Four Wisconsin artists exhibit in Pilsen

The Pilsen area on the near south side of Chicago has been evolving into a significant arts destination, partly due to the presence of the Chicago Arts District on Halsted Street and the National Museum of Mexican Art which is a kind of anchor for the neighborhood’s art community.

A number of small art galleries there are gathering attention and contributing to Chicago’s vibrant urban art scene including the LALUZ Gallery on 18th Street.

Four Wisconsin artists are featured in newest LALUZ Gallery show.
Four Wisconsin artists are featured in newest LALUZ Gallery show.

On Saturday, Aug. 12, 2017, LALUZ  Gallery opened its newest show, “Visions of Wisconson” to feature artists Sara Strozinsky, Anne Horjus, Katie Schofield and Laura Annis.

The four artists who have distinctly different aesthetics are friends and collaborators from the Baraboo/Madison area.

Watercolors depicting calming close-up views of Wisconsin prairie grass, watery rocks and trees by artist Sara Strozinsky offer a sharp contrast to the bustling Ashland Avenue traffic just outside the door.

Dutch born artist and current Wisconsin resident Anne (pronounced ON-eh) Horjus is exhibiting two series, each inspired by the choral works of composer Eric Whitacre. Horjus is a singer and a visual artist, so working the two disciplines together is a natural fit for him.

His first series entitled “Sleep” combines fine-lined sketch work with muted colors that depict the thoughts of a slumbering boy.  Done in black Derwent pencils and airbrush it has a wonderfully light touch. “Sleep” is now available in  book form with a poem by Charles Anthony Silvestri and includes a link to Whitacre’s musical composition.

The artist’s second series, bolder with more highly-saturated colors, is “Leonardo Dreams of his Flying Machine.” Inspired by the works of DaVinci, it complements another Whitacre composition.

When viewed side by side it is difficult to imagine that they are works by the same artist, but Horjus is nothing if not versatile. Friends describe him as a “Renaissance Man.”

The show also features the works of artist Katie Schofield who is primarily known for her natural forms that usually are showcased in outdoor venues, and Laura Annis’ known for her bold colors to depict nature and mythology in an animation/illustration style.

“Visions of Wisconsin” at LALUZ  Gallery 1545 W. 18th Street. through September 2, 2017. For hours and other information visit LALUZ  or call (312) 401-344.

Reno Lovison

 

‘HAIR’ is still relevant

RECOMMENDED

 

HAIR The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical is a revival of the infamous hippie era production that raised many eyebrows in its day and contributed significantly to the evolution of American musical theater.

HAIR is at Mercury Theater through Sept. 17, 2017. Brett A. Beiner photo
HAIR is at Mercury Theater through Sept. 17, 2017. Brett A. Beiner photo

It might be easy to simply see this current production of HAIR as riding a “permanent wave” of nostalgia. Or you might choose to see it as a “bald” faced celebration of 1960’s era youth, depicting the struggles a significant portion of the boomer generation experienced on the road to adulthood, which incidentally had a huge impact on modern culture.

The original production contemporaneously reported on that cultural shift in America as it simultaneously contributed to it. So it is impossible to speak about the current production without referencing its history.

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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

‘Ragtime’ still a social issues reminder

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

There is nothing ragged about this Griffin Theatre version of Tony Award-winning ‘RAGTIME.’

Katherine Thomas , center with cast of 'Ragtime.' Photo by Michael Brosilow
Katherine Thomas , center with cast of ‘Ragtime.’ Photo by Michael Brosilow

Re-imagined by Director Scott Weinstein, the 1996 musical with book by Terrence McNally, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and music by Stephen Flaherty, has new orchestrations by Matt Deitchman and is perfectly scaled to the intimate Den Theatre stage.

A tight ensemble follows the adventures of three groups of individuals from various cultural and socio-economic strata at the turn of the 20th century by using the new music of the era – Ragtime. It has become the soundtrack of the age.

The new sound’s syncopation punctuates the changing rhythms of the increasingly fast-paced times that introduced industrialization along with such social challenges that defined pre-WWI America as European immigration, urban racial integration, unionization and women’s independence.

Taken from E.L. Doctorow’s novel, the musical throws together African American domestic worker Sarah (Katherine Thomas), her baby and the baby’s piano playing daddy, “Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Denzel Tsopnang), into the household of an upper middle class, white suburban (New Rochelle) family

“Father” (Scott Allen Luke) is a fireworks manufacturer and part-time world explorer who leaves his wife to manage the business. In the process she finds opportunities to explore her own independence.

This brings “Mother” (Laura McLain) into contact with “Teteh,” a recent Jewish immigrant (enthusiastically played by Jason Richards), and his pre-teen daughter (Autumn Hilava) who recently arrived in New York seeking the American dream.

