2010 Jeff Awards for Equity Theater

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If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you’d recall how a couple of years ago, I called into question the existence of a Jeff Awards for excellence in Chicago theater that ignored shows and performances that could be described as “brazen, risk-taking, intellectual, original, rockingly-fresh”.  As a passionate and informed Chicago theater-goer, the Jeff Awards were about as relevant to me as a swim clinic was to Michael Phelps.  I never felt that these awards consistently and impactfully honored the theater that passionate and informed Chicago theater-goers also embraced.   Well, until today.  I was so pleased to read the nominations for this year’s Equity wing awards that I nearly broke into a showtune in the middle of my three-hour conference call on defining HR system fields (yep, I live such a glamorous life!).  I was especially thrilled that, after many, many years of being ignored, TUTA Theater Chicago, where I am currently a board member, was recognized for the flawless ensemble of  Bertolt Brecht’s The Wedding.  I was also excited that truly great Chicago productions of the past season, productions that could tower over any production in  other theater capitals like New York City and London, such as Steppenwolf’s landmark, urgently resonant The Brother/Sister Plays, Victory Garden’s should-have-won-the-Pulitzer-masterpiece The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, Court Theatre’s powerful Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and hilarious The Mystery of Irma Vep (with a special shout-out to the Best Actor nominations of its quick-changing, multiple-character playing lead actors, the priceless Chris Sullivan and Erik Hellmann), and Writer’s Theatre’s brilliant, nearly-definitive, David Cromer-helmed A Streetcar Named Desire, received well-deserved multiple nominations.   Of course, the Jeff Awards wouldn’t be the Jeff Awards without any gasp-inducing oversights, and this year, the single, biggest, almost-criminal omission is that of Matt Hawkins’  fresh, inspired, little boy toughie take on Stanley Kowalski for Cromer’s Streetcar, a performance that metaphorically blew me out of the Glencoe theater and deposited me somewhere northwest of the train tracks by Writer’s, a performance so brilliant, the New York Times’ resident curmudgeon, Charles Isherwood, was slobbering all over it in a front-page review that was carried by both the New York and National editions of the paper.  I guess Isherwood and Francis Sadac wouldn’t cut it as Jeff voters this year.

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Tricking Dick

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I made plans several times to catch Peter Morgan’s Frost/Nixon during its critically-lauded Broadway run a couple of years ago, but, as it happens with some of my best-laid theater plans, they get thwarted by other, more pressing things (hmmm..such as, my real job?!).  I had heard and read rave after rave of the play, and of the iconic performances of Frank Langella as Richard Nixon and Michael Sheen as David Frost, so I was quite disappointed that I found the Academy Award-nominated film version with Langella and Sheen re-creating their stage roles to be unexciting and middle-of-the-road (with a pretty unappetizing visual palette of browns and grays, to boot).  I must think, then, that Ron Howard, the film’s director, is to blame for the dulling of Morgan’s incisive, exciting, gut-sockingly contemporary writing.  For as TimeLine Theatre Company is demonstrating in its dazzling, triumphant, impactful Chicago premiere, directed by Lou Conte in a striking CNN-by-way-of-Sidney-Lumet fashion, Frost/Nixon, the play makes very powerful points about the delusions and self-aggrandizement of public figures, the addictiveness of both fame and notoriety, the role of media in shaping, informing, and distorting perceptions, points that are strongly resonant in our 21st century with the proliferation of latter-day Frosts and Nixons (Katie Couric exposing Sarah Palin’s foreign policy, and overall ignorance in an interview during the 2008 elections comes to mind) brought about by an unforgiving 24/7 news cycle and diverse media platforms, on the one hand, and bolder, more unrestrained actions of public figures, on the other.  Timeline’s Frost/Nixon is, simply, one of the best theatrical productions you can see in Chicago this year; and if you’re not spending your money on getting a ticket to see this show, consider yourself shunned from reading this blog.

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Here and There

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I’m not really ready to let the summer go just yet (although I could definitely live without the sweat baths I take nearly every week while interminably waiting in the ORD taxi line to get home on travel-frenzied Thursday late nights).  But I’ve already began to plan my theater schedule for the upcoming six to eight weeks as Chicago theater companies unveil their fall seasons; I’m also taking several trips during this time period to see some of the more hotly-anticipated productions in other theater-mad cities like ours.  My plate will be quite full, but what a satisfying, bountiful harvest it will contain!

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Isn’t It Rich?

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When I saw Catherine Zeta-Jones screech through “Send In the Clowns” during the Tony Awards telecast, looking and sounding like she just escaped from Nurse Ratched’s ward, I felt relieved I didn’t shell out those 110 buckaroos for a ticket to the first-ever Broadway revival of Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music.  But, almost miraculously, that same week of CZJ’s Tony fiasco, just like a pink ribbon-festooned thunderbolt from the big musical theater palace in the sky, Night Music’s producers announced that Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch, musical theater legends and consummate Sondheim interpreters, would replace CZJ and Angela Lansbury as the actress Desiree Armfeldt and her mother for the rest of the run (well, until November 2010).  The shriek that emanated from my loft upon reading the news was something that would not have been out of place in Nurse Ratched’s ward, for sure.  I absolutely had to see this production – the ultimate musical theater aficionado fantasia; Peters and Stritch performing Sondheim together is the Broadway musical equivalent of a foie gras-white truffles-champagne dinner.  And it is quite the marvelous production (despite my pre-existing quibbles with the work itself, and the mystifying artistic decisions that director Trevor Nunn made), with Peters, in my book, giving the definitive rendition of “Send In The Clowns”, arguably the definitive Sondheim song, and Stritch, mesmerizing, unapologetic Stritch, performing a unique, will-never-be-seen-anywhere-else interpretation of “Liaisons”, another classic of the Sondheim catalog.

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Catch-Up

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I was bummed when I missed Strawdog Theatre’s Red Noses last year.  After all the critical acclaim came out, it was one sold-out house after another.  So when I heard that Strawdog was remounting it this summer, after a one-week stint at Theater on the Lake, I swooped down on those Red Noses tickets like Bethenny Frankel on baby gear.  On the other hand, I have resisted going to Billy Elliot – The Musical since it opened last March for a variety of reasons.  I was never a big fan of the movie in the first place, and, although I appreciate the revenue that Broadway in Chicago brings into the city, I’m also not a big fan of “corporate” theater, manufactured and distributed for mass consumption.  But when someone passed on a discount code to the show, I jumped on those Billy Elliot tickets as well, just like Bethenny’s fellow New York Real Housewife Ramona at a Chanel sample sale.  I know there’s been a lot of ink (both print and online) already spilled over these two shows, so my two cents may not amount to much, but I thought I’d still share my impressions on both, which, in a single word, is… “underwhelming”.  I sort of expected that with Billy Elliot, I was really disappointed to feel that over Red Noses.

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