Plus, J. picks I’ve Got the World on a String, the Harold Arlen revue at City Lit.
Satchmo at the Waldorf, Court Theatre, through February 7: Terry Teachout’s look at the life of Louis Armstrong, told as the reminiscences of the entertainer himself, is both funny and sweet-sad. In this Midwest premiere, the show rests entirely on the shoulders of Barry Shabaka Henley, who plays not only Armstrong but his manager Joe Glaser and his nemesis Miles Davis. On opening night, Henley had a few stumbles with the text, but his Armstrong is pitch-perfect, literally: as soon as you hear his voice you know you’re in good hands. He’s also outrageously good as Davis, portrayed here as a clueless stoner whose naysaying about Armstrong’s persona meant he just didn’t get what was going on. The only weakness in the performance is Henley’s version of Glaser, Armstrong’s friend and ultimate betrayer: what’s supposed to be Chicago-New York-Jewish-gangster patois sounds more like Middle American Generic White Man. And don’t go expecting music: a few moments of scratchy recording are all we hear. But the show, under Charles Newell’s direction, is still a delight.
What I Learned in Paris, Congo Square Theatre, through February 7: In this show—part rom-com, part door-slamming farce—Pearl Cleage pays homage to Noel Coward’s Private Lives by bringing together an ex-husband and ex-wife on the eve of his wedding to Wife #2. The setting, though, is quite different: it’s Atlanta in 1973, and Maynard Jackson has just been elected the city’s first African-American mayor. As J.P. Madison jockeys for position in the new administration and struggles for an impossible level of respectability, in walks ex-wife Evie, who is anything but respectable. Shanesia Davis is spectacular as the convention-defying, loving-but-scheming, feminist-but-man-keeping Evie, and the rest of the cast plays up to her level. Darren Jones is particularly fine as J.P., who imagines he’s leading and is actually being led—by the nose. And I’d like costume designer Marci Rodgers to come home with me and make all my clothes so I look like Evie. A feminist romp among the African-American elites—it could hardly be more fun. Thanks to director Daniel Bryant for coming home from New York long enough to knock this one out of the park.
The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today, City Lit Theater, through February 21: I’d hoped this adaptation of Mark Twain’s novel would feel more like a critique of today’s Gilded Age; but it was hard to remember that when Jacquelyne Jones was on the stage, which is virtually the entire time. Jones plays Laura Hawkins, an impoverished Southern belle who sets out to conquer 1870s Washington and succeeds until she encounters the man who loved and ruined her in 1860s Tennessee. Disaster, needless to say, ensues. Paul Edwards’s adaptation is superb in clarifying and maintaining the momentum of a complex story, and Jones’s performance is so rich that we mostly don’t care what happens as long as she’s still there to be watched. This is a going-to-be-a-big-star performance. The rest of the company, under Adam Goldstein’s direction, is fine in the classic City Lit manner, playing numerous roles and conveying shifts of time and location with ease. If you don’t carry in with you the notion—or, perhaps, the hope—that Twain somehow skewered today’s Congress, you won’t be disappointed. And, to be fair, the portrait of a Congress for sale and at the mercy of lobbyists rings true and contemporary; it’s just not ugly enough to seem to be a real critique. That’s what happens when life outstrips art, or truth is stranger than fiction.
The Critics assess the final play in City Lit’s series of works about the Civil War. Kelly recommends Murder Ballad by Bailiwick at the Flatiron Building, and Jonathan gives thumbs up to Steppenwolf’s The Herd.
Jonathan and Kelly disagree about Coraline, a musical based on the Neil Gaiman fantasy novel produced by Black Button Eyes Productions at City Lit Theater in Edgewater. Then J. evaluates the latest Sean Graney extravaganza, All Our Tragic based on ALL of the extant Greek dramas.
Celia (Joanne Dubach) and Randy (Andrew Goetten) plan their revenge and great escape in Jackalope’s The Killing of Michael X (photo courtesy of Jackalope Theatre).
