Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Review of Kokandy Productions' Head Over Heels

Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called Head Over Heels. The book was by Jeff Whitty based on The Arcadia by Sir Philip Sidney, and it was adapted by James Magruder. The songs were by The Go-Go's. It was directed by Elizabeth Swanson and Derek Van Barham, music directed by Kyra Leigh, and choreographed by Breon Arzell. It was about the kingdom of Arcadia which had a “beat” that kept the rhythm of the land steady and communal, but one day a prophecy was foretold by the local Oracle, Pythio (Parker Guidry), that the beat would be demolished if all four parts of the prophecy came true! So they notified King Basilius (Frankie Leo Bennett) and told him the tactics he must use to prevent this catastrophe, but this plan was not suitable for the king who thought that if he simply moved the kingdom it would no longer lose its beat. In his mind it is a bonus that the journey will also move his daughters Pamela (Bridget Adams-King) and Philoclea (Caitlyn Cerza) away from the “unladylike” behavior that the prophecy foretold. However, his daughters continue to find themselves and who they love, no matter what their father says. This show is about love, identity, and overthrowing toxic power dynamics. This show is so important and beautiful because it recognizes different people's attractions and identities. It showed the intolerance that people can face, but it also showed the glee and fun of lots of different relationships. The focus wasn't on the tragedy, but on the joy. It has amazing performances and well thought-out song choices.

This is a great example of a good jukebox musical because the story is actually cohesive. Sometimes jukebox musicals can seem like a plot being thrown together around popular songs, but in this show each song seems grounded in the world and added to the plot instead of being “a break” from the plot. One of my favorite examples of this was “Beautiful.” The song explains the dynamic between the sisters and how Pamela feels superior to Philoclea. It also introduces Mopsa’s (Deanalís Resto) relationship with Pamela and how she seems to want to be more than friends but her current relationship was less than romantic. Having all of this information come through easily in one song is great storytelling and makes room for the central conflict while still giving enough exposition for that conflict to be fully understood. I feel like a lot of people who write jukebox musicals forget that many audience members don’t want to see a concert but want to see a story that intertwines the realm of musical theater with the realm of their favorite bands. I think that this is an example of someone giving us the best of both worlds: giving us the songs from The Go-Go's we love with a story that is new (despite being based on something very old) and interesting and makes sense together.

I really love this show's humor! It was clever and ridiculous--right up my alley. One moment that really cracked me up was the sheep. They seemed so clueless and adorable and the ensemble (Emily Barnash, Caitlin Dobbins, Britain Gebhardt, Connor Giles, Kaimana Neil, Roy Samra, Tiffany T. Taylor, and Marco Tzunux) really sold it, which made it 10 times better. I loved when one sheep (Gebhardt) was getting stuck in all of these places and running into walls repeatedly while all the rest of the sheep were doing a dance routine, which just added to the underdog humor element. There were a lot of blatant, and therefore hilarious, references and innuendos. One of my favorites was the prelude to the song "Vacation," sung by Mopsa, about her vacation to the isle of Lesbos, and it was funny how no one seemed to catch on that she was a lesbian, despite her choice of vacation destination. One of the funniest scenes for me was when Pamela is composing a poem about her ideal suitor and each rhyme that she can't think of has a rhyme that implies that she is attracted to girls. It was very funny and clever and I laughed a lot at it.

The characters in this show were witty and original takes on characters from The Arcadia. The shepherd Musidorus (Jeremiah Alsop) was my favorite character. He was so intricate and hilarious, and the actor's voice was gorgeous. Everything about this character and this actor was just right in my opinion. He mixed adorable and awkward with being self-confident and committed. Whenever he was interacting with the oracle he was starstruck and didn't know how to behave, but I always trusted that he would be faithful to Philoclea. I liked how the relationship between Philoclea and Musidorus wasn't just a straight love story, but it showed how gender fluidities can play a role in relationships without being the most important part of them. I think gender is overrated anyway. I also really love the character of Pythio. I feel like some plays portray people who don’t conform to a certain gender as these carefree, responsibility-less people, but in this show Pythio is seen as not just "fabulous," fearless, and motivating but as a person with a family and a job and a real life. They are also not just a tragic story of someone who is discriminated against. Sure, they are an oracle, but they have a more complicated backstory than just a token. The role was performed beautifully with great personality and technique. I think this show does a great job of taking characters that have been flattened and re-humanizing them. In this play we see people who are completely comfortable with their sexuality, people who are figuring out their sexuality, and people returning to an old love with a new sexuality and identity. Having such a range of queer characters helps avoid stigmas and stereotypes about the LGBTQ+ community.

