Theatre in Review

Having spent a good majority of my adult life producing books and media for children, I like to think I’m a good judge of content directed at the young of year, as well as the young at heart. I’m also quite an exacting critic when it comes to such content, which is why I was worried I’d be a bit hard on the Chicago Children’s Theatre’s current production, My Wonderful Birthday Suit.

It’s also why – aside from the fact that I prefer dates that are both brainy and beautiful – I was accompanied by my five-year-old daughter to this past Sunday’s performance…I might consider myself a child at heart, but I wanted to see how the show connected with an actual child, too. So, in we walked to the theatre’s location at the near west side Station, this perky and perceptive young woman and her skeptical pops.

We arrived at the party early – she fashionably, me not so much – and were invited to sit at one of several tables covered in crayons and colorful paper leaves to decorate. I’ve gotta admit, as a father with an attention span equal to his preschooler’s, something to do while waiting was awfully thoughtful.

When the theater doors opened, we joined the flock of eager youngsters and Sunday morning oldsters finding seats and checking out the stage.

At first glance, I thought the set looked simple, but as my date and I studied it before the show started, it proved to be full of delights. A giant burlap tree in the center of a bright living room. Shining gifts to either side. Colorful picture frames on the walls. We were intrigued, the both of us. The jaunty ragtime piano playing over the PA system only added to the whimsy.

When the show started and the first character – Ooblahdee – appeared, her rainbow tights and sparkling smile welcomed us into her whimsical world. Our red-headed hostess Darci Nalepa was dolled up for children’s theater, sure, but from the get-go she showed she’s got the energy and openness for the job. Tossing herself Raggedy-Ann-like across the floor when needed, singing songs when called for, Nalepa most importantly avoids the mistake too many make when performing for kids – she doesn’t talk down, she doesn’t condescend. She inhabits this onstage world as if it’s a given and invites us – the audience – to join her there.

Soon enough, Nalepa’s Ooblahdee was joined by her best friend, Ooblahdah – a prancing, pouting, purple pal played by puckish scene-stealer Will Wilhelm. Wilhelm’s a great id for Nalepa’s girl-next-door protagonist, sneaking a peak at a present, worrying about friendships, the kind of stuff that all of us do but that only kids get to admit to.

And after Melanie Brezill’s Shebopshebe arrives for her birthday, her party, and her presents, Wilhelm’s next act of honesty is to question her being “brown.”

For such a complex thing, prejudice is really pretty simple. So simple that it’s perhaps best illustrated by a childlike character in a child-friendly setting.

And just like how us adults might sometimes ignore the uncomfortable, Brezill’s character seems to do so at first. But then, after Wilhelm again shows displeasure at the tone of her skin, Brezill shows her stuff. She’s brown, she’s proud, and despite her small size, she lets her fellow characters and the audience know just why she’s proud of being brown.

After this bit of birthday conflict, things of course wrap up nicely. There are bows, there are gifts, there are hugs. There’s even a bird puppet inside that burlap tree that lays birthday bows instead of eggs.
The children in the audience seemed riveted throughout the show – by the set, by the actors, by the story. My only suggestion is that kids are by nature interactive little critters. At the end of the show, there was a moment where the fourth wall was broken and the actors asked the audience for responses. The children were, naturally, eager to respond. But I thought the prompts and the interaction could perhaps be polished a bit, could perhaps be more naturally incorporated into the show.

But now, as I sit here thinking about what the children’s responses showed that they’d learned – and their responses to the show throughout – I realize that perhaps children aren’t the audience for the play’s message of inclusivity and acceptance. Perhaps children, despite their own honest opinions or maybe because of them, already innately know the lesson that Gloria Bond Clunie’s My Wonderful Birthday Suit is trying to teach us – that a gift’s wrapping doesn’t matter nearly as much as what’s inside. Maybe the show was meant to teach said lesson to those of us who are children no longer, even if we want to think we are. And so, while the trappings and theatrics might target the youngest in the crowd, Chicago Children’s Theatre’s latest production is really meant for children of all ages.

My Wonderful Birthday Suit is being performed at the Chicago Children's Theatre through February 18th. 

 

Published in Theatre in Review

I thoroughly enjoyed this Hell in a Handbag Production starring the divine Caitlin Jackson, as the “Divine Miss M”, Bette Midler. The show takes us to the early days of Midler's career playing for gay audiences at the Continental baths for two years before her album, The Divine Miss M was released. 

 

Back in 1987 when I moved to New York after college I actually lived in The Ansonia for four years, a pre- war luxury building on New York's upper west side. I heard about the history of the building which included an entire circus complete with live elephants at one time living in the penthouse, and always wished I could have lived there in its heyday, when The Continental Baths was a gay bathhouse in the basement of The Ansonia Hotel, which was opened in 1968 by Steve Ostrow.

 

The features of this bathhouse included a disco dance floor, a cabaret lounge, sauna rooms, a narrow "Olympia Blue" swimming pool, bunk beds in public areas, and tiny rooms as one would find in any bathhouse. The facility had the capacity to serve nearly 1,000 men, 24 hours a day.

 

Jackson's MC, played adorably by Chad, mentions just a few of the features of the bathhouse like a vending machine which dispensed among other things KY Jelly, and a warning system that tipped off patrons when police arrived. He also points out an STD clinic, a supply of a lice-killing shampoo in the showers and how the hetero general public discovered the great shows going on underground and “ruined the scene". The baths were advertised as reminiscent of "the glory of ancient Rome".

 

Caitlin Jackson really captures the outrageous, open-minded spirit of Bette Midler. Most importantly though Jackson has the voice to really do justice to Midler’s renditions of “Superstar”, “Chattanooga Choo Choo”, and a sexy, bawdy cover of Bessie Smith’s “Empty Bed Blues”. Jackson also shines in her performances of “Chapel of Love”, “Hey Mambo” and delivered a heart wrenching, yet uplifting, “You Gotta Have Friends”.

 

Few people know that Barry Manilow was Bette Midler's accompanist during these years. Talk about two superstars finding each other at the right time! Jeremy Ramey as Barry Manilow is hysterical and really gets some great laughs as he plays the piano and captures the talented artist’s well known panache and flash. 

The show is filled out with the MC and two cutie pie twinks clad only in white towels the entire show played by TJ Crawford and Will Wilhelm. Although they are the author's invention they seem perfectly part of the show, giving Bette (Jackson) time to change in and out of her glamorous bosom enhancing outfits for number after great number. 

 

I really have to hand it to Caitlin Jackson, whose voice is capable of hitting Midler's high and low notes with seeming ease. Jackson also does her best in this slightly short production (1 hour 15 minutes with one intermission) to convey Bette Midler's HUGE personality and deeply penetrating sense of loneliness and compassion for the “cast outs” of the world - the ones "waiting on the corner for their friends to return."

 

Even if the songs were not actually part of Midler's bath house days, I left yearning to hear more, simply because Caitlin Jackson's voice was such a JOY to listen to and her face a wonderful mirror of Bette Midler's enthusiasm for life and love of the gay community without ever becoming a caricature.

 Highly Recommended. 

Bette, Live at the Continental Baths is being performed at Stage 773 through September 10th. More show info can be found at www.stage773.com. 

 

Published in Theatre Reviews

 

 

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