Great Chicago Fire Festival, Better Luck Next Year

IMG_4131.JPG

Other than professional sports, I try to take advantage of all Chicago has to offer, from dining to neighborhood diversity, storefront theater, gallery shows, and public art. When it comes to live music, my focus tends toward the classical variety, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, choir and organ concerts, and season tickets for Lyric Opera (for the past 20 years!)

IMG_4150.JPG
First set of the night at Andy’s Jazz Club.

But when it comes to jazz and blues (Chicago’s own!) I’m something of a slacker. Thanks to the gumption of friends, I’m filling in the gaps with visits to local music venues made famous by the likes of The Green Mill (which I finally visited for the first time this year.) Last night, it was Andy’s Jazz Club for dinner and a couple of sets of a quartet led by a talented, and loud, trumpeter. (Probably not the best choice for any conversation.)

We were downtown and just a few blocks from where the real action was last night–the first annual Great Chicago Fire Festival, put on by one of my favorite theater companies, Redmoon. At about 6:30, crowds had already started to form along the Chicago River, between the Michigan Avenue and State Street bridges. I walked across the State Street bridge for a view of one of the floating buildings, due to alight at eight o’clock, when flaming cauldrons would be lowered from the bridges.

Unfortunately, the weather (a tremendous amount of rain fell over the previous day) and technical difficulties prevented the building bonfires to go off as scheduled, and in some cases at all. By all reports, the flames were minimal and the pyrotechnics mostly confined to the brief fireworks display that was originally to follow the buildings burning away to reveal surprises hidden inside. Sadly, with such a lengthy delay and pathetic payoff, many disappointed spectators left early, missing a parade of grass boats (kayaks) that sounded like quite something to see.

IMG_4138.JPG
Guarding a cauldron and what turned out to be an inflammable prop house on the river.

By the time I left the jazz club, the Fire Festival should have been wrapping up, however it had yet to burn. People were three-deep to the riverfront, and the bridge was packed with some standing on the metal railing dividing the pedestrian walkway from traffic. I couldn’t see a thing, nor was I willing (or able) to climb a tree, as some did, for a better view. Instead, we walked a few blocks over to Xoco and grabbed a churro snack–the best churros, anywhere, hands down–before beating the crowds home on the el.

I’m disappointed the event didn’t succeed and feel bad for all the volunteers who put in many hours to create the spectacle. The floating buildings certainly looked impressive (and so Redmoonesque) but the execution was obviously flawed. We needed Robin Hood with a flaming arrow to save the day or at least tarps covering the structures, preventing them from becoming waterlogged in the rain.

Hopefully the city will treat this as a dress rehearsal (albeit an expensive one) and make adjustments for next year. I’m sure the first Macy’s Day Parade didn’t go off without a few hitches. It was nice to see a cross-section of Chicago gathering together at the river, despite the unseasonable cold (there were snow flurries that morning!) Colorful buildings floating on the Chicago River, set off by the amazing cityscape around them, were definitely something to see; it would have really been something had the  spectacle ignited as planned.

Advertisements

Joan Allen Anchors a Thrilling Production at Steppenwolf

thewheelprodsplashsm-14I started off my Steppenwolf Theatre season with a star-powered production featuring ensemble member Joan Allen in her first appearance here in over two decades. The Wheel, by Zinnie Harris, is the slightly surreal tale of a peasant woman caught up in war as she attempts to reunite an abandoned girl with her exiled father. The story begins during the Spanish Civil War and over the course of nearly two hours, morphs from one conflict to another, taking Allen’s Beatriz (now saddled with three children to protect) from the trenches to WWI through to the Iraq War.

thewheelprodsplashsm-5While it would be difficult for me to explain exactly what the play is about (other than to say, living through war is hell), any frustration I might have felt about the ambiguous narrative was kept at bay by Allen’s riveting performance. (She’s on stage nearly the entire time.) Acting across the board is top-notch, combined with a set and staging that is nothing short of incredible. Set pieces come in from every direction, and sound and lighting create eerie and arresting images of war. By the end, the stage has been transformed from a relatively simple and bright Spanish countryside, to the murky chaos of war. The stage crew certainly has its work cut out of it every night, having to clean up the mess and reset for the next show.

