Review: Porgy and Bess (Court Theatre Chicago)

     
     

We loves you, Porgy and Bess!

     
     

Harriet Nzinga Plumpp

    
Court Theatre presents
   
   
Porgy and Bess
   
Written by George Gerwin, Ira Gershwin,
and Dorothy and
DuBose Heyward
Directed by Charles Newell
Music direction, new orchestrations by Doug Peck
at
Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis (map)
through July 3  |  tickets: $10-$55  |  more info 

Reviewed by Barry Eitel 

On first glance, Porgy and Bess looks like the tale of a perpetual sucker. The crippled beggar Porgy, living in an impoverished South Carolina hamlet, falls for Bess, the most shunned woman in town, a coquette who runs with a jealous meathead. Due to Porgy being the only person who’ll let her stay at his house, the mismatched pair gets together, yet the woman retains a wandering eye. But Porgy puts up with all, even when she runs to New York when he’s out of town. Instead of throwing up his hands, he takes up his crutch and starts the journey north.

Alexis J. Rogers and Todd M. KrygerHowever, as Charles Newell’s excellent production at Court makes clear, there’s something astoundingly human about this tale. George Gershwin’s magnum opus showcases love and forgiveness in its treatment of Porgy and Bess’ relationship. Titular characters aside, the opera also delves into how a community copes with hardship. Even when those hardships are as insidious and gigantic as racism, poverty, and natural disaster.

Out of the millions of debates spurred by this show, easily one of the stupidest is if it should be classified as an opera or musical. Newell and music director Doug Peck took the best of both genres. I’d say the show is about 90% singing, keeping many of Gershwin’s recitatives. But they aren’t afraid to throw in a few spoken lines when a character needs to drop a truth bomb without the flourish of music. Newell also chopped down the supporting townsfolk of Catfish Row, so the stage isn’t flooded with actors with one line roles. It also makes the whole strong ensemble memorable.

Newell’s envisioning of this controversial tale adds a vibrancy and immediacy to the octogenarian opera. John Culbert’s off-white set invokes a weathered Carolina beach house, which goes well with Jacqueline Firkins’ breezy white costumes. Stark as it may seem, the design has its fare share of breathtaking surprises. Peck also tweaks the arrangements to great effect, adding some great traditional Gullah drum breaks as well as haunting stripped down acapella numbers.

While initially shunned, Porgy and Bess has seen lots of love from opera houses around the world (including a production at the Lyric in 2008). These productions promise grandiose sets and superstar vocals, with the plot lagging behind as an afterthought. That’s not the case here, where the plot (based on DuBose Heyward’s 1926 novel) is the main selling point. With Newell’s minimalist take, nearly all of the storytelling responsibility falls to the cast. They deliver with aplomb, searching the story’s intricacies and themes alongside us in the audience. I already had chills when Harriet Nzinga Plumpp warbled the first few notes of “Summertime.”

 

Rogers and Jones - V Kryger - V Plumpp and Newland - V

Todd M. Kryger’s hulking performance as Porgy is just the right blend of majesty and vulnerability, and Alexis J. Rogers correctly portrays a Bess torn by love and lust. But the real jewel here is the supporting cast. Bethany Thomas as the pious Serena steals the show with her wickedly expressive singing style. She shreds right through the heart of “My Man’s Gone Now.” Sean Blake’s slick Sporting Life, the neighborhood dope dealer, is a similar delight. His rendition of “It Ain’t Necessarily So” drips with fun—it’s clear he’s having a great time up there.

Court boasts that this production is scrubbed clean of the racist smudges that have dogged Porgy and Bess from its opening night in 1935. I don’t know if I completely agree with that—much of the music still leans towards Europe instead of Africa. But Porgy and Bess is an American treasure, a spunky musical journey that combines stodgy Old World opera with the uniquely American creations of jazz, gospel, and blues. Newell’s production is a treasure in itself, grabbing this overly-familiar piece (“Summertime” is one of the most covered pop song in the world) and thrusting it into relevance.

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
  
  
Bethany Thomas and Brian Alwyn-Newland Joelle Lamarre, Bethany Thomas, Wydetta Carter, Todd Kryger, Alexis Rogers
   
   

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REVIEW: The Comedy of Errors (Court Theatre)

Graney’s adaptation brings the laughs, but lacks substance

 

Wilson, Ehrmann, Goodrich, Hellman - h

       
Court Theatre presents
   
The Comedy of Errors
   
Written by William Shakespeare
Adapted and Directed by
Sean Graney
at
Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis (map)
through October 17  |  tickets: $30-$60  | more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

Sean Graney’s The Mystery of Irma Vep (our review ★★★★) was one of the highlights of last season, with the seamless execution of the quick-change heavy script garnering huge laughs and multiple Jeff nominations for Court Theatre. With their new adaptation of The Comedy of Errors, it’s apparent that Court is trying to see if lightning can strike twice, with six actors playing 20 characters in another quick change extravaganza, but the script lacks the sophistication that made Irma Vep so memorable. In Graney’s hands, Shakespeare’s story of two sets of separated twins is taken to new levels of Goodrich, Hellman - vabsurdity, building humor around the characters’ awareness of the plot’s implausibility. The jokes are very funny, but too much of the play’s substance is lost as the story essentially becomes a 90-minute running gag.

