Theatre

Buzz News Chicago: Theatre and Concert Reviews

As stories go, Mamma Mia! is a light, simple love story injected with plenty of humor and song – nothing heavy in the least, rather an evening island getaway where the sounds of ABBA reign supreme. It is the story of Sophie Sheridan and her mother Donna, who have made home on a Greek Island where they own and run a small resort. But the story really begins when Sophie, unsure of who her real father is, invites three possibilities to her wedding based on information she’s uncovered in her mother’s journal. Of course, Donna has no clue until the three men show up at the island – awkward! With several people vacationing at the island in anticipation of Sophie’s wedding to Sky in a few days, multiple love narratives unfold - and how couldn’t they? After all, you have a handful of romantically starved individuals thrust together in close proximity to each other on a tropical island that oozes amorousness, coupled with the fact that they all seem to lose control to ABBA classics, which come aplenty. 

Marriott Theatre takes on Mamma Mia! as their latest production, uniquely staging the energy-filled production in the round, giving the audience the feeling that they too are guests at the island resort as the action is up close and the aisles are frequently used during the performance. Set designer Scott Davis does a fantastic job creating an island atmosphere throughout the theatre. Strategic alterations are made to convert the musical to the round, including scenic touches like the moat of illuminated water that surrounds the stage and the walls behind theatre goers that are converted into those of a Greek taverna complete with the colorful shutters of French-styled windows. Adding the finishing touches to the Mamma Mia! setting are dazzling costume designs by Theresa Ham and lighting effects by Jesse Klug. 

Danni Smith takes on the leading role of Donna Sheridan, the short-haired brunette replacing the prototypical long-haired, wavy-blonde we are used to seeing in this production. The change is nice. Smith, who was last seen at Marriott Theatre in Man of La Mancha, serves up a powerhouse vocal performance, especially during her crowd stunner “The Winner Takes It All” and her heartfelt rendition of “Slipping Through My Fingers”, delivered with just the right touch of care and concern a mother would have for her daughter. Capturing the essence of Donna so well, we immediately like her and cheer for her. Putting it bluntly, Danni Smith is truly extraordinary. Meghan Murphy and Cassie Slater are rightly cast as Donna’s two lifelong friends Tanya and Rosie. The casting couldn’t have been more perfect. As many times as I have seen Mamma Mia!, I have never seen a more believable friendship than that as between Donna and her besties in this production, which is so convincing you’d think it true in real life. Murphy gets to show off her great sense of comedic timing as Tanya, also taking it to the house vocally, hitting one way out of the park in the racy number “Does Your Mother Know”. 

Taking on yet another challenging vocal role in the show, this one of Sophie, is Tiffany Tatreau, who handles it with apparent ease. Tatreau, undoubtedly gifted in the vocal department, tackles several demanding songs on her own and adds on many occasions to the captivating vocal harmonies that make this musical so special. 

Sophie’s three possible fathers are also cast well, Peter Saide getting plenty of chances to display his own finessed vocal skill as Sam Carmichael, while Karl Hamilton and Derek Hasenstab draw some big laughs as Donna’s other two ex’s Harry Brightwell and Bill Austin. Russell Mernagh makes his own mark as Sky, Sophie’s soon to be husband. Mernaugh, whose beach bum charm is nothing short of convincing, puts forth a well-rounded performance that makes him a solid choice for the role. Overall, the cast is just sensational from top to bottom, getting strong support from its incredible ensemble who wows the audience on several occasions with big-time dance and vocal routines.

All the elements are in place to provide an entertaining evening without even the slightest lull. The stage is often taken over by energetic dance numbers that will have you tapping along or beautifully arranged ballads that will move your soul. The humor is abundant, the subject matter light and the visuals so easily take your mind elsewhere - somewhere dreamy. Yes, the table is perfectly set to enjoy a night of ABBA hits done with much originality from “Dancing Queen” to “Waterloo”. Fun is "the name of the game" in this wild ride stringed together by a compilation of the Swedish sensation's biggest hits - so much fun in fact, that you might have to pull out your glitzy, bell-bottomed, spandex one-piece (we all have one, don't we?) after getting home from the show.  

Mamma Mia!, already a winning show, has now become even more of a special experience as it is put together so well, and uniquely, by Marriott Theatre in a way that cannot be seen anywhere else. When you put it all together – the great music, the talented performances and a setting that takes you miles and miles away to a tropical bliss – it all adds up to “Having the time of your life”.

Highly recommended. 

Mamma Mia! has already been extended and is being performed at Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire through April 16th. For more show information, click here.     

   

 

Published in Theatre Reviews

Tribute shows are generally as good as the performers that star. I probably just stated the most obvious fact on the planet. Yet it’s so very true. No matter how good the song selection, the costumes, the set, it is the vocal performance that we bring home with us. In “My Way: A Musical Tribute to Frank Sinatra” a different taste of Sinatra is delivered; rather than presenting an Ol’ Blue Eyes impersonator, we are invited to a 1960’s club setting where four actors casually reminisce with the audience over more than fifty Sinatra favorites. 

