There is an absolutely stunning piece of theater happening in Chicago right now, and as it happens to deal with the poetry of William Blake, I figured this would be as good a place as any to talk about it.
My husband and I, both theater people frankly burned out and bored by much of the theater we’ve seen recently, went to see Theater Oobleck’s mounting of Mickle Maher’s “There is a Happiness that Morning Is..” as a delayed Valentine’s Day date. (I was in rehearsals for a play I’m directing/have directed on the actual V-Day.) I’d heard raves about the show, so I bought us tickets.
And it is, hands down, one of the best pieces of theater I’ve seen in my entire life. Now, I’ve been a theater nerd since elementary school, and I’m 30 now, so we’re talking hundreds of shows – maybe even a thousand. I lost count a decade or so ago.
This. Play. Is. Killer.
It’s a simple premise – two professors at a small liberal arts college who both teach the poems of William Blake have reported to their classes to teach, and also to make apologies/explanations for making love in the lawn on the campus, having been so stirred by the very poems they teach they simply could not contain themselves. Bernard (Colm O’Reilly) is inspired by the events of the previous night, while Elizabeth (Diana Slickman) has had a different experience. Over the course of 90 non-stop minutes, they bare it all and the result is breathtaking. The actors are marvelous, the simple set is perfect, and oh yeah.. it’s all in rhymed verse.
[Um, and it's possible that Martha Bayne (She who gave the world "Soup and Bread") did the lighting design? If this is so, it's even more awesome. I'm still checking this out.]
See it if you can. Again, it blew my mind.
There is, at present, a rather remarkable piece of literary adaptation onstage in Chicago. S.D. Crockett’s timeless tale of childhood imagination, “Harold and the Purple Crayon” is being presented in a colorful, classy, and always fun musical production by the good people at Chicago Children’s Theatre.
And translating the Harold books to the stage couldn’t have been easy. There’s really only ever one substantial character – Harold himself – and he draws all of his surroundings with the infamous purple crayon, which can’t make set design easy. In this clever production, directed by Sean Graney, the sweet-faced and strong-voiced Nate Lewellyn plays the titular hero. He’s assisted by two additional talented actor/singers – Alex Goodrich and Bethany Thomas – who play “Storytellers,” which roughly translates to “every other role you could imagine” – from parents to dragons to a moose and porcupine to a (quite ingenious) puffer fish. The set, smartly, is white, and projections and puppets and other bits of theatrical magic make the purple crayon lines appear and disappear at Harold’s whim.
Also, it’s a musical — and the score is terrific. I love a good musical.
I attended the opening night performance of this show in CCT’s new performance space at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, and the crowd was packed with parents and children. Proving themselves aware of their target audience, the folks at CCT were smart — the programs double as coloring/activity books, and everyone who attends gets a purple crayon for coloring all over the paper-covered walls.
This show reminded me of the time I discovered Harold in the library at my elementary school, and how great the book is. (There are a few other books in the series, too, but my heart belongs to the original.)
If you have small children in your life, this show is a charmer and one they’d definitely enjoy. Also, it’s about 50 minutes long,just right for little attention spans. (Hint: Check Goldstar.com for a chance at finding half-price tickets.)
Admittedly, my posting this is a teeny bit of my being a shill — because two of the ladies behind the Focal Point Theatre Company are my homegirls. That said, I’m a big fan of Strindberg’s timeless play “Miss Julie” and Patrick Marber’s play, “Closer,” so I’m very excited to see how the two things mesh together into this new work — “After Miss Julie.”
Chicago’s storefront theater scene is as vibrant as ever, and this show is sure to be hot.
In all honesty, I’m attached to the Saint Sebastian Players. My husband has appeared in several of their shows and is in tight with the group. Like, so tight, there might be photos of my son in the program for “Mark Twain: Patriot, Teacher, Philosopher.” I’m just saying.
SSP are a lovely group of friendly people who produce and perform live theatre in the basement of St. Bonaventure church in Chicago. They’ve been at it for a while – this is their 31st season – and they’re just good people who truly love doing theatre, and do it quite well. It’s church basement theatre, so you won’t be seeing any Sarah Kane angst or X-rated action, but if that’s your thing – it’s Chicago, I’m sure forty other groups can assist you.
“Mark Twain: Patriot, Teacher, Philosopher” is another success for the group. John Oster has compiled some of Twain’s lesser-known works into a sweet two-hour showcase of the talent of the legendary writer, as well as the talent of the assembled cast under the direction of Stephen F. Murray.
