For those who aren’t familiar with the revised musical ‘Merrily We Roll Along’ based on the book by George Furth with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, prepare yourselves for a wide range of emotions while observing the lives of three close-knit friends over many decades.
The original Broadway play written by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart in 1934 evolved into a musical in 1981 that barely survived. Fortunately, Sondheim and Furth revised the show in 1994, which is now a fabulous production at Porchlight Music Theatre at The Ruth Page Center for the Arts.
Directed by Michael Weber with music director Aaron Benham, this remarkable musical is presented in reverse chronological order with the years posted on the stage’s backdrop so that the audience can easily follow the three friends’ relationship— easily, but not always merrily.
The trio of friends includes Franklin “Frank” Shephard (Jim DeSelm), a talented musician whose objective is to make money—and who eventually succeeds by marketing to influential folks who can help him.
His longtime friend is Charley Kringas (Matt Crowle), a wonderful lyricist who doesn’t want to follow Frank’s ways of reaching his goal.
The trio includes Mary Flynn (Neala Barron), a writer and friend to Frank and Charley but whose longing for Frank is slowly uncovered while the play continues going back in time.
Frank, Charley and Mary’s early friendship started out like a song. And on that note, most of their relationship is told through many musical numbers, such as “Old Friends/Like It Was,” sung by the trio with lyrics such as “we were nicer then” . . . and “old friends fade—they don’t make the grade.”
‘Merrily We Roll Along’ also reveals other relationships. Frank’s marriage to his first wife, Beth, (Aja Wiltshire), is destroyed by his affair with Gussie Carnegie (Keely Vasquez). Beth sings “Not a Day Goes By” as she gains custody of their young son while she and Frank divorce.
We first observe the three friends at beginning of the play where they’ve already achieved success despite painful experiences that ruined their relationship. Then we travel back so that at the end of the play, we see their friendship decades earlier as they try to launch their careers.
In addition to the five major outstanding cast members, the rest of the exceptionally talented cast of over twenty men and women also bring their extraordinary voices to the musical numbers. They are accompanied by seven marvelous musicians.
Many of the play’s lyrics are memorable, but one line is unforgettable: “Friendship is like a garden . . . you have to water it and care for it.”
DETAILS: ‘Merrily We Roll Along’ is at Porchlight Music Theatre at The Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 N. Dearborn St., Chicago, through March 17th, 2018. Running time: 2 hours and 30 minutes. For tickets and other information, call (773) 777-9884 or visit www.porchlightmusictheatre.org
What if you have a dream or passion that does not fit other people’s notion of you?
‘Billy Elliot the Musical,’ playing now at The Prochlight Music Theater through Nov., 26, 2017 is about managing change and redefining who others say you are and who you think you can be.
The stage play with music by Elton John and book and lyrics by Lee Hall is adapted from the 2000 movie “Billy Elliot.” The time frame Is Thatcher era 1980’s in a small coal mining town near Newcastle in England. Union miners have been on strike for nearly a year and tensions between them and the “scabs” brought in to replace them is violent.
Billy Elliot (Jacob Kaiser) is 12 years old, his mum (Nicole Cready) is dead, his grandmother (Iris Lieberman) is senile and his brother (Adam Fane) and father (Sean Fortunato) are on the picket line, struggling to survive.
One day Billy happens into the community gym and gets involved with a rag-tag ballet class run by Mrs. Wilkinson (Shanesia Davis). The chance encounter ultimately helps Billy find a way to express his budding adolescent angst, repressed grief, and shared frustration of what seems to be the impossible social situation that seemingly defines his life.
This expression is interpreted in two emotionally powerful dance numbers “Angry Dance” and “Electricity,” each skillfully co-choreographed by Brenda Diddier / Craig V. Miller and brilliantly performed by Kaiser with Ivan Bruns-Trukhin as Older Billy.
In his transformation to adulthood Billy begins to consider his sexual identity which is tested by Mrs. Wilkinson’s daughter Debbie (Princess Isis Z. Lang), his best friend Michael (Peyton Owen) and a testosterone filled environment that does not necessarily consider ballet dancing a viable or proper gender conforming career path.
