Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

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

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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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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 »

Review: The Pirates of Penzance/The Hypocrites

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(l to r) Kate Carson-Groner, Erik Schroeder, Matt Kahler  and Dana Omar/Photo: Evan Hanover

Kate Carson-Groner, Erik Schroeder, Matt Kahler and Dana Omar/Photo: Evan Hanover

RECOMMENDED

I’m not the first to say this, and I certainly won’t be the last: Go to The Hypocrites’ revival of their 2010 staging of “The Pirates of Penzance.” Don’t be put off by their unprepossessing new location. Yes, the unfinished theater still looks like what it was: a furniture-store showroom. Yes, to a first-time customer, casualness and laissez-faire seem to be the order of the day. But don’t be fooled by the atmosphere of whimsy, friendliness, anarchy and chaos that envelops you at the theater entrance. It’s all been carefully calculated to sweep your mind clean of stale preconceptions about Gilbert and Sullivan and Victorian theater.

This production of “Pirates” is as tightly and artistically controlled, as professionally faultless an affair as you will see anywhere. After much consideration, I say this categorically: artistic director Sean Graney, the man who fomented this seeming rout and disorder, is an amazing artist. There is method—and cunning, brilliant, astonishing insight—in his madness. Graney wants to convert you to his utter delight and belief in Gilbert and Sullivan as important thinkers and determined social reformers. He succeeds. Read the rest of this entry »

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

Christmas, Holiday, Musicals, Recommended Shows, Theater, Theater Reviews, World Premiere No Comments »

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 »