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.