Music by Jenny Giering
Book & Lyrics by Beth Blatt

Directed by Kurt Johns
Musical Direction by Diana Lawrence

Julia Zayas-Melendez, AEA Stage Manager
Erin Fast, Costume Designer
Dave Ferguson, Lighting Designer
Amy Jackson, Set Designer
Daniel Pellant/Jesse Gaffney, Prop Designers
Steve Ptacek, Sound Designer


The Mistress Cycle breaks the mold of the traditional book musical, instead offering audiences a 'song cycle' that illuminates stories of passion, sacrifice and strength of spirit. The Mistress Cycle explores the lives and loves of five notorious mistresses: Tess Walker, a contemporary Manhattan photographer; Anais Nin, the famed sexual adventurer of the early 20th century; Diane de Poitiers, the mistress of King Henri II of 16th century France; Lulu White, a turn-of-the-century New Orleans bordello Madame; and Ching, a 14- year-old concubine in 12th century China.


The Cast

Charissa Armon (Tess) happily rejoins the Mistresses and Apple Tree Theatre where she also appeared in Dessa Rose. Chicago credits include: Catherine in Tomorrow Morning at the Greenhouse Theater; Mother in Ragtime (After Dark Award, Jeff Award Nomination), Clara in Passion, Anne in A Little Night Music at Porchlight Music Theatre; Woman 1 in I Love You You're Perfect, Now Change at Noble Fool Theatricals; Dolly/Ensemble in The Merry Wives of Windsor at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Sister Leo in Nunsensations at Drury Lane Oakbrook; Fay Apple in Anyone Can Whistle at Pegasus Players' Theatre; Mae in LaChiusa's The Wild Party at Circle Theatre.  Regional credits include: Lady Capulet in The People vs. Friar Laurence, the Man Who Killed Romeo and Juliet at BoarsHead Theater; and Helena in A Midsummer Night's Dream at Heritage Theatre Group. Charissa is an Artistic Associate of Porchlight Music Theatre and a proud member of Actors' Equity Association. www.charissaarmon.com

Christine Bunuan (Ching) is excited to make her debut with Apple Tree Theatre and to work with this amazing company of artists. Her credits include The 25 th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee in Chicago & First National Tour, the world premier of Kafka on the Shore at Steppenwolf Theatre, Miss Saigon at Drury Lane Oakbrook, A Christmas Carol at The Goodman Theater, Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast at Marriott Theater Lincolnshire, Jewtopia at The Mercury Theater, and Peter Pan The Musical at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. She is a graduate of The Theater School, DePaul University and a proud member of AEA. Much love and thanks to her family and the love of her life, Sean.

Angela Ingersoll (Anais Nin) happily reunites with the Apple Tree team, reprising the role that earned her a Jeff Nomination. She appears this fall as Lady Anne in Richard III at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, where credits include a Witch in Macbeth, Luciana/Alice Boggs in The Comedy of Errors, and Riley How Can You Run With a Shell On Your Back?. Other Chicago credits include Martha in The Secret Garden (Jeff Nomination, Porchlight Music Theatre); Nellie Forbush in South Pacific (Light Opera Works); I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change (Metropolis); as well as staged readings of High Fidelity (Route 66 Theatre Company) and Rex (Stages Festival). She can also be seen with her husband in his concert Steppin' Out with Michael Ingersoll. Regional credits include Julie Jordan in Carousel (Madison Repertory Theatre); Belle in Beauty & the Beast (Ostrander Award), Lucy in Jekyll & Hyde (Ostrander Award), Lady Macbeth in Macbeth (Ostrander Award), Shelley in Bat Boy: The Musical (Ostrander Award), Aldonza in Man of La Mancha (Ostrander Nomination), Evelyn Nesbit in Ragtime (Ostrander Nomination), Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz; Carla in Nine (Playhouse on the Square, Memphis); and Thomasina in Arcadia (Cincinnati Shakespeare Company). www.angelaingersoll.com

