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Chicago Spotlight: October 2008
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All Over the Map

This Beautiful City in Los Angeles, Dirty Dancing in Chicago, and The Toxic Avenger in New Brunswick, NJ.

Stephen Plunkett, Brad Heberlee, and Emily Ackerman
in This Beautiful City
(© Craig Schwartz)
Stephen Plunkett, Brad Heberlee, and Emily Ackerman
in This Beautiful City
(© Craig Schwartz)
"What's going on in the Evangelical communities in America is very important politically and culturally to what's going on in America generally," says Michael Friedman, the composer for The Civilians' This Beautiful City, now playing the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Los Angeles (and which is scheduled to be produced by New York's Vineyard Theatre next year). The piece is culled from and inspired by a series of interviews that the New York-based avant-garde troupe conducted in Colorado Springs in 2006. "We couldn't have picked a better place to do this project than there, partly because of the way the community works, and partly because while we were there was such an explosive time."

A large part of that explosiveness had to do with the Reverend Ted Haggard, who was ousted from his pulpit at the New Life Church in November of that year after admitting to having sex with a male prostitute. The scandal is part of the Civilians' play, but Friedman says that it's used "as a kind of catalyst event, rather than the main story. We would've followed New Life anyway, no matter what happened."

Friedman's songs are almost all based on the interviews themselves, and incorporate some of the actual language used, while also spanning various musical styles including cowboy songs, worship rock, and country & western. "I don't know any other group that uses music quite as dogmatically as a tool for its documentary theater," he says. "The music stylizes the situation and shows we're taking liberties with the text. We're trying to capture something real from the experience artistically, not only holding up a mirror, but also trying to say something."

The message of This Beautiful City, however, varies depending on who you talk to, says Friedman. "Different audiences read this piece differently," he notes. "While there are certain things we want to get across, we also want to leave some of the questions raised open. Different people come in with different perceptions, and rather than try to create a show in which everyone has the same reaction, we tried to embrace that."

-- Dan Bacalzo

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A scene from the London production of Dirty Dancing
(© David Scheinmann)
A scene from the London production of Dirty Dancing
(© David Scheinmann)

While theatergoers are increasingly being presented with musical stage adaptations of films from the not-too-distant cinematic past, Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story on Stage, now getting its American premiere at Chicago's Cadillac Palace Theater, is different than many of its predecessors, explains director James Powell. "It is not a conventional musical by any stretch; it's a play with music," he notes. Still, the show, which concerns a sheltered teenager who falls for a more worldly dancer at her parents' Catskills resort, definitely lives up to its title. "The dancing is breathtaking," he says.

As with any stage adaptation, the audience's expectations must be taken into account, notes Powell, speaking of his biggest challenge. "In my position, I'm either accused of being too literal or depriving the audience of what they anticipate," he states. "That's a very fine line to tread. There are moments in the play where we use our technology in an abstract fashion because we can't do a literal translation right to stage. You have to guide your audience deftly through that, yet you also have to honor what the audience is expecting and add to that experience as opposed to diluting it."

Powell, who is British and helmed the show's London production, has now changed a few things that were specifically created for the European audience -- which was not familiar with the American iconography surrounding a summer in the Catskills. "Here, you would be browbeating your audience and insulting their intelligence if you left that in." he says. In fact, he points to a similar situation with a musical in which he appeared as an actor. "When Les Miserables opened in France, they did it without the prologue. It was such a famous book there," he says. "The prologue was only added to help an audience that wasn't French."

-- Zachary Stewart

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Joe DiPietro
(© Carol Rosegg)
Joe DiPietro
(© Carol Rosegg)

When Joe DiPietro decided to adapt The Toxic Avenger, the independent film favorite about a mutant with his sights on cleaning up New Jersey's most heinous polluters, into a musical -- now getting its world premiere at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, New Jersey -- he turned to his former Memphis collaborator and Bon Jovi guitarist David Bryan. "David is one of the funniest people I know, but he also writes real rock-n-roll songs you could play on the radio and he puts them in a theatrical context," says DiPietro.

In keeping with the movie's plot, the musical centers around a love story between the avenger -- once Melvin and now Toxie -- and a blind librarian he saves from the hands of criminals. "My first thought was that I wanted the play to be as low-budget as the movie," says DiPietro. "So we wrote a five-character piece with two actors as the lovers, a woman playing the dual role of the evil mayor and Toxie's mother, and two guys playing 20 other roles."

DiPietro, who is best known as the author of I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change, made sure he and Bryan wove a more serious layer into their musical. "It's an out-and-out comedy, but there's also a message of global warming underneath," he says. "We really tried to keep the spirit of The Toxic Avenger alive."

-- Tristan Fuge


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