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Kimberly Katz

Kimberly Katz

I was expecting a great work of art from David Rabe, the American Tony Award-winning playwright, screenwriter and author, famous for his Vietnam trilogy (“Sticks and Bones”, “The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel”, “Streamers”), as well as other notable plays, like “Hurlyburly” and “In the Boom Boom Room”. I was not disappointed.

 

In “Good for Otto”, Artistic Director Michael Patrick Thornton does a fantastic job directing this three hour long presentation, which literally squeezed actors into every nook and cranny of his tiny but acclaimed stage at The Gift Theatre in Jefferson Park. 

 

David Rabe's writing is so enchanting, so spacious, and much like prose poetry at times that it lulls the audience into a type of trance which makes it possible to watch your own demons and thoughts even as the play is unfolding before you. 

 

Rabe tackles just about every aspect of mental health care including the maddening difficulty of getting treatment at all from insurance companies in this country!

 

Good for Otto is set in a small town based on the Northwest Center for Family Services and Mental Health in Torrington, Connecticut, where the psychotherapist Richard O'Connor worked and whose work, "Undoing Depression," is the main inspiration for the characters in this play.

 

Whether your problem is growing old and depressed in your 70's or cutting yourself at the age of 12, or even reliving your own mother's suicide when you were nine (which the psychologist/ narrator struggles with), Rabe shows that life can't just "go on as usual" unless you actually receive and accept professional help. 

 

Yes, the play is still in a type of workshop phase partly because Rabe's writing is all so lush, so poetic I can see where he is having trouble cutting any of it, yet it needs cuts because some of the minor characters just end up floating around, unfulfilled and confusing in what should be a cannonball of a play on the lifelong importance of treating mental illness - instead of a shotgun which scatters these powerful messages like buckshot. 

 

The entire fifteen member ensemble cast did a great job with a couple standouts. 

 

The beautifully sensitive and expressive twelve-year-old named Frannie and played by Caroline Heffernan was a very heartfelt yet real performance from someone so young. 

 

The other character who both made the audience laugh the most yet at the same time made all of us young, or old and in between, feel the genuine pit and hopelessness of geriatric depression came from Rob Riley.

 

The scene where the psychologist argues with an ice cold double talking insurance rep who flatly denies his multiple urgent requests for one on one treatment for a suicidal child is so common and written in way so true to life it actually sickened me. 

 

Given the fact that so many mentally ill people are now taking their illness to the street and killing innocent people time and time again in this country just shows that we have got to stop making it so difficult to get therapy. After all, therapy is cheap. It doesn't involve multi-million dollar machinery. It's just two people or a group of people talking it out, encouraging each other to keep on living in this crazy world. 

 

It was a great honor for David Rabe to choose both Chicago and The Gift Theater for the first staging of this very important and empowering play. I look forward to seeing it in its polished and more laser-like form here in Chicago again or on Broadway in the near future. 

 

“Good for Otto” is being performed at The Gift Theatre through November 22nd. For tickets and more show information visit www.thegifttheatre.org. 

 

Neil Simon's "Barefoot in the Park" is one of my favorite comedies. 

 

Simon so perfectly captures the dynamics of a new couple moving in together as newlyweds and the pressures that begin to erode or test their love as soon as they move in. Cory and Paul's lack of money for a proper New York apartment presents all sorts of great comedy as they end up in a sixth floor walk up with a hole in the skylight and no heat or bathtub in the dead of winter.

 

Alex Fisher, as the young bride has a great frenetic and appropriately sexy, horny energy as she is faced with challenge after challenge to please her new husband who is a temporarily broke new lawyer. 

 

Colin Sphar, as her husband is funny in places but by the time he gets to his drunk scene, which has a lot of good physical comedy in it by him, we hear a full out lisp in his portrayal that distracts from his performance. The kissing and hugging chemistry between these two is not as white hot as you'd expect in roles that were originally played in the film by super sexy Jane Fonda and Robert Redford. 

 

The scene-stealers in this production turn out to be in the two mature character actors Sarah Minton, as Cory's aging but game for anything single mother and their upstairs, crazy neighbor played by Michael Pascas. 

