Theatre

Monday, 20 February 2017 17:46

Review: Steppenwolf Theatre's "Monster"

“What do you see when you look at me?”

 

That was the final line of Steve Harmon (Daniel Kyri) from the stage adaptation of the best-selling book Monster

 

Monster is an award-winning novel by Walter Dean Myers and has been adapted by Aaron Carter. The show tells the story of African American teenager Steve Harmon, an aspiring filmmaker, who is on trial for felony murder. 

 

The show takes the inner monologue of Steve as he deals with being on trial for a murder that he says he was not part of. Since Steve is an aspiring filmmaker he tells the story as if it were lifted from a script that he is writing, using terms like “Close on”, “Cut To”, and “Fade In.” The show itself tries to tackle the issues of race, the public perception of race, masculinity, as well as the justice system itself. 

 

“While the play does deal with the criminal justice system and notions of guilt and innocence, to me, the most active thing about the book is examining how people perceive young black men,” says adapter Aaron Carter. 

 

The idea might be there, but the execution of the idea seems to fall short. Yes, African American men are incarcerated at a much higher rate than any other race. Currently, according to the NAACP, African Americans constitute nearly 1 million of the 2.3 million incarcerated population. However, this play does not represent those kind of staggering statistics. The major scenes in the show take place in court, in jail, and in Steve’s home. The show focuses more on the idea of masculinity and what it is like to be a “man” in today’s society.

 

Steve tries to act tough in front of other gang members from the neighborhood, but behind closed doors Steve speaks about how he wants no part of that life. The only part I took away from the show, in terms of race relations, was that if you hire a white lawyer to be your attorney, it looks better for your character. 

 

Aside from the adaptation issues this is still an important show to see. The reason being is that this show demonstrates how one decision can alter your path for the rest of your life. Steve is sixteen-years-old and if he is convicted he faces a prison sentence of twenty-five-years to life. This play can serve as important message for today’s youth. There will be connections made simply because the performances by the cast are what bring it all together. 

 

Mr. Kyri brings Steve to life as he battles with what he wants and what he needs, creating for the audience a legitimate hope and fear. The rest of the cast take on various roles throughout the show proving their range as actors. Kenn E. Head is able to go from worried father in one scene and instantly transform into hardened criminal in the very next scene. Alana Arenas shines as a hardened assistant district attorney and also as Steve’s well-to-do mother. 

 

Overall, this play speaks to many themes, but just not the one we thought it might choose. With excellent performances from a dynamic cast, Monster is worth seeing. The overall message may be muddled, and that is the hard part about this adaptation. There is a fine line to walk and only so much can be said in such a short amount of time. There are great pieces out there that continue the discussion of race, but this is not one of them unfortunately. 

 

Monster is being performed at Steppenwolf Theatre through March 9th as its latest presentation for Young Adult. For tickets and/or more information, click here

 

Published in Theatre in Review

Black Ensemble Theater CEO/Artistic Director Jackie Taylor has yet again brought a story to the forefront that is as entertaining as it is remarkable, this one written by Associate Director Rueben Echoles. Their current production, “My Brother’s Keeper: The Story of the Nicholas Brothers”, is just the latest at Black Ensemble Theater that relives an iconic piece of history that, to some, is lesser known than it should be. If you are not already familiar with the Nicholas Brothers, you will be after this energetic account that is both engaging and visually stimulating. 

Long before Michael Jackson, Gregory Hines, Justin Timberlake, Alvin Ailey, James Brown, Bruno Mars and John Travolta made their mark in the industry, Harold and Fayard Nicholas blazed a trail to which our just mentioned dance heroes would later be greatly influenced and heavily benefit. Cited as the greatest dance team in the 1930’s and 1940’s, The Nicholas Brothers (formerly called The Nicholas Kids) were revolutionaries, creating some of the most complicated and eye-popping routines to date. Best described as high-flying and dynamic, their inventive dance sequences regularly invoked enthusiastic (and fearful) “oohs” and “aahs” from audiences across the world. 

“My Brother’s Keeper” is the captivating story of The Nicholas Brothers’ rise to fame, but it is also the story of love, discipline, hardships and the unbreakable bond between two African American brothers that were not allowed to patronize the clubs in which they performed during their heyday. 

The play is a timeline that follows the brothers from their childhood, to their stardom, to their marriages and through their deaths – Harold in 2000 and Fayard in 2006. We quickly see and are touched by the strong support the two are given by their parents, college-educated musicians that had once performed in their own act. Though never receiving formal dance training outside of his father’s instruction (he was a drummer), Fayard became something of a dance prodigy, eventually teaching his younger siblings. The story flows like a series of waves with its ups and downs, never in danger becoming stagnant. 

Rueben Echoles not only finely directs and choreographs this dazzling musical, he also suits up for the role of younger brother, Harold. Teamed with Rashawn Thompson as Fayard, the two recreate the magic of The Nicholas Brothers with a slew of heart-stopping tap dancing routines that accurately capture the spirit of the famed duo. Shari Anderson plays the brother’s ever-caring mother, Viola, lighting up the stage herself, particularly in her heartfelt rendition of “Master Give Me Strength”. The boys’ father, Ulysses, is warmly played by Dwight Neal while Jessica Seals is strong as little sister, Geri.  

As the show opens, we are taken inside a 1940’s-ish jazz club, at one point becoming the famous Cotton Club in Harlem. The talented musicians play behind band stands on a stage that has several tiers to allow the singers and dancers ample room to perform. Each performer is staged in glitzy costumes of the period, creating an immediate “Wow” factor.  

Musically, this production contains just about everything one could hope for - including a finale that will take one's breath away. Electrifying tap dancing numbers and exceptional vocal performances are worked into a driving soundtrack that includes favorites such as Louis Prima’s “Sing, Sing, Sing”, George Gershwin’s “I’ve Got Rhythm”, Cole Porter’s “From This Movement On”, mixed in with several beautiful pieces created for the show by Rueben Echoles. We also get a taste of Cab Calloway, whose commanding stage entrance, while donned in his trademark white suit, brings with him the excitement of an era that was ever so rich in music and originality. Vincent Jordan crushes it as Calloway, “Hidee-hidee-hidee-ho-ing” along with the crowd throughout his lively version of “Minnie the Moocher”. The polished performances by cast members in this show are endless, but make no mistake – Rueben Echoles and Rashawn Thomas are on a tier of their own, their vocal contributions, fancy footwork and “stunt dancing” as I would call it, just extraordinary. 

