Theatre

Boys love their rockets. We find this out rather quickly in Marriott Theatre’s world premiere of October Sky, a new musical based on the 1999 film featuring Jake Gyllenhaal and Chris Cooper. Written by Aaron Thielen with the music and lyric by Michael Mahler, the play opens with a heavy duty musical number “Marching into Hell” where a handful of coal miners head deep into the dangerous coal mines.

Taking place in 1957 Coalwood, West Virginia, most boys are destined to become coal miners. Opportunity to take another career path are far and few between. The city depends on the mine, which has become even more dangerous with newer technology that powders the coal, leaving a hazardous dust to be inhaled and cause lung disease rather than the older days where the mineral was gather by using picks. Occasional gas explosions also take place as we find out in the first scene as news of such a tragedy leaves thirty dead in a nearby mine.

Homer’s father, John Hickam, heads a large mining crew and fully expects his son to follow suit. However, when the Soviet Union launches Sputnik for all the town to see in the October Sky, Homer and his friends are driven to make a rocket of their own. Naturally, Homer’s father sees this as a distraction, while the town supports the boys as their rockets slowly become more and more advanced, despite their moments of failure. With the help of Miss Riley, Homer’s teacher who recognizes their interest in such a science as a way to avoid the destined mining life, the boys eventually take their work to a series of science fairs. While Homer’s mother is supportive and pleased with Homer’s ingenuity, his father still struggles with the idea. 

October Sky is not just a story about boys making rockets, it is also a story about support from friends, changing hearts and perseverance. It is a feel good story that encourages one to follow their dreams.

Superbly cast, I really enjoyed Nate Lewellyn in the role of Homer Hickham. He is a bit reminiscent of a young and boyish Tom Hanks. Lewellyn displays his solid vocal range in many challenging numbers, perhaps most notably in Act II’s “Stars Shine Down”. Ben Barker, Patrick Rooney and Alex Weisman perfectly round out the quartet of rocket builders while Susan Moniz really shines as Homer’s wise and loving mother, Elsie Hickam. One of my favorite performances is that of David Hess as John Hickam. I really find it a pleasure to observe Hess’ vocal prowess and his ability to execute such a wide variety of emotions. 

The songs are lyrically clever – and often funny, while the set has a few fun surprises such as the effect used as the miners take an elevator down into the mine. Theresa Ham does a fantastic job as costume designer, really pulling off the 1950s era and Dance Captain Jameson Cooper utilizes some very unique and original ideas in the big dance numbers. The show is finally brought together tightly with a strong ensemble and a wonderful band that knows how to get their southern twang on when needed. 

One of the show’s big crowd pleasers was the knee-slappin’ number “Moonshine”, a lively number that takes place in the backwoods and has the actors playing instruments as “Bathtub Amos & The Drunk as a Skink Jug Band”.  

October Sky runs around two-and-a-half hours long but is quite enjoyable throughout thanks to a fetching story, fun effects and enjoyable musical numbers. October Sky is being performed at The Marriott Theatre through October 11th. You can find out more about the show or order tickets at www.MarriottTheatre.com. 

 

Published in Theatre Reviews

Although the idea of two gay friends, Hunter and Jeff, sitting down to write their own musical for a competition deadline in three weeks’ time may seem a little bit dated, these performers including Matt Frye, and Yando Lopez do a great job of making the piece seem vibrant and current. Hunter and Jeff who love watching their reality TV like the Bachelor and "procrasturbating" introduce two of their gal friends to help them fill out the cast with Susan (Neala Barron) and Heidi (Anna Schutz). The group decides to take things they’re actually chatting about daily and eventually come up with a play about their own lives and trying to get into the playwrights festival. This is the theme for [Title of Show] now playing at Rivendell Theatre.

Long story short, they end up getting thrilled with an invite to enter into the Fest and eventually a short Off-Broadway and even shorter Broadway run all of which is exciting and mind blowing for the friendly foursome. As it happens it brings about the usual problems with managing who gets credit for what and who is the most important or likable part of the show. 

