A native Chicagoan, Bill Esler has been a printer and publisher for more than 35 years. He has B.A. in English with a concentration in writing from Knox College.
Court Theatre’s production of Harvey tells the fable of Elwood P. Dowd.
Played wonderfully by Timothy Edward Kane, Dowd is an independently wealthy bachelor whose immense warmth and engaging demeanor earns him friendship readily with everyone. This includes the 6’ 3½” tall white rabbit, Harvey, who for most of the play, only he can see.
Elwood lives on the estate of his late mother, where his sister, Veta Louise (Karen James Wodistch) and young adult niece Myrtle Mae (Sarah Price), have moved from Des Moines, with hopes of climbing the social ladder. But they are thwarted by Elwood’s eccentric behavior – his ongoing conversations with Harvey are off-putting to polite society. They decide to have him committed to a mental institution.
Harvey won a Pulitzer in 1944 for playwright Mary Chase (beating Tennessee Williams the Glass Menagerie, no less), and became a movie with James Stewart in 1950 – the version of Harvey people know. No one would get these scripts confused; Williams is objectively the better writer.
Yet Harvey has momentum, and even reaches a moment of power – which is why it is beloved by many.
Chase’s character Elwood P. Dowd reminds us of Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump, someone floating above the fray, dispensing homespun wisdom and soothing the turmoil of those around him. (The play was revived famously with Big Bang Theory’s Jim Parsons in the lead on Broadway five years ago.)
Director Devon de Mayo has maintained the piece in its 1944 time frame, almost a requirement given the script. Artifacts of period mental healthcare like shock therapy, hydrobaths, and a vaguely sadistic undercurrent among the hospital staff are unsettling, and form the basis of much of the humor: As Veta attempts to commit Elwood, she ends up in a cell instead. Upon her escape, she tells of being forcibly stripped and placed in a hot bath by an attendant she describes as a “whoremaster.” I think that was cut from the film.
Chase has also delved into Irish myth with Harvey. The rabbit is a Pooka, in Celtic lore a shapeshifter that could tell the future, and visit outcasts to improve their lives.
Court Theatre’s production of Harvey goes for the broad humor, and a sort of mad-cap pacing from screwball comedies. And the audience was laughing from the get go, though I was not caught up in the frivolity, at least not right away.
Timothy Kane as Elwood P. Dowd provides the anchoring performance for all the froth on stage. Kane is a most remarkable comedic actor – hilariously funny in One Man-Two Guvnors at Court Theatre last year.
Kane’s Elwood hooks us in a soliloquy on how to live properly, building soon after to the climactic scene that gives the play it’s heft.
Here Kane turns on Elwood’s magic, playing admirably against Amy Carle, who also shines in the scene as cabby E.J. Lofgren. Elwood is about to be treated at the mental institution to end his visions of Harvey, when the cabby appears, angrily demanding the fare be paid before Elwood gets his treatment.
But then the cabby succumbs to Elwood’s charms as he pays her. When Elwood exits to meet his fate and loose his Pooka, the cabby explains to the family that other patients he has driven who are treated also lose their goodness, and become just like regular people – mean spirited and venal. That's why she wanted to be paid first - to get a bigger tip.
This scene is a clincher and saves the play.
Maybe it is the writing, or perhaps the timing and delivery were a bit off, but it felt as though every character in this production were defining their role independently of each other. The chemistry worked reasonably well between Lyman Anderson, MD, (Erik Hellman) and Ruth Kelly, RN (Jennifer Latimore brought a grace to the role). Woditsch, Price, and A.C. Smith as William Chumley, MD didn’t make me laugh. And it seemed Jacqueline Williams was a too dour for the role of Judge Mara Gaffney - perhaps not a good casting choice.
Kudos on the set and lighting. Harvey plays through June 11 at Court Theatre in Hyde Park.
Josephine Baker leapt from the Harlem Renaissance via the Paris Folies Bergère to become a global phenomenon, the first black international superstar.
Consider this: Baker’s fame was so great in her day among African-Americans, that Coretta King immediately appealed to her to guide the U.S. Civil Rights Movement in the wake of Martin Luther King’s assassination. Born in 1906, Baker died in 1975 - yet she is vaguely remembered, if at all.
