Upcoming Theatre

Ken Payne

Ken Payne

Black Ensemble Theater CEO/Artistic Director Jackie Taylor has yet again brought a story to the forefront that is as entertaining as it is remarkable, this one written by Associate Director Rueben Echoles. Their current production, “My Brother’s Keeper: The Story of the Nicholas Brothers”, is just the latest at Black Ensemble Theater that relives an iconic piece of history that, to some, is lesser known than it should be. If you are not already familiar with the Nicholas Brothers, you will be after this energetic account that is both engaging and visually stimulating. 

Long before Michael Jackson, Gregory Hines, Justin Timberlake, Alvin Ailey, James Brown, Bruno Mars and John Travolta made their mark in the industry, Harold and Fayard Nicholas blazed a trail to which our just mentioned dance heroes would later be greatly influenced and heavily benefit. Cited as the greatest dance team in the 1930’s and 1940’s, The Nicholas Brothers (formerly called The Nicholas Kids) were revolutionaries, creating some of the most complicated and eye-popping routines to date. Best described as high-flying and dynamic, their inventive dance sequences regularly invoked enthusiastic (and fearful) “oohs” and “aahs” from audiences across the world. 

“My Brother’s Keeper” is the captivating story of The Nicholas Brothers’ rise to fame, but it is also the story of love, discipline, hardships and the unbreakable bond between two African American brothers that were not allowed to patronize the clubs in which they performed during their heyday. 

The play is a timeline that follows the brothers from their childhood, to their stardom, to their marriages and through their deaths – Harold in 2000 and Fayard in 2006. We quickly see and are touched by the strong support the two are given by their parents, college-educated musicians that had once performed in their own act. Though never receiving formal dance training outside of his father’s instruction (he was a drummer), Fayard became something of a dance prodigy, eventually teaching his younger siblings. The story flows like a series of waves with its ups and downs, never in danger becoming stagnant. 

Rueben Echoles not only finely directs and choreographs this dazzling musical, he also suits up for the role of younger brother, Harold. Teamed with Rashawn Thompson as Fayard, the two recreate the magic of The Nicholas Brothers with a slew of heart-stopping tap dancing routines that accurately capture the spirit of the famed duo. Shari Anderson plays the brother’s ever-caring mother, Viola, lighting up the stage herself, particularly in her heartfelt rendition of “Master Give Me Strength”. The boys’ father, Ulysses, is warmly played by Dwight Neal while Jessica Seals is strong as little sister, Geri.  

As the show opens, we are taken inside a 1940’s-ish jazz club, at one point becoming the famous Cotton Club in Harlem. The talented musicians play behind band stands on a stage that has several tiers to allow the singers and dancers ample room to perform. Each performer is staged in glitzy costumes of the period, creating an immediate “Wow” factor.  

Musically, this production contains just about everything one could hope for - including a finale that will take one's breath away. Electrifying tap dancing numbers and exceptional vocal performances are worked into a driving soundtrack that includes favorites such as Louis Prima’s “Sing, Sing, Sing”, George Gershwin’s “I’ve Got Rhythm”, Cole Porter’s “From This Movement On”, mixed in with several beautiful pieces created for the show by Rueben Echoles. We also get a taste of Cab Calloway, whose commanding stage entrance, while donned in his trademark white suit, brings with him the excitement of an era that was ever so rich in music and originality. Vincent Jordan crushes it as Calloway, “Hidee-hidee-hidee-ho-ing” along with the crowd throughout his lively version of “Minnie the Moocher”. The polished performances by cast members in this show are endless, but make no mistake – Rueben Echoles and Rashawn Thomas are on a tier of their own, their vocal contributions, fancy footwork and “stunt dancing” as I would call it, just extraordinary. 

Though centered around the bond between The Nicholas Brothers and their plight to greatness, one story line in the show that some might find particularly interesting is that of Harold’s marriage to Dorothy Dandridge and the many challenges that take place between the two. A relationship sometimes blissful, but often turbulent, we feel a strong sense of love as much as we do regret. The show also delves into Dandridge’s life as a celebrity and the racial obstacles she had to overcome. Taylay Thomas is absolutely stunning as Dandridge and sings the part flawlessly. 

