For those looking for about as much funny as can be compacted into sixty minutes, one would be hard pressed to find as many laughs as The Best of Bri-Ko, a sidesplitting theatre experience where the absurd is creatively implemented into a series of sketch acts, each one stranger than the next.
Stage 773 Creative Director Brian Posen teams up with Chicago comedic forces Tim Soszko and Brian Peterlin to form this hilarious hour-long ride where just a single word is spoken throughout the entire performance. The three theatre veterans are able to inject their unique humorous spin into such simple everyday tasks from changing a light bulb to a having a dinner date that have the audience in stitches from the moment they take the stage to the show’s very climactic ending. A series of props are used in practically every sketch performed including water balloons, heads of lettuce, cream pies and other very messy items, making it as though a tornado had swept through the venue by the show’s end. Caution – you might become a victim of friendly fire.
Varying from one extreme to the other, a heavy-duty Nerf gun war breaks out throughout the crowd to Slayer’s “Angel of Death” while moments later we become subject to a hysterical dance routine to Wilson Phillip’s “Hold On” that you must see to fully appreciate. Adding to the intimate, and very unusual, theatre experience is the fact that the production is performed in Stage 773’s Cab Theatre, a smaller-sized room so as to easily involve the entire audience.
"With so much buzz today about what's appropriate in comedy, Bri-Ko is a breath of fresh air," says Stage 773 Creative Director Brian Posen. "This is a hilariously entertaining show without the politics or controversies you typically see with this genre."
Poesen couldn’t be more correct. If you were to throw bits and pieces into a blender from Blue Man Group, The Marx Brothers and various vaudevillian acts, inject it with steroids, then douse it with Posen, Soszko and Peterlin’s own exclusive brand of humor, you’d have Bri-Ko – a true one-of-a-kind comedy event that goes from 0-60mph in seconds flat.
Posen, Soszko and Peterlin work incredibly well together, exhibiting not only a well-oiled team chemistry but each having plenty of their own moments mainly done with key facial expressions and challenging physical comedy. No question about it, Bri-Ko is a power-packed hour of pure fun that can be enjoyed over and over again.
There is no shortage of stage experience in this very exceptional cast. Jeff and After Dark Award Winner Brian Posen has been active in the Chicago theater scene for over 20 years as an actor, producer, director, and teacher. Posen and Peterlin have worked together for years, in 2001, alongside Brian Posen, founding The Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival, now the largest in the nation. Tim Soszko teaches at Second City, Barrel of Monkeys and Columbia College while performing with many companies including Bri-Ko, The Cupid Players and The Tim and Micah Project.
The Best of Bri-Ko is being performed at Stage 773 in the Cab Theatre each Thursday through March 23rd before reworking material and returning this Fall.
Very, very recommended.
For tickets and/or more show information click here.
Never has a play about journalism, the presidency and Cold War with Russia seemed more relevant than now. And The Columnist, performed by The American Blues Theater at Stage 773, is all of that and more. In a story that could have easily been set during today’s heated political environment, The Columnist is a scintillating tale of family, power, betrayal and personal struggle.
Written by the Pulitzer and Tony award-winning author David Auburn and directed by Keira Fromm, The Columnist is based on real-life journalists Joe Alsop (Philip Earl Johnson) and his brother Stewart Alsop (Coburn Goss). Once a power writing duo, the play begins with Joe, now one of America’s most influential columnists - both feared and beloved, caught in a revealing and compromising position in a Moscow hotel.
That affair and its consequences runs like an undercurrent throughout the entire play as we see Joe battle for power, his ideas on what American exceptionalism entails and how the president (both John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson) should achieve it no matter the costs. We also see his struggle to keep his private life separate from the illusion he creates for the public.
Johnson is exquisite and brilliant in the role of Joe Alsop and very capably humanizes such a towering political figure of the time.
Joe is a man who loves his country and family with equal and blinding passion but in the rapidly changing world of the 1960’s, against the backdrop of the Vietnam war, his inability to see beyond his own beliefs pushes away those closest to him. He manages to alienate even some of his most ardent admirers and colleagues.
However, despite the growing distance between Joe and his family – his perfectly cast, dutiful and charming wife Susan (played by the equally charming Kymberly Mellen), his precocious stepdaughter Abigail (Tyler Meredith) and his sincere and loyal brother Stewart, what is conveyed even at some of his lowest points is how much they still love him despite his many flaws.