Susie McMonagle (Diane de Poitiers) Broadway credits include: Fantine in Les Miserables. National Tours include: Donna in Mamma Mia!, Martha/Ensemble in The Secret Garden; Fantine in Les Miserables; and The Sound of Music. Regional credits include: The Papermill Playhouse, Denver Center Theatre, New American Theatre, Mill Mountain Theatre: Mrs. Lyons in Blood Brothers; Dot/Marie in Sunday in the Park with George; Hypatia in Misalliance; Sally in Me and My Girl (Denver Drama Critics Circle); and Rhetta in Pump Boys and Dinettes. Recent Chicago credits include: Rock ‘n' Roll at the Goodman Theatre, All Night Strut at the Marriott Theatre; The Court Theatre's award winning production of Man of La Mancha and Annie in Annie Get your Gun (After Dark Award.) Susie's favorite Apple Tree Theatre productions include: Hello Again; Mae/Jo in Dirty Blonde and Flora in Indian Ink. New works include: Jane Grant in At Wits End at Northlight Theater. Susie is a 9 time Joseph Jefferson nominee for her performances of Shelby in The Spitfire Grill at Apple Tree Theatre; the Baker's Wife in Into the Woods, Annie in Annie Get Your Gun, Ellen in Miss Saigon, Florence in Chess , Eva Peron in Evita , Grizabella in Cats - all at Marriott Lincolnshire Theater; Reno in Anything Goes at Drury Lane Oakbrook; and Daisy in Side Show at Northlight Theater. She holds a B.F.A. from Stephens College.

Karen Marie Richardson (Lulu) is overjoyed to be a part of The Mistress Cycle. She is excited to work with the Apple Tree Theatre for the second time. You may have recently seen her in The Buddy Holly Story at Drury Lane Water Tower. Additional credits include The Wild Party with The Bohemian Theatre Ensemble, The Wild Women of Boho, Respect, A Musical Journey of Women in West Palm Beach, Florida, and Nell Carter in Ain't Misbehavin' at Timberlake Playhouse. She also participated in the re-recording for the demo of So Happy I Could Scream the musical. A runner-up at Showtime At the Apollo on Tour, Karen Marie is currently working on her first album. She would like to thank Jesus, her parents, EDDE, EEG, CBU, and Music for its constant friendship.


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Pioneer Press feature

Chris Jones blog

Playbill.com article

Newcity Chicago article

Chicago Sun-Times review

Edge Chicago review

Chicago Tribune review

Chicago Reader review

Chicagocritic.com review

Windy City Media Group review

ShowbizChicago review

Highlights from the Pioneer Press feature by Sara Burrows

A tweak here, a rehearsal there, one new pair of shoes and Apple Tree Theatre's "The Mistress Cycle," says Executive Director Mark Weston, is "good to go."
The Highland Park-based company heads to the Loop for the first time ever to restage its 2007 hit at Chicago's Auditorium Theatre July 22-28.
Weston says it's been seven or eight years since Apple Tree took a show anywhere IN the city, and this a fine show to travel with. "It's a production that deserves a wider audience, and this a good opportunity to show more people the high quality of Apple Tree's work."
As you'd expect, the production takes place on the great theater's stage. However the audience will also be on that stage, which has been transformed into a small, black-box theater much like Apple Tree's home space in Highland Park.
"It's fantastic," said Weston, adding that it gives Apple Tree a chance to present the kind of theater it does best.

Personal theater
"I call it 'living theater,'" he says, which means that the show, though a musical, is not a "Wicked"-like entertaining spectacle, but very intense and personal.
"Actors and audience are close together, breathing together, reacting to each other. It's the job of the audience to draw the performance out of the actors, which leads to a quiet dialogue," says Weston.
The wider exposure is just what Apple Tree needs at the moment. Weston is looking to add donors, because like so many businesses, the company is threatened by the sagging economy. "So we're grateful for this opportunity," he says.
Because of "The Mistress Cycle's" previous success -- it was Jeff-nominated -- changes in the show will be very subtle, says Charissa Armon. She'll be reprising her role as Tess Walker, the New York photographer "who's very successful in her career, but not at all successful in the rest of her life."
One change Armon insists on. "The shoes I wore in the original production were killing my feet, so I've asked for a new pair," she says.

