Dance

Ken Payne

Ken Payne

Of the many Andrew Lloyd Webber hits, Jesus Christ Superstar has always been a personal favorite of mine. It rocks, it moves and…it’s back. After a lengthy absence, the award-winning musical has returned to the Chicago area, this time with a bit of a twist as, unlike past productions, the show features an all African American cast. This, opposed to the nearly all white cast complete with a black Judas that we are accustomed to seeing. And, the tremendously gifted cast works so very well in this revival piece. The change is bold and should be commended. And the execution is nearly flawless. 

With one of the greatest rock operas of all time currently finding its temporary home at Aurora’s Paramount Theatre, we know by the end of the production’s first number, “Heaven on Their Minds”, that Mykal Kilgore, who takes on the demanding role of “Judas”, is a special talent. We also get an idea within the next few numbers (“What’s the Buzz?”, “Strange Thing, Mystifying” and “Everything’s Alright”) how deep the talent pool goes in this one-of-a-kind production.  

Reliving the last days of Jesus Christ leading up to the crucifixion, the timeless musical, which premiered on Broadway on October 12th, 1971, is set to the music of Andrew Lloyd Webber with lyrics by Tim Rice, in what began as a rock opera concept album by the two in 1970. Since, it has been one of the most successful musicals of all time gathering a loyal fan-base from all over the world. In Jesus Christ Superstar, we visit Jesus, accompanied by his disciples and Mary Magdalene, as he performs miracles and brings hope to the world while claiming he is the son of God, much to the chagrin of the Pharisees and scribes who see him as a threat to their teachings – a threat they would like removed so much they ask the Romans for help.

In Paramount’s current production of Jesus Christ Superstar, a fifteen-piece orchestra paves the way for the talented performers who leave their mark in one number after another. Kilgore goes on to navigate through each song with skilled precision and sings with amazing depth. And while Kilgore impresses more and more as the show progresses by staying true (and then some) to the “Judas” that both Murray Head and Carl Anderson made famous, Felicia Boswell is also quick to excite the audience with her moving interpretation of Mary Magdalene, particularly in the popular “I Don’t Know How to Love Him”. Beautiful, graceful and vocally dynamic, Boswell brings a gentle warmth to the role, wonderfully capturing the love that Mary had for Jesus. Throughout the production, remarkable performances are abundant with Rufus Bonds Jr. taking the reins in a very commanding depiction of Pontius Pilate, so well delivering the message of his conflict to have Jesus crucified at the request of the mob that is influenced by the religious law makers or to set him free since no Roman law has been broken. Lorenzo Rush Jr. also leaves a strong presence as the baritone-wielding Caiaphas who leads the charge against Jesus, fearing that he will revolutionize Jewish law. 

Jesus of Nazareth is commendably played Evan Tyrone Martin. Martin aptly captures the virtue and charisma needed for the role of and is convincing while conveying just how tiring it can be to be the son of God. Martin’s voice is strong and he has little trouble carrying the many challenging melodies that come with playing Jesus, though the patented screams that both Ted Neeley (film version) and Ian Gillan (concept album) had incorporated into the role were absent, leaving a couple prime crescendo moments to the wayside. Still, Martin holds his own, even getting a much-deserved extended applause after his riveting performance of “Gethsemane”, a powerful number where Jesus questions why it is that he must die. 

The show’s ensemble is nothing short of amazing, the actors changing back and forth from disciples, to Pharisees to lepers to soldiers ever so efficiently. At one point, Mark J.P. Hood breaks rank from the ensemble as Simon and superbly performs one of the show’s highlight numbers “Simon Zealotes”, where he praises Jesus and urges him to build an army to fight the powers of Rome. Another crowd-pleasing moment (among the countless others) occurs when Jesus is brought forth to Herod (Avionce Hoyles) in a glittery display that dazzles in the somewhat jazzy “Herod’s Song”. Kudos to Hoyles who thrusts the role of Herod into another stratosphere.     

Paramount’s Jesus Christ Superstar is a fascinating production that entertains nonstop from its opening overture to its near-finale number “Superstar”. Featuring a wealth of acting and singing talent and a rockin’ orchestra that does the soundtrack right, this could possibly be one of the most polished, expressive and enjoyable musicals to come our way in some time.  

Superb. This beautiful production is super recommended.

Magnificently directed and choreographed by Ron Kellum with music direction by Tom Vendafreddo, Jesus Christ Superstar is being performed at Paramount Theatre through May 28th. For tickets and/or more show information click here.       

 

Following the lives of Charlotte and Jonny, The Mystery of Love and Sex cleverly explores a variety of subjects including sexual identity, race, political correctness and family undercurrents. Charlotte and Jonny have grown up together and have become the very best of friends. Charlotte is a white girl who had lived with her parents, her father Jewish and her mother converted, while Jonny, an African American had lived with his mother just next door. 

