By Betsy Wolfe
Quest Theatre Ensemble is bringing another original production to Chicago, The People’s History of the United States. This production, though brought to the stage originally in 2008, has been updated and revised to include events from the last seven and a half years of Obama’s presidency.
With Book and Lyrics by Andrew Park, founding member of Quest, and Music by Scott Lamp, this thought-provoking, fast-paced production takes the audience from before the founding of the USA to very recent events and alludes to the two 2016 presidential candidates. More about the story background can be found here.
The Blue Theater, run out of the lower level of St Gregory the Great Church on the north side, is a wonderfully flexible and intimate theater space. Actors perform on a tiny stage only a few feet from the front row, as well as around and within the audience seating space. This is a very personal presentation that uses every inch of viewable space to connect with the audience, and opening night yielded a packed house.
The People’s History of the United States moves very quickly from short scene to short scene, stopping here and there to give more time and emphasis on particular historical moments with either a song or monologue. Other than that, the pace is head-spinning and patrons will definitely miss something if they blink too long. The first act is short, only 40 minutes, with the second act winding to about an hour.
The execution of this show is nearly flawless. The choral pieces are a highlight of the show, with tight harmony and peppy tunes by Lamp. Well written and executed, this music is memorable and often light-hearted, with some soulful ballads for poignant moments. The house band, led by Music Director Sara Cate Langham, presents like an additional character, set off to the side of the front stage and audience playing effectively while not taking attention from the action.
Elliot Fredland performs a credible and respectful portrayal of Uncle Sam, who is also the narrator for much of the show. The cast is filled with talent from end to end and has the strength of multiple generations and diversity to tell the story, with actors playing multiple characters and/or ensemble. There is plenty of humor throughout, especially in the first act. The use of puppetry, exaggerated masks and animated set pieces is charming. It’s difficult to choose outstanding performers here because the cast is seriously gifted, however there is one standout section; a sequence during Land of Our Dreams. It not only features an immigrant family from overseas, but a welcoming and comforting Lady Liberty, beautifully played by Alexa Castelvecchi. The sequence is heartfelt and patriotic, extolling the big heart of our nation.
Director Park does a terrific job of placing actors for affect onstage and around the space. There is clearly an atmosphere of friendship and warmth within the cast and crew; the director must take some credit for this. The sentiment translates well into the material and to the audience, though it doesn’t hurt that Park also wrote the book for the show.
Set Designs by James T Scott III are creative and playful. Costuming takes a smart approach in dressing the ensemble in white and utilizing various costume pieces and appliances as necessary for various characters, without a lot of fussiness. The only character who could benefit from a little more attention is the Dolly Parton lookalike. Though Chelsea Debaise gives a great vocal impression of Parton, her look is less than impressive with a raggedy blonde wig and little makeup. The outfit gives no reference to Dolly’s style and there is no beauty mark. When doing an impression of a recognizable person, more effort is warranted.
The challenge of writing such a personal summary of history is to be able to step back to objectively create an accurate and unbiased narrative. This is easier to do with events that occurred in past, since time has given us a broader, seasoned view of circumstances. Some of the events in this show, particularly the added material, are very current, and without the benefit of time and distance, it’s difficult to be completely objective. It’s easy to speculate regarding the writer’s personal views, which is not in and of itself a terrible thing. The show is the strongest when it uses actual quotes from historical writings and speeches, and it does this a lot. Quest Theater Ensemble communicates it wants to make people think, and this show certainly does.
This production can be enjoyed by most any age and moves fast enough with lots of action to hold an older child’s attention. This is a very entertaining show, if at times a bit preachy. For those who enjoy theater that questions, charming creative sets and direction and tight well-written music, then this is definitely the show for you.
“The People’s History of the United States” runs through November 6 at The Blue Theatre, 1609 W. Gregory Ave., Chicago. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm and Saturdays and Sundays at 2 pm. More information and reservations (tickets are free) may be found and made here.