Articles by Lawrence B. Johnson
Commentary: The strike by musicians of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, now entering its second month, has brought into focus some realities about high-level orchestras in our time, the nature of work stoppages such as this one and the framework of negotiations between musicians and management. Perhaps the first point to be made is the inappropriateness of outsiders to presume to judge how an impasse in negotiations should be resolved.
Review: You have half a dozen more chances to see Ntozake Shange’s stunning play “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf” before it closes April 14 at Court Theatre. That is, assuming a seat opens up; the remainder of the run is sold out. No surprise there. “For Colored Girls” is a theatrical experience of authentic soul and rare beauty. ★★★★★
Report Update April 18: After a negotiation session April 16 proved fruitless between the striking musicians of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association, the Association on April 18 extended its cancellation of events through the end of the month — or two days before the first scheduled concert in music director Riccardo Muti’s return for two weeks of performance with the CSO.
Review: Musically, the French Renaissance was a bountiful era that surely would never be forgotten. Yet curiously and regrettably, says the celebrated lute virtuoso and Renaissance expert Paul O’Dette, the music of 16th-century France has pretty much tumbled into oblivion. Which only makes the more alluring O’Dette’s appearance April 5-7 with the Newberry Consort for a program devoted to – what else? — la musique française à l’époque de la Renaissance.
Review: The tragic grandeur of Lynn Nottage’s play “Sweat,” now indispensably on display at Goodman Theatre, resides in its complex truths. All in one remarkable tumble, it is a play about the vulnerability of the labor class, the crassness of their overlords, the fragility of friendships, the partitions of tribalism and the volatile bond between mothers and sons. ★★★★★
April 3 Update: The musicians of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra had expected to play Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony on March 26 at Orchestra Hall. Instead, with the Chicago Symphony on strike, the visiting musicians took to the streets — one could almost say the barricades — in solidarity with their Chicago colleagues. Brass players from the two orchestras played briefly on the sidewalk in front of Orchestra Hall amid signs proclaiming their unity.
Review: Her colleagues sang tributes, the next generation of opera stars chipped in with the exuberance of youth and the audience rocked the house on soprano Renée Fleming’s night – a very vocal celebration of that superstar’s multifaceted 25-year association with the Lyric Opera of Chicago. The concert March 23 at the Lyric Opera House acknowledged the many ways the singer has contributed to the company as vocal star, consultant and mentor over the last quarter-century.
Review: As shaggy dog stories go, Grace McLeod’s “Herland,” now rollicking about in the very small space of Redtwist Theatre, is funny from start almost to finish. The show derives its nearly nonstop energy and substantial appeal from three middle-aged actresses and a convincingly vulnerable young actress playing in a you-are-there garage set. Right at the finish line, however, “Herland” makes a sudden shift from high comedy to self-conscious morality tale and concludes in an awkward effort to make its point. ★★★
Preview: Megastar soprano Renée Fleming, affectionately known in the opera world as “the diva next door,” remembers very well her debut 25 years ago at Lyric Opera of Chicago in the title role of Carlisle Floyd’s “Susannah.” But that event is only the touchstone of Lyric’s glittering 25th anniversary concert March 23, which really celebrates a quarter-century of close partnership between the opera company and Fleming as singer, consultant and mentor.
Updated March 20: The striking musicians of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra will give two free performances they have dubbed “From the Heart of the Orchestra – Free Concerts for Chicago.” The two programs, announced as the first events in a projected series of free presentations, will feature a small ensemble playing chamber music March 22 and the full orchestra in works by Beethoven and Mozart on March 25. The musicians also made public letters of support from former CSO music director Daniel Barenboim and Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Report: Steppenwolf Theatre unveiled plans March 5 for a new state-of-the-art theater building, the heart of a $73 million renovation project that ultimately will include remodeling of the company’s current main-stage theater. The new building is expected to open in summer 2021. “This is a monumental moment for us that is more than two decades in the making,” said artistic director Anna D. Shapiro, adding that the expansion plan is “built on the shoulders of the former leaders, the ensemble, the board, and the staff who have touched this project and together have made this vision a reality.”
