Wednesday, December 30, 2009

What Play Changed Your Life?

The American Theatre Wing recently published a book called The Play That Changed My Life, interviewing 21 playwrights about the title subject. To go along with their review of the book, the New York Times asked their readers about the plays that changed their own lives. I commented (I'm #5), saying

I saw "Six Characters In Search of an Author" at Canada's Shaw Festival, and it was like the top of my head came off--I understood better than I ever had how theatre can make you question your own reality. That play's ideas have never really left me to this day.

Today, when the Times published a few of the reader comments, I'm happy to say that I was among them Maybe I'll inspire other Pirandello lovers to come forward. (Or maybe a few companies in Chicago to do some Pirandello?)

So as 2009 runs out, I'm asking you, readers, what play (or plays) changed your life, and why? Share them in the comments section. And if I don't post again before 2010, Happy New Year!

Monday, December 28, 2009

2009 In Review

The time has come for the obligatory roundup of the year. However, I'm going to avoid the standard Top 10 list, for two reasons.

1) I don't like being that certain about something so very subjective.

2) I didn't see nearly enough shows. I'm guessing I saw upwards of 60 productions this year (maybe even around 75), but that's literally half what some critics have seen, so I couldn't claim to really know what was best this year. (I only saw 5 of Time Out's top 10 and 3 of the Tribune's, for example.) Anyone who missed The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, All My Sons, The Man Who Was Thursday, The Overwhelming, Blackbird, An Apology for the Course and Outcome of Certain Events Delivered by Doctor John Faustus on This His Final Evening, Red Noses, The Arabian Nights and many, many more is understandably a little lacking.

Those caveats in place, here's a look at the best of what I saw this year.

Best Productions

The Mystery of Irma Vep, Court Theatre: I know I was just raving about this one a few weeks ago, but bear with me. Not only is it high on the list of the funniest things I've ever seen, it is so perfectly theatrical in its hilarity. The sheer virtuosity of the quick changes, the equivalent speed with which two actors changed their entire physical and vocal selves, the complex relationship between the cast and the audience, enlivening even the most ridiculous of jokes, the joy of being in the same room as the design and effects, the onstage tribute to the backstage crew: none of this could have happened in a movie or on television. It was utterly delicious, and I hope it helps Charles Ludlam's brilliant script to lose its reputation as a "cult" classic. It's a classic, period.

Strange Interlude, The Neo-Futurists at the Goodman's O'Neill Festival: Eugene O'Neill's nine act opus was a huge hit when it opened in the late 1920's. Unfortunately, time has not been kind to its purple prose, absurdly specific stage directions, and intensely serious audience asides, and it seems deeply silly now--a straighforward production would probably be impossible. Director Greg Allen, an intrepid cast of five, and some very sharp designers recognized this, and used it as an opportunity for some of the most deliriously inventive theatre staged all year. Every act had new surprises, and the production played with the script's insanity while finding the real heart within. It was epic in length, and not every moment worked, but I spent the whole 5 1/2 hours (intermission and dinner break stretched it out longer) enthralled. There has been some talk of reviving the production. Do it now, I say.

The History Boys, TimeLine Theatre: This was, first off, one of the year's biggest theatre news stories. A smallish company, working out of a hundred-seat space in Lakeview, takes on one of the best and most ambitious scripts of the decade (a dozen actors, a nearly three hour running time, an extremely British sensibility), does amazing work with it, and it goes on to run six sold out months, winning a raft of Jeffs just after its closing. I saw it  three weeks before the end, and was hugely impressed. It's a gorgeous play, witty, sad, and remarkably honest about life and learning, and the production really was wonderful. Most impressive was the cast: some had been with the show from the start, some were replacements, but they worked together like they'd known each other for years.

500 Clown and the Elephant Deal, Steppenwolf Upstairs: My love affair with 500 Clown has been mentioned repeatedly all year, but this was what started it: a completely lunatic, wildly inconsistent show. It's true that the show flirted with dullness for the last 20 minutes or so, but what came before was so intense, scary, and hilarious at once, that even the unsuccessful bits had a heartening sense of adventure and risk.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Marriott Theatre: Sometimes you just want to laugh, and this production fit the bill--sharp, silly, and well-sung. Composer/lyricist William Finn and bookwriter Rachel Sheinkin deftly balanced sharp humor and sentiment in their portrayal of a group of preteens at a spelling bee, and Rachel Rockwell led her nine-member cast to excellent ensemble work and kept the show flying. It was a great time.

Animal Crackers, Goodman Theatre: Sometimes you just want to laugh, part two. The Goodman revived a Marx Brothers hit from the 1920s with no Marx Brothers, which is a huge risk, but they found three fantastic ringers in Joey Slotnick (Groucho), Jonathan Brody (Chico), and 500 Clown's Molly Brennan (Harpo). But that wasn't it--the rest of the supporting cast (six tireless performers) was also spot-on, with special mention for the imperious Ora Jones as Mrs. Rittenhouse, the Margaret Dumont role. The show was done with enough conviction that even the love plot and silly songs were delightful fun--and the 1920's costumes were just gorgeous.

The Ruby Sunrise, Gift Theatre: Probably the year's most pleasant surprise. The Gift took Rinne Groff's script, which had seen moderate success and mixed reviews Off-Broadway, and gave it a sparkling and enthralling production. It didn't always hit the mark, but the actors were dead on and the designs made brilliant use of Gift's miniscule space.

The Lieutenant of Inishmore, Northlight: Feck yes I did background research, and am therefore biased. Feck yes it was still hilarious, bloody, and totally badass.

Outstanding Performances

Chicago's so full of great actors that it seems silly to pick just a few, but here were some performers who knocked me flat:

Brenda Barrie had a hell of a year: the title role in Lifeline's Mariette in Ecstasy, the lead roles of Sara in Profiles' Graceland and  Lulu in Gift's The Ruby Sunrise, and finishing things off with another title character, Aunt Dan in Backstage's Aunt Dan and Lemon. I only saw the middle two, but in both I was hugely impressed by Barrie's emotional honesty, wit, and straightforward grace. She's a joy to watch, and I can't wait to see what she has in store for 2010.

You're all tired of hearing about Molly Brennan, but she's a stunning clown who both creates indelible performances and makes everyone around her look good. I'm not going to say any more, you just have to go see her. So there.

Chris Sullivan and Erik Hellman played at least a half-dozen roles in The Mystery of Irma Vep, with more than 30 lightning-fast costume changes between them. I'd seen and really liked each before, but this was just plain amazing.

Jackson Challinor in Graceland was both mature enough to understand the adolescent he was playing and young enough (he's still in high school) to be believable. Some of the best youth acting I've ever seen, and essential to that play's success.

The entire ensembles of The History Boys, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Court Theatre's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, and Factory Theatre's Mop Top Festival worked like a dream together.


Red Tape Theatre's Mouse In A Jar didn't quite work, but William Anderson's set sure did. The audience descended into the basement setting, which surrounded us on all sides, and there was no way out. Chilling.

Animal Crackers at the Goodman poured on the glitz, but oh my did it work. For a lover of 1920's clothes, it was heaven.

I mostly haven't commented on touring shows, but oh wow was Kevin Adams' lighting for Spring Awakening awesome. Rock-concert extreme and thoroughly energizing.

Brian Sidney Bembridge's set for The History Boys has been justly praised, placing the audience in runway-style seating and putting the boys bedrooms in the lobby. It was the perfect setting for the dynamic staging.

Design was just one more element of The Mystery of Irma Vep that worked--and best of all, the designs were all in on the joke. The set was full of surprises, the lighting poured on the melodrama, the costumes were simply loony, and the funniest upholstery ever popped up everywhere you looked.

Steve Tolin's violence and special effects for The Lieutenant of Inishmore were poetry. Blood-spattered, limb-hacking poetry.

Most Overrated

Graceland, by Ellen Fairey, has real merits: she writes fantastic dialogue, and the production had some of the best realistic acting I saw all year. It also has serious flaws: there are some lapses in psychological credibility and you can usually tell where each scene is going within a few minutes. Even though it was a world premiere, it felt like a good version of something I'd already seen. So why was it greeted by the critics at the Tribune and Sun-Times like the second coming? How did it run six months and score an upcoming production Off Broadway? Maybe I'm just out of touch with the times (though I'm not the only one who felt that way). Still, I'm genuinely pleased that Fairey is finding success, and I hope her next show builds on her strengths and improves her weak spots.

Peter Shaffer's Lettice and Lovage is full of British wit, and in RedTwist Theatre's production benefited from wonderful work from Millicent Hurley and Jan Ellen Graves, but it still has a second act virtually without dramatic conflict and an overlong third act. I enjoyed the best parts of it, but it didn't cover for the script's flaws. But maybe I'm just overly critical--others were completely swept away.

Most Disappointing

Macbeth at Chicago Shakespeare had some of the best actors in town (and two of the best in Canada) and a spectacular physical production, but it also suffered from a series of arbitrary directing choices by Barbara Gaines. (Why exactly was the "Double, double" scene set in a strip club, other than the chance to dress Mike Nussbaum up in a creepy leather-fetish outfit?) The result was almost never scary or involving, and a sad waste of some real talent.

