At the Goodman Theatre
By Dan Zeff
Chicago – “Teddy Ferrara” raises some hot button issues, like cultural diversity, homophobia, and political correctness, and then does almost nothing with them, for 2 hours and 40 minutes.
The Christopher Shinn play is receiving its world premiere at the Goodman Owen Theatre. After closing March 3, it should adjourn to the workshop where everyone involved can rethink the script.
“Teddy Ferrara” takes place on the campus of a large state university. There is ferment in the air among the gay, lesbian, and transgender students who urgently feel the university isn’t doing anything to promote tolerance and understanding of their sexual lifestyle among the mainstream student body.
The role of a university in teaching tolerance is a legitimate and much discussed issue, especially among minority students who feel under siege from the harassment and bullying they get from the straight world. In the play, a gay student had committed suicide just the previous year, apparently overwhelmed by the hostility he faced from the non-gay academic world.
Some of the “Teddy
Ferrara” storyline is inspired by actual events and personalities on college
campuses in America in recent years, so the seeds of a stimulating docu-drama
are at hand (see “Columbinus” and “The Laramie Project” for successful role
models). But instead of a thoughtful exploration of the conflicts that arise
from non-traditional sexual choices, the play occupies itself mostly with the muddled
love affairs among a cluster of randy gay students. There is some explicit gay
sex on stage, verbal and visual, with hormones plumping and hearts being
broken. But the underlying issues remain only superficially examined.
Photo Credit: Liz Lauren
Occasionally some attention is paid to the problem of diversity and how to educate the straight university community to accept it, but in Shinn’s play that weighty matter serves largely as comic relief. The university president (Patrick Clear) tries to serve as a bridge between the gay university population and the student body at large, but in a series of meetings with gay militants he comes across as a well meaning bumbler, saying all the wrong things in the mistaken belief that he’s doing some good. The meetings are like Second City sketches on how to extract comedy out of a serious and provocative topic.
The central figure among the students is Gabe (Liam Benzvi), the president of the Queen Students Group. Gabe is a pleasant young man who sees both sides of the sex discussion while everyone else seems to have an agenda. Gabe stands alone in criticizing the gay attitude of victimization and self-pity. The character is either even-handed or wishy washy, depending on the spectator’s perception.
Surround Gabe are his current lover Drew (Adam Poss), the editor of the campus newspaper; Gabe’s straight (maybe) best friend, Tim (Josh Salt); Nicky, a gay reporter (Rashaad Hall) on the student newspaper who is a decent lad and also very horny; and a couple of gay young men (Christopher Imbrosciano and Jax Jackson) who must deal with their own sexual heartaches.
There are a few female characters in the play, all but one poorly developed. The always excellent Janet Ulrich Brooks is wasted as the university provost, who seems to be in the play to do damage control to cover for the president’s continual misspeaking. Paloma Nozicka makes a few appearances as Tim’s girl friend but the character is lost among the overheated male characters.
The single strong female character is Ellen (vigorously played by Kelli Simpkins), an aggressive, no nonsense lesbian militant who wants action and not platitudes from the university administration. Ellen is a clarion voice that cuts through all the special pleading and hand wringing and the play perks up in interest every time she speaks, which is far too infrequently.
the most interesting figure in the play is the title character. Teddy is a
freshman, played with complexity and intelligence by Ryan Heindi. Outwardly
Teddy is an awkward and inarticulate young man but there is a sexually driven
side to him that gives his personality a darker substance. “Teddy Ferrara”
would be a far better play if we saw more of Teddy Ferrara, but regrettably he
departs from the stage about halfway through the show to become a cynically
manipulated martyr to the gay cause.
Photo Credit: Liz Lauren
The play is a promo for the central place that social media occupies in the life of young people. Everyone is continually texting and there are liberal uses of a webcam, cell phones, computers, and tweeting. Characters come to grief during the play because their transgressions go viral over social media almost at the moment they are committed. Now that’s a worthy topic for a play, but here it’s used mostly to carry the plot forward.
The performances are generally very good. The male actors look and sound like college students. It’s difficult to assess what contribution director Evan Cabnet makes to the production. I don’t see how a different directorial approach would make any difference. The script is too diffuse and too long. Most critically, it shies away from meaningfully engaging the issues it raises in favor of melodrama and soap opera.
For the record, the set was designed by Lee Savage, the costumes by Jenny Mannis, the lighting by Keith Parham, and the sound by Richard Woodbury. They all did what they could.
A shout out to the ensemble on opening night for professionally keeping their cool during a disruption in the second act. A woman in the audience collapsed and had to be removed by paramedics. The play was stopped for several minutes and then resumed with no noticeable glitches.
“Teddy Ferrara” runs through March 3 at the Goodman Owen Theatre, 170 North Dearborn Street. Most performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $14 to $45. Call 312 443 3800 or visit www.GoodmanTheatre.org/Teddy.
The show gets a rating of two stars. February 2013
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At the Goodman (Owen) Theatre
by Dan Zeff
Chicago – “Immediate Family” is part sitcom and part dysfunctional family drama, garnished with racial and gay humor that flows into racial and gay tensions. It’s a pretty good play right now that could be improved with some tweaking.
Family” has been written by Chicago actor and playwright Paul Oakley Stovall. Its
producers have leased the Goodman Owen Theatre for a summer run with hopes of
transferring to New York City.
Photo Credit: Michael Brosilow
The play is set in the present time in a middle class residence in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago. Five of the six characters are black and it will take the audience time to sort out exactly how the black characters relate (the white character appears fairly late in the 90-minute intermissionless show). Three of the characters are siblings of the Bryant family—Evy and younger brothers Tony and Jesse. Ronnie is a half sister, the product of an affair by their father and a white woman. Nina is the feisty and bumptious cousin who provides many of the plays laughs but doesn’t get involved in the main storyline, which belongs largely to Evy and Jesse.
The family has been fragmented since the death of their parents, coming together for the wedding of Tony and a woman we never see. Jesse is a writer who lives in the East. Evy holds down the family fort in Hyde Park, a teacher with strong religious beliefs and fierce racial pride. For Evy, at least, Jesse has been the hope of the family and she is shocked by the revelation that he is gay, which is an affront to her religious convictions. Tony tends to take his brother’s homosexuality in stride until he meets Jesse’s partner, who is white and Swedish.
Ronnie is an outsider who mostly roils the emotional waters with her outspoken behavior. Nina is full of sass and in-your-face humor. By the time Kristian, Jesse’s lover, makes his appearance, feelings are running high, leading to the spiral of recriminations (culminating in a very physical cat fight between Evy and Ronnie), revelations about past hurts, and ultimately some acceptance if not complete reconciliation. It’s the schematic that shapes all the dysfunctional family dramas that flooded American stages in recent decades.
