Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Review: Sense and Sensibility/Chicago Shakespeare Theater

Musicals, Recommended Shows, Theater, Theater Reviews, World Premiere No Comments »
CST_SENSE_06_LizLauren

Megan McGinnis/Photo: Liz Lauren

RECOMMENDED

The brilliance of writer/composer/lyricist and Tony nominee Paul Gordon, the tremulous set design of Kevin Depinet, and Donald Holder’s mystic lighting, guided by director Barbara Gaines, envelopes the audience for the world premiere of Gordon’s “Sense and Sensibility” inside a Renoir painting, with Debussy’s running rivulets underscoring. Though as intrinsically British as Susan E. Mickey’s period-perfect costumes, there is something deliciously French about the afterglow; the production lingers like the lightest puff pastry, the buttery richness circumventing even café noisette. All of Jane Austen’s earthy passion, bubbling under societal strictures, is on display. Yet the swirl of Gordon’s unpretentious melodies married to harmonically complex underpinnings renders the affair as impressionistic as a Degas ballerina. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum/ Porchlight Music Theatre

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(l to r) Lorenzo Rush Jr and Bill Larkin/Photo: Anthony La Pena

(l to r) Lorenzo Rush Jr and Bill Larkin/Photo: Anthony La Pena

RECOMMENDED

Coming on the heels of their insightful production of “Sondheim on Sondheim,” Porchlight Music Theatre provides just enough silly to make “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” work. To make up for the lack of memorable hit numbers (although “Comedy Tonight” will keep you humming the next day), director Michael Weber keeps the pace and antics high. Flourishes include a very funny amount of tragedy in the opening number (as if to prove this is indeed a comedy) as well as a decidedly “cheeky” Miles Blim (as Hero) at the beginning of the second act. These fresh ideas go a long way in ensuring that the redundancy of characters dressing in drag, dressing as each other, or dressing as each other in drag is funnier than it is stale. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Sounds So Sweet/Black Ensemble Theater

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Melanie McCullough, Cherise Thomas and Jessica Brooke Seals/Photo: Danny Nicholas

Melanie McCullough, Cherise Thomas and Jessica Brooke Seals/Photo: Danny Nicholas

Written and directed by Rueben D. Echoles, “Sounds So Sweet” follows the Harris family on their journey to lay their matriarch to rest. As the Harris’ gather in Mississippi to host Grandstine’s (Yahdina U-Deen) “Going to Heaven Party,” they reflect on the soundtrack of their lives, which mainly features hits from R&B, hip-hop and soul girl groups from the 1960s to the present.

As Grandstine’s youngest daughter, Marcia, Dawn Bless undoubtedly steals the show. She is a powerhouse singer and, when the family isn’t recollecting fond memories of their dearly departed, they’re snooping into Marcia’s romance with her longtime friend, Robert Clarkson (Casey Hayes).

The cast is musically strong overall, but the majority of the acting lacks a certain realism to draw the audience in. In addition, while the song selection is varied enough for audience members of all ages to enjoy, the book is extremely cliché, predictable and feels more like filler between musical numbers than substantial text moving the story along. The best number of the show is an impressive mash-up of The Supremes’ “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” and the Destiny’s Child hit “Survivor.” Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Anything Goes/Marriott Theatre

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ANYTHING GOES_Stephanie Binetti and Cast JK

RECOMMENDED

It’s always an event when Chicago can steal director/choreographer Marc Robin away from his duties as artistic director of Lancaster, Pennsylvania’s Fulton Theatre to work his special magic within a theater community that still considers him their own, and Marriott’s “Anything Goes” shows Robin’s gifts at full sail. Just never mind comparing this 1987 version with other productions, revivals or films with which you’re familiar, in terms of musical numbers, characters or plot lines. You’re on a ship, and you left all your cast albums at home. Pull up a deck chair.

