In Concert

Kimberly Katz

Kimberly Katz

In reviewing Jimmy Buffett’s new musical Escape to Margaritaville I was seated in the last row of the Oriental Theatre but since the row was reserved and nearly empty, I settled in for a nice relaxing show with no one coughing on me or knocking my elbow off the armrest. The show began and a few minutes later two smiling, enthusiastic, knee tapping men came in and sat next to me on the aisle.
They were whispering excitedly back and forth and one of the men, who was small-framed with glasses, took out his cellphone and began typing into it every few minutes.


They seemed like such excited fans, as the phone activity continued. I didn't want to say anything but finally buckled and leaned over and gently brushed his hand, smiling like "Hey, that's a no- no." But he just smiled at me and moments later kept typing. After another ten minutes or so, I again leaned over and said, "Darlin', I know you're super excited to be here (and I pointed to my Press Kit), but I'm trying to review this show." The bouncy, Larry David lookalike laughed and said, "Darlin', I’m Jimmy Buffett!" I didn’t recognize him in the dark! 

We laughed together and naturally I told Jimmy to take as many notes as he needed! And thus began a wonderful night of celebrating this Broadway bound production based on Jimmy Buffett's life. 
The script written by Greg Garcia and Mike O’Malley (with book also by Emmy Award winner Greg Garcia) tells a classic story of romance between Tully, a handsome singer/songwriter living the island life, and drifting from one cute tourist to another without falling in love. Tully's world is changed however when a beautiful, intelligent, but over worked, scientist named Rachel visits the resort with her best friend Tammy who is about to be married - to the wrong man. On this island the word “work” is identified as a " dirty word" and Rachel is warned gleefully by Tully that if she says it too often her mouth will be "rinsed out with tequila!" 

The book includes original music and at least twenty-seven of Buffett's classic hits including "Come Monday", "Volcano", "Cheeseburger in Paradise", and a hilarious PG-rated version of "Let's Get Drunk (And Screw)”. 

The two youthful leads, Tully played by Paul Alexander Nolan - and Rachel (Alison Luff), have very nice chemistry, rich voices and give the rowdy, drunken fun of the play a real love story to ground it and make you care about the characters despite the constant joking around. 

Parrotheads will love the free living, take it easy on yourself moral of the story, which simply put echoes Buffett's own successful take on "living life in the moment to the fullest, and loving the one you are with.

I really love the way Rachel's character is written as both very intelligent and nature loving. The entire audience loved the way her best friend Tammy is encouraged to go ahead and EAT "the cheeseburger she desires whether she fits into her wedding dress or not and then has her literally flying across the stage (Peter Pan style) when she frees herself from the critical and unappreciative man she was about to marry before being rescued by Tully's funny, free living, best friend. 

Walt Spangler created a beautiful sparkling set full of water and sunny blue skies. The only thing I wanted to see more of in this wonderful, constantly changing island paradise set was palm trees and green. But this already winter-weary Chicago audience was delighted by the many hues of clear blue water, colorfully lit Tiki Huts and cloudless skies, nonetheless. 

The lesser known, but deeply touching Buffett songs “We are the People Our Parents Warned Us About”, “Love and Luck”, “He Went to Paris” and “License to Chill” were used to nice effect to deepen and round out the overall feelgood, life's a party feeling of the show, especially when the audience realizes even the seemingly shallow Tully understands there is something very important missing from his idyllic island lifestyle when he meets Rachel and finally feels true love for the first time. 

Opening night attendees were treated to a real Buffett experience when Jimmy joined the cast for the show’s final few numbers.

After the show I got to speak with Buffett and his fans a little more in depth at the Maragaritaville-themed after party. We laughed again at my own "work, work, work" uptightness even as Jimmy apologized profusely for having to take notes on his phone during the show and he asked me if I noticed his mature adult fans gleefully swaying and dancing in their seats. 

I DID come to the realization after talking with Parrotheads from twenty to eighty-years-old at the party, that although I was born and raised in Miami, Florida, I had no idea how vast and successful the Jimmy Buffett brand has become and stayed over past decades. I really got a sense of how happily devoted his fans are to him as a musical artist and his never give up - do it yourself lifestyle guru, if you will.  

