Theatre

The hip-hop Broadway in Chicago sensation Hamilton, which, has spawned a secondary market in pricey theater tickets, has also delivered a pair of spin-offs. Shamilton, an improv riff at the Apollo, and now, notably, Spamilton, a send up of the original musical about the founding fathers of the U.S. 

Is it funny if you haven’t seen the original? The short answer is yes – because following the opening sets based on Hamilton, the show quickly turns its sites on other long-time Broadway shows like Cats and Phantom of the Opera, warhorses like Camelot, and shows of more recent vintage like Wicked and Book of Mormon.

The creative force behind the show is Gerard Alessandrini, the originator of the 1982 "Forbidden Broadway," which was similar in format, and has been rewritten and updated more than a dozen times. It has played around the world, including Chicago - I’ve seen two different versions here.

For all practical purposes, Spamilton is the newest Forbidden Broadway, and on some levels it exceeds the earlier ones in appeal.

The key to the storyline is Broadway’s perpetual and desperate struggle to save itself, and to create a new vision of the big musical show. Show business has been mired in novelties like Book of Mormon and the puppet-based Avenue Q; overproduced extravaganza with no memorable songs, like Spiderman; or Sondheim light operetta that those outside the cognoscenti may find hard to sit through.

Alessandrini picks up this scent of desperation, and seizes on Broadway producers struggles with wickedly funny original song and dance numbers that sample or mash-up the originals. Clinging to revivals of Rogers & Hammerstein or Leonard Bernstein; turning over theaters to somewhat vapid Disney productions like Aladdin and Newsies, these producers become fodder for fun in Spamilton.

The show parodies this desperation with another extreme: combining previously successful shows.

A perfect example comes around 10 minutes in, as the Spamilton players switch gears and time periods to present The Lion King & I. Anna the English Governess in hoop skirts dons a Julie Traymor head set in a duet with a squawking animal character. Let’s say I chortled heartily.

The show runs at a mad-cap pace, and even if you don’t get all the references, it’s still funny. A scene of an axe wielding gentleman clad just in Fruit of the Looms is a send up of American Psycho (I think, after Googling). It was funny even though I didn’t know exactly what the reference was.

Wicked and Book of Mormon – once the pricey ‘it’ shows, now discounting tickets like any other production – get nailed pointedly, having yielded star status to Hamilton. Scenes are punctuated by a running gag: homeless ladies in rags begging for Hamilton tickets – understood to be based on true stories of famous  stars desperate for seating.

A Barbra Streisand impersonation finds the aging diving singing in signature reverb, advising that when Hamilton is filmed, she wants to play a role in “The Film When It  Happens.” Likewise, J-Lo and Gloria Estefan walk-on, each hoping to tap the mojo of Hamilton. Liza Minnelli appears, but runs the other direction - and asks that rap be banned on Broadway, so they can “bring back the tunes.”  

The show reveals broader awareness in a number, Straight is Back, which laments the loss of gay show tunes and glitter, as productions like Hamilton skew to more manly styles. 

You can get a taste of Spamilton from the original New York cast album, just released. But it pales compared to the experience of seeing this cast of amazing dancers and singers, and their great comedic timing: Donterrio Johnson, Michelle Lauto, Eric Andrew Lewis, Yando Lopez, David Robbins, and guest diva Christine Pedi (she's the Streisand character among others), with musical direction by Adam LaSalle.  

While Hamilton’s original star Lin-Manuel Miranda love “laughed my brains out!" when he saw the show, during last Sunday’s production the Chicago cast of Hamilton was in the audience – and they had a blast.

Gerry McIntyre did the choreography;  Dustin Cross gets Costume Design; , Fred Barton (Musical Director), and Richard Danley and Fred Barton (Musical Arrangements). "Spamilton" is produced in Chicago by John Freedson, David Zippel, Gerard Alessandrini, Margaret Cotter and Liberty Theatricals, in association with JAM Theatricals. Chuckie Benson and Arielle Richardson are the understudies the production.

"Spamilton" plays Tuesdays through Fridays at 7:30 p.m., Saturdays at 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. at the Royal George Theater.  www.spamilton.com

Published in Theatre in Review

In The Source, Gabriel McKinley has penned what may be destined to become a stage classic. A gripping thriller, The Source is a timeless existential drama as well.

It centers on a pair of journalists –  a writer, and a photographer – holed up in a hotel, waiting to connect with a whistleblower - someone who will reveal deep background on a cache of information just released on a security agency in the government.

