Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” may be seventy-five years old but, as Theater Latté Da’s current production demonstrates, this classic of the American theatrical canon is no creaking dinosaur. In fact, what this production, which opened in Minneapolis on Saturday, singularly demonstrates is that “Our Town” needs no innovation to prove its indelible appeal.
Many of the striking elements Wilder introduced with “Our Town,” including the lack of sets, minimal props and a narrator who acknowledges the presence of the audience, have become common currency in today’s theater. That familiarity leads many to seek new ways to challenge audience expectations in the staging. In this case, director Peter Rothstein employs multiracial casting and puts a woman (Wendy Lehr) in the traditionally male role of Stage Manager.
In step with Latté Da’s musical-theater focus, he and Musical Director Denise Prosek have interlaced the show with popular American music ranging from traditional folk songs to the works of Stephen Foster and Scott Joplin. The result is a lively, tuneful production that often takes on the coloration of a hoedown, making up in high spirits for what it occasionally lacks in subtlety.
Rothstein has assembled a fine cast to inhabit the world of Grover’s Corners. Lehr’s Stage Manager is a low-keyed turn from an actor more widely known for colorful character roles, offering matter-of-fact pragmatism and quiet irony as she introduces the audience to the town. David Darrow and Andrea San Miguel are charmingly appealing as George Gibbs and Emily Webb, demonstrating an innocence that’s as genuine as it is touching.
Revolving around them is a host of characters who root them firmly within the surrounding community. Isabell Monk O’Connor is comically harried as Emily’s mother, while Tod Petersen brings sardonic humor and pathos to the role of the town drunk. Dan Hopman’s jovial, relaxed Mr. Webb contrasts nicely with Brian Grandison’s more tightly wound Dr. Gibbs, and Natalie Tran is sweetly sassy as George’s little sister.
The action takes place on a mostly bare stage, configured as a long rectangle with the audience on both sides and adorned, in a clever nod to the “ghost light” that so often figures in productions of “Our Town,” with dozens of bare, hanging light bulbs. While strains of melodies often linger in the background of scenes, the majority of the show’s music is confined to interludes at the opening and closing and during the two intermissions, when the stage takes on the ambiance of a barn dance.
Despite the flourishes added by Latté Da, this production doesn’t so much break new ground as simply jump in and allow “Our Town”’s innate appeal to shine forth.
Lisa Brock writes about theater.