Buzz News Chicago: Theatre and Concert Reviews

Ken Payne

Ken Payne

Sunday, 19 June 2016 21:32

Deathtrap: A Steady Diet of Curveballs

When it comes to an engaging mystery thriller, the need for finely-written, well-executed twists, turns and the unexpected are imperative. Afterall, a good suspense story on stage that has the ability to genuinely captivate its audience members can be one of the most enjoyable theatrical experiences we can have. In Drury Lane’s current production Deathtrap, we get just that. Deathtrap, written by Ira Levin in 1978 and later becoming a film starring Michael Caine and Christopher Reeve, is a whodunnit that pulls you in keeps you guessing so that just when you think you’ve figured it out, another curveball is thrown.

 

Upon entering the theatre, we are met with the interior of a Victorian house with a rustic interior. Swords, poster tins of plays and antiques such as Houdini’s handcuffs and collectible pistols decorate the walls and shelves. When looking closely, it appears the way the rafters are cut suggest we could be looking into a massive trap. 

 

It all starts when a theatre professor, a former flourishing playwright, Sidney Bruhl, takes notice of a play written by one of his students, Cliff Anderson. It’s brilliant - a sure fire hit. It’s been a looooong time since Bruhl has had a successful play and there is no reason to think he is on the brink of anything else that could make waves in the theatre world. When Bruhl promptly invites Anderson - along with his single transcript - to his country home where he lives alone with his wife, Myra, the suspense begins and only thickens as we wonder if Sydney is capable of murdering for a hit show. The well-written dialogue keeps one on edge, moving back and forth from friendly banter to that of a suspicious nature. Adding to the intrigue are Myra’s suspicions and the interactions of Helga, the Bruhl’s neighbor who possesses psychic abilities. 

 

Daniel Cantor as Sydney Bruhl and Aaron Latterall as Cliff Anderson are brilliant together as they lock horns in their highly engaging cat and mouse exchanges, each performing magnificently while McKinley Carter as Myra offers strong support and is able to cement the growing tension to enhance the audience’s intrigue even further. Though plenty of witty dialogue between players to incite a good share of laughs, Cindy Gold as Helga den Dorp is absolutely hysterical as the psychic neighbor, causing quite a stir with her “visions” that often includes exaggerated body language and heavy moaning. 

 

We are constantly asked the question on what we would actually do to gain success, no matter what has shown up in our past nature or not, should the opportune moment take place. Should the temptation be great enough, should we know we would get away with, let’s say a crime of significance, we generally rely on the thing deep inside ourselves that would not allow us to go to such extreme measures - to take such action - most people anyway. But what happens when one’s morale compass fails us them - is absent? What is one’s breaking point?

 

Deathtrap is a nearly perfect psychological thriller. Add that to the fact that this particular production boasts exceptional acting performances, a detailed set that draws one in before the show even begins and a healthy diet of humor, and it would be impossible not to recommend this fantastic play.

 

Wonderfully directed by William Osetek Deathtrap is being performed at Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook through August 14th. For tickets and/or show information, visit www.drurylanetheatre.com. 

Chicago is alive with the sound of music, thanks to the return of Rogers and Hammerstein’s classic musical now playing at Cadillac Palace that comes with a delightfully vibrant cast and an orchestra that is able to capture the uttermost essence of the original score. Directed by three-time Tony Award winner Jack O’Brien, The Sound of Music is in town for just a limited engagement so if you’d like to take in one of the most enduring musicals of all time, you had better act quickly.

Most know the story that takes place in World War II Austria where a “rebellious” nun-to-be, Maria, is sent by the Abbey to the home of the widowed Captain von Trapp, a wealthy and successful Naval officer, to act as the governess for his seven children. She enters a strict household where there is no longer a place for music but rather is closer to the environment found on one of the Captain’s sea vessels. This is a tightly run ship, where orders are barked and children answer to whistle tones. No one dares oppose the way the Captain runs his household, that is, of course, until Maria enters the picture. As the story progresses, Maria kind-heartedness slowly breaks through to the Captain and a whirlwind of love story takes place as the two realize they have eyes for each other.    