The musical revue, rich in its depicted era, stars George Keating, Christine Mild, Eric A. Lewis and McKinley Carter, each taking turns riffing through classics like “Makin’ Whoopee”, “Fly Me to the Moon”, “The Best is Yet to Come”, “Young at Heart”, and “It was a Very Good Year” – the songs are countless. The four have made their mark in the Chicago theatre scene, Lewis a Jeff Award Winner for his work in Porchlight Music Theatre’s “Dreamgirls”, Mild, who not only starred in Theater at the Center’s “Pump Boys and Dinettes” but who has recently released her debut solo album “Love Is Everything”, Carter, who has done work in prestigious venues such as Writers Theatre and Drury Lane Oakbrook, and Keating, who not only has been featured in Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” at Paramount Theater, but is the co-founder of the very popular Chicago and Off-Broadway hit “Schoolhouse Rock Live”. 

The four actors work well together as snippets of Sinatra songs are often worked into light exchanges between the characters. They gracefully glide around the stage and upon the stairways often pairing elegantly for dance routines. Often, the characters might be seen having a drink at the bar or nonchalantly interacting at a table, setting a relaxed night-out-on-the-town mood. Throughout the show, Sinatra factoids and quotes are tossed about during song breaks, allowing at times for the audience to participate. The club centers around a bar, where a live band simplified to piano (William Underwood), bass (Jake Saleh) and drums (Nick Anderson) plays directly behind it. Despite the small size of the outfit, the sound is big and the musicians ever-impressive, each getting to show their skills off a bit while briefly featured individually in the second act. 

While perhaps wishing for a little more "oomph" overall in the individual vocal performances (mainly on the lower notes) ala Sinatra, each of the performers have their shining moments and are able to deliver the songs with their intended pizzazz and vigor. But the magic in this show is when the four would sing together, whether it be a duet or a four-part harmony. It is with these synchronized vocal efforts one easily loses themselves in the beauty of Sinatra’s work. 

Brenda Didier both directs and choreographs this fascinating piece with a stylish aplomb that captures the charm of the period so very well. Lewis particularly stands out during his renditions of “My Kind of Town” and “I’m Gonna Live ‘Til I Die”, while Keating finishes strong with a fervent version of “That’s Life”. The production flows at a nice pace and is a pleasing homage to Sinatra, though we are often teased with a song segment left wanting to hear the piece in its entirety. This is countered by the fact that we are given such a vast collection of the music Sinatra made famous. The show ties together well eventually leading us to an expressive interpretation of perhaps Sinatra’s most timeless classic, “My Way”, commendably performed by the entire cast. 

“My Way: A Musical Tribute to Frank Sinatra” is a time capsule that will certainly touch the hearts of “Chairman of the Board” fans, but is equipped with enough nostalgia, panache and musical talent to please even the most curious. This polished production is being performed at Theater at the Center in Munster, IN through March 19th. Click here for tickets and/or more show information.   

 

Published in Theatre Reviews

In 1931nine African American teenagers were wrongly accused of raping two white women while aboard a freight train in Alabama. Worried they might get imprisoned for prostitution while traveling aboard the same train, Victoria Price and Ruby Bates quickly cried rape, diverting the attention rather to the handful of innocent boys. These nine boys became known as The Scottsboro Boys, growing more and more infamy as their many trials became public interest throughout the nation. Fighting through Southern angry mobs, an all-white jury and a trial that was hastened, the nine boys were quickly convicted and sentenced to death by hanging. As word spread of the prejudice demonstrated, Northerners eventually stepped in to see that such a miscarriage of justice be overturned, but that was just the beginning of a process clouded by an ugly and unjust preconception. The uphill fight was long and grueling and successes were slow in the making. The story, superbly performed by Porchlight Music Theatre, is remarkable, sad and hopeful.

Written by David Thompson and directed by Samuel G. Roberson, “The Scottsboro Boys” is a controversial musical, now making its debut in Chicago after Broadway and London runs, and is the last featuring the music and lyrics of John Kander and Fred Ebb, mostly known for their triumphant smash hits “Chicago” and “Cabaret”. The story, a compelling and emotional ride through the racist South is a painful lesson of our nation’s dark history and serves as a stark reminder that change for a better world must never be ignored as we move forward as a unified people.  

Throughout the musical’s duration, we see an image of a pained Rosa Parks (Cynthia Clarey) who plays witness to the injustices that take place. Though her stand wouldn’t take place until years later, we see the effect such a stirring account would have on approaching generations. Sad as this tragic story as such is, we feel hope for the future by the play’s end and a realization for the work that still needs to be done.

“This is a story that needs to be told,” says Mark J.P. Hood who stars as Mr. Tambo. 

The nearly all African American cast delivers several all-around brilliant performances, doling out tremendous vocal harmony efforts, powerful acting and dance numbers that are both inventive and energetic. Currently running at Stage 773, a mid-sized theatre, the only drawback is that it is easy to envision the musical preformed on a larger stage, sometimes routines appearing a bit crowded. Still, that’s a very small drawback, because the play’s director is able to utilize its given space to maximize this Broadway-sized show effectively, moving boxcars and all.    

