Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Tempestuous Telemarketing: 'Spirits to Enforce' Uses Superheroes to Sell Theater, but Doesn't Fully Soar -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Spirits to Enforce
a play by Mickie Maher
directed by Will Quam
Passage Theater
at Berry Methodist Church, Chicago
Thru November 17
@@@

I can't say I loved Spirits to Enforce and--admittedly not well-versed in Shakespeare's The Tempest, which weaves through it--perhaps didn't completely understand it.

But I really liked seeing it.

And from what I could grasp, I think that's much of the point being made, including in a life imitates art (or vice-versa) sort of way.

Within the play, 12 people are onstage the whole time, sitting at one long table being used as a phone bank.

We soon learn that the dozen, generally young and of various races and ethnicities, are superheroes--collectively known as the Fathomtown Enforcers--or at least individuals blessed with superhuman traits.

Having recently defeated a nemesis, the Enforcers are holed up in an underwater submarine, charged with a seemingly much more mundane task, but one proving quite challenging.

They--including Ariel (played by Peter Andersen), the Ocean (Mikey Gray), the Page (Jin Park) and the Untangler (Preston Choi)--are making calls to raise funds and sell tickets for a production of The Tempest that they are staging and starring within.

Pretty much the entirety of the 95-minute one-act consists of one-sided telephone conversations, often overlapping.

The conceit--by playwright Mickie Maher, who wrote Spirits to Enforce in 2003--is certainly unique, and though it tends to drag in spots and extends a bit long, the script provides considerable humor and poignancy.

Despite presumably saving the lives of those answering the calls, the heroes--like presumably all telemarketers--are met with disinterest, scorn and worse, even after revealing their supernatural talents.

The characters each employ three names--given/hero/Tempest role, such as Randall/The Tune/Ferdinand (Nick Barnes), who self-consciously flirts with Susan/Memory Lass/Miranda (Morgan Burkey)--and I imagine there is more here for those who well-know The Tempest to appreciate than I picked up on.

But I came to feel for the heroes' unabashed love of theater, their discouragement, occasional despair and resiliency, with nice pluck shown in a speech by the Intoxicator (Jasmine Manuel) and many funny lines by the Snow Heavy Branch (Carey Morton). (Seen on the day Stan Lee died, an ad lib in tribute would have been welcome.)

I gleaned something of a "we should all feel like superheroes" vibe, or one of "even superheroes feel like shite sometimes," and all the actors do nice work. Those not yet mentioned include Chesa Greene (the Silhouette), Julianne Lang (the Bad Map), Tyler Anthony Smith (Frangrance Fellow) and Danny Turek (the Pleaser).

So I found Spirits to Enforce appealing if a good bit shy of sensational.

Yet in a week when I will also take in a return visit to Hamilton and attend opening night premieres of Twelfth Night and Mansfield Park--at Writers and Northlight theaters, respectively--I acutely relished a rare Monday night curtain of a little-known work being enthusiastically performed by talented young actors within a new troupe (Passage Theater) in the basement of a nondescript Lincoln Square church.

I appreciated Maher's advocating in an interview within the show program that audiences
experience Spirits to Enforce "as a piece of music," rather than a work with a singular, overarching message to derive.

This helped me like it in the moment more than I might have otherwise.

And whether within the play or beyond it, the idea that theater is something to be endeavored, supported, loved and grateful for is something I wholeheartedly applaud.

Even when I may not think it super, I still find it rather heroic. 

Monday, November 12, 2018

Ours Go to 11: Volume 33, My Favorite War Movies

For these purposes, I am not considering films principally about the Holocaust, documentaries, Casablanca or The Great Dictator.

