Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Swimming Pools and Movie Stars: Gregg Opelka Makes “The Beverly Hillbillies” Sing

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Jim Harms, Kelly Anne Clark, John Stemberg, Summer Smart/

Jim Harms, Kelly Anne Clark, John Stemberg, Summer Smart

By Aaron Hunt

“I’d really fallen in love with Cole Porter, and his music, and just became obsessed with hearing all these obscure recordings. I saw a musical revue which was called ‘The Decline and Fall of the Entire World as Seen through the Eyes of Cole Porter.’ And I remember seeing that, and after I came out of that I wanted to write a musical. That was the light-switch moment for me. This was what I wanted to do.”

Born on the South Side, Gregg Opelka’s family emigrated to Northern Glenview. The third of nine children, all of whom were given piano lessons (Gregg’s seemed to stick), he attended Loyola Academy. His required studies of Greek and Latin would stand him in good stead in his later career.  “I was a British poetry freak. Other kids were outside playing ball, and I was reading Keats and Shelley. I attended Lawrence University, in Appleton, Wisconsin, then got a scholarship to the University of Michigan in Classics. Preparing to be a crusty old college professor, stuck in academia. But I always played the piano as I kid and I was drawn. I missed it. I was getting more and more seduced by the musical theater.” Opelka started sneaking off to the practice rooms in the student union, to keep up his Haydn and Mozart. Opting out after earning his MA, Opelka headed for Boston, where he focused seriously on his pianist chops, before returning to his native Chicago in the mid-1980s.   Read the rest of this entry »

Brigadoon It: Rachel Rockwell’s Goodman Debut Brings a Classic Out of the Fog

Musicals, Profiles, Theater No Comments »
Rachel Rockwell in rehearsal for "Brigadoon"/Photo

Rachel Rockwell in rehearsal for “Brigadoon”/Photo

By Dennis Polkow

Director and choreographer Rachel Rockwell seems to be the lady with the golden touch, the one with an uncanny talent for taking old classic shows that you thought you knew and giving them an entirely new luster.

Recognition for Rockwell’s extraordinary body of work via a run of musical theater successes at suburban venues such as Drury Lane Oakbrook, Marriott Theatre and Paramount Theatre is the milestone of Rockwell making her downtown directing debut at Goodman Theatre.

“It feels really good,” says Rockwell on a lunch break from rehearsals for “Brigadoon” at Goodman, “and it’s not lost on me at all what a big deal this is. I never worked at the Goodman when I was an actor and I always wanted to. And here I am!” she says with a genuine enthusiasm tempered with a charming humility.

“My Mom worked here,” Rockwell continues. “She was the Oracle in Mary Zimmerman’s ‘Pericles.’ The other thing I am so proud of is that the Playbill will be filled with names that will say, ‘making their Goodman debut.’ Almost every name. These are some of the finest musical theater talents in the city of Chicago who never get to work in their own theater district! That to me, is a real coup, that all of these brilliant people are doing a musical at the Goodman in this theater district for the first time, and we’re all doing this together!” Read the rest of this entry »

Sails Pitch: Sting’s “Ship” Comes in After Long Songwriting Drought

Musicals, Profiles, Theater, World Premiere No Comments »
Sting/Photo: Frank Ockenfels

Sting/Photo: Frank Ockenfels

By Dennis Polkow

“As a songwriter,” Sting admits, “I had experienced a long drought.” Rarely inactive, Sting, now sixty-two, had been involved with a number of projects since his last solo album of original material, 2003’s “Sacred Love.” Among these were an album of Renaissance master John Dowland, a Christmas album and even a reunion tour with the Police.

Nonetheless, how does a singer-songwriter who has won sixteen Grammy Awards and sold some 100 million albums worldwide across a thirty-five-plus-year career account for the experience of songwriter’s block?