In 85 tightly controlled minutes director Jason Gersace ensnares our curiosity, luring us into this very topical examination of the tension between privacy and security. It is also a study of what happens when two people who don't necessarily like each other are bound together by necessity. 

The journalists are professional opposites – the writer Vernon (Cody Proctor) is cool and cerebral; the photographer Luna (Kristina Valada-Viars) warm and intuitive. On a journalistic level, Vernon holds writing in higher esteem than photography – a notion that causes competitive professional sparks familiar to those in the field. For her part, Luna feels pictures rule. “I don’t read newspapers; it’s a dead medium,” she digs.

Vernon enters the hotel room as the lights come up, and makes a hurried canvass of the premises -  unplugging the TV, putting his phone in the freezer after removing its batteries, he draws the curtains tight – establishing his high level of anxiety and paranoia. We are not sure why.

We soon see they are opposites on a human level, too. Luna’s arrival catches him off guard (he was in the shower), and she exhibits far less angst than him. Luna readily introduces herself to Vernon and shares her background, while he is reluctant to provide even his name.

That they are to pose as a married couple while they await further signals from their source only heightens the emotional aspects of this drama.

Thrown together in a hotel room for a period that is indeterminate, the two unfold before the audience – and each other – as any roommate or cell mates will. They empty the mini bar, they attempt a tryst in bed, they lose sleep, and sleep too much.

The progression of time is conveyed artfully, with a supertitle Day 2, Day 4, etc., flashed on the wall above the window. Because the two will not admit room service, their quarters also mark the passage of time by become messier. Their clothes need laundering. They are at each other’s throats, and their claustrophobia germinates into a mutual paranoia.  

That wait goes on interspersed by just a few external diversions – a fire alarm goes off, periodically someone pounds on the door of the room, lights from an unknown source scan across the room and its occupants.

This is where The Source rises from a topical drama about government intrigue and media, to a timeless study of two people cast together, waiting, but not knowing what exactly they are waiting for. It seems like a play that will wear well over time.

Credit goes to Jack McGaw for scenic design, Claire Margaret Chrzan for lighting design, and Mark Comiskey for projection design for lighting design – particularly artful are the abstract glowing shadows of lamps inscribed on the wall when the room goes dark.  

Route 66 Theatre Company ‘s The Source runs through April 2 at The Den Theatre. www.route66theatre.brownpapertickets.com.

Published in Theatre in Review

We first meet Clea as she traipses into the great room of a sky-high Manhattan penthouse, enraptured by the “surreal” view. Looking on disdainfully are Charlie (Mark Montgomery), an actor who has been struggling to get cast lately, and his wing-man Lewis (La Shawn Banks).

In the world of theater, a gushing ingénue making a breathless entrance is something that has been seen before, to put it mildly. Charlie for one is not impressed. 

In short order, though, we sense there may be more to this young woman, and these men, than first appears. As it happens, the party is in the home of an actor-writer on the rise, and his older, wealthy patron. Charlie is there hoping to rub shoulders with him, and maybe get a role in his new production.

Clea (Deanna Myers blazes in the role) is on a similar mission – though at this point in her career she is less certain about how things will play out. She is also a font of inanity – “Food is, like, disgusting to me,” she avers, claiming never to eat. “Most things people put in their mouths, it is totally just like eating death. Someone proved that eating is killing people." 

Charlie and Lewis are agape at Clea. Charlie clearly finds her exaggerated pronouncements aversive, while Lewis nods and puts on about the phoniest show of interest imaginable - miming that attraction men sometimes feel despite (or perhaps because of) knowing better.  

Poured into snug-fitting couture and clearly master of her heels, Clea reads, accurately, the mocking tone in Charlie’s desultory conversation. When he asks her how the view can be “surreal,” sparks begin to fly in what turns out to be a harbinger of later romance.   

This is also the first inkling we have that Clea is more femme fatale than ingénue.  She vacillates from helpless to heated. In due course, she reveals a grab-bag of information about herself, and observations on life in general. Her mother is an alcoholic, so she doesn’t drink. People are just not "awake" to life.  

She has recently arrived from Ohio hoping to make her break in New York. She eventually asks for that vodka – just this one time – and becomes even more voluble. Clea reveals she has applied for a position on a television production team – and does a send-up of the woman who interviewed her, describing a “Nazi priestess” of talent bookings, by the name of Stella. As it turns out, Stella is Charlie’s wife - and fatefully, the unrequited love of Lewis.

