Black Ensemble Theatre to present world premiere: “The Message Is in the Music”

photo Ricky Message in the music The Black Ensemble Theater opens its Five Play Season of Excellence Dedicated to the Music with the World Premiere production of The Message Is In The Music (God Is A Black Man Named Ricky). Produced, written, and directed by Black Ensemble founder and executive director Jackie Taylor, The Message.. is a fanciful, song-filled production featuring selections by superstars ranging from Curtis Mayfield to Stevie Wonder; The Isley Brothers to The Temptations; The Beatles to Paul Simon, just to name a few. Scheduled for an open run, preview performances will begin October 3, with opening night being Sunday, October 18th. More info here.

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Extensions – “Million Dollar Quartet” “El Grito del Bronx” and “Black Crooners”

 

  • Lewis, Carl Perkins, Jay Perkins, Cash, Elvis, V
  • Million Dollar Quartet (see our rave review here), currently playing at the Apollo Theatre, has been extended all the way through October 25th.  This surely means that the show will extend at least through New Years.  This new block of tickets goes on sale Friday, July 31st (10am).

blackcroonersBlack Ensemble Theater’s smash hit A Tribute to the Black Crooners, now playing at the Black Ensemble Theater (4520 N. Beacon – map), has been extended through August 30th.  For tickets call 773-769-4451.

  • home_El%20Grito2 El Grito del Bronx, a joint theatre-venture between Collaboraction and Teatro Vista, has been extended through August 9th at the Goodman Theatre’s Owen Theatre.  Migadlia Cruz’s adult-themed and, at times, violent play tells the story of a Puerto Rican family’s struggles while living in the Bronx during the 60’s and 70’s. 

Review: Court Theatre’s “The Piano Lesson”

Blossoming with music, Court’s ‘Piano Lesson’ mixes family tensions and struggles with a dash of the paranormal.

Chicago's Court Theatre produces August Wilson's masterpiece "The Piano Lesson" 

The Piano Lesson 
Reviewed by Barry Eitel

Watching Court Theatre’s production of “The Piano Lesson,” by August Wilson, I couldn’t help comparing it to “The Cherry Orchard.”, by Anton Chekov. Although the play is distinctively American, elements in the Pulitzer Prize-winner are very similar to Anton Chekhov’s masterpiece. Set in 1936, characters descended from slaves attempt to move up in the world as the sons of plantation owners join the ranks of the rural poor; Wilson’s Boy Willie is sort of a black Lopakhin. Directed by Wilson veteran Ron OJ Parson, the Court’s “Piano Lesson” is a very effective snapshot of the American experience, with a tantalizing ghost story weaved in.

_msb1226__large Along with “Wait Until Dark,” this is the second production in the Court’s season that has features of a thriller flick. The fourth entry in Wilson’s “Pittsburgh Cycle” but the fifth to be written, “The Piano Lesson” records family tension and the African-American struggle in the 20th Century with a dash of the paranormal.

Like most of the cycle, the central conflict pits progressing in the modern world against reverence for the past. This conflict is symbolized by a beautiful piano that has a haunting presence around it. The piano is inherited to siblings Boy Willie (the lively Ronald L. Conner) and Berneice (Tyla Abercrumbie), with the former wishing to sell it to buy land and the latter fighting to keep the ancestral instrument. It is slowly revealed that piano has cost a lot of blood over its lifetime, and a few of the deceased may have followed the piano to Berneice’s home in Pittsburgh.

The cast shines with many experienced August Wilson actors, many of whom have been in productions of “Piano Lesson” across the country. Although no one actually teaches a piano lesson, the production blossoms with music. Mournful jazz numbers are played by musician Wining Boy (Alfred H. Wilson), and Boy Willie lays down a short dancehall tune. One of the best scenes of the play is when nearly all of the male characters join together in a powerful, rhythmic work song. Just like the piano, the music is a child of the characters’ heritage, offering them (and the audience) an escape, a celebration, and a shared experience. The songs are brilliantly scripted and nailed by this talented cast, tapping deep into the underlying themes.

The cast shines with many experienced August Wilson actors, many of whom have been in productions of “Piano Lesson” across the country. Conner is an energetic and stubborn Boy Willie, bristling with youthful drive. He’s grounded by his friend Lymon, played by a charismatic Brian Weddington. The older generation in the play, Alfred H. Wilson’s funny Wining Boy and A.C. Smith as the peacekeeping Doaker, add a deeper level of humanity to the play and present a welcome break from Boy Willie’s and Berneice’s constant bickering.

