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Jane Strauss: A Photographer’s Reflections on Gershwin and His Times

On display in conjunction with Park Square Theatre’s production of The Soul of Gershwin: The Musical Journey of an American Klezmer are the works of Minneapolis photographer Jane Strauss, a self-described “attorney-in-remission” and a “Lapsed Thespian and Techie.” She was last involved with Park Square Theatre at its original location as stage manager for Picnic–way back in the 1970s!–but has found her way back to Park Square to grace our gallery walls.

Here is just a glimpse of Strauss’ exhibit. Be sure to visit the gallery to see it ALL in our Proscenium lobby when you come to see the show!

Jane Strauss with two of the photographs in her exhibit at Park Square Theatre (Photograph by Connie Shaver)

Jane Strauss with two of the photographs in her exhibit at Park Square Theatre
(Photograph by Connie Shaver)

In Jane’s words: I’ve loved Gershwin’s works since I was a kid. The opportunity to curate an exhibit coordinated with Soul of Gershwin came as an unexpected delight.

Gershwin’s time ran from Tin Pan Alley into the Jazz Age, and his influences ranged from his immigrant Jewish roots to rural blues, liberally seasoned with urban rhythms and hustle-bustle. Fortunately, my past works included a series from Israel, one from Lithuania, including some Jewish sites, one from Chicago, focused on the Elevated Train, many classic automobiles, and rural scenes from multiple states and countries.

The major issue was choosing images for a small gallery.

Herewith – reflections on Gershwin and his times.

Vilna Shul Photograph by Jane Strauss

Vilna Shul
Photograph by Jane Strauss

 

 

More photographs by Jane Strauss may be viewed at her December show “Lithuania – doors, windows, vistas” at Urban Forage, 3016 East Lake Street, Minneapolis, and on-line at www.janesprints.imagekind.com, Jane’s Prints at www.cafepress.com and Jane’s Prints at www.facebook.com.

Theatre for You

Just last month, we were celebrating Thanksgiving, a special day connected to the Mayflower immigrants whose survival was aided by the native Wampanoag people.

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Now we are into December and, at Park Square Theatre’s Proscenium Stage, we celebrate the holiday season with music composed by George Gershwin, the son of Jewish immigrants from Russia, who significantly influenced the American musical landscape. There’s a good reason why his tunes are included in the Great American Songbook.

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From January to February, Flower Drum Song, a collaboration between Park Square Theatre and Mu Performing Arts, will be featured on the Proscenium Stage. Based on David Henry Hwang’s version that won a Tony Award in 2003, the musical explores Asian-American identity through the lens of the Chinese immigrant story.

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Currently, A Raisin in the Sun continues to be performed on the Boss Thrust Stage until December 22 as daytime matinees for school groups and general public. The play centers on the dreams and struggles of a family descended from African slaves–those relocated to America against their will. Its audiences have included student groups with Somali and Hmong immigrants, both here in America to escape from the ravages of war, the latter endangered in their homeland for aiding America during the Vietnam War.

At Park Square Theatre, staff and audiences are made up of descendants of the at-some-point hated Irish, Jewish, German, Japanese, Swedish, Chinese, Italian, Mexican–the list goes on–immigrants who have claimed America as their beloved home. We ARE America, gathered together to make or behold some truly great American stories unfold on our stages.

You are warmly invited to Park Square Theatre, where we create theatre for you. (yes you.) and share stories to foster discourse and better mutual understanding. Bring your curiosity, and come with open hearts.

Wintertime (Sung to the Tune of Gershwin’s “Summertime”)

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Maud Hixson, Geoffrey Jones and Maggie Burton

Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma

 

Wintertime,
And Park Square is a hoppin’
Gershwin’s playin’
On the Proscenium

Your calendar’s
Got a spot in December
So rush music lover
Don’t miss out

One of these mornings
You’re gonna rise up singing
And you’ll keep it up
As you take a shower

‘Cause last night you heard
Snappy music at our show
With family and friends sittin’ by

Wintertime,
And Park Square is a hoppin’
Gershwin’s playin’
On the Proscenium

Your calendar’s
Got a spot in December
So rush music lover
Don’t miss out

George Gershwin had composed “Summertime” in 1934 for his opera Porgy and Bess. The lyrics are by DuBose Heyward. “Summertime” became a jazz standard and is one of the most covered songs in the history of recorded music. Here is a link to the actual lyrics and a performance of the song:

http://www.letssingit.com/george-gershwin-feat.-helen-merrill-lyrics-summertime-hct6q2r

Come hear “Summertime” and other popular Gershwin melodies performed by a talented cast, accompanied by a live band, in The Soul of Gershwin: The Musical Journey of an American Klezmer on Park Square Theatre’s Proscenium Stage from December 2 to 31.

