Dance in Review

For Chicagoans that grew up in the 1980’s music scene, we remember favorite rock clubs such as The Thirsty Whale, Chances R and Dirty Nellies where spandex and rayon were the materials of choice and eye-liner on Aqua-net sprayed, long-haired guys was all the rage. For the glam rock scene, Chicago was always the minor league affiliate (Single A) to its Los Angeles big brother, where new bands seemingly broke out nearly every week. Almost grinding hair bands out akin to a factory assembly line, Los Angeles set the bar for rock bands all across the world, its clubs The Whiskey a Go Go, Troubadour and The Roxy stepping stones for the next big thing. In “Rock of Ages” the hilarious 1980's musical, we are taken to Los Angeles where the fictional Bourbon Room, one of the last rock hold outs, is under the threat of eminent domain as big money developers have other plans for the property.

Club owner Dennis (riotously played by Chicago favorite Gene Weygandt) runs The Bourbon Room with his sidekick and fellow rocker Lonny (Nick Druzbanski), who also serves as the play’s narrator. Realizing the club’s days are numbered, the two decide to go all out by bringing back Arsenal, a major band that got the start from The Bourbon Room, to play their final show with lead singer and egomaniac, Stacee Jaxx, who is off to pursue a solo career.

And what would an 80’s musical be without a cheesy love story? Bar back and aspiring musician, Drew, is instantly love struck when Dennis hires Sherrie (of course a hopeful actress) to be the club’s new waitress. From there we root for The Bourbon club, along with those protesting the new corporate development, and also for Drew and Sherrie to find love.

“Rock of Ages” is a fun time capsule filled with 80’s rock classics that includes Warrant’s “Heaven”, Journey’s “Don’t stop Believin’”, Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It”, “Extreme’s “More than Words” and many, many more. Though a parody of the era, “Rock of Ages” is an entertaining tribute to an age in music that, though considered kitschy by some, left a major impact in the world of music. The musical makes several 80’s refences that can’t help but make us forty-to-fifty-somethings laugh, such as Drew’s date with Sherrie where he tries to romance her with a four-pack of Bartles & James wine coolers.

The show boasts as good of a cast as one could ask for. Adam Michaels as self-aggrandizer and vulgar lead singer, Stacee Jaxx, is absolutely hysterical in the role. His moments are plenty as he puts on full display his great knack for physical comedy along with some pretty raging vocals. And as one who has seen this production more times than I remember, I can say quite confidently that Nick Druzbanski may just be the best Lonny I have seen yet. Druzbanski really fires on all cylinders and is a comedic whirlwind, also contributing nicely with strong vocals, certainly deserving a Fogmaster 5000 for a performance nothing short of outstanding.

Notable vocal performances are aplenty in this production with both Cherry Torres as Sherrie and Russell Mernaugh as Drew impressing with their singing prowess in number after number. Both skilled singers as they are actors, Torres and Mernaugh also spark a wonderful chemistry and are able to deliver plenty of funny moments. Though many, other performances of note are Donica Lynn, who sings beautifully when called upon and Nick Cosgrove who nails the role of Franz, the flamboyant German son of developer Hertz, who draws a laugh in just about every scene he occupies.

“Rock of Ages” is silly fun. It’s a campy drive down memory lane. It’s highly recommended. It’s also part concert, as a live band plays from a stage upon the stage throughout the show, tasty guitar licks and all. For some, they will relive the highly memorable era, for others they will receive a tongue-in-cheek glimpse of a time when the Los Angeles rock scene churned out hair bands like Motley Crue, Poison and Ratt.

With Falls theatrical productions in full bloom, this is a must see.

“Rock of Ages” is being performed at Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook through October 15th. For tickets and/or more show information, visit www.DruryLaneTheatre.com.

Published in Theatre in Review

Two girlfriends grow up in Mississippi, one wants to be a hairdresser to the stars and the other a singing star in her own right. An opportunity to run their own beauty shop binds the two friends together for life, and helps a South Side Chicago neighborhood maintain a sense of community and safety, even a little glamour, that is until Starbucks and other corporations start moving into the neighborhood. Beautifully directed, A Wonder in My Soul is the heartfelt journey of two best friends who have shared a beauty salon for over three decades.

