Theatre

Celebrating nearly 35 years in their factory space around the North Center neighborhood, American Theater Company has a knack for taking risks on new works. “Welcome to Jesus” is prefaced with a recorded curtain speech by artistic director Will Davis, “It’s our responsibility to take risks.” And that is absolutely true. At no other company in town are you more likely to see a smash hit first production right before it becomes a Pulitzer finalist.

“Welcome to Jesus” is not one of those gems. This new play by Janine Nabers is likely to land among the annals of forgotten plays, but good for ATC for taking a chance. Under the direction of Will Davis, this world premiere is certainly provocative but begs the question, is this the best way to make the playwright’s point?

“Welcome to Jesus” is about a small Texan town obsessed with high school football and wholesome, Christian values. When two bumbling, and related, cops come across the zombie-fied head football coach with a dead body in the woods, the play takes on a racist-flavored B-horror movie feel.

The point that Nabors spends two short acts exploring is what it’s like for people of color in Christian, white dominated places. It’s also a commentary on how the professional sports industry uses up athletes while skirting the issue of racism. In that regard, Nabors’ script is very topical. The problem is that her thesis is obscured by supernatural plot points which ultimately have no resolution or bearing on the conclusion.

Will Davis’ direction is a little strange, but the performances are strong. A little too often the audience is subjected to blinding light and expected to participate. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, but if an audience can’t connect with the work, this gimmick is bound to be awkward.

“Welcome to Jesus” has something to say, but whatever it is, isn’t quite there yet. The important thing is that a successful theater company saw a play with a contentious message and gave it a chance. Nabors would be best to revise her well-meaning script so that it’s more like a play and less like a Netflix pilot.

Through December 3rd at American Theater Company. 1909 W Byron St. 773-409-4125

Published in Theatre in Review

Hell in a Handbag Productions is pleased to conclude its 15th Anniversary Season with its most popular show ever: the holiday hit RUDOLPH THE RED-HOSED REINDEER 2017 by David Cerda*, co-directed by Becca Holloway and AJ Wright*. Handbag’s irreverent parody of the 1967 Rankin Bass children’s television special will play November 25 – December 30, 2017 at Mary’s Attic, 5400 N. Clark St. in Chicago’s Andersonville neighborhood. Tickets are on currently available at www.handbagproductions.org (through Brown Paper Tickets) or by calling (800) 838-3006. 

RUDOLPH THE RED-HOSED REINDEER will feature Graham Heacock as Rudolph, Kristopher Bottrall* as Herbie, Allison Petrillo as Jane Donner, Chase Wheaton-Werle as Tom Donner, Michael Jack Hampton as Santa, Tommy Bullington as Mrs. Claus, Sydney Genco* as Elfina, Colin Funk as Spike, Michael Rawls as Score, Josh Kemper as Coach Comet, Lori Lee* as Yukon Cornelia, Terry McCarthy* as Connie Blitzen, David Cerda* as Gladys Dasher, Christea Parent* as Clarice and Matt Sergot as Sam the Snowman.
 
Chicago’s favorite cross-dressing reindeer is back and he’s 20 years old! RUDOLPH THE RED-HOSED REINDEER had its first reading in 1996 and has evolved into one of Chicago’s most popular anti-holiday, holiday shows. Join Rudolph and all of his misfit friends as they struggle with fitting in and being ‘normal’ in an increasingly abnormal world. Playwright David Cerda* always adjusts the show to fit the current social climate. 
 
The production team for RUDOLPH THE RED-HOSED REINDEER includes: Roger Wykes (set design), Kate Setzer Kamphausen (costume design), Cat Wilson* (lighting design), Ralph Loza (sound design), Adrian Hadlock* (props design), Lauren Griffith (choreography), Keith Ryan* (wig design), Sydney Genco* (make-up design) JD Caudill* (music director) and Drew Donnelly (stage manager).
 
*Denotes Hell in a Handbag Ensemble Members
 
PRODUCTION DETAILS:
 
Title: RUDOLPH THE RED-HOSED REINDEER 2017
Playwright: David Cerda*
Directors: Becca Holloway and AJ Wright*
Cast (in alphabetical order): Kristopher Bottrall* (Herbie), Tommy Bullington (Mrs. Claus), David Cerda* (Gladys Dasher), Colin Funk (Spike), Sydney Genco* (Elfina), Michael Jack Hampton (Santa), Graham Heacock (Rudolph), Josh Kemper (Coach Comet), Lori Lee* (Yukon Cornelia), Terry McCarthy* (Connie Blitzen), Christea Parent* (Clarice) Allison Petrillo (Jane Donner), Michael Rawls (Score), Matt Sergot as (Sam the Snowman) and Chase Wheaton-Werle (Tom Donner).
 
