Theatre

As my sidekick for the evening – himself a theater and sketch comedy guy – and I entered Stage 773’s Cab Theater on Saturday to see Cupid Has a Heart On, we were greeted by smiley, bubbly folks who I guessed were cast members of the show. I turned out to be right. I said to my pal, “Looks like we’ll be spending an evening with grown-up theater kids, huh?” I’d turn out to be right about that, too.
The venue’s got a cabaret feel – black all around; red Naugahyde, too; swanky and dark like a Saturday night. We crossed the stage and found seats in the far corner, back behind the accompanist and his keyboard. Turns out the pianist was also the show’s director, Brian Posen. His playing throughout the show was rollicking and rambunctious – very much an old-timey lounge feel to fit the surroundings – and Posen even took part in a number about himself, as the lonely piano player, later in the evening. The music he and the cast have written and performed was really something, bouncing from one genre to the next and always played with absolute musicianship. But a bit of advice for those who see the show – while the red pleather booth behind the piano was plenty comfortable and afforded a nice view, the sound of the keys often drowned out the performers’ vocals.

The songs and sketches that made up the show were fun, though I’m still not sure who the target audience was. The baby boomers in the crowd laughed the loudest, while much of the content seemed to be about those much younger than middle age, about the age of the millennials who are the show’s actors and singers. Some material was timeless, while some felt like it had been written more recently to update this, Chicago’s longest running comedy show. I, myself, did not feel like I was the target audience. Perhaps I’m too jaded or too cynical, unable to be shocked by much in these frenetic and chaotic days. Or maybe I just needed more than the one drink I had at the bar to loosen me up enough to be shocked.

Because the content of the show was meant to shock. The songs were mostly about the things we don’t speak of – the sexual taboos, the not-so-sexy urges, the bad relationships gone worse, the crap that makes life so sexy sometimes and so crappy at others. From UTIs to lactose intolerance, from failed attempts at self-pleasure to failed attempts to resist booty calls, from the fact that even our parents do it to a duet about booty, the songs hit on the stuff we think and feel and maybe even talk about, but very rarely drag onstage. But once onstage, the show’s performers didn’t hold back.
And that was the real pleasure of the evening – seeing these really gifted singers and comedians give it their all. Most all of them accompanied themselves or others with guitars or ukuleles at some point (one tune found SIX guitars being strummed while the logistics of a sixsome were discussed). And all of them can sing their booties off, both as lead vocalists and harmonists. But it was the ensemble’s willingness to leave it all onstage that impressed me most. Clothes were removed. Bodies were contorted. Audience members were dragged onstage, or made a part of the show where they sat. While this audience member might not have been shocked, he had a smile on his face the whole time, impressed by the job the cast did.

Individual talents that made an impression on me were many, even as the cast worked well together. Di Billick – one of the pre-show greeters – stole most scenes she was in. Jake Feeny and Alex Madda added spunk to their fine vocals. Andy Orscheln was often found with a guitar in-hand, and always radiated how much he enjoyed performing. Katie Maggart’s girl-next-door charm nicely complimented the show’s more risqué moments. Chad Michael Innis was a standout – hilarious and insistent, all over the place. But the star, for me, was Marco Braun – another cast member milling around the audience before the show. A burly and bawdy Jonah Hill type, Braun captured our focus whenever he was onstage with his beaming smile, his (oft-unclothed) physique, and his irresistible presence.
So, no matter my personal reaction to the material, I had a good time watching a troupe of gifted entertainers deliver it. For those who are more easily shocked than I am, then you’ll love letting these folks shock. And for those who want to support our city’s gifted entertainers, you can find them in the Cab theater at Stage 773 every Saturday at 8pm.

It turns out I did spend my Saturday evening learning what happens when those eager, energetic, and talented theater kids we all knew in school turn into grownups. They become eager, energetic, and talented performers who put on a hell of a show. And Chicago’s theater and comedy communities – and those who enjoy the shows they put on – are lucky to have them.