Though centered around the bond between The Nicholas Brothers and their plight to greatness, one story line in the show that some might find particularly interesting is that of Harold’s marriage to Dorothy Dandridge and the many challenges that take place between the two. A relationship sometimes blissful, but often turbulent, we feel a strong sense of love as much as we do regret. The show also delves into Dandridge’s life as a celebrity and the racial obstacles she had to overcome. Taylay Thomas is absolutely stunning as Dandridge and sings the part flawlessly. 

In “My Brother’s Keeper”, Jackie Wilson gives us another history lesson that so well amalgamates importance with entertainment. Wilson has brought several fine works to Black Ensemble Theater in the past including “The Jackie Wilson Story”, “Marvin Gaye Story”, “The Other Cinderella” and “Dynamite Divas”. Jackie Taylor has always had a propensity to bring music-filled productions to Black Ensemble, once profoundly citing music as a tool that can cross cultural barriers and bring people together in their mission to eradicate racism. Perhaps we need that now more than ever. Theater goers will have the chance to see Taylor sing and dance during a three-day engagement March 6th-8th in “From Jackie with Love”, a work that embraces her upbringing in Cabrini Green and her dealings with a dysfunctional family life.  

Recommended as show the entire family can enjoy, “My Brother’s Keeper: The Story of the Nicholas Brothers” is being performed at Black Ensemble Theater through March 26th. For tickets and/or more show information, click here

Black Ensemble has a fun-packed season ahead that includes the productions “Black Pearl: The Josephine Baker Story” and “Sammy: The Story of Sammy Davis Jr.”.

 

Published in Theatre in Review

Ten years after their critically acclaimed collaboration on King Lear, Artistic Director Robert Falls and stage and screen star Stacy Keach—both 2015 Theater Hall of Fame inductees—reunite for the world premiere of Pamplona by Jim McGrath. Keach stars as Ernest Hemingway, one of the most acclaimed novelists and short story writers of the 20th century, in this explosive tour de force drama, set during the author’s haunted years following his Pulitzer and Nobel Prize honors. Pamplona marks Keach’s second exploration of the literary legend: he earned a Golden Globe Award and an Emmy Award nomination for his portrayal of Hemingway in the eponymous 1988 television mini-series. Pamplona appears May 19 – June 18 in the Owen Theatre. Tickets ($20-60, subject to change) go on sale Monday, February 20 at 10am online at GoodmanTheatre.org and at 12 noon by telephone, 312.443.3800, or in person at the Goodman Box Office (170 N. Dearborn). Note: The previously-announced Lady in Denmark by Dael Orlandersmith will be rescheduled TBA; Goodman subscribers will receive tickets to Pamplona.   

 

“I am honored to work with Stacy on the world premiere of Jim McGrath’s beautifully rendered work about one of our most charismatic yet complicated literary titans—and a Chicagoland native—Ernest Hemingway,” said Robert Falls who, in addition to King Lear (2006), also directed Keach in Arthur Miller’s Finishing the Picture (2004). “Stacy is a voracious reader, and Hemingway has fascinated him for a long time. The opportunity to dive deep with him to reveal this troubled artist and amazing man—at once a father, husband, lover, wartime correspondent and adventurer—is thrilling.”

 

In McGrath’s new play, after the prize comes the pressure. Basking in the glory of career-defining awards—the 1953 Pulitzer Prize and the coveted Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954—legendary writer Ernest Hemingway insists his best work is yet to come. Five years later, holed up in a Spanish hotel with a looming deadline, he struggles to knock out a story about the rivalrous matadors of Pamplona. But his real battles lie outside the bullfighting arena; in declining health, consumed by his troubled fourth marriage and tormented by the specter of past glories, he must now conquer the deepening despair that threatens to engulf him.  

 

“My fascination with Hemingway began when I was a student at the University of California at Berkeley, where I read In Our Time. I felt as if the author was inside my head, expressing himself with words and attitudes that reflected how I felt—and I became inspired to read everything he wrote,” said Stacy Keach. “When I played him in the 1980s, I was somewhat intimidated; I felt simply too young to fully appreciate the emotional turmoil he had experienced, due to his failing health and his inability to continue writing. This is why I am so excited with the prospect of revisiting this literary giant now, at the right age to fully explore the essence of his later years. The opportunity to work with Bob, with whom I’ve been blessed to collaborate twice before, and work again at Goodman Theatre—so close to where Hemingway grew up—is perfect.”

 

Ernest Hemingway (1899 – 1961) was born in Oak Park, IL, and got his start as a journalist writing for The Kansas City Star after attending Oak Park and River Forest High School. Shortly after, he joined the Red Cross during World War I, receiving the Italian Silver Medal of Bravery in 1918 for assisting soldiers, an experience that would inspire one of his most beloved works A Farewell to Arms (1929). Following the war, he spent time in Paris, befriending the likes of Gertrude Stein, James Joyce and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and published his first collection of stories Three Stories and Ten Poems (1923). Next came his first novel The Sun Also Rises (1926), about a group of British and American expatriates traveling to Pamplona, Spain. Among his many other great works are the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Old Man and the Sea, For the Whom Bell Tolls (Pulitzer Prize nomination), Green Hills of Africa, Death in the Afternoon and To Have and Have Not. On assignment, Hemingway was also present for some of World War II’s most noted events including the liberation of Paris, and received a Bronze Star for bravery for his coverage of the war. Following the war, he spent an extensive amount of time in Cuba and in 1954, shortly after publishing The Old Man and the Sea, received the Nobel Prize for Literature. Hemingway was married four times, often tumultuously, to Elizabeth Hadley Richardson, Pauline Pfeiffer, Martha Gelhorn and Mary Welsh Hemingway. He had three sons, Jack, Patrick and Gregory. Troubled by financial issues, familial burdens and alcohol abuse, Hemingway took his own life in Idaho in 1961.

