Upcoming Dance

Kimberly Katz

Kimberly Katz

Oriental Theatre is currently housing one of the finest productions of The King and I that you will ever see. From its colorful set to its superb cast including Jose Llana who has mastered the role of the Siamese King, this particular creation if The King and I is simply wondrous.


The scrumptiously definitive Rodgers and Hammerstein musical about a spirited, brainy educator, Anna Leonowens, who the King of Siam brings in from England to teach his seventy-seven children and many wives both the English language along with Western culture. She is strong-willed, which throws off the stubborn and egotistical king, the two struggling, at times, to see eye to eye, especially when Anna states that women are every bit as important than men.


Laura Michelle Kelly has a large Broadway resume and shines as the show’s star in Anna offering genuineness to the role while providing a strong singing voice for the part. Kelly suffuses the character with wit, strength, empathy and a suffragette fervor which climaxes in the comical and still contemporary number, “Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?”


“All to remind you of your royalty,
I find a most disgusting exhibition.
I wouldn't ask a Siamese cat
to demonstrate his loyalty
by taking this ridiculous position
how would you like it if you were a man
playing the part of a toad.
Crawling around on your elbows and knees.
Eating the dust of the road!”


Jose Llana is about as good as it gets as the King of Siam (sorry, Yul Brynner). Llana is no stranger to the role having starred in two Tony-Award winning in Lincoln Center Theater’s revival of The King and I. As I suggested previously, he is made for the role. Delightful, attractive and able to charm the house one moment while displaying great frustration the next, Llana delivers a layered performance as the King, never falling into predictable distortion. Llana’s comic timing, humorous expressions and line delivery are spot on. He is convincing so that it makes perfect sense that his character is both gaining respect for the sophisticated and mature teacher while also being confused by his rising sense of incomprehension at her grasp of political awareness that progresses the destiny of his own family and finally, his entire Kingdom.


The chemistry between Llana and Kelly is explosive.


There is a very funny, yet revealing scene where the King is insisting that Anna’s head never be higher than his own. The King asks Anna to take dictation for an important letter to a visiting dignitary and sits down on the floor. When Anna finally sits down on the floor, the King moves to recline on one elbow and so forth till they are both completely reclining on the floor. Although, it is really a nonsensical demonstration of his manly power, Llana and Kelly manage to make it a funny exchange between two people who are each unaware they are gaining a true admiration for each other.


Other stories unfold throughout the production, that of a young couple whose love is forbidden as the King’s unwilling young captive, Tuptim (Manna Nichols), who is in love with Lun Tha (Kavin Panmeechao), her secret lover. At the same time, we see a young king in the making who is clearly influenced by Anna’s Western ways.


Marcus Shane steps in as Prince Chulalongkorn, the young boy who is next in line to be king, and does a solid job conveying his character’s gradually absorption of Anna’s wisdom and life lessons most notably at the show’s end when he pronounces that “excessive bowing to the King like a toad” is now forbidden. The young prince has clearly learned a lesson in humanity from his now adored teacher and friend, Anna.


Joan Almedilla is fantastic as Lady Thiang. Her stunning rendition of “Something Wonderful” is nothing less than breathtaking. Like the other cast members in main roles, Almedilla’s voice is yet another a true treat for the ears. It’s easy to get spoiled when seeing a well-performed Rodgers and Hammerstein musical because the words for every song are so unforgettable. “We Kiss in a Shadow” is also gorgeously sung by Nichols, as the love stricken Tuptim.

“To kiss in the sunlight
and say to the sky:
"Behold and believe what you see!
Behold how my lover loves me!"
And Panmeechao, Tuptim’s lover, performs the classic “I Have Dreamed” impeccably.
“I have dreamed that your arms are lovely
I have dreamed what a joy you'll be
I have dreamed every word you whisper
When you're close, close to me
how you look in the glow of evening
I have dreamed and enjoyed the view
In these dreams, I've loved you so
That by now I think, I know
what it's like to be loved by you
I will love being loved by you”

The costumes in this piece are true to the period while the dance numbers pleasingly choreographed and a radiant set worthy of its royalty is the finishing touch.
I highly recommend this dreamy, moving and humorous evening of unadulterated theatrical joy.


Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I is being performed at the Oriental Theatre through July 2nd For more show information visit www.BroadwayInChicago.com.

As soon as I saw the warm, rich lighting of a luxurious futuristic bedroom on the Space Ship Destiny lit and decorated by designers Heather Gilbert and Christopher Kriz and the set design by Arnel Sancianco, where the entire action of the play takes place, I thought this is going to be an interesting show. To the right of the set was a spaceship departure board with the names and photos of the passengers, along with their assigned room number, as they were headed to a planet three months away from Earth. The other ships had names like Fortune, Kismet, Prospect and Horizon suggesting that the people leaving earth are doing so willingly and must have enough money to do so. Smooch Medina’s spaceship flight calendar and wall projection also counts down the number of days the passengers have spent locked on this room together, which is a great tension builder as well. 

There are just three characters in the play. One a soldier who is suffering from PTSD from a previous mission in which he witnessed the killing of civilians that haunts him still in a variety of deep emotional ways. He has requested a private room because he cannot sleep well while struggling with his inner demons but somehow an attractive young woman passenger has been placed in the room with him, much to his disapproval. Ed Flynn portrays this sensitive, journal-writing soldier (previously referred to as “Grant”) who is also prone to violent mood changes and outbursts with great feeling and a sweaty intensity that is frightening at times. 