Using the framing device of Twain’s “The Diary of Adam and Eve,” Oster weaves five of Twains short pieces with some live folk music, and the whole thing comes off as a comfy, folky good time. Right out of the gate, Kelsi Karch’s Eve is likable and endearing, and she and her Adam (Dylan Parkes) serve as our guides for the evening – it begins and ends with them, as they portray the beginning of man and woman in the Garden of Eden through their old age, when Eve has died and Adam is left alone to remember her. Heads up, the final scene of the Adam & Eve arc is a complete heartbreaker. (You’re familiar with their sons, right?)
However, most of the show will have you chuckling. In one piece, Mark Twain himself (played by an affable Brian Hurst) runs for governor only to find himself surrounded by reporters for all sorts of salacious (and perhaps true) reasons. In “A Telephonic Conversation,” Laura Stephenson is an absolute stitch as a wife on the phone having a long-winded, bizarre conversation while her husband (Eric Prahl) looks on. There’s also “The French Duel,” which has two Frenchmen and their seconds preparing very seriously for a duel that is anything but serious. Murray keeps everything skipping along, and the whole cast seems to be putting their all into their roles.
Between all these pieces, a merry band of cast members appears and plays folk songs – “Down by the Riverside,” “Simple Gifts,” and “I’ll Fly Away,” among others. At intermission, it’s a jam session, and the audience at the opening performance was loving it.
Fans of Twain should head to this show, as should fans of theatre with a heart. It’s a charming, down-home time, and a nice way to spend a couple hours.
When the musical version of Edna Ferber’s novel “Show Boat” opened in 1927, it was shepherding in a huge change in the American musical theater, and was actually quite radical for it’s time. Instead of vaudeville sketches and scenes, or opera/operetta, this was a brand new creature – a cohesive story told through songs and dialogue, with catchy songs and a serious plot. Not only did “Show Boat” revolutionize the genre, it also tackled some (for the day) heavy issues – including racism, a far cry from frothy shows such as “No, No, Nanette.”
Recently, I read Ferber’s original novel.
Yesterday, I attended the opening performance of the brand new (and pretty and shiny) Lyric Opera of Chicago production of “Show Boat.”
There are some marked differences between the source material and the show that’s onstage at the Lyric Opera, and I’m always interested in things getting changed during the process of adaptation, so I thought I’d break down the differences.
First and foremost, in Ferber’s original novel Cap’n Andy drowns on the Mississippi around the halfway point of the action. Kind of a major plot point, one would think. After this, Parthy (his mean-tempered wife) takes over the Cotton Blossom and runs it spectacularly well. Years later, Magnolia (Cap’n Andy and Parthy’s daughter) has become a star after being ditched by her gambler husband, Ravenal. Magnolia and Ravenal’s daughter Kim has grown into a successful and serious actress. When Magnolia learns of Parthy’s death, she returns home and finds herself inheriting a ton of money that Parthy made and saved. Then, Magnolia, realizing she belongs on the river and it’ll always be her home, takes over the Cotton Blossom and the novel ends on a high note where the reader knows Magnolia is exactly where she’s supposed to be and she’ll be fine – without Ravenal, the supposed love of her life. After all, it’s always been about the river for her, and she’s back where she belongs. Sister is doing it for herself, and it’s going to be just fine.
In the musical, Cap’n Andy and Parthy live happily together to a ripe old age, still chuggin’ along at the finale, and Magnolia (yep, a Broadway star) returns home for a visit. There, she meets Ravenal once again and the final beat of the musical leads one to think that there will likely be a reconciliation between husband and wife.
(I like the novel’s version better, personally. It’s profoundly more interesting.)
Regarding the leading lady of “Show Boat” – Magnolia, played at the Lyric Opera by the wonderful Ashley Brown, is described countless times in the novel as having dark hair. Yet, she’s blonde in this production, and pretty much every production ever. This has something to do with the “blonde soprano ingenue” thing that the world is obsessed with. “Show Boat” is really Magnolia’s story, and the musical remains true to that — even if they have her becoming a Broadway/Follies star after Ravenal leaves her, instead of supporting herself and eventually gaining fame by singing “negro spirituals” and playing a banjo.
(Hands down, Ashley Brown gave my favorite performance of the show. She’s a lively actress who believably ages from a silly teenager to a middle-aged woman, sings like a dream, and gets to wear all manner of wonderful costumes. She’s a smash. Not bad for a “Disney soprano,” as the press materials bill her.)
