Singing and Dancing

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new colony orville and wilbur did itIt’s been another hectic theatergoing weekend. Despite the maddening fluctuations of Chicago not-yet summer weather (alternating hot weather and thunderstorms), audiences continue to flock to the city’s bountiful stage offerings. Here are my thoughts on two plays I saw over the weekend:  The New Colony’s enjoyably confounding Orville and Wilbur Did It! and Kokandy Productions’ just confounding Assassins.

Orville and Wilbur Did It! (The New Colony) – I have a lot of affection for The New Colony which, with its devised productions and tightrope-walking-without-a-net sensibility, is in my opinion truly one of the most distinctive Chicago theater companies.  I’ve written about them a lot on this blog over the years, and even their infuriating failures have always been intriguing.  Their current world premiere production of David Zellnik’s Orville and Wilbur Did It! about a touring group of actors putting on children’s shows in the wide open expanses of flyover country is indeed one of the most intriguing, and probably tops the “what the hell did I just see?” list of The New Colony productions in my book.  Zellnik wrote the book and lyrics for the acclaimed off-Broadway musical Yank! from a couple of years ago, and he has clear-eyed things to say about the acting profession, its sometimes hollow aspirations and its often frequent mundaneness and humiliations. And the three songs he wrote for this play with composer Eric Svejkar are frothy, hummable, and warm-hearted.  But the play is packed with so many themes and ideas, so much “stuff” that haven’t been untangled or smoothed over, ranging from the preciously inane (fake otter adoption schemes) to the potentially insightful (the debate in the gay community between monogamy and promiscuity) to the dramatically potent (how to portray the big bad world in children’s theater) that I didn’t get ultimately what the play was about.  And with two acts, it feels lengthier than the unruly material deserves.  Director Andrew Hobgood’s light-handed, seemingly improvisational direction (I’m not sure if the long pauses and meandering sentences are part of the script or not) doesn’t help clear up things.

But having said that, there is a lot to love in Orville and Wilbur Did It! Hobgood’s comic pacing is impeccable, especially in the belly-bursting second act. The performances, as expected in a The New Colony production, are solidly accomplished.  Co-Artistic Director Evan Linder and the beyond-gorgeous Kevin Stangler as the actors playing brothers Orville and Wilbur who have a love-hate-love relationship offstage are sexy-hilarious (and their chemistry together is palpable).  Jessica London-Shields as the much put-upon nervous neophyte of a tour manager is adorably empathetic.  Alex Grelle, although a tad outrageous, as the German-accented, bowel-challenged , ambiguously straight (?) substitute actor X gives one of the funniest, no-holds-barred performances I’ve seen this season, despite the fact that you never really understand what he’s doing in the show.  Joey Romaine, Morgan McNaught, and understudy Connor McNamara (who performed in the performance I saw) all put in laudable ensemble turns.  It’s a thoroughly enjoyable show despite the limitations of the script that needs to be wrestled with and tightened up (a common characteristic of many world premiere plays I see these days). Orville and Wilbur Did It! is at the Signal Ensemble Theatre, 1802 W. Berenice Avenue, until July 20.

Assassins (Kokandy Productions) - Assassins, Stephen Sondheim’s and James Weidman’s uncomfortable but incisive conceptual musical about assassins and would-be assassins of US presidents, is one of those few Sondheim musicals that don’t get produced frequently (the subject matter is a tough nut to crack both from an audience perspective and from a production perspective – how do you make us care about these people?).  Surprisingly, I’ve seen several, the latest being a superb 2011 Toronto production that won the best musical nod at their equivalent of the Tony Awards.  So I’m probably more familiar with the material than most audience members, and that’s why I’m perplexed by the artistic choices that director Rachel Edwards Harvith makes in Kokandy Productions’ current offering.  But first, the things I really liked about this production.  Assassins is set in a carnival shooting gallery presided over by a mysterious Proprietor with the assassins milling about until they recount their successful or failed attempts, usually in a big musical number.  Zachary Gipson’s impressive set design captures the tawdry and menacing surrealism of this milieu. The seven person orchestra, under the musical direction of Kory Danielson, confidently navigates Sondheim’s demanding, genre-bending and time-spanning musical score. There are terrific turns from Eric Lindahl as a sexy John Wilkes Booth, Nella Baron as an endearingly clumsy Sara Jane Moore, one of Gerald Ford’s would-be assassins, and most especially, the charismatic Jason Richards as a desperate Samuel Byck who flew a plane into the White House in an attempt to assassinate Richard Nixon. Richards gives a star performance – with his intense line readings and haunted eyes, he makes Byck the one character that is understandable despite his murderously misguided motivations.

But I have so many reservations about Harvith’s production. She uses the original off-Broadway staging instead of the 2004 Broadway premiere and keeps The Balladeer and Lee Harvey Oswald separate characters. That’s fine. But The Balladeer’s role and potency as the cynical representative of a false American Dream isn’t clearly-defined then. Some of it is in the staging- The Balladeer’s first number is “The Ballad of Booth” and it is performed on the far right of the stage on top of the orchestra while Booth is all the way on stage left. So who the heck is this guy singing “The Ballad of Booth” and why did he just pop up?  The costuming is also perplexing, Cole Doman’s outfit of tight t-shirt, black waistcoat, and studded knee-high boots come off more twink dom then, uhhmm, a balladeer. Doman, though a pretty good singer, feels too young and fresh-faced for the role, too eager to please than aloof, sardonic narrator. Then there’s Jeff Meyer’s performance as The Proprietor.  This character owns the shooting gallery; he is the assassins’ handler and puppetmaster, the epitome of their darkness. So I’m expecting (and have seen in previous productions) a more menacing, terrifying, hard-hearted, tough-skinned performance. But Meyer, although an excellent singer, doesn’t display any of those traits. Instead it’s a mincing, sashaying, mother hen of a portrayal. So again it begs the question who is The Proprietor? And what does he represent to these characters?  Although “Everybody’s Got the Right” is wonderfully performed, I’m not a fan of some of the other musical numbers:  Michael Potsic’s John Hinckley gives a histrionic rendition of “Unworthy of Your Love”, one of my favorite songs in the Sondheim canon, which dilutes its graceful if creepy appeal (it is his love song to Jodie Foster not a nervous breakdown song); the staging and choreography of “Another National Anthem” feels clunky and crowded. I’m also not sure why Harvith stages many of the scenes (including the crucial scene between William McKinley assassin Leon Czolgosz and anarchist Emma Goldman) on the far right side of the theater when the majority of the audience is sitting on the left side.  And unlike the other productions of Assassins I’ve seen, I don’t think this staging makes us understand that beneath the grotesqueness, these are people who actually believe they’re doing the right thing, however reprehensible and disgusting it is to the rest of us. Assassins is at Theatre Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave., until July 20.

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