Marriott’s ‘A Chorus Line’ makes the cut … barely

God they hope they get it: the cast of “A Chorus Line”

A Chorus Line? In the round? Really?

This is what I thought when I first read Marriott’s 2010 season. Naturally I was curious how they would adapt this 1975 Pulitzer Prize-winning show about dancers auditioning for the part in a Broadway chorus — which features iconic, athletic choreography by the great, late Michael Bennett — for a round stage.

Choreographer Rachel Rockwell, whom I’ve known for her epic productions of big musicals such as Ragtime and Miss Saigon at Drury Lane Oakbrook Terrace, had the task of adapting Bennett’s movement for this production. And, well, she’s adapted it. But does it work?

Well…yes. But mostly, no.

Take for example the three “Hello Twelve, Hello Thirteen, Hello Love” montages that build up to “Gimme the Ball.” She blends the movement together so it resembles a crazy clusterfuck of wild, angular emotions that explodes from the center of the stage — completely appropriate for the adolescent discoveries each dancer reveals in this segment.

However, the lovely Mara Davi (who starred as Maggie the original 2006 Broadway revival) as Cassie is undermined by the staging for her big number, “The Music and the Mirror.” To recreate that famous “mirror dance,” two-way mirrors drop down around the perimeter of the stage. It’s a cool effect (it gives off that neato reflection-upon-reflection-to-infinity illusion), but placing a wall between us and the dancer alienates us from her performance. Not only that, it makes a stage that’s already rather small for bust-out choreography even smaller, forcing her to literally run around in circles to fruitlessly build up the requisite energy. At the end, Davi was naturally dizzy, and literally fell out of her final iconic pose on press night.

Even more problematic, when the dancers form the line, there’s a 50/50 chance you’re looking at dancer butts (which may not be a bad thing). And when the dancers deliver their monologues to Zach, who’s apparently up in some imaginary balcony, they just randomly pick a focal point to talk. It’s disorienting.

So, I think you get that I’m not a fan of the staging. Try as they might, it just does not work. And they really tried. Also, I get the economic needs to sell drinks during a show, but inserting an intermission in a show that was explicitly created without one is frustrating to me.

All that aside, director Mark Lococo mines some very good performances from this young cast. Particularly Anika Ellis as Sheila (the bitch), Nina Fluke as Val (“tits and ass” girl), Pilar Millhollen as Morales (she nails her two big songs: “Nothing” and “What I Did for Love”), and Bryan Knowlton as Paul (his gut-wrenching monologue, though rushed, is delivered quite effectively). You genuinely really care for all 17 of the dancers by the end of the evening, and feel bad when nine of them get cut.

While this production is flawed in a some significant ways, the strength of the piece and the performances make it worthwhile.

Sidenote: I took my mom, whom I made watch “Every Little Step” beforehand for preparation. She was glad to have watched that documentary to get the back story on the development of this landmark piece — it helped her appreciate it more. I recommend you watch it, too.

“A Chorus Line” plays through Oct. 31 at the Marriott Theatre. More info here >

Marriott Theatre’s ‘Drowsy Chaperone’ is frothy fun

Linda Balgord stumbles along in the title role in Marriott Theatre’s “The Drowsy Chaperone.”

The Drowsy Chaperone is such a fluff-filled piece of theatre, if it were an object of tangibility, it would simply collapse into a pool of bubbles, sunlight and rainbows. You have the glamorous stage actress giving it all up for marriage, a drunk (read: drowsy) chaperone whose only job is to ensure the bride-to-be doesn’t see her husband until wedding day, two gangsters posing as pastry chefs, and a host of colorful supporting characters, complimented by a spit-take or five.

What I’m describing above is actually the musical-within-the-musical that resides within the 2006 Broadway hit by Bob Martin and Don McKellar (book), and Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison (music and lyrics, respectively).

For those unfamiliar with the show, The Drowsy Chaperone is the name of a fictional 1928 musical comedy. Our guide for the evening, known appropriately as “Man in Chair,” giddily shares the show’s cast album (an LP!) with us — his absolute favorite. The recording comes to life before our eyes in his Manhattan apartment, and he pauses the recording intermittently to give us witty back story on the actors. (In reference to one loopy character actress in the show, he quips: “She was actually as dumb as the characters she played onstage. In fact, the stage is the only place one can make a decent living being dumb.”)

Really, the backbone of this show is Man in Chair. He’s a bit of a homebody recluse who lives in his musical theatre fantasy land to escape the cold, harsh reality of everyday life. I think we all have a bit of Man in Chair in us. I know I do: there are times just want to hole up and pretend the world is one giant musical comedy. James Harms does a wonderful job capturing Man in Chair’s endearing personality, filling it with joy and a touch of melancholy and fragility. It’s a wonderful performance.

