Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Review: Jesus Christ Superstar/Theo Ubique Cabaret Theater

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Max DeTogne/Photo: Adam Veness

Max DeTogne/Photo: Adam Veness


Since the whole God thing is a joke anyway, it makes all the sense in the world to throw some gnarly guitar riffs at the New Testament and call it a musical. Director Fred Anzevino’s take on Andrew Lloyd Webber’s classic sticks to the script(ure) and contains some standout performances that please the ears and eyes (think: dudes in lingerie). Danni Smith’s portrayal of Mary Magdalene affords the audience a lovely listening opportunity and Tommy Bullington’s Herod is a melange of color and sound so flamboyant you can’t help but wonder if the Bible should be republished with pictures to gain some real traction.

The small theater space is maximized with dance numbers seemingly taking place in the laps of audience members at times, but the production is tight enough to avoid sloppiness. The band, tucked away behind the corner of the stage, deserves props for exhausting themselves shredding through each number and never losing steam. The band’s performance is seriously impressive and reaffirmed my enjoyment of the show each time I remembered to think about them jamming away, which wasn’t often: there’s so much going on that finding moments of consideration requires taking a step back. If it’s your first time seeing “Jesus Christ Superstar” you’ll probably miss a few elements, but your heady knowledge of the Gospel of Matthew should get you through. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Les Misérables/Paramount Theatre 

Musicals, Recommended Shows, Theater Reviews 1 Comment »

Mr. Burns, Theatre Wit


Paramount Theatre certainly knows its way around big Broadway musicals.  From “Cats” to “Miss Saigon” to “Fiddler on the Roof,” their Broadway Series has consistently offered full-throttle, lavishly produced reprises of beloved big-numbered musicals. This production of “Les Misérables” is no exception and includes such flourishes as a massive, revolving corkscrew of a set design that allows its actors to ascend above the action, but more often casts the viewer’s attention to the wretchedness below.  This design is especially effective at highlighting the initial hope then despair of the student-led Paris rebellion.

The cast here is superb, with Robert Wilde demonstrating enough stage presence and vocal talents to encompass the larger than life Jean Valjean. Rod Thomas’ brooding Inspector Javert also works especially in regards to him being able to flesh out the motivation for his relentless pursuit of Valjean.  Read the rest of this entry »

Critic’s Postcard: Fairies and Snakes at Moulin Rouge

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Photo: S. Bertrand

Photo: S. Bertrand

By Zach Freeman

There are very few theatrical venues in the world that can boast anything like the history, cachet and all-around tourist-centric sexiness of Moulin Rouge, now celebrating its 125th (!) anniversary. With that in mind my wife and I made our way to the iconic red windmill at the intersection of Rue Lepic and Boulevard de Clichy in the Montmarte district a few weeks ago, expanding our trip to Paris to include the latest offering from “the most famous cabaret in the world.”

Entitled simply “Féerie” (Fairy), it turns out that this production—which has been running since the end of 1999—is every bit as flashy, ephemeral, evocative and simple as the name implies. For clarity’s sake I should add that by “simple” I just mean “nearly plotless”—with 1,000 costumes, eighty dancers, six horses and five pythons (yes, you read those last two correctly)—this show is anything but simple in the technical sense. But more on that in a bit.

Entering the historical eighteenth arrondissement theater through a throng of camera-toting tourists and fellow attendees is a theatrical experience in itself. The bright red carpet and brighter lights successfully immerse you as you check in and are guided to your table. (With 900 seats, it’s no surprise that they don’t trust you to find your way alone.) The space is set up like a massive, two-story restaurant, allowing for customers booking 7pm tickets to eat dinner before the 9pm show. Since we opted for the 9pm show, we arrived at our table post-dinner and were promptly greeted with glasses of champagne. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Full Monty/ Kokandy Productions

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Scott Danielson, Garrett Lutz and George Toles/Photo: Joshua Albanese

Scott Danielson, Garrett Lutz and George Toles/Photo: Joshua Albanese


They say nothing cures working-class misogyny, homophobia and general bigotry like a little strip tease. As it stands, those who attend Kokandy Productions’ mounting of “The Full Monty” are in for a lot more than just a little tease. Intimate and red hot, I’d say this ain’t your grandma’s musical but it most definitely is. And your aunt’s, your minister’s and your ex wife’s, too!

A castration anxiety comedy set in less-than-idyllic Buffalo, New York, “The Full Monty” gets pretty handsy with its irony though it knows best when to slow things down. Paced like a true Hollywood byproduct, the show soars toward its climactic “can do” first-act finale. The second half gets a little lost in the ballads but more than makes up for it with the emotional range of this ensemble. Confidence is a group sport and the fellas are undeniably better in duet or chorus. The well-endowed Ethan (Greg Foster) and mousy Malcolm (George Toles) are particularly arresting as new lovers though Jerry (Garrett Lutz) and Dave (Scott Danielson) outpace them in homoerotic gestures by a long shot. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: First Wives Club/Broadway In Chicago

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Opening night for pre-Broadway shows in Chicago can be fun. The excitement both real (will this be the next “The Producers” or “Kinky Boots”?) and manufactured (red carpets, Klieg lights and TV crews breathlessly interviewing the handful of celebrities and “celebrities” who show up), coupled with a house packed with producers and their enthusiastic friends not only heightens expectations but gives a sense for the personal efforts that such undertakings represent, both creative and financial. At the opening night for “First Wives Club,” the lead producers grabbed a mike at the curtain call and, after pointing out celebrity guests like onetime hit makers Holland, Dozier and Holland (who wrote music and lyrics for this show), along with former TV royalty Linda Bloodworth Thomason (who wrote the book), gave shoutouts to several of the investors in the room, in recognition of the long journey and huge investment a show like this represents. Read the rest of this entry »

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


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


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.


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 »

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