Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Review: October Sky/Marriott Theatre

Musicals, Recommended Shows, Theater Reviews, World Premiere No Comments »
Cast of October Sky 1

Patrick Rooney, Nate Lewellyn, Alex Weisman, Ben Barker and the cast of “October Sky”/Photo: Liz Lauren

RECOMMENDED

From Homer J. Hickam’s memoir, to a Universal Studios film, comes a musical retelling of an ageless, American story of the right, and the ability to rise above one’s circumstances through a vision bred of curiosity, hard work and determination, and the support of families, large and small. “October Sky,” with a book by Aaron Thielen, music and lyrics by Michael Mahler, and directed by Rachel Rockwell, makes its world premiere at Marriott.

Musicals have awkward births; stories of second acts that didn’t work, beloved songs discarded and lost for decades, and directorial revolving doors are myriad. “October Sky” is an exception that proves that rule. Thielen’s book is perfectly paced, focusing on the characters that drive the central arc, granting others a fond resonance while keeping them in supporting positions. Mahler works a compositional miracle here, dipping into Appalachian folk music, bluegrass and rockabilly, all informed by the contemporary musical theater idiom; the result is a mixture of uptempo gems and the type of soaring ballads that weds the Great American Songbook to popular music. Rockwell’s direction is subtle, drawing performances from her ensemble that delicately suggest an era and destination; from the accents to the intentions, she opens the story’s lens. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Jacksonian/Profiles Theatre

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(l to r) Juliana Liscio and Christian Isely/Photo: Michael Brosilow.

Juliana Liscio and Christian Isely/Photo: Michael Brosilow.

A dark and occasionally funny thriller opens the twenty-seventh season at Profiles Theatre. At first glance, Beth Henley’s “The Jacksonian,” a surreal Southern Gothic tale, seems like an ideal fit for a theater that knows its way around the genre of horror better than most. Yet this deliberately fractured play opts for atmosphere over action and ends up overworking its tense, melodramatic pretense to little reward.

“The Jacksonian” is “Blue Velvet” by way of “As I Lay Dying” complete with inversions of fifties innocence, nitrous oxide and moments of disturbing, sexualized violence, all punctuated by abstract monologues delivered by Juliana Liscio, whose performance as the prophetic daughter of a demented dentist is the real standout of the evening. As her father, Tim Curtis does possess noteworthy comic timing and lightens the play’s overwhelmingly macabre mood. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Price/TimeLine Theatre

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Mike Nussbaum. Photo by Lara Goetsch

Mike Nussbaum/Photo: Lara Goetsch

RECOMMENDED

There’s a scene in Myla Goldberg’s “Bee Season” where a character explores a storage locker. Instead of finding the typical packrat arrangement, he discovers a museum of trinkets, a tribute to the tragic obsession and neuroses of his wife. It is a dramatic passage built on vivid description. It is the only time I’ve ever been made physically ill by literature. I was reminded of this passage when I entered TimeLine Theatre for their production of Arthur Miller’s “The Price,” a masterpiece so grotesquely, richly and unbearably detailed that it might make you vomit. And I mean that in the best way possible. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: After Miss Julie/Strawdog Theatre Company

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Strawdog

Maggie Scrantom and John Henry Roberts/Photo: Chris Ocken

RECOMMENDED

Strawdog Theatre Company lives up to the theme of their twenty-eighth season, “The Tipping Point,” by thrusting audiences into the basement kitchen of an English aristocrat just before the UK’s 1945 general elections, the elections that would finish Churchill and his conservatives in favor of the Labour Party. This production of Patrick Marber’s “After Miss Julie,” a modern take on August Strindberg’s 1888 classic, firmly reminds us of the countless filaments of personal struggle that light the way to tipping points, confusing, along the way, individual desires with social mandates and larger national movements. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: It Came From Kentucky/The Annoyance Theatre

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John Horton and Marybeth Kram/Photo: Molly Kom

John Horton and Marybeth Kram/Photo: Molly Kom

RECOMMENDED

Aliens and hillbillies in a musical together. That’s what you get when you go to see “It Came from Kentucky” at The Annoyance Theatre. Initially, you might think that this is a plot devised by a group of improvisers as they sat around getting drunk. You’d likely be surprised to learn that directors Sam Locke and Dustin Levell actually put together a piece that revolves around actual events that occurred in Hopkinsville, Kentucky back in 1955.

This musical comedy celebrates the diamond anniversary of the Kelly-Hopkinsville Encounter, and claims to tell the “true” story of what happened when visitors from another planet descended on the backwoods inhabitants of the Bluegrass State. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: This House Believes the American Dream is at the Expense of the American Negro/Oracle Theatre

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Photo: Joe Mazza

Photo: Joe Mazza

RECOMMENDED

“This House Believes the American Dream is at the Expense of the American Negro” is a lengthy title for Zachary Baker-Salmon’s well condensed, seventy-minute adaption of the historic 1965 debate between legendary writer and civil rights activist James Baldwin (Johnard Washington) and—as some label him—the father of modern conservatism, William F. Buckley, Jr. (Jeremy Clark).

