Buzz News Chicago: Theatre and Concert Reviews

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.

 

Published in Theatre Reviews

After a successful summer preview run, "Thrones: The Musical Parody" has returned to Apollo Theater for Fall performances. Though the production might not have the staying power as did "Million Dollar Quartet", a show originally scheduled for a two-week run that was renewed for several years, "Thrones" is a solid production that, despite its niche market, should get comfy in its Apollo home for a decent stay.

 

Parodying Game of Thrones, one of the biggest television series over the past decade "Thrones" hold little back, cleverly mocking its main characters delivering a crude, but witty, humor GoT fans are sure to enjoy. From the show's opening number "Thrones!", a song that punches the audience with spoilers and refers to "The Wire" as a show one doesn't realize they like until after two and a half seasons, we get a good taste of the campy ride we are about to take. The show's very funny cast includes Caitlyn Cerza, Nick Druzbanski, Madeline Lauzon, Beau Nolan, Victoria Olivier and Christopher Ratliff. 

 

The story revolves around a group of friends who excitedly await the GoT season premiere. However, after some lackluster enthusiasm is displayed, it's soon revealed that Brad (Druzbanski) has never seen the show. Of course, this is just mind blowing for the rest of the gang who quickly agree to act out the show to catch Brad up to speed. And this is where it starts to get crazy. In fact, the show takes a hilarious turn the moment Tom (Ratliff) throws on the John Snow wig and makeshift cape just before diving into his ode to The Wall watchers "For the Watch". And how can you have a wall number without taking a poke a Donald Trump, which they certainly do. Taking shots at practically every character on the show from Tyrian to Sansa to King Joffrey to Xerxes (there's actually a song on who we need to know), the group goes from one scenario to the next. Naturally, Brad's interest in the show grows as the friends get deeper and deeper into the characters. 

 

Act One ends on a high note with possibly the funniest number in the show, "Stabbin'", a gruesomely humorous massacre free-for-all that really needs to be seen to be appreciated in full. But worry not, after a big ending into intermission, we are not let down, as Act Two holds a strong pace by providing solid laughs throughout, steering us to a strong finish. Each actor richly contributes in this talented cast holding the ability to get big laughs at any given moment as well as providing respectable vocal ability. The cast brilliantly overplays their characters expressions and are able to successfully spoof their many characteristics such as Tyrian's poor accent, John Snow's seemingly empty thoughts or _________  not so subtle crush on Denarys. 

 

Written by the team of Chris Grace, Zach Reino, Al Samuels and Dan Wessels, the show gets a nice boost from director Hannah Todd, who is able to work the funny within the funny and finely translate it for stage. While GoT fans will certainly enjoy this show, easily picking up on its jokes - both subtle and bold, it remains to see how theater goers not familiar with the show will react. The GoT fan base in Chicago might be enough in itself to support this show for a long run, possibly even creating new GoT fans along the way. 

 

"Thrones: The Musical Parody", performed at Apollo Theater through November 15th, has plenty to make it a thoroughly entertaining event - laughs, sex, an engaging storyline,catchy songs and excellent acting performances. 

 

Take your Game of Thrones experience to the next level with "Thrones: The Musical Parody". 

Published in Theatre Reviews

Singer Jackie Wilson was one of America’s great pop songwriters and vocalists. A vibrant production of The Jackie Wilson Story at the Black Ensemble shows, tells, and sings his story in a celebration that shakes the rafters.

This version of The Jackie Wilson Story is even more exciting as an upgrade over the original, in the caliber of the staging and music - which take full advantage of the Black Ensemble’s 299-seat main stage, opened in 2011. The awesome Black Ensemble Theater Musicians give full expression to the developing musical styles over the course of Wilson’s career, from the early 1950s (he first recorded what became a signature classic, “Danny Boy,” with Dizzy Gillespie in 1952) through 1968’s “Your Love Keeps Lifting Me Higher,”  with big hits including "Doggin, Me Around" and "To Be Loved."

Though I came of age in the 1960s, I didn’t realize how familiar Wilson’s work is to all of us - until I saw the original release of  The Jackie Wilson Story in 2000. A breakout hit for Black Ensemble Theater, that production spawned a national tour that culminated in a run at the Apollo Theatre in New York City.  After seeing it I ran out and bought his records, listening to them non-stop for weeks. That’s how good he is.

