This morning, I am pleased to report, I woke up an optimist!
Enjoying their newly finished theater, Theatre Elision opened If the Spirit Moves to great success last night. Theatergoers from Minneapolis made the trek up to Crystal (which really isn’t much of a trek at all), along with neighbors, to see this new local offering. In our current political and charitable climate, it is heartening to see ventures like Theatre Elision expanding instead of contracting and there was a palpable excitement in the air.
From Dada and Spiritualism to flappers and speakeasies, the script tries to cover a lot of ground. I felt at many moments that it was moving a bit too fast (it probably doesn’t help that the original book was paired down for Theatre Ellison's 90-minute, no intermission format). All in all, this talented cast manages to hit the major plot points well, but I found myself wishing to spend a bit more time with the characters and not simply jump from song to song. However, if you are a music fanatic, this cabaret-style evening will have you on the edge of your seat. All of the performers, but particularly the female performers, are unbelievably talented. So much of what Theatre Elision is known for are musicals brimming with songs that prominently feature women, and in this way If the Spirit Moves makes total sense with their program.
The play starts at “the end of Dada” in Zurich with Daphne (Serena Brook) and Kurt (Kyler Chase) each going their separate ways (“So Long Dada”). Their time of understanding and revealing in meaninglessness is over (at least for her). He is off to experience the middle east while she is headed to NYC to pursue painting and live with her longtime friend Agnes, who now goes by Desiree (Christine Wade). Arriving without much money, Desiree convinces Daphne that what she needs is her own racket (“Get a Racket”). They decide that given the upper crust’s penchant for Spiritualism after the horrors of World War 1 can be exploited, and Daphne starts working as a spiritual medium. They pick up their first (and for the play, only?) clients at a local gin joint (“Speakeasy”). The “shell-shocked” Edward (Ben Heer), the newly widowed Mrs. Barnes (Abilene Olson), and Lady Aspen (Janet Hayes Trow), whose daughter was killed while working as a nurse, all attend a seance at Desiree and Daphne’s home (“Is that You”) . Then the unthinkable happens -- it transpires that Daphne actually is a spirit medium, and able to communicate not only with their departed loved ones, but also a feisty spirit guide who demands Daphne continue making her art. All of the participants leave feeling better, and come back the next day clad brightly, proclaiming they are now optimists (“I Woke Up an Optimist”). Edward proclaims his love for Daphne, but at the same moment Kurt comes back into her life, causing her to doubt what she wants. I won’t spoil the ending for you, but this is a musical and it ends before World War 2, so I am sure you can guess!
Serena Brook is excellent for the full play, but it becomes utterly clear why she was cast when she starts switching between personalities and voices during her first seance. Both Kyler Chase and Ben Heer have great chemistry with Brook--the former a bit more illicit and the latter sweeter and more innocent. Always funny and captivating on stage, Christine Wade hams up the rather manipulative Desiree. In particular “Speakeasy” is just plain fun to watch and you will be humming it for weeks to come. It is nice to see a show where there are two female protagonists and plenty of songs for them both! Abilene Olson and Janet Hayes Trows walk a nice line between grieving family members and funny, indomitable women. One of the beautiful takeaways from the script is to not let horror rob you of joy and their ability to continue with their lives even after tragedy is admirable.
While it is both, paradoxically, light and heavy on plot, the musical numbers of this show are phenomenal! With shows the 26-29, I would recommend a drive up to catch this inaugural cast! As for me, I am looking forward to seeing see what Theatre Elision gets up to next in their new space!
***9/27/2019 The original version of this review mistakenly called If the Spirit Moves a "quasi-jukebox musical." The term "jukebox musical" was incorrectly applied and has since been updated.