Theatre in Review

It’s that magical time of the year when The House Theatre of Chicago brings the inhabitants of Clara’s toy box back to life in their annual all-original The Nutcracker. For the eight’s straight year this exciting Christmas tale brings the spirit of Christmas to the Chopin theatre in Ukrainian village. The production of The Nutcracker originally premiered at the Steppenwolf Theatre in 2007 under the Visiting Company Initiative and has been produced at The House every year since 2010. The House Theatre is well known for its playful approach to classic tales, and The Nutcracker is one of its best examples. Loosely based on the story by E.T.A Hoffmann, it has the traditional elements of the original story, only with a few major changes. In House’s ballet-free version Clara’s family learns that Fritz, their beloved son and brother who is a soldier, had been killed and won’t be coming home for Christmas. Darkness descends on the family and in their grief, they stop paying attention to each other not to mention forget all about Christmas. It’s when Clara’s favorite Uncle Drosselmeyer shows up the following Christmas with a new hand-made Nutcracker toy for Clara that looks exactly like Fritz, is when the family’s wound starts to heal. The cornucopia of fun characters includes a couple of Scary Rats with British accents, giant puppets and much more.

If seeing another Nutcracker seems like a tired proposition during the holiday season, wait till you experience this. Witty dialogue, skilled puppetry, live music, singing and dancing - creators Tommy Rapley, Jake Minton, Phillip Klapperich and Kevin O’Donnell really packed the show with action. There’s even a great mini orchestra consisting of piano, cello, French horn, violin and percussion (under music director Matthew Muniz) seated by the back wall and providing live score during the show. Superb original choreography by Tommy Rapley and Hillary Aarons makes all that seemingly chaotic running through the stage and numerous lightning fast scene changes completely effortless.

Talented cast includes a very young newcomer this year: Haley Seda is excellent as Clara, and her beautiful singing voice is undoubtedly a valuable contribution to the show. Returning cast members - Rachel Shapiri as Phoebe, Desmond Gray as Fritz, Torrey Hanson as Drosselmeyer, Amanda de la Guardia as Martha, Nicholas Bailey as David and Ian Maryfield as Monkey all make the show pure magic.
Whether or not a Christmas show is on your list this holiday season, The House’s The Nutcracker will not disappoint; it’s lively yet intimate, wise yet playful, and you might want to bring your out of town guests with you (both adults and children) to brag about Chicago’s lively theatre scene. Because the magic is real!

The Nutcracker is being performed at Chopin Theatre in Wicker Park through December 30th. For more information visit www.thehousetheatre.com.

Published in Theatre in Review
Saturday, 11 November 2017 06:28

"This Wonderful Life" is just that - wonderful

Most of us have seen Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” at some point in their lives. Whether a Holiday tradition or by happenstance as television stations run their yearly marathons, there’s a very good chance you have experienced the heartfelt 1946 film classic starring James Stewart and Donna Reed. We have since seen many stage adaptations, from live radio broadcasts to large scale productions. In American Blues Theater’s “This Wonderful Life” written by Steve Murray we get an entirely different spin on this definitive piece of Americana as American Blues founding member James Leaming boldly takes on each character in the film himself in this brilliant one-man show.

For the small percentile of those who are not familiar with “It’s A Wonderful Life”, the story revolves around George Bailey during the late 1930’s through early 1940’s, taking place in the small town of Bedford Falls. The evil Mr. Potter runs the biggest bank in town and has most of its residents and small business owners in the palm of his hand. The only person to stand in his way is Pa Bailey, George’s father, who runs a small building and loans company where people can obtain funds for housing without paying exorbitant interest to Potter. George has high expectations for himself and plans to see the world while working for National Geographic once he finishes high school. After his stint around the world, George would return for college and proceed to live to his fullest potential. George’s life then takes another turn for the better when he meets Mary, his true soul mate. Though his father wants George to take over the building and loans one day, George is adamant that he wants to pursue bigger things and rejects the offer.

