Leah Urzendowski and Anthony Courser have created a show that is part comedy, part play therapy that is truly a joy to behold. Don't skip the opening steps. When you enter the lobby, you will be asked to write down one of your fears and place it in an envelope. Then you will be asked to think of something that brings you Joy and bring that thought with you as you enter "The Joy Womb". The Neo Futurium has been cleverly lined with mismatched sheets, colored lights beneath to create a lovely, cozy joy womb effect.
The? Unicorn? Hour? begins with an awesome light show in the "womb" accompanied by terrific music and sound effects to which Leah and Anthony (who are a couple in real life) enter wearing dark capes and much smoke, which is soon thrown off to show that they are actually dressed in beautifully crafted, silvery unitards as Unicorns of Joy!
"The mighty rumpus that defeats the evil!" They cry out then ask if we are feeling scared, defeated etc. by what's going on in the world, inviting the audience to join them in their journey to transform fear into real joy.
Both actors are fantastic physical comedians (having been creators together on the popular play "Burning Bluebeard", the unique show in which actors from the deathly 1903 Iroquois Theater fire where over 600 audience members were killed), and try to get through the show without killing their audience this time, as well. But Leah Urzendowski is a real dancer in every sense of the word, expressive, muscular, sensitive and flexible. Her dancing as the Unicorn takes the show into another realm of professionalism and put of pure clowning.
There is a special guest from another show, I won't reveal because there will be a new special guest each week but this Eeyore-like character enters to the music "Lonely Boy" and the audience sees clearly that joy is a choice, as the pair tries to get him to cheer up using a bubble machine. He keeps insisting over and over, "Those bubbles are just gonna pop. There goes another one and another one, they are all popping!"
There is a "swear square" where tensions are released by letting out swear words, but when Courser gets too carried away after starting off with innocent words like “dang” and “darn it” and the swearing turns mean and scary i.e. "I've got a bag of dicks and I'm going to stir it in a pot to make myself a dickwich to…," she eventually stops him. It's a tiny little feminist statement that many miss because in today's anything goes type of political correctness sometimes things just go too far in that dark "pornographic" way and women and children end up feeling threatened instead of empowered to express their own anger however gentle it may be.
There is a fabulous physical bit where Courser pantomimes a journey to the top of a mountain that includes horseback riding, to flying, to parachuting to snow climbing among other fun-tastic feats. But as they both reach the top, the audience is suddenly enveloped in darkness and fear again.
This is where the cast members come around and start asking us to name our fears and if we’d like to give them to the players to take away from us. Some of the fears in our audience were loneliness, fear of being alone in the dark, a pet or loved one dying, failure, never being more than I am now and drowning in cold water. But by the end of the show we are all asked to shout out our joys - the sound of a dog drinking water, a fresh piece of buttered toast, easy money, cuddling in bed all day, etc. and the room is restored to feelings of Joyous Surrender to the music and dancing these two have created.
Their dance numbers really are both comical and extraordinarily demanding and professional, with the two winding about each other like seahorses made to fit as one beautiful, silvery creature with Leah's legs wrapped around Courser’s waist or even his neck as she peers out between his knees to whisper "JOY!"
I have to say this is the MOST fun and joy I have had in recent years at any comedy in Chicago and promising an audience as stressed out as Chicago audience members are now by the political disasters and death unfolding around us every day, delivering a dose of real JOY in the theater world, is a REAL achievement!
I highly recommend this hilarious, thought-provoking and most of all FUN, delightful, refreshing, exciting, comforting and colorful piece of work to anyone who is seeking to remember how to have a little joy in their lives right NOW.
The? Unicorn? Hour? Runs just over an hour and is currently being performed at the Neo Futurium in Andersonville through May 13th (hopefully an extension will take place). For tickets and more show information visit www.neofuturist.org.
Maybe we can chalk it up to a mid-life crisis…or, maybe, Wheeler is just a self-loathing man who’d just assume sabotage his own happiness rather opting to wallow in self-pity. In Steppenwolf’s Linda Vista, a new play debut by Tracy Letts and directed by Dexter Bullard, we get a very funny, and highly realistic, account of a man who has seemingly given up on life and love.
