Tuesday, October 06, 2015

At 25, 'Marvin's Room' Contains Touching Testaments to Chicago's Rich Theatrical Legacy -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Marvin's Room
Shattered Globe Theatre
at Theater Wit, Chicago
Thru November 14

I'm constantly amazed--and considerably enriched--by just how great a theater town Chicago is.

Over a 5-day span, I saw a National Tour of the 2014 Best Musical Tony Winner (A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder), a resplendently-appointed Goodman Theatre staging of a Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway hit that was hatched in Chicago just 3 years ago (Disgraced), a first-rate world premiere play starring George Wendt and Tim Kazurinsky (Funnyman) and a fine off-Loop version of a drama that had premiered at Goodman 25 years ago and was subsequently adapted into a movie starring Meryl Streep, Diane Keaton, Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio (Marvin's Room).

Produced by the Shattered Globe Theatre, celebrating its own 25th anniversary, and presented at Theater Wit--a pleasant multi-stage venue but a step below the city's most lavish or esteemed--Marvin's Room features Deanna Dunagan, the actress responsible for the best dramatic performance I've ever seen on a Chicago stage.

In 2007, she was absolutely brilliant at Steppenwolf in August: Osage County, for which she would go on to win the Tony Award for Best Lead Actress in a Play.

And in Marvin's Room, Dunagan isn't even the star.

Nor despite being splendid in the role of Aunt Ruth, does she deliver the most impressive performance. 

Longtime Shattered Globe ensemble member Linda Reiter is especially terrific as Bessie, a single, middle-aged woman who has devoted the last 20+ years to caring for her infirm, bed-ridden father, Marvin (Larry Bundschu, only seen during the play via shadows on the walls of his room).

Aunt Ruth also shares their Florida home, rather hobbled and constantly hunched.

Early in the 2-act play, Bessie develops health issues of her own, which become rather serious. This brings from Ohio her estranged sister Lee (Rebecca Jordan, a founding ensemble member who is also quite good) and her two teenage sons, Hank (Nate Santana), who has been living in a mental institution after burning down their house, and his gawky younger brother Charlie (Kyle Klein II).

Written by Scott McPherson while his lover was dying from AIDS, which would also take his own life at just 33, Marvin's Room is ostensibly about the responsibilities and resentments that can accompany caring for a sick parent (or other loved ones) in far greater proportion than one's sibling(s).

But relatively little stage time is devoted to any animosity, envy, regret or even self-pity Bessie may feel, and I found Marvin's Room to be unexpectedly uplifting in the way she reconnects with Lee, enjoys getting to know her nephews for the first time and exudes pride in having dedicated her life to her father and aunt.

There is substantive beauty--and more than a smidgen of personal self-identification--in the way McPherson's play seems to champion making the best of the cards you've been dealt, with aplomb and a resultant sense of contentment, rather than getting lost in longing for a "better" life or being bogged down by bitterness and regret.

Marvin's Room, at least as seen 25 years past its inception--I've never seen the movie, nor the play previously--feels more poignant and subtly powerful than truly riveting, and perhaps because it never had me on the edge of my seat, I found it more an excellent (@@@@) play than an absolutely phenomenal (@@@@@) one.

Though the script is strong, the performances superb and the production by Sandy Shinner well worth your attention and attendance, it is quite feasible that theater of similarly impressive quality can be seen almost every day of the year in Chicago and its environs, at venues large and small.

And as appreciable as this particular 25th anniversary rendition of Marvin's Room--featuring a Tony winner fitting seamlessly into an ensemble cast on Belmont Avenue--that's what I find truly extraordinary.

Monday, October 05, 2015

By George, 'Funnyman' Earns Cheers for the Way Star Wendt Beyond the Norm -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

a World Premiere play by Bruce Graham
Directed by BJ Jones
Northlight Theatre, Skokie, IL
Thru October 25

The sitcom Cheers still ranks among my five favorite television shows of all-time, and though I wasn't nearly as enamored with the spinoff Frasier, I'm certainly familiar with its primary cast and characters.

So there has been something kinda cool about seeing George Wendt, Rhea Perlman, Kelsey Grammar, Bebe Neuwirth, John Mahoney, David Hyde Pierce and the late Roger Rees on theatrical stages, including a number of them at Skokie's Northlight Theatre, where Wendt currently stars in the world premiere of Funnyman.

