Friday, June 25, 2010

Lots of Writing

So I've been a bit quiet on the blog recently, in part because a lot of my time has been going to acting in The Face of a Ruined Woman (See the new play by Mia McCullough! Two performances left, 6/27 at 7:30 PM and 7/3 at 2 PM! Call 773-883-8830 for tickets!), but partially because I've been doing a lot of outside writing. And now it's starting to get published, though one more review is still to come.

So first, and most exciting: I interviewed David Cromer about Cherrywood for the AV Club Chicago. You can read the interview here. Cromer's a fascinating man (though it proved rather difficult to track him down to talk), and I wish I'd gotten more time to speak with him. On the other hand, I had to cut at least 2/3 of our 20 minute conversation to get within the word count, so maybe it's for the best we spoke so briefly. Either way, I'm really proud of the piece. I wish it had gotten a response on the site, but hey, it's not too late to comment. Now I need to get my Cherrywood tickets...

By the way, if there's interest, I can share some interview outtakes.

Additionally, I've got two reviews up. (A third, for Lookingglass Alice is on the way.) These were shows I saw last Saturday and Sunday evenings:

First up was The Tallest Man at The Artistic Home. It was never boring, and there's real talent, but I found the extreme shifts in tone and focus to be extreme problems. I was confounded more than anything else. There's real talent involved, though, so I hope the next show works out better. Here's the text:

Jim Lynch, playwright of The Tallest Man, has a lot of stories to tell. Unfortunately, his new play tells all of them at once.

There’s "drunken Irishman" humor, warm-hearted satire, political commentary, bruising dysfunctional-family drama, deeply felt anguish, and a ghost story. And that’s all before the truly baffling deus ex machina ending. Sections work — some quite well — but overall, it is a confounding experience.

The play takes place in Tourmakeady, a small town in Ireland's County Mayo, in 1895. There are many challenges: Finbar (Shane Kenyon) wants to marry Katie (Marta Evans), but her mother (Miranda Zola) refuses because he is a tinker (an itinerant racial and social minority). Finbar and his cousin Frankie (Nick Horst), who is new to town and still mourning his parents, are trying to safeguard the home of Finbar’s mother (Darrelyn Marx). Everyone is trying to avoid the attention of Thaddeus Newcombe (Eamonn McDonagh), the new representative of the town's English overlord. Well, except for Tommy Joe (Frank Nall) and Johnny (Bill Boehler), who just care that the whiskey keeps flowing.

The problem is not that there are a lot of stories, it's that they all work at cross-purposes. When a plot twist out of an old melodrama butts up against an grief-stricken description of a father’s death, followed shortly by relatives exchanging blows like something out of Martin McDonagh, none of it has impact. Lynch has a real way with dialogue, and there are some appealing performances, notably Horst and Nall.

The designs, particularly Ellen Siedel's costumes, are attractive and effective (though the uncredited fight choreography is remarkably unconvincing). The show is rarely dull, but when every scene seems to have a new tone and narrative focus, it's nearly impossible to make sense of the experience, much less be emotionally involved.

The next night was Sweet and Hot: The Songs of Harold Arlen. I'm a huge fan of Arlen's music, so it was great to hear these songs live. He really was in a class by himself, both musically and emotionally, but so many of his songs are unfamiliar. (Also, a lot of people don't realize he wrote all of the songs he wrote--he doesn't have the same name recognition as Gershwin, Rodgers, or Porter.) Hearing them sung live and unamplified, up close, was enough to make this show fantastic for me. It had definite issues, outlined below, and it never really worked as theatre (attempts to give people characters and relationships just fell flat), but the songs are just so great, and sung so well, that I'm still very glad I went. However, please note: the dinner is $20, and, while good, is not worth it. I'd recommend getting dinner elsewhere first. And as I learned, it is not included for critics. Whoops. But otherwise, by all means go. Here's the text:

There are two kinds of people: those who already love Harold Arlen’s songs, and those who will when they hear them. Arlen incorporated the harmonies and emotions of the blues into the popular and stage music of the 1930s to the '50s to create musically gorgeous and emotionally vibrant songs. He's best known for "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," but his catalog is full of gems, famous and obscure. Theo Ubique's revue, conceived by Julianne Boyd, gives us three dozen, and it's a thrill to hear each glorious tune. The production has some flaws, but when it focuses on the songs, it's transporting.

The No Exit Cafe is an odd little cabaret space, best suited to the intimate solos and duets. Nearly every production number attempted by director Fred Anzevino and choreographer David Heimann falls flat. This is a shame, but it's still an ideal space to get close to a performer and really hear the song. (The entire show is blissfully unamplified.)

The cast's three women dominate the show. Stephanie Herman is the ideal ingenue, by turns effervescent and vulnerable, with a crystalline voice. Sarah Hayes is completely honest at every moment, enlivening both comic songs and ballads. And Bethany Thomas continues to prove herself a local treasure with her huge voice and magnetic presence: When she sings "Stormy Weather" and "The Man That Got Away," they stay sung. The men don't fare as well: While Eric Lindahl is utterly lovable (and vocally gorgeous), Eric Martin doesn't get much chance to distinguish himself and Kristofer Simmons' breathy voice and peculiar interpretations simply don't fit with the rest of the show.

But in the end, it's about the songs. And they are stunning. The show does right by them far more often than not, so it's more than worthwhile for Harold Arlen fans, current and soon to be.

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