Category: 2009 Reviews
Love, Apple Pie and a Cup of Joe
|The Den Theatre presents|
|Written by William Inge
Directed by Ryan Martin and Lia Mortensen
at The Den, 1333 N. Milwaukee (map)
through Jan 22 | tickets: $20 | more info
Some people will want to step into The Den, a newly established Wicker Park theater venue founded by Ryan Martin and Lia Mortensen, for the sheer joy of steeping oneself in pure, unadulterated Americana. William Inge’s Bus Stop will wrap up on January 22, so there’s still time to catch a vision of bygone America in the loving care of a solid cast carrying out intricate, commendable ensemble work. The Den’s waiting area has a comfortable and homey feel, but step inside the theater space and be greeted by the same pleasurable warmth evoked by Caleb McAndrew’s set design. Only the smell of fresh-brewed coffee could complete the perfection of its mid-Twentieth Century rural diner.
Another significant advantage of the new stage space is that it’s set in deep enough to give well-rounded, 3-D perspective to Martin and Mortensen’s direction. Actors play a scene in one area, up or downstage, without interfering with the relationships of other characters continuing on speechlessly in another. Characters move apart to give each other needed, but uneasy, space – only to rejoin once détente is established, verbally or nonverbally. Bus Stop is Inge’s meditation on love, after all—what brings people together and pushes them apart. So, when it comes to maintaining realistic emotion between the transient souls showing up at Grace’s Diner, give them land, lots of land, under starry skies above. The rest is left up to the cast’s impeccable timing—Martin and Mortensen’s direction keeps the pace real and each scene as vivid as an Edward Hopper painting.
Here Grace, played robustly by Liz Zweifler, comes across as the coffee-refilling mother of all waitresses. Elma (Elise Walter), her earnest, college-bound, naïve employee, learns the romantic ways of men and women never far from Grace’s protective wing. Parts of Bus Stop were surely scandalous in their day. Yet, considering the rapid-fire way kids are thrown into sexual maturity by our internet age, the whole play seems preserved in amber innocence through Elma’s enduring optimism about the human race, Grace’s common sense take on sex and marriage and Will (Ed Smaron) the sheriff’s watchful eye, weather-beaten sage demeanor and looming physical presence.
Into this quasi-family spill the bus driver, Carl (Karl Pothoff), and his hodge-podge collection of passengers. Here they must ride out Kansas’ worst snowstorm in years until the highway can be cleared. Cherie (Arianne Ellison), a low-end nightclub singer, is on the run from Bo (Brian Kavanaugh), a rodeo cowboy who basically forced her onto the bus to take her to his ranch in Montana. His pal, Virgil (Will Kinnear), and the sheriff have to talk him down from going through with his kidnapping plans, which he has made under the astonishingly naïve presumption that a one-night stand with Cherie means everlasting love.
Even in 1955, when Bus Stop first opened, Inge’s premise must have been notoriously hard to sell. The intervening years have not made it any easier. Bo may now be the hardest character to play sympathetically in Bus Stop. Indeed, if Kavanaugh can’t quite reach the credibility necessary to convey it, it’s not for want of trying. His technique is fine, his body language rough and tumble enough to suggest a life of hard work and hard play, but his portrayal of the character’s mentality is still just short of the full-on bullheaded ignorance and cocksureness to make his presumptions about Cherie absurdly real.
Thankfully, scenes between Bo and Virgil become grounded through Kinnear’s low-key, almost Zen-like approach to Virgil. Arianne Ellison’s interaction with Kavanaugh also provides a firmer foundation, giving Cherie a lot of pin-up girl charm and helplessness in the face of Bo’s advances.
Ellison also realistically rounds out Cherie’s quiet, pining confessions to Elma with her need for love and respect, her waning faith in getting either. What’s more, throw away every memory of Marilyn Monroe’s performance in the movie version. Ellison brings authentic goods to Cherie singing “That Old Black Magic” during the diner’s impromptu variety show. She really is a small town girl with a pretty face, a nice body and a little talent, struggling her way through an American songbook classic. The whole scene is transformative, actualizing the emotional connections between Cherie and Bo, so that their rapprochement at the end of the play rings with clarity and vitality.
Elma’s connection with Dr. Lyman (Ron Wells) builds and proceeds without a hitch—due, in no small part, to Walter’s ability to express unadorned curiosity and excitement blooming under Lyman’s attentions, as well as Wells’ instinctive ability to depict a love-lost man contemplating life from the bottom of a glass. Lyman’s drunken breakdown during his Romeo and Juliet scene with Elma hits with profound and poetic truth. So does his first act finale monologue where, sauced beyond any ability to remember what he’s saying, he admits to his own cowardice and selfishness. Wells’ portrayal of Lyman’s self-loathing leaves an indelible memory.
