Regional Reviews: Chicago
Jones, considered to be the band's founder, wasn't the front man (that would be Mick Jagger) and he didn't write their songs (Jagger and Keith Richards wrote the bulk of their hits). His artistic contributions included the use of unexpected instrumentation, like his addition of a sitar in "Paint It, Black" and a dulcimer in "Lady Jane." These hits were both included on their album Aftermath, released in 1966. It's here where the story of this play begins, and it continues on through Jones' death under mysterious circumstances in 1969, shortly after his chronic drug abuse led his musical partners to fire him from the band. In the intervening years we see Jones descent into mental illness that appears to have been at least acerbated by his drug and alcohol use. His increasing isolation from the other band members also arose from creative differences as Jones became fascinated with Moroccan music that he wanted to incorporate into the Rolling Stones' commercial releases.
Aftermath's original script, written and directed by Signal's Co-Artistic Director Ronan Marra, views Jones from the outside, letting us see no more than what his contemporaries saw, so we're left to infer what might be going on inside his head as he becomes increasingly estranged from his world. He's abusive to girlfriend Anita Pallenberg (coolly played by the glamorous Simone Roos), who dumps him for Keith Richards, and gradually less reliable to the band. In Aaron Snook's nuanced performance, though, we get a good feeling for what might be going on in his brain or at least in his heart. Jones' isolation and loneliness is palpable.
The indomitable Richards, still alive and performing today with the leathery skin that suggests he's partied hard his whole life is played to comic effect by Joseph Stearns. It's an interpretation that matches Richards' druggy image, though you might wonder how someone shown to be so foolish managed to co-author so many hit songs and survive in the business for five decades. Jagger, the best known to us of the Stones, is actually a supporting character here. As played by Nick Vidal, who is made up to a fairly close resemblance of Jagger, Mick comes off as the savvy commercial artist the real-life Jagger must certainly be. He has better luck, understandably, playing the Jagger we don't know than the one we do. Performing Stones' songs, he has the thankless job of imitating the inimitable Jagger. The remaining band members, drummer Charlie Watts and bassist Bill Wyman, are shown in Marra's script as a couple of running jokes. They're nicely played by Bries Vannon, whose sullen Charlie is forever threatening to quit; and Dylan Stuckey (the only new cast member for this remount) as Bill Wyman, an exceedingly polite guy who knows enough to stay in the background.
George Harrison figures in the story as well, teaching Jones the sitar and acting as Jones' sometime confidant. Andrew Yearick plays the Beatle as an exceptionally empathetic soul and has an amazing physical and vocal resemblance to the late Harrison, singing the Beatles' "Norwegian Wood." Nice character work is done by Vincent Lonergan in a variety of parts, including a music journalist and an American TV talk show guest that is presumably Don Rickles; and Philip Winston, playing the Carson-like talk show host.
Aftermath has been lovingly and nostalgically visualized by its designers. Melania Lancey's set of neutral platforms is backed up by a wall of vinyl 33s and 45s. Elsa Hiltner's costumes capture the excesses of the '60s Carnaby Street look, with Jones especially groovy in an androgynously ruffled shirt and tight pants. Signal has also taken the especially impressive step of recreating many of the Stones' album and single coversparodying the photos with the show's cast as models. These parodies line the walls of the auditorium and lobby, and walls of beads hang from door frames in a suitably '60s manner.
The entire package makes for a fantastic voyage back to the sixties. On top of that, we get a backstage look at one of the greatest rock groups of our times and a moving, if necessarily surface-level, picture of its enigmatic and tragic founder.
Aftermath will play The Signal Ensemble Theatre, 1802 West Berenice Ave., Chicago, through January 23, 2011. For ticket information, call 773-347-1350 or visit www.signalensemble.com.