Review: Porgy and Bess (Court Theatre Chicago)

     
     

We loves you, Porgy and Bess!

     
     

Harriet Nzinga Plumpp

    
Court Theatre presents
   
   
Porgy and Bess
   
Written by George Gerwin, Ira Gershwin,
and Dorothy and
DuBose Heyward
Directed by Charles Newell
Music direction, new orchestrations by Doug Peck
at
Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis (map)
through July 3  |  tickets: $10-$55  |  more info 

Reviewed by Barry Eitel 

On first glance, Porgy and Bess looks like the tale of a perpetual sucker. The crippled beggar Porgy, living in an impoverished South Carolina hamlet, falls for Bess, the most shunned woman in town, a coquette who runs with a jealous meathead. Due to Porgy being the only person who’ll let her stay at his house, the mismatched pair gets together, yet the woman retains a wandering eye. But Porgy puts up with all, even when she runs to New York when he’s out of town. Instead of throwing up his hands, he takes up his crutch and starts the journey north.

Alexis J. Rogers and Todd M. KrygerHowever, as Charles Newell’s excellent production at Court makes clear, there’s something astoundingly human about this tale. George Gershwin’s magnum opus showcases love and forgiveness in its treatment of Porgy and Bess’ relationship. Titular characters aside, the opera also delves into how a community copes with hardship. Even when those hardships are as insidious and gigantic as racism, poverty, and natural disaster.

Out of the millions of debates spurred by this show, easily one of the stupidest is if it should be classified as an opera or musical. Newell and music director Doug Peck took the best of both genres. I’d say the show is about 90% singing, keeping many of Gershwin’s recitatives. But they aren’t afraid to throw in a few spoken lines when a character needs to drop a truth bomb without the flourish of music. Newell also chopped down the supporting townsfolk of Catfish Row, so the stage isn’t flooded with actors with one line roles. It also makes the whole strong ensemble memorable.

Newell’s envisioning of this controversial tale adds a vibrancy and immediacy to the octogenarian opera. John Culbert’s off-white set invokes a weathered Carolina beach house, which goes well with Jacqueline Firkins’ breezy white costumes. Stark as it may seem, the design has its fare share of breathtaking surprises. Peck also tweaks the arrangements to great effect, adding some great traditional Gullah drum breaks as well as haunting stripped down acapella numbers.

While initially shunned, Porgy and Bess has seen lots of love from opera houses around the world (including a production at the Lyric in 2008). These productions promise grandiose sets and superstar vocals, with the plot lagging behind as an afterthought. That’s not the case here, where the plot (based on DuBose Heyward’s 1926 novel) is the main selling point. With Newell’s minimalist take, nearly all of the storytelling responsibility falls to the cast. They deliver with aplomb, searching the story’s intricacies and themes alongside us in the audience. I already had chills when Harriet Nzinga Plumpp warbled the first few notes of “Summertime.”

 

Rogers and Jones - V Kryger - V Plumpp and Newland - V

Todd M. Kryger’s hulking performance as Porgy is just the right blend of majesty and vulnerability, and Alexis J. Rogers correctly portrays a Bess torn by love and lust. But the real jewel here is the supporting cast. Bethany Thomas as the pious Serena steals the show with her wickedly expressive singing style. She shreds right through the heart of “My Man’s Gone Now.” Sean Blake’s slick Sporting Life, the neighborhood dope dealer, is a similar delight. His rendition of “It Ain’t Necessarily So” drips with fun—it’s clear he’s having a great time up there.

Court boasts that this production is scrubbed clean of the racist smudges that have dogged Porgy and Bess from its opening night in 1935. I don’t know if I completely agree with that—much of the music still leans towards Europe instead of Africa. But Porgy and Bess is an American treasure, a spunky musical journey that combines stodgy Old World opera with the uniquely American creations of jazz, gospel, and blues. Newell’s production is a treasure in itself, grabbing this overly-familiar piece (“Summertime” is one of the most covered pop song in the world) and thrusting it into relevance.

