I just love a good whodunit. Who killed who, how and why – the suspects, the accusers, the whole shebang. The Game’s Afoot, currently running at Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook, is just that – murder, suspense and also plenty of laughs.
The Game’s Afoot by Ken Ludwig, author of “Lend Me A Tenor” and “Moon Over Buffalo”, is a very engaging mystery/comedy that revolves around William Gillette, an actor best known for his on stage portrayal of the famous sleuth, Sherlock Holmes. We are taken back to Christmas Eve, 1936, where Gillette hosts a dinner party for some of the cast members in his latest production. It’s a wintry night as the guests arrive throughout the early evening to Gillette’s Connecticut mansion. Soon after guests acquaint themselves with each other, a murder takes place and Gillette calls himself into action as his Sherlock Holmes character in order to solve the mystery. Hilarity ensues as everyone becomes a suspect, including Gillette himself.
The Game’s Afoot is anchored with a fine cast, most notably Derek Hasenstab as the energetic and always deducing, William Gillette, and Angela Ingersoll as the vivacious Daria Chase. Hasenstab recalls, “I love William Gillette and I like Ken Ludwig’s writing. He writes fun stuff for the actors to play with.” Rod Thomas also makes a splash as Gillette’s longtime friend, Felix Geisel.
Incidentally, Gillette is based on an actual person. Gillette wrote the stage version of Sherlock Holmes back in the late 1800s, adding to the character the pipe and deerstalker cap. Hasenstab adds, “He was an eccentric person. He built a castle in Connecticut, he was an inventor and he loved keeping up with the technology of the day.”
The show is set in the inside the living room of Gillette’s mansion and is quite jaw-dropping once exposed as it is lavishly rich and has murder mystery written all over it. Snow constantly falls behind its large windows giving the desired effect of a winter storm, while an entire wall spins back and forth from fireplace and mantle to cocktail bar with the pull of a lever – a sconce near the living room’s entrance way.
The show has some pretty funny moments but is really consistently humor rich from beginning to end, at the same time presenting a compelling enough mystery to entertain on its own. The characters are quirky and likeable – more so as you get to know them, and one kind of gets the feeling that they are part of the dinner party even though they might be rows away from the stage.
The Game’s Afoot is simply fun. If you, like myself, enjoy whodunits, you’ll really find this show a treat.
For tickets and/or more show information, visit www.drurylaneoakbrook.com.
Ravinia plays host to so many memorable concerts throughout the year, but one of the most unforgettable came last Tuesday night when The Beach Boys shared the stage with the legendary Temptations. Amply called “Surf and Soul” audience members were able to take in some of the most celebrated classics in music history under the stars.
Taking the stage first were the Temptations led by Bruce Williamson and the band’s only original member, Otis Williams. Dressed in matching, brightly colored suits the band clapped, spun and added some fancy footwork to such favorites as “Treat Her Like A Lady”, “The Way You Do the Things You Do”, “Just My Imagination” and “My Girl”. Gracing the crowd with smooth harmonies and romantic lyrics, the Temptations still had women swooning as they probably did some fifty years ago.
After a healthy set of soulful bliss, The Beach Boys then came out to perform headed by original members Mike Love and Bruce Johnston. Fun videos of 1960s nostalgia and band footage were displayed on each side of the stage throughout the show while The Beach Boys launched into an array of their famous surf hits. Strangely however, Brian Wilson seemed to be shunned from such footage barring a few quick shots were it was nearly impossible to exclude him. Obviously missing was Brian and Carl Wilson, but the band still managed to pull off a highly efficient performance taking on such songs (most Mike Love driven hits) as “”Do It Again”, “Sloop John B”, “Surfin’ USA”, “Catch A Wave”, “Be True To Your School”, “409” and “I Get Around”. Also thrown into the set, and maybe a bit unnecessarily, was Mike Love’s solo project number “Pisces Brothers”. The band did venture into a few Brian Wilson led songs with the touring musicians handling his high vocal range quite nicely – the same goes for the terrific harmonies in each song.
The Beach Boys played two songs from Pet Sounds – “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and “God Only Knows”, the latter of which the band got creative with the jumbo screens to allow the late Carl Wilson sing the lead (as only it should be) while they gently played and sang harmonies underneath. Ending on a high note, Love and gang jumped into the band’s last big hit “Kokomo” from the late 1980s and their ever so popular anthem “Good Vibrations”.
