REVIEW: The Nativity (Congo Square)

  
  

Beautiful to Behold

  
  

Congo Square - The Black Nativity - Celebrating the Birth

   
Congo Square Theatre presents
  
   
The Nativity
  
Written by McKinley Johnson
Inspired by
Langston Hughes
Directed by
Aaron Todd Douglas
at Goodman’s Owen Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn (map)
through Dec 31  |  tickets: $30-$40  |  more info

Reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

I have been going to the theater in Chicago for over 40 years and Black-themed productions have a special place in my heart since I first witnessed Purlie Victorious! at what was the Monroe Theater in 1969. The power of seeing and hearing the old traditions, colloquialisms, and gospel or blues tinged singing remains with me. This year, I wasn’t feeling the so-called Christmas Spirit in full. The commercials started before I could plow through my Halloween stash of candy and make the turkey sandwiches from Thanksgiving. Thank goodness I got my hallelujah infusion from Congo Square’s production of The Nativity.

Kathleen Purcell Turner and Pierre Clark as Mary and JosephThis musical and dance extravaganza is written by McKinley Johnson and inspired by one of my favorite writers: Langston Hughes. The plot is the traditional Nativity story of the Visitation from the Angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary and the adventures that ensued in the birthing of the man known as Jesus.

The Black Nativity, which inspired this work, is one of the sacred plays written by Langston Hughes in the late 40’s and early 50’s as the Harlem Renaissance gave way to a stronger Civil Rights Movement in America. The Black theater had always been a strong presence due to segregation and discrimination. Hughes was always unabashed in his support and pride for Black traditions in music, poetry, and other art forms. Director Aaron Todd Douglas, Musical Director Jaret Williams and Choreographer Kevin Iega Jeff have built a beautiful monument on the foundations laid by Hughes and McKinley.

The combination of dance and spoken word make for a powerful and emotional tribute. Dancers Kathleen Purcell Turner and Pierre Clark portray the characters of Mary and Joseph. They never speak but project power, emotion and pain with dance. Ms. Turner is a wonder to watch as she portrays the birth pains, terror and exhaustion of travel on the run. If I had not been sitting so close I would wonder if she was held up or manipulated by invisible cords. Her beautiful and expressive face shows innocence, giddy youthful love, fear, and finally a maternal glow. She and Mr. Clark play perfectly off of each other as a couple in love.

Pierre Clark is an amazing high school senior who has perfected the role of Joseph. He emotes the youthful lust and royal bearing befitting a descendant of King Solomon. His acting is wonderful and the protection and joy of fatherhood is beautifully played through his dance moves. The choreography is reminiscent of Capoeira dancing – a blend of dance and martial arts that was forbidden during the slave trade in Colonial Brazil. It is a stunning and innovative take on choreography in a sacred work.

The cast of singing actors in The Nativity is from the ranks of Chicago’s finest actors. John Steven Crowley commands the stage as the Angel Gabriel and the narrator of the story. Alexis Rogers and Jeniel Smith shine as Athaliah and Johashobah. They are best friends at the washing creek and wives the fearsome King Herod. They have some funny and contemporary lines that ring true in modern society as well as ancient times.

Pierre Clark and Kathleen Purcell Turner as Joseph and MaryBlack Ensemble Theater regular, Kelvin Roston Jr., joins Ms. Rogers and Ms. Smith. Mr. Roston brings his handsome and convivial charm to the roles of Tax Collector, Inn Keeper, and Centurion. It is always a pleasure to see him perform.

Dwelvan David is a standout as King Herod. Mr. David’s striking features and imposing projection give him a perfect balance of fierce warrior, cunning politician, and comic foil.

The singing in this play is exceptional and pure gospel. The selections by Jaret Williams are soul-rousing and seemingly tailored to the singing talents of the cast. The moment the piano played I felt that I was ‘back in the day’. A special mention of Melody Betts and Dawn Bless is warranted for their roles of Mother of Mary and Elizabeth. They each have wonderful solos and shine in the roles of mother, confidant, and protectors of the Virgin Mary. Two other highlights are the song and dance combination of ‘Her Way’s Cloudy’ and the appearance of the Three Kings. The costumes are perfection in the choice of fabric and tailoring. (I was really close to the stage). The song ‘You Ought To Try The Lord’ is rocking, as is the ‘get happy in church’ dance by Jon Pierce.

