Theatre in Review

Gentle breezes, crickets chirping (or whatever that sound is they make), and comfortably warm summer nights. We're here. And knowing it won't last forever, Chicagoans certainly relish the summer months, making the most of each balmy evening. And, you know it’s July when Shakespeare comes alive under the stars at Mayslake Peabody Estate in Oakbrook. Continuing their long run of Shakespeare classics, A Winter’s Tale and A Midsummer Nights Dream taking stage over the past two years, First Folio brings to life As You Like It, the rustic comedy that follows young Rosalind as she escapes to the Forest of Arden to avoid her uncle’s wrath. Rosalind is joined by her cousin Celia and the two, like in all great stories, meet many intriguing characters along their journey. Then there's Orlando, who also seeks refuge in the forest after being persecuted by his older brother, Oliver. But our hero, Orlando, is in love – with Rosalind whom he had briefly met after impressing her during a bout of strength, out wrestling her uncle’s champion, loving her at first glance.

Rosalind, disguised as a boy and Celia, dressed as a poor woman continue to trek through the forest, while at the same time Orlando, traveling with his elderly servant Adam who insisted to travel at his master’s side, does the same while obsessively carving poems of love on seemingly any tree he can find. It is when the Orlando and Adam run into the good Duke Sr. (ousted from the kingdom by the nefarious Duke Frederick) as their desperation for food brings them to her doorstep, that they are warmly taken in and soon realize that they have stumbled onto a hidden community that lives in harmony. Jaques, who plays somewhat of a confidant/friend to Duke Sr., gives us some of Shakespeare’s most famous lines when the forest is referred to as a theatre playing out its own story.

“All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first, the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse's arms.
Then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress' eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honor, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon's mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.” 

As the play progresses, multiple relationships are revealed and created around Orlando’s search for his true love, Rosalind and, in the end, everything ties together just beautifully, as Shakespeare’s pen so often did.

The many performances in this humorous adventure are done with passion and zest. Nicholas Harizin as Orlando and Leslie Ann Sheppard as Rosalind lead the play’s talented cast with a fire-infused appetite, it’s outcome an honest, raw passion to which we can truly relate. The two as comfortable in their roles as I am in my favorite pajama pants. And it would be difficult to find an actor who does Shakespeare better than Kevin McKillip, whose seamless delivery as Jaques so effectively pulls out the humor in Shakespeare’s writing. Luke Daigle stands out as Orlando’s hate-filled brother, Oliver, while Belinda Bremner as Duke Sr. is nothing less than mesmerizing. The cast in its entirety is strong and one would be hard-pressed to find any shortcomings in any of the performances by its talented individuals. In the role of Amiens, Amanda Raquel Martinez even shows off her guitar and vocal skills in a handful of haunting numbers. Standing out as Hermia in last year’s A Midsummer Nights Dream, Sarah Wisterman returns this time as Phebe again impressing while Vahishta Vafadari is very funny as runaway cousin, Celia and Courtney Abbott shines as the highly energetic Touchstone.

Well directed by Skyler Schrempp, the play is yet another ode to the excitement of falling in love and the adventures that come with such a happening and the toils one will undertake in order to find his or her soulmate.

As You Like It comes highly recommended as one of this year’s best outdoor summer experiences.

Surrounded by trees and a beautiful landscape, As You Like It is being performed on the grounds of the Mayslake Peabody Estate in Oakbrook through August 20th. Guests are invited to bring chairs, blankets and picnic baskets. And just to add a final touch of comfort, bug spray is provided along with bug repellent candles. As You Like It has a running time of two hours and twenty-five minutes with one intermission. For tickets and/or more show information visit www.firstfolio.org. Enjoy!

Published in Theatre in Review

As Chicago Tap Theatre embarks upon their mission to “Shuffle off to Europe” where they will join tap dance companies Tapage and Tap Olé in their home countries to perform Liason, the talented outfit impresses upon its audience yet another fantastic production in its third remount of Changes, a sci-fi adventure set to the music of the late, great David Bowie. In reverence to 1940’s science fiction, seemingly with pages from the old Flash Gordon serials put in play, we get a nasty trio of futuristic villains who have made captive a host of dreamy angels, crippling each by removing their wings, and a hero who must set them free and may only be able to do so by teaching the imprisoned seraphs to fight back (via a tap dance-off, of course).


Artistic Director Mark Yonally’s creative vision is what makes this production such an amazing spectacle. It is visually compelling, thanks to the costume design by Emma Cullimore and its punch-packing choreography, and musically fulfilling as the music chosen behind each dance routine is wisely chosen by Music Director Kurt Schweitz to provide much impact. Kristen Uttich, well cast as the show’s hero, Jennifer Pfaff Yonally as the lead Alliange and Mark Yonally as Altego with Aimee Chase and Heather Latakas as his Henchpeople, lead a gifted ensemble in what turns out to be a pretty engaging story of good versus evil filled with touching moments of beauty, soul and hope and thrilling climaxes when powerful confrontation erupts.