 

Maud’s Pick

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As the Chanteuse in Park Square Theatre’s The Soul of Gershwin: The Musical Journey of an American Klezmer, Maud Hixson will be filling the Proscenium Stage with her soulful voice. When asked for her favorite Gershwin tune to sing or hear and why, Maud kept her answer short and sweet:

My favorite Gershwin song is “Little Jazz Bird” because I’ve always loved Blossom Dearie’s recording of it, and I love performing it myself.

To hear Blossom Dearie’s rendition of the song, go to:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VuWJzDJOOVY&sns=em

Maud Hixson’s Background:

Park Square Debut Representative Theatre Guthrie Theater, Dowling Studio: Coward’s Women Awards/Other Two-time recipient of the Minnesota State Arts Board’s Artist Initiative Grant; McKnight Foundation’s “Next Step” Grant recipient; Two-time performer at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Hall in the New York Cabaret Convention Upcoming Projects Touring with Listening For Your Song (A Musical Companion to the Betsy-Tacy Books by Maud Hart Lovelace)

Michael Paul Levin, Maud Hixson and Maggie Burton in rehearsal

Michael Paul Levin, Maud Hixson and Maggie Burton in rehearsal (Photo by Connie Shaver)

The Soul of Gershwin: The Musical Journey of an American Klezmer – December 2 to 31

Join us for the holidays at Park Square Theatre’s Proscenium Stage!

 

The Legacy of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess

One of the most intriguing works of George Gershwin is the opera, Porgy and Bess, that he wrote along with his brother Ira and African American poet DuBose Heyward. Strikingly different from other major works such as Rhapsody in Blue or An American in Paris, the musical depicts the lives of the most downtrodden. In this case the people living in a rundown neighborhood in Charleston, South Carolina.

The main character, Bess, is a woman trying to escape her past as a prostitute and drug addict. She is romantically involved with a criminal named Crown, who flees after committing a murder. This in turn, leads Bess to finding acceptance and solace in the arms of a crippled beggar named Porgy. When Crown returns, the pair have to make a stand.

Porgy and Bess, 1935

Porgy and Bess, 1935

You can tell from this description alone how vastly different it is from the Roaring ’20s that Gershwin is so famously associated with. As those previous orchestrations were products of their time, so was Porgy and Bess which premiered in Depression-era New York in 1935.

A “folk” opera, the work was seven years in the making and inspired by DuBose Heyward’s 1925 novel, Porgy. Now regarded as a classic and a standard in the American operatic canon, the initial run was deemed a commercial failure with mixed reviews. The New York Herald-Tribune, for instance, said that Gershwin’s ambition to include jazz and blues into a serious operatic score was “falsely conceived and rather clumsily executed…crooked folklore and half-way opera.” The run lasted four months and Porgy and Bess languished in mediocrity for decades until 1976 when the Houston Grand Opera produced the work to glowing reviews. This is when the piece secured its reputation as a classic.

It is amazing how perceptions can evolve over time, not just artistically but socially. One of the greatest merits of Porgy and Bess today, is conversely a reason for its initial short run. Gershwin was adamant that the show be entirely cast with classically trained African American singers. Of course this was a radical casting idea in 1930s America as the common practice was for a white performer to don blackface. Al Jolson, for example, had himself almost produced an adaptation with this idea in mind. Gershwin’s casting was brave and inspiring, giving work to dozens of African American performers on the mainstream Broadway circuit.

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The original 1935 production. Courtesy Photo.

 

That bit of history, in addition to the composition and songwriting of the piece, have made Porgy and Bess the fixture in American pop culture it is today. We all know the songs, “Summertime,” “I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin’,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So” and “Bess, You Is My Woman Now.” Produced all over the world, the last Broadway revival was in 2012.

