Windy City Winds American Originals

 

RECOMMENDED

The Windy City Winds recently celebrated their Third Season Fall Concert   at St. Paul’s United Church of Christ in Chicago, playing a selection of American Originals. The program covered a thoughtful selection of American music suitable for wind, brass and percussion.

Windy City Winds
Windy City Winds

Windy City Winds is a not-for-profit adult community concert band founded on the premise that many accomplished musicians who were music majors or played instruments in college have little opportunity to play seriously after graduation, particularly if they do not pursue musical careers.

The 55 talented volunteer players age twenty-one and over are all experienced playing at the college level.

Mark and Sarah Mosley co-founded Windy City Winds in September 2015 and serve together as Music Directors.

Mark Mosley is an articulate and engaging conductor. He enthusiastically opened the first half of the concert with the very familiar and playful “Overture to Candide” by Leonard Bernstein partly in homage to the composer’s upcoming 100th birthday being celebrated in 2018.

They continued with “Night Song” by Joliet native Ron Nelson featuring a rare euphonium solo by Eon G. Cooper. The rich basso instrument takes charge of the central theme and sings sweetly with a low lyrical line through the entire piece.

You almost can’t get more uniquely American than Charles Ives, in this case the “Fugue in C.” The program notes describe Ives as “nostalgically quoting popular, patriotic and church music from his youth, while boldly embracing dissonance and experimenting with polytonality, rhythmic complexity and tone clusters.”

Windy City Winds
Windy City Winds

The band concluded the first half with “Chester” based on the patriotic tune of William Billings which became the unofficial hymn of the Revolutionary War. This variation is composed by Pulitzer Prize winning American composer William Schuman who in 1961 became president of the NYC Lincoln Center for Performing Arts.

After a brief intermission Sarah Good Mosley conducted the six movement “Divertimento for Band, op. 42” by Vincent Persichetti described as “…distinctly urban and American – energetic, lonely, humorous, and nostalgic.”

She followed next with ”October” by popular contemporary composer Eric Whitacre who is largely known for his choral music as the artist-in-residence at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. His composition “Sleep” inspired the work of Dutch born artist and current Wisconsin resident Anne Horjus ..

Mark Mosley closed the concert with “Chorale and Shaker Dance” by John Zdechlik. “The short chorale theme is original, while the Shaker melody ‘Simple Gifts’ is familiar to many.”

Windy City Winds will perform two concerts in 2018 at St. Paul’s United Church of Christ, 2335 N. Orchard St.in Chicago: March 9, “Cityscapes” Winter Concert, and May 11, “Adventures” Spring Concert. Admission is free (donations welcome).  For more Information visit Windy City Winds.

Reno Lovison

Related:   Ann Horjus article.

 

Escape to Margaritaville is Paradise Lost

SOMEWHAT RECOMMENDED

Dressed in a never been worn Hawaiian shirt and accompanied by one of the biggest Jimmy Buffett fans I know we were ready to “Escape to Margaritaville” and party. Unfortunately this ship barely left port. In fact it will be moored at the Oriental Theatre on State and Randolph Streets in Chicago through December 2, 2017.

Cast of Escape to Margaritaville. Mathew Murphy photo
Cast of Escape to Margaritaville. Mathew Murphy photo

A new musical that premiered at the LaJolla Playhouse near San Diego, CA in May 2017, “Escape to Margaritaville” is based on popular favorites and some new songs of singer/songwriter Jimmy Buffett.

Essentially, two young women embark on a paradise bound, girls pre-nuptial buddy trip. Rachel (Alison Luff) hopes to distract her best friend Tammy (Lisa Howard) away from her fat shaming fiancé Chad (Ian Michael Stuart) while also gathering volcanic soil samples for her super potato battery invention. Yes that’s right.

Soon after their arrival at the “not as described in the brochure” Margaritaville Resort the two become entangled with Tully (Paul Alexander Nolan) the house acoustic guitar strumming musician and his sidekick Brick (Eric Petersen) the beach side bartender.

