Monday, May 25, 2015

Admirable 'Shining Lives' Chronicles Toxic History, Tunefully, at Northlight -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Shining Lives
a world premiere musical
Northlight Theatre, Skokie, IL
Thru June 14

Cursory consideration might suggest most musicals are upbeat, perhaps even trifling, affairs, but several of the greatest works of musical theater ever created involve rather tragic circumstances: Cabaret, West Side Story, Fiddler on the Roof, Les Misérables, Carousel, Evita, Rent and more.

So although it might sound a bit odd to note a new musical that chronicles a terrible true story about women who contracted terminal illnesses from the radium used in painting numbers on watches and clocks, it is admirable if not altogether extraordinary that writer/lyricist/director Jessica Thebus, composers Andre Pluess & Amanda Dehnert and an excellent cast have turned Shining Lives into a touching and tuneful chamber musical to close out Northlight Theatre's 40th season.

Back in the 1920s, Radium Dial Company of Ottawa, IL, boasted about the luminescent shine radium-based paint brought to watches and clocks, including a brand called Westclox.

If the world premiere musical is to be believed--Thebus adapted it from the play These Shining Lives by Melanie Marnich--the predominantly female factory workforce at Radium Dial was comparatively well-paid, gratified by their still relatively-rare employment (and resulting empowerment), proud of their handiwork and cherishing of the camaraderie with their co-workers.

Unfortunately--and the mostly-engaging musical would be better served by digging deeper into questions of corporate complicity--several of the workers would die prematurely as a result of radium poisoning while company doctors and execs dismissed or downplayed any correlation between the work being performed, crippling pain and deadly diseases.

Given what I've just shared, including where the show falls a bit short, one could likely imagine what takes place on stage, beginning with a young married woman named Catherine Donahue (played by Johanna McKenzie Miller) getting a job at Radium Dial.

Accompanied by quality songs whose titles are not provided in the program, Catherine faces skepticism from her husband Tom (Alex Goodrich) and meets, with varying degrees of initial acceptance, a trio of co-workers who demonstrate how to dab the paintbrush on one's lips, dip it into the radium powder and delicately paint the timepiece numbers.

With few ominous overtones beyond the historical information provided in the program, the first half of the 90-minute one-act show largely focuses on the friendship and sense of freedom enjoyed by the quartet of colleagues, all perfectly cast under Thebus' direction.

As the years tick by from 1921 to 1929, the kinship grows among the initially dubious Catherine--well-sung and believably embodied by Miller--and the brash Charlotte (Bri Sudia), apprehensive Frances (Jess Godwin) and always-ready-with-a-hokey-joke Pearl (Tiffany Topol).

With songs presumably called "Lip, Dip, Paint," "Things That Shine" and "Flying Away"--or something akin--it's pleasurable seeing the interaction among the four nicely-drawn characters, leading up to something of a liberation-from-expectation scene as the women enjoy a "perfect" day at the beach.

It is only then that Shining Lives takes the sharp turn audience members--at least those who read the background material--know is coming, as the women start noticing odd ailments, are told by the company doctor just to take aspirin, get fired, become sicker, take legal action and eventually lose their lives.

Pluess and Dehnert's pleasant songs are played onstage by a single pianist, Chuck Larkin, occasionally accompanied by male cast members (Goodrich, Erik Hellman and Matt Mueller) on acoustic guitar.

As such, Shining Lives is a chamber musical, not a large scale production that compares sonically or visually to the other tragic musical tales noted at top.

That said, I feel Cabaret is one of the best musicals ever written due to the way the foreboding sense of gloom, in light of the impending rise of the Nazis, is always present. As lively showtunes are performed with gusto, there is always a seething anger underneath.

Though Shining Lives is never less than entertaining while being poignant, touching and ultimately tragic, if anything it is a bit too pleasant, for way too long.

As with all of her vocals, Miller does an excellent job on a late-show song of dogged defiance, perhaps titled "Quiet," and the executives of Radium Dial--distilled into a single manager-type played by Matt Mueller, who oddly also enacts the women's lawyer, Leonard Grossman--are eventually villainized to a degree, but sheer outrage and indignation are never quite pronounced enough, the accusations far short of acutely pointed.

As shared in Northlight's background material, in real-life Donahue eventually won her case against Radium Dial, but only after her death and that of several other co-workers, and following years of vilification by the company, community and press.

So those of us who have tired of the "rich and powerful crushing the common folk" storyline--past, present and future--certainly couldn't be blamed for exiting Shining Lives with a sense that nothing much has changed.

Still, the courage and conviction of women like Catherine Donahue and her colleagues at Radium Dial did prompt changes in workplace safety laws.

That is admirable, and the worthwhile musical properly applauds their sacrifice and gumption, while celebrating not only camaraderie but commiseration and conviction.

Yet as all too often seems to happen, Thebus' narrative never really takes the culprits to task; who in the company knew the dangers of radium, and when, and how & why the repercussions were dismissed and then covered up, is left all too shadowy.

Which should be taken as a criticism, but not condemnation, of a new musical I admired, enjoyed and recommend to those looking for something fresh offering important historical perspective.

Powered by excellent performances, most of Shining Lives is rather pleasurable.

Perhaps even at some times when it should engender true rage, rather than more mutedly rueful chagrin.

For it's not only the noble that merit the shining of a light.

Even in a musical.

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