Theatre

Monday, 13 March 2017 17:34

Review: Kokandy Productions' "The Wiz"

"The Wiz" is a perfect collision of disco and show tunes. Appearing on Broadway in 1975, "The Wiz" went on to win the Tony for Best Musical. Though it was not the first all-black production on Broadway, the cross-over appeal of its music made it a sensation. A few years later it was adapted for film starring Michael Jackson, Diana Ross and Lena Horn. The film is considerably different than the stage version, for the worse. 

 

Kokandy Productions' "The Wiz" accentuates all the enduring qualities of the show while adding some modern flare of its own. This has to be the hardest working cast in Chicago right now. For two and a half solid hours director Lili-Anne Brown's cast of talented singers and dancers fill the space with an infectious energy. Sydney Charles as Dorothy is cute and brings a sense of humor to the character, her soaring vocals come to an inspiring crest during "Home." Though, it may well be Frederick Harris in the titular role (in fabulous drag no less) who walks away with the evening's biggest laughs. There's not a sour note in this production and each song is either a powerhouse ballad or a funky dance number. 

 

One of the show's many pleasant surprises is the costuming and overall aesthetic. This is highly conceptualized version that suits the intimate space at Theatre Wit. Borrowing from 90s-era TLC and blending it with today's street fashion, costume designer Virginia Varland creates a very stylish motif in an otherwise minimal set. The ensemble looks as great as they sound. 

 

Lili-Anne Brown doesn't complete her update of "The Wiz" with costumes alone. There's some fairly edgy humor written into this production, including a nod to the prevalence of police brutality cellphone videos. This version of "The Wiz" is how it was originally intended to be–for adults. What the movie and the NBC live version miss is a lot of the grown-up humor in the script. After all, this is an urban contemporary version of the Wizard of Oz, it should be cheeky. Miss Brown's vision for Kokandy Productions' "The Wiz" is a lot of fun and keeps its source material relevant. 

 

Through April 16th at Theater Wit. 1229 W Belmont Ave. 773-975-8150

 

Published in Theatre in Review
Friday, 24 February 2017 18:23

Review: Uncle Vanya at Goodman Theatre

In 2010, Goodman Theatre Artistic Director adapted "The Seagull" by Chekhov. An all-star cast, a stellar script and unique staging made for a memorable production. For this season, Robert Falls returns Chekhov to the Goodman with a new adaptation of "Uncle Vanya" by Annie Baker. This production of "Uncle Vanya" could be seen as a companion piece to 2010's "The Seagull." There's a stylistic similarity and another all-star cast breathing new life into this classic work. 

 

Like any Chekhov play, "Uncle Vanya" is about the everyday boredom and sadness of bourgeois Russians living on a country estate. Vanya (Tim Hopper) and niece Sonya (Caroline Neff) have toiled away their youths keeping the estate afloat and subsidizing the academic career of Sonya's aging father Alexander (David Darlow). When Alexander and his much younger wife Yelena (Kristen Bush) decide to move in with Vanya, their simple lives reach confrontation. 

 

Chekhov has a knack for dynamic female characters. "Uncle Vanya" is no exception. Caroline Neff's performance as Sonya sneakily becomes the focal point. Neff infuses Baker's already modern dialogue with an almost tangible sense of emotion.  Playing off her in the role of Yelena is Kristin Bush. This character is complicated and cold but Bush deftly shifts between moods without ever losing her audience. 

 

Adapter Annie Baker won the Pulitzer in 2014 for her play "The Flick." Her interpretation of "Uncle Vanya" was based on a literal word-for-word translation as she wanted her version to sound as fresh to a modern American audience as the original Russian had in 1900. To that end, Baker is successful. The script is quiet, but the dialogue seamlessly flows into our century. There's a timelessness to the entire production. Certain conventions, costumes and set pieces span generations, yet are of no specific historic era.  This stylistic choice only reinforces the ever-relevant themes of Chekhov's complex works. 