Denzel Tsopnang and Mark J.P. Hood lead this gifted ensemble along with James Earl Jones II with commanding acting performances that would be hard to beat. The Scottsboro Boys is a real showcase for both Tsopnang and Hood, who flex their versatility while taking on a handful of roles. Veteran actor Larry Yondo, most recently known for his spot-on portrayal of Ebenezer Scrooge in Goodman’s “A Christmas Carol”, also puts forth yet another admirable effort as The Interlocutor. With several beautiful vocal harmonies that sweep the house with robust sentiment, it is perhaps “Go Back Home”, a pivotal number that relates to those longing to find peace passionately led by Jones II, that will truly resonate with theatre goers long after the show. Though the vocal finesse is abundant throughout, fourteen-year-old Cameron Goode and Stephen Allen Jr. somehow find room to dazzle us even more. 

As jaw dropping as many of the numbers are in their performance, the audience often finds reluctance in their clapping, the weight of the subject matter almost seemingly inappropriate to applaud. But it is in these performances that the story is told so well. A handful of poignant casting twists take place as the white policemen and the woman accusers are played by African Americans. 

“The Scottsboro Boys” is a highly recommended theatre experience, both exceptional in its performance and its ever-important message. Wonderfully staged, acted and sung, this is a thoroughly entertaining production that will invoke much thought, inspire bravery and encourage action to be taken long afterwards. 

“The Scottsboro Boys” is being performed at Stage 773 through March 12th. For tickets and/or more show information click here.     

 

Published in Theatre Reviews

Guys, it’s time to dig into your closet and shake the dust from your polyester, large-collared, chest-exposing dance shirt. Divas, grab your sequin-studded blouse and bell-bottomed slacks or favorite jumpsuit – it’s time to disco! Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook hosts an electric 1970’s dance party to remember with their current production of Saturday Night Fever the Musical. Following the 1977 hit film that catapulted John Travolta to superstar status for his portrayal of Tony Manero, a troubled kid from The Bronx who finds escape from his dilemmas by lighting up the dance floor on Saturday nights, we are thrust into an exciting time capsule when disco was king.

As the story goes, Tony, who works a dead-end job in a hardware store, just wants to be somebody. And he is – on weekends. He just wants to dance! He’s got the hair, good looks, charisma, and dance moves that make him an instant celebrity whenever he walks into 2001, the neighborhood disco hotspot, all the girls lining up to partner with him, all the guys wishing they had half his talent. With a couples’ dance contest coming up that awards a cool thousand bucks to the winning team, Tony searches for a partner, of course seeking out the one girl who is not overly impressed with him. Saturday Night Fever the Musical, keenly directly by Tony-nominated Dan Knechtges, is a well-rounded story that delves into Tony’s stereotypical New York Italian home life, his life on the streets hanging out with his close-knit gang and his quest for love, that, for once, doesn’t come so easy. Adding a humorous spin to the classic film, this dazzling production offers a good amount of laughs while holding onto the integrity of the film. 

The music is half the fun. While the soundtrack is heavily driven by the music of The Bee Gees implementing favorites like “Staying Alive”, “How Deep Is Your Love”, “More Than A Woman” and “Jive Talkin’”, were also turned onto other disco staples that include “Boogie Shoes”, Disco Duck” and “Disco Inferno”. And as good as the music is, the dancing is just as impressive, getting spectacular individual and ensemble performances that make it difficult for audience members to restrain from taking the stage and join in the disco celebration, also encouraged by the tremendous set that recreates a captivating 1970’s dance club – strobe light, red velvet walls and all. 

Adrian Aguilar is seemingly made for the role of Tony Manero. The Jeff Award nominated actor who once starred as Rocky Balboa in Broadway’s Rocky, is nothing short of sensational. The search for the perfect Tony was widespread, with auditions held in not only Chicago but also New York, Houston and Los Angeles, and it was right here in Chicago that the production found its seamless fit. Says Kyle DeSantis, President of Drury Lane Productions, “Out of the many talented artists we saw, no one came close to Chicago’s unparalleled Adrian Auguilar as Tony.” And DeSantis could not have been any more correct as Aguilar delivers a strong performance bringing with him the comic chops and astounding dancing ability needed for the role. Aguilar is also able to tackle the demanding vocals required to take on the many numbers to which his character is highlighted and adds just the right amount of dramatic precision that give us a believable Tony Manero. 

Aguilar, whose dynamite performance is worth the cost of admission alone, is surrounded by a heaping helping of talent. Landree Fleming, who recently knocked the socks off of theatre goers in her performance as Kira in American Theater Company’s Xanadu, is back, this time delivering solid support as Manero’s clingy wannabe girlfriend Annette, while Erica Stephan does an admirable job as Stephanie, the dancer who has captured the starry eyes of our story’s star. Making his Drury Lane debut is standout actor Alex Newell, best known for his portrayal of transgender student Wade “Unique” Adams on Fox’s hit series Glee. Newell is rightly cast for the role of Candy, a disco diva who truly belts, delivering a handful of drop-your-jaw moments. In Saturday Night Fever the Musical, we also get a consistently strong boost from an ultra-talented ensemble that is not only able to bring a disco to life on several occasions, but can add credible depth to this classic story thanks to a slew of strong acting and vocal performances. Yet we cannot overlook Ryan O'Gara's stunning lighting design (disco ball included) and Rachel Laritz' spot on 1970's costume design that so well breathes life into Kevin Depinet's lavish red-velvet laden set. 