Pothoff and Smaron admirably fill in the rest of the play with their own variations on masculinity. Carl and Grace delight with their gentle, no-nonsense flirtation, their assignation an open secret that Will charmingly scores laughs on and Elma accepts without judgment. Inge’s presentation of American sexuality–with its sympathetic portrait of Lyman, its acknowledgment of Bo’s sexual immaturity versus Cherie’s experience, and its acceptance Grace’s extra-marital dalliances–definitely reveal a country ready to peal back assumptions on gender roles and Victorian sexual morality.
But in another sense, the play is a snapshot of sexual and relationship innocence we can never and probably should never return to again. Grace may celebrate Cherie leaving with Bo in the end, but no one today can be that celebratory about a man so completely clueless about a woman’s rights over her own person. A guy like that might have as much propensity for battering as good old boy fun–and that’s something that today’s audiences can’t ignore, for all the nostalgic yearning that Bus Stop fulfills.
Rollicking fun, if not quite a glorious thing
Light Opera Works presents
reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes
One of the few professional Chicago companies to put on the works of Gilbert and Sullivan, Light Opera Works typically mounts one of their operettas each year, with just eight performances. This year, it’s a solid version of The Pirates of Penzance, one of the duo’s most popular comic operas, full of witty lines and catchy music.
It’s hard to imagine anyone coming away from a well-done production of almost any of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas without wanting to see more. Maybe it’s the "opera" in "comic opera" that scares people off. Maybe it’s the technical difficulty and expense of producing shows that require skilled orchestras and large, talented choruses. Whatever it is, it’s rare that Chicagoans get to see these classics done with the splendor they deserve.
Light Opera Works does a satisfying but not thrilling job of "Pirates," one of the funniest and most timeless of the G&S canon. Its characteristically silly plot revolves around Frederic, an apprentice pirate. Meant to be articled to a ship’s pilot, he was instead mistakenly indentured to a pirate by his hard-of-hearing nursery maid. The dutiful young man has served diligently in the rather soft-hearted pirate band, but now his term of service is up, and he means to dedicate himself to wiping out his former comrades.
He becomes more determined after he meets Major-General Stanley’s bevy of beautiful daughters, whom the lovelorn pirate crew tries to kidnap, and falls in love with the intrepid Mabel. But then, the pirate king points out a technicality that means Frederic’s contract to the pirates is still in force. Delightful songs and comic shenanigans ensue.
A highlight of the production, bass-baritone Michael Cavalieri looks too amiable to be a Pirate King, but he gives us a glorious "Oh, better far to live and die." Musical theater veteran James Harms is the very model of a Major-General Stanley, effortlessly delivering the centerpiece patter song in fine comic style.
As in many productions, this crowd-pleaser gets a speeded-up reprise, although this one rather insults audiences. It’s usual to hint the meaning of the couplet, "In short, when I’ve a smattering of elemental strategy — / You’ll say a better Major-General has never sat a gee," by having the singers mime riding horseback on the final rhyme, but when Harms repeats the line, he sings, "never sat a horse" — as if we were too dumb to get it the first time.
Other than that, Director Rudy Hogenmiller steers mercifully clear of modernizing, while aiming at very broad comedy. The police force, for instance, comes straight out of the Keystone Kops. Bass Frank M. DeVincentis, both vocally and comically perfect as the Sergeant of Police, does a bang-up job with "When a felon’s not engaged in his employment."
Tenor Matthew Giebel brings an excellent voice to Frederic. As Mabel, Alicia Berneche trills her way through "Poor wandering one!" and "Stay, Frederic, stay!" at high coloratura pitch. All of the women sound a bit shrill, even the dashing Barbara Landis in the contralto role of Ruth, Frederic’s nurse turned piratical maid of all work.
Conductor Roger L. Bingaman’s largely workmanlike musical direction stumbles here and there. The orchestra doesn’t excite, and harmonizing, in songs like "When you had left our pirate fold," sung by Landis, Giebel and Cavalieri, isn’t all that it could be. The choristers do fine work, though, with particularly clear enunciation in numbers like "How beautifully blue the sky."
Hogenmiller’s dance sequences sometimes seem cluttered, but that only adds to the fun. Jill Van Brussel‘s costumes shine, particularly the colorful pirates’ garb. Tom Burch‘s cut-out sets neither add much nor detract.
