Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Review: Newsies/Broadway In Chicago

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It’s easy to go into “Newsies” at the Oriental Theatre with a cocked eyebrow and a cynical smirk. The show, like the nineties movie it’s adapted from, is so utterly sincere in its intentions and its execution that you can’t help but laugh on occasion. When streetwise young toughs are crying for worker’s rights one minute and then turning a triple pirouette the next, it’s objectively pretty funny. However it is that sincerity and guilelessness that carries “Newsies” right into your heart. Pirouettes are awesome. So are topnotch Alan Menken tunes. To pretend like they aren’t is just as silly as most of the stuff that happens in this show.

For people who aren’t in the business of Christian Bale deep cuts, “Newsies” is your basic underdog story. It follows the travails of Jack Kelly (Dan DeLuca), a turn-of-the-century newsboy roustabout who leads the rest of his newsboy cohorts in an organized strike against the rate hikes instituted by Joseph Pulitzer (Steve Blanchard). In adapting the story for the stage, Harvey Fierstein has added in an intrepid reporter/love interest for Kelly, Katherine Plumber (Stephanie Styles). The characters are mostly drawn with broad, obvious strokes. For instance, there is one newsboy, Kelly’s sidekick (Zachary Sayle), who goes about on a crutch. This is far and away his defining attribute. In fact, lest we forget, his name is literally “Crutchie.” Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Christmas Schooner/Mercury Theater

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The Christmas Schooner Cast 2

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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: H.M.S. Pinafore/The Hypocrites

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(top) Erik Schroeder with (front, left to right) Robert McLean, Emily Casey, Christine Stulik, Shawn Pfautsch and Lauren Vogel/Photo: Evan Hanover

Erik Schroeder (top) with Robert McLean, Emily Casey, Christine Stulik, Shawn Pfautsch and Lauren Vogel/Photo: Evan Hanover

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First, he turned “Pirates of Penzance” into a beach-bum sing-along. Next, he took “The Mikado” and made a three-ring circus with all three rings overlapping, like a Venn diagram. And now, Sean Graney has arrived at the inevitable: Gilbert and Sullivan’s “H.M.S. Pinafore.” This time around he has picked a theme that perhaps best encapsulates his madmen-running-the-madhouse promenade style, turning the whole thing into a slumber party. What does a slumber party have to do with a show about the Victorian-era British Navy, you might ask?

From what I can tell, slumber parties have as much to do with the British Navy as the Shogun’s Japan has to do with PT Barnum and high seas profiteering has to do with Jimmy Buffett. That is to say, not a whole heck of a lot. And yet these three shows, currently running in rep at The Den Theatre’s new ground-floor space, all feel exactly right. They aren’t strict adaptations, and “H.M.S. Pinafore” is especially generous with the chopping and the splicing and the devil-may-care-but-we-sure-as-heck-don’t textural additions. They are re-imaginings. Graney has actually gone and broken these operettas down into their component parts and then built them back up again according to his own crazed design. “H.M.S. Pinafore” is a slumber party because Sean Graney’s “H.M.S. Pinafore” feels like a slumber party. So nyeh! Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Dee Snider’s Rock & Roll Christmas Tale/Broadway In Chicago

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Dee 1

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What happens when four guys from failed bands join together, make a deal with the devil and pledge their souls to Satan in order to find fame and fortune? When it takes place in a show entitled “Dee Snider’s Rock & Roll Christmas Tale,” it’s safe to guess that the result will be something a little… twisted, perhaps. Directed by Adam John Hunter, who also staged the national tours of “Sweeney Todd” and “Rock of Ages,” this world premiere is a family-friendly Christmas rockfest.

