Theatre in Review

Devastation permeates the set and plot of the Northlight Theatre’s Midwest premiere of By the Water – a powerful and moving production, written by Sharyn Rothstein and directed by Cody Estle, about a Staten Island, New York, family dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

 

Marty and Mary Murphy (Francis Guinan and Penny Slusher) fight to save in their storm-ravaged home and campaign to keep their neighborhood together even as their life-long neighbors and friends the Carters (Janet Ulrich Brooks and Patrick Clear) vow to leave and family secrets seep to the surface.

 

“In this play, natural disaster serves as a metaphor for the social and political change that forces generations to confront very real issues about their own lives – lives built on values that have become outmoded,” says Northlight Artistic Director BJ Jones. “Sharyn’s sharp sense of humor built on rich character development is sprinkled throughout, and the themes of justice and family values and loyalties emerge full-throated in her dialogue and her surprising plot.”

 

The Murphy’s are magnificently played by Guinan and Slusher, who give impressive performances imbuing the blue-collar couple with authenticity, humor and grit as they struggle to survive not only the brokenness of their community but the underlying betrayals within their family.

 

At the heart of this production is family and the idea that despite the mistakes and disloyalties as exemplified in the tattered relationship of brothers Sal Murphy (Jordan Brown) and Brian Murphy (Joel Reitsma), and the back-and-forth power struggle between Sal and his father Marty, that love and forgiveness can prevail and second chances are possible. Nowhere is this more evident than with Brian, who after a stint in jail, manages to find a second chance at love with Emily (played by Amanda Drinkall).

 

“[By the Water} is about confronting deep-seated personal problems in the face of a generational divide and finding a way to move forward,” Estle notes.

 

Rothstein developed the idea for the play after visiting Staten Island after Hurricane Sandy.

 

“Leaving behind a community, a lifetime of memories, seemed like an enormous leap of faith and an incredibly difficult decision, but the destruction was gut wrenching,” she says. “Yet, in front of one neat, clearly beloved house, a man who looked to be in his sixties was tending his lawn. With his whole neighborhood in ruins, with the majority of his neighbors already gone or figuring out how to leave, here was a man clearly standing firm. The image of him standing there amid so much loss was the genesis of my play.”

 

And that imagery is so indelibly visible in this production, which manages to peel back so many unexpected and complex layers while remaining thoroughly entertaining from its opening moments with the very effective sound effects to its poignant end. What makes this play so touching is not only the dynamic script and incredibly talented cast but the simple yet powerful stage design that evokes loss and pain as well a sense of home and place.

 

The creative team behind By the Water includes: Jeffrey D. Kmiec (scenic design), JR Lederie (lighting design), Rachel Laritz (costume design), Lindsay Jones (sound design) and Mara Filler (stage manager).

 

Highly recommended.

 

By the Water is playing at the Northlight Theatre in Skokie, Illinois, until April 23. Tickets are available at online at northlight.org.

 

Published in Theatre in Review

Guys, it’s time to dig into your closet and shake the dust from your polyester, large-collared, chest-exposing dance shirt. Divas, grab your sequin-studded blouse and bell-bottomed slacks or favorite jumpsuit – it’s time to disco! Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook hosts an electric 1970’s dance party to remember with their current production of Saturday Night Fever the Musical. Following the 1977 hit film that catapulted John Travolta to superstar status for his portrayal of Tony Manero, a troubled kid from The Bronx who finds escape from his dilemmas by lighting up the dance floor on Saturday nights, we are thrust into an exciting time capsule when disco was king.

