“Beaverdance” Returns to Bedlam

The irreverent "Marxist Fur Trade Holiday Musical" has been revived with a new cast, sharp direction, a snappier script and higher production values. So, why do we still pine for the scrappy shtick of the original?

1Photo by Soren Olsen, courtesy of Bedlam Theatre

I still long for the old Bedlam, the one on 6th Street and 15th Avenue in the West Bank with that awesome deck that provided a beautiful view of the Minneapolis skyline. For about two years, until it closed in 2010, I found a second home there. Drinks were cheap and I felt welcome; there was always something fun going on. I’m also nostalgic about Foxy Tann’s Beaverdance, the last holiday show Bedlam Theatre put on before it was ushered out of its old space to make way for a local mosque. My memory of that show is hazy — I’d had a drink or two — but it made an impression on me. Was it the Marxist pro-labor agenda masked as a burlesque revue that got me, or the endless cunnilingus jokes? Perhaps it was the saucy gay fur traders, or those adorable Beavers, banding together to fight for their labor rights. Seriously, what’s not to like? Suffice it to say, when I heard Bedlam was bringing the show back to its Lowertown digs, I knew that I had to see it.

Here’s the story’s zany premise: Karl Marx (Corrie Zoll) is attempting to organize the Beavers into a labor union, so that they can take control of the production of Beaver pelts. At first, they resist, but after Marx dresses up as the charming Santa Claus to win the Beavers over, they agree to take on the evil French fur traders. The unlikely revolutionaries team up with Bemidji, a Native woman who is also in the fur trade, to create a Marxist utopia where the Beavers might take hold of their rightful destiny. There’s singing, there’s dancing, and there’s tons of blue humor. And it’s all explored in a cabaret/burlesque style that charms the audience from the get-go into accepting its left-wing agenda.

There are some details from the first production that were up for debate when I chatted with people on opening night of the revival production. The original production was called Foxy Tann’s Beaverdance, but was the local burlesque performer actually in it? That’s what I remembered, and how I wrote about it in an A-list blurb for City Pages this time around — but I got a correction notice. But the folks at the bar on the new show’s opening night confirmed that Heather Wilson (Foxy Tann) did actually act as an emcee for the first night of the performance in 2009, before heading off on tour.

This Beaverdance revival mirrors my feelings about Bedlam’s Lowertown location as a whole. The place is still fun and irreverent, but it’s cleaner and less crusty, too — which perversely makes me like it less.

Beaverdance, the revival, drops Foxy Tann from the title, but Heather Wilson is still involved in the show as both costume designer and choreographer. Her satirical, bawdy style shines through the shimmy and shake of the performers’ dance moves and furry hot pants. Randy Reyes, artistic director of Mu Performing Arts, directs the show and, all in all, it’s more cohesive and sharper than the original. This iteration also benefits from higher production values, in part due to a bigger budget. The costumes, the lights, and the script are all more fine-tuned and deliberate. Although it has more songs, this show’s run time is shorter, so it’s snappier, like an actual musical theater show.

Still, I miss something of the original. There’s less shtick in this version (though double entendres are in plentiful supply), and the production somehow lacks the magnificent salaciousness that appealed to me so much the first time around. I think it has to do with the Beavers. In the new, slicker version, they’re missing a certain tongue-in-cheek smuttiness of the first production. I have vivid memories of the brilliant Heidi Arneson balancing risqué dance moves with a wide-eyed irony. That’s not to say these Beavers aren’t fun — Nico Swenson and ShaVunda Horsley, especially, stand out for their exuberant dancing — but there was restraint in the Beavers’ performance overall where shaggy abandon might have worked better.

The new version benefits from dramaturgical contributions from Rhianna Yazzie, the artistic director of New Native Theatre. In the new version, the character of Bemidji is no longer an “Indian Princess” and takes a much more active role in the plot, rather than being a passive love interest. In addition, while I enjoyed Laura Leffler-McCabe as Bemidji in the original (she’s a Beaver in this production), it makes more sense to cast an actual Native actor in the role, as they have this time around.

And she’s very good: Andrea Fairbanks’s Bemidji is slinky and sly. Watching her, I thought about criticisms from the Native community over objectification of Native women, most recently over the “Titsgiving” held by Deja Vu, or in the angry conversations about Tomahawk Tassels’ burlesque act which reached a boiling point in 2013. In Beaverdance, you have a Native actress assuming agency over the sexual aspects of her character, playing them in full three-dimensional glory, as opposed to caricature.  Fairbanks brings both strength and cunning, as well as vampishness. If her self-confidence in the comic parts seemed shaky at times, Fairbanks came into her own as Bemidji began to take control over her own and the Beavers’ destinies.

While Beaverdance is set in Minnesota’s past, the show doesn’t leave the audience off the hook in its critical satire. Zoll, as Marx/Santa, at one point sits at a table among the watching crowd, asking audience members to question their own culpability in issues of inequality and environmental disaster. It’s a chilling moment that works well, in part, because the rest of the show is so flippant.  And because it’s Santa Claus telling us these things.

The standout for this production is Ryan Patrick as the saucy yet evil Robert Blaine. An actor with excellent comic timing, Patrick works the crowd splendidly, employing the cabaret nature of the show to full effect, turning the audience into a character in the show. I also enjoyed the upbeat lyrics and score by Daniel Pinkerton and Marya Hart —  but because the band was so far to the side of the stage, the sound could’ve used better amplification.

This Beaverdance revival mirrors my feelings about Bedlam’s Lowertown location as a whole. The place is still fun and irreverent, but it’s cleaner and less crusty, too — which perversely makes me like it less. I’m still a die-hard fan, of both Beaverdance and Bedlam. I just liked the old version a little better.

Related performance information: Beaverdance: A Marxist Holiday Fur Trade Musical is directed by Randy Reyes, with book/music/lyrics by Carrie Zoll, Marya Hart and Daniel Pinkerton, costume design and choreography by Foxy Tann, scenic design by Eric Avery and Bedlam Theatre’s Design Center crew. The production is on stage at Bedlam Lowertown in St. Paul from November 21 – December 21, 2014. Find more information on tickets and specific showtimes on the theater’s website.

Sheila Regan

Sheila Regan is a Minneapolis writer. She has written about visual art for Hyperallergic, The Art Newspaper, Artnet News, Bomb, and First American Art Magazine, and has also written for the Washington Post, The Guardian, and other national and international publications. Locally, she’s an arts columnist for MinnPost, writes about dance for The Star Tribune, and classical music for the Pioneer Press. You can also hear her arts stories on KFAI’s Minneculture program. …   read more