‘Dear Evan mixes great songs with needy plot

The North American touring company of Dear Evan Hanson. (Photos byh Matthew Murphy)
The North American touring company of Dear Evan Hanson. (Photos byh Matthew Murphy)

3 1/2 stars

It’s not breaking news that teenagers experience angst in high school from parental to peer pressure and from wanting to fit in to having a best friend and from feeling insecure or inadequate to not knowing how to express one’s self or experiencing bouts of depression. In addition there are teens on drugs, troubled teens and teens contemplating suicide.

It’s also not breaking news that actions go viral because someone is always around snapping and recording on a cell phone or that some of the so called stories out there are “fake news.”

Add to the mix that either teenagers think their parents don’t understand them or that they want something from them they are not able to manage. There is also the issue of parents who are so busy with other aspects of life that they are not around when needed.

In the hands of songwriters Ben Pasek and Justin Paul (who later did “La La Land”) and playwright Steven Levenson (Days of Rage) those issues coalesce in the Broadway hit musical, “Dear Evan Hansen,” directed by Michael Greif (“Rent,” “Next to Normal”).

There have been a lot of shows that deal with family problems but what seemed to set this one apart upon seeing it when the national tour hit Chicago this week, were the extraordinary songs that expressed Evan’s wistful feelings such as “You Will Be Found,” Waving Through a Window and “For Forever.” Evan’s mom, Heidi who after her husband left them, works and goes to class so is seldom around, also gets her heart wrenching song, “So Big, So Small.”

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‘Brooke Astor’s Last Affair’ is Fair

 

Underscore Theatre Ensemble, Brook Astor's Last Affair. (Photos by Jesus Ricca)
Underscore Theatre Ensemble, Brook Astor’s Last Affair. (Photos by Jesus Ricca)

2.5 Stars

The Chicago Musical Theatre Festival produced by Underscore Theatre through Feb. 24, 2019 is a great opportunity to experience new work from emerging composers, lyricists, and playwrights of this classically American performance genre.

My first festival experience this weekend was “Brooke Astor’s Last Affair” based on the life of New York socialite and philanthropist Brooke Astor.

The format is flashback fantasy in which Brooke is forced to review some life choices including the relationship between her and her son (from a previous marriage), Tony Marshall.

I very much wanted to love this show and it has a number of interesting moments but overall it was a miss.

The book and lyrics by Rachael Migler are the heart of the production and get the job done in terms of telling the story but the music by composer Nick Thornton is generally underwhelming with the exception of “Marry for Money” and the very cute “Dachshunds and Men.”Read More

What if Ibsen’s Nora returned

Sandra Marquez (Nora) and Yasen Payankov (Torvald) in A Doll's House Part 2 at Stepponwolf Theatre. (Photos by Michael Brosilow)
Sandra Marquez (Nora) and Yasen Payankov (Torvald) in A Doll’s House Part 2 at Stepponwolf Theatre. (Photos by Michael Brosilow)

3 1/2 stars

The back story is necessary to really understand playwright Lucas Hnath’s witty “A Doll’s House, Part 2, now at Steppenwolf Theatre. Otherwise audiences might sympathize with Hnath’s portrayal of the people Nora left behind when she slammed the door on her conventional, egotistical banker husband and their three children.

When Henrik Ibsen, a Norwegian playwright known for digging below society’s conventions to expose them for what they really are, published “A Doll’s House” in1879 he defied accepted familial and economic norms of the day.

He shocked a society that placed women in subservient roles to men. In many households, women were expected to be ornamental and needy and they had to have their husband’s or father’s signatures and OKs on legal documents.

Hnath, adept at penning plays that are both comedic and tense, (think Isaac’s Eye), takes on the “Doll’s House” iconic feminist heroine to ask how did she fare 15 years after she left her husband Torvald’s household and his demeaning view of her so she could be free to define herself.

Portrayed with gumption and defiance by Steppenwolf ensemble member Sandra Marquez, an extravagantly clothed Nora first challenges her old nanny, Anne Marie, to guess why she looks rich.

