Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Review: A Nativity Story: More Than A Miracle/Congo Square Theatre

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Photo: Samuel G

Photo: Samuel G

RECOMMENDED

A frequently cited frustration for those of the Christian faith is the supposed secularization of one of their most sacred observances. As the holiday hustle and bustle is increasingly built around wish lists, presents, elaborate decorations and Santa Claus—all things that have now become embedded in our traditional Christmas culture—they ask that we remember that Christmas didn’t begin with Santa Claus but with the birth of Jesus Christ.

And this is what writer/director Alexis J. Rogers —who has appeared in every Congo Square Theatre production of Langston Hughes’ time-honored classic “Black Nativity” and its derivatives since 2004—does in “A Nativity Story: More Than A Miracle,” expanding her artistic wings and creating her own version, inspired by Hughes’ work.

Gabriel (Kelvin Roston Jr.), a biblical angel, is sent on a mission from God to help save a fractured relationship between Diane (E. Faye Butler) and her son Nathan (Mark J.P. Hood), who is angry about not knowing the identity of his absentee father. Nathan, who is also a young aspiring playwright, has assembled his church’s drama ministry to put on his play recreating the events surrounding the birth of Jesus for a producer who might be interested in taking it further. Nathan and his mother get more than they bargained for through the journey of gospel music and modern dance in Nathan’s play. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Christmas Goose/Raven Theatre

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(l to r) Damian Conrad, Graham Emmons/Photo: Dean La Prairie

Damian Conrad, Graham Emmons/Photo: Dean La Prairie

RECOMMENDED

Light as down, raucous as the title bird and quick as the famous Baker Street sleuth’s brain cells, Raven Theatre’s revival of its mystery-cum-musical-cum-sing-along is a delightful way to pass a holiday-season hour.

Adapters Michael Menendian (who also directs this show with a sure, knowing hand) and John Weagly use Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” as the scaffolding of this bit of wintry whimsy, festooning it with Christmas carols, dance numbers, sound effects and gags, both wholesome and gross-out. All that’s missing for a latter-day vaudeville experience are jugglers and a trained seal. (Maybe next year.)

The plot-driving MacGuffin here is a priceless jewel, found like a Cracker Jack toy in the crop of a fat Christmas fowl. Holmes (played by Graham Emmons, who radiates a comical smugness) is on the scent, along with much-abused sidekick Watson (a sturdy if slightly touchy Damian Conrad). Literature’s most famous sadomasochistic couple delves from top to bottom of Victorian London in search of truth, justice and the aesthetic satisfaction of a puzzle solved. Along the way, we meet a series of apparently random characters, played with tongue-in-cheek earnestness and sometimes wavering accents by Matt Bartholomew, Lane Flores, Rudy Galvan, Sarah Hayes, Sophia Menendian and Symphony Sanders. Only that great brain of Holmes can connect them, thus finding pattern and moral order within the buzzing chaos of the nineteenth century’s great metropolis, which is organized around the impersonal activities of buying, selling… and stealing. This capability of Holmes, and our own continuing need to find form and meaning within the urban hubbub, accounts for the sleuth’s evergreen appeal. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Airline Highway/Steppenwolf Theatre Company

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Photo: Michael Brosilow

Photo: Michael Brosilow

This twenty-three-person, epic-scale panorama of New Orleans down-and-outers is echt Steppenwolf, overflowing with all that’s best and worst about Chicago’s signature theater company. Playwright Lisa D’Amour’s slice-of-life naturalism harks back to the troupe’s salad days, when its kinetic, sometimes scenery-chewing productions of Lanford Wilson’s “Balm in Gilead” and “Hot L Baltimore” put the ragtag band from ISU on the map, marking them as the nation’s foremost purveyors of urban angst to suburban culture consumers. True, the setup always was a touch creepy, but the rawness of the presentation, the undeniable acting chops of the original corps (including such promising youngsters as Gary Sinise, Laurie Metcalf and John Malkovich) and the provocative quality of the scripts made for a genuine edginess and relevance.

