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Theater 2015-16: Porchlight, in its Chicago style, jumps into season of musicals with ‘Side Show’

Submitted by on Sep 1, 2015 – 6:12 pm

The gang will be jumpin' again when Porchlight reprises the Fats Waller revue 'Ain't Misbehavin'.' (Kelsey Jorissen)Seventh in a series of season previews: Revised saga of historic conjoined twins in vaudeville will be followed by reprise of hit revue “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and Chicago premiere of “Far From Heaven.” 

By Lawrence B. Johnson and Nancy Malitz

Michael Weber, the artistic director at Porchlight Music Theatre, makes no bones about his company being a brash urban Chicago enterprise. That, he says, is why Porchlight’s 2015-16 season opener, a revamped version of the 1997 musical “Side Show,” is going to be special. Then, as if to underscore this true grit, it’s on to another earthy evening with an encore of the company’s Jefferson Award-winning Fats Waller revue “Ain’t Misbehavin’.”

Colleen Fee and Britt-Marie Sivertsen star with Matthew Keffer in 'Side Show.' (Brandon Dahlquist)When “Side Show,” based on the lives of the English conjoined twins Violet and Daisy Hilton and their vaudeville careers in the 1920s and ‘30s, debuted on Broadway in its original version, it ran for a modest 91 performances. The creative team of Bill Russell (book and lyrics) and Henry Krieger (music) revisited the show for a 2014 New York revival that closed after just 56 performance. Weber acquired the rights to the first regional production since that rebirth on Broadway.

“Because we are in Chicago proper, and not in the suburbs, we have the latitude to do pieces that are more challenging and sophisticated,” he says. “We define ourselves in terms of Chicago theater and bring to our productions the depth and complexity associated with core Chicago companies like Steppenwolf, Lookingglass and Steep.”

Porchlight’s new lineup also brings a speedy revival of “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” which won three 2014 Joseph Jefferson Awards. Weber calls this tuneful, raucous jubilation “an alternative holiday show.”

The Chicago premiere of “Far From Heaven,” a sort of existential glimpse of the inner world of a seemingly content wife and mom, and “Dreamgirls,” the story of a girl group’s bumpy road to stardom in the 1960s, round out Porchlight’s 21st season of core presentations. Also planned are three short-run productions in the Porchlight Revisits series of semi-staged shows: “Babes in Arms,” “Applause” and “Chess.”

The 2015-16 season in brief:

  • Composer Henry Krieger wrote the music for both 'Sideshow' and 'Dreamgirls.'“Side Show,” with book and lyrics by Bill Russell and music by Henry Krieger (Chicago premiere of the 2014 revised version at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont, Sept. 15-Oct. 18): Based on the true-life story of Hilton sisters Daisy and Violet, legendary conjoined stars of circus, vaudeville and movies in the 1920s and ‘30s, “Side Show” traces the twins’ search for love and acceptance amidst the spectacle of fame and the scrutiny of public opinion. “This revision tries to get ‘Side Show’ to be more historically accurate,” says Weber. “The human drama in the twins’ precarious lives is something that fits well with what we do. ‘Side Show’ doesn’t beg to be a spectacle. It’s really about getting close to these extraordinary people.”
  • “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” music of Fats Waller with book by Murray Horwitz and Richard Maltby, Jr., directed and choreographed by Porchlight ensemble member Brenda Didier (Stage 773, Nov. 17-Dec. 20): Set in the jazz age when nightspots like the Cotton Club and the Savoy Ballroom were the playgrounds of high society, “Ain’t Misbehavin'” is a tribute to the Harlem Renaissance. Set in an era of exploding creativity and social change, it’s an evening of rowdy, raunchy and humorous songs. The show encapsulates the moods of the time and reflects Fats Waller’s view of life as a journey meant for pleasure and play. “Brenda’s approach was built on the idea of ‘rent parties,’” says Weber. “After playing a club gig, the musicians would go to someone’s apartment to play some more – just for tips. It’s really about getting through life’s hardships with joy by making the joint jump.”
  • Julianne Moore starred in the 2002 film version of 'Far From Heaven.'“Far From Heaven,” with book by Richard Greenberg, music by Scott Frankel and lyrics by Michael Korie (Chicago premiere, Stage 773, Feb. 9-March 13): In 1957 suburban Connecticut, Cathy Whitaker seems to be the picture-perfect wife and mother. But boiling beneath the surface, secret longings cause her world to unravel, with incendiary consequences. It’s a story of romance, betrayal and intolerance, as a woman grapples with her identity in a society on the verge of upheaval. “This show confronts the false sense of how the world really was at the time,” says Weber. “This was a time when certain kinds of people and their experiences were simply whitewashed, erased. The woman’s only meaningful relationship is with her black gardener. It’s not a tourist-attractive sort of musical. It asks serious questions – and that’s why Porchlight is the perfect place for it.”
  • 'Dreamgirls' had its Broadway premiere in 1981.“Dreamgirls,” with lyrics and book by Tom Eyen and music by Henry Krieger (Stage 773, April 12-May 15): Full of onstage joy and backstage drama, “Dreamgirls” is the story of an up-and-coming 1960s all-female singing group from Chicago and their triumphs and tribulations on the road to fame and fortune. It’s a story that lives through the journey of popular music in America. “It’s really not a show about flashy stuff,” says Weber. “It’s an intense backstage human story. Our intimate setting allows you to see the show in close-ups: You see the side glances, you see the sweat – and the truths about jealousy and the cutthroat ambition that drives some people to get what they want.”

Getting there:

Stage 773, the Lakeview neighborhood home of Porchlight Music TheatrePorchlight productions are presented at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont, in a venue that seats about 150. Weber likes this close-up perspective for the audience because of the heightened sense of intimacy and realism. Stage 773 is an easy 10-minute walk west from the Red Line’s Belmont stop.

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