Review: Spring – and the warmer, more healthful weather it augurs – can’t come too soon for Lyric Opera of Chicago. As of this writing, two title-role singers are indisposed. At least one of them, soprano Albina Shagimuratova, made it through opening night as Violetta in Verdi’s “La traviata.” But the second star to withdraw, mezzo-soprano Alice Coote, wasn’t even up for the March 2 opening of Handel’s “Ariodante.” Julie Anne Miller was pressed into service on opening night as Ariodante, a huge “trouser” role aglitter with coloratura fireworks but also touched by music of profound reflection. Miller proved to be more and more impressive as the night wore on. ★★★★
Review: Li’l Bit was just 11 years old when she got her first driving lesson from her Uncle Peck. He pulled her onto his lap and showed her how to place her hands on the steering wheel.at the 3 o’clock and 9 o’clock positions. Then Uncle Peck placed his hands in roughly the same positions on L’il Bit. In Paula Vogel’s bruised-memory play “How I Learned to Drive,” the 1998 Pulitzer Prize winner for Drama now on cringe-inducing display at Raven Theatre, Li’l Bit grows to young womanhood in the caring, caressing hands of her devoted Uncle Peck, a pedophile. ★★★
Review: It’s 1927, and the veteran blues singer Ma Rainey – or Madame Rainey, as she prefers – is the imperious queen of her realm. The black songstress has been around, and she doesn’t take any grief from anybody, including white folks. Brash trumpeter Levee, who’s playing a Chicago recording session with Rainey, is still finding his way. He’s young, gifted and black. And deeply angry. These two are the fire and ice of August Wilson’s towering tragedy “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” now in the sure hands of director Ron OJ Parson and a stellar cast at Writers Theatre. ★★★★★
Review: JB Priestley’s classic “An Inspector Calls,” a noir thriller as morality tale, has been around for seven decades, and was made into a film in 1954. But director Stephen Daldry’s laser-focused staging with the National Theatre of Britain, now on view at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, is a masterpiece of ensemble acting wrapped in a brilliant concept that makes the play feel deliciously fresh, newly and wickedly biting. ★★★★★
Review: Fifteen years after Nora Helmer famously – or perhaps infamously – walks out on husband and children at the end of Ibsen’s play “A Doll’s House,” what do you know but she’s back, knocking on that same door, and not exactly bonnet in hand. Indeed, Nora has found great success as a writer. What an intriguing conceit for the sequel Lucas Hnath has ventured in “A Doll’s House, Part 2,” now at Steppenwolf. Except that I came away with the distinct sense that Nora, the woman of the hour, was missing. ★★
Review: Every opera that gains such enduring popularity as to acquire the epithet warhorse was once, well, a colt – exhilarating in its spunky freshness, its beauty undimmed by long familiarity and habitual service. The real marvel of Lyric Opera’s current staging of Verdi’s “La traviata” lies not just in its lustrous surfaces but rather in its surprising depth, in its true and affecting recovery of a splendor beyond – or, more to the point, before – habit. ★★★★★
Review: The Joffrey Ballet’s world premiere production of “Anna Karenina” is astonishing and thrilling on so many levels, from its concise distillation of Tolstoy’s prodigious novel, choreography that captures the story’s tragic essence and inspired multimedia effects to a superlative musical score. But this remarkable achievement is first and foremost tremendous theater. ★★★★★
Review: Kate Hunter is terrified, desperate, hanging on by her fingernails. Her adolescent daughter ran away three years ago, and finally Kate has a lead to the girl’s seclusion in a cult – even a glimmer of hope that on this day, all may end well. That’s why, in Steven Dietz’s thriller “On Clover Road,” we find Kate holed up in a dilapidated motel room with a brusque, imperious de-programmer who claims he’s experienced at reeling kids back from the abyss. It’s a heart-stopping encounter at American Blues Theater. ★★★★
Review: Omari is 16, maybe 17 years old and he’s in serious trouble. He’s black, a bright kid, from good people. They send O – everybody calls him O – to a private school. But the boy is deeply angry, and now he’s facing expulsion from school, and maybe much worse, for assaulting a teacher. This the perilous crux of Dominique Morisseau’s play “Pipeline,” on gripping display at Victory Gardens Theater. ★★★★
Review: There is one great scene and another that’s at least charming in Hansol Jung’s play “Cardboard Piano,” now occupying the stage at TimeLine Theatre. But all told, this dramatic parable about the intolerance of homosexuality in Uganda limps from adolescent fantasy to a second act that is more contrived than compelling. ★★
Interview: By this point in soprano Nina Stemme’s operatic journey, the high-intensity role of Richard Strauss’ “Elektra” has emerged as a signature piece. Indeed, the Swedish singer and reigning Wagnerian soprano, who currently performs the distraught and vengeful Elektra in her debut with the Lyric Opera of Chicago, all but owns the part. She is the foremost Elektra in the world today, and she embraces the staggeringly difficult role as “the greatest joy” to sing.
