REVIEW: Cirque du Soleil’s “Banana Shpeel”

Yes! We have no bananas

 Dance 9

Cirque du Soleil presents:

Banana Shpeel

written and directed by David Shiner
at the
Chicago Theatre
Through Jan. 3 (ticket info)

reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Comedy 3 When I mentioned to another critic that I planned to rank Banana Shpeel by scoring each of the acts separately and averaging the results, she asked, "Can you use negative stars?"

Yes, parts of Cirque du Soleil‘s new stage show are that bad.

Although a few elements of this remarkably uneven spectacle are terrific, it all adds up to a disappointing and chaotic whole. If you’re too impatient to sift through the details, the short version is that Cirque du Soleil’s effort to re-imagine the vaudeville variety show succeeds in the circus acts for which the company has become famous and fails in nearly all of its efforts to be vaudevillian and, notably, the comedy.

The humor of vaudeville was broad and slapstick – think the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy and The Three Stooges – often bawdy and coarse. While some of that era’s gags remain timeless, others have become unfunny through overexposure or because modern audiences have finer sensibilities than those of the minstrel era.

Banana Shpeel groans under the weight of hoary old bits that went dull before Groucho Marx was born and ragging jokes that most of us no longer laugh at. Cirque steers away from vaudeville’s most commonplace slurs and stereotypes, but still, within the first 15 minutes, Banana Shpeel pokes fun at old people and deaf people, uses a filthy Yiddish word in reference to an apparently Jewish character and tops it off with a pair of African-American tap dancers.

 

Acrobat 2 Acrobat 6 Acrobat 4

The lineup:

Auditions. The show begins with an utterly lame, overlong act that introduces cigar-chomping impresario Marty Schmelky of "Schmelky’s Schmelktacular" (Jerry Kernion); his two would-be comic sidekicks, Daniel (Daniel Passer) and Wayne (Wayne Wilson); and three other clownish characters who are supposedly auditioning: Claudio Carneiro, a lame Brazilian impersonator of "ordinary people with knee problems"; Patrick de Valette, an exhibitionist modern dancer; and Gordon White, "The Oldest Mime in the World." Despite discouragement by Schmelky and company, this trio shows up again and again in different guises, the running gag of the show. This bunch of second bananas apparently inspired the name. No actual bananas were harmed in the making of the show. zero stars

Welcome to Schmelky Spectacular. Next, we get a not especially spectacular opening dance number, featuring lots of flappers and feathers and highlighting siblings Joseph and Josette Wiggan, two talented tappers who deserve better than to be exhibited like a revival of the vaudevillian "two-colored" rule. ★★

Juggler. In this more traditional Cirque act, Tuan Le adeptly juggles hats – getting up to six – using his hands, feet and head. ★★★

Eccentric dance. An ensemble dance number more remarkable for its fluorescent costumes and effective use of blacklight than for its choreography. ★★½

Duo hand to hand. Strongman Jeff Retzlanff and lithe Kelsey Wiens perform a pas de deux of acrobatic maneuvers that climax with her standing on his head on one foot. ★★★½

Clown restaurant. A long, painful episode involving all five clowns, an apparently well-coached audience member and some trite routines so antique they’ve fossilized.

Act II Clowns. More of the same. zero stars

Foot juggler. A hypnotic act in which dexterous, scantily clad Vanessa Alvarez spins mats with her feet while, among other things, standing on her head. In the background, three other young ladies pose with giant fans. ★★★

Magic dance. There’s nothing especially magical about this dance number. ★★

Magic. A stylized, slapstick magic act, set to music, disjointed and dumb.