The story starts off with Charlotte and Jonny living together while attending college. They wonder if their longtime friendship can develop into something more. The two are stressed when Charlotte’s parents, Howard and Lucinda, come by for dinner unsure of what they might think of their living relationship and their possible future together. Howard, a  successful crime novelist accused of writing with racist and sexist overtones by Jonny ("Why are all black men able to dance? Why are most found victims women with no clothes on?"), is direct, concerned and, at times, a bit skeptical. “What is this? Like Bohemian?” He says referring to the couple’s table setting. It doesn’t help matters that Charlotte and Jonny are serving just salad and bread. But we quickly see how much Howard cares for both his daughter Charlotte and Jonny, who he considers his son, despite his oft coarse exterior. 

As the story progresses, Charlotte and Jonny show trepidation in pursuing a future together even questioning their own sexuality. Howard and Lucinda, who consider themselves liberal parents, just want their daughter to be happy. We are then taken on several plot twists and turns in both Howard and Lucinda’s marriage and the lives of Jonny and Charlotte that keep the story highly engaging.

Keenly directed by Marti Lyons and smartly written by Bathsheba Doran, The Mystery of Love and Sex provides four main characters that are each appealing in their own ways. The interactions between the four is fulfilling, as it is humorous, touching and true to life. Doran’s story is that of love, whether it be unconditional or the lengths taken to find it. It is a journey into life’s most sought after desire and a tribute to accepting those for who they are.  

"I have had the pleasure of following the impressive rising careers of playwright Bash Doran and Director Marti Lyons for the past few years and I am delighted to find a project that suited both their considerable talents so perfectly," says Artistic Director Michael Halberstam.

Hayley Burgess leads the way as Charlotte with a bold performance in her Writers Theatre debut. Charlotte has many layers that are revealed throughout the play and Burgess gently takes the audience by the hand into her character’s depth one step at a time. Best friend and confidant Jonny is well-played by Travis Turner who is also able to play up to the complexities in his role with much aplomb. Lia Mortensen is just fantastic as Lucinda, delivering her witty lines to perfection and getting several laughs in the way her character struggles to quit smoking. Cast in the role of Howard is Keith Kupferer. However, Kupferer had taken ill and was unavailable for the performance I had attended thrusting Mark David Kaplan into the role, who is simply remarkable. Kaplan steers his role with grit and finesse offering the clear predictability of Howard’s stereotype, but is also able to throw in a handful of surprising moments filled with a genuineness than can catch us off guard. Kaplan and Mortensen are terrific as Charlotte’s parents, bringing forth plenty of funny exchanges and throwing several well-timed darts at each other.

There is a lot to like in Doran’s The Mystery of Love and Sex from its tantalizing script to its well-executed performances. The play delivers a solid message in a uniquely crafty way that is entertaining from beginning to end. 

Recommended. 

The Mystery of Love and Sex is currently running at Writers Theatre (325 Tudor Court, Glenview) through July 2nd. For tickets and/or more show information click here

*This play contains frontal nudity.

If you’ve followed Netflix’s big 2016 hit Stranger Things, this play will make all kinds of sense. You’ll get the jokes, the 80’s references and will easily follow the story line. If you haven’t seen the series, it would be recommended that you do before checking out Random Acts and Greenhouse Theater’s collaboration, Strangest Things! The Musical

Spoofing one of the most talked about sci-fi series to hit the airwaves over the past few years, Strangest Things! follows the disappearance of Will Byers, a young boy in Hawkins, Indiana. Set in the 1980’s, his mother Joyce Byers, brother Johnathan and a group of Will’s friends search everywhere to no avail, eventually enlisting the help of Police Chief, David Harbour. When a young girl known as “Eleven” appears from seemingly nowhere dressed in only a hospital gown, it is soon discovered she has psychokinetic abilities and things start to get weird. 

Befriended by Will’s friends, Eleven is able to contact Will from the other side and it becomes apparent that things are not at all what they seem. Joyce believes Will is contacting her from another dimension, his energy channeled through the radio and a string of Christmas lights, confident he is alive but trapped in another world. Of course, this sounds crazy – or is it? And with every good sci-fi thriller there needs to be a villain, so it’s soon discovered an experimental laboratory, led by scientist Martin Brenner, may have a hand in Will’s disappearance. Suspicious, the snooping begins and the plot gets deeper and deeper as the story progresses.  

The series won its popularity not only with its engaging storyline, but with the heavy use of 80’s music and sound effects, making it prime parody material.

That’s where Strangest Things! comes in. 

While Strangest Things! The Musical hits on some of the 80’s silliness and occasionally finds success in its over-the-top lampooning of the series’ characters, it struggles to hold onto its momentum. Taking popular 80’s hits like “Xanadu”, “I’m A Virgin”, “Sweet Dreams” and “Don’t Stop Believin’”, writers Bryan Renaud and Emily Schmidt change the lyrics to accommodate the storyline in the play. While the lyrics are, at times, funny, the execution falls a bit flat, the harmonies weak and the vocals often lacking strength, excluding Molly Lecaptain as “Juice” (Joyce) Byers who can flat out belt. We almost wonder if the play would have been better without the musical numbers, the dialogue exchanges drawing the most laughs along with the character exaggerations of each.