People who would like this show are people who like queer representation in the foreground, joyful communal musicals, and fabulous dancing sheep. I think this is a very cohesive, funny, and electric show. I really loved it.

Photos: Michael Brosilow

Friday, July 5, 2019

Review of Firebrand Theatre's Queen of the Mist

Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called Queen of the Mist. The book, music, and lyrics were by Michael John LaChiusa and it was directed by Elizabeth Margolius. Music direction was by Charlotte Rivard-Hoster and orchestrations by Michael Starobin. It was about a woman named Anna Edson Taylor (Barbara E. Robertson) who couldn't pay her bills, so she was being run out of every town she lived in. She decided she wanted to make a name for herself, and what better way than do that than to hop on the trend of going over Niagara Falls! So she finds herself a manager, Frank Russell (Max J. Cervantes) who is skeptical at first but is won over by her charms. The show follows her master plan for surviving the falls and the aftermath of it, which is not what she expects. It is about self-motivation, how our choices effect others, and manipulation. This was a thought-provoking show. It made me think about what counts as a feminist story, how our rules for likable protagonists might be related to gender, and if relying on others is weak or necessary.

The character of Anna Edson Taylor was difficult to get behind for me. I understand a protagonist does not necessarily have to be a good person, but I felt like in this case Anna seemed to be trying to pass as a strong independent woman, but she kept having to restate to people that she was at one point married and they should call her Mrs. It seemed like she couldn't go on living without the approval of a man. Her choice to go over the falls in a barrel is in one way feminist because she is scientifically designing a barrel that can go over the falls without issue and proving a woman can do that. But she is also not being feminist because she is being coached through it by a man and she is doing it all for attention. She is also lowering her age so she can seem more appealing to the press. She is accepting how society is and catering to the ideals that society has made for women, but she still wants to be seen as feminist. She doesn't feel like she needs the help of other people, but she still takes it and doesn't acknowledge that she is taking it. Unlikable protagonists show that to be important you don't have to be a good person. It also helps you develop empathy for multiple types of people.

One of the most interesting scenes of the play to me was when we are introduced to the replacement Anna Edson Taylor (Neala Barron), who is touring with Anna's former manager Frank Russell with the original barrel. In the play Anna confronts her manager and meets this replacement. The replacement is more successful because she is willing to describe what it was like to be in the falls, whereas Anna wants to keep that to herself. It tells us that it is hard to keep any kind of private life when you are famous, and if you do, people don't take interest in you. The replacement isn't actually telling her own story, which shows us that sometimes the media and audience would rather have interesting lies than no information on a subject. I loved Neala Barron's performances in this show. Her voice is amazing and worked so well with both of her characters, the replacement Anna, and Anna's sister Jane. Jane and Anna's relationship was central to the show because Anna says that she loves Jane, but she also manipulates her into giving her help even though she says she doesn't need it and then isn't grateful for it. She also doesn't understand why her sister would be angry that Anna risked her life for a stunt. They had been very close when they were kids, so it seems like a matter of her sister being scared for her, not trying to tear her away from her dreams.

When you first walk into the theater, the atmosphere is very clear. It felt breezy and even seemed to smell of fresh water. It all contributed to the idea of the peaceful state that Anna went into when she went over the falls. That is an immersive environment for the audience to walk into. The set (by Lauren M Nichols) was also shaped like a barrel, which adds to the sense of immersion because you are in the barrel with her, like you were on the same journey through life. The actors would write important information on the back board, which added this collage of life aspect to the show and made it seem rounded out at the end.

