Though Jackie Robinson is heralded as the first African-American baseball player to participate in the Major Leagues, more than a half of century earlier Moses Fleetwood Walker challenged the color barriers by integrating the game of professional baseball in the year 1884 when the Toledo Blue Stocking were admitted into the league.
As James A. Riley, a baseball historian and the author of several books on the Negro Leagues puts it, "Walker was playing at a time when the Civil War was not in the distant past. Many of the fans would yell things out of the stands when he'd go into the game. They'd call him names."
Moses Fleetwood Walker was much more than a baseball player. He was an inventor, an entrepreneur, an author and a dedicated family man who achieved a wealth that was very uncommon for African-American men at such a time. Though that is interesting enough in itself, The Trial of Moses Fleetwood Walker is the story of a black man put on trial for murder when most were still met by lynch mobs for their alleged crimes – especially to a white man. “Fleet” as he was frequently called by friends and family, was accused of stabbing a white man to death during an altercation outside a tavern. Alleging he was confronted and threatened by a mob of angry white men, he claimed has actions were in self-defense. Of course, the other side has a completely different story to tell and we are soon emerged in the trial of the decade that takes place in Syracuse, New York and is manned by an all white jury.
Playwright Ervin Gardner is able to use actual court transcripts to bring this remarkable story to life. And though some of the dialogue is a bit rough around the edges in places, the story is compelling enough to keep us on our toes. The direction by Jackie Taylor is strong and really capitalizes on key moments while Nick Ferrin, as Fleetwood Walker’s sharp-as-a-tack defense attorney, puts on a brilliant performance displaying a wit, passion and even charm, characteristic of the hero we can’t help but cheer for.
In the Trial of Moses Fleetwood Walker we get a glimpse of late nineteenth century racial tensions and see both liberal and racist views. In this powerful courtroom drama we also get a rich lesson in humankind as the play goes beyond the color of one’s skin and identifies people as individuals.
After hosting a handful of very well done musicals (“One Hit Wonders”, “The Marvelettes”), it is still a nice change of pace to see The Black Ensemble Theater go back to the biography drama though the house band provides a nice touch adding the perfect, mood enhancing background music.
The Trial of Moses Fleetwood Walker is not just engaging throughout, it is also an important story in our rich American history that most probably have never even heard. Playing at The Black Ensemble Theater through March 15th, this is a show to keep on your radar. The Black Ensemble Theater is located at 4450 N Clark Street in Chicago. For tickets and/or more information call (773) 769-4451 or visit www.BlackEnsembleTheater.org.
*Photo - Nick Ferrin (Harrison Hoyt), Casey Hayes (A.C. Hancock), Andre Teamer (Moses Fleetwood Walker), Leslie Collins (Arabella Walker)
Get ready for men dressed lavishly in drag, big laughs and plenty of high-flying dance action. Kicking off their 40th season in fabulous fashion, Marriott Theatre presents the smash hit musical La Cage aux Folles, a comedy that can be as touching as it is glamorous.
In this musical that debuted on Broadway in 1983, longtime life partners Georges and Albin run the glitzy St. Tropez nightclub where dazzling all male revues are regularly performed. Georges is the club’s master of ceremonies while his “wife” Albin is the star performer “Zaza”. But when Georges’ son Jean-Michel surprisingly announces that he plans to marry the daughter of an ultra-conservative politician bent on shutting down the so-called “filth” in his district, their lives take a hectic turn – and the chaos begins. In Jean-Michel’s efforts to impress his fiancé’s visiting parents, he requests for Albin to make himself scarce and proceeds to “un-gay” his father’s home in order to also appear conservative. Naturally, this is upsetting and hurtful to Albin though a reluctant Georges insists it is just for one night and that it will be something they can laugh over for years to come. However, once Jean-Michel’s fiancé arrives with her parents nothing goes as planned and the pandemonium really begins.
Throughout this very funny theatre-in-the-round production we encounter numerous song and dance numbers superbly choreographed by Melissa Zaremba, most notably its big opener “We Are What We Are” where the audience gets blitzed with drag dancers pulling off a series of colorful costume changes. We meet a variety of characters including a take charge whip-wielding diva and can only be impressed with the St. Tropez dancers’ precision and flexibility. However, while we enjoy stunning costumes, overdone makeup and overly exaggerated female characteristics, at times we wonder if women are celebrated or parodied.
David Hess as Georges and Gene Weygandt as Albin truly light up the stage. The chemistry between the two is dynamic and projects a real sense of love and admiration for one another. Their closeness can easily be envied by so many, displaying a sincerity that is truthfully touching, uplifting and lasting. Hess and Weygandt stalwartly captain the helm of this humorous but moving story that tells us to never be ashamed of who we are.