The predictable and sophomoric story line suffers in a valiant attempt to humorously weave elements of various Jimmy Buffett lyrics into the plot. The sitcom inspired dialogue by Greg Garcia and Mike O’Malley is not all that funny, though the performance of aging beach bum J.D. (Don Sparks) and his perpetual search for salt was cringingly amusing.

J.D. hopes to reignite his relationship with Margaritaville proprietress Marley (Rema Webb) who seems to have been (through no fault of her own) left behind from a previous production of South Pacific.

The entire cast does an admirable job of wading through this low waterline script. But neither they nor the spectacular set designs of Walt Spangler could lift this vessel. One inspired moment was an all too brief swimming sequence compliments of “Flying by Foy” who provided the aerial expertise and apparatus.

The winsome secondary duo of Tammy and Brick shone the brightest.  Their singing and acting performances, together with the theme that Brick loves Tammy just as she is, seems timely and charming.

A peculiar highlight for me was Brick’s flashback induced dancing dead insurance salesman zombies.

I know that Jimmy Buffett fans are crazy about his music and love him as an entertainer but in this production the music never really pays off.

You’ll hear favorites like “Cheeseburger in Paradise,” “I Will Play for Gumbo,” “Why Don’t We Get Drunk” and of course the title number, “Margaritaville.”

At this performance the cast was joined at the curtain call by the man himself, Buffett, and the audience was thrilled. The excitement level rose tenfold.

The production should strike a chord with Jimmy Buffett fans and might play well in island resort venues but for general theater goers who are looking for a memorable experience I can only somewhat recommend..

DETAILS: Escape to Margaritaville’ is at the Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph St., through Dec. 2, 2017. For tickets and other information call (800) 775 2000 and visit Broadway in Chicago.

Reno Lovison

For more shows visit TheatreinChicago.

 

A look at Chicago Composer Regina Harris Baiocchi

Regina Harris Baiocchi
Regina Harris Baiocchi

It seems virtually every day there are fabulous artistic programs being offered all around Chicago, many of which no one ever hears about. These gallery exhibits, theatrical productions and musical performances are often presented by individuals of exceptional quality and sadly only have one presentation.

On Nov. 10, 2017 a concert of the music composed by Chicago native Regina Harris Baiocchi was one of those exceptional events at Sherwood Community Music School / Columbia College on South Michigan Avenue.

Baiocchi’s music has been performed by the Chicago and Detroit Symphony Orchestras and in concerts around the world. Her refined and sophisticated compositions are inspired by various musical genres and are often informed by the experiences of African Americans, women and poets.

A poet herself, her music is very lyrical but she likes to play with percussion and the dynamics of sound.

In the opening piece, “Miles per Hour” the lone trumpet of Edgar Campos is heard only offstage for a full minute or two before he slowly emerges from the wings.  Providing a sense of musical motion heard at first in the distance then moving toward you.

The impressionistic “Deborah” is inspired by a painting by Lillian Brulc has the most talented and versatile Dr. Jimmy Finnie, percussion chair at Indian State University, moving adroitly between marimba, vibes and drums accompanied by Beverly Simms, piano.

“Ask Him” is a page from the composer’s jazz book it has a sultry quality fully enhanced by the vocals of Dee Alexander with Dr. Thomas Wade Jefferson (North Park University & Sherwood Conservatory) on piano, accented by the saxophone of Edwin Daugherty.

Baiocchi returns to her “classical” sensibilities in a modern solo cello (Jill Kaeding)  performance “Miriam’s Muse” accompanied by Michael Keefe, piano.

“Farafina” described as a vocal jazz suite work in progress is translated as “Land of the Black Skin,” features an un-ornamented vocal by Cherresa Lawson giving it a haunting call and response quality, accompanied by Jimmy Finnie on marimba and David Bugher on vibraphone with an African style rhythm.