 A challenge for an actor portraying Wilson is measuring up musically. Kelvin Roston, Jr. has Jackie Wilson nailed musically, but he is neither a mimic nor impersonating: he is acting. Roston is a damn fine singer, to be sure – but he is an actor first, and to us, he is Wilson on that stage.

The real Jackie Wilson wooed the women in the audience; Roston does the same, in real time – with a nod and a wink that we are watching a master performer deftly be both in the role, and beside it. When his wife Freda reaches the end of her rope with his philandering, Roston's rendition of  "Lonely Teardrops" (recorded in 1958) is a not just a great performance, it is a full throttle emotive expression of Wilson's plea for her to stay.

While Freda doesn't sing, Jackie Wilson's mother does - by way of explaining his musical chops. And in this production, Wilson's mother Eliza (Kora Green) is even a better singer than Roston's Wilson. (You can probably check out Wikipedia to see if that were true in real life.)

Along with the musical backing, Black Ensemble Theater's troupe has expanded, and this show features a dozen singing, dancing performers. Direoce Junirs demonstrates quite a range as Freda's angry father in coveralls, and later a fay stage manager. Reuben Echoles stands out as B.B., Wilson's confidant and manager. 

The sets (Denise Karczewski) also deserve a mention: the neutral backdrop puts in relief the spare placement of mid-century modern furniture, with fabrics and colors spot-on from the period.  (There might be a less cumbersome way to show the big hospital bed in which Wilson lingered for nine years before he died - it rolls in and out repeatedly.)

While there are some frayed edges in the original script (the dialog is laced with exposition of the background, which makes for some wooden exchanges) one could make the case that the times have caught up with the style. This recount of the high points in Jackie Wilson’s biography are more like a graphic novel than a conventional drama. Real people’s lives don’t usually fit neatly into dramatic packaging.

The final wow is a number I had forgotten about, one of Wilson's greatest songs: O Danny Boy. That cross-cultural standard, a plaintive Celtic lament, is sung by a ghostly Wilson as the story closes. Recorded in 1965, it never fails to bring tears to this Irishman. 

In that sense, The Jackie Wilson Story also fulfills a bigger mission: reminding us of the greatness of Wilson’s singing and performances, and that great music helps bridge wide cultural gaps among us. Highly recommended, it runs through September 4, 2016 at the Black Ensemble Theater, 4450 N. Clark St. in Chicago.

 

 

Published in Theatre Reviews
Wednesday, 27 July 2016 16:42

Review: Byhalia, Mississippi at Steppenwolf

Earlier this year, The New Colony in collaboration with Definition Theatre, produced a smash hit called 'Byhalia, Mississippi.' The New Colony has done a great deal to insert themselves into the Chicago theater landscape over the past few years. Some of their work has even appeared off-Broadway, as was the case with their acclaimed show 'Five Lesbians Eating a Quiche.' What the New Colony is perhaps best known for is their commitment to taking chances on quirky new work from emerging playwrights. 

 

'Byhalia, Mississippi' is about one of the most 'Jerry Springer' scenarios you can imagine. A married white woman, Laurel (Liz Sharpe), gives birth to a black baby in the rural deep south. What could easily descend into a hillbilly soap opera is heightened by a strong theme on the way seemingly decent people handle race. Performances run strong in 'Byhalia, Mississippi' in particular Celeste Wingate as Laurel's mother and Kiki Layne as her childhood best friend. It has a sharp sense of humor when it needs to, but also enough structure in place to carry its complex ideas. 

 

This new play by New Colony artistic director Evan Linder has some serious legs. After a sold-out run at The Den, 'Byhalia, Mississippi' is now being put up at one of Chicago's most esteemed and visible houses. It will certainly be noticed. While a certain degree of cheekiness runs throughout, the playwright is careful not to make his characters cartoonish. There are a few juvenile moments that tend to stick out like a sore thumb, but in time, some of that roughness will surely be smoothed out. This is not a play about infidelity. This is a play about the way people in some parts of America handle race and gender. To that end, this play couldn’t be more relevant. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see 'Byhalia, Mississippi' mounted in New York some time soon. 

