Review: Passing Strange (Bailiwick Chicago)

  
  

Bailiwick takes us on a sublime musical journey

  
  

Clockwise from left: LaNisa Frederick, Osiris Khepera, Whitney White, Sharriese Hamilton, Aaron Holland, Steven Perkins in Bailiwick Chicago's 'Passing Strange'. Photo by Jay Kennedy ©2011

   
Bailiwick Chicago presents
  
Passing Strange
   
Written by Stew and Heidi Rodewald
Directed by Lili-Anne Brown
at Chicago Center for the Performing Arts, 777 N. Green (map)
through May 29  |  tickets: $25-$35  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

Passing Strange is a supple title for this coming-of-age rock/soul musical/concert. It refers to how life looks to this young black man from Los Angeles–and to how he moves through it as his hero journey takes him to Amsterdam, Berlin and back home. With one of the richest scores this entertainment genre ever needed and a Midwest premiere by Bailiwick Chicago that’s nothing short of terrific, “Passing Strange” is 150 minutes of smart showbiz. Until now I never knew how much a record album could resemble a family album—until it’s, as the British say, a distinction without a difference.

Jayson "JC" Brooks" as the Narrator in Bailiwick Chicago's 'Passing Strange'.It’s also a very specific journey. It begins in 1976 and ends in the early 80s with the protagonist still only 22. Narrating it with a passion to equal the events is Jayson “JC” Brooks, noted for his Coalhouse Walker in Porchlight’s Ragtime. Known simply as Youth (galvanic Steven Perkins), the seeker is first seen trying out and rejecting religions, to the confusion of his tough-loving, church-going mother (a remarkable LaNisa Frederick), who indulges in her own less-than-sacred “Baptist Fashion Show.” The “call and response” fervor of the revival meetings that Youth attends (“Church Blues Revelation/Music Is the Freight Train in Which God Travels”) becomes a style, if not a subject, that he can share in his own songs. But the youth choir is no inspiration, neither is the girlfriend who rejects him because he’s not black enough.

Influenced by the American-fleeing James Baldwin, Youth journeys to Amsterdam to join the reefer rebels at the Headquarters Café Song, find inspiration with the comforting Marianna (Sharriese Hamilton) who gives him her “Keys,” and get stoned in this punk-rock “Paradise.” But it’s all too perfect. There’s no friction to generate the songs expected from an ex-pat alien on the lam from L.A.

This “fiery pilgrim” finally ends up in still-Communist Berlin where Youth gets sucked into the righteously rebellious performance-art scene. There he cultivates his angry “Negritude” and sticks out as “The Black One,” savoring his outsider identity as he joins a commune of agitprop-crazy Reds. (Their cruel Cold War concept is that “What is inside is just a lie,” that we’re just the creatures of capitalism unless we free ourselves through anti-social theatrics.)

     
Clockwise from top left: Sharriese Hamilton, Aaron Holland, Jayson “JC” Brooks, Osiris Khepera, Steven Perkins. Photo by Jay Kennedy, ©2011 Bailiwick A scene from About Face Theatre's 'Passing Strange'. Photo by Jay Kennedy, ©2011
A scene from About Face Theatre's 'Passing Strange'. Photo by Jay Kennedy, ©2011 A scene from About Face Theatre's 'Passing Strange'. Photo by Jay Kennedy, ©2011 A scene from About Face Theatre's 'Passing Strange'. Photo by Jay Kennedy, ©2011 A scene from About Face Theatre's 'Passing Strange'. Photo by Jay Kennedy, ©2011

But one lonely Christmastide, the Youth discovers that even radicals have families to which they return. Perhaps he should go back too. But his mother’s death makes the prodigal’s return to L.A. a bittersweet homecoming (“Passing Phase”). So the Youth’s perpetual tug of war between life and art finally ends in a sardonic thought: “Life is a mess that only art can fix.” Better of “Work the Wound.”

