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Ken Payne

Ken Payne

Guys, it’s time to dig into your closet and shake the dust from your polyester, large-collared, chest-exposing dance shirt. Divas, grab your sequin-studded blouse and bell-bottomed slacks or favorite jumpsuit – it’s time to disco! Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook hosts an electric 1970’s dance party to remember with their current production of Saturday Night Fever the Musical. Following the 1977 hit film that catapulted John Travolta to superstar status for his portrayal of Tony Manero, a troubled kid from The Bronx who finds escape from his dilemmas by lighting up the dance floor on Saturday nights, we are thrust into an exciting time capsule when disco was king.

As the story goes, Tony, who works a dead-end job in a hardware store, just wants to be somebody. And he is – on weekends. He just wants to dance! He’s got the hair, good looks, charisma, and dance moves that make him an instant celebrity whenever he walks into 2001, the neighborhood disco hotspot, all the girls lining up to partner with him, all the guys wishing they had half his talent. With a couples’ dance contest coming up that awards a cool thousand bucks to the winning team, Tony searches for a partner, of course seeking out the one girl who is not overly impressed with him. Saturday Night Fever the Musical, keenly directly by Tony-nominated Dan Knechtges, is a well-rounded story that delves into Tony’s stereotypical New York Italian home life, his life on the streets hanging out with his close-knit gang and his quest for love, that, for once, doesn’t come so easy. Adding a humorous spin to the classic film, this dazzling production offers a good amount of laughs while holding onto the integrity of the film. 

The music is half the fun. While the soundtrack is heavily driven by the music of The Bee Gees implementing favorites like “Staying Alive”, “How Deep Is Your Love”, “More Than A Woman” and “Jive Talkin’”, were also turned onto other disco staples that include “Boogie Shoes”, Disco Duck” and “Disco Inferno”. And as good as the music is, the dancing is just as impressive, getting spectacular individual and ensemble performances that make it difficult for audience members to restrain from taking the stage and join in the disco celebration, also encouraged by the tremendous set that recreates a captivating 1970’s dance club – strobe light, red velvet walls and all. 

Adrian Aguilar is seemingly made for the role of Tony Manero. The Jeff Award nominated actor who once starred as Rocky Balboa in Broadway’s Rocky, is nothing short of sensational. The search for the perfect Tony was widespread, with auditions held in not only Chicago but also New York, Houston and Los Angeles, and it was right here in Chicago that the production found its seamless fit. Says Kyle DeSantis, President of Drury Lane Productions, “Out of the many talented artists we saw, no one came close to Chicago’s unparalleled Adrian Auguilar as Tony.” And DeSantis could not have been any more correct as Aguilar delivers a strong performance bringing with him the comic chops and astounding dancing ability needed for the role. Aguilar is also able to tackle the demanding vocals required to take on the many numbers to which his character is highlighted and adds just the right amount of dramatic precision that give us a believable Tony Manero. 

Aguilar, whose dynamite performance is worth the cost of admission alone, is surrounded by a heaping helping of talent. Landree Fleming, who recently knocked the socks off of theatre goers in her performance as Kira in American Theater Company’s Xanadu, is back, this time delivering solid support as Manero’s clingy wannabe girlfriend Annette, while Erica Stephan does an admirable job as Stephanie, the dancer who has captured the starry eyes of our story’s star. Making his Drury Lane debut is standout actor Alex Newell, best known for his portrayal of transgender student Wade “Unique” Adams on Fox’s hit series Glee. Newell is rightly cast for the role of Candy, a disco diva who truly belts, delivering a handful of drop-your-jaw moments. In Saturday Night Fever the Musical, we also get a consistently strong boost from an ultra-talented ensemble that is not only able to bring a disco to life on several occasions, but can add credible depth to this classic story thanks to a slew of strong acting and vocal performances. Yet we cannot overlook Ryan O'Gara's stunning lighting design (disco ball included) and Rachel Laritz' spot on 1970's costume design that so well breathes life into Kevin Depinet's lavish red-velvet laden set. 

This new, reworked North American version, scripted by Sean Cercone and David Abbinanti adds even more style and flair to an already stage proven production that made waves after its London mount in 1998 and invaded America with a Broadway run in 2000. An era of pop culture poked fun of so often (and a handful of parodies are certainly present in this production), this is a musical that also celebrates disco and reminds us of the pivotal part it played in our musical history and of its ever-perpetual influence that remains.  

