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Ken Payne

Ken Payne

What’s better than a love story? Answer - A love story that takes place on the Los Angeles strip in the mid to late 1980’s during the height of hair band pandemonium. But what makes it even better is that Rock of Ages is a hilarious ode to such an important (though often mocked) musical era, filled with some of the most memorable rock songs of that era performed with plenty of spandex and Aquanet.

The story begins with a stereotypical approach. Drew,“born and raised in south Detroit”, has moved to L.A. in the hopes of fulfilling his dream as a rock star. Sherrie has moved to the City of Angels to become an actor. In the meantime, both are working at the infamous Bourbon Room while waiting for the opportunity to hit it big. At the same time, big time band Arsenal is losing their lead singer, Stacee Jaxx, for a solo career and the Bourbon Room is hosting their final show. If that’s not enough, plans are in the making to tear down the L.A. strip to have it replaced with shopping malls. While all stories unfold – and intertwine – the audience is hit with one rocking song after another from bands Warrant, Styx, Twisted Sister, Night Ranger, Journey, Poison, Damn Yankees, Survivor and many more.

Rock of Ages is filled with one big production number after another. Sherrie, who is dynamically played by Shannon Mullen, and Drew, terrifically played by Dominique Scott, team up together for power ballads “Can You Take Me Higher” and “The Search is Over” with the passion intended by the songs’ writers. With 28 songs to work with, we are given a host of creative renditions sung by a variety of interesting characters including Bourbon Club owner Dennis Dupree (Brian Ashton Miller) and “Franz” (Tanner Hussar) the oppressed son of the real estate developer that threatens the strip’s existence.

As much passion is inserted into each song is also a humorous element. And as blown away as the crowd is by Dominique’s vast vocal range and array of powerful notes, we are also taken with the stellar performance of Andrew Sklar who plays “Lonny” the soundman for the Bourbon Room but more importantly – the show’s narrator.

Whether you are a product of the 1980’s hair band scene or not, this is a show that everyone will enjoy.

“Rock of Ages”, currently playing at the Bank of America Theatre (18 W. Monroe), is loaded with funny characters and contains big, sexy dance numbers. Guitarist Paul Wiley (who shreds) leads the live band (also doubling as Arsenal) as they play all music from the rear of the stage, giving the show a real feel of a rock concert.

Whether looking to reminisce about your glam rock days gone past or if you are looking to simply rock out to a super fun show, “Rock of Ages” truly“ain’t nothing but a good time”.       

Campy, fun, sexy and totally rocking, “Rock of Ages” is playing at Bank of America Theatre through March 16th. For more information visitwww.broadwayinchicago.com.

Tuesday, 25 February 2014 00:00

Ring of Fire Walks the Line and Then Some

For Johnny Cash fans, Ring of Fire – The Music of Johnny Cash is a must.  But even if you are not the biggest Johnny cash fan in the world, Ring of Fire is still a rockin’ good time. Currently playing at Theatre at the Center in Muster Indiana (a quick 35-40 minute drive from downtown Chicago), Ring of Fire brings the life of Johnny Cash alive through his music and narration. All songs are performed on a train station set by a live band, two Johnny Cash’s - a younger and more matured version and June Carter. The story begins with stories about Cash’s childhood and continues with his journey though legendary stardom.

From the show’s early goings, you will find your toes tapping and your hand slapping the side of your leg. Both the young and older Johnny Cash’s nail the voice and are simply fantastic, taking turns singing leads on various songs and even sharing vocal duties on some. Michael Monroe Goodman plays the youthful Cash and riffs some very impressive guitar leads while Kent M. Lewis takes on the later Cash and narrates the show. Both Goodman and Lewis impress with their Cash-like vocals and charismatic charm. While the two Cash’s are each thoroughly enjoyable to watch in their own right, Cory Goodrich takes on the role of the spunky and spirited June Carter. One gets the feeling that Goodrich is having as much fun playing the role of June as the audience has watching her perform. Goodrich exudes the innocent joy and bliss June was known for and tackles each song with just the right fervor each commands.  And if that’s not enough, just watching the rest of the band is thoroughly entertaining – Malcolm Ruhl rocks the standup bass!

As the story itself goes, we get a good taste of Cash’s life though a bit more explanation on certain subjects would have gone a long way.  For instance, Cash is introduced to “white pills” that help him endure the long touring schedule, but we are never really taken back to find out if it became a problem, if he overcame an addiction, etc. It also seems that Cash and June instantly fell in love and married, which wouldn’t be exactly accurate. Nit picking aside, the story told through music and narration still does a nice job in capturing many of the pivotal trials and successes of Johnny Cash’s life.

