Snarky Santaland Diaries Worthy of the Naughty List

 

Steven Strafford in the one-man-show of The Santaland Diaries at Goodman Theatre. (Cody Nieset photo)
Steven Strafford in the one-man-show of The Santaland Diaries at Goodman Theatre. (Cody Nieset photo)

3 stars

I still remember the first time I heard the caustic wit of David Sedaris as he performed his “The Santaland Diaries” monologue on NPR’s “This American Life.” I was gobsmacked. This snarky, irreverent essay quickly became a holiday staple in our house, revered as much as our other annual, if slightly less irreverent, family favorite, “A Christmas Story.”

Still, I had never seen the wickedly funny monologue on stage until this week when I headed to the Goodman’s Owen Theatre to spend an hour with Steven Strafford as the not-always-lovable elf named Crumpet.

If you have been living under a rock and have never heard the tale of “The Santaland Diaries,” it is the now-29-year-old story of Sedaris’ time as a Christmas elf at Macy’s flagship New York store.

The biographical story features a 30-something struggling actor, new to the Big Apple and surprised to find that the producers of his favorite soap opera aren’t breaking down his door to hire him for a juicy part. Nearly broke, he reluctantly applies for a job as a Christmas elf.

The story proceeds through the humiliating week-long elf training, the even more humiliating costume, and then, the run-ins with Macy’s customers, more than a few of whom threatened to have him fired.

It ends only when the job does – as the store is closing on Christmas Eve.

Santaland Diaries is at Goodman Theatre. (Steven Strafford in the one-man-show of The Santaland Diaries at Goodman Theatre. (Cody Nieset photo)
Santaland Diaries is at Goodman Theatre. (Steven Strafford in the one-man-show of The Santaland Diaries at Goodman Theatre. (Cody Nieset photo)

I must admit I was more than a little disappointed when Strafford walked out on stage wearing a pair of brown pants and a slightly ratty blue and brown plaid shirt. It is exactly the sort of uniform a struggling unemployed actor might be wearing, but it wasn’t the Crumpet the Elf get-up I was expecting.

Fortunately, it was only about 15 minutes into the evening when he changed right on stage – dropping his brown pants to reveal candy-cane-striped leggings – and narrating each humiliating stage of his transformation into Crumpet.

Strafford did an admirable job of delivering the well-known prose to a highly appreciative audience, including one slightly drunk woman who absolutely guffawed at everything he said.

Much more impressive than his delivery of the words, however, was his hugely expressive face. He switched easily – and so quickly – between the sugary sweet Crumpet and the overly irritated actor who still couldn’t quite believe he had fallen so far.

If you go, arrive early and a take selfie in front of the Santaland Diaries sign – the Goodman has conveniently left a table full of cardboard top hats, candy cane glasses and other Instagram-worthy props.

“The Santaland Diaries” is in the Goodman’s Owen Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St., Chicago, through Dec. 29, 2019. Running time: 70 minutes, no intermission. For tickets and other information, call 312-443-3800 or visit Goodman Theatre/Santaland.

Cindy Richards

For more shows visit Theatre in Chicago

Celebrate the Holidays with a ‘White Christmas’

Cast of White Christmas at Theatre at the Center (Michael Brosilow photo)
Cast of White Christmas at Theatre at the Center (Michael Brosilow photo)

3 stars

Who doesn’t love a rousing tap number? If you do, then “White Christmas,” the holiday offering from Munster’s Theatre at the Center, is the holiday song-and-dance show for you.

The musical is the stage adaptation of my mom’s favorite Christmas movie starring Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, Vera-Ellen and Dean Jagger. Irving Berlin’s White Christmas was turned into a stage show in 2000.

Munster’s version stars Matt Edmonds as Bob, Justin Brill as Phil, Casiena Raether as Judy, Erica Stephan as Betty and Neil Friedman as General Waverly.

It follows the story of Bob and Phil, singers who served under “The Old Man” in World War II before gaining fame and fortune as entertainers. Looking for romance, they follow sisters Judy and Betty to Vermont where the women are slated to perform on Christmas Eve.

When Bob and Phil learn that the inn is owned by the General who is facing financial ruin because there’s no snow, they rally the old troops to save him.

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The Second City thrives on Chicago craziness

‘Do You Believe in Madness?’

(L-R) Asia Martin, Andrew Knox, Adam Schreck, Mary Catherine Curran, Jordan Savusa, Sarah Dell’Amico in The Second City's Do You Believe In Madness. (Photo by Timothy M. Schmidt.)
(L-R) Asia Martin, Andrew Knox, Adam Schreck, Mary Catherine Curran, Jordan Savusa, Sarah Dell’Amico in The Second City’s Do You Believe In Madness. (Photo by Timothy M. Schmidt.)

