Liliana Padilla’s HOW TO DEFEND YOURSELF offers a brilliant examination of collegiate life, and, more specifically, the ways in which rape culture and the entirely real possibility of sexual assault affect university students. But what makes Padilla’s play so powerful, fascinating, and entertaining is that their playwriting never becomes preachy or pointed. By capturing the parlance and cadence of the language that college students use with acute accuracy, Padilla allows the expertly fleshed out characters to reflect on these issues in a grounded and compelling manner.
DUKE ELLINGTON’S SOPHISTICATED LADIES is a classic Porchlight show: an ebullient musical revue showcasing both the esteemed song catalog of Duke Ellington and also the formidable talents of some of the city’s finest musical theater performers. Conceived by Donald McKayle and here featuring direction and choreography from Brenda Didier and Florence Walker-Harris and music direction from Jermaine Hill, SOPHISTICATED LADIES is a production immense in its capacity to entertain. The revue has no plot, though the ensemble members take on various personas throughout the evening. While some of the performers are given cheeky titles in the program, such as “The Soubrette” or “The Chanteuse,” to name a couple examples, the actors themselves are listed next to each number. It’s a charming twist, for it makes this production unapologetic in its revue identity. Above all, SOPHISTICATED LADIES not only highlights the musical stylings of Duke Ellington, but also the actors themselves.
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 first national tour of the MEAN GIRLS musical has arrived in Chicago, and it’s totally fetch. Original screenwriter Tina Fey has partnered with composer Jeff Richmond (her husband), lyricist Nell Benjamin, and director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw to create a show in line with its pop musical contemporaries. MEAN GIRLS has an unabashedly pop score, filled with a combination of big belty numbers and upbeat tunes. Benjamin’s lyrics cleverly recreate many iconic moments from the original 2003 film through music, while Fey’s book also introduces many new jokes—particularly when it comes to the use of social media. Cady Heron’s initiation into the vicious halls of North Shore High, and her encounter with reigning clique The Plastics, will surely delight fans of the movie.
2019 was officially declared the Year of Chicago Theatre…and it did not disappoint. After reviewing more than 50 productions this year, I’m sharing some of my favorites from the past calendar year (listed in chronological order).
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).
The Q Brothers Collective puts a highly inventive and endlessly delightful twist on Charles Dickens’ classic holiday tale with Q BROTHERS CHRISTMAS CAROL. While the production’s narrative follows the traditional story of the greedy Ebenezer Scrooge and the four spirits that haunt him on Christmas Eve as a harbinger to change his miserly ways, the Q Brothers Collective finds creative ways to breathe new life into their staging at every turn. This hip hop musical, deemed an “ad-rap-tation” of the original CHRISTMAS CAROL, incorporates more modern music influences into the story—as well as contemporary stylings when it comes to the show’s sense of humor.