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


Political humor is nothing new


L-R: Megan DeLay, Lucinda Johnston. (Photo by Heather Mall)
L-R: Megan DeLay, Lucinda Johnston. (Photo by Heather Mall)

‘The Suffrage Plays’

3 stars

It might be difficult for some to conceive of a notion that denied roughly fifty percent of the population from having a say in what was considered to be a modern democratic process. But indeed, this was the case deep into the first part of the twentieth century, both here and in Britain.

These three pithy, well performed, one-act plays directed by Beth Wolf and presented by Artemisia Theatre as “The Suffrage Plays” provide insight through a good deal of levity and snarky repartee that give voice to the debate that 100 years ago provided women with the right to vote.

Before the age of TV and the Internet, people looked to the theater for entertaining political commentary the equivalent of Stephen Colbert, The Daily Show, or Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update. Read More

An honest country musical


(left to right) Kelly Combs, Lena Dudley and Charlie Irving in New American Folk Theatre's world premiere of My Life is a Country Song.. Photo by Joseph Ramski Photography.
(left to right) Kelly Combs, Lena Dudley and Charlie Irving in New American Folk Theatre’s world premiere of My Life is a Country Song.. Photo by Joseph Ramski Photography.

3.5 stars

Country music has been described as three chords and the truth. The world premiere of Anthony Whitaker’s “My Life is a Country Song” presented by New American Folk Theatre has taken that adage to heart and crafted a well told musical tale of love, friendship, and personal triumph.

Donna (Kelly Combs), a receptionist at the Lincoln Ford dealership, has divorced her abusive husband, Gary (Kirk Jackson), and rented an old mill house from Shirley (Judy Lee Steele) who is a photographer for the local paper.

After explaining that she has never before had keys of her own which weren’t also shared with her parents or husband, Donna sings the poignant ballad “My Front Door.”

Soon thereafter ex-husband Gary tries to suggest that he has changed, worming his way back with “A New Coat of Paint.”

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‘You Are Happy’ will leave you smiling

Michelle Mary Schaefer and Brendan Connell in You are Happy. (Photo by Matthew Freer)
Michelle Mary Schaefer and Brendan Connell in You are Happy. (Photo by Matthew Freer)

4 stars

If you agree that in an opera or ballet the storyline is incidental to the performance you will understand my reaction to “You Are Happy,” an interesting, innovative and thoroughly enjoyable production co-directed by Aaron Sawyer and Mary Kate Ashe at the Red Theater. It leaves you wanting more –  but in a good way.

For the record, Bridget who ironically claims to find happiness in her own company and solitude, wants her suicidal brother, Jeremy, to find happiness with a true love.

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‘Merchant’ still controversial and thought provoking


 L-R: Jack Morsovillio, Mitchell Spencer, Chuck Munro, Erik Schiller. (Photo by Brian McConkey)
L-R: Jack Morsovillio, Mitchell Spencer, Chuck Munro, Erik Schiller. (Photo by Brian McConkey)

3 stars

“The Merchant of Venice,” presented by Invictus Theatre Company, has  William Shakespeare’s words but is done in a more contemporary staging by director Charles Askenaizer.

The story is about Venetian merchant Antonio (Chuck Munro) who provides his friend, Bassanio (Martin Diaz Valdes), money needed to woo Portia (Julia Badger), a very wealthy young whom he feels he has a very good chance of marrying.

The problem is that Antonio does not have the ready cash on hand, so he agrees to borrow it from the local moneylender, Shylock (Joseph Beal).

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Enjoy A World of Cinema


'Motherless' a film to see at the Chicago International Film Festival. (Photo courtesy of the Chicago International Film Festival)
‘Motherless’ a film to see at the Chicago International Film Festival. (Photo courtesy of the Chicago International Film Festival)

4 stars

The 55th Annual Chicago International Film Festival is running through Oct. 27, 2019 at the AMC River East Theaters.

The world renowned festival includes films from more than 100 countries representing virtually every genre.

Some special categories offered are Women in Cinema, Cinemas of the Americas, and Immersive Cinema exploring virtual reality storytelling in all dimensions.

The week’s festivities kicked off with a red carpet featuring Chicago Producer Gigi Pritzker and Chicago Director Jennifer Reeder talking about the film festival overall as well as their respective films, “Motherless Brooklyn” and “Knives and Skin.”

