Tag: Charles Newell
Taking into account the nearly 700 productions that we reviewed in 2012, here are our picks for the best of the best. Bravo!! (FYI: We’re honored to have the national website Huffington Post use our choices for their Top 10 Chicago productions here)
December’s end brings frantic resolutions, plans for heavy drinking and of course, a barrage of best/worst lists. Being the largest theater review site west of Broadway, Chicago Theater Beat covered over 600 shows in 2011, and the difficulty of choosing the top 25 speaks to the city’s vibrant cultural landscape. In alphabetical order, here are our choices for the year’s best:
We loves you, Porgy and Bess!
|Court Theatre presents|
|Porgy and Bess|
|Written by George Gerwin, Ira Gershwin,
and Dorothy and DuBose Heyward
Directed by Charles Newell
Music direction, new orchestrations by Doug Peck
at Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis (map)
through July 3 | tickets: $10-$55 | more info
Reviewed by Barry Eitel
On first glance, Porgy and Bess looks like the tale of a perpetual sucker. The crippled beggar Porgy, living in an impoverished South Carolina hamlet, falls for Bess, the most shunned woman in town, a coquette who runs with a jealous meathead. Due to Porgy being the only person who’ll let her stay at his house, the mismatched pair gets together, yet the woman retains a wandering eye. But Porgy puts up with all, even when she runs to New York when he’s out of town. Instead of throwing up his hands, he takes up his crutch and starts the journey north.
However, as Charles Newell’s excellent production at Court makes clear, there’s something astoundingly human about this tale. George Gershwin’s magnum opus showcases love and forgiveness in its treatment of Porgy and Bess’ relationship. Titular characters aside, the opera also delves into how a community copes with hardship. Even when those hardships are as insidious and gigantic as racism, poverty, and natural disaster.
Out of the millions of debates spurred by this show, easily one of the stupidest is if it should be classified as an opera or musical. Newell and music director Doug Peck took the best of both genres. I’d say the show is about 90% singing, keeping many of Gershwin’s recitatives. But they aren’t afraid to throw in a few spoken lines when a character needs to drop a truth bomb without the flourish of music. Newell also chopped down the supporting townsfolk of Catfish Row, so the stage isn’t flooded with actors with one line roles. It also makes the whole strong ensemble memorable.
Newell’s envisioning of this controversial tale adds a vibrancy and immediacy to the octogenarian opera. John Culbert’s off-white set invokes a weathered Carolina beach house, which goes well with Jacqueline Firkins’ breezy white costumes. Stark as it may seem, the design has its fare share of breathtaking surprises. Peck also tweaks the arrangements to great effect, adding some great traditional Gullah drum breaks as well as haunting stripped down acapella numbers.
While initially shunned, Porgy and Bess has seen lots of love from opera houses around the world (including a production at the Lyric in 2008). These productions promise grandiose sets and superstar vocals, with the plot lagging behind as an afterthought. That’s not the case here, where the plot (based on DuBose Heyward’s 1926 novel) is the main selling point. With Newell’s minimalist take, nearly all of the storytelling responsibility falls to the cast. They deliver with aplomb, searching the story’s intricacies and themes alongside us in the audience. I already had chills when Harriet Nzinga Plumpp warbled the first few notes of “Summertime.”
Todd M. Kryger’s hulking performance as Porgy is just the right blend of majesty and vulnerability, and Alexis J. Rogers correctly portrays a Bess torn by love and lust. But the real jewel here is the supporting cast. Bethany Thomas as the pious Serena steals the show with her wickedly expressive singing style. She shreds right through the heart of “My Man’s Gone Now.” Sean Blake’s slick Sporting Life, the neighborhood dope dealer, is a similar delight. His rendition of “It Ain’t Necessarily So” drips with fun—it’s clear he’s having a great time up there.
Court boasts that this production is scrubbed clean of the racist smudges that have dogged Porgy and Bess from its opening night in 1935. I don’t know if I completely agree with that—much of the music still leans towards Europe instead of Africa. But Porgy and Bess is an American treasure, a spunky musical journey that combines stodgy Old World opera with the uniquely American creations of jazz, gospel, and blues. Newell’s production is a treasure in itself, grabbing this overly-familiar piece (“Summertime” is one of the most covered pop song in the world) and thrusting it into relevance.
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 ]
Three strong women champion Albee’s tale of end-of-life regrets
|Court Theatre presents|
|Three Tall Women|
|Written by Edward Albee
Directed by Charles Newell
at Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis (map)
through Feb 13 | tickets: $10-$50 | more info
Reviewed by Barry Eitel
Edward Albee’s 1994 play Three Tall Women breathed new life into the legendary playwright’s career. Although works like Zoo Story and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf were instant classics, many thought Albee had finished cranking out the good stuff by the 1990’s. The doubters were put in their place with this meditative piece, a half-exorcism, half-eulogy closely linked to Albee’s own experiences with his deceased adoptive mother. Finding himself king of the American absurdism hill again, Albee took home a Pulitzer prize and found receptive audiences for his later plays, which include The Goat, or Who is Silvia? and The Play About the Baby (both of which also garnered many awards).
Three Tall Women examines a life, but with a fractured and multifaceted lens, Albee’s trademark style. The three women are really only different versions of one, an old former socialite on her deathbed. The woman, a semi-fictional representation of Albee’s own mother, lived a life rife with pleasures and regrets. She came from poverty and learned fast about love and society, and ended up a wife and mother (with heavy doses of infidelity and familial strife). Although the play eschews any neat moral, you leave the theatre with a new comprehension for how the seconds of life tick away.
