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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Rarities

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juno timelineI’ve been run ragged by my consecutive three-play weekends (hmm, dear readers, although it seems like I’m at a theater all the time, I do have a normal, regular day job to go to during the week), but who am I to complain? This Chicago theater season has been extraordinary, with several notable productions and world premieres. But our intrepid theater companies have also unearthed several rarities- shows that are not performed regularly in this city or have never been performed here at all.  A couple of weekends ago, I was able to catch Timeline Theatre’s handsome, respectful but distancing production of Joseph Stein’s and Marc Blitzstein’s Juno, the musical adaptation of Sean O’Casey’s classic drama Juno and the Paycock. Timeline’s production of the 1959 musical is its first ever Chicago production – it is so rarely produced (the last New York production was a 2008 semi-staged Encores! production; before that a 1992 off-Broadway remount) that Wall Street Journal drama critic Terry Teachout, who logs more air miles than anyone to see shows across the US, tweeted from Timeline that finally he saw a fully-staged production of Juno.  Last weekend, I was over at Raven Theatre to see its brakes-free production of Tennessee Williams’ lurid, hysterical melodrama Vieux Carre, which surprisingly (or maybe not, see below) is infrequently staged in a city so in love with Williams’ Southern tales of decadence and heartbreak that we had four The Glass Menageries a couple of seasons back.  Following are my thoughts on these two shows.

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Un Bel Di

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m butterfly courtA theater-lover just doesn’t spring from the ground fully-formed reciting Shakespeare and high-kicking it to “Oklahoma”.  It takes years and years of watching and re-watching plays to fully grasp the theatrical medium and to cultivate one’s taste and preferences; I started my love affair with the theater at age 10, and until now, in my fourth decade, I’m still confounded by some of the plays I see.  Growing up in Manila in the early 1990s I saw several productions of David Henry Hwang’s ground-breaking  M.Butterfly about the strange, real-life, decades-long love affair between a married French diplomat and a transvestite Peking Opera performer who turned out to be a spy for the Chinese government. Strange because the diplomat claimed in the thirty or so years he was with his mistress, he never saw her fully naked and therefore never knew she was actually a man.  Hwang’s writing was brilliant, heady and train-stopping: heavily stylized incorporating elements of both Western and Peking opera, it tackled huge, intriguing themes around the notion of masculinity, the Western view at that time of Asians and Asian culture,  the accumulation and exercise of power.  The staging of the productions I saw with their impressive use of choreography, music, and visual spectacle were some of my initial indelible experiences with the uniqueness of theatrical storytelling.  I haven’t re-visited the play in decades until a couple of weekends ago when I saw Charles Newell’s new production at Court Theatre- nearly 20 years later, M. Butterfly’s storytelling and construction is still riveting and resonant. Despite some reservations I have with this particular production, I think the play wears it’s age well, even now in the “Asian century” where China is the ascendant superpower, just like an elegant Shanghai matron in a black dress, pulled-back hair, and jade jewelry.

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Ain’t Got No

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Zach Kenney and Sky Seals - HI was in Portland last year for the first time and when I got back to Chicago some of my friends who’ve never been to the city asked, “Were there a lot of hippies?”  I guess they were asking about those tie-dye-shirt-wearing, patchouli-oil-smelling, peace-sign –flashing bearded men and frizzy-haired women who will talk to anyone in sight about Greenpeace, veganism, pot, and the pleasure of strumming guitars off-key in street corners (for the record there were more “hipsters” than “hippies” in Portland, but that’s subject matter for another blog post).  Pop culture is rife with images of the hippie stereotype, and much of it were either appropriated from or encouraged by the Broadway musical Hair and its famous catalogue of eccentric, dippy, off-kilter, “make love-not war” songs, permanently enshrined in our collective memory by the frequent cable reruns of the Milos Forman film version, numerous community theater productions, and Diane Paulus’ recent Broadway revival (seen on tour in Chicago a couple of years ago).  But anyone who thinks they know Hair and its lovable, flaky hippies should check their expectations in together with their love beads at the door of American Theater Company which is currently staging a bold, stunning re-envisioning of this seminal musical.  This is not a baby boomer’s Hair- Artistic Director PJ Paparelli (who directs this production with additional direction by JR Sullivan) worked with surviving creator James Rado to reclaim the meaning and context of the show.  Putting back material (both dialogue and musical) from the original East Village production in 1968 but cut from its Public Theater premiere and subsequent Broadway transfer, re-arranging and re-orchestrating some of the songs, re-imagining the staging of some of the musical numbers, Paparelli with Rado’s guidance has staged a dark, raw, intense Hair, one of my top  shows so far of 2014, filled with young people as frightened as they are rebellious,  unprepared for the massive socio-political issues (the Vietnam War, Civil Rights, the Sexual Revolution, the drug counterculture)  enveloping them.   ATC’s Hair is a staggering and important theatrical achievement, truly unmissable.

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