Theater 2015-16: Lifeline plots two comedies, with a gritty digression to ‘Midnight Cowboy’
12th in a series of season previews: Company opens with comic story of a book that riles a little town, closes with musical setting of Jane Austen’s slyly funny “Northanger Abbey.”
By Lawrence B. Johnson and Nancy Malitz
It has the look of an existential sandwich on two slices of wry, Lifeline Theatre’s 2015-16 main stage season of comedies surrounding “Midnight Cowboy.”
Typical of the Rogers Park company, which specializes in adapting novels to the stage, all three of its shows are world premieres. Not so typical, two out of the three are comedies.
The opener, “Miss Buncle’s Book,” based on D.E. Stevenson’s 1934 novel, concerns a quiet, small-town spinster in the Depression who writes a book about her very interesting neighbors and stirs up a hornet’s nest with her pinpoint portraits. The season finale, a musical adaptation of Jane Austen’s light-hearted “Northanger Abbey,” deals with a rural English girl whose world is turned on its ear when she ventures into high society.
In between comes Lifeline’s take on James Leo Herlihy’s 1965 tale of sex in the city, “Midnight Cowboy,” about a callow young Texan who sees gold in the skyscrapers of New York – or rather in all those needy, rich big-city women who might gladly pay for his singular services. When that mirage dissolves, the Texan finds himself boot-deep in ugly reality.
“‘Midnight Cowboy’ is essentially about loneliness and a desperate search for happiness outside yourself,” says Lifeline artistic director Dorothy Milne. “It’s the plight of a young man who’s looking for love in all the wrong places. He has been given no tools to cope in the big city, so all sorts of things go terribly wrong.”
This season Lifeline will pursue several audience initiatives successfully begun last year, offering one performance of each show in both the main stage series and the KidSeries with special accommodations for the blind and the hard of hearing.
“Before the performance, we have someone walk around the set and describe it for the blind, and actors come out to say, ‘This is my character and this is what my voice sounds like,’ and speak a few lines,” explains Milne. “We also will offer open captioning for the hearing impaired. And on the KidSeries, we will have one relaxed performance for youngsters on the autism spectrum where they can react vocally and nobody’s going to be upset.”
The 2015-16 season in brief:
- “Miss Buncle’s Book,” adapted by Christina Calvit from the 1934 novel by the Scottish author D.E. Stevenson (World premiere, Sept.21-Nov. 1): Barbara Buncle is just an ordinary, unassuming spinster passing an unremarkable existence in the sleepy village of Silverstream. But when the Great Depression wipes out her nest egg, she tries her hand at writing and publishes a novel – under an assumed name – about her quaint hometown and the oddball characters who inhabit it. When the book becomes a surprise bestseller and her neighbors’ foibles are thrust into the national spotlight, Miss Buncle must navigate a madcap storm of accusations, rivalries, and romances. “It’s nice to get to do a comedy,” says Milne. “D.E. Stevenson wrote lovely, appealing stories with characters you’re drawn to, real people with human foibles. We like Miss Buncle the way we like Harry Potter. There’s an ethical, moral center.”
- “Midnight Cowboy,” adapted by Chris Hainsworth from the 1965 novel by James Leo Herlihy (World premiere, Feb. 29-April 10, 2016): Joe Buck escapes his dead-end life in Texas and heads to New York City with dreams of making his fortune as a hustler for wealthy socialites. But his rugged cowboy persona masks the gullibility of a child, and Joe falls victim to all manner of con artists and predators. At the end of his rope, he partners with street-savvy Rico “Ratso” Rizzo in an alliance that could either save or destroy them both. It is a meditation on loneliness and the need to form real connections amid the isolation of contemporary life. “I think there’s a great heartache in all of us,” says Milne. “We’ve all been lonely, we all want to be loved. And we’re all bumbling around.”
- “Northanger Abbey,” a musical based on the 1817 novel by Jane Austen, with book adaptation by Robert Kauzlaric, music and lyrics by George Howe (World premiere, June 6–July 17, 2016): Catherine Morland leaves her quiet country home for the splendors of Bath, armed only with an innocent heart and the examples of her favorite literary heroines. Immersed in a new world of parties, balls and high society, Catherine soon finds herself caught in a web of social scheming far above her skill to master. False friends, greedy lovers and a wealth of misunderstandings lead to the revelation that bruises of the heart can be far more painful than the imagined terrors of Gothic novels. “Catherine really doesn’t know how to figure out real life,” says Milne. “She’s not what you would call empowered. And it all makes for great fun.”
- “Mr. Popper’s Penguins,” a musical based on the 1938 novel by Richard and Florence Atwater, with book adaptation by Robert Kauzlaric, music and lyrics by George Howe (World premiere, Oct. 25-Nov. 29): Money is tight and times are tough in the town of Stillwater. With no houses to paint till next spring, Mr. Popper is stuck at home daydreaming of adventures in far-off lands, while Mrs. Popper must scrimp and save just to put beans on the table. But with the unexpected arrival of a spirited penguin named Captain Cook, a new horizon opens before them. As a quiet partnership expands into a boisterous flock, the Poppers learn that there’s no problem that can’t be solved by steady determination, lots of love and a dash of unconventionality.
- “Sparky,” a musical based on the 2014 book by Jenny Offill, illustrated by Chris Appelhans, adapted by Jessica Wright Buha, with music and lyrics by Laura McKenzie (World premiere, Jan. 17-Feb. 21, 2016): Libby desperately wants a pet, but her mother says she can only have one that doesn’t need to be walked, bathed or fed. So she orders a sloth and names him Sparky. It’s love at first sight — even if Sparky doesn’t know how to fetch and always loses at hide-and-seek (though he’s very good at playing statue). But after know-it-all Mary Potts mocks Sparky as lazy and unimpressive, Libby must throw a backyard talent show to highlight the gifts of her misunderstood companion.
- “Lester’s Dreadful Sweaters,” a musical based on the 2012 book by K.G. Campbell, adapted by Aly Renee Amidei, with music by Scott Tallarida and lyrics by Amidei and Tallarida (World premiere, March 20-April 24, 2016): One terrible morning, Cousin Clara presents young Lester with the gift of a hand-knit sweater, and it is deadful: shriveled yet saggy and smothered with pom-poms. Lester, who likes things just so, is mortified to wear it, but his parents insist and the kids at school tease him relentlessly. When he ruins the sweater “by accident,” Clara just makes others, each more ghastly than the last. To restore his neatly ordered life and save face on the playground, Lester must find a way to stop the endless parade of horrifying sweaters once and for all.
Lifeline Theatre is located at 6912 N. Glenwood Ave. Founded in 1982 by five graduates of Northwestern University, Lifeline moved into its permanent home in Rogers Park, a converted Commonwealth Edison substation, in 1985. The facility includes a 99-seat theater, rehearsal and office space, a scene shop, and costume, prop and scenery storage.
- Lifeline Theatre’s official website: LifelineTheatre.com
- Review of “A Tale of Two Cities” at Lifeline: Read it at ChicagoOntheAisle.com
- Review of “The City & The City” at Lifeline: Read it at ChicagoOntheAisle.com
- Review of “Hunger” at Lifeline: Read it at ChicagoOntheAisle.com
Tags: Aly Renee Amidei, Chris Appelhans, Chris Hainsworth, Christina Calvit, D.E. Stevenson, George Howe, James Leo Herlihy, Jane Austen, Jenny Offill, Jessica Wright Buha, K.G. Campbell, Laura McKenzie, LifelineTheatre, Richard and Florence Atwater, Robert Kauzlaric, Scott Tallarida