Old boy meets girl story still resonates as a witty musical

RECOMMENDED

Tony Award nominated ‘They’re Playing Our Song,’ now a Brown Paper Box production at Rivendell Theater, is a boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love, have problems, split and get back-together-again story with a celebrity twist.

Dan Gold (Vernon) and Carmen Risi (Sonia) and company in "They're Playing Our Song." A Brown Paper Box Co. photo
Dan Gold (Vernon) and Carmen Risi (Sonia) and company in “They’re Playing Our Song.”
A Brown Paper Box Co. photo

With book by Neil Simon,  music by Marvin Hamlisch and lyrics by Carole Bayer Sager, the show is a witty, entertaining musical with such easy listening songs as “If He Really Knew Me,” “When You’re in My Arms,” “I Still Believe in Love,” and “They’re Playing Our Song.”

What oldsters may remember from when the show opened on Broadway in 1979 with Robert Klein and Lucie Arnaz, is that it is somewhat autobiographical about Hamlisch and Sager’s 1970’s relationship.

The show is about New York Grammy and Oscar award-winning pop music composer Vernon Gersch connecting with lyricist Sonia Walsk because he is looking for a collaborator.

They start off with problems because Sonia is bubbly but has trouble keeping appointments anywhere near on time and is very busy trying to break up with a long-time boyfriend, and Vernon is sarcastic, uptight and somewhat aloof.

They start to bond when on a “non date” proposed by Sonia they dance and hear the band play songs they wrote.

Problems Sonia has with ex boyfriend Leon eventually comes between them when she appears very late for a recording session and Vernon says he can’t take it any longer.

That they still have feelings for each other becomes evident when they reconnect in LA.

On the cute side, Sonia wears dresses used in shows given her by a stage friend. On the witty side, they are both neurotic so Simon has Vernon saying “She’s a flake, I’m a flake. Two flakes make a snowstorm.”

She is in awe of his composing talent but he is in awe of her bubbly personality. He remarks that if a power outage causes a blackout in New York the only light seen would be coming from her.

Sonia is perfectly portrayed by Carmen Risi who has acted in Oil Lamp and Citadel productions in the Chicago area and in Four Seasons productions in Madison, WI.

Dan Gold who is often in Mercury, Apollo, Porchlight and Light Opera Works  productions, is very believable as Vernon.

The two leads are totally convincing in their angst and attraction to each other.

My problem watching the show was with the Greek chorus of three females who are supposed to be in Sonia’s head and the three mails from Vernon’s head.

Even though they were talented singers and dancers, I found them distracting and sometimes annoying.

However, the leads are good enough and the show witty enough to make it a delightful evening out. To learn more about Carole Bayer Sager, see her 2016 book, “They’re Playing Our song: A Memoir (Simon & Schuster).

“They’re Playing Our Song” will be at Rivendell Theater, a small store front space at 5779 N. Ridge Ave., Chicago, now through Aug. 20, 2017. For tickets and other information visit Brown Paper Box.

 

 

Cirque du Soleil turns its magical talents into a Mexican dream

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Luzia – a combination of two Spanish words for light, “luz,” and rain, “lluvia,” is the backdrop for a unique performance that unites traditional Cirque du Soleil elements with scenes and characters from Mexico.

In “Luzia – A Waking Dream of Mexico,” acrobatic performances, beautiful costumes and music will not disappoint, even if they are somewhat expected in a Cirque du Soleil production.

Luzia: A Waking Dream of Mexico, is under the Big top next to the United Center now through sept. 3, 2017. Photo courtesy of Cirque du Soleil.
Luzia: A Waking Dream of Mexico is under the Big top next to the United Center now through Sept. 3, 2017. Photo courtesy of Cirque du Soleil.

The show opens with a traveler parachuting on to the stage. He will guide the audience on a magical and comedic journey through time and space.

After landing, he turns a large key and the show slowly begins to unveil the beauty of Mexico with a woman (Shelli Epstein) playing the role of the Monarch butterfly.

