Notes from the Front Row

Music, Theater Add comments

haven theater seminarThere was a brief tease earlier this week that this winter of 2014, the harshest one I’ve experienced in my 16 years of living in Chicago, would finally leave us alone. As I write this blog post though, snow blankets my condo building’s courtyard, and that glorious 60 degree Monday seemed to be nothing but a cruel trick from the cosmos.  But Chicagoans are a hearty theatergoing lot and we’ve been giving the big middle finger to the cosmos throughout this winter- all of the shows I’ve been to in the past several weeks have been packed, ice, snow, tundra temperatures, potholes, and swimming-pool like puddles of melting ice notwithstanding.   Here are some impressions on a couple of shows I’ve recently seen:

Queenie Pie (Chicago Opera Theatre) -   I saw Queenie Pie nearly a month ago, but after that opening night, all of its performances were re-scheduled to mid-to-late March due to the fire at the Harris Theater. I was actually pretty curious to see the show since it seemed like this production of Duke Ellington’s attempt at writing a “street opera” was more in COT’s “theater” wheelhouse than the “opera” one. Although I’ve loved the theatricality of some of COT’s productions in the past, musical theater is a very different animal from opera and I was intrigued to see how the company would pull this one off.  Well, I don’t think anyone, not even COT, can pull off this material. Let’s face it, Queenie Pie is a mess. I think the main problem lies in the fact that Ellington never finished the opera and this version of Queenie Pie, first seen at the Long Beach Opera earlier this year, has been assembled from whatever is existing of  the material that Ellington and original librettist Betty McGettigan wrote in the early 1970s including commercial jingles that were to form part of its planned PBS staging, co-mingled with a revised libretto by director Ken Roht and selections from the incomparable Ellington songbook (“I Let a Song Go Out of my Heart”, “Creole Love Call”).  The show is a pastiche, and that patchwork quality is painfully apparent to the audience (who are inexplicably transported from a moody, Harlem-set crime of passion story in the first act to some sort of South Pacific parody-meets-Eat, Pray, Love concoction in the second act). The other major issue is the material that Ellington and McGettigan wrote isn’t really very compelling. The character of Queenie is loosely based on Madame CJ Walker who made a fortune by selling beauty products targeted solely to African-American women in the 1930s. But instead of letting us get to know this potentially fascinating character and what makes her tick, Ellington and McGettigan focuses on the tired trope of tragic love triangle between Queenie, her marketing guy and sometime lover Holt, and a rival beautician from Atlanta, Café Au Lait (with a character name like this I expected more camp and bombast, but both the writing and Anne Bowen’s technically proficient but underplayed characterization under-deliver).  And then there’s that perplexing, cheesy island interlude in the second act complete with a horny witch-doctor, meandering narrative, and a totally unbelievable, unearned, false reconciliation and everlasting friendship between Queenie and Café Au Lait. I was rolling my eyes so much I thought they flipped to the back of my head and dropped onto the laps of the people sitting behind me!

There is a lot of heroic effort visible in this production and some things to really admire:  set designer Danila Korogodsky’s minimalist set is always evocative and elegant, even in the cheese curd fest that is Act 2, Keithon Gipson doublecast as the ill-starred Holt in Act 1 and the melancholy island king in Act 2 is charismatic with a beautifully-calibrated baritone; and the accomplished Chicago Jazz Orchestra under the baton of conductor Jeff Lindberg plays those gorgeous Ellington tunes enthrallingly and passionately.  Karen Marie Richardson’s Queenie is well-sung, but for such an intentionally larger-than-life character she seems dwarfed by the music.  And that’s the apt final impression for this misguided production; Ellington’s musical genius will still win out in the end.  Queenie Pie will be performed at the Harris Theater, 205 E. Randolph on March 19, 20, and 23.

Seminar (Haven Theater) – One of the things I love about Chicago’s dynamic theater scene is coming across young theater companies doing work that can stand toe-to-toe with the productions from the major Equity houses.  Haven Theater is on its first season and with its third production, the Chicago premiere of Smash creator Theresa Rebeck’s Seminar, which had a notable Broadway production a couple of years ago first starring Harry Potter’s Alan Rickman then replaced by Jeff Goldblum, it gives us theatergoers bold notice that it has arrived with ambition and verve.  Rebeck’s script is as light and airy but as deliriously tasty as a chocolate soufflé as it follows a group of five would-be fiction writers in New York studying under a legendary writer-editor. As Rebeck proved with the delish Smash (of which I’m in the minority with regards to its merits), she can write concisely, bitingly, vividly about artists’ insecurities, diva competitions and rivalries, and self-involved dwellers of fabulous, rent-controlled Upper West Side apartments, all on prominent display in this play.  Seminar tries to say something (most of the time superficially) about the process of writing, the nurturing of talent, the value of plugging along despite rejection, blah, blah, blah, but the play is really an excuse to write scintillating, catty, smart-alecky dialogue: (the teacher Leonard to his students: “Am I creating a living, breathing cosmos of language, or am I just scratching at the wall of a cave?”).  It’s all kinda fun and dazzling; and everyone feels like they’re a smart adult coming out of the theater.

Marti Lyons, who is one of the young Chicago directors I admire, confidently pulls off a delightful evening at the theater with her smart pacing and a general wink-winkness about the proceedings ( Lyons  treats the characters with both affection and an awareness that these folks are pretty self-involved and somewhat delusional). She has a terrific cast to work with: as Leonard, Tom Hickey is both scathing and somewhat relatable (imagine having these students jockeying for attention in your class, who wouldn’t be exasperated?); as Izzy, the sex bomb of the class, Atra Asdou is funny,  impeccable, earthy; as Douglas, the well-connected, namedropping student, Carl Lindberg is adorably dorky-needy. Keith Neagle plays the tortured, insecure writer Martin with lots of intensity punctuated with a scruffy sexiness that makes you understand why otherwise normal and boring people can fall for creative types, but it’s Mary Williamson, who has impressed me over the past two years with every performance, who steals the whole shebang – her Kate, the life-long creative type who is backed up by a trust fund, delivers Rebeck’s cutting lines with zing but also paints a nuanced characterization of a feisty, confident, talented artist trying to break perceived or real barriers in the creative world brought about by her affluent background, her gender, and her sheltered experiences. Williamson is a delight and so is this production, putting Haven Theater on the map of Chicago’s must-follow theater companies. Seminar is onstage at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont, until April 13.

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