Buzz News Chicago: Theatre and Concert Reviews

Friday, 17 February 2017 03:39

Review: Straight White Men at Steppenwolf

With a title like "Straight White Men" there's a lot to unpack. Asian American playwright Young Jean Lee directs her 2014 play at The Steppenwolf. "Straight White Men" ran Off-Broadway at the Public Theater to critical acclaim. It helped establish the career of up-and-comer Young Jean Lee. This production is a Midwestern debut. 

 

The Steppenwolf's production is well cast. "Straight White Men" tells the story of a family of three brothers assembling with their aging father for Christmas. Hence the title. Madison Dirks plays the oldest brother Jake with a commanding intensity that serves to propel Lee's script. So much of Lee's play relies on an almost impossible sense of chemistry between the brothers. Ryan Hallahan plays youngest brother Drew with a contrasting sincerity that puts Brian Slaten (Matt) in the center of the 90-minute play. Ensemble member Alan Wilder as the dad is maybe the only one whose performance is not in on Lee's comic pattern. 

 

"Straight White Men" does touch on many issues regarding race, gender and class in America. That said, perhaps not enough to warrant such a heavy title. There is a lot of humor and physical comedy between the brother characters, but so often the content of the dialogue doesn't reach further than the three walls of the set. The conclusion of the play is thought provoking and addresses the issue of socioeconomic privilege. 

 

The problem with titling a play "Straight White Men" is that it raises the stakes for the playwright to deliver a work that makes a bold statement. Lee certainly does make a bold statement, it just may not live up to the title. Lee's script takes a while getting to the center of the matter. It's really a play about depression. In that regard, Lee really says something about the way student loans and societal expectations are stunting an entire generation. "Straight White Men" is a play to see as it will warrant a thoughtful post show discussion. 

 

Through March 19 at Steppenwolf Theatre. 1650 N Halsted St. 312-335-1650

*Update - Extended through March 26th

 

Published in Theatre Reviews

The Joffrey Academy of Dance, Official School of The Joffrey Ballet in collaboration with Chicago Public Library present four world premieres in the seventh annual Winning Works program, the culmination of Joffrey’s national call for ALAANA (African, Latino(a), Asian, Arab and Native American) artists to submit applications for the Joffrey Academy’s Seventh Annual Winning Works Choreographic Competition. This year’s Competition winners – Shannon Alvis, Sean Aaron Carmon, Karen Gabay and Jimmy Orrante each have choreographed an original work created on the Joffrey Academy Trainees and Studio Company. The Joffrey Academy of Dance’s Winning Works program is presented at the Cindy Pritzker Theater, Chicago Public Library Harold Washington Center, 400 South State Street, over three performances only: Saturday, March 11, at 2:00 PM and 7:00 PM and Sunday, March 12 at 2:00 PM.

 

“The artistry and diversity of the Winning Works choreographers provide an inspiring look at the world in which we live allowing us to deepen our understanding of the art form”, said Ashley Wheater, Artistic Director of The Joffrey Ballet. “The Winning Works program is an invaluable experience for our Joffrey Trainees and Studio Company providing them the opportunity to grow artistically and perform works created by important voices of dance today.”

 

“Winning Works empowered me as a female choreographer”, said Mariana Oliveira, 2016 Winning Works Choreographer. “Being a part of this program has opened many other doors for my career. It was a pleasure to work with fearless young talent. I will always hold this experience close to my heart.”

 

Shannon Alvis is originally from Greenwood, Indiana and received her training at Butler University and the University of Utah. She began her career with the second company of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago (HSDC), then went on to dance and perform professionally with HSDC for nine years. In 2009, Ms. Alvis went on to further her growth as a dancer at Nederlands Dans Theater under the direction of Jim Vincent and Paul Lightfoot.

 

Her world premiere for the Joffrey Academy of Dance - Moonlight - is a contemporary piece with 5 men and 5 women featuring solo and partner work set to music by Debussy's Clair de Lune. Moonlight is inspired by the poem Clair de Lune by Paul Verlaine, and the beautiful potential that lies within each of the dancers.