Wheeler (Ian Bradford) has moved from a cot in his wife’s garage to his own apartment in the Linda Vista apartment complex. With a soured marriage and an estranged relationship with his son coming to an end, Wheeler has the opportunity to start fresh, but that’s much more difficult than it sounds – at least it is for him. As we get to know Wheeler, a former Sun-Times photographer with promise who now holds onto a routine job as a camera repairman, we see someone who has been riddled with repercussions that have stemmed from a series of poor choices. Wheeler resents his soon-to-be-ex-wife for having him leave his Chicago life for California to be closer to her family. He resents his son for - well, just getting in the way of his life. He resents happy people. Hell, he resents Radiohead. But Wheeler has accepted his current situation – a cynical alcoholic that shoots down other people’s hopes and dreams, believing he is a “piece of shit” who “doesn’t deserve to be happy”.
Wheeler’s best friend Paul (Tim Hopper) and his wife Margaret (Sally Murphy), friends from their college days, haven’t given up on him. They want to find him a partner who can bring out the old Wheeler who once had dreams and ambitions himself. When Paul and Margaret set Wheeler up with a friend of theirs, Jules (Cora Vander Broek), who is bright and bouncy, Wheeler reluctantly accepts and, as you can probably imagine, he has a few skeptical things to say after finding out she is a life coach. This, of course, threatens a man who wants a simple, joyless existence. Complicating matters for Wheeler, he takes in Minnie (Kahyun Kim), a twenty-four-year old rockabilly enthusiast recently kicked out of her own apartment in the same complex by her abusive boyfriend.
The play is very truthful. It is about regret, wrecked opportunities and the consequences of unfortunate decisions. It is about letting oneself spin out of control, essentially giving up, and the struggle to choose happiness - a challenge when becoming so distant. But is also about hope and the chance to change for the better. In Wheeler, we are given a lovable “asshole” that we must root for.
Ian Barford is tremendous as Wheeler. Barford quickly draws in the audience, grabs them and never lets go. Convincing, humorous and often decidedly heartfelt, Barford captures the essence of his self-deprecating character so well, we can’t help but think of a few “Wheeler’s” we know ourselves. Tim Hopper does fine work and is believable as Wheeler’s tolerable, but supportive, best friend as does Sally Murphy, both nicely adding to the play’s humor (I’ll just say karaoke bar scene).
While Kahyun Kim is brassy and nails the too-cool-for-school attitude as Minnie, Cora Vander Broek is sparkles as Jules, perfectly pairing with Barford as his counterpart in a true positive/negative kind of relationship. We are also taken to the camera shop where Wheeler plugs away all day fixing one camera after another under the supervision of his crass boss Michael (Troy West), who is just waiting for a sexual harassment lawsuit to be filed against him as he repeatedly gawks and spews inappropriate comments at his clerk, Anita (Caroline Neff).
A revolving set takes us inside Wheeler’s California apartment, his workplace and to a bar. He lives simply, and that’s all he wants, DVDs of Stanley Kubrick littering his media stand and a refrigerator most likely only filled with a couple six-packs and a box of Arm & Hammer.
Linda Vista is a well-acted ride into Wheeler’s uncertainties on turning fifty with the realization that his best years have long since passed. It is a play equipped with a stellar cast, a very funny script that is also genuine and even moving at times and direction that is so precise we can easily identify with each of Letts’ characters.
Very highly recommended.
Linda Vista is being performed at Steppenwolf Theatre through May 21st. For tickets and/or more show information visit www.steppenwolf.org.
*Note – This play does contain full frontal nudity and sexual simulation.
*Extended through May 28th
It's not often you'll hear cool and the play 'Picnic' in the same sentence, but director Will Davis' new version at American Theater Company is just that. This is William Inge's 1953 Pulitzer Prize winner as you've never seen it before. For many, 'Picnic' triggers high school boredom flashbacks. When traditionally produced, this play can tend to be a little dry. Not the case here, with unique staging and deconstructed notions of gender, Davis brings Inge's work into our century.
William Inge was himself gay in a time period in which it was not acceptable. The theme of secret desire in 'Picnic' parallel Inge's own struggle with being other in a more straight-laced world. Though the Midwest has certainly changed since the 1950's, much of its close-mindedness still exists and that's what remains relevant about Inge's play.
