Wednesday, February 27, 2019

In His Own Write: 'Dear Evan Hansen' Provides a Powerful Musical Perspective on Teenage Pressures Amid Today's Technology -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Dear Evan Hansen
a musical
National Tour
Nederlander Theatre, Chicago
Thru March 10

Dear Evan Hansen is a great musical, one that satisfies in the moment, contains several songs worth revisiting and even advances the musical theater genre.

Rent, Wicked and Billy Elliot are antecedents that come to mind as musicals that feature rock music and/or focus on youthful identity, individuality and insecurity, while Spring Awakening, Next to Normal and Fun Home are even more acute parallels in terms of setting dramatic narratives to music without conventional Broadway tropes.

But Dear Evan Hansen, which was first staged publicly in 2015 and hit Broadway in late-2016--winning Best Musical and five other Tony Awards the following June--feels sleekly contemporary, given its heavy interpolation of social media and the idea of things "going viral."

Obviously, any first-rate musical has to have many moving parts congeal into an engaging and exciting whole, but this show really has pieces that could have felt quite wrong if they didn't come together just right.


Regarding Dear Evan Hansen's subject matter, what I will share seems rather commonly divulged by critics and presumably known by audiences coming in, but especially if you already have tickets or intend to get them--a Chicago return has already been booked for Summer 2020 given that this run is essentially sold out--you may prefer to know as little as possible.

If so, please return here after seeing the show.

But while still trying to be rather circumspect, here goes:

Evan Hansen (played on tour most nights by Ben Levi Ross, who I found to be terrific) is an awkward and unpopular high school senior who sports a cast on an arm he broke over the summer. He has also been seeing a therapist, at whose unseen behest he writes self-affirmation letters--e.g. "Dear Evan Hansen, it's been a good day..."--encouraged by his loving but hectic single mom, Heidi (Jessica Phillips).

As revealed in one of the letters as the show opens, he has a crush on a pretty junior named Zoe Murphy (Maggie McKenna), whose temperamental senior brother Connor (Marrick Smith) happens to get hold of Evan's letter before he takes his own life.

Because the letter was found on Connor, his crushed parents, Larry and Cynthia Murphy (Aaron Lazar and Christiane Noll), presume he had written it to Evan, who, when asked, is too flummoxed to deny this and even creates a story about him and Connor being secretive friends.

Evan continues this deception with the aid of a friend named Jared (Jared Goldsmith) and--unwittingly--another classmate, Alana (Phoebe Koyabe), which serves to endear him to Larry & Cynthia and enables him to get close to Zoe.

I won't tell you any more about the narrative nor how it unwinds in Act 2, but even in long having Spotifamilarized myself with the music, I--who managed to be unpopular high school without indulging any shameful farces--wondered how well I might stomach Evan's dishonesty.

That I remained largely empathetic is a credit not only the fine performance by Ross, but--very much in support of each other--the dexterity of Steven Levenson's script, Michael Greif's direction (he also notably helmed Rent and Next to Normal) and the score by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who are both credited with music & lyrics.

Pasek & Paul have had a fantastic run, responsible for the stellar A Christmas Story: The Musical and composing the films La La Land and The Greatest Showman, and Dear Evan Hansen is filled with savvy, often punchy songs including "Anybody Have a Map?" (shrewdly about the challenges of parenting), "Waving Through a Window," "For Forever," "Sincerely, Me," "Disappear," "Only Us" and the empowering "You Will Be Found."

That the music is so good doesn't allow the questionable pathos of the story to ever sap the show's strong tonality, and Greif's direction ensures scenes and music segue seamlessly, without over-sentimentalizing things.

As I alluded above, the various parts really weave together well.

Including the set design by David Korins, with its superb digital representation of social media and the way it can mushroom.

All that said--and @@@@@ well-merited--the first acts feels considerably stronger than the second, both musically and narratively.

The whole thing is fresh and powerful enough to make for a terrific night of theater, but if one has qualms about Evan's character--and to what degree he ever faces the music--well, you likely wouldn't be the first to have such thoughts.

But one more thing worth championing about Dear Evan Hansen is that it's a rather rare new musical with a story written fresh for the stage. In other words, it's not based on a movie or a book and it isn't a jukebox musical wrapping around famous songs.

So especially given how the whole affair intertwines excellently, ceding some dramatic license seems fair; in large part this is a musical that really could be considered a compelling drama.

It was also great to see so many teens helping to fill the newly re-christened James M. Nederlander Theatre--formerly the Oriental--and as long as they're informed of theater ettiquette (phones all the way off, no talking, etc.), any show bring youthful vitality to the Broadway idiom feels particularly "Dear" to me. 

