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Socially distanced doo-wop for Valentine’s Day; Theater Mu’s ‘Today Is My Birthday’ is worth celebrating

ALSO: Selby Avenue Brass Band with Thomasina Petrus; Davina and the Vagabonds: A Vagabond Valentine Show; and more.

Left to right: John Barrett, Dave Jacobson, Abbie Betinis, and Bob Peskin.
Left to right: John Barrett, Dave Jacobson, Abbie Betinis, and Bob Peskin.
Courtesy of the artists

Early in the pandemic, a discovery rocked the choral world: Communal singing can spread COVID-19. People who attended choir rehearsals in Washington state, the Netherlands, Britain and Germany got sick and died. An expression of community and creativity, good for mind, body and spirit, singing with others had the potential to kill you.

In the Land of 10,000 Choirs, this was especially soul-crushing. But if humans can invent vaccines and send rovers to Mars, we can figure out how to sing together safely, at a distance from each other.

Bob Peskin, executive director of the Minnesota Chorale, principal chorus of the Minnesota Orchestra, is also a member of the a cappella doo-wop quartet the Fairlanes. This Sunday, Valentine’s Day, they’ll perform a live concert in a church parking lot. They’ll sing at the same time, they’ll sound great, and they will all be sitting in their own cars, just like their audience.

“We’re using this technology that allows us to do a micro-radio broadcast,” Peskin said last week by phone. “It’s something that a bunch of choirs in other parts of the country have started to do. It gives you a way to rehearse and stay in your safety bubble.

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“That’s been the big challenge with singers. You cannot rehearse on Zoom. There’s too much of a time lag and you can’t do anything simultaneously. Whereas with this technology, it’s absolutely immediate, with no delay. But you have to be in proximity to each other.

“We rehearse every week. We drive to the corner of a parking lot, fire up the equipment and run it off a car battery.”

The equipment includes wireless mics, an FM micro-transmitter (with a range of less than 50 yards), a mixer and car radios.

“You tune into your designated frequency, and you sing to your microphone, but you hear everybody else through your car radio,” Peskin explained. “When we sing for an audience, we just tell them to show up at this time in this place, and here’s the frequency, and, you know, there you go. And the transmitter has a tiny, tiny throw. It barely covers the parking lot. So it’s not like we’re competing with any real radio station.”

The Fairlanes are Peskin (bass), Abbie Betinis (alto), John Barrett (tenor) and Dave Jacobson (baritone). They’re the latest iteration of a group that formed close to 30 years ago, when four singing friends wanted to expand their reach beyond barbershop. Members have come and gone over the years, and today, with Betinis, the Fairlanes are co-ed.

Their style is a blend of doo-wop, R&B, and pop songs from the 1950s and ’60s. They have a repertoire of about 70 songs, many of which are love songs – “Happy Together,” “Sentimental Journey,” “So Much in Love,” “You Really Got a Hold on Me” – which makes them perfect for a mid-afternoon Valentine’s Day date in a church parking lot “at a convenient location somewhere in St. Paul.”

Sign up for the concert on their website and you’ll receive an email with the exact location. It starts at 4 p.m. and it’s free. If you want to make a request or dedicate a song to your Valentine, you can do that for a modest fee.

We won’t see the 220 members of the Minnesota Chorale singing from their 220 cars anytime soon. Large group singing will have to wait. But for small groups who want to sing together and don’t mind the steering wheel, and people who want to hear them, this is a pretty big deal.

Review: Theater Mu’s “Today Is My Birthday” is worth celebrating

If you’re going to livestream a play in a pandemic, shouldn’t you keep it short and simple? And limit the number of characters, scenes, locations and costume changes?

Apparently that’s not how Theater Mu and Artistic Director Lily Tung Crystal think. Susan Soon He Stanton’s play “Today Is My Birthday,” which opened Feb. 6 and continues live broadcast performances until Feb. 15, when it switches to video-on-demand, is neither short nor simple. It clocks in at around two hours, and it’s a complex story about people, their lives and relationships, and the journey we’re all on to find ourselves and discover what matters.

There are almost two dozen characters. (Some have very small parts, but still.) In the cast of six actors, only Katie Bradley plays just one role. All the others – China Brickey, Eric Sharp, Jomar Tagatac, Greg Watanabe and Emily Kuroda – play anywhere from two to six roles. Watanabe is Emily’s father and the world’s oldest ukulele player. Kuroda is her mother, the receptionist at her temp job, the ukulele player’s manager, a public radio host and the editor of a local newspaper.

Katie Bradley and Greg Watanabe in a scene from "Today is My Birthday."
Courtesy of Theater Mu
Katie Bradley and Greg Watanabe in a scene from "Today Is My Birthday."
The story takes place in Honolulu, New York and San Francisco; in apartments, homes, office buildings and cars; in a restaurant, coffee shop, movie theater and library. The actors themselves are physically in different locations. Bradley, Brickey and Sharp are in Minneapolis, Tagatac, Watanabe and Kuroda in California.

Bradley alone has at least 16 costume changes (honestly, we lost track).

