BCS Spotlight

In reviewing Jimmy Buffett’s new musical Escape to Margaritaville I was seated in the last row of the Oriental Theatre but since the row was reserved and nearly empty, I settled in for a nice relaxing show with no one coughing on me or knocking my elbow off the armrest. The show began and a few minutes later two smiling, enthusiastic, knee tapping men came in and sat next to me on the aisle.
They were whispering excitedly back and forth and one of the men, who was small-framed with glasses, took out his cellphone and began typing into it every few minutes.


They seemed like such excited fans, as the phone activity continued. I didn't want to say anything but finally buckled and leaned over and gently brushed his hand, smiling like "Hey, that's a no- no." But he just smiled at me and moments later kept typing. After another ten minutes or so, I again leaned over and said, "Darlin', I know you're super excited to be here (and I pointed to my Press Kit), but I'm trying to review this show." The bouncy, Larry David lookalike laughed and said, "Darlin', I’m Jimmy Buffett!" I didn’t recognize him in the dark! 

We laughed together and naturally I told Jimmy to take as many notes as he needed! And thus began a wonderful night of celebrating this Broadway bound production based on Jimmy Buffett's life. 
The script written by Greg Garcia and Mike O’Malley (with book also by Emmy Award winner Greg Garcia) tells a classic story of romance between Tully, a handsome singer/songwriter living the island life, and drifting from one cute tourist to another without falling in love. Tully's world is changed however when a beautiful, intelligent, but over worked, scientist named Rachel visits the resort with her best friend Tammy who is about to be married - to the wrong man. On this island the word “work” is identified as a " dirty word" and Rachel is warned gleefully by Tully that if she says it too often her mouth will be "rinsed out with tequila!" 

The book includes original music and at least twenty-seven of Buffett's classic hits including "Come Monday", "Volcano", "Cheeseburger in Paradise", and a hilarious PG-rated version of "Let's Get Drunk (And Screw)”. 

The two youthful leads, Tully played by Paul Alexander Nolan - and Rachel (Alison Luff), have very nice chemistry, rich voices and give the rowdy, drunken fun of the play a real love story to ground it and make you care about the characters despite the constant joking around. 

Parrotheads will love the free living, take it easy on yourself moral of the story, which simply put echoes Buffett's own successful take on "living life in the moment to the fullest, and loving the one you are with.

I really love the way Rachel's character is written as both very intelligent and nature loving. The entire audience loved the way her best friend Tammy is encouraged to go ahead and EAT "the cheeseburger she desires whether she fits into her wedding dress or not and then has her literally flying across the stage (Peter Pan style) when she frees herself from the critical and unappreciative man she was about to marry before being rescued by Tully's funny, free living, best friend. 

Walt Spangler created a beautiful sparkling set full of water and sunny blue skies. The only thing I wanted to see more of in this wonderful, constantly changing island paradise set was palm trees and green. But this already winter-weary Chicago audience was delighted by the many hues of clear blue water, colorfully lit Tiki Huts and cloudless skies, nonetheless. 

The lesser known, but deeply touching Buffett songs “We are the People Our Parents Warned Us About”, “Love and Luck”, “He Went to Paris” and “License to Chill” were used to nice effect to deepen and round out the overall feelgood, life's a party feeling of the show, especially when the audience realizes even the seemingly shallow Tully understands there is something very important missing from his idyllic island lifestyle when he meets Rachel and finally feels true love for the first time. 

Opening night attendees were treated to a real Buffett experience when Jimmy joined the cast for the show’s final few numbers.

After the show I got to speak with Buffett and his fans a little more in depth at the Maragaritaville-themed after party. We laughed again at my own "work, work, work" uptightness even as Jimmy apologized profusely for having to take notes on his phone during the show and he asked me if I noticed his mature adult fans gleefully swaying and dancing in their seats. 

I DID come to the realization after talking with Parrotheads from twenty to eighty-years-old at the party, that although I was born and raised in Miami, Florida, I had no idea how vast and successful the Jimmy Buffett brand has become and stayed over past decades. I really got a sense of how happily devoted his fans are to him as a musical artist and his never give up - do it yourself lifestyle guru, if you will.  