In “My Brother’s Keeper”, Jackie Wilson gives us another history lesson that so well amalgamates importance with entertainment. Wilson has brought several fine works to Black Ensemble Theater in the past including “The Jackie Wilson Story”, “Marvin Gaye Story”, “The Other Cinderella” and “Dynamite Divas”. Jackie Taylor has always had a propensity to bring music-filled productions to Black Ensemble, once profoundly citing music as a tool that can cross cultural barriers and bring people together in their mission to eradicate racism. Perhaps we need that now more than ever. Theater goers will have the chance to see Taylor sing and dance during a three-day engagement March 6th-8th in “From Jackie with Love”, a work that embraces her upbringing in Cabrini Green and her dealings with a dysfunctional family life.  

Recommended as show the entire family can enjoy, “My Brother’s Keeper: The Story of the Nicholas Brothers” is being performed at Black Ensemble Theater through March 26th. For tickets and/or more show information, click here

Black Ensemble has a fun-packed season ahead that includes the productions “Black Pearl: The Josephine Baker Story” and “Sammy: The Story of Sammy Davis Jr.”.

 

As stories go, Mamma Mia! is a light, simple love story injected with plenty of humor and song – nothing heavy in the least, rather an evening island getaway where the sounds of ABBA reign supreme. It is the story of Sophie Sheridan and her mother Donna, who have made home on a Greek Island where they own and run a small resort. But the story really begins when Sophie, unsure of who her real father is, invites three possibilities to her wedding based on information she’s uncovered in her mother’s journal. Of course, Donna has no clue until the three men show up at the island – awkward! With several people vacationing at the island in anticipation of Sophie’s wedding to Sky in a few days, multiple love narratives unfold - and how couldn’t they? After all, you have a handful of romantically starved individuals thrust together in close proximity to each other on a tropical island that oozes amorousness, coupled with the fact that they all seem to lose control to ABBA classics, which come aplenty. 

Marriott Theatre takes on Mamma Mia! as their latest production, uniquely staging the energy-filled production in the round, giving the audience the feeling that they too are guests at the island resort as the action is up close and the aisles are frequently used during the performance. Set designer Scott Davis does a fantastic job creating an island atmosphere throughout the theatre. Strategic alterations are made to convert the musical to the round, including scenic touches like the moat of illuminated water that surrounds the stage and the walls behind theatre goers that are converted into those of a Greek taverna complete with the colorful shutters of French-styled windows. Adding the finishing touches to the Mamma Mia! setting are dazzling costume designs by Theresa Ham and lighting effects by Jesse Klug. 

Danni Smith takes on the leading role of Donna Sheridan, the short-haired brunette replacing the prototypical long-haired, wavy-blonde we are used to seeing in this production. The change is nice. Smith, who was last seen at Marriott Theatre in Man of La Mancha, serves up a powerhouse vocal performance, especially during her crowd stunner “The Winner Takes It All” and her heartfelt rendition of “Slipping Through My Fingers”, delivered with just the right touch of care and concern a mother would have for her daughter. Capturing the essence of Donna so well, we immediately like her and cheer for her. Putting it bluntly, Danni Smith is truly extraordinary. Meghan Murphy and Cassie Slater are rightly cast as Donna’s two lifelong friends Tanya and Rosie. The casting couldn’t have been more perfect. As many times as I have seen Mamma Mia!, I have never seen a more believable friendship than that as between Donna and her besties in this production, which is so convincing you’d think it true in real life. Murphy gets to show off her great sense of comedic timing as Tanya, also taking it to the house vocally, hitting one way out of the park in the racy number “Does Your Mother Know”. 

Taking on yet another challenging vocal role in the show, this one of Sophie, is Tiffany Tatreau, who handles it with apparent ease. Tatreau, undoubtedly gifted in the vocal department, tackles several demanding songs on her own and adds on many occasions to the captivating vocal harmonies that make this musical so special. 