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
  
  
Bethany Thomas and Brian Alwyn-Newland Joelle Lamarre, Bethany Thomas, Wydetta Carter, Todd Kryger, Alexis Rogers
   
   

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Review: Tragedy: a tragedy (Red Tape Theatre)

     
     

Tragedy: a new theatrical experience

     
     

Paul Miller and Paige Sawin in Red Tape Theatre’s TRAGEDY: A TRAGEDY May 5 to June 4 (Photo by James Palmer)

  
Red Tape Theatre presents
   
   
Tragedy: a tragedy
  
  
Written by Will Eno
Directed by Jeremy Wechsler
at Red Tape Theatre, 621 W. Belmont (map)
through June 5  |  tickets: $25  |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel 

Hot shot playwright Will Eno’s Tragedy: a tragedy parodies the modern, multitasking, up-to-the-minute human condition, yet eulogizes it at the same time. Clocking in at an hour and 15 minutes, it’s less of a drama and more of a loose curio cabinet of themes. The world has been thrown into eternal darkness, and a crack news team does their darndest to fill the continuing coverage. They offer conjectures, anecdotes from their own lives, and wild speculation. Mostly they report about how there is nothing to report.

The first thing you’ll notice upon walking into the Red Tape space is that the audience seating is as built up as the actual set. I snagged a loveseat, but one could also crowd around a card table or sit on a wood bench. Set designer Emily Guthrie puts you in a TV watching environment, whether that’s your living room, kitchen, or local bar. We’re watching what could be the last broadcast ever. An anchorman (Lawrence Garner), three reporters (Steve O’Connell, Paige Sawin, and Mike Tepeli), and some guy on the street (Paul Miller) try to explain the unexplainable. The sun turned off. People are fleeing their homes. The governor is no where to be found. Emotions fling between fear, anger, desperation, and sluggish nihilism. But stories must be broken. Right?

Obviously, Eno’s world is off-kilter. His style fluctuates between wacky, darkly hilarious, and deeply lyrical. Jeremy Wechsler, who has directed much of Eno’s canon, leads the production for Red Tape. It definitely has its flaws, but Wechsler’s show digs deep into your psyche. It won’t shatter your worldview, but it’ll have your brain slowly churning for days afterward.

Paige Sawin in Red Tape Theatre’s TRAGEDY: A TRAGEDY May 5 to June 4 (Photo by James Palmer)

Along with Tragedy, Eno’s Middletown is coming to Chicago soon, with a production by Steppenwolf on the horizon. Eno is an interesting creature on today’s theatre scene. His stuff harks back to mid-century absurdism, but isn’t suffocated by cynicism. Tragedy is remarkably fresh. He obviously isn’t out to shock or disgust. He’s quietly philosophical, having his pseudo-characters ponder metaphysics and existentialism. It’s a thoughtful, free-form route, one which many young playwrights today seem to be traveling. Perhaps it will be the hallmark of American theatre in the 2000s.

That depends on, of course, if audiences can stay awake. Tragedy is a strangely paced play, one that demands moments of both rapid fire dialogue and complete stillness. Wechsler’s production can’t quite get the balance right. Some of the pregnant pauses are hysterical pregnancies. There’s something to be said for extended moments of silence, but the Red Tape production doesn’t earn them. Harold Pinter could write pauses in his plays like a composer writes rests in his score; Eno is still finding his bearings.

The cast does a remarkable job with the bizarre material. Garner’s Frank, trapped in a studio raised above the action, keeps going until the very end with raised eyebrows and a concerned deep voice. By the final moments, he’s a dispossessed god in a world out of control. Tepeli and O’Connell navigate Eno’s humor well, and Sawin gives a haunting turn as Constance. Miller spends 95% of the show standing around and 5% dropping truths, but he does it with warmth and commitment.

I do wish the actual set was as meticulously plotted as the audience. Frank’s box looks downright chintzy.

The play is a product of the ‘90s, and I wonder how the internet would rock this world. But that’s just one of a miasma of questions this play raises. Most importantly (or maybe least importantly), is there any reason to believe the sun won’t rise again?

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

  
  

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Review: The Maid of Orleans (Strangeloop Theatre)

  
  

Strangeloop’s ‘Maid’ not strange enough

  
  

A scene from Strangeloop Theatre's production of "The Maid of Orleans" by Friedrich Schiller.

