At the Porchlight Theatre
By Dan Zeff
Chicago—Conventional wisdom places “Oklahoma” as the show that guided American musical comedy into modern times with its blend of dance, song, and dialogue into an organic whole. “Oklahoma” opened in 1943, but a case could be made for a 1940 show as the pioneering American musical of the modern era. That show is “Pal Joey,” now being revived at the Porchlight Theatre.
“Pal Joey” was written by Richard Rodgers (score) and Lorenz Hart (lyrics). It’s a cynical, hard-edged musical a long way in sensibility from Rodgers’s later optimistic and soft-centered shows like “Carousel,” “The Sound of Music,” and, of course, “Oklahoma.” The title character is a selfish, small time nightclub entertainer and his romantic counterpart is Vera Simpson, an older woman-about-town socialite with an expiring shelf life as a femme fatale. Joey and Vera use each other, Joey to advance his career and inflate his ego, and Vera for the kick of dallying with a new boy toy. As a romantic duo, they are one of the odd couples of musical comedy.
Rodgers’s score includes a couple of all-time standards in “I Could Write a Book” and “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered,” along with a collection of serviceable numbers that display Hart’s streetwise wit as a lyricist. The musical was based on short stories John O’Hara wrote for The New Yorker Magazine. His book was pretty strong stuff for the time with its portraits of a scumbag “hero” and a sex hungry older woman.
Photo Credit: Brandon Dahlquist
For all its historical and musical significance, “Pal Joey” is rarely staged, so the revival by the Porchlight Theater has created considerable anticipation. The Porchlight production is a brave and ambitious try, but it’s mildly disappointing. There are some good moments during the evening but overall the presentation lacks the horses to display the show in all its musical excellence.
Some of the problem comes from the leading performances. Adrian Aguilar looks the part of Joey the gigolo and he sings and dances passably. But he lacks the sexual sizzle that captivates chorus girls and society matrons alike. It’s a tough role, creating a character who is an endearing heel who can also sing and dance, but it’s what the production needs to succeed.
McMonagle, long a stalwart in area musical theater, plays Vera Simpson.
McMonagle sings well but her Vera lacks the feral, predatory quality of a
thrill seeking rich woman who gets her kicks with a small-time lady’s man like
Joey. McMonagle’s Vera grows stronger in the second act, when Vera’s
don’t-mess-with-me personality takes over, but the character still needs more
of that hard sophistication expressed so eloquently in “Bewitched, Bothered,
Photo Credit: Brandon Dahlquist
There are only a few supporting characters of any significance, notably Linda English, a sweet young thing who falls for Joey, and discovers what a lying sleaze he is. Laura Savage credibly captures the girl’s naïve nature. A couple of villains are grafted onto the plot in the second act. Ludlow Lowell (Matt Orlando) is Joey’s nasty agent, a character who looks and sounds like he stepped out of a scene from “Guy and Dolls,” His accomplice is Gladys Bumps (Sharriese Hamilton), a chorus girl with plenty of miles on her who links up with Ludlow to blackmail Vera and Joey. Hamilton delivers a nice line of sass and she has a belting voice.
Much of “Pal Joey” takes place in Chicago nightclubs, giving Rodgers and Hart opportunities to insert floorshow musical numbers that don’t impact directly on the narrative but are still fun to watch. That’s especially the case with an operetta satire as corny as its title, “The Flower Garden of My Heart.” Another winning number is “Zip,” a humorous gem that poked fun at the intellectual pretensions of stripper Gypsy Rose Lee and performed with fine comic flair by Callie Johnson. Steven Pringle is very good in the non singing role of a perpetually exasperated nightclub owner.
Choreographer Brenda Didier captures the tacky flavor of the second rate nightclub environment of the time as executed by a chorus line of a half dozen female dancers of assorted sizes and shapes. The small stage allows for no permanent sets but scenic designer William Boles takes the action from place to place by the placement of props efficiently moved by members of the cast between scenes. Bill Morey’s costumes neatly capture the look of the late 1930’s and his tinsel and rhinestone outfits for the chorus girls are first rate. Nick Belley and Greg Hofmann designed the lighting and Victoria Deiorio designed the sound, which consisted largely of replicating the sound of elevated trains oaring past the nightclubs. Director Michael Weber keeps the musical numbers and verbal action moving at a sprightly pace.
