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John Accrocco

John Accrocco

Thursday, 15 December 2016 12:04

Review: Joffrey's Nutcracker

There's nothing more cloying than an evening of bad holiday theatre. Each December countless Chicago theaters put up their annual Christmas shows. Some are better than others. For a reliable standard, Joffrey Ballet's "Nutcracker" is a safe bet.

 

For 2016, Joffrey presents an entirely new version of the classic Tchaikovsky ballet. Conceived by English choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, this new production is sleek and tailor-made for Chicago. An interesting variation on ETA Hoffman's original Russian fairy tale. In this version, Marie is from a working class family and it's set during the construction of the Chicago World's Fair. The dance sequences in the second act are Clara's dreams of what the Columbian Exposition will hold. Wheeldon's aesthetic borrows from holiday favorites like "A Christmas Carol" and "Meet Me in St. Louis" Sets by Julian Crouch combine the classic imagery of the original and newer conventions like projections. Accompanied by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, this "Nutcracker" is a little more grown up than the pastel versions you might remember.

 

The talent will be of no surprise to Joffrey regulars. Dancing the part of Marie is Amanda Assucena. Her performance portrays the lead character with a more teenage curiosity about romance. Miguel Angel Blanco dances a variation of Uncle Drosselmeyer, otherwise known as the Impresario of the Fair. It's playful and a little creepy. In the dream sequence, Christine Rocas and Fabrice Calmels turn up the heat as the Arabian Dancers. Wheeldon's choreography creates quite a spectacle and the large cast sequences are magical.

 

For those bored with run-of-the-mill "Nutcrackers" (a dime-a-dozen this time of year), this brand new production at The Joffrey will leave an impression. It's refreshing to see a local cultural institution take what they know works and turning it on its head. If only more of Chicago's tried and true holiday shows would take the same path, maybe we wouldn't dread them so much.

 

Through December 30th at Joffrey Ballet. 50 East Congress Parkway. 

 

 

Underscore Theatre and Harborside Films hearkens back to a simpler time, when the biggest national tragedy was a young Olympic figure skater getting clubbed in the knees. The year was 1994 and the world couldn't get enough of Tonya Harding versus Nancy Kerrigan. Some twenty-two years later, this scandal is ripe fodder for a campy rock opera. 

 

Written by Elizabeth Searle and Michael Teoli, "Tonya and Nancy" is exactly what it sounds like. A sharp, 90 minute campfest akin to "Mommie Dearest." There's no dressing this up as anything other than satire. It almost feels like an extended SNL sketch, but that's not to say it's not interesting. It's questionable how much of this skate tale is true, but it certainly serves to humanize both Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan. 

 

Since this is billed as a rock opera, the soaring vocals make good sense. In the role of wrong-side-of-the-tracks Tonya Harding is Amanda Horvath, and she lands it well. Despite everything, Horvath's performance gives Harding some extra layers. She's also hilarious. Courtney Mack co-stars as Nancy Kerrigan. Mack also has a tremendously strong voice and it comes across in such campy songs as "Why Me?" While the show may be about two figure skaters, Veronica Garza actually steals the show playing dual-characters, Tonya and Nancy's moms. She seems to relish in playing Tonya Harding's down-on-her-luck mom, and the audience eats her spot-on accents right up. Garza also has an impressive voice. 

 

Director Jon Martinez's choreography stands out as a high point in a show about ice skating that doesn't actually feature any ice skating. It's almost a surprise to see so many group dance numbers in a small space. In fact, the show features ensemble members in a perpetual state of motion which adds a nice visual element. It pairs well with all the lyrcra costuming, which reminisces of a thankfully bygone era. 

 

For those entering this fray with some skepticism, approach this work with confidence. "Tonya and Nancy" is highly polished and well-staged. There's some real potential here. The show may be a little crowded with solos, but otherwise this is a solid script. It's always fun to see a new musical in its debut production. 

 

Through December 30th at Theatre Wit 1229 W Belmont Ave. 773-975-8150.

 

 

 

In 2002, About Face Theater company debuted Doug Wright's play "I Am My Own Wife." It opened on Broadway in 2004, and won both the Pulitzer Prize as well as the Tony award for Best New Play. About Face Theater and director Andrew Volkoff revisit the play twelve years later in an eerily relevant political climate. In it, Wright tells the story of the time he spent in Berlin with Charlotte von Mahlsdorf during the early '90s.

 

Mahlsdorf was the subject of international fame after publishing her autobiography and being awarded the Bundesverdienstkreuz by the German government. Charlotte von Mahlsdorf established The Grunderzeit museum, it housed her collection of historical items spanning decades of German history. Her most unique attribute is that she was a transvestite and managed to survive the nazis and the communists.