The first act rolls along slowly. The protagonist, A (the remarkable Lois Markle), sits on her bed, recounting and rambling about her 90+ years of life experience. She is attended on by B (the also remarkable Mary Beth Fisher), who is some type of live-in nurse. Also in the room is C (Maura Kidwell), a lawyer’s assistant intent on getting to the bottom of some financial inaccuracies. The trio trade barbs and gems about life, but mostly they listen to the occasionally incoherent tales of A. Death is a constant presence, but it isn’t the main focus of all conversation. The first act characters dust the inevitability of death under the rug until right before intermission.
Dying, life, and regret become the center of Act Two. A’s condition has deteriorated. She lies in a bed, wired to monitors. However, Albee has the woman—or women—discuss her life in front of the body. A, B, and C are now several personifications of the same woman. C is the 26-year-old girl, B is the embittered 52-year-old spouse, and A is the finale of the woman’s life. They argue, teach, and advise. C can’t believe she becomes B, and B can’t imagine how she transforms into A. Yet they all face death together. The comatose A has a visit from her son (a lineless Joel Gross), which inspires completely different reactions from each incarnation.
Director Charles Newell assembled a shining group of women for his cast. Markle, who was referred by Albee himself, gives a magical, heartfelt performance. Fisher keeps up with her, packing her portrayal of B with sass and vulnerability. Kidwell stumbles in the first act, unable to give C the layers required. However, any young actress is going to look unpolished when placed on-stage with such seasoned performers as Markle and Fisher. But Kidwell picks it up after intermission and holds her own.
In general, the first act feels clunky and languid. Act Two has a completely different energy, and Newell isn’t afraid to try some risky staging. It pays off. The latter half is exponentially more engaging, especially with Fisher’s and Markle’s talents.
It really doesn’t matter much how biographical or fictional Three Tall Women actually is. Albee, Newell, and the cast find universal truths in the woman’s story. We all are going to die, no matter our age now. It is one thing about the future we can be sure of.
A Love Letter for the Theatre
|Court Theatre presents|
|Written by Pierre Corneille
Freely adapted by Tony Kushner
Directed by Charles Newell
Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave. (map)
through April 11th (more info)
Reviewed by Barry Eitel
Essentially, Pierre Corneille /Tony Kushner’s The Illusion is a play about theatre. It dwells on theatre’s power to evoke, transform, and relate. But the medium has many limitations. There is an inherent tension—the actions seen on stage are just an illusion of real life. Kushner points out that theatre can be likened to a dream, a hallucination. Charles Newell’s enlightening production of the 1988 script now at Court Theatre freefalls through all sorts of storytelling layers, piecing together a tale that is hilarious, dreamlike, and startlingly poignant.
The posters claim that this Illusion is Kushner’s “freely adapted” translation of Pierre Corneille’s L’Illusion Comique, a 1636 work way ahead of it’s time in terms of theatrical theory. And Kushner is pretty liberal in his translating, slapping on a whole extra illusion. The play isn’t as vast as his magnum opus Angels in America, but the kernels of Kushner’s trademark lyrical playfulness and socio-political awareness are scattered freely throughout the text.
Although usually handled well here, sometimes Newell loses balance of all the narrative layers and the production is a bit muddled. But the ride is worth it.
In the multilayered play, Pridamant (John Reeger) comes to a creepy magician, Alcandre (Chris Sullivan), to see if the man can conjure up his estranged son (Michael Mahler). Alcandre than confronts the old man with several visions skipping through various moments of life and loves of the young man. It’s like Baroque-period television broadcast from a cave. Through the illusions, we watch the boy temper the steamy hot passions of love with the ever-present chill of poverty. We also get to enjoy the ridiculous posturing of Matamore (the hilarious Timothy Edward Kane), a warrior whose bragging ability is matched only by his cowardice. The character names change from one illusion to the next, making Pridamant and us ask if they really represent past events or spring from our own fertile imagination.
Newell faces numerous challenges here, and he comes out successful. There’s magic, crazy scenic effects, and the fact that three characters are on-stage the whole time just watching the illusions. Collette Pollard’s intricate set packs plenty of surprises. Alcandre’s cave is enormous, spooky, and endlessly fascinating. For example, as each illusion starts, giant gears chug along underneath the floating platform that functions as Alcandre’s gigantic crystal ball. Lighting designer John Culbert also explores this magical element in his design, shaping and evolving the multiple worlds. Jacqueline Firkins’ costumes are rich and dig to the core of each character. Newell brings all of this together in a production that obviously loves bathing in theatricality.
Most of the performances are magnificent. Kane is simply brilliant, commanding the stage with each pompous gesture and absurd boast. Reeger and Sullivan do a good job exploring the quirkiness of their “reality,” along with Kevin Gudahl, who plays Alcandre’s much-abused, tongueless servant Amanuensis. The world of the illusions has a whole different energy, which is totally refreshing. Elizabeth Ledo does radiant work as the scheming maid Elicia/Lyse/Clarina. The young lovers of the story are probably the weakest links in the production. Mahler seems disconnected to everything else and rings false in a few moments. Hilary Clemens as the thrice-named object of his affections is more in-tune with the other elements, but she could definitely push a bit farther. The weak points aren’t glaring, but serve as a reminder that this production could go even further.
Rarely do two artistic pioneers collaborate when there is four-hundred years of distance between them. In that light, The Illusion is an uncommon delight. Under the steady hand and imaginative head of Newell, The Court has a fantastical triumph here. Although there are some bumps, this Illusion reminds and reassures us that theatre is a powerful art form when its power is harnessed by the right hands.