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Hello, friends of the Rebellion! Those of you signed up on the free tier may have noted you haven’t heard from me in two and a half weeks, not two. Most of the previous issues of this digest have gone out on Mondays, but even in this newsletter’s short life I’d bumped up against three holidays (Christmas Eve, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and the next issue would have gone out on Presidents Day); I’ve wondered if that led to more people missing it in their inbox or forgetting to read it, and more generally if theater is even a thing you’re thinking about on Monday mornings. Plus, I had a really busy weekend this week.
So here we are with a Thursday edition. Does this feel more right to you, as you’re planning your weekend? Would you prefer a newsletter every week instead of every other week? I really do want to hear your thoughts; feel free to reply to this email and tell me what’s up.
Now, we’ve got a lot to get to in this issue. But how about this weather? Last week we couldn’t go outside for three days because the wind chill was 40 below, by the weekend it was 40 above, two nights ago we had an ice storm, and this morning it’s rain and more rain. Despite all this, it’s actually my favorite season right now. No, I don’t mean winter.
Season Announcement Season is here!
I wasn’t even ready! I look forward to SAS every year, but it felt like the 2019–20 season announcements started hitting my inbox even earlier than usual over the last couple of weeks. Plus a couple of companies that announce on a calendar-year basis laid out their full 2019 slates, and a few more made one-off announcements. Let’s look at some of the highlights.
The best thing to happen to Aurora, Illinois since Wayne’s World announced its 2019–20 slate of musicals last Friday. The front half is back-to-back Disney, with Newsies and Beauty and the Beast. I’m sure those will sell well! More interesting are the latter two.
The Secret of My Success is a world premiere based on the 1987 Michael J. Fox vehicle about a young man who gets his rich uncle to give him a job in the mailroom of his corporation, then fakes his way up the ladder by pretending to be a junior executive. I barely remember watching this movie on VHS, but it’s not great. Roger Ebert ended his review with two questions: “Does the movie really believe anyone is as stupid as these characters? Does it care?” And if you’re thinking there’s already a musical that sounds very similar to this story and it’s called How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, I can’t blame you.
And yet I’m rooting for this to be great, because the music and lyrics are by Chicago’s own Michael Mahler and Alan Schmuckler, who I nominated as “Musical Theatre Writers You Should Know” in American Theatre a few years back. Fingers crossed! Paramount closes its season with the first regional production of Kinky Boots, so we’ll see how the far west suburbs feel about drag queens.
I’ve been watching with interest what Cody Estle has been doing at Raven since taking over as artistic director in 2017 from husband-and-wife founders Michael Menendian and JoAnn Montemurro (whose names have been all but scrubbed from Raven’s new website, which feels weird!). With Raven’s 2019-20 announcement last week, it seems Estle is continuing to move Raven away from its history of midcentury American drama revivals.
In their place, we get Sundown, Yellow Moon, a family drama by Rachel Bonds that was well-received in New York; Katori Hall’s Hoodoo Love, which I didn’t much care for in a 2012 storefront staging directed by the late Nelsan Ellis but that I’m willing to give another go in the hands of Wardell Julius Clark; and Eden Prairie, 1971, a world premiere by Naperville native Mat Smart. The one work predating the 21st century is a revival of A Doll’s House—but in a new translation, at least. The messaging is clear: Raven no longer wants to be seen as the mom-and-pop shop of yore.
Lyric Opera of Chicago
Lyric announced its 2019–20 season on January 24. I don’t pretend to be an opera expert, but the season is pretty heavy on well-known titles even if you got most of your opera knowledge from Looney Tunes: Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, and three complete runs through Wagner’s Ring cycle.
But there’s even more of interest to theater fans.
The spring musical will be 42nd Street, helmed by English director Stephen Mear. But also look out for the Lyric premiere of Dead Man Walking, the 2000 opera with a score by Jake Heggie and libretto by Terrence McNally, the Tony-winning playwright. And the new opera Blue has a score by Caroline, or Change and Fun Home composer Jeanine Tesori; Tazewell Thompson is the librettist and director of a Lyric Unlimited production to be staged at Chicago Shakespeare Theater next year.
On Tuesday the Joffrey announced its 2019–20 season, its last at the Auditorium Theatre before it moves in with the Lyric at the Civic Opera House. I also do not pretend to be a ballet expert! But Joffrey’s season is bookended by newish literary ballets: English choreographer Cathy Marston’s 2016 Jane Eyre, and Yuri Possokhov’s 2011 Don Quixote. The winter shorts program The Times Are Racing features the Chicago premiere of the title piece, a “sneaker ballet” by Justin Peck, who won a Tony Award for choreographing the recent Broadway revival of Carousel; it’s set to music by Dan Deacon. Christopher Wheeldon’s Nutcracker takes the holiday slot.
Hell in a Handbag Productions and Black Ensemble Theater both revealed the remainder of their 2019 calendar year slates in the last couple of weeks as well. One top pick from me for each: Black Ensemble’s musical revue You Can’t Fake the Funk (From James Brown to Parliament) (July 20–Sept 8, just hook it to my veins!) and Handbag’s sure to be camptastic musical parody The Drag Seed (July 5–Aug 25). (I’m also looking forward to next month’s previously-announced remount of the first Handbag show I ever saw, the delicious Poseidon! An Upside-Down Musical.)
TimeLine Theatre Company held off on its full season announcement but did reveal its opener: J.T. Rogers’s Tony-winning play Oslo, to be produced at the Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place. TimeLine has been to the Mag Mile once before, with a commercial remount of its Julia Child bio To Master the Art that felt a little small on the Broadway Playhouse stage, but the sprawling Oslo will need the space.