With the Third Reich threatening to take over Austria and enlist the Captain’s services, the story takes another turn when the head of the Von Trapp household refuses to support the Nazi ideal. The Sound of Music is a classic love story adventure that has won the hearts of millions not just by its compelling story but by its sensational soundtrack. 

Usually, it is the role of Maria that runs away with the story and is relished and admired so much by its audience. However, in this case, Ben Davis as Captain Georg von Trapp is so dynamic, both vocally and in his acting performance, that so say he stole the show would be a heavy understatement. Displaying a vocal range from a seasoned baritone to a gifted soprano, while so well capturing the essence of a hardened man softened then transfixed by the love, forgiveness and admiration of a young woman, Davis makes one wonder if it is possible to play the role of Captain von Trapp any better. 

But you do need a strong Maria or the play cannot work - period. Kerstin Anderson as Maria is strong indeed. Probably taking the role a bit on the nerdy side in a bit of a twist, Anderson still has the warmth and charm, and is frankly…likeable. Able to harness the much-needed free-spirited persona into her character with seemingly natural ease, she certainly flows gracefully in her role, and she, like Davis, can also belt. 

The supporting roles are also well cast from the Melody Betts as the Mother Abbess to Merwin Foard as the wheeling and dealing Max Detweiler. Talented too are the child actors who make up The Family von Trapp, particularly Paige Sylvester who plays Liesl and also Dan Tracy as Rolf Gruber, her love interest. Sylvester and Tracy especially light up the stage during their inspiring number “Sixteen Going on Seventeen”. 

With such amazing songs as “Do-Re-Mi”, “Climb Every Mountain”, “The Sound of Music” and “Edelweiss”, we are literally treated to one great after another. The Sound of Music is without question both vocally and visually entertaining. The set beautifully depicts the von Trapp mansion, helping to bring this wonderful story to life.

To put it simply, you won’t want to miss this one. 

The Sound of Music is being performed at Cadillac Palace through just June 19th. For tickets and/or more show information, visit www.BroadwayInChicago.com. 

 

Just on the cusp of the band’s latest release, Prayers for the Damned Vol. 1, Sixx: A.M. is already knee-deep into a full-fledged U.S. tour, last night stopping at Chicago’s Concord Music Hall before playing some dates in Europe. Not surprisingly, the band played their nearly two-hour set before a packed house of eager fans putting forth a well-balanced song list, taking key selections from each of their four albums including a handful of their newest, slightly untested material.  

Bassist Nikki Sixx has described the new release as an intermingling of 2011’s This Is Gonna Hurt and 2007’s The Heroin Diaries Soundtrack, and after giving the new album more than a few listens, he’s spot on. As already evidenced by the album’s first single “Rise”, the album once again carries the band’s now very well-known blend of energy, dynamics and melodic bliss along with meaningful lyrics that deliver a solid punch. Filled with raunchy, yet utterly tasty leads from guitarist DJ Ashba and singer James Michael’s versatile vocal range combined with a unified feel that only comes from a band that has played together for a decade, give or take, Prayers… might just be the best work from the band yet. Its message is simple but poignant – wake up, be aware, do not be complacent and scrap the existing state of affairs we are told to blindly accept. Like the band’s past album themes, Prayers – Vol. 1, produced and engineered by Michael, is also filled with optimistic undertones that truly inspire.  

Sixx: A.M. wastes no time in thrusting lethal blows towards its crowd, kicking off their set with the high-powered track “This Is Gonna Hurt”. James Michael, aptly self-assured as he continuously rises in the ranks as one of today’s best rock vocalists, delivers a true rock and roll performance hitting each note with precision, honing in with finely finessed power whenever called for. At the same time Nikki Sixx supports Michael with his ever-so-striking presence and flashy bass work while DJ Ashba and drummer Dustin Steinke respectively plug away on one track after another. Rounding out the band’s sound is a duo of backing vocalists Amber Vansbuskirk and Melissa Harding, adding a unique flavor to an already appetizing set. 