Location: Mary’s Attic, 5400 N. Clark St., Chicago
Dates: Previews: Saturday, November 25 at 7:30 pm, Sunday, November 26 at 7:30 pm and Thursday, November 30 at 7:30 pm
Regular run: Thursday, December 7 – Saturday, December 30, 2017
Curtain Times: Thursday, Fridays and Saturday at 7:30 pm; Sundays at 6 pm. Please note: there will not be performances on Saturday, December 2, Sunday, December 3 or Sunday, December 24 (Christmas Eve); there will be an added performance on Wednesday, December 20 at 7:30 pm.
Tickets: Previews $13. Regular run $25 in advance, $30 at the door. VIP tickets with cocktail $40 and up. Group rates $20 for 10 or more. Tickets are currently on sale at www.handbagproductions.org (through Brown Paper Tickets) or by calling (800) 838-3006.

 

Published in Upcoming Theatre

Other Theatre is pleased to continue its 4th season with the third revival of its holiday hit BARNEY THE ELF, a campy and irreverent musical comedy, written by Bryan Renaud with lyrics by Renaud and Emily Schmidt. After helming the 2016 production, Tommy Rivera-Vega returns to direct and choreograph, with music direction by Nik Kmiecik and arrangements by Jermaine Hill. BARNEY THE ELF will play November 17 – December 31, 2017 at Other Theatre’s resident home, The Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave. in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood.  Tickets are available at www.theothertheatrecompany.com, in person at the Greenhouse Theater box office or by calling (773) 404-7336. Season subscriptions are currently available. 
 
BARNEY THE ELF will feature Roy Samra as Barney, Chicago drag sensation Dixie Lynn Cartwright returning as Zooey, Maggie Cain as Mrs. Claus, Jaron Bellar as Junior and Courtney Dane Mize as Cookie/Ensemble with Emilie Rose Danno, Colleen DeRosa, LiSean McElrath, Lance Spencer and Cody Talkie.
 
After Santa Claus retires, his wicked son begins a not-so-jolly reign as the new head of Christmas. The North Pole begins to crumble under his bigoted rule, and Barney the Elf is forced to leave his home for being different from the others. Soon he embarks on a fabulous journey of self-discovery (or is it elf-discovery?) that lands him in one of Chicago's hottest drag bars. But can he truly leave Christmas behind for a new life in the big city? BARNEY THE ELF brings pop-infused musical numbers galore and plenty of queer holiday cheer to Lincoln Park for the third year in a row! 
 
"Rather endearing [with] surprising emotional payoffs... Renaud and his collaborators may well have a fringe holiday repeat hit to call home for the holidays."  –The Chicago Tribune
 
The production team for BARNEY THE ELF includes Michael Johannsen (scenic design), Olivia Crary (costume design), Matthew Carney (lighting design), Ashley Pettit (sound design, production manager), Bobby Taves (asst. music director) and Meghan Erxleben (asst. lighting designer).
 
PRODUCTION DETAILS:
 
Title: BARNEY THE ELF
Written by: Bryan Renaud
Lyrics by: Bryan Renaud and Emily Schmidt
Directed and choreographed by: Tommy Rivera-Vega
Musical Direction by: Nik Kmiecik
Musical Arrangements by: Jermaine Hill
Cast: Jaron Bellar (Junior), Dixie Lynn Cartwright (Zooey), Maggie Cain (Mrs. Claus), Emilie Rose Danno (Ensemble), Colleen DeRosa (Ensemble), Roy Samra (Barney), Courtney Dane Mize (Cookie/Ensemble), LiSean McElrath (Ensemble), Lance Spencer (Ensemble) and Cody Talkie (Ensemble).
Swings/understudies: Bella DeBalle, Miranda Harris and Tommy Rivera-Vega
 
Location: The Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago
Dates: Preview: Friday, November 17 at 8 pm, Saturday, November 18 at 7 pm, Sunday, November 19 at 3 pm and Sunday, November 26 at 3 pm.
Regular run: Thursday, November 30 – Sunday, December 30, 2017
Curtain Times: Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm; Sundays at 3 pm. Please note: there will not be a performance on Sunday, December 24 (Christmas Eve).
Tickets: Previews: $20 with code “PREVIEW.” Regular run: $25. Students $15 with code “STUDENT.” Industry $15 with code “INDUSTRY.” Tickets are available at www.theothertheatrecompany.com, in person at the Greenhouse Theater Center box office or by calling (773) 404-7336. Season subscription are currently available.