Stovall can write funny dialogue for his characters, dialogue tailored to black characters, though the thick inner city inflections cause me to miss some of the comedy. An incomprehensibly complicated card game is a particular hoot. Stovall can also write scenes of high emotional intensity, especially those involving Jesse with Evy and Kristian. The playwright obviously intended characters to reconsider and revise their prejudices as the action goes on, leading to a mellow and silent moment that unpersuasively concludes the play. With the exception of Evy, whose attitudes on race and homosexuality may turn more tolerant, the characters at the end of the play remain largely unchanged. The family will be at least as fragmented after the final curtain as they were in the opening scenes.
The six member cast does well by Stovall’s script, though the narrative suffers from the lack of chemistry between Phillip James Brannon’s Jesse and Patrick Sarb’s Kristian. But their “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” situation has its humorous moments. Kamal Angelo Bolden’s Tony and J. Nicole Brooks’s Nina distribute most of the ethnic humor. Cynda Williams does what she can with the role of the half sister but she remains a peripheral character.
Photo Credit: Michael Brosilow
The big name in the production is director Phylicia Rashad. She played Claire Huxtable in the enormously popular “The Cosby Show” television series. Rashad doesn’t leave a large directorial footprint on the staging, allowing the action to play out realistically. The real backstage hero is John Iacovelli, who designed a detailed house interior that looks good enough to move into after the play closes. Ana Kuzmanic designed the costumes, Heather Gilbert the lighting, and Joshua Horvath the sound.
“Immediate Family” has whiffs of “A Raisin in the Sun” and ”August: Osage County,” both admirable role models. As new plays go, there is much to admire in the writing and presentation. Only time will tell whether it has the potential to make it to Broadway (or off Broadway) or whether its future lies with regional theaters that cater to audiences comfortable with racial and gay material.
“Immediate Family” runs through August 5 at the Goodman Owen Theatre, 170 North Dearborn Street. Performances through July 8 are Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday and 8, Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 and 7:30 p.m. (no performances July 2-4). From July 10 through August 5, performances are Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30 p.m., Thursday at 2 and 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $20 to $54. Call 312 443 3800 or visit www.goodmantheatre.org.
The show gets a rating of three stars.
Contact Dan at ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com June 2012
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At the Goodman (Owen)Theatre
By Dan Zeff
Chicago – The modern theater does not lack for plays about race and gender preference in American society. But even in this highly populated field Thomas Bradshaw’s “Mary” is something out of the ordinary. Viewers are advised to check their knee-jerk reactions to racism and homophobia at the door, especially viewers of a liberal persuasion. Bradshaw is going to shake you up big time.
“Mary” is receiving its world premiere in a flawless production at the Goodman Owen Theatre. Bradshaw has written a number of plays in the last few years but “Mary” may be the breakout work that moves him up into the August Wilson class, though Bradshaw would be the first to insist that his plays depart hugely from the Wilson sensibility.
Bradshaw sets his 90-minute one act piece in Maryland, mostly in 1983. There are three pairs of characters. Dolores (Barbara Garrick) and James (Scott Jaeck) are upscale white Southerners of the old school, with roots that go back to the early 1800’s. Mary (Myra Lucretia Taylor) is the black maid and cook who has been with them since she was born. Indeed, her family has served the white family for generations going back to slavery days. Elroy (Cedric Young) is Mary’s husband. David (Alex Weisman) is Dolores and James’s college-age son, and he is gay. Jonathan (Eddie Bennett) is David’s lover from college.
If “Mary” went according to form, the white couple would be unvarnished racists, either comical or villainous, depending on the dramatist’s intent. Mary and Elroy would be noble, victimized, and exploited black folks, heroically carrying the burden of generations of white oppression. David and Jonathan would be members of the brave new world, unashamed of their homosexuality and bonded by their love against society’s prejudices.
Bradshaw brushes aside stereotypes and turns our preconceptions on their heads. As one example, Dolores and James affectionately call their maid Nigger Mary, which bothers David and Jonathan far more than it does Mary. The employers mean no harm by the name, which they use to differentiate the maid from another Mary living next door. It’s the white boys who are offended.
“Mary” is a satire but it doesn’t go for in-your-face anger. Bradshaw’s approach is more insidious, and, to the probable discomfort of the political correctness police, disagreeably persuasive. The white couple is warm and compassionate, though conditioned by those generations of Southern cultural history that shape their attitudes toward black people. In one speech, Mary makes a disturbing case for black people being better off under slavery than they are today, and her speech doesn’t carry a trace of Uncle Tom-ism.
Bradshaw is dealing with serious stuff, but he is also a disarmingly funny writer, with the comedy emerging naturally out of the dialogue and situations. No snappy one-liners or slapstick jokes. The style is realistic even when the action verges on farce. The playwright draws the audience so deeply into the lives of the characters that announcements late in the play that two of them have died elicited gasps and groans from the audience. “Mary” may be an issue-driven play but Bradshaw seduces the spectators into really carrying about his people.
“Mary” is drenched in irony and ends with a monologue so unexpected and so disturbing that the viewers are stunned at the conclusion. Nothing previously in the play prepares us for this final scene. There are no curtain calls after the play ends. The audience just pulls itself together and tries to digest everything it has just witnessed as it leaves the theater.
It would be unfair to divulge the various plot twists. Let it suffice that people do not behave and think as we expect. The playwright’s exploration of organized Christianity’s approach to homosexuality should stimulate much debate, and soul searching. Is religion a force for tolerance or an agent for bigotry, no matter how much scripture is cited? Goodman will hold audience discussions with the play’s staff following many performances and I suspect those discussions will crackle with intensity.
Goodman has assembled a perfect cast under May Adrales’s faultless direction. Taylor is superb as an outwardly compliant Mary who carries complexities that will distress many viewers, especially liberal ones. She is well matched by Young’s folksy warmth. Garrick and Jaeck continually keep the audience off balance with their unique blend of slave days mentality and genuine humanity. Weisman and Bennett are just right as the young gay men with a perfect mix of caricature and realism. Steve Pickering has a nice cameo near the end of the play as a very liberal priest.
Kevin Depinet has designed the set—an attractive and functional interior of Dolores and James’s home. Ana Kuzmanic designed the costumes, Keith Parham the lighting, and Andrew Hansen the sound.
“Mary” is an important play, partly because of Bradshaw’s distinctive approach to a set of troublesome and sensitive social issues. The play hopefully will introduce Bradshaw to a wider and more mainstream audience. “Mary” could end up one of the most significant premieres in Goodman’s honorable history.