 

"Uncle Vanya" can neither be described as a comedy or a drama. There are moments of lightness and even dark humor, but overall the play is not particularly funny. On the other hand, while there's a well of unhappiness just beneath the surface, nothing truly cataclysmic happens. In the end, Chekhov makes his nihilistic point that perhaps none of us are happy and that death is the only respite we'll know. 

 

Through March 19th at Goodman Theatre. 170 N Dearborn St. 312-443-3800

 

Published in Theatre in Review
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

"Attention must be paid," Arthur Miller pleads in his Pulitzer Prize winning play "Death of a Salesman." What is now required reading, "Death of a Salesman" asks its audience to consider the worth of one pathetic old man. The play debuted in 1949, at a time when America was coming out of a war and questioning the value of personal fulfillment. For that theme alone this play will always be relevant. 

 

The intimate space at Redtwist Theatre makes for an overwhelming experience. In many of the scenes there's an almost voyeuristic feel. As if you're in someone's living room listening to something you shouldn't. Director Steve Scott uses this atmospheric effect to create a palpable intensity. After the lights go out on the final scene, an audience gasped in unison. 

 

Brian Parry delivers a powerhouse performance as Willy Loman. Both tough and weak at the same time. His Loman is still feisty, making the ending all the more tragic. Jan Ellen Graves' Linda Loman is played calm and collected and rarely sentimental, but lively when the moment is right. Matt Edmonds gives a standout performance as Biff. There are such revelations in Edmonds' interpretation. 

 

Like Tennessee Williams and Eugene O'Neill, Arthur Miller knew America. He knew the sad and melancholic ways average people live. "Death of a Salesman" should make us uncomfortable. We should bristle at the idea of one average man getting used up and thrown away. It's a warning that if you don't take control of your own destiny, society will toss you aside. Willy Loman skirts through life on quick fixes and delusions. In a way, all of us are Willy Loman and Miller asks us to look beyond the superficial. As "On the Road" had also inspired a younger generation to live life differently than their parents, so does "Death of a Salesman." The moral here is that nobody wants to end up as Willy Loman. 

 

Through March 5 at Redtwist Theatre. 1044 W BrynMawr 773-728-7529

www.Redtwist.org 

 

Published in Theatre in Review

"The Temperamentals" by Jon Marans makes its Chicago premiere at About Face Theatre. Artistic director Andrew Volkoff revisits this 2009 Off-Broadway play in a critical time for LGBT rights in America. This play was selected for their season long before the election, but serves to remind that the struggle for equality is not over. 

 

"The Temperamentals" refers to a slang term for homosexuals in the 1950s. It tells the true story of the Mattachine Society, the first LGBT rights group in America. Kyle Hatley plays Harry Hay, a closeted college professor working on behalf of gay rights. The Mattachine Society is formed when he meets Rudi Gernreich (Lane Anthony Flores). Gernreich is an up-and-coming designer who escaped the Nazis in Austria. His observations about life under the Third Reich inspires Harry Hay to action. 

 

Maran's script shines in the way it intertwines the historic plotline with authentic relationship dramas between characters. Alex Weisman plays Bob, the promiscuous one, with such sincerity even while cycling through several bit parts. Lane Anthony Flores gives a brave and dynamic peformance as chic European designer Gernreich. Also featuring Rob Lindley and Paul Fagan, About Face has assembled an all-star cast for this vital piece. 

 

Many think that gay activism started at Stonewall, but what "The Temperamentals" documents is the West Coast movement that began in the 1950s. The Mattachine Society was pitched to influential closested homosexuals in Hollywood, like Vincent Minnelli, but failed to garner mainstream interest for fear of blacklisting. Its intention was to decriminalize homosexuality. 

 

Jon Maran's play is sexy and stylish. It echos of Larry Kramer and that's what theater needs right now. It's a nearly three hour wake up call to a generation who takes advantage of the privileges fought for by activism. 

 

Through February 18 at About Face Theatre. Theatre Wit 1229 W Belmont Ave. 

 

Published in Theatre in Review

“Circumference of a Squirrel” by John Walch finishes out The Greenhouse Theater’s inaugural Solo Celebration. This one-character play festival featured only single narrative storytelling. It’s not often you see a one-person fiction play, and while some may cringe at the concept, these short works explored highly relevant themes. 

