Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Hair Share: PJ Paparelli and JR Sullivan Stage a Revitalized Musical

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Sky Seals, Ella Raymnont, Christian Libonati, Aaron Holland/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Sky Seals, Ella Raymnont, Christian Libonati, Aaron Holland/Photo: Michael Brosilow

By Raymond Rehayem

American Theater Company’s artistic director PJ Paparelli has spearheaded a revival of “Hair” that at times just might make yours stand on end.

“If you’ve never seen ‘Hair’ you’ll have your own experience which I think is very true to the time period. If you have seen ‘Hair’—and a lot of theater people have—I think you’ll be very pleasantly surprised,” says Paparelli, as we speak days before the show’s opening.

Though speaking with him on behalf of Newcity Stage, I don’t qualify as theater people in this sense. I’ve never seen “Hair.” Not even the hit 1979 film adaptation. I had always sensed revivals of the Broadway production and certainly the movie were far removed from the original intent of the show’s creators. Paparelli’s stirring take seeks to bring the audience right to the genuine heart of the oft-staged, widely beloved rock musical.

“Nothing can replace the ‘Hair’ of 1967 and ‘68. Because it’s playing against something so real: the headlines of the day. It’s as if—this sounds horrible—as if you’re doing a theater piece about 9/11 as it’s happening. It would be so powerful and nothing can change that. But what I’ve learned, in terms of theater that’s socially/politically charged, is it’s all about specificity. It’s about being as specific and real as we can, grounding it in its period and the particular issues, and the specificity of the characters and what they’re going through.” Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Hair/American Theater Company

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Photo: Michael Brosilow

Photo: Michael Brosilow


Just like they sing it in the title song, “Hair” is indeed “fuzzy, snaggy, shaggy, ratty, matty, … bangled, tangled and spaghettied.” But for all of its loose-jointed, self-indulgent raggedness, it remains the classic theatrical expression of its cultural moment. And even a crewcut Teabagger would find it hard not to dig American Theater Company’s vibrant revival of Gerome Ragni’s, James Rado’s and Galt MacDermot’s “American Tribal Love-Rock Musical.” Superbly cast and lovingly directed by PJ Paparelli (assisted by JR Sullivan), with expert musical guidance by Austin Cook, this production harkens back to the show’s roots as a street-theater-inspired experiment, conceived by two working actors and staged in a cozy East Village space far from the lights of Broadway.

Forty-six years after its premiere, the musical still packs a wallop, and if the characters on stage seem impossible to imagine today, it’s not because things have gotten better. For all their goofy extravagance, their swings from profound to infantile, the patched and fringed young romantics who populate “Hair”’s hippie tribe exude a spirited, evergreen charm. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Sons of the Prophet/American Theater Company

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Photo by Michel Brosilow

Photo: Michel Brosilow


The well-intended cliché “God never gives you more than you can stand,” offers precious little comfort for the world’s atheists.  Stephen Karam’s latest deftly examines the nature of suffering, the role of faith and the possibility of finding comfort when the bosom of the Almighty isn’t an option.

Hapless Joseph (an affable Tyler Ravelson) suffers from a mysterious illness while grieving the loss of his father in a tragic accident, caring for his disabled, cantankerous uncle (a hilariously inappropriate Will Zahrn) and supporting his brother Charles (Michael Weingand, negotiating the gap between persuasive and bitchy).  Joseph takes a job with flakey-yet-flinty publisher Gloria (Natalie West) for medical benefits, while sidestepping her efforts to exploit his family’s tenuous connection to famed poet Khalil Gibran. As Joseph’s health spirals, he reaches out to reporter Timothy (a subtly oily Greg Matthew Anderson) for comfort. Read the rest of this entry »

The Players 2014: The Fifty People Who Really Perform in Chicago

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In the foreground, Mike Nussbaum. Continuing in a clockwise circle, Nathan Allen, Charles Newell, Autumn Eckman and Nick Pupillo, Rae Gray and Usman Ally, Alejandro Cerrudo, Ann Filmer, Michael Mahler, Michael Halberstam, Dave Pasquesi, Ayako Kato. In the background, T.J. Jagodowski.