“Mary” runs through March 6 at the Goodman Owen Theatre, 170 North Dearborn Street. Most performances are Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $10 to $42. Call 312 443 3800 or visit www.GoodmanTheatre.org.
The show gets a rating of four stars. February 2011
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At the Goodman Theatre
By Dan Zeff
Chicago – After a disastrous opening in 1896, Anthon Chekhov’s “The Seagull” was revived in 1898 and became a major hit, establishing both Chekhov and the Moscow Art Theatre as major forces in modern drama.
“The Seagull” is the first of Chekhov’s four major plays and set the format for the masterpieces to follow. The story is set in rural provincial Russia in the late 19th century. The main characters are bored, disillusioned, frustrated, and generally unhappy. Many of them are gripped by a passionate love for other characters that can never be realized. It’s all pretty bleak stuff, though leavened with frequent bursts of comedy.
The Goodman Theatre is reviving “The Seagull” in an adaptation by Goodman director Robert Falls. The production, seen at a preview, runs a solid three hours, with a single intermission. The long first act runs the original first three acts together before the break followed by the fourth and final act. It doesn’t sound promising for playgoers already wary of Chekhov’s reputation as a gloomy Gus who floods the stage with ineffectual men and women continually whining about how life has shortchanged them.
But prospective audiences should take heart. This is a stunning revival, a chance-taking staging of the drama filled with superb performances that illuminate and entertain and even amuse. It’s certainly the best “Seagull” and one of the best Chekhov revivals I’ve ever seen.
The spectator is aware this will be a different kind of Chekhov production upon entering the intimate Owen Theatre. The space has been configured into a thrust stage with the audience sitting on three sides. The stage itself is a raised, almost bare platform of wooden planks, establishing the rustic flavor of the setting. The 14-member casts sits on benches at the rear of the playing area, entering the stage as the script requires. The costumes vary from generic Russian peasant through the 1930’s to the present time. It all may seem gimmicky, but as soon as the play begins the audience quickly adjusts to the visual style. Falls’s concept may be unconventional, but it works, including the contemporary fluid translation that even includes a few un-Chekhovian obscenities.
The core characters in “The Seagull” are Arkadina, a successful Russian actress, and her young adult son Kostya, who yearns to be a great writer and burns with resentment at the stale artistic forms of the day, typified by his mother’s conventional theater. The satellite characters include Arkadina’s ailing brother Sorin, who owns the farm where the story takes place; Nina, the young daughter of a neighboring estate owner; Trigorin, Arkadina’s lover and a popular writer; Shamrayev, manager of the farm; his wife, Polina; their daughter, Masha; Dorn, the local physician; and Medvedenko, a teacher.
The characters each have a personal misery that they proclaim loudly and publicly. Much of their emotional agony comes from their unrequited romantic fixations. Kostya loves Nina, who loves Trigorin. Masha loves Kostya and her mother loves the doctor. All those passions are doomed. Medvedenko loves Masha, who marries him in the hope of freeing herself from her passion for Kostya. The marriage is a disaster.
In terms of narrative, not much happens until the play ends with an act of offstage violence. But each character is beautifully etched in his or her failed hopes and their desperate yearning for something good to happen in their lives. The exception is Arkadina, egotistical, self-dramatizing, and miserly. Outwardly she is content with her life but inwardly she is terrified of growing old and unfashionable. She craves praise as insulation against the ravages of time. Trigorin is superficial and spineless. He’s a literary mediocrity and in his moments of self awareness, he knows it.
All these characters come together in various combinations, all rendered with marvelous insight and compassion by Falls and his company. Audiences who think that Chekhov created cookie-cutter sad sacks for characters need to see this staging. The humanity of the production marks every scene. There is also some stimulating debate about the nature of art, though the symbolism of the seagull Kostya shoots is murky.
The show had an exceptionally extended eight weeks of rehearsal and it shows in the depth of the performances. Goodman has assembled a blue ribbon ensemble and the extra rehearsal pays off in the superb chemistry among all the actors, no matter how large or small their roles. Mary Beth Fisher is persuasive as the maddening yet pathetic Arkadina. Stephen Louis Grush is perfect as Kostya, the tormented artist and rejected lover. A young actress named Heather Wood delivers a breakout performance as the tragic Nina, the unluckiest character in the play. Kelly O’Sullivan is terrific as Masha, embittered by Kostya’s callous indifference. Cliff Chamberlain is an exceptionally young Trigorin, the embodiment of a man who drifts through life, aware of his own deficiencies but too indolent and complacent to change.
Scott Jaeck is a rock as Dr. Dorn, a prime example off the intelligent and caring Chekhovian character dragged down by the coarse society around him. Francis Guinan, as always, is spot on, this time as Sorin, an aging man who looks back with despair on an unsatisfactory life soon coming to a dreary end. There is also first rate complementary work by Steve Pickering (Shamrayev), Janet Ulrich Brooks (Polina), and Demetrios Troy (Medvedenko). Even the servants in cameo roles make their mark as performed by Will Allan, Dieterich Gray, Laura T. Fisher, and Rebecca Buller.
In addition to Todd Rosenthal’s evocative set, the production profits from the mood-setting lighting by Keith Parham, Ana Kuzmanic’s eclectic costumes, and Richard Woodbury’s sound design.
“The Seagull” runs through November 14 at the Goodman Owen Theatre, 170 North Dearborn Street. Most performances are Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $10 to $45. Call 312 443 3800 or visit www.GoodmanTheatre.org.
The show gets a rating of four stars. October 2010
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The Long Red Road
At the Goodman Owen Theatre
By Dan Zeff
CHICAGO—Plays about drunks are usually grim. They are even more depressing when the drunk is foul mouthed and self destructive. Sammy is a foul mouthed, self-destructive drunk and he is the central character in a depressing drama called “The Long Red Road.”
The Brett C. Leonard play is receiving its world premiere, after a long period of gestation, in a solidly acted and inventively staged production at the Goodman Owen Theatre. But the play remains a downer and could still use some work before it’s ready for prime time.
There are six characters in “The Long Red Road.” Sammy is the
thirty something boozer, drinking himself to death, eaten away by self loathing
partly from guilt. Nine years earlier the drunken Sammy caused an auto accident
that left one of his four year-old twin daughters dead and cost his wife her
legs. Sammy ran away from the accident and his family. He is now idrinking
away his life while living on an Indian reservation in South Dakota with a school teacher named Anne.
The audience doesn’t learn about the accident until the play is well underway. For about 45 minutes of the first act the story crosscuts between Sammy and Annie on the reservation and Sammy’s brother Bob, Sammy’s wife (now living with Bob), and his surviving daughter Tasha hundreds of miles away in Kansas. The script doesn’t provide the spectator with explicit information about how these characters relate as they share the same stage space in their widely separated homes, so the spectators sit rudderless trying to understand what they are watching and why.
