Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Review: Anna Bolena/Lyric Opera of Chicago

Opera, Opera Reviews No Comments »
Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Opera impresarios must find themselves at a singular disadvantage in an era when audiences can drive to their local multiplex and watch opera singers up close, live and sweating, every unique figure and unhappy pore on display. As opera companies who want to stay alive desperately paddle upstream, casting decisions must be terrorizing. Should they present a cast that can deliver the vocal goods to the closest expectations of the composer, no matter their appearance or acting ability? Should they move in the opposite direction, and cast singers who can manage the roles, potentially be heard, look the part, and act it well? Or should they mix it up, beg and borrow, hedge their bets, and offer what is perhaps characterized best as the hodgepodge? Lyric Opera of Chicago’s production of “Anna Bolena” tells the story of an opera production that took the latter route, and is consequently less than the sum of its parts.

Jamie Barton, Lyric’s Jane Seymour (who won both the main and song prizes at the 2013 BBC Cardiff Singer of the Year competition), is the genuine old-school goods; her singing is limpid in tone, perfect in projection, and vocally effulgent throughout the registers. Barton harkens back to the age when the voice was all that mattered. But while Barton affords us a youthful simplicity as Seymour, she doesn’t connect with the side of the character that actually wants to succeed Bolena as Consort, at all cost. Further, based strictly upon what the media feeds us (and without an amazingly apparent sexual mystique), Barton’s solid figure seems an unlikely attraction for a narcissistic King who can (and does) have whoever he lays eyes upon. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Mikado/The Hypocrites

Recommended Shows, Theater, Theater Reviews No Comments »

 

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

Musicals, Recommended Shows, Theater, Theater Reviews No Comments »

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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: Holiday Bizarre/Foiled Again

Christmas, Holiday, Performance, Performance Reviews, Recommended Performance No Comments »

Foiled Again promo pic full size

RECOMMENDED

It was the trio kazoo-version of “Carol of the Bells” that completely did me in. No one can make a pretty face with their lips wrapped around a kazoo. I couldn’t even applaud, because I was doubled over with laughter.

Vocal trio Foiled Again (Allison Bazarko, Rob Lindley and Anne Sheridan Smith) have crafted their annual holiday show into an homage to the television Christmas specials that aired from the fifties into the seventies. A zanier version of the Lennon Sisters-minus-one, they keep the evening light and mostly family-friendly, with the sort of gentle musical stylings, comic sketches and variety songs that kept baby boomers and their children checking the dates and times of their favorite shows twice to make sure they didn’t miss these events, pre-TiVo. Special instrumental soloists are highlighted, and every “sister” has a vocal solo, with repeated “step-outs” within numbers, one singer carrying the song with the other two crooning perfect oohs and aahs in the background. Beginning with a fizzy version of Irving Berlin’s “Got My Love to Keep Me Warm,” the trio launches “Jing-a-Ling, Jing-a-Ling” when someone helps Bazarko find some bells to shake.

Continuing to chat with the audience and astonish with their arrangements, the trio singingly trips their way through tunes as varied as Joni Mitchell’s “Urge for Going,” and medleys of more classical carols such as “Love Came Down” and “In the Bleak Midwinter.” Read the rest of this entry »

Muscle Memory: Mad Shak Investigates How We Forget

Dance, Recommended Dance Shows No Comments »

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Molly Shanahan/Mad Shak’s ongoing “Stamina of Curiosity” project dives deep into the underwater caves that form when one person performs for another, and her curiosity uncovers phenomena at the microscopic level. “There’s something that takes over before a performance,” Shanahan says, describing the inspiration for the current iteration of “Stamina,” entitled “Virtuosity of Forgetting.” “No matter how much we welcome vulnerability, a change takes place in the body when you consider being witnessed—a cross section of exhilaration and panic. In rehearsal, there’s always the presence of the infinite ways a movement can be done and openness to the reality that anything could happen. In performance, this collapses down to the sense of ‘one right way’ and that we’ll get it right or wrong. When performance is reduced to a binary, we experience loss, because we’re keeping something from the witness.” 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 »

Preview: Dances for the Underground/The Seldoms, Peter Carpenter, Kate Corby & Dancers

Dance, Dance Previews, Recommended Dance Shows No Comments »

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RECOMMENDED

The Seldoms share the bill for two weekends at Links Hall, presenting the first chapter of a new work by the company’s intellectually driven artistic director Carrie Hanson. “RockCitizen” is inspired by the rock-music-driven counterculture movements of the mid-to-late-twentieth century. Hanson seeks to unpack counterculture from social, political and economic perspectives, asking questions about how the phenomenon emerges, the groups it unites, the way it simultaneously questions dominant culture and encourages consumerism, and how it diffuses or fails. Hanson is a great pairing with Peter Carpenter, who last weekend presented the twelfth  iteration of his multi-year, ongoing “Rituals of Abundance for Lean Times,” entitled “Dominant Collapse.” Carpenter is an independent dance-theater maker inspired by many of the same forces that move The Seldoms. 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.

Read the rest of this entry »

Living Funeral at the Hummingbird Hotel: Steppenwolf Playwright Lisa D’Amour on Setting Her “Airline Highway” in Her New Orleans Hometown

Theater, World Premiere No Comments »
(from top, then left to right) Scott Jaeck, Brenann Stacker, Caroline Neff, Terry Hamilton, Kate Buddeke and Carolyn Braver/Photo: Joel Moorman

(from top, then left to right) Scott Jaeck, Brenann Stacker, Caroline Neff, Terry Hamilton, Kate Buddeke and Carolyn Braver/Photo: Joel Moorman

By Raymond Rehayem

Lisa D’Amour is a playwright and an interdisciplinary artist. “It’s just a little bizarre that it’s kind of two different fields,” she notes when we discuss the distinction between traditional theater and interdisciplinary arts. “It’s sort of astounding how little the leaders in these fields talk to each other.” An Obie winner for her play “Detroit” as well as for work as part of the collaborative performance duo PearlDamour, she’s been working closely with Steppenwolf on the world premiere of her new play “Airline Highway.”

I asked D’Amour if developing a play set in her hometown of New Orleans with the famed Chicago theater, who commissioned the piece, affected the content of the show. “Only in that it helps to make the content clearer. It’s especially good to be developing it with a lot of people who don’t know a whole lot about New Orleans. There are certain sort of inside jokes and references that are very New Orleans specific and many remained in the play, but when there’s too many then an audience that doesn’t know New Orleans just feels lost. It was really a great way to kind of shape how we make this accessible to a Steppenwolf audience without dulling the play down.”

The play is set in the parking lot of the fading Hummingbird Hotel on the titular roadway, where a group of the establishment’s current and former residents gather to celebrate the life of dying octogenarian Miss Ruby, Bourbon Street burlesque legend and matriarch to many. This celebration takes the form of a living funeral. Read the rest of this entry »