Saturday Night Fever the Musical pulls out all the stops, delivering a show that has it all – dancing, singing, visuals and humor, while distributing a plethora of 1970's nostalgia. Songs you may have long forgotten will be stuck in your head days afterward – in a good way. Running at Drury Lane Theatre through March 19th (now extended through April 9th), this is a production that is sure to bring the boogie out in each of us no matter how buried inside it may be.

Recommended.

For tickets and/or more show information, click here

 

PigPen’s “The Hunter and the Bear” is one of the best theatre productions of 2016. It’s really that simple. Staged at the state of the art, newly constructed, Writers Theatre in Glencoe, audience members are in for a unique experience that is as haunting as it is moving. The story follows a group of loggers that find themselves camping in a densely wooded area sometime in the mid-1800’s. It’s not long after a mysterious stranger arrives that unexplained occurrences begin to take place that leads to an unbelievable chain of events, affecting each the loggers, a hunter and a boy with a wild imagination. Exciting, suspenseful and often heartfelt, we are thrust into a ghost story like no other that not only explores the afterlife but also delves into the darkness in all of us.

Impressively staged within a striking set complete with flickering campfire light, “The Hunter and the Bear” uses very clever puppetry and shadow imaging to enhance the play’s powerful storytelling. Adding to its originality are the many extras that go a long way from the authenticity of each costume, and sound effects created solely by instrumentation. The story is intertwined with a handful of songs and backing music reminiscent of a hybrid folk and jug band sound. Each talented actor doubles as an equally talented musician forming quite the formidable band.

The production’s strong acting performances are many. Alex Falberg impresses as the fast-talking Prescott, who, as the boss of the operation, often throws caution to the side concerned mainly with his company’s bottom line. Tobias, whose emotional search for his son becomes a focal point, is very well played by Ben Ferguson who is convincing as the scared, anguished father. While Curtis Gillan (Pete), Matt Nuernberger (Bailey or “Sheriff”), Arya Shahi (John) and Dan Weschler (Lewis) all put forward notable performances, Ryan Melia stands out in his role as Elliot, Tobias’ son, masterfully working a puppet that portrays the boy. 

Moving at a perfect pace, the engaging story is not only memorable, thanks to its fine acting and its haunting music and lighting, it also raises many questions about life after death, giving hope that there is a path we can follow to a peaceful existence, but warning that some can be lost, needing a little nudge in the right direction, perhaps from the living. It is profoundly asked at one point if the dead guide the living or if it is the living who guides the dead. 

Pigpen Theatre Co. masterfully co-directs this enthralling campfire tale along with Stuart Carden. Says Artistic Director Michael Halberstam of PigPen’s return to Writers Theatre “The gifted gentlemen who make up PigPen Theatre Co. brought us a sense of energy and excitement the last time they were here in Glencoe, and we look forward to their signature style of storytelling in this new world premiere.” PigPen had performed in the theatre three years prior in their production “The Old Man and the Moon”. 

“The Hunter and the Bear” is a story that justly makes an impression on its audience getting help from creative team members Collette Pollard who presents to us an incredible visual as the Scenic Designer and Lydia Fine whose costumes and puppetry truly bring this gripping tale to life.

Highly recommended as one of the year’s best plays, “The Hunter and the Bear” is being performed at Writers Theatre through January 22nd. For tickets and/or more show information visit www.WritersTheatre.org.

Pigpen will also be performing a concert at The Old Town School of Folk Music on December 19th at 8pm. More information can be had at www.oldtownschool.org. 

 

Richly set in the intimate Royal Cabaret Theatre, The Rosenkranz Mysteries: An Evening of Magic to Lift the Spirits is a magic show with its own unique twist, separating itself from the others with its unusual theme and creative adaptations of age old illusions and tricks. Dining tables surround the prop-filled stage, which presents to us a study circa early 1900’s where one could easily see Harry Houdini practicing his arts. Unlike most magicians, renowned national illusionists Ricardo Rosenkranz is also a respected professor at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. That he relates magic to healing throughout the show is not just original, it is educational while his performance never loses its entertainment factor.  

The highly-polished show combines astonishing illusions set to haunting music and a series of jaw-dropping acts of mentalism using many audience members as subjects, some eager to participate and some with a nervous acquiescence that only adds to the act’s humor. Rosenkranz’s skillful ability to make his volunteers comfortable, even offering them their own chance of getting their own funny one-liners in, is part of the show’s charm.