This is Will Davis' first full season as artistic director of American Theater Company and this production is bound to get noticed. This version of 'Picnic' begins as almost performance art; a woman takes a seat at a piano and the cast enters in the shadows. In look and feel, this production couldn't be more different from the traditional staging. While jarring at first, the cast immediately finds its footing and makes Inge's dialogue come to life. Artful and visually stunning effects are peppered throughout, which make for a memorable experience.
Performances are impressive here. Davis' gender-blind casting forces you to focus not on what a performer looks like but rather how their performance makes you feel. In the role of transient stud Hal, is Molly Brennan. While it's apparent she is female, through costuming and attitude, Brennan delivers Hal with such sincerity, it brings to mind Mary Martin's Peter Pan. Malic White is striking in the role of Madge. White's petite and soft spoken Madge turns preconceived notions about feminine beauty on its head. Spinster school teacher Rosemary is played hilariously by Michael Turrentine whose physicality couldn’t be more spot on.
Classic plays should be analyzed in every time for their relevance. These plays can only stay part of the cannon if they connect to a modern audience. It's important for theater companies to take risks and make bold choices to usher these works into a new millennium. Will Davis' 'Picnic' hints at a fearless future for American Theater Company.
Through April 23 at American Theater Company. 1909 W Byron St. 773-409-4125
I thoroughly enjoyed the world premiere of Jesus the Jew: As Told by His Brother James. The play is the seventeenth work produced by Forum Productions. The one-man show by playwright William Spatz is very well-written and in my opinion contains some of the answers of the most important issues facing our society today with regards to antisemitism and the violence propagated against Christians and or Jewish Christians in this country and others around the world.
Actor, Steven Strafford plays a modern-day professor of religious history who has just found out his brother John has been tortured and killed in an attack in Syria. He then travels back and forth in time to portray James, the brother of Jesus, one of the mainstays of his research. Strafford's performance is compelling and rich.
Jeremy, as James thanks the audience for coming whether they are Jews, Christians or Jewish Christians. This designation is very important especially in the political climate currently where all three groups are regularly singled out in some countries and sentenced to death by beheading if they do not renounce their Christian and/or Jewish ties.
This play is of particular interest to me because I am a Jewish Christian or Messianic Jew. That is a person who is Jewish by birth who continues to believe that Jesus was Jewish and was the Messiah sent to save the Jewish people and later the non-Jews from the belief that we are just helpless animal-like human beings in bodies which have no actual active spiritual life that continues after death of the human body. We also believe that God is a loving forgiving being that abhors killing of humans and animals, indeed cruelty to women and all living things.
I was given a very complete three-year education in Jewish history and religious practices before completing my bat mitzvah and the only mention of Jesus, if any that I recall, was that Jesus was to be looked at as a Rabbi gone mad - a religious traitor to the Jewish people whose new ideas threatened to destroy Judaism rather than elevate it to new levels of generosity and higher spiritual intelligence. I have often wondered how the separation of Jesus' Jewish birth and the statement he made regarding incarnating in a human body specifically for the Jewish people turned into an entirely new religion called Christianity – a religion that proceeded to make a scapegoat of the Jews when Roman occupation and laws actually caused the killing of Jesus. I've also wondered how Christians and especially Catholics who - on the one hand - give great honor to Mary, Jesus' mother, seem to have completely forgotten the fact that Mary the Mother of God was a JEWISH woman named Miriam. And how can modern Christians continue to refer with reverence to the Gospels written by Jesus' disciples as inspired by God without recalling that ALL the disciples of Jesus were JEWISH?
James’ finally answers this question in the last hours of his life in the play when he is about to be put to death (after 30 years of leading Jewish Christians) for not renouncing his brother's and his own Jewish faith.
The apostle Paul is well known among feminists for his damning letters stating that women should have no place in the new Church and should be subject to all the discrimination that Jesus himself stressed many times should end by interacting with women, healing them and insisting that they receive the same education his male apostles were receiving. During this council, the apostle Paul effectively overthrew James’ leadership by declaring a new law that if a Jewish person believed in Jesus they must stop all Jewish religious practices and laws or be sentenced to death.
