Tuesday, October 28, 2008

New Review: Celebrity Row

I have a review of Celebrity Row at American Theater Company up on Centerstage. It's great to finally see a play by Itamar Moses, whose scripts I've admired for a while. He better keep getting produced in town! Here's a tease:

Who'd guess that Theodore Kaczynski (Larry Neumann, Jr.) would get the best laughs? Four of U.S. history's most notorious criminals dominate the stage in Itamar Moses’s provocative new play "Celebrity Row," currently in its Chicago premiere at ATC. The play does not always live up to its best moments, but in David Cromer’s lucid production it possesses a vitality all too rare in contemporary theatre.

Monday, October 27, 2008

"Huh?" of the Day

Saw this item on Playbill today:

Academy Award winner Catherine Zeta-Jones will star in director Steven Soderbergh's first movie musical, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

"Cleo," a 3-D rock-n-roll musical about the life of Cleopatra, will feature music by Guided by Voices and a script by James Greer, who formerly played bass for the indie rock band. Zeta-Jones will star in the title role; Tony winner Hugh Jackman is currently in negotiations to play her lover, Marc Antony.

It goes on from there, but that's the gist. This is, to say the least, odd news. Casting Zeta-Jones and Jackman in a musical is perfectly logical--they are both exceptional singers and dancers, and really should do more musicals. But a rock musical about Cleopatra? Maybe, stranger things have worked--though not very many. But in 3-D? Why? Why Zeta-Jones as Cleopatra? She's a bit old for the role, and other than looking vaguely "foreign" to Hollywood eyes doesn't seem to be the right type--Cleopatra was more manipulative seducer than overwhelming sexpot. And why Steven Soderbergh? What connects him to musicals?

It isn't April 1, so can anyone figure out what the rationale behind this is? Will it actually get made? And if so, how on earth would it work?

Sunday, October 26, 2008


A few unfortunate closings announced in recent days:

The New York Times reports that Spring Awakening will be ending its run in January. It will have run over two years and made back its investment, which is no small feat, but I am among many who hoped that something that audacious and exciting would stay around for a little longer. I saw it over the summer, and was highly impressed. While the play has definite flaws (many with the lyrics), the staging and production are simply dynamite. I've never seen a show so exceptionally good at expressing the itchy, squirmy, inappropriate energy of being 15, while somehow not being as irritating as actual 15-year-olds are. It's an electrifying, brilliant production, and you should really see it before it closes in New York--or at least when it visits Chicago in August of 2009.

Recent days have also seen the announcements of the January closings of Monty Python's Spamalot and Hairspray after lengthy runs. I hope that they are replaced with productions of equal success!

Closer to home, Kris Vire and others have announced the shocking early closing of the Chicago run of Forbidden Broadway. It's particularly strange given the show's great success in its previous engagement here last year and the rave reviews of this year's edition. Apparently a combination of soft grosses, insufficient marketing, and a poor economic environment have caused the producers to bolt. It runs one more week, through November 2nd, so get your tickets now!

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Jeff Winners Announced

Chicago's Joseph Jefferson Awards, or Jeffs, were awarded last night. They celebrate the bet in Chicago theatre. Like any awards ceremony there is no lack of controversy, but the commotion over what is and isn't nominated, and what doesn't win, is mostly a sign of how much fantastic work there is out there. I didn't see everything this year, but here are a few comments on this years awards, followed by a list of the winners.

--I'm not sure that splitting some of the categories into large and midsized was necessary. More awards are nice, but it does somewhat make it seem like a tiered system, and that's not necessary.

--I was disappointed when the nominations came out to see that Court Theatre's Titus Andronicus was shut out. I'm thinking I may be the only one who loved this production, but it's a shame that something so stunningly theatrical and viscerally effective got so little recognition.

--Congratulations to Northlight, which picked up three Jeffs for their production of Ella, for Production of a Revue, Director of a Revue (Rob Ruggiero), an Actress in a Revue (the astonishing E. Faye Butler, currently finishing up her run in Caroline, Or Change).

--A Steady Rain is a hell of a play, and I'm glad it picked up awards for new work, production, and actor in a play, for Randy Steinmeyer. While Jon Hill was incandescent in Superior Donuts, and the play was also wonderful, Tracy Letts already has a Jeff and Jon Hill has more chances to win one. A Steady Rain made for a pretty exceptional evening, and I'm heartened that a show that is so powerful without being flashy did so well. I hope that the New York transfer that has been discussed materializes, either commercially or at a nonprofit. This is a show that should be seen by a wider audience.

