Fri 17 Feb, 2012
Tags: 4 STARS, Don't Miss!, EXTENDED!, Mark Messing, Mickle Maher, MUST SEE SHOW!, REVIEW # 2, THE HUNCHBACK VARIATIONS OPERA, Theater Oobleck, Victory Gardens Biograph Theater
Last night I was asked the question, “What’s the BEST play in town right now?” I’m frequently asked that and normally I have to stop and think before answering, as there is almost always more than one excellent show running at any given time in Chicago. Without the slightest hesitation, I confidently said THE HUNCHBACK VARIATIONS OPERA. Theater Oobleck’s remarkable production was slated to close this weekend. Luckily for you, and due to its overwhelming success, THE HUNCHBACK VARIATIONS OPERA has been EXTENDED through March 11, 2012. To highlight and celebrate this wonderful announcement, Chicago Stage Review’s J. Scott Hill weighs in with our Review Number Two of this MUST SEE SHOW …
THE HUNCHBACK VARIATIONS OPERA – REVIEW # 2
By J. Scott Hill
Larry Adams is like the Michael Caine of Chicago musical theatre: he is so unfalteringly wonderful that he seems to get cast in everything. In my year-in-review piece for 2009, Larry Adams garnered special recognition for his amazing range of performances in the four shows of his that I had reviewed that year. (2009: My Year in the Audience)
When Theater Oobleck first announced that Larry Adams had been cast as Quasimodo in The Hunchback Variations Opera, I began to think about how this show would relate to his body of work. The Hunchback Variations Opera is performed with two actors and two musicians onstage. In 2010, Larry Adams starred in the Light Opera Works production of I Do! I Do!, which is traditionally performed with two actors and two musicians onstage.
Like I Do! I Do!, The Hunchback Variations Opera was adapted from an ingenious and successful play. Like I Do! I Do!, The Hunchback Variations Opera — with its minimal set requirements, small cast, and small orchestra — would be very economical for a musical theatre house or an opera company to produce. Unlike the pabulum of the musical I Do! I Do! (I Do! I Do! – REVIEW), The Hunchback Variations Opera is a modern masterpiece.
The premise of The Hunchback Variations Opera is like the beginning of a joke told at a Mensa meeting. Beethoven (who is deaf) and Quasimodo (who is deaf) hold a series of panel discussions about their failed attempts to create a unique sound that neither of them could hear anyway (because they’re deaf). This unique sound is described as “a distant sound…as if from the sky, the sound of a breaking string, which dies away sadly” in the stage directions of Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, no less. Buh-dum bum. At the Mensa meeting, three of the super-intelligent laugh while everyone else is left to scratch their heads — but not so here. This is one level of the genius of playwright/librettist Mickle Maher: combining incompatible elements in ways that are absurdly plausible, and readily accessible to a broad audience.
Enter the musical magnificence of Mark Messing. This is not Maher and Messing’s first dance together; notably, they provided the script and the score for Redmoon Theater’s signature show,The Cabinet. (The Cabinet – REVIEW #2) Messing’s score for two voices, piano, and cello allows for the interpretive power of these four voices to be fully realized without the fetters of over-orchestration. There are the clear influences here of Igor Stravinsky, Aaron Copland, and Philip Glass, without seeming derivative. Pianist Tim Lenihan and cellist Paul Ghica are less like musicians and more like puppeteers, making their instruments sing and emote in voice and in silence.
George Andrew Wolff looks more like Tintin than he does Beethoven. Wolff is costumed completely in modern clothing, and his hair is not coifed with a fright wig to match Beethoven’s iconic ‘do. Absolutely nothing about him suggests that he is Beethoven except that he says he is Beethoven, and Quasimodo concurs. As absurd as this non-costume plays, Wolff captures some very plausible personality of Beethoven, who was the superstar of the early nineteenth century. He is smug, elitist, controlling, and amazing. Wolff’s tenor is round and full and robust.
In contrast to Wolff’s unadorned face as Beethoven, Larry Adams is in heavy prosthesis as Quasimodo. His droopy eye and large hump seem physical manifestations of the defeatism that plagues him. Quasimodo knows that nothing he does will produce the sound they seek, and he becomes progressively overwhelmed with the futility of the exercise. Larry Adams’s bass is sonorous yet subdued. He is pitch perfect in delivering what becomes increasingly cynical counterpoint to Wolff’s useless persistence.
The Hunchback Variations Opera is funny and frustrating and absurd and poignant. The Hunchback Variations Opera is the most unlikely confluence of heterogeneous incompatibilities to ever work perfectly together onstage. Without doubt, The Hunchback Variations Opera is the DO NOT MISS production of the year in Chicago. The Hunchback Variations Opera should be extended and re-extended for months, but you cannot take that chance. BUY YOUR TICKETS NOW.
I am hopeful that, within a few short years, the cheap I Do! I Do! will be jettisoned from the catalog of oft-produced musicals, and that the priceless The Hunchback Variations Operawill be hastily added to the schedules of every musical theatre house and opera company in the English-speaking world.
(“The Hunchback Variations Opera” has been EXTENDED through March 11 at Victory Gardens Biograph Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Avenue, Chicago. Box Office: 773-871-3000. Tickets:Victory Gardens)
Read our first review here: THE HUNCHBACK VARIATIONS OPERA – REVIEW – Chicago Stage Review