Finally Leonard starts connecting the narrative dots toward the end of the opening act and the audience is put into the picture about who these characters are and what they mean to each other. The second act brings brother Bob reluctantly to the Indian reservation, answering a plea from Annie to come to his brother’s aid before it’s too late. Bob oozes resentment against Sammy, with grievances dating back to their childhood. But Bob’s biggest gripe is Sammy abandoning Tasha, forcing Bob to act as a reluctant surrogate father to the rebellious teenager.
There is a confrontation between Bob and Sammy and an emotional temporary reunion between Sammy and Tasha, who unaccountably idolizes her father in spite of his past transgressions and present liquor soaked deadbeat state. The meeting between Sammy and Tasha provides the play with its most intense and dramatic moments. The rest of the time the characters (sometimes inaudibly) bicker and brood and wallow in discontent.
For this production the Owen theater has been reconfigured, with the audience sitting on three sides of the stage. Eugene Lee’s set effectively creates multiple playing areas on two levels, shifting back and forth between Bob’s home and the reservation, aided by dramatic lighting designed by Edward Pierce and some portentous music cues by Ray Nardelli and Joshua Horvath. Janice Pytel designed the costumes.
Tom Hardy, a rising British actor, plays Sammy with considerable intensity and total disillusionment. The character clearly is bent on suicide, whether through the bottle or by getting into fights in local bars. There is nothing admirable about Sammy other than his clear-eyed self knowledge about what a loser he is. What can the intelligent and caring Annie possibly see in this human disaster? That’s one question the play never answers, though Greta Honold is affecting as the decent and appealing schoolteacher.
The supporting cast under Philip Seymour Hoffman’s directing does fine work, starting with Chris McGarry as the bitter, blue collar Bob. A local teenager named Fiona Robert delivers a marvelously mature performance as Tasha, a girl psychologically unmoored by the absence of her father. Katy Sullivan is her mother, a stoical façade barely masking her own resentments. Marcos Akiaten rounds out the cast as an Indian who tries futilely to deflect Sammy from his path toward self destruction.
“The Long Red Road” offers passages of genuine eloquence and some powerful confrontations. So there is much to admire in the play, but dramas about drunks, especially unregenerate drunks who drag down the people who love them, are hard to sit through. The raw language may also be a turnoff for some spectators. I was glad I saw the play and glad when it was over. The play’s title refers to the Indian term for the path to sobriety.
“The Long Red Road” runs through March 21 at the Goodman Owen Theatre, 170 North Dearborn Street. Performances are Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $34 and $45. Call 312 443 3800 or visit www.GoodmanTheatre.org.
The show gets a rating of three stars. February 2010Contact Dan at email@example.com
At the Goodman OwenTheatre
By Dan Zeff
CHICAGO—Alan Gross states that “High Holidays” is based on his own childhood in Skokie. If the play mirrors the author’s actual home life he has my sympathy. It was painful enough watching the bitterness, verbal (and some physical) violence, and hostility that drive the dysfunctional family Gross has put on the stage of the Goodman Owen Theatre. Imagine going through year after year of all that abuse.
Gross sets his play in 1963 in the Chicago suburb of Iroquois, the stand-in for Skokie. The characters comprise a Jewish family of four—Nate, Essie, and their sons Billy (age 12) and Rob (age 19).
The show starts off as one of those typical nostalgia trips
we expect from James Sherman in his Jewish-Chicagoland comedies at the Victory
Gardens. Young Billy fantasizes to the audience about being a hero for the
Chicago Bears and living the life of a noble Indian.
Reality soon intrudes with the appearance of Essie, his foul-mouthed mother, who is upset at her son’s indolence, upset enough to scare the kid by pulling a long knife on him. That sets the tone for the nastiness that ensues, heightened by the unexpected appearance of Rob, recently dropped out of Indiana University to become a folk singer in California. From Rob’s entrance to the end of the play the whole family is in dire need of anger management counseling.
Gross builds his narrative on the familiar theme of conflict between the generations. Nate has plans and expectations for his sons that the sons are not fulfilling. The boys have their own agendas, setting up confrontations that climax with Rob and Nate slugging each other.
There are numerous reasons to dislike “High Holidays.” Jewish spectators may be offended and non-Jews made uncomfortable by the dissing of Jewish rituals and liturgy throughout the play. The main target is the Bar Mitzvah ceremony so central to the life of a young Jewish male. Rob in particular rebels against the holy High Holidays and the Bar Mitzvah coming of age event. Rob feels he has his reasons and he’s entitled to his opinion, but the outpouring of derision has a disagreeable whiff of anti-Semitism, whatever the playwright’s intent.
At the religious meal served before the Jewish New Year, the
family drinks milk with the chicken main course, a garish violation of the most
basic kosher laws of Judaism that should have been deleted from the show at the
The dialogue of the parents is a mixture of Yiddish phrases and obscenities. The Yiddishisms do not roll naturally off the tongues of Rengin Altay (Essie) and Keith Kupferer (Nate). The profanities are gratuitous and distracting, especially coming from Essie. The woman’s character shifts uneasily between a caring mother and trailer trash. There is nothing we learn of Essie’s background to justify her reliance on obscenities, especially in addressing her sons.
Because of the four-letter language and the savage hostility that dominates the household, it’s hard to care about any of the characters. Only Billy has some claim to our sympathy, but he’s mostly pathetic, terrified of learning his Bar Mitzvah portion in Hebrew for reasons never satisfactorily established. The abusive father calls him slow and a dummy, and maybe he’s right, though Billy sounds articulate and normal in talking directly with the audience and in intimate conversations with his older brother.
Nate is an unhappy man, grinding away in a job he detests working for his domineering father in a shoe store. And his sons disappoint him, so his unhappiness has clear roots. Essie’s character is the more problematical and the play suffers from waffling between the woman as a shrew and as a loving wife and mother. Altay delivers both sides of the woman with impressive credibility, which only enhances the inconsistency in the playwright’s presentation.
Kupferer acts and looks like an aggrieved Al Bundy from “Married…with Children,” except that his character isn’t funny, just abrasive and bitter. Like Altay’s performance, the more persuasive Kupferer acts, the more unattractive his character becomes.
Ian Paul Custer does what he can with the stock role of the son at war with his father. Rob may be a smug wise guy but he has put up with an intolerable amount of hassling from his father for years and he’s entitled to explode in resentment. His mother is definitely on his side, to the point where there might be some suppressed incest in the air.
