Friday, February 15, 2019

Early Blues Infusion: Writers Theatre Strikes Chord With August Wilson's 'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom' -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
by August Wilson
directed by Ron OJ Parson
Writers Theatre, Glencoe, IL
Thru March 17
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At this point, I've seen several of August Wilson's 10 plays chronicling the African-American experience across the decades of the 20th century.

But when I first saw Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, Wilson's 1920s installment--written before he planned on doing a series of 10--I didn't really want to.

I certainly don't mean to imply that anyone forced, cajoled or convinced me in a way I regret.

It's just that on a trip to New York in March 2003, I had a desire--and even tickets--to see the hot new musicals at the time: Thoroughly Modern Millie and Urinetown.

But there happened to be a musicians' strike that shuttered every Broadway musical, including those two.

So at the TKTS booth in Times Square, I got myself tickets to see a revival of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom--it had originally opened on Broadway in 1984--starring Whoopi Goldberg and Charles S. Dutton.

Photo credit on all: Michael Brosilow
It also featured Carl Gordon, who I recalled playing Dutton's dad on the sitcom Roc, and Anthony Mackie, who's become something of a film & TV star.

As Ma Rainey was a singer known as the "Mother of the Blues," Ma Rainey's Black Bottom features a good bit of music played live onstage--which was permissible during the strike--but it isn't officially a musical.

So though it wasn't my first choice in March 2003 on Broadway, I was happy to see it--and I enjoyed it.

I can't say that I remember it thoroughly, so was glad to see it show up on the schedule at Writers Theatre in Glencoe, where I saw it Wednesday night.

And again enjoyed it, about on par with the rating I entered in my "Shows Seen Database" back in 2003.

At Writers, the always superb Felicia P. Fields makes for a fine, feisty and well-sung Ma Rainey, whose recording session establishes  the play's setting, context and structure.

As the show opens, the studio owner, Mr. Sturdyvant (Thomas J. Cox)--who also seems to serve as the record company profiting from Ma's success--is waiting for her to arrive.

Getting there first are Ma's manager, Irvin (Peter Moore, who I've seen in several shows at Steep Theatre, where he serves as Artistic Director), and then the members of her band.

Playing their instruments onstage, these included pianist Toledo (David Alan Anderson), bassist Slow Drag (A.C. Smith), trombonist Cutler (Alfred H. Wilson) and trumpeter Levee (Kelvin Roston, Jr.).

Levee is a bit younger than the others, and a good bit more wanting to rock the boat, musically and otherwise.

As played by the excellent Roston, he becomes the focal point of the play, even more than Ma, one of whose songs is "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom."

Ultimately, the play is rather charged, riveting and about much more than a pioneering blues woman.

The dichotomy between the men largely willing to respect authority--black or white--and Levee, who can be seen as ambitious, antagonistic, insubordinate and rightfully progressive all at the same time, is striking and rather allegorical.

And the character of Ma, who must battle the white power-brokers--even as she has the upper hand--but also demands strict obedience from her band members, adds to the power of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom and what one might take from it.

But as a night's entertainment, I found it too slow in reaching its boiling point, with almost the entire first act devoted to bantering among the band members (who often throw the n-word at each other, in a way that adds insight to the times).

Wilson was too gifted a writer for the rehearsal room repartee and ribaldry not to have considerable charm and even depth, but Act I was more fair than fantastic.

Act II is far better, dramatically, musically--as we get some full-fledged performances--and meaningfully.

So in full, I can recommend Ma Rainey's Black Bottom and--with Cutler's sing-song count-in to each song take stoking acute recollections--fondly appreciate the memories it stirred from my past.

It's a fine history lesson about a musical pioneer--"the blues gets me out of bed in the morning," she states at one point, imparting that art is life and not mere past-time--but ultimately concerning more widespread matters, with Roston's performance particularly powerful.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Entirely Resonant, Years Down the Road: 'How I Learned to Drive' Provides a Haunting Look at Adolescence and Abuse -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

How I Learned to Drive
a play by Paula Vogel
directed by Cody Estle
Raven Theatre, Chicago
Thru March 24
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Paula Vogel's powerful play, How I Learned to Drive, opened off Broadway in 1997 and won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama the following year.

Based on my first encounter with this work, presently at Chicago's erstwhile Raven Theater, it's easy to understand the acclimation.

The play, production--under the direction of Raven artistic director Cody Estle--and performances are all excellent.

And the contemporary resonance of How I Learned to Drive could hardly be more striking.

So this is certainly a recommendation that you avail yourself of Raven's reasonable pricing--or discounts on HotTix, Goldstar and TodayTix--and see this show.

But I think it best to keep this review rather brief, so as to let you attend without quite knowing too much of what unfolds.

I'll even be intentionally circumspect in the photos I include here, even though I was officially provided some that could divulge a good bit more.

As the play's difficult subject matter can--and really should--make some audience members uncomfortable, I feel I should note that How I Learned to Drive is not a glib recollection of driver's ed or the joys of teenage exploration.

Presented non-linearly across several episodes taking place mostly in the 1960s, the play centers around a young woman nicknamed Li'l Bit, well-played by Eliza Stoughton.

The other actors in the play represent Li'l Bit's relatives, including the always stellar Mark Ulrich as Uncle Peck, Kathryn Acosta as her mom/others, Katherine Bourne Taylor as her grandma/others and Julian Hester as her grandpa/others.

Avoiding specifics, let's just say that Li'l Bit faces a whole lot of ugliness, and even vileness, from her family members, some far worse than others.

There's clearly a reason Raven programmed this show in the wake of the #MeToo movement.

And that's where I think I'll leave it.

I didn't find it quite perfect, but How I Learned to Drive is superb.

Not to mention disquieting and haunting.

Which is why it is quite worth your time and attention.  

Monday, February 11, 2019

Leo to the Max: Paramount Theatre Produces a Terrific 'Producers' -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Producers
Paramount Theatre, Aurora, IL
Thru March 17
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When I first saw The Producers early in its pre-Broadway Chicago run in February 2001, I was already a fan of the musical theater genre.

Well-indoctrinated as a kid--I saw national tours of A Chorus Line, The Wiz and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas before I was 10--I resisted a bit in my teens, but made a point of seeing musicals on trips to New York and London in the '90s, as well as The Phantom in the Opera in Chicago.

I often credit a touring production of Cabaret starring Teri Hatcher, which I saw twice in 1999, as the catalyst to a voluminous embrace of musicals--and live theater overall--that has led to my seeing more than 1,200 shows over the past 20 years.

But though I also saw such cornerstone musicals as Les Miserables, Rent, Miss Saigon, Cats, Evita, Fiddler on the Roof, Chicago and Annie Get Your Gun prior to The Producers, it was a life-changer.

Starring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, as well as sensational performers in many roles, it was the funniest show I had ever seen--and I absolutely loved it. (At that point, I had not seen Mel Brooks' 1967 film on which the musical is based.)

So I made a point of seeing it again...that summer on Broadway, after it won 12 Tony Awards. 

And again...on an early national tour stop in Cleveland.

And in Hollywood, starring Jason Alexander and Martin Short. And London, again with Nathan Lane--who took over for Richard Dreyfuss.

And again and again and again.

Even after The Producers moved beyond its original Broadway production--where I also saw it with Richard Kind and Roger Bart--and tours and renditions based on it, I've made a point of catching regional productions.

Which--after versions by the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire, Theatre at the Center in Munster and Mercury Theatre in Chicago and elsewhere--is what brought me to the Paramount Theatre in Aurora, nearly 18 years after my initial live foray.

Yes, I consider myself a Producersologist, somewhat cheekily, somewhat not.

And for those keeping track--that would be me--this was my 15th time seeing the show.

And actually my second time at the glorious venue in Aurora, where I had caught a non-Equity tour of the original production in 2007 that was really quite good.

But for several years now, the Paramount has self-produced its own Broadway series, and most of the productions I've seen there--including Les Miz and West Side Story, two musicals I believe to be technically superior to The Producers--have been quite stellar.

So I wasn't going to see just another rendition of my favorite musical, I truly had high expectations.

And I was not disappointed.

Paramount's artistic director Jim Corti directs the show, and with wonderful work by set designer William Boles, costumer Jordan Ross and choreographer Brenda Didier, the production values are comparable to Broadway, or at least a Broadway tour.

This includes a 21-piece orchestra re-creating the original orchestrations.

Because I know the original show so well, I noticed a few sight gags that were omitted, and though both excellent, the lead actors playing Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom--Blake Hammond and Jake Morrissy--just aren't as distinctively brilliant as Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick.

But audiences coming to The Producers in Aurora--and the 1,800+ seat venue seemed packed on opening night--without having seen it onstage before will be getting a full caliber experience that should (and seemingly did) delight on par with my initial experience.

Mel Brooks' story about a down on his luck Broadway producer, Bialystock, who with help of nebbishy accountant Bloom aims to stage a show certain to close in order to retain all of the investment money, remains delectable.

The script they find, titled Springtime for Hitler, lends itself to offending everyone, and part of what makes The Producers so great is how daring it is.

Brooks wrote the musical's score--only "Springtime for Hitler" carried over from the film--and it too is terrific.

Part of the glee is in encountering each of the secondary characters, so I'll be somewhat circumspect in my descriptions, but these roles are all sumptuously embodied at the Paramount.

As playwright Franz Liebkind, Ron E. Rains is among the best I recall, and Elyse Collier makes for a striking Ulla, a Swedish actress-slash-receptionist.

In recent years, I've had the repeated pleasure of seeing remarkable performances by Sean Blake--shows 1, 2, 3--and was delighted to find him here in the role of director Roger De Bris. (Sadly I recalled that Gary Beach, who originated the role on Broadway, passed away last year.)