 

Sean Aaron Carmon is originally from Texas and joined Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 2011 and has performed major solos and featured roles in ballets by many notable choreographers. His choreography has been performed all across the U.S. and internationally and is lauded as "everything and then some...", "powerful," and "seriously flawless" by major national print and online publications such as The New York Times, Newsweek, JET Magazine, BroadwayBlack, Dance Spirit, and 

Dance Magazine. 

 

His world premiere for the Joffrey Academy of Dance - Suite Hearts explores young love in all its varieties — romantic, friendly, playful, emotional, heartbreak, resilience, and the interconnectivity between each. This piece will be performed by 6 men and 10 women.

 

Karen Gabay grew up in San Diego and has had a career as a ballerina that spans over 35 years.  Ms. Gabay made her professional debut at the age of 18 as a principal dancer with Ballet San Jose (BSJ). Her repertoire includes Odette/Odile in Swan Lake, Giselle in the title role and her most favorite role of Juliet in Romeo and Juliet. As a choreographer, she created numerous ballets for the company including the 2012 production of BSJ’s annual production of The Nutcracker which led to her first children’s book, The Nutcracker: A Story in Verse. Gabay is the co-founding Artistic Director of her own ballet troupe, Pointe of Departure, which performs in the bay area and in Northeast Ohio.

 

Her world premiere for the Joffrey Academy features 10-15 dancers with the women dancing en pointe. The concept of the piece explores the lives of coming-of-age teenagers and will feature a combination of classical and neo classical ballet, acting, and theatrics.

 

Jimmy Orrante is a native of Los Angeles andhas danced with Nevada Ballet Theatre, Memphis Ballet, and 20 years with BalletMet where he had the opportunity to choreograph 15 premieres for the company. In addition to BalletMet, he has created ballets for Ballet Austin, Motion Dance Theatre, Rochester City Ballet, Ballet Arkansas, Atlanta Ballet’s Wabi Sabi, and UC Irvine’s National Choreographers Initiative. Mr. Orrante’s repertoire includes two full-length ballets, The Great Gatsby, which premiered with BalletMet in 2009 and was reprised in 2015, and the children’s ballet The Ugly Duckling for Rochester City Ballet.

 

His world premiere for the Joffrey Academy features 6 men and 6 women with the women dancing en pointe. The movement is inspired by the energy within the music, a combination of cascading momentum and a more formal, processional quality.

 

“The Joffrey is honored to collaborate with the Chicago Public Library Harold Washington Library Center for the first time to present this meaningful and innovative program”, said Greg Cameron, Executive Director of The Joffrey Ballet. “We are grateful for the support of Brian Bannon, Chicago Public Library Commissioner and Mayor Rahm Emanuel as we embark on fulfilling our shared mission and commitment to empowering the community through dance and storytelling.”

 

 

"By co-hosting these ambitious programs with The Joffrey Ballet, we are remaining dedicated to supporting lifelong learning for patrons of all ages, in this case, through performing arts”, said Brian Bannon, Chicago Public Library Commissioner. “We hope to inspire people of all backgrounds and ages to engage with both the Joffrey and the library in new and exciting ways.”

 

Ticket Information

Tickets for “Winning Works” at the Chicago Public Library Harold Washington Library Center are FREE. Tickets can be reserved at WinningWorks2017.Eventbrite.com.

 

The Joffrey Ballet is grateful for the support of its Winning Works Sponsor, The Edward and Lucy R. Minor Family Foundation, Video Production Sponsor Big Foot Media and to its Official Provider of Physical Therapy, Athletico.

 

About the Joffrey Studio Company

The Joffrey Studio Company is a scholarship program of the Joffrey Academy of Dance, Official School of The Joffrey Ballet. The Joffrey Studio Company consists of 10 outstanding students selected by Joffrey Artistic Director Ashley Wheater and Head of Studio Company and Trainee Program Raymond Rodriguez. The Joffrey Studio Company and Trainees have performed on some of the most prestigious stages, including Lincoln Center in NY, the Auditorium Theatre, Harris Theater for Music and Dance, Cadillac Palace Theatre and MCA Stage in Chicago, Music Hall in LA, The Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. and more. The individualized training and performance opportunities provided by the Joffrey Studio Company offers students unique insight into the life of a professional dancer, assisting students in preparation for a professional career in dance and helping them expand their technique and artistry.

