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Theater 2013-14: B’way in Chicago spotlights ‘Phantom,’ ‘Wicked’ and new Motown musical

Submitted by on Sep 9, 2013 – 10:29 am

Earl Carpenter and Katie Hall in The Phantom of the Opera - UK Tour (Alastair Muir)13th in a series of season previews: Broadway in Chicago will enrich its menu of touring Broadway classics and fresh New York hits with an original Julia Child charmer concocted in Chicago.

By Nancy Malitz

Even as “The Book of Mormon” nears the end of its 10-month sit-down at Bank of America Theatre, presenter Broadway in Chicago is preparing for extended runs of three more hit musicals — a new touring version of  27-year-old “The Phantom of the Opera” fresh from the UK, the 10th anniversary tour of “Wicked,” and the first national tour of “Motown the Musical,” the story of Detroit vinyl mogul Berry Gordy, who made famous The Supremes, The Four Tops, Stevie Wonder and The Jackson 5. With a cast chosen in part from Chicago auditions Sept. 14, “Motown” launches its tour from Chicago next spring.

Karen Janes Woditsch as Julia Child, Terry Hamilton as Chef Max Bugnard in 'To Master the Art' Timeline Theatre 2010. The play is being revived for Broadway Playhouse at Water Place. (Lara Goetsch)There’s also a local angle in this season’s Broadway in Chicago’s mix.  At the intimate Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place, which seats 549, the presenter will offer “To Master the Art,”  TimeLine Theatre Company’s 2010 world premiere production about Julia and Paul Child in Paris during the 1950s. That was when Julia took a cooking class with a bunch of G.I.s. and found herself seduced beyond measure by her instructor’s way with a batch of eggs. The play had a heady aroma and was a word-of-mouth sensation in 2010.

“We are thrilled to be hosting a local production here,” says Eileen LaCario, Broadway in Chicago vice-president. “If you are a foodie on any level, you will see yourself in the character of Julia. She lived in Paris with her husband in such a fascinating time, right after the war. You get much more of that story than you ever did in the recent movie about her (‘Julie and Julia’).”

Broadway in Chicago presents shows in four other theaters, all but the Water Tower space located in the Loop and seating 2,000 or more, and sufficiently state-of-the art to handle replicas of Broadway productions, among them “Wicked.”

“We feel that Broadway in Chicago was very much a part of ‘Wicked’s’ success,” says LaCario.  “It ran here for three and a half years, and there’s already one successful return to Chicago under its belt. We fall in love with shows that come here. I don’t think anyone quite understood at first the depth and emotional range the show provides to people. There’s a huge fan base all over the world now —  I taught a class in Brussels, and I gave out ‘Wicked’ CD samplers. You would have thought I had given them gold.”

Two lesser-known but award-winning jewels of New York’s 2012 season are the romantic musical “Once” and “Peter and the Starcatcher,” a back story for the character of Peter Pan. Both are exquisite chamber pieces that do magical things with the sparest of elements, like bits of rope. “I loved being in New York, watching children at ‘Peter and the Starcatcher’ seeming so at home with it,” says LaCario. “It was like they really got it, the feeling that ‘Oh my gosh, I could do this at home.’ I imagined them creating forts and even whole scenes in their living rooms after they saw this show, having a great time on a rainy day.”

The 2013-14 season in brief:

