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This year is the 15th anniversary of New Dances, a series brought to life by Thodos Dance Chicago.  New Dances is forum designed to foster and support dance artists in the creation of new works, an often challenging and expensive ordeal. In addition to providing support for dancers and choreographers, it also incorporates upcoming lighting and costume designers, all from the Chicago area, bringing together a comprehensive line up from emerging talent in the Chicago dance community. Over the past 14 years, New Dances has lead to artists receiving fellowships for graduate dance studies, starting their own companies and having their work commissioned across many professional settings.

With 9 pieces, this 15th anniversary show had a great variety that could entertain even the most dance illiterate. There were two performances of New Dances at the Atheneum Theater, July 18th and 19th.  With a small cast of dancers, the curtain dropped after each piece and the house lights came on, giving the audience a chance to discuss their thoughts on each piece throughout the show.

A few of the earlier pieces, heavily rooted in the contemporary style of the Thodos Dance Chicago company, shared many common characteristics (even a few of the same exact moves) which made me a little nervous about potentially seeing 9 pieces that were all too similar. While each was extremely well executed and beautifully performed, it felt like too much of the same for my tastes.

Luckily things took a huge stylistic turn with “All You Need Is”, choreographed by Taylor Mitchell.  The cast of 8 dancers, adorned in simple black pants and black and white striped tops performed a French inspired piece centered on the theme of love. The work was visually stunning, combining great staging and strong choreography with hundreds of small red paper hearts being strewn around the stage in coordination with the movement and music.  It combined very traditional, ballet inspired moves with a quirky twist that reminded me of watching an old silent movie. It brought the audience to life with laughter and love.

Another of my favorites was “Miriam” choreographed by Brian McGinnis. Set to original music, this piece was made up of a solo and two duets each unique but flowing together wonderfully. The first duet portrayed a couple in the midst of an affair but with a charmingly hilarious story. The song features singers who couldn’t stop laughing, and their silliness translated into the dances with great eccentric elements to the movement. The second duet seemed to ebb and flow around the stage with an effortless grace that made your heart feel light; an excellent contrast to the other duet and it rounded out the piece nicely.

The final of my top list was “Something To Do With Five”; a smooth, mellow, contemporary performance by 5 male dancers choreographed by Jessica Miller Tomlinson. The lighting, costumes, music and movement all elicited this thought of molasses, sweet tea and summer nights.  The piece used creative lighting, and interesting staging as a compliment to the dancers and the movement. Throughout, there were great moments but the ending was so original, it left a great final impression. With the five men lined up at the front of the stage, the red velvet curtain fell to just inches over their head, the lights dropped to a simple backlight and the a hush fell for the final moments of the piece.

While there were some great dancers and excellent choreography, a surprising standout of the whole performance was the lighting design. The unique lighting added an amazing dimension to all of pieces and really brought it all together.

For fans of dance, or those interested in expanding their scope of dance performances, New Dances is a great show. And who knows, you may catch the first time showing of a piece destined to international fame!

While you may have missed New Dances this year, you can still catch Thodos Dance Chicago at other performance this year. For more on Thodos Dance Chicago and future performances by the company check out thodosdancechicago.org.

Published in Theatre Reviews

Although a muggy night, the crowd arrived in force at Ravinia.  Chicago natives, the Plain White T’s made their Ravinia debut this past Saturday night.  A pop-punk band since 1997, it’s surprising that these gentlemen have only now just graced this stage.  It was evident that their signature tracks, in their pop-punk style are the back beat in the lives of so many. “1234” and “Hey There Delilah” raved in echoed singing voices, and dancing couples waved across the grass and over the hills of Ravinia.  Know that their most recent album, released earlier this year “American Nights” is another great summer album to rock with your windows rolled down. Their new single “Rhythm of Love” got the crowd up on their feet.  Tunes like “Stay” and “Heavy Rotations” are high energy with new beats, great heat, and are easy to sing along to.  For the love of the music, and for the heart, take a look at this soon to be your favorite new album.