When you consider that he is locked into this “hotel room" for three full months due to a quarantine placed on certain sick members aboard the ship with a petite young female to whom he objects, it’s not difficult to imagine the strain that gradually surmounts. Janelle Villas does a wonderful job of showing the audience her fresh-faced bubbly enthusiasm while hiding a dark past that includes at least one rape, which has also left her in a state of PTSD. 


Co-directed by artistic director Michael Patrick Thornton and guest artist Jessica Thebus, the “Pilgrims” moves along quickly yet with subtle changes in the characters that seem very satisfying and real with a lot of emotional suspense and tension. We the audience wonder if these two characters will ever bond, or even reach their destination safely. We also ponder what will become of their edgy, ever-changing relationship once they are finally released from this artificial and close-quartered isolation into the general population of the new planet.  

The third character is a robot named Jasmine played with a great sense of humor and also an eerie, smiling menace by Brittany Burch. Jasmine has been programmed not only to answer all their questions and provide all their meals and cleaning services. She is also one of the older forms of “human-like robots” known for their ability to satisfy without any compunction - either member, male or female, with oral sex or intercourse if the human need arises.

The universality of two people meeting for the first time, learning about each other's baggage and foibles and being forced to overcome them in order to at least be friends if not lovers cannot be denied. This is a love story set in outer space plain and simple, even though it is suggested in the play that couples may have been placed together purposely to repopulate the new planet. 

I highly recommend this production for its unique retelling of a tale as old as time, when Fate meets Destiny and two very "human" human beings struggle to please each other while being true to their own individual dreams of the future but must in the end reveal the dark, undesirable places of their souls in order to overcome them and move into a deeper union free of mistakes or tragedies of the past.

Excellent performances and an imaginative script make Pilgrims a compelling and often humorous sci-fi love story that resonates. Pilgrims is being performed at Gift Theatre through July 30th. For more show information or to purchase tickets visit www.thegifttheatre.org.

From the minute I stepped into Windy City Playhouse’s colorful, elegant the stage area designed by Courtney O’Neill with fantastic lights and sounds by Thomas Dixon, I knew I was in for a treat. 

King Liz is named for the beautiful, sexy and high-powered sports agent Liz Rico played superbly with real gusto and stage presence galore by Lanise Antoine Shelley. 

Liz Rico is a woman who grew up in the projects, overcame great poverty and rose to the top of a male dominated industry. Rico, one of the best sports agents in the business, is about to be promoted to the head of her firm by her retiring boss Mr. Candy (Frank Nall).

Mr. Candy's last offer to her to make her his new head of firm is based on her ability to sign a new and talented high school basketball player Freddie Luna (Eric Gerard). Luna is a true talent likened to Kobe Bryant but comes with a history of violence and temper tantrums as he too has been brought up in the projects and was doing his best to survive as he knew how. 

Eric Gerard is also great in his role, showing how deeply he feels about needing to escape his checkered past and the projects by riding his basketball gifts into the big time. Gerard also plays the role well in that the audience sees and feels great compassion for him as he uses his limited social skills to try and fit into the fast-paced media swirl he is placed in, sometimes causing his own downfall, his sometimes feral temper getting the best of him. Though Luna can often be charming and polite, prying journalists after the next big sports story target his unbridled emotions and get the best of him when digging into his past that he so desperately wants to put behind him.

Gabby (Jackie Alamillo) is Liz Rico’s assistant and though grateful for her highly valued mentorship has been made to "eat crow" so many times, every day at work, by Liz. Gabby is also eager for Liz to get the promotion, if only because she will then fill Rico’s job. Alamillo is perfect as the once meek but now hardened assistant who has given up everything including her own sense of self-worth at times in order to succeed in this male dominated field. 

In the meantime, Knick’s Coach Jones does his best with Luna hoping this new prodigy will cement his long time career. Coach Jones, played with great compassion of soul and accuracy by Phillip Edward Van Lear, really drives the play’s message home and is totally believable in the role of a big league coach who also has been beaten down somewhat by an industry which cares more about profit margins than human lives and protecting the players who make the game possible.  

We learn along the way that "King Liz" had a sexual relationship with the coach in the past when over dinner he states he “would like to make love to her again”, that “she needs affection” and "was making animal sounds" the last time they were together but Liz will only accept his offer if he realizes she wants no commitment involved or even romance. 

Liz, over the course of the show, begins to realize that she has isolated herself from the world of love and relationships for so long that even though she is rich and on all the most important people lists like Forbes Fortune 500, she has also given up her chances to have children and a husband among other things and is faced with the biggest decision of her life to try and salvage her soul and dignity as a human being.

The play is delivered fast and furiously with many exciting twists and turns and light and scene design changes. It reminded me of the film “Draft Day” starring Kevin Costner that shows just how much constant pressure and money is riding on these agents and their young, often inexperienced and naive clients – the promises made and the slugfests that occur between agencies and teams to sign elite talent. We learn how much athlete image control weighs into a successful sports career for those that have a hard time staying out of trouble.

