Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

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

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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

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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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jump

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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: Pericles/Chicago Shakespeare Theater

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Photo: Liz Lauren

Photo: Liz Lauren

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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

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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

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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 »

Review: A Klingon Christmas Carol/Commedia Beauregard

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(l to r) Breon Arzell and Philip Zimmermann/Photo: Christopher Kidder-Mostrom

Breon Arzell and Philip Zimmermann/Photo: Christopher
Kidder-Mostrom

RECOMMENDED

If you haven’t had the chance to see Commedia Beauregard’s “A Klingon Christmas Carol,” well now is the time. The current incarnation of the show, its fifth, will apparently be the final production in Chicago. Happily, this version is lively, appropriately violent and anchored by a wonderful leading performance from Philip Zimmermann as SQuja’. Oh and if you are wondering what exactly “A Klingon Christmas Carol” actually is, it’s… well… it’s a version of “A Christmas Carol” that’s done entirely with Klingons.

Were you expecting something else?

This year, playwright Christopher Kidder-Mostrom (who co-wrote the piece with Sasha Warren) is on hand to preside over the proceedings. Playing an unnamed Vulcan—a race whose neo-Nimoy mannerisms he has down pat—Kidder-Mostrom welcomes us all to the Vulcan Institute of Cultural Anthropology for a presentation on the marked similarities between Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” and the Klingon folk story “tInIngam ram nI’ bom” or (“Klingon Long Night’s Song”). The story is then acted out by the Imperial Klingon Players. In Klingon. And when all’s said and done it’s practically identical to the Dickens save for two notable departures: 1.) Scrooge’s miserly penny-pinching and greed is replaced by SQuja’s utter cowardice in the face of battle, and 2.) All normal human (or Terran) interactions have been replaced by fighting, full-on physical hand-to-hand combat. Other than that the two are exactly the same. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: H.M.S. Pinafore/The Hypocrites

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(top) Erik Schroeder with (front, left to right) Robert McLean, Emily Casey, Christine Stulik, Shawn Pfautsch and Lauren Vogel/Photo: Evan Hanover

Erik Schroeder (top) with Robert McLean, Emily Casey, Christine Stulik, Shawn Pfautsch and Lauren Vogel/Photo: Evan Hanover

RECOMMENDED

First, he turned “Pirates of Penzance” into a beach-bum sing-along. Next, he took “The Mikado” and made a three-ring circus with all three rings overlapping, like a Venn diagram. And now, Sean Graney has arrived at the inevitable: Gilbert and Sullivan’s “H.M.S. Pinafore.” This time around he has picked a theme that perhaps best encapsulates his madmen-running-the-madhouse promenade style, turning the whole thing into a slumber party. What does a slumber party have to do with a show about the Victorian-era British Navy, you might ask?

From what I can tell, slumber parties have as much to do with the British Navy as the Shogun’s Japan has to do with PT Barnum and high seas profiteering has to do with Jimmy Buffett. That is to say, not a whole heck of a lot. And yet these three shows, currently running in rep at The Den Theatre’s new ground-floor space, all feel exactly right. They aren’t strict adaptations, and “H.M.S. Pinafore” is especially generous with the chopping and the splicing and the devil-may-care-but-we-sure-as-heck-don’t textural additions. They are re-imaginings. Graney has actually gone and broken these operettas down into their component parts and then built them back up again according to his own crazed design. “H.M.S. Pinafore” is a slumber party because Sean Graney’s “H.M.S. Pinafore” feels like a slumber party. So nyeh! Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Dee Snider’s Rock & Roll Christmas Tale/Broadway In Chicago

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Dee 1

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What happens when four guys from failed bands join together, make a deal with the devil and pledge their souls to Satan in order to find fame and fortune? When it takes place in a show entitled “Dee Snider’s Rock & Roll Christmas Tale,” it’s safe to guess that the result will be something a little… twisted, perhaps. Directed by Adam John Hunter, who also staged the national tours of “Sweeney Todd” and “Rock of Ages,” this world premiere is a family-friendly Christmas rockfest.

Hunter steering this production makes sense considering that the content of this show is so reminiscent of the latter (which also features songs by Twisted Sister) that, in fact, one could almost call this a “Rock of Ages” holiday sequel. While both shows feature a narrator, in “Rock & Roll Christmas Tale,” none other than Dee Snider himself takes on the role of spot-lit storyteller. While his name may be in the title, Snider’s monologues can get a bit lengthy, and often feel unnecessary, as the cast does an excellent job of delivering the funny and clever dialogue of the book. However, what ultimately sets the two shows apart is also the thing that ties them together: the music. “Rock of Ages” has more than twenty songs in its performance. Here there are thirteen, most of which are Twisted Sister songs or mash-ups of the hair-metal-band’s rock anthems with well-known Christmas songs. (Twisted Sister released a Christmas album, aptly titled “A Twisted Christmas” in 2006, making the originality of the mash-ups slightly less impressive.) Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Great Expectations/Strawdog Theatre Company

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(l to r) Cody Proctor and Mike Tepeli/Photo: Kyle Hamman

Cody Proctor and Mike Tepeli/Photo: Kyle Hamman

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The first thing that strikes you about Strawdog’s restaging of Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations” is the sheer number of books taking up the stage. They are stacked upon each other in bookcases, used as props, and then eventually underfoot of the characters as they deal with the aftermath of several plot points suddenly crashing down. At times the play resembles a staged reading with actors holding up books to read aloud and passing them to one another as if to affirm the author’s intent. It also is beautifully acted out with the action on stage serving as a complement to the brilliantly descriptive words written more than a hundred-and-fifty years ago. While Gale Childs Daly’s adaptation of “Great Expectations” might focus more on class issues than the original source material, it is her lavish attention to the words that make this ambitious undertaking so successful.

“Great Expectations” tells the tale of a parentless lad named Pip (Mike Tepeli) whose chance encounter with an escaped convict propels him from the life of a luckless orphan, raised meanly by an older sister, to that of a London gentleman. Foremost among Pip’s expectations are marriage to fellow orphan Estella (Amanda Drinkall) who is raised by her adopted mother, Miss Havisham (Mary Winn Heider), to break every man’s heart. Miss Havisham’s motivations are clear; she was stood up on her wedding day and forever more wears a yellowed wedding dress. She takes particular delight in commanding Pip to play with Estella while constantly reminding him of her beauty (and how unattainable she really is).
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