In the end it all goes back to Greek tragedy. Yet there’s nothing like putting a Creole spin on a foundational story to give it extra magic. And when you combine that New Orleans/voodoo vibe with cutthroat Chicago politics, and deliver it by means of a sensationally lush and emotionally charged score, the mix of passion, betrayal and corruption is absolutely irresistible. So it is with “Marie Christine,” Michael John LaChiusa’s operatic musical with its all-American echoes of “Medea,” now receiving an incendiary production by BoHo Theatre.
When: Through Dec. 10
Where: BoHo Theatre at Theater Wit,
1229 W. Belmont
Tickets: $33 – $35
Info: (773) 975-8150;
Run time: 2 hours and
10 minutes with one intermission
The 1999 run of LaChiusa’s musical at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theatre was very brief, despite the presence of Audra McDonald in the title role. Now, at BoHo, Marie Christine is played by Kyrie Courter, a fierce young actress of great beauty and talent who is destined for greatness. (An accomplished singer, she also moves like a dream.) And she is backed by a cast with the sort of scorching commitment that has become the trademark of smaller Chicago companies (Porchlight, Griffin, Theo Ubique and Kokandy among them) that produce Broadway-quality musicals that are only enhanced by the intimacy of the stages on which they are performed.
“Medea,” as you might recall, tells of a queen who was betrayed by her husband, the hero Jason, and retaliated by murdering their two children as well as his new bride. “Marie Christine” begins in 1899, with the title character already condemned to death for her crimes, and then moves back to tell the full story from its beginning five years earlier.
Marie Christine Lavreau is the daughter of racially mixed parents. Her mother was a fearsome practitioner of voodoo, and her father was a wealthy plantation owner who used her two brothers as servants but left them a legacy of great wealth, as well as the responsibility for overseeing their sister’s dowry. Paris (Averis I. Anderson) is now a worldly dandy, while Jean (Curtis Bannister) has become an upwardly mobile lawyer (both actors are terrific), and they exercise intensely paternalistic control over their sister, a smart, sensual, rebellious, adventure-seeking young woman with voodoo skills and a volatile spirit that frightens them as they try to maintain social respectability among the upper-class white society that forever judges them.
Enter Dante Keyes (Ken Singleton, superb as the charming, arrogant womanizer, who sings and moves in full charlatan style). An ambitious young sea captain from Chicago, Dante is headed to New Orleans to settle a shipping mishap that has left him broke. He will eventually turn his eye to Chicago politics, but meanwhile he wants to make money, and seduce any beautiful woman who comes his way.
The chemistry between Marie and Dante is instant, intense and explosive, and Marie, as wildly romantic as she is impulsive, gives herself to him with terrifying totality. She is betrayed from the start, as Dante seduces her beguiling young maid, Lisette (Katherine Bourne, a tiny beauty with a magnificent soprano, who is part of the remarkable Bourne family singers). But before long Marie is pregnant, and she finally convinces Dante to take her traveling with him — a plan to which he agrees only after her fortune comes into play. Before they leave town, two people are murdered.
Once in Chicago, with a second son born, Dante’s attention turns to running for office with the backing of local bosses. Marie is seen as a liability and he orders her to disappear, leaving their sons in his care as he marries the more well-positioned Helena (fine work by Emily Goldberg). A deadly downward spiral has been set in motion, with the involvement of a wealthy brothel owner, Magdalena (the power-voiced Neala Barron), seeking infertility treatment from Marie.
Not only does LaChiusa write soaring melodies, but he also is a poet of fiercely beautiful lyrics, and the actors here grab hold of the show’s aria-like opportunities with fire and panache. Lili-Anne Brown’s direction is exemplary, with music director Aaron Benham leading a six-piece orchestra with classical chops, and choreographer Breon Arzell setting the scene with a mix of zesty social dancing and feverish eroticism.
Arnel Sancianco’s set of black brick walls and arched windows (expertly lit by Heather Gilbert) suggests the streets and brothels of New Orleans, as do Izumi Inaba’s costumes, including Marie Christine’s to-die-for lace dress and black walking coat in this show that is nothing less than sizzling, from first note to last.