Review: Summer Series (Hubbard Street Dance Chicago)

  
  

Spiraling into Summer

  
  

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago's Tech Run of Jiri kylian's 27'52" at Governors State University in University Park, IL. (photo: Rosenberg Photography)

   
Hubbard Street Dance presents
    
   
Summer Series
   
at Harris Theater, 205 E. Randolph, Millennium Park (map)
through May 22  |  tickets: $25-$94  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago has returned to Randolph Street to showcase its Summer Series, a three-piece program that – if not as warm as the season it ushers in – generously records the latest passions in the world of dance as accurately as a seismograph.

The start of a bold, new collaboration, the most significant event was the company premiere of the evening’s second offering–the hauntingly named Following the Subtle Current Upstream. The 2000 creation of Alonzo King (originally commissioned by the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater), artistic director of the ground-breaking, San Francisco-based LINES Ballet, this free-wheeling experiment in motion has the ensemble, clad in monochromatic leotards, languorously or frenetically erupting to a score by Indian tabla composer Zakir Hussbain, South African balladeer Miriam Makeba and composer Miguel Frasconi.

Presumably depicting “the subtle currents that exist in the body as the path of liberation,” this fluid, sometimes seemingly improvised, choreography reflects King’s interest in grounding movement in the moment, with shifting combinations of dancers flowing in and ebbing out of formation, much like the thunder that interrupts the shape shifting. The Hubbard Dancers seem entirely at home in this inventive and self-fulfilling enterprise.

     
5/18/11 4:31:59 PM -- Hubbard Street Dance Chicago's Jesse Bechard and Kellie Epperheimer perform Alonzo King's "Following the Subtle Current Upstream."  (Photo: Todd Rosenberg Photography) 5/18/11 4:24:18 PM -- Hubbard Street Dance Chicago's Jonathan Fredrickson with Kevin Shannon and Christian Broomhall perform Alonzo King's "Following the Subtle Current Upstream."  © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2011

The remaining works are back by popular demand, opening with Aszure Barton’s Untouched, a maroon-hued creation performed against an elegant, half-opened curtain. Sensuous with sudden, gyrating hip swings and outstretched hands and performed to music by Njo Kong Kie, Curtis Macdonald and Ljova, Untouched was set in motion before the music was selected–so, unusual for dance, the latter is servant to the former. The result is a series of mysterious processions, comings and goings, separated by curious offstage wolf whistles, that managed to be sensuous and haunting. Hypnotic stuff, Untouched hardly describes its effect on the audience.

     
5/20/10 2:03:04 PM -- Hubbard Street Dance Chicago Tech Rehearsal for new work by Azsure Barton. (Photo: Todd Rosenberg Photography) 5/20/10 3:17:07 PM -- Hubbard Street Dance Chicago Tech Rehearsal for new work by Azsure Barton. © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2010

Finally, Jiri Kylian’s 27’52”, named for its near half-hour length, opens as a company warm-up, with a huge bank of lights dangling over the dancers. The dancers are then seen to perform on a tear-away white floor that will later give way to a tear-away black one. Like scenes from a David Lynch film, the diverse action unspools with a spoken text in English, German and French extolling the artist’s vocation. The score by Dirk Haubrich was backdrop to quirky movements, descending and ascending curtains, and jerky aerobic exercises that seemed to create a waking dream. Perhaps a bit too abstract to engage us beyond its eclectic activities, nonetheless this dance game of alternating intimate encounters followed by solo exits seems as much a metaphor for life itself as dance deserves.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  
1/20/10 4:59:52 PM -- Hubbard Street Dance Chicago's Tech Run of Jiri kylian 27'52" at Governors State University in University Park, IL. © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2010 1/20/10 4:41:29 PM -- Hubbard Street Dance Chicago's Tech Run of Jiri kylian 27'52" at Governors State University in University Park, IL. © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2010
1/20/10 3:48:53 PM -- Hubbard Street Dance Chicago's Tech Run of Jiri kylian 27'52" at Governors State University in University Park, IL. (Photo: Todd Rosenberg Photography) Hubbard Street Dance Chicago's Tech Run of Jiri kylian' 27'52" at Governors State University in University Park, IL. (Photo: Todd Rosenberg Photography)
     

All photos by Todd Rosenberg Photography ©2010

     
     

Review: Slaughter City (Jackalope Theatre)

  
  

Disciplined, persuasive production nobly delves into tough subjects

     
     

Ryan Heindl in Naomi Wallace's "Slaughter City", produced by Jackalope Theatre.