“Motherless Brooklyn” features the film’s director Edward Norton as a lonely private detective working to solve the murder of his friend played by Bruce Willis.

“Knives and Skin.” is a horror movie that takes place somewhere in a small Illinois town and champions female empowerment.

My second day began with an early morning 10:00 AM special press viewing of “Hogar,” an Argentinian and Italian collaboration the tile of which means house or residence similar to the word “casa,” but the film has been translated with the English title “Maternal” which is appropriate as it deals with teen mothers struggling to bond with their children and overcome the special challenges related to teen pregnancy.

My second press screening that day was “Twentieth Century,” a very odd but thoroughly enjoyable film described as “an outrageously weird and funny faux-historical drama about the rise of Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King in the 1920s, re-imagined as some kind of Dali-esque fever-dream by way of Monty Python.”

There are a number of films at the festival that either have Chicago themes or were produced in Chicago.

These include the world premier documentary “The First Rainbow Coalition” about Chicago’s mulit-ethnic street gangs in the 1960s primarily led by activist Fred Hampton and the “Black Panthers” who endeavored to affect social change by recognizing their shared struggle.

Having lived through this era in Chicago I found this film which is primarily old television news footage to have a kind of home-movie quality but full of insight that was not generally shared at the time.

Some other Chicago movies are “Girl on the Third Floor,” “Hala,” “The New Bauhaus” and another world premiere, The Torch,” directed by Jim Ferrell about Chicago Blues legend Buddy Guy.

Keep in mind that many of these films will be available in theaters soon, on Netflix, Roku and wherever you like to view films. So even if you missed them at the festival you can still find most of them someplace soon.

DETAILS:  The 55th Annual Chicago International Film Festival is running through October 27, 2019 at the AMC River East Theaters at 322 E. Illinois Street, Chicago. For tickets and information visit ChicagoFilmFestival.

Reno Lovison

Reno Lovison is a frequent theater reviewer here and Executive Producer at ChicagoBroadcastingNetwork.com where you can find additional video and podcast coverage of the Chicago International Film Festival.




Verdi romantic revenge opera at Lyric


Luisa Miller at Lyric Opera of Chicago. (Todd Rosenberg photo)
Luisa Miller at Lyric Opera of Chicago. (Todd Rosenberg photo)

4 stars

Love, lust, and quest for power lead to despair and death in Giuseppe Verdi’s “Luisa Miller,” directed by Francesca Zambello at Lyric Opera of Chicago.

The seemingly outlandish story based on the play “Kabale und Liebe” (Intrigue and Love) by Friedrich von Schiller, none-the-less may resonate with modern audiences familiar with such television programs as “American Greed” and “Dateline” that often have devious plots designed and perpetrated by individuals to preserve financial power or exert influence over those they purport to love.

In this case, Rudolfo (Joseph Calleja), the son of Count Walter (Christian Van Horn) falls in love with the peasant girl, Luisa Miller, (Krassimira Stoyanova). However, Count Walter’s aide-de-camp, Wurm, (Soloman Howard) also has designs on the local beauty resulting in love triangle number one.

Luisa’s father (Quinn Kelsey) feels there is something odd about Rudolfo who has been hanging around the village under the pseudo name Carlo.

Meanwhile, knowing that the Count was planning to wed his son to the local Duchess Federica (Alisa Kolosova) who has just inherited a fortune after her father’s death, tattletale Wurm tells Count Walter how Rudolfo has fallen in love with a common village girl.

The alliance between Rudolfo and Federica would increase the power and influence of the family, and secure his son’s future, resulting in love triangle number two.

The Count orders his son to marry Federica while Wurm imprisons Luisa’s fathe. Then coerces her into signing a declaration stating that she never loved Rudolfo but instead loves Wurm in order to gain her father’s release and save him from death.

In her despair, she begins to write a letter to Rudolfo suggesting that he meet her at midnight when the two will die together rather than submit to the unhappy fate that has been thrust upon them.

Finding the letter, Luisa’s father,  persuades her that in the morning the two of them will simply leave town together because the death of his daughter, and seemingly only offspring, would cause him too much anguish.

During the night while her father is asleep, Rudolfo comes to Luisa whom he tricks into drinking poison. He has taken it as well out of revenge for her recanting her love. Thus is the murder suicide that actually fulfills Luisa’s original plan for them.

