Category: Broadway in Chicago
Centuries later, Shakespeare’s message still rings true
|Broadway in Chicago presents|
|The Merchant of Venice|
|Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Darko Tresnjak
at Bank of America Theatre, 18 W. Monroe (map)
through March 27 | tickets: $23-$75 | more info
Reviewed by Oliver Sava
Putting Shakespeare’s plays in a contemporary setting often produces mixed results, and Darko Tresnjak’s corporate take on The Merchant of Venice finds both its strengths and weaknesses in its modern context. The national tour of the 2007 Off-Broadway production, Merchant of Venice stars Academy Award winner F. Murray Abraham in the role of Shylock, a chilling portrayal of a man trampled by an oppressive society on a malicious quest for justice. The contemporary context is used by Tresnjak to expand the story beyond Shakespeare’s words, and the social, economic, and political changes of the last 400 years give the script new meaning, particularly with Shylock’s character. The set design is sleek and tech-heavy, the men wear three-piece suits, and Portia’s (Kate MacCluggage) caskets are MacBooks that unlock with a USB key, yet the concept never takes over under Tresnjak’s crisp, focused staging. The two main plotlines – the first centralized on Shylock and his socioeconomic troubles, the second on Portia’s romantic exploits – are balanced and grounded by the strength of their principal performances, and together create a story that resonates on both a global and personal level.
The show begins with the title character Antonio (Tom Nelis) in a state of melancholy. As his friends deduce the source of his pain to be his heart, Bassanio (Lucas Hall) arrives to ask Antonio for money so that he can travel to Belmont and woo Portia, earning her sizable inheritance in the process. Scholars have long speculated the romantic relationship between Antonio and Bassanio, and Tresnjak and Nelis interpret Antonio as a closeted older businessman utterly devoted to the object of his affection. The corporate environment gives new meaning to the casting, with Antonio serving in a CEO position while Bassanio and friends make up the junior executives, with Gratiano (Ted Schneider) as the office drunk for good measure. Antonio’s work relationship with Bassanio prevents their relationship as much as social pressures, and when he lets his affections for his friend overrule his business judgment, he ends up on trial with a pound of his flesh on the scales of justice.
Meanwhile, Portia and her waiting-woman Nerissa (Christen Simon Marabate) compare Portia’s various suitors on an iPhone, awaiting the next batch to pick from the three “caskets” of lead, silver, and gold. The two actresses have great chemistry, and MacCluggage’s Portia is so powerful that the moments where she can unwind with Nerissa are a treat. Both actresses use the verse beautifully, and they avoid some of the problems that come up elsewhere in the production as actors modernize the language. One instance where the modernization works is with Launcelot Gobbo (Jacob Ming-Trent), Shylock’s stoner assistant that turns Shakespeare’s words into slam poetry, and his fantastic “fiend” monologue is a highlight of the first act.
Bassanio uses Antonio’s credit to acquire a loan from Shylock, a Jewish lender, who despises Antonio’s anti-Semitism and lends the 3,000 ducats on the condition that if the bond is not repaid in the specified time, a pound of flesh will be taken from Antonio in lieu of interest. The corporate setting increases the intensity of the scene where Shylock and Antonio agree to the bond, and Tresnjak uses Shakespeare’s language as a kind of boardroom code, with Elizabethan poetry acting as a form of subversive power play. The modern setting changes the character of Shylock in profound ways, especially considering the struggles of the Jewish people over the last century. This Shylock lives in a post-Holocaust world, fully aware of the devastating damage caused by the irrational fears and prejudices of others. His devotion to his spirituality doesn’t fit in with Antonio’s corporate vision, and his treatment becomes a symbol for the ways in which traditional religious views are being forgotten in modern age. When Shylock’s daughter Jessica (Melissa Miller) elopes with Lorenzo (Vince Nappo), an associate of Antonio’s, Shylock loses his stoic demeanor, maliciously going after his promised pound of flesh when Antonio’s ships are lost at sea.
The drama of the Shylock plot is balanced by the humor of Portia’s, and as her suitors choose between the three caskets to find the one with her picture inside, she anxiously awaits the arrival of Bassanio. The suitors are hit and miss, with Raphael Nash Thompson’s towering Moroccan dictator inspiring laughs through his quiet, yet exaggerated aggression, while Christopher Randolph’s lisping Prince of Arragon is too over-the-top and ends up falling flat. Bassanio arrives and picks the right casket, but their celebration is cut short when he learns that Antonio is in prison, awaiting trial for not paying Shylock. Portia offers to pay off the bond times two, and then dresses up like a man with Nerissa and devises a plan to save Antonio from Shylock’s wrath. The image of Antonio in an orange jumpsuit calls to mind real world images of white-collar inmates in prison for their economic deviances, and without the corporate environment Antonio is able to act on his desire for Bassanio. The trial scene is a break neck race to the finish, as Abraham explodes with fury, the years of degradation finally breaking him and forcing him to vengeful action. Then Portia sees Antonio and Bassanio kiss, and the tension skyrockets as she forgets about the mercy she preached earlier. It all comes crashing down on poor Shylock, and his final moments on stage are heartbreaking, stripped of his yarmulke, his daughter, and his dignity.
The Portia plot resolves in typical Shakespeare romance fashion, with the characters misunderstanding each other until they finally end up in handy little pairs, but the emphasis on Antonio and Bassanio ends the play on a bittersweet note. Despite the occasional misstep with the comedic aspects, mostly with jokes that don’t have any scriptural basis and are tech-based, the direction reveals aspects of the play that give it new relevance in modern times. Proving that despite the changes in culture, the fundamental messages of Shakespeare’s plays are still applicable to contemporary issues.
All photos by Gerry Goodstein.
Competent ‘Hair’ revels in its own kitsch
|Broadway in Chicago presents|
|Book/Lyrics by Gerome Ragni & James Rado
Music by Galt MacDermot
Directed by Diane Paulus
at the Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph (map)
through March 20 | tickets: $27-$90 | more info
Reviewed by Dan Jakes
If the pre-show announcement–which asks that you please turn on your heart and to please turn off your cell phone–isn’t a clear indication, there’s plenty of proverbial winking in director Diane Paulus’ Hair. From the restrained band volume to the affable, mostly miles-from-the-danger-line interactions between actors and audience, we’re assured from the beginning that the night’s show is going to be professional, going to be groovy, and going to be safe.
Safety, of course, was not what made Gerome Ragni and James Rado’s rock-musical about a tribe of hippies significant. It defied modern standards of decency, blazed new theatrical territory and was written and performed in the chaotic epicenter of the same cultural revolution it advocated.
