‘Hunchback’ has melodious ring

 

Hunchback of Natre Dame choir by Music theater Works in Cahn Auditorium, Evanston. (Photo by Brett Beiner)
Hunchback of Natre Dame choir by Music theater Works in Cahn Auditorium, Evanston. (Photo by Brett Beiner)

4 stars

I was curious to imagine how this epic story that features a soaring gothic cathedral in the heart of Paris would be portrayed at Music Theater Works’ Cahn Auditorium venue.

But from the moment the curtain rose revealing the stunning scenic set design and twenty-four member choir for MTWs’ “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” the audience was thoroughly captivated.

Set around 1492 the essence of this operetta is derived from Victor Hugo’s  epic novel of the same name with similar themes of intolerance, injustice, abuse of power, and “man’s inhumanity to man” as in his “Les Miserables.”

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When comedy expresses pain at ‘International Falls’

 

Sean Higgins and Marie Weigle ( Pphoto by Katie Reynolds)
Sean Higgins and Marie Weigle ( Pphoto by Katie Reynolds)

4 stars

Set in a Holiday Inn hotel room in International Falls, Minnesota, traveling comedian Tim has come to the end of the road while front desk clerk Dee wants to escape her life. Together they explore the use of comedy to mask their sadness and express their pain.

Tim (Sean Higgins) shares his unsuccessful quest to find his own unique voice and urges Dee (Marie Weigle) to find hers, stressing that honesty and authenticity is what is important.

In “International Falls,” playwright Thomas Ward evidently understands that struggle and has clearly met the challenge writing some of the most authentic and honest dialogue I have ever heard on stage.

Presented by by the Agency Theater Collective in partnership with End of the Line Production, Ward’s brilliant dialogue comes to life as spoken by Higgins and Weigle. You feel like you are sitting in their hotel room witnessing the events unfold.

Higgins’ cringingly awkward stand-up asides are perfectly painful and his obvious discomfort with himself combined with false bravado is portrayed with appropriate nuance.

Weigle’s pent up frustration, emerging confidence and vulnerability is palpable but never goes over the top.

The blocking was seamless and meaningful.

The naturalness of the actors can only be achieved when they have a critical eye assuring them that what they are doing is right.

Director Cody Lucas clearly gets credit for pulling this small ensemble together into a beautiful unified performance. Orchestrating the emotional level with symphonic accuracy, Lucas dials up the emotions to peak levels that never gets shrill, then dials them back down to create a needed contrast that keeps the audience engaged and caring about the characters.

This voyeuristic experience is further enhanced by the intimate setting of the Nox Arca Theatre which is actually a small industrial space on the 5th floor of a concrete loft building on the corner of Irving Park in the Ravenswood corridor. Scenic Designer Soli Eisenberg has done a brilliant job of incorporating the natural elements of the room to create the effect.

By the way the music mix before the show began was awesome.

DETAILS: “International Falls” is at Nox Arca Theatre, 4001 N. Ravenswood Ave, #405. Chicago, through August 31, 2019. Running time is 90 minutes with no intermission. For tickets and information visit We Are the Agency.

Reno Lovison

For more shows visit Theatre in Chicago

A Funky Journey at BET

Cast of 'You Can't Fake the Funk' at Black Ensemble Theater. (Alan davis photo).
Cast of ‘You Can’t Fake the Funk’ at Black Ensemble Theater. (Alan davis photo).

2.5 stars

“You Can’t Fake the Funk (A Journey Through Funk Music)” presented by Chicago’s Black Ensemble Theater works hard to “turn this mutha out.”

“There’s a whole lot of rhythm goin’ round” in this energetic performance written and directed by the company’s own producing and managing director, Daryl D. Brooks.

The journey through the history of funk is hosted by Dwight Neal as Dr. Funk and takes place aboard the “Mothership,” an allusion to  George Clinton and the Parliament Funkadelic’s 1975 platinum album “Mothership Connection.”

Clinton actually incorporated a spaceship as part of the scenery into his concerts but BET’s homage does not do it justice and Denise Karczewski’s lighting didn’t do too much to help, particularly if you consider the lighting effects prominent in the disco style shows of this time.

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‘Now and Then’ is sweet and tender

 

Cast of Now and Then at The Pride Arts Center. (John Olson photo)
Cast of Now and Then at The Pride Arts Center. (John Olson photo)

3 stars

 

“Now and Then” on stage at The Pride Arts Center is an uneventful love story that celebrates the ultimate fulfillment of a long term relationship.

