Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Review: The Chicago Musical Theatre Festival/Underscore Theatre Company

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

(l to r) 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 re-working 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.

A one-act play, despite its expectedly quick-moving structure, nevertheless requires a plot that begins with a premise, presents a conflict and concludes. “How To Run For Mayor” has, in its growth, yet to answer those qualifications. Seeming to rely heavily on the structure of sketch comedy, and borrowing unfortunately from the surprises of Theatre of The Absurd, the piece introduces the characters unwisely, produces a conflict of character-conscience, and attempts to resolve itself by stomping through a pool of self-pity, with the slightest and most obvious lesson.

Trent Eisfeller gives a compelling portrait of a handsome and quite insane incumbent mayor, with really terrific hair. The creators introduce this character, the antagonist, first, which isn’t the strongest choice, as the story seems to begin with the protagonist’s entrance. Eisfeller is left to set the tone with a bizarre monologue, where exposition might better serve. Eisfeller’s pretty, lyrical voice is taxed by the histrionic screaming as written and/or directed, perhaps funny at first, falling flat before the finale. 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

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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 »

Review: The Secret Garden/Court Theatre

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Jennie Sophia, Rob Lindley

Jennie Sophia, Rob Lindley/Photo: Michael Brosilow


If winter plunged directly into summer and robbed us of a gentle rebirth, Court Theatre’s very new production of “The Secret Garden” reawakens optimism in life, and the state of lyric theater.

The 1991 Broadway production promised much, and delivered; the beautifully specific, wide-ranging voices of Mandy Patinkin and Rebecca Luker gave composer Lucy Simon free rein to expand on her folk/rock/pop songwriting past. Tony Award-winner Daisy Eagan essayed a protagonist devoid of the sickness of child-actor guile. Most importantly, the Broadway production managed to take an intimate story and deliver it in a Great White Way-manner without bruising the former or insulting the latter. But how has this affected the plight of regional theaters, with divergent spaces, talents, and financial resources? How to tell this story with honesty?

Director Charles Newell and musical director Doug Peck succeed fantastically. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Once/Broadway In Chicago

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Alex Nee and Dani de Waal

Alex Nee and Dani de Waal


Back in 2007, the film “Once” struck a chord with anyone who’d ever witnessed a mysterious, brooding stranger leave it all on stage at a small-town open-mic night. Likely it resonated even more intensely with legions of struggling musicians hoping for even minor success. Separated from the tide of performance-centric musicals—from “Drumline” to “Pitch Perfect”—by its micro-budget, personable songwriting and DIY ethos, “Once” is certainly one of the least-engineered success stories of the last ten years. The first national tour of the Tony Award-winning adaptation allows this endearing story of love, consequence and music to be seen as it should be: live on stage.

Retaining much of the original music and lyrics written by the stars of the film (Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová), the stage version of “Once” benefits tremendously from its cast of multi-talented performers. The romance between Alex Nee (filling in for Stuart Ward as Guy) and Dani de Waal (Girl) is natural, even if the suspiciously handsome and clean cut Nee does have to work a little harder than Hansard to prove that he’s the wistful nice guy we want him to be. Enda Walsh’s addition of a trio of Czech roommates succeeds in capturing the multicultural landscape of Ireland though it skirts any kind of politicizing. In fact, as one might expect, the greatest conflict arises between two hot-blooded Dubliners. The larger cast draws the story into wider focus and adds depth to the music, which is truly the main event. Read the rest of this entry »

Career Candor: Gloria Estefan goes Off the Cuff about “On Your Feet”

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(l to r) Emilio Estefan, Gloria Estefan, Ana Villafañe and Josh Segarra/Photo: Bruce Glikas

Emilio Estefan, Gloria Estefan, Ana Villafañe and Josh Segarra/Photo: Bruce Glikas

By Dennis Polkow

Gloria Estefan has made an international career out of singing and dancing, the very essence of what happens in a Broadway musical. As such, it might seem she would be a natural to play herself in “On Your Feet! The Story of Emilio & Gloria Estefan,” which is having its pre-Broadway world premiere performances in Chicago.

“I’m too old,” Estefan admits. “The span of time is me between seventeen and thirty-two, which is the age I was when I had my accident and broke my back and they said I would probably never walk again, let alone perform.

“And it’s kind of weird to play yourself. You know, it’s funny, my daughter is an amazing singer and she’s at Berklee College of Music and is just stepping out. Everybody is saying ‘Oh my God, she should play you,’ because she’s like my clone, this little girl. Ridiculous pipes, she plays every instrument, she’s an amazing drummer, so musical. Her reaction was, ‘Mom, I’d have to kiss Dad!’ She’s not in the play as a character because she didn’t exist at the time that we’re covering in the play. But it’s fantastic to me that she co-wrote an original tune that’s a pivotal scene in the play that is very emotional.” Read the rest of this entry »

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

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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

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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

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


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 »

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