 

Published in Upcoming Theatre
Saturday, 28 October 2017 12:56

NRBQ Makes Big Splash at Fitzgerald's

NRBQ is a fun band. “New Rhythm and Blues Quartet”. I find the name slightly misleading. When I think of R&B, I think of something completely different. This is more like old Rock and Roll with a little Vaudeville. They do have a bit of a cult following. I don’t think they ever had anything resembling a hit record but they do have a loyal fan base that keeps them existing as a working band stretching back to 1966.

Founding member Terry Adams keeps the torch burning as the last original cast member. The rest of the current band is just amazing. These guys are musical AND fun!!!!! It is possible. Their songs…well...I didn’t actually know one of them. I can see the reason why this band stays working. They are a live band. The songs themselves are good but unless you are one of the people that were walking around the club with NRBQ T Shirts, you would never know them at all.

This is show biz as they say. Hit records or not, these guys are fun band. They come out in pastel suits and goofy hats. A touch of that era of putting on a show. Some songs are tongue in cheek. That’s entertainment. These guys are also pretty solid musicians. They pulled their show at Fitzgerald’s in Berwyn off without a hitch.

Playing guitar and singing was Scott Ligon. I really thought he had a great voice. His harmonies with bassist Casey McDonough were straight of the book. Both of them did lead vocal duty along with Adams. Drummer John Perrin rounds out the band. There have been a lot of members through the years. Joey Spampinato and Al Anderson are legendary. Regardless of the lineup, the band lives on.

NRBQ’s set is diverse, including something for everyone, including many fan favorites including:

Keep This Love Goin'
Not Tonight, Hon
Little Floater
Dr. Howard, Dr. Fine, Dr. Howard
Don't Worry Baby
Boozoo, That's Who!
It's Not Too Late
Advice for Teenagers
It'll Be Alright
Daddy's Gonna Tell You No Lie
Wild Weekend
Ain't It All Right
Wacky Tobacky
RC Cola and a Moon Pie
Green Lights
Everybody's Out of Town
Get on the Right Track, Baby
Everyone Says I Love You
Chicken Hearted
Ridin' in My Car
I Want You Bad
Sleepless Nights
Honey Hush
Magnet
Dummy
Talk to Me
The Music Goes Round and Round
Get Rhythm
Me and the Boys
Do You Feel It?
Howard Johnson's Got His Ho-Jo Working

Now available on CD and Digital, NRBQ's new EP Happy Talk contains two originals and the Q’s spontaneous take on Roy Orbison’s “Only the Lonely,” along with the band’s years-in-the-making arrangement of Rogers & Hammerstein’s South Pacific tune “Happy Talk,” which serves as the EP’s title track.

NRBQ is the kind of a band tough to capture on a recording. This a club band. I am not sure they would ever do well in arenas. You don’t want to see Terry Adams make those faces on a forty-foot monitor…with that hat on……it just might be more than you can handle with a straight face…but seriously…NRBQ is a band worth seeing. Don’t watch the videos, go see the band.

Published in In Concert

Sarah Ruhl’s ‘In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play’ returns to Chicago at Timeline Theatre. Directed by Mechelle Moe, this drawing room comedy about the advent of electricity is sure to tickle audiences. Ruhl’s works have often been produced around the city as she’s an Evanston native. She may reside in Brooklyn now, but we’ll still claim her as our own.

‘In the Next Room’ was shortlisted for the 2009 Pulitzer after a successful Broadway run. It was also nominated for the 2009 Tony Award for Best Play. ‘In the Next Room’ might just be Ruhl’s most fully realized play. It’s a whimsical, if not loose, history of the invention of the vibrator. While it may sound like a cheeky sex comedy, ‘In the Next Room’ is a feminist anthem.

