Risks, Disappointments

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After seeing the unsurpassable duo of Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch weave once-in-a-lifetime theatrical magic in the Broadway revival of Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music back in 2010, I thought I was going to give this show some rest.  Personally, I felt Peters’ luminously melancholy rendition of “Send in the Clowns” is the definitive performance of the song, capturing both the character Desiree’s and the songwriter Steve’s clear-eyed, painful introspection. Who can top that?  But after hearing that Writer’s Theatre was staging Night Music as their spring production, I reconsidered.  At Writer’s I had one of my most transcendent nights of recent theater, David Cromer’s unforgettable A Streetcar Named Desire.  Also, this production would have the first official Chicago performance of Deanna Dunagan after her 2008 Tony win in August: Osage County, reason enough for rabid theater aficionados like me who have missed her to brave the Metra ride to Glencoe.  Finally, I’m just a sucker for a Sondheim musical.  Although I admire many parts of William Brown’s production, including the risks he and his actors take in re-inventing some of the key roles, I’m ultimately disappointed with this version of a Sondheim musical that I know so well (having seen many productions over the years as well as the exquisite source material, Ingmar Bergman’s film, Smiles of a Summer Night).

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The Bold and The Beautiful

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With my work travel having calmed down a bit, I have been able to get back into my regular theater routine of the past few years I’ve been writing this blog.  As of today, I’ve seen 32 plays since the beginning of the year which is approximately around 20 weeks, a pretty good batting average of 1.6 shows a week.  I may be getting crankier in my old age, though, since I’ve liked or admired less than a dozen of the shows, and have loved even fewer.  However, the great pleasure of being such an avid participant in a lively and bountiful theater scene such as Chicago’s is that you will always be surprised by what you’ll find playing at your corner storefront theater.  On paper, Clay McLeod Chapman’s and Kyle Jarrow’s Hostage Song, a rock musical about two American hostages in an unnamed Middle East country awaiting their fate, which unfortunately can involve, uhmm, a beheading, now receiving its Chicago premiere from Signal Ensemble Theatre, is probably the most improbable piece of theater you can see.  Why do a musical about such a devastatingly dark, squirm-inducing, politically-combustible topic? Well, I can ask back, why not, especially if it’s this musical?  Signal Ensemble’s Hostage Song is stunning, one of the best shows I’ve seen so far this year: harrowing, gutsy, brazen, relevant, mind-imploding, yet also tragically, poignantly, beautifully human. In a city that’s seeing much-heralded revivals of Iceman Cometh, Angels in America, and Rent, and new work such as The March, it is a simply staged musical that reflects our fraught and complicated emotions with the world we currently live in that is the most affecting.

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La Vie

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For years, whether in cocktail parties or at work events, whenever I mention I’m a theater buff, someone would ostensibly reply back with, “That’s great! Rent is my favorite musical of all time.”  Hmmm, well, Rent really isn’t my favorite musical of all time, but I find it interesting that it’s one of the first things that a new acquaintance comes up with when trying to find common ground with my interests, whether in the interest of genuinely deepening the conversation, or merely trying to pass time with idle chitchat.  For my generation of theatergoers, Rent is probably the definitive musical, not just because the rock-music soundtrack and the numerous touring productions were ubiquitous for a time in the late 1990s/early 2000s, but also because we saw for once on the musical theater stage our young adult concerns vividly depicted: sexuality, hetero-, homo-, and everything in between; relationships; anti-materialism; pursuing one’s art at all costs.  For me, however, Rent, unlike, say Angels in America, which despite being anchored on a specific time period spoke to broader philosophical and socio-political concerns, always felt like an artifact of its time. And Rent’s time has definitely passed (for example, the squatter protests that playwright and composer Jonathan Larson depicted in the show look pretty quaint versus Occupy Wall Street’s fiery aspirations and methods).  It was “cool” and “current” to see Rent in 1999, with its references to AIDS, homelessness, bisexuality, drug use, S and M, transvestitism, topics that have been treated more insightfully in theater, film, and other performing arts since then. But leave it to a genius theater director such as David Cromer, who has put on a superb, lively version in a co-production between American Theater Company and About Face Theatre, to make Rent vital once again, surprisingly fresh at times despite its dated references, a show that this new generation of theatergoers can discover and claim as their own as well.

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Roundup

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As I was tweeting about this week, there’s so much Chicago theater and so little time.  Which is a great thing.  But I’ve seen several shows this spring season that I really wanted more from.  For me, ultimately, the best theater boils down to the best writing.  If the text is lacking, or fragmented, or seemingly-unfinished, or needing three more drafts to make it watchable, then the play is still unsatisfactory despite the best direction, acting, or design that it may have.  Here’s a roundup of some recent shows I’ve seen.

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Everest

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As I was settling into my seat at the performance of The Iceman Cometh at the Goodman Theatre, the woman sitting behind me said loudly to her companion, “I think this is the same place we sat in during The Addams Family.” Ok now, wrong theater, honey.  And wrong frame of mind to have at The Iceman Cometh, Robert Fall’s mammoth, demanding production of Eugene O’Neill’s mammoth, demanding play about a group of drunken down-and-outs in 1912 New York City given one brief, final ray of hope to reclaim their lives and redeem themselves by a jovial, tenacious traveling salesman, Theodore “Hickey” Hickman, who turns out to have secrets of his own.  It was going to be a long four hours and forty minutes for this woman and for us sitting around her if she thought Nathan Lane’s Hickey would be anything remotely resembling The Addams Family’s Gomez or The Producers’ Max Bialystock or even The Birdcage’s Albert, all iconic Lane roles.  But like the rest of the packed house that night at the Goodman, this person, bless her soul, stuck it out for the entire nearly five hour production, entranced, I would hope, by the power of O’Neill’s language; and the searing, impeccable interpretation of these words from Falls, his thoughtful designers, and an unsurpassable, astounding cast, including Lane whose ultimately gut-wrenching, indelible Hickey was truly memorable – a triumph in a role sometimes referred to as the Mt. Everest of American theatrical roles.

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Hipster Theater

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In early 2009, I said that Frat, the second production of the new theater company The New Colony, was “a terrific example of youthful, raw, blistering, ferocious, hungrily-acted and directed Chicago storefront theater”.  Later that year, I said of their Calls to Blood that it was “…gut-punching, heart-breaking, tears-inducing, and throat-catching, quite simply one of my more memorable nights at any theater recently.”  Since 2009, The New Colony has won Broadway in Chicago’s Emerging Theater Award, brought Calls to Blood (re-titled Hearts Full of Blood) to the New York Fringe Festival, and had a bona-fide water-cooler summer hit last year with 5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche.  There is no doubt that The New Colony is a vital, pivotal part of the city’s ever-thriving storefront theater scene.  And as an audience member who has followed the theater company since its inception, it has been a thrilling journey.  So I’m really confused and disappointed that their latest production, the original rock-musical Rise of the Numberless, in collaboration with another stalwart of the storefront scene, Bailiwick Chicago, is possibly one of the most ill-advised shows I’ve seen in the past twelve months. Just like the hipsters that throng the Bucktown cross-streets of the Flat Iron Arts Building where it is being performed, Rise of the Numberless is calculatedly-styled, with every pulsating song, fake-angry choreography, and meticulously-set-designed grime strategically placed to evoke a hip-cool-glam-cutting-edge-(insert other buzz words here)-production.  And just like these Bucktown/Wicker Park hipsters (and many of them will probably be flocking to the show because it sounds and looks, oh, so cool), the production feels hollow and superficial, with none of the “blistering” and “heart-breaking” qualities that I found with the theater’s early shows which I loved.

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