By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Hear that? It's the happy hum of satisfied theatergoers enjoying a harmonic convergence of musical theater. At Fair Park you've got a stripped-to-the-beautiful-bones Chicago sporting a jim-dandy cast of singers and dancers—plus Lisa Rinna, a not-so-terrible TV personality. At Theatre Three you have the local premiere of Tony Kushner's Caroline, or Change starring Liz Mikel, a Dallas theater star whose streak of movie and TV roles (she's a regular on NBC's Friday Night Lights) has kept her off the stage for far too long. And at Uptown Players, another regional premiere, tick, tick...BOOM! by Rent composer-lyricist Jonathan Larson, offers three lovely young voices singing grand music on a tiny stage with no fancy trappings.
So let's start there, with the hot cast of tick, tick...BOOM! Joshua Doss co-starred in WaterTower's terrific Urinetown and makes his Uptown debut with this show. Courtney Franklin earns her first leading lady credit after small roles in Uptown's Aida, The Who's Tommy and The Life. And Cedric Neal, who's been a standout in a long list of Uptown productions, including Aida and The Normal Heart, gets to play it, if not straight, then at least more serious than usual. They portray Jon, Susan and Michael, three friends in SoHo in 1990 whose careers and romances hover in states of flux.
The "tick, tick" of the title is the bio-clock inside Jon, a composer on the cusp of his 30th birthday. He yearns to follow Stephen Sondheim into the ranks of great Broadway tunesmiths, but after an eight-year struggle he's still waiting tables. If only he could persuade Sondheim to see the workshop of Superbia, the outer-space musical Jon's hoping will be his key to the kingdom, then maybe, maybe...
Caroline, or Change continues through July 1 at Theatre Three, 214-871-3300.
Chicago continues through June 17 at the Music Hall at Fair Park, 214-631-ARTS.
If that sounds like the life story of tick's composer, well, it is, only with a happier ending. Before he wrote Rent, Larson toyed with Superbia and with material for a biographical solo show, some of which he performed as a monologue with music titled 30:90. That was reworked and renamed Boho Days, and it went nowhere except into a drawer when Larson began work on Rent, his sprawling rock opera adaptation of Puccini's La Bohème.
The rest is history and one of the saddest stories in Broadway lore. On January 25, 1996, the night before the first New York Theater Workshop preview of Rent, Larson, then 35, died of an aortic aneurysm. All of the success he'd wanted was his posthumously, including the 1996 Pulitzer, three Tonys including Best Musical, four Drama Desk Awards, rave reviews and SRO audiences for the Broadway production (now in its 11th year), plus a 2005 film. Only after Rent made Larson the new Sondheim was there interest in tick, tick...BOOM!, which was rediscovered and produced off-Broadway in 2001.
Odd how it all unfolded because, in so many ways, teeny tiny tick's a far better show than Rent. In the little three-hander, Larson's voice as writer-composer is clearer, sweeter, more direct. He writes rippingly clever stuff about the frustrations of being young, creative, ambitious and stuck in neutral. Pop culture references—Ninja Turtles, West Side Story, The Jeffersons, Thriller, Captain Kangaroo, Wizard of Oz—pepper his lyrics. It's more fun and easier to relate to than those noisy kids screeching and sleazing around in Rent.
Tick's score, clicking with pop rhythms and smart rhymes, follows the usual Broadway musical format but also comments on its tired conventions. Many numbers hint at later incarnations. Act 1 begins with "30/90," Jon's angst-filled countdown to his birthday, a parallel to Rent's best-known anthem, "Seasons of Love." "Boho Days," tick's Act 2 opener, sounds like a warm-up for Rent's "La Vie Bohème." There's the requisite seduction ballad, "Green, Green Dress," sung by Susan as she wriggles out of a sexy frock. The intentionally monotonal "Sunday" depicts Jon's boring restaurant job while spoofing the music and staging of Sondheim's Sunday in the Park...The patter song "Therapy" has Susan and Jon singing in funny contrapuntal wordplay (another Sondheimian touch). "Come to Your Senses," Susan's rousing 11 o'clock number (10 o'clock Central Time), is as moving as "Being Alive" or "Everything's Coming Up Roses."
It's all there. What a show.
And what a cast. Directed by Bruce R. Coleman, Uptown's three stars are adorable to look at and listen to. Joshua Doss connects instantly with the audience in Jon's chatty opening dialogue. He's a big baritone, handling Larson's tough melodies and tempos just fine. Cedric Neal may be the best singer-dancer-actor in Dallas theater. No, forget the quibbling; he is. And if Kate Hudson could sing like an angel and had a more voluptuous figure, she could only wish she were Courtney Franklin.
Playing keyboards and leading the four-piece ensemble is musical director Mark Mullino, who also steps into character now and then. He's terrif too.
Tick, tick...BOOM! explodes with talent.
With any lesser talent than Liz Mikel in the lead, the show, directed by Jac Alder, might not be as rewarding as it is at Theatre Three. Mikel plays Caroline Thibodeaux, a 39-year-old black maid working for a Jewish family in Louisiana in November 1963. For $30 a week, she does laundry in a stifling basement where her only companion is 9-year-old Noah Gellman (Chance Jonas-O'Toole), son of the dour musician dad (Stan Graner) whose second wife, Rose (Wendy Welch), is more of a nagging scold than new mom to the boy. To teach Noah a lesson in the value of money, Rose tells Caroline to keep any spare change she finds in the pockets of his dirty dungarees. Soon, the kid is salting the laundry with coins to help Caroline and her three children, a gesture that leads to a blow-up that causes Caroline to quit her job shortly after the assassination of JFK (hey, it's Kushner, who never met a historical theme he didn't exploit).
Mikel works unmiked here, rare for a musical, even in an intimate space. But this woman possesses a soaring, multi-octave voice that plays like a cello. One moment she's roaring down to the low notes, the next she's taking it up to a high soprano whisper. Every syllable is ripe and perfect. And in her strong singing we hear Caroline's weariness and rage. Mikel is giving the performance of her life.
As one of those newfangled shows with a real plot, Caroline depends upon whimsical symbols. There's an anthropomorphized singing moon (Vernicia Vernon), washing machine (Chimberly Carter) and dryer (Paul Doucet). When Caroline turns on the radio to relieve her tedium while ironing, three Supremes-like ladies (Feleceia Benton, Alysha Deslorieux, Sherel Riley) appear. Cute, but that's about all.
The other performance worth noting is Ashley Duplechain as Caroline's teenage daughter Emmie. She gets the final song in the show and while the angry epilogue about civil rights is not a tune you'll leave the theater remembering, you'll have a hard time forgetting the singer.
The star worth seeing is Terra C. MacLeod, playing Velma Kelly, the 1920s vaudeville queen doing time for murder. She's "All That Jazz" and more. Dig how her bare shoulders undulate in that sexy Bob Fosse choreography. As attorney Billy Flynn, Tom Wopat looks a little road-weary, but he's OK. As Roxie Hart, TV soap siren and Dancing With the Stars also-ran Lisa Rinna has half the voice she needs for Broadway (where she goes into Chicago June 19), but she wins the audience with her goofy poses. She's all tits and lips, which works for this show.
For a road show, it's about the best Chicago you could ask for—at least for the Fosse-able future.