REVIEW: Shrek, the Musical, Junior; A Pungently Perfect Production!

Who knew that a show at our elegant Washington Pavilion would include a farting contest? Well, I should have; it was Shrek the Musical, Jr. after all.  It’s playing in the Belbas Theater and runs through this weekend. The show is a culmination of the efforts of directors Bob Wendland and Molly Wilson, who wrangled more than sixty students ranging in age from 8-18.   The production is sponsored by the Dakota Academy of Performing Arts, which works exclusively with young people in the Sioux Empire.

The efforts of the directors has paid off in an impressive show that fills the Belbas stage with music and laughter.  It was truly a joy to see the array of young talent from our city in action.  Not only was there dialogue, delivered with great comic timing, but there was singing, choreography and, wait for it,…….tap dancing RATS!  Rather than a big budget show, the production is an immersive educational experience for the students.  You won’t see pyrotechnics or fancy equipment, but the costumes and simple props do their job, transporting the audience to the fairy tale kingdom of Duloc.

Our hero is Shrek, a grumpy, green ogre who lives in a swamp and likes his solitude. One day he comes home to find his muddy abode overrun with dozens of fairy tale characters including Pinocchio, the Three Little Pigs, and the Big Bad Wolf.  Shrek is none too happy with this development and sets off to Duloc Castle to reclaim his property from Lord Farquaad.

To his dismay, Shrek gains a travel partner, a talking donkey who will not shut up.  Arriving at the castle he is informed by Lord Farquaad that his swamp will be returned if he completes a “simple task”.  He must rescue the Princess Fiona from her dragon-guarded tower, and bring her to Duloc to be Farquaad’s bride.   Our Shrek,  fearless and always on task, sets off, with Donkey in tow.

Along the way we meet, as the Old Woman in The Shoe would say, “So many characters we don’t know what to do”.  Each one has its own personality and is accented by colorful costumes.  

Coleman Peterson, as Shrek, shows significant talent as a vocalist, and delivers his lines with solid timing and facial expression.  He plays Shrek without a heavy Irish brogue, and that’s okay.  He has just enough of the blarney, and his voice successfully presents the character’s anger, laughter, and, at times, tenderness.

Maddie Lumkoski, as the adult Fiona, was stellar.  Her lines were clean and her songs emotive and lovely.  As a musical theater performer, her body movement and facial expressions were spot on for the character.  We could tell what Fiona had in mind.

All of these young actors were terrific, but I have to say that my favorite character was Donkey, played by Chris Larson.  His costume was perfect, as was his comic timing.  I dare say that I preferred his delivery to that of the Donkey that came with the traveling Broadway show a couple of years ago.  Larson’s face and voice, along with his dopey gait, were enough to keep me cracking up throughout the show.

Other stand-outs included the Young Fiona, adorably played by Sophia Santos, Pinocchio and his nose, portrayed by Cody Novotny, and the Big Bad Wolf in a granny dress and pearls, played by Josh Sauer, with hilarious mannerisms. (Disclaimer:  Ok, so the Big Bad Wolf is my kid, I have to name him, but he was good!)

The Gingerbread Man was brought to life by Hannah Sayler as she expertly coordinated her voice and puppeteering skills.  A great performance by Adam Greenfield brought us the obnoxious Lord Farquaad,  and the ethereal, yet menacing Dragon was played by Malia Lukomski, with assistance from Manon Miller, Kyla Smith and Irelynn White.

Behind the scenes were Student Director, Abby Neff and Assistant Stage Manager, Charley Larson.  They handled their jobs well.  I saw no missed cues; only a twisted backdrop mishap, which was handled quickly.

Again, ALL of the characters were wonderful in their own right.  Parents will enjoy the show, but it is strong enough to present to the general public.   It moves quickly and runs just over 90 minutes with an intermission.  The Belbas is a comfy, casual venue where every seat is a good one.  Unfortunately, a check on the Pavilion website shows that all performances have now sold out!

I can guarantee that these kids learned more than lines and choreography while working on this project.   This was a full on immersive lesson in respect, teamwork, listening and follow through.  And that’s the thing about theater, it’s more than just putting on a show.  It’s a building ground for social skills, confidence and self esteem.

