Few plays open in song or in verse giving advice to the audience that if they are too weak to listen to a story of revenge and punishment, they’d better leave the theater.
However, it’s laughter that greets the Porchlight Music Theatre’s ensemble when they sing the warning to open the 2014 Tony Award-winning Best Musical “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder.”
Taking place in turn-of-the-century England, the “gentleman” is Monty Navarro played by Andres Enriquez. Monty is very poor, but Miss Shingle, played by Caron Buinis, helps him discover that he’s an heir to a fortune. Unfortunately, Monty is so far back in line he has to eliminate eight D’Ysquith relatives ahead of him.
Depending on your generational reference, the word “puppet” may elicit memories of Shari Lewis’ adorable Lamb Chop or the stage-managing Kermit the Frog of “The Muppets Show.”
But puppetry actually is an ancient tradition of storytelling that is rooted in diverse global cultures. More recently, technical and creative innovations have launched the art to new heights of theatrical expression.
The 3rd Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival celebrates this renaissance through Jan. 27. More than 100 performances of 24 shows and events are being given at 19 Chicago venues by professional puppeteers from 11 countries.
The 2019 edition of the biennial Festival showcases an entertaining and eclectic array of experiences and cultures from around the world. A wide range of puppet styles and approaches are presented including marionettes, shadow puppets, Bunraku puppets, paper scrolls and even anthropomorphized plastic shopping bags.
Some of the productions are lighthearted and family-friendly, while others are dramatic or political. Some incorporate dance, song, multimedia, live music, kites–or total silence. All are thought-provoking and moving examples of the power of puppetry to foster compassion and spark insight into lives beyond our own..
A few of the shows that are coming up
“Pescador/Fishermen” by Silencio Blanco of Chile is a series of quiet portraits of men at sea. Engrossed in their solitary work, fishermen absorb nature’s overwhelming immensity.
In “Suspended Animation,” the stunning Huber Marionettes from Cookeville, Tenn., dance, play musical instruments and perform complex acrobatic tricks.
“Schweinehund” is inspired by the true story of Pierre Seel, a Frenchman deported to a concentration camp in 1941 on suspicion of homesexuality. Performed on a wooden table, skeletal puppets interact with projected video-animations evoking powerful snapshots of the atrocities Seel endured juxtaposed with wistful memories of yesteryears. It was produced by puppeteers Andy Gaukel of New York and Myriame Larose of Montreal.
This year’s schedule also includes the Neighborhood Festival Tour, a series of 12 free performances by Italian and Puerto Rican puppeteers.
The Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival was formed in 2014 to establish Chicago as a center for the advancement of the art of puppetry. Founder and artistic director Blair Thomas, known for his work in spectacle theater, previously co-founded the now-defunct Redmoon Theater.
DETAILS: The Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival runs in various city theaters and venues through Jan. 27. For tickets and a full schedule, visit ChicagoPuppetFest.
Pamela Dittmer McKuen
(Ed note: McKuen saw the first show, “Ajijaak on Turtle Island” but because it isn’t on the continuing agenda, she didn’t write a review for readers who might want to go. However she said she would have given it our top rating of 4 stars.)
Chicago area theaters put on so many excellent productions that picking our top 10 shows is not merely challenging, it also reflects individual points of view, entertainment preferences and theater and music backgrounds. Readers are welcome to disagree and comment with their own suggestions.
This year, we also are including Broadway in Chicago and Lyric Opera contenders because Chicago audiences attend those productions and support those organizations with subscriptions.
A bit about our reviewers: Reno Lovison, Pam McKuen, Francine Friedman, Mira Temkin and editor Jodie Jacobs are professional writers who have contributed over the years to a variety of publications. Read more in the About section of Chicago Theater and Arts. Their selections could each have extended to five and more but were narrowed down to two apiece.
“Haymarket” was an important Chicago story, well performed and included appropriate Bluegrass music reminiscent of labor-oriented folk songs. See review of this Underscore Theatre Company’s production at Haymarket.
“The End of TV”
“The End of TV” made me a Manual Cinema fan, offering a fresh way to experience live performance utilizing old and new technologies. See review of the Manual Cinema production at The End of TV.
