Playwright: Lonnie Carter
At: Victory Gardens, 2257 N. Lincoln
Phone: (773) 871-3000; $22-$25
Runs through: May 25
This is a hard one to pin down. It's not a drama (although it has some fierce dramatic moments). It's not a comedy (although you will laugh). It's not a musical (although it's infused with an undercurrent of hip-hop, doo-wop, melody, and rhythm). What is it? I ran to Webster's, looking for a definition and came up with the phrase 'tone poem,' which Webster defines as 'a symphonic poem.' Ah … that's the phrase. Blending dramatic story-telling, poetry-slamming, DJ-riffing, and a stirring trail of history, playwright Lonnie Carter delivers this offering with fierce lyricism and semantic style.
Fortunately for Carter and director Nic Diamond, the cast that delivers these goods is on target and blessed with large talent. Nambi Kelley steals the show—and our hearts—as an old woman who has seen too much of Chicago's housing projects: their despair, their hopelessness, and their contribution to isolation and inhumanity. E. Milton Wheeler, as Chicago South Side preacher Lemuel, grips us firmly with his rant that meshes the similarities between man and beast. Lisa Tejero and John Steven Crowley round out the powerful ensemble, she with a sweetness that belies steel, and he with a booming delivery that warms as it entrances.
Concerto Chicago is a fast moving piece, a celebration (mostly) of the city we call home, and the enthusiasm behind it is infectious and undeniable. Even though it has its flaws (and none of these lie in the capable performances and on-target production values. B. Emil Boulos' set is inspired and practical; Todd Hensley's lighting is evocative, and clear, and Christine Pascual's costumes underline character and mood just so), Concerto Chicago is a gripping piece of entertainment. Eighty minutes have rarely passed with more speed and dazzle.
The only drawback to the piece is the ambition of its author. Lonnie Carter wants to say too much and do too much here. When he confines himself to Chicago—'Chicagoski: the Middle Coast where all the trends get funneled through and purified/where all the jazz for a century and more comes up from N'Orleans before it spreads east and west/where Armstrong Louis played his Hot Fives and Hot Sevens and learned to read his music'—Carter's words float lyrically above our heads, shimmering and making us want more. But when Carter strays from our Windy City, he loses us. Scenes in China, Revolutionary War Boston, Afghanistan, and the Deep South may contribute to his thesis, but cause the piece, and us, to lose focus.
Sharpen, sharpen. Define and winnow. And this Chicago Concerto will really sing.