May 6, 2013

Ploughed Under: An American Songbook at the Chopin Theatre on April 28, 2013

I was invited as a reviewer to come to see the new musical production "Ploughed Under" at the Chopin Theater.  Granted, I had just returned from a long weekend having spent it in Wisconsin with 20 girls and various mothers at a Girl Scout Camping Trip.  But, those who know me, can count on me rallying or "stepping up to the plate" for a good time.  It was ambitious but I grabbed my friend Wendy and we headed over to the show.  Part of my fortitude stemmed from the fact that The House theatre of Chicago has put on other noteworthy great productions, such as The Sparrow.  Unfortunately we were both Ploughed Underwelmed by Ploughed Under.

Kevin O'Donnell,  a talented drummer, attempted to develop a 19 song musical score to present American folk and tall tales.  Each song and story presented folk tales about oppression throughout history beginning in the 1500's.  He writes about African-American, Native American, Mexican, and Chinese folk heroes.  The premise is that these tales depict a time of struggle and perhaps mistreatment of those that came before us (ie. Indians and slaves) and perhaps how we, the audience, should not forget these people who helped to create our rich history as Americans, and the trials and tribulations they endured.  That was a mouthful and I am certainly unsure of the punctuation here, commas and comments aside.

Each song was sung with an earnest and emphatically serious quality with little nuance.  There were no standout performers or any one singer who had a special voice.  It almost seemed that there were no leads on purpose. The songs were not woven together and so lacked cohesiveness (except for the repression undertone). Also disappointing was that the singers/actors did not adequately provide any sense of character development.   I felt myself tired and bored listening to each song.  The melodies blended and the rhymes did not - rhyme.  There were songs that I thought for sure were going to develop into a full on gospel tone or jazz ballad that fell short.   The song "No Mail Today" could easily have been more interesting if jazzed up.  The singer had the opportunity to shine but did not take it.   More could have been done with those songs and the singers could have been more stylistically challenged.  The soprano was particularly "soprano".  I heard no other notes and it became for me like nails on a chalkboard.  Not that she was off pitch or particularly offensive.  I just wanted more range.  It was like the same high pitched octave over and over.   I was trying to cut some slack but alas could not.   I will admit, my threshold was reduced based upon the prior long weekend of activity but nonetheless, I was excited to hopefully enjoy this show.

On the upside there were some interested staging sequences and use of props!! They placed four long butcher block style tables perpendicularly to the stage for the audience to sit at.  Behind those tables were regular seats and sort of cabaret style tables.  The feel was cozy night club.  The singers used the tables as a form of runway during many of the songs sometimes parking themselves at the end of the table (standing, kneeling or sitting) next to an audience member.  Each cabaret table had a votive candle set inside a mason jar filled with sand or dirt.  There were use of chains (slavery), pennies in pails strewn across the butcher block (earning money), paper being torn from a book (table side also) - all effective attention getters.

The highlight was actually Mr. O'Donnell's drum solo.  Clearly he is a talented drummer but is just not a talented composer or song-writer.  I almost did not review the show because, like I mentioned earlier, I really like the House Theater and want to be invited back.  I am not convinced that this show will do well and cannot advise others to come see it unless you are a fan of "The Christmas Schooner" a musical which I really did not like but has families coming back year after year.  The woman sitting on the other side of me clearly enjoyed the show, gasping after each introduction leading up to the song.  She was taken by it, moved even.  I just wanted to move out and go home but I stuck it out.  After all,
I can rally and step up to the plate.

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