Why is The Master Butchers Singing Club closing early?

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Lee Mark Nelson and Emily Gunyou Halaas received rave reviews for their performances in the Guthrie Theater production of The Master Butchers Singing Club – so why is the show closing early?

Photo by Michal Daniel

As Euan Kerr reported earlier this month, the Guthrie Theater’s production of “The Master Butchers Singing Club” is closing on October 30th and cancelling the last five programmed performances.

It was news that came as a surprise to many, especially those who bothered to read the reviews:

“Terrific acting – Lee Mark Nelson is triumphant–the finest performance I’ve seen all year”

- Tim Gihring, Minnesota Monthly

“[Playwright Marsha] Norman has transformed Erdrich’s book about her German and Native American forebears into something grander, adding vivid patches to the national quilt…[Emily] Gunyou Halaas’ Delphine is a font of gorgeous sensibility and heart.”

- Rohan Preston, Star Tribune

“Francesca Zambello, the driving force behind the production, directs with a flair for simple theatricality and with a tone that stays likably light even while it depicts believably wrenching events.”

- Steven Oxman, Variety

“I can’t imagine leaving the play without a smile on your face.”

- Kelly Krantz, Metro Magazine

Sure the show drew some criticism for being long-winded or trying to cram too much story into one performance. But even mediocre shows often get a full run at the Guthrie.

So why the cancellations? The Guthrie’s Director of Publicity Melodie Bahan said tickets for the last five shows “just weren’t selling.”

The skeptic in me can’t help but wonder if maybe the Guthrie itself is to blame for its own show’s failure.

I went to see The Master Butchers Singing Club at the Guthrie earlier this month, and I had a great time. But my tickets were free, and I suspect that many of the other people in the audience had also gotten in without forking over a dime.

How is this? One weeknight evening I received a call at home from a Guthrie telemarketer. She informed me that, as a Guthrie regular who had just attended The Great Game: Afghanistan, I qualified for a free pair of tickets to The Master Butchers Singing Club, if I would agree to buy tickets to three other shows in the season at a deeply discounted price.

I admit, if I hadn’t received the call, I probably wouldn’t have made it to see the show, not for lack of interest, but because I had just invested a large chunk of personal savings in seeing what was billed as a “major theatrical event” – namely The Great Game: Afghanistan – also on a Guthrie stage, but on tour from Tricycle Theater in London. The three part production set me back $120 (I’m reimbursed by MPR for my tickets, but I pay for my husband’s), and I was leary of spending another $40 – $60 to see yet another production at the Guthrie, when my duty is to get out and see the breadth and depth of Twin Cities performing arts.

Isn’t it likely that many other theater-goers, who also shelled out $120 or more apiece to see three plays in a row at the Guthrie, are suffering from a little “big blue fatigue?”

The Master Butchers Singing Club opened on September 11… The Great Game: Afghanistan ran from September 29 – October 17, creating serious competition for Guthrie audiences for a large chunk of TMBSC’s run. The Great Game: Afghanistan came with rave reviews already in hand, while TMBSC was a world premiere, with no stage pedigree.

Perhaps next time the folks at the Guthrie will think twice before scheduling one of its own productions up against a timely international success.

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