Upcoming Theatre

Bill Esler

Bill Esler

A native Chicagoan, Bill Esler has been a printer and publisher for more than 35 years. He has B.A. in English with a concentration in writing from Knox College.  

In London Wall, Griffin Theater Company has mined a stage gem from the British theatrical vaults, giving John Van Druten's 1931 romantic comedy a serious treatment.

This production at The Den Theater also finds a well-written play, still fresh more than 85 years after its premiere - even with three acts and two intermissions that modern audiences supposedly won't tolerate.

But there is something about a well acted, skillfully directed, and very well cast production that keeps an audience in its seats, and returning after the breaks.

You might also be intrigued to see this play by the author of I Am a Camera -  the main source for he Broadway musical Cabaret. Van Druten also wrote the screenplay for a now-campy Bell, Book & Candle (James Stewart was the love interest for Kim Novak, a svelt 1960s Greenwich Village witch.)

Set in 1928, London Wall tracks the lives of law-firm stenographers in a London law firm. These poorly compensated women struggle to survive, and face a life shaped by the loss of so many men in the war, that young women cannot find a spouse, or a job that pays a decent wage.

That may seem like a downer, but the basic plot line - a young couple Pat Milligan (Rochelle Thierrien) and Hec Hammond (George Booker) feel their way around obstacles to find romance - buoys our interest. So do the actors, mainly very, very strong in their roles.

Uncertainty about what kind of British accent may be delivered in a Milwaukee Avenue storefront is immediately dispelled as young clerk Birkinshaw (Michael Saguto) answers calls at the switchboard in convincing dialect. Likewise for the rest of the troupe, whose dress and styling are spot-on. Whoever cast them found just the right faces to fit the period.

The backdrop also makes this play high relevant to its time: women far outnumber men in the post WWI period. Employers and society at large still operate under the assumption that women will only remain on the job until they find a spouse. That model has disintegrated, and these women seeks careers, but owing to the times, dead-end jobs are their only option.

The play resonates, too, with the gender gap in compensation and glass ceilings - oh, and sexual harassment. The 1928 office of Windermere & Co. has its share of that, too, as  Brewer (Nick Freed) a despicable louse, puts the moves on every woman in the office. (Freed did such a good job I still don't like him.)

Central to the play is the world-weary and wise Miss Janus (Vanessa Greenway in a star turn). After 10 years in the office, when her ship does not come in (her beau sends a 'Dear Jane' letter and leaves the country) Miss Janus makes the best of it  by coaching the young women to make the best choices. She also challenges the office cad, Brewer - and in the script, Van Druten provides her with a wit to out-argue this lawyer.

Mr. Walker (Ed Dzialo), chief counsel at the firm, intervenes periodically as a voice of enlightened male reason - dispensing justice in the end - perhaps a stretch for the period, but a contemporary writer would have let the women settle the scores.

Playwright Van Druten reveals what these low-paid clerks must do for love or money. In one scene, a young Pat Milligan (Rochelle Thierren) reveals to a wealthy dowager client (Mary Poole is really pretty sensational in the role) that her pay is just a pittance - just enough to rent a bed in someone's home.

When London Wall had its premiere in May of 1931 at the Duke of York’s Theatre in London, it stood out for its realistic depiction of office life. Playwright Van Druten may be having a standout moment, as this play was recently revived in London and in New York.

For those who love real theater and solid performances, London Wall is gets a strong recommendation. 

Thursday, 07 January 2016 19:30

Young Sophisticates Emerge as Real Playwrights

Crowdsourcing theater may be having its moment, as 500 script submissions competed for three slots in an evening of one-acts on the cozy stage at the Chicago Dramatists theater. Never mind this is the annual Pegasus Players high school competition. What they have wrought this time around is a delightful night in the theater by any standard.

Yes, there are a few uneven moments - I believe it a fundamental rule of theater not to leave the stage devoid of scenery and actors overly long (though it was opening night) - but these are strong first efforts.

 

The more sober drama, Our Little Secret, by Myka Buck, a senior at Kenwood Academy, opened the evening on a serious note. Two truly delightful comedies: The Adventures of FeRb by Brian Hayes of Taft High; and A Cup of Souls and One Grim Reaper, Please, by Keauna Piece, at Lane Tech, made the evening take flight.

The high caliber interpretation of the characters by a strong cast, and juiced up productions by energetic directors Ilesa Duncan, Lavina Jadhwani and Jason Fleece, mined the scripts for everything they had. Between cast and crew these three one acts were given the full treatment.

Myka Buck's Our Little Secret explores the ambivalence and guilt of teenage lesbian, Tommasina (Shadana Peterson), facing a moment of truth: the revelation to her mother (Danielle Rennalis) that her prom date is not only another girl, but has been her secret romantic steady for the past two years. The necessarily career-focused mother  is no caricature, but sympathetically drawn. (Dad, played by Chris Cinereski, is in jail, and won't be released until prom night.) When the truth comes out, Danielle is warmly embraced by Mom.

