A performance collage of Shakespeare and song

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Len Cariou in Broadway and the Bard at Stage 773
Len Cariou in Broadway and the Bard at Stage 773

Len Cariou’s solo performance of “Broadway & The Bard, An Evening of Shakespeare and Song” is best described as a “performance collage” ripped from fragments of “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare” and bits of faded American musical librettos. They are pasted together to create a new work of art representing the autobiographical portrait of a noted actor’s life in the theater.

During roughly eighty minutes, the audience is treated to non-stop snippets from “Twelfth Night” “Henry V,” “Richard II,” “Othello,” “King Lear” and more, as well as melodic strains borrowed from Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart, Charles Strouse, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim and others.

A worthy theatrical experience cannot stand on reference and nostalgia alone, and in this regard collaborators Len Cariou, Barry Kleinbort and Mark Janas have sidestepped that pitfall by doing an admirable job of creating a piece that may be enhanced by one’s own theatrical insight but does not require you to come equipped with an encyclopedic knowledge of the material included.

This is not simply a revue where a dramatic soliloquy is followed by a popular tune. Rather it is more of a mash-up borrowed from the hip-hop technique of taking bits of this-and-that to build new sentences and musical phrases for the purpose of creating a new artistic expression.

If you are not familiar with the tunes referenced you would not even realize that what is being performed is an entirely new song that is composed from pieces of two, three, or four different songs seamlessly integrated into one new composition. The end result is a feeling of familiarity combined with a fresh perspective.

This could be pitched as “Gus the Theatre Cat meets John Gielgud and Tony Bennett.”

Like Gus, Cariou regales the audience with fond reminiscences of his life on the stage as a consummate professional thespian.

One of the legends of British Theatre, John Gielgud, achieved popular notoriety in his dotage appearing as a man’s man to a wealthy drunken ne’re-do-well in the 1981 movie “Arthur.”

Similarly Cariou has had a distinguished 50 year career appearing in a multitude of productions at theaters throughout North America including the Shakespeare Festivals in both Ontario and Connecticu. But he is probably best known for his acclaimed roles in many television series and movies.

What Cariou has in common with Tony Bennett is the ability to adapt his vocal styling to accommodate certain limitations that come with age, replacing the technical prowess of youth with a depth of emotion that ultimately provides a richer and more nuanced interpretation.

Young and aspiring actors would do well to witness this performance which is a kind of Cliff’s notes version of Cariou’s stage career. There are moments of absolute brilliance that enable us to glimpse his Shakespearean chops and makes us yearn for what we have missed. Someone please let me know if he does King Lear anytime soon.

His Act III, scene 2 of Marc Antony’s “I come not to praise Caesar..” from “Julius Caesar” makes me wish I could travel in time to see him do it 30 years ago.

Following that monologue with Lady Thiang’s musical phrase “This is a man who thinks with his heart, His heart is not always wise. This is a man who stumbles and falls, But this is a man who tries” from “The King and I” was a bit of comical genius creating a great segue.

The production should be re-titled as “Len Cariou’s Broadway & The Bard, An Evening of Shakespeare and Song with Mark Janas.”

Janas really deserves to be credited on the marquee not only for his participation in the creation but because of his outstanding performance as piano accompanist. This is truly an onstage collaboration.

Matt Berman’s sound was spot-on finding a perfect balance between the vocal and piano which can sometimes be challenging.

Kudos also to Director Barry Kleinbort. It is clear that someone with a critical eye helped to shape the overall production.

With some notable exceptions, Chicago has a youthful theater community, perhaps because it is the goal of most actors once they get some experience to head for New York or California. (Ed note: recently some actors are leaving to make a living wage.) From this point-of-view this production is worth seeing.

It may be considered somewhat esoteric by some standards but if you are looking for a simply enjoyable evening reminiscent of the kind of spontaneity and humor of a cast party or cozy cabaret you will not be disappointed.

After a short run in Chicago presented by special arrangement with Aruba Productions and Starry Night Productions the show moves to Walnut Creek and Los Angeles in California.

DETAILS: “Broadway& the Bard” is in the Thrust Theater at  Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont, Chicago, through June 10, 2018. For tickets and more information call (773) 327-5252 or visit Stage 773.

Reno Lovison

For more shows visit Theatre in Chicago

 

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