Black Pearl: A Tribute to Josephine Baker helps remedy that, ably recounting the trajectory of her stardom. Baker may have lived too big a life character to fit on any stage (she was style-setter, movie star, civil rights activist, even an agent for the French Resistance in World War II) but writer and director Daryl Brooks and the high-energy ensemble cast have gotten enough of the high and low points of her life to build a great show, with special emphasis on her rollicking dancing style.
Two women perform the role of Baker – Joan Ruffin as the Older Josephine largely plays narrator; Aerial Williams - a great dancer and with a lovely voice - is the Younger Josephine.
Baker really did it all – singing, dancing, movies. Arguably Baker was the first global personality, driving fashion trends (her hair style was widely copied), dispensing lifestyle advice in women’s magazines – think Gwyneth Paltrow, Kardashians, Oprah, with a touch of Grace Jones. Baker kept a pet cheetah, and later in life adopted a brood of children from different countries, housing them in the palatial chateau her wealth afforded.
She was first brought to Europe by the French under a government-sponsored cultural program, and became an overnight sensation during a period when France was colonizing Africa. By today’s standards some of her signature performance expressions might not be judged politically correct, but Baker’s artistic influences were segregated minstrel shows, where blacks performed in exaggerated black-face, and jazz-infused free-form dance was the norm.
Her hard-scrabble life of poverty and abuse growing up in St. Louis is captured well in Brook’s script, especially her awakening to music and dance as a teenaged girl. The choreography in Black Pearl (Baker was known by that name) mines Baker’s movies and the historical record to accurately portray contemporary dance styles. To the French, Baker was a genre-busting exotic, as she created a romanticized, imagined portrayal of African natives in their new colonies.
Her famous Banana Dance is carefully rendered on the Black Ensemble stage. Though Europe had its racial and cultural prejudices, it did not have Jim Crow laws like the U.S. – rules that barred Baker from staying at 36 hotels on a return U.S. tour celebrating her global stardom. Her mother had to sit in the balcony section for blacks. Baker renounced her U.S. citizenship and became a French citizen. But on her next U.S. tour she successfully set her contract to require venues to be integrated, and her mother sat in the front row at Carnegie Hall.
As she matured into a style icon, Baker evolved in to a chanteuse, and several of the songs are performed in French during Black Pearl. One show stopper, a transition right before intermission, has Williams’ young Josephine sing a love song to France, with Ruffin’s older Josephine repeating the lyrics in English. It is very affecting.
Like most Black Ensemble productions, the live music backing is excellent, able to swing through all the stylistic periods. The script is occasionally wooded in scenes from later years, but it makes all the points that matter – and keeps the focus on the performance art. Running through June 18, Black Pearl at Black Ensemble Theater is highly recommended.
Objects in the Mirror, an outstanding play having its premier at Goodman Theatre, will soon have you wanting to know more about its author, Charles Smith, a Chicago playwright.
Starring Daniel Kyri as Shedrick Yarkpai, this play springs from the true story of the real life Yarkpai, a refugee who fled Liberia in the aftermath of its first Civil War, struggling for 12 years across hostile terrain and through refugee camps in Guinea and Cote d’Ivoire.
Excellent performances and a creative set and lighting make this a show not to miss, especially for the wonderful writing of Charles Smith. Breon Arzell plays cousin Zaza Workolo; Ryan Kitley is Rob Mosher; and Lily Mojekwu as Shedrick’s mother Luopu Workolo is just spectacular – she steals all her scenes.
The real life Shedrick Yarkpai eventually made his way to Adelaide, Australia, and as fate would have it became an actor. And so, playwright Smith met him and heard his tale while staging another of his plays there - Free Man of Color (it won a 2004 Jeff Award and has been staged widely, including the Goodman).
Shedrick Yarkpai’s passage through the wilderness alone would be a worthy story, bringing our attention to the privation in Liberia wrought by years of civil chaos. But this play would not succeed as it does, unless it can hold our attention and keep us in our seats.
And here Smith’s skillful craft shines through, along with director Chuck Smith and the creative team, who have turned the years-long odyssey of the protagonists, Shedrick and his uncle John Workolo (Allen Gilmore is terrific) – they ate grass, lived in the bush, both life and limbs, literally, endangered by violent, machete wielding warriors – and condensed it into an engaging trek, showing geography, educating us on the history, but all in an entertaining way, unlikely as this may seem.
