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: Departure Lounge (Bailiwick Chicago)

  
  

Best Friends For Now

 

Departure Lounge - Bailiwck Chicago  002

   
Bailiwick Chicago presents
   
Departure Lounge
   
Written by Dougal Irvine
Directed by
Tom Mullen
at
Royal George Cabaret, 1641 N. Halsted (map)
Through Dec 12  |  tickets: $35-$45   |  more info

reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

Turning points are more than just passages in life: They’re the meat and more of vibrant theater. We look back at those paths in the wood we didn’t take to wonder how different we’d be if we did. Or we realize that all along what seemed comforting and secure was just being held hostage by time. Memory and identity are inseparable, but they change at their own pace–and at our peril.

Departure Lounge - Bailiwck Chicago  003There’s a big crossroads in Dougal Irvine’s invigorating Departure Lounge, an intimate coming-of-age musical about four 18-year-old Brits returning from a spree week on the Costa del Sol. (They’re one of many “ugly Englishmen” who – awaiting the “A-level” test scores that will determine their college careers or doom them – party hearty in escapist Mediterranean destinations.)

As a hilariously contrived flight delay forces them to wait impatiently in boarding area of the Malaga airport, the quartet of best friends raucously reprise the binge drinking and all-night pub-crawling they’ve inflicted on both themselves and the citizens of southern Spain. They are rich-boy, Oxford-bound JB, orphan lad and general jerk-off Pete, the comparatively quiet Ross who brought and, it seems has lost, his girl Sophie along the way, and closet-case Jordan who’s slept with the most girls and liked it the least.

Brimming over with testosterone and hangovers, these soccer-playing, wanna-be ”guys-gone-wild” celebrate the scary joy of being 18—which means not knowing what’s coming. The opening rouser “Brits on Tour” initially and instantly confirms every stereotype about loutish British hooligans unleashed and abroad. It’s hard to believe they’ve really been friends forever (which is very relative when you’re only 18), what with the Alpha-male rivalry and playful put-downs, especially the repeated use of “gay” as a standard for lameness or weakness. (It gets harder and harder for Jordan to join in the mean fun of “Why Do We Say Gay?”)

But the big question that these merry pranksters wrestle over, sometimes literally, is what happened with and to Sophie on Thursday night. They keep coming up with vastly differing, “Rashoman”-like variations on what went on—and an imaginary Sophie appears to suit each fantasy. The real story, as well as Jordan’s sexuality, tests their friendship and leaves its future in serious question. By the end Departure Lounge wisely sobers up along with the boys. Given this scene and these ex-schoolboys, it’s the only right resolution.

 

Departure Lounge - Bailiwck Chicago  001 Departure Lounge - Bailiwck Chicago  008 Departure Lounge - Bailiwck Chicago  006

Tom Mullen’s Bailiwick Chicago staging, the U.S. premiere of a work that only got its London premiere on Sept. 28, richly succeeds at conveying the transient confusions of high-stress adolescence, the forced and real camaraderie of chums behaving badly because it’s expected, and the pain of being in between a lot of stuff (Spain and England, a comforting past and unwritten future, boyhood and adulthood, sex and love, men and women, a gay guy and his childhood chums).

Well coached by music director Kevin Mayes, Mullen’s young quartet connect best in the music that unites them (rather than the dialogue that doesn’t). Their “Spanish Hospitality” is an anthem for all the obnoxious and xenophobic tourists who embarrass you abroad. Their “Fe-male” nails their reflexive misogyny as well. Departure Lounge - Bailiwck Chicago  005But their bittersweet “Leaving Spain” charts exactly how much they’ve changed because of this milestone-making stress test in a departure lounge.

Erik Kaiko and Dan Beno, as Ross and JB, share the evening’s loveliest moment in the beautifully harmonized duet “Do You Know What I Think of You”; it both confirms their male bonding and their doubts about the differences between them. Jay W. Cullen’s Pete revisits his fantasies of a real rather than foster family in “Picture Book.” Deeply conflicted Jordan, intricately lived in by Devin Archer, conveys his divided loyalty in the intricate solo “Secret.” Finally, as the mercurial Sophie, Andrea Larson stretches the most, as she conveys both the Sophies projected by her teenage suitors and the real deal.

When she comes into her own, it reunites them one last time. But that’s it, mates: We know what they only sense, that more has ended with this summer in Spain than they’ll know for years or forget for much longer.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
   
   

 

NOTE: Strong language and sexual content. May not be suitable for children under 16.

