Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Beyond Fable: The Evolution of Community Performance at the Pivot Arts Festival

Festivals, Musicals, Profiles, Theater No Comments »
Honeybuns/Photo: Shari Imbo

Honeybuns/Photo: Shari Imbo

By Aaron Hunt

In May 2012, Julieanne Ehre and Katy Collins co-produced what they coined a “Fable Festival” in Edgewater. Cafes, empty storefronts and restaurants hosted such delectable, multi-discipline concoctions as puppet folklore, American mythology and ten different playwrights’ interpretations of “Little Red Riding Hood.” But what came next is anything but a fiction, although animals, mythical creatures, natural forces endowed with human qualities, and life lessons are still a part of the magnificent tale that has become Pivot Arts.

“This is a pivot of partnerships. We’re really about being a pivot-point for the arts, and bringing communities together,” Ehre, now Pivot’s director, told me over coffee in an Uptown cafe. Ehre had served as artistic director of Greasy Joan & Co. for five years, and was the NEA/TCG New Generations “Future Leaders” Fellow at the Goodman Theatre, where she served as producer on Latino Festival, New Stages Series, and conceived of and produced the Goodman’s “Artists Talk” series. Collins, (currently a Pivot artistic associate), had been the artistic director of Vintage Theater Collective, and was no stranger to production herself. Between the two, the wealth of talent on Chicago’s North Side, and the buy-in of local businesses, “Fable Festival” not only entertained and facilitated conversations both within the Edgewater/Uptown community but also “over the fence” as well, when residences of adjacent neighborhoods wandered over to see what all the fuss was about. But when the festival was over, what next? In June of 2012, the conversation began. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Another Kind of Love/InFusion Theatre Company

Musicals, Theater, Theater Reviews No Comments »

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There’s a problem sometimes at music festivals where you’re too far away from the band to hear them. Sometimes it’s because you didn’t get there early enough to get a good spot. Sometimes it’s because the amplification at said festival really sucks. But other times it’s because the band’s sound just isn’t made for a large festival stage. They are best-suited to playing clubs, not arenas.

This same problem plagues InFusion Theatre Company’s “Another Kind of Love.” Performing in the Chopin Theatre’s main space, with its high ceilings and deep stage, the director and actors fail to bring a show that can fill it. Voices drift up into the rafters and stick there. Performances are flattened out till they become a kind of pizzicato monotone. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Drowsy Chaperone/Metropolis Performing Arts Centre

Musicals, Recommended Shows, Theater, Theater Reviews No Comments »
Drowsy1

Phillip Kaiser, Amanda Bloom, Sarafina Vecchio, Brett Baleskie, Shari Mocheit, Chris Vizurraga, Dominic Rescigno, Matt McNabb, Erin Long, Sarah Hoch, Colin Funk

RECOMMENDED

It all began with a stag party skit, which explains the madcap, innuendo-filled, my-uncle’s-got-a-barn quality that blessedly remains, despite Broadway spit-and-polish. Bob Martin was being primed for his marriage to Janet van de Graaff. The skit morphed into a show, with Martin joining the writing team and creating a beloved character, Man In Chair, for himself. A show within a show, this Man chats up the audience, coaxing them into listening to an LP of a musical he loves, “The Drowsy Chaperone,” and like “Brigadoon,” the show materializes, ostensibly celebrating the impending nuptials of, wait for it, Robert Martin and Janet van de Graaff.

“Chaperone” uses stock, post-vaudeville musical theater characters: a British butler, a Broadway producer with his ditzy girlfriend who wants to be a star, a pair of singing, dancing gangsters, and an Ethel Merman role, the chaperone herself, written for an actress who insisted on essaying a “rousing anthem” in every show. “The Drowsy Chaperone” ran for 674 Broadway performances, and received multiple Tony Awards. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Shining Lives: A Musical/Northlight Theatre

Musicals, Theater, Theater Reviews, World Premiere No Comments »
(l to ) Jess Godwin, Bri Sudia, Tiffany Topol and Johanna McKenzie Miller/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Jess Godwin, Bri Sudia, Tiffany Topol and Johanna McKenzie Miller/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Radium has a half-life of about 1,600 years, losing half its radioactive potency over that period. If evil and infamy have a half-life, then the tale of the “radium girls” will still be red hot centuries from now. They were the teenagers and young women who ninety years ago painted glow-in-the-dark numbers on clock and watch dials. They used their lips to sharpen brushes dipped in lethal radium paint, instructed to do so by employers who figured it was cheaper to ignore and obfuscate the danger than to confront it honestly.

Maybe Arthur Miller could have summoned up the requisite insight and outrage to properly convey what was done to Catherine Donohue of Ottawa, Illinois—who at the time of her death weighed sixty-five pounds—and to so many others in the name of corporate profits.

But this world premiere musical adaptation of Melanie Marnich’s 2008 play by Jessica Thebus (who also directs) sprinkles saccharine on the radium, and so fails to do justice to the girls’ slow-motion murder. Marnich and Thebus present their protagonists as proto-Rosie the Riveters, who find fulfillment and solidarity in the rhythm of mass production under the oversight of bean-counting managers and corrupt company doctors. That is, until they sicken and are summarily fired, at which point they sue the company for knowingly poisoning them, leading to years of litigation. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Jersey Boys/Broadway In Chicago

Musicals, Recommended Shows, Theater, Theater Reviews No Comments »
Jersey Boys Nicholas Dromard, Keith Hines, Hayden Milanes and Drew Seeley

Nicholas Dromard, Keith Hines, Hayden Milanes and Drew Seeley/Photo: Jeremy Daniel