Sophie’s three possible fathers are also cast well, Peter Saide getting plenty of chances to display his own finessed vocal skill as Sam Carmichael, while Karl Hamilton and Derek Hasenstab draw some big laughs as Donna’s other two ex’s Harry Brightwell and Bill Austin. Russell Mernagh makes his own mark as Sky, Sophie’s soon to be husband. Mernaugh, whose beach bum charm is nothing short of convincing, puts forth a well-rounded performance that makes him a solid choice for the role. Overall, the cast is just sensational from top to bottom, getting strong support from its incredible ensemble who wows the audience on several occasions with big-time dance and vocal routines.

All the elements are in place to provide an entertaining evening without even the slightest lull. The stage is often taken over by energetic dance numbers that will have you tapping along or beautifully arranged ballads that will move your soul. The humor is abundant, the subject matter light and the visuals so easily take your mind elsewhere - somewhere dreamy. Yes, the table is perfectly set to enjoy a night of ABBA hits done with much originality from “Dancing Queen” to “Waterloo”. Fun is "the name of the game" in this wild ride stringed together by a compilation of the Swedish sensation's biggest hits - so much fun in fact, that you might have to pull out your glitzy, bell-bottomed, spandex one-piece (we all have one, don't we?) after getting home from the show.  

Mamma Mia!, already a winning show, has now become even more of a special experience as it is put together so well, and uniquely, by Marriott Theatre in a way that cannot be seen anywhere else. When you put it all together – the great music, the talented performances and a setting that takes you miles and miles away to a tropical bliss – it all adds up to “Having the time of your life”.

Highly recommended. 

Mamma Mia! has already been extended and is being performed at Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire through April 16th. For more show information, click here.     

   

 

Tribute shows are generally as good as the performers that star. I probably just stated the most obvious fact on the planet. Yet it’s so very true. No matter how good the song selection, the costumes, the set, it is the vocal performance that we bring home with us. In “My Way: A Musical Tribute to Frank Sinatra” a different taste of Sinatra is delivered; rather than presenting an Ol’ Blue Eyes impersonator, we are invited to a 1960’s club setting where four actors casually reminisce with the audience over more than fifty Sinatra favorites. 

The musical revue, rich in its depicted era, stars George Keating, Christine Mild, Eric A. Lewis and McKinley Carter, each taking turns riffing through classics like “Makin’ Whoopee”, “Fly Me to the Moon”, “The Best is Yet to Come”, “Young at Heart”, and “It was a Very Good Year” – the songs are countless. The four have made their mark in the Chicago theatre scene, Lewis a Jeff Award Winner for his work in Porchlight Music Theatre’s “Dreamgirls”, Mild, who not only starred in Theater at the Center’s “Pump Boys and Dinettes” but who has recently released her debut solo album “Love Is Everything”, Carter, who has done work in prestigious venues such as Writers Theatre and Drury Lane Oakbrook, and Keating, who not only has been featured in Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” at Paramount Theater, but is the co-founder of the very popular Chicago and Off-Broadway hit “Schoolhouse Rock Live”. 

The four actors work well together as snippets of Sinatra songs are often worked into light exchanges between the characters. They gracefully glide around the stage and upon the stairways often pairing elegantly for dance routines. Often, the characters might be seen having a drink at the bar or nonchalantly interacting at a table, setting a relaxed night-out-on-the-town mood. Throughout the show, Sinatra factoids and quotes are tossed about during song breaks, allowing at times for the audience to participate. The club centers around a bar, where a live band simplified to piano (William Underwood), bass (Jake Saleh) and drums (Nick Anderson) plays directly behind it. Despite the small size of the outfit, the sound is big and the musicians ever-impressive, each getting to show their skills off a bit while briefly featured individually in the second act. 

While perhaps wishing for a little more "oomph" overall in the individual vocal performances (mainly on the lower notes) ala Sinatra, each of the performers have their shining moments and are able to deliver the songs with their intended pizzazz and vigor. But the magic in this show is when the four would sing together, whether it be a duet or a four-part harmony. It is with these synchronized vocal efforts one easily loses themselves in the beauty of Sinatra’s work. 

