Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Review: On the Town/Marriott Theatre

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On the Town Slide 2

Given that “West Side Story” is often considered the greatest musical ever written, odd that its predecessor “On the Town,” the first show to unite choreographer Jerome Robbins and composer Leonard Bernstein, is done so infrequently.

Part of the reason is that the seamless line between music and drama achieved in “West Side Story” was still a long way off in “On the Town,” which began life as the ballet “Fancy Free.” That pedigree is never far from the surface of the show, as dance tends to intrude on the narrative, such as it is, and often for its own sake.

Bernstein’s score is meticulously well-crafted, but Bernstein was still in search of his own style, the music often coming off as Gershwin meets Shostakovich. When MGM made the movie version, they gutted most of Bernstein’s score as being too “operatic” in favor of new tunes by MGM house tunesmiths. Given the popular success of that film, a Frank Sinatra-Gene Kelly pairing, people are often expecting the movie tunes in the stage production. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Methtacular!/About Face Theatre

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Steven Strafford/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Steven Strafford/Photo: Michael Brosilow


In case you were wondering, yes, you read the title of this show correctly. It’s called “Methtacular!”And I must say that the title is a very apt one, as Steven Strafford’s one-man autobiographical show is equal parts “meth” and “tacular!” Produced by About Face Theatre, the show follows Strafford’s experiences in the early oughts as a struggling actor in Chicago, or more accurately, as a flourishing crystal meth addict who struggled to fit in acting gigs around it. While it doesn’t reinvent either the one-man-show or the harrowing-personal-account-of-addiction wheel, the show hits home anyway. Simply put, it is funny and it is sad and it is an incredibly enjoyable ninety minutes spent in the company of a man who has a story to tell and the chops to tell it. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Clemente: The Legend of 21/NightBlue Performing Arts Company

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Modesto Lacen/Photo: Drew Peterson

Modesto Lacen/Photo: Drew Peterson

The creation and delivery of a historical play presents very specific challenges. The story of the life of any individual, no matter how private and quiet it might seem to others, is a fulsome thing, and the telling of it requires heart-stopping decision-making. The central plot line must drive the narrative, with all the supporting information, no matter how juicy, supplying its named purpose. Add to this trial the fact that the examined life is that of an international celebrity, stir in several songs and call it a musical, and you are up to bat, bottom of the ninth, bases loaded, with the opposing team leading by a single point.

Writer and director Luis Caballero strikes out with his attempt to tell the story of Roberto Clemente, the acclaimed Puerto Rican baseball player. His poverty-stricken beginnings, his eighteen seasons with the Pittsburgh Pirates, his numerous awards and his celebrated charity work that led to his death in a plane crash are the stuff that could fill a theatrical offering with drama and music. But what is the central story? The rampant racism that he encountered within the sport? His marriage to a girl of a different faith? The physical ailments that he overcame to become the first Latino player to win a World Series as a starter? His giving back to his Puerto Rican roots during the off-season, creating opportunities for that country’s children? His sensational death that awarded him martyrdom? “Clemente: The Legend of 21,” heroically attempts to highlight each of these story arcs with equal examination, with the unfortunate result that plot lines appear, and then suddenly disappear, while another, previously unexplored and unexpected element leaps to center stage. Each story line receives its own climax, which I found to be battering. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Coraline/Black Button Eyes Productions

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Behind: Jeff Bouthiette; Foreground (Left to Right) Jennifer T. Grubb, Justin Kimrey, Caitlin Jackson and Kevin Bishop/Photo: Cole Simon

Background: Jeff Bouthiette; Foreground: Jennifer T. Grubb, Justin Kimrey, Caitlin Jackson and Kevin Bishop/Photo: Cole Simon


I arrived at City Lit Theater’s space to see Black Button Eyes Productions’ “Coraline” a complete Neil Gaiman virgin. I’d heard that the novelist’s 2002 horror/fantasy novella was a more overtly twisted “Alice in Wonderland” literary romp, and never gave it a second thought. That is, until director Henry Selick’s 2009 stop-motion film adaption of “Coraline” was nominated for an Academy Award. Then I was nearly annoyed that what I had deemed to be a grotesque morsel of British-against-British thievery was continuing to occupy a place in popular culture.

