(r to l) Danielle Plisz, Andrew Swan, Scott Duff and John Francisco (Photo by Michael Brosilow)
Here’s a recipe for making your holiday season jolly and gay (listen, I knew there would have to be a gay pun in here somewhere so I figured I’d get it out of the way right at the start): Take Dickens’ uber-classic “A Christmas Carol” and add a pinch of MacBethian witches, a dash of song and dance numbers, a splash of purple and a whole lot of Liza Minnelli. Stir it up with a dynamic cast of singers and dancers (with choreography by Patrick Andrews), a live four-piece band and a large, boxy, morphable set (courtesy of Jerre Dye). Then sit back and watch the surreal redemption tale unfold.
This “fairy tale that fairies love to tell” is written by the undeniably funny and talented Scott Bradley (of “Carpenters Halloween” and “Alien Queen”) with music and additional lyrics by Alan Schmuckler. And though it follows the basic framework of “A Christmas Story” (Christmas season, grouchily irredeemable protagonist, three spirit guides, etc) it also veers off wildly from the original structure (with welcome, if rather muddled, results). Read the rest of this entry »
Claudia Alexandria Cunningham/Photo: Danny Nicholas
Playing at the Black Ensemble Theater in Uptown, “Once Upon A People” is the perfect antidote to the same old same old that can plague the holiday season. No offense to the traditional, but it would be a real shame if this new African fairy tale fell under the seasonal theater radar. Written by Rueben D. Echoles, “Once Upon A People” is a lot of everything that the Black Ensemble Theater does well. Dance numbers are choreographed beautifully and the voice talents on stage are simply amazing. The production also features the inspiring young talents of the Studio One Dance Theatre (a South Side organization dedicated to exposing children to the arts). Even the pre-show warmup act is genuinely entertaining as actors stroll down the aisles hawking their wares. On opening night, by the time they got to me and my ten-year-old daughter I was tempted to reach into my pocket to purchase a flower. Luckily it was on the house. Read the rest of this entry »
“I am not David Sedaris,” Mitchell Fain notifies his audience at the start of “The Santaland Diaries,” the stage adaptation of the famed author’s popular holiday essay. Fain then instantly cracks a joke about Sedaris’ distaste for the theater piece (but how he has no problem cashing the royalty checks every year), and it’s clear you’re definitely in good hands to hear all about the humdrums of working the holiday season.
Now in its tenth year at Theater Wit, “The Santaland Diaries” begins with the down-on-his-luck forty-seven-year old answering a want ad from Macy’s seeking “elves” to work the seasonal Santaland Christmas display. The only thing more depressing than applying for the job? Fain’s realization that he might not actually get hired! Fain proves to have the magic charm required to lead kids to Santa’s giant chair (at least to the apathetic HR interviewer) and is taken on staff. Packed into a windowless room for training, he selects the elf moniker of Crumpet and begrudgingly takes in all there is to learn about inhabiting the life of Santa’s little helpers (no you can’t take your costume home!) Read the rest of this entry »
Photo: Michael Brosilow
Christmas merriment is in full swing at the home of young Clara and her family in the fantastically staged opening scene of The House Theatre’s musical retelling of “The Nutcracker.” Twirling in a dizzying array, Clara, her parents, the eye-patched Uncle Drosselmeyer and their party guests exuberantly dance around the shiny Christmas tree (accompanied by a surprisingly lush four-person orchestra) as they eagerly await the holiday homecoming of Clara’s soldier brother Fritz. The good cheer, however, comes to a screeching halt when another soldier makes a chilly entrance instead, bearing a folded American flag. It’s an incredibly intense moment for a children’s show, but the production wisely trusts its young audience to come along for a more somber take on the beloved holiday tale that will pay off in heartwarming, if not emotional, ways.
Fast-forward to a year later and grief is still shackling Clara’s (Paige Collins) home. Drosselmeyer (Karl Potthoff) arrives unannounced a week before the family’s annual Christmas bash, only to disappointingly learn that this year’s party has been called off. It’s clear not all is right in the home as Clara’s parents (Benjamin Sprunger and Brenda Barrie) seem emotionally disconnected and unwilling to acknowledge the holiday season in any capacity. Worried about his young niece, Drosselmeyer gives her an early Christmas present: the eponymous Nutcracker. Read the rest of this entry »
This family-friendly 2010 Broadway adaptation of the 2003 film “Elf” is basically a high-octane song-and-dance version of the story of Buddy the Elf that has plenty to keep all ages entertained, from small children to seniors.
Lacking the wryness and special effects of the film, this musical version nonetheless boasts a witty book by Thomas Meehan (“Annie,” “The Producers,” “Hairspray”) and Bob Martin (“The Drowsy Chaperone”) which does develop, update and smooth over plot details that compress the story in a more genre-friendly way for the stage.
In the musical version, it is Santa—played by Ken Clement—who tells the story, engaging the audience with local color and witticisms and even a song or two. The biggest loss from the film is that Buddy, played by Will Blum, is really no larger than the other elves, so in that sense we do come to accept him as, well, an elf, rather than a human being raised as an elf. Read the rest of this entry »
Photo: Liz Lauren
Since Charles Dickens’ novella about the overnight transformation of the crotchety Ebenezer Scrooge was first published in 1843 (right around Christmastime, natch) it has been solidly absorbed into the holiday season, becoming one of the definitive stories of Christmas spirit, embedding itself in our collective thoughts and reminding us of our own Christmases (past, present and yet to come). And for many in Chicago, the annual Goodman production of “A Christmas Carol” (now in its thirty-sixth year) is the definitive Christmas show.
