Thursday, November 07, 2019

A Rather Fine Twist: Marriott's 'Oliver' Will -- for the Most Part -- Have You Asking for More -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Oliver
Marriott Theatre, Lincolnshire, IL
Thru December 29
@@@@1/2

Despite a magnificent score featuring several of the most delightful songs ever written for musical theater—“Food Glorious Food,” “Oliver,” “Consider Yourself,” “I’d Do Anything,” “You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two,” “It’s a Fine Life,” “I’d Do Anything,” “Reviewing the Situation”—Oliver resides, in my mind, a notch or two below other brilliant classics of the Broadway canon.

This is in part due to somewhat ponderous pacing early on—more pronounced in the 1968 movie version, which actually won the Oscar for Best Picture—but primarily due to one other song by Lionel Bart, who wrote the show’s music, lyrics and book, based on Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist

Coming early in Act II is a song sung by Nancy, a young woman who is part of Fagin’s gang that the orphaned child Oliver falls in with in London.

While warm, even maternal towards Oliver, she is the girlfriend of the malevolent Bill Sikes, a particularly nasty but criminally successful confederate of Fagin’s. After Bill hits Nancy, she sings—and at Marriott, as delivered by Lucy Godinez, exceptionally well—a Stand By Your Mannish tune called “As Long As He Needs Me.”

Perhaps in 1830’s London (when Dickens wrote and set Oliver Twist) or even 1960 London (when the musical premiered in the West End), mores were somewhat different.

But I've hated that song since I saw a touring version of the show in 2004, and amid the #MeToo movement, it really feels ugly and obtuse (though musically, it’s beautiful).

So that—and the whole Bill/Nancy relationship, which actually devolves from there—is why I’ve never absolutely loved Oliver, even as I relished most of the songs.

This holds for a remarkably good production at Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire, under the direction of Nick Bowling.

A terrific cast—headed by young Kai Edgar in the title role at Wednesday’s Press Night; he alternates with Kayden Koshelev—wonderfully delivers all of the aforementioned songs and more, including “Where Is Love?” on which the 8-year-old Edgar shows formidable vocal chops.

William Brown makes for a fine Fagin, even if the gentleman sitting next to me didn’t find him menacing enough. I truly enjoyed his take on “Reviewing the Situation.”

The seemingly teenage Patrick Scott McDermott is a rather nifty Artful Dodger, and along with Godinez as Nancy, I really liked Ziare Paul-Emile as her friend Bet.

Marriott vets Bethany Thomas and Terry Hamilton are strong as Mrs. Corney and Mr. Brownlow, while Dan Waller is good as bad Bill Sikes.

And with at least a dozen young boys delivering a delectable “Food Glorious Food” to open the show, the vast ensemble cast comprised of kids and grown-ups is demonstrably superb.

In sum, even in a well-staged production that makes fine use of Marriott’s intimate, in-the-round Oliver still has its inherent issues. Along with “As Long As He Needs Me”—though Godinez’ rendition and reprise merited the lavish applause bestowed, including by me—I could also do without an early “flirtation” scene between the orphanage’s Mr. Bumble (Matthew R. Jones) and Mrs. Corney, which doesn’t do much besides hamper the pacing.
theater,

But so many of Bart’s songs are absolute delights—“Consider Yourself” and “I’ll Do Anything” especially had me humming along happily.

And how can you not like a show with so many talented kids?

So although Bowling’s production doesn’t overcome or circumvent the points of aversion I entered with, it renders them what they are: troublesome moments in an otherwise fantastic musical.

Consider yourself advised. Oliver isn’t perfect, but this excellent iteration at Marriott Theatre should provide young and old with a Dickens of a good time.

Monday, November 04, 2019

Muy Bueno: John Leguizamo Turns 'Latin History for Morons' Into a Compelling Contemporary Lesson -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

John Leguizamo
Latin History for Morons
Cadillac Palace Theater, Chicago
Run Ended (tour schedule)
@@@@1/2

"Latin history is American history," said John Leguizamo early in his latest one-man show--which I saw on Saturday night--and it rightfully garnered considerable applause.

Understandably, there was an appreciable Latinx turnout among the almost-full crowd, but even to someone without any Latin blood--you can tell by my dancing skills, or lack thereof--Leguizamo's history lesson hit home.

I have always enjoyed the 55-year-old actor, comedian and writer but haven't seen any of his one-man shows--Freak, Sexaholix, Ghetto Klown, Spic-O-Rama, Mambo Mouth--not even on TV.

So although Latin History for Morons--which ran on Broadway for a few months beginning in November 2015--wasn't part of my Broadway in Chicago subscription series, nor a show for which I got a press invite, I was happy to get a balcony seat for $26 (which Ticketmaster fees somehow turned into $46).

And it was really good, not just because Leguizamo is a likable performer or because the substance of what he imparts powerfully combats the moronic wall-building sentiments and shameful kids-in-cages realities of our times.

Although I was aware of some of the truths he shared--such as the Mayans, Incas and Aztecs having once had vast, enlightened and longstanding empires decimated by European colonialism--the Columbian-born, multi-ethnic star enveloped his teachings in plenty of humor, pathos and poignancy.

The framework for much of Latin History for Morons has Leguizamo trying to illuminate his son to help ward off bullies and succeed on middle school projects.

And it's clear that in writing this show, John has clearly done his homework, well-beyond all that he has likely long known well.

References are made onstage to several books--including 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann and Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States--often serving to establish that U.S. history textbooks have long been created by (and to serve) a white, patriarchal culture.

I won't reveal too much of Leguizamo's "lesson," as even though the brief Chicago run has ended, this shrewd show will conceivably make its way to TV at some point after the tour concludes, but just in terms of colonialism I appreciated his insights about how many European conquests could be ascribed far more to the spreading of disease than to military might.

And yes, some of the syphilis jokes made for some raunchy hilarity.

It also bespeaks Leguizamo's savvy that one of my favorite lines of the show had nothing to do with Latin history but rather how stealing music once meant waiting all day to tape an album off the radio and hoping the DJ wouldn't talk over much of it.

Though the two hours without an intermission went fast and were well-paced, I felt the end--in which Leguizamo cites U.S. military heroes of Latin descent and other notables--was a bit rushed.

Carlos Santana had been briefly name-dropped early on, but I wish more time was devoted to the
contributions of Latinos in entertainment, government and industry, among other fields.

Props to the New Yorker, however, for mentioning the Cubs' Javier Baez, along with icons like Frida Kahlo, Cesar Chavez and Sonia Sotomayor. 

And not only is Latin History for Morons a terrifically entertaining show, it's an important one.

Including, sadly, for those prone to ignore or deride it.

While folks adorned in "Make America Great Again" caps would undoubtedly find much to hate about this show--which does at times mock the president--they will, if open-minded, find a whole lot more to learn from it.

Late in the show, about those of Latin descent, Leguizamo imparts with palpable anguish, "We're so American it hurts."

Which is why it's so painful to realize the "cultural apartheid" he references exists merely due to ignorance (or xenophobia), which could be remedied if we all bothered to learn some Latin history.