Lecaptain does a good job in taking on Winona Ryders’ character, over-amplifying her panic-stricken, bewildered and frenzied traits at just the right intensity, while Kevin O’Connell as “Sheriff Hopper” (Police Chief David Harbour) also takes his role and runs with it. Will’s best friend Mike is played by Jenna Fawcett, who doesn’t have to do much more than wear a goofy wig to get a chuckle but also delivers plenty of funny lines and loopy expressions. Older brother “Johnathan” is played by Ben F. Locke, who doubles as hunky high school heart throb Steve. Locke’s performance offers some of the best camp-dom in the musical, leaving more “Johnathan” scenes to be highly desired. Their comedic ability is only limited by the play’s script.

The play starts strong as we meet our characters the first time around (especially “Barb” played by Christian Sibert), but the humor becomes predictable, the character’s freshness soon overplayed and the jokes often coming off as contrived or overdone, a perfect example being Hopper’s mention of T.J. Hooker – which was funny – until he points out to the audience that we should laugh because he made an obscure 80’s reference. We know.    

If you enjoyed the Netflix series, there might be just enough in Strangest Things! to like despite its many missed opportunities for witty, comedic growth. The idea is there but the play could use a reworking to give its audience the most bang for their buck.            

Lukewarm, the play has severe hits and misses, some jokes really creative while others falling flat. As a whole, the story might be a bit tough to piece together without having seen the series, as it is presented somewhat scattered without full explanation, so again, it is recommended you watch Stranger Things first.  

Strangest Things! The Musical is being performed at Greenhouse Theater Center through May 13th. For more information on this production, visit www.greenhousetheater.org.

 

Maybe we can chalk it up to a mid-life crisis…or, maybe, Wheeler is just a self-loathing man who’d just assume sabotage his own happiness rather opting to wallow in self-pity. In Steppenwolf’s Linda Vista, a new play debut by Tracy Letts and directed by Dexter Bullard, we get a very funny, and highly realistic, account of a man who has seemingly given up on life and love.

Wheeler (Ian Bradford) has moved from a cot in his wife’s garage to his own apartment in the Linda Vista apartment complex. With a soured marriage and an estranged relationship with his son coming to an end, Wheeler has the opportunity to start fresh, but that’s much more difficult than it sounds – at least it is for him. As we get to know Wheeler, a former Sun-Times photographer with promise who now holds onto a routine job as a camera repairman, we see someone who has been riddled with repercussions that have stemmed from a series of poor choices. Wheeler resents his soon-to-be-ex-wife for having him leave his Chicago life for California to be closer to her family. He resents his son for - well, just getting in the way of his life. He resents happy people. Hell, he resents Radiohead. But Wheeler has accepted his current situation – a cynical alcoholic that shoots down other people’s hopes and dreams, believing he is a “piece of shit” who “doesn’t deserve to be happy”. 

Wheeler’s best friend Paul (Tim Hopper) and his wife Margaret (Sally Murphy), friends from their college days, haven’t given up on him. They want to find him a partner who can bring out the old Wheeler who once had dreams and ambitions himself. When Paul and Margaret set Wheeler up with a friend of theirs, Jules (Cora Vander Broek), who is bright and bouncy, Wheeler reluctantly accepts and, as you can probably imagine, he has a few skeptical things to say after finding out she is a life coach. This, of course, threatens a man who wants a simple, joyless existence. Complicating matters for Wheeler, he takes in Minnie (Kahyun Kim), a twenty-four-year old rockabilly enthusiast recently kicked out of her own apartment in the same complex by her abusive boyfriend. 

The play is very truthful. It is about regret, wrecked opportunities and the consequences of unfortunate decisions. It is about letting oneself spin out of control, essentially giving up, and the struggle to choose happiness - a challenge when becoming so distant. But is also about hope and the chance to change for the better. In Wheeler, we are given a lovable “asshole” that we must root for. 

Ian Barford is tremendous as Wheeler. Barford quickly draws in the audience, grabs them and never lets go. Convincing, humorous and often decidedly heartfelt, Barford captures the essence of his self-deprecating character so well, we can’t help but think of a few “Wheeler’s” we know ourselves. Tim Hopper does fine work and is believable as Wheeler’s tolerable, but supportive, best friend as does Sally Murphy, both nicely adding to the play’s humor (I’ll just say karaoke bar scene). 

While Kahyun Kim is brassy and nails the too-cool-for-school attitude as Minnie, Cora Vander Broek is sparkles as Jules, perfectly pairing with Barford as his counterpart in a true positive/negative kind of relationship. We are also taken to the camera shop where Wheeler plugs away all day fixing one camera after another under the supervision of his crass boss Michael (Troy West), who is just waiting for a sexual harassment lawsuit to be filed against him as he repeatedly gawks and spews inappropriate comments at his clerk, Anita (Caroline Neff).