While this may sound simply like a piece of personal trivia, the often dramatic direction each actor has taken after embodying a rather iconic comedic character pretty much parallels the thematic gist of Funnyman.

I doubt I was the only one who had an inherent urge to yell, "Norm!" when Wendt appeared onstage Saturday afternoon, although the compunction was somewhat quashed by the blond wig and bright red Buster Brown-type outfit he was sporting.

Photos by Michael Brosilow
Teamed with Tim Kazurinsky as ever-devoted talent agent Milt "Junior" Karp--the two were to star in The Odd Couple at Northlight in late 2012 until Wendt had to bow out for health reasons--Wendt plays Chick Sherman, a legendary comedic Broadway star now relegated to hamming it up in antacid commercials.

In his fourth straight world premiere piece for Northlight--including the sensational The Outgoing Tide with John Mahoney and the stellar Stella & Lou with Rhea Perlman--playwright Bruce Graham draws heavily on the lives of Bert Lahr, Buster Keaton and other comedy legends.

As supporting materials elucidated, Lahr--best known as the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz--was a major Broadway musical-comedy star who, a bit past his career prime and seemingly "against type," starred in the 1956 Broadway premiere of Samuel Beckett's absurdist masterpiece, "Waiting for Godot."

That Lahr clashed with the play's original director and had an ill-fated marriage to a young co-star who became beset with emotional difficulties (and bore him a child) lends itself to the Funnyman narrative that has Chick's agent Karp convincing him that starring in an avant garde, modernist play would be good for his career.

Chick's interactions with a snooty director (Steve Haggard) and flamboyant playwright (Rob Lindley) provide much humor--Wendt is still a formidable comedic presence--but it is his latent relationship with grown daughter Katharine (Amanda Drinkall) that forms the true heart of the play.

Now living with her father after years spent in boarding schools, Katharine is interested in rekindling a connection with Chick--which is notably what she calls him, rather than Dad--and learning about the mother she never knew.

Drinkall, appearing in her second Graham-penned Northlight world premiere of 2015--following White Guy on the Bus--is quite empathetic as Katharine attempts to crack Chick's somewhat ornery off-stage shell, turns frequently to Kazurinsky's Junior as a more attentive father figure and forms a fledgling relationship with her co-worker Nathan (Michael Perez), whose screenwriter parents knew Chick. (It isn't central to the play's storyline but Katharine works as an archivist at Carnegie Hall.)

When revealed late in Act 2, the reasons for Chick's reluctance to provide Katharine with details about her mother become rather understandable, exacerbated by what he has shared about abject cruelty he suffered at the hands of his stage mother of a mom. (Graham supposedly developed this aspect of Chick's backstory from the troubling showbiz childhood of Buster Keaton.)

Given my eternal affinity for Wendt's embodiment of Norm Peterson--I wonder what his pal Cliff Claven (John Ratzenberger) is up to these days--seeing him onstage, in my hometown no less, is always a hoot.

And while I don't know if Northlight Artistic Director--and the show's director--BJ Jones commissioned Graham to write Funnyman specifically as a vehicle for Wendt and Kazurinsky, it certainly adds resonance to the play's themes that both longtime comedy stars are seemingly content appearing in regional theater without overtly leveraging their past personas.

This isn't all that shocking as I had seen Wendt at Northlight in 2002 in a play called Rounding Third, then in 2007 on a National Tour of Twelve Angry Men that came to the Loop. He's also been in Art, Hairspray, Elf and Breakfast at Tiffany's on Broadway.

Part of Graham's purpose behind Funnyman (as conveyed in an interview in the program) is to amplify the respect skilled comedians--and comics, as the difference is delineated in the play--deserve, including the ability of many to deftly handle dramatic roles. 

So as with several of his old pals, it's nice to see--including quite literally--that for George Wendt a life in the theater, without the expectation of chugging beers or besmirching his unseen wife Vera, has apparently now become the Norm.

And it's to Graham's great credit that Funnyman ultimately doesn't succeed most for the way it recasts an old comic, but for how it makes his evolving relationships--with his daughter, his agent, his past, present and future--freshly relatable.

Cheers, indeed. 

