Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Review: A Nativity Story: More Than A Miracle/Congo Square Theatre

Christmas, Holiday, Recommended Shows, Theater, Theater Reviews No Comments »
Photo: Samuel G

Photo: Samuel G


A frequently cited frustration for those of the Christian faith is the supposed secularization of one of their most sacred observances. As the holiday hustle and bustle is increasingly built around wish lists, presents, elaborate decorations and Santa Claus—all things that have now become embedded in our traditional Christmas culture—they ask that we remember that Christmas didn’t begin with Santa Claus but with the birth of Jesus Christ.

And this is what writer/director Alexis J. Rogers —who has appeared in every Congo Square Theatre production of Langston Hughes’ time-honored classic “Black Nativity” and its derivatives since 2004—does in “A Nativity Story: More Than A Miracle,” expanding her artistic wings and creating her own version, inspired by Hughes’ work.

Gabriel (Kelvin Roston Jr.), a biblical angel, is sent on a mission from God to help save a fractured relationship between Diane (E. Faye Butler) and her son Nathan (Mark J.P. Hood), who is angry about not knowing the identity of his absentee father. Nathan, who is also a young aspiring playwright, has assembled his church’s drama ministry to put on his play recreating the events surrounding the birth of Jesus for a producer who might be interested in taking it further. Nathan and his mother get more than they bargained for through the journey of gospel music and modern dance in Nathan’s play. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Cirque Dreams Holidaze/Cirque Dreams

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Ornaments on Tree
“Once upon a dream…” begins the brief narrative introduction for this trippy holiday dazzler, before launching into more than two hours (including a twenty-minute intermission) of singing, stunt-work and spectacle. And it certainly feels like a dream, offering escapist entertainment with no real through-line—aside from the very clear, often intentionally over-the-top, focus on Christmas and cold weather. Scenes shift at a moment’s notice: a twirling pair of skaters giving way to jump-roping reindeer (Elizabeth Butterfield, Brandon Harrison, Anthony Lee, Gary Schwartz) or a vaguely elfin guy (Aleksandr Rebkovets) balancing an ever-growing stack of glasses and candles on his forehead.

The set is an almost overbearing Alice in Winterland fantasy world, consisting of monstrous inflatables, a giant climbable Christmas tree and innumerable moving parts that get pushed, thrown, pulled, ridden and slid onto the stage throughout. The impressive and (mostly) endearing cast of thirty pop in and out of the action sporting various crazy costumes and even crazier talents (along with constant crazed grins—the holidays are beyond exciting, after all). “This seems like a show put together by a communist leader to lull us into submission,” a nearby patron whispered about thirty minutes in. This is not untrue. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Christmas Goose/Raven Theatre

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(l to r) Damian Conrad, Graham Emmons/Photo: Dean La Prairie

Damian Conrad, Graham Emmons/Photo: Dean La Prairie


Light as down, raucous as the title bird and quick as the famous Baker Street sleuth’s brain cells, Raven Theatre’s revival of its mystery-cum-musical-cum-sing-along is a delightful way to pass a holiday-season hour.

Adapters Michael Menendian (who also directs this show with a sure, knowing hand) and John Weagly use Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” as the scaffolding of this bit of wintry whimsy, festooning it with Christmas carols, dance numbers, sound effects and gags, both wholesome and gross-out. All that’s missing for a latter-day vaudeville experience are jugglers and a trained seal. (Maybe next year.)

The plot-driving MacGuffin here is a priceless jewel, found like a Cracker Jack toy in the crop of a fat Christmas fowl. Holmes (played by Graham Emmons, who radiates a comical smugness) is on the scent, along with much-abused sidekick Watson (a sturdy if slightly touchy Damian Conrad). Literature’s most famous sadomasochistic couple delves from top to bottom of Victorian London in search of truth, justice and the aesthetic satisfaction of a puzzle solved. Along the way, we meet a series of apparently random characters, played with tongue-in-cheek earnestness and sometimes wavering accents by Matt Bartholomew, Lane Flores, Rudy Galvan, Sarah Hayes, Sophia Menendian and Symphony Sanders. Only that great brain of Holmes can connect them, thus finding pattern and moral order within the buzzing chaos of the nineteenth century’s great metropolis, which is organized around the impersonal activities of buying, selling… and stealing. This capability of Holmes, and our own continuing need to find form and meaning within the urban hubbub, accounts for the sleuth’s evergreen appeal. Read the rest of this entry »

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


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


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


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

Christmas, Comedy, Holiday, Improv/Sketch Reviews, Improv/Sketch/Revues, Recommended Comedy Shows No Comments »
(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


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


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 »

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