Major props go to young Max Zuppa, a real life eighth grader, who superbly plays Billy with all his hang-ups and fantasies. As an actor of sincerity and versatility, the kid is a keeper.
Director Steven Robman gives the characters their head in vilifying each other, climaxing with an impressively intense showdown scene at the dinner table between Nate and Rob. Robman does allow some funny one-liners to leak through from time to time but they don‘t displace the play’s overall darkness and dissension. Kevin Depinet designed the effective suburban home interior. Birgit Rattenborg Wise designed the costumes, the late Michael Philippi the lighting, and Ray Nardelli and Joshua Horvath the sound.
“High Holidays” runs through November 29 at the Goodman Owen Theatre, 170 North Dearborn Street. Performances are Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $15 to $40. Call 312 443 3800 or visit www.GoodmanTheatre.org.
The show gets a rating of two stars. November 2009
Contact Dan at firstname.lastname@example.org
At the Goodman Owen Theatre
By Dan Zeff
CHICAGO—In “Stoop Stories,” Dael Orlandersmith takes audiences on a nostalgic verbal walking tour of the New York City of her youth. Orlandersmith starts in Harlem at the top of Manhattan island and works her way down to the East Village and West Village before ending back in Harlem.
The stoop of the show’s title is a set of stone stairs that connect a tenement to a Harlem street where various characters gather to pass the time and philosophize on the passing parade. The characters are mostly Latinos and African Americans and they are mostly members of the underclass--junkies and burnouts and general losers, both young and old.
Orlandersmith is the author and sole (and soul) performer of “Stoop Stories.” Jo Bonney gets director credit but this is Orlandersmith’s show. The 60-minute production consists of a collection of vignettes connected by patches of poetry. The performer moves from character to character with a shift in dialect and vocal inflection and changes in body language.
For the presentation at the Goodman Owen Theatre, the stage is bare except for that stairway designed by Christine Pollard. A chair and a stool are the only props, the show relying heavily on Keith Parham’s dramatic lighting and Eric Shimelonis’s sound design, which draws mostly on snippets of jazz, rock, rhythm and blues, blues, and salsa.
“Stoop Stories” presumably is at least partly autobiographical. Orlandersmith endured a tough childhood in Harlem but her reminiscences here avoid any hard edges. The mood is whimsical, rueful, poignant, and occasionally sad, garnished with some humor.
One monologue is like a self-contained short story. It’s narrated by an elderly Polish-Jewish survivor of the holocaust who settled in New York City. The heart of the monologue is the man meeting the great jazz singer Billie Holiday at a local jazz club the man frequents. The unlikely duo hit it off immediately and leaves the man with memories warm enough to cause an emotional wrench when he learns Holliday died of her drug addiction at the age of 44.
Another effective story takes the author to a street corner where she meets a derelict black woman cadging change from passers by. The derelict is deep into drugs but hangs onto a shred of dignity by fondly recalling her younger days as a rock guitarist. The shell of a woman inspires Orlandersmith’s best acting of the night as she creates a sorrowful yet charming portrait of a woman at the end of the road.
The funniest item in the show is a brief scene of an elderly black man irate that he has traveled all the way from Harlem to a downtown concert by Nina Simone, only to learn that that the concert has been cancelled. And there is a comic bit about a pair of vulgar young rock groupies stirring up a fuss in a Manhattan coffee shop to get a rise out of tables of construction workers and businessmen. The saddest story is the tale of Nilda, a bright girl turned into a junkie by a charming local addict.
“Stoop Stories” is like a verbal scrapbook of people and places in Orlandersmith’s past that she shares with the audience. While she is continuously entertaining and sometimes moving, her show could use more dramatic heft. There have been some memorable monologues created by superior actors like Chazz Palminteri and John Leguizamo. These performers created entire worlds of life in New York City in shows that were longer and richer in both humor and drama than “Stoop Stories.”
But Orlandersmith by choice elects to be our guide on a lightweight tour of where she comes from. Taken on those terms “Stoop Stories” provides an agreeable hour, but the heart of Orlandersmith’s artistry resides in her more ferocious personal monologues like “Monster” and her challenging drama “Yellowman.”
“Stoop Stories” runs through October 11 at the Goodman Owen Theatre, 170 North Dearborn Street. Most performances are Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $15 to $40. Call 312 443 3800 or visit www.GoodmanTheatre.org .
The show gets a rating of three stars. Sept.2009Contact Dan email@example.com
The Crowd You’re in With
At the Goodman Owen Theatre
By Dan Zeff
CHICAGO—Not every successful play needs to be an epic drama about world class issues. A play can track the feelings of average people dealing with everyday matters and still come out as a major work. Consider “The Crowd You’re in With,” the latest play by Rebecca Gilman, now receiving its world premiere in an impeccable production at the Goodman Owen Theatre.
The play’s setting is pure Midwest Americana. Three couples gather in the backyard of a Chicago two-flat for a Fourth of July barbeque before watching holiday fireworks at the lakefront. The hosts are Jasper and Melinda, a thirty-something couple trying to start a family. Jasper’s friend Dan, a local rock journalist, attends with his hugely pregnant wife, Windsong. The third couple is Jasper and Melinda’s landlords, Karen and Tom, both about 60 and childless, they say by choice.
The play runs about 80 minutes without an intermission and explores the mindset of each couple in terms of their position on children. It’s a commonplace topic but it almost immediately injects tension into the gathering, with the casually abrasive Karen the chief instigator.
By the end of the short evening, friendships and marriages have come under fire and life goals have been examined and found vulnerable. There is plenty of humor but the overriding atmosphere is one of disquiet. Having a baby isn’t quite the obvious and cheerful choice it’s supposed to be, at least among these representatives of today’s middle class American society.
Karen, and to a lesser extent Tom, stir the emotional pot by airing their reasons for not having children—the mess, the disruption, and the questionable value of a long-term reward. Look at all those ungrateful offspring who abandon or ignore their aging parents. This husband and wife don’t need kids to complete their marriage. In conventional wisdom, that makes them selfish or deluded. But they are undeniably content with their lives and unapologetic about their childless state, even questioning the motives of couples who decide to have children.
Tom and Karen seem so outside society’s norm that I kept waiting for the explosive scene in which the couple blurts out some guilty secret that led to their childless state. It never came. They are what they are, happily married and indifferent to the absence of creating a next generation.
Dan wants to have a child to mark his presence in the world after he passes. Being a rock journalist doesn’t qualify him as someone who will leave footprints in life after he’s gone. Dan is a bit vulgar and his wife is as flakey as her name. Both have disastrous relationships with their parents and their success as future parents is open to debate.
