“I’ve always favored unbridled passions,” sings Wotan in the Lyric Opera’s new production of Richard Wagner’s “Die Walküre” This is the second installment in Wagner’s epic 4-opera cycle “Das Rheingold” Lyric produced the first opera last season and will sequentially include the next two operas in their forthcoming seasons. In 2020, there will be a special presentation of all four productions.

Five hours is a long time to spend in a theater. Wagner is especially challenging for those not particularly versed in classical music. That said, this gorgeous production by David Pountney is well worth the time. If you’re wondering if you needed to see the first opera to understand the second, you absolutely do not. “Die Walküre” is a standalone with a clear conclusion. Most will at least be familiar with “The Ride of the Valkyries”

“Die Walküre” is sung entirely in German with projected subtitles. Try to imagine a time in which there were no subtitles. The plot is very weird, perhaps it was best to only assume what’s going on. Essentially, this is an opera about incest and that seems pretty racy for its 1870 premiere. The music is incredible though, which likely contributed to its cannon status.

The first act is surely what to come for, coincidentally it’s also the shortest. In the first act we meet the incestuous lovers Siegmund (Brandon Jovanovich) and Sieglund (Elisabet Strid). Siegmund rescues Sieglund from an unhappy marriage and wards off her husband with a magical sword only he’s able to pluck from a tree stump. He then impregnates his sister wife, despite that they know they’re related. Insert shrug emoji here. Staging in the first act is pretty sexual for a 19th Century opera. Siegmund’s sword is an obvious phallic symbol and Pountney’s blocking leaves little to the imagination. The blatant eroticism helps spice up the melodrama.

Logically, this affair angers the gods and they send favored Valkyrie Brünnhilde to kill Siegmund. Reknown soprano Christine Goerke reprises the role of Brünnhilde, which she’s previously sung for a few other companies. For those unfamiliar with this opera, it would seem like a bit of a surprise that the story really ends up being about Brünnhilde and her relationship with her father Wotan (Eric Owens). The two shine together in the final act, despite the nearly agonizing repetition of dialogue.

This is an exciting and beautiful production. The aesthetic is almost like an old movie set. The horses upon which the Valkyries fly are hand operated by the ensemble. It makes you wonder, how did Wagner envision this special effect at the time he wrote it? Each scene is darkly lit and costumes are trimmed in red. The time period seems to be undecided as costumes appear to span the decades.

With only seven performances, this special production is a must-see for local opera enthusiasts. For those unfamiliar with opera, attend without trepidation. The production may run just a little under five hours (with two 30-minute intermissions), but the evening seems to fly by.

Through November 30th at Lyric Opera of Chicago. 20 N Wacker Drive. 312-332-2244

 

Published in Theatre in Review

Celebrating nearly 35 years in their factory space around the North Center neighborhood, American Theater Company has a knack for taking risks on new works. “Welcome to Jesus” is prefaced with a recorded curtain speech by artistic director Will Davis, “It’s our responsibility to take risks.” And that is absolutely true. At no other company in town are you more likely to see a smash hit first production right before it becomes a Pulitzer finalist.

“Welcome to Jesus” is not one of those gems. This new play by Janine Nabers is likely to land among the annals of forgotten plays, but good for ATC for taking a chance. Under the direction of Will Davis, this world premiere is certainly provocative but begs the question, is this the best way to make the playwright’s point?

“Welcome to Jesus” is about a small Texan town obsessed with high school football and wholesome, Christian values. When two bumbling, and related, cops come across the zombie-fied head football coach with a dead body in the woods, the play takes on a racist-flavored B-horror movie feel.

The point that Nabors spends two short acts exploring is what it’s like for people of color in Christian, white dominated places. It’s also a commentary on how the professional sports industry uses up athletes while skirting the issue of racism. In that regard, Nabors’ script is very topical. The problem is that her thesis is obscured by supernatural plot points which ultimately have no resolution or bearing on the conclusion.

