In Concert

Buzz News Chicago: Theatre and Concert Reviews

I love flamenco for its sensual power and the amazing way both female and male dancers, whether solo or couples, locked in passionate embrace are able to make the human body dance with such precision and emotional fury. Is there any other dance form where the men are so manly and sexily dressed in their boots and waist coats and the women in their flowing dresses so, well, womanly?

 

Currently performed at North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, "Flamenco Passion" as a rich production covers the whole range of human experience; dancing for your life, dancing for your love and dancing for the death of those you've loved deeply. The group numbers are stunningly modern like the world premiere of “Iroko”, while remaining true to the art form and "Alegrias y Jaleos", which make you feel you are in the countryside of Spain witnessing a turn of the century town dancing their way through life in a wonderful celebration of spring.  

 

“Bolero”, the acclaimed masterwork by Dame Libby Komaiko was a true stunner! I didn't realize it myself until this performance that you haven't even heard the full potential of the music in Ravel's “Bolero" until you've seen a stage full of the greatest forty flamenco dancers in the world bring it to a smoldering and exploding catharsis. 

 

In the second act an onstage singer, Cajon player and two guitarists accompanied all five dances, which really showcases that flamenco is a uniquely human and difficult dance to master. More passionate than tap yet just as exacting, more sensual than ballet yet just as demanding,  

 

We as Chicagoans should be so proud that Dame Libby Komaiko founded Ensemble Espanol at Northeastern Illinois University in 1975, and that her worldwide acclaimed dances and company are still going strong. 

 

Longtime Ensemble dancer Irma Suarez Ruiz, who'll begin taking over the role of artistic director from Dame Libby in the coming year and Carmela Greco with her long mane of silver hair both blew the entire sold out audience away. The two proved that dance is the way to stay young with 2010 solo "Duende Gitana" which intermingled "Palmas" (hand-clapping), percussion, stamping and song. It really was a masterwork of everlasting love expressed with furious passion (there's that word again) between her and the live musicians. The live music accompaniment dance numbers were heartfelt, raw with almost ragged singing and mind-bogglingly complex percussion from the guitarists and Cajon player that expressed the ageless beauty of both the performers themselves and this wonderful dance form. The subject of no less than two documentaries Dame Komaiko has almost single-handedly kept the art form of Flamenco not only alive but growing and flourishing. She is modest when speaking of her success and acknowledges that in some troupes the art form has become too mechanical. 

 

I could see this show again and again and each time notice brilliant new details from this large and gifted cast each time. 

 

Highly recommended. 

 

Published in Theatre Reviews

As I sat down in my second row center seats in Planet Hollywood Casino Hotel and Casino’s Saxe Theater, the couple next to me told me excitedly that they had seen Vegas! The Show as VIP's to meet the cast afterwards ten times! This lovely couple in their early sixties from the Midwest said that they return to the show every year and even have favorite cast members that they hope will be in the constantly evolving large cast.

 

The show starts off in what appears to be a dark warehouse filled with a slew of large, worn hotel and club signs once brightly shining to dazzle the Las Vegas crowds. Enter “Ernie” the maintenance man. Ernie addresses the crowd, telling us about Vegas’ golden era when the likes of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Ella Fitzgerald and Lena Horne were in their heyday, entertaining audiences and setting the unachievable standards for future Las Vegas stars. Ernie reminds us that these were the days when women would attend shows in fancy dresses and dapper gentlemen arrived in well-tailored suits or tuxedos as opposed to today’s show-goers that arrive in shorts, sandals with white socks and t-shirts that ask “Who Farted?”. After a bit more reminiscing, he then takes us to yesteryear and we get a glimpse at what once was. In a blink of an eye, the stage suddenly transforms into a sparkling set full of life, dancers, and colorful lights. A full band appears as we are thrust into the magic of classic Las Vegas. Vegas! The Show beautifully presents a timeline of entertainment that makes stops from the 1940’s through the 1970’s, sets changing with the times as we hear one classic number after another. 

 

Refusing to allow any gaps in entertaining its audience, the show brings forth a variety of amusing acts front of stage during set changes from jaw-dropping juggling acts to an aerial balancing beam team that gets plenty of “oohs” and “aahs” from nervous crowd members. This show is simply oozing with talent and entertains with the best of them. It is no surprise this show has been named “Best Show in Vegas” many times during its five-year residency.       

