Theatre

“This world will remember me,” Bonnie and Clyde sing to each other in Kokandy Productions’ presentation of “Bonnie & Clyde” – a musical. Directed by Spencer Neiman, this odd-ball musical makes its area premiere after an unsuccessful Broadway run in 2011. This production also marks the fifth anniversary of Kokandy Productions, now a regular staple of Chicago’s storefront theater scene.

“Bonnie & Clyde” was developed in 2009 by La Jolla Playhouse in California, a frequent incubator for new Broadway work. The show opened officially on Broadway in 2011, but closed after 36 performances. Critics were not especially kind.

Even though it’s not a direct adaptation, it’s nearly impossible not to compare this musical to Arthur Penn’s stylish 1967 film. It’s an American film classic with iconic performances by Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty. It’s widely considered a turning point in American cinema. The film was focused less on historical accuracy and more on drawing comparisons between the young outlaws and the political awakening of the late 60s. The musical tends to tread on the same territory as Penn’s film but in a less dynamic way.

The issue is camp. Penn’s film is mostly devoid of camp even some fifty years later. “Bonnie & Clyde” the musical feels like two hours of pure kitsch. There’s no discernable reason this story needed to be told to music and unfortunately the empty songs prove that. Neiman’s cast seems to forget that these characters were indeed real people and not cartoon characters to be parodied. The nature of the material isn’t especially satirical, but this cast has decided it is.

Missy Wise as Blanche Barrow pretty much steals the show with her number ‘You’re Goin’ Back to Jail’, but the whole thing feels a bit Disney-fied, considering that the real Blanche Barrow served time for armed robbery.

The two leads Desiree Gonzales and Max Detogne are both incredible performers. Detogne’s voice is perfectly suited for the country-tinged folk rock of Frank Wildhorn’s music. Gonzalas also has a strong voice and makes some genuine choices for Bonnie Parker, adding a real dimension to her that isn’t otherwise in the script. The generic “I-wish” song feels sincere with Gonzalas singing. You will remember her, just like Clara Bow. Detogne also makes it his own. There’s a chemistry between the two that really translates.

If you were just dying to see “Bonnie & Clyde” during its Broadway run in 2011, Kokandy offers up a serviceable production. If you were hoping to gain more knowledge about the infamous star-crossed outlaws, you may be impressed at what playwright Ivan Menchel spins into his version of “Bonnie & Clyde.”

Through October 15 at Kokandy Productions. Theatre Wit 1229 West Belmont Ave.

 

Published in Theatre Reviews
Sunday, 16 October 2016 13:43

Review: The Trump Card at Theater Wit

"Atlantic City is like a real life, 3D Bruce Springsteen song, and not one of the good ones. Something off Nebraska," controversial monologist Mike Daisey waxes in his new show "The Trump Card." Daisey, a master storyteller, made a splash in 2010 when his Apple expose "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs" aired on This American Life. It remains the most downloaded episode in the show's history. It was retracted two months later when NPR discovered that some of the details had been fabricated. For some performers, this sort of public shame would be crippling. Daisey apologized and has moved on. 

 

As with his other works, "The Trump Card" positions Daisey at a long table against a black drop, on an otherwise empty stage. He occasionally reads his near two-and-a-half hour rant about Donald Trump, punctuating by wiping the sweat from his brow. Daisey fluctuates between an oral history of Trump, and his own commentary on the Republican nominee's troubled campaign. The genius of his monologue is how quickly he's able to include new and awful facts that seem to be bleeding out of the campaign everyday. While Daisey's contempt of Donald Trump is palpable, he doesn't shy away from skewering his smug liberal audience. He shifts in and out of the narrative, finding pit-stops and inventive metaphors along the way. 

 

Daisey holds his satire of the GOP candidate to a more intellectual standard than Alec Baldwin on SNL. Rather than bemoan what we've come to accept as normal, Daisey makes a case for the average Trump supporter. He even lectures the "American theater-going audience" for their elitism. He paints a somewhat bleak picture of the electorate, but that doesn't stop the laugh-a-minute jokes of this not-to-be-missed performance. "The Trump Card" is an illuminating and frightening look at how even if Trump loses, the conditions that made his candidacy possible will remain. Actors Elizabeth Ledo, Joe Foust and Steven Strafford will host a special Election Night performance here in Chicago where they will be performing parts of Daisey's monologues. 

 

Election Night encore November 8th at Theater Wit. 1229 W Belmont Ave. 773-975-8150. 