Played to perfection by Chicago veteran Barbara E. Robertson as the angry care-giver who stayed on to raise Nora’s three children, Anne Marie guesses traditional women tasks and skills.Read More

‘Dead Man’s Cell Phone’ finds the right tone

Cyndey Moody and Mike Newquist in Deadman's Cell Phone at Greenhouse theater. (Photo by Paul Goyette
Cyndey Moody and Mike Newquist in Deadman’s Cell Phone at Greenhouse theater. (Photo by Paul Goyette

 

3 stars

Our cell phones have truly become extensions of ourselves, storing bits of personal and secret data with the potential to live-on sharing and connecting pieces of our lives even after we are gone.

In “Dead Man’s Cell Phone” presented by “The Comrades,” Wilmette playwright Sarah Ruhl explores what might happen when a stranger interacts with a deceased man’s cell phone she retrieves in a diner.

This is an absurd tongue-in-cheek noir-style, dark comedic drama directed by Arianna Soloway. It features the winsome, inquisitive and inventive  Cydney Moody as “plain Jane” Jean who is perhaps being a bit voyeuristic  but also just wants to make people feel better. In the process, she finds herself more involved than she probably expected.

Valeria Rosero and Cyndney Moody in Dead Man's Cell Phone
Valeria Rosero and Cyndney Moody in Dead Man’s Cell Phone

Performed by an expert ensemble that includes Bryan Breau as the dead man Gordon, Caroline Dodge Latta as his at times overbearing but loving mother Mrs. Gottleib, Lynnette Li as his somewhat reluctant widow Hermia, Mike Newquist as his neglected brother Dwight and Valeria Rosero as the secretive “Other Woman.”

The stunning simple set design by Sydney Achler is a series of monochromatic paint-splattered trapezoids whose hectic colorization and odd angles contribute visually to the unbalanced surrealistic quality of the story.

There are a few bothersome inconsistencies in the story but they are easily overcome by the outstanding performances of the ensemble and the thought provoking subject matter.

This is a weird ride that makes you want to see what’s around the next turn.

“Dead Man’s Cell Phone,” The Comrades production at Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago, goes through March 10, 2019. Running time is 90 minutes with no intermission.For tickets and other information call (773) 404-7336 or visit Greenhouse Theater.

Reno Lovison

For more shows visit Theatre in Chicago

 

Thriller on Clover Road

Philip Earl Johnson explains to Gwendolyn Whiteside how the deprogramming is going to work. (Photo by Michael Brosilow)
Philip Earl Johnson explains to Gwendolyn Whiteside how the deprogramming is going to work. (Photo by Michael Brosilow)

3.5 stars

“On Clover Road” keeps you on the edge of your seat.

It’s not often that a play comes around that creates such drama and suspense,  your heart races and you might have to look away. Such is the case with the live performance of “On Clover Road,” playing at American Blues Theater through March 16, 2019.

The title itself implies a bit of luck that finding a four-leaf clover might bring. In a sense, the play is about luck too, both good and bad, and how it impacts the characters.

Written by Steven Dietz and directed by Halena Kays, “On Clover Road” tells the story of an angry, frustrated mother who meets with a cult de-programmer believing she will be reunited with her runaway daughter. Her daughter has been gone for more than four years and the mother has all but given up hope. Read More

Emotional and explosive ‘Elektra’

Nina Stemme as Elektra at Lyric Opera of chicago. (Photo credit Cory Weaver and Lyric)
Nina Stemme as Elektra at Lyric Opera of chicago. (Photo credit Cory Weaver and Lyric)

3 1/2 stars

A stormy Nina Stemme filled the Lyric Opera House with a powerful interpretation of Richard Strauss’ “Elektra,” Feb. 6.

Known to the Met and European house for her vibrant vocals in Wagner and Strauss operas the Swedish soprano is making her Lyric debut this month as the tragic Elektra whose only motive for living is to avenge the death of her father, Agamemnon.

Stemme not only brings the expected explosive passion to the role, she also tempers the portrayal with wistfulness and contemplative anguish.

A one-act opera, there are no gaps for well-deserved applause and bravo! after each of Stemme’s arias.

