Upcoming Dance

Bill Esler

Bill Esler

A native Chicagoan, Bill Esler has been a printer and publisher for more than 35 years. He has B.A. in English with a concentration in writing from Knox College.  

The Pearl Fishers has been called Bizet’s most beautiful opera. Lyric’s electric production is certainly one of the most beautiful visually as well. 

The continuously melodious score also represents a departure from more familiar opera, with just one principal female role, Leila (soprano Marina Rebeka) and with the strongest duets sung by the male roles, Zurga (baritone Mariusz Kwiecien) and Nadir (tenor Matthew Silvestrelli, a home grown talent from Lyric’s own Ryan school).

This production of The Pearl Fishers is also striking for its primitivist scene designs, expressive lighting, and dance sequences that provide a fresh and contemporary take on the mythical setting of the story. This season’s move of the Joffrey Ballet into the role of Lyric’s in-house dance troupe provides an added creative dynamic for each production.

The choreography in The Pearl Fishers – and every Lyric show for that matter - probably deserves a separate review under the Dance sections. It is quite sensational, adding a flavor all its own, especially in the seamless combination with the performer’s dress. The animal dancers have a kind of Julie Taymor Lion King thing going, and this is courtesy of the break out talent of Sandra Rhodes.

Production and costume designs are by Rhodes. Done for the San Diego Opera Company and Michigan Opera Company, both are visual triumphs, and technical achievements. Rhodes must dress regal principal singers, an active corps of supernumerary fisherman and villagers, and a ballet troupe in fashion that advances the narrative, but will not come undone in energetic dance interludes. It’s the ultimate active ware. 

Bizet, known widely today for his later opera Carmen, was just 24 when The Pearl Fishers premiered in 1838. It is the story of a fishing village set in “ancient” Ceylon (today’s Sir Lanka), within a Hindu temple grounds as a center of much of the action.

As to theology, history, and culture, the opera has the story all wrong. At the time Europeans were entranced with the exotic Orient – but it was also terra incognita. (One Sri Lankan academe notes the opera originally was set in Mexico, the contemporary heart of global pearl production, until someone pointed out to Bizet that it was not in the Orient.) There was no Wikipedia back then.

Nevertheless, in the Hindu temple at Lyric we find Buddhist monks and an annual ritual in which a vestal virgin must abstain from romance overnight at the temple, or she will be sacrificed. (She gets a precious pearl if she is well behaved.) A high priest is also chief justice over all such executions. The God Brahma is also involved. 

The plot revolves around two young men, Zurga and Nadir, who previously competed for Leila, but now have pledged undying friendship, both forswearing her in the interest of preserving their friendship. 

Darndest thing! Leila is this year’s vestal candidate. And so we have a scene in which the tenor creeps into the temple to seduce her – with lots of “I must have you” tenor-ing, and even more “no you must go or you will be killed” soprano-ing.

Of course, the high priest Nourabad (bass Andrea Silvestrelli) catches them, and we’ll let you go to the opera to find out what happens. The Lyric calls the relationship between the guys a bromance, and the intensity of their fealty made me research whether Georges Bizet was gay (he was married with a daughter). Suffice it to say "gay" still means "happy" in the world of opera. 

The Lyric Opera’s production of The Pearl Fishers comes highly recommended for what opera productions should be, and you have three more opportunities on December 4, 7 and 10.

You don’t need to be an Anglophile to love The Audience.

Directed admirably by Nick bowling, it is written by Peter Morgan, the trending screenwriter of the The Queen (Helen Mirren) and the Netflix series The Crown, developed another angle on portraying Queen Elizabeth II: recounting a number of the 20-minute political briefings delivered weekly by Britain’s Prime Minister in a private audience with her Majesty.

This engaging stroll through history will also help explain to American's the vital role the Queen still plays in British society - though whether she's too expensive isn't resolved. The Queen functions as the reflective conscience of the British people, and remains as Prime Ministers come and go. 

Even before her coronation, the young Elizabeth is carrying on the tradition, and the play soon brings us to Churchill – who refuses to sit for the conversation. Elizabeth soon puts her stamp on the matter, and he Sir Winston is soon seated and receiving a dose of scotch. She also regularly reminds all her PMs that she heads what was the British Commonwealth - 52 nations largely former colonies who have at least some fealty to British culture and the Queen. 