This new, reworked North American version, scripted by Sean Cercone and David Abbinanti adds even more style and flair to an already stage proven production that made waves after its London mount in 1998 and invaded America with a Broadway run in 2000. An era of pop culture poked fun of so often (and a handful of parodies are certainly present in this production), this is a musical that also celebrates disco and reminds us of the pivotal part it played in our musical history and of its ever-perpetual influence that remains.  

Saturday Night Fever the Musical pulls out all the stops, delivering a show that has it all – dancing, singing, visuals and humor, while distributing a plethora of 1970's nostalgia. Songs you may have long forgotten will be stuck in your head days afterward – in a good way. Running at Drury Lane Theatre through March 19th (now extended through April 9th), this is a production that is sure to bring the boogie out in each of us no matter how buried inside it may be.

Recommended.

For tickets and/or more show information, click here

 

Published in Theatre Reviews

CHICAGO – The watch must finally come to an end for “Thrones! The Musical Parody,” announcing today the fourth and final extension at Apollo Theater (2540 N. Lincoln Ave). The “Game of Thrones” send-up will close March 19, 2017 after an eight-month run at the Lincoln Park theater. Hailed as “a robust comical homage” (Chicago Sun-Times) and a show that has “the audience falling off their chairs” (Chicago Reader), “Thrones!” is written by the team behind “Baby Wants Candy,” “Shamilton: The Improvised Musical” and “50 Shades! The Musical Parody.” A cast of six Chicago actors recount plot highlights throughout all six seasons, complete with more than 40 characters and 21 original songs ranging in style from hip hop to traditional Broadway. Tickets ($36 - $59) for performances beginning February 16 through March 19 go on sale Monday, January 23 at 10 a.m. and can be purchased at the Apollo Theater Box Office by calling 773.935.6100 or visiting Ticketmaster.com.

 

A second production of “Thrones! The Musical Parody” continues its West Coast run at Hudson Theater Mainstage (6539 Santa Monica Blvd, Los Angeles), through February 26, 2017. The LA premiere has been hailed as “comic gold” (Broadway World), “witty and riotous” (Discover Hollywood) and “a parody of epic proportions” (LA Post Examiner). For more information and tickets for the West Coast run, visit ThronesMusical.com.

 

“After workshopping this production in July, opening in September and now playing through spring, we are thrilled that “Thrones!” continues to make our audiences laugh night after night,” said Executive Producer Rob Kolson. “While all good things must come to an end, ‘Thrones!’ has been an incredible production for the Apollo, and we are sure of its continued success around the country as the television show thrives.”

 

As Spencer, Brad, Hayden, Ross, Kelly and Tom gather for the season finale of “Game of Thrones,” they soon discover the ultimate travesty: that Brad does not watch the show. Over the course of 90 minutes, the group bands together to act out all six seasons (read: spoilers) for Brad, including dashing men battling White Walkers, ravishing women riding fire-breathing dragons, and the infamous “Walk of Shame.” “Thrones! The Musical Parody” debuted to completely sold-out performances at the 2015 Edinburgh Fringe Festival and was hailed as “darkly humorous and beautifully vulgar” (Edinburgh Festival Magazine) and “a resounding success!” (Sunday Times), followed by a sold-out, limited run at London’s Leicester Square Theatre. In its run in here in Chicago, “Thrones!” is a “hilarious ride that never slows down” (BuzzNews Chicago) and “unfailingly witty and deliciously irreverent” (Performink). The cast of “Thrones! The Musical Parody” includes Caitlyn Cerza, Dan Gold, Madeline Lauzon, Beau Nolen, Victoria Olivier and Christopher Ratliff.

 

“Thrones! The Musical Parody” is written by Chris Grace, Zach Reino, Al Samuels and Dan Wessels. The production is directed by Hannah Todd, choreographed by Tyler Sawyer Smith and produced by Emily Dorezas, Rob Kolson and Al Samuels. The creative team includes Thomas O. Mackey III (Set Designer), Eric Backus (Sound Designer), Amanda Gladu (Costume Designer), Patrick Ham (Prop Designer), Clare Sangster (Light Designer) and R&D Choreography (Violence Design). Dakota Hughes and Mike Danovich are the production understudies.