 

About the Joffrey Academy Trainees

The Joffrey Academy Trainee Program is a one to two-year program for students ages 17 and older who are preparing for a professional dance career. Students are selected to participate in the Trainee Program by invitation from Artistic Director Ashley Wheater and the Head of Studio Company and Trainee Program Raymond Rodriguez. This esteemed and rigorous program gives students a unique and well-rounded experience to prepare them for the next step in their careers. Trainees rehearse and perform classical and contemporary works from The Joffrey Ballet’s extensive repertoire and have the opportunity to work with guest choreographers throughout the year. Graduates of the Academy have gone on to dance professionally with companies throughout the world including The Joffrey Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, New York City Ballet, Staatsballett Berlin, Dresden Semperoper, Complexions, Milwaukee Ballet, Memphis Ballet, Kansas City Ballet, BalletMet, Polish National Ballet, Slovak National Ballet, and many more.

 

For more information on the Joffrey Academy of Dance, Official School of The Joffrey Ballet and its programs please visit joffrey.org/academy.

 

About Chicago Public Library

Since 1873, Chicago Public Library (CPL) has encouraged lifelong learning by welcoming all people and offering equal access to information, entertainment and knowledge through innovative services and programs, as well as cutting-edge technology. Through its 80 locations, the Library provides free access to a rich collection of materials, both physical and digital, and presents the highest quality author discussions, exhibits and programs for children, teens and adults. CPL received the Social Innovator Award from Chicago Innovation Awards; won a National Medal for Library Services from the Institute for Museum and Library Services; was named the first ever winner of the National Summer Learning Association’s Founder’s Award in recognition of its Summer Learning Challenge; and was ranked number one in the U.S., and third in the world by an international study of major urban libraries conducted by the Heinrich Heine University Dusseldorf in Germany. For more information, please call (312) 747-4050 or visit chipublib.org.

 

Published in Buzz Extra

There’s something new going on at Briar Street Theater! The Blue Man Group has made some new and exciting additions to their already beloved and ever-changing show. The fixture of Blue Man Group in Chicago entertainment has built a twenty-plus-year tradition that has grown to include generations of families, international acclaim (with shows Berlin, Boston, New York, Las Vegas, Orlando, Amsterdam and Oberhausen) and fans all around the world. Unique to Chicago, at the intimate setting of Briar Street Theater in Lakeview, “Left”, “Middle” and “Right”, as our three Blue performers are called by their stage location, play with guests’ perceptions, develop an even closer audience relationship and bring out the little kid in everyone. You will shriek in delight (or even fear), laugh until in your sides hurt, and awe at the thrill of the Blue.

 

The dedication of the Blue Man Group crew guarantees that everyone has a unique experience when a participant in their show. Whether you are familiar with the tubes, massive drums and electric paint or maybe you haven’t been so up close and personal to such funky dudes of the like, no matter your Blue Man experience, veteran or newbie, this is a production that is sure to entertain any theater attendee. As always, the Blue experience is divulged to you through the sounds of music. You will remember the familiar and fall in love with the new. Have you ever used a GiPad? Among new songs, their live band and new technological additions, the Blue Man Group pulls you deeper into their own world experience and farther away from your phones.

 

Tom Galassi (Captain and Assistant Director), Jeff Quay (Associate Music Director) and one of the six primary Blue Men, “Boomer”, take pride in the new changes they’ve made and the show has become more encompassing of our current state of the world. A grand finale brings all people together with the love of music; standing and dancing and moving unified to the same song. The production also brings awareness to our attention to the digital world, in a comical, therapeutic way, perhaps slightly violent, but all with a Blue-branded sense of humor. The Blue Man group continues to be exciting, thrilling and always challenging to your perceptions. Locals, families, school groups and tourists all flock towards the light of the Blue. The new additions are not to be missed by anyone of any age, strengthening what was already a unique experience. Though be warned - don’t be late! You never know what they’ll do to you as you wander down that aisle.  

 

Blue Man Group has been a staple in Chicago for over two decades and there is a reason its popularity has not slowed down. The reason is simple. Blue Man Group has been, and will continue to be, a theater event like no other. Caution should be had when choosing seats. Although ponchos are provided, the first five rows put audience members at risk with getting doused, or splattered, with wet paint depending on your location.

