In Concert

Saturday, 28 October 2017 12:56

NRBQ Makes Big Splash at Fitzgerald's

NRBQ is a fun band. “New Rhythm and Blues Quartet”. I find the name slightly misleading. When I think of R&B, I think of something completely different. This is more like old Rock and Roll with a little Vaudeville. They do have a bit of a cult following. I don’t think they ever had anything resembling a hit record but they do have a loyal fan base that keeps them existing as a working band stretching back to 1966.

Founding member Terry Adams keeps the torch burning as the last original cast member. The rest of the current band is just amazing. These guys are musical AND fun!!!!! It is possible. Their songs…well...I didn’t actually know one of them. I can see the reason why this band stays working. They are a live band. The songs themselves are good but unless you are one of the people that were walking around the club with NRBQ T Shirts, you would never know them at all.

This is show biz as they say. Hit records or not, these guys are fun band. They come out in pastel suits and goofy hats. A touch of that era of putting on a show. Some songs are tongue in cheek. That’s entertainment. These guys are also pretty solid musicians. They pulled their show at Fitzgerald’s in Berwyn off without a hitch.

Playing guitar and singing was Scott Ligon. I really thought he had a great voice. His harmonies with bassist Casey McDonough were straight of the book. Both of them did lead vocal duty along with Adams. Drummer John Perrin rounds out the band. There have been a lot of members through the years. Joey Spampinato and Al Anderson are legendary. Regardless of the lineup, the band lives on.

NRBQ’s set is diverse, including something for everyone, including many fan favorites including:

Keep This Love Goin'
Not Tonight, Hon
Little Floater
Dr. Howard, Dr. Fine, Dr. Howard
Don't Worry Baby
Boozoo, That's Who!
It's Not Too Late
Advice for Teenagers
It'll Be Alright
Daddy's Gonna Tell You No Lie
Wild Weekend
Ain't It All Right
Wacky Tobacky
RC Cola and a Moon Pie
Green Lights
Everybody's Out of Town
Get on the Right Track, Baby
Everyone Says I Love You
Chicken Hearted
Ridin' in My Car
I Want You Bad
Sleepless Nights
Honey Hush
Magnet
Dummy
Talk to Me
The Music Goes Round and Round
Get Rhythm
Me and the Boys
Do You Feel It?
Howard Johnson's Got His Ho-Jo Working

Now available on CD and Digital, NRBQ's new EP Happy Talk contains two originals and the Q’s spontaneous take on Roy Orbison’s “Only the Lonely,” along with the band’s years-in-the-making arrangement of Rogers & Hammerstein’s South Pacific tune “Happy Talk,” which serves as the EP’s title track.

NRBQ is the kind of a band tough to capture on a recording. This a club band. I am not sure they would ever do well in arenas. You don’t want to see Terry Adams make those faces on a forty-foot monitor…with that hat on……it just might be more than you can handle with a straight face…but seriously…NRBQ is a band worth seeing. Don’t watch the videos, go see the band.

Published in In Concert

Giselle, Adolphe Adam’s beautiful tale created for the ballet’s premiere in Paris back in 1841, has been re-imagined by the Ballet Master and Stager Lola de Avila, marking the opening of Joffrey Ballet’s 2017-2018 Season. Set in the Middle Ages on the day of the grape harvest festival, Act I takes us to the happy village and its villagers celebrating the harvest with dancing. The mood is cheerful and lighthearted, the music is fantastic (live orchestra under music director Scott Speck); colorful costumes and a gorgeous set (scenic and costume designs by Peter Farmer) prepare us for what’s about to unfold. Young and beautiful, child-like Giselle meets nobleman Duke Albrecht who comes to the village dressed as a peasant. Albrecht (very talented Temur Suluashvili) is actually engaged to marry Bathilde (Jeraldine Mendoza), the daughter of the Prince of Courland, but Giselle is unaware of any of that. The two flirt and dance together, and Giselle falls madly in love. Victoria Jaiani ,as Giselle, is divinely graceful; if she was any more weightless, she’d likely fly away. Rory Hohenstein, who portrays Hilarion, a young villager in love with Giselle, is wonderful; his acting is on par with his dancing- so expressive and precise, one can almost hear what he’s trying to convey. Both Hilarion and Giselle’s mother Berthe (Olivia Tang-Mifsud) try to worn Giselle of Albrecht’s deceitful nature, but she won’t listen.