 

Minton and Pascas are so good at their comic timing and so full of rich character and chemistry we ended up rooting for them to get together more than we were hoping for Cory and Paul, the leads, to STAY together. 

 

Also, Randolph Johnson, as the ATT phone installer, has an adorable, compassionate, calming quality that helps ground the piece every time he enters the scene.

 

The set design is great, with each part of the aging apartment clearly visible and very realistic.

 

Overall the play, which is long and includes two ten minute intermissions, has a lot of good energy and fun, especially if you grew up back in the day when the new wife was supposed to make everything nice and happy at home while the new husband goes out into the world to have all the fun and challenge of a real job.

 

“Barefoot in the Park” is being performed at The Athenaeum through November 1st. For tickets, performance times and other show info, visit www.athenaeumtheatre.org.  

 

From the moment you enter the darkened and eerie Tudor Revival styled Mayslake Peabody Estate and are handed a dance card indicating which group of theater goers you will follow throughout the performance, the tension and excitement of this wonderful production begins to mount. Not long after First Folio Theatre’s “The Madness of Edgar Allan Poe: A Love Story” begins the audience is divided, following different sets of actors from room to room.  

The large, dark house, lit by the light of the full "Blood Moon" on opening night is still haunted by the memory of the husband who lovingly built the entire estate for his wife over a decade and then passed away during a fox hunt the year after it was finished. This site specific mansion is the perfect theater setting for this dynamic and revealing look at Edgar Allen Poe's work as a hugely successful fiction writer as well as his tragic life and loves. 

It is very rare, with the large amount of theater I see, week after week, that I am watching a show and at the same time planning in my mind which friends of mine I would like to come back and see it with again.

I loved how the audience moved from room to room within the mansion, sometimes seeing a portion of a scene while standing in a hallway or while entering the genuine antique chapel built after the estate was sold.  It was a lot of fun and gave the audience a feeling of mystery and danger, as though we were instant comrades and active participants in the play itself. 

Christopher Kriz did a fantastic job with the tricky sound design in each of the authentically scary rooms of this aging mansion. Each sound Kriz creates building the tension and surrounds the tiny audience in such a way that we really felt the Tell-Tale Heart beating in our own ears, not just coming out of a single speaker anywhere. 

I learned so much about Poe's life and work that I had not known before. The sad irony that not only did he watch his mother die of consumption at the tender age of six, he then witnessed the slow death of his adoring stepmother and finally his wife Virginia wasting away and coughing up blood daily from the same devastating disease. 

I also did not realize what an amazing amount, and romantically stunning quality, of love letters and love poetry Poe wrote in his lifetime to his wife Virginia and often to another married woman named Annie whom he loved from afar. 

On the back of the dance card is printed the single sad poem his wife Virginia, his first cousin whom he married when he was 27 and she just 13 years old, although they did not consummate the marriage until she was 16. The tragic fact that they shared just nine blissful years together, four of them while she was healthy and five where she began to deteriorate from consumption. He made the right decision to follow his heart and court her from pretty much the moment they met because he knew on some unconscious level that their precious time together was ticking away quite quickly and he died just two years after her passing at the age of 40.   

Christian Gray, who portrays Poe, does a stunning job of showing the sadness and turmoil inside of Poe while never losing the absolute passion and headstrong devotion for his wife Virginia. Gray seems to drink in like a thirsty vampire the femininely beautiful essence of his wife Virginia from her head to toe in every scene. You sense that Gray, whose eyes are often brimming with tears,  as if struggling to speak - as if his next breath depends solely upon seeing her loving reaction to him and his writings in every moment and every delicate hour that passed between them.  Without Gray's nicely sensual, sometimes earthy and sometimes heart wrenching performance, the "Love Story" portion of this play would not have been nearly as convincing. 

Diana Mair makes a lovely, charming, sensitive portrayal of Poe’s wife Virginia.  Mair's sympathetic, yet lighthearted telling of Poe's tragic early years and her burning love for him comes off with a mature, yet modernly sassy quality that makes you understand how he could be so in love with her and then so completely lost without her as his enthusiastic muse after her untimely death at the age of 22. 