Although the beginning may start off slowly, hoop-diving acrobats dressed in hummingbird costumes bring it back to life in the second scene as they go through their routines on moving treadmills. With each leap, the acrobats perform a series of moves with increasing difficulty and grace.

As the show progresses from one scene to the next, the performers display their unique talents – balancing on one hand, flying from a trapeze and using aerial straps to move in ways you don’t expect.

However, it was the water and light show that generated some of the loudest applause. There is an impressive, controlled wall of rain with gorgeous pictures projected on it.

Everyone expects to be amazed, perplexed and amused by a Cirque du Soleil show. It’s a rarity to be made mildly queasy, but intentionally or not they pull it off with the most memorable and discomfiting positions of male contortionist Aleksei Goloborodko.

Throughout the show, the traveler, Eric Fool Koller, ensures the youngest members of the audience will leave with big smiles on their faces as he takes turns playing the narrator and the more traditional, bumbling circus clown.

Skillfully directed by Daniele Finzi Pasca, I highly recommend the show for both returning Cirque du Soleil fans and anyone who has never experienced the beauty and athletic abilities of this type of performance.

Cirque du Soleil’s “Luzia, A Waking Dream of Mexico” will be playing at the United Center (Parking Lot K) now through Sept. 3, 2017. For tickets and other information visit Cirque du Soleil Luzia.

– Sheri Jacobs

 

Kiss and Hamilton and Shakespeare, really?

OK, so a famous rock and roll group, a mega-hit musical and a play that has inspired musicals and operas may or may not appeal to different audiences. But they all are Chicago performance news.

 

Romeo and Juliet reenact their love story in Chicago parks

Chicago Shakespeare Theatre is back in Chicago parks this summer with free ;performances. Chicago Shakespeare photo
Chicago Shakespeare Theatre is back in Chicago parks this summer with free ;performances. Chicago Shakespeare photo productions

 

The internationally renowned Chicago Shakespeare Theatre is returning for a sixth year to put on a free show in Chicago’s city parks. This year, the production is a 75 minute version of “Romeo and Juliet,” William Shakespeare’s famous tragedy of two young lovers from feuding families.

Starting off at the just completed Polk Bros Park at the entrance to Navy Pier, performances will be at 7 p.m. July 26-28.. From there it will move to 17 Chicago neighborhoods through Aug. 27, 2017.

Shakespeare in the Parks has been the basis for 1,300 free Chicago ark District’s “Night Out in the Parks” summer events.

The free Shakespeare shows is possible through a partnership of Chicago Shakespeare Theater, the City of Chicago, Chicago Park District, Boeing and BMO Harris Bank.

For a list of parks and dates visit Chicagoshakes.

 

Hamilton cast news

Hamilton Company at Private Bank Theatre Photo by Joan Marcus
Hamilton Company at Private Bank Theatre Photo by Joan Marcus

“Memphis Tony nominee and Drama Desk Award winner Montego Glover will be taking the part of Angelica Schuyler in the Chicago company of “Hamilton” in early September, according to producer Jeffrey Seller.  In addition, Broadway cast member Gregory Treco is moving to the Chicago company to play Aaron Burr Sept. 8.

“Hamilton,” the mujlti-Tony Award winning musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda, is at The PrivateBank Theatre, 18 W. Monroe St., Chicago.  A touring company will open in LA at at the Pantages Theatre Aug. 8, 2017.

Historian Ron Chernow’s “Alexander Hamilton” a biography about the West Indies immigrant who instrumental in the Revolutionary War and became the first US Secretary of the Treasury.

For information visit Hamilton.

 

KISS is coming

Aurora’s RiverEdge Park hosts 2014 Rock and Roll Hall of fame Kiss for a spectacular “Shout it Out Loud” concert. 8 p.m. Aug. 20, 2017.