 

I enjoyed this show from beginning to end. If you have a yen to see a little bit of everything Vegas is known for like tall, beautiful showgirl numbers, great personality impersonations of singers like Tina Turner, Elton John, Tom Jones, Wayne Newton, Sonny and Cher and Elvis Presley, this is the show for you. 

 

As impressed as I was with the singing voices of the various star impersonators I was also blown away by the large cast of well-trained energetic young dancers who filled every number with so much excitement and sexy surprises it was hard to decide which part of the stage to watch. 

 

This is a saucy, slightly sexy, but never raunchy respectful tribute to the historic performers and places that have made the history of Vegas what it is today, is a breeding ground for great talent.

 

There's also some humor mixed in with the great singing and dancing and although the costumes are sexy, I would not hesitate to take kids to this show. 

 

The most poignant moment of this very upbeat variety show came in the form of a slideshow at the finale as “Elton John” sang “Rocket Man”. The footage consisted of film clips of all the past great who have graced Las Vegas such as Liberace, Elvis and The Rat Pack before switching into a montage of all the hotels (Sahara, Frontier, Dunes, etc.) actually being leveled by explosives to make way for the new and modern Vegas we know today.

 

Filled with interesting history tidbits about Vegas yet never slowing down by literally filling the stage in this intimate 400-seat venue with old school, eye popping glamour, this really is a show to see with friends and family who'd like to experience a little of each of the great parts of Vegas just like one would at a buffet – by getting a healthy gander at so many fabulous themes in a single night. 

 

Tickets currently run at $79.99 for general admission though a VIP package is offer for just $20 more that assures seats closer to the stage. Showtime’s are 7pm and 9pm seven days a week. Be sure to add Vegas! The Show on your Las Vegas to do list.  

 

Published in Theatre Reviews

I still remember dancing with my brother in front of a wall of mirrors on our shag carpeted living room in the 1970's and thinking we were going to be the next Donny and Marie. Posters of the two famous Osmond’s sprouted up on most teenage walls and “Puppy Love” was all the rage until “I’m A Little Bit Country, I’m A Little Bit Rock N’ Roll” themed the Donny and Marie show, airing from 1976-1979. Charismatic, funny and vocally skilled, the gifted siblings left their mark on the 1970’s launching each into successful solo careers before reuniting once again years later in perhaps one of the most unlikely places – The Las Vegas Strip.    

 

Picture perfect smiles still as visible as ever, Donny and Marie have now become one of the most sought after attractions in Las Vegas, finding an on stage home in the Flamingo Las Vegas. Star presence and charming good looks have not eluded the two, who perform a high energy set full of classics and standards sure to please die-hard and casual fans alike with favorites like "A Beautiful Life", “It Takes Two”, “These Boots Were Made for Walking”, "I'm Leaving it (All) Up To You" and Marie’s “Paper Roses” highlighting the evening along with their still funny banter that injects the perfect dose of comedy into their act. Amidst their song and dance numbers the two still exhibited a great sense of humor that made them even more adorable. The lighthearted teasing and playful ribbing between them, like about which one of them won the Dancing with the Stars trophy and which one ONLY made it to the finals, seems genuine, fresh and unrehearsed.

 

Watching their show was a delightful surprise that made me feel really young to see that after all these years this dynamic, talent-packed brother and sister team are still going strong in every way!  

 

There is wonderful slideshow and several video clips that run in various places throughout the show, some that brought tears to my eyes of performers who have passed though most brought back happy memories of a time when these two adorable and handsome siblings took the world by storm. 

 

Both Donny and Marie are talented dancers and singers and have a really fresh team of dancers behind them to fill out the show. I'm not sure if most remember her true vocal talent, but Marie blew audience members away when she sang, especially on an operatic piece, which was perfect and showed not only the versatility of her voice but the amazing strength of her range as well.

 

Projecting a strong sparkle in his voice and step, Donny, an ageless wonder, still looks like he is in his early forties. His dancing really showcases the fantastic shape he is in and his face appears as young as ever. Marie simply looks stunning. 

