The steady expansion of the performing arts in Chicago continues its marvelous pace, with more and better theater, dance, comedy and opera gracing more and better stages each passing year. The upward progression is so steady that epic undertakings—a new campus at Steppenwolf, a bigger chunk of Navy Pier for Chicago Shakes—seem almost business as usual these days. And that is a marvelous thing. This year we again celebrate the lesser-sung heroes offstage who deal with the less glamorous things like building those new stages, and paying those expanding payrolls without which the stars would have nowhere to shine.
Tragedy has been central to theater since the ancient Greeks first staged it, but the last year has brought a disproportionate volume of real-life tragedy to our community. No doubt, the expanding and maturing performing arts universe means that more members of its community will pass on each year, but the number of those struck down long before their expected hour was overwhelming these last twelve months and struck every corner of performing arts, from theater, to dance, to comedy, to opera. Molly Glynn, Jason Chin, Eric Eatherly, Bernie Yvon, Johan Engels, Julia Neary—and others we’ve unintentionally overlooked—we dim our collective marquee for you. (Brian Hieggelke)
Players was written by Zach Freeman and Sharon Hoyer
With additional contributions by Brian Hieggelke, Alex Huntsberger, Aaron Hunt, Hugh Iglarsh and Loy Webb
All photos by Joe Mazza/Brave-Lux, taken on location at Steppenwolf Theatre, Goodman Theatre, Lyric Opera of Chicago and Brave-Lux Studio Read the rest of this entry »
Artist’s rendering of the Uptown Underground Grand Promenade
By Raymond Rehayem
I am even less qualified to build a stage, rig lighting, or put up drywall than I am to put on some pasties and do burlesque. Actually I might look strangely alluring in the aforementioned nipple patches installing one of the Uptown Underground’s lovely chandeliers, but my point is when I recently toured the venue I couldn’t visualize how wonderful it will look for its nearly sold-out New Year’s Eve opening night. It was still under construction. Luckily Kiss Kiss Cabaret’s Chris O. Biddle and Jenn A. Kincaid, the pair behind this new 7,000-square-foot theater, were there to fill in the gaps in my imagination.
In the basement of architect Walter W. Ahlschlager’s 1926 Uptown Broadway Building, the cabaret arts mecca that the Kiss Kiss founders envision will occupy a space which—per neighborhood lore—once housed a speakeasy. The building’s ornate exterior immediately evokes the era.
While scouting locations, Biddle couldn’t believe the fortuitous availability of this historic edifice. “I knew the address,” he explains, “and I thought ‘surely it isn’t that big caramel wedding cake.’ And it is. It’s this beautiful baroque style.”
Like many cakes, the lowest level is the widest. There are columns on either side of what Biddle describes as the “grand promenade,” the western side actually extending under Broadway’s sidewalk. Passage between these columns will take you beyond the elevated main stage, past a wall of retro amusements such as vertical pinball machines, art deco claw machines, and a fortune-telling machine, to a more intimate secondary performance space. With the main stage seating 150, the secondary stage seating fifty to sixty, and multiple dressing rooms to facilitate the overlapping of performers, the entertainment need never stall. In what’s being dubbed the Moon Room of the Starlight Lounge, a gal will sip martinis perched on a six-foot-high crescent moon acquired from a Twin Cities production of “Mame.” Read the rest of this entry »
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 »
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 »
In the heart of Times Square there is a building called the TKTS Discount Booth; same-day tickets to Broadway shows can be purchased there at discounted prices. The queue of audience hopefuls is always many customers deep, and to speed along the process, employees move through the throngs answering questions about shows, locations, prices and where you can get the best pizza slice within walking distance. In my experience, the majority of the patrons are of the female persuasion, and hands-down the most frequently asked question is, “Which show is my boyfriend/fiancé/husband most likely to enjoy?” Beginning September 29, the answer to that question will be “The Last Ship.”
The show’s Tony Award-winning artistic pedigree doesn’t disappoint: John Logan’s book is poignant and funny and honest, frequently all at once, and the unflappable Joe Mantello brings his particular blend of heart and intellect to the direction. But it is the singular stamp of Grammy Award-winner Sting that permeates every moment of the production. Composer/lyricist of the mostly sung piece, Sting makes it easy to forget that this will be his Broadway debut. One of the measures of the most talented and seasoned creators of both music and lyrics for the stage is that while the songs and musical moments for a particular show are as varied as the story’s characters and situations, the score remains cohesive unto itself. To come out of the gate with such sweeping understanding of and dexterity for the form is past refreshing; even for an artist of Sting’s stature, it is astonishing. Read the rest of this entry »
Sting/Photo: Frank Ockenfels
By Dennis Polkow
“As a songwriter,” Sting admits, “I had experienced a long drought.” Rarely inactive, Sting, now sixty-two, had been involved with a number of projects since his last solo album of original material, 2003’s “Sacred Love.” Among these were an album of Renaissance master John Dowland, a Christmas album and even a reunion tour with the Police.
