Theatre

Two girlfriends grow up in Mississippi, one wants to be a hairdresser to the stars and the other a singing star in her own right. An opportunity to run their own beauty shop binds the two friends together for life, and helps a South Side Chicago neighborhood maintain a sense of community and safety, even a little glamour, that is until Starbucks and other corporations start moving into the neighborhood. Beautifully directed, A Wonder in My Soul is the heartfelt journey of two best friends who have shared a beauty salon for over three decades.

 

Aberdeen "Birdie" Calumet (Greta Oglesby) and Bell Grand Lake (Jacqueline Williams) play the two close friends and both do an amazing job with long speeches that could be coming out of the mouths of preachers. The audience even lets out a few, “go girls”, and “praise Gods” as if we are sitting in a church. In a way, their beauty shop, which once served some celebrity visitors, has stood for forty years as a type of church to the women of the neighborhood. A place where they can talk and be themselves where their best customer, a rich woman who prefers to be called “First Lady” (a fantastic Linda Bright Clay), who spends at least three afternoons a week just trying new hairdos to hang out at the salon to have company and help each other with daily troubles. 

 

Marcus Gardley's script creates very familiar and real characters, and utilizes the beautiful singing voices of young Birdie (Camille Robinson) and young Bell (Donica Lynn) in a way that vitalizes and makes real the talents and determination underneath the tough facade of these hard working, loving women. 

 

This play is about change and gentrification, and growth and strength. Change isn't always but a bad thing but A Wonder in My Soul pulls back the curtain on how gentrification affects this "family" of women and their whole neighborhood that tries to save the salon. Is it fair that the neighborhood rallies to save the community staple only for a Starbucks to ultimately knock them down as easily as a cannon ball would a bowling pin? No. But the way each woman chooses to go on with her life and keep the bitterness from affecting the wonder in their souls is truly inspiring. 

 

Highly recommended for satisfying, humorous and heartwarming performances, especially by Jacqueline Williams as the down, but not out, captain of her sinking ship.

 

Williams speeches about life and the value of struggling to keep some history and classiness intact in the neighborhood, which is being brought down by violence and greed, ripple through the audience with a deep resonance and truthfulness that the talented actor brings to all her stage work.

 

A Wonder in My Soul is being performed at Victory Gardens Theater through March 12th. Go to www.VictoryGardens.org for more show information.

 

Published in Theatre in Review

Hold the presses! Hell in a Handbag Productions announced today it will open its 15th season with the world premiere of LADY X – A MUSICAL, a shocking exposé ripped from the headlines of yesteryear! LADY X will replace the previously announced musical VALLEY!, from April 21 – June 11, 2017 at Mary’s Attic, 5400 N. Clark St. in Chicago.  

 

Based on Handbag’s 2010 play of the same name, LADY X – A MUSICAL takes on the black and white crime melodrama films of the ‘30s and ‘40s. It’s the story of seedy nightclubs, the menacing gangsters that run them and the loose women that keep the customers coming back for more! Co-directed by Tommy Bullington and Steve Love with music direction by JD Caudill, the campy new musical parody features a book by Artistic Director David Cerda, music by Cerda and Scott Lamberty. Join Handbag for a glimpse into the world of the 'clip-joint' from days gone by filled with sassy dames, crooked hoods and the regular Joes trying to make a buck. Single tickets and season subscriptions are currently available at www.handbagproductions.org or by calling (800) 838-3006. The press opening is Friday, April 28 at 7:30 pm.

 

Mary Dwight is a gorgeous dame and a tough cookie who knows the score (and then some). Mary spends her nights as a 'clip-joint hostess,' making the customers feel welcome, whether it's sharing a drink with them – or the evening. Mary's got all the angles figured out, until Scarlett Fontanelli (David Cerda) enters the picture. As deadly as she is beautiful, Scarlett will stop at nothing to gain control over this world of underground crime. But Frank Graham, a young idealistic Assistant District Attorney, will stop at nothing to bring Scarlett and the Fontanelli syndicate to its knees. Frank wants justice for decent citizens everywhere and for his sister Barbara, a casualty of the Fontanelli family business.

 

Join Mary and her unforgettable pals, the not so bright Emmy Lou (Elizabeth Lesinski), Estelle (Ed Jones), the good natured tramp with a penchant for funnels and all the good time gals in a tale so startling... so lurid... that only Hell in a Handbag Productions would dare tell it!

 

The production team for LADY X – A MUSICAL includes Austin Lemoine (costume design) and Mealah Heidenreich (props).

 

PRODUCTION DETAILS:

 

Title: LADY X – A MUSICAL

Book: David Cerda

Music: David Cerda and Scott Lamberty

Co-Directors: Tommy Bullington and Steve Love

Music Director: JD Caudill

Choreographer: Steve Love 

Cast: David Cerda (Scarlett Fontanelli), Ed Jones (Estelle) and Elizabeth Lesinski (Emmy Lou). Additional casting to be announced.

 

Dates: Previews: Friday, April 21 at 7:30 pm, Sunday, April 23 at 6 pm and Thursday, April 27 at 7:30 pm

Regular run: Saturday, April 29 – Sunday, June 11, 2017

Curtain Times: Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 pm; Sundays at 6:00 pm. Please note: there will not be a performance on Sunday, May 7 or Sunday, June 4. 

Tickets: Previews $12. Regular run $26 in advance, $30 at the door. VIP tickets with cocktail $38 and up. Group rates $21 for or more. Tickets are currently available at www.handbagproductions.org or by calling (800) 838-3006.

 

Published in Buzz Extra
Monday, 20 February 2017 11:46

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
Thursday, 16 February 2017 21:39

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 16:02

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
Page 4 of 29

 

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