Friendly reunion
Both Armon and Weston are pleased that all but one of the original cast members will return for this run.
Weston believes that warm, close-knit ensemble -- "something that doesn't always happen" -- was a factor for the show's success the first time around.
Armon reports that the women are simply happy to be working together again. Even the new addition to the cast, (Christine Bunuan), "is someone we all know," she says.
And at the first rehearsal, "we were happy to find how much of the show was still with us. The beauty of it is that we have a template and it's easy to tweak it."
More like a song cycle than a standard musical, "The Mistress Cycle," has only a few spoken lines. The story is told through the songs, which Armon calls "absolutely glorious." A former Wilmette resident, Beth Blatt, wrote the lyrics and Jenny Giering composed the music.
During the play, Armon's character debates whether or not to become the mistress, that notorious 'other woman,' in the life of a man she happens to love.

Phantom advisors
As she ponders her prospects, real and imaginary women of other times and places present their stories of love and life. She hears from 20th century writer and proponent of open living, Anais Nin, (Angela Ingersoll); Diane de Poitiers (Susie McMonagle), politically astute mistress of 16th century French King Henri II; Lulu White (Karen Marie Richardson), owner of a gaslight-era bordello in New Orleans; and Ching (Bunuan), a teenage concubine in ancient China.
"The play examines the gray areas of the role of mistress," says Armon. "That's a subject some people see only in black and white."
Though the show's creators made it clear what they thought Armon's character decides, even in the original production, director Kurt Johns decided to leave the decision up to Armon. So how she chooses to sing the final song on any given night tells the audience whether her character does or doesn't become a mistress, which is just fine with her. "I love all the questions the show is putting out there," she says.

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Highlights from Chris Jones' Blog

The excellent Apple Tree Theatre production of "The Mistress Cycle" is getting a rare downtown transfer to the Auditorium Theatre (July 22 through Aug. 8).

The audience will be seated on the stage for the show. The idea is to create a 200-seat, black-box style temporary theater that can bring downtown audiences into the historic Auditorium during the quieter summer months.

With music by Jenny Giering and lyrics by Beth Blatt, "The Mistress Cycle" is an eclectic song cycle that focuses on five different mistresses (one of whom is Anais Nin) from different historic eras.  

First produced in suburban Highland Park around Christmas 2007, the show is directed by Kurt Johns with musical direction by Diana Lawrence. The summer re-mount features the performers Charissa Armon, Angela Ingersoll and Karen Marie Richardson from the original cast, which also featured Susie McMonagle.

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Highlights from Playbill.com article by Kenneth Jones

The massive stage of Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University (ATRU) in Chicago will be transformed into a 200-seat black-box space to house The Apple Tree Theatre's remount of The Mistress Cycle, the musical by composer Jenny Giering and lyricist Beth Blatt, playing July 22-Aug. 8.

Jeff Award-nominated in 2007-08, the production now resurfaces in the unique configuration. The entire production and audience are on the stage of the proscenium house.

This marks the first production Apple Tree Theatre (a 26-year-old North Shore-area company) will mount in Chicago's loop.

According to Apple Tree, "The Mistress Cycle breaks the mold of the traditional book musical, instead offering audiences a 'song cycle' that illuminates stories of passion, sacrifice and strength of spirit. The Mistress Cycle explores the lives and loves of five notorious mistresses: Tess Walker, a contemporary Manhattan photographer; Anais Nin, the famed sexual adventurer of the early 20th century; Diane de Poitiers, the mistress of King Henri II of 16th century France; Lulu White, a turn-of-the-century New Orleans bordello Madame; and Ching, a 14- year-old concubine in 12th century China."