 

Through August 21st at Steppenwolf Theater, 1650 N Halsted St. 312-335-1650

 

Published in Theatre Reviews

I had no idea what to expect Sunday night when I went to Soldier Field to see Guns N’ Roses. I really didn’t. I knew what I had hoped to see in what is now the highest grossing tour in 2016 but was still a bit skeptical seeing as the band has been on the outs for such a long time. Reviews of the band’s “Not In This Lifetime” reunion tour have been mixed, some claiming that Slash had been carrying the show, implying the other band members were merely present as symbols of yesteryear so that as much of an original lineup could be put together as possible to warrant such a major occasion that could fill stadiums. That’s not what I saw – not even close. Yes, Slash was amazing in himself, but I saw a band that collectively charged the stage and played with an enormous amount of continuity, energy, confidence and precision. I saw a band where EACH member contributed as much as the next in what turned out to be a very special event – the event one can only hope for when throwing around the words “Guns N’ Roses reunion”. 

Having seen the band four times between the Appetite for Destruction and the Use Your Illusion releases, it is apparent that Guns N’ Roses now has access to a much larger and complex stage show where pyrotechnics and jumbo screens assist in presenting the band’s vision like never before. But of course you can’t have a successful reunion run without the music. There’s no denying the band has the catalog of material to please their hungry fan base, but let’s be honest – it’s been a long time since the band has played together and we now live in a world where comeback tours often recycle band members and thrust them on stage whether they can still perform or not. Guns N’ Roses is not one of these bands. While Slash wailed away on his Les Paul, effortlessly ripping through riffs and solos, bassist Duff McKagan also showed he was still in peak form even laying out impressive lead vocals on Iggy Pop’s “Raw Power”, a song the band covered on The Spaghetti Incident. McKagan patrolled the large stage area bleeding the Guns N’ Roses arrogance we have come to know, projecting the epitome of rock n’ roll attitude.

To me, I had little doubt that the instrumentation would be there, I was most curious if Axl Rose would still be able to gel with the others (and them with him) and, frankly, if his voice would hold up. Within minutes of the show, any doubts I may have had completely vanished. Axl was nailing it – and then some. With an incredible energy level that had him running all over the stage and grinding out his famous rock moves, Axl’s vocals were spot on and possibly even more powerful than ever before. His stage presence was dominant. He controlled the crowd. Who knows what goes on behind the scenes but all signs pointed to the three original members expressing great enjoyment as they played with each other – and this while playing at an optimum level. 

The still youthful band, both musically and physically fit, was rounded out with Richard Fortus, who has been playing guitar for Guns N’ Roses since 2001 and was a presence in his own right, drummer Frank Ferrer (since 2006) who gives Matt Sorum a run for his money, longtime keyboardist Dizzy Reed and newbie Melissa Reese who manned a second keyboard.

Like a locomotive, the band’s sound was delivered with force from the get go when they opened with “It’s So Easy”. In a set that lasted somewhere in the neighborhood of two hours and forty-five minutes, Guns N’ Roses tackled a plethora of favorites including “Mr. Brownstone”, “Welcome to the Jungle”, “Civil War”, “Sweet Child O’ Mine”, “Coma”, “Estranged”, “Live and Let Die” and “Rocket Queen”. The band also played a handful of material from their critically acclaimed 2008 release Chinese Democracy, going into the title track along with “This I Love” and “Better”. 

In what could only be interpreted as a tribute to Prince, the entire stage filled with billows of purple smoke just after an inspiring performance of “November Rain”. Duff also sported the symbol of Prince on his bass. Nice touch, fellas.  

Theirs was a set that never let up. After one gratifying selection after another the band finished up with “Nightrain” before returning for an encore with “Don’t Cry”, The Who’s “The Seeker” and a ramped up “Paradise City”. 

Guns N’ Roses “Not In This Lifetime” tour certainly lives up to the hopes of their many fans. It’s what fans knew the band could still be. Musically, the tour is fulfilling and visually, it is stimulating. It is the complete package. No shortcuts or cutting corners here. What fans get is an exciting, full blown Guns N’ Roses experience. I’m just glad Chicago made the band’s shortlist or tour stops. Great music, stage show and musicianship aside, not to worry, the band still carries a healthy “Fuck You” brashness after all these years – an important ingredient in G N’ R’s recipe for success.           

