In Concert

Playwright Sean Grennan’s latest work is based on a true story about a successful heart transplant that occurs between two very different people who meet briefly and then go on to complete each other's lives without meeting in this world again.

Joy, played realistically and with dry humor by the playwright's sister, Erin Noel Grennan, has just received a heart transplant and is struggling with depression about why she is still alive and what happiness she can find by continuing to work, make money, spend money and work some more. Joy is a cynical loner, abandoned by her parents with one great friend named Dara, played with great humor by Jeri Marshall.

Joy finds out from her nurse, also played by Marshall (who is great at character studies), that she can write a thank you note to the donors family and does so with wonderful but challenging emotional consequences. 

It turns out her donor, Jack, played with sensitivity by Doogan Brown, a 36-year-old aspiring photographer that she once met in a coffee shop and flirted with, still has a family of three that miss him very much and are devastated by his sudden death caused by a car accident. 

Jacks' mother, father and sister - Hank (Steve Pickering),  Alice (Annabel Armouray) and  Sammy (Kayla Kennedy) are all characters brought to life with precision and care. Outside of a reluctant Hank, the family welcomes Joy into their home, hoping to find some answers or comfort for their loss in this stranger who is  carrying the heart of their child in her chest. 

One of the most touching and poignant moments in the play is when each family member listens to Joy's chest and realize that there is their son and brother, his heart still beating out his particular rhythm into this world.

Jack is shown in flashbacks and as a spirit who is sticking around in this world to oversee the healing process begun by the family meeting and bonding with his donor. 

The Tin Woman is directed with great ease into a thoughtful yet quickly moving pace by Linda Fortunato and is complimented with an all-female tech crew including a great set by Sarah Ross. The play includes set lighting by Shelley Strasser-Holland, sound by Victorio Deiorio (who also composed the original music) and costumes by Brenda Winstead, along with props by Brittney O’Keefe. The Tin Woman is a fabulous example of the success that comes with employing women at every level of theater and allowing them free reign to do their jobs. 

Although I have come to expect the fun and excitement of the large, musical theater type productions from Theatre at the Center, this serious, yet darkly funny play was a refreshing offering. 

The simplicity and universality of the story regarding surviving life after the death of a loved one fell on the audience like a soft, summer rain. 

Grennan's writing combined with his own sister's excellent portrayal of a cynical single woman at a crossroads in her life, cleanses the mind and soul with both tears and laughter so that the hope of emotional healing comes shining through the rain.

The Tin Woman is being performed at Theatre at the Center in Munster, IN through August 13th. For more show information or to purchase tickets, visit www.theatreatthecenter.com.

 

Published in Theatre in Review

If you haven't seen the film version of “The Bridges of Madison County” starring Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood, do not fear - the musical adaptation for the stage is full of beautiful songs and choreography that make this production a whole different animal than the 1995 movie and 1992 novel it was based. 

The story is simple, and universal. What to do when your life has not turned out the way you dreamed and true love steps in to give you another chance? Will you take a chance on Love? 

In "Bridges" we meet Francesca, an Italian war bride who married the first, kind GI she met after the war and came to America leaving everything familiar behind her to start a new life. While her husband and children are away at the state fair in Indianapolis for the weekend, fate brings true love knocking right on her front door in the form of a handsome and single National Geographic photographer, Robert Kincaid, who is on assignment in the area photographing the seven beautiful bridges of Madison County. 

After directions, that turns into a guided tour of the seventh bridge, followed by a few drinks and the sharing of deep personal stories, this compatible coupling quickly heats up into a life changing affair.

Francesca Johnson, played by the beautiful Kathy Voytko, reminds me a lot of a young Patti Lupone. Voytko, who has appeared in numerous Broadway productions, has a strong and lovely voice with a lovely Italian accent and very expressive face which reflects her growing attraction to Kincaid with every glance or bat of her large brown eyes. 

Kincaid, played by actor Nathaniel Stampley, comes alive on stage with a masculine warmth and grounded sensuality which make both Francesca and the audience feel she is infinitely safe within his embrace. We quickly realize that this is no one night stand nor even a chance encounter but all of destiny itself intervening to make these two lives powerfully intersect, if only for the weekend. 

Stampley and Voytco's passionate and unexpected love affair is well-supported with some comic relief by the actors who play her husband, kids and friends. Bart Shatto plays Bud while Brooke MacDougal plays the couple's young daughter Carolyn and Tanner Hake is their teen aged son Michael. Francesca's' supportive best friend, her closest neighbor out in farm country, is wonderfully played by Wydetta Carter. Carter also has a great Jazz voice and sings a very funny song about her envy of the magical love affair unfolding just across the fields from her perch in the front window of her country home. 

Jeffrey D. Kmiec's set design is very open, changing rapidly from the bridge location back to the kitchen and gives one the feeling that the ageless beauty of the bridges of Madison County represent a type of true love that is only found in dreams come true and that the small house in which Francesca and her family live is actually more of an astral 18 year-long "rest stop" -  that the travel loving and exotic Francesca is fundamentally out of place here.