I know the play needs to move along and stay fictional to a degree, but I would have loved to have seen a few scenes about Buffett's real-life tales of trying and failing at a music career in NY and Los Angeles. Those years of being rejected while trying to find his niche which caused him to say, "Screw You" to record execs and move his whole life to the "the farthest key in Florida", finally building his own internationally loved and recognized brand in true maverick style with his own fans from Key West. These true tales of overcoming small-minded criticisms and his so-called failures along the way are so inspirational I wish they had been addressed in this production. 

Since there is still time to tweak this fun-tastic production before it moves on to Broadway and on tour, I have to say I agree with other reviewers who were put off by the dance numbers by the dead insurance salespeople, the "LSD flashbacks" dreamt up by Tully's sidekick during stressful moments. The choreography in these dance numbers was great but the creepy, scary, gray and white ash covered insurance salespeople (whom he was told died in a volcanic eruption on the island) would have been better spent on dance numbers for the main cast members or more of the bikini and swimsuit clad vacationers to keep the fun, psychedelic friendly mood coming without interruption. 

Loved it. I highly recommend this fun loving, musically delightful production to remind everyone to SLOW DOWN, and stop towing the line at "work, work, work!" thereby letting their dreams of love and romance die a slow, painful death. Buffett's philosophy of living and acting spontaneously reminds the audience in a wonderful way that life changing chances at love (like the one when he met his wife) come and go which might never come again. 

Once I realized I was seated next to Jimmy Buffett himself during the show, I couldn't help noticing the touching way he sang along quietly to himself with his own music, these are his babies after all, and the foundation of a hugely successful $500 million dollar plus industry of restaurants, vacation cruises and music, etc., that his devoutly loyal fans, the Parrotheads, have enjoyed for thirty years. As I watched Jimmy Buffett's fans dance around their "leader in paradise" at the after party and the screams of laughter and joy during the show as beach balls came raining down on them from above, I became certain that they will continue to honor Buffet's legacy and frequent his now very real "Margaritaville" for the rest of their lives. 

Escape to Margaritaville is being performed at Oriental Theatre through December 2nd. For more show information visit www.broadwayinchicago.com.

 

The current production of 42nd Street at Drury Lane Theater left me breathless! With book by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble, music by Harry Warren and lyrics by Al Dubin, the newly updated and improved 42nd Street blends different periods of dance from the sixties to the present including some of the best tap dancers (don't call them hoofers) I have seen assembled for one show. 

Telling the age-old fantasy of Broadway performers everywhere as newcomer to New York, Peggy Sawyer, gets her chance at stardom and saving the show when the star falls during rehearsals and breaks her ankle. But this version is sympathetic to both the aging star, Suzzanne Douglas as Dorothy Brock, who has worked a long time and entertained the advances of a sexist producer just to finally have her stage time. Douglas has a beautiful rich, soulful singing voice and is very beautiful in this role. 

Kimberly Immanuel as Peggy Sawyer is also seen more realistically as a starving artist who just wants a break instead of a conniving backstabber out to hurt the leading lady. She is cute and unassuming as the newcomer who really has flying feet. Immanuel does a great job staying likable in her singing and acting and then dazzles the audience with some "out of this world" tap dancing which truly pleases the ears and eyes.  

Gene Weygandt as Julian Marsh, a Broadway director with the power to make stars and break them, also turns in a lovely performance with top-notch vocals, which make the character of Marsh more concerned with the dream world of Broadway life and less scary and sexist than I have seen director portrayals in other productions. 

This spectacularly energetic, colorful and sparkly, yes sparkly, production is directed artfully by Michael Heitzman, with choreography by Jared Grimes, music direction by Roberta Duchak, scenic design by Collette Pollard, costume design by Emilio Sosa, lighting design by Mike Baldassari, sound design by Ray Nardelli, and music arrangements by Everett Bradley.

The set and lighting changes and costume design really do satisfy Chicago audiences’ need to see productions that dazzle just as much as the run on Broadway on every level and leaves the audience energized and happy to have seen this show. 