 

Stacy Keach has maintained a series of performances in motion picture and television projects while continuing to add to his significant achievements on the stage—both classical and Broadway. His most recent motion pictures are director Stephen Gaghan’s Gold, starring Matthew McConaughy, Edgar Ramirez, and Bryce Dallas Howard, and Gotti with John Travolta. Other recent films are Truth (with Cate Blanchett and Robert Redford), Stephen King’s, Cell, (with John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson,) and Netflix’s Girlfriend’s Day, starring and directed by Bob Odenkirk. His filmography includes John Huston’s Fat City, co-starring Jeff Bridges, Alexander Payne’s Academy Award nominated big screen drama, Nebraska, If I Stay, Bourne Supremacy, Sin City: A Dame To Kill For, The Ninth Configuration, The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter, Doc, Up In Smoke, American History and the classic western, The Long-Riders, which he produced with his brother James Keach. Keach was one of the stars of the NBC comedy series, Crowded.  He recently finished filming a few episodes of award winning Man With A Plan alongside Matt LeBlanc and Kevin Nealon. Prior television includes: Showtime’s Ray Donovan, Starz’s Blunt Talk, CBS’s, Blue Bloods, Fox’s Titus, Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer, Two and a half Men, Prison Break, NCIS: New Orleans, and Hot In Cleveland. As a narrator his voice has been heard in countless documentaries and numerous books on tape. He is the narrator on CNBC’s American Greed. Keach has portrayed a constellation of the classic and contemporary stage's greatest roles, and he is considered a pre-eminent American interpreter of Shakespeare. His Shakespearian roles include Hamlet, Henry V, Coriolanus, Falstaff, Macbeth, Richard 3, and King Lear. He also headed the national touring company cast of Frost/Nixon, portraying Richard M. Nixon. Keach’s memoir All in All: An Actor’s Life On and Off the stage, received the Prism Literary Award. Other awards include: Golden Globe, three Obies, three Vernon Rices, two Drama Desks, three Helen Hayes, Emmy and Tony Award nominations, and he won the Prestigious Millineum Recognition Award, the Will Award. Keach was recently inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame, and received a Hollywood Film Award for Best Ensemble in the film Gold. He also received the 2016 Best Narrator from The Society of Voice Arts and Sciences in the category of Crime and Thriller for his work on Mike Hammer audio novels. Keach was a Fulbright scholar to the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, attended the University of California at Berkeley and the Yale Drama School. Of his many accomplishments, Keach claims that his greatest accomplishment is his family: his wife of 30 years, Malgosia, and children Shannon and Karolina.

 

Jim McGrath’s first short play, Trail of the Westwoods Pewee, was presented at the West Bank Theatre in New York City in 1987. The next year saw the production of his first full-length play, Bob’s Guns, at the Director’s Company in New York. In 1992, New Jersey’s Passage Theatre produced his play Roebling Steel. In 1995, the Met Theatre in Los Angeles premiered The Ellis Jump, which won McGrath the Ovation Award for Best Writing of a World Premier Play. For television, he wrote detective stories for Simon & Simon, The Father Dowling Mysteries, Matlock, Mike Hammer and Over My Dead Body, as well as the children’s series Wishbone and Liberty Kids, science fiction series Quantum Leap, Codename Eternity and Dark Realm and the television films Elvis: The Early Years and Silver Bells (starring Anne Heche). He also co-wrote the screenplay for the feature film Kickboxer: Vengeance. In 2012, he produced and wrote the documentary Momo: The Sam Giancana Story, which won Best Documentary Awards at the Bel Air Film Festival and The Monaco International Film Festival. He has taught creative writing courses at Patton State Prison in San Bernardino, California State Home for Veterans in Los Angeles and The Center Theater in Chicago. He was trained as an artist leader with Imagination Workshop, by founders Margaret Ladd and Lyle Kessler in 1983, for which he worked with mentally ill and homeless clients for decades as a theater artist. In 2010, he became Executive Director of Imagination Workshop. McGrath is a native of Dallas, Texas. After graduating SMU, he attended Princeton Theological Seminary for two years before embarking on his playwriting career.

 

Robert Falls is celebrating 30 years as Goodman Theatre Artistic Director this season. His current production, Annie Baker’s adaptation of Uncle Vanya, is on stage now in the Owen Theatre through March 12. Last season, he directed Rebecca Gilman’s Soups, Stews, and Casseroles: 1976, and co-adapted/directed the world premiere of 2666, based on Roberto Bolaño’s internationally celebrated novel, earning a Jeff Award for Best Adaptation. Previous credits include the critically acclaimed production of The Iceman Cometh at the Brooklyn Academy of Music; Gilman’s Luna Gale at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Los Angeles; and a new production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni for the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Other recent productions include Measure for Measure and the world premiere of Beth Henley’s The Jacksonian. Among his other credits are The Seagull, King Lear, Desire Under the Elms, John Logan’s Red, Jon Robin Baitz’s Three Hotels, Eric Bogosian’s Talk Radio and Conor McPherson’s Shining City; the world premieres of Richard Nelson’s Frank’s Home, Arthur Miller’s Finishing the Picture (his last play), Eric Bogosian’s Griller, Steve Tesich’s The Speed of Darkness and On the Open Road, John Logan’s Riverview: A Melodrama with Music and Gilman’s A True History of the Johnstown Flood, Blue Surge and Dollhouse; the American premiere of Alan Ayckbourn’s House and Garden and the Broadway production of Elton John and Tim Rice’s Aida. Falls’ honors for directing include, among others, a Tony Award (Death of a Salesman), a Drama Desk Award (Long Day’s Journey Into Night), an Obie Award (subUrbia), a Helen Hayes Award (King Lear) and multiple Jeff Awards (including a 2012 Jeff Award for The Iceman Cometh). For “outstanding contributions to theater,” Mr. Falls has also been recognized with such prestigious honors as the Savva Morozov Diamond Award (Moscow Art Theatre), the O’Neill Medallion (Eugene O’Neill Society), the Distinguished Service to the Arts Award (Lawyers for the Creative Arts) and the Illinois Arts Council Governor’s Award.