1. The Deer Hunter
2. Paths of Glory
3. The Hurt Locker
4. Ballad of a Soldier
(Russian)
5. Saving Private Ryan
6. Stalag 17
7. Bridge on the River Kwai
8. The Great Escape
9. The Burmese Harp
(Japanese) 
10. Dunkirk
11. M*A*S*H



Others meriting mention


Apocalypse Now
Coming Hme
Platoon
Full Metal Jacket
Patton
Born on the Fourth of July
All Quiet on the Western Front

Glory
Lebanon
Zero Dark Forty
The Battle of Algiers

Friday, November 09, 2018

Brothers Grim: At AstonRep, Martin McDonagh's 'Lonesome West' Conveys Much Through Relative Ugliness -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Lonesome West
by Martin McDonagh
directed by Dana Anderson
AstonRep Theatre Co.
at The Raven Theatre Complex, Chicago
Thru November 18
@@@@

It’s certainly logical that Irish works of the late 20th century—especially those created before 1998’s Good Friday Agreement brought lasting peace—would focus on “The Troubles,” even if indirectly.

The decades-long conflict in and over Northern Ireland, between British-backed Protestants (and entities representing their interests) and Catholics supporting the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and other factions was brutal, bloody and often deadly.

I very much like the films of Irish director Jim Sheridan, including 1993’s In the Name of the Father—about the trial and imprisonment of those wrongly implicated in a 1974 IRA pub bombing in Guildford, England—and even more so, 1997’s The Boxer, likewise starring Daniel Day-Lewis.

Illustrating life in Belfast amid the Troubles, the latter film highlights how certain people will resist peace purely out of self-interest, for fear of such progress rendering them personally obsolete.

Photo credit on all: Emily Schwartz
Though Martin McDonagh’s plays often seem like domestic black comedies, with only his The Lieutenant of Inishmore overtly concerning the Troubles, I believe 1997’s The Lonesome West—which I saw Thursday night in a fine production by AstonRep after having seen in it at The Gift in 2010—is also a commentary on the perpetual violence long witnessed in Ireland.

And while The Boxer suggests that some may manipulate tempestuous situations due to ulterior motives, my take on the endless fighting between brothers Coleman and Valene in The Lonesome West is that violent proclivities can be even more feral than deliberate, and may supply one’s only real outlet amid an otherwise languid and lonely existence.

Seeing the play the day news broke about another massacre in America at the hands of a seemingly unhinged lone gunman--this time in Thousand Oaks, CA--I couldn't help but think that long after the Troubles have largely ended, McDonagh's observations about mankind remain all too resonant.

And downright disturbing, even if the play's entertainment value on the surface mitigates some of the grim undercurrents.

It might be hard to believe for patrons not well-versed in McDonagh, but The Lonesome West isn't nearly as darkly embittered as The Beauty Queen of Leenane nor as grisly as The Lieutenant of Inishmore.

I also don't think it's as brilliant as the latter play, or McDonagh's The Pillowman and The Cripple of Inishmaan for that matter. (I also love two of his movies: In Bruges and last year's Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.)

But under the direction of Dana Anderson, AstonRep's is a fine rendition of an engaging play at a very reasonable price point.

Robert Tobin--whose work onstage I regularly enjoy--and Dylan Barr play Coleman and Valene, respectively.

As the play opens, Father Welsh (frequently called Father Walsh and played nicely by Marc Tacderas) has joined the brothers at their ramshackle home in the Western Ireland town of Leenane.

That same day, Coleman and Valene buried their father, who let's just say didn't die of natural causes.

Issues regarding the dad's death and how he has provided for the boys forms some of the brotherly acrimony, but there is little that doesn't, from the brand of potato chips Valene has purchased to a collection of figurines he keeps above what may be the most discussed--and ultimately abused--stove in theatrical history.

Both the brothers and even Father Welsh are steadfast drinkers, and their supply of poteen is also a frequent matter of dissension.

The alcohol is supplied by an enterprising young woman named Girleen (Phoebe Moore), who rounds out the four-person cast.

Most of The Lonesome West--a 95-minute one-act--centers around the verbal and physical battles between Coleman and Valene, but other than noting that Irish brogues are believably employed throughout, I think I can leave any other narrative details for you to discover, including some shocking revelations as things really erupt.

But I will note that some of the brutality is offset not only by McDonagh's sly humor--with dialogue that can shift from the macabre to the mundane in the same sentence--but by the put-upon priest who wonders "If it's your own brother you can't get on with, how can we ever hope for peace in the world?" (Basically the gist of the entire play.)