Changes includes many Bowie favorites that are accompanied on strings by Molly Rife and violinist Anna Gillan, who oversee the dancers at the rear of the stage. “Life on Mars” opens the show followed by “Starman” and “Space Oddity” setting the tone for this energetic production that comes with many “wow” moments. Much of Bowie’s music is set to a house mix adding extra thump and larger-than-life tempo, of which I have to wonder was necessary, as opposed to playing the songs in their original recorded versions, my guess being the extra boost provided a clearer pocket for the dancers to perform within or perhaps may have been needed to hear the songs distinctly above the often-thunderous flurry of tap dancing. A feast for Bowie fans, the production also comprises such hits as “Under Pressure” “Changes”, “Ziggy Stardust” and other faves that will have you poking through Spotify to relive the production's many great moments upon exiting the theatre.


Chicago Tap Theatre keeps this commanding form of dance alive, and even in bloom, with one fantastic production after another, Changes being no exception. Thoroughly entertaining from beginning to end, Changes has the perfect combination of dance, music and visuals to make this retro-sci-fi rocket take off.


Changes is being performed at Stage 773 through July 16th. For tickets and/or more show information, or to find out how you can help get this talented dance company to Europe, visit ChicagoTapTheatre.com.

Published in Dance in Review

After a delay in touring due to singer Bruce Dickinson’s bout with cancer, Iron Maiden has finally returned to the Chicago area in tour of their 2015 release, The Book of Souls. Now, fully recovered, Dickinson and company performed in front of a packed crowd at Tinley Park’s Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre along with opening act Ghost.


The concert itself was a mixed bag. It was exceptional in the sense that Dickinson’s vocals were crisp, strong and delivered us to vintage Maiden-dom as only the signature sound of the collective band can possibly do. The 58-year-old Dickinson seemed in prime form vocally and even physically. Guitarists Dave Murray and Adrian Smith were riffing as though it were 1985 and madman bassist Steve Harris plucked away at his instrument while channeling the energy of an eleven-year-old kid. Nicko McBrain was still Nicko McBrain, bashing the cans with complexity and power laying down the foundation for each song along with fellow rhythm-mate Harris. Yes, the band was on. So…what was the problem?


Two things.


Janick Gers (whom I have the utmost respect for his musical ability) doesn't really fit in with an Iron Maiden progressive metal live show – at all. Joining the band in 1990 to help finish No Prayer for the Dying after Smith’s brief departure over musical differences, Gers can no doubt play the part musically, but his stage presence makes us think that we may have entered a Poison concert by mistake. While energy-filled Dickinson and Murray run around the stage, it’s just that – running around the stage from end to end, Harris’ head thrashing about and Dickinson just being the cool front man we associate with a serious metal band like Iron Maiden. Gers side-to-side hair flinging, goofy high steps, kicks (reminiscent to the band Kix), guitar spins and cheesy dance moves would have been great – if Iron Maiden was a 1980’s hair band, but they’re not. They’re Iron Maiden. (Sorry Gers fans, I know he's talented but do they even need three guitar players?)


The other issue with The Book of Souls concert (at least the one in Tinley Park) was that the set list. Though The Book of Souls sold well and gave Iron Maiden their highest boost in some time, the band’s current set list was far too dependent on their latest studio release. With six of the fifteen songs coming from The Book of Souls album, fans who went in the hopes of hearing as many Maiden classics as possible were shorted. Left to the wayside were greats such as “Two Minutes to Midnight”, “Aces High”, “Run to the Hills”, “Flight of Icarus”, “Heaven Can Wait”, “Running Free”, “Can I Play with Madness”, “The Wicker Man”, “Flash of the Blade” and so many more. Now, naturally a band that has spanned for five decades that has produced so many amazing songs cannot be expected to cram every hit into a two-hour set, but playing just two or three songs from The Book of Souls would allow for a few more greats that Iron Maiden loyals would certainly appreciate jamming along with.


So that was the disappointing. Now for the good.


As stated prior, musically Iron Maiden was on top of their game. As expected (and always hoped for), the band’s mascot Eddie made a couple appearances, one as he walked across the stage dwarfing over Murray, Smith and Harris while Gers ran between his legs eluding the creature’s grasp until Dickinson fought and defeated the beast parading his severed heart high into the air for the crowd to see, meeting his victory with bloodthirsty cheers. Later an even larger Eddie peered from behind the drums as the band went into “Iron Maiden”.


Iron Maiden classics were sprinkled in throughout the set as Dickinson donned a British coat from the Revolutionary war while waving the flag of his homeland during “The Trooper”. The singer also surveyed the crowd to see how many fans were born after 1982, the year “Children of the Damned” was released, nearly half the hands in attendance being raised as the band went into the song.


