Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

August Rush
Paramount Theatre
Review by John Olson


George Abud (left) and Jack McCarthy (at the piano)
Photo by Liz Lauren
The idea of a Tony Award-winning director and a writing team with Broadway credits doing a world premiere musical in a city like Aurora, Illinois—an industrial city of 200,000 some 40 miles west of downtown Chicago at the outer edges of what could be called the suburbs—might seem like a premise for a movie in the spirit of Waiting for Guffman, except for two facts. The theatre hosting this engagement is The Paramount, which in recent years has become a powerhouse venue in Chicago musical theatre; and the director of this production is John Doyle, who has originated musicals in all sorts of places—from tiny theaters in and outside of London to Cincinnati's Playhouse in the Park. Those unsurprised by Doyle's choice of venue for his Broadway hopeful August Rush will be even less astonished to learn his cast doubles as musicians accompanying all the vocals, in lieu of a traditional pit orchestra, as with his revivals of Sweeney Todd and Company.

The choice to once again go with actor/musicians may be the smartest choice about this production, though maybe not for the reasons intended. This adaptation of the 2007 feature film that starred Robin Williams boasts a beautiful score by Mark Mancina, composer of the music for the film. Mancina also contributed to the film and stage scores of The Lion King. His music is impressively performed by Doyle's cast of actor/singer/instrumentalists. As orchestrated by Dave Metzger (who also contributed additional music), the contemporary symphonic sounding score has a fullness that belies the small size of its 15 actor/musician musical ensemble, conducted by music director Greg Jarrett. Doyle's cast, led by Leenya Rideout, Sydney Shepherd and John Hickok, sing it beautifully. Viewed as a concert piece—a song cycle, perhaps—it makes an impressive evening. The performers are dressed in evening wear designed by Ann Hould-Ward that would be appropriate in any concert hall, and though they move about the stage a fair amount (a bit too much of it on top of a grand piano), it seems quite possible that Doyle saw this as a staged concert.

But musical theatre? The book by Glen Berger is way too thin for that. He retells the film's story of Evan Taylor, an 11-year-old orphan with an almost mystical attraction to and talent for music. The orphan leaves his foster home in New Jersey and runs away to Manhattan, which has a siren call for him. There, he lands with a group of buskers led by a mysterious devilish man called the Wizard (Hickok). We know, though, because we saw this is early scenes, that Evan was born out of wedlock to folk singer Lewis (George Abud) and classical prodigy Lyla (Sydney Shepherd), whose demanding father convinced her that her baby died in childbirth while forging her name on adoption papers so he could give the baby away. The father (also played by Hickok in a confusing bit of double-casting) was afraid the distraction of parenting would interfere with his daughter's music career.

Eleven years later, after the father has died, she learns the truth and searches for the boy. In the meantime, a mentor named Hope (Leenya Rideout) has encouraged Evan (who has since assumed the name August Rush) to compose a musical piece for a city-wide competition. He enters, he wins, and through the publicity that follows, Lyla finally finds him.

All of this is told in 80 intermissionless minutes, mostly through music and lyrics, though there is some spoken dialogue. The unit set by Scott Pask, basically a series of cutouts of the Manhattan skyline, does evoke the glass and steel of midtown office buildings, but nothing of the diversity even within that limited milieu to specify either a real or an imagined place. Where exactly is this lair, wherein the "collective" of buskers live? And with the performers all in evening wear, who exactly are these people? (Evan's father, it should be noted, does wear a bandana to indicate his Bohemian nature). The story is too improbable to suit a realistic interpretation of this visualization and too fantastical to be happening in such a sanitized setting.

There's a slickness and elegance to it, to be sure, and the cast is impressive. The title role is shared by Jack McCarthy and Huxley Westemeier. McCarthy, on opening night, proved to be a charming and watchable young actor. Shepherd and Rideout have gorgeous voices and Hickok makes not one, but two delicious villains. Abud's throaty voice contrasts with the fuller-bodied voices of the rest of the cast, but that seems appropriate for the character and is very listenable.

There's just not enough detail in the storytelling to make this work on dramatic terms, no real sense of place—real or imagined—or specificity to the characters that would get the audience at all invested in them. As is, this feels more like than a staged reading of a preliminary draft than a full-grown musical on its way to Broadway.

August Rush, through June 2, 2019, at the Paramount Theatre, 8 E. Galena Blvd., Aurora IL. Performances are Wednesday at 1:30 p.m. and 7 p.m., Thursday at 7 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 1 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. Single tickets are $36 to $69. For tickets and information, visit ParamountAurora.com or call 630-896-6666.


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