Youth’s quest inevitably conjures up images of Beat Poets on the road, Kerouac-style, as they try by process of elimination to find out what they’re not. Then can come the slow creative accretion that forges their art. It’s never been so eloquent however, with this Tony Award-winning book by Stew (who played the original Narrator) and his cunning, memorable songs (co-written with Heidi Rodewald in collaboration with Annie Dorsen). James Morehad music directs the 22 numbers with a singular love for every note. The Bailiwick ensemble couldn’t be tighter or truer to this multi-textured material.

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
  
  

From left: David Keller, Billy Bungeroth, Kevin Marks, Jayson “JC” Brooks, Ben Taylor. ©2011 Bailiwick Chicago, Photo by Jay Kennedy

All photos by Jay Kennedy, © 2011

     

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Review: South Side of Heaven (Second City)

     
     

A morbid comedy of fate done to perfection

     
     

(L-R) Edgar Blackmon, Holly Laurent, Katie Rich, Tim Robinson, Timothy Edward Mason, and Sam Richardson. Photo by Michael Brosilow

  
The Second City presents
  
South Side of Heaven
  
Directed by Billy Bungeroth
Musical direction by Julie Nichols
at The Second City Mainstage, 1616 N. Wells (map)
open run  |  tickets: $22-$27  |  more info

Reviewed by Jason Rost

Watching “Saturday Night Live” this past year I’ve tried hard to believe it’s on its way back to a quality decade. There are currently some talented cast members and writers, a few with Second City roots. However, I am consistently disappointed. Every sketch comes off as a stale parody of a brilliant sketch from past golden ages of the show. I was not exactly sure what was missing until I saw The Second City’s 99th revue, The South Side of Heaven. After over 50 years, Second City has managed to continue to stay current, take risks and find ways to still shock audiences through comedy. South Side shakes the status quo with writing that is absurd, truthful, and at (L-R) Holly Laurent, Sam Richardson • Photo by Michael Brosilow.times, refreshingly dark. Don’t expect a laugh-line at the end of each scene in this revue. There are moments of silence and reflection to take in comedy writing that is more than just a collection of sketches. Director Billy Bungeroth (critically acclaimed for his e.t.c. show still running, The Absolutely Best Friggin’ Time of Your Life our review ★★★½) maintains an aspect of comedy that is currently non-existent in the NBC counterpart to Second City: it remains vital.

Bungeroth of course has an unbelievably talented group of actors and writers in Edgar Blackmon, Holly Laurent, Timothy Edward Mason, Katie Rich, Sam Richardson and Tim Robinson. While Richardson gives what may be the best Obama impersonation I’ve ever seen, if there’s only one name to store away from this cast, Robinson is the one. He is bravely sardonic and juvenile as the outgoing Mayor Daley, complete with a flapping cape that is the Chicago flag. This is juxtaposed by Edgar Blackmon’s no-nonsense rapping version of Rahm Emanuel who, with a mob boss’ glare, reminds us to “Pay your taxes.” Robinson also showcases his commitment to his scene partner, which happens to be a Chipotle burrito, in one of the scenes I most identified with, along with a horde of other Chicagoans whose mouth waters at the glimpse of the gold foil wrapped delicacy on a billboard.

It also must be noted that, in part, what makes the casting of this show extraordinary is that there are two African-American actors, something Second City and other Chicago comedy venues fail at historically. The impact is that this allows the stereotypes of whites and blacks to be played to the edge; it also allows the African-American actors to play roles that have nothing to do with race, such as a truly heartfelt, hilarious and truthful segment featuring Robinson and Richardson. Robinson is a 30-something who still believes he’s going to play basketball for the Bulls, while Richardson is a United Center security guard who has aspirations of being a ninja. Heck, as he states, “I’m practically a ninja already.” The friendship and imagination in this scene plays out delightfully, especially to a Gen X and Gen Y crowd who may or may not still play NBA Jam on an old Sega Genesis.