Will Davis’ direction is a little strange, but the performances are strong. A little too often the audience is subjected to blinding light and expected to participate. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, but if an audience can’t connect with the work, this gimmick is bound to be awkward.

“Welcome to Jesus” has something to say, but whatever it is, isn’t quite there yet. The important thing is that a successful theater company saw a play with a contentious message and gave it a chance. Nabors would be best to revise her well-meaning script so that it’s more like a play and less like a Netflix pilot.

Through December 3rd at American Theater Company. 1909 W Byron St. 773-409-4125

Published in Theatre in Review

Sarah Ruhl’s ‘In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play’ returns to Chicago at Timeline Theatre. Directed by Mechelle Moe, this drawing room comedy about the advent of electricity is sure to tickle audiences. Ruhl’s works have often been produced around the city as she’s an Evanston native. She may reside in Brooklyn now, but we’ll still claim her as our own.

‘In the Next Room’ was shortlisted for the 2009 Pulitzer after a successful Broadway run. It was also nominated for the 2009 Tony Award for Best Play. ‘In the Next Room’ might just be Ruhl’s most fully realized play. It’s a whimsical, if not loose, history of the invention of the vibrator. While it may sound like a cheeky sex comedy, ‘In the Next Room’ is a feminist anthem.

Dr Givings (Anish Jethmalani) is a country doctor who specializes in hysteria, a very real condition that afflicted women during a much less sexual period in history. His wife Catherine (Rochelle Therrien) does not suffer as her husband’s patients do, but instead yearns for romantic love. In some ways, this play is like Sarah Ruhl’s own version of ‘A Doll’s House.’ A wife searching for her purpose in a world dominated by men. Catherine says at one point “I do not know what kind of person I am” and feels like a failure when her child will not nurse. Through various entrances and exits, we’re shown how sexless life was between man and wife during the Victorian era. As an audience with hindsight, we understand that this miracle cure for hysteria is nothing more than a medically induced orgasm.

The ensemble is well cast. Rochelle Therrien makes Ruhl’s fanciful dialogue endearing and innocent. Her fresh-faced and child-like performance is so charming you can’t believe her husband’s indifference. Though quiet and understated, Dana Tretta plays Annie, the physician’s midwife. A sort of “Igor” sidekick type, but Ruhl doesn’t overlook the character. Her arch of a life without love is perhaps the most touching of all.

Not only is this play a feminist anthem, but a play about orgasms. The very idea that women did not discuss anything related to sex is absurd in a world where you can watch re-runs of ‘Sex and the City’ at any given time. Even nursing a child was considered distasteful to discuss. Rarely if ever have so many simulated orgasms happened in one theatrical performance. Though, like the era, they’re so unsexualized that you can’t help but giggle at the characters discovering themselves. In one full-length play Sarah Ruhl bursts nearly every female taboo of the time out of the closet. Never have Women’s Rights been a more hot button issue and ‘In the Next Room’ comes at just the right time.

Through December 16 at Timeline Theatre Company. Stage 773, 1225 W Belmont Ave. 773-327-5252

 

Published in Theatre in Review
Wednesday, 11 October 2017 23:33

Review: "Piaf: The Show!"

Darn those French and their "musical spectaculars." There are few things Americans do with more flare than the French, and musical theater is one of them. "Piaf: The Show!" is billed somewhat differently than what it actually is.

That is not to say we've been misled. Those who have spent time in Paris or Montreal know that "musical spectacular" means something a little different than "a new musical." Think Cirque du Soleil. Quirky, but charming, and yet still somewhat disappointing to an American audience who appreciates narrative.

"Piaf" was conceived by Gil Marsalla and ran in Paris for a few years. The show was a hit so they decided to take it on the road. Luckily, they got their original Piaf, Anne Carrere, to come along. The show would likely be a wash without her endearing performance.