If traditional classical ballet moves and dancers’ perfect form keeps Giselle true to the Romantic ballet era, what comes next sets it apart from most ballets of that time and their usual happy endings. When Giselle finally learns the truth about Albrecht, she becomes inconsolable, her love passion turns into heartache so severe her heart literally breaks; she collapses and dies. This day didn’t end so well after all.

Act II: no more fun and games, we’re at Giselle’s graveyard on the night of her burial. Lit up by very realistic-looking moon, the set is mysterious and lifeless. Motionless Hilarion is grieving Giselle’s death, when he’s suddenly frightened by Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis. According to German poet Henrich Heine, the legend of Wilis came from Slav folklore: the spirits of young brides who died before their wedding could not rest in peace because of their unfulfilled desire for dancing on their wedding day. Vengeful Wilis rise from their graves at night and attempt to lure young men and dance them to death. It is believed that the phrase “gave me the Wilis” comes from this legend.

The stage is quickly traversed by a side-way moving female dancer in a very spooky manner. Then, dressed in white wedding gowns with flower garlands in their hair, the Wilis show up. Though their dance is breathtakingly slow, dreamy and completely void of any emotion, they appear to be thoroughly enjoying themselves. The ballerinas join together in a circle creating a wispy fluff with their puffy dresses. Surreal feeling, created by the light (lighting design by Michael Mazzola), the subdued colors of the costumes and the Wilis’ seductive dancing is enough to give anyone the wilis.

Hilarion is sentenced to death by dancing and is subsequently thrown into the nearby lake. Albrecht enters looking for Giselle’s grave, and Giselle’s spirit appears to him. He begs her for forgiveness; fortunately, her love for him is unchanged and she protects him from the Willis who insists on dancing him to exhaustion. As the day breaks, Albrecht’s life is spared, the Wilis return to their graves, and Giselle’s spirit, freed from vengeance, returns to her grave and can now rest in peace. Unbelievably beautiful (and just in time for Halloween)!

Joffrey Ballet’s Giselle is being performed at Auditorium Theatre through October 29th. For more information visit http://www.joffrey.org/giselle.

Published in Dance in Review

“That didn’t even sound like a mandolin,” I said to my companion – a mandolinist of some considerable skill – as we left Skokie’s North Shore Center for the Performing Arts after attending An Evening with Chris Thile.

“That’s what a mandolin’s supposed to sound like,” he said.

I guess so.

A musician myself, I’ve always found that particular instrument to be a bit shrill, a bit annoying, a tiny guitar with too many strings that doesn’t know if it wants to be a hillbilly or a classy sort of feller. I hadn’t known what to expect a couple hours earlier as my friend and I found our seats and watched a lone gentleman clutching an aged instrument step out under a single white spotlight.
But the acoustics and the sound system in the complex’s Center Theatre – both of which match the room’s clean and classy comfort – could have had something to do with the beautiful sounds I’d hear for the next two hours.

So could the single classic microphone, standing at the front of the stage to catch both Thile’s voice and playing.

It might have been the mandolin he was playing – nearly a century old, built by a legendary luthier, and aged gracefully to perfection like most antique stringed instruments do, if they survive that long.
But I’m pretty sure most of the credit goes to the man on the mandolin. From the first keening cry that erupted from his throat – met moments later by the plucking, picking, and petting of eight strings that wouldn’t let up till we were all satisfied – everyone in that theater was at the mercy of a real master. A master musician. A master showman. A man on the mandolin.

After beginning the set with a tune of his own followed by one by his band, The Punch Brothers, Thile took the classier road, performing Bach’s Partita in D Minor. On the mandolin. And, as I said up top, it didn’t sound like a mandolin to me, or what I thought a mandolin would sound like. Like so many other apex instrumentalists before him – Joshua Bell on his Strad, Jimi Hendrix on his Strat – Thile turned the wood and the wire into something more than what it had been crafted into – something other than a mandolin, entirely. The sound was huge, beautiful, otherworldly, other. It filled the hall. It filled me. I don’t know if I took a breath from the first note to the last.

