Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Review: The Sound of Music/Lyric Opera

Opera, Opera Reviews, Recommended Opera, Recommended Shows, Theater, Theater Reviews No Comments »
Billy Zane and Jenn Gambatese/Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Billy Zane and Jenn Gambatese/Photo: Todd Rosenberg

RECOMMENDED

The second entry in Lyric Opera’s five-year traversal of the blockbuster entries of the Rodgers and Hammerstein canon fares far better than last year’s inaugural entry “Oklahoma!,” to be sure. Leaving aside questions of why Lyric, already struggling to present a wide diversity of operatic repertoire, should be focusing its limited resources on populist musical theater that is already widely performed and available in other local venues—to say nothing of why Rodgers and Hammerstein’s first work should be followed by their last—the fact remains that the company’s new production of “The Sound of Music” is one of the best new productions of any work done by Lyric in a long while.

To begin with, Broadway veteran Jenn Gambatese as Maria places her own stamp on a role that was originally created for Mary Martin, by then an elderly music-theater matron whose iconic status seeped over into her portrayal. She also managed to sidestep the immense shadow of the all-too-practically-perfect-in-every-way movie incarnation of Julie Andrews in her first film after winning an Oscar as another nanny, “Mary Poppins.”

Gambatese plays Maria as what she was, a naïve young girl who is going through the motions of attempting to find meaning in an empty life, whether fitting in at a convent, or in a household of children barely much older and sometimes much wiser, than she is. Most Marias make a journey of self-discovery, but Gambatese keeps the character’s naiveté out front throughout the show, adding refreshing credibility to the proceedings. She is no opera singer, to be sure, but no matter: she has a delightful show voice that fits Maria’s character and songs like a glove. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Avenue Q/Mercury Theater

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

Photo: Brett Beiner

RECOMMENDED

“Avenue Q,” originally conceived as a television series, developed as a stage production in 2002, moved Off-Broadway and then to Broadway in 2003, and garnered three Tony Awards. The fresh production running at the Mercury Theater continues to teach the coming-of-age lessons, delivered with the gentle distance provided by our puppet friends, manipulated by unconcealed actors, interacting with other actors. Baby Boomer parents coddled their little Generation X-ers into believing that they were unique, “special,” and that the world was their oyster. Learning to experience the real world without the aid of those parental, rose-colored glasses, our lovable protagonists take their B.A.s in English, and sing and shuffle-ball-change their way into an understanding of purpose, relationship negotiation, fiscal responsibility, homosexuality, racism, drinking, porn (and its engine, The Internet), sex and Schadenfreude. Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Snow White/Ballet Preljocaj

Dance, Dance Previews, Recommended Dance Shows No Comments »

blanche_neige_9. 300 dpiRECOMMENDED

Sex, violence, murder, revenge, high fashion. Angelin Preljocaj’s vision of Snow White delivers the most visceral elements of the Grimm Brothers’ tale with delicious aplomb. The woodland nymphs and satyrs who befriend the runaway Snow White are interrupted from sensuous flirtations; the first kiss between Snow White and her prince is deep, long and performed in the horizontal; the disguised evil queen does not offer her poisoned apple for a timid bite, but rams it into Snow White’s mouth with shocking force, dragging her across the floor by her head until she falls unconscious; and the grief-stricken prince drags, rolls, spins and tosses about the completely limp Snow White in what must be the most imaginative pas de deux ever staged. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: In the Garden: A Darwinian Love Story/Lookingglass Theatre

Recommended Shows, Theater, Theater Reviews No Comments »
Rebecca Spence and Andrew White

Rebecca Spence and Andrew White

RECOMMENDED

Marriage is challenging; a marriage between two people whose belief systems are fundamentally different might be doomed. Yet Charles Darwin and his wife Emma managed to overcome vast differences in their approach to faith to create a nurturing relationship that saw them through professional tests and personal tragedy. Sara Gmitter’s script is a loving look at a man who was unafraid to examine the world, and a woman who was patient enough to support any path he took, however unconventional.

