Review: Adrift in Macao (InnateVolution Theater)

  
  

Strong acting, lush visuals can’t overcome acoustic issues

  
  

Rick's Song in InnateVolution's production of "Adrift in Macao" at The Call. Photo credit: Eamonn Sexton Photography

  
InnateVolution Theater presents
   
Adrift in Macao
  
Book/Lyrics by Christopher Durang
Music by Peter Melnick
Directed by Toma Tavares Langston
at The Call, 1547 W. Bryn Mawr (map)
thru May 29  | 
tickets: $25  |  more info

Reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

The Film Noir translated to stage is a brilliant concept. It is one so abstract and far flung from the history of the musical that it would be absurd unless crafted by a master such as Mel Brooks or the playwright Christopher Durang. The Innatevolution Theater gamely tackle Durang’s Adrift in Macao with mixed results. It’s not clear who lifted what from whom in this mélange of music, farce and romance.

Lena Dansdill as Corrina Evil Princess of Desire in InnateVolution Theater's production of "Adrift in Macao" at The Call. Photo credit: Eamonn Sexton PhotographyThe play is set in 1952 when the Noir film was on the wane in favor of saturated Technicolor melodramas with morals dictated by Eisenhower’s America. The loose flowing hair and perceived even more loose morals of the noir goddess was fading to exotic places such as the Portuguese territory of Macao. Opium dens, shady women and racial stereotypes abound and in the midst of it all are the hard drinking and misunderstood American antiheros.

The performances by the Innatevolution cast are quite good – when they aren’t swallowed by the bad acoustics and poor sightlines from bad staging. The performance takes place in what has potential to be a great theater cabaret space. The actors come out and mix among the audience while in character and then are in place for the action to begin with a murder on a supposedly foggy dock in Macao. (Either the fog machine was not working or a cue was missed.) We are introduced to Lureena stranded on the dock in the dark wearing a slinky dress.

Stephanie Souza plays the role of Lureena, the femme fatale fallen on hard times but not yet on her back. Ms. Souza has a nice set of pipes and is beautifully costumed in a sumptuous gown made for Rita Hayworth. Her introduction song, like all of the others, is swallowed by the acoustics and by having to play to both sides of the room. Johnny Kyle Cook plays the role of Rick Shaw who is the owner of ‘Rick Shaw’s Surf and Turf and Gambling Casino". The long name is a running joke that falls flat because the timing is rather flat and the double takes and beats never quite synchronize.

The antihero Mitch is played by Jordan Phelps. He also appears on the dock in a trench coat and fedora singing of being grumpy. The effect is a satirical take on Humphrey Bogart that is given fresh and frenzied energy by Mr. Phelps. He has better projection with his voice and is the most able to hit all sides of the room.

The other bad girl with a bad opium habit is Corinna played by Lena Dansdill. This is a bravura combination of Betty Boop, Theda Bara, and Myrna Loy. Ms. Dansdill is transformed into a caricature amalgam that is visually stunning and funny. When Corinna starts getting her jones on for opiates, she blurts out things such as ‘has anybody seen my glass pipe?’ and then catches herself countering with an absurd request for pancake mix.

     
Tempura's Ugly Bird - scene in InnateVolution's production of "Adrift in Macao" at The Call. Photo credit: Eamonn Sexton Photography Lureena and Corrina Fight - a scene in InnateVolution's production of "Adrift in Macao" at The Call. Photo credit: Eamonn Sexton Photography

Good Luck to you Ladies - scene in InnateVolution's production of "Adrift in Macao" at The Call. Photo credit: Eamonn Sexton Photography

Ashley Morgan plays the alluring Daisy. Ms. Morgan is a fierce drag actress who introduces herself as a cigarette girl in an exotic cheongsam one minute and then as a freaked out tourist in a Mamie Eisenhower leopard coat the next. Daisy is the native girl who loves the antihero but ends up alone and rejected every time.

I will admit to a bit of discomfort with the character of Tempura (Nico Nepomuceno). Racial stereotyping was rampant in Film Noir. The long suffering Black mother from ‘Imitation of Life’ or the fumbling buffoon played by Mantan Moreland in the Abbott and Costello films or happy and faithful Hop Sing on Bonanza. Mr. Nepomuceno takes the role to an expressionistic extreme mocking the American way of life in the staid 1950’s. On one hand Tempura is laying low and disguised by his so-called inscrutable Asian stereotype wearing traditional attire and the queue braid hiding a baton rather than a weapon. On the other hand Tempura’s character plots the demise of the stupid Americans methodically using their own ignorance against them. Nepomuceno’s performance can’t help but be derivative of Ken Jeong’s Mr. Chow from "The Hangover". Jeong and Margaret Cho are the comic standards for turning an Asian stereotype on its head. Some of Mr. Nepomuceno’s performance is uncomfortably funny and like the other characters some of his performance is absorbed into acoustic no-man’s land.