Preview: The mid-winter is far from bleak under Chicago’s theater marquees. Steppenwolf offers Lucas Hnath’s “A Doll’s House, Part 2,” a sort of what-if sequel to Ibsen’s play. Lookingglass runs out the premiere of Kareem Bandealy’s ‘Act(s) of God,” a cosmic guess-who’s-coming-to-dinner. And Chicago Shakespeare revisits the Bard’s melancholy prince – ever perched on the existential fence between being and nothingness.
Review: The great power of Richard Strauss’ “Elektra” lies in the transmogrification of a timeless tragedy through harrowing vocal music reinforced by an orchestral score so vivid, so nearly verbal, that it might stand alone as a symphonic drama. The magnificence of Lyric Opera of Chicago’s current production resides in the depth of its humanity – that depth sounded by tremendous vocal performances and orchestral playing, under Donald Runnicles, that is absolutely graphic. ★★★★
Review: If you’re a serious theater buff, go directly to the Northlight schedule of performances for Christina Ham’s “Nina Simone: Four Women,” and find a night that works for you. This disarming play-with-song about the great jazz and blues singer’s conversion to black activist – but more than that, about black women in their skin – is simply not to be missed. ★★★★★
Review: Griffin wants to have a baby. Problem is, he doesn’t even have a girlfriend. He would adopt, but that raises another problem: his criminal record. Well, not strictly a criminal record, but he did a good stretch of time. Griffin’s conundrum is the core, the tease, the red herring of Christina Anderson’s delightful and touching new play “How to Catch Creation,” now in its world premiere run at Goodman Theatre. ★★★★
Review: Anna Ziegler’s play “Photograph 51,” now precisely imaged on stage at Court Theatre, is a high-intensity portrait of Rosalind Franklin, the British scientist who played a key role in discovering the double-helix structure of DNA – but was omitted from the picture when the men around her received the Nobel Prize for that landmark breakthrough. It is, alas, a preachy play, narrow and agenda-driven. ★★★
Review: The latest installment in Ike Holter’s now six-play saga of the fictional Chicago neighborhood of Rightlynd is part social commentary, part inside-theater sendup. From all angles, it is smartly written – provocative, witty and taut. “Red Rex” takes its title from a Rightlynd storefront theater, a struggling enterprise that finally may get over the hump with a compelling new play devised by the company’s resident playwright Lana. Devised, as in borrowed and adapted. There’s the rub. ★★★
Review: No small part of what makes any season at Chicago Shakespeare Theater distinctive and intriguing is its annual bundle of imported shows. The visiting productions are often diminutive and typically off-beat, not just novel but beguilingly imaginative. Two such instances of theater writ small now occupy spaces at CST: “L’après-midi d’un foehn,” literally an air ballet of plastic shopping bags set to Debussy’s music, and “Us/Them,” the perspective of two children on a terrorist invasion of their school. ★★★/★★★
Review: Pops is a retired black New York cop – retired because he got thoroughly shot up by a fellow cop (white) while Pops was off-duty at an unsavory watering hole. But he gets along well enough in his rent-controlled Riverside Drive apartment, which he shares with a son who’s into some shady business and a slow-witted, adoring young ex-con. That’s the frame, the border around the stress points, of Stephen Adly Guirgis’ Pulizer Prize-winning play “Between Riverside and Crazy,” which enjoys a detailed, charged and mesmerizing go-round in the tiny arena that is Redtwist Theatre. ★★★★