Monday, February 25, 2019

That'll Dü: From Past to Present, Bob Mould and Band Blister the Metro -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Bob Mould w/ band
opening act Beach Bunny
Metro, Chicago
February 23 (also played 2/22)

In a recent interview with Rolling Stone, the legendary Bob Mould said:

“Somebody once tweeted something like, 'Oh, my God. I’m at a Bob Mould show, and it seems like it’s been an hour and a half of the same song. It’s incredible.' 

At first, I sort of took offense to it, and then I realized, no, that’s actually like, ‘Oh, cool.’ Yeah, so it’s all just one big thing.”

I'm fairly certain I am not the Tweeter Mould was referencing, but I can't deny thinking something similar, largely in a reverential way.

For at age 58, the singer/guitarist/songwriter initially famed for being in Hüsker Dü remains a rather singular force of nature.

Especially when playing with a band, Mould plugs in howls--vocally and instrumentally--for 80-90 minutes with hardly a breath or moment of dead air in between songs.

And whether with Hüsker Dü in the '80s, an early '90s trio called Sugar or as a solo artist, Mould's stock-in-trade has been smouldering rock songs that wrap clever melodies and incisive lyrics within guitar-fueled aggression.

Hence, both to the adoring and the adverse, there can be plenty of similarity over the course of one of Mould's concert performances.

Saturday night was the 11th time I've Bob Mould live on a stage, the first having been in 1994 with  Sugar--technically, I'm not too young to have seen him with Hüsker Dü, but I wasn't hip enough to know it at the time--and the others in a variety of incarnations (full-band, solo with acoustic guitar, solo on electric guitar and acoustic with an another such accompanist). 

He has been stellar in every guise, but over the last decade or so, when playing with Evanston's Jason Narducy on bass and Jon Wuerster from the band Superchunk on drums, he has been especially mind-blowing.

To the point that a superlative show is pretty much a sure thing, as reiterated at Metro, a great Chicago venue he has blistered often.

Whenever tickets went on sale for Friday and Saturday's gigs, I did not jump on getting one.

But last week I realized it had been over two months since I'd been to a concert, and with tickets remaining--they sold out by show time--and the Metro able to accommodate my request for a seat in the balcony, I couldn't resist the chance to see Mould for the first time in 3 years, figuring it a certainty I'd be thoroughly rocked.

And I was.

If you've seen Bob Mould at full-tilt, you probably don't need to be reading this review to know how wondrous he is--especially with Wuerster and Narducy, both outstanding sidemen.

And if you haven't, this isn't going to explain something that can't be explained. It's a unique visceral experience, perhaps akin to standing amid a howling windstorm, joyously.

But you--and especially the 3 pals who accompanied me at the show--may wonder why I awarded @@@@1/2 and not a Seth Saith maximum of @@@@@.

Certainly, it's an inexact delineation, but though there were many blissful moments among the 90 or so minutes Mould & Co. were onstage, it seemed a tad less frenetic than past shows of his I've seen.

If he's slowing down just a bit as he gets older and--per the Rolling Stone interview and his latest album titled Sunshine Rock--seems to be happier, that's really only a good thing.

Mould remains truly incredible, had also played Metro the night before and actually played about 10 minutes longer than past full-band shows have typically yielded.

As I reflected on in my most recent theater review, what I'm really gauging in offering my opinion--and rating--of any show is my emotional experience.

While this was as awesome as can be during Mould's opening quartet of "The War," "A Good Idea," "I Apologize" and "Hoover Dam," seven of the subsequent 21 songs--see the setlist here--came from Sunshine Rock, which was just released on February 8.

While I've repeatedly listened to and like that album--which in its essence isn't all that different from 2016's Patch the Sky, 2014's Beauty and Ruin, 2012's Silver Age, etc., etc.--the songs have yet to fully soak in, hence a sense of sameness was exacerbated midway through the set..

I long ago realized that it doesn't matter all that much exactly which songs Bob Mould chooses to play at a given show, as the torrid soundscape is brilliant regardless.

But eschewing Sugar's "Your Favorite Thing"--which had been in all the tour setlists before Chicago--not only eliminated one of my absolute favorites, the show could have used its poppy, melodic and presumably well-known punch.

The 25 songs did include seven from Hüsker Dü--if you include their cover of the Mary Tyler Moore theme, "Love is All Around"--along with three from Sugar and more recent gems like "I Don't Know You Anymore" and "Hey Mr. Grey."

So as Mould is soon to commemorate 40 years of making music publicly with a pair of upcoming shows in St. Paul, he well demonstrated that he's long been a master at multiple crafts: songwriting, singing, playing guitar, delivering thunderous concerts, etc.

