Review: Haymarket (Underscore Theatre)

| August 15, 2018

Bridget Adams-King, T.J. Anderson, Sarah Beth Tanner, Joey Harbert, Amanda Giles, Melanie Vitaterna, Mike Mazzocca            


Written by Alex Higgin-Houser
      and David Kornfeld
at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont (map)
thru Sept 16  |  tix: $30-$45  |  more info
Check for half-price tickets    

 Now extended thru September 16th


Folk musical ‘Haymarket’ a unique, memorable take on Chicago history


Elleon Dobias, Joey Harbert, Mike Mazzocca, Sarah Beth Tanner, Eric Loughlin, T.J. Anderson, Erik Pearson, Bridget Adams-King

Underscore Theatre Company presents

Review by Lauren Emily Whalen

I didn’t see Haymarkets earlier run earlier this summer, nor did I witness the original 2016 production, nominated for a Jeff Award for Best New Musical. What ran two years ago as Haymarket: The Anarchists’ Songbook, has since been revamped with new songs and a revised book. The true Chicago story of the 1886 history-altering labor strike that resulted in a bombing and the deaths of five innocent men – one by suicide, four by execution – is both incredibly compelling and sadly relevant to an age of bombastic capitalism and overworked citizens. Asking for “eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will” is still a battle cry for countless Americans. 

Erik Pearson, Bridget Adams-King, Sarah Beth Tanner, T.J. Anderson, Mike Mazzocca, Kelan M. Smith,  Josiah Robinson, GilesThe idea of telling the Haymarket story (named for the site of the bombing: the square at the corner of Randolph and Des Plaines) as a folk musical is a groundbreaking one, and mostly works well. The twelve-actor ensemble also accompany themselves on everything from guitar to piano to fiddle, and their vocals are as impressive as their onstage orchestrations. Robert Ollis’ musical direction is nothing short of genius – he manages varied voice ranges and instrumental abilities with aplomb, and brings out the very best in each performer. If only Deon Custard’s sound engineering were sufficiently caught up – the production’s original run was at the Den Theatre, whose acoustics are very different from Theater Wit. As a result, significant lyrics and harmonies are often inaudible or garbled.

Alex Higgin-Houser and David Kornfeld have composed a rollicking bluegrass score, with a few significant and appreciated nods to musical theater. (Imagining the pivotal trial as a circus calls back to another significant Chicago crime musical – Chicago, of course!) The song, “Keep On Talking, August Spies,” in which one of the defendants gives his final statement, is a direct homage to The Music Man’s “Trouble in River City” and is a much-needed comic moment in a very sobering scene. (T.J. Anderson’s performance as Spies, who goes from a shy peacenik, out of his element as a leader, to a confident married gent pouring out his heart to an unsympathetic judge, is both thoughtful and Jeff Award-worthy, thoroughly entertaining from beginning to end.) Director and choreographer Nick Thornton’s staging is stellar, having the performers use their instruments as props and infusing down-home energy into numbers like the swinging square dance “Lady Dynamite” and the thoroughly disturbing and moving execution sequence.

Unfortunately, these strengths only partially detract from the production’s weaknesses. Haymarket’s book is almost unnecessary, and most of its dialogue falls flat. Requiring a cast of musicians to plod through cliché line readings when they’d clearly rather be singing and playing – and are much better at the latter – almost feels cruel. Act 1 in particular is dialogue – and setup – heavy, and the action doesn’t really get going until the show’s second half. Not to mention the songs speak for themselves, showing everything from deep love to nihilistic self-destruction with a folksy beauty. Though Khloe Janel, on the night I attended, tried very hard as the understudy for activist Lucy Parsons, Haymarket’s central character, she seemed under-rehearsed and therefore tentative in such a powerhouse role. (Katherine Duffy fares much better as vampy spy Nina Van Zandt, with bubbly vocals that are positively delightful.)