General admission is $70. A VIP Meet and Greet packageof perks is $1,250 and a less expensive VIP package is $325 (fees extra).

RiverEdge Park is at 360 N. Broadway, Aurora. For tickets and other information call (630) 896-6666 and visit RiverEdgeAurora.

 

 

A sweet Shakespearean romantic comedy under the stars

RECOMMENDED

One of summer’s finest pursuits is viewing a William Shakespeare play while reposing under the stars and sipping a smooth wine.

First Folio Theatre affords that experience with a first-rate production of the Bard of Avon’s “As You Like It” on the grounds of the historic Mayslake Peabody Estate in Oak Brook.

Leslie Ann Sheppard (Rosalind), Courtney Abbott (Touchstone) and Vahishta Vafadari (Celia) is 'As You Like It' at First Folio. Maia Rosenfeld Photography
Leslie Ann Sheppard (Rosalind), Courtney Abbott (Touchstone) and Vahishta Vafadari (Celia) is ‘As You Like It’ at First Folio. Maia Rosenfeld Photography

The gently rolling hillside forms a natural amphitheater for the two-story wooden stage and for audiences to spread their blankets and pop their picnic baskets.

Directed by Skyler Schrempp, this delightful tale meanders among a tangle of storylines and a large cast. The plot weaves family feuds, banishments, mistaken identities, forgiveness and love triangles.

Most everyone finds themselves exiled in the lush Forest of Arden. That is, until truths are revealed and couples happily pair up in marriage like they typically do in Shakespearean rom-coms.

The highly polished cast numbers nearly two dozen, many of them First Folio returnees and almost all with previous Shakespearean credits on their resumes.

Leslie Ann Sheppard shows great flexibility in her dual-gendered role as Rosalind. At the onset, she is a favored and stylish family member of the royal court. After she is banished, she heads to the forest and adopts a male persona for safety reasons.

She is accompanied by her cousin and best friend Celia, played adroitly by Vahishta Vafadari who takes on the guise of a peasant. The young women venture a convoluted path to find their loves.

Courtney Abbott is charming and comedic as the mohawk-crowned, androgynous jester Touchstone.

Tempering the frolic is Kevin McKillip as Jacque, a melancholic lord. With great gravitas he delivers one of Shakespeare’s most well-known soliloquies, the one that begins with “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.”

Costume designer Mieka van der Ploeg advances the setting as ambiguously modern-day, yet-far-away with attire that borrows from vintage, punk and club-kid cultures.

Throw in a couple of fascinators, a pair of black-and-white wingtips, and a few dirndl skirts, and you get the feeling you’re somewhere else.

A summer evening at First Folio Theatre is as idyllic as the Forest of Arden. Arrive early to enjoy the natural landscape. The staff sets out citronella candles, but bring mosquito repellent.

DETAILS: “As You Like It” is at First Folio Theatre, Mayslake Peabody Estate, 1717 W. 31st St., Oak Brook, through Aug. 20. For tickets and other information, call 630-986-8067 or visit First Folio.

— Pamela Dittmer McKuen

 

 

 

 

Ravinia Festival still draws the crowds

 

With such top drawing festivals and names as Pitchfork, Windy City Smokeout and Jimmy Buffett (among several others) filling  parks and fields all over Chicago this past weekend, you might think that a north suburban music outpost would not be jammed.

Yet Ravinia Festival in Highland Park packed them in for James Arthur, Fitz & The Tantrums and OneRepbulic, Saturday, and its Tchaikovsky Spectacular played by the CSO, Sunday.

Ravinia Festival was jammed an hour before the Tchaikovsky Spectacular Sunday. Jodie Jacobs photos
Ravinia Festival was jammed an hour before the Tchaikovsky Spectacular, Sunday. Jodie Jacobs photos

“Every inch of space and lawn was filled,” said a One Republic fan describing the Saturday scene.

If understandable for the pop rock genre, it might have come as a surprise to classical music lovers that the same was true on Sunday as visitors kept filing in and looking for even a few inches to sit and picnic.