 

Aberdeen "Birdie" Calumet (Greta Oglesby) and Bell Grand Lake (Jacqueline Williams) play the two close friends and both do an amazing job with long speeches that could be coming out of the mouths of preachers. The audience even lets out a few, “go girls”, and “praise Gods” as if we are sitting in a church. In a way, their beauty shop, which once served some celebrity visitors, has stood for forty years as a type of church to the women of the neighborhood. A place where they can talk and be themselves where their best customer, a rich woman who prefers to be called “First Lady” (a fantastic Linda Bright Clay), who spends at least three afternoons a week just trying new hairdos to hang out at the salon to have company and help each other with daily troubles. 

 

Marcus Gardley's script creates very familiar and real characters, and utilizes the beautiful singing voices of young Birdie (Camille Robinson) and young Bell (Donica Lynn) in a way that vitalizes and makes real the talents and determination underneath the tough facade of these hard working, loving women. 

 

This play is about change and gentrification, and growth and strength. Change isn't always but a bad thing but A Wonder in My Soul pulls back the curtain on how gentrification affects this "family" of women and their whole neighborhood that tries to save the salon. Is it fair that the neighborhood rallies to save the community staple only for a Starbucks to ultimately knock them down as easily as a cannon ball would a bowling pin? No. But the way each woman chooses to go on with her life and keep the bitterness from affecting the wonder in their souls is truly inspiring. 

 

Highly recommended for satisfying, humorous and heartwarming performances, especially by Jacqueline Williams as the down, but not out, captain of her sinking ship.

 

Williams speeches about life and the value of struggling to keep some history and classiness intact in the neighborhood, which is being brought down by violence and greed, ripple through the audience with a deep resonance and truthfulness that the talented actor brings to all her stage work.

 

A Wonder in My Soul is being performed at Victory Gardens Theater through March 12th. Go to www.VictoryGardens.org for more show information.

 

Published in Theatre in Review

While not explicitly a biography about The Supremes, "Dreamgirls" is awfully close. It's a Quincy Jones-flavored musical about the road to fame, and the pitfalls of show business. Porchlight Theatre concludes its season with a rarely produced modern classic. Choreographed and directed by Brenda Didier, with musical direction by Doug Peck, "Dreamgirls" is a delight. 

 

"Dreamgirls" is really one of the first musicals about the early days of rock 'n roll. Though it's about more than just the rise of the "girl group" in popular music. The book by Tom Eyen uses a familiar story to illustrate how mainstream music helped open minds about race in America. The original Broadway production opened in 1981 and ran for four years. It has since been adapted into an Oscar-nominated film. 

 

Porchlight has assembled an all-star cast for this production. Particularly Donica Lynn as Effy. The three Dreams fill the rafters with soaring vocals. While Lynn may be the voice, Candace C. Edwards and Katherine Thomas as co-Dreams, turn in strong performances as well. Eric Lewis is electrifying in the role of fictional soul legend Jimmy Early. His numbers are thrilling.  

 

Didier's vision for this show is vivid. Her choreography is high-energy and visually pleasing throughout. Peck's musical direction proves a high point as well. It's not often you find yourself thinking about the band in a theatrical performance - but the wall of sound coming from this pit is a funky good time. Rounding out aesthetics are Bill Morey's costumes, which are well conceived and provide an extra layer of authenticity. 

 

Porchlight Music Theatre turns out another gem at Stage 773. "Dreamgirls" is a feast for the eyes and ears. Shows like "The Wiz" and "Dreamgirls" aren't produced nearly as often as they should be, which makes this impressive production all the more rare. The vocals are so good you'll wish you could take the soundtrack home with you. 

 

Through May 22nd at Stage 773. 1225 W Belmont Ave. 773-327-5252

 

Published in Theatre Reviews

 

 

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