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 mayor of small-town East Lake, Illinois is facing a crisis: lead contamination was just discovered under a thriving magnet school, one that has become a sparkplug over the past few years for a dramatic influx of new residents, real estate development and a thriving local economy.

Complicating matters for Mayor Patty Stock (played with gusto by Kirsten Fitzgerald): the bad news was delivered by her brother Dr. Tom Stock (Guy Van Swearingen in a knockout performance), the revered science professor who returned to his home town just to teach at this school.

A Red Orchid Theatre's new show, Traitor, taps Henrik Ibsen’s 1882 comedy-drama, An Enemy of the People, and like the original is packed with characters (the mayor’s sister-in-law, her niece and nephew, the publisher and a reporter for the local town paper, Dr. Stock’s father-in-law and three town council members). It is a high energy production that at first plays largely like a screwball comedy. Five people at one point are talking at once over each other’s lines.

As the action unfolds in mythical East Lake, around Dr. Stock’s kitchen table, the mayor calls for gin and her brother Dr. Stock invites everyone to “self-medicate” on medical marijuana. Dr. Stock’s long - suffering wife, Karla Kihl-Stock (Dado) is beset by interruptions as she tries to get some freelance book editing done as the kitchen turns into a Grand Central Station with arrivals and departures.

The drama turns on whether to publish the lead contamination findings in the Non Pareil newspaper, since that will likely kill the magnet school’s success. Dr. Stock, more of a firebrand, and advocates publishing right away. We learn from his wife he is a serial whistle blower, having done something similar (and killing his employment prospects) in several towns before. Mildly amusing and seeming to rely on histrionics, Traitor bumbles along, and we are not quite sure where it's headed or why we should care. 

Then the play takes a turn to awesomeness, with an ingenious shift of venue: as the drama crescendo’s the lights come up and the audience is ushered from its seats to an adjacent storefront, where the East Lake City Council is convening an emergency public meeting to deal with this crisis. The audience automatically take on the roles of townsfolk, and Chair Woman Mary Jo Bolduc (Fran Wysocki), and board members Jacob Alexander (Eric Ryhde) and Natalie West (Jenn Sheffer) conduct a truly hilarious meeting, punctuated by Alexander’s gratuitously mumbling “Second” and Wysocki’s efforts to maintain order. Chaos descends and a melee ensues. 

West, who we have met earlier as the perpetually self-promoting owner of Needle Knit Shop, is even more daffy in this town hall segment. And Mayor Stock recuses herself, then proceeds to disregard her recusal. Those words will be familiar to anyone tracking the investigative committees in Washington! 

This village meeting would be at home on the stages across the street at Zanie's and Second City. The first part of the play is really a set-up for the town council meeting, which gives the whole enterprise a bigger meaning. Wysocki in particular glad hands the audience like any pol, and I was as excited to meet her as if she had been the real thing. That's acting! 

In adapting Ibsen’s 1882 original, playwright Brett Neveu updated the plot and injected contemporary details, sometimes more or less deftly. Social media augments the newspaper channel, for example - that makes sense. But a "Taco Tuesday" device that presumably explains why everyone comes and goes from the Stock household seems kind of strange.

Like Arthur Miller who first adapted it for Broadway in 1950, Neveu has excised Dr. Stock’s rants on eugenics. But he has left in Stock's cry of desperation over the “tyranny of unenlightened masses” that can diminish the social fabric. Dr. Stock’s call will certainly resonate in an age of the Kardashian’s and a famous TV personality now in the White House. That the issues facing our body politic are showing up on our stages - Tracy Lett's recent Minutes at Steppenwolf covers similar territory - reminds us of the useful role theater plays for our community. 

When the audience returns to the theater, the plot takes a more serious turn, and we learn students are lethargic, and the lead poisoning is a real threat. The Stock's own son Randal (15-year-old Nation Stock) shows signs of the poisoning - and delivers a stirring preroration on the tendency adults have to focus on self aggrandizement and power plays than to address the real problems at their root. 

A Red Orchid Theatre received a Macarthur Foundation Genius Grant in 2016, and Traitor is evidence why. A few rough edges notwithstanding, but this is a strong effort. You will not want to miss it during its run, through February 25 at A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N Wells in Chicago. 

BLKS, a new comedy premiering at Steppenwolf Theater, tracks three young black women sharing an apartment in New York City, through 24 hours laced with sex and romance. 

Packed with high drama and high jinx, this first play by Aziza Barnes makes for an entertaining show. It may sound like a black version of Sex in the City or Friends, and like them it is a comedy of errors. But it also operates on an altogether more serious plain, taking on issues of violence, and with a look at “gender fluid” and “queer” orientation in next generation black community. It is also a window into a world most white people like me can never see.

“This is a play by blk people and for blk people,” the playwright says a note to the audience, tucked into the program. ”I am inviting blk people to live fully here. Those on stage and off.”

Enjoining the audience – and specifically black people -  to her mission, Barnes also has a longer goal. “What's important to me is trying to understand humanity and doing something of consequence that doesn't hurt people—that liberates people,” as she said in a Vice interview this summer.

The play also comes with a very explicit audience advisory for coarse language, sexualized violence, nudity, and frank depictions of consensual sex – and, notably, for documentary footage of police brutality – the liberal use of the N- and F- words, which punctuate the dialog is not so different from the role that “Frickin” plays in contemporary Irish dramatic dialog.     

