Frank's Wild Years: Press Articles


Chicago Tribune
By Richard Christiansen, Entertainment editor.
Published: Monday, June 23, 1986 CHICAGOLAND section Page 6

At this stage in its development, Steppenwolf Theatre`s production of Tom Waits` ``Frank`s Wild Years`` is taking the wild part of its title much too literally.

Working with a sweet little idea, a weak book, a big budget and Waits` engaging talents as a writer and performer, director Gary Sinise has flung this turbulent musical morality play onto the stage and into the auditorium of the Briar Street Theatre with plenty of scenic fireworks and a fierce late-show energy, hoping that the loud invention will paste over the fact that the piece is a structural mess.

Sometimes, when a Waits song and performance click in with a magical bit of stagecraft, the result can be quite charming. Waits` oddball poetry, his unpredictable humor and his gritty voice are well matched for the patented Sinise version of rock and roll theater.

But for long, laborious stretches, particularly in its hurly-burly second act, ``Frank`s Wild Years`` is uncontrolled, ungoverned and, above all, immature.

The story, by Waits and his wife, Kathleen Brennan, actually is quite nice, though hardly original. It`s an artist`s journey toward self-understanding, as experienced by Frank O`Brien, a onetime saloon singer now down-and-out in East St. Louis, who takes a nightmarish dream trip through the evil capitals of show biz and comes out wiser and sadder--and still hoping.

A winsome innocent corrupted by the pettiness and greed of ``the business we call show,`` Frank is accompanied on his disillusioning trip through the fleshpots of Las Vegas and New York by four good old buddies from his hometown of Rainsville. Played at full volume by Moira Harris, Vince Viverito, Randall Arney and Gary Cole, they`re supposed to serve as a chorus and a conscience in Frank`s odyssey. Despite elaborate case histories tagged on each of them, however, they`re extraneous, mechanical figures who are given some of the lamest dialogue in the show and who are strictly along for the ride.

The cheap-shot show biz satire is fun, if obvious and sour, when it brings on a greasy Las Vegas lounge singer or a cut-rate clothing salesman running a chintzy amateur night; but a prolonged parody of a Bible-pounding faith healer is sophomoric, and an inordinately long, loud attempt at presenting a surrealistic pageant of Manhattan sleaze doesn`t even make it to the freshman level.

In the end, how much one enjoys or just tolerates ``Frank`s Wild Years`` will depend on how one feels about Tom Waits and his music. It`s his show, with the wasted talents of Harris, Viverito, Arney, Cole and a large, noisy supporting cast providing the busy filler behind him.

When he is alone in the spotlight, and with his fine five-man band providing rich back-up for his vocals, Waits` balletic spasms of movement and gravelly bursts of lyrics can create a compelling scene, whether it be rollicking satire, as in his fawning ``I`ll Take New York`` extravaganza, or delicate poignancy, as in ``It`s More Than Rain,`` a song of rue and regret that has been beautifully lighted by designer Kevin Rigdon.

Neither he nor Brennan have much of an idea about how to construct a book musical, but they do come up with some sharply tilted lines that deftly express Frank`s desperation. Acting as a huckster for a cheap clothing outlet, for example, Frank screams out, ``I`m 50 percent polyester, and no moral fiber.``

Balanced against that pleasing flair for language and his own compelling stage presence is Waits` nervous flaunting of Frank`s irritating, self-congratulatory manner, which (at least on Sunday`s opening night) slowed down scenes already sorely in need of being pushed along.

The whole show, besides the inevitable tidying up of technical problems, needs a stronger structure and purpose if it is to go beyond what its investors hope will be a life beyond Briar Street.

``FRANK`S WILD YEARS`` A new musical, with music and lyrics by Tom Waits and a book by Waits and Kathleen Brennan. Directed by Gary Sinise, with scenery and lighting by Kevin Rigdon, costumes by Erin Quigley, choreography by Robert Wells, musical direction by Greg Cohen, sound by Bob Gravenor and incidental trickery by Teller. Presented by Steppenwolf Theatre Company at the Briar Street Theatre, 3133 N. Halsted St., where it opened June 22 and plays at 8 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 5:30 and 9:30 p.m. Saturday, with Sunday performances at 2 p.m. June 29 and July 6 and 7 p.m. July 13 and 20. Length of performance: 2:55. Tickets are $16 to $24. Phone 348-4000.

THE CAST Frank O`Brien........ Tom Waits Dag Wilson...... Vince Viverito J.P. Fitzgerald....... Gary Cole Willa Bloom..... Moira Harris Bongo Sweetkind. Randall Arney With Tom Irwin, Alan Wilder, Rondi Reed, Elizabeth Bracco, Michael Fosberg, Leslie Holland, Scott McClelland, Dave McConnell, Jodie Markell, Peggy Roeder and Richard Winters. Musicians are Michael Blair, Ralph Carney, Greg Cohen, William Schimmel and Moris Taper.