  
Jackalope Theatre presents
   
  
Slaughter City
    
  
Written by Naomi Wallace
Directed by Kaiser Ahmed
at Raven Theatre’s West Stage, 6157 N. Clark (map)
through June 4  |  tickets: $15  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

Naomi Wallace is a committed playwright. She wants her audiences to be equally so, to meet her stories more than half way. Poetic vignettes that defy any consistent time frame, these two hours and twenty minutes of archetypal scenes focus on a packing house in a Brechtian-like factory called Slaughter City.

Ryan Heindl and Kristin Anderson in Naomi Wallace's "Slaughter City", produced by Jackalope TheatreBut that’s as much focus as you get. Mostly the play offers glimpses of the ongoing struggle of the labor movement to be honored, as in fairly compensated, for the work that made America, not just plutocrats, prosper. Wisconsin is only the latest scene of a battle for the soul of America, which is the decency it shows its workers. Fittingly, Jackalope Theatre’s disciplined and persuasive production does it justice.

Wallace offers scenes and work songs of workers and some scabs agitating for a new contract in a slaughterhouse that gives them 20-minute breaks, scars from numerous cuts, premature arthritis, blood poisoning—and meager wages. Presiding over this most recent struggle are avatars from past ones: Cod is the androgynous Irish descendant of a woman who jumped to her death to avoid the flames in the terrible Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that killed 146 workers behind locked doors over a century ago. In a deal with the devil, namely, the symbolic Sausage Man, emblematic of management, Cod survived but now must engage in every labor conflict from 1910 to the present. (Alas, it’s too nebulous, quixotic and precious a concept to really strike home.)

The specific workers in this latest showdown matter more. They slice up imaginary meat as their boss, Mr. Baquin, practices sexual harassment, improbably insisting on cleanliness despite the abattoir’s appalling conditions. The kill-floor is a seething pit of racial tension, class conflicts, and clandestine romance. All the time these exploited toilers must decide between the kind of solidarity that Cod embodies or the way of death suggested by the Sausage Man.

Kaiser Ahmed’s painstaking (and pains-giving) staging delivers memorable performances—Ryan Heindl’s doomed dyslexic kid, Kristin Anderson’s feisty rebel, Warren Feagins as a guilt-ridden supervisor, Anne Sears as an innocent fire victim, John Milewski as the twisted owner, AJ Ware as conflicted Cod, and Jack McCabe as the sinister Sausage Man. (I’d add Katherine Swan to the list but, lacking any projection, her mush-mouthed Maggot dropped too many lines to register on the stage.)

Discursive and fragmentary, Slaughter City hardly invites its audience to any feast of reason. Like Brecht, Wallace means to keep us at a distance. It’s not clear why: The choice between Cod and the Sausage Man is too obvious for this kind of detachment. Notwithstanding the play’s confusing concepts, Jackalope’s commanding dedication to a difficult story and subject deserves accolades, particularly during hard times where yesterday’s advocacy damnably doesn’t seem to work.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Butchering the carcasses in "Slaughter City", produced by Jackalope Theatre.

Slaughter City, by Naomi Wallace, continues at Raven Theatre’s West Stage, 6157 N. Clark, through June 4th, with performances Thursdays-Saturdays at 8:30pm and Sundays at 3:30pm.  Tickets are $15, and can be purchased by phone (773-340-2553) or online here.  For more information, visit www.jackalopetheatre.org.