Objects in the Mirror is so much more than a topical recount of Liberian suffering and struggle. Smith also puts before us the psychological and emotional toll on all refugees who must give up so much of their culture, and themselves, in resettling. Among the things so striking about Smith’s play is how he holds our interest in Shedrick’s odyssey. But he subordinates it to a more charged dramatic concern: the personal compromises refugees must make in escaping, and losses that can never be reclaimed.
In a way that only theater can, we engage and experience the personal emotional stress. And while we know of the trauma, what Smith conveys is the suffering from loss of identity, and of dreams. Shedrick has adopted a false identity to make it through border crossings – but he regrets the loss of his name.
Shedrick is a dreamer. He is also a storyteller, as is Smith, and the characters he has created. "Through storytelling, the play ascends to a powerful examination of truth and falsity, and the powers of persuasion. All good stories tell a strand of the truth," says Uncle John.
Once in Adelaide, Yarkpai finds work with a supportive Australian government agent – but Shedrick’s uncle John is fearful it will blow their cover. The debate through several scenes in which different characters tell their version of the parts of Shedrick's story is the stuff of great theater.
The creative team includes Riccardo Hernandez (set design), Mike Tutaj (projection design), John Culbert (lighting design), Birgit Rattenborg Wise (costume design), Ray Nardelli (sound design). Briana J. Fahey is the production stage manager.
Objects in the Mirror runs through June 4 at the Goodman Theatre. It is highly recommended.
It was a third-grade history lesson on civil rights and Rosa Parks that spawned Brian Quijada’s one man show, “Where Did We Sit on the Bus?” Blacks were in the back, whites up front. What about Mexican-Americans like him?
“You weren’t around,” his teacher answered. With that hook Quijada draws us in to his compelling personal story – largely based on his performing skills and big personality.
I harbor some diffidence about one-man shows, which can easily veer into narcissism. Quijada’s provocative title piqued my interest, and a mix-up in schedules had me with a couple hours open just as the lights came up for the matinee.
Apparently, others are on to what a great performer Quijada is: the theater was full for this return engagement of a show he wrote, choreographed, and for which he masters loops and overdubs into a nice accompaniment, built around his creditable singing and some well-chosen chords on his electric ukulele. It’s part of the Up Close and Personal series at www.Victorygardens.org
This story of a 28-year-old Chicagoland native, now making his way onto stages around the country, and into New York theater scene, has a lot of charm. After about 20 minutes it is clear Quijada is a natural born performer, and he has built an enticing showcase of his performance capabilities – almost like a general audition that shows his dancing and singing skills, as he recounts his resume on the stage starting from grammar school, through turns at everything from Shakespeare to Broadway musicals.
But Quijada’s story takes a more serious turn as he recounts the discrimination he encountered. And when we reach the part about his marriage to a German woman from Europe, and their prospect of having children, he understands he must bring answers to his future offspring.
That rapidly becomes a compelling tale of self-discovery, punctuated with hip hop and dance numbers that are as entertaining as the stories he recounts. The longest journey is through his father’s rejection of his theatrical career. He wanted to see him take up a safer, more practical trade to earn a living.
Quijada maintains his focus as he also defines himself in the world – still trying to answer that third-grade puzzle. His parents don’t have a story in the national narrative – no Mayflower, no slave ships, no Ellis Island. They weren’t there. They had to sneak in, unseen – a lightning rod now but written several years before the current tempest about immigration.
Quijada brings a tale of magical realism to his family history, and this one-man show rises to general significance for all of us, culminating in his journey to New York, where Quijada provides us a powerful insight on seeing the State of Liberty, sharing those famous words of the poem:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.
This extra two lines we hear less often. They made all the differences that afternoon. And like everyone around me I laughed, I cried, and I rose to applaud. Don’t miss this Teatro Vista production at the Victory Gardens Theatre through June 4. Really recommended.
The play Threesome is an ambitious work, taking aim at the ease with which we become stuck in patterns of bad behavior like possessiveness in relationships. It also reaches into threats to women's freedom in other cultures.
As the lights come up we meet a married couple already in bed, who have embarked on a venture both risqué and risky: a man has been invited to join them for a tryst, at the behest of the wife, Leila (Suzan Faycurry).
The two are modestly dressed, considering this is a three-way. Presentiments of a drawing room comedy? Perhaps it's a commentary on social mores leading couples to extremes, even when not a good fit.