PianoLesson-hairThe fighting between the siblings is where the production falters. The battle quickly stalemates and the repeated arguments loose focus. Abercrumbie’s cold portrayal of Berneice doesn’t help, either. It seems like the production wants the play to be Berneice’s story, but Conner’s Boy Willie is much more interesting and sympathetic. Another stumbling block for the play is the character of Grace (Alexis J. Rogers), Boy Willie’s and Lymon’s 10-second love interest that doesn’t seem to have much of a point for the story.

Parson’s interpretation of the script, though, is layered and gives credence to both sides of the conflict. The realistic heart of the play, the music, and the campfire ghost story aspects are all well-realized. Keith Pitts’ set is intricate and allows for plenty of play for the actors. The physical presence of the paranormal is fascinatingly done, and the titular piano is elaborately detailed. The ghosts are far from a hokey gimmick. The invisible characters that encroach on the family’s struggle illuminate Wilson’s themes of family, tradition, and connection to the past.

Rating: «««

Other reviews of The Piano Lesson:  TimeOut Chicago, SteadStyle Chicago

 

PianoLesson-openarms

Cast List and Creative Team – after the fold…

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Jeff-Recommended Shows currently playing

Jeff-Recommended Plays

Equity Wing (what’s this?)

Non-Equity Wing (what’s this?)

Wait Until Dark
Court Theatre

Wings: The Musical
Apple Tree Theatre

Arms and the Man
Oak Park Festival Theatre

Mauritius
Northlight Theatre

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat
Marriott Theatre

Our Lady of the Underpass
Teatro Vista…Theatre With a View

Our Town
Lookingglass Theatre Company

Art
Steppenwolf Theatre Company

I Am Who I Am (The Story of Teddy Pendergrass)
Black Ensemble Theater

Wonder of the World
LiveWire Chicago Theatre

Evita
Theo Ubique Theatre Company i/a/w/ Michael James

The Shape of a Girl
Pegasus Players

The Memory of Water
BackStage Theatre Company

Mariette in Ecstasy
Lifeline Theatre

Rose and the Rime
The House Theatre of Chicago

The Dastardly Ficus and Other Comic Tales of Woe..
The Strange Tree Group

The Robber Bridegroom
Griffin Theatre Company

This week’s Chicago theater openings:

BEERThe Neo-Futurists

CARDIFF (BOUND EAST FOR CARDIFF)Goodman Theatre

DESIGN FOR LIVINGFirst Folio Theatre

FIRES IN THE MIRROR16th Street Theater

I GOTCHABlack Ensemble Theatre

LIVING GREEN Victory Gardens Theater

MISAMERICARaven Theatre

THE SINS OF SOR JUANA Northwestern University Theatre

SLAPHAPPY Beat the Jester Productions

XANADUDrury Lane Theatre Watertower Place

Chicago Theater Recommendations (July 2008)

A summary of theatre recommendations from the Tribune (Trib), Sun-Times (ST), Chicago Theatre Blog (CTB), and TimeOut Chicago (TO).   

 

Play   (Producers and/or Location)

Recommended By

Campaign Supernova (Second City etc.) Trib, ST
Cirque Shanghai Gold (Navy Pier)   Trib, TO, CTB
Dead Man’s Cellphone (Steppenwolf)   Trib, CTB
Hizzoner (Beverly Arts Center) Trib, CTB
Jacques Brel’s Lonesome Losers of the Night                  (Theo Ubique – No Exit Cafe) Trib, CTB, ST
Jersey Boys (Broadway in Chicago) Trib, ST, CTB, TO
The Last Days of Judas Iscariot (Gift Theatre) Trib, TO
The Mark of Zorro (Lifeline Theatre) Trib, TO, ST
Superior Donuts (Steppenwolf) Trib, CTB, TO
Wicked (Broadway in Chicago) Trib, CTB, ST
Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story (Drury Lane Oakbrook) Trib, ST
The Lion in Winter (Writers’ Theatre) Trib, TO, ST
Relatively Close (Victory Gardens) CTB
Kooza (Cirque du Soleil – United Center) TO, CTB, ST, Trib
Gutenberg! The Musical!  (Royal George Theatre) TO, CTB
Lookingglass Alice (Lookingglass Theatre) TO
Funk It Up About Nuthin’ (Chicago Shakes) TO
A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Queer Tale (MidTangent) TO, CTB
Ren Faire! (Prp Thtr) TO
Hay Fever (Circle Theatre) ST
Ain’t Misbehavin’ (Goodman Theatre) ST
Jekyll & Hyde (Boho Theatre) ST, CTB
I Am Who I Am (The Story of Teddy Pendergrass)
(Black Ensemble Theater)
ST, TO
A Steady Rain (Royal George) ST, CTB
Co-Ed Prison Sluts (Annoyance Theatre) Trib
A Rabbit’s Tale (Millennium Park) Trib