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'The Showtune Mosh Pit' for February 22nd, 2012





by Paul W. Thompson

Overheard last weekend under the showtune

video screens at Sidetrack and The Call:

It’s the Chicago premiere of “A Catered Affair!” Harvey Fierstein and John Bucchino’s 2008 Broadway musical, winner of the Drama League award for Distinguished Production of a Musical and originally starring Faith Prince and Tom Wopat, has opened to a great degree of interest at Stage 773, for its Chicago premiere production. Brought to us by Porchlight Music Theatre, under new artistic director Michael Weber, it’s been directed by TimeLine Theatre’s Nick Bowling, with musical direction by bon vivant Doug Peck and a crack design team led by Brian Sidney Bembridge and Bill Morey. After a weekend of previews, the official opening night was yesterday, with the regular run scheduled for weekends from now until April 1, 2012.

The show, based on a Paddy Chayefsky short story and set in The Bronx in 1953, depicts the choices a family must make in celebrating the wedding of their beloved daughter during trying economic circumstances. Multi-Jeff Award-winning musical star Rebecca Finnegan and respected Chicago actor and teacher Craig Spidle star, supported by Kelly Davis Wilson (“The Original Grease”), Jim DeSelm (“Pump Boys And Dinettes”) and, in Fierstein’s role as Uncle Winston, Jerry O’Boyle, who played Edna Turnblad in “Hairspray” over 1,000 times in a four-year period. You won’t want to miss this show, as Porchlight really does live into its slogan with this one (“American Musicals. Chicago Style.) Awesome. 

A CATERED AFFAIR at Porchlight

And Porchlight isn’t even done with opening shows for this month! “Best Musical!,” called “a completely improvised musical comedy,” will play for five Wednesdays, beginning on Leap Day, February 29, also at Stage 773, conceived by Matthew Loren Cohen and directed by Amanda Blake Davis. The cast of six will improvise songs (with audience input, of course) and then create a musical which includes those songs. Now, Chicago is home to several troupes specializing in exactly this sort of thing, but the roots of this particular production are in New York, I am told. Dangerous to bring an art form back to its hometown, but it’s a mild winter, so the Mosh Pit peeps may be ready for anything. And with Chicago actors/improvisers in the cast, I’m sure we’re in good hands.


Something that sounds a little unusual is going on at St. Gregory the Great Church in Andersonville, courtesy of the Quest Theatre Ensemble. Already two weeks into their performances, which end March 18, the company is presenting what I think is the rarely-seen-anymore musical “Barnum,” though it is billed here as “The People’s Barnum.” Quest is “The People’s Theatre,” so this might just be semantics, but it makes me worried that the show has been overly adapted or something. Still, authors Cy Coleman, Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble are listed in the credits, and the production photos include P.T. Barnum, Charity, Tom Thumb, Jenny Lind and a chorus of acrobats and sideshow attractions, so perhaps all is well. And the tickets are free! How does that happen, exactly? Let’s ask founding artistic director Andrew Park. Jason Bowen stars. 


Another legendary showman, Harry Houdini, is the subject of the new children’s musical “The Houdini Box,” a three-person show with music by Mark Messing, based on a book by Brian Selznick, author of “The Invention Of Hugo Cabret.” By new, I mean that this is its first production anywhere. Where? Well, this is just a reminder that “The Houdini Box” opened January 24 at the Mercury Theater in Chicago, and will close there March 4. Never fear, however! It will reappear March 14-25 at the North Shore Center For The Performing Arts in Skokie.


Ludwig van Beethoven was a showman too, of a slightly different sort, and Quasimodo, while fictional (I think), was a musical performer of sorts as well. And you may know that these two legendary men have been brought together in “The Hunchback Variations Opera,” with music by Mark Messing, the same guy who composed “The Houdini Box.” Talk about having a good month! “Hunchback,” produced by Theater Oobleck in the Richard Christiansen Theater at Victory Gardens Theater on Lincoln Avenue, has been extended through March 11th. And, oh yes, it concerns itself with the recreation of a sound effect from the script of Anton Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard.” You can’t make this stuff up. Oh, wait, somebody did. It sounds unbelievably marvelous, doesn’t it?


