There was so much energy when I went into The Den Theatre, which I will rightfully chalk up to Haven Theatre Company’s infectious vibe. Upon entering, patrons were greeted with ear plugs before being thrust into a cloud of fog, as though attending a rock show. Curious, yet anxious, the crowd seemed spunky and exhibited a healthy amount of excitement in simply just being present. Unique and bold, “We’re Gonna Die” is the latest Haven Theatre Company production, and it’s engaging from the word “Go”.
“We’re Gonna Die” features a live band, riveting storytelling and even some stand up comedy as the cast share true to life experiences in order to connect with the audience on a subject that not many choose to talk about – death. Its message is direct. Despite our darkest hours and personal tragedies, we are not alone.
When the show begins, Spencer Meeks who plays the guitar, gives us a brief history of the play and how it is part of a 12-part series. With his eyeliner meticulously applied, Meeks promptly kicks off the evening with a loud beat.
Soon after, the main singer played by Isa Arciniegas emerges. She talks about her Uncle John and the experiences she shared with him when she was younger. The band breaks out into a song and it is quickly apparent that Isa is a natural entertainer. Arciniegas’ energy is contagious as she runs back and forth on the stage. She proceeds to tell the audience a couple more stories and concludes with a moving song about the death of her father.
Soon, everything comes together. Many people are uncomfortable with death, and to be fair, death is sad. We miss the people we lost and are swiftly enveloped with so many different emotions, first asking ourselves how something so tragic could happen to questioning the fairness in death. As Arciniegas continues to sing, she profoundly exclaims, "We're all going to die!"
In Young Jean Lee's “We’re Gonna Die” it is somehow made okay to be comfortable with death, a point made while jamming along with the show’s kick ass drummer played by Sarah Giovannetti. "We're all going to die!" is repeated over and over as confetti pours out from the ceiling along with balloons everywhere. Simply put, the play is a true celebration of life and a reminder that we all should live each day to the fullest since - we are all going to die.
The talented cast and team for "We’re Gonna Die" includes: Isa Arciniegas (singers), Sarah Giovannetti (band), Jordan Harris (band), Elle Walker (band), Spencer Meeks (band) and Kamille Dawkins (singer u/s). The production team for We’re Gonna Die includes: Josh Sobel (director), Abhi Shrestha (assistant director), Julie Leghorn (stage manager), Krista Mickelson (production manager), Spencer Meeks (music director), Claire Chrzan (light designer), Izumi Inaba (costume designer), Mike Mroch (scenic designer), and Jon Martinez (choreographer).
Well-directed by Josh Shobel, “We’re Gonna Die” is an interesting play that sheds light on a scary subject. It is a play that really gave me a chance to reflect, as I am sure would be true with the rest of its audience. All in all, I left smiling and excited that I went to the newly renovated Den Theatre (1335 North Milwaukee) to see this very original and thought-provoking play. I recommend checking it out while you can as it will be performed through June 4th. Tickets are priced at $18 and can be purchased at www.haventheatrechicago.com.
Bootycandy is about Sutter, an African American gay man’s experience from adolescence to adulthood. The play touches on many different aspects and felt like several puzzle pieces coming together throughout its duration, each falling perfectly into place to create a path whereas the production is able to end on a high note that is sensible and believable.
The play opens with Sutter, played by Travis Turner, asking his mother why she refers to his penis as a ‘bootycandy.’ The conversation that follows is comical and sets the tone for the rest of the play.
One of the best scenes is performed by Osiris Khepera where he is a pastor at a church and talks about “they heard folk”, whispering why some of the choir folks smile at one another and why he personally hasn’t taken up a wife. Many of the sentiments in this scene touches on the perspective of the black community on homosexuality. At the end of the powerful sermon, he reveals something he has been hiding underneath his gown.
A scene that was hilarious, but uncomfortable, was when Krystal McNeil and Debrah Neal played four different characters to talk about how someone in the community named their child Genitalia Lakeitha Shamala Abdul. Yes, Genitalia. Later in the play you see her as a lesbian having a ceremony to break up with her partner.
The heart of the play centers on Sutter’s experience when he was in his teens at the library. A man had been following him and talking to him for quite some time and he decides to tell his mother and stepfather over dinner who barely looked up from his magazine. The experience for Sutter shows a dark side of him when he takes home a drunk, straight white male (Rob Fenton) with his friend. This was one of the hardest scenes to watch; it was dark, dramatic, and felt too real.
Sutter’s character involves many layers. The play cuts to another scene right after to show Sutter visiting his grandmother in a nursing home. He decides to order some ribs for her on his iPhone. A more subdued Sutter who you can’t help but feel sorry for.
