REVIEW: Rent (NightBlue)

A “Rent” for the new century

rent

 NightBlue Performing Arts Theatre presents:

Rent

 

Book, music and lyrics by Jonathan Larson
co-directed by
Brian LaDuca and David E. Walters
at
Theatre Building Chicago through March 28th (more info)

reviewed by Aggie Hewitt

Rent – the 1996 rock opera about eight friends struggling to get by in New York’s Lower East Side neighborhood – find’s it’s power in its incredible music. It is the rock solid songs, packed with raw emotion and romantic tragedy that have kept Rent a musical favorite for the last fourteen years. Its success has sparked fascination with its edgy subject matter and the tragic story of its creator, who did not live to see the massive success of his magnum opus. Jonathan Larson, Rent’s author, died of an aortic aneurism the night before its first preview, giving haunting poignancy to the show, whose central message is to revel in the joy of life in the present, because no one knows what the future holds. For many of Rent’s characters, the future looks challenging: AIDS, homelessness, poverty and gender issues are all major themes in this groundbreaking musical.

The question for Rent now is, is it timeless? Will this musical endure as we trudge farther and farther away from the 1990’s? The answer remains to be seen: Rent is less than twenty years old, and it’s hot button issues of HIV/AIDS, homelessness and sexual liberty are as provocative in 2010 as they were when the musical opened. But with it’s decade specific soundtrack and aesthetic, it needs open minded theater-makers to keep it from becoming “Rent: The Totally 90’s Musical!”  It needs companies like NightBlue, whose production of the show is respectful without being tied to the famous original production.

NightBlue’s Rent  is “Rent for 2010”. From it’s paired down set consisting only of a wooden loft and a pay phone, to it’s young, amazingly natural performers, this production looks back from the other side of the millennium, without forgetting how we live now.

rent-poster It’s not common to see performances one would classify as “natural” in musical theater, but the young actors in Rent have taken NightBlue’s mission of “performing naked” to heart (not literally). Especially during Roger’s (played here by perfectly cast Chris Froseth) Act One aria in which he dreams of finding “Glory”, by writing one great song before dying of AIDS. In this version, Roger sits alone and accompanies himself on acoustic guitar, and the effect is powerful and sentimental, void of the uber-90’s power-ballad vibe that plagues the original cast recording. Jonathan Hymen has a laid back, best friend quality that makes him a great pick for Mark, the eyes through which the audience meets the cast of characters. Hymen is especially good during the first act, when Mark’s fun, youthful demeanor is nicely showcased with songs “Rent” and “Tango: Maureen,” a duet with smart actress Whitney White, who’s Joanne is driven and sassy without being overbearing. Playing her love interest, Maureen is the lovely Diane Mair, whose classy version of “Over The Moon” gives depth to a silly song. Act one closer “La Vie Boheme,” misses the mark here, unfortunately. Awkward, cluttered choreography diminishes the impact of this boisterous ode to the life of the artist.

Act Two never entirely recovers from the “La Vie Boheme” energy suck. The actors have worn themselves out by the time it begins, and the production loses energy. There are a few exceptions: the fight song between feuding lovers Maureen and Joanne “Take Me Or Leave Me” manages to be catchy yet full of tension, and Collins’ (played by the almost perfect Brian-Alwyn Newland) touching reprise of “I’ll Cover You.”

Rent has a special meaning in 2010. Healthcare worries, matched with the economic downfall make this musical about extreme poverty and AIDS intriguing. Sadly, Johnathan Larson isn’t here to create new works based upon the current crises; we have to rely on responsible theaters like NightBlue to protect the work he did create. Luckily, co-directors Brian LaDuca and David E. Walters have the sense and talent to protect Rent by making it their own, and thus, making it relevant.

 

Rating: ★★★

Review: Chicago Children’s Theatre’s “The Hundred Dresses”

Hilarious and touching – plus pretty dresses!

 Hundred-Dresses

 

Chicago Children’s Theatre presents:

The Hundred Dresses

by G. Riley Mills and Ralph Covert
directed by Sean Graney
extended through November 22nd (buy tickets)

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

Hundred-Dresses-3 The Hundred Dresses is a pretty show: pretty music, pretty voices, pretty staging, and of course, pretty dresses. The 100 Dresses is also a children’s show. If you don’t get designated nap time or a half hour after lunch to play kickball, then you are probably not the target audience for Chicago Children’s Theatre. Luckily, however, The 100 Dresses is a great show; a musical that speaks to the hearts of anyone that has ever needed a friend.

Wanda Petronski (Lauren Patten) has just immigrated from Poland with her father, and she isn’t the same as the other girls. She speaks with a funny accent, wears the same blue dress to school everyday, and queen bee Peggy (Natalie Berg) just plain doesn’t like her. Caught in the middle is Peggy’s best friend Maddie (Leslie Ann Sheppard), who thinks Wanda is actually kind of nice. The girls start teasing Wanda, and when Wanda tells them that she actually has 100 dresses in her closet at home, the conflict escalates. When the bullying becomes too much, Jan (Kurt Ehrmann), Wanda’s father, pulls her out of the school and everyone involved learns a good lesson about the pain that bullying and teasing causes.