The luckier folks, or make that those in the know, staked out their space two hours ahead of Sunday’s early, 5 p.m. concert start.

Spread out with a yummy-looking picnic under the trees before the crowds descended were The Nelson family who came from Chesterton and  West Lafayette, IN and from Evanston.

“We all came last year,” said Wendy Nelson, Evanston. The rest chimed in with “We enjoyed it so much wanted to do it again,” said Laura Nelson, West Lafayette; “You know, Purdue University,” husband Jeffrey said. They were there with parents Eileen and Roger Nelson, Chesterton. “I’m the patriarch,” said Roger.

The Nelson family, Jeffrey, Laura, Eileen, Wendy and Roger, arrived at Ravinia early to chat and find a choice picnic spot, Sunday.
The Nelson family, Jeffrey, Laura, Eileen, Wendy and Roger, arrived at Ravinia early to chat and find a choice picnic spot, Sunday.

By 4 p.m. the lawn was a sea of humanity. After the Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture, a sterling piano performance of Concerto No. 1 by Simon Trpceskiand and the Francesca da Rimini fantasy, came the 1812 Overture with real cannons in a roped off area.

When the smoke faded and the last note played, some people left to catch the Union Pacific North Line train but that didn’t make much of a dent in the crowd that still enjoyed getting together and picnicking on the lawn.

“Great concert,” said a guy from Glen Ellyn on his way to the parking lot.

Well, there are a lot more chances to come to Ravinia, this summer.

Long time Highland Parker Dan Pierce, a former IL State Representative and former Highland Park mayor, strides outside Ravinia's pavilion Sunday.
Long time Highland Parker Dan Pierce, a former IL State Representative and former Highland Park mayor, strides outside Ravinia’s pavilion Sunday.

The CSO returns July 18 with Yefim Bronfman playing Brahm’s Piano Conderto No. 2. The orchestra which makes Ravinia its summer home, will be back for several more concerts including July 20-21 to play Beethoven and Sibelius programs.

BTW, Tony Bennett returns Aug. 4. Hootie & the Blowfish founder Darius Rucker is at Ravinia the next night, Aug. 5.

Santana, the famed guitarist of Latin, rock an jazz fusion, is there Aug. 11-12  and  heartland rocker/rock and roll hall-of-famer John Mellencamp is coming for the first time to Ravinia Aug. 26-27.

Ravinia Festival is at 418 Sheridan Rd., Highland Park. For more schedule information, tickets, prices and parking, call (847) 266-5000 and visit Ravinia.

 

Little Fish Searches for Her Place in the Big Pond

RECOMMENDED

“Little Fish” is a musical adventure of a young woman’s journey to get her life on track as she leaves a bad relationship, gives up smoking and ultimately finds a core group of friends who are willing and able to support each other through life’s challenges.

Nicole Laurenzi and cast of "Little Fish." Michael Brosilow photo
Nicole Laurenzi and cast of “Little Fish.” Michael Brosilow photo

Even though I quit smoking thirty years ago I could still relate. I always tell people I wanted a cigarette for the first five years. So I understand how addiction to nicotine can make you crazy.

The opening musical number grabs your attention and sets the tone immediately.  It’s like a roadmap that lets you know where we are heading as the adventure begins.

Nicole Laurenzi takes control of the stage the minute the lights come up and doesn’t let go for the next 90 minutes with no intermission.

She and her voice are perfect for the role of Charlotte, an aspiring writer in New York City who is both vulnerable and determined.

Her mission at first seems simply to quit smoking and to overcome the fact that she is average and ordinary. In the end she does not emerge as a beautiful swan but rather as a content, more confident human being who just wants some peace of mind and feeling of security. This is not a fairy princess story but rather a story the majority of people can relate to.

