Playwright: Eric Simonson; music by Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
At: Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 1650 N. Halsted St. Tickets: 312-335-1650; Steppenwolf.org; $20-$114. Runs through: Jan. 5
There are hints early on that one of the loversLindiwe and Adamis dead, confirmed in Act II when one realizes this world premiere is an ornate retelling of Orpheus and Eurydice, with roles reversed: it's Eurydice who sings so sweetly she charms Death. No wonder Ladysmith Black Mambazo is there, definitely a Greek chorus commenting on the action and participating in it. No wonder, too, that Collette Pollard's massive set is a temple of the arts; an old, crumbling proscenium arch theater ( it would be perfect for Sondheim's Follies ). This is an ancient tale, after all, of artists and the power of art.
Of course, writer Eric Simonson ( also co-director with Jonathan Berry ) has modernized the myth, setting it in present day Chicago and Durban, South Africa, the home of Ladysmith Black Mambazo ( LBM ) and fictional Lindiwe ( Nondumiso Tembe ) ), who sings with them as they tour the USA. In Chicago they visit the Kingston Mines blues club, where Lindiwe and drummer Adam ( Erick Hellman ) fall instantly in love. Soon they cross oceans for each other, Lindiwe spending four months in Chicago and Adam joining her in Durban, where Lindiwe's musical career soars. Yeah, there's a touch of A Star is Born, too. Alas, one of the dark gods is jealous: Lindiwe reminds the Keeper ( Yasen Peyankov ) of his own lost love.
Rare for theater these days, Lindiwe offers a mostly positive spin on life despite the presence of death and lovers' quarrels. Tembe, as Lindiwe, entrances with a killer smile, big eyes, a bigger voice and warmth. You wanna' hug her. As Adam, actor and drummer Hellman has boyish charm ( although he's not a boy ) and confidence; he's cool without being arrogant. As for Ladysmith Black Mambazo, these winners of five Grammy Awards could make the phone book sound gloriously rich, naturally musical and effortlessly smooth. They could sing songs of violence and make them sound just as smooth and soothing, but they don't. Music is as natural as breath to these nine gentlemen. Chicago veterans Cedric Young and Jennifer Engstrom capably complete the cast in supporting roles.
Like cotton candy, Lindiwe is sweet but melts away quickly. You'll enjoy familiar blues tunes "Sweet Home Chicago" and "Caledonia," and you'll want to take home LBM home; however, the show's message and even its dramatic conflict are slight, making the production's intermission unnecessary. Lindiwe and Adam are a Black/white couple, but that's neither the story nor message. And Ladysmith Black Mambazo is in a supporting role. Indeed, you may be disappointed that they sing mostly snatches of songs rather than complete numbers.