BWW Reviews: Variations on a Theme - Three Musicals, THE COLOR PURPLE, CALVIN BERGER, and LA CAGE AUX FOLLES, All Speak to Beauty and Self-Worth

By: Jan. 27, 2015

At first glance, the musicals The Color Purple, Calvin Berger, and La Cage aux Folles may not seem to have much in common. The settings couldn't be more different - the rural South in the early 20th century, a modern day high school, and a drag club in 1970s France. But since I happened to see them all on the same weekend, I couldn't help but draw parallels between them. All three musicals all speak to themes of beauty, identity, self-worth, and having the courage to be who you really are, despite what the world is telling you (which tied in very nicely with the preamble to my weekend, Shá Cage's powerful one-woman creation U/G/L/Y, which uses the art forms of movement, storytelling, music, poetry, video, and visual art to explore these same ideas). In The Color Purple, a young, poor, black woman is told that she's ugly and worthless, but after a lifelong journey she arrives at a place of strength and self-love. Calvin Berger sets the classic play Cyrano de Bergerac in a modern high school, where a young man feels that his large nose prevents him from getting what he wants in life and chooses to hide behind the handsome popular guy, both of whom eventually learn it's better to be loved for who you are. Finally, in La Cage aux Folles, a middle aged man who feels more comfortable dressed as a woman is asked by his own son to hide who he is, but confidently declares "I am who I am!" Another thing these three musicals have in common is that they can all currently be seen on Twin Cities stages featuring talented local casts. Read on for more details on each, pick one that suits your fancy, and go see a local musical that just may inspire you to love you you really are!

The Color Purple at Park Square Theatre

Alice Walker's 1982 novel The Color Purple is a story so beautiful, moving, inspirational, and epic that it needs to be seen and heard in as many formats as possible. If someone wants to turn it into a Saturday morning cartoon series I'm all for it, as long as it stays true to the spirit of the original. And the 2005 Broadway musical does that and more. I saw the Broadway tour in 2009 and wept like I never have at the theater, so overwhelming is the emotional impact of this story of a woman who is beaten down by life for so many years, yet somehow comes through it all and discovers her own strength, beauty, identity, and sense of self-worth, the emotional impact increased by the addition of music. Park Square Theatre is presenting the first local production of The Color Purple as part of an ambitious and exciting season that includes the addition of a second stage, partnership with theater companies and artists around town, and a greater commitment to diversity and the community. It's a wonderful statement, but more importantly, The Color Purple is a truly beautiful and moving production that brings to vivid life this epic and beloved American story.

The Color Purple is Celie's story, a young, poor, black woman living in rural Georgia in the early 20th century. At 14, she's had two babies by her father, who has "gotten rid of them" and then sells her to a widower who needs a wife to take care of his home and children. The only love Celie knows is that of her sister Nettie, from whom she is separated and not allowed contact. Celie is repeatedly told by everyone that she's ugly and worthless, so of course she believes it. But as the 40 year story plays out, she meets a few women who inspire her and teach her that life can be more than pain and drudgery. Celie's hard-working daughter-in-law Sofia is a strong woman who demands respect, the glamorous singer Shug Avery teaches Celie about love, and Nettie comes back into her life from far away. It's truly remarkable to watch this woman who has gone through so much choose to reclaim her life from those who have belittled and diminished her, and create a happy life with people and work that she loves, and a renewed faith in herself and the goodness of the world. In Celie's crowning moment, just after the woman she loves leaves her, she sings, "Most of all I'm thankful for loving who I really am. I'm beautiful. Yes, I'm beautiful, and I'm here!"

This brilliant cast of local talent is led by Aimee K. Bryant as Celie, who brings such humanity, vulnerability, and strength to the role. Jamaica Meyer is a newcomer to the Twin Cities theater scene, but she more than holds her own on this stage full of veterans. Her Nettie is ray of light and hope. T. Mychael Rambo is menacing as the cruel Mister, and his portrayal of Mister's breakdown and rebirth make me forgive him against my will. Thomasina Petrus is perfect for the role of Sofia, so strong and funny and just a delight to watch. Darius Dotch is her equal as Harpo, and the two portray perhaps the most loving and healthy relationship in the story. Their duet "Any Little Thing" is especially charming. Last but not least, Regina Marie Williams fully embodies the larger than life character Shug, and the Shug/Celie duet "What About Love?" is a highlight. The entire ensemble (which includes local favorites like powerhouse Jamecia Bennett and the super smooth Dennis Spears) is fantastic in multiple roles, but special mention must be made of the Greek chorus of gossipy church ladies - Ginger Commodore, Shirley Marie Graham, and Samia Butler - an absolute hoot as they patter in gorgeous and intricate harmonies.

The Color Purple is a big Broadway style musical in a more intimate setting with a fantastic local cast. This is such a story of hope, resilience, faith, community, and love. It's a truly moving and emotional experience to go on Celie's journey of self-discovery with her, led by this awesome cast and creative team. Head to downtown St. Paul between now and February 15 to be inspired, moved, and uplifted by Celie and friends.

Calvin Berger by Minneapolis Musical Theatre at the New Century Theatre

"Rare musicals. Well done." Minneapolis Musical Theatre lives up to their motto, having given us great productions of such lesser known musicals as Steven King's Carrie and the controversial Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. Their second show this season is the 2006 musical Calvin Berger, loosely based on the classic French play Cyrano de Bergerac, set in a modern day high school. Instead of a sword-fighting poet with a big nose, this Cyrano is an insecure high school student named Calvin who thinks he has a big nose. Whether real or perceived, it keeps him from living the life he wants. It's a clever adaptation of a classic story, relating the still relevant themes of being true to yourself and wanting to be loved for who you are in a modern and accessible way. And while the non-Cyrano parts of the story are a bit cliche and the characters familiar stereotypes, it's charmingly delivered by a strong cast of four and makes for a fun and entertaining evening at the theater.