The cast works extremely well together, Turner leading the way. Five actors in this winning play act as several different characters, each providing a strong performance.
Catch Bootycandy, written and directed by Robert O’Hara, at Windy City Playhouse (3014 North Irving Park) through April 15th. Tickets range from $15-$55. The show does contain a scene with full-frontal nudity. Be sure to check out the catchy cocktails inspired by the play.
Kinky Boots has now come through Chicago a few times and I am glad I finally had a chance to see this musical, being so hyped everything. With lyrics by Cyndi Lauper, I was curious to see how her music would translate to live theater.
Based on a true story, the play starts at Price & Son’s gentlemen shoe factory in Northampton, England. It centers on Charlie Price (Adam Kaplan) trying to turn around his father’s failing business. With the help from Lola (J. Harrison Ghee), who happens to be a drag queen, they collaborate to build a new direction for Price & Son and take it all the way to Milan.
What stands out more than anything else in this play is Ghee’s performance as Lola. Ghee is an amazing singer who exudes the energy you’d expect from a Broadway performer. Additionally, many of the other characters that are part of Lola’s Angels do a fantastic job (Joseph Anthony Byrd, Sam Dowling, Ian Gallagher Fitzgerald, JP Qualters, Xavier Reyes, and Sam Rohloff). They are toned, vibrant, and of course beautiful!
Another stand out performance is Tiffany Engen as Lauren. Lauren is a longtime employee of Price & Son and has a crush on Charlie. Engen is quirky and effortlessly breaks the ice when she is on stage. I would have liked to see more of her character in the play than the script allowed along with her fun dance moves.
I felt like there was some disconnect with the casting for Adam Kaplan. I had a really hard time connecting to his portrayal of Charlie. So much so that in the end, I just wished that Lola took over the entire operations at Price & Son.
Kinky Boots is fun and full of many ups and downs. If anything, you should go for the solo Ghee performs close to the end of the show. I felt remnants of Whitney Houston in the air and a lot of soul.
More importantly, the play touches on many of the injustices that are faced around the LGBTQ community. This is something that is still a challenge and many people still are not familiar or understanding of the community. I would implore people to watch this play and actually have a real conversation about gender identity. Although the play has a humorous tone, there is an underlying message that should be discussed.
You can catch Kinky Boots at the Oriental Theatre (24 W Randolph St, Chicago, IL 60601) during their short engagement ending on September 4th. Ticket prices range from $25-$98.
I thoroughly enjoy the Windy City Playhouse and it appears they did a renovation since I was there last. The seats are comfortable and a full bar is a fantastic feature to any theater, if you ask me. In addition, the staff are incredibly friendly and very caring. I will definitely try another play here but I have to say, This, left little to be desired.
This explores the ups and downs of life from a group of five friends in their upper thirties. The set opens up in Tom (Steve O'Connell) and Marrell's (Tania Richard) New York apartment. They are hosting friends Jane (Amy Rubenstein) and Alan (Joe Zarrow). It is quickly discovered that Jane is a widow and Marrell is looking to set her up with her French friend, Jean Pierre, who is played by Brian Gray. As this group of friends reminisce about the college days they had spent together we gradually care less and less about them as there is nothing about them that is really likable or pulls us in. Over magnifying the problems and "tough" life decisions of this privileged and highly educated collection of characters (yawn), playwright Melissa James Gibson falls short in creating individuals we want to identify with. This tends to drag and never really comes around, refusing to engage its audience.
I found the plot to be a bit predictable; maybe because it has been done before. I had a hard time connecting to this group of self-centered characters and found many of them to be a bit over the top. However, the best part of this play is Joe Zarrow. He played his witty character, Alan, perfectly and added just the right amount of comical relief when necessary. The only other plus besides Zarrow's performance, was in Katie-Bell Kenney's well-crafted set design to which we find ourselves peering into a believable apartment complex.
Even though I didn't enjoy the play as much as other treasures at Windy City Playhouse, I'd still recommend taking the time to see it for yourself, if for any reason to support this wonderful theatre that has a great track record of hitting its mark. This is being performed at Windy City Playhouse (3014 W Irving Park Rd) through August 28th. Tickets range from $25-$45.
What drew me to this play is the powerful message around civil rights and the negative impact it had on the children of activist. Sunset Baby is about a women named after Nina Simone whose parents were a part of the Black Panthers. After her mother passes away, her father comes back into her life after what seems to have been a long stint in prison. playwright Dominique Morriseau, who landed the Edward M. Kennedy Prize for her previous work, Detroit '67, comes back with another fine effort Sunset Baby a story of generation gaps and healing old wounds.
