Three new shows this season celebrate defiance and derring-do, from the poetic grit of Saul Bellow to the feminist sass of six famous wives to a pioneering thrill-seeker.
The Adventures of Augie March
Bellow’s 1953 picaresque coming-of-age tale—which opens with the famous line “I am an American, Chicago born”—comes to life in David Auburn’s world-premiere adaptation, commissioned by the University of Chicago’s Court Theatre and staged by artistic director Charles Newell. Auburn graduated from U of C in 1991 and won the 2001 Pulitzer for Proof, which Newell directed at Court in 2013. (Though Bellow taught at U of C for decades, he lasted only two years as an undergrad there before transferring to Northwestern.)
That production got the two men talking about other projects on which they could collaborate. “He started tossing around some ideas and when he proposed Augie March, I said yes instantly,” says Newell. This is the first time the Bellow estate has granted the rights for a stage adaptation of any Bellow work. Newell says it was Auburn’s pedigree and approach to the writing that helped persuade them.
“He’s taken this extraordinary 400-page novel and turned it into a play,” he says. “If you know the novel and the language, you think, ‘How the hell is this going to work onstage?’ He was brilliant in many ways, one of which is that he’s translated all the events into language that sounds like real people, yet at various moments, particularly for someone who is voiceless or powerless or unable to speak, he then used direct quotes pulled from the novel for what we now refer to as ‘the Bellow music.’ So you hear some of the original Bellow syntax and vocabulary and extraordinary writing, even in a world where people talk like people.”
People who know little else about English history can probably recite the fates of Henry VIII’s wives—”Divorced, beheaded, died; divorced, beheaded, survived.” In Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss’s pop-rock musical (which won raves during its West End run as well as several Olivier Award nominations), the wives toss off the chains of history and join forces as a singing sisterhood of empowerment.
The show was a late addition to the Chicago Shakespeare season. Originally, a new musical version of Bedknobs and Broomsticks was scheduled, but it was delayed after the death of director Rachel Rockwell last year. Six, slated for the 2019-20 season, was then moved up a year.
Rick Boynton, creative producer for Chicago Shakes, says, “It’s a kick-ass pop concert, a la Ariana Grande and Katy Perry and Beyoncé, where the six ex-wives of Henry VIII get to tell their story, rather than being known through his story.” For this U.S. premiere, Boynton notes that there will be some references updated for stateside audiences, but without losing the smarts of “the Tudor to contemporary vernacular” in the lyrics. He also notes that the flexible space of The Yard offers the opportunity for codirectors Moss and Jamie Armitage “to fill the room in a really spectacular way.”
Queen of the Mist
In only 18 months, Firebrand Theatre has attracted attention through its mission to expand opportunities for women on- and offstage in musical theater. For artistic director and cofounder Harmony France, that means seeking out work that foregrounds women’s stories, even if they’re written by men. In Michael John LaChiusa’s 2011 musical Queen of the Mist, receiving its Chicago premiere with Firebrand, we meet schoolteacher Annie Edson Taylor, the first person to survive going over Niagara Falls in a barrel she designed herself.
“I’ve always loved the piece,” France says, “but it didn’t quite fit our mission for the breakdown for male and female characters. I got in touch with Michael and asked if he minded if we reorchestrated it.” LaChiusa agreed, and thus the original cast breakdown of three women and four men now features mostly women and nonbinary voices.
Getting local legend Barbara E. Robertson to play Taylor highlights the respect Firebrand has earned in its short history. “When we were talking about who would play this incredible role, she didn’t cross my mind because I wouldn’t have thought it was a possibility,” says France. But one phone call got Robertson, who has won eight Jeff Awards over the course of a career that has encompassed musicals and straight plays (including the first national tours of Wicked and Angels in America), on board.
Taking big chances is Taylor’s story, too. Notes France, “She was 63 when she went over the falls and lived 20 years beyond that. She was this woman at the turn of the century, living in this man’s world and figuring it out.” v
The Adventures of Augie March 5/9-6/9: Wed-Fri 7:30 PM, Sat-Sun 2 and 7:30 PM, Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis, 773-753-4472, courttheatre.org, $50-$74, $37.50-$51 students.
Six 5/15-6/30: Wed-Fri 7:45, Sat 6 and 8:30 PM, Sun 3 and 6 PM, Tue 7:45 PM, Chicago Shakespeare Theater, 800 E. Grand, 312-595-5600, chicagoshakes.com, $32-$55.
Queen of the Mist 5/25-7/6: Thu-Sat 7:30 PM, Sun 3 PM, Den Theatre, 1331 N. Milwaukee, 872-903-3473, firebrandtheatre.org, $55, $20 students and industry.