King Liz is also the story of two completely different paths taken from two people, both African Americans, who grew up in the same projects. Ambitious, disciplined and determined, Liz carved a trail for herself to succeed in the business world by obtaining a Yale education and learning the social graces and toughness that positions herself to rise up the corporate ladder. She’s hard-nosed and no-nonsense and does not make excuses. At the same time, Luna, though mega-talented, struggles to mature or find a sense of responsibility. He blows up with little provocation and misses key business appointments to go shopping with his friends. We want so desperately to shake him and say, “Wake up! You have been given a golden opportunity to shine and become an example to others.”

Lanise Antoine Shelly is a powerhouse as Liz Rico and is surrounded by an impressive cast in this fast-paced, knockout punch production. I highly recommend Fernanda Coppel’s King Liz, directed with real style and exciting action and catharsis by Chuck Smith.

King Liz is being performed at Windy City Playhouse. For tickets visit www.WindyCityPlayhouse.com.

 

With an all Latino/Latina cast, Marisela Treviño Orta's 2014 one-act is brought to life with magic and wonder. The River Bride, set in a South American village along the murky and mysterious Amazon River is a romantic and touching production, which, thanks to director Rinska Carrasco-Prestinary and ingenious props created by Ellie Terrell, seems to have created a real river out of clever lighting, projection screens on the walls and a fourth wall-breaking set consisting of various docks and land areas with the audience seated so close. I could almost feel the water sweeping beneath my feet. 

In this tiny Brazilian village, we meet two sisters, Helena (Flavia Pallozi) and Belmira (Sofia Tew) who are preparing for the marriage of the younger sister Belmira to the older sister's childhood ex-boyfriend Duarte (Johnathan Nieves), which is a sad situation for the older sister.


But three days before the June wedding, Moises (Nico Fernandez U/S), a sensitive and mysteriously handsome stranger, is rescued from the river by Duarte and the girls’ kindly father, Sr. Costa, played with great love and gusto by Johnny Garcia. Once Moises is brought to the Costa’s home, life as the happy family knew begins to change as the young visitor has his eyes set on Helena.


Home to the Costa’s, their village is peaceful, charming and quite beautiful. It is the home of many fisherman, of which Sr. Costa and Duarte make their living. It is a simple place – a place where stories are shared. In this village, nested along the Amazon, an ancient myth is passed down from generation to generation regarding magical dolphins who are destined to find human love and become human in the process that are given the chance for three days each June to do the impossible! First these mermen must locate their true love, their destined human soulmate whom they will know instantly ONLY because "the very first sight of her looking into their eyes makes them feel true love in a place in their heart which has no words".  Secondly, they must convince the soulmate to marry them and third, they must place the magic wedding ring on the woman's finger by the side of the river in an act of secret marriage before sunset on the third day!


But the play is about more than such a grim fairy tale passed down, which dooms each merman to eternal and unbearable loneliness if they do not successfully seek out, find and grab hold of their own personal golden fleece, so to speak.


The play is about the complicated dynamic between sisters and the ability or inability to act for the sake of their own well-being. It's about the human in the fairy tale come true who is suddenly without notice faced with a magical, perfect love and her ingrained inability to recognize and seize the moment for herself. It’s also about the closeness of family.


I love the saucy, honeymooning chemistry between Sra. Costa and Sr. Costa, the sisters fun loving parents wonderfully played by Ana Maria Alvarez and Johnny Garcia. It should be noted that Nico Fernandez, Moises the stranger from the river, was understudying the role and had to step in with only 45-minutes notice before opening night! Fernandez, thrust into the role, did a great job creating chemistry with the two both Pollozi and Tew. The entire cast is delightful and believably creates the kind of welcoming nature one would hope to find in a close family from a quaint river village.


Along with its fine cast, there are a handful of twists and turns in this adoringly, capturing story that surprise and keep us guessing.


I really can't say enough of the cleverness of this stage design and lighting effects, which shows lightning bolts and rain on the walls and turns what once was the top floor of a Chicago church into a convincing and romantically, sensual experience of real life on the Amazon river.


I highly recommend this thought provoking, stunningly raw and romantic play which has been lovingly and lushly produced to theatergoers of all ages that wish to be transported to a magical land where fairy tales can come true, for better or worse. 


Halcyon Theatre’s The River Bride is being performed at Christ Lutheran Church, 3255 W. Wilson Ave in Chicago through June 18th. Tickets are just $20 and can be purchased at https://halcyontheatre.org/.

Warning - Do not proceed if you have not yet seen the play - Spoiler alert!

This isn't a total spoiler but it's such a great choice by the authoress, Marisela Treviño Orta', which is so brilliant and deepens the messages in this deeply affecting one act so much that I need to acknowledge this plot twist in this review. 

Although never directly stated in the play, only implied, it turns out that the blissful, everlastingly youthful and passionate love of Sra. and Sr. Costa is most likely the actual result of a successful transformation of a “dolphin king” and his true love, 

What is made clear is that Sr. Costa was also a man who appeared mysteriously by the river, on a busy fishing dock one day in a new town and wooed and married their happy mother within exactly three days in the month of June so many years before. This is crucial to me because it not only shows how the Brazilian people's modern lives are enriched by their own mythology but implies that the authoress feels some magic and mystery may still be left in the world at least where true love is concerned.

