Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
The book for Flowers for the Room is by Yellow Tree co-founder Jessica Lind Peterson, who also plays Allison. The book does a good job of breathing life into Jake and Allison's relationship, leading off with the playfulness and leap of faith they have taken as they join in marriage. She is an artist and primary school teacher, he is a financial advisor and self-described "numbers guy," but they have straddled their differences and planned a life together. Their ceremony is performed by Jake's brother Greg, who awkwardly stammers and fumbles through index carded notes, all the more surprising when we learn he aspires to be a minister. But all is well, Jake and Allison are crazy in love, and to prove it, Jake sings a song he has written for her as his wedding gift"Color Me in Love."
The accident that follows is depicted almost as a ballet, seen through a white scrim that suggests a trance-like state, leading Allison to wonder "Where Am I, Where Are You?" There is a hospital bed in the intensive care unit, but Allison hovers above it, in a chair that floats over the room, allowing her to see and hear all that happens while Jake, Greg, and hospital staff talk to a limp body laid out on the bed. We meet the two other characters, an efficient but warm-hearted (unnamed) Nurse and Julie, a hospital social worker of dubious merit.
Throughout Flowers in the Room the songs, (lyrics by Blake Thomas, music by Thomas and Matt Riehle) give characters opportunities to express what they cannot say aloud, bringing additional insight into this fragile story. In flashbacks, Allison and Jake create their loving union, while in the present, they eloquently express their frightened thoughts and feelings in "Don't Go Away," "Remember," and the especially moving "Letting Go." The Nurse provides comfort not only to Allison, but to Jake ("Breathe"), while Julie reveals more insight than her scattershot approach to social work would indicate in "Beautiful Life." The relationship between brothers Jake and Greg, fraught by a stormy history, comes into the fore in "Oh Brother." The second act opener, "Life Is Sad and Hard," finds humor in life's inevitable struggles, giving a lift to the narrative before returning to its darker reality. The songs bring much needed depth to the narrative, and several, including "Beautiful Life," "Letting Go" and "Breathe," are particularly lovely, while the jaunty "Color Me in Love" is giddy fun.
The book takes some stray paths that could use some tidying up, such as Greg's confusing back story, and how it is that only Julie can hear Allison speak. Of the secondary characters, the Nurse feels most whole, though it is curious that she is not given a name. The creative team also includes a device in which lyricist-composers Thomas and Riehle, who both perform in the show's band, make smart remarks here and there directed at characters in the play. This works during the wedding scene, when we picture an actual band nearby, kibitzing with the celebrating couple, but feels like a hole punctured in the dramatic fabric as the narrative continues.
Still, Flowers for the Room tenderly and artfully plays out its story of love straining to hang tough through the hardest kind of uncertainty. It is directed by Yellow Tree Artistic Director Jason Peterson, with a light hand that makes the hard truths it plays out bearable. Excellent performances add immeasurably to making what might be too bleak a topic feel engaging and even hopeful.
Jessica Lind Peterson sings beautifully as Allison, and breathes life into the character of this woman, both in glimpses of her free-spirited past and in her defiant observations as her body lies limp in the hospital bed. She radiates ethereal grace in the well-choreographed accident scene (staged by movement director Andy Frye). Zachary Stofer has done most of his stage work in Duluth, but is welcome to visit the Twin Cities more often, based on his beautifully wrought portrayal of Jake, making every moment believable, whether struggling for the words as he and Allison write their wedding vows, unleashing long-held anger against his brother, or unleashing the anguish of his broken heart. Stofer sings with warmth, making Jake's feelings keenly felt through song.
Kendall Ann Thompson is terrific as the Nurse, briskly efficient, using casual chatter to defuse tough moments, but revealing her own longings and tenderness as well. When she tells Jake that the flowers he has bought for Allison cannot be brought into the ICU (hospital policy) her words convey genuine compassion. Daniel S. Hines as Jake's brother Pastor Greg brings a necessary goofball persona to the role, but also an inner drive to be able to rise to the occasion. In spite of past failings he entertains Allison, along with the audience, with uninhibited abandon in a ridiculous number that merges pro wrestling with the pulpit. Norah Long, as Julie, completes the cast. Long has for many years been a Twin Cities theater mainstay, with leading roles in everything from classic musicals to operetta to edgy contemporary drama. This time, in a supporting role, Long feels more like comic relief than a substantial part of the story, until she draws it all together with the wrenching "Beautiful Life," and her stunning voice lets loose.
The show uses a very simple setting, focusing on the hospital bed and the chair that lifts Allison above the heavy hearts in her ICU room. Curtains like those that separate patients sharing a semi-private room are drawn around the stage during transitions, with lighting that allows us to see without fulling understanding what we seemuch as those gazing tenderly upon Allison might feel. Costumes serve the characters well, especially Julie's generic professional woman's attire.
The four-member band, with co-composer Riehle also serving as music director, provide appealing accompanimentat times overpowering the vocals, especially Peterson's softer voice, but otherwise in fine form.
As stated above, Jake is not permitted to bring a bouquet from the hospital gift shop into Allison's room. Yet the title suggests that flowers for the room matter a great deal. Without those tokens of love and hope resting in a vase, it is up to Jake, as well as Greg, Julie, and the Nurse to invent and sustain hope, if not to sustain Allison than for themselves. This small, gentle musical provides a glimpse into people with their hearts ripped open, grasping to make up for the absence of flowers in the room.
Flowers for the Room, through March 3, 2019, at Yellow Tree Theatre, 320 5th Ave SE, Osseo MN. Tickets $20.00 - $27.00; $10.00 rush tickets starting 30 minutes before each performance, pending availability. $3.00 per ticket discount for seniors (65+), students with valid ID and military veterans. For information and tickets call 763-493-8733 or visit YellowTreeTheatre.com.
Book: Jessica Lind Peterson: Lyrics: Blake Thomas; Music: Blake Thomas and Matt Riehle; Director: Jason Peterson; Musical Director and Arrangements: Matt Riehle; Director of Movement: Andy Frye; Set Design: Jeffrey Peterson; Costume Design: Sarah Bahr; Lighting Design: Courtney Schmitz; Sound Design: Peter Morrow; Prop Design: Abbee Warmboe; Fight Choreography: Santino Craven; Stage Manager: Brian Regan.
Cast: Daniel S. Hines (Pastor Greg), Norah Long (Julie), Jessica Lind Peterson(Allison), Matt Riehle (band member), Zachary Stofer (Jake), Blake Thomas (band member), Kendall Anne Thompson (Nurse).
Musicians: Christopher Peterson, Matt Riehle, Abbey Roemer and Blake Thomas.