Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Review: VAMP: A Music Comedy Drinking Show/MCL Chicago

Comedy, Improv/Sketch Reviews, Improv/Sketch/Revues, Musicals, Recommended Comedy Shows No Comments »

(l to r) Michael Shepherd Jordan and Alex Garday


Walking into the MCL Chicago space for “VAMP: A Music Comedy Drinking Show” is like walking into a raucous house party that’s just getting started. A four-piece band (Doc McCullough & The Vampers) plays frenetic, high-energy jams while audience members mill around chatting and sipping from their various BYOB selections. And once the show gets started, under the direction of endearingly wry host Keenan Camp, it’s not that different from a house party itself. In fact, “VAMP,” as a whole, feels like a loosely-organized, low-pressure showcase by a group of popular, talented, semi-intoxicated improvisers in a friend’s basement, with all the pros and cons associated with that scenario. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Buzzed Broadway/MCL Chicago

Comedy, Improv/Sketch Reviews, Improv/Sketch/Revues, Musicals No Comments »
Steven Lyons and Alexander Smith Photo: Heather Scholl Photography

Steven Lyons and Alexander Smith/Photo: Heather Scholl Photography

Improv is a skill. Being able to successfully improvise a storyline to music while drinking is an even greater skill. That’s the challenge the cast of “Buzzed Broadway” takes on during each performance at MCL Chicago.

Watching “Buzzed Broadway” is kind of like watching a group of drunk musical theater students at a party: it might be funny if you’re participating—and drinking along with the cast is encouraged—but if you’re sober, you’ll notice that the story doesn’t always make sense and the singing isn’t always in key. Still, it’s good for a few laughs here and there. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Bette: Live at the Continental Baths/Hell in a Handbag

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(left to right) Caitlin Jackson, TJ Crawford, Will Wilhelm and Jeremy Ramey in Hell in a Handbag's BETTE, LIVE AT THE CONTINENTAL BATHS, a musical tribute to the Divine Miss M's legendary NYC concert, directed and choreographed by Christopher Pazdernik with music direction by Jeremy Ramey. Photo: Rick Aguilar Studios.

Caitlin Jackson, TJ Crawford, Will Wilhelm and Jeremy Ramey/Photo: Rick Aguilar


Ever the crowdpleasers, the folks at Hell in a Handbag follow the touchy and pushy “Miracle!” with a loving tribute to Bette Midler, a longtime ally and prominent cultural icon in the gay community. Less openly transgressive than “Miracle!,” “Bette: Live at the Continental Baths” nevertheless contains Handbag’s characteristic mix of tenderness and camp.

The weight of the production rests on the shoulders—and, I suppose, chest—of ensemble member Caitlin Jackson, who captures Midler’s bawdy humor as well as the underlying pathos that guided her to the Continental Baths in the first place. Jackson makes you feel as though you’ve known her, and by extension Midler herself, for decades. Even when the material doesn’t land—and some of it will not for younger audiences—it still works thanks to her confident presence and preternatural delivery. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Loving Repeating/Kokandy Productions

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Emily Goldberg and Amanda Giles/Photo: Jeff Meyer

Emily Goldberg and Amanda Giles/Photo: Jeff Meyer


The idea of a musical tribute to Gertrude Stein is, on its face, overwhelming. Anyone with passing familiarity with the late poet’s propensity for playful and often anarchic verbosity might imagine an entire evening of single-sentence observations endlessly rearranged to a cyclical, Terry Riley-like score. And yet what we get instead is a play written by one of Chicago’s most celebrated adaptors (Frank Galati), scored by a Tony Award-winning composer (Stephen Flaherty) and helmed by a theater company intent on keeping the musical a relevant modern form. Under the direction of Allison Hendrix, Kokandy Productions presents a work that begins with a bit too much repeating and concludes with just the right amount of loving. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Kinky Boots/Broadway In Chicago

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Photo1_KinkyBootsTour_PhotobyMatthewMurphy (1)

Kyle Taylor Parker, Steven Booth, and The Company/Photo: Matthew Murphy

Having first been groomed in Chicago, “Kinky Boots” won the 2013 Tony Award for Best Musical. Rock icon Cyndi Lauper finagled Best Score, despite its jumps from song to song without connection or precedence, seldom varying from the verse-chorus-verse-chorus form of the most vapid of our Top 40; there lies a lost opportunity for musical cross-pollination. Harvey Fierstein’s book borrows lightly from the movie of the same name, mostly draining the story of its punch, and placing the dramatic apex far too early. All this awarded madness says less about the Tony voters’ craving for sexualized footwear than it does about the dearth of new musicals on Broadway in 2013.

“Boots” is the story of an unlikely twosome, making passionate shoes together. In the titular role of Lola, the dragtastic chanteuse who saves her co-protagonist’s life, both physically and fiscally, Kyle Taylor Parker gives the strongest performance, and seems most suited to his role. Parker, who understudied Lola in the Broadway production, yells a bit too often during his numbers, but delivers buckets of sass, and is at his best during the most memorable number in the show, “Not My Father’s Son.” Parker’s performance as shoe designer is unmet by Steven Booth’s shoe builder, Charlie. Booth neglects to build an undertow of fear and mistrust that could have made his explosive, hate-mongering monologue more believable.