Sunday, October 04, 2015

Apostate of Being: 'Disgraced' Gracefully Probes Questions of Self, Place, Race at Goodman -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

a recent play by Ayad Akhtar
directed by Kimberly Senior
Goodman Theatre, Chicago
Thru October 25

As much as I might try to, I obviously can't see everything worthwhile presented onstage in Chicago, especially as my interests--in terms of live event options--include not only dramatic and musical theater, but also rock, blues, jazz and classical concerts, opera, improv/comedy, dance and also sporting events.

So although Ayad Akhtar's play, Disgraced, received strong reviews from the Tribune's Chris Jones and others when it debuted in early 2012 at Chicago's American Theater Company--a troupe & venue I've enjoyed multiple times before and since--for whatever confluence of factors I didn't get to it.

This oversight came to seem more glaring when the drama enjoyed successful stagings in New York first off-Broadway and then on, directed as at ATC by Kimberly Senior, whose work I've regularly admired. Akhtar, who is also an actor and novelist (American Dervish), earned the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for Disgraced, which was also Tony-nominated for a Best Play in 2015.

So I was delighted when Chicago's Goodman Theatre, at which I have been a subscriber since 2004, announced that it would mount its own production of Disgraced--again helmed by Senior--to kick off its 2015-16 mainstage season. The current Goodman cast will subsequently take the play to Berkeley and Seattle, and in his stellar review of this rendition, Chris Jones notes that the show "is the most produced play in America's professional theaters this season," with an HBO adaptation already underway.

Though it was well-conveyed in a post-show discussion on Thursday that all five of the drama's characters could somehow be seen as "disgraced," at the core of the play is Amir Kapoor (terrifically enacted by Bernard White), a successful Manhattan lawyer born and raised Muslim in Pakistan, but now an apostate who has renounced his Islamic faith.

(The "talk back," in which all the actors participated--and supposedly usually do--was a great complement given the play's complex themes, and nearly as interesting and valuable as the show itself. I believe there is a discussion after every performance.)

Living in a plush apartment on the Upper East Side--richly appointed by set designer John Lee Beatty--Amir is apparently enjoying a life of considerable success and affluence, even before becoming a partner in his firm, as his possible promotion informs part of the play's narrative.

Amir is married to Emily (Nisi Sturgis), a white artist who, as the play opens, is creating a portrait of her husband inspired by Velázquez' Portrait of Juan de Pareja, but whose more geometrical Islamic-influenced works capture the fancy of a Jewish art curator named Isaac (J. Anthony Crane).

Early in Disgraced, Amir conveys to Emily a childhood story of intolerance on the part of his mother, and makes clear that he has distanced himself from his religion not only for the sake of upward mobility within a law firm with Jewish name partners--one of whom has long served as a mentor and father figure--but due to his aversion to certain teachings of the Quran.

Even as his nephew, Abe (Behzad Dabu, who was in the original ATC cast) comes to seek legal assistance for a local Imam, and Emily urges him to lend his support, Amir maintains his resolve to stay secular, due not only to his differing religious beliefs (or lack thereof) but out of concern for professional appearances.

It would do a disservice to divulge much of what transpires in a play that holds a good bit of intrigue, so in terms of storyline I'll only explain that in addition to Amir's relationship with Emily, their interactions with Abe and the ramifications that develop, a good chunk of the 80-minute piece involves a dinner Amir & Emily host for Isaac and his African-American wife, Jory (Zakiya Young), which becomes rather heated.

With a shrewd post-show comment from Dabu reminding that each of the characters should be viewed as the individuals we all are, rather than universally representing Islam, Judaism, non-believers, minorities, lawyers, artists, blondes, interfaith couples or anyone else, Disgraced is a very well-written work about many topical matters. And watching it through the prism of our own perspectives can undoubtedly shape rather varied interpretations.

Answers to questions about faith, religion, assimilation, being an "American," suppressing personal identity & pride for monetary gain, Islam in post-9/11 New York, deep-seated prejudices, marital challenges, workplace injustices and more aren't readily forthcoming, and not only is the ambiguity entirely realistic but dramatically powerful in its thematic complexity.

Still, I can't deem Disgraced a masterpiece at this point, in part because I couldn't comfortably discern--even just from my own point of view--what Akhtar is trying to say.

There is also a turn that comes late in Act II that feels a bit askew to the characterizations up to that point.

Still, even if there are a number of plays I've liked better, or other viewers of Disgraced who enjoyed it even more than I did--which several post-show comments would suggest--it is certainly a formidable play, presented extremely well by Senior, her collaborators and a superlative cast at Goodman.

