Theater 2015-16: American Blues will trumpet three decades with gritty anthem of ‘Rainmaker’
Third in a series of season previews: N. Richard Nash’s play about love and the hard earth will be mixed together with ‘It’s Wonderful Life’ and ‘Little Shop of Horrors.’ Curtain up Sept. 3.
By Lawrence B. Johnson and Nancy Malitz
Gwendolyn Whiteside, the producing artistic director of American Blues Theater, sees a cosmic – or perhaps the better word is earthly — connection between her company and N. Richard Nash’s play “The Rainmaker,” which opens ABT’s season.
“What draws us to ‘The Rainmaker’ is its expression of incredible human resilience and the human need for hope,” she says. “It’s a time of drought, and the whole family wants so badly to believe. That sort of optimistic attitude is what this ensemble is about as people. To make it 30 years, you have to have hope.”
This is indeed the 30th anniversary season for American Blues, and one of its founders, Ed Blatchford, returns to direct “The Rainmaker” at the Greenhouse Theatre Center, where ABT begins its third season of residency.
The company’s traditonal production of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” dating back to 2002, gets reset and refreshed when Whiteside and Kevin Kelly bow out after six years as the small town couple Mary and George Bailey in favor of two twentysomething actors, Amanda Tanguay and Zach Kenney.
“We hope they will continue in those roles for many, many years,” says Whiteside. “More than 50,000 people have seen this show over the years. We regularly have to add performances or extend the run.”
Venturing to the far, far opposite end of the theater spectrum, ABT wraps ups its season with the darkly riotous rock musical “Little Shop of Horrors.”
“After the success of Hank Williams (the subject of the one-man musical “Lost Highway”) and now with some financial stability, we can afford to do a musical every other year,” says Whiteside. “And ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ is really a love story. Who isn’t a sucker for a love story?”
Also on tap is the Chicago premiere of James Still’s “Looking Over the President’s Shoulder,” a one-man historical reminiscence based the life of Alonzo Fields, an African-American who served as White House butler to four U.S presidents and their families.
Whiteside, who joined American Blues Theater nearly two decades ago, when she was 22, calls the company’s 30 years on the scene “no small feat. We feel so much gratitude toward the community for its support. This company has grown as a multi-generational ensemble with some members in their twenties and others into their seventies. We have wisdom and leadership and, from the younger members, incredible reckless abandon!”
The 2015-16 season in brief:
- “The Rainmaker” by N. Richard Nash (Sept. 3-Sept. 27): On a hot summer day in the Depression-era, drought-stricken West, a charming stranger shows up at the farm home the unmarried – and not-so-young — Lizzie Curry shares with her father and two brothers. The visitor offers to bring rain for $100. Meanwhile, Lizzie’s family is almost as desperate to marry her off as they are to save their dying cattle. “These are people who lead a rough life, and along comes this outsider who gives them a sense of hope,” says Whiteside. “But there’s also great tenderness in the father’s love for his daughter. It’s a romantic story.”
- “It’s a Wonderful Life,” a radio play based on the film by Frank Capra (Nov. 25-Dec. 27): In this Christmas season classic, young George Bailey has great prospects, only to see them melt away as circumstances keep him mired in his small hometown. Then things take a catastrophic turn and George, now running a bank and married to his high school sweetheart Mary, begins to wish he’d never been born – until his guardian angel shows up to show him what might have befallen a lot of other folks if George had never been there for them. “Every year, no what, I get choked up,” says Whiteside. “We have tissues for people seated in the front row.”
- “Looking Over the President’s Shoulder” by James Still (Chicago premiere, Feb. 11-March 6): This recollection for a single actor is based on the real-life story of Alonzo Fields (portrayed by Manny Buckley), the grandson of a freed salve, who was forced by the Depression to give up his dreams of becoming an opera singer. Fields accepted a job as butler at the White House and served 21 years – through the presidencies of Herbert Hoover, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower. “I love history and I think that as an American theater, we owe it to ourselves and our audiences to share aspects our nation’s past. Alonzo’s story is one of personal sacrifice. He was very talented, but hard times forced him to give up his dream.”
- “Little Shop of Horrors,” book and lyrics by Howard Ashman with music by Alan Menken (May 6-29): Seymour, a poor florist’s assistant, allows his craving for fame and fortune to seduce him into playing nursemaid to a man-eating plant. “We love that it’s about people who are struggling to find their way in life,” says Whiteside. “The plant could be a metaphor for fame, fortune and greed. The show’s gritty nature is perfectly set off by the Motown feel of the music.”
What began in 1985 as American Blues Theater was renamed American Theater Co. during the artistic directorship of Brian Russell (1997-2002). In 2009, after the appointment of the late PJ 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. In 2013, the company moved into its new home, a 199-seat performing space at the Greenhouse Theatre Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave., in the Lincoln Park neighborhood.
- American Blues Theater’s official website: Go to AmericanBluesTheater.com
- Review of “Side Man” at ABT: Read it at ChicagoOntheAisle.com
- Review of “Yankee Tavern” at ABT: Read it at ChicagoOntheAisle.com
- Review of “Grounded” at ABT: Read it at ChicagoOntheAisle.com