"The Auditorium Theatre is constantly developing new ways to expand our programming and provide our audiences with an exceptional theatrical experience," stated ATRU executive director Brett Batterson. "We are always looking for a new ways to use our world-class stage, and we welcome this partnership with such an accomplished off-loop theatre company."

The Mistress Cycle was chosen as the first piece to be presented in such a format when Bob Wieseneck, who sits on the boards of both organizations, brought the song cycle to the attention of Batterson.

Originally presented as a regional premiere in Apple Tree Theatre's 25th anniversary 2007-2008 season, The Mistress Cycle garnered three Jeff nominations in Chicago including Best Revue. The musical was awarded the prestigious Jonathan Larson Performing Arts Foundation Award in 2000 as well as the 2002-2003 Dramatists Guild Jonathan Larson Fellowship. Developmental readings of the piece were produced by the Williamstown Theatre Festival, Barrington Stage Company and Theatreworks/Palo Alto's New Works Festival.
Kurt Johns (Iron, Vincent In Brixton) repeats his Jeff-nominated direction of this piece with musical direction by Diana Lawrence (Kama Sutra, the musical). The cast features Charissa Armon (2007 Jeff award nominee for Sarah in Porchlight's Ragtime) as Tess Walker, Angela Ingersoll (2006 Jeff nominee for Martha in The Secret Garden) in her Jeff-nominated role as Anais Nin, Karen Marie Richardson (The Life at Boho Rep, Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story) as Lulu White, Susie McMonagle (five-time Jeff nominee, Fantine in Les Miserables on Broadway, Donna Sheridan in national tour of Mamma Mia) as Diane de Poitiers, and Christine Bunuan (The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee in Chicago and first national tour, the world premiere of Steppenwolf Theatre's Kafka on the Shore) as Ching.

The production crew includes stage manager Julia Zayas-Melendez, lighting designer David Ferguson, set designer Amy Jackson, costume designer Erin Fast, props designer Jesse Gaffney and Dan Pellant and sound designer Steve Ptacek.

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Highlights from Newcity Chicago article by William Scott

With the outbreak of infidelity that seems to be infesting American culture right now, from political indiscretions like those of the South Carolina governor, to pop-culture milestones like the split-up of Jon and Kate, one perspective seems to get left out more often than not—the perspective of the mistress. That all changes when Apple Tree Theatre mounts its first production in Chicago’s Loop, which is actually a remount of the North Shore theater’s 2007 Jeff-nominated “The Mistress Cycle,” this time on the stage of the historic Auditorium Theatre, for the first time transformed into an intimate black-box-style theater.
The song cycle, with music by Jenny Giering and lyrics by Beth Blatt, explores the lives and loves of five notorious mistresses: Tess Walker, a contemporary Manhattan photographer; Anais Nin, the famed sexual adventurer of the early twentieth century; Diane de Poitiers, the mistress of King Henri II of sixteenth-century France; Lulu White, a turn-of-the-century New Orleans bordello madame; and Ching, a 14-year-old concubine in twelfth-century China.

“Generationally we have different judgments about things,” explains director Kurt Johns of the differences in contemporary views of these women and that of a time like twelfth-century China. “The word ‘mistress’ always has this illicit sound of being bad or outside the norm, but these are powerful women finding love outside the lines and sacrificing to have that love in their lives.”
Johns speaks of these women affectionately. In a way they are old friends he has been living with since he became aware of the cycle in 2005. “I saw bits and pieces in New York and it just stayed in my belly,” Johns remembers of his first encounter with the work. The show went through several incarnations to find the right form and the right mistresses to inhabit it, but ultimately five were chosen. “What was really obvious as we started rehearsals is they [Giering and Blatt] really did end up with the right women,” Johns says.

“One of the subtitles of the show is ‘women who came in second,’” says Mark Weston, Apple Tree executive director. “It is not always an easy gig. We live in a time where Mark Sanford is live and in color in Argentina and he is not alone. In this show we see other political figures that took lovers; history hasn’t changed.”

