REVIEW: Chasing Magic: Mary Poppins at Sioux Falls Community Theatre

“It is enough to chase magic. It is enough to believe it possible. But in these moments, they catch it.”

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By Jonathan Fondell – Follow @TheFallsBlog on Twitter

There is a magic to Poppins. Something deep and untouchable, a whirlwind excitement, a shared bewilderment at the world’s favorite nanny. It’s what we remember from the first time we saw the film, it’s what we think of everytime we see an umbrella in the wind. And it’s what we’re chasing every time we bring her into the world, in a children’s book or a Disney movie or a musical for the stage. This weekend, that stage musical comes to Sioux Falls at the Sioux Empire Community Theatre. And it is definitely chasing magic.

The musical, which first opened in 2004, shares many elements with the Disney film. Favorite tunes are all there, plus delightful originals written for the stage. Plotlines are removed and added, characters expand and complicate. Director Callie Hisek has not only brought a new rendition of that musical, with nuance and side stories and moments I’d never seen before; she has crafted a wonderful atmosphere in her cast, across the board, where every bank teller and park walker and kite flier is invested in the scene and ready to react to the fantastic moments that happen onstage.

And happen they do. We are led from scene to scene by narrator and everyman Bert, played by Tim Huggenberger. From the first moment Huggenberger is all charm, possessing an easygoing familiarity with the audience that sucks us in, tells us we’re already friends and, no worries, we’re along for the ride. He introduces us to Michael and Jane Banks (Keegan Sigl, Kalli Barnhart), a talented young pair who play the troublesome children so well that I can’t blame their nannies for leaving.

Colette Gross plays their beleaguered mother Winifred with humanity, total sincerity, and a heartbreaking exhaustion. Similarly, Chris Andrews gives us a George Banks I hadn’t expected: he is soft, even vulnerable at early moments. And while at first I wished for what I’ve seen in the past – a resounding voice, a hard stare at anything out of place – Andrews grew on me. His story is dynamic and his words of disregard for his children still hurt, perhaps even more, without the customary edge to his voice.

Thrown into the mania are the house staff, played by Ruth Sturm and Bob Wendland. Throughout the show we return to their antics, and with these two in charge, I can see why. Strum and Wendland are always good for a laugh, the sincere kind, a hilarity driven by great actors who have committed fully to the joke.

The story moves at a good clip, flying to and from strange worlds with Number 17 Cherry Tree Lane as the nexus. The sets built by Steve Hirsch and team are inventive, using the full space of the Orpheum theatre to great effect. Likewise, Kat Cover’s costumes pull us straight back to Edwardian London, with several brilliant flourishes on the more fantastical characters to heighten the magic for all. The choreography, by Huggenberger, ties the music together with simple steps, layered one over another for cohesive numbers, bounding and laughing rides across stage, song after song.

At their best moments the scene changes, helmed by stage manager Katie Buchholz, are like clockwork. Elements move in all directions at once to land suddenly, perfectly, in position. There were several hiccups, moments where set pieces stalled or sound cues delayed, but each time things picked right back up and flew along again, with a confidence that pulled you right into the next moment.

Into all of this flies the titular nanny herself, portrayed by Martha Stai. And make no mistake: Stai is Mary Poppins. Her presence onstage is captivating, enchanting. Her gaze is piercing, though from time to time you find yourself convinced there’s a twinkle hidden somewhere behind it, a laughter that spills forth at just the right moments. The play ordains that Mary Poppins come down from the sky and fix everything. Stai makes me believe this is possible. She commands every scene she is meant to command, and she slips into the background when it’s time for her magic to take center stage.

And I’d like to finish by talking about the magic.

Some things are required. Mary Poppins flies down from the sky. She pulls a coat rack out of a carpetbag. She makes the medicine taste like rum punch. These are contractual obligations, things that every designer, every crew has to work around, tinker with, make work. And SECT has done a wonderful job with the tricks. But the tricks are not what we’ve come to see.

My favorite scene of the night was the scene that gives birth to The S Word: Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. Led by the energetic and enchanting Debbi Jones as Mrs. Corry, the cast come together for a truly fantastic number, full of energy and polish and a song-and-dance routine that makes you want to leap out of your seat and join them. There are no trick set pieces, no hidden wires. But it is a powerful, joyous event, enough to make you believe – just for a moment – that Mary Poppins could be real.

