Theatre in Review

Friday, 08 December 2017 17:32

Beautiful: The Story of a Natural Woman

While I’d yet to see Beautiful: The Carole King Musical since it premiered to much acclaim (and a U.S. tour) a couple years ago, I entered the Cadillac Palace Theatre for its latest Chicago debut a lifelong Carole King fanboy. I knew her songs. I knew her story. But for a couple hours on Wednesday night, the cast of this latest touring production made me feel like I knew her.

But first, those songs. The audience, young and old, knew them all. The older ones, the ones who’d been there the first time around, giggled with nostalgia. And the rest of us – who know them from parents, from oldies radio, from YouTube, from simply being alive – were every bit as thrilled. From John Michael Dias’ mugging Neil Sedaka singing “Oh Carol” on national TV to his former high school flame, Carole Klein, to the ensemble’s medley of Brill Building tunes love-potioning and splish-splashing and yakkity-yakking, we were all Boomer kids taken back to a not-simpler time.

The real standouts of this jukebox time machine were two vocal quartets. Playing the parts of The Shirelles, Little Eva and her backing singers, and Janelle Woods and her own group, McKynleigh Alden Abraham, Traci Elaine Lee, Marla Louissaint, and Alexis Tidwell were magic as they brought classic takes on King’s “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” and “One Fine Day.” The dresses, the elegant moves, the wedding chapel harmonies, and those songs. Wow. They were only equaled by their male counterparts – Josh Dawson, Jay McKenzie, Avery Smith, and Kristopher Stanley Ward – whose coiffed hairdos, satin suits, and smooth moves as The Drifters made it look so easy as they doo-wopped and stepped to “Some Kind of Wonderful” and “Up on the Roof.” But Ms. King’s songs weren’t the only ones on display. While The Drifters did a nifty walk down Weil and Mann’s “On Broadway,” the rival songwriting duo’s “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” was retaken from Tom Cruise’s boozy Top Gun barroom ballad by Matt Faucher and Dias again as The Righteous Brothers. Faucher’s baritone filled the Cadillac, and Dias’ high harmonies brought it home. Again, wow. Wish I’d been there the first time around, but this cast showed off their chops while paying quite a tribute to the classic songs and their songwriters who the story’s about.

And about that story. Again, as a fan, I knew the outline: NYC kids slave away in a Times Square hit-making sweatshop, soundtrack a generation, and one of them makes it big herself later on. But the main cast fleshed out the story’s characters. They took them from characters to people. James Clow’s gum-chewing, contract-signing Don Kushner was intimidating but encouraging. Sarah Goecke’s witty, Cole-Porter-wannabe wordsmith, Cynthia Weil, was a woman ahead of her time. Jacob Heimer’s neurotic lady’s man, Barry Mann, made you root for him. And Andrew Brewer’s smoldering but sensitive Gerry Goffin made you swoon, even as you knew the dirty dog was sneaking around on his Carole.

And Carole. Oh, Carole. As Neil Sedaka sang, “there will never be another.” And throughout the show, lead Sarah Bockel not only proved Sedaka right, giving us Carole King’s look and playing and voice, she gave us Carole Klein, the person. Many talented performers could probably approximate King’s hair or her vocals. But Bockel went beyond that, giving us the perky and precocious 16-year-old writing those hits and falling for that hunk. She gave us the broken but devoted young mother finding out not just who she’s married to – Bockel and Brewer’s chemistry was very sweet and seemed very real – but who she herself is. And she gave us that self, finally confident to write her own words, to tell her own story, to sing it loud, for a crowd, for us. And that story, of a woman claiming her soul from the lost and found and using it to give voice to not just a generation, but many generations to come, was what wowed the Cadillac’s crowd the most. The voices will make you applaud. The songs will make you nostalgic. But the story this cast and their show tell of this natural woman, this national treasure, will make you feel. It made me feel.

For more show information visit www.broadwayinchicago.com.

