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.

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.


Tom Stoppard's Arcadia is a fascinating and deeply intelligent play. St. Louis University and director Lucy Cashion are giving it an elegant, beautiful production (playing through November 20). Conceive, if you can, a historical whodunnit where sex is blended with mathematics, the struggle between the rational and the Romantic eras is reenacted, and where Lord Byron, landscape architecture, and the second law of thermodynamics are central themes. 

Arcadia is not for lazy audiences. The wit is sometimes subtle and quick, the language at times demanding. If you've no idea what the Age of Enlightenment or the Romantic Movement was, if you've never heard of Byron, if you've no concept of scientific inquiry -- then perhaps you should stay at home. But if you like to think, then careful attention to Arcadia will be bountifully repaid. In some ways it's like Shakespeare: it's worth reading before you see it; it's worth seeing several times. It is so rich that you'll keep getting more and more. But stay alert; eat lightly before you come -- and prepare to listen fast. This is my favorite modern play.

What does it mean to be the inheritors of rich scientific and artistic legacies? What does it mean to be human in a doomed universe? Listen! Watch!

The play is set in an English country estate and shifts fluidly between 1809 and the present. Lucy Cashion has startled us in recent years with some wonderfully inventive avant-garde productions; here she shows an equally skillful hand in a rather more conventional mode. The set by designer Dan Giedeman is simplicity itself: one long, long beautiful oak table, a few chairs, an antique music stand. Far at the back against a softly-lit cyclorama sit the entire cast of twelve, frozen in natural poses -- as if in an aquatint. A piano, off-stage in most productions, here sits in an upstage corner.  The characters step into the scenes as they flow, afterward retiring to their chairs at the rear. The entire production is suffused with a spare, graceful beauty. Lou Bird does lovely work with costumes -- especially for the nineteenth-century characters. 

In 1809 we meet Thomasina Coverly (daughter of the estate, thirteen) and her tutor young Septimus Hodge. Marilyn Arnold is quite perfect as the ingenuous Thomasina, the lovely adolescent mathematical prodigy who discovers fractal mathematics -- the geometry of nature -- a hundred and sixty years before Benoit Mandelbrot. Miss Arnold is filled with light grace. She conveys a convincing keen innocent curiosity about everything from why we can't un-stir the jam in our rice pudding to "What is carnal embrace?"

  • Ryan Lawson-Maeske gives a strong performance as Septimus. He masters the tutor's quick defensive wit and his arrogance-veiled-in-irony.
    Other good performances are given by:
  • Ross Rubright as Chater, the absurd and often-cuckolded dreadful poet,
  • Blake Howard as Noakes, the very arty landscape architect who is converting the estate's gardens from the Classical to the Romantic style. In his flowing coat and broad hat he is particularly evocative of that period and profession.
  • Alyssa Still as Lady Croom, mistress of the estate. Miss Still edges Lady Croom just a bit too much toward the nose-in-the-air snob -- a type found more in the nouveau riche than in an ancient noble family. This is an intelligent, if modestly educated woman. She is, after all, Thomasina's mother.
  • Quincy Shenk gives us a very nicely military Captain Brice.
  • Evan Garber makes the patient butler Jellaby rather endearing.

And now the modern-day characters:

  • Parvuna Sulaiman gives an outstanding performance as Hanna, the garden historian. She brings a beautiful face and voice to the role, and brims with intelligence, subtlety and a sharp wit.
  • Andy O'Brien plays Bernard, the insufferable Byron scholar. He flourishes his intellect like a saber. Very good work indeed.
  • Alex Fyles is most impressive in the role of Val, older son to the estate. It's such an utterly natural, confident performance. His sheer excitement about science and mathematics makes one long and difficult scene really work.
  • Sarah Richardson plays Chloe, daughter to the estate, with bright energy.
  • Michael Lanham plays the fifteen-year-old Coverly son -- in both eras. He gives us an articulate, confidant Augustus (1809). Gus (modern) has been mute since the age of five. This and his terror of loud noises and conflict would seem to place Gus somewhere on the autism spectrum. Lanham does good work with both lads. Moreover (unless my eyes deceived me) it is he who plays the very lovely piano passages -- including some Chopin -- that support the play throughout. Fine work!

Good acting abounds. There was, I think, only one significant lack: I missed a sense of tenderness from Septimus toward Thomasina. He is brusque, even intellectually combative with others in the play, but this will not do with Thomasina. There is a magic in this girl of which Septimus is fully aware. His proper formality as her tutor must not quite successfully mask his occasional flush of awe as she leads his mind into remarkable territories. And a tenderness is needed to support the final scene where, on the eve of her seventeenth birthday, Thomasina yearns for more than a tutor's sort of love.

There are, count them, five studies under way in this play. They are in:

  1. the history of gardens, where Hanna delves into the Sidley archives on the trail of a mysterious hermit,
  2. the history of literature, where Bernard so desperately hopes he's discovered a Byron scandal,
  3. the behavior of grouse populations, where Val's computer simulations are drawn from the estate's old "game books," and
  4. the mathematics of nature, where Thomasina's genius outshines them all.