 

The performance schedule is as follows: Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30 p.m., Saturdays at 6 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. and Sundays at 4 p.m. For ticket inquiries for groups of 10 or more, call Group Theater Tix at 312.423.6612. To learn more about “Thrones!” visit the website, and follow along on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

 

About Baby Wants Candy

“Baby Wants Candy” has performed more than 2,000 completely improvised musicals to thousands of fans from Chicago to New York to Singapore to Scotland. Currently, “Baby Wants Candy” runs in Chicago at the Apollo Theater, in Los Angeles at UCB Sunset and tours internationally.  A cutting edge theatrical experience, the performance features a revolving cast of A-list comedic performers and a full band.

 

“Baby Wants Candy” begins with the cast asking the audience for a suggestion of a musical that has never been performed before. Accompanied by a full band, the first title that the group hears becomes the title and theme for that evening’s 60-minute show, featuring a roller coaster ride of spontaneously choreographed dance numbers, rhyming verses and witty, jaw-dropping comedy.  Each performance is its own opening and closing night, and by design every show is completely unique and a once–in a lifetime premiere.

 

“Baby Wants Candy” has received rave reviews in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, The Onion, Chicago Sun-Times, TimeOut New York and more, and has received numerous awards including the winner of FringeNYC’s Outstanding Unique Theatrical Experience, Best Improv Ensemble by Chicago Magazine, the Best Visiting Comedy Ensemble by TimeOut New York, the recipient of the Ensemble of the Year Award at the Chicago Improv Festival, and a rare Sixth Star Award Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

 

“Baby Wants Candy” has included several notable performers including Peter Gwinn of “Colbert Report;” Rachel Dratch and Aidy Bryant of “Saturday Night Live;” Stephnie Weir of “MadTV;” Nicole Parker of “MadTV” and Elphaba in “Wicked” on Broadway; Jack McBrayer of “30 Rock;” Al Samuels and Kevin Fleming of “Sports Action Team;” Thomas Middleditch of “Silicon Valley;” Garry W. Tallent of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band; Mark Pender of The Max Weinberg 7 and Bruce Springsteen and the Seeger Sessions Band; and Johnny Pisano of the Jesse Malin Band and The Marky Ramone Band. Members of “Baby Wants Candy” have recently written the hit off-Broadway show “50 Shades! The Musical Parody” and “Shamilton: The Improvised Musical.”

 

About Apollo Theater

The Apollo Theater, located in the heart of Chicago’s Lincoln Park since 1978, has been home to many of the city’s biggest hits including the recent “Million Dollar Quartet,” which holds the record for the longest-running Broadway musical in Chicago history. Resident companies of the Apollo Theater include Emerald City Theatre Company and “Baby Wants Candy,” and many up-and-coming companies can be seen nightly in the theater’s 50-seat downstairs studio. Recently renovated and fully accessible, the Apollo Theater’s intimate 435-seat mainstage continues to deliver world-class theater as one of the city’s premiere off-Loop houses.

 

Published in Buzz Extra
Tuesday, 04 October 2016 23:38

Rise Up, Chicago: Hamilton is Here!

What more can be said about the phenomenon that is Hamilton: An American Musical? The ever-growing hype, not to mention the genius content, speak for themselves. It was nothing less than an absolute thrill to finally sit down to see this musical after nearly a year of obsessing over the 46 - yes, forty-six - song soundtrack. Who ever knew that textbook American history could be so exciting and jarringly relevant?

The nearly three hour, entirely sung/rapped performance takes the audience through the life of the "ten dollar founding father" Alexander Hamilton. Before creator Lin-Manuel Miranda masterfully brought Hamilton's biography to the stage, everyone who isn't a history teacher likely only knew Hamilton from the ten dollar bill, but, contrary to a recurring lyric in the show, there were a million things he did for the country. Namely, he created a financial plan that saved America in a time of major debt as well as established the first national bank. If that sounds dry, it's only because you haven't heard "The Room Where It Happens" yet.

 Not only does the story cover Hamilton's achievements and downfalls, but it paints a vivid portrait of colonial life, the complications of war during the American Revolution, and the messy aftermath of establishing a new nation. Other important historical figures we'd normally associate with flat images in books or on paper money are also presented as fully-fledged and in the flesh, such as George Washington, Aaron Burr, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, among others. Central to the story as well are the two female leads of the show, Eliza and Angelica Schuyler, who were daughters of a wealthy revolutionary-turned-senator and may not have been widely known before but are certainly getting the recognition they deserve now. To top it off, these exclusively white historical figures are portrayed by people of color, keenly driving home the show's message regarding immigrants' roles in the founding of our country and representing a current snapshot of American life.

All of this is fueled by the exquisitely-crafted music and intelligent lyrics that have astounded listeners of all ages and creeds. With most of the lyrics rapped, there is room for an incredible amount of detail, proving further that Miranda is nothing less than a creative genius. Only rap would allow literal paragraphs of information to fit into a single song, and this style serves the purpose of the musical brilliantly in conjunction with the more traditionally-sung parts that, in turn, give the audience small breaks to digest everything.

The Chicago cast is immensely talented - imagine all the actors who auditioned for these coveted roles - and can easily hold a candle to its Broadway equivalent. Many of the actors play multiple roles, impressively switching characters from Act One to Act Two. Favorites for me included Chris Lee as a hilariously arrogant Jefferson, Ari Afsar as a strong yet vulnerable Eliza, and Joshua Henry as the smooth-voiced nemesis to Hamilton, Aaron Burr (sir).