Stewart and Abigail are perhaps two of Joe’s most pivotal relationships. Several key moments come when they both show not only how much they understand him, as well as what drives him, but also their acceptance of the contradiction of his public figure and private life. This understanding and acceptance comes even though they often disagree with his passionate defense of the war as well as his methods of squashing the dissenting views of fellow journalists. Both Goss and Meredith play their roles with such depth and nuance that it’s easy to feel their characters’ compassion for such a complex man.
The ability of Auburn to delve so deeply into these relationships and to keep the plot moving at the fast pace of an intriguing spy novel is impressive. Also, very impressive and effective is the staging and the way several of the more dramatic moments are highlighted, especially during transitions. After several poignant and emotional scenes, having Joe stand in a single spotlight as the darkened set changes behind him is a powerful effect, and whether intended or not, is a reflection of the often-tumultuous changes happening in his life.
The creative team for The Columnist: Joe Schermoly (scenic design), Christopher J. Neville (costume design), Jared Gooding (lighting design), Christopher Kriz (original music and sound design), Alec Long (props design), Sarah E. Ross (production manager), Eva Breneman (dialect coach), Sara Illiatovitch-Goldman (dramaturg), and Dana M. Nestrick (stage manager), does an amazing job of enhancing an already powerful script and showcasing as Joe says: “human intercourse at its sublimely ridiculous.”
American Blues Theater’s The Columnist runs through April 1, 2017, at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont. Tickets are available in online at americanbluestheater.com.
In 1931 nine African American teenagers were wrongly accused of raping two white women while aboard a freight train in Alabama. Worried they might get imprisoned for prostitution while traveling aboard the same train, Victoria Price and Ruby Bates quickly cried rape, diverting the attention rather to the handful of innocent boys. These nine boys became known as The Scottsboro Boys, growing more and more infamy as their many trials became public interest throughout the nation. Fighting through Southern angry mobs, an all-white jury and a trial that was hastened, the nine boys were quickly convicted and sentenced to death by hanging. As word spread of the prejudice demonstrated, Northerners eventually stepped in to see that such a miscarriage of justice be overturned, but that was just the beginning of a process clouded by an ugly and unjust preconception. The uphill fight was long and grueling and successes were slow in the making. The story, superbly performed by Porchlight Music Theatre, is remarkable, sad and hopeful.
Written by David Thompson and directed by Samuel G. Roberson, “The Scottsboro Boys” is a controversial musical, now making its debut in Chicago after Broadway and London runs, and is the last featuring the music and lyrics of John Kander and Fred Ebb, mostly known for their triumphant smash hits “Chicago” and “Cabaret”. The story, a compelling and emotional ride through the racist South is a painful lesson of our nation’s dark history and serves as a stark reminder that change for a better world must never be ignored as we move forward as a unified people.
Throughout the musical’s duration, we see an image of a pained Rosa Parks (Cynthia Clarey) who plays witness to the injustices that take place. Though her stand wouldn’t take place until years later, we see the effect such a stirring account would have on approaching generations. Sad as this tragic story as such is, we feel hope for the future by the play’s end and a realization for the work that still needs to be done.
“This is a story that needs to be told,” says Mark J.P. Hood who stars as Mr. Tambo.
The nearly all African American cast delivers several all-around brilliant performances, doling out tremendous vocal harmony efforts, powerful acting and dance numbers that are both inventive and energetic. Currently running at Stage 773, a mid-sized theatre, the only drawback is that it is easy to envision the musical preformed on a larger stage, sometimes routines appearing a bit crowded. Still, that’s a very small drawback, because the play’s director is able to utilize its given space to maximize this Broadway-sized show effectively, moving boxcars and all.
Denzel Tsopnang and Mark J.P. Hood lead this gifted ensemble along with James Earl Jones II with commanding acting performances that would be hard to beat. The Scottsboro Boys is a real showcase for both Tsopnang and Hood, who flex their versatility while taking on a handful of roles. Veteran actor Larry Yondo, most recently known for his spot-on portrayal of Ebenezer Scrooge in Goodman’s “A Christmas Carol”, also puts forth yet another admirable effort as The Interlocutor. With several beautiful vocal harmonies that sweep the house with robust sentiment, it is perhaps “Go Back Home”, a pivotal number that relates to those longing to find peace passionately led by Jones II, that will truly resonate with theatre goers long after the show. Though the vocal finesse is abundant throughout, fourteen-year-old Cameron Goode and Stephen Allen Jr. somehow find room to dazzle us even more.
