On Chicago’s Stages, Women With Problems
CHICAGO — Musicals depend on extremes. Without big emotion, there’s no call for big expression. And without big expression, how do we get big belting and confetti?
But the question for me has always been: At what point does the urge to overwhelm an audience swamp the sea walls of storytelling?
As it happens, two musicals I saw during a recent visit here — five months into the “Year of Chicago Theater” — offered opposite answers to that question, from opposite moments in their development.
At Writers Theater, a post-Broadway “Next to Normal” turns the volume way down on a show with screamy DNA. And, at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, a new, presumably pre-Broadway musical called “Six” blows out the amps with its pop-historical hysteria.
Both are great.
“Six” seems destined to occupy a top spot in the confetti canon. Framed as a live singing competition among the six wives of Henry VIII — you could call it “The Tudor Voice” — it revels in the ritualistic suspense and hype of such events. But instead of asking judges to reward the contestants’ vocal pyrotechnics, “Six” instructs the audience to choose as the winner the wife whose story is most pathetic.
“The Queen who was dealt the worst hand / Shall be the one to lead the band,” one lyric goes.
Each of the six then offers a précis of her story and sings a number that slyly pins her character to a pop genre. Catherine of Aragon (Adrianna Hicks) gets a defiant Beyoncé-esque anthem (“No Way”); Anne Boleyn (Andrea Macasaet), a hip-hop earworm (“Don’t Lose Ur Head”); Jane Seymour (Abby Mueller), an emo ballad called “Heart of Stone”; and Katherine Howard (Samantha Pauly), an Ariana Grande-style shot of bubble gum sass called “All You Wanna Do” — with an Ariana Grande ponytail to top it off.
Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss, who started writing the musical while students at Cambridge University in 2017, mine plenty of humor from the anachronistic pairings and the catty contemporary byplay. Aragon identifies Howard as “the least relevant Katherine.” A hilarious “Sprockets”-like house music spoof called “Haus of Holbein” shows how Anna of Cleves (Brittney Mack) supposedly came to Henry’s attention thanks to the master’s painting.
It’s a tidy concept, but tidy concepts are often undermined by a lack of theatrical stamina. Not so here. Directed by Ms. Moss and Jamie Armitage, “Six” delivers pure entertainment throughout its headlong 80 minutes. The wickedly smart lyrics are well set on tunes that are both catchy and meaty; the cast of terrific singers sells them unstintingly, straight to the joyful finale.
And the production values — especially Tim Deiling’s arena-rock lighting — befit a splashy North American premiere with Broadway backing. (After Chicago, it travels to Cambridge, Mass., Edmonton, Alberta and who knows where else.)
It also helps that the show’s success at Edinburgh Festival Fringe last year, and now in London, has spawned the kind of fan base (they listen to the English cast recording on Spotify) that ensures both an audience and an adulatory mood.
But “Six” is up to something more complicated than a real pop competition would be. It uses the familiar elements of the forms expressively, and in ways that creep up on you with surprises. I won’t spoil those surprises here, but when Catherine Parr (Anna Uzele) finally steps into the spotlight, “Six” pulls the rug out from under itself by giving voice to the story’s full darkness. Naturally, it also suggests a way out of that darkness in a rush of sisterhood, then ends on a high point punctuated with confetti.
“Six” might seem an odd fit for Chicago Shakes, as the theater is often called; “Hamlet” is playing in its other auditorium. But the company’s handsome Navy Pier complex is already somewhat incongruous amid the tourist attractions (Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., the Centennial Ferris wheel) sticking out into Lake Michigan.
Heading to leafy, staid, suburban Glencoe to see “Next to Normal” at Writers Theater at first seemed just as incongruous. The musical, which opened on Broadway in 2009, is not a show I ever regarded as quiet. In fact, I felt that it suffered from a case of what I called emphasitis: “the enervating result of a synesthetic assault on the audience’s attention by talented people overdoing everything.”
That problem seemed inseparable from the story, about a woman whose mental illness is reaching a crisis point for herself and her family. Though we are told that Diana Goodman is a bipolar depressive with delusional episodes, we are mostly affected by her mania, notably during a frenzied episode in which she makes what looks like a month’s worth of sandwiches by arranging the ingredients all over her kitchen floor.
Alice Ripley deservedly won a Tony Award for her heartbreaking performance as Diana, and the show itself — music by Tom Kitt, book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey — won the Pulitzer Prize. At the time, these seemed to me to be awards for ingenuity rather than achievement: for taking on such a serious, difficult subject and wringing popular entertainment from it. (The show ran on Broadway for two years.)
The Writers Theater production, directed by David Cromer, completely alters the show’s balance. Reimagined for a 251-seat theater with a thrust stage, and built for a local audience instead of a national one, it feels more intimate and also more accurate. The boundary between Diana’s sanity and insanity is not a bright line she stalks across, but a no man’s land she wanders through, sometimes emerging on one side, sometimes the other.
And though Diana, played by the Chicago actress Keely Vasquez, is still the harrowing center of the show, the story spreads out more evenly to encompass its effects on her husband (David Schlumpf) and daughter (Kyrie Courter). That this happens with no loss of musical value — the full original orchestration is used, and Ms. Vasquez sounds a lot like a less-amplified Ms. Ripley — is a tribute to the delicacy a nonprofit theater allows.
It’s also a tribute to Mr. Cromer, a native of nearby Skokie known for his quiet touch. (His gorgeous Broadway production of “The Band’s Visit” may have been the lowest-key Best Musical in Tonys history.) If tempering “Next to Normal” dampens some of its laughs — small audiences are harder to tickle — the loss is worth it for the deeper impression you get in return. Like “Six” at the other end of the dial, it may have found its true volume.
Through Aug. 4 at the Yard at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Chicago; 312-595-5600, chicagoshakes.com. Running time: 1 hour 20 minutes.
Next to Normal
Through June 23 at Writers Theater, Glencoe, Ill.; 847-242-6000, writerstheatre.org. Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes.