I love to watch people who are at the top of their profession doing what they do. Great artists, athletes, teachers, and performers who know the spirit and the craft of their disciplines can transform an idea or a text into joyful excellence. Witnessing these transformations inevitably leads me to reflect on the value and necessity of conspicuous competence in society across disciplines and professions. Such was my experience watching the cabaret performance Shakespeare Tonight! at Chicago Shakespeare Theater on December 5.
The show, written and directed by Bob Mason, with musical direction and arrangements by Beckie Menzie, included amusing riffs on the American Songbook, such as the opening song, Mason’s parody of Stephen Sondheim’s “Comedy Tonight!” from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Much like the original, Mason’s adaptation promised something for everyone, inviting us to step away from reality and into a special space: “Hamilton tomorrow, Shakespeare tonight!” The program included an eclectic mix of musical works inspired by Shakespeare, recontextualized from sources as varied as Gilligan’s Island and Hallelujah, Baby! Light numbers sprinkled throughout the program balanced forays into deeper emotions, such as Eric Lane Barnes’s musical adaptation of “Sonnet 138” and Kurt Weill’s setting of an Ogden Nash poem, “Speak Low.” Short scene cuttings from Shakespeare performed by members of the ensemble or lines read from prompt books provided effective transitions between tunes and reminded the audience intermittently that Shakespeare, in one way or another, engendered these songs, the stories from which they came, and the very theater in which they were being sung. The beauty of history and memory allows us to take revered works from the past, such as Shakespeare, and reimagine those works in nearly infinite combinations of settings and presentational modes. As time goes by, even those derivative works become part of our collective cultural capital and can be recombined in novel ways to entertain, provoke, or enlighten, as happened in this show.
The stage setting was simple and elegant, with Menzie’s grand piano stationed upstage right (house left) on the thrust and cellist Elizabeth J. Anderson’s chair and music stand farther upstage left. Menzie spent the entire show seated at her piano, smiling, providing vocals on several numbers, and expertly supporting the ensemble, which included Chicago Shakespeare veterans Heidi Kettenring and Sean Allan Krill, James Earl Jones II, Jennie Sophia, and Jordan Brown. With musical staging by Tammy Mader, the performers were free to make use of the entire space. Broadway veteran Karen Mason entered partway through the first half of the show to sing Frank Loesser’s amusing “Hamlet” and then returned with a beautiful performance of “Speak Low” and “Hit Me with a Hot Note” (Ellington/George) from Play On! She also led the ensemble in the finale, a medley from West Side Story. A distinct highlight of the program was Donica Lynn’s appearance to sing a haunting version of a Cliff Jones piece, “The Last Blues,” from Rockabye Hamlet.
The ensemble performed in many different combinations, with solos, duets, and collective pieces. Sean Allan Krill’s rendering of “Sonnet 138” and James Earl Jones II’s take on the difficult “Fear No More” (Sondheim/Shakespeare) from The Frogs stood out, as did Jordan Brown and Jennie Sophia’s delightful balcony scene cutting from Romeo and Juliet leading into “Tonight” during the West Side Story sequence. Perhaps the biggest surprise was Christina Perri’s “Jar of Hearts,” a duet sung by Menzie and Kettenring, stitched into the Shakespeare theme using Ophelia’s soliloquy from Hamlet, “Oh what a noble mind is here o’erthrown.” The song’s chorus stood as a fitting counter-text:
Who do you think you are,
Running round leaving scars,
Collecting your jar of hearts,
And tearing love apart?
You’re gonna catch a cold,
From the ice inside your soul,
So don’t come back for me.
Who do you think you are?
The cabaret framework allowed the audience to relax and focus on the songs and the performers. Applause between each piece compelled us to surface collectively and breathe, unlike the typical two- to three-hour investment of attention to language and story required by a full-length dramatic performance. Even so, during the recitation of lines from Shakespeare and the singing of familiar songs, ripples of their original contexts would take shape in the air and carry us to places like Verona and Denmark, the deep resonances found in our own learning and experience. Setting the performance in the Jentes Family Courtyard Theater provided a shared etiquette demanding silence and minimizing the distractions that one might typically find in a cabaret club or bar. The effect was mildly intoxicating.
As Robert Jourdain explains in his book, Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy, “When music transports us to the threshold of ecstasy, we behave almost like drug addicts as we listen…” Add rich lyrics to the music (or vice versa), and both sides of the brain fire deep showers of neural activity, leading to a heightened state of consciousness. Further fueling the audience’s reverence that night was our awareness of the sheer ability of those bringing these works to us, from Shakespeare as the primogenitor, to the composers and lyricists like Sondheim, Bernstein, Porter, Ellington, et al., to the designers of the show and the performers on stage in real time, sharing their gifts. Many in the audience knew these performers and perhaps attended as much to see them as to hear what songs they would do. Fairly late in the show, sandwiched between an ensemble medley from Kiss Me, Kate and the West Side Story finale, Kettenring and Krill performed “Thank You for Dying First” from The People vs Friar Laurence, The Man Who Killed Romeo & Juliet. The selection showcased perfectly the combination of their comedic skills and their musical chops. It was at that point that my own thoughts turned to the value of raw talent, honed by dedication to craft and the opportunity (and willingness) to share.
I have spent the greater part of my thirty-three year career in youth development, as a teacher, as a camp director, as a musician, and for the past sixteen years, as a teacher educator. Sometimes it is nice to just attend a show and enjoy the work of the performers without thinking about how they came to be where they are in their careers. But on this night, I was accompanied by my ten-year-old daughter, whose own career ambitions vacillate between becoming a singer, an author, a pediatrician, or a scientist. Trying to imagine the experience through her eyes, I couldn’t help but contemplate the life journeys of these creative artists, some still early in their careers, others midway through, and a couple of them able to look back on decades of professional work. What in their childhoods led them on this path, but more importantly, what fueled their drive for excellence? After the show, in the lobby, an older gentleman saw my daughter and asked, “Did you enjoy it?” to which she enthusiastically replied, “Yes!” He then added, “Someday, you’ll be up there.” My thought was, it doesn’t matter to me what path you travel, just be good at what you do.
Art can provide inspiration and sustenance in a time when the consequences of inexperience and lack of dedication can prove dire. Excellence reminds us of what we are capable of if we hold on to truth. It reminds us that vision, discipline, and creative cooperation can yield up wonderful fruits. A short ninety minutes in the theater that night allowed us to forget the troubling circumstances we currently face, but we cannot take for granted that the world operates consistently as a crucible for excellence. We must dedicate ourselves to pursuing it, recognizing it in others, and appreciating it when we see it.
Timothy J. Duggan is an associate professor of Education at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago, where he teaches English education and English courses, including Shakespeare, and coordinates a partnership between the University and Amundsen High School. He earned his EdD in curriculum and instruction from the University of South Dakota, his MA in English literature from the University of Nebraska and his BA in English literature from University of California at Santa Barbara. He is the author of three books, including Advanced Placement Classroom: Hamlet and Advanced Placement Classroom: Julius Caesar from Prufrock Press. Read More…