Flutist Nathalie Joachim performed “Praise Dance” unaccompanied and reminiscent of a shepherd on a hillside revisits the composers’ penchant to explore the way brass and wind instruments interact with the atmosphere and seemingly hang in the air.

“Hold Out for Joy” is from the opera “Gbeldahoven: No One’s Child” by Regina Harris Baiocchi based on the lives of Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes.  A soulful melody performed by Cherresa Lawson with vibraphone accompaniment (David Bugher).

Natalie Joachim (flute) returns with “Three Brevities” composed by Regina’s mentor Dr. Hale Smith providing some insight into her own musical inspiration.

“Nilisikia Sauti Kubwa” is a holiday choral music based on Swahili poetry arranged for tenor (Kameron Locke), trumpet (Edgar Campos), crotales (Jimmy Finnie) and piano (Michael Keefe). Once again with a beautiful lyrical melody Ms. Baiocchi allows the lone trumpet to sound like a voice in the distance as the tenor vocal rises slowly above the instrumental in this piece translated as “I Heard a Voice.”

The concerts concluded with two contemporary jazz songs, the cool “Lovers & Friends” and the upbeat “Dream Weaver” with Dee Alexander (vocal), Edwin Daugherty (saxophone) and Thomas Jefferson (piano).

Regina Harris Baiocchi is a thoughtful, versatile, and accomplished composer. Selected works can be heard at a concert of “6 Degrees Composers” 2:30 PM on Sunday, Nov. 19, 2017 at Roosevelt University, Ganz Hall, 430 South Michigan Ave., Chicago.  Admission is Free.

Learn more at Baiocchi

Reno Lovison

(Guest reviewer Reno Lovison produced the video of the concert that will be seen in Chicago on CANTV in January 2018.)

 

 

 

Belle of Amherst Rings True

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

If what you remember of Emily Dickinson from high school literature is that she was a spinster recluse who wrote free verse poetry about death you will be happy to know that at the Court Theatre you will be spending time with a much different Dickinson. This one  imagined herself to be “The Belle of Amherst.”

Kate Fry is the Belle of Amherst at Court Theatre. Court Theatre photo
Kate Fry is the Belle of Amherst at Court Theatre. Court Theatre photo

Maybe you asked, how could anyone who in adulthood never traveled more than a few miles from home, avoided her neighbors and had few if any friends, be an interesting subject for a one actor play.

But, sharing insights into her writing process, familial relations, lost loves and admirers, Kate Fry portrays a much spunkier, wittier version of the poetess than most of us imagined.

Fry grabs our attention the moment she makes her entrance and keeps the audience captivated for the remainder of the two-act play.

Captivated – now there is a word I believe Emily Dickinson “could take her hat off to.” She speaks of her love of words, how they look, how they sound and what they mean.

We learn that Dickinson did not have a love of life as we traditionally think of it. Rather she had a love of living. She says that just having life is the greatest thing imaginable.

When her poems are rejected for publication she says that like a bird she does not sing for others, she sings because she must sing.  Likewise she lives because she must live and revels in the simple acts of living.

The action takes place on a visually stunning set designed by Arnel Sanciano – a kind of floating box within a box presented on an angle and a bit off center like the title subject.

The inner box is mostly monochrome with the only bright colors coming from glimpses of nature outside her windows and the numerous plants brought inside.

Sanciano’s set is perfectly complimented by the luminous effects of Lighting Designer Mike Durst who paints the monotone interior with wonderful shades of lavender and thoughtful shadows that augment the various moods of the many stories being told.

Since this is a play about words and a person who built her life around choosing just the right one, it is imperative that the dialogue can be heard distinctly and Sound Designers Andre Pluess and Christopher LaPorte do not disappoint us.

It may be a function of the excellent third row center seat I had but every word was clear as a bell (no pun intended) and did not have that artificial electronic sound.

My one minor criticism was the use of some background music that was periodically intended to enhance the mood. I found it more of a distraction particularly in one scene where it sounded like someone’s annoying cell phone melody.