Dickinson also made a heartfelt tribute to late actor Adam West, who he called a childhood hero and an inspiration.


Iron Maiden finished strong with a three-encore power play starting off with “The Number of the Beast” before going into “Blood Brothers” and delivering the knockout blow with “Wasted Years”.


Make no mistake. Iron Maiden still rocks and can deliver a fully entertaining arena show infused with enough metal to satisfy the most hard core of fans. Hopefully, the band’s set will have more songs that truly define Iron Maiden as most know their next time around. And there will be a next time around, as Dickinson altered the lyrics in “Number of the Beast” to “We will return (Chicago)!”.


Iron Maiden set list at Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre in Tinley Park June 15th 2017


If Eternity Should Fail
Speed of Light
Wrathchild
Children of the Damned
Death or Glory
The Red and the Black
The Trooper
Powerslave
The Great Unknown
The Book of Souls
Fear of the Dark
Iron Maiden
Encore:
The Number of the Beast
Blood Brothers
Wasted Years

 

Published in In Concert

It’s the wild 1930’s in Berlin and it’s anything goes at the Kit Kat Klub where an impish Emcee feasts on making the haunt as alluring as possible to its guests. He loves the boys, he loves the girls and he loves the orchestra. Headliner Sally Bowles leads the cabaret dancers in the playful club where one can phone table to table if interested in another. Bowles is brassy, commanding and she flat out belts, leaving little doubt who runs the show. This is quickly evidenced in her racy opening number “Don’t Tell Mama”. It is a place of decadent carnival where boundaries do not exist and guests are endlessly entertained by its sexy performers. 

American writer Cliff Bradshaw soon arrives via train ride where he meets new friend Ernst Ludwig. The two quickly hit it off. While getting to know each other, Bradshaw reveals he is looking for a place to stay, so Ludwig recommends a boarding house run by Fraulien Schneider. Searching for inspiration for his second novel, Bradshaw visits the nearby Kit Kat Klub where he is opened to a world he never knew existed. 

While Bradshaw and Bowles get to know each other (and then some), Herr Schultz, an elderly German, regularly visits the boarding house where he shows his affections for Schneider by bringing her fruit from the nearby produce store that he owns. Soon Schultz and Schneider agree to marry, while Bowles and Bradshaw become cozier, the two now living together. The club is thriving and all seems well in 1930’s Berlin. 

But the shadow of the Nazi regime is gradually becoming much more apparent. Slowly, the danger of a growing Third Reich is affecting Berlin. Gradually, the carefree mood of many Berlin residents becomes that of one awaiting impending doom. Some sense a mounting tragedy afoot and fear a change for the worse in Germany. 

Yet, the threat is still in its infancy stage, whereas Schultz, a Jew, naively states, “Everything will be fine. After all, I am a German.” At the same time, Schneider fears her association with Schultz will put her business under as the hatred against Jewish-Germans becomes more apparent. 

Cabaret is the gripping account of how a circle of friends and businesses in Berlin are overcome by the inevitable Nazi threat, from the story's hopeful beginning full of modernization and progressive views to its haunting end. 

The production is seamlessly woven together. Throughout the musical, there is an ongoing collocation of dialogue scenes and songs that serve as explanation to the story while a series of distinct cabaret numbers provide a public observation for the times. 

Cabaret continues to attract both new audiences and return visitors more than fifty years after its initial Broadway production, because it has everything – fascinating characters, iconic music, a dazzling look that transports us to a different world that is still incredibly timely and relevant today,” says Artistic Director Linda Fortunato.

Her statement couldn’t bear more truth as the production has won eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical and Best Original Score. 

The casting in Theatre at the Center’s Cabaret is very strong. Danni Smith, who recently impressed theatre goers in the leading role of “Donna” in Marriott Theatre’s Mamma Mia! is sensational as Sally Bowles. Smith’s robust, velvety vocals along with just the right air of confidence make for yet another successful leading role for the fetching stage star. Smith’s astounding performance alone is worth the ticket cost and drive to Munster, Indiana. Yet, the same impressionable effect on the audience can be said for co-lead Sean Fortunato as the mischievous Emcee, who is a pure delight to watch as he captures a changing Berlin within his character most effectively through a well-acted gamut of emotions. We watch on as the whimsical Master of Ceremonies is sincerely affected by what he recognizes is the beginning to the end of an era, yet we see his strength as he bravely presents an amusing appearance for his club-goers to distract from the imminent threat. 

Patrick Tierney (Bradshaw), Craig Spindle (Schultz), Iris Lieberman (Schneider), Christopher Davis (Ernst) and a very capable ensemble round out this talented cast that help in creating a magical Cabaret experience, along with an extraordinary creative team that so well brings the period to life. 

Based on a book written by Christopher Isherwood, with music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb, Cabaret is loaded with wonderful show tunes that include “Perfectly Marvelous”, “The Money Song”, “Married”, "Willkommen", “If You Could See Her” and Bowles highly-charged title song “Cabaret”. 