Actor Kevin McKillip, also outstanding, has several great, and fright building scenes as the madman in the retelling of "The Tell-Tale Heart" and as a prisoner locked in a dungeon with the blade of a scythe rapidly approaching to cut him apart in “The Pit and the Pendulum", appropriately performed in a room so dark you could not see the person sitting next to you. 

Here is just one of Poe's hundreds of love letter/poems to Annie, one of his few unrequited loves:

“So long as I think that you know I love you, as no man ever loved woman - so long as I think you comprehend in some measure, the fervor with which I adore you, so long, no worldly trouble can ever render me absolutely wretched. But oh, my darling, my Annie, my own sweet sister Annie, my pure beautiful angel - wife of my soul - to be mine hereafter and forever in the Heavens - how shall I explain to you the bitter, bitter anguish which has tortured me since I left you?”

In a surprising and childlike way Poe signed his letters to her, and to his beloved wife Virginia with the adorable “forever your own, Eddy…”.

I highly recommend this scary, yet passionately romantic retelling of Poe's life and hard won genius. It will definitely make you want to read more of Poe's work, especially his prolific amount of luscious, spellbinding love letters! 

By the end of the play you understand why ALL of the women in his life, were utterly captured and held close by his heartfelt writings to them and adored him so completely during the short time on earth they each shared with him. 

First Folio Theatre’s “The Madness of Edgar Allan Poe: A Love Story” is being performed at the Mayslake Peabody Mansion in Oakbrook through November 4th. For more information on this unique and haunting production, visit www.firstfolio.org.

*One note, on disability access, First Folio may want to add a disclaimer on its website informing the disabled and elderly theatre goers that the play does require climbing some stairs and brief standing in addition to its mention that the show moves around the mansion. 

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Directed by Joel Zwick of “My Big, Fat Greek Wedding fame, and produced by Hershey Felder, “Jamaica, Farewell” is the charming, funny and often suspenseful one-person play about a young woman’s coming of age in Jamaica, performed brilliantly by Debra Ehrhardt. Not realizing it was a solo show upon arrival, I, at first, eagerly awaited the entrance from other actors to get acquainted with their characters. However, ten minutes in, it didn’t matter because Ehrhardt was so entertaining acting out the roles surrounding her character’s life.

The story takes place in 1980 where Ehrhardt, a Jamaican native herself, plays an eighteen-year-old girl who has one big dream – to go to America. As a child her favorite song is “Yankee Doodle Dandy”. Americans are called “Doodle Dandy’s where she comes from. But leaving Jamaica to go to the United States was easier said than done for a young, poor eighteen-year-old girl.

Big changes had recently taken place in Jamaica. Not long before, Cuba gained a new ally when Michael Manley, the leader of Jamaica’s People National Party was elected the first of three times to be Prime Minister. Manley’s diplomatic ties with Fidel Castro was unsettling to the United States. Now there were two Soviet inspired countries in the United States’ back yard that preached democratic socialism. But understanding the advantage of incoming American dollars, Jamaica relaxed their stance, eventually becoming the tourist destination it is today. Still, getting large amounts of money out of Jamaica was another story.

Ehrhardt’s character is a secretary in Kingston. Her father is an alcoholic and gambler and it furniture, among other things her family owned were removed with regularity after a bad night at the card table. One day after overhearing her boss speaking of the need to smuggle money from Jamaica to America, she volunteers and is offered ten thousand dollars to do so. Finally, America is within her grasp. All she’d have to do is drop off one million dollars when she gets to Miami - to Bullett. But now all she has to do is figure out a way to smuggle the money into America. As luck would have it, she meets Jack Wallingsford, who is employed at the United States Embassy. Wallingsford falls for her hard and soon becomes the unwitting aid in her smuggling operation.