Many of those early strengths are on display here. Director Joe Mantello, imported from New York, elicits an array of sizzling performances from his Cecil B. DeMille-sized cast. Chief among these is K. Todd Freeman’s impeccable portrayal of Sissy NaNa, the black transvestite and moral center of the tribe of survivors who live in the Hummingbird Motel, a dingy hostelry on Airline Highway, far from the touristy French Quarter. Sissy and his homies—including aging hooker and addict Tanya (Kate Buddeke), hard-up handyman Terry (Tim Edward Rhoze), beatnik poet Francis (Gordon Joseph Weiss), alcoholic property manager Wayne (Scott Jaeck) and angry stripper Krista (Caroline Neff)—have come together to honor fellow resident Miss Ruby (the formidable Judith Roberts), whose life as an exotic dancer and artiste is about to end. Attending the premature funeral is Bait Boy (played with a nuanced touch of macho malice by Stephen Louis Grush), Krista’s former lover, who left the Hummingbird and the demimonde years earlier, taking a new name, the conventional Greg. He has done well for himself, acquiring, among other things, a high-school-age, nasal-voiced stepdaughter, Zoe (Carolyn Braver). Zoe is there to observe, hoping to get an A on her sociology paper by documenting the rituals of the Hummingbird “subculture.” Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Burning Bluebeard/The Ruffians

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(l to r)Anthony Courser, Molly Plunk, Leah Urzendowski, Pam Chermansky, Jay Torrence and Ryan Walters/Photo: Evan Hanover

Anthony Courser, Molly Plunk, Leah Urzendowski, Pam Chermansky, Jay Torrence and Ryan Walters/Photo: Evan Hanover

RECOMMENDED

I must confess that I came to this year’s production of The Ruffians’ “Burning Bluebeard” as an in-the-tank fan. Since seeing it last year, any conversation I have had concerning the show has either consisted of either exchanging yips of adulation with fellow fans (which consisted of anyone who saw the show) or just yelling “I don’t care what you have to do just see it!” to anyone who had not. Of course there was always the chance, however small, that the show would get terrible in the intervening year. Fortunately this is not the case. With one small exception, “Burning Bluebeard” is the same as it ever was: a devastatingly funny, singing and dancing and flying and lip-synching apology for the famous Iroquois Theatre fire that claimed the lives of 600 Chicagoans in 1903.

Describing the plot of the show is a bit like describing the plot of the pantomime “Mr. Bluebeard” that was being performed when the theater went up: it’s tricky because the plot isn’t really the point. The show is presented to us by the ghosts of the “Mr. Bluebeard” cast and crew. They want to perform the show again, and this time to get it right; “Get it right” in this case meaning “to not burn the audience to death.” It was a special effect for moonlight at the beginning of Act Two that began the blaze, and as the moment grows ever closer so does their anxiety that this time will be just like all the others. Throughout the show, each character fills us in on their own back story as well as their role in the events of the fire itself. They feel a great deal of guilt at their actions and would really like to simply put on a good show for us: something that would make us happy. But to say that the show has a “plot” is really a misnomer because it doesn’t so much have a plot as it has a dramatic arc. All the action moves closer and closer to the moment of the fire, but no one’s embarking on the Hero’s Journey here. Instead, the script—written by Jay Torrence, who also performs—mimics the pantomime form of “Mr. Bluebeard” with frequent breaks for music and dance numbers, clown shows, etc. The rhythm is that of a dream, one that starts as a pleasant, laugh-filled lark and ends in full nightmare mode. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Mikado/The Hypocrites

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Christine Stulik/Photo: Evan Hanover

Christine Stulik/Photo: Evan Hanover

RECOMMENDED

The problem that any company encounters when producing “The Mikado” is—to put it bluntly—it’s kinda sorta maybe pretty undeniably racist. And as it is a show set in Japan that was written by a pair of middle-aged British guys during the height of the Victorian Empire—neither of whom had ever been to Japan—its racial insensitivity is unsurprising. Despite all of this, “The Mikado” has not only managed to survive, but has downright thrived in the century-plus since its inception. It has done so because from the music to the lyrics to the book, the show is a fantastic piece of musical comedy. And yet, in production after production, there are still those moments where audiences squirm in their seats and look askance. Both theater artists and audiences have trouble reconciling their desire for Gilbert and Sullivan’s masterful artistry with the fact that they then have to forgive Gilbert and Sullivan’s stupid, ill-informed racism. It’s a pickle for sure.