--While I was sorry to see it not win for Best Musical, Court's gorgeous Carousel richly deserved the wins for Supporting Actress (Jessie Mueller) and especially Music Direction--Doug Peck's orchestra really brought out the beauty in the score, and fit the space beautifully.

--The acting of The Trip to Bountiful was realism at its best, so it was a thrill to see Lois Smith and Hallie Foote recognized--not that Lois Smith's performance was lacking in recognition.

--I had real problems with the script of Cadillac at Chicago Dramatists, but one way that the script and production were very successful was in creating the world of a used-car dealership. Kevin Depinet's set was a major part of that, and I'm glad it was recognized.

--Finally, congratulations to Dominic Missimi on his Jeff for Les Miserables, and I hope that his health continues to improve.

Here's a full list of the winners:

Production - Play – Large: "The Comedy of Errors" at Chicago Shakespeare Theater

Production - Play – Midsize: "A Steady Rain" at Chicago Dramatists

Production - Musical – Large: "Les Miserables" at Marriott Theatre

Production - Musical – Midsize: "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" at Bailiwick Repertory Theatre

Production – Revue: "Ella" at Northlight Theatre

Ensemble: "Funk It Up About Nothin’" at Chicago Shakespeare Theater

Director – Play: Barbara Gaines, "The Comedy of Errors" at Chicago Shakespeare Theater

Director – Musical: Jim Corti, "Sweet Charity" at Drury Lane Oakbrook / Dominic Missimi, "Les Miserables" at Marriott Theatre

Director – Revue: Rob Ruggiero, "Ella" at Northlight Theatre

New Work: Keith Huff, "A Steady Rain" at Chicago Dramatists

New Adaptation: Ron West, "The Comedy of Errors" at Chicago Shakespeare Theater

Solo Performance: Nilaja Sun, "No Child" at Lookingglass Theatre

Actor in a Principal Role – Play: Randy Steinmeyer, "A Steady Rain" at Chicago Dramatists

Actor in a Principal Role – Musical: John Cudia, "Les Miserables" at Marriott Theatre

Actress in a Principal Role – Play: Lois Smith, "The Trip to Bountiful" at Goodman Theatre

Actress in a Principal Role – Musical: Summer Naomi Smart, "Sweet Charity" at Drury Lane Oakbrook

Actor in a Supporting Role – Play: Mark Ulrich, "Juno and the Paycock" at The Artistic Home

Actor in a Supporting Role – Musical: Richard Todd Adams, "Les Miserables" at Marriott Theatre

Actress in a Supporting Role – Play: Hallie Foote, "The Trip to Bountiful" at Goodman Theatre

Actress in a Supporting Role – Musical: Jessie Mueller, "Carousel" at Court Theatre and Long Wharf Theatre

Actor in a Revue: James Rank, "The American Dream Songbook" at Next Theatre Company

Actress in a Revue: E. Faye Butler, "Ella" at Northlight Theatre

Scenic Design – Large: E. David Cosier, "The Trip to Bountiful" at Goodman Theatre

Scenic Design – Midsize: Kevin Depinet, "Cadillac" at Chicago Dramatists

Costume Design – Large: Ana Kuzmanic, "The Comedy of Errors" at Chicago Shakespeare Theater

Costume Design – Midsize: Bill Morey, "Nine" at Porchlight Music Theatre Chicago

Lighting Design – Large: J.R. Lederle, "The Turn of the Screw," at Writers’ Theatre

Lighting Design – Midsize: Mike Durst, "Requiem for a Heavyweight" at Shattered Globe Theatre

Sound Design – Large: Barry G. Funderburg, "Carter’s Way" at Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Sound Design – Midsize: Jack Arky, "Because They Have No Words" at Piven Theatre

Choreography: Mitzi Hamilton, "Sweet Charity" at Drury Lane Oakbrook

Original Incidental Music: David Pavkovic, "Nelson Algren: For Keeps and A Single Day" by Lookingglass and the Museum of Contemporary Art

Musical Direction: Doug Peck, "Carousel" at Court Theatre and Long Wharf Theatre

Fight Choreography: Nick Sandys, "Requiem for a Heavyweight" by Shattered Globe Theatre

Outstanding Achievement in Videography: John Musial, "Nelson Algren: For Keeps and A Single Day" by Lookingglass and the Museum of Contemporary Art

Special Award: Eileen Boevers, Outstanding Achievement, founder of Apple Tree Theatre

Monday, October 20, 2008

Brother, Can You Spare The Time Of My Life?