I recommend The Black Nativity as a holiday tradition for everyone no matter your race or religious tradition. It’s perfect for the whole family and as an introduction to musical theater for younger children. Kudos to all of the parents in the audience as this was one of the best intergenerational audiences I have had the pleasure to be in. Happiest of Holidays to Everyone!

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

Ensemble

The Congo Square Theatre production of The Nativity runs through December 31st at the Goodman Theatre,170 N. Dearborn in vibrant downtown Chicago. Please call 312-443-3800 for ticket information.

      
      

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REVIEW: The Drowsy Chaperone (Marriott Theatre)

A journey to another world

 

DROWSY CHAPERONE--Andy Lupp as George and cast

  
Marriott Theatre presents
 
The Drowsy Chaperone
 
Music/Lyrics by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison
Book by
Bob Martin and Don McKellar
Directed/Choreographed by
Marc Robin
Musical direction by
Doug Peck
at Marriott Theatre, 10 Marriot Drive (map)
Through June 28th
  |  tickets: $35-$48  |  more info

reviewed by Oliver Sava

I love Cole Porter’s Anything Goes. No, I’m not reviewing Anything Goes, but hang in there with me. The plot is laughable, relying on many standard musical theatre tropes – mistaken identity, leading lady leaving the stage behind, gangsters, horribly offensive racial stereotypes – but really the story is just a vehicle for the music. Can DROWSY CHAPERONE--Tari Kelly as Janet (moon) anyone deny the rousing thrill of “Blow Gabriel Blow”? The devastating heartbreak of “I Get A Kick Out of You”? And that tap break at the end of Act I? Perfection. Listening to Anything Goes is traveling to another time, an age of innocence when every loose end was tied up with a pretty pink ribbon and the only ending was happily ever after. For Man in Chair (the brilliant James Harms), that musical is The Drowsy Chaperone, and when the needle scratches against vinyl his entire world is transformed into the melodramatic paradise of 1920’s musical theatre.

The Drowsy Chaperone is a tribute to the musicals of Porter and Berlin and Gershwin, a celebration of every spit take and tap break, a love letter to the days when love was all there was. Lambert and Morrison’s music and lyrics provide the ballads and belts people expect from the genre, serving up fine pastiches of the genre’s greats, but Martin and McKellar’s ingenious book is what gives the show an added dimension. Man in Chair is a narrator that is the embodiment of escapist theory, physically entering the world that the audience is only able to observe. Sure, he comments on the musical’s absurdities – those pesky stereotypes, the wafer-thin plot, that song with all the monkeys – but the ridiculous fiction is easier than the harsh reality of his lonely apartment. And then there’s a five minute tap break. That’s the kind of musical The Drowsy Chaperone is.

Director Marc Robin is a master at staging in the round, keeping his actors in constant motion so that no one in the audience is stuck staring at backs the whole night, and his energetic choreography creates dimension on the mostly bare stage. Jazz is blended with ballet, ballroom, and some impressive tumbling to create visually stunning images, and the cast dances it beautifully. The aforementioned tap number is lightning quick, seriously demanding, and impeccably executed by the ever-smiling Robert Martin (Tyler Hanes) and his best man George (Andy Lupp). The physical comedy is slapstick at its finest. Each new scene offers a different way for Adolpho (Adam Pelty) to humiliate himself, and Mrs. Tottenham (Paula Scrofano) spitting in Underling’s (Gene Weygandt) face is a long-running gag. The biggest laughs come from the Man in Chair’s commentary, largely because Harms is the one saying it.

 

adam-pelty-as-adolpho david-lively-and-laura-taylor
jim-harms-as-man-in-chair linda-balgord-as-drowsy-chaperone

From his first monologue in complete darkness to a joyous moon-ride finale (no, that is not supposed to make sense), he charms the audience with his passion for the theater and makes his home a place you want to be. There is a lot of potential darkness to be explored in Man in Chair, and Harms gets just close enough to the edge that he can provoke a little more insight into the character’s struggle while still being able to turn back and box step with a lesbian Aviatrix (Melody Betts). The biggest joke is how different his real life is from the world of The Drowsy Chaperone.

In the title role, Linda Balgord flippantly dismisses the situation at hand in favor of the next drink, belting the inspiring “You’ll Never Walk Alone”-a-la-Joanne-from-Company “As We Stumble Along” to no one in particular. Robert Jordan and Janet Van De Graaff (Teri Kelly) are ideal ingénues, completely idiotic and hopelessly romantic. The racial stereotypes are cartoonish in their exaggeration, from the European (Italian? Spanish?) Adolpho to the “Message From A Nightingale” act II opening, but it’s not offensive if it’s really funny, right?