I’d recommend The Wheel as a thrilling evening of theater that will give you lots to discuss over drinks after the show. Performances continue at Steppenwolf through November 10.

Recommendation | Head of Passes @ Steppenwolf Theater

I was sorry to see so many empty seats during last Friday’s performance of Head of Passes, an absorbing drama about calamity, grief, acceptance, and faith. While not perfect, the current Steppenwolf Theater main stage production, a world premiere by Tarell Alvin McCraney, is a thought-provoking and timely piece that deserves a wider audience.

Set in Louisiana at the mouth of the Mississippi River, members gather at the family home on a stormy evening to celebrate matriarch Shelah’s birthday. A leaking roof and an unexpected guest (the woman’s doctor) are portents of doom. And then there’s the handsome stranger who’s hanging around, a smiling man only Shelah can see.

Family and friends mix it up in a lively first act while water drains through the house from the roof and a slow tension builds. The story, based on the Book of Job, takes a slightly surreal turn in the second half. Shelah, who has resigned herself to one fate, is served up another, greater challenge, which tests her faith in ways she could never have imagined.

Performances across the board are strong and well drawn but the undisputed star of this show is the phenomenal set by David Gallo. The first act concludes with a heart-stopping, thrill ride of a theatrical moment that on its own is worth the price of admission.

Head of Passes runs through June 9.

The Black Watch is Must See Theater

There’s something amazing going on right now at the Broadway Armory in Chicago–if you only see one piece of live theater this year, The Black Watch should be it. It is nothing less than phenomenal.

Back by popular demand, Chicago Shakespeare Theatre hosts the multi-award-winning National Theatre of Scotland’s production, stunningly (and appropriately) presented in the historic armory on Broadway. The play spins stories large (the history of this legendary Scottish regiment) and small (focusing on the experiences of veterans of the Iraq War.)

The Black Watch is difficult to describe, a mixture of comedy and drama, I’d even go so far to say it’s part musical and ballet as well–there’s a heavy dose of song and choreographed battle sequences that have the athleticism and grace of hypnotic ballet. The Black Watch is an all-consuming experience: loud, physical, intense, funny, and thought-provoking, an immersion in the sounds of war and folk songs of the regiment. It’s nearly worth the price of admission just for the outstanding sound design. (Did I mention it’s loud?) The set is minimal (a stage made to travel with the company around the world) created mostly out of steel girders, what looks like a shipping container, an oil cloth curtain, atmosphere created with light, and layers of multimedia. The acting is top-notch, there’s not a week link in the bunch. And the things they do with a pool table are beyond creative. (This play has one of the most effective character entrances I think I’ve ever seen.)

The nearly two-hour-performance is run without an intermission which is a good thing–once this high-octane train gets going, you don’t want anything disrupting the energy until the play comes to its heart-thumping conclusion. I attended the show with a friend who saw it the first time The Black Watch came to town and I could easily see why she was intent on seeing it again. I would have gladly signed up for another tour the following night. And the night after that. It’s that good.

Hunchback at Redmoon

Hunchback_small1

A group of us braved the bitter cold last Saturday night to see Redmoon’s current production of Hunchback, their ultra-creative interpretation of Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. If you’ve seen any of Redmoon’s past productions, you know to expect the unexpected, and if you’ve never experienced this boundry-pushing theater troupe, I highly recommend you make Hunchback your introduction to their special brand of Chicago theater.