  
Strangeloop Theatre presents
   
  
The Maid of Orleans
   
     

Written by Friedrich Schiller
Directed by Bradley Gunter
at Trap Door Theatre, 1655 W. Cortland (map)
through May 29  |  tickets: $5-$15  |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

In the centuries since her fiery demise in 1430, the story of Joan of Arc has inspired volumes of plays. Shakespeare paints an unflattering picture of the girl in part 1 of Henry VI, seeing her as a scheming enemy of the English. Probably the most influential depiction of Joan (while not the most accurate) is Friedrich Schiller’s The Maid of Orleans, written a little over two hundred years ago. He dramatizes almost her entire life, from her shepherding origins to her death on the battlefield (I suppose burning someone at the stack was too hard to stage). His five act play inspired operas by Verdi and Tchaikovsky as well as a slew of films. Schiller is a major force in shaping Joan the cultural icon as we think of her today.

A scene from Strangeloop Theatre's production of "The Maid of Orleans" by Friedrich Schiller.With such a strong German history in Chicago, I’m always a little surprise the Teutonic greats don’t see more stage time. We have streets named after Schiller and Goethe. There’s a Buchner love-fest going on right now, and Brecht pops up every season (as he should)—but the Continent’s answers to the Bard are oft ignored.

Not by Strangeloop Theatre, who cram Joan’s epic venture onto the Trap Door stage stage. And they go balls to the wall, using a 1840s translation and avoiding flourishes. However, it’s an arduous, creaky journey, with brief moments of excitement punctuating long spats of monotony.

I left yearning for some unifying concept, something that would make Schiller’s ode more relevant. But director Bradley Gunter doesn’t bring much to the table, which is a shame because Joan’s story is so moldable and Schiller’s script so rich. Gunter puts up a very sobering production, one bordering on stale. They end up with a museum exhibit on their hands.

A lot of the problem is due to Anna Swanwick’s dusty translation. It’s in the public domain, I get it. But that also means you can change it up, zap it with modern sensibilities. Strangeloop could’ve taken a tip from the Woyzeck Festival and put up an adaptation, probably coming up with something much more zesty. In order to ask an audience to sit through a two and a half hour ordeal, a production needs more conviction. The audience deserves more effort than those that conjured up this production put forth.

     
A scene from Strangeloop Theatre's production of "The Maid of Orleans" by Friedrich Schiller.q A scene from Strangeloop Theatre's production of "The Maid of Orleans" by Friedrich Schiller.
A scene from Strangeloop Theatre's production of "The Maid of Orleans" by Friedrich Schiller. A scene from Strangeloop Theatre's production of "The Maid of Orleans" by Friedrich Schiller.

That’s not to say there isn’t anything noteworthy about Strangeloop’s creation. If you really, really crave Schiller or the Joan of Arc story, it’s worth a peek. And the swordplay, crafted by Libby Beyreis, adds much needed jolts of excitement.

In general, it’s a well-acted play, even if many of the supporting performances seem as stiff as the translation. Letitia Guilaud’s wide-eyed Johanna (Joan) is a joy, kicking loads of butt for France. She bobbles in more vulnerable scenes, especially one moment where she awkwardly sings to the audience. Yet Guilaud is petit and ferocious, all that we want Joan to be. Paul Tinsley takes great relish in playing the English scoundrel Talbot, and we feel it in the house. One of my favorite performances was Jodi Kingsley’s Queen Isabel, who sides with the English against her native France. She grips onto the language with grace, making the text oddly modern. It’s what the rest of the production aspires to be.

The production values are too simple to work well, especially costumer D.J. Reed’s decision to put everyone in modern dress. Nothing else feels modern, so the shirts and ties feel like a cheap and easy substitute for real period dress. Quite simply, Gunter’s vision lacks innovation. Joan was leading whole armies as an uneducated teenager. We at least owe her some creativity.

  
  
Rating: ★★
  
  

The cast from Strangeloop Theatre's production of "The Maid of Orleans" by Friedrich Schiller

     
     

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Review: Soul Samurai (Infusion Theatre Company)

     
     

Not quite enough soul in ‘Soul Samurai’

     
     

Glenn Stanton, Megan Tabaque, Paul Tadalan, Christine Lin, Zach Livingston, Anji White.

  
Infusion Theatre Company presents
   
Soul Samurai
  
Written by Qui Nguyen
Directed by Mitch Golob
at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont (map)
through June 5  |  tickets: $15-$25   |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel 

Bloodthirsty shoguns run a post-apocalyptic New York City. A female warrior seeks revenge for her murdered girlfriend, armed with only a katana and a wise-cracking sidekick.

