River Run

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I was just telling one of my friends the other week how it seems like there have been a noticeably higher number of musical productions in Chicago this half-year.  At one point several weeks ago the entire landing page of From the Ledge was comprised of posts about musicals.  Which isn’t a bad thing – I begin generating as much electricity as an Oklahoma lightning storm whenever I hear the first bars of a showtune. If there’s anyone who fervently loves his Barbra and his Patti, it’s me. But in years of Chicago theatergoing, I’ve felt that musical theater isn’t really the sweet spot of a theatergoing city built on the sweat, guts, tirades, and machismo of Mamet and Shepard and Wilson. So I’m always surprised when I see a musical production, and an original one at that, which bowls me over.  The Lookingglass Theatre world premiere of Andy White’s Eastland, with music by Andre Pluess and Ben Sussman and lyrics by White, is one of those welcome surprises- it’s one of the best plays I’ve seen in Chicago this year. 

The heart palpitations begin when you enter Lookingglass’ theater, redesigned by the brilliant Dan Ostling in a There Will Be Blood meets a more sophisticated Little House on the Prairie look, with billowing canvass roof covers, sunken seating made up of wooden pews, and an elevated stage. Intriguing, so what can come next? What comes next are just some of the most beautiful, stirring original songs from Pluess, Sussman, and White that recall bluegrass, folk music, and the musical Ragtime, yet remain distinctively modern, to tell the story of the Chicago citizens who were part of the Eastland tragedy.  In the summer of 1915, the SS Eastland, filled to overcapacity with Western Electric employees and their families on their way to a company picnic in Michigan, sank while moored on the Chicago River in between Clark and LaSalle streets. It’s a heartbreaking story, with 844 people dead, many of them women and children. Playwright White focuses on telling the backstories of the victims, as well as other people involved in the tragedy such as the ship’s Captain and Reggie, an ordinary Chicagoan who helped bring bodies up from the river. The stories are joyous, sad, humane, poignantly revealing and Pluess and Sussman’s music with its tinge of melancholy wondrously complement and amplify the emotions.  They’re also evocative of the time (the female ensemble members perform a strong-hearted song about the life options open to women in 1915) yet boldly contemporary (the most memorable song in the show, “Only the River Remains” about the Chicago River and it’s endurance over time, is poetically raw in its lyrics). 

Director Amanda Dehnert stages some of the most striking stage pictures I’ve seen this year – how she and Ostling represent the drowned is memorable in a gut-wrenching yet exhilarating way; one of Reggie’s dives, although coming off a little too Lookingglass-acrobatic for me, is mesmerizing.  She also makes good use of having the actors perform not only on the elevated stage but also on the runaway in front of it. If I have a criticism of the stage direction, it is that the blocking at times requires Linda Blair-in-The-Exorcist-like head-turning.  And she gets the best out of an exceptional cast, who also impressively double-up as musicians. The standouts for me are Claire Wellin, radiant like a younger Kirsten Dunst, as a young girl coming to the picnic with her family, full of an indomitable zest for life, refusing to give up even as she is trapped in the ship’s hull; and Monica West, jawdroppingly good as a married employee having an affair with her grocer (a typically excellent Erik Hellmann), demonstrating a myriad of complicated emotions – sadness, loneliness, excitement at her new lover, guilt at losing her son on the boat.

Although Eastland is one of the best shows I’ve seen so far this year, like most world premieres I’ve gone to recently it does have some areas for improvement.  I would have likes a little bit more depth in the portrayal of the emotional make-up of the ship’s Captain, who was ultimately responsible for the state of the vessel (although Michael B. Smith gives him a haunted dignity).  I also don’t understand the relevance of the Harry Houdini character – Reggie, in his dives, aims to beat Houdini’s record underwater, but this fact is so extraneous to the narrative.  And having a Harry Houdini character is a little too derivative of Ragtime for me (especially since the music and the time period recall the older musical).  The double and triple casting of the ensemble makes for a pretty breathless ensemble as they switch in and out of character and costumes, and jump in and out of the musician’s pit- a little more people in the cast will help tremendously. But Eastland is a substantial theatrical achievement, and reminds us of the strength and will to prevail of our beloved city.

If there is one show you should see this summer, it’s Eastland, which has been extended to August 19 at Lookingglass Theatre, 821 N. Michigan Ave. Thank me later.

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