 

 

 

 

 

Published in Theatre in Review

Right out of the gate CHOPS is a winner – in performances, production and script. Playwright Michael Rychlewski captures that ineffable quintessence of Chicago-ese as his three remnants of the 1950s and ‘60s glory days of Rush Street wash ashore at Vince’s bar.

Let’s hear it for the casting, too – director Richard Shavzin has corralled an exceptionally well-matched brace of players here, strong character actors from our city’s bountiful supply. As Walt (Randy Steinmeyer) launches full throttle into his opening monologue, the audience knows it is in on something big tonight.

On Walt's arm is a dame, Kaki (Clare Cooney), claiming to be older than she is, and unnaturally well schooled in the music and dance from the waning days of 1950s and 1960s big band jazz. Tending bar, the world-weary Vince (Larry Neumann Jr.) is a perfect counterpoint to Walt’s bravado, as he eyes with suspicion this young lady’s game.

The story line is straightforward. Three late middle aged men – the third, Philly (Danny Sullivan) makes a backdoor entrance along the way – are competing for the attention of the comely young lass. They dance, talk big, and tell tales of their past. Chicagoans of a certain age will glow at references to now-vanished Rush St. locales like Mr. Kelley’s and the Gaslight Club.

Then the big talk turns competitive, and a storytelling contest ensues – shades of August Wilson here. A contrivance? Perhaps, but it arrives naturally and these guys are so compelling, the audience doesn’t begrudge a minute of it.

This scene also paints an even richer portrait of Chicago’s bygone era, captured in the color of its speech. While David Mamet has abstracted this linguistic naturalism into a generalized form, Rychlewski gives it the specificity of its locale – all the more enjoyable. Chops is a must-see just for this scene.

As the story continues, the plotting became harder to follow. But given the caliber of the performances, it seems that the director and author may need to coax a bit more from this section to get across the nature of the con that is being set up. Past that scene, the power struggle among the characters continues to a satisfying dramatic conclusion.  

There is one point in CHOPS that gave me pause: the character Kaki takes restroom breaks for the convenience of the dramatic trajectory, but at some point these become too many, and one runs unnaturally long (is she doing cocaine in there?).

The set is very good; Grant Sabin has done an impressive job with set design while Chris Neville handled the props. As CHOPS reveals itself to be a cut above the ordinary, I felt myself wishing even more resources were given so that Sabin and Neville could take their artistry further.  

In addition to the choreography and music that spice this play, there is also a compelling story behind its authorship, a first work, 25 years in the making by Rychlewski, a Schurz High School English teacher. He brought a 120- page script to director Shavzin, who cut it back to 74 pages – another factor in its excellence.

Dashnight Productions’ CHOPS runs through August 14 at Theatre Wit. May that run be extended.  

Published in Theatre Reviews

Police brutality is nothing new. Having it broadcast on national news sources, however, is. The deep South in the 1960's wasn't a fun place to be if you were anything but a Christian Caucasian. Shattered Globe Theatre concludes its twenty-fifth season with Matt Pelfrey's adaptation of John Ball's best-selling novel "In the Heat of the Night." The film adaptation starring Sidney Poitier went on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. 

 

Pelfrey's script keeps with the original time and setting, but adapts with a degree of hindsight. He's also good at keeping the pot boiling until the final conclusion, even if the dots don't exactly connect in the end. With the success of TV series like "Making a Murderer" and the podcast "Serial" - audiences can't get enough crime thrillers. What these all seem to have in common are police inadequacy. A disappointing trend among rural police forces. "In the Heat of the Night" tells the story of a small town reeling after a local real estate tycoon is murdered. The prejudiced, and largely incompetent law enforcement can't seem to find a suspect. After they accidentally profile an African American from out of town, they get help from an unlikely source. 

 

Louis Contey directs a large, and talented ensemble cast. Unfortunately the script is a bit clunky in parts. Too many entrances, exits and costume changes make for a puzzling caper. There's fun in the noir-esque stylings of Contey's vision, but it conflicts with the bigger themes this source material addressed. Character development suffers and the message of Ball's original novel gets a little muddled in empty one-liners and racial slurs. There's a major opportunity here to make biased police officers more three dimensional and Drew Schad as Sam Wood does his best to navigate the dialogue. Joseph Wiens' performance as Chief Gillespie is intense, but at times cartoonish. Christina Gorman as the victim's daughter is a high point, however brief. 

 

"In the Heat of the Night" is a sultry, and somewhat topical thriller. Its brevity and mathematical approach make for a satisfying murder mystery. What it occasionally lacks in substance it makes up for in exciting stage combat. An atmospheric who-dunnit, akin to "Twin Peaks." 