And all the tricks in the world can’t compare to that, the real magic of theatre: the elusive laugh that bursts from one character, ripples across the cast and overflows, without judgment or ego or pause of any kind, into an audience that is truly along for the ride.

It is enough to chase magic. It is enough to believe it possible. But in these moments, they catch it.

Sioux Empire Community Theatre’s production of Mary Poppins runs May 6th to May 22nd at the Orpheum Theatre. See SiouxFallsTheatre.com for ticketing information and showtimes.

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!

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.  

REVIEW: The Giver; A Chilling Tale of Conformity Keeps You on Edge of Seat!

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By Maxine Houlihan – Follow @MaxineHoulihan

Imagine living in a colorless world where there is no passion, no restlessness, no creativity.  As a person who feels her emotions, often in their extremes, I would never survive.  It is the sensory input, the variety, the reactionary feedback that inspires us to re-invent our future to accommodate change.  But, what if there was no diversity, and we were fiercely prohibited from even thinking about innovation?  What if we were, for all eternity, mandated to “sameness”?  Would we rebel?  Would we comply for the sake of tradition?

These are the questions Lois Lowry poses in her novel “The Giver”, which has been adapted for the stage by Dramatic Publishing Company.  This chilling tale of a suppressed community has been given life by the Sioux Empire Community Theatre, whose actors are ready to mesmerize you on the stage of the Anne Zabel Theatre at the Orpheum.

We are introduced to this nameless community by two identical announcers who pace like sentinels as they watch their human charges, declaring rules in a tin-can tandem that sent a tingle up my spine.  They inspired thoughts of Mr. Spock and his logical monotone; Siri, as she tells me to take the next exit; even Austin Powers’ Fembots, but without the sex appeal.  Karrisa Kummer and Elaina Wegleitner never broke character and I found myself unable to look them in the eye as they passed.

We enter the story as Jonas, a boy of eleven who has no last name, paces anxiously, stressing about the upcoming ceremony where he will give up his childhood and be assigned a lifelong vocation. Outside of his home he is only referred to as “Number Nineteen” of “The Elevens”.  Although they have been assimilated into the culture, Jonas’ family displays a contrasting bit of empathy, but insists that he do as all have done before him.  He and his friends brood over what assignments they will receive, as not all are desirable.

Fast forward to the “Ceremony of  Twelves”, where Jonas’ friends are given ordinary jobs, but Jonas is assigned the title of Receiver of Memories.  This is a revered position that he does not understand, and it’s profound responsibility has the potential to isolate him from life, as he has known it.

Jonas is soon introduced to The Giver, a brooding man who seems vexed with the idea of transmitting all of the world’s memories into Jonas.  You see, Jonas will be the Library of Alexandria, in human form.  Throughout the show I was hypnotized by Jay Wickre as The Giver.  He portrayed true empathy and despair through his movements and facial expressions, but, above all, I was transfixed by his eyes.  They were piercing and emotive and I couldn’t look away.

imagesAs Jonas receives memory after memory, he becomes overwhelmed.  He begins to see the community in a new light; and not a good one. His family and friends don’t understand what he is going through, and he feels support only from The Giver. He questions why the “sameness” is necessary, and is told that it is for the good of the people.  There is a day, a scale-tipping day, when Jonas receives a shocking revelation about his family, and he can no longer accept the status quo.  This twelve-year-old boy must now make a choice that could put him on a perilous new path through the unknown.

This production kept me on the edge of my seat all evening.  Director Andy Heller clearly had the creative vision to assemble a great cast and keep them focused.  What really stood out for me was the talent of the children.  Young Robert Baker, as Jonas, had reams of lines to memorize and he delivered them all with just the right amount of emotion.  I noticed that, the first time he laughed in character, he chose a cackling tone that clearly demonstrated his character’s lack of experience with joy.  Jonas did not know how to laugh.  Noah Bunger was moving as Asher, clearly displaying his angst about life as a “Twelve”.   Olivia Gordon’s Fiona infused her character with a bit more contentment than the others.  It made sense for a young girl who is okay with her world and satisfied with her job.  Cast as little sister Lilly, Cassidy Jennings was adorable in braids and bows, carrying around a stuffed elephant that her character would never have seen in real life.  She successfully portrayed the rebellious nature of a younger child, who is sometimes grumpy, regardless of what her elders say.  Alex Vasquez and Jessica Tebben, who played Jonas’ parents, allowed their characters to display some emotion and empathy for their children.  It showed an adherence to the rules in public, but some parental love within the home.  Cheryl Matthews was pompous, forceful  and condescending as the Chief Elder. It was spot on; she scared me.  Last, but not least was Johanna Merrill as Rosemary, whose story we learn mostly through dialogue.  We don’t see much of her, but, when we do, the sorrow is raw on her face.