His dilemma, as well as economic realities, requires that he and those who are concerned for his future re-imagine another way of being.
Everyone must come to terms with the fact that times are changing. Coal is no longer part of the future. The jobs and the community that supported the industry are no longer an accepted surety.
Led by Director Brenda Didier, the company is outstanding from beginning to end starting with Jacob Kaiser who is an energetic and expressive dancer, singer and actor.
His transformation from beginner to advanced dancer was well controlled. His voice has a gravelly quality that is perfect for his age. It is clear this young man understands the part he is playing. Every line and every step was just right. He handles this demanding role with subtlety and maturity, devoid of annoying precociousness. Bravo!
Adam Fane, Billy’s older brother kept his emotional performance in bounds. Sean Fortunato, Billy’s Dad portrayed a perfect mix of stoicism and compassion.
Chicago stage veteran Iris Lieberman was spot-on as Grandma avoiding what could become a cliché performance. Peyton Owen as Billy’s best friend embraced his character with charm and elegance. Shenesia Davis manages the demands of her straight talking character Mrs. Wilkinson whose somewhat aloof nature could be misconstrued as harsh.
The ensemble was excellent, and it was clear that the girls of the ballet were having a blast.
Recognition must be given to dialect coach, Sammi Grant because there was never a time that anyone’s “English” accent was a distraction or got in the way of their performance.
Staging provided by this comparatively small venue at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts allows you to experience this production of “Billy Elliot the Musical” in a very intimate way.
The score has a unique quality that is difficult to define. It is contemporary but not “pop” or “rock.” It has aspects of classic musical theater but is not driven by the melody.
The play’s anthem, “Solidarity,” is rousing and powerful. “Grandma’s Song” is humorous and poignant. “Expressing Yourself” is a showstopper while “Born to Boogie” offers a bit of lightness and levity. In the case of “The Letter” I doubt there was a dry eye in the house.
Conductor/ Pianist Linda Madonia and her musicians Justin Kono, Cesar Romero, Greg Strauss, Cara Hartz, Dan Kristan and Sarah Younker provided the cast with a wonderful accompaniment behind the set’s sliding glass panels in the back of the stage which provided an effective illusion of the miners’ elevator decent at the end of the play.
In short this production is perfection.
Note: The part of Billy Elliot is shared at various performances by Lincoln Seymour.
DETAILS: ‘Billy Elliot’is at The Porchlight Music Theater in the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 N. Dearborn, through Nov. 26, 2017. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes. For tickets and other information call (773) 777-9884 or visit Porchlight Music Theatre.
It’s easy to get so caught up in holiday shopping and preparations that before you know it you’ve missed a show or program you wanted to see. Here are four events for your calendar. Three will disappear after this weekend. The fourth one will take a winter break if you don’t catch it by next week.
Experience ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ with James Stewart as George Bailey, at Orchestra Hall. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra accompanies the film with Dimitri Tiomkin’s score and the CSO Chorus, Dec. 9 at 7 p.m. or 3 p.m. Dec. 10 or Dec. 11. Chicago Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Ave. Chicago. Call (312)294-3000 or visit CSO.
Reserve a ticket for ‘Handel’s Messiah’ with the Apollo Chorus of Chicago. Performances are 7 p.m. Dec. 10 and 2 p.m. Dec. 11 at the Harris Theater for Music & Dance, 2015 E. Randolph Drive, Chicago. Call (312) 427-5620 or visit Apollo Chorus.
Catch Peter Quilter’s ‘End of the Rainbow’ musical about Judy Garland before it leaves Dec. 11. It’s a wonderful Porchlight Music Theatre production that brings back her talent, songs and struggles. The show is at Stage 773, 1225 Belmont, Chicago. Call (773) 327-5252 or visit Stage 773
Watch ‘The Magic Flute,’ a charming fairy tale opera by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The Lyric Opera of Chicago will be performing the opera through Jan, 27, 2017 but to see it in 2016 go Dec. 10, 12 or 14. Running time is 3 hours 20 minutes including 1 intermission. The Lyric is at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive, Chicago. Call (312) 827-5600 or visit Lyric Opera.