Brenda Didier both directs and choreographs this fascinating piece with a stylish aplomb that captures the charm of the period so very well. Lewis particularly stands out during his renditions of “My Kind of Town” and “I’m Gonna Live ‘Til I Die”, while Keating finishes strong with a fervent version of “That’s Life”. The production flows at a nice pace and is a pleasing homage to Sinatra, though we are often teased with a song segment left wanting to hear the piece in its entirety. This is countered by the fact that we are given such a vast collection of the music Sinatra made famous. The show ties together well eventually leading us to an expressive interpretation of perhaps Sinatra’s most timeless classic, “My Way”, commendably performed by the entire cast. 

“My Way: A Musical Tribute to Frank Sinatra” is a time capsule that will certainly touch the hearts of “Chairman of the Board” fans, but is equipped with enough nostalgia, panache and musical talent to please even the most curious. This polished production is being performed at Theater at the Center in Munster, IN through March 19th. Click here for tickets and/or more show information.   

 

In 1931 nine African American teenagers were wrongly accused of raping two white women while aboard a freight train in Alabama. Worried they might get imprisoned for prostitution while traveling aboard the same train, Victoria Price and Ruby Bates quickly cried rape, diverting the attention rather to the handful of innocent boys. These nine boys became known as The Scottsboro Boys, growing more and more infamy as their many trials became public interest throughout the nation. Fighting through Southern angry mobs, an all-white jury and a trial that was hastened, the nine boys were quickly convicted and sentenced to death by hanging. As word spread of the prejudice demonstrated, Northerners eventually stepped in to see that such a miscarriage of justice be overturned, but that was just the beginning of a process clouded by an ugly and unjust preconception. The uphill fight was long and grueling and successes were slow in the making. The story, superbly performed by Porchlight Music Theatre, is remarkable, sad and hopeful.

Written by David Thompson and directed by Samuel G. Roberson, “The Scottsboro Boys” is a controversial musical, now making its debut in Chicago after Broadway and London runs, and is the last featuring the music and lyrics of John Kander and Fred Ebb, mostly known for their triumphant smash hits “Chicago” and “Cabaret”. The story, a compelling and emotional ride through the racist South is a painful lesson of our nation’s dark history and serves as a stark reminder that change for a better world must never be ignored as we move forward as a unified people.  

Throughout the musical’s duration, we see an image of a pained Rosa Parks (Cynthia Clarey) who plays witness to the injustices that take place. Though her stand wouldn’t take place until years later, we see the effect such a stirring account would have on approaching generations. Sad as this tragic story as such is, we feel hope for the future by the play’s end and a realization for the work that still needs to be done.

“This is a story that needs to be told,” says Mark J.P. Hood who stars as Mr. Tambo. 

The nearly all African American cast delivers several all-around brilliant performances, doling out tremendous vocal harmony efforts, powerful acting and dance numbers that are both inventive and energetic. Currently running at Stage 773, a mid-sized theatre, the only drawback is that it is easy to envision the musical preformed on a larger stage, sometimes routines appearing a bit crowded. Still, that’s a very small drawback, because the play’s director is able to utilize its given space to maximize this Broadway-sized show effectively, moving boxcars and all.    

Denzel Tsopnang and Mark J.P. Hood lead this gifted ensemble along with James Earl Jones II with commanding acting performances that would be hard to beat. The Scottsboro Boys is a real showcase for both Tsopnang and Hood, who flex their versatility while taking on a handful of roles. Veteran actor Larry Yondo, most recently known for his spot-on portrayal of Ebenezer Scrooge in Goodman’s “A Christmas Carol”, also puts forth yet another admirable effort as The Interlocutor. With several beautiful vocal harmonies that sweep the house with robust sentiment, it is perhaps “Go Back Home”, a pivotal number that relates to those longing to find peace passionately led by Jones II, that will truly resonate with theatre goers long after the show. Though the vocal finesse is abundant throughout, fourteen-year-old Cameron Goode and Stephen Allen Jr. somehow find room to dazzle us even more. 

As jaw dropping as many of the numbers are in their performance, the audience often finds reluctance in their clapping, the weight of the subject matter almost seemingly inappropriate to applaud. But it is in these performances that the story is told so well. A handful of poignant casting twists take place as the white policemen and the woman accusers are played by African Americans. 

“The Scottsboro Boys” is a highly recommended theatre experience, both exceptional in its performance and its ever-important message. Wonderfully staged, acted and sung, this is a thoroughly entertaining production that will invoke much thought, inspire bravery and encourage action to be taken long afterwards. 

