Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Review: The Mighty Ted/MCL Theater

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The Mighty Ted 1-2

RECOMMENDED

It’s been said that life can be more hilarious than fiction. So, what happens when someone has a stroke, their spouse loses their job, and both husband and wife are faced with enormous life changes that would generally cause despair? How about write a musical comedy? That’s exactly what happens in “The Mighty Ted,” a fantastic new musical at MCL Chicago.

“The Mighty Ted” traces the real life story of Ted Waltmire, who also plays the lead in the show. Ted is, as one of the numbers clearly states, “an average guy.” Aside from having a deep love of music, especially Stephen Sondheim musicals, he generally wakes up in the morning, goes to work, comes home, spends time with his wife, Michelle (portrayed by Cheryl Szucsits), goes to sleep and repeats the same routine pretty regularly day in and day out. That is, until he has a stroke. After that, his life is turned upside down. Ted has to relearn everything from walking and talking to getting dressed, with limited mobility on one side of his body.  Meanwhile, Michelle not only has to adjust to Ted’s healing process, but she also struggles to find employment after losing her job. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: At Last: A Tribute to Etta James/Black Ensemble Theater

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The five Etta James with Rueben D. Echoles and Ms. Real

RECOMMENDED

“Etta James. Etta James. I love me some Etta James!” The fabulous Ms. Real (played by the equally fabulous Rueben D. Echoles) proclaims that message more than once throughout Jackie Taylor’s “At Last: A Tribute to Etta James” at Black Ensemble Theater.

Ms. Real is the narrator of this story. She keeps all five Ettas (from a young Etta to an Etta near the end of her life) on pace and honest with themselves. Echoles delivers a Ms. Real that is aptly titled—and costume changes (designed by Ruthanne Swanson) that, like Etta, just get better and better over time.

It seems fitting that James is played by a cast of five women. After all, the script duly notes that she was “five or six people most of the time.” Her talent surely had that kind of feel. She started singing in her church choir at age five and as a teenager she was already recording singles, like the number one US R&B hit, “The Wallflower (Dance with Me, Henry).” Over the course of her rollercoaster career—while fighting battles with weight, drug addiction and searching for love from others as well as herself in her personal life—James released more than fifty singles (many of which made Billboard’s Hot 100 list and/or Billboard’s R&B Hot 100 list) and received Grammy Awards for Best Contemporary Blues Album, Best Traditional Blues Album, Best Jazz Vocal Performance and a Lifetime Achievement. She was also inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Blues Hall of Fame.   Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Wild Party/Bailiwick Chicago

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Photo: Michael Brosilow

Photo: Michael Brosilow

RECOMMENDED

At the end of a party I usually feel exhausted. All my energy has been spent. Walking out of Bailiwick Chicago’s “The Wild Party” I felt much the same way. Dulled and listless, like all I wanted to do was pitch over into my bed and pass out. But of course there are two different kinds of exhausted. There’s the good kind, where every last ounce of vigor and joy and joie de vivre has been rung out of me, and I can go to sleep knowing I’ve lived a night well-lived. Then there’s the not-so-good kind, where it feels like I’ve just survived the zombie apocalypse—if the zombies were really interested in drunkenly yammering  about what they did when they went WOOFing after graduation—and I’ve just decided to lay down in a field somewhere and die already. “The Wild Party” left me feeling much like the former —satisfied and spent—even if most of what happened in it bore far more resemblance to the latter. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Evil Dead The Musical/Broadway In Chicago

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Evil Dead Tour 2014 0277
RECOMMENDED

The main issue one encounters when judging a musical based on the “Evil Dead” series of movies is how to pull it off without Bruce Campbell. The beloved B-movie actor anchors the entire series as Ashley J. “Ash” Williams with a unique blend of rugged machismo and Tex Avery madness. It’s not that no one else can wield a shotgun and growl “groovy” during the apocalypse, it’s that no one else is Bruce Campbell. The solution that “Evil Dead The Musical” finds is brilliant in this regard. Instead of trying to find Theater School Bruce Campbell, make the rest of the production as over-the-top as Ash is. In this regard, “Evil Dead” is mostly successful and incredibly fun.

