Plus two more musicals: K. recommends Boho Theatre’s Dogfight and J. picks Sideshow at Porchlight.
MadKap Productions at the Skokie Theatre (a movie house turned into a legit stage) is giving Tony- and Pulitzer-Prizewinning musical Next to Normal a strong if far too brief production. Hard as it may be to imagine a musical about a woman with bipolar disorder, Brian Yorkey’s book and lyrics and Tom Kitt’s music provide this portrait of family dysfunction with honesty and poetry in equal measure. And under the direction of Andrew Park (music direction by Gary Powell), this version of the show is as moving and funny as the one I saw several years ago at Drury Lane Oakbrook, a bigger house with significantly greater resources. The performance (and especially the singing) of Whitney Morse as Diana, the mother whose illness threatens to wreck her family as well as her own life, suggests much bigger things in her future: she’s rueful but free of self-pity, funny without resorting to stereotype, and all-around engaging. Try to make time to see the show before it closes on September 27. And don’t be fooled by the faint air of community theater which somehow attaches to the location: this is the second show I’ve seen there, and the second one about which I’ve raved.
Meanwhile, BoHo Theatre presents Dogfight, a musical based on a film about Marines who while away their hours before deployment betting who can find the ugliest woman to date. From this unpromising source, playwright Peter Duchan constructs a love story: Eddie (the charming Garrett Lutz) chooses Rose (Emily Goldberg, both sweet and strong) as a joke and unexpectedly finds himself liking her. But before he can follow through, Rose has learned about the game and stormed away. Eventually he tracks her down and what ensues is as romantic as Before Sunrise: a final night spent together falling in love. The show manages to maintain the romance without falling into sentimentality, and to attract our sympathy for everyone on the stage: the Marines whose toughness conceals terror (but not very well) and the women they mistreat as casually as if they were pieces of gum to be chewed and spit out. The music and lyrics by Benu Pasek and Justin Paul suggest the mid-1960s but steer clear of falling into period pastiche, and the cast’s voices are up to the challenge. Kudos to director Peter Marston Sullivan and music director Ellen K. Morris. Through October 18 at Theatre Wit in Lakeview.
Sarah Bockel and Jim Deselm in BoHo Theatre’s production of Parade by Jason Robert Brown and Alfred Uhry.
Parade, BoHo Theatre at Theater Wit: “I’m going to see a musical about a lynching,” I said to my friends. Small wonder I couldn’t find anyone interested in taking my extra ticket. Their loss, because as directed by Linda Fortunato, Parade is a quintessentially American story told mostly through Jason Robert Brown’s powerful music and trenchant lyrics—an opera for people like me who don’t like opera. The story, as rendered in a book by Alfred Uhry (of Driving Miss Daisy fame: who knew he could be so unsentimental and so smart?), details what happened to Leo Frank, a Northern Jew in Atlanta, when a young woman is found murdered in his factory in the earliest years of the 20th Century. He’s convicted on essentially no evidence, and when the Governor of Georgia recognizes that and commutes Frank’s death sentence, the townsfolk drag Frank from prison and execute him themselves.
From the opening scene, set at the start of the Civil War, the text makes clear that for the people of Atlanta the War has never ended—the eponymous parade is a celebration of Confederate Memorial Day—and that they can’t resist the opportunity to avenge themselves on a Yankee. Fortunato and music director Matt Deitchman bring this out with subtlety, but it’s the central message of the piece. I clearly remember the assassination of JFK fifty years ago; so of course in 1913 the people of Atlanta are still remembering, and trying to come to terms with, its burning and their loss of the war.
The company performs the show’s difficult music with great facility, and though most are condemned to play loathsome characters none shrinks away from the required ugliness. Jim Deselm gets surprisingly little to do as Frank, but whenever he’s given the opportunity he soars; and he’s more than matched by the excellent Sarah Bockel as his wife, a Southerner trying to reconcile her love for her homeland with her love for her husband. A meditation on the persistence of hatred, BoHo Theatre’s Parade is a thought-provoking and thrilling work. Through November 16 at Theater Wit on Belmont; get there during these final two weeks.