In the second show, Adventures of FeRb, director Jason Fleece's lively staging elicited loud guffaws for a stylized comedic piece. An ever-positive and positively determined high school Everyman, FeRb (Chris Acevedo), confronts the cliques (in their current flavors -  goths, B-boys, and nerds) only to find each dominated by a shape shifting nemesis, Bradly (played with abandon by Eric Gerard Walter). FeRb challenges, then vanquishes Bradly, freeing the students to just be friends.

The actors explored another side, as the casts from the first two plays turned ensemble (the cast also includes Erica Pezza and Brenann Stacker in multiple roles) for A Cup of Souls etc. Playwright Keauna Pierce suggests in a pre-show video that she was unfamiliar with live theater, and so wrote cinematically. . .challenging director Ilesa Duncan to change location from home, to hell, to heaven, and finally, a Paris cafe - but she did it. The glory of Chicago storefront staging! Chris Cinereski (left) and Shadana Patterson in A Cup Of Souls And One Grim Reaper, Please by Keauna Pierce, directed by Ilesa Duncan, part of Pegasus Theatre Chicago’s 29th Young Playwrights Festival.

This plot line follows a newly minted but reluctant Grim Reaper (Chris Cinereski) on his first day harvesting souls. He quickly goes astray, binge-watching the cable show  Supernaturals and befriending his first victim. After an iPad wielding Devil intervenes (Will Kiley dominates his scenes) that soul and its owner head straight to hell. I really enjoyed Shadana Patterson's turn as God who sends the Grim Reaper back to the inferno to win back his friend.

These three shows, running through January 23, are winners in every sense of the word.

A note about Pegasus Theatre Chicago: The Young Playwrights Festival is a citywide playwriting competition that gives voice to Chicago high schoolers by teaching them to craft one-act plays. The winning teens join with professional directors and actors to workshop and stage their scripts as part of Pegasus Theatre Chicago’s main stage season. The second oldest such festival in the country, the competition enhances language arts, encourages independent, high-level thinking and strong personal values and influences career development for area teens. This 29th festival runs through January 23, 2016 at Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago Ave. in Chicago. Tickets are currently available at www.PegasusTheatreChicago. org or by calling Ovation Tickets at (866) 811-4111.

Wednesday, 23 December 2015 01:00

DYNAMITE DIVAS IS EXPLOSIVELY GOOD

Here is a theater event that is so rich you cannot be disappointed. Anyone who attends Dynamite Divas: A Tribute to Women in Soul will be richly rewarded by the experience. In fact, it is so good, I would say run, don't walk, to the Black Ensemble theater to see it. (It runs through January 24.)

The premise of the play is self-admittedly thin: African-American multi-billionaire Mr. Maurice (Rueben D. Echoles, who directs, choreographs and designed costumes) has paid $2.5 million to each of four grande dames of soul - Nancy Wilson (Rhonda Preston), Gladys Knight (Rashada Dawan), Roberta Flack (Melanie McCullough), and Aretha Franklin (Shari Addison, a real show-stealer) - who are to spend the day preparing for and then performing in a television special. 

 

Why just these four? Well, Dionne Warwick, Diana Ross, and Tina Turner were considered - but schedule conflicts kept them away. Besides, these four personalities are probably the only compatible mix, as we discover in the course of the show.

Why put on such a show? Mr. Maurice, who claims to have earned his wealth through his inventions  (e-mail, texting, touch-screens, and Botox!), wants to celebrate the musical accomplishment of these remarkable singers.

These actresses' divas, as personified by these exceptional performers, capture not just the singing style, but also the personalities of their real-life counterparts. And they, too, are mystified by Mr. Maurice's circumstances and motive.  "A black billionaire we've never heard of?"

While the set-up is ridiculous, the music, and the performers, are anything but. In his performance as Mr. Maurice, Rueben Echoles sets the stage with such an abundance of energy, that he truly casts a spell across the audience, forcing the room into a complete suspension of disbelief. That is theater! (And I don't say that lightly, after four decades in the audience.)

Though well paid, these divas - in their 70's - need to be coaxed to sing at first. An extra $50,000 finally breaks the ice, and Gladys Knight lets loose with "I've Got to Use My Imagination," her 1973 hit with the Pips. This offers an inkling of what is to come: Rashada Dawan captures that teary edge to Gladys Knight's voice throughout the night, and replicates the original convincingly - with the added power of being there live.

Now that the audience knows what to listen for, the next plot turn packs a punch using the Assimilator, a kind of holographic transporter used to call up greats of the past. First a phantasm of Billie Holiday alights on the stage and performs, really channels, Holiday's "God Bless the Child" - followed by almost equally powerful impersonations of Dinah Washington ("The Bitter Earth") and Nina Simone ("Mississippi Goddam.")

As Mr. Maurice convinces each Diva to sing - beginning with first hits, and other career high points - the other three sing back-up. Music fills the 299-seat stage for what turns out to be a very short 2-1/2 hour run.

