A Modern Twist on a Holiday Classic

‘The Nutcracker’

 

The Nutcracker by the House theatre. (Michael Brosilow photo)
The Nutcracker by the House Theatre. (Michael Brosilow photo)

4 stars

Ten years have passed since The House Theatre of Chicago first presented their original, contemporary version of E. T. A. Hoffman’s classic story, “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.”

Whenever theatergoers hear that iconic title, forever associated with Christmas, they envision fairies and a toy that comes to life to bravely battle a Mouse King to rescue a little girl named Clara.

They imagine a dazzling spectacle, a lavishly-produced ballet, featuring dozens of lithe, magnificently skilled dancers. They picture lush, imaginative costumes and a story set in a magical land of snowflakes and flowers.

But with neither a tutu nor a toe shoe in sight, the House Theatre once again revives its popular production of their modern, family-friendly adaptation, loosely based upon the original tale.

Read More

Christmas at Pemberley saga continues with delightful Downton Abbey style intrigue

Will Mobley (George Wickham) and Jennifer Latimore (Lydia nee Bennet Wickham) in 'The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley' at NOrthlight Theatre. (Phots by Liz Lauren)
Will Mobley (George Wickham) and Jennifer Latimore (Lydia nee Bennet Wickham) in ‘The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley’ at NOrthlight Theatre. (Phots by Liz Lauren)

4 stars

Audiences move below the stairs in “The Wickams: Christmas at Pemberley,” the second part of a trilogy that started with “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley.

Co-written by playwrights Lauren Gunderson (“Book of Will”) and Margot Mekon (former Marin Theatre New Play Development Director) Jane Austen fans will recognize some of the characters, their foibles and charm, as inspired by Pride & Prejudice.

Indeed, the troubles between Fitzwilliam Darcy (Luigi Scottile) and George Wickham (Will Mobley) start in the famed Austen story and reach another scandalous level in Part Two about the Bennets and the Darcys.

In a letter to her sister, Lizzy (Elizabeth Darcy played by Netta Walker), Lydia Wickham, née Bennet, portrayed by Jennifer Latimore, says she is coming to Pemberley for Christmas. Lydia’s husband, George, a gambler and unscrupulous womanizer, is not welcome at the Darcy estate.

Read More

‘The Niceities ‘ is a provocative new play

 

eft to right Ayanna Bria Bakari(Zoe) and Mary Beth Fisher(Janine) in The Niceties at Writers Theatre. (Michael Brosilow Photos )
left to right Ayanna Bria Bakari(Zoe) and Mary Beth Fisher(Janine) in The Niceties at Writers Theatre. (Michael Brosilow Photos )

3 stars

Racism isn’t always a clear, conscious choice but activism and outrage regarding racism are choices in playwright Eleanor Burgess’ “The Niceties,” now at Writers Theatre.

When a well-regarded Caucasian Ivy-league history professor meets one of her students, a smart African-American anxious to turn in her paper on the American Revolution ahead of time so she can organize a protest at the school, their discussion dissolves from quiet, academic points to heated confrontation.

Zoe, a junior who prefers the internet for doing research, contends that the American Revolution’s successes were related to slavery. Her professor, Janine, asks her not to base her arguments on what appear to be assumptions but  to look for annotated facts from well-regarded authorities.

Janine is willing to extend the paper’s deadline but Zoe replies it won’t help because she has a protest to organize followed by other protests elsewhere.

That’s the early part of what starts out as back and forth conversation.

It soon becomes a heated argument when Zoe reads quotes from what Janine said in class that could be considered racist, argues against the professor’s hanging of  a George Washington picture even though Janine also has a picture of Nelson Mandela on the wall and then records Janine’s responses on a cell phone she sends into the public domain.

Directed by Marti Lyons, Ayanna Bria Bakari is totally believable as Zoe and Maryh Beth Fisher is perfect as Janine.

An insert in the program urges audiences to not take sides as they hear the arguments. It says, There are no heroes and no villains in this play. “The insert goes on to read, “Both characters say many things that are true and both say many things that are deeply troubling and uncomfortable to hear.”

During the performance I attended, there were gasps when Zoe was rude to the professor and later showed the cell phone.

The audience also listened in rapt silence when aa distraught Zoe explained what life is like for someone who is African-American and that white people, like the professor, should “shut up and listen.”

Premiered in 2018, the arguments in this new play are provocative, personal and are likely to be discussed by audiences long after they leave the theater.