The couple reconciles and Rudolfo manages to curse his father and mortally shoot Wurm before the poison takes its full effect.

There is little to say about the spectacular quality of the entire ensemble except to add that Stoyanova as Luisa delivers at every opportunity.

Perhaps part of the popularity of Verdi operas is that they are very accessible to the general public because the music is not overly complex. Though this opera does not have any of the popular famous arias such as “La donna e mobile” or “Celesta Aida,” it follows musical lines that are familiar to the ear.

If you are a lover of mid-century American musicals, I think you will find the structure of Verdi’s operas to have a familiar form.

Reflective of opera’s romantic period which introduces more theatricality into the productions, we can enjoy how the composer uses what have become traditional musical dynamics to convey the emotions of the characters in their over-the-top dramatic situations.

For the singers in this production, it is something of an athletic event as they have very little rest and are seemingly on stage all of the time. They are often performing complex imbroglios that at times seem akin to a wrestling match or singing competition.

It has been said that Verdi hoped to break out of the imposed traditional operatic format that for instance dictated that the production begin with a chorus number.

Interestingly, it was my impression that the opening of “Luisa Miller,” though entertaining and important in terms of setting the context and introducing the characters, has an obligatory quality that seems out of place when compared to the more intimate aspects of the rest of the production.

Perhaps, like the audiences in Verdi’s day, we might feel cheated if we did not have an opportunity to hear, in this case, the exceptional Lyric Chorus. They do appear again but actually each time it seems a bit out-of-step with the story.

Of course part of the reason to visit Lyric Opera Chicago is the opportunity to experience their fine orchestra conducted by Enrique Mazzola and led by Music Director Sir Andrew Davis. It is possible that the overture alone is worth the price of admission.

The scenery, painting, construction design and costumes used in this production are the property of the San Francisco Opera.

The primary scenic element, a large painting suspended from a crane in front of a curved panoramic modular background has an overall post-modern quality even though it is in a muted-toned, 19th century pastoral landscape style.

A standout for the costume department was a dramatic profusion of red riding apparel for the equestrian scene as well as the variation on a theme of green uniforms provided to the gentlemen of Count Walter’s court.

Details: “Luisa Miller” is at the Lyric Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Dr., Chicago through Oct.31, 2019. Running time is about 2 hours 45 minutes with one intermission. For tickets or other information call  (312) 827-5600 or visit  lyricopera.org/Luisa .

Reno Lovison

For more shows visit Theatre in Chicago



A memorable mid-century musicale

Cast of Lerner and Loewe. (Photo by Brett Beiner)
Cast of Lerner and Loewe. (Photo by Brett Beiner)

3 stars

Music Theater Works presents the clever lyrics and memorable mid-century melodies of Alan J. Lerner and Frederick Loewe in “Lerner and Loewe’s Greatest Hits” at Evanston’s Nichols Concert Hall.

Directed by Rudy Hogenmiller with musical director Linda Madonia the show is an enjoyable trip down memory lane. It starts in the Highlands of Scotland, goes over the bumpy trails of the American West then travels through the streets of London, the salons of Paris and ends up in the woods and palaces of historic old England.

This cabaret style performance begins with the ensemble of Samantha Behen, Alicia Berneche, Billy Dawson and Martin L. Woods harmonizing to the theme from the far off sleepy village of “Brigadoon” which rising from the Scottish mist, awakens once every one hundred years.

Songs include “I’ll Go Home with Bonnie Jean” featuring tenor Dawson, “Almost Like Being in Love” and “Heather on the Hill.”

Part one continues before a fifteen minute intermission with selections from the Western themed “Paint Your Wagon” with Woods’ powerful baritone rendition of “They Call the Wind Maria” and an ensemble version of “Wand’rin’ Star.”

The production continues in Part Two with perhaps Lerner and Loewe’s most successful musical, “My Fair Lady,” in which virtually every song was a hit.

The audience enjoyed hearing “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly,” “On the Street Where You Live,” “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face,” and the insomniac favorite “I Could Have Danced All Night” belted out by the soprano, Berneche.

The story of  “Gigi” deals with love and romance in a most Parisian way and includes a nod to mature romance in songs like “I’m Glad I’m Not Young Anymore” and  “I Remember it Well,” charmingly performed by Berneche and Woods.