 

Blue Man Group is performed at Briar Street Theater. For tickets and/or more show information, click here.  

 

Published in Theatre Reviews

“Circumference of a Squirrel” by John Walch finishes out The Greenhouse Theater’s inaugural Solo Celebration. This one-character play festival featured only single narrative storytelling. It’s not often you see a one-person fiction play, and while some may cringe at the concept, these short works explored highly relevant themes. 

 

Will Allen stars as Chester. He begins the play telling the audience about a squirrel he saw trying to carry a bagel. Chester is in the present, and by the speech pattern adopted by Allen, we can presume something is a little off. Walch’s script seamlessly flows between Chester’s childhood memories, his relationship with his father and the divorce he’s just been through. He grapples with the knowledge that his father was an ardent anti-semite. It colors the dark, and funny memories of his father paying him in Lifesavers to kill squirrels. 

 

Allen toggles between several characters and memories in the hour-long run time. Each character has a unique, but sincere voice and there’s an almost manic quality with which Allen can articulate them all. His performance only deepens from beginning to end, leading to a bittersweet conclusion. 

 

Directed by Jacob Harvey, “Circumference of a Squirrel” is a well-stylized, and at times abstract look at the ways in which we love. It asks of its audience, whether unfounded racism is forgivable even in the ones we are supposed to love. 

 

Through February 12 at The Greenhouse Theater Center. 2257 N Lincoln Ave. 

 

 

Published in Theatre Reviews

CHICAGO – The watch must finally come to an end for “Thrones! The Musical Parody,” announcing today the fourth and final extension at Apollo Theater (2540 N. Lincoln Ave). The “Game of Thrones” send-up will close March 19, 2017 after an eight-month run at the Lincoln Park theater. Hailed as “a robust comical homage” (Chicago Sun-Times) and a show that has “the audience falling off their chairs” (Chicago Reader), “Thrones!” is written by the team behind “Baby Wants Candy,” “Shamilton: The Improvised Musical” and “50 Shades! The Musical Parody.” A cast of six Chicago actors recount plot highlights throughout all six seasons, complete with more than 40 characters and 21 original songs ranging in style from hip hop to traditional Broadway. Tickets ($36 - $59) for performances beginning February 16 through March 19 go on sale Monday, January 23 at 10 a.m. and can be purchased at the Apollo Theater Box Office by calling 773.935.6100 or visiting Ticketmaster.com.

 

A second production of “Thrones! The Musical Parody” continues its West Coast run at Hudson Theater Mainstage (6539 Santa Monica Blvd, Los Angeles), through February 26, 2017. The LA premiere has been hailed as “comic gold” (Broadway World), “witty and riotous” (Discover Hollywood) and “a parody of epic proportions” (LA Post Examiner). For more information and tickets for the West Coast run, visit ThronesMusical.com.

 

“After workshopping this production in July, opening in September and now playing through spring, we are thrilled that “Thrones!” continues to make our audiences laugh night after night,” said Executive Producer Rob Kolson. “While all good things must come to an end, ‘Thrones!’ has been an incredible production for the Apollo, and we are sure of its continued success around the country as the television show thrives.”

 

As Spencer, Brad, Hayden, Ross, Kelly and Tom gather for the season finale of “Game of Thrones,” they soon discover the ultimate travesty: that Brad does not watch the show. Over the course of 90 minutes, the group bands together to act out all six seasons (read: spoilers) for Brad, including dashing men battling White Walkers, ravishing women riding fire-breathing dragons, and the infamous “Walk of Shame.” “Thrones! The Musical Parody” debuted to completely sold-out performances at the 2015 Edinburgh Fringe Festival and was hailed as “darkly humorous and beautifully vulgar” (Edinburgh Festival Magazine) and “a resounding success!” (Sunday Times), followed by a sold-out, limited run at London’s Leicester Square Theatre. In its run in here in Chicago, “Thrones!” is a “hilarious ride that never slows down” (BuzzNews Chicago) and “unfailingly witty and deliciously irreverent” (Performink). The cast of “Thrones! The Musical Parody” includes Caitlyn Cerza, Dan Gold, Madeline Lauzon, Beau Nolen, Victoria Olivier and Christopher Ratliff.