Another album release coming out this year in August, introduces us to a new side of Rob Thomas, the headlining act for the evening.  Known for being a part of Matchbox 20, and for his hit song with Santana “Smooth”, this pop prince is roaming his way toward country.  The crowd was on their feet for most of the heated show (as Rob, changed his shirt half way through). Old and new tracks, “Lonely No More,” “Boom Shake” and even a remix of “Let’s Dance” brought cheers for Rob and his band, and sing-alongs from the crowd.  The first single “Trust You” from his new album “The Great Unkown” was an introduction to all the great things to come.  You only get “One Shot” to make a night at Ravinia, Rob heated up the stage and set fire to the release of his upcoming album.

Check out upcoming Ravinia shows at www.Ravinia.org.

Published in In Concert

At the young age of 73, Aretha Franklin is still the "Queen of Soul."

I am not sure what I was expecting. Aretha Franklin's show over the weekend was the first time I visited the Ravinia Festival. The venue was like a mini-Disney World with a few ice cream stands and dining options to satisfy any picky eater. The beautifully manicured lawns were impressive to the eye as were the multitude of high end high-end picnic set ups created by many of the fans. Ravinia is definitely a cozy spot for family, friends, and dates with the festival lawn area being BYOB for adult beverages to go with the food brought if decided to do so. 

The concert started on time with Franklin’s large conductor-led orchestra consisting of saxophonists, trumpet players, trombonists, and many more instruments, every ready to compliment her amazing vocals. You could quickly see the love and respect the band members had for Aretha. Grandly entering the stage in a beautiful silver gown she not disappoint! The legendary Aretha Franklin flawlessly performed her well-known songs such as “Chains of Fools”, “Natural Woman”, and many more classics before closing her full and thoroughly entertaining set with “Respect”. 

Between songs Aretha effortlessly engaged the crowd, the veteran performer that she is. She talked about her love for Chicago and of some of her favorite haunts which included Josephine's Gumbo from Captain Hard Times in the South Side, also mentioning that she heard Portillo's was a pretty good place for a Chicago dog. 

Ms. Franklin took us to church with her music when she sang about being cured of cancer in 2013. It was a really powerful moment in the concert and she gave a special thanks to Reverend Jesse Jackson and her niece who were both in the audience. She was humble and her voice unblemished. 

Check out the many shows coming up in Ravinia at https://www.ravinia.org/Calendar. Since Aretha has a special connection with Chicago, I anticipate that she will make a stop around our great city next time around. It's a show for people of all ages and those who like to dance. She is simply timeless. 

Published in In Concert

Lasting imagery, profound acting and exciting characters set the stage for Lookingglass Theatre Company’s latest production, Moby Dick, the classic tale of the monomaniacal plight of Caption Ahab who is hell bent on destroying a fierce sperm whale who cost him his leg, even at the expense of his own crew. As the story goes, a crew is assembled for a whaling expedition only to find out their captain has another agenda – revenge. Though the play successfully conveys a sense of unity we also feel a dark loneliness that feels foreboding from the story’s beginning.

Lookingglass Theatre is brilliantly transformed to effectively capture the essence of the ocean with the use of flowing fabrics and strategic lighting and uses more than a touch of creative genius in order to pull off a believable whale. As the story unfolds, three stoic red-headed women become part of the set sometimes enhancing the dialogue with their ghostly words of warning and at other times representing the stormy waters or the whale itself. The three are as haunting as they are graceful, dreamily heightening the story’s focus at just the right moments.

Still, it would be difficult to present a plausible production of Moby Dick without a fiery Captain Ahab, but, thankfully, Lookingglass has found their man in Christopher Donahue. Donahue, seemingly born for the role, is as blistering as they come and brings the doomed captain to life with the vigor and fervor deserved for such a classic character.  

mobydick-magnum 

Jamie Abelson excels as character/narrator Ishmael. A seasoned sailor who has served on a number of merchant ships, Ishmael finds himself aboard a whaling ship for the first time and plunged in the midst of Ahab’s quest.  Also, outstanding is Anthony Fleming III as Ishmael’s faithful companion, Queequeg, a South Pacific Ocean native whose loyalty is to truly be admired.