Alice in Chains provided strong support for Guns N’ Roses for their Chicago stops and is highly deserving of their own rave review. Though Soldier Field may be the last stop for Alice in Chains as opening support, Guns N’ Roses will continue to take heavy-hitting acts along with them on the road with Lenny Kravitz, The Cult and Wolfmother scheduled on later dates. 

So what’s next after a successful reunion tour? That’s what everyone seems to be asking while hoping the answer is simply to make a new album and tour the shit out of it. Guns N’ Roses is back.    

 

  

 

Published in In Concert

The image of sitting around a campfire under the stars brings to mind nights connecting with friends and family, sharing stories about the past and imagining what the future may hold. Connected, by Collaboraction, plays on this theme transporting the audience from campfire to campfire throughout history and into the future, examining how our connections to one another can shape our world.

 

The show opens as a young girl prepares for her dreams during “water sleep”. The audience puts on their time travel masks along with her and together they travel all the way back in time to the Big Bang – the original campfire. From there, the play moves from the first fire the caveman created, to a camp fire on the Oregon Trail, to a 60’s peace and love campfire, to our virtual campfire supported by technology and social media and ending with a glimpse of what our future campfire conversation could look like, coming right back to our young protagonist preparing for her “water sleep” in this imagined future. 

 

Connected is many things; maybe too many to appreciate fully in the moment. It is part science class, explaining the big bang, the creation of life on earth, and the extinction of the dinosaurs. It is part historical drama, showing human evolution from grunting cavemen to a virtual reality society. And finally, it is part social commentary dealing with how technology has changed the way we connect with each other. While all of our technological advances are intended to bring us closer together, Connected explores if it has actually isolated us from one another and what risks does that carry with it. With so many elements to this show, the initial audience reaction may include some confusion or feelings of being overwhelmed but with time and reflection the value becomes more clear.

 

The show is staged in the round for a small audience so that everyone feels they have a seat at the campfire. In addition to the epic and multi-dimensional story it is telling, the show integrates movement, puppets, video, social media and audience interaction to bring it to life. It is a one act show lasting about 80 minutes and the pacing of the show keeps it moving along, covering millions and millions of years in that short time. 

 

There were many elements to this show which were quite unique including a break in the 4th wall where the audience had a choose their own adventure moment which resulted in a group dance break to the Cha Cha Slide followed by selfie time. The show is full of so many stories, and constant surprises challenging the audience to reflect more deeply on their own connections. 

 

It is certainly not a traditional piece of theater so do not go in with those expectations. Be open and prepared for just about anything and you will likely enjoy the show, if not in those moments after the show ends when you try to piece through what you just saw, but certainly in the days that follow as you reflect on everything that happened in the small theater space of the Flatirons Building.

 

See for yourself. Connected is playing through May 29th. Get your tickets at collaboraction.org. 

 

Published in Theatre Reviews
Wednesday, 10 February 2016 11:48

Come to the Cabaret!

How do you categorize a musical that is part comedy, part drama, and part burlesque? The answer is: you don't need you. Like Kander and Ebb's later popular Broadway hit Chicago, Cabaret uses flashy and often funny nightclub performance as a device to embellish and expound upon the more serious and sometimes grim events of the story. In Chicago, shameless homicide by two murderesses is explored through jazzy nightclub acts, while in Cabaret, the grisly beginnings of WWII and the anxious pall it casts over the characters' lives is explored through fearless, garter-brimming club performances.

Cabaret is a unique musical, one that will sneak up on you and knock you in the chin if you try to pigeonhole it. The songs are inordinately catchy and the story turns unpredictably. On opening night at the inaugural show of the newly named Private Bank Theatre, I was surprised to hear so many shocked reactions from the audience around me. Every Nazi reference was met with gasps, one short scene of drug use left the audience deadly silent, the never-even-mentioned-by-name subject briefly implied by Sally's doctor visit caused an audible "Oh my God!", and Cliff's apparent bisexuality was received with total confusion. "But he kissed a boy. How could he fall in love with a girl?" Please. If audiences could survive it in 1962, they should certainly be able to handle it now. The reactions only serve to prove that Cabaret has a timeless impact.

