Theatre

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

Guys, it’s time to dig into your closet and shake the dust from your polyester, large-collared, chest-exposing dance shirt. Divas, grab your sequin-studded blouse and bell-bottomed slacks or favorite jumpsuit – it’s time to disco! Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook hosts an electric 1970’s dance party to remember with their current production of Saturday Night Fever the Musical. Following the 1977 hit film that catapulted John Travolta to superstar status for his portrayal of Tony Manero, a troubled kid from The Bronx who finds escape from his dilemmas by lighting up the dance floor on Saturday nights, we are thrust into an exciting time capsule when disco was king.

As the story goes, Tony, who works a dead-end job in a hardware store, just wants to be somebody. And he is – on weekends. He just wants to dance! He’s got the hair, good looks, charisma, and dance moves that make him an instant celebrity whenever he walks into 2001, the neighborhood disco hotspot, all the girls lining up to partner with him, all the guys wishing they had half his talent. With a couples’ dance contest coming up that awards a cool thousand bucks to the winning team, Tony searches for a partner, of course seeking out the one girl who is not overly impressed with him. Saturday Night Fever the Musical, keenly directly by Tony-nominated Dan Knechtges, is a well-rounded story that delves into Tony’s stereotypical New York Italian home life, his life on the streets hanging out with his close-knit gang and his quest for love, that, for once, doesn’t come so easy. Adding a humorous spin to the classic film, this dazzling production offers a good amount of laughs while holding onto the integrity of the film. 

The music is half the fun. While the soundtrack is heavily driven by the music of The Bee Gees implementing favorites like “Staying Alive”, “How Deep Is Your Love”, “More Than A Woman” and “Jive Talkin’”, were also turned onto other disco staples that include “Boogie Shoes”, Disco Duck” and “Disco Inferno”. And as good as the music is, the dancing is just as impressive, getting spectacular individual and ensemble performances that make it difficult for audience members to restrain from taking the stage and join in the disco celebration, also encouraged by the tremendous set that recreates a captivating 1970’s dance club – strobe light, red velvet walls and all. 

Adrian Aguilar is seemingly made for the role of Tony Manero. The Jeff Award nominated actor who once starred as Rocky Balboa in Broadway’s Rocky, is nothing short of sensational. The search for the perfect Tony was widespread, with auditions held in not only Chicago but also New York, Houston and Los Angeles, and it was right here in Chicago that the production found its seamless fit. Says Kyle DeSantis, President of Drury Lane Productions, “Out of the many talented artists we saw, no one came close to Chicago’s unparalleled Adrian Auguilar as Tony.” And DeSantis could not have been any more correct as Aguilar delivers a strong performance bringing with him the comic chops and astounding dancing ability needed for the role. Aguilar is also able to tackle the demanding vocals required to take on the many numbers to which his character is highlighted and adds just the right amount of dramatic precision that give us a believable Tony Manero. 

Aguilar, whose dynamite performance is worth the cost of admission alone, is surrounded by a heaping helping of talent. Landree Fleming, who recently knocked the socks off of theatre goers in her performance as Kira in American Theater Company’s Xanadu, is back, this time delivering solid support as Manero’s clingy wannabe girlfriend Annette, while Erica Stephan does an admirable job as Stephanie, the dancer who has captured the starry eyes of our story’s star. Making his Drury Lane debut is standout actor Alex Newell, best known for his portrayal of transgender student Wade “Unique” Adams on Fox’s hit series Glee. Newell is rightly cast for the role of Candy, a disco diva who truly belts, delivering a handful of drop-your-jaw moments. In Saturday Night Fever the Musical, we also get a consistently strong boost from an ultra-talented ensemble that is not only able to bring a disco to life on several occasions, but can add credible depth to this classic story thanks to a slew of strong acting and vocal performances. Yet we cannot overlook Ryan O'Gara's stunning lighting design (disco ball included) and Rachel Laritz' spot on 1970's costume design that so well breathes life into Kevin Depinet's lavish red-velvet laden set. 

This new, reworked North American version, scripted by Sean Cercone and David Abbinanti adds even more style and flair to an already stage proven production that made waves after its London mount in 1998 and invaded America with a Broadway run in 2000. An era of pop culture poked fun of so often (and a handful of parodies are certainly present in this production), this is a musical that also celebrates disco and reminds us of the pivotal part it played in our musical history and of its ever-perpetual influence that remains.  

