Aaron’s Top 10 Nostalgic Recorded Performances of All Time

Theatre isn’t dead! And it never will be, as long as I have anything to say about it! It is safe to say, however, that theatre is taking a nap right now, as a result of a little worldwide pandemic you might have heard of. I won’t lie, I miss going to the theatre a great deal — in many ways it’s the last distraction-free form of entertainment there is. The thrill of being in a dark room, forced to turn off your phone and focus completely on a gripping story which unfolds right before your eyes. . . well, there’s nothing quite like it.

Luckily for us, however, there’s never been a better era for being stuck inside with nowhere to go. There is a digital entertainment empire at our fingertips, and I have caught up on many of my favorite old movies and TV shows in the past two months. In fact, there’s so much to stream we even built you a guide of what’s going on online in Chicago. Recently, I’ve found myself craving entertainment that mimics the breathlessness of the theatre-going experience. And so, in the same way I’m returning to movies that have given me a sense of nostalgia in the past, I find myself doing the same with the great recorded theatre performances of my life.

And so! As a fun diversion in these troubled times, here is my official Top 10 nostalgia-inducing recorded performances of all time. I’ve been drawing solace from these old bits of theatre, and I hope you will too. We’ll be dropping one item on the list every other day until we get to #1.

#10 — SPIES ARE FOREVER

Spies Are Forever is a musical written and produced by the three-person sketch comedy group, Tin Can Brothers. It takes place in 1960-something and is a parody of the spy movie genre, following the adventures of American Secret Service agent Curt Mega, as he attempts to foil an evil Nazi plot to take over the world.

I have very mixed feelings about this musical, but I still find it bizarrely comforting to watch. It’s a deconstruction of the spy genre’s view of masculinity and gender roles — but there are moments when it seems strangely unaware of what it’s trying to say. For instance, Curt is very much set up as a recovering alcoholic running from his past, but then (mild spoiler) his entire ragtag spy team has a whole song in Act Two where they get hammered right before a dangerous mission with zero consequences. Philosophically, you kind of have to go into Spies Are Forever with the understanding that, while its ideas are revolutionary, the execution of most of them feels a little half-baked.

The quality of the songs ranges from decent to positively iconic, with the rip-roaring opening number being my favorite. The characters are simultaneously over-the-top, lovable, and relatable. I adore the minimalist approach to the staging (a stark contrast to the expensive, flashy bombast of real spy movies), and while there are some pacing problems, the material is so ambitious that I can’t help but cut Spies some slack. Without spoilers, I’ll say that there’s a delightfully gay twist in Act Two that made my shriveled heart grow three sizes on my first watch.

At its core, this musical is about a man caught between the future and the past. Curt desperately needs society’s views to progress in order to self-actualize, but he takes so much comfort in the nostalgic trappings of the spy genre that he himself becomes trapped. It’s a fascinating take on the dangers of nostalgia, and I find it very relevant. I’ll refrain from getting political with this, but I will ask: why do you think that, in the midst of worldwide panic, we take so much comfort in the entertainment of our past?

PRICE TAG: $0! It’s available for free on YouTube

#9 —  CRAZY FOR YOU

In case you’re unaware, Crazy For You is something of a remake. Basically, in the early 90’s, somebody took a look at an old Gershwin musical from the 30’s, said “Let’s update this so it has the pacing of a modern musical comedy while still imitating the Golden Age style, shove even more Gershwin songs into it, and make it as commercially viable as possible!” As a result, this show is the blandest comedy to ever hit the Broadway stage, and I absolutely love it. The original Broadway production starred Harry Groener (who I know from playing the evil Mayor Wilkins on Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and Jodi Benson, better known as the Little Mermaid in The Little Mermaid.

The version I’ve linked above, however, seems to have been filmed several years later at the Paper Mills Playhouse in New Jersey. I love its faded, VHS-like quality; I love the tacky sets and slick, energetic tap dancing. I don’t so much love the plot; I think it’s a tad basic and misogynist. However, this show has never tried to be anything more than a fun, dumb whale of a time, and I can respect that. The actors are all delightful and have electric chemistry and comedic timing.

At the age of 16, I played an ensemble cowboy in a production of Crazy For You at a summer stock theatre in southern Maine, as part of the strangest internship I’ve ever had. I got paid almost nothing, and shared a tiny dressing room with professional New York actors in their 20’s, a practice which seems inappropriate in retrospect. But regardless, it still stands out as one of my fondest teenage memories — it was all the breathless excitement of a high school show, but with a veneer of respectability slapped on top that no high school could ever replicate. To this day it’s the only tap-heavy show I’ve ever done, and there is a reason for that: I distinctly remember that I was always put in the back of any dancing formation onstage.

