, 2019

The Full Monty: All Kinds of Exposure

Everybody knows the secret
They all know what their life should be
And they move like a river
Everybody knows except for me…
Breeze Off the River

By Dan Hagen
This production opens with a Chippendales performance by the agreeable Lars Kristian Hafell — that alone is enough to put the audience in a pretty sunny disposition for the balance of the show.
Imagine Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland saying, “Hey, kids, let’s put on a show — with male strippers!” That’s clearly one source of inspiration for The Full Monty, but the show also swims in darker cultural currents than MGM musicals ever explored.
Corey John Hafner in “The Full Monty.”
Sullivan’s Little Theatre has staged The Full Monty twice before that I know of, always successfully.
Nearly a decade ago, I wrote, “If there’s a 20th century story that captures the dampened spirit of 21st century America in song, it’s probably The Full Monty, the musical now playing at the Little Theatre.
“Based on the 1997 British comedy film, it’s about the psychological ramifications of unemployment, and a regular guy from Buffalo named Jerry who is trying to keep his spirits buoyed in a world that seems determined — with a cold, corporate, industrial-strength efficiency — to grind him right down to a fine powder and scatter him to the four winds.”
Times do change, and that aforementioned American spirit feels even soggier. The men’s seething sense of entitlement to good union jobs seems almost quaint now, two decades on into the cold indifference of the “gig economy,” with its disposable attitude toward labor.
You find yourself thinking that it’s too bad American men’s resulting rage couldn’t actually be bled off into some sexy, self-liberating dance performance. Instead, it gets channeled into the election campaign of Donald Trump.
This production is ably directed and choreographed by Jordan Cyphert, and benefits from the return of musicians in the pit (who went missing for Newsies). A key scene is played in a removable restroom with realistic graffiti on the walls — well done, scenic designer Jonathan Sabo.
John McAvaney is Jerry’s fat, funny and plaintive pal Dave, a role he has played before and can sell with ease. His flat, emphatic delivery of comedy lines is a crowd-pleaser.
Jerry is Trevor Vanderzee, the actor who perfectly embodied Curly in this season’s Oklahoma. Now he no longer expects beautiful mornings, only bleak ones.
Mandy Modic, playing Jerry’s estranged wife Pam, elevates the proceedings another notch with her naturalistic performance, convincingly showing us that she cares deeply about Jerry but is fed up with his self-pity and wants to see him save himself. No lamebrain fairy-tale romance this.
To explore the benefits of killing oneself in song, McAvaney and Vanderzee team up with none other than the Little Theatre’s executive producer, John Stephens. As the prissy, depressed mama’s boy Malcolm, Stephens adopts an amusing and convincing voice completely unlike his own.
The trio’s number, about helpfully crushing a friend’s head with a Big Ass Rock, is always one of my favorites.  With this and Oklahoma, Vanderzee always seems to be singing people into suicide this summer.
The show’s best dance number, Big Black Man, is supplied by Jaimar Brown as Horse. Although he’s credibly aged by makeup, Brown’s limber locomotion betrays his show-stopping youth and stamina.
Kevin Sosamon, playing Jerry’s son Nathan, works that same acting trick in reverse. He’s actually quite young, but seems older because his character is in certain ways more mature than his own father.
I’ve seen Marty Harbaugh many times on the Little Theatre stage, but never better than in this. His awkward, halting attempt at a striptease manages to be both humorous and poignant in the same moment.
Actor Nicholas Carroll, who played Jud Fry so perfectly in Oklahoma, is effective here in the nervously restrained role of Harold, the executive who’s afraid to tell his free-spending wife that he, too, has gotten the proverbial ax. Equity actress Heather J. Beck does a quick star turn as his wife, the brassy belt-it-out lady who somewhat inexplicably adores her Life With Harold.
I see one of my favorite Little Theatre actors, Corey John Hafner, has gone Equity. Congrats. Here, he’s Ethan, a guy who gamely keeps trying to run up walls like Donald O’Connor in Singin' in the Rain and who offers the men’s strip show his, erm, “hidden assets.”
The show reaches its full Glory when … I wonder how many times reviewers have used that pun? But it’s true.
Equity actor Glory Kissel pegs the feel-good meter with her portrayal of the elderly fireball Jeanette Burmeister, a never-say-die Vegas trouper who shows up to rehearse the men. It’s a role she’s played before, always irrepressibly. The audience loses some of the words in her big song, but Kissel dominates all her scenes with her uninhibited, Carol Burnett-like clownishness.
She belts out, “I've played for hoofers who can't hoof. I've played for tone-deaf singers. And once, when I insulted Frank, I played with broken fingers.”
This musical touches on interesting ideas about emasculation and self-worth that it can’t really stop to explore. But it gets points merely for raising them in the context of such audience-alluring salacious fun.
“Never allow yourself to be made a victim,” the playwright Harvey Fierstein once said. “Accept no one’s definition of your life, but define yourself.”
In The Full Monty, Jerry, Dave and the rest of the boys learn just what he meant.
Incidental intelligence:  The Full Monty runs through Aug. 11. For tickets, call The Little Theatre On The Square Box Office at 217-728-7375.
Musical direction is by Kevin Long, with lighting design by Zach Pizza.
The talented cast includes Kate Turner, Brittany Ambler, Bonner Church, Emily Bacino Althaus, Tyler Pirrung and James Garrett Hill.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

The Enormity of this Era

It occurs to me that the word best befitting our era is “enormity,” which means not just huge, but huge and horrible.