At the Mercury Theater
by Dan Zeff
Chicago – The Mercury Theater revival of “Barnum” tries mightily to please, and the opening night audience applauded like it was happy with the show. Still, the musical is a questionable choice for the theater’s new artistic management and by the end of the evening it was plain that good intensions weren’t enough to do “Barnum” justice.
“Barnum” calls itself a musical suggested by the life of P. T. Barnum, the great nineteenth century American showman. The story covers major episodes in Barnum’s life from 1835 to 1880, but the biographical element is just a sketchy skeleton for a series of glitzy production numbers intended to replicate the color and vitality of the circus.
The show ran on Broadway for two years in the early 1980’s, entertaining audiences with its lavish display of circus skills. The production was literally a circus, featuring tumblers, acrobats, aerialists, and jugglers. Carrying the show was Jim Dale as Barnum. Dale endeared himself to the audience by riding a unicycle, walking a tightrope, and jumping from a trampoline to a balcony, as well as singing and dancing.
One basic problem with the Mercury Theater production is the theater itself. On Broadway, the theater was converted into a gaudy three-ring circus tent. But the Mercury is an intimate house ill suited to spectacle. The stage is small and the backstage technology that might assist in creating special effects is minimal. Visually, the scenic design by Jacqueline and Richard Penrod is dominated by a drab backdrop and the eye-catching elements in the staging are splashy circus costumes designed by Carol Blanchard.
From time to time the ensemble attempts standard circus bits, but they come down to some unsteady unicycle riding, routine juggling, a couple of modest magic tricks, and a few turns by rope climbing acrobats. The circus choreography is credited to Sylvia Hernandez-DiStasi, co-founder of the Actor’s Gymnasium and a veteran of the superb circus performances over recent seasons at the Lookingglass Theatre. But Hernandez-DiStasi hasn’t been able to come up with anything really dazzling, maybe because the performing ensemble restricted in its circus talents and maybe because the smallish stage area isn’t appropriate for elaborate circus-style presentations. Even an all-out finale with lots of twirling and gyrations intended to bring the show to a big finish lacked the gee-whiz factor seen regularly at the Lookingglass.
Photo by Michael Brosilow
Without the spectacle and athleticism available to properly dominate the production, the revival has to fall back on Mark Bramble’s book and the score by Cy Coleman (music) and Michael Stewart (lyrics). The score is serviceable, with a couple of quality numbers in “The Colors of My Life” and “The Prince of Humbug.” The book hits the highlights of Barnum’s career and delves into his married life, but the narrative isn’t strong enough to compensate for the lack of rousing pageantry and breathtaking circus acts.
Fortunately, the production stars Gene Weygandt as Barnum. Weygandt, one of the area’s most versatile actors, is on stage most of the evening and does everything he can—acting, singing, dancing—to inject energy and whizz-bang into the evening. It’s a resourceful, charming, and ingratiating performance with Weygandt selling Barnum as a benevolent purveyor of hokum and humbug. However, with the best will in the world Weygandt can’t provide the eye-popping circus skills the role needs to fire up the audience.
The only other roles that matter belong to Cory Goodrich and Summer Naomi Smart. Goodrich gives a splendid three-dimensional performance as Charity Barnum, P. T.’s independent and feisty wife and helpmate. Smart plays Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind, one of Barnum’s big stars. Lind for a time briefly injects temporary romantic tension with Barnum, to his wife’s dismay, but it peters out. Smart sings well but her role is underdeveloped as an international celebrity. The other members of the ensemble play multiple roles, the most notable being Kevin McKillip as the ringmaster among other characters. The band, outfitted in circus apparel, plays spritely music under Eugene Dizon’s directing from a corner of the stage.
L. Walter Stearns
is the director. Stearns accomplished some remarkable feats as director at the
Porchlight Theatre but he seems hamstrung here, primarily because the necessary
pageantry and quality circus acts seem beyond the reach of his production. The
choreography by Brenda Didier and Andrew Waters is long on enthusiasm but there
are no showstoppers.
Photo by Michael Brosilow
The production doesn’t lack for high spirits and eagerness to entertain. But there is a reason why “Barnum” is so seldom revived. It’s a show that must wow the audience or it flounders. The Mercury production, with the best will in the world, just doesn’t wow.
“Barnum” runs through June 16 at the Mercury Theater, 3745 North Southport. Performances are 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 $25 to $59. Call 773 325 1700 or visit MercuryTheaterChicago.com.