I know the play needs to move along and stay fictional to a degree, but I would have loved to have seen a few scenes about Buffett's real-life tales of trying and failing at a music career in NY and Los Angeles. Those years of being rejected while trying to find his niche which caused him to say, "Screw You" to record execs and move his whole life to the "the farthest key in Florida", finally building his own internationally loved and recognized brand in true maverick style with his own fans from Key West. These true tales of overcoming small-minded criticisms and his so-called failures along the way are so inspirational I wish they had been addressed in this production. 

Since there is still time to tweak this fun-tastic production before it moves on to Broadway and on tour, I have to say I agree with other reviewers who were put off by the dance numbers by the dead insurance salespeople, the "LSD flashbacks" dreamt up by Tully's sidekick during stressful moments. The choreography in these dance numbers was great but the creepy, scary, gray and white ash covered insurance salespeople (whom he was told died in a volcanic eruption on the island) would have been better spent on dance numbers for the main cast members or more of the bikini and swimsuit clad vacationers to keep the fun, psychedelic friendly mood coming without interruption. 

Loved it. I highly recommend this fun loving, musically delightful production to remind everyone to SLOW DOWN, and stop towing the line at "work, work, work!" thereby letting their dreams of love and romance die a slow, painful death. Buffett's philosophy of living and acting spontaneously reminds the audience in a wonderful way that life changing chances at love (like the one when he met his wife) come and go which might never come again. 

Once I realized I was seated next to Jimmy Buffett himself during the show, I couldn't help noticing the touching way he sang along quietly to himself with his own music, these are his babies after all, and the foundation of a hugely successful $500 million dollar plus industry of restaurants, vacation cruises and music, etc., that his devoutly loyal fans, the Parrotheads, have enjoyed for thirty years. As I watched Jimmy Buffett's fans dance around their "leader in paradise" at the after party and the screams of laughter and joy during the show as beach balls came raining down on them from above, I became certain that they will continue to honor Buffet's legacy and frequent his now very real "Margaritaville" for the rest of their lives. 

Escape to Margaritaville is being performed at Oriental Theatre through December 2nd. For more show information visit www.broadwayinchicago.com.

 

Published in Theatre in Review
Tuesday, 04 October 2016 18:38

Rise Up, Chicago: Hamilton is Here!

What more can be said about the phenomenon that is Hamilton: An American Musical? The ever-growing hype, not to mention the genius content, speak for themselves. It was nothing less than an absolute thrill to finally sit down to see this musical after nearly a year of obsessing over the 46 - yes, forty-six - song soundtrack. Who ever knew that textbook American history could be so exciting and jarringly relevant?

The nearly three hour, entirely sung/rapped performance takes the audience through the life of the "ten dollar founding father" Alexander Hamilton. Before creator Lin-Manuel Miranda masterfully brought Hamilton's biography to the stage, everyone who isn't a history teacher likely only knew Hamilton from the ten dollar bill, but, contrary to a recurring lyric in the show, there were a million things he did for the country. Namely, he created a financial plan that saved America in a time of major debt as well as established the first national bank. If that sounds dry, it's only because you haven't heard "The Room Where It Happens" yet.

 Not only does the story cover Hamilton's achievements and downfalls, but it paints a vivid portrait of colonial life, the complications of war during the American Revolution, and the messy aftermath of establishing a new nation. Other important historical figures we'd normally associate with flat images in books or on paper money are also presented as fully-fledged and in the flesh, such as George Washington, Aaron Burr, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, among others. Central to the story as well are the two female leads of the show, Eliza and Angelica Schuyler, who were daughters of a wealthy revolutionary-turned-senator and may not have been widely known before but are certainly getting the recognition they deserve now. To top it off, these exclusively white historical figures are portrayed by people of color, keenly driving home the show's message regarding immigrants' roles in the founding of our country and representing a current snapshot of American life.

All of this is fueled by the exquisitely-crafted music and intelligent lyrics that have astounded listeners of all ages and creeds. With most of the lyrics rapped, there is room for an incredible amount of detail, proving further that Miranda is nothing less than a creative genius. Only rap would allow literal paragraphs of information to fit into a single song, and this style serves the purpose of the musical brilliantly in conjunction with the more traditionally-sung parts that, in turn, give the audience small breaks to digest everything.