  
  

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Review: Freedom, NY (Teatro Vista)

     
     

Subtle play offers powerful epiphanies of diversity and trust

     
     

(from left) Cheryl Lynn Bruce is Justice Mayflower, and Desmin Borges plays Gabriel, in Teatro Vista’s world premiere of Jennifer Barclay’s Freedom, NY.  (Photo: Eddie Torres)

  
Teatro Vista presents
   
  
Freedom, NY
  
  
Written by Jennifer Barclay
Directed by Joe Minoso
at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont (map)
through June 12  |  tickets: $20-25  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

America is always struggling to change immigration into integration. But not all the battles are fought at frontiers. Far from any border patrols and electric fences, Freedom, NY depicts a less violent but more common interracial conflict. Presented with warmth and finally crowned in concord, Jennifer Barclay’s new play focuses on next-door neighbors, two black and one Latino. Here a psychological border, the kind we carry wherever we go, must be overcome before misunderstandings lead to worse.

(from left) Paige Collins is 12-year-old Portia, and Cheryl Lynn Bruce plays Portia’s grandmother and protector Justice Mayflower, in Teatro Vista’s world premiere of Jennifer Barclay’s "Freedom, NY." (Photo: Eddie Torres) The play’s divisions between neighbors—and members of minorities–are more mental than physical. On one side Mayflower, a flinty African-American justice of the peace, tends her marigolds and protectively isolates her 12-year-old granddaughter Portia against all adversity. A year ago, a school shooting and a child abduction persuaded Mayflower to cut Portia off from the outside world. (Apparently, Mayflower’s tough-love approach already frightened off her daughter, who fled to Nebraska.)

Symbolizing that outside world is newly arrived Gabriel, a recent immigrant who works as school janitor, hoping to save enough to bring his family from Mexico. Meanwhile, he brightly decorates his bare yard for the “Dia de Los Muertos,” where he will symbolically bury his mother. (She had dreamed of coming to Freedom but wasn’t able to make it alive.)

Telling Gabriel that the neighbors “don’t like how you look,” Mayflower puts up a fence between them as we wonder what it will take to get her to take it down.

The economically written, 80-minute drama depicts how Mayflower, less accepting than curious and pent-up Portia, overcomes her xenophobia and distrust of diversity. She finally realizes that Gabriel is not connected with child abductions or illegal burials. There are no world-shaking revelations here. What we see, honestly and persuasively, are just quiet efforts to preserve decency despite change. These shape the world more than elections or even revolution.

Minoso’s sensitive staging builds tiny epiphanies into moments of truth that cumulatively matter. Cheryl Lynn Bruce plays stubborn but well-intentioned Mayflower with tough tenacity and enough defensiveness to show she’s human beneath her fear. Desmin Borges’ Gabriel, almost too vibrantly colorful for the conditions, brims with open-hearted trust, even as his apostrophes to his dead mother question his stability. Most amazing is the awesomely natural performance of Paige Collins as questioning Portia. She represents America’s future, when we finally prove that, yes, Rodney King, we can all get along.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
   

(from left) Paige Collins is Portia, and Desmin Borges plays Gabriel, in Teatro Vista’s world premiere of Jennifer Barclay’s "Freedom, NY".  (Photo: Eddie Torres)

Teatro Vista’s Freedom, NY continues through June 12th at their new venue, Theater Wit (1229 W. Belmont),  with performances Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8pm, Sunday at 3pm.  Tickets are $25 ($20 for students and seniors), and can be purchased by phone (773-975-8150) or online at teatrovista.org. Freedom, NY runs approximately 75 minutes.      All photos by Eddie Torres.

  
  

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Review: Life Is a Dream (Vitalist Theatre)

     
     

A different dream work

     
     

A scene from Vitalist Theatre's production of "Life Is A Dream". Photo credit: Anthony Aicardi

     
Vitalist Theatre presents
   
  
Life Is a Dream
   
   
Written by Calderon de la Barca
Directed by Elizabeth Carlin-Metz
at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont (map)
thru June 11  |  tickets: $20-$25  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

The greatest gift from Spain’s Golden Age of theater, Calderon de la Barca’s masterpiece from 1635 can hold its own with Shakespeare’s later romances. Nonetheless, Life Is a Dream puts a very Spanish emphasis on the struggle between honor and duty and the animalistic versus the humane. Helen Edmundson’s new version is the perfect platform for Elizabeth Carlin-Metz’ passionate, persuasive revival, a show to justify Vitalist Theatre’s well-earned name.

