Spring Fresh

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billy-bigelow-carousel.jpgIt’s turning out to be an exciting spring in Chicago for breathing fresh life into all kinds of classics of the theater.  After being bowled over by a youthful, vivacious Misanthrope at Greasy Joan, I sat, thrilled, through two more productions which have interesting, novel takes on theatrical masterpieces, opening within days of one another.  At the Court Theater, Charlie Newell weaves his magic wand again and turns Carousel, the most legendary of legendary American musicals, into a realistic, pointedly and wrenchingly-human fable.  At TUTA, the bold, uncompromising theater company with a strong European sensibility, Zeljko Djukich creates an Uncle Vanya for the 21st century audience, without any tricks.  These two exceptional, visionary directors successfully reinvent and refocus their material and subvert expectations (dare I say stereotypes) of their dramatic type:  Newell’s Carousel proves that musicals don’t have to be big, brassy, over-the top extravaganzas with belting singers and cacophonous orchestrations in order to be energetic and memorable; Djukich’s Uncle Vanya proves once and for all, and especially for this Chekhov agnostic, that Chekhov can be done in a highly entertaining, engaging manner, making it unnecessary to hammer nails into one’s eyelids to keep them wide open.  I really, really hope that these two productions find their audience because one of the things that really galls me is when people- people who live in Chicago- tell me they have just gone to the theater, and it turns out the show was either Wicked or Jersey Boys.  Leave those to the tourists!

What play do you do next after staging a magnificent, brave, innovative, polarizing, never-before-seen production of one of Shakespeare’s rarely-performed plays?  Well, if you’re a normal person, you’ll probably do something simple, conventional, non-controversial.  If you’re Charlie Newell, you take on a beloved musical with a glorious score and strip it of its musical theater artifice and its propensity for pseudo-psychoanalysis to focus on emotional resonances.  You use an eight piece chamber ensemble instead of a full orchestra; you utilize a spare, minimalist set and no-frills lighting design (yep, this is one Carousel where there isn’t actually a carousel on stage, just a single hanging horse); you ask your actors to sing without microphones, and to sing the songs softly, conversationally but emotionally, so that the big, show-stopping Broadway musical numbers are transformed into dialogue and conversations, but set to music (significantly shaped by the genius of musical director Doug Peck). This is a phenomenally crisp, re-invented Carousel which will appeal to both musical theater fans and non-fans alike – if you have friends who think that watching a musical will make them suddenly want to wear caftans or watch re-runs of “The Golden Girls” on Lifetime, bring them to this! 

Newell brings home Carousel‘s theme of redemptive love clearly and beautifully with the help of an exceptional ensemble.  I initially thought Nicholas Belton’s Billy Bigelow felt more adolescent playing dress-up bully than actual conflicted cad, but he grew on me.  And when he sings, whether “If I Loved You” or “Soliloquy”, he sings so gloriously I wanted to bottle him up and take him home!  Although I think Johanna Mackenzie Miller is quite good as Julie Jordan, I feel that Jessie Mueller as Carrie Pipperidge, that strong-willed, clear-eyed best friend which has been portrayed by musical theater greats from Barbara Cook to Audra Macdonald, is the clear stand-out.  She totally enraptures the audience when she sings “Mr. Snow”, one of my all-time favorites in the Rodgers and Hammerstein songbook.  And what about that Matthew Brumlow!  I’ve been a big admirer since seeing him as Curly in last year’s Oklahoma at the American Theater Company (similar to Carousel, also stripped-down and re-envisioned), and his versatility continues to be fascinating.  I thought he gave such a strong Shakespearian performance in Titus Andronicus, and he gives another riveting one, a musical theater performance this time around, as the villainous Jigger Craigin.  And any night that Tony nominee Ernestine Jackson gets to sing “You’ll Never Walk Alone”, which gives the audience so much heartfelt warmth and tingles, is the night you want to dump the housework and reality TV to go to the theater.

Speaking of reality TV, I personally would be hard-pressed to give up an episode of “Project Runaway” or “Top Chef” to see another Chekhov production, even if it’s made hip and contemporary.  Call me a theatrical barbarian (well, I have been called worse), but Chekhov just does not do anything for me- sure his plays have a myriad of insights into the human condition, but to get to those insights you have to sit through interminable boredom, like watching paint dry.  Watching Ralph Lauren’s sexy Amalfi Red dry is still watching paint dry -you can dress up a Chekhov play and gimmick it all over, but it’s still going to be monumentally soporific.  I am particularly not enamored of Uncle Vanya, since it’s a play with a bunch of morose Russians sitting around complaining about gout, being stuck in the provinces, or not having any money, and no one really does anything.  At least in the Cherry Orchard, there’s the threat of someone cutting down that friggin’ tree.  So I was very pleasantly startled that I ended up really liking TUTA’s Uncle Vanya.  Time for full disclosure once again: I have worked with TUTA in the past as a Business Volunteer for the Arts through the Arts and Business Council of Chicago, so I am a huge fan of their work and admire their uncompromising stance to bring challenging theater to Chicago audiences (their season of Serbian plays a couple of years back was very courageous, and for me, very successful- I wished more theater companies did stuff like TUTA did).  Zeljko Djukich’s Uncle Vanya isn’t torn-up, chewed-out, deconstructed or reconstructed; it’s a straightforward staging.  What makes this Uncle Vanya different from others I have seen (like the Sam Mendes version I saw in New York several years ago with Emily Watson which nearly made me comatose) are two things:  the use of an unpublished translation by Steppenwolf’s Yasen Peyankov and Peter Christensen which contains language that is direct, simple, conversational, and believable which makes the characters’ ennui and frustration more relatable; and the very seamless integration of a bluesy original score from Shaun Witley and bluesy songs from folks like Bob Dylan into the production.  Hearing blues in a Chekhov production initially felt jarring to me, but then that aha moment came – the music felt right, truthful, complementary.  If there is one musical genre that captures that Chekhovian despondency and malaise, it’s the blues.  Quite brilliant!  The acting in Uncle Vanya is generally excellent, as to be expected from any production that Zeljko directs, but I must heap glowing praise on Jacqueline Stone (again, full disclosure:  I’ve known Jackie for a couple of years after working with her on that Arts and Business Council project) whose Sonia is both luminous and sad; strong and resigned; inscrutable but always giving off a whiff of pent-up, complex emotions.  It’s a fantastic, anchoring performance, clearly even Chris Jones in the Tribune was beguiled.

Speaking of Chris, he also loved Carousel.  Go see it prove that musical theater is not for divas or chorus boys alone at 5535 S. Ellis Ave. in Hyde Park.  You only have until April 13, after which we export it to the acclaimed Long Wharf Theater in Connecticut.  April 13 is also closing night for Uncle Vanya at the Chopin Studio Theatre, 1543 W. Division St.  Go see both in a weekend and really, truly feel what Chicago theater is about.

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