A revolving set takes us inside Wheeler’s California apartment, his workplace and to a bar. He lives simply, and that’s all he wants, DVDs of Stanley Kubrick littering his media stand and a refrigerator most likely only filled with a couple six-packs and a box of Arm & Hammer.   

Linda Vista is a well-acted ride into Wheeler’s uncertainties on turning fifty with the realization that his best years have long since passed. It is a play equipped with a stellar cast, a very funny script that is also genuine and even moving at times and direction that is so precise we can easily identify with each of Letts’ characters. 

Very highly recommended. 

Linda Vista is being performed at Steppenwolf Theatre through May 21st. For tickets and/or more show information visit www.steppenwolf.org

*Note – This play does contain full frontal nudity and sexual simulation. 

*Extended through May 28th 

Griffin Theatre’s In To America is a stark reminder of the contributions made by the many immigrants that have come from all around the world and have made the United States what it is today. In writer Bill Massolia’s multicultural story, American history is retold by several immigrant narratives where sixty personal stories are shared spanning over thirty countries. The play begins with the American immigration experience from Jamestown in the early 17th century and covers the 400 years since, many of its stories remarkable as they are daring. 

We hear the good and the bad. In many stories we get a taste of the shameful mistreatment immigrants received upon their arrival, the brave new world of vast opportunity they were seeking no more than a hostile environment that spews hate for the simple fact of being different. In others (not nearly as many) we hear how immigrants were received with opens arms, their dreams fulfilled as their new home offers the new life they had so desperately had hoped for. In this condensed history lesson we also learn the hardships endured throughout perilous journeys in leaving their own countries in daring escapes from their own native countries. 

“We never crossed the border. The border crossed us,” we are profoundly told from Juanita Andersen who portrays a Mexican landowner after being squeezed out by new arrivals during the Manifest Destiny.  

The series of monologues flows quickly as the story follows a timeline that is rich in information covering such events as congress adopting the uniform rule in 1790 so that any white person could apply for citizenship after two years of residency, the Dred Scott decision in 1857 declaring free Africans non-citizens, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1902, Native Americans made citizens in 1924 and the 1980 Refugee Act that removed refugees as a preference category, reducing worldwide ceiling for immigration to 270,000. Many, many other significant policies are brought to light that have had an effect on immigration.

Artist Director Bill Massolia comments about the production, “In To America owes a great deal of its inspiration from my own family’s immigrant roots.” 

He was also inspired by Ronald Takaki’s award-winning book A Different Mirror where it is stated “In the making of multicultural America, the contingent’s original inhabitants were joined by people pushed from their homelands by poverty and persecution in Asia, Latin America and Europe, and pulled here by extravagant dreams. Others came here in chains from Africa, and still others fled here from countries like Afghanistan and Vietnam. These men and women may not have read John Locke, but they came to believe that ‘in the beginning all the world was America.’ They envisioned the emerging country as a place for a bold new start.”

He further states, “Marginalized and degraded as the “Other” minorities came to believe even more fiercely and fervently than did the founding fathers in the ‘self-evident truths’ that ‘all men are created equal’, entitled to the ‘unalienable rights’ of ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’. 

In To America also explores the paranoia regarding immigration held by one such founding father quoting Benjamin Franklin, "Few of their children in the country learn English... The signs in our streets have inscriptions in both languages ... Unless the stream of their importation could be turned they will soon so outnumber us that all the advantages we have will not be able to preserve our language, and even our government will become precarious."

The play’s theme is strong in reminding us that America has been made on the backs of immigrants, boasting many great achievements and spotlighting a handful of prominent “new Americans” who have truly made a difference in our country’s progress. In the end we get a picture of hope, unity and promise.

Dorothy Milne directs while the cast in this insightful piece includes Juanita Andersen, Katie Campbell, Jennifer Cheung, Aneisa Hicks, Christopher W. Jones, Francisco Lopez, Adam Marcantoni, Sean McGill, Rasika Ranganathan, Omer Abbas Salem, Scott Shimizu, Jason VonRohn and Elizabeth Hope Williams. Each actor plays multiple characters from all over the world, transitioning very well from accent to accent, adding to the play’s genuine nature in relaying a spirit everyone can identify with.  

In To America is just the play that will prompt many to go back and research their family lineage to discover their own journey to America.

In To America is being performed at Den Theatre’s Heath Main Stage through April 23rd. Tickets are $38 and valet parking is now available. For tickets and/or more show information click here

         

  

 

Wednesday, 22 March 2017 18:48

Circus 1903 Brings the Kid Out in All of Us

After a 146-year run, Ringling Bros. Circus, is finally bringing down its curtain for what has been tabbed as “The Greatest Show on Earth”. That’s right. With final shows in May of 2017, one of the world’s most popular events will come to a close after nearly a century and a half of entertaining families from all walks of life. 