Coming up this summer, “Guys & Dolls, Jr.”,  a camp for kids ages 10-14, and Shakespeare Camp, created for older students ages 14-18.

Check out the website   https://www.washingtonpavilion.org/online/   for an array of youth opportunities!

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REVIEW: A Year With Frog & Toad; Brings the GREEN with Hilarious Family Fare!

“my granddaughter, Kalie, did not want the story to end, and requested a photo with each and every character. That’s how much fun this show was.”

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By Julie Sauer- Follow @JulieLSauer

The Green Earth Players really brought the GREEN last weekend with their musical production of A Year With Frog and Toad!  Who knew that, just thirty minutes East on I-90, there is quality musical theatre to be had for the whole family!

The production, held in the historic Palace Theatre in downtown Luverne, Minnesota, is a lovely, century old venue, with the gorgeous woodwork of the era.  You would never realize that this is also the local movie theater, but for the first-rate concession stand.  The stage and seating are of modest size, a bit smaller than the Belbas within the Washington Pavilion.  But, when that curtain opened, a lush, green world was revealed and we were transported to the world of Frog and Toad.

The story begins as Frog and Toad are awakening from their winter slumber.  Frog is eager to get moving; Toad, not so much.  I think Toad is my spirit animal.  We follow the two through a year of adventures, through fun times and scary times, meeting lots of local creatures along the way.  Frog and Toad are the stars of the show, with Casey McKenzie’s chipper attitude and lovely voice giving us a Frog that is an intelligent leader.  Shawn Kinsinger is cast as Toad and creates such a repertoire of toad-escent facial expressions that we couldn’t quit laughing.  His mouth was great but, his EYES!  They bugged, rolled, and side-lagged, doing everything to make us believe he really was a toad! These two actors had amazing comic chemistry and timing.

All of the characters were fun; the naughty squirrels creating chaos, the fairy that changed the seasons, the darling mouse, who looked like a princess, but clearly had less than royal thoughts in her head.  The bird trio was a colorful flock that added narration and clarity to the story, usually through song.  My favorite was “Getta Load of Toad”, an upbeat toe tapper.  Two other stand-outs were Turtle, who waxed her shell with Turtle Wax, and the Mail Snail, who brought life to the phrase “snail mail”; very….very…..slowly.  Not so slow was the Act I Finale, “Cookies”, in which the characters could not stop eating freshly baked cookies.  It was like a stage full of “Cookie Monsters”, with crumbs flying into the orchestra pit!

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Kalie & the Frog Family

The set for the play was rich with color and movement, representing seasons, a flying kite, a running stream, the homes of our heroes, and, best of all: a snow hill for speed-sledding!  It truly was all believable, so much so that my granddaughter, Kalie (aka Speedy as she was wearing her cape and mask), did not want the story to end, and requested a photo with each and every character. That’s how much fun this show was.  The costumes were also very creatively done, using many common household items to represent parts of the animals’ bodies.

This first rate production is totally worth the thirty minute car ride and will keep your children’s attention throughout.  I urge you to check it out this weekend.

Show runs Friday, March 18th & Saturday, March 19th, with showings at 7:30pm.  Sunday, March 20th is a 2:00pm matinee.  Tickets are $14 for Adults & $7 for kids/students.  They are reserved seating, so, if you want to get tickets ahead, call   (507) 283-4339.  No cards are accepted. It is CASH or CHECK only.  

Miles from Me: A South Dakota Artist’s Transition & HB 1008

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Image: freestockphotos.com

Do you remember Sandra Bullock in the movie, Gravity, floating around alone in the deep, dark, endless cold of space?  Those of us in the theater were right there with her because of the film technology we have today.  Now close your eyes and be Sandra.  You’ve already lost Clooney, but you have a state-of-the-art, impenetrable spacesuit and helmet with its own oxygen supply.  You are sure that, if you just stay strong, and stay in your suit, help will come.  You know you only have to wait.  Suddenly a piece of your damaged space station comes hurtling at you. You move, but not far enough and not fast enough.  You hear a rip and feel a change inside your cocoon.  As you look down you see a trail of vapor, moving fast, hissing across the vastness of space.  It’s your oxygen supply, your protection from an unlivable environment.  This is what so many in the LGBT+ community felt when House Bill 1008 was introduced.  They had begun to feel like they were accepted as they were in the community as a whole.  Then, as violently as shrapnel hitting a space suit, that feeling was ripped away.  Maybe you know someone in this situation, maybe you don’t, or think you don’t.  Either way, those feelings need to be shared from a personal experience.  This is Austin’s story. – Julie Sauer, Editor-at-large 

