Chicago theatre is constantly criticized for its lack of representation on the stage, and rightfully so. From the “Jeffs are so white” campaign to a myriad of casting controversies, Chicago is not exempt from these struggles within the industry. A survey published by The Chicago Tribune further proves that actors of colors and women are less represented and underpaid in the theatre despite Chicago being one of the most diverse cities in America. With predominantly white casts and men taking up the physical space of these stages (and the stories they are portraying) it can be disheartening. To continue to see the played out, stripping down of a protagonist’s masculinity and privilege often gets old.
BoHo Theatre’s Marie Christine slaps back at this notion. This Medea-inspired musical challenges the traditional Chicago crowd-pleaser and instead carves out a space of its own. With music and lyrics by Michael John LaChiusa, it’s a show that champions the stories of women—one woman in particular. Meet Marie Christine (based on the daughter of famous voodoo figure, Marie Laveau): a pristine, wealthy ingenue of mixed race growing up in New Orleans’ creole society. She has a promising, bright future ahead of her; that is, of course, if she chooses to listen to her brothers who control her every desire. This idealized future quickly spirals out of control by her brothers’ vision and is remodeled in the hands of Christine. She chooses not to live a life by family obligation and societal standards, but for herself, and more importantly for love.
As soon as Marie Christine (Kyrie Courter) graces the stage, you have no doubt she will be successful. Instantly charismatic, Courter invites us into her world, on a journey of glorious highs and sinister lows. We feel her pain, want for her pleasure, and dismay when the two feed into one another. But she is not disgruntled for long as she learns to take the pain unleashed onto her and enact it on others. Seeing her discovery of power to use for vengeance with one act of horror worse than the next is so delicious to watch.
The show opens with Marie Christine having been sentenced to death for murder. The other female prisoners encourage her to share her story (“Before the Morning”), and we visually see her past unfold. The women continue to make an appearance as her story progresses, a haunting Greek chorus that question her choices, even parroting back her unkept promises. They also question what their own role is supposed to be in witnessing this, “Is it us to judge you? Forgive you?”
The show struggles in its first opening minutes to transport back in time, but the talent of this ensemble reassures us we are in good hands. The backbone of a strong ensemble is warranted with such demanding material (over forty-two songs) and makes this more operatic than musical show fly by fast. Every ensemble member delivers a raw energy, palpating harmonies, and exhilarating unloading of lines that will leave your jaw open from laughter, shock, or both. It’s a thrilling experience and grows more exciting as we delve deeper into the belly of this beast.
And what would a glorious tragedy be without its careless lovers? Marie Christine and her poor ship captain, Dante (Ken Singleton), or as I affectionately call him Cappy produce fireworks in their electric sizing up of one another. Christine and Cappy’s initial tête-à-tête solidifies the momentum of the rest of the show. It is a pivot where Christine resigns to no longer live a life for her own satisfaction, but for his. And Cappy has to be pretty damn charming for us to buy that Christine’s transfixion could be possible. His confident swagger and good looks help disguise his Harold Hill like demeanor and subtle flaws of being broke and cocky. As soon as he tenderly reminisces about home in “Nothing Beats Chicago”, we are on board as fast as you can say, “If you jump, I jump Jack.”
BoHo Theatre is clever in capitalizing on the show’s partial setting of Chicago, but it speaks volumes to how a production could be less captivating if performed elsewhere. Maybe New Orleans? If the show weren’t being performed here, it could be a harder sell on Dante and the show in general (which would explain the original Broadway production’s mixed reviews). Here, Cappy’s championing of our city helps build a likeness of him in that he is one of us, he’s our guy. It doesn’t hurt that Act II takes place in the Windy City, but is a nice, added bonus.
Christine’s story recanted to the average audience member would seem typical, even trite. She provides love for others but hasn’t found it herself. She meets a man she is forbidden to love or marry and devotes her life to him. She promises her life won’t be defined by a man, yet it is. We could toss her and her new beau in with a bunch of Hallmark movie meet cutes and it wouldn’t make a difference. Act I sets Marie Christine up as such a flaky, lovelorn figure, but the show begs us to stay tuned of how she has some tricks up her sleeves.
In fact, the direction by Lilli-Anne Brown seems to deceive us entirely in that this reenvisoned Medea myth might tell another story. It could not even live up to its name. Act I’s tied up in matters of sex, love potions, and protective brothers. Christine’s humorous, frivolous brothers (Averis Anderson, Curtis Bannister) are a delight with their light wit that slowly hardens into cold demands. There is a clear tension and Christine could diffuse it by sacrificing her own happiness for her brothers. Christine and Dante could part, and then be reunited years later. Maybe we could get that Hallmark movie after all, and it wouldn’t be so nauseating.
But Christine just can’t help herself. It’s as if something beyond herself causes her to make her first kill. We are forced to remember all the decisions that led her here, and how her story is now forever changed. Making the moment where she is past the point of no return is given just enough attention, and not to the point of melodrama. It’s truly startling and catches you off guard. Spoiler alert, it’s neither Cappy or her children.
Act I’s finale (“I Will Give”) reminds us that the fiery passion of the young woman who wanted to study in Europe and live by her own fruition still exists within her now stone-cold demeanor. Act II further burdens the frustrated heroine and the more turns she is forced to endure, there seems only one path for her to go rather than abandon who she is. There is a brief sprinkling of hope when a burlesque performer, Magdalena (Neela Barron), comes to her aide and provides some much-needed levity in her numbers, “Cincinnati” and “A Lovely Wedding” with ferocious tenacity. But even Magdalena can’t pull Marie out of the fleeting, quicksand future she is blindly falling into, nor the female Greek chorus that fades away in Act II. It’s clear Christine is in this battle alone.
Despite the past mistakes and blood on her hands that mark her, she won’t give up. There is something inspiring about a deeply flawed and at various times questionably aimed woman still utilizing the power she has left to change her narrative. Marie’s end is doomed, and we are reminded of her future condemnation, but there is still a part of you that roots for her. Who hasn’t wanted to destroy the man who used her as a stepping stone to advance his popularity? Or stand up against those who want nothing more than for you to go away quietly? Why give in when you can fight for yourself till the very end? There’s something admirable of someone not abandoning their ship just because it’s sinking.
Seeing MC at the beginning and end surrounded by female prisoners reminds you that her story represents one of many. The only people left who will listen to her are those who’ve been rejected by society and no longer thought worthy. They have no way to help Christine find redemption as they are struggling to find it within themselves. But this group of women can provide solace in listening. They might not be able to change their circumstances, but they’re all each other has, and that is not something to be taken lightly.
Marie Christine proves that a wronged, outspoken woman can be punished purely on sex. She is condemned for loving others, in wanting to inflict pain on those who’ve wronged her, to seek justice. While Cappy who is just as slimy and ill-intended as they come can advance, ultimately rise above, and have everything bend to his will. Where there is a Cappy, there is a Marie Christine standing in the shadows, uncredited, underpaid, and unrecognized for her basic humanity. Who knew that the anger that arises from gender double standards in 1890s New Orleans could be contagious? It’s a deadly weapon, a motivation to be loud, but more importantly to be heard, a battle cry against oppression. As one of Christine’s maids remarks, “White man get his money. He get more than that.”
Something Chicago theatre, and all of us know too well.