Saturday Night Fever the Musical pulls out all the stops, delivering a show that has it all – dancing, singing, visuals and humor, while distributing a plethora of 1970's nostalgia. Songs you may have long forgotten will be stuck in your head days afterward – in a good way. Running at Drury Lane Theatre through March 19th (now extended through April 9th), this is a production that is sure to bring the boogie out in each of us no matter how buried inside it may be.

Recommended.

For tickets and/or more show information, click here

 

Published in Theatre in Review

CHICAGO – The watch must finally come to an end for “Thrones! The Musical Parody,” announcing today the fourth and final extension at Apollo Theater (2540 N. Lincoln Ave). The “Game of Thrones” send-up will close March 19, 2017 after an eight-month run at the Lincoln Park theater. Hailed as “a robust comical homage” (Chicago Sun-Times) and a show that has “the audience falling off their chairs” (Chicago Reader), “Thrones!” is written by the team behind “Baby Wants Candy,” “Shamilton: The Improvised Musical” and “50 Shades! The Musical Parody.” A cast of six Chicago actors recount plot highlights throughout all six seasons, complete with more than 40 characters and 21 original songs ranging in style from hip hop to traditional Broadway. Tickets ($36 - $59) for performances beginning February 16 through March 19 go on sale Monday, January 23 at 10 a.m. and can be purchased at the Apollo Theater Box Office by calling 773.935.6100 or visiting Ticketmaster.com.

 

A second production of “Thrones! The Musical Parody” continues its West Coast run at Hudson Theater Mainstage (6539 Santa Monica Blvd, Los Angeles), through February 26, 2017. The LA premiere has been hailed as “comic gold” (Broadway World), “witty and riotous” (Discover Hollywood) and “a parody of epic proportions” (LA Post Examiner). For more information and tickets for the West Coast run, visit ThronesMusical.com.

 

“After workshopping this production in July, opening in September and now playing through spring, we are thrilled that “Thrones!” continues to make our audiences laugh night after night,” said Executive Producer Rob Kolson. “While all good things must come to an end, ‘Thrones!’ has been an incredible production for the Apollo, and we are sure of its continued success around the country as the television show thrives.”

 

As Spencer, Brad, Hayden, Ross, Kelly and Tom gather for the season finale of “Game of Thrones,” they soon discover the ultimate travesty: that Brad does not watch the show. Over the course of 90 minutes, the group bands together to act out all six seasons (read: spoilers) for Brad, including dashing men battling White Walkers, ravishing women riding fire-breathing dragons, and the infamous “Walk of Shame.” “Thrones! The Musical Parody” debuted to completely sold-out performances at the 2015 Edinburgh Fringe Festival and was hailed as “darkly humorous and beautifully vulgar” (Edinburgh Festival Magazine) and “a resounding success!” (Sunday Times), followed by a sold-out, limited run at London’s Leicester Square Theatre. In its run in here in Chicago, “Thrones!” is a “hilarious ride that never slows down” (BuzzNews Chicago) and “unfailingly witty and deliciously irreverent” (Performink). The cast of “Thrones! The Musical Parody” includes Caitlyn Cerza, Dan Gold, Madeline Lauzon, Beau Nolen, Victoria Olivier and Christopher Ratliff.

 

“Thrones! The Musical Parody” is written by Chris Grace, Zach Reino, Al Samuels and Dan Wessels. The production is directed by Hannah Todd, choreographed by Tyler Sawyer Smith and produced by Emily Dorezas, Rob Kolson and Al Samuels. The creative team includes Thomas O. Mackey III (Set Designer), Eric Backus (Sound Designer), Amanda Gladu (Costume Designer), Patrick Ham (Prop Designer), Clare Sangster (Light Designer) and R&D Choreography (Violence Design). Dakota Hughes and Mike Danovich are the production understudies.

 

The performance schedule is as follows: Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30 p.m., Saturdays at 6 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. and Sundays at 4 p.m. For ticket inquiries for groups of 10 or more, call Group Theater Tix at 312.423.6612. To learn more about “Thrones!” visit the website, and follow along on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

 

About Baby Wants Candy

“Baby Wants Candy” has performed more than 2,000 completely improvised musicals to thousands of fans from Chicago to New York to Singapore to Scotland. Currently, “Baby Wants Candy” runs in Chicago at the Apollo Theater, in Los Angeles at UCB Sunset and tours internationally.  A cutting edge theatrical experience, the performance features a revolving cast of A-list comedic performers and a full band.