Fortunately you won’t have to trek across the globe or travel to New York City to experience those songs, you can just get on down to Park Square Theatre this December. Selections from Porgy and Bess as well as Gershwin’s other timeless tunes will be featured in the show, The Soul of Gershwin: The Musical Journey of an American Klezmer Dec 2 – 31. I hope to see you there!

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Maggie’s Picks

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In Park Square Theatre’s upcoming musical, The Soul of Gershwin: The Musical Journey of an American Klezmer, Maggie Burton will play the Chazzan (Cantor). When asked “What is your favorite Gershwin tune to hear or sing (or both!)? And why?,” she answered:

I love just about everything Gershwin wrote.  I never get tired of listening to “Rhapsody in Blue,” so I guess that’s my favorite tune to listen to. Today, anyway. Could be something else tomorrow!

As for singing–an obvious answer for me would be “Summertime.”  It’s so beautiful and versatile. But another song I really enjoy singing is “By Strauss.”  It’s a fun, up-tempo waltz with clever lyrics that Gershwin wrote in the style of Johann Strauss, the composer known as the Waltz King. The song has been recorded by such diverse artists as Ella Fitzgerald and Kiri te Kanawa, which says a lot about the range of the Gershwins’ music and lyrics.

In our show, Gershwin alludes to the idea that good composers borrow, but great composers steal. He also says we might hear (in his music) something that we might not expect–something that he himself might not expect. “By Strauss” is a great example.

Join Maggie Burton and her fellow cast-mates, accompanied by a live band, at Park Square Theatre’s Proscenium Stage from December 2 to 31 for a rousing good time! You’ll be singing and dancing out of the theatre!

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Maggie Burton’s Background:

Park Square The Soul of Gershwin (1999 and 2011) Representative Theatre Garden of Song Opera: Cendrillon;  Gilbert & Sullivan Very Light Opera: HMS Pinafore; Minnesota Opera: Anna Bolena; Cross Community Players: Oklahoma; Morris Park Players: Sound of Music Training B.A., Music, University of Minnesota; M.M., Vocal Performance, University of Minnesota Awards/Other Soprano soloist with 1st John Sousa Memorial Band; Cantor/cantorial soloist for Jewish High Holy Days

From Gershwin to Springsteen

George Gershwin unnamed photographer in employ of Bain News Service (Public domain)

George Gershwin
unnamed photographer in employ of Bain News Service (Public domain)

From December 2 to 31, Park Square Theatre will feature The Soul of Gershwin: The Musical Journey of an American Klezmer. It includes many Gershwin tunes that became part of the Great American Songbook, such as “Summertime,” “I Got Rhythm” and “Embraceable You,” to name just a few.

What’s the Great American Songbook? It’s not an actual book of songs but the American classics or standards considered to be the most popular and of lasting value from 1920 to 1950’s Broadway shows, musical theatre and Hollywood musical film.

I wondered, though, what people would choose to be in the Great American Songbook today. In asking a slew of individuals from age 19 and up, I received choices that went beyond theatre and film. Here are some of their answers:

Anything by Sondheim. Definitely “Send in the Clowns” from his musical A Little Night Music.

Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”  I just like the lyrics. According to Cohen, the song “explains that many kinds of hallelujahs do exist, and all the perfect and broken hallelujahs have equal value.”

“Steal Away,” a spiritual.

“Jingle Bells.” It is a very beloved and fun Winter/Christmas song that can be sung enthusiastically by any age person without involving religion. It can be sung in rounds, can easily be acted out and even danced to! There is a nostalgic history to it from a time when horses and sleighs were necessary for winter travel, which is often reenacted for enjoyment today.

“I’ve Been Working On The Railroad.” Another fun song to sing for young and old alike. It has the cadence and rhythm of a work song for the railroad workers to keep a uniform pace to work together but also helps make the drudgery and toil of railroad building somewhat enjoyable. The song also gives memory to the important place railroads have in our history of connecting the lands and peoples of earlier times.

Last Saturday night the symphony put on a Frank Sinatra concert with one Steve Lippia singing.  Steve is based in Las Vegas where his show is a regular at one of the casinos, and he sounds very much like Frank Sinatra.  At the concert, Steve did not limit himself to Frank’s songs but did a wide variety of the Big Band-style songs. To pick out a favorite song from that group is, of course, nigh unto impossible but, nonetheless, “Last Night When We Were Young” would be my choice. It would be my choice because, as time goes by, its probably my generation who will still relate to that style of music and, in this case, the nostalgia that is the essence of the song. Notice the phrase “as time goes by.” As I recall, it is a title of another song. I might mention that playing the concert was very fulfilling because the music is so rich in harmonies, melodies, rhythms and the interplay between those elements. Today’s popular music seems so shallow by comparison.