These are not what Johns calls “fifty-fifty mistresses,” the lovers you spend half your time with when you aren’t with your family. These characters were chosen because of their full-throated, passionate stories of finding peace with their circumstances and accepting they will never be a priority in their lovers’ lives.

For Johns, one very important condition in getting “The Mistress Cycle” to the right place was to use as many women in the production as possible, ensuring a sense of honesty in these commanding female stories. The powerhouse ensemble is made up of some of Chicago’s most respected musical talent. They are Charissa Armon, Angela Ingersoll, Karen Marie Richardson, Susie McMonagle and Christine Bunuan (the only new member of the cast). Off-stage women wear the hats of music director, stage manager, set designer, costume designer and others. Laughing, Johns admits, “It is an estrogen rush to be in there.”

This time around the room Johns refers to may feel quite intimate, but in fact it will be quite expansive. The Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University is one of the larger performing-arts venues in the city, often hosting international dance companies and touring Broadway shows. For some time the theater has presented a cabaret series with singer and audiences both sharing the stage. For “The Mistress Cylce” the audience will once again sit on stage, but the space will be transformed into a legitimate 200-seat theater.
“We only have one huge theater. Most performing-arts centers have a big and small theater,” says the venue’s executive director Brett Batterson. “We have been looking for different ways to use the stage of the Auditorium. This show is perfect for what we wanted to do for our first venture into this stage-on-stage theater idea.”

This non-traditional musical may be the perfect fit for this non-traditional use of space. With luck the Auditorium will find a formula that opens up future possibilities and Apple Tree will revive a timely work it feels deserves a second, notable life.

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Highlights from Review by Hedy Weiss, Chicago Sun-Times

First staged at Highland Park's Apple Tree Theatre in late 2007, "The Mistress Cycle" -- a musical theater piece about five very different women who all played the role of "the other woman" -- is now being remounted at the Auditorium Theatre. And the production is serving as a most intriguing test case for possibly alternative uses for that beautiful Louis Sullivan building.

… "The Mistress Cycle," the work of Jenny Giering (music) and Beth Blatt (lyrics), it unspools entirely in 16 songs, quite seamlessly exploring the lives and loves of five women from several different centuries and cultures, all of whom were something other than a wife. Some chose this role. Others were forced into it. Some settled for it. Whatever the case, there was no male equivalent.
The contemporary woman, Tess (Charissa Armon), a photographer, frames the show and describes how she was picked up by a married man at her own gallery opening. (Tess also leads the anthem of liberation.)

Lifted from history is Diane de Poitiers (Susie McMonagle), the older woman who loved and served France's King Henry II and even nursed his wife, Catherine de Medici, back to health (a story in song winningly interpreted by McMonagle). More recent history comes in the form of Anais Nin (Angela Ingersoll), the diarist and erotic writer who served as mistress to many men (including Henry Miller) even while she was married, but who sought the love and approval of only one man -- her father -- and that eluded her. (Ingersoll is sensational here, particularly in her rendering of "Papa.")

Lulu (Karen Marie Richardson, with a fine bluesy air), is a feisty New Orleans madam who makes a fortune and then loses all with the one man she had banked on marrying. And Ching (Christine Bunuan), is the 12th century concubine given as a gift to an old emperor at the age of 1. Bunuan does a lovely job singing about how she lost her one chance to be something other than the last in a long line of wives.

Under the direction of Kurt Johns, the five actresses (all in variations of red by costume designer Erin Fast), inject the score's character-driven songs with feeling and energy. Diana Lawrence is the first-rate piano accompanist-musical director…

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Highlights from review by Rebecca Sarwate, Edge Chicago
The Mistress Cycle, its authors, director, production crew and cast, that one is able to walk away with a keen sense of the pathos experienced by the mistress, a timeless villain and theatrical trope.