Hand balancing. An awesome performance by Russian strongman and contortionist Dima Shine, a beautiful young man doing beautiful, sinuous, graceful, almost impossible things with his body on a lighted pole. ★★★★

Tap dance. If you thrill to the tap spectacles in old movies, this one will wow you. It starts off a bit slowly, but perks up fast. The Wiggans do some fine work here, as do the whole ensemble. This may be the one act that really justifies the "new twist on vaudeville" label, and would have made a much better opening act than those excruciating clowns. ★★★½

Charivari and finale. The lady from the audience is pulled back on stage for a tender scene with Daniel, while White clowns at one side. Surprise – there are actually a few laughs here! Then another chaotic crowd sequence brings the two-hour show to a merciful end. ★★½

Dance 12 - Finale 

Set and lighting. Set Designer Patricia Ruel and Lighting Designer Bruno Rafie did a noticeably impressive job. The shifting, colorful backdrop made from a huge, lightbox screen and a glossy, lighted, moving floor add real impact, especially to the dance numbers. ★★★★

Costumes. Costume Designer Dominique Lemieux evokes flamboyant vaudeville style with glittering, shimmering, iridescent and phosphorescent fabrics. ★★★

Music. Composer and Musical Director Scott Price has put together a good live band, but nothing in his score will leave you humming. ★★½

So, let’s do the math: 37½ points, divided by 16 items, equals 2.34. Do we average up to 2.5 stars or down to 2?

Given the incredible pre-show hype, which included spammers posting to local blogs, and the price of decent seats, I’m inclined to average down. Cirque fans who need a fix are advised to skip this and wait till March, when the perennially touring Alegria will play in Hoffman Estates.

 

Rating: ★★

 

December 5, 2009 | 1 Comment More

Review: Curious Theatre’s “Two Plays by Beau O’Reilly”

Misery and Mystery Undergird Two Plays by Beau O’Reilly

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Curious Theatre presents:

Two Plays by Beau O’Reilly

by Beau O’Reilly
thru January 3rd (ticket info)

review by Paige Listerud

Program notes handed out for Curious Theatre’s latest production at the Center Portion Gallery tell you nothing typical regarding the plays performed. They give a bit of history about their creation process–but nothing so conventional as actor biographies or promotional material about the company itself. Instead, playwright Beau O’Reilly writes about getting knocked out of commission at an unexpected moment:

I woke up on Wednesday with “No Longer a Rock” completely in my head and wrote it down . . . Celebrating, I got on a bike and headed down the dirt road . . . I was knocked unconscious, woke up to . . . a feeling of disassociation, which included watching language blend, dissolve, and wander away as if it was someone else’s province . . . rescued from the brain trauma unit by my friends, I did go to the theatre festival, but efforts to move on stage with lumpy grace were replaced by spinning vertigo . . . I sat instead in an armchair and told a half-remembered story, watching my mouth paraphrase my paraphrases as words would float away . . .

Serious misery accompanies incapacitation. Both No Longer the Rock of the World and Dead to the World reveal lives of emotional and mental disability. Despair over what has been lost and won’t be recovered dwells side by side with miraculous possibility–the healing of longstanding wounds and the opening up of new worlds. Forgiveness and the recovery of humanity–heck, even the recovery of a reliable daily routine–allude to chance, fate, or the mystery of existence lying behind material reality. Is O’Reilly aware that he has written little mystery plays for the modern world?

DSC_4378a DSC_4414a

Never mind. In No Longer the Rock of the World, Kelly Ann Corcoran and Guy Massey strike a nice dueling sardonic pair as Carol and Charles. Both are defensively mourning the death of Walter, an idiosyncratic performance artist who was Carol’s lover and also Charles’ brother. Walter’s dying wish brings them together, as much as they wouldn’t stand each other under any other circumstances.

Charles hurts from his own unfinished business with Walter, as well Carol’s limited judgments of him. Guy Massey immaculately conveys Charles’ brittle spirit, especially when he returns fire with, “You’re a snob, Carol.” But nothing frames their scene together like the black despair Carol sinks into when alone. Who needs who the most becomes the predominant question. O’Reilly’s original music, sung live by a character named Elsie, provides eerie accompaniment to the scene, performed on opening night by Sophie Sennard and Julian Berke. (Jenny Magnus will alternate with Sennard during the run.)