It’s a pretty sweet premise for a play. Especially when a live DJ is scoring the activities and comic book-style video projections provide visual gimmickry. Infusion Theatre Company’s production of Qui Nguyen’s Soul Samurai promises to attract nerds and action-addicts alike. If only the product lived up to the hype.

Nguyen’s play falls into the same pit many of the action movies he’s sending up fall into. Instead of a cohesive plot, the story just seems to be an excuse for the next battle. Even with director Mitch Golob at the helm and Geoff Coates crafting the complex sword brawls, the production can’t overcome the play’s flaws. The pacing of the entire show is jilted and the fights seem to be running at about 75%, not full Christine Lin, Amy Dellagiarino in Infusion Theatre's 'Soul Samurai' by Qui Nguyen. Evan Lee, Christine Lin in a scene from Infusion Theatre's Soul Samurai by Qui Ngyuen. Photo by Anthony LaPennaspeed. It’s fun, but it is not fun enough.

Nguyen writes in a style that is half neo-Kung Fu flick and half Blaxploitation. He sets his story several years after New York City has fallen to ultra-violent gangs and a few genuine psychopaths. We follow Dewdrop (Christine Lin) as she seeks to avenge the death of her lover, Sally December (Amy Dellagiarino), who was attacked by a mob of bad guys right in front of Dewdrop’s eyes. The narrative is chopped up so we also see how Dewdrop went from a demure, Asian college student to an urban Amazon. She battles through to Brooklyn, along with her loudmouthed pal Cert (Steve Thomas). But as she slashes deeper into the city, the thugs get more sinister. And maybe a soul-deprived Sally December is among them. Like any good hero, Dewdrop presses on to the bloody end.

I have to give Infusion props for bringing a tale on-stage that you usually don’t see—something action-based instead of focusing on a bunch of characters jabbering the whole time. Although the play is a unique beast for theatre, it doesn’t feel entirely original. While “Kill Bill” was Tarantino’s homage to Hong Kong cinema, it was also an entirely new tale. Soul Samurai seems like an homage to “Kill Bill”. It doesn’t help that the soundtrack is referenced at least twice.

While his production generally exudes the cool necessary for something like this, Golob’s show is flawed. On paper, the running time was an hour and 45 minutes; in reality, the show clocked a half hour over that. A lot of that was due to slow transitions Master Leroy (Evan Lee), Dewdrop (Christine Lin)and dragging scenes, including a training montage that overstays it’s welcome. And on opening night, at least, the on-stage action, music, and video weren’t entirely synced up.

The cast captures Nguyen’s tough, dog-eat-dog style well. Lin has a bit of tough time commanding the space, but she finds it eventually. She’s got the spunk, but she can’t always externalize it. Thomas is the highlight of the show, always flying at a breakneck pace and delivering his profanity-laced witticisms with flair. Other favorites include Glenn Stanton as a pimp-coat donning shogun and Evan Lee as the stereotypical sensei (“Sally” comes out as “Sarry”).

Considering how cool the show could be, the end product is just sort of disappointing. There’s a lot of flash, and Jesse Livingston’s musical styling adds some fun. But, for me anyway, it wasn’t enough to cover up the holes in Nguyen’s pedestrian script. How often, though, is there a chance to see live samurai battles in this city? The slice-and-dice novelty is indeed worth checking out.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

Evan Lee, Christine Lin in a scene from Infusion Theatre's Soul Samurai by Qui Ngyuen. Photo by Anthony LaPenna

Soul Samurai runs April 28 – June 5 at Theater Wit, 1229 W Belmont Ave.
The performance schedule is Thursday – Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3
p.m. Tickets are $25 during the run with student, senior and industry
discounts available. Industry tickets, $15, are available at all Thursday
performances. Tickets may be purchased by calling 773-975-8150 or at
infusiontheatre.com.   

Photos by Anthony LaPenna

  

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Review: Pony (About Face Theatre)

  
  

Brilliant, fully-committed cast can’t bridle Bruchner’s ‘Pony’

  
  

Kristina Valada-Viars (Marie) and Kelli Simpkins (Pony) in About Face Theatre’s production of PONY by Sylvan Oswald, directed by Artistic Director Bonnie Metzgar.  Photo by Michael Brosilow.