Especially if you're sorry you missed it previously, there's no reason to this time.

And be sure to stick around afterward for a conversation that could potentially be even more compelling. 

Saturday, October 03, 2015

Deftly Daftly Deathly: A Fine, If Fleeting, 'Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder' -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder
a recent musical
Bank of America Theatre, Chicago
Thru October 11

A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder (referenced from here on out as GGLM) won the 2014 Tony Award for Best Musical.

I have not yet seen last year's three other nominees--After Midnight, Aladdin and Beautiful--and though I am looking forward to the Carole King songbook musical in December, it's not hard to imagine GGLM being far more inventive than Beautiful, a biography with great but pre-existing songs.

While GGLM reminds of Agatha Christie--especially as I just read And Then There Was None--mixed with Monty Python, Gilbert & Sullivan and Peter Sellers playing multiple roles in the same film (or Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, etc.), for a modern day musical it feels rather original and distinctive.

More engaging for its sharp humor and clever staging than its music--though the songs by Steven Lutvak and Robert L. Freedman contain much wit and are melodic enough--GGLM makes for a fun night of entertainment, perhaps especially so for those less than effusive about traditional musicals.

Yet while this is a positive review of a show I admired and enjoyed, in having seen all of this century's Best Musicals except this year's Fun Home, I believe it fair to say GGLM is fortunate not to have had tonier Tony competition.

Photos by Joan Marcus; of the Broadway cast, not the actors in Chicago
Based on the 1907 novel Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal by Roy Horniman, but not to my knowledge directly inspired by real-life events, GGLM names its protagonist Monty Navarro.

Played on the National Tour, now at Chicago's Bank of America Theatre, by Kevin Massey, Monty is a clean-cut young Brit who tells most of his tale as a flashback while writing his memoirs from prison the night before his slated execution.

He recalls having been told by a mysterious woman that he is a member of the aristocratic D'Ysquith family, from whom his mother was cast out for marrying below her position.

After being informed that he is 9th in line to become the Earl of Highhurst, Monty--i.e. Lord Montague D'Ysquith Navarro--sets off an a killing spree of the D'Ysquiths ahead of him, in part to impress his beautiful girlfriend Sibella (Kristen Beth Williams) who is about to marry a man of greater social standing.

I won't reveal how Monty carries out the slayings, but as this is a dark comedy, there is both ingenuity and hilarity in many of his methods.

And though I didn't fully catch on until near the end of Act I, all of the D'Ysquiths--male and female, save for Phoebe (Adrienne Eller), the beauteous wife of one of the victims, who becomes an additional romantic interest of Monty's--are played by the same actor, Kevin Massey. (He's listed in the Playbill as playing "The D'Ysquith Family" so I'm not giving too much away.)

The staging, by director Darko Tresnjak with scenic design by Alexander Dodge, is rather brilliant, and many LOL guffaws accompanied the macabre-cum-madcap murders and much else, including the way Massey "executes" his multiple roles.

Up in the upper balcony, with women behind me talking and eating boxed "movie candy" throughout, I missed several lines that garnered laughs, whether in the dialogue or the clever lyrics. (I hadn't listened to the Broadway Cast Album ahead of time because I wanted to freshly hear the humor.)

I still believe I got most of the essence of GGLM, though wouldn't mind seeing it a few years hence in a much more intimate venue.

And while the music by Steven Lutvak stylistically serves the cheeky tone of a chamber (and period) piece rather than being a typical Broadway score--even in terms of high-comedy musicals, it isn't sonically akin to The Producers, Spamalot or The Book of Mormon--there are a good number of strong songs amid the storytelling tunes.

I especially enjoyed the opening, "A Warning to the Audience," as well as "I Don't Understand the Poor" sung by John Rapson as Lord Adalbert D'Ysquith, "Better With a Man," a duet between Monty and Henry D'Ysquith (Phoebe's husband) and "I've Decided to Marry You," sung mainly by Phoebe, though also Sibella and Monty.

GGLM is certainly quality entertainment, and nobody wanting to see it shouldn't based on anything I'm intimating.

It is clever, witty, cute, funny, well-done, original, unique, irreverent, terrific and in ways, brilliant.