He opens the final segment with Lancelot’s self-aggrandizing “C’est Moi” from “Camelot” that tells the story of a brief and shining moment from the legendary court of Arthur.

Behan as the ingénue gets a few slightly bawdy moments in “Lusty Month of May” before the emotional “Camelot” Finale Ultimo which I am certain brought the majority of this audience back to memories of a hopeful time in 1960 when the show premiered.

The singers are accompanied by Madonia (piano), Nina Saito (violin), Joseph Krzysiak (bass), and Joey Zymonas (drums).

Music Theater Works will end the 2019 season with “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat opening Dec. 21, 2019.”

The company’s Founder/General Manager Bridget McDonough and Artistic Director Hogenmiller are retiring on New Year’s Eve this year. Hogenmiller has personally told me he intends to travel and relax.

Incoming Producing Artistic Director Kyle A. Dougan assumes management of MTW on Jan. 1, 2020 when the new season will include “Mamma Mia!,” “Ragtime” and “Billy Elliot.”

DETAILS: “Lerner and Loewe’s Greatest Hits” is at Nichols Concert Hall, 1490 Chicago Ave., Evanston, IL through Oct. 13, 2019. Running time: about 2 hours with one intermission. For tickets and information call (847) 920-5360 or visit musictheaterworks.

Reno Lovison

Related: Top Leadership at Music Theater Works talk about the company they helmed and their retirement

For more shows visit Theatre in Chicago


Chicago revolution never materializes


L-R: Brandon Janssen, Jesus Nunez, Peyton Smith, Danielle Fraser, Loki D. Wolf. (Photo provided by Revolution Chicago)
L-R: Brandon Janssen, Jesus Nunez, Peyton Smith, Danielle Fraser, Loki D. Wolf. (Photo provided by Revolution Chicago)

1 star

The show is poorly conceived and executed.

It purports to tell the story of the rise of “House Music” but does not deliver what it promises.

DETAILS: “Revolution Chicago” is at Stage 773 through Sept. 29, 2019. For information call (773) 327-5252 or visit revolutionchi.

Reno Lovison

For more shows visit Theatre in Chicago

A delicate performance with a powerful message

‘The Delicate Tears of the Waning Moon’


Rebeca Aleman and Ramon Camin in Delicate Tears. (Photo by Stephanie Rodriguez)
Rebeca Aleman and Ramon Camin in Delicate Tears. (Photo by Stephanie Rodriguez)

4 stars

Paulina finds herself barely able to speak after three months in a coma, being cared for by her good friend and co-worker, Rodrigo.

Over time she begins to recover her memory, revealing her former life and the events that have brought her to this point.

She and Rodrigo are journalists in Venezuela where her search for truth and her advocacy for justice have resulted in tragedy and a total upheaval of her life.

The action centers around Paulina’s recuperation but through her recollections we are slowly and systematically exposed to political and social realities that provide a deeper context.

Inspired by true events “The Delicate Tears of the Waning Moon” onstage at Steppenwolf’s 1700 Theater is written by playwright/actress Rebeca Aleman (Paulina) which partially explains the extremely high caliber of her performance.

She obviously has internalized this material, understands it deeply and brilliantly interprets the character’s physical limitations.

Likewise as the play’s translator Ramon Camin (Rodrigo) provides a sensitive portrayal, no doubt informed by this intimate relationship to the material which is presented by the Water People Theater as part of the 3rd Chicago International Latino Theater Festival.

The play was originally written in Spanish and performed here in English, expertly directed by Iraida Tapias who guided the delicate unraveling of the mystery surrounding Paulina’s condition.

The simple set design by Manuel Jose Diaz effectively incorporates a large window as a projection screen providing flashbacks and access to more intimate musings.

I learned in the post production discussion that the cast  began their rehearsals in their native language in order to establish their emotional connection then switched to English to prepare for the festival performance.

For Spanish speaking theater-goers the stage is equipped with two monitors displaying the translation.

DETAILS: “The Delicate Tears of the Waning Moon”is  at the Steppenwolf 1700 Theater, 1700 N. Halsted St., Chicago, through Oct. 13, 2019. Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission. For tickets and information call (312) 335-1650. or visit Steppenwolf/Lookout.

Reno Lovison

For more shows visit Theatre in Chicago