DETAILS: “The Niceties” is at Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe, through Dec. 8, 2019. Running time: about 1 hour, 50 minutes. For tickets and other information call (847) 242-6000 or visit Writers Theatre.

Jodie Jacobs

 

For more shows visit Theatre in Chicago

 

‘Dead Man Walking’ brilliantly thrusts opera into the contemporary genre

4 stars

Patricia Racette top center, Ryan McKinny bottom left, Susan Graham bottom right and parents of murdered teens bottom center at Angola in Dead Man Walking at the Lyric Opera of chicago. (Ken Howard photo)
Patricia Racette top center, Ryan McKinny bottom left, Susan Graham bottom right and parents of murdered teens bottom center at Angola in Dead Man Walking at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. (Ken Howard photo)

Every season opera houses around the world include at least one story of murder and often, its consequences.  But whether clothed in lyrical or dramatic music by famous composers, their librettos typically focus on mythology or historic tales. Those productions seldom produce the kind of gut-wrenching reactions and post opera discussions sparked by “Dead Man Walking,” now at the Lyric Opera of Chicago through Nov. 22, 2019.

Written by composer Jake Heggie and librettist/playwright Terrence McNally and first produced by the San Francisco Opera at the War Memorial Opera House in October, 2000, the opera is based on a 1993 non-fiction book of the same name by Sister Helen Prejean, a Roman Catholic nun.

Sister Helen, a member of Sisters of Saint Joseph of Medaille in New Orleans, was against capital punishment and served as a spiritual adviser to two convicted murderers on Death Row. The phrase “dead man walking” was commonly used in American prisons for a man who received the death penalty for his crime.

L-C A gold light on the prison floor stands for the separate places that Sister Helen (Patricia Racette) and Jospeh De Rocher (Ryan McKinny) can speak to each other in Dead Man Walking at Lyric Opera of Chicago. (Ken Howard photo)
L-C A gold light on the prison floor stands for the separate places that Sister Helen (Patricia Racette) and Jospeh De Rocher (Ryan McKinny) can speak to each other in Dead Man Walking at Lyric Opera of Chicago. (Ken Howard photo)

Heggie and McNally’s opera is not about the innocence of murderer Joseph De Rocher, dramatically portrayed by bass baritone Ryan McKinny. He is convicted of raping and then brutally stabbing to death a teenaged girl. His younger brother, Anthony De Rocher, received a life sentence for participating in the crime and shooting the girl’s boyfriend.

The opera, primarily taking place in the early 1980s at the Louisiana State Penitentiary known as Angola for its site on the former Angola Plantation in Louisiana’s West Felicianna Parish, starts with the murders.

Sister Helen, soprano Patricia Racette, is leading youngsters in a spiritual piece, “Gather Us Around, ” before she announces she has to go to Angola because Joseph who had been corresponding with her, asked to meet, face to face.

Joseph's mother (Susan Graham), center, pleads for her son's life as the victims' parents (Lauren Decker, Allan Glassman Talise Trevigne and Wayne Tigges) listen at a board hearing in Dead
Joseph’s mother (Susan Graham), center, pleads for her son’s life as the victims’ parents (Lauren Decker, Allan Glassman, Talise Trevigne and Wayne Tigges) listen at a board hearing in Dead Man Walking at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. (Ken Howard photo)

Elaine J. McCarthy projections take Sister Helen and audiences on  a long, hot drive to Angola. Some comedic relief comes in the form of a motorcycle cop who stops her for speeding, then tears up the ticket when he learns she is a nun.

There are a few other comedic moments but set against Michael McGarty’s magnificent set design, the opera really is about the interaction between Sister Helen and Joseph.

Audiences do hear the heartbreak of the teens’ parents, the Harts and the Bouchers, at a board hearing. And at that hearing, Joseph’s mother (mezzo soprano Susan Graham) pleads for her son’s life.

“Dead Man Walking” does not excuse or rationalize a horrible murder. The book and the opera is about crime and punishment, guilt and redemption.

A number of factors make the Lyric production particularly powerful. Racette and McKinny perfectly act out McNally’s cut-to-the-heart libretto. Heggie’s dramatic music is well-interpreted by conducted by Nicole Paiement of San Francisco’s Opera Parallele.

Leonard Foglia’s directing and staging with Brian Nason’s lighting and Roger Gans sound design create an edgy emotionalism that leaves the audience saying wow as they exit.