Published in Theatre in Review

A delightful winter holiday ballet staple, Joffrey’s The Nutcracker gets a make-over by Tony Award-winning choreographer Christopher Wheeldon and Joffrey’s Artistic Director Ashley Wheater. The all-American all-Chicago version that premiered last December at The Auditorium Theatre takes us to a very exciting time in our history: 1892, five months before the World’s Fair in Chicago is set to open (story by Brian Selznick). Though the circumstances are different, creators of the ballet kept many elements of the original story by E.T.A. Hoffmann, and most importantly, the spirit of Christmas, intact. No more rich children and their fancy Christmas party with expensive presents - we’re back to the real world. Marie is from a poor immigrant family; she lives with her widowed mother, who is a sculptress working on the golden Statue of the Republic for the Columbian Exposition, and a younger brother Franz. The construction is in full swing and employs mostly immigrants from around the world.

In Act I the workers come to Marie’s house bearing food and drink for a lively Christmas celebration. Three musicians [from the orchestra] are invited on stage to accompany the dancing, much like it would be in those days. Marie is performed by very talented Amanda Assucena, a remarkably expressive ballerina; her gestures are all we need to understand what’s happening in the story. When a mysterious man who designed The World Fair and is known as The Great Impresario (Miguel Angel Blanco), shows up at the party, he captures everyone’s imagination with his visions of the completed Fair and gives out Christmas gifts. Marie receives a toy Nutcracker, and she couldn’t be happier. When she goes to bed that night she dreams that her new favorite toy leads an army of soldiers against a pack of rats who invade their shack and are always around in the streets (doesn't that sound painfully familiar, at least to Chicago city dwellers?). After she saves her Nutcracker from being eaten by The Rat King, he promptly turns into a handsome Prince. Whimsical costumes, gorgeous set and wonderful puppetry make for very enjoyable ballet experience  and a long cast of characters danced by children adds even more charm to the ballet.

Joffrey Ballet dancers are unquestionably world class masters, and this production showcases its many talented members. Victoria Jaiani who dances the parts of both Marie’s mother and The Queen of the Fair couldn’t be any more graceful and is always quite marvelous.

In Act II Marie, the Prince and The Great Impresario sail to the World Fair in a gondola where the Queen of the Fair (Victoria Jaiani) takes them to different pavilions where countries are represented by their dances – exotic Chinese and Spanish Dances are great, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show is really fun too, but then there’s the sexy Arabian Dance. Here Weeldon’s brilliant choreography is masterfully executed by Christine Rocas and Fabrice Calmels ; watching them dance is like eating some exquisite dessert that you wish would never end. It’s that good.

Somewhere towards the end of Second Act the drama of Tchaikovsky’s music gets lost in the romantic love dance of The Great Impresario and The Queen of Fair and leaves us longing for something else, but that’s easy to get over.

Live score is provided by Chicago Philharmonic Orchestra under Conductor/ Music Director Scott Speck.

The performance can be seen at Auditorium Theatre and runs two hours and twenty minutes and includes a twenty-minute intermission. For more information on Joffrey Ballet's The Nutcracker visit www.joffrey.org

Published in Dance in Review

The McAninch Arts Center (The MAC) located at the College of Dupage kicked off the holiday season with one of the most entertaining Christmas shows one could hope for. Actor/singer Craig A. Meyer, who was featured in last year’s sold out event “The Piano Men: A Tribute to Elton John and Billy Joel”, reprised his role as recording artist Elton John in a holiday event to remember, “Almost Elton John and the Rocket Band: A Very Elton Christmas”.

Meyer, whose vast array of credits include Broadway’s Meet Me in St. Louis, a national tour of Cats and Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, has also worked with both Elton John and Tim Rice on The Lion King. After the hard-working actor was approached numerous times about his likeness and his capability to sound like the legendary singer who brought us such greats as “Yellow Brick Road” and “Your Song”, Meyer formed Almost Elton John and went on to take his act around the world, giving fans another outlet to experience the excitement of an Elton John concert.

The positive response Meyer received at The MAC was proof positive that this Elton tribute act might just be one of the best around.

“Almost Elton John and the Rocket Band: A Very Elton Christmas” was divided into two sets, the first being that of Elton classics and the second a wide variety of Christmas songs.

Donned in glittery pants and high-heeled- silver boots, big sunglasses and a studded top hat, the caped singer quickly won over the crowd the first few songs in his set including “Bitch is Back”, “Philadelphia Freedom”, “Yellow Brick Road”. The first act went on to include “Crocodile Rock” and “Bennie and the Jets”. Meyer’s likeness to Elton was uncanny, but the similarity in voice even more impressive.

Throughout the show, Meyer quipped with the crowd, even delivering often misinterpreted lyrics in song. As a fan, and having seen Elton perform in Singapore, I couldn’t help but be awestruck at the way Meyer captured the essence of Elton.