Along with the tremendous acting performances and scenic bliss that thrusts us into an imaginative world of high seas adventure, several acrobatics feats also play large in creating such a high level of excitement in this play. Actors are able to utilize the large stage area as they scurry up the walls, balancing high above the crowd, or performs stunts on the enormous whale skeleton that envelops the theatre’s interior.

Splendidly adapted and directed by ensemble member David Caitlin, Moby Dick is a true homage to the classic tale of revenge written by Herman Melville in 1851. A production for the entire family to enjoy, Moby Dick is being performed at Lookingglass Theatre through August 28th. For tickets and/or more show information, visit www.LookingglassTheatre.org.

Published in Theatre Reviews
Friday, 19 June 2015 00:00

"On Your Feet!" Lives Up To Its Name

Aptly named, “On Your Feet!” is on its way to Broadway and officially launched their World Premier right here in Chicago at the Oriental Theater. The show tells the story of Gloria and Emilio Estefan through music and dance, laughter and tears. There were so many things that I enjoyed about this show it is hard to figure out where to start!

Written by Alexander Dinelaris (most recent credits include the screenplay for the Oscar winning “Birdman”), the story moves fast, initiated as a flashback from the tragic tour bus accident that landed Gloria in the hospital with a spinal cord injury. We are introduced to a young Gloria, played by the Alexandria Suarez, on laundry day in Miami. In a flurry of dancing, singing and swirling pastel sheets, Glorita grows from a young girl to a teenage Gloria, played by Ana Villafane, who wows us with a powerhouse voice that will blow you away.

My favorite character of the show is Consuelo, Gloria’s spunky grandmother played by Alma Cuervo. She is the catalyst that brings Emilio and Gloria together, supports her shy granddaughter to follow her dreams, and delights the audience with her quirky one-liners - my favorite being “terrible shorts, great culo!” after our first introduction to a young, short-short wearing Emilio, played by the handsome Josh Seggara.

Gloria Estefan on the red carpet for the World Premier of "On Your Feet!" Photo by Michelle Reidy

Hit after musical hit carries us through the first act as we watch Gloria break out of her shell and take the spotlight while her and Emilio quietly fall in love. As their lives move forward, we learn more about her father’s time in the Cuban police force and then the American military and her mother’s lost dream of singing.  The entire story is supported by energetic dancing, effortlessly changing set design and costumes that transport you from Cuba to Vietnam to Miami.

While first act ends on a high note as Gloria successfully crosses over into the English speaking market with a performance of “Conga” that gets everyone in the theater dancing, the second act deals with more serious challenges as the relationship between Gloria and her mother is broken and rebuilt, and the family deals with the aftermath of the horrific bus accident.  In scenes that will bring tears to your eyes, we learn more about Emilio’s escape from Cuba and say goodbye to family members who have passed and witness Gloria’s triumphant rise back to stardom.

Villafane and Seggara are fantastic as Gloria and Emilio. Villafane’s incredible singing and dancing makes you believe it was actually Gloria Estefan you are watching. Seggara is spot on in his acting and his lovable Cuban accent, which makes up for his singing that is not his strongest asset.  The use of projected images and sets that slide on and off the stage with ease, created a wonderful backdrop for spot on dancing by a core ensemble. The choreography, by Sergio Trujillo, was rooted in Latin dance, with impressive moves that were performed completed in sync with style and flair.

Overall, I can whole-heartedly recommend this show to anyone looking for an exciting, fast paced show that will have you dancing in your seat and on your feet! The show is running at the Oriental Theater through July 5th so grab your tickets soon – you will not want to miss this!

Published in Theatre Reviews

I really enjoy seeing shows at Lifeline Theatre partly because they always have very cool and complex sets that they make the most of and partly because of the unique little touches they add to make the theatre more user-friendly, like a shuttle to take you to their free parking lot in a neighborhood where finding parking right before show time can be impossible.

I also like the way they put blankets on each seat in case you get chilly during the show! They also have the most reasonably priced snacks ever in a theatre where a soda or snack only costs one dollar instead of three for a bottle of water and five for a bag of trail mix like at the bigger theatres. All these details along with consistently quality productions make this a very welcoming theatre space to frequent as well!