The debate took place at Cambridge University to a packed room of Union Society members and undergraduates. However the play begins the moment you walk through Oracle Theatre’s doors. You are told that the audience will decide the winner of the debate and handed two ballots: One you cast before the play, the other after, to see if your position has changed.

The play is quite entertaining, educational and relevant in reviving an important question we must ask ourselves about who has paid the cost for our American dream? Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Ashes to Ashes/Citizens’ Relief and INTUIT: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art

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Simone Jubyna and Mike Driscoll/Photo: Leonard M. Cicero

Simone Jubyna and Mike Driscoll/Photo: Courtesy of INTUIT

RECOMMENDED

Harold Pinter’s plays often seem longer than they are thanks to the fact that he intentionally calls for prolonged pauses and silences within his scripts. Because of this, those who attend “Ashes to Ashes” at INTUIT: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art, may feel that they have witnessed an epic piece of theater, although they’ve only been seated for about fifty minutes.  Thanks to the topics within the play, no matter how brief the duration, it remains a piece of epic proportions.

The two-person cast of Mike Driscoll and Simone Jubyna bring to life Pinter’s married couple, Devlin and Rebecca, respectively. The two sit in two chairs with two lamps nearby. Jubyna never rises from her seated position, while Driscoll occasionally paces, stares at a piece of art on the wall, and returns to his chair. The action is obviously simple. The concepts and issues being addressed are not. On its surface the play is about a man interrogating his wife about a love affair, a potential infidelity. At a deeper and more satisfying level it is about being a survivor, about one woman’s attraction to the darker side of our natures, about PTSD and how the families of its sufferers struggle to understand. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Universal Wolf/Trap Door Theatre

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Antonio Brunetti and Leslie Ruettiger/Photo: Michal Janicki

Antonio Brunetti and Leslie Ruettiger/Photo: Michal Janicki

I’d like to offer an analogy that I think Joan Schenkar, the rare American playwright at the European-leaning Trap Door Theatre, would approve of: “The Universal Wolf” is theater as ouroboros. Insistent on “deconstructing”—a French term for taking the piss, apparently—at every potential dramatic impasse, “The Universal Wolf” consumes itself until its potential for being revelatory has been completely absorbed by its unrelenting need to be referential.

The play has all the hallmarks of a collegiate work. It applies linguistic, philosophical and psychological terms with little regard for their actual usage, leeches on to pre-established mythical structures while simultaneously attempting to break them down, and possesses a grating, indulgent cockiness. All of which causes this already incomprehensible work to border on being distasteful. And not in the way Schenkar likely intended with her broad use of burlesque sexuality and dusty macabre humor. Named for a line from one of Shakespeare’s most ambiguous and—notably—under-produced works, “The Universal Wolf” reeks of half-baked intellectualism’s cheap cologne.   Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story On Stage/Broadway in Chicago

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Christopher Tierney (Johnny) and Gillian Abbott (Baby) in the North American tour of "Dirty Dancing - The Classic Story on Stage" / Photo: Matthew Murphy “Dirty Dancing” is undoubtedly one of my favorite films. I remember watching it in grade school for the zillionth time with one of my best friends and getting in trouble for jumping off of her parents couch as we tried to do the dance jumps and imagine what it would be like to fall into Johnny’s arms after landing that iconic lift.

If you’re as big of a fan of the film as I am, this staged version might leave you itching to watch the movie when you get home rather than feeling that you’ve had the time of your life. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Assassination Theater: Chicago’s Role in the Crime of the Century/The Museum of Broadcast Communications

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Ryan Kitley, Mark Ulrich and Michael Joseph Mitchell/Photo: Michael Brosilow.

Ryan Kitley, Mark Ulrich and Michael Joseph Mitchell/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Back in my college days, I attended a sizable number of history and political science lectures as a theater and poli-sci double major. I would have been thrilled if any of those lectures had been half as engaging as Hillel Levin’s “Assassination Theater: Chicago’s Role in the Crime of the Century.” This production, dubbed “A Theatrical Investigation,” is a prime example of how to make the presentation of a lot of information interesting and attention-grabbing. That being said, it is not a good piece of theater.

The production, helmed by Kevin Christopher Fox, puts forth a pretty convincing argument that the work’s author, Hillel Levin (portrayed on the stage by actor Michael Joseph Mitchell), has tied Chicago’s Outfit to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy (as well as the later assassination of his brother Robert F. Kennedy). The argument is solid. The materials are well presented and supported. Were I a political science professor giving a grade to this senior thesis, I would give it an A. Read the rest of this entry »

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