Barnes also says she wants the play to be funny, and in large measure it is. In this “day in the life” Barnes depicts herself and two friends, with Barnes presumably represented by the protagonist and "everyman" figure, Octavia (Nora Carroll ably carries off a demanding role) who is dithering over her romantic commitment to Ry (Danielle Davis), a self-assured lesbian with a stable job. When the play opens, Ry and Octavia are snuggling, and we are introduced to the two other roommates Imani (Celeste Cooper) and June (Leea Ayers), as they enter with a flourish.

You feel you know these characters and their lives, but what you won’t know until you see BLKS is how it feels to be them. Barnes says this is a play for black people, and that is true. Comments from predominantly black audience members in an after-show discussion generally expressed surprise at how “black” the play was, and a certain amount of discomfort at the use of the word “nigger” in front of non-black audience members. Those assessments also suggest the realism Barnes has going in BLKS.

BLKS also shows us how #BlackLivesMatter, male abuse and #MeToo play out in the lives of these young women – a dark and undeniable backdrop to their efforts to just live a life.   

I found the character of June the most delightful – a straight black professional woman constantly seeking romance, fending off abuse, and taking a position as a highly paid consultant at Deloitte. Leea Ayers's performance was terrific. Kudos to the supporting cast. Namir Smallwood is excellent as he plays three characters (Dominican Dude, Justin, Sosa) in different scenes, and is thoroughly convincing in each, particularly the nerdy Sosa. (I didn’t realize he was all three guys!) And Kelly O’Sullivan plays somewhat thankless roles as That Bitch on the Couch, and Drunk  White Woman – foils to the action, but still, we like her.

Barnes is a rising voice in the poetry world with a popular podcast and award winning poems that explore black, queer, and feminine worlds. BLKS, her first theatrical effort, features fully fleshed out characters, real people that you will enjoy seeing, and will care about.

Artistic Director Anna Shapiro says with BLKS, she was “handed a script that feels both audaciously new and yet, strangely familiar.” It truly does explores the joy and anguish of growing up, and without question Barnes's playwriting marks the arrival of an original voice on stage. 

A stellar cast has, under the direction of Nataki Garett, brought this play to life, in part through workshopping at Steppenwolf. Barnes's poetic voice adapts very well to the stage, and the characters' language is both natural, yet musical and thoughtfully cadenced.

Producing BLKS is part of Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s mission to be “where great acting meets big ideas” and “to engage audiences in an exchange of ideas that makes us think harder, laugh longer, feel more” and “develop new plays, new audiences and new artists for the future of American theater.”

With all that back story and context, the question remains, “Is the play any good? Should I see it?” Yes it is good. And you may want to consider this in deciding whether to go: Steppenwolf has become a reliable curator of theater for us, and you are well advised not to miss out on something carrying its endorsement. So BLKS comes recommended. 

This is also a perfect antidote to the Christmas Carols dominating Chicago stages right now, and a good destination for a New Years Eve date. Steppenwolf Theatre Company

I was blown away by how great the score, acting and singing were in Griffin Theatre’s new show, Violet. I didn’t have time to learn about it before opening night, so maybe I came away with a completely unbiased assessment: “Boffo!” as the trade rags say for this over the top, top-notch production.

As a recipe for a great musical, Violet can’t miss. It follows a 1964 pilgrimage of Violet (Nicole Laurenzi is excellent) from Spruce Pine, South Carolina to Memphis, where she hopes to be healed of a facial disfigurement in person by a TV Preacher. (Anthony Kayer is so good in this role!). With that geography, and the characters that board and depart the bus along the way, we have a setting that is rife with musical possibilities. And the show exploits them beautifully.

Violet taps deeply into country, gospel, bluegrass, honky tonk, and Memphis blues at towns along the way. As their vintage Greyhound bus breaks in Kingsport, Tennessee, Violet meets a pair of soldiers – Monty and Flick (Will Lidtke and Stephen Allen are terrific), enroute to Fort Smith, Arkansas. Violet has lived a sheltered life, and with her father gone, she is on a quest, and ready to meet the world for the first time.

An what a great score! What hidden talent has been lurking in Chicago, I wondered? Well, after the performance (90 minutes with no intermission) I was straightened out (duh!): this is a revival of a 2014 Broadway Tony-nominated production, itself a reboot of a 1997 Off-Broadway winner of the Drama Critic’s Circle for Best New Musical and an OBIE award for best music. Music is buy Jeanine Tesori, and book and lyrics are by Brian Crawley. 

Having great material to work with, the Griffin Theatre has a delivered a wonderful show. The story line and character development are unusually rich for a musical, and the cast measures right up. Matt W. Miles is a true standout as Violet’s father, with a rich voice and emotive performance. The Young Violet (Maya Lou Hlava) is a very good.

Director Scott Weinstein has navigated pretty well through a complex script, which taps flashbacks and memories. The somewhat spartan staging maximizes the Den Theatre’s intimate space, but it is probably challenging to convey the shifts in time and place – it works well overall.

The music by Jeanine Tesori (she also wrote Fun Home and Caroline, or Change) is loaded with harmonies and counterpoint. The band under John Cockerill is hidden behind a screen, but looms large rich sound, and is revealed when it plays the role of the house band for the Memphis church.

One quibble as a spectator: much of the plot revolves around Violet’s suffering with her disfigurement, a factor that has diminished her self-esteem. It is this emotional constraint that Violet sheds in the course of the play. But that moment of truth did not ring out on stage. And Violet’s makeup does not show a person disfigured – at least from the back row.

This blowout production of Violet is being done also to honor Griffin Theatre’s 30th Anniversary. What a great way to celebrate! Violet runs through January 13 at The Den Theatre

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.

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