My friend noted that not a note of Bach’s had needed to be added or changed, that what Bach wrote almost exactly three centuries ago was perfect then, and is still perfect today. And Thile played it perfectly. When he’d finished, he acknowledged the song’s creator, “Johann Sebastian Bach…the MAN”…even though right then, Thile was the man, playing some of history’s most brilliant music as brilliantly as it could be played.

But perfectly performing classical pieces isn’t this man’s only trick. Nope. I’ve seen Joshua Bell play the hell out of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto – one of the other times in my life I’ve had the pleasure of watching, hearing, experiencing one virtuoso interpret the work of another. But many virtuosos are one-trick ponies. Most doesn’t also host a long-running radio program that has become an institution, taking over for its beloved creator and decades-long voice. And, correct me if I’m wrong, but few musicians you could call virtuosos also write and perform their own music – music that can hold up during a program that features composition’s colossi.

Introducing a tune he’d written as a “Song of the Week” for Prairie Home Companion, Thile lamented last November’s electoral result and the direction of the country with the romping “Elephant in the Room.” A couple numbers later, he pulled out another written for NPR on the same theme, the swaggering “Falsetto.” Other originals were highlights, too. When Thile asked the audience for requests, one was The Punch Brothers’ “Magnet,” which he noted was one-fifth written by a Skokie native. After that he played another of his own – from this year’s collaboration with jazz pianist Brad Mehldau – a reflection on his favorite childhood bible story called “Daughter of Eve.”

While Thile’s playing and writing are indeed masterful, his voice is worth noting, too. All night I kept trying to come up with comparisons for what I was hearing, and because of his voice, I kept coming back to Jeff Buckley. Not because Thile can sing as well as Buckley – nobody can. But he reminded me of Buckley in the way he let his voice soar freely, in the way he could just let it go, up and up and up, floating and searching and floating some more, unashamed and free.

But mostly he reminded me of Jeff Buckley in his ability to take music written by others and make it his. I heard it when he made the bluegrass classic “Rabbit in the Hole” sound brand new, still respecting its roots. I heard it when he covered Neil Young’s “Tell Me Why,” turning a classic album’s opening tune I know so well into something new, too. And I heard it on my second favorite song of the night – one I admit I didn’t know the provenance of, mistaking it for an old sea shanty standard until I got home and looked it up – a take on Josh Ritter’s “Another New World.” As he did during each vocal piece, Thile interspersed bursts of virtuosic playing throughout the song – mixing mandolin with sails and ships, with Ninas and Pintas and Santa Marias, with Annabel Lee – the end result even more than just a beautiful story beautifully told and beautifully sung. It was beautifully played.

The highlight of the night, however, began with a little aside (Thile’s also a talker, as any radio personality should be, I suppose), as he told the crowd he’d written “Song for a Young Queen” as a boy, inspired by Natalie Portman in her 90s role as the future mother of Luke and Leia, and his own true boyhood love for her. And then came a magical moment for me. Now, I’ve seen a lot of shows in my life. But the one show – and the one moment during that show – that still means the most for me was way back in August of 2001. On a day that had hit a hundred, with the grass of Grant Park beneath my feet, with Lake Michigan to my right, with Chicago’s skyline to my left, and with a full moon above me and behind me, my favorite band Radiohead encored with a then-little-known rarity, “True Love Waits.” When that band’s singer, Thom Yorke, began it, it was one of those moments. So when, during his own song, Chris Thile sang Yorke’s words, “I’ll drown my beliefs,” he had my ear. And when he took that song, one I know inside and out, and stretched it out and embellished it with his playing and made it his own, he had my heart. And when he ended with its lyrics, “just don’t leave,” I didn’t want him to.

So, needless to say, seeing Chris Thile play the other night at Skokie’s North Shore Center was a performance I won’t forget. It’s, to be honest, a performance I’m still processing. The man showed off his many talents. The mandolin never sounded better. And this musician – now a fan – might never have seen the untouchable greats – the real inarguable virtuosos like Jimi on guitar or Buckley and his voice – ply their craft. But he can say he did see one in Skokie in October of 2017 when he was lucky enough to hear what mandolins supposed to sound like. When played by a master. When played by the man.

