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CHICAGO REVIEWS: 'Brigadoon' at the Goodman; 'This is Our Youth' at Steppenwolf

July 17, 2014

A trip to Chicago yielded a pair of well-worth-the-drive pleasures from two of the county’s leading regional theaters.

First, the Goodman Theatre—usually home to contemporary and classic drama—is offering up a joyous production of “Brigadoon” in which the great Lerner & Loewe score is accompanied by a revised book by Brian Hill.

If you haven’t seen “Brigadoon” in a while (or haven’t seen it at all—which is likely since there hasn’t been a major revival in 30 years), you probably won’t notice the book changes, which primarily have to do with ditching outdated jokes and anchoring its fanciful story with a bit of actual Scottish history. There’s no attempt here, thank goodness, to make the show hip—which would be a disaster. Instead, the rewrite increases the urgency of the story without compromising what made it special to begin with.

Cynics may still balk at its shamelessly romantic story and songs (this is, after all, the show from which the tunes “Almost Like Being in Love” and “Heather on the Hill” were sprung). And there’s the fanciful core premise—a magical village that only appears for a day every hundred years—that requires significant suspension of disbelief. But enter with an open heart and there are rich rewards in the show and in the production.

High among them is director/choreographer Rachel Rockwell’s dances. Yes, there’s still the Sword Dance to end the first act and the rousing crowd-pleaser “I’ll Go Home with Bonnie Jean.” But for me the highlight was “Come to Me, Bend to Me,” with incandescent bride-to-be Jean MacLaren (Olivia Renteria) dancing with her earnest—and blindfolded—beau Charlie Dalrymple. Absolute magic in league with some of the most moving dances I’ve seen on Broadway.

Even if this revisal doesn’t lead to a Broadway revival (a tough sell these days, especially without name stars), it is likely to spark a resurgence in regional productions of “Brigadoon.” And it does deserve to be back in that rotation with the irony-free likes of “Oklahoma” and “The Sound of Music.” But there’s nothing like seeing a great musical brought to full flower. Thanks to multiple extensions, you can still do that in Chicago through August 17.

More star power accompanied Steppenwolf Theatre’s revival of “This is Our Youth,” which is already set for a Broadway run after its limited run in Chicago (closing on July 27). Of course, star power is relative. Where Lerner & Lowe may not be all that well known to theatergoers under 50, those over 50 may draw a blank when confronted with Michael Cera, Kieran Culkin, and Tavi Gevinson, who make up the cast of Kenneth Lonergen’s play.

The miniature powder keg of a play holds up well to the nearly two decades since it was first produced. Set in the 1982, it drops viewers into the apartment of privileged college dropout and minor drug dealer Dennis (Culkin), whose peaceful chilling out in front of an old movie is interrupted by Warren (Cera), his less intense trouble-magnet semi-friend, who shows up with a backpack full of money and a suitcase of vintage toys. Later, Jessica (Gevinson), who Warren crushes on, enters to complicate matters.

The audience sits on opposite sides of the long horizontal set, which director Anna D. Shapiro and scenic designer Todd Rosenthal mine for comedy, drama, and a reckless game of football catch.  The cast is ideal for the intimate staging, where every moment feels in close-up (I won’t even speculate how the piece will play when biggie-sized for Broadway).

All three actors are expert listeners and adept at relaying their unspoken fears about themselves and their world. Culkin made a stronger first impression, but Cera’s performance is the most memorable, with telling-but-not-obvious awkward use of his hands and slack-jawed gaze.

I don’t know Gevinson’s television and movie work so I can’t tell if what I saw was her default setting. But even if it was, it suited the role and I felt for her. And Lonergan’s script—while similar to many aimless twentysomethings films and plays—proves a high-water mark for the genre. There’s a story worth telling here—one that is packed with true-to-character laughs but also with a very real heart beating within it.

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