Sunday, May 19, 2019

North Side Story: Genial 'Miracle' Should Delight Cubs Fans, but Isn't a Musical Grand Slam -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

A musical 108 years in the making
Royal George Theater, Chicago
Open run

As best I can tabulate, I've seen something like 800 unique theatrical works in my lifetime, most coming in the past 20 years.

And I can safely say that none has had a happier ending than Miracle, a new musical based around the Chicago Cubs winning--in 2016--their first World Series title in 108 years.

As a diehard Cubs fan, that event was one of the most joyous of my lifetime, especially as I attended three Series games (1 & 2 in Cleveland; game 5 at Wrigley).

So, adorned in a Cubs championship t-shirt, I attended Miracle's opening on Thursday night at the Royal George as undeniably part of the target audience.

But I also happened to attend as the second half a theatrical doubleheader, having seen a matinee of West Side Story at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. That show certainly doesn't have a happy ending, but as noted in my review, I believe it to be one of the greatest artistic works of all-time, and the current production is superb.

I don't imagine anyone involved in the development of Miracle--producers William Marovitz and Arny Granat, director Damon Kiely, composer/lyricist Michael Mahler, book writer Jason Brett--would suggest they were creating a musical as monumental as West Side Story, or anywhere near it.

Hence, in large part, it seems quite fair to review it for what it is: a genial musical clearly aimed at Cubs fans wanting to relive the glorious moments of 2016 (while hoping for more). 

In that regard, Miracle is fun, and those arriving at the Royal George in Cubby Blue should find a lot to like well-beyond video highlights of cherished moments. 

Marovitz, a former Illinois State Senator and Broadway investor, and Granat, a partner in JAM Productions, are clearly capable of shepherding a world premiere musical with strong production values. 

Mahler is likely the most notable local composer/lyricist of new works--I've seen his Hero, October Sky and Something in the Game--while Brett and Kiely also bring several fine credits. 

And starting with Gene Weygandt--Wicked, Working, La Cage Aux Folles and much more--as Pops, the 6-person cast includes performers I've seen and liked in several musicals around town.

Brandon Dahlquist is Charlie Delaney--the son of Pops and the deceased Maggie--who now largely runs the family-owned Wrigleyville bar named for her, after having had a promising minor league career as a pitcher. 

Allison Sill is Charlie's wife, Sofia, while Amaris Sanchez and Elise Wolf alternate in the role of their daughter, Dani. I saw Sanchez and she was really terrific. (She had been in On Your Feet on Broadway and on tour.)

Jonathan Butler-Duplessis (Larry, a close friend of Charlie's), Michael Kingston (Weslowski, a neighboring merchant and patron of Maggie's) and Veronica Garza (Babs, another patron and merchant) round out the cast. 

All do fine work, and I would have welcomed a good bit more solo singing from Weygandt, Sill and Butler-Duplessis. 

I also wouldn't have minded a few more cast members to help fill Maggie's Bar during the big games. 

To be clear, Miracle is not a show directly about the Cubs. 

Except on the video screens--so there must have been some team buy-in--you will not see anyone playing Bryant, Rizzo, Lester, Arrieta, Baez, Schwarber, Heyward, Maddon, etc. 

Not so unlike a play I recently saw--The Undeniable Sound of Right Now--Jason Brett's script largely concerns itself with a (fictional) longstanding, family-owned Chicago bar that is facing challenges to stay afloat. 

After a video reel of Cubs seasons that have ended in disappointment, the musical begins at Maggie's with "The Cubby Bear Blues," nicely handled by the whole company. 

After Dani raps "#FlyTheW," we get Charlie--amid Opening Day 2016, after a darn great 2015--declaring "I'm Out," as in refusing to believe in the Cubs anymore.

I get that it's a fairly obvious narrative conceit to loop in the pessimistic, won't-get-fooled-again Cubs fan, and you can't really start this show in, say, 2013. Or after the Cubs lost the pennant to the Mets in 2015. Or when they seemed somewhat on the ropes in Game 4 of the 2016 NLDS against the Giants.

But I don't know anybody who was bailing on the Cubs at the start of 2016, and in doing so--along with having him frequently harangue Pops, Dani, Sofia and others--Brett's script makes the likable (and quite well-sung) Dahlquist feel like a weenie. 

The show, and Charlie himself, comes to eventually realize--and somewhat rectify--this, but even within the bounds of what Miracle aims to be, the storyline feels somewhat askew. 

Believe me, I didn't believe the Cubs were going to win the World Series until the exact moment they did--and the name Rajai Davis still conjures tears & trepidations--but we're supposed to accept Charlie dismissing them as "losers" as they stood at 47-23 in late June?

Upon which he and Sofia sing a tune called "I Hate the Cold," which dreams of leaving town. 

So even in granting that this is a likeable show essentially just for Cubs fans, who will enter and leave with a smile on their faces, it's rather hackneyed. 

Weygandt nicely delivers an ode to legendary announcers--Jack Brickhouse is named, though Harry Caray oddly isn't--called "The Voice Above the Crowd," which was composed by Larry Novak, with lyrics by Julian and Rhona Frazin. 

The rest of the score is by Mahler, who while supremely talented compared to most people, doesn't yet stand with Stephen Sondheim, Rodgers & Hammerstein, Kander & Ebb or the greatest of Broadway composers/lyricists. 

Which isn't to suggest his songs aren't at least passable. 

Dahlquist shows his demonstrable talent on "What's the Pitch," considerable imagination--and fine choreography by Dina DiCostanzo--fuels "Do the Superstition," while "You Gotta Have Faith" offers a fun tip of the cap to Damn Yankees' "Heart."

But there is too much similarity in the song styles, and though "Look for a Miracle" caught my ear nicely upon its reprise, nothing was as glorious or mirthful as singing along to Steve Goodman's "Go Cubs Go" as Miracle ended. 

I didn't myself share news of the Cubs' historic victory at the gravesites of any friends & relatives, but that was a truly touching aspect of Miracle, among other fine components.

But essentially this is a minor league musical, with certain core strengths and fine efforts but no real promise beyond its diehard targets. 

Simply as a new piece of musical theater, I only somewhat liked it. Still, upon its unique playing field, I can't deny loving what it's all about.

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