Overall, the flaws of this production are far outweighed by its successes, together with the sheer brilliance of the original score and script. If it’s not the glittering production that Gilbert and Sullivan fans yearn for, it’s still loads of fun and good enough to inspire G&S newcomers to want more.
Are you listening, Chicago thespians?
Marriott’s ‘My Fair Lady’ loverly, but risk-free
Marriott Theatre presents:
My Fair Lady
reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes
The story of linguistics professor Henry Higgins and the Cockney girl he transforms into a lady may well be the most beloved and best-known musical of all time. Based upon George Bernard Shaw‘s Pygmalion, its original Broadway production in 1956 ran for 2,717 performances and won six Tony Awards. The 1964 film based on the musical won eight Oscars. The musical has had three major Broadway revivals, and a 2001 British production toured both the United Kingdom and the U.S. and won three Olivier Awards. Columbia Pictures has announced an upcoming movie remake.
You’ve surely seen some version of this musical — if not a professional show, then a high-school or college production or the film. Just listing its popular songs — "Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?" "With a Little Bit of Luck," "The Rain in Spain," "I Could Have Danced All Night," "Get Me to the Church on Time" — will set the tunes ringing through your head. Audiences are hard pressed to keep from singing along.
If you’re one of the lovers, then all I really need to tell you is that Marriott Theatre has produced an exuberant, picture-perfect production of My Fair Lady. Nothing about this show will mar your vision of the musical — from Kevin Gudahl channeling Rex Harrison as Henry Higgins to Nancy Missimi‘s gorgeous Edwardian costumes to Matt Raftery‘s jolly choreography.
If you’re not already an ardent fan, though, nothing about Marriott’s version will challenge your perspective. Dominic Missimi‘s direction breaks no new ground whatsoever. This is "comfort theater" at its safest.
The songs are all beautifully sung, the orchestra is first-rate and the acting never misses. The in-the-round staging works surprisingly well (though I held my breath every time the cast schlepped the office furnishings on and off the stage in the dark).
The cast and ensemble — as one expects from Marriott — do everything right. Heidi Kettenring brings verve to her part as Eliza Doolittle, particularly in her "unreformed" Cockney scenes, making Gudahl’s Higgins seem especially like a stuffed fish. Don Forston makes a feisty Alfred Doolittle (our heroine’s opportunistic father) and Catherine Lord an especially expressive Mrs. Pearce (Prof. Higgins’ long-suffering housekeeper); her Scottish accent is a nice touch. David Lively gives a stiff upper lip to Colonel Pickering while Ann Whitney brings dry wit to Higgins’ mother.
Max Quinlan, as Eliza’s yearning suitor, Freddy Eynsford-Hill, gives full measure to "On the Street Where You Live," and George Keating, Brandon Koller, Christian Libonati and Joseph Tokarz are a cheeky Cockney quartet.
The scene at Ascot, when Eliza is first revealed to the upper crust, is particularly delightful, thanks mainly to some amazing hats and staging that gives them all the display they deserve. Apart from that, though, and the intrinsic worth of live performance over recorded media, you might just as well rent the video.
I found myself thinking of all the things a theater company might do with this brilliant but hoary old musical to shake it up. While it’s probably going too far to set the show in the Loop and give Eliza a Bridgeport accent, a production, however beautiful, that merely follows where others have gone before, forms a sadly lost opportunity. Marriott’s My Fair Lady feels as if it’s set in aspic.
Note: Dinner packages available.
Unwrap This Holiday Present NOW!
Mid-Winter’s Tales 09
December 18th-21st (ticket info: 312-587-7390)
By Katy Walsh
Before the age of electronic entertainment, communities gathered around the fireplace to tell stories. With the wind howling outside and increased hours of darkness, families told tales to amuse themselves and brighten the long nights of winter. ShawChicago presents Mid-Winter’s Tales 09, a collection of multi-generational stories and songs. Mid-Winter’s Tales 09 mixes it up with a variety of author samplings from a W.B. Yeats’ poem followed by a column snippet from Chicago’s own Mike Royko to, of course, words of wisdom from George Bernard Shaw. Although the show celebrates the winter solstice with cultural representation leaning in an English direction, it balances out the traditional Christmas fruitcake focus with a double helping of lakes (pronounced la keys).