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Dead to the World is essentially one long monologue about a man suffering unpredictable attacks of narcolepsy. Already living on the edge, his life’s journey is an uninterrupted dreamscape that, in its own grungy way, represents a descent into hell. Certainly, the building he lives in, with its gangsta-style vandalism and creepy neighbor lady, is a familiar renter’s hell. How survival happens at all for this guy is as much a mystery to the audience as to him. We are left to presume the kindness of many unmentioned strangers. It’s here where O’Reilly’s writing could use an editor’s eye, since the work threatens to devolve into a shaggy-dog story. But it’s a strong stroke of realism when his character’s escape from narcolepsy is as unpredictable and enigmatic as the rest of his experience.

Kate Teichman adroitly navigates the ups and downs of O’Reilly’s text. Thankfully, the writing exercises her full, versatile range. She’s an actor who gives quirky roles grounding and respect, avoiding clownishness, even while wearing oversize glasses and engaging in a few acrobatics. It’s a performance worth seeing, even with a text that could be tightened up. Not only do we buy her performance as a man, we believe the moments of epiphany along with the dips into despair and disorientation.

Rating: ★★★


INFO:

November 27 – January 3
Fridays & Saturdays 8 PM
Sundays 3 PM

Note: No shows Christmas week or New Year’s Day.

@ Center Portion
2850-1/2 West Fullerton Ave
in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood

$15 or pay what you can at the door
$12 in advance online

Reserve advanced tickets at: https://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/90439

space-garden

December 4, 2009 | 3 Comments More

This week’s theatre openings and closings

show openings

THE AUTOMOTIVE GRAVEYARD

  – University Theater at University of Chicago

BANANA SHPEEL - Cirque du Soleil

CAR CEMETERY – University Theater at University of Chicago

CHAD MORTON’S TV CHRISTMAS MIRACLE - Village Players Performing Arts Center

A CHRISTMAS CAROL – Paramount Theatre

COLDDream Theatre

THE D-CUP DIATRIBES - Gorilla Tango Theatre

THE DREAMERSTheatre Building Chicago

THE EXONERATEDGorilla Tango Theatre

FAITH OFFGorilla Tango Theatre

NAUGHTIER AND NICENew Millenium Theatre

FLORIDA DEVEREAUX DOES THE HOLIDAYSProp Thtr

GIFT OF THE MAGI - EverGreen Theatre Ensemble

HANDEL’S MESSIAH – Pick Staiger Concert Hall

HOLIDAY DIVAS! – Theatre and Interpretation Center at Northwestern University

IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE: LIVE AT THE BIOGRAPHVictory Gardens Biograph Theater

LOW TONER: DECISION QUALITYGorilla Tango Theatre

MARK AND LAURA’S COUPLES ADVICE CHRISTMAS SPECIALGorilla Tango

OH COWARD!Writers’ Theatre

RUDOLPH THE RED HOSED REINDEERHell in a Handbag Productions

SHORT SHORTSAnnoyance Theatre

A SILENT NIGHT: GRANDMA GOT RUN OVER WITHOUT HEALTHCARE - Gorilla Tango

TAMING OF THE FLU - The Second City

TOWARDS THE SUN! - Gorilla Tango Theatre

A VERY MERRY UNAUTHORIZED CHILDREN’S SCIENTOLOGY PAGEANTNext Theatre

THE WIND IN THE WILLOWSCity Lit Theater

show closings

BECOMING INGRID - Rubicon Theatre Project 

DOOBY DOOBY MOOLifeline Theatre 

AN EVENING WITH CHARLES BUSCH AND JULIE HALSTON - Victory Gardens

HOLESMerle Reskin Theatre

HOLIDAY HOP - Center for Performing Arts at Governors State University

PHEDRANew World Repertory Theater

RACHEL CORN AND THE SECRET SOCIETYCorn Productions

ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEADWriters’ Theatre

December 2, 2009 | 0 Comments More

REVIEW: Factory Theatre’s “Hunky Dory”

A little less loud. a bit more funny.

HunkyDory 

The Factory Theatre presents:

Hunky Dory

by Joe Gehr
directed byJosh Graves
thru December 19th (ticket info)

review by Aggie Hewitt

The Factory Theatre is a quirky little theatre that produces comedic farcical productions. Hunky Dory, their late night show, introduces us to a Texas family that is part “Deliverence”, part “Rosanne”. But this family is not just poor, trashy and evil – they own a coach house that is absolutely irresistible to retired Sarah Lawerence professors and Chicago doctors looking for a quiet place to write their memoirs. Why? It doesn’t matter. All that matters is that this family is going to kill those upper-crust Northerners and collect their social security checks.

