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: Wreckage / Brutal Imagination (Caffeine Theatre)

     
     

Caffeine’s paired plays offer high concept with uneven material

     
     

Ian Daniel McLaren and Tim Martin in Wreckage

     

Caffeine Theatre presents

             
       
Wreckage Brutal Imagination
     
Written by Caridad Svich
Directed by Joanie Schultz 
at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont (map)
thru April 17 | tickets: $20 | more info
Written by Cornelius Eady
Directed by Jason Beck
at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont (map)
thru April 17 | tickets: $20 | more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Cross-cultural playwright Caridad Svich often takes characters straight from classical theater and advances their story past death itself, into a new incarnation or a new dimension or perhaps a murky purgatory, where their past haunts their present existence yet remains the vaguest of memories. Disconnection and forgetfulness reign alongside repeated abuse; violent emotions unleashed in the past mold perceptions and choices, propelling the characters forward into an equally perilous future. Her 12 Ophelias: a play with broken songs has Ophelia emerge from watery depths to relive her relationship with Hamlet, renamed as Rude Boy. In Wreckage, produced by Caffeine Theatre under the direction of Joanie Schultz, the sons of Medea awaken on a beach, stunned and with no clear recall of their murder at the hands of their mother. Even in the afterlife, though, they can’t quite get away from dark, manipulative women or being exploited for sexual or other uses.

Cornelius Eady’s verse play Brutal Imagination also contains a mother murdering her sons. Yet, under Jason Beck’s direction, it takes on an entirely different aspect in the reflection of the Medea myth—it focuses not so much on the murder of young boys as the murder of black male identity through repeated narratives that dehumanize and, ultimately, criminalize black men.

Stephen H. Carmody’s intelligent scenic design and Thomas Dixon’s sound design accommodate both plays brilliantly. Gorgeously evocative projections (Rasean Davonte Johnson) amplify the abstract, fragmented pieces of beach onstage. The set shifts with only minor variations from one play to the other, signifying unity between the two productions that is quite sophisticated.

If only the material was matched as evenly as the production’s visual conception. With Wreckage, Svich’s poetic dialogue excessively pounds out the torrid language of bad romance. Once the First Son (Tim Martin) and the Second Son (Ian Daniel McLaren) become separated, they are thrown into twisted sexual situations. The First becomes adopted by a Woman (played with powerhouse glamour by Dana Black), who feminizes the boy and uses him as a pawn in manipulative emotional and sexual games with her Husband (Jeremy Van Meter). The Second Son becomes drawn into a life of sex traffic by the Nurse (Sean Thomas), now a pandering beachcomber.

The trouble is Svich just doesn’t know when to quit. Artistically, if not in life, brevity is the soul of wit—it’s also the soul of pain, shame, longing, rank passion and bitterness. The cast makes a valiant effort to sustain their dreamy or fervent monologues but, sooner or later, one speech about the terrible things love makes you do eventually sounds much like another. While her characters hit high points expounding on overwrought passion, jealousy, possessiveness, dominance or feverish love, they also go on well past the point of interest. There can be little an actor can do to circumvent the ennui that sets in. Once the panderer turns out the Second Son, McLaren and Thomas deliver an interesting and amusing riff/sales pitch that serves as social commentary. Van Meter pointedly encapsulates his bitter sexual dependency on the Woman he must share with the First Son. Black captures the dark, ritualistic evil of the Woman who reflects Medea. But all in all, the very excessiveness of the script besets the production.

D'wayne Taylor and Samantha Gleisten in Brutal Imagination

Brutal Imagination, on the other hand, gets right to the point. “I’m not the hero of this piece,” says Mr. Zero (D’Wayne Taylor), “I’m only a story, a thought, a solution to a problem.” Susan Smith’s (Samantha Gleisten) problem is that she has murdered her children and now tries to cover it up with a fictitious story of a black man hijacking her car and driving away with her boys in the back seat. For a short while, Mr. Zero is her cover–based on a true incident of “racial hoax” that took place in Union, South Carolina in 1994.