As the second act began, Meyer returned to the stage, this time in a red glittered outfit, sequined Santa hat and all. Meyer again delivered. Rolling through Christmas faves that included “Angels We Have Heard on High”, “White Christmas”, “O Come All Ye Faithful”, “O Little Town of Bethlehem”, and a beautiful rendition of “Silent Night” there was no shortage of Christmas spirit in the acoustic friendly theatre. Meyer even managed to take “Jingle Bells”, a holiday song I could do without, and turn it into a fun, energetic number that bounced and was decorated with unique and enjoyable harmonies. He ended the set with his encore medley of “Another Hallelujah / O Holy Night”, a medley that was as moving as it was celebratory of the reason for the season.

Almost Elton John is an electrifying concert experience that I would recommend checking out whenever in performing in the Chicagoland area. Charismatic and able to reach his audience, Meyer is exceptional as Elton and carries along with him a talented band and back up singers that make the entire package the next best thing to the real deal. Concert dates and more information on this very fun band can be found at www.almosteltonjohn.com.

The MAC is also an impressive theater. Comfortable seating (not a bad seat in the house) and fantastic acoustics highlight this modern theater that also includes a full snack and drink bar and an art gallery to check out before or after the show. Home of the Buffalo Theatre Ensemble, The MAC will also be host in December and January to “Presley, Perkins and Cash: A Million Dollar Christmas”, National Theatre Live’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” with Daniel Radcliff and Joshua McGuire, “The Nutcracker” National Theatre Live’s “Obsession” with Jude Law, “Moscow Festival Ballet: Cinderella” and famed trumpeter Chris Botti. For show dates and to see other upcoming events, visit www.atthemac.org.

 

Published in In Concert

As a theater critic who used to travel to Las Vegas twice a year to review some of the most unusual shows, I have seen a lot of amazing Cirque De Soleil productions. Crystal, now being performed at Sears Centre Arena in Hoffman Estates, is the first Cirque show I have seen incorporating ice skating as well as the acrobatics and great dancing I have come to expect from Cirque de Soleil performance. Cirque shows are unique in that they include performers from all over the world and include some of the most imaginative acts ever seen.  

Crystal was no exception. I was thoroughly impressed with this unique show's high production value, up to date personal, empowering story line and superbly multi-talented performers. 

Crystal is a family friendly show that will also appeal to adults with its seductively yet tastefully clad dancer/skaters aerialists and powerful live music. In fact, some of the musicians actually take to the ice while playing their instruments!

Crystal tells the story of a young girl who is very sensitive to the negativity she faces all around her in everyday life including the monotony of school days, the threat of bullying because of her own uniqueness and the sadness that comes from watching her parents also crushed by the difficulties of daily life and simply "going through the motions" of love. 

Crystal wishes she could skate away from it all and doing so gets her wish when she falls through the ice and into a parallel universe where she meets another wiser version of herself and receives a great gift to help her through life by expressing her deepest thoughts and feelings - the gift of writing!

Crystal's delightfully rebellious and complex character is played by a few different dancers and with the help of stunning lighting effects, breathtaking stunts and a soaring musical score, the audience gets to see Crystal's magical journey similar to that in Alice in Wonderland in three never before seen dimensions. 

The audience I was with gave the performers a well-deserved standing ovation. The show includes amazing ice skating stunts along beautifully choreographed Olympics-caliber performances. There are also high-flying acts by talented aerialists that are breathtaking, stunning acrobatics, colorful costumes and a good amount of humor.

I highly recommend this mystical and exciting production for adults who'd like to see a really special holiday show and children who will be blown away by the grace of the dancer/skaters, the nail biting scariness of the aerialists and the humorous beaks by several characters which also include ice skating stunts and jumps that will have you catching your breath with suspense. 

Crystal is performed at Sears Centre Arena through November 19th.

Published in Theatre in Review

Chicago has no shortage of Christmas traditions. In other words, if you’re looking for holiday fun it’s not very hard to find something to do with your friends, significant other or family. Rich traditions such as Zoolights at Lincoln Park Zoo, Joffrey’s Nutcracker, Christkindlmart, Christmas film classics at Music Box, and the official Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony in Millennium Park are fantastic choices that are sure to put a little zest into your holiday spirit, but Goodman Theatre’s A Christmas Carol might have to top the list.

