Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Sponsored: Steppenwolf Video of the Week (Airline Highway)

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Steppenwolf’s AIRLINE HIGHWAY brings a party worth talking about to the stage. Set in New Orleans, this new world premiere production is a boisterous and moving ode to the outcasts who make life a little more interesting. Headed to Broadway in the Spring of 2015, now is your chance to see it here in Chicago first—on stage through February 8. Tickets start at just $20: learn more at http://www.steppenwolf.org/Plays-Events/productions/index.aspx?id=623
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Review: A Nativity Story: More Than A Miracle/Congo Square Theatre

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Photo: Samuel G

Photo: Samuel G

RECOMMENDED

A frequently cited frustration for those of the Christian faith is the supposed secularization of one of their most sacred observances. As the holiday hustle and bustle is increasingly built around wish lists, presents, elaborate decorations and Santa Claus—all things that have now become embedded in our traditional Christmas culture—they ask that we remember that Christmas didn’t begin with Santa Claus but with the birth of Jesus Christ.

And this is what writer/director Alexis J. Rogers —who has appeared in every Congo Square Theatre production of Langston Hughes’ time-honored classic “Black Nativity” and its derivatives since 2004—does in “A Nativity Story: More Than A Miracle,” expanding her artistic wings and creating her own version, inspired by Hughes’ work.

Gabriel (Kelvin Roston Jr.), a biblical angel, is sent on a mission from God to help save a fractured relationship between Diane (E. Faye Butler) and her son Nathan (Mark J.P. Hood), who is angry about not knowing the identity of his absentee father. Nathan, who is also a young aspiring playwright, has assembled his church’s drama ministry to put on his play recreating the events surrounding the birth of Jesus for a producer who might be interested in taking it further. Nathan and his mother get more than they bargained for through the journey of gospel music and modern dance in Nathan’s play. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Cirque Dreams Holidaze/Cirque Dreams

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Ornaments on Tree

“Once upon a dream…” begins the brief narrative introduction for this trippy holiday dazzler, before launching into more than two hours (including a twenty-minute intermission) of singing, stunt-work and spectacle. And it certainly feels like a dream, offering escapist entertainment with no real through-line—aside from the very clear, often intentionally over-the-top, focus on Christmas and cold weather. Scenes shift at a moment’s notice: a twirling pair of skaters giving way to jump-roping reindeer (Elizabeth Butterfield, Brandon Harrison, Anthony Lee, Gary Schwartz) or a vaguely elfin guy (Aleksandr Rebkovets) balancing an ever-growing stack of glasses and candles on his forehead.

The set is an almost overbearing Alice in Winterland fantasy world, consisting of monstrous inflatables, a giant climbable Christmas tree and innumerable moving parts that get pushed, thrown, pulled, ridden and slid onto the stage throughout. The impressive and (mostly) endearing cast of thirty pop in and out of the action sporting various crazy costumes and even crazier talents (along with constant crazed grins—the holidays are beyond exciting, after all). “This seems like a show put together by a communist leader to lull us into submission,” a nearby patron whispered about thirty minutes in. This is not untrue. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Christmas Goose/Raven Theatre

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(l to r) Damian Conrad, Graham Emmons/Photo: Dean La Prairie

Damian Conrad, Graham Emmons/Photo: Dean La Prairie

RECOMMENDED

Light as down, raucous as the title bird and quick as the famous Baker Street sleuth’s brain cells, Raven Theatre’s revival of its mystery-cum-musical-cum-sing-along is a delightful way to pass a holiday-season hour.

Adapters Michael Menendian (who also directs this show with a sure, knowing hand) and John Weagly use Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” as the scaffolding of this bit of wintry whimsy, festooning it with Christmas carols, dance numbers, sound effects and gags, both wholesome and gross-out. All that’s missing for a latter-day vaudeville experience are jugglers and a trained seal. (Maybe next year.)

The plot-driving MacGuffin here is a priceless jewel, found like a Cracker Jack toy in the crop of a fat Christmas fowl. Holmes (played by Graham Emmons, who radiates a comical smugness) is on the scent, along with much-abused sidekick Watson (a sturdy if slightly touchy Damian Conrad). Literature’s most famous sadomasochistic couple delves from top to bottom of Victorian London in search of truth, justice and the aesthetic satisfaction of a puzzle solved. Along the way, we meet a series of apparently random characters, played with tongue-in-cheek earnestness and sometimes wavering accents by Matt Bartholomew, Lane Flores, Rudy Galvan, Sarah Hayes, Sophia Menendian and Symphony Sanders. Only that great brain of Holmes can connect them, thus finding pattern and moral order within the buzzing chaos of the nineteenth century’s great metropolis, which is organized around the impersonal activities of buying, selling… and stealing. This capability of Holmes, and our own continuing need to find form and meaning within the urban hubbub, accounts for the sleuth’s evergreen appeal. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Airline Highway/Steppenwolf Theatre Company

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Photo: Michael Brosilow

Photo: Michael Brosilow

This twenty-three-person, epic-scale panorama of New Orleans down-and-outers is echt Steppenwolf, overflowing with all that’s best and worst about Chicago’s signature theater company. Playwright Lisa D’Amour’s slice-of-life naturalism harks back to the troupe’s salad days, when its kinetic, sometimes scenery-chewing productions of Lanford Wilson’s “Balm in Gilead” and “Hot L Baltimore” put the ragtag band from ISU on the map, marking them as the nation’s foremost purveyors of urban angst to suburban culture consumers. True, the setup always was a touch creepy, but the rawness of the presentation, the undeniable acting chops of the original corps (including such promising youngsters as Gary Sinise, Laurie Metcalf and John Malkovich) and the provocative quality of the scripts made for a genuine edginess and relevance.