And it's certainly to his credit that brand new tunes like "Sunny Love Song" and "I Fought" can slot in seamlessly with Hüsker Dü classics like "Chartered Trips" and "Makes No Sense at All."

Though he didn't say anything about it in introduction, it was also cool that he opened the encore--alone--with "Never Talking to You Again," a Hüsker Dü song that his late, supposedly long estranged bandmate Grant Hart had written and sung. 

Clearly, Mould has set a high bar, and strictly in terms of his performance alongside Narducy and Wuerster--with a nice opening set from Beach Bunny--he cleared it.

One wonders how long he can rock at 180mph, but even if he moderates to 150mph, it seems he should still be in great stead for a few more years, at least.

But I just didn't find myself staring breathlessly with mouth agape as at some past Mould band shows, and along with ripping through "Your Favorite Thing"--as he delectably did "If I Can't Change Your Mind"--I think he'd been well served to swap out a couple new tunes for some that have had a chance to germinate a bit more. ("Stupid Now," "Underneath Days," "Egøverride," "Lucifer and God" and the Sugar B-side "Needle Hits E" being just a few possibilities among those I cherish.)

I hope these are taken as the minor quibbles that I intend them, for once again Bob Mould delighted me plenty.

And among friends, with a balcony seat, at a classic Chicago venue, what's 1/2@ mean anyway?

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Dinner with a Deity: At Lookingglass, 'Act(s) of God' Works Best Beyond the Spiritual -- Chicago Theater Review

Chicago Theater Review

Act(s) of God
a new play by Kareem Bandealy
directed by Heidi Stillman
Lookingglass Theatre, Chicago
Thru April 7

Over the past few days I have seen two plays I didn't love--including the one I'm reviewing here--and a concert I did love but not quite as much as the pals I attended with.

I also happened to have conversations--somewhat coincidentally, someone not--about how I approach writing reviews, particularly when I was less than enthralled with what I saw.

Especially as I am posting my reviews on a personal blog, my goal is to honestly convey what I experienced and felt. I don't believe there are absolute determinants of good and bad, or "OK" and "Oh Wow!," but rather how one's emotional embrace--along with more mental assessments--gauges a work along the spectrum.

Which, in the case here, runs from @ to @@@@@, with 1/2@ increments.

Two of the people I was talking to are among my most theater literate friends, and in being complimentary, each agreed that I am almost always deferential, even about shows I candidly didn't like.

Photo credit on all: Liz Lauren
I hope that comes across here because although I can't say I am much enjoyed nor felt considerably enriched by Act(s) of God, there is still much to be admired.

Though I haven't attended Lookingglass Theatre as much as I have Goodman, Steppenwolf, Northlight or some others, I have found it to be among Chicagoland's--and therefore the country's--best self-producing, non-musical theater ensembles.

The last show I saw there, Mary Zimmerman's The Steadfast Tin Soldier, was one of the greatest things I have ever seen on stage.

I think it's cool that Act(s) of God was written by Kareem Bandealy--to this point more known as an actor--and regardless of what I thought, its staging bespeaks an estimable effort, including by director Heidi Stillman, the Lookingglass crew and a terrific cast.

I have enjoyed Shannon Cochran in a few shows in recent years, and as "Mother" she is stellar here, including in belting out something of an operatic aria. (This isn't a musical.)

Rom Barkhordar does a nice job as a quirky, nap-loving Father, and as their three grown children, Kristina Valada-Viars (Eldest), Anthony Adams (Middle) and Walter Briggs (Youngest) are all really good.

So too is Emjoy Gavino as Middle's fiance.

Though I am not myself religious, I didn't inherently mind that Act(s) of God presents some spiritual themes, especially as part of the point is delineating how different members of the family have differing views on religion.

Without needing to spell out much, the three-act play of 2-1/2 hours, takes place in 2029, a time when certain things have changed--nobody drives anymore--but heavy volumes of physical junk mail still exist.

A piece of such that Mother sifts through is hard to open, harder to discern and open to interpretation, but she determines that it says that God will be joining the family for dinner.

I'm not going to reveal if He (or She) ever actually does, and while this is the subject of considerable dialogue, I found that the overtly religious and seemingly absurdist aspects of Act(s) of God were the weakest.

Arguments among various pairings of kinfolk, especially Eldest, a lesbian artist, and her successful businessman Middle brother contain some really biting dialogue.

Certainly, even with its supernatural elements, Act(s) of God can be considered a family drama, but I thought this was far more engaging at face value that any of its weirder parts.