Janet Ulrich Brooks does a marvelous job as the Queen, and the role is demanding for any actress. The playwright avoids a rote chronological sequence by having scenes jump around in time. Brooks ages in place, and manages to convey a constancy of personality, while also evolving Elizabeth who grows up and gets old before our eyes.

Janet Ulrich Brooks  is so seriously good here, notwithstanding inevitable comparisons with Helen Mirren, who originated the role in London and brought it to Broadway. You will not think one jot about Mirren when you watch her.

Brooks is also surrounded by a remarkable cast. Along with the Queen, there is another constant figure on stage through all the political ages: the Equerry played with immeasurable aplomb by David Lively. The Equerry is to the Queen, as she is the Prime Minister. The conversations in the weekly audience  are expected to be entirely private. And while the Queen is not actually ruling, she is reflecting – and her periodic interjections certainly have influenced the government.

Playwright Morgan has distilled the essence of each of these PMs, while resisting caricature, and tapping into the memorable issues during their terms. Think of names the strongly resonate, like Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair, John Major, David Cameron. Kudo’s to the actors and to Matt DeCaro (Winston Churchill / Harold Wilson / Tony Blair), and Mark Ulrich (John Major / Gordon Brown / Anthony Eden / David Cameron). DeCaro and Ulrich have physically taxing roles, and deliver their Prime Ministers with verve and precision. 

Carmen Roman as Margaret Thatcher was a dead ringer, and also brought frisson to the scene in which she confronts Queen Elizabeth for disparaging her Reagan-like dismantling of Britain’s social safety net and socialized marketplace.

Also notable for its timeliness – with the 20th anniversary of her death -  is the scene in which Queen Elizabeth’s emotional struggles with Princess Diana rise to the surface – but just barely.

A cinematic trope brings a child actor onto the stage intermittently in a nod to the Queen’s childhood – I can’t say those were effective scenes, but they provided leavening for the rest of the play.   

The Audience is recommended. It plays through November 12 at TimeLine Theatre, 615 W. Wellington Ave. in Chicago

Kristoffer Diaz’s “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity” is getting a knock-out revival by Red Theater. Named for the colorfully staged, and bombastic entrances of professional wrestlers - with costumes, smoke, lights, confetti, and plenty of trash-talking put-downs of their rivals to rile up the audience - pro wrestling is really a natural event for the stage.

In this send-up of the seemingly testosterone-laden world of pro wrestlers – and a hilarious one at that - director Jeremy Aluma has also plumbed the depths of this play, lauded with an Obie and a Pulitzer finalist after its 2008 premier.

Our narrator and guide, Mace (Alejandro Tey), a young Puerto Rican man with a life-long love of wrestling – explains his career in that vital role as one of the class of professional losers, who are willingly vanquished so that the celebrated star wrestler – in this play Chad Deity – can be further elevated and celebrated. And the pay is good.

With amazing casting by Gage Wallace, the production puts the audience in the role of fans at the arena. Much as I resist such tropes (please, let me hide in my seat!), this production drew me in, then captured me – along with the rest of us watching at the StrawDog Theatre building.   

This was in part due to the charismatic and captivating performance of Alejandro Tey as Mace. He carries on for perhaps 45 minutes, relating his life story, teaching us the fine points of the profession, and explaining the symbiosis between the winner and loser. This almost mesmerizing performance is punctuated by demonstrations of wrestling technique.

But in very large measure Chad Deity succeeds on the seamless performances of the troupe – Mickey Sullivan is top drawer as Eko, the promoter; Will Snyder as The Bad Guy and as Fight Captain; and the night I saw it, Harsh Gagoomal as VP. Special kudos to Dave Honigman as the other Bad Guy and as an off-the-wall Referee who also performs janitorial duties and even wanders into the lobby during intermission. Chad Deity himself – Semaj Miller – tears up the in an over the top performance

Before seeing Chad Deity, I was quite blind to the team work and dynamic between winners and losers. My perception was the wrestling was clowning, not sport. In fact, the throws – and accompanying falls – require careful training. The troupe at Red Theater did its due diligence in learning these skills and clearly put in the hours on the wrestling mat.

The revival of this play is also timely. The panoply of villainous characters challenging Chad Diaz’s script highlights the American male heroes who vanquish the Bad Guys. The play – like real wrestling – trades on caricatures for the winners and designated losers alike. Over time, new models of trending bad guys are rolled out.

In Chad Deity, that new character is VJ, a motormouthed Pakistani who stands in for a variety of Middle Eastern villains. Mace adopts the role of his accomplice, playing a Mexican bandit. Let’s just say neither of them intend to pay for any frigging wall.

The plot may be overly burdened by one additional claim on it: Mace is really a great wrestler, and wants to win, rather than lose well. Just once he would like to take the winners belt. Mace and the play deserve this, but it does seem to slow the action at points.

The Red Theater creative team has converted the Strawdog Theatre space into a convincing live wrestling event. It was an absolute delight. The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity plays through September 16, 2017 at 1802 W Berenice Ave, Chicago, IL 60613. It is highly, highly recommended.

In Ah Wilderness, Eugene O’Neill tackles the emotional struggles of an upper middle class family, with sibling rivalries and marital and romantic dynamics that ring true today.

Goodman Theatre’s current production struck gold, however, with Niall Cunningham - he's a TV star of Life in Pieces - in the lead role as a teenage boy struggling to establish his independence from his family, amid the discovery of romance.

The play is set on July 4, 1906, though it was written in 1932, and was said to be dashed off rather quickly by the playwriight. O’Neill is more familiar for his darker, plays like The Iceman Cometh, Mourning Becomes Electra, or Long Day’s Journey into Night. Ah Wilderness is a lighter affair, O’Neill’s only comedy and produced less frequently, it throws a different light on his mastery as a playwright.  

With a 15-member cast, Ah Wilderness centers on the tribulations of the 16-year-old Richard Miller (Niall Cunningham's role), whose fevered passions have been ignited by emotionally charged and sexually suggestive writing of Byron and Wilde. Their poetry was considered risqué in small town America. At the time the country was swept up in efforts at prohibition, driven by the rise of evangelical Protestantism and its view of saloon culture as corrupt and ungodly.

It’s a perfect summer play, set at a waterside cottage, and Ah Wilderness contrasts this young love with the unrequited passion by the teen’s Uncle, and the mature and settled love of his parents. The show is a major production, and Steve Scott’s direction is pitch perfect.

The big score, though, is Cunningham as a poetry-obsessed teenager who is driven to a night of rebellion, expressed in this case by accompanying a buddy of his older brother (Travis Knight plays that pretentious, pipe-smoking collegiate brother, Arthur Miller) to a bawdy house – where he drinks and gets himself into trouble.

Cunningham, 22 in real life, gives a most credible and informed performance to the conflicted teenager riddled with angst. He is butting against the newly found hypocrisy of everyday life, and has been driven off the edge when his young neighbor and romantic interest, Muriel McComber (Ayssette Muñoz) sends a Dear John letter. As we suspect, her father made her write it, and the two are later reconciled, with Shakespearean-flavored romantic jousting.   

The rest of the cast is evenly excellent. While the characters on some levels must play foils for Cunningham's Miller, O'Neill explores with some tenderness the seasoned love of the family patriarch (Randall Newsome as Nat Miller) and matriarch (Ora Jones is wonderful as Essie Miller), and that of the unrequited love of the maternal uncle (Larry Bates as Sid Davis) and paternal aunt (Kate Fry brings depth to Lily Miller).  

The set (Todd Rosenthal) is classic and beautifully portrays its time, while also functioning seamlessly (along with lighting by Aaron Spivey) to move us from scene to scene. Costumes (Amy Clark) are exquisitely detailed.

Ah, Wilderness!, which runs at the Goodman through July 23, shows off O'Neill's skillfulness and his ability to charm the audience. It is highly recommended.

One of the most striking presentations of a drama grounded in music is TimeLine Theatre’s Paradise Blue. It is not a musical, nor a review - rather it is a “jazz infused” production.

Powerful original music was composed by Orbert Davis, the founder of Chicago Jazz Philharmonic. The music has been recorded and is played as incidental and transitional themes in the play, giving it a strong supporting role but without overwhelming the production - akin to the role of the set.

Paradise Blue is set in 1949 in Detroit. It tells the story of a trumpeter, Blue (Al’Jaleel McGhee) running the Paradise nightclub in Detroit's Black Bottom neighborhood. As Detroit thrives in the post-war boom years, property values are rising and the area is a target for development.

