"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
American Blues Theater, under the continued leadership of Producing Artistic Director Gwendolyn Whiteside, announces the lineup for its 2017 – 2018 Season, “The Beat Goes On.” American Blues’ 32nd Season will include the World Premiere of Six Corners by Keith Huff, directed by Gary Griffin; the Chicago Premiere of Beauty’s Daughter by Dael Orlandersmith, directed by Ron OJ Parson; the 16th annual production of It’s a Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago! from Frank Capra’s film, directed by Gwendolyn Whiteside; and Buddy – the Buddy Holly Story by Alan Janes, directed by Lili-Anne Brown with musical direction by Ensemble member Michael Mahler. All performances in the 2017-2018 Season will take place at Stage 773, located at 1225 W Belmont Ave, Chicago.
“From the lyric beats of a poet, the heartbeat of a family man, the patrol beat of a Chicago cop, to the inimitable beat of Buddy Holly & the Crickets, we’re thrilled with the rich and varied stories offered for our audiences,” notes Producing Artistic Director Gwendolyn Whiteside. “We’re honored to have such extraordinary talent on the American Blues stage.”
The 2017-18 American Blues Theater Season up close:
The Chicago Premiere of
by Dael Orlandersmith
directed by Ron OJ Parson
July 7 – August 5, 2017
Press Opening: July 13, 2017 at 7:30 p.m.
This Obie Award-winning play by Dael Orlandersmith depicts one woman’s journey through life’s obstacles in an East Harlem neighborhood. Artistic Affiliate Wandachristine takes on 6 different characters during the course of this solo play—some broken, some on the way down, but all memorable.
16th Anniversary Production of
It’s a Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago!
from Frank Capra’s film
directed by Producing Artistic Director Gwendolyn Whiteside
November 17 – December 30, 2017
Press Opening: November 19, 2017 at 2:30 p.m.
For 16 years, the American Blues Ensemble has treated Chicago audiences to a live 1940s radio broadcast of holiday favorite It’s a Wonderful Life. The incredible cast recreates the entire town of Bedford Falls with Foley sound effects, an original score and holiday carols. The Bedford Falls “residents” extend their hospitality after every performance when audiences are treated to milk and cookies served by the cast.
The World Premiere of
by Keith Huff
directed by Gary Griffin
February 16 – March 25, 2018
Press Opening: February 22, 2018 at 7:30 p.m.
Late one night, two burnt-out violent crimes unit detectives try their damnedest to close the puzzling murder of a CTA employee. What should be a simple open-and-shut case, however, evolves into a horrifying mystery and unearths a legacy of violence stretching back years.
The Chicago Revival of
Buddy – the Buddy Holly Story
by Alan Janes
directed by Lili-Anne Brown
musical direction by Ensemble member Michael Mahler
April 27 – May 26, 2018
Press Opening: May 3, 2018 at 7:30 p.m.
Before the Beatles or the Rolling Stones ever played a note, rock & roll was forever changed by the bespectacled kid from Texas. BUDDY tells the true story of Buddy Holly through his short yet spectacular career and features the classic songs "That’ll be the Day", "Peggy Sue", The Big Bopper’s "Chantilly Lace", Ritchie Valens' "La Bamba" plus many more.
Additional 2017-2018 Programming
Ripped Festival: Edition 16
Written and direction by various Chicago artists
Since 2009, American Blues Theater has produced 135 short plays in the RIPPED: the Living Newspaper series. Based on the 1930’s WPA era program that brought Orson Welles, Arthur Miller, Richard Wright and Clifford Odets into public attention, playwrights use inspiration ripped from today’s headlines to create stories performed live on stage.