Divided into two acts, "Piaf" spends the first half interpreting Edith Piaf's early career through her iconic songs. There is no dialogue. Each song fades into the next with only minimal set re-arrangements. Miss Carrere is accompanied by a lively jazz trio who occasionally join in the play. The second half of the show is a reimagining of Piaf's triumphant final performance at Carnegie Hall. The second half is surely where "Piaf's" more emotional numbers reside.

Anne Carrere is a dead ringer for Edith Piaf. She's prettier than the real-life Piaf, but then again, Marion Cotillard is stunningly gorgeous and won an Oscar for her portrayal. The important thing is that Carrere can sing, and not only can she sing, but mimic Edith Piaf perfectly. If you close your eyes you would swear you were listening to a record. She employs Piaf's playful nature and through charm and song truly creates a "musical spectacular."

This one-night only stop in Chicago is an enjoyable evening but in the end, it's probably closer to a tribute band than a traditional play. Audiences will not leave knowing anything more about the French icon than they came with.

Awesome Company at the Anthenaeum Theatre. 2936 N Southport Ave. One-Night Only.

Published in Theatre in Review
Monday, 09 October 2017 18:06

Review: The Crucible at Steppenwolf Theatre

It’s the season of Arthur Miller in Chicago. It appears Miller is enjoying a renaissance right now with three of our major companies reviving his work this season. The Steppenwolf takes on "The Crucible" as their Young Adult show. Calling upon Jonathan Berry (one of the city's foremost storefront theatre directors), Steppenwolf bids for a younger audience's attention.

Berry doesn't disappoint. His vision for this show is more like MTV than stuffier productions of yore. The first act begins with hip-hop flavored choreography combined with Izumi Inaba's stylish costumes that create a sort of "sexy Halloween costume" version of "The Crucible". The alternative staging helps guide a younger, perhaps less engaged audience through the multi-cast roles and quick on-stage character changes. Berry also makes a distinct stylistic choice to gender and colorblind cast all of the roles. Performances are convincing enough that it never feels like a gimmick. Instead, it underscores Miller's theme that these characters are all of us.

The only misstep is Naimi Hebrail Kidjo's tepid Abigail. Arthur Miller's scenes between Proctor and Abigail are some of the most electrifying in modern American drama, but somehow, they rarely reach a boil here. Perhaps an underplayed Abigail helps bring the relationship between Proctor and his wife Elizabeth into sharper focus. The scenes between John (Travis A. Knight) and Elizabeth Proctor (Kirstina Valada-Viars) are gripping. Valada-Viars gives a feisty performance, making Elizabeth a stronger heroine than typically played. Knight's John Proctor is youthful and naive, but not without a quick temper and imposing figure.

The ensemble wears many hats, quite literally in some cases. Stephanie Shum swiftly moves through characters without faltering. It's hard to figure why some actors played more roles than others, but the moral backbone of the play is sufficiently taken up by Taylor Blim's Mary Warren.

For many of us, "The Crucible" occupies a greyish area of high school that we'd like to forget. The old timey language and belabored scenes are hard to get into. Even still, this is a show the Steppenwolf is aiming at school groups. Berry's version is cool. It may take some effort to get generation Snapchat into it, but for those who invest, this is a worthwhile production. "The Crucible" and "Death of a Salesman" are essential theater experiences. So much more is defined in a live performance versus a moldy permabound high school book.

Miller is hot right now because his themes are forever relevant. "The Crucible" tells us not to be sheep, but to look around and develop our own code of ethics. Jonathan Berry's modernish version of this classic work is sure to attract audiences without much theater-going experience, and what a cool introduction this would be. The key to instilling the values of Arthur Miller onto another generation is make it seem new, and this production feels fresh.

Through October 21 at Steppenwolf Theatre. 1650 N Halsted St. 312-335-1650

Published in Theatre in Review
Friday, 29 September 2017 12:16

Review: Becky Shaw at Windy City Playhouse

“Sometimes lying is the most humane thing you can do,” declares Gina Gionfriddo’s character Suzanna Slater in her play ‘Becky Shaw.’ Gionfriddo’s script was shortlisted for the 2009 Pulitzer and enjoyed a successful Off-Broadway run in 2008. ‘Becky Shaw’ makes its Chicago premiere at Windy City Playhouse in Irving Park.

