In Concert

“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

 
Northlight Theatre, under the direction of Artistic Director BJ Jones and Executive Director Timothy J. Evans, announces the addition of Cry It Out, written by Molly Smith Metzler, to close its 43rd season, May 10 – June 17, 2018. The previously announced The Legend of Georgia McBride, directed by Lauren Shouse, has been re-scheduled to open the season, playing September 14 - October 22, 2017, replacing Bruce Graham’s Sanctions. 
 
Cry It Out was commissioned by Actors Theatre of Louisville and premiered at the Humana Festival of New American Plays in spring 2017. Northlight's production, directed by Jessica Fisch, will be the first outside of the Festival.
 
Cooped up on maternity leave and eager for conversation, Jessie invites the funny and forthright Lina for coffee in their neighboring backyards. They become fast friends, quickly bonding over their shared “new mom” experience—and arousing the interest of a wealthy neighbor hoping for a similar connection. This insightful comedy takes an honest look at the absurdities of new motherhood, the dilemma of returning to work versus staying at home, and how class impacts parenthood and friendship.
 
Molly Smith Metzler‘s plays include Elemeno PeaThe May Queen, Carve, Training Wisteria and Close Up Space (Susan Smith Blackburn Prize finalist).  Regional Theatre: South Coast Repertory, the O’Neill National Playwrights Conference, Chautauqua Theater Company, Geva Theatre Center, and City Theatre Company, among others. Off-Broadway: Manhattan Theatre Club. Awards include the Lecomte du Nouy Prize from Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center National Student Playwriting Award, the Association for Theatre in Higher Education’s David Mark Cohen Award, and the Mark Twain Comedy Prize. Metzler is an alum of Ars Nova’s Play Group and the Dorothy Strelsin New American Writers Group at Primary Stages. She is currently under commission at Manhattan Theatre Club and South Coast Repertory. Television: Codes of Conduct (HBO); Casual (Hulu); Orange Is the New Black (Netflix). Metzler was educated at State University of New York Geneseo, Boston University, New York University’s Tisch School for the Arts, and The Juilliard School.
  
The 2017-18 Season is now as follows:
 
THE LEGEND OF GEORGIA MCBRIDE
By Matthew Lopez
Directed by Lauren Shouse
September 14 - October 22, 2017

A down-on-his-luck Elvis impersonator has an overdrawn checking account and a baby on the way. When a drag show takes over the entertainment at the Florida Panhandle bar where he performs, he’ll also be out of a job…unless he’s willing to step into some high heels. This heartwarming, music-filled comedy celebrates the unexpected path to finding your true voice.
 
THE BOOK OF WILL
By Lauren Gunderson
Directed by Jessica Thebus
November 9 – December 17, 2017

William Shakespeare wrote some of the world’s most beloved plays – but without his friends, they may have been lost to history! Follow the members of Shakespeare’s own company as they cunningly navigate the production of the First Folio in 1623. They may not have any money or clear-cut rights to his work, but they’re armed with wit, humor, a deep camaraderie and a passion to preserve the plays that shaped their lives. With the help of their wives and colleagues, two actors set out not only to print a collection, but to uphold a legacy for the world.
 
SKELETON CREW
By Dominique Morisseau
Directed by Ron OJ Parson
January 25 – March 4, 2018

At the start of the Great Recession, rumors of impending closure surround one of the last auto plants in Detroit. The nation’s financial crisis gets personal as each of the workers confronts the life-altering choices they must make if their plant goes under, while the supervisor is torn between allegiances to his makeshift family of co-workers and management’s “cost-saving” demands. When pushed to the limits of survival, how far over the lines are people willing to cross?
 
The third play in Dominique Morisseau’s Detroit trilogy, Skeleton Crew was named one of Time Magazine’s 10 Best Shows of the Year.
 
THE BEAUTY QUEEN OF LEENANE
By Martin McDonagh
Directed by BJ Jones
Featuring Kate Fry
March 15 – April 22, 2018

This Tony Award-winning dark comedy is set in the provincial Irish town of Leenane. Forty-year-old spinster Maureen Folan lives with her manipulative aging mother Mag, stuck in a caretaking relationship that has them both seething with resentment. When a romantic encounter finally sparks Maureen’s hopes for an escape from her dreary existence, Mag’s interference sets in motion a chain of events that is as tragically funny as it is terrifying.
 