Brutal Imagination explores the racism behind Smith’s “necessary fiction,” examining it from all angles as it goes step by step through the whole nine days of a small Southern community thrown into the turmoil of the police searching for the children and the black man in question. Susan Smith receives support with prayer vigils and rallies, while Union’s African American community is put on notice with arrest after arrest of suspected black men.

Eady cunningly pairs Susan with her fiction, Mr. Zero, like a couple in danger of coming apart as the truth unravels. For the most part, the play is Taylor’s and he exhibits exemplary versatility with difficult exposition, not only pertaining to his character, but also a string of images of black men, from Uncle Tom to Buckwheat to Stepin Fetchit to Stagolee. Yet, Gleisten holds her ground with her frail, nervous depiction of Smith–sanctimonious in her portrayal herself as a mournfully desperate mother, pathetic once the sheriff suspects her of the crime. Susan and Mr. Zero’s final waltz before the truth separates them is a shrewd touch on the part of Beck’s direction. The racism that brought these two together colors their last swan song. Now, this is a bad romance we can all relate too, as American as apple pie and Aunt Jemima syrup.

   
Ratings:
  
  Brutal Imagination   ★★★
          
  Wreckage   ★★½
    
     

Samantha Gleisten and D'Wayne Taylor in Brutal Imagination

  
  

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REVIEW: Big River (Bohemian Theatre Ensemble)

 

BoHo takes a heartwarming trip down the Mississippi

 

 A scene from Boho Theatre Ensemble's "Big River", performing now at Theater Wit thru October 10th

 
Bohemian Theatre Ensemble presents
 
Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
 
Music/Lyrics: Roger Miller, Book: William Hauptman
Adapted from the novel by Mark Twain
Directed by
P. Marston Sullivan
Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont, Chicago (map)
Through Oct. 10 |
Tickets: $25 |  more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Widely considered the greatest American novel ever written, Mark Twain’s 1884 coming-of-age tale, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”, received a lively musical treatment 100 years after its publication in Big River. The Tony Award-winning musical, which ran 1,000 performances on Broadway, captures the charm and  A scene from Boho Theatre Ensemble's "Big River", performing now at Theater Wit thru October 10thpoignancy of the original, as we follow Huck and the escaped slave Jim down the "Muddy Water" of the Mississippi River, "Waitin’ for the Light to Shine" — as the songs put it. Although no stage production could possibly encompass all the nuances of Twain’s masterpiece, this well-cut adaptation by William Hauptman delivers the essence, paired with a fitting, catchy score by country-music star Roger Miller that blends foot-stompin’ bluegrass, powerful spirituals, vaudevillian comedy numbers and such memorable ballads as "River in the Rain."

Bohemian Theatre Ensemble mounts a warm, intimate and beautifully sung revival in their handsome new home at Lakeview’s Theater Wit, full of bouyant humor and touching moments.

Andrew Mueller gives us a gamin-faced, thoughtful Huck with a fine tenor. As Jim, the richly voiced Brian-Alwyn Newland provides the backbone of the music, smooth and soulful, combined with a dignified stage presence that reveals the mature and feeling man behind the tattered clothes and uneducated language of the slave.

Sean Thomas makes a wicked Pap Finn, hilarious in his drunken denouncement of "Guv’ment," and a diabolical king and "Royal Nonesuch," aided by the elegant John B. Leen as the sly and histrionic duke. Courtney Crouse is boyishly mischievous as Tom Sawyer, always ready for adventure and adorable as he calls for a "Hand for the Hog."

Rashada Dawan brings a soaring voice to gospel numbers such as "How Blest We Are," and Mike Tepeli adds a comic turn as the young fool, with a zany, washboard-accompanied rendition of "Arkansas."

A scene from Boho Theatre Ensemble's "Big River", performing now at Theater Wit thru October 10th A scene from Boho Theatre Ensemble's "Big River", performing now at Theater Wit thru October 10th
A scene from Boho Theatre Ensemble's "Big River", performing now at Theater Wit thru October 10th A scene from Boho Theatre Ensemble's "Big River", performing now at Theater Wit thru October 10th

Much of the cast supplements the orchestra at different points, picking up guitars,box, or a tambourine to effectively back Musical Director Nicholas Davio playing a variety of instruments, Hilary Holbrook on fiddle and Cam McIntyre on bass. Davio and Holbrook also act small parts. Christa Buck, Anna Hammonds and James Williams fill out the ensemble.