Samantha Jones’ dresses for Fry were beautifully crafted, detailed and suited to the period.

A one performer play is indeed largely about the actor, who in this case was perfection but the overall production is all about the director.

In such a play the director is more important than ever because it is through him, in this case, Sean Graney that the performer gets all of her feedback.

It is up to the actor and the other crafts people to provide options and have the talent to execute ideas that emerge, but the director is truly the holder of the vision. He is the one who will decide what we all will see, and I like what I saw.

So in the end this is a true collaboration of stage craft. There is only one actor so the set, sound, and costumes are essential to help paint a fuller picture. Everything must be perfect and it really was.

DETAILS: ‘The Belle of Amherst’ by William Luce’ is at Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave. on the University of Chicago campus through Dec. 3, 2017. Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes with one intermission. For tickets and other information call (773) 753-4472 or visit Court Theatre.

Reno Lovison

For more shows visit TheatreinChicago.

 

 

 

Porchlight Mines a Diamond in ‘Billy Elliot the Musical’

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

What if you have a dream or passion that does not fit other people’s notion of you?

‘Billy Elliot the Musical,’ playing now at The Prochlight Music Theater through Nov., 26, 2017 is about managing change and redefining who others say you are and who you think you can be.

Jacob Kaiser and Shanesia Davis in 'Billy Elliot' at Porchlight Music Theatre. Photo by Michael Courier
Jacob Kaiser and Shanesia Davis in ‘Billy Elliot’ at Porchlight Music Theatre. Photo by Michael Courier

The stage play with music by Elton John and book and lyrics by Lee Hall is adapted from the 2000 movie “Billy Elliot.” The time frame Is Thatcher era 1980’s in a small coal mining town near Newcastle in England. Union miners have been on strike for nearly a year and tensions between them and the “scabs” brought in to replace them is violent.

Billy Elliot (Jacob Kaiser) is 12 years old, his mum (Nicole Cready) is dead, his grandmother (Iris Lieberman) is senile and his brother (Adam Fane) and father (Sean Fortunato) are on the picket line, struggling to survive.

One day Billy happens into the community gym and gets involved with a rag-tag ballet class run by Mrs. Wilkinson (Shanesia Davis). The chance encounter ultimately helps Billy find a way to express his budding adolescent angst, repressed grief, and shared frustration of what seems to be the impossible social situation that seemingly defines his life.

This expression is interpreted in two emotionally powerful dance numbers “Angry Dance” and “Electricity,” each skillfully co-choreographed by Brenda Diddier / Craig V. Miller and brilliantly performed by Kaiser with Ivan Bruns-Trukhin as Older Billy.

In his transformation to adulthood Billy begins to consider his sexual identity which is tested by Mrs. Wilkinson’s daughter Debbie (Princess Isis Z. Lang), his best friend Michael (Peyton Owen) and a testosterone filled environment that does not necessarily consider ballet dancing a viable or proper gender conforming career path.

Sean Fortunato and Jacob Kaiser in 'Billy Elliott. Photo by Michael Courier
Sean Fortunato and Jacob Kaiser in ‘Billy Elliott. Photo by Michael Courier

His dilemma, as well as economic realities, requires that he and those who are concerned for his future re-imagine another way of being.

Everyone must come to terms with the fact that times are changing.  Coal is no longer part of the future. The jobs and the community that supported the industry are no longer an accepted surety.

Led by Director Brenda Didier, the company is outstanding from beginning to end starting with Jacob Kaiser who is an energetic and expressive dancer, singer and actor.

His transformation from beginner to advanced dancer was well controlled. His voice has a gravelly quality that is perfect for his age. It is clear this young man understands the part he is playing. Every line and every step was just right. He handles this demanding role with subtlety and maturity, devoid of annoying precociousness. Bravo!

Adam Fane, Billy’s older brother kept his emotional performance in bounds. Sean Fortunato, Billy’s Dad portrayed a perfect mix of stoicism and compassion.