Not to be a band that walks away from challenges, Mike Love was greeted with a bucket of ice water over his head in support of ALS awareness to put the finishing touches on a fully enjoyable experience.
Overall, though at times a bit sad to be reminded of our mortality and the inevitable aging process we all must endure, both bands were thoroughly entertaining, tight and most of all – fun. I can only hope both will return to Ravinia in 2015. Surf’s still up, boys!
Everyone is looking to be loved and to give love though it’s not always that easy as we find out in Stupid Fucking Bird. In this twisted and very comical take on Anton Chehkov’s The Seagull that is filled with bird references relating to life, Stupid Fucking Bird is the story of dysfunctional friends and family who are defined by their own complexities, self-absorption and yearnings. Also relating theatre to life, Aaron Posner’s Stupid Fucking Bird uses stage performance as insightful metaphors to human behavior.
Sideshow Theatre Company’s production of Posner’s adaptation of Chehkov’s boring and often hard to watch stage classic is nothing short of hilarious at times and funny all the way through despite a heavier ending than expected. Assembled in this witty play is a dynamite cast led by Nate Whelden who plays “Cody Proctor”, a tortured playwright who is in love with his subject “Nina” (Jeff nominated Nina O’Keefe) whom will never love him in return. Cody Proctor is incensed with commercial theatre that is not “world changing” and is determined to write provocative and meaningful art that has an effect on society. In the meantime, emptiness, loneliness and lack of purpose are ever present in those close to him and “Nina” wants to be a seagull – thus the title, Stupid Fucking Bird.
The story is filled with dark humor and clever parodies of the original it spoofs. There are moments where the actors interact with the crowd, whether to ask for advice on a specific situation or to simply vent to us. The set is modest but effective to which its simplicity actually adds to the show’s theme of hollowness and the constant longing to be complete.
Stupid Fucking Bird is not only funny it is also heartwarming and can be thought provoking on occasion. It is a journey that most are all too familiar with and it is a struggle that can often be overcome. There is a good reason this play was a hit on the East Coast, that being it’s engagingness and cast of characters that are easy to identify with.
Stupid Fucking Bird is playing in the upstairs theatre of Victory Gardens (2433 N. Lincoln) through September 21st. For tickets and/or more information, visit www.victorygardens.org or call (773) 871-3000.
*Above photo - (left to right) Matt Fletcher, Katy Carolina Collins, Nina O’Keefe, Nate Whelden, Cody Proctor, Stacy Stoltz and Norm Woodel in Sideshow Theatre Company’s Midwest premiere of STUPID FUCKING BIRD by Aaron Posner, sort of adapted from Anton Chekhov’sThe Seagull, directed by Jonathan L. Green. Photo by Jonathan L. Green.
The First Midwest Bank Amphitheater in Tinley Park was a metal haven on Sunday – all day long and going well into the night. That’s because the Rockstar Mayhem Festival was in town and we all know what that means by now – some twenty odd bands spread out onto four stages complete with some heavyweight headliners.
This year’s headlining acts were goodies. Avenged Sevenfold (A7X) took top billing while Korn took on the supporting role with Asking Alexandria and Trivium kicking things off on the main stage. In all actuality, based on the crowd reaction, it wouldn’t have mattered who got top billing between Korn and Avenged Sevenfold, as both are major impact players and favorites in the metal scene, but I have to admit that I was glad it was A7X if just to get that extra fifteen minutes of stage time. Without question, the main stage acts were enough to pack the venue themselves, though it was nice to see a platform provided for the many more obscure, or lesser known, metal acts such as Mushroom Head, Cannibal Corpse, Wretched, Ill Nino, Suicide Silence and even Body Count featuring Ice-T.