The Chicago cast is immensely talented - imagine all the actors who auditioned for these coveted roles - and can easily hold a candle to its Broadway equivalent. Many of the actors play multiple roles, impressively switching characters from Act One to Act Two. Favorites for me included Chris Lee as a hilariously arrogant Jefferson, Ari Afsar as a strong yet vulnerable Eliza, and Joshua Henry as the smooth-voiced nemesis to Hamilton, Aaron Burr (sir).

It's hard to say when the last time a musical of this magnitude and social significance came around, as nothing that has been done before can really compare to Hamilton. Truly unique, engaging, educational, sharp, funny, heartbreaking, and moving, we should appreciate getting to witness this watershed moment in Broadway history and heed advice from the repeated Hamilton lyric to "look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now!"

Hamilton is playing at the Private Bank Theater at 18 W Monroe St. now and indefinitely. Tickets can be purchased on Ticketmaster, or you can enter the daily ticket lottery here.

Published in Theatre Reviews

The curtain rises about two and a half feet, revealing the iconic image of fifty or so legs clad in tap shoes of every color of the rainbow.  And with that, the tap dancing spectacle of 42nd Street begins with an exciting, energy-packed dance number as Broadway hopefuls dance their hearts out at the audition for what is destined to be the next great Broadway musical. Set in 1933, famed director Julian Marsh, played by Matthew J Taylor, is preparing the next show stopping musical, Pretty Ladies. A group of energetic young hoofers are joined by the talented, but a bit clumsy, out-of-towner Peggy Sawyer, played by Caitlin Ehlinger, who comes to New York City from her home in Allentown PA for her chance to be a star. This musical within a musical takes a turn when the leading lady breaks her ankle on opening night creating the opportunity for Peggy to take center stage.

 

42nd Street is packed full of tap numbers and some of the most iconic songs of Broadway including “We’re in the Money”, “Lullaby of Broadway” and of course “42nd Street”. While Peggy becomes the star of Pretty Ladies, the star of this production of 42nd Street was certainly the exceptional tap dancing. With new choreography by Randy Skinner, it maintained some of the classic original choreography known and loved by many while updating some parts to keep things exciting and fresh. The dancing was clean and the sounds strong and clear. The opening song “Audition” and the finale “42nd Street” were spectacular bookends to an overall strong show.

 

The set is fairly simple letting the dancers and amazing costumes take center stage, perfectly setting the scene in 1933 NYC from auditions, to parties, to trains, to the Pretty Ladies musical. Amazingly and with seemingly lighting speed, a cast of over 20 dancers seem to change from rehearsal costumes to show costumes in the blink of an eye. With number after number, the cast reappears on stage in everything from casual rehearsal wear to tails and top hats, to glamorous gowns, to flower costumes and sequined gold dresses. 

 

42nd Street really is an ensemble show, but this production has its standout individual performances as well. Caitlin Ehlinger in the role of Peggy was fantastic. As she takes on her first performance as the star of Pretty Ladies after a mere 48 hours of rehearsal, you can feel her nerves and watch as she finds comfort in the spotlight of the show and transforms into a star. Matthew J Taylor was fantastic as Julian Marsh and proved he was more than just a strong actor when he wowed the audience with “Lullaby of Broadway”.  And Natalia Lepore Hagan, playing the role of Annie, really gave Ehlinger a run for her money in the tap dancing department!

 

36 years after its original opening in 1980, 42nd Street is still a fun and crowd pleasing musical. With outstanding choreography and tap dancing, paired with dazzling costumes, iconic music and the over the top characters you expect in musical theater, this national tour production has the whole package. 42nd Street is playing at the Cadillac Palace Theatre through March 20th. Get your tickets before the show shuffles off to Buffalo!

 

Published in Theatre Reviews
Wednesday, 10 February 2016 05:48

Come to the Cabaret!

