How far will an outside producer go in dropping crucial elements in transposing an outside production to Chicago? How much will be lost in making the transition, particularly when it comes from New York?
When it comes to the “Radio City Christmas Spectacular,” apparently quite a bit. The show had always been performed here with some half the number of Rockettes seen at Radio City and with canned music versus the live orchestra that one can experience in New York. But in bringing the show back to the area for the first time in four years, elements that nonetheless made the show, well, spectacular, are noticeably absent this year. Read the rest of this entry »
Photo: Johnny Knight
Near the end of American Blues Theater’s “It’s A Wonderful Life: Live at The Biograph!” one of two annual radio-play renditions of the Frank Capra film currently in Chicago (the other belongs to American Theater Company), my gaze naturally wandered to the title sign upstage. At this point in the performance, George Bailey had been experiencing the world he once knew with a significant addendum: he’d never been born. On Christmas Eve, wandering the streets of Bedford Falls, his lifelong home, George discovers every person he touched in some way is in a far worse place without him there—void of his generosity, his openness and beautiful spirit. All the while, I kept on staring at that sign: “It’s A Wonderful Life.”
Like so many pieces of holiday iconography, come December the masses rattle off that title in the same manner in which they watch the movie, habitually. But during that moment, I was so moved by the simplicity and optimism of those four quick words, not appended by any negating qualifiers. In difficult times of personal loss, national tragedy or even an unshakable moody rain cloud, a message so gleaming is tough to embrace and even tougher to believe. As twenty-four-hour news networks roll endless footage of our greatest fears, positivity has been rendered abrasive and, at times, inappropriate. With a big heart, this short-and-sweet production offers a much-needed reminder that simply being alive is the most precious gift. And a gift that is perfectly all right to celebrate and cherish. Read the rest of this entry »
Photo: Dan Rest
Although Engelbert Humperdinck’s fairy-tale opera “Hansel and Gretel” has been a beloved Christmas staple around the world for well over a century, it’s been a relative rarity in Chicago, Lyric Opera having staged the work only once in the company’s history.
This beloved masterpiece of late German Romanticism was written for Humperdinck’s nieces with a libretto by his sister and follows the Ludwig Bechstein version of the classic tale rather than the more familiar adaptation by the Brothers Grimm while adding its own distinctively Wagnerian touches.
Gone is the wicked stepmother and there is a much more complicated and realistic relationship between family members drawn here, along with the dark forest being used as a metaphor of a testing ground for finding our own way in life.
Originally a co-production of Lyric Opera with the Welsh National Opera—ironically when current Lyric general manager Anthony Freud was at the helm there, since this bleak but clever Richard Jones production was first seen at Lyric eleven seasons ago—it has been widely seen and praised. In this revival directed by Eric Einhorn, some of the production’s original elements have been muted a bit but without blunting their overall impact. Read the rest of this entry »
It is no easy task to take the rhyming, whimsical world of Dr. Seuss and bring it to life. Boris Karloff and Chuck Jones did it wonderfully well in the 1966 animated version of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” which is still a holiday staple more than four and half decades after its original airing.
Ron Howard, on the other hand, was light-years less effective and less successful in his 2000 movie version and, of course, the Broadway musical “Seussical” received a lukewarm reception, at best. With that track record, expectations were hardly high for a new musical based on the Grinch.
Making good use of two Albert Hague/Dr. Seuss songs from the television special, “Welcome Christmas” and “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch”—although oddly omitting the third song, “Trim Up the Tree”—the story and characters have been filled out and given new songs by Mel Marvin and Timothy Mason. Read the rest of this entry »
Mitchell Fain/Photo: Johnny Knight
Twenty years ago, a relatively unknown David Sedaris burst onto the NPR scene with a first-hand account of working as a Macy’s elf. The rest, as they say, is history. Joe Mantello adapted the short story into a snippy one-man show, which star Mitchell Fain declares at the start is detested by Sedaris. Whether or not the author has a problem with the stage version, Chicago does not. Now in its ninth season and directed for Theater Wit by Jeremy Wechsler, “The Santaland Diaries” is a sardonic look at the false merriment manufactured by big retail stores.
