Reviewed by Tom Lawler
Set the scene: Two of Chicago’s most illustrious cultural institutions (38-year-old Hubbard Street Dance Chicago and Second City, now approaching 60 years) collaborate for the first time for a dance program. In a reprise of a work that premiered in 2015 and played for just five performances, The Art of Falling returns this year for anyone who missed this critically-acclaimed program combining contemporary dance, sketch comedy, improvisation, multimedia and even musical theater. As enjoyable as these art forms are individually, the way these are weaved together in this program by Billy Bungeroth (Second City) is nothing short of transcendent.
What’s it all about: Owing something to the long-form sketch format Second City has favored in recent years, The Art of Falling hangs its various dance pieces on three narratives that are returned to throughout the program and pairs the formidable Hubbard Street choreographers and dancers with an all-star cast from the Second City stable: 1) a neurotic, honest-to-a-fault man (Joey Bland, playing the underdog role to perfection) is afraid to fully commit to a new relationship with a handsome dancer (John-Michael Lyles) he meets at a party, 2) A sweet, fun-seeking temp (the delightful Carisa Barreca, wisely being featured on the program’s cover) starts a new job at a very strange office and 3) a lonely, traveling comedy consultant (Tim Mason) makes an unlikely intimate acquaintenceship with a chatty, older woman (a marvelous Christina Anthony) on a redeye flight. All of these stories use the metaphor of bring afraid of falling – in love, down and out in a strange new job or even out of the sky on a bumpy flight. Augmenting and weaving between these stories is the splendid Tawny Newsome who I’ve enjoyed in several past Second City shows and effortlessly brings the house down in “Acid,” a piece that uses audiences suggestions and Newsom’s terrific Bosnian accent to create improv comedy and even more impressively improv dance from the Hubbard 2 ensemble.
Standout performance: John-Michael Lyles, being neither a Second City nor Hubbard Street ensemble member is really the outlier in this cast and makes an impressive Chicago debut that showcases his all-around acting, singing and dancing chops. Not only does he realistically portray a Hubbard Street dancer (his deconstruction of the “same 10 dance moves” all Hubbard Street productions use is hilarious), but he also shows heart and commitment in his scenes with Bland. Lyles’ fiery vocals and dancing in the Act 1 closer, “Don’t Be Afraid of Love” is hard to top and literally brings the curtain down. Hopefully there are more Chicago shows in the near future for Lyles.
Also, check out: Comedy and dance are paired to perfection in “Wicked at Heart” in which Hubbard Street’s Jason Hortin and (the amazing) Alicia Delgadillo show us a sweet, sensual dance between a man and his. . . love doll. This is, until she starts deflating. It’s the kind of piece that has you immediately thumbing through the program to read about the choreographer. In this case, it’s Robyn Mineko Williams, who also gifts us with a sublime dance number in Act II featuring the Hubbard Street ensemble and a beaming Barreca gliding across the stage on rolling office chairs. Williams was previously a member of the Hubbard Street dance ensemble for 12 seasons, and is now obviously a stalwart of Hubbard Street’s creative team.
More of this, please: Aside from the excellent comedy and dance pieces already mentioned, The Art of Falling doles out many theatrical surprises that I’d prefer not to ruin here for those who are planning a visit. I doubt that Second City is wholly responsible for this eagerness to experiment, but let’s just say I was not expecting the thrilling way Hubbard Street Artistic Director Glenn Edgerton puts his personal, playful stamp on this work. The Art of Falling represents, quite simply, a pinnacle of achievement for both Hubbard Street and Second City. If this year’s shows haven’t sold out yet, I’d recommend you order your tickets today.
Do this first: How about economizing for drinks at the show (The Harris even has strolling wine vendors at the theater — genius!) by going a little simpler with the pre-show dinner? There’s a strip of fast-casual options nearby on the 300 block of N. Michigan that should meet every appetite – a favorite is the Chipotle-inspired Naf Naf Grill – their falafel and chicken schwarma are both consistently excellent.
Do this after: Now that everyone is streaming over to the new bars at Chicago Athletic Association, why not take a shot at the rooftop bar at The Wit?
Running Time: 120 minutes (including one 15-minute intermission)
At Harris Theater for Music and Dance, Millennium Park (205 E. Randolph St.)
Written by: Tim Mason with Carisa Barreca, T.J. Jadowski, Kate James, Chris Redd and the casts of The Second City
Director: Billy Bungeroth
Choreographers: Alejandro Cerrudo, Lucas Crandall, Jonathan Fredrickson, Terence Marling and Robyn Mineko Williams
Thursdays at 7:30pm
Fridays-Saturdays at 8pm
Sundays at 3pm
Thru June 19
Tickets: Start at $30
Buy ticket at Hubbard Street’s site or by phone to the Hubbard Street Ticket Office at (312) 850-9744.
Photo by: Todd Rosenberg.
For more information and reviews on Chicago theatre, visit Theater in Chicago.