Set the scene: Sideshow Theatre Company, now in its 10th season, continues its multi-year residency at Victory Gardens housed in Lincoln Park’s historic Biographic Theatre.
What’s it all about: A famous American singer-songwriter (Andrew Goetten) is holed up in a hotel in mid-1960s Paris while on tour and battling a constant series of demands and interruptions that now comprise his tumultuous off-stage life. The artist used to be universally adored for his folk and protest songs, but now, not so much. The visiting French press aren’t shy about expressing their preference for his older music over his newer, amplified recordings. His entourage includes a beat poet father figure (a mischievous Mary Williamson) who tries to center him with Eastern philosophy and his A&R rep from the record label (a suitably unctuous Pat Whalen) who brings news that a career-making Time magazine cover is imminent. Complications further develop when his ex-girlfriend, a famous folk singer from back home (McKenzie Chinn), arrives to attempt a reconciliation and return him to his musical roots. This stylish but frothy world premiere production of Give It All Back is penned by Chicago resident (and Sideshow Artistic Associate) Calamity West, and any coincidences to Bob Dylan and his infamous 1966 World Tour, Alan Ginsburg and Joan Baez are quite intentional.
Stand-out performance: In a role that doesn’t seem to have a real-life counterpart, Lindsey Kite shines as the singer-songwriter’s wealthy, bubbly girlfriend. Kite maximizes her time on stage displaying natural charm and spontaneous line readings as she navigates the tempestuous moods of her often dour boyfriend (more on him later).
Also, check out: Pat Whalen’s oily record executive gets a deliciously profane tirade in Act II when he’s pushed to his breaking point and must finally puts his foot down against his prized client. With his slicked-back hair and lantern jaw, Whalen embodies 1950s conformity itself and shows he can be a fearsome adversary for the ambitious artist signed to the large multinational record label. One wishes this conflict with his freewheelin’ meal ticket were more sharply drawn and focused. What we get instead throughout Give It All Back feel often like B-stories and padding to kill time in the hotel room – such as an LSD trip-out scene in Act II between the record exec and the beat poet that seems to have been inserted for comic relief.
More of this, please: With a play set entirely in Paris (save some bookend scenes in London), West has a novel approach for handling the French journalists interviewing the singer-songwriter in their native tongue: She simply has them speak in English. This way we get to see how the questions and answers change when the translator judiciously decides which of each to share with the other party. With such a limit of space, time and resources, playwrights can and should make up their own rules about how they render their reality, and Calamity West makes an inspired choice that could only work on the stage.
However: For a work that is trading heavily on our interest in Dylan, Give It All Back takes a minimalist approach to this character that’s not likely to satisfy this fan group. This play contains no Dylan music, and apart from the penultimate scene (unfortunately too little, too late) it offers very little to illuminate this crucial period in the mid-60s when the Greenwich Village folk singer abruptly shed his acoustic roots, slipped into dark shades and mod clothing and went rock-and-roll. Most unfortunately, we also never get the slightest bit of mystery or dark charisma in Andrew Goetten’s performance as the notoriously petulant, sphinx-like troubadour.
In summary: Give It All Back is an attractive production with some enjoyable moments and performances, but ultimately feels non-essential due to the lack of insight Calamity West’s script brings to the bard’s legend and a lead performance that is lacking the Dylan magic.
Do this first: A nearby restaurant with heavy buzz is De Quay, Chef David De Quay’s new restaurant that offers an unusual Dutch-Indonesian fusion of comfort food favorites such as pork chops, fried rice and stroopwafels made in-house.
Do this after: Post-drink discussions in a classic British pub? Head across the street to the recently renovated Red Lion Pub and be sure visit their restrooms whether you need to use them or not.
Running Time: 2 hours (including one 10-minute intermission)
At Biograph Theater (2433 N Lincoln Ave)
Playwright: Calamity West
Director: Marti Lyons
Thursdays-Fridays at 7:30pm
Saturdays at 3pm and 7:30pm
Sundays at 3pm
Thru December 18
For more information and reviews on Chicago theatre, visit Theater in Chicago.