Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Three separate pieces compose French Twist, their primary connecting thread being old-world European sensibility and elegance, along with a gloriously performed percussive dance style that is the Flying Foot Forum's calling card. All are played out on a set, designed of Robin McIntyre and Chvala, which looks like a fun house for adults with a taste for La Belle Époque, with an intriguing collection of props strewn about. The first two segments are shorter works that whet the appetite for the third, "Chez Jojo," which follows an intermission and is the evening's main course.
The opener, titled "All Creatures Now Are Merry-Minded," features eight company members in wardrobes (Cindy Forsgren and Chvala) straight from storyland: brightly colored, silky robes with winged sleeves, sparkly, boldly patterned shirts tied at the waist, and turban-like head wraps sprouting feathers. A recorded soundtrack provides melodies with various rhythms, from minuet to waltz to processional, which the ensemble embellish with their own percussive score by such means as hand-clapping, hip slapping, foot stomping, and striking the props cleverly placed on stage. One among them, played by Chvala, emerges as the king (or emperor, or leader of some type), with Charles Robison as his obedient footman who makes disparaging faces behind his master's back. Jeremy Bensussan is an upstart who challenges Chvala's authority through dance, until their spat devolves into a choreographed boxing match, and finally a burst of frivolity. The entire cast busily interacts in pairs and triplets, and as an ensemble, bringing the title of the piece to fruition. In the second, shorter piece, "Sur la Rue", two cast members, Peter O'Gorman and Molly Kay Stoltz, play out a courtship of types, with a madcap competition of percussive sound and movement.
When French Twist resumes after intermission it is as if we are all now guests at Chez Jojo, broadly welcomed by Jojo himself (Chvala, sporting a wig and facial hair piece that resembles a swirl of orange custard). We observe the evening's varied moods and entertainments, as each cast member is now a named character with a distinct persona. The deep voiced La Bijou (Brandon A. Jackson), looking fabulous in apparel fit for a diva, sings of love and regret, and another entertainer, Frou Frou (Falicia Nichole,) offers more upbeat vocalizing. When the waiter, Jean Claude (Charles Robison), bursts in to announce that all the cooks are passed out drunk in the kitchen, an unlikely member of the ensemble volunteers to take charge, and we watch, by way of film footage, the mayhem in the kitchen, enacted with the percussive use of every manner of pot, pan, measuring cup, whisk, graters, colanders, and other tools of the kitchen.
Back live on stage, an object wheeled out on a cart triggers a hilariously tortured discussion among Chez Jojo's onstage "guests" as to the meaning of this work of abstract art, and Lulu (Molly Kay Stoltz) emerges to perform a Spanish dance for the crowd. The dancing, the boulevard music (played on keyboard by Eric Jensen, who co-composed the zesty music with Victor Zupanc and Chvala, accompanied by percussionist Peter O'Gorman), the dancing the comic jibes and non-sequiturs continue on and on, until that bittersweet moment when the evening must end. Jojo grabs a faux guitar to strum as he bids us farewellbut wait! There is still a big finale ahead that upends the melancholy of the night's demise and restores gaiety to everyone, both on and off stage.
The set, costumes, lighting and sound all conspire to create the festive environment of Chez Jojo, a place where you can put your worries on vacation and simply enjoy life, with all its absurdities and surprising twists. Chvala's choreography is astonishing throughout, creating vibrant stage images along with scintillating sounds, and the company of Flying Foot Forum perform his difficult paces flawlessly. Chvala gives himself several moments in the spotlight, and he remains a graceful and precise dancer, twenty-five years after founding the group, but he is very generous with his company, giving each member the opportunity to shine.
The narrative in French Twist is as ephemeral as a spray of cologne, but the spirit it conveys and the buoyancy of its humor delights from the first note to the final bows. I did not leave the theater with much on my mind, and that was wonderful. Like a frosty sherbet to cleanse the palate after a spicy course of dishes, French Twist eased my mind of the burdens of the day and put me in a state of sheer happiness.
Flying Foot Forum's French Twist, through July 15, 2018, at Park Square Theatre's Boss Stage, 20 West Seventh Place, Saint Paul MN. Tickets: $25.00 - $60.00. Age 30 and under, $21.00 for standard seats; seniors (AGE 62+): $5.00 discount; ASL/AD Patrons: 12 off you and one guest; military: $10.00 discount; rush tickets: $24.00 one hour before performance, if available - cash only. For tickets call 651-291-7005 or go to parksquaretheatre.org.
Created, Directed and Choreographed by: Joe Chvala; Set Design: Robin McIntyre and Joe Chvala; Costume Design: Cindy Forsgren and Joe Chvala; Lighting Design: Robin McIntyre; Sound Design: Cody Anderson; Film: Steve Campbell and Joe Chvala; Music: Eric Jensen, Victor Zupanc and Joe Chvala; French Language and Culture Consultant: Lydia Otero Savonitto; Jojo's Wig and Facial Hair: Paul Bigot; Stage Managers: Rachel Lantow and Megan Fae Dougherty
All Creatures Now Are Merry-Minded: Jeremy Bensussan, Jan Campbell, Joe Chvala, J.P. Fitzgibbons, Karla Grotting, Kaleena Miller, Charles Robison and Molly Kay Stoltz.
Sur La Rue: Peter O'Gorman and Molly Kay Stoltz.
Chez Jojo: Jeremy Bensussan (Gene), Jan Campbell (Gigi), Joe Chvala (Jojo), J.P. Fitzgibbons (Zhou Zhou), Karla Grotting (Zsa Zsa), Michael Hasenmueller (Marcel the "It" Guy), Brandon A. Jackson (La Bijou), Eric Jensen (Le Piano), Kaleena Miller (Leslie), Falicia Nichole (Frou Frou), Peter O'Gorman (Le Chef and Percussionist), Charles Robison (Jean Claude-the waiter), Molly Kay Stoltz (Lulu- the Spanish Dancer).
Performers in film: Joe Chvala, Brian Evans, Gabrielle Dominique, Karla Grotting, Heather Klopchin, Peter O'Gorman and Charles Robison.