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'The Showtune Mosh Pit' for July 4th, 2012

'The Showtune Mosh Pit' for July 4th, 2012




by Paul W. Thompson

Overheard last weekend under the showtune

video screens at Sidetrack and The Call:

With a nod to Independence Day, and all that it means to you and yours, it’s once again time for our bi-annual Showtune Mosh Pit feature: the Mosh Pit’s “Top Ten Hot Topix!” It’s been a fascinating six months hereabouts, with 156 different subjects making these pages since the first of the year. Let’s take a look and see what the ten most popular, most talked about items of interest have been, in time-honored reverse order. And thanks for reading, and for talking about the following musical theater happenings:

10. “Show Boat” at Lyric Opera Of Chicago. For about a month in February and March, Chicago was the world’s center of the debate about what makes a musical a musical, and what makes an opera an opera. Before and after that time, the Broadway production known as “The Gershwins’ Porgy And Bess” was that center, but make no mistake, the issues burned even hotter and clearer here when the nation’s second largest opera company took on Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s 1927 music theater masterpiece, with a cast made up of international opera stars and local theater stars, singers, actors and dancers, headed up by director Francesca Zambello and conductor John DeMain. Nathan Gunn and Ashley Brown starred, and Lyric was stirred. Or stirred up, depending on who you talked to.

SHOW BOAT at Lyric Opera

9. Team StarKid. While we still don’t know for sure the implications of the success of this intrepid Chicago band of theater entrepreneurs, two years or so out of the University of Michigan, this spring was a sort of crucible point for the internet and merchandising superstars who spawned “A Very Potter Musical” and set Darren Criss on his road to “Glee” and Broadway stardom. The company’s latest original musical, “Holy Musical B@man!,” played just enough live, late winter performances at Chicago’s Hoover-Leppen Theater to get recorded for free release online, and by late spring, the company had embarked upon its second national concert tour this school year, the “Apocalyptour,” centered largely on House Of Blues venues (the Chicago HOB was the site of the tour’s premiere). Is this a new way of reaching and building theater audiences? I think so…..

8. “Pippin” at The Music Theatre Company. For two months this spring, Stephen Schwartz’s early Broadway success with the legendary Motown cast album came to vibrant musical life in Highland Park, where Jessica Redish directed and choreographed (in proper post-Fosse style) all the strutting and coup de theatre brilliance of this tricky Watergate-era work. Joey Stone and Jess Godwin showed they have unmatched vocal pipes where R&B-influenced Broadway pop-rock is concerned.


7. “A Little Night Music” at Writers’ Theatre. A few miles down Green Bay Road from Highland Park, the important Writers’ Theatre has mounted an intimate yet powerful production of Stephen Sondheim’s perennial early summer masterpiece, where the glamorous life makes way for the clowns, and, finally, the right couples are coupled. The show was as rapturously received by Chicago-area critics as the music rapturously waltzes in and around the love lives of Sweden’s class-conscious denizens of 100 years ago. Lucky for you, the show is running through August 12.

6. Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel in Separate Concerts, Ten Days Apart. The stars of “Wicked” and guest stars on “Glee,” with plenty of separate projects under their belts as well, are each touring this summer, and our anticipation of these two concert events reached a fever pitch! Chenoweth’s indoor show, “Some Lessons Learned,” was originally scheduled for mid-June, but the star fell ill and had to reschedule her Cadillac Palace Theatre performance for June 29 (it was packed!). Menzel’s outdoor show, with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, no less, is set for the Ravinia Festival pavillion on July 8 (the pavillion is sold out, with only lawn passes remaining). I’m still hoping for their joint network TV special to be announced (well, I can dream, can’t I?). Ah, well.

5. Our Unofficial Adam Guettel Festival. Apparently, Chicago’s audiences and theater professionals are more familiar and comfortable with the two major works by Richard Rodgers’ grandson than those in other cities. His Tony-winning “A Light In The Piazza” and Obie-winning “Floyd Collins” were both produced by non-Equity companies in town this spring, and, because “Piazza” was extended multiple times, they are now both in production, though not for long. “Piazza” was produced by Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre at the No Exit Café in Rogers Park, and “Floyd Collins” was mounted by the Bohemian Theatre Ensemble, performing at Theater Wit in Lakeview. “Piazza” received six Joseph Jefferson Awards, and both productions have received national media attention. Fully deserved, all round.