Jasper eventually becomes the focus of the play. He’s unsteady emotionally on childbearing, unsure he wants to be a father and looking for reassurance. He’s both shaken and impressed by the placid comfort zone Tom and Karen find in their childless marriage. In the last third of the play, Jasper, Tom, and Karen are alone in he backyard, the others having departed after the barbeque turns into an acrimonious disaster. Jasper listens as Tom and Karen narrate their life stories. It’s a mellow interlude after the tensions of the earlier scenes but it leads to the play’s unexpected and disturbing final moment.
I haven’t been a big Rebecca Gilman fan before this play. I thought she wrote great individual scenes in otherwise very modest works. But in “The Crowd You’re in With,” she’s created her most sustained writing. The dialogue is realistic and charged with subtext. There are no false notes of melodrama. Every character sounds authentic and the discussion about children, for and against, arises naturally. I suspect that many people in the audience will find the play speaks to them at some level and depart the theater with a feeling of unease. The characters raise questions for which there are no easy answers, or no answers at all.
Goodman has put together a flawless cast, starting with Coburn Goss as Jasper and Janelle Snow as Melinda. Jasper and Melinda are in the most ambivalent situation, the other two couples already having made their childbearing commitments one way or the other. Kiff Vanden Heuvel (Dan) and Stephanie Childers (Windsong) provide much of the comic relief, but they have their own stresses that emerge beneath all the humorous banter.
Linda Gehringer (Karen) and Rob Riley (Tom) are the confident voices of the childless (they are also agnostic, and contentedly so). Both are decent people and their ease with themselves may be upsetting for spectators trying to poke holes in the serenity of their view of a childless marriage.
There is a seventh character, Jasper’s burnout friend Dwight, who attends the barbeque to mooch free food and booze. Dwight delivers a hilarious monologue recounting his experiences as a restaurant waiter trying to serve demanding couples with children that gives comic ammunition to the anti-children forces.
The production profits from the marvelously realistic set designed by Kevin Depinet. Rachel Anne Healy designed the costumes, Josh Epstein the atmospheric lighting, and Ray Nardelli and Joshua Horvath the sound. Wendy Goldberg is responsible for the unobtrusive but bull’s-eye directing, orchestrating the staging so the narrative flows with humor and rising desperation.
“The Crowd You’re in With” runs through June 21 at the Goodman Owen Theatre, 170 North Dearborn Street. Most performances are Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $10 to $39. Call 312 443 3800 or visit www. GoodmanTheatre.org.
The show gets a rating of four stars. June 2009
Contact Dan at firstname.lastname@example.org .
At the Goodman Theatre
By Dan Zeff
CHICAGO—Naomi Iizuka has written about 20 plays, none of which I’d seen before attending the world premiere of her “Ghostwritten” at the Goodman Theatre. If her latest work is representative of Iizuka’s output, I’ve missed out on some fascinating theater because “Ghostwritten” displays an imagination and an intelligence not often seen in contemporary American theater.
Iizuka is a cosmopolitan writer, born of a Japanese father
and a Latina American mother in Tokyo. She was raised in Japan, Indonesia, the
Netherlands, and Washington, D.C. Possibly the breadth of her life’s
experiences attracted her to the universal world of folklore. “Ghostwritten”
takes its inspiration from the famous fairy tale “Rumpelstiltskin.” Indeed, the
first words of the play are “Once upon a time.”
The early scenes take place 20 years ago in Vietnam where a young American woman named Susan is wandering alone and emotionally rudderless. Susan encounters a mysterious local woman and the pair work out an agreement in which the woman teaches Susan the secrets of cuisine Asian cooking in return for the promise of taking Susan’s first born child in the future. It seems like a good deal for Susan, who intends to avoid motherhood. But Susan stumbles upon a small orphanage in a Vietnamese village and adopts a little girl she names Bea (for Beatrice).
The play jumps ahead 20 years to the present time. Susan is now a famous chef celebrated for her Asian cooking and Bea is a young woman living with a doctor named Chad. The mysterious woman from Vietnam now reappears and demands that Susan fulfill the bargain made two decades ago. The distraught American tries to talk the Vietnamese woman out of taking possession of Bea, who is pregnant, but the woman brushes her off. The woman does concede that if Susan can learn her name the deal will be off.
That’s the bare bones of the story line but there are reverberations beyond the skeleton narrative of the fairy tale. A Vietnamese man named Linh (whose connection with the mysterious woman I missed early in the play) weaves in and out of the action, touching on the other characters. Susan’s younger brother Martin appears, an alcoholic with serious mental health problems.
At the intermission I was uneasy about where the play stood
and where it was going. Iizuka injected portentous bits that seemed to tease
the audience, like a pulsating backpack Linh carries that contained some unseen
animal. There were menacing and sinister bits that were just beyond the
understanding of the audience.
Fortunately, everything comes together in the second act. The action moves to a forest outside the Midwestern city where Susan lives. The mix of fantasy and realism dovetails into a poignant and startling conclusion about heritage and family roots that leaves the viewer moved and a little stunned at the end.
Iizuka also goes into a playful mode in the second act, indulging in a bit of post modern storytelling as Bea encounters a woodsman who steps outside the play to insist on his right to explain how he saves the young woman by uncovering the mysterious woman’s name. The woodsman is obviously Chad but denies being Bea’s lover (he’s called Not Chad in the playbill). It’s a funny scene and the abrupt high-risk break in tone with the rest of the story works.
The play is presented in the Owen Theatre, reconfigured for this production into a mostly bare stage enclosed on three sides by the audience. The fourth side is dominated by a balcony where the mysterious woman and other characters appear throughout the play. Instead of scenery, the production relies on Keith Parham’s dramatic lighting and especially the sound and original music of Andre Pluess to evoke the otherworldly atmosphere of the narrative.
Goodman has assembled a dream cast under the sure direction of Lisa Portes. Veteran actor Lisa Tejero strikes just the right notes of mystery and wry humor as the woman from Vietnam, a character who is fetching and charming one moment and subtly dangerous and scary the next. Kim Martin-Cotton is terrific as Susan, an assured woman suddenly put in the desperate position of trying to save her only child from forces beyond her control.
Tiffany Villarin is outstanding as Bea, a loving and independent young woman who discovers an aching need to learn about who she really is. Dieterich Gray is first rate as Chad and especially as the funny and stressed Not Chad woodsman, reminding me at times of a young Ted Danson. Dan Waller is excellent as Martin, the brother who can be frightening in his psychological unpredictability but also sympathetic and yearning.
Special mention goes to Arthur Acuna as Linh, who straddles the line between the supernatural and reality. It’s an elusive role that Acuna nails with understated authority.