Dr Givings (Anish Jethmalani) is a country doctor who specializes in hysteria, a very real condition that afflicted women during a much less sexual period in history. His wife Catherine (Rochelle Therrien) does not suffer as her husband’s patients do, but instead yearns for romantic love. In some ways, this play is like Sarah Ruhl’s own version of ‘A Doll’s House.’ A wife searching for her purpose in a world dominated by men. Catherine says at one point “I do not know what kind of person I am” and feels like a failure when her child will not nurse. Through various entrances and exits, we’re shown how sexless life was between man and wife during the Victorian era. As an audience with hindsight, we understand that this miracle cure for hysteria is nothing more than a medically induced orgasm.

The ensemble is well cast. Rochelle Therrien makes Ruhl’s fanciful dialogue endearing and innocent. Her fresh-faced and child-like performance is so charming you can’t believe her husband’s indifference. Though quiet and understated, Dana Tretta plays Annie, the physician’s midwife. A sort of “Igor” sidekick type, but Ruhl doesn’t overlook the character. Her arch of a life without love is perhaps the most touching of all.

Not only is this play a feminist anthem, but a play about orgasms. The very idea that women did not discuss anything related to sex is absurd in a world where you can watch re-runs of ‘Sex and the City’ at any given time. Even nursing a child was considered distasteful to discuss. Rarely if ever have so many simulated orgasms happened in one theatrical performance. Though, like the era, they’re so unsexualized that you can’t help but giggle at the characters discovering themselves. In one full-length play Sarah Ruhl bursts nearly every female taboo of the time out of the closet. Never have Women’s Rights been a more hot button issue and ‘In the Next Room’ comes at just the right time.

Through December 16 at Timeline Theatre Company. Stage 773, 1225 W Belmont Ave. 773-327-5252

 

Published in Theatre in Review

Most people are aware of the movie Carrie, starring the haunting Sissy Spacek as the picked on teenaged outsider who uses her telekinetic powers to burn down her high school with most of her attackers in it, but few know there was a sequel made in the 90's where her long lost sister ends up using the same powers to avenge her and her best friend’s mistreatment. The sequel is appropriately titled Carrie 2: The Rage

Writer/composer Preston Max Allen does an amazing job of using the movie sequel as his starting point in Carrie 2: The Rage (An Unauthorized Musical Parody), writing many very funny and well-crafted parody songs and scenes to fill out the play. 

Rachel Lang, the lead played solidly by Demi Zaino, finds out that the reason her best friend committed suicide the day after happily losing her virginity to one of the boys on the football team is a cruel game that the boys are playing with young girl's minds by judging their looks with a point system for the football player who "bangs them". The boys then and then dump the girls who are considered "coyote's,” not really the ugly girls just the sensitive, nerdy vulnerable ones. 

Then to make things worse Rachel ends up stealing the heart of the only nice football player that the head cheerleader is in love with and thereby invites the wrath of the cheerleaders and the team when she tries to prove the team were at fault for her friend’s death. As revenge, the team and cheerleaders gang up on Rachel and orchestrate the video taping of her having sex with the nice football player named Jesse. After viewing herself having sex and being laughed at by everyone invited to a private party, Rachel unleashes her inherited telekinetic rage powers to kill everyone much the same way Carrie did nearly two decades earlier. 

Although the plot of Carrie 2: The Rage seems like a perfect warning tale about bullying, it is also a terrifying reminder of the damage caused by sexual harassment and rape.

First of all, it is terrifying to grow up in an age where your immature teenage peers can make a sex tape of you and show it to everyone you know. Also, it shows that Rachel's virginal friend is actually thrilled to have "become a woman" with what she thinks is her new boyfriend - until he breaks up with her the very next day because his friends call her a "coyote".

The way she is broken up with is worse than the act of sex itself because it means that the act of sex itself was a vengeful act to him, not the beautiful loving experience she had been conned into thinking it was. 

All three cheerleaders are played with perfect camp, each having their own unique brand of snotty mean girl-ness that is very funny and well played. But two character actresses really steal the show in the roles of Rachel's mentally ill mother, Annie Pfohl and the high school counselor, who witnessed the first destruction of the high school with Carrie at the helm played by Sue Snell. Both Snell and Pfohl play the crazy in their roles with fantastic realism and comic timing which takes the play to a whole new level of both humor and spookiness. Sam Button-Harrison is also tremendously funny as the play’s lead bully.