Jeremy as James also made it clear that Mary was from a wealthy family and financially supported Jesus and, by extension, financially supported many of the apostles that followed Jesus. Mary Magdalene was NOT by any stretch of the sexist imagination a "prostitute" as many since have claimed.
James states that Jesus and Mary were indeed married per the Jewish tradition and although it was not brought up in this play, their marriage gives some credence to the theory that Mary Magdalene, Jesus' legal wife, gave birth to a daughter after his death, directly continuing the spiritually royal bloodline of Jesus himself. It’s been said that she and her daughter were escorted to safety by her father and sailed to France to raise her daughter.
There is some humor in the play when James says, “Lots of Jewish mothers think their sons can walk on water, but in this case…”
The production team includes: Milo Blue (scenic design), Hailey Rakowiecki (costume design), David Trudeau (lighting design), Alex Kleiner (sound design), Ron Rude (production manager) and Sarah Knoke (stage manager). This team does a great job decorating the set with objects of art from both modern and ancient times. The interesting props keep one’s eyes busy looking at the beautiful colorful aspects of that historic period while keeping the audience firmly in the present with offstage interruptions by reporters seeking interviews with him and friends or family who are trying to help Jeremy stay calm and sane in the face of the news that his brother has been tortured first then killed.
Jesus The Jew delivers the most important message of our time, that the division of Jews from Christians and the division of Jesus from his own Jewish followers and people came from a political move - a political document written to serve the Romans and the ambitions of one aggressive sect of new Christians/Jews led by the apostle Paul.
My only complaint about the well-written and well-documented play is that it does not delve deep enough into the horrors and centuries of suffering that this rift initiated by the apostle Paul caused. Actually using the word “horror” is inadequate to describe the current situation for both Christians and Jewish Christians - the Holocaust or recent be-headings of Christians and Jewish Christians around the world and the suffering of women subject to the new rules of Bible thumping-Jew hating Christians who have been forced to follow their husband’s commands even under extreme abuse.
James even acknowledges that as he gives his last sermon before he is put to death that there may not be any Jewish Christians left to hear his final pleas for a meaningful, literal and political reunion of the Jewish and Christian people. That strongly resonated with me because I am the ONLY Jewish Christian that I have ever met (other than my mother who had a similar late life realization) who sees Jesus as a Jewish Rabbi and miracle maker of the highest order, the human incarnation of God on earth.
I highly recommend this compelling, well-paced and delicately handled theater piece for anyone who is interested in a more realistic view of daily life during Jesus' time, or is seeking similar comfort that Jewish Christians still actually exist.
Jesus the Jew: As Told by his Brother James is being performed at Greenhouse Theater Center through March 26th. For more information on this show, click here.
When Mitchell Fain, the star of David Sedaris's eight year long run of "Santaland Diaries" about a broke actor who lands a gig as a Macy's elf first begins his play with the opening lines of said show on a beautifully decked out and magically lit Christmas set - I thought, "Wait a minute I've seen this show already!”
Quickly, Fain drops the character of Sedaris' Crumpet and becomes the character of Mitchell Fain in one of the most personal and entertaining one man shows I've seen in a long time, “This Way Outta Santaland”, written by Fain himself.
Fain is joined at Theater Wit by his old friend and roommate from years ago, the beautiful red headed Megan Murphy whose work I have enjoyed many times in many of the Marriott and Drury Lane Musical Theater Series. Also, playing the music for his monologues and Murphy's segue way songs is Julie B. Nichols, an excellent pianist who began the show with a hearty toast to which the whole audience raised their cups!
Mitchell really interacts with the audience and brings up the houselights many times as if trying to really see and relate to each person who came out in the cold Chicago weather to see his show. Fain begins by asking how many in the audience came from Chicago from a smaller place to live, and many raised their hands, including me (Miami is smaller). Some just shouted out “Ohio!” “Arkansas!”
He asked one woman WHY she came here and her reply was "to be an actress" to which he ad-libbed "How's that working out for you?" Her reply got a big laugh, "Well I'm sitting in the audience not on the stage!"
