Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Review: It’s A Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago/American Blues Theater

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(l to r) Gwendolyn Whiteside and Kevin R. Kelly

(l to r) Gwendolyn Whiteside and Kevin R. Kelly

RECOMMENDED

Few films have the generational popularity of Frank Capra’s “It’s A Wonderful Life,” which has now been broadcast on television for decades during the holidays. Familiar to most, this is the story of George Bailey, whose family’s Building and Loan business is in serious trouble. In a state of desperation, he contemplates suicide and wishes he’d never been born. Just then, an angel grants his wish and Bailey is able to see what the world would be like if he had never existed. By seeing what could have been, Bailey realizes how precious life is.

American Blues Theater has been staging this film-turned-staged-radio-show production annually since 2002 and director and ensemble member Marty Higginbotham has been at the helm several times before. Likewise, every cast member has previously been a part of this tradition. Though this means that they are all well-rehearsed and very familiar with the material, it also seems as if – for better or worse – the actors struggle to make the characters their own, and perhaps rightfully so; the iconic actors who first tackled these roles are hard to top. So, when the actor playing George Bailey (Kevin Kelly), for example, recites his lines in front of an old 1940s-style microphone and seems to channel Jimmy Stewart – muffled accent and all – one isn’t all too surprised. The most outstanding performance here comes from Gwendolyn Whiteside who presents a Mary Bailey who is not only a dutiful housewife to a fault, but also a woman of power and intellect who is in complete control of her family and her own life, even when George thinks he’s the head of the household. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: HoliDaze/Step Up Productions

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(l to r) Jillian Burfete, Tina Muñoz Pandya, Celeste M. Cooper, Damon Williams and Luce Metrius/Photo: Liz Lauren.

(l to r) Jillian Burfete, Tina Muñoz Pandya, Celeste M. Cooper, Damon Williams and Luce Metrius/Photo: Liz Lauren.

On my way to the theater I noticed the red-and-green lights burning Christmas-y atop the Hancock and her sister-skyscrapers; maybe this caused me to feel a little Grinch-y. Maybe my fingers were nervously drumming because I already knew the 110 minute evening was to be presented without intermission in a space where it was impossible to exit without crossing directly in front of the stage, leaving me to carefully consider my fluid intake. Or maybe I was just February-cold in November and it caused my heart to shrink two sizes. But whatever the reason, I found myself unable to make the “connection” to Step Up Productions’ theatrical Christmas card proposed by artistic director Elizabeth Antonucci’s program notes. Six musings billed as one-acts played as rehearsed skits, little moments of character and situation that could have fed on audience reaction and floated on improvisation, but instead suffered the cement shoes of over-scripting. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: A Christmas Carol/Goodman Theatre

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Larry Yando and Patrick Andrews/Photo: Liz Lauren

Larry Yando and Patrick Andrews/Photo: Liz Lauren

RECOMMENDED

Goodman Theatre has perfected the holiday show in its annual production of “A Christmas Carol,” with superb, consciously colorblind casting, terrific scenic design by Todd Rosenthal—including a rendition of Ebenezer Scrooge’s home that seems to contort in expressionistic ways at times, as well as backdrops and streetscapes that create a holiday-card version of London—and, above all, a commitment to Charles Dickens’ text, which seems to have otherwise suffered from cultural amnesia as a result of its cartoonification by the mass-merchandising machine. By blending the bite of the words with the pleasant taste of period-authentic music and dances, the production manages to deliver everything you’d want from a Christmas show, that is, a meaningful message softened by a strong current of joy and hope. And though one could certainly argue this is not a show for young kids as it’s full of dark, adult themes, that argument would be a lost cause. And so Goodman makes the show accessible to the little ones with strokes of broad physical humor and ghosts that excite and certainly scare their share of the wee ones. Read the rest of this entry »

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

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

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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 »

Review: The Nutcracker/The House Theatre of Chicago

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(l to r) Michael E Smith, Shaun Baer, Jaclyn Hennell, Andrew Lund and Krystal Worrell

Michael E Smith, Shaun Baer, Jaclyn Hennell, Andrew Lund and Krystal Worrell

RECOMMENDED

Just once, I would like to invite someone along to see The House Theatre’s production of “The Nutcracker” without telling them what they were getting into. For someone who came in expecting Tchaikovsky’s ballet, the result would be at first jarring, then perhaps upsetting (they would at least be upset at me), followed by a growing sense of wonderment and then, finally, delight. Oh, and there might be some crying in there too. And fear. And laughter. And a deep, abiding hunger for sugar plums.

Back in its sixth incarnation since it originally premiered back in 2007, “The Nutcracker” comes complete with an almost entirely new cast and is as delightful as ever. Director Tommy Rapley surely deserves the lion’s share of the credit, as do the play’s original creative team, Jake Minton, Phillip Klapperich and Kevin O’Donnell. Taken from the original E.T.A. Hoffman short story, the show uses the basic ingredients of the story—Clara, Fritz, a Nutcracker, Uncle Drosselmeyer, rats and Christmas—and cooks up a fresh take. Fritz is now a soldier who died in the war and Clara, played with spunky vivacity by Jaclyn Hennell, is left alone to face the prospect of a Christmas without him. Clara’s grief-numbed parents (Ericka Ratcliff and Paul Fagen) have in fact banished the usual Christmas festivities altogether. When Clara’s sly uncle Drosselmeyer (Karl Potthoff) presents her with a Nutcracker that looks exactly like her dead brother, it is with an eye toward opening a family wound so that this time it can heal properly. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Hellcab/Profiles Theatre

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(PHOTO CREDIT: Michael Brosilow) Jeff Gamlin, Richard Cotovsky

Jeff Gamlin and Richard Cotovsky/Photo: Michael Brosilow

RECOMMENDED

Watching “Hellcab” is sort of like having your heavily tattooed ex-con uncle wish you a merry Christmas. His breath may stink of whiskey and cigarettes, and you can’t look him in the eye without nervously glancing at the three blue teardrops etched on his cheekbone, but you know that deep in his heart he means well. And heck, he’s probably seen more misery in the past twenty-four hours then you’ve seen in the past twenty-four years. If anyone’s earned a little holiday vacation filled with eggnog and cheer and good will toward men, it’s him.

Receiving its third go-round at the Profiles Main Stage, Will Kern’s bilious theatrical nugget is a refreshing blast of stank air. It stars Richard Cotovsky as a lonely, hard-hearted cab driver spending his Christmas Eve on the job. In the course of a brisk eighty-minute runtime, Cotovsky transports a filthy parade of Chicagoans from one end of the city to another. Some appear as good people only to be revealed as jerks, some are outright jerks whose brief time only serves to reinforce the depths of their jerkiness. A diverse array of actors—thirty-three in all—come together to test both Cotovsky’s and the audience’s faith in the inherent goodness of mankind. As Cotovsky played the same roll in 1992’s  original production of  “Hellcab,” he brings a fantastic, Sisyphean sense of resignation to the cabbie’s fate. Read the rest of this entry »