 

About Goodman Theatre

 

America’s “Best Regional Theatre” (Time magazine) and “Chicago’s flagship resident stage” (Chicago Tribune), Goodman Theatre is a not-for-profit organization distinguished by the quality and scope of its artistic programming and civic engagement. Founded in 1925, the Goodman is led by Robert Falls—“Chicago’s most essential director” (Chicago Tribune), who marks 30 years as Artistic Director this season—and Executive Director Roche Schulfer, who is celebrated for his vision and leadership over nearly four decades. Dedicated to new plays, reimagined classics and large-scale musical theater works, Goodman Theatre artists and productions have earned hundreds of awards for artistic excellence, including: two Pulitzer Prizes, 22 Tony Awards, nearly 160 Jeff Awards and more. Over the past three decades, audiences have experienced more than 150 world or American premieres, 30 major musical productions, as well as nationally and internationally celebrated productions of classic works (including Falls’ productions of Death of a Salesman, Long Day’s Journey into Night, King Lear and The Iceman Cometh, many in collaboration with actor Brian Dennehy). In addition, the Goodman is the first theater in the world to produce all 10 plays in August Wilson’s “American Century Cycle.” For nearly four decades, the annual holiday tradition of A Christmas Carol has created a new generation of theatergoers. 

 

The 2016 opening of the Alice Rapoport Center for Education and Engagement (“the Alice”) launched the next phase in the Goodman’s decades-long commitment as an arts and community organization dedicated to educating Chicago youth and promoting lifelong learning. Programs are offered year-round and free of charge. Eighty-five percent of the Goodman’s youth program participants come from underserved communities.

 

Goodman Theatre was founded by William O. Goodman and his family in honor of their son Kenneth, an important figure in Chicago’s cultural renaissance in the early 1900s. The Goodman family’s legacy lives on through the continued work and dedication of Kenneth’s family, including Albert Ivar Goodman, who with his late mother, Edith-Marie Appleton, contributed the necessary funds for the creation of the new Goodman center in 2000.

 

Today, Goodman Theatre leadership includes the distinguished members of the Artistic Collective: Brian Dennehy, Rebecca Gilman, Henry Godinez, Dael Orlandersmith, Steve Scott, Chuck Smith, Regina Taylor, Henry Wishcamper and Mary Zimmerman. Joan Clifford is Chair of Goodman Theatre’s Board of Trustees, Cynthia K. Scholl is Women’s Board President and Justin A. Kulovsek is President of the Scenemakers Board for young professionals. 

 

Visit the Goodman virtually at GoodmanTheatre.org—including OnStage+ for insider information—and on Twitter (@GoodmanTheatre), Facebook and Instagram.

 

Published in Buzz Extra
Friday, 17 February 2017 03:39

Review: Straight White Men at Steppenwolf

With a title like "Straight White Men" there's a lot to unpack. Asian American playwright Young Jean Lee directs her 2014 play at The Steppenwolf. "Straight White Men" ran Off-Broadway at the Public Theater to critical acclaim. It helped establish the career of up-and-comer Young Jean Lee. This production is a Midwestern debut. 

 

The Steppenwolf's production is well cast. "Straight White Men" tells the story of a family of three brothers assembling with their aging father for Christmas. Hence the title. Madison Dirks plays the oldest brother Jake with a commanding intensity that serves to propel Lee's script. So much of Lee's play relies on an almost impossible sense of chemistry between the brothers. Ryan Hallahan plays youngest brother Drew with a contrasting sincerity that puts Brian Slaten (Matt) in the center of the 90-minute play. Ensemble member Alan Wilder as the dad is maybe the only one whose performance is not in on Lee's comic pattern. 

 

"Straight White Men" does touch on many issues regarding race, gender and class in America. That said, perhaps not enough to warrant such a heavy title. There is a lot of humor and physical comedy between the brother characters, but so often the content of the dialogue doesn't reach further than the three walls of the set. The conclusion of the play is thought provoking and addresses the issue of socioeconomic privilege. 

 

The problem with titling a play "Straight White Men" is that it raises the stakes for the playwright to deliver a work that makes a bold statement. Lee certainly does make a bold statement, it just may not live up to the title. Lee's script takes a while getting to the center of the matter. It's really a play about depression. In that regard, Lee really says something about the way student loans and societal expectations are stunting an entire generation. "Straight White Men" is a play to see as it will warrant a thoughtful post show discussion. 

 

Through March 19 at Steppenwolf Theatre. 1650 N Halsted St. 312-335-1650 www.Steppenwolf.org

*Update - Extended through March 26th

 

Published in Theatre in Review

As stories go, Mamma Mia! is a light, simple love story injected with plenty of humor and song – nothing heavy in the least, rather an evening island getaway where the sounds of ABBA reign supreme. It is the story of Sophie Sheridan and her mother Donna, who have made home on a Greek Island where they own and run a small resort. But the story really begins when Sophie, unsure of who her real father is, invites three possibilities to her wedding based on information she’s uncovered in her mother’s journal. Of course, Donna has no clue until the three men show up at the island – awkward! With several people vacationing at the island in anticipation of Sophie’s wedding to Sky in a few days, multiple love narratives unfold - and how couldn’t they? After all, you have a handful of romantically starved individuals thrust together in close proximity to each other on a tropical island that oozes amorousness, coupled with the fact that they all seem to lose control to ABBA classics, which come aplenty. 

Marriott Theatre takes on Mamma Mia! as their latest production, uniquely staging the energy-filled production in the round, giving the audience the feeling that they too are guests at the island resort as the action is up close and the aisles are frequently used during the performance. Set designer Scott Davis does a fantastic job creating an island atmosphere throughout the theatre. Strategic alterations are made to convert the musical to the round, including scenic touches like the moat of illuminated water that surrounds the stage and the walls behind theatre goers that are converted into those of a Greek taverna complete with the colorful shutters of French-styled windows. Adding the finishing touches to the Mamma Mia! setting are dazzling costume designs by Theresa Ham and lighting effects by Jesse Klug. 