Christopher Thies-Lotito‘s character of Joe is the most clearly heard as a Gildersleeve-type emcee for variations of Rick Shaw’s night clubs.

There are several wonderful moments in this uneven production. The red fan dance is a great send up of both Esther Williams films and the kaleidoscopic June Taylor Dancers choreography. The costumes are spot on with the lurid colors of a Douglas Sirk drama and the wacky spin on Busby Berkeley and Flo Ziegfield . I liked the sly homage to Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell in "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" with the flashy duet between Dansdill and Souza.

There needs to be some strategic restaging of this play for it work well. 1) Move the band to the back bar area. They drown out the singing from where they are placed. 2) Use the entire stage facing away from the middle of the room. Whole lyrics are being swallowed into a black hole that neither side can ascertain. 3) Some work needs to be done on the timing to make the farcical aspects of a Noir spoof to work. It may just be sightlines but more plausibly pacing issues.

I do recommend this show (if sound problems are fixed) – and then I recommend that one spends some time checking out such Noir classics as "Gilda", "Out of the Past", or my favorite "The Strange Love of Martha Ivers". The Film Noir is a genre that casts a jaundiced eye on the morals and class war in post war America. This is what Durang was aiming for and this talented cast deserves a chance to hit the mark.

  
  
Rating: ★★
 
 

Corrina's Dressing Room in InnateVolution's production of "Adrift in Macao" at The Call. Photo credit: Eamonn Sexton Photography

Adrift in Macao runs through May 29th at The Call, 1547 W. Bryn Mawr in Andersonville. Check out www.innatevolution.org for more information on the company and performance times.  Tickets are $25.00 which includes 1 well, house wine or Miller Lite drink. Discount Tickets for Students, Industry and Senior Citizens are available. Tickets may be purchased by calling 312-513-1415 or by visiting www.innatevolution.org.

     
      

Continue reading

REVIEW: Stalk (La Costa Theatre)

     
     

Grim fairy tale never lightens up

 

Stalk the Musical - La Coste Theatre 020

        
La Costa Theatre presents
   
Stalk
 
By Stephen Gawrit
Directed by James Wagoner
La Costa Theatre, 3931 N. Elston, et al. (map)
Through Nov. 28  | 
Tickets: $15–25  |  more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Uncomfortable topics have been the subject of many musicals, but rarely one so agonizing as Stalk, a world premiere by Stephen Gawrit currently at La Costa Theatre. This very dark story uses the fairy tale of "Jack and the Beanstalk" as a metaphor for child abuse.

That Stalk isn’t an ordinary musical becomes apparent right from the beginning … more than 10 minutes go past before we get to the first song. Instead, we hear young Jack’s parents engaged in a bitter off-stage argument, full of invective and foul language, and watch him sneak away with his grandmother to a strange circus where an odd, Bradburyesque barker tells the familiar story of the boy who traded the family cow for a handful of magic beans.

Stalk the Musical - La Coste Theatre 023Cleverly conceived in many ways, the show features larger-than life puppets and masks conveying the fairy-tale characters. Gawrit employs interesting characterizations and intriguing uses of fantasy to emphasize his point.

But it never, ever lightens up. Stalk is a downer from start to finish. We watch Jack grow up in fear and pain with his brutal father and drug-addled mother, two bitterly disappointed souls forced to give up their youthful goals to be a musician and actress to return to their hometown, where he works in an abattoir and she waits tables. We witness a vicious beating and worse. Poor Jack’s only solace is his fey and ineffectual grandmother, and she dies in a pretty ugly way in front of him.

Hamlet has more bright notes than this show. There’s almost no comic relief. Other musicals, The Who’s Tommy, for instance, manage to deal with such very serious themes in far more entertaining and less depressing ways.

The pop/soft-rock tunes of Gawlit’s often dirgelike score underscore the grim mood. The music’s pleasant and well-performed, but after a while it all sounds the same. There’s not an upbeat song in the bunch.

Even "I Shine for You," a love song that Lily and Gregory, Jack’s parents sing to each other, has dark edges. "Edge of My Horizon," a song the then-teenaged Jack and his friend, Greta, sing at the start of the second act is lighter and more charming than most, but it isn’t enough to provide a lift. The score needs a few sparklers.