Laurent and Rich complement each other perfectly in their scenes, and hold their own as the female voice in this male dominated cast. They never quite play the sex object—even as Kobe Bryant’s escorts they are still tongue-in-cheek as opinionated Chicago Polish babes. In another piece, Laurent is an English teacher hiding domestic issues which the smart outspoken Rich, as her student, sees through. The message in this scene attests to teaching our youth more facts about how the “real world” works. The segment could also hold its own as an incredible ten-minute play.

     
(L-R) Holly Laurent, Tim Robinson. Photo by Michael Brosilow. (L-R) Timothy Edward Mason, Holly Laurent, Katie Rich, Edgar Blackmon •  Photo by Michael Brosilow
(L-R) Holly Laurent, Katie Rich • Photo by Michael Brosilow (L-R) Timothy Edward Mason, Tim Robinson, Sam Richardson, Edgar Blackmon • Photo by Michael Brosilow

Thematically, South Side makes a comedic case for one of the nation’s largest problems. In America, people do not think of themselves as poor or middle class. Everyone is wealthy and successful and only in a temporary rut. We are constantly looking upward. People continue to overspend and over-live thinking that the future version of them will be rich enough to afford it. This is why people love American Idol and The Lottery, because it provides the illusion that “Joe Schmo” can become an overnight millionaire, or, why Mayor Daley fought so hard to get Chicago the Olympics, even when it wasn’t fiscally reasonable. South Side professes that people might try realizing that EVERYBODY’S life is miserable regardless of how perfect other people’s lives seem to be. While the show doesn’t entirely bash having dreams and aspirations, it does suggest that there are simply certain fates that cannot be altered. Perhaps only Cubs fans truly understand this notion, and in the best sketch of the night, the rousing debate between Cubs fans and Sox fans transcends the “Red Eye” obligatory June front cover and encroaches upon the territory of Jabari Asim (author of “The N-Word”).

The outrageous and darkly absurd also make several appearances throughout the night. Laurent has created a character reminiscent of Mary Catherine Gallagher, only the awkwardness is amped way up. A scene in with Robinson is the driver of a Chicago tourist horse drawn carriage ride (with Richardson dedicating all of himself to the part of the horse) goes to a place you don’t see coming, and keeps going. And Robinson earns the full exposure award of the night for unabashedly leaving nothing on stage as a captivating dancer.

(L-R) Tim Robinson, Sam Richardson • Photo by John McCloskeyAnother absolutely brilliant scene stars the quick witted Timothy Edward Mason as a TSA agent. Without giving too much away, this segment revolves around the new full body screening at airport security check-in sites. However, it becomes about so much more as it uses the audience, without their knowledge, to unquestionably prove how fragile our identities really are in the over exposed society we live in.

The technical and musical elements play an exceptionally large role in this production. Spotlights don’t always illuminate what we should be looking at. Julie B. Nichols’ music direction provides for very effective live accompaniment. Her transition music is a heavy quick dance beat that keeps the crowd lively. Sarah E. Ross’ set screams contemporary…and Apple Store, something that is both visually fresh and opens itself up to parody for the actors.

For those of you who treat Second City a little like Blue Man Group (you saw it 7 years ago and enjoyed it and you’d like to get back one day), do not make this mistake with South Side. All Second City shows are not created equal. There is no better way to come out of your winter hibernation than to laugh uncontrollably at this show. It may even make you change some of your Facebook privacy settings, reanalyze race in Chicago, and accept what life has dealt you with a stiff drink taking in this revue, created by some of the best in the world at what they do. You might even call them the “Montell Jordan” of comedy.

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
  
  

(L-R) Holly Laurent, Timothy Edward Mason, Katie Rich • Photo by Michael Brosilow

South Side of Heaven is in an open run at The Second City Mainstage, 1616 N. Wells. Shows are Tuesday through Thursday 8PM, Friday and Saturday 8PM and 11PM, and Sunday 7PM. Tickets are $22 Sunday thru Thursday and $27 Friday and Saturday. Tickets are available by phone at (312) 337-3992 or online at www.SecondCity.com.

     
     

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