Danni Smith takes on the leading role of Donna Sheridan, the short-haired brunette replacing the prototypical long-haired, wavy-blonde we are used to seeing in this production. The change is nice. Smith, who was last seen at Marriott Theatre in Man of La Mancha, serves up a powerhouse vocal performance, especially during her crowd stunner “The Winner Takes It All” and her heartfelt rendition of “Slipping Through My Fingers”, delivered with just the right touch of care and concern a mother would have for her daughter. Capturing the essence of Donna so well, we immediately like her and cheer for her. Putting it bluntly, Danni Smith is truly extraordinary. Meghan Murphy and Cassie Slater are rightly cast as Donna’s two lifelong friends Tanya and Rosie. The casting couldn’t have been more perfect. As many times as I have seen Mamma Mia!, I have never seen a more believable friendship than that as between Donna and her besties in this production, which is so convincing you’d think it true in real life. Murphy gets to show off her great sense of comedic timing as Tanya, also taking it to the house vocally, hitting one way out of the park in the racy number “Does Your Mother Know”. 

Taking on yet another challenging vocal role in the show, this one of Sophie, is Tiffany Tatreau, who handles it with apparent ease. Tatreau, undoubtedly gifted in the vocal department, tackles several demanding songs on her own and adds on many occasions to the captivating vocal harmonies that make this musical so special. 

Sophie’s three possible fathers are also cast well, Peter Saide getting plenty of chances to display his own finessed vocal skill as Sam Carmichael, while Karl Hamilton and Derek Hasenstab draw some big laughs as Donna’s other two ex’s Harry Brightwell and Bill Austin. Russell Mernagh makes his own mark as Sky, Sophie’s soon to be husband. Mernaugh, whose beach bum charm is nothing short of convincing, puts forth a well-rounded performance that makes him a solid choice for the role. Overall, the cast is just sensational from top to bottom, getting strong support from its incredible ensemble who wows the audience on several occasions with big-time dance and vocal routines.

All the elements are in place to provide an entertaining evening without even the slightest lull. The stage is often taken over by energetic dance numbers that will have you tapping along or beautifully arranged ballads that will move your soul. The humor is abundant, the subject matter light and the visuals so easily take your mind elsewhere - somewhere dreamy. Yes, the table is perfectly set to enjoy a night of ABBA hits done with much originality from “Dancing Queen” to “Waterloo”. Fun is "the name of the game" in this wild ride stringed together by a compilation of the Swedish sensation's biggest hits - so much fun in fact, that you might have to pull out your glitzy, bell-bottomed, spandex one-piece (we all have one, don't we?) after getting home from the show.  

Mamma Mia!, already a winning show, has now become even more of a special experience as it is put together so well, and uniquely, by Marriott Theatre in a way that cannot be seen anywhere else. When you put it all together – the great music, the talented performances and a setting that takes you miles and miles away to a tropical bliss – it all adds up to “Having the time of your life”.

Highly recommended. 

Mamma Mia! has already been extended and is being performed at Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire through April 16th. For more show information, click here.     

   

 

Published in Theatre in Review
Monday, 13 February 2017 22:02

Carmen: Love in the Time of Rebellion

The heart wants what the heart wants and the fiery, rebellious Carmen, in the self-titled opera now playing at Lyric Opera of Chicago, follows that truism all the way to a tragic end. Set against the backdrop of Seville, Spain, during the Spanish Civil War of the 1900's, we see obsession, passion, freedom and love all come together in this story of a deadly love triangle.

 

Don José (Joseph Calleja), a soldier in the army, is sent to break up a fight at a cigarette factory. There he meets the seductive gypsy Carmen (Ekaterina Gubanova). He becomes so enthralled and bewitched by her that he abandons his childhood sweetheart Micaëla (Eleanor Buratto) and deserts his post just to follow her. But the tighter he tries to hold on their love the more Carmen longs to be free. José eventually loses her to the toreador (bull fighter) Escamillo (Christian Van Horn), resulting in a heartrending ending.

 

It is difficult to root for the love of Don José and Carmen, especially as the opera unfolds and we see how brutal and abusive José can be. Nothing is more discordant than seeing José sing about the depth of his love for Carmen after he just threw her across a table. There is no doubt that he believes he loves her and loves her deeply – he gave up everything to follow her. But perhaps the real question is does he know her or is he just enraptured by a seductive illusion that he couldn’t resist?

 

Don José consistently tries to get Carmen to bend to his will and be framed by his restrictive love. But Carmen’s will is just too strong, her lust for life too vivid and her need for freedom too all-encompassing to be captured in his stranglehold of love.

 

Carmen later meets Escamillo, the celebrated bull fighter and hero, who dares to love her for who she is – a rebellious bird. After all her wanderings she has finally found a home and true love but it comes at a very high price.

 

This thrilling story of Carmen is revealed through soaring, passionate arias; spoken dialogue; a beautiful score of Georges Bizet’s popular and very recognizable music; and ballet.

 

The addition of the ballet dancers adds so much more to the telling of the story. In particular, the bull which is used as a visual symbol throughout the production depicting both a disastrous love affair and a man caught in a flaming tailspin. We see the bull at key points during the opera from the opening moments all the way to the tragic end where Escamillo’s bull fight occurs simultaneously with Don José and Carmen’s final fight.

 

Ekaterina Gubanova is brilliant as Carmen while Joseph Calleja is equal to the task as Don Jose. 

 

Recommended.

 

Carmen is performed in French with projected English translations and the running time is approximately 3 hours and 5 minutes, including 1 intermission.

 

The opera runs through March 25 at Lyric’s Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive, Chicago. Performance dates are Feb. 11, 22, 28, Mar. 3, 6, 22, 25 at 7:30pm; Feb. 15, 19, Mar. 16, 19 at 2:00pm. For tickets and information, call (312) 827-5600 or click here.

 

 

Published in Theatre in Review

Wow! Get ready to be entertained and blown away by two men, with eighteen, yes eighteen, costume changes in a 105-minute play with lead mother figure Bertha Bumiller played by Anthony Whitaker in drag and Grant Drager playing most of the younger male and female characters (Arles, Didi, Stanley, Charlene, Jodi, Petey, Vera and Dixie). These two talents make for one hilarious and yet, at times, disturbing piece of theater now that Trump is President and the animal and human cruelty is perpetrated against each person who loves in the “the third smallest town in Texas”, a dump “where the Lion’s Club is too liberal and Patsy Cline never died.”