For the benefit of achieving the necessary intimacy between players and audience, the Auditorium stage becomes a place of both action and voyeurism. Though the venue is exceedingly large, the configuration of a 200-seat "black box-style" theater within a theater, featuring open seating assignments, lends an air of believability to a show that depends on a definitive sensation of eavesdropping on a series of private revelations. It works unbelievably well, with all credit due to Stage Manager Julia Zayas-Melendez, and Set Designer Amy Jackson.

A sensuous delight in every connotation of the word, it is no surprise that the production received a Jeff nomination for Best Revue pursuant to the 2007-2008 season. The only shock is that it did not walk away with the trophy. Forget everything you thought you knew about musical revues in the past. Though light on dialogue, the Mistress Cycle has a strapping narrative arc, a compelling and moving plot, told through one emotionally reverting song after another.

The beguiling "ladies in red," both figuratively and literally, are a motley crew of infamous mistresses throughout the ages: Tess Walker, a modern-day New York photographer played by Charissa Armon; Anais Nin, a French author of early 20th century erotica, embodied by Angela Ingersoll; Diane de Poitiers, the adoring mistress of 16th century French King Henri II, played by Susie McMonagle; LuLu White, a bawdy and brash New Orleans Madame of the railroad era, given voice by Karen Marie Richardson; and finally, a 14-year-old concubine, Ching, a remnant of 12th century China, played by Christine Bunuan.

This is a tour de force for the cast, which includes pianist Diana Lawrence, who makes the rise and fall of her emotional piano strokes a sixth character in the performance, special attention must be called to Ingersoll, McMonagle and Richardson. Ingersoll steps into the shoes of unapologetic vixen Anais Nin with liberated gusto, drawing the largest number of laughs from the enthusiastic crowd. McMonagle will crush your heart as King Henri’s mistress, the only woman of the bunch who walks around with the knowledge that she is actually first in the heart of her beloved. Richardson’s singing voice is a gift from God, and her ability to express every facet of rejection through the subtlety of her musicality is simply gorgeous.

Each woman is appropriately, but not overbearingly, costumed in red. Designer Erin Fast renders each piece appropriate for the era and disposition of the leads. Neurotic photographer Tess is Ann Taylor, no-frills chic. The busty Anais Nin exudes sex in her voluptuous red gown. LuLu White’s ensemble evokes the typical "lady of the night" - with a healthy dose of confidence and class. That the costumes could be so disparate, yet possess an amazing degree of thematic and color palette continuity, cannot be ignored.

 This is definitely not a show for the kiddies. However, I cannot imagine any full grown adult, with any hint of life experience, not enjoying this production to the fullest extent. It is more than possible that this poignant powerhouse will have you thinking about the casualties of adultery in a whole new light.

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Highlights from review by Chris Jones, Chicago Tribune

Due to Reisling’s gorgeous music and Blatt’s richly textured lyrics, “The Mistress Cycle” is quite a moving and provocative affair that manages to pack a lot of wisdom and poignance on matters of love and power into its short duration. And Kurt Johns’ fine production features a cast of empathetic women with beautiful voices.

With the help of exquisite musical direction from Diana Lawrence, this show sounds uncommonly rich. At times, you’re tempted to close your eyes and just let the voices carry you off. The harmonies are rich indeed. 

This particular cast is top-drawer—just weeks ago, McMonagle was headlining the national tour of “Mamma Mia.” She does not need Spandex for this more dignified assignment, which she carries off with a complicated emotional subtext that makes painfully clear just how much an affair of the heart can render the rest of one’s life immaterial. You’ll also be moved by Richardson’s take on an optimistic woman, transported to betrayal but hardly defeated. Ingersoll bends happily into the role of the show’s most overt seductress—not all mistresses are motivated by sex, but then not all mistresses are Nin. Bunuan’s clear voice adds delicious top notes, and Armon’s wise, modern belt brings the mistresses into the urban present. 