Another reason why I loved the implication is that the two sisters are the result of a magical wedding that led to a life of true love and sweet contentment, because when the sisters each make their choice - no spoiler here - the audience is made to envision and feel clearly the heavy, very real consequences of the wrong choice. 

The disbeliever or doubtful lover who makes the wrong choice results in just the opposite, a truly disastrous result – “Disastrous” from the Greek meaning "being torn from the perfect orbits of one's own fate or stars", a never ending lifetime of sadness, loneliness and discontent, perhaps a fate worse than death to people who love and treasure marriage and  their family life so much. 

 

Try to remember a time before the Internet, before dating sites, before personal ads and instant cameras and you will eventually discover the age-old path of finding love and dating for men and women called "Lonely Hearts Clubs". 

 

In Marriott Theatre’s “She Loves Me", a musical with a book by Joe Masteroff, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, and music by Jerry Bock, two co-workers at the quaint Maraczek’s Parfumerie shop have unwittingly fallen in love with each other by the “Dear Friend” letters they have sent and received through their lonely hearts club connection. Though Georg and Amalia have not seen even a single photo of the other they each are certain by the written words of the other that they are truly in love and are ready to finally meet. 

 

Alex Goodrich’s Georg, the male half of this love match starts out as a bit of a jerk. Goodrich, who puts forth a very strong performance, makes Georg very sympathetic, albeit a bit of a boor though he is likable to his co-workers. He is earnestly content with his fifteen-year-plus job at the store. Although he has lots of girls who are real friends, it turns out Georg is completely insecure and out of touch with his feelings towards the opposite sex when it comes to romance. 

 

When Elizabeth Telford enters the store as Amalia (who is both seeking employment and unsuspectingly the other half of the lonely hearts club love letters), Georg is utterly irritated by her natural instinct for sales. Georg treats her with disdain even though she is cute and eminently qualified for the job she gets from the boss after selling a new product, a musical cigarette box, in record time. 

 

Both Goodrich and Telford endear you to their stubborn characters over the course of the show. As delivery boy, Arpad, played with youthful cheer, by Grant Kilian says to another clerk at the store with wonder, "Do they like each other?” The other clerk says, " Yes, they like each other very much," to which Arpad says, "Well shouldn't someone tell them?"  

 

Elizabeth Telford really knocks it put of the park emotionally and vocally with the number “Will He Like Me?", as she muses about all the different qualities he may or may not find attractive about her once they finally meet. Also, her genuinely joyous and girlish rendition of "Vanilla Ice Cream" lifts the audience to believe in true love again as Georg, who has already stood her up once, breaking her heart so badly that she cannot return to work that day, delivers a pint of Amalias' favorite vanilla ice cream. The thoughtful gesture makes her happy at his consideration in a way that begins to dimly realize what might be real love despite his earlier disdainful and brutish treatment of her feelings at work.  

 

Yes, it's like a period piece version of " You've Got Mail" that plays with a very modern feel as couples STILL face these challenges trying to find their mate today despite the Internet dating revolution. 

 

(Above) Jessica Naimy as "Ilona" and Jame Earl Jones II as "Sipos"

Jessica Naimy as Ilona steals the show with two of her numbers as the sexy, single gal at the Parfumerie who lets her desire for Mr. Right get in the way of finding her Mr. Right. In “I Resolve”, Naimy sings with genuine force and power that she resolves to let go of her destructive purely sexual relationship with the lothario of the drugstore and rather stand up for the truly lovable and deserving-of-respect woman she really is. In the number “Trip to the Library", Ilona seems to unconsciously know that a trip to a place of higher learning for the evening instead of to the local drinking hole will eventually lead to her meeting a man of substance and intelligence who loves her the way she was meant to be loved. 

 

James Earl Jones II as Sipos, the clerk with a family who will kiss anyone's butt to save his boring but dependable job, delivers a very funny, dry performance and his singing voice is both comical and deeply resounding. Great job!  And David Schlumpf as Steven Kodaly, the womanizing and insensitive clerk who'll sleep with anyone, really makes you want to slap him in the face, but his number “Grand Knowing You" shows the audience his sexist honesty is what finally pushes Ilona over the brink to find her own self-respect again, even if it means being alone for a while. 

 

Shop owner Mr. Maraczek is also well played by Terry Hamilton, as he is able to finely capture both the character’s storminess as that of a demanding boss and the good heartedness that hides beneath his exterior. 

 

The slicked back hair and black tails of The Headwaiter who serves Georg and Amalia at their very first meeting at a "romantic hideaway" is hysterically portrayed by Steven Strafford who has great physical comedy skills with his spot on facial expressions and timing. 

 

Directed and choreographed by Artistic Director Aaron Thielen, “She Loves Me” is a cute love story that features many charming characters and fun numbers including the adorable “Thank You, Madam” a goodbye the store employees sing together whenever a customer leaves the shop.

 

Thank you, madam. 

Please call again. 

Do call again, 

Madam

 

I highly recommend this heartwarming, fresh and fun production which is brought to life by Jeffrey D. Kmiec’s sets, Jesse Klug’s soft and lovely period lighting and especially Sally Dolembo’s really delicious, color-rich costumes for both the leads and the wonderful ensemble of players who portray shoppers in the store. Altogether with this superb cast, "She Loves Me" brings the art of lovemaking in this long past period to life in a delightful modern way. 

