North Korea had just tested a ballistic missile when theater owner Mary Leer sat down for her morning coffee recently. Riffling through the news, there were stories about sexual harassment and possible collusion with Russia.
Leer started feeling "news fatigue."
"We need tap dancing and hula-hoop and aerial arts and great singing," she said. "Things are so heavy and dreary right now — so ugly — we need to find something to lift us up."
Like any good business owner, Leer had diagnosed a problem, and had a solution on offer. She is executive producer of "Light the World," a three-act show that opens Thursday at the Lab Theater, which Leer and husband Chuck have owned for a decade.
Part interactive cabaret, part entertaining happening, "Light" aims to hit the sweet spot of the Christmas season while also delving deeper into the pressures of the holiday. The first act focuses on holiday fluff and fun, including the singing of carols. But the second act deals with discomfort at times, including the notion of acceptance as two African-American men play the sisters from "White Christmas." And the third act contains numbers that would be right at home with Michael Jackson's "Heal the World."
"It's pretty big-hearted, too," Leer said.
Bearers of light
The producer has tapped 10 youthful performers, including alums of the recent Ordway Center production of Lin-Manuel Miranda's "In the Heights," to be bearers of light — some literally — in the show. (Courtney Wiley dances with a lit hula hoop.) Other performers dance on silks or promenade around the 6,000-square-foot venue playing violin.
The cast includes up-and-comers Kole Nelson, Abby Magalee, Emily Madigan, Ryne Lehman, Renee Guittar and Rush Benson, a dancer, choreographer and man-about-town who serves as emcee, choreographer and scriptwriter.
"I like to think of it as a club, a concert, a circus and a show," said Benson. "Minnesota doesn't have a doper place to go." That rhyme is part of the script that Benson has crafted for this production. Three years ago, Benson helped start "Cabarave," a millennial dance party-cum-interactive-cabaret at the Lab. He hopes "Light the World" will also have a return life, and he's betting that its format, which is an outgrowth of the earlier show, will make it a draw for families.
"The standard cabaret format has a lot of park and bark," Benson said, using a performance shorthand for singers who stand in place as they perform. "We wanted to make this show more dynamic, more 360, so that performers and the audience feel free to move around. We want to be wildly entertaining and inviting at the same time, but also use our platforms and voices to say important stuff."
Dropping some Beats
Benson's work with Leer for the show has opened his eyes. He's gone deep into some Beat-era poets, such as Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Amiri Baraka, relating them to the modern spoken-word movement and hip-hop. He is also collaborating with people he never imagined he'd work with, especially bandleader and arranger Sanford Moore, who has helped to rearrange and update musical numbers from the likes of Tchaikovsky, Irving Berlin, the Beatles and Beyoncé. Andrew Hill, aka DJ Nostalgia, is part of the remix brain trust, as well.
That Leer was able to tap such talent speaks to her history. Many years ago, she founded Ruby's Cabaret, which drew top-notch performers, including Dennis Spears and the Steeles.
"What was so special about that was that we had a hip, integrated group of people who always felt at home," she said.
Now with this show, she's speaking to the future.
"When you're dealing with young people, it's inherently hopeful," Leer said. "Here I am at 67, and this show, these young people, are giving me the light we need at this moment in history."
Rohan Preston • 612-673-4390 • @rohanpreston