Hunchback is an energetic production, with actors leaping, jumping and climbing all over (and above) the stage. Large wooden crates serve as doorways, hiding places, platforms and a prison cell. A pair of metal scaffolds on wheels incorporate ladders that see-saw back and forth from which actors can climb, swing, hang and manipulate, effectively conjuring up settings from Notre Dame’s bell towers to a stockade and gallows. Sound effects and music complete the effect.

It wouldn’t be Redmoon without puppets and this production interweaves marionettes, shadow puppets, bunraku, and large-scale puppets to amazing effect. Masked actors portray Quasimodo, Esmeralda, her lover Phoebus, and the evil priest Claude Frollo; they alternate their roles with puppet counterparts, adding an interesting layer of self-reflection to the story. Occasionally, Victor Hugo hilariously butts in to provide context and critique the production. The acting is strong and the action brisk so the 80 minute play flies by.

The venue adds to the experience. Hunchback is staged in Redmoon HQ, a former ink factory on West Hubbard. Before and after the play, visitors are free to wander among set pieces and props from former Redmoon productions and afterward the company invites the audience to step on stage to walk among the ladders, see the puppets, and speak with the actors.

The show has been extended through Feb 3rd and tickets are still available so go, go, go!

Pericles

In 2004, a production of Shakespeare’s Pericles directed by Mary Zimmerman (she of Lookingglass Theatre and the Tony Award) opened in Washington D.C. to rave reviews. I’m guessing critics in the nation’s capital had never seen a Zimmerman production. By her standards, this Pericles production, now playing at The Goodman Theatre in Chicago, is tame, and dare I even say it, ordinary.

I have vivid memories of the first Lookingglass/Zimmerman production I ever saw, Arabian Nights, back in 1992. I was blown away. Metamorphosis, the production that moved from Chicago to New York and earned Zimmerman the Tony in 2002, was also truly memorable theater. Both productions were packed with creative staging and eye-popping visuals that brought the texts vividly to life and wowed audiences.

Pericles, which I saw this past Saturday night, while never boring, was not the sort of ground-breaking visual feast I’ve come to expect from Mary Zimmerman. The set itself was curious and a tad bit dull. Action takes place in what best resembles a Shaker meeting room. Three walls, a large window and a metal balcony hanging above. It’s a large space that doesn’t get used to much effect.

Other than sumptuous costumes, some strong performances, and a clear presentation of the material (from what I gather is one of Shakespeare’s lesser-produced and lesser-thought of plays) the staging itself I found run-of-the-mill. While the cast did some interesting business with material, in particular blue silk simulating storm-tossed seas, it wasn’t anything original.

The story begins with Pericles vying for the hand of a princess. He must answer the king’s riddle or face death. The riddle is a trick though, and to answer it correctly also means death, so Pericles flees and so begins his journey that is the bulk of the play.

Perhaps it’s the material, but I’m convinced that with the right mix of creativity and innovation, Zimmerman could have made another memorable production. Which, depending on your frame of reference, she has. In my case, Pericles just suffers by comparison.

Wicked: It’s Big, It’s Green

Last weekend I saw the musical Wicked. Here are my impressions:

  • Louder is better. And boy, was it loud. I’d forgotten how amplified Broadway musicals are nowadays. I’m used to the opera, where despite the fact that the Lyric Opera House is at least twice the size of the Oriental Theatre, there’s no amplification. When the music started and the Wicked chorus rushed on stage singing in full voice, it took me a good five minutes to adjust to the decibel level…and the electric guitar in the orchestra.
  • Louder is also better when it comes to singing style. Every single solo was sung in the style of an American Idol finalist: start loud, sing louder, and finish really big, preferably with at least one hand dramatically raised in the air. All that was lacking was a handheld mic to emote over and a judges score.
  • The music was nothing special. There was no catchy song that I was humming on my way out of the theater. Very pop, very predictable.
  • Ana Gasteyer, of Saturday Night Live fame, stars as Elphaba, a.k.a. the Wicked Witch, and she’s the sole reason to see the show. Gasteyer is extremely good in the role, she has a great singing voice, and a lot of charisma on stage.
  • Years ago, I read the book that the musical is based on and while it was mildly entertaining to imagine a back story the characters of Oz, I didn’t think it was anything special or particularly well written. I’m not surprised they turned it into a musical, nor am I surprised they gave the story a happy ending on stage.
  • In thinking back on the show and talking about it with other people, it might seem like I really didn’t like it, which isn’t exactly true. I didn’t love it, I didn’t hate it. It was just kind of…there. I did enjoy it as a fun night out with friends and I’m glad that I saw it, if nothing more than to see what’s really popular in the world of mainstream musical theater today. The audience sure loved it.