Charlotte’s two new NYC friends encourage her to try swimming and running to take her mind off her cigarette craving. Her beautiful friend Kathy (Aja Wiltshire who has a gorgeous voice) introduces her to swimming at the YMCA where Charlotte earns the moniker “Little Fish.”

Her gay male friend Marco (Adam Fane) suggests running.  Marco gets the title song explaining the need for little fish to “swim in schools” or basically band together for support and for their own protection.

Cinder (Teressa LaGamba) is Charlotte’s first NYC roommate and gets most of the comic relief in this production as she belts out a couple of the most emotionally energetic tunes.

Curtis Bannister, Teressa Gamba and Nicole Laurenzi in Kokany Productions "Little Fish." Michasel Brosilow photo
Curtis Bannister, Teressa Gamba and Nicole Laurenzi in Kokany Productions “Little Fish.” Michasel Brosilow photo

Robert (Jeff Meyer) is the smug know-it-all ex-boyfriend who appears in flashbacks voicing Charlotte’s insecurities and doubts as he reminds her that whatever she does will never be good enough.

The addition of the young Anne Frank (Kyrie Courter) who appears in a dream is a very funny idea.

“Little Fish” is entertaining and might more accurately be termed a modern opera. Bravo to Michael John LaChiusa who not only wrote the book but also the music and lyrics. No small task, which he accomplished brilliantly.

The story, loosely based on Deborah Eisenberg’s short stories “Flotsam” and “Days,” is well conceived and well executed but the star of this overachiever’s trinity is the music, an upbeat mix of jazz and pop rock with strong Latin rhythms.

There is nothing here that will assault the senses or challenge anyone’s musical preferences. It has a kind of “old school” cabaret quality that is easy to listen to with easily articulated lyrics and a few memorable tunes.

Carl Herzog as Mr. Bunder gets his Frank Sinatra groove on very effectively, as Charlotte’s smarmy boss offering a classic NYC vibe.

I can see this as a standalone melody for a number of Sinatra or Harry Connick wannabees

Shout out to Kokandy Production’s six piece band conducted by Kory Danielson.  The lack of an overture was a disappointment as I would like to hear more from them and it would have been nice to help us get in the mood.

Arnel Sancianco ‘s minimal set design worked well even though director Allison Hendrix seemed to prefer to avoid using the center of the stage.

The choreography was a miss for me as was the lighting. I realize this is a small space but the movements were cliché and not well executed bordering on comical at times and looking much like a high school production.  An exception was the swimming sequences which were quite effective.

The lighting or lack of lighting seemed arbitrary. Memorably, a tableau which might have been an opportunity for the lighting designer Alexander Ridgers to shine, literally left the actors in the dark. These are not deal killers and perhaps will improve over time.

As a side note Kokandy Productions offered an interesting newsprint playbill but it lacked a list of songs and any background information about the creator Michael John LaChiusa which seems a major faux pas.

Chicago’s premiere production of “Little Fish” is entertaining and makes me want to keep an eye out for future offering by LaChiusa. There are no big laughs and no great let downs. Much like Charlotte herself it is a safe and secure evening’s entertainment and ideal for lovers of cabaret style music.

Each performer gets his or her moment and they each do it effectively. This production is in keeping with The Wit’s stated mission to offer “humorous, challenging and intelligent plays that speak with a contemporary theatrical voice.”

Details: “Little Fish” is at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Avenue in Chicago now through Aug. 20, 2017. For tickets and other information call (773) 975-8150 and visit Kokandy Productions.

Reno Lovison

Rashid Johnson exhibit reflects the times

 

“Rashid Johnson: Hail We Now Sing Joy” is worth the drive across Illinois’ northern border. Up now through early fall at the Milwaukee Art Museum, the most current works of Johnson are monumental.

Milwaukee Curator of Contemporary Art Margaret Andera and artist Rashid Johnson in front of "Antoine's Organ." Photos by Jodie Jacobs
Milwaukee Curator of Contemporary Art Margaret Andera and artist Rashid Johnson in front of “Antoine’s Organ.” Photos by Jodie Jacobs

More often than not, an exhibit features works large and small. And Johnson, a Chicago native and New York-based artist, has worked with a variety of formats from photography to installations. Many of those works were in a 10-year retrospective at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary in 2012.