You really feel for these beleaguered women who are trying desperately to forget and prevent the tragedy that has ruined their lives as well as Carrie, and now poor Rachel's, at the hands of some of the meanest boys and girls the musical comedy stage has ever seen. 

Eric Luchen, designs a set in the tiny Arkham space that seems to expand and contract with each number in marvelous ways. Choreographer Maggie Robinson and co-directors Rachel Elise Johnson and Isaac Loomer each do a wonderful job bringing this nice sized cast to life with full out dance numbers and great lighting and sound effects that move along quickly and seemed to be unfolding in a much larger space. 

I really laughed at, and thoroughly enjoyed, this well played, musical wild ride through the early nineties (right down to Rachel’s torn jeans, army boots and plaid shirt tied around her waist). The Rage is filled with gore, laughs and a moral - "People shouldn't suck so much!" Just in time for Halloween! 

Underscore Theatre’s Carrie: The Rage (An Unauthorized Musical Parody) is being performed at The Arkham through November 19th. For more show information visit http://www.underscoretheatre.org/.

 

Published in Theatre in Review

Giselle, Adolphe Adam’s beautiful tale created for the ballet’s premiere in Paris back in 1841, has been re-imagined by the Ballet Master and Stager Lola de Avila, marking the opening of Joffrey Ballet’s 2017-2018 Season. Set in the Middle Ages on the day of the grape harvest festival, Act I takes us to the happy village and its villagers celebrating the harvest with dancing. The mood is cheerful and lighthearted, the music is fantastic (live orchestra under music director Scott Speck); colorful costumes and a gorgeous set (scenic and costume designs by Peter Farmer) prepare us for what’s about to unfold. Young and beautiful, child-like Giselle meets nobleman Duke Albrecht who comes to the village dressed as a peasant. Albrecht (very talented Temur Suluashvili) is actually engaged to marry Bathilde (Jeraldine Mendoza), the daughter of the Prince of Courland, but Giselle is unaware of any of that. The two flirt and dance together, and Giselle falls madly in love. Victoria Jaiani ,as Giselle, is divinely graceful; if she was any more weightless, she’d likely fly away. Rory Hohenstein, who portrays Hilarion, a young villager in love with Giselle, is wonderful; his acting is on par with his dancing- so expressive and precise, one can almost hear what he’s trying to convey. Both Hilarion and Giselle’s mother Berthe (Olivia Tang-Mifsud) try to worn Giselle of Albrecht’s deceitful nature, but she won’t listen.

If traditional classical ballet moves and dancers’ perfect form keeps Giselle true to the Romantic ballet era, what comes next sets it apart from most ballets of that time and their usual happy endings. When Giselle finally learns the truth about Albrecht, she becomes inconsolable, her love passion turns into heartache so severe her heart literally breaks; she collapses and dies. This day didn’t end so well after all.

Act II: no more fun and games, we’re at Giselle’s graveyard on the night of her burial. Lit up by very realistic-looking moon, the set is mysterious and lifeless. Motionless Hilarion is grieving Giselle’s death, when he’s suddenly frightened by Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis. According to German poet Henrich Heine, the legend of Wilis came from Slav folklore: the spirits of young brides who died before their wedding could not rest in peace because of their unfulfilled desire for dancing on their wedding day. Vengeful Wilis rise from their graves at night and attempt to lure young men and dance them to death. It is believed that the phrase “gave me the Wilis” comes from this legend.

The stage is quickly traversed by a side-way moving female dancer in a very spooky manner. Then, dressed in white wedding gowns with flower garlands in their hair, the Wilis show up. Though their dance is breathtakingly slow, dreamy and completely void of any emotion, they appear to be thoroughly enjoying themselves. The ballerinas join together in a circle creating a wispy fluff with their puffy dresses. Surreal feeling, created by the light (lighting design by Michael Mazzola), the subdued colors of the costumes and the Wilis’ seductive dancing is enough to give anyone the wilis.

Hilarion is sentenced to death by dancing and is subsequently thrown into the nearby lake. Albrecht enters looking for Giselle’s grave, and Giselle’s spirit appears to him. He begs her for forgiveness; fortunately, her love for him is unchanged and she protects him from the Willis who insists on dancing him to exhaustion. As the day breaks, Albrecht’s life is spared, the Wilis return to their graves, and Giselle’s spirit, freed from vengeance, returns to her grave and can now rest in peace. Unbelievably beautiful (and just in time for Halloween)!

