R-S Theatrics captivating production of Peter Sinn Nachtrieb's Boom peeks into a post-apocalyptic museum where a story of unexpected doom leads to a new creation myth. The humorous pairing of humanity's potential next Adam and Eve is countered by the more clinical, yet nonetheless passionate, observations of our docent, Barbara. The story is part creation myth, part scientific embellishment, and all for laughs in the company's smartly executed retelling. 

In this show, the audience members are visitors to the museum. Barbara, sympathetically played with a crisp point by Nancy Nigh, guides us through the exhibit, pausing the action to provide her notes regarding the presentation. She clearly loves her work and wants to share her interpretation of the events with reverential devotion. Whether Barbara is puppet master or god, it quickly becomes clear that she has more control over the tale that is about to unfold than perhaps she should. We soon learn others have made the same observation.

After her introduction, we meet the exhibit's subjects. Jules, an intellectually exuberant, socially awkward Andrew Kuhlman, and Jo, a sharp-witted and extremely skeptical Elizabeth Van Pelt, as well as the fish: Dorothy, Jon Jon, and their two companions. Sex and the fish figure prominently in Jules' work, leading him to seek a companion in his underground apartment in the event his conclusions, scoffed at by his peers, prove correct. 

Jo answered an ad for "world changing sex" placed by Jules in the student newspaper in hopes of completing a journalism assignment. She's quite forward about getting to the sex, which immediately intimidates Jules. She's also sarcastic and a little weirded out by Jules' theory. Unfortunately, things aren't looking good for them. Jo is on a deadline, Jules is gay, and they are both nervous virgins. Could a global catastrophe improve their luck?

The cat-and-mouse nature of Jules and Jo's relationship is deliciously satisfying, as are Barbara's increasingly frequent and personal interjections. The three actors pace around with increasing determination as the tension builds, and there's a continuously on-edge tone that becomes more comically persistent. The story is revealing and funny, though there are underlying currents of fear, loneliness, and the pain of never quite fitting in that resonate with affection. 

The expanse of the theater space at the Chapel is quite effectively transformed into a large exhibit hall. There's a table with a brightly colored aquarium in the center of the floor, while the elevated stage looks resembles a small apartment. Attention to detail also reveals a control podium and a large drum to the rear of the stage. Every detail serves a purpose, and most are equipped with hidden, humorous surprises.

This configuration reinforces Barbara and the audience as observers, setting up an invisible wall for a show that may at times feel uncomfortably close. Scenic designer Keller Ryan, lighting designer Nathan Schroeder, and sound designer and fight choreographer Mark Kelly have teamed with director Sarah Lynne Holt and technical advisor Scott Schoonover to create a show that successfully merges museum and mythology with comedy.

The closing production of R-S Theatrics season artfully demonstrates a commitment to intellectually stimulating, visually engaging, and thoroughly enjoyable theater. The quirky characters and odd intermingling of stories is strikingly personal and prickly, but touching. While the tale feels familiar if a bit odd, Holt brings clear-headed direction, with a focus on timing and delivery that adds context, sass, and sensibility to the show's inventive twists and obstacles. She and the actors find every sympathetic and comic moment in the script and turn it to their advantage. 

"How did I get here?" "What if my contribution isn't deemed worthy by others?" Whether you approach the answer through faith, art, analysis, or a myriad of other paths, these conundrums remain a lasting source of query and inspiration. Boom, http://www.r-stheatrics.com, running through December 4, 2016 is a welcome and enjoyable dive into that question, with an imaginative script, smart direction, and captivating performances. 

 

Brooke Michael Smith had a wardrobe malfunction on the opening night of her cabaret show, The Girl I'm Meant to Be, at The Monocle in St. Louis, on Friday, November 18. She didn't have a wardrobe. In her excitement she had forgotten to bring the dress she had planned to wear. No matter. As the dress was fetched from home, it gave the audience 15 minutes to get acquainted with each other, and ultimately this delay, which might have derailed a lesser performer, was the only hiccup in a delightful, funny, moving evening of cabaret.