Blake was clearly cast for his considerable talent, but his being an African-American lends itself to a nifty twist in the "Springtime for Hitler" show-within-a-show, one that I'd never seen before.

From the early "King of Broadway," Hammond shows himself to be an excellent Max, and Morrissy--who I understand has been something of a bit player in some recent Paramount productions--handles "We Can Do It" and "I Wanna Be a Producer" with dorky aplomb.

Hammond's Act II blitz through "Betrayed" is also terrific.

I could easily run through the entire show--heck, virtually every lyric--but, as I say, much of the joy comes in the surprise encounters.

Even if you've seen The Producers before.

Though many of the original Broadway set pieces are well-replicated, there isn't a Lincoln Center fountain during "I Wanna Be a Producer"--but I relished the alternate choice.

Similarly, on the Act I finale--set in "Little Old Lady Land"--Corti and crew take a fresh approach, but one that really works.

Sure, the original--under Broadway director Susan Stroman--was the most LOL thing I ever saw onstage. But either you know it, and therefore can appreciate the deviation, or you don't and won't miss it.

Non-subscription, non-discount tickets to The Producers in Aurora seem to run between $38-$69
depending on the performance and seat. This is far less than it cost on Broadway, even 18 years ago, or for prime seats to a touring show in the Loop.

As such, great credit is to be given for the entertainment value it delivers.

No, it isn't the best version I've ever seen, but even with that caveat, it's one I'm quite glad I saw.

If, like presumably many, you haven't seen The Producers live for at least a decade, this makes for a superb reminder of why the show won a record 12 Tony Awards--and still stands as my favorite musical.

And if you've never witnessed this show, what are you waiting for?

The original production is no longer touring and has yet to be revived on Broadway, so the chance to see a rendition this good is really rare.

You may not be inspired to seek it out another 14 times like me, but you should concur that The Producers still makes for comedic musical theater to the absolute Max. 

Friday, February 08, 2019

A Powerful Voice: 'Nina Simone: Four Women' Chronicles Legendary Singer's Rising Activism -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Nina Simone: Four Women
by Christina Ham
directed by Kenneth Roberson
Northlight Theatre, Skokie, IL
Thru March 3
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I love Nina Simone's voice.

Acutely, I mean her singing voice, but I've always perceived considerable social consciousness in the husky, soulful renditions of songs she wrote and covers such as "Here Comes the Sun."

The 2015 Netflix documentary, What Happened, Miss Simone, furthered my appreciation for both the music and activism of the artist born Eunice Waymon, in North Carolina in 1933.

After a varied and estimable career starting as a classical music piano-playing prodigy, Nina Simone died in 2003.

Rather than retrace her entire life, I like how playwright Christina Ham focuses Nina Simone: Four Women--now running at Northlight Theatre in Skokie under the direction of Kenneth Roberson--on a moment in time, in 1963.

Though some of the biographical specifics are presumably fictionalized for the sake of storytelling, Ham chronicles a visit by Simone--terrifically played here by Sydney Charles--to Birmingham, Alabama in the wake of the white supremacist bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, which killed four young girls.

As the play enunciates, the visit coincided with--or resulted in--Simone becoming far more strident in the subject matter of her music.

In other words, her voice changed.

No longer was she, as suggested in the show, a "supper club singer for white folks," but--with songs like "Mississippi Goddam," which reflected the Alabama bombing as well as the 1963 murder of African-American activist, Medgar Evers, in Mississippi--a potent force in the Civil Rights Movement.

Given this illumination about how Ms. Simone's career shifted, the gravitas of the specific incident in Birmingham, the Civil Rights Movement overall and the--at times, unjustly limited--role played by powerful women, Nina Simone: Four Women makes for nothing less than a worthwhile 100 minutes.

This is especially true given the acting and singing talents of Charles and her cast mates: Deanna Reed-Foster as Sarah, a Birmingham maid; Ariel Richardson as Sephonia, a young activist whose lighter skin tone gets her derided as "yellow" by Sarah; and Melanie Brezill as Sweet Thing, a hot-tempered woman who arrives late in the show.

The character names coincide with those mentioned by Simone in her 1966 song, "Four Women," in which she dubs herself Peaches.

The show's musical director, Daniel Riley, often plays the piano onstage, accompanying songs mentioned and "Sinnerman," "Brown Baby" and "To Be Young, Gifted and Black," among others, upon a striking set by Christopher Rhoton representing the bombed out church.

So Nina Simone: Four Women can probably technically be considered a revue, and thus a musical, even if it feels more like a play with music, however imprecise the delineation.

The musical numbers are certainly highlights; all quite well done.

But while I didn't feel the drama was consistently riveting, nor the narrative entirely realistic in terms of the gathering of the women, there is considerable virtue in what the show imparts beyond how well it entertains.

This probably isn't where you should begin in learning about the great Nina Simone, and certainly not where you should end, but through the four women onstage--reflecting unique perspectives while loosely representing the unknown adulthood of the murdered lost girls--you should get a decent sense of discontent, struggle, pride and passion.

And how she found her true voice.