“The Scottsboro Boys” is being performed at Stage 773 through March 12th. For tickets and/or more show information click here.     

 

In the action-packed world premiere of Captain Blood, First Folio Executive Producer David Rice along with his wife, Artistic Director Alison C. Vesely, have collaborated on a swashbuckling adventure that is sure to be long remembered for its choreographed swordfights, enthralling story and witty comicality. Sadly, Alison recently lost a two-year battle with cancer and passed away just two months before Captain Blood’s debut. But her final collaboration with her husband will undoubtedly leave its mark on those who see it, as it is sure to be rooted in the minds of audience members thanks to Rice’s skilled writing, a talented cast and a strong directing effort. A fitting tribute to Alison C. Vesley, Captain Blood is stamped with Rice’s humor and is engulfed with a subtle warm-heartedness throughout and not-so-subtle theme of love that can only exist in a project of true passion.  

Adapted from Rafeal Sabatini’s 1922 classic novel Captain Blood (later turned into a film in 1935), theatre goers are regaled to the captivating high seas exploit of Peter Blood, a 17th century British physician, imprisoned by his own country for treating enemy Spanish soldiers. Blood is soon sold to a plantation on a Caribbean island for ten pounds where he becomes a slave. It’s not long after his enslavement that Blood falls in love with the niece of the plantation’s owner, Arabella Bishop. But after a daring escape, Blood soon takes to the waters, this time as a Caribbean pirate captain, whose favorite pastime is robbing Spanish ships. Throughout his pillaging, we wonder if Captain Blood will once again cross paths with his love, Arabella. 

Wonderfully directed by Janice L. Blixt, Captain Blood is a thrilling story of romance and freedom. Though a fast-paced pirate adventure, Blixt does a fantastic job of implementing a strong leitmotif of love as the play’s underlying driving force. 

Nick Sandys (Artistic Director of Remy Bumppo) leads this gifted cast as Captain Blood, a role that Rice immediately envisioned for the dashing actor five years ago during the project’s inception. Not only does Sandys deliver a picture-perfect performance as the charming, yet dynamic captain, he is also the contributing force behind the choreography of the play’s many dazzling swordfights and action scenes.  Sandys is joined by Heather Chrisler as his subject of love, Arebella Bishop. Some might remember Chrisler for her compelling portrayal of Virginia Poe in Rice’s brilliant work, The Madness of Edgar Allan Poe. Though not as challenging a role as Virginia Poe, Chrisler is as flawless as can be as Arebella, giving Sandys a believable counterpart to whom we can truly relate. 

The play also gets a boost from veteran actor Kevin McKillip whose previous work includes First Folio’s The Madness of Edgar Allan Poe and The Winter’s Tale. McKillip takes on dual roles as both Hagthorpe, a ship crew member who helps narrate the play, and Don Alan, a Spanish sea captain. It is McKillip who draws the biggest laughs due to his delicious comic timing and hilarious delivery of a Castilian Spanish accent. Other nods go to Christopher W. Jones as Wolverton, Sam Krey as Lord Julian and Aaron Christensen as Colonel Bishop/Harper.

With its many characters donning costumes to the likeness of the era and a vast set that is often used as a nautical vessel complete with trapdoors and projections of the Caribbean seascape, it is easy to get lost into this classic story. 

Captain Blood is an adventurous production that is sure to capture the hearts and imagination of all those who are seeking high seas fun, action and love. Recommended as a show the entire family can enjoy, Captain Blood will be performed at the Mayslake Peabody Estate in Oakbrook through February 26th. For tickets and/or more information on this beautifully adapted for stage production of the definitive novel, click here

 

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

 

PigPen’s “The Hunter and the Bear” is one of the best theatre productions of 2016. It’s really that simple. Staged at the state of the art, newly constructed, Writers Theatre in Glencoe, audience members are in for a unique experience that is as haunting as it is moving. The story follows a group of loggers that find themselves camping in a densely wooded area sometime in the mid-1800’s. It’s not long after a mysterious stranger arrives that unexplained occurrences begin to take place that leads to an unbelievable chain of events, affecting each the loggers, a hunter and a boy with a wild imagination. Exciting, suspenseful and often heartfelt, we are thrust into a ghost story like no other that not only explores the afterlife but also delves into the darkness in all of us.