Ring of Fire – The Music of Johnny Cash is a fun time from its opening song “Let the Train Blow the Whistle” to its lively finale number “A Boy Named Sue”. The show includes a bevy of hits played with their deserved passion and spunk including “I Walk the Line”, “Ring of Fire”, “Jackson”, “Folsom Prison Blues”, “I’ve Been Everywhere” and so many more.

Ring of Fire is playing at Theatre at the Center (1040 Ridge Road, Munster, Indiana) through March 30th. For tickets and/or more information visit www.TheatreAtTheCenter.com or call 219-8363255.           

       

Deemed by the American Film Institute as “one of the funniest movies of all time”, Young Frankenstein was bound to hit the live stage at some point. Finally, in 2007, creator Mel Brooks adapted his 1974 film for stage where, after a premier run in Seattle, the show hit Broadway where Young Frankenstein: The Musical got mixed results. Now, after a couple national tours, the show has found a new temporary home at the Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook. Drury Lane’s artistic director, William Osetek, took on the tough task of taking a show that didn’t exactly set the world on fire for most critics and making it his own in the hopes of making it more entertaining and relatable for the audience. Well, he did exactly that. Emphasizing on family and inner kindness and love, a perfect balance is created that makes the slapstick and silly humor work like a well-oiled machine without ever becoming overbearing. Mel Brooks should be very happy with this production.

Young Frankenstein: The Musical is the latest Drury Lane success story. The show has a slew of funny characters, songs that have plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, creative dance numbers, a stunning set with plenty of sound and visual effects and of course – a monster.

Ashamed of his family business that has gone on for many generations, Frederick “Fronkensteen” has tried very hard to remove himself from anything that has to do with life-giving experiments and his true Frankenstein name, and flees to New York where he becomes a Dean of Anatomy and enjoys lecturing his students on the brain. Shortly thereafter, he learns he has inherited his grandfather Victor Frankenstein’s castle and heads back to Transylvania. He is immediately met by Igor, who comes from generations of castle henchmen and urges Frederick to continue in his grandfather’s footsteps. Frederick picks up Inga, his new bombshell assistant and quickly realizes he is cut from the same cloth as his grandfather. But bringing back the dead is far from a perfect science as he finds out when his monster wakes with the IQ of a grape and shows bits of uncontrolled anger. Hijinks and hilarity ensues as Frederick scrambles to make things right while the townspeople want the monster destroyed.

There are just so many fantastic performances in this show across the board, but Devin DeSantis absolutely hits on all cylinders as “Dr. Frederick Frankenstein”. His comic timing is flawless and he simply takes charge of his role – and has fun with it. Jeff Dumas as “Igor” gets a ton of laughs because – well, the guy is just plain funny, and Allison Still as “Inga” is dynamite, especially when she gets to show off her vast vocal range in “Roll in the Hay”. But you can’t have a worthy production of Young Frankenstein: The Musical without a strong portrayal of the monster and Travis Taylor hit this challenge out of the park. Complete with 4-inch platform shoes, heavy makeup and plenty of bulky padding, Taylor is still able to gracefully dance to perfection in some pretty complicated choreographed routines. Taylor also adds the humor and charm needed to make the role effective.      

Young Frankenstein: The Musical is quick witted with plenty of one-liners and silly songs somewhat reminiscent to Spamalot. The humor from the classic film translates well to the live stage because it is performed well and it is ageless. It’s the perfect show to take one’s mind off our record breaking cold winter.

Young Frankenstein: The Musical is playing at Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook through March 16th. Depending on the seat and show, tickets range at a very reasonable $35-$49. For tickets and/or more show information, visit www.DruryLane.com or call 630-530-0111.              

Of the many Christmas shows I have seen over the years, Mary Wilson of The Supremes and The Four Tops may have collaborated for one of the best I have seen with their Holiday Spectacular. Amazing vocals, flashy costumes, classic band hits and a bevy of holiday song favorites made this night at Harris Theater one to remember.

The Four Tops, led by founding member Abdul “Duke” Fakir, kicked off the show with a handful of their own hits including “Reach Out”, “Bernadette”, “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)” and “Baby, I Need Your Loving”. Spin moves and choreographed  routines that help made them famous in the late 1950s and early 1960s were still highly present as the band motored its way through the night. Beautiful harmonies swept across the auditorium while The Four Tops tackled Christmas favorites “Silent Night” and “White Christmas” before Mary Wilson joined them on other beloved melodies like “My Favorite Things”. Wilson and Fakir also collaborated on one of the highlight moments of the evening when the two teamed up for a duet for an amazing rendition of “Baby It’s Cold Outside”.