Celebrating its 40th year of warming hearts through the holidays, this year’s production of A Christmas Carol might just be the best yet. Larry Yando returns to Goodman as Ebenezer Scrooge, a role he has taken on with brilliance for the past nine years. Yando is just about as fun to watch as it gets from his miserable, miserly like behavior to his reborn childlike love of humanity after three spirits visit him to show him his past, present and future.

As the story by Charles Dickens goes, Scrooge is a man with little heart. He is a man who pinches every penny, treats his employee like a flunky without mercy, as he works his fingers to the bone, wants nothing to do with his remaining family and has nothing but miserable rebuttals for those who wish him a Merry Christmas, replying with “Bah Humbug!” When his former, and now deceased, partner, a man much like Scrooge appears to him on Christmas Eve to warn him of his horrid ways and the cost it has on so many and will on himself, we learn that Scrooge will be visited by three spirits – Christmas Past, Christmas Present and Christmas Future.

As each spirit visits Scrooge, more and more is revealed about his nature. He remembers he didn’t start out as he is now. He was a good-natured boy with hopes and dreams once upon a time. In the present he sees how those who know him feel about him. Though mean and cruel to many, they still thank him and toast to him. He see’s the hardships his mistreated employee Bob Cratchit and his family face on his meek salary. He is obviously embarrassed as they still find reasons to be thankful to Scrooge. He sees a future that is bleak. He is just a miserly old man quickly forgotten.

“Are these the things that will be or the things that may happen?” He asks the spirit, hoping for a chance to redeem himself.

While Yando undoubtedly is a tour de force in the role as Scrooge, the entire cast is a powerhouse. Ron E. Rains is highly believable as the tenderhearted Bob Cratchit and is easy to feel for almost immediately. Joe Foust as Jacob Marley is also tremendous as is Lisa Gaye Dixon who wows the audience with her incredibly strong performance as the Ghost of Christmas Present. Kareem Bandealy also gives the production a strong assist as he skillfully fields a handful of roles including that as the show’s narrator, Topper and a hopeful young Scrooge who misses his chance at love choosing a chance at making more money instead -a decision that haunts him his entire life.

The ever-changing set is visually stunning as it changes from Scrooge’s house interior (curtains surrounding his bed and all) to the Cratchit’s humble kitchen where the room is crowded as the family sits around a table to eat a meager portion of roast duck for Christmas. Stars shine amongst the blackness as Christmas Present takes Scrooge on a ride he’ll never forget.

Goodman also breaks the mold casting a girl in the role of Tiny Tim Cratchit. Fourth grader Paris Strickland who delivers the famous line at show’s end “God bless us, every one” is excited to play Tiny Tim telling the Chicago Tribune, “I feel excited and proud of myself for getting a really inspiring role. Tiny Tim can bring hope to everyone, and I can bring hope to everyone.”

Goodman’s A Christmas Carol is not only rich tradition in Chicago, it is a fun-filled holiday treat that is sure to warm the heart and remind us that giving is better than receiving.

Highly recommended.

A Christmas Carol is being performed in the Albert Theatre at Goodman Theatre through December 31st. For more show information visit www.goodmantheatre.org.


Published in Theatre in Review
Thursday, 23 November 2017 21:10

TATC's A Wonderful Life is Wonderful Fun

The classic film It’s A Wonderful Life, based on the story The Greatest Gift, is brought to life by Theatre At The Center just in time for the holidays with their latest presentation A Wonderful Life: The Musical. In TATC’s adaptation, the story is intertwined with many big song and dance numbers, one of which stands out is the high school dance scene that includes an enlivened choreographed Charleston competition.

The story takes place in Bedford Falls, where George is met with a series of challenges while a series of incidents keeps him in the quaint town where he reluctantly takes over his father’s building and loans business rather than exploring the world and going to college to become an architect. As with any good story, we have a nemesis, in this case the nefarious Mr. Potter who claims ownership to the town’s largest bank where he can hold residents to high interest and rental rates in his slums. George aims to give the townsfolk a better option. Why should people have to wait until they are old and tired to have a home to raise their family, he asks.

