Reivew: Ribbon Around a Bomb (Prologue Theatre)

     
    

New musical needs to choose an audience

     
     

A scene from Prologue Theatre's world-premier musical "Ribbon Around a Bomb" by Jess Eisenberg Chamblee. Photo by Cole Simon.

 

Prologue Theatre Company presents

 

Ribbon Around a Bomb

 

Books and Music by Jess Eisenberg Chamblee
Directed by Kiana Harris
at Mary’s Attic, 5400 N. Clark (map)
through May 3   |  tickets: $15   |  more info 

Reviewed by Jason Rost

It’s a little unbelievable and absurd to think that in 2011 any collegiate art department would exclude all female painters from a list of 45 great historical artists. Even in my own five minute research (ala Google) I could not find a single list that left out the likes of Frida Kahlo and Georgia O’Keefe. That said, it’s certainly a heavily one-sided battle of sexes in the art history world. This is at least part of what the new identity-stricken musical, Ribbon Around a Bomb by Jess Eisenberg Chamblee, which recently premiered with Prologue Theatre Company, focuses on. At one point a professor (Melody Latham) hands the audience a thesis list of historical painters, who are all men. It was not only a contrived theatrical convention, but also made me feel a little odd sitting in the cabaret bar setting of Mary’s Attic watching what, as far as I could tell, was a children’s musical. When Chamblee implements the “adult” sections though, it feels even more awkward.

A scene from Prologue Theatre's world-premier musical "Ribbon Around a Bomb" by Jess Eisenberg Chamblee. Photo by Cole Simon.The story follows a painter, Kalakara, through three phases of her life. The younger Kalakara (played with perfect wonderment and rebellion by Krysten Williams) is “haunted” by three female painters from history (Angela Alise Johnson, Melody Latham and Kathleen Wrinn). She is an aspiring painting prodigy (although we never get an actual glimpse of her artwork) whose father (Christopher Tucker) disapproves of her career choice. The ghosts are there, at first, to help guide and inspire her. The college student Kalakara (Charlitha Charleston) is traumatized by these experiences and is also dealing with her rebellion against men, particular the one man in love with her, James (a vocally challenged Lance Newton). Finally, there is the older Kalakara (Tinuade Oyelowo) who paints from her mental institution.

It is within the stories of the older Kalakaras, and their mutual haunting of each other, where the script gets muddled, pointlessly depressing and dramatically trite. Chamblee seems to suggest that the only true way to become a great artist, if you’re a female, is to embrace insanity and reject family, happiness and men. It projects a skewed feminist message.

Chamblee clearly has a knack for infectious musical numbers. However, the musical style in this play lacks unity and instead stretches to showcase a hodgepodge of numerous styles that don’t usually mesh. In addition, there is most certainly an overabundance of belting. Chamblee is clearly influenced by several contemporary composers of the musical world including Sondheim, Schwartz and Jason Robert Brown. The trick is to serve the story first and this story lends itself to more intimate and simple music than is currently written.

A scene from Prologue Theatre's world-premier musical "Ribbon Around a Bomb" by Jess Eisenberg Chamblee. Photo by Cole Simon.The cast is just about as split as Chamblee’s script. While there is some wonderful talent (most notably the impressive vocals of Charleston and Wrinn), there are also several uneven performances in director Kiana Harris’ cast. Harris’ direction serves the first half of this musical well with a decidedly presentational staging. It helps communicate the educational values and emotional relationships clearly, however it is far more suited for a middle-school audience rather than a bar full of adults. For the most part it seems that Chamblee’s script cofuses Harris’ concept – and understandably so: Chamblee’s book and music combat each other caught between a fun historical educational children’s musical revolving around themes of gender equality, and a tediously confounded psychological adult drama. For example, although Tamara de Lempicka was a mid-twentieth century Polish painter, she is instead portrayed and costumed as though she’s a 2011 “Real Housewife of the Netherworld.” This causes a confusing disconnect between her and the other ghosts who are costumed and portrayed in a more period style.

