Playwright: Music & Lyrics by Phil Maniaci. At: Genesis Ensemble at the Preston Bradley Auditorium, 941 W. Lawrence Ave. Tickets: www.genesisuptownopera.bpt.me; $15 admission. Runs through: Aug. 19
What better way to establish a theater in a new neighborhood than to do a play about that very neighborhood? The Genesis Ensemble's Uptown Opera is not only performed in its title's geographical designationspecifically, a landmark Unitarian temple, named for its founding minister in 1912 and continuing its mission to this daybut proposes for its setting the once-fashionable Lawrence/Broadway district. Don't arrive expecting to dance the Charleston at Al Capone's Green Mill Lounge, howeverthis is Uptown during its declining years circa 1957, when it became the gateway for immigrants fleeing the economically-depressed Appalachian regions.
This demographic is represented in microcosm by construction-worker Carmi Monroe and his wife, LulaJean, whose sister Saluda"Sally" to her intimatesleaves their Blue Ridge Mountain home to join her kinfolk in their crowded Chicago apartment. Sally quickly finds employment at the local grocery store, owned by urban-entrepreneur Curtis McAllister, who soon finds himself growing fond of his pretty young clerk. Their journey is fraught with hardshipa fire destroys the store, Carmi's alcoholism loses him his job and ultimately, his lifebut, with perseverance and prayer, these brave settlers endure.
Phil Maniaci's song cycle could be easily performed as a chamber opera of singing headsdialogue and recitative are almost non-existentbut the Genesis aesthetic mandates a diversity of interpretive tools integrated into its presentation. By seating the audience on the altar of the church's sanctuary, the saga of the Monroes and McAllisters can be played throughout the 1,400-seat auditoriumWest Virginia is represented by a balcony whose rail serves as a clothesline, for example, and an alley shooting is enacted in one of the aislesa multiplicity of locales still allowing room on the "stage" for a country hoe-down at the Arcadia Ballroom (Broadway and Montrose) and a "ballet" revealing Carmi's deteriorating health.
The current production is still in need of development: Maniaci's intricate score encompasses a variety of musical styles ranging from bluegrass and gospel harmonies for the homesick refugees to rhythm-and-blues and doo-wop for city-boy Curtis, but it sorely lacks the accompaniment of a live string-band. The uniformly well-trained vocalists, too, sometimes falter under the effort of projecting their unmiked voices over their hall's cavelike expanse. A larger budget and a smaller venue would be a big step to realizing the considerable potential evident in this homegrown homage to an often-ignored chapter in Chicago's richly textured history.