For the prowess of its musical score alone, Marie Christine should be short-listed for Chicago must-see theater. Director Lili-Anne Brown takes this magnetic music and gives us much, much more…
Lights flicker outside and around three louvered doors that immediately signal we are in the French Quarter of New Orleans. There seems to be a commotion outside, and then the din takes on crescendo as Kyrie Courter in the title role is thrown through the center door while a woman’s chorus emerging from all sides sings questions of what she has done to land her here in prison, now awaiting her execution the next morning.
On all fours she looks up, sings her name, peppering her clarion voice with distinctive rolls of stiff arm and hand as her torso is whipped by what seems to be a cyclone in her personal space. This move soon becomes her trademark—a movement refrain with a whiff of West African dance that captures her essence and perhaps the entire musical’s storyline (Choreography: Breon Arzell) In this gesture we see Marie Christine’s force of nature passions that she attempts to ride like a cowboy on a bucking bronco, and with similar faint and fleeting ability to control the beast of her will.
In this riveting opening scene— arguably the most powerful moment in the production and one which sets a high bar of expectations for the remainder—the pile on of Director Brown’s so expert staging decisions begins commanding us to affirmative nods at her sophisticated touch. Yes, with music so compelling leave the door ajar so we can periodically glimpse the musicians making their magic. Yes, have the actors’ bodies ever move like props that shift the visual frame and focus to the action. Yes, crank up the spotlights for that perfect touch (Lighting Designer: Heather Gilbert). Yes, garb Marie Christine in a bustier that telegraphs from the gitgo that being the proper lady of her brothers’ design is a non-starter (Costume Designer: Izumi Inabi).
Striking as the director’s touch is, Marie Christine would be nothing without its bedrock Tony Award-nominated musical score and lyrics by Michael John LaChiusa. Lyrics and music are sewn together with stunning perfection. Here too a signature quickly emerges of melody taking a half note detour to emphasize a mood or affect. You too may be a tad reminded of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, but do not think you will walk away thinking this music is somehow derivative. This music has super-magnetic pull, and in this production, the cast brings vocal ability up to its challenge, which is not trivial.
Most of the story is told through song. Kyrie Courter gives her role pure diva energy—albeit way sexier than your typical stiff opera queen. That this is a difficult role to perform because of the range required – vocally, acting, dancing, all- hits you later. During her performance she keeps us absolutely spellbound, making it all seem totally effortless.
We meet Marie Christine’s mother, Nicole Michelle Haskins, who was the forsaken lover of a White man, who then kept their sons on as servants after his dalliance ended. She was the one who taught Marie Christine the voodoo skills of her African ancestors singing “Your Grandfather was the Sun”. Her bequest to Marie—independent spirit coupled with voodoo and psychology smarts, is what enables Marie Christine to work her way in the various plot twists.
Marie Christine’s brothers—Averis I. Anderson as playboy Paris and Curtis Bannister as Jean—try to keep Marie Christine on the farm, so to speak, and to adapt to the ways of bourgeois propriety. Compelling in both song and acting, you too might find yourself longing for them to have more songs and bigger roles. Prepare to be reminded of a quartet in a world-class opera like Rigoletto when these two are joined by Nicole Michelle Harris and elfin Katherine Bourné as Lisette, to sing “No Turning Back” signaling the dramatic pivot point in the story from which it then moves quickly to conclusion.
When Marie Christine’s white love interest first appears, Dante played by Ken Singleton, you too may wonder why on earth this vocal powerhouse is mic’d. Perhaps that is more clear later on when the demanding score warrants his reach to what is perhaps not his natural register. That this is the case may be apparent, but more clearly, this is a triple threat who ably gets the job done.
BoHo Theatre Stages Historic Addition to Musical Repertoire Tackling Racism
42 songs in all, they tell the story of Marie Christine’s journey from protected and pampered younger bi-racial sister to the prisoner on the floor awaiting her execution. Program notes and beyond will reference this story as a Medea update, but it strikes this writer to suggest instead it is what the classic Showboat might have been if it were written in the 21st Century. Like Showboat, this is a musical with a tale of racism in its core, and specifically a racism surrounding biracial identity. More, Marie Christine can also be likened to Toni Morrison’s Beloved, depicting how maternal instincts play out in the rot of slavery’s legacy of foul racism.
Expect this musical to cling to you and command you to revisit it in your mind’s eye and ears again and again. Maybe an editor’s cut here and there to make it a tad shorter? It’s but a scintilla shy of perfection.
Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO, where it will remain until the end of the run. Click here to read – Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves.
Note: an excerpt of this review appears in Theatre in Chicago.
Thru December 10
Thursdays thru Saturdays at 8:00 pm
Sundays at 2:00 pm
1229 West Belmont