austinprofileMy name is Austin and I am transgender.  Austin is my name, it is not just a preference.  I grew up in tiny Blue Earth, MN, where, despite the world’s gradual progress in letting people be who they are, there was no LGBT+  group reaching out to those of us at school who identified with the acronym.  Amazingly enough, in a town where people know each other’s business, I rarely heard any slurs or nasty comments tossed at the non-traditional population.  I had surrounded myself with good friends and was insulated by their kindness.  But, despite that comfort bubble, I was cautious about revealing too much.  It was high school, after all, not the place to draw attention to your differences.

After graduation I was off to Mitchell, SD to major in Theatre and Digital/Web Design at Dakota Wesleyan University.  DWU is a religious institution in a conservative state, but it turned out to be the place where I met lots of people who gave me the room to breathe and explore who I was.

At this point I was getting comfortable enough to think about sharing.  While I never felt directly threatened, I had read many articles about others like me and had been shocked and disappointed to see the cutthroat comments that were written.  Of course I was well versed in what many churches and politicians had to say on the subject.  All of this made me hesitate to move forward.  I would be leaving myself completely vulnerable and unprotected as, once again, there was no LGBT+ community to lean on.

But, what I needed was to be me, whoever that was, so I stepped off the cliff into the unknown and came out as gay.  I was obviously anxious about the response I would get.  Coming out is risky business; anything could happen.  Also, people don’t realize that the “coming out” stage doesn’t end, at least not for a long time.  There are always people from the past that haven’t heard yet, and the explanation and emotional upheaval happen each and every time.  I was so relieved to discover immediate acceptance from the DWU theatre community.  They welcomed my decision to be who I was with open arms.

During summer breaks I worked in Sioux Falls, staying with family members.  It was definitely a “big city” compared to Blue Earth and Mitchell, so I was happy to spend much of my free time with a close friend from Minnesota who was also living there.  On the whole, we found Sioux Falls to be a fairly accepting place.  One thing that really stood out as a beacon of hope was gay pride display set up at Zandbroz that summer.  Seeing it gave me an uplifting feeling of support, and told me that the day would come that fear and rejection of the LGBT+ community would be a thing of the past.

I was still pondering exactly who I was, and my friend served as a sounding board.  Though she came from a conservative background, she was very open-minded.  I was able to bounce thoughts and ideas off of her, knowing that she would listen openly and give me constructive feedback.  We became very close friends that summer and I found myself comfortable enough to share thoughts about my sexuality, though I was not yet exploring terms of gender.  I can’t imagine anyone being a better source of support than she was and I will always be grateful.

At that time I don’t believe that any of my friends or family suspected that I would soon be facing a gender identity dilemma.  I was viewed as a “tomboy”, which isn’t uncommon.  Everyone saw this as acceptable behavior for a girl, and didn’t question it.  Of course, though I still had identity questions, I never let on.

One of the highlights of my time in Sioux Falls was the invitation to serve as stage manager for the Sioux Empire Community Theatre’s spring production of Spamalot.  By then I knew I was trans, but had been too overwhelmed to tell people at school.  It was just too much to envision dealing with multiple teachers and administration in a virtual “startover”, so I could comfortably be myself; a guy.  So, I took the spring semester off and used the break to begin using my name, Austin, as well as masculine pronouns with a few select people.  However, I had not told everyone, not even the Spamalot team.

By the time rehearsals started I had been Austin, with a small group, for about eight months.  I had been seeing a great gender therapist who was supporting me on my transition journey and encouraging me to be me.  One night, after all the cast had left and I was locking up, I had the urge to tell the director.  I had worked with him on a few shows and he’d always had my back.  I trusted him.  It was time.

