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Zach Zimmerman

Zach Zimmerman

 

 

 

 

 

The 2000 teen comedy "Bring It On" is a cult classic.  The 2012 musical of the same name likely won't be.  Borrowing the title and not much else, "Bring It On"  relies on a formulaic, fairly conventional plot peppered with high-flying acrobatic cheerleading routines. It's entertaining enough, especially for the mostly younger tween audience in attendance, but when you put "the musical" in your title, you promise that story and song will be central.

 

The musical creates a wholly new plot from the film, although it is still a well-worn one.  White head cheerleader Campbell is redistricted during her senior year to a mostly black and hispanic high school.  Cue the lessons about race, identity, and being yourself.  Bridget, a slightly chubby girl who provides most of the comedy in the show, excels in the new school since she's always been an outsider.  Eventually, everyone learns something about themselves and a happily ever after ensues.

 

Throughout, the high-flying acrobatic work of the ensemble dazzles, as performers in red skirts are launched into the air almost as high as the mezzanine.  A series of shifting digital screens add to the theatricality, transporting the action to different settings, whether a bedroom or basketball court, in a rather innovative way.  The altogether aesthetic is a bit cartoonish, but when your subject matter is competitive cheerleading, it's hard not to venture into Looney Tune territory.

 

With a writing team that combines talent from Avenue Q, In the Heights, and Next to Normal, one might expect "Bring It On" to be fresh, subversive, and full of catchy, diverse, and memorable songs.  Instead it is rather mainstream musical comedy, which sadly lacks any songs that stand out.  When the lyrics disappoint, the choreography dazzles almost as if to distract rather than enhance the plot.  What's most surprising about the book is a commendable move to feature a transgendered character in a strong supporting role.  While many of the character's laughs come from just being trans, a solo power ballad reveals a the obstacles she has overcome.  "Is that a boy, Mommy?" the young boy in front of me asked mid-show.  I didn't catch his mother's response, but the inclusion of a trans character in an otherwise dated musical comedy certainly opened the door for a teachable car-ride conversation on the way home.

 

Bring It On: The Musical is at its best when the cheerleaders are flipping and twirling across the stage.  The final climax of the show is truly breath-taking, and is a marvelous convergence of poppy song with powerful dance that furthers the plot.  Overall, the show is an entertaining night out, but don't expect any emotional resonance to lift you off your feet.

 

Bring It On is bringing it at the Cadillac Palace through March 25. More information at BroadwayinChicago.com

Wednesday, 29 February 2012 22:54

Summer Love and Identity in "Tomboy"

Moving is an emotional experience, especially for a 10-year old. Thin and petite Laure and her mischievous 6-year-old sister are packed up by their parents over the summer and moved to a new neighborhood.  In addition to all the stress and fears associated with new friends and a new school, Laure is mistaken for a boy.  Thing is, she doesn’t deny it.  “Michael,” she responds when asked her name.  And so begins a summer of fantasy for the pre-pubescent, swimming without a shirt, playing basketball with the boys, and kissing a young, long-haired girl.

French auteur-director Céline Sciamma sophomore feature “Tomboy” is a soft, beautiful coming-of-age film that follows this fantastical summer and the aftermath when Michael’s mother discovers it.  Overall, the family is loving -- soft shots of shared baths and tickling sessions reveal that -- but the mother’s response is heart-breaking.  She forces Laure to don a dress and parades her around the neighborhood to apologize.  The tour of humiliation comes to a climax when the young person is taken to the home of the young girl she has fallen for.

Tomboy follows this transformation and the consequences of a society unable to understand or support a child who is questioning their gender.  The young Zoé Héran gives a phenomenal, muted performance as the young person who slips into a new identity so easily, it should be questioned whether it was a deception at all.  From nail polish to G.I. Joes, gender norms are inscribed upon children before they even know how to do long division.  So were Laure’s actions a lie, or was she telling the truth for the first time?  Identity, whether it’s constructed or discovered, is a lifelong task.  It’s messy and only becomes all the more complicated when others have a stake in yours: parents, friends, teachers, businesses.  In this tug-of-war for your identity, it’s hard to find a moment when you’re truly who you are.  “Tomboy” celebrates a summer apart from that harsh, cruel reality, capturing a rare moment of truth as fleeting as childhood.

