West Side Story

I like to be in America
Okay by me in America
Everything free in America

Lyrics from eLyrics.net

Sunday, after going to the Lyric Opera’s West Side Story, I woke up with the above tune playing in my head. Throughout the day, “Maria,” “There’s a Place for Us,” “I Feel Pretty,” and “Tonight” played in my head. Boy, is this show packed with great songs. With a full orchestra the music is all the more powerful.

The most beautiful sound I ever heard
(Maria, Maria, Maria)
All the beautiful sounds of the world in a single word
(Maria, Maria, Maria, Maria
Maria, Maria)
Maria!

Read more: Westside Story – Maria Lyrics | MetroLyrics

The Lyric’s production is four star. With great singing, stellar dancing, and marvelous expansive sets, this Romeo & Juliet tale is not to be missed. Often revivals decide to “update” a story, thus ruining a show with tinkering. The Lyric trusts the original to entertain and they’re right to do so.

There’s a place for us
Somewhere a place for us
Peace and quiet and open air
Wait for us
Somewhere
copyright http://elyrics.net

It was a joy to watch this tragic tale of 20th century star-crossed lovers. Funny, how one can watch a show with failed love and even murder and leave the theater uplifted, but while the story does succeed in making one consider injustice and division, West Side Story, like Romeo and Juliet, succeeds in warming the heart and making the audience think. Go figure.

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Waa-Mu

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I’d never gone to a Waa-Mu show at Northwestern, but my friend saw that this year it would be a musical about forgotten female historical figures and I agreed to go. An 88 year old tradition, Waa-Mu was a variety show, but is now a musical project. For the last few years rather than a variety show, the students have written a full musical.

For the Record was this year’s play. It centered on mild-mannered Millenial Andi who works as a reporter at a Chicago newspaper. She’s hungry to write an article worthy of note, but she keeps getting dull assignments like reporting on street name changes. The street name task takes her down an interesting alley-way and she decides to investigate the lives of three forgotten women in history. The play shifts from the present to the past as we see the glorious work of Ida B. Wells, Gene Graebeel and Julie d’Aubigny.

The performances were terrific and the story flowed, though I thought it could sue some trimming. The sets were innovative. I enjoyed about learning about these noteworthy women, but I don’t think Ida B. Wells is an unknown. There are schools and streets with her name in these parts.

While the students write the story and songs, there’s a faculty member who makes the final decisions. I wish that person had kept the story simple. There’s enough drama with a young reporter struggling to make her way and survive at a paper that’s just been bought my a millionaire cum politician and the stories of three historic figures who faced great challenges in their days. We didn’t also need a helicopter mom who had an insatiable need for attention and devotion from her daughter. Then there’s a twist that pours on the guilt and it just added melodrama. Nonetheless, the play entertained and informed. The singing and music were a delight.

Back of the Yards

Saturday I went to the Newberry Library, which graciously presented a free reading of the Kenneth Sawyer Goodman’s one-act play, Back of the Yards. 

Set in the 19th century, the didactic Back of the Yards’ dramatizes the question of “What should we do to help poor kids who’re getting into trouble with the law?” It’s a moralistic story which reminded me of Medieval morality plays. The acting was compelling even though it was a reading so they had the script in their hands.

Plot: A priest and policeman meet on the street and discuss what to do with troubled youth. The priest, who believes in training and offering services to the youth,  challenges the officer because the cops go easy on kids guilty of petty crimes. The kids then ignore any warnings and increase their offenses. A neighborhood woman then joins their conversation.

The play then goes to illustrate this argument when a neighborhood hoodlum is shot and dies in the hospital. After the woman goes off to console the vicim’s mother. The priest and cop continue their discussion when the woman’s son arrives with a bloody arm. Soon we learn that he was part of this incident and he plans to leave town to avoid arrest.

My Take: The play hasn’t lost its relevance — and sadly may never. The script was rather heavy-handed and plodding, but the acting rescued the story. While they performed the reading with the scripts in hand, they put a lot of emotion and professionalism into their work, thus keeping the audience interested.

Prior to the play, there were three speakers, long-winded all, who provided background. I’d say they all praised the playwright too much. If this was an example of his work, he’s not on par with the greats of his era.

Still who can criticize a free play with professional actors? Certainly, not me. I’m glad I went.

Guys & Dolls

Last weekend I got to see Northwestern University’s production of Guys & Dolls. Though I knew the name and some of the big numbers like “Luck Be a Lady Tonight” and “A Bushel ‘n’ a Peck,” I hadn’t seen the show and wasn’t clear on the storyline. First performed in 1950, Guys & Dolls is set in New York City and follows a bunch of gamblers who cross paths with some Salvation Army types. Gangster Nathan Detroit, who’s been engaged to his sweetheart Adelaide for 14 years, needs to find a site for his floating crap game, but as the cops are on to him, he’s got no takers. The Biltmore Garage is possible, but the manager wants a hefty deposit for his troubles.

Nathan is sure he can convince gambler Sky Masterson to bet that Sky can take Save-A-Soul Sergeant Sarah Brown to Cuba. That’s a sure thing as A) Sky will bet on anything and B) Sarah is far to holy to agree to a date.

