In 1931 nine African American teenagers were wrongly accused of raping two white women while aboard a freight train in Alabama. Worried they might get imprisoned for prostitution while traveling aboard the same train, Victoria Price and Ruby Bates quickly cried rape, diverting the attention rather to the handful of innocent boys. These nine boys became known as The Scottsboro Boys, growing more and more infamy as their many trials became public interest throughout the nation. Fighting through Southern angry mobs, an all-white jury and a trial that was hastened, the nine boys were quickly convicted and sentenced to death by hanging. As word spread of the prejudice demonstrated, Northerners eventually stepped in to see that such a miscarriage of justice be overturned, but that was just the beginning of a process clouded by an ugly and unjust preconception. The uphill fight was long and grueling and successes were slow in the making. The story, superbly performed by Porchlight Music Theatre, is remarkable, sad and hopeful.
Written by David Thompson and directed by Samuel G. Roberson, “The Scottsboro Boys” is a controversial musical, now making its debut in Chicago after Broadway and London runs, and is the last featuring the music and lyrics of John Kander and Fred Ebb, mostly known for their triumphant smash hits “Chicago” and “Cabaret”. The story, a compelling and emotional ride through the racist South is a painful lesson of our nation’s dark history and serves as a stark reminder that change for a better world must never be ignored as we move forward as a unified people.
Throughout the musical’s duration, we see an image of a pained Rosa Parks (Cynthia Clarey) who plays witness to the injustices that take place. Though her stand wouldn’t take place until years later, we see the effect such a stirring account would have on approaching generations. Sad as this tragic story as such is, we feel hope for the future by the play’s end and a realization for the work that still needs to be done.
“This is a story that needs to be told,” says Mark J.P. Hood who stars as Mr. Tambo.
The nearly all African American cast delivers several all-around brilliant performances, doling out tremendous vocal harmony efforts, powerful acting and dance numbers that are both inventive and energetic. Currently running at Stage 773, a mid-sized theatre, the only drawback is that it is easy to envision the musical preformed on a larger stage, sometimes routines appearing a bit crowded. Still, that’s a very small drawback, because the play’s director is able to utilize its given space to maximize this Broadway-sized show effectively, moving boxcars and all.
Denzel Tsopnang and Mark J.P. Hood lead this gifted ensemble along with James Earl Jones II with commanding acting performances that would be hard to beat. The Scottsboro Boys is a real showcase for both Tsopnang and Hood, who flex their versatility while taking on a handful of roles. Veteran actor Larry Yondo, most recently known for his spot-on portrayal of Ebenezer Scrooge in Goodman’s “A Christmas Carol”, also puts forth yet another admirable effort as The Interlocutor. With several beautiful vocal harmonies that sweep the house with robust sentiment, it is perhaps “Go Back Home”, a pivotal number that relates to those longing to find peace passionately led by Jones II, that will truly resonate with theatre goers long after the show. Though the vocal finesse is abundant throughout, fourteen-year-old Cameron Goode and Stephen Allen Jr. somehow find room to dazzle us even more.
As jaw dropping as many of the numbers are in their performance, the audience often finds reluctance in their clapping, the weight of the subject matter almost seemingly inappropriate to applaud. But it is in these performances that the story is told so well. A handful of poignant casting twists take place as the white policemen and the woman accusers are played by African Americans.
“The Scottsboro Boys” is a highly recommended theatre experience, both exceptional in its performance and its ever-important message. Wonderfully staged, acted and sung, this is a thoroughly entertaining production that will invoke much thought, inspire bravery and encourage action to be taken long afterwards.
“The Scottsboro Boys” is being performed at Stage 773 through March 12th. For tickets and/or more show information click here.
Porchlight Music Theatre is proud to announce that its 2017 – 2018 season will be performed at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 N. Dearborn Ave. as one of Ruth Page Center’s Artists In-Residence. The Ruth Page Center will be Porchlight’s new home for its mainstage and Porchlight Revisits series. In addition to the programming, Porchlight will provide the box office and all audience services for its performances at the venue. Events celebrating this new move will coincide with the launch in September 2017 of Porchlight Music Theatre’s 23rd season, to be announced.
“Over the last few years, Porchlight has experienced an increase in subscribers and single ticket buyers that has accompanied an increase in the volume and scope of Porchlight Music Theatre programming. These factors pointed to the need for a larger capacity venue that would still retain the intimate approach for our musical productions, as we work to expand our audience and supporter base for future seasons," Jeannie Lukow, Porchlight Music Theatre’s executive director said. “Stage 773 has been an invaluable venue for us and we've truly enjoyed their partnership in our being a resident company there. As Porchlight grows and our artistic and audience needs change, being an Artist In-Residence at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts offers Porchlight significant opportunities for our production capabilities and exposure not only to the community around the Center, but also to Chicago’s tourism and travel markets.”