Sean Graney is one of the best directors in town (see The Mystery of Irma Vep, above), and his Hypocrites production of Frankenstein should have been awesome--four actors! Promenade staging! The Museum of Contemporary Art's giant performance space! Alas, it got bogged down in speechifying and ran out of steam by the halfway point. Hey, letting a bunch of smart artists play won't always leave you with a great result. The occasional flop is worth it for the great stuff that pops up.

The Thin Man is a fantastic book that led to a brilliant movie, but the adaptation at City Lit suffered from an over-narrated story and an underwritten female lead. It looked fantastic and the supporting cast was often delectable, but it lacked snap. Ah well.

Romulus Linney is a respected playwright, and Democracy promised to be a juicy historical satire. But it was based on two different novels, and covered way too much ground too quickly to really land.

Pleasant Surprises

The Ruby Sunrise, Gift Theatre: See above. The script may be flawed, but the production could not have been bettered. It makes sense that it got better reviews in Chicago than it had in New York.

1985, Factory Theatre: A parody of Orwell's 1984 about the year the Bears won the Super Bowl doesn't seem promising, but Chas Vrba's script was a deft blend of the two and ended up being hugely entertaining, even to someone who doesn't follow football and hasn't read the Orwell since middle school.

Days To Come, The Artistic Home: It's clear why this was one of Lillian Hellman's flops, but inconsistent Hellman is still Hellman, and Days To Come delivered the snappy, melodramatic goods with panache.


It's interesting to note that most of what I loved this year was comedic in nature. Even the two plays that might be called dramas were full of laughs. Maybe next year will be stronger for dramas.

And in case you are wondering, yes there is a worst list. I will not share it in public, but contact me personally and I will bring forth all the venom within me.

Happy New Year, and here's to lots of great Chicago theatre in 2010!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Be A Singer, Be A Lover

Welcome to the next phase of the conversation between Tim Brayton of Antagony and Ecstasy and myself about the various phases of Federico Fellini's 8 1/2. Last week I posted parts one and two of our conversation about Fellini's original film. Now he has posted our conversation about Nine, the Maury Yeston/Arthur Kopit musical based on the film. The film version of that musical is currently playing in New York and Los Angeles, and will open in Chicago on Friday. Our review of that should be up some time next week.

Anyhow, I think it's a really interesting conversation, and we've both learned a lot from it and had plenty of fun so far. You should check it out and contribute to the conversation at his post, but for those who don't feel like leaving this site, the text is below. Enjoy, and please let me know what you think in the comment section!

Perhaps you recall last week, when Zev Valancy of On Chicago Theatre and I discussed Federico Fellini's neo-surrealist film masterpiece , and perhaps you do not, in which case, Shame! but no harm, no foul, because you can still catch up with our two-part conversation here and here.

Anyway, the next phase of our discussion is up and running: in which we took a peek at the Maury Yeston musical Nine, adapted from Fellini's movie with quite a few thematic and narrative changes along the way. Zev had the courtesy to divide his half of the project into bite-size chunks; I am going to do no such thing, for if there's one thing I can assume that Antagony & Ecstasy regulars are good at by now, it's reading multi-thousand word posts without a break. But I will hide the whole thing below the fold, as we used to say back in the newspaper biz.

Hi Zev,

Well, I certainly understand now where you were coming from when we were talking about  - the musical Nine is a very different thing entirely, considering that it has the same concept and most of the same character names. Just for all the reader's benefits: Guido Anselmi has been renamed Guido Contini, but he is still a major filmmaker with creative block, haunted by the ghosts of all the women in his life.

Now, I have to admit that I wasn't able to find an actual copy of the book of the musical, but I think between the cast recording and various online sources, I think I was able to figure out most of the specifics of the plot and dialogue, but I hope that if I say anything that's just flat-out wrong, you'll be so good as to set me straight. To begin with the most obvious narrative departures from the Fellini movie, it seems to me that Guido in this piece is still thrashing about looking for an idea; in the movie he's already spent a huge sum of money on a giant, half-constructed set, although he doesn't really know what the plot is yet. Also, the way I've always read the film is that Guido already knows at the start that he's trying to make an autobiographical movie, whereas in the musical he doesn't make that decision until the beginning of the second act - although he has been thinking about his history with women for most of the musical before that point.

I think the big difference that this makes is that  is much more "about" creative block, while Nine is "about" Guido's history of regrets in regard to all the women of his life. And I think it rather has to be that way:  derives so much of its meaning from the fact that Federico Fellini is making a movie about Guido Anselmi failing to make a movie about himself, and that kind of meta-narrative layering just isn't possible in a theatrical production about making a movie (that is, Ninecannot be the project Guido is trying to make in the way that  is). You warned me before we started this project that they're not the same story, but I don't think I really appreciated the degree to which that is the case until I was finished with Nine: and certainly my inclination isn't terribly much to judge it by how much it is or isn't the movie. Though I still think the comparison is instructive.

At any rate, I think the most substantive difference between the two versions, and the thing that makes Nine the most interesting on its own, completely independently of the movie's existence or non-existence, is the musical's treatment of women. Am I right in thinking that the only men that ever appear onstage are Guido, and the nine-year-old version of himself? Which is a fascinating gimmick, if gimmick is the word.

The women of Nine are so much more present than the women in ; especially poor, stepped-on Luisa. I really have the sense that I understand them as characters in a way that I absolutely do not with the Fellini, even the prostitute Seraghina, who in the movie is presented more as animal than as human woman. I don't know if I'd go so far as to call it a feminist text - they are still all defined mostly in terms of how they function in relationship to Guido - but certainly, they are all rich and interesting and represent different forms of vitality and being in the world, and that makes Guido seem that much more washed-out as both a man and an artist. I understand what he wants, but I never get the sense that even he knows who he is, and as I understand it, Nine is mostly about how he decides to confront this gaping personality deficit as a result of confronting both physically and mentally all the woman-shaped demons of his past.

But that's a lot of rambling, and I have to admit that the musical was so far from what I was anticipating that I'm going to shut up, regroup my thoughts, and let you take a smack at it. So tell me: what makes Ninetick?

Hey Tim,

I think you're exactly right that my response to 8 1/2 was colored by my experience of Nine. While it can be argued that the story of a man facing the demons of his life (many of them in the form of his relationships with women), and possibly learning to grow up is a major element in the Fellini, the musical definitely foregrounds that story. I think this makes sense for a piece of theatre, particularly a mainstream Broadway musical. A man fighting his demons and learning to grow up (which is pretty explicitly the story of the musical) is much clearer and stronger as a dramatic spine and emotional throughline than a man struggling with creative block, particularly as the film's ending is so oblique and surreal. This isn't a value judgment--Fellini would have made a very different film if the emotional throughline were clear and resolved at the end--but it's necessary for a mainstream musical. While the musical's plot is, by the standards of the form, non-linear, the emotional story has to be accessible or the whole play collapses.

To briefly address a few of the major formal changes. Aside from Guido as an adult, Guido as a nine year old, and a few of Guido's young friends (who are cut from many revivals--the only place you hear them on the original cast album is during "Be Italian," Saraghina's song) everyone on the stage is a woman. The reasons for this seem to be both thematic and formal. First off, it very clearly focuses the audience on the idea of Guido as a man defined by relationships with the women in his life. It's pretty impossible to miss, really. The other main reason, I'd imagine, is that it's striking and pretty damn cool. More on that later.

(Interestingly, this wasn't Maury Yeston's idea from the start--early drafts refer to a subplot of a star-crossed romance between an Italian girl working at the spa and a German boy visiting. That plot disappeared entirely, with the only remnant being the song "The Germans at the Spa," which is cut from most contemporary productions as it sets up a plot point that goes nowhere.)

As for the title change: 8 1/2 refers to the film's place in Fellini's canon.Nine refers to the mental age at which Guido is stuck. ("My body's clearing forty as my mind is nearing ten," as he tells us in his first song.)

Guido's film is a completely different beast. In the musical he has no idea what movie he is making for the entire first act. This leads to two of the most fun numbers in the act. The first is a little bit of music that makes me incredibly happy, called "Movie Themes," as Guido wildly casts around for a film idea, while the chorus sings music from the films he's imagining (culminating in a surprisingly good fake African chant when he imagines making a documentary). The second, longer piece is "Folies Bergere," in which his French producer orders him to make the musical that he promised her, reminiscing about the Folies she attended as a child, while the critic she's hired to help him work on his script savages all of his previous films ("a mixture of Catholicism, pasta, and pornography"). Only a side comment from Claudia comparing him to Casanova spurs him to make that the subject of his film--with himself as star and his biography as plot, of course. The "Grand Canal" sequence, showing the movie being filmed, is a major section of the second act.

As for the name change from Anselmi to Contini: first off, it sounds better sung (the phrase "Guido Contini, Luisa Contini" is set to a really haunting piece of music), and second, it rhymes with Fellini. (Get it?)

As for what makes it tick: I think we've pretty well discussed the emotional throughline, which is pretty constant even as the plot follows its somewhat winding path. But what keeps it bring produced? I think a lot of it comes down to how gorgeous the music is, the sheer thrill of a large ensemble of women singing their hearts out, and the possibility for beautiful stage pictures. The original production was set in a white tiled spa with each woman getting her own pedestal, and all of the costumes in black until the "Grand Canal" sequence. It was, apparently, orgasmically gorgeous. The Broadway revival had Carla flying on in a giant bedsheet, dozens of chic 60s costumes, and lots of water.