Photo Credit: Brandon Dahlquist
The Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization granted the Porchlight Theatre exclusive rights to the original Broadway version of the show, including the complete original score, so the revival has considerable historical interest. Still, some revisions in the book may be advisable. The story is monolithic, with Joey’s disreputable behavior the only major narrative line. Vera Simpson and Ludlow Lowell take up space only as they cross Joey’s path. The last scene, when a defeated Joey leaves town, ends the show weakly. One thing Joey has going for him is his bravado and it’s a downer to watch him disappear with his tail between his legs. He should be off seeking other conquests. Through no fault of its own, “Pal Joey” can’t retain the shock value of 1940, when audiences weren’t used to a louse for a hero and an oversexed matron as his romantic partner. “Pal Joey” may have earned an R rating seven decades ago but it’s no worse than PG-13 today.
Hopefully some day an area theater with greater resources than the Porchlight, like Drury Lane or the Marriott, will demonstrate that “Pal Joey,” with that glowing Rodgers and Hart score, really is an unjustly neglected classic.
“Pal Joey” runs through May 26 at Stage 773, 1225 West Belmont Avenue. Performances are Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 4 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $39. Call 773 327 5252 or visit www.stage773.com.
The show gets a rating of 3 stars.
Contact Dan:ZeffDaniel@Yahoo.com April 2013
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Putting It Together
At the Porchlight Theatre
By Dan Zeff
Chicago—For all his success in the American music theater, Stephen Sondheim hasn’t written many hit songs. Nearly all his pieces provide commentary and illumination about character and situation within the show. Possibly that’s why Julia McKenzie and Sondheim attempted to arrange songs from 30 years of Sondheim composition into a thin story for the Sondheim revue “Putting It Together.” They may have felt the songs couldn’t carry their weight as stand-alone numbers but needed a context.
The revue, like the first Sondheim revue “Side by Side by Sondheim,” originated in England. “Putting It Together” opened off Broadway in 1933 and on Broadway, in a revised version, in 1999. The latter version is being revived by the Porchlight theater at the Theater Wit.
“Putting It Together” is put forth as an upscale cocktail party in which two couples and an observer all touch all the familiar Sondheim musical bases of sophistication, cynicism, and regret—the majority of numbers ruefully exploring male-female relationships.
Some of the context in the Porchlight production works, but at the end of the evening I wondered if the show wouldn’t have profited by simply putting the five performers on stools facing the audience and singing the songs without placing them in mini dramas embellished with bits of forced humor and choreography. It certainly would have spared the cast from consuming vast quantities of make-believe booze, the symbol of Sondheim’s upscale and emotionally stressed world. The well stocked mini bar at the rear of the stage is as important a character in the show as the live performers.
The singers are divided into a middle aged married couple (Adam Pelty and McKinley Carter), a young man and woman who are single but dating (Michael Reckling and Aja Goes), and an observer (Alex Weisman), who weaves in and out of the action with ultra breezy commentary. Most of the narrative, such as it is, centers on the marital disillusion of the older couple. The husband has a roving eye for the younger woman and the wife is bitter and resentful, though apparently still in love with her husband.
The show ends on a note of reconciliation, with all five characters, especially the married couple, coming to accommodations with their romantic situations, though a whiff of unease still lingers. But the story provides only a superstructure for the Sondheim songbook. Sondheim idolaters will leave the theater content. Patrons who think Sondheim is too clever by half and resist his downbeat world probably won’t be converted by “Putting It Together.”
Connoisseurs of Sondheim doubtless will quibble over the selection of numbers for the revue. Even though more than 30 songs made the cut, somebody’s favorite inevitably will be missing. There is nothing from “West Side Story” or “Gypsy” and more songs from the film score of “Dick Tracy” than from the masterpiece “A Little Night Music.” The audience will listen in vain for “Send in the Clowns.”
Still, there are gems aplenty, including five treasures from “Company,” the consummate Sondheim show. The obscure but undervalued “Merrily We Roll Along” leads with seven selections and more choices are heard from “Dick Tracy” than the classic “Follies.” But there are no duds in the lineup, each song reflecting Sondheim’s brilliance as a lyricist and a mood setter.
All five performers have their spotlight numbers. For me, the standout of the ensemble is Aja Goes, an attractive young lady still in college who displays an expressive voice and a strong stage presence. She triumphs in Sondheim’s intimidating “”Not Getting Married Today,” a fearsome test for any singer with its word-a-second velocity, but Goes aced it. She also does a knockout rendition of the torchy ballad “Sooner or Later” from “Dick Tracy,” suggesting that Goes has a promising future as a cabaret artist when she isn’t in a musical.
Carter is at her best in the misanthropic songs like “My Husband the Pig” and “Could I Leave You” and the wrenching “The Ladies Who Lunch.” The males don’t fare as well as singers, though Michael Reckling gives a stirring rendition of the feverish “Marry Me a Little.”