Acclaimed singer Nathan Gunn plays Gaylord Ravenal at the Lyric Opera, and in both the book and movie he’s a strangely underwritten character. All we know is that he’s a gambler who is weirdly upbeat about the fact that he’s not actually very good at gambling. Oh, and he killed someone a year before the events of the novel/show. Supposedly the killing was done in self-defense, but it’s still built up in the polot as a major game-changer. Then, in both the book and the show, when this grand revelation happens, it doesn’t actually change anything. Magnolia still marries him happily, and Parthy never liked him anyway Heck, Cap’n Andy admits that HE has even killed someone, as if ti’s no big deal and something you don’t tell your wives. (Aren’t you glad you don’t live in 1927? )
Also, the musical implies that Cap’n Andy tells Ravenal to ask Magnolia to marry him. In the musical, the lovebirds sneak off to be wed and it’s not discovered for ten days afterward — and when it is, there certainly isn’t a parade.
The one character’s arc that remains mostly the same is that of Julie, the leading lady of the Cotton Blossom who is forced to leave the show boat after it’s discovered that she has “negro blood” in her and is married to a white man – which was against the law back in the day. In the musical, Julie is seen again years later, drunk and singing in a nightclub. When Magnolia, needing a job, shows up to audition, Julie bails, thereby giving Magnolia the break she needs after Ravenal has headed off to wherever. In the original novel, Julie still comes to ruin, but she’s working in a whorehouse that Magnolia is forced to visit when she decides to pay back a loan Ravenal took from a Madam.
Unlike Julie, Elly’s role is completely different. Basically, Elly is likable in the musical. She’s a silly comedienne, and as played by Ericka Mac, delivers a breath of fresh lively air when the show gets too serious. Also, later on, when Magnolia is down on her luck it’s Elly and Frank that get her the audition that winds up being her big break. Whereas, in the novel, Elly is described as “something of a shrew,” ignorant, and maybe even a germophobe. (She spends hours boiling water to clean things.) After it’s revealed that – gasp – Julie is black, the novel’s Elly throws a big giant racist temper tantrum. A few seasons later, she dumps Schultzy and runs off with a gambler, leaving everyone in the lurch – which is how Magnolia gets her big break performing on the boat. At the end of the novel, when Magnolia returns for Parthy’s funeral, Elly is back working on the boat again – still playing ingenues, despite the fact that she’s much older and her looks have faded significantly.
(It should also be noted that the novel has Elly and Schultzy – known as Frank in the musical – as the juvenile leads and Julie and Steve as the character team, while in the musical it’s reversed.)
Whew. What else?
- Kim, the daughter of Magnolia and Ravenal, is a much more substantial character in the novel than in the musical, where she appears briefly.
- Queenie and Jo (spelled “Joe” in the musical’s libretto) aren’t nearly as big a part of the action in the novel – though they’re there, they kind of disappear in the end of the book, and no real characterization is ever given to either. (Though Jo does spend most of his time in the novel singing, so “Ol’ Man River” makes a lot of sense. FYI – The song is wonderfully delivered by bass Morris Robinson.)
- The novel has a character named Windy who is the pilot of the Cotton Blossom, but he’s nowhere to be found in the musical.
- The novel goes much deeper into the ups and downs of the Ravenal family once they go to Chicago — and how quickly they go from fancy hotels to shoddier quarters depending on how Ravenal’s gambling luck is doing.
- It’s Magnolia’s idea to put Kim in the convent, so the kid (used to staying in hotels one day and shacks the next) can have some stability. The musical implies that it was Ravenal’s idea, as he wanted Kim to have only the best.
Despite these changes (which are understandable, as turning an epic novel into a musical requires some cut and paste) both the novel of “Show Boat” and the Lyric Opera’s current production are both absolutely worth your time. Director Francesa Zambello has assembled a top-notch cast (of, I think, eighty people?) who clearly love the material they’re performing, and hired some of the best designers around to bring the show to life. Paul Tazewell’s costumes are divine, and Peter J. Davison’s set showcases perfectly why this show doesn’t get done often — it’s a marvelous, sizable, beast.
“Show Boat” makes me happy, plain and simple – whatever version it is.
My dear friend Robert over at ChicagoTheatreAddict had an extra ticket to attend the Chicago opening night of the national tour of “Come Fly Away,” Twyla Tharp’s tribute to Frank Sinatra, and I joined him.
