Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Review: The Book of Merman/Pride Films and Plays

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(l-r) Sam Button-Harrison, Dan Gold, Libby Lane/Photo: Pride Films & Plays

Sam Button-Harrison, Dan Gold, Libby Lane

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After a successful run at Mary’s Attic, Pride Films and Plays has relocated “The Book of Merman” to the Apollo Theater Studio. The extremely intimate space is terrific for a show that has only three performers. However, for a show that is based upon a woman whose primary vocal quality was “Loud,” as pointed out in a number of pre-show videos of Ethel Merman’s television performances, the space may seem a bit cramped.

While Libby Lane’s portrayal of theater’s great belter may be missing a bit on the volume side of things, she captures the sound and attitude of the musical legend. I’m guessing that David Zak directs Lane to approach the part by sacrificing some decibels as a favor to the audience, and in order to present a more melodious sound. The melodies themselves are easily recognized as poor-man’s versions of songs from “Gypsy” and “Annie Get Your Gun.” The production can’t actually use the original tunes, but these altered versions are amusingly familiar. Because the show is poking fun at “The Book of Mormon,” the first words in the production are naturally “Hello! Hello!” And from that point on, the lyrics tend toward the clever, providing constant laughs throughout. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Next Thing You Know/Refuge Theatre Project

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(l to r) Jameson Wentworth, Morgan Glynn Briggs/Photo: Jennifer Macias

Jameson Wentworth, Morgan Glynn Briggs/Photo: Jennifer Macias

The four characters that make up the entire cast of Ryan Cunningham’s and Joshua Salzman’s “Next Thing You Know” are all coming to the end of their days as twenty-something New Yorkers. And, as one song states, they are all “Hungover” from the extended adolescence that the twenties have become for the Millennial generation. Through Cunningham’s book and lyrics we learn that some of them want to start living like grownups, while the others want to reclaim the years they have wasted. Would that I could reclaim the eighty-five minutes that I spent viewing this show!

Not only do all the songs in this new musical sound generally the same, but Salzman’s melodies consistently hover outside the top range of the men in the show. Frustratingly, the orchestration is actually quite enjoyable, and the four-part instrumentation of violin, guitar, cello and piano under the musical direction of Michael Evans is a highlight of this production. The show’s overture is the musical high point, and raises expectations. Sadly, the ride is downhill from there. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Sondheim on Sondheim/Porchlight Music Theatre

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(l to r) James Earl Jones II and Stephen Rader/Photo: Brandon Dahlquist

James Earl Jones II and Stephen Rader/Photo: Brandon Dahlquist

RECOMMENDED

It is hard to imagine a theatrical world devoid of Sondheim’s immense talent. Over the past fifty years he has earned eight Tony awards, in large part due to elevating the expectations of what a musical can accomplish. Sondheim is a composer/lyricist who has always thought big. It is fitting then that James Lapine’s 2010 “Sondheim on Sondheim” (which had a limited run on Broadway) strives to be more than just a big number music revue. Through the careful placement of video interviews set amongst forty musical numbers (which include alternate endings and outtakes from some of his lesser-known shows) the production sets out not only to entertain but to allow the audience a window into Sondheim’s creative process as well as the backstory of his life.

Given their experience staging classic musicals in an intimate setting, Porchlight Music Theatre is the perfect vehicle for bringing this production to Chicago. Director Nick Bowling and choreographer Emily Ariel Rogers do a superb job of patching together all the fragmented numbers into one cohesive theme. The musical numbers are arresting when they should be, but more often complement the oversized projection of Sondheim telling bits of his story (done beautifully above the stage so that he is often overlooking the production). A perfect example of this is Sondheim interrupting Sweeney Todd’s “Epiphany” (sung masterfully by James Earl Jones II) to explain both the barber’s motivation as well as the menace he is poised to hurl at the audience. A Sondheim lecture deserves a careful listen. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: First Date/Royal George Theatre

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Dana Parker and Charlie Lubeck/Photo: Cole Simon

Dana Parker and Charlie Lubeck/Photo: Cole Simon

At first blush, the new musical “First Date,” now showing at the Royal George Theatre, presents the guise of a solid contemporary musical. But once the first impressions wear off, you’re confronted by the realities of the show. The piece suffers the same fate as many a true first date: the flaws become evident to the point of distraction.