If you follow contemporary opera or such composers as Jason Robert Brown or Jeanine Tesori, I think you’ll find the music and the women of “The Mistress Cycle” most seductive. And if you crave a little dressed-up downtown elegance in a casual summer world of beery block parties? Glamorous mistresses await.

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Highlights from review by Albert Williams, Chicago Reader

This beguiling, sophisticated concept musical--a remount of Apple Tree Theatre's 2007 regional premiere--examines the consorts, concubines, and courtesans who provide men with the sympathy and sensuality lacking in their marriages. The superb all-woman cast (including the marvelous Susie McMonagle) plays such real-life characters as Anais Nin, 19th-century New Orleans madam Lulu White, and Diane de Poitiers, lover of 16th-century French king Henry II. Beth Blatt's intelligent libretto is set to gorgeous music by Jenny Giering, whose work variously recalls Adam Guettel, Jeanine Tesori, Michael John LaChiusa, and Laura Nyro. Director Kurt Johns's alternately refined and bawdy production unfolds on the stage of the Auditorium Theatre, with viewers also seated onstage. This is thought-provoking, high-quality, offbeat musical theater.

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Highlights from review by Chris Arnold, Chicagocritic.com

Highly Recommended
After a successful, Jeff nominated run at Apple Tree Theatre; The Mistress Cycle is receiving a stunning downtown Chicago premiere at The Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University. Don’t worry about the notoriously cavernous Auditorium because the stage has been converted into an intimate space, proper for a chamber musical. Director Kurt John’s production is a textbook example of less is more, putting the focus on storytelling rather than spectacle. The scenic design (skillfully executed by Amy Jackson) is a crimson unit set creating an array of locales. Erin Fast’s simple, but effective costume design consists of 4 dresses and a slacks/shirt set in variations of red. The artfully mercurial lightning design by David Ferguson nicely conveys mood and setting. The Sondheim-esque score (which I came home to see if I could buy on iTunes) was played by a single piano.

The Mistress Cycle is not a traditional book musical, but a song cycle (a series of songs by one composer tied together by a story).  The story jump cuts the lives and loves of five notorious mistresses: Tess Walker, a contemporary Manhattan photographer, Anais Nin, the famed sexual adventurer of the early 20th century, Diane de Poiters, the mistress of King Henri II of 16th Century France; Lulu White, a turn-of-the-century New Orleans bordello Madame; and Ching, a 14-year-old concubine in 12th Century China. A lesser writer would have made these characters one-dimensional victims of selfish men, but this was not the case with The Mistress Cycle. This ensemble of women, played with passion and conviction, allowed me to peek into their souls. I routed for their success, and felt for their demise. However, Tess Walker did not have the complicated story of the others, causing actress Charissa Armon to force her emotion from her performance. On the flipside Christine Bunuam gave such nuance to the character Ching that her song “One In A Line” is truly a highlight of the production.

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Highlights from review by Mary Shen Barnidge, Windy City Media Group

Whether you agree with every tenet of Giering and Blatt's manifesto (they claim, for example, that there is "no male equivalent" to "mistress"), there's no denying the appeal of five cheerful songbirds—Susie McMonagle, Angela Ingersoll, Charissa Armon, Karen Marie Richardson and newcomer Christine Bunuan—warbling sweet/sassy serenades, accompanied by the likewise decorative Diana Lawrence at the grand piano, while they lounge sensuously in Amy Jackson's rosy-textured boudoir, clad in Erin Fast's cleavage-accentuating gowns. Summer is a lazy season, but this intimate and insightful confection only plays until Aug. 8, so don't wait too long before getting your tickets.

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Highlights of ShowbizChicago review by Michael Roberts

Behold the power of womanhood!  The Mistress Cycle, currently on stage (literally) at the Auditorium Theatre is a transfer of the hit Apple Tree production and is one of the finest productions to be produced in years. 

Under the masterful direction of Kurt Johns, the Auditorium Stage is transformed into a beautiful red mosaic of colors which the audience is privileged to surround as five mistresses at different points in history, melodically and emotionally tell their story via one of the most vibrant and luscious scores to be penned in a two decades.

