Bob Stromberg’s best-known contribution to the Twin Cities entertainment universe remains “Triple Espresso,” which he created with two partners and continues to perform on occasion.
In 2008, Stromberg made a leap on his own with “Mr. Wonder Boy,” a largely autobiographical work about his journey as a comedian. He has continued to tinker with the show (art is never finished, only abandoned) and on Thursday, he re-launched “That Wonder Boy” at the Music Box Theatre in Minneapolis.
Working with director Risa Brainin, Stromberg has sharpened his focus and thought more deeply on what he wants to say about the artist’s impulse and mission. He still rambles in his charming manner and never gets too serious. That is the show’s weak point but also its saving grace, for Stromberg is a happy and funny storyteller.
What elevates “Wonder Boy” is Stromberg’s sincere and abiding understanding that from the time he was a child, he was different. He was deeply moved by art, whether it be the folk song “Shenandoah,” Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” or a Richard Pryor routine. He saw and felt things with greater poignancy than did his mates. And he was brave enough to say he wanted to be an artist, a performer. He wanted to answer “a higher calling.”
A college professor told Stromberg he hadn’t suffered and therefore didn’t have the well of pain that great artists require. And he admits that was true. He wanted to make people laugh, with his goofy, rubbery face, his limber physicality and a self-deprecating demeanor reminiscent of Bob Newhart.
Stromberg does make people laugh. But his greater gift is his eye and ear for the stories of his life. He tells of childhood sweethearts, lost opportunities, painful episodes with exquisite details, stinging truth and vulnerability. He does, as Bob Dylan wrote, “think and feel too much within.”
But for all of Stromberg’s boyish charm, we wish he would on occasion let his material land deeper in our hearts. He defuses a moment here and there with a loopy grin, a laugh or a cliché. Go ahead, Bob, trust these beautiful and authentic heart-piercing stories. You don’t need to be funny all the time.
“That Wonder Boy” has grown theatrically, with visuals and sound. Michael Pearce Donley, one of Stromberg’s co-creators in “Triple Espresso,” has composed music and a soundscape that supports his friend’s work nicely.
But this work will always rest solely on the buoyant shoulders of its creator. Stromberg takes seriously his mission here on Earth: to spread joy and share his insight into what it means to be human.
Isn’t that what we ask of artists?