Kenneth Feld, chairman and CEO of Feld Entertainment recently told the Chicago Tribune regarding Ringling Bros. closing, “There isn’t any one thing. This has been a very difficult decision for me and my family.”  

Far away are the days when the circus would come to town and people would line the streets to watch the animals and performers enroute to the big top. But has circus excitement really fallen to the wayside? 

Several factors were included in closing the Ringling Bros. show including high operating costs and lengthy encounters with animal rights groups. And though a change in public taste is also blamed for the demise of the circus, it’s easy to argue against that. Live circus acts draw an excitement level like no other as proven by the success of Las Vegas Cirque Du Soliel’s Zarkana, a show that brings back classic feats such as death-defying aerial, trapeze, juggling and high-wire stunts. 

Others also realized the value in circus entertainment. Simon Painter, Tim Lawson and MagicSpace Entertainment have resurrected three-ring enthusiasm by putting their resources together to produce Circus 1903 – The Golden Age of Circus. The team has an established track record with the world’s biggest magic show, The Illusionists, and War Horse under their belts already, the latter of which had won awards for its puppeteer work. 

Set in a grand circus tent at the turn of the 20th century, the show is narrated by the Ring Master, who introduces one breathtaking act after another, starting off with a team of acrobatics who propel each other high into the air by jumping on opposite ends of a large teeter totter. The higher they are launched, the more impressive their flips and twists. Other acts include a beautiful contortionist (Senayet Asefa Amare), an aerialist (Elena Gatilova), an amazing bicycle balancing routine by “The Cycling Cyclone” (Florian Blummel) and one of the best juggling performances you’ll ever see by Francois Borie, otherwise known as “The Great Gaston”.  

The second act opens with possibly the most impressive of the show’s acts as sixth generation circus performers Alejandro and Ricardo Rossi, more simply known as The Rossi Brothers, pulling off a “foot juggling” act to perfection that was perfected by Fratelli Rossi back in the early 20th century. As one brother juggles the other into the air who is being flipped at rapid speeds, we get a taste of the athleticism, precision and balance involved in an act than can only be described as “jaw-dropping”.     

Circus 1903 also contains a good amount of humor with The Ringmaster (David Williamson) often interacting with the crowd and creating plenty of very funny moments as he brings children to the stage as volunteers. Williamson, a renowned magician who has appeared on numerous top-rated prime-time network specials, gives the show its needed continuity, entertaining between acts, adding suspense and drawing several laughs from the audience each time he appears.  

Another highlight in the show is the use of puppeteers to create and bring to life both a full-grown elephant along with its playful baby. Taking place in 1903, I feared for a moment that this could turn into the sad story of Topsy, the circus elephant that was put down by electrocution that same year. Thankfully, the show did not go into that direction.

A daring high wire act featuring The Lopez Family brings the show to its grand finale, bicycle balancing along with stunning acrobatics tackled high above the stage from one end to the other. 

The circus is not dead, people. In fact, it’s an absolute blast. And this this circus holds no controversy when it comes to animal cruelty. With several amazing acts, Circus 1903 does a fantastic job at recreating the era with its costume and set design and is the perfect way to introduce new fans to the grandiose of big top entertainment. 

Recommended for adventure seekers of all ages.

Circus 1903 – The Golden Age of Circus is currently touring nationally and will is being performed at Oriental Theatre through March 26th. For more info on this magnificent show, click here

     

 

Ever wonder what happens behind the scenes leading up to opening night at the theater? Do you have any idea how much detail goes into a stage production? Can you imagine the funny moments that could take place while building a set or rehearsing lines? Do directors really get as frustrated as we hear? 

Theater Wit brings to the stage the latest, and possibly most innovated, work by author Anne Washburn 10 Out of 12. A headset rests on each seat in the theater for audience members to wear as they become engulfed the midst of tech rehearsals just one week prior to a production opening. We hear random chatter and instruction from the stage crew as 10 Out of 12 gives us an in-depth view of the goings on behind the scenes of mounting a show. Burns, known most recently as the playwright behind Mr. Burns, A Post Electric Play that found a successful run at Theater Wit in 2014, delves into the high stress that comes with detailing theater specifics such as lighting, cues and prop placement while also touching on actor stereotypes, tantrums and the desire in some to hold their work to a standard that demands integrity.

“No one in Chicago has ever seen anything like 10 Out of 12. Simultaneously exacting real-to-life and riotously funny, Anne Washburn’s detonation of a single technical rehearsal is promising to be a unique and thrilling viewing experience,” said Jeremy Wechsler, Artistic Director of Theater Wit and director of 10 Out of 12.

We watch as the production team fastens bolts to secure the set, samples the lighting and sound from scene to scene, place each mark to the director’s satisfaction and amuse themselves during down time. We see actors rehearsing their lines, suggesting where changes might be made (usually to the director’s chagrin). In our headsets we get a real feel for the high levels of demand that must be met along within a time crunch that increases by the minute. We also hear stage hands discussing their lunch and such, along with occasional side remarks about what is transpiring on the set. The fourth wall is often broken with actors using the aisles and theater as though an audience were not present, the director and actors often taking a seat amongst us to watch their handiwork from a patron vantage point. 

