Friday, March 21, 2008

Essentially Sweet


The Essentials present...

A Challenge for the Actor
written, performed and presumably directed by
David Hornreich, Johnny Mineo, Nick McMann and Pete Lopez

Gorilla Tango Theatre
1919 North Milwaukee
Chicago, IL
Wednesdays at 8pm
(final show March 26th)
box office: (773) 598-4549

Drury Lane presents...

Sweet Charity
book by Neil Simon, music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Dorothy Fields
Directed by Jim Corti

Drury Lane Theatre Oakbrook
100 Drury Lane
Oakbrook, Terrace
Runs through May 18th
Box Office: (630) 530-0111

On Wednesday night, I went to Gorilla Tango in Chicago to see a sketch revue by The Essentials called A Challenge for the Actor. On Thursday evening, I saw the musical Sweet Charity at Drury Lane in Oakbrook Terrace. This, my friends, was the range of Chicago(land) theater done in two nights. Both productions have admirable qualities to them, and while I don't wholeheartedly recommend either, I do think they could learn from one another. If it were possible to have Sweet Charity sit down and have some coffee with The Essentials, I think both would be better for the experience.

Gorilla Tango is a small storefront theater in Bucktown. A small bar-slash-box office when you first walk in, bathrooms to the right, and then a tiny theater that seats about 60, maybe less. The stage is a small platform surrounded by bare brick walls and an exit to the rear of the stage. Can't miss it. It's the only way in or out for the actors. And, in case of an emergency, there's a huge lit EXIT sign above the door. Technically, the sound system is tinny and the stage light options are "on" or "off." A small curtain, lacking all qualities for soundproofing, separates the front of the house from the theatre.

Drury Lane is massive. It doubles as a conference center. There's a full bar and catering services. The theater, while large, is as intimate as it can be. I would guess it seats four or five hundred. There's a huge parking lot and garage there. Valet service, if you want it. Walking in, you are assaulted by an ocean of plush red carpeting, red walls, chandeliers and marble statues. It looks like it was decorated by the wife of a mobster in the 1970s. The stage is huge, has an orchestra pit, and a fancy lighting system that treats us to the title of the play floating in and out and over a scrim as you walk in.

Both environments work for what they are. And I felt very welcomed and taken care of in both places. The staff is very friendly. The staff, at Gorilla Tango, being Dan and the staff at Drury Lane being any number of folks walking around in a red sports coat.

The Essentials put on a sketch revue. It was rough. It was hard to tell when scenes were over. Transitions were clunky. They were often done in silence with the lights up full and the actors seeming unsure where to put their chairs or even what scene was coming up next. The scenes themselves were interesting most of the time, but could use tightening and heightening. It felt awkward and there were times when the audience clearly didn't know whether or not to clap after a scene. This is where they could learn a thing or two from Sweet Charity.

Sweet Charity is a musical from the mid-'60s and it definitely demonstrates the growing pains musicals were going through at the time on Broadway. Trying to remain true to their roots while begrudgingly acknowledging the big changes going on in the world. It is a slight story that is merely an excuse for a song and dance revue. There are several numbers that do absolutely nothing to forward the story, such as it is. In the hands of Bob Fosse, the original director, this would be a blast. Here, the weak story shows its age with a cast that is bright, but unable to rise above the script. What they do know, and know well, is how to technically work the audience. I don't mean that in any false way. I simply mean that the actors know when to hold a pose, the director knows when to raise music and shift lights all to allow opportunities for the audience to applaud. It's an invitation. The Essentials don't know yet how to take care of their audience in this way.

Where Sweet Charity lets us in on what's going on by befriending the audience, The Essentials leave us hanging. Their title is A Challenge to the Actor, but why? On their website, they mention their show is "a sketch play in four movements." There was no mention of that at the show and, even in retrospect, I have no idea what they mean. There were no programs at the show. Even if that concept is explained in a program, it should be able to stand on its own in the performance. What The Essentials do well is cover territory in ways that other groups haven't, or don't. My favorite scene takes place on an L train when a regular guy just starts chatting with another guy. Seems like a cool situation, until the one guy starts dropping verbal bombs that show his acute bigotry. It's nicely done and not overplayed. Their material is original and not derivative of other sketch groups or smacking of being a thinly veiled audition for MADtv or SNL. These guys are finding their own unique voice. This is what Sweet Charity can learn from The Essentials.

Sweet Charity is a musical stuck in 1966 trying to appeal to an audience from 1956. Where director Jim Corti fails is in not seizing the opportunity to take this dinosaur and make it his comany's own. What they have put up is a functional representation of Sweet Charity. There are some good moments and some good laughs, but it never grabs the musical, or the audience, by the balls. Without that vital energy, we just see a series of scenes from the life of Sweet Charity that don't amount to much.

The Essentials has potential, but they need to work on their performance skills. Especially when it comes to music. Applying some of the showmanship and craftsmanship from Sweet Charity, these guys could be unstoppable. Sweet Charity needs to break out of its constructs and bring the talent and skills of its ensemble to bear. We need more of these actors and less of the ghosts of Broadway.

One technical thing: There's a scene in Sweet Charity in the second act where the two leads are stuck in a ride at Coney Island at night. They are up in the air and the sky is full of stars. Note to Jesse Klug, the lighting designer - Dude! What the fuck? Are you trying to blind people with stars? They got even brighter as the scene went on. I could barely see the actors because the stars were so frickin' bright. Tone it down, would ya?


Even though this is Easter weekend, we are still meeting. Hey, Jesus died on a Friday and rose on a Sunday. Saturday was his down time. So, come join us. 1pm at Gorilla Tango, 1919 North Milwaukee, $5. Bring a scene to read or just come to get some ideas.


On Wednesday, I asked...

"On his 90th birthday, author Arthur C. Clarke made three wishes; for man to kick his oil habit, for peace in Sri Lanka and for what?"

10% said "Another film sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey"
- That dream died with Roy Sheider, alas. Just kidding. I have no idea. I make this shit up.

40% said "Another ten years"
- He didn't. I would. Might as well go for triple digits.

No one said "Man to walk on Mars"
- He was more into Jupiter.

50% got it right with "ET to call"

According to The Times, marking his “90th orbit of the Sun” in December, the author said that he did not feel "a day over 89" and made three birthday wishes: for ET to call, for man to kick his oil habit and for peace in Sri Lanka. Rest in peace, sir.

Here's a picture from 2001: A Space Odyssey that was shot in the lobby of Drury Lane.