‘Motown The Musical’ to open; ‘All Is Calm’ coming to the Pantages

Photo by Joan Marcus
Patrice Covington as Martha Reeves with the cast of “Motown The Musical.”

“Motown The Musical,” which opens tonight at the Orpheum, has a local connection. Julius Thomas III, who understudied as Berry Gordy in the original Broadway cast, will play that role in the touring company for a limited engagement that starts here. Some of you will remember Thomas’ Guthrie debut in 2010 in “The Scottsboro Boys.” Welcome back, Mr. Thomas.

The Orpheum dates are part of the musical’s first national tour, which began in Chicago in May. Over half a million people have seen it so far, and we’re guessing they weren’t sitting still in their seats. The story of Gordy, who launched the careers of Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye and countless others, “Motown” is full of songs most of us know, even if we weren’t yet born when they were first released: “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “Dancing in the Street,” “Stop! In the Name of Love,” “My Girl” and dozens more. It’s feel-good music that grabs you and brings people together.

In his preview of the show, the Star Tribune’s Rohan Preston noted the relevance of “Motown” today, and the power of music to heal. Producer Kevin McCollum remarked that “Obama wouldn’t be president without Motown.” Maybe, maybe not, but POTUS respects the music. Last Friday, the Four Tops and the Temptations were touring the holiday décor at the White House when they were invited to stop by the Oval Office for a visit. “Motown The Musical” continues through Dec. 28. FMI and tickets

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After seeing Harold Pinter’s “The Hothouse” in the cavernous, echoing two-story atrium of the Grain Belt Bottling House – 7,000 square feet of concrete floors and stairways, dark corners and metal doors – we can’t imagine seeing it anywhere else. With a small cast, no sets and a few sticks of furniture, Dark & Stormy Productions commands the space and makes it seem like the only logical place for Pinter’s merciless, grim and often very funny play about bad people doing bad things.

Six actors play seven roles, and you can’t take your eyes off any of them. As Roote, the forgetful, egomaniacal ex-military director of the undefined institution in which “The Hothouse” is staged, Broadway and screen actor Robert Dorfman has the most lines and makes the best use of the impossible acoustics. The actors wear body mics, and we the audience have headsets and receivers, so they don’t have to worry about projecting. When Dorfman whispers and mutters, we hear every word; when he shouts, the sound crashes around the vast room like the voice of God.

Mark Benninghofen as Roote’s right-hand man Gibbs is coolly efficient, a spider waiting patiently in a web. Sara Marsh as Miss Cutts, the play’s only woman, is a sexy troublemaker with a hard little heart. As Lush, Bill McCallum gave us the willies. John Catron is Lamb, the newish hire, not quite sure why he’s there but desperate to fit in and get ahead. He’ll do anything, poor guy. Bruce Bohne plays Tubb and Lobb, servant and master. Ben McGovern directs, C. Andrew Meyer does the sound, Mary Shabatura the lights, and once more, as they did with “Speed the Plow” and “The Receptionist” and “The Drunken City,” the D&S team gives us a night of theater we’ll be thinking about and talking about for a long time.

The play itself is a thoroughly nasty piece of work; not a single character has a redeeming quality, and the ending is about as far from happy as you can get. And a merry Christmas to you, too, Dark & Stormy! Pinter himself wasn’t all that sure about “The Hothouse” when he wrote it in 1958; he shelved it until 1979, and it was first produced in London in 1980. It is seldom seen today, although its themes – institutional bureaucracy, the abuse of power, violence, torture, madness – seem ripped from the morning’s headlines. This production is a regional premiere.

Catch it while you can. Live theater is already ephemeral, but a D&S play seems especially so. Set in places where theater doesn’t normally happen, it’s here, then gone, sometimes midrun. We saw “The Hothouse” on Friday night. On Saturday, we stopped by the Grain Belt Bottling House for another event, Midway’s 7th Annual Monster Drawing Rally. The atrium was full of artists drawing and people milling around. On Sunday, D&S had moved back in. “The Hothouse” continues through Jan. 4. FMI and tickets ($24/$15). 

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Now at the Bryant-Lake Bowl Theater, currently hosting the nuttiest, most colorful lineup around: “The Unscripted Minnesota Holiday.” Presented by Danger Boat Productions (Tane Danger and Brandon Boat, the Gusties who founded The Theater of Public Policy), it’s good, silly fun.