Tomboy was just playing ball at the Music Box Theatre. More information at www.musicboxtheatre.com

Monday, 27 February 2012 19:57

A War of Worldviews in "Time Stands Still"

In a hip, New York City loft (the kind where a bike hangs from the ceiling, a French press sits in the kitchen, and Mac laptops are scattered everywhere), Sarah hobbles in.  Her left leg is wrapped in a brace, she uses a crutch to get around, and when the lights turn on, we see the horrifying scars on her face. She’s returning from Iraq, not where she served in combat, but as a photojournalist when a roadside bomb launched her and her cameras into the sky.  The terror of war is behind her, but the emotional drama that unfolds is almost as terrifying, as her adjustment to “normal” life makes her question meaning, love, and happiness.

Playwright Donald Margulies admits in his playbill interview (Steppenwolf always supplements its on-stage productions with exceptional on-page content) that he is fascinated by the role of an artist in society: provocateur? reflecter? activist?  Like a well-argued essay, “Time Stands Still” confronts the dilemma a photographer faces when they are confronted with covering a war without intervening.  Sarah finds no moral qualm, but her editor’s much-younger, perhaps naiver lover is horrified.  Mandy Bloom, who we learn is about to bloom with a child, doesn’t understand how someone could snap a picture of a wounded person without snapping to action to help them.  This ethical dilemma, however, is a symptom of a much greater war between worldviews that these women represent: family versus career, surrounding yourself with happiness or devoting yourself to tragedy.  At the extremes of the spectrum are these two women: one wholeheartedly devoted to the former, one to the latter.

Austin Pendleton directs an impressive cast that bring life to the characters, while managing tension, comedic timing, and high, emotional stakes throughout.  Sally Murphy shows considerable physical range embodying the torture of a woman in recovery, and newcomer Kristina Valada-Viars is pitch-perfect as the delightfully ignorant Mandy.  Francis Guinan and Randall Newsome, the men in the drama, are only neglected here for the sake of analysis, not the quality of their performances, which are bold and richly textured.

These nuanced characters are the core of “Time Stands Still,” which is essentially a domestic drama.  Josh Schmidt’s ominous original score situates it against the backdrop of a painful, foreign war, but still the characters and their desires stand at the center.  Even while dealing with the ethics of wartime photography, “Time Stands Still” never abandons the needs and wants of these four fictional folks.  Instead, the philosophical debates grow out of human desires and conflicts.  The characters are not mouthpieces for a soapbox sermon, but rather the playwright uses the characters to play out his own struggles with the role of the artist in society.  When a play can bring to life compelling characters who embody larger themes, and when a production can bring texture and life to a text in a riveting, realistic way, the audience holds their breath and time truly stands still.

Time won't stand still -- this Steppenwolf production ends May 13, 2012. More information at www.steppenwolf.org.

 

Sunday, 26 February 2012 22:17

"Hit the Wall" shakes its fists and ass

 

 

Maybe I'm just a faggot, but "Hit the Wall" is damn good.

 

In the intimate Steppenwolf Garage with an ensemble of only 8, the chaos and havoc of the Stonewall Inn riots is powerfully recreated by Chicago storefront The Inconvenience.  At its climax, high-energy and expertly choreographed fight sequences rumble over original rock music and hushed lights to evoke the events of that night.  But what comes before are a series of beautifully written and precisely performed scenes that introduce an eclectic mix of characters with a powerful mix of heart and sass.

 

Playwright Ike Holter has penned a compelling piece that back on that night not with nostalgia, but with angst, regret, and wit.  Amongst the cast of characters are cat-calling stoop-sitters whose fuse is as short as their shorts, a confident transwoman who moves like water through water, and a feminist propagandist who sermonizes anyone unfortunate enough to stand in her way.  Each is archetype, if not a caricature, and they are paired together like swatches of fabric to see what clashes and what syncs up.

 

A police officer, who stands up for the entire force used on the night of the riots, becomes an obvious villain in this tale of sexual liberation.  There's a heart-wrenching moment about two-thirds of the way through.  Peggy, a tight-lipped stocky woman who wears a leather jacket and kisses girls, has been cornered by a police officer in the Inn.  It's June 1969, and a woman dressing like a man is a punishable crime.  In a shadowy corner, the NYPD officer frisks Peggy and finds not a gun, drugs, or other illegal merchandise, but breasts.  He grabs them hard, and then lowers his hand into her pants to confirm his suspicion.

 

The move is truly reprehensible.

 

While some scenes following this might be cut to maintain momentum, the piece is extremely well-paced and structured.  Exposition is provided by presentational, overlapping voices of the cast, reminiscent of the documentary play "The Larmamie Project."  We're told just how hot it was in New York that night, and how each character "needs a drink!" after a long and taxing day.  The piece's title is a play on "hitting the wall," a term in endurance sports like running and cycling for a sudden loss of energy.  The characters have hit the wall of persecution, but they have sparked a battle for LGBTQ rights that is an endurance sport of its own.

 

Early in the play, the characters talk about the street credit that comes with claiming "I was there" on the night of the riot.  I wasn't alive in 1969, so I can't say I was there when a hot night in a bar sparked a fight that still wages, but I can say I was there when a Chicago storefront debuted a powerful play that can move you to tears and laughter as it shakes its fists and its ass.

When you enter the Steppenwolf Garage through April 8, 2012, try not to Hit the Wall. More information at www.steppenwolftheatre.org.

 

A thin, pale boy sits in his boxers at the foot of a small, twin bed when you enter the third floor of the Flat Irons Building.  He’ll be the narrator and key figure in the 90-minute story of technology, morality, and obsession.  It’s a frightening tale of internet manipulation that almost ends fatally, but what is most frightening is that the story is true.

Inspired by the 2004 Vanity Fair article, “U Want Me 2 Kill Him,” Carlos Murillo has penned a morality tale of how young neurosis and technology can collide to create a digital world as dangerous as our own.  In “dark play, or stories for boys” (written in lowercase like a lazy IM conversation), 16-year old Nick seduces his classmate Adam in a chat room using the gorgeous, perfect, and perfectly fake woman Rachel.  In real life, this woman had no body, but this fictional female is embodied in the play, reciting the lines of text as if she is a fully fleshed character.  Collaboraction Artistic Director Anthony Mosley’s staging is so engaging that you forget most of the dialogue takes place while characters sit at a computer screen.  Besides being compelling, frightening, and well-acted, “dark play” is an excellent example of how technological interactions which consume so much of our contemporary lives can be meaningfully staged using traditional theatrical conventions.

Just as thespians create characters to illicit emotion, so too does Nick craft a three-dimensional digital Delilah.  The difference, however, is that theatergoers are conscious of their manipulation.  They may suspend their disbelief, but they know they are merely players on a stage, a fact they’re reminded of come curtain call.  But there is no curtain call in the online roman in “dark play.”  The truth is only revealed after a nearly-fatal ending, which appears quickly in the play, and despite being the actual event, feels somewhat false.   Ironically, the strength of “dark play” is also its weakness.  The climax might be real, but it diverges so far from the play’s reality that the ending feels somewhat contrived.  It’s deeply ironic that a true ending feels false.

That said, the bulk of “dark play” is theatrical and entertaining, chronicling what a British prosecutor called “an Internet soap opera moving from one scene to another, each character and story line more fantastic than the last."  It’s a startling exploration of a young boy’s psyche, which is all the more frightening when you realize we are only a few keystrokes away from doing the same.

