Thursday, April 26, 2012

DEAL! the musical, a review

Last night Nancy and I had the pleasure of attending a musical play at The Ritz Theater in Minneapolis.
Deal! the Musical uses a family's weekly poker game to expose the tensions and tragedies in the lives of a family and a few friends over the nine-year period from Christmas of 1958 to Christmas of 1967. The entertaining dialogue has an authentic feel to it that goes beyond nostalgia, and like the dialogue, the music is fun, but often very moving. Deal! will make you laugh often and keep you smiling even as you tear up through the many tender scenes.

Deal! is based on playwright/composer Tom Broadbent's experience with his family's weekly card games, which he proclaims in his program comments, "taught me the value of long-term relationships and forgiveness." The story follows Art and Elsie, who have just moved into town after loosing a farm they had been renting for three years. Although Art holds on to his dream of owning a farm, Elsie has settled in quickly and enjoys having a job in town with regular hours. Their two daughters, Julie, 15, and Audrey, 13, cope with real-life issues of lack of self-esteem, conflicts with their mother, conflicts between each other, and conflicts with facing their futures.
Other regulars at the poker game are Pearl, a recently widowed neighbor who copes with loss by successfully managing a liquor store; Oscar, a friend who spends too much time at the Lost and Found Tavern;  and his newest girlfriend, Millie, whose tragic loss and difficult past drives her abuse of alcohol.

Although alcohol's affect on Oscar and Millie is the cause of much really good humor, the play does not glamorize consumption. Events and dialogue clearly show them as people needing to break from past issues and getting absolutely nowhere by using alcohol to cope.
Also, there is a good deal of swearing in the play, but I think it serves the play well, adding a degree of realism and even some humor that is true to the story and the author's experience. I do not believe the play glorifies cursing, but I cannot predict what effect it might have on young people. Would young people see the cursing for it's emptiness or adopt it in their vocabulary?  A conversation between parent and child would be advised should you take a teenager to the play. I think it's fair to say the play is intended for an adult audience.

The play had me at the first scene, which takes place on Christmas Eve, 1958, with details of characters and story rolled into the opening number, "Deal Dammit,"where each character sings verses of personal exposition as they impatiently await the beginning of the poker game. Clear, detailed exposition has never been more fun.
But the play gets even better. I found the brief yelling battles between sisters and between daughters and mother particularly convincing. There were no villains. Musical numbers and dialogue evoked empathy for each individual in Scene Two where Julie opens her heart to the audience in "Julie's Song" and Audrey returns from a date with a Catholic boy. After greeting the poker players and denying that her outing with a Catholic boy was a real "date," she goes to her room to dream of him as her parents and their friends joyfully joke about Catholics and proclaim she will not marry one. Meanwhile in her room, Audrey sings "My Catholic Boy," which shows that her feelings for him go way beyond friendship.

The play is extremely funny, but without flinching it addresses head-on the issues of religion, alcohol, conflicts between parents and children, personal health tragedies, loss of dreams, and the regular hard, uphill journey of life for people who are not sheltered by money or success.

Through it all, it's hard-working wife and mother Elsie who keeps everything together, but the play makes her no perfect heroine. I found myself almost aching as she handles or mishandles conflicts with her daughters and as she expresses resentment because of their dissatisfaction of the life she has struggled to provide for them. We learn of Elsie's hard life as a child on the farm, and it's through Elsie that we feel the pain and joy of sacrificing for those you love. After many of her attempts at doing the right thing have come back to bite her, she perseveres and never gives up on her husband, daughters and friends. Elsie doesn't "save" anyone, but her family and friends understand she makes it better for everyone.

Chad VanKekerix's set design allowed for fluid movement from scene without many prop changes. It was pleasing and functional. Since subsequent setting in scenes often had a time lapse of several years, pictures from the era were projected on the wall behind the poker table and accompanied by short narration which served to set mood and fill in transitional material. The photographs were particularly enjoyable and the narration smooth and unobtrusive.

In a musical with eight cast members, each of whom sings and plays a prominent role in the story line, I feel it is high praise to the director and to the cast for me to say there were no weaknesses in the cast. Cast members were strong. In a tightly-knit musical like Deal!, any one weak portrayal would destroy much of the play. I found their characters believable and empathetic, and I found their songs delightful and moving.  Catherine Battocletti as Pearl convincingly portrayed a friend who belonged with the family. As a widow, she was able to scramble to some success even as other central characters were slipping. Most entertaining was her leading of the musical number "Jug Band" during a Mother's Day poker game attended only by the women. The men, of course, are all fishing. Though the role of women is strong throughout the play, this scene in particular displays the plight of womanhood as dictated by their bodies and their places in society. Women both lead and follow in their essential roles in the family, but men tend to get the glory while the women are expected to sacrifice.
Aly Westberg as Julie and Lizzie Schwarzrock as Audrey were particularly convincing in handling the aging of their characters from young teens to married women. David Roberts as Oscar and Kim Kivens as Millie excelled at playing drunk humor with credibility, evoking both empathy and disgust. Jon Andrew Hegge as Art and Laurie Flanigan-Hegge as Elsie both carried the weight of the story, projecting vulnerability and humor. Flanigan-Hegge was especially adept at winning hearts with her convincing portrayal of a mother who gives of herself, sometimes getting little in return.

Work by Audio Designer, Collin Sherraden; Technical Director, Chris Carpenter; Lighting Designer, Jennifer DeGolier; and Costume and Props Designer, Rien Schlecht, contributed flawlessly to make the show move smoothly and effectively.

Playwright/Composer Tom Broadbent; Playwright Jerry Seifert;  Director Joshua James Campbell; Musical Director Kyle Ross Thomas, and Musical Arranger Shane Keister have created a musical that makes for an enjoyable evening, filled with humor, fun music, and serious themes that are real to most everyone. Deal! was produced by Kurt Larsen, and the Executive Producer was Jim Foltz.

The show runs through May 6th at The Ritz Theater, 345 13th Ave. NE, Minneapolis. Call 612-436-1129 for tickets. Go to for more information.

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