 

As announced on the local radio show the winning school essays include “Human Rights—Why Bother?” and “The Other Side of Bigotry”. And so begins Deep in the Heart of Tuna, the latest in the “Tuna” series, currently running at Pride Arts Center in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood.

 

I was unaware that adapter Ed Howard and original author-performers Joe Sears and Jaston Williams (Greater Tuna, A Tuna Christmas, and Red, White, and Tuna) had revived this new play from pieces of the trilogy above though it didn't affect my understanding of the hard lives these people live while having little money to keep up with their neighbors. People wearing third generation hand me downs and living on a farm-like house where the youngest and most sensitive son has ten dogs and a few kitty cats literally following him to school and back until he can find them adoption homes.  

 

I found the staging and lighting brilliant with audience members on both sides of the intimate theater performing space, putting us right in Bertha’s kitchen. Adding the finishing touch, are the costumes and wigs which are truly amazing and used to their ultimate. When I found that neither actor had a dresser to help them make these quick changes, I was even more impressed. Still knowing there were only two cast members, they played the men and women so touchingly and realistically funny, I could have sworn there was a cast of five people or more hidden in the wings. 

 

The town of Tuna can sometimes be a scary place where the "smut snatchers" a local anti-porn group try to expose the dirty words in Dickens Christmas Carol, including "God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman", because you know, "Merry Gentlemen" is a little too close to gay gentleman in Tuna, Texas. 

 

The smut snatchers are busy cutting apart the children’s' Christmas pageant, which they have worked on for months. It is eventually canceled by the local school official and local government because the school does not have the funds to pay its electric bill, despite pleas to let the children perform, in part because one child needs this performance to complete his reform school probation and leave town without a criminal record (for painting over street signs). The lights are shut off and the show does not go on. At the same time a Christmas Phantom is on the loose in the neighborhood destroying outdoor holiday displays. There’s a lot going on in this small town. 

 

Anthony Whitaker's multilayered characterization of the mother figure as she struggles to make ends meet in this piece reminds me so much of my dear friend Louie Anderson's spectacular mother characterization in his new hit show "Baskets". 

 

Grant Drager, a newcomer to the New American Folk Theatre ensemble, plays the rest of the male and female characters with mind blowing accuracy and such poignancy. For his outstanding work in this two-man show, Drager really is deserving of a Jeff Award, as well as Whitaker.

 

Though many of the characters are run-of-the-mill, low-income Southern folks with seemingly good hearts, at times, the extreme stereotype Texas hard core right wingers are also demonstrated in the play. It's mind boggling that the small-mindedness of the latter mentioned characters of this tiny town exist in real life, boasting about and bringing forth soul crushing ideas along with anti-gay sentiments and anti-animal rights, i.e. and "Tuna" takes a few good shots. A great line that represents that type of mentality in this play is when Didi, who runs the local gun shop for her mother, says, "If we don't have a gun (or poison) to kill what you want, that thing is supernatural!" This show can make great but serious fun of that particular group on a few occasions though it mainly celebrates small town warmth, kindness and simplicity. Though "Tuna" often pokes fun of small town life in the South, it is done with affection, actually endearing us to several of the characters even more so.  

 

This satire of rural life is highly recommended for two of the most versatile and thought provoking performances in this play about a dysfunctional family and the small town problems that arise. Directed by Derek Van Barham, New American Folk Theatre's Deep in the Heart of Tuna is being performed at Pride Arts Center through March 5th. For show information or tickets, click here. Y'all hurry now!

 

 

Published in Theatre in Review

Tribute shows are generally as good as the performers that star. I probably just stated the most obvious fact on the planet. Yet it’s so very true. No matter how good the song selection, the costumes, the set, it is the vocal performance that we bring home with us. In “My Way: A Musical Tribute to Frank Sinatra” a different taste of Sinatra is delivered; rather than presenting an Ol’ Blue Eyes impersonator, we are invited to a 1960’s club setting where four actors casually reminisce with the audience over more than fifty Sinatra favorites. 

The musical revue, rich in its depicted era, stars George Keating, Christine Mild, Eric A. Lewis and McKinley Carter, each taking turns riffing through classics like “Makin’ Whoopee”, “Fly Me to the Moon”, “The Best is Yet to Come”, “Young at Heart”, and “It was a Very Good Year” – the songs are countless. The four have made their mark in the Chicago theatre scene, Lewis a Jeff Award Winner for his work in Porchlight Music Theatre’s “Dreamgirls”, Mild, who not only starred in Theater at the Center’s “Pump Boys and Dinettes” but who has recently released her debut solo album “Love Is Everything”, Carter, who has done work in prestigious venues such as Writers Theatre and Drury Lane Oakbrook, and Keating, who not only has been featured in Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” at Paramount Theater, but is the co-founder of the very popular Chicago and Off-Broadway hit “Schoolhouse Rock Live”. 

The four actors work well together as snippets of Sinatra songs are often worked into light exchanges between the characters. They gracefully glide around the stage and upon the stairways often pairing elegantly for dance routines. Often, the characters might be seen having a drink at the bar or nonchalantly interacting at a table, setting a relaxed night-out-on-the-town mood. Throughout the show, Sinatra factoids and quotes are tossed about during song breaks, allowing at times for the audience to participate. The club centers around a bar, where a live band simplified to piano (William Underwood), bass (Jake Saleh) and drums (Nick Anderson) plays directly behind it. Despite the small size of the outfit, the sound is big and the musicians ever-impressive, each getting to show their skills off a bit while briefly featured individually in the second act. 

While perhaps wishing for a little more "oomph" overall in the individual vocal performances (mainly on the lower notes) ala Sinatra, each of the performers have their shining moments and are able to deliver the songs with their intended pizzazz and vigor. But the magic in this show is when the four would sing together, whether it be a duet or a four-part harmony. It is with these synchronized vocal efforts one easily loses themselves in the beauty of Sinatra’s work. 