But even as I was watching it, at times unsure of the line separating funny and silly being traipsed, I had the sense that GGLM isn't a musical--or simply a striking piece of theater, since it doesn't aim to be a Kinky Boots, Billy Elliot, Wicked, etc., type of show--that will long stick with me.

There is nothing wrong with completely solid "light" entertainment, and this extremely smart show is superb in its own right and perhaps to many--including Tony voters--all the more special for what it isn't.

As my friend Paolo, who saw GGLM with me on Wednesday night, said, "I can't think of another show that's really like this."

So it's quite possible that if you love quirky of humor and aren't so enamored by traditional show tunes, you'll not only enjoy GGLM a bit more than I did, but perhaps even a good bit more than many of the musicals I consider far superior and more substantive.

I'm glad that I saw it, and rather soon after it won Best Musical in June 2014.

But I'm just not convinced that it should have.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Some Madge-ic Moments, but Latest Madonna Extravaganza Too Uneven to Feel Truly Momentous -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

United Center, Chicago
September 28, 2015

I don't worship Madonna, and haven't consistently considered myself much of a fan, but I admire her enough as an entertainer to have now seen her on each of her last 5 tours, including Monday night at the UC on the Rebel Heart outing.

A good part of initially wanting to see her in concert coincided with my prolific theatergoing, as wholeheartedly embracing musical theater not only sparked an interest in Madonna's tightly scripted multimedia extravaganzas--including a plethora of dancers, acrobats, props, video imagery, costumes, messages and a few musicians--but eliminated any psychological parochialism about seeing a pop star amidst my typical spate of rock bands.

The first time I saw Madonna in 2004, I was considerably impressed and entertained, with subsequent shows--including this one--being more hit or miss.

Especially in hearing "Madge" express to Howard Stern earlier this year how passionately she plans every moment of her concert presentations, and how obsessive she is about the quality of her performance and the entire production--the start of this tour was postponed due to all the moving parts not yet congealing into place--I can't help appreciate her grandiose creative ambitions, perhaps fueled in part to justify the roughly $400 she charges for top tickets (I didn't pay nearly that much for my upper balcony perch).

While it was nice to see Madonna considerably more amiable, at times even breezy, than the rigid, almost robotic demeanor that--in adhering to her tightly orchestrated thematic conceits--greatly dampened her 2012 concert (by far the most disappointing of the five I've seen), with all due respect and regard for her estimable efforts, I kinda think tries too hard.

For even though she descended to the stage in a cage (while singing "Iconic") to open the show, pole danced on a cross with scantily clad "nuns," sang "Body Shop" from the hood of an onstage car, re-enacted the Last Supper then gyrated upon the table, had an army of dancers in extravagant costumes engaging in numerous nifty maneuvers, etc., etc., most of the show's best moments were its simplest ones.

With Madonna alone on the main floor-spanning catwalk (often playing guitar), renditions of the new "Ghosttown" and "Rebel Heart," as well as a cover of Edith Piaf's "La Vie en Rose" were really quite lovely. 

An acoustic rendition of "True Blue" was--to paraphrase Kevin Costner's famously derided comment in 1990's Truth or Dare documentary--pretty "neat," and while I think Madonna needlessly and heedlessly modified the tempo of "Like a Virgin" and  other '80s gems ("Dress You Up," "Material Girl"), it benefited from a lack of bombastic accoutrements.

While whatever statements Madonna was trying to make, and likely my overall enjoyment of the show, were hindered by a group of iniebrieted women incessantly yammering behind me--I surmise they were suburban moms on girls night out reliving their high school days--any cogent messaging was almost entirely lost on me. Though that it related to sex and/or religion is now a routine matter of course.

Furthering my losses in the "random rudeness ruining the experience" concertgoing lottery, another nearby nutjob was so vociferously disruptive and belligerant, three security guards had to come take her away. (Perhaps she suffered from "Borderline" personality disorder, though that early hit wasn't played.)

With most of the extreme visuals accompanying new songs early in the set, Madonna's 2-hour plus
performance--beginning near 9:45 after a DJ set by Michael Diamond that could serve as the soundtrack for my arrival in hell--got off to a somewhat challenging start, and the show felt uneven throughout. 

And in terms of sound, vision and thematic cohesion, it failed to coalesce nearly as potently as U2's latest, similarly ambitious multimedia tour presentation.