In the dilapidated town of Ephesus, Antipholus (Erik Hellman) and Dromio (Alex Goodrich) of Syracuse search for their missing twin brothers, separated from them in a shipwreck during infancy. Because of a feud between the two cities, they conceal their true identities, inciting mass confusion as they are mistaken for their counterparts. Hellman and Goodrich are the focal points of the production, playing both sets of twins, leading to some impressively rapid costume changes (see video example here) and backstage movement.

As the characters most bewitched by the events surrounding them, Antipholus and Dromio are also the most self-aware, often breaking the fourth wall to comment on the ridiculous nature of the plot they are in. When Antipholus calls out Dromio for interrupting him mid-soliloquy, this works. But when Goodrich constantly checks in with the audience to check if a joke landed, it gets old. These scenes are also when Graney returns to some of his Irma Vep tricks, with varying degrees of success. An audience participation segment as Dromio describes his beastly wife Luce (Elizabeth Ledo) works incredibly well to create a relationship with the viewer, but a song sung by Dromio later in the show seems out of place and odd for odds sake (Irma Vep used dulcimers, here it’s a ukulele).

 

Ledo - v Goodrich, Stoltz - v

As more time becomes devoted to meta-comedy and increasing the slapstick, less time is spent on the actual story and the characters’ relationships. The actors turn to exaggeration to differentiate their multiple roles, and in doing so the illusion becomes more important than the action. Steve Wilson is the major exception to this as Officer Jailor and Balthazar, with the Jailor’s unreturned love for Luciana (Ledo) garnering a vocal lament from the audience in the play’s closest thing to a “dramatic” moment. On the flip side, Wilson has amazing talent for slapstick, and the fate of Balthazar is of the funniest moments of the show.

As the play becomes more and more absurd, it becomes obvious that the story is just a launching pad for an endless barrage of meta-theatrical gags. By the end it feels like there are no stakes at all, and while it is fun to be along for the ride, there’s still a huge emotional connection missing. Granted, when the ride is Kurt Ehrmann in drag recounting his days at the mall getting his ears pierced, it’s worth it.

   
   
Rating: ★★½
   
   

 

 

 

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Review: SUGAR (Drury Lane Oakbrook)

This ‘sugar’ lacks spice

 SUGAR-Ladies

   
Drury Lane Oakbrook presents
  
Sugar
   
Book by Peter Stone
Music:
Jule Styne, Lyrics: Bob Merrill
Based on movie “
Some Like It Hot
Directed by
Jim Corti
at 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook (map)
through August 1st  | 
tickets: $26-$40  |  more info

Reviewed by Katy Walsh

It’s a play about the filming of a play about a movie. Drury Lane Oakbrook presents SUGAR, a musical version of the film ‘Some Like It Hot.’ In Studio 24, they are filming a speakeasy prohibition era romp. The show starts with Sweet Sue Syncopation SUGAR (vertical)-Rod Thomas & Jennifer KnoxOrchestra in dire need of a new sax and cello player. The all-girl band is heading from Chicago to Miami. Over on Clark Street, two musicians witness a brutal killing by a  mob. To hide from the bad guys, they join Sweet Sue’s band to get out of town. They’ve got the right and wrong instruments. The ‘new girls’ are really dudes. Sugar is the singer. She has a history of falling for deadbeat sax players and wants a future with a non-musician millionaire. A sax player, Josie, is really Joe who is now also pretending to be millionaire. Daphne, aka Jerry, is also interested in Sugar but has millionaire issues of his… her own. SUGAR is a love triangle farce with extra sides of sweet amusement.

In a play about the filming of a play about a movie, there are true glimpses of Billy Wilder’s classic masterpiece. Marilyn Monroe and Jack Lemmon haunt the stage. Jennifer Knox (Sugar) is the sexy blonde bombshell. Knox dances and sings with a sensual allure that would make Marilyn proud. Alan Schmuckler (Jerry/Daphne) is Jack Lemon incarnate. His facial expressions and manner provide pure Lemon comedy that blends perfectly with SUGAR. And he can sing too. Jack would be jealous! One of the best duets is ‘The Beauty that Drives Men Mad’ sung by Schmuckler and his buddy… gal pal, Rod Thomas (Joe/Josie/Junior). Not looking quite as pretty in a wig, Thomas’ height adds its own humor in his masculine drag performance. Tammy Mader (Sweet Sue) is the SUGAR--Jennifer Knox vibrant Charleston dancing conductor. Although her moxie presence gets limited stage time, it leaves a cue-the-band appeal. Joe D. Lauck (Osgood) is charming as a millionaire in love. The entire SUGAR cast, as musicians, gangsters, millionaires, add an extra layer of flavor with melt in your mouth goodness.

Director Jim Corti has remounted the musical SUGAR as a movie being filmed. The curtain is a makeshift studio warehouse door. A film crew is stagehands moving light fixtures. At the end of Act I, two characters meet up on break. As an ingredient, it doesn’t really add or take anything away. It’s like Splenda. I get the concept but I prefer the real thing. SUGAR tastes good. Sure, it’s not one of the major food groups and you couldn’t exist on a diet of just sugar. If life is like a box of chocolates, then SUGAR is a Whitman Sampler. You know what you’re biting into but that does not spoil the pleasure.

  
   
Rating: ★★½
 
 

SUGAR--men in hats

Running Time: Two hours includes a fifteen minute intermission

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