Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Critic’s Postcard: Fairies and Snakes at Moulin Rouge

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Photo: S. Bertrand

Photo: S. Bertrand

By Zach Freeman

There are very few theatrical venues in the world that can boast anything like the history, cachet and all-around tourist-centric sexiness of Moulin Rouge, now celebrating its 125th (!) anniversary. With that in mind my wife and I made our way to the iconic red windmill at the intersection of Rue Lepic and Boulevard de Clichy in the Montmarte district a few weeks ago, expanding our trip to Paris to include the latest offering from “the most famous cabaret in the world.”

Entitled simply “Féerie” (Fairy), it turns out that this production—which has been running since the end of 1999—is every bit as flashy, ephemeral, evocative and simple as the name implies. For clarity’s sake I should add that by “simple” I just mean “nearly plotless”—with 1,000 costumes, eighty dancers, six horses and five pythons (yes, you read those last two correctly)—this show is anything but simple in the technical sense. But more on that in a bit.

Entering the historical eighteenth arrondissement theater through a throng of camera-toting tourists and fellow attendees is a theatrical experience in itself. The bright red carpet and brighter lights successfully immerse you as you check in and are guided to your table. (With 900 seats, it’s no surprise that they don’t trust you to find your way alone.) The space is set up like a massive, two-story restaurant, allowing for customers booking 7pm tickets to eat dinner before the 9pm show. Since we opted for the 9pm show, we arrived at our table post-dinner and were promptly greeted with glasses of champagne. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Illusionists—Witness the Impossible/Broadway in Chicago

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Photo: Joan Marcus

Photo: Joan Marcus

RECOMMENDED

Magic is tricky (eh?). If it’s not your genre of choice it could be difficult to summon the proper enthusiasm to enjoy yourself. This particular show opens with a montage demonstrating each performer’s special skill. I needed something to get me interested and this montage proved to be more than ample. I muttered “holy shit” in earnest at least twice, once when a full-size train car appeared on stage.

Part of the fun is not knowing what happens next, so I’ll limit the spoilers and focus on the moments you can probably search for on YouTube. Adam Trent, “The Futurist,” opens the show with a few simple tricks that don’t inspire awe until an effect where he focuses a camera on an old man in the crowd, walks over to the old man, zooms on the old man, only to have the old man rip off his old man mask and MAGIC! It’s Adam Trent. Baffling. Jeff “the Trickster” Hobson serves as the de facto host for the evening’s events. He introduces a number of the other illusionists, each with their own accolades. Many are award winners, headlined by Yu Ho-Jin, “The Manipulator” and reigning Magician of the Year, who turns the simple use of cards into a mesmerizing display of legerdemain that leaves the audience totally enraptured. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Steppenwolf Garage Rep 2015/Steppenwolf Theatre Company

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(l to r) Carmen Molina, Claudia DiBiccari, Mykele Callicut, Paula Ramirez, Preston Tate Jr., Deanna Reed-Foster and James McGuire/Photo: Anna Sodziak

Carmen Molina, Claudia DiBiccari, Mykele Callicut, Paula Ramirez, Preston Tate Jr., Deanna Reed-Foster and James McGuire/Photo: Anna Sodziak

Heat Wave/Cold Basement Dramatics

RECOMMENDED

A mention of the skin-ripping heat plague that either directly caused or contributed to 739 deaths in Chicago in the summer of 1995 still causes those of us who lived through it to walk through a Windy City winter with jaw-grinding thankfulness. The PR department of the Mayor’s Office spun a tale of deceit that denounced the families, churches and neighbors of the victims for failing in their duty as emissaries of first response. It was left to the CDC and the National Weather Service to disprove this machination, although the residue of finger-pointing still lingers in the city’s consciousness. The mystery of a steady supply of power afforded affluent neighborhoods, while the homes of impoverished, minority citizens suffered repeated, long-term grid failure, continues unsolved.

Steven Simoncic’s play, adapted from Eric Klinenberg’s book, “Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago,” delivers the hard data of the tragedy, enlightening the horror by grounding his tale in humanity, and allowing the audience to breathe by the heavy use of humor. In lesser hands, such a play might force the watcher to disconnect for emotional safety; Simoncic holds our hands and walks us through the morgue. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Muffy and Vallery Sing…The Oldest Profession/Uptown Underground

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RECOMMENDED

Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood celebrates the long-delayed opening of a venue for burlesque, cabaret, music, magic and comedy. Located in a bunny warren under the refurbished Walter W. Ahlschlager-designed Uptown Broadway Building, the Uptown Underground’s bar and multiple entertainment spaces have the feel of the thrilling, temporary safety of an Al Capone-era speakeasy.

Muffy Fishbasket and Vallery Dolls have been booked into the Underground’s Starlight Lounge, where they currently expound upon the peaks and valleys of “the world’s oldest profession.” With all the gender-bending panache of a couple of girls who have no intention of passing as females with “real lady bits,” Muffy and Vallery use the elements of clown and burlesque to successfully parody their parody. Muffy sports a Lucille Ball volcano wig that threatens to defile the ceiling, a corset, dirigible-bazooms, and little else. Vallery’s boa must be a registered weapon. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Game of Thongs/Gorilla Tango Burlesque

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Photo: Christopher Nesemen

Photo: Christopher Nesemen

Gorilla Tango Burlesque has made a name for itself in recent years performing nerd-themed burlesque shows. After parodying “Star Trek,” “Indiana Jones” and other properties, a “Game of Thrones” show was probably inevitable. “Game of Thongs” is that show. So how does George R.R. Martin’s tale of war, political intrigue, sex and dragons translate to burlesque? Surprisingly, not well.

