Saturday, July 27, 2019

Review of Cloudgate Theatre's Strange Heart Beating

Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called Strange Heart Beating. It was by Kristin Idaszak and it was directed by Addie Gorlin. It was about a small rural town where a woman named Lena (Leah Raidt) and her childhood friend Teeny (Jyreika Guest), who is now Sheriff, are looking for Lena's missing daughter. But as they uncover her daughter's story, more strange things about the town start to come to light. It was about friendship, loss, and suspicion. This story and its world didn't always make sense to me, and the dialogue didn't help develop the relationships for me, but it had some compelling performances.

I think the people who were making this play had some very strong ideas for a show. I like that they are telling the stories of women and have characters with diverse backgrounds. They are putting important topics into the light, like how sexism and racism can derail justice. It is a murder mystery where women are not just victims, and that is appealing. The set (Angela McIlvain) worked very well with the story and provided lots of locations. Along with the sound (Averi Paulsen) and lighting (Kaili Story), it created a distinct noir atmosphere for the play.

This play seemed like a good idea, but I don’t feel like the script was ready. The dialogue was very heightened which made all of the situations seem less serious because it didn't make the speakers seem like they were in a real situation. I liked this same kind of dialogue in Idaszak's play Fugue for Particle Accelerator, but there it seemed more in keeping with the rest of the play. The dialogue was not the only aspect that made the play feel less than believable to me; the justice system put in place in this town let a person directly affected by the crime administer punishment, but the reasons this was allowed to happen were glossed over. The disappearance is also connected to a larger conspiracy, but it feels like a conspiracy without a theory because it is not explained or even really investigated in the play. Storytelling where it is up to audience to make up how the play ends is usually very compelling to me, but I didn't feel like I had enough material to create fully-realized theories in this case.

I think the actors in this show did an amazing job with the script they were given. I have loved a lot of the actors' other work, and I think that even with the unnatural world and dialogue, the actors brought a sense of groundedness to the play, and their relationships, especially apart from what was shown in dialogue, were very genuine and interesting to watch. I felt like the Lake's (Stephanie Shum) relationships with the other characters was very strong. Looking at Shum's reactions to each scene as it was going on showed you exactly how she felt about each character. She did a great job of giving us a more rounded sense of the world and her character. The heightened language did seem to make more sense with her character because it is already a strange premise to have a lake talking. And I could see Guest working to ground her scenes in reality and tie the ups and downs in the relationship to specific reasons.

People who would like this show are people who like woman-centric mysteries, examinations of justice, and talking lakes. I think this show has some really strong performances, an intriguing premise, and therefore a lot of potential. I'm excited to see what Cloudgate does next.

Photos: Austin D Oie

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Review of The Music Man at Goodman Theatre

Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called The Music Man. It was by Meredith Willson based on a story by Willson and Franklin Lacey, and it was directed by Mary Zimmerman. Music direction was by Jermaine Hill and choreography was by Denis Jones. It was about a man named Harold Hill (Geoff Packard) who was a traveling salesman and went to a small town in Iowa called River City. He has been traveling America conning people into buying things. Here he is pretending to start a band that will never actually come to be. But he knows that he has to get the town music teacher/librarian, Marian Paroo (Monica West), on his side to make the con successful. In the process of trying to get her on his side, he ends up actually falling for her. Most of the town is on Harold's side, but the Mayor (Ron E. Rains) is still skeptical, which causes tension between Mr. Hill and the most powerful family in town. It is about finding love in strange places, truthfulness and the lack thereof, and community.

The play opens on a train car full of traveling salespeople and passengers (Matt Casey, Matt Crowle, Jeremy Peter Johnson, Jonathan Schwart, Bri Sudia, George Andrew Wolff) gossiping about Harold Hill who had become something of a legend among the salespeople because he makes a lot of money from selling musical instruments, which they didn't think could be profitable. The entire scene is set to the beat of the wheels on the train tracks. It is very rhythmic, almost like a rap. When the train slows down or speeds up, so do the speakers. Charlie Cowell (Crowle) seems to really have it out for Hill because Hill "doesn't know the territory." He kept screaming about the territory and repeating the same point as he climbs over seats and seems to be losing his mind. It was an entertaining way to set up the conflict between Cowell and Hill. Cowell does have a point, because Hill has to spend the rest of the play learning how to understand the territory of River City. Eventually he understands it so well he falls in love with part of it!

The choreography and ensemble were really strong in this show. The choreography was reminiscent of choreography from this era of musicals without being stuck in the past. There were new modern twists to the movement. I particularly liked how they incorporated rolling chairs and books in the choreography for "Marian the Librarian." That song in particular made better use of the ensemble than in the film and other productions I've seen. The ensemble was also very strong in "Iowa Stubborn." It was one of the big ensemble numbers, and I think it is great when the whole group seems like a moving, breathing force. I feel like when they walked on stage they just became the town. Actors would have individual interesting moments, but everyone was working so well together. You could feel they trusted each other. When their heads all seemed to be tracking Harold Hill as he walked across the stage, you got the impression of the whole town as a force that he had to win over. And we see him start to do this in "Ya Got Trouble." I really liked how the town started to accumulate around him. At first it was just about three people, but as he continued singing and talking about what happens in a pool hall, everyone gathered around him and started grabbing their children so they would not be tainted by pool. I feel like this Harold Hill was a lot more likable than I expected. He seemed genuine and you could see early on that he had reservations about fooling the town. This made him a lot more lovable and made Marian seem a lot more intelligent.

This show is very gendered in that most of the women characters behave in a certain manner and most of the men characters in another. Good examples of this are the women's club [Alma (Nicole Michelle Haskins), Ethel (Lillian Castillo), Eulalie (Heidi Kettenring), Maud (Bri Sudia), and Mrs. Squires (Danielle Davis)] and the school board quartet (Christoper Kale Jones, Johnson, James Konicek, Schwart). Both the women and the men get very distracted from Harold Hill's true intentions. The men get distracted by listening to themselves sing and the women get distracted by listening to each other. "Pick-a-Little, Talk-a-Little" shows how the women gossip about the town. It shows how they connect to each other and their interest in the town, even though the gossip itself can be toxic. The show portrays both how gossip can be toxic but also how it can create community. The quartet gets distracted by themselves and their own voices. It does keep them from fighting, but it also keeps them from seeing what the world around them is like. The two groups' songs could also signify how their importance is ranked in the community. The men have all these songs that are performances. The women's talk may be diminished by being called little, but their song is also very memorable and eventually incorporates Marian in the reprise when she begins to want to rejoin the community instead of isolate herself. Marian and Harold's relationship seems like it could be unhealthy because she accepts his lies even though she knows they are lies. But in the context of the town, where women are interested in others and men listen to themselves talk, their relationship doesn't seem as far-fetched.

People who would like this show are people who like stunning ensembles, distracted quartets, and rolling-chair choreography. This is an enjoyable show. It overcame many of the reservations I have about the musical itself and was a lot of fun. It is a funny, well-performed, and new take on a classic.

Photos: Liz Lauren

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 (DeanalĂ­s 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