As previously indicated, Sixx: A.M. plays a somewhat generous dose of material from their latest release ripping into “Rise” early on, perhaps bringing down the thunder more so than any other on the album with an authoritative presentation of “When We Were Gods”. The new material went over as well as can be expected and then some while the familiar sounds of past albums were once again emphatically welcomed by a bursting house of loyal followers. Almost on cue, fans wildly cheered as Michael introduced the poetic and deeply moving “Accidents Can Happen” before Sixx and company jumped into the hard-hitting “Dead Man’s Ballet”, both songs coming from The Heroin Diaries Soundtrack. Theirs is a set that never lets up. From “Goodbye My Friends” to “Stars”, rest assured fans are thoroughly entertained, moved and inspired from the show’s beginning to its fitting encores “Skin”, a song that touches on the acceptance of yourself and others and Sixx: A.M.’s anthem that is full of positivity and hope, “Life Is Beautiful”. 

Seemingly unfazed by the difference in venue size he might be used to, Sixx genuinely appeared to appreciate every single second on stage now inserted into a much closer relationship with his fans, as did the other band members.  Close up and personal in this fifteen hundred seat or so venue, Ashba, Sixx and Michael clearly reveled in the experience, undoubtedly receiving a reciprocal vibe by the Sixx: A.M. faithful. With Motley Crue now in Sixx’s rearview mirror and no longer a side project of his, it will be interesting to see how Sixx: A.M. evolves. So far, based on volume one of the new two volume release and a commanding touring presence that is both youthful and mature at the same time, there is no reason to think that Sixx: A.M. wouldn’t be able to headline their own arena tours sometime in the near future – if they so desire. With a following that has already existed, and is continuously growing, thanks to the band’s electric material, it should be noted that Sixx: A.M. is NOT a band riding off the successes of their previous band affiliations. Rather, they are the full package – songs, image, musicianship and message, created by insightful musicians that happened to have previous music notoriety. Nonetheless, wherever they play – however many fans they play in front of, one thing is certain – Sixx: A.M. is a highly-passionate band that plays each show with heart and a sincere love for music. 

Currently, one of the best bands on the touring circuit, Sixx: A.M. has again made it look easy by putting out yet another album that rocks through and through. Prayers for the Damned Vol. 1 is filled with thought provoking songs compiled by a veteran presence that has been there done that, has had life failures and successes, has learned by its mistakes and now shares its hope with others. In other words, it’s real. 

 

Possibly one of the best productions of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Evita” that has graced the Chicago area is currently playing through June 5th at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire. Powerful, rich in musical and vocal performance and brilliantly choreographed, we are treated to a Tony caliber cast, as this production of “Evita” stirs the souls of audience members throughout in its intimate theatre-in-the-round setting. Superbly directed and choreographed by Jeff Award nominee Alex Sanchez, this electrifying production of “Evita” captivates from its opening ensemble number “Requiem” and continues to do so through the end of its second act. 

“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. From there the pair became of historical fame as together, they brought together “a new Argentina” much to the skepticism of Che, the iconic revolutionary. As the two ruled Argentina, Che is suspect that nothing has really changed for the better as promised by the power couple except for the wealth of the newly married Peron’s. 

Hannah Corneau is nothing less than triumphant as “Eva Peron”. Corneau delivers a spectacular performance that is sure to be remembered long after. Strong, passionate and eloquent, Corneau is seemingly meant to play the role of Eva. And for any production of “Evita” to succeed, there needs to be a convincing “Che”. Austin Lesch is just that and even exceeds expectations thanks to his hypnotic charisma and gifted voice. Local favorite and seasoned veteran Larry Adams also turns in a sincere performance as “Juan Peron”, Eva’s love interest and future president of Argentina. The set is impressive with rising platforms emerging from the stage when needed and props lowered from above, creating an imaginative setting of 1940s Buenos Aires while the dancing and music enthralling and the story engaging – all the components of a musical masterpiece.

While the leading actors are comprehensively engaging throughout, the ensemble is exceptional in their own right. This tightly knit collaborative is sprinkled with actors who have successfully taken on leading roles themselves at Marriott Theatre such as Brian Bohr and Jameson Cooper (this being his twentieth Marriott production).  At the same time Eliza Palasz as Peron’s mistress and David Schlumpf (Magaldi) round out the cast with solid performances in their highly relevant supporting roles.  

