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Tribute shows are generally as good as the performers that star. I probably just stated the most obvious fact on the planet. Yet it’s so very true. No matter how good the song selection, the costumes, the set, it is the vocal performance that we bring home with us. In “My Way: A Musical Tribute to Frank Sinatra” a different taste of Sinatra is delivered; rather than presenting an Ol’ Blue Eyes impersonator, we are invited to a 1960’s club setting where four actors casually reminisce with the audience over more than fifty Sinatra favorites. 

The musical revue, rich in its depicted era, stars George Keating, Christine Mild, Eric A. Lewis and McKinley Carter, each taking turns riffing through classics like “Makin’ Whoopee”, “Fly Me to the Moon”, “The Best is Yet to Come”, “Young at Heart”, and “It was a Very Good Year” – the songs are countless. The four have made their mark in the Chicago theatre scene, Lewis a Jeff Award Winner for his work in Porchlight Music Theatre’s “Dreamgirls”, Mild, who not only starred in Theater at the Center’s “Pump Boys and Dinettes” but who has recently released her debut solo album “Love Is Everything”, Carter, who has done work in prestigious venues such as Writers Theatre and Drury Lane Oakbrook, and Keating, who not only has been featured in Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” at Paramount Theater, but is the co-founder of the very popular Chicago and Off-Broadway hit “Schoolhouse Rock Live”. 

The four actors work well together as snippets of Sinatra songs are often worked into light exchanges between the characters. They gracefully glide around the stage and upon the stairways often pairing elegantly for dance routines. Often, the characters might be seen having a drink at the bar or nonchalantly interacting at a table, setting a relaxed night-out-on-the-town mood. Throughout the show, Sinatra factoids and quotes are tossed about during song breaks, allowing at times for the audience to participate. The club centers around a bar, where a live band simplified to piano (William Underwood), bass (Jake Saleh) and drums (Nick Anderson) plays directly behind it. Despite the small size of the outfit, the sound is big and the musicians ever-impressive, each getting to show their skills off a bit while briefly featured individually in the second act. 

While perhaps wishing for a little more "oomph" overall in the individual vocal performances (mainly on the lower notes) ala Sinatra, each of the performers have their shining moments and are able to deliver the songs with their intended pizzazz and vigor. But the magic in this show is when the four would sing together, whether it be a duet or a four-part harmony. It is with these synchronized vocal efforts one easily loses themselves in the beauty of Sinatra’s work. 

Brenda Didier both directs and choreographs this fascinating piece with a stylish aplomb that captures the charm of the period so very well. Lewis particularly stands out during his renditions of “My Kind of Town” and “I’m Gonna Live ‘Til I Die”, while Keating finishes strong with a fervent version of “That’s Life”. The production flows at a nice pace and is a pleasing homage to Sinatra, though we are often teased with a song segment left wanting to hear the piece in its entirety. This is countered by the fact that we are given such a vast collection of the music Sinatra made famous. The show ties together well eventually leading us to an expressive interpretation of perhaps Sinatra’s most timeless classic, “My Way”, commendably performed by the entire cast. 

“My Way: A Musical Tribute to Frank Sinatra” is a time capsule that will certainly touch the hearts of “Chairman of the Board” fans, but is equipped with enough nostalgia, panache and musical talent to please even the most curious. This polished production is being performed at Theater at the Center in Munster, IN through March 19th. Click here for tickets and/or more show information.   

 

Published in Theatre in Review

Throughout the years, we have seen all kinds of homages to Elvis Presley whether it be Elvis impersonators, biographical films, Elvis night at U.S. Cellular Field and, of course, theatrical productions. Of these few tribute samples, some are serious and sensitive while others more tongue-in-cheek. “All Shook Up”, a musical using the music of Elvis, is definitely the latter. Now playing at Theatre at the Center in Munster, Indiana, “All Shook Up” is a story about an Elvis-alike roustabout who comes across a square town where the tightly-wound mayor has unjustly imparted laws against innocent activities such as kissing in public and dancing or the interracial mixing of partners. Though the plot line is as silly as it gets with unlikely, but still predictable love stories breaking out everywhere, it is hard not to be entertained by the music alone.

David Sajewich plays our hero Chad, the leather jacket clad bad-boy drifter with greased back hair who hops from town to town via his motorcycle with the purpose of challenging authority by infusing fun and excitement into boring and restricted communities. Sajewich is very funny in the role, ever so naturally delivering spot on physical comedy and one hilarious line after another. He also sings several Elvis classics with a good deal of enthusiasm, his vocals finding suitable range for each number despite not having the most powerful of voice. In the show’s opening number, “Jailhouse Rock” we quickly realize Sajewich will not be attempting to sound like Elvis Presley opting to use his own singing voice (writer or director’s choice?), leaving a small amount of disappointment for those who had hoped the story’s character so obviously designed around Elvis would kind of sound like him, if even in a comical way.

Like Abba’s music in Mamma Mia! or Green Day’s in American Idiot, the music of Elvis Presley is transformed into massive stage numbers with changing leads, large choruses and big time dance choreography. It was also refreshing to see such an obscure choice of Elvis Presley songs used for this production rather than only the obvious choices. “All Shook Up” included favorites like “Don’t Be Cruel”, “Love Me Tender”, Can’t Help Falling in Love”, "A Little Less Conversation” and “It’s Now or Never” but also added lesser known songs (at least outside the Elvis world) such as “Follow that Dream”, “C’mon Everybody”, “Devil in Disguise” and a heartfelt rendition of “If I Can Dream”.

Outside of the campy over-the-top story that is on the borderline of ridiculousness, despite its borrowed storylines from Shakespeare’s "Twelfth Night," "As You Like It" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream", “All Shook Up” includes several likeable characters that are fun to watch and listen to, especially Bethany Thomas (Sylvia) with her gutsy and very impressive singing voice. Callie Johnson also shows off her comic and singing ability as tomboy motorcycle mechanic Natalie Hallow who is crushing hard on Chad while Justin Brill as the geeky, love stricken Dennis is also enjoyable to watch. Matthias Austin gets some of the biggest laughs as Natalie’s square turned rocker father Jim, as deserved, but Sharriese Hamilton (Lorraine) might just have the best comic timing of the bunch.

Cheesy story and all, “All Shook Up” is a very entertaining show with great music, charm and lots of very funny moments. It’s always nice to see the music of Elvis passed on to new generations and this show is a perfect tool for doing so, as it is a production suitable for all ages alike.    

The rock n’ roll hit Broadway musical “All Shook Up” is being performed at Theatre at the Center through August 16th Wednesdays through Sundays, including weekend matinees. For tickets and/or more show information, visit www.theatreatthecenter.com

Published in Theatre Reviews

Fantastic stories filled with mermaids, giants, tornadoes and witches are told and Edward Bloom always comes out as the hero. These are the enchanted tales Edward has been telling his son, Will, since he was a child. Each story is more larger than life than the other and each act more heroic than the last. The only problem is that these stories have caused Will much embarrassment throughout life as they are told to anyone who will listen because Edward really seems to believe them as outlandish as they are. Years have gone by in a small Alabama town while Edward and Will have grown far apart. As traveling salesman Edward spends much of his time on the road, distancing himself from his son.

But as Edward’s life nears its end when his cancer advances, Will is determined to find out the truth about his father’s stories, and wanting to understand him better he carries out his own investigation and comes across a few surprises. Meanwhile, Will and his wife are planning for their first child.

“Big Fish”, currently playing at Theatre at the Center, is based on Daniel Wallace’s 1998 novel “Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions” that was later turned into the popular 2003 Tim Burton film “Big Fish” starring Ewan McGreggor, Albert Finney, Jessica Lange and Billy Cruddup. The main difference here is the Broadway version being a musical –and it works…well.

From the first number “Be the Hero”, an enthusiastic piece on slaying dragons, defeating giants and, well, being a hero, we get a healthy taste of Edward’s zest for storytelling. Edward is brilliantly played by Stef Tovar, and, though quite a bit younger in appearance than the sixty-year-old-ish father we expect to see from the story, Tovar couldn’t be more perfect for the role. Tovar’s ability to transform from that of an excited, awestruck boy as he goes from story to story to a loving husband, or a father who desperately wants to be close to his son, is quite fun to watch. Tovar, a whirlwind of energy, makes Edward’s character believable seemingly effortlessly and we are easily able to identify with him. At the same time Colette Todd, who plays Edward’s loving wife, Sandra, also puts on a tremendous performance as his perfect support system. Todd is charming as can be as she dances as sings her way to our hearts. Tovar and Todd are well cast and together are a tour de force to be reckoned with.