After Trivium and Asking Alexandria got the crowd fired up, Korn proceeded to take the stage and promptly kicked it into overdrive (tuned down growling guitars and all) with “Falling Away from Me” and never looked back, playing more classic faves such as “Shoots and Ladders”, Freak on A Leash” and “Got the Life”. Also, touching on some material from their latest release, The Paradigm Shift, the band belted out “Prey for Me” and the anthem-like “Never, Never”. Korn ended their set with a driving performance of “Blind” where singer Johnathan Davis brought who appeared to be some of the band members kids on stage to rock out with the band. Though it was nice to hear some solo material from axe man Brian “Head” Welch during his seven-year hiatus, it was sure nice to see him back on the stage with Korn. Original lineup together again, barring longtime drummer David Silveria, Korn is men amongst boys with a veteran presence to be reckoned with that is not to be taken lightly. They are polished, professional and entertaining as hell.
Should Korn have had a longer set, that probably would have been enough to close the show, the fans departing happy and fulfilled from the ten or so hours of metal. But then it was time for Avenged Sevenfold – massive set and all. As the band went into their opening number “Shepherd of Fire” they take the stage one at a time until explosions cue the charging entrance of singer frontman M. Shadows and the band quickly goes into full on assault mode. Even with their shorter than normal set due to festival restrictions, A7X packs a nonstop punch with a deadly combination of thunderous drums and bass, blazing guitars and an insane amount of pyrotechnics. “Almost Easy”, “Afterlife” and “Bat Country” are always givens at an Avenged concert, but the band was also sure to include a handful of songs from their new album, Hail to the King, including its title track and “This Means War”. The band ended their high energy attack on a high note with two fan favorites, “A Little Piece of Heaven” and “Unholy Confessions” before saying their goodbyes to which they spent a good amount of time tossing out keepsakes to the crowd and interacting with the fans as much as they could from the stage.
Bottom line – Korn was on top of their game and I for one look forward to the day they return to Chicago (or thereabouts) to play a full set. Avenged Sevenfold - dare I say such a cliché? Um, yes. I’ll say it – they kicked ass and took names as fully expected. But most importantly of all, ok, just as important - Rockstar Mayhem Festival offers a stage for so many deserving bands to be discovered by new fans and enjoyed by the supporters they already have.
Total success, Rockstar. Looking forward to next year’s lineup.
*Top - Avenged Sevenfold
*Bottom - Korn
Having never seen this show, five minutes in I felt that I was really going to enjoy myself. Twenty minutes later, I knew that fifteen minutes ago I was correct in feeling so. As the minutes into the show increased, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee only got better and better.
The show, set in a high school gymnasium, starts with a janitor nonchalantly setting the clock on the scoreboard to a countdown while the house lights are still on and people are searching for their seats. Those already familiar with the show release scattered cheers knowing that show time is just around the corner. Sure enough the buzzer sounds as the theatre darkens and our attention is directed to a high school teacher who is clearly reminiscing about her days as a spelling bee champion. We are then introduced to the high school vice principal, a community service volunteer and a collection of nerdy, overachieving and socially awkward competitors and the cast breaks into the title song. Ms. Peretti then addresses the crowd from a center stage microphone and calls out for four other contestants who are randomly selected from the audience. The spelling bee begins.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee brilliantly parodies many of the distinguishing nuances of actual spelling bees, lightheartedly poking fun at the process and those involved while at the same time becoming a tribute that shows the dedication, intelligence and pressures involved. As each contestant approaches the microphone, Ms. Peretti reads aloud a fun factoid (often to the utterly ridiculous) about them. Vice Principal Panch reads the word to be spelled then, if asked, provides the language of origin, its definition and how it can be used in a sentence, which was always a hilarious highlight.
Playing Vice Principal Douglas Panch was Joe Dempsey who could be funny literally doing nothing at all. With a penchant for superior comic timing, northsiders, like myself, are very familiar with Dempsey’s talent to draw laughs as a Neo-Futurists alumn and his work in many other Chicago theaters. The exceedingly gifted Frances Limoncelli was also just terrific in every sense of the word as Rona Lisa Peretti while each and every cast member playing a contestant brought their own unique humor to the table providing a bus load of hoots and hollers to be had for a full night of entertainment.
Let’s not forget about the music. From the “I Love You Song” to “My Unfortunate Erection” to “Magic Foot” to the goodbye’s that were sang whenever a contestant was escorted off stage, we are never shorted of fun, catchy and witty songs.
Nerd or not, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is deliciously delightful from beginning to end and will be playing at Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook through August 17th. For tickets and/or more show information visit www.drurylane or call 630-530-0111.
