REVIEW: Sanders Family Christmas (Provision Theatre)

  
  

A down home Christmas with brains to match its heart

  
  

Sanders Family Christmas - Provision Theater Chicago

   
Provision Theater presents
 
Sanders Family Christmas   
   
Written by Connie Ray
Conceived by
Alan Bailey
Directed by
Tim Gregory
at
Provision Theater, 1001 W. Roosevelt (map)
Through Dec 23  | 
tickets: $15-$28  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

A bluegrass musical set in a Baptist church at the start of World War II?  Let’s just say that I went into Sanders Family Christmas with low hopes. From the corny promotional images, I got the impression that Disney’s Country Bears are probably a more nuanced group of characters, and I feared the inevitably high cheese factor that comes with a traveling Christian family band. To my surprise and delight, Connie Ray Sanders Family Christmas - Provision Theater Chicago 3and Alan Bailey’s musical defies all expectations, crafting one of the best Christmas shows that I have ever seen. Director Tim Gregory and his outstanding ensemble of actors do an exceptional job making the dire circumstances of wartime America feel real.

Despite being the direct sequel to Smoke on the Mountain, no previous knowledge of the Sanders family is required to enjoy this Christmas celebration. With the audience serving as the Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church congregation, the group performs a mix of popular Christmas hymns and bluegrass inspired holiday songs. Between musical numbers, each family member is given an opportunity to witness for the congregation, and these moments are the dramatic high points of the production. As middle class Americans work extra long hours in factories and ration meals to support their troops, the Sanders family provides a source of hope and strength, and Provision Theater’s production is similarly inspiring.

With their only son Dennis (Brian Bohr) preparing to ship off to Marine basic training and twin sister Denise (Christine Barnes) joining the USO, the Sanders family is undergoing its own personal crisis.  Despite their fears, they put their trust in God in hopes that he will ultimately guide them in the direction of the greater good. The characters’ sincerity in their faith prevents them from being preachy or heavy handed, and their chemistry as a family brings a true sense of togetherness to the proceedings. The Sanders understands that they’re putting on a show, and their ever present witty banter keeps the tone light, even as the script delves into bleak areas.

Sanders patriarch Burle (Richard Martlatt) and his brother Stanley (Ron Turner) have two of the strongest moments in the show when they witness. Martlatt showcases his outstanding technique during a fast-paced, ten-minute monologue where he recalls Sanders Family Christmas - Provision Theater Chicagohis days as a trench soldier in World War I. Despite the heavy material, Martlatt’s breezy delivery maintains a level of humor that work in beautiful contrast with the weight of the words. An ex-convict turned gospel recording sensation, Stanley laments his criminal background while praising the Sanders for graciously accepting him into their family. Turner takes his time with his words, deliberating over the perfect way to describe the kindness that his family has shown him. The joy on Turner’s face as he recalls the upswing his life took after he found God warms the heart, and his ultimate conclusion that “God don’t give two cents about talent, he cares about character,” is a wonderful moment of catharsis for the weathered Sanders uncle.

Playing their own instruments and singing without any amplification, the cast is exceptionally talented. Whether they’re wrapping older sister June (Amber Burgess) in Christmas lights, delivering a youth sermon to the children of the church, or singing “Joy To The World” with the audience, they manage to engage on a deeply personal level. With Sanders Family Christmas, Provision has produced an inspiring musical that is as smart as it is heartwarming.

   
 
Rating: ★★★½  
   
  

 

     
     

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REVIEW: Blues for an Alabama Sky (Greenetree Productions)

    

Elegy for the Renaissance

    

Kelly Owen as Angel Allen and Jaren Kyei Merrell as Guy Jacobs in "Blues For An Alabama Sky" at Chicago's Stage 773

   
Greenetree Productions presents
  
Blues for an Alabama Sky
  
Written by Pearl Cleage
Directed by
J. Israel Greene
at
Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont (map)
through September 19th  |  tickets: $20-$25   |  more info

Reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

Stage 773’s production of Blues for an Alabama Sky has all the trappings of a great play about an important chapter in African American history. Writer Pearl Cleage has a great pedigree for the subject matter and is a one of the authors given the hallowed Oprah Winfrey touch for “What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day”. The set is a gorgeous reproduction of 1930’s Harlem with lush draperies and dusty flocked Kelly Owens as Angel Allen in Pearl Cleage's "Blues for an Alabama Sky", playing in Chicago's Stage 773 through September 19th wallpaper. The costumes fit the period with beautiful rich fabric and spot on accessories. 

