Monday, March 16, 2015

This Much is True: Dear John Hughes is Good, Fun...For What It Is -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Dear John Hughes
Broadway Playhouse, Chicago
Run Ended

To say that the John Hughes movies of the 1980s hit close to home for me is more accurate geographically than emotionally or artistically.

Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink, Weird Science, Some Kind of Wonderful, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Uncle Buck, Home Alone and other films written and/or directed by Hughes--who moved to Northbrook in his early teens and attended Glenbrook North High School--were filmed within 20 minutes of my home in Skokie...or at least based nearby (as in the case of Pretty in Pink, which was filmed in L.A.).

I don't recall knowing all this at the time, but the house that served as the family home in Sixteen Candles is in Evanston, about 3 minutes from where I grew up, some interior scenes were filmed at Niles North High School while I was a student there and much else of that movie was filmed at Niles East, another, but by-then-closed Skokie high school. 

Despite this, I only saw a few of the aforementioned films upon their release, and none any more than a few times each--at most--in the years since. And even with a rather vast DVD collection, I own none of these movies. (The only John Hughes movie I do own is Career Opportunities, decidedly more because Jennifer Connelly starred in it than because he wrote it.)

This said, I have no aversion to Hughes' teen comedies and appreciate their--and his--place in movie history ...and the '80s zeitgeist. 

So with the added specter of Evan Rachel Wood being added to the cast--replacing Rumer Willis--for Week 2 of For The Record: Dear John Hughes' run at the Broadway Playhouse, my friend Paolo and I decided to check out the show despite it not being part of our Broadway in Chicago subscription series. (The show has now left town.)

I understood going in that Dear John Hughes is not a book musical with a narrative thread throughout, but rather a collection of songs that featured prominently in Hughes' films, accompanied in many cases by iconic movie dialogue being acted out onstage.

Though never designed to delight me as much as a first-rate original musical likely would, given the recent proliferation of disappointing stage musicals based on popular movies and/or featuring famous songs with flimsy books, I applaud Dear John Hughes for being a straightforward, well-done, crowd-pleasing affair--especially to the far more avid Hughes acolytes--rather than some misguided attempt in the vein of First Wives Club, Ghost, American Idiot or We Will Rock You.  

I thought the production values and singing--including by Wood--were first rate, and while not grand theater, it doesn't aim to be. In fact, in Los Angeles Dear John Hughes (and similar For the Record nostalgic songfests highlighting a famed director for whom music is integral: Martin Scorsese, Baz Luhrmann, Quentin Tarantino) is performed in a West Hollywood bar, with actors intermingling with patrons.

However, given how the show includes bits of dialogue, acted out largely (though a tad loosely) in costume and character, and features five thematic "chapters"--The Princess & The Athlete, A Criminal & A Basket Case, The Geek, Prom, Detention--Dear John Hughes also isn't simply analogous to a tribute concert or musical revue.

Whatever the hybrid, the show makes for a fun evening of entertainment--particularly to those of us who remember the 80s even if not all the movies--that hints at the possibility of becoming something much more artistically holistic and substantive.

Per the first three chapters I just mentioned, and the last one, DJH uses The Breakfast Club characters and scenario as its thematic core, but--especially to those of us fuzzy on the film details--illustrates how the three Molly Ringwald movies (Sixteen Candles, Pretty in Pink, Breakfast Club) and Some Kind of Wonderful revolve around many of the same tropes.

Popularity, geekiness, wealth or lack thereof, misfits, outcasts, friendships, crushes, romances, hurt feelings, insecurities, self-esteem issues, bullying, personal style, etc., don't really need a defined point of reference to resonate, and I liked how Olivia Harris embodied The Princess (a.k.a. Ringwald) scenes, even if at the end I asked Paolo if "Andie and Blane" were in Sixteen Candles or Pretty in Pink.