In some ways, Nine is my equivalent of the movies you see where the storytelling is just decent but the cinematography is so pretty--I'm willing to forgive the book problems because of the quality of the music and the chance it gives performers to do fantastic work. I got the chance to see it in May of 2008, in Porchlight Theatre's production at Theatre Building Chicago. Seeing the production made clear the flaws in the script and lyrics, and it wasn't a spectacle on the level of a Broadway production, but it was such a visceral thrill hearing all those women raising their voices, separately and together.

So you've said a lot about how the musical compares to the movie, but not a lot about your reaction. So, um, did you like it?

Pfeh, details, details. If we start in with "like" and "dislike", we'll be here all night.

Actually, I did in fact like it quite a bit, which I really didn't expect to - the snatches of the show that I'd heard weren't really enough to build my confidence (a few bars of "Guido's Song", the part of "Be Italian" that was in the movie trailer, "My Husband Makes Movies"). Listening to it all in one piece, though, made it clear that it's not really about the tunefulness of any particular moment, but the flow of how the whole thing works together as a unit, with motifs drifting in and out all throughout the thing. I guess I mean to say, I think it works better if you don't try to think of it as a collection of songs, but of segments of music colliding with one another, which is true of a lot of my favorite musicals.

It also definitely helps me, at least, that when I'm thinking about it as a musical whole, I'm less focused on the lyrics. Which you've noted as having flaws, but I get the sense that I might be a bit more down on them on the whole than you are. Certainly, I don't think the whole thing top to bottom has problems - only about 5%, but it's a tremendously distracting 5%. I particularly found the couplet "Be Italian / You rapscallion" to be either so stupid it's brilliant or so stupid that it's incredibly stupid, but I haven't decided which yet.

But why focus on that, because there is some outstandingly lovely music throughout: "The Bells of St. Sebastian", the first-act finale in which Guido recalls his oppressive Catholic childhood, plays right to my tastes, and I agree with you completely on "Movie Themes", the "Guido Contini, Luisa Contini" refrain (it totally escaped me that "Contini" and "Fellini" scan the same, and rhyme); and I thought that "A Call from the Vatican", Carla's phone sex number, was awesomely slinky and I can only imagine how much better it must play onstage. Generally speaking, I much preferred the music in the first act to the second act; maybe it's because the "Grand Canal" medley felt a little too big and dizzy for me, maybe it's just because I think the plot is more interesting before Guido decides to make an autobiographical "Casanova". Although "I Can't Make This Movie" was outstanding, and if I understand correctly that it is the first moment where Guido is alone onstage, it must be quite the coup de théâtre. Obviously, Maury Yeston is no Nino Rota (who is?), but I rather liked the whole thing, and if I'm not quite a Nine partisan, certainly I can see myself trying to snag a ticket the next time a production shows up in town.

(Weirdly, I am totally unmoved by "Be Italian", which seems to be the consensus pick for the big fun showstopper. I think it's because the song stands out so badly - it's the one number that feels like a sop to people who want to walk out of a show with one easily hummable song to guide them).

Not to change rails too dramatically, but I did have one really big issue - I hesitate to call it a "problem" - with the show: it seems really anxious to insist on Guido's Italianness in a way that doesn't feel at all organic or necessary. "Be Italian" is obvious, with its message of "Italian men are natural lovers, and you should follow your native urges to become a great horndog", but there are little bits scattered all over the show; there's a line "I am a mature Italian film director!" that made me wince with its overburdened exposition. Am I reading far too much into it? Or is this as much of an exotic "othering" of Italian masculinity as it strikes me as being?

Well, I am glad you (more or less) like it--after all the nasty comments directed towards the score in the reviews of the film I've read, I appreciate knowing that someone who isn't a musical theatre geek can still get a lot out of the show. Of course Maury Yeston isn't Nino Rota, but Rota also didn't have the burden of telling the story through song--he supported Fellini. It's apples to oranges, but I think both scores fill their functions pretty well.

I think you're absolutely right that the show functions as a score, more than a collection of songs. While Yeston's use of motifs isn't as complex as Stephen Sondheim's (or as robotic and irritating as Andrew Lloyd Webber's), there are several themes woven throughout. (The most prominent are probably the "Guido Contini, Luisa Contini" and "Be Italian" chunks.) I think this is set up quite well from the start: the "Overture Delle Donne," features Guido conducting the women of the cast as they singing many of the show's musical themes to "la la la"s. He tries to control them and convince Luisa that he still cares about their marriage simultaneously. As in the best musical theatre, a piece of music theatricalizes an idea in a way that's startling and fascinating to watch--not to mention that, when done well, it's absolute heaven to hear. (By the way, here's a bootleg of the original production's overture. Carla's the one in the bodysuit arching her back at the end. Slinky indeed.)

I'd say that your formulation of 5% of the lyrics being clinkers is about right. I'd add that another good 20% are just disappointingly prosaic, and it's amazing how the great and eh lyrics can coexist right next to each other--that "Be On Your Own" can include a line as cliche-sounding as "No need to carry out this masquerade/When all that we're about's begun to fade" shortly before one as simple and devastating as "And you'll take with you all you own, from A to Z,/And all of me."

And "Be Italian/You rapscallion" is a stupid lyric, full stop. "Rapscallion" is a word with very specific connotations: for me it belongs to England from about the Elizabethans to the Edwardians. It sounds ridiculous coming from an Italian prostitute in what I'm guessing is the 1930s.

I'm completely in agreement with you on "The Bells of St. Sebastian's": no matter how many times I hear it, I get chills up my spine when it gets to the "Kyrie Eleison"s. Though it's apparently not your favorite, I think "My Husband Makes Movies" is the song I like nearly as much--a beautiful melody, and as emotionally resonant an exploration of the difficulty of loving an artist as any I've encountered. "Unusual Way" is probably the most covered song in the score--it needs the context of the plot less than most, and the melody is hard to forget. I have a real affection for the "Grand Canal" sequence because it is completely insane (even more so onstage, when the women suddenly show up in these gigantic gowns), but I don't know how well it really works. The only songs I could take or leave are the title song, which is so high up in soprano-land that, at least on the original cast album, it's a little hard to listen to, and "Getting Tall," in which 9-year-old Guido tells his adult self exactly the lesson he's supposed to learn. It's just too on the nose--plus, listening to boy sopranos is not my favorite thing.

As to your comment on the Italian elements being emphasized oddly--it is strange, though I never really noticed it before. My personal guess is that it's because so little of the show actually feels Italian at all. The audience needs an occasional reminder that they aren't watching Americans.

If I may be permitted one extra bit of nerdy joy--one thing I love in this show are the orchestrations. Orchestration is an element that people outside of musical theatre nerds rarely notice, but the way that Jonathan Tunick (one of the masters of the field) uses the orchestra is just stunning: the flutes in the waltz and the harpsichord (I think) under "My Husband Makes Movies" are two of the best examples, but the orchestral writing is gorgeous throughout.

And amid all the talk of the show's women, I want to say a word for Raul Julia. He's not the most gifted singer (some of the high notes are pretty painful), but even on the recording he's utterly magnetic. He's the prime example that being a great musical theatre performer does not necessarily require being a great singer. Better singers can be found, but I'm not sure anyone will do the part better. It's a shame that only a few of his film roles showed off what was apparently a prodigious talent onstage, and a greater shame that he died so young.

Any more thoughts on the show, especially now that it's had more time to sink in? Any final insights on how it works in and of itself versus how it works in dialogue with the film?

Ah, yes, "Getting Tall", a song so memorable that it had completely slipped my mind a scant handful of hours after listening to the score. Well, they can't all be hits. Or indeed, even halfway decent.

The more I sit and think, the more that I really take away from Nine is how very little reference it actually needs back to 8½, which at least theoretically invalidates this whole little project of ours, except I know that Rob Marshall brings quite a bit of the Fellini back into the musical - and isn't that going to be a peculiar sight to see? But all in all, it pleases me how little I wanted Nine to be 8½, which is not at all what I expected I fully anticipated a whole long thing where I was going to be disgusted by the liberties taken, and want Yeston's head on a pike - but by the end of "Guido's Song", I was pretty well ready to take the musical as its own entity, that uses the movie as nothing more than a springboard but little more.

And a pretty good musical, at that. I don't think I really have any further thoughts, but this was the first time in ages that I listened to a new (to me) show and liked it pretty much all the way through; compared to most of the dreck out there nowadays, it's a sterling masterpiece. So if nothing else, I'm grateful for that.

Not to mention, now I get to be paranoid to find out how Marshall is going to fuck it all up.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Blog Exclusive Review: In The Heights

Heat and Warmth

The heat of In The Heights is extremely impressive: after all, it takes place across three broiling days in July in Manhattan's Washington Heights neighborhood, and features an array of young characters dancing to an exceptionally energetic and lively latin-influenced score. But it's the play's warmth that is, in the end, even more notable. This is a play that loves its characters and its setting deeply, and tells their stories with theatrical skill and genuine heart. Despite a few slips into sentimentality and a few other stray flaws, it makes for an exciting and moving show.