 

“She Loves Me” is being performed at Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire through June 18th. For tickets and show information click here

 

Set in the 1930's, this melodrama has all the ingredients you'd expect, sex, drugs, murders and the quick, clever banter of women fighting for their lives in a film noir-colored seedy underworld of a dance hall/nightclub/whorehouse.

 

In the latest Hell in a Handbag production "Lady X - The Musical", director and writer/composer David Cerda plays Scarlet stunningly dressed in delicious blood-red with all of the oomph, hilarity and confident power of his Joan Crawford character. Cerda really is the sun around which all of the talented planets in his cast revolve and he does it with great force and superb dry humor that trumps all and anchors the show with fear of the ultimate female "mob boss" that Hell in a Handbag fans have come to love and expect. Like Cerda says at the end of the show, "Hell in a Handbag is not just a theatre company it's a cult!" 

 

Christea Parent as Mary Dwight, is Lady X whose innocent younger sister comes to town to finish school but ends up tragically caught in the champagne filled "make it rain" dollars mentality. Christea Parent is unbelievably on point as the leader of the dames, the only one with a real purpose in life and the brains enough to stay out of the clutches of the gross "john” and the abusive bosses who take over the club by murdering the previous owner. 

 

Christea Parent, with the help of Kate Setzer Kamphausen’s fabulous period costumes, Keith Ryan’s hysterical and yet perfectly designed and coiffed wigs and Sydney Genco’s detailed makeup designs, (right down to the different types of fake eyelashes for each character) dominates the show with her singing, dancing and fast-talking character reminiscent of Barbara Stanwyck. I was dazzled by her mastery of the period acting while keeping her character both funny and deserving of compassion at every level.  

 

Almost all of my Hell in a Handbag fave performers were featured well in this production like Ed Jones, as Estelle, the "oldest whore" in the bunch. Jones is hysterical as always with his slightly breathy, tongue-in-cheek, sympathetic "grandmom” character of the group. Estelle, despite her age has found her perfect baby boy lover in the young Val, played with adorable youthful energy by another Handbag regular, handsome Chazie Bly. Their duet, “A Lovely Pair”, got some of the biggest laughs in the show's numbers and the perfect casting made their May/December romance absolutely understandable and even enviable. 

 

Caitlin Jackson, who blew me AWAY as “Bette, LIVE at the Continental Baths” a few months ago at Theater Wit is Gabby. Her aging and wise Betty Boop-style character is fully formed, lovable and again Jackson brought down the house with her amazing voice during the showstopper “Flim Flam Floozy”.

 

 Elizabeth Lesinski another Hell in a Handbag regular does an amazing job in her role, her comedic touch as perfect as ever. 

 

Wide-eyed director Steve Love enters the show to co-star as Betty Dwight, Mary’s naive kid sister who Mary is trying to keep in school and off the streets. Love is a breath of fresh air in the snake pit of despair these women swim in as the hopeful innocent, tap dancing her way into the audience’s hearts. 

 

Laura Coleman, one of the women playing a man characters is really funny and sharp as Frank Gorham, the attorney seeking justice of his own while Adrian Hadlock, also plays several characters and is really ingenious in his multi-layered portrayals of Crandall, Louie and the Judge.

 

“Lady X” has so many fun and wonderful twists and turns, it would be shame to spoil them all by giving them away, but suffice it to say David Cerda has once again created a whole new world all his own where the lines between male and female, innocent and guilty are marvelously blurred to show the vulnerability of all humankind when pressed to fight for their lives, livelihood and self-respect.

 

Cerda’s play is full of belly laughs from beginning to end and contains several very touching song numbers, like white picket fence, flower-filled "The House on the Hill", which all the women dream of retiring to, the song rounding out the hilarity with genuine sentiment. 

 

"Lady X" is destined to become another Hell in a Handbag hit.  

 

I highly recommend “Lady X"  for ladies , gentlemen and flim flam floozies everywhere seeking to escape from the horrors of the current political landscape facing the LGTBQ community and instead be surrounded by a joyous, celebration of strong women from all walks of life and the dangers they faced in the 30's as well as the dangers they face now.

 

“Lady X - The Musical" is being performed at Mary’s Attic in Andersonville through June 17th. For more show information or to purchase tickets visit http://www.handbagproductions.org/.   

 

I have to admit Aladdin is one of my all-time favorite Disney films so I was very optimistic upon entering Cadillac Palace to see the stage version. Turned into a live musical in 2011, Disney’s Aladdin has landed in Chicago for a five-month run with over three million people having already experienced the production worldwide. My hopes were high. I wanted so much to enjoy it. I entered the musical knowing the characters and creative team had a lot to deliver in order to please me - and deliver they did! Bringing to life the classic tale of Aladdin, Princess Jasmine, Genie and the villainous Jafar, I am happy to say the stage adaptation of the popular musical is a full-on magical adventure that exceeds expectations.

 

Adam Jacobs in the lead role of Aladdin has a wonderful voice, excellent dance skills and a charming, bright white smile that reaches all the way to the audience members in the back balcony much to their delight. Jacobs has some real star quality developing, which is a pleasure to see. Adam Jacobs as the poor thief trying to win Princess Jasmine’s heart with three wishes from a genie, really resembles a young Matt Dillon for those who remember the handsome, spirited hustler in the popular film "The Flamingo Kid."