As jaw dropping as many of the numbers are in their performance, the audience often finds reluctance in their clapping, the weight of the subject matter almost seemingly inappropriate to applaud. But it is in these performances that the story is told so well. A handful of poignant casting twists take place as the white policemen and the woman accusers are played by African Americans.
“The Scottsboro Boys” is a highly recommended theatre experience, both exceptional in its performance and its ever-important message. Wonderfully staged, acted and sung, this is a thoroughly entertaining production that will invoke much thought, inspire bravery and encourage action to be taken long afterwards.
“The Scottsboro Boys” is being performed at Stage 773 through March 12th. For tickets and/or more show information click here.
To say Judy Garland led a tumultuous life is an understatement. In a way, she was the mid-century equivalent of Amy Winehouse. A once brilliant, and at times triumphant star who faded out much too soon. Maybe some will only remember Judy as Dorothy Gale, but in her short career Judy was an international phenomenon. Her dependence on prescription pills and alcohol created a tortured existence of financial and emotional instability. Judy Garland died of a drug overdose in 1969. Her New York City funeral is often considered the catalyst of the Stonewall Riots.
There have been several TV specials, documentaries, and movies made about Judy's life. Some better than others. A small West End show, "The End of the Rainbow" about the final months of Garland's life became a smash hit in 2010. A huge part of the show's success was star Tracie Bennett's uncanny likeness to Judy. Bennett and "Rainbow" transferred to Broadway in 2012.
This show is popular right now in regional productions, but Porchlight Music Theatre's production is the Chicago premiere. Playing Judy is Angela Ingersoll. Under the direction of Michael Webber, Ingersoll turns in a tour de force. She's wise not to veer into impression and makes definitive choices for her Judy, focusing on character rather than accuracy. Though, she really brings it home in the cabaret-style musical sequences. She captures Judy's intimate performance techniques that make an audience feel warm.
The book by Peter Quilter is more of a dramatic play than musical, but the songs are all selected from Judy's regular repertoire. Quilter's script is a well-rounded account of Judy's life almost entirely composed of actual quotes and first hand accounts from her life. Judy's demise is an unpleasant story and "The End of the Rainbow" covers it without getting morbid or tabloid.
Porchlight's production of "End of the Rainbow" starring Angela Ingersoll is a deeply moving account of the hidden side of show business. It's also a bittersweet tribute to one of Hollywood's biggest legends. For Garland fans young and old, this show is not to be missed.
Through December 9th at Stage 773. 1225 W Belmont Ave. 773-327-5252
I thoroughly enjoyed this Hell in a Handbag Production starring the divine Caitlin Jackson, as the “Divine Miss M”, Bette Midler. The show takes us to the early days of Midler's career playing for gay audiences at the Continental baths for two years before her album, The Divine Miss M was released.
Back in 1987 when I moved to New York after college I actually lived in The Ansonia for four years, a pre- war luxury building on New York's upper west side. I heard about the history of the building which included an entire circus complete with live elephants at one time living in the penthouse, and always wished I could have lived there in its heyday, when The Continental Baths was a gay bathhouse in the basement of The Ansonia Hotel, which was opened in 1968 by Steve Ostrow.
The features of this bathhouse included a disco dance floor, a cabaret lounge, sauna rooms, a narrow "Olympia Blue" swimming pool, bunk beds in public areas, and tiny rooms as one would find in any bathhouse. The facility had the capacity to serve nearly 1,000 men, 24 hours a day.
Jackson's MC, played adorably by Chad, mentions just a few of the features of the bathhouse like a vending machine which dispensed among other things KY Jelly, and a warning system that tipped off patrons when police arrived. He also points out an STD clinic, a supply of a lice-killing shampoo in the showers and how the hetero general public discovered the great shows going on underground and “ruined the scene". The baths were advertised as reminiscent of "the glory of ancient Rome".
Caitlin Jackson really captures the outrageous, open-minded spirit of Bette Midler. Most importantly though Jackson has the voice to really do justice to Midler’s renditions of “Superstar”, “Chattanooga Choo Choo”, and a sexy, bawdy cover of Bessie Smith’s “Empty Bed Blues”. Jackson also shines in her performances of “Chapel of Love”, “Hey Mambo” and delivered a heart wrenching, yet uplifting, “You Gotta Have Friends”.
Few people know that Barry Manilow was Bette Midler's accompanist during these years. Talk about two superstars finding each other at the right time! Jeremy Ramey as Barry Manilow is hysterical and really gets some great laughs as he plays the piano and captures the talented artist’s well known panache and flash.
