Dark Shadows

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If I had a dollar every time someone told me they went to see musicals because they’re “fun”, I would be as rich as Ann Romney. Casual theatergoers don’t realize that there are some musical theater that’s not cut from the Ethel Merman/Wicked cloth of joyous belt-it-out vibratos and play-to-the-balcony jazz hands.  I wouldn’t call Cabaret’s pessimism or Falsetto’s devastating loss “fun”.  And there is definitely nothing “fun” in John Bucchino’s and Harvey Fierstein’s A Catered Affair, based on the 1956 hyper-realistic family drama starring Bette Davis and Ernest Borgnine, written by Gore Vidal from a teleplay by Paddy Chayefsky, now in a very memorable Chicago production from Porchlight Music TheatreA Catered Affair is a melancholy, regretful chamber piece which is definitely not for those who like their musical theater exuberant and catchy with a side of froth.  However, for those of us who love all kinds of theater, including musical theater which unsettle us, which gnaw at us, days after we’ve seen the performance, A Catered Affair, is a must-see.

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In Pieces

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I’ve seen some of the most memorable Chicago productions of Stephen Sondheim’s masterpieces at Porchlight Music Theatre (Company in 2003, Sweeney Todd in 2004, Assassins in 2007) but I have been dismayed by the middling quality of its recent forays into the oeuvre of the greatest living American musical theater composer, an inconsistent and somewhat bloodless Into the Woods and a horrifically amateurish Pacific Overtures, one of my top Sondheim musicals of all time.  I was starting to wonder where the Porchlight artists’ deft understanding of Sondheim’s intricate, complex, multi-layered reflections on human nature and relationships had gone. Well, wherever it took a tropical island vacation at, I’m glad it is back in full, rested, reinvigorated force at the theater’s season-opener and the first show of the company’s new Artistic Director Michael Weber, Stephen Sondheim’s Putting It Together, a revue of Sondheim’s early work.  This show is an energetic, classy, extremely well-performed production for adult theatergoers – my dear Porchlight, I’m sure Chicago’s rabid musical theater queens like myself are glad to have you back.

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Confounded

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With their recent critical and box-office successes Mistakes Were Made and Abigail’s Party, extremely well-directed and well-acted productions that I felt were more conventional than the ballsy, infuriating, impressively and unabashedly idiosyncratic plays of seasons past such as Blasted and The Fastest Clock in the Universe that I’ve come to love them for, I thought A Red Orchid Theatre was growing soft in its middle age.  Then they open their season with the Chicago premiere of Paul Mullin’s Louis Slotin Sonata, a ballsy, infuriating, wacky, a little too precious play about the real-life story of a scientist in the Manhattan Project whose fingers slipped while handling a piece of plutonium, and exposed himself to deadly nuclear radiation.  It’s a play I cannot imagine any other theater in Chicago taking on, and clearly demonstrates Red Orchid’s strengths and weaknesses.  On the other hand, I’ve always thought that Porchlight Music Theatre is the city’s foremost interpreter of Stephen Sondheim’s genius musicals in an intimate yet heart wrenching manner.  Two of the best Sondheim productions I’ve seen in Chicago were their takes on Company (with a formidable “Ladies Who Lunch” from the then-unknown Rebecca Finnegan, now one of the city’s leading musical theater performers) and Assassins.  Their most recent Sondheim productions were disappointing either in performance, conceptualization, or both.  In their 15th year, they decide to tackle Sunday in the Park with George, Sondheim’s Pulitzer Prize winner and arguably the most sophisticated work in his oeuvre.  And my disappointment continues with this low-wattage, frankly, at times, dinner-theaterish rendition that failed to capture the exquisiteness and the toughness of the best stagings of the musical (Exhibit A:  Gary Griffin’s luminous, minimalist version at Chicago Shakespeare several years back).  I’m left confounded.

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No Happily-Ever-Afters, Sondheim version

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The last production of Into the Woods that I saw was the Broadway revival in 2002 where Vanessa Williams’ super campy, deliciously fag-haggy Witch looked like it served as a beta version of her more fully realized Wilhelmina Slater character in Ugly Betty (which, lamentably, just ended its  four-season run, sigh).  For me, a devoted Stephen Sondheim acolyte, this show probably belongs in the middle of the pack of the Great One’s dazzling body of work – although it contains some of Sondheim’s most beautifully haunting songs (“Children Will Listen”, “No More”, “No One Is Alone”) and bittersweet insights about the relationship between parents and children, I’ve always felt it to be a little audience-distancing given its messily-constructed interweaving plotlines and complicated musical rhythms.   Which I find quite ironic, given the fact that the musical has, as its main characters, some of the most beloved fairy tale characters ever, Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel, and Cinderella, not to mention a Baker and the Baker’s Wife.   So I was interested to see what Porchlight Music Theater, which does Sondheim like no other in this city in my opinion, would do to make this work more accessible.  Although I liked some elements of Porchlight Music Theatre’s Into the Woods, directed by Artistic Director L. Walter Stearns, I still didn’t come away thinking this work is transcendent Sondheim, unlike so many of his other works.

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Four Plays: Old, New, Borrowed, Blue

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I’ve seen so many theater openings over the past three weeks, I’ve actually been able to pull some of them together with a clever (or in my mind, at least) blog post theme.  Here are my impressions on four season openers currently playing on Chicago stages:

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Re-settings

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enemy-of-the-people.JPGonce-on-this-island.jpgOne of the great things about our Chicago storefront theater scene is that it is more likely for you to see a gutsy, no-holds-barred re-imagining of a play or a musical, whether classic or contemporary, than to see a straightforward, literal production (so when you come across a memorable one, such as the last year’s exquisite Uncle Vanya from TUTA, you are wonderfully surprised).  For an audience member like me, it is always such a thrill to see what kinds of audacious tinkering, overhauling, or re-versioning our various theater companies are up to.  Of course, for every successful risk taken, there are many, many other visions that fall flat or go awry, which I think has to come with the territory.  I was able to catch two of the re-envisioned productions currently playing in Chicago over the past week and a half or so.  Red Tape Theatre, of whom I have heard great things about with regards to their production of Lope De Vega’s Dog in a Manger last year (which I unfortunately missed), is staging a “freely adapted” Enemy of the People, from the Henrik Ibsen play, re-set in 2009, in a Southern Illinois-like small town, with the main character of Dr. Thomas Stockmann turned into a woman, Dr. Tammy Stockman, and other characters’ genders and relationships re-assigned.  Porchlight Music Theatre is closing its season with the lovely Flaherty-Ahrens musical Once on this Island, which possesses one of my favorite musical theater scores ever, but without an island or fake palm tree in sight, having re-staged it as a tale told by immigrants living in a Brooklyn Heights-type neighborhood.  Although I admired Red Tape’s, director James Palmer’s, and adapter Robert L. Oakes’ sizable cojones in pulling apart Ibsen, I don’t think I totally bought into the new world they’ve created, and I wasn’t really supported by an overall performance level from the cast that put the H in histrionic.  I also felt the conceit that Porchlight used for Once on this Island came off as artificial at times, but I was entranced by an energetic, committedly lung-busting, always riveting, although not always tone-perfect, cast. Both are notable, although some concepts work better than others.

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