Clea came there intent on making an impression. And oh she does in Meyers’s super-charged performance. In later scenes, after she has vanquished Lewis, she moves on to seduce Charlie, ultimately triggering his downfall by overstaying a tryst - so the two get caught by Stella.

Charlie eventually ends up on the street, having cast aside his stable life with Stella. (The story line draws on Waugh's of Human Bondage, according to playwright Therese Rebeck.)

The couple was about to adopt a child. Perhaps the prospect of parenthood was too great a strain on Charlie. Fear of parenthood is a classic romance killer, but under Kimberly Seniors direction we are witness to Charlie's action, but not his motivation. Stella also is a bit of a caricature, slipping into Spanish when her blood gets boiling.  Lewis, meanwhile, has played this marriage's third wheel from the opening scene, defending Stella against critiques. The trio has a reasonable chemistry in scenes, but Stella seems overplayed, and Lewis underplayed when they are alone together. 

As to Clea: Viper? Seductress? Ingénue? Trollop? Those old-fashioned words don’t quite apply, as Clea owns her sexuality, and is aware of where she is heading. She seems at once incisive, and empty-headed.

“How can you know so much and so little at the same time?” as Charlie asks.

Waugh’s classic, Of Human Bondage, was filmed three times. And The Scene was also made into a movie - Seducing Charlie Barker. 

In The Scene, the eventual affair with Clea leads to Charlie’s downfall, and his wife Stella’s departure, among other things. While the performance by Myers is captivating, and the chemistry between Stella (Charin Alvarez), Lewis and Charlie is convincing, I struggled to find empathy with anyone other than Clea – a rather villainous protagonist.

The glass and steel set is striking, and works really well through all the scenes. The furnishings were dead on, very Blue Dot Catalog. Likewise the costumes, down to the men's shoes.  Brian Sidney Bembridge did sets;  Nan Zabriskie costume; Sarah Hughey, lighting; Richard Woodbury, original music and sound design; and Scott Dickens handled props. 

Running through April 2 at the Writers Theatre in Glencoe, Illinois, The Scene comes recommended, especially to see Deanna Myers.

Published in Theatre in Review

Trying to explain what Black Harlem's Renaissance was like is hard. The period was so rich in creative verve, you really have to show it while you tell it. It took me awhile to grasp what playwright Pearl Cleage has achieved - and director Ron OJ Parson has brought carefully to life -  in Court Theatre's Blues for an Alabama Sky.

In this beautifully polished production, we become familiar with the lives and aspirations of five denizens of the abundant cultural life enveloping New York's burgeoning black district in the 1920s and 1930s, driven by waves of aspiring new arrivals during the Great Migration from the South to the North. The period gives rise to the first jazz concert, to international musical superstars like Josephine Baker, Paul Robeson, Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller; to writers and thinkers like Marcus Garvey, Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, and Claude McKay, who wrote the first bestseller by a black author. 

Cleage has fleshed out each of her characters - a doctor, a singer, a fashion designer, a social worker, and a carpenter - who are much more than archetypes. These are real people, each contributing a seminal thread to this tale. She has also set the timeline toward the end of that golden era, in 1930 after the market crash, as the Great Depression rolled in. 

The storyline seems surprisingly fresh, but it is true to its time: the protagonists here seem a mismatched couple - a flamboyant gay fashion designer Guy (Sean Parris), and his platonic love, Angel (Toya Turner), a gangsters' moll who tries but fails to make a living as a night club singer.  

Abandonedly outré, Guy has worked his way up from stitching gowns for cross dressers, to designing clothes on spec for Josephine Baker. The pair love and support each other as they pursue their dreams, but have no future as a couple; Angel is set on finding herself a big strong man who will take care of her, and pay the rent. Guy wants to make it in Paris.

Across the hall dwells the scholarly Delia (Celeste Cooper), who is launching the first family planning clinic in Harlem. A history lesson makes its way into the plot as the clinic is burned down. Some in the black community suspected efforts at setting up such clinics - led by Margaret Sanger - were really just part of a plot to reduce the black population. Carrying the torch for Delia is Sam, a medical doctor. James Vincent Meredith's performance gives Sam a steady, even temperament - abiding patience, and someone who is tolerant and nurturant. 