People who would like this show are people who like barrel metaphors, complex protagonists, and sisterly love. I think this is a show with some really great performances that stretches your ideas of what a female protagonist can be.


Photos: Michael Brosilow

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Review of Teatro Vista and Collaboraction's La Havana Madrid

Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called La Havana Madrid. It was by Sandra Delgado and it was directed by Cheryl Lynn Bruce. Music direction was by Roberto Marin and Yendrys Cespedes. The choreographer was Wilfredo Rivera. It was about a club called La Havana Madrid (represented by Delgado) largely populated by the Latinx community. It was a place of community and reflection and safety for them where they could be themselves and find home in one another as they tell each other stories of where they came from, how they met the most important people in their lives, and finding their own passions. This show is about love, injustice, and finding hope. This is an amazing, hopeful, and truthful show that explores many sides of the Latinx experience and how the world around us has changed but also brings to light the ways it still needs to. This is a show that tells a very important story in an communal and new way.

This show is heavily fueled by music, which seems to symbolize elements of community. In each story that was told there would be some part of it that showed how music influenced their lives. I think that this is a great way to tie these stories together in a way that also relates to the setting. It also allows more audience involvement which can bring the audience closer to the stories being told. Sometimes in a show audience participation can seem forced, as if they put it in the show to make sure the audience was engaged, but it felt very natural and communal here. It also enhanced the story which oftentimes audience participation does not. One place this link between music and community was very clear was in Maria's (Ayssette Muñoz) story. She has just moved to the States and missed her parents and her home, so to get a taste of what she is missing she goes to La Havana Madrid. There she found she could express herself through dance and then she offers us her hand to dance with her.

All of the stories in this show were super important to tell and were performed beautifully. They showed varied aspects of Latinx experiences of immigration and life in the United States. One story that really stood out to me was Carlos’s (Victor Musoni). He talked about his path to activism which was very moving and well-performed. The image that really stuck with me was at the very end of his story and of the first act he is seen putting on a black beret while people chanted around him and he seemed to have found his place, the place he felt he was needed and belonged. Even though it is a moment of rebellion, it was very touching and powerful and sweet.

Even though this show is about discrimination and injustice, it shows how these people still found joy in their lives even if the world was trying to tear them down. This brings in some more joyful and bittersweet moments in the show, which make for very complex story telling. Sometimes shows that are devised from many true stories that don't fully connect to each other can seem un-thought-through and preachy, but this show finds throughlines in the story and also does not just yell at the audience about how bad the world is and was. The characters talk about what they did to cope with hard times and then showed us how. Carpacho (Marvin Quijada) does a tutorial for us on how to play the stand-up bass and how much joy jazz and salsa brings him. This contrasts with stories of having to hide from immigration officers. The character seems to say this is how I got through the hardest times in my life and possibly it could help you with people not accepting you. This approach is a lot more enjoyable and enthralling to experience and was done very well throughout the show. The actual bandleader and bass player for the show, Roberto Marin, was who this story was about, and it shows how his path in life led him to sharing music with us. It was powerful to see a person who had struggled get to do what he loved and that he is still doing it to this day.

People who would like this show are people who like stories of community, memorable themes and images, and non-oppressive audience participation. I think this is a great show and is like nothing I've seen before. I really enjoyed it while it was also an informative and immersive experience that I would recommend. I really liked it.

Photos: Joel Maisonet


Monday, June 10, 2019

Review of Six at Chicago Shakespeare

Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called Six. It was by Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss and it was directed by Moss and Jamie Armitage. It was choreographed by Carrie-Anne Ingrouille. It is about the six wives of Henry VIII, who are putting on a concert to decide which one of them suffered the most during her marriage to him and therefore who will be the lead singer. It is about feminism, taking ownership of your own life story, and overcoming differences. I think this is a vocal masterpiece of a show. All the performers were brilliant and it was clever, fun, and uplifting with several gut-punching moments of truth.

