Jessie Mueller scores in B'way debut; local troupes move north

December 13, 2011

“It’s an ill wind that blows no one good,” goes the old proverb. While the breezes were rather chilly concerning the Broadway revival of On A Clear Day You Can See Forever, they shifted to southerly and warm for Jessie Mueller, the Chicagoan making her Broadway debut in the show. That’s another way of saying the critics generally panned the show, but had only praise for Mueller, in what appears to be a star-making role for her.

The odd 1965 musical by Alan Jay Lerner and Burton Lane—about past-life regression, hypnosis and reincarnation—opened Sunday (December 11) at the St. James Theatre on the Great White Way to mixed-to-negative reviews for the total show and definitely negative notices for star Harry Connick, Jr. (stiff, wooden and uncomfortable, they said). However, Mueller was singled out as a ray of sunshine in the leading female role, a 1940’s singer named Melinda.

“Mueller combines period vocal technique with natural, uninflected charisma and an on-stage relaxation not often seen outside of Chi-town,” said New York Magazine reviwer Scott Brown. “Her voice contains notes of Garland, but she’s no diva—this is a star of supreme self-possession, one who doesn’t need to blind us to impress us.”

In Variety, Steve Suskin wrote, “The main items of interest in this misguided affair are the performances of the split-in-two heroine. Jessie Mueller, as the glamorous Melinda, is a find; the character has been transformed into a 1943 jazz singer, and Mueller handles this extremely well when given a chance . . . .”

In the influential Newsday, Linda Winer said, “It helps credibility that Jessie Mueller . . . happens to be pretty irresistible, too. Mueller, a Chicago talent in her Broadway debut, has a forthright, confident rhythm that suggests a young Liza Minelli but a delicate, deliciously precise sound all her own.”

Even Ben Brantley, in the all-powerful New York Times, said that “Ms. Mueller, who has a fetching affinity for swing-era song stylings, comes off better. (Her version of ‘Ev’ry Night at Seven’ . . . is the show’s high point.)”

If the show runs for even a few months, perhaps limping into the spring on the strength of Harry Connick, Jr.’s drawing power and a few mixed-to-positive reviews, Jessie Mueller might find herself with a Tony Award nomination in her Broadway debut; but the shorter the run the less likely that will be. Whatever the fate of the show, however, Mueller comes out smelling like a rose in what the industry likes to call “a break-out performance.” The big and bright future for Ms. Mueller, predicted long-ago here in Chicago, certainly is upon her.

I can’t name names just yet, but look for an announcement early in the new year about a major move by a stalwart Off-Loop theater company. The North Side troupe has had landlord problems for a long time, despite nearly 20 years of residency in its current location. Fortunately, the company has identified a larger, better venue in the same extended neighborhood and will be making the move official shortly after January 1. The troupe expects to open a show in the new space in mid-winter.

Teatro Luna, the 10-year old collective of Latina writers and performers, also is making a North Side move. The company has been without a permanent home since giving up its Pilsen storefront at least five years ago. As an itinerant company, they’ve played venues in Little Village and The Loop as well as several on the North Side. Now the company has signed a five-year lease for the Live Bait space at 3912 N. Clark Street, previously occupied by The Artistic Home (and, of course, Live Bait before that). The double storefront space has two theaters, which will give Teatro Luna opportunities to sublet one or both theaters when they aren’t producing themselves. The current Teatro Luna show, Crossed, is playing at The Viaduct through Dec. 18. The