As a reviewer and practitioner of cabaret, I still find myself explaining exactly what cabaret is. It is this: telling stories through song. As such, it is not so much about brilliant vocal production, as you might expect from a recital. Rather, it is imperative that the singer find songs they connect to in order to tell those stories. Smith's audience was happy to find that she had accomplished both emotional connection and splendid singing. This is no surprise in that her director is the Tony award-winner, Faith Prince, who is a brilliant teacher of the art of cabaret and demands such connection of all her students.

Onstage, Smith, apropos of her show's title, The Girl I'm Meant to Be, projects an attractive, smart, slightly gawky girl-next-door aura with an open yet rueful smile that reminds this reviewer of Sarah Paulson. And while she hits all the beats of a typical autobiographical cabaret show -- born here, went to school there, moved here, met and married there -- the stories and songs lead to surprises that are by turns hilarious and touching. She is ably assisted onstage by her Music Director, Eryn Allen, on the piano. Allen's arrangements were spare or lush depending upon the demands of the song and its emotional content, and she was perfectly in sync both musically and tonally with Smith throughout the show.

Most impressive to me from a performance standpoint was that fact that Smith not only plays the guitar on a few songs but wrote some of them. Using material unfamiliar to an audience is always risky, yet in these moments, Smith's smart writing, crisp diction, and emotional commitment made her original songs easily accessible and clear highlights of the show.

Because the material in a cabaret show can be highly personal, the performer has to walk a narrow line between being too open and too reserved. Smith treads that line effortlessly, and I always felt that she was giving me the gift of creating a space for the audience to have their own emotional experience. This was especially true for me near the end of the show when Smith, talking about the profound experience of being a mom, allowed me to reflect on my own life as a pediatrician. This emotional resonance is what cabaret is all about, and I am grateful to have been present.

I urge you to be on the lookout for Brooke Michael Smith is a cabaret venue near you. She is not to be missed. Meanwhile, cabaret continues on a regular basis at The Monocle in The Grove.

Powerful, moving performances and a strong sense of whimsy highlight a beautiful production of Jules Massenet's last big hit, Don Quichotte, at Lyric Opera of Chicago.

When Jules Massenet wrote his operatic treatment of poet Jacques Le Lorrain's play Le chevalier de la longue figure (very freely adapted from Cervantes' Don Quixote) in 1909, both he and his style of composition were on the way out. Two years after the opera's highly successful 1910 premiere in Monte Carlo, Massenet would be dead of abdominal cancer and his poplar, romantic style would soon be eclipsed by revolutionaries like Stravinsky, impressionists like Debussy and Ravel, and serialists like Berg.

But fashionable or not, Don Quichotte has proved to be enduringly popular over the last century and is still produced often enough to come in at number 140 worldwide on the Operabase list for the 2014/15 season. The current Lyric production, which originated with San Diego Opera in 2009, does full justice to Massenet's colorful score and librettist Henri Cain's gentle, elegiac version of the tale of the Knight of the Woeful Countenance.

The characters of the Don and Sancho are essentially unchanged from the originals in this treatment but aside from the famous battle with the windmills, the story is radically different. Instead of being a figment of the Don's imagination, Dulcinea (now Dulcinée) is a very real and very wealthy beauty who is pursued by many suitors and bored with them all. Amused by the Don's absurd attempts to woo her, Dulcinée send him on a quest of sorts to retrieve a pearl necklace stolen by Ténébrun, a local bandit.

Disarmed by the Don's nobility, Ténébrun gives him the necklace. But when the Don returns the necklace to Dulcinée and proposes to her, he's mocked by her party guests and gently rebuffed by her. Broken in spirit and health, he retreats to the mountains where, tended by the faithful Sancho, he has one last hallucination of Dulcinée's voice calling him to the heavens as he expires.

The role of Don Quichotte was first sung by the legendary Russian bass Feodor Chaliapin, and many of history's great bassos have taken it on since. When Lyric first presented Don Quichotte in 1974, for example, the role was sung by Nicolai Ghiaurov. This time around, the man behind the Don's spiky hair and beard is Ferruccio Furlanetto, who has made something of a career of the part, playing it to great acclaim all over the world.

