Chicago Theater Review: MARIE CHRISTINE (BoHo Theatre at Theater Wit)

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by Lawrence Bommer on October 29, 2017

in Theater-Chicago


It’s a (forced) marriage made in musicals. You don’t immediately think of Marie Laveau and Medea as soul sisters with a common cause: New Orleans’ voodoo high priestess (1801-1881) and the avenging infanticide of Euripides’ domestic tragedy pursued different paths, even as the stigma of sorcery both defined and defied them.

Fascinatingly, in 1999 composer, lyricist and librettist John LaChiusa (The Wild Party, Hello Again) fused their fates into Marie Christine, a two-act, sung-through musical to reclaim their rages. Here Laveau’s rebellion against organized religion and institutionalized medicine curdles into Medea’s wrath against Jason, chaser of the Golden Fleece and the treacherous “husband” she helped and hurt.

The result, distilled and ignited by Lili-Anne Brown’s powerhouse BoHo Theatre revival at Chicago’s Theater Wit, is a high-velocity vendetta (1894-1899) sprawling from turn-of-the-century New Orleans to a post-Columbian Exposition Chicago. The raw passions—impetuous infatuation, calculated betrayal and implacable revenge—bear the same DNA as in ancient Greece: La Chiusa’s torrent of 42 musical numbers simply turns it fresh and ferocious as tomorrow’s tabloids. As one song puts it, “You Can Taste The Blood.”

Based both on Marie Laveau and the daughter who also bore that name, conjure-woman Marie Christine (Kyrie Courter, a one-woman “green-eyed monster”) is first seen in jail facing execution. Here her fellow prisoners, re-enacting the crimes that brought her there, detail the amour fatale that propels this mixed-blood enchantress. A seething sister who enrages her respectability-chasing brothers (excellent Averis Anderson and Curtis Bannister), Marie Christine is both blessed and afflicted with charms and curses by which she aids or attacks patients or victims.

Forfeiting the privilege she never thought she earned, this Creole princess will follow “the map of my heart” and abandon her gilded advantages. Unarguable persuasion comes from a “carpet-bagging” Yankee interloper—a handsome Chicago sea captain named Dante Lemuel Keyes (Ken Singleton, seductive and destructive). Just as Desdemona was smitten with Othello’s adventures, Dante’s tales of ocean storms and his prized town (“Nothing Beats Chicago”) seem to our displaced Marie another “Way Back to Paradise.” Though fearful that she might have inherited her mother’s madness—she was (also) yoked to a faithless white man—Marie, like Medea, steals and kills to benefit her beau. Now pregnant, she proclaims (“I Will Give” all), a witch-like Beatrice to her driven Dante.

Set in a characteristically corrupt Chicago, the second act details a now-isolated Marie Christine’s descent into despair and retribution. Yes, she incarnates the hell that hath no fury like a woman scorned, but it’s not an overnight retaliation. She must endure being a mistress rather than wife, then discarded so Dante can pursue his political ambitions by wooing Helena (an anguished Emily Goldberg), daughter of “clout”-heavy boss Charles Gates (Pavi Proczko), notoriously named in “You’re Looking at the Man.” Much like “The Scorpion” who must sting because it’s his nature, Dante, exposed as a racist ingrate, now only cherishes his children. Marie Christine can’t believe she lost her worth so quickly. Or that Dante forgets her powers (“Tell Me [You’re Not Frightened]”).

Realizing there’s “No Turning Back,” Marie Christine sets in motion her elaborately sociopathic payback, involving a poisoned dress and an unspeakable (but not unsingable) double murder.

Most powerful in LaChiusa’s retelling are the musical laments and outbursts he gives the chorus of women. Both wrenching solos and surging anthems, their magnificent denunciations (“Miracle and Mysteries,” “Paradise Is Burning Down,” “Prison in a Prison,” “And You Would Lie”) are worthy equivalents to Euripides’ sacred-to-profane evocations. BoHo’s ensemble is right in every note, most particularly Teressa LaGamba, Shantel Cribbs, Nicole Michelle Haskins, Neala Barron, Katherine Bourné, and Emily Goldberg as Marie Christine’s irresistible allies.

Alas, LaChiusa’s shotgun wedding of the Big Easy’s spellbinding root-and-ribbon rituals and a classical Athenian catastrophe doesn’t quite work: It refuses to yield a whole that’s greater than its sources. No ballad in a score that lurches from jazz to cakewalks to dark rock achieves escape velocity to stand on its merits—despite cunning shaping by music director Aaron Benham. As for any determined dancing, choreographer Breon Arzell can only lavish his talents on the sardonic quadroon ball that ends the first act.

Still and at best, these 130 minutes deliver a splendid showcase for corrosive chanteuse Barron as merrily malevolent Magdalena, Haskins as Marie’s cautionary mother, and, well, everyone in Brown’s unimprovable 13-member cast and six-person orchestra. Adding to the excellent illusions are set design Arnel Sancianco’s sepulchral French doors with their tropical “jalousies” and appropriate wrought-iron proscenium and Heather Gilbert’s neurasthenic lighting.

Yes, Medea/Marie lives—so others don’t.

photos by Katie Stanley

Marie Christine
BoHo Theatre
Theater Wit, 1229 W Belmont Ave
Thurs-Sat at 8; Sun at 2
ends on December 10, 2017
for tickets, call 773.327.5252 or visit BoHo Theatre

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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