3 stars

The Second City began in Chicago in December of 1959, and will have its 60th anniversary next month. It was called “The Second City” because a journalist in New York had written a book titled Chicago: The Second City. Back then, Chicago was the second largest city next to New York City.

Now,six decades later,  The Second City is still going strong with its 108th Mainstage Revue “Do You Believe in Madness?” The show is expected to run at least until the famed improv theatre’s 60th anniversary Dec. 16, 2019.

Directed by Ryan Bernier with musical direction by Nick Gage, the show is written and performed by six fabulous actors: Mary Catherine Curran, Sarah Dell’Amico, Andrew Knox, Asia Martin, Jordan Savusa and Adam Schreck.

Even though the production features several different scenes the format works because the transition is so smooth. One scene takes place in a high school where a teacher tells her most misbehaved students that they are the reason that all of the teachers went on strike.

Another scene deals with many people whose dogs and cats were lost or died, and the owners relate it to deaths of siblings. Then a human family has a bird in the house, and then a bird family has a human in the house – both are unsettling to the families.

 

(L-R) Sarah Dell’Amico, Andrew Knox, Asia Martin, Jordan Savusa, Mary CatherineCurran, Adam Schreck. (Photo by Timothy M. Schmidt.)
(L-R) Sarah Dell’Amico, Andrew Knox, Asia Martin, Jordan Savusa, Mary CatherineCurran, Adam Schreck. (Photo by Timothy M. Schmidt.)

 

A scene with a dating couple asked each other why they were so normal. They felt that normal must be something wrong! The revue’s title, “Do You Believe in Madness?” seems very appropriate.

Most of these fun scenes include jumping around, dancing, singing, laughter, background music and more. Perhaps in the future, these professional actors and actresses may follow in the footsteps of those from The Second City many decades ago – Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, Dan Aykroyd, Joan Rivers, John Belushi, Tina Fey, and others.

DETAILS: “Do You Believe in Madness?” is at The Second City Mainstage Theater. 1616 N. Wells St., Chicago as an open run.  Running time: 2 hours with one intermission. For tickets and other information, call (312) 337-3992 or visit Second City.

 

Francine Pappadis Friedman

For more shows visit Theatre in Chicago

 

Open a book and oneself to a new adventure

 

David Payne as C.S. Lewis at Broadway Playhouse. (Production photos from Aneesa Muhammad (MKI)
David Payne as C.S. Lewis at Broadway Playhouse. (Production photos from Aneesa Muhammad (MKI)

 

4 stars

In the 1960s, C.S. Lewis was a well-known British author whose collected works made him one of the most famous literary writers of the 20th century. Lewis died over 50 years ago.

David Payne, another Brit was an actor and playwright who hoped he would get a minor role in a previous play about C.S. Lewis. Instead, Payne got the lead role of C.S. Lewis, launching a terrific acting career.

When many audience members saw David Payne playing that lead role, they felt that they had discovered the real C.S. Lewis!

David Payne had read quite a lot of C.S. Lewis’s writing—even Lewis’s personal diary. And Payne was always asked many questions about Lewis. One day, Payne decided it would be fun if he could be Lewis himself and could answer these questions. That’s why Payne wrote, directed, and stars in “An Evening with C.S. Lewis,” a wonderful play which is now being shown at Chicago’s Broadway Playhouse.

In Act I, Payne plays the author sitting in Lewis’s living room and hosting a group of American writers in his home near Oxford. Lewis recalls the many events that affect his life and his large number of close friends, including J.R.R. Tolkien, an English author and poet.

In Act II, Payne playing Lewis says he eventually believes in Christianity. He also tells how he just met a divorced woman by the name of Joy who decides to come from the United States and live in London.

It reminds her so much of New York City where she had lived with her previous husband and family. Although Lewis describes London as “noise and chaos.”

He marries Joy who eventually lives with him in his house. Lewis goes on to say how their relationship turned his life upside down.

DETAILS: “An Evening with C.S. Lewis” is at the Broadway Playhouse at 175 E. Chestnut St., Chicago, through Nov. 3, 2019.  Running time: 90 minutes, with one intermission. For tickets and other information, call (800) 775-2000, or visit BroadwayInChicago.