Scott Weinstein directs this sleek production at the even sleeker Windy City Playhouse space. With only 25 seats, the performance space asks its audience to swivel in remarkably comfortable club chairs between scenes as there are three stages in the theater. Something about the orientation of the theater makes this telling more active than a typical play. A really unique experience that may be as memorable as the play itself.

‘Becky Shaw’ is a story about two non-biological siblings Suzanna (Amy Rubenstein) and Max (Michael Doonan) caught in a ‘Cruel Intentions’ style love affair until Suzanna marries someone else. They come from a splintery family and are brutal with one another, but not brutally honest. When Suzanna and her husband attempt to set up cold and cruel Max with delicate Becky Shaw, the play takes a dark direction.

This play is nothing if not well acted. The titular role, drawn as an allusion to the Victorian novel ‘Vanity Fair’ by Thackery, is played by Carley Cornelius. Her version of a clever woman trying to claw her way out of circumstances is haunting and weird. At no point do you ever feel that you’ve got her figured out. At times she’s vulnerable and soft but then turns deliberate and forceful. Cornelius brings a very relatable quality to this mysterious character. Gionfriddo has created such a fascinating character in Becky Shaw, that it’s almost disappointing that there’s not more of her here.

Gionfriddo’s play is funny and provocative. There are quote-worthy snippets of dialogue that, offer glimmers into the playwright’s opinions. She seems very concerned with equality of sexes. Several times the script calls a relationship a meeting of equals. Some may remember Gionfriddo’s play ‘Rapture, Blister, Burn’ which premiered at the Goodman in 2015. While nowhere near as good, ‘Rapture, Blister, Burn’ continued the playwright’s probe into the complexities of long term romantic love between men and women.

The scene jumping quality of the script lends itself well to the multi-staged set-up of Windy City Playhouse. It helps establish the passage of time between scenes and gets you close enough to the actors to feel directly involved. The female ensemble is works really well together in this production. Chicago stage veteran Suzanne Petri gives a standout performance as the mother of Max and Suzanna, and walks away with some of the most insightful lines of the evening. ‘Becky Shaw’ is a play about what happens when you bring a new person into your life, whether you want it or not. (John Accrocco)

Through November 12 at Windy City Playhouse 3014 W Irving Park. 773-891-8985

 

Published in Theatre in Review
Tuesday, 19 September 2017 21:49

Review: Goodman's "A View from the Bridge"

The Goodman Theatre almost never includes a show in their subscriber season that they haven’t developed themselves. Dutch director Ivo van Hove began his vivid production of Arthur Miller’s “A View from the Bridge” in London before bringing it to Broadway in 2016. It went on to win the Tony Award for best revival. Goodman artistic director Robert Falls requisitioned the work for Chicago prior to the Broadway run. Some may remember van Hove’s contribution to the Goodman’s 2009 Eugene O’Neill Fest. His arresting version of “Mourning Becomes Electra” performed entirely in Dutch was a sure stand out.

Ivo van Hove’s vision for Arthur Miller is uniquely his own in that it’s nothing like you’ve ever seen. If a standard Miller production bores you, then imagine an electric guitar version of Miller. The scenery and scene changes have been cut and what’s left is a minimalist masterclass in strong directorial choices. Minimalism doesn’t mean a lack of spectacle. The white cube contains the play to a small portion of the stage, allowing for audience members to sit right on stage. Each movement of this highly choreographed production creates a stunning visual.