While each of these leading ladies is a powerful performer, and ably capture the singing style and phrasing of their diva, it is Shari Addison who most often seizes control of the stage - befitting her role as Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin. As the most familiar personality, Franklin gives Addison more to work with. But in McCullough's Flack singing "Killing Me Softly;" or in Preston's Wilson doing the signature "Guess Who I Saw Today," to cite two examples, the stage, and the listeners, belong to those performers.

There are also live performances or video tributes to many other notables - Chaka Khan, Mary Wells, Patti Labelle - the list goes on. Beyonce Knowles also crashes the event, in person, asking why she isn't included in the diva pack, earning a dismissive retort from Aretha: "Do you think they will be singing 'Single Ladies' in 20 years? She also tells Beyonce, "We love your music, at least some of it."

With a rich supporting cast that includes Mr. Maurice's technicians Donald Craig Manuel (as Hubert) and Kyle Smith (as Youngblood), Dynamite Divas thrives on its six-man, all-star band: music director Robert Reddrick on drums, Justin Dillard on keyboard, Mark Miller on bass, Gary Baker on guitar, Dudley Owens on woodwinds, and Bill McFarland on trombone. These guys were versatile and solid as they ran through the years and genre of the divas. Backing Rhonda Preston's Nancy Wilson on "Guess Who I Saw," the performance was "live recording" quality.

Dynamite Divas: A Tribute to Women of Soul at the Black Ensemble Theater comes very highly recommended.

 

The Apollo Chorus has been performing Handel's Messiah since 1879 and they have it nailed. Singing through the 53 Bible passages Handel set to a Baroque score 250 years ago, it becomes quickly clear - three numbers in - as the choir sings its first part, who owns this performance: it's the Apollo Chorus. Performing and recording steadily through the years, this volunteer singing body is professional caliber. And largely as a result, this is a very satisfying Messiah - just right to kick off the holiday season. 

By the time the Apollo Chorus goes at it, we have heard the opening Sinfonia by the 28-piece orchestra assembled for the performance. The orchestra has all the essentials required for a strong Handel's Messiah: trumpeters ("A Trumpet Shall Sound"), timpani (essential to the Hallelujah Chorus), an organist (a fundamental underlay for the majesty of Handel's masterpiece); a harpsichord (like the organ, this is the house instrument at the Harris, built for Barbara Gaine's Music of the Baroque ensemble); and 20 string players, with Jeri-Lou Zike leading as concertmaster among the five first violinists. 

At this point we have also heard from tenor, William Hite (a Senior Lecturer in Voice at U. Mass in Amherst and frequent opera performer), the first of the soloists (in the recitative, "Comfort ye my people" and the air "Every valley shall be exalted.") He knows how to sing the part. 

The 120-member chorus then rises to its feet for "And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed.") It is signature Handel, and signals to the audience these singers both know the music, and know how to they want to deliver: purposeful and strong, with tightly controlled volume, and clear expression and phrasing. They are consistent throughout 

For those who have listened often to the Messiah, there are markers for style and quality: the tempo (is the Messiah to run fast or slow); soloists: will the basic trio of bass, tenor and soprano by joined by a mezzo-soprano, contralto, alto, or the increasingly popular countertenor? Will they use 18th century period instruments?

Messiah geeks go further, for example, stressing over the expression by singers and players of the ornamental grace notes that bring the trilling associated with baroque music in general. These free-form music indicators are subject to interpretation. 

The Apollo Chorus has made the choices that provide its audience with an accessible, enjoyable and up tempo Messiah, crisply delivered in a rapid 2 hours and 50 minutes including one intermission (and a five minute delay about 20 minutes in as latecomers were seated.)

Conducted last night by Steven Alltop, this Messiah also saves the fidgety members of audience from what can seem an interminable sitting for those who aren't regular baroque listeners.) It's fitting considering Handel wrote the piece from a libretto by Charles Jennens in just 22 days. 

We'll note that once in a while the spaces between passages seemed a bit too short. At certain points the silence between airs and recitative functions like a palate cleanser for the ear.  

The chorus sings with clarity - bring to mind the 300-member Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Apollo Choristers enunciate the language.   

The prominence of the chorus contrasts with the soloists, each skillful, but not making for a natural ensemble. Bass singer Sam Handley, a graduate of Lyric Opera's school, whose background indicates he is trending as an opera performer, warmed as the evening progressed. In his opening with "Thus saith the Lord of Hosts" he seemed a bit tenative - the Harris is a space that takes some adjustment for performers -  but by the time we reached the air "The trumpet shall sound," Handley's individual sections were generating excitement for this listener. (They say he leaves audiences "panting for more.")

Amanda Majeski has the volume and baroque technique down cold, and presented the soprano role in the Messiah with great strength. (She is a frequent performer at Chicago's Lyric Opera, where Majeski's work is described as  "shattering, star-making performance."

Likewise, Elisa Sutherland sang very well, in fact, with more warmth perhaps than Amanda Majeski. But she was certainly struggling with volume - and as a consequence the audience could not hear her well. Owing to this, when concertmaster Sikes accompanied her, the violin performance was in danger of overshadowing Sutherland. Being close up I can attest that she sang wonderfully, if too quietly for the space. 

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