“Too much me, me, me,” he jokes, “Self-obsession. I had to break this drought somehow and as it turned out, turning to the landscape of musical theater—a very exciting art form—I was suddenly giving voice to other people, characters other than myself. When I did, songs started coming out of me again like projectile vomiting.”

The end result, “The Last Ship,” is both a new Sting album of songs written for the musical of the same name that will have its pre-Broadway world premiere in Chicago, and the play itself, which is getting ready to begin previews on June 10 at the Bank of America Theatre. Read the rest of this entry »

Scores Galore: The New Chicago Musical Theatre Festival Features Eight World Premieres Over Two Weeks

Festivals, Profiles, Theater 3 Comments »

ANTHEM

By Aaron Hunt

“Many mumbling mice, Are making merry music in the moonlight, Mighty nice,” sing six fresh-faced, eager-eyed young performers in unison, up the scale and then back down. David Kornfeld, musical director of “Mr. Munch has a Murmur,” is leading vocal warm-ups from behind a portable keyboard, snuggled away in The Mountain Room of Bubbles Academy, a childhood learning center in Lincoln Park, the walls painted with deer drinking from pools of water, porcupines, a campfire and tents, and a gargantuan bumblebee in front of the frosty-grey mountains.

Cast members have gathered with guitars, a ukulele, an autoharp and a swarm of highlighted, marked and re-marked pages of music and lyrics to rehearse the story of a country-music singer and his might-be girlfriend on vacation in New York City. L.C. Bernadine, who adapted the book from a short story by Mark Sanders, passes out some new lyrics, and cast and crew have a relaxed chat about how the new words will fall on the audience’s ears, and the potential to enunciate them at the required speed. We learn a lot about this entry in Underscore Theatre Company’s Chicago Musical Theatre Festival listening to the cast sing the song in question, “Keep Walkin’.” Lyrics such as “If you want to live to talk about New York someday… speed it up… move along… keep walkin’,” suggest the collision of two unique worlds. Read the rest of this entry »

Every Theater Deserves a House: The Story of a Backyard Theater

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Photo: Ryan Bourque

Photo: Ryan Bourque

By Sean Kelley

In a city with such an established and vibrant theater scene, there are many institutions that could easily make the case that the beating heart of Chicago theater lies within their walls. Is Chicago theater’s heart on the stage of Steppenwolf, one of the nation’s most successful theater companies, the home stage of Malkovich, Allen, Sinise and all the rest? Is it sitting in the balconies of the theater district in the Loop watching “Book of Mormon” or “Wicked” as they make their way through town before moving westward on their trek from Broadway to the Pacific Ocean? Is it in one of our venerated improv comedy theaters like Second City or iO Chicago taking a suggestion before pulling a comedic play out of the ether? Or is it in one of Chicago’s many small storefront theaters, striving to grow and put something truly new into the world?

All of these places are part of the body of Chicago theater. They are her hands and bones and eyes and teeth. The heart though? The heart of Chicago theater? That’s the 3031 stage in John Wilson’s backyard. Read the rest of this entry »

Family Matters: Chicago Connections Within Lyric Opera’s “The Sound of Music”

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Billy Zane and Jenn Gambatese/Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Billy Zane and Jenn Gambatese/Photo: Todd Rosenberg

By Aaron Hunt

In her autobiography, “The Story of the Trapp Family Singers,” Maria von Trapp wrote of her confusion when the Mother Abbess of Nonnberg Abbey encouraged her to forsake her aspirations to the sisterhood in favor of answering God’s will: “I really and truly was not in love. I liked him but didn’t love him. However, I loved the children, so in a way I really married the children. I learned to love him more than I have ever loved before or after.” It was with this creation of a family that the wheels were set in motion for the careers of The Trapp Family Singers, the 1959 musical, “The Sound of Music” (the final collaboration of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II), and the 1965 film starring a practically perfect Julie Andrews. The aerial footage of Andrews spinning around on the top of the Tyrolean Alps outside Salzburg, palms opened upward in both supplication and celebration, and then that brilliant Rodgers score swirling and rising until hearts are so full that there isn’t another choice except voice, except song, has leapt into America’s collective conscious for the past half century.