So the stage version of Dirty Dancing opened its Chicago run (the American premiere) on Sunday night. I was fascinated by Chris Jones' review in the Trib and even more so by the comments after (39 as of this writing.)

For those who haven't read the review, the point is that the play aims to be nothing more than a direct reproduction of the movie. It goes to extreme length to replicate every song, every line, every shot, even the montages. The point of the play is to be "The Classic Story Live On Stage" as per the tag line. It never seems to acknowledge that theatre and film are different media with different demands, and that it might be a good idea to have a musical in which the two leads actually sing.

The question is, why replicate it with such slavish fidelity? I will confess that I have never seen the movie, so I don't really understand the love some people have for it. But still, why would they pay up to $95 (!) to see a Swayze-less reproduction of something they could watch for free at home?

I'm not against stage adaptations of movies. Often, they have something real to offer to the film. The Full Monty, for instance changes the original's British setting to Buffalo, NY, and has smart, tuneful songs that let us inside the characters. The premise is the same, but the execution is unique. Musicals that take familiar movies and adapt them in memorable and interesting ways are wonderful. It's musicals that seem like nothing more than cynical ways to cash in on the audience's fond memories of movies that seem beside the point. I just don't understand why it's worth it to watch a pale imitation that has nothing of its own to add.

This is why the comments are so interesting: they are evenly mixed between people who agreed with Chris--that the show is painfully unoriginal and weirdly untheatrical--and those who disagree vociferously--saying that any deviation would be blasphemy, so this is the only way to do the show. Their sense of ownership of this movie is so intense that changing anything would be a sin. But I repeat--why put it on stage if it aspires merely to be a replica?

Can anyone explain this to me? Has anyone actually seen the show? I'm really curious to understand this phenomenon, and any help would be greatly appreciated.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Blog Exclusive Review: Bernarda Alba

Elizabeth Margolius' production of Michael John LaChiusa's musical Bernarda Alba at Bohemian Theatre Ensemble


Federico Garcia Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba is a riveting play. A tale of rural Spain and the miserable women trapped there, it has a steadily increasing force that builds to a shocking ending. Michael John LaChiusa’s musical adaptation, called simply Bernarda Alba, currently in its Chicago premiere at Bohemian Theatre Ensemble, boasts an exceptional score and superb singers. Unfortunately, due to miscalculations on the part of both the play and the production, it fails to have a similarly potent theatrical impact.

The story focuses on Bernarda (Deanna Boyd), whose second husband has just died. She declares that, due to mourning, her five daughters will always dress in black and stay locked in the house. Angustias (Kelsey Shearer), the eldest daughter and the only one with an inheritance (as she is the child of Bernarda's first husband) is being courted by Pepe el Romano—despite the fact that she is 39 and no beauty. Though he is making a lucrative marriage, Pepe is going elsewhere for his physical satisfaction: 20-year-old Adela (Cat Davis), Bernarda's youngest daughter. When the daughters' desires go up against Bernarda's fanatical need for control, tragedy results.

The music that LaChiusa has composed is genuinely thrilling. Full of the rhythms and vocal patterns of flamenco, the songs are exciting on a deeply visceral level. The entire ten member cast and the three piece orchestra show a real comfort with the music, and the raw power is amazing. In fact, at times there is too much of that raw power for the miniscule 30-seat theatre. Music and voices like this need more room--in Bohemian's space they can become overwhelming. Still, from a purely musical perspective, the show is a great success.

It is from a theatrical angle that it is problematic. Some of the miscalculations belong to LaChiusa. Primarily, he has taken a play that is highly realistic in style and changed the focus. He has emphasized the original's implicit sexuality and taken the few moments of poetry and expanded them into lengthy arias. The problem with this approach is that it takes a tight, tense play and turns it into a poetic, sensual meditation, sapping the play's dramatic tension. And without that relentless forward motion, the play just sits there--often interesting, but never grabbing the audience.