 

The songs were varied, enthusiastic and upbeat and there are a handful of occasions where Donny runs through the crowd and connects directly with the audience in this lovely, intimate, yet still glamorous venue. Seeing them at The Flamingo Las Vegas was actually perfect. Every seat provides a great view. It had the flavor of old time Flamingo glamour along with the fun, casual feeling that you could just wander in off The Strip and totally enjoy a trip back in time to the happy part of the 70's many of us grew up in or raised kids or grand kids.

 

After the show be sure to take a walk in the beautiful, sweet smelling night air of the Flamingo Sanctuary and you will have just about as much fun and lighthearted an evening in Vegas one can enjoy. 

 

Highly Recommended.   

 

Published in In Concert
Monday, 13 June 2016 17:13

The Divine Sister, Comedy That Heals!

Charles Busch, creator of the camp classics, Die, Mommie, Die!, Psycho Beach Party and Vampire Lesbians of Sodom seems to have written The Divine Sister just for David Cerda and his fabulous cast of rotating members in Hell in a Handbag Productions.

 

Affectionately making fun of films like The Song of Bernadette, The Bells of St. Mary's, The Singing Nun and Agnes of God, and a strong dose of The Davinci Code, The Divine Sister actually pulls some great ideals out of each and makes some wonderful points during all the fun and mayhem about what it means to "believe" in God and miracles within a religion that doesn't believe in you - if you are female or gay. 

 

David Cerda as Mother Superior rules the roost as always with a performance combining the essences of Joan Crawford and Rosalind Russell with both sparkling humor and unexpected tenderness. While trying to raise money to rebuild her crumbling church Mother Superior is confronted with all sorts of "obstacles", which really turn out to be miracles in disguise. 

 

The young postulant, Agnes, played by Charlotte Mae Ellison, who is seeing visions and “experiencing” the signs of stigmata also turns out to be Mother Superiors long lost daughter. While one hilarious twist occurs after the next, the object of a Davinci Code type search also reveals Agnes to be the reincarnation of "Joyce" the long forgotten older sister of Jesus Christ himself whose body was entombed beneath this very church.  Joyce is the actual doer of the miracles attributed to Jesus. I thought this was a marvelous feminist plot twist that could have been explored even further. Ellison is beautiful and perky in the role, epitomizing the young nun image of early 1960s TV, but I felt she needed to add a few subtler layers to her physical comedy and vocal levels in order to compete with the more mature comedic players surrounding her. 

 

Levi Holloway deserves special kudos, both as sinister albino Brother Venerius searching for Joyce's incarnation and particularly as film producer Jeremy who is still wholly devoted or should I say HOLY devoted to his long lost love of Cerda's Mother Superior from her pre-nunnery days as a brilliant news reporter Susan. Levi Holloway really DELIVERS the comedy, especially in the extremely rapid fire monologues and fast talking flashbacks to their exciting early reporter days of flirtation and falling in love with each other through words, glorious words. 

 

Performed at Ebenezer Lutheran Church in Andersonville, the setting couldn’t be more appropriate. John Holt has transformed this actual church into a fully functioning and beautifully lit theater "church" with stained glass and special effects that heighten the drama perfectly from scene to scene. At the same time, Keith Ryan and Kate Setzer Kamphausen’s wig and costume designs are absolutely essential for each character and mind-blowingly funny. 

 

The neighboring atheist, a bitter Jewish woman who turns out to be Mother Superior’s long lost mother Mrs. Levinson, as well as a gender-confused Convent student named Timmy, are both wonderfully played by Chad.  Chad is on top of his game and totally hilarious in both roles, brilliantly delivering Busch' complex, fast and funny monologues without tripping once. Ed Jones as Sister Acacius also puts forth a thoroughly entertaining performance. It is always a pleasure to see Cerda and Jones in action together, as their chemistry is tough to beat. 

 

The Divine Sister isn't just about the miracle of three generations of women being reunited with their daughters, it also strikes a real blow at a church system which denies sexuality to its members in ANY form, gay or hetero and as a result denies each of these women and men a chance at living a full life unless they realize the folly of prolonged abstinence - a FORCED shame and despair filled type of abstinence, not voluntary, which was never prescribed by the bible anyway. 