It’s the first time for the couple, an Egyptian-American pair. Husband Rashid (Demetrios Troy) was likely ready to jump into this moment without reserve, but guest Doug (Mike Tepeli) has been overlong and rather noisy in his preparations in the bathroom. This interlude gives Rashid too much time for second and third thoughts. Leila is compelled to combat his misgivings, but does not assuage his fears. The tryst is more about settling their own martial scores, it seems, than about the sex.
The myriad tensions found in any domestic relationship arise, and conflicts surface. Debates about whether men or women feel greater pressure on body image, and who has the short end of the stick in social expectations - the usual stuff.
But there is a hint of something more, here – the couple are both from Cairo, and were actively engaged in the political and social struggles released in that country by the Arab Spring. Leila's memoir covering that time is about to be published - but she has pointedly not let Rashid read it. He accuses her of mistrust over this, and over his innocent flirtation with another woman. Leila counters that his occupation, photographer, sets him up as an observer rather than a full participant in life – and so on.
The tension pulls back as Doug bursts in, bubbling with excitement, which further unnerves Rashid. Fated to be the odd man out, Doug drives the comedic interlude that follows, and again we feel headed for lighter fare. But Doug’s joy fades as, unnerved that the two have withdrawn from the bed, he realizes he has stepped into the middle of a spat. Tepeli plays Doug with nuance and flair, especially challenging since he is in the nude for the first 15 minutes or so.
We find Doug also has some baggage, and the unhappy couple conjures neuroses from his teen years. All this intimacy puts a damper on sex; the downside of Rashid and Leila’s marriage is on display. We also find that Doug, a photographer, has won the photo assignment that Rashid had been seeking: the cover of Leila’s book. An angry departure scene follows as the lights go down on Act I.
In Act II we are at Doug’s studio, where he is readying a set for the photo shoot. More drama follows as Doug and Leila work out the tension from the previous encounter. Then enters a drunken Rashid, and things continue downhill. Somewhere between the script and the performance, Faycurry's Leila is appropriately cerebral, but her dialog is unnaturally literary and unemotional. Troy's Rashid brings emotional range, and he has more luck with delivering the script. During his drunken diatrib, however, the lines require an unlikely sobriety.
As the audience learns director Jason Gerace had a complicated scenario to present, and he manages to keep our interest on the script by Yussef El Guindi. But attention to the plight of Leila challenges loses out when mixed with so many other stories and issues within this story.
Let's cut to the chase on this review: Queen is the best show in town.
Having its world premiere at Victory Gardens Theater, in Queen, Madhuri Shekar has delivered a knockout script, deftly directed by Joanie Schultz, and brought to life by a strong cast.
Two PhD students - Sanam Shah (Priya Mohanty) and Ariel Spiegel (Darci Nalepa) - have spent six years examining a true-life dilemma: why honey bees are dying – a real-world environmental crisis.
Ariel does the field research, and Sanam – a highly regarded math wonder - crunches numbers for the data, which point to a farm chemical from Monsanto as the culprit. Or so five years of data have shown. But something is amiss.
Queen is a gripping account of academic intrigue laced with ethical challenges, along the lines of David Auburn’s provocative Proof, but with a much livelier pace.
The two are working under Dr. Philip Hayes (Stephen Spencer) who is to deliver within a few days a presentation on their work to an influential scientific group. The paper based on their research has been accepted for the journal Science. Dr. Hayes is gleeful about the prospects for his program, and promising access to big funding for the University.
A crisis looms as the latest research data does not support the earlier findings. Believing it stems from a glitch in the programming, Sanam searches desperately through the code. The pressure is on to bring the numbers in line with expectations.
If this sounds drab, it is anything but. Shekar lays out the science, and describes the culture of academia, in digestible bites. The human side of the drama comes to the fore in the relationship between the two women researchers, Sanam and Ariel, as the pressure mounts to get the results required by their academic overseer. BFFs, the two struggle through this growing professional chasm.
But it is the side-story about Sanam and a potential mate, Arvind Patel (Adam Poss) that leads to some exceptionally well-played scenes that steal the show – at least for me. Sanam’s diffidence about a date with Arvind (set up by her parents back in India) eventually leads to an unexpected romance.
Patel plays Arvind with a smooth, purring, throwaway manliness of that on-the-make single guy everyone knows. Sanam, who parries Arvind’s advances with vigor as he helps her puzzle out the math (he’s a math guy too, an investment manager who works in quant theory), and debate the ethical issues. To see the chemistry between Mohanty and Poss is worth a trip to the converted Biograph Theater.