As the story goes, Tony, who works a dead-end job in a hardware store, just wants to be somebody. And he is – on weekends. He just wants to dance! He’s got the hair, good looks, charisma, and dance moves that make him an instant celebrity whenever he walks into 2001, the neighborhood disco hotspot, all the girls lining up to partner with him, all the guys wishing they had half his talent. With a couples’ dance contest coming up that awards a cool thousand bucks to the winning team, Tony searches for a partner, of course seeking out the one girl who is not overly impressed with him. Saturday Night Fever the Musical, keenly directly by Tony-nominated Dan Knechtges, is a well-rounded story that delves into Tony’s stereotypical New York Italian home life, his life on the streets hanging out with his close-knit gang and his quest for love, that, for once, doesn’t come so easy. Adding a humorous spin to the classic film, this dazzling production offers a good amount of laughs while holding onto the integrity of the film. 

The music is half the fun. While the soundtrack is heavily driven by the music of The Bee Gees implementing favorites like “Staying Alive”, “How Deep Is Your Love”, “More Than A Woman” and “Jive Talkin’”, were also turned onto other disco staples that include “Boogie Shoes”, Disco Duck” and “Disco Inferno”. And as good as the music is, the dancing is just as impressive, getting spectacular individual and ensemble performances that make it difficult for audience members to restrain from taking the stage and join in the disco celebration, also encouraged by the tremendous set that recreates a captivating 1970’s dance club – strobe light, red velvet walls and all. 

Adrian Aguilar is seemingly made for the role of Tony Manero. The Jeff Award nominated actor who once starred as Rocky Balboa in Broadway’s Rocky, is nothing short of sensational. The search for the perfect Tony was widespread, with auditions held in not only Chicago but also New York, Houston and Los Angeles, and it was right here in Chicago that the production found its seamless fit. Says Kyle DeSantis, President of Drury Lane Productions, “Out of the many talented artists we saw, no one came close to Chicago’s unparalleled Adrian Auguilar as Tony.” And DeSantis could not have been any more correct as Aguilar delivers a strong performance bringing with him the comic chops and astounding dancing ability needed for the role. Aguilar is also able to tackle the demanding vocals required to take on the many numbers to which his character is highlighted and adds just the right amount of dramatic precision that give us a believable Tony Manero. 

Aguilar, whose dynamite performance is worth the cost of admission alone, is surrounded by a heaping helping of talent. Landree Fleming, who recently knocked the socks off of theatre goers in her performance as Kira in American Theater Company’s Xanadu, is back, this time delivering solid support as Manero’s clingy wannabe girlfriend Annette, while Erica Stephan does an admirable job as Stephanie, the dancer who has captured the starry eyes of our story’s star. Making his Drury Lane debut is standout actor Alex Newell, best known for his portrayal of transgender student Wade “Unique” Adams on Fox’s hit series Glee. Newell is rightly cast for the role of Candy, a disco diva who truly belts, delivering a handful of drop-your-jaw moments. In Saturday Night Fever the Musical, we also get a consistently strong boost from an ultra-talented ensemble that is not only able to bring a disco to life on several occasions, but can add credible depth to this classic story thanks to a slew of strong acting and vocal performances. Yet we cannot overlook Ryan O'Gara's stunning lighting design (disco ball included) and Rachel Laritz' spot on 1970's costume design that so well breathes life into Kevin Depinet's lavish red-velvet laden set. 

This new, reworked North American version, scripted by Sean Cercone and David Abbinanti adds even more style and flair to an already stage proven production that made waves after its London mount in 1998 and invaded America with a Broadway run in 2000. An era of pop culture poked fun of so often (and a handful of parodies are certainly present in this production), this is a musical that also celebrates disco and reminds us of the pivotal part it played in our musical history and of its ever-perpetual influence that remains.  

Saturday Night Fever the Musical pulls out all the stops, delivering a show that has it all – dancing, singing, visuals and humor, while distributing a plethora of 1970's nostalgia. Songs you may have long forgotten will be stuck in your head days afterward – in a good way. Running at Drury Lane Theatre through March 19th (now extended through April 9th), this is a production that is sure to bring the boogie out in each of us no matter how buried inside it may be.

Recommended.

For tickets and/or more show information, click here

 

Published in Theatre in Review

 

 

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