“Soon I will Be Invincible” is based on the book by Austin Grossman and this dynamic production at Lifeline Theatre is no exception because set designers (Alan Donahue) and lighting (Becca Jeffords) have done a terrific job transforming the space into a multidimensional futuristic world with many visually exciting set, light and sound changes.

I thought the story would be more suited to young people and Comic Con nerds and in many ways the play was a comic book lover’s dream come true, but it also held a lot of interest for older playgoers in that it explored the psychological struggles of a team of superheroes who are past their prime and trying to make a comeback of sorts by saving the world once again from Dr. Impossible - played with a lot of great “evil” presence and humor by Phil Timberlake.

Fatale is a newbie to the superhero team, originally created by Dr. Impossible himself and is a replacement because one of their main members - Corefire- was missing in action and presumed dead. Fatale was played with great sensitivity and with a great singing voice by Christina Hall.

Fatale describes at length her sadness at not having an exciting and mythic “origin story” like the other super heroes. Fatale only remembers that she was in a car accident in Brazil and when she awoke had been implanted with a large numbers of bionic parts by Dr. Impossible. Fatale talks about the constant pain she is in from having all of these mismatched and unfixable, metal parts as part of her human/robotic clone body which I really think many of us older play goers also feel in our own bodies as we age and begin to lose our “superpowers” like running, playing certain sports and climbing stairs with ease, etc.

 Also, the whole theme of wanting to “save the world” and trying and failing to do so over and over again is a theme many theatre goers of my generation identify with.  Every day there is more news coverage of very real evil villains/people/ tyrants, but we as peaceful citizens with no apparent “superpowers” are thwarted from actually doing anything to help the victims around the world. Perhaps this is because of the “superpowers” to kill and destroy life that these criminals actually do have, including chemical warfare, heavy artillery, and now the prevalence of kidnapping, torture and rape (termed “child marriage” in third world countries), which is actually allowed by their judges and armed “police”.

I also enjoyed that the play introduces the element of magic as a power heretofore unrecognized by even the superheroes because it does not have the same clear destructive effects as a giant burning hot laser beam, for example.

In the end Fatale does help save the day and realizes that she is happy enough in the now moment to stop searching for her “origin story” and live amongst the superheroes with self-confidence and pride no matter whom she was originally created by or why.

I liked the songs in the play; I felt they really added a good flow and much more human and flowing emotional storytelling to what could have been an unpleasantly “robotic” and slightly stiff production in its execution.

I highly recommend this play for young and older viewers alike. I know that comic book enthusiasts will feel that they are seeing a rare treat created just for their enjoyment and others will appreciate the very important subtext in this play which is that you don’t have to be a successful “super heroine” twenty-four hours a day in order to feel good about yourself and whatever natural powers you do have for creating good in your life.

“Soon I will Be Invincible” is being performed at Lifeline Theatre through July 19th. For tickets and more information, visit www.lifelinetheatre.com.

Published in Theatre Reviews

Walking into the Harris Theater for the Hubbard Street Dance Summer Series, it is snowing on stage. Not real snow, of course, but feathers slowly fall, coating the stage with what resembles a light dusting of frost that we Chicagoans are so familiar with. The theater is filled with chatter as people are taking their seats, and as the feathers begin to slow, the theater becomes silent. And with a single feather that floats to the stage, the lights dim and the curtain rises.

Large black walls on wheels are the only stage props during the opening ballet Extremely Close.  The dancers push, pull, and move the walls while they dance, disappearing and reappearing behind them as they do so. During the first half of the ballet, the dancers are slightly out of sync. At times they would come together seamlessly, and other moments struggled to dance as one.

A pas de deux have an emotional exchange toward the end of Extremely Close. The couple continuously go back and fourth between passionate embraces and cold exchanges. It is only at the end, when the black sheet is pulled over the woman’s limp body that you wonder about the deep undertones of abuse.

The second act, Still in Motion, opens to the stage set as a white wave with a blue neon light at its crest. About a dozen dancers, ready to begin, frantically run off stage before the music starts, only to leave only one solo male dancer. There are times throughout the performance, as groups enter and leave the stage, where the music stops, but the dance continues. Showcasing pure movement, with only the sound of feet to the floor, is as intriguing as it is uncomfortable. The dancers are perfectly in time during the moments of silence, which makes it that much more mesmerizing.

