Evelyn and the Polka King | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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Evelyn and the Polka King




Steppenwolf Theatre Company

The pattern is painfully obvious. In trying economic times, when grant money dries up and audiences become increasingly reluctant to buy tickets, the only shows big-budget theaters dare produce are cloying, uncontroversial, and embarrassingly safe. Evelyn and the Polka King is such a show. Cheerful, shallow, fast-paced to a fault, John Olive's play, like the musical form it trumpets, is unlikely to offend any but the most rabid polkaphobe.

Olive's story is the sort of one-sentence plot beginning screenwriters are encouraged to create: washed-up, recovering-alcoholic, former polka king Henry is united with young, perky Evelyn, the illegitimate daughter he never knew he had, and together they tour America's heartland rebuilding his musical career, searching for her natural mother, and running from legal representatives of her adopted parents, who want their daughter back (along with the suitcase full of cash she stole).

Olive's characters are so thin that to call them cartoonish risks offending cartoonists. (His last play at Steppenwolf, Killers, suffered from a similar lack of dimensionality.) We learn virtually nothing new about Evelyn or Henry over the course of their two-act odyssey, and they don't seem to learn very much about themselves--except that performing polkas in front of an audience is a lot of fun and that if you steal a million dollars from your adoptive parents they're going to work awfully hard to find you.

In Olive's universe there are no shadows. Everyone works from the purest of motives; no one is motivated by darker drives: fear, anger, lust, envy. For example, Henry and Evelyn are remarkably sexless characters, though Henry is supposed to have been quite the ladies' man and Evelyn is a young, attractive woman. Now I'm not suggesting that what this show needs is a violation of the incest taboo. Only that Olive's characters, like those that inhabit Disney films of the 50s and 60s, don't seem to have libidos. Not once on this picaresque journey is Evelyn approached by an interested young man; not once does Henry seem interested in any of the appreciative fans he meets along the way.

You also don't have to be Sigmund Freud to think there's something more to Evelyn's desperate search for her "real parents" than a romantic desire to discover her roots. Like maybe something happened back home in Texas to send her fleeing. And I mean something more traumatic than Olive's superficial explanation: that Evelyn discovered her father was a crook who specialized in looting S and Ls.

This is not to say that Evelyn and the Polka King is without redeeming qualities. Carl Finch and Bob Lucas's music saves the show, jump starting the plot whenever Olive's story dies. I can't shake the feeling that two hours of just their music, played by the excellent polka band assembled by music director William Schwarz, would have been more rousing.

The performances in this show are also terrific. Sally Murphy, in particular, is a revelation. Given her competent but hardly inspired performances in such shows as Steppenwolf's Harvey and the Goodman's The Winter's Tale, I would never have guessed she had the fire, range, or versatility she displays as Evelyn. Equally at home singing and acting, she manages to take this shallow character and create the illusion (sadly fleeting) that she's well-constructed. Eric Simonson's direction is also fine as far as it goes, which isn't far given the limited nature of the material.

But there's definitely something disheartening about seeing the considerable resources of Steppenwolf's new theater--the sophisticated lighting, the large, flexible performance space, the backdrops that fly in and out in a flash--supporting a show with so little substance.

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