I won't brazenly dismiss whatever Bandealy is trying to say, but not only didn't I get it--and absurdist theater is something with which I admittedly struggle--I can't say I much cared.

The actors do fine work, and scenic designer Brian Sidney Bembridge demonstrably does as well.

As I tried to allude above, this isn't me telling you that piece is bad nor that you shouldn't see it.

Just that if your perspectives and tastes are somewhat similar to mine, be forewarned that I wasn't all that smitten by Act(s) of God.

Of Young Women and Wisconsin Nights: Rebecca Gilman's Entertaining 'Twilight Bowl' Isn't Completely Up My Alley -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Twilight Bowl
a world premiere play
by Rebecca Gilman
directed by Erica Weiss
Goodman Theatre, Chicago
Thru March 10

The rise of Rebecca Gilman as a highly-regarded, often-produced playwright largely coincides with my becoming a voluminous theatergoer.

Though it doesn't precisely cover either occurrence, "the 21st century" is a roughly accurate timeframe for both, as four of Gilman's most noted plays--Boy Gets Girl, Spinning Into Butter, Blue Surge and The Glory of Living--were first produced in 2000 or 2001. This is pretty much when I went from going to a play (or musical) or two per year, to a handful each month.

So it is somewhat surprising to me that Twilight Bowl--now in a world premiere at Goodman Theatre--is only the 4th Gilman play I've seen, all at the same venue.

I didn't much care for Dollhouse--her adaptation of a Henrik Ibsen play--nor A Brief History of the Johnstown Flood, but I greatly enjoyed Luna Gale in 2014.

Photo credit on all: Liz Lauren
Twilight Bowl falls somewhere in between, neither a strike nor a gutter ball, and perhaps much more appealing to its target demographic.

Typically, I feel that truly great theater should appeal to anyone regardless of any specifics in its subject matter or characterizations.

For example, Luna Gale is about a couple of rural, meth-addicted teens who have had a baby, and I found it quite compelling, in large for humanizing people I likely wouldn't much see or think about in real-life.

This too is the main strength of Twilight Bowl, which chronicles five young women in a small Wisconsin town, and another from Winnetka who happens to be there for a night.

Across 90 minutes, Gilman's dialogue--under the direction of Erica Weiss with fine performances from the six actresses--kept me sufficiently entertained.

Initially we learn that the somewhat salty Jaycee (nicely played by Heather Chrisler) will be separated from her pals for awhile.

So too, for different reasons, will her cousin Sam (Becca Savoy), an employee of Twilight Bowl and the best bowler of the bunch.

Clarice (Hayley Burgess), who also works at the alley, is seemingly Jaycee's closest friend, as enunciated by her being the most taciturn at the going away party.

And though well meant, the overt Christianity of Sharlene (Anne E. Thompson) isn't what Jaycee wants to hear at the moment.

Jaycee's small going away party is the opening scene, occurring with the four aforementioned girls seemingly high school seniors--or perhaps recently graduated--and each subsequent scene moves the timeline forward.

The second scene involves another Twilight Bowl employee, Brielle (Mary Taylor), interacting with Maddy (Angela Morris), the affluent Chicago suburbanite who--in something of a stranger-in-a-strange-land thread--stops at the alley over Thanksgiving break from the Ohio State University, where she's a freshman with Sam.

This introduces all the characters, and the play takes us forward a few more years.

Interestingly, Twilight Bowl was written by Gilman as a "commission from the Big Ten Theatre Consortium of schools whose theater departments saw a dire need for plays featuring roles for women in their 20s and so commissioned a group of female playwrights to write those plays." [From a Chicago Tribune article by Rebecca Gilman; January 7, 2019.]

I believe the play was only produced at the University of Iowa before the Goodman--which has long presented Gilman's work--opted to stage it in its smaller Owen Theatre.

It's to Gilman's credit that--along with broaching the pressure some feel to succeed in college--she makes us empathetic to the women who don't go to college at all, or not to Big 10 schools, and this piece should well serve the purposes for which it was concocted.

And why, while I think almost anyone might find suitable enjoyment and resonance at Goodman, it may more greatly enrich audiences of young women.

Or Wisconsinites.

For while I liked it, I didn't find it all that insightful nor substantive.

Certainly, there were messages about friendship and religion and people not always being what they seem--in ways both surprisingly good and bad--and Gilman's writing definitely has plenty of wit.

But a few of the characters seem under drawn, and one really not necessary.

In sum, Twilight Bowl is kind of like a pair of bowling shoes.

The time you spend with it is worthwhile--and again, perhaps more so for those who aren't 50-year-old Illinois men without children--but at the end of the night, it really ain't for keeping.

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

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

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

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

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.