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Thursday, 10 March 2011 00:00

HAIR: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical

If any musical is a precursor to the rock opera, it's 1967's very own Hair. I saw elements of Rent, Godspell, and Jesus Christ Superstar, among others, embedded within the music, choreography, and even the costumes. This show is great fun but with serious things to say. Written and set in the late sixties, Hair speaks to many of the hot button issues of the time: the emergence of the hippie culture, freedom of sexuality, the generational gap between young adults and their parents, the prevelance of androgynous young men growing their hair long, and most importantly, the Vietnam War. Yet, the messages are still more than relevant today.

Act One opens with the show's most famous tune, "Age of Aquarius," then takes the audience through a sort of roll call of the characters, who address and speak to (and sometimes dance with) the audience. We learn about the male characters' rage and fear over being drafted and watch them scheme and worry over getting out of it. But the upbeat songs and energetic people moving around onstage allow you to put the misery on the backburner for awhile and enjoy celebrating "Peace! Flowers! Freedom! Happiness!" with the colorful members of the fringe culture.

I found that I liked the cast even before I saw them, reading through their bios in my program. Nobody had boastful lists of regional or touring credits, but rather tidbit philosophies on life (on karma, Zen, art), shout outs to family and friends, and -- a cute touch -- their astrological signs. This cast was young, enthusiastic, and a very strong ensemble. And brave. I've never once gone to the theatre and seen any actor, let alone an entire cast, stand unabashedly nude before the audience. If you happen to get bored with all the peace and love, just hang on, because that'll wake you right up.

Some of my favorite aspects of the show included three white girls singing about how much they love "Black Boys" followed by three black girls singing about how much they love "White Boys," the prayer of "Sodomy" (and cunnilingus, and fellatio, and masturbation...), the beautiful, shirtless hippie men (abs!), and Claude's profound defense to his parents of his opposition to the war, "I Got Life."

Obviously, the anti-war sentiments still ring true, but the part of the show where I really got chills, thinking of all the bullying and suicides that have taken place among the young gay community, was when a cast member dressed as an older woman (the embodiment of the conservative generation) turned to the audience and said, "I wish every mother and father in this theatre would go home tonight and tell their kids: 'BE FREE. Be whoever you are, and do whatever you want to do.'" Adding, "As long as you don't hurt anybody." As messages go, this is about as clear as it can get. 

I've known the music of Hair for years, but this was the first time I actually saw the show. It was wonderful to finally put a story and characters to the songs I love so much, and it was everything I'd imagined it would be. A celebration of being alive, of friends, of music, of freedom, of LOVE LOVE LOVE! However, it wasn't all flower-power optimism; by the end you will be left with a haunting reminder of the consequences of war. Not to fret, though. The cast continues the celebration by bouncing back up onstage for curtain call and a "Let the Sun Shine In" dance party with the audience, half of whom joined the cast onstage to dance and sing, some running down the aisles for their chance, some being somewhat reluctantly lead by hippie cast members. And good fun was had by all!

I wish I would have been around for the original Hair production, just to see what 21st-century changes had been made. Whether it's a direct reitterance of the 1967 production, I can't say, although I doubt that it is. No matter what, though, I can safely say that this revival stays faithful to the ideas and convictions of the sixties original and perpetuates them in a way we can relate to. I think everyone should go see it. I walked in with a question mark over my head in regards to what I was about to witness, and I walked out with flowers in my hair, an invitation to a Human Be-In ("Bring Your Own Pot!"), and "Let the Sun Shine In" thrumming through my head. The Hair revival is here until March 20th at the Ford Center/Oriental Theatre, so don't miss out on the peace, love, and astounding cultural significance.

Neither the sweeping, bitter winds that tore through the streets nor the mountains of snow that overtook our fair city could keep me from joining the crusade at the Cadillac Palace Theatre for the New 25th Anniversary Production of Les Misérables. Although my fifth time seeing the world-famous operetta, the power of the story and beauty of the music were by no means dulled. In fact, with the many new elements this production entailed in addition to my four-year Les Mis withdrawal, you could even say they were heightened.