Stephanie Binetti’s Reno Sweeney tap dances away from the Merman model, and ups the ante on Ethel’s Broadway successors of sexier sensibilities. Binetti scorches with legs that won’t quit, a voice with a burnishing belt and a warming mix, and a playful way with the character’s brassier lines; this is a performance to see and hear. Summer Naomi Smart is achingly vulnerable as Hope Harcourt. Although this version robs Hope of her introduction-ballad and tosses her Latin-flavored, edifying, eleven o’clock number to one of the boys for comic fodder, Smart delivers a fully fleshed character; her vibrant soprano makes much of the single, slight ballad afforded. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Carousel/Lyric Opera of Chicago

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Steven Pasquale and Laura Osnes/Photo: Brad Trent

Steven Pasquale and Laura Osnes/Photo: Brad Trent

Wonderful things can come of Lyric’s decision to present musical theater. New audiences may be caught up in the ambiance, and elect to attend an opera. Lyric’s opera audiences could see musical theater in a new light, and take in a show at Marriott. Lyric’s resources could serve to enlighten and enliven both forms. But finding the right formula for burgeoning, rather than poorly imitating, is tantamount. Lyric’s first responsibility should be to the singing.

If audience ears are attuned to a Billy Bigelow of the John Raitt/Gordon MacRae/Howard Keel-ilk, why has Lyric cast an actor with such a slight voice as Steven Pasquale? Notwithstanding the current Broadway wisdom that amplification has made voice classification obsolete, as in pop music, and tenors are suddenly baritones, shouldn’t an opera company present a carnival barking-Bigelow with some vocal heft, even if tenorial? Pasquale swaggers well, and his theatrical timing is fine and fresh, but Lyric’s audiences cannot see facial expressions, and immediacy of voice equalizes that conundrum. Projecting through an echo chamber, in a production that is already suffering from over-miking, does not serve. Matthew Hydzik’s Enoch Snow is young and handsome, and his voice has more focus and power. His Bigelow might have been of more interest. Read the rest of this entry »

Encore, Encore: Porchlight Revisits the Forgotten Musical

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City of Angels

City of Angels

By Aaron Hunt

Every year, New York City Center hosts the celebrated “Encores!” series, imagined as a way to rediscover and celebrate the Broadway musicals that, for whatever reason, slipped out of the public consciousness. Conceived in 1994, each season hosts a concert version of three forgotten gems of The Great White Way, producing them with the original orchestrations, sometimes as many as thirty musicians strong. World-class performers, household names like Kristin Chenoweth, Anne Hathaway, Patti LuPone and Nathan Lane, carrying scripts and armed with only eight days of rehearsal and one dress rehearsal, deliver the goods to wildly appreciative audiences. For five performances only, the who’s who of Broadway serve up these mysteries.

Not to be outdone, the Second City answered with a counter-series they called “Ovations! Concert Celebrations of Great American Musicals.” Although the initial press release didn’t specify that the concerts would offer “forgotten” musicals, production sources revealed that the offerings would be modeled on the “Encore!” series’ formula, and their opening season of Gershwin’s “Strike Up the Band,” Weill’s “One Touch of Venus,” and Hart’s “Babes in Arms” certainly pointed in that direction. All three of these musicals had been offered in the “Encore!” series prior to their Chicago hearings. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Louis & Keely “Live” at the Sahara/Royal George Theatre

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Louis-and-Keely0411

(l to r) Paul Perroni, Vanessa Claire Stewart and Anthony Crivello

 

RECOMMENDED

Note the quotation marks in the title of director Taylor Hackford’s near-perfect tribute to Louis Prima and Keely Smith, the 1950s act that made Vegas its own. The quotes aren’t decorative—they’re a clue to this melancholy musical’s flashback structure. And on a deeper level, they serve to question the aliveness of showbiz existence, where every night performers sell an illusory self, in return for an illusion of love.