Hundred-Dresses-2 G. Riley Mills and Ralph Covert‘s script is straightforward but filled with hilarious jokes and inspirational moments, perfect for the children in the house. Meanwhile, the cast and director Sean Graney have found the serious reality behind the bright dresses and colorful schoolhouse, giving the musical a weight that makes it more than fluff theater that kills an hour of the babysitter’s time. When Peggy talks about how easy it is to get a job or spend hundreds on a dress, the people in the audience that are laughing are the teachers and the parents, not the kids. Adult characters like Jan Petrovski and Miss Mason (Nadirah Bost) are used to ground the world in a mature reality that is probably more hundred-dresses-4 engaging to an older audience. When Miss Mason learns about Wanda’s dead mother, Bost reacts with sympathy and tenderness that travels throughout the theater, warming the viewers to the Patrovski’s plight from the very beginning of the play.

The playwright duo brings the same mix of comedy and warmth to their music and lyrics, and the songs are catchy while still carrying great emotional gravity. “The Hundred Dresses,”  Wanda’s heartbreaking solo where she reminisces about her life in Poland and how girls would dance in the dresses their mothers made, is exquisitely handled by Patten, finding the perfect balance between the joys and pains of youth that captures the tragedy of Wanda’s loss. While the script keeps a fairly light feel throughout, the music has a maturity and fullness that is captivating. When Wanda is absent for many days in a row, Maddie sings “Wanda Petrovski is Missing,” a rollercoaster of a ballad that requires a great belt, amazing diction, and razor sharp acting skills. Luckily, Sheppard is more than up for the task, and Maddie is a lovable protagonist that is easy to relate to.

 

All the actors that make up Wanda’s class of six have great chemistry with one another, and group numbers like “Penny Paddywack” are electric. The company’s voices all blend beautifully, and the melancholy “Passing of Autumn” is a wonderful showcase of their talents. Geoff Rice is adorable as class underdog Jack, whether he is stressing about winning the art contest or helping Maddie makes the right decisions, and Elana Ernst and Tyler Ravelson provide great comic relief two of Wanda’s goofy classmates; Ernst as hilariously airheaded diva Cecile and Ravelson as costumed class clown Willie. 

And the dresses? Costume designer Jacqueline Firkins‘ creations are gorgeous.

Rating: ««««

 

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Review: Provision Theatre’s “Cotton Patch Gospel”

“Cotton Patch Gospel” shines a golden ray of humanity

 

Provision Theater presents:

Cotton Patch Gospel
by Chapin, Key and Treyz
directed by Lou Contey
through November 8th (buy tickets)

reviewed by Paige Listerud

cottonpatch I hadn’t seen Provision Theater Company’s 2004 Jeff-nominated production of Cotton Patch Gospel, so I couldn’t possibly compare it to their current remounting to inaugurate their new, larger theater space. “Nothing brings out Baptists like a new building,” quips Timothy Gregory, in his role as lead storyteller. That applies as much to the new beginnings for Provision as it does for the characters in the show.

Cotton Patch Gospel emerges from American Bible-Belt culture. With music composed by Harry Chapin, performer of the Grammy-nominated “Cat’s In the Cradle,” and book adapted from Clarence Jordan by Tom Key and Russell Treyz, Cotton Patch Gospel shifts the Gospels of Matthew and John to mid-twentieth century Georgia. Replete with in-jokes for the Southern church-going crowd, it would be narrow in its range of appeal but for the music and lyrics, which evoke the greatest power to unite audiences.

In which case, thank God for a tight band, a swinging chorus, and the light grace and energy with which Gregory reprises his original role. They are the loving spoonful that broadens this show’s message beyond churchy limitations. While the story and lyrics contemporize the sociopolitical religious struggles of the Gospels, the audience becomes awakened to the power plays, hypocrisies, and betrayals that plague humanity’s struggle for justice, community, and the search for spiritual authenticity.

This show owes no small amount of its success to Gregory’s ability to morph from, not only Jesus into his apostles, but also into the darker roles of Herod, (Governor) Pontius Pilate, and a mercenary mega-church preacher. It’s in these momentary roles that Gregory’s aspect takes on shades of George W. Bush and the evangelicals that grace our television screens. He and the his musical team make the most of lyrics that knowingly describe the rationales for the abuse of power and a populace’s collusion with that power.

The production reaches its pinnacle, though, when it successfully depicts Jesus’ own reluctance and anguish at going through the betrayal and death that is coming for him. Likewise, the band and chorus reach a simple yet profound high point in their expression of loss and confusion over Jesus’ death. The resurrection is the joyful relief to this sorrow, but it is precisely these deepest moments of grief that unite the audience in its common humanity.

Provision Theater’s 2004 production was often compared and contrasted with Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. Cotton Patch Gospel was praised for its kinder, gentler telling of the Jesus story. But I think that simplistic comparison misses the mark. In Gibson’s work we are shocked into fixating on the suffering of Jesus in its gross and uncommon brutality; with Cotton Patch Gospel, we become more aware of all our suffering through Jesus. It is this element that gives this religiously based work more redemptive power and ensures it a more enduring place.

Rating: «««½

 

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