Wonderful Town

wonderful-town
Jordan Brown (Wreck), Kristin Villanueva (Helen), Bri Sudia (Ruth) and Lauren Molina (Eileen)

 

Last year I went with a close friend to see a staging of “Carousel” at the Lyric Opera in Chicago. A rare Broadway turn for the famous venue, I was excited by the certain high-quality production values as well as a first viewing of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic.

Oh the misogyny! I should have read the script before purchasing a ticket. I was not on critic duty that evening, just trying to enjoy a civilian evening at the theater. And I understand that the material was adapted in 1945 — certainly a different time for American gender relations. I can appreciate that perspective, but I’m just the wrong cat to indulge the sexist horror that is Billy Bigelow — in life and in death. While my pal wept at the production’s well-acted emotional denouement, I wanted to break the third wall for a serious feminist discussion with Julie Jordan.

So when I accepted an invitation to see and review “Wonderful Town,” the latest Mary Zimmerman-helmed production at the Goodman Theatre, I braced myself. The 1953 Tony Award-winner for Best Book of a Musical features 20 songs created by the legendary Leonard Bernstein. The music almost guaranteed to win, I scoffed at the brief plot synopsis. “Two sisters, one city, unlimited possibilities.”

Let me guess: another dated New York love story. Two female siblings, one beautiful and destined for great love, the other creative and intelligent but certainly a supporting character overlooked by the opposite gender. Each woman bound to be defined by male relationships.

I’m eating my prejudices as I type, washing down the cynicism with a refreshing glass of water. Because “Wonderful Town” was — and remains — a creation ahead of its time. Imagine if Lucy and Ethel were unmarried, career ambitious and in possession of more love and loyalty for one another than any man could equal. Think “Sex and the City,” post-WWII style (without the sex).

This is the story of elder sister Ruth, a budding fiction writer and reporter, and Eileen, an ingĂ©nue yearning for her big performance break. Director Zimmerman places the action in 1950s Greenwich Village rather the original Depression-era and it’s a great choice. Distant from post-1929 panic with its physical and cultural hunger, Set Designer Todd Rosenthal gives us a dreamlike, cotton candy land of artistic community. Yet the pieces remain functional and when necessary, convey the grime of a working class Big Apple.

What’s not grimy at all are the gorgeous costumes from Designer Ana Kuzamanic. The flounce and color are a perfect match for the rotating set. Even the frumpiest chorus characters are infused with enchanting whimsy.

It would be misleading however, to interpret all the fun shades and soft lighting as a statement of one-dimensional simplicity. No indeed. Ruth (Bri Sudia) and Eileen (Lauren Molina) are much more than their humble Midwestern roots and wide-eyed city freshness imply. They may wonder in song why oh why-o they ever left “Ohio,” but these gritty girls aren’t afraid of a little rejection, mansplaining or even jail time, in their determination to make it.

With delight it eventually dawned on me that Ruth is the main character of “Wonderful Town.” Infused with the power of the pen and far from man hungry, Ruth routinely sets her pride aside in the quest for a good story or better opportunity. I have already said that this work is ahead of its time. Spoiler alert: though she does end up paired with a partner, it’s one who needs her far more than she depends on him.

The soundtrack is delightful, no surprise given the Bernstein legend. Standouts include “One Hundred Easy Ways,” a humorous look at female empowerment as a detractor for the conventional man, and “Pass the Football,” a prescient treatise on celebrity culture.

At over two and a half hours with one brief intermission, “Wonderful Town” is on the longish side. However time flies with all the visual, audio and performance stimulus keeping the audience moving. It’s not a perfect show and there’s certainly some standard musical comedy deus ex machina to tidy the ending. That’s about the only convention viewers will find. Enjoy the precocious, lovely ride.

“Wonderful Town” runs through Oct. 23 at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N Dearborn Street, Chicago, IL. For information or tickets, call 312-443-3800 or visit the Goodman Theatre website.

 

Rebecca Gilman’s Soups, Stews. and Casseroles: 1976

Soups
Cliff Chamberlain as Kim Durst and Ty Olwin as Kyle

The very first production I ever saw and reviewed on behalf of EDGE Media Network was 2009’s “The Crown You’re In With.” Running at Chicago’s legendary Goodman Theatre, the work was my inaugural Rebecca Gilman experience. An artistic associate of the company as well as a member of the vaunted Artistic Collective, Gilman is an original talent with the ability to weave stinging sociopolitical commentary into unapologetically human stories using sharp, witty dialogue.

The Chicago premiere of “Soups, Stews, And Casseroles: 1976” marks the eighth collaboration between Goodman and Gilman, a slate of artistic offerings that also includes “Luna Gale,” winner of the 2016 Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award. The newest production bears a hackneyed tagline that belies its intelligence: “Life was sweet in a small Wisconsin town… then corporate America came to the table.” The good news is this marketing sin is entirely forgivable.

Dramatic voiceover trope aside, the destructive themes with which the script grapples are appropriately ominous. Because when the curtain rises on the small-town Wisconsin Durst family, introducing them as completely dependent on the area’s only large employer, Farmstead Cheese Factory, we already know how the story ends. And it’s not happily. “Soups, Stews, and Casseroles: 1976” tells the decimation tale of good working class manufacturing jobs in America over the last 40 years.

Corporate greed, globalization, families without options forced to take “progress” on the chin. Sound familiar? It’s meant to. Artistic Director Robert Falls and playwright Gilman, now collaborating on their fifth Goodman production, have ironically evolved into the well-oiled narrative machine so hated by the fictional Farmstead workers.