However, this play waits until the second act to start building a head of steam.

The play tells the story of a Harlem showgirl named Angel and her best friend Guy, who is a gay costume designer with dreams of Paris. They met in Savannah while both worked at a house of prostitution that catered to all tastes. Kelly Owens plays Angel, and she is a knockout. Ms. Owens portrays the roiling emotions of a woman who doesn’t have the luxury of being liberated and is forced to rely on her sexuality and the tenuous generosity of mobbed up club owners. Jaren Kyei Merrell plays the flamboyant take-no-prisoners Guy Jenkins who has recreated an identity as Guy du Paris. Merrell shines as a man with a dream. He sees that the Renaissance is starting to wane and that Paris is a place for Black people to have their artistic abilities appreciated. Akilah Terry as the sweet and formidable next-door neighbor Delia joins them. Her character is a social worker that has joined forces with Margaret Sanger to get a family planning clinic in Harlem. Ms. Terry plays Delia as virginal, formidable and knowing her own mind. She is costumed in a dowdy suit and hat, which is one of the best punch lines of the play. Rounding out this circle of friends is Lee Owens as Sam – the Harlem physician with a taste for partying, bootleg liquor, and a secret sideline as an abortionist. Into this mix comes a southern gentleman who is mourning his Alabama home for many reasons. Jason Smith plays the role of Leland Cunningham with a sly and deceptive sweetness that veils his character’s moral indignation and fundamentalism.

All of the actors do a fine job with the work that is given them. The problem with Blues for an Alabama Sky is the snail-like pacing. The curtain was ten minutes behind and then the first act was nearly 90 minutes long. If the action and dialog were at a better clip it might work much better, but it’s as if the ensemble has been directed for television with long pauses and extended dark time between scenes.

In the program notes, director J. Israel Greene speaks of the Harlem Renaissance as a simpler time that was rich in culture. Today’s times are parallel with the same societal inequities but he refers to the barricade of Jazz as if it put 1930’s Harlem in a hazy glow. I wish that he would have put some more of that jazz in this production. There is too much expository time in the first act, which makes the second act feel rushed and predictable. The character of Leland Cunningham turns from naïve southern gentleman to homophobic jerk at whiplash speed. It is too much of a stretch that Leland is blind to the fact that Guy is homosexual even if it is the 1930’s and he grew up in Alabama. Also, Angel’s storyline turns cliché when her pregnancy is treated as both an accident and insurance when her financial situation teeters.

Jaren Kyei Merrell as Guy Jacobs in Pearl Cleage's "Blues For An Alabama Sky", now playing in Chicago's Stage 773 through September 19, 2010

At the same time the storyline of Dr. Sam and Delia tiptoeing toward love is almost a throwaway motif. The social worker for family planning and the reluctant abortionist don’t get enough stage time for the plot to be anything other than a weak device to forward the climax of the play.

The most enjoyable scene in Alabama Sky occurs when Guy lets loose on Leland and Angel for playing it safe and small minded. Guy’s expressions are perfect, seemingly channeled directly from some awesome southern black woman. (You will want to use the line about saving the bear – trust me). By the time Mr. Merrell is allowed to really cut loose the play is over.

I recommend this play with some reservations. Be prepared for a long evening and do some reading on the Harlem Renaissance because much is alluded to but never fleshed out about this wonderful time in America’s history. I would also recommend that you check out some reading on the Black expatriate movement to get a bead on the cultural mood and the movement toward Paris.

   
   
Rating: ★★½
   
  

Blues for an Alabama Sky runs through September 19th. Performances are Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 8:00pm and Sundays at 2:30. The play is presented at Stage 773 (formerly known as Theatre Building Chicago) at 1225 W. Belmont. For more information visit www.greenetreeproductions.com or call the box office at 773-327-5252.

Blues For An Alabama Sky set - Stage 773

   
  

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REVIEW: Godspell (Provision Theatre)

 

Pop Culture Christianity

 

 The ensemble of GODSPELL rocks out on O BLESS THE LORD, MY SOUL - (front r to l) Sarah Grant, Tiffany Cox, Richelle Meiss, Amy Steele, Jennifer Oakley.  (Back r to l) Greg Walters, Frederick Harris, Kevin O'Brien.