It's hard to say when the last time a musical of this magnitude and social significance came around, as nothing that has been done before can really compare to Hamilton. Truly unique, engaging, educational, sharp, funny, heartbreaking, and moving, we should appreciate getting to witness this watershed moment in Broadway history and heed advice from the repeated Hamilton lyric to "look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now!"

Hamilton is playing at the Private Bank Theater at 18 W Monroe St. now and indefinitely. Tickets can be purchased on Ticketmaster, or you can enter the daily ticket lottery here.

Published in Theatre Reviews

After a successful summer preview run, "Thrones: The Musical Parody" has returned to Apollo Theater for Fall performances. Though the production might not have the staying power as did "Million Dollar Quartet", a show originally scheduled for a two-week run that was renewed for several years, "Thrones" is a solid production that, despite its niche market, should get comfy in its Apollo home for a decent stay.

 

Parodying Game of Thrones, one of the biggest television series over the past decade "Thrones" hold little back, cleverly mocking its main characters delivering a crude, but witty, humor GoT fans are sure to enjoy. From the show's opening number "Thrones!", a song that punches the audience with spoilers and refers to "The Wire" as a show one doesn't realize they like until after two and a half seasons, we get a good taste of the campy ride we are about to take. The show's very funny cast includes Caitlyn Cerza, Nick Druzbanski, Madeline Lauzon, Beau Nolan, Victoria Olivier and Christopher Ratliff. 

 

The story revolves around a group of friends who excitedly await the GoT season premiere. However, after some lackluster enthusiasm is displayed, it's soon revealed that Brad (Druzbanski) has never seen the show. Of course, this is just mind blowing for the rest of the gang who quickly agree to act out the show to catch Brad up to speed. And this is where it starts to get crazy. In fact, the show takes a hilarious turn the moment Tom (Ratliff) throws on the John Snow wig and makeshift cape just before diving into his ode to The Wall watchers "For the Watch". And how can you have a wall number without taking a poke a Donald Trump, which they certainly do. Taking shots at practically every character on the show from Tyrian to Sansa to King Joffrey to Xerxes (there's actually a song on who we need to know), the group goes from one scenario to the next. Naturally, Brad's interest in the show grows as the friends get deeper and deeper into the characters. 

 

Act One ends on a high note with possibly the funniest number in the show, "Stabbin'", a gruesomely humorous massacre free-for-all that really needs to be seen to be appreciated in full. But worry not, after a big ending into intermission, we are not let down, as Act Two holds a strong pace by providing solid laughs throughout, steering us to a strong finish. Each actor richly contributes in this talented cast holding the ability to get big laughs at any given moment as well as providing respectable vocal ability. The cast brilliantly overplays their characters expressions and are able to successfully spoof their many characteristics such as Tyrian's poor accent, John Snow's seemingly empty thoughts or _________  not so subtle crush on Denarys. 

 

Written by the team of Chris Grace, Zach Reino, Al Samuels and Dan Wessels, the show gets a nice boost from director Hannah Todd, who is able to work the funny within the funny and finely translate it for stage. While GoT fans will certainly enjoy this show, easily picking up on its jokes - both subtle and bold, it remains to see how theater goers not familiar with the show will react. The GoT fan base in Chicago might be enough in itself to support this show for a long run, possibly even creating new GoT fans along the way. 

 

"Thrones: The Musical Parody", performed at Apollo Theater through November 15th, has plenty to make it a thoroughly entertaining event - laughs, sex, an engaging storyline,catchy songs and excellent acting performances. 

 

Take your Game of Thrones experience to the next level with "Thrones: The Musical Parody". 

Published in Theatre Reviews

Helldrivers of Daytona, currently running at the Royal George Theatre, is a fun idea. It is a musical that seems to mostly spoof Elvis’ Viva Las Vegas, a story of a talented race car driver who needs to scrape up enough cash to get his car into the big race. James Nedrud does his best in the lead as Lucky Stubbs, lampooning the Elvis-like role, but often ends up shouting his best songs. Nonetheless, he does succeed nicely as a caricature of the sexy, country boy trying to make good we know from the film, coming off as a fey, one level dummy adding a lot of humor to the role. Nedrud’s expressions alone often draws laughs along with his overdone Southern accent and quirky denseness.  

 

The parodied scenes from Viva Las Vegas are many, from the girlfriend, Pepper, singing a song about how jealous she is of Lucky’s race car, the active competition with a French racing rival and even Lucky’s stint working as a hotel waiter where he walks in on Pepper and his challenger. Again, the idea was there. Problem is, despite some good acting and singing performances throughout the cast, the production goes a bit overboard with its silliness and many jokes simply fall flat. 

 

The music, composed by The Knack’s Berton Averre, captures the 1965 period nicely, some songs stuffed with clever punchlines, however, outside of a couple catchy melodies, most numbers will probably have a hard time sticking, as they fall a bit on the repetitive side.        

