Fiddler on the Roof

If I were a rich man, I would pay the many kopecks needed for front row tickets to Fiddler on the Roof. Still, I was able to scrape together enough coin for a pair of seats. This was the second Russia themed show of the season, after Anastasia. Do I detect collusion? Theater tickets coincident with the SOTU was a blessing.

Fiddler debuted in 1964. I’d seen it before, both the movie and live at the Muny. This musical tells the story of Russian-Jewish shtetl life at the dawn of the 20th-century, through everyman protagonist, Tevye, a dairy man. Blessed with five daughters, their marriage prospects are a central theme. A good-natured man, he finds himself on the cusp of change and trapped between tradition and the new ideas. His conversations with God punctuate his daily travails.

I enjoyed hearing all of the old songs again (Matchmaker, If I were a Rich Man and Sunrise, Sunset) and the dance numbers were well performed. The one where the dancers balanced bottles on their heads was amazing. Everything about this show was well done. Still, unlike other recent revivals, this one did not break any new ground. Other revivals have cranked up their production values, adding a new measure of gilt. Fiddler fitting its often somber tableau was more muted, especially its lighting, which was too dark. 

Accompanying this post is a video created by Justin Barr. This movie shows a drone fly through of the Fox theater. It highlights this theater’s gorgeous faux Siamese-Byzantine décor, especially the glowing orb at the auditorium’s apex. The Fabulous Fox theater is celebrating its 90th anniversary this year, with among other things, ninety cent candy bars at the concession stand.

Alabama Story

Alabama Story Program Cover

Date night, with dinner and a show, at Cyrano’s and the Rep. The evening’s entertainment was a play called Alabama Story. Set in 1950s Montgomery, it is in part based upon historical events. A children’s book, The Rabbits’ Wedding, caught the eye and ire of segregationists, because it told the story of two rabbits, a black male rabbit and a white female rabbit who fell in love with each other and married. Racists claimed that the book promoted miscegenation.

The historical half of this story centers on the conflict between Alabama’s head librarian, Emily Wheelock Reed and state representative E. O. Eddins. Eddins claimed that Reed “put stock in racial incorporation” and demanded that “This book and many others should be taken off the shelves and burned.” As a result, the library system banned the book from all libraries in Alabama. Reed, enjoyed the book, but complied to the extent that she moved it from general circulation and put it on reserve, available upon request. This made the book still accessible and thus was not a complete ban of the book. She explained, “We have had difficulty with the book, but we have not lost our integrity.” Before the year was over Eddins again found fault with Reed, who had distributed a reading list that included various controversial titles including a Martin Luther King, Jr. book.

Parallel to these historical events and mirroring the underlying children’s book, the play also tells the story of two fictional characters, a black man and a white woman. Their conversations, in chance encounters on Montgomery’s streets, recounts their shared childhood history. Playmates, while their mothers worked together in the kitchen of “the big house”, their friendship ended one day, when she innocently kissed her friend. He and his family were forced to move away. They meet again in Montgomery, because she is in town to care for her dying father, while he is in town as a civil rights worker. Through their conversations, their childhood friendship is rekindled. 

Anastasia

Matryoshka Dolls

Winslow’s Home was a new to us restaurant that Dan steered us by as we took him to the airport. It’s title is a one-off attribute to the painter Homer Winslow. It is located on Delmar, west of the Loop, in U City. I did not see any other references to Homer, but I didn’t do much exploring either. I felt rushed, what with Dan’s takeoff deadline, but everything worked out alright. We had enough time for the meal, Dan got to the airport on time and we made it to the Fox early. We’ll have to return there, when we have more time. 

The night’s musical was Anastasia. I was expecting another Disney cartoon to stage adaptation, like Aladdin, the previous show in this series. I was mistaken. There were no Disney princesses here. Anastasia the youngest daughter of Czar Nicholas, was rumored to have survived the execution by the communists that befell the rest of her family in 1918. The first act is set in St. Petersburg, then Leningrad. It is now 1927 and two ne’er-do-well grifters are hatching a scheme to swindle the Romanov empress dowager, still living in Paris, if only they can find the right girl to impersonate Anastasia.

In Anya they find such a girl. Unfortunately, she has amnesia. Beyond character introductions and story setting, most of the first act consists of a My Fair Lady like tutelage, where Anya is uncannily adept. Coincidences continue to pileup with the recovery of a missing heirloom music box, a pursuing commissar, the son of the Romanov firing squad’s commander and even the two grifters have imperial connections. The second act is set in Paris and involves Anya meeting with the dowager queen and resolves all the different identity issues.

One interesting aspect of this show was its sets. They are a combination of conventual 3D sets and 2D photographic projections. The introduction of video into theater is a trend that has been developing for some time. In Anastasia this trend reaches its most comprehensive use yet, with full stage projections. This technique is most effective when used as a moving backdrop behind 3D sets, like through the floor to ceiling glass windows of the palace. I liked the sensation of motion that it gave on the train ride from Russia to Paris. Anne found this use to be too repetitive, but if you consider the alternative, without it, the scene would have been much less exciting. Think of it as CGI for the stage.

