Savannah Quinn Hoover as Mimi and Patrick Rooney as Roger in Theo Ubique’s production of Rent. Photo by Adam Veness.
The first time I saw Rent I was underwhelmed; that’s because I didn’t see it done by Theo Ubique. Now I understand what all the noise has been about: the gorgeous choral harmonies of Jonathan Larson’s score make its La Boheme-inspired story of freezing artists and wannabes resonate with those of us who aren’t freezing. Director Scott Weinstein, Choreographer Daniel Spagnuolo and—especially—music director and pianist Jeremy Ramey make the lives of the downtrodden a treat for eye and ear.
The show is flawlessly cast: Matt Edmonds as Mark, who spends the show documenting everything with his video camera instead of experiencing it, has the perfect imperfect face and a voice which makes melody out of even Larson’s least melodic songs, including the title number. Patrick Rooney as Roger, sulking in his tent like a contemporary Achilles, has the classic floppy-haired tragic romantic look, and is complemented wonderfully by Savannah Hoover’s Mimi. And Aubrey McGrath deserves a special acknowledgment: he plays drag-queen Angel, a part written for a Latino actor, with such life-giving energy that any and all prejudices—for or against drag queens; for or against casting against ethnic type—simply melt away. Without naming every single member of the cast, I can’t do justice to its quality: suffice it to say, go.
Through May 1 at the No Exit Cafe in Rogers Park.
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.
Mary-Arrchie may be beginning its final season but there’s nothing to suggest it’s slacking off. Rather, with its production of Guardians by Peter Morris, tersely directed by Arianna Soloway, the company reconfirms for the 30th year its standing as a place where drama and social justice go hand in hand.
The play is a pair of intertwined monologues, one delivered by the female soldier who appeared in the Abu Ghraib prison photos (“American Girl,” the flawless Jaci Entwistle) and the other by a British journalist (“English Boy” Adam Soule, persuasively self-satisfied and creepy) who stands in for the anonymous member of the press who staged an Abu-Ghraib-like scene and published the pictures in the tabloids before they were discovered to be a hoax. They never interact and their stories never intersect, but they’re talking about the same thing: power, whether sexual or military. The Girl recounts how she came to participate in the humiliation of Iraqi prisoners, with a flood of self-justification which doesn’t satisfy her, let alone us: she was compelled to transfer her prejudice from fellow-soldiers (including “coloreds”) to the enemy and/or she was determined to show strength to her boyfriend by being able to “take it,” whether “it” was rough sex or being photographed harming a captive. But she observes cogently that the people truly responsible for the catastrophe have never been and will never be called to account. Meanwhile, The Boy allows his ambition to become a columnist for a great paper (one of the “Guardians” of the title) to lead him far from anything recognizable as journalistic ethics, while he pursues sexual dominance over a younger man he claims to love. In one of Morris’s most telling lines, The Boy describes how free he felt while abusing his lover, completely swept up in his own pleasure and with no sense of responsibility—“In short, an American!”
Grant Sabin’s stark white set (representing The Girl’s cell in the brig) silently demonstrates that secrets and lies can hide under the brightest light. This is a substantial piece of work, but it’s not heavy—we are engaged with the characters even as we accept them as metaphors for the methods and consequences of abusing power. See this play: through Oct. 18 at Mary-Arrchie’s soon-to-be-demolished theater in Lakeview.
The musical by Green Day receives the best production one could wish for, with a cast wholly committed to the material (not to say hyperactive), fine voices, and some good dancing (though choreographer Katie Spelman might reconsider the use of wiggling fingers in lieu of dance moves: in the context of the show’s general boldness, they look fussy). Director Steven Wilson and music director Andra Velis Simon get the most out of the sketchy book and banal lyrics (both by Billie Joe Armstrong, with Michael Mayer as co-playwright). The scene in which our hero (Luke Linsteadt) meets his lady-love (the splendid Krystal Worrell) is electric as they sing together the group’s pop hit “I Walk Alone.” (Easy irony, anyone?)
The problem is the material which, just like Hair a generation or two ago, reduces its women to adjuncts to the men, who are engaged in the real business of self-discovery. And it’s particularly easy to recognize this flaw because so much of the show seems ripped off from Hair: there’s the rebellious gang of anti-establishment friends, the guy who becomes a soldier, the one whose pregnant girlfriend will tie him down, the one who’s stoned all the time (though in this case it’s by shooting up rather than smoking dope).
This may seem like a crotchety complaint, and people who haven’t seen Hair won’t be troubled by the parallels; but everyone should be troubled by the fact that, nearly 50 years later, we still only notice women as they pertain to or are useful to men. If, however, you can submerge yourself in the performance energy, the music and the dancing, perhaps the neglect of women won’t ruin your evening. Through October 25 at the Den Theatre in Wicker Park.
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.