When American self-described "starving novelist" Cliff (a capable if slightly bland Lee Aaron Rosen) travels to Berlin in pursuit of literary inspiration, he discovers it in the form of the buoyant and provocative English cabaret dancer Sally Bowles (a character brilliantly committed to by Andrea Goss) and the seedy nightclub crowd with which she surrounds herself. They soon begin living together and befriend landlady Fraulein Schneider (a subduedly wise Shannon Cochran) and fellow tenant, the Jewish Herr Schultz (a cute and gentle Mark Nelson), the latter of whom begin a sweet but eventually controversial romance. Sally and Cliff's lives are an ecstatic chaos of gin and sexual liberation until Cliff's friend and confidante Herr Ludwig (flawlessly portrayed by Ned Noyes) reveals his disturbing true colors, triggering the destruction that floods the characters' lives from that point on and effectively bursting their bubble of delusion. The omniscient Emcee of Berlin's sordid Kit Kat Club (a delightfully snarky Randy Harrison) guides the viewer between the actual plot events and their corresponding cabaret acts.

Andrea Goss as Sally Bowles

My favorite of the over-the-top club performances cleverly mirroring the real life drama is the titular showstopper "Cabaret." Many folks, likely many of the shocked theatre-goers seated around me, may associate this song with a charismatic, triumphant Liza Minnelli from the 1972 film (or even an older, sequined-out Liza cheerily vamping her way through a showtune medley) and thus were not expecting the heavier tone rendered in the stage version. At this point, Sally has lost everything. She's alone, she's ill, she's broke, she is out of a job after this final performance. Her life has spiraled into a living hell. Goss made a powerful impression as Sally throughout and nothing showcased her acting talents more than her raw, enraged delivery of this song. The eerie juxtaposition of Sally's unabashed ruin with jaunty lyrics celebrating a wildly fun, carefree lifestyle gave me chills, the last line all but screamed at the audience before she knocks down the mike stand in her fury.

This is a musical that everyone should see at least once in their lifetime. It will not meet your expectations, in the best way possible.

Cabaret is playing at the Private Bank Theatre at 18 W Monroe now through February 21st. Tickets can be purchased at Ticketmaster or by going to BroadwayInChicago.

Published in Theatre Reviews

After thirty years of bringing Chicagoans some of the city’s finest theatre, Mary-Arrchie will be closing their doors after its current and final production, American Buffalo. In this sharply written piece by David Mamet, Mary-Arrchie co-founder and jack of all trades Richard Cotovsky is joined by Stephen Walker and Rudy Galvan, creating a strong cast fully capable of pulling off such a dynamically written script. And that’s exactly what they do.

Taking place in a rundown resale shop, owner Don (Cotovsky) along with his young hired help and “go-fer” Bobby (Galvan) have hatched a scheme to burglarize a nearby residence in the hopes of stealing a valuable coin collection. But when Don’s longtime pal Teach (Stephen Walker) gets wind of the “thing” he pushes to replace the kid with himself, a man of more experience. Everything happens in a single day as the three small time crook wannabees run through a gamut of emotions with each other in trying to get on the same page. Teach is pushy and talks the big talk but clearly has little experience while Don is more laid back and subdued, often influenced by Teach’s strong presence and facade of confidence. Slow-witted Bobby just wants in for some quick bankroll – or maybe just wants to be a part of something. As the plan progresses it snowballs back and forth until its inevitable unraveling – and the journey is nothing short of hilarious.

When entering the theatre, we are met with what appears to be an authentic resale shop. “Don’s Resale Shop” is printed backwards on the large picture window so as to face correctly for those to read on the outside. Worn shelves are filled with dented gas cans, ratty knickknacks, old toys and assorted vintage items. Power chords hang from the wall with other random merchandise for sale behind a battered counter that supports an antique cash register. Quickly immersed in the set’s genuineness, one really gets the feeling they are inside a dingy thrift store that could be located on any given Chicago street.    