“Ghostwritten” runs a little long in the first act but the second act is just right and the revelations during the final moments should leave the viewer dazed and choked up. This is a striking piece of writing that leaves the audience wanting more from this highly personal and distinctive writer.
“Ghostwritten” runs through May 3 at the Goodman Owen Theatre, 170 North Dearborn Street. Most performances are Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Tickets are priced from $10 to $39. Call 312 443 3800 or visit www.GoodmanTheatre.org .
The show gets a rating of 3 1/2 stars. April 2009Contact Dan at email@example.com
At the Goodman Theatre
By Dan Zeff
CHICAGO—The Neo-Futurist revival of Eugene O’Neill’s “Strange Interlude” ran 4 hours and 35 minutes plus three 15-minute intermissions on opening night Friday. I can only comment on the first half of the show, having departed at the second intermission. That may reflect a lack of professionalism, but I couldn’t see remaining in the Goodman Owen Theatre until nearly midnight watching an important play trashed. Life is too short.
“Strange Interlude” is one of the monuments of American drama, not only for its length but also for its unconventional stagecraft, which presents characters speaking their private thoughts aloud to the audience as asides and monologues. The drama certainly has its faults, notably a tendency toward soap opera, an abundance of unactable detailed stage directions, and some of O’Neill’s more heavy-handed dialogue.
Recognizing those weaknesses, a company may be allowed leeway in dealing with the drama’s flaws. But that leeway should serve the greater good of the play, not provide an excuse for ridicule.
O’Neill’s drama basically explores the relationship between a complex woman named Nina Leeds and the three men in her life over a period of decades. The play is awash in Freudian psychology, all the rage in America when the play opened on Broadway in 1928 (and won the Pulitzer Prize). It’s a daunting work for performers and a daunting work for audiences, but there are rewards in the stirring cumulative impact of the story.
The Neo-Futurists made their purpose clear in the first moments of the evening. This would be a production that sought out the easy laugh, as though O’Neill’s magisterial script was a mere launching pad for condescending stage business and actor mugging at every opportunity.
The audience, most of whom apparently were unfamiliar with the serious intent of the play, readily bought into the Neo-Futurist interpretation and laughed gleefully in response to the foolery on the stage. The production conditioned the audience so thoroughly to accept the play as a laugh riot that even when the performers attempted to play a scene straight, the spectators guffawed.
The production was the final entry in an extended Eugene O’Neill festival at Goodman. I didn’t see all the productions but I received positive reports about the shows I didn’t see. Some of the festival’s presentations were controversial, but they all respected the play and attempted to illuminate and freshen the works. The viewers might not have applauded the interpretations but at least they could recognize that the acting and directing trusted the play and were honorably seeking a key to the heart of the work. I saw none of that respect and trust in this production.
The Neo-Futurist ensemble consisted of five actors, one playing multiple roles. It was difficult to evaluate how successful this cast would be performing a legitimate staging of the play. Brennan Buhl, Joe Dempsey, Dean Evans, Merrie Greenfield, and Jeremy Sher are all qualified actors. Dempsey is one of the solid veteran performers on the Chicagoland stage and yet he was most responsible for the production’s agonizing comic excess in his shtick-laden rendering of Charles Marsden. But likely he delivered the performance requested by Greg Allen, who has to answer for this botch.
It’s possible that the production corrected itself in the two hours I missed, but I doubt it. In looking at the cast insert in the playbill, I noted the absence of two central characters in the final acts, Gordon Evans and his fiancé, which indicates liberties were taken right to the end.
The production only ran for three performances over the weekend, a small commercial payoff for what must have been months of rehearsal. The Neo-Futurists decided to seize their opportunity to explore an American classic by having some have fun at the expense of O’Neill’s colossus, but that’s what this experimental local company does. In another vehicle their nudge-nudge-wink-wink approach may have worked, but not for “Strange Interlude” The Goodman artistic management should have recognized that when it was booking companies for the festival.
The bottom line is that the spectators who giggled their way through “Strange Interlude” will never know what they missed. For those of us who anticipated a chance to visit a seldom performed classic, it was a night of frustration and dismay.
Contact Dan at firstname.lastname@example.org
The Hairy Ape
At the Goodman Theatre
By Dan Zeff
CHICAGO—Until now, Carla Gugino has been the star of the Goodman Theatre’s current Eugene O’Neill festival for her riveting work in “Desire Under the Elms.” Now she’s got company—Chris Sullivan for his towering performance in “The Hairy Ape.”
Goodman assigned “The Hairy Ape” to director Sean Graney and his Hypocrites theater company, one of Chicagoland’s most experimental groups. Graney’s staging of “The Hairy Ape” is resourceful and true to the spirit of the original, until the final scene. But the production is all about Sullivan and his galvanizing portrait of the play’s hero/anti-hero, Robert “Yank” Smith.
“The Hairy Ape” is one of American drama’s most successful adventures in expressionistic theater, a primarily European style that stresses symbolic settings, bizarre lighting, and nonrealistic acting to express an idea or attitude. In “The Hairy Ape,” O’Neill wrote “The subject here…is man and his struggle with his own fate….his attempt to belong.”
There is only one important character in “The Hairy Ape,” Yank, a stoker feeding coal into the furnaces of an ocean liner. In the unbearable heat and dust of the stokehole, Yank rules by physical intimidation. He “belongs” because he and his mates make the ship go. But Yank’s complacent self-image is shattered by the appearance of a wealthy and affected young woman who visits the stokehold to see how the other half works. She’s horrified by the sight of the brutish Yank, calls him a filthy beast, and faints.
The woman’s insult preys on Yank’s mind. He and a socialist mate go on shore in New York City. There he is callously rejected by the wealthy New Yorkers promenading on Fifth Avenue after Sunday church services, beaten and jailed by the police, and then rejected again when he tries to join the International Workers of the World radical labor union. In O’Neill’s script, the disoriented Yank finally makes his way to the city zoo, where he enters a gorilla’s cage. The animal crushes Yank to death and O’Neill ends the play with the comment “And, perhaps, the Hairy Ape at last belongs.”
Whatever the play’s social, philosophical, and psychological resonance when it opened in 1922, it now endures primarily for its theatrical impact. O’Neill wrote copious descriptions of the sets he wanted for the various scenes, sets so elaborate they would pauperize most theater companies today.
The play’s eight scenes run a little over an hour with no intermission. Yank is on stage the entire play and has most of the dialogue, including several soliloquies. Chris Sullivan establishes himself as an indelible Yank before he speaks his first line. Sullivan appears on stage—a massive, muscular body coated in sweat and coal dust. His Yank exudes raw animal power, later enhanced by he stoker’s struggle to verbally articulate his inner confusion and bitterness after the incident in the stokehole.
