MPR's Michael Barone was on the road this past weekend. Here's his report on a "hidden gem."
This past weekend, my companion and I were in SE Minnesota for a bit of camping (still comfortable in a tent at age 60), a car rally over in Wisconsin with our little Citroen 2CV (we took first-in-class), checking out the restaurant Nosh in Wabasha (superb).
Beforehand, I had received a promo postcard from Nautilus Music-Theater alerting me to their production of the Jason Robert Brown show "The Last 5 Years" at the Jon Hassler Theater in Plainview, MN, and we decided to attend, having seen the previous Nautilus production (with a different cast) in Saint Paul two years ago (a review of that can be found in the MPR website archive).
We had seen the show in 2004, were absolutely dazzled by it and the performances of Bradley Greenwald and Norah Long, and were curious as whether it really was as strong a piece as we had thought if mounted elsewhere with other players.
And Plainview? Well, yes, I guess the view of the main street in Plainview is rather “plain.” certainly not as exciting as downtown Minneapolis. But what is happening at the Jon Hassler Theater should be a hot ticket in any major metro center.
Let's back up. Plainview, the home town of Minnesota author Jon Hassler, is in corn-and-soybeans country. The marvelously undulating topography surrounding Plainview reminds you that Minnesota is not all about urban life. The vast expanse of Minnesota is about growing things, and Plainview's Jon Hassler Theater is growing something quite remarkable with its current show, "The Last Five Years.”
The piece is a compelling "modern falling-in-and-out-of-love musical.” Two singers, male and female, comment on the five-year span of their relationship, from first date through marriage to dissolution. What's unusual is that we experience the individual arches of this progression in contrary motion. The man tells his story from beginning to end, while we get the woman's point of view in reverse order...her first song is a painfilled lament, her last song one of expectation as the (seeming) possibilities of her (doomed) relationship are explored.
This production is top grade, with excellent sets/lighting/music, and the current soloists (Ann Michels is 'Cassie', Dieter Bierbrauer is 'Jamie') are superb. In a bit of post-show enthusiasm, I purchased the 'original cast' CD, and though the players in that NYC off-Broadway production are fine enough, frankly both Michels/Bierbrauer and Long/Greenwald were more compelling. Or was it the magic of live theater?
I was struck by the marvel of finding such a superb piece of theater done so compellingly well “out in the middle of the farmland.” Our Saturday night audience only half filled the 280-seat auditorium (which is technically well equipped, with good sight-lines, intimate, comfortable).
Based on this experience, I'd suggest that the Jon Hassler theater is a “hidden gem,” worthy of your attention, certainly for this current show, but I'd bet that their other offerings later in the season will be similarly appealing. At the very least, this production earns a high rave from me. I'd encourage you to search the place out (Plainview is about 18 miles directly east of Oronoco, perhaps 40 minutes NE from Rochester)...the place should be packed every night the current show's run through September 3. Make it happen. :-)
Michael, Thanks for promoting the play at the John Hassler Theater in Plainview. My 2 1/2 year old grandson was playing with the remote late one evening. When he, fortunately, came across your show, he paused and started rocking to the rhythm of the lovely singers who you were featuring. We sat and listened to your interview with Ann Michels and Dieter Bierbrauer. It was a fun and compelling interview, (accept for your frequent comments about how old you have become! For crying out loud, your barely 60!!) Anyway, forgive my "rage against the dying of the light". We decided to take your lead and made the lovely trip to Plainview on the following Sunday. And, yes they do give a senior discount but you have to actually be old, like, 62 or so. The theater is great, very intimate while still feeling professional. The theater was about 2/3's full. The performances were outstanding. The play had a bit of a naval gazing quality to it and I wasn't sure how much I really wanted get to know these narcissictic artist characters but the singing was spectacular and the music played by a cellist and the pianist was outstanding. My only wish was that I could have heard the couple do more duets as their voices were magnificent together. It was well worth the trip and we hope you will keep us informed of other little gems like this, coming up.
Best, Pat Cook