I couldn’t help hearing the words of Maya Angelou’s Phenomenal Woman poem resonating through my mind during the performance of Firebrand Theatre’s Nothin’ Like A Dame: A Celebration of Women in Musical Theatre concert. For one night only, over two dozen of the most talented Windy City performers personified “Cause I’m a woman, Phenomenally. Phenomenal woman, That’s me.” The female-driven musical theater company, Firebrand Theater, is the brainchild of established actors Harmony France and Danni Smith. When asked about the inspiration behind this venture, France joked, “I realized we didn’t have one and it pissed me off.” She went on to say “women deserve to have their stories told in musical theater.” Performing on the Mercury Theater stage as a shared “safe space,” France also mentioned how this concept is just “good business sense” as “women make up 68% of audiences” who attend musical theater. Why not create material that directly markets to this financially rich and underserved demographic? France was also the show’s director and added two musical directors for the evening as well. Why not? Diana Lawrence and Andra Velis Simon both added their experience, talent and vision to enrich the musical landscape. When asked what attracted them to this project, Diana Lawrence exclaimed “I’m tired of hearing songs come out of women’s mouths that don’t represent what women would actually say or think. Women need to be deciding what and how to sing about ourselves.” Andra Velis Simon added “I cannot watch one more musical with a stage full of men and 0-2 women. There needs to be more feminism everywhere, period: musical theatre is just one of the few places I can help make it happen.”
The hosts for the evening included the dynamite duo, Sara Sevigny and Sharriese Hamilton. Each kept the jokes as well as the pace flying. As we are in the height of cold and flu season, Hamilton wasn’t going to let a little scratchy throat stop her from being involved. She repeated joked about making #bubonic trend on social media. Backed by the Inaugural Season Preview Band which included drummer Danielle Davis, Jennifer T. Grubb on bass, guitarist Julia A. Miller and Lauren Vogel on the banjo and fiddle, the night began with the aptly titled “Sexist Medley” performed by the entire ensemble. Unironically belting South Pacific’s “There Ain’t Nothing Like A Dame” with lyrics including “Nothin’ else is built the same, Nothin’ in the world, As the soft and wavy frame like the silhouette of a dame! Or as faithful as a bird dog…” I sat stunned this feminist concept never occurred to anyone else sooner. Woman as faithful as a bird dog? Yikes!
The show’s individual performances began with a half dozen of the funniest ladies currently performing on various Chicago stages. Leah Morrow is an established and regular fixture in many of the Mercury Theater’s musical productions. Currently slaying them in Madagascar at the Marriott Theater, tonight she was “Shy” from Upon a Mattress. Tickling everyone’s funny bone with a goofy riff on Michelle Pfeiffer from the film The Fabulous Baker Boys. Flirty, flouncy and facetious as all get out, this “character actress” was at home center stage. Up next, Christine Bunuan, recently featured in The Hundred Dresses with the Chicago Children’s Theatre. The petite powerhouse stepped up to the microphone stand, clearly resting about a foot above her head and cracked it was the story of her life. After a quick mic stand adjustment, her rendition of “On My Way” from Violet was a smooth as silk. A troika of giggle getters took the stage next for a silly and sassy rendition of “I Know It’s Today” from Shrek The Musical. Lillian Castillo, Tiffany Tatreau and Sara Reinecke were heroines not interested in waiting for any handsome prince to ride up on a horse to rescue them. They can rescue themselves, thank you very much. Tatreau commented “I want to see (women) telling truthful and complex stories with their unbelievable talent as much as humanly possible because that makes for remarkable theatre.” Castillo shared “so much of our history has been written and told through the man’s perspective and it changes our reality. It is long past time to take the story into our own hands.”