Porchlight Music Theatre’s Artistic Director Michael Weber added, “In addition to presenting our 2017/18 Mainstage and Porchlight Revisits productions at the Ruth Page Center, our School at Porchlight faculty look forward to collaborating with the Ruth Page staff on creating exciting new educational programs that bring together our individual focuses on music theatre and dance training. We look forward to announcing our first season at the Center and more details soon.”
"Our Artist In-Residence Program has acted as an incubator for a number of Chicago's top theater companies – Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Lookingglass Theatre Company, and most recently Chicago Children's Theater." notes Venetia Stifler, executive and artistic director of the Ruth Page Center. "Music Theater complements the other disciplines present in our Center, and Porchlight's long history of artistic excellence make for an exciting new collaboration for both our organizations. We are so pleased to welcome them as our newest Artist In-Residence."
ABOUT PORCHLIGHT MUSIC THEATRE
Porchlight Music Theatre, now in its 22nd season, is nationally recognized for developing innovative new works, reimagining classic productions and showcasing musical theatre’s noted veterans and rising stars. Porchlight elevates the genre in Chicago by providing intimate and powerful theatrical experiences for its growing and diverse audiences. With the vision of Artistic Director Michael Weber, Porchlight builds on its role as Chicago’s only Equity not-for-profit company exclusively specializing in music theatre. Porchlight’s rich history includes the staging of more than 60 productions with 15 Chicago premieres and five world premieres. Through Porchlight’s “Off the Porch” new works program, the musicals of the next generation are developed and given a first audience. The School at Porchlight is Chicago’s new center for music theatre training in the areas of performance, writing and appreciation. The company’s many accolades include 17 Black Theatre Alliance nominations and three awards, as well as a total of 126 Joseph Jefferson Award nominations resulting in 39 Jeff Awards including four consecutive Best Production awards for Dreamgirls (2016), Sondheim on Sondheim (2015), Ain’t Misbehavin’ (2014) and A Class Act (2013).
For more information on Porchlight Music Theatre’s current season and performance schedule go to PorchlightMusicTheatre.org.
ABOUT THE RUTH PAGE CENTER FOR THE ARTS
Venetia Stifler, Emmy-nominated choreographer and director, is the executive and artistic director of The Ruth Page Center for the Arts, guiding the vision of the organization left to Chicago by the dance icon and pioneer Ruth Page (1899-1991). An incubator of artistic energy and excellence, the Ruth Page Center for the Arts carries forward the vision of its founder to be a platform for developing great artists and connecting them with audiences and community. Located at 1016 N. Dearborn Street, the Center serves the Chicago dance and performing arts community by providing a home, office space, rehearsal space, performance opportunities, professional dance training and marketing support for the up-and-coming companies and artists of Chicago's vibrant performing arts scene. Emanating from the Illinois heartland, the visionary work of Ruth Page influenced the growth of theater design, opera-ballet and dance. She achieved worldwide recognition as a true pioneer of dance in America by creating at the forefront of social, political and artistic issues.
ABOUT RUTH PAGE CENTER FOR THE ARTS ARTIST IN-RESIDENCE PROGRAM
Central to the Ruth Page Center for the Arts’ programming is the Artist In-Residence program, which is designed to serve organizations looking for a home base while they grow or expand their artistic and organizational capabilities. The Center is committed to nurturing and assisting dance and other performing artists, allowing for exchange and collaborative relationships to develop within this artist community. The Ruth Page Center for the Arts is a destination for quality performing arts, accessible to a wide community regardless of race, gender, age, education or disability.
Current Artists In-Residence are CDI/Concert Dance, Inc., DanceWorks Chicago, Ruth Page Civic Ballet, ShawChicago Theater Company and Hedwig Dances. Previous residents of the Ruth Page Center include Chicago Children’s Theatre, Chicago Shakespeare Theatre and Lookingglass Theatre Company.
For more information about The Ruth Page Center for the Performing Arts and its programs visit www.RuthPage.org.
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Porchlight Music Theatre is partially supported by generous contributions from the Actors’ Equity Foundation, the Arts Work Fund at the Chicago Community Trust, the Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Elizabeth F. Cheney Foundation, Cooper’s: A Neighborhood Eatery, the Gaylord & Dorothy Donnelley Foundation, James P. and Brenda S. Grusecki Family Foundation, the MacArthur Fund for Arts & Culture at the Prince Foundation, the National Association of Realtors, The Saints and the Service Club of Chicago. The season program is partially supported by a grant from the Illinois Arts Council Agency, a state agency.