“Little Boy” (Ben Miller) opens the play by introducing the characters to the title tune “Ragtime.” “The Little Boy” weaves among the characters throughout the rest of the production and is on some level the thread that pulls them together and toward one another.

The “Family” household additionally includes “Grandfather” (Larry Baldacci who also appears as industrialist J.P. Morgan). He just wants some quiet.

Then there is “Mother’s Younger Brother” (Matt Edmonds). He finds meaning in his life by embracing the plight of the underclass “Negroes” and mistreated workers.

There are appearances by historical notables Harry Houdini, Booker T. Washington, Henry Ford, Emma Goldman and “Specialty Entertainer/Celebrity” Evelyn Nesbit (Caitlain Collins), who provides periodic comic relief. Their vignettes supply political and social context of the time that drives the action.

Every character has a musical opportunity to shine resulting in a production with many glittering gems that come together like a charm bracelet; each with an individual tale commemorating a specific experience but in the end working together to tell the story of one grand shared adventure.

The entire cast is comprised of excellent singers. Laura McClain gave us everything she had in “Back to Before.” Katherine Thomas was a joy every moment she sang including “Your Daddy’s Son” and the show stopper duet “Wheels of Dream” with Denzel Tsopnang.

Pianists Jermaine Hill and Ellen Morris with Clarinet Dan Hickey perform in costume onstage providing outstanding accompaniments in a production where the music virtually never ends.

Details RAGTIME is at the Den Theatre at 1333 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago, now through July 16, 2017. For tickets and other information visit Griffin Theatre or call (866) 811-4111.

 

 

Old is new again in refreshed ‘Chicago’

 

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

It was a very appreciative audience, some dressed as flappers, who packed the house opening night of “Chicago” at Drury Lane Oak Brook.

Alena Watters (Velman Kelly) and ensemble in 'Chicago' at Drury Lane Theatre, photo by Brett Beiner
Alena Watters (Velman Kelly) and ensemble in ‘Chicago’ at Drury Lane Theatre, photo by Brett Beiner

The Bob Fosse and Fred Ebb script with music by John Kander is iconic due in no small part to its signature song “All that Jazz.”

This new production is fresh and energetic with a set worthy of a full-fledged Broadway production. The costumes (or lack thereof) were tastefully sensuous with no hint of vulgarity.  Every performance was spot on and the choreography of Jane Lanier was an entertaining mix of classic Fosse with a hint of Busby Berkeley.

It’s hard to explain how a story line that follows the escapades of a number of imprisoned female murderers plotting their strategies to elude prosecution can be so amusing. However this dark subject matter manages to find humor in the abject cynicism of the characters and the media’s interest in salacious subject matter.

The two co-equal leading ladies Alena Watters (as Velma Kelly) and Kelly Fethous (as Roxie Hart) are smitten with the idea of parlaying their infamy as murderesses into bankable fame on the vaudeville stage upon their seemingly inevitable acquittals.

Velma and Roxie’s certainty of release is based on the flawless record of their attorney one Billy Flynn skillfully played by Guy Lockhard.

Cast of 'Chicago' at Drury Lane Theatre, photo by Brett Beiner
Cast of ‘Chicago’ at Drury Lane Theatre, photo by Brett Beiner

These three characters drive the story aided by Matron Mama Morton (E. Faye Butler) and Roxie’s pathetic husband Amos Hart (Justin Brill) who interject a good deal of humor, notably Amos’ song “Mr. Cellophane” and a charming duet, “Class” by Velma and Mama Morton.

The character of Mary Sunshine (J. London) is also delightful as is her solo “A Little Bit of Good” dynamically sung in an operatic style.

The action takes place in the 1920’s, so suitably, the play’s style harkens back to productions from that era.

It is more of a musical revue based around a loose storyline, rather than a more traditional play that utilizes songs to further the plot – – which is the formula of modern American Musicals of the post WWII era

In this way the production is closer in style to George Cohan than Rodgers and Hammerstein while the overall mood is reminiscent of ‘ Cabaret’ and ‘A Three Penny Opera.’

‘Chicago’ is a fun evening, suggested as appropriate for children 13 and older.

Details: ‘Chicago’  is at Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace, IL now through June 18, 2017.  For tickets and other information call (630) 530-0111 and visit Drury Lane.

By Reno Lovison

(Guest reviewer Reno Lovison produces business videos. His interest in theater began very young. He studied with the Jack & Jill Players Children Theater and earned his Equity Card appearing in several professional Chicago productions at the Goodman Theatre, Mill Run, Melody Top and Ivanhoe. Reno does content writing, blogging and business articles and has authored two non-fiction books. See business video at Renoweb.)