Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Review: Peter and the Starcatcher/Broadway In Chicago

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Photo: Jenny Anderson

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 »

Review: Erth’s Dinosaur Zoo Live/Broadway In Chicago

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RECOMMENDED

DinosaurZooAdults 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 »

Review: Chicago/Broadway In Chicago

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Photo: Paul Kolnik

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 »

Review: Option Up!/Stage 773

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OptionUp

Photo: Rob Smith

A casual setting and an enthusiastic pair of hosts don’t quite add up to what “Option Up!” is striving for, but it’s early going and there’s much promise in this new monthly event at Stage 773. Host Christopher Pazdernik and his comic foil, the versatile pianist Aaron Benham, present performers from current Chicago stage productions in a setting akin to a late-night talk show. Pazdernik riffs freely on theater happenings past and present and demonstrates a near-encyclopedic knowledge of musicals while Benham interjects with the occasional quip or anecdote. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Phantom of the Opera/Cadillac Palace Theatre

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THEPHA~1

Cooper Grodin and Julia Udine/Photo: Matthew Murphy

RECOMMENDED

For all of its Goth and grandeur, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “The Phantom of the Opera” is at its heart a “Beauty and the Beast” love story unspooled in unabashedly Romantic fashion via Lloyd Webber’s lush, aria-laden score. So through-composed is the piece that it has always been an opera, i.e., sung story with virtually no spoken word, even if few may have noticed since we have been hearing it done by “show” voices for more than a quarter of a century now.

Thus, for all of the hype surrounding Cameron Mackintosh’s “spectacular new” production of “Phantom,” the biggest difference between the Hal Prince original that, astonishingly, is still playing on Broadway and on London’s West End, is putting the “opera” back in “Phantom” in that the principals in the new version are trained voices with polished vocal technique. Given the demands of the score, this is good news and the work benefits immensely. Indeed, this is the best-sung “Phantom” that has come to Chicago. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Elf the Musical/Broadway In Chicago

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ELF2013-4735EaRECOMMENDED

This family-friendly 2010 Broadway adaptation of the 2003 film “Elf” is basically a high-octane song-and-dance version of the story of Buddy the Elf that has plenty to keep all ages entertained, from small children to seniors.

Lacking the wryness and special effects of the film, this musical version nonetheless boasts a witty book by Thomas Meehan (“Annie,” “The Producers,” “Hairspray”) and Bob Martin (“The Drowsy Chaperone”) which does develop, update and smooth over plot details that compress the story in a more genre-friendly way for the stage.

In the musical version, it is Santa—played by Ken Clement—who tells the story, engaging the audience with local color and witticisms and even a song or two. The biggest loss from the film is that Buddy, played by Will Blum, is really no larger than the other elves, so in that sense we do come to accept him as, well, an elf, rather than a human being raised as an elf. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer the Musical/Broadway In Chicago

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Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer-Emerald City Theatre 10RECOMMENDED

Cross-fertilize Julie Taymor with Rankin and Bass and the result is very much what you get in this live-action version of the famous red-nosed reindeer that actually began life in Chicago as a giveaway storybook for Depression-era kids that visited Santa at Montgomery Ward.

Advertising executive Robert L. May had created the character and story of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” back in 1939, but it was his brother-in-law Johnny Marks who would later write the hit song of the same title that Gene Autry would record and made a No. 1 record a decade later.

Marks would go on to write additional songs for the 1964 stop-action animated television special that forms the basis of this co-production of Emerald City Theatre and the Milwaukee-based First Stage that superbly pays homage to every little detail and nuance of that television special. Read the rest of this entry »

Deck the Sets: Chicago Stages Go Holiday Crazy

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santaland

The Santaland Diaries at Theater Wit

By Zach Freeman

As any denizen of the theater who’s been in this town for any amount of time knows, Chicago DOES theater. With more than 250 active theater companies and a constantly growing number of venues, if you can’t find a good show to attend on any given night, you’re just doing it wrong. And this holiday season Chicago is really throwing down the gauntlet of performance options with more than forty (yes, you read that right) holiday shows. And yes, almost all of them are Christmas-related. In fact, there are almost a dozen versions of “A Christmas Carol” alone.

But Chicago is a diverse city and our theater companies reflect that. We’re not talking about several dozen versions of the same old stuff, we’re talking about more than forty completely different takes on the holiday season. It’s a lot for any one person to take in, so we thought we’d help you determine which show (or shows) you should be seeing over the next month or so to get yourself into the appropriate holiday mood (whatever that means for you).

We can’t list them all, but here are twenty to get you started. Here we go… Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Wicked/Broadway In Chicago

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Alison Luff and Jenn Gambatese/Photo by Joan Marcus

Alison Luff and Jenn Gambatese/Photo: Joan Marcus

RECOMMENDED

What is it about Chicago and Oz? Is it because L. Frank Baum wrote “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” while he was living in Chicago? The Midwest ethos of the characters? In any case, Chicago loves “Wicked” so much that after what was to have been an initial six-week run back in 2005, the show was extended to four-and-a-half years when Broadway In Chicago made the decision to create its own Chicago production to meet ticket demand. And even after that record-breaking run, Chicagoans had still not had enough “Wicked,” so the show had a follow-up holiday run—now being repeated to coincide with the show’s tenth anniversary on Broadway. Those who missed what all of the fuss was about get another chance and those who know and love the show get to spend part of their holidays back in Oz.

Part of what makes “Wicked” work so well is its cross-generational appeal. As “wicked” as Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West may be perceived to be, she remains a lady when it comes to her language. The archetype that Elphaba and her friend Galinda—later Glinda the Good Witch of the North—are acting out is a relationship as old as the oldest written mythos on record, the ancient Sumerian “Epic of Gilgamesh,” where Gilgamesh and Enkidu begin as rivals but in their attempts to best one another, develop greater respect and even affection for one another as the best of friends. Together, such friends can do anything: a timeless and wonderful message. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Once/Broadway In Chicago

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Stuart Ward and Dani De Waal

Stuart Ward and Dani De Waal

Can a man and woman be attracted to one another, have a life-transforming friendship that betters both of them without consummating their relationship? That is the question that “Once” asks, but it does so with a lot of homespun folksy music, like an after-school special set to a hootenanny.

The idea began as an Irish independent film about a Dublin street musician who meets up with a Czech mate who takes interest in his original songs. Boy meets girl, girl likes songs, boy wants girl but has to settle for her piano playing and her singing. His songs plus her input equals boy and girl each find themselves.

It is a sweet story with a great message, but the problem is that only the homespun songs that were used in the film are preserved here, sung and accompanied by the cast itself onstage who are surrounded by instrumentalists who are also characters in the show.
Read the rest of this entry »