The Rosenkranz Mysteries flows well with an even flow of humor, mystery and the seemingly unexplained tricks themselves. Often explaining the origin of an illusion while performing the act, audience members quickly become acquainted with its history, adding even more intrigue while allowing us to grasp a good feel for a turn of the twentieth century era that was rich in magic and the unknown. An era that gave us greats Houdini, Dai Vernon (“The Professor”), Eugene Laurant and Carter the Great to name a few. 

While I won’t go into details into Rosenkranz’s performed feats of magic so as not to soften the blow of their wow factor, I will say that he creates a stunning recreation of the famous Bang Sisters conjuring of spirits from the hereafter that will have you scratching your head in disbelief long afterward. I can also say that each illusion is executed with immaculate precision and done with just the perfect amount of tension building assurance.

As a professor, Dr. Ricardo Rosenkranz, who found magic at a very early age, has been integrating his illusions as a teaching aid for years to help engage his students and inspire involvement. Perhaps an unorthodox way to get your message across, but undoubtedly an effective one. 

Says Rosenkranz, “There is something beautiful and wonderful about the unknown, and I think in that sense magic and medicine share a DNA. I am committed to creating a unique experience that energizes and uplifts every audience.” The Rosenkranz Mysteries does just that.

Whether a magic buff or not, this show comes highly recommended, as it is sure to engage both believers and non-believers of the supernatural unknown. Finely directed by Northwestern graduate Jessica Fisch, featuring Ricardo Rosenkranz as “The Doctor Magician”, Jan Rose as “The Hostess” and a skull named Balsamo, this show offers a night of mystery and suspense one would be hard-pressed to forget anytime soon.

The Rosenkranz Mysteries: An Evening of Magic to Lift the Spirits is being performed at The Royal George Cabaret Theatre through December 24th. Add to the wonder of the holiday season with this true magical phenomenon. For tickets and/or more show information, visit www.TheRoyalGeargeTheatre.com.       

          

 

Tuesday, 18 October 2016 14:04

Dr. Seward's Dracula Finishes Strong

In tradition of the Halloween season, First Folio Theatre keeps with its ongoing classic horror theme, this time presenting the world premiere of “Dr. Seward’s Dracula” in line with past productions “Frankenstein” and “The Madness of Edgar Allan Poe”. Finely adapted by Joseph Zettelmaier and cleverly directed by Jeff Award nominee Alison C. Vesely, a terrific tale is spun that is as dark as it is suspenseful.

 

The setting is perfect. Performed at the Mayslake Peabody Estate in Brookfield, viewers get a taste of nostalgia, easily associated with that of a classic horror film, the moment they enter the aged mansion. 

 

The story revolves around Dr. Seward, a former practitioner at an asylum who has since left due to a string of tortuous events including the death of his wife and an attack that left him stabbed in the stomach with the jagged leg of a wooden stool. Set in Seward’s home, he is constantly visited by his past wife and shoots morphine on a regular basis to curb the chronic pain he suffers from his stomach wound. Visited regularly by editor and close friend, Bram Stoker, a series of brutal murders piles up and suspicions leading to Seward as a suspect gradually become stronger. When Inspector Louis Carlyse enters the scene, things only get stranger, suspicions pointing more and more to Dr. Seward who is now questioning his own sanity. Seward claims a blood drinking monster named “Dracula” is responsible for the horrific murders, a story not so easily believed.

 

Though fine acting is present from the play’s beginning, Act One moves along at a slow pace, the opportunity of dramatic moments lacking in heavy suspense, leaving something to be desired to the mid-act crescendos that were most likely intended. However, Act Two comes on strong, providing the intriguement and excitement horror fans would have expected, completely redeeming the show and putting it on the must do list for Halloween activities. 

 

Christian Gray is thoroughly gripping as Dr. Seward, capturing the audience for good in just the play’s first scene. He never let’s go of that grip. One of the finest actors in the Chicagoland theatre scene, Gray is able to tackle such a role in a way that most cannot. Already performing in over twenty shows for First Folio, the gifted actor has already made his mark in such productions as the “Jeeves” series, “The Madness of Edgar Allan Poe”, “Romeo and Juliet” and “A Moon for the Misbegotten”. Now Gray can confidently add another knock out performance to his resume. 

 

The play rounds out with a handful of strong supporting performances with Craig Spidle as the Inspector, Joseph Stearns as Bram Stoker, Elizabeth Stenholt as Seward’s lost love Emily Covington and most notably Ted Kitterman as The Strange Man.

 

Gray’s performance is reason alone to see this play. However, it’s building story, ominous looking set and well-played roles of its assorted interesting characters add even more justification to see this frightfully tasty Halloween treat. 

