Chicago Theater Review and Commentary: THE EMPEROR’S NEW THREADS (Lifeline Theatre)

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by Tony Frankel on April 30, 2013

in Theater-Chicago

LEAVE IT TO CHILDREN’S THEATER TO MAKE THE BIGGEST STATEMENT OF ALL

The biggest opening in Chicago last week was the behemoth pre-Broadway spectacle Big Fish, but right across town at Lifeline Theatre is another musical with more heart, a more resonant message, better songs, funnier dialogue, and performers who are infinitely more watchable than their non-distinctive Broadway cohorts. The top ticket price (not the premium) for Big Fish is a hundred bucks. The admission for the infinitely more entertaining The Emperor’s New Threads: A Fashion Statement, part of Lifeline’s KidSeries, is $15 (or less if you buy just before curtain).

Tony Frankel's Stage and Cinema Chicago review of LIfeline Theatre's "The Emperor's New Threads,"We all know Hans Christian Andersen’s tale: An Emperor who is a vain clotheshorse gets conned by two swindlers who convince the ruler that the fabric they used for his new outfit will be invisible to anyone too stupid or unfit to see it. No one – neither staff nor subjects – says anything as the Emperor marches naked in procession. A little boy who has yet to learn subterfuge as a survival tool yells out, “But he isn’t wearing anything at all!”

That this tale is as relevant now as when first published in 1837 is frightening, appalling and saddening. That people don’t RUN to see Frances Limoncelli’s charming production because it is a family show (a.k.a. Theater for Young Audiences or TYA or Children’s Theater) is equally frightening, appalling and saddening. Don’t people know that kids are the toughest audience in the world? If they don’t like something, they will let you know on the spot. Not only did Limoncelli adapt and direct a show with enough fun, movement, songs and sincerity to keep the kids riveted, but she added enough sophistication and wit to keep the adults spellbound as well (another great example of this is Hamlet, Prince of Puddles). There’s even an incredibly hysterical parody of Joan and Melissa Rivers performed by Amanda Roeder, and an Emperor who is portrayed as a mid-20th-century hepcat (with all the gay implications that implies) by an engaging, heels-wearing Mike Ooi.

Tony Frankel's Stage and Cinema Chicago review of LIfeline Theatre's "The Emperor's New Threads,"One scene has the parents of Kid (Kacy Ann Smith) chide her for not having the sense to support the fashion tax and emulate the Emperor’s get-ups; the young girl responds with: “I don’t need an image, Mom. I’m ten.” The girl just wants to spend more time with her family, who must work full time to keep up with the Joneses via Dior and Gucci. This show wryly suggests that our current state of economic affairs is not only our own doing (blame the 1% all you want), but that the more we consume, the less discerning we become – which explains why millions will see shows as imperfect as Big Fish while companies such as Lifeline are constantly having to figure out ways to get an audience when they should be spending all of their resources and time on art, art and nothing but art. (Although I must say that financial constraints can be the impetus for great imagination: Wait until you see Elizabeth Wislar’s costumes, one of which is constructed from magazine fashion ads.)

Tony Frankel's Stage and Cinema Chicago review of LIfeline Theatre's "The Emperor's New Threads,"Yeah, there’s a few lags here and there, but I would love to see The Emperor’s New Threads developed into a two-act musical with even more roles so that Kid doesn’t have to address the audience directly (which is one of my least favorite devices in any show). Since Kid decides to venture off to the palace so she can meet with the Emperor and change his mind about the fashion tax, Limoncelli wisely introduces the Wizard of Oz formula, which has a main character with a goal who meets friends along the way who assist her on her adventurous journey. In this instance, Kid meets Huck (the expressive and versatile Vaudevillian extraordinaire, Anthony Kayer), who turns out to be both friend and swindler (how many of those have we all met in our lives?) I am also aching to hear more songs from George Howe, whose tunes are memorable, bouncy, and delightful; as with Yip Harburg’s Oz lyrics, Howe never talks down to children (you think youngsters know words such as “adversity”?)

Tony Frankel's Stage and Cinema Chicago review of LIfeline Theatre's "The Emperor's New Threads."I caught The Emperor’s New Threads late in its run and spent the rest of the day waving the program in people’s faces, reminding them that I am seeing over 30 shows while visiting Chicago and this is the one to see. What Fascist-like phenomena has their eyes glaze over as they ask, “But what about Big Fish?” Well, Threads is also a cautionary tale about consumerism which is extremely apropos to Big Fish: It’s alarming that theatregoers continue to waste their money on hollow storytelling just because Corporate America razzle-dazzles them with millions of dollars’ worth of advertising, sets, and costumes; don’t forget it is we who pay the salaries of actors who belt like they’re competing on American Idol. And if we currently support shows such as The Addams Family (you gotta check out my review) or Shrek: The Musical (here’s my review: “An embarrassing piece of Crap”), that means regional theaters like the Marriott or Drury Lane in Chicago or Musical Theatre West in Los Angeles will soon be adding them to their season because subscription audiences crave familiarity and nostalgia more than great theater (need I mention the ubiquitousness of shows such as Cats and Momma Mia!).

A critic’s job is to point towards overdressed productions and warn: “But there’s nothing there!” The other part of our job is to point towards heart-filled and imaginative storefront productions in the manner of The Emperor’s New Threads and urge: “Support and nurture this theater if you don’t want storytelling to become a thing of the past.” Sadly, you only have one more weekend to find out what I’m talking about.

photos by Kelsey Jorissen

The Emperor’s New Threads: A Fashion Statement
presented by Lifeline Theatre KidSeries
at Lifeline Theatre, 6912 N. Glenwood Ave.
Sat. and Sun. at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m.
scheduled to end on Sunday, May 5
for tickets, call  773.761.4477 or visit http://www.lifelinetheatre.com

for info on this and other Chicago Theater, visit http://www.TheatreinChicago.com

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