The third, and by far most impressive ballet, Little Mortal Jump, starts with a French couple and their love story. The music is happy and light, the dancing uplifting and spirited. You almost don’t notice the change in tone as the narrative fades away, and the large black walls from the first act make their way back on stage. The classical music and passion on stage overwhelms. At one point, as the lighting becomes orange and hot, the dancers begin to move in slow motion, so controlled and smooth, you almost don’t notice this is happening right away. The moving walls once again let people appear and disappear as if out of nowhere, and make this piece hypnotizing. As the music, lighting, and dancing all come to a crescendo, and everyone is waiting for one last fouette or grand leap, the lights cut, and the audience, after taking a breath to gather what just happened, explodes into applause.  

Alejandro Cerrudo has proven himself as an amazing choreographer with this series. Cerrudo's background as a dancer only contributes to his understanding of stage presence and movement. The lighting by Michael Korsch should also be recognized in how it manipulates the emotion and power of this performance, as well.  Summer Series is an exciting must see this season.  For upcoming Hubbard Street Dance events, visit http://www.hubbardstreetdance.com/.

Published in Theatre Reviews

Cor Theatre this time brings its latest production, “Love and Human Remains”, to the intimate Rivendell Theatre in Edgewater. A psychological thriller that made waves in the 1990s for its daring and gutty material, “Love and Human Remains” is a story that revolves around a handful of Chicago couples amidst a serial killer on the loose.

It takes a good part of the first act before we get a good feel of who’s who in this play. Beginning with a dominatrix who tales the tale many of us have heard at some point about Cuba Road where a young man is murdered in the woods while trying to get help after car trouble strands he and his girlfriend, we are soon introduced to roommates David and Candy to which are the main focus in the story. David is gay and is quick to use biting sarcasm every chance he gets. A former child actor now turned waiter, he is unattached and willing and able to find quick sex anywhere he can. Candy is looking for love and though attractive and seemingly kind-hearted, she doesn’t seem to have much luck. As the story progresses David’s tall and good looking friend Bernie is introduced, he often appears drunk and bloody, chalking it up to bar room fights due to his propensity to hit on unavailable women. Meanwhile the bodies are adding up.

Written by Brad Fraser and directed by Ernie Nolan, this is a play with much crotch grabbing and excessive nudity as the lesser known worlds of S&M and underground gay hook ups are also explored. It is a story of instant gratification, obsessions, guilt and consequence. It is also a story of hopefulness and finding companionship.

Andrew Goetten as David and Kate Black-Spence really steal the show with their electrifying performances. Goetten delivers Jeff Goldblum-like musings and over-analyzed histrionics, hitting perfectly called for tone inflection and sentiment on cue to project his feelings ever so effortlessly. At the same time, Black-Spence is able to channel her emotions in just the right way so that we can really feel for her character’s sadness, guilt, loneliness and hope.

The first act moves a bit slowly and we kind of wonder if the ever present ensemble chants and comments in the background are necessary or detracting from the play’s story. By the second act it becomes apparent the play would probably be better if acted out as a traditional presentation piece rather than being an ensemble piece whereas surrounding characters in the background are constantly chiming in along or around the main scenes. Still, the play does come together enough in the second act to where its intrigue becomes the focal point and we crave to see the outcome for each character.   

It’s dark, sexual and is funny in more places than one would expect. In time, it even becomes rather absorbing as a thriller.

“Love and Human Remains” is being performed at Rivendell Theatre in Edgewater through July 11th. For tickets and/or more information visit ww.CorTheatre.org.  

Published in Theatre Reviews
Thursday, 04 June 2015 00:00

"Once" Is Not Your Average Musical

ONCE has found its way back on the stage with an electric performance at the Cadillac Palace. With eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical and winner of the 2013 Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album, ONCE brought wit, attitude, and energy to Chicago.