I loved the song, "Before and After You" passionately and exquisitely sung by both Voytko and Stampley. The song perfectly describes how true love changes one's life and perceptions completely, making one realize in an instant just how much has been missing from their lives before they met and also how much their future lives will be forever indelibly stamped by the experience of this miraculous encounter and gift from fate. 

During their brief, but instantaneous, courtship over Francesca's kitchen table, Robert Kincaid, who is a devout loner and world traveler, tells her he feels disconnected from the world. In a flashback type setting, his ex-wife Marian, who is a hippy folk singer played by actress Emily Berman sings a very lovely song behind the flirting couple about her relationship with Kincaid and we see a whole other, liberal free loving side to the somber Kincaid character. The romantic, open-minded, artsy side of Kincaid has long since disappeared from his own consciousness as he jets sets around the globe never stopping for that "glass of iced tea or night cap of brandy" that will open the door to a new relationship thereby sidestepping over and over the vulnerability that a new relationship will inevitably bring. 

I highly recommend this beautifully cast and performed production of the stage musical. The relationships are very well played and the audience is allowed to see how the lover's interactions with each other bring to life all of the best aspects of their personalities, important living aspects and hopeful expectations of freedom and genuine loving excitement that have been long buried by the monotonous work and family demands of daily life. We also sit on pins and needles as the play brings its leading characters to an incredibly tough choice.

Voytco and Stampley's performances in the lead roles are deeply drawn, rich and compelling. Their chemistry feels real and palpable and their expansive individual artistry as singer/actors draws you in and makes the audience really care what choices they make and how their decisions will impact their mind-opening love affair, which is obviously a gift from heaven. 

“The Bridges of Madison County” is being performed at Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire through August 13th. For tickets and more show information visit www.marriotttheatre.com.

 

Published in Theatre in Review

If you saw "The Gin Game", a timely play about the coming together of two lonely but feisty seniors at a run-down nursing home, when you were younger - you should see it again now at Drury Lane. 

John Reeger and Paula Scrofano, a long-time married couple who met at Northwestern University and raised a family while carving out distinguished theatrical reputations for themselves, play these roles with gusto and finesse. 

Taking on the roles of Weller Martin and Fonsia Dorsey, like other great acting couples before them - Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy or Mary Tyler Moore and Dick Van Dyke, John Reeger and Paula Scrofano pull out all the emotional stops to reveal the inner turmoil of seniors who have been left alone at the end of their lives to basically die in a dilapidated nursing home because they have both lost everything they own to their children or the state and are on Medicare.  

As they discuss and complain intermittently about all the problems seniors are still facing today, like poor nutrition, lack of stimulation in adult activities, and having their most precious belongings stolen, the audience sadly realizes that nothing has changed for seniors affected by catastrophic illness and the increasingly unreasonable, high costs of healthcare since "The Gin Game" first came out. 

Videographer Mike Tutaj, lights up the shabby, depressing and realistic set design by Katherine Ross with a series of beautiful and poignant slideshow type images from a variety of nursing homes that the audience can really identify with in how nursing homes are run today, especially if you are not wealthy enough to be placed in a fancier gated community.

Ross Lehman directs this very talented couple, Reeger and Scrofano, with an understanding and yet demanding pace that sets the characters on fire as their life stories come tumbling out one dealt card at a time. Over a series of gin games (often humorously played out), our characters get to know each other better and better while reluctantly revealing how their own personal tempers and foibles contributed in part to the broken relationships with their children. 

I saw the play years ago but this time, having dealt personally with the placement of four family members of different ages each with debilitating disabilities and dwindling financial resources beyond their control, I found it even more satisfying to watch. The crowd I joined at the opening was mostly between the ages of fifty and ninety-years-old and undoubtedly related to these very same, sad and lonely circumstances that are inevitable for so many senior citizens, as perhaps many younger audience members realized the same for their aging parents or grandparents. 

I can't rave enough about the fine performances by the semi-retired John Reeger and Paula Scrofano. The pair push each other’s buttons as only a real married couple can and display a sharp sense of timing and emotional flexibility rarely seen in younger actors. The couple also show off their fine comedic mastery.  

I highly recommend this thought provoking, totally timeless and relevant production in which Reeger and Scrofano use every single word, every gesture to brilliantly drive home the message that senior citizens are every bit as sharp and full of emotional and physical needs for fulfillment and daily entertainment as their younger counterparts.

This is a darkly funny and meaningful production the entire family young and old should see together, if only to wake up and realize we all will be old someday, and, if we don't make changes to preserve and increase the coverage of Medicare and Medicaid, we are dooming ourselves and our children to retirements that look more like "jails for those who have lived too long" instead of clean and comfortable homes to retire in. 

"The Gin Game" is being performed at Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook through August 13th. For more information visit www.drurylanetheatre.com.