 

“Baby Wants Candy” begins with the cast asking the audience for a suggestion of a musical that has never been performed before. Accompanied by a full band, the first title that the group hears becomes the title and theme for that evening’s 60-minute show, featuring a roller coaster ride of spontaneously choreographed dance numbers, rhyming verses and witty, jaw-dropping comedy.  Each performance is its own opening and closing night, and by design every show is completely unique and a once–in a lifetime premiere.

 

“Baby Wants Candy” has received rave reviews in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, The Onion, Chicago Sun-Times, TimeOut New York and more, and has received numerous awards including the winner of FringeNYC’s Outstanding Unique Theatrical Experience, Best Improv Ensemble by Chicago Magazine, the Best Visiting Comedy Ensemble by TimeOut New York, the recipient of the Ensemble of the Year Award at the Chicago Improv Festival, and a rare Sixth Star Award Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

 

“Baby Wants Candy” has included several notable performers including Peter Gwinn of “Colbert Report;” Rachel Dratch and Aidy Bryant of “Saturday Night Live;” Stephnie Weir of “MadTV;” Nicole Parker of “MadTV” and Elphaba in “Wicked” on Broadway; Jack McBrayer of “30 Rock;” Al Samuels and Kevin Fleming of “Sports Action Team;” Thomas Middleditch of “Silicon Valley;” Garry W. Tallent of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band; Mark Pender of The Max Weinberg 7 and Bruce Springsteen and the Seeger Sessions Band; and Johnny Pisano of the Jesse Malin Band and The Marky Ramone Band. Members of “Baby Wants Candy” have recently written the hit off-Broadway show “50 Shades! The Musical Parody” and “Shamilton: The Improvised Musical.”

 

About Apollo Theater

The Apollo Theater, located in the heart of Chicago’s Lincoln Park since 1978, has been home to many of the city’s biggest hits including the recent “Million Dollar Quartet,” which holds the record for the longest-running Broadway musical in Chicago history. Resident companies of the Apollo Theater include Emerald City Theatre Company and “Baby Wants Candy,” and many up-and-coming companies can be seen nightly in the theater’s 50-seat downstairs studio. Recently renovated and fully accessible, the Apollo Theater’s intimate 435-seat mainstage continues to deliver world-class theater as one of the city’s premiere off-Loop houses.

 

Published in Buzz Extra
Tuesday, 04 October 2016 18:38

Rise Up, Chicago: Hamilton is Here!

What more can be said about the phenomenon that is Hamilton: An American Musical? The ever-growing hype, not to mention the genius content, speak for themselves. It was nothing less than an absolute thrill to finally sit down to see this musical after nearly a year of obsessing over the 46 - yes, forty-six - song soundtrack. Who ever knew that textbook American history could be so exciting and jarringly relevant?

The nearly three hour, entirely sung/rapped performance takes the audience through the life of the "ten dollar founding father" Alexander Hamilton. Before creator Lin-Manuel Miranda masterfully brought Hamilton's biography to the stage, everyone who isn't a history teacher likely only knew Hamilton from the ten dollar bill, but, contrary to a recurring lyric in the show, there were a million things he did for the country. Namely, he created a financial plan that saved America in a time of major debt as well as established the first national bank. If that sounds dry, it's only because you haven't heard "The Room Where It Happens" yet.

 Not only does the story cover Hamilton's achievements and downfalls, but it paints a vivid portrait of colonial life, the complications of war during the American Revolution, and the messy aftermath of establishing a new nation. Other important historical figures we'd normally associate with flat images in books or on paper money are also presented as fully-fledged and in the flesh, such as George Washington, Aaron Burr, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, among others. Central to the story as well are the two female leads of the show, Eliza and Angelica Schuyler, who were daughters of a wealthy revolutionary-turned-senator and may not have been widely known before but are certainly getting the recognition they deserve now. To top it off, these exclusively white historical figures are portrayed by people of color, keenly driving home the show's message regarding immigrants' roles in the founding of our country and representing a current snapshot of American life.

All of this is fueled by the exquisitely-crafted music and intelligent lyrics that have astounded listeners of all ages and creeds. With most of the lyrics rapped, there is room for an incredible amount of detail, proving further that Miranda is nothing less than a creative genius. Only rap would allow literal paragraphs of information to fit into a single song, and this style serves the purpose of the musical brilliantly in conjunction with the more traditionally-sung parts that, in turn, give the audience small breaks to digest everything.