How do you categorize a musical that is part comedy, part drama, and part burlesque? The answer is: you don't need you. Like Kander and Ebb's later popular Broadway hit Chicago, Cabaret uses flashy and often funny nightclub performance as a device to embellish and expound upon the more serious and sometimes grim events of the story. In Chicago, shameless homicide by two murderesses is explored through jazzy nightclub acts, while in Cabaret, the grisly beginnings of WWII and the anxious pall it casts over the characters' lives is explored through fearless, garter-brimming club performances.

Cabaret is a unique musical, one that will sneak up on you and knock you in the chin if you try to pigeonhole it. The songs are inordinately catchy and the story turns unpredictably. On opening night at the inaugural show of the newly named Private Bank Theatre, I was surprised to hear so many shocked reactions from the audience around me. Every Nazi reference was met with gasps, one short scene of drug use left the audience deadly silent, the never-even-mentioned-by-name subject briefly implied by Sally's doctor visit caused an audible "Oh my God!", and Cliff's apparent bisexuality was received with total confusion. "But he kissed a boy. How could he fall in love with a girl?" Please. If audiences could survive it in 1962, they should certainly be able to handle it now. The reactions only serve to prove that Cabaret has a timeless impact.

When American self-described "starving novelist" Cliff (a capable if slightly bland Lee Aaron Rosen) travels to Berlin in pursuit of literary inspiration, he discovers it in the form of the buoyant and provocative English cabaret dancer Sally Bowles (a character brilliantly committed to by Andrea Goss) and the seedy nightclub crowd with which she surrounds herself. They soon begin living together and befriend landlady Fraulein Schneider (a subduedly wise Shannon Cochran) and fellow tenant, the Jewish Herr Schultz (a cute and gentle Mark Nelson), the latter of whom begin a sweet but eventually controversial romance. Sally and Cliff's lives are an ecstatic chaos of gin and sexual liberation until Cliff's friend and confidante Herr Ludwig (flawlessly portrayed by Ned Noyes) reveals his disturbing true colors, triggering the destruction that floods the characters' lives from that point on and effectively bursting their bubble of delusion. The omniscient Emcee of Berlin's sordid Kit Kat Club (a delightfully snarky Randy Harrison) guides the viewer between the actual plot events and their corresponding cabaret acts.

Andrea Goss as Sally Bowles

My favorite of the over-the-top club performances cleverly mirroring the real life drama is the titular showstopper "Cabaret." Many folks, likely many of the shocked theatre-goers seated around me, may associate this song with a charismatic, triumphant Liza Minnelli from the 1972 film (or even an older, sequined-out Liza cheerily vamping her way through a showtune medley) and thus were not expecting the heavier tone rendered in the stage version. At this point, Sally has lost everything. She's alone, she's ill, she's broke, she is out of a job after this final performance. Her life has spiraled into a living hell. Goss made a powerful impression as Sally throughout and nothing showcased her acting talents more than her raw, enraged delivery of this song. The eerie juxtaposition of Sally's unabashed ruin with jaunty lyrics celebrating a wildly fun, carefree lifestyle gave me chills, the last line all but screamed at the audience before she knocks down the mike stand in her fury.

This is a musical that everyone should see at least once in their lifetime. It will not meet your expectations, in the best way possible.

Cabaret is playing at the Private Bank Theatre at 18 W Monroe now through February 21st. Tickets can be purchased at Ticketmaster or by going to BroadwayInChicago.

Published in Theatre Reviews

Melissa Thodos the creator of Sono’s Journey and her designers, which premiered at the Auditorium Theatre Saturday, did a wonderful job telling the story of Sono Asato, a dancer who broke age and race barriers from the time she was just fourteen years old. At that same young age, Sono Asato was the first dancer of Japanese descent AND the first American to join the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. 

 

I loved the way Thodos chose to use a narrator to tell the story of Asato’s life and used real pictures from Sono's life. I overheard one audience member saying during intermission, the narration really helped the audience understand and empathize with Asato’s life journey without making us guess or make assumptions based solely on the dance and music for each vignette – a very correct observation. 

 

I loved the costumes and lighting, which created a dreamy effect. The dancers were superb in bringing Sono Asato’s unique and trademark hand gestures and delicate yet earthy and natural style of dance to life. Asato’s hands were especially beautiful and expressive resembling the grace and power of mudras of ancient meditation statues. 