Not only is this Les Mis's first US tour in four years, but it's also the first time the show has been entirely reimagined. Nothing to worry about, though; you won't find Jean Valjean in blue jeans or Inspector Javert wielding a .44 magnum. The changes that were made, although undoubtedly meant to update the show, left the story untouched while altering instead the scenery and overall pace of the show. The original Les Mis tour was known for its revolving stage, simplistic indicators of setting, and enormous barricade sets that swung in from either side of the stage; the title stood projected onto a screen as the overture played, and the stage was generally sparse, the attention focused on the actors and music.

The 25th Anniversary Production, however, elaborated on some of these elements while cutting others out completely. First off, no revolving stage. (The one thing I truly missed.) Second, the backgrounds throughout the show comprised of images taken from Victor Hugo's paintings, all dark and dreary, which worked well to set the tone and establish the 19th century time period and French environs. The sets themselves were more numerous and complex, with many pieces frequently being wheeled on and off stage, as were the props. Comparing the two productions, the stage of this newer version seemed generally more cluttered and full, possibly to provide more visual stimulation. The overture played to a projected image of a desolate night sky rather than the title; it was only after the first fifteen minutes of the show when Valjean tears up his incriminating yellow parole sheet that "Les Miserables", in a new font, was projected onto the scrim as the mini-overture to the next song spilled out from the orchestra pit, all to much applause. This seemed very cinematic, the same way many films hold their titles until something of signficance happens to set up the story.

And the music -- oh, God, the music. Just as lovely and gorgeous as ever. Before singling out my favorite actors and singers from this production, I'd like to first pay a well-deserved compliment to the entire cast, and that is that they were exceptionally articulate. This is especially hard to come by in choral-heavy shows because more often than not when thirty or forty people sing together it's difficult to pick out all the words. This cast made sure to "kuh!" the Ks, "guh!" the Gs, and "tuh!" the Ts -- immensely helpful for those of us who don't want those poetic lyrics drowned out, as well as for those who have never seen the show and may have a hard enough time figuring out what's going on without the lyrics being unintelligible.

As for who stole the show, in my humble opinion, I'll have to start with the ladies, the lovely, lovely Eponine and Fantine, played by Chasten Harmon and Betsy Morgan, respectively. These women knew how to belt, and belt they did during the only two full-length female soliloquies -- "I Dreamed a Dream" and "On My Own" -- of the whole show. Justin Scott Brown (from the first Spring Awakening tour) played a charming Marius, with a perfectly even, professional-sounding voice to fit the part. Andrew Varela was a sinisterly foreboding Javert, his deep bass vibrato enough to send chills down your spine. And Valjean, played by Lawrence Clayton, was, despite the myraid alterations to the set, to me the biggest surprise of the show; frankly, I was suprised to see a black Jean Valjean. At first, I felt this was some sort of statement, considering Valjean's unfair persecution at the start of the show, but by the middle of Act One it wasn't something that stuck out to me anymore; with Clayton's strong, tenor voice and a gentle yet world-weary mien, he was just Jean Valjean.

Whether these changes and new additions are improvements, I cannot say, for it truly depends on each individual's taste. For me, I don't mind either way as long as the music stays the same. I wept and felt my soul swelling at the same lines of gorgeously-paired lyrics and music as I always do. I found each character compelling and complex, as I always have. The music speaks for itself. The story speaks for itself. Different sets may move around the actors, different voices may glide over the notes of the music and curl around the words of the lyrics, but if this revamped production proves anything, it's that the students will always be revolutionizing, the Thénardiers will always be conniving, Eponine will always be suffering unrequited love, Gavroche will always be patrolling the Parisian slums, and Javert will always be hunting Valjean. In 1985 and in 2011, that's Les Misérables.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010 19:05

To Kill a Mockingbird at Steppenwolf

 

Steppenwolf Theatre company celebrates the 50th anniversary of Harper Lee's landmark novel To Kill a Mockingbird, featuring Lookingglass Theatre ensemble member Philip R. Smith as the wise and patient Atticus Finch, Bubba Weiler as the coming-of-age Jem Finch, Larry Neumann Jr. as the villainous Bob Ewell, Claire Wellin as the distraught Mayella Ewell, and 5th grader Caroline Heffernan as the bold, tomboyish Scout Finch, who plays her character with such fearlessness that it's hard to believe that this is her first time on the Steppenwolf stage.