Performers at the Factory Theatre like to yell. They seem to have picked up the idea that this is how humor is communicated. In the world outside the theatre, a lot of people have this misconception as well, and I have never understood it. What is there about loud noises that is so funny to these people? Are they just all fighting for one’s attention? If that’s the case I have news for the Factory Theatre bombasts: all of the chairs in the house face the stage. If you are on stage, someone will pay attention to you. Please stop screaming.

Apart from that, the whole production just seems lazy; as if no thought at all were put into any aspect of it. The story, staging and writing in this show are unfortunately equally bland – monotone and without heart. Chicago performers, writers and directors looking to work in comedy have to understand that big does not equal funny. (Of course, big can be funny if it is an aspect of the entire joke, but it’s not a secret formula for it). 

My advice? Steer clear from this production, but please do not write off the Factory Theatre. They’re a smart group that perhaps lost some guidance on this particular show. I look forward to smaller and brighter things to come in future productions.

Rating: ½

 

Cast

Elmer . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Blake Dalzin
Char . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Sarah Rose Graber*
Momma . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Christine Jennings*
Aunt Sue . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Jennifer Pompa*
Guj . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Christopher Marcum
Grandpa Freddy. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Steve Welsh
Mr. Thompson/Snyder/Russell . . . . . . . .Justin Cagney
Mrs. Thompson/Snyder/Russell . . . . Erin Elizabeth Orr

Crew:

Director……………….…….…Josh Graves*
Writer……………………………Joe Gehr*
Executive Producer……………Carrie J. Sullivan*
Producer………………..……………Allison Cain*

Sound Design…………………………….Nick Booth*
Stage Manager………………….Elizabeth Boros-Kazai

* connotates Ensemble Member

for cast bios, click on “Read More”

December 2, 2009 | 1 Comment More

Wednesday Wordplay – Ben Franklin and “holiday pounds”

Inspirational Quotes

To freely bloom – that is my definition of success.
            — Gerry Spence, How to Argue and Win Every Time

Turn your midlife crisis to your own advantage by making it a time for renewal of your body and mind, rather than stand by helplessly and watch them decline.
            — Jane E. Brody

Dost thou love life? Then do not squander time, for that’s the stuff life is made of.
            — Benjamin Franklin, ‘Poor Richard’s Almanack,’ June 1746

 

Urban Dictionary

holiday pounds

The extra little bit of weight you put on during a period of being on holiday or vacation.

Man, when I get back to work I’ll have to start going to the gym again- I’ve put on some serious holiday pounds

 

December 2, 2009 | 0 Comments More

REVIEW: American Theatre’s “Its a Wonderful Life”

its-a-wonderful-life-foley

American Theatre Company presents:

It’s a Wonderful Life: The Radio Play

Adapted from the film by Frank Capra
Screenplay written by
Goodrich, Hackett, Swerling and Capra
Based on a short story by
Philip Van Doren Stern
Directed by
Jason Gerace
Thru December 27th  (ticket info)

reviewed by Katy Walsh

microphone “Man’s suicide thwarted on Christmas Eve” sounds like a newspaper headline, not the premise of a holiday tradition. In American Theatre’s 8th-annual production, Frank Capra’s 1946 film, It’s a Wonderful Life, based on the book The Greatest Gift, is re-imagined on stage as a radio play. Though most have seen the movie, the story deals with a distraught businessman George Bailey who eventually considers killing himself so his family may benefit from a life insurance policy. Clarence, angel second class, tries to earn his wings by helping George understand significance of his life. Performed in 80 minutes without an intermission, American Theatre Company’s It’s a Wonderful Life: The Radio Play is a nicely wrapped holiday gift.