Lyric Opera of Chicago hopes to send that gift twirling toward the next generation with their new production. Last year Lyric launched their American Musical Theater Initiative with “Oklahoma”; critics mostly raved, houses were sold out, extra performances were added. “The Sound of Music” is primed to repeat this success, given that the casting list includes a movie star, a television star, a Broadway diva and some Chicago-based leading ladies of the Joseph Jefferson Award-winning category. And not so surprisingly, nearly all of the stars of the production have one or more Chicago connections.

If there is a headliner in this romp, it would be Billy Zane as the zipped-up, guitar-strumming Captain von Trapp. Even though a successful film career has taken him all over the world, Zane grew up in Chicago. “There’s no more indelible horizon than Lake Michigan. I grew up basically on Ardmore and Sheridan overlooking that lake from the fourth floor, right off aptly named Hollywood Beach,” Zane revealed to a number of Chicago-area reporters during a telephone interview. Zane remembered fondly his time at Evanston’s Harand Camp of the Theatre Arts, where he acquired “the foundation of an appreciation of the American songbook.” Read the rest of this entry »

30 Plays, 60 Minutes, 25 Years: A Quarter Century of “Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind”

-News etc., Profiles, Theater 1 Comment »

By Hugh Iglarsh

Jay Torrence and Ryan Walters/Photo: Erica Dufour

Jay Torrence and Ryan Walters/Photo: Erica Dufour

“What are the hallmarks of American culture that are also typical of ADD? The fast pace. The sound bite. The bottom line. Short takes, quick cuts … High stimulation. Restlessness … Speed. Present-centered, no future, no past.”
—Edward Hallowell and John Ratey, “Driven to Distraction”

At this point—after twenty-five unbroken years of performance in Chicago, of two generations of sell-out crowds, of untold thousands of two-minute sketches and hundreds of actor-writers, of spinoffs and Edinburgh Festivals and Hear ye-Hear ye civic proclamations—it is fair to say Greg Allen’s “Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind” is more than an institution; it is a movement.

Allen and his cohorts have made their “neo-futurism” a hot commodity, spawning affiliated groups everywhere from San Francisco to Montreal, and developing into a perpetual motion theater machine, whose unique rituals of admission and spectatorship turn play-going into a kind of collaborative performance art. Neo-futurism is arguably the biggest, most durable entrant on the local scene since Second City began improvising fifty-some years ago. And like Second City, “Too Much Light” (hereafter TML) has created a precise and endlessly repeatable formula for achieving a tightly engineered spontaneity. Read the rest of this entry »

Sex on the Brain: Playwright David Ives Riffs on Goodman’s “Venus in Fur”

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Amanda Drinkall in "Venus in Fur"/Photo: Liz Lauren

Amanda Drinkall in “Venus in Fur”/Photo: Liz Lauren

By Raymond Rehayem

“I like to leave a play behind,” says playwright David Ives. “This play feels very old to me. It’s like four plays ago already.”

The play in question is Ives’ “Venus In Fur” and the show’s great success is the reason I bug him about it for the better part of an hour rather than leave it in his illustrious past. The comedy isn’t just currently in production at the Goodman Theatre; it’s being staged all over the place. “Most produced play in the country this season; not bad.” notes Ives. “I planted that rumor myself. I’m only kidding.” I kid that Noam Chomsky once planted a similar rumor about his own ubiquity. This garners the first of several laughs from the affable former Chicagoan. “I’m happy to be in the same category as Noam.”