  • “To Master the Art” by William Brown and Doug Frew at the Broadway Playhouse (Sept. 10-Oct. 20): In a Paris bistro with her husband Paul, Julia Child falls in love with food, and soon she’s a sponge for the principles of French cuisine, wine and its legendary qualité de vie. She literally devours her lessons from a cooking class and tries out everything at home with a precocious flair that astonishes her husband, even as their lives come under pressure by U.S. agents who suspect Communist ties. (Visit the show website.)
  • “Evita” by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber at the Oriental Theatre (Sept. 18- Oct. 6): Based on the true story of Eva Perón, who used her beauty and her wiles to escape the slums and become the second wife of Argentine president Juan Perón, “Evita” was an early hit of Rice and Webber. Adored by the people, Evita attained great power before her own greed and failing health did her in. The outsized arc fascinated Rice, and Webber eventually succumbed to the lure of Latin dance rhythms.  A concept album came first and then the  musical, which opened in London in 1978 and Broadway in 1979. Madonna and Antonio Banderas made a movie of it in 1996, and there have been several revivals since. The show kicks off in Providence, RI, and comes directly to Chicago, after which it will criss-cross the country through 26 more cities until June 2014. (Visit the show website.)
  • “Once” by Enda Walsh with songs of Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová at the Oriental Theatre (Oct. 9-27): An adaptation of the 2006 film, “Once” is the story of a thirtysomething Dublin guitarist and singer who is mourning an unrequited love, and the young Czech woman who befriends him. It’s a lovely piece that makes unusual requirements of its cast; each actor plays at least one musical instrument, typically several, and thus stays onstage most of the time. The Academy Award winning song “Falling Slowly” is but one of its notable musical numbers; it breaks into song and dance constantly. (Visit the show website.)
  • “We Will Rock You” by Queen and Ben Elton at the Cadillac Palace Theatre (Oct. 22-27): As any Freddie Mercury fan can tell you, hit songs from the British rock group Queen such as  “Radio Ga Ga” and “I Want to Break Free” are threaded together ABBA fashion to tell an exuberant story about rebel teenage Bohemians 300 years in the future. The earth is named “iPlanet” and ruled by Killer Queen, whose Global Soft corporation subdues all creativity. Ga Ga kids watch the same movies, wear the same clothes and think the same thoughts. Musical instruments are forbidden but the Bohemians await a Dreamer who will remember the music of the past. The North American tour begins performances in Baltimore, then heads to Chicago and 23 other cities through August 2014. A subsequent Broadway production has been hinted at. (Visit the show website.)
  • 50 SHADES! The Musical (Broadway in Chicago)50 SHADES! The Musical by Jim Millan at Broadway Playhouse (Oct. 22-27): In an unauthorized parody of the erotic bestseller “Fifty Shades of Grey” by E.L. James, a ladies book club decides to read the story and quickly descends into humorous mommy porn escapism involving feather dusters, handcuffs, whips and helicopters. With suggestive skits and songs like “I Don’t Make Love” and “They Get Nasty,” it’s not for kids. But it’s also pretty harmless for anybody over 18. The show enjoyed an early run at the Royal George in 2012 and has since been touring the U.S. (Visit the show website.)
  • “Wicked” by Stephen Schwartz and Winnie Holzman at the Oriental Theatre (Oct. 30-Dec. 21): Long before Dorothy arrives in Munchkinland from Kansas, two other girls meet in the land of Oz. One – born with emerald green skin – is smart, fiery and misunderstood. The other is beautiful, ambitious and very pop-u-lar. How these two grow to become the Wicked Witch of the West and Glinda the Good makes for the parallel universe story penned by Gregory Maquire that has toured continuously around the world. (Visit the show website.)
  • “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: The Musical” adapted from the animated television special at the Broadway Playhouse (Nov. 14-Dec. 29):  Emerald City Theatre and First Stage brought this show to life last year in Milwaukee, where Kabuki-like “snowken” – nearly invisible white-clad figures – help Rudolph fly. Sam the Snowman narrates the familiar tale and critters abound. (Visit the show website.)
  • “Elf the Musical” adapted from the 2003 film at the Cadillac Theatre (Nov. 26-Dec. 15): The 2010 Broadway musical undertakes another U.S. tour during the holiday season. “Elf” is the story of Buddy, a young orphan who grows up at the North Pole unaware that he is actually human until the towering evidence of his size dwarfs any other possibility. A fact-finding mission to New York City ensues. (Visit the show website.)
  • “Ghost the Musical” by Dave Stewart, Glen Ballard and Bruce Joel Rubin at the Oriental Theatre (Jan. 7-19, 2014): Based on the 1990 hit film starring Patrick Swayze, Demi Moore and Whoopi Goldberg, “Ghost” had its musical premiere in Manchester, England, in 2011 and has since been to London and Broadway. When Sam is murdered by a close friend, he hangs around in limbo between life and death and tries to warn his wife that she’s in danger. He gets help from a phony storefront psychic who turns out to have powers she never thought she had. “The movie was the kind of thing you wanted to curl up with on a Saturday night and just have a good cry,” says Broadway in Chicago’s LaCario. “Its groupies will not be disappointed. I saw the musical on the West End in London and people were enthralled.” (Visit the show website.)
  • Masquerade scene from 'The Phantom of the Opera' (UK tour)“The Phantom of the Opera” by Andrew Lloyd Webber at the Cadillac Palace Theatre (Jan. 9-March 2, 2014): “This is a new production based on what they have done all over Great Britain,” says LaCario of the current U.S. tour based on the 25th anniversary re-imagining of the original set and reconsidering of key plot pivots and character portrayals. Most notably, there’s a bolder, feistier Christine. “It offers something very exciting for people who have seen it before, and for those who want to introduce it to a new generation,” says LaCario. Optimized for touring, the production makes extensive use of video projections, mirrors and complex three-dimensional transformations emanating from a spinning centerpiece. (Visit the show website.)
  • “Heartbeat of Home” from the producers of “Riverdance” at the Oriental Theatre (March 4-16, 2014): Cast includes 40 performers and a 10-piece band playing music by U.S.–based Irish composer Brian Byrne (“Lay Your Head Down”). “It’s an unbelievably intelligent dance extravaganza,” says LaCario. “It’s in the realm of ‘Riverdance,’ but on a larger scale, certainly much more than traditional Irish.”  Latin and Afro-Cuban elements add tango and salsa to the international mix. (Visit the show website.)
  • “Peter and the Starcatcher,” adapted for the stage by Rick Elice, at the Bank of America Theatre (April 2-13, 2014): How did Peter Pan become the boy who never grew up? Twelve actors play more than a hundred characters before the telling’s done. The show is based on the novel of Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson and like Peter Pan himself, it demands your active imagination to will the odd bits of stage junk into ships, a sail and hidden treasures. (Visit the show website.)
  • “Motown the Musical” by Berry Gordy at the Oriental Theatre (April 22-July 13, 2014):  The autobiographical saga of  Motown hit-maker Berry Gordy, a onetime featherweight boxer with a talent for discovering great singers, this musical touches on the formative years of Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson and Marvin Gaye as they struggled to break through to the main stream. Says LaCario: “I feel that Gordy has done so much more for the music industry, and for our generation, than any political movement to shatter barriers.  He just brought a whole different style of music to bear on the world, and he understood what great charismatics were and what they could do.” The show begins with a duel between the Four Tops and the Temptations and includes a give and take between Gladys Knight and Marvin Gaye over “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” ultimately touching on more than 50 songs of the era. (Visit the show website.)

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