Francine Pappadis Friedman

For more shows visit Theatre in Chicago

Curtis Bannister wows in ‘The Pajama Game’

 

as Brenda, Elizabeth Telford as Babe, Sierra Schnack as Poopsie and Maggie Malaney as Mae in Pajama Game. (Photo by Brett Beiner)
(left to right) Aalon Smith as Brenda, Elizabeth Telford as Babe, Sierra Schnack as Poopsie and Maggie Malaney as Mae in Pajama Game. (Photo by Brett Beiner)

3 stars

If you don’t go see The Pajama Game at The Theatre at the Center for any other reason, go to hear the booming tenor voice of the hunky lead, Curtis Bannister.

The actor who has appeared on NBC’s Chicago Fire, plays Sid Sorokin, the “Chicago guy” and newly hired superintendent at Sleep Tite, a pajama factory in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The factory is a hotbed of union activity and sexual innuendo – both surprising themes for a musical that premiered in the mid-1950s.

The musical started as a 1953 novel, 7 ½ Cents by Richard Bissell based on his experience working in his family pajama factory in Dubuque, Iowa.

Opening to rave reviews on Broadway in 1954 with music and lyrics by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross and book by George Abbott and Richard Bissell, the Tony Award-winning show inspired the 1957 film starring Doris Day. You’ll recognize songs such as “Steam Heat,” “Hey There (You with the Stars in Your Eyes)” and “Hernando’s Hideaway.”

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Look forward to a new start

 

Nicole (Tara Bouldrey) in 'Shadows of Birds'. (Mike Hari @ fadeout foto)
Nicole (Tara Bouldrey) in ‘Shadows of Birds’. (Mike Hari @ fadeout foto)

4 stars

Glass Apple Theatre is presenting the world premiere of “Shadows of Birds” written by Richard James Zieman and Joel Z. Cornfield.

It focuses on a young adult woman, Nicole (Tara Bouldrey), who’s been in  rehab for months because of her addiction to drugs. But now Nicole’s counselor, Jennifer (Sydney Genco), feels Nicole is ready to return home and live with her mother, Barbara (Elizabeth Rude).

Her mother also has an older adult son, Kyle (Bobby Bowman). Neither Kyle nor Nicole knew their father because he left when their mother was pregnant.

Because of Nicole’s many years of mixed messages from her mother and brother, she was very insecure and became a drug addict. Now Nicole isn’t sure that she could live with her mother again.

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‘Newsies’

 

The high-flying cast of “Newsies” now playing at Paramount Theatre in Aurora. (Photo by Liz Lauren)
The high-flying cast of “Newsies” now playing at Paramount Theatre in Aurora. (Photo by Liz Lauren)

4 stars

The mean streets of New York City at the turn of the 20th Century were dotted with children, mostly poor immigrants and orphans, struggling to eke out a survival living by selling newspapers. They were the “newsies” who sold the “papes.”

When greedy publishers began squeezing them for pennies by raising the wholesale price of their papers, the newsies rebelled–and won.

It’s a serious chapter in labor history, but one transformed into a warmhearted musical, “Newsies,” now playing at Paramount Theatre in Aurora.

The story is based on both the 1992 Disney film of the same name and the real-life Newsboys Strike of 1899 in NYC. The theatrical version culminates with a message of cross-cultural unity that resonates today.

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‘And Then There Were None’ – an intriguing whodunit

 

Cast of 'And Then There Were None' at Drury Lane Theatre. (Brett Beiner photo)
Cast of ‘And Then There Were None’ at Drury Lane Theatre. (Brett Beiner photo)

3 Stars

 

Ten strangers of varying ages and occupations arrive at an island mansion off the coast of Devon, England. Their host, who has beckoned them on one pretense or another, is delayed.

In this late 1930s setting, the houseguests start dying–one by one, and by violent means. The island is otherwise uninhabited, and the only boat back to the mainland is thwarted by a storm.

They realize they are stranded with a murderer in their midst. Who is it, and who will be the next victim?

The production, now playing at Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook Terrace, is based on the book by renowned English writer Agatha Christie. One of the best-selling murder mysteries of all time, it was first published in 1939 under a name that today is considered highly racist and will not be repeated here.

A stellar ensemble cast is artfully directed by Jessica Fisch. Cher Álvarez plays former governess Vera Claythorne with great style and composure. Matt DeCaro lends leadership skills and authority to the retired Justice Wargrave, and Marilyn Dodds Frank injects just the right amount of haughtiness into Emily Brent, the judgmental spinster.

Paul-Jordan Jansen, who in real life looks mighty fine wearing a kilt, portrays dual-identity William Blore with boldness and a touch of comic relief.

The houseguests’ British accents can be difficult to translate into modern-day American vernacular. Or maybe it’s the acoustics that muddle voices on the sideline seats. But the players’ fears and suspicions of each other ring clearly.

