Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

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 »

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 »

Review: The Testament of Mary/Victory Gardens Theater

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Linda Reiter/Photo: Michael Courier

Linda Reiter/Photo: Michael Courier

I love Jesus. Could even say I’ve got a complex. Can’t really blame my Catholic school, they didn’t teach a damn thing about the scriptures. And admittedly a harsh history of my attractions may reveal a Mary Magdalene fixation. But I’ve never been much for the other, mother Mary. As undeniably as the various takes on Jesus are up to interpretation, Mary seems a pure white screen upon which believers project. The Mary that materializes in this one-woman show is intellectually defiant, emotionally devastated and remarkably well spoken for a peasant woman. She’s a full character with a historical chip on her shoulder. She’s a mother, not an icon, even if she is doomed to become the latter.

I’m a skeptic of religion and of theater, which may cast my credentials as an admirer of the Christ and a commentator on the stage in a suspicious light. So, crucify me. This show clearly casts doubt upon the supernatural aspects of the Christian faith, but it doesn’t quite make me believe in the need for its staging either. This play is based on a book—not the “good” book—but a novella by Colm Tóibín.  I left with doubts in the mission of adapting this book into a performance. Despite the unflinchingly gutsy performance by Linda Reiter and the tasteful and expressive set and projection design by Christopher Ash, I suspect everything Tóibín has to offer could be gleaned from reading this on the page. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: A Christmas Carol/Drury Lane Theatre for Young Adults

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A CHRISTMAS CAROL - Killian Hughes, Andrew Weir

RECOMMENDED

The tale of an old miser who has no interest in the holiday spirit until his past, present and future come haunting him one Christmas Eve is fairly well known. Though the story is told often, there is something that remains fascinating about the Charles Dickens classic, “A Christmas Carol.”

This Drury Lane production, directed by Scott Calcagno, is especially geared towards engaging young people. Many darker moments of the tale, like Scrooge’s visit from Marley’s ghost, have more of an element of surprise than terror, which hopefully limits the number of nightmares a parent might have to wake up to and deal with. Children in the audience the morning I attended were highly engaged with the performances, often laughing in comedic moments and frequently enchanted by the “theater magic” in front of them. However, there were several moments when the fog was a bit too heavy for those sitting in the first few rows, which easily disturbed the young patrons and pulled the rest of the audience out of the show. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Iphigenia in Aulis/Court Theatre

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Tracy Walsh, Mark L. Montgomery and Adrienne Walker/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Tracy Walsh, Mark L. Montgomery and Adrienne Walker/Photo: Michael Brosilow

RECOMMENDED

Watching a Greek drama is odd, because your moral compass gets completely rewritten. There’s a moment in Nicholas Rudall’s new translation of Euripides’ “Iphigenia in Aulis” when Clytemnestra says to her husband Agamemnon something along the lines of “Remember when you met me and murdered my (first) husband and killed my two sons in front of me?” Clytemnestra then goes on to point out how she eventually got over that and forgave him and became his loving wife and bore a gaggle of beautiful children, one of which (the titular Iphigenia) Agamemnon is going to sacrifice to the gods so that he and the rest of the Grecians can go fight a war. It struck me as I was listening to these words that I am watching a play in which a man murdered his wife’s first husband and her children and then married her and yet… that fact is incidental to the action currently at hand. It’s barely relevant. A footnote.

I repeat, he murdered her husband and both of her sons in front of her and the entire reason she brings it up is to point out how she totes got over it.

If I saw a modern-day play wherein someone dropped that little tidbit in the middle of an argument, it would stop the play dead in its tracks. There is no possible way that the play could be about anything other than that. It would be “the big secret” that gets revealed halfway through Act 2. Or maybe the play would be a marriage that pulls double duty as a prolonged case of Stockholm Syndrome. Either way, Agamemnon’s act would not be treated as incidental. It would be very, very integral. 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 »

Review: The Rape of Lucretia/Chicago Fringe Opera

New Companies, Opera, Opera Reviews, Recommended Opera No Comments »

Britten Lucretia 3

RECOMMENDED

If you are a newcomer to Benjamin Britten’s masterpiece “The Rape of Lucretia,” and aren’t familiar with the semi-legend told by Roman writers and remembered in paintings of naked, Rubenesque ladies fighting off swarthy, leering soldiers, make sure you attend Chicago Fringe Opera’s contemporary re-envisioning. If you know and love the opera as given traditionally, swallow hard twice, open your mind, and go anyway.