  
About Face Theatre presents
  
Pony
  
Written by Sylvan Oswald
Directed by Bonnie Metzgar
at Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division (map)
through May 22  |  tickets: $21-$28  |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel 

Woyzeck was left unfinished when its author Georg Buchner died of typhus at the tender age of twenty-three in 1836. Buchner’s bleak depiction of working class life touched a nerve in 19th Century Germany. Since then, plenty of artists have taken it upon themselves to finish, adapt, and tweak the original, including composer Alban Berg and filmmaker Werner Herzog. Lucky for us, the Chicago theatre community is putting on a Woyzeck smorgasbord this spring, with plenty of chances to see new spins on the story. Oracle Theatre  and the Hypocrites have put on somewhat straightforward versions of the play, but About Face decided to move further away from the Buchner with Pony by Sylvan Oswald.

Kristina Valada-Viars (Marie) and Kelli Simpkins (Pony) in About Face Theatre’s production of PONY by Sylvan Oswald, directed by Artistic Director Bonnie Metzgar.  Photo by Michael Brosilow.Superbly acted and wonderfully designed, I wished that Oswald had stuck closer to the primary source or had ventured further away. What director Bonnie Metzgar ends up with is a derivative tale that is usually engrossing and often funny, but doesn’t really make much sense.

While Buchner was writing about the proletariat, Oswald is writing about gender identification. Every character in the play is either transgendered or interested in one, including Oswald’s stand-in for Woyzeck, Pony (Kelli Simpkins). Added to his woes about money and love, Pony must also deal with being outted in a potentially hostile community.

Pony takes place in the town across the forest from Woyzeck’s world. Instead of Industrial-age Germany, though, Pony’s world looks like a grimy Pennsylvania coal mining town of the 1980s. Everyone is covered in grit and everyone is poor.

Pony rides into town and instantly falls for Marie (Kristina Valada-Viars), a waitress obsessed with the murder that happened on the other side of the woods to a certain other Marie. Marie’s best friend Stel (Jessica Hudson) warns Pony that he better stay out of Marie’s life, which the audience learns is because she also secretly pines for Marie. Looking out for Pony’s well-being is Cav (Janet Ulrich Brooks), an old-school lesbian and the only scientist in town. And while Pony is courting Marie, Heath (Matthew Sherbach) is searching for Pony, laden with family secrets.

Pony is clearly inspired by Woyzeck, but the play goes off on Oswald’s own tangents. Instead of force-feeding peas, Cav subjects Pony to psychological evaluations. Marie ponders how a man can reach the desperation needed to kill the one thing in the world he loves—pretty much the question Buchner sets out to answer in his play. And Pony, like the other titular character, finds himself battered by society. Unfortunately, Oswald is unable to tie these themes together and the play feels more like a musing on the original than its own entity. Pony has difficulty finding a job and is devastated when he finds himself robbed, but he never reaches the utter anguish of Woyzeck. The romance between Pony and Marie is budding, not self-destructing. Oswald doesn’t reach the lower-class rage of Buchner and Pony doesn’t have its inspiration’s weight. By the end, the plot unravels into confusion. The final scene is especially tepid.

The brilliant, fully-committed cast, however, does what they can to keep the story alive. Brooks grabs the audience attention and pulls us along wherever she goes. Simpkins carries the show well, bursting with anger or sheepishly talking to Marie, whatever the script requires. Sherbach, besides some overuse of his hands, adds a great, humorous balance to the mix.

Many of the modern adaptations of Woyzeck, like Collaboraction’s Guinea Pig Solo, focus on the militaristic aspects of the play. About Face takes a different route with taking a hard look at the personal side. But without Metzgar’s awesome cast, the play would fall apart.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

Matthew Sherbach (Heath) and Kelli Simpkins (Pony) in About Face Theatre’s production of PONY by Sylvan Oswald, directed by Artistic Director Bonnie Metzgar.  Photo by Michael Brosilow.