The show is filled out with the MC and two cutie pie twinks clad only in white towels the entire show played by TJ Crawford and Will Wilhelm. Although they are the author's invention they seem perfectly part of the show, giving Bette (Jackson) time to change in and out of her glamorous bosom enhancing outfits for number after great number.
I really have to hand it to Caitlin Jackson, whose voice is capable of hitting Midler's high and low notes with seeming ease. Jackson also does her best in this slightly short production (1 hour 15 minutes with one intermission) to convey Bette Midler's HUGE personality and deeply penetrating sense of loneliness and compassion for the “cast outs” of the world - the ones "waiting on the corner for their friends to return."
Even if the songs were not actually part of Midler's bath house days, I left yearning to hear more, simply because Caitlin Jackson's voice was such a JOY to listen to and her face a wonderful mirror of Bette Midler's enthusiasm for life and love of the gay community without ever becoming a caricature.
Bette, Live at the Continental Baths is being performed at Stage 773 through September 10th. More show info can be found at www.stage773.com.
In this thoroughly entertaining and delightfully warm, bright and colorful production of Mary Poppins at Stage 773, NightBlue Performing Arts Company fully (and very creatively) utilizes their intimate stage area to bring this fascinating, feel-good family classic to life. Whether it be a well-choreographed dance number, a scene where Mary Poppins gracefully flies from side to side or just another busy day at the park, NightBlue creatively uses every nook and cranny in the Stage 773 space, making audience members forget they are sitting in a theatre that holds less than 150 people, in fact making the production a much more intimate experience without losing the grandness of the show.
Now, fifty-two years after the release of the classic Disney film starring Dick Van Dyke and Julie Andrews comes this new heartwarming and spectacular production directed beautifully by Artistic Director David E. Walters.
A family is in distress, the children are spoiled and bored, troublesome, the mother is neglected and ineffectual, the father is cold and overworked and he is still reeling psychologically from the beatings he received as a child from his mean nanny, Miss Andrew, a.k.a. The Holy Terror. The family has gone through one nanny after another, none sticking around for very long. It has nearly become a lost cause.
The children write a list of the qualities they need in their new nanny and much like writing to Santa Claus they ask that she be kind, care about them, give them candy and be rosy cheeked and pretty to look at. The father quickly dismisses the written ad, tears it up and tosses it into the fireplace. Not long after, Mary Poppins appears quite magically at their door ready for work. She quickly qualifies herself as the children’s wish come true with the charming number “Practically Perfect”.
Mary Poppins has true mystical powers that she uses to transform the children. A game she plays called “walk in the park” shows them the wonder of simple things from being out in nature. The simple, yet joyfully magical “walk in the park” also introduces the children to the concepts of accepting others of lower social standing like the chimney sweeps, and the soulful benefits of giving to the poor and feeding animals in the park.
Mary helps the mother realize her importance in the world that gives her the confidence and romantic enjoyment of life again. Mary also helps the father by showing him that his childhood nanny did not empower him with her brutal way of pointing out the worst and punishing him for every action. In the end he chooses putting the moment by moment happiness of himself and his family members first, before work and money no matter what the outcome and this personal rebellion ends up saving both his family and his career.
Even the archetypes of the “Old Crone Mother Mary” are honored here as the audience realizes that without the lessons taught by the old beggar woman feeding birds in the park and the mean old childhood nanny that none of these cathartic transformations into “good” living and happiness would ever have occurred.
No matter how good the costumes, set, musical direction and choreography, it would not be possible to pull off a successful production without correctly casting Mary Poppins. Not to worry, as Kyrie Anderson is flawless in the role. Just wonderful as Mary Poppins, Anderson sings beautifully and has the cool, perfect beauty that radiates the confidence and magic that justifies her introductory song, “Practically Perfect (I Am Perfect in Every Way!)”.
You also want a Bert than can dance, sing and radiate his love and curiosity for life as we’ve been so spoiled by Dick Van Dyke in the role. Ryan Dooley is convincing as Bert, likeable and charming as he whimsically interacts with Mary and the children and delivers some fancy footwork of his own.
Caron Buinis who plays the multiple roles, most notably that of the mean nanny Miss Andrew, is outstanding. Buinis is nearly unrecognizable when she switches roles and has a fabulous, funny dry delivery as Miss Andrew that gets some of the biggest laughs in the show.