Divorced.... Catherine of Aragon (Adrianna Hicks) is the first wife of Henry VIII. She was very loyal to him which is the main point of the song. Even though he was sleeping around, she still stayed loyal to him and didn't say a word. She has been such a good wife, but even though she has been the perfect wife to him, he still wants to get rid of her. And she says, "there is no way that you are going to kick me out because I'm an amazing person and there is no reason you would want to leave me". It is Beyonce's Lemonade collapsed into one song. It is very empowering and I love that she is showing her devotion at the same time that she is showing she can do better. I thought the performance was absolutely gorgeous. I loved the tone switches between heartfelt and furious, which I think is a relatable parallel. The other divorcée, Anna of Cleves (Brittney Mack), also has an amazing song that reminded me of "Fancy" by Iggy Azalea. It starts with a similar bass line and is very braggy in a badass way. It is also very empowering because she talks about not just the things she possesses as part of the divorce settlement, but things she is, like how hot she is and how powerful she is and how she can do what she wants because she is queen of her own castle. She really got the audience hyped up, which I think is important for such a braggy song. It might seem self-involved, but when she gets the audience involved, it shows that it is more of a group brag about female power. The performance was excellent, engaging, and was the perfect pick me up after a ballad.

Beheaded.... Anne Boleyn (Andrea Macasaet) and Katherine Howard (Samantha Pauley) seem to have a leg up on the suffering competition because he literally had them killed. Anne Boleyn's song, "Don't Lose Ur Head," was less empowering because it was very clearly targeted at Catherine of Aragon, trying to show that she was overreacting and should have just accepted how obvious it was that Henry preferred Anne. It is a very very catchy song though and reminds me of a mix of The Pipettes, Marina and the Diamonds, and Spice Girls, which are some pretty brilliant artists so it is bound to be catchy. I think bratty British pop is perfect for her because you can tell by the way she acted that she thinks she is entitled to quite a bit. She is trying to seem innocent, but can't hide that she is self-obsessed and scheming. This creates some really great levels, which the actor totally nailed, throughout the song. I really liked the haunting undertone in Katherine Howard's song "All You Wanna Do." The beginning of the song is very sexual and Britney-Spears-like, but as the song continues and as she tells us about more of her past lovers, she slowly starts to realize how jaded and depressed she is. She is being used by all of these men and she has lost her own self worth. That is a lot to convey in one song, especially an upbeat pop song, but it was done so beautifully and emotionally by Pauly. She had these shifts in the song where she would realize what was happening, but then seemed to become distracted almost mid-realization by the next guy. This entire song was super effective, and I feel like it was important to show that even though she was a very sex-positive figure, some of that was a defense mechanism from all of the early sexualization in her life. The breakdown at the end of the song really got to me. You could really see her falling apart on stage and begging for help, and it was really hard to watch this super confident woman fall apart like that, but I still think it is important to show.

Died and Survived.... Jane Seymour's (Abby Mueller) song was called "Heart of Stone" and it was about how no matter how much garbage was hurled at her by Henry, she still loved him very very much and was going to stand by him even though it took a lot out of her. The most powerful section of the song for me was when she talked about her son and also about how if she hadn't had a son it might have made it so Henry wouldn't have stayed with her. It was very clear when she sang this that she had a lot of love for her son and realized how important he was to both of them, but she is devastated that she doesn't get to see him grow up. This song I would call a feat because Mueller made me cry within the first 15 seconds of this song. Her voice is so gorgeous and fits so well with this song. She made me feel the intention and the raw emotion behind the words of the song. Usually having a heart of stone means you are unfeeling, but in this song it means she is selfless and her heart can endure whatever it is hit with. Catherine Parr (Anna Uzele) had a song, "I Don't Need Your Love," that is very soulful and hopeful. The first half of the song is a letter to Thomas, the love of her life, because Henry has chosen to marry her and she has no choice but to comply. It becomes wishful because if she could she would tell Henry she didn't need him and would leave, but she can't do that without signing a suicide note. It feels gratifying to hear that she did make it out and survived Henry and got to spend the rest of her life doing what she should have been able to do years ago. I thought it was a gorgeous song and you could hear in her voice how much she loved Thomas. Her wishing her life was different was heartbreaking and beautifully done.