 

Will Allen stars as Chester. He begins the play telling the audience about a squirrel he saw trying to carry a bagel. Chester is in the present, and by the speech pattern adopted by Allen, we can presume something is a little off. Walch’s script seamlessly flows between Chester’s childhood memories, his relationship with his father and the divorce he’s just been through. He grapples with the knowledge that his father was an ardent anti-semite. It colors the dark, and funny memories of his father paying him in Lifesavers to kill squirrels. 

 

Allen toggles between several characters and memories in the hour-long run time. Each character has a unique, but sincere voice and there’s an almost manic quality with which Allen can articulate them all. His performance only deepens from beginning to end, leading to a bittersweet conclusion. 

 

Directed by Jacob Harvey, “Circumference of a Squirrel” is a well-stylized, and at times abstract look at the ways in which we love. It asks of its audience, whether unfounded racism is forgivable even in the ones we are supposed to love. 

 

Through February 12 at The Greenhouse Theater Center. 2257 N Lincoln Ave. 

 

 

Published in Theatre in Review

Brett Neveu is a playwright to watch. To call him up-and-coming would be unfair as his work has appeared at The Goodman, Writers Theatre and Red Orchid Threatre. His new play "Her America" is being presented by The Greenhouse Theater Center as part of their Solo Celebration Series. 

 

Directed by Linda Gillum, "Her America" is single character play starring Kate Buddeke. She gives a riveting performance as a not-all-there Midwestern housewife locked in a basement. Buddeke embodies the character effortlessly. Her delivery is familiar and in many lines, hauntingly real. 

 

In the hour we spend with this unnamed character, she uses objects in her basement to freely associate memories and stories from her childhood. To whom she is speaking remains a mystery throughout. Neveu's script is highly detailed which serves to dimensionalize Buddeke's character. Through random memories, she explains the various influences in her life and how she became the person she is.

 

"Her America" files down to a crushing revelation, but along the way uncovers something darker. It says a lot about what life is like in America for those with few options. It's rare when the theater gives a truly empathetic portrayal of rural life. "Her America" was written in a bitterly devisive time and its message is to say that we should be more understanding with each other. 

 

Through February 12 at The Greenhouse Theater Center. 2257 N Lincoln Ave. 

 

 

Published in Theatre in Review
Wednesday, 28 December 2016 18:02

Review: Light Opera Works' Die Fledermaus

By the end of January, most people are over holiday theater. In the days between holidays, the Loop is a ghost town almost exclusively sustained by last minute ‘Christmas Carol’ and ‘Nutcracker’ matinees. Locals tend to stay local. For Evanston residents looking for quality theater, Light Opera Works is a great Off-Loop alternative. 

 

For the final few days of the year, Light Opera Works presents the classic Johann Strauss operetta ‘Die Fledermaus.’ Artistic director Rudy Hogenmiller presents an amiable English language adaptation by Quade Winter. One of the show’s best draws is the 30-piece orchestra conducted by Roger Bingaman. 

 

‘Die Fledermaus’ or “the bat,” is a typical farce. The first act sets the stage for philandering husband Eisenstein (Michael Cavalieri) to attend a masked ball on the eve of his impending incarceration. His wife Rosalinda (Alicia Berneche) meanwhile carries on an affair with a former flame, Alfred (Tobias Wright). The real candy of Act I might just be Kelly Britt as Adele, a lovely chambermaid with ambitions of her own. Her comedic strength is consistent throughout. William Dywer holds the attention of Act II as the dashing and strong-voiced host of the masked ball. As happens in all farces, the central couple learns a valuable lesson that rekindles their love. 

 

Along with great vocals, Light Opera Works’ production is visually pleasing. Costumes and sets by Jana Anderson and Adam Veness work together to showcase Light Opera Works’ impressive budget. Suburban theatre is rarely this polished. 

 

“Die Fledermaus” at Light Opera Works in Evanston is a good choice for those close to home. The music is soaring and the comedy tickles all ages. A better bet in Evanston surely can’t be found. 

