The 2000-2001 Chicago theater season is off and running at a gallop, with no fewer than 30 openings in September, not counting Lyric Opera of Chicago and briefly seen visiting attractions such as one week of Penn & Teller. The October schedule holds another two dozen openings so far...and still counting. The only major theater company that has not begun its season is the Goodman, which will wait until December 11 to officially inaugurate not only the season, but the company's brand-new $46 million theater complex in the heart of the North Loop Theatre District. By the time mid-summer rolls around and "the season"--which really extends 12 months now--briefly slows down, Chicago will have seen some 700 plays, musicals, revues, and special theatrical attractions.

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The Ballad of Little Jo

David New and Judy Kuhnin The Ballad of Little Jo(Photo: Michael Brosilow)
David New and Judy Kuhn
in The Ballad of Little Jo
(Photo: Michael Brosilow)

Steppenwolf Theatre Company opened its 25th anniversary season with its first-ever musical (though the troupe has done numerous plays with live incidental music and songs, such as the Tony Award winning The Grapes of Wrath and Nomazemba with Ladysmith Black Mambazo). This is the world premiere of The Ballad of Little Jo by Mike Reid and Sarah Schlesinger, directed by Tina Landau. The result is intellectually interesting and has considerable musical appeal, but is decidedly uneven.

The Ballad of Little Jo is a heavily fictionalized account of the life of Josephine Monaghan, who died in 1903 in the frontier mining town of Silver City, Idaho. She had lived as a man, Jo Monaghan, for decades; her true gender was revealed only through an autopsy at her death. Set in the third quarter of the 19th Century, the musical creates Little Jo's back story, including a late-blooming, brief love interest and a catastrophic end all quite unrelated to the few facts in the case.

It seems that Reid, Schlesinger, and Landau do not want to tell a story so much as to explore issues of role-playing, gender identification, and the place of women in an earlier age, all seen through a decidedly modern lens. To that end, they have built an overwhelming case to drive Jo into men's clothes at the tender age of 17: She is seduced and abandoned by a married man in her native Boston, left with a child out of wedlock (who is taken from her by her sister), driven from the house, and sent West by her unyielding father, robbed of her money and ticket on the train, thrown off the train at Silver City, and repeatedly raped by two former Union soldiers turned thugs. And that's just the first 20 minutes of the show!

Things slow down after that (they have to), and the next 15 years slip quickly by as Jo makes "his" way in Silver City as a general store partner with former miner Jordan Ellis and his wife, Sarah, both of whom come to love Jo and to depend on him in their own particular ways. Deep into the second act--just minutes before the end of the show, in fact--Jo's secret life unravels, tied up with a (historical) racist subplot involving the handful of local Chinese citizens left over from the building of the railroads. One of these, Tin Man Wong, all too briefly and quickly becomes Jo's lover, but not before she sings one of the show's best songs (the ballad "Unbuttoning the Buttons") as she strips off her male garments.

Until the point where Jo and Tin Man become lovers, Jo is a hard, cold, emotionally closed individual who works hard, lives his life, asks nothing of anyone, takes little that is offered and gives nothing. In the second act, Jordan and Sarah sing praises to Jo ("Where Would I Be?"), in which they say he has made their lives complete. But we never once see the type of warm and generous behavior of which they sing, and that is the great dramatic and structural problem of this show: there is no emotional center, because the principal character is emotionally bottled up far too long. The passion comes at the wrong moment, when it finally comes.

Tina Landau--whose last musical project, Floyd Collins, also dealt with historic, rural Americana in a folkloric way--has cast The Ballad of Little Jo brilliantly, with a fine mix of New York and Chicago talent. And she's made the show clear, strong, and polished but without Broadway glitz. Unfortunately, she has all but denied the show choreography through a handsome but overwhelmingly restrictive unit set that quite literally stacks up the sloping hills and slag piles of the old mining town before us (scenic by G. W. Mercier, lighting by Scott Zielinski). This is a dumbfounding choice in a show that cries for more expansive movement and dance--for example, to express the interior feelings of the so often silent Little Jo.

Jessica Boevers and Judy Kuhnin The Ballad of Little Jo(Photo: Michael Brosilow)
Jessica Boevers and Judy Kuhn
in The Ballad of Little Jo
(Photo: Michael Brosilow)
Reid and Schlesinger's score, beautifully played by an eight-piece band, makes particularly strong use of woodwinds (orchestrations by Don Sebesky) and contains a half-dozen first-rate songs, including "I See Heaven," "There Is This Man," "Hi-Lo-Hi," and Tin Man's anthem "Listen to the Rain" as well as the songs already mentioned. Much of the rest sounds familiar, derived from familiar folk music sources such as Scotts-Irish dance tunes with occasional dips into anthem territory or nods towards Copland and/or Sondheim. It's pleasant, tuneful, and generally effective music, but not sufficiently powerful or original to wipe away the character issues. The lyrics are sound and appropriate and occasionally poetic, but rarely inspired and never witty. While The Ballad of Little Jo is not a musical comedy in the narrow sense, it sure could use some comic relief.