The entire cast puts on a superb show, with Carolyn Defrin as a grown up Scout who narrates the story. The only thing I can fault this play for is the fact that it's not the novel. So many details are left out, but of course this is necessary for theatre or film, unless you want to be sitting in a theatre for twelve hours. Having the older version of Scout fill in the gaps with narration helped move the story along and still keep in many details that could not easily fit into the scenes themselves.

Set in Alabama during the Great Depression, To Kill a Mockingbird follows the journey of Scout and Jem Finch, whose father Atticus has been appointed to defend Tom Robinson, a black man accused of assaulting a white woman. As the trial progresses, Jem and Scout witness their community in a tense tug-of-war with racism and justice. This timeless classic compels us to take an honest look at our nation's past, as well as our moral responsibility to each other. Published in 1960, author Harper Lee has received countless literary awards and
recognitions, including the Pultizer Prize for Fiction in 1961. The novel was adapted to the stage by Christopher Sergel, who has also adapted novels such as Up the Down Staircase and Winesburg, Ohio.

Don't miss out on this honest, compelling, and undeniably captivating piece of theatre. To Kill a Mockingbird runs Friday, Saturday, & Sunday at 7:30 PM until November 14th at Steppenwolf's upstairs theatre at 1650 N Halsted. There are also weekday matinees at 3 reserved for school groups.

Sunday, 26 September 2010 05:00

Review of Roger Waters: The Wall Live

As an ardent, obsessive fan of Pink Floyd, you can imagine how excited I was sitting on my stiff, metal stadium seat, gazing out into the vast space of the United Center arena, where the beginning constructions of a wall stood on either side of the stage, waiting for those explosive opening chords of "In the Flesh?" to blast through the speakers and for Mr. Roger Waters to grace us with his presence. My ticket read "8 PM, PROMPT" for the show's starting time. Since my friend and I had arrived a few hours early -- just to have a beer, and to check out the $45 t-shirts (which we each bought, thank you very much) -- we hoped it would start promptly at 8. We didn't want to wait a minute longer.

Well, we did have to wait a minute longer. Twenty minutes longer, in fact. And all the seats in the stadium had just about filled up. I thought I might slip from the edge of my seat and off the balcony into the crowd below in my jittery excitement. The lights went out. Camera flashes and the blue glow of cell phones were the only things illuminating the pitch black arena. The room screamed and cheered. The very air was bristling with energy. Oh my god. This was it. It was happening.

A blue spotlight revealed a lone sax player in the middle of the stage, solemnly warbling out the slow, sad opening tune -- the same melody that ends the show -- as we yelled our elation into the stadium and waited with tingling limbs for what was to come. The audience would grow quiet, then scream again, then quiet again, then scream once more. We didn't know when it was coming, when the sorrowful melody would be bombarded with heavy guitar chords out of the blue, thus truly starting the show. There suddenly was a lull in the music, we all yelled and screamed, and then BA-NUM! BA-NUM! DUN, DUN DUN DUN! The stage was a blinding flash of fire and light and the room erupted. It was already a climactic moment of the show and it had only just started. My friend and I sang along to all the guitar parts until Roger Waters, in all his Roger Waters glory, (because there is glory in simply being Roger Waters), took his place center stage to welcome us with his opening lyrics: "So you thought you might like to go to the show?" Screams. Applause. Whistles. Yes, Roger. We did indeed think that we'd like to go to the show. We did, indeed.

And what a show it was.

Although keeping to the traditions of the original Wall tour from 1980, with the wall being built across the stage as the show progressed, with enormous moving puppets of the school teacher, the mother, and the wife creepily lurking and, seemingly, peering at the audience from the sides of the stage, and with the final tearing down of the wall before the very last song of the show, there was much modernization. The wall itself served as a screen for projecting elaborate, ever-changing images, animations, and quotes, as well as the signature Pink Floyd circular screen that hung behind the stage. These technological advances helped to drive home a message that is deeply relevant to our time.