Read the rest of this entry »

The Play Is the Sing: Longtime Stephen Sondheim Collaborator Paul Gemignani on “The Shakespeare of Music”

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Photo: Courtesy of Paul Gemignani

Photo: Courtesy of Paul Gemignani

By Dennis Polkow

“You know, you should start thinking about symphonic suites from your shows because you’re going to need them someday,” conductor and longtime Stephen Sondheim collaborator Paul Gemignani recalls telling Sondheim early on. “He knew that we would need them, but he would not sit down and write them.”

Sondheim, whose initial success was as a lyricist with Leonard Bernstein in “West Side Story” and Jule Styne in “Gypsy,” composed his own music to go with his own lyrics in “A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum.” From that show on—with the exception of writing lyrics for Richard Rodgers’ “Do I Hear A Waltz?” after the death of Rodgers’ partner and Sondheim’s mentor Oscar Hammerstein II—Sondheim would be the composer and lyricist for a string of shows that managed to revolutionize the Broadway musical.

“He’s one of these people that comes along every so often, like a Gershwin or a Rodgers, someone you can learn a lot from if you’re a composer or if you’re a musician like me. And in this man’s case, not only is he a musician, but he’s a poet. That, to me, makes him very unique.”

Despite his reputation as a lyricist, Gemignani insists that Sondheim’s musical prowess is no less formidable. “I started out with him where people said, ‘He writes great lyrics, but he can’t write a melody.’ Are you kidding me? He is a dramatist who writes to character completely. If you listen to all these musicals he wrote, tell me that the same man wrote ‘Company’ that wrote ‘Into the Woods.’ Tell me that that same man who wrote ‘Follies’ wrote ‘Pacific Overtures.’ They don’t even sound alike. That is the most unique thing about him. It’s like he’s the Shakespeare of music.   Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Chicago Musical Theatre Festival/Underscore Theatre Company

Festivals, Musicals, Recommended Shows, Theater, Theater Reviews, World Premiere No Comments »

Molly Parchment, Ryan Semmelmayer, Paola Sanchez Abreu, Brian Healy, Rachael Smith and Mike Foster/Photo: Braden Nesin

How To Run For Mayor

The Chicago Musical Theatre Festival provides an important birthing-space for Chicago-connected, nascent musical theater to access our city’s storefront-ethos, where new plays are frequently produced and honed. Despite the temptation to praise the sheer effort of the production team, adding music to words, vice-versa, or in combination, and of the performers to stretch themselves by quickly learning new material, and reworking it in a workshop situation, it is incumbent upon the reviewer to present a significant opinion of the offerings and their champions, in service to all involved. In the case of “How To Run For Mayor,” playwright Gilbert Tanner and composer/lyricist Aaron Aptaker (who also directs) enjoy this opportunity. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: City of Angels/Marriott Theatre

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City of Angels

Summer Naomi Smart/Photo: Amy Boyle


I thought a show where the colorful people stayed on one side of the stage while the colorless people stayed on the other, plot lines fizzled, and the leading players were a screenwriter and his alter ego but all the best tunes were given to three-and-a-half women was up against too many challenges. I didn’t see how it would have a life after Broadway. How to stage it? How to salve the wounded book? Eleven 1990 Tony nominations and six wins argued.

Marriott’s new production gave me comeuppance. As staged in-the-round by director Nick Bowling, a world of reality and another of cinema exist so closely and interchangeably that scene changes fly by, characters with counterparts in another world can be believably portrayed by one actor with the switch of a wig or a tablecloth, and these worlds can collide with élan. Thomas M. Ryan’s set, Jesse Klug’s lighting and Nancy Missimi’s costumes are beautifully to blame. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Borderlands: Three Chords and the Truth/Underscore Theatre Company

Musicals, Theater, Theater Reviews, World Premiere No Comments »

Aaron Davidson, Sarah Beth Tanner, Mike Mazzocca, Jon Patrick Penick, Ian Knox/Photo: Zane Rarek

I have to hand it to Underscore Theatre Company; their world-premiere production of “Borderlands:  Three Chords and the Truth” is about as ambitious as it is long. And at more than two hours in length, that is quite a lot of ambition. Picture the characters of “Rent” reunited in a dive bar twenty years later, maybe a little more realistic in what they can accomplish, but still plugging away. And instead of hanging out in Manhattan, they are in Nashville, and their rock opera sensibilities have been traded in for a ukulele, a violin and a few other stringed instruments. If this sounds intriguing, it is, but produced as a full-length musical it lacks enough memorable music and enough character development to truly make it work. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Fantasticks/Light Opera Works

Musicals, Theater, Theater Reviews No Comments »
James Anest and Meredith Kochan/Photo: Mona Luan

James Anest and Meredith Kochan/Photo: Mona Luan

Light Opera Works has launched its thirty-fifth season with a musical that has a great deal of staying power of its own. “The Fantasticks” has the honor of being the longest-running show in history. In New York. In Evanston, it only runs through June fourteenth. And that’s probably for the best. The play is still the solid warhorse that has stood the test of time, but this production lacks some of the magic that one hopes for. In fact, I would go so far as to say that for the first half hour the production verges on boring. Read the rest of this entry »

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