George finds love with his longtime crush Mary, eventually building a family of his own. George might be scrapping by, but he has a loving family and is a source of easy loans for Bedford residents, which enables them to purchase homes with little or no collateral – many deals based on trust rather than the stringent criteria that Potter would require. Thus, he becomes a thorn in Potter’s side.
When the bank calls a loan (on Christmas Eve?) on the building and loans and his Uncle Billy misplaces a hefty deposit, his world quickly comes crashing down. Fraud, imprisonment or worse, he fears. Crawling to Potter, he is denied a loan to bail himself out. It is when he realizes that he is worth more dead than alive, only $500 in equity on a $15,000 life insurance policy, he thinks the unthinkable and (in this adaptation) heads for the train tracks to end it all. Of course, Clarence, his guardian angel, has other plans.

It is when Clarence saves him and George states he wishes he was never born at all, that such a wish is granted. In doing so, George sees the positive affects he has on so very many people and realizes what a “wonderful life” he really has, after all.

David Sajewich plays George Bailey in this classic tale of hope, goodwill and the human spirit. Sajawich, who was last seen at TATC in All Shook Up, does an admirable job as Bailey. It takes a bit of time to warm up to Sajawich as Bailey, though he really cements himself into the role during the scene at building and loans after his father passes and the board is looking for solutions and new leadership. That’s when we really get a feel for George Bailey and his caring nature for the townspeople and animosity towards Potter.

Mary Hatch (soon to be Mary Bailey) is wonderfully played by Allison Sill who so beautifully captures the heart of gold spirit in the character also wowing the audience on many occasions with her accomplished vocal range. James Harms as the evil Henry Potter really gives the second act a powerful punch as his character becomes more and more sinister, while David Perkovich is excellently cast as George’s lovable guardian angel, Clarence. As most every TATC production, we are offered a strong ensemble that can sing and dance with the best of them.

The set, though minimal, is creatively worked to provide (with a bit of audience imagination) the several different locations for the story’s many scenes. Gordon Schmidt lights up the stage with his dazzling choreography, perhaps one of the show’s brightest contributions.

A Wonderful Life: The Musical is the perfect holiday treat whether a fan of the classic film or not. There are plenty of moments in this production that capture the film’s magic and several flashes of wonderment that are created with its own musical numbers.

A Wonderful Life: The Musical is being performed at Theatre at the Center in Munster, IN. For more show information visit www.TheatreAtTheCenter.com.

Published in Upcoming Theatre

As I entered the Cadillac Palace Theatre – originally the Orpheum Circuit’s lavish vaudeville flagship before keeping up with the times to become a golden age movie palace – the simple, classy screen that hung over the stage gave me hope for the evening’s entertainment. There was the show’s title and logo, red and white on a bright blue backing, all nostalgia, all sheen, all promise of a combination of the silver screen, of classic composition, of live theatrical talent. I could hardly wait for the screen to rise and the show to start.

But first, in full disclosure, I’ve never watched the movie straight through. Sure, I’ve seen the whole thing in fits and starts and bits and pieces through the years (married, as I am, to one of its biggest fangirls). But I’m more of a fan of the rock and rollers – the Little Richards, the Orbisons, the Chucks and Jerry Lees and Buddies with something a little randier and a little rowdier and a little more real – who came along and did away with the post-war schmaltz. What I mean is, while I appreciate, no, adore, earlier Hollywood musicals like The Wizard of Oz or even Berlin’s Easter Parade, as well as later ones like The Music Man, I have no real sentimental attachment to Bing and Rosemary. I figured I’d be an objective audience, a fresh set of eyes and ears for this production.

The show began and these eyes and ears weren’t impressed. The sets were bright and looked the part – the scene with the song “Snow” on a train car was beautiful, a real mid-century-modern knockout – but they weren’t the 1950's real thing. The actors, too, were talented and pleasant as they played their parts, but they weren’t Bing or Rosemary or Danny or Vera. Nobody could be.

So, as the first act progressed, I remained unimpressed. The story (and the music, and the sets, and the cast) were fine, but the show needed some charisma, it needed some pizazz, it needed something.