Joffrey Ballet’s Giselle is being performed at Auditorium Theatre through October 29th. For more information visit http://www.joffrey.org/giselle.

Published in Dance in Review

“That didn’t even sound like a mandolin,” I said to my companion – a mandolinist of some considerable skill – as we left Skokie’s North Shore Center for the Performing Arts after attending An Evening with Chris Thile.

“That’s what a mandolin’s supposed to sound like,” he said.

I guess so.

A musician myself, I’ve always found that particular instrument to be a bit shrill, a bit annoying, a tiny guitar with too many strings that doesn’t know if it wants to be a hillbilly or a classy sort of feller. I hadn’t known what to expect a couple hours earlier as my friend and I found our seats and watched a lone gentleman clutching an aged instrument step out under a single white spotlight.
But the acoustics and the sound system in the complex’s Center Theatre – both of which match the room’s clean and classy comfort – could have had something to do with the beautiful sounds I’d hear for the next two hours.

So could the single classic microphone, standing at the front of the stage to catch both Thile’s voice and playing.

It might have been the mandolin he was playing – nearly a century old, built by a legendary luthier, and aged gracefully to perfection like most antique stringed instruments do, if they survive that long.
But I’m pretty sure most of the credit goes to the man on the mandolin. From the first keening cry that erupted from his throat – met moments later by the plucking, picking, and petting of eight strings that wouldn’t let up till we were all satisfied – everyone in that theater was at the mercy of a real master. A master musician. A master showman. A man on the mandolin.

After beginning the set with a tune of his own followed by one by his band, The Punch Brothers, Thile took the classier road, performing Bach’s Partita in D Minor. On the mandolin. And, as I said up top, it didn’t sound like a mandolin to me, or what I thought a mandolin would sound like. Like so many other apex instrumentalists before him – Joshua Bell on his Strad, Jimi Hendrix on his Strat – Thile turned the wood and the wire into something more than what it had been crafted into – something other than a mandolin, entirely. The sound was huge, beautiful, otherworldly, other. It filled the hall. It filled me. I don’t know if I took a breath from the first note to the last.

My friend noted that not a note of Bach’s had needed to be added or changed, that what Bach wrote almost exactly three centuries ago was perfect then, and is still perfect today. And Thile played it perfectly. When he’d finished, he acknowledged the song’s creator, “Johann Sebastian Bach…the MAN”…even though right then, Thile was the man, playing some of history’s most brilliant music as brilliantly as it could be played.

But perfectly performing classical pieces isn’t this man’s only trick. Nope. I’ve seen Joshua Bell play the hell out of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto – one of the other times in my life I’ve had the pleasure of watching, hearing, experiencing one virtuoso interpret the work of another. But many virtuosos are one-trick ponies. Most doesn’t also host a long-running radio program that has become an institution, taking over for its beloved creator and decades-long voice. And, correct me if I’m wrong, but few musicians you could call virtuosos also write and perform their own music – music that can hold up during a program that features composition’s colossi.

Introducing a tune he’d written as a “Song of the Week” for Prairie Home Companion, Thile lamented last November’s electoral result and the direction of the country with the romping “Elephant in the Room.” A couple numbers later, he pulled out another written for NPR on the same theme, the swaggering “Falsetto.” Other originals were highlights, too. When Thile asked the audience for requests, one was The Punch Brothers’ “Magnet,” which he noted was one-fifth written by a Skokie native. After that he played another of his own – from this year’s collaboration with jazz pianist Brad Mehldau – a reflection on his favorite childhood bible story called “Daughter of Eve.”

While Thile’s playing and writing are indeed masterful, his voice is worth noting, too. All night I kept trying to come up with comparisons for what I was hearing, and because of his voice, I kept coming back to Jeff Buckley. Not because Thile can sing as well as Buckley – nobody can. But he reminded me of Buckley in the way he let his voice soar freely, in the way he could just let it go, up and up and up, floating and searching and floating some more, unashamed and free.

