Theater Review: Reviewing a week of theater

Four plays in a week…a bit daunting, but the diversity and the common themes give a special meaning to each. Monday’s performance of Josephine Tonight! at the Theatre Building Chicago gave us the opportunity to see many old friends. E. Faye Butler and husband, Bernard, were there as well as Runako Jahi, choreographer Gordon McClure and Executive Director Joan Mazzonelli. Julian Swain was introduced by Artistic Director John Sparks before the show began, and recognized for his first musical theater role in RSVP Broadway. It ran for more than a year, and initiated the musical theater genre that has become the Theatre Building Chicago’s forte.

Josephine Tonight!

A new musical based on the early life of Josephine Baker begins with her days in East St. Louis as a child dancing on the streets for pennies. Melanie McCullough is Josephine, skinny as a rail and dreaming of the future. Mama Carrie toils over the laundry tub and protects Josephine from the locals’ intent on reforming the “Bad Girl.” Monique Whittington as Carrie and later as Bertha, the entrepreneur and blues singer, dominates the show. The intimate theater negates the need for miking, and her voice is perfection.

An original musical by Sherman Yellen and Wally Harper, Josephine recreates a moment in history. The touring shows of the ’20s provide the rare entertainment for black audiences. Senuwell Smith is Father Jones, and Wynter Spears is Mother Jones. They epitomize Black Vaudeville and bring to mind the duo of Butter Beans and Susie. Their raucous performance entices Josephine, and so begins her career.

From the raggedy child to the gowns of Paris, we witness the transformation. Gordon McClure’s choreography works well. His ability to design movement appropriate to the experience of his dancers is that of a true artist.

Playing through March 26, tickets are available at the Theatre Building Chicago, 1225 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago. Box office, (773) 327-5252. Valet parking is available.

Thoroughly Modern Millie

Discovering E. Faye Butler is in the cast of Millie gave us the incentive to drive north to The Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire Wednesday. The jazz-age musical, recently revived on Broadway, engendered touring companies, and the combination of energetic dance, great music and stunning costumes provides audiences an evening of entertaining theater.

Marc Robin returns to the Marriott to direct and choreograph. His list of accomplishments impresses. We first saw his work with Chuck Hoenes at the Clock Tower, and he has gone on to become a national figure. Currently living in Pennsylvania, he still considers Chicago his “home base.” The dancers dominate, and from the jazzy opening to their finale, their energy keeps us on the edge of our seats.

The Hot Mikado, originally adapted in 1937, incorporated the comedy routines of vaudeville. Felicia Fields, now on Broadway in The Color Purple, was Katisha, and her interaction with Ross Lehman was hilarious. Many of the characters in Millie mirror that exaggeration. As Mrs. Meers, Rosalyn Rahn Kerins, disguised as an aging geisha, combines two careers, concierge and white slave trader. Her accomplices, Ching Ho (Dawen Wang) and Bun Foo (Emir Yonzon) speak only Chinese, so their dialogue is streamed on overhead projectors.

But our own E. Faye Butler steals the show. Her arrival on stage as Muzzy Van Hossmere in white satin and black fur would turn Josephine Baker green with envy. “They Don’t Know,” her opening number, takes the show to a whole new level. The audiences love her. The twists and turns of the plot involve kidnappings, failed love affairs, lost and found children, and, of course, happy endings. Tari Kelly is Millie, the innocent who finally finds her dream man.

Nancy Missimi’s spectacular costumes incorporate every detail of the ’20s. The subtle pastels provide the perfect foil for the brilliance of Kerin’s and Butler’s wardrobe.

Millie runs through April 23, so you have plenty of time. Taking the back roads, it’s only an hour from Rockford. Tickets are available through Noreen Heron & Associates at (773) 477-7666 or e-mail,


Friend Runako Jahi invited us to the opening of Kingdom at eta Thursday. Playwright David Emerson Toney bases his work very loosely on Richard III. It is difficult to see the connection. In an interview, he says, “The most important to me are familial issues and the issue of how people can have the same life experience and then choose to interpret it in ways that are unrecognizable to each other.”

Evident in the play are these differences. Ethan Henry is Rickey-Trey York. Disabled by cerebral palsy, he lives an isolated life above the barbecue joint operated by his brothers, Clarence and Eddie-Ray. Complications arise when Lena Santos (Corvet Williams) arrives. Brother Clarence, intent on becoming king, must have an heir, and Lena is the chosen mother. Act I seemed a puzzle. Henry as Rickey-Trey hobbled about the stage evoking some inappropriate laughter. It was not until Act II that some real humor evolved.

Rickey discovers love, and Lena becomes his confidant. There are some tender moments, and all’s well that ends well. Kingdom plays through April 9, at eta Creative Arts Foundation, 7558 S. Chicago, 60619-2644. Tickets—(773) 752-3955.

The Miser

Back in Rockford, Moliere’s The Miser played at Rockford College’s Cheek Theatre. Directed by Martin McClendon, it was on my must-see list. From 2006 back to 1669 is quite a journey, but the comedy of Moliere is timeless. As slapstick as vaudeville, it became the model for intricate dialogue and physical interaction. Derik Marcussen is Harpagon, the Miser. (His wig was provided by costumer Nancy Missimi.) Money is his god. Cleante (James Rodriguez) and Elise (Alexis Martino) are two frustrated children whose love life is impossible when Harpagon takes control.

Valere (Joe Bohn) and Mariane (Kari Orf) are the objects of their affection. The entire play traces the intricacies of pledges, dowries and multiple misunderstandings. Noel Rennerfeldt’s proscenium stage is amazing in Cheek Theatre. It dominated half the house. The sold-out audience filled the rest.

McClendon teaches Rufus Cadigan’s classes while he spends the semester at Regent College in London. McClendon continues to act, direct and design sets. We are so glad he made the decision to return to the Midwest. Next at Rockford College—Urinetown, the Musical, playing April 27-29 in Maddox Theatre. Tickets are available at 226-4100. See you there.

From the March 8-14, 2006, issue

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