Where that something did come up was when the show added tunes by Berlin that weren’t in the movie. These songs hadn’t been staked out by the film’s icons, and the current production’s cast wasn’t forced to approximate the ideal they’d set. They were fresher. They gave this cast room to show their talents, to show themselves, and not just takes on someone else. An example was “Falling Out of Love Can Be Fun.” Throughout the night, the female lead, Kerry Conte, had Rosemary Clooney’s shoes to fill, a task I did not envy. But during this number, she fit right into an Andrews-esque trio, her vocals polished, her moves authentic. The lead singer in said number, Karen Ziemba’s Martha, stood out not just here, but in her own featured piece earlier that also strayed from the film and added to the show. Other standouts included: young Makayla Joy Connolly, who had a fine feature of her own; Kristyn Pope, who lit up the stage as recurring Rita and part of the ensemble; and Conrad John Schuck, whose General Waverly/Innkeeper Hank was equal parts Patton and grandpa.

And as I said, while the first act dragged, the second act moved at a much better pace, better utilized the cast, and ended the night with some holiday cheer (spoiler alert: the show is called White Christmas). So if it’s an exact reproduction of the Technicolor glow and the old-microphone glisten of the film you’re after, stay in and watch it on TV. But if you’re just looking for a feel-good family jumpstart to the holiday season, then this might be the show to see.

White Christmas is being performed at Cadillac Palace Theatre through December 3rd. For more show information visit www.broadwayinchicago.com.

Published in Theatre in Review

This past week I found myself in a movie theater with reclining seats, an overpriced large popcorn, and a two liter cup of soda all to myself. The movie was awful, but the audience more than made up for the bad comedy. With contagious laughter and witty one-liners, the audience of closet suburban comedians turned the otherwise flat movie into a Second City stage. Sometimes the audience is more entertaining than the scheduled entertainment; that was definitely the case as I ventured out with my 3-year-old-daughter to see SLEEPING BEAUTY at The Marriott Theatre for Young Audiences.

SLEEPING BEAUTY is Marc Robin's musical adaptation of the classic Brothers Grimm fairy tale with some variations. In a kingdom far away, the vengeful sorceress Magenta has placed a wicked curse on the beautiful Princess Amber and only a true love's kiss can unlock the spell and wake her before it is too late. Prince Hunter must battle dragons, scale mountains, and sail the dark sea to save Princess Amber. Will his journey allow him to make it in time to prove his love to his Sleeping Beauty? This captivating fairy tale creates excitement and thrill for its audience as they root for Prince Hunter and the fate of the beautiful princess!

The play was performed with the over-the-top, flamboyant, campy type of performances that can only be found in children’s theaters. Bouncing excitedly in their seats toddlers watched with wide eyes, captivated by the colorful characters and silly antics of the cast. When the cast called on the audience to help Prince Hunter, played by Garrett Lutz, or to reassure Magenta, played by Meghan Murphy, the children responded faster than they answer their parents with a sense of urgency and enthusiasm only seen before bed times. Girls and boys dressed in princess dresses, waving at fairies and hiding in fear from the dragon. They sat on their feet and stood on their seats, craning their little necks to get better looks at their favorite characters on the stage. Rare moments of silence were punctuated with adorable high-pitched “whispers” of reassurance that princess Amber was “just sleeping;” big sisters calming worried younger siblings. With such pure happiness emanating from the seats around us, it was easy to overlook the many issues with the fairy tale narrative (like how a sixteen year old girl gets married after a single kiss or that a princess who is given courage and strength from her fairies is still not smart enough to stay away from a spinning wheel). But fairy tales often impart simple wisdom to impressionable audiences, and as they get swept up in the magic and majesty of the performance it is easy to look past our adult cynicism and just enjoy the show with childlike wonder.

SLEEPING BEAUTY runs on most Wednesdays through Sundays at 10 a.m. with certain performances at 12:30 p.m. Visit MarriottTheatre.com or call 847.634.0200 for exact schedule, as show times and dates may vary. Single ticket prices are $17.23 per person. Groups of 20 or more receive a discount by calling 847.634.5909. Free parking is available at all shows. To reserve tickets, call the Marriott Theatre Box Office at 847.634.0200 or visit www.MarriottTheatre.com<http://www.MarriottTheatre.com>.

Published in Theatre in Review

In reviewing Jimmy Buffett’s new musical Escape to Margaritaville I was seated in the last row of the Oriental Theatre but since the row was reserved and nearly empty, I settled in for a nice relaxing show with no one coughing on me or knocking my elbow off the armrest. The show began and a few minutes later two smiling, enthusiastic, knee tapping men came in and sat next to me on the aisle.
They were whispering excitedly back and forth and one of the men, who was small-framed with glasses, took out his cellphone and began typing into it every few minutes.