The main stage at Royal George Theatre is littered with large tropical leaves and a variety of chests with hanging vines in the background. Though simplistic, along with Ehrhardt’s rich description of her country and the use of projected images, I am able to get a good feel for the Jamaican atmosphere. Ehrhardt’s energy is endless and her story telling both funny and heartfelt. It is a truly amazing story that is based on Ehrhardt’s engaging true life journey from Jamaica to America. It is a story that continues to pick up steam as it is told that includes many surprises and turns. I highly recommend seeing “Jamaica, Farewell” during its limited engagement, performed beautifully and written by Debra Ehrhardt.

“Jamaica, Farewell” is being performed at the Royal George Theatre through October 11th. For tickets and show information visit www.theroyalgeorgetheatre.com.    

Frank Sinatra Jr. opened his wonderful tribute show at Ravinia Festival in Highland Park by explaining what he hoped to convey, as he had been writing and collecting the photographs and videos for the last two years.

 

"In order to know a man’s life there is one word that must supersede everything,” Sinatra says. “And that word is truth. You are going to see the glittering lights. You are going to see the soaring mountain peaks. But you are also going to see the depths. You’re going to see the chasms.”

 

“There was a time in his career many years ago when his entire world – his work, his movies, his television, his records, his marriage, his personal life – everything fell apart completely,” Sinatra says. “And that is going to be shown in our show.”

 

First of all I was unaware that Sinatra had a son capable of singing as well as Sinatra Jr. does. Many times I closed my eyes and imagined with no difficulty that I was hearing the original recordings of all these magnificent songs as recorded by Sinatra himself.  All of the multimedia pieces were chosen with great care and presented a very moving, well-paced  and well-rounded story of Sinatra's life and indeed the life of all New Yorkers' and even all Americans who lived during Sinatra's career ups and downs.  The show reminded me of another great father son tribute, the play “Jack Lemmon Returns” by Jack Lemmon's son, Chris Lemmon.

 

There was an unnecessarily melancholy and almost apologetic air to Sinatra Jr.'s performance and also the fact that he never referred to Frank during the show as his father or "dad" struck me as very sad and the following quote explains why that is.

 

In interviews Frank Jr. repeatedly speaks of how his own life ‘is immaterial’, adding: “I’ve never been a success. I have never had a hit movie, a hit television program, a hit record. It would have been good for my personal integrity, my personal dignity to have had something like that. I have never made a success in terms of my own right. I have been very good at re-creation. But that is something that pleases me because my father’s music is so magnificent."

 

But I wholeheartedly disagree with Sinatra Jr.'s summation of his career. Although he may not have received any awards yet, this engrossing and educational tribute to his father stands on its own as a wonderful and well-crafted, musical production. 

 

Sinatra Jr. didn't have much time with his father as a child due to early divorce yet he devoted seven years of his life, working 24/7 to managing his ailing and genius father during Sinatra's last decade on earth. His efforts gave us an additional seven years of Sinatra live performances which is a huge contribution to the history of music and his fans worldwide. 

 

Sinatra Jr. doesn't just imitate his father, or impersonate him, his voice has a rich timbre and phrasing all his own that bleeds through the performance in just the right amounts.

 

Imagine if Elvis Presley had had a son who resembled him physically to a degree and more importantly was a college music major capable of playing and singing the music Elvis made famous for decades after his death. Wouldn't we consider that a great achievement in its own right? 

 

I heard many people during the intermission say just how much they were enjoying the show and that Sinatra Jr.'s storytelling and choice of photos and video, etc., really surpassed their expectations for the concert - and I felt the same way. We saw an impressive timeline that included the Rat Pack, Nancy Sinatra, various films and private family photos. Sinatra Jr. also flawlessly performed one favorite after another and really hit the mark on his beautiful rendition of "My Way".

 

Sinatra Jr.'s Centennial Celebration is a wonderful work of art and the amazing choice of talented musicians in his outstanding orchestra made this theatrical experience more than just a trip down memory lane. 

 

Sinatra Jr. has achieved something more in this production than mere imitation or tribute. He has created a highly entertaining and moving audience experience, partly because he is talented in his own right and partly because he has something no Sinatra impersonator will ever have. "The blood of my blood" Sinatra Jr. has  the blood of his genius and powerful father - the evergreen Frank Sinatra - running though his veins which makes the whole audience aware they are in Frank Sinatra's presence as he is surely watching his son proudly from the wings at every performance. 

