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Chicago by John Olson

Hello Again
Bohemian Theatre Ensemble

Hello Again
Tom McGunn and Christina Hall
Most everyone has sex in this musicalization of Schnitzler's La Ronde, but nobody seems to be very happy about it, at least not for long. Here, as in Schnitzler, sex is a selfish act with one partner having control over the other. Michael John LaChiusa's book and lyrics follow the source material's basic outline and structure of ten scenes each showing a different pairing of people who are sexually involved with each other. (Only one of the pairs is a married couple—the other affairs are all illicit in one way or another.) One member of each pair goes on to an involvement with a new person in the following scene until the final scene. There, the last character to be introduced becomes involved with the first character, bringing everything full circle.

Schnitzler used this technique to show how one affair somehow affects the next. This thought is traded in LaChiusa's version for another theme. LaChiusa sets each of his ten scenes in a different decade, and not chronologically or linearly. Characters jump across decades as much as 60 years apart both backwards and forwards without aging. His point seems to be that these sexual selfish behaviors are timeless and that man has shown no evolution in this regard, at least not in the past century. LaChiusa also uses the device to reference musical styles of the different decades, but in truth his complex score contains no pastiche, but is in his voice throughout.

The dissonant score is challenging though not unrewarding on a first listen and it's impressively sung by the ten performers whose vocals fill the tiny theater with sound. Under the musical direction and piano accompaniment of Nick Sula, they deliver styles ranging from jazzy to operatic in complete control of the material. Co-directors Michael Ryczek and Stephen Rader set a comically satiric tone, except for the moments when the script calls for sympathy and the cast delivers these varying tones surely and confidently.

Christina Hall plays the whore of the first and last scenes with touching sense of vulnerability. Her john in the first scene, set in the 1900s, is the soldier played first shyly then cockily by the big-voiced Tom McGunn. The action moves to the World War II era and he seduces the sweet and not entirely innocent nurse played by Adrianna Parson in the second scene. The nurse becomes much more dominant—literally—with Sean Knight's sweetly goofy 1960s college student in the third scene. That student is next seen to be infatuated with a young married woman (Erin Creighton) in the fourth scene, when the two meet for illicit sex in a movie theater while watching a Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers film during the 1930s. Creighton generates much sympathy for her character in the 1950s-set fifth scene, where we meet her controlling and rich husband (played as a dandy by Kevin Bishop). As the couple make love, the "whore" represents the wife in simulated sex with the husband while Creighton sings about her feelings out-of-body. The husband reminds her to pack for his trip abroad the next day, and in the sixth scene we see him returning home to New York—on the Titanic in 1912.

LaChiusa also adds gender-bending to his time-bending in the sixth scene. The husband is in the midst of a seduction just before the Titanic sinks and LaChiusa reassigns the gender of this character from Schnitzler's female to a male, making him a gay American runaway (Adam Fane) the husband has brought up from steerage. Fane deftly gives the kid a level of naivetÚ, but only to a point. He's smart enough to know when to leave and manages to escape to 1970s New York, where he meets a writer/filmmaker (Ben Burke) who becomes frustrated at his inability to make the kid into his perfect fantasy. The writer is similarly unable to contain the ambitious actress (Heather Townsend) who in the 1920s insists in song he "Do a Little Rewrite." Miss Townsend, imposing in stature, presence and operatic voice, becomes the soon-to-abandoned mistress of a U.S. Senator in the ninth scene, set in the 1990s. She touchingly reveals her actress character's slow realization of that fact. Robert Whorton plays the Senator with great humanity (much more than we'd expect from the real thing), both in this scene and the final scene when he connects with Miss Hall's whore.

The action is played on a set designed by Stephen Genovese that at first blush looks a little like a game show set but turns out to be a clever way to quickly establish and change settings. It uses a grid of squares mounted on poles in a semi-circle. The squares can be rotated 90 degrees to form doorways or individual panels rotated 180 degrees to reveal props or scenery—like posters or wall decorations—establishing place and time. It allows the piece to have a fluidity that's essential to keep the pace during the 10 scene changes. The costumes by Ricky Lurie are fairly classic and periodľneutral as they sometimes have to work in scenes set as much as 40 years apart. There's one notable exception—the pastel briefs to which the sweet young thing and the writer strip down are authentic artifacts of the '70s era in which their scene is set.

Hello Again won't be to everyone's taste, but that won't be the fault of this production. By moving the characters around from decade to decade without regard for the laws of laws of aging, LaChiusa's distances us from them to a large degree and makes them objects of satire more than real people. Still, it's an intriguing concept with a complex score that's probably more akin to contemporary opera than musical comedy. For the second time this season (along with The Glorious Ones last Fall), Bohemian has given a gift to Chicago theatergoers of the chance to see an ambitious and challenging musical by a major artist performed by a top-shelf cast. Aficionados of musical theater will want to catch this.

Hello Again will be performed Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays through May 1, 2010 at the BoHo Theatre, 7016 N. Glenwood, Chicago. For tickets, call the Box Office at 866-811-4111.


Photo: Brandon Dahlquist

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-- John Olson



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