Well-constructed, finely acted and beautifully sung, Cabaret is an epic theatre experience not to miss.   

Cabaret is being performed at Theatre at the Center (1040 Ridge Road, Munster, IN) through June 4th. For show times, tickets and/or more show information, visit www.TheatreAtTheCenter.com

 

Published in Theatre in Review

It’s been quite some time since “Chicago” has actually been performed in Chicago (or thereabouts), but after a ten-year road in obtaining the show’s rights, Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook brings home the popular musical created in 1975 – and we are glad they did. With music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Webb and a book by both Webb and super choreographer Bob Fosse, the musical “Chicago” is based on a 1926 play of the same name. Inspired by actual criminals and crimes reported by reporter Maurine Dallas Watkins, the story revolves around the notion of the “celebrity criminal” while mocking the Chicago justice system that was in place in the 1920’s, an era where it was also widely suspected that an attractive women could not be convicted of a heinous crime, like say, the murder of her lover or husband. 

In “Chicago” the story starts off with a “bang” when Roxie Hart (Kelly Felthous) shoots dead her lover on the side. She is quickly arrested and held in Cook County Jail while awaiting trial for murder. In an age when the press sensationalized homicides committed by women (good ol' media), the public quickly buys into the hype making an instant celebrity out of Roxie, and as starved for stardom as the former dancer has always been, she thrives on the new-found attention. In the “pen” Roxie meets several colorful characters, but none as tough as Velma Kelly (Alena Watters), a socialite divorcee and former cabaret singer who is currently the talk of Chicago for the high-profile murder she committed. Velma barely gives Roxie the time of day, instead giving her the cold shoulder. But when Roxie’s popularity soars as the “new story” and Velma’s diminishes, it’s Velma who wants to partner with Roxie for a song and dance nightclub act, this time receiving the cold shoulder from the new celebrity. 

Roxie’s only way to avoid a sentence of death by hanging is to hire the flashy, fast-talking lawyer, Billy Flynn (Guy Lockard) for five thousand dollars. Well beyond what the couple can afford, Roxie’s doting, naive and “invisible” husband Amos (Justin Brill) scrapes up what he can and promises Flynn to pay the rest when he can. From there, Flynn turns the case into a dog and pony show, equating the trial as a “three-ring circus”.  

Watters stuns on several occasions as sassy Velma Kelly, winning the audience over almost immediately after a dazzling performance of the musical’s opening number “All That Jazz”. Possessing just the right dose of sexy attitude, Kelly impresses both vocally and in her dancing, her performance nothing short of riveting. As notable as Watters’ portrayal of Velma Kelly, Felthous also knocks the ball out of the park as Roxie Hart, pairing perfectly with her fellow caged dame and giving the show a rock ‘em sock ‘em one-two punch. Felthous convinces as one stricken by delusions of grandeur, confusing the popularity of her murder case as celebrity fame, putting forth an overall display of well-tuned comedic timing to go along with her own vocal prowess and dance ability. As fun to watch as the two are, Watters and Felthous really bring it home in their physically-charged routine “Nowadays”. 

He’s charming, good-looking and possesses a silver tongue that can sway even the toughest juries. Well-cast, singer/songwriter Guy Lockard brightly shines as the smooth defense attorney, Billy Flynn, and gives the show yet another boost, particularly in his courtroom maneuvering melody “Razzle Dazzle”. Justin Brill also contributes nicely in his funny depiction of Amos Hart, a man who is considered so undistinguishable by others he aptly refers to himself as “Mister Cellophane” in one of the show’s most humorous numbers. E. Faye Butler’s strong interpretation of Matron Mama Morton is pivotal, Butler crushing it in the number “When You’re Good to Mama”, a jailhouse tutorial for newly imprisoned Roxie Hart. A talented ensemble also brings another strength to the production in their many alluring dance numbers, perhaps most markedly in “Cell Block Tango”, a sultry ode to the woman prisoner during the revolutionary Jazz age.  

  

This new staging of “Chicago” is colorful and richer than ever thanks to an artistic creative team that includes Kevin Depinet (Scenic Design), Sully Ratke (Costume Design), Lee Fiskness (Lighting Design), Ray Nardelli (Sound Design), Cassy Schillo (Properties Design), Claire Moores (Wig Design) along with Production Stage Manager Larry Baker. 

“Chicago” is an energy-driven musical that is sexy, fun and truly memorable. Filled with a slew outstanding performances, inventive choreography and a set list that is justly contagious, Drury Lane’s “Chicago” is a can’t miss thrill ride. 

The Roaring Twenties are back...in high style. 

“Chicago” is currently being performed at Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook through June 18th. For tickets and/or more show information, click here. 