The show is lovely – incredible dancers performing the story of lovers falling in and out at a nightclub while a big band plays along to the vocal tracks of Ol’ Blue Eyes himself. There’s the young and innocent/awkward couple, the red-dress-wearing hot chick and the smooth operator, and the arguing/dramatic couple, and in the course of an 80 minute show everyone breaks up and makes up and, to take a line from Frank himself, they all face the music and dance.
While the show isn’t full of any grand revelations about love, it got me thinking – Can dance be considered literature?
I believe music can be considered literature, and lyrics are certainly poetry. Theatre can most certainly be defined as literature. (One word: Shakespeare.)
So what about dance?
Dance combines music and theatre, and certainly dance can tell a story. Think of “The Nutcracker,” or “Giselle” or “The Firebird” for examples of famous stories told via dance.
Webster’s Dictionry defines literature as follows:
1archaic:literary culture2: the production of literary work especially as an occupation3a (1): writings in prose or verse; especially: writings having excellence of form or expression and expressing ideas of permanent or universal interest (2): an example of such writings <what came out, though rarely literature, was always a roaring good story — People> b: the body of written works produced in a particular language, country, or age c: the body of writings on a particular subject <scientific literature> d: printed matter (as leaflets or circulars) <campaign literature>4: the aggregate of a usually specified type of musical compositions
I don’t really like improv. Sometimes, living in Chicago, I feel I’m about to be stoned to death for this opinion. This is perhaps the city with the strongest improv scene in America. Generally, though, I find improv performance to be full of show-offs who are desperate to stand out as the funniest person onstage with little to no regard to the plot.
All that said, I love Jane Austen. If you can work her in to anything, I’m probably there.
There’s an improv group in Chicago – “The Improvised Jane Austen” – and when I learned they were doing shows at the Chemically Imbalanced Theatre I knew it was something I needed to check out. So, accompanied by my sparkling friend and fellow Austen-junkie Annie, I got my half-price tickets and headed to the show.
Clearly, the five ladies who took the stage have done their research into the world and conventions of Ms. Austen. After a one-word suggestion from the audience – “Temperature” – they opened a dictionary, pulled out a corresponding word, and set out to present a show called “Temperature and Tantalize.” All the key elements were in place – two sisters (one smart and one beautiful,) a gentleman cad, pushy parents, a ball – heck, there was even a girl with a wooden leg.
I’d love to call out individual cast members, but no program was issued. However, I will say that the fearless young woman playing “Branson,” the ladies man at the center of events, was a riot and seemingly unshakable.
With an amusing opening act (an improv duo called “Dry Toast”) the show ran about an hour and fifteen minutes – which was just about perfect. Though the venue is charming, it may not have air conditioning. At least, it didn’t seem to last night. The ladies of “..Jane Austen” have a few more weeks of Thursday night shows at CIC, and then I’m sure they’ll be performing in other places around town. (Check out their lively facebook page for details and upcoming dates.)
Annie and I particularly enjoyed the evening, but really I don’t think you need an in-depth knowledge of Jane Austen and her work in order to appreciate the wackiness of the group.
**Side Note: Completely unrelated to the show, I headed to the theatre from work and arrived about a half-hour early. I had heard tell of Asado Coffee, supposedly a great little coffee and tea place next to the venue, and thought – perfect! I’ll get a coffee and read until it was showtime. Outside Asado was a chalkboard sign saying “Try our iced coffee!” and I was able to walk right in the door and up t the register to purchase said coffee. It wasn’t until after I had paid for my drink and sat down that I was informed they were actually closed for a private event. Had I seen a sign indicating this was the case (or, you know, had the door been locked or had someone mentioned it to me prior to my sitting down) I would have sought a resting place – and purchased coffee – elsewhere. So, coffee in hand, I went back outside and basically stood outside the theatre for 20 minutes. The coffee was good, but I won’t be heading back there. **
Daphne Du Maurier’s novel “Rebecca,” (a fantastic book, my review of which will come shortly!) which served as the basis for the famous Hitchcock movie, has been making waves across the waves as a musical. The show has been seen around the world – from it’s original Vienna production to Tokyo – but hadn’t made the leap to America until now.
