Theater Wit’s Chicago premiere production of Anne Washburn’s 10 OUT OF 12 presents a novel concept: audience members don headsets as they dive into tech rehearsal for a fictional theatrical production. As the play unfolds, so does tech—warts and all. Under the guidance of the Stage Manager (Dado), we are invited to observe a 10-hour day (though the actual run-time is 2 hours and 40 minutes) in the theater as the company painstakingly works to integrate the design elements into the final staged production. Because this involves some pre-recorded bits literally in the audience’s ears, director Jeremy Wechsler has incorporated some fun cameos for Chicago audiences: Martha Lavey as Lights, John Mahoney as Electrics, and Peter Sagal as Sound, among others.
Under the direction of Lili-Anne Brown, Kokandy Productions’ staging of THE WIZ radiates joy, and at the performance I saw Saturday night, the audience was soaking up every single joyful moment. From my vantage point, I can say that the audience reaction comes from the satisfaction of watching a solid musical theater production that leans into the musical numbers and embraces this all-black version of the classic THE WIZARD OF OZ to milk it for every possible ounce of delight and vibrancy. All of the ensemble members onstage seem to be truly enjoying themselves, and that energy is undeniably infectious.
In Kurtis Boetcher’s set design for Marcus Gardley’s world premiere A WONDER IN MY SOUL, the backdrop for the South Side beauty shop where the play is set prominently displays the photographs of black female icons ranging from Diana Ross to Beyonce—and all of course have fabulous hair in the photos. And as we learn in the play, Aberdeen “Birdie” Calumet (Greta Oglesby) and Bell Grand Lake’s (Jacqueline Williams) fictional beauty shop has played host to a number of these famous black women over the years. But what Gardley’s play does so beautifully is take the story of these specific, everyday characters and lend a universality to them. The play takes place primarily in 2008 but shows us flashbacks of young Birdie (Camille Robinson) and young Bell (Donica Lynn) as they make their way from Mississippi to settle in Chicago and start their business. Along the way, Gardley weaves a narrative that is warm and sometimes funny but also ultimately serious and touching. And as one would expect, Johnny Jamison’s hair and wig design is just superb.
Though Young Jean Lee’s play STRAIGHT WHITE MEN—now in its Chicago premiere at Steppenwolf Theatre Company—primarily concerns itself with characters befitting its title, the piece opens with two gender non-conforming performers (Elliott Jenetopulos and Will Wilhelm) holding a pre-show dance party to loud, expletive-ridden music. Once the show begins, Elliott and Will inform us that the music was made to make audiences feel uncomfortable, and for those who were less bothered by the experience, that’s privilege. Of course, the notion of privilege—and particularly the privilege bestowed upon straight white men in American society—is one of the major themes in the play, and that moment creates a microcosm of that exploration. Elliott and Will continue to tell audiences about the “rules” of the play, creating a rather Brechtian frame for what unfolds as a realistic family drama about a father and his three sons who reunite at Christmas. And thus, even as Lee (who is a Korean American woman) probes the notion of privilege and the responsibilities that come along with it, she does so with a sympathetic eye towards her multi-dimensional characters.
Now in its Chicago premiere at Porchlight Music Theatre, John Kander and Fred Ebb’s THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS could not be a more timely musical to produce. This musical recounting of the 1931 imprisonment and trial of the titular Scottsboro Boys, nine young black men ranging in age from 13-19 who were pulled from an Alabama train and wrongfully accused of the rape of two young white women, certainly has plenty of echoes to the present moment.
Mercury Theater’s I LEFT MY HEART: A SALUTE TO THE MUSIC OF TONY BENNETT incorporates an astounding number of songs into its 80-minute run time. These tuneful numbers will be recognized both by fans of Tony Bennett but also by those who enjoy the work of such accomplished composers as Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, Duke Ellington, and more. Under the direction of Kevin Bellie and music direction of Linda Madonia, a four-piece band accompanies the music-filled evening (Madonia on piano, Ryan Hobbs on trumpet, Dan Kristin on bass, and Lindsay Williams on percussion). These musicians set the backdrop for a lovely, relaxing night of music at Mercury Theater.
THE BODYGUARD, based on the eponymous film starring Whitney Houston as pop star Rachel Marron and Kevin Costner as her bodyguard Frank Farmer, has plenty of glitz and glamour to go around in its current engagement at Broadway In Chicago’s Oriental Theatre. Throughout the night, lead Deborah Cox shines as Rachel in a never-ending array of glittery costumes from Tim Hatley (who also designed the set). And when Cox tears into one of Houston’s classic numbers, it’s also a joy.
I had a bit of a revelation after seeing Timeline Theatre Company’s production of A DISAPPEARING NUMBER on Wednesday night. While the immediacy of Complicite’s 2007 play did not strike me immediately upon entering the theater (Timeline’s production is only the fourth staging in the United States), it struck me quite clearly on the journey home. A DISAPPEARING NUMBER spans time and geographical space to follow the narratives of multiple mathematicians—and their loved ones— in their numerical pursuits: the pursuit of patterns and equations, and ultimately, the pursuit of order.
It seems rather poetic that newly appointed Artistic Director Will Davis’s first production at American Theater Company, MEN ON BOATS, focuses rather literally on charting new frontiers. Jaclyn Backhaus’s witty, entertaining play (which Davis previously helmed with a different ensemble off-Broadway) offers a fictionalized account of Major John Wesley Powell’s expedition along the Colorado and Green Rivers towards the then-unknown Grand Canyon. The titular men on boats comprise a crew of ten split among four vessels—and all are played by women or gender non-conforming performers.
Helmed by Steppenwolf Artistic Director Anna D. Shapiro as she launches her first curated season, David Rabe’s world premiere play VISITING EDNA gives audiences a nearly three hour exploration of the relationship between the elderly Edna (Debra Monk), who has terminal cancer, and her middle-aged son Andrew (Ian Barford). And while Rabe clearly wants audiences to grapple with mortality and the joys and challenges of family relationships, the characters—and therefore the play—so often shy away from these issues that are meant to form the heart of VISITING EDNA. Certainly, it is understandable that Edna and Andrew are reluctant to acknowledge Edna’s illness and are also hesitant to dive into some of the thornier parts of their past as mother and son. But despite lovely, honed performances from both Monk and Barford (who does consistently excellent work in everything in which I’ve seen him previously), VISITING EDNA spends so much time in these moments of distraction as to become tiresome.