The Chicago cast is immensely talented - imagine all the actors who auditioned for these coveted roles - and can easily hold a candle to its Broadway equivalent. Many of the actors play multiple roles, impressively switching characters from Act One to Act Two. Favorites for me included Chris Lee as a hilariously arrogant Jefferson, Ari Afsar as a strong yet vulnerable Eliza, and Joshua Henry as the smooth-voiced nemesis to Hamilton, Aaron Burr (sir).

It's hard to say when the last time a musical of this magnitude and social significance came around, as nothing that has been done before can really compare to Hamilton. Truly unique, engaging, educational, sharp, funny, heartbreaking, and moving, we should appreciate getting to witness this watershed moment in Broadway history and heed advice from the repeated Hamilton lyric to "look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now!"

Hamilton is playing at the Private Bank Theater at 18 W Monroe St. now and indefinitely. Tickets can be purchased on Ticketmaster, or you can enter the daily ticket lottery here.

Published in Theatre Reviews

After a successful summer preview run, "Thrones: The Musical Parody" has returned to Apollo Theater for Fall performances. Though the production might not have the staying power as did "Million Dollar Quartet", a show originally scheduled for a two-week run that was renewed for several years, "Thrones" is a solid production that, despite its niche market, should get comfy in its Apollo home for a decent stay.

 

Parodying Game of Thrones, one of the biggest television series over the past decade "Thrones" hold little back, cleverly mocking its main characters delivering a crude, but witty, humor GoT fans are sure to enjoy. From the show's opening number "Thrones!", a song that punches the audience with spoilers and refers to "The Wire" as a show one doesn't realize they like until after two and a half seasons, we get a good taste of the campy ride we are about to take. The show's very funny cast includes Caitlyn Cerza, Nick Druzbanski, Madeline Lauzon, Beau Nolan, Victoria Olivier and Christopher Ratliff. 

 

The story revolves around a group of friends who excitedly await the GoT season premiere. However, after some lackluster enthusiasm is displayed, it's soon revealed that Brad (Druzbanski) has never seen the show. Of course, this is just mind blowing for the rest of the gang who quickly agree to act out the show to catch Brad up to speed. And this is where it starts to get crazy. In fact, the show takes a hilarious turn the moment Tom (Ratliff) throws on the John Snow wig and makeshift cape just before diving into his ode to The Wall watchers "For the Watch". And how can you have a wall number without taking a poke a Donald Trump, which they certainly do. Taking shots at practically every character on the show from Tyrian to Sansa to King Joffrey to Xerxes (there's actually a song on who we need to know), the group goes from one scenario to the next. Naturally, Brad's interest in the show grows as the friends get deeper and deeper into the characters. 

 

Act One ends on a high note with possibly the funniest number in the show, "Stabbin'", a gruesomely humorous massacre free-for-all that really needs to be seen to be appreciated in full. But worry not, after a big ending into intermission, we are not let down, as Act Two holds a strong pace by providing solid laughs throughout, steering us to a strong finish. Each actor richly contributes in this talented cast holding the ability to get big laughs at any given moment as well as providing respectable vocal ability. The cast brilliantly overplays their characters expressions and are able to successfully spoof their many characteristics such as Tyrian's poor accent, John Snow's seemingly empty thoughts or _________  not so subtle crush on Denarys. 

 

Written by the team of Chris Grace, Zach Reino, Al Samuels and Dan Wessels, the show gets a nice boost from director Hannah Todd, who is able to work the funny within the funny and finely translate it for stage. While GoT fans will certainly enjoy this show, easily picking up on its jokes - both subtle and bold, it remains to see how theater goers not familiar with the show will react. The GoT fan base in Chicago might be enough in itself to support this show for a long run, possibly even creating new GoT fans along the way. 

 

"Thrones: The Musical Parody", performed at Apollo Theater through November 15th, has plenty to make it a thoroughly entertaining event - laughs, sex, an engaging storyline,catchy songs and excellent acting performances. 

 

Take your Game of Thrones experience to the next level with "Thrones: The Musical Parody". 

