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a drama of a different kind

An Evening at the Broadway Playhouse When the House Lights Didn’t Go Down.

Most great evenings in the theatre begin with the house lights going to black.  But last night was different at the Broadway Playhouse.  A group of 400 or so people gathered to hear from Julia Keller (Culture Critic) as the moderator with Chris Jones (Theater Critic), John von Rhein (Classical Music Critic), Greg Kot (Pop/Rock Critic), Michael Phillips (Movie Critic) and Howard Reich (Jazz Critic) – the people who usually tell the public what they think and what they should think about a show, a jazz piece, a symphony concert or a play.

They were on stage, exposed and as vulnerable as the actors, musicians, performers they judge themselves.   It was an evening of transparency, a brief glimpse at how they think, what they look for and some really genuinely funny stories.   As Stephen Colbert would say, it was an evening of “truthiness”.

On an avant-garde stage, with post-industrial draperies and exposed lights compliments of TRACES (the new show about to open at the Broadway Playhouse), a big screen took center-stage to set the stage for the critic’s eye view of the fall season. In front of the screen were six white chairs where each of the critics was seated like something out of Charlie Rose.

Jazz Critic Howard Reich set the tone for the entire night by answering Julia’s first question with humor, aplomb and honesty:  “The new mayor makes you arts czar, what’s the first thing you do?” “I quit.” Seriously though, “How do you follow Lois Weisberg? She’s been a great engine, bringing high-level arts to Chicago.”  What followed were a series of questions from “How do the arts deal with the recession?” to “Have you ever changed your mind about something you reviewed?”  Theatre critic Chris Jones, in response to the recession question, smartly added, “In some degree, it’s business as usual. Theaters in Chicago are used to doing more with less. The recession has proven the theater resilient to economic conditions.”

The audience was focused and had real “aha” moments as well as laughs, as these venerable critics let go of insider information and some very funny anecdotes from their years with wicked pens. Fighting for top laugh honors were Julia Keller’s story from the Columbus Dispatch that went something like: Shirley Jones was performing with the orchestra and the review noted that she was too old to still be performing.  To the critic’s surprise, Shirley Jones showed up at the offices the next day.  When the critic rode the elevator down to meet her, as the doors opened, there stood Shirley Jones complete with mink coat and the loudest greeting of “You Bitch!”

Or perhaps (I’m paraphrasing here) when Chris Jones equated all plays having something to do with death.  His example was, as he sat watching THE LION KING for the 12th time, he said “Why does this work?” and his realization was, It works because it assures us that we will be around long after we are gone.

What was the take away from this evening?  Well for me, as far as the panel, I was left with the sheer love of their jobs that each of these writers has. As for the evening itself, it left me wanting more.  An intelligent interactive conversation that allowed the audience to see their favorite writers being human, interacting with each other and with the audience.  I see so many more opportunities like this for the Chicago Tribune and for the Broadway Playhouse.

I so wish you were there – be sure to be on the lookout for other great programs like this.