Published in In Concert

Lookingglass Theatre Company opens its 30th Anniversary Season with the return of the award-winning “Hard Times”, adapted from Charles Dickens and directed by Artistic Director and Ensemble Member Heidi Stillman , in association with The Actors Gymnasuim. It was first produced at Lookingglass in 2001, and some of the artists involved this season were part of the original production.

The story takes place in post-Industrial Revolution England. In a gloomy fictional small town dominated by mills and factories, art has very little presence. When a travelling circus comes to town, the circus clown manages to get his daughter Sissy (played Audrey Anderson; this is both her Lookingglass and professional debut) admitted to the best school in town. The school headmaster, Mr. Gradgrind (injecting his role with a very precise old-British flare, Raymond Fox is excellent), soon realizes that Sissy doesn’t belong in his school and makes it his business to notify her father in person. But the clown had skipped town, leaving his daughter behind. Mr. Gradgrind kindly offers her a place in his home and his school, alongside his two children, Louisa and Tom. But Sissy is from a different world, the world where imagination rules, the right words are ones that come from the heart, and mathematics is just an abstract subject that can’t be applied to life. Not exactly cut out for school, she’s left to stay home and care for Mr. Gradgrind’s wheelchair-bound wife while he spends increasingly more time out of town as a newly elected member of the Parliament.

The most important person in town is the mill-owner and banker Mr. Bounderby (the bombastic Troy West), a self-proclaimed self-made man. He has an eye on Louisa, so when she reaches an appropriate age [of twenty], he asks her hand in marriage. Mostly joyless Louisa (Cordelia Dewdney), whose only passion is her brother Tom (JJ Phillips), agrees, hoping that this will help advance her brother’s carrier in banking. Some of Dickens’ characters are quite difficult to relate to in part because of their excessive wordiness and overly dramatic demeanor, and Louisa is certainly one of them. Nevertheless, all characters are very well developed, the most entertaining of them being Mrs. Sparsit, Mr. Bounderby’s paid companion. Played by Amy J. Carle, who also plays Drunk Woman and Pufflerumpus, she’s manipulative and sarcastic and infuses her role with just the right amount of drama.

The circus performances are effortlessly woven into the plot (Circus Choreographer Sylvia Hernandez-DiStasi), and are like a breath of fresh air in town’s otherwise utilitarian existence. The circus is colorful and joyful, and it’s easy to see the stark contrast between the worlds of art and creativity versus business and hard menial work. Even Louisa starts dreaming of circus in her lowest moments.
Scenic Designer Daniel Ostling created a highly mobile set that’s both imaginative and practical; it provides ever-changing scenery, and the whimsically painted back wall is capable of becoming magically translucent to allow “dreams and memories” to enter the stage.

While the well-to-do townspeople are being bored with their lives, majority of the town’s inhabitants, the poor miners and factory workers, “work day and night with nothing to look forward to but a little rest”. Struggling to stay alive leaves little room for anything else, much less romance, so when miner Stephen Blackpool (David Catlin, who also plays Sleary) asks his workmate Rachael (Atra Asdou, who also plays Mrs. Gradgrind) to spend time with him, she’s far too hopeless to be interested.

All in all, things are as expected: the wealthy run things, the poor have nothing, and a travelling circus is a refuge from it all. If running away with the circus was ever a good option, Tom, who finds himself in trouble with law, doesn’t hesitate for a moment.

“Hard Times” is being performed at Lookingglass Theatre through January 14th. For more information visit www.lookingglass.org.