This tour de force production comes highly recommended. There is a reason that Andrew Lloyd Webber is the wealthiest musician in the world and “Evita” is one of his greatest works. And Marriott Theatre does this production to perfection. Produced and directed with a vision that would be sure to please Webber himself, this is a must-see show. 

“Evita” is being performed at Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire. For more information and/or tickets visit www.marriotttheatre.com. 

 

Who remembers the 1960s TV show “Hazel”? It may not be as easily recollected as such classics as “The Dick Van Dyke Show”, “The Andy Griffith Show” or “I Love Lucy”, but for those who loved 1960s sitcoms back in the day or have been introduced to them thanks to networks like ME TV, it would be hard to forget Hazel, the lovable, take-charge maid played by Shirley Booth, who treasured nothing more than taking care of the Baxter family. Now, some fifty or so years later Drury Lane Theatre presents the World Premiere “Hazel: A Musical Maid in America” as an ode to the silver age of television. 

Directed and choreographed by Joshua Bergasse, “Hazel” brings a new adventure to the dutiful maid and Baxter family. When Dorothy Baxter wants to go back to work much to husband George Baxter’s lack of support, enter Hazel who is hired to maintain the family’s home and take care of young Harold Baxter. A story in itself as Dorothy tries to take on the world of interior design with a corporate gig and wonders if she still has what it takes to succeed, the plot takes a twist when Harold believes he has captured a photo of a U.F.O. It doesn’t take much for word to get out of his spaceship sighting and for the Air Force to get involved. Kind of out there but remember we are talking about an era where U.F.O. scares were not so uncommon and TV was getting blitzed by series that included space ships and aliens. So the tie in actually makes sense. 

The evolution of Hazel continues. What began as a single-panel cartoon in the Saturday Evening Post back in 1943, was then brought to life in 1961 as a popular sitcom that went on to span five seasons. Hazel was not only known for keeping a spot-free home, but it was her big heart and droll sense of humor that made her one of TV’s most beloved heroines of the early to mid-1960s. In “Hazel: A Musical Maid for America” Klea Blackhurst admirably takes on the role as the tough as nails housekeeper, injecting just the right dose of humor and no-nonsense into her character while offering a dynamic vocal range in many of the show’s numbers. 

Both Ken Clark and Summer Naomi Smart are finely cast as George and Dorothy Baxter and are highly convincing as the 1960s married couple, gelling well with each other. Each also displays a finely tuned vocal presence of their own with Smart really lighting up the stage in her back to work number “Sheer Perfection”. The cast is well rounded and provides outstanding contributions from Ed Kross as Hazel’s love interest Bonkers Johnson, Casey Lyons as Harold Baxter and a strong ensemble that is highlighted by Bill Bannon and Meghan Murphy.

Boasting a very impressive, ever-changing set that really enhances the 1960s essence, “Hazel” is an entertaining spectacle as much as it is a fun, light-hearted comedy that gets its digs in at the male narrow-mindedness of the era and delves into the accepting of those for who they are. With plenty of energetic musical number laced with humor and wit, we are presented with a well-rounded comedy that comes with a nice measure of nostalgia.  

“Hazel: A Musical Maid in America”, a presentation full of clean humor (pun intended), a fun story and enjoyable big show numbers, is being performed at Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook through May 20th. For tickets and/or more show information, visit www.DruryLaneTheatre.com.     

 

Blind dates can be interesting enough but add in a few surprises and things can get pretty uncomfortable in a hurry. In Recent Tragic Events we meet a couple, Waverly and Andrew, who gets together for a date on the recommendation of mutual friends and as the night progresses they have more in common than they could have possibly thought. 