As I walked closer to the stage at Timeline Theater, I saw large signs of many individuals who have contributed to the civil rights movement such as Audre Lorde, Bell Hooks, Malcolm X, Tupac Shukar, Nina Simone, and DeRay Mckesson who works with Black Lives Matter. The short descriptions of these individuals were informative and appreciated and also helped set the tone for this play.
The plays opens up with Nina, played by Anji White, getting ready to go hustle and make some money with her boyfriend, Damon (Kelvin Roston Jr.). As she is getting ready, she gets a buzz from downstairs thinking it was him but it is instead her estranged father Kenyatta (Phillip Edward Van Lear). Nina blames her father for the addictions her mother had which ultimately led to her death. What is uncovered through this encounter is Kenyatta's desire to locate unsent letters from Nina's mother, Ashanti X, while in prison.
Although the play had a lot of ups and downs to keep the audience busy, I still left wanting more. There could have been more about the political activism around Kenyatta. I believe more details should have been explored a bit more as well as character development. The acting itself was very strong. Phillip Edward Van Lear's demeanor throughout the play was calm as Kenyatta but when he talked about his experiences, he did a great job of appearing physically agitated, making his role even more believable.
Sunset Baby will be at Timeline Theater from January 21st through April 10th. Visit http://www.timelinetheatre.com/sunset_baby/ for more details on obtaining tickets to see this powerful cast.
The New Colony and Definition Theatre Company’s collaboration “Byhalia, Mississippi” opens up with a young white trash couple from the play’s titled town who are about to have their first child. The dialogue between the family is witty and sharp and you immediately feel like you are in the South. Overdue by two weeks, their baby is being stubborn as hell. Finally, he arrives – and he is black. With Byhalia’s racial narrow past, you can imagine that this is when the mood in the story drastically changes.
"Byhalia Mississppi" highlights many issues in racial relations especially found in the underlying comments many of the characters made. The couple, played by Liz Sharpe and Evan Linder, are very powerful and work well together. Linder also wrote the play - and it is very well written. There were times in which I felt uncomfortable as an audience member not only because of the topics being discussed but also by the overly dramatic acting of Mr. Linder, which, in retrospect, may have been called for to make his character “Jim” more believable. Remember, it is the South so I imagine they were using his excessive animation as an angle. Regardless, it was still distracting at times.
Besides bringing important racial and class issues to light, what I love about this play is that the theatre will be hosting a world premiere conversation on Monday, January 18th which is MLK day. The play will be premiering in seven cities across North America and the audiences will connect afterward to have a discussion. I have never heard of this before and I think it is well worth the two-hours of time to try and attend.
When reflecting on this play, I can't help but realize how far we have to go in regards to racism in this country. As an aunt of biracial nieces, I wonder what their world will be like. Will they struggle with their identity in having to choose one race over another? Will it even matter? My hope is no, but what I do know is that we have the power to make a difference now.
Catch the “Byhalia, Mississippi” at The Den Theatre now through February 14th. It is sure to strike up conversation about racism in America and, at the same time, leave you wanting to say "y'all." For tickets and/or more information visit www.thenewcolony.org.
At the young age of 73, Aretha Franklin is still the "Queen of Soul."
I am not sure what I was expecting. Aretha Franklin's show over the weekend was the first time I visited the Ravinia Festival. The venue was like a mini-Disney World with a few ice cream stands and dining options to satisfy any picky eater. The beautifully manicured lawns were impressive to the eye as were the multitude of high end high-end picnic set ups created by many of the fans. Ravinia is definitely a cozy spot for family, friends, and dates with the festival lawn area being BYOB for adult beverages to go with the food brought if decided to do so.
The concert started on time with Franklin’s large conductor-led orchestra consisting of saxophonists, trumpet players, trombonists, and many more instruments, every ready to compliment her amazing vocals. You could quickly see the love and respect the band members had for Aretha. Grandly entering the stage in a beautiful silver gown she not disappoint! The legendary Aretha Franklin flawlessly performed her well-known songs such as “Chains of Fools”, “Natural Woman”, and many more classics before closing her full and thoroughly entertaining set with “Respect”.
Between songs Aretha effortlessly engaged the crowd, the veteran performer that she is. She talked about her love for Chicago and of some of her favorite haunts which included Josephine's Gumbo from Captain Hard Times in the South Side, also mentioning that she heard Portillo's was a pretty good place for a Chicago dog.
Ms. Franklin took us to church with her music when she sang about being cured of cancer in 2013. It was a really powerful moment in the concert and she gave a special thanks to Reverend Jesse Jackson and her niece who were both in the audience. She was humble and her voice unblemished.
Check out the many shows coming up in Ravinia at https://www.ravinia.org/Calendar. Since Aretha has a special connection with Chicago, I anticipate that she will make a stop around our great city next time around. It's a show for people of all ages and those who like to dance. She is simply timeless.