Queen has been portrayed as an Earth Day oriented story, and a story of friendship among women. But it's also a showcase of great writing and acting. Don’t miss Queen. It runs through May 14th and it's very highly recommended.
For more show information click here.
Scapegoat; Or (Why the Devil Always Loved Us) a satirical political drama now playing at the Den Theatre, takes the audience on a wild ride through a rather unusual family affair. But the play rapidly bogs down with its own complexity.
The curtain rises mid-action, and we gradually piece together that the six members of the Porter family are career politicians: patriarch Senator Anse Porter and his son, Congressman Coyote “Coy” Porter, represent Ohio as Democrats. The Senator’s Chief of Staff John Schuler is married to his daughter Leza, who is in the final weeks of her pregnancy. Matriarch Eleanor Porter and the Senator’s adopted daughter Margaret, are lobbyists for the United American Muslims.
The plot centers on the passage of a bill that would favor Christianity over other religions in the U.S. This bill is supported by Congressman Coy Porter, who is courted by the Religious Freedom Caucus, comprised of three Republican Senators: Frank Mason, Texas; Mary Colbourn, Illinois; and Perry Allen, Arizona.
Plans go awry when Congressman Porter’s father Anse, the senator, is outed as a Satanic Priest. He decides he will filibuster the bill. To dissuade him, so the bill can pass, the Religious Freedom Caucus hints they will award him a judgeship.
While it took a while to figure out what was going on, once I did, I loved the concept. And the play delivers some strong social commentary on religious freedom – a topic of great social currency. It also scores some comedic points – Senator Porter delivers a complete Black Mass in downstage while the political drama unfolds upstage in convincingly delivered press conferences.
Jeffrey Freelon Jr. gives a strong performance as the put-upon Chief of Staff John Schuler. Likewise for Echaka Agba (Margaret), John Kelly Connolly (Frank), Barbara Figgins (Eleanor Porter), Jack McCabe (Perry), Cassidy Slaughter-Mason (Leza), Kelli Strickland (Mary) and Norm Woodel (Anse).
Scapegoat is needlessly layered, starting with its grammatically suspect title, through characters whose background and details have little bearing on the main action on stage: That Margaret is the Senator’s adopted daughter is revealed in the second act – along with the fact that she chose to keep her birth mother’s last name (so she is Okafor-Porter). So? Coy Porter is widowed, and occasionally has seizures. Um, did we need to know that? This made Evan Linder’s job playing Coy a challenge, but he rose to it.
Scapegoat is by and large a sentimental comedy. The script by Connor McNamara, a Chicago actor, brought to mind those fast-paced 1930’s screwball comedies loaded with mayhem. But the play is probably closer to You Can't Take It With You, George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s 1936 Pulitzer prize-winning satire.
There are some rich moments here: Deciding to filibuster anyway, Anse reads chapter and verse from the satanic scriptures, driving the believing Caucus senators from the chamber floor. This intelligent script which renders the political processes and dynamics with veracity, is, is fast paced and strong at its core. The direction by Kristina Valada-Viars is very well done. Scapegoat plays through May 7. www.thenewcolony.org
Pass through the swinging vinyl flap doors and you find yourself not inside Lookingglass Theatre, but immersed instead in the ongoing performance of Alexander Zeldin’s social activism play, Beyond Caring.
The audience gathers under the noxious glare of fluorescent tubes, facing towering grimy walls in a windowless, industrial building workroom. The awareness grows that these harsh lights will not go down for us at curtain time. Instead we share the glare with four disheartened workers who drift in during the opening minutes of the play.
These people are contract workers, a growing cohort of the American workforce that suffers the peculiar misfortune of not even working for the business they are working at. Actor David Schwimmer, and member of the Lookkingglass Theatre, has brought this story for its U.S. premiere in association with Dark Harbor Stories – a company he leads with Tom Hodges that aims at social enlightenment.
In Beyond Caring, we watch as workers arrive to a dreary workplace. First comes Phil (Edwin Lee Gibon), already established in his contract gig, heading directly into the bathroom – we learn that is his hiding place. Then come new applicants: highly capable, with chip-on-her-shoulder Tracy (J Nicole Brooks), deceptively self-effacing Sonia (Wendy Mateo), and soon after, manager Ian, a dissolute young man who supervises these contract workers, but reports directly to the factory management (embodied in an unseen character, Phil). Later comes one more applicant, Ebony-Grace (Caren Blackmore), who is always needy, and not too productive.