Director P. Marston Sullivan’s deceptively simple staging and Anders Jacobson and Judy Radovsky’s stylized set put the talented cast and Twain’s potent story foremost. You don’t need to have read "Huckleberry Finn" to enjoy this musical, although everybody ought to read it … again and again.

   
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

A scene from Boho Theatre Ensemble's "Big River", performing now at Theater Wit thru October 10th

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REVIEW: Ghosts (Boho Theatre)

    

The Burdens of Shame and Seasonal Affective Disorder

 

Saren Nofs-Snyer and Cast

  
Bohemian Theatre Ensemble presents
  
Ghosts
  
by Henrik Ibsen
Translated by
Lanford Wilson
Directed by
Peter Marston Sullivan
through July 18th  | 
tickets: $17-$20 |  more info

reviewed by Paige Listerud

Perhaps most of Henrik Ibsen’s work can be summed up thus: a study of driven, lusty and regretful Norwegian birds, trapped in their gilded (sometimes not so gilded) bourgeois cage. Hence, the removal of the fourth wall, which isn’t really removed, just made transparent–theatrically turned to glass in order to examine these lovely, Saren Nofs-Snyder and Steve O'Connell haunted Norwegians under glass, as if they were the subjects of scientific inquiry. Make no mistake, the fourth wall is just as imprisoning as the other three and perhaps it is crueler, since it allows for the audience’s voyeuristic attentions.

Well, since there is no escape for the birds, you might as well watch. Plus, what could be more diverting than a family’s shameful secrets? Perhaps the biggest challenge for Bohemian Theatre’s production of Ghosts is to make the burdens of shame, judgment and disgrace experienced by these characters as immediate and tangible to the audience as it is for them.

Peter Marston Sullivan’s direction is meticulous and forthright; it gives Ghosts’ excellent cast the right structure to work their naturalist chops to the max; and the new translation that they work with by Lanford Wilson is fresh and clear. Yet the overall production, while artful and technically accurate, still feels far too removed and lacking in immediacy. Make no mistake—this is a jewel of a production, a pretty jewel with interesting, exact and glimmer facets. But it also misses that special something that compels a viewer toward empathy; it feels far too removed in its period setting to involve the audience in its web of secrets and lies, judgments and shame.

If there is one thing that Boho’s particular experiment/production proves, it’s that what scandalized the general public a little more than a century ago no longer comes close to shocking us. Bohemian prodigal son Oswald Alving (Charles Riffenburg) spars with Reverend Manders (Steve O’Connell) over the naturalness and appropriateness of family life among his unmarried Parisian artistic friends. But, in spite of its power to scandalize in 19th-century terms, heterosexual cohabitation without “the benefit of clergy” no longer raises an eyebrow in these sexually amorphous times. Love the 60’s Sexual Revolution or hate it, the bohemian life isn’t bohemian anymore; it’s mainstream.

Even a boyfriend or husband enjoying pornography doesn’t hold the charge that it once did. Now, a boss cheating on his wife with his assistant, under the same roof as the wife; then marrying her pregnant ass off to someone else—that definitely still holds potent sleazy power. All the same, bosses and their mistresses are such a common alternative to heterosexual monogamy they practically deserve their own healthcare plan.

 

Sean Thomas and Florence Ann Romano Charles Riffenburg, Saren Nofs-Snyder, Steve O'Connell
Florence Ann Romano and Sean Thomas Charles Riffenburg and Saren Nofs-Snyder 2

Finally, Ibsen’s hint of incest in this play could tantalize our modern audience, but even that scandalous element becomes diffused when our tragic heroine, Mrs. Helen Alving (Saren Nofs-Snyder) considers the potential of marriage between her son Oswald to her maid, his secret half-sister, Regina (Florence Ann Romano). For her, it would be no worse than any everyday match between first cousins in rural Norway.