 

Published in Theatre in Review

Fun! Funny! Funnier! If you are fan of The Golden Girls TV show, then run, don't walk, to see Hell in a Handbag’s The Golden Girls: The Lost Episodes at Mary's Attic before its special, recently extended, run is over. The show opens with a heart lifting, hug your best friend singalong of the sitcom’s famed theme song, "Thank you for being a Friend" - in its fantastic entirety! 

Plenty of fans arrive in costume to see the show and in between the hysterically funny, bawdy, R-Rated "Lost Episodes” theatre goers are entertained by Golden Girls trivia contests with fun prizes, so live it up. 

Hell in a Handbag Artistic Director David Cerda wrote the show which parodies the famed 1980’s sitcom where four women who share a home in a Miami Senior Community are not ready to stop living life to the fullest. Cerda is fantastic as the deadpan Dorothy even with the use of just one syllable – “Mah!" David, who recently won a well-deserved special Jeff Award (Congrats!) for all of his amazing contributions to theatre in Chicago with his much beloved production company Hell in a Handbag, evokes laughs with every shoulder-padded shrug and anchors the show with his dead-on funny accuracy in the role of Dorothy that actress Bea Arthur made famous. 

I don't know how he does it but every single show David writes is unique, displays every cast members talents superbly, heartfelt and funnier than the last. In this show, he takes the iconic TV show and brings it to a new level, creating hysterically campy “lost episodes” that one could only wish took to the air during the series’ heyday.  

Blanche is played with true southern sex appeal by A. J. Wright. Wright is mind-blowingly accurate in his portrayal of the flirty man-eater. Wright is so convincing, I had to occasionally close my eyes and just listen with delight, because I really felt he was a woman channeling Rue Clanahan, not a man in drag. The razor-sharp tongued Sophia played by Adrian Hadlock is also right on the mark with his dry as a martini, machine gun-like delivery of every single one-liner.

Ed Jones rounds out this fearsomely funny foursome with his always gentle, never forced portrayal of the delicate and ditzy, Rose, often forced to do and say indelicate things! Handbag favorite Ed Jones is - as ever, roaringly funny and true to Betty White's every gesture, even to her dazed and confused looks of naivety. As in all of Handbag’s productions, Golden Girls is equipped with a stellar ensemble, this show including hilarious performances by Chazie Bly, Kristopher Bottrall, Grant Drager, Lori Lee, David Lipschutz, Terry McCarthy, Michael S. Miller and Robert Williams.

Not ignoring the other fine touches that make this such a fun experience, Myron Elliot’s costumes and Keith Ryan's wigs and makeup are a laugh riot in themselves and really help each actor achieve the eerie accuracy that makes this a true golden fest for fans of the show. 

David Cerda and I have some kind of strange psychic connection in that his shows always seem to coincide in some synchronistic way with things going on in my life and family, and Golden Girls was just what I needed to see. My mother and I lived in Miami Florida throughout my whole young adult life and the week I saw this production of Golden Girls (one of my mom's favorite shows to watch with me) she was in the hospital and I was extremely stressed and worried about losing her. When David says as Dorothy about her mother Sophia, "She's probably thinking back to her youth in the fields of Sicily," and then sighs, "God, I'd wish she'd just die," I had to let out a cathartic laugh because it was just such a perfectly funny, subtext of compassion coupled with frustration of the statement of all mother/daughter love when stretched to its limits. I loved it. Naturally, I don’t wish such a thing, but Cerda’s writing has a way of somehow finding love and humor in even such a statement.  

I didn't stop laughing or smiling from start to finish of this uproariously funny take on the Golden Girls that no fan should miss. Even if you are not familiar with the show, it’s worth checking out. Don't worry, you’ll pick it up quickly. And like many Hell in a Handbag shows, there is an intermission long enough to stretch, grab a drink and use the restroom which allows you to really allow the funniness of the first act to sink in. Increasingly I find myself enduring 90-minute or longer shows with no intermission as if the audience is trapped in some kind of marathon endurance test of our concentration and bladders! But not at Hell in a Handbag shows, which proves yet again that David Cerda is in tune with everything a Golden Girl needs to truly enjoy a laugh packed night out with your best friends. Much Thanks to David Cerda for "being a friend!”

Golden Girls: The Lost Episodes is being performed at Mary’s Attic in Andersonville on Wednesday and Thursdays at 7:30 p.m now extended through September 16th. Saturday dates have been added for August. Tickets are $20, but are just $16 if purchased in advance. To purchase tickets or to find out more about this hilarious show wonderfully directed by Shade Murray, visit handbagproductions.org.

Published in Theatre in Review

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


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


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


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


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


The chemistry between Llana and Kelly is explosive.


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


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


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


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

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

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


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

Published in Theatre in Review

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Published in Theatre in Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Published in Theatre in Review

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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Published in Theatre in Review

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Thank you, madam. 

Please call again. 

Do call again, 

Madam

 

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

 

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

 

Published in Theatre in Review

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Published in Theatre in Review
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