Chicago stage veteran Iris Lieberman was spot-on as Grandma avoiding what could become a cliché performance. Peyton Owen as Billy’s best friend embraced his character with charm and elegance. Shenesia Davis manages the demands of her straight talking character Mrs. Wilkinson whose somewhat aloof nature could be misconstrued as harsh.

The ensemble was excellent, and it was clear that the girls of the ballet were having a blast.

Recognition must be given to dialect coach, Sammi Grant because there was never a time that anyone’s “English” accent was a distraction or got in the way of their performance.

Staging provided by this comparatively small venue at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts allows you to experience this production of “Billy Elliot the Musical” in a very intimate way.

The score has a unique quality that is difficult to define. It is contemporary but not “pop” or “rock.” It has aspects of classic musical theater but is not driven by the melody.

The play’s anthem, “Solidarity,” is rousing and powerful. “Grandma’s Song” is humorous and poignant. “Expressing Yourself” is a showstopper while “Born to Boogie” offers a bit of lightness and levity.  In the case of “The Letter” I doubt there was a dry eye in the house.

Conductor/ Pianist Linda Madonia and her musicians Justin Kono, Cesar Romero, Greg Strauss, Cara Hartz, Dan Kristan and Sarah Younker provided the cast with a wonderful accompaniment behind the set’s sliding glass panels in the back of the stage which provided an effective illusion of the miners’ elevator decent at the end of the play.

In short this production is perfection.

Note: The part of Billy Elliot is shared at various performances by Lincoln Seymour.

DETAILS: ‘Billy Elliot’is at The Porchlight Music Theater in the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 N. Dearborn, through Nov. 26, 2017. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes. For tickets and other information call (773) 777-9884 or visit Porchlight Music Theatre.

Reno Lovison

For more shows visit TheatreinChicago.

 

 

 

Personal Stories Take Wing at The Moth StorySLAM

RECOMMENDED

If you have the ability to turn sound into images in your mind, spoken word performances can be great theater.

Moth StorySLAM events are open mic storytelling competitions held in several large cities around the U.S.

The event I attended this week took place at The Promontory in Hyde Park at 53rd and Lake Park, an attractive modern glass and steel second floor facility in what was previously a Barnes & Noble Bookstore.

A speaker tells about his discovery during a recent Moth session.
A speaker tells about his discovery during a recent Moth session.

It seats over 100 people, has a large well lighted stage and a full cash bar in the back. The venue is used mainly for music although there is a nice, full-service restaurant on the first floor.

Be prepared for a considerable number of stairs to the performance area. They claim to have handicap access but it is an awkward service elevator accessed from the restaurant.

Moth StorySLAMs are held in this location the second Tuesday of every month. Tickets are $10 and available online at The Moth.

Ten volunteer storytellers are chosen at random to tell a true story without using notes. Each story is five to six-minutes long. Then, they are scored on a scale of one to ten based on how well the story is crafted as well as presentation and entertainment value.

Winners have an opportunity to advance to The Moth GrandSLAM.  Selected stories recorded at the various venues can be heard on the The Moth Radio Hour. In Chicago listen Thursday evenings on NPR Station 91.5 FM.

Each event has a topic upon which to  base the stories. When I went it was  DISCOVERY.

The first fellow spoke about what he discovered about his deceased parents through an interaction with a man who had been his father’s best friend and his mother’s first husband.

Another woman spoke about what she had discovered about childhood friendship the summer she and her friends rode a mattress down an infrequently used stairway at a major department store in St. Louis.

The winner incorporated a good deal of humor. His discovery related to his determination to hang on to his childhood dream of owning a monkey.

My friend, Robert, a frequent public speaker, talked about discovering that true winners help others to succeed.

There were other stories dealing with the discovery of love, romance and personal pain.

Some speakers are professionals while others may be making their first public speaking appearance which provides for great entertainment with an element of danger.