The show gets a rating of 2½ stars.
Contact Dan at firstname.lastname@example.org. April 2013
Like Dan on Facebook. Become a Friend!!!
Want to read more reviews go to TheaterinChicago
Freud’s Last Session
At the Mercury Theater
by Dan Zeff
Chicago – Mike Nussbaum is probably weary of hearing himself called the Grand Old Man of Chicagoland Theater and a local treasure, like Wrigley Field. But consider the record. Nussbaum has provided local audiences with superior performances for nearly 50 years. Those unfortunates who missed him over the previous decades can sample his brilliance as one half of the cast of “Freud’s Last Session” at the Mercury Theater.
“Freud’s Last Session” opened at the Mercury in March with its New York cast of Martin Rayner as Sigmund Freud and Mark H. Dold as English author C. S. Lewis. Once the production was established, a local cast replaced the originals, consisting of Nussbaum as Freud and Coburn Goss as Lewis. The new duo doesn’t miss a beat, and indeed the show seems a little sharper and even more stimulating.
The Mark St. Germain play takes place on Sept. 3, 1939, in Freud’s study in London, shortly after the great psychoanalyst and author fled Nazi persecution in Vienna. World War II is about to break out and the dialogue between the two men is periodically interrupted by BBC radio broadcasts verbally charting the imminent start of the war after Germany’s invasion of Poland.
Freud is near the end of his life, dying in agonizing pain from oral cancer. He is 83 and world famous. Lewis is 41 and just starting his to make his mark in British intellectual and literary life. “The Screwtape Letters” and “The Chronicles of Narnia” are still ahead of him.
Photo Credit: Peter Coombs
Lewis visits Freud at the great man’s invitation. Freud is a confirmed and outspoken atheist and Lewis is a committed Christian. The gulf between believer and unbeliever fires most of the dialogue during the 80-minute play. The two men, each articulate and passionate, go back and forth in debating original sin, free will, sex, whether or not God exists, the Devil, suffering and pain—the standard theological issues.
As I noted in my first review, the exchanges between Freud and Lewis grow heated, but the verbal combatants never lose their manners. The play reminds the audience how highly charged and emotional issues can be approached by opposing sides without descending into abusive insults and personal attacks. Naturally, neither side convinces the other of his point of view, but both give as good as they get. The script often injects humorous banter into the discourse, preventing the play from turning into an academic exercise of stiff religious position papers.
The Freud character tends to dominate the play because most of the humor resides with him as an endearing curmudgeon, and the skeptic is always more entertaining than the true believer. Plus we have to sympathize with his pain as cancer eats away at his jaw. Three weeks after the end of the play’s action, Freud ordered his doctor to give him a fatal injection of morphine.
Photo Credit: Peter Coombs
Nussbaum nails every facet of Freud’s character—the man’s intellectual brilliance, his droll humor, the intensity of his atheism, his pessimism over mankind’s destructive nature, and his love of a good high stakes debate. Plus, he makes Freud’s physical pain palpable to the viewer. It’s a wonderfully well-rounded performance, not too doctrinaire and not too pixie-ish.
In a role bound to be overshadowed by the more theatrical Freud, Goss’s C. S. Lewis is much more than a foil for the psychoanalyst’s wit and brilliant mind. While deferring to the older and more eminent man, Goss’s Lewis yields nothing in the intensity of his religious belief. It’s a more even battle than I recall at the March opening, enriching the texture of the discussion. There is a warmth and sensitivity to the Goss performance that saves him from sounding like a priggish zealot.
Brian Prather’s book-lined study provides the perfect backdrop for the duel of wits and ideas. Mark Mariani designed the costumes, Clifton Taylor the lighting, and Beth Lake the sound. Tyler Marchant’s directing is unobtrusive, sustaining the necessary atmosphere of realism and allowing the language to crackle without directorial intrusion.
My view of “Freud’s Last Session” remains unchanged from the March opening. It’s an adult play in the best sense of that much abused term. The dialogue is absorbing, often eloquent, ad best of all, accessible, no matter what the audience’s religious convictions and how wary they are of highbrow plays.
“Freud’s Last Session” runs through November 11 at the Mercury Theater, 3745 North Southport Avenue. Performances are Wednesday at 2 and 7:30 p.m., Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 1 and 5 p.m. Tickets are $45 to $59. Call 773 325 1700 or visit www.mercurytheaterchicago.com.
