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.

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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.

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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.

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Fanfare For the Man in the Mirror

A Man of No Importance

Cast of “A Man of No Importance.” (Photo by Heather Mall)
Cast of “A Man of No Importance.” (Photo by Heather Mall)

4 stars

Mild-mannered, middle-aged Alfie Byrne works as a ticket agent on a Dublin bus. It’s 1964, back when acceptance and equal rights were something only dreamed about by members of the gay community. But Alfie harbors a secret love for Robbie Fay, the handsome, young bus driver with whom he works side-by-side every day.

Unable to share his buried emotions with anyone else, Alfie secretly communes with the spirit of Oscar Wilde, his literary idol and imaginary confidante.

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Another Trip to the Bright Side of Life

Monty Python’s Spamalot

Monty Python's Spamalot at Mercury Theater. (Photos by Bret Beiner)
Monty Python’s Spamalot at Mercury Theater. (Photos by Bret Beiner)

 

4 stars

At some point in this hilarious musical, the plot simply goes out the window and unbridled hilarity and bawdy humor takes over the Mercury Theater stage.

Eric Idle’s brilliant adaptation of his  popular film, “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” which features an infectious score by both Idle and John DuPrez, won the coveted Tony Award for Best Musical in 2005.

The show first hit the boards in its Chicago Pre-Broadway preview. It went on to become a Big Apple and West End hit, as well as everywhere around the world.

The musical is an uproarious, irreverent parody of the Arthurian legend with nonstop nods to many classic comedy bits from the television show, “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.”

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Members of an Exclusive Club

 

Past presidents discuss events and each other in American Blues Theater's 'Five Presidents.' (Photo courtesy of American Blues Theater.)
Past presidents discuss events and each other in American Blues Theater’s ‘Five Presidents.’ (Photo courtesy of American Blues Theater.)

‘Five Presidents’

3 stars

Rick Cleveland’s fictionalized docudrama, which is generously laced with comic zingers and one-liners that lighten the subject, imagines a 90-minute get-together between past presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, and the current “Leader of the Free World”, Bill Clinton.

The year is 1994 and the setting is a gathering room in the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, CA, tastefully designed by Grant Sabin and nicely lit by Alexander Ridgers.

The occasion for this meeting is the funeral of President Richard Nixon. Even though these five men would’ve greeted each other on this occasion, it’s unlikely that they spent an hour and a half talking together about so many different topics.

For most of the play, the five living members of this exclusive club banter about each other’s faults and failings and recite  the various foreign and domestic policies that each President passed while in office.

The one plot point that runs throughout the play is that President Ford has decided he no longer wants to deliver his portion of Nixon’s eulogy but the other four try to convince him otherwise.

President Regan keeps offering to come to the rescue by volunteering to speak extemporaneously. However, the other men are aware that Reagan is in the onset of Alzheimer’s and understand how disastrous his eulogy might be.

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A story of class and ethics plus romance

Howard’s End

Cast of Howard's End, a Remy Bumppo production at Theater Wit
Cast of Howard’s End, a Remy Bumppo production at Theater Wit

4 stars

 

E.M. Forster’s 1910 literary classic is a sprawling novel about rank, morals and love among three English families from different social classes

His novel offered an insightful portrait of England at the height of its imperial world influence just prior to World War I. Through the lives of three diverse families, he showed how fast progress was happening and shaping Edwardian England.

In light of the sweeping changes taking place, Forster seemed to ask who would eventually inherit England? Which class would ultimately define this powerful nation?

Through this tale, we come to know the wealthy, capitalist Wilcox dynasty, the idealistic, intellectual upper middle class Schlegel sisters and the ever struggling, financially impoverished lower class Leonard and Jacky Bast.

Douglas Post’s faithful theatrical adaptation is truly eloquent and makes E.M. Forster’s novel accessible in a two-and-a-half hour production. This is a beautiful, carefully constructed play commissioned by Remy Bumppo Theatre, and currently enjoying its world premiere at Theater Wit.

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‘Sons and Lovers’

Sons and Lovers at Greenhouse Theater. (photo courtesy of On the spot Theatre Company)
Sons and Lovers at Greenhouse Theater. (photo courtesy of On the spot Theatre Company)

2  1/2 stars

It’s true that the very best writers use experiences from their own lives to inspire their writing. English author D.H. Lawrence, whose early twentieth century novels like Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Women in Love, Mr. Noon and The Rainbow shocked and entertained readers during this “Age of Innocence.” It’s also true that his stories are all very intimately bound up with his own life. But none of his novels is more autobiographical than Sons and Lovers.

This is Lawrence writing about his life and recreating scenes from his own experience, but fictionalizing it. He began writing the book in 1910, finishing the novel two years later.

The story underwent lots of revisions, including the title, and was influenced by many personal crises that occurred during this period. Lawrence ended a long relationship with Jesse Chambers (who’d serve as the model for his character, Miriam Leivers).

He became engaged to, and then broke up with Louie Burrows (who would be the inspiration for the character of Clara Dawes). He lost his mother to cancer, became seriously ill with pneumonia, gave up teaching and moved away from his birthplace. But this is a story that’s derived from the author’s own Oedipus complex.

When Lydia was a young woman, she lost her first love to another woman. She settled for Walter Morel, a boorish, yet passionate lower class man who worked long hours down in the Midland mines.

As sons William and Paul grew up, Lydia doted on them to the point where Walter is brow-beaten and practically ignored and she redirects all of her ardor and passion to her sons. They, in turn, become her lovers and as they grow to manhood they aren’t able to love any other women because their mother’s hold over them is so strong.

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It’s a woman’s world at ‘Casa Valentina’

Casa Valentina a Pride Films and Plays at Broadway Theatre. (Photo by Cody Jolly)
Casa Valentina a Pride Films and Plays at Broadway Theatre. (Photo by Cody Jolly)

3 1/2 stars

As part of Pride Films & Plays’ exploration of all things gender related, we travel back to the Chevalier d’Eon Resort in the Catskill Mountains. It’s 1962, and a secret world is revealed to 21st century audiences that actually existed during those more innocent, post-war years.

For at least one weekend during the late Spring, a group of happily married men with families, highly-respected in their chosen, white-collar professions, gather in this secluded Garden of Eden to express their alter-egos.

These men are not homosexuals, nor do they harbor a hidden desire to undergo surgery in order to become full-time women. They’re cross-dressers who, in private, simply enjoy (sometimes) being a girl.

In this remote setting, several longtime friends and a couple of  new acquaintances, are provided the freedom to express themselves as feminine, girly girls in their own private, woman’s world.

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Always remember ‘All That He Was’

 

'All That He Was.' L to R: Ethan Warren, Rick Rapp. (Photos by Nicholas Swatz)
‘All That He Was.’
L to R: Ethan Warren, Rick Rapp. (Photos by Nicholas Swatz)

4 stars

 

First, a gentle warning to theatergoers planning to see”All That He Was,” a deeply moving, sometimes humorous new musical by Pride Films & Plays at The Buena: bring along lots of Kleenex.

When theatergoers walk into The Buena, they may be surprised to discover that they’re about to attend a funeral. The entire theatre has been transformed into an outdoor, park-like space.

This sepulchral space is highlighted by a tasteful garden of plants and flowers surrounding an arbor and peppered with places to sit and the stage is festooned by strings of tiny white lights.

A poignant AIDS-inspired, mostly sung-through musical, “All That He Was” is a newly revised version of the original, award-winning one-act by Larry Todd Cousineau (book and lyrics) and Cindy O’Connor (music).

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