by CHRISTINE SARKES
Complicated Fun at the History Theatre through May 29 is a weirdly coincidental musical retelling of the history of First Avenue and the acts that made it famous, including Prince, who played frequently and filmed many scenes in Purple Rain there. In fact, Chris Osgood of The Suicide Commandos opened the show with a moving tribute to Prince saying he was “what made our lives, our lives, and what makes Minnesota, Minnesota.” The play is a musical history lesson of the “Minneapolis Sound” and the legendary bands that created it, as seen through the eyes of a teenage couple and a pair of record store fanboys a la High Fidelity. Prince’s music isn’t featured here because of copyright issues, but around 25 other bands and performers are covered, including The Replacements, Husker Du, Soul Asylum, the Jets, The Suicide Commandos, Jayhawks and on.
Watching the teenage couple (Stephanie Bertumen as Girl and Bowen Cochran as Boy) navigate a budding relationship on the dance floor and the record store clerks (Skyler Nowinski and Joseph Miller) debate the finer points of punk rock, threw me back in time to my high school days. Complicated Fun will appeal to anyone wishing to relive the glory days of Prince and First Avenue as well as younger audiences wishing to understand the cultural alchemy that created these acts. Josh Carson was compelling and funny as Steve McClellan, First Avenue’s crusty manager, who fought against the big business focus on beer and ticket sales instead of advancing musical innovation. Andrea Wollenberg was impressive in several roles, primarily as Maggie. H. Adam Harris and Ricky Morisseau as Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis represented the Minneapolis R&B community and introduced the audience to the racial politics they confronted when trying to bring their unique sound downtown.
The musical isn’t without its faults: the band under Nic Delcambre is excellent, but the sound quality could be improved; the dialogue jumps from First Avenue’s management office, to the dance floor, to the record store, often in a confusing jumble; and, finally, the sub-plot involving the teenage couple could have had a better story arc. Despite that, the show is an entertaining, high energy bit of Minnesota history and a fitting tribute to Prince’s legacy and influence on the national music scene. Playwright Alan Berks should be commended for tackling this complex tale and the History Theatre for staging it. Little did they know that it would be so timely and sadly prescient.
Complicated Fun by Alan Berks, directed by Dominic Taylor, with Music Director Nic Delcambre. April 30 – May 29 at the History Theatre, 30 East 10th Street, St. Paul, 55101. Tickets: $15-$35 at 651.292.4323 or firstname.lastname@example.org