Life Is A Dream - Vitalist Theatre 3The story is a combination fairy tale and parable: A future king is tested to see if his natural nobility can help him to rise above the worst adversity. Haunted by a prophecy that his son might destroy him, Basilio, king of Poland, has his heir Prince Segismundo imprisoned in a hidden tower, wearing chains instead of a crown. Basilio resolves to give the prince a test to prove whether he really is the monster that was predicted by creating a waking dream: Segismundo is seemingly restored to power and the king watches to see if this caged beast can rise to royalty. If Segismundo can put the common good above his fury over decades of mistreatment, he’s one of nature’s noblemen and Poland’s future.

The play’s power kicks in as Segismundo must wrestle with his dark demons, defy fate in order to assert free will, and overcome the desire for revenge and turn it into a quest for justice. He does it on behalf of Rosaura, a noble lady wronged by Segismundo’s cousin Astolfo, wrongly engaged to Segismundo’s true intended, the Princess Estrella. If Segismundo’s dream has come true, this heir now realizes how fragile life is and how death ends all dreams.

Baroque and often beautiful, Calderon’s ornate language abounds in glorious declamation, intense soliloquies and almost operatic flights of rhetoric, a treacherously grand style that modern audiences could find offputting. Happily, the Vitalist actors are completely in control of this material. They know their characters from the inside out: These speeches carry an ardor and conviction that makes whatever seems literary to live and sing. (But for some this still just might be a bit too lyrical not to be set to music.)

     
A scene from Vitalist Theatre's production of "Life Is A Dream". Photo credit: Anthony Aicardi A scene from Vitalist Theatre's production of "Life Is A Dream". Photo credit: Anthony Aicardi
A scene from Vitalist Theatre's production of "Life Is A Dream". Photo credit: Anthony Aicardi A scene from Vitalist Theatre's production of "Life Is A Dream". Photo credit: Anthony Aicardi

You see the fervor best in Paul Dunckel’s unstoppable Segismundo, as intense and consistent a declaration of independence as any role requires. Without pushing any passion over the cliff, Dunckel stays on fire throughout. In contrast, Madrid St. Angelo finely calibrates Basilio’s divided consciousness between father and monarch. Vanessa Greenway is her own action figure as intrepid-because-scorned Rosaura, while, as aspirants to the Polish throne, Gregory Isaac and Lyndsay Rose Kane stamp the play’s rises and reversals with their own authentic reactions. BF Helman gives Segismundo’s keeper all the conflicts the situation warrants. Finally, Ivan Vega provides comic relief as a Sancho Panza-like servant with a common touch amid extraordinary events.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
   
  

A scene from Vitalist Theatre's production of "Life Is A Dream". Photo credit: Anthony Aicardi

Vitalist Theatre’s Life Is a Dream runs through June 11th at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont, with performances Thursday-Saturday at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2:30pm.  Tickets are $20-$25, and can be purchased by phone (773-327-5252) or online at www.stage773.com. For more information, visit vitalisttheatre.org.

  
  

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Review: Peter Pan (360 Entertainment & Broadway Chicago)

     

Now extended through July 10th!!


 

A gorgeous, high-tech canvas of oohs and ahhs

     
     

Emily Yetter (Tinkerbell), Scott Weston (Michael Darling), Ciaran Joyce (Peter Pan), Evelyn Hoskins (Wendy Darling) and Tom Larkin (John Darling) fly off to Neverland in a scene from "Peter Pan". Photo by Kevin Berne

      
threesixty entertainment presents
   
Peter Pan
   
Written by Sir James Barrie
adapted by Tanya Ronder
Directed by Ben Harrison
at Chicago Tribune Freedom Center, 650 W. Chicago (map)
through July 10  |  tickets: $20-$125  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

It’s a gorgeous marriage of a circus tent, whose interior functions like a thrilling Omnimax screen in-the-round, and traditional theater magic, with trap doors and soaring flights that are more than fancy. This British-born production from 2009, which has already delighted Kensington Gardens and San Francisco, should have a happy home in Chicago all summer.