 

Playwright Doug Wright turned his interview notes into a mostly one-woman show. His character is played here by Scott Duff and functions as the narrator. Charlotte is portrayed by real life transgender actress Delia Kropp. In little stories about the antiques in her museum, Charlotte reveals more about herself. During both authoritarian regimes, gay people were persecuted. Each item is in some way connected to preserving the history of Germany's lgbt community.

 

Volkoff's production is sleek and well dressed. The lighting design by John Kelly adds a nice dimension to this otherwise minimal staging. Delia Kropp gives a fascinating performance. Charlotte labeled herself as a transvestite and never opted for sexual reassignment surgery. Delia portrays her with soft androgyny. Kropp's authenticity in voice and mannerism is striking. Her lengthy passages of monologue illuminate the imagination.

 

It's by no accident About Face selected "I Am My Own Wife" for their season. As the political tides turn, some lgbt communities are worried their legitimacy may be less certain. Doug Wright's play about Charlotte von Mahlsdorf is a reassuring testament to everyday heros. As his character says in the play, "I need to believe this."

 

Through December 10th at Theater Wit - 1229 W Belmont. 773-975-8150.

 

Wednesday, 09 November 2016 23:56

Review: Porchlight's "End of the Rainbow"

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

 



 

Sunday, 16 October 2016 13:43

Review: The Trump Card at Theater Wit

"Atlantic City is like a real life, 3D Bruce Springsteen song, and not one of the good ones. Something off Nebraska," controversial monologist Mike Daisey waxes in his new show "The Trump Card." Daisey, a master storyteller, made a splash in 2010 when his Apple expose "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs" aired on This American Life. It remains the most downloaded episode in the show's history. It was retracted two months later when NPR discovered that some of the details had been fabricated. For some performers, this sort of public shame would be crippling. Daisey apologized and has moved on. 

 

As with his other works, "The Trump Card" positions Daisey at a long table against a black drop, on an otherwise empty stage. He occasionally reads his near two-and-a-half hour rant about Donald Trump, punctuating by wiping the sweat from his brow. Daisey fluctuates between an oral history of Trump, and his own commentary on the Republican nominee's troubled campaign. The genius of his monologue is how quickly he's able to include new and awful facts that seem to be bleeding out of the campaign everyday. While Daisey's contempt of Donald Trump is palpable, he doesn't shy away from skewering his smug liberal audience. He shifts in and out of the narrative, finding pit-stops and inventive metaphors along the way. 

 

Daisey holds his satire of the GOP candidate to a more intellectual standard than Alec Baldwin on SNL. Rather than bemoan what we've come to accept as normal, Daisey makes a case for the average Trump supporter. He even lectures the "American theater-going audience" for their elitism. He paints a somewhat bleak picture of the electorate, but that doesn't stop the laugh-a-minute jokes of this not-to-be-missed performance. "The Trump Card" is an illuminating and frightening look at how even if Trump loses, the conditions that made his candidacy possible will remain. Actors Elizabeth Ledo, Joe Foust and Steven Strafford will host a special Election Night performance here in Chicago where they will be performing parts of Daisey's monologues. 

 

Election Night encore November 8th at Theater Wit. 1229 W Belmont Ave. 773-975-8150. 

 

 

 

 

 

Friday, 16 September 2016 16:17

Review: Shattered Globe's "True West"

In a Sam Shepard play, rarely are things what they seem. His 1980 play "True West" is no exception. Under the direction of James Yost, Shattered Globe Theatre tackles this modern classic. "True West" is often considered part of a family saga by Shepard that includes his 1979 Pulitzer Prize winner "Buried Child." 

 

Austin and Lee are two brothers who couldn't be more different. Austin (Kevin Viol) is an upstanding writerly type who we first meet hunched over a typewriter in his mother's kitchen. Lee (Joseph Wiens) is his hulking older brother with a checkered past. Austin is working on a script in his mother's house while she's on vacation. Hoping for some peace and quiet, he's interrupted by Lee whom he hasn't seen in five years. Over the course of Act I, we watch as Lee and Austin battle for superiority through frustratingly inane questions. The moment of reckoning comes when Lee highjacks Austin's meeting with an important Hollywood executive. 

 

What the play points to in American culture is that bullies win. Bullies get what they want and being a polite makes you weak. This theme couldn't be more relevant as we look to a certain unpresidential candidate running for president this year. No matter how much evolution we have to the contrary, human nature is that the strongest eat first. Austin and Lee can be interpreted as two parts of the same mind. Shepard often opines on the perception of masculinity. "True West" explores the duality we all possess. 