Daniel and Greg meet at a college open mic night and stay together for 42 years. Daniel is an aspiring singer/songwriter while the more pragmatic Greg has aspirations of being a stand-up comedian.

The two men seek achievement in their careers, struggle to pay the rent, and ultimately find happiness and contentment through their commitment to each other while learning along the way that the key to success in love is a giving heart.

The story is told largely though song by six actors who portray the couple in three stages of life.

The unique aspect of this production is that all six actors are often on stage interacting together, suggesting perhaps that we are at every moment in our lives our current selves, our past selves and our future selves.

The young Daniel (Will Fulginiti) and young Greg (Benjamin Walton) represent the couple’s budding youthful romance. Alex Smith and Carl Herzog portray Greg and Daniel respectively in the growing years of their relationship. Skip Sams as Greg and the play’s songwriter and lyricist Dennis Manning as Daniel play the elder couple.

Just as Greg and Daniel’s relationship is based on a chance encounter, so too is the relationship between Manning and “Now and Then’s” writer, producer/director Ronnie Larsen.

Larsen met Manning in 2018 when he learned that the mattress salesman was also a songwriter. After hearing Manning’s songs Larsen penned the play and had it on stage within months. Larsen is clearly a talented theatrical craftsman to have created this piece in such a short period of time.

The fact that the songs were already written is both its strength and its weakness. Larsen uses Manning’s well written songs effectively but in the aggregate they sound like a singer/songwriter’s songbook, very unified in style.

What the music lacks from a theatrical point-of-view is a sense that a particular song was written for a particular character to achieve a particular emotion at a particular point in time.

In spite of that criticism the very capable cast uses musical dynamics to vary the mood and add drama where it is needed. “Solitary Man” is the lynch-pin song that both opens and closes the play.

Manning does yeoman’s work as the primary guitarist, but hey, these are his songs, while Will Fulginiti brings much needed youthful energy to the production with his exuberant guitar playing style and portrayal of young Daniel.

Benjamin Walton as young Greg provides much of the show’s humor. Herzog and Smith add conflict and each have memorable musical moments. Skip Sams as the elder Greg brings a sense of calm that brings the play to its ultimate resolution.

Some might want to quickly conclude that this is a “gay play” but that would be putting it in a box that limits its message. Rather, it is a play about love and commitment featuring characters who happen to be gay, but it speaks to anyone who might appreciate and value the benefits of a life well lived that is based on mutual support and true love.

This is a perfect chance to see this play before it moves to London in September 2019.

DETAILS: “Now and Then” is at The Pride Arts Center, 4139 N. Broadway, Chicago through August 11, 2019. Running time: 2 hours with one intermission. For tickets and other information visit Now and Tnen the Musical.

Reno Lovison

For more shows visit Theatre in Chicago

 

‘Flower of Hawaii’ blooms in Chicago

 

Cast of 'Flower of Hawaii' (Photo courtesy of Folks Operetta)
Cast of ‘Flower of Hawaii’ (Photo courtesy of Folks Operetta)

3 stars

 There are two very good reasons to see “The Flower of Hawaii” at Stage 773 on Belmont.

First, is the exceptional musical score by Hungarian composer Paul Abraham expertly conducted by 2007 Georg Solti Foundation Award recipient Anthony Barrese leading an exceptional 19-piece orchestra.

Secondly, is the exciting vocals of tenor Rodell Rosel in the role of Prince Lilo-Taro. The prince has returned to Hawaii after being lost at sea in time to claim his childhood betrothal to Princess Laia performed by the alluring former Ms. Illinois (2014) and Chicago native Marisa Buchheit.

Written by Paul Abraham in 1931, “The Flower of Hawaii” is a jazz operetta now making its American premiere. Translated by Hersh Glagov, it is presented by Folks Operetta as part of their “Reclaimed Voices Series” giving voice to Jewish composers and librettists who were persecuted, exiled or perished at the hands of the German Third Reich.

