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: Bubble Tea Party (Stir-Friday Night)


Stir-Friday Night celebrates 15 years



Stir-Friday Night presents
Bubble Tea Party
Written/Performed by the Company
Directed by Pat McKenna
Chicago Center for the Performing Arts
777 N. Green St., Chicago (map)
Through Nov. 20  | 
Tickets: $15  |  more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

It’s been 15 years since the late Quincy Wong and Keith Uchima founded Stir-Friday Night. The troupe got its start after a group of Asian-American actors met through Jade Monkey King, a musical Uchima created in 1995. The duo decided that Asian-American writers, directors and actors needed a bigger showcase.

"When you saw Asians on stage, they were the doctor guy, the second-banana guy," Uchima recalled at opening night of Stir-Friday Night’s 15th-anniversary revue. So the two men worked to found a company that would feature exclusively Asian-Amerians. Ultimately, that evolved into the sketch-comedy and improv troupe that’s still going strong – Stir-Friday Night.

This current group includes artists, mostly U.S.-born, who trace their heritage to India, Japan, Korea, and the Philippines. Their 15th-anniversary show, Bubble Tea Party, doesn’t show everything this company is capable of. Sketch-comedy revues tend to be uneven by their very nature — this one is more so than most.

The cast members all perform very well — when the show suffers, it’s in the writing. Some of the skits are lame — such as a recurring business about Olympic-style "Geisha Games" and an overlong, elaborate sketch of crude puns set in historic England; blue humor doesn’t seem to be this troupe’s strength. Other sketches start with interesting premises but never manage to come together, as in an odd piece that lampoons the Tea Partiers with an Alice in Wonderland theme and one in which a guy tries to convince his friend to eat 25 tacos in 60 seconds.

Undeniably, the company does its best work when it concentrates on the Asian-American experience. Two hilarious skits feature Amrita Dhaliwal playing an immigrant South Asian mother interacting with her American-born offspring.

The show follows up the scripted pieces with some improv, also with mixed results. The lineup isn’t set yet, but the company expects a few alumni to make guest appearances as well.

Stir-Friday Night deserves congratulations for its 15 years, and this show has enough funny moments to be worthwhile, but the troupe isn’t tapping the talent pool of Asian-American comedy writers deeply enough.

Rating: ★★

Ensemble: Melissa Canciller, Amrita Dhaliwal, Samantha Garcia, Erica Ikeda, Jin Kim, Christine Lin, Harrison Pak, Avery Lee and Jasbir Singh Vazquez


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Stage773 announces million-dollar renovations

$1-million facade and interior renovations

starting July 2011

Exterior rendering of Stage773 Renovations - John Morris Architects 2


Noted Theatre Architect John Morris to Head Renovation

Stage773 Artistic Director Brian Posen has unveiled plans for a massive renovation to the 33-year old and newly renamed Stage773 building (1225 W. Belmont). The $1 million renovation, helmed by Architect John Morris of Morris Architect Planners, transforms the exterior and interior of the building into a virtually new space that will be more accommodating for performers and audiences. The project will break ground July 2011 and promises to produce a state-of-the-art home for the numerous itinerant companies in Chicago as well as all of Stage773’s productions. 

Says Posen:

The renovation brings new life to a space that has such an important place in the history of Chicago theater. We know that our audiences are going to be wowed by this new airy and modern theater. The conversion of the West Theater into two new spaces will provide additional opportunities for itinerant companies, a boost in overall space usage and new funding sources for the building. We will continue to offer traditional theater and dance performances in the North and South Theaters, while hosting additional events, like improv, cabaret, stage readings and sketch comedy, in the two new spaces.“

Stage773 Renovations - John Morris Architects

The renovation plans, with renderings currently on display in the theater lobby (shown in the above picture), include:

  • Redesigning the Belmont Avenue façade;
  • Increasing the amount of lobby light and opening the lobby to street side viewing with the addition of floor to ceiling windows along Belmont Avenue;
  • Modernizing and doubling the number of lavatories;
  • Completely overhauling the South Theater, including relocating the stage and seating to allow for easier load-in, better sound proofing and convenient audience access.
  • Transforming the West Theater into two new flexible spaces: a cabaret and a blackbox.
  • Stage 773 Board Chair Laura Michaud expects the renovations to have a marked positive impact. “This will provide Chicago’s theater community with two new, state-of-the-art venues. The increase in performances and audiences that this renovation brings will also benefit businesses in our Lakeview neighborhood,” she said. Executive Director Megan Flanagan added, “For 33 years, this building has played a vital part in the history of Chicago Theater. Once the renovations are complete, Stage773 begins a new chapter in this history as a brand new building, inside and out. We will provide not only performance spaces but also a home that both audiences and artists will visit again and again for high-quality entertainment of all kinds.”

