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Theater 2013-14: Hank Williams’ life in song and world premiere on American Blues slate

Submitted by on Aug 14, 2013 – 11:48 am

Third in a series of season previews: Annual radio play “It’s a Wonderful Life” also will be renewed as company moves into new space at Greenhouse Theater Center.

By Lawrence B. Johnson

The spirit and legend of Americana buoys the 2013-14 season at American Blues Theater, from a musical biography of country star Hank Williams to the world premiere of Christina Gorman’s “American Myth,” about a professor of history who has perhaps fudged the details of his own past.

The new season also sees storefront American Blues taking up residence at the Greenhouse Theater Center on North Lincoln Avenue, after a stint of hustling available space and working around other schedules at Victory Gardens

“We’re thrilled to have a real home where we can build our audience,” says producing artistic director Gwendolyn Whiteside. “We have a five-year arrangement at Greenhouse, and this new stability puts us in the driver’s seat.”

Also on the season agenda is the 12th edition of “It’s a Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago!” – ABT’s ever-popular “radio play” based on Frank Capra’s 1946 film.

“We’re really excited to bring ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ to the Greenhouse,” says Whiteside. “The challenge is keeping the story fresh, but we also have this great opportunity to rethink the show. The set design will be all new.”

The 2013-14 season in brief:

  • “Hank Williams: Lost Highway” by Randal Myler and Mark Harelik (Chicago professional premiere, Sept. 5- Oct. 6): More than 20 of Hank Williams’ hit songs are featured in this musical bio, which traces the legendary country singer from his modest childhood to stardom at the Grand Ole Opry and his death at age 29 from the effects of pain killers and alcohol abuse. The show’s song list includes “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” “Hey, Good Lookin’” and “Move It on Over.” ABT ensemble member Matt Brumlow heads the cast in the title role. “The whole ensemble loved the idea of this show,” says Whiteside, “and the actors play instruments – they’re Hank Williams’ Drifting Cowboys band.”
  • “It’s a Wonderful Life,” after the film by Frank Capra based on the short story by Philip Van Doren Stern (Nov. 25-Dec. 29): In this classic Christmas-season parable of the importance of each life, small town boy George dreams of breaking away and amounting to something. But then circumstances dictate a different life, which turns out pretty well for a while – only to take so dark a turn that George considers ending it all. And that’s when his guardian angel Clarence steps in. “We at American Blues Theater really believe in the idea that we are all connected, and that there is someone to hold out a hand to help you,” says Whiteside, who plays George’s sweetheart Mary.
  • “American Myth” by Christina Gorman (World premiere, February-March 2014): Lionized professor of American history and successful author, Douglas Graham is accused by a former student of lying in the classroom about his role in the Vietnam War. Gorman’s play, developed at the Public Theater in New York, examines personal and professional ethics, the distinction between truth and history and the myth of what makes a great man. “This beautiful play exactly fits our mission,” says Whiteside. “It’s about spinning the tale of American history and the choices that an admired professor makes. After the ensemble read it, everybody wanted to go out and buy books on Jefferson and Adams.”
  • “Grounded” by George Brant (Chicago premiere, June-July 2014): When an ace F-16 fighter pilot’s pregnancy ends her combat career, she’s reassigned to operating drones in Afghanistan – by remote control from an air-conditioned trailer near Las Vegas. Far from the war zone, she’s back in the game by day and back home as wife and mom at night. Brant’s play is a multifaceted tour de force, a study in war, stress and family, for one actress. “I adore doing and watching solo shows,” says Whiteside, who will portray the displaced and disoriented ex-pilot. “I saw Hal Holbrook do Mark Twain when I was 18, in Topeka. I was thinking of med school, but that one experience changed my life. ‘Grounded’ uses graphic projections and sound design to help tell the story of mental anguish this grounded fighter pilot must work through.”

Getting there:

What began in 1985 as ABT was renamed American Theater Co. during the artistic directorship of Brian Russell (1997-2002). In 2009, after the appointment of P.J. Paparelli as artistic director, philosophical differences led the company’s ensemble to depart en masse, regroup, reclaim their original name and start over as American Blues Theater, producing plays at Victory Gardens.

For its 28th season, American Blues Theater moves into a new home, a 199-seat performing space at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave., in the Lincoln Park neighborhood. 

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Photo captions and credits: Home page and top: Matthew Brumlow portrays country music legend Hank Williams. (Photo by Johnny Knight) Descending: American Blues Theater’s new home at the Greenhouse Theater Center. Gwendolyn Whiteside and Kevin R. Kelly in a scene from “It’s a Wonderful Life.” (Photo by Johnny Knight) Playwright Christina Gorman. Playwright George Brant (Photo by Mark Turek) The American Blues Theater logo. 


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