I carpooled to rehearsals with a high school friend with whom I remain close to this day. And so watching this old production instantly takes me back to the early days of that friendship, of driving up Route 1 on hot summer nights after an exhausting show and talking about life, the universe, and everything. I am not so foolish as to be particularly nostalgic about my nostalgia: that theatre was a chaotic and awful place to work, even if it had a rustic Maine charm about it. But still, it is nice to be swept into the past sometimes — even the complicated and tangled-up past that is my teenage years.

PRICE TAG: $6.99 if you wanna be a goody two-shoes and buy the DVD. But seriously, it’s $0 on YouTube. Don’t bother.

Check back in on Friday for #8 on the list! I won’t spoil it for you, but I think it’ll be a wicked good time.

In Defense of the Casual Phone Call

We are living in anxious times.

I don’t have anything particularly helpful to say about the larger issue of coronavirus. By all means, please stay home, wash your hands, and practice as much social distancing as possible. Here’s an excellent article about how social distancing will help and the best ways to practice it, as well as some cool, informative visualizations that show the scope of the problem.

I do, however, have something to say regarding mental well-being in these anxious times. I, for one, am doing everything my therapist has taught me in order to keep my anxiety under control; indoor exercise, yoga, meditations, and long walks outside (staying six feet away from anybody I see) have all worked wonders. But I won’t lie; I have found social distancing to be surprisingly difficult so far, and as of this writing it’s only been about three days. I’m not a social creature at the best of times, but strangely, I have within me at all times an unquenchable desire to be a social being. As an introvert, the closing of bars and restaurants hasn’t affected me much; I prefer hanging out one-on-one with people, especially people I haven’t talked to in a while.

Continue reading “In Defense of the Casual Phone Call”

‘Stick Fly’ at Writers Theatre Asks Poignant Questions About Blackness in America

Stick Fly at Writers Theatre, directed by Ron OJ Parson and written by Lydia R. Diamond, is set around two affluent Black siblings who bring their partners, one black and one white, to their family cottage on Martha’s Vineyard. It is at Vineyard where they are forced to confront their realities, family secrets, and class prejudices.

The trek to Glencoe in the cold might seem daunting, but the show itself is too thoughtful and poignant to miss. It doesn’t beg to be included in the theatre landscape; it carves its own way.

Continue reading “‘Stick Fly’ at Writers Theatre Asks Poignant Questions About Blackness in America”

‘Lipstick Lobotomy’ at Trap Door Theatre Explores Gender in Mental Health

Lipstick Lobotomy, written by Krista Knight and directed by Kate Hendrickson, takes place in a women’s sanitarium in the early 1940’s, conveyed here by a delightfully unsettling green-and-white color palette across the production that evokes the eerie sanitized atmosphere of a hospital. We meet our main character, Ginny (Ann Sonnevile), as she arrives at the hospital straight off the heels of separating from her husband. Ginny immediately meets and befriends fellow patient Rosemary Kennedy (played with a lovable charm by Abby Blankenship, and who is, yes, of those Kennedys). Rosemary struggles with her own mental disability, and against her family’s desire to make her undergo a lobotomy, while Ginny undergoes the opposite struggle. She wants to get a lobotomy in order to stave off her lifelong depression, but her family is understandably horrified at the prospect.

Continue reading “‘Lipstick Lobotomy’ at Trap Door Theatre Explores Gender in Mental Health”

‘Labyrinth’ at Broken Nose Theatre is a Space-Bending Journey About Power and Finance

Labyrinth, Beth Steel’s blistering critique of corporate greed and American international relations, finds a fitting home for its U.S. Premiere with Broken Nose Theatre, a pay-what-you-can theatre company founded on the principle of economic accessibility. It is hard to say exactly what Labyrinth is—and not in a pejorative way. Loosely following events surrounding the Latin American debt crisis, the script, which begins conventionally enough, accelerates, growing in absurdity and darkness until it devolves into what resembles the fever dream of an over-exhausted worker. This production asks audiences to consider the human cost of economic tinkering, the hegemonic power of the American financial system, the difference between a scam and a hedged investment, and the divide between the so called first and third worlds. Under the skillful and energetic direction of Spencer Davis, Broken Nose Theatre successfully brings this sweeping-yet-psychological, brooding-yet-punchy, absurdly-funny-yet-tragic story to life.

Continue reading “‘Labyrinth’ at Broken Nose Theatre is a Space-Bending Journey About Power and Finance”

‘A Doll’s House’ at Raven Theatre Reinvigorates a Timeless Classic

It’s a new decade in Chicago and Ibsen is in the air.

Raven Theatre’s A Doll’s House is the first of three Ibsen plays opening within the next month. Strawdog’s stormy Hedda Gabler will follow shortly on Raven’s heels, and Court’s The Lady From the Sea will bring up the rear with the most ethereal of the Norwegian playwright’s femme-centric family dramas. It must be something in the water.