ONCE tells the tale of life and love and the power of music. When a heartbroken, Irish musician meets a spunky, Czech immigrant, his world gets flipped around. The “Guy”, Stuart Ward, tells himself he is no Bono, and that pursuing a music career is pointless. The “Girl”, Dani de Waal, tells him that his talent will send him far and wide. Both connect through their love of music, which develops into a deep friendship. They write songs together, she instills confidence in him, and he falls head over heels for her. Quickly, their situation becomes complicated, and their modern romance is cut short when reality steps in.

ONCE is unlike your average musical. The instruments were on stage, rather than being in the pit. An ensemble cast of actors and musicians seamlessly transitioned into each scene. Their timing and demeanor impeccable. The set barely changed, only when a Hoover or piano rolled out on stage. Each actor remained on the wings of the stage (instead of going backstage), instruments in hand, as if they were football players waiting on the sidelines at their big game.

The Guy and the Girl (Ward and Waal) battled against each other with playful banter and sang inspiring duets together. Both of their voices blended into harmonious perfection, add the piano, and it was just beautiful. The 2007 Academy Award for Best Original song for “Falling Slowly” (starring Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová) was from the hit soundtrack. Whether it was sung as a duet, or with all cast members, it filled the entire theatre with energy. The “Falling Slowly” opening line “I don’t know you, but I want to” sums up the Guy and the Girl’s strong feelings for each other, and by the end of the story, both know each other too well.

The Cadillac Palace stage transformed into an Irish pub, complete with the mismatched wooden chairs, a bar, and rusty mirrors which covered the walls of the pub. As a surprising bonus, the audience is invited on stage to interact with the actors and musicians, and to grab a drink at the pub, before settling into their seats.

ONCE is filled to the brim with humor and raw emotion. It’ll have you laughing one minute, only to bring you to tears the next. For people who haven’t researched the ending, it is somewhat left for interpretation. Although, it is not a typical romantic ending, it is realistic. ONCE is sweet, raw, and powerful. Recommended for romantics, realists, musicians, comedians, or all of the above.

Individual tickets for ONCE at the Cadillac Palace Theatre range from $30- $95. Group sales: (312) 977-1710. The Broadway In Chicago Ticket Lane at (800) 775-2000. For more information, visit www.BroadwayInChicago.com.

Published in Theatre Reviews
Tuesday, 26 May 2015 00:00

Review: "Les Liaisons Dangereuses"

What a thrill to see a costume piece with moderately contemporary dialog. Charles Hampton's adaptation of Choderlos de Laclos' "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" premiered during the height of theatrical decedance in the 1980s. Razor sharp wit borrowed from Laclos' 18th century epistolary novel about sexual conquest among bored aristocrats make this an extremely titillating and provocative piece. Just reading the text is tickling enough. The play garnered critical praise on Broadway, and was followed by an even more successful film starring Glenn Close and John Malkovich.

AshtonRep bites off a bit more than they can chew with their current production at the Raven Theatre in Edgewater. The problem with this production is casting. The role of the conniving Marquise de Merteuil is played with cool dignity by Sarah Pavlak McGuire, her composed cruelty is fascinating to watch. Unbalanced co-star and AshtonRep founder Robert Tobin takes up the role of Valmont. It's imperative that Valmont be a suave casanova, one who ebbs sex appeal. Tobin is neither. He also tends to misplace the dialog. He often delivers his lines with a confusing modern inflection on purposefully crafted antiquated phrasing.

Director Charlie Marie McGrath makes an interesting choice by changing the time period from pre-revolutionary France to pre-revolutionary Russia. Though, for what reason? Hampton's script leaves the audience with a powerful image conjured by projecting the silhouette of a guillotine on the background. It feels like a missed opportunity not to give this play the full depth it needs. The staging is well-conceived, running with the idea of a chamber drama, having the curtains drawn to accent scenes like storybook chapters.

All in all, AshtonRep presents a faithful production of "Les Liaisons Dangereuses." It's an ambitious play for an emerging theatre company to take on, but there is a great deal of chemistry between the female ensemble here. Hampton's script is sturdy and holds up well in an era in which most people are more familiar with the teenage re-telling "Cruel Intentions."

Through June 21st. The West Stage at Raven Theatre Complex. 6157 N Clark St. 773-828-9129

Published in Theatre Reviews
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