It could possibly be said that Wonderful Life is the original dramedy. The plot is Hollywood’s schmaltzy tragedy with a “feel good” happy ending. Within the story of a suicide attempt, the Capra team has created strong characters delivering memorable lines. “Why don’t you kiss her instead of talking her to death?”, “Youth is wasted on the wrong people.”, “No gin tonight, son!”, “Get me…I’m giving out wings.”, “Excuse me! Excuse me! I burped!”, “Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings,” and the ever powerful, “Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?” The timeless lines invoke the familiar swirl of sentimental tears and chuckles.

Starting with this strong, beloved script, director Jason Gerace adds a cast of nine members to perform the Christmas classic. The stage is the broadcast room at radio station WATC. The radio announcer (Alex Goodrich) begins the show by prepping the studio audience with “on the air” protocols and the importance of the APPLAUSE sign lighting up. Alan Wilder, playing two key roles – Clarence and Mr. Potter, perfectly mimics the original performances of Henry Travers and Lionel Barrymore. As crotchety old Potter, Wilder mockingly delivers, “You see, if you shoot pool with some employee here, you can come and borrow money.”  Later, as Clarence, Wilder innocently requests, “Mulled wine, light on the cinnamon heavy on the cloves. Off with ya lad and be lively!”

Another player that provides dead-on imitations of multiple characters is Jessie Fisher. As man-eater Violet, Fisher seductively says, “What? This old thing? Why I only wear it when I don’t care how I look.” Then Fisher becomes 8 year old Zu-Zu with, “Not a smidge of temperature.” Although Kareem Bandealy is no Jimmy Stewart, his George Bailey gives a complex range of emotions of a dream seeker -small town hero- suicidal- “richest man in Bedford Falls.” Under the well-paced direction of Gerace, the multi-talented cast energetically lassoes the moon.

For a radio play performed as a stage play, the foley artist (the person who creates many of the natural, everyday sound effects for a live radio show) always adds an interesting element of sound production. With this show, this doesn’t seem to be occur. The foley artist (Rick Kubes) is set up on the side of the stage with various tools and techniques to add the sounds to the radio broadcast. Plunging in the river, clattering dishes, blizzard winds – these radio elements are not completely audibly realized. Kubes needs to crank up the volume! And speaking of audio, preshow, the audience is given an opportunity to write audiograms. During radio commercial breaks, the audiograms are delivered by the cast. Holiday greetings are mixed with requests for parking money as the messages are broadcasted to and from audience members. It’s a nice personal holiday touch and cheaper than buying cards.

 

Rating: ★★★

 

November 30, 2009 | 2 Comments More

Theater Thursday: House Theatre’s “All the Fame of Lofty Deeds”

Thursday, December 3

All the Fame of Lofty Deeds

The House Theatre of Chicago at the Chopin Theatre
1543 W. Division St., Chicago

loftydeedsphotoEnjoy complimentary pizza in the famous Chopin Theatre lobby before the performance, then stick around for the world premiere production written by rock journalist Mark Guarino and based on and featuring the music and artwork of Bloodshot Records recording artist Jon Langford (Mekons, Waco Brothers). This phantasmic journey into the mind of a fictional country music legend is what an episode of Howdy Doody might look like if it were directed by David Lynch. Sadly reflective and yet hilariously surreal, House Theatre’s All the Fame of Lofty Deeds mixes rock biography, live music and stunning visual effects to tell a tripped out tale of the demise of America’s last living cowboy. Stick around after the performance for a talk back with the some of the show’s cast and creative team.
Event begins at 7 p.m.
Show begins at 8 p.m.

TICKETS ONLY: $25
For reservations call 773.251.2195 and mention "Theater Thursdays."

Read our review here.

November 30, 2009 | 0 Comments More

Sunday Night Sondheim – “Everybody’s Got The Right” from Assassins

Everybody’s Got the Right” from Stephen Sondheim’s 1991 musical Assassins.  This Youtube video includes Neil Patrick Harris, Dennis O’Hare, Michael Cerveris (with hair!), James Barbour, Alexander Gemignani, and Mario Cantone.