The first act covers the drive into the woods, where the character archetypes (Hero/Hero’s Girlfriend/Dead Meat Friend/Slutty Girl/Fifth Wheel Sister) break into a vacation cabin, find the plot-driving Necronomicon Ex Mortis, raise a whole bunch of evil spirits, get possessed by those spirits, and set their sights on surviving the night.

The early going is enthusiastic but a little broader than it needs to be (so much motorboating!) until Andrew Di Rosa’s farmer-tanned redneck Jake steals the act and nearly the show with “Good Old Reliable Jake.” It’s a hysterical bit of meta-commentary that also addresses the character-building criticisms most often directed at B-horror movies. It doesn’t hurt that Di Rosa sells the hell out of it. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: A Kurt Weill Cabaret/Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre

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KURT-WEILL-9-2

RECOMMENDED

Kurt Weill’s career, like this show, had two very distinct acts: the first superb, the second not so much.

Act I was set in Weimar Germany in the late 1920s, where the conservatory-trained composer achieved immortality by crafting jaggedly dissonant music that perfectly complemented the haunting, sharp-edged lyrics of Bertolt Brecht in such works as “The Threepenny Opera,” “Happy End” and “The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny.”

Afterward came his American period. Fleeing Hitler with his wife, the actress/singer Lotte Lenya, Weill shed his past altogether, re-emerging as a successful but conventional tunesmith for a mostly forgotten series of Broadway musicals. He died of a heart attack in 1950, soon after his fiftieth birthday.

The disrupted, divided nature of the artistic career gives Theo Ubique’s “A Kurt Weill Cabaret” a schizoid quality. Under the direction of theater co-founder Fred Anzevino, the revue’s first hour pulses with energy, intelligence and inspiration. Performed by a dynamic quintet of singer/dancers (Kellie Cundiff, Christopher Logan, Jordan Phelps, Michael Reyes and Jill Sesso) and accompanied in bravura fashion by musical director Jeremy Ramey, the Brecht segment is more proof, if more were needed, that the seventeen-year-old Theo Ubique is a star in Chicago’s storefront theater firmament. All aspects of the production’s first half—from the strong, unmiked voices to Bill Morey’s grungily authentic period costumes and Maya Michele Fein’s multihued expressionist lighting effects—come together with artful precision, creating a mood of hedonism spiced with Teutonic angst. It is cabaret as it should be: a pared-down, direct presentation, which never panders to the audience, but rather connects with and challenges it. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: On the Town/Marriott Theatre

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On the Town Slide 2
RECOMMENDED

Given that “West Side Story” is often considered the greatest musical ever written, odd that its predecessor “On the Town,” the first show to unite choreographer Jerome Robbins and composer Leonard Bernstein, is done so infrequently.

Part of the reason is that the seamless line between music and drama achieved in “West Side Story” was still a long way off in “On the Town,” which began life as the ballet “Fancy Free.” That pedigree is never far from the surface of the show, as dance tends to intrude on the narrative, such as it is, and often for its own sake.

Bernstein’s score is meticulously well-crafted, but Bernstein was still in search of his own style, the music often coming off as Gershwin meets Shostakovich. When MGM made the movie version, they gutted most of Bernstein’s score as being too “operatic” in favor of new tunes by MGM house tunesmiths. Given the popular success of that film, a Frank Sinatra-Gene Kelly pairing, people are often expecting the movie tunes in the stage production. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Methtacular!/About Face Theatre

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Steven Strafford/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Steven Strafford/Photo: Michael Brosilow

RECOMMENDED

In case you were wondering, yes, you read the title of this show correctly. It’s called “Methtacular!”And I must say that the title is a very apt one, as Steven Strafford’s one-man autobiographical show is equal parts “meth” and “tacular!” Produced by About Face Theatre, the show follows Strafford’s experiences in the early oughts as a struggling actor in Chicago, or more accurately, as a flourishing crystal meth addict who struggled to fit in acting gigs around it. While it doesn’t reinvent either the one-man-show or the harrowing-personal-account-of-addiction wheel, the show hits home anyway. Simply put, it is funny and it is sad and it is an incredibly enjoyable ninety minutes spent in the company of a man who has a story to tell and the chops to tell it. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Clemente: The Legend of 21/NightBlue Performing Arts Company

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Modesto Lacen/Photo: Drew Peterson

Modesto Lacen/Photo: Drew Peterson

The creation and delivery of a historical play presents very specific challenges. The story of the life of any individual, no matter how private and quiet it might seem to others, is a fulsome thing, and the telling of it requires heart-stopping decision-making. The central plot line must drive the narrative, with all the supporting information, no matter how juicy, supplying its named purpose. Add to this trial the fact that the examined life is that of an international celebrity, stir in several songs and call it a musical, and you are up to bat, bottom of the ninth, bases loaded, with the opposing team leading by a single point.