As Crumpet (the disgruntled elf), Fain explicitly states that he is not David Sedaris and isn’t trying to be. Fain also establishes that the theater is his house and his casual manners are comforting, like listening to an old friend tell jokes over cocktails. In a sort of North Pole open mic, Fain really gets down to the true meaning of Christmas, which is shopping. From the frontlines of retail nobody is safe from his scrutiny, not even Santa himself. The most impressive thing about this show is just how far Fain pushes it, catching you off-guard with jokes you know you shouldn’t be laughing at but you can’t help yourself. Fain blends his own sense of humor seamlessly with Sedaris’ glass-half-empty narrative style. Read the rest of this entry »
My how the busty have fallen. Two years ago “Boobs and Goombas” surprised and delighted audiences across Chicago with its carefully calibrated mix of playful geekery and partial nudity. But this burlesque holiday special, though it uses some of the same tactics (and cast members) is barely skating by on holiday cheer. Read the rest of this entry »
Mike Nussbaum and Cliff Chamberlain/Photo: Katie Sikora
It’s probably blasphemy to suggest that American Theater Company’s radio rendition of this holiday tale is better than the iconic Frank Capra film, but it’s certainly close under the superb direction of Jason Gerace and artistic director PJ Paparelli.
With a swanky look and a fast-moving pace, ATC’s version starts off with a feel-good vamp from the narrator (Chris Amos) that includes quirky messages from audience members, local businesses and game-show contestants. Joining the cast this year is Cliff Chamberlain as George Bailey and Mike Nussbaum as Mr. Potter. Chamberlain does a remarkable job being convincingly boyish and deeply intense without slipping into a stale Jimmy Stewart impression. Nussbaum is both chilly as Potter and honest as Clarence, gracefully pushing past any “Touched by an Angel”-ish associations. Sadieh Rifai and Jessie Fisher bring the female characters to life in full color. Read the rest of this entry »
Author O. Henry’s Christmastime short story, “The Gifts of the Magi,” gets its power from an abbreviated length. The modern parable about a strapped-for-cash married couple’s attempts to buy each other presents is a read so easy that it could be spoken aloud by mom at bedtime as a more moral alternative to “The Night Before Christmas.” The plot is quiet domestic, feel-good drama that doesn’t suit the inherent immodesty of big and brassy musical theater. And Mark St. Germain and Randy Courts’ adaptation, currently at Stage 773 in a Chicago premiere by Porchlight Music Theatre, doesn’t do much to warm the heart either.
In 1984, St. Germain and Courts created a one-act Off Broadway musical from “The Gift of the Magi,” but they combined it (I assume, for length) with another piece by O. Henry, “The Cop and The Anthem,” about Soapy Smith, a homeless man who crawls out from under a pile of newspaper to serve as the vaudevillian comic relief. Soapy (his last name added by the musical) wants to be arrested so as to have a warm place to sleep for the night. While there are plenty of holiday lessons to be gained from that simple setup, the character (a charismatic Kevin McKillip doing his best with unfortunate material) is a clown removed of all humanity. His trickster ways recall Shavian tramps in politically charged plays of the same era like “Major Barbara.” However, in those dramas, Bernard Shaw had a decisive worldview and a strong agenda. O. Henry’s famed literary voice is made askew by the padded combination of the two short stories, and the agenda, which should be Christmastime uplift, is unbearably cheesy, eye-rolling schmaltz. Read the rest of this entry »
Larry Yando/Photo: Liz Lauren
Thirty-five years ago, Goodman Theatre debuted its first production of Charles Dickens’ holiday classic at the suggestion of now-executive director Roche Schulfer, and changed the face of Chicago theater for good. Though that first production was an expensive and risky undertaking, its success became the bedrock for the audience-driven component of financing Chicago theater, as not only did Goodman put it into perpetual repeat, but so too did almost every theater company in town develop their own annual holiday production as a box-office sure thing.
Though those of us who, for personal or professional reasons, see the show many times over might be inclined to obsess over what ultimately minor shifts in staging and casting invariably take place over time, the reality is that Goodman has this one down to a science, especially under the helm of stalwart director Steve Scott. And especially with Larry Yando playing Ebenezer Scrooge, a role that recalls his even-less-redemptive turn as that other theatrical rogue, Roy Cohn, in last year’s production of “Angels in America” at Court. Yando’s mastery of vile is unparalleled, but so too is his transformation into the joyfully benevolent Scrooge here, where he gets to show some chops for physical comedy. Read the rest of this entry »