“Dead Man Walking” is at the Lyric Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Dr., Chicago, on select dates through Nov. 22, 2019. Running time: 2 hours, 55 minutes. For tickets and other information call (312) 827-5600 or visit Lyric Opera/Dead Man Walking.

Jodie Jacobs

For more shows visit Theatre in Chicago

A lighthearted murder

‘A Murder Most Novel’

L.R. Elaina Henderson, Guy Wicke, Stephen J. Bryant, Taylor Toms. (Photo by Stephen Bryant)
L.R. Elaina Henderson, Guy Wicke, Stephen J. Bryant, Taylor Toms.
(Photo by Stephen Bryant)

3 stars

It’s the 1940s and veteran detective Max Forthright (Guy Wicke) is throwing a lavish party to celebrate the publication of his upcoming memoirs.

Max has invited a number of distinguished guests including his best friend (the square jawed man of action) screen actor Roman Powell (Stephen J Bryant) accompanied by the lovely young socialite Ainsley Hyde (Taylor Toms) whose father is a well-known politician.

Also in attendance are Max’s publisher Percy Galavanter (Grant Alsup), author Mordecai Van Der Wright (Nick Strauss) who has written a number of successful mysteries, Franklin Goggins (Elliot Lerner) a war hero recently returned from action, gossip columnist Genevieve Wrankle (Katie Incardona) and a number of others, many of whom have been involved in one or more cases Max has solved with the aide of his brilliantly well-organized (and generally under employed due to the social norms of the times) secretarial assistant Bernadette “Bern” Hargreaves (Elaina Henderson).

Before long there is a shot and the discovery of a body causing the entire assemblage to turn to Max to identify the killer in “A Murder Most Novel.”

Produced by Death & Pretzels, written by Alex Butschli and directed by Madison Smith with original music by Andrew Milliken, “A Murder Most Novel” is presented as a live radio performance complete with sound effects by Milliken with the assistance of stage manager Lili Bjorklund.

This humorous fast-paced tongue in cheek two-act noir-melodrama has a little something for everyone – murder, intrigue, orphans, cigarette commercials and endless non-sequiturs involving eels.

The fun begins somewhat incidentally when you arrive at the deco era, former industrial building on Ravenswood Avenue. If you elect to ride the original (now self-service) double-gated elevator to the fourth floor for Nox Arca Theater, this experience will set the mood in terms of time travel as surely as Dr. Who’s phone booth.

The performance space is small, seating only about 30 or so, but the intimacy adds to the feeling that you are watching a live radio play in a vintage broadcast studio.

Each of the actors save Wicke and Henderson, perform multiple roles and seemingly have a great time with the campy humor, especially Nick Strauss who also plays a wealthy dowager and Toms as the perfectly clueless vamp.

This is a cleverly written and well-performed production that is a perfect date-night or enjoyable lighthearted entertainment for all ages.

DETAILS”: “A Murder Most Novel” is at Nox Arca Theatre. 4001 N. Ravenswood Ave., Chicago, through Dec. 14, 2019. Running time: 2 hours with one intermission. For ticket and information visit Death and Pretzels.

Reno Lovison

For more shows visit Theatre in Chicago

 

Tragedy presented with a different emphasis at CST

‘Romeo and Juliet’

Brittany Bellizeare and Edgar Miguel Sanchez in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s production of Shakespeare’s "Romeo and Juliet." (Liz Lauren photo)
Brittany Bellizeare and Edgar Miguel Sanchez in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s production of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” (Liz Lauren photo)

2 ½ stars

We already have “West Side Story,” a tragic love tale of feuding groups based on Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” Beautifully and emotionally interpreted with book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, it’s parallel to current gang wars was not lost on a tearful audience at Lyric Opera’s closing 2019 production.

That Chicago Shakespeare Theater Artistic Director Barbara Gaines would like to remind CST audiences that the problems Shakespeare dramatized and Bernstein put to music still exist, is laudable. However, given the set design, cast and costumes of the Gaines production, there probably should be a different title.

Gaines has set the action in Verona a year in the future, which is fine. But the set of fence and basketball court looks like West Side Story. The Capulet’s home looks like a farm house in Iowa complete with a porch swing. And Juliet’s father (James Newcomb) is snoring on an outdoor recliner during the “balcony” scene that turns the famed love scene into a comedy.