 

First Folio’s “Dr. Seward’s Dracula” is being performed at the Mayslake Peabody Estate in Oakbrook through November 6th. For more show information visit www.FirstFolio.org.

 

 

 

 

It's been nearly eight years since that loud, boisterous Italian nuptial celebration has left Chicago, but now "Tony N' Tina's Wedding" is back. Reworked from its 1993 through 2009 run at Piper's Alley, the wedding actually takes place at a church. The Resurrection Church, located near Belmont and Sheffield, is the perfect setting for Tony Nunzio and Tina Vitale to exchange vows with the action starting before you even enter the building. "Family members" approach “guests” as though old friends playing up the overdone Italian stereo types creating a mix of characters ranging from Rocky Balboa and gang to the housewives found in Goodfellas or Casino. A cheesy, gum-chewing wedding photographer snaps shots as guests enter the church who are then ushered to their seats. Before the wedding begins the Nunzio and Vitale clan interact with the audience and each other, already planting a very funny seed for what is to come. 

 

An abbreviated wedding then takes place complete with bridesmaids and groomsmen waltzing down the isle that is officially kicked off when Sister Albert Maria (Alisha Fabbi) leads the congregation into a soulful version of "Jesus Is Just Alright". The wedding in itself could be a show of its own with everything from the bride's ex showing up to a priest who is more than a bit overboard with his Mr. Rogers-like analogies. 

 

The "I dos" are said and the crowd is ushered out of the church for a quick block and a half walk to Chicago Theatre Works, or in this case, "Vinnie Black's Coliseum" for a reception one would be pressed to forget. As the brief trek to the restaurant is made, cast members stay in character mingling with guests, drawing them into hilarious conversations. 

 

Already a highly entertaining and unique experience, the fun really goes into high gear at the reception where guests are assigned to round dining tables, the wedding party seated center room for all to see. Family members are constantly popping by, drawing attendees into humorous conversations as though we go way back with them. All the ingredients are in place for hilarious wedding celebration to remember. There's the ditzy stripper, a drunken father, a surly mother, a priest who drinks too much, a smarmy wedding singer, a jealous ex-boyfriend, an over-the-top restaurant owner who acts as the evening's emcee. Fights break out between families, grandma is mistakenly deemed dead after falling down and guests join in with the cast for a crazy night of dancing that includes a conga line. Before long one almost forgets they are at a play.

 

Mitchell Conti is perfectly cast as Tony as is Hannah Aaron Brown as Tina, so many funny moments exchanged by the two along with other family members and wedding "guests" (us). The cast does a great job at getting guests to interact naturally. For example, while so much is going on at all times in different areas throughout the room, an argument breaks out next to me between a bridesmaid and groomsman, apparently a couple, when one accuses the other of "grinding" on another guest near the dance floor. "Did you see her? Did you think she was grinding on the guy?" My response in hand alters their own reaction as I quickly find myself refereeing the two who finally simmer down and see stars for each other once again. Fun stuff like that. 

 

I praise this talented cast who really has to be on top of their improv game for the entire two and a half hours - even in the bathroom! I can't imagine it an easy task to interact with strangers for an entire evening, playing off so well the many curve balls they are thrown. 

 

Paul Stroili wonderfully directs this new reworked version of "Tony N' Tina's Wedding", a former cast member himself during the show's previous Chicago run, as he took on the role of Vinny Black to which the mantle has now been passed to Brian Noonan who tackles the colorful character with such command. 

 

"Tony N' Tina's Wedding" is a unique ceremony/celebration full of laughs and good times through and through. It's actually a wedding one can really look forward to attending for once (I know I'll hear it for that one later). By the end of the night you almost get the feeling you know the Nunzio's and Vitale's. 

 

"There's a hot tub party afterwards!" I was told by a groomsman on his way out. "Don't forget your speedo!"

 

"Tony N' Tina's Wedding" is currently being performed at Resurrection Church (3309 N Seminary) for the service then the reception moves to Chicago Theatre Works (1113 W Belmont) just over a block away. For tickets and/or more show information visit www.TonyLovesTina.com.

 

*Note - a full pasta entree is provided along with a cash bar.  A Vegetarian option is available by making a request to "Vinny Black" upon entering the reception area.