“Game of Thongs” is a fittingly wordy show as a parody of Martin’s verbose tomes. Long scripted scenes loosely connect each dance number. These scenes have an old-timey, presentational, vaudevillian tone. This can work in a show, but it requires a balance of clever dialogue and physical humor that “Game of Thongs” clearly lacks. The humor seems to be, mostly, a list of synonyms for the word “boobs” placed over character names and places from Martin’s novels. Each of these jokes seems to work once, but are repeated over and over again throughout the show, getting less funny with each mention. A little more creativity combined with the bawdy humor would be welcome. The talented cast does their best to make the scenes work, but it’s an uphill battle. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Circuscope/The Actors Gymnasium

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Molly Plunk and Dean Evans/Photo: Sylvia Hernandez DiStasi

Molly Plunk and Dean Evans/Photo: Sylvia Hernandez DiStasi

RECOMMENDED

The tardigrade is a microscopic life form that generally lives under water, but can also survive the vacuum of space. In its newest circus show, the Actors Gymnasium looks through the microscope lens at a magical world that such tiny creatures might inhabit. Remarkably engaging clown work by Dean Evans and Molly Plunk carries the audience through an adventure that features scenes accented by juggling, trapeze work and impressive feats of aerialism.

This circus is not only made up of exceptionally skilled performers, but also fitted perfectly to the performance space in which the Actors Gymnasium makes their home. One surprisingly simple and yet brilliantly effective piece bookends the show, as we become familiar with a character who is nothing more than a laser-pointer dot. It dances around mumbling, and discovering its environs. Occasionally, rather than a flat surface, it runs into a light fixture which diffracts its own light into rings, and the accompanying sounds ring out, too. It’s a fun and funny bit of playing that defines the simple and yet brilliant sort of evening that is to follow. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Redlined/Chicago Slam Works

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(l to r) Dru Smith, J. Evelyn, Rashaad Hall/Photo: Andy Karol

Dru Smith, J. Evelyn, Rashaad Hall/Photo: Andy Karol

RECOMMENDED

Just a forewarning: if you are looking for the Chicago featured on marketing postcards and glossy travel guides, you will not find it at Chicago Slam Works’ “Redlined.” There will be no mention of Buckingham Fountain, Millennium Park or Navy Pier. There will be no pictures of sprawling skylines, no top-ten list of great bars or restaurants, and if you’re looking for Bulls, Bears, Sox or Cubbies pride, you will be sorely disappointed.

What will not disappoint however is this lyrically potent love letter to the muffled and hidden faces of this city. In this production they are given both a face and a voice through the ensemble cast of J. Evelyn, Rashaad Hall, Shelley Elaine Geiszler, Frankiem Mitchell, Dru Smith and Teagan Walsh-Davis. These actors are extremely aware of the great burden and blessing that task is, and so with passion and heart they deliver the stories of the city’s forgotten. These stories include those of police-inflicted violence on innocent black and brown bodies—a phenomenon not limited to Eric Garner and Michael Brown, our out-of-state fallen angels. In fact, we are told that Chicago has the highest rate of police homicide in the country. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Cirque Dreams Holidaze/Cirque Dreams

Christmas, Holiday, Performance, Performance Reviews, Recommended Performance No Comments »

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: Holiday Bizarre/Foiled Again

Christmas, Holiday, Performance, Performance Reviews, Recommended Performance No Comments »

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 »

Review: Dr. Seuss’ How The Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical/MSG Entertainment

Christmas, Holiday, Musicals, Performance Reviews, Theater, Theater Reviews No Comments »
Shuler Hensley and Presley Ryan/Photo: BlueMoon Studios

Shuler Hensley and Presley Ryan/Photo: BlueMoon Studios

RECOMMENDED

As a first time Broadway-esque experience, this year’s iteration of “Dr. Seuss’ How The Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical” performs its duties with enough pleasing flair and upright enthusiasm to charm its young audience into a return trip to the box office. For the nostalgic chaperones in tow, however, the show might disappoint.

The primary thrills are here: a perfectly frumpy, frothy Grinch with his fur extending six inches beyond his fingertips, the bump and wriggle of the candy-colored Whos and a set with silly psychedelia bending before the eyes. Timothy Mason’s book and lyrics and Mel Marvin’s music are suitably woven with Seuss’ intention, if not his joviality, but this is of minor concern. The kids came for the Grinch, after all.

And what a Grinch they get: Tony Award-winner Shuler Hensley (“Oklahoma!”) is delightfully devious, with a sufficient growl to spook the youngest audience members and enough broad pluck to rope in parents. Aleksa Kurbalija, as a highly animated young Max the Dog, is a standout, full of physical wit and charm. Ken Land ties it together admirably as Old Max, in his tattered fur suit, reminiscing about the Christmas that changed Whoville. Read the rest of this entry »

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