CRY IT OUT
By Molly Smith Metzler
Directed by Jessica Fisch
May 10 – June 17, 2018

Cooped up on maternity leave and eager for conversation, Jessie invites the funny and forthright Lina for coffee on their neighboring patios. They become fast friends, quickly bonding over their shared “new mom” experience—and arousing the interest of a wealthy neighbor hoping for a similar connection. This insightful comedy takes an honest look at the absurdities of new motherhood, the dilemma of returning to work versus staying at home, and how class impacts parenthood and friendship.
 
Curtain times are: Tuesdays at 7:30 p.m.; Wednesdays at 1:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.; Thursdays at 7:30 p.m.; Fridays at 8:00 p.m.; Saturdays at 2:30 p.m. and 8:00 p.m.; Sundays at 2:30 p.m. and 7:00 p.m.
 
Subscriptions to the 2017-18 Northlight Season are available through the box office, 9501 Skokie Boulevard in Skokie, by phone at 847.673.6300 or online at northlight.org. With its wide range of ticket prices, discounted subscription packages and complimentary parking, Northlight remains of one of the best theatrical values in Chicagoland. 
 
Subscriptions range in price from $99-$250.  A limited number of season subscriptions for the Opening Night performances (also includes a reception with the cast) are available for $325, subject to availability.  Northlight subscribers will have the first chance to purchase additional tickets before they go on sale to the general public. For more information, visit northlight.org.
 
Northlight Theatre aspires to promote change of perspective and encourage compassion by exploring the depth of our humanity across a bold spectrum of theatrical experiences, reflecting our community to the world and the world to our community.
 
Now in its 42nd season, the organization has mounted over 200 productions, including nearly 40 world premieres. Northlight has earned 198 Joseph Jefferson Award nominations and 34 Awards. As one of the area’s premier theatre companies, Northlight is a regional magnet for critical and professional acclaim, as well as talent of the highest quality.
 
Northlight is supported in part by generous contributions from Allstate Insurance; the Paul M. Angell Family Foundation; Robert & Isabelle Bass Foundation; BMO Harris Bank; Henrietta Lange Burk Fund; The Elizabeth F. Cheney Foundation; The Chicago Community Trust; ComEd, An Exelon Company; The Davee Foundation; Edgerton Foundation for New American Plays Award; Evanston Community Foundation; Full Circle Foundation; Illinois Arts Council, a state agency; Kirkland & Ellis Foundation; The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation; Melvoin Award for Playwriting; Modestus Bauer Foundation; National Endowment for the Arts; Niles Township; The Offield Family Foundation; The Pauls Foundation; Room & Board; Sanborn Family Foundation; Dr. Scholl Foundation; The Shubert Foundation, Inc.; The Harold and Mimi Steinberg Charitable Trust; The Sullivan Family Foundation; and Tom Stringer Design Partners.
 

 

 

Published in Upcoming Theatre

The storyline in Relativity is a supposed to be a mystery. The great physicist and mathematical theoretician Albert Einstein fathered a daughter, Liserl, out of wedlock in Switzerland with Mileva Marić– but all mentions of her disappear after the age of two.


What happened to her? Several theories have been put forward – that she died of scarlet fever, that she was put up for adoption - but the historical track was largely obliterated with the destruction of many records during World War II. Though Einstein later married Marić, his daughter disappears from the historical record after 1904.


Mark St. Germaine’s Relativity poses one possibility on her whereabouts , and Einstein is confronted with it many years later, by a mysterious visitor to his quarters in Princeton. Margaret Harding (Katherine Keberlein), a journalist who has come to profile him for the Jewish Daily News – and to challenge him on his neglect of his daughter.


Suffice it to say we witness a fair amount of unresolved anger in the encounter, during which Einstein also learns he has a grandchild – also a genius - who is seeking his support in entering a top university. This colorful and intriguing tale is enticement enough to see Relativity. But an added bonus is the fact that the lead is played by the oldest working union actor in the U.S. – the indomitable Mike Nussbaum. Known for his skillful and intelligent delivery including some of David Mamet’s most challenging dramas, Nussbaum at 93 makes a striking appearance. That he can do it at all may be surprising, but Nussbaum delivers a textured and nuanced characterization of the great physicist. He is bring his all to the role, though he doesn’t project at the same intensity as in days of yore – or maybe it’s my hearing going.


