(r to l) Danielle Plisz, Andrew Swan, Scott Duff and John Francisco (Photo by 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 Story” (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 »
Claudia Alexandria Cunningham/Photo: Danny Nicholas
Playing at the Black Ensemble Theater in Uptown, “Once Upon A People” is the perfect antidote to the same old same old that can plague the holiday season. No offense to the traditional, but it would be a real shame if this new African fairy tale fell under the seasonal theater radar. Written by Rueben D. Echoles, “Once Upon A People” is a lot of everything that the Black Ensemble Theater does well. Dance numbers are choreographed beautifully and the voice talents on stage are simply amazing. The production also features the inspiring young talents of the Studio One Dance Theatre (a South Side organization dedicated to exposing children to the arts). Even the pre-show warmup act is genuinely entertaining as actors stroll down the aisles hawking their wares. On opening night, by the time they got to me and my ten-year-old daughter I was tempted to reach into my pocket to purchase a flower. Luckily it was on the house. Read the rest of this entry »
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 »
Photo: Emily Schwartz
For anyone who’s ever pined for a movie star from a past era or maybe got a little too turned on by famous figures in history class, “The Dead Prince—A New Muzical” just might be the show for your deceased-person desires. The rest of you however probably won’t find the Strange Tree Group’s new tuner quite as zany as that substitution ‘z’ suggests.
The musical begins with a troupe of forest-dwelling storytellers (led by Elizabeth Bagby) tumbling out of their gypsy caravan to proclaim just how eager they are to deliver the evening’s fairy tale. They then proceed to sing about getting ready to tell the story instead of, you know, just actually starting to tell the damn thing. Once the group finally gets that initial song out of their system, the audience is introduced to Sara (Ann Sonneville), a past-her-prime princess desperate to find the right man to help rule her kingdom. Joined by her doting, bushy-haired, mandolin-totting minstrel (Zachary Sigelko), Sara sets out on a last ditch effort to land herself a prince by seeking the help of a magic mirror named Maldorf (Michael Thomas Downey), who—bad news for Sara here—reveals that she can never be with her true love because the dude is already dead. At one time a powerful wizard who cheated death by concealing himself in the mirror, Maldorf strikes a deal with Sara: if he leads her to the deceased prince’s tomb, she’ll crack the mirror and set him free. Read the rest of this entry »
Photo: Matthew Gregory Hollis
During last Sunday’s unseasonable tornado alert, The Hypocrites inaugurated their holiday season with a fittingly dramatic opening: the remount of their 2012 hit production of “The Mikado.”
It is the reviewer’s great, double-edged privilege to see a show in its early stages, before it has simmered down to a comfortable boil, allowing the flavors to reduce and properly complement each other. And this was the case with “The Mikado.” All the ingredients for last year’s smash hit are probably still there, but the bugs just need to be worked out so that the cast and crew can get settled into the experience.
Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Mikado” is first and foremost a light-opera confection, designed to delight and amuse a willing audience, and it would be an incredibly dedicated Scrooge indeed who wasn’t susceptible to such an exhilarating musical concoction. However, The Hypocrites’ self-designed overture—a guitar and string orchestra of wandering minstrels playing and singing David Byrne and other unfortunate, non-sequitur pop hits—is a special and egregious form of torture, having nothing to do with either the music of Gilbert and Sullivan, nor the ensuing adapted story of the Mikado. Read the rest of this entry »
The Santaland Diaries at Theater Wit
By Zach Freeman
As any denizen of the theater who’s been in this town for any amount of time knows, Chicago DOES theater. With more than 250 active theater companies and a constantly growing number of venues, if you can’t find a good show to attend on any given night, you’re just doing it wrong. And this holiday season Chicago is really throwing down the gauntlet of performance options with more than forty (yes, you read that right) holiday shows. And yes, almost all of them are Christmas-related. In fact, there are almost a dozen versions of “A Christmas Carol” alone.
But Chicago is a diverse city and our theater companies reflect that. We’re not talking about several dozen versions of the same old stuff, we’re talking about more than forty completely different takes on the holiday season. It’s a lot for any one person to take in, so we thought we’d help you determine which show (or shows) you should be seeing over the next month or so to get yourself into the appropriate holiday mood (whatever that means for you).