Many of those early strengths are on display here. Director Joe Mantello, imported from New York, elicits an array of sizzling performances from his Cecil B. DeMille-sized cast. Chief among these is K. Todd Freeman’s impeccable portrayal of Sissy NaNa, the black transvestite and moral center of the tribe of survivors who live in the Hummingbird Motel, a dingy hostelry on Airline Highway, far from the touristy French Quarter. Sissy and his homies—including aging hooker and addict Tanya (Kate Buddeke), hard-up handyman Terry (Tim Edward Rhoze), beatnik poet Francis (Gordon Joseph Weiss), alcoholic property manager Wayne (Scott Jaeck) and angry stripper Krista (Caroline Neff)—have come together to honor fellow resident Miss Ruby (the formidable Judith Roberts), whose life as an exotic dancer and artiste is about to end. Attending the premature funeral is Bait Boy (played with a nuanced touch of macho malice by Stephen Louis Grush), Krista’s former lover, who left the Hummingbird and the demimonde years earlier, taking a new name, the conventional Greg. He has done well for himself, acquiring, among other things, a high-school-age, nasal-voiced stepdaughter, Zoe (Carolyn Braver). Zoe is there to observe, hoping to get an A on her sociology paper by documenting the rituals of the Hummingbird “subculture.” Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Burning Bluebeard/The Ruffians

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(l to r)Anthony Courser, Molly Plunk, Leah Urzendowski, Pam Chermansky, Jay Torrence and Ryan Walters/Photo: Evan Hanover

Anthony Courser, Molly Plunk, Leah Urzendowski, Pam Chermansky, Jay Torrence and Ryan Walters/Photo: Evan Hanover

RECOMMENDED

I must confess that I came to this year’s production of The Ruffians’ “Burning Bluebeard” as an in-the-tank fan. Since seeing it last year, any conversation I have had concerning the show has either consisted of either exchanging yips of adulation with fellow fans (which consisted of anyone who saw the show) or just yelling “I don’t care what you have to do just see it!” to anyone who had not. Of course there was always the chance, however small, that the show would get terrible in the intervening year. Fortunately this is not the case. With one small exception, “Burning Bluebeard” is the same as it ever was: a devastatingly funny, singing and dancing and flying and lip-synching apology for the famous Iroquois Theatre fire that claimed the lives of 600 Chicagoans in 1903.

Describing the plot of the show is a bit like describing the plot of the pantomime “Mr. Bluebeard” that was being performed when the theater went up: it’s tricky because the plot isn’t really the point. The show is presented to us by the ghosts of the “Mr. Bluebeard” cast and crew. They want to perform the show again, and this time to get it right; “Get it right” in this case meaning “to not burn the audience to death.” It was a special effect for moonlight at the beginning of Act Two that began the blaze, and as the moment grows ever closer so does their anxiety that this time will be just like all the others. Throughout the show, each character fills us in on their own back story as well as their role in the events of the fire itself. They feel a great deal of guilt at their actions and would really like to simply put on a good show for us: something that would make us happy. But to say that the show has a “plot” is really a misnomer because it doesn’t so much have a plot as it has a dramatic arc. All the action moves closer and closer to the moment of the fire, but no one’s embarking on the Hero’s Journey here. Instead, the script—written by Jay Torrence, who also performs—mimics the pantomime form of “Mr. Bluebeard” with frequent breaks for music and dance numbers, clown shows, etc. The rhythm is that of a dream, one that starts as a pleasant, laugh-filled lark and ends in full nightmare mode. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Anna Bolena/Lyric Opera of Chicago

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Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Opera impresarios must find themselves at a singular disadvantage in an era when audiences can drive to their local multiplex and watch opera singers up close, live and sweating, every unique figure and unhappy pore on display. As opera companies who want to stay alive desperately paddle upstream, casting decisions must be terrorizing. Should they present a cast that can deliver the vocal goods to the closest expectations of the composer, no matter their appearance or acting ability? Should they move in the opposite direction, and cast singers who can manage the roles, potentially be heard, look the part, and act it well? Or should they mix it up, beg and borrow, hedge their bets, and offer what is perhaps characterized best as the hodgepodge? Lyric Opera of Chicago’s production of “Anna Bolena” tells the story of an opera production that took the latter route, and is consequently less than the sum of its parts.

