‘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.

Energetic ‘Rock of Ages’ revisits eighties music

RECOMMENDED

‘Rock of Ages’ at Drury Lane Oak Brook is a fun 80’s inspired musical romp through the apparently now nostalgic Reagan / G.H.W. Bush era.

Russell Mernaugh (Drew), center and the band. Brett Beiner photo
Russell Mernaugh (Drew), center and the band. Brett Beiner photo

The ankle-deep plot is reminiscent of the old Beach Party movies of the 1960’s.  Basically boy, Drew (Russell Mernaugh) meets girl, Sherrie (Cherry Torres). He aspires to be a rock star. She aspires to be a movie star. The couple’s love affair is interrupted by the intervention of superstar Stacee Jaxx (Adam Michaels) and hijinks ensue.

Meantime the evil, Nazi inspired Hertz (George Keating), reluctantly aided by his cowering and outrageously funny son, Franz (Nick Cosgrove), plans to push out the “rockers” and redevelop a portion of the Hollywood Sunset Strip into a European inspired mega-mall featuring all of the popular retail brands.

The plan includes taking a wrecking ball to the iconic Bourbon Room, a kind of Urban Cowboy bar run by aging proprietor Dennis (Gene Weygandt) who has not noticed that time has snuck up on him.

However, the culturally destructive aims of Hertz and Franz are energetically and enthusiastically challenged by the grassroots efforts of Regina – pronounced with a long “I” (Tiffany Tatreau).

This musical farce is sped along by the cornball humor and physical antics of Lonny (Nick Druzbanski). Think Svengoolie meets John Belushi.

The stage manager/audio tech and keeper of the Fogmaster 5000, acts as a kind of one man Greek chorus.

‘Rock of Ages’ has no religious connotation and the idea that the music of this period has a kind of timelessness is hopeful at best.

Cherry Torres (Sherrie) gets a job at the Bourbon Room in 'Rock of Ages.' Brett Beiner photo
Cherry Torres (Sherrie) gets a job at the Bourbon Room in ‘Rock of Ages.’
Brett Beiner photo

The story-line is basically an excuse to revisit a series of tunes and pay homage to the theatrically inspired Los Angeles Glam Metal genre whose rhythms are ideal for driving your shopping cart through Target or Walmart which is where you have probably heard most of these songs lately.

As the early part of generation X, the 80’s is defined musically by the rise of Madonna, Whitney Houston, Prince and Michael Jackson. The rock bands of the period had names like Guns N’ Roses, Metallica, Iron Maiden, Poison, Megadeth, and Anthrax which this production aptly spoofs.

Every member of the cast has the vocal chops required for their individual tasks. Donica Lynn who plays Mother gives us a couple of much appreciated soulful gospel-inspired moments.

The voice of Tiffany Tatreau is not lost in the crowd. Her feisty performances alone, and with Adam Michaels, really raise the energy level.

Much of the success of this production is due in no small part to the outstanding rock band led by keyboard/conductor Chris Sargent with guitarists Tom Logan and Dan Peters, Patrick Williams on bass and drummer Rich Trelease. The high point of the evening was their post finale jam played as the audience was filing out.

This production lived up to the high standards Chicago audiences have come to expect from The Drury Lane Theatre.

Director Scott Weinstein obviously encouraged his performers to have fun. The choreography (Stephanie Klemons) included a cool segment that was reminiscent of the mechanical bull rides that were popular at the time.

The set design (Jeffrey D. Kmeic) that incorporated the use of projected images and video was very innovative and effective, while the lighting (Greg Hoffman) captured the techno vibe of the era and contributed to the rock and roll atmosphere.

Kudos also to Theresa Ham for some costume surprises and Ray Nardelli for keeping the sound levels appropriate for a theatrical audience while not losing the rock essentials.

Though not timeless, “Rock of Ages” is an energetic fun filled performance that can be enjoyed by ages 13 and up.

DETAILS: “Rock of Ages” is at Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace, now through Oct. 15, 2017. For tickets and other information call (630) 530-0111 and visit Drury Lane Theatre.

Guest reviewer Reno Lovison says, “Don’t Stop Believing.”  He is an avocational folky soft-rock singer/acoustic guitarist and video producer who says he was too busy to remember much of the 1980’s.

Reno Lovison is @Renoweb.net

 

Master of Boogie

 

There isn’t a beer hall or gin joint in Chicago with a piano that hasn’t been visited sometime in the past 50 years by the fingers of jazz pianist and boogie master Erwin Helfer.

Boogie master Erwin Helfer Photo credit: iranaydebrecen.hu
Boogie master Erwin Helfer
Photo credit: iranydebrecen.hu

This week we caught up with him at Hungry Brain 2319 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago, where he will be appearing Tuesdays at 7 p.m. through September and possibly longer.

The venue is a clean. old-school style tavern with a mid-century vibe and a sizeable beer list. Wine lovers will find only a red and white choice. They have enough booze to whip up a cocktail if you keep it simple. Cash Only!

Sorry no food, but we skipped around the corner to “90 Miles” on Clybourn and brought back a couple of delicious Cuban sandwiches which I washed down with a Bells Brown Ale while my wife opted for a glass of the “white.”

If you are a lover of straight-up classic jazz with a boogie rhythm, Erwin is “the man.” He’s a pianist’s pianist. I know this because my wife is a pianist she has been a groupie of his for years.