 

Perfectly paired with Jacobs, Isabelle McCalla plays Princess Jasmine with a sassy, feminist air that was both endearing and inspiring to young girls without seeming cloying or coy. McCalla also has a lovely, yet strong stage presence and a wonderful singing voice. Yet the key to a successful production of Aladdin depends on the strength of the wish-giving imp and in this case Anthony Murphy nails the role of Genie. Murphy is deliciously saucy and upbeat in his interpretation of Genie and has great physical comedy timing and brings with him some impressive dance instincts. 

 

The fabulous tunes of Aladdin penned by Alan Menken, Howard Ashman and Tim Rice are brought to life by this talented ensemble directed by Devanand Janki with an abundance of energy and infectious joy! 

 

The magic flying carpet scene is every bit as enchanting as in the film when Aladdin posing as a prince offers to free Jasmine from her castle tower where she has been isolated from seeing the daily life of the real world. Aladdin finally shows her “A Whole NEW World" with a stunning backdrop of night stars, which create an effective and truly romantic flying carpet special effect that makes both adult couples and children alike say, “Wow, that's beautiful!" 

 

I loved the way the book has been altered to include the idea that an arranged marriage is politically incorrect even if it is an arranged marriage to a prince. This is a very serious problem in other countries and I was very pleased that the writers made it clear to the young women watching the show that in the end even Jasmines' father, The King, was forced to change the law in order to make sure his daughter was married to someone she loved, regardless of his social standing - that it was her choice, not his. 

 

Brian Sidney Bembridge (sets), Jesse Klug (lighting) and Debbie Baer (costumes) each deserve their own round of applause for their amazing accomplishment in creating the truly golden treasure room and flying carpet effects along with the colorful, rich designs that captured and dazzled the eye in every scene.

 

I highly recommend this show for adults who’d like to go on a romantic date as it dreamy and fun while reminding us of the innocence of love. Aladdin is, of course, also a great production for young ones to see because, unlike in some children's theater, the characters are fully rounded and the entire spirited cast really delivers on their opening number, “Arabian Nights”, successfully projecting the feelings associated with the magic and destiny of Love that is caused by such wonder and delight! 

 

Disney’s Aladdin is running at Cadillac Palace through September 10th. For tickets and show information visit www.BroadwayInChicago.com

 

Wednesday, 12 April 2017 14:27

The? Unicorn Hour? Come and Get Your Joy!

Leah Urzendowski and Anthony Courser have created a show that is part comedy, part play therapy that is truly a joy to behold. Don't skip the opening steps. When you enter the lobby, you will be asked to write down one of your fears and place it in an envelope. Then you will be asked to think of something that brings you Joy and bring that thought with you as you enter "The Joy Womb". The Neo Futurium has been cleverly lined with mismatched sheets, colored lights beneath to create a lovely, cozy joy womb effect. 

 

The? Unicorn? Hour? begins with an awesome light show in the "womb" accompanied by terrific music and sound effects to which Leah and Anthony (who are a couple in real life) enter wearing dark capes and much smoke, which is soon thrown off to show that they are actually dressed in beautifully crafted, silvery unitards as Unicorns of Joy! 

 

"The mighty rumpus that defeats the evil!" They cry out then ask if we are feeling scared, defeated etc. by what's going on in the world, inviting the audience to join them in their journey to transform fear into real joy. 

 

Both actors are fantastic physical comedians (having been creators together on the popular play "Burning Bluebeard", the unique show in which actors from the deathly 1903 Iroquois Theater fire where over 600 audience members were killed), and try to get through the show without killing their audience this time, as well. But Leah Urzendowski is a real dancer in every sense of the word, expressive, muscular, sensitive and flexible. Her dancing as the Unicorn takes the show into another realm of professionalism and put of pure clowning. 

 

There is a special guest from another show, I won't reveal because there will be a new special guest each week but this Eeyore-like character enters to the music "Lonely Boy" and the audience sees clearly that joy is a choice, as the pair tries to get him to cheer up using a bubble machine. He keeps insisting over and over, "Those bubbles are just gonna pop. There goes another one and another one, they are all popping!" 

 

There is a "swear square" where tensions are released by letting out swear words, but when Courser gets too carried away after starting off with innocent words like “dang” and “darn it” and the swearing turns mean and scary i.e. "I've got a bag of dicks and I'm going to stir it in a pot to make myself a dickwich to…," she eventually stops him. It's a tiny little feminist statement that many miss because in today's anything goes type of political correctness sometimes things just go too far in that dark "pornographic" way and women and children end up feeling threatened instead of empowered to express their own anger however gentle it may be. 

 

There is a fabulous physical bit where Courser pantomimes a journey to the top of a mountain that includes horseback riding, to flying, to parachuting to snow climbing among other fun-tastic feats. But as they both reach the top, the audience is suddenly enveloped in darkness and fear again. 

 

This is where the cast members come around and start asking us to name our fears and if we’d like to give them to the players to take away from us. Some of the fears in our audience were loneliness, fear of being alone in the dark, a pet or loved one dying, failure, never being more than I am now and drowning in cold water. But by the end of the show we are all asked to shout out our joys - the sound of a dog drinking water, a fresh piece of buttered toast, easy money, cuddling in bed all day, etc. and the room is restored to feelings of Joyous Surrender to the music and dancing these two have created. 

