Northlight’s ‘Shining Lives’ a luminescent new chamber musical

SHARE Northlight’s ‘Shining Lives’ a luminescent new chamber musical

“Shining Lives: A Musical,” the fervent yet poetic chamber work now receiving an aptly radiant world premiere at Northlight Theatre, is, above all, a story of courage and determination in the face of profound betrayal.

It is a true story — about a group of women who fall in love with their jobs, and the freedom those jobs provide — and about what happens when those women gradually come to realize that the very thing they have loved was, in fact, killing them.

‘SHINING LIVES: A MUSICAL’ Highly recommended When:Through June 14 Where:Northlight Theatre, 9501 Skokie Blvd, Skokie Tickets:$25 – $78 Info: (847) 673-6300; Run time:95 minutes, with no intermission

Workplace issues have been a crucial part of the theater for decades, from the cabdrivers in Clifford Odets’ “Waiting for Lefty” to the newspaper boys in “Newsies” and the coal miners in “Billy Elliot.” But in “Shining Lives,” based on a play by Melanie Marnich — with a book, lyrics and direction by Jessica Thebus, and music by Andre Pluess and Amanda Dehnert — working women are the focus. And the tone and temper of their story is notably different and ideally captured in this lovely, economical chamber musical.

It all begins in 1922, at the Radium Watch Co. in Ottawa, Illinois, where working-class girls have a unique chance to make as much as $8 a day if they work quickly as they paint the numbers on watch faces with glow-in-the-dark radium powder. Arriving at the factory for her first day of work is Catherine (Johanna McKenzie Miller, whose golden voice is matched by a beautifully nuanced performance). Catherine, who married young and is the mother of twins, has headed to work despite the reservations of her husband, Tom (Alex Goodrich), who would prefer to be the sole breadwinner but can’t quite keep up with expenses.

Johanna McKenzie Miller as Catherine, and Alex Goodrich as her husband, Tom, in “Shining Lives: A Musical,” at Northlight Theatre. (Photo: Michael Brosilow)

Johanna McKenzie Miller as Catherine, and Alex Goodrich as her husband, Tom, in “Shining Lives: A Musical,” at Northlight Theatre. (Photo: Michael Brosilow)

A bit of a dreamer, but at the same time quite pragmatic, Catherine is nervous at first, but quickly discovers her skillfulness and competitive spirit as she learns the essential technique for using a brush: “Lip, Dip, Paint.” The women were literally ingesting the radium each time they wet their brushes with their saliva, but they were assured it was perfectly safe to do.

Charlotte (the unapologetically brash but also frightened Bri Sudia), who is the most boisterous of Catherine’s three colleagues, initially feels threatened by this newcomer’s competence, but grows to respect her. Her other co-workers are studies in contrast – the playful, joke-telling Pearl (an easily charming Tiffany Topol) and the prim, nervous Frances (a spot-on turn by Jess Godwin).

Before long, the women bond and begin going out for little treats after work, with Catherine, the only one who is married, encountering some flack from her husband, who has to pick up the slack at home from time to time. But having tasted independence, she stands her ground, even though she assures Tom she is a wife, “not a career girl.”

Tiffany Topol (from left), Jess Godwin, Bri Sudia and Johanna McKenzie Miller star in “Shining Lives: A Musical,” at Northlight Theatre. (Photo: Michael Brosilow)

Tiffany Topol (from left), Jess Godwin, Bri Sudia and Johanna McKenzie Miller star in “Shining Lives: A Musical,” at Northlight Theatre. (Photo: Michael Brosilow)

By 1929, Catherine realizes that something is wrong. Her hands are glowing in the dark. The radium dust has permeated her body. Her leg is swollen, her body is weak, her jaw aches. Her complaints are met with complete condescension and lies by her boss, and by the company doctor (Erik Hellman), who prescribes aspirin. But gradually, as the other women reveal the health problems they’ve been hiding, they realize something is very, very wrong, and finally the only doctor with the courage to speak out diagnoses them with radium poisoning.

Although it is Charlotte who raises the possibility of a lawsuit, it is Catherine, perhaps the least likely to emerge as the leader of a rebellion, who agrees to become the poster girl for the fight, ledby the crusading lawyer Leonard Grossman (Matt Mueller). And though her health deteriorates dramatically, she stands her ground throughout seven years of court cases and appeals, despite being accused of seeking financial gain and being vilified for jeopardizing the factory’s existence during the Depression years.

The show’s seamless storytelling is matched by a score alternately dreamy and anthemic, with a song titled “Things That Shine” providing a winningly revealing look at each woman’s character. Music director Chuck Larkin’s surging piano accompaniment allows the voices to shine through, and the actors periodically pick up a banjo and guitar themselves, adding to the period sound.

Scott Davis’ handsome set — a sharply angled wall of factory windows and polished wood floors, ideally lit by JR Lederle, and with just enough black-and-white projections to set the scene — is complemented by Linda Roethke’s understated period costumes.

“Shining Lives” is heartbreaking. But it also is luminous as it captures the way “ordinary lives” can become extraordinary.

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