It’s easy to wax mythical about Louis Prima, whose talent and drive in his prime seemed beyond mortal limits. Born in New Orleans in 1910, Prima became a star trumpeter during the big band era. But tastes changed after World War II, and Prima found himself on his uppers, in desperate need of a new sound and image. It was around 1948 that he met Dorothy Keely, a raven-haired, doe-eyed teen of part Cherokee stock whose low-register voice caught his finely tuned ear. Like Pygmalion, Prima gave form to his Galatea’s raw talent, falling for the personality that he himself was sculpting. In the end she outshone him, unbalancing their intense but fragile love. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Chicago Dreams/MCL Chicago

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(l to r) Gary Fields, Thomas Wynne, Michael Silver, John Wesley Hughes, Photo: Heather Scholl

Gary Fields, Thomas Wynne, Michael Silver, John Wesley Hughes/Photo: Heather Scholl

RECOMMENDED

The bygone era of jukebox music still has something that keeps crowds reveling in nostalgia and “Chicago Dreams” at MCL has a skilled comedic cast that, with a little audience participation, pays tribute to those sixties melodies that are reminiscent of mop-tops, suited male quartets and spinning forty-fives.

The show, directed by Michael Shepherd Jordan and musically directed by Stephanie McCullough Vlcek, starts off in Connie’s Pizza on Chicago’s South Side. Three young servers who can carry a tune (the comedic Mark Rudy, the slick and recent jailbird Jean Bonavita and rotating bass singers Gary Fields and Jake Meyer) serenade Connie for her birthday. As they sing, a young patron (John Wesley Hughes) rounds out their harmonies and the servers set their sights on hitting the big time. However, the band’s newest and youngest member’s mom (the soulful vocalist Kristin Hopkins, who also plays a solo diva) is not happy about her son’s voice being used in any way other than to praise Jesus. The smooth-talking Michael Silver (aux characters) tries to convince her otherwise, which in turn leads to a moment where momma’s boy has to make a choice—ditch the band or become a man. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Jesus Christ Superstar/Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre

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Max DeTogne/Photo: Adam Veness

Max DeTogne/Photo: Adam Veness

RECOMMENDED

Since the whole God thing is a joke anyway, it makes all the sense in the world to throw some gnarly guitar riffs at the New Testament and call it a musical. Director Fred Anzevino’s take on Andrew Lloyd Webber’s classic sticks to the script(ure) and contains some standout performances that please the ears and eyes (think: dudes in lingerie). Danni Smith’s portrayal of Mary Magdalene affords the audience a lovely listening opportunity and Tommy Bullington’s Herod is a melange of color and sound so flamboyant you can’t help but wonder if the Bible should be republished with pictures to gain some real traction.

The small theater space is maximized with dance numbers seemingly taking place in the laps of audience members at times, but the production is tight enough to avoid sloppiness. The band, tucked away behind the corner of the stage, deserves props for exhausting themselves shredding through each number and never losing steam. The band’s performance is seriously impressive and reaffirmed my enjoyment of the show each time I remembered to think about them jamming away, which wasn’t often: there’s so much going on that finding moments of consideration requires taking a step back. If it’s your first time seeing “Jesus Christ Superstar” you’ll probably miss a few elements, but your heady knowledge of the Gospel of Matthew should get you through. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Les Misérables/Paramount Theatre 

Musicals, Recommended Shows, Theater Reviews 1 Comment »

Mr. Burns, Theatre Wit

RECOMMENDED

Paramount Theatre certainly knows its way around big Broadway musicals.  From “Cats” to “Miss Saigon” to “Fiddler on the Roof,” their Broadway Series has consistently offered full-throttle, lavishly produced reprises of beloved big-numbered musicals. This production of “Les Misérables” is no exception and includes such flourishes as a massive, revolving corkscrew of a set design that allows its actors to ascend above the action, but more often casts the viewer’s attention to the wretchedness below.  This design is especially effective at highlighting the initial hope then despair of the student-led Paris rebellion.

The cast here is superb, with Robert Wilde demonstrating enough stage presence and vocal talents to encompass the larger than life Jean Valjean. Rod Thomas’ brooding Inspector Javert also works especially in regards to him being able to flesh out the motivation for his relentless pursuit of Valjean.  Read the rest of this entry »

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