Mary Wilson was simply astounding. Looking fantastic and sounding silky smooth she plunged into many of The Supremes most notable songs “Baby Love”, “Can’t Hurry Love” and “Stop In the Name of Love”. Wilson had the help of a 15-plus piece band, backup singers and dancers, making each number larger than life. Another show stopping moment was when Wilson sang a breathtaking version of “Have Yourself A Very Merry Christmas”.

The mood was certainly merry throughout the crowd during this festive and most memorable event. Audience members rose to their feet with regularity. Toes were tapping and hands were clapping. It was certainly a treat to see these performing legends work together and we can only hope that Mary Wilson’s Holiday Spectacular Featuring Special Guest The Four Tops will return next year. 

In fine holiday tradition The Christmas Schooner has once again set sail, this time for its third year at Mercury Theater after a twelve year run at Baliwick. Inspired by the 1912 shipwreck of “The Christmas Tree ship” in Lake Michigan, manned by Captain Rouse Simmons, The Christmas Schooner is a heartwarming story catapulted by strong family bonds and Christmas spirit.

Written by John Reeger and composer Julie Shannon, The Christmas Schooner is the tale of a brave sea captain of German decent who decides to ship Christmas trees from Michigan to Chicago through the treacherous winter storms. He is prompted to do so after receiving a letter from his cousin who tells him Christmas is not the same without a Christmas tree.  Tannebaums (fir trees) have always been a tradition in Germany and the many Germans in Chicago have not had access to them since leaving their homeland. There are plenty of trees in Michigan, so Captain Peter Stossel, along with his father Gustav, set sail to Chicago in the hopes that they will find buyers for the many trees they have bundled aboard. To the crew’s surprise, hundreds of Chicagoans are waiting for them, having already dubbed their schooner as “The Christmas Tree Ship”.

Karl Hamilton is just wonderful as “Captain Peter Stossel” generating a true genuineness in his role as a family man, a beloved sea captain and as the man who will sacrifice in order to make a difference. At the same time, Cory Goodrich (“Alma Stossel”) and James Wilson Sherman (“Gustav Stossel”) are also superb all the way around. Sherman exudes charm and kindness becoming the grandfather every child would be lucky to have. A very strong supporting cast is also key in making this such a delightful production with great performances by Travis Taylor as “Steve”, the Captain’s best friend and right hand man, Elizabeth Haley and Brennan Dougherty who plays “Karl Stossel”.

The Christmas Schooner blends classic Christmas songs with original numbers. In this lively production, we are treated to an intriguing story, polished vocal performances, big choruses and a handful of well-choreographed dance routines. Like it or not, audience members cannot help but be injected with a massive dose of Christmas spirit. This is a show that anyone of any age can thoroughly enjoy.

Performances are running at Mercury Theater (3745 N. Southport Ave) through December 29th. If it isn’t already, make The Christmas Schooner your new holiday tradition. For tickets and/or more information visit www.mercurytheaterchicago.com or call 773-325-1700.

  

If you’re looking for a way to add some life to your Monday nights, Barrel of Monkeys is currently providing a very entertaining option – and it’s for a worthwhile effort. Chicago’s Weird, Grandma is a wonderful production that takes the stories from third to fifth graders in the Chicago Public School system and transforms them into very funny plays acted out by their ensemble. The plays are performed verbatim of the received scripts, causing one hilarious – and warm – moment after another.  Barrel of Monkeys, an arts education theatre ensemble, has been working with under-served students in the CPS since 1997 and has since teamed up with many performing arts companies such as The Neo-Futurists, Baliwick Chicago, The Hypocrites and more. Directed by Artistic Director Molly Brennan, Chicago’s Weird Grandma is now playing each Monday night at the Neo-Futurist Theater (5153 N. Ashland) through December 2nd.

Chicago’s Weird Grandma’s highly comedic cast makes this already great idea work to perfection. The audience is treated to a series of skits throughout the one-hour performance, a different actor announcing the student writer’s name and school before each sketch. The sketches can be inspired by anything from each child’s imagination resulting in such sketches such as LEARN Campbell Academy student Camron F’s “Old Tommy and Brownie the Lost Cat”, Henry Suder School student Chris J’s “The Ant That Bully” and Dewey School of Excellence students Sarronda L, Jaleesa W and Anaya G’s “Bubble Gum Party”.

No two shows can be alike since audience members vote by ballot afterwards to both retain two sketches and remove two sketches, making this a production to take in more than once.