The entire performance takes place in the mansion’s expansive living room as created by scenic designer Andrew Boyce. With its parquet floors, lavish mill work, velvet fringed sofas and panoramic ocean view, the set is worthy of a photo shoot for “Architectural Digest” magazine.

The period-perfect apparel, particularly as worn by the female actors, by costume designer Jessica Pabst, is equally lovely to behold.

Other members of the creative team include Driscoll Otto as lighting designer and Ray Nardelli as sound designer.

“And Then There Were None” weaves a clever, captivating tale that keeps its secrets until the very end.

DETAILS: “And Then There Were None” is at Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook  (639) 530-0111 or visit DruryLaneTheatre.

Pamela McKuen

For more shows visit Theatre in Chicago

 

‘Over the Tavern’ recalls bittersweet memories of a Catholic upbringing

 

Janet Ulrich Brooks as Sister Clarissa and Logan Baffico as Rudy in Theatre at the Center's production of "Over The Tavern." (Photo by Guy Rhodes)
Janet Ulrich Brooks as Sister Clarissa and Logan Baffico as Rudy in Theatre at the Center’s production of “Over The Tavern.” (Photo by Guy Rhodes)

3 stars

You don’t have to be a Catholic school graduate to appreciate the battle of wits between the ruler-wielding Sister Clarissa and her vexing charge, 12-year-old Rudy Pazinski, in the laugh-out-loud “Over the Tavern,” now playing at Theatre at the Center in Munster, Ind.

But, if you happen to be a Catholic school graduate, the show, directed by Ericka Mac, is sure to hit home with every slap of that ruler on Rudy’s outstretched hand.

The Wednesday matinee audience guffawed each time Rudy defied the good sister’s demands that he learn his Catechism as it was written, forgoing his own contention that God put us on Earth “to have fun.”

Janet Ulrich Brooks rocks her role as the stern Sister Clarissa who E-Nun-Ci-Ates each word clearly and precisely. Logan Baffico does a good job as Rudy, although his speech got a little rushed as the second act progressed, leading the folks behind me to regularly whisper, “What did he say?”

The cast rounds out with solid performances from Cory Goodrich as Rudy’s mom, Ellen, and Eric Slater as his dad, Chet. Rudy’s siblings are played by Isabelle Roberts (Annie), Seth Steinberg (Eddie) and Julian Solis (Georgie).

The family lives over the tavern owned by Chet and his “Pops,” an alcoholic who is ruining the business. Chet brings his “bad mood” up the stairs each night to dinner with his family who wait in vain for him to remember to pick up the spaghetti dinner he promised.

Cast of Over the Tavern at Theatre at the Center. (Photo by Guy Rhodes)
Cast of Over the Tavern at Theatre at the Center. (Photo by Guy Rhodes)

The family might be troubled, but they are committed to Catholicism. The kids go to Catholic school and they learn the Catechism just as their parents did before them

It all comes to a hilarious head when Sister Clarissa arrives unannounced at the apartment over the tavern to discuss the children.

The semi-autobiographical play written by Tom Dudzick ends with an uplifting turnabout by Dad after a heart-to-heart with Sister Clarissa.

DETAILS: Over the Tavern,  is at Theatre at the Center, 1040 Ridge Road, Munster, IN through Aug. 11, 2019. Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes, including a 15-minute intermission. For more information, call (219) 836-3255 or visit TheatreAtTheCenter.

Cindy Richards

For more shows visit Theatre in Chicago

 

Let’s live life through music . . .

Cast of Falsettos. (Joan Marcus photo)
Cast of Falsettos. (Joan Marcus photo)

4 stars

In 2017 when “Falsettos” returned to Broadway, it was nominated for five Tony Awards, including the Best Revival of a Musical.  Now two years later, this fabulous musical is in Chicago, directed by playwright James Lapine with music and lyrics by William Finn.

Taking place in New York in the 1970s, we meet a charming, neurotic gay man, Marvin, played by Max Von Essen; along with his 10-year-old son, Jason, played by Thatcher Jacobs.

We also meet psychiatrist, Mendel (Nick Blaemire) and Marvin’s wife Trina (Eden Espinosa)whom he leaves for his lover, Whizzer (Nick Adams).

“Falsettos” second act introduces two lesbian neighbors of Marvin’s, Dr. Charlotte (Bryonha Marie Parham) and Cordelia (Audrey Cardwell).

Performed by phenomenal voices, “Falsettos’ ” wonderful songs tell the story throughout the show.

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