 

The date starts precariously. It's the day after the September 11th attacks and Waverly's twin sister has not been heard from. Waverly is somewhat certain that her sister would not have been at the World Trade Center during the attacks but still has a bit of doubt. Andrew, who manages a book store at the airport, is awkward and shy but quickly notices that Waverly has the exact same books as him when picking her up and their admiration for the same authors quickly creates a bond between the two. With Waverly upset about her sister's status the two decide to stay indoors to hand out and order pizza. It's not long after that down-the-hall neighbor Ron intrudes on the date. Ron is a happy-go-lucky musician who doesn’t seem to take too much in life very seriously. The three of them tune in and out of news broadcasts covering the attack, but try to keep things light-hearted though a heavy cloud overshadows their evening. Soon Ron’s married girlfriend joins the group hair disheveled and clad only in an oversized t-shirt and panties. She doesn’t speak, only nodding and making slight sounds in agreement or disagreement. 

 

The intrigue begins when Andrew tells Waverly that he had met her sister just two weeks prior at a bar. Recollecting his encounter, he tells Waverly and Ron that she had been discussing a position for a company located in the World Trade Center. Of course, that naturally amplifies Waverly’s worst fears. 

 

Recent Tragic Events is full of funny dialogue and subtle mannerisms, especially once Ron enters the scene, played hysterically by Maximillian Lupine who can induce laughter with the slightest of looks or gestures. Though Lupine gets most of the big laughs, Rachel Christianson is also hilarious – not so much as Ron’s girlfriend Nancy, but as Andrew’s favorite author, Waverly’s grandmother Joyce Carol Oates, who is portrayed by a sock puppet on her hand. Oates even knocks down a few beers with the gang during her visit if you can imagine a sock puppet chugging during a drinking game. Naturally when Joyce Carol Oates needs to use the bathroom, Nancy shows her the way, waits for her before returning together. Matthew Nerber also puts forth a humorous performance as the dweeby bookworm Andrew along with Laura Berber Taylor who displays a fine emotional range.   

 

The story is well-balanced with both the humor of the gang interacting (often awkwardly)and the drama that a tragedy more personal than expected may have taken place. Once really gets to like the characters, probably because there is a lot of truth in them. The question of free will is challenged, pondering if we really do make our own choices even when we think we do. This is brought to the surface in many ways not only with parallels to the September 11th attacks but even in the actors reading from a script after the “stage manager” alerts the crowd that the story could go in different ways by changing lines every time a chime is heard. Ron and Joyce Carol Oates also have a heated exchange on the subject. 

 

Recent Tragic Events is worth checking out. It is a show that will make you think past the many good laughs it offers. The characters work well together thanks to a well-assembled cast and solid scripting while the story keeps your attention, though it seems to run a bit longer than it should, quickly changing tone and opting to linger rather than closing on a prior opportune moment or two. 

 

Recent Tragic Events is being performed at Athenaeum Theatre through April 10th. For tickets and/or more show information visit www.athenaeumtheatre.org .   

 

Tuesday, 08 March 2016 18:59

Strawdog's D.O.A. A Nice Ode to Film Noir

In Strawdog Theatre’s final performance at the popular northside theatre bar, Hugen Hall, we are presented with Elizabeth Lovelady’s world premiere adaptation of Rudolph Mate’s film noir thriller D.O.A.

Intrigue is the name of the game in this whodunit and audience members are kept guessing to the end.

When Frank Bigelow walks into a police station to report a murder, the intrigue begins immediately as we find out the victim is none other than himself. Poisoned and running out of time, Bigelow frantically searches for the reason he has been targeted and the people responsible. Going over past events leading up to the present and speculating on all possibilities as to why someone would want him dead, Bigelow puts the pieces of the puzzle together, bringing to light a few surprises along the way. As the sixty-minute play unfolds, clues are slowly revealed at a nice pace and the plot steadily gains traction.

The plot has enough to keep one interested though not necessarily keeping one on the end of their seat. What makes the play special is its setting. Thanks to commendable efforts by costume designer Raquel Adorno, lighting designer John Kelly, sound designer Heath Hays, prop designer Jamie Karas and scenic designer Mike Mroch, the simple space is nicely transformed to which D.O.A. embodies a classic flatfoot detective style with scenes reminiscent unforgettable films such as The Third Man or Double Indemnity.

