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'The Showtune Mosh Pit' for September 24th, 2014


by Paul W. Thompson

Overheard last weekend under the showtune video screens at Sidetrack and The Call:

It was an honor and a privilege just to be in the room on Monday night, when the FWD Theatre Project kicked off its first full year of activity with an exciting and star-studded night of camaraderie and performances of new works of musical theater. City Winery, on Chicago's Near West Side restaurant row, was packed with enough star power, on stage and behind the scenes, to make even the most hardened cynic believe that the American musical will be alive and well, here and elsewhere, for a very long time.

Coming one day after the death of the beloved Sheldon Patinkin, former head of the theater department at Columbia College Chicago and an early pioneer of improv here, a teacher and director and writer of immense range and reach here and elsewhere, "Launching FWD" was a time to realize what got us here as a musical theater community, and where we would like to be going. The brainchild of performer and choreographer Amber Mak, who collected seven likeminded Chicagoans to join her in an effort to be a sort of matchmaking service between musical theater writers and theater companies, FWD (for both "forward" and "Festival of Works in Development") sure hit it out of the ballpark on Monday. Steve and Karen Multer, Wade Elkins, Justin Brill, Scott Sowinsky, Missy Greenberg and Michael Gillis were all on hand, and beaming, as their efforts produced so many lovely moments on stage and in the audience.

Just to give you an idea of who was in the audience, I was randomly seated near executives from Light Opera Works, Chamber Opera Chicago and the Grant Park Music Festival. Cast members of the Paramount Theatre's production of "Cats" had volunteered to sell raffle tickets. And George Andrew Wolff, who learned the role of the taxi driver in "Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown" after the untimely September 6th death of Bernie Yvon, started off the performances with a polished rendition of a brand new song, "500 Of My Closest Friends," from "The Black And White Ball," one of the five new shows FWD is fostering at this time. And in character as Truman Capote, no less.

Singing the title song of that show (by Stephen Cole and Todd Ellison) was 15-year-old Ariana Burks, who sang with a polish and fervor that really electrified the crowd. It was almost as if she didn't realize that the First Couple of Chicago Musical Theater, Paula Scrofano and John Reeger, were in the audience. Or that reigning Tony Award winner Jessie Mueller ("Beautiful") was seated at a table with her entire family, including sister Abby and brother Andrew, both of whom also appeared on New York stages last season (Abby is still there, in "Kinky Boots"). Tony winner Karen Olivo ("West Side Story") was in the audience too, no doubt intrigued by the evening's second featured show, "Swift As Desire," a Latin-infused show by Jeffrey Lunden and Arthur Perlman (the creators of "Wings," which made the trip from Chicago to New York stages two decades ago).

Outer Critics Circle Award winner and cabaret legend Karen Mason sang one of the best-known songs by the late Chicagoan Brian Lasser, "Better Days," before joining Abby Mueller, Larry Adams and more in introducing "Pride And Prejudice," with book and score by Lawrence Rush. Mueller and Devin DeSantis brought the crowd to cheers with the duet, "All I See." And Abby joined in the harmonies on her sister Jessie's rendition of "Indiana Line" (Jessie on guitar) from "Exposure," a show by Erik Della Penna, William Brown and Doug Frew, a show with an indie vibe and a character named Indie. The Tony winner came and went so humbly and casually that you had to stop and think, "Oh, yeah, these are the people she worked with for nearly a decade before New York realized it needed her. But these are her people." On and off stage, Jessie Mueller (pictured above) couldn't have been more gracious.

Lastly, the star of the current Chicago one-man autobiographical show "Methtacular!," Steven Strafford, wowed us with the songs of John McMahon and Jay Jeffries in "Love And Other Fables," an Aesop-inspired burlesque romp that also featured hilarious turns from Landree Fleming and Heidi Kettenring. And then, it was over. Concert stagings of each of these five shows will take place in 2015, and hopefully more shows will be chosen, shows will be picked up for full productions, and the art form we love will keep on inventing itself.

This was a legendary night, peeps. Unless FWD pulls off a night like this every year. Which it might! I wouldn't sell these folks short. Stars, movers and shakers, visionaries and creatives, fans and administrators and beautiful people and the future of the American musical--quite a heady mix! Like I said, I was honored and privileged to be there. And they're off!


And what of "Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown," whose opening at Theatre At The Center in Munster was delayed by a week? This regional theater debut and rewrite of a Broadway misfire has gotten really good reviews so far. I'll be reviewing it this Friday. Stay tuned!