With the aid of DVDs to set the holiday mood, I’ve memorized many lines from the retelling of stories, like; “It’s A Wonderful Life,” “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer,” and “Christmas in Connecticut.” To my delight, Mid-Winter’s Tales 09 shares an unfamiliar collection of holiday stories. “The Wise Men of Chelm and the Miracle Lakes” is a stone soup rofendition about potato pancakes entertainingly led by ensemble member John Francisco. Mary Michell is hilarious in corresponding with her true love and his clever gift-giving in “Not Another Partridge in a Pear Tree.” Living in the generation of holiday gluttony, the moments that melt icicle-hearts are the recalling of children’s holidays in “Hilda Sutt Polchek Remembers Christmas at the Hull House” and “Scarlett Ribbons.”
Mid-Winter’s Tales 09 is performed on a bare stage with guitar (Rachel Schiff) and violin (Blake Hackler) accompaniment. This strings-only music adds an undertone of sad winter quiet – that at times the amplified music competes with the non-miked cast. The actors are a talented band of storytellers. In the dreary winter evening, without a Christmas tree and a menorah to look at, the audience focuses on the actors’ facial expressions and their words. Spoiled lately from the grandeur of big musical productions, it’s hard to adjust to the sparse stage. Because Mid-Winter’s Tales 09 represents simpler times of storytelling, the plainness has an authentic and intimate quality.
Although an exploration of multi-religious representation of winter solstice could prove to be even more interesting, this 2009 focus on Jewish folklore promotes both understanding of its traditions and strong cravings for lakes (even though and I don’t like potatoes!).
Definitely not your father’s Rudolph
Hell in a Handbag Productions presents:
Rudolph the Red-Hosed Reindeer
Reviewed by Katy Walsh
A red panty-wearing reindeer, a boozy hag Mrs. Claus, and an elf with dental aspirations: two of these three character traits weren’t apparent in the traditional holiday classic. Hell in a Handbag Productions presents Rudolph the Red-Hosed Reindeer, a parody on the children’s television show “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” The campy story tells the struggles of Rudolph (Alex Grelle), a transvestite reindeer born to wear Chanel silk in a J.C. Penney overalls world. In its 12th year, David Cerda has updated his Christmas town misfits’ story with topical jokes about Michael Jackson, the Catholic Church and healthcare. Cerda has unwrapped his imagination to create back stories for the residents of Christmas Town: a pedophile reindeer coach, a tyrant money-hungry Santa, enslaved go-go dancing elves, and a cosmetic surgery drag-queen victim as the snow beast. Not quite the hot-cocoa-by-the-fireplace-on-a-snowy-evening, this Rudolph is more like tequila shots at the bar on a bitter cold night.
In any Hell in a Handbag production, Ed Jones transforms his small supporting role into huge laughs. As a drunken Mrs. Claus, Jones’ facial expressions are hysterical. Joined by Rudolph, Herbie (Chris Walsh), and Clarice (Jennifer Shine), Jones’ quartet belts out the catchy tune “Christmas Makes Me Bitter.” It’s the perfect melody for holiday commercialism burn-outs. The witty combination of the television show’s familiar moments mixed with the dark and disturbing create a warped alternative to the “It’s a Wonderful Life” crowd. Walsh (no relation) nails Herbie the elf in pitch and robotic movement. From the moment she steps on the stage, Lori Lee (Yukon Cornelia) becomes a hilarious version of the simpleton prospector. Her traveling destination song “I Don’t Know” is an amusing rendition of an Abbott-Costello ‘who’s on first’.
Over the last several years, I’ve made three trips to Cerda’s Christmas Town. Like Christmas cookies, I like to sample all of them but I have my favorites. This production comes in third with some awkward pauses. It’s unclear if it’s new material or new actors mixing with veterans. Regardless, Rudolph the Red-Hosed Reindeer is still a great escape from songs like “I’ll Have a Blue Christmas Without You” for the more realistic sentiment “They’ll Hate You If You’re Different.” The 2009 version may not be my favorite but it’s still a tasty holiday treat.
Get ready to love Christmas!
Goodman Theatre presents:
A Christmas Carol
Reviewed by Oliver Sava
If you’re not filled with the holiday spirit yet, you will be after Goodman’s A Christmas Carol. Now in its 30th year, Charles Dickens‘ tale of redemption is brought to life by an all-star cast of Chicago talent, creating a emotional journey through one man’s mistakes that will resonate long after the curtain goes down.