Arts Education in Chicago Public Schools
The Lincoln Project
Conceived and Adapted by Producing Artistic Director Gwendolyn Whiteside from Artistic Affiliate James Still’s Pulitzer-nominated The Heavens Are Hung in Black
American Blues Theater’s innovative and adaptive program aligns with Illinois Learning Standards to engage 5th-10th graders about the life of Abraham Lincoln, specifically the events surrounding the Emancipation Proclamation. Students watch scenes performed by professional actors, participate in discussions, and most importantly, write their own plays. Since the program’s launch in 2013, over 5,500 students have participated in the program.
All main stage performances take place at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave. The Blue Card – the most affording ticketing offer the 2017-2018 season are available now at www.AmericanBluesTheater.com or by calling 773.654.3103.
About American Blues Theater
Winner of the American Theatre Wing’s prestigious 2016 National Theatre Company Award, American Blues Theater is a premier arts organization with an intimate environment that patrons, artists, and all Chicagoans call home. American Blues Theater explores the American identity through the plays it produces and communities it serves.
The diverse and multi-generational artists have established the second-oldest professional Equity Ensemble theater in Chicago. The 37-member Ensemble has 530+ combined years of collaboration on stage. As of 2016, the theater and artists received 186 Joseph Jefferson Awards and nominations that celebrate excellence in Chicago theater and over 31 Black Theatre Alliance Awards. The artists are honored with Pulitzer Prize nominations, Academy Awards, Golden Globe Awards, Emmy Awards and numerous other accolades.
The American Blues Theater Ensemble includes all four Founders Ed Blatchford, Rick Cleveland, James Leaming, and William Payne with Dawn Bach, Matthew Brumlow, Manny Buckley, Kate Buddeke, Sarah Burnham, Dara Cameron, Casey Campbell, Darren Canady, Brian Claggett, Dennis Cockrum, Austin Cook, Laura Coover, Ian Paul Custer, Lauri Dahl, Joe Foust, Cheryl Graeff, Marty Higginbotham, Jaclyn Holsey, Lindsay Jones, Nambi E. Kelley, Kevin R. Kelly, Steve Key, Ed Kross, Warren Levon, Michael Mahler, Heather Meyers, John Mohrlein, Christopher J. Neville, Suzanne Petri, Carmen Roman, Editha Rosario, Sarah E. Ross, and Gwendolyn Whiteside.
American Blues Theater programs and activities are made possible, in part by funding by The MacArthur Funds for Arts & Culture at Prince, the Shubert Foundation, The Chicago Community Trust, SMART Growth Grant, Gaylord & Dorothy Donnelley Foundation, the Illinois Arts Council Agency, Anixter Foundation, Actors’ Equity Foundation, and the Chip Pringle Fund. ComEd is the Season Lighting Sponsor.
Last year the Chicago theatre community lost a major piece of its landscape. Longtime American Theater Company artistic director PJ Paparelli died abruptly before solidifying the company's thirty-first season. It's almost ironic that a man responsible for bringing so many uncomfortably topical dramas to the Chicago stage had such a soft spot for "Xanadu." As a tribute to the late Paparelli, ATC concludes their thirty-first season with this campy roller disco musical.
For most, "Xanadu" is among the worst movies ever made. In 1980, still riding high on her "Grease" fame, Olivia Newton John was cast as Zeus' favorite muse sent to Venice Beach, California to help struggling street artist Sonny Malone achieve his destiny of opening a roller disco. The film also featured an aged Gene Kelly. Though the movie was an overwhelming flop, the soundtrack by Electric Light Orchestra and John Fahrer was a huge hit.
In 2008, Broadway producers decided to satirize the now cult classic as a stage musical. Initial reviews were favorable and it even had a short engagement in Chicago. Unfortunately, due to the recession, "Xanadu" didn't last long, but is now enjoying great popularity in regional theaters.
Somehow American Theater Company and director Lili-Anne Brown are able to make their "Xanadu" more significant than what's at the surface. There's no shortage of comedic gold in this cast of young faces, but what lingers are the incredible group numbers that fill the intimate garage space. This "Xanadu" has so much life that you can almost forget the source material. In the lead role of Clio, or Kira, is Landree Fleming who takes this role in a sketch comedy direction that turns out to be ripe with goofy humor. Jim DeSelm co-stars as Sonny Malone and is not only nice to look at, but he can really belt.
