Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Review: It’s A Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago/American Blues Theater

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(l to r) Gwendolyn Whiteside and Kevin R. Kelly

(l to r) Gwendolyn Whiteside and Kevin R. Kelly

RECOMMENDED

Few films have the generational popularity of Frank Capra’s “It’s A Wonderful Life,” which has now been broadcast on television for decades during the holidays. Familiar to most, this is the story of George Bailey, whose family’s Building and Loan business is in serious trouble. In a state of desperation, he contemplates suicide and wishes he’d never been born. Just then, an angel grants his wish and Bailey is able to see what the world would be like if he had never existed. By seeing what could have been, Bailey realizes how precious life is.

American Blues Theater has been staging this film-turned-staged-radio-show production annually since 2002 and director and ensemble member Marty Higginbotham has been at the helm several times before. Likewise, every cast member has previously been a part of this tradition. Though this means that they are all well-rehearsed and very familiar with the material, it also seems as if – for better or worse – the actors struggle to make the characters their own, and perhaps rightfully so; the iconic actors who first tackled these roles are hard to top. So, when the actor playing George Bailey (Kevin Kelly), for example, recites his lines in front of an old 1940s-style microphone and seems to channel Jimmy Stewart – muffled accent and all – one isn’t all too surprised. The most outstanding performance here comes from Gwendolyn Whiteside who presents a Mary Bailey who is not only a dutiful housewife to a fault, but also a woman of power and intellect who is in complete control of her family and her own life, even when George thinks he’s the head of the household. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: HoliDaze/Step Up Productions

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(l to r) Jillian Burfete, Tina Muñoz Pandya, Celeste M. Cooper, Damon Williams and Luce Metrius/Photo: Liz Lauren.

(l to r) Jillian Burfete, Tina Muñoz Pandya, Celeste M. Cooper, Damon Williams and Luce Metrius/Photo: Liz Lauren.

On my way to the theater I noticed the red-and-green lights burning Christmas-y atop the Hancock and her sister-skyscrapers; maybe this caused me to feel a little Grinch-y. Maybe my fingers were nervously drumming because I already knew the 110 minute evening was to be presented without intermission in a space where it was impossible to exit without crossing directly in front of the stage, leaving me to carefully consider my fluid intake. Or maybe I was just February-cold in November and it caused my heart to shrink two sizes. But whatever the reason, I found myself unable to make the “connection” to Step Up Productions’ theatrical Christmas card proposed by artistic director Elizabeth Antonucci’s program notes. Six musings billed as one-acts played as rehearsed skits, little moments of character and situation that could have fed on audience reaction and floated on improvisation, but instead suffered the cement shoes of over-scripting. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Lookingglass Alice/Lookingglass Theatre Company

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Lindsey Noel Whiting/Photo: Liz Lauren

Lindsey Noel Whiting/Photo: Liz Lauren

RECOMMENDED

Nobody could dislike the 2014 version of “Lookingglass Alice,” not even a Scrooge who had wandered away from one of the several “Christmas Carols” playing nearby. Lookingglass Theatre Company’s circus-style production, mounted in association with The Actors Gymnasium, is the perfect holiday family show, countering seasonal over-sentimentality disorder with a bracing blast of delightful and occasionally breathtaking nonsense.

Lewis Carroll’s barrage of dream logic leaves no Victorian value standing, as the author slyly deconstructs every certitude and tidy moral in sight. The masterful adaptation by David Catlin (who also directs) gets right to the heart of Carroll’s coolly subversive approach to childhood and life, integrating and balancing the writer’s linguistic anarchy with acrobatic spectacle and jaw-dropping theatrical effects.

The profusion of belovedly weird characters – the off-with-her-head/out-of-her-head Red Queen, beguiling Cheshire Cat (here grinless for some reason), feckless White Knight and reckless Humpty Dumpty, etc. etc. – are, amazingly, portrayed by a cast of just five, including one of two Alices, who alternate nights for this physically demanding role. I saw Lindsey Noel Whiting, whose droll, wise-beyond-her-years Alice is as lithe as a kitten and strong as a horse, swooping and twirling her way through the high-ceilinged circus ring of a space. (Alice #2 is Lauren Hirte, who starred in the original 2005 run.) Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Tamer of Horses/Teatro Vista

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(l to r) Juan Villa and Joshua Torrez

Juan Villa and Joshua Torrez

RECOMMENDED

Tales of troubled youth and the teachers who want to get through to them have long been illustrated in books, plays and films. Those stories remain relevant because violence by and toward youth has yet to cease. Director Ron OJ Parson explores this theme in Teatro Vista’s production of “Tamer of Horses.”

