Goodman Theatre

Growing up in Chicago in the 1950s, I had my first encounter with overt, unabashed racism at Riverview, the landmark amusement park at Belmont and Western. There, amid the roller coasters and carousels and fun houses and freak shows, was an attraction officially known as the Bozo game but commonly referred to as “Dunk the Nigger.” A man would sit on a wooden board over a tank of water and urge passersby to throw baseballs at a target; if the ball hit a bull’s-eye, the man would fall in. Originally the man sitting over the water was a clown who’d razz kids with silly jokes, but sometime in the 1930s someone got the idea to replace the clowns with black men, dressed in overalls, who would assail white customers with a barrage of racial and sexual taunts. The more pissed off the whites got, the more money they spent on baseballs.

Seemingly incongruous in a family fun park, this vicious game in fact epitomized Riverview, whose rides and games all exploited visceral sensation for profit. A visit to Riverview was an experience dotted with exhilarating highs and crashing lows, the natural result of frequent short spurts of stimulation. That’s the feeling that Goodman Theatre’s Riverview: A Melodrama With Music seeks to evoke. To a great extent it succeeds: Riverview is often enormously entertaining and imaginative, though also too manipulative and cluttered for its own good.

Director Robert Falls and playwright John Logan, who share credit for creating this new work, draw from a smorgasbord of inspirations, including 19th-century melodrama, 1930s movie musicals and gangster flicks, 1940s film noir, 1970s concept musicals, and the work of British filmmaker Dennis Potter (Pennies From Heaven, The Singing Detective) as well as Riverview Park itself (which closed down in 1967 after 63 years). Their themes include the decay of post-World War II optimism, the evils of drug addiction, and the rise of black self-determination in Chicago politics; these are depicted in broad, sometimes inaccurate strokes. Yet there’s something exhilarating about Riverview’s ambition; even when it fails, it does so on a grand scale. And in the many moments when it rises to the occasion it’s a joy to watch.

In general, Riverview’s high points are musical. The production’s early workshops were devoted to creating a narrative structure from some 20 jazz and pop standards of the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s, and the result is strong and clever. Around such songs as “Chicago,” “Satin Doll,” “Mood Indigo,” and “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams,” Logan and Falls have created a trio of intertwining stories concerning two GIs–an African American named Robert and an Irish American named Warren–and Warren’s sister Dolly, a singer on Riverview’s “Melody Magic” stage, and her on-and-off affair with Jake, a con man who works the fringes of the park. These and other characters are established in a series of wonderful numbers: a buoyant tap duet (“I Can’t Believe That You’re in Love With Me”) for Warren and his fiancee Susan; an ironically robotic “Ain’t We Got Fun,” in which Jake defuses racial tension with a show of false friendliness; a powerful contrapuntal arrangement of “Cry Me a River” and “Blue Skies” for Dolly and Robert; and a comic-grotesque rendition of “Where or When” by a cadre of sideshow freaks.

Logan complements these period classics with stylized dialogue amalgamated from Nelson Algren, Damon Runyon, Raymond Chandler, and P.T. Barnum. (“They got faith,” says one character of the rest. “That and a nickel will get you once around the Bobs.”) But the script is so artificial that the plot never develops much force. Logan and Falls set out to create an old-fashioned melodrama–they cite 19th-century playwright Dion Boucicault as a prime inspiration, though Riverview owes more to 1930s and ’40s movie melodramas like Angels With Dirty Faces and Dead End. But the archetypal characterizations and moral preaching here seem contrived–a glib conceit, in contrast to the rich flavor of the authentic period songs.

As a result, the increasingly dark story line–Robert’s bitter falling-out with his father (who works the African Dip), Dolly’s escalating addiction, Warren’s corruption at the hands of a dope dealer (who actually approaches children with the line, “Hey, little girl, would you like some cotton candy?”), and the 1951 Cicero race riots–actually trivializes the serious issues in the play. Robert seems meant to suggest Harold Washington (we know this because he uses big words), but Washington’s real accomplishments are unintentionally parodied when Robert teams up with the mob-connected Warren to destroy the African Dip (which in reality didn’t come down until the late 1950s, not 1951). Meanwhile, Dolly’s death from a bad hit of heroin seems silly rather than sad because of Logan’s self-consciously overripe style. (At least it seemed silly to me. Yet I must report that when Dolly picked up the pouch of poisoned smack, the audience audibly gasped; and they applauded when the racist villain got his just deserts. Melodrama still has its appeal.)

In any case, when Riverview makes with the music, it’s remarkable. The showy elegance of the singing and dancing reinforces rather than betrays the seriousness to which the show aspires–in Robert’s mournful gospel version of “Comin’ In on a Wing and a Prayer,” for instance, and the spectacular dance sequence, choreographed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge to Rodgers and Hart’s “Disgustingly Rich,” in which Warren dreams of fame and fortune in the company of fantasy pinup girls.

Much of the credit for these high points goes to musical supervisor Larry Schanker and orchestrator David Siegel, whose big-band arrangements (splendidly played under Helen Gregory’s direction) crackle with invention and energy. And the design team Falls has assembled–Thomas Lynch on sets, Nan Cibula on costumes, Michael S. Philippi on lights, and Richard Woodbury on sound–have concocted a brilliantly textured fantasy world in which illusion and reality become increasingly hard to distinguish.

Among a terrifically talented cast, the standouts are Shannon Cochran’s gritty Dolly, Duane Boutte’s righteous Robert, and especially John Scherer’s Yankee-Doodle dandy of a Warren. Logan envisions him as a James Cagney type–the tap-dancing tough guy–but Scherer provides more than a big tenor voice, cocky manner, and fine footwork. With his eager, doomed innocence and taut, hungry energy, he’s the perfect embodiment of Falls and Logan’s vision of America as a Riverview roller coaster, moving fast and headed for a fall.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Liz Lauren.