Impressively staged within a striking set complete with flickering campfire light, “The Hunter and the Bear” uses very clever puppetry and shadow imaging to enhance the play’s powerful storytelling. Adding to its originality are the many extras that go a long way from the authenticity of each costume, and sound effects created solely by instrumentation. The story is intertwined with a handful of songs and backing music reminiscent of a hybrid folk and jug band sound. Each talented actor doubles as an equally talented musician forming quite the formidable band.

The production’s strong acting performances are many. Alex Falberg impresses as the fast-talking Prescott, who, as the boss of the operation, often throws caution to the side concerned mainly with his company’s bottom line. Tobias, whose emotional search for his son becomes a focal point, is very well played by Ben Ferguson who is convincing as the scared, anguished father. While Curtis Gillan (Pete), Matt Nuernberger (Bailey or “Sheriff”), Arya Shahi (John) and Dan Weschler (Lewis) all put forward notable performances, Ryan Melia stands out in his role as Elliot, Tobias’ son, masterfully working a puppet that portrays the boy. 

Moving at a perfect pace, the engaging story is not only memorable, thanks to its fine acting and its haunting music and lighting, it also raises many questions about life after death, giving hope that there is a path we can follow to a peaceful existence, but warning that some can be lost, needing a little nudge in the right direction, perhaps from the living. It is profoundly asked at one point if the dead guide the living or if it is the living who guides the dead. 

Pigpen Theatre Co. masterfully co-directs this enthralling campfire tale along with Stuart Carden. Says Artistic Director Michael Halberstam of PigPen’s return to Writers Theatre “The gifted gentlemen who make up PigPen Theatre Co. brought us a sense of energy and excitement the last time they were here in Glencoe, and we look forward to their signature style of storytelling in this new world premiere.” PigPen had performed in the theatre three years prior in their production “The Old Man and the Moon”. 

“The Hunter and the Bear” is a story that justly makes an impression on its audience getting help from creative team members Collette Pollard who presents to us an incredible visual as the Scenic Designer and Lydia Fine whose costumes and puppetry truly bring this gripping tale to life.

Highly recommended as one of the year’s best plays, “The Hunter and the Bear” is being performed at Writers Theatre through January 22nd. For tickets and/or more show information visit www.WritersTheatre.org.

Pigpen will also be performing a concert at The Old Town School of Folk Music on December 19th at 8pm. More information can be had at www.oldtownschool.org. 

 

Richly set in the intimate Royal Cabaret Theatre, The Rosenkranz Mysteries: An Evening of Magic to Lift the Spirits is a magic show with its own unique twist, separating itself from the others with its unusual theme and creative adaptations of age old illusions and tricks. Dining tables surround the prop-filled stage, which presents to us a study circa early 1900’s where one could easily see Harry Houdini practicing his arts. Unlike most magicians, renowned national illusionists Ricardo Rosenkranz is also a respected professor at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. That he relates magic to healing throughout the show is not just original, it is educational while his performance never loses its entertainment factor.  

The highly-polished show combines astonishing illusions set to haunting music and a series of jaw-dropping acts of mentalism using many audience members as subjects, some eager to participate and some with a nervous acquiescence that only adds to the act’s humor. Rosenkranz’s skillful ability to make his volunteers comfortable, even offering them their own chance of getting their own funny one-liners in, is part of the show’s charm.

The Rosenkranz Mysteries flows well with an even flow of humor, mystery and the seemingly unexplained tricks themselves. Often explaining the origin of an illusion while performing the act, audience members quickly become acquainted with its history, adding even more intrigue while allowing us to grasp a good feel for a turn of the twentieth century era that was rich in magic and the unknown. An era that gave us greats Houdini, Dai Vernon (“The Professor”), Eugene Laurant and Carter the Great to name a few. 

