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Chicago by John Olson

Turn of the Century
Goodman Theatre

Turn of the Century
Rachel York and Jeff Daniels
Though just hours earlier the US stock market had taken a fall of historic levels, you'd never guess the nation was in economic peril from the lavish musical that premiered at the Goodman on September 29th. Though the set design by Walt Spangler had more imagination than money behind it, the cast on stage was wardrobed in some of the most scrumptious costumes imaginable, in designs by Dona Granata that represent the attire of some the wealthiest Manhattanites of the years 1999 and 1900. This presumably Broadway-bound hopeful directed by Tommy Tune looks like a million bucks in either 1900 or 1999 dollars. Though the show itself is as light as spun sugar, it may be just the sort of escapism that carried Americans through the 1930s depression.

The wholly original book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice (Jersey Boys) is a fantasy in which struggling pianist Billy Clark (Jeff Daniels) and equally desperate singer-songwriter Dixie Wilson (Rachel York) reconnect at a Central Park West New Year's Eve party in 1999, and at the stroke of midnight are inexplicably transported to a New Year's party in the same apartment 100 years earlier. This is doubly inconvenient for them as the two had shared a one-night stand a few weeks before arriving at the 1999 party, and wouldn't you know it, Clark, played with relish as one of Jeff Daniels' signature cads, never called Dixie back. They land in the year 1900 armed with nothing but Dixie and Billy's encyclopedic knowledge of the 20th century American Songbook. That's enough to get them through the rest of the 1900 New Year's Eve party when they perform some twentieth century standards and upstage the evening's entertainment—Harry Van Deusen, the most popular composer of the day, but with an output that could be like Salieri compared to Mozart when his songs are played alongside those of the last century's masters.

Getting through the party is one thing, but the unscrupulous Billy quickly finds a way to survive in the previous century without funds or connections. Having complete knowledge of the next century's songbook, he and Dixie perform, popularize and pretend to have written the greatest yet-to-be written songs of the new century. This allows the device of reinterpreting songs like "Moon River" as it might have been sung by Evelyn Nesbit, for example. The pair strikes it rich by supposedly penning 30 hits over the next four weeks, in an entertaining medley of standards re-imagined in turn-of–the-century styles.

Just when we've begun to get the idea that the fantasy plot is mostly a device to showcase a diverse selection of the greatest hits of the last 100 years (Rodgers & Hart's "Where or When" serves as a sort of theme song, and the opening scene includes—what else—Prince's "1999" as well as Joni Mitchell's "Twisted"), the plot and repertoire take a turn. Though Dixie has far more of a conscience than Billy, she can live with the idea of plagiarizing the works of writers who haven't been born yet. When she meets a 12-year-old immigrant boy named Israel Baline and she and Billy start stealing the rough melodies he plunks out on their piano, her innate ethics get the better of her. The score then begins to focus nearly exclusively on the songs of Irving Berlin. They seem about as timeless in the decades before they were written as they do in the decades after and they create an opportunity to showcase the elegant period-influenced choreography by Noah Racey. All this is still charming and entertaining, but the concept of the show shifts a little unsettlingly.

At this point, we spend more time on the relationship of Billy and Dixie—still more professional than romantic partners though the sexual tension is evident. That's about all the tension there is, though. Is plagiarism bad? Yes. Is Billy a jerk? Of course. Will he and Dixie finally get together? What do you think? This classy, lovely show gets a bit lost at this point and as stuck between concepts as Dixie and Billy are stuck in an earlier era.

There's still the superb cast to enjoy through the end of the show. Ms York is sweet and vulnerable, and we get to hear her sing a lot. She's just like one of those loveable show business waifs of the 1930s musicals (or Naomi Watts in the recent King Kong) and the fact that her character is one of those archetypes makes her no less endearing. Mr. Daniels has been playing cads since 1983's Terms of Endearment and this one makes no bones about being anything but—just reveling in his shallowness. Apart from a few sour notes, he's not at all a bad singing actor either. The stars are given top-flight support by Broadway veterans Ron Orbach and Rachel de Benedet, Chicago stalwarts Kevin Gudahl and Rebecca Finnegan (in a hilarious take on the stereotypical secretary/receptionist) and a terrific ensemble of New York and Chicago-based talent.

Spangler's set and Natasha Katz's lighting designs are reason enough to see this show. The set is a simple, neutral environment with a dreamlike quality that allows the props and Katz's lighting and projections to take us to any where or when the story goes. It's framed by a sundial false proscenium with a semi-circular digital ticker display that judiciously provides key details of time and place.

Elice and Brickman have some ideas here. Genius, creativity and maybe even human souls are timeless and live in the past, present and future? Greed is not good and plagiarism is robbery even if it is robbing from the future? Or maybe just a standard story of love and redemption. Though these ideas are so gorgeously and effectively packaged by such a master of style as Mr. Tune, they still end up as a bit of a grab bag rather than a unified and focused piece. The basic framework gives Brickman and Elice several ways they can go with this piece and they'll probably do some more fiddling with the dials before future productions.

Turn of the Century will be performed Wednesdays through Sundays Through November 2, 2008. There will be matinees on Thursdays at 2 p.m. from October 2, 9 and 16; on Saturdays at 2 on October 11, 18, 25 and November 1; and Sundays at 2 p.m. throughout the run. There will be one Tuesday evening performance on October 14. Tickets may be purchased online at GoodmanTheatre.org, at the Goodman Theatre Box Office, 170 North Dearborn Street, or by phone at 312-443-8300.


Photo: Liz Lauren

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-- John Olson



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