The other two important female roles are Elektra’s sister, Chrysothemis, sung beautifully by acclaimed South African soprano Elza Van Den Heever and their mother, Klyamnestra, expressively sung by internationally known American mezzo-soprano Michaela Matens.

The two male characters vital to the story, Elektra’s, long lost brother, Orest, and the queen’s lover, Aegisth, don’t appear until the end. Scottish bass-baritone Iain Patterson who was recently Creonte in Medea at the Berlin State Opera sounded right at home in this dark mythological tale as was American tenor Robert Brubaker, a frequent artist at the Met.

Michaela Martens as Klytamnestra with confidante Whitney Morrison and train bearer Emily Pogorelc in Elektra at Lyric Opera of chicago (photo by Cory Weaver)
Michaela Martens as Klytamnestra with confidante Whitney Morrison and train bearer Emily Pogorelc in Elektra at Lyric Opera of Chicago (photo by Cory Weaver)

Directed by Nicolas Sandys as a revival of Director David McVicar’s production, the 2019 “Elektra”  is not a stand and sing to the audience opera. Instead, it is dramatic theater that combines exceptional singing and acting  with Strauss’ turbulent music played by the Lyric Opera Orchestra conducted by Donald Runnicles.

What audiences may not recall from this tale based on Sophocles’ Electra, is that the queen was enraged by Agamemnon’s supposedly appeasing a goddess by sacrificing another daughter, Iphigenia, before he left for Troy.  But no matter the motivation, Greek mythology makes potent opera.

My only problem with the production was the costumes of Klyamnestra and her court. The rubble in and around the courtyard where the action takes place and the ruinous state of the palace,  itself, seem to symbolize decay. I got that. However, the queen and her court appear to be over grotesquely costumed in apparel from a 1931 “Cabaret” nightmare so they distract from the opera’s action.

DETAILS: “Elektra” is at the Lyric Opera House, 20 N. WackerDrive, Chicago, through Feb. 22, 2019. Running time: 1 hr, 40 min. with no intermission. For tickets and other information visit Lyric Opera.

Jodie Jacobs

For more shows visit Theatre in Chicago

Getting a roommate leads to unexpected consequences

 

From left, Laurie Carter Rose (Robyn) and Ellen Phelps (Sharon) in The Roommate at Citadel Theatre. (Photo by North shore camera Club)
From left, Laurie Carter Rose (Robyn) and Ellen Phelps (Sharon) in The Roommate at Citadel Theatre. (Photo by North Shore Camera Club)

3 ½ starts

While watching the excellent portrayals of Ellen Phelps as Sharon and Laurie Carter Rose as Robyn, in Citadel Theatre’s “The Roommate, you may not agree with all their choices but you clearly get the message that they are seeking ways to begin their lives anew.

There are many quotable lines in this play by Jen Silverman, but one that delivers the show’s “raison d’etre,” is when Sharon says in Scene 2, “I guess everybody wants to start over. Just burn it all down and start over.”

A dark comedy, “The Roommate” brings together a recently divorced Iowan housewife searching for company and a way to split the bills and a lesbian, former Brooklyn con artist who really seems to want to escape her past in a small-town, farming community.

Their seemingly simple plans go awry as Sharon becomes interested in Robyn’s former life and Robyn realizes she may be a dangerously corrupting influence.

In addition, both women seem to have alienated their adult children. Neither Sharon’s son nor Robyn’s daughter want to call Mom until they realize through their parent’s strange, long distance calls that something is changing.

Even though I had seen the play and enjoyed it at Steppenwolf last year, I was appreciating the show once again until the last line which I objected to then and still do.

Depressed by her once again empty house because Robyn leaves, Sharon first says, “I don’t know where to start…. Except over again”  Fine. The play should have ended there.

But then Sharon, handling some stuff Robyn left behind, adds what Robyn had said earlier in another context, “There is a great liberty in being BAD.”

Perceptively directed by Beth Wolf and staged on a believable, well-designed set by Eric Luchen, “The Roommate” offers a somewhat exaggerated but fun and interesting “what if” scenario on life when people reach middle age and wonder what should come next.