The show tells several intertwined stories with impressive grace: Usnavi (Kyle Beltran), owns a corner bodega (grocery/convenience store), with his cousin Sonny (Shaun Taylor-Corbett) as his only employee. He nurses a crush on Vanessa (Yvette Gonzalez-Nacer), who's desperate to leave the neighborhood, and her alcoholic mother. She works at the salon owned by Daniela (Isabel Santiago) and Carla (Genny Lis Padilla), who are being forced by rising rents to relocate to the Bronx. Nina (Arielle Jacobs), the neighborhood golden child, just got back from her first year at Stanford, but the year wasn't quite the triumph she said it was--a fact she's hiding from her parents, Kevin and Camila (Daniel Bolero and Natalie Toro). Soon she's also hiding her growing attraction to Benny (Rogelio Douglas, Jr.), an African-American employee at her parents' cab company. Watching over the whole block is Claudia (Elise Santora), related to none of them but an abuela (grandmother) to them all.

The plot looks complicated, but plays out gracefully and clearly. Bookwriter Quiara Alegria Hudes and composer/lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda (who also played Usnavi in the original cast) have crafted a winning, if romanticized, portrait of a neighborhood. Hudes' book doesn't have much time to work--well over half of the 2.5 hour show is music--but she deftly sketches characters that feel real after only a few lines. And Miranda's score is a wonder, certainly among the best to be heard on Broadway in the past 5 years. It's endlessly melodically inventive, and the lyrics are clever and lively. (It uses significant amounts of rap, and I'm amazed it's taken this long to have it in a Broadway show: as rap is based in lyrics and storytelling, it makes more sense in theatre than most genres. Perhaps the lack until now has just been Broadway's aesthetic conservatism, but I hope we hear more soon.)

Luckily, the book and score have real allies in the cast, who create a sense of ensemble and community that makes the story's implausible moments easy to ignore. They all sound wonderful (Miranda gives all of the principals a chance to really let it rip at least once), and its easy to believe that they grew up together and love each other and their community. While Usnavi is the nominal lead, Beltran gives a slightly subtler performance than Miranda did (at least judging from the cast album). This choice points up how passive the role is until relatively late in the show, but it also lets the ensemble nature of the story shine through: this is the story of everyone onstage. Each member of the cast deserves special comment, but lacking space, I must give particular credit to Taylor-Corbett's delightful comic work, the depth and fun Santiago brings to a character that could easily be a sassy caricature, and the erotic heat that Douglas and Jacobs give to their scenes together.

Director Thomas Kail and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler keep the show in constant motion--it's dancing even when the characters are just speaking. They're wise to pitch the show to a slightly heightened style, in keeping with the small exaggerations of the book and score. They also use the small ensemble exceptionally well--the little details of character and movement going on in the background give the evening texture, and give depth to the dramas at center stage.

In The Heights has been getting a lot of attention for the use of latin music and rapping, which are still uncommon on Broadway. But in the end it's a very conventional show--characters learn lessons, lovers are united, and the importance of family, hard work, and community are validated. There's very little to challenge an audience member. But theatre created with this much skill and heart, that earns both the visceral excitement and the occasional tear in the eye, is still something really special. It's unquestionably worth heading into the loop to get to upper Manhattan.

In The Heights runs through January 3rd at the Cadillac Palace, 151 W Randolph. Tickets are $18-90, and can be purchased at any BIC box office, by phone at (800) 775-2000, at Ticketmaster retail locations, or online at

Monday, December 14, 2009

Discussing 8 1/2, Part Two

Welcome to the second part of the conversation between Tim Brayton and myself about 8 1/2, in preparation for our discussions of the cast album of Nine, the musical version of it, and the film version of Nine, being released on the 25th of this month. You can find the first part here. (A reminder, I'm in italics, Tim's response is bold.)

Not being a filmmaker, my perspective on the film was more influenced by its view of Guido the man and his relationships, but your comments obviously get at something central that I didn't really address: it's a movie about making movies. Perhaps this makes it a movie that outsiders can never truly appreciate as much as insiders can (certainly there are plays that people who work in theatre love and civilians don't entirely connect with), though I did get quite a bit from it. (And I had sort of heard that the title relates to Fellini's career, but not exactly know how it worked, so I didn't mention it. I was also confused because the title of Nine means something entirely different, as we shall see.)

However, what that different viewpoint seems to mean is that we have very different opinions on the character of Guido.

You described him as a creative mind, stopped by outside forces from making the movie he wants to make. However, nearly all of the problems in his life are self-inflicted: his producer, actors, and crew are only pushing him because he is unable to give them any answers or a clear idea of where to go, and the women in his life don't seem to have a problem with his filmmaking--it's more that he treats them badly, whether meaning to or not. Nearly all of Guido's problems could be solved if he stepped up and took some responsibility.

Also, the film falls into the trap of portraying fictional artists, which is that it's hard to portray their art. And we never see Guido actually making a movie, or any pieces of his previous film; all we see are screen tests, giant set pieces under construction, and publicity events. All are important in a movie, but none are actually involved in shooting it--and he doesn't do any of them with particular engagement. We also see sections of his extraordinarily cinematic fantasies, but an overactive imagination does not a filmmaker make.

Now you could argue that Guido is Fellini, and 8 1/2 is the movie he was making, but this is still a fiction film, even if autobiographical, and the work of shooting a film is never shown onscreen.

Which leads to the fact that I think I view the story of this film in a fundamentally different way: I don't see it as "the exploration of a creative mind forced to think about any number of distracting things outside of the creative process, and the frustration that it brings," but rather the story of an immature man forced to grow up. This takes nothing from the film--it's an exceptionally well done story of an immature man forced to grow up--but it does illuminate two different perspectives held by filmmakers and outsiders.

As for your comment that Milo (And I can't believe Fellini had the chutzpah to cast his mistress as his mistress. I shudder to imagine the conversation he had with his wife.) and Aimee's performances were incidental to Fellini and Guido's intentions: I think the movie might have gotten away from them. For me at least, Guido is enough of a cipher, and many of his actions thoughtless enough, that I had trouble truly identifying with him. He was fascinating to watch, but I never feel like I truly knew him. As a result the other characters took up a lot of my identification. Again, not a bad thing, but interesting to note.

So am I misreading the movie entirely, or is it elastic enough for multiple interpretations? And is there something else I should be commenting on but am not?

I think it's a dull movie indeed that only admits for one possible reading. And everything you say about Guido is perfectly true, particularly that he seems a bit of a cipher. To me, this fits in quite well with what I was arguing: someone who thinks about everything in cinematic terms would indeed come across as a bit bland and impersonal. Though I don't know that it's really quite the case that we don't get to know him all that well: we get to know the movie he wants to make, which is the most intimate thing there is about him.

The big disconnect between ourselves is, undoubtedly, that Guido's mind makes so much sense to me, as a nascent filmmaker. You correctly point out that the physical act of filmmaking never appears in 8½; only Guido thinking about the movie that he can't quite put into practice. At a certain level, this is exactly the point: it's a story about creative impotence. But I must disagree with you, that having an active imagination doesn't make him a filmmaker - visualisation is a very key part of the filmmaking process. Alfred Hitchcock is said to have hated being on set, because by the time his films entered production, he already knew exactly what they looked and sounded like, having executed the whole thing in his mind already, and he was already bored with the project by the time the cameras rolled.

Guido's problem is cowardice and indecision: he knows what he wants to make, but he also knows that it will reveal more of himself than he wants to reveal, and as we see throughout, he has a fundamental inability to share himself with others. It's never stated or even strongly implied, but I've always believed that he was terrified that if the film didn't work or was castigated by the critics, that would be proof that he, himself, has no merit as a person. You're probably right that most of his procrastination is self-inflicted, and looking back, I overstated what I meant by that: what I would rather have said is that, the constant pressure from everyone around him is making him defensive, which in turn makes it harder for him to find the necessary self-confidence to put his demons out for all the world to see. I certainly don't admire him and I don't want to indicate otherwise; but I understand his terror and reluctance. (I think your word "immature" is an appropriate one; but on the other hand, isn't immaturity a necessary part of being an artist? A mature person wouldn't have the need for other people's validation. And I say this as a wannabe filmmaker to a theater guy).

It's one big admission of guilt, I think: Fellini acknowledging all the sins he has committed in the name of pursuing filmmaking. Guido is arguably even worse: he commits all the same sins and doesn't even have anything to show for it, although it's at least possible that at the end of the film he has realised that he doesn't need to use cinema as a means of dealing with life, and on that argument, we could suppose that he stops being a film director after the end of the movie (that could certainly be what the last scene, with the dancers, symbolises). And in that respect, he'd actually be a better man than his creator, who did in fact keep making movies to work out his personal demons: his very next film, Juliet of the Spirits, was supposedly considered by no less an authority than his wife Giulietta Masina to be the director's way of dealing with his repressed homosexuality, just to name one example.

There's so much else to talk about, though: you touched on a bit of what made the music so outstanding in your first post, and I'd add that it lends a certain flair of the carnivalesque to the movie. I'm also a great fan of Gianni Di Venanzo's camerawork, with all of its gliding through and around sets; I sometimes feel like the camera is positioned as a predator animal, hunting around in search of its subject. And notwithstanding the conventions of Italian film sound, I think that you're right to point out the heightened effect of the sound; the most overt dream sequences most obviously, but there are a lot of strange and unexpected sound cues scattered about.

What about you? Any lingering observations on Guido's psychology, or other matters?