All photos by Michael Brosilow 

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Review: The Copperhead (City Lit Theater)

   
  

This ‘copperhead’ is worth every penny

 
 

The Copperhead - City Lit Theatre Chicago

  
City Lit Theater presents
 
The Copperhead
  
Written by Augustus Thomas
Directed by Kathy Scambiattera
at City Lit Theater, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr (map)
through May 15  |  tickets: $18-$25  |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

While Chekhov was over in Russia writing about social upheaval, Augustus Thomas was stateside dipping into the American experience and crafting similar pieces of realism. The demise of the old aristocracy inspired Chekhov; Reconstruction and the economic decimation of the South following the Civil War instigated Thomas’ plays. Once proclaimed as the best playwright in the nation, Thomas has faded into obscurity over the last century. Watching City Lit Theater’s solid production of his most successful play, 1918’s The Copperhead, I was struck by how well-wrought Thomas’ style seems even today. Maybe director Kathy Scambiatterra’s show will kickstart interest in one of America’s original voices.

The Copperhead - City Lit Theatre Chicago 2The Copperhead is part of City Lit’s “Civil War Project,” a five-year theatrical exploration of the Civil War. Thomas sets his drama in southern Illinois, close to the border of the Confederacy. The play centers around Milt Shanks (Mark Pracht), a Southern sympathizer, claiming he wants peace above all else. In the Land of Lincoln, that doesn’t go down well. He earns the ire of his family and community, even going to prison for his murky connections to the Rebel cause. The second half of the play is set 40 years after Appomattox, and the beliefs Shanks’ held during the war are still affecting him and his descendants.

Unlike many of his peers, Thomas completely shuns melodrama. There’s a subtle pressure and conflict that flows throughout the play. Social roles and appearances run the world, just like with Ibsen or Strindberg. What people believe is as important as what people do.

Scambiatterra elicits great performances from her strappy cast. Pracht does a fine job with the austere Shanks, remaining strong and level, while still revealing glimpses of vulnerability – we know he is still a human being in a crazy situation. The real gem in the production is Kate Tummelson, who plays Shanks’ wife in the first half and his devoted granddaughter in the second. She really drives every scene she is a part of, scrounging up independence in a time where there was very little to be had for women. As Ma Shanks, she is torn by her devotion to her son, her husband, and her country. As Madeline, she has to look out for her grandfather and her own future. Another great performance is given by Judith Hoppe as the high-spirited Grandma Pearly, who constantly talks about how war takes a toll on women.

Thomas’ writing holds up surprisingly well. Scambiaterra finds loads of humor in the script—Pracht as the older Milt mines plenty of elderly jokes. And the cast finds layers with every character; there are unspoken ethos guiding every actor on stage.

The plays runs along pretty well, but the ending ties the show together a bit too neatly. It becomes like some sort of 19th-century James Bond flick. I was hoping for something more like Chekhov, where the house lights come up leaving the audience with unanswered questions and some moral ambiguity. But Thomas taps into good ol’ American sentimentality, breaking apart complexities he spends four acts building up.

City Lit brings an honest, down-the-line approach to the script. The Copperhead can feel a bit archaic, but never wooden. It’s great to see such an old play with a local connection being done here. Thomas will never have the name recognition or acclaim of Chekhov, and he seems afraid to dive as deep into darker territory. However, his play remains relevant to any culture familiar with war. The Civil War Project is a fascinating idea, and I hope they can keep churning out work like this.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

The Copperhead poster - City Lit Theater Chicago

  
  

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Review: White Noise (Royal George and Whoopi Goldberg)

        
        

Though it doesn’t quite rock the hard place, it still rocks

  
  

MacKenzie Mauzy and the ensemble in Whoopi Goldberg's 'White Noise' at the Royal George Theatre in Chicago.

  
Whoopi Goldberg presents
  
White Noise: a cautionary musical
  
Book by Matte O’Brien
Music/Lyrics by
Robert Morris, Steven Morris, Joe Shane
Directed and choreographed  by
Sergio Trujillo
at Royal George Theatre, 1641 N. Halsted (map)
through June 5  |  tickets: $50-$65  |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

Neo-Nazism, maybe now more than ever, is definitely a lonely philosophy, with both sides of the political spectrum trigger-happy to brand their opponents as followers of the Fuhrer. Unlike the more fashionable discrimination against Latinos, Muslims, and gays, wholesale white supremacy is not in vogue these days. White Noise, the new “cautionary musical” produced by Whoopi Goldberg, asks what would happen if subtle and coded racist rhetoric went viral? It’s already sort of happening over on 4Chan; in this way, Matte O’Brien’s book is screamingly relevant. He’s assisted by well-wrought, if often disturbing, songs and Sergio Trujillo’s snappy staging. However, by using tired Nazi philosophy Emily Padgett and MacKenzie Mauzy in Whoopi Goldberg's 'White Noise' at the Royal George Theatreas its punching bag, White Noise fails to present a nuanced reflection on racism in today’s America—something we desperately need.