There is also a warm tenderness between the priest and Girleen, whose scene together provides a humane respite from the over-the-top savagery.

You may not like what it has to say about the human condition and may feel a bit squeamish at times, but for rather low ticket prices--through AstonRep and even less through HotTix--The Lonesome West makes for a pretty fecking powerful night of theater.

At face value and well-beyond.



Tuesday, November 06, 2018

"The Keeper of the Flame": Promoting TeachRock, Little Steven & the Disciples of Soul Put on a Rock 'n Roll Clinic -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Little Steven & the Disciples of Soul
Copernicus Center, Chicago
November 5, 2018
@@@@@

Though I've long been a fan, it's hard to say for exactly what Steven Van Zandt--a.k.a. Little Steven or going back even further, Miami Steve--is best-known.

He's a long-standing guitarist in Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band, was an instrumental producer and/or arranger on some of the Boss' best songs & albums and is possibly Springsteen's closest friend.

He co-starred as Silvio Dante on The Sopranos, one the most acclaimed TV shows ever, and led a Netflix series of his own, Lilyhammer.

In the mid-'80s, he wrote "Sun City" to protest the apartheid regime in South Africa and led the Artists Against Apartheid recording of it, the accompanying video and activist movement that I perceive as having great effect.

With Little Steven's Underground Garage radio program and subsequent channel on SiriusXM, he has become a radio mogul, he runs his own Wicked Cool record label (I love the album Pictures by the Len Price 3) and is an avid and quite active champion for the multifaceted importance of rock 'n roll.

Toward this end, he has spearheaded the Rock and Roll Forever Foundation and the TeachRock initiative, which creates K-12 national curriculum.

He's notably worked with other musical artists--particularly Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes--helped get the Rascals to reunite & tour as a theatrical presentation and has written numerous songs for himself (including the strident "I Am a Patriot," covered by Jackson Browne and Pearl Jam, among others).

And when time and opportunity allow, Little Steven is a bandleader, frontman and singer who tours with the Disciples of Soul.

Monday night, SVZ and 13 Disciples thoroughly rocked Chicago's grand Copernicus Center, which houses the auditorium of the old Gateway movie theater.

I was there for the music--which thoroughly delighted--but was happy to support the educational mission of the Soulfire TeachRock Tour. (Soulfire being the title of Little Steven's 2017 album.)

You can learn much more through TeachRock.org, but the initiative seems to comprise a vast collection of lesson plans aimed at ensuring the history of popular music is part of the K-12 curriculum at schools across the country and around the world.

Via this blog and beyond, I have frequently championed--directly and inferentially--the numerous benefits of cultural literacy, and never underestimate the emotional and therapeutic benefit rock 'n roll has had on my life.

So while TeachRock seemingly extends far beyond making kids today aware of the importance of the Beatles, I think they merit a place in classrooms every bit as much as Shakespeare, Dickens and trigonometry.

I am not a teacher, but am pleased to see that a couple hundred educators took part in a TeachRock workshop with Little Steven prior to the concert at the Copernicus Center. (Teachers enjoy free concert admission throughout the tour.)

And while he and his vast band proceeded to put on a clinic regarding rock 'n roll influences and the art of live performance, it was by no means didactic.

This wasn't a lecture, it was a 2-1/2-hour concert that rocked hard.

Virtually all of the Soulfire album was represented, with 11 of its 12 songs comprising nearly half those played on Monday, but even these tunes represented a rather robust mix.

Van Zandt had his hand in writing most of the songs, either solo or in collaboration, but has spread them around long before recording his  own versions.

"Some Things Just Don't Change," "Love on the Wrong Side of Town" (written with Springsteen) and "I Don't Want to Go Home"  were all recorded by Southside Johnny--whose nickname, Stevie shared, derived from Chicago's South Side--while "Standing in the Line of Fire" was a shelved tune initially intended for Gary "U.S." Bonds that also pays homage to Spaghetti Western composer Ennio Morricone.