The production as a whole is a truly inimitable experience and provides an insight to theater that most may not be familiar with, adding a new appreciation for the art. Upon leaving the theater many discuss how they’ve had no idea the work and precision involved in mounting a play, making 10 Out of 12 an informative piece – perhaps also an homage to those behind the scenes.

Star Chicago theater personalities are recruited to provide pre-recorded roles such as John Mahoney, Martha Lavey, Barbara Robertson and Jeremy Wechsler, Mahoney delivering some of the play’s funniest lines. The stage cast also packs a punch with Erin Long, Adam Shalzi, Dado, and Riley McGliveen as the production team, Shane Kenyon as The Director, and Eunice Woods, Gregory Fenner, Christine Vrem-Ydstie, Kyle Gibson and Stephen Walker as the actors. Walker, taking advantage of several moments to shine in only the way he can in delivering highly-charged monologues with just the right amount of entitlement and sardonic flair as the veteran actor brought in to bring credence to the production. Walker’s character questions the truthfulness in his character, conflicted by his passion for honest art, which he feels is losing its grip in modern day theater.  

So what does the title 10 Out of 12 mean? A 10 out of 12 is a day in which, per the rules of Actors Equity, the actors are contracted to work for 12 hours with one 2-hour dinner break. It’s during that time that all the designing elements of the production are united as a whole, as costumes, sound, lighting, projections, set and acting are fine-tuned just prior to a show’s opening. 

When asked why she wrote a play about a tech rehearsal, Washburn descriptively states, “A decade ago most theaters didn’t have Wi-Fi…and no one is more useless in tech than the playwright. So, I began taking notes. I was fascinated by the strange surreal interplay of light and music. I loved the mysterious technical languages being used around me, the rhythmic drone of the calling light and sound cues. I liked watching the actors freed from their normal self-consciousness. I liked the low continual volume of play which bubbled up throughout the tech as a desperate counterpoint to the long periods of tedium and waiting. And the endless snacking, and discussion of snacking.”  

Throughout the production we hear small talk between the techs – everyday musings that are often quite humorous. We also hear the actors talking hopefully about getting their big break, but also turning down roles for the sake of integrity. At one point the leading actress asks the stage manager if she can leave early to audition for a role in a pilot. We have entered the world of theater. 

As much as this often funny and revealing play is a fantastic chance to catch the inner-workings of theater production, it misses a few opportunities that were begging for the injection of timely humor, at points drifting away only to grab the audience again just in time. It would also have been nice if the script called for a larger role from Mahoney, whose well-timed remarks were almost always met with crowd laughter. Notable was the play’s pace, perhaps running about thirty minutes too long (two and a half hours plus intermission), making the thought of a slightly condensed version somewhat appetizing. Washburn's story nicely envelopes the stresses, complications and rewards in theater production. 

Still, there is much to like in 10 Out of 12, the good outweighing the bad by significant measure. One should expect a fun lesson in Theater Production 101 that is coupled with fine acting performances and enough humor that insures an overall pleasant experience. The headsets are a nice touch, giving audience members an opportunity to feel at times as though they were part of the production team.  

10 Out of 12 is being performed at Theater Wit through April 23rd. For tickets and/or more show information click here

 

 

 

Just after the show’s beginning, Jackie Taylor asks the crowd what the world needs. In unison, many voices shout back, “Love!”. And when do we need it? “Now!” Love is the theme in Black Ensemble’s latest production, From Jackie with Love (What the World Needs Now), a three-day engagement that centers around loving one another and putting away with senseless violence and racism. Wasting no time getting to the point, Taylor begins the program with an inspired version of the self-explanatory titled “No Matter What Race”, a song that sets the tone for what is to follow. 

For those unfamiliar with Jackie Taylor and her contributions to the Chicago Theatre community, she is the Founder and Executive Director of the Black Ensemble Theater, producing, writing and directing in nearly all its presentations. Prior to her work with Black Ensemble, Taylor, a theatre grad from Loyola University, made her mark on the Chicago stage where she performed at many venues including The Goodman Theater and Victory Gardens Theater. The talented actress also made her presence known in film and television as she was featured in 1976’s Cooley High and later appeared in Barber Shop II, Losing Isiah, Chiraq, Early Edition and The Father Clements Story among several others. 

From Jackie with Love is a production from the heart. Backed up by Black Ensemble’s accomplished band featuring Musical Director Robert Reddrick on drums, Taylors swoops into a collection of songs that are sure to pull the heartstrings of most, each written by hers truly. Throughout the show, Taylor breaks from music giving the audience a peek at her personal life be it by short stories or in the performance of monologues that were meaningful to her from such as A Raisin in the Sun, a play she declares as her “favorite of all time” written by Lorraine Hansberry.