Sullivan persuasively renders Yank’s downward arc from the tyrant ruler of the stokehole to uncomprehending victim of a society who casts him out as a distasteful misfit. Although the play is heavily stylized, Sullivan’s Yank brings a realism to the plight of the angry, perplexed, and finally defeated Yank, a character who is destroyed in his futile search to “belong.”
This being a Sean Graney production, the audience can expect some fresh and startling flourishes to the staging. The early scenes are surprisingly close to O’Neill’s original, assisted immeasurably by Tom Burch’s evocative multi-level set that convincingly creates the chaos and filth of the stokehole and then morphs to Fifth Avenue and the union hall.
Graney injects a humorous touch in converting the millionaire swells on Fifth Avenue from starchy rich folk to effete disco types. The union hall becomes the site of a bakery, which isn’t in the original but provides a bit of incongruous comedy without violating the playwright’s intentions.
The controversy comes in the final scene. O’Neill ends the play in the city zoo where Yank meets his violent death. Graney first brings on a young girl who wheels onto the stage a basin for shaving. Yank then proceeds to lather himself up, shaving his skull (and slicing open a gory gash in his scalp) before ending his life by cutting his throat.
Yank’s suicide flatly contradicts the play, where Yank is symbolically and realistically crushed by outside forces. Taking his own life involves a level of cold-blooded decision making that isn’t in Yank’s character. The throat cutting may be Yank’s final act of defiance against a world that wouldn’t let him in, but it rewrites the last scene and radically changes the meaning of Yank’s death. It’s a bold revisionist embellishment but for me it didn’t work.
Sullivan carries the play on his broad shoulders, but he receives strong support from an ensemble led by Kurt Ehrman as a boozing and poetic Irish stoker and Rob McLean as the socialist. Alison Siple designed the costumes, Jared Moore the expressionistic lighting, and Miles Polaski the atmospheric sound. Kevin O’Donnell composed the haunting incidental music.
“The Hairy Ape” runs through February 21 at the Owen Theatre at the Goodman Theatre, 170 North Dearborn Street. Most performances are Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $12 to $20. Call 312 443 3800 or visit www.GoodmanTheatre.org.
The show gets a rating of 31/2 stars. February 2009
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Million Dollar Quartet
At the Goodman Theatre
By Dan Zeff
CHICAGO—At first look, “Million Dollar Quartet” seems like still another of those compilation jukebox musicals that have swamped the Chicagoland theater scene in recent weeks. It just shows that one should never prejudge. “Million Dollar Quartet” turns out to be the best live rock ‘n’ roll show I have ever seen.
“Million Dollar Quartet” originated in Florida two years ago and is now playing a ridiculously short run at the OwenTheatre at the Goodman Theatre.
The show is based on an actually event. On Dec. 4, 1956, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis gathered in the Sun Record studios operated by Sam Phillips. Surviving tapes of that meeting indicate that not much memorable music was played. But the gathering provides the hook for a wild 90-minute jam session of rock ‘n’ roll music by four of its founding fathers at the Goodman.
Sam Phillips is the show’s narrator and also its only non-musical participant. The real-life Phillips made stars out of the four musical primitives he rescued from the hardscrabble poor white culture of the postwar Deep South. Phillips coaxed a new kind of raw powerful music out of Elvis and the others, a mix of African American rhythm and blues and white country and western.
Phillips fills in the audience on how he guided his protégés to revolutionizing American music. There is some bickering among the four, mostly between the brash Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins, a man carrying a grievance of not getting his due in the rock ‘n’ roll universe. The book also supplies a subplot about Cash and Lewis reluctantly ending their relationship with Phillips Sun Records for the greater economic and promotional resources of the Columbia record label. Their departure leaves Phillips livid with their perceived betrayal.
As jukebox musical books go, the story and dialogue by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux aren’t bad. But it’s the music that makes the show so memorable. The sheer exuberance of the performances raise the level of “Million Dollar Quartet” light years beyond the nostalgia Golden Oldies vehicle it could have been.
Credit some bull’s-eye casting in three of the leading roles for the show’s success. Levi Kreis is astonishing as Jerry Lee Lewis. He looks like Lewis, perfectly captures the Lewis manner, and most important, he sings and plays with that irrepressible Lewis energy. This isn’t an impersonation, it’s a reincarnation.
Lance Guest looks and sounds liker Johnny Cash to the point of being eerie. For most audiences Carl Perkins is the least familiar of the four, his career basically residing with “Blue Suede Shoes,” and that was a hit often identified with Elvis Presley, much to Perkins’s resentment. Rob Lyons nails Perkins as a singer and person, making him the most three-dimensional character in the show. Only the actor playing Elvis isn’t quite up to the mark, physically and vocally, though he does tear up “My Baby Left Me.”
Chicago actor Brian McCaskill is a convincing Sam Phillips. The creators of the show apparently believed that the production needed some sex appeal, so they introduced a Presley girlfriend named Dyanne. The character isn’t essential to the evening but Kelly Lamont certainly does have sex appeal and she delivers creditable renditions of “Fever” and “I Hear You Knockin’.” The rousing musical backup comes from bass player Chuck Zayas and drummer Bill Shaffer.
Most of the action takes place in the grungy Sun Records studio in Memphis, with occasional dramatic moments flowing outside of the studio at the side of the stage. The sound comes across with a high decibel count as befits the music.
The play list for the show includes many of the anthems that shaped the first generation of rock ’n’ roll—“Whole Lotta Shakin’,” “See You Later, Alligator,” “Blue Suede Shoes,” and the like. There are also gospel and country songs and a couple of nods to the pop songs of the day. Whatever the number, the performances are belted out with such enthusiasm and such musical professionalism that each song sounds mint fresh.
The technical credits go to Adam Koch (scenic design), Caryn Klein (costume design), Keith Parham (lighting), and Kai Harada (sound). Mutrux and Eric Schaeffer directed, which largely means giving their brilliant ensemble its head to rock all night. Chuck Mead is credited with musical arrangements and supervision. If he’s responsible for the purity and exhilaration of the music, God bless him.
Million Dollar Quartet” is booked at the Goodman for a slender three week run. The production then transfers to the Apollo Theatre, 2540 North Lincoln Avenue, and is scheduled to run through January 4. An extension beyond that date seems likely. The audience for this production should be immense.
“Million Dollar Quartet” runs through October 26 at the Goodman Theatre, 170 North Dearborn Street. Performances are Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 and 6 p.m. Tickets are $20 to $49. Call 312 423 6612 or visit www.grouptheatertix.com.
The show gets a rating of four stars. Oct. 2008
Contact Dan at firstname.lastname@example.org.