 

There's a special place in Chicago's theater community for "True West." It was one of the first out-of-town successes of a then fledgling theater company, The Steppenwolf. Gary Sinese and John Malkovich starred in the principal roles. It transferred off-Broadway in 1984 and helped establish The Steppenwolf as one of the best regional theaters in America. 

 

Director James Yost's vision for this show is faithful. The set by Greg Pinsoneault drops us right into 1980. Sarah Jo White's costumes are also very authentic. Performances are this production's strongest asset. Kevin Viol's breakdown between Act I and II is hilarious. While Joseph Weins' character stays mostly static throughout the play, his commitment to the grossness of extreme masculinity echos Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalksi. Shattered Globe's production of "True West" shows their knack for bringing topical themes to classic works. 

 

Through Oct 22nd. Shattered Globe Theatre. 1229 W Belmont Ave. www.theaterwit.com

 

 

Wednesday, 27 July 2016 11:42

Review: Byhalia, Mississippi at Steppenwolf

Earlier this year, The New Colony in collaboration with Definition Theatre, produced a smash hit called 'Byhalia, Mississippi.' The New Colony has done a great deal to insert themselves into the Chicago theater landscape over the past few years. Some of their work has even appeared off-Broadway, as was the case with their acclaimed show 'Five Lesbians Eating a Quiche.' What the New Colony is perhaps best known for is their commitment to taking chances on quirky new work from emerging playwrights. 

 

'Byhalia, Mississippi' is about one of the most 'Jerry Springer' scenarios you can imagine. A married white woman, Laurel (Liz Sharpe), gives birth to a black baby in the rural deep south. What could easily descend into a hillbilly soap opera is heightened by a strong theme on the way seemingly decent people handle race. Performances run strong in 'Byhalia, Mississippi' in particular Celeste Wingate as Laurel's mother and Kiki Layne as her childhood best friend. It has a sharp sense of humor when it needs to, but also enough structure in place to carry its complex ideas. 

 

This new play by New Colony artistic director Evan Linder has some serious legs. After a sold-out run at The Den, 'Byhalia, Mississippi' is now being put up at one of Chicago's most esteemed and visible houses. It will certainly be noticed. While a certain degree of cheekiness runs throughout, the playwright is careful not to make his characters cartoonish. There are a few juvenile moments that tend to stick out like a sore thumb, but in time, some of that roughness will surely be smoothed out. This is not a play about infidelity. This is a play about the way people in some parts of America handle race and gender. To that end, this play couldn’t be more relevant. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see 'Byhalia, Mississippi' mounted in New York some time soon. 

 

Through August 21st at Steppenwolf Theater, 1650 N Halsted St. 312-335-1650

 

It’s not often a theatre company tackles two Pulitzer Prize winning plays in one season, but Steppenwolf is doing just that. While you may grow a long white beard waiting to see the 2016 winner, "Hamilton," Steppenwolf has 2014 and 2015 covered with "The Flick" and "Between Riverside and Crazy." Playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis' work was last seen at the Steppenwolf in 2012 with "The Motherf@cker with the Hat." He won the 2015 Pulitzer for "Between Riverside and Crazy." 

 

"Between Riverside and Crazy" is largely similar to "The Motherf@cker with the Hat," in that it deals with issues of addiction and inequality. "Riverside" tells the story of Walter (Eamonn Walker) who's a retired cop with one of the last rent controlled apartments in a nice part of Manhattan. The catch is that he's hopelessly waiting for a settlement from the city because he was shot by another officer. Walter, or Pops, as he's called has a habit of taking in degenerates and trying to nurse them back to health. He forgives people of their sins and keeps company with thieves and whores, sound familiar? 

 

Guirgis' play couldn't come about at a more topical time. Though, when thinking of an ethics tale about a police shooting, most would have a different notion of how the author would address issues of race. Guirgis is unflinchingly realistic, with the point being that nobody is perfect. The space between right and wrong seems to be too narrow for this play, as are most instances in life. What he does well is set characters up to appear one way, only to cynically devolve into what we're conditioned to assume. 

 

Eamonn Walker impeccably leads this top-notch cast. He's able to embody the grizzled, but lovable character in such a natural way you'd think you've known him forever. Audrey Francis also stands out in her performance as Walter's former beat partner. She plays an unlikeable character with such sincerity that you almost forget she's not really on Walter's side. Lily Mojekwu is one of the show's best hidden gems. Her character, Church Lady, doesn’t enter until well into the second act, but her narrative propels the story to its conclusion. She's another character you want to trust, but if you've been in the real world long enough, you know better. 