A Christmas Story

A Christmas Story

We went out on a cold and rainy night to see this year’s Christmas production at the Rep. The holiday movie, “A Christmas Story” is a perennial classic that can be found every year on 24 hour TBS rotation. Like many a Broadway show these days, it has also been recast as a musical. The Rep’s production is similar to all these other vehicles, feeding off of the same source material, but is also different. 

Just not very much. While, not as redundant as yet another production of “A Christmas Carol” would be, this retelling lacked any spontaneity. Everyone was all too familiar with this story. The half-full house sat mostly silent throughout the first act, before warming slightly like leftovers in the second. Symbolic of this rehashed holiday offering is Ralphie’s too often repeated line, describing his long sought gift, “A Red Ryder BB gun with a compass in the stock, and this thing which tells time.” The thingy was a sundial, which was funny once, but not so much after the umpteenth recitation. 

I understand that the annual Christmas pageant, with its accompanying revenue stream is a foundation for any company’s balance sheet. We’ve been season ticket holders long enough to know that next year’s inevitably edgier first show will draw only a fraction of this production’s house, but picking such a “safe” choice seems to have backfired this year. The Rep seems to have gotten more conservative over the years. Its ill-fated Off-Ramp series seems like the last time that it has boldly struck out. To bad the Great Recession killed that spirit. I’m not suggesting a return of “M. Butterfly,” but a little more adventurousness would be welcomed. Here is a suggestion. Next Christmas please bring back “Inspecting Carol.” I would enjoy seeing again this wickedly funny Dickens’ satire and unlike the current offering, I promise that I’ve only seen it once. 

Aladdin

Jafar at the Fox

Aladdin at the Fox, where better to see this Disney-fied stage incantation of that vaguely middle eastern cartoon turned musical than at the Fabulous Fox, what with its faux Siamese Byzantine architectural motif. Turn around and even the walls have the image of the villain Jafar staring back at you. Look out! Never has the combination of venue and performance been better matched. Faux décor meets fake Arabian Nights. Still, something magical occurred on stage. This is easily the best production in our going on three-year tenure at the Fox, rivaled only by that American history lesson, Hamilton.

Aladdin has everything. It has production values out the wazoo. It has so many dance numbers that the cast must have trained first at Broadway boot camp. I got worn out just watching them dance and dance and dance. Then there are the witty asides, but most of all there is the genie. Every musical needs such a genie.

The gallery above is of show posters for Aladdin. They appeared in display cases, in front of the theater. Reflections off of the glass had to be lived with.

The two big production numbers, at least for me, were a “Friend Like Me,” in which Aladdin is introduced to the genie. In the movie Robin Williams did his schtick. Here we have an equally inventive send up to American pop culture that features references to Oprah, Let’s Make a Deal and Chorus Line. just to name a few. Who could resist gold lamé dancers sprouting fezzes instead of top hats? This song closed out the first act and in my opinion was the high point of the show. The other song I loved was “A Whole New World”, especially with its magic carpet ride. I couldn’t see any mechanism, even with binoculars. 

On the way out, we trailed a mother, with her small daughter. I asked the girl, which did she liked better, the movie or the musical. She was undecided. So, maybe I’m being too effusive in my praise of this show? I’m way sure that I’ve seen more musicals than she has. Yet, I’m sure she has seen the movie more often than I have. I’d go see the musical again. I’m not so sure about the movie.

A Doll’s House, Part 2

Doll’s House, Part 2 Cast

A Doll’s House, Part 2, written by Lucas Hnath, is a sequel to Henrik Ibsen’s famous play by the same name. We went to see it, Thursday. A group discussion followed the performance. At the conclusion of which, the cast, Tina Johnson (Anne-Marie), Caralyn Kozlowski (Nora), Andrea Abello (Emmy) and Michael James Reed (Torvald) agreed to a photo.

This play begins fifteen years after Nora famously shut-the-front-door, while walking out on her husband and children. Having never heard from her since, the household is surprised to find that first she is not dead, but instead wildly successful (She has become a women’s writer.), as she walks back into their lives through that same door. She has again run afoul of Norway’s repressive 19th-century laws and needs a divorce to make things right.

The play’s bleak set telegraphs the message that the past fifteen years have not been kind to the Helmer household, with chairs stacked in the corner and only the shadows of paintings that once hung on the walls. The actors were attired in period finery, particularly Nora, who’s costume we learned later was both heavy and hot. The play’s dialog is written in contemporary language, replete with the use of four letter words.

In addition to Ibsen’s original characters, Anne-Marie the housekeeper, Nora the wife and husband Torvald, Hnath introduces daughter Emmy. In the original play, three year-old Emmy’s was only a mute walk-on part. In this sequel she is a grown women, as willful as Nora, but unwilling to flout conventions as her mother did. Reproach is the order of the day that greets Nora upon her return. Anne-Marie is resentful that having once raised Nora, she is then left to raise her children. Torvald was deeply wounded by her act and still feels aggrieved and  Emmy would prefer to have nothing to do with the mother who abandoned her.

Ibsen’s play was a forerunner of what we now call #MeToo. In-between these points, women’s rights has enjoyed successes from the suffragettes to the feminists, but as Michael James Reed’s pictured “I Believe Her” button attests, there is still much work yet to be done. It is good to see a pioneer like Nora brought forward into the 21st-century, to continue on the struggle.