 

Published in Theatre in Review

Of the many Andrew Lloyd Webber hits, Jesus Christ Superstar has always been a personal favorite of mine. It rocks, it moves and…it’s back. After a lengthy absence, the award-winning musical has returned to the Chicago area, this time with a bit of a twist as, unlike past productions, the show features an all African American cast. This, opposed to the nearly all white cast complete with a black Judas that we are accustomed to seeing. And, the tremendously gifted cast works so very well in this revival piece. The change is bold and should be commended. And the execution is nearly flawless. 

With one of the greatest rock operas of all time currently finding its temporary home at Aurora’s Paramount Theatre, we know by the end of the production’s first number, “Heaven on Their Minds”, that Mykal Kilgore, who takes on the demanding role of “Judas”, is a special talent. We also get an idea within the next few numbers (“What’s the Buzz?”, “Strange Thing, Mystifying” and “Everything’s Alright”) how deep the talent pool goes in this one-of-a-kind production.  

Reliving the last days of Jesus Christ leading up to the crucifixion, the timeless musical, which premiered on Broadway on October 12th, 1971, is set to the music of Andrew Lloyd Webber with lyrics by Tim Rice, in what began as a rock opera concept album by the two in 1970. Since, it has been one of the most successful musicals of all time gathering a loyal fan-base from all over the world. In Jesus Christ Superstar, we visit Jesus, accompanied by his disciples and Mary Magdalene, as he performs miracles and brings hope to the world while claiming he is the son of God, much to the chagrin of the Pharisees and scribes who see him as a threat to their teachings – a threat they would like removed so much they ask the Romans for help.

In Paramount’s current production of Jesus Christ Superstar, a fifteen-piece orchestra paves the way for the talented performers who leave their mark in one number after another. Kilgore goes on to navigate through each song with skilled precision and sings with amazing depth. And while Kilgore impresses more and more as the show progresses by staying true (and then some) to the “Judas” that both Murray Head and Carl Anderson made famous, Felicia Boswell is also quick to excite the audience with her moving interpretation of Mary Magdalene, particularly in the popular “I Don’t Know How to Love Him”. Beautiful, graceful and vocally dynamic, Boswell brings a gentle warmth to the role, wonderfully capturing the love that Mary had for Jesus. Throughout the production, remarkable performances are abundant with Rufus Bonds Jr. taking the reins in a very commanding depiction of Pontius Pilate, so well delivering the message of his conflict to have Jesus crucified at the request of the mob that is influenced by the religious law makers or to set him free since no Roman law has been broken. Lorenzo Rush Jr. also leaves a strong presence as the baritone-wielding Caiaphas who leads the charge against Jesus, fearing that he will revolutionize Jewish law. 

Jesus of Nazareth is commendably played Evan Tyrone Martin. Martin aptly captures the virtue and charisma needed for the role of and is convincing while conveying just how tiring it can be to be the son of God. Martin’s voice is strong and he has little trouble carrying the many challenging melodies that come with playing Jesus, though the patented screams that both Ted Neeley (film version) and Ian Gillan (concept album) had incorporated into the role were absent, leaving a couple prime crescendo moments to the wayside. Still, Martin holds his own, even getting a much-deserved extended applause after his riveting performance of “Gethsemane”, a powerful number where Jesus questions why it is that he must die. 

The show’s ensemble is nothing short of amazing, the actors changing back and forth from disciples, to Pharisees to lepers to soldiers ever so efficiently. At one point, Mark J.P. Hood breaks rank from the ensemble as Simon and superbly performs one of the show’s highlight numbers “Simon Zealotes”, where he praises Jesus and urges him to build an army to fight the powers of Rome. Another crowd-pleasing moment (among the countless others) occurs when Jesus is brought forth to Herod (Avionce Hoyles) in a glittery display that dazzles in the somewhat jazzy “Herod’s Song”. Kudos to Hoyles who thrusts the role of Herod into another stratosphere.     

Paramount’s Jesus Christ Superstar is a fascinating production that entertains nonstop from its opening overture to its near-finale number “Superstar”. Featuring a wealth of acting and singing talent and a rockin’ orchestra that does the soundtrack right, this could possibly be one of the most polished, expressive and enjoyable musicals to come our way in some time.  

Superb. This beautiful production is super recommended.

Magnificently directed and choreographed by Ron Kellum with music direction by Tom Vendafreddo, Jesus Christ Superstar is being performed at Paramount Theatre through May 28th. For tickets and/or more show information click here.       

 

Published in Theatre in Review

Following the lives of Charlotte and Jonny, The Mystery of Love and Sex cleverly explores a variety of subjects including sexual identity, race, political correctness and family undercurrents. Charlotte and Jonny have grown up together and have become the very best of friends. Charlotte is a white girl who had lived with her parents, her father Jewish and her mother converted, while Jonny, an African American had lived with his mother just next door. 