All praise goes to the on-stage trio led by conductor-pianist Austin Cook, accompanied by bass player Sam Filip and percussionist Matthew Sitz.” Cook has chops to spare on the keyboard and his solo numbers at the beginning and end of the second act were opening night highlights.
Brenda Didier does what she can with her directing and choreography to keep the physically static show visually active, though some of the comedy strains to be funny. John Zuiker’s scenic design replicates the cocktail party ambience and nicely utilizes the theater’s magnificent brick wall as a backdrop. Julie Ballard designed the lighting, Joseph Fosco the sound, and Matthew Guthier the costumes.
“Putting It Together” runs through October 16 at the Theater Wit, 1229 West Belmont Avenue. Performances are Thursday (September 15 and 22 only) and Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. (added 6 p.m. performances in October). Tickets are $38. Call 773 975 8150 or visit theaterwit.org.
The show gets a rating of three stars.
Contact Dan at firstname.lastname@example.org Sept. 2011
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Meet John Doe
At the Porchlight Music Theatre
by Dan Zeff
Chicago – “Meet John Doe” is a musical adaptation of the famous motion picture directed by Frank Capra that starred Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck. On the plus side, the musical is receiving a solid Midwest premiere production at the Porchlight Music Theatre. And the score by Andrew Gerle (music) and Eddie Sugarman (lyrics) is always listenable and often much more.
On the minus side, “Meet John Doe” tells a story that is very difficult to accept, unless the viewer has an enormous tolerance for Frank Capra populist gush.
The film was released in 1941 but it is set during the early years of the Great Depression. Ann Mitchell is a hard-bitten but attractive young newspaper reporter. With her newspaper colleagues getting laid off in droves, Mitchell saves her job by concocting a bogus letter from an unemployed man she calls John Doe. In the letter, the man threatens to kill himself to protest the corruption he sees in American society. The letter sparks so much reader interest that Mitchell and her editor decide to hire an unemployed man to impersonate John Doe to the clamoring public. They finally select John Willoughby, a former minor league baseball pitcher with an injured throwing arm.
Mitchell creates a John Doe philosophy for Willoughby built on the resilience and basic decency of the little man struggling to survive during the Depression. Soon John Doe clubs pop up throughout the country and emerge as a powerful political movement, bankrolled by Mitchell’s publisher, D. B. Norton. It turns out that Norton is manipulating John Doe’s popularity to grease his way to the presidency, planning a fascist style administration that will include corrupt representatives of Big Business, Big Labor, and Big Government.
The story ends in a black-and-white confrontation between the forces of evil (Norton and his cohorts) and the good guys (Doe and the common man), with Ann Mitchell in the middle. The movie concluded with a hard-to-accept happy ending. Give credit to the musical for an uncompromising finale that follows inevitably from what we had seen for more than two hours on the Porchlight stage.
The show is intended to end on an inspirational crescendo, with Ann Mitchell leading the ensemble in a kind of “We shall overcome” call to action to the country’s Everymen and Everywomen. A 1941 audience with a Depression-scarred memory might have bought into the John Doe saga, with its apotheosis of the little guy and its distrust of Establishment institutions. Capra was a master at evoking this theme. Consider “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,” “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” “You Can’t Take It with You,” and “It’s a Wonderful Life.” But Capra’s alleged faith in the common man is really a fantasyland built on Hollywood moonshine.
Some viewers will be less bothered by the narrative’s contrived piety that I was. And the show provides undeniable pleasures in compensation. Eddie Sugarman is a deft and often clever lyricist. Andrew Gerle has written some vibrant melodies and obviously knows how to compose for the human voice. This team is clearly in the right business. The score may be in a state of flux. The numbers performed on opening night didn’t match the list in the playbill in the second act. But what we did hear was variously and agreeably dramatic, romantic, and humorous.
Porchlight has assembled a large cast of 15, led by Elizabeth Lanza’s strong voice and equally strong acting chops as Ann Mitchell. Karl Hamilton gets a slow start as Willoughby/Doe but rises to the show’s dramatic conclusion with considerable passion. The crowd pleasing performance of the night comes from Rus Rainear as Willoughby’s grizzled and wisecracking sidekick, called the Colonel, an irresistible hobo who radiates contempt for money as the root of all evil. Mick Weber is very effective as the villainous Norton, a physically imposing man with a surprising soft spot for Ann Mitchell apart from his nastier political machinations.