Hunter steering this production makes sense considering that the content of this show is so reminiscent of the latter (which also features songs by Twisted Sister) that, in fact, one could almost call this a “Rock of Ages” holiday sequel. While both shows feature a narrator, in “Rock & Roll Christmas Tale,” none other than Dee Snider himself takes on the role of spot-lit storyteller. While his name may be in the title, Snider’s monologues can get a bit lengthy, and often feel unnecessary, as the cast does an excellent job of delivering the funny and clever dialogue of the book. However, what ultimately sets the two shows apart is also the thing that ties them together: the music. “Rock of Ages” has more than twenty songs in its performance. Here there are thirteen, most of which are Twisted Sister songs or mash-ups of the hair-metal-band’s rock anthems with well-known Christmas songs. (Twisted Sister released a Christmas album, aptly titled “A Twisted Christmas” in 2006, making the originality of the mash-ups slightly less impressive.) Read the rest of this entry »

Review: A Q Brothers’ Christmas Carol/Chicago Shakespeare Theater

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(l to r) Jackson Doran, JQ Postell Pringle/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Jackson Doran, JQ Postell Pringle/Photo: Michael Brosilow

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Recently a friend asked me what my favorite show of 2014 was. I didn’t have a good answer for him. This has a lot to do with the fact that I see more shows than the average theatergoer (complimentary tickets make it pretty easy) and so my mental rolodex is pretty stuffed. But a part of it is that the sheer number of pretty good to pretty bad to pretty mediocre shows can make it hard to differentiate. I can’t recall the diamonds because my brain is so full of rough. These are shows that, regardless of quality, feel like shows that are being done because, well, because a show “needed” to be done. Everyone performs the duties required of their job description—including the audience members—and the whole thing feels like work. Not “work” as in it seemed especially difficult, but “work” as in it’s something you do not because you want to but because it has to be done.

“A Q Brothers’ Christmas Carol” is not one of these shows. It is, in fact, the polar opposite. It is seventy-five-minutes of pure, unadulterated joy. If I could turn in a review that was just 500 smiley face emoticons, I would. That is both what the show is, and how it made me feel. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Always… Patsy Cline/Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre

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(l to r) Danni Smith, Christina Hall/Photo: Adam Veness

Danni Smith, Christina Hall/Photo: Adam Veness

Patsy Cline was a true country gal. Born and raised in Virginia, she began entertaining at a young age. Some accounts say she started performing for friends and family by the age of three. Her sultry voice, spiced with hints of Southern twang, are unmistakable staples of some of her biggest hits, such as “Walkin’ After Midnight.” It is her genuine southern charm and her bona fide essence that “Always… Patsy Cline,” directed by Fred Anzevino, at Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre aims to capture.

The show features more than twenty of Cline’s recordings, including “I Fall to Pieces,” the 1961 single that landed her on the top of Billboard’s Country chart. Cline’s biographical story is told through the eyes of Louise Seger (Danni Smith), a fan who befriended Cline at a show in Houston. Seger and Cline (played by Christina Hall) remained friends until Cline’s tragic death in 1963.

The best moments of the show happen when Smith and Hall interact. They seem to get along like old friends and play precisely to the type of relationship Cline and Seger apparently shared. Individually, Hall’s voice is strong, but doesn’t quite capture Cline’s down-home country contralto. However, she does certainly look like Cline and does the songs justice by embracing their emotionally charged lyrics. Smith on the other hand, who mostly narrates between numbers, definitely embraces the Southern atmosphere brought to life on set designer Adam Veness’ wooden, Opry-esque stage. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Dr. Seuss’ How The Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical/MSG Entertainment

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Shuler Hensley and Presley Ryan/Photo: BlueMoon Studios

Shuler Hensley and Presley Ryan/Photo: BlueMoon Studios

RECOMMENDED

As a first time Broadway-esque experience, this year’s iteration of “Dr. Seuss’ How The Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical” performs its duties with enough pleasing flair and upright enthusiasm to charm its young audience into a return trip to the box office. For the nostalgic chaperones in tow, however, the show might disappoint.