Blue carries a lot of emotional baggage from a rough upbringing and the violent home life with his battling parents, a heartbreaking and tragic story revealed in the play, which leaves him orphaned, and haunted. Into this setting Morriseau brings a retinue of characters, and each one well-developed and memorable – which is quite an achievement: P-Sam (Charles Andrew Gardner), Corn (Ronald L Conner), and Pumpkin (Kristin E Ellis).

Those many strong characters do put a strain on the advance of the action, as we get a good deal of dialog about the background and aspirations of each. That is the kind of thing that could get balanced out in future productions which Paradise Blue clearly warrants. 

The play carries a noire styling, and this line is expressed with dynamic energy with the arrival of a mysterious stranger from New Orleans: Silver, played with amazing power by Tyla Abercrumbie. In fact, Abercrumbie's performance is so strong, she really stands out from the rest of the cast. She is exciting to watch from the moment she arrives and every second the spotlight is on her. Abercrumbie is also a pro, and balances the moments she plays opposite others, and doesn't overwhelm them - though I suspect she could. 

Unlike many plays about musicians, in this one the lead, Al’Jaleel McGhee, picks up a horn and blows. He plays intentionally weakly at one point, then gets his note at a pivotal point. Director Ron OJ Parson has McGhee play the theme line written for the show, then dissolves it into an artful reverb that fades away. Very very nice. The rest of the music was performed by Davis and members of Chicago Jazz Philharmonic, featuring Rajiv Halim, and recorded and mixed by Roger Heiss at Tone Zone Studio in Chicago. It was  The Chicago Community Trust. 

This play was recommended to me by those great folks at Hot Tix as I searched for one worth seeing, so I bought a ticket. Now I am saying the same to you. Paradise Blue runs through July 23 at Timeline Theatre, 615 W Wellington in Chicago. 

As a fan, it was a delight to see Diana Krall live for the first time at the beautiful Ravinia Festival in Highland Park - one of the first stops on this highly successful jazz performer's lastest world tour.

"Highly successful jazz performer" is a string of words rarely set together, but Krall has wrought something of a miracle in jazz circles, attaining popularity that at least in one ranking surpasses other contemporary female jazz vocalists like Norah Jones, Madeleine Peyroux, Natalie Cole, and Jane Monheit, though that list has missed a couple greats like, oh, Sade, Dianna Reeves and Cassandra Wilson. 

Krall showed why she deserves that popularity on Wednesday night. Despite a mild threat of a warm downpour, the Ravinia Pavilion and lawn were well filled, a tribute to this skilled performer's cultivation of devoted fans. Doubtless there are many like me who are attracted as much by Krall’s open, warm-hearted personality, as by her music.

Striding to the Steinway as her band mates settled in, Krall and company got right down to business with an up-tempo “Do I Love You,” then jumped into a mix of songs – some truly stunning interpretations – along with a number of beautifully delivered tracks from her May 5 album, “Turn Up the Quiet” (Verve).

For Krall the Ravinia setting strikes the right balance between her broad appeal to bigger audiences, and the intimacy required by jazz, with ensemble members improvising in solo departures from a unifying theme. As a contemporary jazz performer, Krall is a rarity with her commercial success – a five time Grammy winner and steady platinum level album sales. This is her ninth album to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard Jazz Chart.

And while she claims to be shy, Krall seems to hold the audience without really trying. “I’m from Vancouver – I’m used to this,” Krall said as scattered droplets of warm rain pelted the lawn and encroached on a song. Then the clouds diminished and she was non-stop music for two hours, with fresh takes on classics like Cole Porter’s “Night and Day,” Nat King Cole’s “L-O-V-E,” as well as songs by Carlos Jobim, Peggy Lee, Joni Mitchell, and Tom Waits from her earlier albums.

With "Turn Up the Quiet," Krall taps into the Great American Songbook, and she performed at Ravinia several of her renditions, such as Rodgers and Hart’s “Isn’t It Romantic, which was thrilling and fresh, as was her version of the standard, “Blue Skies,” performed in a trio on her album with bassist Christian McBride and guitarist Russell Malone. Cole Porter favorite “Night and Day” was likewise engaging.

Peggy Lee’s "Jack of All Trades" departed on the voyage that jazz represents for me - each member of the ensemble providing their take on a song that was an endless melodic discovery while also could have continued forever, as far as I was concerned. 

