Tag: Todd M. Kryger
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.
Nanki Poo, Zoot Suits and Dancing – Oh my!
|Drury Lane Oakbrook presents|
|Written by Gilbert and Sullivan
Directed by David Bell
at Drury Lane Oakbrook, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace (map)
through October 3 | tickets: $31-$45 | more info
reviewed by Lawrence Bommer
If imitation is the highest compliment, in 1939 Gilbert and Sullivan‘s The Mikado was praised to the skies: no less than two all-black, all-jazz versions from Chicago and from New York played opposite each other on Broadway. (Alas, they beat each other to a draw, ticket-wise.) It must have seemed as if America would swing its way out of the Depression, with some help from two dead Victorian males.
A Drury Lane Oakbrook Theatre revival (Marriott’s Lincolnshire Theatre "premiered" this version in 1993), Hot Mikado is director/choreographer David H. Bell‘s sizzling homage to those ever-young jitterbug versions. (Purists may carp but then nothing in Sullivan’s music was any more "Japanese" than are these jazz translations, while Gilbert’s satire is timeless.) This time it’s a proscenium presentation and that gives it even more depth and scope than the original arena production.
Retaining the topsy-turvy tale of how Nanki Poo, the Mikado’s son who poses as a wandering minstrel, falls in love with the aggressively demure Yum-Yum; pursued by the voracious harridan Katisha, he’s almost executed by his rival Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner. The Mikado’s arrival causes instant confusion, then the requisite resolution.
Based on a successful 1986 production that Bell first mounted at Ford’s Theatre in Washington that has gone on to play London’s West End, Dublin and Prague, Hot Mikado is blessed with music director Michael Mahler‘s period-perfect musical Midas touch. It also has one of the loveliest looks of a Drury Lane show: Marcus Stephens’ set enchants illuminated Japanese footbridge, pavilion and cherry trees with leaves of fans and Japanese lanterns. Jesse Klug lights it like a rainbow in heat, though Jeremy Floyd‘s time-traveling costumes would be bright in the dark.
True to its name, Hot Mikado sizzles with David Bell‘s Lindy-hopping, be-bopping, high-stepping dances; dolled up in Zoot suits or bodice bursters, the all-dancing cast turn the Mikado’s entrance into a tap-dancing tour-de-force (led by Ted Levy’s inexhaustible Bojangles imitation in the title role) and hoof up a storm to "Swing a Merry Madrigal." "Three Little Maids" here becomes a hep-swinging Andrew Sisters ballad. The red-hot first act finale comes straight from Stork Club heaven, with a hint of gospel and a highly anachronistic allusion to disco.
Bell’s troupe (which includes Susan Moniz, who was Yum-Yum 17 years ago in Lincolnshire) sing and dance into a lather. A throwback to classic vaudeville (as veteran Ross Lehman was in Lincolnshire), Stephen Schellhardt gives Ko-Ko alternate touches of Groucho and, even, in his crying fits, Stephen Colbert showing some sentiment. Surprisingly self-effacing even at his hammiest, Schellhardt shows the gentle wistfulness of Keaton and Chaplin and his double takes show stopwatch timing.
As the cavorting cuties, Devin DeSantis’ crooning Nanki-Poo and Summer Naomi Smart’s demure but designing Yum-Yum bring new life to "This Is What I’ll Never Do." Todd M. Kryger oozes pomposity out of Pooh-Bah and Moniz’ Pitti-Sing belts to beat the Big Band.
But the stand-out show-stopper is easily Aurelia Williams, a powerhouse to equal Felicia Fields in Bell’s Lincolnshire debut. Playing the awesome Katisha as a blues-wailing big mamma, she tears the heart out of "The Hour of Gladness" and wipes the set with "Alone and Yet Alive." No surprise that Williams got the biggest ovation at the curtain call: She supplies the heat in Hot Mikado.
Pizzazz-packed as it is, it’s still possible to wish that, color-blind casting aside, Hot Mikado was, like its original, all-black (instead of, as here, fitfully integrated). It’s weird to hear white performers sing what you know would be cooked to a crisp by a black cast. Soul singing, especially of blues standards, will belong culturally to some folks more than others. But then Marriott’s production was equally opportunistic, so I’m resigned to it.