What follows is a lot of toe-tapping music, unlikely romance, and the antics of small time criminals.

The Northwestern performers all had great voice and sure steps. When I saw all the steep steps on the stage, I was amazed that no one took a tumble. How the girls in their heels managed, I’ll never know. Certainly they have more grace than I do.

The casting was excellent, with one exception. I applaud them for color blind casting and having the two lead women be African American. The numbers where some men were cast as chorus girls was funny. The one thing that I found a distraction was that Sky Masterson was played by a woman. It wasn’t that they made Sky and Sarah a same sex couple, It was that they expected the audience to buy into a very feminine woman with classic long blonde hair and feminine make up, to be considered a 1940s man. My friend and I both had trouble buying that choice. I’d have done some color blind casting for Sky.

The play is a lot of fun, but hasn’t aged all that well. It’s clear that for the women, their life goal is to be a stay at home wife. Though Adelaide works as a showgirl and Sarah is a missionary, their goal is to marry and stop working. Also, it’s clear that the norm for women is to find a man and then go to work changing him for the benefit of society. Now we realize that it’s better to find someone whose character you like as is since changing someone is a difficult if not impossible job.

Nonetheless, I recommend if you’re anywhere near Evanston, IL from now till March 3, check out Guys & Dolls.

Elecktra

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Electktra & Klytämnestra (sic)

Last night I saw the Lyric Opera’s Electra by R. Strauss. I’d just read Agamemnon so I was lucky to see this story, which is the next in Aeschylus’ trilogy. When Agamemnon ends, when Clytemnestra (in German Klytämnestra) kills her husband because he killed their daughter Iphigeneia to appease the gods. Their son, Orestes is outraged and wants revenge.

This opera opens with some maids gossiping about Elektra, Orestes’ sister,  has been acting oddly. Only one maid stands up for the Elektra.

The setting is stark and dystopian. A columned palace has rubble all around. Everyone’s dressed in drab grays and browns. Later Elektra comes out and laments her father’s death. She asserts that her siblings and she will dance at their father’s tomb. Hmm. I suppose that was some custom in ancient days.

Kytämnestra comes on stage and she’s quite a sight. While I picture her as a Greek goddess, what I saw was truer to the composer’s vision, i.e. a solid German woman. The costume was much like the scenery – savage, brutal and dystopian. She looked more like a monster than a woman. I found it odd that neither Klytämnestra nor her ladies had sleeves. The bottom part of their gowns, though dark and depressing, seemed to cry out for sleeves of some kind. All these noble women had frightful, garish make up.

The story continues with lots of lamenting from Elektra, who does hope that her brother can take action and get justice for her father’s death. Chrysothemis, Elektra’s sister is somewhat caught in the middle, though she doesn’t see that there’s no safety in the middle. Chrysothemis just wants to get married and have a slew of children, but in a society so soaked in blood, that can’t happen. Klytämnestra expends her energy worrying about whether Orestes will seek justice through murder.

I found this story quite gory and very German, rather than Greek. The cast was heavier and the make up and sets were also dark and heavy. The performances were excellent except that sometimes Elektra waved her arms around in an odd way.

I was lucky to see the next installment of this ancient story, but I don’t think everyone needs to see it. My guess is that Il Traviata, which is also playing, is the better opera right now.

Cherry Orchard

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Northwestern’s The Cherry Orchard, 2019

Northwestern University does a splendid job with Chekhov’s classic The Cherry Orchard. There’s a lot of humor infused in the characters of this eccentric, wealthy family, who’s on the brink of financial disaster and must choose to either gain some needed cash by selling their prized orchard and allowing it to be developed into cottages for middle class vacationers to use or to lose it all through inaction. The horrors of such a development upset the matriarch. She simply cannot allow such a change to her sacred orchard, to her familial land, the setting of her idyllic memories. Even if it means losing the orchard she wants her memories preserved like naturalists with their dead butterflies pinned inside a shadow box.

What’s the alternative, you ask? The other option is to allow the entire estate to be auctioned off. Practical folks may think it’s better to sacrifice the orchard and keep some of the estate. Isn’t that better than losing all?

Well, the central family consisting of a mother who grew up in the home, her brother, her daughter, and her adoptive daughter, who manages the estate, along with various hangers on, just can’t bring themselves to envision the solution of allowing the new middle class to tramp around their once glorious cherry orchard.

This production featured strong acting with performers who knew how to make the most of Chekhov’s irony and wit. The costumes and minimal set let the story take precedence. I really loved the Russian folk music.

The script has some updated, but not too modern, references and quips. Some worked, others didn’t. Why mess with a master though? I do want to reread the original play because my interpretation of the characters and their response to their money problems didn’t quite jive with this production. But that’s to be expected. There are plenty of ways to look at these people.

A minor criticism would be that in general, while good, the male performers weren’t as convincing as their female counterparts at conveying age. For some reason the mother truly seemed to be middle-aged, while the men who were her contemporaries or older, seemed like young people playing a part. But that’s a small criticism.

If you’re near Evanston, Illinois, check out The Cherry Orchard next weekend.