James Beaudry is the director and choreographer, though the show has almost no dancing. Beaudry keeps the scenes moving fluidly and manages to maximize the dramatic impact of a story that begins as a romantic comedy and ends as an attempt at serious social criticism. Ian Zywica designed the minimalist set, which mostly consists of background images. Mac Vaughey designed the lighting, Joseph Fosco the sound, and Elizabeth Powell Wislar the costumes. Eugene Dizon conducts the five-piece off stage orchestra.
One irrelevant quibble. An early song lyric lists Joe DiMaggio among the country’s heroes. The musical’s action takes place about 1932. DiMaggio didn’t enter major league baseball until 1936.
“Meet John Doe” runs through April 17 at Stage 773, 1225 West Belmont Avenue. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $38. Call 773 327 5252 or visit www.stage773.com.
The show gets a rating of three stars. March 2011
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At the Porchlight Music Theatre
By Dan Zeff
CHICAGO—Ever since its dismal opening on Broadway in 1956, “Candide” has been a great musical score in search of an adequate book. The operetta’s glory was the great music composed by Leonard Bernstein. Its downfall was a dysfunctional book that still boasted such estimable contributors as Lillian Hellman and Dorothy Parker.
In 1974, playwright Hugh Wheeler revamped the dialogue and plot and “Candide” became a huge hit in New York City. The show, in one version or another, has popped up at musical theaters throughout the country. The music remains indelible, but the book remains a problem.
The Porchlight Music Theatre, never a troupe to shy away from a challenge, is reviving “Candide,” relying on the 1974 revision as its takeoff point. The book remains a difficulty, but nobody can fault the Porchlight’s creative staging, high energy, color, and strong singing.
The musical is based on Voltaire’s famous 1759 philosophical novel that satirizes the creed of optimism that professes “everything is for the best in this best of all possible worlds.” Candide is an illegitimately born young man who lives in the castle of a baron in Germany. His fortunes go south when the baron kicks Candide out of the castle for making love to Cunegonde, the baron’s daughter.
Candide and Cunegonde are two of six major characters in the Porchlight version. Dr. Pangloss is the philosopher-guru who spouts the optimism philosophy. Along for the ride as Candide endures his endless string of misfortunes are Cunegonde’s brother Maximillian, the baron’s saucy maid Paquette, and a character known simply as the Old Lady.
This version follows the novel more in spirit than in word. But it stumbles on the stage where the novel thrives, in recounting all the disasters that befall Candide and the other major characters. Indeed, after Candide is ejected from the baron’s castle, his life, and the life of Cunegonde, become just one damn thing after another. Cunegonde is kidnapped and raped, repeatedly by many men in many parts of the world. Candide is flogged by the Inquisition and subjected to all manner of indignities both in Europe and the New World.
The problem with this relentless procession of personal calamities is that they lack suspense or plot development. The Candide-Pangloss philosophy of optimism is maintained in the face of the most obvious evidence to the contrary. It gets to be a one-note storyline that grows predictable and a little tiresome even in the Porchlight’s condensed 100-minute intermissionless production.
That’s the debit side. The profit side is the inventive staging by Porchlight artistic director Walter Stearns. As soon as the audience enters the theater at the Theatre Building, they recognize that this will be something special visually. The small orchestra is installed in the center of the playing area. The actors perform on wooden platforms and in the aisles surrounding the orchestra. There is almost no scenery to interfere with the fluid staging, but a vast array of colorful costumes.
The large ensemble is headed by David Girolmo, who plays Voltaire as the narrator, as well as Dr. Pangloss and other characters. Girolmo is our savvy guide through the minefield of adversities that afflict the main characters.
The most operatic voice in the ensemble belongs to Caitlin Collins as Cunegonde. She tosses off the technically demanding “Glitter and Be Gay” aria with ease and also shows some solid acting chops as the vain and pampered Cunegonde who gets the full brunt of the world’s evils inflicted on her body.
Ryan Lanning makes a winning Candide, innocent and naïve until the final number, when he recognizes that philosophy is fine, but he and his colleagues are better off working and tending their garden. Sarah Hayes as the nubile and promiscuous Paquette, Jeremy Rill as Maximilian, and Kristen Freilich as the Old Woman, one of life’s survivors, all do fine work. Joseph Tokarz also contributed some first rate character cameos, including a libidinous Grand Inquisitor.
The small orchestra under Eugene Dizon’s direction managed the rich Bernstein score with professionalism. The musicians even interact facetiously with the performers from time to time.
Andrew Waters developed the athletic choreography. One of the production’s heroes is Bill Morey, who designed a wardrobe of exotic costumes that turned the theater into a rainbow of fabrics. Kurt Sharp designed the minimalist scenery, Kevin Carney the sound, and Justin Wardell the lighting.