There is much to be enlightened about here for our times. We hear frequently of the difficulties suffered among independent contractors to the “sharing economy,” orchestrated by firms like Uber. Likewise for the challenges of randomly set schedules at chain restaurants, with “clopening” where workers close a Starbucks or McDonald’s late one night, and open early the very next day.
Zeldin’s work gets us to examine the predicament of contract workers who have a jobsite manager, but no worker rights, or avenues of appeal, at their workplace. In small doses, contract work for third party companies can benefit workers who need temporary work – Manpower is a familiar provider here. But the original practice is such workers are to be used in peaks periods. Companies have discovered they can outsource much of their labor needs, and increase or tamp down the headcount as needed.
The workers in Beyond Caring find themselves in competition for a near full-time position. Their performance is critiqued by the unseen Phil, whose reprimands are delivered by Ian. To get a day off, a schedule change, or an accommodation for a short-term ache, is impossible. "Talk to your employer," Ian says when one of them complains.
Beyond Caring highlights the loss in generally accepted standards of worker rights, things we have come to take for granted since the rise in power of unions and the establishment of work rules overseen by the Department of Labor. But the power of unions has eroded with the decline in manufacturing jobs, and the rise of right to work legislation around the country.
Beyond Caring runs through May 7, 2017 at Lookingglass Theatre Company, located inside Chicago's historic Water Tower Water Works, 821 N. Michigan Ave. This thought-provoking work comes recommended.
The promise of hearing Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band performed live in its entirety drove me to RAIN, the Beatles' tribute band playing at the Oriental Theater. But the show is much more than that.
Perfectly controlled, with exactingly beat and chord progressions, RAIN lovingly renders selections from the Beatles repertoire to the ‘T’. The group has been playing for years - longer than the originals. A new generation of performers, all born after the Beatles stopped recording, has taken up the torch at RAIN to keep the songs alive.
It was founded by Mark Lewis, who began in the 1970's as a Beatles cover artist, and recruited the original players and made many of the arrangements they perform. Aaron Chiazza plays Ringo Starr; Paul Curatolo plays Paul McCartney; Steve Landes is John Lennon; and Alastar McNeil is George Harrison.
The players are not so much actors, as they are masters of performing as their Beatles characters. So while they are fully realized in musical performance, they can be a little wooden in beckoning to audience participation. Paul Curatolo succeeds most, channeling the warmth of Paul McCartney pretty closely, and he looks quite a bit like him. When Aaron Chiazza's Ringo Starr sings his solo, "With a Little Help from My Friends," he brings the house down by evoking one of many people's favorite Beatles personalities. Though the real Beatles were ready handy with social commentary, these Beatles do not make much small talk, commenting neither on current - or past - events. It's all about the music. And that's just fine.
Most of us never heard the Beatles perform live in person, so hearing their music in a concert setting is striking, but also a little unsettling in a real venue. The group is not exactly impersonating the Beatles, and there is inevitably some personal expression involved. But they do have the various songs nailed down pretty well.
This show at the Oriental Theatre also gives us a hint of how it would have felt to hear the band play their own works on stage themselves.
At the point when they recorded Sgt. Pepper (it was released in 1967) the Beatles had mostly ended live performances, and were doing studio albums and seeing themselves not as rockers, but artists. It wasn’t too long after when they broke up, recording their last album Abbey Road in 1969, and ultimately heading their own ways. (Let It Be was recorded in 1969, prior to Abbey Road, but released afterward.)
The Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was recorded over a four-month period from December 6, 1966 – April 21, 1967. Released on June 1, 1967, it is considered to be the greatest rock album ever released. It was also the first concept album. So for the 50th anniversary of its release, RAIN has essentially created a performance art piece, and it is pretty awesome - and well worth seeing.
The album is just 40 minutes long, so it forms the core of the second act at the Oriental Theatre performances. The first half retraces the Beatles rise from Liverpool to global phenomenon. With a strongly representative selection of the history of Beatles music, it provides a wonderful context for the performance of Sgt, Pepper in toto.
Visual backgrounds are nicely done, though if I may quibble, I expected a horse for "of course, Henry the horse, dances the waltz" rather than a cartoon carousel figure. I was also hoping for a full orchestra for the monumental "A Day in the Life." The original recording used 40 classical musicians who were instructed to play gradually from their individual instruments' lowest notes to its highest, and to go gradually from the quietest to the loudest, over the course of 40 bars. That sound is pretty distinctive, and is simulated by RAIN's "fifth Beatle" Mark Beyer, who fills in all the synthesized music along the way.