At its core the play is about a blind date between the awkwardly nervous Aaron (Charlie Lubeck) and the somewhat self-destructive and sassy Casey (played perfectly by Dana Parker). The two poke around the awkwardness that is a first date between total strangers for the better part of an hour. The remainder of the show is made up of little interrupting vignettes that might be seen as the inner thoughts of these two main characters.

Despite Parker’s stellar turn in her role and Lubeck’s admirable job in his, the characters’ relationship isn’t written well enough for us to care about whether or not they end up together, which should be the crux of this play. And so, the two leads are often overshadowed by the other characters on the stage. Adam Fane’s appearance as Casey’s sassy gay BFF, Reggie, is by far the most memorable part of the evening. His quirky performance and the fact that he owns the only song here that risks getting stuck in your head, allows him to essentially steal the show.   Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Addams Family/Mercury Theater

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(l-r) Brennan Dougherty, Amanda Hartley, Jeff Diebold, Karl Hamilton, Harter Clingman, Rebecca Prescott, Dara Cameron/Photo: Michael Brosilow.

Brennan Dougherty, Amanda Hartley, Jeff Diebold, Karl Hamilton, Harter Clingman, Rebecca Prescott, Dara Cameron/Photo: Brett Beiner.

RECOMMENDED

When a play bombs on Broadway after beginning its life in Chicago, one might not expect a terribly triumphant return to the Windy City for that show. However, the version of “The Addams Family” that is currently being produced at Mercury Theater Chicago has a drastically overhauled script and is, essentially, a new play. And that new script is an absolute delight.

With director L. Walter Stearns at the helm, this cast brilliantly brings to life the characters of Charles Addams’ cartoons with Karl Hamilton’s turn as Gomez carrying the show. He is not the kooky Gomez that John Astin once played on TV, nor the more dramatic Gomez of Raul Julia’s cinematic portrayals. He is, however, eccentric and appropriately dark. His timing is perfect and he seems to revel in his own odd behavior in a way that is empowering to both the rest of the cast and the audience as well. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: West Side Story/Drury Lane Theatre

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(l to r) Adrian Aguilar, Rhett Guter, Deanna Ott, Cameron Edris, John Marshall Jr. and Roger Mueller

Adrian Aguilar, Rhett Guter, Deanna Ott, Cameron Edris, John Marshall Jr. and Roger Mueller

RECOMMENDED

Those who know have concluded that Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story” occupies the summit of American musical theater. I was curious to see what the reputable suburban Drury Lane Theatre would do with this passionate virtuoso masterpiece. The answer: much more than I expected. Rhett Guter’s first-class choreography, a stunningly atmospheric set by Scott Davis and more than adequate singing, all under the able direction of Rachel Rockwell, made my evening more enjoyable than I had dared to hope for.

The crackerjack Drury Lane dance corps tosses off impossible song-and-dance sequences as if these feats were nothing special physically or artistically. For the first time in my life, I realized that unless you have thirty dancers who have the explosive strength of an Olympic sprinter, the instant breath recovery of a four-minute miler, and the acrobatic fluidity of a company of Chinese acrobats, plus the grace and artistry of top-tier ballet soloists, you haven’t a prayer of staging “West Side Story.” You simply can’t do it unless every one of your dancers meets these minimum requirements.

And these thirty Drury Lane cast members were very decent actors—and able singers. They nailed hair-trigger vocal entries while dancing and acting. They had ears for the outré jazz harmonies and the perfect intonation Bernstein demands from every character. Read the rest of this entry »

How Do You Solve a Problem like “Allegro?” Revisiting Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Flop

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(left to right) composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II. Photo courtesy of The Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization.

Composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II/Photo: The Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization

By Aaron Hunt

Rodgers & Hammerstein’s third stage production, fall of 1947’s “Allegro,” opened to mixed reviews, creating controversy rather than covenant. After a scrape between the director and the actor’s union and the proposed dismissal of members of the orchestra and chorus to recoup costs became public, the show just couldn’t catch a break, and was shuttered by the summer.