Thankfully Sean Graney has rolled into town with his patented pickle-solving machine. Having made a career as a kind of theatrical necromancer, taking dead classical texts and reviving them to make them dance anew, Graney is perfectly suited to the task. And in the end, the answer was deceptively simple: Graney got rid of the racism by just kind of ignoring it. He took the show, which is currently running as a part of The Hypocrites “Gilbert and Sullivan Rep,” and he set it in a circus. There are polka-dot dresses, red-banded stockings and bright-green suspenders by the dozen with nary a kimono in sight. Additionally, he took Gilbert and Sullivan’s ornate, occasionally Orientalist score and reconstructed it for a motley assortment of guitars, accordions and banjos. Other than occasional mentions that the story is set in Japan, one would never know that the characters were meant to be a British person’s idea of a Japanese person. Instead they seem like what they really are: a British person’s idea of another, much sillier British person. I have no idea if this was Graney’s idea when he set out to adapt the piece, but it works. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Newsies/Broadway In Chicago

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RECOMMENDED

It’s easy to go into “Newsies” at the Oriental Theatre with a cocked eyebrow and a cynical smirk. The show, like the nineties movie it’s adapted from, is so utterly sincere in its intentions and its execution that you can’t help but laugh on occasion. When streetwise young toughs are crying for worker’s rights one minute and then turning a triple pirouette the next, it’s objectively pretty funny. However it is that sincerity and guilelessness that carries “Newsies” right into your heart. Pirouettes are awesome. So are topnotch Alan Menken tunes. To pretend like they aren’t is just as silly as most of the stuff that happens in this show.

For people who aren’t in the business of Christian Bale deep cuts, “Newsies” is your basic underdog story. It follows the travails of Jack Kelly (Dan DeLuca), a turn-of-the-century newsboy roustabout who leads the rest of his newsboy cohorts in an organized strike against the rate hikes instituted by Joseph Pulitzer (Steve Blanchard). In adapting the story for the stage, Harvey Fierstein has added in an intrepid reporter/love interest for Kelly, Katherine Plumber (Stephanie Styles). The characters are mostly drawn with broad, obvious strokes. For instance, there is one newsboy, Kelly’s sidekick (Zachary Sayle), who goes about on a crutch. This is far and away his defining attribute. In fact, lest we forget, his name is literally “Crutchie.” Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Twist Your Dickens, Or Scrooge You!/Goodman Theatre and The Second City

Christmas, Comedy, Holiday, Improv/Sketch Reviews, Improv/Sketch/Revues, Theater, Theater Reviews No Comments »
Beth Melewski and Francis Guinan/Photo: Liz Lauren

Beth Melewski and Francis Guinan/Photo: Liz Lauren

It’s not a bad script that renders “Twist Your Dickens, Or Scrooge You!” an unfunny, lackluster mess. It’s a terrible script. Penned by Peter Gwinn and Bobby Mort (Emmy Award winners for their work on “The Colbert Report”), this slapdash comedy show doesn’t know whether it wants to fully commit to skewering the classic Dickens tale or just throw together a slew of vaguely related  holiday sketches and hope audiences are in good enough Christmas spirits to laugh at them. The result is a surprisingly awkward evening of almost-comedy.