Wendy (Evelyn Hoskins) receives a gift from Peter Pan (Ciaran Joyce). Photo by Kevin BerneIts in-the-found “panto” spectacle flourishes in a huge white tent pitched in the parking lot of the Chicago Tribune’s printing plant along the Chicago River. There the two and a half hour spectacle regales audiences with glorious 3D and 360-degree projections that, sweeping us along, let us fly above London, explore the jungles of Neverland, dive under the waters around Skull Island, soar to the riggings of Captain Hook’s ship, and tumble through the clouds, accompanied by Peter, Michael, John and Wendy as, harnessed to the apex of the big top, they fly effortlessly above us.

The story they tell, of course, is J.M. Barrie’s inexhaustible novella of the boy who never grew up and the lucky children (including the audience) who get caught up in his adventures with pirates, a crocodile, mermaids and, his greatest adversary, time itself. Peter’s saga inevitably takes us back to our childhood and, just as importantly, reminds us why we had to leave it.

Inspired by the doomed Davies brothers, Barrie wrote a Dorian Gray-like fantasy in which one of the beautiful boys would never age. Peter, a once-and-future serial abductor, recruits Wendy, his latest surrogate “mother,” along with her entranced brothers, to fly with him to Neverland and tell bedtime stories to the lost boys. But Captain Hook, a stunted adult who is just as lost, also wants a mother and will poison Peter and kill the boys to get Wendy.

At the same time playing at being grownups wears thin and Wendy, Michael, John and the orphan lads slowly feel the need to return to reality. For Peter “death would be an awfully big adventure.” For them life is challenge enough.

Faithful to every delightful word in Barrie’s source, Tanya Ronder’s adaptation, abetted by a serviceable score by Benjamin Wallfisch, employs wonderful puppets (the crocodile is every bit as big as its living relatives), highwire flying, swirling swordfights, a superb video backdrop and the audience’s own unleashed imagination to do full justice to this childhood classic.

     
Peter Pan (Ciaran Joyce) shows Wendy (Evelyn Hoskins) how to fly in "Peter Pan". Photo by Kevin Berne Tinkerbell (Emily Yetter) and Peter Pan (Ciaran Joyce) fly off above London back to Neverland. Photo by Kevin Berne
Peter Pan (Ciaran Joyce) flies into the Darling family bedroom . Photo by Kevin Berne. Tinkerbell (Emily Yetter) flies above the audience. Photo by Kevin Berne.

Ciaran Joyce, a supple young British actor, makes Peter properly improper as he impetuously bursts from one adventure to another, as if boyhood had no expiration date (and he’s willed it so just to be sure). Just as exuberant but strategically maternal as required, Evelyn Hoskins is a very sensible Wendy, her prudence a counterweight to Peter’s other “girls,” Emily Yetter’s bratty and endearing Tinker Bell and Heidi Bueller’s curiously sensual Tiger Lily. Playing the most threatening (and thus mockable) adults, Steven Pacey is suitably silly, especially in his unseemly popularity competition for Peter. (Guess who gets voted off of this island?)

Lovely touches abound, like the Lost Boys’ indulging in a curious war dance about “killing grownups,” the mother-like puppet Neverbird (animated appropriately by Regina Leslie as Mrs. Darling), and a mermaid duo who try to kidnap Wendy for their own underwater purposes.

When the audience shouts out how much they believe In fairies, you sense the same splendid stagecraft that worked so well in 1904. But here state-of-the-art, cutting-edge technology makes it even larger than life and as vibrant a fantasy as memory could make it.

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
      
  

The pirates of Peter Pan, with Wendy (Evelyn Hoskins) in the background. Photo by Kevin Berne

Peter Pan continues at the Chicago Tribune Freedom Center, 650 W. Chicago Ave., through summer 2011, with performances Wednesdays @ 2:00pm & 7:00pm; Thursdays-Fridays @ 7:00pm; Saturdays @ 2:00pm & 7:00pm and Sundays @ 1:00pm & 5:00pm. Tickets range from $20-$125, Complete ticket info here.

