Here’s something that is uniquely Portland. Tessy and Tab Reading Club, a twice per month subscription by mail ‘magazine’ for early readers (aged 2-6) is located on the east side of Portland. One afternoon late last year, magazine publisher Judy MacDonald Johnston followed her love for coffee to the newly opened Heart Coffee on NE 22nd and Burnside. She was so taken with the coffee shop that she decided to make it the subject of the an issue of Tessy and Tab.
The result is a pairing of two fantastic local craft businesses, each with a strong vision and passion for doing something unique.
Tessy and Tab Reading Club is a breath of fresh air in a market where even 2 year olds are heavily marketed to. Focused on developing early readers, it delivers two printed booklet-like magazines per month via mail. The club helps instill the the love, passion and skills for early readers. It provides an exceptional ‘marketing free’ environment for kids to learn to read. We’ve been subscribers to the club for many years and have given subscriptions as gifts. It’s a truly exceptional publication and it’s located right here in Portland.
Heart Coffee is a relatively new coffee house and roaster (run by notable snowboarder Willi Yli-Luma). Featuring one of the simplest and most straightforward menus I’ve seen in a coffee shop, Heart Coffee has an extremely myopic focus on servering the absolute best coffee you can get in a cup. While I was there for the “Cocoa with Tessy and Tab” event they were roasting beans. You’d think that they were conducting a science experiment. I’ve seen beans roasted in many places in town, but never with such intense focus and attention. The coffee served at Heart is out of this world and is in the league with some of the very best coffee in Portland.
Since the issue of Tessy and Tab takes place at Heart Coffee, the owners of both companies invited local subscribers to come to Heart Coffee to share some hot cocoa and meet the reading club creators. The baristas from Heart Coffee drew elaborate pictures in the foam of the hot cocoas and the kids colored in pictures of the barista’s animal alter egos from the latest issue. It was a fantastic pairing of two local businesses following their hearts and doing something special.
I honestly didn’t have huge expectations for Kevin McKeon’s adaptation of David Guterson Snow Falling on Cedars. So many popular books and movies have been poorly adapted for the stage recently and
Scott Hick’s 1999 film adaptation of Guterson’s best selling book simply left me cold. Imagine my shock when I was blown away by one of the best productions I’ve seen on a stage in Portland. McKeon’s adaptation is simply amazing and coupled with Chris Coleman’s pitch perfect direction and uniformly excellent acting, Snow Falling on Cedars at Portland Center Stage is nothing short of a triumph.
Set in the late 40’s and early 50’s, Snow Falling on Cedars follows the trail of Kabuo, a Japanese American fisherman accused of murdering a fellow fisherman in a small northwestern island town. The play flashes back and forth between the trial and the years leading up to it, covering the interweaving stories of the characters. Smack dab in the center of Snow Falling on Cedars is a look at the Japanese internment camps in America, enacted after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
Although Snow Falling on Cedars covers an important point (and arguably one of our lowest points) in American history, the play is more about the relationships and connections between the people involved than the history itself. Olivia Oguma and Vince Nappo play Hatsue and Ishmael, two childhood playmates who flirt with something more. Their relationship comes to a head with the bombing of Pearl Harbor. There’s a devastatingly beautiful moment when Hatsue turns to Ishmael and says, “Look at me, look at my face, I have the face of the enemy!” It’s within a moment like this between characters that brings everything together and adjoins the greater narrative, the historial context and makes this play work so well.
A lot of credit goes to Kevin McKeon for his masterful adaptation of Guterson’s book. McKeon covers considerable ground in his stage play and really has a sense of how to capture and present the soul and essence of the book. McKeon often gives us just enough of a glimpse at something as he weaves back and forth throughout the lives of the key characters. This results in some truly magical moments, and while fleeting, they give us a tremendous amount of insight and connection with the story. One of my favorite moments of the play involves the coupling of Hatsue and Kabuo, a short scene played perfectly, almost magically; I’ll surely be thinking back to it a long time from now.
Director Chris Coleman, who has been playing around with inventive and minimalistic staging this year, really hits his groove working with McKeon’s adaptation. The staging transitions from scene to scene, emotional note to emotional note flawlessly. At one point we flash between the front lines in the South Pacific to a quiet and tender scene between two of the characters on the field of an internment camp and back again. Coleman’s actors never seem lost in the shuffle and he gives them a tremendous amount of faith and trust to carry off some of the most important elements of the play. In one scene two police officers, played by Scott Coopwood and Casey McFeron, pull a body caught in a fishing net out of the water and onto a boat. This entire scene is done using pantomime, and it executed so well you’d swear they had a real body on stage. I couldn’t help but think back to Coleman’s work on Ragtime and the show-stopping scene where Gavin Gregory (who plays Coalhouse Walker) sits down to play at an invisible piano.
It’s this kind of deep trust in the artform and the capacity of his actors that makes Chris Coleman a truly great director, and under his direction, the actors rise to the occasion. Olivia Oguma gives an award worthy performance as Hatsue, carrying her character through a huge life arch from pre-teen to a married woman with kids. Vince Nappo takes his character Ishmael on a similar journey and caps the show with an emotional moment that is simply amazing. Bruce Locke gives the role of Kabuo a rich texturing despite the fact that his character is extremely reserved.
