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The New Season: It isn’t pizza in Porchlight’s oven, but well-spiced musicals Chicago-style

Submitted by on Aug 3, 2012 – 12:28 am

Third in a series of season previews: At Porchlight Music Theatre, 2012-13 promises unvarnished musicals, from “Pal Joey” to a sober look at a burned out Billie Holiday. The season opens Sept. 1.

By Lawrence B. Johnson

A rethought, more visceral Porchlight Music Theatre rolls out its 18th season with two Chicago premieres to be followed by a searing portrait of the faded Billie Holiday and “Pal Joey,” Rodgers and Hart’s anti-hero driven drama on the dark side of the human comedy.

The season open Sept. 1 with the Chicago premiere of “A Class Act,” based on the life of Edward Kleban, who wrote the lyrics for “A Chorus Line” in the mid-1970s, then never was involved in another musical to match that spectacular success. The songs are drawn both from “A Chorus Line” — winner of both the 1976 Tony Award for Best Musical and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama — and from Kleban’s later work as composer and lyricist. The second Chicago premiere will be a musical adaptation of O. Henry’s “The Gifts of the Magi,” a holiday offering that Porchlight’s second-year artistic director Michael Weber likens to “A Christmas Carol.”

Raw drama is perhaps the phrase that redefines Porchlight under Weber. One has only to recall last season’s intense production of “A Catered Affair” and Jonathan Larson’s rock musical “tick, tick…Boom” to grasp Weber’s vision of the new Porchlight as a producer of “American musicals with a Chicago style.”

To Weber, that means a certain ruggedness, solid theatrical values and, above all, the musical as authentic play. The Italian expression verismo comes to mind: realism, truth.

“The type of show we should be doing asks serious questions about people,” says Weber, whose directing and acting credits extend across the Chicago theater scene from Drury Lane and Mercury Theatre to Chicago Shakespeare Theater. “We’re in a period of transition. We’re looking for a frankness our approach, a level of danger and sensuality that you might expect to find at Steppenwolf or A Red Orchid. We want to see if we incorporate that into musical theater.”

The 2012-13 season in brief:

  • “A Class Act,” music and lyrics by Edward Kleban, book by Linda Kline and Lonny Price. (Chicago premiere, Sept. 1-Oct. 14): The “act” in question is composer-lyricist Edward Kleban, who in his mid-30s created, together with composer Marvin Hamlisch, the game-changing musical “A Chorus Line,” but was never able to hit that height again before his death at age 48 in 1987. Subtitled “A Musical About Musicals” and nominated for the 2001 Tony Award for Best Musical, “A Class Act” draws on unpublished works by Kleban as well as “A Chorus Line” to portray the vagaries of the life of a show biz artist. “After ‘A Chorus Line,’ Kleban continued to write amazing songs, but he struggled to find another hit show,” says Weber. “He lived in the shadow of ‘A Chorus Line.’ Kleban created something really special, then had to watch as his friends’ careers took off. He was an artist, but the story could just as well be about a banker. It’s about believing in yourself.”
  • “Best Musical!,” a completely improvised musical conceived by Second City’s Matthew Loren Cohen. Opens Nov. 21 and plays Wednesdays throughout the season: The show opens at a Tony-like awards ceremony with the cast performing “Best Song From a Musical” nominees pulled from a bag of titles suggested by the night’s audience. At the end of Act 1, the audience votes for the best song and returns after intermission to watch the cast create a fully improvised musical comedy that includes the song from Act 1. Which means every performance is completely different. “This,” says Weber, “answers the question: If we fused improv with the world of musical theater, could we create a show with really good actors, singers, dancers and costumes – right in front of an audience? We did five performances of this last year and it was a really big hit. People did just what we hoped they’d do: They came back.”
  • “The Gifts of the Magi,” music by Randy Courts, lyrics by Mark St. Germain and Randy Courts. (Chicago premiere, Nov. 17-Dec. 30): Everybody knows O. Henry’s story about the poor young couple whose love prompts each to make a huge personal sacrifice in order to purchase the perfect Christmas gift for the other. Mark St. Germain, who wrote the play “Freud’s Last Session,” and Randy Courts have spun this touching Christmas story into a musical and sweetened the brew by weaving in a second O. Henry tale, “The Cop and the Anthem,” about a street person who just wants to get arrested so he can have a warm meal on Christmas – but keeps messing up the plan. “It’s an American ‘Christmas Carol,’” says Weber, “a story of what happens when you’re young and married and begin to have money problems, and how that begins to tear the relationship apart. It’s a situation that’s likely to hit home in these times.”
  • “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill,” by Lanie Robertson. (Feb. 2-March 19): In 1959, the burned out legend that was Billie Holiday is nearing the end of her life as she steps to the microphone in a dumpy bar in Philadelphia. But this night, she not only revisits a dozen of her most famous songs; she also recalls the hard road she traveled – the peaks, the booze, the drugs, the bottom. “We’re interested in exploring the idea of music theater – not just musicals in the sense of Rodgers and Hammerstein,” says Weber. “What we have here is an opportunity for excellent acting as well as superior musicianship. The songs are the story of Billie’s life, but she also talks to the audience. We get a very personal insight into what sometimes happens to a great artist like Billie Holiday or Judy Garland.”
  • “Pal Joey,” music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Lorenz Hart. (April 20-June 2): Joey Evans is a smooth hustler with aspirations for a better job than his present employment in a crummy night spot on Chicago’s south side. His ticket out, and up, arrives in a well-heeled dame who happens to be married, but never mind that detail. Suddenly, Joey is nicely set up and he’s got two women on the string – until the possibility of the unsuspecting husband getting wind of his game threatens to smash it all. The show’s wealth of songs includes “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,” “I Could Write a Book” and “Zip.” “This is not ‘Guys and Dolls,’” says Weber. “The talk is about cocaine, homosexuality, gang land murders. These are real people. If Clifford Odets wrote a musical, it would be ‘Pal Joey.’”

Weber says the new season will solidify the impression of 2011-12 that Porchlight has found a new “urban sensibility, an approach that Chicago can own. We want to show that fierceness.”

Getting there:

All of Porchlight’s shows except “A Class Act” will be produced at Stage 773, located at 1225 W. Belmont. “A Class Act” will be played next door at Theatre Wit, 1229 W. Belmont. Both spaces seat about 150 to provide an intimate perspective that focuses Weber’s quest for realism. The two venues are an easy 10-minute walk west from the Belmont train stop on the Red Line.

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Photo captions and credits: Home page and top: Artistic director Michael Weber (center) and the company of Porchlight Music Theatre. Descending: Composer-lyricist Edward Kleban catches the New York glow of his huge hit musical “A Chorus Line.” (Photo by Linda Kline) RCA Victor album cover for the Broadway cast recording of “A Class Act.” William Sydney Porter, pen name O. Henry, author of “The Gifts of the Magi.” Chanteuse Billie Holiday in 1947. (Photo by William P. Gottlieb) Composers Richard Rodgers (seated) and lyricist Lorenz Hart, who collaborated on “Pal Joey.” (Library of Congress). Below: Scene from Porchlight’s production of Jonathan Larson’s rock musical “tick, tick…BOOM!” with, from left, Bear Bellinger, Adrian Aguilar and Jenny Guse. (Photo by Jeremy Rill) Director Nick Bowling (center), with musical director Doug Peck at his left, leads a cast discussion for Porchlight’s 2011-12 production of “A Catered Affair.” 










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