Capturing the smallest of details to add a genuineness to the proposed era are the women made up in black lipstick, the stylish 1940s suits and dresses, the smoke-filled room that creates moving shadows amongst the white spotlighting and the snappy dialogue filled with film noir jargon. Actors gracefully walk around the stage and seating area as the scenes quickly change, often leaving a cast member standing or sitting right alongside a member of the audience, making this a unique theatre experience.   

The play also offers its share of humor as a handful of scenes over-emphasize the drama with extended freeze frames, gazes and deadpan deliveries of cheesy lines.

Mickey O’Sullivan leads the capable cast as a desperate Frank Bigelow with fellow cast members contributing nicely – many in dual roles, especially getting strong performances by Sean McGill (Harry, Bartender, Chester) and Kelsey Shipley as Elaine/Ms. Foster.  

 

Strawdog Theatre’s D.O.A. is being performed at Hugen Hall (3829 N. Broadway) through April 5th. For tickets and/or more show information visit www.Strawdog.org.      

Black Ensemble Theater does it again, and by that I mean provides a thoroughly engaging and inspirational experience, this time with their latest production Those Sensational Soulful 60’s. Beautifully written and directed by the talented Jackie Taylor, Soulful 60’s takes a peek at the heyday of Motown music featuring music from Otis Redding, Mary Wells, The Temptations, Aretha Franklin, Jackie Wilson, The Supremes, The Four Tops and many more. Currently running in repertory with Doo Wop Shoo Bop (also written by Taylor but this one in collaboration with Jimmy Tillman), Those Sensational Soulful 60’s is a dance-in-your-seat musical treat that is uplifting as it is nostalgic. 

It is Black Ensemble Theater’s 40th anniversary and there is little question as to why they have succeeded for so long. Churning out one memorable production after another, Soulful 60’s is yet another triumph for this ultra-talented theatre company. Black Ensemble has always had a gift of not just bringing relevant music back to the forefront (and also writing worthy originals), but also delivering it in a way that captures its true essence, giving audience members the chance to feel the way they did when they first discovered these golden classics. Those Sensational Soulful 60’s is no different. 

A truly gifted cast helps in bringing the iconic sixties back to life. Melanie McCullough, Shari Anderson, Kylah Frye and Jessica Seals round up the inspiring group of women contributing to this production while David Simmons, Kenny Davis, Rashawn Thompson, Theo Huff and Kyle Smith take on the male vocals with the power and passion to which Otis Redding himself would be pleased. The vocal additions by each performing member cannot be compliment enough. Of course, the other half of the fun is watching the performers move – and move they do. Well-choreographed and well-executed, we are treated to several high energy dance routines, combining a rawness and precision that is thoroughly entertaining to watch, and gives one the feeling that they could easily be sitting in on a Four Tops concert in 1963. 

With “soul” as the production’s focal point, the ensemble even succeeds at honoring standard crooners Sammy Davis Jr. and Frank Sinatra and jazz legend Ella Fitzgerald, explaining they should be included due to the soulful nature of some of their material. Even a soulful rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” is performed – as Patti LaBelle!   

Kyle Smith starts the show off with a heartfelt reminiscence on Same Cooke – yep, a Chicagoan – and though he died at just thirty-three-years-young, left us with such influential songs such as “Chain Gang”, “Twisting the Night Away” and “You Send Me”. As the show progresses cast members point out interesting factoids about each artist to whom they pay homage. Touching on so many individuals that helped shape music as we know if today, the show is an apropos tribute to a magical and persuasive time in music history.  

Standing ovations frequent the show after several numbers and they are well-deserved. It is apparent the cast members are having as much fun as the audience is having watching them, which adds a genuineness that cannot be manufactured. The songs are certain crowd pleasers with a collection that includes such hits as “Try A Little Tenderness”, “Feel Good”, Mack the Knife”, “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” and “Higher and Higher”, each and every performer making their mark on many different occasions each time they uniquely honor a soul icon. With many wardrobe changes to highlight each moment, the dazzling costumes and wigs used are not only stunning, they depict the era accurately.    

Those Sensational Soulful 60’s is not only musically entertaining, it is also funny, as writer Jackie Taylor skillfully plant bits of humor throughout the show, including a happy-go-lucky Stevie Wonder being escorted back to his place on stage and a handful of sassy one-liners exchanges.     