"Ride the Night Away" is a song Van Zandt co-wrote with Steve Jordan that Australian rocker Jimmy Barnes recorded in 1985. I'm only familiar with Barnes due to his guest appearance on a Springsteen tour of Australia in 2013 (which SVZ incidentally had to skip due to filming commitments).

A couple of straight covers included "Blues is My Business"--made famous by Etta James--and James Brown's "Down and Out in New York City," with an extended horn jam that reminded me of Springsteen's live versions of "Kitty's Back."

As of this writing, a setlist for Little Steven & the Disciples of Soul at Copernicus Center in Chicago doesn't appear to be posted to Setlist.fm, but I think what was played matches this Green Bay setlist, except that we got a cover of Them's "Gloria" as a first encore with Jim Sohns of Chicago's classic Shadows of Knight band.

With Stevie keeping his stage patter largely non-political but noting Election Day, I relished a reggae-tinged "I Am a Patriot"--on which three women backing singers sounded great--but with the vast band anchored by drummer Rick Mercurio and featuring a 5-piece horn section, everything sounded great. (See the list of band members here.)

There were many selections I didn't knowingly know or recall, but "Lyin' in a Bed of Fire," "Angel Eyes," "Under the Gun," "I Saw the Light," "Salvation," "Bitter Fruit" and the closing "Out of the Darkness" all packed quite a wallop and proved that while no one will mistake his vocal talents for Freddie Mercury, Little Steven sings pretty darn well for a famous sideman, even as he'll turn 68 this month.

And even if his songwriting isn't quite Springsteenian, it's pretty damn boss.

WXRT morning DJ Lin Brehmer introduced Little Steven by aptly calling him "the keeper of the flame," and especially with a $25 ticket in a cool venue, I would have happily applauded just for all his past and off-stage exploits.

But he and his band--and given all the players, it's hard to imagine SVZ realizing much profit on this tour--delivered 150 minutes of music that was never less than thrilling.

This was my 42nd time seeing Little Steven onstage, though my first without him being alongside Springsteen.

I'm grateful to have had the opportunity, and without needing to compare this show to E Street Band extravaganzas--which are my favorite things ever--I can even better appreciate why & how Steve contributes mightily to Bruce's longstanding greatness.

Like Springsteen, Van Zandt not only clearly loves to perform, he understands the tremendous, holistic, soul-replenishing power of rock 'n roll.

As a fan, so do I, and rarely has having that lesson reiterated been any more fun. 

Monday, November 05, 2018

Diva-licious! Black Ensemble Theater's 'Women of Soul' Revue Richly Pays Tuneful Tribute -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Women of Soul
with a Tribute to Aretha Franklin
Written & directed by Daryl D. Brooks
Black Ensemble Theater, Chicago 
Thru January 13, 2019
@@@@

Before a note was sung in Black Ensemble Theater's Women of Soul revue--which I saw on Saturday afternoon--two important points were made.

One, unless we planned to stay in our seats for months, there was no way every worthwhile female vocalist could be celebrated within the show.

And second, the focus would be on women who clearly had soul, meaning parameters pertaining to the soul music genre would not strictly be heeded.

These comments essentially eliminated any critical complaints one could conceivably have had about a show that was impressively entertaining for more than two hours.

Several wonderful artists and songs were well-represented by a cast of nine terrific female vocalists, plus Dwight Neal who embodied a variety of men, most notably Rick James in dueting on a song ("Fire and Desire") with Teena Marie, played by Hannah Efsits.

I don't think I can entirely accurately cite which women sang which songs in the guise of which legends, but discovering that yourself will be much of the fun.

And the audience was clearly having a fantastic time as each tune was delivered with panache.

So I will simply share that Dionne Warwick, Tina Turner, Janis Joplin, Big Mama Thornton, Mahalia Jackson, Diana Ross, Donna Summer and Whitney Houston were among those featured, with a group tribute to the recently passed Aretha Franklin.

And there are just as many others deservedly showcased, including a number of more contemporary artists.