The primary thrills are here: a perfectly frumpy, frothy Grinch with his fur extending six inches beyond his fingertips, the bump and wriggle of the candy-colored Whos and a set with silly psychedelia bending before the eyes. Timothy Mason’s book and lyrics and Mel Marvin’s music are suitably woven with Seuss’ intention, if not his joviality, but this is of minor concern. The kids came for the Grinch, after all.

And what a Grinch they get: Tony Award-winner Shuler Hensley (“Oklahoma!”) is delightfully devious, with a sufficient growl to spook the youngest audience members and enough broad pluck to rope in parents. Aleksa Kurbalija, as a highly animated young Max the Dog, is a standout, full of physical wit and charm. Ken Land ties it together admirably as Old Max, in his tattered fur suit, reminiscing about the Christmas that changed Whoville. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Guide to Being Single/Underscore Theatre Company

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Sarah Danielle Hoch and Jomar Ferreras

Sarah Danielle Hoch and Jomar Ferreras

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Wouldn’t it be great if there were a book that provided all the dos and don’ts to loving the single life? Wouldn’t it be nice to have a book about dating that everyone could read so there would be no harm to anyone’s emotions because everyone knows the rules and plays by them? Wouldn’t that be fantastic? Maybe. Unless, those darn things called “feelings” got in the way. “The Guide to Being Single,” a new musical by Kaitlin Gilgenbach (book) and Alexi Kovin (music and lyrics), aims to ask and answer those exact questions.

The show is set in Wrigleyville, one of Chicago’s most bar-lined neighborhoods. Six friends Jackie (Sarah Danielle Hoch), Heather (Miki Byrne), Zack (Jonas Davidow), Derek (Jomar Ferreras), Liza (Kelsey Burd) and Stacy (Juanita Andersen) have all discovered a new book promising that, by following the simple rules given, singles can enjoy “screwing without getting screwed.” Rounding out the cast is Chad Michael Innis who plays a bartender, cab driver and bar goer, among other roles. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Camelot/Drury Lane Theatre

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Jonathan Weir and Ken Clark/Photo: Brett Beiner

Jonathan Weir and Ken Clark/Photo: Brett Beiner

If you are a fan of the golden-age of musicals, if you haven’t been able to give up your LP of the original cast recording of “Camelot,” with Julie Andrews’ soaring soprano seeming to possess no register changes and making every word clear as a bell while spinning silvery phrases, Robert Goulet’s burnished baritone ripping your heart out as the knight who couldn’t leave, and Richard Burton, speak-singing his way through the pivotal role with a purr, saving his full-throated magnificence for hurt and fear, and if you are willing to accept the challenges of over-long choral numbers telling stories of events happening off stage, and an awareness that some beloved music had to be cut after the show opened for the audience’s (and the player’s) bladders not to burst in exchange for simple joys, then director Alan Souza’s production at the Drury Lane Theatre will make you weep in the wrong way, and you should stay home, put on that old LP, and let Julie save you. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Titanic/Griffin Theatre Company

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Titanic-1

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Someone at the money-making end of the performance rights for the Maury Yeston/Peter Stone musical “Titanic” has come up with more room in their pockets than seemed appropriate, and arranged for a “new, intimate” re-working of the musical’s epic tale of oceanic disaster to make it possible for companies who can’t budget for entire herds of actors, a full orchestra and an onstage ocean liner that can disappear and then return for the finale to afford to mount the piece, and give an acceptable rendering of its story-and-song so “Titanic” needn’t go the way of the almost un-producible “Sunset Boulevard.”

Griffin’s production does much with little. There is no pretense of a boat. They make do with a high platform, two moveable sets of stairs, and a ship’s steering wheel. The lack of spectacle allows the audience to focus on the collapse of the class system when the overzealous and the under-focused leadership of the vessel allow it to crash into an iceberg. And the music, of course. Yeston can spin a lush melody with his particular branding; on the hearing of two phrases, three at the most, one can usually name a song as Yeston’s. Yet each soaring moment is uniquely tied to a character and a situation. Read the rest of this entry »