Now, isitors to the MAM show are likely to get the message of how Johnson, a black artist who grew up in Evanston and studied at Columbia College Chicago and the School of the Art Institute, views the world today. They are  immediately aware upon entering the exhibit that this time Johnson is thinking large scale.

The first gallery is dominated by a 10-foot high black scaffolding that is overflowing with plants in hand-built ceramic pots, small shea butter sculptures, books, a video, an upright piano and lights.

A gallery is covered with the faces of the "Anxious Audience" pieces made with wax on black soap backed by ceramic tiles.
A gallery is covered with the faces of the “Anxious Audience” pieces made with wax on black soap backed by ceramic tiles.

Titled “Antoine’s Organ,” the piece is Johnson’s nod to the African Diaspora but the work is named for Antoine Baldwin, a pianist and music producer. Musicians will be up in the grid of scaffolding periodically to play the piano.

It doesn’t matter which way visitors continue behind the grid into the next galleries. There are just four rooms. Each has one theme: “Antoine’s Organ,” “Anxious Audience,” “Escape Collage” and “Falling Man.”

Faces, all looking as if they were inspired by Edvard Munch 1893 painting, “The Scream,” look from the walls in the “Anxious Audience” gallery. Made with wax on black soap backed by white ceramic tiles, the faces seem to reflect the racial violence and conflicts in the news.

“Escape Collage” in another gallery, goes in the opposite direction. The

Colorful paintings, all titled "Escape Collage" offer a hopeful view of tropical warmth.
Colorful paintings, all titled “Escape Collage” offer a hopeful view of tropical warmth.

works, made from custom wallpaper appear to have black smudges that may be figures entering a colorful, tropical world of multicolored tiles and paint. Johnson has said he equated palm trees with success because they meant being able to leave a cold climate for a tropical one.

A table filled with blocks of Shea butter will capture viewers’ attention in the fourth or second gallery depending on which way visitors walk after “Antoine’s Organ.”

Johnson leaves it up to the visitors to interpret the meaning of the butter although Shea is often thought to be soothing and even a balm.

Table with blocks of shea butter surrounded by "Falling Man" art work.
Table with blocks of Shea butter surrounded by “Falling Man” art work.

However, all the works on the walls of this gallery are called “Falling Man.” They are made with red oak flooring, pieces of mirrors, black soap, wax and white ceramic tiles.

Although the figures resemble video game people, the pieces’ titles of “Falling Man” beg other interpretations such as violence or unsuccessful economic ventures.

Viewers should find Johnson’s work relevant now and reflective of the past given that art through the ages has historically reflected the times when created.

“Rashid Johnson: Hail We Now Sing Joy” is at the Milwaukee Art Museum, 700 N. Art Museum Drive, Milwaukee, WI 53202, now through Sept 17, 2017. For admission and hours call (414) 224-3200 and visit MAM.

 

Absurd dark ‘Hir’ comedy is highly relevant

RECOMMENDED

Amy Morton (Paige) describes the alphabet of gender designations as Francis Guinan (Arnold) holds up the blackboard sign in 'Hir' by taylor Mac at steppenwolf. Photo by Michael Brosilow
Amy Morton (Paige) describes the alphabet of gender designations as Francis Guinan (Arnold) holds up the blackboard sign in ‘Hir’ by Taylor Mac at Steppenwolf. Photo by Michael Brosilow

Not Him, not Her but ‘Hir.’ The title sums up the gender neutral and cross gender designations of the thought processes, actions and reactions in the Taylor Mac play now at Steppenwolf Theatre.

Paige, the mom, perfectly portrayed by Amy Morton as a woman finally liberated from a tyrannical husband and household drudgery, says “I don’t do laundry anymore.” She adds, “We don’t do order.” Paige encourages her daughter to take testosterone shots.