Suffice it to say, you’ll never see “A View from the Bridge” like this again. van Hove’s intention is to create an “ultimate” version of classic American works through a European lens. What he reflects back is interesting. The concluding scene is a work of installation art, and leaves you with an unsettling feeling that we are but animals battling it out at the bottom. As with his interpretation of O’Neill’s “Mourning Becomes Electra”, van Hove is unafraid of heightening the subtle sexuality in the script. The blocking between Catherine (Catherine Combs) and Eddie Carbone (Ian Bedford) is highly suggestive and pushes the envelope even further than Miller had in 1953.

There’s no scenery, no costumes and no tricks for this cast to hide behind. Since the New York production, some of the parts have been recast, but many have not. Catherine Combs reprises her role as Catherine, but is no stranger to the Goodman stage. Combs’ performance is transfixing. She’s able to balance the juvenile qualities of a young girl in a falsetto, but convey the deep-voiced desires of a woman with an unexpected control. Playing her adoptive mother Beatrice, Andrus Nichols, commands each scene. The script would make this character a weakling, unable to stand up to her hulking husband. Nichols brings a hardened strength to the role that propels the final scenes to full throttle.

This production will stick with you. With our nation’s president touting severe immigration reform, this play comes at a critical point in history. Arthur Miller wrote plays that addressed social issues. In many ways Eddie Carbone is how Miller saw America, as something afraid of change. When we hear white supremacists chanting “You will not replace us” on national TV, it’s hard not to draw comparisons. This is an essential play for our times. Ivo van Hove has created a striking and extremely intense version of “A View from the Bridge” that Arthur Miller himself would applaud.

Through October 15th at the Goodman Theatre. 170 North Dearborn. 312-443-3811

*Now extended through October 22nd

Published in Upcoming Theatre

“This world will remember me,” Bonnie and Clyde sing to each other in Kokandy Productions’ presentation of “Bonnie & Clyde” – a musical. Directed by Spencer Neiman, this odd-ball musical makes its area premiere after an unsuccessful Broadway run in 2011. This production also marks the fifth anniversary of Kokandy Productions, now a regular staple of Chicago’s storefront theater scene.

“Bonnie & Clyde” was developed in 2009 by La Jolla Playhouse in California, a frequent incubator for new Broadway work. The show opened officially on Broadway in 2011, but closed after 36 performances. Critics were not especially kind.

Even though it’s not a direct adaptation, it’s nearly impossible not to compare this musical to Arthur Penn’s stylish 1967 film. It’s an American film classic with iconic performances by Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty. It’s widely considered a turning point in American cinema. The film was focused less on historical accuracy and more on drawing comparisons between the young outlaws and the political awakening of the late 60s. The musical tends to tread on the same territory as Penn’s film but in a less dynamic way.

The issue is camp. Penn’s film is mostly devoid of camp even some fifty years later. “Bonnie & Clyde” the musical feels like two hours of pure kitsch. There’s no discernable reason this story needed to be told to music and unfortunately the empty songs prove that. Neiman’s cast seems to forget that these characters were indeed real people and not cartoon characters to be parodied. The nature of the material isn’t especially satirical, but this cast has decided it is.

Missy Wise as Blanche Barrow pretty much steals the show with her number ‘You’re Goin’ Back to Jail’, but the whole thing feels a bit Disney-fied, considering that the real Blanche Barrow served time for armed robbery.

The two leads Desiree Gonzales and Max Detogne are both incredible performers. Detogne’s voice is perfectly suited for the country-tinged folk rock of Frank Wildhorn’s music. Gonzalas also has a strong voice and makes some genuine choices for Bonnie Parker, adding a real dimension to her that isn’t otherwise in the script. The generic “I-wish” song feels sincere with Gonzalas singing. You will remember her, just like Clara Bow. Detogne also makes it his own. There’s a chemistry between the two that really translates.

If you were just dying to see “Bonnie & Clyde” during its Broadway run in 2011, Kokandy offers up a serviceable production. If you were hoping to gain more knowledge about the infamous star-crossed outlaws, you may be impressed at what playwright Ivan Menchel spins into his version of “Bonnie & Clyde.”

Through October 15 at Kokandy Productions. Theatre Wit 1229 West Belmont Ave.