“Candide” is playing through November 2 at the Theatre Building, 1225 West Belmont Avenue. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 7:45 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. Tickets for all performances are $37. Call 773 327 5252 or visit firstname.lastname@example.org.
The show gets a rating of 3 1/2 stars. Sept. 2008
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by the Porchlight Music Theatre
By Dan Zeff
CHICAGO—“Nine” examines an internationally famous motion picture director in a psychological tailspin as he tries to deal with his collapsing personal and professional life. The 1982 Broadway music is certainly not a total artistic success, but it has been a boon to the employment of musical comedy actresses. The original production used 21 females on stage, all revolving around a single adult male.
The Porchlight Music Theatre is reviving “Nine” in a typically resourceful staging that can’t conceal the show’s defects, but it does allow a group of talented females to grab some significant stage exposure. The Porchlight production, doubtless out of economic and logistical necessity, has scaled down the cast to 11 women. There is still the single adult character, director Guido Contini, augmented by a boy actor who portrays Guido as a lad.
The show by Arthur Kopit (book) and Maury Yeston (music and lyrics) is an adaptation of the classic 1963 Federico Fellini movie “8 ½.” “Nine” doesn’t have much plot. It’s mostly a series of incidents and production numbers that portray how Contini struggles with his midlife emotional and artistic block. The movie examines Guido’s plight through a blend of his real life dilemmas, memories of his childhood, and fantasies spinning in his head, a scheme followed in the musical.
In the musical, Contini is a callous womanizer, self-pitying and weak, a pretty unsympathetic character to carry a full-length musical. The story traces Guido’s conflicted relationships with his wife, his mistress, his leading lady, his producer (also a woman), a bitchy film critic, and an earth mother style prostitute. Guido may be unattractive to the audience but the women in the story love him, at least until his manipulating and his macho posturing turn them off, one by one.
What plot there is in “Nine” follows the indecisive Guido as he tries to develop a film script. The man, facing continuous pressure from his producer and the other women in his life, recognizes that his career is teetering after three consecutive flop films, compounded by the increasingly impatient demands from the female support group around him.
The staging of “Nine” is more interesting than the story. The actresses play individual characters and then regroup as the chorus. The playing area is largely empty except for a few props moved on and off the stage. The backdrop is dominated by a giant painting of a nude woman that attempts to underscore the show’s eroticism, an eroticism enhanced by some skimpy costumes (the women wear versions of basic black dresses).
The success of the Broadway production resided largely in the striking black and white sets and on Tommy Tune’s creative directing. Porchlight director L. Walter Stearns has to present the work on that neutral open stage, without the luxury of the opulent visual effects that helped carry the show in New York City. As a result, it’s sometimes difficult to follow whether the action in the Porchlight version is reality, fantasy, or memory flashbacks. The show also concludes abruptly with an unjustified happy ending.
The cast affects Italian accents of varying density, as though we needed to be continually reminded that the narrative takes place in Italy. The accents are superfluous, especially because the characters occasionally lapse into pure Italian verbal bursts, more than sufficient to remind spectators of the locale of the story.
Jeff Parker does a quality job as Guido. He can’t disguise that the man isn’t a very likable character or that he’s brought all his problems on himself. But Parker sings well, and his anguish and frustration and panic, as well as his guile with women, come across effectively. As the assorted women in Guido’s life, the performances are variable, but there is terrific work from Heather Townsend as the director’s knowing and long-suffering wife.
There is also nice acting from Marie Svejda-Groh, who has the best singing voice in the show, as the leading lady; Danielle Brothers as the producer who stars in the show’s best production number, “Follies Bergere;” and Bethany Thomas as the fleshy prostitute who introduces Guido the boy to the sensual facts of life. Young Guido, the only other male in the story, is played by Deerfield sixth grader Matthew Gold, a solid child actor who finds himself in a very adult play.
The five-piece orchestra conducted by Eugene Dizon provides excellent off stage musical accompaniment. “Nine” isn’t a dancing show, but Brenda Didier maximizes her opportunities as a choreographer in the “Follies Bergere” showcase and especially in the delightful “Be Italian” number highlighted by the use of massed tambourines. Kevin Depinet designed the set, Julian Pike the lighting, and Bill Morey the impressive wardrobe of costumes, ranging from those basic black dresses to the wonderfully over-the-top outfits in the “Follies Bergere” number.
“Nine” runs through May 18 at the Theatre Building, 1225 West Belmont Avenue. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $34 and $35. Call 773 327 5252.
The show gets a rating of three stars. April 14, 2008
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