The anti-war theme of the album was brought to life with such clarity throughout the show; for instance, at the end of "Vera," a clip was shown on the wall of a little girl sitting in a classroom when she gets a look of surprise on her face, then disbelief, then an overwhelming flood of emotion and tears as she sees her dad, a soldier who has come home, walking through the door as she runs to embrace him. I was teary-eyed at this, and even more so when the pulsing drumrolls, triumphant horn section, and Roger Waters's pleading vocals burst into the air for "Bring the Boys Back Home."

There were also messages to be wary of the government and large corporations. During "Run Like Hell," logos of gas companies and car companies washed over the wall amidst the words "You Better Run!", and these same logos were being dropped by military planes during the animation on "Goodbye Blue Sky." Other corporations were attacked as well, one of the most obvious being Apple, with mock iPod ads being projected onto the wall alongside phrases like "iBelieve", "iFollow", "iProfit", "iLose". However, the most prominent and blunt theme was clear as glass: The lyric "Mother, should I trust the government?" was met with "boo!"s all around, and then euphoric cheers and applause when the projection on the wall answered the question itself with the words "No Fucking Way."

The pungent smell of marijuana hung heavy in the air during "Comfortably Numb," and I would have had it no other way. We stood up in our seats and swayed side to side as we sang along, and I never wanted that guitar solo to end. After "The Trial," in which it is decided that the wall must be torn down, the room chanted louder and louder "TEAR DOWN THE WALL!!" as the music built. The music then died away and the first few tiers of white bricks fell forward and onto the stage floor accompanied by booming sounds of explosions and falling rubble. We screamed and screamed as row upon row collapsed until only the sides of the wall remained standing. A light illuminated the front of the stage and the band was revealed, with Roger Waters joining them amongst the debris.

After a long while of cheering and applause, the noise of the crowd abated somewhat and Roger went into the last song, repeating the final line twice, "After all, it's not easy banging your heart against some mad bugger's wall." The room erupted once more and this time we wouldn't stop until the house lights came on and forced us to leave. Over the shouting and clapping and screaming, Roger addressed the crowd, saying, "Thank you, from the bottom of my heart! You've been a fantastic audience!" My friend and I proceeded to repeatedly bow with oustretched arms yelling "Roger! Roger! Roger!" We were still ecstatic, but also bereft, now that it was over. We had waited for this our whole lives; Pink Floyd is in our blood! It runs in our very veins! We didn't want this to be the end. After Roger waved and walked offstage and the house lights went on, everyone made a scramble for the nearest exit as the two of us remained in our seats yelling "Dark Side! Do Dark Side!" at the stage.

All in all, ticket prices may have been steep, but if you like this music and you're going to spend money on anything extraneous, like at a fancy restaurant or on $11 movie tickets or to buy food for your kids, do yourself a favor and spend it on a ticket to Roger Waters instead. He may not be in Chicago anymore, but he's around, and this is your last chance to see him before the wall comes down forever. All in all, it's all so much more than just a brick in the wall.

Sunday, 12 September 2010 03:09

The Book of Sedaris

From the brilliantly wacky minds of David and Amy Sedaris comes The Book of Liz, the heartwarming and hilarious tale of one Sister Elizabeth Dunderstock of the Squeamish cult -- er, religious community. Liz's delicious cheeseballs (both traditional and smoky) are wildly popular and sustain the existence of the quaint and pious Clusterhaven. However, Liz grows to feel unappreciated among her Squeamish brethern and makes the bold decision to try her luck in the outside world. On her journey, she makes plenty of friends, including Cockney-speaking Ukrainian immigrants (from Ukrainia), who find her a job waiting tables at Plymouth Crock, a family restaurant run entirely by recovering alcoholics. Everyone loves her and things are going great for Liz, until she's offered a promotion to manager on the condition that Liz fix her excessive sweating problem. Of course Liz wants the job, but should that mean compromising who she is? Meanwhile in Clusterhaven, the Squeamish can't seem to duplicate Liz's cheeseball recipe, and the community is suffering as a result. What is Liz's secret cheeseball ingredient? Will Liz stay and take her chances in the real world, or will she reclaim her place in the Squeamish community? Find out for yourself at Chemically Imbalanced Comedy on Friday and Saturday nights, where The Book of Liz will be playing until December 18th.