Generally accepted wisdom says that the second outing measures the success of an artist or creative team, be it book, album or musical. At the same time, it seems to be human nature to lie in wait for a defeat, to display the morbid curiosity that causes freeway gapers blocks. The team of Richard Rodgers (composer) and Oscar Hammerstein II (lyricist) ushered in “The Golden Age of Musicals” in the mid-1940s with the ground-breaking “Oklahoma!” which emphasized story, and used songs to continue the story’s arc, rather than riding on the back of an established Broadway star such as Ethel Merman. In addition, Agnes de Mille’s ballet sequence focused on furthering the storyline and fleshing out characterizations, rather than making pretty, cheesecake pictures; “Oklahoma!’ ran for an astronomical 2,212 performances. The duo followed this success with “Carousel.” As was the case for “Oklahoma!” the book of the musical was based on a successful play, with de Mille again supplying balletic storytelling. It ran for 890 performances, despite its dark theme and the unprecedented use of an anti-hero in a musical. It would seem that this second rousing success would have cemented an affection for Rodgers & Hammerstein, and that financially heathy, artfully progressive output would continue in perpetuity. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Plastic Revolution/The New Colony

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(front, l tor) Cassie Thompson and Sasha Smith with (back, l to r) Elise Mayfield, Lizzie Schwarzrock, Daeshawna Cook and Danny Taylor/Photo: Ryan Bourque.

Cassie Thompson and Sasha Smith with (back, l to r) Elise Mayfield, Lizzie Schwarzrock, Daeshawna Cook and Danny Taylor/Photo: Ryan Bourque.

Had “Plastic Revolution” consisted only of its first act, I would have thought it to be an unpolished musical of the ilk that often graces stages of Fringe Festivals around the country. As a full-length musical on a stage that The New Colony now inhabits as a resident company, the piece is a disappointingly rough around the edges work in need of a good workshopping.

The premise of the musical is fun enough: a newly made widow and her newly met neighbor (Sasha Smith and Cassie Thompson, respectively) launch the first-ever Tupperware party, thereby changing the lives of women and of the Tupperware corporation forever. But the performances of the cast vary in quality, as does the score. Solid performances by Smith and Thompson, and a stellar turn by Danny Taylor in drag as the neighborhood’s domineering leading housewife, sadly cannot overcome the muddy harmonies and busy orchestrations. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: I Don’t Remember You: Broadway’s Cult Classics, Vol. II/Davenport’s

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RECOMMENDED

Self-schooled Broadway scribe, gifted theatrical gossip and Jeff Award-nominee Christopher Pazdernik offers up his second dose of Cult Classics—medicine, certain to heal the grey-blues of a Chicago winter. Armed with the charm and pipes of some of Chicago’s heavy-hitting singer/actors (Missy Aguilar, Elizabeth Lanza, Nate Lewellyn and Travis Taylor) and assisted by music director/pianist Michael Kaish, Pazdernik takes his audience on a screaming, crying rollercoaster ride through some of the best and/or funniest “lost” Broadway shows, beginning with Jule Styne’s unfortunate artistic misfires of the 1960s right up to 2014’s “The Bridges of Madison County,” which opened last February and was wrongfully shuttered by May. Supplying backstage stories that make the audience shake with laughter, Pazdernik shapes the show within an historical frame of reference. Here is an evening that will thrill even those unbaptized in Broadway. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Penny the F*ckable Dolphin: A Love Story/The Annoyance Theatre

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(l to r) John O'Toole, Mark Denny, Katie Kershaw, Andy Junk, Susan Glynn, Amber Gerencher, Ryan Asher, Phil Meister/Photo: Shannon Jenkins ( Flaming City Photography)

John O’Toole, Mark Denny, Katie Kershaw, Andy Junk, Susan Glynn, Amber Gerencher, Ryan Asher, Phil Meister/Photo: Shannon Jenkins

A new musical can often have some rough spots when it first sees the light of day.  “Penny the F*ckable Dolphin: A Love Story” certainly has its share of them.  This play by Kristina Felske asks us to embrace the thought that eighteen-year-old virgin Zack (played by Andy Junk) falls in love with a communicative dolphin (played by Ryan Asher) at the water park where he finds employment prior to heading to college in the fall.

Under the direction of Megan Johns, this silly play about bestiality and incest devolves into an insipid bit of fluff. The script is not a highly evolved piece of writing to begin with, but one should not expect that from an Annoyance musical in the first place.  While not an improvisational show, the production qualities and acting feel of that same fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants level.

The songs put together by Tim Joyce lack memorable melodies. The third to last song in the show—presumably titled “You Can’t Go Outside of Your Species”—represents the first time that we risk going home with a tune stuck in our heads. Otherwise the score and lyrics barely rise to the level of forgettable. Read the rest of this entry »

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