Writer and director Luis Caballero strikes out with his attempt to tell the story of Roberto Clemente, the acclaimed Puerto Rican baseball player. His poverty-stricken beginnings, his eighteen seasons with the Pittsburgh Pirates, his numerous awards and his celebrated charity work that led to his death in a plane crash are the stuff that could fill a theatrical offering with drama and music. But what is the central story? The rampant racism that he encountered within the sport? His marriage to a girl of a different faith? The physical ailments that he overcame to become the first Latino player to win a World Series as a starter? His giving back to his Puerto Rican roots during the off-season, creating opportunities for that country’s children? His sensational death that awarded him martyrdom? “Clemente: The Legend of 21,” heroically attempts to highlight each of these story arcs with equal examination, with the unfortunate result that plot lines appear, and then suddenly disappear, while another, previously unexplored and unexpected element leaps to center stage. Each story line receives its own climax, which I found to be battering. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Coraline/Black Button Eyes Productions

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Behind: Jeff Bouthiette; Foreground (Left to Right) Jennifer T. Grubb, Justin Kimrey, Caitlin Jackson and Kevin Bishop/Photo: Cole Simon

Background: Jeff Bouthiette; Foreground: Jennifer T. Grubb, Justin Kimrey, Caitlin Jackson and Kevin Bishop/Photo: Cole Simon

RECOMMENDED

I arrived at City Lit Theater’s space to see Black Button Eyes Productions’ “Coraline” a complete Neil Gaiman virgin. I’d heard that the novelist’s 2002 horror/fantasy novella was a more overtly twisted “Alice in Wonderland” literary romp, and never gave it a second thought. That is, until director Henry Selick’s 2009 stop-motion film adaption of “Coraline” was nominated for an Academy Award. Then I was nearly annoyed that what I had deemed to be a grotesque morsel of British-against-British thievery was continuing to occupy a place in popular culture.

But composer Stephin Merritt and playwright David Greenspan’s musical rendering of Gaiman’s story has drawn me in, put me in my place. If Merritt’s notion of instrumental scoring for his music for “Coraline” (the young adventuress accompanied by toy pianos, the “real-world” grownups supported by a typical upright, and the “others” from behind the soon-to-be unlocked door singing over a baby grand with various found objects shoved between the piano strings) sounds like a 1970s music education thesis on new ploys for introducing young people to the orchestra, I found the actuality of it charming, and music director Nick Sula’s preparation and presentation, as always, terrific. And if the plot-line loses just a tiny bit of zip two-thirds of the way through, when the sung bits that come and go so quickly as to hardly qualify as proper songs nearly vanish, “Coraline” recovers quickly, and then drives to the finish. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Hank Williams: Lost Highway/American Blues Theater

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(l to r) Greg Hirte, Austin Cook, Matthew Brumlow, Michael Mahler/Photo: Johnny Knight

Greg Hirte, Austin Cook, Matthew Brumlow, Michael Mahler/Photo: Johnny Knight

RECOMMENDED

It’s Audrey (played by the willowy Cora Vander Broek), Hank Williams’ put-upon first wife, who best sums up her husband’s fatal contradictions: “You wear a $500 custom suit—and I bet you haven’t changed your underwear in a week.”

American Blues Theater’s “Hank Williams: Lost Highway” is a warts-and-all musical portrait of the man who in the late 1940s essentially invented modern country and western, serving as the genre’s first superstar, legend and martyr. Directed by Damon Kiely, the play has the very American ambivalence of all such stories, simultaneously celebrating the art while lamenting the self-destructiveness of the artist, and underscoring the vital link between the two. Read the rest of this entry »