Though I have been something of a devotee of the radio show, I would say in this case I discovered a great new venue and an enjoyable event that I would easily recommend. Perfect if you enjoy exploring the diversity of the human experience.

Other MothSLAMs are held on Chicago’s Northside and in Evanston.

Visit themoth.org to learn more.

Reno Lovison

 

‘It Don’t Mean a Thing if It Ain’t Got That Swing’

RECOMMENDED

Ladies in sparkly gowns and men in tuxes croon such  tunes as “Satin Doll,” “Prelude to a Kiss” and “In My Solitude” in “Duke Ellington’s Greatest Hits,” a Music Theater Works production.

Ellington tribute at Music Theater Works. (Photo by Brett Beiner
Ellington tribute at Music Theater Works. (Photo by Brett Beiner)

The show includes songs popularized, written or arranged by one of the greatest jazz musicians of the 20th Century. Ellington defined sophisticated elegance and cool.

The performers have fun with the exotic melodies of “Caravan” and “Perdido,” and pick-up the rhythm with jazz classics “Take the A Train,” “Sophisticated Lady,” and “It Don’t Mean a Thing,” as well as the sultry “Mood Indigo.”

Singers Justin Adair, Dawn Bless, Jar’Davion Brown, Caitlyn Glennon, Amanda Horvath, Evan Tyrone Martin, and Martin L. Woods move seamlessly from song to song delivering a steady stream of familiar hits.

Adair who performed Older Patrick in Music Theater Works’ recent production of “Mame,” surprised the audience by accompanying the ensemble on the guitar playing “In a Mellow Tone,” showing yet another of his many talents.

The three piece band with Christian Dillingham (bass) and Phillip Fornett (drums) is energetically directed by Joey Zymonas (piano).

This is an entertaining 90 minutes or so that celebrates the legacy of this great composer and entertainer but “Ain’t got” enough “swing.”

DETAILS: “Duke Ellington’s Greatest Hits” is at Music Theater Works (formerly Light Opera Works) at Nichols Concert Hall, 1490 Chicago Ave., Evanston, through Oct. 15, 2017.  For tickets and other information call (847) 920-5360 and visit MusicTheaterWorks.

Reno Lovison

(Guest reviewer Reno Lovison is married to pianist Julie Lovison who is proud to say she kissed Duke Ellington on the cheek after one of his performances.)

Death Notice: Flanagan is dead

SOMEWHAT RECOMMENDED

An irreverent priest, tale weaving drinking buddy, sex starved fiancé and infirm old mother make up some of those attending Flanagan’s Wake  now at Chicago Theater Works.

Cast of Flanagan's Wake, an interactive experience at Chicago Theater Works.
Cast of Flanagan’s Wake, an interactive experience at Chicago Theater Works.

Flanagan has sadly passed, and you, along with a small cast of characters and about 50 other mourners are invited to attend his wake.

The room is outfitted much like a church basement community room or banquet hall with a small stage on one side and an open bar complete with bartender, who also happens to be the town’s mayor, on the other. Drinks are available for purchase before and during the proceedings.

When you enter you might be greeted by any of the cast who interact with the audience in character and will craftily weave what information they have learned from you into the performance. They may ask questions such as, “how you happen to know Flanagan” and “what you remember about him.”

This is an interactive improvisational performance so come in a good mood and be ready to participate. It is the type of experience that can be particularly fun with a small group of friends.

The audience is seated at tables of six or eight much like any large social gathering. If you come as a party of two you will likely be seated with four other people. We had a good time at our table of six comprised of three groups of two.

Like any improv experience the humor is sophomoric at times; clever and inspired at others. The cast is capable and it is clear that they are well practiced at their craft.

The highlight for me a was clever ditty composed by the grieving fiancée, Fiona Finn, that was created on the spot based on an idea from an audience member.