This year’s production begins with a beautiful medley of holiday songs that immediately establishes the idea that Ebeneezer Scrooge (Larry Yando) detests: Christmas brings warmth and calm to a cold, chaotic world. But happiness is not profitable, and the great Yando plays an excellent curmudgeon in the opening scenes. Hunched over books of number and growling at charity workers, he is the portrait of loneliness. Yando begins to transform as he is shown visions of the past and present, and almost immediately the images awaken feelings that have been long buried. A scene between young Scrooge (Andy Truschinski) and his fiancee Belle (Jessie Mueller) is particularly heartbreaking because of the dedication Yando brings to his attempts to change the events that have shaped (destroyed?) him. The journey through his past tortures him, but he cannot escape viewing his own actions – the ultimate punishment. The pain of these moments is heightened by the contrast between the nature of the prison and the characterizations of the jailers: the Ghosts of Christmas Past (Alex Weisman) and Present (Penelope Walker).
Weisman, fresh off a Jeff award win for Timeline Theatre’s The History Boys, looks like he is having the time of his life as he flies across the stage, and his jolly nature is a great fit for the early moments of Scrooge’s past, especially the Christmas party at Fezziwig’s. Walker is beautiful in a massive gold and red gown, and she sprinkles glitter with ebullient laughter that forces a smile out of the coldest hearts. As Scrooge’s memories sour, so do his tour guides. The aforementioned scene between Scrooge and Belle stifles the gleeful fire that burns in Weisman, and as Walker reveals the disdain Scrooge’s peers have toward him, as well as the troubles they themselves face, she becomes an almost malevolent force. A scene where she introduces Scrooge to the two children that represent Ignorance and Want, crawling out from beneath her garment to maximum dramatic effect, is particularly haunting, and the perfect introduction to the most terrifying of Dickens’ heralds: the Ghost of Christmas Future. Major props to the Goodman design team for creating the horrifically huge puppet for this last ghost, giving the spirit an overwhelming dreadfulness.
The supporting cast impresses, balancing the community’s spite toward Scrooge with the good cheer of the holiday season. The Cratchit family is the heart of the show, and Ron Rains brings a wonderful caring energy as the patriarch Bob, always showing respect to his cruel boss. The scenes in the Cratchit household are brimming with love between husband and wife, parent and child, and actor and script. Fiercely committed, the actors have found the beauty in their misfortune, making Tiny Tim’s (John Francis Babbo) death in the future all the more tragic.
While sadness and loss are major factors of Dickens’ tale, Goodman’s production is filled with humor and moments of pure glee. The party at Fezziwig’s is positively rollicking and Scrooge’s nephew Fred’s (Matt Schwader) Christmas dinner is a joyful celebration filled with music and laughter. Where the show is most successful, though, is in the final moments when Scrooge vows to redeem himself, and Yando skips, jumps, and laughs his way into the hearts of the audience, a humbug no more.
Patchwork USA Provides Simply Told Stories
Raven Theatre presents:
reviewed by Paige Listerud
Probably no other children’s show this season is as simply produced as Patchwork USA, a world premiere from Raven Theatre’s Children’s Program, directed by Michael Menendian. Based on short children’s stories by Menendian and Eugene Fern, no frills sets, props, and costumes mean greater demands from the actors in terms of basic, direct storytelling for their very young audiences.
All of the actors provide accessible and approachable performances to encourage audience participation. McNeil and Sanchez particularly soon found favorites among children who regularly responded to questions designed to engage them in the characters’ dilemmas. Esteban Cruz stands out in his ability to animate his storytelling with enthusiasm and mischievous humor. His Lil’ Devil from “How I Love to Read” is especially memorable, as is the young boy from “The Happiest Day of My Life” who lives in anticipation of his first professional baseball game.
All stories fulfill the children’s program mission to instill an appreciation of differences in others, whether those differences refer to ethnic background, ability, or self-expression. The overall tone is one of building basic respect for one’s fellows, a tender blossom that can be easily run over in the holiday rush. This children’s show provides a real alternative for families looking for more wholesome entertainment this season.
Some stories may still benefit from further development. Perhaps reconsidering the story-within-a-story framework for some tales would provide more accessibility for its intended audience. If anything, more engagement, not less should be encouraged.
Sizzling Cast – Lukewarm Story
The Addams Family
Reviewed by Catey Sullivan
Fair to snappy score, piffling to predictable story and characters of cartoon depth. That about sums up the much-anticipated new musical based on the mordantly brilliant cartoons of Charles Addams. And oh yes, multi-million dollar whiz bang production values and a cast comprised of some of the biggest stars known to the biz of show. Minus Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth – talents as brilliant in their fields as Addams was in his – would The Addams Family musical be worthy of its pre-Broadway hype? We’d argue ‘no,’ but that argument’s probably beside the point.
