Opera Review: THE FACTOTUM (Lyric Chicago)

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by Barnaby Hughes on February 11, 2023

in Music,Theater-Chicago


An ambitious, world premiere production, The Factotum celebrates the joys and struggles of African Americans living on the south side of Chicago. Created primarily by Will Liverman and DJ King Rico (who both perform in the show), it offers a mashup of genres and styles that can appeal to a broader and younger audience than the typical Lyric production. Presented as an opera, The Factotum often seems more like a musical because of its spoken dialogue and miked singers. The music owes as much to classical opera as to blues, jazz, gospel, R&B, and hip hop. Fortunately, this makes The Factotum very much unlike most contemporary operas with their austere melodies and lack of popular appeal.

The Company

Liverman has often sung the titular role of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, which provided inspiration for The Factotum. Yet apart from the name of the opera and its barber protagonist, The Factotum has little in common with Rossini’s canonical masterpiece. Rather, it has more in common with the film Barbershop (2002) starring Ice Cube.

Will Liverman

The Factotum runs two hours and ten minutes with a twenty-five minute intermission. Each half is quite different: the first is fun, featuring laugh-out-loud comedy and excellent dancing, while the second turns serious with its protest songs and depiction of police brutality. Lyrics and spoken dialogue throughout the opera are crammed full of black cultural references.

Nissi Shalome, Will Liverman

The plot centers on Cece and her two uncles Mike and Garby, who share ownership of the barbershop they inherited from their father. Mike is a beloved figure in the community who gives generously of his time, while struggling to maintain the shop as a viable business. By contrast, Garby is a hustler and a villain who fails to support his loyal girlfriend Rose and leaves his niece to face the cops when they raid the shop. There are numerous subplots, of which perhaps the most compelling is the romance between Rose and CJ, who has just been discharged from the military. CJ struggles to rekindle an earlier spark in the face of Rose’s current loyalty to Garby.

DJ King Rico

As a whole, the men of the cast have better voices than the women. Among the men, Liverman’s performance in the role of Mike is solid and confident, as is Terrence Chin-Loy’s Lyric debut as Charlie. Yet, it is Martin Luther Clark, a third-year Ryan Opera Center member who plays CJ that really stands out with his succulent and soulful tenor. Cecilia Violetta López, who makes her Lyric debut as Rose, mostly sings in a range or at a volume that seems uncomfortable for her and is uncomfortable to hear. Nissi Shalome excels in the unusual role of Cece, which requires excellent acting and dancing, but whose singing is clearly not operatic.

Martin Luther Clark

Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj, who is also credited as co-book writer and dramaturg, directs The Factotum with fluidity and flair. Harlan Penn has designed a mostly workable set that manages to find a suitable space for DJ King Rico, though action that takes place outside the barbershop is sometimes difficult to distinguish between that inside the shop. Costume designer Devario D. Simmons dresses the cast very colorfully, if not flamboyantly, especially in the club scenes of the second half.

Norman Garrett, Cecilia Violetta López

I wasn’t sure I was going to like The Factotum, but I loved it. Each of the characters was engaging in a way that made me feel highly invested in the story. I laughed and cried, hopeful that Rose would fall for CJ and sad when Cece got arrested. And I couldn’t stop watching the dancers, who brought so much energy to the production. The Factotum questions expectations and assumptions, redefining and reimagining opera in a way that pushes the boundaries and makes it culturally relevant. 

Will Liverman, Di'Aire Wilson

photos by Cory Weaver

The Company

The Factotum
Lyric Opera of Chicago
Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive
ends on February 12, 2023
for tickets, call 312.332.2244 or visit Lyric Opera

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

Ron Dukes, Kris Bellvie, Norman Garrett

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