 

Samantha Pauly stands out from the entire cast and is a superb comedienne in the role of Pepper Johnson, Lucky’s sex kittenish, Anne Margaret type love interest. Her introductory song, "Peppers' Crazy Feeling" is hysterical as Pepper has one orgasm after another just by driving her pink colored bumpy, throbbing stick shift - an adorable convertible aptly named "Pinky”, getting huge laughs with each big "O", some of the only genuine laughs in the show. As the bi-sexual, millionaire race car driver and Count, David Sajewich is also funny even when he later channels a twelve-year-old French murderess to kill Lucky in the race (I told you it goes overboard). 

 

There are three essential speedway groupies and a tomboyish tag-along (Rachel Melius, Leah Morrow, Claire Lilley, and Julia Rose Duray). All had great voices and are played with real energy, sex appeal and great comic timing.

 

The beach bums who become Lucky's race car pit crew (Trey Curtis, Aaron M. Davidson, and Chris Selefski) have some funny moments and are good singers. Danny Herman and Rocker Verastique's choreography is often very sexy and funny at the same time, especially the dance numbers of seduction between Lucky and Pepper and Pepper's competing courtship dance with the Count. 

 

I adored Brenda Winstead's costumes particularly for all the women characters. The girl's outfits were colorful, perfectly cut for the time period and eye-poppingly sexy without actually revealing anything.

 

"Teenage Dreams" sung by the three groupies is the most memorable and interesting song to me. Their three fantasies in the number include, a Daddy's girl whose fixation on her handsome father still gets in the way of her love life, one was into being a dominatrix and having her man be her obedient puppy dog, and the third, raised Catholic, insists on finding a man who looks and acts like Jesus, her hero and savior.  I thought this song’s lyrics were very cleverly written and delivered by the girls and really captured the repressed fantasies and dating blocks that many women of all ages possibly struggle with today. Happily, for this trio, each one eventually finds her perfect mate in the trio of pit crew boys who help Lucky win the race. 

 

At a running time of 2 hours 25 minutes there are definitely still some cuts to be made but I had a lot of fun watching the show, and think a younger crowd at a theater with a more progressive reputation would as well. It might also be a good idea to take in Viva Las Vegas beforehand to really get the show’s camp.

 

Despite the show having a few more misses than hits, Helldrivers of Daytona still has enough laughs and doses of nostalgia that most will probably enjoy it overall. Its originality also counts for something, especially in its big finale racing scene.  

 

In its World Premiere, the pre-Broadway tryout, Helldrivers of Daytona, is being performed at Royal George Theatre through October 30th. To find out more about the show go to www.theroylageorgetheatre.com. 

 

*UPDATE – Due to negative reviews, the show has been cancelled for the remainder of its run. A statement was made from the show’s producers, “We all believed in Helldrivers of Daytona and more importantly believe in creating new works for the American Musical stage. We are disappointed by the critical response, but we knew that it was a risky endeavor. Still, many of the people who saw it were thoroughly entertained and delighted by the work of our fantastic cast and musicians. We have decided to close the production and we will evaluate how we might make changes for future productions of the musical. We want to thank our talented team of designers, our director and co-choreographer, our music director, our cast and crew, and of course our creative team who have all worked so diligently to get Helldrivers to the starting (and alas, finishing) line.”

 

That is unfortunate. Hopefully, we will see a tweaked production in the future. 

 

Published in Theatre Reviews

Pinterest fails are an internet sensation, with recognizable side by side pictures illustrating the difference between expectations and reality for the everyday crafter, baker, photographer, etc. It seems that no matter how many of these memes we see, it is still commonplace to set high expectations which risk being let down.

 

“WOZ: A Rock Cabaret” was unfortunately a case of missed expectations. The concept is a cabaret show which tells the familiar story of The Wizard of Oz through the iconic music of the 80’s and 90’s, including hits from Whitesnake, Blondie, Foreigner, Queen and Michael Jackson. Sounds awesome, right!? While the show had its moments and some strong singers, the reality was a production that felt flat, with big moments that lost their steam and performances that lacked the luster and pizzazz expected from a cabaret.

 

One of the main issues with the show was the venue. Performed on stage at Victory Gardens Theater, this cabaret style show felt out of place. The performers attempted to interact with the audience but it required them to come down off the stage where they easily got lost in this stadium style seating. Had this been set in a truer cabaret setting, where the audience could sit at tables enjoying their cocktails, it could have allowed the performance to work the space both on the stage and on the floor and perhaps made the show more engaging.

 

The creativity behind the song selection was awesome and very often the start of a new song brought smiles, laughs and a palpable energy to the audience. As the performers sang the full songs however, it often felt like things started to drag and there was not enough happening to hold attention through to the end of the song.

 

The performers themselves were mostly strong overall. The standouts of the show were the journeying buddies of the Scarecrow (Kevin Webb), the Tinman (James Nedrud) and the Cowardly Lion (Edward Fraim). All three brought different unique but powerful voices to their songs and added some great humor to the show. Heather Currie was a powerhouse and had an odd but quite funny style in how she played the Wicked Witch. The performances of Clara D’Onofrio and Kimberly Lawson, as Glinda and Dorothy respectively, left something to be desired. Both have strong voices but tend more toward the musical theater style which did not always vibe with the other performers. Andre De Shields was the special guest star of the show, bringing star power to the role of the Wizard and he certainly stole the show with his numbers.

 

While there are some high moments and tons of creativity that clearly went into this show, the performance lacks the excitement that could have turned this somewhat lackluster show into an all-out engaging and exciting cabaret performance.

 

With only 5 performances, the run of this show is already nearing completion but this was its second run in Chicago, so if you really wish you could have seen it, try clicking your heels three times and say to yourself “there’s no place like WOZ” – maybe it will be back someday, bigger and better.

 

Published in Theatre Reviews
Wednesday, 23 December 2015 07:00

DYNAMITE DIVAS IS EXPLOSIVELY GOOD

Here is a theater event that is so rich you cannot be disappointed. Anyone who attends Dynamite Divas: A Tribute to Women in Soul will be richly rewarded by the experience. In fact, it is so good, I would say run, don't walk, to the Black Ensemble theater to see it. (It runs through January 24.)

The premise of the play is self-admittedly thin: African-American multi-billionaire Mr. Maurice (Rueben D. Echoles, who directs, choreographs and designed costumes) has paid $2.5 million to each of four grande dames of soul - Nancy Wilson (Rhonda Preston), Gladys Knight (Rashada Dawan), Roberta Flack (Melanie McCullough), and Aretha Franklin (Shari Addison, a real show-stealer) - who are to spend the day preparing for and then performing in a television special. 

 

Why just these four? Well, Dionne Warwick, Diana Ross, and Tina Turner were considered - but schedule conflicts kept them away. Besides, these four personalities are probably the only compatible mix, as we discover in the course of the show.

Why put on such a show? Mr. Maurice, who claims to have earned his wealth through his inventions  (e-mail, texting, touch-screens, and Botox!), wants to celebrate the musical accomplishment of these remarkable singers.

These actresses' divas, as personified by these exceptional performers, capture not just the singing style, but also the personalities of their real-life counterparts. And they, too, are mystified by Mr. Maurice's circumstances and motive.  "A black billionaire we've never heard of?"

While the set-up is ridiculous, the music, and the performers, are anything but. In his performance as Mr. Maurice, Rueben Echoles sets the stage with such an abundance of energy, that he truly casts a spell across the audience, forcing the room into a complete suspension of disbelief. That is theater! (And I don't say that lightly, after four decades in the audience.)

Though well paid, these divas - in their 70's - need to be coaxed to sing at first. An extra $50,000 finally breaks the ice, and Gladys Knight lets loose with "I've Got to Use My Imagination," her 1973 hit with the Pips. This offers an inkling of what is to come: Rashada Dawan captures that teary edge to Gladys Knight's voice throughout the night, and replicates the original convincingly - with the added power of being there live.

Now that the audience knows what to listen for, the next plot turn packs a punch using the Assimilator, a kind of holographic transporter used to call up greats of the past. First a phantasm of Billie Holiday alights on the stage and performs, really channels, Holiday's "God Bless the Child" - followed by almost equally powerful impersonations of Dinah Washington ("The Bitter Earth") and Nina Simone ("Mississippi Goddam.")

As Mr. Maurice convinces each Diva to sing - beginning with first hits, and other career high points - the other three sing back-up. Music fills the 299-seat stage for what turns out to be a very short 2-1/2 hour run.

While each of these leading ladies is a powerful performer, and ably capture the singing style and phrasing of their diva, it is Shari Addison who most often seizes control of the stage - befitting her role as Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin. As the most familiar personality, Franklin gives Addison more to work with. But in McCullough's Flack singing "Killing Me Softly;" or in Preston's Wilson doing the signature "Guess Who I Saw Today," to cite two examples, the stage, and the listeners, belong to those performers.

There are also live performances or video tributes to many other notables - Chaka Khan, Mary Wells, Patti Labelle - the list goes on. Beyonce Knowles also crashes the event, in person, asking why she isn't included in the diva pack, earning a dismissive retort from Aretha: "Do you think they will be singing 'Single Ladies' in 20 years? She also tells Beyonce, "We love your music, at least some of it."

With a rich supporting cast that includes Mr. Maurice's technicians Donald Craig Manuel (as Hubert) and Kyle Smith (as Youngblood), Dynamite Divas thrives on its six-man, all-star band: music director Robert Reddrick on drums, Justin Dillard on keyboard, Mark Miller on bass, Gary Baker on guitar, Dudley Owens on woodwinds, and Bill McFarland on trombone. These guys were versatile and solid as they ran through the years and genre of the divas. Backing Rhonda Preston's Nancy Wilson on "Guess Who I Saw," the performance was "live recording" quality.

Dynamite Divas: A Tribute to Women of Soul at the Black Ensemble Theater comes very highly recommended.

 

Published in Theatre Reviews
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