While I won’t go into details into Rosenkranz’s performed feats of magic so as not to soften the blow of their wow factor, I will say that he creates a stunning recreation of the famous Bang Sisters conjuring of spirits from the hereafter that will have you scratching your head in disbelief long afterward. I can also say that each illusion is executed with immaculate precision and done with just the perfect amount of tension building assurance.

As a professor, Dr. Ricardo Rosenkranz, who found magic at a very early age, has been integrating his illusions as a teaching aid for years to help engage his students and inspire involvement. Perhaps an unorthodox way to get your message across, but undoubtedly an effective one. 

Says Rosenkranz, “There is something beautiful and wonderful about the unknown, and I think in that sense magic and medicine share a DNA. I am committed to creating a unique experience that energizes and uplifts every audience.” The Rosenkranz Mysteries does just that.

Whether a magic buff or not, this show comes highly recommended, as it is sure to engage both believers and non-believers of the supernatural unknown. Finely directed by Northwestern graduate Jessica Fisch, featuring Ricardo Rosenkranz as “The Doctor Magician”, Jan Rose as “The Hostess” and a skull named Balsamo, this show offers a night of mystery and suspense one would be hard-pressed to forget anytime soon.

The Rosenkranz Mysteries: An Evening of Magic to Lift the Spirits is being performed at The Royal George Cabaret Theatre through December 24th. Add to the wonder of the holiday season with this true magical phenomenon. For tickets and/or more show information, visit www.TheRoyalGeargeTheatre.com.       

          

 

Tuesday, 18 October 2016 14:04

Dr. Seward's Dracula Finishes Strong

In tradition of the Halloween season, First Folio Theatre keeps with its ongoing classic horror theme, this time presenting the world premiere of “Dr. Seward’s Dracula” in line with past productions “Frankenstein” and “The Madness of Edgar Allan Poe”. Finely adapted by Joseph Zettelmaier and cleverly directed by Jeff Award nominee Alison C. Vesely, a terrific tale is spun that is as dark as it is suspenseful.

 

The setting is perfect. Performed at the Mayslake Peabody Estate in Brookfield, viewers get a taste of nostalgia, easily associated with that of a classic horror film, the moment they enter the aged mansion. 

 

The story revolves around Dr. Seward, a former practitioner at an asylum who has since left due to a string of tortuous events including the death of his wife and an attack that left him stabbed in the stomach with the jagged leg of a wooden stool. Set in Seward’s home, he is constantly visited by his past wife and shoots morphine on a regular basis to curb the chronic pain he suffers from his stomach wound. Visited regularly by editor and close friend, Bram Stoker, a series of brutal murders piles up and suspicions leading to Seward as a suspect gradually become stronger. When Inspector Louis Carlyse enters the scene, things only get stranger, suspicions pointing more and more to Dr. Seward who is now questioning his own sanity. Seward claims a blood drinking monster named “Dracula” is responsible for the horrific murders, a story not so easily believed.

 

Though fine acting is present from the play’s beginning, Act One moves along at a slow pace, the opportunity of dramatic moments lacking in heavy suspense, leaving something to be desired to the mid-act crescendos that were most likely intended. However, Act Two comes on strong, providing the intriguement and excitement horror fans would have expected, completely redeeming the show and putting it on the must do list for Halloween activities. 

 

Christian Gray is thoroughly gripping as Dr. Seward, capturing the audience for good in just the play’s first scene. He never let’s go of that grip. One of the finest actors in the Chicagoland theatre scene, Gray is able to tackle such a role in a way that most cannot. Already performing in over twenty shows for First Folio, the gifted actor has already made his mark in such productions as the “Jeeves” series, “The Madness of Edgar Allan Poe”, “Romeo and Juliet” and “A Moon for the Misbegotten”. Now Gray can confidently add another knock out performance to his resume. 

 

The play rounds out with a handful of strong supporting performances with Craig Spidle as the Inspector, Joseph Stearns as Bram Stoker, Elizabeth Stenholt as Seward’s lost love Emily Covington and most notably Ted Kitterman as The Strange Man.

 

Gray’s performance is reason alone to see this play. However, it’s building story, ominous looking set and well-played roles of its assorted interesting characters add even more justification to see this frightfully tasty Halloween treat. 