 

Their dance numbers really are both comical and extraordinarily demanding and professional, with the two winding about each other like seahorses made to fit as one beautiful, silvery creature with Leah's legs wrapped around Courser’s waist or even his neck as she peers out between his knees to whisper "JOY!" 

 

I have to say this is the MOST fun and joy I have had in recent years at any comedy in Chicago and promising an audience as stressed out as Chicago audience members are now by the political disasters and death unfolding around us every day, delivering a dose of real JOY in the theater world, is a REAL achievement! 

 

I highly recommend this hilarious, thought-provoking and most of all FUN, delightful, refreshing, exciting, comforting and colorful piece of work to anyone who is seeking to remember how to have a little joy in their lives right NOW. 

 

The? Unicorn? Hour? Runs just over an hour and is currently being performed at the Neo Futurium in Andersonville through May 13th (hopefully an extension will take place). For tickets and more show information visit www.neofuturist.org.

 

Some of us are born with a passion, a passion for music or art or math. In the case of First Folio’s Silent Sky, one woman gives up almost everything in her personal life because she senses furiously, in her heart, that HER passion is going to lead to a discovery that will help all of humankind. This special woman, Henrietta Swan Leavitt (1868–1921), turns out be absolutely correct. 

 

Like the popular film "Hidden Figures", the 2011 play Silent Sky by playwright Lauren Gunderson, now making it's Chicago Premiere, tells a very important real life example of how women have been making significant contributions to Science and the Arts against almost impossible odds due to sexism in the work place. Leavitt is wonderfully played with a great zesty and nerdy enthusiasm by Cassandra Bissell who adds just the right amount of seditious touch to the headstrong and very determined character. She is one of the women termed "computers" by their male employers who has been given the great "honor" of painstakingly cataloging all the stars in the sky captured on glass plates by a telescope. As a new employee, she is never allowed to operate the high-powered telescope or use privately her own ideas to validate her own discoveries while earning a whopping $.25 an hour. 

 

Leavitt is a proud, brilliant Radcliffe graduate. She jokes with her male supervisor Peter Shaw (keenly played by Wardell Julius Clark) that she and he are in fact "colleagues" that "Radcliffe is basically Harvard in skirts." As they fall in love with each other, he begins to soften on some of his more sexist behaviors including "borrowing" ideas from Leavitt to give to the professor (to whom she will never directly report) her discoveries by trying to claim them as his own. Leavitt is hired as one of Harvard astronomer Dr. Edward Charles Pickering's "computers" or, as they were referred to as "Pickering's Harem”.

 

Leavitt's work came at a time when we as earthlings had no idea where we were located in the Milky Way nor did we know how far away the billions of stars and galaxies made visible by the super powerful new telescope really are from our planet. Leavitt observes closely the luminosity of a class of stars known as Cepheid variables. Others had thought their flashes of light completely random, but through years of study and an epiphany provided by her musically inclined sister, Margaret (Haley Rice), who is composing a symphony in between giving birth to multiple children, Leavitt discovers that the stars are actually making sounds, a music of the stars. This eventually provided the ONLY key to measuring the distance between Earth and other galaxies. Creating the standard to measure the distance of stars from Earth, many male astronomers like Edwin Hubble greedily feasted on her published work to make names for themselves but poor Henrietta dies of cancer before one of them finally realizes she deserves to be nominated for, and win, the Nobel Prize - but the Nobel is not given posthumously and so she was never even nominated for it. 

 

Annie Cannon (Jeannie Affelder) and Willamina Fleming (Belinda Bremner) play her fellow "computers" with a lusty, strong intelligence. The three characters develop a genuine family, a sisterhood, believing in Henrietta and encouraging her to take her work home with her (the glass plates are not allowed to leave the observatory) even when she is forced to move home to Wisconsin to take care of her dying father. 

 

In the end, Henrietta gives up a promising offer of marriage to Shaw, the chance to have children of her own, and even her dream of traveling the world in order to complete her work. 

 

Although I thought the gray monotone set in the chapel at Mayslake Peabody Estate was awfully depressing and didn't change enough to give us the sense of her whole life passing through it's dull indistinguishable doors, we are finally rewarded with the lighting display and music at the end of the show thanks to John "Smooch" Medina's projections, combined with Michael McNamara's lights and Christopher Kriz's musical score. The entire effect was spectacular, almost as if we are finally able to see the universe through Henrietta's passionate, intelligent eyes.   

 

There really needs to be more biographical plays like this one written with respect and sympathy about women who have changed our place in the world for the better - forever. It is a terrible waste of human intelligence and a dirty shame that if you mention the name Henrietta Swan Leavitt to anyone girl child or even adult today that her life will ring no bells, her name strike no sense of recognition, gratefulness ignored for the contributions she made and the doors she broke down for female scientists to come. 

 

Touching, beautiful and inspiring.

 

I highly recommend this thoughtful, poetic and understanding production for showing that some women will give up everything for the love of their work and dedication to humanity. Remembering theses outstanding individuals inspires and empowers us all, male or female, to chase our dreams to the end. 