 

The laughs don’t stop. There are so many funny subtleties and bits of finely aimed sardonic humor mixed in with sidesplitting over the top scenes such as Cerda and Ellison’s lip-synced duet and dance to the backing track of a number of pure cheesiness.   

 

Highly recommended for a night of fun-filled camp and silliness with a few heartfelt messages about the reality of miracles that come into your life whether you believe in God or not. 

 

The Divine Sister is being performed at Ebenezer Lutheran Church through July 10th. To find out more about this very funny show, visit www.handbagproductions.org. 

 

Published in Theatre Reviews

"A place where nobody dared to go

The love that we came to know

They call it Xanadu

 

And now, open your eyes and see

What we have made is real

We are in Xanadu

 

A million lights are dancing

And there you are, a shooting star

An everlasting world and you're here with me

Eternally"

 

I want to go to there - and this wonderful cast and crew at American Theater Company took me all the way!

 

I'm not like the other critics who like to tear down the original movie starring Olivia Newton John, Gene Kelly and some poor actor who resembled Andy Gibb whose name I can't remember because I never saw him again! Oh yeah, Michael Beck. No, I’m in the minority that LOVED Xanadu when it came out.  

 

To a theater geek like myself who also danced with a dance troupe (in leg warmers) and studied painting and drawing, this is a fantasy love story consisting of an artistic Queen of the Arts, the Demi God, “Kira”, who fulfills her own need to create art while helping the mortal she has fallen in love with, Sonny Malone. Timing is everything as she successfully pulls Sonny out of a suicidal depression just after her arrival to help him achieve his dreams, which was the PERFECT romantic expression of what I dreamed my life would be (minus the roller skates).

 

I saw Xanadu a few years back at The Broadway Playhouse and this production succeeds in every way that one did not. 

 

First of all, the staging thanks to director Lili Anne Brown and scenic design by Arnel Sanciano, place the audience in the round of what appears to be the actual roller rink/empty building where much of the film took place in. The set is complete with a disco ball overhead flooding the room with the lights and sounds of the 80's in a fun and involving way.

 

Then there are the voices - the two leads Kira/Cleo played by Landree Fleming and Sonny Malone played by Jim DeSelm are absolutely dead on GREAT singers. It is refreshing to see the role of Kira played by an actress who has the singing chops to pull off Olivia Newton John's star quality voice and is able to capture the romance of the character that should still be present amidst poking fun of her. 

 

Landree Fleming not only hits the highest high notes, she infuses them with the same "magical” quality that Olivia Newton John delivered and she did it without the aid of a sound booth and full orchestra. Landree is not only super funny in the role, she is a great physical comedienne and got laughs out of every sad little shrug of her shoulders and comically delivered line. This is partially in thanks to her hilarious over-emphasized Aussie accent to make the joke without necessarily making her character into a joke. 

 

Another thing that I LOVED about this production, which really caught the hugely optimistic 1980's message with amazing love songs by ELO like "Strange Magic", "I’m Alive", and John Farrer’s "Magic", is that even though they captured the campiness by casting several of Kira's sister Muses as men, Jim De Selm chose to play the role of Sonny as straight man all the way through, creating a believable romance unlike other productions of Xanadu I’ve seen. When I saw the touring production years ago with the Sonny character played as a flamboyantly gay man who could never realistically fall in love with Kira no matter how beautiful she was, it not only took the flash and jazz out of the great campy gay humor, it also took all of the wonderful jokes and truths about hetero love and flattened them out into a joyless, hopeless mess.

 

Every single muse in this production has their own flair and style, and fantastic singing skills. For example, when Muse Melponene’s (Karla L Beard) very first notes came out of her mouth - I knew we were going to be in for a treat of great singing all around. Hanah Rose Nardone as Muse of Music Euterpe, James Negrud as Muse Terpicore and Daniel Spagnuolo as Thalia are three obviously classically trained, highly skilled dancers who ALSO delivered delicious comedy throughout whether executing a perfect pirouette or any other form of modern dance thrown in to celebrate the 80's.