Tybalt (Sam Pearson, at center) threatens Benvolio (Cage Sebastian Pierre, with arms raised) as a brawl between the Capulets and the Montagues in Romeo and Juliet at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. (Photo by Liz Lauren)
Tybalt (Sam Pearson, at center) threatens Benvolio (Cage Sebastian Pierre, with arms raised) as a brawl between the Capulets and the Montagues in Romeo and Juliet at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. (Photo by Liz Lauren)

In attempting to emphasize the needless acrimony and brutal murders in “Romeo and Juliet,” the production has minimized the young teenaged love of its romantic leads, Romeo (Edgar Miguel Sanchez) and Juliet (Brittany Bellizeare). However the fight direction by Rick Sordelet is excellent.

Shakespeare’s famed lines are there but they are sometimes hard to catch and seem out of place in a production that is more parody than tragedy.

“Romeo and Juliet” is at Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s Courtyard Theater on Navy Pier through Dec. 22, 2019. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes with one intermission. For tickets and other information call (312) 595-5600 or visit Chicago Shakes.

Jodie Jacobs

For more shows visit Theatre in Chicago

 

 

An overstuffed suitcase of memories

‘Packing’

Packing presented by About Face Theatre at Theater Wit. (Photo courtesy of About Face Theatre)
Packing presented by About Face Theatre at Theater Wit. (Photo courtesy of About Face Theatre)

4 stars

Each of us have lived lives that are filled with significant situations, emotional events and meaningful memories. If we all possessed an eloquent gift for writing, as well as a talent for emotionally honest storytelling, any one of us could probably condense our childhood, adolescence and early adult years into a 90 minute narrative, like this. But few would be as captivating at sharing his life story as Scott Bradley.

Performing on a simple, white square platform that sometimes serves as a blank canvas for Stephen Mazurek’s colorful and evocative projection artwork, Bradley opens his heart and bares his soul in this incredibly moving solo performance of discord and survival.

Scott Bradley has come a long way. Today he wears many hats. Not only a talented actor and playwright, he’s a gifted and empathetic educator, performer and director.

Chicago audiences may recall his off-the-wall genderqueer-rock-puppet-spectacles of “Alien Queen,” “The Carpenters Halloween,” “Mollywood” and “Tran: The Atari Musical.” His wacky holiday musical fantasy, “We Three Lizas,” which premiered a few years ago at About Face Theatre, was later revised and reprized a couple years later, to great delight.

In addition to About Face, Scott’s work has been enjoyed at The Hypcrites, Walkabout Theatre, Hell in a Handbag, Bailiwick Repertory and many other venues. In short, this isn’t Scott Bradley’s first rodeo.

Bradley unpacks his overstuffed suitcase of memories, removing each episode from his life, piece-by-piece, as if they were treasured articles of clothing.

Read More

The Second City thrives on Chicago craziness

‘Do You Believe in Madness?’

(L-R) Asia Martin, Andrew Knox, Adam Schreck, Mary Catherine Curran, Jordan Savusa, Sarah Dell’Amico in The Second City's Do You Believe In Madness. (Photo by Timothy M. Schmidt.)
(L-R) Asia Martin, Andrew Knox, Adam Schreck, Mary Catherine Curran, Jordan Savusa, Sarah Dell’Amico in The Second City’s Do You Believe In Madness. (Photo by Timothy M. Schmidt.)

3 stars

The Second City began in Chicago in December of 1959, and will have its 60th anniversary next month. It was called “The Second City” because a journalist in New York had written a book titled Chicago: The Second City. Back then, Chicago was the second largest city next to New York City.

Now,six decades later,  The Second City is still going strong with its 108th Mainstage Revue “Do You Believe in Madness?” The show is expected to run at least until the famed improv theatre’s 60th anniversary Dec. 16, 2019.

Directed by Ryan Bernier with musical direction by Nick Gage, the show is written and performed by six fabulous actors: Mary Catherine Curran, Sarah Dell’Amico, Andrew Knox, Asia Martin, Jordan Savusa and Adam Schreck.

Even though the production features several different scenes the format works because the transition is so smooth. One scene takes place in a high school where a teacher tells her most misbehaved students that they are the reason that all of the teachers went on strike.

Another scene deals with many people whose dogs and cats were lost or died, and the owners relate it to deaths of siblings. Then a human family has a bird in the house, and then a bird family has a human in the house – both are unsettling to the families.