Then he asked how many of you here are Jewish?
Only me and two others in the packed house raised our hands which surprised even me!
Fain begins his storytelling with his rocky childhood in Rhode Island as one of the only Jews in a very rough all Italian neighborhood, and a petite, 5'3" gay Jew at that!
Fain recalls that from a very young age he loved Judy Garland's music and especially memorized her version of the song “Chicago (That Toddlin’ Town)”, which allows Megan Murphy to deliver a delicious, tongue in cheek version of the song herself.
In Fain’s description of his former home base, we learn that Rhode Island is the costume jewelry capital of America and that most of its inhabitants, including his single mother, toiled their lives away in these factories. Fain's mother found a way to work at one place long enough to get unemployment payments just to put food on the table and barely eke out a living, each time succumbing to the rigors of factory's physical demands which caused illness's like carpal tunnel syndrome and swollen feet.
Mitchell then talks about his move to Chicago as being a move to the BIG CITY! Fortunately, he had a wonderful Christmas loving aunt, who was very generous with him and decorated her house magically each year. He brings up the irony that I have always felt as a Jew as well - that Jews actually appreciate Christmas and the whole glamorous lighting and decorations of Christmas because we never had them as children.
In one of the most meaningful moments for me he describes how people who gripe about having to fly home for the holidays are forgetting how LUCKY they are to have a place to go to (he had none) , how lucky they are to have people who love them enough to want them to come home and also lucky enough to have the MEANS , the money to get home, which most of the time, many actors do not.
We are introduced to the story of his mother's passing in Phoenix when he reveals that during his eight great years playing Crumpet, he only missed two performances - once when he was almost hospitalized for the flu, but that he did not miss a show when his mother died. Fain received the call that his mother was dying right after performing his Sunday show but did not have enough money for a last-minute airline ticket to Phoenix and so his kind Chicago theatre family helped him raise the money to catch a red eye. Mitchell did get to Phoenix in time to say goodbye to his mother and said as he finally arrived at her bedside, and asked how she was doing, that one single tear rolled down her cheek – a tear he recognized as “Uh oh, Mitchell’s here. This must be bad”, rather than a tear that loving Mitchell was at his dying mother’s bedside.
Fain and his siblings had to make the terrible decision to remove life support just as their mother clung to life just a little while longer, recovering well enough to be moved to hospice. But soon the inevitable took place and she passed away.
The comedy of errors began when the three siblings rush to get her cremated as is the Jewish tradition and are faced with a crummy mortician picked out of the phone book by Fain’s oldest brother. When they opened the comically large doors, the place reeked of smoke, death and CVS perfume, Fain tells us. The funeral director was crabby, short and constantly reminding the Fain’s how backed up they were before going into a relentless pitch for the family to purchase a casket, which was not in their plans remotely. Mitchell then asked to be directed to the washroom and was told the door to find just down the hall. After passing one door after another he passed an open room where his mother was laid out on a slab fully naked. Mitchell lost it, returning the tell the director he’d like to punch him in the nose. He then demanded that she get the paperwork in order for a cremation before he finishes his cigarette, then rushes outside for a cigarette - even though he doesn't smoke.
Fain's siblings rush out to see if he was okay and, as he told the story of what had just happened, enjoyed a laugh together, the kind of laugh only those in mourning can appreciate when they all realize this crazy situation is the "most fun they have had with their mother in a long time".
As a Jew who moved to Chicago from Miami Florida in the 80's after visiting my mother's side of the family at Christmastime, longing to experience the miracles of snow and seasonal changes and well, Christmas itself, I felt many connections to Mitchell's tales about his life in the city.
The Chicago theater scene with all its faults really is wonderful and is different from any other city like Los Angeles or New York in its BIG smallness, including how the poverty of actors and artists living in cheap studios, all of us totally broke for years on end paying off student loans forever. But through it all we eventually yield lifelong friendships, friendships that have become an extended family for us that no other BIG city would have fostered. And just like we learn in the inscription in George Bailey’s book at the end of It’s A Wonderful Life – “No man is a failure who has friends.”