Brian Bohr puts out an adequate performance as Jean-Michel but the show’s real support comes from Joseph Anthony Byrd who is charming as Jacob, the couple’s butler who wants to be recognized as the maid and also desires a spot in La Cage. Always a pleasure to see Larry Adams perform, the Chicago acting veteran is entertaining as ever in this time a limited role as waiter M. Renaud.
La Cage aux Folles is a well-directed show that is as fun yet tender and should not be missed. La Cage is being performed at Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire through March 22nd. For tickets and/or more information visit www.MarriottTheatre.com.
White Guy on the Bus is a powerful and very well-acted drama that asks several questions about modern day racism. In this highly provocative piece by Bruce Graham, we are met with race issues and opinions based on life’s experiences coming from both sides of the fence. We see how perception of race can be altered as one’s life situation changes or after impactful events occur. In this world premiere taking place at Northlight Theatre, award-winning Graham may have unleashed his best work to date.
Francis Guinan leads a very strong cast in this gripping story that mostly takes place in an upper class suburb. Ray (Guinan) is a successful “numbers guy” who makes the rich richer while his wife, Roz, has declined to teach in a privileged suburban school to work in one that is predominantly black in a tough neighborhood. We see a successful family whose son, Christopher, has recently become engaged to Molly. It doesn’t take long before Roz and Molly are engaged in tension-filled debates on race issues and socioeconomic divide – Roz who often speaks from her experiences of working with inner city school kids and Molly who has led a mostly sheltered life and appears to get most of her opinions from college. As the story continues we see that perspective changes with circumstance. And we soon wonder why Ray ditches his Mercedes to take round trip busses through the inner city on Saturdays. As Ray does this he befriends Shatique, a young black single mother who visits her brother in jail each Saturday.
White Guy on the Bus goes from engaging to intense with little warning. As the story progresses so does its intrigue. Guinan is commanding in a lights out performance as a man who is faced with heavy challenges while Mary Beth Fisher is also impressive in her role as Roz, organically delivering her lines to perfection. Patrice D. McClain makes her Northight debut and is very impressive as Shatique, a role that demands much expression and inner conflict. Also putting out a strong acting performance is Jordan Brown as Christopher in his return to Northlight (Sense and Sensibility).
This is a story that raises curiosity from the get go and builds interest with a sure-footed steady pace all the way to its climactic ending. Artistic Director BJ Jones does a stellar job in this play’s direction quickly moving the story back and forth without big scene changes.
White Guy on the Bus is a terrific piece of Chicago theatre that will certainly stick with you afterwards and perhaps have you questioning your own perspectives towards race issues. White Man on the Bus is playing at Northlight Theatre in Skokie through February 28th. For tickets and/or more information call 847-673-6300 or visit www.northlight.org.
*Photo - Mary Beth Fisher and Francis Guinan in White Man on the Bus
"Breeze it, Buzz it
Easy does, it
Turn off the juice, boy"
But the juice is not turned off in this keyed up production.
If you are looking for high-energy dance numbers performed with grace and precision, powerful harmonies engulfed in beauty and emotion, a story of tragedy, hope and passion, and, a whole lot of "Cool" - then look no further than "West Side Story", now playing at Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook Terrace through March 29th.
For those of you who do not know the story – a brief synopsis. It’s the early 1960’s in New York where local gang, The Jets, are not taking kindly to the newly populating Puerto Ricans, who now have an outfit of their own – The Sharks, led by "Bernardo". Following along the lines of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the two gangs attend a community dance where former Jet leader, "Tony" instantly becomes lovesick with "Bernardo’s" sister, "Maria" who expresses the feeling to be mutual. Hopelessly in love, the two realize they must break past the hate-filled racial barriers set up, and maintained, by others if they are to find happiness together.
Directed by Rachel Rockwell, the production grabs audience members instantly and does not let go from its opening scene where Jets leader by proxy, "Riff", leads his gang in a spirited version of "Jets Song" ("When you’re a Jet, you’re a Jet all the way – from your first cigarette to your last dying day…" you know the words). Each number is choreographed with style and exquisiteness, encompassing the perfect sassiness, aggression or idealism when called upon. While intensity prevails in such numbers as "Dance at the Gym" and "America" we are also taken to dreamlike bliss in "Somewhere" and "One Hand, One Heart".