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    Opening and Closing this week


    show openings

    The Adventures of Nervous Boy Gorilla Tango Theatre

    Diva! Diva! Divas!Northwestern University Theater

    Jinx Appetite Theatre

    The Siren Song of Stephan Jay Gould Gorilla Tango Theatre

    Juno and the Paycock The Artistic Home

    Savage/Love The Viaduct Theater

    A Walk in the Woods Redtwist Theatre



    show closings

    The 9/11 Report La Red Music Theatre

    Battleprov ComedySportz 

    The Bucktown Stand-Up Show Down Gorilla Tango Theatre

    Dead Wrong The Factory Theater

    Get Comfortable, a Night of Shorts Gorilla Tango Theatre

    Girls vs. Boys American Music Theatre Project and The House Theatre of Chicago

    The Great American Nudie Spectacular! Theatre Building Chicago

    The Hollow Lands Steep Theatre

    Never the Sinner Project 891 Theatre

    Scientology! The Unauthorized Musical Annoyance Theatre

    Sodomites!!! A Musical of Biblical Proportions Annoyance Theatre

    Somewhere in Texas Dream Theatre

    Steel Mags Chicago Center for the Performing Arts

    Storybox Piven Theatre

    Two Spoons Bailiwick Repertory

    Walker and Dunn Gorilla Tango Theatre

    White Rainbows Gorilla Tango Theatre

    This week’s Chicago theater show openings/closings


    show openings

    The 9/11 Report La Red Music Theatre

    Bikerman and the Jewish Avenger Metropolis Performing Arts Centre

    Bye Bye Birdie Northwestern University Theater

    Ching, Chong, Chinaman Silk Road Theatre Project

    Fun O’Clock: A Very Special “That’s Weird Grandma” Barrel of Monkeys

    Honest Steppenwolf Theatre

    How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying St. Celestine Theatre

    Lies and LiarsTheatre Seven of Chicago

    Lorita and Other Dances Theatre Building Chicago

    The Mistress Cycle Apple Tree Theatre

    Sex with Strangers Steppenwolf Theatre

    Six Degrees of Separation Eclipse Theatre

    Ski Dubai Steppenwolf Theatre

    Waiting for Godot Redtwist Theatre



    show closings

    Anti-Social Darwinism and High School Musical 4: Come Hell or Heil Water Donny’s Skybox

    Boleros for the Disenchanted Goodman Theatre 

    Busman’s Honeymoon Lifeline Theatre

    Cloclo Chicago Center for the Performing Arts

    The Conduct of Life The Viaduct

    Consume Gorilla Tango Theatre

    A Coupla White Chicks Sitting Around Talking Buffalo Theatre Ensemble

    Death Roast Annoyance Theatre

    Hedda Gabler Raven Theatre

    Hitched! Donny’s Skybox

    Posers Donny’s Skybox

    A Song for Coretta Eclipse Theatre

    Super Happy Fun Show Corn Productions

    Uncle Vanya TUTA Theatre Chicago

    Wanted Gorilla Tango Theatre

    What We May Be Gorilla Tango Theatre

    special ticket offers

    $15 tickets to The Great American Nudie Spectacular! by Scratch Media at Theatre Building Chicago, 1225 W. Belmont. TBC is offering a limited number of discount tickets for the following performances:  Friday, July 24, and Saturday, July 25, both at 10:30 p.m. The discount is available for these two performances only. Call the box office at 773-327-5252 and mention this offer.

    This week’s Chicago theater openings/closings

    Chicago Skyline from Adler Planetarium 

    Opening This Week

    The Bucktown Stand-Up Showdown Gorilla Tango Theatre

    Cloclo Chicago Center for the Performing Arts

    Cyrano de Bergerac Oak Park Festival Theatre

    El Grito del Bronx Collaboraction

    Get Comfortable: A Night of Shorts Gorilla Tango Theatre

    On Stage with Megon McDonough Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University

    One Year in June Gorilla Tango Theatre

    Stud Terkel’s not Working The Second City etc

    Somewhere in Texas Dream Theatre

    Spinning Yarns the side project

    These Shining Lives Theater on the Lake

    Tupperware: An American Musical Fable The New Colony

    Two Spoons Bailiwick Repertory

    Walker & Dunn Gorilla Tango Theatre


    Show Closings

    The Alcyone Festival Halcyon Theatre 

    In Your Facebook Prop Thtr

    “Fog” and “Mr. Sycamore” Chicago Cultural Center

    Little Brother Griffin Theatre

    Our Future Metropolis Lookingglass Theatre

    Strauss at Midnight Theater Oobleck

    The Who’s Tommy Circle Theatre

    Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding Piper’s Alley


    special ticket offers

    $15 tickets to The Great American Nudie Spectacular! by Scratch Media at Theatre Building Chicago, 1225 W. Belmont. TBC is offering a limited number of discount tickets for the following performances:  Friday, July 17, and Saturday, July 18, both at 10:30 p.m. The discount is available for these two performances only. Call the box office at 773-327-5252 and mention this offer.

    This week’s Chicago show openings and ticket specials

    Chicago Skyline at night

    AND THEN THERE WERE NONEIndependent Stars Theatre


    INTO THE WIND Gorilla Tango Theatre

    JONCollaboraction Theatre

    PAUL’S GLASSESGorilla Tango Theatre

    POSEIDON! An Upside Down Musical Hell in a Handbag Productions

    SKETCHTOPIAVictory Gardens Biograph Theater


    STEEL MAGS LETS YOU DOWN EASYChicago Center for the Performing Arts


    For special ticket offers, click on “Read more”

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