"Boojum!" What is it? Exactly. (An American Stage Premiere)
Chicago is lucky. Currently we are home to local stagings of two imported 1980s-era English-language musical theater works, both mounted in idealized Chicago storefront theater spaces and based on classic modern works of whimsical childlike poetry (and snippets of other writings by the authors of the source material). Intrepid young casts shape characters out of inherently non-dramatic words, sing complicated music with aplomb and execute challenging staging ideas, bringing slight plots to exciting life, within a hair's breadth of audience members.
One of these is a reimagining of a the wildly successful London musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber, based on the writings of T. S. Eliot. Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre has gotten a lot of attention for their production of "Cats," and justly so, I'm sure. But the other production I'm talking about goes where "Cats" could never tread, involving not only biographical information about the original author, but touching on intergenerational friendship, teacher-pupil issues, the nature of language, the role of play and imagination in our lives, and, most strikingly, pedophilia and child sexual abuse. This show has only been staged one other time in its entire existence, in Australia in 1986, and certainly deserves a wider viewing. It is "Boojum!: Nonsense, Truth and Lewis Carroll," and it is on the boards at the DCA Theater on Randolph Street (now through December 19), a co-production of Chicago Opera Vanguard and Caffeine Theatre.
And what a work it is! "Boojum!" was created by a collaboration of brothers, Martin and Peter Wesley-Smith, who share joint authorship credit for the show's book but who otherwise split the songwriting credits (Martin the music and Peter the lyrics). The artistic director of three-year-old Chicago Opera Vanguard, Eric Reda, told me last Saturday afternoon that he came across a recording of the show while working in the CD department of a store in Arizona over ten years ago. Listening to it every year since, he finally put his mind to producing it here, and the Wesley-Smith brothers traveled to Chicago to attend this American premiere!
Six-year-old Caffeine Theatre was able to bring its resources to bear along with COV's, and the result is a show that is quite unlike any other I have ever seen. Reminiscent of opera, art song, musical comedy, a play with music, experimental theater and a night in an adventurous bar, "Boojum!" may be a highly original, unique work as written, and it comes across as pretty singular in performance, as well. It's part journey theater, part character analysis. It's a staged secular cantata. I don't know, am I right?
Lewis Carroll, author of the "Alice In Wonderland" stories, was in reality an Anglican deacon, mathematician and amateur photographer named Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. His friendship with the young Alice Liddell has been well-documented and chronicled, as both parties left diaries describing their times together, and Alice, as child and adult, wrote about Dodgson before and after his death.
His mock epic poem "The Hunting Of The Snark" provides the thin narrative framework of "Boojum!," and is the source of its title. Six of the show's ten actors spend much of their time as the oddly named characters of this quest story, named for occupations that all start with the letter "B." I particularly enjoyed Kevin Bishop and Stephen Rader in their guises as a pair of vaudeville twins, and Michael Reyes as a deep-voiced semi-narrator. Did I mention that hardly any actors ever leave the stage, and that there are 34 musical numbers?
The four other actors play younger and older versions of Alice (Marielle de Rocca-Serra and Heather Townsend, respectively, both showing fine soprano voices) and Rev. Dodgson (the excellent Alex Balestrieri, with deep introspection and some lovely musicianship) and his alter-ego, Lewis Carroll (the always watchable but sometimes outsized Jeremy Trager). Both actors are in fine voice, too--Balestrieri the tenor and Trager the baritone.
The songs run the gamut from chamber choir motets, Renaissance ditties and modern choral anthems to music hall tunes and quasi-operatic solos. One in particular, "For More Than Sixty Years," deserves to be some sort of breakout or radio hit in its wistful honesty and warm pop harmonies. Don't be afraid--none of the cast is showing classical vocal stylings one would associate with Franz Schubert or Giuseppe Verdi (not that there's anything wrong with that!). Instead, they walk a fine line between a music theater sensibility and independent, talented musical chutzpah. It's not a polished studio or concert hall blend, but some very pleasant voices delivery a number of different types of music, all the while creating dramatic focus and clarity with a text which started out with neither. Musical directors Byron Silberstein and Andra Velis Simon (at the lone piano) did yeoman's work in teaching the harmonies and rhythms of this complex and completely unknown score.
Director Jimmy McDermott has wrought something truly arresting and fraught with real human danger in this story of a man who took photographs of naked children and made up nonsense words in the name of creativity and flights of fancy. Who was he, and what did he think he was doing? What do his works mean, and what did his actions mean? These questions and their supposed answers (we may never know for sure) are not at all clear from the script and score, I believe, but McDermott found the drama in all the music and the wordplay and the biographical snippets that Dodgson and Alice reveal. Natalja Aicardi's choreography maintains a sense of play and bizarreness, and Philip Dawkins' costume design does as well. Marianna Csaszar didn't provide much of a set, but what's there is flexible and timeless enough to serve. I was impressed with the lighting of Casey Diers (there's a lot of cubic space in this narrow playing area, and no proscenium arch to hide behind) and Jessica Rosenlieb's props were fast and furious.
In the end, we are left with a man whose stories and writer's persona both outlive and out-interest him, and yet, they really shouldn't. His perversity and kindness form a dichotomy as powerful as any conjured up by Tweedle-Dum and Tweedle-Dee. Dodgson's life and his life's work are worth investigating, and investigating together. For, as much as the man himself may have wanted to treat Lewis Carroll as a different person, he simply wasn't. Part of him was dangerously fascinated by childhood, and the rest of him must have had a problem with that. That is the subject that "Boojum!" grapples with, as must all thinking parents and all playful creative artists. This Australian musical from a quarter century ago has been dropped onto our laps as a holiday gift no one saw coming. It's not for the faint of heart or those looking for a fancy night on the town. But as a piece of theater/music/music theater/literary theater/community exorcism/storefront magic, this work is powerful, troubling and seductively beautiful. Give yourself to its slow seduction, and try to understand the tortured soul of a genius. I can't shake "Boojum!" I want to, but I can't.
"Boojum!" runs Thursdays through Sundays, through December 19, 2010, at the DCA Storefront Theater, 66 E. Randolph Street in downtown Chicago. Call 312-742-TIXS or visit www.dcatheater.org.
Photo credit: John W. Sisson, Jr.