As talented as the dancing is the singing. Jim DeSelm ("Tony") and Christina Nieves ("Maria") demonstrate operatic vocal range, delivering each note with meticulousness accuracy and command. The two shine throughout the entire production but really leave a lasting impression in their duet, "Tonight". Taking nothing away from the many amazing performers that make up the Jets and Sharks, Michelle Arevena ("Anita") also deserves a special nod. Arevena makes for a highly entertaining "Anita" with her dazzling footwork and gifted vocals.
Jets leader by proxy, "Riff" (Rhett Guter), and head Shark, "Bernardo (Lucas Segovia) lead one of the production’s most memorable scenes as the two gangs engage in a rumble below the highway. Matt Hawkins, who reproduces the choreography, does an extraordinary job in combining ballet and modern dance with street fight moves, turning the stage into a spectacle of fast action, vicious turns and yet, the refinement and poise found in "Swan Lake". The entire cast is a well-oiled machine that take on one stunning scene after another.
"West Side Story" is one highlight after another. This particular production stays true to the essence of the original and is a slam-dunk when it comes to entertainment value. For more information on show times, visitwww.BroadwayInChicago.comor wwwBroadwayWestSideStory.com.
Accidentally, Like A Martyr is a witty comedy drama now playing at A Red Orchid Theatre that packs a punch with its humor and charm but also with its intrigue. Taking place in a seedy gay bar on Manhattan's lower east side we meet a colorful group of regulars, are dosed with whimsical bar chat and are soon thrust into a compelling story that builds one's curiosity plenty as the show continues.
The set is cozy as the audience is seated around a fully functioning bar and often gets the feeling they too are patrons. Decorative Christmas lights are strung throughout and a vintage jukebox sits to one end. It's easy to lose oneself in the atmosphere alone and, once immersed with the character's variety of personalities, feel as though we are bonded with each.
Manned with a strong cast, we are exposed to some dynamite performances including Layne Manzer's as "Brendan" whose tough exterior can only shield his vulnerabilities for so long. Manzer showed a great range of versatility and raw intensity and is certainly someone to keep an eye on in the theatre scene. Steve Haggard also gave a stellar performance as "Mark" the grief-stricken lover desperately searching for a taste of the past. Accidentally, Like A Martyr also contains several terrific veteran performers including Troy West, Doug Vickers and David Cerda, the mastermind behind Hell in a Handbag Productions, one of Chicago's funniest theatre companies.
Ensemble member Shade Murray directs this Chicago premiere wonderfully written by Grant James Varjas. This is a touching story of friendship, survival and soul searching. Accidentally, Like A Martyr is playing at A Red Orchid Theatre located at 1531 N Wells through March 1st. For tickets and/or more information visit www.aredorchidtheatre.org or call (312) 943-8722.
Northshore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie was host to yet another spectacular Elvis Presley birthday celebration, The Elvis Tribute Artist Spectacular. This time celebrating birthday number 80, there was even a more special air around the theater. Fans filled the seats to capacity and sat back for a nostalgic trip to yesteryear when Elvis was king. Going through Elvis’ history in chronological order, we were able to experience a career first hand had by no other.
After warming up the crowd with a few numbers by The Blackwood Quartet, one of Elvis’ favorite gospel groups, Cody Ray Slaughter and Ryan Pelton took turns performing as Elvis from the mid-1950s through the movie years that spanned through 1968. Not only did the young Slaughter have all the early Elvis moves down to a science – arms swaying rhythmically about and feet immersed in fancy footwork to the beat, but his voice and subtle mannerisms were so dead on it made the illusion highly believable the moment you let your guard down.
It was nice to also hear so many songs that were not from the popular hits catalogue. With a nice selection from the movie King Creole (title track, “Hard Headed Woman”, “Trouble”, “Crawfish”), Viva Las Vegas (What’d I Say”, “C’mon Everybody”), G.I. Blues and a few other fave Presley films, we were met with a well-rounded Elvis spectacular that the truest of fans certainly enjoyed. We were also treated with the hits that made Elvis…well, Elvis. From “Heartbreak Hotel” to “Teddy Bear”, it was a true Elvis musical feast.
Not only was each performer backed by a full band complete with a horn section, but original Elvis drummer D.J. Fontana took to the stage to play along on the first few songs. And though the 83-year old legend may have lost a step or two, he sure hasn’t lost the beat. Also, performing backup vocals besides The Redwood Quartet were the Sweet Inspirations including the great Estelle Brown who sang with Elvis from 1969 through his untimely death in 1977. The absolute thrill to witness the performance of two Elvis bandmates was simply breathtaking.