 

November 29, 2009 | 0 Comments More

Review: Porchlight’s “Miracle on 34th Street”

A Retro Christmas Miracle

 

Porchlight Music Theatre presents:

Miracle on 34th Street

Adapted by Patricia DiBenedetto Snyder, Sill Severin and John Vreeke

Story by Valentine Davies
Screenplay by George Seaton
directed by
L. Walter Stearns
thru January 3rd, 2010 (ticket info)

Reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

MIRACLE ON 34th STREET--Santa and Susan I have to admit to a bit of “Scrooge-ism” when it comes to the holiday season in America. The commercials, the billboards, the store windows dressed in fiberglass snow and plaid carolers when I am still finishing Halloween candy stuffed in the bottom desk drawer- you get the idea. I managed to get into the spirit in spite of myself. I got a visit from a little angel in the form of my niece Alexandria. She is a very precocious seven years old who likes spiders. Porchlight Theatre’s publicity for Miracle on 34th Street stated that this was the perfect first theater experience for children and would become a holiday tradition. I am happy to say that the publicity was right.

This production of Miracle on 34th Street is from the Porchlight Music Theatre Company. They are known for classic productions as well as new interpretations of musicals. This is already a classic film and now it has been excellently translated to the stage. The moment that Kris Kringle’s sleigh appears on the stage is when the magic begins. A veritable toyland pops out of Santa’s big red sack and performs to start the play. We are then told that this Santa is a lucky replacement for the other guy who showed up drunk. The twist is that this Santa believes that he is the real thing. It is a tale that we all know from afternoons around the television or at the repertory movie house.

Christa Buck plays the cynical 1940’s career woman Doris Walker. She is all business and doesn’t have time for the fantasy that is Christmas. She also has little patience for the complications of romance that shows up in the form of Fred Gailey played by Karl Hamilton. They both seem to have stepped out of a Technicolor production. The entire cast is a step back in time and that is perfect for this production. The cynicism of Doris Walker and her daughter Susan is born out of divorce and abandonment issues. That is my modern interpretation but the portrayals are embodied with the post-war innocence of the 1940’s. Somehow everything works out in America if you only believe. It’s a beautiful idea whose time is coming around again. The part of Susan Walker is played by Laney Kraus-Taddeo. She is another talented product of the Piven Theatre Workshop in Evanston. Ms. Kraus-Taddeo doesn’t hit any false notes or project any of the treacle that is the risk of any child actors. All of the children in this production are a delight to watch. The play makes room for a child in the audience to talk to Santa on stage. It was a funny moment with an untrained participant who asked for Christmas lipstick. Your guess is as good as mine as to what that is but Jim Sherman as Kris Kringle played right along with jolly humor.

I have to say that it was the performance of Jim Sherman that really put me in the Christmas spirit. He has the sparkle and the charm that – for me – embody Santa Claus. He wears a suit that is more in the tradition of Father Christmas or Sinter Klass from the Netherlands. Even when he was clad in layperson’s attire he looked like Santa. I also enjoyed the character of Mr. Macy played by Chuck Sisson. I’m a girl who grew up on Mr. Drysdale, Mr. Mooney, and Thurston Howell III. There is a certain carriage and technique to carrying off the bluster of such a character in my opinion and Mr. Sisson has it much to my enjoyment.

The entire cast is a joy to watch in Miracle on 34th Street. The supporting villain character of Mr. Sawyer is played with relish by Rus Rainear. Like the movie, Mr. Sawyer is a ferret-like guy who almost kills Christmas while in cahoots with the ambitious District Attorney played by Steve Tomlitz.

Suspense! Romance! Knee Slapping Laughs! It was a great way to spend a Sunday afternoon. Most importantly, it passed the “Alexandria Test”. My niece Alexandria was enchanted the moment the action began. That is saying something considering that we had been to Uncle Fun and bought a “can of salted nuts” which contained three fake snakes. Lexie was all about the snakes until Kris Kringle and the music began. She also got to take a picture with Santa on the stage after the play that was a big thrill. “Auntie Kathy! I got to see Santa Claus and be on the stage!”

You have to bring your own camera and resist the urge to want to sit on Jim Sherman’s lap yourself. I’m telling you, the guy took me back to 1965 when I really believed.