A long century and a half has passed since A Doll’s House first scandalized European audiences with the “door slam heard around the world.” However, Raven Theatre’s production still manages to feel relevant and timely. Although director Lauren Shouse retains the 19th century setting of Nora’s tale, Shouse re-envisions the meaning of Ibsen’s revolutionary, feminist masterwork for the audience of today. Although her reinterpretation does sacrifice some nuances of Ibsen’s play for the sake of its concept, it remains a promising example of how a classic can be reimagined for contemporary audiences.

Continue reading “‘A Doll’s House’ at Raven Theatre Reinvigorates a Timeless Classic”

‘Roan @ the Gates’ at American Blues Theatre Tells a Scarily Relevant Love Story

Roan @ the Gates is a patriotic love story of two righteous women who are torn between their relationship and their principles. Roan (Brenda Barrie), an NSA analyst, puts everything on the line when she leaks government documents to an international reporter. Roan flees to Russia, and her wife Nat (Jasmine Bracey) is left blindsided and an ocean away. The Chicago premiere of Christina Telesca Gormans’ cyberfiction is much closer to reality than one might hope. In 75 minutes, director Lexi Saunders documents a deteriorating marriage with stunning design and intimate performances. As the conflict builds and communication breaks away, however, the narrative falls into a loop where the same argument is played out again and again.

Continue reading “‘Roan @ the Gates’ at American Blues Theatre Tells a Scarily Relevant Love Story”

‘Boys in the Band’ at Windy City Playhouse Feels Both Dated and Timeless

How can a play feel both dated and relevant? Stereotypical yet viscerally authentic? Generic yet highly specific?

Coming off the heels of its 50th year anniversary revival run on Broadway, Boys in the Band, directed by Carl Menninger, is currently playing at Windy City Playhouse in an immersive theatre style. It is considered one of the first mainstream plays to depict gay men in earnest, without resorting to tokenization or jokes. The plot centers around five gay friends who throw a birthday party for their acerbic friend, Harold (Sam Bell Gurwitz), at Michael’s (Jackson Evans) apartment. Coupling Harold’s late arrival is an unsuspected visit by Michael’s college friend, Alan (Christian Edwin Cook), who does not know Michael is gay. As the night unravels, the friends gradually get more drunk and let their insecurities loose. Though the language is notably dated — like the use of “homosexual” instead of “gay” and several racialized comments — the feelings of ostracization and self-loathing from not being validated is a timeless sentiment. The play is timeless; the production feels dated, getting trapped in the time period and inhibiting the story’s ability to radiate its more universal themes.

Continue reading “‘Boys in the Band’ at Windy City Playhouse Feels Both Dated and Timeless”

‘Roe’ at the Goodman Theatre Gives Us Glimpses of a Famous Court Case

Roe at The Goodman Theatre, written by Lisa Loomer and directed by Vanessa Stalling, begins in the past, from the first court case of Roe v. Wade in 1970, and continues well on into the 2000s. The story itself brings in lots of quotes, monologues, facts, and information to give the audience, along with telling a segmented narrative from Norma, the woman behind Roe. This is a lot of information for any audience to take in under two hours, especially given that the show jumps in time. While there is a lot of talking to the audience in the show, we never really learn anything new about the case or who Norma really is. The show isn’t so much about Roe as it is about glimpses of ideas without a solid foundation.

Continue reading “‘Roe’ at the Goodman Theatre Gives Us Glimpses of a Famous Court Case”

‘Do You Feel Anger’ at A Red Orchid Theatre Uses Workplace Comedy to Ask Important Questions

Do You Feel Anger marries high absurdist comedy with a nuanced discussion of empathy and gender politics. The seemingly mind boggling combination enchants, making for an enjoyable yet haunting evening of comedy.

Shortly after her parents unexpectedly separate, Sofia (Emjoy Gavino) begins her assignment  as an empathy coach at a debt collection agency. The office is headed by Jon (Lawrence Grimm), a smooth-talking exec who tries to sell Sofia on his nice guy facade. As she ignores calls from her mother (Jennifer Jelsema), Sofia attempts to wrap her head around the branch’s kooky culture and break the impenetrable wall of its three low-level employees: Jordan (Bernard Gilbert), a suave, self-proclaimed poet, Howie, who devolves into infantile antics when emotionally provoked, and Eva (Sadieh Rifai), a self-effacing chatterbox who is mugged daily in the kitchen—a fact that phases none of her coworkers. All three are haunted by the absence of Jenny, a worker who attempted to burn down the office in the throes of a nervous breakdown. Jenny’s cardigan still hangs on the back of one of the conference chairs. As Sofia comes to understand their workplace environment, the sweater grows in eerie prominence. Fearing for her safety, Sofia begins to assimilate.

Continue reading “‘Do You Feel Anger’ at A Red Orchid Theatre Uses Workplace Comedy to Ask Important Questions”