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  • Bailiwick Chicago extends F**KING MEN for 2nd time

    Bailiwick Chicago Announces 3-Week Extension

    of Joe DiPietro’s F**KING MEN


    Executive Director Kevin Mayes announced today that Bailiwick Chicago’s hit production of Joe DiPietro’s F**KING MEN will be extended for an additional three weeks due to popular demand. Performances will continue through Sunday, August 29 at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont with the original cast.

    We are so pleased that Chicago audiences have embraced this production,” said Mayes, “and we are excited that we’ve been able to keep the original cast together for this second extension. It’s been an amazing summer for Bailiwick Chicago, with our two hit shows Aida and F**KING MEN. We are incredibly proud of – and humbled by – the response.

    F**KING MEN observes the sex lives of the modern urban gay American male. Conceived as a noir-riff on Arthur Schnitzler’s 19th century play, LA RONDE, the play examines ten men from all walks of life as they negotiate the before and after of lust, love, betrayal and the pursuit of sex and emotional connection. Funny, poignant, sometimes dramatic, always provocative and sexy, the show has been critically acclaimed by Chicago critics: “Emotionally Searing…Superb Performances…there is truth and understanding in F**KING MEN.” (Hedy Weiss, Chicago Sun-Times) “…[F**KING MEN] is serviced brilliantly by this snappy, assured Chicago production.” (Nina Metz, Chicago Tribune) “…F**KING MEN is pretty fucking solid.” (Kris Vire, TimeOut Chicago).

    Bailiwick Chicago has launched a dedicated web site for the production with photos, videos, and additional information about the show at www.FMenChicago.com.

    Performances are Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 7 p.m. and 9 p.m., and Sundays at 7 p.m. General admission tickets are $25. Special Reserved seating is available for $30. Student and Industry rush tickets will be available at the door for $15 at every Sunday performance. Group (6+) tickets are $20.00. To purchase tickets, call the Stage 773 box office at 773-327-5252, or go towww.ticketmaster.com.

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    Bailiwick announces change in management – Kevin Mayes takes on David Zak’s position of Executive Director

    KevinMayes Bailiwick Repertory Theatre’s Artistic Director, David Zak, and its Board President, Don Cortelyou, have announced that Artistic Associate Kevin Mayes has assumed management of the company as Executive Director. Mayes will be leading a group of dedicated Bailiwick artists to reorganize the company and reenergize its artistic mission. David Zak will continue to be involved in the company, and will transition into the role of Artistic Director Emeritus.

    “We are excited that Kevin has agreed take on this challenge,” said Board President Don Cortelyou, “and look forward to supporting him, along with a core team of Artistic Associates, as they work together to continue Bailiwick’s remarkable 27-year legacy.”

    Says David Zak:

    Running the Bailiwick has been an incredible life experience, and I’m so proud of the work we’ve done, especially the world premieres we’ve produced with artists like Larry Kramer, Dennis DeYoung, and Claudia Allen, among many, many others. But I look forward to handing the reigns over to Kevin. He has worked closely with me over the past five years, and he cares deeply about the mission of the Bailiwick. I know that he, along with the other extremely talented and motivated Artistic Associates who have stepped up to the plate, will do great things together. I look forward to working with them as a close advisor and director of future productions.

    Kevin Mayes has been an active member of the Chicago theater scene for the last decade. He has twice been nominated for Best Actor in a Musical by the Jeff Committee (My Favorite Year and A Man of No Importance), and has worked as a Director and Musical Director in both Chicago and New York. He worked closely with Lloyd Richards at the O’Neill Theater’s National Playwrights Conference, and with Wendy Wasserstein on the original production of The Sisters Rosensweig at Lincoln Center. He has his degree in Theater and Music from Yale University, and has more than 15 years executive management experience working with large corporations as well as small start-ups.

    Says Kevin Mayes:

    We’ve had our challenges over the past few years, many related to the state of the economy, and others due to the dynamic nature of the Chicago theater market,” said Mayes.  “But I’m extremely excited by the opportunity to lead this organization forward. My initial focus will be on improving our operations and fiscal stability. Meanwhile, I hope that the artistic community and our faithful audiences will support us as we redefine – and recommit to – our artistic mission. I’m very excited to work with this passionate group of actors, directors, designers, and stage managers. I’m also extremely thankful to David for his vote of confidence, and look forward to his advice and counsel over the coming months in his new role.

    Plans for the 2009-2010 season are currently under review, and will be announced at a later date.