Redmoon’s Spectacle ’05

Lagoon as Theater Set

Talk about bad timing. For many months, Redmoon Theater has been planning their yearly outdoor theatre spectacle, a fable set in a flooded-out community. For weeks, they’d been rehearsing on set pieces sunken in the lagoon, water up to the rooftops. Sound familiar?

The story eerily foreshadowed many of the events that came to pass when hurricane Katrina slammed into New Orleans, and suddenly, as their artistic director states on the website “What once read as mythical and possibly even whimsical now reads as indelibly tragic.” So they did what any ambitious, creative, and socially aware theater company would do–they completely re-imagined their show.

I first learned about Loves Me…Loves’s Me Not on Saturday and saw it on Sunday. The audience was seated on the steps leading from the Museum of Science and Industry down to the shore of the Jackson Park lagoon (both created for the 1893 Columbian Exposition.) Folks munched on picnic dinners as the sun set. The sixty minute production is performed, for the most part, in pantomime and uses the length of the lagoon, going all the way back to a bridge in the distance. Stage lights and torches illuminate the lagoon, a neat effect that enhances the mood and helps to transport the audience.

The story, such as it is, concerns survivors of a flood who eek out an existence living on the tops of buildings, with little shelter and meager provision. A very pregnant woman and her husband celebrate when he brings home a box full of canned food. A man atop a gas station plays a funeral dirge on a mouth organ (remember the dead body?) A trio of shrieking women who look like refugees from The Pirates of Penzance marvel at the pregnant woman.

Other characters float through: An accordion playing angel sings a lament from her swan boat; a party guy and his girl enter on a floating canopy bed draped with sausages (yeah, you heard me right) and lead a rousing musical dance party when they hook up with a party barge, complete with multi-piece band. And way back on the bridge, a strange vehicle carrying white draped figures shines a giant spotlight down on the scene to the sounds of thunder and rain. What does it all mean? Who knows.

The sets are fantastic, the acting is expressive, and the entire concept is impressive. The only thing lacking is a solid story as engaging as the setting is entrancing. It feels like, well, they put it together in a couple of weeks…which is exactly what they did, so you have to give them a lot of credit. Redmoon definitely gets an “A” for effort, and even if the plot is so abstract that when the play ends the audience doesn’t realize it’s over–which is what happened on Sunday night–it’s still absolutely worth seeing.

That kind of experience that is Loves Me…Loves Me Not doesn’t come along every day. Like a category 4 hurricane slamming into New Orleans, it’s (hopefully) a once in a lifetime event that gives you pause and allows you to reflect on some bigger issues.

Note to Boy George: Don’t Quit Your Day Job

The Washington Post described Boy George’s new Rosie O’Donnell-backed musical Taboo as “a production with such an acute case of meaning-deprivation that you almost forget what’s happening as it’s happening.”

To read more slings and arrows, go here.

Play Review: Bounce

Had an interesting experience last week when I saw the new Stephen Sondheim musical during its out-of-town-out-of-town run at the Goodman Theatre. In my opinion it’s still very much a work in progress and could do with some tightening up, tweaking, a bit of re-writing of the book and the recasting of a particularly hi-profile role. But it’s definitely Sondheim, with his trademark sound and clever lyrics. There’s a great lead performance and some really clever staging that’s worth, hmmm, half the price of admission.

