After what I thought was a dismaying year in 2013, Chicago theater bounced back with impressive aplomb this year. There were a lot of world premieres (some much readier for primetime than others), fresh voices and story-telling, searing examinations of America and the world, lots and lots and LOTS of Sondheim, a 12-hour adaptation of all 32 existing Greek tragedies, and exemplary work from a host of renowned artists, from celebrated actors such as Michael Cera and Sandra Oh to award-winning directors like Joe Mantello and Chicago’s pride, incoming Steppenwolf Artistic Director Anna Shapiro to exciting, ascendant playwrights like Marcus Gardley and Lisa L’Amour and exciting, established playwrights like Rebecca Gilman and Bruce Norris. Then of course there was The Evil Dead: The Musical. Chicago theater in 2014 had something for every theatergoer out there, from discerning to indifferent and back. Here then is the eight edition of my best theater productions of the year. Read the rest of this entry »
For 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.
For this out and proud actressexual (noun – a male, gay or straight, obsessed with larger-than-cinematic-life actresses, often seen performing in unforgettable, Oscar-worthy dramatic roles, respectfully co-opted from Nat Rogers of TheFilmExperience.net), some of my most memorable recent female images on film have come courtesy of the wonderful Cate Blanchett. From the last scene of Elizabeth when she slowly, hypnotically walks towards the camera in Kabuki face, to that scene in The Talented Mr. Ripley when she is dreamily flitting around steamer trunks, to her somewhat overbaked, but always fascinating Academy Award-winning impersonation of Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator, I’ve always found her enthralling, and yes, larger than life, and quite possibly the best actress of her generation. So when I heard that she was going to bring her acclaimed Sydney Theater Company (where she is co-Artistic Director with her husband, playwright Andrew Upton) production of A Streetcar Named Desire, directed by the legendary actress Liv Ullmann to the US, but only to the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, and to the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) in New York, I was off hunting for tickets faster than Russell Crowe can throw a phone at a hotel clerk. Cate Blanchett, Tennessee Williams, Liv Ullmann – man, I was as breathless as if I was wearing three layers of male spanx! Swoon! But the swooning is highly deserved, since after seeing the production during its DC stop last weekend, I’m pretty certain that theater lovers everywhere, actressexual or not, will find this unforgivingly stark Streetcar and Blanchett’s harrowing, vanity-less, indelible performance, that rare night in the theater that they can proudly and vividly recount to their children and grandchildren for years.
Is it March already? It seems like I spent most of the first quarter that is about to end waiting in tundra-like winter weather for the Brown line to get me to and from the Goodman Theater. Although I’m out of town this weekend, and will have to miss the final entry in the brilliant Eugene O’Neill Festival, the Neo-Futurists’ four and a half hour production of Strange Interlude directed by Greg Allen, I have to say that the Festival is an unqualified success. This city owes a tremendous amount of gratitude to Bob Falls and the Goodman staff for enriching our artistic lives permanently, and here’s hoping to more world-class theater in the future!