Deeply felt and beautifully produced
|Circle Theatre presents|
|35MM: A Musical Exhibition|
Review by Lauren Whalen
Circle Theatre is fast earning a reputation as the little company that could. Relatively new to the Chicago theater scene, they likely don’t have the big budget of their Equity counterparts, yet display a scrappy sensibility, a “dare to be different” mentality and some of the best voices in the city. 35MM is an unusual show – a song cycle inspired by photographs – and Circle Theatre furthers their mission to take the city by storm in this awe-inspiring production and Chicago premiere.
During this 75-minute ode to music, art and relationships of all kinds, a photographer (Caleb Baze) urges cast and audience alike to “focus” on a series of images. Some are humorous, some tragic, many in-between – just like the majority of moments in our lives. The photographer and four individuals (Liz Bollar, Tony Carter, Michelle Lauto and Neil Stratman) cycle through a variety of characters and emotions, never taking for granted the thru-line of human connection, as wonderful, complex and devastating as it can be.
35MM contains no spoken dialogue, and its opening song is rather messy in structure. It doesn’t help that the sound was off on opening night: both singers and orchestra are gifted, but the sound design needs to have a better balance. Several times, orchestra drowned out singers and I felt I missed crucial character moments. However, though it starts slowly and certain lyrics were lost, Ryan Scott Oliver’s score is gorgeous and varied. Love ballads pair easily with comedic pieces and sadder stories, and the harmonies are positively magical. Music director Ryan Brewster (who also plays piano) guides the five singers with a sure hand, and director/choreographer Cameron Turner employs a winning combination of smart blocking, fun dance moves and excellent character interpretation. Matthew Murphy’s stunning photographs, which inspired the score, are projected on a screen, surrounded by equally lovely still photographs taken by local artists. Scenic designer Jimmy Jagos keeps the rest of the set simple, letting the many stories behind each image shine through, and the performers take center stage.
The five-person cast displays a tight bond onstage, illuminating humanity with an ease that only comes after long hours of work. Baze is a charismatic backbone to the piece, seamlessly blending into the narrative while distinguishing himself as its starting point. Lauto, a standout from last summer’s The Boy From Oz with Pride Films & Plays, brings a star quality to every note she trills. Bollar displays both comic relief and strong dramatic acting, and an unforgettable turn as a wronged teenage prom queen hell-bent on revenge. Carter has movie-star looks and the voice of an angel, and Stratman rounds out this exceptional ensemble with glorious stage presence.
Though it starts out a bit slowly and the sound quality leaves much to be desired, 35MM is well worth watching. A snapshot into our minds and hearts, with the angst, passion and need for connection, the show is distinctive and emotional. You’ll laugh, cry and long for love, while enjoying a cadre of striking voices and magnificent instrumentalists. Don’t miss out, and make sure to follow the journey of Circle Theatre so you can say you knew them when.
35MM: A Musical Exhibition continues through April 10th at Collaboraction, Room 300, Flat Iron Arts Building, 1579 N. Milwaukee (map). Tickets are $35, and are available by phone (312-620-0134) or online through BuzzOnStage.com (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at CircleTheatreChicago.org. (Running time: 75 minutes, no intermission)
Photos by Cody Jolly Photography
Ryan Brewster (piano, organ), Mike Evans (guitar), Zachary H. Suechting (electric, acoustic bass), Kathryn Diana (violin), Desiree Miller (cello), Robert Fletcher (drums)
behind the scenes
Cameron Turner (director, choreographer), Ryan Brewster (music director), Andrew C. Donnelly (stage manager), Jimmy Jagos (scenic design), Chazz Malott (lighting design), Margi Hazlett (costume design), Matthew Reich (sound design), Karla Meyer (asst. sound design, board operator), Nicholas Reinhart (projection design, co-producer), Cody Jolly (production photographer, video design), Bobby Arnold (co-producer)