 

Rating: ★★★½

 

November 28, 2009 | 2 Comments More

Review: Redmoon’s “Winter Pageant”

‘Winter Pageant’ reprises White House performances

 winterpageant

Redmoon Theater presents

Winter Pageant

By Vanessa Stalling, Frank Maugeri and Jim Lasko
Directed by
Vanessa Stalling
Through December 27th (ticket info)

reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

pageant-swining Fresh from its triumphant Halloween performance at the White House, Redmoon Theater stages its nearly annual, alternative take on a family holiday show, Winter Pageant.

The theme of these shows over their 15-year history is always the same: Each unique pageant showcases the progression of the seasons and celebrates the return of spring — in always charming and often magical ways. The production avoids religion, hackneyed classics and Christmas commercialism and, as Artistic Director Frank Maugeri puts it, engineers "a journey that explores nature, humanity, ritual, storytelling…."

This year, perhaps because the production reprises performance elements from the troupe’s White House spectacle, much of the storytelling seems to have been lost. Instead, we have a disjointed, hour-long series of vignettes and technical wizardry. Plots have never been the strong point of these pageants, I grant you, yet usually there’s been a tale of sorts to carry the audience along.

Not only did I miss that, it became clear from the restlessness of the young audience that the kids did, too. Not that there aren’t plenty of wondrous sights for children. As the show opened and a young woman played with a toy car, I saw a father struggling to restrain his squirming 2-year-old, who wanted mightily to get in on the action.

The toy morphs into a marvelous full-sized car full of characters and cakes and a monstrous, goodie-stealing baby. Then we have a mechanical surrey with a flower garden and a bug-eating gardener on top — evidently representing summer.

pageant-boat pageant-stage

Judging by the colors and timing, next come autumnal rains and a marvelous underwater sequence that had the kids charging out of their seats. We also get some absurd pirates and wonderful illuminated hat puppets representing migrating swans. A bountiful banquet becomes a food fight. Winter, a dark and chilly sequence of crooked doll houses and shadow puppetry, follows. Spring explodes in drumming and tulips, but nevertheless seems anticlimactic.

Redmoon’s artistry is wonderful throughout, but this year’s pageant is perhaps best seen as a showcase of performance art, a series of artful spectacles, rather than a winter’s tale.

 

Rating: ★★½

 

pagenat-kids 

Note: Free parking at the theater and in a lot across the street.

Ensemble: Missi Davis, Nick Demeris, Sarah Fornace, Alexander Knapp, Matt Rudy, Eric Swanson and Dustin Valenta

November 28, 2009 | 1 Comment More

Review: “A Very Merry Children’s Scientology Pageant”

Red Orchid Lets Religious Absurdity Loose

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A Red Orchid Theatre presents:

A Very Merry Children’s Scientology Pageant

By Kyle Jarrow from a concept by Alex Timbers
Directed by Steve Wilson
Music Direction by Brandon Magid
thru January 3, 2010 (ticket info)

reviewed by Paige Listerud

Szalai-Raymond, V It’s only November, but if you are already tired of virgin births, wise men led by stars, angels singing to shepherds or animals talking in mangers, then A Red Orchid Theatre’s remount of A Very Merry Children’s Scientology Pageant just might be the cure for what ails you. Based upon the self-promoted achievements of L. Ron Hubbard, the pageant explores one man’s search for the answers to life’s most important questions and his creation of the religion Scientology.

That children enact this story is the stroke of genius that A Red Orchid Theatre can pat itself on the back over for years to come. The pageant has quickly morphed into Chicago’s brand new holiday favorite–what with Next Theatre opening its production in two weeks. Will Chicago survive dueling Scientology pageants? Will these theaters survive an onslaught from Scientology’s lawyers? Is this a sign of the Apocalypse?

I hardly know which is scarier–Scientology, the story of the creation of Scientology, or the amount of talent these kids possess. Director Steve Wilson has one tight group of young actors at his disposal. They rock the house with angelic paeans to L. Ron Hubbard, slow-motion battle scenes, hilarious E-meter demonstrations, and fabulous portrayal of the sinister galactic overlord, Xenu. One actor even looks like a pre-teen Tom Cruise—now that’s scary.

