Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Review: The King & I/Marriott Theatre

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Heidi Kettenring

Heidi Kettenring

RECOMMENDED

There are those who may grouse at the remounting of the Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals that paved the way for J.R. Brown, Guettel and Sondhiem. But “South Pacific” won’t go away, no matter the amount of hair-washing. There will continue to be corn-filled, beautiful mornings, and a tinkley tune set in 3/4 time, slowly swelling in orchestration and tempo until we remember our first carousel ride is not disappearing any time soon.

And just why might that be, you Grumpy Gusses, longing for louder percussion and more overt hurt? Is it the melding of perhaps overly romantic lyric to hummable melody? I won’t pretend that has nothing to do with the equation; we do like to leave the theater humming, Jason, and be able to recite at least a phrase or two of the lyrics, Stephen. But let’s look for just a moment at the themes of the pieces these two giants wove, subtly, into their effervescent canon, in light of the times in which they lived. They chose material that, in lesser hands, might have been considered too subversive to survive at the box office. Read the rest of this entry »

I Wanna Rock ‘N’ Roll All Christmas: Dee Snider’s Spirited Musical Tale

Christmas, Holiday, Musicals, Profiles, Theater, World Premiere No Comments »

Dee Snider

by Raymond Rehayem

Some folks wanna rock. Some folks wanna white Christmas. Dee Snider wants to spread rocking yuletide cheer.

“Dee Snider’s Rock & Roll Christmas Tale” debuts this season here in Chicago, where we rock year ‘round and where last winter resembled Santa’s polar headquarters. Best known as the singer and leader of the eighties heavy-metal hit-makers Twisted Sister, Snider has built a diverse resumé, spanning music, radio, television, film and now, stage. Speaking to the amiable Snider, it’s clear he brings a great enthusiasm to all these disciplines, while never taking for granted his success in any field.

“When I went to write my autobiography, they didn’t want me to write it. They were like, ‘Just because you can sing doesn’t mean you can write.’ I said let me do a few chapters, and they loved it, so they let me write my own book. I’m blessed to have all those talents.” Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Parade/BoHo Theatre

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Nathan Carroll as Craig

Nathan Carroll/Photo: Allison King

RECOMMENDED

Director Linda Fortunato and the cast of BoHo Theatre’s production of “Parade” know that the game is to tell a story. The trial of Leo Frank, an inveterate miscarriage of justice that caused a Jewish man living in Georgia to be tried, convicted and executed for the murder of a thirteen-year-old girl, the entire ghastly situation coated in lies and bribes and greed and the ready depersonalization of anyone considered as “other,” is a story indeed, a historical horror that should shake us into the realization that we watch this same sin committed again and again, while so few move a finger in protest. This cast-congregation preach the story like the revival meeting it is. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Sweeney Todd/Porchlight Music Theatre

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(l to r) Rebecca Finnegan and David Girolmo/Photo: Brandon Dahlquist

Stephen Sondheim’s long, lauded, and continuing career in the lyric theater has given opportunity for discovery as to his compositional demons, and the fire he uses to bully them into delivering meticulously melded words, married to inseparable pitch and rhythm. The combination of his music and lyrics fall on the ear as surprisingly as a secret newly whispered, and then sear immediately into memory, poetry that is exactly right; leave out one word or one pitch, and everything is lessened. The necessities for success, from start to finish, sit profoundly on the page. We have no reason to disbelieve his sharing in interview and print of the haunted, solitary process that drives him to agonize over every shred of text and melody.

In Porchlight Music Theatre’s mounting of Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd,” there is much honor paid to the immaculate compositional construction that continues to make the piece a favorite. Musical director Doug Peck’s chorus blasts and floats the intricate harmonies and transgressive changes of meter flawlessly, racing about the stage delivering full-voiced Greek-chorus commentary while hauling furniture, adjusting flats, spinning the staircases of Jeffrey D. Kmiec’s sets, and turned out in Bill Morey’s period-perfect costumes.

But an accent coach is sorely needed to provide accents that ground us to place and time-period. Read the rest of this entry »

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 »