 

First Folio’s “Dr. Seward’s Dracula” is being performed at the Mayslake Peabody Estate in Oakbrook through November 6th. For more show information visit www.FirstFolio.org.

 

 

 

 

It's been nearly eight years since that loud, boisterous Italian nuptial celebration has left Chicago, but now "Tony N' Tina's Wedding" is back. Reworked from its 1993 through 2009 run at Piper's Alley, the wedding actually takes place at a church. The Resurrection Church, located near Belmont and Sheffield, is the perfect setting for Tony Nunzio and Tina Vitale to exchange vows with the action starting before you even enter the building. "Family members" approach “guests” as though old friends playing up the overdone Italian stereo types creating a mix of characters ranging from Rocky Balboa and gang to the housewives found in Goodfellas or Casino. A cheesy, gum-chewing wedding photographer snaps shots as guests enter the church who are then ushered to their seats. Before the wedding begins the Nunzio and Vitale clan interact with the audience and each other, already planting a very funny seed for what is to come. 

 

An abbreviated wedding then takes place complete with bridesmaids and groomsmen waltzing down the isle that is officially kicked off when Sister Albert Maria (Alisha Fabbi) leads the congregation into a soulful version of "Jesus Is Just Alright". The wedding in itself could be a show of its own with everything from the bride's ex showing up to a priest who is more than a bit overboard with his Mr. Rogers-like analogies. 

 

The "I dos" are said and the crowd is ushered out of the church for a quick block and a half walk to Chicago Theatre Works, or in this case, "Vinnie Black's Coliseum" for a reception one would be pressed to forget. As the brief trek to the restaurant is made, cast members stay in character mingling with guests, drawing them into hilarious conversations. 

 

Already a highly entertaining and unique experience, the fun really goes into high gear at the reception where guests are assigned to round dining tables, the wedding party seated center room for all to see. Family members are constantly popping by, drawing attendees into humorous conversations as though we go way back with them. All the ingredients are in place for hilarious wedding celebration to remember. There's the ditzy stripper, a drunken father, a surly mother, a priest who drinks too much, a smarmy wedding singer, a jealous ex-boyfriend, an over-the-top restaurant owner who acts as the evening's emcee. Fights break out between families, grandma is mistakenly deemed dead after falling down and guests join in with the cast for a crazy night of dancing that includes a conga line. Before long one almost forgets they are at a play.

 

Mitchell Conti is perfectly cast as Tony as is Hannah Aaron Brown as Tina, so many funny moments exchanged by the two along with other family members and wedding "guests" (us). The cast does a great job at getting guests to interact naturally. For example, while so much is going on at all times in different areas throughout the room, an argument breaks out next to me between a bridesmaid and groomsman, apparently a couple, when one accuses the other of "grinding" on another guest near the dance floor. "Did you see her? Did you think she was grinding on the guy?" My response in hand alters their own reaction as I quickly find myself refereeing the two who finally simmer down and see stars for each other once again. Fun stuff like that. 

 

I praise this talented cast who really has to be on top of their improv game for the entire two and a half hours - even in the bathroom! I can't imagine it an easy task to interact with strangers for an entire evening, playing off so well the many curve balls they are thrown. 

 

Paul Stroili wonderfully directs this new reworked version of "Tony N' Tina's Wedding", a former cast member himself during the show's previous Chicago run, as he took on the role of Vinny Black to which the mantle has now been passed to Brian Noonan who tackles the colorful character with such command. 

 

"Tony N' Tina's Wedding" is a unique ceremony/celebration full of laughs and good times through and through. It's actually a wedding one can really look forward to attending for once (I know I'll hear it for that one later). By the end of the night you almost get the feeling you know the Nunzio's and Vitale's. 

 

"There's a hot tub party afterwards!" I was told by a groomsman on his way out. "Don't forget your speedo!"

 

"Tony N' Tina's Wedding" is currently being performed at Resurrection Church (3309 N Seminary) for the service then the reception moves to Chicago Theatre Works (1113 W Belmont) just over a block away. For tickets and/or more show information visit www.TonyLovesTina.com.

 

*Note - a full pasta entree is provided along with a cash bar.  A Vegetarian option is available by making a request to "Vinny Black" upon entering the reception area.

 

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