by Rob Callahan
The Fitzgerald has an unearned reputation. Or, more accurately, its reputation is outdated. The Saint Paul performance space that has been synonymous with the down home, “aw shucks” delivery of Garrison Keillor’s “Prairie Home Companion” has been spawning tangents, picking up patrons from the younger, hipper set and fast becoming Minneapolis’ premiere destination for live weekend entertainment.
“Wits” hits the stage every other Friday, and welcomes personalities the likes of John Hodgman, Bobcat Goldthwait, Sandra Burnhardt and Amy Sedaris to mix with the house band and musical guests, as well as recurring surprise guest Neil Gaiman. Chris Koza helms the upcoming “Works for Words” show, following last year’s success under Jeremy Messersmith’s guidance, and Messersmith himself recently returned to the stage along with Dave Mondy, Chastity Brown, P.O.S. and a plethora of musicians at “Muse for Music.”
Tony Bol, director of performance programs at the Fitz, describes “Muse for Music” in comparison to its higher profile sister show. “While ‘Wits’ is a spoken word show with a lot of music, this is a music show with a lot of spoken word.”
That difference is mostly evident in the layout of the stage. “Wits” puts a modest house band on one side, with the musical guest’s spot down in front. “Muse for Music” puts a modest spot for Dave Mondy to stand off to the side. The rest of the stage is filled with people playing instruments. A backdrop further adds to the scene, displaying projected cinemagraphs which correspond to the song being sung at any given moment.
Before a packed house, Messersmith and Mondy traded ideas and observations while avoiding beratement from their digital personal assistant, Siri, who was wired into the house speakers. (Of note, it wasn’t actually Siri. It was a scripted facsimile, recorded for the audience’s enjoyment. The real Siri doesn’t berate you. She only berates Android users and, as she hasn’t yet been ported to Android, she’s keeping a lot bottled up at the moment.)
After an energetic set of originals and choice covers by Messersmith and his band, Chastity Brown and P.O.S. took turns on the stage sharing some of their favorite songs. One very notable rendition of “Happiness is a Warm Gun” stole the first half of the show. P.O.S. performing Prince’s “I Wanna Be Your Lover” in the style of his GAYNGS R&B singing persona LeRon took the second.
And after, as is quickly becoming customary, the show’s performers and creators went out to mingle with what’s still hanging around of the crowd. This might be the Fitzgerald’s biggest selling point, especially as concerns programming like this. Shows with a definite 89.3 flavor to them often draw some of the city’s best and most established artistic talents, to both the stage and the live audience. After the curtain drops and the house lights are up, those talents are not scarce for the fans who would like to go up and shake their hands. Maybe tell them how much their work is appreciated. That sort of thing.
A big show like this can be exhausting for everyone involved. It’s common for artists to pour several months of their lives into planning one, then put on a great show, and walk away hoping they never have to do it again. After a while, though, when the exhaustion fades and all that’s left is the memory of how great the experience was, artists sometimes change their minds and head back to do it all again. Let’s hope that happens here, for the chemistry between Mondy and Messersmith is something everyone should have a chance to see on a stage. And, between the two of them, they know how to assemble top talent.