His is a gentle and even bemused Don Quichotte, confident in his folly and passionate in defense of his core values of honesty, compassion, and generosity. His complete immersion in the character and his powerful voice -- solid even in its lowest notes -- make his performance the solid foundation on which this fine production is built.

Baritone Nicola Alaimo is Sancho, a role which has more dramatic depth than you might expect. When his heartbroken master is mocked by Dulcinée's party guests, it's Sancho who rises to his defense in the passionate "Riez, allez, riez du pauvre ideologue" ("Laugh, laugh at this poor idealist"), excoriating the crowd for their heartlessness. While Mr. Alaimo is very affecting here and in the Don's death scene, he's equally adept at the comedy of the first and second acts.

Mezzo Clémentine Margaine rounds out the principal cast as a languid Dulcinée, as disappointed with her easy life as she is amused by it. Like Mr. Furlanetto and Mr. Alaimo, she has a voice that easily fills the Lyric's large house.

Tenors Alec Carlson and Jonathan Johnson are Dulcinée's adult suitors Juan and Rodriguez while soprano Diana Newman and mezzo Lindsay Metzger have the "pants" roles of her juvenile admirers Pedro and Garcias. These are primarily comic parts and they do a fine job with them. Bradley Smoak, who St. Louis audiences will recognize from his many appearances at Opera Theatre, turns in a nice cameo as Ténébrun.

The members of Michael Black's chorus sing and act their roles with great skill and Sir Andrew Davis conducts with his customary authority.

"Like children," observes director Matthew Ozawa in the program book, "when we open a book we are given permission to use our imagination to create a new world." And in fact, this Don Quichotte opens with a small boy alone on stage reading the Don's adventures in a huge book. As he turns the pages, the story comes to life around him in the bright storybook colors of Ralph Funicello's sets and Missy West's costumes. The literary concept is carried out as well in the quotes from Cervantes's novel that are projected on a scrim at the beginning of each act. Even when their stories are radically altered, it seems, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza stubbornly remain true to their essential selves.

As his dramatic arc passes from simple comedy to pathos and eventually tragedy, Don Quixote's dedication to kindness and mercy is a reminder that our natures do have better angels, if only we would pay them more heed. Like Pushkin's "holy fool" or Shakespeare's clowns, the Don's folly shows those around him the way to wisdom, if they have eyes to see and ears to hear.

Lyric Opera's production of Don Quichotte runs through December 7 at the opulent Civic Opera house in the Chicago Loop.

 

Let's cut to the chase: you know all those things you've heard about how intelligent, theatrically powerful, and just generally wonderful Lin-Manuel Miranda's hit musical Hamilton is? Well, they're all absolutely correct. This is a flat-out brilliant piece of musical theatre that manages to be both educational and entertaining at the same time.

Tickets for the Broadway original are almost impossible to get, but fortunately the PrivateBank Theatre in the Chicago Loop is hosting the only other open-ended run of Hamilton in the country. That makes the trip north well worthwhile.

If you've somehow missed all the hype surrounding this amazing show, know that Hamilton is the story of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, including his heroic leadership during the Revolutionary War, his rapid rise to and fall from political power, and his friendship and rivalry with Aaron Burr, who finally killed Hamilton in a duel over the latter's support for Burr's political rival, Thomas Jefferson.

That might sound like dry stuff, but Mr. Miranda tells the tale with a non-stop torrent of deliberately and cheerfully anachronistic hip-hop, rap, soul, and even a bit of big-band jazz and 1960s pop. Thomas Kail's direction and Andy Blankenbuehler's sharply contemporary choreography move the story along at a breezy pace that makes the show's running time of just under three hours pass far too quickly, and the performances from the ensemble cast are nothing short of stunning.

In this version of Hamilton's story, the cast is aggressively diverse. Jefferson, Burr, Lafayette, and George Washington are all black. Hamilton is Latino. This is, in short, an ensemble that looks like America in 2016 instead of 1776. That makes the story feel sharply contemporary and reminds us that the men and women who made this country possible weren't carefully posed images in paintings, but living, breathing, and very fallible human beings. It's the sort of thing the now-classic musical 1776 did over four decades ago.