Published in Theatre in Review

Hell in a Handbag rings in its fifteenth-anniversary season with real magic in this hilarious spoof of the 60's and 70's TV shows we all grew up loving with its hocus-pocus focus on the show Bewitched

In this tale, Bewildered, by Aaron Benham (music and lyrics) and Ron Weaver (book and lyrics) Gladys Kravitz, the nosey neighbor of the magical family finally gets her due when she stops spying on the witch-filled household and is invited to have dinner with them. Caitlin Jackson as Gladys is splendid as she has both the musical chops to belt out every note with ease and turn the obnoxious neighbor into a sympathetic "every- woman" who feels unloved as a wife and disrespected as a person. As Gladys discovers in the surprise ending that she is magical too, her song "Leading Lady" reminds everyone in the audience to be true to themselves no matter who they are because in the end, we are ALL the leading ladies in our own lives. 

David Cerda, Hell in a Handbag, artistic director as Endora is truly at his best in this FABULOUSLY funny portrayal of Samantha's mother and steals every scene under his wig with a bat of his eyelashes and a twirl of the spectacular multi-faceted bejeweled caftans designed by Rachel Sypniewski with spot on funny as hell period wigs by Keith Ryan. Cerda as Endorra also reminds us of the ongoing plot line in the original series wherein she tries to get Samantha to leave her straight laced, sexually uninterested husband and choose from among thousands of eligible warlocks where she could live a life of magic and freedom! Instead Samantha chooses the daily humdrum dimension of the limited earth life with all its cold rules and regulations for women and men which don’t include the use of magic.

Elizabeth Morgan is adorable as Samantha and has a nice voice but needs to step out a little more with her nose twitching delightfully -  in order to keep up with the shine and glamour of wit coming full blast out of the regular cast members of Hell in a Handbag. 

As always, Ed Jones' highly anticipated presence in the show does not disappoint as Uncle Arthur and absolutely brings down the house while setting up the main story line with his wonderful rendition of "Let Yourself be a Little Gay!" Ed Jones and  David Cerda really seem to have studied their characters minute mannerisms and trademark funny bits to a tee and several times I squint my eyes and could have sworn they were channeling the original brilliant actors and actresses who played these roles on TV.  

The production handles the magic wielded by Samantha and company in a unique fashion that adds yet another jolt of humor to its audience. Bewildered also has fun with the mystery of the two Darrins who play Samantha's husbands on Bewitched in a very clever way that just has to be seen to be appreciated. 

The great thing about the superbly camp productions put on year after year by Hell in a Handbag is that no matter how bawdy they are, or how many lines of individuality they cross, they always have a positive moral underlying each show that makes you feel "pretty oh, so pretty!" in the skin that you are in!

I highly recommend seeing this fun-tastic, fast-flying production for everyone who needs a good jolt of laughter and positive affirmation about the life you are leading in these strange and hostile times.

Bewildered is being performed at Stage 773 through November 11th. For more show information visit www.handbagproductions.org.  

 

Published in Theatre in Review

Set in the 18th century French countryside, First Folio Theatre vividly brings to life Joseph Zettelmaier’s “The Man-Beast”, a romantic, yet frightening, tale just in time for the Halloween season. The final installment of Zettelmaier’s horror trilogy, “The Man-Beast” follows first works “The Gravedigger” and “Dr. Seward’s Dracula” and, staying true to form, steadily builds in suspense from its first scene to the story’s climactic ending. Staged ever so appropriately inside the Mayslake Peabody Estate in Oakbrook, theatre goers are in for a spooky treat that is as sexy as it is haunting.

When a werewolf ravages the countryside, no one is safe. A trail of blood leaves local villagers dead along with an escalating amount of livestock. It is then that King Louis XVI puts a bounty on the beast in the hopes the threat can be eliminated once and for all. The villagers believe the beast to be Loup-Garou, the legendary werewolf who has terrorized the countryside in the past.

The story begins when trapper Jean Chastel bangs on the door of Virginia Allard. He is hurt having suffered a bite from the beast that he believes he has killed, though the animal seems to have vanished. Allard lives alone in the forest, her house decorated with dead animals that she herself had stuffed, her kitchen shelves cluttered with bottles of herbs, wood burns in her fireplace creating a flickering glow throughout the room. The “Witch of the Woods” as she jokingly calls herself is not one to take chances as she carries a large hunting knife on her person.

After Allard tends to Chastel’s wounds we see a tumultuous relationship between the two develop, as well as a plan to cash in on the large reward. But both are cautious and struggle to trust each other, having been betrayed in the past. We wonder if either will hold true to their word.