RECOMMENDED

The Baby Boomers grew up in one of the longest periods of affluence in American history, lulled by a soundtrack of Elvis, Johnny Cash, ABBA and Frankie Valli. The Great Recession of 2007/9 caused a recalibration of retirement plans for many. The arts, always the last bastion to recover from a sweeping financial crisis, needed to streamline their product. If the Boomers wanted to regroup to the tunes of their youth, while theater producers looked to create musicals without singing-and-dancing choruses, with singers/instrumentalists providing their own accompaniment, the answer was the “jukebox musical.” These thrifty shows make use of previously popular songs, recorded by either a solo artist or a group, knit together by a documentary-style script, or by slipping the tunes into a new storyline. “All Shook Up” and “Ring of Fire” are ubiquitous in regional theaters the country over, and “Mamma Mia” spawned a Meryl Streep-led movie, and is only this fall closing on Broadway after fourteen years. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Twisted Melodies/Congo Square Theatre

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Kelvin Roston, Jr./Photo: Sam Roberson

Kelvin Roston, Jr./Photo: Sam Roberson

RECOMMENDED

Donny Hathaway is one of the many popular musical geniuses who died too young. His voice was smooth and soulful, and his career was headed upward when he took his own life in 1979. Hathaway struggled with schizophrenia and its effects on his music and his family. In Congo Square Theatre’s “Twisted Melodies,” Hathaway lives again thanks to actor and playwright Kelvin Roston, Jr.

There is so much happening in this play that it is hard to believe that a single actor carries all the action on his own. And yet, Roston does just that. He is aided by an impressive soundscape created by Rick Sims, as well as an elaborate and beautifully realized projected environment created through the collaborative efforts of designer Dre Robinson and choreographer Joel Hall. The technical aspects allow us to see inside the head of a character whose mental activities we could only guess at were he to just tell us about his condition. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Big Fish/Theatre at the Center

Musicals, Recommended Shows, Theater, Theater Reviews No Comments »
Big Fish

Stef Tovar and Colette Todd/Photo: Johnny Knight

RECOMMENDED

If you saw the pre-Broadway, Chicago run of “Big Fish” and thought it needed scissors and paste, or read the tepid New York reviews, mourning a loss of opportunity when comparing the show to the Tim Burton movie and calling Andrew Lippa’s score a “hack job,” with one “non-tune” after another, then you may wonder why the show has so many ardent advocates. The story of a mismatched father and son, trying to piece together a relationship as the son is about to become a father in his own right, while feeling that he hasn’t received the mentoring and role-modeling to do the job, is indeed a tattered trope. So why the audience fervor?

Because, though the show is short on plot, the passion and motivation for its storytelling springs into sharp relief, with the tale’s “why” taking center stage over the “when” or the “how.” Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Antic’s Roadshow with Devon Myers/MCL Chicago

Comedy, Improv/Sketch Reviews, Musicals, Theater, Theater Reviews No Comments »
Steven Lyons/Photo: Tiela Halpin Photography

Steven Lyons/Photo: Tiela Halpin Photography

Chicago, as you may be aware, is the center of the universe when it comes to improvised sketch comedy. Stages are filled nightly by young comedians who are trying really hard to break into the upper echelons of the comedy field. Sadly, for the cast of “Antic’s Roadshow with Devon Myers,” trying really hard isn’t enough to make a performance worth watching.

The premise of the partly scripted performance is that an aging D-list celebrity, Devon Myers (Steven Lyons), has been tapped to host a PBS-like program conceived by Preston Antic (Scott Allen Curry). The program resembles what “Antiques Roadshow” would be like were it held on the Island of Misfit Toys. The show’s focus is primarily on the appraisers, rather than the items brought in by the studio audience. Each performer introduces themselves in a pre-written song which details exactly how messed up they are. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Ring of Fire/Mercury Theater Chicago

Musicals, Recommended Shows, Theater, Theater Reviews No Comments »
(l-r) Malcom Ruhl, Kent M. Lewis, and Michael Monroe Goodman/Photo: Brett Beiner

Malcom Ruhl, Kent M. Lewis and Michael Monroe Goodman/Photo: Brett Beiner

RECOMMENDED

The music of Johnny Cash has a unique sound that elevates it past the rest of the country genre. Even those of us who aren’t terribly familiar with other country songs will know at least four or five of Cash’s works. Fans will recognize all of his greatest hits showcased in “Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash.”

More a concert than a play, the patter that falls between a few of the songs tells a glossed-over version of Cash’s life. Cash is played by two actors: Kent M. Lewis is Cash in his later years, looking back at days gone by; Michael Monroe Goodman plays Cash as a young man breaking into the music business and falling in love with his eventual wife, June Carter (Cory Goodrich). Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Sense and Sensibility/Chicago Shakespeare Theater

Musicals, Recommended Shows, Theater, Theater Reviews, World Premiere No Comments »
CST_SENSE_06_LizLauren

Megan McGinnis/Photo: Liz Lauren

RECOMMENDED

The brilliance of writer/composer/lyricist and Tony nominee Paul Gordon, the tremulous set design of Kevin Depinet, and Donald Holder’s mystic lighting, guided by director Barbara Gaines, envelopes the audience for the world premiere of Gordon’s “Sense and Sensibility” inside a Renoir painting, with Debussy’s running rivulets underscoring. Though as intrinsically British as Susan E. Mickey’s period-perfect costumes, there is something deliciously French about the afterglow; the production lingers like the lightest puff pastry, the buttery richness circumventing even café noisette. All of Jane Austen’s earthy passion, bubbling under societal strictures, is on display. Yet the swirl of Gordon’s unpretentious melodies married to harmonically complex underpinnings renders the affair as impressionistic as a Degas ballerina. Read the rest of this entry »

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