But let’s face it. Entertainment value aside, The Man acquisitioned Hair a long time ago. It’s unclear when, but the changeover presumably took place some time after religious groups stopped picketing outside of performances and some time before it began running in theaters named after multi-billion dollar car companies.
During this revival, I thought about what, if any, our contemporary equivalent to the monument Hair was in its heyday for intrepidity and relevance. It’s certainly nothing that can be described in the same genre (in the grand scheme of art and provocation, rock-musicals are now, by more honest billing, lite-rock-musicals). I won’t pretend to romanticize living in the late 1960’s–one, I would not yet exist as a fetus for another two decades and two, it was a notoriously violent era of persecution, uncertainty, hate, and abused authority–but I can appreciate the time’s profound art and its ability to have instigated change.
Yet the national conflicts Ragni and Rado wrote about are still (in some cases, eerily) recognizable. Our current generation is witness to an aggressively protested war, sex as a talking point for political candidates, old white men tossing around the word “communist” to rebuke lefties, and mainstream efforts to legalize marijuana. Then is it fair to wonder if, for all its critical acclaim, this latest resurgence of Hair missed an opportunity to be more than a technically laudable send-up to a counter-cultural artifact?
It’s telling that during opening night’s post-curtain-call “Be-In,” where the tribe welcomes the audience onstage to dance through a reprise, the cast really had to coax people to budge. Some inevitably jumped up, but most smiled good-naturedly while inconspicuously grabbing their coats and eying the exits.
Some rapport never got established.
And some did. As Berger, Steel Burkhardt has the most opportunity to break down the fourth-wall and create a sense of community. He doesn’t as often as I‘d have liked, but his allocated moments for addressing the audience are the most entertaining, substantive parts of the show. Taking a gentle stab at an over-zealous laugher is funny–allowing another to stuff single dollar bills down his suede fringe loincloth is funny and opens up the risk and fun of watching anything-goes action. The rest of Hair could benefit from this sense of happening and authenticity.
Vocally, the ensemble is consistent, and fits well within the folk-rock style Galt MacDermot’s compositions call for. Appropriately cast, these kids look and sound like the embodiment of young idealism and acceptance. At times, they’re sublime.
Billing a show as a revival carries a certain weight, implication and spirit. I’m not confident this latest production lives up to these. But as a fully-produced tribute, it’s at least a good trip.
Hair continues through March 20th, with performances Tuesday at 7:30, Wednesday 2 and 7:30pm, Thursday 7:30pm, Friday 8pm, Saturday 2 and 8pm, and Sunday 2pm. Tickets are $27 and $90, and can be bought at www.broadwayinchicago.com.
Now extended through June 5th!
Talented Chicago cast gets the job done!
|Broadway in Chicago presents|
|From the book by Studs Terkel
Adapted by Stephen Schwartz and Nina Faso
Directed by Gordon Greenburg
at Broadway Playhouse, 175 E. Chestnut (map)
through June 5 | tickets: $67-$77 | more info
Reviewed by Katy Walsh
‘Everybody should have something to point to!’ At the end of a career, job, or just day, there is satisfaction in pointing to something well-constructed… building, memo, burger… to say ‘I did that!‘ Steel beam to corner office to cubicle, one building houses millions of work tales. Broadway in Chicago presents Working a musical. In 1974, Pulitzer Prize- winning author Studs Terkel published a collection of interviews in his book entitled “Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do.” In 1977, Stephen Schwartz and Nina Faso adapted the book into a musical about the working class. In the current production, both skilled director Gordon Greenburg, and additional songs, have been added to the resume. ‘Working 2.0’ brings timeless employees’ woes into a new age. Working is the ordinary dreams of ordinary people sung by an extraordinary Chicago cast!
The show is cued with a behind-the-curtain glimpse at staged theatre. An unseen person calls out directions in a countdown to the start. A bi-level backdrop showcases four dressing rooms where actors-playing-actors-playing-workers are busy prepping. The intriguing set by Beowulf Boritt has a strong industrial framework influence. The beams work double-time to establish a construction feel as an ironworker kicks-off the interview series. Later, the metal structure is the screen for visual projections by Aaron Rhyne. Designer Rhyne adds magnificent depth to the stories with authentic location and people imagery. Studs Terkel haunts the stage from beginning to end. In the opening scene, his voice is heard as several reel to reel recorders play his historic interviews tapes. At the finale, projections of the working people series ends with his facial profile. In between the Studs, a hard-working ensemble of six dress and undress…sometimes right on stage… to tell 26 different stories in 100 minutes.
The marathon of memories is well-paced, with each character’s story transitioning into another’s. Sometimes, it’s natural… construction guy to executive to assistant. Sometimes, it’s just a little forced… retired to fireman or factory worker to mason or trucker to call center tech. Regardless, the stitching together adds to a rhythmic flow for the always-dynamic and ever-changing cast. There are lots of moments to point to with this talented 6 doing 26 parts, but here are some favorites: E. Faye Butler transforms effortlessly from humble housewife to vivacious hooker to amusing cleaning lady. Totally diva-licious, Butler belts out songs like an entire gospel choir squeezed into one uniform. Emjoy Gavino goes from sassy flight attendant to poignant millworker with an unforgettable solo. Despite a crackling microphone, Barbara Robertson is delightful and slightly disturbing as an old-school teacher. Then, as an amicable and career content waitress, Robertson serves up an impressive singing number complete with a side of splits. Gabriel Ruiz delivers burgers with playful energy, then later sings sweetly as a caregiver doing a job nobody wants. Michael Mahler plays it ruggedly funny as seasoned trucker then naively hilarious as a newbie student. Gene Weygandt bookends the show as the cocky ironworker bragging about heights and confessing his shortcomings in a powerfully nostalgic ‘Fathers and Sons.’
WORKING: a musical employs a talented Chicago cast! No matter what your current job status, this hard-working cast will entertainingly sing to you a familiar tune. It’s realistic, relatable, regularity life put to music. I’m pointing at Working as an enjoyable after-work happy hour.
Working continues through June 5th, with performances Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursday, Sundays at 7:30pm, Fridays, Saturdays at 8pm, and Wednesdays, Saturdays, Sundays at 2pm. The Broadway Playhouse is located on 175 E. Chestnut in downtown Chicago (behind Watertower Place). Ticket prices are $67 to $77, and can be purchased online HERE. Running Time: 100 minutes with no intermission.