It seems playing the role in the award-winning writer David Sedaris's play for so long has rubbed off on Fain because in “This Way Outta Santaland (and other X Mas Miracles)”, Fain has written another play, also deserving of many awards, which for a Jew from the mean streets of Rhode Island is a Christmas miracle of its own!
Fain is a true delight! Be sure to catch “This Way Outta Santaland” during its run through December 23rd for a warm, humorous and uniquely delivered show that features tremendous storytelling and wonderful music. To find out more about performance times and show information, visit www.TheaterWit.org.
Before the colonial history of New York City was hip hop-ified by outrageously talented Broadway composer/writer/actor Lin-Manuel Miranda, a small portion of the city had its own hip hop story to tell. In the Heights, which premiered on Broadway in 2008 and subsequently won the Tony for Best Musical (among four total wins) and Grammy for Best Musical Show album, features a lively ensemble who collectively share the story of their own corner of Manhattan.
It's appropriate that Chicago's Porchlight Music Theatre chose Miranda's first musical to perform through October, as it will overlap the Chicago premiere of his second musical, the cultural phenomenon Hamilton, which gets its own Loop theater at the end of the month. Like Hamilton, In the Heights is a mixture of brilliantly-crafted rap, (as well as merengue and salsa), powerful singing, and rich, often funny, dialogue.
The story, set in Manhattan's predominantly Latino neighborhood Washington Heights, centers around the neighborhood bodega where the members of the community congregate, whether to grab their morning coffee, flirt, gossip, or discuss their dreams, their conversations painting a complicated portrait of the "barrio" life. Some of them, like the willful and stubborn Vanessa, see the Heights as a prison sentence and hope for a better future, wishing to get out by any means. Others, like Abuela Claudia, immigrated to the utopian New York City when they were young and dearly love the neighborhood in which they have lived most of their lives. Meanwhile, others struggle with both love and disdain for the Heights, like college dropout Nina who wrestles with the shame of losing her scholarship and breaking the bittersweet news to her parents that she must return home.
On top of the drama, humor, romance, heartbreak, and impossible hopes passionately sung and rapped about by the various characters -- Porchlight's modest 18-person cast showcases extreme talent, the powerful female voices in particular could easily be heard on a professional Broadway stage -- the authenticity of a real New York community shines through. From the "piragua" (flavored shaved ice) seller carting through town, to the close-knit gossipy hair salon, to the shop owners chasing away graffiti artists, to the fierce Puerto Rican and Dominican pride on display, In the Heights realistically captures the essence of a colorful, cultural community. It entices and welcomes you with open arms, making you feel like you could be right at home if you found yourself at the edge of northern Manhattan getting off the A train at 181st Street.
In the Heights is playing at Stage 773 now through Sunday, October 23rd. Tickets can be purchased at Porchlight Music Theatre.
The image of sitting around a campfire under the stars brings to mind nights connecting with friends and family, sharing stories about the past and imagining what the future may hold. Connected, by Collaboraction, plays on this theme transporting the audience from campfire to campfire throughout history and into the future, examining how our connections to one another can shape our world.
The show opens as a young girl prepares for her dreams during “water sleep”. The audience puts on their time travel masks along with her and together they travel all the way back in time to the Big Bang – the original campfire. From there, the play moves from the first fire the caveman created, to a camp fire on the Oregon Trail, to a 60’s peace and love campfire, to our virtual campfire supported by technology and social media and ending with a glimpse of what our future campfire conversation could look like, coming right back to our young protagonist preparing for her “water sleep” in this imagined future.
Connected is many things; maybe too many to appreciate fully in the moment. It is part science class, explaining the big bang, the creation of life on earth, and the extinction of the dinosaurs. It is part historical drama, showing human evolution from grunting cavemen to a virtual reality society. And finally, it is part social commentary dealing with how technology has changed the way we connect with each other. While all of our technological advances are intended to bring us closer together, Connected explores if it has actually isolated us from one another and what risks does that carry with it. With so many elements to this show, the initial audience reaction may include some confusion or feelings of being overwhelmed but with time and reflection the value becomes more clear.
The show is staged in the round for a small audience so that everyone feels they have a seat at the campfire. In addition to the epic and multi-dimensional story it is telling, the show integrates movement, puppets, video, social media and audience interaction to bring it to life. It is a one act show lasting about 80 minutes and the pacing of the show keeps it moving along, covering millions and millions of years in that short time.
