Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Review: Songs From An Unmade Bed/Pride Films & Plays

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RECOMMENDED

(l to r)  Jordan Phelps and Kevin Webb

Jordan Phelps and Kevin Webb

The musical or operetta or opera or lyric theater phoneme (depending upon whom you speak with and how empty the champagne bottle) “Candide” was birthed by Voltaire, and enjoyed the word-workings and “improvements” of Lillian Hellman, Hugh Wheeler, Richard Wilbur, John Latouche, Dorothy Parker, Stephen Sondheim, John Mauceri and John Wells. But the amorphous masterpiece is held together by the duct tape of Leonard Bernstein’s music. Compositionally, harmonically, thematically, the music drags all of the wordsmiths’ brilliant meanderings into a solidified celebration. And this remains the accepted formula for a successful musical evening of theater; the task of stitching together the genius of the book-writer, the librettist, and multiple credited- and uncredited-script doctors falls squarely upon the shoulders of the composer.

But must it always be so? What if a myriad of composers contribute to a work that congeals by the alchemy of a single lyricist? Pride Films & Plays’ production of “Songs From An Unmade Bed” does exactly that. What is more cutting edge than a lyric entertainment that supports music from composers as far afield as contemporary opera giant Jake Heggie, and singer, songwriter, actress and composer Debra Barsha? Lyricist Mark Campbell, who has been profiled in Opera News as one of the twenty-five people “posed…to become major forces in opera in the coming decade,” is proven by this production to be a person who tells stories, stories that we all want to hear, to take to our hearts, and then take home and hash and rehash. The “cross-over” between musical theater and opera for which we must revere and blame that Sondheim fellow continues to redefine what brings a contemporary audience to a seat in a theater. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Passion/Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre

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Danni Smith and Peter Oyloe/Photo: Adam Veness

Danni Smith and Peter Oyloe/Photo: Adam Veness

Stephen Sondheim has both refined and blurred the sloppy genre that is our current understanding of lyric theater. With patter mimicking actual speech, the blazing speed of variance in meter and key, and the cheek with which he ends the first act of his first non-opera “Sweeney Todd” with a Verdi-esque quartet, it seems that the only fault that can be laid at his feet is that he is another brilliant pedant. His critics may well ask where the nearly diabolical technique is tapped down to reveal the warmth, the heart-sound behind the mind.

In “Passion,” Sondheim answers all. A lonely child, “not quite beautiful,” brilliant of intellect but stymied of connection, gushing with talent yet grasping for self-worth, only the opening heart of that child grown to adulthood could have given us this second non-opera. With nowhere to applaud, so through-composed as to be completely seamless, “Passion” invites the audience to remember what it was like to love another person for exactly who they are, in exactly that moment. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Lyle Finds His Mother/Lifeline Theatre

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Anthony Kayer and Deanna Myers/Photo: Suzanne Plunkett

Anthony Kayer and Deanna Myers/Photo: Suzanne Plunkett

If the best way to determine the success of a children’s play is by the quiet smiling faces of its audience, then Lifeline Theatre’s performance of “Lyle Finds His Mother” hits its mark. A story of a domesticated crocodile in search of his wild crocodile mother provides a sensitive lens with which to explore adopted family dynamics. Director Dorothy Milne and playwright Jessica Wright Buha, in her debut adaption for the company, transform Bernard Waber’s somewhat plodding 1974 book into a singing, dancing, juggling, hula-hooping, jump-roping, gymnastic showcase for five dynamic performers.

Speaking only squeaky crocodile, with the occasional English soliloquy, Anthony Kayer’s Lyle, in his frumpy green crocodile costume, is probably enough to keep most children’s eyes glued to the stage. Lyle’s best friend Josh (Brian Tochterman Jr.) is the perfect id-free eight-year-old whose broad, gangly movements welcome the actual eight-year-olds into the world of the stage. Strong performances by Linsey Falls, Deanna Myers and Erin O’Shea provide the movement of the plot and highlight the more poignant aspects of this progressive children’s book. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Chicago/Broadway In Chicago