I loved the song, 'Die, Vampire Die’ about managing all of the negative, "bloodsucking" thoughts that weigh on you mentally and emotionally when you are trying to create something new. 

Neala Barron as the "corporate by day, creative by night' - part time actress - has the funniest and most well-rounded performance in this piece. Matt Frye as Hunter is also very funny and really makes the most of his character.  

Lovers of the musical theater genre will adore this peppy, fast moving production and see themselves reflected in all the characters' struggles to be recognized and stand out including the sole musician, a very funny role for a pianist with just a few choice lines. 

The reason this show still works and is timely despite coming out in 2008, is that even today with all of the new opportunities for performers to write and star in their own projects for the  many contests held online and on national TV, is that for everyone eventually realizes that a little bit of success is just not enough.

Just appearing in a show on Broadway will not make you and your friends "stars". Nor will it secure you financially in any way for the rest of your lives. There is also a funny number in the show where the cast counts out all of the "loser” musicals that made it to Broadway and flopped. 

Yet it is essential that actors still persist in taking over their own careers and write their own projects or they run the risk of playing bit parts their entire lives without ever realizing their full potential as writers and creators, always working the "day job" and waiting helplessly for the phone to ring with a magical call from their agents.

Well-directed, this 90 minute piece flows at a quick, funny pace.

All actors should be actor/writers, that's the best message of this show, not to let the fear of criticism cripple you from putting out your own work and maintaining loyalty to the friends who help you get your work out. Because, after all the success and thrill ride for each project is over, you still need to get up and keep writing and creating something new for yourself with your friends close by your side. Never give up and never let the pressures of making a name for yourself eclipse the importance of the daily life you are actually living because in the end you may find the journey itself really was the whole play!

[Title of Show] is playing at Rivendell Theatre through August 16th.

Published in Theatre Reviews

A dazzling high-energy jukebox musical with history and astonishing talent, Black Ensemble Theatre's “Men of Soul” is sure to be a smash-hit! Brimming with electrifying artistry, the show brings to mind another long-running Chicago musical favorite “Million Dollar Quartet”, which features an array of 1950’s icons. “Men of Soul” shares the delicious romp through iconic American music history, featuring stunning replications of some of our most beloved performers and songwriters through virtuosic performances and upbeat entertainment!

“Men of Soul” celebrates the passion and power of musicians who triumphed over personal and social struggles to achieve success through song. Featuring a hilarious, spot-on, rousing rendition of Elton John’s “Benny and the Jets”, an incredibly energetic performance by Kyle Smith as Prince with “Purple Rain”, and including singing so remarkably similar to the original artist Ray Charles that I thought “Georgia On My Mind” was lip-synced! Dancing as only James Brown can in “Sex Machine”, crooning “On the Wings of Love” and “A Whole New World”, and rocking away to Billy Joel’s “My Life” and a medley of Bill Withers favorites such as “Lean on Me” and the unforgettable “Ain’t No Sunshine”, makes “Men of Soul” a summer performance to enjoy and remember!

I was especially impressed by the director and writer of “Men of Soul”, Daryl D Brooks. Seamless transitions, exciting lighting displays that incorporated the entire audience, and impeccable casting and musical direction brings this hilarious, high energy show to the pinnacle of success! Associate Director of Black Ensemble Theater, I look forward to the entertainment Mr. Brooks will bring the Chicago community in the future!

“Men of Soul” is the perfect summer show to bring friends and family to see, playing all through the month of August! Tickets can be found at www.blackensemble.org or by calling (773) 769-4451, with discounts for students, seniors and groups. Valet parking available.

Tw@birunjibaby

Published in Theatre Reviews

Fantastic stories filled with mermaids, giants, tornadoes and witches are told and Edward Bloom always comes out as the hero. These are the enchanted tales Edward has been telling his son, Will, since he was a child. Each story is more larger than life than the other and each act more heroic than the last. The only problem is that these stories have caused Will much embarrassment throughout life as they are told to anyone who will listen because Edward really seems to believe them as outlandish as they are. Years have gone by in a small Alabama town while Edward and Will have grown far apart. As traveling salesman Edward spends much of his time on the road, distancing himself from his son.

