Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

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


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


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 »

Review: Our Holiday Stories/16th Street Theater

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(l to r) Karen Rodriguez and Miranda Zola/Photo: Anthony Aicardi

Karen Rodriguez and Miranda Zola/Photo: Anthony Aicardi


Novelist and playwright Elizabeth Berg (“Over the Hill and Through the Woods,” “The Pull of the Moon”), 16th Street artistic associate and Chicago Dramatists resident playwright Robert Koon and Victory Gardens ensemble member and playwright Tanya Saracho (“Our Lady of the Underpass”) offer vignettes of three different ways to spend the winter season in 16th Street Theater’s “Our Holiday Stories.”

Berg’s story centers on a seventy-five-year-old woman who, after having children and becoming a grandmother, has started to question the importance of preparing large gatherings for a family that is seemingly ungrateful. Koon tackles the idea of being a military chaplain serving in Belgium during World War II. And Saracho questions the futility of going home for the holidays when “home” no longer feels like the fondly remembered place from memories. All three stories are wonderfully adapted and directed by 16th Street Theater’s artistic director Ann Filmer. Read the rest of this entry »

I Wanna Rock ‘N’ Roll All Christmas: Dee Snider’s Spirited Musical Tale

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Dee Snider

by Raymond Rehayem

Some folks wanna rock. Some folks wanna white Christmas. Dee Snider wants to spread rocking yuletide cheer.

“Dee Snider’s Rock & Roll Christmas Tale” debuts this season here in Chicago, where we rock year ‘round and where last winter resembled Santa’s polar headquarters. Best known as the singer and leader of the eighties heavy-metal hit-makers Twisted Sister, Snider has built a diverse resumé, spanning music, radio, television, film and now, stage. Speaking to the amiable Snider, it’s clear he brings a great enthusiasm to all these disciplines, while never taking for granted his success in any field.

“When I went to write my autobiography, they didn’t want me to write it. They were like, ‘Just because you can sing doesn’t mean you can write.’ I said let me do a few chapters, and they loved it, so they let me write my own book. I’m blessed to have all those talents.” Read the rest of this entry »

Review: A Q Brothers’ Christmas Carol/Chicago Shakespeare Theater

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(l to r) Postell Pringle and Jackson Doran/Photo by Michael Brosilow

Postell Pringle and Jackson Doran/Photo: Michael Brosilow


Everybody has a favorite rap song. Currently, mine is “Holy Grail.” I know it is a bit overplayed, but man can that Jay-Z rap. I also like Chicago Shakespeare Theater, which consistently spins the overplayed into gold. Methinks, however, the two rarely meet. But last night they did meet during the warmup to “A Q Brothers’ Christmas Carol” and you know what? It sounded pretty good. It might not work all the time (kind of like swapping out rum for vodka in your eggnog), but now and then it is downright refreshing.

With more flavors than an ice-cream shop, this show brings reggae, hip-hop, old school rap, dancehall sounds and some gritty industrial touches to the old Dickens classic. There’s even a little Blue Man Group thrown into the Ghost of Christmas Future number. Written collaboratively by the four actors on stage (Jackson Doran, GQ, JQ and Postell Pringle), the script may rhyme, but it also stays true to the spirit of the original. The touches they do add (like a loving gay nephew who repeatedly invites Scrooge to his Christmas party) might feel a little contrived, but fit in well with the overall theme of good cheer (otherwise known as Christmas spirit). This is a show that has a lot of fun with the source material (such as giving Tiny Tim every affliction known to man, including scurvy) but does not shy away from being sentimental. The Q Brothers do well at balancing the traditional and non-traditional and in doing so tease together something unique. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Silent Night of the Living Dead/New Millennium Theatre Company

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SilentNightoftheLivingDeadThere’s no sleeping in heavenly peace over at Studio BE where the New Millennium Theatre Company’s Christmas zombie comedy “Silent Night of the Living Dead” is attempting to offer up some gruesome holiday cheer. Unfortunately the title is pretty much the cleverest thing about this dead-on-arrival comedy. The ninety-minute, intermission-less show moves at an even slower pace than those slogging zombies, and by curtain call you’ll be groaning louder than the walking corpses.