Once was the time, when it came to performing arts, that Chicago was a great place to come from. But thanks to the constant upward trajectory of our community, Chicago is now a great place to come from AND to return to. Every year we see more and more evidence of this, whether it’s the regular homecomings of the likes of Michael Shannon and David Cromer, the Chicago reorientation of international stars like Renee Fleming and Riccardo Muti or the burgeoning national reputations of Tracy Letts and Alejandro Cerrudo, we’ve got quite a perpetual show going on. That means of course, that culling a growing short-list of 300 or so down to the fifty folks who make up this year’s Players, is getting more painful. But we’re crying tears of joy as we do it. What follows are the fifty artists (as opposed to last year’s behind-the-scenesters) in dance, theater, comedy and opera who are making the greatest impact on Chicago stages right now.

Written by Zach Freeman, Brian Hieggelke and Sharon Hoyer, with Mark Roelof Eleveld, Hugh Iglarsh and Robert Eric Shoemaker. Photos by Joe Mazza/Brave Lux

Pictured above: In the foreground, Mike Nussbaum. Continuing in a clockwise circle, Nathan Allen, Charles Newell, Autumn Eckman and Nick Pupillo, Rae Gray and Usman Ally, Alejandro Cerrudo, Ann Filmer, Michael Mahler, Michael Halberstam, Dave Pasquesi, Ayako Kato. In the background, T.J. Jagodowski.

All photos were taken at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago.

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Review: Unwilling and Hostile Instruments: 100 Years of Extraordinary Chicago Women/Theatre Seven of Chicago

Theater, Theater Reviews, World Premiere No Comments »
Jaclyn Hennell as Ann Landers

Jaclyn Hennell as Ann Landers

“How do we tell that story and, like, tell the truth?” one hip young ensemble member asks another in the unwieldy (and unwieldily titled) “Unwilling and Hostile Instruments: 100 Years of Extraordinary Chicago Women.” Gathered in “a rehearsal room at The Hull House Theatre”—actually American Theater Company, where Kerith Parashak’s mazelike set is appropriately packed with Joshua Hurley’s seemingly random and decaying collection of props—they’re rehearsing the show we’re about to see.

It’s a show about history and Chicago and women. But it’s not going to be THAT kind of show, these actors assure each other as they playfully prepare. Because they wouldn’t want to put on THAT kind of show. They just want to cut the bullshit, tell the truth and not be all “…Historical. Like ‘capital H’ Historical.”

Well, it’s an admirable attempt. The thing is, a tongue-in-cheek, self-aware, meta after-school special is still an after-school special. And no matter how hard this energetic cast works to push back against presenting a rather dry pedagogical series of historical pieces linked together via entertaining (though mostly inane) backstage banter, that’s what this world-premiere production (featuring plays by nine Chicago playwrights) currently is. Read the rest of this entry »

Not Just A Play: “Columbinus” Revised and Revisited at American Theater Company

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Photo: Michael Brosilow

Photo: Michael Brosilow

By Johnny Oleksinski

“I never thought I’d go back to this play. Ever, ever,” emphatically states PJ Paparelli, artistic director of American Theater Company. He’s talking to me on the phone during a wintry transit, so there is an added emphasis to his assertion. Well, PJ thought wrong. A revised version of his eight-year-old “columbinus” opens this week at American Theater Company, also directed by him. So, why has he returned to it now? After all, the play has been done here before. When Paparelli moved to Chicago to take up the reins of ATC in 2008, Raven Theatre was in the throes of presenting the Chicago premiere of his widely produced work.

He wrote “columbinus” in 2005 with “Sons of the Prophet” playwright Stephen Karam based on interviews with high-school students around the country and citizens of Littleton, Colorado who had been affected by the 1999 Columbine High School massacre. The play began with a first act set in a fictional high school, and the second segued into specifically Columbine. The New York Theatre Workshop premiere was critically praised and sprouted countless productions nationally.