Speaking of new works of musical theater, they are being created in Chicago all the time. I was privileged over the weekend to attend a concert of original music theater songs by Gerald Rizzer, who’s been creating such songs and scores in Chicago for 25 years, having joined John Sparks’ writers’ workshop at the Theatre Building (now Stage 773) in the 1980s. (Sparks is now affiated with Light Opera Works, btw, and readings of new shows he has sparked happen quite frequently there.) Rizzer teaches at Sherwood, the community music school now affiliated with Columbia College Chicago, and Kelli Harrington, Jennifer Grubb, Christian Ketter and Michael Cavalieri sang songs from ten Rizzer projects there on Saturday afternoon. Eight songs came from 2003’s “Hard Road” (lyrics by Charlie Mehler), and the audience particularly enjoyed “Isn’t Christmas Lovely?,” from “St. Bruno’s Remains,” lyric by Rizzer himself. 


Local film and media composer and conductor Leo Schwartz writes stage musicals, too, and is responsible for the show “Under A Rainbow Flag,” the first musical to be chosen for a public performance by the Great Gay Play Contest, sponsored by Pride Films And Plays, David Zak, Executive Director. (Full disclosure: yours truly was a reader for the preliminary phase of this year’s competition, though I didn’t read this particular script.) 2012’s Gay Play Weekend will be April 13-15 at the Center On Halsted’s Hoover-Leppen Theater, and Schwartz’s musical is slotted to go last among the five works chosen for staged readings. It’s based on the real-life recollections of an Evanston man who is a gay veteran of World War II, Navy Medical Corpsman Jon Phillips.

Pride Films and Plays

I seem to be talking about Stage 773 a lot in this edition of the Mosh Pit, and the complex’s own Street Tempo Theatre is the reason for the return to the topic. The group which brought us “Let My People Come” back in the early winter will be back in early spring with a slightly more traditional show, though one with its own street edge, “Little Shop Of Horrors.” The seminal show from the team of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman will preview beginning April 9, with the regular run slated to continue Thursday through Sundays through May 13. Now spit! 


But Sunday night I caught wind of a production that won’t open here until the fall, and they already have a website up and running, and the full cast has been announced! And the show is perfectly timed for Presidential election season, too. It’s “Assassins,” the Stephen Sondheim/John Weidman musical about the folks who’ve wanted our Commander-in-Chief dead. Billy Pacholski is producting and directing this version, to be performed at the Viaduct Theatre on Western Avenue from October 10-November 10, 2012. Robert Ollis is musical directing a cast headed by Sam Button-Harrison as both The Balladeer and Lee Harvey Oswald, Kevin Webb as John Wilkes Booth, Tom McGunn as Leon Czolgosz, Kiley Moore as Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme and Ed Rutherford as John Hinckley. Can’t wait!

Assassins Chicago 2012

And both Stage 773 and Robert Ollis factor in this last item, the Bailiwick Chicago casting auction production of “Damn Yankees” that took place over the weekend, located at the one and musical directed by the other. Kate Garrasino directed the large cast of donors and well-wishers in the Adler and Ross classic musical comedy, performed three times to a great deal of fun and, one hopes, a great deal of money for future Bailiwick productions. Jill Renn was Lola, who gets whatever she wants, with Herbert Quinde as Mr. Applegate and Jerry Hickey as Joe Hardy. Future productions that they were raising money for include the Chicago premiere of “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.” Talk about Presidential!


So that’s it for the Mardi Gras/Ash Wednesday edition of The Showtune Mosh Pit! Or is the President’s Day edition? At any rate, here it is, and there you are, and I'll see you soon I hope, under the video screens.....—PWT

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