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THEATER Golden Age Hollywood icons are reborn on the Chicago stage
by James R. Wilke
2018-02-07

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On Feb. 16-17 at the Athenaeum Theatre, two legendary women from Hollywood's Golden Age will return to audiences ( and to life ) in two Chicago theatrical premiere, 90-minute, one-woman musicals: The Garbo The Musical, and Hedda! A Musical Conversation. And with all the gay intrigue surrounding these two icons—silver screen temptress Greta Garbo and gossip columnist Hedda Hopper—Windy City Times talked with Chicago local creator/performer Jillann ( Jill ) Gabrielle to get the scoop.

A recent transplant to suburban Crystal Lake with her husband, Gabrielle has decades of musical theater, cabaret and solo performance experience under her belt, both locally and across the country. While she is the creator, performer and primary writer of both works, honed at smaller venue performances over the past three years, she also collaborated with locals Michael Termine on the book/lyrics for Hedda! and Howard Pfeifer on the music and arrangements for both shows.

In The Garbo, audiences will find themselves holed up with Garbo in her later reclusive years at her "hodgepodge" east-side Manhattan apartment. The plot revolves around a nightmare Garbo has about two of the most pivotal loves of her life: conspicuous lesbian writer Mercedes de Acosta, and bisexual British designer Cecil Beaton. With quick changes, Gabrielle takes on all three roles as Garbo's nightmare unfolds.

Gabrielle said, "All of the secrets about Garbo come out in this piece." But as audiences will see, things don't work out so well in the end. "She found someone who was very willing and adoring in Cecil," Gabrielle added. "But he was a real cunt. And he gave it to her in the end by publishing his memoirs, as did Mercedes... So, it's really about love and betrayal and not being able to face who you are."

For Hedda!, audiences will join the Queen of Hollywood Gossip in her Beverly Hills living room during the peak of her reign from the mid-1940s through 1950s. Gabrielle said, "She's on the phone; she was notorious! She outed a number of people. She wanted to out Cary Grant, but Louis B. Mayer wouldn't let her do it." Through cheeky songs and conversations, Hedda will reveal this and other juicy bites from her life, and Gabrielle added, "She made herself a star on the backs of all these other stars with her exposure of all their peccadilloes." The play will also touch on Hopper's infamously conservative views.

Gabrielle cited many inspirations drawing her to these particular women's stories, including their strengths, struggles, interesting lives, and similar German-Swedish backgrounds to her own. Gabrielle noted, "I'm sophisticated, but I'm also like Mercedes. I have a foul mouth. And I'm a very domineering woman. But it works well for the stage."

Pre-recorded orchestral tracks will accompany Gabrielle's shows. And with song titles like "I Can Get Any Woman From Any Man ( The Starfucker Song )" sung by Mercedes in The Garbo, or "Queen of the Quickies" and "Friendly Enemy Rag" in Hedda!, Gabrielle's songs sound like just the sort of wit to appeal to LGBT audiences. Of Hopper, Gabrielle added, "She called everybody the 'Friendly Enemies.' And that was her life, giving everybody shit and having fun doing it!"

Apart from these performances, Gabrielle said she sees a future for The Garbo and Hedda! beyond herself. She said, "My goal is to get them to Broadway in small houses, with someone like Glenn Close playing both of them." Gabrielle hinted, however, that Hedda could also be played by a man: "The essential story could be fabulous with a drag queen in it. Are you kidding? Oh, god, yes!"

And does Gabrielle have more original material in the works once Garbo and Hedda hang up their hats? Well, aside from two screenplays she penned currently making rounds in Los Angeles, Gabrielle said of her next solo theatrical production, "My next piece is on Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, where I play them both. ... They are in purgatory, and their punishment is to share the same body." Sounds hot to me. Give 'em hell!

Hedda! and The Garbo open at 7:30 p.m. on Feb. 16-17, respectively, and run through March 17 at the Athenaeum Theatre, Studio Two, 2936 N. Southport Ave. For showtimes and tickets, visit Athenaeumtheatre.org .


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