“It’s a good show. It’s got a lot of heart. It will make you laugh. It will make you cry”, says director William Pullinsi.

Pullinsi couldn’t be more correct. There are plenty of funny moments but also a great sadness as we see people who love each other so greatly have so much difficulty connecting.   

The song and dance numbers and uniquely choreographed and sang to perfection. Nathan Gardner, who plays Will, is among the talented singers in this amazing cast and really lets it go in “Stranger”, an emotional number where he describes the distance that has become between him and his father.  

Besides its enriched song and dance numbers, captivating story and strong acting performances, theatre-goers are treated to a colorful set and a display of dazzling costumes. Some of the scenic displays are simply breathtaking - one in particular invoking "oohs" and 'aaahs" from the audience.

Says Todd on the massive set and costumes, “There was one day when an actual semi-truck arrived to the theatre and all of these remarkable costumes were unloaded and unpacked.”

“Big Fish” is a beautiful story about father and son relationships that should not be missed. It is a heartwarming story filled with hope and living life as large as you can. “Big Fish” is being performed just thirty-five or so minutes from downtown Chicago at Theatre at the Center (1040 Ridge Road, Munster, IN) through June 7th. For tickets and/or more show information visit www.theatreatthecenter.com.  

Published in Theatre Reviews

Kicking off their 25th anniversary season, Theatre at the Center makes a strong impression by presenting Ernest Thompson’s touching classic On Golden Pond. This 1979 Tony-Award winning play was later adapted for the big screen where it starred Henry Fonda, Jane Fonda and Katharine Hepburn and won an Oscar. On Golden Pond is a warm and moving story that deals with the challenges an elderly couple are going through during their twilight years and also focuses on a tempestuous relationship between father and daughter. It is also a story of reconciliation and rebirth.  

Each year Norman and Ethel Thayer spend the summer at their quaint home on Golden Pond. Norman, pushing eighty-years-old is quite the curmudgeon and is still armed with a quick wit while Ethel, ten years his junior, finds all the little things in life wonderful. The pairing is super and utterly complementary to each other. While planning out his 80th birthday party, the often cranky Norman constantly speaks to Ethel as though it will be his last, which is taken with a grain of salt by his always optimistic wife. Norman’s memory is slowly fading and he has heart palpitations, which doesn’t help his outlook on the future. When his daughter, Chelsea, and her boyfriend, Billy Ray, come up to the lake house to join the party, we realize the tension that exists between father and daughter and slowly begin to understand that it stems from Norman’s desire to have had a son. Soon, Norman and Ethel’s summer is interrupted when Chelsea asks that Billy Ray’s thirteen-year-old son stay at the lake house for a month while they travel to Europe. Norman, who was reluctant at first on the idea, quickly bonds with the boy and we see a change of heart and a new attitude on life begin to manifest.

On Golden Pond is filled with many life lessons and we are better for having seen it.

Dennis Kelly is superb as Norman. The veteran actor is able convey a truckload of meaning in just a simple line. Equally as impressive is Ami Silvestre as Norman’s bouncy and vibrant counterpart, Ethel, Silvestre is so cute you just want to shrink her and tuck her away in your shirt pocket. But together the two are simply off the charts. Their playful zinging back and forth and the concern and love for each other they are able to display is not only believable it is magical. Norm Boucher also delivers in a key contributing role as Charlie, family friend and neighborhood mailman by boat.  

Set in the interior of the Thayer’s summer lake home, we get plenty of heartfelt moments and surprisingly a good share of laughs that really balances out the show. This insightful love story is rich and the characters are perfectly layered creating an all-around well-themed, highly entertaining play that anyone of any age is sure to enjoy.

A quick thirty or so minutes from downtown Chicago, On Golden Pond is being performed at Theatre at the Center (1040 Ridge Road, Munster, Indiana) through March 29th. For tickets and/or more information visit www.TheatreAtTheCenter.com or call 800-511-1552.

*Photo - Dennis Kelly and Ami Silvestre as Norman and Ethel Thayer

Published in Theatre Reviews

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