Brenda Didier both directs and choreographs this fascinating piece with a stylish aplomb that captures the charm of the period so very well. Lewis particularly stands out during his renditions of “My Kind of Town” and “I’m Gonna Live ‘Til I Die”, while Keating finishes strong with a fervent version of “That’s Life”. The production flows at a nice pace and is a pleasing homage to Sinatra, though we are often teased with a song segment left wanting to hear the piece in its entirety. This is countered by the fact that we are given such a vast collection of the music Sinatra made famous. The show ties together well eventually leading us to an expressive interpretation of perhaps Sinatra’s most timeless classic, “My Way”, commendably performed by the entire cast. 

“My Way: A Musical Tribute to Frank Sinatra” is a time capsule that will certainly touch the hearts of “Chairman of the Board” fans, but is equipped with enough nostalgia, panache and musical talent to please even the most curious. This polished production is being performed at Theater at the Center in Munster, IN through March 19th. Click here for tickets and/or more show information.   

 

Published in Theatre in Review

In 1931 nine African American teenagers were wrongly accused of raping two white women while aboard a freight train in Alabama. Worried they might get imprisoned for prostitution while traveling aboard the same train, Victoria Price and Ruby Bates quickly cried rape, diverting the attention rather to the handful of innocent boys. These nine boys became known as The Scottsboro Boys, growing more and more infamy as their many trials became public interest throughout the nation. Fighting through Southern angry mobs, an all-white jury and a trial that was hastened, the nine boys were quickly convicted and sentenced to death by hanging. As word spread of the prejudice demonstrated, Northerners eventually stepped in to see that such a miscarriage of justice be overturned, but that was just the beginning of a process clouded by an ugly and unjust preconception. The uphill fight was long and grueling and successes were slow in the making. The story, superbly performed by Porchlight Music Theatre, is remarkable, sad and hopeful.

Written by David Thompson and directed by Samuel G. Roberson, “The Scottsboro Boys” is a controversial musical, now making its debut in Chicago after Broadway and London runs, and is the last featuring the music and lyrics of John Kander and Fred Ebb, mostly known for their triumphant smash hits “Chicago” and “Cabaret”. The story, a compelling and emotional ride through the racist South is a painful lesson of our nation’s dark history and serves as a stark reminder that change for a better world must never be ignored as we move forward as a unified people.  

Throughout the musical’s duration, we see an image of a pained Rosa Parks (Cynthia Clarey) who plays witness to the injustices that take place. Though her stand wouldn’t take place until years later, we see the effect such a stirring account would have on approaching generations. Sad as this tragic story as such is, we feel hope for the future by the play’s end and a realization for the work that still needs to be done.

“This is a story that needs to be told,” says Mark J.P. Hood who stars as Mr. Tambo. 

The nearly all African American cast delivers several all-around brilliant performances, doling out tremendous vocal harmony efforts, powerful acting and dance numbers that are both inventive and energetic. Currently running at Stage 773, a mid-sized theatre, the only drawback is that it is easy to envision the musical preformed on a larger stage, sometimes routines appearing a bit crowded. Still, that’s a very small drawback, because the play’s director is able to utilize its given space to maximize this Broadway-sized show effectively, moving boxcars and all.    

Denzel Tsopnang and Mark J.P. Hood lead this gifted ensemble along with James Earl Jones II with commanding acting performances that would be hard to beat. The Scottsboro Boys is a real showcase for both Tsopnang and Hood, who flex their versatility while taking on a handful of roles. Veteran actor Larry Yondo, most recently known for his spot-on portrayal of Ebenezer Scrooge in Goodman’s “A Christmas Carol”, also puts forth yet another admirable effort as The Interlocutor. With several beautiful vocal harmonies that sweep the house with robust sentiment, it is perhaps “Go Back Home”, a pivotal number that relates to those longing to find peace passionately led by Jones II, that will truly resonate with theatre goers long after the show. Though the vocal finesse is abundant throughout, fourteen-year-old Cameron Goode and Stephen Allen Jr. somehow find room to dazzle us even more. 

As jaw dropping as many of the numbers are in their performance, the audience often finds reluctance in their clapping, the weight of the subject matter almost seemingly inappropriate to applaud. But it is in these performances that the story is told so well. A handful of poignant casting twists take place as the white policemen and the woman accusers are played by African Americans. 

“The Scottsboro Boys” is a highly recommended theatre experience, both exceptional in its performance and its ever-important message. Wonderfully staged, acted and sung, this is a thoroughly entertaining production that will invoke much thought, inspire bravery and encourage action to be taken long afterwards. 

“The Scottsboro Boys” is being performed at Stage 773 through March 12th. For tickets and/or more show information click here.     

 

Published in Theatre in Review

According to a recent study, only 25% of the plays produced in Chicago's 2015-16 theater season had female authors. Only 36% were directed by women.  A deeper dive into the numbers suggests larger theaters cast fewer ratios of women than smaller non-equity companies, a sobering reality for female actors thinking about job advancement.

 

Disappointing stats like these and how the recent presidential election put misogyny and gender equity squarely in the media spotlight spurred 10 female identified performers and an all-female identified production and design team to devise Gender Breakdown.

 

A compilation of true, absurd, uncomfortable and gut-punching stories culled from more than 200 Chicago theater artists, Collaboraction Theatre Company's first world premiere of 2017 is a response to the lack of gender equity on and offstage. 

 

Vivid tales of violence, miseducation, segregation, and the ongoing disrespect and marginalization of women - even in Chicago's acclaimed theater industry - pull back the curtain on real issues of misogyny, gender politics and racism within the theater industry and beyond. 

 

Ultimately, via deeply personal stories from training, auditions, and the rehearsal room, Gender Breakdown theatricalizes the question "How is this possible, that in 2017, females are still marginalized in our community?"

 

Gender Breakdown is created by Dani Bryant and directed by Erica Vannon - the lead artists behind Spanx You Very Much, an exploration of female body empowerment through a 45-woman dance explosion, and the break-out hit from Collaboraction's 15th and Final SKETCHBOOK Festival in 2016. 