I want to name the other stars and the ensemble because every single character was fully drawn in this wonderful production with Phillip Attmore as Billy Lawler, Justin Brill as Bert Barry, Donica Lynn as Maggie Jones, Brandon Springman as Pat/Ensemble, Cedric Young as Abner Dillon, Erica Evans as Andy Lee/Ensemble, and Sierra Schnack as Annie/Ensemble. The cast also includes Bret Tuomi, Time Brickey, Lamont Brown, Tristan Bruns, Joe Capstick, Joel Chambers, Andrea Collier, Gabriela Delano, Annie Jo Ermel, Rachel Marie LaPorte, Mandy Modic, Thomas Ortiz, Allie Pizzo, Marisa Reigle, Anthony Sullivan Jr., and Davon Suttles.

Full of fun hits such as “We’re in the Money”, this is a show that doesn’t stop. One of the most memorable scenes I have ever witnessed is a highly complex, mind blowingly and highly difficult six person tap piece that eventually turns into a full cast number worthy of anything I have seen in Broadway productions or at larger theaters in downtown Chicago or New York.

I highly recommend this run of 42nd Street at The Drury Lane for an exciting, feel good, upbeat Holiday spectacle about the joy of showbiz as we used to all envision it unfolding for a young star in the making. 

42nd Street is being performed at Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook through January 7th. For tickets and/or more show information visit www.drurylanetheatre.com.

 

Most people are aware of the movie Carrie, starring the haunting Sissy Spacek as the picked on teenaged outsider who uses her telekinetic powers to burn down her high school with most of her attackers in it, but few know there was a sequel made in the 90's where her long lost sister ends up using the same powers to avenge her and her best friend’s mistreatment. The sequel is appropriately titled Carrie 2: The Rage

Writer/composer Preston Max Allen does an amazing job of using the movie sequel as his starting point in Carrie 2: The Rage (An Unauthorized Musical Parody), writing many very funny and well-crafted parody songs and scenes to fill out the play. 

Rachel Lang, the lead played solidly by Demi Zaino, finds out that the reason her best friend committed suicide the day after happily losing her virginity to one of the boys on the football team is a cruel game that the boys are playing with young girl's minds by judging their looks with a point system for the football player who "bangs them". The boys then and then dump the girls who are considered "coyote's,” not really the ugly girls just the sensitive, nerdy vulnerable ones. 

Then to make things worse Rachel ends up stealing the heart of the only nice football player that the head cheerleader is in love with and thereby invites the wrath of the cheerleaders and the team when she tries to prove the team were at fault for her friend’s death. As revenge, the team and cheerleaders gang up on Rachel and orchestrate the video taping of her having sex with the nice football player named Jesse. After viewing herself having sex and being laughed at by everyone invited to a private party, Rachel unleashes her inherited telekinetic rage powers to kill everyone much the same way Carrie did nearly two decades earlier. 

Although the plot of Carrie 2: The Rage seems like a perfect warning tale about bullying, it is also a terrifying reminder of the damage caused by sexual harassment and rape.

First of all, it is terrifying to grow up in an age where your immature teenage peers can make a sex tape of you and show it to everyone you know. Also, it shows that Rachel's virginal friend is actually thrilled to have "become a woman" with what she thinks is her new boyfriend - until he breaks up with her the very next day because his friends call her a "coyote".

The way she is broken up with is worse than the act of sex itself because it means that the act of sex itself was a vengeful act to him, not the beautiful loving experience she had been conned into thinking it was. 

All three cheerleaders are played with perfect camp, each having their own unique brand of snotty mean girl-ness that is very funny and well played. But two character actresses really steal the show in the roles of Rachel's mentally ill mother, Annie Pfohl and the high school counselor, who witnessed the first destruction of the high school with Carrie at the helm played by Sue Snell. Both Snell and Pfohl play the crazy in their roles with fantastic realism and comic timing which takes the play to a whole new level of both humor and spookiness. Sam Button-Harrison is also tremendously funny as the play’s lead bully.

You really feel for these beleaguered women who are trying desperately to forget and prevent the tragedy that has ruined their lives as well as Carrie, and now poor Rachel's, at the hands of some of the meanest boys and girls the musical comedy stage has ever seen. 