    Review – Next Theatre’s "The Adding Machine"

    AddingMachine---06-web-733116 The Adding Machine: A Chamber Musical is an intriguing, hard-to-pigeonhole piece of musical theatre. With music by Josh Schmidt and a libretto by Schmidt and Jason Loewith, The Adding Machine is a through-sung work with glimpses of Sondheim’s Passion, Guettel’s A Light in the Piazza and LaChuisa’s Wild Party. Nonetheless, it is set apart from these examples through its use of comprehensible melodies on top of layered dissonances; changing time signatures juxtaposed with sharply-syncopated choral chants. In its world-premier, Evanston’s Next Theatre Company has taken a noteworthy risk by commissioning and presenting this piece. Based on a rarely-produced 1923 play of the same name by expressionist playwright Elmer Rice, the show mostly works. But there are some caveats, all in the second half of the show, that keep The Adding Machine from realizing its full potential.

    Though there is no intermission, the play is comprised of two distinct acts, delineated by the death of the main character, Mr. Zero (artfully played by the talented Joel Hatch). In the first section of The Adding Machine, the world is engulfed in numbers. The main character, Mr. Zero, works as an accountant. Mrs. Zero (wonderfully sung by Cyrilla Baer) is continually unhappy, contemplating the clichéd conclusion that Mr. Zero really is a zero, and she never should have married him.

    AddingMachine---01-727264 Undoubtedly the work’s most mesmerizing section takes place in the second scene of the well-delineated first act. Mr. Zero is at work, sitting at the first of three tables, methodically and laboriously writing down numbers fed to him by his assistant Miss Devore (Amy Warren). As the chorus, sitting at tables behind him, hauntingly chants number after number (infusing clever asides, their brains wandering away from numbers and instead to thoughts of beer and girls), Zero relays that today is his 25th anniversary at the company, and he’s sure he will get a promotion. The boss, the stoic Mr. Charles (Michael Vieau) shows up. But instead of promoting him, Zero is canned, being told that with the advent of the adding machine, his job can now be done by high school girls at a sliver of his salary. (Echoing the present day’s outsourcing of jobs to other countries, where they are paid a fraction of our salaries). That evening, at a dinner party thrown by Mrs. Zero, with Mr. and Mrs. One (Rosalind Hurwitz and Steve Welsh) and the Two’s (Toni Inzeo and Kevin Mayes) in attendance, her husband is arrested for murdering his boss. What follows is a clever scene in prison on death row, where Zero meets the disturbing Shrdlu (Ian Westerfer), who has killed his mother by cutting her throat instead of the lamb that his mother has made for her son’s dinner. (i.e., mom turns into the sacrificial lamb?)

    The second section, occurring after Zero has been put to death, falls flat, the storyline veering away from any kind of worthy conflicts and – as my father told me when trying in vain to teach me how to swing a baseball bat – no follow-through. We are supposedly in heaven, Shrudlu, the mom-killer, is there. Zero, too, is present. And Zero’s assistant, Mrs. Devore, just happens to also be there. Zero and Devore soon realize that they are in love. All this unexplained oddness abets an unfortunately dissatisfying ending.

    The singing is mostly excellent. The characters have lovely, adaptable voices, and the music director, Jeremy Ramey, has done a great job blending the cast’s instruments, successfully honing the difficult syncopations of the choir. But a few of the main characters, specifically Zero and Shrdlu, do not have the chops to sing this discordant and often operatic score. In the beginning this is okay, as their wavering voices match their character’s woes. But this vocal crudeness becomes a problem near the end when these same characters are no longer suffering.

    The design team has done a notable job, with the highest honor given to Keith Parham, the lighting designer. His design is dead-on, thoroughly matching and enhancing the dynamics of the story – dark and ominous in the first half and utopian in the second. In one remarkable scene, as Zero is entering heaven, the lights are cast in such a way that projects Zero as having wings. As the lighting changes, though, it is revealed that these “wings” are in fact just a coat thrown over his shoulder. This is some of the best lighting work seen in recent years.

    Overall, if you’re an avid fan of new musical works, works that push the boundaries of stereotypical musical theatre, The Adding Machine is worth seeing – even when taking into consideration the aforementioned problems. Indeed, the accounting scene alone is worth the price of the ticket. The score and orchestrations are exemplary, matching much of what you’d hear on Broadway. If only the show was just about the first act, it would be highly recommended. Unfortunately this is not the case.

    Rating: «««