But composer Stephin Merritt and playwright David Greenspan’s musical rendering of Gaiman’s story has drawn me in, put me in my place. If Merritt’s notion of instrumental scoring for his music for “Coraline” (the young adventuress accompanied by toy pianos, the “real-world” grownups supported by a typical upright, and the “others” from behind the soon-to-be unlocked door singing over a baby grand with various found objects shoved between the piano strings) sounds like a 1970s music education thesis on new ploys for introducing young people to the orchestra, I found the actuality of it charming, and music director Nick Sula’s preparation and presentation, as always, terrific. And if the plot-line loses just a tiny bit of zip two-thirds of the way through, when the sung bits that come and go so quickly as to hardly qualify as proper songs nearly vanish, “Coraline” recovers quickly, and then drives to the finish. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Hank Williams: Lost Highway/American Blues Theater

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(l to r) Greg Hirte, Austin Cook, Matthew Brumlow, Michael Mahler/Photo: Johnny Knight

Greg Hirte, Austin Cook, Matthew Brumlow, Michael Mahler/Photo: Johnny Knight


It’s Audrey (played by the willowy Cora Vander Broek), Hank Williams’ put-upon first wife, who best sums up her husband’s fatal contradictions: “You wear a $500 custom suit—and I bet you haven’t changed your underwear in a week.”

American Blues Theater’s “Hank Williams: Lost Highway” is a warts-and-all musical portrait of the man who in the late 1940s essentially invented modern country and western, serving as the genre’s first superstar, legend and martyr. Directed by Damon Kiely, the play has the very American ambivalence of all such stories, simultaneously celebrating the art while lamenting the self-destructiveness of the artist, and underscoring the vital link between the two. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Marvelous Marvelettes/Black Ensemble Theater

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When Mary Wilson of the Supremes came through town late last fall, she recalled that the Supremes had no less than seven flops before catching on while another Detroit all-female group, the Marvelettes, had five consecutive hits, including Motown’s first-ever No. 1 hit.

This is history seemingly long-forgotten nearly fifty years later, that there was a time when Motown Records’ founder and president Berry Gordy was actually attempting to model the Supremes on the success of the Marvelettes. So much so, in fact, that he brought the Supremes to the same songwriting team that had written hits for the Marvelettes before the Supremes began charting.

While the Marvelettes have been largely relegated to an early footnote and a chorus of that first hit, “Please Mr. Postman” in Gordy’s own vacuous and self-serving “Motown the Musical,” leave it to Black Ensemble Theater to out-Motown Gordy himself by offering a three-dimensional portrait of Gordy and the inner workings of Motown in its world-premiere production “The Marvelous Marvelettes” by Reginald Williams and directed by Rueben D. Echoles.   Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Brigadoon/Goodman Theatre

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Kevin Earley/Photo: Liza Lauren

Kevin Earley/Photo: Liza Lauren


A few days ago, a friend and I were joking about the plot of Lerner and Loewe’s “Brigadoon” when he quipped, “What a silly story,” then, quickly realizing what he was saying in the same thought, he added “unlike most musicals.” Exactly. The tale of a mystical town in the Scottish Highlands that only appears for one day every hundred years is hardly an outlier in a world of singing and dancing cats or workingmen who build big ships not for money but for metaphor. But it is quaint, with its midcentury notions of utopianism grounded in a rustic, rural time capsule. And it is strange, its peculiarities foregrounded in director Rachel Rockwell’s stunning Goodman debut. But its strangeness holds its charm for me, with the town of “Brigadoon” as a stand-in for a particular vision of heaven, and the incursion of us Americans resembling the Fall From Grace in the Garden of Eden. (Other things I found swirling around in my brain in some of the slower parts, which this imperfect work has,  included the even-sillier “Gilligan’s Island,” with its comic—as opposed to tragic here—explorations of the challenges of mating in a small-sample population without mobility, and the musical “Riverdance,” which I admittedly only know through the incessant television commercials that once ran. Rockwell’s lords of the dance, though, are Scottish, not Irish, with tartan kilts, bagpipes and Highland dancing, which she blends deftly with ballet, leading to some mesmerizing choreography, most notably in the festive “I’ll Go Home with Bonnie Jean.”) Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee/Drury Lane Theatre

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(L to R) Frances Limoncelli, Landree Fleming, Eli Branson, Carolyn Braver, Zack Colonna, Joe Dempsey/Photo: Brett Beiner

Frances Limoncelli, Landree Fleming, Eli Branson, Carolyn Braver, Zack Colonna, Joe Dempsey/Photo: Brett Beiner


There’s a certain magic to academic competitions. Debate teams and Academic Decathlon members understand the focus and determination it takes to stand in front of judges and face what can be one of an adolescent’s biggest fears: losing. Unlike the comfort one can experience in these team activities, there is a competition where the pressure is all on a sole individual and he or she alone determines the outcome of the competition, where remembering that “I” comes before “E” except after “C” (in most cases) can be the difference between winning a juice box or going home with a trophy. This, of course, is the basis for “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” now playing at Drury Lane Theatre.