Darwin (Andrew White) returns from his five-year voyage on the Beagle to continue to build his reputation as a naturalist and marry his fervently Christian cousin Emma (Rebecca Spence). Darwin is aware his agnosticism may cause problems, yet both agree to move forward. Gmitter examines this essential difference from many angles: its impact on Darwin’s professional life, the effect on his children and the attitudes of his extended family. Through all of the controversy, Gmitter demonstrates the couples’ love and respect that enables them to support each other during personal triumph and devastation. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Lay Me Down Softly/Seanachaí Theatre Company

Theater, Theater Reviews No Comments »
Dan Waller and Jamie L. Young/Photo: Emily Schwartz

Dan Waller and Jamie L. Young/Photo: Emily Schwartz

We’re not too far into “Lay Me Down Softly” before we learn that the carnival where the play takes place isn’t the sort of traveling sideshow that features freaks; if there were any freaks, they’d probably steal the show as I suspect a coterie of select circus-type oddities would be a better draw than the cast of characters Billy Roche’s script provides.

The story focuses on the main attraction of Delaney’s Traveling Roadshow: the boxing ring. None of the boxing or other fighting is shown on stage; the altercations take place offstage and the boxing is hinted at by a darkened ring, flashes of lighting, and the lingering after effects on the carnival’s pugilists. At first the center of attention is Dean (Matthew Isler)—a belligerent, disrespectful boxer who thinks he’s a real cutup. Instead, those around him—his enablers, let’s say—seem to find him a right bore and even a threat to themselves and to the roadshow. They merely tolerate his taunts and his violent antics because as boxer he’s a big part of whatever money their sideshow manages to bring in. Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Romeo and Juliet/Joffrey Ballet

Dance, Dance Previews, Recommended Dance Shows No Comments »
Photo: Herbert Migdoll

Photo: Herbert Migdoll

RECOMMENDED

Placing Shakespeare’s plays in different historical contexts is a longstanding tradition for theater companies and filmmakers: modern dress and settings are used to both illustrate universality of themes and to make Elizabethan language a little less intimidating to contemporary audiences. Krzysztof Pastor, director of the Polish National Ballet, places the tale of the ill-fated young lovers across not one, but three time periods. In the case of ballet, iambic pentameter is no barrier to comprehension; Pastor uses moments in twentieth-century Europe to illustrate the power of politics to destroy individual lives. As in Shakespeare’s play, the setting is Italy: Act I takes place in the 1930s, at the rise of Mussolini. Act II travels forward in time to the 1950s and the violent turmoil incited by the Red Brigades. The final act takes us to Berlusconi’s Italy, a place of increasing wealth disparity and social unrest. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: A View from the Bridge/Teatro Vista

Recommended Shows, Theater, Theater Reviews No Comments »
Sandra Marquez and Ayssette Munoz/ Photo: Joel Maisonet

Sandra Marquez and Ayssette Munoz/ Photo: Joel Maisonet

RECOMMENDED

From the very beginning of Arthur Miller’s “A View from the Bridge,” you know there’s a train coming, but you can’t get off the track. All you can do is watch as the train moves closer and closer until the headlights blind you. Perhaps, in this case, it’s more appropriate to imagine the Titanic heading toward that fatal iceberg.

Set in the 1950s in Red Hook, a New York neighborhood near the Brooklyn Bridge, the play follows hard-working longshoreman Eddie Carbone (Ramón Carmín) and his wife Beatrice (Sandra Marquez) and their differing opinions on how to let their niece Catherine (Ayssette Munoz) come into her womanhood. At seventeen, Catherine wants to work and has been taking classes in the hopes of becoming a secretary. Eddie is extremely protective of Catherine. While his care for her seems to come from a good-hearted place, it becomes clear that his emotions are a bit mixed up when he begins to project his feelings onto those around him, especially on his immigrant relatives Marco (Eddie Diaz) and Rodolpho (Tommy Vega-Rivera), who has taken a romantic interest in Catherine.   Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Dance of Death/Writers Theatre

Recommended Shows, Theater, Theater Reviews No Comments »
Shannon Cochran and Philip Earl Johnson/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Shannon Cochran and Philip Earl Johnson/Photo: Michael Brosilow