The Zabel Theatre was arranged with the stage on one end, set pieces on the floor, and a U-shaped audience surrounding it.  It was easy to see the action from any seat in the house.  Sound effects successfully brought in a sensory effect, and a screen on the stage allowed us to enter Jonas’ mind when he was thinking.

This production of “The Giver” clearly stayed true to the themes in the book. I did not know what to expect, as I have never read it, but this cast drew me in and didn’t let go.  The show runs the next two weekends and can be seen at a very reasonable price. With a running time of just over an hour and no intermission,  I would recommend it for anyone over the age of ten. I think younger kids might struggle with the concept and get fidgety.  See the show, then go get coffee and dessert and talk about it!  

 The Giver runs March 10 – 20, 2016. Thurs., Fri. & Sat. at 7 p.m. and Sat. & Sun. at 2 p.m.

REVIEW: “Theatrical Genesis” at Augustana – 24 hrs to tell a story

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By Not The Real George Elliot

Augie Theatre’s first ever 24-hour plays hit the stage on Saturday night, February 27th, at the culmination of the Claire Donaldson New Play Festival. In the spirit of the weekend, Saturday’s show – titled Theatrical Genesis – showcased original works from current Augie students. The catch? The works were all less than a day old.

The idea of a 24-hour play is pretty straightforward: you start with nothing, you get twenty four hours, good luck. Students were divided into teams, each team was given a few prompts (“Prop: deviled eggs” or “Character: a horrible poet”), then each team was given until 7:30pm Saturday to write, rehearse, produce, and perform an original play. The end result, the playbill promises, is “a process that will have you awestruck, laughing, and crying.” I never happened to cry, but the night definitely delivered on the first two.

The concept, especially as Augie presents it, lends itself to comedy. The required props and characters (“Prop: two ears of comically large corn”), as well as the required lines of dialogue added in around the 12-hour mark, all seemed to skew toward laughs. Each of the four plays employed puns, physical comedy, wacky character traits, and tongue-in-cheek nods to the audience. The process was clearly a lot of stress and a lot of fun, and that fun carried over for the audience. All four shows possessed the seat-of-your-pants quality of a good night of improv comedy, and the characters’ frequent self-deprecation worked well for an audience of mainly Augustana community members. Everyone likes to see their friend act the fool.

The more effective shows of the night, however, were the ones who reached beyond the easy punchlines. You can only push the same pun so far, and like a good night of improv comedy, the jokes have to stay fresh. Even knowing the twenty-four hour time limit, I sometimes found myself wishing for more engaging plots, snappier dialogue, a reason to care about the people telling the jokes. Some cast dynamics were off, with actors talking over each other, not connecting at critical moments, or enduring long pauses that stretched out the silence between the laughs.

Some of this can be attributed to limited rehearsals, but sometimes it felt that each actor had a different idea of where the scene was going. There was plenty of great acting onstage, and everyone had a great sense of physicality and comedic timing, but when they were each doing their own thing I sometimes lost the heart of the scene. As a result, only some of the moments in the evening felt fully cohesive, but the ones that did – scenes that owned the silence, or embraced the reckless nature of the format, or committed fully to a wild idea – were some of the most rewarding of the night.

An excellent example is the final show of the night, The Completely Unnecessary Trial of the Piñata, in which the titular piñata (that team’s provided prop, voiced by Erik Friestad) begins his narration as the pole comes smashing into his side. This moment was clear, defined, and packed a surprise factor with a level of polish that brought down the house. We then relived the sentient piñata’s life, all ten hours of it, witnessing plenty of cornball jokes, candy puns, and the ever-useful ax-crazy boss. These elements were present in all the other shows as well, but here they followed a main character who was likable, engaging, even sympathetic. His friendship with a factory worker (Derek Somnis) is more than simple plot designation: the two share an honest moment in a silent warehouse, in the only scene of the night that made me go “aww.”

These moments in Piñata shone, not because the team had better jokes or more insane character archetypes. The moments shone because they were part of a unified story, a thing that I actively cared about, and the team’s commitment reminds us that, even if we only have a day to tell it, we still need to care earnestly about the story we tell.