An Easy Day’s Night
|Broadway in Chicago presents|
|Rain – A Tribute to the Beatles|
|Written by The Beatles
at Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph (map)
thru Feb 13 | ticket: $35-$75 | more info
Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer
For baby boomers wanting to share their childhood with their kids, for all the true-blue or late-blooming fans of the Fab Four whose great regret is that they never got to see the world’s greatest quartet in concert, or for folks who like to watch great songs return to their source, Rain should be human catnip for rockers and rollers everywhere. In two hours the ardent crowd at the Oriental Theatre get back The Beatles–from their black-and-white debut on “The Ed Sullivan Show” (a 1964 debut seen by 73 million viewers) to the hippie splendor of Sergeant Pepper and His Lonely Hearts Club Band to the transcendental meditation phase that mingled with anti-war ballads to, well, just a final nostalgic sing-along that gels all their acts together.
Providing context and much non-negotiable nostalgia, projections, vintage commercials, psychedelic animation, costume changes, and closed-circuit coverage (which combine the actual audience with clips from the Beatles 1965 concert at Shea Stadium) bring the 60s to life along with the music that stamped our memories.
Like the long-running Beatlemania, this life-sized simulation of the magnificent moppets spans their too-brief career. All the classics are performed live (too many to name but how wonderfully it ends with “Let It Be” and “Hey Jude”!) by the very skilled if not always perfectly matched Steve Landes, Graham Alexander, Tom Teeley and Doug Cox, as the Liverpool legends, with Chris Smallwood on percussion and keyboards. There are a fewer lesser known gems, like “That Boy,” that might even trigger some new nostalgia, if that’s possible.
Ironically, this retrospective has been together longer than the Beatles ever were, a testament to the persistence of fame even in tribute form. No question, this is accuracy itself, except for the fact that it’s being done in 2011 for almost three generations more than could have seen the originals. But there’s nothing like making up for lost time.
Back to Les Barricades!
|Broadway in Chicago presents|
|Written by A. Boublil, H. Kretzmer, and C. Schonberg,
with additional material by James Fenton
Directed by Laurence Connor and James Powell
at Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph (map)
through Feb 27 | tickets: $25-$90 | more info
Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer
This is my tenth trek through Victor Hugo‘s musical spin-off, now in its 25th anniversary production (which means no turntable and new orchestrations). But everything old is new again, what you expect from a touring production where freshness is essential. Though the students’ barricade can’t revolve (so the death of Gavroche occurs literally out of sight) and, more crucially, the useful overhead captions delineating the passage of time and changing locations are missing, for Miserable fans it’s the kind of sound and fury that signifies sensation. Restaged by Laurence Connor and James Powell, this less sprawling but more intimate version fits nicely into the huge Palace Theatre where it never played before.
Les Miserables remains the Mother Ship of Musicals, with the sprawl of Cats, the swirl of Starlight Express, the political passion of Evita, and the melodic turns and pop soulfulness of Jesus Christ Superstar.
It’s easy to mistake Les Miz for its hype, to lose the story in the spectacle. As always, the test is – how much real feeling survives from page to stage? “Trop et trop peu”. Too much and too little.
The novel compresses three turbulent decades of French history into the life of Jean Valjean, a proletarian martyr who becomes a fugitive for stealing bread to feed his sister’s family. Valjean’s a convict who might have been a criminal–except for a pivotal act of forgiveness. That mercy encourages Valjean to protect persecuted Fantine, promising the dying woman to care for her daughter Cosette. Fulfilling that pledge, he later rescues Cosette’s beloved Marius, a freedom-fighting student, Jean does this despite Javert, the diabolical cop who for 17 years doggedly pursues the fugitive across France.
Hugo’s soaring tale is pure melodrama. Appropriately, the three-hour epic wastes no time in subtlety. Schonberg’s songs are the action–mainstream, mostly major-key melodies constantly recycled for cumulative effect; Herbert Kretzmer‘s obvious lyrics spell out all the characters think and feel and how we’re to take it. Alas, they’re often full of unearned emotion: With no set-up to the songs they seem to come out of nowhere. But the singers mean well…
Every number brings an emotional peak to be scaled, which means forgetting the last crisis to move on to the next. It’s like speed-reading the novel. In the second act alone we endure a heroine’s death, the murder of an innocent waif, the mass death of idealistic students, the mourning of their survivors, a villain’s suicide, the lovers’ duet, a foiled blackmail attempt, the hero’s renunciation, his heartbreaking reconciliation with loved ones, and a dubiously triumphant finale sung entirely by a throng of marching ghosts!
Few operas dare to cover so many crises. No orgy ever had so many climaxes. Les Miz does–but not without risking a campy overkill.
But its glorious excess makes thrilling theater. Here it’s richly performed by a dedicated cast, though too often it seems a contest between the orchestra and the singers to see who can wax louder.
Blessed with an effortless tenor, Lawrence Clayton’ sturdy Valjean, the inspiration for “The Fugitive,” is ardent as required but the fact that he’s also African-American makes him even more of an outsider than Hugo would have imagined. (Now Javert seems as much a racist as a reactionary.) Though the implacable pursuer is a one-dimensional villain (his anthem "Stars" is too noble for this reactionary bully), Andrew Varela delivers the evil with inexhaustible conviction and a barrelhouse baritone. Betsy Morgan breathes power into her proudly fallen Fantine whose ghostly reappearance differs little from her saintly earthly existence.
As the lovers, Justin Scott Brown and Jenny Latimer are picture-perfect. Playing bittersweet Eponine, the sacrificial lamb who loves Marius in vain, Chasten Harman, also African American, is too gung-ho on the pop stylings but her hopelessness for Marius takes on even more texture. (But this is not an audition for “American Idol.”) For comic relief we get the Thenardiers, predatory parasites opportunistically played by Shawna M. Hamic and Michael Kostroff, two vaudevillian rogues.
The show is drenched in a dim, Daumier-like vision of bleak poverty. Wooden ramparts loom above, while the shifting stage turns up law courts, towering barricades, and boisterous taverns, all peopled by a supercharged chorus. No question, Les Miserables is an ordeal – but some people just love running—or watching—marathons.
Despite frigid weather, show sizzles with dance and eye-candy
|Broadway in Chicago presents|
|Burn the Floor|
|Directed and Choreographed by Jason Gilkison
at Bank of America Theatre, 18 W. Monroe (map)
through Feb 13 | tickets: $16-$80 | more info
Reviewed by Katy Walsh
As Blizzard 2011 buries Chicago into a frozen tundra, a downtown theatre oasis smolders in heat.
Broadway in Chicago presents Burn the Floor, an electrifying international dance-off. The increasing popularity of “Dancing with The Stars” and “So You Think You Can Dance” has instigated a resurgence in ballroom dancing. Burn the Floor predates these reality shows and the moves still thrill with pulsating appeal. Waltzes to rumba to cha cha: the show moves with an elegant, sweltering sass. Even in blizzard conditions, Burn the Floor ignites the building!
Director and choreographer Jason Gilkison paces it as a seamless, high energy dance marathon. Gilkison, along with his partner Peta Roby, were undefeated Australian dance champions from 1981-1997. His life-time passion for the craft is evident in a mega tribute to multiple types of dances. In the number “History Repeating”, the costumes and dances change as a stylistic tribute to past decades. Flapper, hippie, and disco outfits are paired with swing, samba, and jive. It’s a colorful, fast-moving flashback in time. Making it look effortless, twenty dancers gracefully glide into each sequence. One moment, it’s flowing milky swirls of “Knights in White Satin”; later it’s seductive multi-colored ruffles kicked up from the Latin Quarter. The rapid and contrasting flow keeps the audience mesmerized. In a particular steamy routine, one lucky lady dancer rumbas with all the men… all the incredibly sexy men. AND she’s blindfolded! It’s a white-hot fantasy actualized on stage. Smoking!
This ongoing type of sexual sizzle is flamed to perfection. Equally intriguing are the ‘dance stunts.’ These athletes throw and catch partners over head, under legs, and across people. They drag, lift and twirl. One gal spins on her back for several revolutions. Even seeing it, the logistics escape me. For reality show fans, this ensemble boasts alums, Anya Garnis, Pasha Kovalev, Ashleigh and Ryan Di Lello, Robbie Kmetoni, Janette Manrara and Karen Hauer, from “So You Think You Can Dance” and a vocalist from “American Idol”, Vonzell Solomon. So you think YOU can dance? After seeing this theatrical exhibition, you’ll deny your ability and/or sign up for dance classes immediately.
Co-starring in this visual spectacle are the costumes. Designer Janet Hine adds to the vibrant scene with a multitude of wardrobe changes. For the ladies, the silky, exquisite ballgowns enhance the rippling grandeur of the waltz. Later, stunning transforms to provocative with numerous versions of lingerie inspired attire. My favorite was a beautiful fringe dress that is a cross between leathery and feathery tassels. (If it had a back, some sleeves and four more inches, I would wear one.) It’s playful gorgeous! For the gentlemen, Hine sticks to the basics with primarily black pants and shirts. Sometimes she dresses them up in tails and sometimes she undresses them with open shirts or, my preference, shirtless. To add in a realm of rugged masculinity, Hine also puts the guys in jeans paired with jackets, shirts or my choice, shirtless. Burn the Floor is pure eye candy! It doesn’t matter what you’re into: guys, gals, chests, breasts, asses, or legs, they have your flavor. Indulge yourself in a sweet bag of treats with plenty of red hots.
Burn the Floor continues at the Bank of America Theatre, playing February 2nd, 3rd,6th, 8th , 10th at 7:30pm, February 4th, 5th, 9th, 11th, 12th at 8pm and February 5th, 6th, 9th, 12th, 13th at 2pm. Running Time: Two hours includes a fifteen minute intermission
Though uneven, show is still loads of nostalgic fun
|Broadway in Chicago presents|
|9 to 5: the Musical|
|Music and Lyrics by Dolly Parton
Book by Patricia Resnick
Directed by Jeff Calhoun
at Bank of America Theatre, Chicago, (map)
through Jan 30 | tickets: $32-$95 | more info
Reviewed by Barry Eitel
Unless you were at Wednesday night’s opening of 9 to 5: the Musical, you probably didn’t know that January 19th is now Dolly Parton Day in the great state of Illinois. I’m sure Broadway in Chicago would suggest you celebrate the holiday by checking out the musical, based off the 1980 movie about female empowerment (and Dolly’s acting debut). For those who doubt the merit of a screen-to-stage to national tour musical, I hear you. But even though the show, with music and lyrics by Parton, can be wildly uneven, it’s still a lot of fun.
9 to 5 starts off brilliantly, but like most weekdays, it lags by the end. While writer Patricia Resnick tweaked the movie’s storyline (which was Jane Fonda’s pet project), the tale is mostly the same. To be blunt, this is not a musical that will be remembered. There are a lot of cracks and the story is jerky. In the short term, however, the show exudes laughs, razzle-dazzle, and, most importantly, heart. You leave the theatre satisfied, more or less. There is a reason shows like 9 to 5 are only in town for a fortnight.
The show’s plot follows three working women as they meet, hate their “autocratic, sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot” boss, sort of accidentally kidnap their boss, and then take over (and successfully run) the company. Even though it came out just 32 years ago, at the time of the movie the idea of a female executive was implausible. Now, that’s not so much the case. There aren’t really any new ideas brought to the table by the stage adaptation, but it wraps up the old ones in new packages.
The first half is, dare I say it, sort of deep. It’s fascinating to watch the three women interact and build relationships. There is Violet (Dee Hoty), the head of the secretary pool who is waiting for a promotion. She is mildly irked by Doralee (Diana DeGarmo in Parton’s role), a blonde with a Texas accent and really big…hair. The last part of the trio is Judy (Mamie Parris), a recently divorced new hire who has never had a day job in her life. All of them chafe under their boss (Joseph Mahowald), who insults Judy, hires a young man over promoting Violet, and tries to bang Doralee every chance he gets.
What’s interesting is watching how the women treat and judge each other. One of the first things Violet teaches Judy is that she shouldn’t like Doralee. Thanks to stress, illicit substances, and a mutual hatred of the powers that be, they come together.
Then they kidnap their boss, everything gets ridiculous, and it all ends very quickly.
For her debut at penning a musical, Parton does a decent job. None of the songs are particularly memorable besides the titular tune that’s already a country/pop classic. The three leading ladies do a fabulous job with the material. Hoty possesses the best acting chops, exploring Violet’s vulnerabilities as well as her steely, case-of-the-Mondays demeanor. Parris does a hilariously neurotic turn in the Fonda role. The biggest surprise is DeGarmo. Maybe casting American Idol runner-ups draws crowds, but it usually just draws eye-rolls from me. Although untrained, the adorable DeGarmo pulled off the role with gusto and spirit. I would think that she made Parton proud.
Resnick pushes the show into campy territory far too much. At one point, each lady dreams up a plan for killing the boss, and each fantasy is given an overblown staging. Excesses like that tend to distract. The musical, in the end, seems more like a well-acted knock-off of the movie instead of a re-imagining. In that sense, it does its job.
Dolly Parton celebrates her 65th birthday on opening night
Dolly Parton wows at “9 to 5” in Chicago
Fans of Dolly Parton were in for a big treat on Wednesday night as she made an appearance at opening night of the Broadway tour musical 9 to 5. On stage before the show, Illinois’ Governor Pat Quinn presented Dolly with a certificate proclaiming the 19th as “Dolly Parton Day” in Chicago. Dolly made another appearance at the final bows, where – as you can see in the video below – the cast wheeled out a big chocolate cake and then led the audience in singing “Happy Birthday” for Dolly’s 65th Birthday. Can you believe that she’s 65 years old??? Wow, she looks great! We love you Dolly!
Illinois Governor Pat Quinn announces January 19th as “Dolly Parton Day”
Dolly Parton joins cast at final bows, and helps cut her birthday cake!!
This is *very* blurred photo of Dolly Parton posing with the 3 leads of the show:
- from left, Diane DeGarmo as Doralee (played by Dolly Parton in film)
- Dee Hoty as Violet (played in film by Lilly Tomlin)
- Mamie Parris as Judy (played in film by Jane Fonda)
Irving Berlin holiday classic receives rich, nostalgic production
|Broadway in Chicago and Broadway Across America presents|
|Irving Berlin’s White Christmas|
|Written by David Ives and Paul Blake
Music by Irving Berlin
Directed by Norb Joerder
at Bank of America Theatre, 18 W. Monroe (map)
through Jan 2 | tickets: $25-$98 | more info
Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer
Inspired by the 1954 film that itself builds on the 1944 delight “Holiday Inn” (which premiered the title song), Irving Berlin’s White Christmas is unashamedly old-fashioned, aggressively nostalgic, and filled with postwar optimism. How can it not be when the Irving Berlin classic with which it begins and ends is now a essential part of the holiday DNA for most Americans? The production values are vintage too—terrific tap dancing, go-for-broke jubilee choreography, cornball humor, goofy plotting, period-perfect costumes from the Eisenhower era, and lots of pretty scene changes. (Who says Broadway shows don’t have scenery anymore? This one packs a thousand glorious illusions passing as set pieces.) This blast from the past is a winter storm we can savor.
Strictly by-the-numbers and comfortably contrived, the plot involves Wallace and Davis, a vaudeville team looking for a new act, who join forces with Betty and Judy Haynes, a sisters duo, to help the guys’ former general draw crowds to his Vermont ski lodge and barn when the winter season is threatened by a total lack of snowfall. It’s serendipity on cue. Of course, all kinds of clever confusion arises over whether the boys will end up in Florida or rehearse their new Broadway show in New England, then whether that inn will be sold to a corporation and, of course, whether each sister will dutifully fall for the vaudeville hoofer of her choice.
It’s all an excuse for such Berlin gems as “Blue Skies” (performed with a bit too much jazzy syncopation for my taste), “I’m Happy,” “I Love a Piano,” “How Deep Is the Ocean?” and, of course, the inexhaustibly evocative title number. They’re a showcase for John Scherer and Denis Lambert as the happy hoofers who fall hard or soft for Amy Bodnar and Shannon M. O’Bryan as the sisters who sing “Sisters.” Everything you loved in the movie you can savor here in three dimensions.
Ruth Williamson, as the hard-boiled, Broadway brassy inn manager, combines Thelma Ritter and Alice Ghostley as she peps up every scene with deadpan wisecracks. Erick Devine is lovably crusty as General Waverley (even though the plot goes haywire near the end as he returns to the Army, then reenters retirement for reasons that aren’t worth a second thought). Eleven-year-old Mary Peeples is a perky moppet who was born to play Annie as well as the general’s Shirley Temple-cute granddaughter and will steal a show, if not a scene, if she’s not watched carefully.
The 17-member ensemble resemble so many perpetual-motion machines, singing and dancing their own beautiful blizzard in this Currier and Ives vision of Vermont. (The whole show is like a series of life-size Christmas cards singing enchanting melodies.) The lesser-known Berlin numbers may not be undeservedly neglected but the surefire hits from this totally American composer are absolutely irresistible. This Christmas confection can more than hold its own with A Christmas Carol (our review ★★★½) and The Nutcracker (review ★★★★), just a few blocks away.
WFF: Wicked Friends Forever
How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Enjoy Regime Change!
|Broadway in Chicago presents|
|Music/Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz
Book by Winnie Holzman
Directed by Joe Mantello
at Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph (map)
through January 23 | tickets: $35-$105 | more info
Reviewed by Paige Listerud
Big, bold Wicked is back in town. Broadway in Chicago launched its surefire holiday winner with military precision Friday night at the Cadillac Palace Theatre. Not a wrong note. Not a misstep. Not a hair out of place–and they’ve got a million fabulous wigs (Tom Watson) to keep in check, y’all.
Joe Mantello’s direction follows the Powell Doctrine of “overwhelming force,” so that audiences can be assured of Wicked as the one-stop shopping place for big talent, over-the-top pageantry, feel-good humor, and blow-your-hair-back music. To quote Oscar Wilde, “Nothing succeeds like excess.” Plus, the production displays no shame in borrowing from the Disney playbook. So, do you desire dueling divas with the lungs and control to belt out those power ballads? Check. A suave male lead to fight over? Check. A goofy headmistress who turns into Cruella De Vil? Check. Gorgeous lighting (Kenneth Posner) and fun special effects (Chic Silber)? Check and check.
Don’t forget the tight and driven orchestra (P. Jason Yarcho) or the most excessive, blatantly overdone, asymmetrical costuming (Susan Hilferty) in the world. So, for those still on the lookout for a really, really big show to entertain family or those out-of-town guests, your ship has come in.
Naturally, Wicked is also really, really lite entertainment. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Still, revisiting Wicked creates a curious opportunity to re-examine the recent historical conditions under which it developed. Opening a month and a half after the US invasion of Iraq, Wicked throws a few blunt jabs at the War on Terror. Winnie Holzman (book) tried to throw a little politics into the mix without disturbing the musical’s overall feel-good vibe. It’s interesting to gage how well that has held up over the years. For the most part, since Wicked plays it both ways, its safe, bland pronouncements against oppression, increased surveillance, First Amendment violations and picking on people who are different come across like a beauty queen telling you that she wants world peace.
But, hey, Wicked’s not about politics, right? Heck, no! It’s about two young women of radically different temperaments discovering that they can be best friends forever. Since Oz society casts the girls as “Good’ and “Evil”–and since they themselves never publicly buck that casting–the musical then becomes a rough and sloppy allegory on the moral ambiguities of Good and Evil becoming best friends forever. Now, there’s a fine fairy tale for a nation that cannot make up its mind. Are we the liberators of Iraq and Afghanistan or are we just making the world safe for Halliburton, BP, etc?
I only ask because, you know, not to be a buzz kill or anything but we are still in the middle of the same wars. Very. Very. Expensive. Wars.
Never mind. It’s the holidays and what better to take our minds off our troubles than a mongo production about two girls who loathe each other but, through a merry mishap, become college roommates, who then learn to love each other. I know it sounds predictable and, frankly, lesbian – but relax, parents, even the heterosexuality in this show earns only a G-rating. So, on that cheery note, Wicked is fun for the whole family, especially if your family is made up of girls or gay boys who’ve memorized the soundtrack from beginning to end.
I kid. Straight males can also get a lot out of Wicked, like finding out how the female mind works.
One of the most important rules of feminine society is “be nice.” Always be nice, no matter what. Even if people absurdly hate you for your green skin, even if your family rejects you, even if you’re a social pariah the moment you walk in the door, always, always be nice. Niceness is the perpetual feminine social criteria and niceness always kills.
Elphaba (Jackie Burns) delivers a deliciously sinister witchy laugh but, for all that, her outsider bad girl suffers from a distinct lack of personality. Whatever power Burns exhibits—and she is a (whew!) powerful Broadway songstress—she’s still straitjacketed into a role where nice victimhood is the order of the day. Even Elphaba’s breakout moment in the second act, when she operatically vamps into a fully-formed Wicked Witch of the West with “No Good Deed,” is a transformation that goes nowhere because we never get to see her act wicked.
Clearly, the creators of Wicked had far more fun developing Elphaba’s foil. Galinda/Glinda (Chandra Lee Schwartz) overtakes the show. Glinda has mastered nice so well she can be nasty, two-faced, empty-headed and hypocritical yet still retain the love of the hoi polloi. Glinda gets star treatment, not just from the people of Oz, but also in the production’s visual quotations of Legally Blonde during “Dear Old Shiz” and Evita during “Thank Goodness.” “Popular” is a wonderfully funny, sassy and knowing number, not just for its humorous critique of popularity, but also because the song just tells it like it is. Schwarz’s easy control over her part vivifies Glinda’s zany pretentiousness without making her ridiculously clownish. Her classical voice training certainly plays pink princess Elphaba’s green girl next door, but the real mastery she exhibits comes from her comic timing.
Through Elphaba we get a bad girl who isn’t really threatening. Through Glinda, Wicked gets to poke fun at the feminine rules of niceness without raising hairs on parental necks. Through Wicked we all get to laugh at the emptiness and shallowness of our social and political order without really altering it. We feel more helpless now than ever to alter it and that helplessness, in turn, reflects in all our entertainments, lite or otherwise.
We hope and change but nothing really changes. That’s the malaise we share with Oz. No matter how shallow we know popularity is, popularity is politics and popularity ultimately wins. Sure, Madame Morrible and The Wizard (Chicago natives Barbara Robertson and Gene Weygandt) get their comeuppance once Glinda takes over. But, no matter what regime change goes down in Oz, Good Glinda, who was never really good, still has to live out her central casting as Good–however limiting that is for her—while wicked Elphaba, who was never really evil, still has to live fugitive from the angry mob.
It seems that, at least according to Wicked, the marginalized are to stay marginalized for the sake of maintaining order. (Does that go for the talking animals as well, the ones who were oppressed under The Wizard’s regime? We never find out.) Plus, it’s not just that Elphaba or Glinda find themselves thrust into unyielding roles; it’s that they accept these artificial roles without trying to correct their fellow citizens about them or they accept them under the pretense of serving a “greater good.” For the greater good, truth has to be sacrificed. For the greater good, you stay in your artificial, socially constructed role and I’ll stay in mine.
Accept the role society has placed you in, even if you know it’s false. I’m not sure that’s a message that I would want any girl or boy to take away from an evening’s entertainment.
Sacrifice the truth. Um, no. That never leads to anything good.
Accept that there are some things the people are better off not knowing—they’re just a bunch of dummies anyway. No, I think I’d prefer something that encouraged young people to stand up to the crowd, as well as to their leaders, and I think I’d want them to engage with their fellow citizens, rather than write them off as impossible ignoramuses.
I’m obviously asking too much of Wicked. It’s just a friggin’ musical, for cryin’ out loud; a musical made for fun, a musical for girls and boys who don’t feel popular and who want a heroine of their own, a playful diversion from reality. But in a way, with the topics it attempts to examine, Wicked asks for it.
In the face of America’s continuing economic malaise, its stalemated Congress and its continued involvement in demoralizing, resource-sucking wars, I don’t see the value of a production that teaches either kids, or the adults that brought them, mournful helplessness over imbedded social structures or the chicanery of the powerful. After all, one good witch or, rather, two good witches are not going to get us out of this mess.
But hey, at least we get to see the Wizard!
Broadway in Chicago’s 2010/2010 season to include:
Next to Normal
9 to 5
Beauty and the Beast
October 26, 2010 – January 1, 2011
7 Fingers (Les 7 doigts de la main) is an astonishingly talented French Canadian company that has pioneered a whole new brand of theatrical entertainment, and their smash-hit production, TRACES, will launch its U.S. tour in Chicago this fall. Combining awe-inspiring acrobatic training with infectious urban energy, seven performers deliver dazzling, gravity-defying displays of skill that produce “one of the most creative and inspiring pieces of entertainment I’ve ever witnessed” (Edinburgh’s The Sun)–balancing on each other’s heads, tumbling through hoops and leaping spectacularly up giant poles without using their hands. More than just a display of acrobatic brilliance, the audience is gradually drawn into the performers’ real life stories and, by the final, dramatic climax of the show, on the edge of their seats, willing them to pull off the seemingly impossible. “Mesmeric, spontaneous and unpretentious,” ( London ’s Metro), this thrill-a-minute show will leave you begging for more.
GOD OF CARNAGE
November 30 – December 12, 2010
The son of one couple has broken two teeth of the son of another. At first diplomatic niceties are observed, but as the couples meet to resolve things, and the rum begins to flow, huge tensions emerge and the gloves come off, leaving more than just their liberal principles in tatters. Winner of the 2009 Tony® Award for Best Play and Best Director (Matthew Warchus), GOD OF CARNAGE is “the funniest play on Broadway!” raves WOR radio.
December 1, 2010 – January 23, 2011
Entertainment Weekly calls WICKED “the best musical of the decade.” WICKED, the longest-running Broadway musical in Chicago theatre history, is returning to Chicago . Winner of 26 major awards, including a Grammy and three Tony® Awards, WICKED is Broadway’s biggest blockbuster, a cultural phenomenon and was just named “the defining musical of the decade” by The New York Times. Long before that girl from Kansas arrives in Munchkinland, two girls meet in the land of Oz. One–born with emerald green skin–is smart, fiery and misunderstood. The other is beautiful, ambitious and very popular. How these two grow to become the Wicked Witch of the West and Glinda the Good makes for “the most ‘Popular’ piece of Chicago theatre in a generation” (Chris Jones, Chicago Tribune).
9 to 5: THE MUSICAL
January 18 – January 31, 2011
9 to 5: THE MUSICAL is a hilarious story of friendship and revenge in the Rolodex era. This new musical comedy, direct from Broadway, is based on the hit movie and features Dolly Parton’s original hit title song along with her new Tony® Award and Grammy nominated score. The book is by Patricia Resnick (co-writer of the original screenplay). 9 to 5: THE MUSICAL tells the story of three unlikely friends who conspire to take control of their company and learn there’s nothing they can’t do — even in a man’s world. Outrageous, thought-provoking and even a little romantic, 9 to 5: THE MUSICAL is about teaming up and taking care of business… it’s about getting credit and getting even… and it’s about to open in Chicago!
BURN THE FLOOR
February 1 – February 13, 2011
The international dance sensation BURN THE FLOOR visits Chicago direct from its record-breaking run on Broadway! You’ve seen Ballroom dance on shows like “Dancing with the Stars” and “So You Think You Can Dance.” Now, with BURN THE FLOOR, you will feel, live on stage, all the passion, the drama and the sizzling excitement of 20 gorgeous champion dancers, in a true theatrical experience, a performance with a grace and athleticism that The New York Times calls, “Dazzling!” From Harlem’s hot nights at The Savoy, where dances such as the Lindy, Foxtrot and Charleston were born, to the Latin Quarter where the Cha-Cha, Rumba and Salsa steamed up the stage, BURN THE FLOOR takes audiences on a journey through the passionate drama of dance. The elegance of the Viennese Waltz, the exuberance of the Jive, the intensity of the Paso Doble – audiences with experience them all, as well as the Tango, Samba, Mambo, Quickstep and Swing. It’s Ballroom. Reinvented.
February 2 – 27, 2011
Cameron Mackintosh presents a brand new 25th anniversary production of Boublil & Schönberg’s legendary musical, Les Miserables, with glorious new staging and spectacular re-imagined scenery inspired by the paintings of Victor Hugo. This new production has already been acclaimed by critics, fans and new audiences and is breaking box office records wherever it goes. The London Times hails the new show “a five star hit, astonishingly powerful and as good as the original.” The Western Mail says “an outstanding success.”
RAIN: A TRIBUTE TO THE BEATLES
February 8 – February 13, 2011
RAIN, the acclaimed Beatles concert, returns by popular demand, direct from Broadway! They look like them and they sound just like them! “The next best thing to seeing The Beatles,” raves the Denver Post. All the music and vocals are performed totally live! RAIN covers The Beatles from the earliest beginnings through the psychedelic late 60s and their long-haired hippie, hard-rocking rooftop days. RAIN is a multi-media, multi-dimensional experience…a fusion of historical footage and hilarious television commercials from the 1960s lights up video screens and live cameras zoom in for close-ups. “A thrilling bit of time-warping nostalgia…Boomer Heaven!” raves The Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “Uncanny! RAIN are a quartet of fine musicians in their own right…as The Beatles, they triumph!” cheers the Boston Herald. “An adoring Valentine to The Beatles,” declares the Washington Post. Sing along with your family and friends to such favorites as “Let It Be,” “Hey Jude,” “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” “Come Together” and “Can’t Buy Me Love,” and relive Beatlemania from Ed Sullivan to Abbey Road!
February 15 – May 8, 2011
WORKING is a vital new musical based on the book by Pulitzer Prize-winning author and Chicago ’s own Studs Terkel. Newly adapted by Stephen Schwartz (WICKED, PIPPIN and GODSPELL), WORKING is the working man’s A CHORUS LINE. It is a musical exploration of people from all walks of life, with twenty-six songs by all-star composers Craig Carnelia, Micki Grant, Tony Award™ winning Lin-Manuel Miranda, Mary Rodgers, Susan Birkenhead, Stephen Schwartz and Grammy Award™ winning James Taylor. WORKING celebrates everyday people, fills you with hope and inspiration and is the perfect musical for anyone who has ever worked a day in their lives.
March 8 – 15, 2011
The Public Theater’s 2009 Tony-winning production of HAIR is an electric celebration on stage! This exuberant musical about a group of young Americans searching for peace and love in a turbulent time has struck a resonant chord with audiences young and old. Its ground breaking rock score paved the way for some of the greatest musicals of our time. HAIR features an extraordinary cast and dozens of unforgettable songs, including “Aquarius,” “Let the Sun Shine In,” “Good Morning, Starshine” and “Easy To Be Hard.” Its relevance is UNDENIABLE. Its energy is UNBRIDLED. Its truth is UNWAVERING. It’s HAIR, and IT’S TIME.
MERCHANT OF VENICE
March 15 – 27, 2011
From the acclaimed Theatre for a New Audience, the first U.S. theatre to be invited to the Royal Shakespeare Company, comes Shakespeare’s tragicomedy following command runs Off- Broadway and in Stratford-Upon-Avon . Starring Oscar winner F. Murray Abraham in his riveting portrayal of Shylock, and directed by Darko Tresnjak (former Artistic Director, Old Globe), the play has been arousing controversies for centuries with raucous and gentle comedy, tender poetry, and its struggle with mercy and justice. In this riveting update, religion, race and sexuality collide with love, family and justice and the currency of society and humanity has never been so changeable.
April 5 – 17, 2011
WISHFUL DRINKING, Carrie Fisher’s autobiographical solo show, follows Fisher’s life. Born to celebrity parents, Fisher lands among the stars when she’s picked to play a princess in a little movie called ‘Star Wars.’ But her story isn’t all sweetness and light sabers. As a single mom, she also battles addiction, depression, mental institutions, and that awful hyperspace hairdo. It’s an incredible tale–from having her father leave her mother for Elizabeth Taylor to marrying and divorcing singer/songwriter Paul Simon, from having the father of her baby leave her for a man to waking up one morning and finding a friend dead beside her in bed. Don’t miss this opportunity to see Carrie Fisher’s hit Broadway show.
