Theatre

Unlike the preamble to the constitution, you – the people – won't find any established justice or domestic tranquility in Trump's America. Enter the Anti-Trump Musical.

Last Saturday Flying Elephant Productions premiered We the People, a new musical featuring a cast of six singing original songs with music and lyrics by Leo Schwartz and book by Sean Chandler. In a little over an hour, the show revisits the Democratic and Republication national conventions, election night 2016, the immediate morning after, and the dawning chaos of what it means to live under a President Trump.

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The musical serves as a warning of sorts, but it is too little too late. If anything, it would likely inspire people to vote in the midterm elections, and just VOTE in general so we don't wind up in this "unpresidented" (to use a term from our current president) situation again.

Part of me wanted the show to be harsher on Trump, but I can see where too abrasive of an approach would potentially turn people off. Another part of me wanted it to be funnier, because what's more of a joke than a highly unqualified reality television star becoming one of the most powerful politicians on the planet? But the reality of that is truly frightening far more than funny. The songs convey anger, and yes, some humor, but what the show does does best is present the facts and give intelligent, level-headed commentary – something our country is in vast shortage of these days.

We the People is playing at Stage 773 at 1225 W Belmont Ave through February 10th.

Published in Theatre Reviews
Thursday, 03 November 2016 21:47

Come to the Fun Home!

Fun Home is not merely a well-crafted, excellent musical in every sense of the word but an important one. Fittingly winning the Tony award for Best Musical the same year same-sex marriage was legalized in the United States, Fun Home is the first Broadway musical to feature a lesbian protagonist. Beyond that, it is also the first musical to discuss homosexuality in such an open way. The main character, Alison, discovers and learns about her own sexuality the same time her father, Bruce, is battling with his. Her coming out of the closet coincides so aptly with his repression into it that it's amazing they didn't run into each other in the doorway. 

Based on writer and cartoonist Alison Bechdel's 2006 graphic memoir of the same name, the story told in Fun Home -- already dramatic and engaging on its own -- becomes that much more poignant due to the fact that it is true. This was Bechdel's life, and it is an extremely personal tale that requires a paradoxical balance of vulnerability and courage to tell.

Non-linear, like Bechdel's memoir, and brimming with intelligence, humor, and frustration, Fun Home is less a typical musical than it is a dramatic play with songs sprinkled in. Where you won't find big bawdy show-stopping numbers that burst onto the scene, you'll find elegant, pretty melodies that extend organically from significant moments in the story. The protagonist, Alison, is portrayed by three actresses to encompass her lifespan thus far: Small Al, Middle Al, and Big Al -- or just Al, who is present-day Alison writing and narrating her story.

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Her father Bruce serves as both a mirror of and partial antagonist to Alison. As is said in the musical a couple of times, the heart of Fun Home is that Alison and Bruce are "nothing alike" and "exactly alike." Al's relationship with her father is set against the backdrop of their functionally dysfunctional family, with Al's two brothers playing a part as well as Helen, their mother and the long-suffering wife of Bruce. An English teacher, intellectual, and funeral director -- their house doubles as a funeral home, from where the title is derived -- Bruce fusses over every aspect of their family house, improving and embellishing every detail in a clear projection of the lack of control he feels he has over his own life, all the while subjecting the rest of the family to his obsession.

Fun Home doesn't shy away from anything. Big ideas are conveyed through small details, which include everything from the seemingly most mundane aspects of life (like cleaning the house) to the most intimate and even somewhat embarrassing (like after Al's first sexual experience with a girl when she adorably and giddily freaks out, declaring she's "changing [her] major to Joan.") It's funny, poignant, sad, and most of all, honest.

It is the least cheesy musical you will ever see.

On top of its artistic integrity alone, Fun Home is an extremely important musical for LGBT awareness. It brings the (to some, distant or fearsome) ideas of homosexuality and "coming out" to the stage and airs them out in a way that demystifies them and, by default, normalizes them. This is the first step to achieving acceptance: removing fear and saying, "Yes. This is normal. This messed up family that happens to include some gay people is just like your messed up family that happens to include some straight people." It can really be that simple, thanks to shows like Fun Home that are unafraid to be real.

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Fun Home is playing at the Oriental Theater through November 13th.

Published in Theatre in Review
Saturday, 17 September 2016 15:27

Review: In the Heights

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.

Published in Theatre Reviews
Wednesday, 10 February 2016 05:48

Come to the Cabaret!

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.

Andrea Goss as Sally Bowles

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.

Published in Theatre Reviews

 

 

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