I say “surprisingly” because this is an exceptionally strong cast of comedians, led—and given gravitas—by Chicago stalwart Francis Guinan (who wouldn’t be out of place playing Scrooge in Goodman’s annual rendition of “A Christmas Carol” in the next theater over). But while the cast mostly throws themselves into the various bits—nineteenth-century commercials! A Dickensian orphan protest! Taylor Swift and Kelly Clarkson?!?—even their engagement with the material flags at times. Director Matt Hovde has not found the rhythm of this piece—if there is one—and it shows in various awkward lulls throughout. Even a nightly celebrity cameo—filled by Rick Bayless the night I saw it—feels shoehorned in and uninspired, leaving the celebrity bookending a brief “Peanuts” sketch by introducing it and then quickly saying goodnight afterwards. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Pericles/Chicago Shakespeare Theater

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Photo: Liz Lauren

Photo: Liz Lauren

RECOMMENDED

Whether you are of the camp that considers “Pericles” a Shakespearean romance or a “problem” play (or both), it is impossible to delve into this dynamic story without acknowledging the illogically insistent, magical happenstances that bring the central characters to near-holy redemption by the final scene. Though it is curious that “Pericles” doesn’t appear in “The First Folio,” and queer that there is scholarly speculation that the first half of the play was the work of a fellow scribe, “Pericles” was one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays in his day, and director David H. Bell’s swashbuckling production at Chicago Shakespeare Theater plays with the flash-and-flesh that would thrill the contemporary audience that flocks to see action-hero movies.

A narrating chorus of actors, playing at multiple roles with wildly adaptive temperaments, appearing and disappearing with roaring speed and hanging from rigging-ropes, creates the pirate film anew, spinning this allegorical journey from myth to human pathos. Aided by the scenic design of Scott Davis, the period-shattering, skin-celebrating costumes of Nan Cibula-Jenkins, the fine verse-nursing of Susan Felder, and the mystical, original music of Henry Marsh (intoned or sung in eerie or celebratory beauty by this company of triple-threats), it matters little that the characters themselves may be birthed in the bath of archetype; this glorious fable is greater than the sum of its parables. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Clean House/Remy Bumppo Theatre Company

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Annabel Armour and Alice da Cunha/Photo: Johnny Knight

Annabel Armour and Alice da Cunha/Photo: Johnny Knight

RECOMMENDED

Remy Bumppo’s production of Sarah Ruhl’s “The Clean House” is presented with a spotless understanding of the playwright’s sense of a compositional freedom of space and interval that invites the audience to set aside traditional, linear expectations and connect emotionally to the psychological storytelling.

Scenic designer Grant Sabin has created a white-white set—white couches, white rugs, white chairs, so much white that my teeth were set on edge before the houselights went down; his series of easily-drawn curtains permit scenes of otherness, real or hoped-for, to occur spontaneously and in concert with the seeming present. Janice Pytel’s costumes continue the muting of theatrical specificity, using (in most instances), oft-scrubbed colors and unspecific time-periods, and Charles Cooper’s lighting fades in and out slyly, providing a gentle translucency that reminds us that the passage of hours or months is irrelevant.

And director Ann Filmer showcases her gift for inviting actors to allow the characters to find them, rather than building predetermined personages with intellectualized rough edges of brick and mortar that can disconcert and disconnect; every performance reads as genuine and organic.

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Review: The Christmas Schooner/Mercury Theater

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The Christmas Schooner Cast 2

RECOMMENDED

In a city like Chicago, it’s hard to imagine not being able to get anything at practically any time. The internet and online sales make it even easier. Yet, back in the early twentieth century, getting things—like Christmas trees—in this toddlin’ town wasn’t so easy. With immigrants crossing the ocean regularly and longing for a holiday comfort so cherished in their homelands, the market was ripe. Thus a special ship made its way across the unpredictable lake from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to the Windy City to bring joy into the homes of many. That true story is at the heart of “The Christmas Schooner.”

The show’s book and score use the history of the Rouse Simmons, a schooner ship that sailed across Lake Michigan each November for many years carrying Christmas trees to Chicagoans. Similar to the script, historical documents show that the Simmons’ captain, Herman Schuenemann would sell the trees on the Clark Street Docks and occasionally gave away trees to needy families. Unlike the script, the Simmons and its crew have a slightly darker ending. Rather than the captain being the only soul lost on a turbulent November night in 1912, others went down with the sinking ship, though no one knows exactly how many. While the Simmons was not the first or the only ship to carry holiday evergreens across the lake, its wreck, to many historians, marks the beginning of the end of schooners sailing the rough winter waters to sell festive tannenbaums. Read the rest of this entry »