 

Wednesday, 28 September 2016 15:54

It’s Partridge Vs. Brady in "The Bardy Bunch"

Who's doesn’t remember The Brady Bunch? Mike Brady who has three sons, marries Carol, who has three daughters, they bring in a live in housekeeper, Alice, and they quickly become one of America’s most beloved families of the 1970’s. We basically watch the kids grow up, getting into all kinds of hijinks along the way, before they finally do what makes the most sense - form a family band. Sure, they're creating a musical unit may have not come from an organic source, rather coming with the task to make a few bucks to replace the silver platter than Jan messed up. Still, the Gang was groovy enough to not only win first prize in the talent contest with their song and dance routine, but their brief musical career gave them a new identity to the show’s viewers that stuck. Oldest brother Greg even attempts a solo career in music as Johnny Bravo after being “recruited” by a record company, only to find out that he wasn’t very good and was only selected because the “jacket fit”, literally. 

 

Enter The Partridge Family, who debuted in homes shortly after The Brady Bunch. A widowed mother along with her five children tour both locally and nationally as a jammin’ rock band - and, yes, they all “play” their own instruments unlike the Brady’s. Leaving us a song per episode, The Partridge Family revolves around sappy love songs whereas the Brady’s dive into the music world is originated most certainly out of necessity and lasts but a couple random episodes. 

 

There is little doubt, The Partridge Family wins the cool prize of the two families. Led by mom on keyboards, Shirley Partridge is an attractive musician who like to wear her shorts high while son Keith is a teenage heartthrob and daughter Laurie is dreamt about by teenage boys all across America. Then there was Danny, a mischievous redhead who badly faked his way up and down the neck of a bass. The family could be found playing music to raise attention to just causes or simply getting their groove on rehearing in the garage.

 

So here’s the question - Brady’s or Partridges? You know it’s come up at one time or another.

 

In “The Bardy Bunch” we get a riotous clash of the two families who step outside of our TV sets to settle this dispute once and for all on the stage. Written by Stephen Garvey, we get a glimpse of the two families as the show begins, just before the Brady kids jump into a lively version of “Keep On” complete with the same cheesy dance moves performed on the TV show. Immediately we get a sense that Olivia Rentaria as Marcia Brady and Sawyer Smith as Greg are going to be entertaining as hell to watch. 

 

Though the story proves to be on the herky-jerky side where ghosts and murders are featured in rapid succession, it doesn’t really detract from the fact that audience members are in for an hour and forty-five minutes of campy fun, similar to The Brady Bunch movies that spoofed the family in the 1990’s. The fun to this show lies in the brilliant character lampooning done by this ultra-talented cast. This, in itself, makes the show a success. However, Garvey doesn’t want to live on camp alone, adding a plethora of Shakespeare references throughout the play, including the forbidden love of Keith, a Partridge, and Marsha, a hated Brady ala Romeo and Juliet. Of course, unlike the young Capulet and Montague, they are first obsessed with each other’s hair. 

 

While Skyler Adams as a hokey, exaggerated Keith Partridge draws continuous laughs throughout the play as the largest player involved, he is joined by a stellar ensemble, each one taking advantage of their ample opportunities. Erin McGrath is well cast as Laurie Partridge, perfectly capturing the blasé nature of the former teen model, while Carol and Mike Brady are wonderfully played by seasoned veterans Cory Goodrich and Stef Tovar, two true talents. Brianna Borger takes on the other head of the household as Shirley Partridge and does a bang up job, bobbing head and all.

 

The play revisits many humorous episode scenarios from both shows and plants a dismissiveness for Jan Brady as the middle child who never seems to get any attention while also portraying Danny Partridge as the calculating business man in a thirteen-year-old body. “The Bardy Bunch” also dishes out a boatload of seventies lingo from calling someone a “real crumb” to Greg calling Laurie a “real groovy chick”. This play is undoubtedly a feast of nostalgia down to its groovy threads. 

 

And with the humor comes the music, which if unfamiliar, is really good! Partridge hits dominate the show (obviously) with a nice selection including “I Woke Up in Love”, “I Can Feel Your Heartbeat”, “I Think I Love You” and the feel good, stand up singalong finale number, “Together We’re Better”.

 

“The Bardy Bunch” is jam-packed with laughs and fun memories for those who grew up watching the two families in action. With so much ugliness going on in the world today, we are given a wonderful escape to kick back and enjoy ourselves if just for an evening.

 

“The Bardy Bunch”, winner of the Overall Excellence Award for Outstanding Ensemble at the 2011 New York International Fringe Festival, is currently being performed at Mercury Theater through November, and hopefully longer. For tickets and/or more show information visit www.MercuryTheater.com or www.TheBardyBunch.com.   

 

Super-duper recommended!

