Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

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

RECOMMENDED

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

RECOMMENDED

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

RECOMMENDED

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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SantalandRECOMMENDED

“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 »

Review: The Nutcracker/The House Theatre of Chicago

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Photo by Michael Brosilow

Photo: Michael Brosilow

Christmas merriment is in full swing at the home of young Clara and her family in the fantastically staged opening scene of The House Theatre’s musical retelling of “The Nutcracker.” Twirling in a dizzying array, Clara, her parents, the eye-patched Uncle Drosselmeyer and their party guests exuberantly dance around the shiny Christmas tree (accompanied by a surprisingly lush four-person orchestra) as they eagerly await the holiday homecoming of Clara’s soldier brother Fritz. The good cheer, however, comes to a screeching halt when another soldier makes a chilly entrance instead, bearing a folded American flag. It’s an incredibly intense moment for a children’s show, but the production wisely trusts its young audience to come along for a more somber take on the beloved holiday tale that will pay off in heartwarming, if not emotional, ways.

Fast-forward to a year later and grief is still shackling Clara’s (Paige Collins) home. Drosselmeyer (Karl Potthoff) arrives unannounced a week before the family’s annual Christmas bash, only to disappointingly learn that this year’s party has been called off. It’s clear not all is right in the home as Clara’s parents (Benjamin Sprunger and Brenda Barrie) seem emotionally disconnected and unwilling to acknowledge the holiday season in any capacity. Worried about his young niece, Drosselmeyer gives her an early Christmas present: the eponymous Nutcracker. Read the rest of this entry »

Holidayz with a “Z”: “We Three Lizas” Gives “A Christmas Carol” a Fabulous Makeover

-News etc., Christmas, Holiday, Theater No Comments »
(l to r) Danielle Plisz and Scott Duff/Photo by Cheryl Mann

Danielle Plisz and Scott Duff/Photo: Cheryl Mann

By Mark Eleveld

Chicago theater during the Christmas season is plentiful. Add to this growing list an “out-of-the-box, not your typical fare, wild, crazy, gay fantasia,” as director Scott Ferguson describes his show “We Three Lizas” which recreates “A Christmas Carol” using Liza Minnelli impersonators as Liza Was, Liza Is and Liza the All-knowing. This ninety-minute, fifteen-song holiday show is now in its second run and includes the original cast as well as a few new players.

Featured at the Steppenwolf Garage last year, and in New York over the summer, this annual show first appeared as a “gay parody, retelling of Hammerstein’s ‘Oklahoma.’” It was a huge success. “But then they wouldn’t renew the permission,” says Ferguson. So with the seed planted, but new material needed, writer Scott Bradley immediately thought about Liza. “Christmas is redemption stories: ‘It’s A Wonderful Life,’ ‘The Grinch,’ the ‘Gospels’ even; there is a magic in it, and what it means to us as Americans and queers.”  Unanimously, when Bradley pitched the idea of Liza, it was a hit. “Liza is the last of show-biz royalty. She is this fairytale creature—she is a gay icon, great symbol, every time you think she is done, she reinvents herself. Such wonderful material for the show,” Bradley says.

Actor Danielle Plisz, who plays Liza Is couldn’t agree with Bradley more, “I’ve heard she walks into a room and the room lifts up.” Plisz has taken her Liza role and developed a one-woman show, “When I’m in role, I do get the comments about how much I look like her. She was the first concert I went to, when I was twelve.” Plisz says that being an artist means looking up to Liza. She admires Liza’s take on reality: that it is there for the recreating. “I come off stage, and I think, ‘Oh my god, all of the singing, and dancing, at breakneck speed!’ Liza gives 110 percent every time, and that’s what I’m trying to hold up to.” Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Elf the Musical/Broadway In Chicago

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ELF2013-4735EaRECOMMENDED

This family-friendly 2010 Broadway adaptation of the 2003 film “Elf” is basically a high-octane song-and-dance version of the story of Buddy the Elf that has plenty to keep all ages entertained, from small children to seniors.

Lacking the wryness and special effects of the film, this musical version nonetheless boasts a witty book by Thomas Meehan (“Annie,” “The Producers,” “Hairspray”) and Bob Martin (“The Drowsy Chaperone”) which does develop, update and smooth over plot details that compress the story in a more genre-friendly way for the stage.

In the musical version, it is Santa—played by Ken Clement—who tells the story, engaging the audience with local color and witticisms and even a song or two. The biggest loss from the film is that Buddy, played by Will Blum, is really no larger than the other elves, so in that sense we do come to accept him as, well, an elf, rather than a human being raised as an elf. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: A Christmas Carol/Goodman Theatre

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Photo by Liz Lauren

Photo: Liz Lauren

RECOMMENDED

Since Charles Dickens’ novella about the overnight transformation of the crotchety Ebenezer Scrooge was first published in 1843 (right around Christmastime, natch) it has been solidly absorbed into the holiday season, becoming one of the definitive stories of Christmas spirit, embedding itself in our collective thoughts and reminding us of our own Christmases (past, present and yet to come). And for many in Chicago, the annual Goodman production of “A Christmas Carol” (now in its thirty-sixth year) is the definitive Christmas show.

There’s good reason for this—it’s an easily accessible family show filled with plenty of spectacle, a solid (and impressively large) cast and an adaptation (by Tom Creamer) that gives us both comedy and emotional redemption on a grand scale, which the Goodman stage makes even grander. When Scrooge finally does make that turnaround (spoiler alert: Scrooge changes his miserly ways!) this show follows Scrooge’s intent when he buys the biggest prize goose he can find for the Cratchit family: go big or go home. Read the rest of this entry »

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

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Photo by Johnny Knight

Photo: Johnny Knight

RECOMMENDED

Despite the fact that it’s been a Chicago holiday tradition for more than a decade (first produced in 2002) and its source material is a 1946 film, every moment of American Blues Theater’s current production of “It’s a Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago!” feels fresh and new, with the eager ensemble (led by original director Marty Higginbotham) throwing themselves into the story with so much wide-eyed gusto you can’t help but feel pulled in—into the story itself and into the general life-affirming message of how it is, in fact, a wonderful life.

American Blues Theater presents it as a live radio show in the 1940s and scenic designer Grant Sabin has created a cozy, idealized radio-station recording studio of a set, with snow occasionally falling outside a window and (in case you didn’t know this was a Christmas show) not one, not two, but three fully decorated Christmas trees springing up across the stage. Announcer and pianist Michael Mahler drives the show forward, both narratively and musically, while Foley artist Shawn J. Goudie creates a soundscape that adds depth and texture to the reading. Read the rest of this entry »