Superbly directed by Melanie Keller, Silent Sky is being performed at Mayslake Peabody Estate in Oakbrook through April 30th. For more information on this wonderful show or to purchase tickets, click here

 

Destiny of Desire begins with the actors breaking the fourth wall, walking among the audience, encouraging them to relax and have fun. As they complete their tasks setting up the empty Goodman soundstage on which the telenovela we are about to watch is being shot, the entire cast announces with glee, “We are here to change the social order! Deal with it!”

 

And change the order they do, especially where the reputations and struggles of the Latino community are concerned. Playwright Karen Zacarías so grew weary of the way many plays written by Hispanics were dismissively compared to "telenovelas”, a form of soap opera-like entertainment. We are informed during the show that telenovelas are watched by a third of the world’s population - a full two billion fans around the world. Zacarías succeeds marvelously in parodying a true telenovela for the stage full of twists and turns and sexy passionate, and sometimes tragic, stories while using the play to advance feminist values in a subtle but very important way.

 

For example, when two young girls are struck in the face by their father when they are caught kissing, the father, Armando Castillo (Castulo Guerro), quickly laments his violence and cries that a woman should never be hit by a man - never be hit with anything more harsh than a single rose petal. 

 

Likewise, when the rich villainess of the piece, Fabiola Castillo (played to perfection by the elegant and serpentinely sexy Ruth Livier) seems to make you totally disgusted with her gold digging, self-centered un-motherly behavior, the audience finds out that Fabiola was herself a poor girl subjected to repeated sexual abuse before escaping the farm life and painstakingly transforming herself into a blonde bombshell, eventually marrying to the richest man in the town.  

 

The story starts simply enough when two women (one rich and one poor) give birth at the same time at the same hospital. When the baby belonging to the privileged family is found sickly, the mother begs the doctor to make a switch so that she can have the healthy infant – and he does, pawning the other off on the farmhands. The plot thickens at virtually every corner in this hilarious in this oft steamy, oft scandalous Spanish soap opera set for stage – a show that literally keeps the audience plugged in from its opening scene. The journey follows the happenings as these women take destiny into their own hands. 

 

There are so many twists and turns, it would be a disservice to reveal the plot-lines but the most important message that runs throughout the show from the first scene to the last is that each mother and each daughter born to each family (one poor family and one rich) is the most precious miracle, a blessing bestowed by God and that no matter what the daughter's talents, beauty or graces or mistakes, they should all be protected from abuse or health neglect at any cost. 

 

The set detail truly creates an atmosphere to which we can easily become lost, sit back and just enjoy the story. Each of the men and women are dressed to sexy perfection in Julie Weiss’ true to telenovela form in dazzlingly modern costumes. The costumes by Julie Weiss are so VERY the typical telenovela, the lighting by Pablo Santiago floods the stage with oink, and the golden lights and large swathes of white fabric are ingeniously used to symbolize the desert sands, which is perfectly romantic and also constantly changing. I adored the swiftly moving and beautifully lit set by Francois-Pierre Couture.

 

Although, this is not a musical a pianist provides the score and there are songs, beautiful rich songs sung with passion in Spanish by many of the characters. Not knowing the lyrics in English makes no difference as these lovely pieces bond the show together and send the emotions soaring in a way that deepens the love you feel for each character's plight without stopping the comedy flow.  

 

Now that I know that two billion people are watching and enjoying this form of entertainment, I sincerely hope the huge success of this show makes its feminist message a regular part of telenovelas being produced right now, more than ever. 

 

Throughout the nearly non-stop humor in the show, there are also current day ad libs which refer to Donald Trump, the life expectancy of Hispanics in America (the highest despite financial and health insurances challenges) and the fact is pointed out that one out of every hundred Americans are behind bars because we incarcerate more of our citizens than any other country - messages all of which are delivered in a very funny and brief way which makes each fact that more clear without sounding preachy or out of place. Some are humorous while others are strong in message, one of the more shocking factoids divulging that one person is found dead each day in the desert between Mexico and the United States attempting to cross the border.

 

Karen Zacarias’ parody of the telenovela both does the art form justice and “cleans it up a little” in terms of political correctness in the most palatable way. 

 

Zacarias knows exactly how the pure unadulterated passion of men for the women in their lives can devolve into a passionate rage against the daughters and mothers of OTHER men without distinction in the man’s mind. 

 

Destiny of Desire is a very funny lampoon on telenovelas that perfectly exaggerates the absurdities while giving us an entertaining story where nothing is predictable. 

 

Finely directed by Jose Luis Valenuela, a talented cast from top to bottom perform to perfection this highly amusing script. Esperanza America and Ella Saldana North are just dynamite as the two sisters separated from their true families at birth while Eduardo Enrikez engages the audience each time he appears on stage with his campy portrayal of Sebastian Jose Castillo. Maurico Mendoza and Elsa Bocanegra flawlessly play the poor Del Rio parents as do Ricardo Gutierrez and Fidel Gomez in the roles of father and son doctors, Dr. Jorge Ramiro Mendoza and Dr. Diego. Adding to what is already Well-thought comedic touches are littered throughout the production, the actors performing ballet moves as they switch out the props.   

 

Destiny of Desire is highly recommended as a sexy production that keeps a rapid pace, delivers buckets of comedy and engrosses from the word “Go”.  

 

Destiny of Desire is being performed at Goodman Theatre through April 16th. For tickets or more show information, click here

 

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