What is most intriguing about this 90 tour de force is the interaction of the cast members, who as ensemble create the best of female musical theatre actresses working today. The vocal support, the five piece intricate harmonies and the total emersion of each actress to complete the other’s story is visionary genius.   To single out one actress above another is impossible as each performance is Jeff worthy in its own right.  However, the most palpable is the phenomenal Susie McMonagle’s Diane.  The reasons are two-fold; First, Ms. McMonagle, who rivals the best of the Broadway divas, gives an understated and melancholy interpretation of her character.   Anyone who has seen Susie perform knows the alto belt she can unleash to bring down a house.  For ‘The Mistress Cycle’ though she clearly has the opportunity to let her signature D flat shake the rafters, McMonagle opts to give a heart wrenching, soft and soothing tone to her songs, which in turn is proves no wonder a King would fall in love with her.  The second reason is that the character of Diane de Poiters is the only one who the audience get to see interact with the wife, in this case the Queen) who she revives from fever.  Her song, ‘Half A Bowl’ is without a doubt the best number in the show.

Charissa Armon’s Tess perfectly creates the anchor for the rest of the ladies to envelop their stories.  Christing Bunuan (25th Annual Putnum County Spelling Bee) is remarkable in her solo, ‘One In A Line’ and Ms.Richardson gives Dolly Parton a run for her money has the best little ‘Madame’ in New Orleans.  In fact, Richardson isthe most essential to the piece as she allows us some comic moments which is most endearing to her Lulu.

Most fascinating to watch throughout the show is [Angela] Ingersoll, who as Anais, never once breaks character throughout the production.  With her impeccable French/English accent and her intricate poses which she hold for minutes without moving is a testament to the Strasberg method of truth.
Musical director’s Diana Lawrence work is flawless and as the accompanist for the production, makes the grand piano sound like a lush orchestra.   Unfortunately, to have Ms. Lawrence perform the opening number without first having any of the characters introduced impacted the story arch and was almost a throwaway moment in an otherwise perfect show.

If the audience is to take anything away from The Mistress Cycle, it is a certain empowerment of women.  Each of the characters portrayed in this musical are successful and powerful in their own lives before making the decision to get involved with a married man.  The choices they make are ones of the heart and not of financial necessity.  In fact,one could easily argue that is the male is the most vulnerable in such a triad.

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Director's Notes

I think that The Mistress Cycle defies description. It began as a poem by Beth Blatt, which Jenny Giering turned into a song, which inspired them to write this musical and theatrical exploration of what it’s like for a woman to come in second. It is a song cycle in the classical sense. Today we’d probably call it a revue. Perhaps “song cycle savant” is closer because to me it has much more of an emotional arc than any revue, more like a full book musical. When I asked Beth, the author, to describe what this show is about, she said, “It’s about grays, about how nothing is in black and white, how we should never judge anybody else until we’re in their shoes. How there are phases we have to live through in order to heal and move on.”

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “mistress” as `A woman who illicitly occupies the place of wife’ (Illicit being “contrary to accepted morality”). I suppose it would be easy to just label these mistresses “scarlet women” and leave it at that. These extraordinary women and their touching stories will not be labeled nor left. They are relationship outlanders; complex, nuanced, sanguine, intelligent, and elusive. Like the show that tells their stories these women defy categorization or judgment. If the show is about grays, then these women are all about shades of red. Red is the color of passion, danger, courage, love, blood, desire, and romance.

These women just kill me. To quote the mistresses, “every story has a beginning, middle and an end.” Their stories are about choices, having them and having them taken away. How could anyone choose a relationship that has no permanence, potential, or place? Coming in second is not always a choice and has happened over and over throughout human history. To understand, you must spend some time with these uncommon women; take a few steps in their shoes. So we invite you into the world of The Mistress Cycle, a mosaic of beautiful music and heart-stirring stories. —Kurt Johns, Director