For me the show-stopper at Ravinia was the cover of Tom Wait’s “Temptation,” first released on a recording of a 2001 live performance in Paris. While Krall approaches jazz with intense constraint, in last night’s performance of “Temptation” that constraint is pushed to its limits, and every member of the ensemble is given his due time. In the course of this number a solo violin is strummed and plucked like a ukelele, to stunning effect. While Krall can come off as a bit modulated, Temptation is her musical vision unchained. If she can do that, she can do whatever she pleases.    

Riffing on that theme of "Turn Up the Quiet," one must listen intently to really hear Krall's mastery. A revelation for me was Krall’s rendition of fellow Canadian Joni Mitchell’s plaintive, “A Case of You.” I had not heard Krall's version before, and was blown away by the mash-up of Mitchell themes that Krall jazzified at the Steinway. I’ve got a lot more listening ahead of me just to deconstruct that single song.

Ravinia is a step along the way for Krall’s world tour to promote the album, beginning state-side and heading the Europe in September. The recordings I have of Diana Krall are meticulously produced, and very controlled performances – but still alive with the improvisational flavor of jazz. In person, Krall is highly polished performer, but her invention and movement with the moment is heightened on stage, and she is one with the ensemble, and even more striking as a pianist than a singer, to my mind. 

For those who don't know Diana Krall - despite her popularity - I have found that mentioning she is the mother of twin 10 year old's with her husband, a somewhat well-known rock star, helps them place her.  But out of respect for her talent, which I enjoy far more than her spouse's, I am not mentioning him here. 

The producers at Steppenwolf describe Pass Over as a “riff on Waiting for Godot” – and that’s true - except for this: Pass Over is not boring. In fact it is gripping and entertaining for every one of its 80 minutes of run time.

Written by Antoinette Nwandu and premiering under the direction of Danya Taymor, Pass Over is at once funny, alarming, sickening, and frightening. With shades of Master Harold & the Boys and Miss Margarita’s Way, it portrays two young inner city black men – Moses (Jon Michael Hill) and Kitch (Julian Parker)  hanging out under a street lamp, hoping to get off “the block.” To say these two give knock out performances is an understatement.

Like Groundhog Day, each morning they resume the wait, their hours punctuated periodically by gunfire, and the appearance of the menacing policeman Ossifer (Ryan Hallahan in a searing performance; he also plays the white-suited Mister) whose role is to dispel their hope, and keep them in their place.

Moses and Kitch are condemned, suggests Nwandu, to be “waiting for Godot” their whole lives. Unlike Beckett’s duo, Moses and Kitch are not abstract constructs, but real people. The warmth and mutual fealty of these two young men captures your heart through their amusing word games and youthful horseplay.

Nwandu also plumbs the depths of the emotional link between Moses and Kitch, and we bear witness to their bond. As in Beckett’s play, these characters form a suicide pact, but cannot do it.  

They survive, somehow, and hope returns repeatedly – even against all odds. But the two never escape, either, and Pass Over faces us with our contemporary social challenge. By making Moses and Kitch so accessible to us, by humanizing them, Nwandu brings a fresh immediacy to the lament, that Black Lives Matter.   

Pass Over is both timeless, and a powerful commentary on contemporary conditions. Into this piece, Nwandu has squeezed a book. Fully deconstructed, it could easily fill a college semester of study.

Part of the vaunted excellence of Beckett’s 1953 Waiting for Godot - an existentialist reverie on the seemingly endless insufferableness of life, and perhaps the meaningless of that suffering – is that the audience also experiences the ennui of that endless wait, in real time. Frankly it’s a bore.

Not so with Pass Over. It is fully realized in this production. I might quibble with the end of the play – it seemed heavy handed from a first viewing. But I am going to have to trust and respect the playwright's and director’s judgements, given the excellence of all that comes before. The performances by Hill and Parker in fact are so perfectly delivered, hopefully it is exactly what the playwright intended – because it is tremendous. It runs through July 9 at Steppenwolf Theatre.

The storyline in Relativity is a supposed to be a mystery. The great physicist and mathematical theoretician Albert Einstein fathered a daughter, Liserl, out of wedlock in Switzerland with Mileva Marić– but all mentions of her disappear after the age of two.


What happened to her? Several theories have been put forward – that she died of scarlet fever, that she was put up for adoption - but the historical track was largely obliterated with the destruction of many records during World War II. Though Einstein later married Marić, his daughter disappears from the historical record after 1904.