But mostly he reminded me of Jeff Buckley in his ability to take music written by others and make it his. I heard it when he made the bluegrass classic “Rabbit in the Hole” sound brand new, still respecting its roots. I heard it when he covered Neil Young’s “Tell Me Why,” turning a classic album’s opening tune I know so well into something new, too. And I heard it on my second favorite song of the night – one I admit I didn’t know the provenance of, mistaking it for an old sea shanty standard until I got home and looked it up – a take on Josh Ritter’s “Another New World.” As he did during each vocal piece, Thile interspersed bursts of virtuosic playing throughout the song – mixing mandolin with sails and ships, with Ninas and Pintas and Santa Marias, with Annabel Lee – the end result even more than just a beautiful story beautifully told and beautifully sung. It was beautifully played.

The highlight of the night, however, began with a little aside (Thile’s also a talker, as any radio personality should be, I suppose), as he told the crowd he’d written “Song for a Young Queen” as a boy, inspired by Natalie Portman in her 90s role as the future mother of Luke and Leia, and his own true boyhood love for her. And then came a magical moment for me. Now, I’ve seen a lot of shows in my life. But the one show – and the one moment during that show – that still means the most for me was way back in August of 2001. On a day that had hit a hundred, with the grass of Grant Park beneath my feet, with Lake Michigan to my right, with Chicago’s skyline to my left, and with a full moon above me and behind me, my favorite band Radiohead encored with a then-little-known rarity, “True Love Waits.” When that band’s singer, Thom Yorke, began it, it was one of those moments. So when, during his own song, Chris Thile sang Yorke’s words, “I’ll drown my beliefs,” he had my ear. And when he took that song, one I know inside and out, and stretched it out and embellished it with his playing and made it his own, he had my heart. And when he ended with its lyrics, “just don’t leave,” I didn’t want him to.

So, needless to say, seeing Chris Thile play the other night at Skokie’s North Shore Center was a performance I won’t forget. It’s, to be honest, a performance I’m still processing. The man showed off his many talents. The mandolin never sounded better. And this musician – now a fan – might never have seen the untouchable greats – the real inarguable virtuosos like Jimi on guitar or Buckley and his voice – ply their craft. But he can say he did see one in Skokie in October of 2017 when he was lucky enough to hear what mandolins supposed to sound like. When played by a master. When played by the man.

Published in In Concert

Lookingglass Theatre Company opens its 30th Anniversary Season with the return of the award-winning “Hard Times”, adapted from Charles Dickens and directed by Artistic Director and Ensemble Member Heidi Stillman , in association with The Actors Gymnasuim. It was first produced at Lookingglass in 2001, and some of the artists involved this season were part of the original production.

The story takes place in post-Industrial Revolution England. In a gloomy fictional small town dominated by mills and factories, art has very little presence. When a travelling circus comes to town, the circus clown manages to get his daughter Sissy (played Audrey Anderson; this is both her Lookingglass and professional debut) admitted to the best school in town. The school headmaster, Mr. Gradgrind (injecting his role with a very precise old-British flare, Raymond Fox is excellent), soon realizes that Sissy doesn’t belong in his school and makes it his business to notify her father in person. But the clown had skipped town, leaving his daughter behind. Mr. Gradgrind kindly offers her a place in his home and his school, alongside his two children, Louisa and Tom. But Sissy is from a different world, the world where imagination rules, the right words are ones that come from the heart, and mathematics is just an abstract subject that can’t be applied to life. Not exactly cut out for school, she’s left to stay home and care for Mr. Gradgrind’s wheelchair-bound wife while he spends increasingly more time out of town as a newly elected member of the Parliament.

The most important person in town is the mill-owner and banker Mr. Bounderby (the bombastic Troy West), a self-proclaimed self-made man. He has an eye on Louisa, so when she reaches an appropriate age [of twenty], he asks her hand in marriage. Mostly joyless Louisa (Cordelia Dewdney), whose only passion is her brother Tom (JJ Phillips), agrees, hoping that this will help advance her brother’s carrier in banking. Some of Dickens’ characters are quite difficult to relate to in part because of their excessive wordiness and overly dramatic demeanor, and Louisa is certainly one of them. Nevertheless, all characters are very well developed, the most entertaining of them being Mrs. Sparsit, Mr. Bounderby’s paid companion. Played by Amy J. Carle, who also plays Drunk Woman and Pufflerumpus, she’s manipulative and sarcastic and infuses her role with just the right amount of drama.

