Lutherans in the Twin Cities, Reviews

Young, acting, and making a difference

Two Lutheran leads in Chanhassen’s ‘Hairspray’ feel ‘blessed’ by their careers

Two Lutheran Twin Cities actors share the stage for The Chanhassen Theatres’ production of Hairspray. Kasono Mwanza (playing Seaweed) and Therese Walth (playing Tracy Turnblad) find a shared love of music in the midst of the turbulence of the 1960s. PHOTO CREDIT: Act One, Too Ltd.

The economic downturn has had a profound impact on young people, both those who are graduating from college and those that didn’t attend. In 2011 it is not often you find someone in their early 20s working at something they love.

A visit with two stars of The Chanhassen Dinner Theatres‘ current mainstage production, Hairspray, is a good reminder that following a dream can lead to professional satisfaction. And, according to Kasono Mwanza and Therese Walth, it can be “a real blessing.”

Not that being involved in acting is always easy. “I think the reason there are so many people of faith in theater is the difficulty of dealing with regular rejection,” offered Walth, who plays Tracy Turnblad in Hairspray. “When someone says, ‘You’re not what we’re looking for,’ it helps to believe that God is leading you down another path.”

In fact, Walth heard just that when she first auditioned at the Chanhassen. She wanted a role in Jesus Christ Superstar, but that didn’t work out. “But, then Michael [Brindisi, artistic director of Chanhassen] remembered me when I tried out for Hairspray,” a part in which Walth was very interested.

In the end, she was glad not to have been selected for Superstar, because that would have required performing in that show while also rehearsing for the current one.

“And that was tough,” Mwanza added. He was in the cast of Superstar while preparing for his leading role in Hairspray. “It’s physically demanding, obviously,” he explained, “but even more so it is emotionally and spiritually challenging.” Both shows have deeply moving messages, though they are almost opposite in approach. Even with the underlying issues of racism and civil unrest presented in the current show, it maintains a basically optimistic view of the world.

“The message certainly is directly about racism,” noted Mwanza. “But it is also about acceptance for who you are in general.”

In Hairspray, Tracy finds that acceptance once she makes contact with Seaweed and his friends. “Our differences are part of …” started Mwanza. “What makes us who we are,” continued Walth.

Working together, figuring out the motivations of each character and how those characters then interact, has left these two actors able to finish each other’s sentences.

When not involved in a theater production, Walth sings as a cantor and with the praise band at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Burnsville. Mwanza is a lifelong member of Bethany Lutheran Church on Franklin Avenue in Minneapolis.

What’s next for them? Together they answered, “God has a plan.” “I have to be patient,” Walth offered. “And to prepare,” added Mwanza. Oh, to be young again.

Lutherans win several Ivey awards for TC theater

Twin Citians with ties to the Lutheran church were recognized for their contributions to the local theatrical scene at the Ivey Award Ceremony on September 19 at the State Theater in Minneapolis.

Craig Johnson, a member at Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church (Chicago Avenue, Minneapolis), was given the award for best direction for his staging of Street Scene at Girl Friday Productions. Johnson also received very good reviews for Torch Theater’s 2010 offering Dancing at Lughnasa.

Ben Bakken, a member at Hosanna! Lutheran Church, Lakeville, Minnesota, won the best actor award for his portrayal of Jesus in the Chanhassen Dinner Theatres’ presentation of Jesus Christ Superstar. That production was underwritten by Thrivent Financial for Lutherans.

Anna Sundberg was recognized as the top Emerging Artist. Sundberg is the daughter of Luther Seminary professor Walter Sundberg. StarTribune theater reviewer Graydon Royce said of her performance in Reasons to be Pretty (Walking Shadow Theatre Company): “Sundberg’s Steph has an anger filled with brittle heat that finally cools with self-awareness. It’s difficult to like Steph much, but that’s not her role.” (Royce himself is a member of Diamond Lake Lutheran Church, Minneapolis.)

The event was emceed by the father-son team of Charles and Seth Numrich, former members of the Community of Saint Martin, Minneapolis. The younger Numrich is currently starring in the Broadway production of War Horse.

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