I think we've pretty well anatomized Guido's neuroses, and of course his identity as a filmmaker and as a man are inextricable. It's the desire to turn the people and world around him into the perfect aesthetic object that makes it so hard for them to relate to people honestly.

(To clarify one thing--I should have said that an overactive imagination is not enough to make a filmmaker. Plenty of people have vivid things in their head that never get into practice, and it doesn't make them great artists. Of course, the gap between intention an practice is a dramatic thing in many contexts, and one more thing applicable both to Guido as filmmaker and Guido as man.)

The cinematography is indeed gorgeous, though I’d leave it to you, the cinematography addict to explain why--I just don't have the technical background.

And as for the carnivalesque atmosphere of the music...well, we'll just use that as a segue to a different version of the story, told with more music, and a whole lot more focus on the women.

Discussing 8 1/2, Part One

Dear Readers,

Welcome to the first part of a collaboration between this blog and Antagony and Ecstasy, an excellent film blog written by the awesome Tim Brayton. In preparation for the upcoming release of the film version of the musical Nine, which is a movie based on Maury Yeston's 1982 musical which is based on Federico Fellini's 1963 film 8 1/2, we will be discussing movie, musical, and movie musical.

As for the film, it's a carnivalesque, dreamlike look inside the mind of Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni), an Italian film director (based on Fellini himself), whose life is falling apart as he struggles to make a movie without knowing what movie he wants to make. Adding in his relationships with his wife Luisa (Anouk Aimée), mistress Carla (Sandra Milo), and favorite star Claudia (Claudia Cardinale) makes for plenty of complication, especially when the film drifts into fantasy whenever things get too difficult.

Here we have the first part of our conversation about Fellini's film. (Tim and I are both rather long-winded writers, so I didn't want to dump our entire conversation in one post.) I am in italic, he's in bold.

So I finished 8 1/2 this evening. It's going to be a challenge to discuss it as itself, rather than comparing it to the musical, but I'll try. (There's lots to compare--as you'll see, Maury Yeston adapted the hell out of it.)

I had seen this film in college--maybe even freshman year?--but in the intervening time, I'd forgotten nearly all of it. And it remains the only Fellini film I've seen, though the next time I have 2 free hours at home I will watch that copy of La Strada you so graciously lent me.

I suppose a good place to start was how it compared to my expectations of "Fellini." The image I always had was of garish surrealism: clowns, painted women, general freakiness. While this film was certainly very far from realism, it was of a subtler variety. Sometimes it was simply "real" scenes filmed in such a way that they seemed surreal: a shot of a long line of people, all moving forward in step, to "The Ride of the Valkyries" is revealed to be a line of people at a spa in line for the healing waters, while a band plays Wagner. (That was one of many "wow" moments in the film.) Of course there are also dream sequences--the initial traffic jam is quite creepy, and the dream near the end of the house of women is amazing--but it's not the kind of aggression that I expected.

In fact, to me, the least realistic, and most striking formal element of the film was the use of sound. First off there is Nino Rota's score, which I know you've discussed quite admiringly. It walked the line all film scores have to walk very successfully--setting the mood without telling us exactly what we're supposed to feel at every moment. The fact that it's really quite beautiful and catchy on its own merits is just gravy.

But even more striking is how often the sound heightens the mood of unreality. Often the mix will put forward just one element of the sound--the traffic jam dream is silent but for Guido's breathing for instance--or the music from one scene will come in several seconds before the scene itself. Frequently in a conversation, the focus will be on the person not speaking--a fight between Guido and his wife Luisa, focused largely on their backs, comes to mind. At a few points, sound all but disappears. (Another element that worked with this is the fact that the dialogue frequently seemed out of sync with the mouth movement, but apparently that was a convention of Italian film in general that Tim can explain far better than I.) It's this manipulation of an element we take for granted that for me is the most fascinating way the film plays with the boundaries of reality.

As for the acting, four performers stand out. The first is Sandra Milo, as Guido's mistress, Carla. She's vulgar and shallow, yes, but genuinely touching by the end--a real, good woman, who deserves better. Claudia Cardinale, as movie star Claudia, could just sit there being beautiful and do just fine--she's a stunning woman. But she also brings a reserved intelligence and grace that make the character a fascinating foil to Guido's abstraction. And Anouk Aimée as Luisa is magnetic--her slow-burning fury at Guido's constant lies and betrayal is very moving, and she's one of the few able to break through his determinedly cool exterior.

Marcello Mastroianni, as Guido, has of course the largest and most difficult role: this is a man who doesn't know what or who he wants, genuinely cares for the women in his life even as he hurts them, and never really lets anyone see what's inside him. Mastroianni does a masterful job of holding back what's inside, only showing us flashes of what's boiling underneath. Making such a passive and indecisive character so interesting to watch, without ever making him particularly likable, is quite an achievement. Also, though he has a reputation as a sex symbol, I was quite impressed by how unglamorous the role was--Mastroianni seemed more harried and stressed than anything else.

The themes? Well that's rather larger than I really care to tackle, or even feel equipped to. The inability of men to grow and make up their minds is certainly central, lest you think that Judd Apatow invented it. The influence of the Catholic Church is also central. I'm not sure what the giant scaffolding and spaceship were meant to represent, aside from the huge cost of Guido's fecklessness. And as for what actually happens at the end...I'm not foolish enough to claim to know. It's utterly fascinating to watch, though. And am I off base to see an echo of the end of The Seventh Seal (one of the few other mid-century foreign classics I've actually seen) in the dancers all holding hands?

Those are a few thoughts, and I'm sure I'll have more as I think about it. Any reactions to them?

Thanks for having me, Zev. And thanks to your readers for being patient while we take a look at some cinema, and not Chicago theatre.

Beginning with one of the last things you brought up, which is the theme of the movie: one of the key elements about the film and the reason that so many movie people like it (everyone I've ever known who completely adores the movie is or was or wishes to be in film production), is that 8½ is a movie about filmmaking as a mental process, like virtually nothing else in history. You didn't mention, so perhaps you don't know, but the title refers explicitly to the film's place in Fellini's career: he had directed six features, co-directed a feature and contributed two shorts to anthology films, so counting these latter three projects as one-half each, this was his eighth-and-a-half movie as director.

The story of the movie is exactly the story of how it was produced: Fellini was trying to put together a big-budget epic without having the slightest idea what he story he wanted to tell, and he was getting increasingly lost at sea; so to work out his problems, he wrote the story of a film director who had a costly epic and no idea what plot he was spending so much money on. It is often noted that the movie Guido can't make is the movie that Fellini makes for him: all the events that Guido merely thinks about, Fellini successfully dramatizes.

I like to think of this as the exploration of a creative mind forced to think about any number of distracting things outside of the creative process, and the frustration that it brings. All Guido wants to do is to make a movie, but the producers, his woman troubles, the pressure of the church, any number of things keep jockeying for his attention, and he's only able to fantasize about the kind of movie he wants to make - and thus the surrealism you point out. The reason that the film keeps drifting from pretty straightforward realism to more archly stylised moments is because the only thing that Guido can do to keep himself from going completely mad is to imagine how this or that particular moment in his real life might be turned into a cinematic moment. Most of the movie, I think, takes place inside his head; at any rate, there is literally not a single shot that isn't ultimately from his perspective. I think you're correct to note that Milo (Fellini's real-life mistress!) and Aimée give sensitive performances that flesh out their characters, but I don't think that Guido or Fellini especially cares that they do; to the director (either one), they are just objects in the grand cinematic project of one man's life. The great understanding that Guido comes to at the end is when he realises that his wife is actually a human being who can contribute something of value to his life, and not just an obstacle to his moviemaking.

And yet, the way I read the final scene is that Guido/Fellini, having realised that his life is full of people and not characters, still can't give up the essential need to direct every aspect of his life and every person he knows (and as a sometime film director, I can vouch that one of the most irritating things is that you can't yell "cut!" and have everyone around you do just what you want in reality). He is, after all, directing every single person we see him interact with over the course of the movie in one grand spectacle, completely under his command. Still, at the very end, he steps into that ring of people, perhaps finally acknowledging that he's just one of them. It's both an arrogant and a humble moment, and probably the part of the movie that speaks the most to me as a filmmaker. Does it echo The Seventh Seal? Maybe: both films use dance as a metaphor for life, and they do it in a similar visual way. But I doubt that Fellini was consciously pinching from Bergman.

A quick historical note: you are correct that 8½ lacks the grotesques that Fellini is famous for; this was actually his transitional film from the neo-realism that he was trained in, to the most fantastic, imaginative tableaux of Juliet of the Spirits, Satyricon, and Amarcord. He'd already begun that process with his previous feature, La Dolce Vita, but it was only here, in a film about the creative mind's desire to break free of realistic constraints, that he began to indulge himself. Whether that's a good thing or not, is hard to say - for every moment in Satyricon that works, two don't.

As for the peculiar use of non-synced sound, that's just a convention of Italian cinema: the famous Cinecittà studio where nearly everyone in the Italian industry learned their trade used to be right next to an airbase, so it became the standard practice to record visuals and then overdub the audio later, even years after it was no longer a practical necessity. Some filmmakers, and Fellini was a notable example, didn't even have a script written: he just had the actors move their mouths, and then wrote lines for them to read later on. Obviously there are a lot of ways that this has an impact on the finished product, but it doesn't do to read too much into it; it's the same in just about every single Italian movie made into the mid-1980s.

