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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Gaily Ever After

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about face the prideOh, it’s June. And it’s Pride Month. So there are plenty of gay characters jaunting around onstage in Chicago. In some years, this has mildly annoyed me – as an out and proud gay man, I would like to see gay characters and gay themes whenever I want them, year round. In other years, such as this summer, when I’m seeing a variety of theatrical pieces from various authors and time periods, I’ve been struck by the impressive arc that gay stories have taken in our theatrical and cultural lives. In John Kander, Fred Ebb, and Terence McNally’s 1993 Tony-winning musical, Kiss of the Spider Woman, which BoHo Theatre is reviving in a sometimes enjoyable but inherently flawed production, the gay character is a catalogue of clichés:  an effeminate window-dresser living in a fantasy world of movie glamour divas who falls in love with a straight guy. And as we all know historically, in the theater and in cinema, all of this will end tragically; as if the gay boy should be punished for unsettling the straight boy’s world (which we also all know isn’t how it works in real life, ahem).  15 years later, in Alexi Kaye Campbell’s ambitious but imperfect The Pride, receiving a stellar Chicago premiere from About Face Theatre, the gay characters, for the most part, are nuanced, well-rounded, compelling – tragic yes, but also celebratory, sexy, confused, forgiving.  Theater reflects the society we live in: in 1993, theater audiences welcomed, maybe expected, swish and sashay and nothing more; in 2013, theater audiences, grappling with the debate on same-sex marriage, expect to see characters who are just like their brother, son, neighbor, best man.

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