Supported by a flawless cast that includes Chicago theater veteran Cliff Chamberlain as Durst family patriarch, Kim, “Soups, Stews and Casseroles: 1976” is almost operatic in its depiction of the slow-motion destruction of an entire way of life. We know from the vantage point of 2016 that working and middle-class families continue to be squeezed by economic changes that began long before the Great Recession.

Gilman uses the hardworking, ambitious Durst family to tell the story of organized labor purposefully busted by the pursuit of greater profit margins. But the finished product is evolved beyond from the ham-fisted propaganda of Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle.” The Dursts, including Kim’s college dropout wife Kat (Cora Vander Broek) and precocious teen daughter Kelly (the fabulous Lindsay Stock) are fully-formed characters. There have been choices and sacrifices. There are regrets and valid fears for the future. There are complicated dynamics between people who love each other honestly (and dishonestly).

Even the supporting characters avoid one-dimensional stereotype in the capable hands of Gilman and Falls. Elderly socialist neighbor and family friend JoAnne (Ann Whitney) is a surrogate mother to Kat and Kelly, not a precious caricature of Bernie Sanders talking points. And Angela Reed infuses Elaine, the wife of the cheese factory’s new corporate manager, with a loneliness and eagerness to connect with something real that removes some of the venom from her painful choices.

“Soups, Stews, And Casseroles: 1976” captures an elusive moment in time. When exactly did the “American Dream” with its promise of shared success for hard work and loyalty, start to slip away? What could we have done to stop it? While attempting to locate the beginning of the end, Gilman’s script also explores the flaws in armchair quarterbacking.

To watch the emotional, complicated plight of the Durst family is to understand that small moments and decisions have consequences bigger than one nuclear household. Day-to-day survival often requires the conscious suppression of long-term strategy. Americans can’t afford to deliberate when they have to eat. This is no less true in 2016.

In short, we have another Gilman/Goodman winner in town. It’s going to be a busy summer season of quality theater, but this one is a don’t miss.

“Soups, Stews and Casseroles” runs through June 19 at Goodman Theatre, 170 N Dearborn Street, Chicago, IL. For information or tickets, call 312-443-3800 or visit the Goodman Theatre website.

Feast

Source: http://www.goodmantheatre.org

The Albany Park Theater Project describes itself as a “multiethnic, youth theater ensemble that inspires people to envision a more just and beautiful world.”

At the curtain drop of the troupe’s latest production, a remounting of its 2010 “downtown debut,” “Feast,” ANTP Artistic Director David Feiner confessed to pride in the college attendance rate of the program’s graduates equal to satisfaction with the show. Many of the company’s committed children matriculate and become first generation university students from hardworking immigrant families. It’s an inspiring accomplishment and message in a post-Great Recession country where the American Dream often feels more elusive than ever.

APTP is a worthy non-profit, deserving of the Chicago theater community’s patronage. It would be so even if it produced mediocre artistic offerings. Luckily for all parties, including fans of good work, Albany Park Theater Project offers some of the most exciting, visceral, rhythmic storytelling in the Windy City. “Feast” marks the company’s fifth straight partnership season with the legendary Goodman Theatre.

Having been privileged enough to see and review the group’s 2013 foreclosure crisis-themed stunner, “I Will Kiss These Walls,” as well as a later examination of the nation’s broken immigration system, “Home/Land,” I have long admired the intersection of bold socioeconomic commentary, good writing and go-for-broke performances that are the hallmarks of an APTP experience.

Moreover, the results are completely unforced. With “Feast,” billed per press materials as “a 90-minute piece that explores food’s role in nourishing individuals and communities,” the group’s 2010 class did their research. Collaborating with adult theater mentors, the young artists “conducted more than two dozen interviews,” resulting in a script that asks a briskly paced series of existential questions. How does hunger (or abundance) affect personal security, the soul, the creative spirit, pride and family?

Though the APTP vision and mission is bigger than any one year’s cast, the quality of the performances in “Feast” is simply overwhelming — in all the right and sometimes purposely painful ways. A prime example occurs in the Link Card vignette. Featuring three young ladies with diametric views of the digital food stamps, the script is brave enough to consider Link as an application process fraught with bilingual tension, a source of well-fed joy, however brief, and a bottomless source of social shame. There are no wrong interpretations and no judgment.

But there are amazing acrobatic feats, a child’s soliloquy and an angry, defiant determination to break the cycle of poverty. Three voices and a full picture of an issue that is finally gaining the increased attention it deserves with this decade’s Occupy Wall Street movement, the rise of Senator Elizabeth Warren’s voice and the 2016 Democratic presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders.

Income inequality is having its moment, but as “Feast” makes clear, issues of hunger and want go back generations — to the fields of the Philippines and the villages of Mexico, as well as the cities, suburbs and towns in the United States. Food is wrapped in ritual, in love, in opportunity, in perceived success. However the weight of these concerns are nicely balanced in the production through stylistic APTP trademarks that lighten the load.

The kids transition in and out of the performance with a unified percussive display that demands their feet, hands and copious energy to make a joyful but large statement. We are here. This issue is here. And none of us are going anywhere until we figure it out. Because people who work hard and dream should have enough in their bellies to sustain their bodies and spirits.

It’s tough to single out any one performer from the harmoniously accomplished cast of 25. There are beautiful but haunting voices, dancers, drummers, gymnasts, physical comedians and touching dramatists. The tapestry of an imperfect reality held up for our collective examination. Albany Park Theater Project’s triumphant “Feast” is a deliberately hungry celebration of the company’s past, in the critical present, that deserves a very popular near future. See it.

“Feast” runs through August 16 at the Goodman Theatre, 1170 N. Dearborn, Chicago, IL. For information or tickets, call 312-443-3800 or visit the Goodman Theatre website.