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
Music enters our mind in a way that takes us over. It enters our ears; touches our soul with the melodies and rhythms that just brings everything to life. Toes will tap, heads will bob, and feelings of joy come over us in so many ways. The Auditorium Theater of Roosevelt University (50 E. Congress Parkway) was the setting for musical enjoyment. Bela Fleck and Chick Corea took the stage for an amazing night of live music and left everyone in awe.
On Saturday, April 5, 2014, the combined thirty-five time Grammy winners, Chick Corea and Bela Fleck performed as a musical duo. No other musicians were needed. It was two musicians, a Yamaha grand piano, a Deering banjo, and an audience full of appreciative and loving fans. The elegant performance is some of the most incredible musicianship ever seen. Just amazing musical gestures throughout the entire night with not one bad note played.
The setting for the evening was a one hundred twenty-five year old building that may have never sounded better. Since 1889, the names of great composers have been on the walls on both sides of the stage. Looking at some of the musical names of superiority; Haydn, Beethoven, Rossini, and Schumann it makes you wonder when you will see Corea and Fleck’s names on the wall of a theater as well. They are more than deserving of such an honor.
They opened the show with a piece called “Senorita.” They played in unison and complimented each other well as they began the song. First the piano would hold the rhythm while the banjo was played in a flamenco style. Then the piano would take over and do intricate runs of musical notes to please the ears.
“Joban Dna Nopia” is a tremendous piece from the album Enchantment. As they introduced the song, Bela jokingly commented that he “finally figured out” the title of the song. It’s an anagram for banjo and piano which was all that was needed for a clever laugh. The bouncy piano started out the song and the banjo pizzicato came in. Gentle stabs at the piano with the graceful banjo combined for the romantic cadences within the song. The subtle sounds could not be any better or written with more intelligence.
These two virtuosos just started this tour to display their elegant compositions. They played the title track from the album Enchantment as well. Everyone should have access to this wonderful music. The music is nutrition for the soul and provides great warmth within.
Mr. Corea talked about meeting Stevie Wonder and they conversed about playing standards. Stevie asked him, “Why don’t you play one of my standards?” As he continued the humorous story it was an introduction to just that. The song “Overjoyed” was covered by Chick and Bela in such a fantastic arrangement paying homage to a fellow musician and friend. As Stevie is an incredible arranger it seemed this piece was meant for this group of concert goers to see and hear. It was a perfect selection to perform and done with great passion.
Fleck played a couple of songs that he named after family members. “Juno” was written “in honor of his newborn son” and is just a sweet song rejoicing life and the love for his child. The refined-rhythmic patterns were tastefully written and arranged in honor of the boy.
“Abigail’s Waltz” was written by Bela for his stunning wife, Abigail Washburn, who is a successful banjo player as well. He introduced the song and described first meeting her. Washburn was from Evanston, Illinois and her family ran the Rainbo Roller Rink that was at 4812 N Clark St. The musical piece was a pleasure to hear in celebration of his love for her.
Toward the end of the show, Corea brought out a camera to take a few snapshots. He first took a picture of the crowd. He then turned around taking a picture of himself with the audience behind him. This guy is not just a great musician; he has a sense of humor for miles.
The show closer was “Spectacle.” Bela said they needed to count it off to enter the song. “It will be a four count as three is too few and five is too many. We will come in on the seven.” The fans got a laugh from his joke as they proceeded to close the show. Fleck tossed a bottle to the end of the stage for someone in the front row. He then asked if anyone wanted a piano. Many hands were raised of course.
Everyone within the theater had a memorable time. The musical display took over everyone’s heart in such a quiet setting that you could hear every note played with intimacy. The onlookers were very polite and respectful letting Chick and Bela perform.
Bela Fleck and Chick Corea were flawless as they performed to a packed house. Their abilities shined throughout the evening, amazing everyone, and touching the musical souls within. After the show ended, people dispersed into the streets grinning from ear to ear. This is a night that will be remembered for a long time to come. It was an evening of music that truly deserved to be seen and brag about being at for years.
In Christian O’Reilly’s Chapatti, what you get are two superb performances by two very gifted actors in John Mahoney and Penny Slusher. Directed by Artistic Director BJ Jones, Chapatti is the dark and often humorous story about the importance of companionship.
Taking place in Dublin, Ireland, we meet Dan and Betty, each lonely animal lovers, who cross paths and enter an unlikely, but much needed relationship. Dan has lost his wife, Martha, years earlier and plans to hang himself to be with her as he confesses that she needs him and is waiting for him and that she is “Incomplete without me”. As the show progresses it becomes obvious that Dan is projecting his own feelings on Martha.
Chapatti is filled with a gentle warmth at times – and can be quite cute, as the two get to know one another, but it also surrenders to heavy emotional conflicts, where stage veteran Mahoney really delivers. Really touching on how one must feel to yearn for a lost love, Chapatti depicts an astute picture of emptiness but also presents a sense of hope and how one can be freed from the shackles of despair at the most unexpected moment. Chapatti is about the bravery to move forward no matter how unfamiliar and scary it may seem.
Slusher and Mahoney are equally impressive in their performances, embracing their roles of a dog and cat lover and creating a believable romance by two people so very desperate to have someone in their lives. It’s a love heals all theme that kicks self-pitying oneself to the curb.
Chapatti is playing at Northlight Theatre through April 13th. For more information and/or tickets, visit www.northlight.org or call 847-673-6300. Northlight Theatre is located at 9501 Skokie Boulevard in Skokie.
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.
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.