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‘The Memo’ brings a dystopian message from Vaclav Havel

Tricia Rogers (Director Gross) in 'The Mem.' (Photo by Anna Gelman)
Tricia Rogers (Director Gross) in ‘The Mem.’ (Photo by Anna Gelman)

 

3 Stars

“The Memo” is an interesting if not important piece of theater as it was written by Vaclav Havel who went on to become a player on the world stage in the role of reformer. Havel served as the last President of Czechoslovakia, then as the first President of the Czech Republic from 1993 to 2003.

Written in 1965, it was originally translated into English as “The Memorandum” by British writer Vera Blackwell in 1967. The Organic Theatre production is using the later translation from 2006, encouraged and approved by Havel, written by Canadian Paul Wilson and re-titled “The Memo.”

This is an absurdist black comedy that might be described as Monty Python meets “Office Space” in the “Twilight Zone.”

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Chicago shakes “Six” wives

 

Cast of 'Six" at Chicago Shakespeare. (Liz Lauren photo)
Cast of ‘Six” at Chicago Shakespeare. (Liz Lauren photo)

3 Stars

The Chicago Shakespeare Theater presents the North American premiere of the energetic pop-concert musical “Six” by Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss featuring the story of the six wives of England’s 16th Century monarch Henry VIII.

The fate of the queens are apparently remembered by English school children using the rhyme “divorced, beheaded, died; divorced, beheaded, survived” which becomes the leitmotif of the opening number as the women introduce themselves to the audience.

A series of nine musical numbers centered around a common theme with virtually no dialog, this production is more of a pop-concert than what you think of as traditional musical theater.

Presented as a kind of musical competition, each of the “Six” wives takes turns telling her life story, including her relationship with the notorious Henry.

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Augie March misadventures

Cast of Augie March at Court Theatre. (Michael Brosilow photo)
Cast of Augie March at Court Theatre. (Michael Brosilow photo)

2 ½ stars

Free-Style Chaos Defines Augie March

This theatrical version of “The Adventures of Augie March,” at the Court Theatre perhaps serves to illustrate why the popular novel by Chicagoan Saul Bellow has never before been adapted to the stage.

The story line basically follows everyman hero Augie March (Patrick Mulvey) as he meanders aimlessly through life allowing the people he meets to shape his journey. In this way Bellow suggests the arbitrariness of life and is perhaps a cautionary tale of the dangers of undefined goals.

The play opens in the Atlantic Ocean with Augie and his maniacal companion (John Judd) floating in a lifeboat after the sinking of their merchant ship.

During a flashback, Augie’s odyssey begins in the 1930s depression era crowded apartment he shares with his mother (Chaon Cross), two brothers and an overbearing Russian Jewish grandmother (Marilyn Dodds Frank).

Along the way Augie meets an odd assortment of characters which is one of the hallmarks of Bellow’s writing as he reveled in the peculiarities and idiosyncrasies of humanity.

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‘Undeniable Sound’ is undeniably worth seeing

Henry Greenberg (Jeff Mills) and Lena (Lindsay Stock) in Undeniable Sound of Right Now at Raven Theatre. (Photo by Michael Brosilow)
Henry Greenberg (Jeff Mills) and Lena (Lindsay Stock) in Undeniable Sound of Right Now at Raven Theatre. (Photo by Michael Brosilow)

4 Stars

 There is so much to like about “The Undeniable Sound of Right Now” by Laura Eason at the Raven Theatre in Edgewater. It’s a snapshot of one of the many evolutionary changes that is inevitable in a growing and vibrant city.

Set in the fall of 1992 Hank (Jeff Mills), the owner of a Chicago dive bar, slash, live music venue, is in the autumn of his career in the midst of evolving musical tastes and gentrification that threaten everything he has built.

Hank has two great loves – live music and his twenty-one year old daughter Lena (Lindsay Stock) who grew up above the club and shares her dad’s enthusiasm for music.

Lena is anxious to expand her horizons to include the emerging style of “house,” a genre of electronic dance music of the era created in Chicago that features D.J.’s as the curators of the musical experience.

Her dad is a traditionalist who feels that D.J.’s are not musicians and that electronic music is in opposition to the live music he has championed for twenty-five years.

Thus the conflict is established,. It plays out in the confines of a neighborhood tavern that, like its owner, is definitely showing its wear.

The set design by Jeffrey D. Kmiec and decorated by Lacie Hexom is reminiscent of the many neighborhood watering holes that once dotted the Chicago map from north to south in this working class city.