The story starts off with Charlotte and Jonny living together while attending college. They wonder if their longtime friendship can develop into something more. The two are stressed when Charlotte’s parents, Howard and Lucinda, come by for dinner unsure of what they might think of their living relationship and their possible future together. Howard, a  successful crime novelist accused of writing with racist and sexist overtones by Jonny ("Why are all black men able to dance? Why are most found victims women with no clothes on?"), is direct, concerned and, at times, a bit skeptical. “What is this? Like Bohemian?” He says referring to the couple’s table setting. It doesn’t help matters that Charlotte and Jonny are serving just salad and bread. But we quickly see how much Howard cares for both his daughter Charlotte and Jonny, who he considers his son, despite his oft coarse exterior. 

As the story progresses, Charlotte and Jonny show trepidation in pursuing a future together even questioning their own sexuality. Howard and Lucinda, who consider themselves liberal parents, just want their daughter to be happy. We are then taken on several plot twists and turns in both Howard and Lucinda’s marriage and the lives of Jonny and Charlotte that keep the story highly engaging.

Keenly directed by Marti Lyons and smartly written by Bathsheba Doran, The Mystery of Love and Sex provides four main characters that are each appealing in their own ways. The interactions between the four is fulfilling, as it is humorous, touching and true to life. Doran’s story is that of love, whether it be unconditional or the lengths taken to find it. It is a journey into life’s most sought after desire and a tribute to accepting those for who they are.  

"I have had the pleasure of following the impressive rising careers of playwright Bash Doran and Director Marti Lyons for the past few years and I am delighted to find a project that suited both their considerable talents so perfectly," says Artistic Director Michael Halberstam.

Hayley Burgess leads the way as Charlotte with a bold performance in her Writers Theatre debut. Charlotte has many layers that are revealed throughout the play and Burgess gently takes the audience by the hand into her character’s depth one step at a time. Best friend and confidant Jonny is well-played by Travis Turner who is also able to play up to the complexities in his role with much aplomb. Lia Mortensen is just fantastic as Lucinda, delivering her witty lines to perfection and getting several laughs in the way her character struggles to quit smoking. Cast in the role of Howard is Keith Kupferer. However, Kupferer had taken ill and was unavailable for the performance I had attended thrusting Mark David Kaplan into the role, who is simply remarkable. Kaplan steers his role with grit and finesse offering the clear predictability of Howard’s stereotype, but is also able to throw in a handful of surprising moments filled with a genuineness than can catch us off guard. Kaplan and Mortensen are terrific as Charlotte’s parents, bringing forth plenty of funny exchanges and throwing several well-timed darts at each other.

There is a lot to like in Doran’s The Mystery of Love and Sex from its tantalizing script to its well-executed performances. The play delivers a solid message in a uniquely crafty way that is entertaining from beginning to end. 

Recommended. 

The Mystery of Love and Sex is currently running at Writers Theatre (325 Tudor Court, Glenview) through July 2nd. For tickets and/or more show information click here

*This play contains frontal nudity.

Published in Theatre in Review

If you’ve followed Netflix’s big 2016 hit Stranger Things, this play will make all kinds of sense. You’ll get the jokes, the 80’s references and will easily follow the story line. If you haven’t seen the series, it would be recommended that you do before checking out Random Acts and Greenhouse Theater’s collaboration, Strangest Things! The Musical

Spoofing one of the most talked about sci-fi series to hit the airwaves over the past few years, Strangest Things! follows the disappearance of Will Byers, a young boy in Hawkins, Indiana. Set in the 1980’s, his mother Joyce Byers, brother Johnathan and a group of Will’s friends search everywhere to no avail, eventually enlisting the help of Police Chief, David Harbour. When a young girl known as “Eleven” appears from seemingly nowhere dressed in only a hospital gown, it is soon discovered she has psychokinetic abilities and things start to get weird. 

Befriended by Will’s friends, Eleven is able to contact Will from the other side and it becomes apparent that things are not at all what they seem. Joyce believes Will is contacting her from another dimension, his energy channeled through the radio and a string of Christmas lights, confident he is alive but trapped in another world. Of course, this sounds crazy – or is it? And with every good sci-fi thriller there needs to be a villain, so it’s soon discovered an experimental laboratory, led by scientist Martin Brenner, may have a hand in Will’s disappearance. Suspicious, the snooping begins and the plot gets deeper and deeper as the story progresses.  

The series won its popularity not only with its engaging storyline, but with the heavy use of 80’s music and sound effects, making it prime parody material.

That’s where Strangest Things! comes in. 

While Strangest Things! The Musical hits on some of the 80’s silliness and occasionally finds success in its over-the-top lampooning of the series’ characters, it struggles to hold onto its momentum. Taking popular 80’s hits like “Xanadu”, “I’m A Virgin”, “Sweet Dreams” and “Don’t Stop Believin’”, writers Bryan Renaud and Emily Schmidt change the lyrics to accommodate the storyline in the play. While the lyrics are, at times, funny, the execution falls a bit flat, the harmonies weak and the vocals often lacking strength, excluding Molly Lecaptain as “Juice” (Joyce) Byers who can flat out belt. We almost wonder if the play would have been better without the musical numbers, the dialogue exchanges drawing the most laughs along with the character exaggerations of each.