"Stick Fly" is about the Levays, a wealthy African American family, who go to their beach house for a weekend getaway. What started off as two brothers bringing their significant others to meet their parents ends with revelations of deception, racial issues, and relationship woes.
The older brother, played by Michael Pogue, does an excellent job in his role as an arrogant plastic surgeon. He brings home his Italian girlfriend, Kimber, who is strong, independent, and aware of her own privilege. Tyrone Phillips plays the younger brother, Kent, who has definitely gone through a journey to find himself but finally settled into writing to which he shows some talent. His girlfriend, Taylor, is neurotic and comes from a lower class background although her father is a well-liked and respected anthropologist who has written several books. We later learn that he left her at a very young age and created his own family that didn't include her.
The family invites their longtime housekeeper to the beach house for the weekend but she asks her daughter Cheryl, played by Paige Collins, to fill in for her due to her illness. What we soon find out is that Cheryl went to a top tiered high school on scholarship and she is ready to attend college soon. It is apparent that she is out of place and clearly does not fit in.
I couldn't help but to be impressed with Phillip Edward Van Lear’s performance as Dr. Levay. He is the matriarch and does a great job at commanding the stage when he walks in.
I appreciate the playwright's attempt at bringing a very complex storyline to the theater. I was impressed with the fact that I was able to connect to a couple of characters as they all seemed to have some sort of problem. However, I felt at the end some of the characters were not fully developed and seemed a bit disjointed. Emotions were running high and it appeared that Cheryl just gave up at the end which was a bit of a disappointment.
"Stick Fly" is the play to see if you like dramas with some comedy. Not only does it touch on many things such as family abandonment as well as racial issues; it leaves you reflecting on some of the things you may have encountered in your own life, especially if you are African American. This play is worth checking out at Windy City Playhouse, a non-profit theater that supports local actors. To be honest, any play that opens with Stevie Wonder is good in my book.
“Jersey Boys”, currently playing at Cadillac Palace, is the story of the Four Seasons and their journey from Newark, New Jersey to becoming a multi-million record selling group. I went to the opening night expecting an entertaining performance, but really, unsure of what lied ahead. I imagined the audience to be a little older, and it was, but there were a surprising number of young attendees as well. It even looked like it was close to a full house. Before seeing the performance I didn’t know much about the story of the Four Seasons, but I did know their hit song “Sherry”.
All I can say is, “Oh, what a show!” “Jersey Boys” is a thoroughly entertaining show right from the get go. The opening consists of a French band’s cover performed in 2000 of Four Seasons’ “Oh, What a Night”. The song set the tone for how their music transcended to younger generations well after the band broke up.
The first character you meet as the band’s history unfolds is Tommy DeVito, played by Matthew Dailey, who was the leader of the iconic group. You can’t help but to be drawn to this character; he is very powerful and commands the stage - and has a pretty good Jersey accent. Hayden Milanes who plays Frankie Valli, has a beautiful voice and does a fantastic job recreating the legendary voice we have become so familiar with over the years. And here’s a Four Seasons factoid - Joe Pesci, yes that Joe, was the one who introduced Frankie Valli to the group.
In addition to the amazing actors’ voices, one of the best scenes in the play is when the band performs on television. The group is shown filming for a show while simultaneously playing a live feed from an overhead screen on stage. Older images flash onto the backdrop and the design team does a great job of reducing the quality of film to mimic that of the sixties.
The show doesn’t have any set props on stage. The actors pull up a table or chairs every now and then for many scenes but is very limited. Instead, the show relies on graphics displayed on a large screen to set the stage. And although some of them work well, I found myself to be distracted by some of the art. Some of the images just don’t fit the sixties which threw off my attention.
What really captures the essence of the band is their songwriter Bob Gaudio who is played by Drew Seeley. Gaudio is a gifted musician and wrote many of the band’s hits including but not limited to “(Who Wears) Short Shorts”, “Big Girls Don’t Cry”, “Walk Like a Man”, and my favorite “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You”. It is rare to find many artists today who write their own music making it refreshing to be reminded of the raw overall talent of this great band.
“Jersey Boys” covers gambling, infidelity, children, excess of money, and death. Director Des McAnuff is able to capture many of the things that I appreciate in a musical without getting too heavy. After a slew of brilliant performances and one favorite played after another, the show ends with everyone, including the audience, singing along to the Four Seasons’ anthem “Oh, What a Night”. I, for one, left “Jersey Boys” walking like a man and in a really good mood.
I highly recommend attending “Jersey Boys” at the Cadillac Palace before it leaves on May 24th. For tickets and/or more show information visit www.BroadwayInChicago.com.