I respect Madonna for aiming for greater artistry than merely to run through a Vegas-style greatest hits set, and though 10 songs from the underselling Rebel Heart seems a bit much, several--including "Living for Love"--came off quite well. (I don't share her fascination with the word "bitch," as in "Bitch I'm Madonna" and "Unapologetic Bitch," but won't, well complain, about it too much.)

In looking at the setlist, it'd be easy for almost anyone to name some hits Madonna didn't play ("Lucky Star," "Like a Prayer," "Into the Groove," "Ray of Light"), but she seems to mix in different classics on each tour, and not only did gems like "La Isla Bonita," "Music" and "Holiday" sound swell, compared to some past tours she was rather liberal in performing big songs (although often reconfigured).

I hope more devout fans loved every minute of it, and far be it from me to tell one of the world's most successful artists--and greatest provacateurs--how to do her job.

But while appreciating the elaborate shows she stages--still with remarkable energy at age 57--I think I've come to like Madonna best when she simply sings.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

An Enlightening Museum Day: Freely Exploring the DuSable Museum of African-American History in Chicago

Museum Visit Recap

DuSable Museum
of African-American History
Visited Sept. 26, 2015

On Saturday, September 26, the Smithsonian held its annual Museum Day, on which the Smithsonian magazine provides (or at least facilitates) free admission to hundreds of participating museums nationwide.

I opted to visit, for the first time, the DuSable Museum of African-American History, and was happy to have my mom accompany me on the trek from Skokie to Hyde Park.

The museum, housed since 1973 in a Daniel Burnham building originally created for the Chicago Park District, is on the eastern edge of Washington Park, just west of the University of Chicago campus and medical center.

Coincidentally, last weekend the DuSable was hosting a stage work called Anne and Emmett--about two young victims of hate, Anne Frank and Emmett Till--that was co-presented by the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center, which is located in Skokie.

Mom and I probably could have caught a performance had we planned for it, but wanted to devote proper time to see the museum itself. (We also skipped the Hyde Park Jazz Fest happening nearby.)

I believe we saw all the exhibits on display, which seem to be either permanent or otherwise long-term; a new temporary exhibit was being installed in one closed gallery.

Even the museum's entrance foyer was engaging, with beautiful tile mosaics of its namesake Jean-Baptiste DuSable--who essentially founded Chicago--and other notable African-Americans, including museum founder Margaret Burroughs.

On the upper level are exhibits on Africa, African-Americans in the U.S. Military and Chicago's first black mayor, Harold Washington. There is also a room showcasing an addition to the museum being developed in another Burnham-designed structure across the street, and a striking sculpture of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. accompanied by large photos of him speaking at Soldier Field.

The Harold Washington exhibit was especially cool, with an animatronic Mayor speaking to visitors within a reproduction of his City Hall office.

Downstairs there is some fine artwork created by Margaret Burroughs and the museum's new permanent exhibit, Freedom, Resistance and the Journey Toward Equality.

Beginning with displays about slavery--and the mass kidnappings of Africans that facilitated it--the exhibit broaches Jim Crow laws, the Civil Rights Movement, Dr. King, The Black Panthers, President Obama and more, chronicling struggle, perseverance and pride.

There are a number of rather evocative artifacts--many shown in photos here--including slave shackles, a yoke, segregated water fountains, a chair representing lunch-counter sit-ins, a jacket belonging to Fred Hampton, the bullet-riddled door of the Black Panthers' Chicago headquarters and even a KKK uniform. 

Much was informative, enlightening, moving and infuriating, and I noted some aspects I should explore further, including learning more about the mutinied Amistad slave ship (I've never even seen the Spielberg movie) and looking for a documentary on the Black Panthers. 

Interspersed interactive videos on a variety of topics were valuable, but viewing would be more opportune if small seating areas were provided at each video station.

And though nothing that filled the allotted space wasn't worthwhile, even in acknowledging spatial and budgetary considerations I wished more depth could be provided on various subjects.

The Great Migration is only covered on one text panel, and considerably more information on the Civil Rights Era could be beneficial, with sections on MLK and Malcolm X surprisingly sparse. There is also almost nothing included on African-American culture and community; I think a section or two on the rise of jazz, ragtime, blues, hip-hop, etc., and how entertainers helped abet and resistance, could fit well within the framework of the exhibit while likely fostering enhanced engagement.

