The Vanishing

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goodman brigadoonOnce a long, long time ago (well, the 1940s and the 1950s) the word musical theater didn’t really mean a collection of jukebox hits that your parents listened to, or a musical version of either a Disney film or a gritty British movie with music written by pop culture icons. The dirty phrase “Andrew Lloyd Webber” was mercifully unknown.  During that time a musical meant a show with gorgeous, lush scores, transportive stories that can still at times stretch credulity, unabashed emotionalism that can border on the silly and campy.  Though American musical theater at its height was the last unapologetic bastion of feel-good escapism during the time when film and dramatic plays were moving towards heightened naturalism and raw portrayal of emotions, it still produced some of the most unforgettable music existing from the incomparable talents of Rodgers and Hart, then Hammerstein; Leonard Bernstein; Bock and Harnick, Lerner and Loewe.  So when I heard that the Goodman Theater was going to stage a revitalized, possibly re-envisioned take on Alan Jay Lerner’s and Frederick Loewe’s 1947 classic about a Scottish village that only appears once in a hundred years, I was intrigued but unconvinced. Can I, a 21st century musical theater queen ravenously brought up on a diet of realistic Sondheim, literary Boublil and Schoenberg,  grounded Ahrens and Flaherty, cerebral Guettel, with pop-music drizzles from Elton John and Cyndi Lauper, actually like a show with a story as incredible as this? Plus I wasn’t a fan of Gene Kelly’s stilted film version (the elegant, aristocratic Cyd Charisse is about as believable as an 18th century Scottish peasant maid as Matt Bomer is as my massage therapist…I mean really?). But as I’ve said so many times on this blog over the years, I love going to the theater and becoming inexplicably, memorably astounded. Brigadoon, marking the significant Goodman debut of Rachel Rockwell, one of Chicago’s most talented theater directors, is enthralling, superb, inarguably enjoyable, lingering with you days after you see it, setting a high bar for musical theater in Chicago and regional theaters as a whole.

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Starry Night

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victory gardens death and the maidenWith the number of nationally-anticipated/written-up/reviewed theater productions this summer in Chicago, you’d expect there to be more people coming into town to see a show than to go eat a turkey leg at the Taste of Chicago. Broadway in Chicago has the world premiere of Sting’s first foray into musical theater, The Last Ship, set to transfer to New York this fall. Over at Steppenwolf,  Michael  Cera, a major name for the millennial audiences that arts organizations covet, is headlining another production scheduled for a Broadway run in the fall, Kenneth Lonergan’s This is Our Youth. At the Goodman, a major revival of Brigadoon, with a revised book and the active collaboration of Alan Jay Lerner’s daughter Lisa, is running.  And at Victory Gardens Theater, a revival of Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden stars Sandra Oh in her first project after her celebrated though much-lamented departure from the TV hit Grey’s Anatomy. As an Asian theatergoer this production is probably the most notable for me since it gives me an opportunity to see in live performance the most successful Asian actor of my generation.  And Oh, riveting and emotionally committed, doesn’t disappoint, powerfully anchoring a play that has so many internal logic questions that the audience’s ability to suspend disbelief, so integral in good theater, is continuously challenged throughout the ninety minute running time.

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Singing and Dancing

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new colony orville and wilbur did itIt’s been another hectic theatergoing weekend. Despite the maddening fluctuations of Chicago not-yet summer weather (alternating hot weather and thunderstorms), audiences continue to flock to the city’s bountiful stage offerings. Here are my thoughts on two plays I saw over the weekend:  The New Colony’s enjoyably confounding Orville and Wilbur Did It! and Kokandy Productions’ just confounding Assassins.

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Freaks and Geeks

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kennedy center side showFor hard-core musical theater queens there are few shows that have the  same mesmerizing cult status pull as that of Side Show,  Harry Krieger’s and Bill Russell’s (of Dreamgirls fame) 1997 musical about real-life conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton who rose from circus attractions to movie stars (in Tod Browning’s infamous film Freaks). Side Show flopped on Broadway, closing after 91 performances, but its dazzling soundtrack full of loneliness and alienation, and the heartbreakingly gorgeous voices of its original stars Emily Skinner and Alice Ripley (who were co-nominated for the Tony Award for Best Actress) lived on in many a theatre gay’s CD player through the 2000s.  Side Show’s legendary glow has also been deepened by the fact that not many people have actually seen it performed since regional and community theater stagings have been few and far between (really, if you are taking your Ethel Merman-loving, West Side Story-belting mom and grandma to see a musical, I’m sure one about conjoined twins wouldn’t be your first, or even tenth, choice). Although I’m familiar with the soundtrack, I missed the acclaimed Chicago production several years back. So when I heard Bill Condon, who directed the film version of Dreamgirls (which I liked a lot) and was Oscar-nominated for his screenplay of Chicago was going to direct a re-imagined, re-written revival of Side Show in collaboration with Krieger and Russell for the Kennedy Center, I was buying a plane ticket to Washington DC faster than you can say “Jennifer Hudson.”   So last weekend I was at the first performance of this new Side Show, together with a whole army of musical gays, and boy was it quite the memorable evening. Bill Condon’s take on Side Show is sad and luminous, cinematic yet theatrical, entertaining, exhilarating, big-hearted.  My fervent readers know I rarely say this given my ambivalence about Broadway as a representative of American theater, but this play deserves, no demands, to be seen back on the Main Stem by audiences who ignored it the first time around.

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First Look

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exit strategy jackalopeChicago theater audiences are a lucky bunch. With the abundance of world premieres in this city, we are almost always able to say, “Yep, I saw that first.”  The Chicago Tribune just reported that Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer-prize winning Disgraced, which premiered in a much-admired Chicago production in 2012, will bow on Broadway this fall directed by its Chicago director, Kimberly Senior.  One of the things to remember though about seeing world premieres almost on a weekly basis is that some of them are going to be very, very good, and many of them will, to put it lightly, need further revisions.  Here are my thoughts on two world premiere productions currently playing in Chicago.

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Blood Bath

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bailiwick carrie the musicalEvery musical theater queen worth his or her salt talk about the dubiously legendary Carrie: The Musical in reverentially snarky tones usually reserved for mausoleums of dictators’ wives.  It is of course notable for being the centerpiece case study of Ken Mandelbaum’s 1992 best-seller about Broadway musical flops  entitled well Not Since Carrie:  40 Years of Broadway Musical Flops, and because of this has acquired the reputation of being the worst Broadway musical of all time.  The 1988 Broadway production ran only for five regular performances, lost millions of dollars, and received some of the cruelest, bitchiest reviews ever written (New York Times theater critic Frank Rich said by its last scene, “Carrie expires with fireworks like the Hindenburg.” Ouch!).  It seemed like creators Michael Gore (music), Dean Pitchford (lyrics), and Lawrence D. Cohen (book) were so traumatized by the experience that they didn’t approve the licensing of any Carrie: The Musical production for almost 25 years. In 2012, they came up with a re-written and re-arranged version which received, from all accounts, a pretty earnest off-Broadway staging. It is this version of Carrie: The Musical that Bailiwick Chicago is presenting in an enjoyable, audience-friendly production which still doesn’t  mask the superficiality of the playwriting and the tedious, pedestrian quality of the music-writing.  Kudos to Bailiwick Chicago, though, because given this play’s reputation it takes some king-sized balls to stage Carrie: The Musical and not be laughed out of town.

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