Lili-Anne Brown's ensemble of sister muses fills out this energetic cast and each provide stand-out performances, even if their character names and motives are somewhat arbitrary. The cast looks like they're having a lot of fun together and it's contagious throughout the 90-minute run-time. Even the band, which in some musicals can seem disconnected, are joining in the fun. "Xanadu" at American Theater Company is a high-octane good time and a really fitting tribute to one of Chicago's most groundbreaking theatre artists.
Through July 17th at American Theater Company. 1909 W Byron Street. 773-409-4125.
I decided to review this wonderful new play by Aaron Holland partly because I loved the title and in spite of the mention in the PR materials saying that Holland’s inspiration were in part from Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace.
I’m so glad I did because this play about one young “everyman” or “everywoman” as the case may be, Amari Bolkonski, (played wonderfully by Armand Fields) has so much to say to all of us about the necessity of self love and friendship in overcoming life’s sometimes crippling blows to our sense of identity.
In Bailiwick Chicago’s Princess Mary Demands Your Attention, Amari is suffering from agoraphobia and OCD in part because his mother, Countess Bolkonski, (Pam Mack) openly disparages her youngest son by comparing him unfavorably to his distant older brother who is in her eyes, “the real man” in the family.
Luckily Amari runs into a few young gay club kids who become his “new family” and his closest friends and confidantes as he struggles to get out from under his mother’s controlling, domineering, apron and on with his own life.
Nathaniel (TJ Crawford), Bastian (Omer Abbas Salem) and Christian (David Kaplinsky) do a fantastic job of bringing these funny and sympathetic characters to life. Their scenes together are really fun to watch and seem to come from a very real, natural place.
Pam Mack does a wonderful job with the role of Countess and redeems her character’s seemingly abusive treatment of her youngest son in a truly heart wrenching scene telling Amari that she is truly sorry and that he must start to love himself as he is, after she has suffered a debilitating stroke.
The character of Stacy (Rus Rainear) is Amari’s fairy godfather of sorts, a flamer who has watched over Amari since his father’s death as a child and given him a place to work in his food stop since Amari is afraid to leave his house and deal with people in general. Rus Rainear is adorable in this role and gets many laughs with just a “look” or gesture. Stacy’s undying support along with Amari’s loyal buddies who help him dress up and get him out of his basement Amari realizes over time and with the hallucinated appearance of his own personal “Queen Mary” inspire him to break out and realize that his hiding and self pity are ruining his life.
I thought director Lili-Anne Brown did a fabulous job integrating music from the period and strobe lights and smoke and into the piece in a way that maximized the laughs, glamour and fantasy world of Amari and his friends while keeping Amari’s transformation grounded in a very touching way that anyone gay or straight, male or female, can identify with.
In the lobby before the show the audience was encouraged to write on an index card the thing they feel is holding them back in life. Also there was a “wig room” with costumes and accessories for audience members to try on “Princess Mary’s glam clothes and wigs and take a “selfie”, which really appealed to me because it made me think about applying the play’s ideas to my own life before I even entered the theater.
I highly recommend this funny yet poignant piece by Holland not because it is perfect and needs no further editing but because in its current incarnation it is so joyous and uplifting one cannot help but feel moved and entertained by it.
Princess Mary Demands Your Attention is being performed at Victory Gardens Richard Christiansen Theater through February 21st. For tickets and/or more information call 773-871-3000 or visit www.victorygardens.org.
*Photo - (left to right) TJ Crawford, Omer Abbas Salem, Armand Fields and David Kaplinskyin Bailiwick Chicago’s world premiere of PRINCESS MARY DEMANDS YOUR ATTENTION by Aaron Holland, directed by Artistic Director Lili-Anne Brown. Photo by Michael Brosilow.
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