After a brief intermission the show recreated an early 1970s Elvis concert. Here we hear the later Presley classics like “In the Ghetto”, “The Wonder of You” and opening number “See See Rider” brilliantly performed by Shawn Klush decked out in a white, high-collared jump suit. Almost like a second show in its own right, the hour-plus set was an energized one as Klush also gave an animated performance of “Suspicious Minds” before ending the show with the appropriate “American Trilogy” to the lowering of a giant American flag behind the performers.
The Elvis Tribute Artist Spectacular was an amazing show despite a near tragedy when a stack of amplifiers fell onto the drummer’s leg (not D.J Fontana). After a few minute timeout, he was helped off stage while one of the guitarists filled in on the drums, but later returned after the intermission.
This is a highly recommended show – a show that Elvis himself would be proud of.
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.
Steppenwolf Theatre’s Airline Highway focuses on those who are mostly forgotten, unseen or unfortunately, even looked down upon by many. In this case the story revolves around a group of outcasts who inhabit The Hummingbird Motel in New Orleans that have come to call themselves “family”. Each comes with their own heartbreaking story or unfortunate set of life circumstances that has led their way to become motel dwellers. Mostly scratching and clawing for another day of food and/or shelter, audience members are face to face with a reality that is mostly hidden, or conciously forgotten, from our daily lives. We inevitably see the caring that is shared amongst each other in such a group and realize that a self-made family of “invisibles”, as they are referred to, have the same hopes, dreams and capacity for love, whether giving or receiving, as anyone else.
As one walks into the theatre they are first met with a highly impressive set that recreates an aging motel with brick façade complete with an office, large vintage stand up sign (perhaps 1950s) and a litter-filled parking lot that one could swear is actual concrete. We see a stairwell, several room doors, an abandoned Honda Civic and a backdrop of an evening sky. As the play progresses we are introduced to one colorful character after another – a laid back office manager, an enthusiastic hippie who considers himself a poet, a vibrant transvestite, an maturing hooker, a stripper who idealizes about having an office job and a handyman who is always trying to make a buck by offer to make repairs around the motel.
It is soon uncovered that the group is planning to throw a party for Miss Ruby, a near death elderly resident who once owned a famous strip club and has also taken her share of wrong turns in life. But this is no ordinary party –it is a funeral – a living funeral. It was Miss Ruby’s request to have a send off while still alive. As the party is being put together, we learn many revealing aspects about the past of each resident. We also see a family bond that rivals most. When Bait Boy returns to attend the party (now considered somewhat successful by the group’s standards), another dimension is added to the group’s dynamic. Adding to his questionable homecoming, Bait Boy, now “Greg”, brings his girlfriend’s sixteen year-old daughter who plans to interview the “subculture” for a high school paper. This is unsettling for some of the Hummingbird residents.
Airline Highway can be funny at times and it is often moving. A slew of wonderful performances by K. Todd Freeman as “Sissy”, Kate Buddeke (“Tanya”), Caroline Neff (“Krista”), Scott Jaeck (“Wayne”) and Gordon Joseph Weiss as the eccentric and loveable “Francis” make this story as believable as it is enjoyable. It is hard not to appreciate every privilege we have experienced in life after seeing this production. Maybe it’s a few bad decisions or perhaps it’s a couple runs of bad luck, but in Airline Highway we see that anyone is susceptible to conditions that can make a life spiral downward. We also see displays of strength, love and courage. There are times we simply envy the closeness of the group and the protectiveness they have for each other.
Flowing at a pace that allows everything to develop with its own organic freshness, Airline highway is a delightful story that brings strong personal ties to the forefront and recognizes the fact that families come in all shapes and sizes, connected by blood or not.
Brilliantly directed by Joe Mantello, Lisa D’Amour’s Airline Highway is playing at Steppenwolf Theatre through February 8th, 2015. For tickets and/or more information, visit www.steppenwolf.org or call 312-335-1650.
*Above photo: (left to right) Carloyn Braver and Carloine Neff
*Below photo: The cast of Airline Highway currently being performed at Steppenwolf Theatre (1650 N. Halsted)
Cirque du Soleil has innovated the circus as we once knew it and has transformed it into something that has become so more visual, musical and exciting than ever could have been imagined. While some Cirque shows are set to a particular theme such as the music of the Beatles or Michael Jackson or perhaps an epic Asian battle or even a water spectacular, Zarkana is different than most as it focuses on three ring circus acts that we grew up with, likely beneath a large tent.