 

Aaron Holland is also a bright spot in this production. Holland is simply hysterical in his dual roles as white afro-wearing Zeus and as building owner/investor Danny Maguire – and he too, like the rest of this talented cast, delivers vocally. 

 

Samantha C. Jones does a fantastic job with the perfectly period funny, yet still SEXY, campy stylish costuming, designed for many, many quick changes as some of the actors play multiple roles from beginning to end.

 

I could go on and on about the entire cast and the great six-piece live band that is also implemented into the show in a wonderful way.

 

For a highly enjoyable way to spend an evening with good music and heavy bouts of laughter, American Theater Company’s Xanadu would be tough to beat. In the lobby after the show I heard another woman discussing the show excitedly saying, "Girls Night out!!! We are going to all come and see this together!!" 

 

Her comments personify the exact joy and thoughts I was having as I left the theater. This truly musically gifted production is so much fun, so true to the romance and high artistic ideals we all had entering the 1980's, ideals and hopes for a rainbow future of the Arts that were completely squashed throughout the decade. 

 

This uplifting and exuberantly romantic production of Xanadu makes you glad you were alive to experience a simpler time and still come out swinging in support for ALL of the Arts including painting, singing, dancing and humor- a full 36 years later!

 

Perfectly blended with its poking fun at the 80’s, use of catchy music and romantic overtones, I highly recommend Xanadu. In fact, catch it more than once if you can. But do yourself a favor and watch the movie first so that you can truly appreciate its parodic humor.

 

Xanadu is currently being performed at American Theater Company through July. Tickets start at a very reasonable price of $30. For more show information, visit http://www.atcweb.org/.  

 

Published in Theatre Reviews

I've never been much of a magic fan. I'm always nervous for the magician just in case his trick doesn't work. But in Fooling Buddha, David Kovac seemingly does the impossible. Not only are his magic tricks top notch, he actually made me an unafraid appreciator of magic shows AND Buddhist philosophy while making me laugh at the same time. 

 

Kovac tells the story on how he grew up in Milwaukee during the 1970's raised by hippie parents who were Buddhists and forward thinkers way before their time.  Sent to a catholic school as a child to learn about African studies from Jewish teachers and being a nerd who loves magic at that time couldn't have been easy, but Kovac sure makes it funny. 

 

Kovac is a brilliant monologist though who has somehow managed to use his talent and love of magic to write a delightful one-man play full of memorable Buddhist quotes and koans (puzzles). Playing all the roles including his own mother, father and baby sister sitting around the dinner table, the bully who picked on him relentlessly and the magic shop owner to whom became a huge source of inspiration, the audience is never confused about which character is speaking.  Kovac’s delivery of beautiful Buddhist sayings like "A Miracle is a Tragedy with a Happy Ending" flow smoothly and segue so magically into each new story, pardon the pun, the 90-minute show with no intermission moves so quickly it left the heartily laughing audience visibly wanting more.  

 

Kovac’s conveyance of his one-man show is so quick and flawless, it left me struggling to mentally take notes in order to remember all the included wonderful bits of ancient knowledge. I guess I'm not the only one because David notes that Buddhism is known as the philosophy with 80,000 sayings and he proves that every time he is taught by his parents with another great, peaceful yet realistic Buddhist saying handy for almost every situation or problem that arose in his young life.  

 

The set he uses is beautifully and colorfully designed. A pleasure to watch, the set is full of secret doors and realistic windows that unfold to reveal new rooms. It is a lovely set made with great detail to the period and set with soft cozy lighting.   

 

I can't stress enough what a great writer David Kovac is and the intermingling of magic and Buddhism works perfectly to demonstrate the magic that is inherently implied in Buddhist philosophy. Kovac’s jokes and autobiography are finely told, and combined with his captivating illusions, Fooling Buddha provides a wonderful night of highly intelligent and uplifting storytelling. 

 

Kovac tells the audience he wants them to leave feeling like winners, like a magician who has just successfully shown spectators an illusion and received their applause. One of the most beautiful sayings in the show does just that in one beautiful line when he says, "There are billions of massive stars blazing across the night sky and inside you is the very same energy that lights the world." 

 

Highly Recommended.

 

Fooling Buddha is being performed at First Folio Theatre inside the enchanting Mayslake Peabody Estate in Oakbrook through April 24th.  For tickets or more information on the show, visit www.firstfolio.org.