 

Published in Theatre Reviews
Wednesday, 16 August 2017 03:49

Review: Machinal at Greenhouse Theater Center

Machinal refers to an automated or mechanical system. Sophie Treadwell's 1929 play "Machinal" takes its styling from this theme. Directed by Jacob Harvey, Greenhouse Theater Center brings this work back to Chicago for the first time in many years.

Maybe not as well known as Lillian Hellman, but Sophie Treadwell was once a popular playwright on Broadway during the height of expressionism in theater. She wrote some forty plays and often directed them, nearly unheard of in those times.

"Machinal" is a retelling of the murder trial of Ruth Snyder who was eventually executed by electric chair. The play is an expressionist interpretation. The dialogue is written in a way that feels like the innerworkings of a machine. There's a sparse greyness to the costumes by Christina Leinicke that would also suggest the joylessness the protagonist lives.

Heather Chrisler plays the young woman. Chrisler interprets the staccato dialogue with a human quality. Her performance brings up the intensity by breaking through the repetitive and unpoetic lines. She brings life to them and elicits an emotional response. This woman is pleading for her life as her societal system of steamrolls her.

Doubtful that Treadwell saw the real life Ruth Snyder as a villain. "Machinal" shows the the pressure of getting married, of having financial security and living in a ever-moving world. The young woman in Treadwell's play can't keep up. She's pushed into an advantageous, but unsatisfying marriage. She finds happiness in the arms of a lover. She does what she has to do to feel free and pays the ultimate price.

Eleanor Kahn's set mirrors the starkness of the play. Presented in a near black box with the exception of some strobe lighting, there's an eeriness from the beginning. There's an atmospheric quality in Kahn's setting, and it's working.

Life may seem a little more liberated for today's women but Jacob Harvey's point in mounting this work, is that maybe it's not? And maybe it's not even limited to just women. Treadwell's play is about the mechanics of being a adult human in this world, and how that conveyor-belt life makes us all animals destined for slaughter.

Through September 24 at The Greenhouse Theater Center. 2257 N Lincoln Ave.

Published in Theatre in Review

‘S wonderful. “An American in Paris” was the surprise hit of 2015 on Broadway. It is of course the stage adaptation of Vincent Minnelli’s 1951 Best Picture winner of the same name. With familiar songs by George and Ira Gershwin, it would be hard not to be charmed.

 

To appreciate this “new musical”– you need to go back to a simpler, post-war era. Musicals were essentially plotless vehicles for stars like Gene Kelly and Judy Garland to showcase their talents. If some of the songs sound recycled here, that’s because they were. Often Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and the Gershwins repurposed their songs for multiple films. If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.

 

The stage musical devised by Craig Lucas and Christopher Wheeldon is fairly standard. While it may not be a reinvention of the wheel, it artfully pays homage to Vincent Minnelli’s lush style. Wheeldon’s ballet-flavored choreography is beautiful. The playfulness is tres Francais. Sometimes when a show hits the road, the production has to sacrifice some visual elements for the sake of portability. Not the case here. It’s impressive how well the vivid set pieces and projections travel. Visually, this “American in Paris” is stunning.

Sara Esty in the role as Lise evokes the spirit of a young Leslie Caron who starred in the original. Esty has been with the production since its conception at the Theatre du Chatelet in Paris. Though, her dialogue is sparse, she’s a lithe dancer and thoroughly adorable. Her co-star McGee Maddox takes up Gene Kelly’s role as Jerry Mulligan. What he loses in convincing line delivery he more than makes up for with impressive dance.

If you’re asking yourself, why “An American in Paris” or why now? Why not is a good answer. This show endures because it casts a heartwarming spell over audiences from varied generations. It may not be the most poignant musical, but for the nostalgia lover or Francophile this is sure to bring a smile to your face.

 

Through August 13 at The Oriental Theatre. 24 W Randolph. Broadway in Chicago

Published in Theatre in Review
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