The family is well-rounded with rock-solid performances from both Joseph Smith (Mr. Banks) and MacKenzie Skye (Mrs. Banks). Sage Harper and Liam Dahlborn who play the children were also very good in their roles - not too sugary sweet or precocious – just the right amount of each when needed. Both children had a good sense of comic timing and contributed nicely with their pleasant singing voices.
Kevin Bellie’s choreography is exciting and uplifting. The big numbers really dazzle the eye and convey the magical quality of Mary Poppins’ spell while trying to help this lovely family. But be warned - the catchy, infectious show tunes such as “Step in Time”, “A Spoonful of Sugar” and “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” will most likely be running through your head over the next couple of days. You might even be talking in a Cockney accent for a while.
The staging and costume design have some true surprises for the audience that I will not reveal so as not to spoil the effect. The magic of the film is really captured through unique lighting, makeup effects and the backdrop screen, which really helps in setting up scenes with its giant projections. The creative team’s costume design is superb, stylish and expressive with magnificent Victorian period lines and rich colors in every scene.
I highly recommend seeing this heartwarming and spectacular production of “Mary Poppins” for your entire family to enjoy and learn from together! It’s always nice to see theatre designed for all ages taking place in Chicago’s local and more intimate venues, so families should take advantage while they can. “Mary Poppins” is playing at Stage 773 through March 27th. For tickets and/or more information call (847) 634-0200 or tickets and/or more information visit www.NightBlueTheatrer.com or www.Stage773.com.
This excellent stage production of the 2013 musical Far from Heaven was based on Todd Haynes‘ 2002 motion picture of the same name.
Far from Heaven is set in 1957 Hartford, Connecticut, well before the advent of the sexual revolution. Cathy Whitaker played by Summer Naomi Smart discovers that her handsome, successful businessman husband Frank is having affairs - with other men! Frank was played very well and very selfishly - if not compassionately - towards his wife whose world is crushed unexpectedly by actor Brandon Springman.
After a time of trying to convert her husband back to heterosexuality by a psychologist, Cathy and her husband realize the emptiness and futility of their sexless and coldly critical relationship continuing just for the sake of the children.
Cathy's new gardener and widowed single father of a ten-year-old daughter, Raymond Deagan (Evan Tyrone Martin), becomes her friend and the scandal of her own life in spite of their necessarily platonic enjoyment of each other's company.
Evan Tyrone Martin has a wonderful rich smooth voice, arguably the best in the show and a nice natural quality to his acting. Summer Naomi Smart is stunning to look at as the real life "Stepford Wife" whose world comes crashing down when she tries to surprise visit her husband on a night he is "working late again" and gets the shock of her life when she finds him in the office in the arms of another man.
I've seen Ms. Smart in many musical comedies but this is the first time I have seen her really let loose in a dark way, especially in the scene when she confronts her husband about his homosexual affairs and lets out a terrifying and mournful wail that truly came from deep inside her character’s psyche. It was nice to see her tackle then take the reigns on this multi-dimensional role.
Grant Saban‘s set seemed too much like a doll house to me, very one dimensional in color and shapes but perhaps that was intentional in terms of the subtext of the repressive 1950's. However, William Morey‘s gorgeous period costumes, which reminded me of a cross between Lucille Ball and Mary Tyler Moore's beautifully tailored and colorfully designed outfits in their respective series, brought the whole set to life.
Bri Sudia‘s performance is rich and dynamic as Cathy’s best friend Eleanor, who is very sympathetic about the sexless and lovlessness of Cathy's picture perfect marriage yet deserts her best friend over the issue of an interracial friendship. All of the supporting characters and girlfriends of Cathy Whitaker in this production do an excellent job in their respective roles and deliver as many ironic laughs as possible with subject matter that really is just a lot of sad statements about the wasted loves of many marriages in the fifties - marriages, which were built on lies and social and financial convenience rather than genuine love and real sexual attraction.
Turning this subject matter into a musical may have made it more fun and palatable, but also detracted from the seriousness and tragedy of a woman who has given birth to two children and ends up totally alone, a single mother in the fifties, because of years and years of lies from a man who was supposed to be her best friend and true love. Yet the accompaniment of a great live orchestra really brings this sometimes somber score to life when needed.
Finely directed by Chuck Larkin, Porchlight Musical Theatre's Far from Heaven is playing at Stage 773 through March 13th. For more show information on this absorbing and well-pieced-together production, visit www.prochlightmusictheatre.org.
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