 

After a successful summer preview run, "Thrones: The Musical Parody" has returned to Apollo Theater for Fall performances. Though the production might not have the staying power as did "Million Dollar Quartet", a show originally scheduled for a two-week run that was renewed for several years, "Thrones" is a solid production that, despite its niche market, should get comfy in its Apollo home for a decent stay.

 

Parodying Game of Thrones, one of the biggest television series over the past decade "Thrones" hold little back, cleverly mocking its main characters delivering a crude, but witty, humor GoT fans are sure to enjoy. From the show's opening number "Thrones!", a song that punches the audience with spoilers and refers to "The Wire" as a show one doesn't realize they like until after two and a half seasons, we get a good taste of the campy ride we are about to take. The show's very funny cast includes Caitlyn Cerza, Nick Druzbanski, Madeline Lauzon, Beau Nolan, Victoria Olivier and Christopher Ratliff. 

 

The story revolves around a group of friends who excitedly await the GoT season premiere. However, after some lackluster enthusiasm is displayed, it's soon revealed that Brad (Druzbanski) has never seen the show. Of course, this is just mind blowing for the rest of the gang who quickly agree to act out the show to catch Brad up to speed. And this is where it starts to get crazy. In fact, the show takes a hilarious turn the moment Tom (Ratliff) throws on the John Snow wig and makeshift cape just before diving into his ode to The Wall watchers "For the Watch". And how can you have a wall number without taking a poke a Donald Trump, which they certainly do. Taking shots at practically every character on the show from Tyrian to Sansa to King Joffrey to Xerxes (there's actually a song on who we need to know), the group goes from one scenario to the next. Naturally, Brad's interest in the show grows as the friends get deeper and deeper into the characters. 

 

Act One ends on a high note with possibly the funniest number in the show, "Stabbin'", a gruesomely humorous massacre free-for-all that really needs to be seen to be appreciated in full. But worry not, after a big ending into intermission, we are not let down, as Act Two holds a strong pace by providing solid laughs throughout, steering us to a strong finish. Each actor richly contributes in this talented cast holding the ability to get big laughs at any given moment as well as providing respectable vocal ability. The cast brilliantly overplays their characters expressions and are able to successfully spoof their many characteristics such as Tyrian's poor accent, John Snow's seemingly empty thoughts or _________  not so subtle crush on Denarys. 

 

Written by the team of Chris Grace, Zach Reino, Al Samuels and Dan Wessels, the show gets a nice boost from director Hannah Todd, who is able to work the funny within the funny and finely translate it for stage. While GoT fans will certainly enjoy this show, easily picking up on its jokes - both subtle and bold, it remains to see how theater goers not familiar with the show will react. The GoT fan base in Chicago might be enough in itself to support this show for a long run, possibly even creating new GoT fans along the way. 

 

"Thrones: The Musical Parody", performed at Apollo Theater through November 15th, has plenty to make it a thoroughly entertaining event - laughs, sex, an engaging storyline,catchy songs and excellent acting performances. 

 

Take your Game of Thrones experience to the next level with "Thrones: The Musical Parody". 

Tuesday, 13 September 2016 14:39

Paramount's Mamma Mia! About As Fun As it Gets

The plot is simple enough. Donna Sheridan raises her daughter Sophie now twenty-years-old, on a Greek island where she runs a small island resort. Sophie, about to get married, wants to be walked down the aisle by her father. Problem is, she doesn’t know who her father is. A bit of snooping through her mother’s diary offers three possibilities, leading her to invite each to her wedding, much to her mother’s chagrin as Bill Austin (Steve O’Connell), Harry Bright (Michael Gillis) and Sam Carmichael (Jeff Diebold) show up to the island where Sophie figures to find out which is her real father. Again, the plot isn’t very complicated. But we do not see Mamma Mia! for its plot, we see it because it’s Abba charged soundtrack is fun, the set and costumes are colorful, the dance numbers are contagious and the show has a good share of laughs. Simple, light and fun - the perfect anecdote to escape from the daily, or not-so-daily, doldrums so many of us endure, if even for two hours and twenty minutes.

 

Currently running at Paramount Theater in Aurora, we get a production equipped with a slightly different set from the traditional Mamma Mia! look fans have come to known, and it works quite well. Accompanied by a full backdrop flooded with video projections of waves gently making their way to the shoreline and trees with leaves softly blowing in the wind, it’s easy to get lost in the rich island atmosphere. Though the set design limits the larger dance numbers, this production makes it work with its own unique choreography that rivals most other presentations. 