Brown, V Fallo, V Szalai-Raymond, Allen, Fallo,V

In a classic moment of paranoia, I considered whether this satire could actually be a vehicle promoting Scientology. For L. Ron, all paths for spiritual growth sooner or later lead to Hawaii. And why not? All the same, other than blasting away your engrams or your Thetans, Scientology still doesn’t have answers for who we are or what life’s purpose is all about. But in the midst of the joy of the Scientology pageant, we really don’t care.

 

Rating: ★★★

 

ScientologyCast09

A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant features A Red Orchid Theatre Youth Ensemble members Chaz Allen, Najwa Brown, Jaiden Fallo, Paola Lehman, Adam Rebora, Kara Ryan, Elenna Sindler and Aria Szalai-Raymond; as well as newcomers Elita Ernsteen, Katherine Jordan, and Alex Turner.

Photo Credits: Michael Brosilow

November 28, 2009 | 1 Comment More

Review: Northlight’s “Souvenir”

Northlight’s sophisticated comedy sweeter than it sounds

 first note, horiz

Northlight Theatre presents

Souvenir

By Stephen Temperley
Directed by Steve Scott
Through Dec. 20 (ticket info)

reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Thanksgiving Day 2009 marks the 65th anniversary of the death of the legendary Florence Foster Jenkins, a New York society phenomenon of the 1930s and ’40s. A vocalist as passionate as she was talentless, Jenkins, then nearly 60, launched a singing career that brought her a hugely enthusiastic following and propelled her to the heights of a Carnegie Hall recital at the age of 76 — despite having no more ability than when she began.

Florence Playwright Stephen Temperley affectionately and hilariously profiles the off-key but determined Jenkins in his witty, 2004 comedy, Souvenir, delightfully presented by Northlight Theatre in Skokie. A set bare but for a grand piano, phonograph and a music stand focuses attention on the two lone actors who brilliantly bring the eccentric socialite singer back to life: Neva Rae Powers , as Jenkins, and Mark Anders, as her longtime accompanist and enabler, Cosmé McMoon. (They don’t name ’em like that anymore!)

This well-crafted historical fiction concentrates as much — if not more — on McMoon as on Jenkins. The play begins some 20 years after the singer’s death, as the failed composer and pianist, reduced to playing at a piano bar, reminisces in deft monologues punctuated by period songs and flashbacks. Anders’ deadpan delivery and dead-on timing form the hinge pin of the production’s sparkling comedy, ornamented by Powers’ trilling volubility and mercifully brief but uproarious recreations of Jenkins’ performance style.

Imagine Julia Child, crossed with Edith Bunker, singing an aria by Mozart — or “Mr. Mozart,” as Jenkins refers to him. We’re not talking about the deliberately terrible music of comic artists like “Jonathan and Darlene Edwards” (Paul Weston and Jo Stafford), who recorded such subtly awful hits as “Paris in the Spring” in the 1950s, or Leona Anderson, who released the aptly titled “Music to Suffer By” in 1957. Jenkins truly thought herself a great singer, a coloratura with perfect pitch.

Cosme and Florence, piano, vert angel Cosme

McMoon, originally horrified — Anders’ thunderstruck expression when he first hears her is priceless — rather reluctantly takes on the job of accompanist because he needs the money, but gradually becomes charmed by and protective of his elderly patron. The counterpoint between the two characters is delicious. McMoon struggles earnestly to remain diplomatic and keep Jenkins’ illusions alive, despite her own best efforts to expose her flawed warbling to an unkind world … in ever more elaborate costumes. (Costume Designer Theresa Ham does her proud, in both period street wear and the glittering outfits Powers dons for Jenkins’ recitals, especially the reenactment of her ultimate 1944 concert, which just might be worth the ticket price by itself.

The script sticks entirely to Jenkins’ musical career, not touching on her failed marriage or her unconventional love life. We learn a bit more of McMoon, enough to understand his motivations and catch a dark edge that sharpens the play’s sophisticated humor. This is definitely one of those shows that leaves the audience wanting to know more about its characters.

Souvenir is heartwarming, inspiring and very, very funny. Don’t miss it.

Rating: ★★★★

Note: Free parking.

November 27, 2009 | 3 Comments More