Eric Luchen, designs a set in the tiny Arkham space that seems to expand and contract with each number in marvelous ways. Choreographer Maggie Robinson and co-directors Rachel Elise Johnson and Isaac Loomer each do a wonderful job bringing this nice sized cast to life with full out dance numbers and great lighting and sound effects that move along quickly and seemed to be unfolding in a much larger space. 

I really laughed at, and thoroughly enjoyed, this well played, musical wild ride through the early nineties (right down to Rachel’s torn jeans, army boots and plaid shirt tied around her waist). The Rage is filled with gore, laughs and a moral - "People shouldn't suck so much!" Just in time for Halloween! 

Underscore Theatre’s Carrie: The Rage (An Unauthorized Musical Parody) is being performed at The Arkham through November 19th. For more show information visit http://www.underscoretheatre.org/.

 

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.  

 

“The Legend of Georgia McBride” written by Matthew Lopez, is an adorable and entertaining piece brought to sexy, vibrant life by an exquisitely multi-talented cast of characters. 

The play is set in a dusty part of the Florida panhandle at a run-down club called Cleo's owned by Eddie played with great irony by character actor Keith Kupferer. 

After night in and night out with an unsuccessful Elvis act, Eddie has allowed his cousin "Miss Tracy Mills" (Sean Blake) to bring her two man/woman drag show to the club in the hopes of salvaging his nightclub income. 

Sean Blake is amazing and seems born to play this role. Blake gets the most laughs and the most oohs and aahs with each stunning costume change or drag number and absolutely steals the show.  Miss mills also brings with her another drag queen of the highest order but one with a serious drinking problem named Rexy. 

Rexy played by Jeff Kurysz is hysterically funny in this role and does double time as Casey’s landlord and friend, a straight married man with children. Kurysz did so well in this transformation, it took me halfway through the play to realize this was the same person playing tow completely opposite roles and that was only because I thought I saw just a hint of blue eye shadow left over during his quick change from drag queen to local roofer!

The lead role of Casey is played with real charisma and fantastic dance abilities by Nate Santana. Casey has been trying to eke out a living doing his Elvis impersonation at the club but do to waning interest in his act has been demoted to bartender to make room for the new drag show. His wife, Jo (Leslie Ann Sheppard) has informed him she is pregnant and must give up his dreams of playing Elvis in order to support the family. The couple works well together, presenting a believable dynamic and we are easily able to root for them.

In the end, Casey learns to become a successful drag queen (after reluctantly doing so originally when asked by Eddie after Rexy is passed out drunk just before her number) and fulfills his artistic talents in this way. Just watching Casey’s transformation from Elvis impersonator to slovenly, broken down bartender to show-stopping drag queen is worth the price of admission and Santana does so with great communicative eyes and terrific physical comedy skills. 

Is drag just performing? No it is not as Rexy later explains to Casey, who thinks it's as simple as performing a show - it is a protest. There is much more to drag than eye shadow, glitzy dresses and fake boobs. It is a way of life, something to take your lumps for and definitely something not for "pussies". 

The set which slides back and forth to become their shoddy apartment and the dressing room of the bar is a little confusing and doesn't quite give the intimacy to either environment that it deserves. However, the lighting (JR Lederle), sound (Kevin O’Donnell), amazing costumes (Rachel Laritz), fabulous wigs (Penny Lane Studios- WOW!) and funny props by Bronte DeShong and yummy choreography by Chris Carter more than make up for that distraction. 

I highly recommend this laugh a minute feel-good comedy with several smashing dance numbers about making your dreams come true "right where you are with what you've got to work with" for the whole family to enjoy. 

“The Legend of Georgia McBride” is being performed at Northlight Theatre through October 22nd. More show information can be found at www.northlight.org.

 

If you like Vegas like I like Vegas, you will love Marriott Theatre’s energetic and top notch, romantic musical comedy production of "Honeymoon in Vegas"!

Jack Singer (Michael Mahler) is in love with his girlfriend of five years Betsy Nolan (played with terrific spunk and formidable singing chops by Samantha Pauly), but was traumatized by the deathbed wish his mother imposed on him never to marry, because no one can love him like she did.  Bea (Marya Grandy) plays his mother with great physical comedy skills and her hospital deathbed scene where she strikes down a passing nurse in order to show jack what she can do to his future brides to be, gets some of the biggest laughs in the show. 