Across the board the performances in Snow Falling on Cedars are excellent even though many of the cast members double and triple up, playing a variety of roles throughout the show. My one and only gripe about the production is its opening. The characters come on and speak in narrative to set things up. It works but not nearly as well as when we see the characters interact with dialogue. Admittedly, this is a minor issue and in many ways is like complaining about the frame on a true masterpiece, which is what this is.
Kevin McKeon’s adaptation of Snow Falling on Cedars is so good and Chris Coleman’s Portland Center Stage production is so well performed it has the potential to become a truly classic piece of theater. McKeon works magic with Snow Falling on Cedars, crafting a truly contemporary theatrical experience using classic theatrical tools, and in the hands of Chris Coleman the result is simply amazing. Snow Falling on Cedars has the potential to be the kind of show that moves on from its Portland debut to New York and then beyond. It’s a truly great piece of theater and is absolutely not to be missed.
It’s hard to write a review of Xanadu The Musical with a straight face. Part of me is thinking, “Really, you’re going to pick apart a musical based on one of the cheesier films from the 80’s?” and in truth there will be some people who click off their brain and just enjoy the brief 90 minute staging of this kitschy musical no matter what faults it has, and that’s fine. The problem with Xanadu The Musical is that it actually far, far worse than the movie it’s based on.
Adapted from the 1980 film with Olivia Newton-John, Gene Kelly and Michael Beck, Xanadu is a fantastical story of a Greek demi-god sent to Earth to be a muse for a struggling artist. In the process she breaks some cardinal rules, including falling in love and getting involved with the creative process itself. Peppered throughout the story are some classic songs from the film including “Magic“, “Suddenly“, “I’m Alive” and the theme song “Xanadu“. None of these songs are pure classics in their own right, but they do really capture some of the delicious elements that make the 80’s so fun to wax nostalgic over.
Musically this gives Xanadu a fairly solid base. Like Mama Mia, there’s enough of a musical foundation for a fun night of musical theater. Unfortunately the music is so subverted in favor of cheap gags and poor staging that it’s hard to genuinely enjoy it.
Elizabeth Stanley, who performs the lead role, has a fantastic voice, similar in tone to Oliva Newton-John, with a depth and breadth that truly fills the auditorium. But she so hams it up while singing that it’s really difficult to enjoy her genuine talent. When she isn’t singing, Elizabeth Stanley’s performance is really subpar. For part of the show she sports an absolutely horrid Australian accent. The accent is yet another aspect of the show played as a gag, but it’s so poorly executed it’s painful.
Stanley’s co-star Max Von Esson, who plays Sonny Malone, has such a small stage presence that he’s absolutely eclipsed by Stanley. Von Esson reminds me of the kind of performer you see on a cruise ship or at Disneyland. He awkwardly hams it up and then completely under delivers when it comes time to really sing. Von Esson even comes up short in terms of skating – in the grand finale he doesn’t even skate. With all the talent out there (including the cast-offs from all the seasons of American Idol), it’s hard to believe they couldn’t find a better performer to play Sonny.
Of all the other cast members the only other real highlight of the show is Larry Marshall, who has the unenviable task of performing a role originated by the great Gene Kelly. Marshall is one of the only genuinely talented and well rounded performers on stage. He seems to be the only one to be able to balance both the humor and the narrative of the musical and both sings and acts wonderfully.
One of the biggest problems with Xanadu The Musical is that it seems to have a fairly strong disdain for the time period which the film and story are set in. Throughout the show the 80’s are often referred to as ‘culturally devoid’ and references to most of the 80’s things are more pejorative than positive. The musical also seems to have a disdain for the very artform of the musical itself. It constantly pokes fun and commentates on the very institution of art that it is. This creates an undertone to the piece which is far from celebratory. Rather than trying to be so self referential, Xanadu had an amazing opportunity to celebrate the absolute over-the-top aspects of the time period and musical theater art form; instead, it seems more interested in bashing it.
The staging for Xanadu The Musical is an absolute mess. Rather than embracing the crazy and wonderful styles of the 80’s the stage looks more like a cheap, dull ampithere with columns and risers that accommodate on-stage seating. Having audience members sit on the stage has become fashionable after plays like The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee and Spring Awakening. In both those productions the placement of these audience members served a purpose. Here it’s just another element tacked on to make the show more ‘hip’. These audience members are out of place in this period piece and are only really there to help make the stark staging feel less empty.
My absolute biggest gripe with Xanadu The Musical is how nearly every moment of the show is played for laughs. The show is littered with so many cheap jokes and gags that it leaves very little room for anything else. This completely subverts the characters and the narrative so it becomes extremely difficult to care about anyone or anything in the show. I think it’s possible to play Xanadu over the top and still have some genuine moments between characters.
Ultimately Xanadu is one huge opportunity lost. The original movie had an element of huge spectacle which gets completely lost in the adaptation to stage. Xanadu could have been a flamboyant and unrestrained celebration of an era that wasn’t ever aware how ‘far out’ it really was. But, I don’t think the creative team behind Xanadu genuinely loves the material or the era they’re presenting, I think they saw a good opportunity to mount a Broadway production that would attract a 30something audience who would place very little demands on the play and would appreciate its short running time.
Xanadu plays at the Keller Auditorium January 12-17th. For more info: