Category: Broadway in Chicago
The new razzle dazzle as pertinent as ever
|Broadway in Chicago presents|
|Written by Fred Ebb, Bob Fosse and John Kander
Directed by Walter Bobbie
at Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph (map)
through June 12 | tickets: $30-$95 | more info
Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer
Now in its fifteenth year, this slimmed-down, near-concert version of Kander and Ebb’s cynical and enthralling musical features, as the smoothly lying lawyer Billy Flynn, John O’Hurley (J. Peterman in “Seinfeld” and a fixture on “Dancing with the Stars.” It’s a sardonic case of art-mutilates-life: As the press-wheedling lawyer in this sexy-strutting, Tony-winning revival of Chicago, O’Hurley exactly recalls Johnnie Cochran at his ingratiating worst. His deadpan asides and silky put-downs are passive aggression at its most insidious.
Chicago proves again how everything old is new again. For Maurine Watkins‘ crime-based comedy (an amoral companion to “The Front Page”, its equally cynical contemporary), the time is 1926, when a shyster flim-flams a credulous jury with "razzle dazzle." Following acquittal, Chicago murderesses Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly–former rivals turned reluctant partners–enjoy brief vaudeville glory at, among many venues, our old McVickers Theatre. Then "Chicago’s killer-dillers" sink into the obscurity that was interrupted by two unpunished slayings.
Forget the Jazz Age backdrop: this "drop dead" musical is as cunningly current as the Casey Anthony trial. The target for Kander and Ebb’s wicked 1975 musical, vibrantly restored in Walter Bobbie’s stream-lined staging, is phony celebrities, a prurient press that wallows in the vices it pretends to scorn, a bottom-feeding public who prefer killers to victims, and the cynical credo that showbiz sucks on somebody else’s sorrow.
Add to this deja vu our tabloid/talk-show penchant for forgiving confessional criminals who plead for pity over punishment–and Chicago seems as contemptuous as a former IMF honcho under condo arrest.
Told as vaudeville (with the 20 songs depicting "acts of desperation"), Chicago moves a lot faster than justice. Set inside gold frames (the inner one enclosing the first-rate band, the outer the in-your-face stage action), the hit-and-run scenes shake and shimmy. Stripped of sets (who needs a chandelier or helicopter with songs like these?), director Walter Bobbie focuses on the song-and-dance glories that Bob Fosse bequeathed to Ebb’s infectious score and that Anne Reinking lovingly reconstructs.
I treasure the memory of seeing Gwen Verdon and Chita Rivera on March 1, 1978, in a touring production at the old Blackstone Theatre, as well as the late Michael Barto‘s 1994 Prologue Theatre revival. But this fiercely concentrated second-coming invents its own showbiz heaven. Supple as panthers, the silky-smooth, superbly-conditioned cast slink through "All That Jazz" till the theater risks meltdown. "Razzle Dazzle," spiced with a shower of silver sequins, a mirror globe and a descending bank of backlights, amounts to a Broadway orgasm.
At the vortex of Reinking’s carnivorous, bump-and-grind choreography is four-star bravura work. Terra C. MacLeod’s Velma is hilarious as half a dance team in her frenzied "I Can’t Do It Alone." Tracy Shayne remorselessly turns Roxie Hart into a lethal mix of Jean Harlow and Leona Helmsley. O’Hurley has contagious fun swaggering among simpering, feather-fanning chorines in "All I Care About," and big-bosomed Roz Ryan, as a Cook County dominatrix-matron, tears the soul from her ragtime anthem "When You’re Good To Mama." Ron Orbach, repeating the part that fits him like his ugly costumes, is suitably self-effacing as Roxie’s nebbish husband Amos and, memorably, T.W. Smith‘s toxic depiction of a sob-sister reporter is as deceptive as her crime stories.
Thanks to this sizzling production, Chicago’s summer just got a lot hotter.
All photos by Paul Kolnik
1997 Tony Awards
love lust story
|Broadway in Chicago presents|
|Book/Lyrics by Steven Sater
Music by Duncan Sheik
Directed by Michael Mayer and Bill T.Jones
at Ford Center for the Performing Arts, 24 W. Randolph (map)
through May 8 | tickets: $27-$90 | more info
Reviewed by Katy Walsh
Judy Bloom books, Playboy magazines, Spice channel, the Internet – the availability of sex-Ed resources has significantly multiplied over the past 100+ years. Before the sexual revolution, past generations lived in ignorant misery. Broadway in Chicago presents the 8-time Tony Award winning Spring Awakening a new musical in town for a one week engagement. Based on the controversial play produced by Frank Wedekind, teenagers come of age in 19th century Germany. Wendall wonders about procreation. Moritz worries about wet dreams. Melchoir questions the punitive educational system within an oppressed society. Along with the other village kids, lustful thoughts arouse more questions without answers. Fornication and masturbation without education is groping in the dark for satisfaction. When the boys and girls venture into the unknown, it takes a village to crush the buds of change. Spring Awakening is a beautiful lust story!
In 1891, Playwright Frank Wedekind shocked the world with a controversial play about sex. Not only did it discuss puberty, it illustrated youth in situations of homoeroticism, statutory rape, sado-masochism, abortion and even a circle jerk. In 2006, these harsh unmentionables of a sleepy stoic village became the focal point of a musical folk tale. Again the world is stunned! But this time, it’s for the captivating innocence sung by these ancestral youth. With book and lyrics by Steven Sater and a score composed by Duncan Sheik, the story takes on a whimsical quality. Despite the repressed society and mature sex topics, purity blossoms with a childlike to teenage fervor. The naïve inexperience is a sweet and sad struggle to grow up.
A rock band sets the right tone for adolescent rebellion in “Don’t Do Sadness” and “Totally Fucked.” The upbeat tempo matches the rage of both Cody Getzug (Moritz) and Christopher Wood (Melchoir). Within his frenzy of confusion, Getzug adds plenty of humor in hairstyles and nocturnal emissions. Wood angrily leads an uprising for an evolution. Wood escalates a beating with disturbing exhilaration. Later, his tender foreplay charms the pantaloons right off of Elizabeth Judd (Wendla). Wood and Judd indulge in a gentle but animalistic response to unknown sensations. Their intimacy is poignant for its natural body rhythms. Judd enchants as a fresh-faced young girl with misguided notions. Judd engages with a soulful, dreamy performance. The entire ensemble delights with playful and heartbreaking simplicity.
For this production, the audience extends onto the stage. These tickets are available for purchase. There are two sets of seats facing each other with the play’s action in-between. Ensemble members emerge from these seats to step into the action. The effect establishes the storytelling style and adds a personal touch. Spring Awakening stimulates as an old-fashion, age-of-innocence fascination.
SIDENOTE: For my own spring awakening, I saw this show the night after American Theatre Company’s The Original Grease. The similarities are obvious: sex and teenagers! The lingering impact is the evolution of thought from 19th century to 20th century. The 50+ years have empowered youth with knowledge of their bodies and authority. The exploration of both is handled with crude humor and little to no privacy. The 21st century musical investigating the Facebook 2.0 generation’s mating rituals will not shock or stun. It will traumatize!
Photos by Andy Snow and Phil Martin
Running Time: Two hours and thirty minutes includes an intermission. A 20th century man with some 21st century tendencies, Steve says simply, ‘Go See It!’
A harshly relevant, yet gloriously hopeful masterpiece
|Broadway in Chicago presents|
|Next to Normal|
|Book/Lyrics by Brian Yorkey
Music by Tom Kitt
Directed by Michael Greif
at Bank of America Theatre, 18 W. Monroe (map)
through May 8 | tickets: $32 – $95 | more info
Last year, the Pulitzer Prize board took a look at the short list from the subcommittee that makes recommendations on who should win the coveted award for drama. The board tossed the recommendations out, and instead bestowed the Pulitzer on Next to Normal, a show that the recommending body didn’t even rate as a semi-finalist. In some circles, the decision was viewed as an autocratic move illustrating the limitations of an unchecked board. Others applauded the decision, overjoyed that a musical about mental illness had catapulted the difficult topic into the national spotlight. Revisiting Next to Normal for the second time in as many years, we’re more certain than ever that the Pulitzer went to the right people.
On paper, the show sounds like the worst idea for a musical since “Springtime for Hitler”. Next to Normal has no dance numbers to speak of, no chorus line of cute chorines, no happy ending. It is about a woman who has shock treatments. It is also about a family that has been devastated by tragedy, perhaps beyond repair. It is about doctors who admit that nobody really knows how to cure mental illness and that finding an effective treatment for mood disorders is like locating a silver thread in a huge, cloudy swamp. It is about the futility of stumbling blindly through ad lib regimes of SRO inhibitors, benzodiazepines, lithium, Prozac, Cymbalta, Zoloft, Seroquel, and an endless alphabet soup of other chemistry-altering pills whose side effects range from dizziness to death. Clearly, we’re not in Shuffle-off-to-Buffalo territory here.
Yet in a country where, year after year, suicides outnumber homicides, Next to Normal is about as relevant, compelling and urgently necessary as theater gets. It also benefits from composer Tom Kitt’s gorgeous score, Brian Yorkey’s smart, insightful lyrics and direction by Michael Greif that grabs your heart within the first 10 seconds and doesn’t let go until long after the final curtain call. Next to Normal is not an easy show: It confronts you relentlessly with the despair, absurdity and in-curability of mood disorders. But it is also gloriously hopeful as it shines a compassionate spotlight on a topic about which there is far too much ignorance.
And make no mistake – that ignorance is rampant. Consider the language of suicide: We say “Diana killed herself,” as if the act were a choice, a decision uninfluenced by the very real illness of depression. When people die of cancer, the disease is blamed. When people die of depression, the victims are blamed.
So much for background on the societal necessity of this particular show. This is theater, so the real question isn’t about its social value. It’s about whether it is any good. The answer is yes. With significant caveat. The cast for the touring production is mostly as good as the Broadway ensemble, but the player who falls outside that “mostly” is crucial.
Next to Normal is anchored by Alice Ripley, who won the Tony for her performance as Diana Goodman on Broadway. But Ripley’s voice is not what it was on Broadway a year ago. Performing this vocally demanding score eight times a week has taken a toll. She struggles significantly with both pitch and with diction. Crucial lyrics are muddy, soaring top notes falter painfully. Pivotal numbers – I Miss the Mountains, You Don’t Know, Didn’t I See This Movie – don’t get the clarity the plot needs or the musicality the score contains.
Acting, Ripley remains superb, capturing the highs, lows and utter absurdities of mood disorders with an accuracy that is both deeply moving and blackly hilarious. But Next to Normal demands a great vocalist as well as a great actress. Opening night at the Bank of America (Shubert) Theatre, Ripley simply wasn’t consistent in the former capacity.
Still – perhaps paradoxically – Next to Normal remains a four star, must-see show. The supporting cast is pitch perfect. As Diana’s struggling 16-year-old daughter, Emma Hunton is heart-breaking in her vulnerability and defensive anger. With the short, bittersweet “Everything Else”, she delivers an ode to the crystalline order of Mozart’s music, with a poignant wistfulness that’s as sad as it is beautiful. As Diana’s son Gabe, Curt Hansen is thrilling, at once alluring and menacing and positively electrifying on the rock-infused “I’m Alive.” As Diana’s husband, Asa Somers’ Dan, delivers both the all-but unbearable frustration that results when a loved one’s struggle with mental illness seems never ending and years of treatment prove to be of dubious value. And as Diana’s psychiatrist, Jeremy Kushnier deftly portrays both the expertise and the impotence of a science that is more guess work than anything.
Next to Normal remains a magnificent musical. But with Ripley no longer in prime voice, it isn’t as magnificent as it might be.
Photos by Joan Marcus.
Clunky transitions obscure visually-stunning finale
|Cirque Éloize and Broadway in Chicago presents|
|Cirque Éloize iD|
|Created and directed by Jeannot Painchaud
at Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph (map)
through May 8 | tickets: $20-$90 | more info
(see below for 2-for-1 ticket offer)
Reviewed by Katy Walsh
Jugglers, acrobats, breakdancers: the circus has come to town… Canadian style. Cirque Éloize and Broadway in Chicago present Cirque Éloize iD, a performing troupe hailing from Montreal. It’s not the three-ring circus with the big top, elephants, and clowns from childhood. It’s more the grown-up, citified fantasy! Instead of the mundane trudge to the office, the ordinary becomes extraordinary. The workday daydream busts open with commuters spinning on their heads, plummeting from buildings and climbing the corporate ladder… of chairs. Cirque Éloize iD combines death-defying feats with amazing technicolor projections for a downtown spectacle!
The experience starts as urgent lobby announcements broadcast a three minute warning and no late seating declaration. In the theatre, the lights dim and the noise increases. Sirens, drilling, traffic. When the curtain lifts, coated pedestrians scurry to their imaginary jobs. The backdrop is the city skyline being visually traced out by projections. The activity goes into slow mode. Two commuters’ eyes meet across the street. They are meant to be together and so the magic starts. The couple perform feats of astonishing physicality. He balances her on one hand. Sounds easy? Not quite? He is standing with one arm extended overhead. She is standing with one foot on top of his hand. It’s a double decker thriller. The show has multiple moments of gasp-worthy antics. Various aerial stunts mesmerize for their danger and beauty. A shirtless guy is pole dancing. Not stripper-style but HOT just the same! Horizontally, he suspends from the pole with just one hand. A woman pirouettes in a spinning hoop. At one point, she dangles upside-down with one foot. Another guy uses two silk ribbons to fly!
Not so much a three ring circus, the show is set in a rectangular space with a one act focal point. Two of my favorite iD segments contained a bike and a trampoline. The biker mystified as he clambered up the multi-level cityscape. In the show-stopping finale, the marvelous visual projections share the spotlight with the performers. An illusion is created with quick-flashing imagery as the cast jump on and off a trampoline. The scenery adjusts. The imagery changes. The performers never stop. It’s astounding athletic artistry.
For the novice on the cirque circuit, Cirque Éloize iD will blow your mind! For the seasoned theatre thrill-seeker (TRACES, Hephaestus, Cirque du Soleil), Cirque Éloize iD may not be as satisfying. The sequence of circus acts is clunky. There isn’t a strong storyline connecting the individual segments together. AND, my biggest pet peeve, the performers stop the movement to mug for applause. It breaks my supernatural experience when the humans require repeated adoration to continue. I will applaud, and loudly, for the collective – not the individual. It’s just how I do it!
If just for the outstanding visual finale, Cirque Éloize iD has twenty minutes of a must-see-to-believe extravaganza!
2 Main Floor Seats for the Price of One*! When ordering, use code INDIVIDUAL
*Valid on April 26-April 30th performances for Orchestra, Dress Circle and Loge seats Offer ends April 29at 11:59pm. Not valid with any other offer or on previously purchased tickets. Subject to availability. Normal ticketing fees apply. Other restrictions may apply.
Cirque Éloize iD continues through May 8th at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph (map), with performances April 30th and May 7th at 2pm and 8pm, May 6th at 7:30pm, and May 1st and 8th at 1pm. Running Time: Two hours includes a twenty-minute intermission. Tickets are $20-$90, and can be purchased online. More information at Broadway in Chicago or cirque-eloize.com. (Photos by Valerie Remise)
Top 10 shows to see this spring!
A list of shows we’re looking forward to before summer
Written by Barry Eitel
March 20th marked the first day of spring, even if it feels like winter hasn’t loosened its grip at all. The theatre season is winding down, with most companies putting up the last shows of the 2010/2011. Over the summer, it would seem, Chicagoans choose outdoor activities over being stuffed in a hot theatre. But there is still plenty left to enjoy. The rising temperatures make leaving your home much more tempting, and Chicago theatre is ending the traditional season with a bang. Here, in no particular order, are Chicago Theatre Blog’s picks for Spring 2011.
The Goat or, Who Is Sylvia?
Remy Bumppo Theatre
March 30 – May 8
Playwright Edward Albee has gotten a lot of love this year, with major productions at Victory Gardens and Steppenwolf (for the first time). The season has been a sort of greatest hits collection spanning his career, including modern classics like Zoo Story, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Three Tall Women. Remy Bumppo ends their season with some late-period Albee, but The Goat never skimps on Albee’s honest dysfunction. In the 1994 drama, Albee takes a shockingly earnest look at bestiality, and questions everything we thought about love.
Porgy and Bess Court Theatre
May 12 – June 19
Musical-lovers have a true aural feast to enjoy this spring. Following their mission to produce classics, Court produces the most well-known American opera, Porgy and Bess. George Gershwin’s ode to folk music is grandiose, inspirational, and not without controversy. But the show, telling tales about African-American life in the rural South, features brilliant music (like “Summertime,” which has been recorded by such vastly different performers as Billie Holiday and Sublime). Charles Newell, Ron OJ Parsons, and an all-black cast will definitely have an interesting take on one of the most influential pieces of American literature.
The Front Page Timeline Theatre
April 16 – June 12
For their season closer, TimeLine Theatre selected a 80-year-old play with deep Chicago connections. Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur were well known journalists, reporting on the madness that was the Jazz Age. They turned their life into a farcical romp, The Front Page, which in turn served as the inspiration for the Cary Grant vehicle “His Girl Friday”. The play centers around several hardened newsmen as they await an execution; of course, things don’t go as planned. Along with loads of laughs, TimeLine provides an authentic Chicago voice sounding off about a legendary time.
Imported from London, this high-flying envisioning of the J.M. Barrie play should cause many jaws to drop. We’ve seen high school productions where the boy who never wants to grow up flies around on wires (leading to some disastrous videos on Youtube). Threesixtyº’s show has flying, but it also has three hundred and sixty degrees of screen projections. Already a smash across the pond, this will probably be one of the top spectacles of the decade. WATCH VIDEO
Woyzeck and Pony
I’m not exactly sure if Georg Buchner’s unfinished 1830s play can support a whole city-wide theatrical festival, but I’m excited to see the results. The Oracle Theatre already kickstarted the Buchner love-fest with a well-received production of Woyzeck directed by Max Truax. Now Sean Graney and his Hypocrites and a revived About Face get their chance, along with numerous other performers riffing on the play. Pony offers a semi-sequel to Woyzeck, tossing together Buchner’s characters with others in a brand new tale. The Hypocrites offer a more straightforward adaptation to the play. Well, straightforward for the Hypocrites. I’m sure their white-trash-avant-garde tendencies will make an appearance, and I’m sure I’ll love it. (ticket special: only $48 for both shows)
The Original Grease American Theatre Company
April 21 – June 5
American Theatre Company ends their season with a major theatrical event—a remount of the original 1971, foul-mouthed version of Grease. Before Broadway producers, Hollywood, and John Travolta cleaned up the ‘50s set musical, “Summer Nights” was “Foster Beach.” The story of this production is probably as interesting as the actual show, with lost manuscripts and brand new dialogue and song.
The Voodoo Chalk Circle State Theatre
April 9 – May 8
This month, Theatre Mir already took a highly-acclaimed stab at this intriguing piece of Brecht, which tears at Western views of justice. In true Brechtian style, the State’s production is shaking the narrative up, transferring the story from an Eastern European kingdom to a post-Katrina New Orleans, where law and order have broken with the levee. We’ll see if Chelsea Marcantel’s adaptation holds water, but she has plenty to pull from, including the region’s rich folk traditions and the general lawlessness seen after the storm. WATCH VIDEO
May 13 – June 12
To welcome spring, Chicago Dramatists will revisit one of their own, the 2009 Wendy Wasserstein Prize-winning Marisa Wegrzyn. Directed by artistic director Russ Tutterow, the darkly whimsical piece imagines a world where everyone has a literal internal clock that ticks away towards our demise. What happens when someone breaks their clock? Through a very odd window, Wegrzyn looks at tough, relevant questions.
Next to Normal Broadway in Chicago
at Bank of America Theatre
April 26 – May 8
The newly-minted Purlitzer Prize winner, Next to Normal rolls into town on its first national tour, three Tony Awards in hand. Alice Ripley, who received the 2009 Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical, will reprise her acclaimed performance at the Bank of America Theatre on Monroe. Contemporary in sound and subject matter, the work explores the effects of a mother’s bi-polar disease exacerbated by her child’s earlier death, Next to Normal will no doubt be anything close to normal for Chicago audiences. (watch video)
White Noise Royal George Theatre
April 1 – June 5
Like Next to Normal, the new White Noise promises to take the usually vapid rock musical genre and stuff it with some tough issues. A show focusing on an attractive female pop duo with ties to white supremacy? It ain’t Rock of Ages, that’s for sure. Produced by Whoopi Goldberg, Chicago was chosen as the show’s incubator before a Broadway debut. Perhaps the premise may overwhelm the story; either way, White Noise is going to inspire conversations. [ Listen to the Music ]
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.