BWW Feature: Upcoming World Premiere of FIVE POINTS at Theater Latte Da

BWW Feature: Upcoming World Premiere of FIVE POINTS at Theater Latte Da

FIVE POINTS is an ambitious, tuneful, dance-rich new musical in the final stages of preparation for its world premiere in Minneapolis at Theater Latté Da, the locally famous small house committed to smart re-imaginings of traditional musical theater pieces but also-and with real vigor-to playing a significant role in creating "the dramatic canon of tomorrow."

Since 2013, Theater Latté Da has given three new musicals or plays with music two week workshops and public readings each season. In 2015, the theater's leadership deepened their resolve through an initiative they call NEXT 20/20: committing to develop 20 new musicals over the next five years.

FIVE POINTS is the most ambitious fruit of this careful cultivation of creative talent to date. It received development workshops at the theater, as well as at four other sites around the country over the last five years. This coming week it will have its world premiere: the first fully staged production.

And full staging is crucial to this piece, since dance is at the heart of the story, which is also firmly based in history. Five Points was the name of a notoriously squalid 19th century slum, infamous for crime and disease, located in Lower Manhattan, New York City. It was also one of America's first true melting pot neighborhoods, with significant populations of free African-Americans (since slavery was officially abolished in New York in 1827), Irish, Chinese, Eastern and Southern Europeans, and Jews.

BWW was able to attend parts of two rehearsals of FIVE POINTS, and speak with key members of the creative team: Ethan D. Pakchar (music), Douglas Lyons (music and lyrics), and Kelli Foster Warder (choreographer). Other key personnel include playwright Harrison David Rivers (book), Director Peter Rothstein, and Music Director Denise Prosek.

The musical centers on two historic figures, both famous dancers: the African-American Willie Lane (aka Master Juba) and John Diamond, an Irish stepper. Showman P.T. Barnum 'discovered' both of these men, and staged dance battles between them as part of his extravagant spectacles. That happened in the 1840s, but the creative team has chosen to move this some 20 years forward in time, to 1863, so that the musical can also take up themes central to the Civil War, and the draft riots that happened in Five Points in that year. (Scorsese and Daniel Day-Lewis fans will remember the 2002 film GANGS OF NEW YORK, also set in the Five Points, and mostly in 1863.)

Back to dance: it's generally understood that what we think of as tap dance got its start in the dance battles of Five Points, where moves like Willie Lane's rubbed up against the Irish reels and jigs and clogging that John Diamond and his Irish friends performed. Though the golden age of tap doesn't begin until the 1920s, roughly, the dancing central to FIVE POINTS displays what lyricist Douglas Lyons aptly calls "the fusion of immigrant cultures to create American tradition."

That's a timely theme, for sure: and the creators use contemporary musical sounds and orchestration in their rich score, which according to Ethan D. Pakchar includes such treats as "an Irish reel with bluesy passing tones." To my ear, the songs I heard in tech were wonderfully sung, dramatically varied, and propelled the story forward energetically and kinetically.

The importance of immigrant cultural contributions to American culture is not the only theme FIVE POINTS explores. Crucial too are issues of racial conflict, cultural identity, and generational change. The creative team was hard at work, when I met them, paying scrupulous attention to matters of balance--whether the African-American characters and the Irish ones have equivalent stage time and presence--and questions of tone, especially tricky because of the historic setting and modern day resonances. Lyons asks "What's the point of being in theater if you're going to play it safe?"

Pakchar and Lyons met while working the first national tour of BOOK OF MORMON and have several collaborations between them, including an album [title: #Love(Live)] and a new musical [title: '64] commissioned by the 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle. Pakchar grew up in Atlanta, GA. His first instrument was the Irish pennywhistle. Now he's a sought after pit musician, and has played guitar for HAMILTON and other Broadway shows. Lyons grew up in New Haven, CT, and graduated from the Hartt School in Hartford after taking a hiatus to tour with RENT. He's got multiple New York and touring credits and was part of the original cast of BEAUTIFUL: THE Carole King MUSICAL. Next week, after seeing FIVE POINTS open at Theater Latté Da, he'll fly back to NY to rejoin that company.

The music they've written for FIVE POINTS provides multiple dance moments, of course. They've entrusted this first staging to choreographer Kelli Foster Warder, who says "I feel this responsibility to help bring to life the dream of these young writers. They've been working on FIVE POINTS for five years, but this is the first time they've seen it on its feet." Warder grew up in the Twin Cities studying dance. Her African-American dad was her first tap teacher, and her mom's heritage is mostly Irish, so she also identifies with the people of this story.

She's created vibrant and varied movement for 14 actors on Theater Latté Da's relatively small stage. Scenic designer Joel Sass has cleverly found a way to use an upright piano on casters as instrument and room divider and bar, while crafting footlight sconces out of flower pots and dog dishes and sink drains.

That kind of scrappy genius is in keeping with the spirit of Theater Latté Da, now in its 20th season. Peter Rothstein (Artistic Director and FIVE POINTS director) and co-founder Denise Prosek (music director for FIVE POINTS) met in high school some decades back, I'm told. For years, Theater Latté Da worked in a variety of venues around the Twin Cities, until deciding in 2016 to purchase and renovate the old Ritz Theater in Northeast Minneapolis. With just 234 seats, it offers an intimate and innovative space, and helps anchor a newly vibrant arts district in a modest residential neighborhood, which now includes trendy restaurants, a brew pub, and other arts organizations.

FIVE POINTS runs from April 4 through May 6.

Photo credit: Allen Weeks






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From This Author Karen Bovard

Karen Bovard has been reviewing theater online, in weekly arts papers, and in scholarly journals for 20 years in New England. In 2016, she relocated (read more...)

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