Here's hoping I did not spell any words in this review incorrectly.
* Top Photo - (L to R)(Back Row)-Stephenie Soohyun Park, Jordan DeLeon, Guest, Zach Colonna, (Front Row)-Guest, Eli Branson, Carolyn Braver
*Below Photo - Zach Colonna, (Back Table)-Frances Limoncelli, Joe Dempsey
Steppenwolf Theater will be the testing ground for Kenneth Lonergan’s “This Is Our Youth” before the play goes to Broadway for its launch in September. Powered with young, talented actors Micheal Cera, Kieran Culkin and 18-year-old fashion blogger turned actress, Tavi Gevinson, we are taken to a lived-in Manhattan apartment in 1982 during the Reagan era. Archetypal slackers, “Dennis”, “Warren” and “Jennifer” are rich kids with all the drugs and self-indulgent worries a group of college-aged kids can ask for.
It all starts when Warren (Cera) intrudes on his self-absorbed pal, Dennis (Culkin) with fifteen thousand dollars that he had swiped from his father after the two had a major argument. Having spent some of the money already, Warren recruits Dennis’ help in trying to replace it before he returns the cash back to his father – hopefully undetected. Dennis, not at all cool with the fact that Warren has now made him accomplice, devises a hair-brained scheme where they would buy some coke, keep some for themselves, cut it and then resell it for a profit exceeding the amount needed to replace the full fifteen thousand dollars. Of course, nothing goes as planned.
In the meantime, throughout constant belittling of Warren by Dennis, Jennifer comes into play, a girl that awkward and nerdy Warren has had a crush on for some time. Plenty of clumsiness takes place between the two before common ground and mutual interests are observed. As the story develops we see plenty of layers shed from each character exposing various vulnerabilities.
The plot is not rocket science – simple and to the point, but the dialogue is plenty and engaging enough to capture one’s attention all the way through to where interest is never lost for a moment. For those whose youth enveloped those early 1980s years, plenty of references are made that will make you think, “Oh, yeah. I remember those – or that.” “This Is Our Youth” is a witty comedy that is refreshingly not overly dark, heavy and depressing. It’s a classic story of a bad situation that gets worse in a very realistic way. Cera and Culkin are a wonderful team and their chemistry is through the roof whether they are bickering or horsing around.
“This Is Our Youth” is a modern day classic that has been performed around the world and has had a revolving door of talent taking on its roles, most notably Jake Gyllenhaal and Anna Paquin during a West End run over a decade ago. Anna D. Shapiro directs this production to perfection, brilliantly capturing all the character nuances and bringing this story to life in a theatre-in-the-round setting, creating an atmosphere to which one feels a part of the play.
Funny, charming and sharp, “This Is Our Youth” is pure theatre bliss. Cera, Culkin and Gevinson are electric.
“This Is Our Youth” is playing at Steppenwolf Theater in the upstairs theatre through July 27th. For tickets and/or show information, visit www.steppenwolf.org or call 312-335-1650. Captivate
Hell in a Handbag Productions has done it again, bringing yet another hilarious musical to the Chicago theatre scene, this time to Theater Wit. Caged Dames is one bad ass campy ride behind bars at a women’s correctional facility where “shocking” is just another day in the life. Writer and Artistic Director, David Cerda, brilliantly lampoons the old 1950s prison flicks, particularly “Caged” starring Eleanor Parker who lead character “Mary Anderson” is clearly created after.
Caged Dames, first produced in 2006, tells the story of innocent-natured Mary Anderson who, by a series of unfortunate events, winds up in the Calumet City Women’s Penitentiary. While in prison she comes across plenty of tough cookies while contending with a shady and sadistic prison matron and a warden who believes she can reach out to the inmates with psychiatric treatment and other unconventional methods. Matron Emerson and Warden Hope do not see eye to eye.
AJ Wright fantastically directs this Jeff Recommended production while each of the main characters bring something thoroughly entertaining to the table. Ed Jones is amazingly funny (as always) as the hard hitting “Matron Emerson” while Sydney Genco as “Big Lorraine” and Elizabeth Lesinski as “Myrtle Price” get constant laughs throughout along with the rest of this talentedly funny cast including lead Elizabeth Morgan as “Mary Anderson”. The show also comes with a live band and a larger than life set that takes its audience inside Calumet’s murky and dank prison walls.