Zarkana is performed center strip at Las Vegas’ Aria Resort and Casino inside a massive, and very beautiful theatre. Prior to the show, some of the 70-plus cast members from around the world are sprinkled throughout the venue interacting with people searching for their seats setting an exciting tone for what is about to come.
Each circus act brings out another gigantic set and bevy of creative costumes that are full of imagination with colors and movement that transcend the audience to another world for ninety minutes. Bringing to the forefront such fantastically traditional circus feats such as walking the high-wire, balancing acts, death-defying flying trapeze stunts and mind-boggling juggling, Cirque intensifies the experience of each with hypnotic music, amazing visuals and often incorporates its rich Vaudevillian humor.
Oohs and aahs are heard across the auditorium as acrobats fly overhead, performing maneuvers that can only be found in one’s deepest imaginings. Dream like motions are brilliantly blended with dangerous stunts that sometimes will have one on the end of their seat. An ingenious cast of characters are as colorful as they are funny. Zarkana is a show that can appeal to just about anyone’s sense of adventure.
Of the many acts performed, the Wheel of Death was probably one that caused the most amazement. The "wheel" is actually a largespace framebeam with hooped tracks at either end, within which the performers can stand. As the performers run around on either the inside or outside of the hoops, the whole apparatus rotates. The performers also perform balancing skills with the wheel in a stationary position. As the device spins faster and faster the stunts become more intense. Another stand out act was the Cyr Wheel. This is where acrobats rolled around the stage within large hoops while performing all kinds of mind-blowing tricks.
Each act was remarkable in its own right and opened one new world of imagination after the next. Whether an eight-year-old kid or a seventy-five year-old kid, Zarkana is certainly a sight to be seen and an experience you will not soon forget.
A Las Vegas show not to be missed, Zarkana has two performances each evening (7pm and 9:30pm) Friday through Tuesday. Tickets currently run between $69-$180 and can be purchased at 855.ZARKANA or by visiting http://www.aria.com/cirque/zarkana.
Griffin Theatre Company has taken on the feat of recreating the Tony Award-winning musical Titanic. Launching this production in a much more intimate space at Theater Wit, the audience gets a real close up feel to the action and is able to capture the bevy of emotions delivered first hand. Scott Weinstein directs Griffin’s Titanic with intensity, giving this production a true feel of tragedy and humankind.
We are all familiar with Titanic’s maiden voyage that where the luxury passenger liner launched from Southampton, UK and sank in the Atlantic on April 15th 1912 after hitting an iceberg on its way to New York City. In Peter Stone’s Titanic, we join the excitement prior to the ships fateful launch where the ship is boasted as the largest and fastest passenger sea vessel that also comes with the tag “indestructible”. Families, friends and crew members are giddy with enthusiasm and anticipation as projected so well in the show’s magnificent opening number “In Every Age”. After Titanic’s triumphant departure, we are taken to both the luxurious world of the ship as well as that of the lesser class. In its five day voyage, we are taken to ballroom extravaganzas, fine dining and also to the far less glamorous galleys and crew quarters.
All the while the good Captain Edward Smith and First Officer William Murdoch look to steady the course but do so under the pressure of ship owner White Star Line to increase its speed in order to break the speed record to cross the Atlantic. Finally, on a dark and quiet night, lookout Frederick Fleet notified Murdoch of an iceberg due ahead, but it was too late to maneuver, the ship receiving a 300-foot gash in its side, doomed to sink in the frigid waters. In all the panic and commotion we learn that there are only enough lifeboats to save a third of the ship’s passengers. Ultimately only 700 or so of the Titanic’s 2224 passengers would survive, the rest condemned to a watery grave.
In Griffin’s Titanic, we get a real sense of devastation after what is at first denial (after all they are on an indestructible ship). We see the blame game shifted between architect, White Star Line and the Captain. It is an interesting dynamic as we see both unbridled selfishness and unselfishness between the passengers as some are intent on saving themselves while some are more interested in trying to help others.
The set, though simple, converts well from ship deck, to dining hall and living quarters, to ship exterior. The music is strong and heartfelt (also newly reworked). Many numbers are memorable, seizing the essence of the situation so very well such as “I Give You My Hand”, “To Be a Captain”, “I Have Danced” and “God Lift Me Up”. We also get a number of excellent acting performances in the large cast of twenty, making this a very solid production that has everything you would want in a musical tragedy.
Griffin Theatre Company’s Titanic is a high seas adventure you will not soon forget. It’s a big show in a smaller theatre. This warm and stunning production is being performed at Theater Wit (1229 W Belmont) through December 7th and tickets are priced at a very worthwhile $39. For more information, you can visit www.griffintheatre.com.
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