Taylor reminisces about her time as a teacher in the Chicago Public School system, her childhood while living in Cabrini Green and growing up thinking her mother did not love her. She talks passionately about her persistence in moving forward with Black Ensemble even when its outcome seemed bleakest. 

“I am fortunate enough to have spent my life teaching in Chicago Public Schools, at colleges like Loyola University and Roosevelt University and in numerous, numerous programs as an artist teacher,” says Taylor. “Along the way, I created Black Ensemble Theater, raised a wonderfully intelligent daughter and now have the best grandson in the whole wide world.”

Taylor is accompanied on stage by Black Ensemble veterans Rhonda Preston, David Simmons and Yahdinah Udeen who serve as back up vocalists for Taylor and offer friendly banter back and forth. Each is showcased in their own featured number, Preston stunning the crowd with a vocal demonstration for the books in “A Mother’s Love” and Udeen performing an emotionally-charged rendition of “Mother’s Lament”, a moving song that Taylor could write a play about on its own. Simmons closes the second of three sets with the lively number “Happy Ending”. Each are again brought to the forefront towards the end of the show in a piece that has each one, including Taylor, breaking out dance moves.  

All songs performed in From Jackie with Love are written by Jackie Taylor, a couple borrowed from past Black Ensemble productions. As Simmons states about the production, “The show is called From Jackie with Love because it really is from Jackie – all of it – and with tons of love.”

It’s easy to see Taylor’s high level of comfort on stage whether it be singing, dancing, acting, interacting with the audience or even playing guitar – the same one her mother bought for her as a child. The stage is her playground, but more so a tool to bring people together. 

“Through the hundreds of plays that I have produced, written and directed – I never lost my passion for performing,” says Taylor on taking the stage once again. It’s clear the passion is still there along with the talent as she still performs with command.

From Jackie with Love is a nice way to meet the woman behind Black Ensemble, bringing with it a positive message in that life is too short to waste time hating when we can be loving each other. It’s a simple message but powerful as she eludes to the root of the issue being that of money and greed also recognizing the steps that are taken to program our children towards violence at such a young age. A warm tribute is made to the many young black men who have lost their lives – just for being black. Taylor’s message is delivered ever so profoundly in this production that is also sure to entertain with its vast variety of touching songs.

From Jackie with Love (What the World Needs Now) is being performed at The Black Ensemble Theater only for a limited time. For tickets and schedule information click here.

 

 

Flanagan is dead. Crushed by luggage, the resident roustabout has left us too early. Leaving a healthy amount of family and friends behind, we gather at a local pub in Grapplin, County Sligo, Ireland to celebrate the life of our dear Flanagan. A large, wooden crate holding the body of the recently deceased is perched in the center of the room with the words “This Side Up” printed largely on its side, the arrow facing down. Fiona Finn is in attendance, Flanagan’s fiancée of twenty-two years, along with his closest friend and fellow drinking partner Brian Ballybunion, Father Damon Fitzgerald, Mayor O’Doul, who also serves as the pub’s bartender, Mother Flanagan and a host of other assorted characters. It is time to pay our respects, share memories, enjoy a pint – and laugh. 

Flanagan’s Wake is a long-running interactive comedy that turns the audience into guests that participate in the mourning, and revering, of the departed Flanagan. Wake attendees are seated at tables throughout the venue where cast members dole out name tags that add “Patrick” after the names of men and “Mary” to those of the women. In my case, I became “Ken Patrick”. After a heartfelt, and vey humorous greeting by Father Damon Fitzgerald, Fiona Finn, appropriately dressed in a black dress, makes her way to the “casket” to say a few words. As she approaches the raised platform she thanks a guest (an audience member) for “wearing their fancy denim” to her loved one’s wake. 

Thick, often hilariously exaggerated, accents are used throughout the night as the cast pokes fun at one Irish stereotype after another. Father Damon Fitzgerald often recites from The Bible’s Book of Kevin, a book he insists was excluded (thanks to a conspiracy in the church) as were the books Jerry and Jared. “Death is a poor man’s doctor,” he would also preach. 

In helping to create Flanagan’s backstory, the cast seeks help from show goers asking questions like, “What was your favorite memory with Flanagan?” Or, “How did you know Flanagan?” No two shows will be alike as the cast improvises from audience response piecing together a wild series of new memories, mishaps and events during each performance. In fact, the audience greatly steers the direction of the story. As funny as the interplay between the characters is with each other, the same can be said for its interaction with the audience. We are spoken to as if Flanagan was a close loved one. At one point a table of guests are asked to come forward to do that cherished Irish dance that Flanagan loved so much. “You guys are terrible,” says Father Fitzgerald. “What happened? You were so good before.” 

The interactive play runs smoothly and literally churns out a laugh a minute thanks to some veteran involvement.

“We’re thrilled to have Jack Bronis, original Director, and Bonnie Shadrake, original Music Director, onboard,” says producer Bill Collins. “Their return ensures the production will have all the fun and humor that made it a huge hit in Chicago.” 