Mark St. Germaine’s Relativity poses one possibility on her whereabouts , and Einstein is confronted with it many years later, by a mysterious visitor to his quarters in Princeton. Margaret Harding (Katherine Keberlein), a journalist who has come to profile him for the Jewish Daily News – and to challenge him on his neglect of his daughter.


Suffice it to say we witness a fair amount of unresolved anger in the encounter, during which Einstein also learns he has a grandchild – also a genius - who is seeking his support in entering a top university. This colorful and intriguing tale is enticement enough to see Relativity. But an added bonus is the fact that the lead is played by the oldest working union actor in the U.S. – the indomitable Mike Nussbaum. Known for his skillful and intelligent delivery including some of David Mamet’s most challenging dramas, Nussbaum at 93 makes a striking appearance. That he can do it at all may be surprising, but Nussbaum delivers a textured and nuanced characterization of the great physicist. He is bring his all to the role, though he doesn’t project at the same intensity as in days of yore – or maybe it’s my hearing going.


The script is okay, with its once over lightly descriptions of Einstein’s unprecedented theorems, and the family angst grows tiresome pretty quickly. There is also a lot of exposition in which the reporter recounts famous quotes and anecdotes from Einstein, who fills in with one liners that elicit some laughs.


Ann Whitney plays a crotchety housekeeper and secretary, the real-life Helen Dukas, and her chemistry with Nussbaum is delightful. Their scenes provide insight into the suffering of an aging genius who is unlikely to discover new universal theories. Nussbaum brings an unusual gift to this aspect of the role, and a hunt for a piece of chalk to write a formula on a blackboard captures the essence of the matter, opening a window into the unsettling existential void.


As always Northlight delivers high production values (Jack Magaw on scenic design; JR Lederle on lighting; Stephen Mazurek fir Projection Design) and director BJ Jones does an excellent job orchestrating the production. Relativity runs through June 25 at Northlight Theatre in Skokie.

Court Theatre’s production of Harvey tells the fable of Elwood P. Dowd.

Played wonderfully by Timothy Edward Kane, Dowd is an independently wealthy bachelor whose immense warmth and engaging demeanor earns him friendship readily with everyone. This includes the 6’ 3½” tall white rabbit, Harvey, who for most of the play, only he can see.

Elwood lives on the estate of his late mother, where his sister, Veta Louise (Karen James Wodistch) and young adult niece Myrtle Mae (Sarah Price), have moved from Des Moines, with hopes of climbing the social ladder. But they are thwarted by Elwood’s eccentric behavior – his ongoing conversations with Harvey are off-putting to polite society. They decide to have him committed to a mental institution.

Harvey won a Pulitzer in 1944 for playwright Mary Chase (beating Tennessee Williams the Glass Menagerie, no less), and became a movie with James Stewart in 1950 –  the version of Harvey people know. No one would get these scripts confused; Williams is objectively the better writer. 

Yet Harvey has momentum, and even reaches a moment of power – which is why it is beloved by many.

Chase’s character Elwood P. Dowd reminds us of Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump, someone floating above the fray, dispensing homespun wisdom and soothing the turmoil of those around him. (The play was revived famously with Big Bang Theory’s Jim Parsons in the lead on Broadway five years ago.)

Director Devon de Mayo has maintained the piece in its 1944 time frame, almost a requirement given the script. Artifacts of period mental healthcare like shock therapy, hydrobaths, and a vaguely sadistic undercurrent among the hospital staff are unsettling, and form the basis of much of the humor: As Veta attempts to commit Elwood, she ends up in a cell instead. Upon her escape, she tells of being forcibly stripped and placed in a hot bath by an attendant she describes as a “whoremaster.” I think that was cut from the film.

Chase has also delved into Irish myth with Harvey. The rabbit is a Pooka, in Celtic lore a shapeshifter that could tell the future, and visit outcasts to improve their lives. 

Court Theatre’s production of Harvey goes for the broad humor, and a sort of mad-cap pacing from screwball comedies. And the audience was laughing from the get go, though I was not caught up in the frivolity, at least not right away.   

Timothy Kane as Elwood P. Dowd provides the anchoring performance for all the froth on stage. Kane is a most remarkable comedic actor – hilariously funny in One Man-Two Guvnors at Court Theatre last year.

Kane’s Elwood hooks us in a soliloquy on how to live properly, building soon after to the climactic scene that gives the play it’s heft.