With Lane and Neuwirth as Gomez and Morticia Addams, the score and the book could be a creation of cringing mediocrity and nobody’d much notice. Lane can – and here, does – wrest belly laughs from jokes that would fall flatter than a week-old, lead-lined pancake if delivered by lesser lights. Neuwirth is his match as the slinky, femme-fatale mistress of the ooky-spooky mansion. With legs and hair that go from here ‘til eternity and a whiskey-and-velvet alto voice that screams “come hither” even when it says something completely different, she simply kills it as Morticia.
As for the story that contains these luminaries, think “You Can’t Take It With You” with ghosts and monsters. Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice’s book focuses on Wednesday Addams (Krysta Rodriguez, instilling Wednesday with a definite S & M flair) and her romance with the comparatively normal Lucas Beineke (Wesley Taylor, the clean-cut ‘M’ to Rodriguez’ domineering ‘S’). As in Kaufman and Hart’s depression-era classic, the romance is complicated by clashing parents. Lucas’s folks are prim, proper and repressed. The Addamses? Not so much.
Wackiness ensues when the buttoned-up Beinekes are confronted with the questionably alive Lurch (Zachary James, a literally towering presence whose basso profundo steals the show in the finale) upon entering the Addams’ Central Park manse. It ensues further as the Beinekes contend with lovesick sea-monsters, chairs that double as castration devices, saber-rattling ghosts and hosts and the shamelessly demonstrative lustful affection between Morticia and Gomez.
Andrew Lippa’s score is colored throughout by Gomez’ Spanish ancestry. Its flamenco/tango stylings are serviceable, but in all, the music is more flash than depth. Curiously, the best songs don’t go to Lane or Neuwirth. The latter’s big number comes with “Second Banana”, an utterly forgettable lament about aging. Lane gets “Happy/Sad,” a second act crooner that is sweet but generic. It is Mrs. Bieneke (Carolee Carmello, a belter of deceptively mousy demeanor) who gets the Act I showstopper (“Waiting”) and Mr. Bieneke (Terrence Mann, in fine voice) who raises the roof and brings down the house in Act II with “In the Arms,” a hilarious ode to cephalopod love.
As for the big 11 O’Clock penultimate finale, that has more to do with swashbuckling spectacle and an all-hands-on-deck sword fight than with musical virtuosity. (Choreographer Sergio Trujillo draws a page from “Thriller” for much of the rest of the show, as a chorus of the dead engages in lively dances with gravestones. ) If you’re waiting for a star turn (a la The Producers “Betrayed”) that puts Lane’s incandescent leading man capabilities in the white-hot light they deserve, it never arrives. As far as the score is concerned, Lane’s role is oddly underwritten.
Director/designers Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch have crafted a show that looks thrilling and moves at a spirited clip. That’s all well and good – but hardly the stuff of a deserving Broadway blockbuster.
Fans of the 1960s “Addams Family” television series will find all the show’s deliciously macabre eccentricities in place. Cousin Itt makes an appearance. “Thing” is featured prominently. Fester (an infectiously gleeful Kevin Chamberlin) serves as both narrator and odd-man Greek chorus of sorts. Ukulele in hand, he gets some of the evening’s most creative special effects (and amusing choreography) in a free-floating love song to the moon. And as Grandma, Jackie Hoffman makes the mighty most of a small part, delivering the show’s best lines with a pitch-perfect irreverence that stops the show with every punchline.
For boomers who loved the finger-snapping show, The Addams Family is a must. Ditto for those who treasure any chance to see Lane and Neuwirth perform live. For the rest, there’s just not much there.
The Second City at 50: Good for what ails you
The Second City presents
Taming of the Flu
reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes
They may be 50 years old, but The Second City can still bring up some healthy laughs.
Most of us won’t get to go to The Second City’s big 50th anniversary celebration with its famous alumni this weekend — many events are sold out — but the troupe’s latter-day regulars do their predecessors proud with their anniversary mainstage revue, Taming of the Flu.
This is the kind of infectious comedy that made The Second City famous: Fast-paced, creative, topical, hilarious.
There are gags about swine flu*, of course, and health-care reform, with some needle-sharp jabs at insurance companies and politicians of all stripes. Some subtly and not-so-subtly humorous routines point up racial issues, the economic meltdown, war, terrorism and the other ills of our time.
Modern life gets its jibes, from the guy who’s addicted to his iPhone to the football player who taunts his opponents with Harry Potterisms to lesbian bachelorettes. In an anniversary mood, they look back over 50 years, comparing teenagers from 1959, ’79 and revisiting a 1950s bomb shelter.