The show gets a rating of 3½ stars. Sept. 2012
Contact Dan at email@example.com.
Like Dan on Facebook. Become a Friend!!!!!http://facebook.com/zeffdaniel
Freud’s Last Session
At the Mercury Theater
by Dan Zeff
Chicago – “Freud’s Last Session” at the Mercury Theater is a “what if” play. What if the Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud and the English professor and author C. S. Lewis met for a morning of conversation? What if that meeting took place in 1939 on the day World War II started, two weeks before Freud’s death?
“Freud’s Last Session” is a fictional conception of such a meeting in Freud’s study in London. At the time Freud was a world famous and controversial figure. Lewis was a little known Oxford University don with the books that would make him famous—“The Screwtape Letters” and “The Chronicles of Narnia”--ahead of him.
Lewis visits Freud at the great
doctor’s invitation. It doesn’t take long for the two men to lock intellectual
horns. Freud is a committed atheist and Lewis is a passionate Christian. The
gulf between them is unbridgeable, but the theological loggerheads inspire some
great talk, each man firing his guns with passion and conviction. The
conversation also veers off into stimulating, and just as passionate, exchanges
on war, suicide, suffering, and sex.
The exchanges grow heated, but the verbal combatants never lose their manners. The play reminds the audience how highly charged and emotional issues can be approached by opposing sides without descending into shrill insults and personal attacks. What are the chances such a debate would be conducted today with such civility? Based on the screeching political discourses that bombard us today, the chances are considerably less than zero.
Naturally, neither side convinces the other of his point of view, but both give as good as they get. The men frequently inject humorous banter into their debate, preventing the play from turning into an academic exercise. Playwright Mark St. Germain has humanized both characters, giving the audience three-dimensional individuals instead of stiff position papers on the existence or nonexistence of God.
The flow of intellectual discourse is interrupted from time to time by the outside world. The men listen to BBC radio news reports of the approach war between Britain and Germany and there is even a sudden air raid alert that sends both men scurrying for their gas masks. The prospect of a new war returns Lewis emotionally to the horrors of the World War I trenches that inflicted psychological scars he still carries. And Freud endured ugly tastes of the cruelties the Jews endured from the Nazis before he managed to leave Austria for the safe haven of England.
Most of all there looms the specter of Freud’s losing battle with oral cancer, its agonies making the man’s waking hours a hell of suffering that would lead to his ordering his doctor to give him a fatal injection of morphine to put him out of his misery.
“Freud’s Last Sessions” runs about 80 minutes with no intermission, just the right amount of time to allow the characters to explore their weighty philosophical and religious issues and play out the human dimension in their encounter. If their meeting solves nothing, it does allow the audience to absorb lots of challenging and articulate talk about issues that touch the core of human existence. The playwright is even handed in allowing each man his say, but Freud comes off as the more dominant figure, partly because the cynic is generally more entertaining than the true believer, partly because Freud is such an endearing curmudgeon, and partly because we sense the man is dying before our eyes. Lewis has something of the stiff-upper-lip Englishman in him, plus his respect verging on awe for Freud, in spite of the doctor’s atheism, concedes Freud much of the center stage.
“Freud’s Last Session” is in its second year off Broadway in New York City and the producers are hoping for an extended run at the Mercury Theater, an ideal intimate venue for the show. They have imported the original New York cast of Martin Rayner (Freud) and Mark H. Dold (Lewis). Both actors nail their characters. Rayner has the spotlight role and capitalizes on it theatrically and dramatically. Dold is his equal, achieving a warmth that complements his zeal and spares Lewis from coming across as a religious zealot and a bit of a prig.
Tyler Marchant’s directing is properly unobtrusive, giving the performance a feeling of realism and inevitability and allowing his two superb actors to do their thing without noticeable directorial intrusion. Production credits are first rate, led by set designer Brian Prather’s book-lined study. Mark Mariani designed the costumes, Clifton Taylor the lighting, and Beth Lake the sound.
“Freud’s Last Session“ is one of those rare events in today’s theater, an adult play in the best sense of that much-abused word. It’s absorbing, often eloquent, and best of all, accessible, no matter what the viewers’s religious convictions and how wary they are of highbrow plays. The play may not effect any conversions to either theological view but it will entertain, and perhaps stir some patrons to vigorous chat over drinks after the leaving the Mercury.