In the musical-within-a-musical, the cast is filled with amazing talent. Most notably, we have Tari Kelly as Janet, the star who’s giving it all up for love, and her drowsy chaperone, played by the absolutely fantastic Linda Balgord. These two pros know exactly what they’re doing and just the right approach to stretch the campy material as far as it will go before reaching the breaking point. The rest of the Equity-filled cast propels the zany action along nicely.

There are a few core problems, however. The show’s concept is difficult to wrap one’s head around. There were many people around me (a Sunday matinée crowd) who were confused as to why the show was being interrupted by this guy narrating it — they just wanted to see the singing and dancing (I could hear the mumblings around me at intermission). And forget about the underhanded quips by Man in Chair insinuating his closeted sexuality — those comments which I’m sure were met with hearty laughs in NYC flew over our audience’s head.

Also, Marc Robin does all he can to make an in-the-round staging make sense for a show that celebrates classic, proscenium-framed theatre. However, the show never really takes off like you want it to. It also doesn’t help when Man in the Chair talks about how he loathes shows that have actors in the aisles and abhors intermissions — both of which are in this production. (The actors in the aisles I can forgive due to staging challenges inherent with in-the-round; the added intermission is unnecessary).

It’s a fun, frothy production with a delightful cast, but I didn’t leave tapping my toes like I’m sure Man in Chair wanted me to.

“The Drowsy Chaperone” plays through June 27 at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire, Ill. More information here>

Tonight: E. Faye Butler and her orchestra

e_faye_butlerToday I turned 30. Yikes!

And to celebrate, I’m taking advantage of my proximity to the Marriott Theatre (I work in Riverwoods) and making Gerald Metra it up here to join me in seeing one of my absolute favorite Chicago divas: E. Faye Buter (and her orchestra!)

E. Faye recently won a Jeff Award for her earth-shattering performance in last season’s Caroline, or Change. As I’ve said a million times before, her performance in that was among the best — if not THE best — performances I’ve seen on any stage. And she’s currently stealing the show as Motormouth Maybelle in Marriott’s production of Hairspray(read my review here).

I look forward to her solo act tonight. For a preview of what E. Faye (and her orchestra!) have in store, watch her on WGN-TV here.

EDIT (11.17): A Review!

E. Faye Butler is so warm, charming and confident behind a microphone and in front of her self-named orchestra (EFO, for short), it’s hard to believe last night was the debut of this solo show, entitled Just in Time.

Which makes me wonder: Is this “one night only event” just the start of something bigger?

They way she rips into the raunchy “Long John Blues” or earnestly belts out Barry Manilow’s “Weekend in New England,” you know you are seeing a real star and a true-blue performer.

Her performing along just a piano would be more than enough, but E. Faye doesn’t seem the type of woman who settles for merely “enough.” So: we were treated to a stellar eight-piece band (two trumpets, trombone, sax, bass, guitar, piano, and drums) that added pizazz to the proceedings. You should know that E. Faye is a remarkable band singer, especially when she scats.

Several people close to Ms. Butler were in the highly attentive audience, and boy were they vocal. “Sing it, E. Faye!” “Take your time, girl! Take your tiiime!” “Do your THANG!”

In fact, E. Faye had to instruct us white folks that it was okay to be vocal — she liked that.

Following a stirring, jazzy version of “Summertime,” she looked over in the audience at some important dude and slyly declared that as her “16 bars” for an upcoming production at the Court Theatre.

She talked about starring in one of the first non-traditional productions in Chicago as Dolly Levi. And when she popped up to make her entrance opening night, she heard a guy in the audience say, “Oh, I didn’t pay to see no damn n***.” She noted that she continued on with the performance that evening for the other 798 audience members, but “said a prayer for that poor guy so I wouldn’t kill him.”

Oh! And the tribute section to her mother, Elizabeth (where the “E” in E. Faye comes from) was beautiful. Ms. Butler told how her “star” died of breast cancer in 2007, and on her death bed, her mother requested that E. Faye go back that evening and perform (she was starring in Ella at Northlight Theatre at the time). And, though impossibly hard, she did it, as her mother said it would honor her in doing so.

E. Faye also explained her flowing purple outfit and gold shoes, as purple and gold were her mother’s favorite colors — they signified royalty. Then, she sang “My Buddy,” which she sang at her mother’s funeral. Some of her mother’s favorite Ella Fitzgerald tunes then followed.

The audience didn’t want her to leave. She really can do no wrong. Let’s hope E. Faye and the “EFO” come back very soon. And when they do, get your tickets!

“Sing it, E. Faye!”

E. Faye and her orchestra doing a sound check prior to last night's show (Courtesy of @LindleyRob)

Upcoming E. Faye news: Also mentioned in her show, she’s launching a new web site soon, so keep an eye out for that. She also noted that she’s set to star as Pearl Bailey at Northlight Theatre — I’m assuming as part of Low Down Dirty Blues, opening in Spring 2010.


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