The script is okay, with its once over lightly descriptions of Einstein’s unprecedented theorems, and the family angst grows tiresome pretty quickly. There is also a lot of exposition in which the reporter recounts famous quotes and anecdotes from Einstein, who fills in with one liners that elicit some laughs.


Ann Whitney plays a crotchety housekeeper and secretary, the real-life Helen Dukas, and her chemistry with Nussbaum is delightful. Their scenes provide insight into the suffering of an aging genius who is unlikely to discover new universal theories. Nussbaum brings an unusual gift to this aspect of the role, and a hunt for a piece of chalk to write a formula on a blackboard captures the essence of the matter, opening a window into the unsettling existential void.


As always Northlight delivers high production values (Jack Magaw on scenic design; JR Lederle on lighting; Stephen Mazurek fir Projection Design) and director BJ Jones does an excellent job orchestrating the production. Relativity runs through June 25 at Northlight Theatre in Skokie.

Published in Theatre in Review

After a sell-out run last summer, this hilarious and inspiring story about the grit and passion required to 'make it' as an artist and the sweet rewards that come from never giving up on your dream returns.
 
Brad Zimmerman’s hit comedy My Son the Waiter: A Jewish Tragedy is returning to Chicago for a five-week engagement July 6 through August 13 at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd, Skokie, IL 60077. One-part standup, one-part theatrical, My Son the Waiter: A Jewish Tragedy is the story of one man’s struggle to fulfill his dream and ‘make it’ as a comedic actor in New York.
 
The fact that Brad Zimmerman has put the time in to work on his craft is an understatement. He spent 29 years “temporarily” waiting tables in New York,while continuing to pursue his dream of comedic acting. In My Son the Waiter: A Jewish Tragedy, he tells the story of his journey, along with a chronicle about his childhood, family, and misbegotten love life with warmth, wit, self-deprecating humor, and wicked charm, and combines his years of training as an actor with his innate comedic talent.
 
In his 90-minute show, Zimmerman also reviews the trials and tribulations of waiting on tables – particularly for someone not exactly invested in that career, and with little tolerance for finicky diners:
 
“I don’t want 60 questions, get to the point!” he said he would tell restaurant patrons when he sat down for an interview for The New York Times. He joked that if diners prefaced their orders by saying they were in a hurry he would say “So go!” He says he did enjoy some of the bantering he did with diners, and often tried out material on them, however there were also ‘the bossy customers who would snap their fingers to get his attention… and the health-food obsessives who elaborately customized their orders and button-holed him over ingredients.’  As he says in My Son the Waiter: A Jewish Tragedy, he was convinced his epitaph would read “I’ll be right with you.” 
 
Eventually his determination and hard work paid off, and Zimmerman went on to act - he had a small part in “The Sopranos” playing Johnny Sack’s lawyer - and to become the opening act for a number of well-known entertainers, including George Carlin, Brad Garrett, Dennis Miller, Julio Iglesias, and 6 years with Joan Rivers who said “I’ve had three great opening acts in my lifetime: Billy Crystal, Garry Shandling, and Brad Zimmerman.”
 
Zimmerman worked on the script for My Son the Waiter: A Jewish Tragedy for nine years, and performed it in small venues all over the country, including a stint at Stage Door Theatre in Florida, where it came to the attention of producers Dana Matthow and Philip Roy (Respect: A Musical Journey of Women, Old Jews Telling Jokes, My Mother’s Italian, My Father’s Jewish & I’m in Therapy). Since then, My Son the Waiter: A Jewish Tragedy spent two years at Off-Broadway’s Stage 72 at the Triad Theatre in New York, and has toured the USA from coast-to-coast.
 
My Son the Waiter: A Jewish Tragedy will run from July 6 through August 13 at North Shore Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets start at $46, and will be available online at MySonTheWaiter.com or by phone at 847-673-6300.  For group rates (10+) call 312-423-6612. For more information about My Son the Waiter: A Jewish Tragedy please visit http://mysonthewaiter.com.