“Freud’s Last Session” runs through June 3 (with extensions possible) at the Mercury Theater, 3745 North Southport. Performances are Wednesday at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 1 and 5 p.m. Tickets are $45 to $55. Call 773 325 1700 or visit mercurytheaterchicago.com.
The show gets a rating of 3½ stars. March 2012
Contact Dan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Like Dan on Facebook. Become a friend!!!
The Screwtape Letters
At the Mercury Theatre
By Dan Zeff
CHICAGO—“The Screwtape Letters” has been extended into next year at the Mercury Theatre. That means there is a local audience for a play dedicated to promoting Christianity.
At the weeknight performance I attended, the audience included numerous young people who apparently represented Christian schools and youth groups. After the show I saw a large bus that was loading spectators, clearly a theater party. So the play is being marketed successfully to Christian groups.
“The Screwtape Letters” should be an easy sell to religious oriented customers. The theology is entertaining and accessible, with some laughs and plenty of spot-on satire. It runs about 85 minutes without an intermission, so the evening won’t take on the burdensome length of an overlong sermon. The show should also attract playgoers beyond the Christian base who will be intrigued by a stimulating evening that explores ethical and theological problems with urbanity and wit.
The play is an adaptation of a book of fictional letters written for a British newspaper in 1941 by the English intellectual C. S. Lewis. The letters were collected into a book in 1942. The author created the figure of Screwtape, a kind of middle management devil in Hell who exchanges correspondence with his nephew, a young protégé devil in training named Wormwood. In the letters, Screwtape instructs Wormwood in methods of ensnaring a Christian soul on earth.
The play is really a long one-man show. Screwtape does all the talking and he’s the only figure on stage except for an imp called Toadpipe costumed like a mummy. Toadpipe slithers about the stage, making noises, miming actions, and collecting and delivering the letters between Screwtape and Wormwood.
Screwtape starts off like a rather elegant middle-aged professor at a prestigious English university (which was what Lewis was). Max McLean, who also co-adapted the Lewis original with director Jeffrey Fiske, plays Screwtape in a rich, loquacious manner. For most of the evening McLean’s Screwtape is very much the droll sophisticate, educating Wormwood in the subtleties of spiritually corrupting their human target.
The play explores matters of good and evil from the viewpoint of the bad guys, who gives the discussion a fresh and entertaining spin. The personality of Screwtape calls to mind the aphorism that Heaven is great for climate but Hell is for company.
The play provides much amusing satire of human attitudes, and some points that are still relevant today. For example, Screwtape mocks the materialism that tempts their human quarry in terms familiar to today’s audiences well acquainted with the excesses of our celebrity driven culture. He lectures on war (the book came out during the darkest days of World War II) in a manner that connects firmly with current events in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even Screwtape’s description of earthly concepts of female beauty—boyish figures and a fear of aging—hits the bull’s-eye in 2008.
Gradually, Screwtape deteriorates from the urbane professorial gentleman of the opening scenes into a driven and disheveled devil howling in rage over the probable loss of his human prey to the forces of God, much to the injury of Wormwood. Screwtape does not forgive failure when it comes to competing for human souls.
McLean makes fine company as Screwtape, though I lost a number of his words throughout his unctuous delivery, to my loss. Hopefully other viewers had better luck grasping all of McLean’s verbiage. This is a play that requires a clear head and a strong attention span from the viewer. The show is all language and the audience needs to concentrate to absorb all of Screwtape’s arguments. The language may be wry and often humorous but the subject matter is still dense and needs the customer’s full focus.
Yvonne Gougelet plays Toadpipe as a kind of nasty reptile. The character is mostly on stage to provide visual variety from an otherwise all-talk, little action drama. Gougelet gets maximum mileage out of her character, given that she has no intelligible lines. She displays the supple body of a gymnast and contributes some nice physical exclamation points to the evening’s satirical thrusts.
Cameron Anderson’s set consists basically of a leather easy chair on a raked stage, with a metal runged ladder at the rear for Toadpipe’s use in clambering up and down to drop off and pick up the Screwtape-Wormwood correspondence. Tyler Micoleau’s lighting is increasingly dramatic and, well, Hellish. Michael Bevins designed the costumes and Bart Fasbender the sound.
“The Screwtape Letters” runs through January 4 at the Mercury Theatre, 3745 North Southport Avenue. Performances are Wednesday through Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 4 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $29 to $48.50. Call 773 325 1700 or visit www.ScrewtapeOnStage.com.
The show gets a rating of 3 1/2 stars. Oct. 2008
Contact Dan at email@example.com.