(***: In spite of my two picks I find myself periodically thinking about “Arcadia” and “Fear and Misery in the Third Reich” but probably more as a result of the playwright than the players.)
A Paramount Theatre production, “Once” is a sweet but short-lived romance with an imaginative set and an upbeat cast of congenial music-makers that was put on at a suburban jewel. See review of Once.
“On Your Feet”
A Broadway in Chicago presentation at the Cadillac Palace, “On Your Feet” is the life story of Emilio and Gloria Estefan. It has everything you’d want in a musical: global hits, glitzy costumes, dramatic lows and comedic punches. I’d see it again. See review at On Your Feet.
Loosely based on the opera “Madame Butterfly,” the musical “Miss Saigon” embraces the relationship between an American GI and a young Asian woman while it follows the final days of the Vietnam War. The play’s touring company of wonderful actors, singers and dancers, along with real photos of orphaned, war-born American/Asian children displayed in its second act, brought the musical to life. See review at Miss Saigon.
“Women of Soul”
At the Black Ensemble Theater through Jan. 21, 2019, “Women of Soul” is a tribute to many well-known female singers, covering their different genres and numerous years. In addition to the wonderful performers who sing their famous tunes, many newly-revealed details of how their careers blossomed and how some of their lives ended adds insight to their backgrounds. And the closing tribute to the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, brought everyone to their feet. See the review of Women of Soul.
“The Buddy Holly Story”
An American Blues Theater production, this high-energy biopic of singer/songwriter Buddy Holly kept the music going at a frenetic pace as a testament to the amazing talents of star, Zachary Stephenson and the entire cast. Even though “it was day the music died, according to Don McLean,” the audience never wanted it to end. See review at Buddy Holly Story.
“A Shayna Maidel”
What is family? Can it be created or reborn? “A Shayna Maidel” performed as a revival by TimeLine Theatre, answers these thoughtful questions in a most profound way. See review at A Shayna Maidel.
(*** Also agree that “Miss Saigon” is among the year’s best. This new versio, now on on tour ,takes out all the stops in theatrics, wowing audiences as one of the most spectacular musicals ever written and produced. Contemporary theatre goers can’t help but get caught up in the past, knowing how the war ended with the cost in human life and how many Vietnamese orphans the U.S. left behind.)
Lyric Opera of Chicago’s “La boheme” was extraordinary theater. It had everything from inventive scenery and creative staging to exceptional acting, singing and orchestration. Fortunately, it continues in January, 2019. See the review at La boheme.
“Steadfast Tin Soldier”
Audiences have come to expect unusual presentations from Lookingglass Theatre. However, Mary Zimmerman’s adaptation and direction of the “Steadfast Tin Soldier,” has to be seen to really appreciate its outstanding pantomime and puppetry. See the review at Steadfast Tin Soldier.
“The Santaland Diaries,” a humorous, naughty-nice take on the holidays now at Goodman Theatre, evolved more than 25 years ago from an essay written by the then unknown comedian David Sedaris. Coupled with other stories, he told on the nightclub circuit, it was picked-up by the National Public Radio broadcast in 1992 as the “Santaland Diaries.”
The rest, as they say (whoever they are) is history. Sedaris published the collection in 1994 and his reputation took off as a humorist, comedian, author, and radio contributor.
Adapted by Joe Mantello, “The Santaland Diaries”presented in Goodman’s more intimate Owen Theatre, is a one-man, hilarious tale about becoming a department store elf for the season.
Played by Matt Crowle, the fabulous actor talks non-stop to the audience as he tells them he has decided to take a job at Macy’s in New York City as a Santaland elf by the name of Crumpet.
The audience gets to know Crumpet very well, as he changes his clothes on stage from casual, worn clothing to the elf’s red-and-white striped tights, attractive green velvet jacket, adorable elf boots and flashy hat.
Crumpet portrays the different elf jobs that he takes on—appearing in Macy’s windows, greeting visitors, and directing the people waiting in line to see Santa.
No one is spared as he describes what’s happening with the various parents who bring their children to sit on Santa’s lap.
The challenge is to keep a smile pasted on as the job becomes less enchanting and more boring.
Directed by Steve Scott, the play’s humor is endless. The audience feels as if they are traveling every minute with Crumpet, an elf whose imperfect behavior and naughty remarks make everyone laugh out loud.