In the Heights, winner of the 2008 Tony for Best Musical, follows three generations in the primarily Puerto Rican neighborhood of Washington Heights as they deal with issues of class, race, and assimilation.  It’s also really good.

Penned by musician and lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda (who played the bodega-owner/narrator in the original Broadway production), In the Heights is a poppy, rappy, collection of songs filled with a carnival energy and carnal emotionality that resonate regardless of race.  While some jokes might be missed by EOL spectators (English as Only Language), the struggles of making it and what to make of it are universal

Usnavi, named after a ship his parents saw as they immigrated to the United States, welcomes us to his bodega, where he provides caffeine and empty dreams (lotto tickets) to his neighbors.  He’s sandwiched in between two other shops – a salon with stereotypically gabby stylists and a family-run cab company, whose owner and wife eagerly welcome their daughter back from her first year at Stanford.  Nina, who represents everything they came to America to achieve, returns to confess she’s lost her scholarship and is on academic leave.  The one who got out has dropped out.

While the first half-dozen songs of the show are mostly solo numbers, the clever lyrics, emotional music, and strong performances easily make up for a lack of variety. The touring cast is non-Equity, but their talent is non-arguable.  When a group number does appear – “96,000” (not the number of minutes in two months, but the number of dollars in a winning lotto ticket), the audience is captivated and the conflicting desires of the town come to a point.  While Grandma remembers the island and her difficulty of assimilating into the United States, Usnavi’s love interest Natalie who will do anything to get out.  These generational differences are more than teenage angst, and instead echo the cyclical rhythms of offspring turning away from their parents to create lives of their own.

While the second act takes second place compared to the first, there are several strong numbers.  However, they only reveal the slice-of-life quality to the piece.  The overall stakes remain low.  A pair of casual love stories and family drama make for strong individual stories, but combined they fail to elevate the 2.5-hour show to a place of profound emotional or narrative relevance.  Of course, I’d rather a musical attempt to accomplish much and slightly fail than succeed at the simple.  The accomplishment of preserving a historical moment in a neighborhood on the cups of gentrification outweighs any slightly out-of-focus narrative.  Also, it’s really damn good.

The lights are up on In the Heights at the Oriental Theatre through January 15.  More information at www.broadwayinchicago.com.

Dunanana. Snap. Snap.

Dunanana. Snap. Snap.

Dunanana. Dunanana. Dunanana. Snap. Snap.

The opening theme to the popular television series The Addams Family christens the overture of the new musical The Addams Family, playing this week at the Cadillac Palace in Broadway in Chicago.  After a pre-Broadway tryout in chicago with Nathan Lane as the horny patriarch Gomez, the production has been revamped and retooled and still plays on Broadway as the touring production visits its birthplace.

Each Addams is accounted for: the ghostly wife Morticia with a plunging neckline, the violent and pudgy Pugsley, the angsty Wednesday, and a whole slew of undead Addams that serve as the chorus.  The story they tell is a classic clash of families - Romeo & Juliet style, but with a quintessentially Addams twist.  The pale and ruthless Wednesday has found herself falling for a “normal” boy and is worried her family, especially her mother, will disapprove.  The macabre and the mundane clash at a large dinner that should showcase the morbid, twisted psyche of all things Addams.  But some over-characterization of the boy’s family distract from the titular family: the Mom speaks in poetry, the Dad has lost that loving feeling, and the Son has almost no personality, except for when it sets up a punchline for the Addams crew.  Rather than serve as a grounded juxtaposition to the Addam’s crazy, this invented threesome is bit too quirky and ends up fighting the titular family for focus.

Of course, this misstep might be forgivable if the show’s songs were tuneful and passionate.  But while the witty book deserves snaps, the songs in The Addams Family are more dunanana.  And I can put my finger on the it (or Cousin It).  Wednesday’s power ballad about being “Pulled in a New Direction” by love stands out as a song with emotion and a witty game to boot (as she sings, she tortures her brother by pulling his limbs in a new direction); but the other melodies, mostly unmemorable save the opening, tend to explain the plot rather than further it.  Lacking passion, the songs don’t build stakes or tension and end up flatlining  – which I suppose the Addams family would support.

