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at the Regal Theater


Hystopolis Puppet Theatre

“It’s a showcase full of quality–sophistication all around,” goes a line in Andy Razaf’s song “That’s What Harlem Is to Me.” The description applies as well to Harlem Suite, the new dance musical directed and choreographed by Maurice Hines. A tribute to black musical and dance styles from the 1920s through the 1970s, Harlem Suite draws on Hines’s deep show-business roots. He, his brother Gregory, and their father were well known as the tap team of Hines, Hines and Dad long before Maurice and Gregory became stars on their own, and the brothers’ grandmother, Ora Hines, danced as a showgirl in the hot and hopping Harlem of the 1920s–an era evoked in the movie Cotton Club, in which Maurice and Gregory appeared. For those who thought Cotton Club would have fared better with more dance sequences, Harlem Suite is the place to be: there’s enough fascinatin’ rhythm’ in this show for three Broadway musicals.

Harlem Suite’s skimpy and sometimes amateurish script–the only flaw in an otherwise dazzling work–has Maurice and his girlfriend Stephanie rummaging through Granny Ora’s scrapbook, which is titled “Harlem: 1925-1975.” Granny’s memories spring to life in a series of dynamite set pieces, each more exuberant than the last, taking the audience from the Cotton Club of the 20s through the Savoy Hotel of the 40s and on up to the Apollo in the 70s. If the trip-through-time device is old and familiar, the dancing and singing is lively and fresh: though rooted in classic styles of other eras, Hines’s choreography is remarkably inventive as well as fiendishly demanding. That he himself negotiates it so gorgeously is not surprising to anyone familiar with his work (Broadway’s Eubie and Sophisticated Ladies as well as TV and films). What makes Harlem Suite such a rousing entertainment is the superb 15-person ensemble of singer-dancers, who execute Hines’s tricky tap routines with crack precision while projecting engaging and interesting individual characterizations. Particular standouts are Shaun Baker, Michael Franks, Tiffney Lyn, and John Fredo, who tear up the stage with a dream “tap jam” bringing together the black Cotton Club dancers with white stars Eleanor Powell and Fred Astaire.

The “tap jam” sequence illuminates another underlying theme in Harlem Suite: that what we think of as black music has always reflected the interaction of blacks and whites. The songwriters represented in this two-act musical include Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Erroll Garner, and Billie Holiday–all black–as well as Harold Arlen, George Gershwin, and Johnny Mercer–all white. And the script by Lanie Robertson (author of Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill) takes note of the social ironies that have always surrounded black entertainment: that the Cotton Club featured black performers but catered almost exclusively to a white audience, for example (the “tap jam,” with the white dancers engaging in playful competitive dancing with the blacks, takes place at an integrated after-hours joint). A later sequence at an early 1960s high school prom shows the effects of progress, as a gaggle of beehive-haired black and white girls shriek over a comically nerdy black guy (Hines) who turns into a star with his sexy crooning of “Earth Angel.”

A dapper and witty leading man, a breathtaking dancer and supple singer, Hines also displays a keen directorial eye for beautifully constructed stage images. And he clearly has a knack for assembling top-notch talent in every area–the lights, costumes, and sets are all luscious, and the ensemble performers are, as I’ve said, first-rate. In featured roles Hines gives us a nice blend of performers: pop diva Stephanie Mills, whose climactic rendition of Gladys Knight hits brings down the house (the tiny but amply built Mills should, however, get rid of that miniskirt ASAP); powerhouse gospel and blues artist Queen Esther Marrow (who played Aunt Em opposite Mills’s Dorothy in Broadway’s The Wiz); and newcomer Ellen Sims, a delicate and bubbly dancer, who plays Granny Ora’s younger self and holds her own in a knockout tap duet with Hines to end the first act.

Harlem Suite, which premiered last summer in Washington, D.C., and must surely be headed to Broadway, seems to have taken Chicago a bit by surprise. Despite the presence of top talents like Hines and Mills, I think many people were expecting a tacky, two-bit revue–in part because the show originally came to Chicago for a weakly promoted one-week run, and in part because it’s playing not at a major downtown venue like the Auditorium but at the Regal Theater on the south side. Well, the show has been extended through November, and the meticulously restored Regal, with its old-fashioned Moorish decor, is a marvelous space that richly deserves the exposure and the audiences that Harlem Suite can and should bring it. This is hot stuff; don’t pass it by.

“Hystopolis” means “city of mirth,” but for the last six years the Hystopolis Puppet Theatre has been a “city” without a stable foundation, touring all around Chicago as well as nationally with its puppet shows for children. Now this youthful troupe has established a permanent base; it opened its own space on October 1 in the Free Street Theatre’s Community Arts Center in Old Town, where it plays weekend mornings.

Is there an audience for the ancient art of puppet comedy in the age of computer-animated kids’ shows? judging from a recent performance I attended, the answer is a resounding yes. Hystopolis’s Rapunzel was the centerpiece of a Halloween birthday party for some two dozen preschoolers who seemed fascinated by the bizarre goings-on of the comically exaggerated, slightly stiff papier-mache performers. (The Hystopolis folks use forearm-length hand puppets outfitted with rods for extra movement.)

Ruth McAuliffe’s 45-minute stage adaptation of the classic fairy tale decidedly takes liberties with the source. Some of the more gruesome elements (for instance, the prince’s blinding when he tries to rescue fair Rapunzel from the tower where she’s been imprisoned by an evil witch) have been eliminated in favor of tamer plot developments; there’s a good deal of slapstick and plenty of verbal gags, many if not most of which will be appreciated more by baby-boom generation adults than by their offspring–quotations from Macbeth and The Wizard of Oz, routines lifted from Abbott and Costello and Laurel and Hardy, even a few yuppie jokes. (Witch: “I shall build a tower for you.” Rapunzel: “Oooh–real estate!”) There’s also a little hint of birds-and-bees education: when Rapunzel’s pregnant mother gives birth, she clucks like a chicken and lays an egg, from which pops the long-haired title character.

Such elaborations seem best suited to keeping parents amused; the stuff that has the most effect on the carriage trade (baby carriage, that is) is the simplest–a talking butterfly, the sudden appearance of a scary carrot monster, creepy ominous music as the heroes approach the witch’s castle. Despite modern touches such as a synthesizer score and a rap song for the witch, puppetry is a simple, almost primitive form, and therein lies its charm. Hystopolis carries on the tradition very nicely indeed.