 

Published in Upcoming Theatre

Brad Zimmerman's one-man show is a one-man wonder. My Son the Waiter, A Jewish Tragedy currently being performed at the Northshore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie, takes the audience on a whimsical and hilarious adventure discussing the many common characteristics of what growing up in a Jewish family is like through Zimmerman's eyes. 

 

Brad started his career early in life and worked at a few restaurants to help feed his acting dream before making it to the big screen. His short and memorable serving jobs evidently gave him the brilliant storyline he's presented in the show. He touches briefly on his time on The Sopranos and focuses more on the expectations his family, mostly his mother, set for him in life.

 

Zimmerman had the entire audience captivated with the conversational approach in his show. The laughter filled the theatre and there was not a dry eye when Zimmerman discussed his father and what he meant to him during the early time in his life. This hour long, solo show is a hidden gem. I'd recommend My Son the Waiter, A Jewish Tragedy to anyone who wants to have a great laugh and allow themselves to delve into the dry sarcastic humor Zimmerman blesses his audience with.

 

My Son the Waiter, A Jewish Tragedy is being performed at Northshore Center for the Performing Arts through August 7th. For more show information and tickets, visit www.northshorecenter.org

Published in Theatre Reviews

Truth should be at the heart of every good drama piece. Truth, honesty, a bit of realism, something that makes the audience connect with the story, or the characters. Terrence McNally's Mothers and Sons playing at Northlight Theatre in Skokie attempts to reach a truthful depth, but leaves audiences shrugging with indifference wondering what exactly to take away from the play.

 

Nearly twenty years after her son’s AIDS related death, Katharine (Cindy Gold) pays an unexpected visit to the New York apartment of his former partner, Cal (Jeff Parker), who is now married to another man and has a young child. Over the course of the play Katharine and Cal exchange stories, sass, and sarcasm as they awkwardly interact and attempt to reconcile. Katharine remains judgmental and curt throughout her visit to the apartment, portraying the stereotypical conservative, old fashioned, bitter woman well. Cal, on the other hand, attempts to be gracious and overtly friendly in the face of this judgmental woman. Things heat up when we meet Cal’s partner Will (Benjamin Sprunger) and their son Bud (Ben Miller). Katharine’s disdain for the household and the situation is apparent but predictable as are the interactions with the two men. The remainder of the play is both forced and at time self-righteous and does nothing to move the needle on the many themes it attempts to tackle.

 

At the heart of the play is a conservative, judgmental woman “challenged’ to accept that her son was gay and that a same-sex couple is raising a child. This theme might have been provocative ten years earlier, but now is played out. Mothers and Sons also touches on homosexuality, AIDS, same-sex marriage, same-sex parenting, loss of a child, loss of a husband, and tries its best to address all of them within the 90 minute run time. There are so many themes that we forget that the son was the driving force that brought this woman to this apartment. He is used more as a prop, much like the journal that was hardly mentioned - though we come to find was the reason for Katharine’s visit. What’s more is the themes and how the play chooses to address them are not profound or thought provoking. Nothing is said that the audience doesn’t already know, or even what the characters don’t already know, which borders on the preachy versus clever. And these themes don’t do anything to change the characters or bring them closer together. At one point, Will’s character is so offended that he asks Katharine to leave, though she stays, shares a self-indulgent “woe-is-me” story that highlights her selfishness more, and suddenly Cal is embracing her as if he understands her after all these years. This sentiment is entirely lost on the audience. Will, the character who was ready to throw the woman out, is suddenly calm, cool, and collected. The young boy offers cookies and milk to everyone, refers to this strange woman as grandma and they all sit around and all but sing Kumbaya. And that is where the play ends. 

 

Isn’t that truth? That in a matter of a single awkward visit, a selfish, self-loathing, gay-hating conservative becomes accepting of gay marriage, same-sex parenting, and her son’s death? And that her son’s former partner who felt the cold sting and shun of this woman would be so moved as to invite her into his home and his family? It isn’t truth. It’s trite and contrived. Call me a cynic, a millennial, jaded, what have you. The truth might be that people like Katharine still exist in the world, but would someone really be swayed in such a short amount of time? Was it out of sheer loneliness on her part and pity on his end that these two characters accepted one another and will move forward? Mothers and Sons did not offer us this depth, so it’s hardly worthy of such deep analysis.