A clever and witty book by the team behind Jersey Boys (Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, whose other credits include co-writing Annie Hall and work with The Walt Disney studios) saves the night from complete death, with plenty of punchlines that celebrate the macabre and backwardly dark family.  But a central plot device - a mysterious “game,” which turns out to basically be “take a shot, tell a secret” – utterly misses the mark.  While the game and song, “Full Disclosure,” might properly close the first act of Lysistrata Jones or Legally Blonde, the Addams Family should develop a game a bit darker than your average peppy sorority sisters.

At its Chicago opening night, The Addams Family attracted a fair share of families, as kids as young as seven sat up straight to watch torture and ghosts abound.  And I felt like a kid at points, truly enjoying some of the clever and humorous puppetry (Fester’s love dance with the moon stands out).  But while the production might be enjoyed by most families, I still expect big budget musicals to offer something more passionate and moving to theatre-goers than the even-keeled nostalgic romp that The Addams Family is.  Snap. Snap.

The Addams Family is altogether spooky at the Cadillac Palace through January 1.  For more information, visit www.BroadwayInChicago.com.

Thursday, 29 December 2011 19:57

Waiting in a Pool for "Penelope"

The Greeks, who gave us theatre and big, fat weddings, have always been a rich source of inspiration for contemporary culture makers.  From James Joyce’s Ulysses to Disney’s Hercules, the iconic gods and legends of ancient Greece have been re-imagined, rebutted, and redone by painters, philosophers, and playwrights.  Penelope, a new play from the pen of Irish writer Edna Walsh, draws upon these distant myths to create a visually arresting, intellectually stimulating, but emotional lacking piece of theater which entertains in fits and starts.

Ancient myth (and a black-and-white comic in the Steppenwolf program) tells of the warrior Ulysses, who wages war, wins it, and pledges to return home to his love Penelope.  In the ten years’ meanwhile, hundreds of suitors vie for her hand while her husband is away.  Walsh’s Penelope starts with the final four.  In a drained swimming pool, the last of the suitors – one in each of their 30s, 40s, 50s, or 60s – have set up camp and outwitted and outlasted their weaker competition.  The lounge chairs of suitors that have fallen before are haphazardly stacked in the corners of the pool, creating a sculpture-like symbol of failed love that looms throughout the piece.

The Speedo-clad men enjoy modern luxuries – a gas grill, potato chips, and a table full of alcohol and shot glasses – as they wait to make their daily plea to Penelope (the silent and stunning Logan Vaughn).  A blaring siren and red lights announce her entrances, as the suitors scramble to fix their hair and ready their remarks.  They beg - with spoken word and vaudeville routines – as she watches on a flat screen from her secluded loft.  Their pleas fall flat, but Fitz, the eldest suitor originally cast as John Mahoney and now played by ensemble member Tracy Letts, catches her attention.  Letts brings a boisterous energy to the weathered suitor, who hides his shyness in a book, but speaks with raw sincerity.

While none of the men are ultimately successful, it is their struggle and its universality that forms the shaky core of the work.  Despite the trappings of the contemporary – gas grills and potato chips – the ancient and eternal battles shine through: unrequited love, fierce competition, and the quest for friendship amidst it all.  A strong ensemble (Yasen Peyankov as the fiery Quinn, Ian Barford as the pained Burns, and Scott Jaeck as the chaotic Dunne) under the simple direction of Amy Morton bring powerful performances to the swimming pool floor.  But at its core, Penelope is more thought experiment than emotional journey, more clever than clear, and more brain than heart.

By play’s end, the audience has become a sort of meta-Penelope.  You watch the performances, but your interest ebbs and flows.  You appreciate the wit and devotion, but the recited words start to blur meld together.  In the end, you’re left waiting silently for something more, something truer to finally come home.