 

Through June 5th at Theatre Wit. 1229 W Belmont Ave. 773-975-8150.

 

Published in Theatre Reviews

Use the bathroom before you take your seat at Theater Wit for Joe Mantello’s stage adaptation of David Sedaris’ now-classic holiday essay, Santaland Diaries. Trust me. The show runs one hour 20 minutes without an intermission.

But more to the point, you will laugh your jingle bells off!

Mitchell Fain tears down the fourth wall as “Crumpet,” a dishy, disgruntled, forty-four-year-old elf at Macy’s department store. Dressed in stripy tights and crushed velvet, he deftly channels Sedaris’ wry, acerbic wit and gives us an all-access pass into the underbelly of the North Pole.

Directed by Jeremy Wechsler and performed in the intimate theatre space of Theatre Wit, Fain stars as Crumpet and flawlessly delivers a seventy-five minute monologue that is dark, witty and often will have audience members doubling-over with laughter. Fain's performance is deliciously wicked whether spouting off hysterical dialogue or improvising with the audience in his own, unique and devilish way. Fain is able to get his point across with the tiniest gesture or most subtle facial expression.   

Now returning for over five years straight, Santaland Diaries has become a true Chicago holiday tradition. However, due to its mature content, the show is not recommended for kids, though it will be sure to please the adult crowd.

If you’ve ever wondered what your mall Santa and his elves are really thinking, see Santaland Diaries at Theater Wit until December 30, 2015. A must see, you can order tickets online at https://www.theaterwit.org/plays/santaland/. 

 

Published in Theatre Reviews

If you are Jewish, you will especially appreciate and love this play which is full of biting humor and keen observations about how modern day Jews define themselves philosophically and how that vision of themselves plays out in their family relationships.

“Bad Jews” is set in a beautiful New York pied de Terre or studio apartment on the Upper West Side of New York bought by the parents of brothers Liam and Josh and they are being visited by relatives following the death of their beloved grandfather

Their first cousin Diane Feygenbaum is a rabbinical student with an Israeli boyfriend who insists on being called by her Hebrew name Daphna a has to share the studio with them for a few nights and is outraged by the fact that spoiled cousin Liam has actually missed his grandfather’s funeral because he lost his cell phone while skiing in Aspen.

During the course of the play we find out that Daphna is very intent on inheriting the gold Chai (Hebrew for the number 18, and symbol of Life) medallion necklace worn by her grandfather during the holocaust. In fact, he had to hide it under his tongue for two years in the Holocaust death camp he was kept in while the rest of his family members were killed. It turns out Liam has a plan to give the medallion to his “shiksa” girlfriend instead of an engagement ring just as his grandfather gave it to their grandmother 50 years prior.

A ferocious verbal fight breaks out and the true feelings of each cousin for the other and their Jewish values, or lack thereof, pour out with the fury and passion that sometimes occurs particularly after the death of a loved one.

Liam, played by Ian Paul Custer and Daphna played by Laura Lapidus are both hysterically on point in their portrayals. The fantastic monologues for these two characters, written to perfection by Harmon and well directed by Jeremy Wechsler are cutting but truthful, funny yet excruciatingly honest.

Non-Jews will find this play funny and full of Jewish stereotypes handled with great political correctness. Jews will see themselves in all their self hating and neurotic glory, with intelligence bursting at the seams.

I think Daphna could have been played with a little bit more compassion and a little less self righteous bitterness. At one point she mentions poignantly her education about the holocaust and her grandfather’s “tattoo’” or concentration camp number burned into his arm.  We realize as an audience just how deeply touched  and perhaps scarred emotionally a sensitive child is by being thoroughly  exposed to the horrors of the holocaust at the tender age of 13 , as every Jewish child who studies for a bat mitzvah is required to do.

There are a lot of self-hating Jews out there. I was one of them for a while, in part because of the patriarchal and misogynistic attitudes towards women in the Old Testament that Liam brings up during the play to combat Daphna’s self righteous religious rants. Ironically, it took the realization that Jesus or “Yeshuah” (Jesus’ Hebrew name) was the greatest Rabbi, indeed the greatest Jew who ever walked the earth that made me the proud, comfortable, self loving Jew I am today.

The title by Harmon, “Bad Jews” is both eye catching and absolutely perfect because by the end of the play it is clear there are no bad Jews, only good Jews who are internally judging themselves or being judged by others too harshly.

Skillfully directed by Jeremy Wechsler, I highly recommend this thought provoking and hysterical piece of theater for its brilliant writing and two fantastic performances created lovingly and delivered with mind blowing rapid fire delivery by Lapidus and Custer.

