J. Nicole Brooks’s HER HONOR JANE BYRNE, now in a world premiere production at Lookingglass, is a play deeply rooted in Chicago’s not-too-distant history. Inspired by former Chicago Mayor Jane Byrne (the first woman to serve as mayor here) and her decision to move into Cabrini-Green as a display of her desire to revitalize the city’s housing projects, the play introduces a cast of characters representing different perspectives in the city. Brooks (who also directs) has assembled an intriguing array of characters in HER HONOR JANE BYRNE, and she makes the pivotal choice to prominently feature residents of Cabrini-Green as much as Byrne and some of her fellow Chicago politicians. Yet the play becomes too cluttered in its various storylines and ideas.
While Donna Summer may be “Hot Stuff” when it comes to iconic songwriting and singing, SUMMER: THE DONNA SUMMER MUSICAL is a lukewarm entry in the genre of biographical jukebox musicals. The musical features many of Donna Summer’s notable hits—and this national touring cast has the talent to take them all on—but the storyline gave me whiplash. With a book by Colman Domingo and Robert Cary and direction from Des McAnuff, SUMMER careens between the major events of Donna Summer’s life at an often breakneck pace.
Paul Gordon’s musical adaptation EMMA, now making its Chicago debut at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, is lovely, whimsical, and thoroughly grounded in the Victorian England period in which Austen’s original 1815 novel is set. Under the direction of Chicago Shakespeare’s Artistic Director Barbara Gaines, the whole production has an airiness to it. Gordon’s score and lyrics seem to float up from the performers. The score exudes a charm befitting Austen’s particular kind of sly social commentary and satire. Music director Roberta Duchak ensures that the band performs the music with this same lightness of being. Scott Davis’s set design, which is sparse and flanked by billowing curtains and chandeliers that dangle from the ceiling, and Mariann Verheyen’s pastel costume designs, further inform the overall loveliness of EMMA.
Lisa Loomer’s ROE offers a timely exploration of the history behind the 1973 Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade and the ongoing political debate around abortion and a women’s right to choose. While Loomer’s text is not necessarily nuanced in the way that it presents the argument around abortion, ROE does consider both sides of this divisive issue. The play is perhaps most compelling in its capacity to pull back the curtain around the original Roe v. Wade case and reveal the case’s history. ROE centers on two critical women, the lawyer Sarah Weddington, who was only in her mid-twenties when she brought this case before the Court, and Norma McCorvey, the plaintiff under the pseudonym “Jane Roe.” Before I saw this play, I had never heard these women’s names before. But now, thanks to Loomer’s work, I won’t soon forget them. For Loomer interestingly not only presents both sides of the United States’ debate over a woman’s right to choose but also puts forth Sarah and Norma’s two differing perspectives on the events that transpired before and after Roe v. Wade was decided.
The national tour of Michael Arden’s Tony Award-winning revival of ONCE ON THIS ISLAND has arrived in Chicago in a blaze of color and light. While Arden’s production makes clear that the tropical island in the French Antilles where the musical takes place is no stranger to the devastating effects of natural disasters, it’s also a staging filled with joy and rich visuals. Dane Laffrey’s found objects aesthetic for the scenic design also conveys the musical’s occupancy between the nebulous space of reality and the mystical world of the four gods that guide the musical’s protagonist Ti Moune on her journey.
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.