 

I highly recommend seeing this production and hope that Sinatra Jr. will continue to perform it long after this 100th year birthday celebration hype has settled down again, because Sinatra's story deserves to be told to new generations as well as old and Sinatra Jr. is the only one who can tell it the right way with “the real truth" ringing out between every note. 

 

 

 

Boys love their rockets. We find this out rather quickly in Marriott Theatre’s world premiere of October Sky, a new musical based on the 1999 film featuring Jake Gyllenhaal and Chris Cooper. Written by Aaron Thielen with the music and lyric by Michael Mahler, the play opens with a heavy duty musical number “Marching into Hell” where a handful of coal miners head deep into the dangerous coal mines.

Taking place in 1957 Coalwood, West Virginia, most boys are destined to become coal miners. Opportunity to take another career path are far and few between. The city depends on the mine, which has become even more dangerous with newer technology that powders the coal, leaving a hazardous dust to be inhaled and cause lung disease rather than the older days where the mineral was gather by using picks. Occasional gas explosions also take place as we find out in the first scene as news of such a tragedy leaves thirty dead in a nearby mine.

Homer’s father, John Hickam, heads a large mining crew and fully expects his son to follow suit. However, when the Soviet Union launches Sputnik for all the town to see in the October Sky, Homer and his friends are driven to make a rocket of their own. Naturally, Homer’s father sees this as a distraction, while the town supports the boys as their rockets slowly become more and more advanced, despite their moments of failure. With the help of Miss Riley, Homer’s teacher who recognizes their interest in such a science as a way to avoid the destined mining life, the boys eventually take their work to a series of science fairs. While Homer’s mother is supportive and pleased with Homer’s ingenuity, his father still struggles with the idea. 

October Sky is not just a story about boys making rockets, it is also a story about support from friends, changing hearts and perseverance. It is a feel good story that encourages one to follow their dreams.

Superbly cast, I really enjoyed Nate Lewellyn in the role of Homer Hickham. He is a bit reminiscent of a young and boyish Tom Hanks. Lewellyn displays his solid vocal range in many challenging numbers, perhaps most notably in Act II’s “Stars Shine Down”. Ben Barker, Patrick Rooney and Alex Weisman perfectly round out the quartet of rocket builders while Susan Moniz really shines as Homer’s wise and loving mother, Elsie Hickam. One of my favorite performances is that of David Hess as John Hickam. I really find it a pleasure to observe Hess’ vocal prowess and his ability to execute such a wide variety of emotions. 

The songs are lyrically clever – and often funny, while the set has a few fun surprises such as the effect used as the miners take an elevator down into the mine. Theresa Ham does a fantastic job as costume designer, really pulling off the 1950s era and Dance Captain Jameson Cooper utilizes some very unique and original ideas in the big dance numbers. The show is finally brought together tightly with a strong ensemble and a wonderful band that knows how to get their southern twang on when needed. 

One of the show’s big crowd pleasers was the knee-slappin’ number “Moonshine”, a lively number that takes place in the backwoods and has the actors playing instruments as “Bathtub Amos & The Drunk as a Skink Jug Band”.  

October Sky runs around two-and-a-half hours long but is quite enjoyable throughout thanks to a fetching story, fun effects and enjoyable musical numbers. October Sky is being performed at The Marriott Theatre through October 11th. You can find out more about the show or order tickets at www.MarriottTheatre.com. 

 

It was a warm, balmy night with no rain for Harry Connick Jr's sold out summer concert at the beautiful and romantic Ravinia Music Festival this year.

 

 

Connick played a dynamic two hour set which included all of the favorites you'd expect like songs from his "When Harry Met Sally" soundtrack. Among the many numbers in his very well-rounded set, he played "It Had to be You",  "Where or When" and "The Way You looked Tonight" along with several New Orleans' Jazz treats and three new songs from his upcoming album. 