Conflict arises as Leland (Geno Walker) a widowed carpenter recently arrived from Alabama, falls for Angel. His ardor cools as he discovers he is not in Alabama anymore. In this Black Harlem, homosexuals are accepted; family planning is a matter of choice.

Each of these characters engenders our sympathy. And in the course of the action they live, die, move on - or remain stuck in place. Though Cleage wrote this work in 1995, it is completely fresh. And it has been given its due in Parson's production. Costumes and set are beautifully period, and lighting brings added dimensions to the staging. Blues for an Alabama Sky now extended through February 19th at Court Theatre.

Published in Theatre in Review

Naperville may be worth seeing just for its portrayal of T.C., a newly installed Caribou Coffee shop manager. When customers repeatedly ask after Nick, his popular predecessor, he replies by the book, “Nick no longer works here.”

We soon see that T.C. is desperate to succeed in his new job, hoping to avoid the fate of Nick, who was sacked for letting customers linger past closing time – the kind of thing that throws a monkey wrench into the central database to which the cash register, lights, locks and ever observant video monitors are linked. Welcome to 1984.

While T.C. is a parody, he is also a parable for our times. In their chain store incarnation, coffee shops are friendly places – within limits. As he warms to the customers, T.C. slips and reveals that “Nick will never work in this or any other Caribou Coffee again.” As closing time nears, these customers have no intention of moving on despite T.C.’s angst-ridden and frantic efforts.

The problem with the rest of Naperville is that the roles are more caricatures than characters. Overweening Howard (Mike Tapeli), home to care for his sight-impaired mother Candice (Laura T. Fisher), is put upon as she needles him to get married. Howard ’s popular high school classmate, Anne (Abby Pierce), sequestered in a corner, broods over her poorly lived life while cobbling together a vaguely worthy history of Captain Joseph Naper. 

Playwright Mat Smart delivers steady laughs and Naperville is somewhat engaging, but toward the midpoint we start hankering for. . .meaning, as do the characters. Instead we have something more like a Seinfeld episode (you know,” nothing happens”) only it’s a bit less edgy.

Not to fault this cast. Abby Pierce has movie star quality. Mike Tepeli projects the protagonist as “everyman.” Charlie Strater as Roy perfectly evokes that untethered born-again character you hope to avoid in social settings. (And he draws our sympathy when he reveals his pain in answer to Howard’s, “What’s your deal?”). Also, the set (Joe Shermoly), props (Amanda Hermann) and costumes (Christine Pascual) are pretty much perfect. Somewhat recommended, Naperville runs through October 16 at Theater Wit

 

Published in Theatre Reviews

Singer Jackie Wilson was one of America’s great pop songwriters and vocalists. A vibrant production of The Jackie Wilson Story at the Black Ensemble shows, tells, and sings his story in a celebration that shakes the rafters.

This version of The Jackie Wilson Story is even more exciting as an upgrade over the original, in the caliber of the staging and music - which take full advantage of the Black Ensemble’s 299-seat main stage, opened in 2011. The awesome Black Ensemble Theater Musicians give full expression to the developing musical styles over the course of Wilson’s career, from the early 1950s (he first recorded what became a signature classic, “Danny Boy,” with Dizzy Gillespie in 1952) through 1968’s “Your Love Keeps Lifting Me Higher,”  with big hits including "Doggin, Me Around" and "To Be Loved."

Though I came of age in the 1960s, I didn’t realize how familiar Wilson’s work is to all of us - until I saw the original release of  The Jackie Wilson Story in 2000. A breakout hit for Black Ensemble Theater, that production spawned a national tour that culminated in a run at the Apollo Theatre in New York City.  After seeing it I ran out and bought his records, listening to them non-stop for weeks. That’s how good he is.

 A challenge for an actor portraying Wilson is measuring up musically. Kelvin Roston, Jr. has Jackie Wilson nailed musically, but he is neither a mimic nor impersonating: he is acting. Roston is a damn fine singer, to be sure – but he is an actor first, and to us, he is Wilson on that stage.

The real Jackie Wilson wooed the women in the audience; Roston does the same, in real time – with a nod and a wink that we are watching a master performer deftly be both in the role, and beside it. When his wife Freda reaches the end of her rope with his philandering, Roston's rendition of  "Lonely Teardrops" (recorded in 1958) is a not just a great performance, it is a full throttle emotive expression of Wilson's plea for her to stay.