 

Published in Theatre Reviews

Based on the 1988 cult film “Heathers” starring Wynona Ryder and Christian Slater, the talented cast of “Heathers: The Musical” bursts onto the stage with enough energy to "bully" the audience right back into the mean late 80's when this particular tale of murder in high school first raised the issues of teen cruelty over twenty-five years ago. Dark and questionable is the subject matter that it be made into a musical, but the show does have its moments. After all, we are talking about a film that may have forewarned us of the tragic school shootings to come in its wake. 

Veronica, the nerdy girl who becomes a "Heather" at the expense of her friendship to the truly kind "fat girl" in her class is well played here by Courtney Mack. Mack shows a full range of emotions as she realizes what has begun as simple teen angst and bullying has turned her new outsider boyfriend, J.D., whom she meets hanging around a 7-11 store all day into a serial murderer. Adding to Mack’s solid performance, Chris Ballou also does a fine job in taking on the role of J.D..  

Haley Jane Schafer, Rochelle Therrien and Jacquelyne Jones, are each fantastic as the “Heathers" - the meanest, prettiest girls in school who rule with an iron lipstick case. Each of the Heathers' has her own unique flavor of comedy and delivery and each are very good dancers as well as vocalists.

That said, the set which was a big colorless lump full of doorways did not make you feel you were in a high school at all and was actually a distraction at times. Also, the costumes the Heathers DID wear were great - very sexy period costumes, but then they never changed clothes until almost the end of the show, leaving some disappointment. As gorgeous, skinny, fickle fashion mongers, this inconsistency made the show feel much to be desired when it came to dressing them as the story progressed with the lack of colorful, sexy clothing and accessory changes as occurs in the movie and would be a big part of their real high school lives. 

The songs may not have been on the most memorable side, but the show did have a few good laughs. There was some terrific physical comedy in the slow motion fight scene between the two jocks who terrorize all the girls in school with jokes about date rape, etc. 

Certainly a challenging task at hand, James Beaudry's direction in this small venue with so much young and energetic talent falls short in that it seemed the play starts at a very high level of energy and volume and continues at that exact same volume even during the ballads. Instead, there needed to be some genuine reflection and time to rest for the characters to be fully formed and also to rest the audience’s ears – simply put, more dynamics. 

All in all, this cast did a great job with the materials they were given and delivered a funny, bitter and scary version of what life in high school was like then and now. See "Heathers" with the expectation of a few decent yuks, a handful of entertaining musical numbers ("Big Fun" comes to mind) and a sometimes pretty accurate nostalgic peek at high school in the late 1980's.   

Kokandy Productions of “Heathers: The Musical” is being performed at Theater Wit through April 24th. For more show information, visit www.theaterwit.org.  

 

Published in Theatre Reviews

Filled with clever and rapid-fire dialogue exchanges, The New Sincerity is a fast-moving comedy written by Alena Smith, one of the nation’s top young, up and coming women writers. The play’s title is explained well in its press release - "Erudites among us know "New Sincerity" is an actual term used in music, aesthetics, film criticism, poetry and philosophy, generally to describe art or concepts that run against prevailing modes of postmodernist irony or cynicism." And there is plenty of cynicism and irony to be found in the latest comedy/drama at Theater Wit that deals with millennials and the idealism of the Occupy Movement. 

As co-founder of a highly regarded online political journal, Asymptote, Benjamin, a Harvard literature graduate, is always looking for hard-hitting and thought provoking material to maintain status among their peers and competitors. Just less than a block away from their office is the Occupy Movement where protesters converge in the park all throughout the day and night. Benjamin’s newly appointed senior contributor, Rose, has a strong interest in doing a piece on the protest, but he is insistent she stay far removed for fear of taking sides. Disregarding Benjamin’s direct order, Rose not only checks out the movement firsthand but creates a relationship with one of the protesters, Django. As feared, word gets out about an Asymptote staff member being associated with the Occupy Movement and Benjamin not only takes the criticisms from his co-owner and faithful readers, but he fears how this will affect his fiance's upcoming book release since her last book, Death of the Left Wing clearly believed that the modern protest is dead and ineffective. Furious at Rose for screwing up the journal’s branding, she finally convinces Benjamin to visit the movement, which he reluctantly does. 