Filled with mystery, suspense and mounting sexual tension, “The Man-Beast” works well thanks to its powerful cast of two, Elizabeth Laidlaw as Virginia Allard and Aaron Christensen as Jean Chastel. Laidlaw, whose theatre credits include Steppenwolf, The Goodman and many others, is nothing short of sensational offering several scenes filled with an electricity that would be hard to match. Laidlaw’s counterpart, Christensen, also puts forth a fierce performance and the chemistry between the two is undeniable. Hayley Rice skillfully directs this classic piece, strategically getting the most in the play’s finishing touches from a talented artistic team that includes Angela Weber Miller (Scenic Design), Christopher Kriz (Sound Design), Rachel Lambert (Costume Design) Vivian Knouse (Properties Design), Rachel Flesher (Violence Design) and Julia Zayas-Melendez (Stage Manager).

Played with much ferocity and passion, the performances we get from Laidlaw and Christensen are alone well worth the price of admission. When you add a story that is sure to engage even the most casual of horror fans from beginning to end and a creative set that visually takes us miles away and so easily nudges our imagination in just the right way, we are presented with a production that has all the ingredients needed to promise a thoroughly entertaining theatrical Halloween event.

Highly recommended. *Parental discretion is advised due to a handful of racy scenes.

First Folio’s “The Man-Beast” is being performed at Mayslake Peabody Estate in Oakbrook through November 5th. For tickets and/or more production information, visit www.firstfolio.org.

 

Published in Theatre in Review

Court jester Rigoletto prefers to hide his misery behind jokes and mockery of others. But it’s not the only thing he hides; his beloved daughter Gilda lives with him unbeknownst to the world; he selfishly keeps her locked away in fear of losing his only joy.

This famous Juiseppe Verdi’s three-act opera is new to Chicago. Directed by E. Loren Meeker, this production brings many great stars to the Lyric Opera’s stage. Quinn Kelsey’s powerful baritone skillfully conveys a wide spectrum of emotions: anger at the world and his character’s disfigurement, despise for the world, yet tender love for his daughter. A Ryan Opera Center alumnus and 2015 winner of the Metropolitan Opera Beverly Sills award, Kelsey’s solemn looks combined with the brassy voice is the perfect fit for the role of the hardened hunchback fighting for his happiness. But the real magic happens when Rigoletto and Gilda first appear together in Act I. The Italian soprano Rosa Feola is divine; the beautiful quality of her voice brings something special to every scene she is in. But it’s the supreme blend of the two voices of the father/daughter duets that create divine auditory harmony. Feola’s character Gilda is innocent and loving; isolated and hidden away in the house by her father, she’s desperate to love romantically. So, when she is encountered by the Duke of Mantua pretending to be a penniless student, she falls in love immediately and fatally.

Tenor Matthew Polennzani is spectacular as Rigoletto’s handsome master, Duke of Mantua. Encouraged by his sharp-tongued court jester, he lusts after every pretty woman in town. Pleasing his master by making fun of the courtiers whose wives and daughters Duke wants to seduce, Rigoletto has no real friends yet many enemies. One of such courtiers, Count Monterone, whose daughter the Duke of Mantua deflowered, gets angry at Rigoletto and places a curse on him. Superstitious Rigoletto takes the curse very seriously; pre-occupied with the old man’s words, he can think of nothing else. The opera’s original title was La maledizione (The Curse); based on Victor Hugo’s play Le Roi s’amuse, Italian libretto by Francesco Maria Piave.

Elegant and rather minimalist, the cleverly designed set has modern feel to it. Set designer Michael Yeargan created clean lines of buildings unburdened by embellishments or much color. Reflective floor surfaces in Acts II and III run into the back wall transforming half the stage into an endlessly large body of water. Seamlessly moving walls and buildings quietly encroach onto Rigolettos’ world as events make turn for the worst.

While we expect operas to be very colorful and the performers extravagantly dressed, the costumes of the current production are disappointedly modest and monochromatic, less Rigolettos’ bright outfit (costume designer Constance Hoffman); it’s sometimes challenging to distinguish characters from one another, especially from far away.