They seemed like such excited fans, as the phone activity continued. I didn't want to say anything but finally buckled and leaned over and gently brushed his hand, smiling like "Hey, that's a no- no." But he just smiled at me and moments later kept typing. After another ten minutes or so, I again leaned over and said, "Darlin', I know you're super excited to be here (and I pointed to my Press Kit), but I'm trying to review this show." The bouncy, Larry David lookalike laughed and said, "Darlin', I’m Jimmy Buffett!" I didn’t recognize him in the dark! 

We laughed together and naturally I told Jimmy to take as many notes as he needed! And thus began a wonderful night of celebrating this Broadway bound production based on Jimmy Buffett's life. 
The script written by Greg Garcia and Mike O’Malley (with book also by Emmy Award winner Greg Garcia) tells a classic story of romance between Tully, a handsome singer/songwriter living the island life, and drifting from one cute tourist to another without falling in love. Tully's world is changed however when a beautiful, intelligent, but over worked, scientist named Rachel visits the resort with her best friend Tammy who is about to be married - to the wrong man. On this island the word “work” is identified as a " dirty word" and Rachel is warned gleefully by Tully that if she says it too often her mouth will be "rinsed out with tequila!" 

The book includes original music and at least twenty-seven of Buffett's classic hits including "Come Monday", "Volcano", "Cheeseburger in Paradise", and a hilarious PG-rated version of "Let's Get Drunk (And Screw)”. 

The two youthful leads, Tully played by Paul Alexander Nolan - and Rachel (Alison Luff), have very nice chemistry, rich voices and give the rowdy, drunken fun of the play a real love story to ground it and make you care about the characters despite the constant joking around. 

Parrotheads will love the free living, take it easy on yourself moral of the story, which simply put echoes Buffett's own successful take on "living life in the moment to the fullest, and loving the one you are with.

I really love the way Rachel's character is written as both very intelligent and nature loving. The entire audience loved the way her best friend Tammy is encouraged to go ahead and EAT "the cheeseburger she desires whether she fits into her wedding dress or not and then has her literally flying across the stage (Peter Pan style) when she frees herself from the critical and unappreciative man she was about to marry before being rescued by Tully's funny, free living, best friend. 

Walt Spangler created a beautiful sparkling set full of water and sunny blue skies. The only thing I wanted to see more of in this wonderful, constantly changing island paradise set was palm trees and green. But this already winter-weary Chicago audience was delighted by the many hues of clear blue water, colorfully lit Tiki Huts and cloudless skies, nonetheless. 

The lesser known, but deeply touching Buffett songs “We are the People Our Parents Warned Us About”, “Love and Luck”, “He Went to Paris” and “License to Chill” were used to nice effect to deepen and round out the overall feelgood, life's a party feeling of the show, especially when the audience realizes even the seemingly shallow Tully understands there is something very important missing from his idyllic island lifestyle when he meets Rachel and finally feels true love for the first time. 

Opening night attendees were treated to a real Buffett experience when Jimmy joined the cast for the show’s final few numbers.

After the show I got to speak with Buffett and his fans a little more in depth at the Maragaritaville-themed after party. We laughed again at my own "work, work, work" uptightness even as Jimmy apologized profusely for having to take notes on his phone during the show and he asked me if I noticed his mature adult fans gleefully swaying and dancing in their seats. 

I DID come to the realization after talking with Parrotheads from twenty to eighty-years-old at the party, that although I was born and raised in Miami, Florida, I had no idea how vast and successful the Jimmy Buffett brand has become and stayed over past decades. I really got a sense of how happily devoted his fans are to him as a musical artist and his never give up - do it yourself lifestyle guru, if you will.  

I know the play needs to move along and stay fictional to a degree, but I would have loved to have seen a few scenes about Buffett's real-life tales of trying and failing at a music career in NY and Los Angeles. Those years of being rejected while trying to find his niche which caused him to say, "Screw You" to record execs and move his whole life to the "the farthest key in Florida", finally building his own internationally loved and recognized brand in true maverick style with his own fans from Key West. These true tales of overcoming small-minded criticisms and his so-called failures along the way are so inspirational I wish they had been addressed in this production. 