The production amplifies these script problems with a few of its own. The first is the size of the space--the cast barely fits on the stage, and with most of them onstage whether or not they are in the scene, director Elizabeth Margolius hardly has room to stage the play. There are also a few odd casting decisions: while Shearer brings her character to compelling life she looks virtually the same age as Davis--bizarre as Angustias is nearly twice Adela's age. Also, Martirio (Lisa Liaromatis) the second youngest daughter, is frequently described as crippled and ugly due to illness--yet in this production she has nothing more than severely pulled-back hair to distinguish her from her able-bodied sisters. The sisters' relationships lack the clarity and definition that they have in the original, and it damages the drama.

So in the end, we are left with a really fascinating score in a play that is at best imperfect. The choice of whether to go depends on your interest in audacious new musicals. If you need a show that works perfectly, it may not be the best use of your time, but if the risk and amazing music excite you, then it is worth a visit.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Blog Exclusive Review: Edward II

Here is a review of Sean Graney's dynamic staging of Christopher Marlowe's Edward II at Chicago Shakespeare.

Director Sean Graney has already had an excellent fall with his exceptional staging of Brecht and Weill's The Threepenny Opera, which I sure hope you saw before the end of its run this weekend. Now, only a month later, comes his production of Edward II, by Shakespeare's contemporary Christopher Marlowe. This grisly tale of a king done in by his love for a man is not particularly subtle, but Graney's staging certainly packs a punch.

The staging is promenade style--the audience members stand and sit among the actors, who might pop up from anywhere at any moment. The audience is encouraged to move around to get their own perspectives on the action, with actors shooing them out of the way when necessary. It sounds like a recipe for disaster, but it ends up working remarkably well. Graney's inspiration doesn't end with the staging style--everything feels organic, every production decision thought out carefully. For most of the play I was not engaged emotionally--my main reaction was  "That is so cool!"  However, once the play slid into its frightening finale I found myself horrified, not wanting to watch but unable to turn away.

Edward II (Jeffrey Carlson, regal and irresistible) has fallen hard for Piers Gaveston (La Shawn Banks, worth losing a kingdom over) a Frenchman of common birth, to the point of ignoring his wife, Queen Isabella (Karen Aldridge, magnetic) and offering Gaveston any office in the kingdom that he desires. His nobles, led by the conniving Mortimer (the dangerous Scott Cummins) cannot accept this, and conspire to kill Gaveston and depose Edward. From then on, things get brutal, both in the story and in the production. The many acts of violence are not gorily explicit, but they are extremely disturbing and immediate--those with weak stomachs should not attend.

Graney uses a deeply cut version of the script that only runs about 85 minutes, but still manages to tell the story with impressive clarity. I hadn't read the script before attending, yet I always knew exactly what was going on--no mean feat for a play from the 1590's.

The production definitely stages for visceral impact. There isn't much soaring poetry to be found, and the actors work in broad strokes, sometimes bordering on the crude. Still, the staging is constantly surprising and exciting, and it's a real thrill to see an avant-garde off-loop director being given a Chicago Shakespeare sized budget and keeping his idiosyncratic vision.

While gallery tickets, keeping you at a relatively safe remove, are available, I can't imagine them being anywhere near as much fun as going promenade. Best of all, promenade tickets are only $20--and if you go to chicagoshakes.com/edward and enter the code MARLOWE, you can get them for only $5 on October 14 and 21. If you have the courage for dangerous, thrilling theatre, go. You won't regret it.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

"The Trojan Candidate" Blog Exclusive Review

Here's a review of  Theatre Oobleck's new production, The Trojan Candidate, running through November 3rd at the Neo-Futurarium, 5153 N Ashland Avenue at Foster. Suggested donation $12, reservations at (773) 347-1041 or visit the website.

Dick Cheney has a problem. As many have suspected all along, Dick Cheney is actually an alien parasite which infects people's bodies and controls their actions. Unfortunately, his current host body doesn't have long to live, so it's up to Cheney to find someone new to infect and use to rule the world. Thanks to some Fantastic Voyage-style technology, he manages to enter the brains of all of the potential presidential candidates, and see which psyche will fit him best, and is most likely to win.

Such is the setup for Theatre Oobleck's cerebral and absurdist new satire The Trojan Candidate, written by Jeff Dorchen and Danny Thompson (who also appear in the play), and the rest of the cast. The idea is an extremely silly one, but the execution is erudite, filled with sophisticated political and cultural references. The production sometimes feels like a series of sketches rather than a play, and a number of long blackouts doesn't help this problem, but it still has more than enough laughs and a fascinating enough perspective to make it very worth seeing, and a cut above most of the political entertainments available this season.