With a mission statement that calls for productions of American and English vocal works revisited and refurbished, CFO opens a neon door for a generation that grew up on television’s “CSI” and “NCIS” to pass through and connect to the material. Their first outing proves their ability to make good on their promise, and to attract a new audience to an operatic production which doesn’t feel remote to them. The night I saw the show the seats were packed with a youthful gathering that held their breath throughout, and then applauded and yelled during the curtain call like they were at a football game. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Humans/American Theater Company

Recommended Shows, Theater, Theater Reviews, World Premiere No Comments »
Hannah Dworkin, foreground, with Lance Baker, Kelly O'Sullivan/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Hanna Dworkin, foreground, with Lance Baker, Kelly O’Sullivan/Photo: Michael Brosilow

RECOMMENDED

The specter of loss hangs like a literal specter, a ghost, over Stephen Karam’s new play “The Humans,” currently receiving its world premiere at American Theater Company. The loss of money, of security, of mothers and daughters and those we hold closest to us, of their respect and their love. Karam conjures up these fears and then sends them skittering off into dusty crevices where they become suspicious knocking sounds and burnt out light bulbs and darkened rooms and the ominous whirring of unseen machinery. 9/11 is present too, the latest loss of innocence for the nation itself. The inconceivable terror of a world that comes crashing down in fire, rubble and ash touches the play’s characters more closely than is first apparent. Karam has drawn up a world much like our own, where everything we know can be gone in a second.

The play itself concerns a single family, the Blakes. The parents, Eric (Keith Kupferer) and Deirdre (Hanna Dworkin), are blue-collar Catholic folk from Scranton, the kind that have purchased land for a lake house but have done so as a two-income household and with a fair amount of belt-tightening. They have come down to the wilds of Chinatown in New York City to spend Thanksgiving in the new apartment of their youngest daughter Brigid (Kelly O’Sullivan) and her much older boyfriend Richard (Lance Baker). Their other daughter, Aimee (Sadieh Rifai), is also there. She’s a lawyer from Philly with a failing intestinal tract and a recent separation from her longtime girlfriend. And Eric’s mother, who everyone calls Momo (Jean Moran), is also physically present, although her mind has long been lost to the ravages of dementia. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: It’s A Wonderful Santaland Miracle Nut-Cracking Christmas Story… Jews Welcome/Stage 773

Christmas, Holiday, Theater, Theater Reviews No Comments »
Nick Curatolo, Analisha Santini, and David Kaplinsky/Photo: Stephanie Vera

Nick Curatolo, Analisha Santini, and David Kaplinsky/Photo: Stephanie Vera

“It’s A Wonderful Santaland Miracle Nut-Cracking Christmas Story… Jews Welcome” is a Christmas cabaret from Stage 773 artistic director Brian Posen that seeks to hearken back to the wholesome Christmas specials of the 1950s. These were shows that came pre-packaged with a lot of jokes, a lot of song and dance, and heaping helpings of heart. Unfortunately, “It’s A Wonderful Santaland Miracle Nut-Cracking Christmas Story… Jews Welcome” also hearkens back to the staid hackiness of those fifties specials and even the unfortunate racial tone-deafness.

This is a show with an all-white cast that features not one, but two rap numbers, a Martin Luther King puppet and an astoundingly uncomfortable joke about Kwanzaa—the joke is that two white people are telling you about it because no black people auditioned. With its big-band-era influences and lighthearted joie de vivre, the show actually reminded me of everything that is charming about “Family Guy” creator Seth MacFarlane’s throwback Brat Pack style. It also reminded me why I hate Seth MacFarlane. Read the rest of this entry »