There’s good reason for this—it’s an easily accessible family show filled with plenty of spectacle, a solid (and impressively large) cast and an adaptation (by Tom Creamer) that gives us both comedy and emotional redemption on a grand scale, which the Goodman stage makes even grander. When Scrooge finally does make that turnaround (spoiler alert: Scrooge changes his miserly ways!) this show follows Scrooge’s intent when he buys the biggest prize goose he can find for the Cratchit family: go big or go home. Read the rest of this entry »
David Cromer and Patrick Andrews/Photo: Lara Goetsch
With Illinois signing gay marriage into law this month, the crumbling gay community at the center of Larry Kramer’s 1985 play “The Normal Heart” is almost unrecognizable to a new generation. In the thirty years that have passed since the early days of the AIDS crisis, societal acceptance and medical advances have obviously improved immensely, and Kramer’s harrowing play is a must-see testament to the staggering progress that has been made. The TimeLine Theatre Company’s rousing production will serve as a fascinating history to a younger audience fortunate enough to not live through the horrific time, and for those who did, a chilling reminder of the initial ravaging destruction by a virus that has since claimed more than thirty-million lives globally.
Chicago’s big-gun director David Cromer is back on the stage as Ned Weeks, a hotheaded Manhattan novelist/playwright/screenwriter based on Kramer himself. Alarmed by a New York Times article reporting a rising number of homosexual men dying from a new “cancer,” Ned teams with stern polio-stricken doctor Emma Brookner (Mary Beth Fisher) who’s desperate for gay men to wake up to the disease’s rapid spread and likely contraction through sexual contact. Constantly confronted by indifference and red tape from politicians and journalists not wanting to get their hands dirty with a gay cause, Ned and his fellow group of gay activists face an immensely staggering up-hill battle. The gay men he seeks to save are even skeptical of his message due to his call for community-wide celibacy. Read the rest of this entry »
Photo: Emily Schwartz
For anyone who’s ever pined for a movie star from a past era or maybe got a little too turned on by famous figures in history class, “The Dead Prince—A New Muzical” just might be the show for your deceased-person desires. The rest of you however probably won’t find the Strange Tree Group’s new tuner quite as zany as that substitution ‘z’ suggests.
The musical begins with a troupe of forest-dwelling storytellers (led by Elizabeth Bagby) tumbling out of their gypsy caravan to proclaim just how eager they are to deliver the evening’s fairy tale. They then proceed to sing about getting ready to tell the story instead of, you know, just actually starting to tell the damn thing. Once the group finally gets that initial song out of their system, the audience is introduced to Sara (Ann Sonneville), a past-her-prime princess desperate to find the right man to help rule her kingdom. Joined by her doting, bushy-haired, mandolin-totting minstrel (Zachary Sigelko), Sara sets out on a last ditch effort to land herself a prince by seeking the help of a magic mirror named Maldorf (Michael Thomas Downey), who—bad news for Sara here—reveals that she can never be with her true love because the dude is already dead. At one time a powerful wizard who cheated death by concealing himself in the mirror, Maldorf strikes a deal with Sara: if he leads her to the deceased prince’s tomb, she’ll crack the mirror and set him free. Read the rest of this entry »
Photo: Johnny Knight
Despite the fact that it’s been a Chicago holiday tradition for more than a decade (first produced in 2002) and its source material is a 1946 film, every moment of American Blues Theater’s current production of “It’s a Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago!” feels fresh and new, with the eager ensemble (led by original director Marty Higginbotham) throwing themselves into the story with so much wide-eyed gusto you can’t help but feel pulled in—into the story itself and into the general life-affirming message of how it is, in fact, a wonderful life.
American Blues Theater presents it as a live radio show in the 1940s and scenic designer Grant Sabin has created a cozy, idealized radio-station recording studio of a set, with snow occasionally falling outside a window and (in case you didn’t know this was a Christmas show) not one, not two, but three fully decorated Christmas trees springing up across the stage. Announcer and pianist Michael Mahler drives the show forward, both narratively and musically, while Foley artist Shawn J. Goudie creates a soundscape that adds depth and texture to the reading. Read the rest of this entry »
Dean Evans, Jay Torrence, Leah Urzendowski Courser, Ryan Walters and Anthony Courser/Photo: Evan Hanover
“You know how you go to most Christmas shows and you’re sitting there and they don’t catch you on fire?” one of the characters in “Burning Bluebeard” rhetorically asks the audience early on, before going on to explain how they ended up doing exactly the opposite during their show. Their show is “Mr. Bluebeard,” a spectacle-filled holiday pantomime performed at Chicago’s Iroquois Theatre in December of 1903. And the specific performance that’s being discussed is the infamously tragic matinee when the theater caught fire, killing more than 600 people, many of them children.
Originally produced two years ago by the Neo-Futurists at The Neo-Futurarium, this remounting at Theater Wit features the complete original cast, and is once again helmed by director Halena Kays. “Listen,” says Kays, “we wouldn’t come back and do this if this piece and this cast weren’t very special.” And it is indeed special. Written by Jay Torrence (who also performs in it), this semi-historical account features dance, acrobatics, clowning and a surprising amount of comedy. Read the rest of this entry »