Goodman Theatre is the final destination this fall with a production that easily fits the definition for a ticket for "must-see theater."
Goodman Theatre Resident Director Chuck Smith is celebrating his 20th anniversary with Goodman Theatre in grand style, just the way Chicago railroad mogul George Pullman defined his luxury train cars constructed on Chicago's South Side and built to travel the country.
Smith is the mind behind the Chicago premiere of Cheryl L. West's "Pullman Porter Blues," a 2013 Helen Hayes/Charles MacArthur Award nominee for Outstanding New Play/Musical. It's a two and a half hour, one intermission ride of a lifetime, or actually, three lifetimes, as it shares the stories of the generations who worked so hard, with very little pay and respect, to make Pullman the amazing success that welcomed the turn-of-the-century.
The blues-infused stage telling, which is more play than full-on musical, follows three generations of African-American Pullman porters in the 1930s, an era that no longer enslaves them but still exploits them, as depicted here.
There are references to A. Philip Randolph, the leader in the African-American civil-rights movement and the American labor movement and socialist political parties who organized and led the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first predominantly black labor union. But this play offers so many more stories and character levels, with a story and neat plot-lines that breeze by with speed as audiences become invested in every identity seen on the stage.
In "Pullman Porter Blues," Tony Award winner Cleavant Derricks portrays Sylvester Sykes, a second-generation railway porter, union organizer and father, while Tony Award nominee Larry Marshall portrays Monroe Sykes, the family patriarch grateful for the opportunities given to him by the Pullman company. With this duo is newcomer Tosin Morohunfola who portrays Cephas, the youngest Sykes son and med-school hopeful with an itch for adventure. These men deliver seamless performances that meld beautifully, with overlapping stage stories capturing every audience interest.
Add to this cast, the sweet sensation that is Chicago stage favorite E. Faye Butler as out-of-this-world entertaining and emotionally complex Sister Juba, countered by Francis Guinan in a role made to order as Tex, the conniving train conductor, it results in enough better-than-to-be-believed baggage to keep an audience ready to jump at the next train whistle. Claire Kander is transformed as she makes her Goodman Theatre debut in the role of Lutie, a stowaway.
Smith and scenic designer Riccardo Hernandez are a winning combo for what is the best production so far of the 2013 fall season. Hernandez has managed to replicate an entire Pullman train car on stage with beautifully detailed segmented compartments for every scene.
Tickets are $25 to $86 at the box office or GoodmanTheatre.org or (312) 443-3800, with discounted Group Tickets for 15 persons or more available at (312) 443-3820.