 

Previews are Thursday through Saturday, February 16-18 at 7:30 p.m., Sunday, February 19 at 3 p.m., and Tuesday, February 21 at 7:30 p.m. Preview tickets are only $5. 

 

Performances run through March 19: Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m. No show Thursday, February 23.

Industry Town Halls are Monday, February 27 and March 13 at 7:30 p.m. On February 27, researcher Kay Kron will lead a post-show panel discussion with Deb Clapp, Executive Director, League of Chicago Theatres; Lori Myers, Not in Our House; Laura T. Fischer, Not in Our House; and Kimberly Senior, Collaboraction Founder and Director. The March 13 post-show panel features Kay Kron, Willa Taylor of the Goodman Theatre and more guests TBA.

 

Gender Breakdown is presented in The Vault at Collaboraction Studios in the Flat Iron Arts Building, 1579 N. Milwaukee Ave., in Chicago's Wicker Park neighborhood. Single tickets to performances are $20-30; $10-$15 for students, educators and industry. 

 

For tickets and information, visit collaboraction.org or call (312) 226-9633.

 

 

More about  Gender Breakdown

   

Gender Breakdown is a compilation of true, absurd, uncomfortable and gut-punching stories about gender inequity culled from more than 200 Chicago theater artists, many gathered at Off Menu potlock dinners at Collaboraction.

 

"Female identified artists continue to fight for equal representation, equal pay, three-dimensional characters and rehearsal environments that are free from micro-aggressions and commodification," said creator Dani Bryant. "Gender Breakdown harnesses the same artistic vision and raw electricity of Spanx You Very Much to explore how, even in an oftentimes liberal-leaning business, inequities based on gender pervade the theater."

 

Dani Bryant (creator) is a devised method playwright and process facilitator who specializes in using social practice as an artistic entry point - letting collaborative discussion shape each project. In addition to creating over 20 pieces of devised theater, she holds great passion for leading facilitated community conversations about gender parity, mental health, arts education and food and body politics. Originally from Gatlinburg, Tennessee, she attended The University of North Carolina School of the Arts and received her BFA from the Hartt School of Theater. She is currently pursuing her Master's and certification in Clinical Mental Health Counseling and Drama Therapy. She is the founder of Knife & Fork, co-creator of For Fork's Sake Live and Cabaret Vagabond and is an Artistic Ensemble Member at Adventure Stage Chicago.

 

Erica Vannon (director) is a director, producer and collaborative artist. She is the founder of Lost Geneva Project, a project based theater company committed to telling women's stories, and a co-founder for Knife & Fork, a food and social practice theater company. For the past three years, Vannon has directed for Shimer College. She served as a co-artistic director for Blank Line Collective, a collaborative, movement-based theater company from 2007-2010. She has worked with Collaboraction, Promethean Theatre Ensemble, Chicago Fringe Festival, Rhino Fest, and 20% Theatre. She holds a BA in Theatre Arts with a concentration in Directing from the University of North Texas and a Graduate Laban Certificate of Movement Analysis (GL-CMA) from Columbia College Chicago.

Gender Breakdown stars Brianna Buckley, Jazmin Corona, Kamille Dawkins, Rula Gardenier, Kate Hawbaker-Krohn, Priya Mohanty, Siobhan Marguerite Reddy-Best, Carolyn Sinon, Aimy Tien and Mia Vivens.

                     

The all-female design and production team includes Sarah JHP Watkins (set designer), Carley Walker (lighting designer), Katherine Pavlovna Goldberg (costume designer), Karli Blalock (sound designer), Sarah Moeller (producer), Kelly Butler (production manager), Caitlin Body (stage manager), Brittany T. Jasper (assistant stage manager) and Becca Venable (technical director).

 

Breaking down the numbers

Statistics cited in Gender Breakdown and in this press release shed light on hiring parity across theater professions during Chicago's 2015-16 theater season. The research was undertaken by Kay Kron and Mariah Schultz as a part of Kron's Master Thesis at DePaul University. The study includes the full Jeff eligible season for Equity and Non-Equity theaters nominated for a Jeff Award in any category during Chicago's 2015-16 theater season. (Musicals were not included, because their generally larger cast sizes would have made them overly influential on the overall percentages.) In total, the study encompassed 52 theatres, collects statistics on over 250 plays, resulting in over 4,500 data points. 

 

Gender Breakdown Lounge

 

The Gender Breakdown Lounge is a performance arts venue for an eclectic range of arts programming to complement Collaboraction's Gender Breakdown.

 

After every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night performance, starting at 9:30 p.m., there will be additional performances in Collaboraction's Salon space featuring female-identified artists, including theater, story telling, music, comedy, dance, opera and more. 

 

                                                                   

Following is the Gender Breakdown Lounge line-up (at press time, check collaboraction.org for updates):

 

Friday, February 24

Music with MICHA

Poetry with Kay Kron

 

Saturday, February 25

Womanscape pre-show reception at 7 p.m. 

featuring poetry by Arica Hilton 

&

Saints & Sinners at 9:30 p.m. 

Curated by Sandra Delgado, featuring Sandra Delgado, Minita Gandhi, Sadieh Rifai, DeAnna Brooks, Ilana Faust, Nancy Garcia, Rose McInerney and Theo Allyn

 

Thursday, March 3

The Things We Were Learned 

Featuring Michelle Leatherby, Paige Maney and Olivia Perry

 

Friday, March 4

Beautifully Broken by Ashley J. Hicks

Spoken word with Khloe Janel

 

Saturday, March 5

Any of my Enemies by Molly Brennan

 

Thursday, March 9

Token by Kaye Winks

Phone Calls with John Kasich by Eileen Tull

 

Friday, March 10

Hair Crownicles by Medina Perine

Stand-up with Edith Lule

 

Saturday, March 11

Music with Layla Frankel

 

Thursday, March 16

Music with Soft Ledges

Dance with Ms. Miscellanea

 

Friday, March 17

Baby Crow Productions presents 13 & Not Pregnant by Joy Donze,

directed by Mia Capotorto Sommese

 

Saturday, March 18

Baby Crow Productions presents 13 & Not Pregnant by Joy Donze,

directed by Mia Capotorto Sommese

 

Published in Buzz Extra
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