“Today Is My Birthday” premiered in New York in November 2017. Crystal discovered it last April, shortly after theaters shut down. Mu held a table reading on April 27. And now it’s the first mainstage production in the second half of the company’s 2020-21 season. Given the circumstances we’re in, and how the arts are struggling to survive, it’s a hugely ambitious production, and radiant with hope. Knowing it’s live adds a layer of excitement, even though you’re watching on a screen.

The play is told entirely in phone calls, voice messages, live radio, and exchanges over intercoms. No one talks face-to-face, unless you count Facetime and Zoom. Screens-within-screens and split screens are often used. No two actors are ever in the same space, though visual tricks make it look as if they are. (Watch for the passing of popcorn, and the high-five.) Although everyone seems to be talking all the time, everyone is alone. In this way, “Today Is My Birthday” is a play of our present moment. It’s about isolation and the inability to connect, despite the many ways we have to communicate.

Emily Chang, a journalist, has left New York and returned home to Hawaii, where her parents are. She has left behind a serious boyfriend, a best girlfriend, and a dark time in her life. She sees herself as a failure. When someone stands her up or lets her down, her usual response is, “That’s OK, it’s not important.” Her life starts to change when a friend talks her into a brief acting job on live radio, but nothing ever really works out for her. She wants to do something that matters, but she doesn’t know what that is.

Too serious? Don’t worry. The play is also very funny and surprisingly tender. The scenes set during a radio show (“Z101.3 Hot Spot with DJ Loki and DJ Solange!”) are hilarious. When Emily calls a long-ago boyfriend out of the blue – by now, he’s married with a 2-year-old – he treats her with great kindness. We wish we’d seen more of Emily’s father, a man with a deep knowledge and love of music. It would be interesting to ask the playwright where that character came from.

The next four performances, tonight (Thursday, Feb. 11) through Sunday, Feb. 14, will be broadcast live at specific times. Tonight’s will be followed by a post-show discussion. Video-on-demand starts Monday, Feb. 15, and continues through Sunday, Feb. 21. Tickets are pay-as-you-are from $5 to $50.

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The picks

V is for virtual, L is for live and in person.

V Friday (Feb. 12), 3 p.m. on TPT Channel 2: Minnesota Orchestra and the Minnesota Zoo: Young People’s Concert: “A Musical Menagerie.” This will be the first time a Minnesota Orchestra Young People’s Concert has been televised, and the first time it has included real tigers and bears. For this extraordinary event, host and conductor Sarah Hicks went to the zoo in Apple Valley to meet with zookeepers and record footage of animals who relate to the music the orchestra will play. Livestreamed from Orchestra Hall, the program will include selections by Perkinson, Ravel, Vivaldi, Grace Williams and Rimsky-Korsakov. It’s hoped the concert will build empathy, help kids understand how music communicates ideas, and boost interest in conservation efforts. If you can’t catch the live broadcast, you can view the recording here. Here’s a short preview.

V Friday (Feb. 12), 7 p.m.: Walker West Music Academy: Black History Music Series: Selby Avenue Brass Band with Thomasina Petrus. This monthly series began in January with “The Solomon Sessions,” featuring Solomon Parham, and you can still watch the recording here or here. It continues with a great local brass band and a singer who always makes you sit up and pay attention: Thomasina Petrus. It’s said that she’ll sing “Strange Fruit,” so be ready. With Larry Sims, Tom Wells, Kevin Washington, Chris Fulton and Parham. The series is livestreamed from Walker West’s small performance hall, with good lighting, sound and camera work. Free on CrowdCast, with registration required. Or watch on Facebook.

V Starts Saturday (Feb. 13), 8 p.m.: Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company: “Promise of America: A Celebration of Jewish American Song.” “Over the Rainbow,” “Piano Man,” “Send in the Clowns,” “Da Doo Ron Ron,” “Tapestry” and “Chapel of Love” have something in common besides being great songs: All were written by Jewish American composers. Just in time for Valentine’s Day, MJTC has created a new musical revue that honors Harold Arlen, Carole King, Stephen Sondheim and many others. Performed by Aimee K. Bryant, Al Church, Benjamin Dutcher and Kim Kivens, the show will stream five times between Saturday and next Sunday (Feb. 21). FMI and tickets ($15). Go behind the scenes: On Monday (Feb. 15) at 7 p.m., MJTC’s Barbara Brooks, dramaturg Jo Holcomb, director Kevin Dutcher and cinematographer Ryan Melling will talk on Zoom about creating, licensing and launching the show. Free, with reservation required. Call 651-647-4315.

Davina and the Vagabonds
Courtesy of the Kurland Agency
Davina and the Vagabonds
V Sunday (Feb. 14), 7 p.m.: The Hook & Ladder: Davina and the Vagabonds: A Vagabond Valentine Show. Based in Minneapolis, vocalist, pianist, songwriter and Red House recording artist Davina Sowers and her band have performed across the U.S. and around the world, from small rooms to big outdoor festivals. A high-energy mix of jazz, blues and Davina’s personality, their music is retro and ageless. And you can expect that Davina will be dressed to the nines for this livestreamed (lovestreamed?) V-Day special. 7 p.m. FMI and tickets ($20).