 

Truthfully, there isn’t much one could take away from Mothers and Sons. You could reach and say it was a profound dialogue about how the definition of family continually changes and evolves. You could speculate that people in mourning can come together to find comfort and support in one another. But Mothers and Sons does nothing to challenge the audience or the characters, or create a worthwhile dialogue in today’s world.

 

Directed by Steve Scott, Mothers and Sons runs through February 27th. Tickets are available at http://www.northlight.org/.

 

Published in Theatre Reviews

"Funnyman", now playing at Northlight Theatre in Skokie, is a familiar tale about an artist who has reached the end of one phase of his career and has to either adapt to the new environs and trends in entertainment or retire to his old world , hopefully with his dignity intact.

 

George Wendt, lovingly known for his co-starring role as Norm in the hit series, Cheers, plays the lead character of "Chick", a vaudeville star abused as a child and later who was exploited as an adult in order to rehash, and cash in on, his tired old catch phrase "Wowsa! 

 

Chick and his faithful agent, Milt Karp, played with real sympathy and humor by talented SNL alumna, Tim Kazurinsky, now makes Chick his only income by doing clownish Bromo Seltzer TV commercials.  

 

After three years with no offers of theater work, Chick is finally offered a groundbreaking role in a French beatnik production that will bring his gifts to a new young audience and reinvigorate his career indefinitely - if he can pull it off. The flamboyantly gay director, played by Rob Lindley was a real comedic standout and his energy onstage reinvigorated the piece throughout the second act. 

 

For much of the first act we only see that Chick is very depressed and like other funnymen we have known and loved - Robin Williams, John Belushi, Chick is only "funny' in public when he has to be - as a defense mechanism to get others to like him and finally, after hearing his catchphrase, to leave him alone. 

 

His grown daughter lives with him after a prolonged absence when she was sent away as child to boarding schools. She presses Chick, Milt, and anyone who knew Chick in the early days and researches the library archives to find out why her father has always been so harsh and unapproachable to her. She also demands to know more about the mystery of how her beautiful showgirl mother suddenly died in a way that no one - least of all Chick - her own father will explain to her.

 

Although 'Funnyman" is billed as a comedy and there are several good laughs in it, the real satisfaction, and finally catharsis, comes to the audience as the underpinnings of the sometimes harsh world of vaudevillian entertainment come to light. 

 

Apparently, Chick was used by his mother and father in what they called a "chaser act", meaning they "chase" the audience out of the theater at the end of the show. The thought being that the audience will be less likely to throw bottles and food at a couple holding a baby!

 

Chick learned as he got older that if he didn't make funny faces at as many as four shows, six days a week, he would not eat. When a four-year-old making funny faces ceased to appease the audience, the family's' routine morphed into what they called a "rough act" where Chick ended up being thrown across the stage for a laugh. 

 

When one day he actually broke his collarbone after being tossed on stage, the stage doctor told his mother that he could not perform for a few weeks until it healed. His mother, whom Chick believes had sadistic tendencies, tells the doctor without flinching or humor, "No, he can go on, we will throw him underhand." 

 

At one point Chick makes the observation that "Nobody takes comics seriously until they do something serious." For that reason this production, which was very satisfying as whole on many levels, reminded me of Michael Keaton's Oscar nominated role in the hit film "Birdman".

 

The audience goes in expecting to see and laugh at the warm, fuzzy, familiar "Norm” from Cheers but leaves feeling they have seen the full dramatic range of what a skilled actor like George Wendt is really capable of when given the right material. 

 

It's a tragic irony reflecting on the seemingly endless well of insecurity that actors experience in general that in Funnyman they also quote the fact that "The hardest thing in the world... is comedy." 

 

Great comic actors like Keaton and Robin Williams have forever been trying to prove that they are as "good" or as "gifted" as their more serious counterparts who tend to receive all of the Oscars and respect, when in reality as a skill, comic timing and comic writing are much, much harder to achieve. Comedic timing is quite simply a much rarer gift to be blessed with in this world, a true prolific comic, or comedian/writer is very, very rare indeed. 

