Review – “Carter’s Way” at Steppenwolf

Carter’s Way 1Carter’s Way

Producers: Steppenwolf Theatre  

Set-up: It’s 1935.  In America, it’s the middle of the Great Depression.  In Kansas City, it’s the peak of the city’s legendary jazz era.  The Kansas City jazz scene is hopping with recording deals and jam-packed clubs like Planet Mars, owned by Peewee Abernathy (ensemble member K. Todd Freeman).  Here at the Planet Mars, life revolves around Oriole Carter (James Vincent Meredith), a brilliant black saxophonist, who leads the house band.  Carter is falling head over heels for the white girlfriend Eunice (Anne Adams) of a local mobster, just as a brand new invention called the radio can possibly make Carter a nationally-recognized star.  Will this taboo relationship ruin Carter’s expectant success?

plus Great performances: Meredith’s Carter is dead-on as the talented, agonized saxophonist (and he plays the saxophone riffs himself); ensemble member Ora Jones’ portrayal of piano-playing caretaker Marilyn Stokes offers up nuanced surprises throughout; Freeman’s impersonation of Peewee adroitly displays the character’s struggles between running his nightclub at a profit all the while appreciating the talents of the club’s band.  Neil Patel’s set works wonderfully, most of the action taking place on the first floor of Planet Mars, with extra scenes using a room built directly above the club.  Darrell Leonard’s original music is remarkable in that one senses that the tunes must have been originally written during the 1920’s era.  Barry Funderburg’s sound design is exemplary and flawless.  Finally, this rave review would not be complete without mentioning the multi-talented ensemble-memberEric Simonson, the playwright and director of Carter’s Way – kudos in every definition of the word.

minus From my inspection, there are/were two weaknesses inherent in the production, although all of them can be remedied (though not during Steppenwolf’s run).  The first, less formidable weakness falls on the performance from Anne Adams, playing love-interest Eunice – she comes across second-rate when lined up with the rest of the ensemble powerhouse; unconvincing in presenting a case for her reckless and selfish behavior and choices.  Secondly, the role of the up-and-coming mobster Johnny Russo (Keith Kupferer) really demands a deeper exploration – the character, exhibiting an imaginative entrepreneurism that goes against the grain of the mobster culture, proves intriguing. 

Summary:  In the end, Carter’s Way is a well-crafted, moving play – one that effectively played games on my emotions, as I nervously told myself “Don’t do it.  Don’t screw this up”. The production looks and sounds great, and the overall talented, adept performances propel this drama tragically forward, much like a snowball rumbling down a hill.  Without hesitation, I proclaim Carter’s Way as highly recommended.

Rating: «««½

Related Links: Chicago Tribune review, Sun-Times review

UpdateIt appears that I made a mistake in my review regarding my misgivings with Peewee’s final dialogue.  I have thus made an adjustment. Carter’s Way at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre

Personnel and Show Times

Playwright: Eric Simonson
Director: Eric Simonson
Sets: Neil Patel
Lights: Keith Parham
Costumes: Karin Kopischke
Sound Design: Barry Funderburg
Dramaturg: Edward Sobel
Stage Manage: Malcolm Ewen
   
Featuring: K. Todd Freeman (Peewee Abernathy)
James Vincent Meredith (Oriole Carter)
Ora Jones (Marily Stokes)
Keith Kupferer (Johnny Russo)
Anne Adams (Eunice Fey)
Robert Breuler (Boss Jack Thorpe)
  Scott Cummins (Corky, Henry, Billings, Andy)
Calvin Dutton, Curtis M. Jackson, Michael Pogue (ensemble)
   
Dates: Through April 17, 2008
Show Times: Tuesday through Sunday, 7:30pmSaturday and Sunday matinees at 3pmAdditional matinees on April 9, 16 and 23 at 2:00pm (Wednesdays)
Tickets: $20 – $45
Producers: Steppenwolf Theatre