 

(L-R) Sarah Dell’Amico, Andrew Knox, Asia Martin, Jordan Savusa, Mary CatherineCurran, Adam Schreck. (Photo by Timothy M. Schmidt.)
(L-R) Sarah Dell’Amico, Andrew Knox, Asia Martin, Jordan Savusa, Mary CatherineCurran, Adam Schreck. (Photo by Timothy M. Schmidt.)

 

A scene with a dating couple asked each other why they were so normal. They felt that normal must be something wrong! The revue’s title, “Do You Believe in Madness?” seems very appropriate.

Most of these fun scenes include jumping around, dancing, singing, laughter, background music and more. Perhaps in the future, these professional actors and actresses may follow in the footsteps of those from The Second City many decades ago – Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, Dan Aykroyd, Joan Rivers, John Belushi, Tina Fey, and others.

DETAILS: “Do You Believe in Madness?” is at The Second City Mainstage Theater. 1616 N. Wells St., Chicago as an open run.  Running time: 2 hours with one intermission. For tickets and other information, call (312) 337-3992 or visit Second City.

 

Francine Pappadis Friedman

For more shows visit Theatre in Chicago

 

A Dickens of a tale

 

William Brown (center) stars as aging pickpocket Fagin in “Oliver!” at the Marriott Theatre. (Liz Lauren photo)
William Brown (center) stars as aging pickpocket Fagin in “Oliver!” at the Marriott Theatre. (Liz Lauren photo)

‘Oliver!’

3 stars

Marriott Theatre’s “Oliver!”  is among the best productions of a Charles Dickens-based show that, unlike “A Christmas Carol,” has few redeeming factors.

Lionel Bart’s 1960 musical based on Dickens’  Oliver Twist, an 1838-39 novel revealing England’s brutal underbelly at the time, contains the excellent “Where is Love?” “As Long as He Needs Me” and “Consider Yourself (one of us)” musical numbers.

The story features Fagin, an aging thief characterized by Dickens as a Jew who teaches youngsters how to pick pockets.  However, Marriott has dropped stereotyping the character which is well-portrayed by William Brown as an elderly, caring person who now depends on his possessions and on others to take care of him in his old age.

 But its sub-theme of domestic violence has Bill Sikes (Dan Waller), a dangerous adult thief, beating (later murdering) his girlfriend, Nancy, a sympathetic character delightfully interpreted by Lucy Godinez.

It also portrays how Oliver, the son of a high-born, unwed mother fares in an unforgiving society.

L to R Kayden Koshelev, (Oliver) and Patrick Scott McDermott (The Artful Dodger). (Liz Loren photo)
L to R Kayden Koshelev, (Oliver) and Patrick Scott McDermott (The Artful Dodger). (Liz Loren photo)

 

The star/s of Marriott’s production are the two young boys who alternately portray Oliver, Kai Edgar and Kayden Koshelev. It doesn’t matter whom you see when you go, they are both outstanding.

A fine, atmospheric mist and Sally Dolembo’s period costumes transports audiences to mid-19th century London.

Directed by Nick Bowling, the acting is on the mark. My problem is not the cast but the musical, itself.

“Oliver!” is at Marriott Theatre, 10 Marriott Dr., Lincolnshire, IL, through Dec. 29, 2019. Running time: 2 hrs, 20 min. with one intermission. For tickets and other information visit Marriott Theatre.

Jodie Jacobs

For more shows visit Theatre in Chicago

A new Christmas pantomime tradition

‘The Steadfast Tin Soldier’

Cast of The Steadfast Tin Soldier at Lookingglass Theatre. (Photo by Liz Lauren)
Cast of The Steadfast Tin Soldier at Lookingglass Theatre. (Photo by Liz Lauren)

4 stars

Returning for a second holiday season at Lookingglass Theatre, Mary Zimmerman’s gorgeous adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s classic story of love and valor warms the heart and nourishes the soul.

From the moment we enter, we’re put in the holiday mood by a curtain transformed into a gigantic Advent calendar.

While four powdered-wigged musicians begin playing in the show’s petite orchestra pit, the cast enters the stage, one-by-one, clothed in Ana Kuzmanic’s delicious, brightly colored, exquisitely detailed costumes. Each character opens one of 25 tiny doors and reacts to the images behind them.

The final door reveals the titular character and the pantomime begins. By the conclusion of the play the audience will understand the significance of each image.

In the first scene, a very young boy opens his Christmas gift. Inside one of the boxes, he discovers a collection of tiny, tin, toy soldiers. One of the soldiers, however, was the last one to be cast from the metal which apparently ran out, so he’s missing a leg.

Read More