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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REVIEW: Grey Gardens (Jedlicka Performing Arts)

     
     

Technical problems, tame performances mar Jedlicka production

     
     

Mary Nigohosian and Mary Hobein

  
Jedlicka Performing Arts Center presents
       
Grey Gardens
   
Book by Doug Wright
Music by
Scott Frankel, Lyrics by Michael Korie
Directed by
Michael A. Kott
at
Jedlicka Performing Arts Center, Cicero (map)
through Jan 29  |  tickets: $17  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

When documentary filmmakers Albert and David Maysles ventured into Grey Gardens, they could never have expected the kind of cultural effect two reclusive relatives of a former first lady could have on America. “Grey Gardens” became a cult classic, spawning a Broadway musical, an HBO original film (starring Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange), and thousands of revolutionary Halloween costumes (including some for babies). The home of “Big Edie” and “Little Edie” Bouvier Beale, aunt and cousin of Jackie Kennedy Onassis, Grey Gardens was once a regal Hampton estate but deteriorated after years of neglect from its two inhabitants. Frankel, Korie, and Wright’s musical Grey Gardens examines the majestic past and tragic fate of the Beales and their dilapidated cage of memories, setting the first act in 1941, the second in 1973, and having one actress play a different Edie in each. Mary Nigohosian fills the dual role in Jedlicka’s production, and is undeniably the best part of a show plagued with technical problems and otherwise uninspiring performances.

Mary NigohosianThe beauty of Grey Gardens is the emotional intensity of the music in relation to these eccentric yet incredibly real characters. The tragedy lies in the truth behind the Edies’ circumstances, and Jedlicka’s production simply lacks honesty. In the first act, much of the music is light and whimsical fare in the vein of Porter or Berlin, so the actors have to use the dialogue to make the gravity of their situation as real as possible. Unfortunately, many of these early scenes are underscored, and due to space constrictions in the theater the pit is in a different room. The actors have to rush through most of their dialogue to keep up with the orchestra, which plays beautifully, but needs to give the actors a little more room to breathe. A lot exposition is lost in these scenes because the actors have trouble keeping up with and staying louder than the orchestra, and as a result it’s hard to get a feel for who these people are beneath the broadly drawn caricatures.

Nigohosian shines in the first act, where she is able to play the more traditional diva role as Edith Sr. in 1931, a glamorous attention whore of a housewife. With her pianist and gay best friend George Gould Strong (Austin Cook), Edith plans her set list for Little Edie’s (Jill Sesso) engagement party. Meanwhile, Edie is concerned with only one thing: getting out of Grey Gardens once she marries Joseph Patrick Kennedy, Jr. (Charles Lane Cowen). As they wait for Mr. Beale to arrive back from the city, Edith’s father Major Bouvier (Gary Saipe) harps on his daughter for her bohemian behavior, which Frankel and Korie capture in hilariously offensive musical numbers. Bits like Edith’s “itty bitty geisha” and full-on songs like “Hominy Grits” are written to be exaggerated, yet Nigohosion is too restrained during these scenes. It feels like the entire ensemble is holding back; the director hasn’t brought the actors to a point where they’ve found the truth of their characters.

When Edith performs her horrific Mamie routine, her black butler Brooks (Steven Perkins) barely reacts. When Gould tells Edie he is leaving he doesn’t look sad or heartbroken, he just looks bored. Moments like these help flesh out character relationships, and are glossed over too much in this production. It doesn’t help that most of the time the actors are facing out to the audience despite speaking to each other, which is fine during singing, but not so much during dialogue. Eye contact helps. Another problem is maintaining dialects, and as difficult as it is to sing in dialect, it’s essential to keeping the illusion of the characters real in this play. This ensemble struggles with the difficult New England accents, which is major problem in act two, when the characters become defined by their shrill, nasal voices.

In the second act, so much of Little Edie’s character comes through her hyper-nasal voice, and the act two musical numbers require an amazing amount of technique to maintain her vocals. In the opening of act two, “The Revolutionary Costume for Today,” Nogohosian has so much extra business with her costume that she isn’t able to focus on the incredibly difficult music, and despite a strong start the number fizzles at the end. Act two crawls toward its climax, and Edie’s concluding solos are affected by the difficulties with the pit. Tempo changes are jarring, and as Nogohosian tries to match the speed of the orchestra she devotes less to the actual emotion of the music. There are moments of “Another Winter In A Summer Town” (one of my favorite ballads of the last decade) when Nogohosian clicks with the orchestra and there is a glimpse of the Edie-that-could-be, but they shouldn’t be coming this late in the show.

In the end of the documentary (and thus the play) the Grey Gardens estate was a complete wreck, its two residents living in piles of trash, cats, and corn. Jedlicka’s production of Grey Gardens is messy in all the wrong ways, with the actors giving bland performances that don’t capture the desperation of these spectacular women. The transformation of Grey Gardens from act one to act two is the perfect physical representation of what is wrong with this show. Selective piles of rubbage are placed on Edith’s bed and the refrigerator, yet the rest of the space remains completely clean. If we are supposed to believe these women live in a garbage dump flea bag of a home, it has to look that way. Everything needs to be taken to the next level – the acting, the set, the technical design – if the tragedy of the Beales is to be believed.

  
  

Rating: ★½

     
     

Grey Gardens continues at Jedlicka Performing Arts Center, Cicero (map) through January 29.  Tickets are $17.  More info.

Grey Gardens brochure picture

Artists

GREY GARDENS stars Mary Nigohosian of Batavia, Mary Hobein of Woodridge, Tessa Newman of Naperville, Gary Saipe of Libertyville, Katelyn Smith of Broadview and Austin Cook, Charles Lane Cowen, Jill Sesso and Steven Perkins of Chicago.

GREY GARDENS is directed by Micheal A. Kott with music direction by Adam Gustafson, Choreography by Sarah Bright, Scenic Design by Michael Nedza, Costume Design by Jennifer Ring and Lighting Design by Dante Orfei. Music direction is by Adam Gustafson who will lead an 8-piece live orchestra.