The terrific Barrel of Monkeys program teaches fundamental writing skills while helping in building self-esteem and confidence to low-income third to fifth graders who are predominantly African-American and Latino. The organization especially reaches out where most needed to serve children who battle the challenges academic skills, emotional difficulties and tough living environments. Such a notable cause coupled with a very funny theatre experience make Chicago’s Weird, Grandma a show entirely worth seeing. I should also add that this is a show that can be thoroughly enjoyed by both children and adults.

Tickets are more than reasonable at just $12 for adults and $6 for children. For more information visit  http://www.barrelofmonkeys.org/performances/chicagos-weird-grandma/.   

*Above photo - The cast of Barrel of Monkeys’ revue CHICAGO’S WEIRD, GRANDMA.  Photo by Beth Bullock.

Hello Dolly, the definitive, feel good play with the theme song that will certainly be stuck in your head, is now playing at Drury Lane Theatre through January 5th. If you are looking for a show to take in over the holiday season, then Drury Lane’s production of Hello Dolly should be on your radar.

Bringing in Broadway heavyweight Karen Ziemba for the classic role of Dolly Gallagher Levi is all the more reason to put Hello Dolly on your holiday wish list. Winner of a Tony Award in 2000 for her performance in the Broadway musical Contact, Ziemba is nothing short of sensational, brimming with charm and exuding loads of confidence while also captivating the house with her prized singing voice.

hello dollyaWe go back to America’s “gilded age” in Yonkers, New York where a scheming, but enchanting, Dolly Levi makes her living Meddling”, or more simply put, matchmaking. Though hired to find a wife for Horace Vandergelder, a grumpy but wealthy business owner, it soon becomes apparent that she plans to marry him herself. Horace wants a wife because “It Takes a Woman” to happily do all the chores around the house. Dolly pretends that she will be setting Horace up with a hat shop owner in New York City, Molly. But Horace’s overworked store clerks, Barnaby Tucker and Cornelius Hackl, also decide to spend a night in New York City where they can have a good meal, spend all their money, almost get arrested and maybe even kiss a girl. Dolly is quick to recommend Molly to Cornelius and recommends the boys visit her hat shop. From that point on it becomes a madcap adventure as the clerks run into their boss and try to avoid him since they were not supposed to leave the store.

The show’s biggest highlight takes place in a New York City restaurant, Harmonia Gardens, where the waiters perform a stunning dance number (“The Waiters’ Gallop”) before going into the classic song, “Hello Dolly”. It is a show of highly produced song and dance numbers with showtune standards such as “Before the Parade Passes By”, “Put on Your Sunday Clothes”, “Elegance” and the aforementioned “It Takes A Woman” and “Hello Dolly”.

Hello Dolly is a fun show that’s all about understanding and the coming together of people from different walks of life, taming the hard-hearted and seizing opportunity. The story is timeless and it sends a message of simple love. Karen Ziemba is undoubtedly fantastic as Dolly Levi, and her supporting cast is good and strong, with a special hat off to Jeff Diebold as “Cornelius” and Lee Slobotkin as “Barnaby”, who are both not only funny, but also get to show off their own dancing. 

Drury Lane Theatre is one of Chicagoland’s best places to see professional theatre productions that are wholesome, ageless and always quality. Hello Dolly is no exception. Tickets starts at $44. For more information visit  http://www.drurylaneoakbrook.com/

Patrick Swayze fans brace yourselves. Crazy for Swayze – a Swayzical is here and is running at Studio BE through October 26th. Crazy for Swayze is a fun tribute to the late, great Patrick Swayze – one of our most beloved movie stars in the 1980s and 1990s. Even if you were never the biggest Swayze fan on the planet, New Millennium Theatre Company’s Crazy for Swayze is a hilarious production with big laughs from beginning to end for everyone to enjoy – although it does help to know the movie references.

In this original New Millennium’s production directed by Steven Attanasie, all of Patrick Swayze’s greatest movies and characters are taken and are lumped into one insane adventure – and I really do mean insane. Not only do we see “Bodie” from Point Break, “Dalton” from Roadhouse, “Johnny Castle” and “Sam Wheat” from Ghost, but we are also blitzed with some of Swayze’s most colorful costars like Sam Elliot, Gary Busy and Whoopi Goldberg. Though writer Laura Coleman’s plot itself is a more than a bit nonsensical, it’s absurdness actually lends to its overall effect on the audience, which is simple - laughter at the utterly ridiculous. Theatre goers should not see this show with any expectation that the story is supposed to make sense, but with the intent on taking in an evening of silliness, which the show’s title should have already given away.      