 

“Thrones! The Musical Parody” is written by Chris Grace, Zach Reino, Al Samuels and Dan Wessels. The production is directed by Hannah Todd, choreographed by Tyler Sawyer Smith and produced by Emily Dorezas, Rob Kolson and Al Samuels. The creative team includes Thomas O. Mackey III (Set Designer), Eric Backus (Sound Designer), Amanda Gladu (Costume Designer), Patrick Ham (Prop Designer), Clare Sangster (Light Designer) and R&D Choreography (Violence Design). Dakota Hughes and Mike Danovich are the production understudies.

 

The performance schedule is as follows: Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30 p.m., Saturdays at 6 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. and Sundays at 4 p.m. For ticket inquiries for groups of 10 or more, call Group Theater Tix at 312.423.6612. To learn more about “Thrones!” visit the website, and follow along on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

 

About Baby Wants Candy

“Baby Wants Candy” has performed more than 2,000 completely improvised musicals to thousands of fans from Chicago to New York to Singapore to Scotland. Currently, “Baby Wants Candy” runs in Chicago at the Apollo Theater, in Los Angeles at UCB Sunset and tours internationally.  A cutting edge theatrical experience, the performance features a revolving cast of A-list comedic performers and a full band.

 

“Baby Wants Candy” begins with the cast asking the audience for a suggestion of a musical that has never been performed before. Accompanied by a full band, the first title that the group hears becomes the title and theme for that evening’s 60-minute show, featuring a roller coaster ride of spontaneously choreographed dance numbers, rhyming verses and witty, jaw-dropping comedy.  Each performance is its own opening and closing night, and by design every show is completely unique and a once–in a lifetime premiere.

 

“Baby Wants Candy” has received rave reviews in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, The Onion, Chicago Sun-Times, TimeOut New York and more, and has received numerous awards including the winner of FringeNYC’s Outstanding Unique Theatrical Experience, Best Improv Ensemble by Chicago Magazine, the Best Visiting Comedy Ensemble by TimeOut New York, the recipient of the Ensemble of the Year Award at the Chicago Improv Festival, and a rare Sixth Star Award Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

 

“Baby Wants Candy” has included several notable performers including Peter Gwinn of “Colbert Report;” Rachel Dratch and Aidy Bryant of “Saturday Night Live;” Stephnie Weir of “MadTV;” Nicole Parker of “MadTV” and Elphaba in “Wicked” on Broadway; Jack McBrayer of “30 Rock;” Al Samuels and Kevin Fleming of “Sports Action Team;” Thomas Middleditch of “Silicon Valley;” Garry W. Tallent of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band; Mark Pender of The Max Weinberg 7 and Bruce Springsteen and the Seeger Sessions Band; and Johnny Pisano of the Jesse Malin Band and The Marky Ramone Band. Members of “Baby Wants Candy” have recently written the hit off-Broadway show “50 Shades! The Musical Parody” and “Shamilton: The Improvised Musical.”

 

About Apollo Theater

The Apollo Theater, located in the heart of Chicago’s Lincoln Park since 1978, has been home to many of the city’s biggest hits including the recent “Million Dollar Quartet,” which holds the record for the longest-running Broadway musical in Chicago history. Resident companies of the Apollo Theater include Emerald City Theatre Company and “Baby Wants Candy,” and many up-and-coming companies can be seen nightly in the theater’s 50-seat downstairs studio. Recently renovated and fully accessible, the Apollo Theater’s intimate 435-seat mainstage continues to deliver world-class theater as one of the city’s premiere off-Loop houses.

 

Published in Buzz Extra

When Mitchell Fain, the star of David Sedaris's eight year long run of "Santaland Diaries" about a broke actor who lands a gig as a Macy's elf first begins his play with the opening lines of said show on a beautifully decked out and magically lit Christmas set - I thought, "Wait a minute I've seen this show already!” 

 

Quickly, Fain drops the character of Sedaris' Crumpet and becomes the character of Mitchell Fain in one of the most personal and entertaining one man shows I've seen in a long time, “This Way Outta Santaland”, written by Fain himself.