 

Chick's daughter played aptly by Amanda Drinkall finds an old news article about her mother and father performing together and notes that it is quite literally the only photograph of her father truly smiling that exists. Sadly it seems to her that she has never seen that smile on his face in real life - ever.  I don't want to give away this important plot point about the tragedy of his wife's death but it shows that Chick was once a sweet, softie who finally had found happiness with his love, until it was taken away and never returned.  

 

I loved the video touches with "I Love Lucy" and the Bromo commercial reenactment and the references to the golden age of Broadway including all of the agent to artist arguing and pep talking.

 

The set was functionally designed to keep the play moving quickly from scene to scene but I found myself wishing for more color, more definition, more character and less generalized nostalgia in each of the spaces. It felt a little sparse and depressing.

 

I highly recommend seeing this satisfying and ultimately encouraging and heartwarming ensemble type piece about overcoming your greatest fears regarding major transitions in one's life, even if one of your greatest fears, in this case Chick's abusive mother and weak father, are long gone from your life. 

 

The fear of forgiving those events that have crushed you, and moving on to enjoy present life opportunities with your family and friends that are still here and do love you, must be faced and overcome.

 

Funnyman, clearly illustrates that if you cannot roll with the changes, especially in later years, then life itself becomes like Chick's life - a joke which has ceased to make people laugh, a bitterly boring and sad repetition of days without laughter or cheer - which is not a life worth living.

 

Funnyman is being performed at Northlight Theatre through October 18th. For tickets or more show information, visit www.northlight.org.

 

Published in Theatre Reviews

Northlight Theatre follows up the hard-hitting drama “White Guy on the Bus” with another extra-base hit with the charming comedy "Outside Mullinger". Set in the Midlands of Ireland, Artistic Director BJ Jones directs this humorous love story that, though mostly transparent in its direction, offers a handful of fun surprises. Outside Mullinger is written by Pulitzer, Oscar and Tony Award Winning author John Patrick Shanley (Moonstruck and Doubt). Needless to say, Shanley has done it again.

“Having survived to my 60th year, I wanted to express joy,” says Shanley on writing Outside Mullinger. “I wanted to laugh, I wanted to name what is possible and beautiful about being alive.”

Set in the Midlands of Ireland we are introduced to two families that own neighboring farms that have been handed down for generations. Though Anthony and Rosemary have been neighbors for years, the two have secretly longed for each other, neither one the wiser. Despite the fact that they are somewhat outwardly gruff with each other, we see an underlying affection that is just dying to bust out. When Rosemary learns that Anthony's father "Tony Reilly" might not leave him the farm, she intercedes, changing paths in the process and ultimately creating new opportunities to express suppressed feelings.

The story is well written but its very talented cast is what truly makes this show a memorable delicacy. Acting and writing great Bill Norris is simply superb as "Tony Reilly", skillfully dishing out his lines with seasoned prowess and a profound candidness. Mark Montgomery is also right on mark and is highly likeable as Anthony and Kate Fry shines brightly with her razor sharp delivery and unbridled conviction as Rosemary. The chemistry and banter between Montgomery and Fry is nothing short of convincing, making the story as believable as it is cute and funny. Also contributing to the story’s sincerity is a rotating set that switches from one realistic farmhouse kitchen to another.   

If you want a love story with just the right amount of laughs, challenges, tenderness and emotional depth, Outside Mullinger is a play with quick-witted and heartfelt dialogue that will certainly be enjoyed.

Outside Mullinger is being performed at Northlight Theatre through April 19th. Northlight Theatre is located at 9501 Skokie Boulevard in Skokie. For tickets and/or more show information, visit www.northlight.org.

Published in Theatre Reviews

White Guy on the Bus is a powerful and very well-acted drama that asks several questions about modern day racism. In this highly provocative piece by Bruce Graham, we are met with race issues and opinions based on life’s experiences coming from both sides of the fence. We see how perception of race can be altered as one’s life situation changes or after impactful events occur. In this world premiere taking place at Northlight Theatre, award-winning Graham may have unleashed his best work to date.