While Freda doesn't sing, Jackie Wilson's mother does - by way of explaining his musical chops. And in this production, Wilson's mother Eliza (Kora Green) is even a better singer than Roston's Wilson. (You can probably check out Wikipedia to see if that were true in real life.)

Along with the musical backing, Black Ensemble Theater's troupe has expanded, and this show features a dozen singing, dancing performers. Direoce Junirs demonstrates quite a range as Freda's angry father in coveralls, and later a fay stage manager. Reuben Echoles stands out as B.B., Wilson's confidant and manager. 

The sets (Denise Karczewski) also deserve a mention: the neutral backdrop puts in relief the spare placement of mid-century modern furniture, with fabrics and colors spot-on from the period.  (There might be a less cumbersome way to show the big hospital bed in which Wilson lingered for nine years before he died - it rolls in and out repeatedly.)

While there are some frayed edges in the original script (the dialog is laced with exposition of the background, which makes for some wooden exchanges) one could make the case that the times have caught up with the style. This recount of the high points in Jackie Wilson’s biography are more like a graphic novel than a conventional drama. Real people’s lives don’t usually fit neatly into dramatic packaging.

The final wow is a number I had forgotten about, one of Wilson's greatest songs: O Danny Boy. That cross-cultural standard, a plaintive Celtic lament, is sung by a ghostly Wilson as the story closes. Recorded in 1965, it never fails to bring tears to this Irishman. 

In that sense, The Jackie Wilson Story also fulfills a bigger mission: reminding us of the greatness of Wilson’s singing and performances, and that great music helps bridge wide cultural gaps among us. Highly recommended, it runs through September 4, 2016 at the Black Ensemble Theater, 4450 N. Clark St. in Chicago.

 

 

Published in Theatre Reviews

Right out of the gate CHOPS is a winner – in performances, production and script. Playwright Michael Rychlewski captures that ineffable quintessence of Chicago-ese as his three remnants of the 1950s and ‘60s glory days of Rush Street wash ashore at Vince’s bar.

Let’s hear it for the casting, too – director Richard Shavzin has corralled an exceptionally well-matched brace of players here, strong character actors from our city’s bountiful supply. As Walt (Randy Steinmeyer) launches full throttle into his opening monologue, the audience knows it is in on something big tonight.

On Walt's arm is a dame, Kaki (Clare Cooney), claiming to be older than she is, and unnaturally well schooled in the music and dance from the waning days of 1950s and 1960s big band jazz. Tending bar, the world-weary Vince (Larry Neumann Jr.) is a perfect counterpoint to Walt’s bravado, as he eyes with suspicion this young lady’s game.

The story line is straightforward. Three late middle aged men – the third, Philly (Danny Sullivan) makes a backdoor entrance along the way – are competing for the attention of the comely young lass. They dance, talk big, and tell tales of their past. Chicagoans of a certain age will glow at references to now-vanished Rush St. locales like Mr. Kelley’s and the Gaslight Club.

Then the big talk turns competitive, and a storytelling contest ensues – shades of August Wilson here. A contrivance? Perhaps, but it arrives naturally and these guys are so compelling, the audience doesn’t begrudge a minute of it.

This scene also paints an even richer portrait of Chicago’s bygone era, captured in the color of its speech. While David Mamet has abstracted this linguistic naturalism into a generalized form, Rychlewski gives it the specificity of its locale – all the more enjoyable. Chops is a must-see just for this scene.

As the story continues, the plotting became harder to follow. But given the caliber of the performances, it seems that the director and author may need to coax a bit more from this section to get across the nature of the con that is being set up. Past that scene, the power struggle among the characters continues to a satisfying dramatic conclusion.  

There is one point in CHOPS that gave me pause: the character Kaki takes restroom breaks for the convenience of the dramatic trajectory, but at some point these become too many, and one runs unnaturally long (is she doing cocaine in there?).

The set is very good; Grant Sabin has done an impressive job with set design while Chris Neville handled the props. As CHOPS reveals itself to be a cut above the ordinary, I felt myself wishing even more resources were given so that Sabin and Neville could take their artistry further.  

In addition to the choreography and music that spice this play, there is also a compelling story behind its authorship, a first work, 25 years in the making by Rychlewski, a Schurz High School English teacher. He brought a 120- page script to director Shavzin, who cut it back to 74 pages – another factor in its excellence.

Dashnight Productions’ CHOPS runs through August 14 at Theatre Wit. May that run be extended.  

Published in Theatre Reviews

 

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