“Bad Jews” is being performed at Theatre Wit through June 7th. I highly recommend this play. For tickets and other info visit www.theatrewit.org.

Published in Theatre Reviews
Monday, 16 March 2015 00:00

Review: The Full Monty

One can never have enough of imports from across the sea, “The Full Monty” based on the book by Terrence McNally which earned a 2001 Tony Away nomination and based on the movie by Fox of the same name, is no exception.  Currently being performed at the intimate space of Chicago's Theatre Wit, the audience becomes part of the struggle of the men in a town who are just trying to get by. The Full Monty is set in Buffalo, New York, rather than its original setting in Sheffield, South Yorkshire. But that doesn't really matter. 
  
David Yazbek, wrote the script and music for this new interpretation for the cast of twenty, and the audience can tell that with his talent and the work of director John D. Glover, the 2 hour and 20 minute show, draws the audience into the lives of the regular men in Buffalo as they get over their insecurities, fear and doubts through their chances of changing their situation, their jobs and their lives, with one night of stripping.
 
Your heart sympathizes with the mastermind of the disrobing plan, Jerry Lukowski (Garrett Lutz) unexpected along for the ride, his best friend Dave Bukatinsky (Scott Danielson).  Bringing the group up from a two man show, the friends draw in some of the local gentleman from the mill they had all been laid off from, Harold (Eric Lindahl), Malcolm (George Toles), “Horse” (Randy Johnson) and Ethan (Greg Foster). These men come together to overcome their obstacles and support each other in ways they never expected.
 
You will laugh out loud, you will clap along, you will try to sing a long, you will tear up and you will root for the underdog, praying all six of them (the old, the young, the skinny, the round, the hairy and the hairless) will succeed. The Full Monty hits on many topics including obesity, depression, impotency and father's rights to name a few. As much of a show for the working man, father, husband or boyfriend, as it is a treat for the ladies, all walks of life should enjoy The Full Monty.  Although, more of an adult show (parental guidance would be suggested), teenagers would relate to the family dynamic and stand behind Jerry Lukowski’s son, Nathan (played by Kyle Klein II and Seth Steinberg).
 
The Full Monty is playing at Theatre Wit through April 12th. For show info and/or tickets visit www.theaterwit.org.
Published in Theatre Reviews

Almost as funny as it is tragic (that sounds so wrong), The Ruffians’ Burning Bluebeard, currently running at Theatre Wit, is a very unique live performance that everyone should experience. Bluebeard is an ensemble piece that recreates the stage performance that took place during the famous 1903 Iroquois Theater fire that claimed over 600 lives on Randolph Street in downtown Chicago.

The moment we enter the stage area, we are met with body bags that lie on a charred theater floor. It is a melancholy scene that sends chills up one’s spine. We soon are introduced to five stage performers and a theater manager who each tell their story of what they were doing at the time the fire struck. This happens in between the recreation of acts leading up to the tragedy. During this process we laugh and laugh some more. How can there be something funny found in something so disastrous? Masterfully, playwright Jay Torrence is able to infuse a dark humor throughout this tragic historical event. Each character delivers a knockout performance drawing laughs at will from the crowd one moment and bringing tears to one’s eyes the next.

One of the year’s best, this show is like no other.  Its vivid descriptiveness relates to the audience to the point you really feel you know the characters and are experiencing the tragedy along with them. Grim and morose is the story though comical are many of the surrounding facts such as the Mr. Bluebeard itself, the massively produced play with over four hundred cast members that was running at the time of the great fire. A play that hardly made any sense and depended on large visuals, an overload of song numbers (nine songs in first act alone) and dazzling acrobatics.

We are described beautifully the stunning details of the sixteen hundred seat Iroquois Theater, a majestic auditorium with no costs spared during its creation that was touted as fireproof just as the Titanic was called unsinkable nine years later. The sad truths are slowly released whereas mostly women and children were in attendance at this standing room only matinee performance, and that the theater was nearly escape proof once the fire erupted.  

Wonderfully directed by Halana Kays, Burning Bluebeard makes exceptional use of its limited space, successfully creating the illusion of a much larger scaled production. Ensemble members Pam Chermansky and author Jay Torrence lead the way delivering mesmerizing performances in this multi-talented and very colorful cast with Anthony Courser, Molly Plunk, Leah Urzendowski and Ryan Walters. And thanks to imaginative costume design, we have no problem believing we are present at a 1903 production.

In Burning Bluebeard we are treated to a rare flavor of theatre that is sure to leave a lasting impression. 

Published in Theatre Reviews

 

 

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