By Colin Douglas
Citadel Theatre has another hit on its hands. At its best with unique, new, small cast dramas, comedies and dramedies, this North Shore company just gets better and better with each production. And local prolific playwright Laura Schellhardt’s wonderful, heartrending one-act, Upright Grand, is currently being given a sensitive, magnificent production that demands to be seen.
Schellhardt has crafted a tender 90-minute play about the sometimes harmonious, often dissonant relationship between a father and daughter. The play spans several decades as it weaves a tale of love, loss, success and failure laced with a considerable helping of familial rows and rebellion.
Pops is a pianist in a popular local bar. He’s well-known by his faithful listeners as the piano man. Whether they’re enjoying an occasional dinner out or casually lingering late into the night over their drinks, he’s always at the keyboard. Pops is the guy who provides their background, the melodies of their lives. Pops tickles the ivories playing standards like “Smile,” “Moon River” and “Someone To Watch Over Me,” much to the delight of his customers. However, the man’s never become good enough to be a classical musician. He simply dreams of composing his own tin pan alley hits.
Kiddo is first seen as a precocious 12-year-old, lingering around the foot pedals of Pops’ old upright piano. Through their banter, we learn that Kiddo has had to give up a few things, in particular her piano lessons, that Pops didn’t even realize she had been taking. Soon, this beautifully sentimental drama is painting a portrait of a little girl growing into a smart, talented young woman. She’s not only inherited her father’s music genius, but also his self-absorption and a fondness for classic musical theatre scores.
Kiddo also has her father’s wit, bluntness and salty humor, as well as a remarkable ability to play classical music. Mastering such composers as Chopin and Rachmaninoff, Kiddo eventually tours the world, while Pops labors away at the bar, soon taking on an additional job to make ends meet. Kiddo continues to dazzle the world with her virtuosity at the grand piano, while the world she once knew secretly begins to fall apart.
Respected, Jeff Award-winning guest director Scott Weinstein has beautifully guided this production. With loving care and feeling he depicts the playwright’s tale of both the errors and the exultations of parenting. Weinstein draws honest, razor-sharp performances out of all three of his actors in a balanced story proving that the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree. His production, staged on a simple, multipurpose setting by Adam Veness, keeps the story clean, manageable and uncluttered. Everything about Weinstein’s vision is smart, pointed and clear.
Jeff Award-winning Equity actor Mark Ulrich‘s performances have been enjoyed on stages all over the country, including Chicago’s Goodman, Northlight and Writers Theatre, among others. He portrays Pops with respect, drive and dignity, proud of his own talent and his years of hard work, but always wishing for something more. Described by the playwright as being “more upright, less grand,” he infuses this independent guy with verve and a pensive longing for finding his own tune. Unfortunately, Pops is a fella for whom his musical muse has never paid a visit. Ulrich’s portrayal of a devoted parent, albeit imperfect, is always concerned and caring, a quality rivaled only by his infatuation for musical creation.
Accomplished actress Charlotte Mae Ellison plays Kiddo, challenged with taking her character from a little girl, through her teen years and into young adulthood. While Kiddo adores her father and admires his skill at the upright, her own musical talent eventually begins to burgeon, soon becoming the mistress of the concert grand piano. Their father/daughter relationship, as Ellison plays Kiddo, gradually grows out of tune and eventually goes flat. Touring as an artist, many years separate their time together. News about her family, both good and bad, seldom reaches Kiddo. When the young woman finally discovers the truth she lashes out at Pops with the understandable fury of a daughter kept in the dark. Ellison is totally believable and quite remarkable at portraying her character at every age.
Multi-talented, young Matt Edmonds, who has appeared all over Chicagoland in many award-winning productions, is the accompanist for both Pops and Kiddo. In this capacity, Edmonds masters both barroom ditties and classical masterpieces; and he does so with the skill and finesse of an Andre Previn. But, not only does this accomplished musician provide the musical soundtrack for this story, he also plays several supporting characters, including Pops’ bar buddy, an ambivalent, blind piano tuner and an opinionated Russian musical master at Julliard. In each and every role Edmonds is sensational, but never showy. The actor wisely understands that this play belongs to Pops and Kiddo.
This peerless, poignant drama is currently playing in a superb, heartfelt production in Lake Forest. Directed with empathy and skill and featuring a talented trio of actors at the top of their game, this is yet one more production that will place Citadel Theatre on the map. If the previous production and this current play are any indication, one can only imagine where this theatre is headed in the future.
Citadel Theatre presents “Upright Grand” through March 26 at 300 S. Waukegan Rd., Lake Forest. More information and tickets are available here. Additional reviews by Colin Douglas are published at theatreinchicago.com.