The Chicago premiere of Clare Barron’s DANCE NATION, now at Steppenwolf with direction and choreography from Lee Sunday Evans (who also helmed the original production at Playwrights Horizons), is alternately wild, messy, and confusing—much like the experience of early adolescence for the play’s characters. Some moments of Barron’s script beautifully capture the growing pains of what it’s like to be 12 or 13 years and learning how to navigate the terrain of changing bodies and the shifting dynamics of pre-teen friendships. Stylistically, DANCE NATION is all over the place. The play’s opening scene features the cast tap dancing in sailor suits, transporting audiences to the fierce world of competitive pre-teen dance. It’s heightened and satirical, seemingly a mockery of shows like DANCE MOMS.
Scenario Two’s production of THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA, one of the few contemporary musicals written in a style that harkens back to the Golden Age, is beautifully sung with the composer’s complicated and melodious score performed by a superb orchestra. The production has arrived at Lyric Opera for a special holiday engagement. The musical focuses on Margaret Johnson and her daughter Clara, who take a vacation to Florence, Italy in the summer of 1953-and find their lives forever changed after Clara has a chance encounter with Fabrizio Nacarelli, a young Italian man. It should come as little surprise that Renèe Fleming has a radiant turn as Margaret. Vocally, Fleming’s take on the role is pristine, but she also plays out the tension between Margaret’s fiercely protective instincts when it comes to her child and her yearning to empower Clara to lead her own life as a young adult. While I wish to avoid spoilers, it’s key to share that the musical has a twist that includes a revelation about Clara that shines light on precisely why Margaret feels so compelled to keep watch over her daughter.
The ceaselessly cynical Crumpet the Elf has returned to Goodman Theatre for the second year in a row. This year Steven Strafford takes the lead in David Sedaris’s THE SANTALAND DIARIES under the direction of Steve Scott. While Strafford’s take on David/Crumpet remains as foul-mouthed and blunt as ever, the actor’s take on the role has some real vulnerability. Strafford gives us the sense that Crumpet wears his cynicism like armor, using it as a defense mechanism to combat his loneliness and discontentment with his current career status (Crumpet’s declaration that being an elf seems like a “terrifying” job opportunity rings especially true here). Although Strafford’s Crumpet has a deft emotional center, he still never compromises on the humor—but his delivery is smartly such that audiences may land on different moments as the funniest in Sedaris’s text (adapted by Joe Mantello for the stage).
Although Goodman Theatre is now producing A CHRISTMAS CAROL for the 42nd year, and although I have seen the production four times myself, it still has an immense capacity to tug at the heartstrings. While the Goodman’s production has few surprises to reveal for repeat viewers at this point, the emotions of delight and humor I experienced on opening night reminded me why this production feels magical for so many. And because I attended the show with a first-time viewer, it was particularly special to share the Goodman’s brand of holiday joy.
Steppenwolf’s world premiere production of LINDIWE, a collaboration between ensemble member Eric Simonson and acclaimed South African music group Ladysmith Black Mambazo, finds the most success in its musical moments. The production, co-directed by Simonson and Jonathan Berry, features new music from Ladysmith Black Mambazo to tell the love story of the titular Lindiwe and her boyfriend Adam. It helps that the narrative focuses on Lindiwe’s experience as a singer touring with Ladysmith Black Mambazo—and, indeed, the group literally accompanies her at several moments throughout the production. Lindiwe explains that she never goes anywhere without her “guys,” as she affectionately refers to them. Thus, Ladysmith Black Mambazo functions as a kind of Greek chorus underscoring the romantic storyline at the play’s center. The conceit also allows for the play to utilize the group’s original music.
There’s nothing subtle about Lyric Opera’s staging of Jake Heggie and Terrence McNally’s contemporary opera DEAD MAN WALKING. Based upon the novel of the same name by Sister Helen Prejean, DEAD MAN WALKING focuses on Sister Helen’s relationship with 29-year-old Joseph De Rocher, a prisoner on death row in Angola, Louisiana convicted of the murder of a young couple (and the sexual assault of a young woman). While DEAD MAN WALKING clearly aims to be morally complex in its exploration of capital punishment and the notion of whether or not we should also treat criminals as human beings, the piece feels overwrought. The debate at the opera’s center is painted with broad strokes; at one point, we literally see protestors outside the prison holding picket signs depicting both sides of the argument.
The Passage Theatre’s production of Preston Choi’s HAPPY BIRTHDAY MARS ROVER simultaneously centers on the immensity of the universe and the intimate, everyday moments that make up our human lives. Choi’s play, presented as 43 distinct but related vignettes, reflects the human desire to search for familiarity and meaning in all that we come across. As embodied by the play’s title, that includes the human need to explore and find answers to the unknown: Is there life on Mars? And what is the meaning of our existence here on Earth relative to the rest of the universe?
With direction by Michael Weber, Porchlight Music Theatre’s production of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s SUNSET BOULEVARD provides one wild ride of a musical evening. The musical’s storyline itself vacillates between the predictable and the shockingly dark and twisted. It chronicles the story of former silent movie star Norma Desmond as she descends further and further into madness. Based upon the film of the same name, Don Black and Christopher Hampton’s book paints a portrait of Norma as she continues to lose her grasp on reality (which was not all that firm to begin with) and as she plots an unrealistic comeback into the Hollywood spotlight. Hollis Resnik conveys all of Norma’s mania and desperation in a star-worthy performance. Though Norma has long faded from the limelight by the time audiences meet her in SUNSET BOULEVARD, Resnik commands the stage with ease.
The first Steppenwolf for Young Adults production of the season marks the return of Tarrell Alvin McCraney’s THE BROTHERS SIZE to the theater’s stage. McCraney wrote the play in 2007 and it had its Steppenwolf debut in 2010. In this new production with direction from Monty Cole, the piece’s exploration of brotherhood and the ties that bind remains no less relevant.
Isango Ensemble’s A MAN OF GOOD HOPE, now at Chicago Shakespeare Theater for a limited engagement as part of the theater’s WorldStage programming, pays homage to human resilience. Directed by Mark Dornford-May, the production incorporates the South African Isango Ensemble’s signature use of music and dance to tell the story of young Somali refugee Asad Abdullahi. After witnessing the death of his mother at the hands of the Somali militia, Asad travels across the continent in the hopes that he will survive and make a better life for himself. The play’s title comes from Jonny Steinberg’s book of the same name, but it is particularly poignant to watch the story unfold onstage.