The Kid from Brooklyn
at the Mercury Theatre
By Dan Zeff
CHICAGO—For people of a certain age, Danny Kaye could be the most affectionately remembered entertainer of his time. Kaye was a one of a kind comedian and actor, at his best in person but also a major star of motion pictures and television.
Kaye came across as a totally likable personality, and he carved out a notable reputation for himself as a humanitarian, both with UNICEF and as a fund-raising guest conductor with symphony orchestras. Audiences loved his tongue twisting vocalizing and gibberish songs and in England he was more popular than the queen. So the public Danny Kaye was a joy. The private Danny Kaye was a darker sort, temperamental and a womanizer.
A new musical called “The Kid from Brooklyn” at the Mercury Theatre tries to present both the public and private Danny Kaye. But the talents of the public Danny Kaye are so unique to the man that they defy accurate recreation, and the private Danny Kaye is a mostly unsympathetic person of no great interest. Besides, people attending the musical probably don’t want to watch a Danny Kaye as adulterer and neurotic, which may render half the show unappealing for many viewers.
To attempt a biographical stage piece on Kaye, an actor is required to can channel Kaye’s charisma and performing skills. “The Kid from Brooklyn “ has found its man in Brian Childers, who sounds like Kaye, at certain angles looks like Kaye, and makes a good run at replicating Kaye the entertainer, especially in his tongue-twisting patter songs. Childers delivers a performance of great exuberance (the public Kaye) and some emotional coloring (the private Kaye). I can’t imagine a performer coming closer to recreating the Danny Kaye the public loved from the 1940’s to his death in 1987.
Unfortunately it’s difficult to extract Kaye’s genius from his live appearances and TV and movies. He wasn’t a joke telling stand-up comic who could be re-created in isolation. Childers does soar in a couple of terrific set pieces, one a double talk number about getting drafted during World War II and the other a take on his famous “Minnie the Moocher” song. There are a couple of renditions of the “Tchaikovsky” tongue twister that launched his career in the musical “Lady in the Dark” in 1941, a good try but not up to the Kaye originals. So audiences do get a taste of the unique Kaye style, but once removed.
The musical is structured as a flashback, starting with Kaye in 1968 and going back to his start in show business as a Borscht Belt comedian named David Kaminsky in 1938. During the course of more than two hours of playing time, we get cameos of a flood of show business personalities who crossed Kaye’s path, like Laurence Olivier (for whom Kaye reportedly had a gay passion), Vivien Leigh, Cole Porter, Moss Hart, and Cole Porter.
Karin Leone is superb as Sylvia Fine, who managed his career, wrote most of his material, and as his wife endured his many infidelities. Christina Purcell and Adam LeBow play a huge gallery of show business characters who filtered through Kaye’s life. Both demonstrate exceptional versatility, and the ability to change costumes and wigs off stage in the blinking of an eye. Purcell is particularly effective as Eve Arden, Kaye’s main lover during his marriage to Sylvia Fine. And her Kitty Carlisle is spot-on.
The musical does not have an original score. Many of the numbers are associated with Kaye, though his classic “Anatole of Paris” unaccountably is omitted. A couple of songs are interpolated, “Hooray for Hollywood” and “It never Entered My Mind.” The result is a collection of tunes that give the show no particular musical identity.
The physical production is limited by the restricted Mercury Theatre stage space, much of it occupied by a fine quartet who provides the instrumental accompaniment. Shon Le Blanc’s costumes have an authentic 1940’s through 1960’s look. Peter Loewy directs and also wrote the show’s book with Mark Childers. It’s not a strong book. Too many of the real life characters are caricatures (like Gertrude Lawrence) and the comedy too often is lame. The show ends on a touchy feely note that may be true to Kaye’s marriage late in his life but seems rushed and forced in the show.
Judging from the large audience at my performance, “The Kid from Brooklyn” will attract a senior citizen audience with fond memories of Kaye. Childers’s bravura impersonation may satisfy these customers, but I left the theater feeling that I could have spent the evening more profitably watching Kaye in “Knock on Wood,” still the funniest movie I’ve ever seen.
“The Kid from Brooklyn” runs through August 24 at the Mercury Theatre,3745 North Southport Avenue. Performances are Wednesday at 2 p.m., Thursday and Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $42.50 and $48.50. Call 773 325 1700.
The show gets a rating of three stars. June 2008
For more information, visit www.thekidfrombrooklynmusical.com.