Lecaptain does a good job in taking on Winona Ryders’ character, over-amplifying her panic-stricken, bewildered and frenzied traits at just the right intensity, while Kevin O’Connell as “Sheriff Hopper” (Police Chief David Harbour) also takes his role and runs with it. Will’s best friend Mike is played by Jenna Fawcett, who doesn’t have to do much more than wear a goofy wig to get a chuckle but also delivers plenty of funny lines and loopy expressions. Older brother “Johnathan” is played by Ben F. Locke, who doubles as hunky high school heart throb Steve. Locke’s performance offers some of the best camp-dom in the musical, leaving more “Johnathan” scenes to be highly desired. Their comedic ability is only limited by the play’s script.

The play starts strong as we meet our characters the first time around (especially “Barb” played by Christian Sibert), but the humor becomes predictable, the character’s freshness soon overplayed and the jokes often coming off as contrived or overdone, a perfect example being Hopper’s mention of T.J. Hooker – which was funny – until he points out to the audience that we should laugh because he made an obscure 80’s reference. We know.    

If you enjoyed the Netflix series, there might be just enough in Strangest Things! to like despite its many missed opportunities for witty, comedic growth. The idea is there but the play could use a reworking to give its audience the most bang for their buck.            

Lukewarm, the play has severe hits and misses, some jokes really creative while others falling flat. As a whole, the story might be a bit tough to piece together without having seen the series, as it is presented somewhat scattered without full explanation, so again, it is recommended you watch Stranger Things first.  

Strangest Things! The Musical is being performed at Greenhouse Theater Center through May 13th. For more information on this production, visit www.greenhousetheater.org.

*This show has now been extended through July 8th.

 

Published in Theatre in Review

Maybe we can chalk it up to a mid-life crisis…or, maybe, Wheeler is just a self-loathing man who’d just assume sabotage his own happiness rather opting to wallow in self-pity. In Steppenwolf’s Linda Vista, a new play debut by Tracy Letts and directed by Dexter Bullard, we get a very funny, and highly realistic, account of a man who has seemingly given up on life and love.

Wheeler (Ian Bradford) has moved from a cot in his wife’s garage to his own apartment in the Linda Vista apartment complex. With a soured marriage and an estranged relationship with his son coming to an end, Wheeler has the opportunity to start fresh, but that’s much more difficult than it sounds – at least it is for him. As we get to know Wheeler, a former Sun-Times photographer with promise who now holds onto a routine job as a camera repairman, we see someone who has been riddled with repercussions that have stemmed from a series of poor choices. Wheeler resents his soon-to-be-ex-wife for having him leave his Chicago life for California to be closer to her family. He resents his son for - well, just getting in the way of his life. He resents happy people. Hell, he resents Radiohead. But Wheeler has accepted his current situation – a cynical alcoholic that shoots down other people’s hopes and dreams, believing he is a “piece of shit” who “doesn’t deserve to be happy”. 

Wheeler’s best friend Paul (Tim Hopper) and his wife Margaret (Sally Murphy), friends from their college days, haven’t given up on him. They want to find him a partner who can bring out the old Wheeler who once had dreams and ambitions himself. When Paul and Margaret set Wheeler up with a friend of theirs, Jules (Cora Vander Broek), who is bright and bouncy, Wheeler reluctantly accepts and, as you can probably imagine, he has a few skeptical things to say after finding out she is a life coach. This, of course, threatens a man who wants a simple, joyless existence. Complicating matters for Wheeler, he takes in Minnie (Kahyun Kim), a twenty-four-year old rockabilly enthusiast recently kicked out of her own apartment in the same complex by her abusive boyfriend. 

The play is very truthful. It is about regret, wrecked opportunities and the consequences of unfortunate decisions. It is about letting oneself spin out of control, essentially giving up, and the struggle to choose happiness - a challenge when becoming so distant. But is also about hope and the chance to change for the better. In Wheeler, we are given a lovable “asshole” that we must root for. 

Ian Barford is tremendous as Wheeler. Barford quickly draws in the audience, grabs them and never lets go. Convincing, humorous and often decidedly heartfelt, Barford captures the essence of his self-deprecating character so well, we can’t help but think of a few “Wheeler’s” we know ourselves. Tim Hopper does fine work and is believable as Wheeler’s tolerable, but supportive, best friend as does Sally Murphy, both nicely adding to the play’s humor (I’ll just say karaoke bar scene). 