In the earlier half of the 20th century Chicago boasted 10,000 “shot and a beer” joints. Most have closed or been converted to fern bars and pubs.  Those that survived like Hank’s are loved-to-death by countless elbows, decorated through neglect and illuminated with the ever present twinkling strand or two of Christmas lights.

These establishments retain and reflect a bit of each of the individuals and groups that made this particular venue their social hub, and Hank’s clientele have indeed left their unique mark on this location.

But neighborhoods, music, and people change; and we are all forced to face the changes that are an inevitable part of growing up and growing older. What is undeniable is the here-and-now and the sounds it makes.

Hank has little patience for nostalgia and no stomach for being viewed as a legend. The question is how do you confront the end of an era?

The story involves non-traditional family relationships and various forms of love which in this case includes Hank’s longtime, off-again on-again, salt-of-the-earth girlfriend, Bette (Dana Black), who accepted the role of surrogate mother in the absence of Lena’s birth mother

It is clear the two women have a true affection for each other which was all the more poignant on the Mother’s Day performance I attended.

Jeff Mills in the Undeniable Sound of Right Now at Raven Theatre. (Michael Brosilow photo)
Jeff Mills in the Undeniable Sound of Right Now at Raven Theatre. (Michael Brosilow photo)

Stock is spot on and perfectly embodies the role of Lena who is smart, savvy and charismatic. It is no wonder that she is adored by her “parents” as well as the club manager, Toby (Christopher Acevedo), the landlord’s son Joey (Casey Morris),  and Nash (Henry Greenberg) the up-and-coming D.J. each vying in one way or another for her attention.

No doubt casting director Kanome Jones made Director BJ Jones’ life a little easier by providing an outstanding ensemble.

Eason has done a terrific job of juggling a number of ideas yet pulling it all together into one well-crafted unified whole. She understands Hank’s reluctance to turn over the reins and sympathetically advocates for the youthful exuberance of Nash and Lena.

Meanwhile the supporting roles of Bette, Toby, and Joey are fully fleshed characters with their own important contributions to the plot. Her dialogue is authentic and at times emotional without becoming saccharine.

When I don’t know much about a play I try to keep it that way until I see it. This was surprisingly different than what I expected, thinking it was going to be more of a jukebox musical.

It does have some recorded music as background as well as a few short riffs and verses admirably played on guitar by Mills – choices of sound designer Lindsay Jones. Music is integral to the story but it is not a musical.

If you are afraid that the indie music rock scene is not a genre you understand or enjoy do not let this dissuade you. The theme of the story is universal and the musical references are incidental. This can be any time period and any inter-generational conflict.

I predict this production will be deemed Jeff worthy with special recognition of Lindsay Stock and maybe BJ Jones and Kmiec as well.

Don’t miss this one. If you have experience with an aging business owner, a music maker, or someone affected by change that they feared or were reluctant to face this will likely resonate with you.

DETAILS: “The Undeniable Sound of Right Now” is at Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark Street, Chicago through June 16, 2019. Running time is 90 minutes with no intermission. For tickets and information call (773) 338-2177 and visit raventheatre.com.

Reno Lovison

For more shows visit Theatre in Chicago

City Lit Slides Home With A Theatrical Double Header

 

Nate Strain. "The Devil and Daniel Webster," one-half of Two Days in court. (Photo by Steve Graue)
Nate Strain. “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” one-half of Two Days in court. (Photo by Steve Graue)

3 Stars

As the baseball season begins, City Lit is ending their 39th theatrical season with “Two Days in Court: A Double-Header of Classic One Acts.”

The two plays are “The Devil and Daniel Webster” by Stephen Vincent Benet, and the farcical Gilbert & Sullivan operetta “Trial by Jury.”

In “The Devil and Daniel Webster” a young farmer turned senator Jabez Stone (Nate Strain) has literally sold his soul to The Devil “Scratch” (Lee Wichman) in exchange for his success. The agreement comes due coincidentally at midnight on the day of his wedding to Mary Stone (Laura Resinger).

Luckily for the Stones one of their wedding guests is the famed orator of-the-day and prominent attorney Daniel Webster (Bill Chamberlain) who agrees to represent Jabez against Scratch in front of a “jury of the damned” to  get the young Senator released from this most egregious contract.

Webster reminds the jury who have each sold their soul for advantage over others and short term gain, that they have sacrificed the simple pleasures of life.

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