The play explores the relationship between Thomas, the writer/director of a stage adaptation of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s nineteenth-century similarly titled erotic novella, and Vanda, the surprising actress who captures Thomas’ imagination in his search for the ideal lead. This reliance on derivation is in keeping with what Ives calls his “translaptations”—Ives’ own translations which he morphs into original adaptations. He has a practical explanation for his fondness for this technique. “I’m very bad at plot. It’s very nice to take someone else’s thing, and it could be an 1870 German erotic novel, and to have a story that you can use to your own purposes. There’s not much plot in theater. Usually it’s an investigation of some situation. And I hate making those plot decisions. The nice thing about ‘Venus in Fur’ is you get two people in a room and you don’t have to worry too much about plot. They are grinding away at each other in this kind of self interrogation so I just let them go.” Read the rest of this entry »

Geeking Out: Chicago Nerd Comedy Festival Enters its Second Year

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Plan 9 Burlesque

Plan 9 Burlesque

By Raymond Rehayem

Back in the cathode ray days of my pre-HD childhood, when my father bemoaned my obscure taste in comic books (“What are the X-Men? Why can’t you like something popular like Spider-Man, so I can buy you something?!?”) it wasn’t just uncool to have geeky tastes, it was downright inconvenient. Miss an issue of mutant boarding school mayhem and you had better pedal your ten-speed to your only local comic shop (if you were in so fortunate a locale) and pray on the way that there will be a bagged back issue to fill the gaps in your knowledge of Homo Superior developments.

It’s a vastly altered reality in which the Chicago Nerd Comedy Festival (aka Nerdfest) gears up for its second annual undertaking this month at Stage 773. I credit the MP3 for making handheld gadgetry irresistible and CGI for making big screen superheroes passable. Regardless, nowadays there’s nothing mysterious about an old Green Lantern t-shirt. It’s quite the opposite.

“Nerd is kinda norm now,” opines Nerdfest co-creator Katie Johnston-Smith. A self-identified nerd who temporarily abandoned the fold due to middle school mockery, she confesses to a concern that returning to nerd-dom around the time it rose in stature may make her “a poseur.” But Johnston-Smith’s enthusiasm for geek culture proves the authenticity of her allegiance. Following last year’s inaugural success, the festival’s committee came up with a free monthly night of fan fiction readings to sustain and build interest leading up to this year’s Nerdfest. Johnston-Smith and co-founder Fin Coe curate and host “Hey, I’m A Big Fan: A Night Of Fan Fiction Readings” every third Wednesday at Stage 773, for which participants specifically write new material. Much, though not all, of the fan fiction is erotic in nature. Despite seemingly intense prospects like “a very graphic sexual version” of the sitcom “Full House,” Johnston-Smith describes the ongoing monthly series as “low stakes and chill.” A selection of the best “Hey, I’m A Big Fan” readings—as chosen by the festival committee and the fanbase—opens the festival on Wednesday. Read the rest of this entry »

Ride On: Puppet Bike Celebrates a Decade on the Streets of Chicago

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puppet bike

Photo: Keith Schmidt

By Suzanne Karr Schmidt

As a relatively recent Midwesterner, I associate Chicago with outdoor festivals, pop-up art shows and street theater. And while the Berghoff’s Oktoberfest and the Christkindlmarket cater to a certain type of Germanic nostalgia, the most endearing of all Chicago traditions comes in a brightly-painted box.

With puppets.

Most of us have seen the Puppet Bike in action on Michigan Avenue or in Andersonville, or perhaps glimpsed it in its sadly shuttered state in between shows. It doesn’t appear much in our recently punishing winter weather, and can be reclusive in the scalding summer heat. But when serendipity is in your favor, and you happen upon the syncopating Steiff animals in their slightly tatty glory, the show is suddenly for you and you alone. You’re standing there with your mouth open, a child again for a few wonderful moments.

Actual kids love it too.

As of January, the bike has been on the street for ten years, an amazing achievement for Jason Trusty, its founder and the original puppeteer. He initially meant it as a side project that evolved out of a coffee bike concept. Trusty has kept the Puppet Bike supplied with self-nominated puppeteers over the years, a roster limited only to those able to pedal the large, increasingly rickety structure around the city. The list has even included several women. Read the rest of this entry »