While Kahyun Kim is brassy and nails the too-cool-for-school attitude as Minnie, Cora Vander Broek is sparkles as Jules, perfectly pairing with Barford as his counterpart in a true positive/negative kind of relationship. We are also taken to the camera shop where Wheeler plugs away all day fixing one camera after another under the supervision of his crass boss Michael (Troy West), who is just waiting for a sexual harassment lawsuit to be filed against him as he repeatedly gawks and spews inappropriate comments at his clerk, Anita (Caroline Neff).

A revolving set takes us inside Wheeler’s California apartment, his workplace and to a bar. He lives simply, and that’s all he wants, DVDs of Stanley Kubrick littering his media stand and a refrigerator most likely only filled with a couple six-packs and a box of Arm & Hammer.   

Linda Vista is a well-acted ride into Wheeler’s uncertainties on turning fifty with the realization that his best years have long since passed. It is a play equipped with a stellar cast, a very funny script that is also genuine and even moving at times and direction that is so precise we can easily identify with each of Letts’ characters. 

Very highly recommended. 

Linda Vista is being performed at Steppenwolf Theatre through May 21st. For tickets and/or more show information visit www.steppenwolf.org

*Note – This play does contain full frontal nudity and sexual simulation. 

*Extended through May 28th 

Published in Theatre in Review

Griffin Theatre’s In To America is a stark reminder of the contributions made by the many immigrants that have come from all around the world and have made the United States what it is today. In writer Bill Massolia’s multicultural story, American history is retold by several immigrant narratives where sixty personal stories are shared spanning over thirty countries. The play begins with the American immigration experience from Jamestown in the early 17th century and covers the 400 years since, many of its stories remarkable as they are daring. 

We hear the good and the bad. In many stories we get a taste of the shameful mistreatment immigrants received upon their arrival, the brave new world of vast opportunity they were seeking no more than a hostile environment that spews hate for the simple fact of being different. In others (not nearly as many) we hear how immigrants were received with opens arms, their dreams fulfilled as their new home offers the new life they had so desperately had hoped for. In this condensed history lesson we also learn the hardships endured throughout perilous journeys in leaving their own countries in daring escapes from their own native countries. 

“We never crossed the border. The border crossed us,” we are profoundly told from Juanita Andersen who portrays a Mexican landowner after being squeezed out by new arrivals during the Manifest Destiny.  

The series of monologues flows quickly as the story follows a timeline that is rich in information covering such events as congress adopting the uniform rule in 1790 so that any white person could apply for citizenship after two years of residency, the Dred Scott decision in 1857 declaring free Africans non-citizens, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1902, Native Americans made citizens in 1924 and the 1980 Refugee Act that removed refugees as a preference category, reducing worldwide ceiling for immigration to 270,000. Many, many other significant policies are brought to light that have had an effect on immigration.

Artist Director Bill Massolia comments about the production, “In To America owes a great deal of its inspiration from my own family’s immigrant roots.” 

He was also inspired by Ronald Takaki’s award-winning book A Different Mirror where it is stated “In the making of multicultural America, the contingent’s original inhabitants were joined by people pushed from their homelands by poverty and persecution in Asia, Latin America and Europe, and pulled here by extravagant dreams. Others came here in chains from Africa, and still others fled here from countries like Afghanistan and Vietnam. These men and women may not have read John Locke, but they came to believe that ‘in the beginning all the world was America.’ They envisioned the emerging country as a place for a bold new start.”

He further states, “Marginalized and degraded as the “Other” minorities came to believe even more fiercely and fervently than did the founding fathers in the ‘self-evident truths’ that ‘all men are created equal’, entitled to the ‘unalienable rights’ of ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’. 

In To America also explores the paranoia regarding immigration held by one such founding father quoting Benjamin Franklin, "Few of their children in the country learn English... The signs in our streets have inscriptions in both languages ... Unless the stream of their importation could be turned they will soon so outnumber us that all the advantages we have will not be able to preserve our language, and even our government will become precarious."

The play’s theme is strong in reminding us that America has been made on the backs of immigrants, boasting many great achievements and spotlighting a handful of prominent “new Americans” who have truly made a difference in our country’s progress. In the end we get a picture of hope, unity and promise.

Dorothy Milne directs while the cast in this insightful piece includes Juanita Andersen, Katie Campbell, Jennifer Cheung, Aneisa Hicks, Christopher W. Jones, Francisco Lopez, Adam Marcantoni, Sean McGill, Rasika Ranganathan, Omer Abbas Salem, Scott Shimizu, Jason VonRohn and Elizabeth Hope Williams. Each actor plays multiple characters from all over the world, transitioning very well from accent to accent, adding to the play’s genuine nature in relaying a spirit everyone can identify with.  

In To America is just the play that will prompt many to go back and research their family lineage to discover their own journey to America.

In To America is being performed at Den Theatre’s Heath Main Stage through April 23rd. Tickets are $38 and valet parking is now available. For tickets and/or more show information click here

         

  

 

Published in Theatre in Review
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