Regional Reviews: Chicago
A Kiss from Alexander
Though he's been dead for some 2300 years, the past twelve months have been tough on Alexander the Great. As if the recent Oliver Stone movie weren't enough, the greatest warrior of history is now the object of an Off-Off-Broadway campfest in rehearsal under the auspices of a gay writer-director suffering a career-crisis. That's the premise for this new musical being presented as part of Bailiwick's annual Pride series.
The Gods have had quite enough Alexander-bashing. An otherworldly "guardian" (John Vessels) summons Alexander (Graham Kurtz) to return to the living and stop the travesty, entitled Alexander Was Great. Alexander poses as Alex, an actor stunning enough in his performance and appearance to immediately captivate writer-director Nick Matthews (Jason Bowen) and steal the title role away from the aging prima donna Brad Berenson (John Cardone). As the star, Alex figures he'll be in a position to ensure the production is short-lived.
Our sympathies are immediately with him. Alexander Was Great includes lines like "the glory hole that was Greece" that establish Nick as a writer too shameless to avoid juvenile locker-room humor. We are reminded that writing "bad" is not as simple as bad writing. We can appreciate librettist Stephan deGhelder's intention to satirize some of the excesses of gay-themed theater, but he seems willing to go with cheap jokes if they'll make the audience laugh.
The writers have better luck after they finish with the setup and let the energetic, talented, and attractive company get to work. The show has several fun moments once the action moves away from the show-within-a show. The best of them is a number called "Our Wedding in Vermont," with pairs of gay grooms dressed in matching plaid shirts, performed by the Alexander Was Great cast at a gay rights benefit. Another is the comedy song, "Never Trust a Eunuch," in which the deposed former star Brad laments his new role and vows to regain the lead. The second act opener, "Greek Chorus Boy," is a hoot as well.
The 16-song score, with music by Brad Simmons to deGhelder's lyrics, consists primarily of comedy songs with a Kander and Ebb feel, plus a pastiche of Sondheim's Follies pastiches. There are also three love songs for Alex and Nick, who we learn is a Greek-American with the birth name of Nikos, and who has had a very, very long fascination with Alexander the Great. These passable ballads, though powerfully sung by Bowen and Kurtz, aren't enough to interest us in the underdeveloped, bland character of Nick or his affection for Alex, though they help more than Nick's stilted dialogue or Bowen's wooden delivery.
Nor can we care much about Alex/Alexander, for whom neither deGhelder, Director David Zak nor Kurtz have firmly committed to a specific interpretation. Though Alexander has a few anachronistic jokes a la Back to the Future, we're never quite sure if he's an innocent lost in our crazy times or a superhuman triple-threat performer from three-millennia ago. Kurtz, who has the slender, classical look and curly blond hair of a sculpted Alexander, is often as stiff as those statues, though he loosens up and moves nicely when executing Brenda Didier's choreography.
The more interesting performances come from the supporting cast, including Cardone, as a suitably slinky and slimy Brad; Derek Czaplewski, who wisely underplays Cardone's comic love interest; and John Vessels, having a lot of fun with his three roles as the hooded guardian, a prissy theater critic and the female MC of the benefit.
A Kiss for Alexander is not a bad evening, and its 2-1/2 hours pass by enjoyably. In an era of juke-box musicals and movie adaptations, we can appreciate the ambition of doing a full-length, entirely original musical. If deGhelder and Simmons can summon the discipline to forego their cheapest laughs, and can also decide on a point-of-view toward their romantic leads, they just might have something here.
A Kiss from Alexander runs Wednesdays and Thursdays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 6 p.m. and Sundays at 4 p.m. through August 14th. Bailiwick Repertory Theatre is at 1229 West Belmont, Chicago, IL 60657. Tickets can be purchased online at www.bailiwick.org by phone at 773-883-1090 or at the box office.