But as Edward’s life nears its end when his cancer advances, Will is determined to find out the truth about his father’s stories, and wanting to understand him better he carries out his own investigation and comes across a few surprises. Meanwhile, Will and his wife are planning for their first child.

“Big Fish”, currently playing at Theatre at the Center, is based on Daniel Wallace’s 1998 novel “Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions” that was later turned into the popular 2003 Tim Burton film “Big Fish” starring Ewan McGreggor, Albert Finney, Jessica Lange and Billy Cruddup. The main difference here is the Broadway version being a musical –and it works…well.

From the first number “Be the Hero”, an enthusiastic piece on slaying dragons, defeating giants and, well, being a hero, we get a healthy taste of Edward’s zest for storytelling. Edward is brilliantly played by Stef Tovar, and, though quite a bit younger in appearance than the sixty-year-old-ish father we expect to see from the story, Tovar couldn’t be more perfect for the role. Tovar’s ability to transform from that of an excited, awestruck boy as he goes from story to story to a loving husband, or a father who desperately wants to be close to his son, is quite fun to watch. Tovar, a whirlwind of energy, makes Edward’s character believable seemingly effortlessly and we are easily able to identify with him. At the same time Colette Todd, who plays Edward’s loving wife, Sandra, also puts on a tremendous performance as his perfect support system. Todd is charming as can be as she dances as sings her way to our hearts. Tovar and Todd are well cast and together are a tour de force to be reckoned with.

“It’s a good show. It’s got a lot of heart. It will make you laugh. It will make you cry”, says director William Pullinsi.

Pullinsi couldn’t be more correct. There are plenty of funny moments but also a great sadness as we see people who love each other so greatly have so much difficulty connecting.   

The song and dance numbers and uniquely choreographed and sang to perfection. Nathan Gardner, who plays Will, is among the talented singers in this amazing cast and really lets it go in “Stranger”, an emotional number where he describes the distance that has become between him and his father.  

Besides its enriched song and dance numbers, captivating story and strong acting performances, theatre-goers are treated to a colorful set and a display of dazzling costumes. Some of the scenic displays are simply breathtaking - one in particular invoking "oohs" and 'aaahs" from the audience.

Says Todd on the massive set and costumes, “There was one day when an actual semi-truck arrived to the theatre and all of these remarkable costumes were unloaded and unpacked.”

“Big Fish” is a beautiful story about father and son relationships that should not be missed. It is a heartwarming story filled with hope and living life as large as you can. “Big Fish” is being performed just thirty-five or so minutes from downtown Chicago at Theatre at the Center (1040 Ridge Road, Munster, IN) through June 7th. For tickets and/or more show information visit www.theatreatthecenter.com.  

Published in Theatre Reviews

If RENT made a baby with an episode of Dateline, the result might be something like Murder Ballad, the musical. This rock opera tells the story of a love triangle gone out of control, and there is much in the way of drama, energetic pop/rock anthems, suspense, and -- you guessed it -- murder.

In New York City, Sara is an Upper West sider who seemingly has it all: money, a good husband, a beautiful daughter, but she also harbors a dark, destructive past that was never fully left behind. When she reconnects with her unpredictable ex, Tom, her life takes a turn towards the chaotic and explosive.

The audience is launched head-first into the story as the four-person cast of Murder Ballad belts and wails their way through 75 minutes of frenzied rock numbers, strung together by a crooning fly-on-the-wall narrator. A unique element of this show is the voyeuristic set-up and theme. Essentially, you are sitting in Sara's kitchen, and Tom's bedroom, and the King's Club, the divey downtown joint that serves as the homebase for this tale. You're not onstage or offstage, you're sharing the space with these folks. You can even order a complimentary drink at the bar before showtime, then take a seat with your friends to hungrily watch the plot unfold. Because after all, to paraphrase from the show's finale, drama is delicious entertainment, "until it happens to you."

Murder Ballad, created by Julia Jordan and Juliana Nash, and directed by James Beaudry, is playing at the Flat Iron Arts Building (1579 N Milwaukee Ave) until May 9th. Tickets available at bailiwickchicago.com.

