After a dry spell in live theater (filled mostly by live music shows instead), I returned in a big way in the last week, catching no fewer than five shows in seven days, from touring Broadway productions to community theater in my hometown. It made for a whirlwind week and quite a few dinners out, but overall a wonderful time and a reminder of just how much I enjoy joining an audience for a performance, tragic or comic, professional or otherwise.
I caught the gender-swapped Broadway revival of Company, Stephen Sondheim’s mid-century musing on couple-dome, in New York in December 2021, and though it’s my favorite of his (and maybe of all time?), I found myself mostly agreeing with the great David Rooney’s review of that production: I will never forget witnessing LuPone belt out “Ladies Who Lunch,” but Katrina Lenk left much to be desired.
When I caught wind of the tour heading to Chicago, I knew I wanted to snag tickets, not only to see this great show once again but to see if the touring Bobbie (Britney Coleman) could muster the presence Lenk never did. Sadly, a second viewing confirmed my suspicions about this attempt to update Sondheim’s already quite contemporary narrative: in this particular case, the gender politics are just too complicated to simply swap a woman in for a role written for a man. It would be like re-casting Tevye as a woman in Fiddler on the Roof; it just doesn’t track with the deeper implications and nuances of the story.
Sure, plenty of this revival updates the original. Answering services are now cell phones. Karate is now jiu-jitsu. But a single woman in her mid-thirties faces a completely different version of societal push-back than a man does, from expectations on motherhood and career to rumors of spinsterhood and more. Coleman, like Lenk before her, does as much as she can to realize Bobbie as a complicated, flawed but earnest person looking for love, but the show is ultimately stolen by ensemble cast members like Matt Rodin delivering Jamie’s (aka Amy’s) frantic “Not Getting Married Today” and others. Company is on tour throughout the U.S. in the coming months, but for me and my love of Sondheim, I’ll be sticking to my personal favorite, the 2006 revival starring Raul Esparza.
The night after Company, I trekked out to Navy Pier for the latest creative treatment of the Bard at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater. I am always impressed with the production quality and professionalism at CST, and this latest adaptation of Twelfth Night, a classic comedy about mistaken identity and new love, is no exception. Directed by Tyrone Phillips, this version of the story of twins Viola and Sebastian shipwrecked on the island of Illyria, leans into a Caribbean setting with lush palm trees as set decoration and bright colored costumes to light up the stage. The cast is a delightful blend of youthful energy and veteran stage actors, and the chemistry practically leaps off the stage.
I’m not as familiar with Twelfth Night as I am with other comedies like Much Ado About Nothing and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but ragardless, it’s impossible not to enjoy the romp through each of these many relationships, from Viola (as Cesario) falling for the Orsino, the Duke, without being able to say so, and Olivia, a countess, falling for Cesario while he (she?!) is trying to get her to fall in love with Orsino. CST’s mainstage is a bright and open yet intimate space, and with actors coming and going through the aisles and lights often illuminated enough to see your fellow audience members, it all gave the proceedings a festive feel.
Twelfth Night has been such a success for Chicago Shakes that it will run through December, and it’s more than worth carving out the time to catch it.
I wrote up a full review for this one at Third Coast Review, but let me summarize it here: Beetlejuice is not good. I mainly volunteered to cover this one out of curiosity; it’s not a show I felt the need to fly back to New York to see, but it seemed reasonably successful and popular, so I thought it might be worth a look on tour. I’ve fallen into this trap before, like with the abomination that is Jagged Little Pill (It won a Tony! I thought I’d give it a shot!), and apparently I have not yet learned my lesson.
A clear cash-grab, the musical based on the classic 1988 Tim Burton film is nothing anyone asked for and honestly, nothing we really need. It offers nothing interesting artistically, and in fact just muddles the original plot to the point that the whole premise doesn’t make sense anymore. Every song is more bombastic than the last, and running gags, like the carnival-like sets, get exhausting even before we’ve reached intermission.
And yet. As we sat there sinking deeper into our seats, regretting the life choices that had led us to this point, the audience seemed to eat it up! There were multiple Beetlejuices in the audience, decked out in prison stripes and neon green hair and clearly happy to be there, and more than a few families out for a night at the theater. Based on their laughs and applause, everyone else in the room was either watching a completely different production or they were resigned to this lowest-common-denominator theater being all they deserve.
Broadway in Chicago has already announced that Beetlejuice will return on tour in May 2024, and I think I’m going to be out of town that week.