 

A strong ensemble bolsters a capable cast, the musical numbers strongest during choruses or added backing vocals. Though Amy Montgomery as Donna can carry a tune, her voice is just enough to warrant her taking on the leading role. However, she is often strengthened by surrounding cast members during harmonies, and by the way – the harmonies throughout the show are fantastic across the board! But Montgomery clearly has the personality and charisma for the role, overall making her casting sensible. Donna’s two sidekicks Tanya (Jennifer Knox) and Ali (Sara Sevigny) are wonderfully played, each character getting their respective laughs and admirably tackling their vocal duties. Sevigny truly shines as Ali during her duet with Bill, “Take A Chance On Me” displaying a great sense of comic timing (as well as O’Connell), while Knox hits one out of the park in her gritty number “Does Your Mother Know” showing off her dancing prowess in a heated exchange with Pepper, the young flirt who has eyes for her since her arrival to the island. 

 

We can easily buy into Dieblod, Gillis and O’Connell as Donna’s three past love interests, each also adding to the production with fine vocal offerings and just the right touch of physical humor. Diebold is no stranger to the role of Sam Carmichael having toured with Mamma Mia! on the Broadway North American Tour.    

 

Still, you can’t have a successful production of Mamma Mia! without a strong Sophie, and Kiersten Frumkin is just that. Vocally on par for each of her many numbers, Frumkin is able to capture the essence of Sophie, projecting a true sense of wonder, hope and elation into her role, creating a believable twenty-year-old optimist that we can’t help but relate with and root for. 

 

Though Mamma Mia! is far from a profound life lesson, it does promote self-acceptance in many ways and leaves us with hope that past mistakes can sometimes be corrected, even if twenty years later. 

 

With one Abba hit after another Mamma Mia! grabs its audience from its opening number “I Have a Dream” and doesn't let go until after its finely built crescendo finale number “Waterloo”, where each seat in the theater is now empty due to its occupants dancing and clapping along with the cast. 

 

Mamma Mia! is the feel good night out everyone can use to take in some great music and have some healthy laughs that will have audience members wanting to do it all over again. Mamma Mia! is being performed at Paramount Theatre through October 30th. For tickets and/or more show information visit www.paramountaurora.com. 

 

As Sophie sings along with Bill, Harry and Sam, “Thank you for the music”.

Recommended.

 

Wouldn’t it be great if we were given a simply written book to tell us how to succeed in whatever it is we wanted to pursue so long as its easy steps were followed? Supposing we were unqualified and the book taught us how to beat the system in ten or so easy steps? Well, such would be the case in Marriott Theatre’s latest production How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.

 

In this latest Marriott musical, we are taken to the “Madmen” era of the early 1960’s, thrust back into a day when women in the business world were either secretaries or sex objects – or both - and men lacking professional skills could save their jobs simply by reaching out to the brotherhood of man, even getting women to join in their argument. We’ve all heard the phrase “fake it ‘til you make it” and in some ways everyone adheres to such advice conscious of the fact or not, meaning we can all relate. In How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, based on Shepherd Mead’s 1952 book of the same name, we get a highly exaggerated example of such a philosophy as well as a humorous satire of a sexist corporate structure.     

 

In the heart of fast-paced New York City we find window washer J. Pierrepont Finch. He immediately shows a strong desire to become something bigger – someone important. Taking a break, he reads from a book in his hands, “How to Succeed in Business”. The audience hears what he is reading – shortcuts and tricks to quickly climb the ladder in a company. One of the first steps is to “find a company big enough where no one knows what the other employees are doing”. Finch may lack the qualifications to be a business professional but has no shortage of enthusiasm or ambition. Thanks to the book’s instructions, Finch “unwittingly” bumps into the right people and quickly lands himself a job in the mailroom of a large New York company. Referring to the book as often as possible, Finch butters up important decision makers in his path and, as the book predicts, is unceasingly promoted to higher positions. When Finch first arrives at the company he is met by Rosemary, a secretary, who has eyes for the young, determined newbie. Though her advances are obvious, Finch is dismissive having his eyes firmly fixed on succeeding within the company. Naturally, his plan does not proceed without a few hiccups along the way, the book always nearby for reference on what to do in such situations. As the quick-witted newly hired employee tries to climb to the next level, company owner Biggley’s nephew Frump (who was reluctantly hired by the big boss in the first place), jealous of the attention the newcomer is getting, always finds himself scheming to bring Finch down.        