 

I found it very interesting that when Osato was refused work abroad with her ballet company, it was a female theater company owner and old friend who welcomed her back to Broadway “dance shows" in order to keep making money dancing to survive. 

 

I also loved the vignette which included how her parent's originally met and fell immediately in love when her father Shoji was sent to photograph her beautiful mother for a performance portrait.   

 

Osato, now ninety-six-years-old, and still a delicate beauty, was brought onstage in a wheelchair and it was announced that Mayor Rahm Emanuel had declared that day, January 8th to be SONO ASATO DAY in Chicago. Sono Asato looked radiantly beautiful as she received her flowers and a roaring standing ovation for her groundbreaking, door opening bravery and exceptional dance performances in the classic works, Sleeping Beauty, Pillar of Fire and The Beloved.

 

I felt very much honored to be there in Sono Asato's presence that night during the Mayor's announcement. I felt privileged to add my enthusiastic applause and shouts of "Bravo!" for her and the delightful show "Sono’s Journey".

 

Dance enthusiasts and appreciators will have two more opportunities to see Sono's Journey this winter: February 20th at the North Shore Center in Skokie, and March 5th at the Harris Theater in Chicago, as part of Thodos Dance Chicago's new "Chicago Revealed" Winter Concert series. This particular production is a beautiful piece of work that everyone should experience.

 

Published in Theatre Reviews

Although the idea of two gay friends, Hunter and Jeff, sitting down to write their own musical for a competition deadline in three weeks’ time may seem a little bit dated, these performers including Matt Frye, and Yando Lopez do a great job of making the piece seem vibrant and current. Hunter and Jeff who love watching their reality TV like the Bachelor and "procrasturbating" introduce two of their gal friends to help them fill out the cast with Susan (Neala Barron) and Heidi (Anna Schutz). The group decides to take things they’re actually chatting about daily and eventually come up with a play about their own lives and trying to get into the playwrights festival. This is the theme for [Title of Show] now playing at Rivendell Theatre.

Long story short, they end up getting thrilled with an invite to enter into the Fest and eventually a short Off-Broadway and even shorter Broadway run all of which is exciting and mind blowing for the friendly foursome. As it happens it brings about the usual problems with managing who gets credit for what and who is the most important or likable part of the show. 

I loved the song, 'Die, Vampire Die’ about managing all of the negative, "bloodsucking" thoughts that weigh on you mentally and emotionally when you are trying to create something new. 

Neala Barron as the "corporate by day, creative by night' - part time actress - has the funniest and most well-rounded performance in this piece. Matt Frye as Hunter is also very funny and really makes the most of his character.  

Lovers of the musical theater genre will adore this peppy, fast moving production and see themselves reflected in all the characters' struggles to be recognized and stand out including the sole musician, a very funny role for a pianist with just a few choice lines. 

The reason this show still works and is timely despite coming out in 2008, is that even today with all of the new opportunities for performers to write and star in their own projects for the  many contests held online and on national TV, is that for everyone eventually realizes that a little bit of success is just not enough.

Just appearing in a show on Broadway will not make you and your friends "stars". Nor will it secure you financially in any way for the rest of your lives. There is also a funny number in the show where the cast counts out all of the "loser” musicals that made it to Broadway and flopped. 

Yet it is essential that actors still persist in taking over their own careers and write their own projects or they run the risk of playing bit parts their entire lives without ever realizing their full potential as writers and creators, always working the "day job" and waiting helplessly for the phone to ring with a magical call from their agents.

Well-directed, this 90 minute piece flows at a quick, funny pace.

All actors should be actor/writers, that's the best message of this show, not to let the fear of criticism cripple you from putting out your own work and maintaining loyalty to the friends who help you get your work out. Because, after all the success and thrill ride for each project is over, you still need to get up and keep writing and creating something new for yourself with your friends close by your side. Never give up and never let the pressures of making a name for yourself eclipse the importance of the daily life you are actually living because in the end you may find the journey itself really was the whole play!

[Title of Show] is playing at Rivendell Theatre through August 16th.

Published in Theatre Reviews

 

 

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