Judy Kuhn as Little Jo, David New and Jessica Boevers as Jordan and Sarah Ellis, and Jose Llana as Tin Man all excel. (One wishes that Llana's role could be expanded, as he has only one song.) They are very capably supported by an ensemble of 14. The Ballad of Little Jo continues at Steppenwolf through November 11.

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Morning, Noon and Night

The Chicago Theatre Company (CTC), one of our leading African-American troupes, launches its 17th season with a vigorous production of a play with two minds. The CTC bills Ted Shine's Morning, Noon and Night as a "hilarious comedy-fantasy," and much of the crisp staging by Luther Goins indicates that this is a wild satire on family melodrama with Holy Roller overtones--but not all of it. Clues that it's okay to laugh at the goings-on in this dysfunctional rural Texas household disappear as the play draws to a murderous finale.

The story concerns a turf war between the grandmother and the hard-working aunt (from the other side of the family) of a intellectually and sexually precocious 13 year-old boy. Both women claim ownership of the ramshackle farmhouse where the play is set, and both contend for the boy's heart and mind. Despite the physical limitations of a wooden leg (which she paints white), Granny is a vicious and vengeful Baptist with a dark past. Also present is an itinerant preacher woman/whore, who is very interested in the developing "talents" of the boy. A kind-of Afro-centric Tobacco Road, this play has a story that is not self-apparently funny, but and therefore requires exaggeration in performance.

Such exaggeration is present on occasion. The preacher woman, for example, appears just once and has no influence at all on the plot. Technically, that's bad playwriting; But as portrayed by debrah neal (sic) and costumed by Karen L. Wells with an enormous padded bosom, Sister Sue Willie Hollis is a truly comic cameo role. There's fun, too, with some shtick involving glossolalia (speaking in tongues)and a few soap opera-type bits. But the comic tone needs further extension, and needs to grow in size as the play moves on.

There's certainly no lack of energy on the part of the actors, including Sandra Watson as the bread-winning aunt, Cynthia Maddox as the acidic and cagey grandmother, and James Randle III as the boy. Only 14, Randle has stage presence and focus; he could be the next Harry J. Lennix if he broadens his live theater experience and continues to improve his voice and movement skills. This young actor holds his own against the sharp portrayals and strong voices of Watson, Maddox, and neal.

Scenic designer Robert C. Martin's weather-beaten plank farmhouse is quite effective; its platforms are skewed as in a cartoon, suggesting the twisted sisters within. Property designer Peter Lamar Chatman lavishly trims the set with semi-antique kitchen appliances appropriate to the rural poor of 40 years ago. Morning, Noon and Night runs through October 22.

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The Gambit

Local author Peter Toran's The Gambit is a contrived and improbable play. But is it a good contrived and improbable play?

Rudolf Hess, once Deputy Fuhrer of the Third Reich and a Nazi Party leader, spent 46 years as a prisoner of the World War II allies. For his last 21 years--he died at 93, in 1987--Hess was the sole inmate of Spandau Prison, a German penitentiary that once housed over 600 Nazi war criminals, all of whom Hess outlived. Set in 1969, The Gambit is a two-character play about the relationship between Hess and a fictitious Soviet guard. (Remember, the Soviet Union was our ally in World War II.)

As its title suggests, The Gambit uses chess as a device and a metaphor for the game of strategy played by prisoner and guard, who become more and more enmeshed in each other's lives and psyches. In real life, such a relationship would most likely not have happened, which makes the play improbable. Toran also eliminates obvious sticking points, such as the language barrier, which makes the play contrived. That being said, he's constructed a good cat-and-mouse game. The power shifts between the characters engage and surprise the audience, while the personal stakes for Hess and his guard rise as the play progresses. In short, The Gambit is highly theatrical.

But the piece offers little insight about the historic Hess, other than some expository details of his life and career. The prisoner and guard at the heart of the play are generic. This is regrettable, given the curious historic ambiguities of Hess's character and actions, which mystified even Winston Churchill. Also, Toran ends the play with a visual punchline of sorts that will be pointless unless viewers have read the program notes.

The play is helped immeasurably by the crafty performances of versatile pros William J. Norris as Hess and Steven Rishard as the guard under the assured and light-handed direction of Steve Scott, who knows how to edit and pace but also when to stay out of the way. Norris is a master of the cynical smile, the sinister frown, and the humanizing tear in the eye, moving from one to another in an effortless moment. Rishard is equally at home as the stolid, keenly observant, self-serving guard.

The two actors play their scenes within Geoffrey M. Curley's seemingly rock-solid, realistic prison setting, which provides a bold sense of place and atmosphere. Lighting designer Donald Albert Hood helps, too, finding subtle variations in what is, basically, a lights up-lights down situation. The Gambit closed on October 15 at the Theatre Building.