Heading this incredible cast are Miguel Cervantes as Hamilton and Joshua Henry as Burr. Mr. Cervantes (who alternates in the role with Joseph Morales) radiates determination and energy as the man who is repeatedly asked, "Why do you write like you're running out of time?" His performance has an urgency that's matched by Mr. Henry's Burr, who is in a constant war between his admiration of Hamilton's ability and his jealousy of the success it brings.

Ari Afsar is a sympathetically appealing Eliza, Hamilton's long-suffering wife, who finds her way to forgiveness for his affair with Maria Reynolds (a seductively smoky Samantha Marie Ware) and goes on to shape an important legacy of her own. Karen Olivo is a passionate Angelica Schuyler, Eliza's sister and a woman with whom Hamilton had a devoted but (at least in this version of the story) entirely intellectual relationship.

Chris De'Sean Lee is a lively comic presence as both Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson and Jonathan Kirkland perfectly captures George Washington's quiet authority. Wallace Smith shines in the sharply contrasting roles of James Madison and revolutionary spy Hercules Mulligan. And José Ramos was wonderfully affecting in the roles of two doomed characters: Hamilton's friend John Laurens, who is killed in a completely unnecessary battle with the British, and Hamilton's son Philip, slain in an equally pointless duel defending his father's honor.

The day we saw the show, Jin Ha was hilariously effete as King George III (the role is usually played by Alexander Gemignani). His song "You'll Be Back," which treats the colonies as unfaithful lovers ("Remember we made an arrangement when you went away, now you’re making me mad") is, appropriately, a mock-1960s "British invasion" ballad.

That song is just one example of Mr. Miranda's seemingly limitless musical imagination. His score is filled with ingenious touches. When, for example, Jefferson makes his appearance at the top of the second act, having spent the entire revolution in France, his song "What'd I Miss?" written in the style of the late big band era, suggesting how out of touch he is with the more contemporary sounds of the other characters. The debates between Jefferson and Hamilton are staged as rap contests, complete with hand-held mics, in which the characters cheerfully dis each other in rhyme. And the lyrics are filled with theatrical references, from Shakespeare to Gilbert and Sullivan and even Oscar Hammerstein II.

The set by David Korins is simple and suggests a late eighteenth-century wharf, with brick walls and a high wooden catwalk along the back and sides of the stage. Set pieces are whisked on and off to suggest scene changes, often with the help of a turntable. It's all very fluid and seamless.

There's currently no announced end date for the Chicago run of Hamilton. Tickets are currently being sold well into the summer (a Facebook friend just announced that he had seats for July) and I expect it will continue beyond then if sales warrant it. I assume a tour will play the Fox at some point, but I think this is a show that really deserves to be seen in a Broadway-sized house like the one in Chicago. The lyrics are rich, inventive, and often rapid-fire, and I expect many of them will be lost in the Fox's acoustics.

In nations, as in nature, diversity is a source of strength. Hamilton is a reminder of that strength. We are, as JFK wrote in his book of the same name, "a nation of immigrants," so it's encouraging to note that, when we saw Hamilton, spontaneous applause burst out when Jefferson and Hamilton sang "immigrants: we get the job done." Information on Hamilton and other live theatre in Chicago is available at the Broadway in Chicago website.

 

Fun Home, the musical stage adaptation of Alison Bechdel's 2006 "family tragicomic" of the same name, is something of an odd fit for the Fox Theatre, where a national tour of the show is playing through November 27.

It is, to begin with, a small-cast show originally designed for a much smaller theatre. Even with a false proscenium that reduces the width of the stage by around a third, Fun Home feels dwarfed by the Fox's immensity. That creates a distancing effect that somewhat blunts the emotional force of the show, especially in the tragic and ultimately cathartic final scenes.