Published in Theatre Reviews
Thursday, 22 January 2015 00:00

New Colony’s Plastic Revolution Is Air Tight

Plastic Revolution is a funny and campy musical comedy that takes place in 1950s Kissimmee, Florida about a recently widowed suburbanite, Delores Clarke, who meets an enthusiastic and pioneering Tupperware saleswoman named Brownie Wise. Together these two gals revolutionize the sales process by introducing the concept of “Tupperware parties” as a hugely successful sales tool for the Tupperware Corporation that captured the imagination and excitement of freedom from time consuming everyday chores and sold it to the average housewife.

The other ‘Stepford Wives” in the neighborhood fear Clarke at first thinking that because she is single she is out to steal their husbands!  But after realizing that Tupperware really does free those from the slavery of cooking dinner for their families every night of the week (leftovers!) and also could provide a source of income they hold up Delores and Brownie as their heroines and start on a new way of life.

I really loved that the lead “Stepford Wife” named Lilah who warns the other women that this revolution is going to ruin their family lives and undermine their role as housewives was cast with a man in drag. Danny Taylor turned an absolutely hysterical, yet “straight” comedic performance in this role and has a beautiful, expressive singing voice to boot!

Sasha Smith in the lead role of Delores Clarke has a wonderful rich singing voice as well and a sweet quality that really endears the audience to her from the very first scene. Cassie Thompson as Brownie Wise has a great frenetic sense of physical comedy that reminds you that women of that time period began using diet pills and speed in order to get all their mind numbingly boring chores and lonely housework done!

I thought the music and comedy were each very enjoyable and that the production comes with a nice blend of parody/camp and feminist musical comedy.

In their seventh season, this is The New Colony’s Theater Company’s first production in The Den Theatre as their new permanent performance space, alongside The Hypocrites and the Irish Theater of Chicago. Plastic Revolution is being performed at Den Theatre through February 22nd. For more information and/or tickets, visit thedentheatre.com or call 773-413-0862.   

 

*Photo - (front, left to right) Cassie Thompson and Sasha Smith with (back, left to right) Elise MayfieldLizzie SchwarzrockDaeshawna Cook and Danny Taylor in The New Colony’s world premiere musical PLASTIC REVOLUTION. Photo by Ryan Bourque.

Published in Theatre Reviews
Wednesday, 29 October 2014 00:00

Sail On Titanic!

Griffin Theatre Company has taken on the feat of recreating the Tony Award-winning musical Titanic. Launching this production in a much more intimate space at Theater Wit, the audience gets a real close up feel to the action and is able to capture the bevy of emotions delivered first hand. Scott Weinstein directs Griffin’s Titanic with intensity, giving this production a true feel of tragedy and humankind.

We are all familiar with Titanic’s maiden voyage that where the luxury passenger liner launched from Southampton, UK and sank in the Atlantic on April 15th 1912 after hitting an iceberg on its way to New York City. In Peter Stone’s Titanic, we join the excitement prior to the ships fateful launch where the ship is boasted as the largest and fastest passenger sea vessel that also comes with the tag “indestructible”. Families, friends and crew members are giddy with enthusiasm and anticipation as projected so well in the show’s magnificent opening number “In Every Age”. After Titanic’s triumphant departure, we are taken to both the luxurious world of the ship as well as that of the lesser class. In its five day voyage, we are taken to ballroom extravaganzas, fine dining and also to the far less glamorous galleys and crew quarters.

All the while the good Captain Edward Smith and First Officer William Murdoch look to steady the course but do so under the pressure of ship owner White Star Line to increase its speed in order to break the speed record to cross the Atlantic. Finally, on a dark and quiet night, lookout Frederick Fleet notified Murdoch of an iceberg due ahead, but it was too late to maneuver, the ship receiving a 300-foot gash in its side, doomed to sink in the frigid waters. In all the panic and commotion we learn that there are only enough lifeboats to save a third of the ship’s passengers. Ultimately only 700 or so of the Titanic’s 2224 passengers would survive, the rest condemned to a watery grave.