So much for sexual shock and awe.  So the question needs to be asked: what remains now to draw audiences to this work again? When all else fails, try the relationships. There is a time to produce an elegant tribute to an old master and then there’s a time to present the play for what it is—melodrama. Sophisticated, psychologically adept and intellectually stimulating melodrama, but melodrama nevertheless—we have come to observe these birds in order to learn the heart’s filthy lesson.

Sadly, the central relationship in this play between Mrs. Alving and Reverend Manders just doesn’t have the chemistry to propel this play’s excessive exposition forward. O’Connell knows how to strike Manders’ stiff, controlling and judgmental pose but one finds, through the bulk of the play, not enough contrasting nuance within his performance as to self-doubt within the good reverend over the validity of his own views.

Mrs. Alving has grown in her intellectual thinking since the first day she ran, a shocked and impressionable newlywed, from her perverse husband’s side to Reverend Manders for succor and advice. But Manders’ parochial views on sexuality, family and duty seem to have frozen him in time. Any possible romance between them becomes thwarted by a horrible lack of timing. Yet in some ways this play is about a little revolution in the reverend’s perspective—brought on by Mrs. Alving’s disabuse of his man-crush on her husband. It’s a change in Manders that is too little, too late for Mrs. Charles Riffenburg and Saren Nofs-Snyder Alving to reap anything like the hope of love in her life. I am afraid that O’Connell’s final reveal of Manders’ feelings for Mrs. Alving, in the second half of this one-act, is also too little, too late. Underneath the stiff control that the Reverend demonstrates and advocates, the audience still must see some turmoil of the uncertain man.

Likewise, Riffenburg’s performance of Oswald seems to lack the anxiety of yearning, love-deprived, and blighted youth. Even in Ibsen’s time, the stereotype of the bohemian artist dying from an unnamable, congenital disease was, unfortunately, a cliché, and now it is even more so. Riffenburg has the burden of making this cliché breathe with anxious life, but unfortunately his performance just doesn’t reach the mark. Here is a role rich in longing—longing for life, for freedom, for truth, beauty and, most of all, the sun. “The bad boy is back,” Oswald announces to Reverend Manders as he makes his first entrance. But Oswald is also the SAD boy and by that I mean Seasonal Affective Disorder. Ibsen is so psychologically correct in assigning this condition at a powerful metaphorical place in this drama—unnamed in his own time, much like Oswald’s congenital illness. Despite his youth, Ozzie is resolutely certain about his own views on life in his verbal joust with Reverend Manders. But his uncertainty lies in whether he was ever loved, either by his perverse father or his duty-bound mother, and that should visibly inform his drive for life at its premature end.

That leaves Nofs-Snyder to carry this shows dilemmas of shame, guilt and judgment—especially everyone’s judgment on her choices and behavior under exacting marital conditions. We are fortunate to have a grand actress in this role. Her portrayal of Mrs. Alving virtually writhes with adamant conviction, disgraced and humiliated position, loss of real love or understanding, and total loss of control over the essential affairs and relationships in her life. Dressed in a striking brocaded red gown (Sarah Putnam, costume design), Mrs. Alving comes across as the queen bee of this production—and a brilliant, poor, haunted queen bee she is.

As for the supporting roles, Sean Thomas as Jakkob Engstrand and Florence Ann Romano as Regina Engstrand make a great sleazy father and gold-digging daughter duo. Thomas’ Engstrand is a delightfully cunning Norwegian step-n-fetchit. Who knew that such hackneyed roles were also written for white people?

The production values for this black box theater offer highly imaginative, cunningly wrought and absolutely laudable effects. Anders Jacobson’s scenic design, Katy Peterson’s lighting, and Lewis Miller’s sound design produce an absolute feast for eye and ear. They, like the set, are a house on fire.

Boho Theatre’s production is so lovely to look at, so correct in execution—but still, how badly it needs a filthy, filthy heart.

   
   
Rating: ★★½
 
 

Steve O'Connell and Saren Nofs-Snyder

all photos courtesy of Brandon Dahlquist

 

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