Check back later today for the rest of the discussion, and some time next week for thoughts on Yeston's musical!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Blog Exclusive Review: The Addams Family

Creepy? Kooky? Ooky? Check, Check, Check.

Red velvet curtains and an overture? Check. Dark but gorgeous sets and costumes? Check. Whimsical use of torture instruments? Check. Nathan Lane being funny (with a Spanish accent) and Bebe Neuwirth dancing sexily (in that low-cut dress)? Check and check.

The Addams Family, the new adaptation of Charles Addams' famed cartoons that opened its pre-Broadway engagement at the Oriental last night, is pretty much exactly what you'd expect a musical version of The Addams Family to be like. But what's wrong with crowd-pleasing? The tuneful, gorgeously-produced show certainly has its flaws, but it's hard to think of them while the show's going on--you're likely to be too busy enjoying yourself.

The story is not based on the television series or either of the movies, instead putting the characters in a new story: Wednesday (Krysta Rodriguez) has turned 18 and fallen in love with Lucas Beineke (Wesley Taylor). Morticia (Neuwirth) and Gomez (Lane) decides to invite Wesley and his parents, conservative Ohioans Mal and Alice (Terrence Mann and Carolee Carmello) for dinner, and of course revelations are made and lessons learned.

The plot outline is familiar, and bookwriters Marshall Brickman and Jim Elice don't do much new with it. But the evening's pleasure's are not in the story--indeed, it's tough to feel much emotional investment in the plot at all--but in song, performances, and sheer spectacle.

Andrew Lippa, until now best known for writing Off-Broadway's The Wild Party, has created a tuneful score in a variety of styles, from flamenco to Tin Pan Alley. It's stronger in the uptempo numbers than in the ballads, and none of the songs jump out as classics on first listen, but it's plenty of fun, and gives the cast some great opportunities to show off.

And what a talent-stacked cast! Lane and Neuwirth are the above-the-title stars, and both are quite delightful. Lane finds the tricky balance between his customary persona and Gomez' stereotypical Spanish romanticism, and swordfights with great aplomb. He's funny without slipping into self-indulgence. And Neuwirth, who looks smashing in that iconic dress, oozes sexiness--and her character's own self-regard--and when she gets the chance to dance, you can't look away. Carmello and Mann are both able to let their gorgeous voices out--Carmello's breakdown at the end of the first act is particularly amazing. Rodriguez also showcases a powerful voice and electric personality, and Jackie Hoffman as Grandma, though criminally underused, is downright hilarious.

The design is, in a word, stunning. Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch, co-directors and co-designers of the sets and costumes, have created a gorgeous world. The scale is huge--you can definitely see the budget onstage--but every one of the amazing scenic effects feels utterly necessary and organic. As a result, the Addams house and surrounding areas feel like another character in the play. It's beautiful to behold.

Not everything onstage works: I've already mentioned the fact that it's hard to get emotionally involved in the play, which makes the would-be serious moments rather dull. There are two other tonal elements that feel jarring: the family is quite aware of how strange they seem to outsiders, and their home has been place in New York (the middle of Central Park, in fact). Both just feel strange--part of the charm in previous versions of these characters has been their utter lack of self-awareness, and placing them so clearly in contemporary New York just doesn't feel right. The character of Uncle Fester (Kevin Chamberlin) is also a serious issue--he has almost no part in the main plot, serving more as a commenter, and his own arc, about the love affair with the moon (don't ask), is at best distracting and at worst annoying. Chamberlin does admirable work, and much of the material is strong, but the character currently feels unnecessary, and that's a big problem.

There are other quibbles to pick, but it's already a very entertaining show, and hopefully will only improve in the next month. Sure, there's nothing earth-shattering here--it's a conventional musical comedy. But when done with such flair, and replete with so many wonderful little details, what could give more pleasure?

The Addams Family runs through January 10th at the Ford Center Oriental Theatre, 24 W Randolph. TIckets, $28-105, are available at the box office or by calling 800-775-2000 or visiting

Monday, December 7, 2009

Fugard Chicago

Thanks to Benno for pointing this one out: TimeLine, Remy Bumppo, and Court are all producing plays by the great South African playwright Athol Fugard in the spring ('Master Harold'...And The Boys, The Island, and Sizwe Banzi Is Dead, respectively), and have decided to package the three productions together. They've created a website with information on the plays, links to the websites, and the ability to buy a pass. Impressively, the pass itself costs only $75 for admission to all three plays. Given the price ranges for individual tickets at the theatres, this is a fantastic deal--especially because from what I've been able to tell from the website, there are no date restrictions. (By my quick calculations, you could easily save over $50.)

I'm certainly going to try to see all three, either as press or a civilian. I've never gotten to see Fugard's work onstage (I've read a couple), and am really looking forward to the chance to get a perspective on one of the most important playwrights working today--not to mention one of the best.

And I particularly want this to succeed because this kind of thing is what more theatres should be doing.  As of now, the Rogers Park Flex Pass is one of the only other things like this out there. But bring on packages based on theme, author, or geography. (I'm looking at you, Theater Wit and Theatre Building Chicago.) It helps get people into the habit of theatregoing, and engages them with theatres outside of their standbys, not to mention making Chicago shows into events. So best of luck to Fugard Chicago 2010, and here's hoping you inspired imitators galore.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Blog Exclusive Review: Madam Barker's Holiday Variety Show

Coming to Your Town to Kick Your Ass

Apparently the next and final performance of Madam Barker's Holiday Variety Show is sold out. So consider this an advisory for the next time Madam Barker (the hugely entertaining creation of Molly Brennan) does a cabaret or variety show. And that advisory is: do your best to get seats. The show isn't perfect, but there were enough moments of inspired hilarity to make it more than worth a trip. And I suggest you follow my example and get a drink beforehand.  The show doesn't need scotch, but it sure doesn't hurt.

The show is exactly what the title promises: Madam Barker, a boozy, narcissistic entertainer, sings John Fournier's songs (backed up by the alluring and seedy Barker Dames) and introduces various other acts.

Barker herself is as magnetic a character as ever--assuming you aren't offended by crudely sexual humor. Singing Fournier's tuneful and funny songs ("My Love Will Kick Your Ass" and the introductory number will be released as singles soon), flirting with audience members, or knocking back shots, she's funny with a distinct edge of danger. When she has the stage, you never quite know what will come next.

The show's main issue is in its essential nature: while many of the other acts are quite good, none are quite as funny or scary as the Barker segments (with one exception we'll get to shortly).  As a result, as the show goes on the temperature decreases slightly. It ends up genial, almost warm and fuzzy. It's never less than entertaining to watch, but I missed the edge.

But the show comes roaring back for a fantastic finish: Rick Bayless, the local chef renowned for his trio of Mexican restaurants and his appearances on Bravo's "Top Chef," made guacamole. This in and of itself would have been entertaining, but he was joined by Shank (Paul Kalina) and Bruce (Adrian Danzig), who form the group 500 Clown along with Brennan. Bayless is an excellent straight man (even when appearing in boxers and undershirt), and the clowns make merry hell of the process. It's hard to explain what they do, but when Bayless is sitting on Shank's shoulders, chopping onions on a cutting board balanced on Bruce's head, it doesn't much matter. It's sheer lunacy. (And the guacamole was delicious too.)

So if you have a seat reserved, Mazel Tov. And if not, hope she has another cabaret or solo show--and hopefully in a larger venue. Even if Bayless doesn't return, it's a great party.

Madam Barker's Holiday Variety Show plays Friday, December 11th at 11 PM the Prop Thtr, 3502 N Elston. Information at

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Exclusive Interview! Molly Brennan!

Okay, enough of the Broadway news from my two previous posts. Time for something unmistakably Chicago.

As has been well established, I'm a fan of the work of the troupe 500 Clown and particularly Molly Brennan, who created the character of Madam Barker for 500 Clown and the Elephant Deal and inhabited Harpo Marx in the Goodman's Animal Crackers. Well Madam Barker is back in The Madam Barker Holiday Variety Show, which has two more performances, this Friday, December 4th (which I'll be attending, with review to follow), and next Friday, December 11th, at Prop Thtr, 3502 N. Elston. Showtime is 11 PM. Among the many special guests will be Top Chef Rick Bayless, making guacamole with the group. You can get tickets here. But do it fast--they are flying off the metaphorical shelves.

I recently exchanged some emails with Brennan, and here's the interview that resulted. You can only see this here, folks; tell your friends!

First off, for those not familiar with her, can you explain who Madam Barker is?

Madam Barker is an aging singer who was never a star, with a love for a live paying audience, a passion for dirty glamor, and a thirst for the apocalypse. She was originally based on the Widow Begbick from Brecht's Mann ist Mann. When 500 Clown was developing 500 Clown and the Elephant Deal, John Fournier, the songwriter and co creator for the project, came up with the name "Madam Barker". She moved from being a secondary character in the piece to the mc of the piece, and enjoyed toying with the clowns in the Chicago premier of 500 Clown and the Elephant Deal at Steppenwolf in the Summer of 2009.

Has she ever appeared without the rest of 500 Clown? Why is she on her own this time?