The story then becomes that of an opportunist and the hypocrisies that come about as Benjamin realizes the potential afoot and does a complete turnaround to where he can’t get enough coverage on the movement, even to the point that he lies about being involved from day one. We also see the hollowness in Benjamin regarding his relationship with women as he states he does not really believe in love and deep connections, much the opposite of Rose. 

Smart and brutally honest, The New Sincerity offers tremendous acting performances by each of its four cast members. Drew Shirley as is energetic and finely projects the qualities to make a convincing Benjamin who is incapable of fully connecting emotionally. At the same time, Maura Kidwell as Rose is perfectly cast as the grounded one who seems to get it in the play while Erin Long as the very funny tell-it-like-it-is intern Natasha and Alex Stein as the protest because there’s a protest protester Django also provide a huge spark.

I really enjoyed the set which was a cozy two-story office with large windows giving us a peek at New York City. As the scenes changed, large computer monitors would tell us what month it was giving us a nice idea of a time frame.

I liked the direction of this play by Jeremy Wechsler, as I felt he outstandingly captured the essence of millennium living, ideals, social media marketing and stereotypes. The often overly politically correct gender pronoun usage was also addressed when a friend of Django’s insisted on being called dragon as she did not identify with male or female. I wasn’t quite sure if Smith was taking a jab at renaming our own gender to whatever we want or embracing the fact that we can.   

The New Sincerity has plenty of very funny dialogue exchanges and provides a story that is paced very well with plenty of memorable moments. I recommend this fiercely funny play, which is being performed at Theater Wit through April 17th. For more show info visit www.TheaterWit.org.            

 

Published in Theatre Reviews

On the 400th year anniversary of William Shakespeare's death Lyric Opera of Chicago appropriately chose to commemorate the famed playwright’s life by putting on an outstanding production of Romeo and Juliet. Helping to make this such a special piece of operatic theatre, Joseph Calleja and Susanna Phillips as the tragically famous lovesick couple do a magnificent job vocally and emotionally throughout the show to bring the real spirit of youthful, love at first sight to life. 

 

The show begins with the stage curtain up and the entire cast ominously moves towards the audience singing the overture which was very effective in setting the tone of the times the play is set in. 

 

Soprano Susanna Phillips, perfectly complimenting tenor Calleja, is especially great in her role. Dressed all in pink with gold sparkles, she embodies the very essence of springtime love in her opening number.  When, at one point, she begs her nanny to stop talking about her impending marriage to an older man that Juliet does not love you really want her to get her wish, as her fresh hopeful desire to just dance and enjoy life is very infectious.

 

Joshua Hopkins as Romeo’s best pal Mercutio and Jason Slayden as Juliet’s short-fused cousin Tybalt also take to their roles with vigor and precision, really capturing the two sworn enemies’ disdain for each other while baritone Christian Van Horn is well cast as Friar Laurence, who means well though his efforts only end in tragedy.   

I loved ALL the costumes by Jennifer Tipton!  The rich, fabrics and colors, her hats and accessories for the women brought the whole stage to life. Also, the swashbuckling style of leather and velvet for the men was extremely entertaining and fitting to watch both their swordplay and Romeo’s lovemaking to Juliet.

 

Michael Yeargan's unit set is foreboding and appropriately towers over the cast as if to say there is no escape from this time period and its rules. However, I was looking forward to several set changes. Instead, the central platform served as a ballroom dance floor, Friar Laurence's cell, a town square and the crypt where the young couple meet their fate. I felt this modern touch of using a single large white sheet to signify Juliet's bedroom, then the church, and the burial shroud, etc., etc., was very one dimensional. The cast, so visually stunning, is so large even the hefty set seemed to barely contain them in various scenes. Still, overall, the production is a grand spectacle that is as colorful and enchanting as it is memorable.