Best of all are the Chicago-centric gags. Maybe it’s a return to The Second City’s roots or maybe it’s just that during this chilly and cash-strapped season they figure they don’t have to play to the tourists, but some of the best bits in this revue aim straight at the home crowd with nary any translation — such as a poignant paean to Chicago winters, lawn chairs and all. Chicago cops. Red-light cameras. The Olympics. Indiana casinos. Aldermanic candidates. A sidesplitting sketch covers local cabbies’ recent call for fare hikes.
As with all revues, some sketches are funnier than others, but the jokes roll out nonstop, fast as sneezes. The six ensemble members keep ’em coming with feverish timing, dead-on expression and keen comic gestalt.
Compared to Tamiflu, laughter may not be the best medicine, but I defy anyone to leave this show not feeling better than when he went in. If it doesn’t cure what ails you,* at least you’ll forget your suffering for a while.
Notes: The Second City ticket prices are due to rise Jan. 1 to a minimum of $22 for general-admission seats and up to $46 for a new class of "premium" seats. Parking in the Piper’s Alley garage is $1 off with validation at the box office.
* Chicago Theater Blog does not advocate going to the theater while suffering with H1N1 flu or any other contagious disease. Fortunately, this show is in open run. Please stay home until after you have completely recovered, if only for the sake of any critics who may be in the audience. Gesundheit.
Theater Wit presents:
The Santaland Diaries
Reviewed by Aggie Hewitt
Who doesn’t love holiday traditions? Especially if one of your traditions is listening to David Sedaris’ reading of his radio essay “SantaLand Diaries.” When this piece first aired on NPR in 1992, it struck a nerve hard enough to propel Sedaris into a public radio superstar. It’s a true story about the underemployed writer living in New York taking a job as an Elf at Macy’s one Christmas season. Perhaps it’s the medium that makes it so personally appealing, but it’s also Sedaris’ writing, which is confessional, hilarious and honest.
For many lovers of regional theater there is another equally dear tradition: the one-man theatrical production of this piece, which I saw this weekend produced by Theater Wit. Adapted for the stage by Joe Mantello (Wicked, Assassins) in 1996, the one act monologue covers Sedaris’ bases but with broader strokes; making it both more theatrical and open enough for voices other than Sedaris’ to crawl into the role of the anonymous narrator.
In this production, our narrator introduces himself right away as Mitch. He’s Mitchell Fain actually, and this is his third year telling this story under the direction of Theater Wit artistic director Jeremy Wechsler. It’s an improvisational, audience interactive production, in which Fain breaks out of character repeatedly to share personal anecdotes and connects with audience members one on one.
Fain’s Crumpet (as the elf names himself) is different from Sedaris’. He’s boozier, more jaded and older. He’s been around long enough to bring a special kind of indignation to his role as an elf. He’s also Jewish, bringing a nice new layer of irony to the already super sardonic show. Mitchell Fain is a bold actor and brings so much of himself to the stage, that even the truest David Sedaris fans will allow themselves to be seduced by his performance. As he switches back and forth between Crumpet and Mitchell, the transitions can be somewhat jarring and at times even awkward at the top of the show. But once he gets going and the asides become hotter and freer flowing, Mitchell and Crumpet flow nicely and the cohesiveness makes for something that is entirely new, and not a retelling of an old holiday favorite. An appropriate presentation of a show that is at its core about the aggravating façade of holiday traditions.
Joey Wade has created an ironically generic set for Fain to play around in, which he does in a mostly compelling way. The crew gets into the fun, at one point someone pulled the lights on Fain during an (I’m guessing) improvised Judy Garland impression. The Theater Building, which hosts the show, has a full bar in the lobby and the audience is encouraged to drink (Crumpet the Elf goes through about a shakers worth of martini in the duration of the show). It’s a festive environment, perfect for anyone who is too jaded for Tiny Tim, but not so jaded that they can’t sit through a one man retelling of a 1992 radio essay. For audiences looking for something subversive enough to stomach but not so subversive that they have to think, this is a perfectly pleasant night at the theater.
Shopping around for a second husband can be so much fun!
The Lyric Opera of Chicago presents:
The Merry Widow
Libretto by Viktor León and Leon Stein
Based on Henri Meilhac’s comedy “L’attache’ d’ambassade”
English lyrics and dialogue by Sheldon Harnick
Conducted by Emmanuel Villaume
Stage directed by Gary Griffin
Thru January 16th
Review by Katy Walsh
Boy loves girl. Family won’t let him marry her because she’s penniless. She marries another and becomes a wealthy widow. Boy still loves girl. Now, his country wants him to marry her because she has 20 million francs. Girl loves boy but fears he loves her for her money. Add in a cheating wife, French lover, overbearing Baron and dancing girls and the results are the Lyric Opera of Chicago presents The Merry Widow. Originally produced in German in 1905, The Merry Widow is sung in English as an operetta in three acts.