Theater Wit announced on Monday that it’s adding Joshua Harmon’s Admissions to its spring slate, opening next month. Wit has a strong relationship with Harmon, having produced a remarkably long run of his Bad Jews and co-produced his Significant Other with About Face Theatre. Admissions, which attempts a satirical take on institutional racism using an all-white cast of characters, proved divisive to New York critics at Lincoln Center Theater last year. We’ll have the opportunity to see it March 21 to May 12.
Pride Films & Plays announced yesterday a late addition to its own spring slate: Buyer and Cellar, the one-man comedy about working in Barbara Streisand’s fake mall. It’s an incredibly charming piece in the right hands—like those of Michael Urie, who performed it Off Broadway and here on tour in 2014. Donterrio Johnson is attached to direct PF&P’s production, running April 11 to May 19, but their press release indicates they have yet to hold auditions for the actor who’ll take it on. Brave!
And one more show announcement that hit us in the last two weeks: The Michael Jackson musical that’s being developed with the blessing of the Michael Jackson Estate, now titled Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough, will have its pre-Broadway tryout at Broadway in Chicago’s Nederlander Theatre this fall, October 29 to December 1. The authorized show will have top talent shaping it—two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage is writing the book and Christopher Wheeldon will direct and choreograph—and an incredible catalog of songs to choose from.
But the Chicago tryout happened to be announced the same week that Leaving Neverland, the four-hour documentary film in which two men detail their accounts of being molested as children by Jackson, screened at Sundance; it’s set to air on HBO sometime this spring. The juxtaposition leaves much to ponder about how Nottage, Wheeldon and co. will approach their biographical brief.
Reviews and other views
This newsletter feels long already! But let’s get to what you may have missed from me these last two weeks.
Paid-tier Storefront Rebellion subscribers have seen four reviews from me in their inboxes:
16th Street Theater’s Small Jokes About Monsters just announced an extension through February 23.
Esteban Andres Cruz, Eric Slater and Christopher Wayland Jones. Photograph: Anthony Aicardi
It’s a delight to see the four adept actors in 16th Street’s staging bouncing off one another—not least because not every theater in town would cast these four actors of varying ethnic backgrounds as a biological nuclear family in a contemporary drama, without going out of its way to explain it all. … Even when the circumstances of the plot reach their most jolting, fine-tuned work by the likes of the stalwart [Eric] Slater and the vibrant [Esteban Andres] Cruz (a performer so full of joy Marie Kondo would tell you to order him by the dozen) keeps you leaning forward in your seat.
Shattered Globe and Theater Wit teamed up for a lovely production of Will Eno’s The Realistic Joneses.
From left: Cortney McKenna, Joseph Wiens, H.B. Ward and Linda Reiter. Photograph: Evan Hanover
[Jeremy] Wechsler’s cast is on point, hitting Eno’s unique rhythms not too hard and mining the real emotion that lies beneath. Eno has always been a humanist, but for all the wordplay and non sequiturs, this might be his most grounded work, a portrait of marriages under all too real strain. There are absurdities the Joneses have to deal with, but only the kind you find in life.
The latest entry in Ike Holter’s Rightlynd Saga, Red Rex, takes aim at Chicago storefront theater from within a Chicago storefront theater (in this case, Steep).
From left: Joel Reitsma, Nate Faust, Jessica Dean Turner and Aurora Adachi-Winter. Photograph: Lee Miller
Red Rex isn’t a love letter to the theater (thank god), but neither is it a kiss-off. There are no straight-up heroes or villains… The play takes a mostly clear-eyed view of theater’s, and Chicago theater’s, complicated relationship to race and class and money. … The play, unlike some of its brethren, is very concerned with who all of this is for.
At Northlight, Sydney Charles stars in Nina Simone: Four Women.
From left: Sydney Charles, Deanna Reed-Foster and Daniel Riley. Photograph: Michael Brosilow
If [Christina] Ham’s script has its shortcomings, though, Northlight’s production is a thrill. Director Kenneth L. Roberson has both a top-tier design team and an incredible cast at his disposal. … Across an unbroken 100 minutes onstage and a dozen or so beloved songs, this is Sydney Charles’s Nina Simone, and it’s more truthful than any paint-and-prosthetics biopic could ever hope to achieve.
Over at the Chicago Sun-Times, I reviewed Porchlight Music Theatre’s giddily impressive first local production of A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder.
From left: Matthew Crowle and Andrés Enriquez. Photograph: Michael Courier
Matthew Crowle puts his lanky frame and rubber face to satisfying use here as the various members of the D’Ysquith family, bringing his own fresh and funny spin to the role(s) created by Tony nominee Jefferson Mays. But in contrast to the Broadway and touring casts, I’d say these D’Ysquiths take a backseat to their murderous cousin. Andrés Enriquez, an actor I’ve seen in various ensemble roles around the city in recent years, shows up here with what ought to be a breakout leading performance as Monty: assured, urbane, engaging and remarkably well-sung.
Finally, for the February issue of Chicago magazine, I talked with director Ron OJ Parson about his work on August Wilson’s oeuvre. Parson’s new production of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom started previews at Writers Theatre last night.
Hey, who else watched Fox’s Rent Live-ish?
That’s it for this morning (whew!). Please do reach out and tell me how you’re enjoying the newsletter, and what kinds of information, features, interviews or commentary you’d like to see. Figuring out what’s what in Chicago theater can be daunting; let me know how I can help you navigate it.
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