Published in Theatre Reviews

Helldrivers of Daytona, currently running at the Royal George Theatre, is a fun idea. It is a musical that seems to mostly spoof Elvis’ Viva Las Vegas, a story of a talented race car driver who needs to scrape up enough cash to get his car into the big race. James Nedrud does his best in the lead as Lucky Stubbs, lampooning the Elvis-like role, but often ends up shouting his best songs. Nonetheless, he does succeed nicely as a caricature of the sexy, country boy trying to make good we know from the film, coming off as a fey, one level dummy adding a lot of humor to the role. Nedrud’s expressions alone often draws laughs along with his overdone Southern accent and quirky denseness.  

 

The parodied scenes from Viva Las Vegas are many, from the girlfriend, Pepper, singing a song about how jealous she is of Lucky’s race car, the active competition with a French racing rival and even Lucky’s stint working as a hotel waiter where he walks in on Pepper and his challenger. Again, the idea was there. Problem is, despite some good acting and singing performances throughout the cast, the production goes a bit overboard with its silliness and many jokes simply fall flat. 

 

The music, composed by The Knack’s Berton Averre, captures the 1965 period nicely, some songs stuffed with clever punchlines, however, outside of a couple catchy melodies, most numbers will probably have a hard time sticking, as they fall a bit on the repetitive side.        

 

Samantha Pauly stands out from the entire cast and is a superb comedienne in the role of Pepper Johnson, Lucky’s sex kittenish, Anne Margaret type love interest. Her introductory song, "Peppers' Crazy Feeling" is hysterical as Pepper has one orgasm after another just by driving her pink colored bumpy, throbbing stick shift - an adorable convertible aptly named "Pinky”, getting huge laughs with each big "O", some of the only genuine laughs in the show. As the bi-sexual, millionaire race car driver and Count, David Sajewich is also funny even when he later channels a twelve-year-old French murderess to kill Lucky in the race (I told you it goes overboard). 

 

There are three essential speedway groupies and a tomboyish tag-along (Rachel Melius, Leah Morrow, Claire Lilley, and Julia Rose Duray). All had great voices and are played with real energy, sex appeal and great comic timing.

 

The beach bums who become Lucky's race car pit crew (Trey Curtis, Aaron M. Davidson, and Chris Selefski) have some funny moments and are good singers. Danny Herman and Rocker Verastique's choreography is often very sexy and funny at the same time, especially the dance numbers of seduction between Lucky and Pepper and Pepper's competing courtship dance with the Count. 

 

I adored Brenda Winstead's costumes particularly for all the women characters. The girl's outfits were colorful, perfectly cut for the time period and eye-poppingly sexy without actually revealing anything.

 

"Teenage Dreams" sung by the three groupies is the most memorable and interesting song to me. Their three fantasies in the number include, a Daddy's girl whose fixation on her handsome father still gets in the way of her love life, one was into being a dominatrix and having her man be her obedient puppy dog, and the third, raised Catholic, insists on finding a man who looks and acts like Jesus, her hero and savior.  I thought this song’s lyrics were very cleverly written and delivered by the girls and really captured the repressed fantasies and dating blocks that many women of all ages possibly struggle with today. Happily, for this trio, each one eventually finds her perfect mate in the trio of pit crew boys who help Lucky win the race. 

 

At a running time of 2 hours 25 minutes there are definitely still some cuts to be made but I had a lot of fun watching the show, and think a younger crowd at a theater with a more progressive reputation would as well. It might also be a good idea to take in Viva Las Vegas beforehand to really get the show’s camp.

 

Despite the show having a few more misses than hits, Helldrivers of Daytona still has enough laughs and doses of nostalgia that most will probably enjoy it overall. Its originality also counts for something, especially in its big finale racing scene.  

 

In its World Premiere, the pre-Broadway tryout, Helldrivers of Daytona, is being performed at Royal George Theatre through October 30th. To find out more about the show go to www.theroylageorgetheatre.com. 

 

*UPDATE – Due to negative reviews, the show has been cancelled for the remainder of its run. A statement was made from the show’s producers, “We all believed in Helldrivers of Daytona and more importantly believe in creating new works for the American Musical stage. We are disappointed by the critical response, but we knew that it was a risky endeavor. Still, many of the people who saw it were thoroughly entertained and delighted by the work of our fantastic cast and musicians. We have decided to close the production and we will evaluate how we might make changes for future productions of the musical. We want to thank our talented team of designers, our director and co-choreographer, our music director, our cast and crew, and of course our creative team who have all worked so diligently to get Helldrivers to the starting (and alas, finishing) line.”