Playwright Dorchen leads the cast as Cheney, giving the best interpretation of him that I've ever seen. He gets the look and sound perfectly, and also terrifyingly embodies the sheer disregard for the constitution and the happiness of others that has come to define Cheney. The rest of the five-member ensemble, playing several parts each, create many wicked political caricatures, including Sati Word's idealistic Barack Obama, co-author Thompson's splenetic John McCain, KellyAnn Corcoran's high-tension Hillary Clinton, and Diana Slickman's glum Lynne Cheney. However, all of the caricatures have in common that they go to deeper and stranger places than a "Saturday Night Live" sketch ever could.

Theatre Oobleck works without a director, and it sometimes shows in  the production--it could have used a slightly more ruthless hand to tighten op the parts that go too long. Still, you won't find political satire quite this smart or strange anywhere else in Chicago.


By the way, after reviewing The Trojan Candidate last night, I returned to the Neo-Futurarium to see their legendary Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind, still running late nights after twenty years. I hadn't seen it since they gave a special performance at Northwestern my freshman year, and it's still exceptional. The goal is to do 30 plays in 60 minutes (they time it), with new plays being cycled in every week--there were 9 world premieres this weekend. The plays are funny, serious, and just plain weird, and it makes for a wild and delightful night out. If you haven't been, go, and if you have, go again.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

An Unlucky Number?

Jason Robert Brown has a new show, 13, opening on Broadway this Sunday. A fascinating New York Times profile is here. Bizarrely enough, it has been ten years since his last Broadway show, Parade. In the intervening time, New York saw The Last Five Years, in a brief Off-Broadway run (it's hard to imagine that a show that has had so many productions since ran only two months in New York), and Broadway's calamitous Urban Cowboy, for which he wrote only a few songs.

So a new Broadway musical by a still-young composer. I should be excited, right? But my expectations for 13 are decidedly low.

First of is the musical's subject matter: the lives of 13-year-olds, with a cast of 13 teens, and a pit band of teens as well. This is a terrible idea for one simple reason: young adolescents are extremely annoying. I, at least, would rather do just about anything than spend 2 hours in a room full of middle schoolers, and the idea of paying $100 for the privilege makes my head spin.

However, even if the show were to manage to be about 13-year-olds without being as annoying at 13-year-olds (a task that Spring Awakening manages remarkably well with slightly older teens) I still have my doubts about its potential success, for one simple reason. I do not think that Jason Robert Brown is a good theatre writer.

He is certainly a skilled songwriter. Many of his songs are memorable and charming, and I enjoy listening to the cast albums of Parade and The Last Five Years. What his songs aren't is dramatic. The melodies are catchy or lyrical, the songs full of emotion, the performers often very impressive. But nothing happens. Characters express an emotional state, sure, but it never changes, it never develops. This can make a song awfully tough to act, and this can make an enjoyable pop song trying to watch onstage. Even in Parade, unquestionably his most successful show, the songs illustrate emotional moments--they don't really move the plot along within the song. (I am also not a fan of how politically simplistic the show is, reducing a complex story to "good Jewish man is railroaded by rednecks," but that is as much attributable to bookwriter Alfred Uhry as it is to Brown.)

The next time you are near your CD collection (or iTunes), try an experiment. Listen to "Nobody Needs to Know" from The Last Five Years and try to figure out what is different between  the beginning of the song and the end. Then notice that it takes seven minutes for nothing to happen. Once you have contemplated that, listen to "A Weekend in the Country" from Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music and notice that in 6 minutes and 30 seconds, everything in the lives of these characters changes. Then ask yourself why Jason Robert Brown is writing musicals.

The problem is that the kind of pop songwriting Brown does best has very little place in the contemporary music landscape. Songs that are melodic and based on acoustic instruments have very little currency anymore. A friend theorized to me that Brown wants to be the next Billy Joel, and I think it's a valid comparison. If there were room for a new composer like Billy Joel, Brown would have a great career writing and maybe even performing. As it is, his CD of pop songs, "Wearing Someone Else's Clothes," barely made a ripple.

Maybe 13 will prove me wrong, and show him to be a dramatist on the level that he is a melodist. Based on the song available with the profile in the New York Times, I am not particularly optimistic. But anything can happen, right?