We can’t list them all, but here are twenty to get you started. Here we go… Read the rest of this entry »
David Lively and Karen Ziemba
“Hello, Dolly!” is a show that, more often than not, does not work. To be sure, that title song that Louis Armstrong made a huge hit before the cast album even came out is wonderful. Conceived by producer David Merrick after Thornton Wilder’s “The Matchmaker” and assembled by committee, everything about the musical, though, has always felt half-baked. It was a two-dimensional nostalgia show even when it premiered in 1964, two months after the Kennedy assassination. Let’s not forget that the title song was competing with the first wave of Beatlemania and the British Invasion for air play and it offered respite for a grieving nation hungry for an escapist past.
The luckiest thing that ever happened to “Dolly” was Carol Channing, who was not the first choice for the role of Dolly Levi (Ethel Merman was), but Dolly became her baby in a way that no one else has ever been able to make it. Many have sung it better than Channing, to be sure, but the role has always required a unique blend of comic timing, elderly sensuality and larger-than-life charisma that Channing virtually personified. It doesn’t hurt that she was able to make Jerry Herman keep the songs to her own limited vocal range. Dolly has to not only seduce Horace Vandergelder, but the audience as well. Read the rest of this entry »
Alison Luff and Jenn Gambatese/Photo: Joan Marcus
What is it about Chicago and Oz? Is it because L. Frank Baum wrote “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” while he was living in Chicago? The Midwest ethos of the characters? In any case, Chicago loves “Wicked” so much that after what was to have been an initial six-week run back in 2005, the show was extended to four-and-a-half years when Broadway In Chicago made the decision to create its own Chicago production to meet ticket demand. And even after that record-breaking run, Chicagoans had still not had enough “Wicked,” so the show had a follow-up holiday run—now being repeated to coincide with the show’s tenth anniversary on Broadway. Those who missed what all of the fuss was about get another chance and those who know and love the show get to spend part of their holidays back in Oz.
Part of what makes “Wicked” work so well is its cross-generational appeal. As “wicked” as Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West may be perceived to be, she remains a lady when it comes to her language. The archetype that Elphaba and her friend Galinda—later Glinda the Good Witch of the North—are acting out is a relationship as old as the oldest written mythos on record, the ancient Sumerian “Epic of Gilgamesh,” where Gilgamesh and Enkidu begin as rivals but in their attempts to best one another, develop greater respect and even affection for one another as the best of friends. Together, such friends can do anything: a timeless and wonderful message. Read the rest of this entry »
Stuart Ward and Dani De Waal
Can a man and woman be attracted to one another, have a life-transforming friendship that betters both of them without consummating their relationship? That is the question that “Once” asks, but it does so with a lot of homespun folksy music, like an after-school special set to a hootenanny.
The idea began as an Irish independent film about a Dublin street musician who meets up with a Czech mate who takes interest in his original songs. Boy meets girl, girl likes songs, boy wants girl but has to settle for her piano playing and her singing. His songs plus her input equals boy and girl each find themselves.
It is a sweet story with a great message, but the problem is that only the homespun songs that were used in the film are preserved here, sung and accompanied by the cast itself onstage who are surrounded by instrumentalists who are also characters in the show.
Read the rest of this entry »
Photo: Danny Nicholas
If you don’t already know the storied history of Curtis Mayfield—known to some as “the black Bob Dylan” (or was Dylan the white Curtis Mayfield?)—you will by the end of this thoroughly historical production, currently running at Black Ensemble Theater. Written, produced and co-directed by Jackie Taylor (with Daryl D. Brooks) this biographical show features an impressive amount of Mayfield’s music (dazzlingly performed by an energetic cast and backed by a hard-working, talented onstage band) mixed in with a good deal of stilted, fact-laden dialogue. And therein lies the drawback to this otherwise captivating musical production.
Making excellent use of Mayfield’s music (both his own songs and songs he wrote for other performers) Taylor has written the show as a reflection piece, with an older, paralyzed Mayfield—mesmerizingly portrayed by Reginald E. Torian, Sr., the lead singer for Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees The Impressions since 1972 (when he replaced Mayfield)—looking back on his life and discussing his past successes and (ever so briefly) failures. And though Torian’s voice and emphatic acting captures and maintains audience interest (all the more impressive for his being a musician and not an actor) the flashback style effectively kills many of the more dramatic moments in Mayfield’s life. Read the rest of this entry »