The play starts with a bloody bang as the zombies violently attack their first victims in a department store. Witnessing the explosion of fake blood and intestinal fireworks live is a fun sight gag that zombie movies and TV shows can’t quite match. However, the gimmick wears thin quickly. I was even splattered with fake blood sitting in the back row, staining a favorite pair of pants I had on (which made sitting through this mess of a show even more infuriating). Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Seafarer/Seanachai Theatre Company

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Kevin Theris and Dan Waller/Photo by Joe Mazza

Dan Waller and Kevin Theris/Photo: Joe Mazza


The devil sure knows his way around Chicago. Besides the usual mixture of gang violence and Rahm-style politics, Satan has been a feature of many recent stage productions, including his recent stint in The Gift Theatre’s “Broadsword.” What makes this production different is that, in this play, Lucifer is introduced into a classic Irish gothic play (the type where the characters spend a lot of time talking about leaving the house but instead mostly just drink).

Directed by Matt Miller and written less than a decade ago by Irish playwright Conor McPherson, “Seafarer” presents a world where you can learn a lot about a character by the drink they choose.  There is the loud American type (played by Shane Kenyon). He is a Miller guy. The flawed hero of this tale, Sharky (Dan Waller) is taking a break from the booze. His older, blind brother Richard drinks whatever he can get his hands on (and also seems to enjoy reminding Sharky that he is a lousy drunk). Ivan, their drunk, mutual friend, is also not very discriminating about what he drinks. In fact, much of the first act is spent setting up the sheer wretchedness of the situation as they all prepare for a Christmas Eve get together that culminates in a certain someone coming to play a couple hands of poker and collect on a few debts. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: We Three Lizas/About Face Theatre

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Danielle Plisz, Andrew Swan, Scott Duff and John Francisco (Photo by Michael Brosilow)

Danielle Plisz, Andrew Swan, Scott Duff and John Francisco/Photo: Michael Brosilow


Here’s a recipe for making your holiday season jolly and gay (listen, I knew there would have to be a gay pun in here somewhere so I figured I’d get it out of the way right at the start): Take Dickens’ uber-classic “A Christmas Carol” and add a pinch of Macbethian witches, a dash of song-and-dance numbers, a splash of purple and a whole lot of Liza Minnelli. Stir it up with a dynamic cast of singers and dancers (with choreography by Patrick Andrews), a live four-piece band and a large, boxy, morphable set (courtesy of Jerre Dye). Then sit back and watch the surreal redemption tale unfold.

This “fairy tale that fairies love to tell” is written by the undeniably funny and talented Scott Bradley (of “Carpenters Halloween” and “Alien Queen”) with music and additional lyrics by Alan Schmuckler. And though it follows the basic framework of “A Christmas Carol” (Christmas season, grouchily irredeemable protagonist, three spirit guides, etc) it also veers off wildly from the original structure (with welcome, if rather muddled, results). Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Santaland Diaries/Theater Wit

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“I am not David Sedaris,” Mitchell Fain notifies his audience at the start of “The Santaland Diaries,” the stage adaptation of the famed author’s popular holiday essay. Fain then instantly cracks a joke about Sedaris’ distaste for the theater piece (but how he has no problem cashing the royalty checks every year), and it’s clear you’re definitely in good hands to hear all about the humdrums of working the holiday season.

Now in its tenth year at Theater Wit, “The Santaland Diaries” begins with the down-on-his-luck forty-seven-year old answering a want ad from Macy’s seeking “elves” to work the seasonal Santaland Christmas display. The only thing more depressing than applying for the job? Fain’s realization that he might not actually get hired! Fain proves to have the magic charm required to lead kids to Santa’s giant chair (at least to the apathetic HR interviewer) and is taken on staff. Packed into a windowless room for training, he selects the elf moniker of Crumpet and begrudgingly takes in all there is to learn about inhabiting the life of Santa’s little helpers (no you can’t take your costume home!) Read the rest of this entry »