Erwin has a mean left hand that can pound that bookie bass. His improvisations on the right hand are thoughtful but not showy. He is classically trained and has restraint and a love for the songs he plays.

Between the banter and reminiscences of the many legends he has known and performed with, you’ll hear him play several of your favorite melodies like “Georgia on My Mind”, “St. James Infirmary” and “Swanee River Blues” (a variation on “Swanee”). You’ll know “Pinetop Blues” when you hear it and according to his mood you might hear some riffs on gospel standards like “Take My Hand Precious Lord” or a country tune like Hank Williams’ “Jambalaya.”

Erwin Helfer is one of the sweetest guys you’ll ever meet. He is a gentle soul whose temperament is reflected in his music.  At 80+ he still gigs several times a week.  Seeing him wherever he is playing should be on your Chicago bucket list.

If you miss him at Hungry Brain you might check out his upcoming concert with Spanish Blues and Boogie Woogie pianist Lluís Coloma at the Old Town School of Folk Music Oct. 27, 2017 at 7 p.m.

For more information visit Erwin Helfer and Hungry Brain.

-Reno Lovison

Love and Lawlessness

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

‘Bonnie & Clyde,’ a Kokandy Productions musical now at the Wit Theater, is based on real outlaw lovers. They found nationwide fame during the 1930’s depression for their crime spree across the southwestern U.S. and lower Midwest.

[Spoiler Alert] The couple famously met their end in a police ambush that resulted in perhaps one of the most salacious news photos of all time showing their bullet riddled bodies and car that ironically provided the duo with the notoriety they both craved.

In the second song, “Picture Show,” Young Clyde (Jeff Pierpoint) a psychopathic boy idolizes the notorious outlaw Billy the Kid, introducing himself with his main theme of “Bang Bang You’re Dead.”

Young Bonnie (Tia L. Pinson) sweetly sings of being an “It Girl” like screen star Clara Bow and plans to be a movie star, singer and poet.

In an age progression Clyde Barrow (Max DeTogne) and Bonnie Parker (Desiree Gonzalez) find love,  linked by a mutual goal of fame and fortune that leads to their ultimate destruction.

Desiree Gaonzalez (Bonnie) and Max De Togne (Clyde). Evan Hanover photo
Desiree Gaonzalez (Bonnie) and Max DeTogne (Clyde). Evan Hanover photo

In the context of today’s news cycle these themes of violence are all too familiar and have the potential to make this death-wish love story somewhat uncomfortable. But it does make for good theater, particularly when combined with the music of Frank Wildhorn (Jekyll & Hyde) with lyrics by Don Black (Billy, Sunset Boulevard) and book by Ivan Menchell, performed by an outstanding cast of singers accompanied by a superb four piece orchestra.

Originally presented at La Jolla Playhouse in 2009, and transferred to Broadway in 2011 this Chicago premiere production happens in a now familiar hodgepodge set by Ashley Ann Woods. In this case, it’s designed to represent a farm house, jail, café, bank, church and boudoir. The automobile where the two meet their end is skillfully handled.

The storyline unfolds through a series of songs written in the “modern pop” genre with blues, gospel and rockabilly accents. This does a lot to keep the tension high and action moving but has a negative effect of seeming like it is constantly speeding. This, of course, mimics the fast paced life of the main duo racing through life.

Clyde’s sister-in-law Blanche (Missy Wise) is the voice of reason who provides a welcome respite from the chaos with her tender ballad “That’s What You Call a Dream” and the humorous number “You’re Goin’ Back to Jail” with husband Buck (Justin Tepper) and the Salon Girls.

Max Detogne who appeared in Theo Ubique’s production of ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ has a voice tailor-made for this genre and infuses Clyde with all of the requisite humor and charm necessary for us to care about the character.

Desiree Gonzalez understands the complexities of Bonnie Parker who establishes early on that she is Clyde’s equal as she manages the character’s vulnerability and ruthlessness

“How ‘Bout a Dance” shows Bonnie’s softer side while the disturbing “Dyin’ Ain’t So Bad” reveals Bonnie’s other side and her commitment to live fast and die young.

Tia L. Pinson is a potential scene stealer (in a good way). She is an “It Girl” who has a charming presence onstage and is someone to keep an eye on.

Kokandy Productions, a Theater Wit resident company, has put together a tight package effectively led by Spencer Neiman (Director) and John Cockerill (Musical Director).

This is an instance where the subject matter on the surface is unsettling. It has the potential to make heroes of criminals and minimize the death and destruction they perpetrated. “Dyin’ Ain’t So Bad” comes dangerously close to romanticizing what is essentially a suicide pact between young lovers.

In the end Bonnie and Clyde is a theatrical performance that explores the need for recognition and love. It explores romantic love, parental love, spiritual love, self-love,  lost love and unrequited love.

Played out in a depression era where many people felt unseen, unvalued and desperate Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow decided to reject the society who rejected them and in so doing became sort of perverted ‘Robin Hood’ folk-heroes acting out what others were feeling, thus fulfilling Clyde’s objective, “This World Will Remember Me.”

The mission of Theater Wit is to promote humorous, challenging and intelligent plays. Check, check and check.

DETAILS; Bonnie & Clyde’ is at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago, now through Oct. 15, 2017. For tickets and other information visit Theater Wit.

Reno Lovison (renoweb.net)

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