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Chicago by John Olson

The Drunkard
Quest Theatre Ensemble

The Drunkard
Keith Cavanaugh, Amy Steele
and Jason Bowen

It seems only fitting that the Chicago theatre company that charges no admission for its productions and seeks to bring theater back to the people should turn to one of earliest popular plays in American history. The Drunkard, a temperance treatise originally produced by P.T. Barnum in 1850, was reportedly the most popular American play until Uncle Tom's Cabin came along. According to this production's program notes, when the play eventually came to earn more snickers than tears the troupes of the time began to play it for laughs. In 1964, writer Bro Herrod and a 21-year-old Barry Manilow adapted W.H.S. Smith's melodrama into a musical.

Like Herrod and Manilow, and the thousands of productions of The Drunkard before them, Quest Theatre Ensemble understands there's no point in parodying a melodrama that has long seemed to parody itself, but Quest takes it a step further and makes it a vehicle whose ambitions are no greater than ensuring that everyone in the audience has a good time theater as party. Knowing that the mocking of melodrama is as familiar as a Looney Tunes cartoon, Quest brings in all sorts of local references, asides and anachronisms that appropriately enough have little to do with the story on stage, but everything to do with the idea that friends and family can gather to enjoy a night of live theater, just as they did in the decades before recorded and filmed performances became the media for mass entertainment.

Even on an austere budget, Quest again uses the visual ingenuity they displayed in The People's Pinocchio and the charms of its likable and talented company to show its largely family audiences the joys of 21st Century theatergoing. The imaginative visual design includes bright cutout sets by Nick Rupard and a variety of detailed and colorful period backdrops by Julie Taylor, Lee Brassel and Luke Verkamp. The costumes by Jessica Pribble take us clearly back to the mid-19th century and are complemented by the masks designed by Amanda Church that make the characters even more unabashedly two-dimensional.

It wouldn't be hard to overdo the parody of an old-time melodrama, but Andrew Park's direction lets the cast do nothing too obvious or easy. Of course the villain Lawyer Cribbs (Keith Cavanaugh) steals the show ... don't the villains always in these things? Cavanaugh's a strong singer and comic actor, and knows just when and how far to break character. Plus, you get to throw popcorn at him! Jason Bowen plays hero Edward Middleton with a dexterity and fearlessness that takes him from stalwart to stinko in no time flat. Amy Steele is charming as his long suffering wife Mary, and Leslie Hull makes a great and terrifying Carrie A. Nation.

The early-Manilow score is easy enough on the ears, and a couple of the songs "Have Another Drink" and the gospel finale "Do You Want to Be Saved" - give a hint of the pop writing prowess he would soon display. Music Director Allison Kane and her band sneak in a few musical references to his later pop hits just for laughs. The capable cast sings the score with gusto and nicely executes some snappy choreography by Kerrie Korzatkowski.

When buying a bag of popcorn gives you something to eat, throw at the stage, and helps you support live theater, you're know you're in a good place.

The Drunkard will be performed every Friday and Saturday at 8:00pm and Sundays at 2:00pm through March 25th at The Blue Theatre, 1609 West Gregory, Chicago. Tickets are free, but donations are greatly appreciated. Call 312-458-0895 for reservations.


Photo: Jeremy Lawson

See the schedule of theatre productions in the Chicago area


-- John Olson



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