As I’ve previously mentioned on this blog, I saw my first play at 10 years old when I was growing up in Manila, thanks to my mom who loved musical theater with a passion. Since then I’ve continued to be entranced by the magic and inspiration of live theater, literally having seen thousands of plays in my roughly two scores and change on this planet. Although theatergoing is embedded deep into my DNA, of course I’ve had some nights over the years as well when I’ve asked myself that split second before the lights dimmed, shouldn’t I just be at home eating greasy egg rolls in my comfy “I Survived the Coldest Minnesota Winter in a Hundred Years- 1995” sweatshirt, binge-watching Built (for those of you who think the Shahs of Sunset is the name of a falafel food truck, Built is a Style Channel TV show were male models work as handymen during the day, sort of like the ultimate gay porn movie without the porn)? Frankly, sometimes I feel like going to the theater is a chore (and if it’s a play by Sarah Ruhl an unbearable root canal). Then I see a play that is so thrilling and enjoyable and wistfully beautiful that I’m strikingly reminded why I fell in love with theater all those years ago. Kneehigh’s Tristan & Yseult, currently onstage at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater invaluable World’s Stage series in a regrettably limited run, is one of the most perfect nights that you can spend in the theater, filled with music, dance, movement, imaginative staging and entrancing story-telling, a show both poignant and warm-blooded; it is an extraordinary experience that proves why theater is first among equals in the performing arts.
A couple of weeks ago I was at a party with my dear friend Jonathan (who has traipsed through these blog pages before) and after several gushy mentions of shows currently playing, he (cattily?) remarked “you’re clearly Chicago theater’s biggest supporter”. Well, flattered though I was, I wouldn’t really call myself #1 superfan- that title unequivocally belongs, and rightly so, to this guy. But even after 15 years of Chicago theatergoing, I’m often impressed and dumbstruck at the fearlessness and audacity of our energetic storefront theaters, their unwavering spirit of collaboration, their can-do, no-obstacles attitude to putting together ambitious, enthralling theatrical evenings in spaces no bigger than laundry rooms (and in one instance the theater was actually one) with budgets equivalent to the price of a pair of Christian Louboutins. As an audience member I’ve always felt privileged to share that passion. Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve seen several risk-taking storefront endeavors; not all of them succeed, but man, their aspirations are thrilling! Here are some of my thoughts on them.
During the Middle Ages (actually 2003), I rushed back to Chicago from wherever I was commuting to at that time for work (New Jersey, which was and continues to be seemingly stuck in the Middle Ages) in order to see the world premiere production of Stephen Sondheim’s and John Weidman’s Bounce at the Goodman Theater. This was Sondheim’s first show since 1990’s Assassins (also co-written with Weidman) and for theater geeks everywhere who worship at the shrine of Steve (where else would we be at?), this world premiere was equivalent to a new commandment being handed down from the mountaintop. Unfortunately, Bounce, which told the story of real life brothers Addison and Wilson Mizner who embarked on a variety of get-rich-quick schemes in the early 20th century, was less sacrosanct tablet and more broken ceremonial vessel. The Goodman production of Bounce, directed by frequent Sondheim collaborator Hal Prince, was a mess: despite some undeniably lovely Sondheim tunes here and there, it was boring, chaotic, filled with an air of desperation and incompleteness. So when Chicago Shakespeare announced that Road Show, a revised and supposedly final version of Bounce that was originally seen at the Public Theater in 2008, would be part of its double bill of Gary Griffin-directed Sondheim musicals in spring 2014 (together with Gypsy), I was intrigued like I’m sure all Chicagoans who saw that musical theater equivalent of a disaster movie in 2003 were. As a lifelong Sondheim aficionado, I’m thrilled to say then that Road Show, which opened last week, is a vast improvement from its earlier incarnation, thoroughly enjoyable, and in Griffin’s warm, intimate staging displays flashes of brilliance. But it is still imperfect Sondheim with a still-unsatisfying book, never achieving the perfection of Sweeney Todd or Follies or A Little Night Music, or, especially, Gypsy. However, I will take imperfect Sondheim over perfect any-other-theater-composer any time.
There was a brief tease earlier this week that this winter of 2014, the harshest one I’ve experienced in my 16 years of living in Chicago, would finally leave us alone. As I write this blog post though, snow blankets my condo building’s courtyard, and that glorious 60 degree Monday seemed to be nothing but a cruel trick from the cosmos. But Chicagoans are a hearty theatergoing lot and we’ve been giving the big middle finger to the cosmos throughout this winter- all of the shows I’ve been to in the past several weeks have been packed, ice, snow, tundra temperatures, potholes, and swimming-pool like puddles of melting ice notwithstanding. Here are some impressions on a couple of shows I’ve recently seen:
Of course, I would never miss the chance of seeing a play called Cock. So when I was in New York on business in the summer of 2012, I snuck away after interminable day-long discussions of system user training strategies to check out the off-Broadway premiere of Mike Barlett’s acclaimed Olivier award-winning play at the Duke on 42nd Street, as staged by its Royal Court Theater director James MacDonald with an American cast led by Jason Harner Butler and the pre-Breakfast at Tiffany’s Cory Michael Smith. And I loved it- fresh, contemporary, devoid of any of the salaciousness that its title initially evokes even with non-gutter-dwellers, Cock was a riveting, inventive, intensely thoughtful play about sexual identity and fluidity. So when I heard that the brazen and raucous Profiles Theater, the one Chicago theater that has both infuriated and provoked me, sometimes at the same time, will be staging the Midwest premiere, I thought, wow, I couldn’t have made up a better match between theater company and theatrical material. And Profile’s Cock is a bad-ass gem: as smart and probing as the off-Broadway production but without its sometimes enervated quality; earthier, louder, sexier, a terrific interpretation of a play that upends the audiences’ beliefs about what it means to be gay, straight, bisexual, questioning, or whatever wavering signpost you claim to be along that complex continuum we call sexuality.
Tags: Profiles Theatre
For us true-blue, hardcore musical theater aficionados, there is no show greater and more iconic than Gypsy, the sharply-drawn showbiz backstage musical based on the memoirs of stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, with an unsentimentally-constructed book by Arthur Laurents and a wondrously memorable score, simply one of the best in the history of theater, by Jules Styne (music) and Stephen Sondheim (lyrics). Gypsy is our Ark of the Covenant, our Mona Lisa, our Macchu Picchu, the ultimate expression of our musical theater obsession. I’ve seen several Gypsys, both on film and in live performance, with my defining Gypsy being Sam Mendes’ spare 2003 Broadway revival (which Laurents hated with a vengeance) starring Bernadette Peters’ uniquely and at times jarringly seductive take on Rose, Gypsy Rose Lee’s mother, the stage mother to end all stage mothers. I know the show very well so I don’t really expect to be surprised anymore by any production. But leave it to Gary Griffin, who I’m convinced is the ultimate Sondheim interpreter working in the US today, to mine new layers and resonances, and to provide a different take on this most perfect of musicals. As I watched, mouth agape, at the respected Canadian actress Louis Pitre thrashing around the Chicago Shakespeare stage and beating her chest King Kong style, devoid of any Broadway diva-like vanities in the devastating final number “Rose’s Turn” (in which the character unleashes all her fury and frustration at not being a showbiz star), I knew that Griffin’s Gypsy is unlike others I’ve seen – hard, hardscrabble, pessimistic, tragic. Ladies and gentlemen, this Chicago Shakespeare Theater Gypsy is the first unmissable show of Chicago’s 2014 theater season.