The circus performances are effortlessly woven into the plot (Circus Choreographer Sylvia Hernandez-DiStasi), and are like a breath of fresh air in town’s otherwise utilitarian existence. The circus is colorful and joyful, and it’s easy to see the stark contrast between the worlds of art and creativity versus business and hard menial work. Even Louisa starts dreaming of circus in her lowest moments.
Scenic Designer Daniel Ostling created a highly mobile set that’s both imaginative and practical; it provides ever-changing scenery, and the whimsically painted back wall is capable of becoming magically translucent to allow “dreams and memories” to enter the stage.

While the well-to-do townspeople are being bored with their lives, majority of the town’s inhabitants, the poor miners and factory workers, “work day and night with nothing to look forward to but a little rest”. Struggling to stay alive leaves little room for anything else, much less romance, so when miner Stephen Blackpool (David Catlin, who also plays Sleary) asks his workmate Rachael (Atra Asdou, who also plays Mrs. Gradgrind) to spend time with him, she’s far too hopeless to be interested.

All in all, things are as expected: the wealthy run things, the poor have nothing, and a travelling circus is a refuge from it all. If running away with the circus was ever a good option, Tom, who finds himself in trouble with law, doesn’t hesitate for a moment.

“Hard Times” is being performed at Lookingglass Theatre through January 14th. For more information visit www.lookingglass.org.

Published in Theatre in Review

Hell in a Handbag rings in its fifteenth-anniversary season with real magic in this hilarious spoof of the 60's and 70's TV shows we all grew up loving with its hocus-pocus focus on the show Bewitched

In this tale, Bewildered, by Aaron Benham (music and lyrics) and Ron Weaver (book and lyrics) Gladys Kravitz, the nosey neighbor of the magical family finally gets her due when she stops spying on the witch-filled household and is invited to have dinner with them. Caitlin Jackson as Gladys is splendid as she has both the musical chops to belt out every note with ease and turn the obnoxious neighbor into a sympathetic "every- woman" who feels unloved as a wife and disrespected as a person. As Gladys discovers in the surprise ending that she is magical too, her song "Leading Lady" reminds everyone in the audience to be true to themselves no matter who they are because in the end, we are ALL the leading ladies in our own lives. 

David Cerda, Hell in a Handbag, artistic director as Endora is truly at his best in this FABULOUSLY funny portrayal of Samantha's mother and steals every scene under his wig with a bat of his eyelashes and a twirl of the spectacular multi-faceted bejeweled caftans designed by Rachel Sypniewski with spot on funny as hell period wigs by Keith Ryan. Cerda as Endorra also reminds us of the ongoing plot line in the original series wherein she tries to get Samantha to leave her straight laced, sexually uninterested husband and choose from among thousands of eligible warlocks where she could live a life of magic and freedom! Instead Samantha chooses the daily humdrum dimension of the limited earth life with all its cold rules and regulations for women and men which don’t include the use of magic.

Elizabeth Morgan is adorable as Samantha and has a nice voice but needs to step out a little more with her nose twitching delightfully -  in order to keep up with the shine and glamour of wit coming full blast out of the regular cast members of Hell in a Handbag. 

As always, Ed Jones' highly anticipated presence in the show does not disappoint as Uncle Arthur and absolutely brings down the house while setting up the main story line with his wonderful rendition of "Let Yourself be a Little Gay!" Ed Jones and  David Cerda really seem to have studied their characters minute mannerisms and trademark funny bits to a tee and several times I squint my eyes and could have sworn they were channeling the original brilliant actors and actresses who played these roles on TV.  

The production handles the magic wielded by Samantha and company in a unique fashion that adds yet another jolt of humor to its audience. Bewildered also has fun with the mystery of the two Darrins who play Samantha's husbands on Bewitched in a very clever way that just has to be seen to be appreciated. 

The great thing about the superbly camp productions put on year after year by Hell in a Handbag is that no matter how bawdy they are, or how many lines of individuality they cross, they always have a positive moral underlying each show that makes you feel "pretty oh, so pretty!" in the skin that you are in!

I highly recommend seeing this fun-tastic, fast-flying production for everyone who needs a good jolt of laughter and positive affirmation about the life you are leading in these strange and hostile times.

Bewildered is being performed at Stage 773 through November 11th. For more show information visit www.handbagproductions.org.  

 

Published in Theatre in Review
Page 2 of 21

 

 

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