Mike Mazzocca, Elleon Dobias, Joey Harbert, Erik Pearson, Melanie Vitaterna, Amanda Giles, Josiah Robinson and Kelan M. SmithAmanda Giles and Elleon Dobias star in Haymarket, Underscore Theatre Bridget Adams-King stars as Lucy Parsons in Haymarket, Underscore TheatreAmanda Giles, Joey Harbert, Erik Pearson, Eric Loughlin, Elleon Dobias, Mike Mazzocca, T.J. Anderson, Sarah Beth Tanner, Kela

On an important side note – even during the most successful run and subsequent extension, performers need to rest and recuperate, especially if the production is extraordinarily demanding. When this isn’t the case (as signified by Mercury’s Avenue Q summer revival), the result is a notable loss of onstage energy. It’s not the actors’ fault – they have a paycheck at stake and they’re working hard for it – but when it comes to extending a show, the cast’s well-being must be taken into account. This apparent exhaustion, combined with Haymarket’s elongated book, results in a production that, while still very powerful, suffers from a bloated running time and a cast who, though they are gifted and hardworking, clearly need a break.

The anarchists profiled in Haymarket were hardworking immigrants, who just wanted a fair wage and time to call their own. As a concept album or concert, the production is spot-on, with haunting melodies that almost cancel out the forgettable dialogue. Haymarket also provides hope to those of us frightened for our rights and autonomy in a capitalistic society led by a cheating sexual abuser President. As this stirring musical reminds us, the rebels will inherit the earth.

Rating: ★★★

Haymarket continues through September 16th at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont (map), with performances Fridays at 7:30pm, Saturdays and Sundays at 3pm & 7:30pm.  Tickets are $30-$45 (seniors $3 off), and are available by phone (773-975-8150) or online through (check for availability of half-price tickets). More information and a complete schedule can be found at time: 2 hours, includes an intermission)

Sarah Beth Tanner, Mike Mazzocca, T.J. Anderson, Elleon Dobias, Amanda Giles, Bridget Adams-King, Erik Pearson, Joey Harbert,Melanie Vitaterna, T.J. Anderson, Mike Mazzocca, Kelan M. Smith, Bridget Adams-King, Eric Loughlin, Josiah Robinson, Sarah Be

Photos by Michael Brosilow 




Amanda Giles (Nina Van Zandt), Bridget Adams-King (Lucy Parsons), Elleon Dobias (Pick Chorus, Female Swing), Eric Loughlin (Pick Chorus Captain, Engel understudy), Erik Pearson (Albert Parsons), Joey Harbert (Louis Lingg), Josiah Robinson (Fischer, Albert understudy), Katherine Duffy (female swing), Kelan M. Smith (Pick Chorus, Fischer understudy), Khloe Janel (Lucy Parsons understudy), Lev Caruso (male swing), Melanie Vitaturna (Joanna Fischer), Mike Mazzocca (George Engel), Sarah Beth Tanner (Jane Engel), T.J. Anderson (August Spies)

behind the scenes

Nick Thornton (director, choreographer), Robert Ollis (music director), Jena Sugai (assistant director), Kristin Mazzocca (stage manager), Christine Lauer (asst. stage manager), Ellen White (production manager), Andy Lynn (co-production manager-original run), Kate Cueller (dramaturg), Josh Prischin (technical director), Deon Custard (sound engineer), Sam Moryoussef (master electrician-original run), Jonathan Berg-Einhorn (props design), Eric Luchen (scenic design), Steve Labedz (master electrician-Theater Wit run), Erik Barry (lighting design), Brandon Reed (sound design), Christina Leinecke (costume design), Robert Hornbostel (audio supervisor), Jake Demes (master carpenter), Lee Moore (charge artist), Michael Brosilow (photos)

Bridget Adams-King, Josiah Robinson, Mike Mazzocca, T.J. Anderson, Sarah Beth Tanner, Kelan M. Smith, Amanda GilesErik Pearson, Bridget Adams-King, Sarah Beth Tanner, T.J. Anderson, Mike Mazzocca, Kelan M. Smith,  Josiah Robinson, GilesBridget Adams-King, T.J. Anderson, Sarah Beth Tanner, Joey Harbert, Amanda Giles, Melanie Vitaterna, Mike Mazzocca


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Category: 2018 Reviews, Extensions-Remounts, Lauren Emily Whalen, Musical, Theater Wit, Underscore Theatre

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