Tag: Ron OJ Parson
Another year, another 12 months of great theater! 2013 blessed the Windy City with inspired new works and riveting revivals from a wide range of companies – the largest equity houses to the smallest of Chicago’s storefronts. Taking into account the 600+ productions that we reviewed in 2013, here are our picks for the best of the best. Bravo!! (note: for the 3rd year in a row, we’re honored to have the national website Huffington Post use our choices for their Top 10 Chicago productions!)
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 ]
Steppenwolf Young Adults feature plays it loose with plausibility, plot
|Steppenwolf Theatre presents|
|Samuel J. and K.|
|Written by Mat Smart
Directed by Ron OJ Parson
at Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted (map)
through March 13 | tickets: $20 | more info
Reviewed by Dan Jakes
There’s no shortage of local shout-outs in director Ron OJ Parson’s Naperville-based family drama. Its dialogue makes generous references to landmark spots and (much to the amusement of the opening morning’s audience) a neighboring rivalry. In promotional materials, playwright and suburban native Mat Smart suggests elements of the play are semi-biographical. The Young Adults presentation will play to many teens who directly relate to its characters and their circumstances. This play wants to be relevant, and wants to be real.
Before adopted, black Samuel K. (Samuel G. Roberson, Jr.) walks to receive his college diploma, he and his older white brother Samuel J. (Cliff Chamberlain) indulge in a family tradition down at the basketball court. Too eager to wait, reaction-snap-cam in-hand, J. halts the game and begs K. to open his gift envelope; it contains two expensive, non-refundable, unsolicited and unwanted tickets to J.’s birth city in Cameroon.
Before the first pick-up game is over, the inciting argument comes to a head.
It’s also the audience’s first cue for a small suspension of disbelief: these Sams love each other and are close enough to talk smack and hip-check each other into chain link fences, but they’ve never had the adoptive ‘where is home really’ talk before? At that age? Having not yet built an understanding of the brothers’ dynamic, we’re launched into an issues talk before the relationship study has gotten a chance to get off the ground.
No sooner than we can ponder the implications of the gift or the risk of the trip are we whisked away to a mosquito net-lined bed in Africa—on the last day of the vacation.
Points where one would expect build—the inevitable second discussion (there had to have been more than one), the anxieties leading up to the trip, the arrival—are skipped over, making room for barely conceivable twists, including a borderline absurd subplot involving a mutual romantic interest. It’s a limp, manipulative device seemingly employed for no other purpose than to conjure a requisite “you’re not my real brother!”
Chamberlain makes do with his character’s under-supported choices, lending credibility to some of the play’s more outlandish ideas. As K., Roberson, Jr. has the tendency to over act, the perception of which is compounded by the valleys and holes in Smart’s script.
Lacking enough logic to create dramatic build, Samuel J. and K. is a two-man show in which the eponymous characters remain elusive. What are audiences—young or old—supposed to glean from that?
Resonant and timely, yet still flawed
|Court Theatre presents|
|Written by Samm-Art Williams
Directed by Ron OJ Parson
at Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis (map)
through Dec 12 | tickets: $30-$60 | more info
Three decades pass within the trajectory of Home, Samm-Art Williams three-character saga of a swath of American history viewed through the lens of an African-American man. The odyssey of Cephus Miles, from naïve, idealistic farm boy to destitute, drugged-out urbanite to prodigal son returned to the land is both uniquely specific and undeniably universal. It doesn’t matter what your race is: The struggle to put down roots can lead to the hellish instability of rocky soil long before a redemptive, fertile ground is found.
The piece is flawed, to be sure. Cephus (Kamal Angelo Bolden) seems to be no deeper than his outward actions – a character comprised of action but with little internal nuance. And by playing multiple roles as Cephus’ Job-like travels unfurl, Woman I (Ashley Honore) and Woman 2 (Tracey N. Bonner) provide character sketches that are more amusing than deep. Finally, the happily-ever-after ending that ensues after Cephus’ woeful odyssey of heartbreak, prison, and homelessness seems a bit pat. Williams dispenses with a wealth of endlessly complex societal woes – poverty, racism, and drug addiction among them – with a few deft swipes of the pen.
Wiliams’ text is musical, a rhythmic, lyrical pastiche of scenes that play like movements in a verbal sonata with words that literally sing at times. Hymns, spirituals, chants to make the toil of laboring in the tobacco fields endurable are interspersed through more traditional scenes of storytelling.
The yarns Cephus’ spins recalling his boyhood in Crossroads, North Carolina, are among the plays highlights: Working for the local moonshiner in a backwoods still where the occasional possum fell into the vat and made the brew all the more pungent; ditching church to play craps on Sunday out in the graveyard, escapades with colorful local characters – in the telling of these memories, Home shines brightest.
Cephus’ true love Patti May (Ashley Honore) figures predominantly in the story, with requisite rolls in the hayloft and vivid depictions of the explosive, pent-up sexuality of adolescence. But while there’s no questioning the sweet eroticism that exists between the couple, Patti May herself is all pleasant superficiality rather than uniquely layered character. She’s pretty, but that’s about it – Williams’ text provides little depth to the woman. When she makes a rather predictable final-act re-entry into Cephus’ life, her motivations for doing so seem more like a dramatic convenience (it wouldn’t do to leave poor Cephus stuck in a miserable, unhappy ending) than a genuine turn of events.
Tracey N. Bonner has better luck playing multiple characters of marvelously funny and idiosyncratic quirks. As a coke-sniffing, loose-living big-city harlot, she’s a hoot, swanning about in a Scarlett-woman red feather boa like some kind of post-modern Jezebel. She’s equally memorable playing a snootily righteous welfare office caseworker who denigrates a homeless Cephus for being an embarrassment to his race.
This production is Ron OJ Parson’s third time at the helm of Home, having directed the piece for the Madison Repertory Company and New York’s Signature Theatre. He keeps the pace brisk, shaping scenes that are sometimes almost like small choreopoems. The opening scene is particularly effective as the two women hoe under a blazing sun, giving a harsh cadence to words so descriptively you can all but feel the sweat from relentless heat and ache from the back-breaking labor.
But while many of the individual scenes in Home resonate with powerful immediacy, the story as a whole just isn’t as effective – primarily because of that fairy tale, happily-ever-after ending. Williams brings plenty of relevancy to the stage: Cephus’ imprisonment after refusing to fight in Viet Nam is an issue that rings loud and clear as the war in Iraq plods bloodily on. His battles with heroin, homelessness and lost love are also vividly immediate. Unfortunately, his rapid redemption – financially, emotionally and geographically – are not. And his constant refrain throughout – that God is “on vacation in Miami” adds a jarring note to otherwise melodious dialogue.