Michael Sherwin boldly takes on the role of Patrick Swayze and though he is far from a mirror-like image of the pop culture icon, he more than makes up for it by capturing the essence of Swayze. Sherwin’s over-the-top portrayal of Swayze undoubtedly makes the show but the well delivered campiness of the supporting cast should also be recognized. Many of Swayze’s most notable moments are relived in this 56-minute show, and most of them work. In fact, you’re probably not going to find another show where crying out “Wolverines” or simply replying with a “Ditto” will make you laugh like Crazy for Swayze can.

In the vein of past NMT productions like The Texas Chainsaw Musical, Police Academy: Insurgency Emergency and Plans 1 through 8 from Outer Space, Crazy for Swayze could be the funniest of the bunch. If you are looking for silly amusement, easy hoots and senseless fun for a reasonable price then look no further. Crazy for Swayze: A Swayzical tickets are $18 but can be had for just $15 by pre-ordering through Brown Paper Tickets. For more show information visit  http://www.nmtchicago.org.    

Sunday, 22 September 2013 00:00

Evita Returns To Chicago With A Bang

The national tour of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Evita” is currently playing in Chicago through October 6th. Complete with a Tony worthy cast, this production of “Evita” stirs the souls of audience members throughout. The show is well directed by Tony and Oliver winner Michael Grandage and the dazzling dance performances can be chalked up to the choreography of the talented Rob Ashford, also the recipient of a Tony Award.

“Evita” is the story of Eva Peron who became Argentina’s First Lady in 1946 and remained so until her death in 1952. Married to Argentinian President Juan Peron, Eva was the country’s ambassador and became a true inspiration for its people. Hers is truly a story of rags to riches coming from one of the poorest areas of Junin before fleeing with a musician to Buenos Aires years later where her good looks contributed to her becoming a successful actress. In 1944 Eva Duarte met Colonel Juan Peron at a fundraising benefit for a major San Juan earthquake that claimed over 10,000 lives.

Caroline Bowman is triumphant as “Eva Peron”. Bowman delivers a stunning performance that is sure to be remembered long after. For any production of “Evita” to succeed there needs to be a strong “Che” and Josh Morgan exceeded expectations with both his charisma and talented voice. Sean MacLaughlin also turns in a credible performance as “Juan Peron”. The set is impressive, the dancing and music enthralling and story engaging – everything a brilliant musical needs.

“Evita” is playing at the Oriental Theatre located at 24 W Randolph. For more information and/or tickets visit www.BroadwayinChicago.com or call 800-775-2000.        

It was a night of great music, big laughs and best yet – it was all for an admirable cause. The Emporium Arcade Bar in Wicker Park was last night’s home a special event to benefit the Alzheimer’s Association - “The Brain Is a Terrible Thing to Waste”. Located at 1366 N Milwaukee, the Emporium Arcade Bar is lined with wall-to-wall 1980s arcade games making it all the more festive and challenging as one could play a quick round of Asteroids or Mortal Kombat before, after and between performers.

“The Brain Is a Terrible Thing to Waste” was organized by Danielle Gandhi to raise money for a cause she holds so close to her heart. Artwork on display was also for sale to raise money for the Alzheimer’s Association. The event was also put together to raise awareness about Frontotemporal Dementia, a rare brain disorder in the Alzheimer’s family. Gandhi was able to put together all the ingredients in order to make the event one to remember – arcade games, art, music, comics and plenty of beer. Commendably hosted by funnyman Andy Fleming, he went on give introductions to local comedians Lisa Laureta, Stephanie Hasz and James Earl Folks before making room for Bigg Picture to take the stage close out the stage entertainment.   

Bigg Picture played an inspired hour-plus long set which included a lively variety of covers such as Dishwalla’s “Counting Blue Cars”, Jimmy Hendrix’ “Foxy Lady”, Talking Heads’ “”Psycho Killer” and Live’s “I Alone”. Guitarist/lead vocalist David Biggs (hence “Bigg” Picture) even riffed out a Joe Satriani favorite “Summer Song” before drummer Jason Royal got to show off his chops in the energetic “Buffy the Vampire Theme”. The trio had a full sound and played with a youthful rambunctiousness that really came to light during one of their four encores “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right {To Party)”, a Beastie Boys favorite. Bassist Jeff Peterson thumped his way through Bigg Picture’s rockin’ set with polished finesse and command while at the same time impressing with his strong and spot on backing vocals.

The band finally capped off the night with a classic from The Police, “Message in a Bottle”, and though the crowd shouted for a fifth encore, it was time to pass the entertainment baton over to the house music and arcade games.  (Find out future events and info on Bigg Picture at  https://www.facebook.com/biggpicture)

“The Brain Is a Terrible Thing to Waste” was a successful event for a very worthwhile cause that we can only hope is put together again in the future.           

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