Reflections on the Chicago Spring Season
March 31 – May 29, 2016 at the Dury Lane Theatre
Book by Lissa Levin; Lyrics by Chuck Steffan; Music by Ron Abel; Directed and Choreographed by Joshua Bergasse
Photo: Brett Beiner
Hazel Burke could easily run a small country with efficiency, grace, and a sense of humor. But in the world of the early 1960s, we meet her as the maid to the Baxter family, at a time where wearing pants is enough to make George Baxter do a double-take at his wife. The show gives us a snapshot of the world as it was –still in the midst of the space-race, on the precipice of drastic change and progress. The new musical, with a sharp book by Lissa Levin, period-appropriate music by George Abel, and lyrics by Chuck Steffan, takes on a myriad of serious issues such as changes in the traditional, Leave it to Beaver world of the 50s; women beginning to enter the workforce; inequalities in class structure and economic status; and the choice women felt forced to make between their careers and their families, to name a few. In our political landscape, these conversations still feel unfortunately relevant.
But with Hazel as our guide and North Star, we trust that things truly will change. She handles all manner of crisis and conflict, and remains warm-hearted and convinced of the romantic notion that there is a solution for all problems. In a serious world, a visit with Hazel feels like salve on a wound. It’s impossible not to leave with a smile on your face; her optimism is so contagious and catching. We all need a little help, and thank goodness Hazel is here to lend a hand.
April 8 – May 22, 2016 at Porchlight Music Theater
Book and Lyrics by Tom Eyen; Music by Henry Kreger; Directed and Choreographed by Brenda Didier
Photo: Kelsey Jorissen
You don’t necessarily think of Dreamgirls as a show about race. Truthfully, I can’t say that I did either, until I saw Porchlight Music Theatre’s production. One of the biggest laughs of the night was during the cartoonishly neutered recreation of “Cadillac Car” by a white artist, immediately following the electric version performed by Jimmy Early and the Dreams. It’s a little less funny when you start to think about how many white artists built castles with the money they made stealing from black culture.
The show is a glorious celebration of music, full of exuberant numbers that shake the walls, sung in impressively tight, perfect harmony. It is also an indictment of an industry that demands endless negotiations between artist and audience, driven by the sinister motive of a white-dominated world’s discomfort with black artists. Instead of seeming like the temper-tantrum of a fading star, Eric Lewis performs Jimmy’s Rap like an explosion of soul that had been building underneath all the desperate attempts to whitewash his aesthetic to get him jobs at the lounges where “even Sammy Davis Jr.” couldn’t perform. It makes you wish that was a piece of the narrative that had stayed in the 60s.
The Women of Lockerbie
April 7 – May 8, 2016, Presented by AstonRep Theatre Company at the West Stage at the Raven Theatre Complex
Written by Deborah Brevoort; Directed by Robert Tobin
Photo: Emily Schwartz
Revisiting the bombing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland has a great deal of historical weight in a post-9/11 world. But what The Women of Lockerbie does so brilliantly is marry the importance of the facts of the tragedy to the personal grief of the women at the heart of the show. Sometimes it’s tempting, even easy, to talk about things like this in abstractions. It’s easy to condemn an ideology, an act of violence. It’s harder to get past the platitudes and let people be broken in front of us. Amy and Bill Livingston lost their son in the bombing and have returned to Lockerbie –Amy searching endlessly for some physical, tangible piece of her child to cling to in the absence of his body. She is embraced and aided by the women of the town, even when she doesn’t want to be.
It is a show that celebrates the sometimes seemingly small, everyday acts of compassion. The women of Lockerbie are fighting to gain access to the recovered clothes of the victims from the government, so that they may be washed and returned to their families. I don’t think a group of people has ever wept so much watching someone do laundry. That’s the beauty of the show –sometimes there are events that are so earth-shaking they defy human comprehension; they feel completely outside our ability to heal. And it’s true that we may not be able to heal everything, but we can still, always, do something.
April 28 – May 28, 2016 at The Rivendell Theatre Ensemble
Written by Ruby Rae Spiegel; Directed by Hallie Gordon
Photo: Michael Brosilow
You know these people. You went to school with Amy and Ester. You’ve watched someone like Amy try so desperately to prove how little she cares, hurting anyone who comes close to making her feel like a girl when she wants so badly to be a woman. You’ve watched someone like Ester follow her around, accepting any table scrap of friendship that she can pick up off the ground. What you probably haven’t seen is those same girls you know doing shots, or Amy begging Ester to punch her in the stomach harder and harder and harder, praying that these actions will terminate her unplanned pregnancy.
Ruby Rae Spiegel doesn’t let anyone off the hook, including the audience, in her hyper-realistic depiction of teen pregnancy, female friendship, and the many ways that young girls are expected to be women well before they’re prepared for it. In one of the most unexpectedly affecting exchanges of the night, Amy is telling dark jokes about her situation and says to Ester: “What do you call a black woman who’s had 9 abortions? A crime fighter.” The audience at the performance I saw giggled uncomfortably, unsure if they were being given permission to laugh. Ester sat on the chlorine-soaked floor of the locker room in silence. “It’s not funny?” Amy asks. “No.” “Why? Because it’s racist?” “Yeah.” There is such a profound bravery that needs to be exhibited more in today’s world in Ester’s simple decision not to laugh to make Amy comfortable. What would happen in a world where we all stopped laughing to make other people feel comfortable?