 

Yasen Peyankov's production of "Between Riverside and Crazy" is a slow building, but highly rewarding theatre experience on the same level as "Clybourn Park." Good for the Steppenwolf for forcing unpleasant issues in the face of middle class audiences. While some may leave the theater feeling as if their world views are affirmed, others will leave questioning their own morals. 

 

Through August 21st at Steppenwolf Theatre. 1650 N Halsted St. 312-335-1650

 

"It's a wicked book," Steinbeck once said of his Pulitzer Prize winning novel "The Grapes of Wrath". The seminole book about the Great Depression appeared in early 1939, just as the U.S. was clawing its way out of the trenches of poverty and into the boon of WWII. It tells the story of the Joads, an average American family pushed off their land, who seek migrant labor in the mythical Eden of California. 

 

In 1988, a still fledgling Steppenwolf Theatre Company adapted the epic novel for the stage. The play was a huge hit and soon transferred to Broadway where it went on to win the Tony award for Best Play. The adapter, Frank Galati has since adapted a few other novels for Steppenwolf, including "East of Eden" in 2015. 

 

Under the direction of Erica Weiss, The Gift Theatre revives this now classic play. Weiss' production is about big choices. Color-blind casting of the play's lead, Tom Joad, makes for dynamic monologues that dig a little deeper than perhaps what even Steinbeck had in mind. Other choices, like adding in a homoerotic plotline, seem a bit more random.

 

That said, performances among this giant cast are strong. When fully assembled, there are about as many people on stage as in the audience. In the role of disgraced Reverend Jim Casy is Jerre Dye. His performance as a man struggling with faith in godless times is one of the show's greatest revelations. Other standout performances include Kona N. Burks as Ma Joad and Alexandra Main portraying a sundry of characters.  

 

"The Grapes of Wrath" is one of those stories that's just downright unpleasant. The novel is structured in a way that sheds light on the Great Depression in a general sense and then doubles back to show the Joad's individual struggle. You find yourself hoping that this family will avoid the pitfalls set before them. You almost wish nothing good would ever happen to the Joads because a few scenes later, it'll be ripped away from them. It remains relevant some 75 years later because what Steinbeck (and Galati) are presenting is a damning indictment of American ideals that have yet to change. 

 

Through August 14th at The Gift Theatre. 4802 N Milwaukee Ave. 773-283-7071

 

Wednesday, 08 June 2016 14:09

Review: Xanadu at American Theater Company

Last year the Chicago theatre community lost a major piece of its landscape. Longtime American Theater Company artistic director PJ Paparelli died abruptly before solidifying the company's thirty-first season. It's almost ironic that a man responsible for bringing so many uncomfortably topical dramas to the Chicago stage had such a soft spot for "Xanadu." As a tribute to the late Paparelli, ATC concludes their thirty-first season with this campy roller disco musical. 

 

For most, "Xanadu" is among the worst movies ever made. In 1980, still riding high on her "Grease" fame, Olivia Newton John was cast as Zeus' favorite muse sent to Venice Beach, California to help struggling street artist Sonny Malone achieve his destiny of opening a roller disco. The film also featured an aged Gene Kelly. Though the movie was an overwhelming flop, the soundtrack by Electric Light Orchestra and John Fahrer was a huge hit. 

 

In 2008, Broadway producers decided to satirize the now cult classic as a stage musical. Initial reviews were favorable and it even had a short engagement in Chicago. Unfortunately, due to the recession, "Xanadu" didn't last long, but is now enjoying great popularity in regional theaters. 

 

Somehow American Theater Company and director Lili-Anne Brown are able to make their "Xanadu" more significant than what's at the surface. There's no shortage of comedic gold in this cast of young faces, but what lingers are the incredible group numbers that fill the intimate garage space. This "Xanadu" has so much life that you can almost forget the source material. In the lead role of Clio, or Kira, is Landree Fleming who takes this role in a sketch comedy direction that turns out to be ripe with goofy humor. Jim DeSelm co-stars as Sonny Malone and is not only nice to look at, but he can really belt. 

 

Lili-Anne Brown's ensemble of sister muses fills out this energetic cast and each provide stand-out performances, even if their character names and motives are somewhat arbitrary. The cast looks like they're having a lot of fun together and it's contagious throughout the 90-minute run-time. Even the band, which in some musicals can seem disconnected, are joining in the fun. "Xanadu" at American Theater Company is a high-octane good time and a really fitting tribute to one of Chicago's most groundbreaking theatre artists. 

 

Through July 17th at American Theater Company. 1909 W Byron Street. 773-409-4125.

 

 

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