Bailiwick Chicago at Victory Gardens Biograph Theater. Music and lyrics by Michael John LaChiusa. Book by LaChiusa and George C. Wolfe. Directed by Brenda Didier. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 45mins; no intermission.
Theater review by Kris Vire
Michael John LaChiusa's 1999 musical jazzes up Joseph Moncure March's Jazz Age narrative poem about a "sexually ambitious" vaudeville dancer, her jealous blackface-comedian lover and the night of bathtub-gin-soaked debauchery they host. (It's not to be confused with Andrew Lippa's same-named musical based on the same poem, which, confusingly enough, premiered in New York in the same season as LaChiusa's did.)
Bailiwick Chicago's new production, directed and choreographed by Brenda Didier, is quite the raucous fete: Featuring white-hot performances from the likes of Danni Smith, Matthew Keffer and Sharriese Hamilton and tight musical direction by Aaron Benham, this stirring, sexy staging might be a new high-water mark for the company that rose from the ashes of the old Bailiwick Rep.
Smith plays Queenie, the (probably bottle) blonde whose "age stood still / and she danced twice a day in the vaudeville," with Keffer as her violent boyfriend Burrs. Fittingly, LaChiusa and George C. Wolfe, the original director and book co-writer, break up much of the nearly sung-through evening into presentational, vaudeville-style scenes; as Burrs suggests a party to end a Sunday-morning row with Queenie, the guests are introduced one by one (or two by two, as the case may be) as if in a parade.
There's Dolores Montoya (Danielle Brothers), the aging diva; Phil and Oscar D'Armano (Gilbert Domally and Desmond Gray), a double act who are either brothers or lovers, or both; "ambisextrous" hustler Jackie (Ryan Lanning); and Burrs's producers, Gold (Jason Richards) and Goldberg (Jason Grimm), who he hopes will take him with them to the Broadway theater they're buying uptown, among many others.
And then there's Kate (Hamilton), Queenie's best frenemy forever, who shows up with a handsome young gigolo named Black (Patrick Falcon) who takes a quick shine to Queenie. (That costume designer Theresa Ham outfits Black and Queenie in complementary black-and-white suggests where this is going, and Burrs won't be happy about it.)
Didier handily manages traffic for the 15 actors, most of whom remain on the Richard Christiansen Theater's small stage through most of the show, so that it feels intimate but never overcrowded, with scenic designer Megan Truscott clearly delineating multiple playing spaces (her set also comes with a very nifty reveal, for a theater at this budget level, as we're transported from vaudeville stage to Harlem apartment).
Dark-eyed Keffer uses the show's Brechtian stylization to his advantage in tracing Burrs's increasingly detached rage. Brothers can't fully escape aping the vocal tics of Eartha Kitt, who originated her role, but Dolores was so clearly written to Kitt's unique locutions you can't really blame her.
If Hamilton and Falcon's characters are perhaps a bit lightly sketched, the actors wring strong impressions out of them. And Smith, who's impressed in a number of roles here and at Theo Ubique in recent years, delivers her best work yet in a flinty, honest (and gorgeously sung) portrayal of a woman who can't quite convince herself she deserves better than she has.
In fact, I'd be hard pressed to name a weak link or moment in this this dazzlingly debauched production. Get your tickets now; this is a party you don't want to be late for.