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Photo: Paul Kolnik

Photo: Paul Kolnik

In the 1990s, television veered into new programming territory with the show “The Real World,” offering a form of entertainment for which there was little scripting or preparation, where the viewing public could watch “real” people dealing with their life’s joys, sorrows and daily challenges; reality television was born. This genre ushered in an ostensibly new form of showbiz, where we were invited to see ourselves more directly than we might when experiencing the highly structured and polished presentation of a situation comedy or a weekly, episodic dramatic series. Beautiful, charismatic and opinionated women have been the principal performers—and even producers—of many of these popular spectacles. Names such as Hilton, Richie, Osbourne and Kardashian are folded into this recipe—along with those of real housewives of several major cities—regularly “trending” on the Internet. But it is hardly a new preoccupation to award the status of “celebrity” to someone else’s next-door neighbor. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Cabaret/Marriott Theatre

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CABARET Button of Willkommen

Stephen Schellhardt, Megan Sikora and cast/Photo: Peter Coombs

The Marriott Theatre kicks off its 2014 season with “Cabaret,” the eight-time Tony Award-winning musical, under the direction of David H. Bell.

The show centers on a young American writer, Clifford Bradshaw (Patrick Sarb), who comes to Berlin in 1929 in search of material for a novel he wants to produce. The Emcee (Stephen Schellhardt) is also a narrator of sorts who playfully invites all to forget any troubles of the outside world and simply enjoy the “beautiful” music, song and dancing of the girls and boys inside the Kit Kat Klub. Schellhardt’s charisma and allure continually keep the show moving. Even in the cutting and cleverly penned song, “If You Could See Her,” he successfully walks a fine line between humor and gutting insult.

Although British showgirl Sally Bowles (Megan Sikora) becomes enamored with Bradshaw and the two become “Perfectly Marvelous” partners in love and life, it is the elder characters of this production, Fraulein Schneider (Annabel Armour) and Herr Schultz (Craig Spidle), who are more fascinating than virtually anything that happens within the Klub. Armour and Spidle brilliantly balance each other’s characters out and emit sparks of true romance. Their enticing chemistry is particularly ironic since sexual innuendo is apparent in dialogue, a chunk of choreography and the costuming of the majority of the cast. Yet, the lethargic energy of it all comes across as much more PG-13 than R-rated (or for audience members sixteen and older, as the theater recommends). Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Ain’t Misbehavin’/Porchlight Music Theatre

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AintMisbehavin1To add to Chicago’s celebration of Black History Month, Porchlight Music Theatre sends a jazz-jolt to Chicago’s February theater scene with a musically rousing, historically revealing production of the “Fats” Waller-inspired “Ain’t Misbehavin’.” Originally conceived as a cabaret show, “Ain’t Misbehavin’” was so popular that it transferred to Broadway, winning three Tony Awards in 1978, bested in the Musical Theatre categories only by the Comden-Green/Coleman “On The Twentieth Century,” which carried away five brass and bronze, nickel-plated medallions. A glimpse into the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and thirties, when segregation’s stigmatization fell away from dusk till dawn at the Cotton Club and the Savoy Ballroom, even while the sun’s first rays reinvented racism afresh, Porchlight’s “Ain’t Misbehavin’” pulled the sold-out audience to its feet long before the final medley gushed into the curtain call on the night I saw it. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Gypsy/Chicago Shakespeare Theater

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Photo: Liz Lauren

Louise Pitre and Jessica Rush/Photo: Liz Lauren

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This production of “Gypsy,” now at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, begins gorgeously before the first note, at the silent sight of the ornate gilded frame of a stage that promises showbiz is about to happen. Then, boom, it does. The production’s big brassy crackerjack orchestra delivers “Gypsy’”s spectacular overture.  It would be a fine concert piece in itself, if it did not tease the musical’s rich set of great, now standard, Jule Styne-Stephen Sondheim tunes.  Like the kids in the show who are ordered to “Sing Out!” by Madame Rose, the tiger-stage-mother who commands them, this production commits.  This must be one of the best-looking, best-acted and best instrumental stagings of “Gypsy” ever.

