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: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Theatre-Hikes)

Exploring good and evil in the great outdoors

 

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Theatre-Hikes presents
   
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
   
Written/Adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher
Based on novella by
Robert Louis Stevenson
Directed by
Bradley Baker
at
Morton Arboretum, 4100 Illinois 53, Lisle (map)
through October 31  |  tickets: $13-$19   |  more info

Reviewed by Allegra Gallian

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher, is based on the original novella “Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” by Robert Louis Stevenson. Both the play and the original work explore the fine lines between good and evil and what those characteristics can do to a man.

The Morton Arboretum sets the scene for the Theatre-Hikes production of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The vast outdoor space leaves plenty of room for the actor’s personalities to shine through. With the leaves of the trees changing and the wind Theatre-Hikes - Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde014 rustling through the fallen leaves, there is a unique and apt ambience that surrounds both the actors and the audience. Although it was a little chilly, once the action began it no longer seemed to matter.

Jekyll/Hyde opens on the main characters finding Dr. Jekyll unconscious which leads to flash backs exposing the chain of events leading to Jekyll’s current state. The story unfolds through journal entries, police reports, notes and other writings from the main characters. To begin, two of Jekyll’s friends, Richard Enfield (Zach Bloomfield) and Gabriel Utterson (James Stanton) discuss a peculiar occurrence witnessed and how the man involved is related to Jekyll. The play opens rather strongly, setting a good tone for the rest of the performance. Energy levels are high and stay high throughout the two-hour run of the show. It’s also clear that the actor’s work with their dialect coach, Allison Reinke, has paid off because their accents effortlessly transport the audience back to London in 1883.

The two men meet with Dr. Jekyll (Dan Toot) and discuss the event only to find out the man involved; Mr. Hyde (played at various times by James Stanton, Zach Bloomfield, Geoff Crump and Ellenkate Finley) is an acquaintance of Jekyll. Toot offers up a calm demeanor with Dr. Jekyll and creates an authentic presence on stage. He gives off a confident and intellectual air, as one expects from a doctor.

The character of Mr. Hyde, although played by aforementioned actors throughout the course of the play, is mainly played by Geoff Crump. Crump also does the best job of portraying the terrifying and menacing Mr. Hyde. It’s never quite clear why four actors have been cast to play this one character, for although the others did a fine job, in the end they pull focus from Crump, who proves to be the most devilish and mysterious of them all.

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Continuing on, the play continues to tell the parallel stories of Jekyll and Hyde. Mr. Hyde meets a woman, Elizabeth Jelkes, (Amanda Presz) and they fall in love. Despite all the bad he has done and that he inherently is, she loves him. However, their first meeting is a frightful one when Hyde pulls a knife on her. Unfortunately, the feelings of fear and raw emotion could have be taken further in the beginning – it doesn’t feel like a genuine fear or evil. That being said, as the show progresses, Presz and Crump get in synch with their characters, creating a much more realistic portraits; pulling the audience into the action.

Theatre-Hikes - Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde028As we learn more about the dichotomies between Jekyll and Hyde, it becomes increasingly captivating. All the actors do a terrific job of keeping the audience in the  moment.  Thus, when a scene ends and the audience must move to the next scene location (the hike part of Theatre-Hikes), there’s a moment a surprise at being taken out of the action on stage. Once settled, the actors are able to jump right back in and immediately the audience is, once again, lost in this fantasy world.

Bloomfield, who plays several parts throughout (Sir Danvers Carew, Richard Enfield, O.F. Sanderson, Inspector, Hyde 2) does a wonderful job of switching between them. The characters come off different and unique, which is important. As Jekyll, Enfield, Utterson Toot, Bloomfield and Stanton have good stage chemistry, and it’s definitely believable that they are old friends or colleagues.

As Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde concludes with its final scenes, Crump as Hyde (3) really comes into his element. He pushes his character to its limits, creating depth and a large character arch, making for an overall enjoyable production.  What better way is there to see a top-notch performance AND get a workout all at the same time?!!

   
   
Rating: ★★★
   
   

Theatre-Hikes - Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde021Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde plays at the Morton Arboretum through October 31. Tickets are $13 to $19 and can be purchased through the Theatre-Hikes website.

       
     

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