 

Fain is joined at Theater Wit by his old friend and roommate from years ago, the beautiful red headed Megan Murphy whose work I have enjoyed many times in many of the Marriott and Drury Lane Musical Theater Series. Also, playing the music for his monologues and Murphy's segue way songs is Julie B. Nichols, an excellent pianist who began the show with a hearty toast to which the whole audience raised their cups!

 

Mitchell really interacts with the audience and brings up the houselights many times as if trying to really see and relate to each person who came out in the cold Chicago weather to see his show. Fain begins by asking how many in the audience came from Chicago from a smaller place to live, and many raised their hands, including me (Miami is smaller). Some just shouted out “Ohio!” “Arkansas!”

 

He asked one woman WHY she came here and her reply was "to be an actress" to which he ad-libbed "How's that working out for you?"  Her reply got a big laugh, "Well I'm sitting in the audience not on the stage!" 

 

Then he asked how many of you here are Jewish?

 

Only me and two others in the packed house raised our hands which surprised even me!

 

Fain begins his storytelling with his rocky childhood in Rhode Island as one of the only Jews in a very rough all Italian neighborhood, and a petite, 5'3" gay Jew at that! 

 

Fain recalls that from a very young age he loved Judy Garland's music and especially memorized her version of the song “Chicago (That Toddlin’ Town)”, which allows Megan Murphy to deliver a delicious, tongue in cheek version of the song herself. 

 

In Fain’s description of his former home base, we learn that Rhode Island is the costume jewelry capital of America and that most of its inhabitants, including his single mother, toiled their lives away in these factories. Fain's mother found a way to work at one place long enough to get unemployment payments just to put food on the table and barely eke out a living, each time succumbing to the rigors of factory's physical demands which caused illness's like carpal tunnel syndrome and swollen feet. 

 

Mitchell then talks about his move to Chicago as being a move to the BIG CITY! Fortunately, he had a wonderful Christmas loving aunt, who was very generous with him and decorated her house magically each year. He brings up the irony that I have always felt as a Jew as well - that Jews actually appreciate Christmas and the whole glamorous lighting and decorations of Christmas because we never had them as children.

 

In one of the most meaningful moments for me he describes how people who gripe about having to fly home for the holidays are forgetting how LUCKY they are to have a place to go to (he had none) , how lucky they are to have people who love them enough to want them to come home and also lucky enough to have the MEANS , the money to get home, which most of the time, many actors do not. 

 

We are introduced to the story of his mother's passing in Phoenix when he reveals that during his eight great years playing Crumpet, he only missed two performances - once when he was almost hospitalized for the flu, but that he did not miss a show when his mother died. Fain received the call that his mother was dying right after performing his Sunday show but did not have enough money for a last-minute airline ticket to Phoenix and so his kind Chicago theatre family helped him raise the money to catch a red eye. Mitchell did get to Phoenix in time to say goodbye to his mother and said as he finally arrived at her bedside, and asked how she was doing, that one single tear rolled down her cheek – a tear he recognized as “Uh oh, Mitchell’s here. This must be bad”, rather than a tear that loving Mitchell was at his dying mother’s bedside. 

 

Fain and his siblings had to make the terrible decision to remove life support just as their mother clung to life just a little while longer, recovering well enough to be moved to hospice. But soon the inevitable took place and she passed away.

 

The comedy of errors began when the three siblings rush to get her cremated as is the Jewish tradition and are faced with a crummy mortician picked out of the phone book by Fain’s oldest brother. When they opened the comically large doors, the place reeked of smoke, death and CVS perfume, Fain tells us. The funeral director was crabby, short and constantly reminding the Fain’s how backed up they were before going into a relentless pitch for the family to purchase a casket, which was not in their plans remotely. Mitchell then asked to be directed to the washroom and was told the door to find just down the hall. After passing one door after another he passed an open room where his mother was laid out on a slab fully naked. Mitchell lost it, returning the tell the director he’d like to punch him in the nose. He then demanded that she get the paperwork in order for a cremation before he finishes his cigarette, then rushes outside for a cigarette - even though he doesn't smoke. 