 

Seinfeld fans are reminded of George Costanza who cheats the system at work to always appear busy by acting annoyed at all times, continuously saying “five minutes” if someone asks for your time, keeping unkempt piles of paperwork on your desk, always having a document in hand while walking and sighing loud enough for fellow employees to hear to seem stressed. 

 

Ari Butler admirably takes on the role of fast talking J.P. Finch, creating a likeable go-getter that we can back as he sidesteps company protocol to better his success. Gifted with fine acting chops and a pleasant voice that holds it own, Butler is exciting to watch from the musical’s opening number “How to Succeed”. Due to Butler’s energy-filled personality and charismatic nature that he injects into the character, we can easily overlook the fact that Finch is really just a transparent status-seeking kid who, rather than working hard, wants to cut all the corners he can in order to leapfrog those who really deserve it. We still like him – and the cast is filled with goodies. Jeff Award winner Alex Goodrich, who many may remember from his leading role as “Buddy” in Elf, takes his role as Biggly’s envious nephew and knocks it out of the park garnering most of the show’s biggest laughs. Terry Hamilton as Biggley is also a delight, perhaps making his biggest splash in the duet he shares with Finch “Grand Old Ivy” to which Finch of course is lying about his alma mater to appease his superior. And while a talented and hard-working ensemble is pivotal in moving the story along in a most entertaining fashion, Jessica Naimy naturally seizes audience attention as Rosemary who is constantly vying for Finch’s attention. The striking young starlet who has in the past landed a Broadway role in Honeymoon in Vegas and has hit the road for a national tour of South Pacific, is genuinely funny as she sings and dances her way into everyone’s hearts. In the now obviously sardonic number “How to Keep His Dinner Warm” near the show’s beginning (not so sure that was the case at the show’s inception in 1967), Naimy clearly lays the groundwork for a strong performance to come.

 

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying has several big song and dance numbers that come with a large amount of pizzazz and lines that will probably be stuck in one’s head for a while afterwards. A light comedy that can’t be taken seriously with lots of laughs and snappy numbers, Marriott’s latest production is a fine escape from life’s rigmarole if just for a night, as the early 1960’s are nicely recreated helping us lose ourselves in an charming story that comes with fine acting performances.     

 

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying is being performed at Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire through October 16th. For tickets and/or more show information, visit www.MarriottTheatre.com.

 

Thursday, 01 September 2016 13:08

Kinky Boots is Just (Not So) Plain Fun

Kinky Boots has now come through Chicago a few times and I am glad I finally had a chance to see this musical, being so hyped everything. With lyrics by Cyndi Lauper, I was curious to see how her music would translate to live theater.

 

Based on a true story, the play starts at Price & Son’s gentlemen shoe factory in Northampton, England. It centers on Charlie Price (Adam Kaplan) trying to turn around his father’s failing business. With the help from Lola (J. Harrison Ghee), who happens to be a drag queen, they collaborate to build a new direction for Price & Son and take it all the way to Milan.

 

What stands out more than anything else in this play is Ghee’s performance as Lola. Ghee is an amazing singer who exudes the energy you’d expect from a Broadway performer. Additionally, many of the other characters that are part of Lola’s Angels do a fantastic job (Joseph Anthony Byrd, Sam Dowling, Ian Gallagher Fitzgerald, JP Qualters, Xavier Reyes, and Sam Rohloff). They are toned, vibrant, and of course beautiful!

 

Another stand out performance is Tiffany Engen as Lauren. Lauren is a longtime employee of Price & Son and has a crush on Charlie. Engen is quirky and effortlessly breaks the ice when she is on stage. I would have liked to see more of her character in the play than the script allowed along with her fun dance moves.

 

I felt like there was some disconnect with the casting for Adam Kaplan. I had a really hard time connecting to his portrayal of Charlie. So much so that in the end, I just wished that Lola took over the entire operations at Price & Son.

 

Kinky Boots is fun and full of many ups and downs. If anything, you should go for the solo Ghee performs close to the end of the show. I felt remnants of Whitney Houston in the air and a lot of soul.

 

More importantly, the play touches on many of the injustices that are faced around the LGBTQ community. This is something that is still a challenge and many people still are not familiar or understanding of the community. I would implore people to watch this play and actually have a real conversation about gender identity. Although the play has a humorous tone, there is an underlying message that should be discussed.

 

You can catch Kinky Boots at the Oriental Theatre (24 W Randolph St, Chicago, IL 60601) during their short engagement ending on September 4th. Ticket prices range from $25-$98. 

 

Page 4 of 25

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