The Drowsy Chaperone an intelligent musical that builds on the foundations of the genre while paying tribute to the work that has come before it. Those kinds of musicals are hard to find. It’s easier to turn a movie into a musical, or take a Billboard artist’s discography and add a plot. Marriott’s production is a journey to another world, and even if we have to watch from the sidelines, the view is great.

       
        
Rating: ★★★½
     
     

gangsters-and-producer-felzieg

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REVIEW: Ragtime (Drury Lane Oakbrook)

Drury Lane scores big with epic musical “Ragtime”

RAGTIME-_The_cast

 
Drury Lane Oakbrook presents
 
Ragtime
 
Based on the novel by E.L. Doctorow
by
Terrance McNally (book), Stephen Flaherty (music), Lynn Ahrens (lyrics)
directed/choreographed by
Rachel Rockwell
at
Drury Lane Theatre, Oakbrook (map)
through May 23 (more info)

By Katy Walsh

‘What can happen in a year?’ Father’s question is an expectation that life is simple and predictable.

BF1C0838 The reality is birth, death, emancipation, persecution, obsession, syncopation. In 1906, the regularity in life takes unexpected turns as Drury Lane Oakbrook presents Ragtime The Musical. The show focuses on the lives of three groups: WASPs, blacks, and immigrants. In the New York suburbs, a wealthy family breaks the monotony with wild excursions and celebrity stalking. In Harlem, a successful black piano player decides to search for his lost love. Just off the boat, an Jewish immigrant artist and his daughter arrive with nothing but optimistic anticipation. Three distinctly different rhythms unexpectedly intersect to create a new tune. Ragtime celebrates a year in American history by paralleling the adaption of ragtime music with socio-economic changes of the time period. The results are a stunning history lesson intertwined with melodies of hope and change.

Under the skillful direction and choreography of Rachel Rockwell, the tempo never misses a beat. Rockwell strikes all the right notes with this multi-talented cast. Quentin Earl Darrington (Coalhouse) is the powerhouse of emotional range in song and act. His tune changes throughout the show – regret, love, vengeance. Darrington connects the audience with his story based on heart wrenching hope. His “The Wheels of a Dream” duet with Valisia LeKae (Sarah) is flawless. LeKae is a perfect match-up and their onstage chemistry is the epic-love-story-kind. Cory Goodrich (Mother) is marvelous in an understated and nonchalant way. Goodrich’s character changes her family’s life dramatically with simple choices. Her transformation is most baffling to Father played by Larry Adams. In a pivotal song, Adams is perplexed as he sings, ‘I thought I knew what love was but these lovers play different music.’

With inspirational paternal love, Mark David Kaplan (Tateh) chases a train for a teary-eyed audience impact. Alongside the principals, smaller and famous roles engage curiosity. Emma Goldman (Catherine Lord) influences as a social reformer. Evelyn Nesbit (Summer Naomi Smart) is the Brittany Spears of the time period…whee! Harry Houdini (Stef Tovar) mystifies as a successful immigrant. Booker T. Washington (James Earl Jones II) commands integration and respect.

BF1C1085 Larry_and_Cory
BF1C0803 BF1C0945 Mark_Kaplan-Jennifer_Baker

Surprisingly, this blockbuster musical starts with a stark stage. The introduction of characters is a popped up portrait of perfection. Literally, group entrances are elevated from below stage. As the three groups multiply across the stage, the unique flair of costume distinction, designed by Santo Loquasto, is a spectacular visual. Costumes, projections, lighting, moments of tasty eye candy decorate this show. From silhouettes marching to swimmers bathing, the imagery dances to the ragtime.

And there was distant music, simple and somehow sublime. Giving the nation a new syncopation.  The people called it Ragtime!’

Paralleling life’s happenstance, my performance had some twists not necessarily planned. There seemed to be an issue with lighting up the solo singers in the first few scenes. A momentary blip broke the backdrop illusion with a ‘Microsoft word computer screen’ projection. Initially, the audio seemed hollow. I was uncertain if it was a microphone or acoustic issue. It either cleared up or my engrossment made it a moot point. All in all, this production was amazing. It left me reinforced that a gesture of kindness changes life’s courses and bewildered about men’s obsessions with cars.

 
Rating: ★★★★
 

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