Since there is still time to tweak this fun-tastic production before it moves on to Broadway and on tour, I have to say I agree with other reviewers who were put off by the dance numbers by the dead insurance salespeople, the "LSD flashbacks" dreamt up by Tully's sidekick during stressful moments. The choreography in these dance numbers was great but the creepy, scary, gray and white ash covered insurance salespeople (whom he was told died in a volcanic eruption on the island) would have been better spent on dance numbers for the main cast members or more of the bikini and swimsuit clad vacationers to keep the fun, psychedelic friendly mood coming without interruption. 

Loved it. I highly recommend this fun loving, musically delightful production to remind everyone to SLOW DOWN, and stop towing the line at "work, work, work!" thereby letting their dreams of love and romance die a slow, painful death. Buffett's philosophy of living and acting spontaneously reminds the audience in a wonderful way that life changing chances at love (like the one when he met his wife) come and go which might never come again. 

Once I realized I was seated next to Jimmy Buffett himself during the show, I couldn't help noticing the touching way he sang along quietly to himself with his own music, these are his babies after all, and the foundation of a hugely successful $500 million dollar plus industry of restaurants, vacation cruises and music, etc., that his devoutly loyal fans, the Parrotheads, have enjoyed for thirty years. As I watched Jimmy Buffett's fans dance around their "leader in paradise" at the after party and the screams of laughter and joy during the show as beach balls came raining down on them from above, I became certain that they will continue to honor Buffet's legacy and frequent his now very real "Margaritaville" for the rest of their lives. 

Escape to Margaritaville is being performed at Oriental Theatre through December 2nd. For more show information visit www.broadwayinchicago.com.

 

Published in Theatre in Review

It only takes a few moments into Lizzie’s opening number that audience members realize they are in for quite the unusual theatre experience. Haunting, yet beautiful, the creepiness quickly sets in as Lizzie’s four Victorian-clad characters solemnly sing the tale of the infamous Lizzie Borden who was accused of butchering her father and stepmother in August of 1892.

Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one.

Based on true accounts of the double murder that took place in Fall River, Massachusetts, the grim tale reimagined by Steven Cheslik-deMeyer and Tim Maner is told by Lizzie, her sister Emma, her neighbor Alice and the family’s maid, Bridget. Presented by Firebrand Theatre, whose claim is that of being the first feminist musical theatre company, Lizzie is a detailed account of the legendary crime that is one of the most talked about grisly murders in our Nation’s history.

Firebrand hits a homerun with their first ever production by delivering a deliciously enticing story that engrosses from beginning to end thanks to its strong acting performances and punchy soundtrack that is both powerful and, when called for, dreamlike.

The play offers great insight to Lizzie herself and speculates the heinous crime may have been prodded by the home’s maid while also suggesting she may have been lovers with her neighbor Alice. Liz Chidester is Lizzie Borden and dominates in the role. Chidester so well captures the essence of a girl who loses her grip on reality after years of being abused by her father and is subjected to a newly introduced stepmother who has manipulated her way into inheriting the family wealth.

Ingeniously directed by Victoria Bussert, Lizzie is stacked with commanding performances. Leah Davis fiercely takes the reigns as the mischievous housemaid Bridget, injecting well-timed humor and velvety smooth vocals that make her character a powerhouse. Camille Robinson as Emma and Jacquelyne Jones as Alice round out what makes for an excellent cast. Our four characters deliver amazing vocal performances, each as unique as the other while smartly straying from the standard Broadway-esque sounds we are used to hearing in so many big musicals. No. These women truly rock. 

Instead we get a conceptual rock concert. Hypnotic, sexy and plot-rich, Lizzie is presented by a female-fronted rock group heading a talented band that sits rear stage. As engrossing as the music is the show’s often pithy dialogue exchanges, it’s costumes and creative effects (hint - ponchos are available for those who choose to sit in the first row).

Lizzie is a fun show that has it all – murder, treachery, sex and scorching music.

It is with high recommendation that I urge theatre lovers to see the story of Lizzie Borden that is presented in the most imaginative way. If such a brilliantly inventive production such as Lizzie is an example of what Firebrand has in store for theatre goers in the future, we can only look forward to what the young theatre company will bring us next time around.

Lizzie is being performed at The Den Theatre through December 17th. For tickets and/or more show information visit www.firebrandtheatre.org.

*Now extended January 3rd-14th with Broadway's Ciara Renee joining the production.

Published in Theatre in Review
Page 5 of 26

 

 

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