Madam Barker and John Fournier have hosted their own show twice before this little run: Madam Barker's Cabaret and Madam Barker's Cabaret II: Have a Drink on Me at Prop. These shows served the purpose of me figuring out how to be the authority in 500 Clown. I needed to learn about hosting a real variety show before I could host a show gone wrong. With 500 Clown Macbeth and 500 Clown Frankenstein, there is a text to which I can refer. I have to know the actual thing before any kind of useful deconstruction can happen. In knowing how a variety show can work, I can examine what the stakes are, and what is interesting when it DOESN'T work.

We had such a GREAT time doing those shows and the Elephant Deal, that John and I just wanted to keep working together. 500 Clown and the Elephant Deal is a big, expensive show, and hard to just put up for fun. But the Madam Barker Show can happen in a tiny space with just me in my hat and John with a piano and a bunch of my friends, including 500 Clown, performing awesome variety acts.

In developing The Elephant Deal, we discovered Madam Barker isn't a Clown. She's a character. She is smarter, driven by results, has more authority, and because of these things, has more limits than a clown. But she can exist outside a 500 Clown show in a way that "Kevin", my Clown, doesn't seem able. Kevin exists in connection to the other clowns onstage. She is defined by her relationship to them and the actions they are performing. Madam Barker sings her songs and makes her jokes and changes her outfits, and as shit falls apart, she is not as flexible or resilient as Kevin. Her sense of play is less chaotic. She's eccentric, she's certainly not human, but she's not Clown.

How much of what you’re singing has been in previous shows? How much is original?

In this version, the Madam Barker Holiday Variety Show, one song was written for 500 Clown Christmas, 3 were written for Elephant Deal, and one was written for the Madam Barker Show, and the other 3 are from John's catalogue, which, by the way, is massive. So half are from 500 Clown Shows.

And, by the way, "My Love Will Kick Your Ass" and the "Madam Barker Theme Song" will be available as singles before Christmas! Hooray!

Are there any special guests?


Chef Rick Bayless and 500 Clown
Actor Noah Simon
The Galaxie Girls (dancing!)
The Barker Dames (my backup gals)
Jessica Hudson as Mr. Cellophane (burlesque)
Donnell Williams as Ventrilla Kiss (also burlesque)
Tim Simeone and Jeff Trainor (Physical Comics)

What can we expect from the evening?

Entertainment, not art.
Hot chicks, funny guys and gals, Bayless guacamole, free stuff and me singing some great songs by Mr. Fournier.

The last show you did was Animal Crackers, where most of the material was written in 1928. How was that experience different from your original pieces? Do you plan to get back to theatre scripted by other people any time soon?

I will be performing in TWO pieces scripted by other people: Oklahomo for the Holidays with About Face Dec 11-14 and Lookingglass Alice with Lookingglass Theatre on tour this winter and spring, and back in Chicago in the summer.

In terms of working with the Animal Crackers script, I had all actions, no lines, like we do with 500, so that wasn't so strange to me. But I was also playing a guy who actually existed, so finding a balance between me playing the character and me mimicking stuff the real Harpo did was a challenge. Paul Kalina, also of 500 Clown, was the Clown Director, and he helped Jonathan Brody (Chico) and me with a lot of our "dialogue" and bits. So, again, there was some familiarity there. Paul has been my performance partner for 10 years, and he's one of my greatest friends, so being able to work in that comfort zone was a blessing.

The crazy thing about working at the Goodman after all the clown and avant garde stuff I've done was how BIG everything is there. I felt I had a true Harpo experience...I was this clown in this super fancy place. And I couldn't quite figure out why I was there...but I had a fucking BLAST.

What would Madame Barker say if we asked why we should come?

Because I love you. You're my favorite. And I'm broke. I used to work at the Goodman. THE GOODMAN!

Monday, November 30, 2009

Inferior Box Office

As has been widely reported, the producers of Tracy Letts' Superior Donuts have announced that it will be closing on January 3rd. This is not a huge surprise: the week of November 16-22 saw only 43.9% of the seats filled (more detailed information here). While the grosses may have been higher Thanksgiving weekend, and may continue to pick up at the end of the year when everyone's grosses rise, January is historically the worst month for Broadway, and it's unlikely they could have made it until things picked up in the spring. Still, it's quite a shame. One would hope that the success of August: Osage County would have made Tracy Letts into enough of a name to sell a play, but apparently that hasn't quite happened. The show got generally positive reviews, but not the ecstasies that August inspired, and that combined with the lack of stars were probably enough to do it in. It's a real shame. It's a lovely play that was being given an excellent, very well-acted production. Hopefully it will still see a regional afterlife, and the cast and designers will all get career boosts. We can dream.

One Hand Clapping

Those who know me that I'm ambivalent about Martin McDonagh-- on the one hand I think that his dialogue is brilliant, his plots wonderfully constructed, and his ability to take and audience on a thrill ride pretty awesome, but on the other, I think that it can all be a bit facile, nearly always is mean-spirited, and frequently wonder what the point is, after all the carnage. (I also may be one of the few who find The Pillowman one of his weaker works, but I've never seen it staged.) However, I'm very excited about this.

For those who didn't follow the link, it announces the cast for his new play, A Behanding in Spokane, to be produced on Broadway in the spring. The play is his first to be set in the US (presumably Spokane, WA), and his first to debut in Broadway. The cast will include eccentric screen actor Sam Rockwell and rising stage stars Anthony Mackie and Zoe Kazan, but the real news is the fourth cast member: Christopher Walken. Yes, Christopher Walken, playing a handless man, in a world premiere Martin McDonagh play. That's just really damn cool, and has put the play way higher on the list of the things I wish I could see. And I imagine all the kids who think that Martin McDonagh is the greatest playwright ever have suffered strokes by now. I have no idea if the play will work (what does McDonagh know about the Pacific Northwest, for instance?), but I'd sure love to find out for myself.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

New Review Posted: The Mystery of Irma Vep

Centerstage has posted my rave review of Sean Graney's production of Charles Ludlam's The Mystery of Irma Vep at the Court. A few things there wasn't space to say in the review (curse you, 300 words!):

--The script has been described as a "cult classic" or a "camp classic." The hell with that. Drop the modifiers, this is a classic, full stop. It certainly makes use of camp (see cross-dressing, references to old movies, many jokes with gay content), and Ludlam's admirers can be cultish, but the play makes use of and transcends those elements. It's more than a stunt, it's an exceptional work of theatre.

--How does this show play to a straight audience? It seems to bound up in camp, crossdressing, and gay culture--and my response to it was so connected to my own identity--that I am fascinated how it works for people who don't fall into that category. Sort of like how I can't imagine what the experience of reading Philip Roth is for non-Jews. Anyone care to share their experience?

--The press notes indicated that the stipulation in the rights is that the two performers have to be the same gender, but nothing about that gender being male. I would love to see a production with two women in the parts.

--If I had more money, I'd seriously consider going back to see it again. I might try to figure it out anyway. And I hope that it does well enough they add a week--it is currently scheduled to close on December 13th!

--Wow Sean Graney works a lot. Frankenstein was just a month ago, and what a stirring rebound from that unsuccessful piece. Hopefully he'll continue at this level, and Court will ask him back again.

--Some of you  may find my response hyperbolic. To those people I say: So what? Get your own blog. I'm allowed to cream my jeans for truly extraordinary theatre once in a while.

Here's the text of the review:
The funniest upholstery of the season has been found: a black and white damask that keeps popping up in "The Mystery of Irma Vep," to increasingly riotous effect. And when even the cloth is hilarious, you know that something is going right.

Director Sean Graney and actors Chris Sullivan and Erik Hellman, along with the exceptional design team and a superheroic stage crew, have achieved something remarkable: broad, exaggerated comedy that doesn't feel slapdash. And it's the right thing for Charles Ludlam's play. The script is a dizzying series of quick changes, extremely dirty jokes and unabashed silliness, and either subtlety or sloppiness would be deadly.

The play has two men playing all of the characters, men and women, in a demented parody of gothic novels, among many other sources. The plot is far too ridiculous to summarize, but it centers on the mysterious doings at the English manor Mandacrest. A werewolf, a mummy and a vampire figure in the plot, along with several helpings of dark secrets.

But plot construction isn't the point: it's the glorious cascade of characters, costumes and jokes. Graney and company understand that what makes this play great is its exuberant theatricality, and they play it to the hilt. The actors create extraordinarily detailed performances, combining stunning vocal and physical control with an outsize joy in putting on a show. The designs work together seamlessly, though special credit must be given to Alison Siple's deranged costumes. And the crew richly deserves the bow it gets at the end for the impossible things that it makes look easy.

But it's Graney, again proving himself one of Chicago's essential directors, who marshals the theatrical forces at his disposal. It's an extraordinary display of both craft and love — and I haven’t laughed so hard in a long time.

Monday, November 23, 2009

New Review Posted: Rewind

Centerstage just posted my new review of Rewind at the side project. Here's the text:

Music is very different from the music business — indeed the art of music itself is almost incidental to the maneuvering, betrayal and commercialism involved in getting it recorded and sold. The biggest problem with Laura Eason's "Rewind" is that until the last few scenes, the excitement of making and hearing music is barely a factor, subordinated to a rather joyless tale of betrayal and hurt feelings. Though the setting — Chicago's indie scene in the '80s and '90s — is rarely portrayed onstage, the play's plot points are familiar. But without a sense of why the characters keep making music instead of leaving for a less brutal field, the evening becomes a rather dreary trip down a road we've all traveled before.