Cast members are in character from the moment one walks into the banquet hall-like room and make the entire area their stage for the duration of the show – even the washrooms.

The wonderfully selected and seriously funny cast stars Steve Peebles as Father Damon Fitzgerald (who you might remember for his stellar performance in last summer's First Folio production of A Midsummer Night's Dream), Greg Dodds as Mayor O'Doul, Chase Wheaton-Werle as Brian Ballybunion, Luciana Bonifazi as Fiona Finn, Susan Wingerter as Kathleen, Alex DiVirgilio as Mickey and Derek Brummet as Mother Flanagan. It is this lively cast of skilled improv artists that so well bring back to life (or death) this classic interactive play that has been a smash hit in Chicago since 1994.

Flanagan’s Wake has taken a new home at Chicago Theater Works near Belmont and Sheffield, running in tandem with the ever-popular Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding. Its run is open-ended though performances vary due to its shared space. A full bar is available throughout the show for beverage purchases and tickets range from a highly reasonable $29-$34. To find out more about this very funny and genuinely rich experience, check its show schedule or to purchase tickets, click here.  

Who ever thought a wake could be so much fun? 

 

Lifeline Theatre is currently bringing to life the 1963 Madeline L’Engle award-winning, sci-fi novel for young adults, A Wrinkle in Time. It is the first in a series of five books that follow the escapades of Meg Murray, a thirteen-year-old student whom her teachers see as stubborn and difficult. The story follows Meg’s adventure as she and her younger brother, Charles Wallace (a prodigy child genius), search through space and time for their missing scientist father who has vanished after working on a mysterious project called a tesseract. It is during this pursuit that Meg and Charles Wallace, along with along with school friend, Calvin O’Keefe, run into a myriad of characters that get stranger and stranger along the way. 

Before long they find out their true enemy is a bodiless brain called IT, who controls the planet Camazotz and communicates through The Man with Red Eyes. IT’s mission is to robotize everyone by removing their free will. At the same time, another evil force lurks throughout the universe that is only known as The Black Thing. A tall order for the trio of children to conquer on their own, help comes to them in the form of the three Mrs. W’s – Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which – each of whom offers a special power, or insight, in their fight to save their father. It is an exploit where the impossible becomes possible and courage and love proves to be the strongest force of all.

Lifeline brought this classic story to the stage first in 1990 based on the adaptation of James Sie. It returned in 1998 and is back today, nineteen years later. Probably not the easiest story to adapt for the stage, Lifeline does a remarkable job in creating a futuristic world full of color and space age lighting as they do in creatively staging special effects such as flying through time. The set is skillfully designed to give us the appearance of being lost in the dark vastness when needed, or to find ourselves light years away on a strange planet in a strange universe. Finely-crafted original costumes and hi-tech sound effects sprinkle the final touches in fashioning this ultramodern world we are thrust into for two hours. 

Meg Murray needs an exterior that is defiant and bold, though underneath she is smart, confident and caring. Jamie Cahill is able to capture these qualities to give us a believable Meg, for without the play does not work. Cahill is bratty when called for, rebelliously shouting to get her way, she is appropriately emotional as she longs for her father and she is convincing as a teen who would be curious and astonished as a journey such as hers unfolds. 

Trent Davis took on the role of Charles Wallace for the play’s opener, taking turns during its run with Davu Smith also cast for the role. Davis exhibits some mature acting chops for such a young man, impressing the audience with his fitting facial expressions, natural line delivery and comic timing. Rounding out the well-cast triad of adventurous kids is Glenn Obrero as Calvin O’Keefe, who is fun to watch as the eldest of the three, kind of taking on a big brother role. 

Though his role wasn’t as expanded as many others in this production, Michael McKeogh still leaves an impression as Meg and Charles Wallace’s father, persuasively revealing the father-like qualities any kid would want to have in their own parents. Each of the three Mrs. W’s adds their own spark whether by oddities in their own character or in humorous musings with each other or the children - Mrs. Whatsit (Madeline Pell), Mrs. Who (Javier Ferreira) and Mrs. Which (Carmen Molina). Slightly changing from the novel, The Man with Red Eyes becomes known simply as Red Eyes, and is fiercely played by Naima Hebrail who towers over the stage and crowd with her commanding voice and tremendous presence. 

If unfamiliar with Madeline L’Engle’s novel, the stage version is easy enough to follow and enjoy as a new adventure. However, this production might be a bit more special for those who have read the book as we get to see an imaginative recreation of a story many of us have held so close to our hearts as young readers opened up to a new world.

Family-friendly and keenly directed by Elise Kauzlaric, A Wrinkle in Time is a true time traveling quest for some of us to fondly reminisce and for some of us to experience its magic for the first time. A Wrinkle in Time is being performed at Lifeline Theatre through April 9th. For more show information, click here.    

*Extended through April 23rd       

  

 

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