The Hundred Flowers Project at Silk Road Rising: Midway through this meta-theatrical work by Christopher Chen, I had to remind myself that normal people don’t see four plays a week and that therefore most members of the audience for this show will not also have seen House Theatre’s equally and similarly meta-theatrical Season on the Line. So let’s presume you haven’t and that therefore the notion of a play about developing a play doesn’t feel like old hat. In that case, you will find The Hundred Flowers Project under Joanie Schultz’s vigorous direction a challenging and exciting work, in which a group of young actors working to develop a script about the Chinese Cultural Revolution find themselves engaging in the same destructive group-think as the political figures they seek to portray. Chen has a terrific ear for phony inclusiveness and for dictatorial behavior masquerading as consensus-building, and those political themes give heft and value to what might otherwise have been an exercise in actors’ being cleverly self-regarding. Mia Park shines as the power-drunk director, and she’s ably supported by the rest of the cast. Michael Stanfill’s video and projections design provide the perfect ominous note of nowhere-ness, of ideas and plans and even people disappearing into a rabbit hole of dishonest nonsense. Well worth seeing; through November 23 at Silk Road Rising’s home in the Chicago Temple building downtown.
The Velveteen Rabbit at Lifeline Theatre: I hardly ever review children’s theater, and now we know why: I started crying about half an hour into the 50-minute length of The Velveteen Rabbit, and didn’t stop until I’d sniffled my way up the street and had a good howl in my car. Elise Kauzlaric’s adaptation of the Margery Williams book misses none of the pathos of this child’s love for his stuffed rabbit and the rabbit’s reciprocal desire to be “real”—a term which turns out to have more than one meaning. Amanda Link directs a small company led by Christopher Acevedo as The Boy and the utterly adorable Jamie Cahill as the Velveteen Rabbit, and the show’s end is happy enough for children—just not enough for hard-bitten theater critics. Jessica Kuehnau Wardell’s costume designs vividly demonstrate the rabbit’s passage from shiny new toy to beloved companion. Saturdays and Sundays at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. through November 23.
The Inside at MPAACT:As Executive Director Reginald Lawrence pointed out in his curtain speech, MPAACT has been producing the work of Lydia R. Diamond since before she was LYDIA DIAMOND, author of Stick Fly and Voyeurs de Venus as well as an adaptation of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. This early work, adapted from the poems of Nikki Giovanni and first done by the company 15 years ago, places Kristin E. Ellis alone on stage narrating an evening her character Emma spends at a party full of academic pretensions and not-very-concealed racism. While Ellis’s performance (under Deidre Searcy’s direction) is heartfelt and full of hairpin turns from comedy to pain and back again, the play itself runs out of steam about 2/3 of the way through. Not to be too literal-minded, but why doesn’t Emma just leave? Yes, she’s seeking approval from this roomful of cretins—seeking to be on ‘the inside’—but no one this smart would let herself be whipsawed in the ways described. Shepsu Aakhu’s set, featuring bottles and other tokens of her life suspended from the ceiling, provides just the right feeling of, well, suspense: when this night finally ends, what will have crashed down and what will remain? Through November 29 at the Greenhouse Theater Center on Lincoln Avenue.
Strandline at A Red Orchid Theatre:Red Orchid never fails to offer superb acting but it might want to reconsider the number of times it chooses plays consisting of drunken Irish people yelling at each other. As anyone who’s ever been the only sober person at a party knows, listening to drunks can wear thin quickly; and though Abbie Spallen’s play (here in its U.S. premiere) intends to be unraveling a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma, the work has neither the appropriately weighty mystery nor the sufficiently clear resolution to support its length. J.R. Sullivan directs the usual stellar cast, including AROT Artistic Director Kirsten Fitzgerald, Dado and Natalie West. Perhaps the appeal of the piece was the number of roles it contains for women of a certain age, but even that novelty won’t sustain an audience for two acts. Through December 7 at the company’s home space in Old Town.