Recent openings: 'I Just Stopped By to See the Man' and 'A Christmas Carol'

Music IndustryHolidaysEbenezer Scrooge (fictional character)Arts and CultureDeathCharles DickensJim True-Frost

Music, to many, is a mystery. The pleasure derived from listening to music is hard to articulate. And the musicians—in their minds or through their instruments—can compound that mystery. It is the unknown fate of a music legend that haunts Stephen Jeffreys' "I Just Stopped By to See the Man," receiving its U.S. premiere on Sunday, Nov. 24, in a Steppenwolf mainstage production.

Directed by ensemble member Randall Arney, the play seeks the truth about Jesse Davidson, the last of the Delta Blues singers. Though he died 14 years before the play's present day, legend has kept him alive. Some say he sold his soul to play the guitar. Others say he's not dead at all.

When an English rock band hits town, its leader Karl looks for the truth about Davidson and learns that in order to find it, he must give up fame and fortune.

A strong musician in his own right, Jim True-Frost, who plays Karl, knows music's force on a musician. "Karl is drawn to playing with other people, as I am. He loves the spontaneity of jamming in a communal effort," says True-Frost, an avid guitar player. "But now his band is about to break up, so he's had to turn to something else. What he must learn is that there's no easy way to play the blues or do anything that comes from deep personal experience. Karl has been spoiled by stardom. Now he must find another reason to make music."

To playwright Jeffreys it is the tale of a blues musician that is inherently dramatic. "The gestures that people in the blues make with their lives are theatrical ones," he says. "It's always struck me that the rhythm of the blues is the same rhythm as Shakespeare—iambic pentameter—which is also the rhythm of a heartbeat. It confirms life."

OTHER OPENINGS:

"A CHRISTMAS CAROL": Opening Sunday, Nov. 24, for the second time in its spiffy new space, Tom Creamer's tried-and-true adaptation of Charles Dickens' holiday classic boasts a new director—Kate Buckley, best known for her staging of Next Theatre's "The Laramie Project"—and a new Ebenezer Scrooge, William Brown.

"I'm trying to strip away everything extraneous in order to get the heart of the story and make it clearer and truer," Buckley says. "The magic of this piece lies in the story, not the technical trickery that can be brought to it.

"William Brown has played almost every role in the show and knows it inside out," she continues. "He's not only the most imposing Scrooge ever, able to get his way with a look, but he makes Scrooge's journey very clear and the transformation absolutely believable."

"A CHRISTMAS SCHOONER": Reopening Tuesday, Nov. 26, is Chicago's other theatrical Christmas treasure, directed by Phil Gigante. This homegrown musical by John Reeger and Julie Shannon tells the story of how Christmas trees first came to Chicago in the late 19th Century.

The show, now in its eighth year, reverberates with the community, according to Bailiwick artistic director David Zak. "People respond to the Chicago side of this Victorian story and connect to the reality of these people and their hard life," he says. "Plus you can have a rousing good time, enjoying a story of the season that's a family saga about the joy of combining business with pleasure."

Bommer is a Chicago freelance writer.

Originally published Nov. 20, 2002.

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