Finely-tuned and rich in both quality and quantity, the family-friendly production of Those Sensational Soulful 60’s is being performed at Black Ensemble Theatre, located at 4450 N. Clark Street, through March 19th. This is a show that will not just have you toe-tapping and clapping from beginning to end, it also serves as a valuable lesson in music history. For tickets and/or more show information, visit www.BlackEnsembletheater.org. 

 

In this thoroughly entertaining and delightfully warm, bright and colorful production of Mary Poppins at Stage 773, NightBlue Performing Arts Company fully (and very creatively) utilizes their intimate stage area to bring this fascinating, feel-good family classic to life. Whether it be a well-choreographed dance number, a scene where Mary Poppins gracefully flies from side to side or just another busy day at the park, NightBlue creatively uses every nook and cranny in the Stage 773 space, making audience members forget they are sitting in a theatre that holds less than 150 people, in fact making the production a much more intimate experience without losing the grandness of the show.   

Now, fifty-two years after the release of the classic Disney film starring Dick Van Dyke and Julie Andrews comes this new heartwarming and spectacular production directed beautifully by Artistic Director David E. Walters.

A family is in distress, the children are spoiled and bored, troublesome, the mother is neglected and ineffectual, the father is cold and overworked and he is still reeling psychologically from the beatings he received as a child from his mean nanny, Miss Andrew, a.k.a. The Holy Terror. The family has gone through one nanny after another, none sticking around for very long. It has nearly become a lost cause.   

The children write a list of the qualities they need in their new nanny and much like writing to Santa Claus they ask that she be kind, care about them, give them candy and be rosy cheeked and pretty to look at. The father quickly dismisses the written ad, tears it up and tosses it into the fireplace. Not long after, Mary Poppins appears quite magically at their door ready for work. She quickly qualifies herself as the children’s wish come true with the charming number “Practically Perfect”.

Mary Poppins has true mystical powers that she uses to transform the children. A game she plays called “walk in the park” shows them the wonder of simple things from being out in nature. The simple, yet joyfully magical “walk in the park” also introduces the children to the concepts of accepting others of lower social standing like the chimney sweeps, and the soulful benefits of giving to the poor and feeding animals in the park.

Mary helps the mother realize her importance in the world that gives her the confidence and romantic enjoyment of life again. Mary also helps the father by showing him that his childhood nanny did not empower him with her brutal way of pointing out the worst and punishing him for every action. In the end he chooses putting the moment by moment happiness of himself and his family members first, before work and money no matter what the outcome and this personal rebellion ends up saving both his family and his career.

Even the archetypes of the “Old Crone Mother Mary” are honored here as the audience realizes that without the lessons taught by the old beggar woman feeding birds in the park and the mean old childhood nanny that none of these cathartic transformations into “good” living and happiness would ever have occurred.

No matter how good the costumes, set, musical direction and choreography, it would not be possible to pull off a successful production without correctly casting Mary Poppins. Not to worry, as Kyrie Anderson is flawless in the role. Just wonderful as Mary Poppins, Anderson sings beautifully and has the cool, perfect beauty that radiates the confidence and magic that justifies her introductory song, “Practically Perfect (I Am Perfect in Every Way!)”.

You also want a Bert than can dance, sing and radiate his love and curiosity for life as we’ve been so spoiled by Dick Van Dyke in the role. Ryan Dooley is convincing as Bert, likeable and charming as he whimsically interacts with Mary and the children and delivers some fancy footwork of his own.  

Caron Buinis who plays the multiple roles, most notably that of the mean nanny Miss Andrew, is outstanding. Buinis is nearly unrecognizable when she switches roles and has a fabulous, funny dry delivery as Miss Andrew that gets some of the biggest laughs in the show.

The family is well-rounded with rock-solid performances from both Joseph Smith (Mr. Banks) and MacKenzie Skye (Mrs. Banks). Sage Harper and Liam Dahlborn who play the children were also very good in their roles - not too sugary sweet or precocious – just the right amount of each when needed. Both children had a good sense of comic timing and contributed nicely with their pleasant singing voices.

