REVIEW: Blues for an Alabama Sky (Greenetree Productions)

    

Elegy for the Renaissance

    

Kelly Owen as Angel Allen and Jaren Kyei Merrell as Guy Jacobs in "Blues For An Alabama Sky" at Chicago's Stage 773

   
Greenetree Productions presents
  
Blues for an Alabama Sky
  
Written by Pearl Cleage
Directed by
J. Israel Greene
at
Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont (map)
through September 19th  |  tickets: $20-$25   |  more info

Reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

Stage 773’s production of Blues for an Alabama Sky has all the trappings of a great play about an important chapter in African American history. Writer Pearl Cleage has a great pedigree for the subject matter and is a one of the authors given the hallowed Oprah Winfrey touch for “What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day”. The set is a gorgeous reproduction of 1930’s Harlem with lush draperies and dusty flocked Kelly Owens as Angel Allen in Pearl Cleage's "Blues for an Alabama Sky", playing in Chicago's Stage 773 through September 19th wallpaper. The costumes fit the period with beautiful rich fabric and spot on accessories. 

However, this play waits until the second act to start building a head of steam.

The play tells the story of a Harlem showgirl named Angel and her best friend Guy, who is a gay costume designer with dreams of Paris. They met in Savannah while both worked at a house of prostitution that catered to all tastes. Kelly Owens plays Angel, and she is a knockout. Ms. Owens portrays the roiling emotions of a woman who doesn’t have the luxury of being liberated and is forced to rely on her sexuality and the tenuous generosity of mobbed up club owners. Jaren Kyei Merrell plays the flamboyant take-no-prisoners Guy Jenkins who has recreated an identity as Guy du Paris. Merrell shines as a man with a dream. He sees that the Renaissance is starting to wane and that Paris is a place for Black people to have their artistic abilities appreciated. Akilah Terry as the sweet and formidable next-door neighbor Delia joins them. Her character is a social worker that has joined forces with Margaret Sanger to get a family planning clinic in Harlem. Ms. Terry plays Delia as virginal, formidable and knowing her own mind. She is costumed in a dowdy suit and hat, which is one of the best punch lines of the play. Rounding out this circle of friends is Lee Owens as Sam – the Harlem physician with a taste for partying, bootleg liquor, and a secret sideline as an abortionist. Into this mix comes a southern gentleman who is mourning his Alabama home for many reasons. Jason Smith plays the role of Leland Cunningham with a sly and deceptive sweetness that veils his character’s moral indignation and fundamentalism.

All of the actors do a fine job with the work that is given them. The problem with Blues for an Alabama Sky is the snail-like pacing. The curtain was ten minutes behind and then the first act was nearly 90 minutes long. If the action and dialog were at a better clip it might work much better, but it’s as if the ensemble has been directed for television with long pauses and extended dark time between scenes.

In the program notes, director J. Israel Greene speaks of the Harlem Renaissance as a simpler time that was rich in culture. Today’s times are parallel with the same societal inequities but he refers to the barricade of Jazz as if it put 1930’s Harlem in a hazy glow. I wish that he would have put some more of that jazz in this production. There is too much expository time in the first act, which makes the second act feel rushed and predictable. The character of Leland Cunningham turns from naïve southern gentleman to homophobic jerk at whiplash speed. It is too much of a stretch that Leland is blind to the fact that Guy is homosexual even if it is the 1930’s and he grew up in Alabama. Also, Angel’s storyline turns cliché when her pregnancy is treated as both an accident and insurance when her financial situation teeters.

Jaren Kyei Merrell as Guy Jacobs in Pearl Cleage's "Blues For An Alabama Sky", now playing in Chicago's Stage 773 through September 19, 2010

At the same time the storyline of Dr. Sam and Delia tiptoeing toward love is almost a throwaway motif. The social worker for family planning and the reluctant abortionist don’t get enough stage time for the plot to be anything other than a weak device to forward the climax of the play.

The most enjoyable scene in Alabama Sky occurs when Guy lets loose on Leland and Angel for playing it safe and small minded. Guy’s expressions are perfect, seemingly channeled directly from some awesome southern black woman. (You will want to use the line about saving the bear – trust me). By the time Mr. Merrell is allowed to really cut loose the play is over.

I recommend this play with some reservations. Be prepared for a long evening and do some reading on the Harlem Renaissance because much is alluded to but never fleshed out about this wonderful time in America’s history. I would also recommend that you check out some reading on the Black expatriate movement to get a bead on the cultural mood and the movement toward Paris.

   
   
Rating: ★★½
   
  

Blues for an Alabama Sky runs through September 19th. Performances are Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 8:00pm and Sundays at 2:30. The play is presented at Stage 773 (formerly known as Theatre Building Chicago) at 1225 W. Belmont. For more information visit www.greenetreeproductions.com or call the box office at 773-327-5252.