 

Stalk the Musical - La Coste Theatre 016 Stalk the Musical - La Coste Theatre 021 Stalk the Musical - La Coste Theatre 010

The cast sings and acts well. Helene Alter-Dyche puts in a beguiling, if not always comprehensible performance as the grandmother. Scott Danielson terrifies as Gregory, the gruesome father/giant, and Meghan Phillipp seems suitably vacant as Jack’s mother, who metamorphoses into an ugly witch. Jacob Carlson creates a barker full of sinister mystery, really a highlight of the show.

Melissa Imbrogno portrays Greta, a friend of Jack’s who isn’t very well explained, but may live in a similarly abusive household. Jordan Phelps imbues Jack with terror and confusion.

The brightest spots in the whole show, though, are Lauren Michele Lowell’s fanciful costumes, particularly those of Jack and Greta in the second act.

Only sadists enjoy watching this much relentless pain. As important as the musical’s message is, Gawlit and company need to remember that they’re creating entertainment, and take this back to the drawing board to add happiness and hope, not to mention some stand-out songs.

  
  
Rating: ★★
   
   

Stalk the Musical - La Coste Theatre 026

 

        
        

 

Continue reading

REVIEW: You Took Away My Flag (Modofac Productions)

Take away these lyrics

 

253_FINAL-YOU_TOOK_AWAY_MY_FLAG-wo_strawdog

 
Modofac Productions, LLC presents
 
You Took Away My Flag: a Musical About Kosovo
 
Book, music and lyrics by Henry H. Perritt Jr.
Directed by
G. J. Cederquist; musical direction by Jeremy Ramey
At
Theatre Building Chicago, Lakeview
Through May 23 (more info)

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Henry H. Perritt Jr., the Chicago-Kent College of Law professor who authored and produced You Took Away My Flag: a Musical About Kosovo knows a lot about his play’s subject — he authored two books about the disputed Balkan territory and spent 10 years working toward its redevelopment as an independent state — and something about writing music.

What he doesn’t know is the first rule of drama: Show. Don’t tell.

There’s so much exposition in this musical, it could be a textbook. And it doesn’t help a bit that it’s a sung-through format, so all this explication comes at us in recitative form. Even worse, the lyrics often jar against the music with too many feet per beat, poor scansion and bad rhymes, in awful couplets like these:

 

"Your kind heart will keep you from ever
Using that AK47."

"Must we endure the Serbians’ yoke un-
Til our backs are truly broken?"

"Talk all you want. I don’t care.
Successful insurgencies are really rare."

The exposition begins with the opening song, in which the narrator, a trench-coated American reporter (Brian Birch), gives us some history of the conflict in Kosovo between the occupying, Serbs and the "proud Albanians" — the story is unabashedly 253_FINAL-YOU_TOOK_AWAY_MY_FLAG-wo_strawdogpro-Albanian — and sets us up to meet 18-year-old Arian (Jordan Phelps), his best friend, Fahri (Ethan Saks), and Arian’s older sister, Vjosa (Amy Steele). The three all work in a cafe run by the siblings’ father, Fatmir (Joshua Harris).

Arian chafes under Serbian military law, but Vjosa is just as bothered by the strictures of Albanian society, and longs for the freedom of America. She is secretly in love with a Serbian officer, Dragan (Shaun Nathan Baer), an unheard-of miscegeny. The boys enrage some Serbian soldiers by taunting them with the Albanian flag. While Dragan protects Arian, one of his men kills Fahri. Vowing revenge, Arian goes off to join the Kosovo Liberation Army, a band of guerrillas led by Driton (Patrick Cannon).

Meanwhile, Dragan drunkenly asks Vjosa if she still loves him. She does, but she’s not above stealing secret Serbian plans from him to give to her brother. Fatmir and the reporter try unsuccessfully to get the U.N. to intervene in Kosovo. The fighting goes on, the passage of time symbolized by the reporter’s increasingly blood-stained trench coat, and the purloined plans make no difference.

253_FINAL-YOU_TOOK_AWAY_MY_FLAG-wo_strawdog Guilt-stricken Dragan gives the reporter compromising photos of Serbian atrocities that bring international aid at last, and NATO bombs the Serbs out of Kosovo. The proud Albanian Kosovars next struggle with international authorities, ultimately declaring independence but never getting back their Albanian flag.

Parts of the plot seem unlikely, yet not more so than in other musicals. But there’s way too much of it — too many complexities and too many scenes covering too long a time period.

The young cast, all beautiful singers and fine actors, do a heroic job with the material. The music, if not always melodious, is pleasant enough, and sometimes stirring, with a contemporary pop sound. Music director Jeremy Ramey and his musicians (David Orlicz, Nick Anderson and Nick Boettcher) give the score everything they can, but the tunes and the performances have no chance at all against the relentless horribleness of all those words.

 

Rating: ★½

 

 

Continue reading