WHEN: Now -- a recording of a live March 8, 2020 performance
(recorded at Davenport’s Piano Bar, Chicago, Illinois)
CAST & MUSICIANS: Michael Joseph Mitchell with Leah Darany, Gracie Harper & Danni Smith (vocals); Adam Whiteman (drums), Andrew Hollander-Urbach (music direction)
Michael J. Mitchell knows his way around Chicago stages. He acts and sings his way through venues as vast as the Lyric Opera House and as intimate as a basement theater in an Evanston church. Whatever the pay scale or the number of lines, the show goes on for Michael.
Born and raised in the Chicago area, Michael decamped to NYC for 15 years to grow his actor’s resume and fine-tune his waitering technique. He returned to Chicago in 1999 to take advantage of its exploding theater scene. Life has been busy ever since. Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Drury Lane Oakbrook, Mercury Theater, Oak Park Theater Festival, Chicago Dramatists, Remy Bumppo, First Folio…it’s a long list.
Fortunately, Michael’s most recent performance – the last of a three-part cabaret series that he created for himself – was recorded live at Davenport’s Piano Bar in early March. From a safe social distance, PTP asked Michael what’s on his mind since COVID-19 shuttered Chicago stages but not the creative energy of the city’s artists.
(PTP) You came up with the title A [MUSICAL] SURVIVAL KIT when exactly? Did you know before the rest of us that we’d all need a survival kit this year?
I came up with the title last September. As you can see, the running theme of my shows has been that music is my life raft. That’s why my “brand,” if you will, is to invoke some helpful concept or book. For A Guide for the Perplexed by Maimonides, I inserted the word “musical” to suggest music as being the source of all solace – A [MUSICAL] GUIDE FOR THE PERPLEXED. But ya. The fact that we are where we are now has made my third show’s title, A [MUSICAL] SURVIVAL KIT, crazy appropriate. I was referring to the political leadership and social division and anxiety that we’ve been in for some time now, not to mention the insanity of our leadership, which keeps me awake at night.
(PTP) One of your show’s taglines is “Let’s crack open the kit and sing some sense into the samsara.” Please define samsara for those of us who are perplexed.
“noun: [Hinduism & Buddhism] the cycle of death and rebirth to which life in the material world is bound.” I remember reading The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche who defined samsara as the confusion and chaos in which we live on this mortal plane. Not to get all deep here; I use the word for fun value.
(PTP) You went to New York City to achieve spiritual growth and waitering skills. Please compare and contrast spiritual growth and waitering. Anything to do with the samsara?
It’s Samsara Central. Working in very little theater companies in NYC and waiting tables at a succession of fine dining establishments both created little families. Some of those families I miss like hell. We even have former employee Facebook groups! Some I’d rather forget. But Lordy, it builds character. Not to mention providing a picture of what various celebrities are like when they dine out. That’s where the rubber hits the road, folks. When you all get famous, do not be a jerk to your server. It lives on in memory.
(PTP) After so many shows in Chicago, you’ve got many favorites. Tell us about two.
Well, getting to play THE WIZARD OF OZ and William Shakespeare – both last summer – was a real bucket crosser-offer. But the two experiences where it was hard to say goodbye were SIGNS OF LIFE, an original musical [yes, I said a musical] about the Terezin concentration camp in WW2. That cast had a bond of love that was hard to leave. Even more so was a big, 6-hour, 2-part epic at Indiana Rep called FINDING HOME: INDIANA AT 200. It was a beautiful mix of music, poetry and drama; a fantasia of what was wonderful and horrible in Indiana’s history [read: KKK]. The last presidential election fell in the middle of the run. We had a 9:00 a.m. show for school kids the morning after Election Day. The audience and cast held each other up during that performance. The show took on a much more elegiac quality after that. And I had the most amazing bond with the cast and crew. Three years later, we still occasionally group text each other. One of the things that keeps me in the theater are the families that we create when we work together.
(PTP) What are three things that readers should know about your remarkable producer wife Chery Ross Mitchell?
She is an excruciatingly talented actor and singer. We met in Bobby Lewis’ acting class in New York where she did the single best Martha from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? that I’ve ever seen. She brings an artist’s eye and spirit to everything she does, including producing corporate and industrial events. She’s funny as hell. Beautiful as a starlet. And she puts up with me. Go figure.
(PTP) When readers click and watch A [MUSICAL] SURVIVAL KIT, what would you like them to experience – besides the sheer pleasure of singers and musicians bringing joy to laptop screens?
A little community, a little family for an hour. To feel maybe a little less alone in their own anxieties. Maybe a laugh or two. To be soothed. That’s what I need. So I guess the show was my own way of trying to soothe myself.
About the Author
Susan Lieberman is a Jeff-winning playwright, journalist, teacher and script consultant who commits most of her waking hours to Chicago theatre. Her radio drama In the Shadows aired on BBC Radio 4 last season.