People who would like this show are people who like empowering queens, Renaissance references, and group brags about female power. I think this is an amazing show. Every single artist in this show is insanely talented. It is very empowering. It is a musical that looks back on the past and shows how the situations these women were in are relevant today. It shows how even if the queens are not here now, women can take back their stories, apply them to their own lives, and re-envision and revise them. It was inspirational, and it was a blast.

Photos: Liz Lauren

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Review of Falsettos (Broadway in Chicago)

Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called Falsettos. The music and lyrics were by William Finn and the book was by Finn and James Lapine. It was choreographed by Spencer Liff and directed by Lapine. It was about a family in the 1970s and early 80s who are dealing with the effects of Marvin (Max von Essen), the father, leaving his wife, Trina (Eden Espinosa), and his son, Jason (Thatcher Jacobs when I saw it), for his boyfriend Whizzer (Nick Adams). As the family falls apart he sees a psychiatrist, Mendel (Nick Blaemire), who eventually falls in love with Trina. It is about family, love, and acceptance. I think this is a powerful story and an amazing musical. I already loved this musical before I saw it, and the cast in several cases even exceeded my expectations. It was great!

The relationship between Whizzer and Marvin is very complicated because you really see how much they love each other but you can also see how toxic their relationship is, especially at the start of the play. Their first song together is "Thrill of First Love," where they are yelling at each other about various things that they don't like about each other. It shows that just because you come out of the closet, it doesn't mean you are going to be happy all they time. Gay relationships aren't perfect just because people finally have the right to love each other. Later in the show, Whizzer sings a song called "The Games I Play" reflecting on his past relationships. He basically says, "I know I do all these things I know aren't good for me or the people I'm with, but I do them anyway." He realizes he is a sex object, which we knew from "Thrill of First Love," when Marvin says, "I was rich, he was horny, he fit like a glove." He is coming to terms with so many things that he may have already known, but he just accepted that was his place in the world because that is the way every man he'd ever been with had treated him. Whizzer's next solo, "You Gotta Die Sometime," after he's been hospitalized, was absolutely gorgeous. He seemed so desperate and scared, which is something you haven't seen from Whizzer before because he's been so confident and cocky. It makes it extremely alarming to see him so scared. I thought that it was an absolutely heart-wrenching song. It is one of my favorites, and I thought it was amazingly performed here. The relationship between Marvin and Whizzer does get better the second time around because they both realize what they did wrong and how they really needed each other and made each other better people. After this relationship has started becoming something really meaningful, Whizzer is hospitalized. It makes every song where they are still falling in love with each other more heartbreaking because you see that they finally found each other again and were happy and something had to go wrong. The play does a good job of showing how terrible the relationship is, getting rid of it, and then showing how what they did wrong could be done right. This makes the fear that both of them have about losing each other more heartbreaking to watch.

Thatcher Jacobs played Jason phenomenally. He brought this angst to this role which is written into the role but doesn't always come across as clearly as it did in his portrayal. He seemed like a sad 40-year-old, not like a cranky 10-year-old, which is in keeping with how weird the adults find him. He was very sad, and rationally so. He is a very complex character and you could feel every emotion he was experiencing. It was such masterful acting. We also see him turn into a teenager, although he often acts more mature than a teenager would. In "Miracle of Judaism," he talks about what girls he wants to invite to his Bar Mitzvah. He talks about all the things he likes about them and how he thinks he shouldn't like the women that he does. He sings a reprise, "Another Miracle of Judaism," where he is instead asking God to keep Whizzer from dying. Throughout the play, he has become closer to Whizzer. The play is about how family doesn't have to always be blood relatives. At the Bar Mitzvah, Mendel (who is now his stepfather) calls Jason "son of Marvin, son of Trina, son of Whizzer, son of Mendel, and godchild to the lesbians next door," Dr. Charlotte (Bryonha Marie Parham) and Cordelia (Audrey Caldwell). That seems to me to be the real miracle, that all these different people become a family, and Jason realizes that, which shows how much he's grown. I also really loved the relationship between Mendel and Jason because there is no specific power dynamic even though he is his stepfather. They just seem to love being together. You really see this in "Everyone Hates His Parents" and "Feel Alright" which are both songs that essentially say things will be better if you act like a human instead of worrying about things. During both of these songs they are dancing around, and Jason is being flipped around, and they are jumping off things and breaking things, and it is adorable.