Taking a breath to steady myself, I told him what I’d been going through.  He listened, and I shared my new name with him.  A tremendous sense of relief came over me.  I hadn’t realized how much anxiety I was holding as I worked up to this moment.  In case you haven’t figured this out, coming out as transgender is a massive emotional ordeal.  How do you explain to someone close that, in a way, you’re completely different than they’ve ever known you to be?  How do you make them understand that, though your gender has changed, your feelings for others, your creative energy, your opinions and life goals, your HUMANITY has not.  Though you are different, you are also the same.  You are trusting them with this huge part of yourself and hoping they will respect it.

I have heard about relationships being ruined by the inability to comprehend that a loved one is transgender.  I really do understand that the revelation can be a shock and can take some time and thought to get used to.  I get that.  It’s a huge change and some people feel like they’ve lost someone as they gain this new individual.  But, though I can empathize with those feelings, I don’t believe that the gender of someone that you love and care for should be that vital in your relationship. Those feelings just can’t compare to the daily pain a transgender person, still “in the closet”, must endure.  The anxiety, the self doubt and the fear are all constant companions and we are living day to day as our self-esteems absorb blow after blow.  This is not a “choice” anyone makes for themselves.  Who would choose to live a life in hiding?  The only choice we have is whether or not we live as our authentic selves.  When we take that step into the light, we hope that our families will continue to love us unconditionally, even in uncharted territory.

Within a short time after I shared my story with the Spamalot director, I was Austin to everyone in the production.  People were very understanding and quick to adapt.  There were a few slip-ups, which happen, I understand that.  I was thankful, though, that there was little attention brought to the slips; whoever it was just corrected themselves and moved on.  I was overjoyed to hear my name said aloud as Austin by the Spamalot team, and I made sure they knew how much I appreciated it.

The Spam team’s reaction bolstered my courage to talk with my immediate family and close friends.  They came to see me work and to see the show, saw my name as Austin in the playbill, and heard my team members and the cast address me by name.  I think that this helped them to feel like it was okay, that other people were accepting of it too.

I’ve been truly fortunate to have a family that has stuck with me through this, and I don’t feel that I have lost friendships as a result of my transition.  The sad thing is that most every trans person has to worry about losing people in their life because of their quest to be themselves.  If we love someone, shouldn’t we try to keep their spirit afloat during difficult times, not sink them?  What kind of person would abandon their own child because of this?  It does happen, it’s wrong, and it causes extreme heartache for the transitioning person.

I have considered myself very fortunate to be welcomed as I have by so many great people.  Though this is a conservative state, people’s overall reactions have given me hope and an idealistic view of what things can be like when we choose kindness and empathy.  I’ve found safe places here.

These thoughts came crashing to Earth when I read about House Bill 1008.  I am filled with fear for the youth of South Dakota affected by this.  I had come to believe that our state had made strides toward acceptance of the LGBT+ community, but this bill feels like a kick in the stomach.  The students targeted by it endure a great deal of stress every day, whether they are “out” or not.  They’re struggling with their identities, with acceptance, with bullies, and with thoughts about how their revelation might affect their loved ones.  It’s a lot for a young person to handle.  I may not have been exploring my gender identity in high school, but if this much hate and stigma had been surrounding me at that age, I would have been terrified.  I would have felt unsafe in an institution meant to educate and protect me.  Some of these students can’t feel safe in their own homes if they out themselves as trans; why push to make another place unwelcoming for them?  Now South Dakota, instead of helping its youth become the best it can be, has made it acceptable to bully those that identify as LGBT+.

Trans kids need support.  They deserve protection, not targeting.  They need to know that they are cared for.  We have lost so many that felt unloved, unaccepted.  And when I say that I mean they felt driven to take their own lives to stop the pain.  This is just my story and I am hoping that, by sharing it, some empathy will arise and the ostracism will cease.  The futures of so many are at stake.

– Austin Schoenfelder

Editors:  Julie Sauer & Jesse Jensen

REVIEW: “I Pee In the Shower” Post Secret Delivers Laughs & Tears!

 

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By Julie Sauer @JulieLSauer – Image courtesy of postsecret.com

“I pee in the shower.”