I’d say that Chamblee needs to choose one storyline, and one play to tell, however I’d strongly encourage fleshing out the tale of the young girl painter inspired by historical women who have defied sexism in the art world. She can simply drop the schizophrenia, f-bombs and stripper number that add nothing but a lack of clarity. Allow these women of the past to empower the girl rather than mentally damage her for life. In this sense she should also choose her audience, and if that happens to be a room full of 6th grade girls, then so be it. Finding strength in the past is a lovely message, and the music during these segments is the strongest. It could be cut to 45 minutes and shipped out on a children’s theatre tour. While it is clear Chamblee has greater personal musical ambitions and another deeper story to tell with bold orchestrations, Ribbon Around a Bomb may be better off simple. She can save the center stage belts and diva numbers for the next go-around of musical scribing.

   
  
Rating: ★★
     
  

A scene from Prologue Theatre's world-premier musical "Ribbon Around a Bomb" by Jess Eisenberg Chamblee. Photo by Cole Simon.

Ribbon Around a Bomb, Prologue Theatre Company’s world-premiere musical continues thru May 3rd. The play runs 1 hour and 50 minutes with one intermission. Tickets are $15. For more information visit www.prologuetheatreco.org

Photos by Cole Simon 

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Review: The Butler Didn’t! (Metropolis Performing Arts)

     
     

Jewel heist hits familiar farce notes

     
     

'The Butler Didn't!' by Scott Woldman - Metropolis Performing Arts Centre, Arlington Heights

   
Metropolis Performing Arts Centre presents
   
The Butler Didn’t!
   
Written by Scott Woldman
Directed by Brad Dunn
at Metropolis Arts Centre, Arlington Heights (map)
through April 17  |  tickets: $35-$43  |  more info

Reviewed by Dan Jakes

For anyone who doesn’t look closely at the Metropolis Performing Arts Centre’s promotional materials for its new comedy The Butler Didn’t!, it would be easy to miss that key little word: “new.”

It isn’t. Resident playwright Scott Woldman’s mansion-crime-caper is a venerable checklist for a theatrical form that’s seen its heyday come and go, unabashedly marking off the requisite +5 doors, spastic pace, ‘uh-oh’ twists, and ludicrous premise. Expectedly, the women are sex-obsessed, the men are idiots, and the title-butler is a combination of both. Splash in a little of Neil Simon and a bit of Moliere’s The Imaginary Invalid, and you have a sense of the universe where con-artist and faux-Brit butler Rick resides.

'The Butler Didn't!' by Scott Woldman - Metropolis Performing Arts Centre, Arlington HeightsThat’s not necessarily a bad thing. Woldman’s play admittedly doesn’t do much to forward farcical conventions; at times, the lack of audacity is frustrating–it feels like some of the stones laid by the show’s nontraditional darker tone are left unturned–but as it stands, his comedy is fit to sit comfortably alongside more recognizable staples.

Rick (Michael B. Woods), alongside his wise-cracking, why-does-the-Hispanic-always-have-to-be-the-landscaper side-kick Ernesto (Richard Perez), is in the final phase of his Job to End All Jobs at the Podmore estate. With his billionaire boss (David Belew, capable, albeit a little young) asleep upstairs, Rick and Ernesto take a crack at the safe, before (of course) all hell breaks loose. Lies cover lies, mischief proceeds mischief, and innuendo occurs just about everywhere else.

Situational comedy is usually dependent on characters’ perception of high stakes in low-stakes circumstances, a discrepancy only seen by the audience. Suspension of disbelief is mandatory when viewing anything that aims for ‘wacky,’ and The Butler Didn’t! sacrifices some of those required stakes by asking for more than its fair share. Say, when Mr. Podmore’s lawyer, Anna (Elizabeth Dowling) goes gaga at the sight of Ernesto, it’s challenging to stay invested. One second she’s a menacing professional capable of shutting down the entire operation; the next, she’s nearly orgasming in her pant suit. In farce, tinkering too much with plausibility downgrades the humor, an offense both Woldman and director Brad Dunn commit.

     
'The Butler Didn't!' by Scott Woldman - Metropolis Performing Arts Centre, Arlington Heights 'The Butler Didn't!' by Scott Woldman - Metropolis Performing Arts Centre, Arlington Heights

The silliness is so-so, and like most farces, it could shave off half an hour. When the Metropolis allows itself to push the envelope a bit, however, the true potential of The Butler Didn’t!’ emerges. At the performance I attended, the audience was more receptive to riskier jokes. Perhaps the Metropolis doesn’t want to offend the sensibilities of its ticket holders. Restraint is admirable; big scores require going all in.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

'The Butler Didn't!' by Scott Woldman - Metropolis Performing Arts Centre, Arlington Heights

     
     

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