The show at the Oriental Theatre, a launch of the 2017 Tour, runs through April 2 here in Chicago, with remaining performances at 8 p.m. April 1, and 2 and 8 pm on April 2. Tickets are at www.BroadwayInChicago.com
The hip-hop Broadway in Chicago sensation Hamilton, which, has spawned a secondary market in pricey theater tickets, has also delivered a pair of spin-offs. Shamilton, an improv riff at the Apollo, and now, notably, Spamilton, a send up of the original musical about the founding fathers of the U.S.
Is it funny if you haven’t seen the original? The short answer is yes – because following the opening sets based on Hamilton, the show quickly turns its sites on other long-time Broadway shows like Cats and Phantom of the Opera, warhorses like Camelot, and shows of more recent vintage like Wicked and Book of Mormon.
The creative force behind the show is Gerard Alessandrini, the originator of the 1982 "Forbidden Broadway," which was similar in format, and has been rewritten and updated more than a dozen times. It has played around the world, including Chicago - I’ve seen two different versions here.
For all practical purposes, Spamilton is the newest Forbidden Broadway, and on some levels it exceeds the earlier ones in appeal.
The key to the storyline is Broadway’s perpetual and desperate struggle to save itself, and to create a new vision of the big musical show. Show business has been mired in novelties like Book of Mormon and the puppet-based Avenue Q; overproduced extravaganza with no memorable songs, like Spiderman; or Sondheim light operetta that those outside the cognoscenti may find hard to sit through.
Alessandrini picks up this scent of desperation, and seizes on Broadway producers struggles with wickedly funny original song and dance numbers that sample or mash-up the originals. Clinging to revivals of Rogers & Hammerstein or Leonard Bernstein; turning over theaters to somewhat vapid Disney productions like Aladdin and Newsies, these producers become fodder for fun in Spamilton.
The show parodies this desperation with another extreme: combining previously successful shows.
A perfect example comes around 10 minutes in, as the Spamilton players switch gears and time periods to present The Lion King & I. Anna the English Governess in hoop skirts dons a Julie Traymor head set in a duet with a squawking animal character. Let’s say I chortled heartily.
The show runs at a mad-cap pace, and even if you don’t get all the references, it’s still funny. A scene of an axe wielding gentleman clad just in Fruit of the Looms is a send up of American Psycho (I think, after Googling). It was funny even though I didn’t know exactly what the reference was.
Wicked and Book of Mormon – once the pricey ‘it’ shows, now discounting tickets like any other production – get nailed pointedly, having yielded star status to Hamilton. Scenes are punctuated by a running gag: homeless ladies in rags begging for Hamilton tickets – understood to be based on true stories of famous stars desperate for seating.
A Barbra Streisand impersonation finds the aging diving singing in signature reverb, advising that when Hamilton is filmed, she wants to play a role in “The Film When It Happens.” Likewise, J-Lo and Gloria Estefan walk-on, each hoping to tap the mojo of Hamilton. Liza Minnelli appears, but runs the other direction - and asks that rap be banned on Broadway, so they can “bring back the tunes.”
The show reveals broader awareness in a number, Straight is Back, which laments the loss of gay show tunes and glitter, as productions like Hamilton skew to more manly styles.
You can get a taste of Spamilton from the original New York cast album, just released. But it pales compared to the experience of seeing this cast of amazing dancers and singers, and their great comedic timing: Donterrio Johnson, Michelle Lauto, Eric Andrew Lewis, Yando Lopez, David Robbins, and guest diva Christine Pedi (she's the Streisand character among others), with musical direction by Adam LaSalle.
While Hamilton’s original star Lin-Manuel Miranda love “laughed my brains out!" when he saw the show, during last Sunday’s production the Chicago cast of Hamilton was in the audience – and they had a blast.
Gerry McIntyre did the choreography; Dustin Cross gets Costume Design; , Fred Barton (Musical Director), and Richard Danley and Fred Barton (Musical Arrangements). "Spamilton" is produced in Chicago by John Freedson, David Zippel, Gerard Alessandrini, Margaret Cotter and Liberty Theatricals, in association with JAM Theatricals. Chuckie Benson and Arielle Richardson are the understudies the production.
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