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'The Showtune Mosh Pit' for February 15th, 2012





by Paul W. Thompson

Overheard last weekend under the showtune

video screens at Sidetrack and The Call:

There is no better place in the world right now than Lyric Opera Of Chicago for those who adore and revel in the overlap, juxtaposition and conjunction of opera and Broadway, classical music and showtunes. The 1927 granddaddy of what we do, “Show Boat,” opened on Sunday afternoon, in an enormous new production directed by Francesca Zambello and starring Ashley Brown (“Mary Poppins”) and Nathan Gunn (“Billy Budd”). Zambello is the General and Artistic Director of the Glimmerglass opera festival in Cooperstown, New York, and directed “The Little Mermaid” for Broadway. And now, in a production already planned to play in major opera houses in other U.S. cities, she has brought money, scholarship, insight and chutzpah together in ways that are garnering exceptional reviews from theater and music critics alike. Music by Jerome Kern, book and lyrics (libretto, if you like) by Oscar Hammerstein II and orchestrations by Robert Russell Bennett are all reportedly well served here. If you love discussions about what makes a modern American musical, or what defines an operetta, or how can you tell a hybrid from a trailblazer, then Chicago is the center of the world for you right now. It’s a string of hit songs in a show notoriously difficult to mount. You’ve only got a month. What are you waiting for?

Lyric Opera Of Chicago

Hammerstein and Bennett, this time with the music of Richard Rodgers, are also on display just a few blocks away from the Civic Opera House, in the touring production of Lincoln Center Theater’s “South Pacific” at the Cadillac Palace Theatre this week and next. The Rodgers And Hammerstein Organization must be loving Chicago right now! This tour was in Nashville (my home town) last week, and reportedly went right to the heart of the city in a way that few tours do. And even though this tour played the Rosemont Theatre in November of 2010, this is technically its Chicago premiere. Along with “Show Boat,” this show gives a great education about the musical play as a genre, about what made Hammerstein tick (Americana) and ticked off (racism), about how great an orchestrator Bennett was, and how legit and pop singing can share a stage and help each other to shine. And now you see that I am just a cock-eyed optimist!...


The Grammy Awards were Sunday night, for those looking for something to do after the “Show Boat” premiere. And in the newly christened category of “Best Musical Theater Album,” the winner was the original cast album of “The Book Of Mormon,” a huge and fast seller as far as showtune albums go. Of course, the show (slated to run here this Christmas) is the reigning Tony Award champion as Best Musical, and this fact maintains the roughly 50% correlation between these two awards. Last year’s Grammy winner was “American Idiot” (whose tour has one more week to go at our Oriental Theatre, by the way), which did not win the Tony (“Memphis” did). See how that works? The cast album of the Tony champ wins the Grammy roughly every other year. It’s how we roll. Now if we can just get Adele to sing some showtunes….

The Grammy Awards

Saturday was the tragic death of gospel-pop icon Whitney Houston, of course, and Chicago’s very own Jennifer Hudson was honored with honoring her on the Grammy telecast by singing “I Will Always Love You,” Houston’s enormous hit from the soundtrack of “The Bodyguard” and the biggest selling showtune single of all time. (You of course know that Dolly Parton first wrote and sang it in 1974, during the dissolution of her business partnership with Porter Waggoner, and that in 1982 it was inserted into the film version of “The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas” in place of “The Bus From Amarillo.”) Houston’s appearance in the 1997 television version of Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s “Cinderella”, as the Fairy Godmother who sings “Impossible” with Brandy, received a huge response when played at Sidetrack on Monday night. And followers of online videos have discovered that Houston’s first television appearance in 1985 was to sing “Home” from “The Wiz” on “The Merv Griffin Show.” Though she never appeared on Broadway, Whitney’s other showtune connections include her duet with her mother, Cissy Houston on “I Know Him So Well” from “Chess” on her second album “(“Whitney”) and the fact that for many years she was repeatedly mentioned as being the ideal choice to play Deena Jones in a film version of “Dreamgirls” (though Whitney preferred singing Effie’s material, and of course the role ultimately went to Beyonce). And, coincidentally, Tuesday night’s episode of “Glee” featured Amber Riley (who also likes Effie’s material) singing “I Will Always Love You,” filmed several weeks ago. It all comes full circle.

Whitney Houston

Monday night was also the second episode of the workplace drama “Smash” on NBC (that workplace being the Broadway musical theater community, of course!). With more material comes more difference of opinion, but I have to report that most observers I know are still solidly in favor of the show. I don’t know why certain bars don’t include airing fresh episodes of it in their weekly schedules. Maybe they will soon! But at least “Let Me Be Your Star” by Katharine McPhee and Megan Hilty has been shown to positive reception on several showtune video nights thus far. I expect we will see more, many more, clips from “Smash” in the weeks to come! The next episode airs this coming Monday, February 20, 2012.


Speaking of smashes, the revival of the Black Ensemble Theater production of “The Jackie Wilson Story” continues to pack them into that new performance space on N. Clark Street, as it has been running to great reviews since November and is scheduled to play through March 18! The show that launched Chester Gregory II to Broadway acclaim just may do the same thing for Kelvin Roston, Jr. What he’s doing up there ain’t easy. Try it! Or at least go watch him do it.


You only have until February 26 to catch the Tony-winning “Spring Awakening” at Northwestern University’s Ethel M. Barber Theater on the Evanston campus. There’s something about a show about teenagers that has actual teenagers in the cast. I expect this show will be popular with college theater programs, well, forever! Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater’s rock musical is directed by Geoff Button, and musical directed by Ryan T. Nelson.

NU Spring Awakening

If you’re looking for something a little more innocent, with a young cast playing not teenagers but ageless children, then “You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown” is the production for you. It will play February 18-March 4 at the James Downing Theatre, near Foster and Milwaukee Avenue, just off the Kennedy Expressway. Directed by Kevin Reeks, it stars Michael James Graf as Charlie Brown, Corey L. Mills as his dog, Snoopy, Jamie Szynal as Sally Brown, Sam Heindl as Lucy Van Pelt, Robert Dowling as Linus Van Pelt and Micah Fortenberry as Schroeder. “Happiness is…..”


From the same era of light Broadway pop came “Pippin,” and we’re lucky to have another production of this Stephen Schwartz show headed our way. This time it’s from the Music Theatre Company of Highland Park, directed and choreographed by founding artistic director Jessica Redish. The show will run March 22 through May 6, with Andrew Keltz as Pippin, Joey Stone as the Leading Player, James Rank as Charlemagne, Jess Godwin as Catherine, Zach Zube as Lewis, Angie Stemberg as Fastrada and Peggy Roeder and Cindy Gold sharing the role of Berthe. There’s hot people in the ensemble, too, as one would expect. And the leads can SING. Trust me on this one.


And lastly this week, we have the announcement about “Motherhood: The Musical,” which was originally slated for last summer, but regrouped and has booked the mainstage at the Royal George Theatre, with previews beginning March 30th. The official opening will be April 12th, and the show will be running through May 20th (at least initially). This show is produced by some of the same people who made “Menopause: The Musical” a big hit here and across the country a decade ago, and is written by Sue Fabisch and written and directed by Lisa Shriver. It will be cast locally, but the cast has not yet been announced.


So that’s it for now. It spring awakening yet? Almost? I think I can sort of see some daffdils peeking up, letting the sun shine in. Seriously, it’s been a crazy winter, no? In honor of same, I hope I'll soon be seeing you out and about, and under the video screens.....—PWT

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