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The Players 2013: The 50 People Who Really Perform in Chicago

Players 50 3 Comments »

PLAYERSThough we publish a list of “players” every year, we alternate between those whose accomplishments are most visible on-stage (the artists, last year) and those who wield their influence behind the curtain (this year). Not only does this allow us to consider twice as many people, but it also puts some temporal distance between the lists. So, the last time we visited this cast of characters, two years ago, we were celebrating the end of the Richard M. Daley years in Chicago, fretting over a nation seemingly in the mood for a Tea Party and contemplating the possibility of a Latter Day Saint in the White House. Today, we’ve got a dancer in the mayor’s office, the most prominent Mormons are in a chorus line at the Bank of America Theatre and the Tea Cup runneth dry. Call us cockeyed optimists, but things sure look better from here. And so, meet the folks who, today, bring us the best theater, dance, comedy and opera in the nation.

Written by Zach Freeman, Brian Hieggelke, Sharon Hoyer and Johnny Oleksinski
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Review: It’s a Wonderful Life: the Radio Play/American Theater Company

Christmas, Holiday, Recommended Shows, Theater, Theater Reviews No Comments »

Mike Nussbaum and Cliff Chamberlain/Photo: Katie Sikora


It’s probably blasphemy to suggest that American Theater Company’s radio rendition of this holiday tale is better than the iconic Frank Capra film, but it’s certainly close under the superb direction of Jason Gerace and artistic director PJ Paparelli.

With a swanky look and a fast-moving pace, ATC’s version starts off with a feel-good vamp from the narrator (Chris Amos) that includes quirky messages from audience members, local businesses and game-show contestants. Joining the cast this year is Cliff Chamberlain as George Bailey and Mike Nussbaum as Mr. Potter. Chamberlain does a remarkable job being convincingly boyish and deeply intense without slipping into a stale Jimmy Stewart impression. Nussbaum is both chilly as Potter and honest as Clarence, gracefully pushing past any “Touched by an Angel”-ish associations. Sadieh Rifai and Jessie Fisher bring the female characters to life in full color. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Catholic Repertory/American Theater Company

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Penelope Walker and Kate Skinner/Photo: Peter Coombs Photography


Kicking off their twenty-eighth season, American Theater Company embarks on a spiritual journey in the aptly titled repertory-style production of “Doubt” and “Agnes of God.” John Patrick Shanley’s 2004 play “Doubt,” in which a nun suspects a priest of molestation, garnered the 2005 Pulitzer Prize and had a lengthy run on Broadway. The lesser-known “Agnes of God” by John Pielmeier was originally presented on Broadway in 1982 and tells the story of a young nun accused of infanticide.

Under the direction of PJ Paparelli, the back-to-back plays begin with a briskly paced “Doubt,” led by Kate Skinner, who gives a strong performance as Catholic School principal Sister Aloysius. Skinner’s sharp coldness takes command of each scene and the audience isn’t likely to be left with any doubt of her suspicions. Sister Aloysius meets her match in the play’s most intense scene between herself and the suspected victim’s mother Mrs. Muller, played by Penelope Walker. The accused Father Flynn is played competently by Lance Baker, who occasionally delivers Shanley’s witty lines rather illogically. The naïve Sister James is played by Sadieh Rifai, who does her best to physically embody her character’s eventual corruption. Read the rest of this entry »

American Theater Company announces 2012-2013 season

-News etc., Season Announcements, Theater No Comments »



Chicago, IL – American Theater Company proudly announces Season 28, which kicks off with two American classics in rotating repertory – The Catholic Repertory: Doubt & Agnes of God – featuring Ensemble Member Sadieh Rifai; and a Chicago holiday repertory – The Radio Repertory: The Wizard of Oz & It’s a Wonderful Life – directed by ATC Artistic Associate Jason W. Gerace. The season continues with the World Premiere of the revised version of the United States Theatre Project’s columbinus, conceived and directed by Artistic Director PJ Paparelli. Following in the wake of contemporary shootings like those at Virginia Tech, Paparelli will return to Littleton, Colorado for the first time in ten years to conduct new interviews with survivors and community members; the revised production of columbinus will be part of the theatre community’s citywide discussion on school violence “Now Is the Time to Act,” together with Steppenwolf and About Face Theater.

Closing out Paparelli’s 5th anniversary season as Artistic Director at ATC is a restored and revised version of the classic American rock musical Hair. Following the success of The Original Grease, Paparelli now teams up with Hair co-creator James Rado to restore original material from the 1968 off-Broadway production that hasn’t been seen in 45 years.  Read the rest of this entry »