What's the fifth study? Well, it overarches the others and is undertaken by just about everybody. It's the study of just what the heck is "carnal knowledge" and how does it effect the pursuit of truth.

Arcadia, under Lucy Cashion's gifted direction, yields a most satisfying evening. It examines the various paths to truth -- the artistic, the scientific, the intuitive. And it celebrates that wonderful trait which distinguishes genus homo sapiens from all others -- not just our hunger for knowledge, but that primal joy in the pursuit of knowledge, that dance of the intellect. We live in a world subject to the second law of thermodynamics: i. e., despite local eddies of order, in the long run disorder increases. We will ultimately arrive at the "heat death" of the universe, when everything is cosmologically "luke warm" and time ceases. What are we to do? "When we have found all the mysteries and lost all the meaning," says Septimus, "we will be alone on an empty shore." "Then," says Thomasina, "we will dance."   

 

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.

 


I've always said that college theatre gives you the very best bang for your theater buck, and once again Webster Conservatory has resoundingly proved me right. Their production of Macbeth is superb. Actors, designers, builders, craftsmen and crew are all students. Director Bruce Longworth has brilliantly led them into the creation of a remarkable and exciting evening.

We find ourselves awed by four great rough-hewn megaliths standing behind an ancient stone circle. Designer Robbie Ashurst approaches genius in the use of these scenic elements. By themselves they ache of ancient Britain. At first they are subtly decorated by narrow vertical drizzles of runes -- not unlike the droppings of some evil bird. But when a shift of lighting brings out hints of primitive faces on the stones -- as the runes evaporate -- the magic of these stones begins. As we venture into this dark evening these great stones, from time to time, glow with projections: the graceful text of Macbeth's letter to his wife, the noble faces of the future kings descendant from Banquo. When the tragic confusion of the elements is at its highest we are given a huge blood-tinged solar eclipse! Most impressive!

Lighting, by Josh Murphy, and sound by Marion Ayers are equally excellent. The opening battlefield scene surmounts the difficulty of presenting convincing swordplay by being staged in slow motion, with a kind of stop-action use of strobe lights. There are great storms and lightning, there's lovely -- and sometimes ominous -- music. Magically the black sky is filled with a thousand candles. But all the impressive technical aspects never quite cross that line that marks the boundary between a play about people and a play about high-tech effects. It's all very fine work.

Costumer Lauren Rismiller clothes these ancient Scots in beautifully appropriate garb. It's mostly in dark and earthy tones, but Lady Macbeth's striking red gown somehow fits well into the scheme. (And actress Sigrid Wise takes great advantage of that gown's potential for dramatic movement.)

This is a very classic production of Macbeth. No "concept," no shifting of time or place. Yes, several roles written for men are given to women, but this is quite appropriate in a training environment like the Conservatory, which has obligations not only to the audience but to the students as well. There just ain't that many roles for women in Shakespeare. (Many of England's great actresses cut their teeth in men's roles in girls-school productions of Shakespeare; Sarah Bernhardt played Hamlet, and Glenda Jackson is soon to appear as King Lear.) In this Macbeth, Malcolm, the king's son, is played by Austen Danielle Bohmer. She does a beautiful job. A woman in this role offers no difficulty, as Malcolm is indeed a beardless youth. The nobleman Lennox is also played by a woman -- Natalie Walker.  Tall and with a wonderfully expressive face she's full of masculine ardor and she moves to battle with the most commanding stride of anyone on stage.

The three witches do lovely wicked work, with strange incantations and a very strange sort of dance. Their brewing of the "toil and trouble" involves their pouring nasty buckets full of red, green and black slime down a grating in the floor -- a nice directorial touch. But despite their weirdness and rags they still appeared as attractive young women. I wanted a bit more grotesqueness -- a bit of hagginess, a hint of beard.

What a charming twist it was, when the murderers are brought in to talk with Macbeth, to have one of them almost giddy with awe at the fittings of this royal room. In another delicious bit director Longworth puts the prophesies not into the witches' mouths but into Macbeth's -- with actor Myke Andrews mouthing the words to recordings of other voices. Spooky!

Matthew Brent Luyber (who played the delightful Stephano in last year's Tempest) gives a gem of a comic performance as the drunken porter. He's a hoot! And all of the student actors do excellent work. There's not a weak spot in the entire cast. And, as usual, the diction is splendid.

Now, as to the tragic lord and lady. Both Myke Andrews and Sigrid Wise do excellent work. And this gave rise to a tiny marital discord: my wife raved about Andrews, his diction, his deep understanding of the lines. Well, yes, that's all true. But I thought that Miss Wise was just a pinch more fine. Similar owning of lines, similar fine diction, but with a gift for graceful, powerful dramatic movement. Her "unsex me here" speech was spine-chilling, and she gives us a shocking moment when she is clearly going mad.

All in all it's another very fine production. It's Macbeth at the Webster Conservatory. It plays through November 20.


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