One of these, though sadly already passed, is a singer whose name and songs I didn't previously know--Vesta Williams--and with a swell rendition of her "Congratulations," I was happy for the introduction.

The show runs through the spotlighted artists in roughly chronological order, with only a few getting more than a line or two of biographical background.

But far more than narrative heft, the BET's forte is entertainment value, and in that regard, Women of Soul is particularly strong.

Besides those already named, the cast includes Rhonda Preston, Cynthia F. Carter, Ariel Williams, Colleen Perry, Jayla Williams Craig, Jerica Exum, Jessica Seals and Robin DaSilva, with all demonstrably good.

Especially given the great loss of the Queen of Soul, this show feels quite timely, and the Aretha tribute is properly moving.

Written and directed by Daryl D. Brooks, Women of Soul runs into early 2019, and is well worth the time--and effusive delight, per Saturday's matinee crowd--of those who appreciate soulful women, both of a quite famous ilk and the superb singers who salute them onstage. 

Friday, November 02, 2018

Still Goin' Strong: With Betty Buckley in the Lead Role, 'Hello, Dolly!' is Looking, Sounding Swell -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Hello, Dolly!
National tour starring Betty Buckley
Oriental Theatre, Chicago
Thru November 17
@@@@@

To those not well versed in Broadway history--yet old enough to recall late-1970s television--Betty Buckley is probably best-known for playing Abby, the stepmom in Eight is Enough for the last four of its five seasons (following the death of Diana Hyland, the original mom in the series).

But Buckley, now 71, has been a genuine Broadway musical star well before and after her most notable of many TV credits.

In 1969, playing Martha Jefferson, she was part of the original Broadway cast of 1776 (incidentally alongside William Daniels and Ken Howard, who would also become significant TV stars).

And in 1983--two years after Eight is Enough ended--Buckley played Grizabella in the original Broadway production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's smash hit, Cats. Notably belting out the show's best-known song, "Memory," she earned a Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical.

She was also Tony nominated for the short-lived 1997 musical, Triumph of Love.

Photo credit on all: Julieta Cervantes
So while she is following in some rather remarkable footsteps--not only historically in the titular role of Hello, Dolly! (Carol Channing, Mary Martin, Pearl Bailey, Barbra Streisand in the film) but touring in a production that saw Bette Midler and then Bernadette Peters star on Broadway--it's not like Buckley doesn't bring a tremendous pedigree.

And true chops.

Though I grew up knowing the movie rather well, I never saw a stage version of Hello, Dolly! until a 2010 production by Evanston's Light Opera Works (now known as Music Theater Works), which I found solid but not quite sublime.

My guess is that Bette Midler would've been a delight to see on Broadway, likely bringing cheeky comedic glee that Buckley doesn't. Midler won a Tony Award for the role as the show itself earned Best Revival of a Musical.

But Buckley is a pretty strong name to take the show on the road, and strictly at face value--without comparison to Midler, Streisand or anyone else--she's terrific.

The recent Broadway run saw David Hyde Pierce initially--and Victor Garber subsequently--playing Horace Vandergelder, the Yonkers merchant seeking Dolly Levi's matchmaking assistance.

Here too, I can imagine both doing something more unique than Lewis J. Stadlen, who hews pretty close to the Walter Matthau archetype from the film.

But like Buckley, Stadlen's an old pro; his Broadway database (IBDB.com) entry is quite robust and I had seen him play Max Bialystock on an early Producers tour.

So while I didn't see anything particularly revisionist in the production directed by Jerry Zaks, and neither of the two leads brought noted personalities to the fore as others may have, a vibrantly staged, wonderfully sung and delightfully performed Hello, Dolly! is still a great joy to behold.

With its late turn-of-the-20th century storyline taken from Thornton Wilder's play The Matchmaker--itself derived from earlier works--which I saw in 2016 at Chicago's Goodman Theatre and found myself sorely missing the music, Hello, Dolly! features one of the best musical theater scores ever written.

Premiering on Broadway in 1964 to huge success, the show's music and lyrics were written by Jerry Herman, now 87 and also responsible for Mame and La Cage aux Folles.

