An original work by the Genesis Ensemble, Uptown Opera is a fun exploration of the history of Appalachians’ migration to Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood. Conceived by director Annie Perry and with original music by Phil Maniaci, this bluegrass and rock n’ roll opera is entertaining and organic, if not highly thought-provoking.
Uptown Opera features a small cast of four actors: Claire Biggers as Saluda “Sally” Grace Wurlley, Ali Delianides as LulaJean Monroe, Dennis Frymire as Carmi Monroe, and Pete Navis as Curtis McAllister. LulaJean and Carmi are a married couple from West Virginia who have moved to Uptown Chicago to find food, money, and work. LulaJean, though happy to have a roof over her head, is lonely in the city, and asks her sister, Sally, to move up north to join them. What struck me most about these opening scenes was the ensemble’s creative use of a found space. Uptown Opera is performed in a church with the audience seated not in the congregation’s seats, but the choir’s, and the entire space is made use of, including the aisles and the balconies, which made for visually interesting scenes. The only trouble with spreading the cast out so much across the room was that the distance combined with the characters’ regional accents sometimes made the songs’ lyrics difficult to understand.
The first hint of conflict in the story comes when Sally starts dating Curtis McAllister, the owner of the grocery store where she works. While she is over the moon to have someone to go out with every night, her brother-in-law Carmi believes that this behavior is inappropriate and that Curtis, a native Chicagoan, is not a good match for “hick” Sally. One of the most entertaining songs of Act I is a confrontation between Carmi and Curtis in which each of them tries to intimidate the other into seeing things his way. Act I ends with a fire that destroys the grocery store and a sweet song between Curtis and Sally, who get engaged.
Act II is significantly shorter than Act I, and features deeper conflict as Carmi loses his job and Sally and Curtis must deal with the loss of their store and their in-laws’ disapproval of their marriage. “Freezin’ on the Water” is a standout song, as are all the numbers in which the actors sing in four-part a capella. The show closes with Carmi's death and a heart-breaking number performed beautifully by Ali Delianides, in which LulaJean mourns all that she has lost in Uptown.
Uptown Opera features excellent music and acting, and while the story it tells is not as complex or conflict-ridden as one might expect out of such a tricky situation as immigration, it is certainly an entertaining show that will leave you humming its music and feeling connected to its characters. It is clear that the artists who developed this show were passionate about its subject matter, and that alone is worth a trip uptown to see it.
Location: Preston Bradley Auditorium, 941 W. Lawrence Ave.
Regular Run: July 26 - August 19; Fridays, Saturdays and Mondays at 8pm
Tickets: Purchase tickets online at Brown Paper Tickets: genesisuptownopera.bpt.me
Groups 8+ can receive a discount by emailing [email protected]