There were many elements to this show which were quite unique including a break in the 4th wall where the audience had a choose their own adventure moment which resulted in a group dance break to the Cha Cha Slide followed by selfie time. The show is full of so many stories, and constant surprises challenging the audience to reflect more deeply on their own connections.
It is certainly not a traditional piece of theater so do not go in with those expectations. Be open and prepared for just about anything and you will likely enjoy the show, if not in those moments after the show ends when you try to piece through what you just saw, but certainly in the days that follow as you reflect on everything that happened in the small theater space of the Flatirons Building.
See for yourself. Connected is playing through May 29th. Get your tickets at collaboraction.org.
How do you categorize a musical that is part comedy, part drama, and part burlesque? The answer is: you don't need you. Like Kander and Ebb's later popular Broadway hit Chicago, Cabaret uses flashy and often funny nightclub performance as a device to embellish and expound upon the more serious and sometimes grim events of the story. In Chicago, shameless homicide by two murderesses is explored through jazzy nightclub acts, while in Cabaret, the grisly beginnings of WWII and the anxious pall it casts over the characters' lives is explored through fearless, garter-brimming club performances.
Cabaret is a unique musical, one that will sneak up on you and knock you in the chin if you try to pigeonhole it. The songs are inordinately catchy and the story turns unpredictably. On opening night at the inaugural show of the newly named Private Bank Theatre, I was surprised to hear so many shocked reactions from the audience around me. Every Nazi reference was met with gasps, one short scene of drug use left the audience deadly silent, the never-even-mentioned-by-name subject briefly implied by Sally's doctor visit caused an audible "Oh my God!", and Cliff's apparent bisexuality was received with total confusion. "But he kissed a boy. How could he fall in love with a girl?" Please. If audiences could survive it in 1962, they should certainly be able to handle it now. The reactions only serve to prove that Cabaret has a timeless impact.
When American self-described "starving novelist" Cliff (a capable if slightly bland Lee Aaron Rosen) travels to Berlin in pursuit of literary inspiration, he discovers it in the form of the buoyant and provocative English cabaret dancer Sally Bowles (a character brilliantly committed to by Andrea Goss) and the seedy nightclub crowd with which she surrounds herself. They soon begin living together and befriend landlady Fraulein Schneider (a subduedly wise Shannon Cochran) and fellow tenant, the Jewish Herr Schultz (a cute and gentle Mark Nelson), the latter of whom begin a sweet but eventually controversial romance. Sally and Cliff's lives are an ecstatic chaos of gin and sexual liberation until Cliff's friend and confidante Herr Ludwig (flawlessly portrayed by Ned Noyes) reveals his disturbing true colors, triggering the destruction that floods the characters' lives from that point on and effectively bursting their bubble of delusion. The omniscient Emcee of Berlin's sordid Kit Kat Club (a delightfully snarky Randy Harrison) guides the viewer between the actual plot events and their corresponding cabaret acts.
My favorite of the over-the-top club performances cleverly mirroring the real life drama is the titular showstopper "Cabaret." Many folks, likely many of the shocked theatre-goers seated around me, may associate this song with a charismatic, triumphant Liza Minnelli from the 1972 film (or even an older, sequined-out Liza cheerily vamping her way through a showtune medley) and thus were not expecting the heavier tone rendered in the stage version. At this point, Sally has lost everything. She's alone, she's ill, she's broke, she is out of a job after this final performance. Her life has spiraled into a living hell. Goss made a powerful impression as Sally throughout and nothing showcased her acting talents more than her raw, enraged delivery of this song. The eerie juxtaposition of Sally's unabashed ruin with jaunty lyrics celebrating a wildly fun, carefree lifestyle gave me chills, the last line all but screamed at the audience before she knocks down the mike stand in her fury.
This is a musical that everyone should see at least once in their lifetime. It will not meet your expectations, in the best way possible.
Cabaret is playing at the Private Bank Theatre at 18 W Monroe now through February 21st. Tickets can be purchased at Ticketmaster or by going to BroadwayInChicago.
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