 

Directed with fierce and daring force by Bartlett Sher, the Tony Award-winning Broadway director who's making his Lyric debut with this French piece by Charles Gounod, Romeo and Juliet succeeds marvelously on many levels. Of course this can only be accomplished with the comprehensive orchestral conducting of Emmanuel Villaume, who leads the often powerful and sometimes dreamy soundtrack to create a truly hauntingly tragic yet beautiful experience.  The romanticism of the writing is so beautiful, so poetic, I found myself watching the screen high above the stage trying to memorize some of the pure poetry as the play went along. The lines of love and adoration spoken by Romeo and Juliet to each other were so exquisitely written, I have never seen an American adaptation of this or any love story which compares to this poetic version of the play.

 

No spoilers but there is a slight change to the ending scene that might throw off a few viewers but I still found it quite enjoyable. 

 

This is a perfect opera to take your date to for an evening of romance that will thrill and delight. Your children will love this show because it renders the story of forbidden love and the destruction of such love because of unforgiving, ignorant family feuding and brings it to life in a compassionate and ever so romantic way.

 

Romeo and Juliet is being performed at Lyric Opera of Chicago through March 19th and is sure to please the casual and more adventurous theatre and opera lovers alike. For more information on this piece so wonderfully adapted for stage, visit www.LyricOpera.org. 

 

Published in Theatre Reviews

This excellent stage production of the 2013 musical Far from Heaven was based on Todd Haynes‘ 2002 motion picture of the same name. 

 

Far from Heaven is set in 1957 Hartford, Connecticut, well before the advent of the sexual revolution. Cathy Whitaker played by Summer Naomi Smart discovers that her handsome, successful businessman husband Frank is having affairs - with other men! Frank was played very well and very selfishly - if not compassionately - towards his wife whose world is crushed unexpectedly by actor Brandon Springman. 

 

After a time of trying to convert her husband back to heterosexuality by a psychologist, Cathy and her husband realize the emptiness and futility of their sexless and coldly critical relationship continuing just for the sake of the children.

 

Cathy's new gardener and widowed single father of a ten-year-old daughter, Raymond Deagan (Evan Tyrone Martin), becomes her friend and the scandal of her own life in spite of their necessarily platonic enjoyment of each other's company.

 

Evan Tyrone Martin has a wonderful rich smooth voice, arguably the best in the show and a nice natural quality to his acting. Summer Naomi Smart is stunning to look at as the real life "Stepford Wife" whose world comes crashing down when she tries to surprise visit her husband on a night he is "working late again" and gets the shock of her life when she finds him in the office in the arms of another man.

 

I've seen Ms. Smart in many musical comedies but this is the first time I have seen her really let loose in a dark way, especially in the scene when she confronts her husband about his homosexual affairs and lets out a terrifying and mournful wail that truly came from deep inside her character’s psyche. It was nice to see her tackle then take the reigns on this multi-dimensional role.  

 

Grant Saban‘s set seemed too much like a doll house to me, very one dimensional in color and shapes but perhaps that was intentional in terms of the subtext of the repressive 1950's. However, William Morey‘s gorgeous period costumes, which reminded me of a cross between Lucille Ball and Mary Tyler Moore's beautifully tailored and colorfully designed outfits in their respective series, brought the whole set to life.

 

Bri Sudia‘s performance is rich and dynamic as Cathy’s best friend Eleanor, who is very sympathetic about the sexless and lovlessness of Cathy's picture perfect marriage yet deserts her best friend over the issue of an interracial friendship. All of the supporting characters and girlfriends of Cathy Whitaker in this production do an excellent job in their respective roles and deliver as many ironic laughs as possible with subject matter that really is just a lot of sad statements about the wasted loves of many marriages in the fifties - marriages, which were built on lies and social and financial convenience rather than genuine love and real sexual attraction. 

 

Turning this subject matter into a musical may have made it more fun and palatable, but also detracted from the seriousness and tragedy of a woman who has given birth to two children and ends up totally alone, a single mother in the fifties, because of years and years of lies from a man who was supposed to be her best friend and true love. Yet the accompaniment of a great live orchestra really brings this sometimes somber score to life when needed. 

 

Finely directed by Chuck Larkin, Porchlight Musical Theatre's Far from Heaven is playing at Stage 773 through March 13th. For more show information on this absorbing and well-pieced-together production, visit www.prochlightmusictheatre.org.  

 

Published in Theatre Reviews
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