Several years ago, Chicago theater audiences saw a marvelous little play called “These Shining Lives” written by Melanie Marnich. That play tells us the tale of a period in the 1920’s and 1930’s detailing the Illinois company, The Radium Dial Company and the effects that this glow in the dark clock process had on the workers who made this company famous. A very impressive play. Now, a new version of this story is being told as part of Northlight’s 40th Anniversary. It is now however, what we term a “chamber” musical. The show is called “Shining Lives: a Musical” with a book and lyrics by Jessica Thebus and music composed by Andre Pluess and Amanda Dehnert.
This particular production, a World Premiere, has been developed through Northlight’s Interplay Series. Directed by Thebus on a small, almost barren stage, we learn about these women, who back in 1922, began living an American Dream. Women were allowed to do many things that they had not in the past, one of which was to get jobs with decent pay (of course not as much as men), giving them a sort of independence never before known to them.
One of these “special” jobs was that of painting watch dials with a paint of sorts made of a harmless product called radium. These watch and clock dials had a special glow in the dark feature allowing people to tell the time even in the dark. That was long before people knew about the harmful side effects of radium, especially after many years of these ladies touching their special brushes to their lips, then dipping into the paint and then painting the hands and numerals on the face. They were paid per watch, so they might do over 150 watches a day, meaning they applied these brushes to their mouths over 1,000 times per day.
After years of doing their jobs, little by little, the radium getting into their systems led to illness and eventually death. This story tells of four of these women, Frances (Jess Godwin), Catherine (an incredible job by Johanna McKenzie Miller), Pearl (deftly handled by Tiffany Topol) and Charlotte (Bri Sudia). These ladies build strong relationships with each other and as they feel the pain and suffering of the radium take a stand to take the company to court. They do. They win! The company appeals! They win, again! The company appeals again! and through all of this they suffer and three of them die. When the case does reach final settlement, the last remaining of the foursome, Catherine, gets her check and also passes away, leaving her husband Tom (another fine performance by Alex Goodrich, who shows that he is more than a comic actor-bravo!). The other members of the cast, playing several roles (as well as musical instruments) are Matt Mueller and Erik Hellman, both terrific actors and musicians. At the keyboards Chuck Larkin.
A “chamber” musical has very little set, but this one does have some wonderful projections (Stephan Mazurek) depicting the factory and the times. The watch dial projections were very interesting indeed and the lighting (JR Lederle) has some unique effects as we learn more about the body’s response to radium. Ray Nardelli’s sound is ideal as we were able to hear every word spoken and sung. Part of the beauty of this type of musical is that it doesn’t stop for big numbers. The music and song lyrics are designed to propel the story to the viewer and they truly got it! I found myself with a tear in my eye several times, so may I suggest you bring tissues with you as, once again, there is no intermission. The limited amount of choreography (Vanessa Stalling) fits the story and also is there to propel, not stand out.
Tuesdays 7:30 p.m. (June 9th only)
Wednesdays 1 p.m. (except 5/27) and 7:30 p.m. (except 6/3)
Thursdays 7:30 p.m.
Fridays 8 p.m.
Saturdays 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m.
Sundays 2:30 p.m. and 7 p.m.*
Check with theater box office for evening shows
Tickets range from $25- $78 and can be purchased at the box office, by calling 847-673-6300 or online at www.northlight.org
FYI There is a documentary “Radium City” which tells of the survivors and the aftermath of the contamination. The program is filled with many actual stories relating to the events- I am sure that they are all available on their website, but they include Highland Park Library, Evanston History Center, Skokie Public Library, Chicago History Museum- check them out and try to fit this historical piece into your busy schedule.
To see what others are saying, visit www.theatreinchicago.com, go to Review Round-up and click at “Shining Lives: A Musical”.