When lonely Gilda is encountered by the Duke of Mantua pretending to be a penniless student, she falls in love with the charming, albeit deceitful, Duke immediately and fatally. The Duke has Gilda abducted and subsequently dishonored. Ashamed, she confesses to Rigoletto, and her vengeful father hires an Assassin in order to kill the Duke. Ukrainian born very capable bass Alexander Tsymbalyuk, though lacking certain viciousness one would expect from an assassin, is nevertheless very good; and together with mezzo-soprano Zanda Svede who plays his accomplice sister Maddalena in the opera, they make a splendid team. Duke of Mantua’s life is spared when Gilda, dressed in mans clothing, sacrifices her life for love. Rigoletto is devastated and realizes that the ‘curse” came true.

Orchestra led by Conductor Marco Armilliato provides live score.

Playing through November 3rd - for more show information visit www.lyricopera.org.

 

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

Review: "Piaf: The Show!"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: The Crucible at Steppenwolf Theatre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published in Theatre in Review

The first time I went to the opera was in elementary school to see La Triviata. It was a school sponsored field trip that took kids to Los Angeles to see the opera, the symphony, museums, and the ballet, exposing them to the arts at an early age. Though I had no idea what was being said, or what I was really watching, I loved it, and not just because I wasn’t in class on a school day. The orchestra, the singers, the theater itself, it was all so grand for a child. Though I didn’t have the same reaction to the Lyric Opera on Friday, it was nonetheless that childhood experience that helped to shape my appreciation and love for the opera.

The Lyric Opera of Chicago opened its 2017 season with Orphée et Eurydice. The plot centers on Orphée (Dmitry Korchak), whose singing was so beautiful that it could charm the fierce guardians of the Underworld. Encouraged by the god of love, Amour (Lauren Snouffer), Orphée travels to Hades to bring his dead wife, Eurydice (Andriana Chuchman), back to earth. This opera was a powerhouse of talent with 60 members of the Lyric Opera Chorus, 47 members of the Lyric Opera Orchestra, and 43 dancers of The Joffrey Ballet all working to put on this production; not to mention the ushers, the ticket agents, the janitors, and more, just to stage this opera with a run time of a little more than 2 hours.

There wasn’t much to this opera lyric-wise. There are many repetitious lines to accompany the score, but very little substance despite being such an enthralling mythological story line. What made this opera worth seeing was the Joffrey Ballet. Their performance was one of the best I have seen from the company. They added movement and beauty to the opera, bringing visual clarity to the mythical worlds of Hades and Elysium. Overall, it was a spectacular engagement of the fine arts. A performance that should be enjoyed by the masses.

Unfortunately, the opera is inherently old and doesn’t attract the masses. It’s target audience is old. The theater it performs in is old. The Lyric Opera is currently fundraising in order to renovate its theater, but it hasn’t had much luck. Tickets prices are exorbitant and the people who can afford to go are old. Like any passing of the guard, the opera needs to focus on reaching out to the next generation of opera-lovers, otherwise their primary patrons will be gone within the next decade or so with few people left to appreciate, or afford, the opera. And that’s why exposure at a young age is so vital. You’ll be hard pressed to find many millennials who say “I love the opera” or even “I’m going to the opera!” Just in my immediate circle of friends and co-workers, very few people had even seen the opera. What the Lyrics Opera should do is work with local school districts; bus kids in from all area of the city and the surrounding area to see performances throughout their season. They should offer discount nights in order to attract new audiences, or play the show live in the park for discounted tickets or free; anything to increase opera’s fan base and expose the art to different audiences the most important of those being youths. I was lucky as a child to have had the opportunity to see the opera, and I’ve been lucky to have gotten to see shows as an adult. I only hope the Lyric Opera of Chicago does community outreach like this, or increases its outreach or I fear, like Eurydice, it will die, only there might not be an Orphée around to save it.

Remaining performance dates for Orphée et Eurydice are Oct. 12th and 15th at 2pm. For tickets and information call (312) 827-5600 or go to lyricopera.org/orphee.

Published in Theatre Reviews
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