Perhaps once the expansion is completed in the nearby Roundhouse, even more illumination could be provided by this fine and important museum. As it was, I valued my visit and believe most others would too.

And even though Museum Day 2015 has now come and gone, the DuSable Museum generously offers Free Admission every Sunday.

All of the pictures below are from the DuSable Museum of African-American History's new permanent exhibit: Freedom, Resistance and the Journey Toward Equality.

A writing desk belonging to Ida B. Wells

Shotgun-blasted door of the Black Panthers' Chicago headquarters, 1969
A jacket that belonged to Fred Hampton

Sunday, September 27, 2015

'Next To Normal' Feels Quite Fine Rather Close to Home -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Next to Normal
MadKap Productions
Skokie Theatre
Thru September 27

There can be something rather illuminating about seeing the same piece of theater done across various levels of the theatrical domain. (In that vein, see my latest review of The Producers, which I recently saw for the 13th time.)

Not only can you note how different actors perform the same roles, and how directors, set designers, costumers, etc. deal with spatial and financial considerations in interpreting shows that often began in big Broadway theaters, but particularly in more spartan environments with less celebrated performers you can really get a sense of how strong the source material actually is.

I have now seen the musical Next to Normal three times in the last 5 years, initially in 2011 on its first National Tour featuring Alice Ripley reprising her Tony-winning leading role.

A much lauded--and really strong--regional production brought me to the Drury Lane Oakbrook in 2013, and with Next to Normal even closer to my home, I caught it on Friday night at the intimate Skokie Theatre.

I have always found the show to be a first-rate piece of theater, not only one of the better new works of recent years--especially among the ever-shrinking realm of truly original musicals not based on movies or other name-brand material--but possibly the best combination of drama and musical I've ever seen. (Though Next to Normal didn't win the Best Musical Tony in 2009, it earned the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2010.)

In my previous reviews--which you can access via the hyperlinks 2 & 3 paragraphs up--I recapped the
show's storyline and explained why, despite greatly liking the piece, I rated excellent productions @@@@1/2 rather than a full @@@@@ (in large part because not enough of the narratively-strong songs stand out on their own).

So I won't go into the same depth here, but wanted to extol a rather sublime rendition staged by MadKap Productions at the Skokie.

That the cast & crew retained the emotional resonance and musical merits of Next to Normal in a tight space with just a 4-piece band is all the more impressive when one notes that only 9 performances were being done (the last being today at 2pm).

Certainly, viewers had to imagine the various rooms of a house, psychiatrists' offices and hospitals rather than actually see them, a few of the actors seemed a bit young for their roles and while the singing was strong throughout, some of the vocal timbres were a bit less than Broadway caliber.

But with many audience members likely seeing this work for the first time, the almost-full house at the Skokie undoubtedly got the full essence of Next to Normal, an emotionally-wrought story of a family in which the mother suffers from bipolar disorder.

Whitney Morse, who I really liked last year in The Children's Hour in another dramatically-intense role, is outstanding here as Diana (played by Ripley on Broadway/tour and by the always superb Susie McMonagle in Oakbrook).

All of the other actors are also notably good, including Brian Zealand as Diana's husband Dan, Molly LeCaptain and Jordan Grzybowski as their kids, Natalie and Gabe, Christopher Selefski as Natalie's boyfriend Henry and Nick Shoda embodying two different psychiatrists that Diana sees.

The band was also terrific, so in this review that essentially serves only to salute fine work (coming as it does on the last day of the run), I'll also give a shout out to musical director/keyboardist Gary Powell, pianist Jeff Poindexter, guitarist Scott Sedlacak and drummer Dylan Frank, who I consistently noted for his particularly fine playing.

And while I think the emotional storyline (by Brian Yorkey) is more the greatest strength of Next to Normal--the theater went hear-a-pindrop silent upon a major revelation--than is the music, the score by Tom Kitt (with lyrics by Yorkey) serves the narrative quite well and features some standout tunes like "I Am the One" and "I'm Alive."

Unless you read this and rush right over to Lincoln Avenue in downtown Skokie, you probably won't get to this production of Next to Normal.

But even if you generally prefer plays, this is a musical well-worth seeing.

And even in far more sizable spaces with larger bands, grander scenery and much longer runs, you would be fortunate to see it enacted as good as it has been within my hometown.

Next to Normal, in the neighborhood of magnificent.