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Theater Review: Bye Bye Birdie
by by Mary Shen Barnidge
2007-08-19

This article shared 2023 times since Sun Aug 19, 2007
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Playwright: book by Michael Stewart, music by Charles Strouse. L yrics by Lee Adams. At: Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire. Phone: ( 847 ) 634-0200; $33-$38. Runs through: Jan. 20

Bye Bye Birdie, 1960's bright picture to West Side Story's dark picture of American youth, has reached an age where historical accuracy is negligible. In its nostalgia-fuzzed universe, Midwestern teenage girls wear pink and keep their navels hidden, but their wardrobes contain black leather jackets for moments of rebellion. Pop-idol Conrad Birdie is not a shucks-ma'am rockabilly Memphis boy, but a lean and Bono-faced punk who drinks beer for breakfast, calls his host "Fats," and shakes his tushy as coquettishly as Ricky Martin. And adolescents dance to the beat of strolls and bops with steps from a later era—the twist, the jerk, the swim.

But boy-wins-girl is a plot that never wearies. And if the cultural standards of a half-century ago dictated that women want nothing more in life than a husband, or that men remain dependent on the quasi-maternal attentions of their wives ( oblivious to the similarity of such to those of their mothers ) —well, that just makes the winning easier. It also leaves more room for Charles Strouse and Lee Adams' infectious score, which includes a few ersatz rockers like "One More Kiss," but is dominated by anthems to down-home monogamy ( "One Boy" ) , satirical patter-songs ( "Kids" ) and cheery inspirationals ( "Put On A Happy Face," "A Lot Of Livin' To Do" ) .

Kenny Ingram's choreography puts both youngsters and oldsters through a variety of lively and high-spirited paces, while a gleefully exuberant cast attacks its fossilized personae with never a hint of condescension. Bernie Yvon and Cheryl Avery make a suitably charming pair of lovers, though the latter's white-bread characterization clashes with the ethnicity written into a role originated by Chita Rivera, even as it softens the blatantly xenophobic slurs of her adversaries.

Chief among these is that Eisenhower-era gorgon, the Hero's Mom, rendered tolerable by Chicago favorite Alene Robertson. Jonathan Weir makes a likewise lovable Dad, albeit nearly upstaged in his scenes with the pint-sized Ben Ratskoff. But for suspension of belief, nothing surpasses Cristen Paige and Ben Cohen's high school sweethearts, whose announcement of plans to someday marry elicit their parents' unconditional approval.

The Eulogist

Playwright: Kevin Reome

At: Full Deck Productions & Playground Theater at The Playground

Phone: ( 773 ) 576-6275; $10

Runs through: Dec. 29

by Mary Shen Barnidge

He's the son of Irish immigrants but young Dan Rearden's gift of the blarney is wasted in his capacity as a corporate trainer. The call can come from unlikely sources, however—even as humble an occasion as speaking a few words at an uncle's funeral. After an auspicious debut, Dan proves to be likewise eloquent in his account of a distant cousin's reclusive existence and even finds a few good words for an unknown Wild Boy who ODed off his mortal coil. Soon mourners of all denominations are seeking Dan's services—many of them willing to reward him handsomely. But with success and money come temptation, in the form of a high-rolling mobster looking to become a "silent partner."

The Eulogist's premise could have gone in any of several directions: a bevy of ghostly unsatisfied customers could have re-apprised their representative of his sacred duty, or his new boss start supplying him with corpses to be respectably laid to rest. But playwright Kevin Reome is not content to take the easy route. His crime-syndicate thug, for example, is no Hollywood Mafioso—much to the disappointment of Dan's lesbian sidekick—but a baby-faced WASP with Mayflower ancestors and a dominating mother. And Dan's Mom, far from being the play's conscience ( that function falls to Uncle Stuart, whose accent bespeaks his close ties to the Ould Sod ) , emerges as the most amorally self-determined of the lot.

Though the current production at The Playground is barely more than a rough sketch, its plot is sufficiently innovative and cliché-free to warrant development ( chiefly in clarifying the Final Showdown's precise circumstances ) . A bigger budget would provide costumes more denotative of the wearers' personalities, as well as a full combo to augment Craig Jadown's solo acoustical-guitar rendition of a clever score that includes among its parodies of pop-music styles a gangster's vow-of-vengeance aria ticklishly arranged in the sunny-breezy harmonies associated with the Fifth Dimension. In the meantime, David Castro's brisk direction, author Reome's engaging ( if vocally ingenuous ) portrayal of the title character, and the enthusiasm of the Full Deck company make for a comedy requiring only a modicum of imagination to hint at their copious potential.

Sci-Fi Action Movie in Space Prison

Playwrights: Joe Foust

At: American Theater Co.; 15-$20

Phone: 312-409-0585

Runs through: Jan. 19

by Gregg Shapiro

Some of the best and most original theater productions ( The Producers, The Birds ) that I saw this year were stage adaptations of movies. This trend continues with the forthcoming The Sweet Smell of Success.

Defiant Theatre's Sci-Fi Action Movie in Space Prison is both a parody of and an homage to two cinematic genres. The "science fiction action movie" and the "prison movie" are lovingly skewered and roasted to a crisp. Taking their tribute to the next level, the homoerotic aspects of the play feel like a nod to the ever-increasing number of gay characters in films.

Set in the year 3001, the play is about Johnny Protagonist ( the elastic-faced and rubber-bodied Jim Slonina ) , a man wrongly accused of a purse snatching, who is sentenced to do 40 years of hard labor in space prison. Johnny's "roomie," Tommy Perfectlover ( the buff Micah M. Smyth ) , is said to be "the most dangerous man in space prison," that is if you consider having a perpetually horny adonis as your cell-mate a threat.