The story is also somewhat out of the Fox's usual Broadway hit mainstream. Like Ms. Bechdel's original graphic novel, Fun Home leaps forward and backward in time to tell the story of how she and her two siblings helped out at the small town funeral home (the "fun home" of the title) run by her father, Bruce, who was also the local high school English teacher.

In both the novel and the musical, Bruce emerges as a deeply conflicted and tragic character. He loves Alison but finds it hard to say so. He has male lovers outside of his marriage, but never fully comes to grips with his identity as a gay man. As a song heard early in the show, "He Wants," tells us, the Bechdel "fun home" revolves around what Bruce wants, and yet even he is not always clear what those wants are.

This is not, in short, your usual musical extravaganza. It's closer to a tragic opera, but with redemption for narrator Alison at the end.

Composer Jeanine Tesori (Thoroughly Modern Millie; Caroline, or Change) and playwright Lisa Kron (2.5 Minute Ride; Well) have, in any case, done an impressive job of translating Ms. Bechdel's work to the stage.

Ms. Kron's book handles the original material's leaps backward and forwards in time by presenting us with three versions of Alison Bechdel: Alison, age 43, writing her book; Medium Alison, a bookish age 19 discovering her lesbian sexual identity at Oberlin College; and Small Alison, age nine or thereabouts, trying (and often failing) to get her father's attention and affection while chafing at his insistence that she confirm to a "girly" role that, even at her age, she recognizes as alien. It's an ingenious device that allows us to see adult Alison remembering her life and sometimes even taking part in it, as in the song "Telephone Wires," in which she recalls that final, unsuccessful attempt to form a real emotional connection with her father before his untimely death when he was struck by a truck on a busy highway -- an incident that might or might not have been suicide.

For her part Ms. Tesori has put together a score which, while not generating any memorable melodies, nevertheless succeeds at the more important task of revealing and illustrating character. As New York Magazine theatre critic Jesse Green points out in the notes for the Fun Home cast album, Ms. Tesori "abjures traditional song forms, opting instead for yearning fragments and bits of refrains that clump like cells into musicalized scenes: a smart parallel to the way Bechdel builds pages from individual panels." My first inclination was to dismiss the results as so much contemporary musical-theatre yard goods, but hearing the score again on the cast recording brought me around to Mr. Green's point of view.

An excellent ensemble cast brings this all to life, led by Robert Petkoff as Bruce. His character is complex and could easily come across as unpleasant, but Mr. Petkoff does not neglect the character's softer side, giving him real depth. Kate Shindle displays the same depth as the adult Alison, making the character's difficult emotional journey all too real.

Susan Moniz is heartbreakingly real as Bruce's long-suffering wife Helen, bearing up under the unbearable burden of her husband's conflicted soul and finally pouring out her disappointment in the song "Days and Days":

Days and days and days, that's how it happens

Days and days and days

Made of lunches and car rides and shirts and socks

And grades and piano and no one clocks

The day you disappear

Abby Corrigan gets the enthusiastic vulnerability of Middle Alison just right and Alessandra Baldacchino is utterly engaging as Small Alison. There's fine work here as well by Lennon Nate Hammond and Pierson Salvador as Young Alison's brothers John and Christian, Karen Eilbacher as Joan (a.k.a. "Jo"), who is responsible for Middle Alison's sexual awakening, and Robert Hager in multiple roles.

The fact that Fun Home uses a small band playing on a raised platform in back of the stage instead of an orchestra pit helps make the sound clearer than it sometimes is at the Fox, as does the fact that there are almost no ensemble numbers at all. Individual voices invariably come through more cleanly over the amplification system. Sam Gold's direction pulls everything together flawlessly.

Fun Home may not be a great musical, but it is certainly an important one, especially in light of the dark strains of resentment let loose in the recent Presidential campaign. It reminds us that families can be difficult and that love is not always easy regardless of anyone's sexuality. Being human can just be hard sometimes, and we all need (as the old song goes) to "try a little tenderness."

Fun Home plays at the Fox in Grand Center through November 27. Note that the show runs around one hour and forty-five minutes with no intermission, and that evening shows begin at 7:30 p.m. instead of the usual 8.

 

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