Hit List, Part One: The Wild Party and Parade

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bailiwick the wild partyWhen I first started seriously going to the theater in Chicago way back when in the late ‘90s/early ‘00s, full-blooded musical productions outside of the avowed musical theater specialists such as Drury Lane, Marriott, and Porchlight were as rare as intelligence and attractiveness on Fox News. Chicago’s theater companies loved (and continue to love) their sweaty, gritty, chair-breaking, nerve-popping dramatic plays that defined the supposed “Chicago-style” of theater acting. Over the years though, things have evolved, so much so that some of the best shows I saw this year were musicals – a happy development for this self-identified musical theater diva who will belt out “Cabaret” at the least provocation (if you want to hear my killer karaoke version, invite me out to the Korean karaoke bars on Lincoln some evening). Interestingly, there’s been a bevy of musical productions this fall theater season; I saw three of them consecutively in the past week. In this two part blog post, I talk about the first two: Bailiwick Chicago’s generally successful take on Michael John LaChuisa’s The Wild Party, based on Joseph Moncure March’s long narrative poem about lusting, boozing, fighting among sexually-ambiguous boys and girls in 1920s New York City, and BoHo Theatre’s less successful staging of Jason Robert Brown’s gorgeously-scored Parade, based on the real-life story of Leo Frank, a Jewish pencil superintendent accused of murder in early twentieth-century Atlanta.

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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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Catch-Up

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bailiwick mahalAs I said in my previous post, Chicago’s summer stages are as hot and sizzling as the 104 degree heat index we’ve been experiencing this past week. And of course, it’s just about the time that I get truly frenzied in my day job (which then leads to times when I daydream of being in France working 35 hours a week and then getting July and August off to take languorous vacations with a Romain Duris intellectual-hunk-a-like, but I digress).  Having been a long-term theatergoer and active theater supporter in the city, I’ve been surprised by the generous bounty of summer offerings this year, so much so that I haven’t made plans to hightail it to my usual hot weather distraction, National Pastime Theater’s Naked July Theater Festival, where the Living Canvas puts on an annual show you’ll never see anywhere else (and with audiences you don’t want to see anywhere else too after having seen more of them than you need to! Check out my post from a couple of years ago).  There’s just so much stuff to see other than naked people!  But being a long-term theatergoer and theater supporter also means that I have relationships with theaters and theater artists that may, to a certain extent, inhibit a truly objective blog post on the merits and demerits of a specific show.  Below then are my short observations on Steppenwolf Theater’s Chicago premiere of Amy Herzog’s Belleville, and Bailiwick Chicago’s world premiere of Danny Bernardo’s Mahal.

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Bloody Bloody Honey Kinky

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So many plays, so little time! Thank goodness for projects that allow me to work from home. Here’s a rundown of shows I saw the past couple of weeks:

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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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Fall Frenzy

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With a travel schedule that is, to say the least, brutalizing (anyone want to swap with me on my five-day weekly sojourn to the city of the gateway arch?), it’s been quite a challenge to catch all the fall theater openings.  I did manage to go to several over the past couple of weekends, and I talk about three of them below. (Photo:  Redtwist’s Elling with Andrew Jessop and Peter Oyloe)

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