Published in Theatre in Review

There has never been a better Broadway marriage of story and storyteller – until Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, three decades later, anyway – than Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and songsmith Roger Miller. Floating between aching country ballads, soulful slave spirituals, and the side-splitting novelty tunes that made Miller famous, Big River brought an American classic about century-old America into the 20th century, earning seven Tony Awards in the process. And now through October 15, Theatre at the Center in Munster, Indiana, ferries Huck, Jim, and their story of friendship and freedom to today’s audiences, showing that the stories and the struggles of America haven’t changed all that much.

While Twain’s tale is titled for its teller – the author’s most famous creation – Huck Finn was the original Nick Carraway, in that he is best when playing narrator for the other characters and their quandaries. And in TATC’s production of Big River, James Romney’s Huck is just such a narrator. Romney’s work is fine – his voice is strong, his acting is as well, and he’s got boyish charm galore – but it’s when he allows the rest of the cast to shine that he’s at his best, supporting each of the people we meet along the Mississippi as they spin their yarns, share their pain, and make us chuckle.

The first people we meet are the orchestra, led by pianist and musical director, Bill Underwood. Part of the simple but gorgeous set, the group fits right into the rural riverside, playing guitars, mandolins, accordion, harmonica, and even the jaw harp. Their accompaniment throughout is just the right balance of polished and down home; they’re part of the set and part of the spectacle, bringing the surroundings to life without stealing the show.

Huck’s fellow townsfolk enter as the opening overture plays, each dancing and playing percussion – washboard, shakers, the tambourine. Liz Chidester’s stern Miss Watson is a favorite, a spinsterly hoot. And Kyle Quinlivan’s Tom Sawyer, who will reappear throughout, starts us off expecting a comical adventure, more puckish even than Huck as he leads the local lads in the energetic “We Are the Boys.”

Another member of Huck’s St. Petersburg is town drunkard and the boy’s old man, Pap Finn, played by Bret Tuomi. His swaggering, staggering rendition of the bluesy “Guv’ment” is the first real showstopper. Tuomi later retakes the stage as the King, a conman whose partner in crime, the Duke played by Jason Richards, struts and preens and malaprops his way into the townspeople’s pockets and the audience’s hearts, a highlight being a ludicrous Shakespearean soliloquy. Seeing grifters hoodwink the general populace for their own gain has never been so much fun – or, sadly, so timely.

But even as the cast entertains, the darkest side of humanity is always present. The ensemble cast playing slaves – slaves in Huck’s hometown, and those enslaved on down the river – give the show gravitas not just with their singing, but by their mere presence. Adhana Reid delivers a lovely hymn, “How Blest We Are,” while Camille Robinson provides a highlight in the reprise of “Waitin’ for the Light to Shine.” But early on, as Jim and Huck hear voices from the other bank sing the lament, “The Crossing,” Jim knows these are escaped slaves who’ve been recaptured simply from the sound of their voices. And because Jim tells us, we know this, too. And we hurt right along with him.

Blessed with a big, beautiful voice, and an even bigger and more beautiful presence, Jonathan Butler-Duplessis, as Jim, is the heart of this production, just as Jim is the heart of the book and the musical. Whether cleaning a catfish or chained to a cabin, whether telling of his daughter’s scarlet fever or telling tall tales to Huck aboard their raft, we feel for and with and through Butler-Duplessis’ Jim. This culminates in his rendition of Roger Miller’s finest gospel tune – and perhaps the finest tune Miller ever wrote – “Free at Last.” Shackled there on center stage, Butler-Duplessis shows us the sorrow this man has seen and hints at the hope that freedom may bring.

But perhaps for this writer, the most powerful moment comes at the end of the first act. As Huck joins the shysters in plotting their latest scheme in “When the Sun Goes Down in the South,” Jim returns to the show’s main theme, the yearning, churning “Muddy Water.” Jonathan Butler-Deplessis’ solo soars over his raftmates’ shenanigans, in a plea for freedom, for justice, for life. In 1800's Missouri or in modern times, there is injustice and there are those who stand against it. Yesterday and today, there is good and there is evil. And in that moment, I sure got the shivers as TATC’s Big River allows the good to rise above.

Big River is being performed at Theatre at the Center in Munster, IN through October 15th. For more show information visit www.theatreatthecenter.com. A Wonderful Life: The Musical begins November 16th.