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Image courtesy of postsecret.com

That’s the most frequently received comment by the Post Secret project.  And it was only a small part of the package delivered last night at the Belbas Theater in the Washington Pavilion.  The rest was a program of humor and poignancy that left me emotionally drained, but satisfied as I drove home, unable to get some of the content out of my head.

Post Secret is the brainchild of Frank Warren of Germantown, Maryland.  He began with the idea of a community art project for his city.  The premise was that local people would write a secret on one side of a postcard, then mail it to him anonymously.  Frank would curate the cards and create an exhibit for display.  Sounds simple, right?  But the project snowballed.  Soon hundreds of cards were coming in, then thousands, as word spread across the nation.

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Image courtesy of postsecret.com

Some of these secrets were funny, some awe-inspiring, and others absolutely heartbreaking.  People would even send cards replying to others whose secrets had been posted to the website, offering support.  Overall, the contributors were finding a sense of release and freedom by sharing their secrets with the world.

Frank began writing books including images of some of the most poignant secrets.  Often the cards included personal drawings or cut-out letters.  The books sold like hotcakes.  One might think that the reason they became so popular is because we all have a bit of voyeur in our psyche.  Isn’t that why we watch so many reality shows? But this is about so much more.  It’s about freeing yourself from pain that has weighed you down for years.  It’s about giving others the joy of laughter without outing yourself.  It’s about knowing that there are others out there just like you.  It brings hope, relief, and a bonding across time and space that might never have occurred otherwise.  It’s about that one person who would have swallowed a handful of pills if he hadn’t seen the cards from so many others who had been there before him.  

Here is a secret that is haunting me yet today: “I save voicemails from my family so that, when they die, I can still listen to their voice.  I listen to my grandmother sing me Happy Birthday every year, just like she did when she was alive.”  

One of the funniest secrets: “I like to secretly drop feminine hygiene products into strange men’s carts at the grocery store.”  That one is truly inspired!  Game on!

The most shocking of all: “Everyone that knew me before 9-11 believes I’m dead.”  Let that one sink in.  There are literally thousands of these in the books and on the website.

I am so thankful that I got to see the live presentation.  It consisted of three actors who delivered secrets from memory, as the cards were displayed on the jumbo screen behind them.  They didn’t just read, they truly portrayed the emotions found in the words.  Linking it all together was a narration of the Post Secret story and a musical backdrop provided by a live guitarist.  The resulting presentation was an emotional masterpiece; simple, yet powerful.  One moment the crowd was silent, the next it was erupting with laughter.  Then the mood would shift and scattered sobs could be heard throughout the house.

During intermission we were invited to submit our own secrets, some of which were read aloud on stage.  Yes, I submitted a hum-dinger. I guess it wasn’t good enough as it wasn’t used.  Here’s the one that brought the actress who read it to tears:  “I gave my son my mental illness.  He committed suicide three years ago.”

I want to take a moment to talk about the venue, the Belbas Theater.  I hear lots of people say, “I don’t know where that is.”  Well, find it!  Just go down the hall between the science store and the staircase and keep walking.  You will run right into it!  So many worthwhile projects take place in the Belbas.  It was perfect for a show like Post Secret. With just 300 seats, it has a much different vibe than the huge, grand Sommervold Hall.  Not only do you not have to monkey-climb over twenty people to get to your seat, but you can comfortably view the production from any seat in the house.  The seats themselves are cozy, with a gold upholstery that contrasts beautifully with the wine colored curtains.  Also available for private rental, it is lovely enough for a formal event, while neutral enough to allow the stage elements to shine through.  I could envision a breathtaking renaissance style wedding taking place there.  

Overall, the feeling last night was that of a comfortable group therapy session, where everyone lets their guard down.  That setting was the perfect foundation for the show’s theme: “We are all part of something bigger and we are all part of it together.”

You can catch Post Secret, The Show again in Milwaukee on February 25 & 26

Coming up at the Washington Pavilion:

Friday, 2/26:  Peter Gros from Animal Planet brings his animals to Sommervold Hall

Sat./Sun, 2/27-28:  Broadway’s ONCE!

Friday, 3/4:  The Price is Right, Live!