Suggestive dialogue leads to graphic, yet humorous sexual situations between Johnny and Tommy, as well as other prisoners, including Blackman ( Derrick Nelson ) and Wygar B. Sydkik ( Danny Belrose ) . Cross-gender portrayals of people in power—Jennifer Gehr as Warden Flattop and Megan Carr as Commissioner Grissomer, and Kelly Cooper, as the Commissioner's queer nephew Leonard, who flames as bright as a supernova, qualify this as the gayest production running since Naked Boys Singing.

When the homophobic commissioner bans all sexual activity, a riot rightfully ensues. The "action movie" aspect of the play explodes in the form of some of the most acrobatic stage-fighting sequences I have seen since About Face's production of Xena Live! The fight choreography by Geoff Coates and writer/director Joe Foust must be seen. The sound by "audio sculptor" Gregor Mortis and "special audio FX"-person Sean Sinitski make the action as much an audio experience as a visual one.

GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS

Playwright: David Mamet

At: The Steppenwolf Theatre; $35-$55

Phone: 312-335-1650

Runs through: Jan. 27

by Rick Reed

Here it is: the theatrical event of 2001: Steppenwolf's flawless remounting of Chicago-spawned David Mamet's American classic, Glengarry Glen Ross. Directed with whip-smart precision by Steppenwolf ensemble member, Amy Morton, this ensemble piece is a profanely lyrical paean to the American dream. Morton has done amazing work: making the 1984 Pulitzer-prize winning play fresh, startling, and true.

Steppenwolf artistic director Martha Lavey says, "The career of the playwright and the growth of Steppenwolf have run a kind of parallel course: born and supported by Chicago, we have each gained national and international recognition. We meet for the first time as grown ups."

And what a meeting. There aren't enough superlatives to do justice to this riveting portrait of a group of shady real-estate salesmen, too enamored with chasing dreams of wealth and prominence to step back and realize that none of them possess the wiles to ever achieve those dreams. We open in a grimy Chinese restaurant where, in three razor-cut scenes, Mamet sets up the allegiances, follies, despair and dreams of his characters. We see Shelly Levine ( Mike Nussbaum, one of Mamet's foremost interpreters, giving a performance that could well be the pinnacle of his career ) , past his prime, yet begging for leads from his cruelly cool supervisor, Williamson ( Tracy Letts in a calculated performance that recognizes the evil inherent in the explosive combination of a little power and too little intelligence ) . We see the quintessential Chicago salesman, Dave Moss ( Matt Decaro, red faced and bilious ) plotting with the ineffectual milquetoast Aaronow ( Alan Wilder ) , who is corrupted by just the proximity of his cohort. And finally we see the slickest, most amoral member of the bunch, Richard "Ricky" Roma ( splendid work by David Pasquesi ) as he circles, shark-like, Lingk, a prospect too weak to battle Roma's overwhelming, and totally lacking in ethics, salesmanship.

In a bit of theatrical magic that elicited gasps and applause from the audience, Act II opens in the real estate office where these men ply their trade. The shift from minimalist Chinese restaurant to amazingly detailed, ransacked real estate office takes only minutes and set designer Derek McLane deserves not only credit for this theatrical sleight of hand, but for his astonishing attention to detail. The dark promise set up by the first act lurches into motion here, with the breaking, entering, and near-destruction of the office putting the group even more on edge.

Steppenwolf's Glengarry Glen Ross is as near to theatrical perfection as you could hope to come. Tickets are understandably in short supply. Scheme your way to getting yourself one, or miss out on some of the finest acting, directing, playwriting, and creative talent you might ever witness.

THE MYSTERY OF CHARLES DICKENS

Playwright: Peter Ackroyd

At: Chicago Shakespeare Th.; $40-$52

Phone: 312-595-5600

Runs through: Dec. 23

by Rick Reed

At one point in this electrifying one-man show, Simon Callow says, "Charles Dickens never stopped lying in all his life." The statement, in its own dubious way, sums up the life of one of modern history's most revered, prolific, and confounding writers. What is fiction, if not a well-crafted lie, foisted upon those more than willing to have the literary wool pulled over their eyes? And Dickens, as portrayed here by Callow, uses prevarication to his advantage in his personal as well as his professional life. Always hungry to be the center of attention, Dickens was never above coloring the facts of his existence to elicit fascination, reverence, and sympathy.

Simon Callow, whom American audiences probably know best from such films as Amadeus, Four Weddings and a Funeral, and Shakespeare in Love, is a consummate thespian. The joy he takes in performing and his prodigious talents are put to good use here. Callow, in playwright Peter Ackroyd's illuminating fusion of fiction, mythos, and historical fact, brings to life more than 40 Dickensian characters, from almost all of Dickens' major works, including Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, The Pickwick Papers, A Tale of Two Cities, and more. Interspersed in this arresting feat of multiple personalities ( Callow effortlessly shifts genders, ages, and characteristics, making him a chameleon of the first order, mesmerizing and always watchable ) , are the fact of Dickens' life: his early poverty, his creative output, his alliances ( and dalliances ) , his hunger for fame and recognition, and, finally, his final collapse under the weight of his own notoriety and ambition. There are probably few actors capable of achieving the theatrical sleight of hand that Callow does. His performance is breathtaking, astonishing in its richness, variety, and depth, and confounding because one wonders how one human being could contain such energy and so many personalities.

Christopher Woods' production design is simple, allowing Callow free reign to move about the stage and assert his creative genius with little distraction. Nick Richings' lighting is truly outstanding, almost another character, as it shifts with the mood of the play.


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