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Barber of Chicago: ‘The Factotum’ reimagines Mozart and Rossini in Black community opera

Submitted by on Feb 6, 2023 – 2:26 pm

It’s a struggling Chicago neighborhood in changing times, but Master Kutz owner Mike tries to keep his late father’s storied South Side barber shop alive. (Cory Weaver photo)

Review: “Factotum” by Will Liverman and DJ King Rico (music and lyrics); book by Liverman, Rico and Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj. Lyric Opera Chicago at the Harris Theater through  Feb. 12. ★★★★
By Nancy Malitz

There’s never a time when producers and directors of new shows fail to think, in the final days before opening, “We could really use another month.” But there’s also no denying the tantalizing potential of a new hit on brew at the Harris Theater, where the Lyric Opera of Chicago has unveiled a first look at “The Factotum.”

A contemporary musical saga with a huge heart, “Factotum” is the inspiration of a cutting-edge dream team – co-creators Will Liverman and DJ King Rico with director Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj. For this world premiere, they doff their caps to a heritage of “Barbershop” films as they set their story in the vibrant milieu of Chicago’s South Side. But this “Factotum” owes just as much to the comic operas of Mozart and Rossini, whose “Marriage of Figaro” and “Barber of Seville” are spiritual ancestors.

Barber Mike (Will Liverman) gets ready to give returning veteran CJ (Martin Luther Clark) a desperately needed trim, as the South Siders at Master Kutz jolly them along. (Weaver photo)

Back when Mozart and Rossini were making their way, composers were viewed as highly skilled craftsmen, up-and-comers from the livery class. They both wrote operas based on the character Figaro, a barber with assorted irons in the fire. Present-day Mike and his brother Garby are similarly ambitous in this show; they have inherited a barbershop business from their father, who founded it, and it’s at Master Kutz that denizens of this community gather.

Mike’s brother Garby (Norman Garrett, at right) runs a gambling operation out of the shop with fellow gang member Sam (Ron Dukes, at left). Dancer Kris Bellvie, as a gambler, takes his chances.  (Gordon Oliver Jr. photo)

Solid Mike enjoys considerable neighborhood esteem, and we are even given the sense that the cops keep a reasonable distance. This is a grace that Garby counts on, because Garby runs the numbers, charms the women, and mingles with others who are so inclined, to Mike’s irritation and dismay. (Listen to one of their disputes, below, or go here.)

The shop’s mid-century vintage is glossed with some modern contraptions in this pleasantly dated set by designer Harlan Penn. Handheld-style videos, shaky as a CTA ride, flicker on screens overhead – a nifty tactic by video designer Roma Flowers that brings the urban neighborhood in. The time and place of this story is 2019, but a sense of history is everywhere.

At Master Kutz, Mike’s in charge, but it’s head beautician Chantel (priceless Broadway and Chicago TV veteran Melody Betts) who runs the day-to-day around the place. Master Kutz has been the de facto community center for half a century so there’s lots to know. And if co-owner Mike is easing into middle age, he has earned his stripes: In spite of his numbers-running brother, Mike’s a reliable Mr. Fixit, and that pertains not only to beards and coifs.

Cece (Nissi Shalome) is headed for college. Uncle Mike couldn’t be prouder. (Weaver photo)

Co-creator Liverman is best known locally as the manifestly gifted baritone who created the title role in the recent premiere of a brilliant coming-of-age opera, “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” at both New York’s Metropolitan Opera and Chicago’s Lyric last season. This time around, he is Mike, the thoughtful proprietor, and a soft, if reluctant, touch for neighbors in various forms of distress. Mike’s teenage niece Cece, who has not spoken since the death of her mother several years earlier, expresses herself through a vast balletic vocabulary of sweetness and vulnerability. Chicago’s own Nissi Shalome, in her Lyric debut, is a standout in this role.

The style of the show involves an easy mingling of modern sounds and freer forms that define America’s contribution to opera in our time, but all the singers are professionally trained and fully operatic, even as their dance numbers are over the top. (Choreographer Maleek Washington makes an impressive debut.) A Broadway-size 17-piece pit orchestra is fattened by the onstage electronic heartbeat of DJ King Rico’s quintessential throughline.

Cece tries to calm the waters as trouble builds between Garby and Mike. (Weaver photo)

In a fast-moving first act, tension builds. Though still not talking, Cece is college-bound, and there’s a barbershop quartet of trouble brewing as Bootleg Joe, needy Sam, Charlie and Leeroy get sloppy with Garby’s numbers-running operation. There’s the possibility of a snitch. The cops are closing in.

(This is quite the impressive barbershop quartet of Garby’s guys: Bootleg and Sam are played by tenor Lunga Eric Hallam and bass Ron Dukes, both gifted trainees of the Lyric’s Ryan Center. Charlie and Leeroy are played by young talents in promising Lyric debuts — tenor Terrence Chin-Loy and baritone Adam Richardson.)

Rose (Cecelia Violetta López) acknowledges applause at her EP release party, as former sweetheart CJ (Martin Luther Clark) and Mike look on. (Weaver photo)

There’s domestic trouble, too. Mike’s brother Garby has a fiery temperament. (Baritone Norman Garrett is marvelously explosive in the role.) His Latina girlfriend Rose may not be a sure thing, now that her old high-school flame CJ is back from a stint in the military. And besides, she’s a singer-songwriter with professional aspirations, so when Garby doesn’t show up at her breakout event, that’s once too often. (Soprano Cecilia Violetta López as Rose, and tenor Martin Luther Clark as CJ play the former high school sweethearts.)

Garby and Rose (Garrett and López) in a more hopeful moment. (Gordon Oliver photo)

That makes a lot of plot threads to tie up. Maybe too many. The second act promise was not fulfilled on opening night, and continued woodshedding seems likely down the line. It’s not really clear who the factotum is, or who truly deserves the blame when things get grim, or whether Rose’s love triangle is a credible situation worth the plot bother. And although society’s fault lines are apparent, it’s also pretty clear that personal crimes and betrayals have transpired for which people are accountable. In that sense, the show’s challenge is not unlike the complex problems posed by Bernstein’s “West Side Story,” or Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd,” or Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro,” for that matter.

What Liverman and DJ King Rico have accomplished already is tremendous, but the story loses steam in the second act. The plot needs to resolve through the action of the characters. That never quite happens. It’s a stretch to believe that this volatile gang will be able to make the sudden turn to benevolence, as Garby promises, after they’ve all been at each other’s throats just minutes before.

This barbershop is a precious place that somehow has survived. Forgiveness can come. Healing can happen. But the arc is too short. Just how long Master Kutz can endure remains a question mark at best.

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