 

That is unfortunate. Hopefully, we will see a tweaked production in the future. 

 

Published in Theatre Reviews

Pinterest fails are an internet sensation, with recognizable side by side pictures illustrating the difference between expectations and reality for the everyday crafter, baker, photographer, etc. It seems that no matter how many of these memes we see, it is still commonplace to set high expectations which risk being let down.

 

“WOZ: A Rock Cabaret” was unfortunately a case of missed expectations. The concept is a cabaret show which tells the familiar story of The Wizard of Oz through the iconic music of the 80’s and 90’s, including hits from Whitesnake, Blondie, Foreigner, Queen and Michael Jackson. Sounds awesome, right!? While the show had its moments and some strong singers, the reality was a production that felt flat, with big moments that lost their steam and performances that lacked the luster and pizzazz expected from a cabaret.

 

One of the main issues with the show was the venue. Performed on stage at Victory Gardens Theater, this cabaret style show felt out of place. The performers attempted to interact with the audience but it required them to come down off the stage where they easily got lost in this stadium style seating. Had this been set in a truer cabaret setting, where the audience could sit at tables enjoying their cocktails, it could have allowed the performance to work the space both on the stage and on the floor and perhaps made the show more engaging.

 

The creativity behind the song selection was awesome and very often the start of a new song brought smiles, laughs and a palpable energy to the audience. As the performers sang the full songs however, it often felt like things started to drag and there was not enough happening to hold attention through to the end of the song.

 

The performers themselves were mostly strong overall. The standouts of the show were the journeying buddies of the Scarecrow (Kevin Webb), the Tinman (James Nedrud) and the Cowardly Lion (Edward Fraim). All three brought different unique but powerful voices to their songs and added some great humor to the show. Heather Currie was a powerhouse and had an odd but quite funny style in how she played the Wicked Witch. The performances of Clara D’Onofrio and Kimberly Lawson, as Glinda and Dorothy respectively, left something to be desired. Both have strong voices but tend more toward the musical theater style which did not always vibe with the other performers. Andre De Shields was the special guest star of the show, bringing star power to the role of the Wizard and he certainly stole the show with his numbers.

 

While there are some high moments and tons of creativity that clearly went into this show, the performance lacks the excitement that could have turned this somewhat lackluster show into an all-out engaging and exciting cabaret performance.

 

With only 5 performances, the run of this show is already nearing completion but this was its second run in Chicago, so if you really wish you could have seen it, try clicking your heels three times and say to yourself “there’s no place like WOZ” – maybe it will be back someday, bigger and better.

 

Published in Theatre Reviews
Wednesday, 23 December 2015 01:00

DYNAMITE DIVAS IS EXPLOSIVELY GOOD

Here is a theater event that is so rich you cannot be disappointed. Anyone who attends Dynamite Divas: A Tribute to Women in Soul will be richly rewarded by the experience. In fact, it is so good, I would say run, don't walk, to the Black Ensemble theater to see it. (It runs through January 24.)

The premise of the play is self-admittedly thin: African-American multi-billionaire Mr. Maurice (Rueben D. Echoles, who directs, choreographs and designed costumes) has paid $2.5 million to each of four grande dames of soul - Nancy Wilson (Rhonda Preston), Gladys Knight (Rashada Dawan), Roberta Flack (Melanie McCullough), and Aretha Franklin (Shari Addison, a real show-stealer) - who are to spend the day preparing for and then performing in a television special. 

 

Why just these four? Well, Dionne Warwick, Diana Ross, and Tina Turner were considered - but schedule conflicts kept them away. Besides, these four personalities are probably the only compatible mix, as we discover in the course of the show.

Why put on such a show? Mr. Maurice, who claims to have earned his wealth through his inventions  (e-mail, texting, touch-screens, and Botox!), wants to celebrate the musical accomplishment of these remarkable singers.

These actresses' divas, as personified by these exceptional performers, capture not just the singing style, but also the personalities of their real-life counterparts. And they, too, are mystified by Mr. Maurice's circumstances and motive.  "A black billionaire we've never heard of?"

While the set-up is ridiculous, the music, and the performers, are anything but. In his performance as Mr. Maurice, Rueben Echoles sets the stage with such an abundance of energy, that he truly casts a spell across the audience, forcing the room into a complete suspension of disbelief. That is theater! (And I don't say that lightly, after four decades in the audience.)