Trina has a song where she sings about how she is "tired of all the happy men who rule the world, all the stupid, childish men who rule the world." This is followed by "March of the Falsettos," which seems to be Trina's view of the men around her; they are acting ridiculous, like toddlers, and running around in these little outfits with high pitched voices. I think this is a very relatable song for me and I like that they include the woman's perspective even though less than half the cast is female, and in act one Trina is the only woman. This show is written by two men and directed by one of them, which makes me happy to see the woman's opinion and feelings being represented in realistic ways. This show represents so many different stories at an important time in history, and I think it means a lot to a lot of different people for many different reasons. I think that is what makes this show so important and beautiful. Some plays follow one person's journey, but this play somehow manages to follow several different people's storylines in a way that is specific enough that you grow to love each of them.

People who would like this show are people who like important musicals that make you love every character, complex child characters, and brilliantly heartbreaking and frank laments. I absolutely loved this show. It is an amazing story. It is beautifully acted, and this is a gorgeous musical.

Photos: Joan Marcus

Review of Hamlet at Chicago Shakespeare Theater

Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called Hamlet. It was by William Shakespeare and it was directed by Barbara Gaines. It was about a young prince named Hamlet (Maurice Jones) whose father (Derrick Lee Weeden) had recently died and his mother, Gertrude (Karen Aldridge), had remarried his father's brother, Claudius (Tim Decker). It is about justice, loss, and recklessness. I thought Maurice Jones' portrayal of Hamlet was gorgeous and he brought a sense of reason for his actions and an intelligence and self-awareness that you don't always see in the character.

Rosencrantz (Alex Goodrich) and Guildenstern (Samuel Taylor) weren't what I expected. Usually in Hamlet they act as the comic relief trying to get Hamlet to laugh his depression away. But in this version they seemed much more sincere because they seemed to really care about Hamlet. Usually they seem pretty self-interested and are only there to visit Hamlet to gain something from the King, but in this one they seemed more genuinely interested in helping him. I think we miss a lot of the humor that is in this play because they are usually a main source of it. I know both these actors are very funny performers and have played comedic roles, so I was expecting them to be the comic relief. This version has more respect for those characters, which makes Hamlet seem more cruel when he alters the order they have from the King so that it results in their execution. It makes it seem like he may actually be crazy. Usually Hamlet is a gleeful crazy person, but in this version he seemed dangerously crazy in moments like the recorder moment. Usually that is him celebrating his victory, but in this version he seemed to be threatening Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, like he was implying that he was going to shove the recorder somewhere they didn't want it to be shoved. It feels like a credible and physical threat. It shows you that he doesn't have any filter anymore and even people really trying to help him seem like a threat. He is paranoid.

I really liked the scene with Hamlet and Gertrude after the play within the play. Usually that scene is heartbreaking and scary because you can see Hamlet has the bulk of the power. He is usually screaming at her and she is just sitting there crying. But in this version, she has a weapon that Hamlet doesn't know about which changes the power dynamic. In this scene it does seem like she might actually kill him because she has shown so little interest in him throughout the play because she is infatuated with her new husband whom Hamlet despises. That shows you that she has a motive to kill him besides self-preservation, and it seems like she might actually do it. I thought this scene was very powerful because it made me feel sorry for Gertrude because you think she might try to kill her son but she can't see herself because she is blinded by incestuous love. It is both heartbreaking and terrifying, but in a different way than usual, because the power dynamic has shifted and you believe a mother is capable of killing her son.