Jack and Betsy get through this flashback scene and resulting panic attack while shopping at Tiffany's for her ring and head straight to Vegas to tie the knot - before he loses his nerve for the umpteenth time. 

Upon arriving in Vegas, Betsy is instantly spotted by Tommy Korman, a rich, handsome but slightly shady businessman played to perfection by Chicago born actor Sean Allan Krill. Betsy reminds Korman of his past wife and then he goes all out to steal her from tentative Singer. His pursuit really begins when he invites Singer to a “low stakes” poker game, letting him win a few hands – a total set up. Singer has a hand next to impossible to beat and the pot becomes so large there is no way he can pay up if he loses. That’s when the fun really begins. Sean Allen Krill was the standby in this role for Tony Danza on Broadway. Krill was just fantastic and I'm not the only critic in Chicago to say Sean Allen Krill should be a huge Broadway star right now. Krill is so smooth in the role of Tommy Korman, so fluid and graceful in his immediate desire for, and courtship of, Betsy that women and men throughout the theater were so wowed by Krill's amazing singing voice and comedic acting chops that they actually wished Betsy would stay with him in Hawaii and not marry the non-committal, bumbling, but kind, Jack Singer. 

Another character actress deserving of special notice is Christine Bunuan, as the funny and fabulous Hawaiian tour guide who helps Jack find Betsy and Korman (yes, the story moves to Hawaii), but not without first trying desperately to make “Friki-Friki with Jack before delivering him to his destination. 

While talented Alex Goodrich is very funny to watch in multiple roles, Steven Strafford also shows off his comedic talent as Korman's sidekick, Johnny Sandwich.  

Several of the leading creators of its 2015 Broadway production were brought in by the Marriott Theater including director Gary Griffin, choreographer Denis Jones, and costume designer Brian Hemesath. The effect of all these highly skilled players coming together is a full-service production that grabs you right from the start with well-paced scenes and challenging, yet humorous, dance numbers that dazzle the audience with beautiful, leggy showgirls - Vegas style. 

I highly recommend this adorably sexy and funny, Elvis-filled production for young and old alike. This production is so well-played and fun to watch that you will feel you have had a honeymoon in Vegas - with a stop-over in beautiful Hawaii to boot!  

Honeymoon in Vegas is being performed at Marriott Theatre through October 15th. For more show information visit www.marriotttheatre.com.

 

"Trevor the Musical" tells the tale of a beautiful young boy in the 1970's who is just discovering his love of choreography and dance. He is also lovesick for an older boy in his school during a time when same sex relationships were not as socially acceptable or acknowledged as the world at the time was much less gay friendly.

I predict that this play will have a very good effect on young people who view it and anyone who has ever felt put down or shamed by others for their own creativity or uniqueness.

Although I agree with some of the other critics that there was a slightly "after school special" feel to this production, there is nothing wrong with that. It moved where it needed to be moving and celebrated those who feel different than others because of who they are.

The young star of the show Eli Tokash (also played in split performances by and Graydon Peter Yosowitz) is delightful and really does a great job with all of his numbers both musically and in terms of dance and comedy movement. The music is well written, often fun and catchy, and also includes various Diana Ross hits. "Trevor" has all the ingredients to become a smash hit.

Because most of the cast is in their teens this show will definitely be produced in high schools and colleges for years to come which is a great thing especially given the current climate reviving negativity towards the LGBTQ community.

“Trevor” comes with a slew of entertaining performances, including Declan Desmond’s as “Pinky”, the object of Trevor’s boy crush. I thoroughly enjoyed the costumes and creative set design as well.

The only note I have for this cast of very talented young people is to avoid becoming robotic in their quest for perfection. The emergence of such shows like American Idol and "So You Think You Can Dance" have both encouraged young people more than ever to follow their dreams in the arts, however I feel that they have put so much pressure on young people to hit every note perfectly and to strike every pose with almost robotic precision in order to win First Prize that many of their performances now seem stiff and over analyzed and micromanaged by their directors. So much so, that they make the audience feel nervous because they as young performers seem nervous and afraid to mess up or even let their characters messy emotions show through the facade of artistic perfection because they are trying so hard to live up to this Broadway standard placed on even the very youngest performers of today. Another perfect example of this public and private pressure can be seen clearly on the popular reality show for young performers called "Dance Moms,"as they scream and yell at their own eight-year-old daughters that they are not dancing well enough.