Calvin Berger is your typical high school nerd, smart and funny in his way but lacking in self-confidence, in this case because he thinks nose is too big. Isn't that always the way, we see our flaws first and think that everyone else sees them too, when really they're too busy with their own lives to notice. In fact we learn in the opening number that all of these characters, even the ones who appear to have everything, are insecure about something. Calvin's best friend is a girl named Bret, who secretly pines for him (a plot point that's familiar to children of the '80s). But Calvin only has eyes for the pretty popular Rosanna, who worries that she may never be anything more. When Rosanna asks Calvin to help her get to know the cute new guy Matt, he reluctantly agrees. Matt's insecurity is his inability to talk to girls, so like Cyrano does for Christian, Calvin gives Matt the words he lacks to help him woo Rosanna. The story diverges from the original (spoiler alert: nobody dies), and the truth is eventually revealed. Everyone learns that it's better to be who you are than pretend to be someone else, and is happier for it.

The small cast allows for a greater focus on these four characters without the distraction of an ensemble. Director Joshua James Campbell brings out the best in the talented young cast; all four are extremely likeable and bring depth and color to roles that are familiar high school stereotypes. Gregory Adam is adorkable as the awkward Calvin, and has the most poignant moments of the show as he shows us Calvin's deep longing to be accepted. Logan Greene is perfect as the sweet but dumb Matt, and the two have a believable bromance that makes you think they kind of like and need each other, despite their odd arrangement. As Rosanna, Emily Madigan shows that she's more than just a great dancer, bringing a sweetness of voice and character to the role. Last but not least, Kecia Rehkamp is the quintessential funny best friend who wants to be more than just a sidekick. And happily, the two girls become friends in the end and overcome that tired cliche of fighting over a boy. All four actors have great voices singing these funny and clever, if not particularly memorable, songs, with some lovely harmonies in duet, trio, and quartet, accompanied by a four-piece band just barely visible behind the back wall of the set.

Calvin Berger is a sweet, charming, funny show, with a great young cast that is fun to watch. Playing at the New Century Theatre through February 15 (discount tickets available on Goldstar).

La Cage aux Folles at Bloomington Civic Theatre

La Cage aux Folles is such a heart-warming show. Despite all the glitz and glamour of the drag nightclub in which it is set, at its core it's a simple story about love, family, and having the courage to be who you are. Bloomington Civic Theatre plays up both sides of this show, with big production numbers featuring men (and a few women) in drag with glitzy costumes and sets, but a really sweet heart beating underneath it. As my companion stated, it's "sheer joy."

If you've seen the 1996 movie The Birdcage starring Nathan Lane and Robin Williams you're familiar with the story, which began as a 1973 French play called La Cage aux Folles, and then became a 1983 Broadway musical written by Harvey Fierstein (book) and Jerry Herman (music and lyrics). La Cage tells the story of gay couple Georges and Albin. Georges runs the nightclub where Albin is the star, performing as his alter ego ZaZa. Georges' son Jean-Michel, whom Albin has helped raise, comes home to announce that he's engaged to Anne, the daughter of a conservative politician who wants to shut down all drag entertainment. The in-laws are coming to town, and Jean-Michel asks Albin to leave for the evening, instead inviting his birth mother to pretend that they're a "normal" family. Albin is understandably hurt that the man he considers his son is ashamed to introduce him to his fiance. He can't stay away, and poses first as "Uncle Al," and then, in drag, as Jean-Michel's mother. Of course the deception doesn't last, but they're able to convince Anne's father to give his consent with some good old-fashioned blackmail. Jean-Michel realizes what a mistake he made and tells Albin he thinks of him as his mother. And they live happily ever after, for "the best of times is now."

At the heart of this piece is the relationship between Albin and Georges, and BCT has found two perfect actors to portray them. Acclaimed costume designer Rich Hamson has come out of the costume shop and onto the stage in a glorious and heartfelt performance. Perhaps it's appropriate for a costume designer to play a role involving so many varied and fabulous costumes, but his performance is about so much more than just the costumes. It's a beautifully real and tender-hearted portrayal of a parent, lover, and performer who just wants to be who he is ("I Am What I Am") and love his family. As Georges, Jim Pounds has never looked or sounded more suave, and the two men have wonderful chemistry and portray such a beautiful and real relationship of an old married couple who still love each other despite, or because of, their eccentricities. Everyone in the supporting cast is great, especially Michael Terrell Brown who is delightfully over-the-top as Albin's butler, er... maid.

Joe Chvala directs this fabulous ensemble cast and choreographed the Cagelles' fantastic dance numbers. And the Cagelles are all stunning. In the exaggerated make-up common to drag performance (which they each apply themselves), it's difficult to tell the experienced drag performers from the men who are donning heels and a wig for the first time or the women who are thrown in just to keep the audience guessing. Benjamin Olsen's sets are big, bold, and colorful. Ed Gleeman has designed the over-the-top nightclub costumes, as well as some fabulous '70s street wear that includes bell-bottoms, super wide lapels, hippie dresses, and one stunning orange/green/gold jumpsuit that I covet.

With the recent passage of marriage equality in Minnesota, and increasingly, across the country, it's timely to see a show that's about two men who have created a long-lasting, loving, stable family. A family that may be a bit more flamboyant that most, but one that's a model of love, support, commitment, and acceptance. La Cage aux Folles is a lot of fun, it's really sweet, and it has a great message - a message of acceptance of all kinds of family, and of being proud to be who you are. Playing now through February 15, BCT shows have a tendency to sell out, so get your tickets now (a few discount tickets remain on Goldstar).

Photo credit: Petronella J. Ytsma

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