The events of the play were inspired by a little duo of white nationalists who formed a band called Prussian Blue. The two tween girls sang about race wars and crushes on skinheads, nearly immediately gaining the ire, and spotlight, of the national media. However, the pinnacle of Prussian Blue’s career was playing a state fair or two. The titular band in White Noise is sexier, more talented, and more marketable—singing their ciphered bigotry, they become YouTube darlings and put out a number one single.

One wonders how their repulsive beliefs are kept hidden from the media – something the show never explains. In fact, you aren’t really told much about how those beliefs came to be; there is never the searing indictment of inherited racism you find in American History X.

What we’re left with is the terrifically short rise and fall of White Noise, which is comprised of sisters Eva and Eden (Mackenzie Mauzy and Emily Padgett), skinhead/bassist/Eva’s boyfriend Duke (Patrick Murney), and Jake (Eric William Morris), who’s slapped onto the band by record exec Max (Douglas Sills as a lukewarm Bobby Gould-lite) with the mission of repackaging the group. The show becomes a battle between the greed of the amoral Max and Duke’s desire to vocalize his disgusting views on a national platform. Eva and Eden are caught in the crossfire. Eden just writes the tunes; she’s never really that concerned with the message. Eva fully believes the stuff, but she’s also a capitalist.

This story is juxtaposed with Max and Jake’s attempts to repackage backpack rappers Dion (Wallace Smith) and Tyler (Rodney Hicks) as gangstas. It doesn’t help that the two’s original ideas are pretty lame (like a rap version of the Declaration of Independence – not kidding), lacking the intelligence of Lupe Fiasco or De La Soul. Against their will, Max turns them into Blood Brothers and Jake writes them a little tune called “N.G.S.,” a smash hit about N’s (think N.W.A.) shooting “white boys.” Obviously, Jake and Max are guilty of racist double-dipping, but Max could care less and Jake is concerned with making his career. The whole musical leads up to a giant concert featuring a double bill of White Noise and Blood Brothers. Needless to say, it doesn’t go down as smooth as “Ebony and Ivory.”

     
Eric Morris, Emily Padgett, MacKenzie Mauzy, Patrick Murney in Whoopi Goldberg's 'White Noise' at the Royal George Theatre
Rodney Hicks and Wallace Smith as the "BloodBrothas" in Whoopi Goldberg's 'White Noise' at the Royal George Theatre in Chicago. MacKenzie Mauzy and Emily Padgett in Whoopi Goldberg's 'White Noise' at the Royal George Theatre

Mauzy and Padgett give great performances and nail the musical numbers. Their tunes, penned by Robert Morris, Steven Morris, and Joe Shane, are legitimately catchy. Murney is chilling and Morris, who becomes the romantic lead in this tale, is decent. Max is a wannabe Mamet character who just isn’t quite ballsy enough, but Sills does the best he can.

I have to give props to this show – which has Broadway-level production design – for not shying away from the vile language. The show may be as blunt as Nazi propaganda. It presents racism in a polarized manner that doesn’t speak to the insidious, quieter racism that we see today. But White Noise still asks some relevant questions. The Hitler salute-inspired choreography in the video of White Noise’s hit single, “Mondays Suck,” inspire rounds of fan vids on YouTube, a la “Single Ladies.” At the end of the night, I was wondering how stupid all those kids must feel after they realize they posted videos of themselves goose-stepping.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Eric Morris, Emily Padgett, MacKenzie Mauzy, Patrick Murney in Whoopi Goldberg's 'White Noise' at the Royal George Theatre

White Noise: a cautionary musical continues at the Royal George Theatre through June 5th, with performances Tuesday-Thursday at 7:30pm, Fridays 8pm, Saturdays 5pm and 8pm, and Sundays at 2pm and 5pm. Tickets are $49.50-$64.50, and can be purchased online or via the box office (312-988-9000). For more info, download the

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All photos by Carol Rosegg

     

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