Richly directed by Carlo Lorenzo Garcia, Mary-Arrchie’s American Buffalo offers incredibly talented performances, generally a given with this veteran theatre company. Delivering Mamet’s cutting and quick-fire dialogue with the true essence of how it was intended, Walker knock’s the role of Teach out of the park. Whether generating laughs with the simplest use of body language, convincingly overusing repetitive hood lingo or completely erupting like Mount Saint Helen, Walker rolls up his sleeves and puts forth a gutsy, no-holds barred performance that should long be remembered. All the while, Walker successfully displays his character’s vulnerability beneath the blanket of false self-assurance, making Teach believable, creating someone with whom we can really emphasize. Within moments of Walker’s first appearance where he loses his cool and takes out his frustrations out on a beat up refrigerator over something pretty insignificant, it is apparent we are about to take a pretty bumpy ride. 

Cotovsky, the seasoned pro that he is, also provides an outstanding performance going toe-to-toe with Walker on many heated, sometimes humorously nonsensical and profoundly funny dialogue exchanges. The two pair together like butter on toast, getting a nice occasional boost from Galvan who contributes many of his own well-timed lines. Like a freight train taking off, the production gets stronger and stronger as it progresses. The more we get to know the characters the more we can’t help but take a liking to each of them, regardless of the fact that they are small-time crooks bent on pulling off a caper that comically unstitches more and more the closer the job gets. 

Mary-Arrchie is going out on a high note with this must-see presentation of American Buffalo. The prestigious Chicago theatre company will certainly be missed and we can only hope to continue to see its talented players in future productions around the city. Jeff Award winner, Chicago theatre staple and all-around talent Richard Cotovsky was recently given the honor of having an Honorary Way dedicated in his name that can be seen at the theatre’s intersection of Sheridan and Broadway. An honor well deserved.

American Buffalo is playing at Angel Island (735 W. Sheridan) through March 6th. Honest, funny and thoroughly absorbing, it is with strong recommendation that I urge theatre lovers to catch this final production from this talented company in their apropos farewell. For tickets and/or more show information visit www.maryarrchie.com or call 773-871-0442. 

 

Published in Theatre Reviews

Melissa Thodos the creator of Sono’s Journey and her designers, which premiered at the Auditorium Theatre Saturday, did a wonderful job telling the story of Sono Asato, a dancer who broke age and race barriers from the time she was just fourteen years old. At that same young age, Sono Asato was the first dancer of Japanese descent AND the first American to join the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. 

 

I loved the way Thodos chose to use a narrator to tell the story of Asato’s life and used real pictures from Sono's life. I overheard one audience member saying during intermission, the narration really helped the audience understand and empathize with Asato’s life journey without making us guess or make assumptions based solely on the dance and music for each vignette – a very correct observation. 

 

I loved the costumes and lighting, which created a dreamy effect. The dancers were superb in bringing Sono Asato’s unique and trademark hand gestures and delicate yet earthy and natural style of dance to life. Asato’s hands were especially beautiful and expressive resembling the grace and power of mudras of ancient meditation statues. 

 

I found it very interesting that when Osato was refused work abroad with her ballet company, it was a female theater company owner and old friend who welcomed her back to Broadway “dance shows" in order to keep making money dancing to survive. 

 

I also loved the vignette which included how her parent's originally met and fell immediately in love when her father Shoji was sent to photograph her beautiful mother for a performance portrait.   

 

Osato, now ninety-six-years-old, and still a delicate beauty, was brought onstage in a wheelchair and it was announced that Mayor Rahm Emanuel had declared that day, January 8th to be SONO ASATO DAY in Chicago. Sono Asato looked radiantly beautiful as she received her flowers and a roaring standing ovation for her groundbreaking, door opening bravery and exceptional dance performances in the classic works, Sleeping Beauty, Pillar of Fire and The Beloved.

 

I felt very much honored to be there in Sono Asato's presence that night during the Mayor's announcement. I felt privileged to add my enthusiastic applause and shouts of "Bravo!" for her and the delightful show "Sono’s Journey".