Arguably, an operetta basically stands for “opera lite.” Tastes great, less filling. With its origins in the 1800’s, an operetta introduced a less dramatic version of opera to audiences. Utilizing comedy, simpler plots and happier tunes, the operetta became the precursor to contemporary musicals. For diehard opera fans, an operetta is like drinking Miller Lite when you prefer a Guinness. For opera newbies, an operetta is like sipping your first beer to acquire a taste for hops. For all, The Merry Widow is a lively romantic comedy presented with all the grandeur and majesty as is the Lyric Opera hallmark.
Unlike most traditional operas, The Merry Widow has segments of spoken dialogue, dancing sequences and informal familiarity. Breaking the fourth wall, Roger Honeywell (Count Danilo Danilovich) emphasizes a joke by guffawing with the audience. Honeywell, along with Jeff Dumas (Njegus) and Dale Travis (Baron Mirko Zeta), set the playful mood with physical comedy. A particularly fun musical dance number, “Every Woman,” has several of the male cast members commiserating on how difficult women are. Later, it’s the ladies’ turn with dance hall girls performing the Can-Can, a line dance complete with pulled up skirts and leg shaking. Elizabeth Futral (Hanna Glawari) has the vibrant presence to carry the main title The Merry Widow. Although she captivates the audience with her soprano precision, there are moments for her and Honeywell where vocal subtlety is overwhelmed by the orchestra.
From the moment the curtain rises, the audience is treated to spectacular sets (Daniel Ostling). The first act is built around a magnificent staircase, several stories high. Later the scene at Maxim’s features a moving stage on stage within a bi-level dance hall. The costumes (David Burke and Mara Blumenfeld) range from early 1900 elegant aristocrat to vibrant gawdy Can-Can dancer. Visually appealing and lighthearted amusing, this production shows how much fun shopping around for a second husband can be.
Lack of Plot Leaves Characters Adrift
Gorilla Tango presents:
Mark & Laura’s Couples Advice Christmas Special
Review by Keith Ecker
There are countless Christmas offerings this holiday season. You have the evergreen classics such as Miracle on 34th Street (our review) and A Christmas Carol (there are actually seven separate productions of the latter). You have plays targeted toward both children and the inner-child, such as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (review). Then there’s the fringe fare—over-the-top shows that lampoon those things we hold most sacred about the Christmas season from family to Jesus to televised holiday spectaculars.
Mark & Laura’s Couples Advice Christmas Special (ticket info) falls into the latter category. It’s a bare-boned production that can barely be called a play due to its lack of any semblance of a plot. It’s definitely a comedy, though the funniest part of the show is the program, which provides humorous biographic information on the main characters. Yet, the play fails to incorporate this humor and, rather, flounders along on a series of contrived and well-worn comedy conventions.
The play centers on the Gibsons, a family who produces a cable access, relationship advice program. The fourth wall is non-existent as we, the audience, are the in-studio audience for their fictional broadcast, which airs in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Mother and father duo Laura (Carrie Bain) and Mark (Ryan McChesney) play the hosts who ooze Midwestern wholesomeness, including Laura’s love for soup and Mark’s passion for toolsets. Their production assistant is their son Sean (Adam Ziemkiewicz), a flamboyant thespian who elicits only derision from his father. The couple’s other son, Mark Jr. (Raymond Bruce Birkett III), is the apple of his father’s eye due to his love of ties and his 3.2 GPA.
Throughout the show, the couple espouses relationship advice, at one point fielding questions from the audience. Yet, it is obvious that hypocrisy is afoot as there are dysfunctions between the Gibsons, both as partners and as a family unit.
We’ve seen all these characters and relationships before in one form or another: the ostracized gay son, the know-it-all dad and the worrisome mother who just wants everyone to get along for the holidays. And although all actors do a good job of making these stock characters come to life, there is no reason for the audience to become invested in them in any way. That’s because there is really no plot, but only what appears to be a skeleton of a script with a few marks the actors agree to hit. There is little tension, despite such melodramatic conflict. There is resolution, but no feeling of relief. We cannot care about four people meandering on stage, directionless.
If there was more time and thought put into creating an inventive story wherein to place the Gibsons, this could have been an entertaining and refreshing addition to seasonal theater. However, as it stands, it’s really just a good way to enjoy an hour of central heating, courtesy of the Gorilla Tango Theater.