Swim with Penelope at Steppenwolf through February 5.  Tickets available at steppenwolf.org.

On a snowy New Year’s night in Chicago, a young homeless couple – wrapped in coats, scarves, and each others’ arms – search for a shelter for the night. Headed toward the warmth of the Red Line, the man realizes he’s lost his wallet when a mysterious dark-haired woman appears with it. She takes an interest in the pair in the CTA tunnel and offers them two tickets to her hedonistic end-of-the-year bash. Ballroom dresses, masquerade masks, and alligator head filled with fresh strawberries fill the party, as dream, reality, and hallucination blur for the young woman and the viewer.

Written and directed by Derek Quint, “Second Star” is the third in a collection of 17 short films known as the Vault Projections series. The Chicago-based indie company Addovolt Productions bankrolled the work, which is loosely inspired by J.M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan.” The connections are subtle (perhaps too subtle for anyone to realize without prompting), but once the suggestion is made, themes of being young and lost and the fantasy of an otherworldly Neverland materialize in the work. The intriguing, urban story, inspired by actual friends of the author’s, is relatively well-realized given its small, independent budget. Occasionally, the soundtrack distracts more than enhances the action on screen, but what is lacking in production value is made up for with the ambition of the storytellers. “Second Star” explores the power of human resilience and the danger of human delusion, as our imaginations create the warmth we can’t find in the world.

Watch the film and find updates about Addovolt Productions on their website: http://addovolt.blogspot.com/

Jukebox musicals have become as common as dancebreaks in the past decade. Popular songs of yesteryear are strung together with a loose story to create a Broadway show that feels more like a scrapbook of memories than something memorable in its own right. Given this musical landscape, it’s a rare treat top find a show with all new songs that feel as if you’ve magically tuned into a 1950s radio station. Joe Dipietro and David Bryan (of Bon Jovi keyboard fame) have penned such a treat. Powerful songs that channel the tone and changes of the early years of rock ‘n’ roll are driven by a surprisingly emotional book in their Tony Award-winning musical Memphis.

Memphis

Huey Calhoun, an irreverent DJ played by the talented Bryan Fenkart, falls in love with “black music” and a black woman – Felicia (played by the sultry Ms. Boswell of the same name). Loosely based on real-life Memphis DJ Dewey Phillips, Huey’s passions wouldn’t pose a problem had he been born in the past 30 years. But Tennessee in the 1950s kept black and white separate, and Huey’s graying passions weren’t apropos. Of course, Huey was never one for conforming; with a wardrobe that pairs plaid, tie-dye, and Hawaiian prints, he lives to mix things up.

With his own radio show, Huey plays the music he adores on the radio, and gets the whole city dancing.  While integration laws were essential to enacting racial change, minds aren’t changed in Congress; they’re changed in dance halls and concert houses. Huey plays his part in racial integration by getting white folk singing and dancing to the songs of black folk, but in many ways, he was a bit ahead of his time.  He catches the attention of TV execs who like his style, but not the company he keeps. They’ll give him his own primetime show on black-and-white TV (wonderfully dramatized on stage) as long as the performers are all white. 

Not to spoil the story, but Memphis doesn’t fall victim to the happily-every-after, clichéd Broadway ending. The show doesn’t let the pieces come together perfectly for our hero, which makes it much more real and that much more heartbreaking.  Light-on-his-feet and easy-on-the-ears, Huey possess the power to be heard and the rare youthful energy that makes you believe anything is possible – whether it’s falling in love, becoming a star, or changing the world. But believing and achieving are two separate tasks.

Memphis is not a jukebox musical, but don't be surprised if you hear its songs on tomorrow’s jukeboxes.  They be blaring loudly and irreverently as young couples like Huey and Felicia dance, kiss, and cry to the beat.

Memphis plays at the Cadillac Palace Theatre through December 4, 2011. Additional information and tickets available at www.BroadwayInChicago.com.

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