 

Dance enthusiasts and appreciators will have two more opportunities to see Sono's Journey this winter: February 20th at the North Shore Center in Skokie, and March 5th at the Harris Theater in Chicago, as part of Thodos Dance Chicago's new "Chicago Revealed" Winter Concert series. This particular production is a beautiful piece of work that everyone should experience.

 

Published in Theatre Reviews

Chicagoans' love for historical dramas and our ghost and gangster bus tours are very popular here, so it is not surprising that this very well written and performed ensemble play about the very real, tragic Iroquois Theater fire in 1903 that killed over six hundred people packed in for an oversold Christmas winter matinee would be such a popular production even during the Holiday season. Powerful, heart-rending, imaginative and filled with dark humor, “Burning Bluebeard” is wonderfully directed by Halena Kays, who is able to so effectively take us back in time to revisit one of the greatest Chicago tragedies in this haunting and magical production.

 

The luxurious brand new and it turns out, unfinished building, The Iroquois Theater, was supposed to be the new "Titanic" of theaters – in this case luxurious and fireproof. So many important things relating to theater safety came out of this tragedy it almost seems destined to have happened in order to teach the world how NOT to construct and maintain theater safety for generations. 

 

Around 3:15 p.m. on December 30th, not long after the second act began, sparks from faulty wiring in a large lighted moon ignited several of the highly flammable scenery props. The stage manager frantically tried to separate the audience from the burning stage by lowering the massive asbestos flame proof curtain, but when it became stuck it did not take long before the quick and furious blaze spread throughout the theater.

 

The theater, which had a max capacity of thirteen hundred, was packed to the gills for this particular matinee performance of Bluebeard with over sixteen hundred audience members, most of whom were women and children. It was so packed that patrons sat in the aisles, squeezed in where they could, blocking doorways in the process. The upper levels were separated from the higher priced seats on the main floor by doors locked with chains so that the children could not "sneak' down to better seats or, as it turned out, escape in case of fire. There were fake doorways covered with heavy black curtains whereas if a perseverant theater goer did manage to break open during an escape attempt, they would find a brick wall on the other side. Wall after wall of glamorous mirrors in the lobby created a funhouse effect further confusing the panicked crowd when they could not find any real windows or unlocked doors.  The fire escapes were not yet completed and reached only halfway down the four story building.

 

Vents in the ceiling were nailed shut and the top of the theater was filled with highly incendiary silk set pieces. The very seats themselves were basically just flammable velvet material stuffed with straw hemp like tinder.

 

Amidst the chaos, unfortunately one of the show’s actors ordered the children, especially those packed shoulder to shoulder in the upper balcony, to sit back down and stay seated until they could exit slowly and safely.  But that was the worst thing they could have done. There were hundreds of performers in this show trapped backstage and when they finally were able to break down the back door which of course was chained and padlocked shut from the outside, it created a backdraft fireball that literally incinerated all of the children and their mothers in the front and upper rows of the balcony so quickly that all of their watches were stopped at precisely the same moment. 

 

Superbly written by Jay Torrence and performed by an outstanding ensemble consisting of Jay Torrence, Leah Urzendowski, Ryan Walters, Pam Chermansky, Anthony Courser and Molly Plunk, one cannot help but feel the desperation of the original theater crowd along with the relief of being alive in a world where lit EXIT signs and having working fire extinguishers are just part of what one expects for normal audience safety.

 

Every member of this troupe plays a unique role but I have to especially point out Molly Plunk who plays the role of an imaginary faerie queen capable of turning back time and causing the whole event to unfold without danger. Plunk’s delicate and whimsical interpretation of this role is key to keeping hope in the audience alive that somehow reliving this tragedy over and over will cause it not to happen again. 

I have recommended this show highly in the past and every friend I've sent young or old has had the same magical experience watching this unique, darkly funny, and fantastic production. Now in its fourth year, due to the show’s growing popularity, “Burning Bluebeard” has moved to yet a larger venue in The Den Theatre. Performed through January 10th, The Ruffians’ collaboration with The Hypocrites’ “Burning Bluebeard” has become a holiday hit in Chicago and is a sure-fire must see.

More show info can be found www.the-hypocrites.com. The show last approximately one hour and forty minutes with no intermission.

  

 

 

Published in Theatre Reviews
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