The play, whose 17 scenes go backwards from 1998 to 1981, opens with Noah (Zack Buell) and Elisha (Cyd Blakewell) finding the body of their former friend and bandmate, the brilliant guitarist Jim (Chip Davis). As the show goes on, we see the events that got them to that sad place.

There are some really interesting ideas in play, including what it's like to be in the orbit of a genius, the compromises made on the way to success, and the toxic combination of personal and professional grievances. And some scenes in the early sections are quite strong; a fight backstage at a concert is riveting. (Director Anna C. Bahow stages the show dynamically throughout, and has a keen eye for how to use the side project's tiny space.) But after a few scenes, the contour of the plot is obvious, and there are few surprises. It's a shame, because Eason has a real skill for dialogue, and the play has the potential to be genuinely moving. But without any changes in tone or surprises in plot, the unrelieved unhappiness comes off as dull instead.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

New Review Posted: Democracy

Centerstage has my review of the new Eclipse Theatre production of Romulus Linney's Democracy up. It sadly ended up a demonstration of the dangers of adapting novels to the stage. Very sad, because the genuinely good stuff onstage couldn't make up for the weaknesses. Ah well. Text is here:

Adapting one novel to the stage is quite difficult: it's a fine art to decide which plot points to put in, remaining true to the original text without rushing through the story, not to mention dramatizing the characters' inner lives in a compellingly theatrical way. Romulus Linney only compounded the difficulty by basing his play, "Democracy," on two novels by Henry Adams: Democracy and Esther. The result shows the pitfalls of the form. Events rush by, and while there are many worthwhile moments along the way, nothing acquires the depth necessary to be engaging.

The play takes place in Washington, D.C. in the spring of 1875. Ulysses S. Grant (Ron Butts) is coming to the end of his disastrous presidency, and two young women are struggling with matters of love and politics. Mrs. Lee (Rebecca Prescott), a young widow, is trying to decide whether to marry Senator Silas Raitcliffe (Jon Steinhagen), while the independent-minded Esther Dudley (Nina O’Keefe) is mulling a similar proposal from Reverend Hazard (Stephen Dale). Unfortunately, each man has political beliefs and connections that the women loathe.

The play should be fascinating, but in trying to cover so much plot in only two hours, it feels like a sketch for a fuller piece. There's no time for events to register or characters to grow, so it's hard to get involved. Things do improve in the second act, but by then too much time has passed for the play to be as gripping as it should be.

Director Stephen Fedoruk and his cast do what they can, and there are some strong performances — Prescott and Steinhagen, having the better-written plot, turn in the most memorable work — but in addition to the flawed script, they are hobbled by a clumsy set and sloppily constructed costumes. There is excellent work being done in places, but it never coheres into a satisfying play.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

New Review Posted: 1985

Centerstage just posted my review of Factory Theatre's 1985, a mashup of Orwell's 1984 and the history of the year that the Bears won the Super Bowl. I have no interest in football (though I did appreciate the program's shout out to Clevelanders as the only sports fans with more reason to be miserable than Bears and Cubs fans), and it's been over a decade since I read Orwell's novel (and by the way, it's pretty intense for a seventh grader), but I still had fun. It's very funny, with some very strong, very broad acting, and despite some real flaws (mostly in the second act), worth a trip. Here's the text:

Rabid sports fans watching a game can often seem like brainwashed citizens in a dictatorship. The Chicago Bears won the Super Bowl in the 1985 season.

Individually these facts might seem unremarkable, but playwright Chas Vrba had the inspired idea of combining the history of the Bears' 1985 triumph with the plot of 1984, George Orwell's classic dystopian political fantasy. The result is "1985," a sharp and very funny new play that is both faithful to Orwell's novel and rewarding on its own terms.

Winston Smith (Vrba), a journalist, lives in the play's frightening version of Chicago, Bear Nation. He writes laudatory articles about the Bears and Cubs as instructed by his superior, O'Brien (Scott OKen), and knows that Papa Bear (the play's Big Brother stand-in) is always watching for traitors from The Resistance, seeking to undermine the integrity and resolve of Bear Nation. But he's getting discontented — the constant losing would get to anyone — and new arrival Julia (Laura McKenzie) is turning his head.

The script works both as a witty commentary on the novel and a feast of jokes and references for Chicago sports fans (I missed a fair number of them), but it's worthwhile even for those unfamiliar with either. The exceptional ensemble attacks their vividly written roles with gusto. It's a rare pleasure to see nine people, working in the broadest comic style, getting their own laughs without detracting from the play as a whole. Director Eric Roach deserves much credit for keeping them all on the same page.
The production certainly has its flaws; a seduction scene in the second act falls flat, and the last scenes don't pack the punch they should. But the premise is still brilliant, and the execution undeniably strong, making the show worth a trip — and not only for dispirited Bears fans.

Superior Coverage

The New York Times has published a very flattering profile of Jon Michael Hill, who plays Franco Wicks in Superior Donuts, newly open on Broadway after its successful run at Steppenwolf, with the whole Chicago cast intact. Hill was incandescent the first time around, and by all reports has gotten even better since. It's the sort of life story all young actors dream about (Steppenwolf ensemble member and acclaimed Broadway debut by the age of 24? Really?), and luckily Hill really has what it takes to make the best of the opportunity.

My only request is this: I know that this show will open up a lot of opportunities for Hill, and he'd be a fool not to take advantage of them, but please Jon, don't forget us in Chicago. You grew up here, this city gave you your big break, and we'd be pissed if you pulled a Sinise and abandoned us. Just saying. Be a pal?

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Dan Savage Interviews Frank Rich About Stephen Sondheim

This interview is three weeks old, and I somehow missed it when it came out, but it's entirely brilliant. One of my very favorite journalists interviews another about one of my favorite theatre artists. It's a beautiful thing, and you should read it right now.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Tony Kushner at Symphony Center

Tony Kushner, playwright of Angels in America, Caroline, or Change, Homebody/Kabul and others (though not nearly enough), won the Chicago Tribune Literary Prize, given out as part of this year's Chicago Humanities Festival. (Incidentally, he's the third playwright to receive the prize in its 20 years of being awarded, after Arthur Miller and August Wilson.) The presentation of this award took the form of an hour-long conversation between Kushner and Chris Jones, theatre critic at the Trib, at Symphony Center. (Jones' feature on Kushner which ran last week is here, and it's definitely worth a read. Their recap of the event can be found here)

Kushner is high on my list of favorite living playwrights (hell, he's high on my list of favorite paywrights, period), so I jumped at the chance to see him speak. Here are some thoughts from the speech.

1) An hour is not nearly enough time. As anyone who has seen one of his plays knows, he is not a spare writer--words cascade from the mouths of his characters, and the man himself is even more voluble. With such a short time, his responses seemed constrained. I would have loved to see him go on even bigger tangents.

2) Which is not to say he didn't have some great lines. At the start he mentioned his joy whenever "anything I've done succeeds in butch Chicago," especially as he's an "effete New Yorker." He was also capable of being much more serious, describing how in our interconnected world, "no part of the world isn't worth our attention"--and whenever we decide some country is, we're liable to regret it keenly. (The subject was Afghanistan, but the application is quite wide.)

3) Kushner definitely seems to have mellowed a bit. (By the way, how did he get to be 53? He's somehow become an elder statesman.) Perhaps married life agrees with him, but he didn't show quite the same appetite to offend that he used to have. However, Kushner still collowed his own advice from A Bright Room Called Day: "Overstatement is your friend. Use it." Anyone with even the slightest sympathy for the Republican Party would not enjoy his characterization of it today--essentially, that it has been reduced to a repository for "cranks...and Sarah Palin."

4) He also threw plenty of red meat to the left--in addition to his jabs at the Republican Party, he referred to the many morasses that President Obama received from "President Morass" and spoke of those who funded Prop 8 as "Pseudo-religious organizations like the Mormons and the Catholic Church." In addition to the humor, there was plenty of stirring rhetoric: again discussing Prop 8 and Question 1 in Maine, he reminded us that "it is unconstitutional to make a minority group earn its rights." That is to say--gays have the right to marry already, and it is the job of the government to recognize it. It may be a little cheap to say so many obvious applause lines to a mostly liberal group, but I don't care. It felt good.

5) He's thoroughly obsessed with Lincoln. He recently finished a screenplay on the last months of Lincoln's life for Steven Spielberg (the film will supposedly star Liam Neeson, filming has not been scheduled), and in addition to the first question being about Lincoln, he kept circling back to him. This may also be a factor in his mellowing--despite maintaining a Marxist ideology, he seems to have lost faith in revolution, and gained a belief that centrist priogressives are the most likely to achieve real progress.

6) He didn't talk much about theatre. Except for some brief advice for young playwrights (actually do the writing, rather than sitting with the play in your head, get work produced however you can, and don't read Shakespeare when you're writing, as it will only make you depressed), he didn't really discuss theatre much, focusing more on politics. Not surprising perhaps--based on the fact that the previous winners were Miller and Wilson, the prize is frequently given to those with a political perspective--but it would have been great to hear more of Kushner's thoughts on the state of theatre today and his own work. Ah well.

So it was short of being a transcendent talk, but hearing Kushner is always worthwhile. I just hope that whenever he comes by next, he'll have more time to do his thing. (And Court, when are you bringing back Caroline, or Change?)