Much of this comedy calls to mind the short-lived Comedy Central show Strangers with Candy, which starred Amy Sedaris. Ridiculous situations and silly -- but oftentimes very much adult -- humor are characteristics of both and will be sure to have you in stitches. A talented and enthusiastic cast (each who play multiple characters throughout the show) bring the Sedaris' hysteriical words to life, both the subtle comedy ("You really think I'll make an okay waitress?" "Liz, I KNOW you'll make an okay waitress!") and the not-so-subtle ("You're gonna want to take the outer road to Route 420--" "Hehehe, 420." "Hehe, yeah it's funny.") And, despite the cheeseballs, don't expect anything cheesy here; what you get is the original, outrageous comedy of America's most hilarious sibling duo.

Saturday, 18 July 2009 00:59

Green Day Rocks Chicago

img_5761This was my second time seeing Green Day in concert, and they blew my mind just as much as the first time I saw them live; these guys can ROCK! Billie, Mike, and Tre have great chemistry together as a band and it manifests itself in spades onstage. If you looked up "stage presence" in the dictionary you might find a picture of Billie Joe Armstrong there...

 

Tuesday, 23 February 2010 00:00

Twelve Angry Men at the Raven Theatre

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Seeing the play Twelve Angry Men, you get exactly that: twelve angry men. Twelve jurors locked in a room on a scorching summer day, wiping sweat from their necks and foreheads, fanning themselves with their hats, gulping down water -- it's the hottest day of the year onstage, and sitting there in the audience you can't help but start to tug at your collar a little bit yourself, despite the single digit temperatures of our fair city and the constant snow outside. The men yell and they bicker, they shout and accuse, they're constantly at each others' throats. A two-act play with the same twelve nameless characters in the same room the entire time. But how to make it interesting? Well, the Raven Theatre Company sure knows how.

Located at 6157 N Clark St, the Raven Theatre is an intimate venue with, for this particular show, seating on three sides, where the audience is either eye-level with or slightly looking down at the stage. Furnished with only a long table and twelve single chairs, the set is that of a 1950's, un-air-conditioned jury room. But it's not the set, or the lights, or the rare occurences of sound effects and music that give life to the play, but the actors themselves. Yes, certainly every play is brought to life by its actors, but in Twelve Angry Men interesting acting is crucial, seeing as it is the singular thing that develops, complicates, and eventually resolves the story; this play could be performed without a set at all, could be performed with just twelve men, and it could be just as dramatic and enthralling.

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"...However you decide, your verdict must be unanimous. I don't envy your job, gentlemen. You're faced with a grave responsibility." And so begins the tortured struggle amongst twelve ordinary men who must decide whether a 16-year-old boy is guilty of murdering his father with a switchblade. These words are spoken by the judge of the case, whom we never see; nor do we see the teenaged defendent, the supposed murderer, because it is not important that we do. What is important is that we see (and inadvertantly become one of) a jury of individuals from different backgrounds, with different prejudices and different convictions, decide the fate of a young man -- who will mandatorily be sent to the electric chair in the case of a "guilty" verdict.

At the start, all the men are convinced the boy is guilty; the kid is from the slums, he's been arrested for mugging and knife-fighting before, it's an open-and-shut case, or so it seems. They take a vote: 11 guilty, 1 not guilty. Many of the men lash out at Juror #8, who believes that there may be reasonable doubt that the boy did not commit the murder. It's hot, they've spent three long days in court, one has tickets to a baseball game -- it's obvious he's guilty, so why not just call it a day? the other jurors think. Although opposed by everybody at first, Juror #8 stands firm and states that he cannot so easily send a boy off to the electric chair without talking about it first. After bringing up details that were not addressed during the trial (and questioning or re-evaluating details that were), the votes slowly turn over... 10 guilty, 2 not guilty...7 guilty, 5 not guilty...6 and 6...until finally only one stubborn juror remains convinced of the young man's guilt. The story, although simple in structure, is highly complex; the details of the trial are hashed and re-hashed from every possible angle, the drama is so palpable at certain points of argument or revelation that you can taste it, there are well-chosen moments of humor amidst the drama, and each juror's personality manages to shine through during the discussions and arguments that take place among them.