This is actually the second “world premiere” of this musical, music and lyrics by Sondheim, book by John Weidman, an earlier version having been staged with different leads and director about a year ago. This incarnation is directed by Harold Prince, who’s had a lot of success staging Sondheim musicals, most notably Follies, Pacific Overtures and two of my all-time faves, Company and Sweeney Todd. Following the month-and-a-half-long run here in Chicago, the show heads to Washington D.C. before moving on to Broadway. Or not.

The musical is based on the lives of the Mizner brothers, two real men who made and lost their fortunes numerous times over, from the Gold Rush of 1896 to the real estate boom of Florida in the 1930s. The show is a testament to the resiliency of those in search of the American Dream of getting rich quick. A thread of subplot involving the rivalry between the brothers and their mother’s divided affections runs throughout.

Richard Kind plays Addison Mizner, the more sympathetic of the two brothers, the dependable one with a talent for design. His success as an architect propels the Mizner’s into their final boom as developers of Boca Raton. Howard McGillen has the tougher role as con-man Wilson Mizner, described in the program as a scalawag. Unfortunately he’s not that bad, which might be part of the problem. If he were a more heartless character, and not just someone who continually blows a good thing by foolishly speculating away his fortune and duping other, there could have been more tension between the brothers.

What I liked about the show:

  • Richard Kind–He steals the show and holds it together. Most people will recognize Kind from his roles on TV’s Spin City and Mad About You. He’s great in this role, with a range of high and low moments that develop his character and hold the attention of the audience the minute he utters his first line. He gets most of the laughs and knows how to deliver them, as well as the looks and gestures associated with them.
  • The staging–The clever use of drop curtains are often activated by cast members on stage with the flick of a rope that perfectly punctuates the change of a scene. In one impressive scene change, Addison gets his first creative brainstorm, and begins manipulating items in the air as he designs his first building. As he moves things around, cast members behind him follow his gestures to place different odd pieces around the stage, and suddenly a set flies in from above, creating the walls of the house, with all the randomly placed objects perfectly placed in the room. In another, the draped alter of a church is transformed into the lavish bed in a mansion, taking Wilson from wedding to honeymoon in an impressive set change that drew laughter and applause from the audience.

What I wasn’t crazy about:

  • The story–I just couldn’t really get too invested in the story of two brothers who aren’t content when they have a good thing, and in stretching to make MORE money, lose it all and have to start again. I just didn’t care. It wasn’t until the second act, when Addison begins to come into his own as a success on his own terms when no-good brother Wilson reappears did the story get briefly interesting. A hurdle to the storytelling is the flashback approach, which takes any suspense out of the equation.
  • The music–While it was Sondheim, and any Sondheim is good in my book, it just wasn’t catchy enough. There was no hook, no tunes that really stuck with you five minutes after the curtain went down. A couple of the numbers in the second act, the tighter and more enjoyable act of the two, seemed to gel well and the song “You” stood out as memorable above the rest, but much of it started to sound the same.
  • Jane Powell–The veteran of stage and screen (Seven Brides for Seven Brothers) is the only other big name in the show, starring as mama Mizner. Unfortunately, while she delivered her lines with spunk, her singing was thin and strained, and was quite painful to listen to. Her singing was one of the many hindrances working against the show in the first half.

So, was I glad I saw it? Absolutely. I’ll always take the opportunity to see Sondheim professionally staged. Richard Kind was a surprise and I’d definitely keep an eye out for future performances by him. It was also fun to see recent Tony-winner Michele Pawk in the female lead. And it was interesting to see this work in progress. Should it succeed, I’d be interested to see the finished project, just to see how much it will have bounced back from the version I saw.

(Aw common, you knew I couldn’t get away without at least once bouncy pun. Doh, I did it again!)