I really liked the relationship between Horatio (Sean Allan Krill) and Hamlet. Usually that seems very brotherly, but in this one Horatio was more fatherly. I liked that because the lack of a father is Hamlet's biggest loss, so it was nice to see Horatio take on that role. I think that built more of an interesting relationship between them because Horatio was not just a buddy but someone Hamlet really relied on. Hamlet seems to project a self-sufficient character, but to see him actually relying on someone and not pushing everyone away makes Horatio seem more special. That makes Horatio seem to fuel a lot more of Hamlet's actions because of their father-son bond. Hamlet seems to have parallel motivations from Horatio and the Ghost of Hamlet's father, but Horatio seems to care a lot more about Hamlet's wellbeing. Horatio and the Ghost don't want the exact same thing, but they are both motivating Hamlet. The ghost is motivating him to get revenge and Horatio is motivating him not to go crazy while doing it.

People who would like this show are people who like new takes on classic characters, distressing but interesting family dynamics, and threatening recorders. I think this production had an amazing lead and some interesting new ideas about this story. I really liked it.

Photos: Liz Lauren

Monday, May 13, 2019

Review of The Watsons Go to Birmingham - 1963 at Chicago Children's Theatre

Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called The Watsons Go to Birmingham - 1963. It was based on the book by Christopher Paul Curtis, adapted by Cheryl L. West, and directed by Wardell Julius Clark. It was about a family called the Watsons who were taking their eldest child Byron (Stephen "Blu" Allen) to stay with their grandma (Deanna Reed-Foster) in Birmingham, Alabama to teach him how to behave. On their travels they encounter more overt racism than they faced in Flint, Michigan, which causes the youngest son, Kenny (Jeremiah Ruwé/Nelson Simmons), to question what the world is really like. It is about family, injustice, and fear. The play introduces kids to the some of the darker sides of the history of the civil rights movement and reflects anxieties of parents and children when faced with racism and significant social change.

I really loved the family dynamic in this story. Some of my favorite moments were in the car with Daddy (Bear Bellinger), Mama (Sharriese Hamilton), Kenny, Byron, and their little sister Joey (Jillian Giselle/Lyric Sims). I really liked how when they put on Kenny's music, most of them couldn't stand it. It was very funny to watch the time lapse of them growing more disgusted with the song. That they kept playing his song nonetheless showed how much they loved him and how fair they were. I loved the relationship between Daddy and Mama especially. It was very playful and they worked well together. The whole family seemed very connected not only as the characters but as the actors, and they played well together throughout. I think a good example of this is the shaving scene. It was adorable on top of providing some exposition, which is hard to fit in to an adaptation for children, but I think it fit well and furthered my love for the family. Also, I think Grandma Sands might be the most lovable character ever because she was so free, caring, and wise. She loved a good joke. I loved the specificity of her relationships with each of the kids.

I think that this adaptation made a choice to make the whirlpool (which Kenny mishears as Wool Pooh) a specific and visible character (played by Ian Paul Custer), which stripped some of the actual emotion and injustice out of the story because in that moment they make it a fantasy with monsters. The Wool Pooh as a monster represents a lot of the chaos and danger of the south, but because it was a person in a costume, I didn't feel like it worked to do that. It felt like they were almost trying to convince the audience that none of the injustice was real so as not to scare the kids. In the book I found the disorientation of the church bombing that Kenny experiences, and where the Wool Pooh also appears, very effective and emotional. In the book it works because the Wool Pooh is described vaguely enough that it was more of a presence than a monster when he's trying to grab the shoe that we later learn belonged to one of the dead girls. By having him physically fight the Wool Pooh for the shoe, it makes it less realistic and seems to turn a real-life tragedy into a heroic fantasy battle. I think it is not actually that helpful to make it less realistic for kids; it actually makes them afraid of things they don’t need to fight instead of recognizing real problems in the world. I believe if kids are exposed to these topics at an early age, they can learn how to develop a new healthy humanized perspective that recognizes the reality of discrimination, danger, and death. I do understand that sometimes kids transform real dangers into imaginary monsters to make them easier to process, but when you are watching it, it was hard to still place the scene in reality.

People who would like this show are people who like realistic family relationships, detailed introductions to difficult topics, and youthful grandmothers. I think that this show has some beautiful elements and a great story.


Photos: Charles Osgood