“The Roommate” is at Citadel Theatre, 300 S. Waukegan Rd., in a Lake Forest School District  building, through March 3, 2019. Running time: 90 min., no intermission. For tickets and other information call (847) 735-8554, ext. 1 or visit Citadel Theatre.

Jodie Jacobs

For more shows visit Theatre in Chicago

 

Hilarious guide to inheriting a fortune

Emily Goldberg (Sibella Hallward) and Andres Enriquez (Monty Novarro) in A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder. (Photo by Michael Courier)
Emily Goldberg (Sibella Hallward) and Andres Enriquez (Monty Novarro) in A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder. (Photo by Michael Courier)

3 ½ stars

Few plays open in song or in verse giving advice to the audience that if they are too weak to listen to a story of revenge and punishment, they’d better leave the theater.

However, it’s laughter that greets the Porchlight Music Theatre’s ensemble when they sing the warning to open the 2014 Tony Award-winning Best Musical “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder.”

Taking place in turn-of-the-century England, the “gentleman” is Monty Navarro played by Andres Enriquez. Monty is very poor, but Miss Shingle, played by Caron Buinis, helps him discover that he’s an heir to a fortune. Unfortunately, Monty is so far back in line he has to eliminate eight D’Ysquith relatives ahead of him.

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‘How to Catch Creation’ is not a directional guide

 

Ayanna Bria Bakari (Natalie), Jasmine Bracey (G.K. Marche), Maya Vinice Prentiss (Riley) and Bernard Gilbert (Stokes) in the world premiere of How to Catch Creation. (Liz Lauren photos)
Ayanna Bria Bakari (Natalie), Jasmine Bracey (G.K. Marche), Maya Vinice Prentiss (Riley) and Bernard Gilbert (Stokes) in the world premiere of How to Catch Creation. (Liz Lauren photos)

3 ½ stars

“How to Catch Creation,” a world premiere at Goodman Theatre, may sound like a how-to guide. But Christina Anderson’s new play is nothing like a step-by-step process.

Six people making up three intellectual couples search for fulfillment. Two couples are presented in the present in 2014. The third couple’s actions begin back in the 1960’s. But their lives are all presented at the same time, almost as two syncopated poetry readings.

During their journey of personal exploration they encounter snags of same and opposite gender attractions, divergent artistic paths and stereotypical thinking.

And it’s all done on scenic designer Todd Rosenthal’s stunning set. It revolves as two halves – one for the two contemporary couples, the other for most of the 1960’s situation.

The location is a California town similar to San Francisco and its area.

Sorry we’ve been asked not to reveal the plot’s unusual twists. What you would realize early into the show, is that all the characters are black and that Anderson deliberately presents the actions and dialogue from a black perspective.

But important as that perspective is, fulfillment desires and gender issues transcend race. Thus the play is meaningful on many levels. And under the direction of Niegel Smith who did “Father Comes home from the Wars” the cast superbly interprets Anderson’s sharp and clever dialogue.

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‘Photograph 51’ is a portrait of life

 

Chaon Cross Rosalind Franklin) in Court Theatre's Photograph 51 (Michael Brosilow photo)
Chaon Cross Rosalind Franklin) in Court Theatre’s Photograph 51 (Michael Brosilow photo)

3.5 Stars

“Photograph 51” written by Anna Ziegler and Directed by Vanessa Stalling at the Court Theatre is a snapshot of the life of British chemist Rosalind Franklin (Chaon Cross).

Until recently she had gone virtually un-credited for her contribution to the discovery that revealed the structure of DNA to be a double helix. But the discovery earned her research colleague Maurice Wilkins (Nathan Hosner) and two rival collaborators James Watson (Alex Goodrich) and Francis Crick (Nicholas Harazin) the Nobel Prize.

Franklin was hired by King’s College London for her cutting edge expertise in the field of X-ray crystallography and assured that she would be in charge of her own research. Instead, she was assigned to Wilkins’ DNA project thus leaving her status of independence unresolved at best. Read More