Other than the slightly uptight feeling which I think will be worked out over the course of this run and as the book of this show is revised and edited and cut for Broadway, I highly recommend this inspiring production. Everyone left the theater in a great mood feeling that they had seen the world premiere of a play with something timely, special and energetic to say to the world. “Trevor” is a play which encourages adults and children alike to be true to themselves in every way - no matter what the other kids say, even under scary opposition from groups of mean and ignorant "haters" who do not understand what it is like to be different from the pack, whether a dreamer or a believer in Unicorns or the healing power of Diana Ross.

“Trevor the Musical” is being performed at Writers Theatre in Glencoe through its newly extended date of October 8th. For tickets and further show information visit www.writerstheatre.org. 

I was very happy to see Brown Paper Box Company put together this once hugely successful romantic comedy by Neil Simon, which played on Broadway for four years with music and book by Marvin Hamlisch and Carole Bayer Sager. Produced, directed and choreographed by Daniel Spagnuolo, this semi-autographical piece about the true-life romance of Hamlisch (hot off “A Chorus Line") and Sager, who was busy writing and performing hits of her own for Barry Manilow and Melissa Manchester. 

Although “They’re Playing Our Song” is basically a two-character show, the introduction of a chorus of players playing behind each of the leads referred to as " the voices in his head" or " the girls" representing, the "ID, the EGO and Passion" is a delightful and effective tool to understanding how quickly each character’s mood is changing and reacting to every word from the other. When the characters insult each other the chorus reacts instantly and likewise when they begin to loosen up. As the two stop competing with each other’s insecurities and speak honestly about their growing love, the chorus reflects on their faces and through dance how happy each character really is on the inside. 

If only we each had such clear representations from our subconscious minds to guide us moment by moment though lovers and arguments in real life, more couples might find the happiness these two finally find by the end of the play. 

Vernon Gersch (Dan Gold) and Sonia Walsk (Carmen Risi) meet for the first time in his luxury NY apartment where he is searching for new songwriters to collaborate with and has begun working on one of Sonia's songs. Although the balance of power is off at the beginning, Sonia asserts herself by letting him know she has been writing music since she was eleven and has other lucrative offers coming in musically as well as a persistently needy, but still attractive, ex-boyfriend waiting in the wings. 

Dan Gold has an excellent singing voice for this piece but has a little trouble always delivering the "funny", as his character veers from outright patron-ism towards Walsk to put her in her place to a kind of forced sneering anger as her bubbly personality seems to outshine his own success. Still, Gold does have his moments. Risi, whose overall trained voice is pleasant puts her own spin on some of the notes originally scored for Lucie Arnaz. Risi's opening night performance early on found herself speaking way too fast for the audience to understand everything she is saying at times, which made many of the good one liners fall flat. However, once finding her comfort zone in the role as perhaps opening night nerves had quelled, Risi eventually redeemed herself, injecting it and Vernon Gersch with her infectious, if somewhat relentless bubbly, enthusiasm for him and their possibilities for living together successfully in a mutually respectful yet non-competitive marriage. Gersch finally admits that he is "terrified, literally terrified by the feelings she causes in him both loving and hateful at the same time and we as an audience understand his neurotic sense of loss of control around her perfectly. 

Gold and Risi might seem mismatched at first, but by the play’s second act their intense pairing seems justified.

Every inch of this intimate theater space was used to the max including dance numbers by all six members of the Greek chorus behind the two leads.

I liked the kitschy sets and costumes but felt music was thin, which sort of cheapens the real amount of musical talent packed onto the stage in every performer. 

I do recommend this very funny, psychologically instructive comedy for a couple's date night. 

I think every man and every woman will see parts of themselves they want to change in the struggle for power and finally supportive equilibrium of these two highly-neurotic yet supremely artistically gifted lovers that Hamlisch and Sayer so lovingly documented in this  1979 award winning musical. 

“They’re Playing Our Song” is being performed at Rivendell Theatre through August 20th. For more show information visit www.brownpaperbox.org.

 

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.

 

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.

 

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