   
Provision Theatre presents
   
Godspell
   
Conceived by John-Michael Tebelak
Music/Lyrics by
Steven Schwartz
at
Provision Theater, 1001 W. Roosevelt Road (map)
through September 26  |  tickets: $15-$28   |  more info

reviewed by Keith Ecker 

The original Godspell (an archaic spelling of the word “gospel”) was produced in 1971, just as flower power was wilting, eventually replaced by disco fever later in the decade. At the time, many were still holding on to their all-you-need-is-love mentality despite the demise of the hippie community along with the increasingly unpopular Vietnam War. As a result, many found comfort in close-nit cults and communes, while Judas betrayal: Justin Berkobien as Judas in GODSPELL, running through September 26 at 1001 W. Roosevelt Road, Chicago, IL.others just moved on with their lives.

Still, for some, there was a Christian reawakening, a dawning of the Age of Aquarius in which it was foretold that man would achieve a greater understanding of Jesus’ message of peace and harmony. Had Godspell, a musical based on the Gospel According to Matthew, been produced at any other time, it would not have ever reached the levels of success it did. First a hit off-Broadway and then a hit on Broadway, the show saw more than 2,600 performances. Its song “Day by Day” was 13th on the Billboard pop singles chart in 1972. And in 1973, the musical was made into a major motion picture.

But these days, it appears that the portrait of the peace-loving Christian has been painted over with the image of Bible-thumping Pharisees. This begs the question: In a world populated with apocalyptic celebrities ministers, can Godspell remain relevant? In the hands of Provision Theatre’s extraordinarily talented director Tim Gregory, it can and does.

Provision’s interpretation frequently wanders off-book from the original. This is no surprise considering the show—which is really just a bunch of parables strung together—plays more like an improv review than it does a play. Characters call out to one another casually, egging each other on as they bring Jesus’ teachings of righteousness and justice to life. Gregory uses the play’s spontaneity to insert pop-culture references that serve to remove us from the musical’s dated soundtrack and transport us to the present. Be prepared for riffs on Facebook, Beyonce and the stimulus package. The jokes are utterly cornball, but then again, so is Godspell.

The costumes (created by DJ Reed) have also received a reboot to keep up with the times. Characters have traded in their bell-bottoms and denim for loud, funky garments. The end result looks like an Old Navy commercial starring Jesus and John the Baptist.

Gregory’s staging and Amber Mak’s choreography are really the highlight of this production. There’s a lot of group movement going on, but no matter how many bodies are in motion, everybody acts and reacts with one another physically, creating a larger whole out of the many parts. It is here, through the collective action, that the play’s message of connectivity and brotherhood is most apparent.

Jesus being crucified: Syler Thomas as Jesus in GODSPELL, running through September 26 at 1001 W. Roosevelt Road, Chicago, IL.

Unfortunately, most of the ensemble’s voices are lacking, which is really a significant downside for a musical. Vocal precision is rare. Instead, notes warble, passing from flat to sharp. A cordless mic is used often to enhance lead vocalists who, I suppose, don’t have the pipes to belt it out to the back of the room. There are some standouts, however, particularly Justin Berkobien as John the Baptist and Amy Steele, who sings the lead on “Day by Day”.

Provision’s Godspell is just as slaphappy and feel-good as the original. That’s fine for those who already have Jesus in their hearts. But for the cynics or the persecuted, it might ring a little out of touch with contemporary displays of Christianity. As for those that just want to see some song and dance, don’t expect a choir of angels – but there’s certainly clever choreography!

   
   
Rating:  ★★½
   
   

Extra Credit:

Read Mark Ball’s Godspell review from his blog One Chicago Man’s Opinion:

….Provision Theater’s production of Godspell was, in two words, very energetic. The joyfulness and exhuberance I mentioned above abounded from start to finish, and the actors’ collective excitement infected the audience. They properly exaggerated their characterizations, their timing was sharp, the cabaret was amusing, and the flow of the show was kinetic. But there were two major weaknesses, the first being that of bad acoustics and the second, that of bad singing. Despite the presence of some impressive vocal talent in the cast, a few soloists were clearly unprepared, one of whom caused me to cringe from his off-pitch screeching.  Read the entire review.

     
     

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