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Chicago theater mid-season preview, Part 2: Ahead at Porchlight, American Blues, Raven

Submitted by on Jan 19, 2019 – 11:05 am
Preview: Porchlight pursues lyrical love & comic murder. American Blues eyes psychological landscape. Raven offers a driving lesson. 
By Lawrence B. Johnson

Chicago’s turn into real winter comes with the consolation of intriguing theater just ahead. Think of it as warming countermeasures.

Porchlight offers the musical farce “The Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder” while Raven plots Paula Vogel’s now-classic memory play “How I Learned to Drive.” American Blues jumps into the season’s second half with Steven Dietz’s “On Clover Road.” If a play synopsis that begins “At an abandoned motel on a desolate road” sounds more like a chiller, at least it will unfold in a snug place.

Here’s a look-ahead to eight shows that will help push the calendar through wind and snow to balmy spring.

Porchlight Music Theatre
  • “The Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder,” book and lyrics by Robert L. Freedman and music and lyrics by Steven Lutvak, Jan. 25-March 10. (Porchlight produces its shows at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 N. Dearborn.) Monty Navarro, an heir to a family fortune, sets out to jump the line of succession by eliminating the eight pesky relatives (all played by one actor) who stand in his way. All the while, Monty has to juggle his mistress (she’s after more than just love), his fiancée (she’s his cousin but who’s keeping track?), and the constant threat of landing behind bars. Of course, it will all be worth it if he can slay his way to his inheritance – and be done in time for tea. “This show reminds me of those rare musical comedies that fall in the line of “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, where the book is as strong as any other element,” says Porchlight artistic director Michael Weber. “You have one character murdering all the relatives – and he’s your hero. It isn’t a whodunit, it’s a how’d-he-do-it. A little bit macabre, but funny.”
  • “A Chorus Line,” music by Marvin Hamlisch, lyrics by Edward Kleban and book by James Kirkwood Jr. and Nicholas Dante, April 10-May 26. In an empty theatre, on a bare stage, casting for a new Broadway musical is almost complete. For 17 dancers, this audition is the chance of a lifetime. It’s what they’ve worked for with every drop of sweat and every hour or training, putting their lives on the line for the opportunity to do what they’ve always dreamed of doing: to dance. Gems from the score include “What I Did for Love,” “One” and “Dance Ten, Looks Three.” “Here’s genuine evergreen,” says Weber. “The thing that made the show great in its time (1975) continues to work – all those hopeful kids talking about their parents and their bodies and their relationships. They’re looking back at a moment when they discovered who they were. It’s not about actors talking about acting, but people talking about living. It always packs a punch.”
American Blues Theater
  • “On Clover Road” by Steven Dietz, Feb. 1-March 16. (American Blues produces its shows at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont.) At an abandoned motel on a desolate road, a mother meets with a cult de-programmer, believing she will be reunited with her runaway daughter. She is in for a deep shock. “Our goal with this show is to scare the heck out of people,” says artistic director Gwendolyn Whiteside. “What’s so thrilling about it is that you never know what’s going to happen next. The first time I read it, I was flipping pages so quickly. It gives you a rush that’s rare in a play.”
  • “The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey” by James Lecesne, March 29-April 27. Ensemble member Joe Foust portrays every character in a small Jersey Shore town as he unravels the story of an optimistic and flamboyant 14-year-old boy who goes missing. “What a beautiful script,” says Whiteside. “It’s the story of a wonderful young boy who goes to a small town where he encounters a lot of discrimination. He’s gay. Every person who sees the show will walk out feeling better for having known him.”
  • “The Spitfire Grill,” music and book by James Valcq and lyrics and book by Fred Alley, based on the 1996 film of the same name, July 12-Aug. 17. A feisty parolee follows her dreams, based on a page from an old travel book, to a small town in Wisconsin and finds a place for herself working at Hannah’s Spitfire Grill. She discovers that her own reawakening coincides with that of the town. “The idea here is redemption and finding your place,” says Whiteside. “We did Hank Williams and Buddy Holly. It was time to celebrate a strong female lead. She’s judged by the townspeople, who are nervous about having her in their midst. Meanwhile, she feels the need to prove herself and forgive herself.”
Raven Theatre
  • Paula Vogel’s play “How I Learned to Drive” won the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

    “How I Learned to Drive” by Paula Vogel, Feb. 7-March 24. From behind the wheel of a ’56 Chevy, a woman named Li’l Bit navigates the tangled boulevards of her adolescence, reflecting on her complex and troubling relationship with her family. But old secrets and fresh discoveries abound as she struggles to accept her past and the demons that live there. Paula Vogel’s Pulitzer Prize-winning memory play explores how we are shaped by the people who hurt us. “Paul Vogel is a titan of American theater,” says Raven first-year artistic director Cody Estle. “She’s a gifted story-teller. This is an important play about the world we lived in, in the past, before the internet. We see Li’l Bit at different ages, moving forward and backward in time – typical of the way Vogel blows up plays and finds ways of creating a narrative that are not typical at all.”

  • “Yen” by Anna Jordan, March 21-May 5. Two practically feral teenaged brothers live alone in their filthy London flat with a dog named Taliban, perpetually bathed in the blue glow of their screens; playing video games, watching porn, waiting for the occasional visit from their detached mother, and surviving. But when a strange neighbor girl barges through the door, the boys’ little blue world begins to change color. It’s a savage, unrelenting drama about growing up, opening the windows, and letting in the light. “This gritty, raw, in-your-face play will push audiences,” says Estle. “These two boys, raised without a mother or father and essentially left to fend for themselves, embody tough topics we generally don’t like to talk about around the dinner table. You’re forced to sit at the edge of your seat.”
  • “The Undeniable Sound of Right Now” by Laura Eason, May 2-June 16. Directed by BJ Jones, artistic director of Northlight Theatre. Chicago, 1992. The city and its culture are changing, but grungy old Hank’s Bar isn’t. The “soulless noise” of electronic music is on the rise. Hank, proprietor of a legendary rock club, must battle the rising tide of The Next Big Thing as it threatens to destroy his legacy and fracture his family. It is a poignant portrait of those who can change with the times and those who get left behind. “It’s about a father who runs a rock bar in ’90s Chicago, and the rise of house music,” says Estle. “His daughter starts seeing a boy who’s into the house music scene, which annoys her father. It’s the young taking over from the old. For me personally, to have a great Chicago theater veteran like my mentor BJ Jones directing this show is very exciting – because it will be authentic.”

More Chicago theater season previews

  • What’s in store at Goodman, Northlight, Steep: Read the preview
  • In three philosophical plays, Shattered Globe probes issues intimate, epic: Read the preview
  • Redtwist celebrates 15th year by raising monument in tiny space: ‘King Lear’: Read the preview
  • Court maps world premiere and last play in the Wilson cycle: ‘Radio Golf’: Read the preview
  • TimeLine cues four dramas, collaborates with feminist venture Firebrand: Read the preview
  • Getting a real sense of home, Writers plans far-ranging season in new house: Read the preview

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