All is well for George until his father dies, leaving the building in loans in a state of flux. George agrees to take over temporarily, but soon finds he is needed permanently much to his chagrin. Married to Mary with a handful of kids, life is still fulfilling for George until the bank calls a loan and the money is missing. Instantly put into state of desperation, George comes to the realization that he is better off dead than alive after summing up his life to the worth of a life insurance policy. It is then that Clarence, an angel from Heaven, is sent down to help George get back on track. George wishes he was never born and Clarence grants that wish showing George what life would be without him in Bedford Falls. George is shown the positive affect that he has had on so many people, eventually seeing that he had a pretty wonderful life after all. It becomes a Christmas to remember when George's friends rally to his aid.

So that’s the gist of it.

It is a story over humanity overcoming hopelessness, a story of giving and the importance of friends. After all, as Clarence says, “No man is a failure who has friends.”

In “This Wonderful Life” James Leaming is nothing short of brilliant as he retells the famous classic, acting out each character from beginning to end. Throughout, Murray’s script adds a healthy pinch of additional humor that takes occasional jabs of the film in a fun-loving way. With a handful of very creative props and a backdrop that displays images of the story, Leaming is able to successfully pull off each character he tackles (especially his Mr. Potter and George Bailey) to give the audience a cohesive, engaging and highly entertaining theatre experience. Leaming’s ability to shift from character to character so effortlessly and so convincingly is a testament to his fine acting skills. Whereas one moment he seemingly channels the deep seeded bitterness and craftiness of Lionel Barrymore’s Mr. Potter, his ability to so quickly change gears to become the warm, likeable George Bailey or scatter-brained Uncle Billy is simply impressive.

This play is Jeff Recommended for good reason as Leaming’s performance is something to behold. Whether you’ve seen “It’s A Wonderful Life” via film or stage, it is unlikely you’ve seen a unique version such as this.

Skillfully directed by Carmen Roman, “This Wonderful Life” is highly recommended as a holiday treat the whole family can enjoy.

“This Wonderful Life” is being performed at The Edge Theater (5451 N Broadway) in Edgewater and is running through November 26th. For more show information visit www.americanbluestheater.com.

 

Published in Theatre in Review

When Mitchell Fain, the star of David Sedaris's eight year long run of "Santaland Diaries" about a broke actor who lands a gig as a Macy's elf first begins his play with the opening lines of said show on a beautifully decked out and magically lit Christmas set - I thought, "Wait a minute I've seen this show already!” 

 

Quickly, Fain drops the character of Sedaris' Crumpet and becomes the character of Mitchell Fain in one of the most personal and entertaining one man shows I've seen in a long time, “This Way Outta Santaland”, written by Fain himself.

 

Fain is joined at Theater Wit by his old friend and roommate from years ago, the beautiful red headed Megan Murphy whose work I have enjoyed many times in many of the Marriott and Drury Lane Musical Theater Series. Also, playing the music for his monologues and Murphy's segue way songs is Julie B. Nichols, an excellent pianist who began the show with a hearty toast to which the whole audience raised their cups!

 

Mitchell really interacts with the audience and brings up the houselights many times as if trying to really see and relate to each person who came out in the cold Chicago weather to see his show. Fain begins by asking how many in the audience came from Chicago from a smaller place to live, and many raised their hands, including me (Miami is smaller). Some just shouted out “Ohio!” “Arkansas!”

 

He asked one woman WHY she came here and her reply was "to be an actress" to which he ad-libbed "How's that working out for you?"  Her reply got a big laugh, "Well I'm sitting in the audience not on the stage!" 

 

Then he asked how many of you here are Jewish?

 

Only me and two others in the packed house raised our hands which surprised even me!

 

Fain begins his storytelling with his rocky childhood in Rhode Island as one of the only Jews in a very rough all Italian neighborhood, and a petite, 5'3" gay Jew at that! 

 

Fain recalls that from a very young age he loved Judy Garland's music and especially memorized her version of the song “Chicago (That Toddlin’ Town)”, which allows Megan Murphy to deliver a delicious, tongue in cheek version of the song herself. 

 

In Fain’s description of his former home base, we learn that Rhode Island is the costume jewelry capital of America and that most of its inhabitants, including his single mother, toiled their lives away in these factories. Fain's mother found a way to work at one place long enough to get unemployment payments just to put food on the table and barely eke out a living, each time succumbing to the rigors of factory's physical demands which caused illness's like carpal tunnel syndrome and swollen feet. 

 

Mitchell then talks about his move to Chicago as being a move to the BIG CITY! Fortunately, he had a wonderful Christmas loving aunt, who was very generous with him and decorated her house magically each year. He brings up the irony that I have always felt as a Jew as well - that Jews actually appreciate Christmas and the whole glamorous lighting and decorations of Christmas because we never had them as children.

 

In one of the most meaningful moments for me he describes how people who gripe about having to fly home for the holidays are forgetting how LUCKY they are to have a place to go to (he had none) , how lucky they are to have people who love them enough to want them to come home and also lucky enough to have the MEANS , the money to get home, which most of the time, many actors do not. 

 

We are introduced to the story of his mother's passing in Phoenix when he reveals that during his eight great years playing Crumpet, he only missed two performances - once when he was almost hospitalized for the flu, but that he did not miss a show when his mother died. Fain received the call that his mother was dying right after performing his Sunday show but did not have enough money for a last-minute airline ticket to Phoenix and so his kind Chicago theatre family helped him raise the money to catch a red eye. Mitchell did get to Phoenix in time to say goodbye to his mother and said as he finally arrived at her bedside, and asked how she was doing, that one single tear rolled down her cheek – a tear he recognized as “Uh oh, Mitchell’s here. This must be bad”, rather than a tear that loving Mitchell was at his dying mother’s bedside. 

 

Fain and his siblings had to make the terrible decision to remove life support just as their mother clung to life just a little while longer, recovering well enough to be moved to hospice. But soon the inevitable took place and she passed away.

 

The comedy of errors began when the three siblings rush to get her cremated as is the Jewish tradition and are faced with a crummy mortician picked out of the phone book by Fain’s oldest brother. When they opened the comically large doors, the place reeked of smoke, death and CVS perfume, Fain tells us. The funeral director was crabby, short and constantly reminding the Fain’s how backed up they were before going into a relentless pitch for the family to purchase a casket, which was not in their plans remotely. Mitchell then asked to be directed to the washroom and was told the door to find just down the hall. After passing one door after another he passed an open room where his mother was laid out on a slab fully naked. Mitchell lost it, returning the tell the director he’d like to punch him in the nose. He then demanded that she get the paperwork in order for a cremation before he finishes his cigarette, then rushes outside for a cigarette - even though he doesn't smoke. 

 

Fain's siblings rush out to see if he was okay and, as he told the story of what had just happened, enjoyed a laugh together, the kind of laugh only those in mourning can appreciate when they all realize this crazy situation is the "most fun they have had with their mother in a long time". 

 

As a Jew who moved to Chicago from Miami Florida in the 80's after visiting my mother's side of the family at Christmastime, longing to experience the miracles of snow and seasonal changes and well, Christmas itself, I felt many connections to Mitchell's tales about his life in the city.

 

The Chicago theater scene with all its faults really is wonderful and is different from any other city like Los Angeles or New York in its BIG smallness, including how the poverty of actors and artists living in cheap studios, all of us totally broke for years on end paying off student loans forever. But through it all we eventually yield lifelong friendships, friendships that have become an extended family for us that no other BIG city would have fostered. And just like we learn in the inscription in George Bailey’s book at the end of It’s A Wonderful Life – “No man is a failure who has friends.” 