First song that popped into my head: “Born in the USA” by Bruce Springsteen. You hear those first pulsing beats…it’s iconic!

 

Whether it’s Gershwin or Springsteen, truly great music is made to last. This December, don’t miss hearing the music from one of the greats: George Gershwin.

 

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What IS Klezmer?

Michael Paul Levin as George Gershwin

Michael Paul Levin as George Gershwin

The Soul of Gershwin: The Musical Journey of an American Klezmer will be on Park Square Theatre’s Proscenium Stage from December 2 to 31. I certainly know the name Gershwin, but I’m unfamiliar with the term klezmer. Perhaps you are, too.

As Vincent Hannam mentioned in his recent blog post “The Heart and Soul of Gershwin,” klezmer is a Yiddish word that means instrument of music (derived from klay, which means instrument; and zemer, music). Klezmer came from Ashkenazi Jews, who originated in Eastern Europe, and was intended to, via the violin, imitate the human voice, including the cries, wails and laughter, of the chazzan (cantor) in synagogue. The first klezmer tunes actually came from Hebrew chants in Jewish services.

Played by professional musicians called klezmorim, klezmer originally consisted mainly of spirited dance melodies as well as some plaintive, reflective tunes for celebratory communal events, such as weddings. Klezmorim (and entertainers in general) were not highly regarded in Jewish society due to their secular nomadic, unconventional lifestyle, but they were respected for their virtuosity and diverse repertoire. A band usually included at least two violinists, with the most accomplished one serving as bandleader, backed by a bass or cello and other typical instruments, such as clarinet, drum, hammered dulcimers, trumpet, trombone and accordion.

As with other aspects of European Jewish culture, the Holocaust nearly decimated the tradition of klezmer music since it was passed down aurally through the generations. Surviving musicians helped revitalize the music, and musicologists worked to record their repertoires.

Traditional klezmer was influenced mainly by Romanian music but also present were Greek, Ukranian, Polish, Hungarian and Turkish influences. When European Jews immigrated to the United States, they brought klezmer with them, but it’s popularity steadily waned as Jews adopted mainstream culture. However, American klezmer grew in stature with hits from Jewish composers, such as Harold Arlen, Irving Berlin, Richard Rogers and, yes, George Gershwin, who incorporated jazz and even gospel into their sound.

The cast and musicians of Park Square Theatre’s The Soul of Gershwin: The Musical Journey of an American Klezmer, besides performing some truly terrific American classics, will also impart a slice of musical history that you may not already have known. My whole family and I plan to kick back, perhaps can’t help but move some body parts while seated and otherwise enjoy the ride when we see the show in December.

Hope to see you there!

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Sources: Klezmer from en.m.wikipedia.org; Klezmer music by Mark S. Slobin from www.britannica.com; Klezmer Music 101 by Megan Romer from worldmusic.about.com; What is Klezmer Music? by Becky Weitzman from tepel.org

Hope and Inspiration

One cannot help but be reflective after Election Day, and one thing that I’ve been thinking about is the role of theatre arts in society as a source of hope and inspiration.

In my work at Park Square Theatre, both as blogger and daytime usher, I get to witness firsthand some of the dynamic changes occurring within the Minnesota scene as Elders begin to hand off responsibilities to a younger generation, as organizations soul-search on how to remain relevant to their audiences and as they ever strive to fulfill their missions–all while trying to stay financially afloat to be able to come back to do it all over again season after season. What I have discovered is that a theatre is a place of service, and those who work in one are more likely than not following a calling. The theatre “bug” is not foremost a pursuit of fame and fortune (though the latter would be a welcomed help) but a dedication by those involved to work for the greater social good.