 

Through January 1st at Light Opera Works. Cahn Auditorium 600 Emerson St. Evanston, IL 

 

Published in Theatre in Review
Thursday, 15 December 2016 18:04

Review: Joffrey's Nutcracker

There's nothing more cloying than an evening of bad holiday theatre. Each December countless Chicago theaters put up their annual Christmas shows. Some are better than others. For a reliable standard, Joffrey Ballet's "Nutcracker" is a safe bet.

 

For 2016, Joffrey presents an entirely new version of the classic Tchaikovsky ballet. Conceived by English choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, this new production is sleek and tailor-made for Chicago. An interesting variation on ETA Hoffman's original Russian fairy tale. In this version, Marie is from a working class family and it's set during the construction of the Chicago World's Fair. The dance sequences in the second act are Clara's dreams of what the Columbian Exposition will hold. Wheeldon's aesthetic borrows from holiday favorites like "A Christmas Carol" and "Meet Me in St. Louis" Sets by Julian Crouch combine the classic imagery of the original and newer conventions like projections. Accompanied by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, this "Nutcracker" is a little more grown up than the pastel versions you might remember.

 

The talent will be of no surprise to Joffrey regulars. Dancing the part of Marie is Amanda Assucena. Her performance portrays the lead character with a more teenage curiosity about romance. Miguel Angel Blanco dances a variation of Uncle Drosselmeyer, otherwise known as the Impresario of the Fair. It's playful and a little creepy. In the dream sequence, Christine Rocas and Fabrice Calmels turn up the heat as the Arabian Dancers. Wheeldon's choreography creates quite a spectacle and the large cast sequences are magical.

 

For those bored with run-of-the-mill "Nutcrackers" (a dime-a-dozen this time of year), this brand new production at The Joffrey will leave an impression. It's refreshing to see a local cultural institution take what they know works and turning it on its head. If only more of Chicago's tried and true holiday shows would take the same path, maybe we wouldn't dread them so much.

 

Through December 30th at Joffrey Ballet. 50 East Congress Parkway. 

 

 

Published in Dance in Review

Underscore Theatre and Harborside Films hearkens back to a simpler time, when the biggest national tragedy was a young Olympic figure skater getting clubbed in the knees. The year was 1994 and the world couldn't get enough of Tonya Harding versus Nancy Kerrigan. Some twenty-two years later, this scandal is ripe fodder for a campy rock opera. 

 

Written by Elizabeth Searle and Michael Teoli, "Tonya and Nancy" is exactly what it sounds like. A sharp, 90 minute campfest akin to "Mommie Dearest." There's no dressing this up as anything other than satire. It almost feels like an extended SNL sketch, but that's not to say it's not interesting. It's questionable how much of this skate tale is true, but it certainly serves to humanize both Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan. 

 

Since this is billed as a rock opera, the soaring vocals make good sense. In the role of wrong-side-of-the-tracks Tonya Harding is Amanda Horvath, and she lands it well. Despite everything, Horvath's performance gives Harding some extra layers. She's also hilarious. Courtney Mack co-stars as Nancy Kerrigan. Mack also has a tremendously strong voice and it comes across in such campy songs as "Why Me?" While the show may be about two figure skaters, Veronica Garza actually steals the show playing dual-characters, Tonya and Nancy's moms. She seems to relish in playing Tonya Harding's down-on-her-luck mom, and the audience eats her spot-on accents right up. Garza also has an impressive voice. 

 

Director Jon Martinez's choreography stands out as a high point in a show about ice skating that doesn't actually feature any ice skating. It's almost a surprise to see so many group dance numbers in a small space. In fact, the show features ensemble members in a perpetual state of motion which adds a nice visual element. It pairs well with all the lyrcra costuming, which reminisces of a thankfully bygone era. 

 

For those entering this fray with some skepticism, approach this work with confidence. "Tonya and Nancy" is highly polished and well-staged. There's some real potential here. The show may be a little crowded with solos, but otherwise this is a solid script. It's always fun to see a new musical in its debut production. 

 

Through December 30th at Theatre Wit 1229 W Belmont Ave. 773-975-8150.

 

 

 

Published in Theatre in Review
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