 

Of the three new songs from his much anticipated October release which included “Trying To Matter”, and “I Like It When You Smile”, I enjoyed the adorable ode to his wife of thirty years, Jill Goodacre, “No One Does I Do Like We Do" the most. But his super sexy delivery on “I Like It When You Smile" will be a great hit single as well.

 

Looking at the handsome, fit 47-year-old Harry Connick Jr., it seems like just yesterday when I first met him and heard him play the piano 27 years ago!

 

I was living in New York City with my boyfriend, actor Steve Larson, who was a regular on "Third Rock from the Sun". Steve had a job bar tending at The Village Gate, the most revered Jazz Club in New York's Greenwich Village. Throughout its 38 years, the Village Gate featured such musicians as John ColtraneColeman HawkinsBillie HolidayDuke EllingtonDizzy GillespieBill EvansDave BrubeckDexter GordonArt BlakeyWoody ShawMiles DavisVasant RaiNina SimoneHerbie Mann, and Aretha Franklin, who made her first New York appearance there.

 

Every night while Steve was working I would sit at a small table with a five dollar bill on it drinking a glass of coke he kept refilling so that I looked like a patron. I’d watch musician after musician for free. It was a wonderful music education for me, and a full six years before I started my own band in Chicago. One night at the "Open Mic" when the usual crowd of older Jazz musicians would straggle in trying to sign in to get a slot to play, a young man dressed in a baby blue polyester tuxedo from head to toe walked in to play the piano. This was a bold move as kitschy, second hand clothing was not yet the rage back in 1987. Harry was still quite chubby with baby fat and had a few spots on his face. But when he played I remember thinking this kid must be some kind of prodigy - and I was right. His talent was jaw-dropping. 

 

The very young Harry Connick Jr. soon became a regular performer. I would always have a few singles on hand to tip Harry with when he played the open mic nights, and we talked briefly on occasion. I asked and found out he was Jewish on his mother's side and had been studying music seriously since he was five- years-old. Harry once said I "had a brilliant smile” and that he really appreciated seeing me there on open mic nights because he said I seemed to "listen to every note with my whole body". Years later when I saw his successful national debut and that he was marrying a super model, I almost didn't recognize him, so complete was his physical transformation into the  thin, handsome, and debonair performer we know him as now. I must have heard hundreds of musicians at The Village Gate during the four years I lived at The Ansonia on Broadway and 73rd from 1987-1991, but Harry Connick Jr. and the amazing guitarist who was also an unknown - Chris Whitley (now deceased) and David Bowie are the only ones I actually got to know and remember. 

 

At the riveting Ravinia concert, Connick Jr. also played the horn in a wonderful, "dueling banjos" type standoff with his crew of some of the best trumpet players alive today which was very impressive. I was unaware that he was a multi-instrumentalist. 

 

After three decades and millions of records sold and numerous Grammy awards Harry Connick Jr. is still going strong with his quality blend of old and new Jazz and Pop. Connick will also be returning to judge on "American Idol' and hopefully we will see him return to acting as well, because I really enjoyed his work in Hope Floats with Sandra Bullock and his run on the hit series, Will and Grace

 

"Everything I do is part of my passion," he said, explaining his diverse talents. "I do the things I like to do. It's sort of a bigger version of having more than one hobby. I love to play piano, sing, and act. I love to do all those things."

 

 

Similar to the interactive comedy hit “Tony and Tia’s Wedding” where actors stroll about the hall in character to mingle with audience members, Chicagoans can now enjoy what might just possibly be a new dinner theatre hit, “We Gotta Bingo”.  In “We Gotta Bingo”, housed at Chicago Theatre Works on Belmont Avenue, guests are thrust into the setting of a fundraiser to raise money for two Catholic churches to merge, the main event being bingo, where attendees actually participate and win cheesy prizes like hand-knitted toilet paper holders or a used clock radio from the 1980s.

Father Duncan, played admirably by Gary Smiley, hosts the event while fast talking and professional lottery ball caller “Lucky” Bucky (Merrick Robinson) calls out the numbers while also plugging his used furniture store and squeezing in as many one-liners as possible. Of course a stunning presenter is needed for an event of this nature, in this case it is Darla, who is played by Jessica Scott and simply nails the ditzy role.

