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big lake big cityJuly has traditionally been a quiet, laidback month in Chicago theater, with the major Equity houses wrapping up their current seasons with lower-profile offerings and the storefronts already on hiatus preparing for their new seasons, some of which already begin in late August. And most of the audiences that packed theaters year-round will be on their boats on Lake Michigan, on the lawns of Ravinia or Millennium Park listening to concerts, or will just quietly take a break from theatergoing to re-charge for another busy cultural year ahead. But this July for us avid theatergoers those boats and outdoor concert lawns and stay-at-home evenings will need to wait since there is a ton of exciting things going on our city’s stages. There are a lot of bold-faced names running around town right now. Over at A Red Orchid Theater, Michael Shannon, fresh off his mega-blockbuster hit Man of Steel, is headlining a revival of Sam Shepard’s Simpatico.  A little west at Steppenwolf, one of the country’s most buzzed playwrights Amy Herzog has been in town working with director Anne Kauffman to stage the Chicago production of Belleville which was universally acclaimed earlier this year when they premiered it off-Broadway. Additionally, William Petersen will be opening Slowgirl at Steppenwolf later in July. And over at Victory Gardens, another acclaimed playwright, Luis Alfaro, has been working on his world-premiere production of Mojada, which relocates the Medea story to Pilsen. But the biggest, boldest, most ambitious productions, both world premieres, have already opened this week within days of each other:  at Lookingglass Theater, David Schwimmer is directing A Steady Rain and Mad Men scribe Keith Huff’s Big Lake Big City while at the Goodman Theater, Mary Zimmerman, with support from Walt Disney Theatricals, just unveiled her musical adaptation of The Jungle Book.  Although flawed to various degrees, Big Lake Big City and The Jungle Book demonstrate what makes Chicago theater the leading theater scene in North America – both have immensely talented and creative theater makers taking risks and creating new work in different, aspirational ways. Despite what the Chicago theater critics have said about them (they have been mixed), I say, so what, these productions should be embraced and supported by ordinary audience members like me and you, my dear blog readers, who passionately care about our city’s theatrical life.

Keith Huff’s A Steady Rain was one of my favorite plays of the past several years and if you’ve been following this blog since the beginning, you know I’ve yakked about it incessantly.  So I really think Huff can write. He can write crisp, feisty dialogue; emotionally sucker-punching scenes; idiosyncratic characters with vivid inner lives. All of these are in full display in Big Lake Big City, a sometimes thrilling, sprawling, multi-threaded homage to crime noir set all over Chicago, from Michigan Avenue to the south side to east of the Edens expressway.  Huff has created several interesting characters – a Chicago cop with an anger management problem and his ex-escort/stripper/crime witness girlfriend; a brittle, femme-fatale-like psychiatrist with an unhappy marriage; an ex-con with a screwdriver sticking out of his head; a travel agent planning a Walt Disney World wedding. My main issue is that I never understood whether Huff is aiming for a naturalistic crime drama or a self-aware, subtly-irreverent send-up of the genre sort of like how the film Far from Heaven provided contemporary commentary and at the same time clarified the context of 1950s domestic dramas. It isn’t clear because there are abrupt changes in tone throughout the multitude of sharply-drawn yet concisely-staged scenes.  The scenes with the ex-con and the travel agent, for example, played with refreshing, unassuming simplicity by Eddie Martinez and Wendy Mateo, despite the screwdriver sticking out of Martinez’s head, come off like a realistic study of broken lives and ambitions. The scenes involving the cop and the psychiatrist, gamely played by Philip R. Smith and Beth Lacke, seem like Double Indemnity-lite with flashes of SNL parody. The cop/psychiatrist storyline also has the weirdest twists and turns including a talking Modigliani statue, a couple burned to death during an act of coitus, and a slapstick-happy insurance agent which feels jarring compared to the messy businesses at hand. So what is Big Lake Big City really about, Mr. Huff?

Schwimmer, despite showing a confident directorial hand throughout, doesn’t seem to clear up things either, although he directs the scene transitions seamlessly. And he keeps the show entertaining.  His designers turn in top-notch work, especially Sibyl Wickersheimer whose fluid, meticulous set design, which includes the Navy Pier Ferris Wheel, is awe-inspiring.

Schwimmer’s fellow Lookingglass ensemble member, Mary Zimmerman, is doing some terrific, enjoyable work at the Goodman. Ok, so The Jungle Book is a children’s film, and my world-weary, cynical, Sidecar-swilling self is not really easily captivated by children and animals (especially, talking, singing, jazz-hands-ing ones). But I am by this musical adaptation, and primarily because Doug Peck’s stunning orchestrations and adapted score, which adds Indian music influences to Richard and Robert Sherman’s legendary songs, truly makes the production soar. Hearing sitars and tablas accenting and enhancing such memorable songs as “Bare Necessities” and “I Wan’na Be Like You” (performed by the magnificent Andre DeShields in an unsurpassable, cosmos-exploding, life-affirming manner) is just glorious and truly establishes a sense of place.  And I love how Zimmerman and Peck have various members of the 12 piece orchestra onstage with the actors during most of the musical performances, beautifully making the point that this play, this story is truly a celebration of life.

This brings me to the story, and this musical’s book. The narrative, if you take out all possible colonial and racial readings of Rudyard Kipling’s source work (which needs another blog post to discuss), is a pretty light, fizzy, episodic, delightful but superficial coming of age story. And that’s fine. I am definitely not expecting a Ph.D. Thesis when I go to see The Jungle Book. But Zimmerman’s book still needs work.  The relationship between Mowgli, the man-cub (played by the adorable Akash Chopra in most performance) and his Papa Bear Baloo (a hearty Kevin Carolan) feel underdeveloped.  I’m surprised by Baloo’s grief at losing Mowgli when they just had just met two scenes before; it’s an emotional response I expected more from the panther Baghera (an exceptional Usman Ally, both noble and street smart) who from the start the show has established as Mowgli’s protector, mentor, and life-coach.  Everyone talks about Shere Khan, the Bengal tiger, and how frightening and menacing he is, but there are not enough scenes for the audience to feel that terror that the jungle is feeling, despite Larry Yando’s juicy, scenery-nibbling performance; Shere Khan disappears for most of the show, and then shows up, threatens the python Kaa and the vultures, and then gets killed by Mowgli from fire that the Hindu god Vishnu, who literally comes out of nowhere, gives the boy. The elimination of the tiger who is supposed to be the main antagonist of the piece feels rushed and contrived and doesn’t move the story forward. The show ends soon after so we don’t see what the death of his enemy has done to Mowgli, and how he had changed as a person.

I always think Zimmerman’s productions are a little too over-designed, with a plethora of distracting visual cues spread out all over the stage, but Daniel Ostling’s jungle theme complete with huge foliage and a swinging, embroidered-pillow bedecked lounger is brilliantly-realized and curated, while Mara Blumenfeld’s meticulously-designed costumes, which give each animal a definitive look that conveys a key trait (Baghera is regal in a Nehru jacket inspired ensemble; Shere Khan is a villainous Hollywood diva in a flowing orange striped cape) is impressively eye-catching.  The standing ovation at the end of the The Jungle Book performance I went to was one of the most joyous I’ve been in, and despite the inherent narrative flaws, I think this is a production that is worth giving up pool time or Lake Michigan time or Ravinia time for this summer.

Big Lake Big City is at Lookingglass Theater, 821 N. Michigan Avenue, until August 11. The Jungle Book has already been extended until August 11 at the Goodman Theatre,  170 N. Dearborn. It goes next to the Huntington Theater Company in Boston, beginning performances there in September.

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