While at Park Square Theatre, I get to brush shoulders with living Minnesota theatre history–the people who have been the shakers-and-movers of Twin Cities theatre for decades, not much in the limelight but still tirelessly dedicated to bringing quality live theatre to you from behind the scenes. To name just a few, there are Artistic Director Richard Cook, who co-founded and built up Park Square’s stature in its Saint Paul community; Education Director Mary Finnerty, who created what is likely the strongest theatre education program for middle- and high-school students in the state; photographer Petronella J. Ytsma, who can tell you photoshoot stories that span the change of photo-technology; and newly hired Group Sales & Community Engagement Manager Linda Twiss, who has likely, unbeknownst to you, already touched some aspect of your theater-going experience in Minnesota through the years.

Then there are our Future–the younger generation who also carry on the vision and mission. In my two seasons at Park Square Theatre, I have watched House Manager Amanda Lammert rise to Audience Services Director and, as such, clear the path for  millennials, such as Jiffy Kunik to become Performance Supervisor, Adrian Larkin to become Lead House Manager and Ben Cook-Feltz to become Ticket Office Supervisor. Our stage managers, such as Jamie Kranz, Megan Dougherty, Laura Topham and Lyndsey Harter, tend to be young female leaders with sure hands on each production that they oversee. My own fellow blogger, Vincent Hannam, is so clearly a Student of Life through Theatre; I get to see him grow not just as a theatre artist but as a wholehearted human being as I blog alongside him. And I have interviewed so many up-and-coming theatre professionals, from actors to designers, working with such intensity and creativity in their chosen fields. To be amongst such passionate young people, committed to theatre as a social cause is a constant source of hope and inspiration.

Park Square's A Raisin in the Sun. Photo by Connie Shaver.

A scene from A Raisin in the Sun (Photo by Connie Shaver)

And this fall I am witnessing the fruits of the prior year’s labor to carefully select this season’s plays, culled from suggestions by theatre professionals, theatre goers and volunteer script readers–all committed to fulfilling Park Square Theatre’s mission. The whole process is a mixture of intentionality and serendipity, resulting in a breathtaking season of anticipation and high hopes that we got it right. This season, we started out with The Liar and The Realistic Joneses, both in their own ways guiding us to what is true and real. Then came The House on Mango Street and currently A Raisin in the Sun, both uplifting the human spirit in the face of adversity. In December, we look forward to The Soul of Gershwin: The Musical Journey of an American Klezmer, a style of music brought to us by Jewish immigrants.

Park Square Theatre’s mission is “to enrich our community by producing and presenting exceptional live theatre that touches the heart, engages the mind, and delights the spirit.” It is theatre in service to the common good and, by extension, a source of hope and inspiration. To all.

Note: We have a very limited number of tickets available for A Raisin in the Sun evening and weekend performances through November 20. But you may now purchase tickets for weekday student matinee performances through December 22. (You would be watching the play with school groups.) Student matinee tickets cost just $25.

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Tickets for The Soul of Gershwin: The Musical Journey of an American Klezmer evening and weekend performances are available through December 31.

To order, call 651.291.7005 or go to parksquaretheatre.org.

Jackson Smith: October’s Front of House Employee of the Month

Jackson Smith and his many hats Photo by T. T. Cheng

Jackson Smith and his many hats
Photo by T. T. Cheng

Our October Front of House Employee of the Month, Jackson Smith, wears many hats at Park Square Theatre. Though hired as the Accounting Associate in September 2015, Jackson has also readily switched hats when needed to work for Front of House as a bartender, ticket agent and house manager. He has even at times donated his personal time and talents on behalf of the organization.

Smith’s newest hat to put on is that of recently promoted Finance Coordinator. Finance & Operations Director Sheri J. Zigan enthusiastically declared both his award and promotion as “well deserved recognition to the one I call my lifeline!!!”

In May, we featured Jackson in the blog “When Passion and Practicality Collide: The Journey of Jackson Smith,” introducing readers to an inspiring young man, bitten by the theatre bug from childhood then, later in life, steadily following a call to Theatre Finance. It is heartening to know that, with Park Square Theatre currently looking for a Finance intern, that intern will be mentored by this young “old soul” who, with hard work and persistence, continues to make big dreams a reality–his and ours.

With great enthusiasm, we at Park Square Theatre give Jackson Smith a standing ovation.

Which hat does Jackson have on now? Photo by Connie Shaver

Which hat does Jackson have on now?
Photo by Connie Shaver

(Note: You can still access “When Passion and Practicality Collide: The Journey of Jackson Smith”  as the May 21, 2016 blog post.)

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