4. Awards Season: Grammys, Jeffs and Tonys. The spring always brings a lot of theater awards, and this year’s ceremonies reminded us of what we’ve loved in the past, and what’s coming our way. “The Book Of Mormon” took the Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album, and we will get a dedicated production of last year’s Tony winner just in time for the holidays (long may we worship at the Oriental Theatre). As mentioned, the non-Equity Jeffs were dominated by Theo Ubique’s “The Light In The Piazza,” and the latest Chicago-to-New York transplant, Jessie Mueller, was nominated but didn’t win the Best Featured Actress category at this year’s Tony Awards. “Once” won Best Musical, but “Newsies” won Best Score and Audra McDonald of “Porgy And Bess” won Best Actress--if statistics are any indication, I predict a three-way face-off for next year’s cast album Grammy.

3. “Smash.” The NBC-TV drama about the creation of a Broadway musical caught our attention in a big way this spring. And it’s been renewed for a second season, to boot! Whether it was the music and lyrics of Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (now on CD and download, of course), the performances of Katherine McPhee and Megan Hilty, the supporting cast, the Broadway guest stars and background players, or just the fact that musical theater was being treated as a workaday occupation (like law firms, police departments and hospitals always have been), we WATCHED. Some were less than thrilled by somewhat melodramatic plot twists, or bemused by some of the dramatic license taken by the writers. But some day, we will all look back with wonder that the world of musicals was dramatized on network, prime-time television, and we’ll tell our children all about it. Really. “Bombshell,” indeed!

2. Our Unofficial Jonathan Larson Festival. Almost concurrent in late spring, both of the full-length musicals by the late Jonathan Larson received highly visible Equity stagings in Chicago, making us for a moment the center of the world for Rentheads and their cousins, the Boomheads (the Tickheads just doesn’t sound right). “Rent” was a co-production of American Theater Company and About Face Theatre, and “tick…tick…BOOM!” came to life courtesy of Porchlight Music Theatre. If David Cromer’s direction of Larson’s Pulitzer and Tony winner (choreography by Jessica Redish) didn’t strike everyone as successful, I don’t know of anyone who didn’t find it thought-provoking. And Adam Pelty’s staging of the autobiographical and posthumous “tick” reminded us of the breadth and drive of Larson’s talent, and proved an ideal venue for the powerhouse voice and physicality of rising star Adrian Aguilar.


1. New Musicals. Far and above any other topic we’ve talked about in the Mosh Pit this spring, the amazing number and variety of new works of musical theater produced in Chicago these days is the number one hot topic of these past six months. And these shows come in at least four forms, too. First is the workshops and staged readings format, such as those sponsored by Midwest New Musicals (under the umbrella of Light Opera Works), the staged reading held for the musical “Under The Rainbow Flag” (which won the reading from Pride Films And Plays), and the recent “Next Stop” reading (sponsored by Route 66 Theatre Company).

Secondly, new shows are sometimes given full productions by non-Equity or “storefront” smaller theaters, as was the case for “Jersey Shore: The Musical” at Studio BE (transferred to the Greenhouse Theatre Center), “Sexy Baby” from Hell In A Handbag Productions, “Rise Of The Numberless” from Bailiwick Chicago, and the original Jule Styne revue, “Time After Time,” garnering great reviews for Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre.

Thirdly, shows are sometimes given full productions by major, large-scale theaters, usually after a long development period. This list includes the current “Hero” (Marriott Theatre) and “Eastland” (Lookingglass Theatre Company), plus “The Hunchback Variations” from Theatre Oobleck and the Victory Gardens Biograph Theater (already seen in New York), “Crowns” at the Goodman Theatre (not new, but developed there in the past) and “The Jungle Book” at the Goodman (still a year away, but we are already sensing the anticipation).

And lastly, new shows come here after being produced in other places, looking to further refine their product or just gain good reviews and pocket change before setting their sights elsewhere. Productions of this type on our collective radar have included “The Doyle And Debbie Show” (Royal George Cabaret Theatre), “Motherhood” (Royal George mainstage), “Bring It On” (Cadillac Palace Theatre), the upcoming “Kinky Boots” (Bank Of America Theatre) and, the granddaddy of them all, “Million Dollar Quartet” (Apollo Theater), which launched a Broadway production and an off-Broadway transfer from here, and has outlasted both of those incarnations with old-fashioned advertising and manageable weekly running costs.

Theatre In Chicago: Your Source For What's On Stage

So, there you have it! So much great theater going on, and theater-related concerts and multi-media events surrounding, inspiring and challenging us. Those who think that musical theater is the step-child of the Chicago theater scene are clearly not reading this column! And the breadth, integrity and community connection of musical theater here is the envy of those in New York and around the world. You know it’s true! And I thank you for making these your Hot Topix, and for reading the Mosh Pit every week. So, onward through the holiday, the heat and the rest, and we’ll return to our regular format next week! Until then, I'll see you under the video screens.....—PWT

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