Many are familiar with the idea of “bad” kids. Many are also familiar with the concept that there are no “bad” kids, just “bad” teachers. While both the former and the latter are debatable, William Mastrosimone’s play concentrates on that certain something everyone has that can be dangerous: potential. When potential is harnessed for good, one’s abilities can reach heights of which many others might only dream. Likewise, when potential is harvested for evil, walls can form that an entire village would have to fight against to tear down and change.

This production tackles all of the aforementioned and illustrates a bit of what the writer does well—challenge the idea of balancing education with the realities of life. Mastrosimone did this especially well in the 1994 film, “With Honors.” In “Tamer of Horses,” the lead male isn’t struggling to finish his thesis in an Ivy League institution while learning valuable life lessons. Rather, the student here, Hector (Joshua Torrez), is illiterate and is running away from a youth home. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: A Christmas Carol/Goodman Theatre

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Larry Yando and Patrick Andrews/Photo: Liz Lauren

Larry Yando and Patrick Andrews/Photo: Liz Lauren

RECOMMENDED

Goodman Theatre has perfected the holiday show in its annual production of “A Christmas Carol,” with superb, consciously colorblind casting, terrific scenic design by Todd Rosenthal—including a rendition of Ebenezer Scrooge’s home that seems to contort in expressionistic ways at times, as well as backdrops and streetscapes that create a holiday-card version of London—and, above all, a commitment to Charles Dickens’ text, which seems to have otherwise suffered from cultural amnesia as a result of its cartoonification by the mass-merchandising machine. By blending the bite of the words with the pleasant taste of period-authentic music and dances, the production manages to deliver everything you’d want from a Christmas show, that is, a meaningful message softened by a strong current of joy and hope. And though one could certainly argue this is not a show for young kids as it’s full of dark, adult themes, that argument would be a lost cause. And so Goodman makes the show accessible to the little ones with strokes of broad physical humor and ghosts that excite and certainly scare their share of the wee ones. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Improvised Twilight Zone/The Annoyance Theatre

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(l to r) Jason Ouimette, Bridget Visser, James Freetly, Danny Galvin, Susie Allen, Peter Williams, Connor Doyle/Photo: Shannon Jenkins

Jason Ouimette, Bridget Visser, James Freetly, Danny Galvin, Susie Allen, Peter Williams, Connor Doyle/Photo: Shannon Jenkins

Revealing the twisted and sometimes supernatural underpinnings to events both historical and contemporary, “Improvised Twilight Zone” takes the format of the legendary series and translates it for the small stage (literally, it’s staged in the Small Theatre in The Annoyance Theatre’s new home on Belmont). Director Kyle Dolan’s troupe of improvisers (including a guitarist providing eerie scene music and “Twilight Zone” themes galore) take three suggestions and give their inexplicable backstory in classic episodic fashion.

The night I saw the show (along with a sold-out crowd) the suggestions were “immigration,” “JFK” (“Just JFK generally…?” responded the host bemusedly) and “Kim Kardashian.” Each of these suggestions were subsequently spun into a bizarre story of intrigue and mystery, with “immigration” leading to the revelation that, in 1961, children’s author Beverly Cleary discovered a tunnel to another dimension where she stole the stories for her most popular works. Similarly, Marilyn Monroe and Jackie O were revealed to have been collaborating Russian spies and a VHS tape of the “sweetest soccer game in all the world” went viral and poisoned the minds of those who viewed it. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: A Q Brothers’ Christmas Carol/Chicago Shakespeare Theater

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(l to r) Jackson Doran, JQ Postell Pringle/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Jackson Doran, JQ Postell Pringle/Photo: Michael Brosilow

RECOMMENDED

Recently a friend asked me what my favorite show of 2014 was. I didn’t have a good answer for him. This has a lot to do with the fact that I see more shows than the average theatergoer (complimentary tickets make it pretty easy) and so my mental rolodex is pretty stuffed. But a part of it is that the sheer number of pretty good to pretty bad to pretty mediocre shows can make it hard to differentiate. I can’t recall the diamonds because my brain is so full of rough. These are shows that, regardless of quality, feel like shows that are being done because, well, because a show “needed” to be done. Everyone performs the duties required of their job description—including the audience members—and the whole thing feels like work. Not “work” as in it seemed especially difficult, but “work” as in it’s something you do not because you want to but because it has to be done.