Jonathan and Kelly duel over a world premiere about grief, adolescent angst and making a movie, presented by Jackalope Theatre. Then, Jonathan recommends A Crime in the Neighborhood, a page-to-stage adaptation at City Lit.
Donterrio Johnson & Lorenzo Rush, Jr. in Ain’t Misbehavin’. Photo by Kelsey Jorissen.
Tom Jones at Northlight. The Jon Jory adaptation of Fielding’s novel is as sexy as the movie, and director William Brown makes sure we know it. As played by Sam Ashdown, Tom manages to be catnip to the ladies without coming off as a preening jerk, and everyone in support (a number of them, like Ashdown, working at Northlight for the first time) gets into the spirit of the era and Fielding’s parody of its pieties. Jory, known for his adaptations of Jane Austen, here adopts quite a different voice, but with no less success. Through February 23 at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie.
Saint Joan at ShawChicago. This concert reading of Shaw’s play, directed by Robert Scogin, is so vigorous and smart that you don’t miss little things like staging, set and costumes. A dozen Chicago theater veterans tear into Shaw’s arguments about religion and politics with energy, clarity and aplomb. Particularly distinguished are the two leads, Jhenai Mootz as Joan the Maid and Jonathan Nichols as the Bastard of Orleans. Even their enthusiasm is insufficient to keep the 3-plus hour play from drooping after intermission—apparently no one mentioned to Shaw that brevity is the soul of wit—but the production comes roaring back in the final scene, when all the players reunite in heaven. Through February 24 at the Ruth Page Theater on the Gold Coast.
Recommended with reservations:
Ain’t Misbehavin’ at Porchlight. Unlike the refined jazz-lite tiptoeing its way into “Downton Abbey,” this is the real deal: the music of Thomas “Fats” Waller, who learned his piano-playing trade in the brothels of New Orleans’s Storyville, is the apotheosis of 1920s jazz. And this all-music musical is the real deal, too, wasting no time on a trumped-up book and letting us learn the characters through what, and how, they sing. Pianist/conductor Austin Cook provides able stride-piano support to the five singers, and in that excellent group Donterrio Johnson stands out as flawless, especially in the stoner anthem “The Viper.” So what’s my problem?
Here ’tis, as Waller might say: Director Brenda Didier seems to think Waller’s bawdy lyrics and seductive music need to be underlined by having the actresses shake their boobs and the actors run their hands suggestively down their inseams. This is unnecessary and transforms a group of sophisticated entertainers into clowns. Moreover, it seems to be a contemporary example of the way white people have historically projected our libidos onto African-Americans, with a result to neither group’s credit.
Doubtless I’m the only critic in the city who has anything negative to say about this production, and I urge you not to deprive yourself. I just couldn’t help squirming. Through March 9 at Stage 773 on Belmont.
Rough Crossing at First Folio. The promotional material tells the tale: director Alison Vesely has confused Tom Stoppard with P.G. Wodehouse. While Rough Crossing takes place in the same milieu (life among the idiot privileged), the works are really quite different. Wodehouse is leisurely, a sort of slow-burn comedy, while Stoppard relies on lightning-fast repartee for his humor. Thus, the pace of the entire production is off, and a comedy without pace is—well, not a comedy. There are a few excellent individual performances: in particular, Alex Weisman manages to refresh a bit about stuttering which must first have been performed in the Mesozoic era. Through March 2 at the Mayslake Estate in Oakbrook.
The Tempest at City Lit. Shakespeare’s final play is about putting the world back in balance—returning the rightful king to his throne, uniting warring kingdoms, freeing slaves. When it’s instead directed as a love story between Prospero and his servant Ariel, as it is here by Sheldon Patinkin, the play itself falls out of balance. Even when other choices are correct—the incidental music by Kingsley Day is just about perfect, and Callie Johnson is a graceful and lovely Ariel, especially as garbed by costume designer Patricia Roeder—the production’s tilt toward an impossible central romance makes the whole thing feel futile. Through March 16 in the Edgewater Presbyterian Church on Bryn Mawr.