Even the Overture is a sheer delight, and within a half-hour or so come a lively ensemble number, the Dolly-sung "I Put My Hand In"--which Buckley handles delectably--Stradlen and a bunch of men doing "It Takes a Woman," and the absolutely mirthful, "Put on Your Sunday Clothes," led by Horace's employees Cornelius (Nic Rouleau, a Book of Mormon leading man vet) and Barnaby (Jess LeProtto, who proves to be a remarkable dancer).

Beyond the music, which continues to be great throughout--"Dancing," "Before the Parade Passes By," "Elegance," the title song, "It Only Takes a Moment," "So Long Dearie" are a few more of the many highlights--the production values are superb, supposedly replicating those of the Broadway revival.

The scenery and especially the costumes created by Santo Loquasto are fantastic, and the choreography by Warren Carlyle--with the Playbill substantially noting original director/choreographer Gower Champion--is frequently blissful.

This is especially true when Dolly is welcomed to the posh Harmonium Gardens restaurant by several singing & dancing waiters led by Rudolph (Wally Dunn).

Also meriting mention are Analisa Leaming and Kristen Hahn as New York hat shop owner Irene Molloy and her employee Minnie Fay, who catch the attention of Cornelius and Barnaby.

I realize I'm not really telling the story in a clear chronology, but either you already know it, you'll discover it soon enough or you don't really care.

Essentially Dolly is a widowed matchmaker hired by the curmudgeonly Horace, and via various machinations all the key players make their way from Yonkers to New York where shenanigans and deceptions continue.

The story is fun, but it's really the music that makes Hello, Dolly! sensational.

And with fine stars and a wonderfully large ensemble, it's rendered about as well as one could want, at least for a touring production sans the Divine Miss M.

At the resplendent Oriental Theater, Hello, Dolly! plays eight times per week (until Nov. 17), which should be more than enough to catch the fantastic Betty Buckley.

Ours Go to 11: Volume 32, Fancy Schmancy Restaurants

Last night I enjoyed a Pre-Theater Dinner at Everest, long one of Chicago's most acclaimed restaurants.

I found it to be terrific but not quite as mind-blowing as some similar high-end dining explorations.

So I've decided to throw together this list of my favorite forays into gourmet gastronomy.

Even more so than most of my lists, this one should be taken with a grain of salt (at risk of irking the chefs).

Some restaurants were visited long ago; others within the past few months.

At some I had full pre fixe menu meals, at others perhaps just a value-priced lunch or pre-theater meal.

And I'm not suggesting that this list represents my favorite meals of all time. I'm not considering steakhouses, BBQ joints, pizzerias, hot dog stands and other restaurants I really love.

Unscientifically and imperfectly, these are my favorite dining experiences at restaurants that are or have been on the The World's Best Restaurants lists, have earned 5 diamonds from AAA or that I believe to be of that ilk. (Some restaurants listed may not remain open or so highly regarded.)

1. Picasso - Las Vegas
2. Alinea - Chicago
3. Maido - Lima, Peru
4. Rockpool - Sydney, Australia
5. Le Bernadin - New York
6. Charlie Trotter's - Chicago
7. Astrid y Gaston - Lima, Peru
8. Four Seasons - New York
9. Pujol - Mexico City
10. Le Cirque - New York
11. Jean-Georges - New York

Others meriting mention

Aureole - New York
Nobu - New York
Emeril's - New Orleans
Blackbird - Chicago
Everest - Chicago
Cosme - New York
Arun's - Chicago
Antoine's - New Orleans

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

'Day' in the Life: Dael Orlandersmith's 'Lady in Denmark' Nicely Explores Happiness, Grief and a Brush With Greatness -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Lady in Denmark
by Dael Orlandersmith
directed by Chay Yew
Goodman Theatre, Chicago
Thru November 18
@@@@

Over the past few years, I've valued becoming acquainted with the work of the female, African-American playwright, Dael Orlandersmith.