In Griffin’s Titanic, we get a real sense of devastation after what is at first denial (after all they are on an indestructible ship). We see the blame game shifted between architect, White Star Line and the Captain. It is an interesting dynamic as we see both unbridled selfishness and unselfishness between the passengers as some are intent on saving themselves while some are more interested in trying to help others.

The set, though simple, converts well from ship deck, to dining hall and living quarters, to ship exterior. The music is strong and heartfelt (also newly reworked). Many numbers are memorable, seizing the essence of the situation so very well such as “I Give You My Hand”, “To Be a Captain”, “I Have Danced” and “God Lift Me Up”. We also get a number of excellent acting performances in the large cast of twenty, making this a very solid production that has everything you would want in a musical tragedy.

Griffin Theatre Company’s Titanic is a high seas adventure you will not soon forget. It’s a big show in a smaller theatre. This warm and stunning production is being performed at Theater Wit (1229 W Belmont) through December 7th and tickets are priced at a very worthwhile $39. For more information, you can visit www.griffintheatre.com. 

Published in Theatre Reviews

Another TV classic has found itself in a musical, this time being The Beverly Hillbillies. Credited as one of the most popular shows of all time, The Beverly Hillbillies aired from 1962 through 1971 and told the story of a backwoods family that found wealth in oil and then migrated to stuffy Beverly Hills where they were completely out of their element. Most of us are already familiar with the Clampett clan headed by the all too honest and often naïve Jed and his short-tempered nevertheless often sweet Granny, who would choose eating possum innards any day over y’alls favorite fine dining establishments. Jed’s daughter, tomboy yet bombshell Elly May is along for the ride with his ever so gullible nephew Jethro, who is as dumb as dumb gets – and we love him for it.

elly mayTheatre at the Center in Munster, Indiana (30 minutes from downtown Chicago) has taken on the world premiere of “The Beverly Hillbillies – The Musical” where our favorite family from the sticks will grace the stage through August 10th. The book is shared by the team of Tony-nominated David Rogers, who passed away before its completion, and daughter Amanda, who took over from where her father left off. Composer Gregg Opelka was then called in to handle the music and lyrics. The final result is a lukewarm comedy with a wide assortment of songs, some hitting and some missing. One of the more memorable numbers comes as  Act One’s closing number - “Stamp It Like A Clampett”, a rootin’ tootin’ hoedown- throw-down that gets the audience clapping their hands and stomping their feet. Thereis just enough intrigue in the storyline to keep it interesting as the Clampetts are getting hustled for some of their millions by a couple of quirky grifters and there is just enough Beverly Hillbilly-esque humor to bring out a plausible amount of laughs.

As sure as Granny’s cooking is sure to cure what ails ya, Theatre at the Center puts forth a strong cast for this production. Local theatre trouper and Jeff-Award winner James Harms leads the way as “Jed” while Kelly Anne Clark can be downright adorable at times as “Granny”. The Clampetts are rounded out with fellow Jeff-Award winner Summer Smart romping around as the innocent, wide-eyed and button poppin’ “Elly May”, while John Stemberg gets his dumb on as likeable and simple “Jethro”. Thanks to this talented foursome, we have an assemblage of heartwarming country bumpkins who are still capable of occasionally tugging at our heartstrings despite not having the strongest of material to work with.

The show does have a strong visual presence as it is set inside a large mansion complete with more than ample square footage for the actors to freely frolic around. Its defining prop also makes a welcomed appearance much to the audience’s delight – the Clampett’s famous jalopy complete with Granny aboard her rocking chair in the bed of the truck as seen in the TV series’ opening credits.

The Beverly Hillbillies – The Musical, directed by David Perkovich, has just the adequate share of happy-as-a-raccoon-up-to-its-knees-in-vittles moments and downhome fun to keep it on the cusp of sufficiently entertaining, making it hard to imagine this becoming a musical comedy that will go down in theatre history.

For tickets and/or more information on The Beverly Hillbillies – The Musical, visit http://www.theatreatthecenter.com/ or call 219-836-3255.      

Published in Theatre Reviews

 
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