 

Fain's siblings rush out to see if he was okay and, as he told the story of what had just happened, enjoyed a laugh together, the kind of laugh only those in mourning can appreciate when they all realize this crazy situation is the "most fun they have had with their mother in a long time". 

 

As a Jew who moved to Chicago from Miami Florida in the 80's after visiting my mother's side of the family at Christmastime, longing to experience the miracles of snow and seasonal changes and well, Christmas itself, I felt many connections to Mitchell's tales about his life in the city.

 

The Chicago theater scene with all its faults really is wonderful and is different from any other city like Los Angeles or New York in its BIG smallness, including how the poverty of actors and artists living in cheap studios, all of us totally broke for years on end paying off student loans forever. But through it all we eventually yield lifelong friendships, friendships that have become an extended family for us that no other BIG city would have fostered. And just like we learn in the inscription in George Bailey’s book at the end of It’s A Wonderful Life – “No man is a failure who has friends.” 

 

It seems playing the role in the award-winning writer David Sedaris's play for so long has rubbed off on Fain because in “This Way Outta Santaland (and other X Mas Miracles)”, Fain has written another play, also deserving of many awards, which for a Jew from the mean streets of Rhode Island is a Christmas miracle of its own! 

 

Fain is a true delight! Be sure to catch “This Way Outta Santaland” during its run through December 23rd for a warm, humorous and uniquely delivered show that features tremendous storytelling and wonderful music. To find out more about performance times and show information, visit www.TheaterWit.org.

 

Published in Theatre Reviews

What makes theater so great is its ability to transport you to different worlds. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time opened on Wednesday night at the Oriental Theatre in Chicago and it successfully does just that, although where it transports you is not where you may have expected. Based on the bestselling novel written by Mark Haddon in 2013, this play is told from the perspective of Christopher John Francis Boone, a 15-year-old boy who is somewhere on the autistic spectrum and his teacher, the ever-compassionate Siobhan. Christopher lives with his father Ed, who has told him his mother died of a heart condition. One night, Christopher finds a neighbor’s dog, Wellington, dead having been stabbed with a garden fork and he quickly becomes a prime suspect. Adamant of his innocence, he plays detective to find the real murderer and unexpectedly ends up on an adventure full of surprises, shocks, and challenges. 

 

While his condition is never stated explicitly, it is implied that Christopher is somewhere on the autistic spectrum with savant qualities, especially in the areas of math and science. As the play unfolds the audience experiences the world through Christopher’s mind, realizing how his unique brain makes him an outsider in the world we so often take for granted. These differences are made, all the more evident through stunning visual effects, great use of sound and lighting and a creative approach to telling the story.

 

While the book is written solely in Christopher’s voice, the stage production plays with time and employs two points of view for narration, both Christopher’s and his teacher Siobhan. Christopher has been writing a story about his investigation into Wellington’s murder and that becomes a play within a play as we shift between Siobhan’s reading of the story during school time and Christopher telling it in real time. Christopher is played by Adam Langdon who provided a strong performance, although at times it felt a bit forced and ventured into overdone as he embodied a teen struggling with an exceptional brain and different take on the world. Siobhan, played by Maria Elena Ramirez, was excellent as was Gene Gillette as Ed (Christopher’s father). An ensemble cast rounds out the show playing a number of roles to bring the full story to life.

 

The staging of the show is quite unique, made up of a simple set with digital walls on the sides and back of the stage that boast different visual effects throughout the show, and a series of white rectangle blocks used as chairs, tables, benches, televisions and even a fish tank through creative lighting. Employing creative choreography by Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett, the actors themselves create movements on stage that transport the audience through the various scenes from outer space to a crowded London Tube station. Coupled with the lighting, sounds and an ever-evolving play train set, the simple set design feels energetic and lively throughout the show.

 

Overall, this play moves along well throwing in some surprises along the way and with brilliant staging it constantly amazes the audience. While there were moments that felt over acted, on the whole it was a strong all-around performance. There is some strong language used and some more mature topics so keep in mind it may not be family friendly for younger children. It is a show that while it entertains, it will also challenge you to think about those among us who experience the world so differently due to their unique brains.  Get your tickets to experience the show for your self, running through December 24th at the Oriental Theater.  

 

 

Published in Theatre 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
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