I hope, fervently so, that Augie continues Theatrical Genesis in the years to come. The night was a riot, well worth attending, not only for the impromptu performances but for the chance to simply witness the birth of original ideas onstage. The Augustana Theatre community possesses an astonishing commitment to theatre in all of its weird little forms, not just traditional cut-and-dry mainstage shows. The students’ willingness to sacrifice a weekend, endure a little sleep deprivation, and do something crazy speaks to a company with a hell of a lot of passion.

I respect that passion. I enjoyed the shows. And I’m excited to see what’s next.

REVIEW: New Musical “Salem” Previewed at Augustana

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Jarvis Pennington / Follow @JarviPenni

Let’s be frank: Theatre in South Dakota is very hit or miss. It just comes with having a developing arts scene.

In an environment like that, the prospect of an original musical can be a cause for some apprehension.

Fortunately, in many ways Salem is on to something. Are there problems? Absolutely, but this Sioux Falls original musical with music and lyrics by Luke Tatge and book by Bob Wendland has a lot of potential to work with going forward.

Excerpts from the show were staged by workshop director Jayna Fitzsimmons as part of Augustana University’s Claire Donaldson New Play Festival on Friday night. The presentation seemed to consist of much of the show’s first act and included 14 numbers performed by a collection of Augustana students and alumni, community members and area high schoolers.

Salem, set in the late 1600s, depicts the Salem witch trials of colonial Massachusetts. Wendland and Tatge present a community that is deeply rooted in both Christianity and one another’s affairs.

The music is largely reminiscent of church hymns, which makes sense for this pious group of characters. It’s disappointing, however, not to see some more modern influence come into the songs. The numbers were often beautiful in their own right, but lacked any hook that would make musical theatre artists clamor to put this show on stage.

Meanwhile, the book currently hurts for its simplicity. Rather than tying together the trials and trespasses of characters, we’re hopping from one character’s ordeal to the next.

The action takes off when Hephzibah (played by Sara Crosby) is absent for a Sunday service. This prompts the Minister (Wendland) and Judge (Chase Kramer) to call for her execution.

While seeing the intolerance and paranoia of the Salem community build to a frenzy where missing church is punishable by death might make sense as the witch hunt gets rolling, it felt like a strained starting point.

But despite the kinks and hurdles Salem will face as development continues, it’s fabulous to see this musical being created in South Dakota. The story board can use some doctoring, but the dialogue itself pries into the conflict of finding yourself at odds with someone else’s interpretation of the Bible. The songs need to be paired down, but at times the melodies capture the tragedy of being unjustly ostracized.

At its heart, the persecution Salem seems to be prying at and encouraging us to ponder harkens Arthur Miller’s comparisons to the Red Scare in The Crucible. More importantly, Wendland and Tatge are challenging South Dakota to ask whether there might be a group of people today who “pay a price for just existing in the world.”

As for the staging, Fitzsimmons – who explained in her curtain speech that the group had only a handful of rehearsals to assemble the preview – focused on introducing the script and score. Actors carried scripts and blocking was simple.

On the whole, as the presentation wasn’t just a sing-through or concert reading, some of the performers needed a bit more character and emotion to move us through the story. Crosby, for example, embodied the elderly Hephzibah head-to-toe each time she was on stage, while many principles simply sang their songs and left.

Many of the songs felt at least 60 seconds too long, but it was hard to tell if that was due to the relaxed performances or indicated need for trimming music. We will see how that changes as the production becomes more fully realized.

That said, Chase Kramer, Martha Stai, Ian Curtis and Molly Wilson delivered especially brilliant performances both in vocal chops and solid acting values. Wendland, for those who have never seen him sing at a Bare Bodkins show in the summer, also has a gorgeous tone. And as a whole, the ensemble had a strong presence and sound.

Wendland and Tatge are certainly onto something with Salem, and they are apt caretakers to give its message a forum in Sioux Falls. As they develop the work further, hopefully the story will find its enticing flow and the music will find a way to captivate our attention, because if this preview was any indicator, these men have something worth saying.

Editor’s note:  We hesitated to publish this because we failed that realize Salem was only in the staged-reading phase of development.  We made sure this article was being helpful to the creators by providing feedback the creators could use – or not.  Additionally, we are using this as an opportunity to spark discussion about the play development process.  For readers unfamiliar with developing a new play, here is a good resource.  – Jesse Jensen, Editor-in-Chief

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!