This is not high humor or great theater but if you are looking for an alternative to a sports bar, maybe a date night or just some good laughs with a few friends, what can be funnier than attending an Irish wake, at least if it is Flanagan’s Wake.

DETAILS: ‘Flanagan’s Wake’ at Chicago Theater Works, 1113 West Belmont, Chicago, runs through Nov. 9, 2017. For tickets and other information visit Chicago Theater Works.

Guest reviewer Reno Lovison is not Irish but always happy to share a Guinness with some mates.

 

‘Our Town’ our life

RECOMMENDED

Thornton Wilder’s classic ‘Our Town,’ now at Redtwist Theatre, is a slice-of-life drama that asks us to ponder our place in the universe while pausing to appreciate the seemingly mundane interactions and events that comprise the bulk of our days and which ultimately define our existence.

Jaq Seifert (George Gibbs) and Elena Victoria Fetz (Emily Webb) in 'Our Town' is at Redtwist Theatre through Oct. 29, 2017. (Photo by Jan Ellen Graves)
Jaq Seifert (George Gibbs) and Elena Victoria Feliz (Emily Webb) in ‘Our Town’ is at Redtwist Theatre through Oct. 29, 2017. (Photo by Jan Ellen Graves)

Divided into three acts with two ten minute intermissions, act one presents the town and the characters with an emphasis on birth and youth. Act two deals with love and marriage. The last act addresses the inevitable experience of death.

The story line is facilitated by a character known as the “Stage Manager” (Richard Costes) who introduces each of the other players. He fills us in on the physical attributes of the fictional Grover’s Corners, NH that is supposed to remind us of our own town.

Written in 1938. The time frame is identified as roughly 1901 to 1913 but it can really be anyplace anywhere in America at any time.

The pre-WWI period harkens back to a simpler pre-industrial agrarian era that serves to remind us of the essence of living when days were marked by the rising and setting of the sun and the meals in between.

Mr. Costes is the first of the play’s trifecta of winning performers. The other two are Emily Webb (Elena Victoria Feliz) and George Gibbs (Jaq Seifert) who each turned in remarkable performances.

On some level the success of “Our Town” traditionally hinges on the actors in these three major roles. But in the Redtwist production the entire cast offered tight performances. A few honorable mentions to Rebecca Gibbs (Ada Grey), Professor Willard (Rebecca Flores), Mrs. Soames (Jared Michael David Grant) and Mrs. Webb (played by understudy Jeanne Scurek)  who each stood out in some way.

This is the directorial debut of the company’s Associate Artistic Director, James Fleming, who with Scenic Designer Lizzie Bracken managed an innovative visual presentation in a somewhat awkward space.

The Redtwist is a storefront theatre meaning that the dimensions are long and narrow leaving little room for a traditional proscenium stage other than a small roughly ten foot by ten foot riser at one end of the room.  The company overcomes this by creating three or four loosely defined minimalist scenic areas throughout the room.

The roughly 35 seat audience is then snuggled along the perimeter, in between, and around these spaces. This leaves the center open for the main action. So it’s like a performance in-the-round with the audience on stage. The important thing is that it works.

“Color blind” casting is no longer unusual but Fleming has elevated the concept in this production by extending it to include gender neutral roles and actors with limited physical abilities.

For instance the part of milkman Howie Newsome is played by Joel Rodriguez who happens to be confined to a motorized wheelchair. Joel uses his chair brilliantly to infer the presence of his horse and milk wagon. It’s not necessary nor is it overt but it works because he is simply incorporating who he is as a person into his role as an actor.

“Stage Manager” (Richard Costes) happens to be hearing impaired. But this is incidental to his performance which would be excellent under any circumstances.

He periodically uses his skill at sign language to provide us with a visual enhancement of the point he is making or a town attribute he is describing. (Note: he is not signing his entire performance but occasionally enhances the depth of his communication.)

The character of Mrs. Soames (Jared Michael David Grant) is perhaps the most gender bending role. Mr. Grant plays the part of a female character but not in drag. He wears a simple man’s suit and looks perfectly male.