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Raven presents a highly varied cast, with men of all ages, black, white, Asian-American, and Latino. C. L. Brown is a gentle and pensive Juror #8, while Dan Loftus plays a jaded and hateful Juror #3. Bryson Engelen is the intellectual Juror #4 and Reginald Vaughn is the volatile and highly prejudiced Juror #10. And some of the actors are stepping onto the professional stage for the first time, but I wouldn't have known had I not read it in the program. Despite a few opening night fumbles of tripping over words in certain lines, the actors performed superbly, especially considering the circular format the script takes that allows much room for accidentally jumping ahead lines, as the same topics are addressed multiple times throughout the show. Furthermore, a factor often taken for granted in theatre is blocking; with direction from Aaron Todd Douglas, the play stays visually interesting despite the limited setting and time frame. The actors are constantly moving, whether it's standing up, pacing, fidgeting, changing positions, moving to a different seat, et cetera...the audience will not even realize that they're not bored watching twelve men talk for nearly two hours.

The play itself is a timeless piece that brings up issues that are relevant today and have been relevant since the play was written in 1955. After witnessing such a compelling, revealing, and oftentimes frustrating, story, one cannot help but question whether or not things are as black-and-white as they seem. "But it's possible..."

Sunday, 13 December 2009 21:30

American Buffalo at Steppenwolf

Ensemble members Francis Guinan and Tracy Letts in Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of American Buffalo by David Mamet, directed by ensemble member Amy Morton.  Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Never having seen a Steppenwolf production, I didn't know what to expect walking through the Old Town theater's front doors. Upon settling myself in my seat and feeling the room go cooler with the blackening of the lights and the immediate silence that followed, I became aware of greatly liking the smaller, modern venue; the lights went up, the actors began speaking, and, to my great surprise, their voices came directly from their mouths instead of from a speaker; there were no mics. An intimate theatre experience. Perfect for the quick, blunt, three-man story told in American Buffalo.

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Francis Guinan, Tracy Letts, and Patrick Andrews portray the three diverse characters of Don, Teach, and Bob, each of a different generation: Don is older and, literally, holds onto the past, as the entire play is set in his basement junk shop full of old items. Teach is younger than Don, jaded and experienced, a man of the world. And Bob is naive and trusting, still somewhat of a boy. The story revolves around an American Buffalo coin Don sold for a price significantly less than he believes it to be worth. He then asks Bob, and later Teach, for help in procuring revenge (however unwarrented) on the man who bought the coin from him.

By native Chicagoian playwright David Mamet, playwright also to Pulitzer Prize-winning play Glengarry Glen Ross, the language of American Buffalo is often fast, terse, and vulgar. "Fuck" is thrown around loosely as well as a smattering of other harsh words, and there comes much anger, yelling, and cursing from a frustrated Teach. The use of this type of language seems to be Mamet's way of infusing the characters with a vernacular of the lower or middle classes, and. as it is a play, giving them a chance to voice a kind of profane poetry. Some of the harsh, yet funny and admittedly somewhat true, philosophies spewed by Don and Teach throughout the play that stood out to me were phrases like, "Action talks, bullshit walks!" and "The only way to teach these people is to kill them!"

Also, it's always nice when a play is set in your city; the refereces to Lake Shore Drive and Masonic Hospital, and Chicago-related items strewn about the junk shop set make those of us in the audience -- or, at least, those of us in the audience who love Chicago -- feel a little closer to the characters, the struggles they endure, and the story they tell.

Thursday, 05 November 2009 18:09

The New Mel Brook's Musical, Young Frankenstein

Young FrankensteinGoing in to see a stage musical based on a well-loved, popular movie, one can't help but have expectations -- and big ones. This is Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein we're talking about...

 

Thursday, 15 October 2009 00:00

Cats -- Still Meowing

altAlthough Cats can no longer claim the title as Broadway's longest-running show (The Phantom of the Opera surpassed Cats in performance number a few years ago), it is still clear why the show still brings in crowds of young and old. It is a strange musical, certainly, with no plot except for that of choosing which cat, of all the many types of cats.

 

 
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