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

If RENT made a baby with an episode of Dateline, the result might be something like Murder Ballad, the musical. This rock opera tells the story of a love triangle gone out of control, and there is much in the way of drama, energetic pop/rock anthems, suspense, and -- you guessed it -- murder.

In New York City, Sara is an Upper West sider who seemingly has it all: money, a good husband, a beautiful daughter, but she also harbors a dark, destructive past that was never fully left behind. When she reconnects with her unpredictable ex, Tom, her life takes a turn towards the chaotic and explosive.

The audience is launched head-first into the story as the four-person cast of Murder Ballad belts and wails their way through 75 minutes of frenzied rock numbers, strung together by a crooning fly-on-the-wall narrator. A unique element of this show is the voyeuristic set-up and theme. Essentially, you are sitting in Sara's kitchen, and Tom's bedroom, and the King's Club, the divey downtown joint that serves as the homebase for this tale. You're not onstage or offstage, you're sharing the space with these folks. You can even order a complimentary drink at the bar before showtime, then take a seat with your friends to hungrily watch the plot unfold. Because after all, to paraphrase from the show's finale, drama is delicious entertainment, "until it happens to you."

Murder Ballad, created by Julia Jordan and Juliana Nash, and directed by James Beaudry, is playing at the Flat Iron Arts Building (1579 N Milwaukee Ave) until May 9th. Tickets available at bailiwickchicago.com.

Published in Theatre Reviews
Wednesday, 04 March 2015 00:00

Review: This Is Modern Art

Five years ago, anonymous graffiti artists caused quite the hubub at the Modern Wing of the Chicago Art Institute when they "bombed" a major wall of the wing. Their message was clear: THIS is modern art. While a clever, powerful statement, and seemingly jabbing at the art that resides within the walls of the modern art wing, it presents a paradox: Isn't graffiti, by definition, a rebellious art? Would graffiti still be as powerful and compelling if it were inside the museum rather than outside?

This Is Modern Art, written by Kevin Coval, attempts to answer these and hundreds of other questions regarding high art versus common art versus street art and so on. The play, while neither a knuckle-whitening drama nor a belly-clenching comedy, merely seeks to educate the viewer on this commonplace, yet mysterious, art form. You'll learn the differences between "tags," "stickers," "throw-ups," and "pieces," short for "masterpieces." You'll learn the names of dozens of Chicago graffiti artists, or "writers" as they're called. You'll see what goes into "bombing" -- spray painting an urban canvas as much as possible without getting caught -- a city location, the preparation that needs to be done, the items to have, the backup plan, the lookout, the logistics... it practically gives you a how-to guide.

We pass by graffiti every day in this city. Some of us may see it as an eye sore that should be scrubbed away, as vandalism, as criminal activity. Conversely, some of us may see it as art that makes the city more vibrant and beautiful, as spontaneous creativity, as colorful accents on a gray urban backdrop.

But what does this art say? What does it do? It wants to be respected and appreciated, surely. It wants recognition from those who decide what belongs in a museum and snub it as low art. But does graffiti even want to be in a museum? In and of itself, graffiti is rebellion. It's anti-establishment. It's instant social/political commentary. And it's fleeting, temporary. If the Art Institute commissioned a graffiti writer to fill a wall inside the museum, could this still be considered graffiti? Or would it lose the essential qualities that make it graffiti art?

Maybe the point isn't to be in a museum; maybe graffiti seeks to dismantle these labels and present the notion that art should be free and accessible to everyone. Maybe, and most likely, it just wants to get us talking, and if we are, then it has done its job.

This Is Modern Art (based on true events) is playing at Steppenwolf's Downstairs Theatre through March 14th. Tickets may be purchased at the box office or by calling 312-335-1650.

Published in Theatre Reviews
Sunday, 23 November 2014 18:00

We're All Mad Here – Alice at Lookingglass

"But how does one know if they've gone mad?" asks Alice of the elusive Cheshire Cat as he swings on a rail, hanging twenty feet off the ground. "You see, a dog growls when it's angry, and wags its tail when it's pleased," he answers. "Now, I growl when I'm pleased, and wag my tail when I'm angry." He grins and disappears, leaving a baffled Alice to contemplate the difference between madness and sanity, the similarities they share, and whether or not they might just be one in the same.

Set in the alternate world that exists beyond – or through – the parlor mirror, Lookingglass Alice is based on Lewis Carroll's sequel to the ever-familiar Alice's Adventures in Wonderland: Through the Looking-Glass. So instead of going down the rabbit hole, we literally step through the looking-glass into a dreamy (and sometimes nightmarish) world of opposites, nonsense, and whimsy, as if we too have dozed off after a game of chess and awake to find a new dimension waiting for us above the fireplace mantle.

With or without its befitting name, the Lookingglass Theatre couldn't be a more apt setting in which to tell this tale, with its open, industrial structure taking the viewer out of the space of traditional theatre and promising something more immediate and exciting.

Part children's entertainment, part Cirque du Soleil, part vicarious drug trip, Alice takes the audience on a journey simultaneously magical and dark, funny and frightening, alarming and calming, and above all, surreal. Characters have different proportions through the looking-glass, some excessively tall, some uncharacteristically small; one can run fast for hours and wind up in the very same spot from which they started; Red Queens float on umbrellas in the ocean; cats play with oversized balls of yarn (or is it you who are under-sized?); Alice spins so fast on a suspended hoop you don't know which end is her head and which are her legs – the visual equivalent of how both the audience and the heroine feel after their disorienting passage into the world within the mirror.

A very physical show, Alice is the sort of spectacle meant to be enjoyed by all types of audiences. Young children might be best left at home – the loud noises, confusion, and surreality of it all can be a little overwhelming – but it's undoubtable that physical feats like continuous two-person backflips, the lifting and balancing of actors as though they were weightless, and an anxious finale where Alice wraps herself in ropes mid-air and falls without hitting the ground will impress adults, teens, and kids alike.

Remarkably executed by a vastly talented five-person cast, Alice is less a play than it is an experience. It's colorful and unpredictable. What it lacks in plot, it makes up for in intrigue. Where it forgets logic, it remembers absurdity. You may run in place for ninety minutes and end up in the self-same spot, but you'll have gained a gleeful acceptance of your own madness and the insight that our world is not always as it looks.

Lookingglass Alice, directed by David Catlin, is playing at the Water Tower Water Works space at 821 N Michigan Ave through February 15th, 2015.

Published in Theatre Reviews

 

 

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