The show famously recounts the teen years of Louise, the future Gypsy Rose Lee, as her family, headed by the domineering Rose, travels the 1920s Vaudeville circuit. They’re a kitschy young children’s act composed of aging kids. The show revolves mainly around Rose and how her two daughters and loyal lover deal with, and ultimately reject her machinations. At first, the kids are played by real children. Small Emily Leahy as Louise’s headlining sister Baby June is a singing, tapping baton-twirling wonder. Caroline Heffernan as the young Louise/future Gypsy movingly conveys how being a normal, shy, smart child estranged her from her mother yearning for the family’s stardom. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Into the Woods/The Hypocrites

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Photo: Matthew Gregory Hollis

Photo: Matthew Gregory Hollis

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Opening a Stephen Sondheim show, even one of his most popular, two days before Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s Gary Griffin—the city’s unquestioned master of stellar Sondheim productions—puts up “Gypsy,” is either an act of savvy marketing or foolish bravado. But The Hypocrites, long associated with founder Sean Graney’s over-the-top zaniness, are maturing into a company adept at matching the  freewheeling creativity that earned their reputation with the ability to round up specialized talent and the discipline to deliver musical theater capable of working on its own melodic merits. They’ve proven so recently with a couple of Gilbert & Sullivan classics, but now show they’re far from a one-composer wonder. The Hypocrites’ “Into the Woods” is a wonder on its own: at once a faithful interpretation of Sondheim and James Lapine’s beloved classic—with some terrific voices and a small but sturdy cohort of behind-the-scenes musicians—that never loses sight of the Hypocrites’ signature sense of humor. The musical opens with the cast lollygagging on a stage set created by William Boles to look like a preschool classroom, a perfectly reasonable launching point for a story that mashes up some of the Brothers Grimm’s finest, from Jack and the Beanstalk to Little Red Riding Hood to Cinderella. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Young Frankenstein/Drury Lane Theatre

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Devin-DeSantis-Travis-Taylor-and-CastRECOMMENDED

Surprise! Director William Osetek has re-imagined Mel Brooks’ “Young Frankenstein”—a musical based on the 1974 film starring the unconquerable Gene Wilder that was panned by critics during its Broadway run in 2007—into a fresh, non-stop, song-and-dance thrill ride at Drury Lane.

The story follows the familiar plot: Dr. Frederick Von Frankenstein (young Ethan Hawke-lookalike Devin DeSantis) has changed the pronunciation of his surname to “Fronkensteen” and become a Dean of Anatomy in New York. When his grandfather dies, he’s called to Transylvania to get back into the “family business,” grave digging and all. The show is fun and risqué, to the point of de-virginizing the good doctor and talking about the “enormous schwanzstuker” of the jolly green Monster (Texan Travis Taylor). Making full use of their nimble feet, Jeff Award-winning choreographer Tammy Mader gives these more-than-capable actors sequences that showcase their footwork and timing. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: A Q Brothers’ Christmas Carol/Chicago Shakespeare Theater

Christmas, Holiday, Musicals, Recommended Shows, Theater, Theater Reviews No Comments »
(l to r) Postell Pringle and Jackson Doran/Photo by Michael Brosilow

Postell Pringle and Jackson Doran/Photo: Michael Brosilow

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Everybody has a favorite rap song. Currently, mine is “Holy Grail.” I know it is a bit overplayed, but man can that Jay-Z rap. I also like Chicago Shakespeare Theater, which consistently spins the overplayed into gold. Methinks, however, the two rarely meet. But last night they did meet during the warmup to “A Q Brothers’ Christmas Carol” and you know what? It sounded pretty good. It might not work all the time (kind of like swapping out rum for vodka in your eggnog), but now and then it is downright refreshing.

With more flavors than an ice-cream shop, this show brings reggae, hip-hop, old school rap, dancehall sounds and some gritty industrial touches to the old Dickens classic. There’s even a little Blue Man Group thrown into the Ghost of Christmas Future number. Written collaboratively by the four actors on stage (Jackson Doran, GQ, JQ and Postell Pringle), the script may rhyme, but it also stays true to the spirit of the original. The touches they do add (like a loving gay nephew who repeatedly invites Scrooge to his Christmas party) might feel a little contrived, but fit in well with the overall theme of good cheer (otherwise known as Christmas spirit). This is a show that has a lot of fun with the source material (such as giving Tiny Tim every affliction known to man, including scurvy) but does not shy away from being sentimental. The Q Brothers do well at balancing the traditional and non-traditional and in doing so tease together something unique. Read the rest of this entry »