Though well paid, these divas - in their 70's - need to be coaxed to sing at first. An extra $50,000 finally breaks the ice, and Gladys Knight lets loose with "I've Got to Use My Imagination," her 1973 hit with the Pips. This offers an inkling of what is to come: Rashada Dawan captures that teary edge to Gladys Knight's voice throughout the night, and replicates the original convincingly - with the added power of being there live.

Now that the audience knows what to listen for, the next plot turn packs a punch using the Assimilator, a kind of holographic transporter used to call up greats of the past. First a phantasm of Billie Holiday alights on the stage and performs, really channels, Holiday's "God Bless the Child" - followed by almost equally powerful impersonations of Dinah Washington ("The Bitter Earth") and Nina Simone ("Mississippi Goddam.")

As Mr. Maurice convinces each Diva to sing - beginning with first hits, and other career high points - the other three sing back-up. Music fills the 299-seat stage for what turns out to be a very short 2-1/2 hour run.

While each of these leading ladies is a powerful performer, and ably capture the singing style and phrasing of their diva, it is Shari Addison who most often seizes control of the stage - befitting her role as Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin. As the most familiar personality, Franklin gives Addison more to work with. But in McCullough's Flack singing "Killing Me Softly;" or in Preston's Wilson doing the signature "Guess Who I Saw Today," to cite two examples, the stage, and the listeners, belong to those performers.

There are also live performances or video tributes to many other notables - Chaka Khan, Mary Wells, Patti Labelle - the list goes on. Beyonce Knowles also crashes the event, in person, asking why she isn't included in the diva pack, earning a dismissive retort from Aretha: "Do you think they will be singing 'Single Ladies' in 20 years? She also tells Beyonce, "We love your music, at least some of it."

With a rich supporting cast that includes Mr. Maurice's technicians Donald Craig Manuel (as Hubert) and Kyle Smith (as Youngblood), Dynamite Divas thrives on its six-man, all-star band: music director Robert Reddrick on drums, Justin Dillard on keyboard, Mark Miller on bass, Gary Baker on guitar, Dudley Owens on woodwinds, and Bill McFarland on trombone. These guys were versatile and solid as they ran through the years and genre of the divas. Backing Rhonda Preston's Nancy Wilson on "Guess Who I Saw," the performance was "live recording" quality.

Dynamite Divas: A Tribute to Women of Soul at the Black Ensemble Theater comes very highly recommended.

 

Published in Theatre Reviews

“Irving Berlin has no place in American music—he is American music. Emotionally, he honestly absorbs the vibrations emanating from the people, manners and life of his time and, in turn, gives these impressions back to the world—simplified, clarified and glorified.” - Jerome Kern

 

There are shows that make one proud to be an American, proud to be Jewish and proud to be of immigrant descent and Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin currently performed at Royal George Theatre is one show that does all three. 

 

Felder proves yet again that he is a consummate master of the one person show. While his bio/docu/musicals about famous composers, from his George Gershwin Alone, to Fryderyk Chopin, to Ludwig van Beethoven, to Maestro Leonard Bernstein thrilled Chicago and LA audiences and critics alike, this production and his  portrayal of Irving Berlin is quite simply the icing on the cake of his career.

 

Irving Berlin, whose real name was Israel Isidore Baline and whose musical background included that his father was a cantor (singer for the Temple), was only eleven years old when he left his house to find work as a singing waiter because "there were too many mouths to feed" even with his pennies earned as a paperboy.

 

Although Berlin's first hits were more comical and vaudevillian like “Marie from Sunny Italy”, and “Alexander’s Ragtime Band”, to grab people's attention, it was the grief over the tragic death of his first wife that he credits with teaching him how to write a real song.

 

Like a chapter from a sad Lifetime movie, Berlin married his adorable twenty-year-old sweetheart took her to fashionable Havana for their honeymoon and five months later she died from typhoid fever she contracted on their week-long stay. 

 

Later he married socialite Ellin MacKay the daughter of the richest man in the United States, and wrote his classic, timeless love song, “Always”, about his pure joy at finding her. They were married for 62 years, and ironically her father disowned Ellin and Berlin for years for marrying a Jewish immigrant songwriter - until right after the stock market crash in which Mr. MacKay lost his entire fortune but Berlin wisely having purchased the publishing rights to ALL of his songs kept his finances relatively intact during the depression.

