Chicago Theatre Review
The Art of Making Art
[title of show] – Brown Paper Box Theatre Company
Plays and musicals that illustrate how art is made aren’t as plentiful as one might expect. Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park with George” is, perhaps, the most famous example, telling the story of pointillist painter Georges Seurat and what motivated the creation of his masterpiece, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell’s autobiographical 90-minute one-act musical shines the limelight on two eager young playwrights. Seeking to fulfill their passion to write a successful musical and see it play on Broadway is the trajectory of this show. Along the way, they’re joined by two actress friends, Heidi (Blickenstaff) and Susan (Blackwell) who, like Jeff and Hunter, not only contribute material to the piece but also play themselves in the musical. The end result is a modest little theatrical work, whose characters are the actual playwrights and composers, living through the ups and downs of bringing their pages to various stages. The show is an intelligent, often humorous, occasionally moving portrayal of the creative process that leads up to the show’s production.
Brown Paper Box Theatre, whose mission is to create “thought-provoking theatre without the glitz of overproduction,” have not only found the perfect vehicle for their goal but they’ve mounted an excellent production that deserves to be seen. A great deal of the credit must go to M. Willian Panek for his sharp, economical direction. Utilizing every inch of this cozy theatrical space, Mr. Panek stages his actors with precision, creating some exciting, multi-level stage pictures that tell the story. Playing at Rivendell Theatre’s storefront space, this show is the perfect offering for this venue. With its only technical demands being “four chairs and a keyboard,” it fits perfectly within this intimate space. The focus is always placed squarely on the four actors and their talented, unassuming pianist, Larry (the very talented Justin Harner). Employing the creativity of Eric Vigo’s cleverly designed lighting (especially effective during the “Awkward Photoshoot” number), the focus is always where it’s needed to be.
The production opens with buddies Jeff and Hunter chatting on the phone in an “Untitled Opening Number.” During the conversation, they discuss the upcoming New York Musical Theatre Festival, whereupon the two aspiring playwrights decide to write a show and enter it. They discuss the burning need to create “An Original Musical,” as opposed to merely adapting a book, a play or a movie, like so many musicals currently playing on Broadway. After several failed attempts to arrive at an original story (“Monkeys and Playbills”), the two decide instead to document the creation of the show itself. With Susan and Heidi there to fill out the cast, provide additional dialogue and add ideas, we get one of the loveliest songs in the show, “I am Playing Me.” The show earns accolades at the Festival and goes on to play at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center, finally booking a short run Off-Broadway at both the Ars Nova and the Vineyard Theatre. There, the show wins the Obie Award for it creators, stars and director. Fulfilling Hunter’s dream, the show ultimately transfers to Broadway for a limited run, and this move is chronicled on YouTube, helping to make the show the cult sensation it is today.
In this, the second local production within recent years, Hunter is played by the brilliant Matt Frye, who brings a rich voice and a devilishly realistic dimension to his portrayal. On stage almost the entire show, Mr. Frye bares his soul (and, sometimes his chest) creating an honest, flesh-and-blood young artist, whose passion for all things musical theatre is very real. The audience find themselves fully invested in Hunter’s passion, cheering him on to not only write a good show, but to see it finally become a success. Assisting with and sharing in Hunter’s dream is Jeff, nicely played and sung by Yando Lopez. More reserved than Hunter, but quietly just as eager to succeed, Mr. Yando provides a veracious yin to Frye’s yang in their partner- and friendship. One of the most eloquent moments comes later in show when, upon finally achieving their well-earned triumph, Jeff attempts to kiss Hunter. Even though it’s a knee-jerk expression of pure joy and gratitude, Jeff’s advances are thwarted. This bittersweet moment says, in a single gesture, “Hey, we’re great friends and terrific creative partners, and we’ve come a long way; but let’s not f**k it up with sex.” That simple split second of drama speaks volumes in its honesty.
The two women in this cast provide an excellent contrast, both in character and in musicality. Anna Schutz is infectious and extremely likable as Heidi. Ms. Schutz’s vivacious personality and big voice belies the petite presence of this young actress. Her vocal contribution to many of the musical numbers, in particular her stunning solo rendition of the eleventh hour power ballad, “A Way Back to Then,” make this young actress a standout that audiences will want to see in more productions. Neala Barron, whose talents have been enjoyed recently in such shows as “The Full Monty,” “Titanic” and “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” is excellent as Susan. Playing an insecure corporate worker/actress-wannabe, Ms. Barron’s powerful stature matches her stirring musical talents. She’s also spot-on when it comes to delivering deadpan commentary and derisive jeers. Playing a character whose self-esteem is demonstrably lower than the other characters, Ms. Barron provides a nice contrast to the other three. Each actor excels in his or her solo moments, but, under T.J. Anderson’s sharp musical direction, this quartet absolutely shines most brilliantly when blending and harmonizing as an ensemble.
As Sondheim wrote, “Art isn’t easy,” and if ever there was a musical that fully commits to and explores this adage it’s this little vest pocket piece. Overflowing with winking references to dozens of other popular musicals, and brimming with intelligence, wit and respect for each of its characters, this brilliant production is a warmhearted study at what it takes to create, collaborate and live the dream. This modest little production honestly and lovingly portrays the art of making art.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented July 19-August 16 by the Brown Paper Box Theatre Company at Rivendell Theatre, 5775 N. Ridge Rd., Chicago.
Tickets are available by going to www.brownpaperbox.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.