Nonetheless, how does a singer-songwriter who has won sixteen Grammy Awards and sold some 100 million albums worldwide across a thirty-five-plus-year career account for the experience of songwriter’s block?
“Too much me, me, me,” he jokes, “Self-obsession. I had to break this drought somehow and as it turned out, turning to the landscape of musical theater—a very exciting art form—I was suddenly giving voice to other people, characters other than myself. When I did, songs started coming out of me again like projectile vomiting.”
The end result, “The Last Ship,” is both a new Sting album of songs written for the musical of the same name that will have its pre-Broadway world premiere in Chicago, and the play itself, which is getting ready to begin previews on June 10 at the Bank of America Theatre. Read the rest of this entry »
Patrice Covington as Martha Reeves (center)/Photo: Joan Marcus
“A song is something with a beginning, middle and an end,” Berry Gordy (Clifton Oliver) advises Smokey Robinson (Nicholas Christopher) early on in “Motown the Musical.” It is not only the deepest, but virtually the only creative insight offered in a three-hour show that attempts the gargantuan task of telling the story of Motown record label founder Gordy and the label’s many groups and stars throughout the decades.
It is easy to understand Gordy’s frustration and his need to pen a show like this (he wrote the book of the show, based on his autobiography). One can almost picture him foaming at the mouth at the success of a show such as “Dreamgirls,” about a fictional all-female group from Detroit that has an uncanny resemblance to Gordy’s super group the Supremes, or “Jersey Boys,” based on the story and music of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. Geesh, there have even been jukebox musicals of songs of Abba, Billy Joel, you name it. And here’s Gordy, sitting on the song catalog of all song catalogs. How to make that work on Broadway and still tell his own story in his own way at the same time?
One way definitely not to do it is to wedge in a few bars of the biggest Motown hits whenever and however you can, relentlessly, throughout the entire evening as “Motown the Musical” does. How disrespectful to those wonderful records, to hear them rendered in such truncated fashion and put out like a Detroit automobile assembly line, one right after the other, merely to solicit applause for the audience’s ability to recognize them go by for a few moments. Read the rest of this entry »
Photo: Jenny Anderson
Superhero origin stories are interesting beasts. We know precisely where the story will end up (a hero is born!) before it even begins. What matters in this subgenre (if that’s what it can be called) is not so much what the ultimate outcome is, but rather how to get the story from point T-minus A to point A in the most interesting way without making the pre-known destination look like a foregone conclusion. And of course it’s preferable to toss some new characters into the mix while also providing new insight into existing characters. “Peter and the Starcatcher”—written by Rick Elice based on a book by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson—handles most of these tasks with goofy gusto, giving us a helter-skelter background story for the puckish Peter Pan.
The original Broadway production won five Tony Awards in 2012 (winners for scenic, costume, lighting and sound design serve as the design team for this production and it certainly shows). The imaginative design work—a clever combination of faux bootstrappy big-budget costumes and set pieces and truly elaborate lighting and sound design—helps to sell a story that may not necessarily be more than the sum of its parts. Because despite the impressively inventive delivery of this story by an energetic and engaged cast—directors Roger Rees and Alex Timbers pull earnestness and meta-asides from these actors in equal measure—Elice’s script is a bit too self-indulgently silly for its own good. Read the rest of this entry »
Adults with kids:
“Dinosaur Zoo” is an interactive puppet show about dinosaurs in the same way that a Hummer limousine is a car. It’s really fun, it’s bigger than normal and experiencing it once for about an hour is probably enough for anybody.
The hour spent at the Broadway Playhouse during “Dinosaur Zoo” is filled with fun and excitement for the children in attendance. But it should be clear: This show is for your children. I know. “Toy Story” is “for kids,” and you loved that. The difference is “Toy Story” has the benefit of, well, a story. This show is pure edutainment. It consists of a series of prehistoric biology facts wrapped in impressive visuals and silly humor. It’s the theatrical equivalent of giving your dog medicine wrapped in cheese, and cheese is the appropriate metaphor here, as the written jokes are pretty basic slapstick and gross-out humor. Read the rest of this entry »
Photo: Paul Kolnik
In the 1990s, television veered into new programming territory with the show “The Real World,” offering a form of entertainment for which there was little scripting or preparation, where the viewing public could watch “real” people dealing with their life’s joys, sorrows and daily challenges; reality television was born. This genre ushered in an ostensibly new form of showbiz, where we were invited to see ourselves more directly than we might when experiencing the highly structured and polished presentation of a situation comedy or a weekly, episodic dramatic series. Beautiful, charismatic and opinionated women have been the principal performers—and even producers—of many of these popular spectacles. Names such as Hilton, Richie, Osbourne and Kardashian are folded into this recipe—along with those of real housewives of several major cities—regularly “trending” on the Internet. But it is hardly a new preoccupation to award the status of “celebrity” to someone else’s next-door neighbor. Read the rest of this entry »