Among the many characters milling about, my favorites may have been Rosa and Rudy, a stereotypical overly-exaggerated Italian couple played by Jane Allyson-D’-Arienzo and Jerome R. Marzullo. I love the way they interact with each other but even more so with the crowd. Rosa would frequently engage with women in the crowd to gossip and stir things up while Rudy, more reserved, made small talk mostly with the men in attendance. The shots they took at each other were hilarious and spot on.

After a game or two of bingo, guests are served dinner (catered by Giordano’s) that includes salad, bread and lasagna. Vegetarians should know to mention they prefer a meatless option ahead of time so that they too can be accommodated. Later, yummy lemon bars and brownies are distributed to all the tables.  

This is the perfect theatre experience for someone who enjoys drinking a couple beers and getting a bit rowdy as crowd chants are often invoked by the characters and one-liners become much funnier than they probably really are. It’s festive and it becomes a more of a collaboration between audience and actors as the comfort level grows throughout the evening, as guests chime in and actors respond. If you want to sit back and quietly watch a show, this is not the event for you.

Bingo, beer, Italian food and plenty of laughs – for what more could one ask?

 

We Gotta Bingo is currently playing at Chicago Theatre Works (1113 W. Belmont) and tickets are at a reasonable $49. For tickets and/or more show info, visit www.wegottabingo.com.

Although the idea of two gay friends, Hunter and Jeff, sitting down to write their own musical for a competition deadline in three weeks’ time may seem a little bit dated, these performers including Matt Frye, and Yando Lopez do a great job of making the piece seem vibrant and current. Hunter and Jeff who love watching their reality TV like the Bachelor and "procrasturbating" introduce two of their gal friends to help them fill out the cast with Susan (Neala Barron) and Heidi (Anna Schutz). The group decides to take things they’re actually chatting about daily and eventually come up with a play about their own lives and trying to get into the playwrights festival. This is the theme for [Title of Show] now playing at Rivendell Theatre.

Long story short, they end up getting thrilled with an invite to enter into the Fest and eventually a short Off-Broadway and even shorter Broadway run all of which is exciting and mind blowing for the friendly foursome. As it happens it brings about the usual problems with managing who gets credit for what and who is the most important or likable part of the show. 

I loved the song, 'Die, Vampire Die’ about managing all of the negative, "bloodsucking" thoughts that weigh on you mentally and emotionally when you are trying to create something new. 

Neala Barron as the "corporate by day, creative by night' - part time actress - has the funniest and most well-rounded performance in this piece. Matt Frye as Hunter is also very funny and really makes the most of his character.  

Lovers of the musical theater genre will adore this peppy, fast moving production and see themselves reflected in all the characters' struggles to be recognized and stand out including the sole musician, a very funny role for a pianist with just a few choice lines. 

The reason this show still works and is timely despite coming out in 2008, is that even today with all of the new opportunities for performers to write and star in their own projects for the  many contests held online and on national TV, is that for everyone eventually realizes that a little bit of success is just not enough.

Just appearing in a show on Broadway will not make you and your friends "stars". Nor will it secure you financially in any way for the rest of your lives. There is also a funny number in the show where the cast counts out all of the "loser” musicals that made it to Broadway and flopped. 

Yet it is essential that actors still persist in taking over their own careers and write their own projects or they run the risk of playing bit parts their entire lives without ever realizing their full potential as writers and creators, always working the "day job" and waiting helplessly for the phone to ring with a magical call from their agents.

Well-directed, this 90 minute piece flows at a quick, funny pace.

All actors should be actor/writers, that's the best message of this show, not to let the fear of criticism cripple you from putting out your own work and maintaining loyalty to the friends who help you get your work out. Because, after all the success and thrill ride for each project is over, you still need to get up and keep writing and creating something new for yourself with your friends close by your side. Never give up and never let the pressures of making a name for yourself eclipse the importance of the daily life you are actually living because in the end you may find the journey itself really was the whole play!

[Title of Show] is playing at Rivendell Theatre through August 16th.

Page 6 of 19

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