Francis Guinan leads a very strong cast in this gripping story that mostly takes place in an upper class suburb. Ray (Guinan) is a successful “numbers guy” who makes the rich richer while his wife, Roz, has declined to teach in a privileged suburban school to work in one that is predominantly black in a tough neighborhood. We see a successful family whose son, Christopher, has recently become engaged to Molly. It doesn’t take long before Roz and Molly are engaged in tension-filled debates on race issues and socioeconomic divide – Roz who often speaks from her experiences of working with inner city school kids and Molly who has led a mostly sheltered life and appears to get most of her opinions from college. As the story continues we see that perspective changes with circumstance. And we soon wonder why Ray ditches his Mercedes to take round trip busses through the inner city on Saturdays. As Ray does this he befriends Shatique, a young black single mother who visits her brother in jail each Saturday.

White Guy on the Bus goes from engaging to intense with little warning. As the story progresses so does its intrigue. Guinan is commanding in a lights out performance as a man who is faced with heavy challenges while Mary Beth Fisher is also impressive in her role as Roz, organically delivering her lines to perfection. Patrice D. McClain makes her Northight debut and is very impressive as Shatique, a role that demands much expression and inner conflict. Also putting out a strong acting performance is Jordan Brown as Christopher in his return to Northlight (Sense and Sensibility).

This is a story that raises curiosity from the get go and builds interest with a sure-footed steady pace all the way to its climactic ending. Artistic Director BJ Jones does a stellar job in this play’s direction quickly moving the story back and forth without big scene changes.

White Guy on the Bus is a terrific piece of Chicago theatre that will certainly stick with you afterwards and perhaps have you questioning your own perspectives towards race issues. White Man on the Bus is playing at Northlight Theatre in Skokie through February 28th. For tickets and/or more information call 847-673-6300 or visit www.northlight.org

*Photo - Mary Beth Fisher and Francis Guinan in White Man on the Bus

Published in Theatre Reviews

Northshore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie was host to yet another spectacular Elvis Presley birthday celebration, The Elvis Tribute Artist Spectacular. This time celebrating birthday number 80, there was even a more special air around the theater. Fans filled the seats to capacity and sat back for a nostalgic trip to yesteryear when Elvis was king. Going through Elvis’ history in chronological order, we were able to experience a career first hand had by no other.

After warming up the crowd with a few numbers by The Blackwood Quartet, one of Elvis’ favorite gospel groups, Cody Ray Slaughter and Ryan Pelton took turns performing as Elvis from the mid-1950s through the movie years that spanned through 1968. Not only did the young Slaughter have all the early Elvis moves down to a science – arms swaying rhythmically about and feet immersed in fancy footwork to the beat, but his voice and subtle mannerisms were so dead on it made the illusion highly believable the moment you let your guard down.

It was nice to also hear so many songs that were not from the popular hits catalogue. With a nice selection from the movie King Creole (title track, “Hard Headed Woman”, “Trouble”, “Crawfish”), Viva Las Vegas (What’d I Say”, “C’mon Everybody”), G.I. Blues and a few other fave Presley films, we were met with a well-rounded Elvis spectacular that the truest of fans certainly enjoyed. We were also treated with the hits that made Elvis…well, Elvis. From “Heartbreak Hotel” to “Teddy Bear”, it was a true Elvis musical feast.

Not only was each performer backed by a full band complete with a horn section, but original Elvis drummer D.J. Fontana took to the stage to play along on the first few songs. And though the 83-year old legend may have lost a step or two, he sure hasn’t lost the beat. Also, performing backup vocals besides The Redwood Quartet were the Sweet Inspirations including the great Estelle Brown who sang with Elvis from 1969 through his untimely death in 1977. The absolute thrill to witness the performance of two Elvis bandmates was simply breathtaking.

After a brief intermission the show recreated an early 1970s Elvis concert. Here we hear the later Presley classics like “In the Ghetto”, “The Wonder of You” and opening number “See See Rider” brilliantly performed by Shawn Klush decked out in a white, high-collared jump suit. Almost like a second show in its own right, the hour-plus set was an energized one as Klush also gave an animated performance of “Suspicious Minds” before ending the show with the appropriate “American Trilogy” to the lowering of a giant American flag behind the performers.  

The Elvis Tribute Artist Spectacular was an amazing show despite a near tragedy when a stack of amplifiers fell onto the drummer’s leg (not D.J Fontana). After a few minute timeout, he was helped off stage while one of the guitarists filled in on the drums, but later returned after the intermission.  

This is a highly recommended show – a show that Elvis himself would be proud of.

     

Published in In Concert

 

 

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