Playbill.com is reporting that the show will open on Broadway in April 2012 – and that Sierra Boggess (famous for originating the role of Ariel in that attempt to bring “The Little Mermaid” to Broadway, as well as for originating the role of Christine Daae in the sequel to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s sequel to “The Phantom of the Opera” – “Love Never Dies”) may be part of the cast.
From the article -
“Based on the classic Daphne du Maurier novel, Rebecca is the story of Maxim de Winter, his new wife [simply, 'I,' as in the first-person] and Mrs. Danvers, the controlling and manipulative housekeeper of Maxim’s West Country estate of Manderley — where the memory of his first wife, the glamorous and mysterious Rebecca, still casts a shadow.”
The Hitchcock movie was definitely creepy, and here’s hoping the musical is a hit.
Here’s a brief sample of the show. (No, it’s not in English, but hush.)
And here’s the title song.
Despite how much I love living in Chicago, I certainly don’t love Chicago landmark and tourist trap Navy Pier. It’s always crowded, getting there is far too difficult no matter which way you choose, and really I don’t think there’s much great or interesting about it. (It’s hardly the only place you can get a t-shirt that says “Chicago”, a dreamcatcher, a beer, or some ice cream, you know?)
I kicked this review off that way so you’ll understand my love for one thing about Navy Pier: Chicago Shakespeare Theater, the regional theater that’s an established part of Navy Pier. Known for classy productions of great works – Shakespeare or not – I’ve never been disappointed by a show I’ve seen there. Even though it’s located smack dab in the middle of Navy Pier, I will venture to CST.
So when my dear friend Robert (of ChicagoTheatreAddict) invited me along to catch their summer production of “The Adventures of Pinocchio,” I happily said yes.
Lit-wise, the story of “Pinocchio” has been around forever. There are countless written versions, film versions, musicals, ice spectaculars, and toys all over the world. Simply, everyone knows the story of the little wooden puppet who – on a quest to become a real boy – winds up a star, then tricked by a Cat and Fox, then runs to an island just for boys, and in the stomach of a whale before learning a lesson and getting to go home and become a real boy. Pinocchio first appeared in 1883, in “The Adventures of Pinocchio” by Carlo Collodi, who didn’t intend the work to become a childrens classic. In the actual first edition, Pinocchio gets hung for his actions. Realizing this was too harsh, Collodi added more text, and had the Blue Fairy show up to save him. The Disney film version (which is a little creepy, no lie) is possibly one of the best-known pieces of pop culture around. Find someone who doesn’t know who Jiminy Cricket is, or who can’t hum “I’ve got no strings.” I dare you.
There’s no Jiminy Cricket here, though. The Chicago Shakespeare Theater production of this tale is a world premiere musical, written/composed by Neil Bartram and Brian Hill, who penned the Broadway musical “The Story of My Life.” Told in a visually lovely style reminiscent more of old storybooks than flashy, typical kids fare, the story is all about the choices we make. Pinocchio messes up a number of choices, and it leads him down a less-than-happy path. There may be an issue with the sound system, as several times I couldn’t make out the lyrics that were being sung, but overall I got the gist.
Directed by Rachel Rockwell, the 90 minute show is snappy and keeps on moving. The cast is energetic and lively, especially Skyler Adams as Pinocchio, who’s a bundle of jumpy energy. Heidi Kettenring and Derek Hasenstab are scene-stealers as Cat and Fox, and Melody Betts gets some lovely moments as “The Blue Lady.”
The theater was largely packed with parents and children seeing the show. Though the parents all looked enchanted, several of the younger kids looked a little confused and lost some interest, so if your kids are really young (maybe under 5 or 6) I’d probably point you in another direction. This isn’t a flashy Disney show – there are ballads and poignant moments that might fly over the littlest heads, and lead to some boredom. That said, the older kids around me seemed to get and appreciate it.
“The Adventures of Pinocchio” plays until August 28th. It’s charming and sweet and a nice reminder of why this tale remains relevant.
One of my favorite Chicago theater companies, CityLit, has announced auditions for their 2012 adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s uber-creepy/wonderful “We Have Always Lived in the Castle.”
CityLit focuses on adaptations of literary works to the stage, and in the past they’ve done wonderful productions of “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde,” “The Confession,” “Oh, Boy!” and “A Year with Frog and Toad” that I’ve really enjoyed. This time around, they’re taking on a book that I still can’t get over, and I have to imagine that this creepy tale of outcast sisters in a small town will translate beautifully to the stage.
The show will open February 24th, 2012.
More news to come as I learn it.