Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

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

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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: Holiday Bizarre/Foiled Again

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Foiled Again promo pic full size

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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: Twist Your Dickens, Or Scrooge You!/Goodman Theatre and The Second City

Christmas, Comedy, Holiday, Improv/Sketch Reviews, Improv/Sketch/Revues, Theater, Theater Reviews No Comments »
Beth Melewski and Francis Guinan/Photo: Liz Lauren

Beth Melewski and Francis Guinan/Photo: Liz Lauren

It’s not a bad script that renders “Twist Your Dickens, Or Scrooge You!” an unfunny, lackluster mess. It’s a terrible script. Penned by Peter Gwinn and Bobby Mort (Emmy Award winners for their work on “The Colbert Report”), this slapdash comedy show doesn’t know whether it wants to fully commit to skewering the classic Dickens tale or just throw together a slew of vaguely related  holiday sketches and hope audiences are in good enough Christmas spirits to laugh at them. The result is a surprisingly awkward evening of almost-comedy.

I say “surprisingly” because this is an exceptionally strong cast of comedians, led—and given gravitas—by Chicago stalwart Francis Guinan (who wouldn’t be out of place playing Scrooge in Goodman’s annual rendition of “A Christmas Carol” in the next theater over). But while the cast mostly throws themselves into the various bits—nineteenth-century commercials! A Dickensian orphan protest! Taylor Swift and Kelly Clarkson?!?—even their engagement with the material flags at times. Director Matt Hovde has not found the rhythm of this piece—if there is one—and it shows in various awkward lulls throughout. Even a nightly celebrity cameo—filled by Rick Bayless the night I saw it—feels shoehorned in and uninspired, leaving the celebrity bookending a brief “Peanuts” sketch by introducing it and then quickly saying goodnight afterwards. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Christmas Schooner/Mercury Theater

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The Christmas Schooner Cast 2

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In a city like Chicago, it’s hard to imagine not being able to get anything at practically any time. The internet and online sales make it even easier. Yet, back in the early twentieth century, getting things—like Christmas trees—in this toddlin’ town wasn’t so easy. With immigrants crossing the ocean regularly and longing for a holiday comfort so cherished in their homelands, the market was ripe. Thus a special ship made its way across the unpredictable lake from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to the Windy City to bring joy into the homes of many. That true story is at the heart of “The Christmas Schooner.”

The show’s book and score use the history of the Rouse Simmons, a schooner ship that sailed across Lake Michigan each November for many years carrying Christmas trees to Chicagoans. Similar to the script, historical documents show that the Simmons’ captain, Herman Schuenemann would sell the trees on the Clark Street Docks and occasionally gave away trees to needy families. Unlike the script, the Simmons and its crew have a slightly darker ending. Rather than the captain being the only soul lost on a turbulent November night in 1912, others went down with the sinking ship, though no one knows exactly how many. While the Simmons was not the first or the only ship to carry holiday evergreens across the lake, its wreck, to many historians, marks the beginning of the end of schooners sailing the rough winter waters to sell festive tannenbaums. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Second City’s Holidazed and Confused Revue/Second City

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(l to r) John Thibodeaux, Lisa Beasley, Scott Morehead, Marlena Rodriguez, Alan Linic, Liz Reuss/Photo:Kirsten Miccoli

John Thibodeaux, Lisa Beasley, Scott Morehead, Marlena Rodriguez, Alan Linic, Liz Reuss/Photo:Kirsten Miccoli

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There’s an internal tension with the holiday season between what everyone is supposed to feel—joyous, thankful and free—and how everyone actually feels—miserable, stressed-out and massively in debt. Whether it’s binge-eating on seasonally appropriate chocolates, comparing holiday bonuses, fretting about the inevitable failure of New Year’s resolutions or questioning the very theological basis on which the whole “Christmas” thing is conceived, people deal with this tension in different ways. And most of those ways are not very healthy. If there is a thematic backbone to Second City’s “Holidazed and Confused,” these myriad splinterings of the holiday cheer façade is it. (The thematic backbone is distinct from the business-side backbone which is, quite simply: “Holidays + Comedy = $$$.”)

Performed in the intimate app-and-a-nightcap environs of the UP Comedy Club, “Holidazed and Confused” is the standard Second City cocktail of sketch, improv and music. The material is consistent overall even if the quality is not totally homogenous; there are equal parts surprise and obviousness mixed in with a whole lot of solid work. There are jokes about Ebola and Tinder and pumpkin spice lattes and even one about Ferguson (which… yeah) and there are some very charming bits of audience interaction. Which reminds me, if you are planning on giving someone you love a gift card this holiday season, do not tell them that. They will make fun of you. In song. And everyone will laugh. Because it will be very funny. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: A Klingon Christmas Carol/Commedia Beauregard

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(l to r) Breon Arzell and Philip Zimmermann/Photo: Christopher Kidder-Mostrom

Breon Arzell and Philip Zimmermann/Photo: Christopher
Kidder-Mostrom

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If you haven’t had the chance to see Commedia Beauregard’s “A Klingon Christmas Carol,” well now is the time. The current incarnation of the show, its fifth, will apparently be the final production in Chicago. Happily, this version is lively, appropriately violent and anchored by a wonderful leading performance from Philip Zimmermann as SQuja’. Oh and if you are wondering what exactly “A Klingon Christmas Carol” actually is, it’s… well… it’s a version of “A Christmas Carol” that’s done entirely with Klingons.

Were you expecting something else?