Last year at Evanston's Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre, I saw Yellowman, for which Orlandersmith was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2002. The 2-character play explores how variances in skin shade can affect the experiences of black people.

And earlier this year, within the Goodman's Owen Theatre--where I also saw Lady in Denmark on Monday night--I saw Orlandersmith herself perform Until the Flood, born from her interviews with residents and authorities of Ferguson, Missouri regarding the killing of Michael Brown by a white police officer, and subsequent protests and riots.

I found it to be quite profound and powerful.

Nicely showcasing her versatility, Lady in Denmark is a one-woman play in which Orlandersmith doesn't perform. Rather--in the Goodman's world premiere production directed by Chay Yew--Linda Gehringer stars as Helene, a Chicago woman in her 70s who recalls her youth in her native Denmark among other poignant memories.

Per several articles in the Goodman show program, the writer's jumping off point for Lady in Denmark was a mention in Lady Sings the Blues--the autobiography of legendary singer Billie Holiday, known as Lady Day--of an encounter with a Danish doctor and his 12-year-old daughter at the Copenhagen airport.

This was on Holiday's 1954 European tour--five years before she would pass at 44--and in noting that she was suffering from a cold, the doctor invited her to his home for care and rest...and the superstar accepted.

Orlandersmith tried to ascertain exactly who the 12 year old girl was, and if still alive, locate her, but was unable to. Thus, the character of Helene is fictional, albeit inspired by a real circumstance.

It’s an interesting conceit, and any highlighting of the remarkable Billie Holiday is always welcome in my world. 

Gehringer is excellent, and Lady in Denmark is a rather poignant and quite enjoyable piece. 


But while Helene tells of the airport encounter and hosting Billie in her home, which leads to a deep-seated lifelong love of Holiday’s music that helps “get me through,” there really is relatively little lore of Lady Day woven into the fictionalized memoir. 

Helene regularly has Holiday’s records on the turntable in her comfortable Andersonville home—the set design by Andrew Boyce is superb, especially given that the Owen is the Goodman’s smaller theater—but I would have loved to have heard more than a few song snippets (“Come Rain or Come Shine,” “God Bless This Child”) and learned a bit more about the singer, not that I haven’t elsewhere.

For meeting Holiday is far from the most momentous event just in Helene’s childhood, and in this I’m not even referencing World War II or the Nazis invading Denmark. 

I’ll leave specifics vague, but Helene tells of a horrific incident that happened when she was 14, with implications well-beyond a chance encounter with an American music star.

Helene seemingly did enjoy a long and happy marriage to a Dane named Lars, who we learn has died just a few weeks before she tells the 90-minute tale of her life. 

In fact, Helene is speaking--strictly to the audience, which seems normal and a bit strange at the same time, as it's not set up like she's talking to someone unseen inside her home, or even on speakerphone--after all the guests have left an 80th birthday party she has thrown in Lars' honor, not cancelling it even after his passing. 


Initially Helene talks about her two grandsons who were among the party guests; one who thinks she's hip because she fancies Billie Holiday's music, another who was accompanied by a particularly shallow and loathsome girlfriend who said all the wrong things. 

From there, she reaches back to her childhood recollections, including Denmark during the war, a somewhat older-than-her man named Bo, meeting Billie and eventually marrying Lars and moving to Chicago. 

All of it is warmly presented, but only parts particularly consequential and riveting. 

In 2018, Goodman has presented several one-person shows, including Orlandersmith's Until the Flood, Pamplona, in which Stacy Keach embodied Ernest Hemingway, and the recent We're Only Alive For a Short Amount of Time, a memoir written by and starring David Cale. 


All of these--including Lady in Denmark--have been worthwhile pieces of theater, while illustrating the writing, performing and directing talent necessary to hold an audience with just one person speaking the entire time. 

Orlandersmith, Gehringer and Yew make Helene's life interesting--and, despite the unique interaction with Billie Holiday,  universal--enough to warrant one's attendance and attention.

I just think Lady in Denmark needs to celebrate Holiday a bit more, and spice up or eliminate some of the duller patches.

It's really good but doesn't quite sing to the heavens.