Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Review: The Marvelous Marvelettes/Black Ensemble Theater

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When Mary Wilson of the Supremes came through town late last fall, she recalled that the Supremes had no less than seven flops before catching on while another Detroit all-female group, the Marvelettes, had five consecutive hits, including Motown’s first-ever No. 1 hit.

This is history seemingly long-forgotten nearly fifty years later, that there was a time when Motown Records’ founder and president Berry Gordy was actually attempting to model the Supremes on the success of the Marvelettes. So much so, in fact, that he brought the Supremes to the same songwriting team that had written hits for the Marvelettes before the Supremes began charting.

While the Marvelettes have been largely relegated to an early footnote and a chorus of that first hit, “Please Mr. Postman” in Gordy’s own vacuous and self-serving “Motown the Musical,” leave it to Black Ensemble Theater to out-Motown Gordy himself by offering a three-dimensional portrait of Gordy and the inner workings of Motown in its world-premiere production “The Marvelous Marvelettes” by Reginald Williams and directed by Rueben D. Echoles.   Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Brigadoon/Goodman Theatre

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Kevin Earley/Photo: Liza Lauren

Kevin Earley/Photo: Liza Lauren

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A few days ago, a friend and I were joking about the plot of Lerner and Loewe’s “Brigadoon” when he quipped, “What a silly story,” then, quickly realizing what he was saying in the same thought, he added “unlike most musicals.” Exactly. The tale of a mystical town in the Scottish Highlands that only appears for one day every hundred years is hardly an outlier in a world of singing and dancing cats or workingmen who build big ships not for money but for metaphor. But it is quaint, with its midcentury notions of utopianism grounded in a rustic, rural time capsule. And it is strange, its peculiarities foregrounded in director Rachel Rockwell’s stunning Goodman debut. But its strangeness holds its charm for me, with the town of “Brigadoon” as a stand-in for a particular vision of heaven, and the incursion of us Americans resembling the Fall From Grace in the Garden of Eden. (Other things I found swirling around in my brain in some of the slower parts, which this imperfect work has,  included the even-sillier “Gilligan’s Island,” with its comic—as opposed to tragic here—explorations of the challenges of mating in a small-sample population without mobility, and the musical “Riverdance,” which I admittedly only know through the incessant television commercials that once ran. Rockwell’s lords of the dance, though, are Scottish, not Irish, with tartan kilts, bagpipes and Highland dancing, which she blends deftly with ballet, leading to some mesmerizing choreography, most notably in the festive “I’ll Go Home with Bonnie Jean.”) Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee/Drury Lane Theatre

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(L to R) Frances Limoncelli, Landree Fleming, Eli Branson, Carolyn Braver, Zack Colonna, Joe Dempsey/Photo: Brett Beiner

Frances Limoncelli, Landree Fleming, Eli Branson, Carolyn Braver, Zack Colonna, Joe Dempsey/Photo: Brett Beiner

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There’s a certain magic to academic competitions. Debate teams and Academic Decathlon members understand the focus and determination it takes to stand in front of judges and face what can be one of an adolescent’s biggest fears: losing. Unlike the comfort one can experience in these team activities, there is a competition where the pressure is all on a sole individual and he or she alone determines the outcome of the competition, where remembering that “I” comes before “E” except after “C” (in most cases) can be the difference between winning a juice box or going home with a trophy. This, of course, is the basis for “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” now playing at Drury Lane Theatre.

The cast of spellers is hilariously brought to life by Eli Branson (William Barfée, who spells with his magic foot), Carolyn Braver (Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere, a girl who wants to win so America will love her and her two dads will be proud), Zack Colonna (Leaf Coneybear, who makes his own clothes and wears a cape made out of a shower curtain), Jordan DeLeon (Chip Tolentino, last year’s Spelling Bee champ), Landree Flemming (Olive Ostrovski, a girl who believes her dictionary is her best friend), and Stephenie Soohyun Park (Marcy Park, a perfectionist who wants to prove she can be okay with being imperfect).  The wonderful cast is completed by Johnathan Butler-Duplessis (Mitch Mahoney, the Bee’s “comfort counselor), Joe Dempsey (Douglas Panch, the vice principal of the local junior high school) and Frances Limoncelli (Rona Lisa Peretti, a local real estate agent who won the 3rd annual Putnam County Spelling Bee). Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Last Ship/Broadway In Chicago

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The Last Ship

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In the heart of Times Square there is a building called the TKTS Discount Booth; same-day tickets to Broadway shows can be purchased there at discounted prices. The queue of audience hopefuls is always many customers deep, and to speed along the process, employees move through the throngs answering questions about shows, locations, prices and where you can get the best pizza slice within walking distance. In my experience, the majority of the patrons are of the female persuasion, and hands-down the most frequently asked question is, “Which show is my boyfriend/fiancé/husband most likely to enjoy?” Beginning September 29, the answer to that question will be “The Last Ship.”