The daughter, Max/Maxine, finely articulated by Em Grosland, well explains the world as seen by Mac, a highly honored playwright who has adopted the gender title of “judy” (yes, lowercase) to describe himself.

Then there is Arnold, Paige’s husband well interpreted by Francis Guinan who, before he had a stroke, expressed his extreme dissatisfaction with a changing, more culturally accepting society by beating up everyone in his family including the dog. Paige is feeding him estrogen hormones and puts him in a dress and wig to emasculate him.

Em Grosland (Max), Amy Morton (Paige), Ty Olwin (Isaac) and Francis Guinan (Arnold) in 'Hir' at Steppenwolf. Photo by Michael Brosilow
Em Grosland (Max), Amy Morton (Paige), Ty Olwin (Isaac) and Francis Guinan (Arnold) in ‘Hir’ at Steppenwolf. Photo by Michael Brosilow

Complicating the scenario is Isaac, the “prodigal” son portrayed by Ty Olwin, a dishonorably discharged marine. He comes home from Afghanistan to find a messy house and a disabled father who is more like a clown than the fierce neighborhood nemesis he had been.

The initial shock of seeing ‘Hir’s’ messy set that opens Act 1 role forward on the stage with a grotesquely made-up, seated clown-like figure, becomes more understandable when Paige declares she is now free to work outside the home and does so and later, when Isaac reminds his dad that he used to beat up the family.

Coming to Chicago shortly after the Pride Parade and court rulings on gender neutral bathrooms, the play is a relevant look at some of the changes taking place while also delving into the anger displayed from some segments of the old guard who still believe in cultural, religious and sexual discrimination.

Directed with great insight by Hallie Gordon, ‘Hir’ is a well-thought-out absurd dark comedy by Mac, a multi-talented New York playwright, actor, director, producer, performance artists who has received, among other honors, the Kennedy Prize, the Helen Merrill Playwriting Award, a NY Drama Critics Award and two Obies.

DETAILS: ‘Hir’ is at Steppenwolf, 1650 N. Halsted St, Chicago, through Aug. 20, 2017. For tickets and other information call (312) 335-1650 and visit Steppenwolf.

Drury Lane deals a winning hand with ‘The Gin Game’

RECOMMENDED

In both life and cards, we must play the hands we are dealt. That truism is powerfully revealed in Pulitzer winner “The Gin Game” now playing at Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook Terrace.

Paula Scrofano and John Reeger in 'The Gin Game' at Drury Lane Theatre. Photo by Brett Beiner
Paula Scrofano and John Reeger in ‘The Gin Game’ at Drury Lane Theatre. Photo by Brett Beiner

Fonsia Weller and Weller Martin are two reluctant residents of a shabby senior-living home, having run out of money and options. They strike up an acquaintance and begin playing gin to pass the time. As their games and conversation progress intimate secrets are revealed and they begin to discover each other’s weaknesses in both cards and life.

The two-character drama by D.L. Coburn brings together the legendary talents of real-life married couple and Jeff Award winners Paula Scrofano as Fonsia and John Reeger as Weller. They dodder and totter about the stage as though the infirmities of advanced age were real.

Both exhibit vast emotional range as the relationship between their characters builds to its explosive conclusion.

Scrofano and Reeger have appeared in over 150 plays in the Chicagoland area, 30 of them at Drury Lane. With “The Gin Game,” they join an illustrious roster of duos who have performed these roles, among them Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn, Mary Tyler Moore and Dick Van Dyke, and Cicely Tyson and James Earl Jones.

The Drury Lane production is artfully directed by Ross Lehman, who last directed the couple in 1986.

The show begins before the audience is fully seated as two non-speaking crew members dressed as nursing aides in medical scrubs set the stage with apathy. They lounge about, one smoking a cigarette and checking her cell phone, and the other reading a magazine. They grudgingly leave only when Weller enters the scene.