All photos by Kevin Berne

     
     

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Review: The King and I (Porchlight Music Theatre Chicago)

     
     

Getting to love you

     
     

Brianna-Borger and Wayne Hu

  
Porchlight Music Theatre Chicago presents
  
The King and I
  
Written by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II
Directed by L. Walter Stearns
Music Directed by Eugene Dizon
at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont (map)
through June 5  |  tickets: $35  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

L. Walter Stearns’ final staging for Porchlight Music Theatre (he’s moving on to manage the Mercury Theatre) is a splendid swan song. Efficient but never merely dutiful, this tender-loving revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1951 treasure lets the talent on this stage honor the brilliance on the page. Despite lacking the budgets of Marriott Theatre’s 2000 revival or the most recent one at Drury Lane Oakbrook in 2007, Porchlight never allows less to be lacking.

Erik Kaiko as Lun Tha and Jillian Jocson as Tuptim - King and IBesides, look at what they’re working with! It’s rewarding how much the R & H musicals amplify each other, yielding a whole much bigger than its parts. In The King and I we see a British schoolteacher who changes the children around her and shapes the future through her enlightened tutelage of the Crown Prince of Siam. Anna Leonowens anticipates Maria Von Trapp, an Austrian governess who changes the children and around and escapes the present to pursue the sound of music. Likewise, Flower Drum Song carefully chronicles the cultural changes in a community. Above all, like South Pacific, King and I delivers an action lesson in tolerance. Anna and the King learn from each pother, he forbearance and humility before the facts of life, love and death, she the discipline and tradition required to keep a nation together and, more importantly, unconquered.

The closest comparison outside the R & H canon is, interestingly, Fiddler on the Roof: Both musicals deal with central characters coping with change during convulsive historical periods, desperate to preserve tradition (and power) while wryly accepting the future, as much on their terms as possible.

The King’s transformation (and, by implication, that of Siam) is accomplished in stunning songs like “Getting to Know You” and “Shall We Dance?” that win us over from the first note. Well worth the succession from Gertrude Lawrence to Deborah Kerr to Donna Murphy, Brianna Borger’s warmly engaging Anna brings quicksilver resilience and five different kinds of love to her widow, mother, tutor, confidante and lover. Her patter songs, “Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?,” crackles with contagious indignation and hard-core spunk. The first Asian I’ve seen playing the King, burly Wayne Hu stamps the King with wizard timing, wry irascibility and bedrock dignity. The fact that he’s no infallible leader only makes his aspirations to authority more poignant and less threatening.

It’s impossible to overpraise Jillian Anne Jocson’s lovely and lyrical Tuptim, enchanting in “I Have Dreamed” and “We Kiss in Shadow” with ardent Erik Kaiko as her doomed beloved, or Kate Garassino’s elegant Lady Thiang, wisdom wrapped in reticence. The Siamese wives and children (here reduced to six) are marvels of grace in energy and as comely as a palace frieze. Likewise Bill Morey’s elaborate Eastern costumes, their shimmering and sumptuous fabrics lit by Mac Vaughey with what must be new colors, and Ian Zywica’s unit set with its Oriental throne room, filigreed archways, and burnished floor. (Flanking the king are dualistic symbols of East and West—a chess set and a statue of the Buddha.) Brenda Didier’s choreography, faithful to Jerome Robbins, turns “‘The Small House of Uncle Thomas’ Ballet” into a cascade of astonishment and artful reinvention.

For purists like me there’s one cavil: This revival’s two-piano accompaniment, however beautifully played by Eugene Dizon and Allison Hendrix, is nonetheless a letdown, robbing the songs of the rich orchestrations Rodgers intended. Less crucial, the delightful scene in which the ladies of the court try to maneuver inside European crinoline ballgowns and corsets is necessarily omitted. But new to me is the royal school’s anthem sung by Anna and her princely pupils, as well as a charming reprise of “A Puzzlement” sung by the sons of the principals that extends the cultural clash to the next generation. You win some, you lose some.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Brianna Borger, Dylan Lainez, Tatum Pearlman, Lydia Hurrelbrink

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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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