Kevin Bellie’s choreography is exciting and uplifting. The big numbers really dazzle the eye and convey the magical quality of Mary Poppins’ spell while trying to help this lovely family. But be warned - the catchy, infectious show tunes such as “Step in Time”, “A Spoonful of Sugar” and “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” will most likely be running through your head over the next couple of days. You might even be talking in a Cockney accent for a while. 

The staging and costume design have some true surprises for the audience that I will not reveal so as not to spoil the effect. The magic of the film is really captured through unique lighting, makeup effects and the backdrop screen, which really helps in setting up scenes with its giant projections. The creative team’s costume design is superb, stylish and expressive with magnificent Victorian period lines and rich colors in every scene.

I highly recommend seeing this heartwarming and spectacular production of “Mary Poppins” for your entire family to enjoy and learn from together! It’s always nice to see theatre designed for all ages taking place in Chicago’s local and more intimate venues, so families should take advantage while they can. “Mary Poppins” is playing at Stage 773 through March 27th. For tickets and/or more information call (847) 634-0200 or tickets and/or more information visit  www.NightBlueTheatrer.com or www.Stage773.com.  

Pop Waits, currently being performed at the Neo-Futurarium, is a smart and innovative production that takes audience members on a journey into the psyche of rock stars Iggy Pop and Tom Waits. Co-created by Molly Brennan and Malic White, the two are also featured in this well-written play/musical, each giving dynamic performances that are as much high energy as they are genuine and nothing short of sensational. 

Upon entering the theatre, one is met with a couple musician dudes strolling around the stage with guitars area joined in song by a female accomplice whose velvety smooth voice is immediately attention grabbing. Song lyrics are being written on a chalkboard that creates the stage’s background.  Brennan and White casually sift about nearby talking with audience members before taking their seats, possibly even at the two-top tables set up along the edge of the stage. It’s casual yet interest in what will happen next already peaks. Not long after, the band kicks in and we are thrust into the minds and makeup of Waits and Pop as interpreted by the show’s creators.   

Brennan and White delve into the depression and pain of each rock icon explaining how it is transferred into music of which so many of us have identified. The possibility is thrown around that each have hidden behind their rock personas to avoid being…well, themselves – everyday people. 

Brennan more than admirably portrays Tom Waits (raspy voice and all) while White plays a keyed up Iggy Pop that can be electrifying at times. Aided by a fantastic band that features Elisa Carlson, Nick Davio and Spencer Meeks, the production often alternates from an engaging, and often humorous piece of storytelling to a full on concert in what we can imagine would be CBGB’s in its heyday – crowd surfing and all. Making the show even more entertaining is the fact that Carlson, Davio and Meeks frequently trade instruments and add a few other sounds such as the violin and accordion, showing a great range of musical versatility. 

Though drawing several laughs and musically pleasing, serious topic matter is explored in depth such as deep depression and suicidal ideation. What do you do when you fear seeing a therapist because an expert opinion on how fucked up you are will only confirm that you’d rather be dead than numbly plowing through this world? Yes, there are a few hard-hitting moments but plenty of laughs and music make this an extremely balanced production. 

As the show begins, we are alerted that the right to five Tom Waits songs for use in the show have been denied for the time being. That said, a handful of songs (and very good ones at that) written by Molly Brennan and Spencer Meeks are inserted into the production that fit ever so perfectly into the Pop Waits’ theme such as “Heaven’s A Bar in Chicago”, “Witches” and “Ode to Gretel”. There are also several Iggy Pop favorites that are performed including “The Passenger”, “Search and Destroy” and “Lust for Life”.

Directed by Halena Kays, Pop Waits is a very unique theatre experience that is thought provoking, darkly humorous and even audience interactive at times. Brennan and White pour their hearts into their roles taking on these tortured rock stars with a raw passion that Pop and Waits themselves would certainly be proud of.

Highly entertaining, Pop Waits flat out rocks. Pop Waits is being performed at the Neo-Futurarium through March 12th. For more show information visit www.NeoFuturists.org.    

 

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