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Friday, December 8

Gapers Block

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An all-star cast leads a riotous new musical from the songwriting team of Lloyd Maltby and Sarah Webber about former Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley, the last big boss of Chicago politics. But Boss! is not a mere biography of the mayor. Instead, the story focuses on the days of the 1968 Democratic National Convention and the subsequent trial of Abbie Hoffman and the Chicago Seven.

The show begins with the boisterous "Come to Chicago," tracing Daley's efforts to secure his city as the location for the ill-fated convention. Act two introduces Abbie Hoffman ("We Are the Yippies") and charts the events leading up to the anti-war protests during the days of the convention.

The first half of the musical ends with an extravagant recreation of Grant Park, including a scale replica of the bronze equestrian statue of General John A. Logan that became the focal point of the gathering. The protesters sing the show-stopping "The Whole World's Watching" while Daley sings the solo "Preserving Disorder," a passionate number that is equal parts lament and incitement. The curtain falls as the police move in to control the crowd in the park.

"Days of Rage" opens the second half of the musical. It is an ensemble number that has Daley defending his actions during the riot while Hoffman supporters protest as the Chicago Seven trial begins. And, finally, the production ends with the patriotic "This is Chicago, This is America," a song that neatly captures Daley's place within the history of the 20th century.

Musical theatre veteran Nathan Lane heads the cast, playing Mayor Richard J. Daley. Although an unlikely choice to play a role that requires such levity, Lane manages superbly. He brings charm and pathos to the role, making Daley a sympathetic character that captures the heart of the audience. Chicago favorites Gary Sinise and John Mahoney also lead the production as Abbie Hoffman and Judge Julius Hoffman, respectively.

Boss! is a lavishly produced show, and the politics and revolutionary subject beg comparison to other big-budget musicals such as Miss Saigon and Les Miserables. But if there is any love story at the heart of Boss!, it is only the love an irascible mayor had for his city.

Boss! is currently playing at the Shubert Theater through January.

Nighthawks at the Diner
It's a familiar formula by now: pick a popular musician with a deep discography, cull the choicest tracks and write a musical around them. Shows based on the greatest hits of ABBA (Mamma Mia!) and Billy Joel (Movin' Out) have wowed audiences here and on Broadway, instigating a search for other acts that could get this treatment.

Tom Waits is one of the first artists to be tapped in this next wave. Based on selections from Waits' bourbon-soaked albums of the 1970s and early '80s, Nighthawks at the Diner explores the seedier side of romance. Set in gritty West Hollywood, the play is populated with a who's who of sad sacks, hustlers, waitresses and cabbies -- people down on their luck if not altogether down and out. They're all regulars at Emma's Forty-niner, a dingy all-night diner fans would recognize from "Eggs and Sausage" on the play's namesake 1975 album. Other locations include the threadbare lounge next door ("The Piano Has Been Drinking" from Small Change) and the surrounding rain-soaked streets.

The plot is rudimentary and serves primarily as a vehicle to showcase the vivid characters Waits writes into his songs. But there is more than enough material in each song to make up for the lack of a plot, and each gives a member of the ensemble cast an opportunity to seize the spotlight for one maudlin showstopper after another. Veteran actor Brian Mulcahy's performance is a particular standout as the confirmed bachelor who declares he's "Better Off Without a Wife," and Leanne Livingston brings down the house with her pleading demand that her spurned lover "Please Call Me, Baby." The mysterious story of who shot small-time hoodlum "Small Change" is delivered with smooth, smokey sexiness by Jane Tierney, recalling the stylish edge of Chicago.

That's probably the biggest gamble the producers of Nighthawks have taken -- that audiences will be interested in bittersweet tales told by an older, bedraggled set of characters rather than your typical youthful romantic light comedy. There are funny moments here (particularly in the aforementioned "The Piano Has Been Drinking") but they're usually tinged with regret or sharp with bitterness toward the more fortunate. Writer Robert Bryn-Davies paints a sentimental portrait of life on the wrong side of town, and it may turn off audiences rather than endear them to Waits' scruffy muses.

On the other hand, Tom Waits has quite a following, especially among actors, and the seats of Buick Ambassador Theater were nearly full for the preview performance I attended. Perhaps audiences are ready for a weightier musical, one that doesn't rely on radio hits and flashy choreography. I for one welcome the trend, especially if it means there's no Madonna, The Musical in our future.

Nighthawks at the Diner is playing at the Buick Ambassador Theater through December.

*Whore* A Musical
"This high-kicking romp is pure gold," says Daily Variety, and boy, do I agree!

Now, before you get in a tizzy about a musical called *Whore* about whores, remember the fun of Urinetown. You didn't think pee could be a hoot, did you? But it was. And so is *Whore*!

The lead character, Betsy, is played by endlessly loveable Tiffany Bressette of "Small Wonder" fame. A Port Authority whore, Betsy struggles between her dreams of becoming a nurse and her deep love for whoring. The opening song is set on Betsy's corner. She solicits johns with a hearty yet wholesome song, "I'm the prettiest whore you ever did see/Won't find syphilis bugs on me!" And she woos Dr. Bill, played by former soap star Anthony Sabato, Jr. The young doc is taken with Betsy's sweet street smarts and falls for her during a quick hand job in an alley.

Betsy's encounter with Dr. Bill reignites a dream from childhood. In "Nurse Betsy," the loveable whore sits on her bed, strewn with the day's earnings, and croons "Are bedpans and dead mans and Percodans for me?/Should I change what I am to something other than me?" Bring tissues -- this moment is sure to make you sniffle.

The doc comes back, sniffing around for Betsy, but she's off with another trick. Betsy's best pal and tranny ho Koco (Danny Pintauro of "Who's the Boss") sweet talks Dr. Bill into a BJ and tries to get his mind off Betsy. It works, for about five minutes. Betsy sees Dr. Bill as he walks away from Koco and they chat about nursing. Sabato plays this moment like a pro, lighting up as Dr. Bill discovers the way to win Betsy's heart.

While the push-and-pull between Betsy's uncertainty and Dr. Bill's persistence plays out, where is Koco? Sad, and a little bit infatuated with the doc, she zips over to her fave gay disco for comfort. You'll be snapping your fingers to the disco tune "Do Me '70s Style!" Who thought Jonathan Bower could sing? But boy does Pintauro belt out these salacious lyrics. "Give me poppers, boys/Tonight's my night/I am your willing toy/I'm high as a kite."

And while Koco bogeys with the boys, Dr. Bill and Betsy fall in love. They make promises about the future. Betsy vows to give up whoring and take up nursing. But will Dr. Bill give it up too? I can't tell you because that's giving away the ending to *Whore*. And that, surely, is the best part. Bressette's joyous soprano soars above the company with an overarching message of hope and more than a little melody.

*Whore* runs through October 13 at the Athanaeum.


About the Author(s)

Shylo Bisnett writes Public Notice and likes using her hands. Andrew Huff is editor-in-chief of Gapers Block and principal at Dead Horse Communications. Alice Maggio is the librarian in Ask the Librarian but is That Rabbit Girl at all other times.

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