Kudos also to the creative team which includes scenic designer Katherine Ross, lighting designer Lindsey Lyddan and projection designer Mike Tutaj.

Drury Lane is known for highly detailed set design, and the “Gin Game” follows suit. The play takes place on an unkempt patio, which is decked out with mismatched furniture, an overturned chair, stray hoses and flower pots, and a weary-looking Santa Claus yard ornament. At the back of the set, images of the home’s resident activities, drab furnishings and medical equipment are projected at intervals to reveal the hopelessness inside.

“The Gin Game” is not a pleasant story. The subject matter is bleak, and the second act especially is pounded with profanity. But it’s worth seeing, just to watch theater icons Scrofano and Reeger in yet another transformation.

DETAILS: “The Gin Game” is at Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace through Aug. 13. For tickets and other information, call (630) 530-0111 or visit Drury Lane Theatre.

By Pamela Dittmer McKuen

 

 

 

A covered bridge uncovers hidden emotional needs

 

RECOMMENDED

When Francesca, the central female character in “The Bridges of Madison County,” wonders aloud how Robert, a National Geographic photographer, came to her doorstep in Winterset, Iowa, she answers herself with the wonderful line, “The patron saint of Iowa housewives sent you to me.”

Kathy Voytko and Nathaniel Stampley in 'Bridges of Madison County' at Marriott theatre. Photo by Liz Lauren
Kathy Voytko and Nathaniel Stampley in ‘Bridges of Madison County’ at Marriott Theatre. Photo by Liz Lauren

And so, it might explain how and why a woman whose husband and two kids are off to snag a prized-steer award at a neighboring state fair might seriously consider an extramarital affair and even consider leaving home for a new-found love.

Francesca, who winds up on an Iowa farm after leaving Italy with an American soldier, is brilliantly portrayed by Broadway and Jeff-Award winning actress, Kathy Voytko.

Well-directed by Nick Bowling at Marriott Theatre, the show is a heartbreaking romance that uncovers buried emotional needs.

Voytko’s face and body movements are so expressive it is easy to empathize with this housewife who suddenly feels appreciated as a woman and is fascinated by someone who travels the world for work.

What also helps are Marsha Norman’s script (book) and Jason Robert Brown’s thoughtful and moving music and lyrics.

There is “What Do You Call a Man Like That?” which Voyko beautifully sings on the covered Roseman Bridge she helped Robert locate. It alerts the audience that more than a casual relationship will develop.

Then there is the terrific, first-act ending “Falling into You,” the beautifully sensual duet Voyko sings with Robert, insightfully played by Nathaniel Stampley.

Although based on the novel by Robert James Waller, the musical is not a reproduction of it or the 1995 Clint Eastwood film that won Meryl Streep an Oscar nomination. (Voytko’s performance ought to bring her a Jeff Award nomination). The musical’s ending is different though won’t be revealed here.

Francesca’s family which is periodically interjected into the action includes husband Bud, maybe deliberately understated by Bart Shatto to promote the contrast between farmer and lover, daughter Carolyn played with spirited angst by Brooks MacDougal and son Michael who does not want to become a farmer as explained by Tanner Hake. An older Carolyn in Act II is Allyson Graves.

Their neighbors are Marge interpreted with sympathy by Wydetta Carter (she also sings “Get closer”) and her husband, Charlie, nicely played by Terry Hamilton.

Emily Berman does a fine memory-style interlude with a guitar when she sings “Another Life”  as Marian, Robert’s ex-wife.

The Iowa scenery is well captured by Anthony Churchill’s projections on the theatre’s walls.  Set design by Jeffry D. Kmiec features the bridge, a masterful centerpiece.

Details: “The Bridges of Madison County” is at Marriott Theatre, 10 Marriott Dr, Lincolnshire, IL through Aug. 13, 2017. For tickets and other information call (847) 634-0200 and visit Marriott Theatre.