NEXT TO NORMAL
April 26 – May 8, 2011
From the director of Rent comes the most talked about new show on Broadway, NEXT TO NORMAL, winner of the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and three 2009 Tony Awards including Best Score. Alice Ripley who received the 2009 Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical, will reprise her acclaimed performance in Chicago . Having been chosen as “one of the year’s ten best” by major critics around the country, NEXT TO NORMAL is an emotional powerhouse of a musical with a thrilling contemporary score about a family trying to take care of themselves and each other. The New York Times calls NEXT TO NORMAL “a brave, breathtaking musical. A work of muscular grace and power. It is much more than a feel-good musical; it is a feel-everything musical.” Rolling Stone raves, “It is the best musical of the season – by a mile. It’ll pin you to your seat.”
Begins April 29, 2011
Broadway In Chicago and threesixty° entertainment are excited to announce a unique event – a spectacular new production of J M Barrie’s classic story, PETER PAN, at the Chicago Tribune Freedom Center. Conceived by an award-winning creative team, the SMASH HIT Peter Pan features twenty-two actors, stunning puppets, epic music and dazzling flying sequences surrounded by breathtaking video projection using the world’s first 360-degree CGI theater set. Both cast and audience fly over Edwardian London. Performed in a state-of-the-art theater pavilion, this magical new “in-the-round” production of Peter Pan is an extraordinary experience for the whole family.
May 3 – 8, 2011
The winner of 8 Tony Awards, including Best Musical – told by Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater through “The most gorgeous Broadway score this decade” (Entertainment Weekly) – SPRING AWAKENING explores the journey from adolescence to adulthood with poignancy and passion you will never forget. The landmark musical SPRING AWAKENING is an electrifying fusion of morality, sexuality and rock & roll that is exhilarating audiences across the nation like no other musical in years. Join this group of late 19th century German students on their passage, as they navigate teenage self-discovery and coming of age anxiety in a powerful celebration of youth and rebellion in the daring, remarkable SPRING AWAKENING. “Broadway may never be the same again!” NY TIMES
DISNEY’S BEAUTY AND THE BEAST
June 28 – July 10, 2011
The romantic Broadway musical for all generations, NETworks presentation of DISNEY’S BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, the smash hit Broadway musical, returns to Chicago ! Based on the Academy Award-winning animated feature film, this eye-popping spectacle has won the hearts of over 35 million people worldwide. Hailed by the Chicago Sun-Times as “warm and winning performances, a tuneful score, and real heart,” the classic musical love story is filled with unforgettable characters, lavish sets and costumes, and dazzling production numbers including “Be Our Guest” and the beloved title song. Experience the romance and enchantment of DISNEY’S BEAUTY AND THE BEAST!
Group tickets are currently available for all of the 2011 Season Series shows. Groups of 15 or more may receive a discount on most shows by calling (312) 977-1710. 2011 Season Series subscription packages will go on-sale to new subscribers on September 12, 2010. Broadway In Chicago gift certificates, which can be redeemed for any production or for season ticket packages, can be obtained at Broadway In Chicago box offices, www.BroadwayInChicago.com or by calling Ticketmaster at (800) 775-2000.
Lion King roars into Chicago
|Broadway in Chicago and Disney Theatricals present|
|The Lion King|
|Music/Lyrics by Elton John and Tim Rice
Book by Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi
Directed by Julie Taymor
at Cadillac Palace Theatre, Chicago (map)
through November 27| tickets: $25-$148 | more info
Reviewed by Barry Eitel
Not that my opinions would matter much to him, but way to go Elton John. After a storied career of penning pop music classics, he has had a major hand in crafting two of the most important musicals of the last 20 years. Lucky for us, at this moment both of the shows are currently playing in Chicago. I’ll admit, I’m still scrounging around for tickets to Billy Elliot (our review ★★★½) before the recently imposed final night (hint, hint). So I can’t really speak of its brilliance. However, due to the crates of Tonys it won, I’m going to assume it’s alright. I can speak to The Lion King, which combines John’s pop sensibilities, Disney, and the artistic madness of Julie Taymor. It is a transformative theatrical experience. As proven by the production shacking up at the Cadillac Palace, it’s a game-changing show even after the original production opened over ten years ago.
The show has visited Chicago several times, just as it has toured pretty much everywhere in the world since the late ‘90s. If you’ve seen the show before, cut me some slack because this was my first time. I do know that if you already love the beloved musical, you’ll love this production. The cast fills the house with heart, and the puppetry, massive spectacle, and thundering music are gasp-inducing. Seeing the show as a Lion King virgin, all of my issues stem from the conceptual gears driving the production.
The dialogue is more or less completely lifted from the 1994 animated feature, so there isn’t much difference between stage and screen in terms of story. The variance, as well as the magic, comes out in the execution. The original work relied on brilliant animation, classical themes of family and power, John’s ability to carve out chart-topping songs, and our perceived regality of the natural world. Apparently, when Disney first brainstormed a stage version, they were thinking of full-body, mascot-style costumes. Then came Taymor (thank god). With a resume featuring opera, training with Jacques Lecoq, and loads of experience with non-Western theatrical stylings, Taymor figured that the feline-focused franchise needed an existential reboot for the stage. The final product was an intellectually-complex puppet show that was (and continues to be) wildly popular, still selling at nearly 100% on Broadway, even after all these years.
This Chicago cast is clearly having a lot of fun with the ensemble-based show. Dionne Randolph’s Mufasa is a memorable performance, capturing all the grandeur a king of the savannah should have. J. Anthony Crane is devilishly suave as the malevolent Scar, a great foil to Mufasa’s strict views of morality. Simba, as he grows from cub to adult, is played by two actors, as well as several puppets. The youngsters (either Jemone Stephens, Jr. or Kolton Stewart, depending on the night) playing the character in the first act do a fine job, and Adam Jacobs, who takes over for the final half, embodies the youthful honesty needed for the role. My favorite part of the show was Tony Freeman’s Zazu. Your eye switches quickly from the bird puppet to Freeman as actor; both are equally expressive.
Taymor’s epic vision seems a bit disconnected at times. The overall grandeur of the production at times doesn’t quite gel with certain aspects, like the lowbrow comedy courtesy of Timon (Nick Cordileone) and Pumbaa (Ben Lipitz). The huge puppetry for the three chief hyenas, another gaggle of comic relief, comes off as overblown. The show abounds with humor (Freeman, for example), but they could marry it to the concept better. There are also some jarring aspects in the score due to John’s pop sensibilities not blending well with the African drum breaks written in by Lebo M. The transitions fail to meld the two disparate parts.
However, there are a number of moments where the amazing spectacle on-stage washes over the audience. You leave the theatre with a renewed sense of wonder. Simba’s story is relatable, but unique, and the music is terrific. All those long hours the cast and crew spent cranking out puppets and learning how to walk like a cheetah bore a creation that will be known as one of the landmark shows of our generation.