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Africa & Plumbridge

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AFRICA & PLUMBRIDGE, at Theatre Building Chicago. Vanity productions are often uncomfortable, but this new musical raises the eww factor. The production itself isn't completely bad: Sue Carey, the local philanthropist who used her own story as the subject matter, has purchased the best talent she can find. The problem is that the heart of the tale--which is supposed to be about the growing relationship between Africa, a deeply troubled 13-year-old who's been shuttled through the foster care system, and Sue Plumbridge, the kind fairy godmother who ultimately saves her from a dastardly shrink and adopts her--gets lost in the glow of adulation lavished on Carey's stand-in. Instead of honestly confronting the thorny politics at the intersection of white privilege and black dispossession, the musical's book (by director Jim Brochu, based on an earlier attempt by Carson Grace Becker) meanders into soggy melodrama. The relationship between the title characters is woefully undeveloped, the shenanigans of the evil shrink (Richard White, who's quite good at taking off his glasses when he's making a dramatic point) are cartoonish, and if the intent is to empower underprivileged children, it fails utterly: the dominant message is "Wait for the nice white lady to make things better, kids." Janeece Aisha Freeman as Africa and Susan Powell as Plumbridge deliver performances that strongly suggest how good they can be in better material, and composer/lyricist Karena Mendoza's score occasionally delivers stirring passages reminiscent of the music of the townships in her native South Africa.

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