 

 

Everything went wrong,
And the whole day long
I'd feel so blue.
For the longest while
I'd forget to smile,
Then I met you.
Now that my blue days have passed,
Now that I've found you at last -

I'll be loving you always
With a love that's true always.

Days may not be fair always,
That's when I’ll be there always.
Not for just an hour,
Not for just a day,
Not for just a year,
But always.

 

Berlin’s songs include, “Blue Skies”, (composed for his daughter), “Heat Wave”, “How Deep is the Ocean”, “Puttin’ on the Ritz”, “Steppin’ Out with My Baby”, “What’ll I Do”, and the scores of “Annie Get Your Gun”, “Holiday Inn”, “Easter Parade,” and many more. We also learn that Berlin wrote “White Christmas” years after his son Irving Jr. was tragically found dead on Christmas morning at just three-weeks-old. In all, Irving Berlin composed 232 top-ten hits and 25 number one songs, and over 1500 published songs including one of his biggest hits, “God Bless America”.

 

I really loved the set which consisted of a lovely Christmas tree and piano with windows that opened onto a wonderful video presentation of the actual people, Berlin, his wives, etc as he tells a story about each. My only note for Felder is that he reconsiders having an intermission in any show he directs or stars in that is longer than 90 minutes as this one was. The audience was rapt the entire time but I felt the break in the middle would have allowed them to enjoy the show even more as a whole evening of entertainment with time to absorb and refresh between the two acts.

 

The artistic team for Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin is outstanding and led by Director Trevor HayScenic Design is by Hershey Felder and Trevor Hay, Sound Design is by Erik Carstensen, Lighting Design is by Richard Norwood and Video Design is by Andrew Wilder. The Scenic Decoration is by Meghan Maiya.

 

 

“Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin” is a rich and fully enjoyable experience that is playing at The Royal George theatre through December 6th. For more show information, visit www.theroyalgeorgetheatre.com

Published in Theatre Reviews
Saturday, 31 October 2015 01:39

Big Christmas fun - "Elf" at Marriott Theatre

Here we go again. Wow, this year went by fast! Christmas is again just around the corner, which means it’s time to bring on the holiday plays! This year one of the funniest Christmas shows of the season will certainly be “Elf”, now playing at Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire. Based on the hilarious 2003 film of the same name starring Will Ferrell, the play deviates a bit from its original script but carries the same overall story-line and still pushes its simple message – to spread Christmas cheer.

For anyone to pull of this production, it all really comes down to who plays Ferrell’s character as the ever naïve and loveable elf, Buddy. Fortunately, Alex Goodrich was cast in the role. Though, he has some big curly shoes to fill, Goodrich quickly wins over the crowd - maybe not the the point of "Ferrell who?" (who can?), but he certainly does a fantastic job. Goodrich’s precise comic timing and ability to be believable as a fun-loving, child-like adult who is ever so innocent of this world makes this show a big winner.   

“Elf” is the story of Buddy, a human who is raised as an elf after he accidentally crawls into Santa’s sack during one of his stops at an orphanage. Despite the size difference between Buddy and the elves and his lack of toy making aptitude, it isn’t until he is a full on adult at thirty years old before he figures out that he is human. It’s at that time Santa sends Buddy out into the world – New York to be exact – to find his real father. From there, as one might imagine, is a story of a fish out of water in the biggest way.

Full of silly holiday songs that may not stick in one’s head ten minutes after the show, “Elf” is pretty much a laugh fest from beginning to end. And that’s okay since one does not see “Elf” because of its music, we see it because we want to laugh and get into the Christmas spirit. In this fun holiday treat, Goodrich finds himself surrounded by a strong cast, especially in Kevin Gudahl who plays Roy Hobbs, Buddy’s true dad, and Roger Mueller as a Santa Claus who actually weighs in on the “cool” scale. James Earl Jones II also delivers an enjoyable performance as the manager at Macy’s.

The point of the story is simple and clearly delivered – to get people in the Christmas mindset of selflessness and giving despite all the daily issues and problems we might be facing. And what’s even better is that we can have some good laughs while getting there.

 

“Elf” is a thoroughly amusing production that the entire family can share. Playing at Marriott Theatre through December 31st, it is the perfect way to get a jump start and primed up for the holidays. For tickets and/or more show information, visit www.MarriottTheatre.com.      

Published in Theatre Reviews
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