RECOMMENDED

Having spent time in the mid-1880s dipped in some sort of madness reminiscent of Lewis Carroll’s Hatter, August Strindberg dug himself out of his personal rabbit hole and continued to fill the robust portfolio of theatrical works which made him one of the most prolific playwrights of his time. In 1900 he penned “The Dance of Death,” originally a two-parter, later reduced to an exploration of the first half alone. This later version is now enjoying a turn at Writers Theatre’s space in Books on Vernon in Glencoe. The tiny room at the back of the bookstore would surely have pleased Strindberg as a performance space as he founded the Intimate Theatre in Stockholm in 1907, specifying many rules for the manner in which the space would be used, among them that the stage was to be unusually small, with a minimal number of seats, assisting in—and insisting on—giving the audience a greater connection to the work. This bookstore’s back-room theater has fifty seats; a playing space so intimate that, in this instance, coal piled in a bucket near the stove on set can be smelt by every audience member. There is no chance for distance, either for the spectators or the players. Read the rest of this entry »

Family Matters: Chicago Connections Within Lyric Opera’s “The Sound of Music”

-News etc., Opera, Profiles No Comments »
Billy Zane and Jenn Gambatese/Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Billy Zane and Jenn Gambatese/Photo: Todd Rosenberg

By Aaron Hunt

In her autobiography, “The Story of the Trapp Family Singers,” Maria von Trapp wrote of her confusion when the Mother Abbess of Nonnberg Abbey encouraged her to forsake her aspirations to the sisterhood in favor of answering God’s will: “I really and truly was not in love. I liked him but didn’t love him. However, I loved the children, so in a way I really married the children. I learned to love him more than I have ever loved before or after.” It was with this creation of a family that the wheels were set in motion for the careers of The Trapp Family Singers, the 1959 musical, “The Sound of Music” (the final collaboration of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II), and the 1965 film starring a practically perfect Julie Andrews. The aerial footage of Andrews spinning around on the top of the Tyrolean Alps outside Salzburg, palms opened upward in both supplication and celebration, and then that brilliant Rodgers score swirling and rising until hearts are so full that there isn’t another choice except voice, except song, has leapt into America’s collective conscious for the past half century.

Lyric Opera of Chicago hopes to send that gift twirling toward the next generation with their new production. Last year Lyric launched their American Musical Theater Initiative with “Oklahoma”; critics mostly raved, houses were sold out, extra performances were added. “The Sound of Music” is primed to repeat this success, given that the casting list includes a movie star, a television star, a Broadway diva and some Chicago-based leading ladies of the Joseph Jefferson Award-winning category. And not so surprisingly, nearly all of the stars of the production have one or more Chicago connections.

If there is a headliner in this romp, it would be Billy Zane as the zipped-up, guitar-strumming Captain von Trapp. Even though a successful film career has taken him all over the world, Zane grew up in Chicago. “There’s no more indelible horizon than Lake Michigan. I grew up basically on Ardmore and Sheridan overlooking that lake from the fourth floor, right off aptly named Hollywood Beach,” Zane revealed to a number of Chicago-area reporters during a telephone interview. Zane remembered fondly his time at Evanston’s Harand Camp of the Theatre Arts, where he acquired “the foundation of an appreciation of the American songbook.” Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Cicada/Route 66 Theatre Company

Theater, Theater Reviews No Comments »
Amy Matheny and Aaron Kirby/Photo: Joe Mazza

Amy Matheny and Aaron Kirby/Photo: Joe Mazza

Route 66 Theatre Company introduced itself to the Chicago and national scene with total transparency, both in name and in mission statement, undertaking to introduce, develop, produce and “export new works for the stage.” Using the highway of its name, the company has travelled with its productions to Los Angeles and New York. 2014 makes its first full season of new work.

Beautifully cast, with fine production values, the players and the production team throw themselves wildly into the “Cicada” hopscotch championship and never step on a crack. The nine-member ensemble immerse themselves in the material, inviting the audience into the story, while supporting each other seamlessly. As Lily, Amy Matheny runs to the dark place required of her, and lives there unstintingly. Aaron Kirby plays Lily’s son Ace, jumping through every flaming circus hoop required of him. Brian Sidney Bembridge’s scenic and lighting design coddles the audience, and then holds them by the hand and runs with them through every twisting transition. Read the rest of this entry »