The show’s Tony Award-winning artistic pedigree doesn’t disappoint: John Logan’s book is poignant and funny and honest, frequently all at once, and the unflappable Joe Mantello brings his particular blend of heart and intellect to the direction. But it is the singular stamp of Grammy Award-winner Sting that permeates every moment of the production. Composer/lyricist of the mostly sung piece, Sting makes it easy to forget that this will be his Broadway debut. One of the measures of the most talented and seasoned creators of both music and lyrics for the stage is that while the songs and musical moments for a particular show are as varied as the story’s characters and situations, the score remains cohesive unto itself. To come out of the gate with such sweeping understanding of and dexterity for the form is past refreshing; even for an artist of Sting’s stature, it is astonishing. Read the rest of this entry »

Brigadoon It: Rachel Rockwell’s Goodman Debut Brings a Classic Out of the Fog

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Rachel Rockwell in rehearsal for "Brigadoon"/Photo

Rachel Rockwell in rehearsal for “Brigadoon”/Photo

By Dennis Polkow

Director and choreographer Rachel Rockwell seems to be the lady with the golden touch, the one with an uncanny talent for taking old classic shows that you thought you knew and giving them an entirely new luster.

Recognition for Rockwell’s extraordinary body of work via a run of musical theater successes at suburban venues such as Drury Lane Oakbrook, Marriott Theatre and Paramount Theatre is the milestone of Rockwell making her downtown directing debut at Goodman Theatre.

“It feels really good,” says Rockwell on a lunch break from rehearsals for “Brigadoon” at Goodman, “and it’s not lost on me at all what a big deal this is. I never worked at the Goodman when I was an actor and I always wanted to. And here I am!” she says with a genuine enthusiasm tempered with a charming humility.

“My Mom worked here,” Rockwell continues. “She was the Oracle in Mary Zimmerman’s ‘Pericles.’ The other thing I am so proud of is that the Playbill will be filled with names that will say, ‘making their Goodman debut.’ Almost every name. These are some of the finest musical theater talents in the city of Chicago who never get to work in their own theater district! That to me, is a real coup, that all of these brilliant people are doing a musical at the Goodman in this theater district for the first time, and we’re all doing this together!” Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Godspell/Marriott Theatre

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Brian Bohr and cast/Photo: Peter Coombs

Brian Bohr and cast/Photo: Peter Coombs

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Those of an age to recall the 1971 version of the John-Michael Tebelak/Stephen Schwartz musical “Godspell” are in for some surprises while enjoying the 2012 revised version on stage at Lincolnshire’s Marriott Theatre. A score that, with one exception, fell on the ears as more folky-than-rocky, with gentle, repeating phrases that could lull an audience into a contemplative spell, coupled with a book that suggested youthful players swept up into the world of a Christ-figure teaching truths born of ancient doctrines, capable of firing the imagination and shaping the morals of the cast and the audience as well, tells the same story in director Matt Raftery’s production, albeit with a definite twenty-first-century sensibility.

From the top of the show, the company is introduced in the musically complicated, complex prologue—a Tower of Babel argued by philosophers—as contemporary business people dressed for Wall Street and arguing endlessly in a world of constant-contact; the moment the first cellphone appears, there can be no confusion that the cast is adult, and that they are us. Although the office attire is stripped away, revealing underdressed costumes that vacillate between the flower-children concept so often attributed to the show and the clown notion more in keeping with the original production, I found it difficult to accept them as innocents. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: A Musical Tribute to the Andrews Sisters/Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre

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(L-R) Sarah Larson, Jordan Yentz, Casi Maggio/ Photo: David Heimann

Sarah Larson, Jordan Yentz, Casi Maggio/
Photo: David Heimann

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Few things incite feelings of patriotism in the average American like USO shows and the performing of staple military ballads like “Anchors Aweigh” and “Marines’ Hymn.” Arguably, no one sang the aforementioned tunes to soldiers of the World War II era in a more delightful way than the Andrews Sisters. It is their charismatic and cheerful tone that the performers at Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre aim to exude in “A Musical Tribute to the Andrews Sisters.”