As you enter the theater, after first walking through the restaurant and the bowling lanes, you’re handed a card on which you’re asked to name a fictional town, a holiday, and the occupation of the local villain. After weeding out everything not appropriate for children (all performances but one – this Thursday’s – are family-friendly), the crew of improvisers gets to work, making up story lines and songs. (Yes, it’s a musical.) Our night was set in a town with an unpronounceable, multisyllabic name, where the annual Spreadable Cheese Festival was threatened by a pair of villains whose day job had something to do with bicycles. Not that it matters; your night will be totally different.

The cast is quick, fearless and game. From behind his keyboard at stage right, music director Dennis Curley stitches together the crazy quilt of plot twists and one-liners. We loved his Giant Slide sounds, which you won’t hear, unless there’s a giant slide in your night’s story, which seems highly unlikely. Through Dec. 20, with a new guest villain every night. FMI and tickets ($15/$13/$6 kids).

The Picks

Tonight at the University Club of St. Paul: Readings by Writers. St. Paul poet laureate Carol Connolly hosts fellow poets Cary Waterman, Ted King, Tim Nolan, Madelon Sprengnether, Tom Cassidy, Todd Boss (co-founder of Motionpoems), Laurie Hertzel (the Star Tribune’s senior editor for books) and Dudley Riggs, yes, that Dudley Riggs. A musical prelude by violinist Mary Scallen and flutist Jim Miller starts things off at 7 p.m., and the readings commence at 7:30. Free.

Wednesday at the Weisman: “Trains That Passed in the Night: The Photographs of O. Winston Link.” This fascinating and beautiful collection of black-and-white photographs captures the final years of steam railroading on the Norfolk & Western Railway, the last major railroad in America to operate exclusively with steam power. Trailing plumes of white and black steam, iron horses barrel past homes, towns, drive-in movies and people sitting on porches. The Weisman is open late Wednesdays (until 8 p.m.), so take some time to read the exhibition booklet, which explains Link’s love of steam, the trouble he went to, the equipment he lugged and the risks he took to capture these indelible images. FMI. Free admission. Ends Feb. 8.

Holiday Fare

Opens Wednesday at the Pantages: “All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914.” Kylie Schultz of Theoroi, a young professionals group sponsored by the Schubert Club, wrote this preview for MinnPost: “In the winter of 1914, men along the frontlines of World War I came out of their trenches to commemorate the season of Christmas. ‘All Is Calm’ tells the story of the many soldiers who defied their superiors and the war itself by reaching across enemy lines to celebrate peace on earth. In their final year performing ‘All is Calm,’ the talented men of Cantus, a local group of nine singers, along with actors from Theater Latté Da, tell this beautiful story of goodwill and human strength through firsthand accounts from individuals on both sides of the war and music of the era. The story weaves through the first months of the war, from recruitment through the New Year, as soldiers ultimately lay down their arms and commiserate with their former enemies. Written by Peter Rothstein with musical arrangements by Erick Lichte, Timothy C. Takach, and Cantus, it’s a poignant story about the power and will of the human spirit.” Through Dec. 21. FMI and tickets ($39).

Wednesday at the Dakota: George Maurer Group Christmas Show. It’s always a good time when jazz pianist, composer, and avid bicyclist George Maurer and his friends –  musicians he’s performed with for years – take the Dakota stage for a night of songs, jokes and merrymaking. This show has a warm, intimate feel, like hanging around the piano at a friend’s house, except the music is really, really good. 7 p.m. FMI and tickets ($15).

Saturday in Lowertown: SantaCon VII. If Santa is a drinking man, he’ll probably stop by SantaCon, one of the few places he can travel incognito.  Because there are lots of Santas at this annual pub crawl led by the Brass Messengers, a 10-member brass band. Dixie De’Lamour is this year’s emcee; participating pubs are Golden’s Deli, the Black Dog, Señor Wong and Bedlam Lowertown. FMI. BTW this is the Black Dog’s 15th year in Lowertown. They moved in before the area was hot, weathered ups, downs and disruptions (the Green Line ends kitty-corner from their door, and the Saints stadium is being built across the street), plus they love jazz. We’ll drink to that.

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