Theatre

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

Bullets Over Broadway, written by Woody Allen, tells the story of a struggling playwright who finally gets his big break when a producer sees the value of his art and agrees to produce the show. The catch is, they need money and the only source of money is from Mob Boss Nick Valenti. Not only is it dirty money but is comes with the stipulation that Nick’s talentless girlfriend gets the leading role.

 

Set in the 1920s and using standards of the time including “Let’s Misbehave”, “I’m Sitting on Top of the World”, “Up a Lazy River” and oddly enough “We Have No Bananas Today”, the musical follows a zany cast through fast paced action, hilarious dialog and stellar dancing as they attempt to bring their show to the big stage - with a few big twists along the way!

 

The show is a non-stop production. The costumes and dancing are reminiscent of shows like “42nd Street” while the over the top characters and sometimes raunchy jokes will bring to mind shows such as “The Producers”.  Tony award winner Susan Stroman did the original direction and choreography for the show. For this touring production direction is taken on by Jeff Whiting and Clare Cook choreographs, together creating a successful full package musical.

 

The dance ensemble fantastically executes Cook’s choreography which was big and bold, highlighting a talented cast of dancers. The standout piece that elicited almost a solid minute of applause from the audience was “Tain’t Nobody’s Bizness If I Do” performed by Cheech (Jeff Brooks) and his gang of mobsters. It was a full out tap routine with creative and intricate choreography on a clean and open stage that allows you to truly appreciate the performance. 

 

The original Broadway costumes by William Ivey Long were nothing short of exceptional helping to transport the audience to the roaring 20’s. The scenic design by Jason Ardizzone-West complemented the costumes greatly and brought us from scene to scene to scene effortlessly. When we finally see the play within the musical make its debut, the set design allows the audience to watch from backstage and then from the front as they enjoy the play within a play.

 

Brooks was perfect in the role of Cheech throughout the show, exuding tough guy confidence even as he got more and more involved in the production of the play showing his softer side in small bits and pieces. Although at times painfully annoying, Jemma Jane did a great job in the role of the no-talent mob-gal Olive Neal. She made Olive a character you can’t help but roll your eyes at and laugh along with especially in her first big number “The Hot Dog Song”. Emma Stratton as Helen Sinclair equally embraced her character with her every movement, from a grand arm gesture to the slight lift of her chin, ooze with grace and dignity befitting a thespian icon.

 

Overall, Bullets Over Broadway is a non-stop, visually stunning show that will have audiences laughing, cheering and on their feet. Get your tickets and check it out at The Private Bank Theatre through May 1st. 

 

Published in Theatre Reviews
Wednesday, 10 February 2016 05:48

Come to the Cabaret!

How do you categorize a musical that is part comedy, part drama, and part burlesque? The answer is: you don't need you. Like Kander and Ebb's later popular Broadway hit Chicago, Cabaret uses flashy and often funny nightclub performance as a device to embellish and expound upon the more serious and sometimes grim events of the story. In Chicago, shameless homicide by two murderesses is explored through jazzy nightclub acts, while in Cabaret, the grisly beginnings of WWII and the anxious pall it casts over the characters' lives is explored through fearless, garter-brimming club performances.

Cabaret is a unique musical, one that will sneak up on you and knock you in the chin if you try to pigeonhole it. The songs are inordinately catchy and the story turns unpredictably. On opening night at the inaugural show of the newly named Private Bank Theatre, I was surprised to hear so many shocked reactions from the audience around me. Every Nazi reference was met with gasps, one short scene of drug use left the audience deadly silent, the never-even-mentioned-by-name subject briefly implied by Sally's doctor visit caused an audible "Oh my God!", and Cliff's apparent bisexuality was received with total confusion. "But he kissed a boy. How could he fall in love with a girl?" Please. If audiences could survive it in 1962, they should certainly be able to handle it now. The reactions only serve to prove that Cabaret has a timeless impact.

When American self-described "starving novelist" Cliff (a capable if slightly bland Lee Aaron Rosen) travels to Berlin in pursuit of literary inspiration, he discovers it in the form of the buoyant and provocative English cabaret dancer Sally Bowles (a character brilliantly committed to by Andrea Goss) and the seedy nightclub crowd with which she surrounds herself. They soon begin living together and befriend landlady Fraulein Schneider (a subduedly wise Shannon Cochran) and fellow tenant, the Jewish Herr Schultz (a cute and gentle Mark Nelson), the latter of whom begin a sweet but eventually controversial romance. Sally and Cliff's lives are an ecstatic chaos of gin and sexual liberation until Cliff's friend and confidante Herr Ludwig (flawlessly portrayed by Ned Noyes) reveals his disturbing true colors, triggering the destruction that floods the characters' lives from that point on and effectively bursting their bubble of delusion. The omniscient Emcee of Berlin's sordid Kit Kat Club (a delightfully snarky Randy Harrison) guides the viewer between the actual plot events and their corresponding cabaret acts.

Andrea Goss as Sally Bowles

My favorite of the over-the-top club performances cleverly mirroring the real life drama is the titular showstopper "Cabaret." Many folks, likely many of the shocked theatre-goers seated around me, may associate this song with a charismatic, triumphant Liza Minnelli from the 1972 film (or even an older, sequined-out Liza cheerily vamping her way through a showtune medley) and thus were not expecting the heavier tone rendered in the stage version. At this point, Sally has lost everything. She's alone, she's ill, she's broke, she is out of a job after this final performance. Her life has spiraled into a living hell. Goss made a powerful impression as Sally throughout and nothing showcased her acting talents more than her raw, enraged delivery of this song. The eerie juxtaposition of Sally's unabashed ruin with jaunty lyrics celebrating a wildly fun, carefree lifestyle gave me chills, the last line all but screamed at the audience before she knocks down the mike stand in her fury.

This is a musical that everyone should see at least once in their lifetime. It will not meet your expectations, in the best way possible.

Cabaret is playing at the Private Bank Theatre at 18 W Monroe now through February 21st. Tickets can be purchased at Ticketmaster or by going to BroadwayInChicago.

Published in Theatre Reviews

 

 

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