Among the shows that have marked the return of live theater in Chicago are three very different music-driven works variously set in the final three decades of the 20th century. Yet these shows also seem to be vividly refracted through the prism of the many upheavals of this moment in time. As seen now — with the pandemic still lurking and with masked and vaccinated audiences and meticulously monitored performers joyfully returning for live performances after 19 tension-filled months — as well as in the moment of their original conception, the result is an intriguing double vision.
Now in its 25th anniversary touring production at Broadway in Chicago’s CIBC Theatre, with its carpe diem, live-for-the-moment theme, “Rent” most directly taps into that aforementioned phenomenon.
The hit musical, with its book, music and lyrics by Jonathan Larson, opened Off Broadway in 1996 and was quickly transferred to Broadway.
Working a hip twist on Puccini’s beloved opera, “La Boheme,” its backdrop is Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Alphabet City neighborhood in the pre-millennial era of the late 1980s. HIV/AIDS is taking its toll, and the threat of gentrification is hanging over struggling artists and others who are already just one step away from homelessness.
The choice of “Rent” to mark the return of commercial theater in the Loop seems custom-made for the moment. The emblematic song, “Seasons of Love,” calculating the “five thousand twenty-five hundred six hundred minutes” in a year, if measured for the time lost by those in live theater during the pandemic now amounts to about 822,900 minutes. And as Larson’s lyrics proclaim, “there’s only now,” so live life to the fullest at every moment.
Based on the original work of Michael Greif, the current production is directed by Evan Ensign and choreographed by Marlys Yearby. It’s full of super-charged performers — clearly ecstatic at having an audience — as well as an excellent five-piece onstage orchestra conducted by keyboardist Matthew DeMaria.
A giant metal sculpture composed of junk is suspended over the stage and suggests the squalid, unheated loft inhabited by the emotionally troubled, HIV-positive songwriter Roger Davis (Coleman Cummings) who is desperate to assure his legacy with one great song. His HIV-positive neighbor is the young strip club dancer and addict Mimi Marquez (the dynamic, acrobatic Aiyana Smash), and his roommate, Mark Cohen (Cody Jenkins), a documentary filmmaker who captures the scene. Cohen’s ex-girlfriend, Maureen (Lyndie Moe), a provocative performance artist, has dumped him for Joanne (Rala Garske), her lesbian lawyer/manager.
Also part of the community are Tom Collins (Shafiq Hicks), a brainy, anarchic and compassionate professor living with AIDS; Angel (Javin King), a slinky drag queen dying of the illness; and Benjamin Coffin III (Jarred Bedgood) as the loft building’s newly wealthy landlord who sells out his friends.
“Rent” fares better in somewhat smaller theaters than the CIBC. And while the high-powered amplification for this production works in some scenes, in the show it undermined the intimacy of other scenes and blurred a good deal of the lyrics.
Tickets: broadwayinchicago.com. The last performance is Oct. 10 at 7:30 p.m.
“Songs for a New World”
One crucial key to Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre’s success from the moment of its founding in 1997 has been the intense intimacy of its space. Performers and audience members are often just inches away from each other. And its relatively new home on the border of Chicago and Evanston continues that tradition even as it observes all the current safety protocols and has a somewhat reduced audience capacity to assure careful distancing.
For the theater’s re-opening, artistic director Fred Anzevino has turned to Jason Robert Brown’s dramatic song cycle for two men and two women, “Songs For a New World,” first produced in 1995. As with “Rent,” the disparate characters defined by the show’s nearly 20 songs that deftly suggest different personalities, social backgrounds, romantic relationships and musical styles, there is a sense that the time and place of each of these little musical dramas, predominantly urban and pre-millennium, can easily be seen through the filter of this moment with all its emotional turmoil.
Under the seamless, high-energy direction of Anzevino and choreographer Jamal Howard, the intense, clarion-voiced, physically fleet cast of four (Nora Navarro, Emily Goldberg, Eustice J. Williams and Matthew Hunter), suggest numerous personalities, relationships and life crises, with just a few stools, and the theater’s built-in bar, serving as a set. And they are superbly backed by music director Jeremy Ramey (on piano) and Lior Shragg (percussionist), who are seated behind a screen.
Brown’s score shifts styles easily and often, moving from pop, gospel and jazz to a Broadway-like belt and a clever parody of Kurt Weill. And the performers are equally at ease spinning various life crises - from a woman in marital meltdown, to another who declares she is “not afraid of anything,” to a man who sees the down-and-out people around him and asks the Lord to show mercy and stop their suffering. Also part of the show’s mix is one of the composer’s most widely performed songs, “Stars and the Moon,” in which a woman realizes that while she had many chances for true happiness with one or another dreamer type, she foolishly chose marriage to a man who could only offer her a life of financial wealth.
If I have one reservation about this talent-filled show it is that like ‘“Rent” it is over-amplified. Less would be far more in this ideal space in which intimacy is of the essence.
“Songs for a New World” runs through Oct. 24. Food and drink, a long-time feature of the theater, is still available though not required.
The Goodman Theatre has returned to live performance with Jose Cruz Gonzalez’s “American Mariachi.”
The work is set among the members of a Latino family just as the burgeoning feminist revolution of the 1970s — in contrast to today’s MeToo movement — takes hold. It spins the story of a group of mostly musically untrained women who decide to boldly defy an angry father, a repressive husband, and above all, the long tradition of male-only mariachi bands to form an all-female band. Director Henry Godinez’ production careens between a familiar yet heartbreaking family drama and an often overly broad use of farce.
Some of the most exhilarating moments in the show — and I wish there were more of them — feature the terrific musicians of the all-male Sones de Mexico Ensemble of Chicago. Dressed in traditional silver-bedecked black outfits, the Ensemble plays the real thing, standing in front of the dramatic, black-walled structure designed by Linda Buchanan and exquisitely lit by Maria-Cristina Fuste.
At the center of the story is Lucha (Tiffany Solano), who is trying to balance the demands of her studies with her emotionally intense caretaking duties for her mother, Amalia (Gigi Cervantes). Amalia is suffering from dementia and must be carefully watched.
Lucha’s father, Federico (Ricardo Gutierrez), works as a mariachi musician. But Federico carries a long-enduring streak of jealousy and rage related to a long-ago and mistaken belief that Lucha had an affair with his then friend, Mino (Bobby Plasencia), the owner of a music store. As it happens, it was Mino who, years earlier, made a recording of a piece of music Amalia loved, and it is the sound of that recording that now briefly brings Amalia back to herself. All four of these actors give wonderfully nuanced performances.
When Federico destroys the record, Lucha is urged on by her boldly uninhibited cousin, Boli (Lucy Godinez) to start an all-female mariachi band that will be able to perform the song on the irreplaceable record her mother still responds to.
This is where the farce kicks in as Lucha and Boli recruit the most unlikely band members, none of whom can play the required instruments. They include Molly Hernandez in a fine turn as Isabel, a gifted church choir singer suppressed by an obnoxiously controlling husband; Gloria Vivica Benavides as Soyla, a beauty salon owner with a big personality; and Amanda Raquel Martinez as Gabby, a mostly clueless geeky girl. Of course, there is no doubt about how all this will turn out, or about the fact that the actual mariachi musicians (Juan Dies, Victor Pichardo, Zacbe Pichardo, Rudolfo “Rudy” Pinon and Giovanni Garcia) will return to the stage and make a truly joyful noise.
“American Mariachi” runs through Oct. 24.
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