Caged Dames is a fun take on film noir and then some, literally delivering laugh out loud moments nearly nonstop from beginning to end. We are treated to witty song and dance numbers with bite, Cerda’s delightfully genius humor and a smash performance by a very entertaining acting troupe that is considered among the funniest in Chicago. Cerda’s knack for parodying film classics is unbeatable. He has a keen ability to know when to push forward and when to hold back to perfectly capture, in some cases, the tiny nuances of a character while in other cases letting bold personality exaggerations fly to the extreme without going so far over the top the humor is lost.
Tickets are very reasonably priced at just $18-$37 leaving little reason not to see this greatly amusing production. Caged Dames – now Ken Recommended, as well – is running through July 13th at Theater Wit located at 1229 W. Belmont. For more information visit www.theaerwit.org or call 773-975-8150.
Engaging and uproariously funny, Caged Dames is also plenty affordable, making it a show to enjoy on more than one occasion.
In what could be the sleeper theatre smash of the summer, One Hit Wonders has just about all the ingredients a show would need to have the staying power for an extended run. And Chicago theatre fans should hope that to be the case, as this is a production that can be enjoyed over and over again. Finely directed by Daryl D. Brooks, the audience is thrust into the middle of a hilarious play, a live concert and even a dance party that spreads like wildfire from stage to seats close up through farther back. Sitting high above the set, a rockin’ live band that is often incorporated into the show’s storyline, is led by musical director and drummer, Robert Reddrick. It’s only a matter of moments that one realizes this band can play with the best of them.
The story revolves around a show that is being put together based on popular R&B songs by artists that have, after releasing a successful hit, for the most part, vanished from the music scene never to recapture such fame and popularity again. In fact, though the songs played in One Hit Wonders were recognized immediately, it would be a challenge to know who the artist that created it. We are taken from the ground floor of this production (also called One Hit Wonders) to, as expected, a big finale full of flash and fervent celebration. In between there are many bumps in the road and several rotating mini plots that keep the story flowing ever so smoothly. There are plenty of laugh out loud moments and an arsenal of great R&B music delivered to the audience in rapid succession.
Each of the cast members are very accomplished singers and get their chance to show it in their own solo numbers and even in the beautiful harmonies heard in the background. Songs such as “I Will Survive”, “Ring My Bell”, “It’s Raining Men” and even a lively version of “Da Butt” by Mark J.P. Hood incite spontaneous cheers from the crowd throughout, and deservedly so considering their polished and wholehearted performances.
One Hit Wonders is a feel good story that is power-packed and bursting with a bevy of enjoyable performances. Perhaps R&B’s answer to Million Dollar Quartet, this is a show that truly delivers in every facet and will have the toes tapping and the hands involuntarily slapping the thighs to the beat.
One Hit Wonders is playing at Black Ensemble Theater through June 29th. Black Ensemble Theater is located at 4450 N Clark and tickets are just $55-$65 depending on the show date. For more show information visit www.blackensemble.org or call 773-769-4451.
*photo - (from left) Ta-Tynisa Wilson and Kelvin Roston Jr.
With so many ways to enjoy springtime in Chicago, The Sound of Music, currently being performed at Lyric Opera of Chicago, should certainly make your list of to dos. With acting heavyweight, Billy Zane, and Broadway star, Jenn Gambatese, leading the way, audience members are treated to a most memorable performance of the Rogers and Hammerstein classic that will have you singing that catchy little “Do Re Mi” days after you’ve seen the show.
As a general rule for success with this particular musical, it’s safe to say that to truly bring "The Sound of Music" alive on stage, a strong supporting cast is utterly essential, but most important of all, the show requires a vibrant “Maria” who exudes wholesome fun and is convincing as a free spirit. Done and done. Lyric Opera of Chicago's production of “The Sound of Music” has not only put together a brilliant surrounding cast from top to bottom, but has also struck gold with leads Billy Zane as “Captain Von Trapp” and Jenn Gambatese as “Maria Rainer”. Not only are the two vocally right for the roles; their chemistry together is nothing short of magical, adding a very believable element to this timeless story of love for family and country. And, yes, to alleviate any doubt, if any at all – yes, Billy Zane can sing, and quite well at that. Zane especially makes it crystal clear that he’s not just a big Hollywood name used to sell a show during his gripping vocal performance of “Edelweiss”. I should also mention that his acting was right on the mark too, but that should have already been expected. So, in a nutshell, Zane is surprisingly perfect as “Captain Von Trapp”.
