Bedlam Theatre’s “Beaverdance”: More beaver jokes than Lowertown’s seen since the days of Pig’s Eye

Bedlam Theatre’s “Beaverdance”: More beaver jokes than Lowertown’s seen since the days of Pig’s Eye

Beaverdance, described as “a Marxist holiday fur trade musical,” combines the stories of beavers who unionize to stop their slaughter; the voyageur who helps to slaughter them until his Ojibwe girlfriend convinces him otherwise; two flamboyantly gay European traders looking to stop grabbing beaver and start grabbing land; and a time-traveling Karl Marx who likes to dress as Santa Claus.

That’s a lot of plates to spin, and the musical’s original production—at Bedlam’s former West Bank space, in 2009—kept them spinning with sexy abandon thanks to a classic Bedlam cast, the key missing element in the disappointing revival now being staged at Bedlam’s new Lowertown space under the direction of Randy Reyes. Whereas the original cast scored laughs effortlessly, the new ensemble tries harder, with diminished results.

On paper, the idea of bringing the dancing beavers back for Christmas 2014 seemed perfect. Bedlam is now happily settled into their new space, operating in their trademark spirit of flexibility and fun—the most recent thing I saw there was a belly-dancing revue. Reyes is one of the top young stars of the local theater scene—both on stage and off, having recently become artistic director of the ever-edgier Mu Performing Arts.

The new Beaverdance is presented cabaret-style, with a catwalk extending out into an audience seated at dinner tables. (At one point, there’s a pointed gag made about Chanhassen, home of another dinner theater that shall remain namel…whoops.) A live band rock out at stage left, necessitating the miking of many actors—though not all, making some of the dialogue and lyrics difficult to discern. Programs include the lyrics to the beavers’ union song (“There is power in the beaver/ Though you may think we’re all wet”), and audience members are encouraged to sing along.

The opening night audience I saw the show seemed much amused, and I enjoyed myself too—especially toward the end, as the show’s energy started to pick up. The ability of script writer Corrie Zoll (who also plays Marx, pointing out that copies of his tracts are available for sale at the merch counter) to get endless mileage out of one beaver joke—that beaver joke—remains impressive, and the songs (music by Marya Hart, lyrics by Dan Pinkerton) are still great. It’s also refreshing to see a Minnesota holiday show that takes a satirical look at our region’s fucked-up voyageur days rather than the more recent church basement follies.

Still, scene after scene I found myself trying to give this production the benefit of the doubt rather than being swept up in the gleeful absurdity of it all. Reyes’s professionalism and flair for stagy yuks can’t make up for the playful touch of former director Foxy Tann—the dancing beavers have gone from disingenuously erotic to self-consciously awkward. The new production’s best moment comes at the end of the first act, when the beavers forget themselves and fall into a frenzy of mad humping, only to come to their senses and make a northwoods walk of shame off the stage for intermission. We’ve all been there.

Jay Gabler