To say Judy Garland led a tumultuous life is an understatement. In a way, she was the mid-century equivalent of Amy Winehouse. A once brilliant, and at times triumphant star who faded out much too soon. Maybe some will only remember Judy as Dorothy Gale, but in her short career Judy was an international phenomenon. Her dependence on prescription pills and alcohol created a tortured existence of financial and emotional instability. Judy Garland died of a drug overdose in 1969. Her New York City funeral is often considered the catalyst of the Stonewall Riots.
There have been several TV specials, documentaries, and movies made about Judy's life. Some better than others. A small West End show, "The End of the Rainbow" about the final months of Garland's life became a smash hit in 2010. A huge part of the show's success was star Tracie Bennett's uncanny likeness to Judy. Bennett and "Rainbow" transferred to Broadway in 2012.
This show is popular right now in regional productions, but Porchlight Music Theatre's production is the Chicago premiere. Playing Judy is Angela Ingersoll. Under the direction of Michael Webber, Ingersoll turns in a tour de force. She's wise not to veer into impression and makes definitive choices for her Judy, focusing on character rather than accuracy. Though, she really brings it home in the cabaret-style musical sequences. She captures Judy's intimate performance techniques that make an audience feel warm.
The book by Peter Quilter is more of a dramatic play than musical, but the songs are all selected from Judy's regular repertoire. Quilter's script is a well-rounded account of Judy's life almost entirely composed of actual quotes and first hand accounts from her life. Judy's demise is an unpleasant story and "The End of the Rainbow" covers it without getting morbid or tabloid.
Porchlight's production of "End of the Rainbow" starring Angela Ingersoll is a deeply moving account of the hidden side of show business. It's also a bittersweet tribute to one of Hollywood's biggest legends. For Garland fans young and old, this show is not to be missed.
Through December 9th at Stage 773. 1225 W Belmont Ave. 773-327-5252
This excellent stage production of the 2013 musical Far from Heaven was based on Todd Haynes‘ 2002 motion picture of the same name.
Far from Heaven is set in 1957 Hartford, Connecticut, well before the advent of the sexual revolution. Cathy Whitaker played by Summer Naomi Smart discovers that her handsome, successful businessman husband Frank is having affairs - with other men! Frank was played very well and very selfishly - if not compassionately - towards his wife whose world is crushed unexpectedly by actor Brandon Springman.
After a time of trying to convert her husband back to heterosexuality by a psychologist, Cathy and her husband realize the emptiness and futility of their sexless and coldly critical relationship continuing just for the sake of the children.
Cathy's new gardener and widowed single father of a ten-year-old daughter, Raymond Deagan (Evan Tyrone Martin), becomes her friend and the scandal of her own life in spite of their necessarily platonic enjoyment of each other's company.
Evan Tyrone Martin has a wonderful rich smooth voice, arguably the best in the show and a nice natural quality to his acting. Summer Naomi Smart is stunning to look at as the real life "Stepford Wife" whose world comes crashing down when she tries to surprise visit her husband on a night he is "working late again" and gets the shock of her life when she finds him in the office in the arms of another man.
I've seen Ms. Smart in many musical comedies but this is the first time I have seen her really let loose in a dark way, especially in the scene when she confronts her husband about his homosexual affairs and lets out a terrifying and mournful wail that truly came from deep inside her character’s psyche. It was nice to see her tackle then take the reigns on this multi-dimensional role.
Grant Saban‘s set seemed too much like a doll house to me, very one dimensional in color and shapes but perhaps that was intentional in terms of the subtext of the repressive 1950's. However, William Morey‘s gorgeous period costumes, which reminded me of a cross between Lucille Ball and Mary Tyler Moore's beautifully tailored and colorfully designed outfits in their respective series, brought the whole set to life.
Bri Sudia‘s performance is rich and dynamic as Cathy’s best friend Eleanor, who is very sympathetic about the sexless and lovlessness of Cathy's picture perfect marriage yet deserts her best friend over the issue of an interracial friendship. All of the supporting characters and girlfriends of Cathy Whitaker in this production do an excellent job in their respective roles and deliver as many ironic laughs as possible with subject matter that really is just a lot of sad statements about the wasted loves of many marriages in the fifties - marriages, which were built on lies and social and financial convenience rather than genuine love and real sexual attraction.
Turning this subject matter into a musical may have made it more fun and palatable, but also detracted from the seriousness and tragedy of a woman who has given birth to two children and ends up totally alone, a single mother in the fifties, because of years and years of lies from a man who was supposed to be her best friend and true love. Yet the accompaniment of a great live orchestra really brings this sometimes somber score to life when needed.
Finely directed by Chuck Larkin, Porchlight Musical Theatre's Far from Heaven is playing at Stage 773 through March 13th. For more show information on this absorbing and well-pieced-together production, visit www.prochlightmusictheatre.org.
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