Lyric Opera of Chicago has succeeded with this production and then some.
Gambatese grabs the audience immediately after her opening number, “The Sound of Music”. And though it is not yet clear where this “Maria” will take us, it doesn’t take long to find out. During her next song, “I Have Confidence”, her talents really stand out and her sparkling personality now officially beams throughout the house. At that point, it is apparent she has thoroughly captured the entire crowd.
The seven Von Trapp children are immediately likeable and, like the rest of the cast, more than vocally efficient. Christine Brewer adds a tasty punch as “The Mother Abbess” boasting her incredible vocal range while Edward Hibbert (of Frasier fame) is a sheer delight as “Max Detweiler”. Other standout performances would include Betsy Farrar as “Liesl” and Elizabeth Futral as “Elsa Schraeder”.
The set design is stunning as the audience is taken inside the Abbey then into different areas of the Von Trapp mansion and its courtyard. The set changes are equally impressive. One highlight has the stage seamlessly transformed from the mansion living room into the very festival in which the performing Von Trapp Singers escape from Nazi occupied Austria.
Many productions of “The Sound of Music” have come and gone and some have stood out more than others. This current production is one that stands at the top. A perfect Spring treat or a family night out, "The Sound of Music" at Lyric Opera of Chicago is an unforgettable experience that you can relish over and over again. This is a show that anyone of any age can enjoy.
"The Sound of Music" is being performed at Lyric Opera of Chicago through May 25th. For tickets, performance times and/or more information, visit http://www.lyricopera.org/.
It may not be the age of Aquarius anymore, but American Theater Company is currently bringing back the days when hippies believed love was the answer for everything, the war in Viet Nam was being protested with demonstration after demonstration, racial barriers were being broken and psychedelic drugs were in fashion more than ever. HAIR represents a time and movement that has certainly gone down in history as one of the most influential to date in American culture and politics. HAIR is a story of peace, love and the acceptance of people for who they are.
From its opening number “Aquarius” to its big finale “Flesh Failures (Let the Sun Shine In)”, HAIR will have you longing for the days of yesteryear when flowers in your hair was as commonplace as “Make Love Not War” chants, or simply yearn for a time you never got to experience but always wanted to. As you walk into the theater you are immediately thrown into the midst of a late 1960s social as cast members in striped bell bottoms and paisley dresses donned in beads and headbands are scattered throughout interacting with each other and audience members.
PJ Paparelli does a great job in his direction but gets just the right support from his costume, hair and scenic designers to really make the era come to life. And you simply cannot pull off a successful production of HAIR without a good band and Sam Brownson’s fuzzy guitar leads the way along with John Lauler on bass, Matt Roberts on drums and Greg Woods doubling on piano and guitar.
And then there is the cast.
Zach Kenney is just terrific as “Claude”, who is conflicted throughout the show once he receives a draft card to serve in Viet Nam. Kenney shows a vast range of emotions and is also able to carry the role vocally with just the right amount of finesse. Sky Seals also shows off a good deal of talent in his role as “Berger”, pushing the boundaries any chance his character allows. From top to bottom, the HAIR cast gets the job done well and treats the audience to fantastic vocal harmonies and exciting dance numbers for an entire 140 minutes.
Though there were a couple moments in the show that dragged, they are quickly overcome with fun songs, good laughs and stimulating choreography. There is nudity in this show, so be advised if that makes you uncomfortable. But HAIR without nudity would be sacrilegious.
My take? HAIR is fun and it promotes a beautiful message. Go get your hippie on and get over to American Theater Company and take in a night of song, dance, comedy and most of all – love.
HAIR is playing at American Theater Company (1909 W Byron Street) through June 29th and tickets are priced at a reasonable $48. For tickets and/or more information, visit http://www.atcweb.org/ or call 773-409-4125.
*Photo by Michael Brosilow - Candace Edwards, Sky Seals, Zach Kenney, Ella Raymont, Mary Hollis Inboden - V