The cast of spellers is hilariously brought to life by Eli Branson (William Barfée, who spells with his magic foot), Carolyn Braver (Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere, a girl who wants to win so America will love her and her two dads will be proud), Zack Colonna (Leaf Coneybear, who makes his own clothes and wears a cape made out of a shower curtain), Jordan DeLeon (Chip Tolentino, last year’s Spelling Bee champ), Landree Flemming (Olive Ostrovski, a girl who believes her dictionary is her best friend), and Stephenie Soohyun Park (Marcy Park, a perfectionist who wants to prove she can be okay with being imperfect).  The wonderful cast is completed by Johnathan Butler-Duplessis (Mitch Mahoney, the Bee’s “comfort counselor), Joe Dempsey (Douglas Panch, the vice principal of the local junior high school) and Frances Limoncelli (Rona Lisa Peretti, a local real estate agent who won the 3rd annual Putnam County Spelling Bee). Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Last Ship/Broadway In Chicago

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The Last Ship


In the heart of Times Square there is a building called the TKTS Discount Booth; same-day tickets to Broadway shows can be purchased there at discounted prices. The queue of audience hopefuls is always many customers deep, and to speed along the process, employees move through the throngs answering questions about shows, locations, prices and where you can get the best pizza slice within walking distance. In my experience, the majority of the patrons are of the female persuasion, and hands-down the most frequently asked question is, “Which show is my boyfriend/fiancé/husband most likely to enjoy?” Beginning September 29, the answer to that question will be “The Last Ship.”

The show’s Tony Award-winning artistic pedigree doesn’t disappoint: John Logan’s book is poignant and funny and honest, frequently all at once, and the unflappable Joe Mantello brings his particular blend of heart and intellect to the direction. But it is the singular stamp of Grammy Award-winner Sting that permeates every moment of the production. Composer/lyricist of the mostly sung piece, Sting makes it easy to forget that this will be his Broadway debut. One of the measures of the most talented and seasoned creators of both music and lyrics for the stage is that while the songs and musical moments for a particular show are as varied as the story’s characters and situations, the score remains cohesive unto itself. To come out of the gate with such sweeping understanding of and dexterity for the form is past refreshing; even for an artist of Sting’s stature, it is astonishing. Read the rest of this entry »

Brigadoon It: Rachel Rockwell’s Goodman Debut Brings a Classic Out of the Fog

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Rachel Rockwell in rehearsal for "Brigadoon"/Photo

Rachel Rockwell in rehearsal for “Brigadoon”/Photo

By Dennis Polkow

Director and choreographer Rachel Rockwell seems to be the lady with the golden touch, the one with an uncanny talent for taking old classic shows that you thought you knew and giving them an entirely new luster.

Recognition for Rockwell’s extraordinary body of work via a run of musical theater successes at suburban venues such as Drury Lane Oakbrook, Marriott Theatre and Paramount Theatre is the milestone of Rockwell making her downtown directing debut at Goodman Theatre.

“It feels really good,” says Rockwell on a lunch break from rehearsals for “Brigadoon” at Goodman, “and it’s not lost on me at all what a big deal this is. I never worked at the Goodman when I was an actor and I always wanted to. And here I am!” she says with a genuine enthusiasm tempered with a charming humility.

“My Mom worked here,” Rockwell continues. “She was the Oracle in Mary Zimmerman’s ‘Pericles.’ The other thing I am so proud of is that the Playbill will be filled with names that will say, ‘making their Goodman debut.’ Almost every name. These are some of the finest musical theater talents in the city of Chicago who never get to work in their own theater district! That to me, is a real coup, that all of these brilliant people are doing a musical at the Goodman in this theater district for the first time, and we’re all doing this together!” Read the rest of this entry »