Sarah Larson, Casi Maggio and Jordan Yentz emulate the Andrews Sisters three-part harmonies, channeling the 1940s charm that the trio was known for through both acts, while the ensemble plays to the audience and evokes memories of days gone by with their poise and vocal stylings. Read the rest of this entry »

Sails Pitch: Sting’s “Ship” Comes in After Long Songwriting Drought

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Sting/Photo: Frank Ockenfels

Sting/Photo: Frank Ockenfels

By Dennis Polkow

“As a songwriter,” Sting admits, “I had experienced a long drought.” Rarely inactive, Sting, now sixty-two, had been involved with a number of projects since his last solo album of original material, 2003’s “Sacred Love.” Among these were an album of Renaissance master John Dowland, a Christmas album and even a reunion tour with the Police.

Nonetheless, how does a singer-songwriter who has won sixteen Grammy Awards and sold some 100 million albums worldwide across a thirty-five-plus-year career account for the experience of songwriter’s block?

“Too much me, me, me,” he jokes, “Self-obsession. I had to break this drought somehow and as it turned out, turning to the landscape of musical theater—a very exciting art form—I was suddenly giving voice to other people, characters other than myself. When I did, songs started coming out of me again like projectile vomiting.”

The end result, “The Last Ship,” is both a new Sting album of songs written for the musical of the same name that will have its pre-Broadway world premiere in Chicago, and the play itself, which is getting ready to begin previews on June 10 at the Bank of America Theatre. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Carrie: The Musical/Bailiwick Chicago

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Callie Johnson/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Callie Johnson/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Mention to any fan of the American musical theater the musicalization of Stephen King’s novel “Carrie” and I guarantee you will enjoy a visceral response; anything from the lift of an eyebrow to a physical readjustment of the entire body-frame will indicate their awareness of, and feelings regarding, the Michael Gore/Dean Pitchford/Lawrence D. Cohen show. A little background: according to The Huffington Post, “Carrie” closed in 1988 “after five regular performances, lost $8 million and became the most expensive flop in Broadway history at the time.” The reverential mounting by Bailiwick Chicago belies the piece’s subsequent camp-cult status. Aside from a few laughers, the audience took the show quite seriously on the night I saw it.

However, director Michael Driscoll and his production team did not lift it from its prom-night blood and ashes. Hampered by a pop-rock score that offers mediocre melodies with the occasional musical hook, repeated without reinstatement or change in meter, key, or even lyrics, and a book that can’t decide whether it is telling the story of a family-life gone horribly awry or a high-school experience rife with interpersonal dreadfulness and finding itself unable to tell the two stories at the same time (the success of which might have saved the entire debacle), only solid delivery can save this show. How can a story resonate with an audience engaged in a discussion of bullying and gun control, where the bullied telekinetically murders both her foes and her allies, knifing the audience anew with never-to-be-erased pictures of schoolchildren dead from high-powered weapons? Carrie herself mentions desiring vengeance in her first musical moment, losing potential sympathy, and the character of her friend Sue is insufficiently highlighted at the top of the piece, and then over-studied in Act II; at first we miss her as the Everyman she might portray, as our window in, and later we wish she would shut up about her boyfriend so we could get to the prom. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Days Like Today/Writers Theatre

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Photo: Michael Brosilow

Photo: Michael Brosilow

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Laura Eason, book writer of Writers Theatre’s new world premiere musical “Days Like Today,” says of playwright Charles L. Mee’s work, from which “Days” borrows and burnishes, “It is epic and expansive and messy and highly theatrical and deeply thoughtful.” Composer and lyricist Alan Schmuckler writes, “It felt to me that music would make manifest the interior lives of (his) characters, as they experienced moments of love and loss that I recognized from my own life. Music felt like a good fit. That was the start.”

And indeed it was. Schmuckler’s musical based on Mee’s work was given a reading which Writers artistic director Michael Halberstam attended; Halberstam invited Schmuckler to work further on the piece with Writers, and Halberstam brought Eason on board to write the book. Staged readings and workshops, refocusing, a new book, new music, and something altogether other, and yet explorative of a direction in which the lyric theater is now traveling, was born. Read the rest of this entry »