Here Kane turns on Elwood’s magic, playing admirably against Amy Carle, who also shines in the scene as cabby E.J. Lofgren. Elwood is about to be treated at the mental institution to end his visions of Harvey, when the cabby appears, angrily demanding the fare be paid before Elwood gets his treatment.

But then the cabby succumbs to Elwood’s charms as he pays her. When Elwood exits to meet his fate and loose his Pooka, the cabby explains to the family that other patients he has driven who are treated also lose their goodness, and become just like regular people – mean spirited and venal. That's why she wanted to be paid first - to get a bigger tip.

This scene is a clincher and saves the play. 

Maybe it is the writing, or perhaps the timing and delivery were a bit off, but it felt as though every character in this production were defining their role independently of each other. The chemistry worked reasonably well between Lyman Anderson, MD, (Erik Hellman) and Ruth Kelly, RN (Jennifer Latimore brought a grace to the role). Woditsch, Price, and A.C. Smith as William Chumley, MD didn’t make me laugh. And it seemed Jacqueline Williams was a too dour for the role of Judge Mara Gaffney - perhaps not a good casting choice.  

Kudos on the set and lighting. Harvey plays through June 11 at Court Theatre in Hyde Park

Josephine Baker leapt from the Harlem Renaissance via the Paris Folies Bergère to become a global phenomenon, the first black international superstar.

Consider this: Baker’s fame was so great in her day among African-Americans, that Coretta King immediately appealed to her to guide the U.S. Civil Rights Movement in the wake of Martin Luther King’s assassination. Born in 1906, Baker died in 1975 - yet she is vaguely remembered, if at all.

Black Pearl: A Tribute to Josephine Baker helps remedy that, ably recounting the trajectory of her stardom. Baker may have lived too big a life character to fit on any stage (she was style-setter, movie star, civil rights activist, even an agent for the French Resistance in World War II) but writer and director Daryl Brooks and the high-energy ensemble cast have gotten enough of the high and low points of her life to build a great show, with special emphasis on her rollicking dancing style.

Two women perform the role of Baker – Joan Ruffin as the Older Josephine largely plays narrator; Aerial Williams - a great dancer and with a lovely voice - is the Younger Josephine.

Baker really did it all – singing, dancing, movies. Arguably Baker was the first global personality, driving fashion trends (her hair style was widely copied), dispensing lifestyle advice in women’s magazines – think Gwyneth Paltrow, Kardashians, Oprah, with a touch of Grace Jones. Baker kept a pet cheetah, and later in life adopted a brood of children from different countries, housing them in the palatial chateau her wealth afforded.

She was first brought to Europe by the French under a government-sponsored cultural program, and became an overnight sensation during a period when France was colonizing Africa. By today’s standards some of her signature performance expressions might not be judged politically correct, but Baker’s artistic influences were segregated minstrel shows, where blacks performed in exaggerated black-face, and jazz-infused free-form dance was the norm.

Her hard-scrabble life of poverty and abuse growing up in St. Louis is captured well in Brook’s script, especially her awakening to music and dance as a teenaged girl. The choreography in Black Pearl (Baker was known by that name) mines Baker’s movies and the historical record to accurately portray contemporary dance styles. To the French, Baker was a genre-busting exotic, as she created a romanticized, imagined portrayal of African natives in their new colonies.

Her famous Banana Dance is carefully rendered on the Black Ensemble stage. Though Europe had its racial and cultural prejudices, it did not have Jim Crow laws like the U.S. – rules that barred Baker from staying at 36 hotels on a return U.S. tour celebrating her global stardom. Her mother had to sit in the balcony section for blacks. Baker renounced her U.S. citizenship and became a French citizen. But on her next U.S. tour she successfully set her contract to require venues to be integrated, and her mother sat in the front row at Carnegie Hall.

As she matured into a style icon, Baker evolved in to a chanteuse, and several of the songs are performed in French during Black Pearl. One show stopper, a transition right before intermission, has Williams’ young Josephine sing a love song to France, with Ruffin’s older Josephine repeating the lyrics in English. It is very affecting.

Like most Black Ensemble productions, the live music backing is excellent, able to swing through all the stylistic periods. The script is occasionally wooded in scenes from later years, but it makes all the points that matter – and keeps the focus on the performance art. Running through June 18, Black Pearl at Black Ensemble Theater is highly recommended.

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