This year, playwright Christopher Kidder-Mostrom (who co-wrote the piece with Sasha Warren) is on hand to preside over the proceedings. Playing an unnamed Vulcan—a race whose neo-Nimoy mannerisms he has down pat—Kidder-Mostrom welcomes us all to the Vulcan Institute of Cultural Anthropology for a presentation on the marked similarities between Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” and the Klingon folk story “tInIngam ram nI’ bom” or (“Klingon Long Night’s Song”). The story is then acted out by the Imperial Klingon Players. In Klingon. And when all’s said and done it’s practically identical to the Dickens save for two notable departures: 1.) Scrooge’s miserly penny-pinching and greed is replaced by SQuja’s utter cowardice in the face of battle, and 2.) All normal human (or Terran) interactions have been replaced by fighting, full-on physical hand-to-hand combat. Other than that the two are exactly the same. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Crumble (Lay Me Down, Justin Timberlake)/Jackalope Theatre Company

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(l to r): Kristen Magee, Tim Parker/Photo: Phil Dembinski

Kristen Magee, Tim Parker/Photo: Phil Dembinski

Things are not exactly going as planned for the matriarch in Sheila Callaghan’s “Crumble (Lay Me Down, Justin Timberlake).” One year after being widowed by a freak Christmas Day accident, she finds herself living in a murderous apartment (personified by Tim Parker) with her depressed and maybe suicidal preteen daughter Janice. The only person she has to confide in is her crazy cat-lady sister who offers nothing but bad advice. Both mother and daughter are so lonely they take to summoning men capable of catering to their emotional needs (for Janice it is an ‘N Sync-era Justin Timberlake; the mom is more of an Indiana Jones type). These apparitions pretty much stick to telling the women what they want to hear which in the case of Janice is pretty darn scary.

There is a lot going for “Crumble,” beginning with the over-the-top theatrical Tim Parker who gives the perfect voice to an elegantly fading mansion apartment that has seen better days.  The ceiling plaster is crumbling, wires short-circuit, and The Apartment pines over and over again for the days when servant girls waxed his floor, their knees digging into the wood. Repeatedly he implores someone, anyone, to just touch him, to let some steam roll off his radiator. Besides being sexually frustrated, The Apartment is also vindictive and will do anything to survive. He is by far the most complex and engaging character on stage. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Dee Snider’s Rock & Roll Christmas Tale/Broadway In Chicago

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Dee 1

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What happens when four guys from failed bands join together, make a deal with the devil and pledge their souls to Satan in order to find fame and fortune? When it takes place in a show entitled “Dee Snider’s Rock & Roll Christmas Tale,” it’s safe to guess that the result will be something a little… twisted, perhaps. Directed by Adam John Hunter, who also staged the national tours of “Sweeney Todd” and “Rock of Ages,” this world premiere is a family-friendly Christmas rockfest.

Hunter steering this production makes sense considering that the content of this show is so reminiscent of the latter (which also features songs by Twisted Sister) that, in fact, one could almost call this a “Rock of Ages” holiday sequel. While both shows feature a narrator, in “Rock & Roll Christmas Tale,” none other than Dee Snider himself takes on the role of spot-lit storyteller. While his name may be in the title, Snider’s monologues can get a bit lengthy, and often feel unnecessary, as the cast does an excellent job of delivering the funny and clever dialogue of the book. However, what ultimately sets the two shows apart is also the thing that ties them together: the music. “Rock of Ages” has more than twenty songs in its performance. Here there are thirteen, most of which are Twisted Sister songs or mash-ups of the hair-metal-band’s rock anthems with well-known Christmas songs. (Twisted Sister released a Christmas album, aptly titled “A Twisted Christmas” in 2006, making the originality of the mash-ups slightly less impressive.) Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Christmas on the Air/Provision Theater

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_DSC1469

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In a world where Christmas shows are a dime a dozen, and productions of “1940s Radio Hour” are a staple of community theaters around the country, one may be forgiven for taking a bit of grinchiness into a production that seems like it is set up to be a second-hand knockoff of that other nostalgic holiday piece. And yet, within the first five minutes of Lucia Frangione’s “Christmas on the Air” it is possible to be fully immersed in the events surrounding Christmas Eve, 1949 at a small family-owned Chicago radio station.

I have not laughed at a show so hard or so much in a long time.  There is something wonderful about watching an old-time radio show go horribly wrong and nevertheless turn out so well. And that is the essence of this play. Whether we’re watching a retelling of O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi” being shamelessly turned into an advertisement for a local jeweler or the sound effects man making an epic mess out of “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas,” we get to enjoy good and earnest characters making the best of one bad situation after another. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: A Christmas Carol: An Evening of Dickensian Delights/Dream Theatre Company

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Nick Ferrin

Nick Ferrin

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Some of the most cherished moments of my childhood were story times with my mom. During those times with the turn of a page, the walls would disappear and voila! Me and my sisters were on a V.I.P. thrill ride of adventure. We got to visit exclusive faraway lands, mingle with the coolest characters known to mankind and wear some of the finest garb. The price of admission didn’t break our pockets either. All that was needed was the words on the page, my mother’s enthusiastic reading and the vibrant canvases of our imagination.

As you sift through the countless shows to see this holiday season, do not leave Dream Theatre Company’s “A Christmas Carol: An Evening of Dickensian Delights,” off your list. I couldn’t help but be nostalgic for my childhood while sitting in this play. A barebones production that packs a lot of punch, this adaptation of the timeless tale is told through only three actors. We go on the journey of Scrooge’s (Nick Ferrin) past, present and future, which in return makes him evaluate his life and exchange his cynicism for Christmas spirit. Scrooge’s journey is illuminated by two narrators—Rachel Martindale and Joe Kloehn—who also double as the myriad faces we meet along the way. Read the rest of this entry »