Jamie Barton, Lyric’s Jane Seymour (who won both the main and song prizes at the 2013 BBC Cardiff Singer of the Year competition), is the genuine old-school goods; her singing is limpid in tone, perfect in projection, and vocally effulgent throughout the registers. Barton harkens back to the age when the voice was all that mattered. But while Barton affords us a youthful simplicity as Seymour, she doesn’t connect with the side of the character that actually wants to succeed Bolena as Consort, at all cost. Further, based strictly upon what the media feeds us (and without an amazingly apparent sexual mystique), Barton’s solid figure seems an unlikely attraction for a narcissistic King who can (and does) have whoever he lays eyes upon. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Mikado/The Hypocrites

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Christine Stulik/Photo: Evan Hanover

Christine Stulik/Photo: Evan Hanover

RECOMMENDED

The problem that any company encounters when producing “The Mikado” is—to put it bluntly—it’s kinda sorta maybe pretty undeniably racist. And as it is a show set in Japan that was written by a pair of middle-aged British guys during the height of the Victorian Empire—neither of whom had ever been to Japan—its racial insensitivity is unsurprising. Despite all of this, “The Mikado” has not only managed to survive, but has downright thrived in the century-plus since its inception. It has done so because from the music to the lyrics to the book, the show is a fantastic piece of musical comedy. And yet, in production after production, there are still those moments where audiences squirm in their seats and look askance. Both theater artists and audiences have trouble reconciling their desire for Gilbert and Sullivan’s masterful artistry with the fact that they then have to forgive Gilbert and Sullivan’s stupid, ill-informed racism. It’s a pickle for sure.

Thankfully Sean Graney has rolled into town with his patented pickle-solving machine. Having made a career as a kind of theatrical necromancer, taking dead classical texts and reviving them to make them dance anew, Graney is perfectly suited to the task. And in the end, the answer was deceptively simple: Graney got rid of the racism by just kind of ignoring it. He took the show, which is currently running as a part of The Hypocrites “Gilbert and Sullivan Rep,” and he set it in a circus. There are polka-dot dresses, red-banded stockings and bright-green suspenders by the dozen with nary a kimono in sight. Additionally, he took Gilbert and Sullivan’s ornate, occasionally Orientalist score and reconstructed it for a motley assortment of guitars, accordions and banjos. Other than occasional mentions that the story is set in Japan, one would never know that the characters were meant to be a British person’s idea of a Japanese person. Instead they seem like what they really are: a British person’s idea of another, much sillier British person. I have no idea if this was Graney’s idea when he set out to adapt the piece, but it works. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Newsies/Broadway In Chicago

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jump

RECOMMENDED

It’s easy to go into “Newsies” at the Oriental Theatre with a cocked eyebrow and a cynical smirk. The show, like the nineties movie it’s adapted from, is so utterly sincere in its intentions and its execution that you can’t help but laugh on occasion. When streetwise young toughs are crying for worker’s rights one minute and then turning a triple pirouette the next, it’s objectively pretty funny. However it is that sincerity and guilelessness that carries “Newsies” right into your heart. Pirouettes are awesome. So are topnotch Alan Menken tunes. To pretend like they aren’t is just as silly as most of the stuff that happens in this show.

For people who aren’t in the business of Christian Bale deep cuts, “Newsies” is your basic underdog story. It follows the travails of Jack Kelly (Dan DeLuca), a turn-of-the-century newsboy roustabout who leads the rest of his newsboy cohorts in an organized strike against the rate hikes instituted by Joseph Pulitzer (Steve Blanchard). In adapting the story for the stage, Harvey Fierstein has added in an intrepid reporter/love interest for Kelly, Katherine Plumber (Stephanie Styles). The characters are mostly drawn with broad, obvious strokes. For instance, there is one newsboy, Kelly’s sidekick (Zachary Sayle), who goes about on a crutch. This is far and away his defining attribute. In fact, lest we forget, his name is literally “Crutchie.” Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Holiday Bizarre/Foiled Again

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Foiled Again promo pic full size

RECOMMENDED

It was the trio kazoo-version of “Carol of the Bells” that completely did me in. No one can make a pretty face with their lips wrapped around a kazoo. I couldn’t even applaud, because I was doubled over with laughter.

Vocal trio Foiled Again (Allison Bazarko, Rob Lindley and Anne Sheridan Smith) have crafted their annual holiday show into an homage to the television Christmas specials that aired from the fifties into the seventies. A zanier version of the Lennon Sisters-minus-one, they keep the evening light and mostly family-friendly, with the sort of gentle musical stylings, comic sketches and variety songs that kept baby boomers and their children checking the dates and times of their favorite shows twice to make sure they didn’t miss these events, pre-TiVo. Special instrumental soloists are highlighted, and every “sister” has a vocal solo, with repeated “step-outs” within numbers, one singer carrying the song with the other two crooning perfect oohs and aahs in the background. Beginning with a fizzy version of Irving Berlin’s “Got My Love to Keep Me Warm,” the trio launches “Jing-a-Ling, Jing-a-Ling” when someone helps Bazarko find some bells to shake.

Continuing to chat with the audience and astonish with their arrangements, the trio singingly trips their way through tunes as varied as Joni Mitchell’s “Urge for Going,” and medleys of more classical carols such as “Love Came Down” and “In the Bleak Midwinter.” Read the rest of this entry »