Published in Theatre in Review

These days – these days of fractured politics and fraudulent politicians and fake news, and all of the fear they’ve collectively caused our country – perhaps we could all use a little comfort food, be it literal or figurative. And for a couple hours on Sunday night at Ravinia, that’s what John Mellencamp and Carlene Carter dished out – American music that was comforting while still completely captivating.

American music, of course, is Ms. Carter’s birthright. By nature and by nurture, the daughter of June Carter and stepdaughter of Johnny Cash was meant to grace the stage, and oh boy, did she ever. The strains of her guitar and twang of her voice filling the night air, Carter welcomed the crowd as they filed to their seats. Regaling us with stories of a life lived among musical royalty (one yarn involved a late-1960's Kris Kristofferson in leather pants and a helicopter), Carlene gifted us with her own God-given talent. Setting down her guitar to sit down at the piano, she shared the personal loss of her mother and stepdaddy with the hymnal “Lonesome Valley.” Leading us north shore folks in an acapella “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” she winkingly assured us that our rendition was alright, even though we’re no Carter Family.

This professionalism continued as members of the headlining band took the stage, decked out in black suits and armed with hollow-body guitars, a violin, faux-distressed drumkit, and even an accordion. The music of a newer number, “Lawless Times” from 2014’s Plain Spoken, began. And then that familiar face and comforting form of John Mellencamp strolled out, Telecaster guitar strapped over black duds that would’ve made the afore-mentioned Mr. Cash proud, as confident and cocksure as he was decades ago.

The opener was a newer song, but the weathered voice, the still-handsome face, and the populist politics – sentiments both working-class and progressive? How vintage! How quaint! – were anything but. This was the guy – the legend, the hall-of-famer, the working man’s musician – the crowd had come to see. And their hero delivered.

After another more recent number, Mellencamp dove into his back catalogue with renditions of “Minutes to Memories” and “Small Town” off the once-ubiquitous Scarecrow, the crowd eager to leap to its feet and sing along.

After introducing himself and his band, Mellencamp traveled back in time even further with a modern blues take – just vocals, slide guitar, and upright bass – on Robert Johnson’s haunting “Stones in My Passway.”

Again returning to his own work, Mellencamp sang “Pop Singer,” which could just as easily critique today’s fleeting and narcissistic culture as the one nearly three decades ago, as could 1987’s “Check It Out.” The only updates these songs got were thanks to the mature and polished backing band Mellencamp brought and the weathered rasp that age has brought him.

The next song didn’t need the stellar backing musicians or their bevy of instruments to make it powerful. Clutching his acoustic guitar, today’s John Mellencamp told the tale of how a 24-year-old version of himself penned “Jack and Diane” while torn between dreams of songwriting stardom and the more worldly concerns 20-somethings have always had. And strumming said guitar, he allowed the crowd of equally aged folks to take the lead, literally, singing the lead vocal we all know…or at least thought we did. When the crowd skipped the second verse, instead plowing into that beloved chorus, Mellencamp corrected us before continuing. But that chorus of voices made “Oh yeah, life goes on, long after the thrill of living is gone” float through the summer air, sounding every bit the hymn or old standard it has become.

Carlene Carter then returned for a couple of tunes, including “My Soul’s Got Wings,” whose lyrics were once written by Woody Guthrie, only to be given the Mermaid Avenue treatment (given music and a proper recording) by Mellencamp on this year’s Sad Clowns & Hillbillies. A lovely overture by the band’s violinist and accordion player was played before the crowd again got the classics, in the form of “Rain on the Scarecrow” and “Crumblin’ Down.” When each of these was played, the audience leapt to its feet, especially going footloose for “Authority Song,” whose authoritative target most of them have become all these years later.

But that was not the point of the show. Who we were – and how that’s not so different than who we are now – was what mattered. And as we embraced John Mellencamp’s songs, singing with him, all together for one glorious night, he provided the comfort and familiarity that was underscored by the main set’s closer, “Pink Houses”: “Ain’t that America, somethin’ to see…”

For one night, we forgot about the world outside. It sure was somethin’ to see.

 

Published in In Concert

 

 

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