 

It seems playing the role in the award-winning writer David Sedaris's play for so long has rubbed off on Fain because in “This Way Outta Santaland (and other X Mas Miracles)”, Fain has written another play, also deserving of many awards, which for a Jew from the mean streets of Rhode Island is a Christmas miracle of its own! 

 

Fain is a true delight! Be sure to catch “This Way Outta Santaland” during its run through December 23rd for a warm, humorous and uniquely delivered show that features tremendous storytelling and wonderful music. To find out more about performance times and show information, visit www.TheaterWit.org.

 

Published in Theatre in Review

There is no better way to get in the holiday spirit than with the classic Christmas ballet, the Nutcracker. Twenty-eight years after Robert Joffrey’s original production, this is the final year that the Joffrey Ballet will perform this Nutcracker (2016 brings us the world premier of Christopher Wheeldon’s Nutcracker!). Even decades since artistic director Ashley Wheater performed in the opening night of the production, this performance retains the timeless magic of this joyous holiday tradition.

 

For those unfamiliar, the show takes place on Christmas Eve in the 1850s, opening with a party at the house of the mayor, his wife and his two children, Clara and Fritz. In the midst of the lively party Drosselmeyer, the somewhat eccentric godfather to Clara and Fritz, sprinkles in some excitement to the festivities with enchanted life-size dolls that dance and entertain the guests. However, it is his gift of a nutcracker for Clara, which truly ignites the magic.

 

After the guests have left and the family has gone to bed, Clara sneaks downstairs to gaze upon her beloved Nutcracker. She soon finds herself in the middle of a battle between the Mouse King and his army of mice and the Nutcracker, who comes to life to fight with his band of toy soldiers.  With the toss of a shoe, Clara knocks down the Mouse King saving the Nutcrackers life and as means of a thank you, he takes her through the Land of Snow to the Kingdom of Sweets where the many toys from under Clara’s tree come to life in enjoyable and fantastic dances.

 

Joffrey’s Nutcracker downplays the traditional romance between Clara and the Nutcracker prince, fortifying the role of Drosselmeyer as the catalyst and guide of Clara’s journey to the Kingdom of Sweets. Performed by Michael Smith, Drosselmeyer is a technically strong role but at times, it felt overpowering for my taste, making the role of Clara more infantile and taking away from the romance between Clara and the Nutcracker Prince. 

 

Another split from tradition was the introduction of male dancers into the Land of Snow and Waltz of the Flowers scenes, however these deviations I found truly fantastic. The combination of beautiful partnering, endless falling snow and the graceful choreography expertly performed by the snowflakes (ladies) and snow winds (men) transports the audience on their mystical journey with Clara through the land of snow. In the Waltz of the Flowers in the second act, again the partnering added an interesting dimension, as did the constant tossing of fluttering flower petals beautifully worked into the choreography.

 

Overall, the dancers exhibited a wonderful balance of grace and precision creating flowing lines that perfectly complimented the Tchaikovsky score. The company members were fantastic, performing in perfect unison with a look of joy on their face making everything look effortless as a good ballet should. There were many young performers in the show as well who steal the scene with their cuteness! In the Kingdom of Sweets, each piece was accompanied by a tiny tot dressed in character sitting with Clara to watch the dance unfold. As someone who performed in the Nutcracker a number of times as a kid, I enjoyed this element of the show, as I am sure every aspiring ballerina in the audience did as well.

 

My favorite pieces by far were the Coffee from Arabia pas de deux, where Dara Holmes captivated us with her flexibility and elegant lines and the Grand Pas De Deux by the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Nutcracker Prince. Instantly entranced by the sparkle of the Sugar Plum Fairy costume, I was continually captivated as Amanda Assucena and Alberto Velasquez brilliantly performed the most iconic piece from the show.  

 

The Nutcracker runs at the Auditorium Theater through December 27th.  Buy your tickets now! Take your children, take your parents, take your date or take them all for a magical performance that will truly put you in the holiday spirit. 

 

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

 

 

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