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‘Uptown Opera’ sheds light on Chicago neighborhood

Pete Navis (from left) Claire Biggers Ali Delianides Dennis Frymire star “Uptown Opera.” | PHOTO BY WILL NUNNALLY

Pete Navis (from left), Claire Biggers, Ali Delianides and Dennis Frymire star in “Uptown Opera.” | PHOTO BY WILL NUNNALLY

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When: Through Aug. 19

Where: Genesis Ensemble at Preston Bradley Auditorium, 941 W. Lawrence

Tickets: $15

Info: Brown Paper Tickets at

Run time: 95 minutes, with one intermission

Updated: July 31, 2013 8:19PM

Immigration has become a hot topic on the stages of many of this city’s theaters, as well as on the political stage at large. But what is often forgotten is that internal migrations have been every bit as uprooting and difficult in this country as the movement of immigrants across national borders. And that is the subject of “Uptown Opera,” the ambitious four-person, “blue grass-meets-big city blues” piece now being presented by the Genesis Ensemble.

Conceived and directed by Annie Perry (in collaboration with Sergio Soltero and Libby Hladik), and featuring an original sung-through score by Phil Maniaci, this boldly staged piece tells the often neglected history of the Appalachian migration to Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood.

“Uptown Opera” is set in 1957 — as the middle class headed to the suburbs, and poor, job-seeking migrants from Appalachia traveled north and settled into Uptown’s aging housing stock. In fact, they did so in such numbers that it earned the neighborhood a reputation as “Hillbilly Heaven,” with all the cultural tensions to boot. And in an example of art imitating life, this production uses the grand, wood-panelled space of Uptown’s historic Preston Bradley Auditorium — with the audience seated on stage in the choir section, and the story played out on the rest of the stage. The balconies (strung with laundry lines), and the aisles of the orchestra area, also are used.

The story is a classic tale: LulaJean Monroe (Ali Delianides) leaves the beautiful landscape of her West Virginia home behind as she and her husband, Carmi (Dennis Frymire) move to Uptown and settle into a rundown apartment. The warm, maternal LulaJean tends the home. Carmi works in a factory, and when times are tough he drinks.

Meanwhile, LulaJean’s pretty, high-spirited younger sister, Sally (Claire Biggers), graduates from school and decides to join her sister and brother-in-law in the city. Sally quickly finds a job, feels like a liberated woman and meets a Chicago-bred co-worker, Curtis McAllister (Pete Navis), who takes her dancing. Carmi, a volatile type, thinks Curtis is taking his sister-in-law for a ride, and there is much tension between the two men. But eventually Sally and Curtis marry. And it is LulaJean and Carmi who come to a tragic end.

The “opera’s” 24 songs are a mix of southern and northern sounds — ballads, blues, a bit of honky tonk, jazz. And there are several winning movement sequences that help animate the story. Sadly, a rather tinny recording of the score is used as accompaniment for this show that cries out for a live band — something that surely would have been the theater’s choice, too, were it not prohibitively expensive. And while the actors have strong acoustic voices, with no body mikes the lyrics sometimes get lost in the large, echoey space of Preston Bradley.

That said, this is a most worthy effort, and a poignant reminder of an intriguing, little-chronicled chapter in Chicago history.

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