Though admittedly a bit confusing at first, I came to believe that Fleming wants us to put aside our role bias and expectations and simply enjoy the performance. In other words, be color blind, be gender blind, be ability blind and simply accept what each actor has to offer and accept that they are the characters they say they are.

As was pointed out by someone after the performance, “This cast represents our town.”

DETAILS: ‘Our Town’ runs through October 29, 2017 at the Redtwist Theatre, 1044 W. Bryn Mawr, Chicago, IL 60660. For tickets call (773) 728-7529.

Guest Reviewer Reno Lovison (RenoWeb.net)

 

Louis Jordan tribute could not be ‘moe’ fun

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

The title of ‘Five Guys Named Moe,’ a musical now at Court Theatre, is based on the names of five performers, Big Moe (Lorenzo Rush, Jr.), Little Moe (Darrin Ford), Eat Moe (James Earl Jones II), Four Eyed-Moe (Kelvin Rosten, Jr.) and No Moe (Eric A. Lewis).

The doo-wop quintet are apparitions who emerge from inside a vintage radio to help young boozy, bluesy Nomax (Stephen ‘Blu’ Allen) get out of his funk.

Stephen 'Blue' Allen (far left) watches as Lorenzo rush Jr. (l), Darriean Ford, James Earl Jones II, Eric A. Lewis and Kelvin Roston Jr. dance in 'Five Guys Named Moe' at Court Theatre. (Michael Brosilow photo
Stephen ‘Blue’ Allen (far left) watches as Lorenzo Rush Jr. (l), Darriean Ford, James Earl Jones II, Eric A. Lewis and Kelvin Roston Jr. dance in ‘Five Guys Named Moe’ at Court Theatre. (Michael Brosilow photo)

All five guys are energetic, funny, full of personality and have great singing voices.

They are backed up by an awesome, six-piece, jazz combo on stage: J.P Floyd (trombone), Sam Hankins (trumpet), Jarrard Harris (reeds), Ben Johnson (drums), Chuck Webb (bass), led by Abdul Hamid Royal (music director/pianist).

It reminded me of big-time nightclub performances seen “back in the day” at places like the Copacabana or Chicago’s Empire Room.

The story-line couldn’t be “moe thin,” but the show, written by Clarke Peters, is an opportunity to revisit and explore the music of saxophonist and songwriter Louis Jordan.

His new approach to jazz in the 1940’s helped pave the way to Rock & Roll with hits like “Caldonia” and the “Choo Choo Ch’boogie” piece that ran 35 weeks in 1946 as #1 on the “Race Records” chart.

If you are a fan of four piece harmony you’ll love the five piece harmony of these five guys.

“Beware Brother Beware” and “I Like ‘em Fat Like That” are songs that illustrate Jordan’s musical philosophy of “playing for the people.” He felt other jazz musicians of the day created music for themselves.

The five Moe’s leave it all on the stage moving quickly and seamlessly from one number to the next as perfectly choreographed by Christopher Carter. The numbers allow time for a few lame jokes and some amusing audience participation.

In the second act I started thinking, all this needs right now is for the Nicholas Brothers to appear.

Just as I thought that, No Moe busts out a terrific dance number complete with two splits and few back-flips.

Courtney O’Neill’s radio inspired set design is a wow. Costume design (Michael Alan Stein) was on point including the guys’ conked and pomade hairdos.

Directed by Ron OJ Parson with Associate Director Felicia P. Fields, ‘Five Guys Named Moe” couldn’t be any “moe” fun.

DETAILS: ‘Five Guys Named Moe’ is at the Court Theatre, 5535 South Ellis, Chicago (on the University of Chicago Campus, through Oct. 15, 2017. Running time: 2 hours with an intermission. For tickets and other information call (773) 753-4472 and visit Court Theatre.

Guest reviewer: Reno Lovison, RenoWeb.net, is a videographer with a theater and music background.