Blues For An Alabama Sky set - Stage 773

   
  

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REVIEW: Peter Pan (Theatre-Hikes)

 

A fun time for all in Never Never Land

 

 Peter and Hook Fight A

   
Theatre-Hikes presents
   
Peter Pan
   
Written by J.M Barrie
Directed by
Lavina Jadhwani
at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL  (map)
through August 29th  |  tickets: $8-$19  |  more info

reviewed by Allegra Gallian

Wandering through the paths of the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL, a boy suddenly emerges from behind the trees, crowing and dancing around with his shadow. A proper young girl sits with her brothers as they listen to their mother’s stories. Pirates run through the grass in search of the boy who can fly. Produced by Theatre-Hikes, this outdoor production of Peter Pan or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up, the beloved children’s story by J.M. Barrie, takes the notion of Never Never Land to a new level.

The DarlingsPeter Pan opens on the Darling family. Mr. and Mrs. Darling are getting ready for a night out while the family dog, Nana takes care of the children, Wendy, Michael and John. After the children are fast asleep, Peter Pan enters their room to retrieve his lost shadow. Waking Wendy with his crying, she sews Peter’s shadow back on for him and in return he teaches the Darling children to fly.

The arboretum provides a stellar background for Peter Pan. After starting in the pavilion transformed into the Darling house, the audience literally travels with Peter past the second star to the right and straight on to Never Never Land. While walking from scene to scene, the audience becomes involved in the production, creating additional atmosphere and heightening the magic that’s occurring. All the arboretum’s a stage – a stage to be used at the actors’ disposal as Peter flits and flies around, the lost boys rally and Wendy puts them all to bed under the sky.

With such a huge performance space, the acting must really stand out, and for the most part it does. Peter Pan (Kaelan Strouse) is youthful, vibrant and full of energy. The moment Strouse enters, his child-like enthusiasm becomes infectious, connecting him to both his fellow actors and the audience. Although Strouse takes his acting a bit too over-the-top at times, he has a clear sense of character and knows exactly who Peter is.

Back in Never Never Land, Peter introduces Wendy to the lost boys and she becomes their honorary mother. Wendy (Allison Schaffer) is adorably naïve and Schaffer’s potrayal of a little girl trying to mother unruly little boys is quality work. She could take her characterization farther at a few points, but overall she’s strong in her conflict between missing her parents and leaving Peter. Kylie Edmonds stands out as Slightly, one of the lost boys. Her performance feels genuine and it’s clear she has put in the effort to figure out her character’s back story, allowing Edmonds to step out at a higher level than the rest of the group. The cast is rounded out by Ellenkate Finley as Tootles and Anne Sears as Curly.

Lost Boys, Smee and Hook

It’s not all fun and games in Never Never Land with pirates prowling about. Captain Hook (Andrew Pond) is Peter Pan’s rival, and has made it his mission to capture and kill the boy. Pond’s portrayal of Hook is more jovial than it is menacing. And while this is children’s theatre and Hook can’t be overly scary, there’s not enough differentiation between his character as Hook and his character as Mr. Darling. (Traditionally, the same actor is cast in both roles). Because of this, Hook isn’t as believable as other characters. Pond does, however, have a way with a sword, and the fight choreography by Dwight Sora following Hook’s capture of Wendy and the lost boys is thrilling to watch.

Hook’s first mate Smee (Zach Bloomfield) successfully offers well-timed comic relief. Playing both the parts of Smee and Nana, Bloomfield hilariously delivers his lines (even the ones he barked) and keeps the tone light and the audience entertained.

For all that’s good about this show, the costuming by Sarah Haley lacks. The choices are understandable and suit the characters, but some garments look more like homemade Halloween costumes than costumes for a professional theatre production.

Overall, the actors do well against the many opposing elements created by an outdoor space. Fighting the rain and bugs, they adapt to a full pavilion staging, they speak up and enunciate against a strong breeze and they play off the smaller children in the audience who yell things out during the performance. Because there’s no backstage, Peter Pan becomes interactive at points, allowing the kids in the audience to get a special experience by letting them speak and play with the actors during scene changes. Peter Pan is a fun show for people of any age with its lively energy that flows well, and the two to two-and-a-half hours of performance fly by as fast as Peter Pan himself. (FYI: Don’t forget your bug spray!)

 

  
   
Rating: ★★★
   
   

The Morton Arboretum is located at 4100 Lincoln Ave., Lisle IL and Theatre Hikes begins at the Thornhill Center on the west side of the arboretum. Peter Pan runs Saturday and Sunday through August 29 at 1:00 pm. Tickets are $12 (arboretum members) or $19 (non-members) adults, and $8 (members) $13 (non-members) for children. Note: Sunday shows are low-impact hikes designed for strollers and/or wheelchairs, with the hike going less than one mile.  (FYI: Don’t forget your bug spray!)

Peter and Audience

 

 

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