He replied the former, but was quickly corrected by a better-versed fan nearby. (For the record, I had recently watched The Breakfast Club upon the 30th anniversary of its Feb. 1985 release, and since seeing Dear John Hughes last Thursday have viewed Sixteen Candles, Pretty in Pink and Some Kind of Wonderful. I'm also pretty familiar with Ferris Bueller, and to a lesser degree, Weird Science, the two other films that factor into the show.)

The crowd seemed to have fun--we were allowed to take photos and encouraged to shout out our favorite movie lines; I thought the cast also should've insisted we stand and dance at certain parts--and as the Chicago run is over, my quibbles are largely moot.

But why let that stop me?

Guessing that some song selections and omissions had as much to do with rights clearances as anything else, some still seemed a bit odd--even more so now that I've watched the films--such as David Bowie's "Changes" and "Young Americans." (The latter is heard in Sixteen Candles, but not in a high-profile manner; I don't know where "Changes" was used by Hughes.)

I certainly wouldn't have minded if the show honored Hughes by reaching beyond the six key teen angst films for say, Tone Loc's Wild Thing, used wonderfully in Uncle Buck (also partially shot in Skokie).

And while Wood was delightful--fitting into the ensemble cast without any Hollywood star aura--it seemed like she was channeling Mary Stuart Masterson in Some Kind of Wonderful much more so than Ally Sheedy's Breakfast Club "Basket Case," as whom she is technically cast.

This last note is especially a trifle, as everyone rotated through various roles, but it gets at why I think Dear John Hughes--with some shrewd writing--could be turned into something considerably better than what it is.

I was reminded of Snapshots, a show that pays tribute to Broadway composer Stephen Schwartz (Wicked, Pippen, Godspell) by using existing songs from his catalog to tell a new story, making for something more artistically rewarding than most typical revues. (Across the Universe, a Julie Taylor film that weaves Beatles songs into a story and, coincidentally, also stars Evan Rachel Wood, likewise sprang to mind.)

Given the similarity between characters and situations in various Hughes films, it's not inconceivable skilled creatives could weave the songs, and even the iconic scenes, into a cohesive new--yet still joyfully nostalgic--stage-based narrative. (It's possible Hughes' estate would have to grant different permissions for something like this; Paolo and I are both surprised The Breakfast Club has yet to be turned into a Broadway musical and would be happy to produce one.)

Still, for whatever it isn't, I'm glad I saw Dear John Hughes for what it is.

The entire cast was excellent,
including not only Wood, Harris, Payson Lewis, Michael Thomas Grant and James Byous as the five Breakfast Clubbers plus characters such as Ferris, Cameron, Watts, Duckie and the Weird Science guys, but also a pair of host-duty singers, Chicago natives Patrick Mulvey and Jackie Seiden.

Mulvey did a nifty job addressing the crowd and personifying authority figures such as Mr. Vernon from The Breakfast Club and the Principal from Ferris Bueller, while Seiden sang terrifically and made for a sexy ersatz Kelly LeBrock (Weird Science) among other characterizations.

Many of the songs those with even minor Hughes devotion might assume to be included, were. And while I can be a stickler when it comes to cover versions, "Pretty in Pink" (The Psychedelic Furs), "True" (Spandau Ballet), "Twist and Shout" (The Beatles), "If You Were Here" (The Thompson Twins) and "If You Leave" (OMD) were all given rather satisfying renditions within a 25+ deep songlist.

Simple Minds' "Don't You (Forget About Me)" from The Breakfast Club was played, rousingly, both at the beginning and end. While the song will likely continue to have more staying power for me than this 2-hour melange of movies, music and theater, Dear John Hughes is a nice love letter to the late filmmaker who helped define not only the 80s, but the high school experience in a far more universal and eternal manner.

While I can't describe For the Record: Dear John Hughes as being "Like, totally awesome"--a somewhat askew 80s' reference--I also can't knock it as being less than true to its intent. Or to the late music-punctuating pop-film auteur to whom it pays reverent homage.

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