Speaking of the synergy between New York and Chicago, the 2009 version of the novel and animated film "The Last Unicorn" by author-director-actor-singer-producer Ed Rutherford ("Coraline"), that was mounted by the Promethean Theatre Ensemble here, has gotten the attention of some pretty powerful folks for a musical adaptation. Specifically, TV and film star Josh Duhamel and his wife, singer and "Nine" film star Fergie. They are among the producers, she is among the composers, and he (Rutherford, that is) is set to collaborate with original novelist Peter S. Beagle on the show's book. How's that for the future of the American musical!


As reportedly previously in the Mosh Pit, entertainment icon Chita Rivera ("West Side Story," "Kiss Of The Spider Woman," you name it) will be performing in southwest suburban Palos Hills this Saturday night, September 27, 2014, in the wonderful performing arts facility at the Moraine Valley Community College. But that's only the beginning of the solo concerts we have to tell you about! Tony nominee and Chicago stage star Felicia P. Fields ("The Color Purple") will star in "Holding Court On The South Side" on Monday evening, September 29 at the Court Theatre on the University Of Chicago campus. Kelvin Roston, Jr. will guest star. Roofs will be raised.

The original stage star of "The Little Mermaid," Sierra Boggess, who starred in Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Love Never Dies" in the West End and on Broadway in "The Phantom Of The Opera," will return to Peoria, Illinois, and her alma mater, Millikin University, for a special gala benefit performance on Saturday, October 11. The 2004 graduate will sing with a symphony orchestra, performing with current Millikin theater and dance students, in the Kirkland Fine Arts Center.


And legendary Tony winner Donna McKechnie ("A Chorus Line," "Company," you name it) will sing in Chicago on Monday, October 20, at Stage 773, as the headliner for "Simply Sensational: Legends," the annual gala benefitting Pride Films And Plays. WGN-TV's Dean Richards will host the evening, which will include performances by Chicago artists, and glimpses of PFP's upcoming projects. Cassie on Belmont. Yes.

Speaking of Stage 773, even as Porchlight Music Theatre rehearses "Sweeney Todd" for its upcoming season of works by Stephen Sondheim (beginning performances at Stage 773 on October 3rd), that same show will appear on a broadcast of "Live From Lincoln Center" this Friday night, September 25. It's the stripped-down New York Philharmonic concert presentation of the Sondheim-Wheeler masterwork (directed by Lonny Price and conducted by Alan Gilbert) that starred Bryn Terfel and Emma Thompson, with Audra McDonald, Phillip Quast and Christian Borle in the cast. 9:00 pm on WTTW, channel 11. Need I say more?

A West End musical from last season, now shuttered, is making its first US appearance via movie screens, as Stuart Brayson and Tim Rice's version of "From Here To Eternity" begins screenings October 2, with the 5th and 9th scheduled as well. From page to an Oscar-winning screen adaptation to stage, it's the story of servicemen in Hawaii. in the days before the attack on Pearl Harbor brought the US directly into World War II. And now it's in movie theaters again, featuring the original West End cast. More than a dozen Chicagoland theaters are hosting screenings, including two in the city proper.


On the local front, things remain hot at the Marriott Theatre, as "On The Town" continues its run through October 12, even as a completely different Broadway incarnation began previews last weekend for a projected October 16 opening. (Has anyone seen both productions yet?) And the Marriott has announced the cast for its next production, Rodgers and Hammerstein's "The King And I," to star Chicago's Heidi Kettenring ("Wicked," "Hero") and New York's Andrew Ramcharan Guilarte, with a nationwide supporting cast. Chicagoans Joseph Anthony Foronda (Kralahome) and Rod Thomas (Sir Edward) and our child stars Michael Semanic and Matthew Uzarraga are joined by a multi-cultural ensemble for one of the fall's most eagerly anticipated productions. Nick Bowling and Tommy Rapley will put the cast through their paces for the October 22-January 4 run.


And the Marriott will produce a Theatre For Young Audiences version of "The Wizard Of Oz," from November 7-January 4, directed and choreographed by Rachel Rockwell. Somewhat surprisingly, none of the cast members are also in "The King And I!" Dara Cameron will star as the girl from Kansas, with George Keating, Alex Goodrich and Jeff Max as the three friends she makes on her trip down the yellow brick road. Susan Moniz will torment her, Johanna McKenzie Miller and Rob Rahn will hold down the farm (and double as advice-giver and ruler), with Debbie Laumand-Blanc, J. Tyler Whitmer and Amanda Tanguay rounding out the cast.


Happy Rosh Ha-Shanah, everyone! Fall is finally, officially here. But there's plenty of room on the calendar before the white stuff shows up. Maybe I'll see you at a theater somewhere abouts! Or surely I'll see you under the video screens.....-PWT

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From This Author - Paul W. Thompson

Paul W. Thompson, a contributor to since 2007, is a Chicago-based singer, actor, musical director, pianist, vocal coach, composer and commentator. His career as (read more...)