‘Burning Bluebeard’ a tragic Christmas story

Porchlight Music Theatre. (Photo Michael Courier)
Burning Bluebeard at Porchlight Music Theatre. (Photo Michael Courier)

3 stars

 “Burning Bluebeard” literally comes alive in front of a scorched proscenium arch on a ruined stage depicting the aftermath of an inferno that destroyed the Iroquois Theater in Chicago (set design by Jeff Kmiec based on the original design of Lizzie Bracken).

The Ruffians with director Halena Kays and choreographer Ariel Triunfo have devised a clever way to tell this story based on an actual 1903, tragic event that claimed the lives of 600 theater patrons, many of them children and their mothers, attending a Christmastime performance of a popular Broadway blockbuster entitled “Mr. Bluebeard.”

Through spoken word, dance, and various theatrical techniques reminiscent of the era, four performers present their testimony of the unfolding sequence of events that led to the conflagration.

The Fancy Clown (Pamela Chermansky) in Pierrot style dress acts as a kind of macabre narrator weaving the story together while circus performer Crosby Sandoval, The Faerie Queen works to add some deviant charm and a reminder that this was a lighthearted spectacle gone awry.

“Burning Bluebeard’s” playwright Jay Torrence appears here as Iroquois Theater stage manager Robert Murray who worked to contain the blaze, ultimately prying open the stage door which allowed much of the cast and crew to escape.

Henry Gilfoil (Anthony Courser), the actor who played the villainous title role, is portrayed as a gentle soul wishing only to bring happiness to his audience.

The show’s headliner Eddie Foy (Ryan Walters) a legendary superstar comedian of the time, did what he could onstage to keep the crowd calm, trusting the fire would be contained.

Young aerialist Nellie Reed (Leah Urzendowski) provides her perspective from the rafters where she was suspended among more than 100 highly flammable painted set pieces as the fire began.

In the spirit of the original comedic pantomime production, “Burning Bluebeard” manages a kind of entertaining theatricality, including a good deal of cynical and ironic humor that keeps the telling of this tale from getting too dark while simultaneously conveying its serious nature.

Though there are a few slow spots early on as we are trying to understand where the plot line is headed, the talented cast excels at telling the story through their dialogue as well as physical movement – – and the breathtaking finale is experiential theater at its best.

“Burning Bluebeard” has become an annual event for this company since its debut in 2011 and is sure to continue to be a perennial Chicago favorite.

DETAILS: “Burning Bluebeard” is a Ruffians presentation at the Porchlight Music Theatre in the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 N. Dearborn St., Chicago, through Dec. 27, 2019. (Parental guidance suggested) Running time:100 minutes with no intermission. For ticket and other information call (773) 777-9884.or visit porchlightmusictheatre.

Reno Lovison

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