“A Q Brothers’ Christmas Carol” is not one of these shows. It is, in fact, the polar opposite. It is seventy-five-minutes of pure, unadulterated joy. If I could turn in a review that was just 500 smiley face emoticons, I would. That is both what the show is, and how it made me feel. Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Made in Chicago/Thodos Dance Chicago

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Photo courtesy Cheryl Mann

Photo courtesy Cheryl Mann

RECOMMENDED

Adler and Sullivan’s dazzling landmark Auditorium Theatre turns 125 this year, and part of the celebratory programming is a welcome “Made in Chicago” music and dance series. Melissa Thodos’ company will perform on the Auditorium Theatre’s boards for the first time—an apropos choice seeing as Thodos is Chicago-made herself: Evanston-born, training, performing and founding her own company in the city by the lake. Thodos Dance reprises their acclaimed hour-long theatrical piece of Chicago history, “The White City: Chicago’s Columbian Exposition of 1893,” based on Erik Larson’s famous book.  Read the rest of this entry »

Review: It’s Christmas Goddamnit!/The Annoyance Theatre

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(l to r) Bridget Ballek, Ryan Ben, Rosie Moan, Lee Russell, Mantas Dumcius, Jo Scott, Kellen Terret, Jeffrey Murdoch/Review: Shannon Jenkins

Bridget Ballek, Ryan Ben, Rosie Moan, Lee Russell, Mantas Dumcius, Jo Scott, Kellen Terret, Jeffrey Murdoch/Review: Shannon Jenkins

RECOMMENDED

Christmas is fast approaching. For those unfamiliar with the season, in the world of “It’s Christmas Goddamnit!” it’s that merry time of year when even the kookiest of families gather together under a shared roof to enjoy a collective meal while emotionally tormenting each other, reveling in both their familial similarities and their personality differences. Director Charley Carroll, along with a solid group of writer/actors, has created a cast of characters with eccentricities and mannerisms that highlight each comedian’s specific comedic strengths. To be clear up front, it is very seldom that any of these characters feel like real people; emotional realism takes a clear backseat to setups and punchlines, both physical and verbal.

Patriarch Bill (Jimmy Pennington) is welcoming his three children home for the holidays, along with his wealthy but ornery brother Eli (a frank and cocksure Lee Russell). He’s also invited his new bride Bev (Rosie Moan) and her mentally unstable and socially awkward son Cory (a stoic Ryan Ben). It’s only been two years since Bill’s first wife—the mother of his children—passed away and he’s hesitant to tell his kids that he’s remarried. As it turns out, his hesitancy may be well-founded as his adult children—a perpetually single tae-bo instructor (Bridget Ballek), a perpetually unemployed manchild (Jeffrey Murdoch) and a perpetually condescending psychiatrist (Jo Scott, a standout, constantly seeming to barely conceal a ready-to-break-chaaracter grin)—are perhaps not quite ready to welcome a new stepmother. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Always… Patsy Cline/Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre

Musicals, Theater, Theater Reviews No Comments »
(l to r) Danni Smith, Christina Hall/Photo: Adam Veness

Danni Smith, Christina Hall/Photo: Adam Veness

Patsy Cline was a true country gal. Born and raised in Virginia, she began entertaining at a young age. Some accounts say she started performing for friends and family by the age of three. Her sultry voice, spiced with hints of Southern twang, are unmistakable staples of some of her biggest hits, such as “Walkin’ After Midnight.” It is her genuine southern charm and her bona fide essence that “Always… Patsy Cline,” directed by Fred Anzevino, at Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre aims to capture.

The show features more than twenty of Cline’s recordings, including “I Fall to Pieces,” the 1961 single that landed her on the top of Billboard’s Country chart. Cline’s biographical story is told through the eyes of Louise Seger (Danni Smith), a fan who befriended Cline at a show in Houston. Seger and Cline (played by Christina Hall) remained friends until Cline’s tragic death in 1963.

The best moments of the show happen when Smith and Hall interact. They seem to get along like old friends and play precisely to the type of relationship Cline and Seger apparently shared. Individually, Hall’s voice is strong, but doesn’t quite capture Cline’s down-home country contralto. However, she does certainly look like Cline and does the songs justice by embracing their emotionally charged lyrics. Smith on the other hand, who mostly narrates between numbers, definitely embraces the Southern atmosphere brought to life on set designer Adam Veness’ wooden, Opry-esque stage. Read the rest of this entry »