It is no secret I am smitten for performer Christina Hall. She has been on my radar for several years, in both musical and non-musical roles. Just completing a star turn as Ursula the Sea Witch in Paramount Theater’s, The Little Mermaid, her choice of song a little more subdued and less scenery chewing for the evening. Not every song requires eight tentacles as back-up support after all. Sharing “I believe in the power of women supporting other women” Hall entertained with a lovely rendition of Sweeny Todd’s “Children Will Listen” to a clearly captivated crowd. Rounding out the first set, Christine Mild’s subtle “Natural Woman” from Beautiful The Carole King Musical and Smokey Joe’s Café “I’m A Woman” with Kasey Alfonso, Karla Beard, Donica Henderson and Sophie Grimm belting out updated lyrics, including a nod to all the “Nasty Woman” thumbing their noses at the current administration running our nation’s Capitol.
The second act began with samples of songs from the two musicals that will make up Firebrand’s inaugural season, 9-5 and Lizzie. Announcing she has been cast as Doralee, Sharriese Hamilton again took the stage to sing a little “Backwoods Barbie” and #bubonic. Joining her for a chorus of the title song, Michelle Lauto and Sophie Grimm. Lauto, taking a break from the Hamilton spoof, Spamilton, now playing at The Royal George Theater, exclaimed “I love nothing more than watching intelligent, talented, brassy and interesting women digging in roles that come up too few and far between.” After the subtle, blue grass infused melodies of Dolly Parton’s soundtrack, it was time to rock out to the guitar licks of Lizzie. Courtney Mack, Becca Brown, Amanda Horvath and Camille Robinson took the stage uttering some powerful harmonies. Jeff Award-winning performer Amanda Horvath shared her involvement stemmed from her feeling “we women have been fighting to tell our own stories through men’s’ voices, words, stories and direction for long enough.” Camille Robinson added “we ladies got a lot to say and a lot of different ways of saying it. It is high time we stop apologizing for that and live in all our glory.” Glorious, indeed.
Speaking of powerful performers, the sensational Bethany Thomas took the stage next for an absorbing “Being Alive” from the musical Company. Thomas is simply astonishing to hear live. Continuing the momentum, Neala Barron’s “Not For The Life Of Me” as she also shared “representation strengthens our storytelling community.” Returning to the Mercury stage, The Color Purple star, Jeff-Award-winner and Chicago Tribune “Chicagoan of the Year in Theatre” Donica Henderson singing “I’m Here.” A vocal run Olympian, she believes “ It (Feminism) shouldn’t even need to be a movement, but if bringing more women to the forefront aids in tipping the scales, I’m all for it.” While we are discussing dynamite divas, Cassie Slater, currently slaying it as Rosie in Mamma Mia at Marriott Theatre, is a funny lady who sang the ultimate Funny Girl song, “Don’t Rain On My Parade” from the 1964 musical and 1968 film. Written by Bob Merrill and Jule Styne, Slater paid proper homage to Barbra Streisand. Also taking a break from her phenomenal performance as Donna Sheridan in Marriott’s Theatre’s Mamma Mia, Danni Smith graced the stage with a regal rendition of “There Will Be a Miracle.” Smith included “when woman get a seat at the table, everybody wins. I believe when we celebrate one another’s successes and support each other through our failures, we’re stronger.”
The final numbers of the evening leaned more toward the ballad. Starting with a subdued “Goodbye, My Love” from Laura McClain, whose involvement came from the fervent belief “women deserve a chance to be the hero of the story.” The brilliant Brianna Borger broke it down into economic terms. “I should be paid the same as my male co-stars. Strong sexy women are THE most interesting thing you can put on a stage, and it’s a damn shame it took me 35 years to learn that.” Finally Lina Wass took the stage, joined by the entire ensemble, to close with “Til We Reach That Day.” Wass felt “we have a lot more stories to tell than damsel in distress and my daughter needs to believe it as she learns she can be anything. Art reflects life, so lets continue to reflect who we are: strong, beautiful, smart, treasures.”
Coming full circle, I return to the recollections of Harmony France who stated, “I believe in gender equality. I am a Firebrand because I believe in inclusion. I’m a Firebrand because I don’t know how to be any other way.” This maverick troupe of women are modern day pioneers, paving the way for future story tellers of the feminine persuasion. Might I add, it is about DAME time!
Firebrand Theatre’s Nothin’ Like A Dame: A Celebration of Women in Musical Theatre played Monday, February 27, 2017 at the Mercury Theater