“The Santaland Diaries” gives audiences a break from their overwhelming pre-holiday schedule.
DETAILS: “The Santaland Diaries” is at the Goodman’s Owen Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St., Chicago, through Dec. 30, 2018. Running time: 65 minutes with no intermission. For tickets and other information, call (312) 443-3800 or visit Goodman Theatre.
“A Christmas Carol” was written 175 years ago by Charles Dickens—and its popularity has never wavered since, as it appears on stages all over the country. For the past forty years, Goodman Theatre has presented “A Christmas Carol” until going downtown Chicago to see it has become a tradition for many families.
Directed for several years by Henry Wishcamper, the play tells a basic story of the redemption of the leading character, Ebenezer Scrooge by giving him a glimpse at his past, present and what the future might hold if he doesn’t change..
Played by Larry Yando, Scrooge is the embodiment of what the name has come to represent since written by Dickens. He hates Christmas and only begrudgingly allows his underpaid clerk, Bob Cratchit (Thomas J. Cox) to take off Christmas Day. He refuses to donate to good causes with comments about where the poor should go.
Scrooge’s selfish business partner, Jacob Marley who died years earlier returns as a ghost (Kareem Bandealy). Clanging chains wrought by miserly deeds, Marley warns Scrooge he will be visited by three spirits and that Scrooge must listen or be cursed and carry even heavier chains.
After its 25th anniversary revival on Broadway in 2017, “Miss Saigon” is reappearing this year on a national tour. Directed by Laurence Connor, the music is by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil, with lyrics by Boublil and Richard Maltby, Jr.
Loosely based on Puccini’s opera, “Madame Butterfly,” “Miss Saigon” follows the final days of the Vietnam War.
The first lead character that opens the show is The Engineer played by Red Concepcion. The Engineer runs Dreamland, a steamy bar and brothel in Saigon that’s packed with beautiful Vietnamese women whom he has lined up for American soldiers.
The Black Ensemble Theater, founded in 1976 by Jackie Taylor, has been dazzling audiences ever since with original musicals. Its current production, “Women of Soul,” written and directed by Associate Director Daryl D. Brooks, is a tribute to many powerful female singers who cover different genres and numerous years.
The female cast includes Cynthia Carter, Robin DaSilva, Hannah Efsits, Jerica Exum, Colleen Perry, Rhonda Preston, Jessica Seals, Ariel Williams and Jayla Williams-Craig.
These nine talented women —with one wonderful male cast member, Dwight Neal who plays their various partners—portray well over fourteen famous soulful singers.
The production also includes these fabulous musicians: Robert Reddrick, Adam Sherrod, Gary Baker, Mark Miller and Dolpha S. Fowler.
Cast members give the background of each of the well-known singers plus some newly-revealed details such as how their careers blossomed and how some of their lives unfortunately ended. Then the singer portrayed performs one of her hits.
From Mahalia Jackson’s “Trouble of the World,” Etta James’s “I’d Rather Go Blind” and Janis Joplin’s “Cry Baby” to Diana Ross’s “I’m Coming Out” and Natalie Cole’s “This Will Be An Everlasting Love,” the fabulous cast practically rocks people out of their seats.
An amazing salute to female vocalists, the production also includes hits of Whitney Houston, Anita Baker, Janet Jackson, Mavis Staples, Gladys Knight, Donna Summer, Chaka Khan and more.
The musical ends with a medley of songs giving tribute to the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, with “Ain’t No Way,” ” I Say a Little Prayer for You,” ” Respect” and “You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman.”
When the cast lined up in the lobby while audience members were leaving the theater, two statements came from my heart: their performances were fabulous and the closing tribute to Aretha Franklin brought joyful tears to my eyes. “Women of Soul” celebrates all women!
DETAILS: “Women of Soul” is at the Black Ensemble Theater, 4450 N. Clark St., Chicago, through Jan. 27, 2019. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes with one intermission. For tickets and other information call (773) 769-4451 or visit Black Ensemble Theater.
Young Prince Pippin, played by Koray Tarhan, is searching for many things to help him fulfill his happiness.
From his glory of the battlefield to his political aptitude and his sensual seductions, not only does he come closer to finding his jubilation, but the audience gets to know Prince Pippin increasingly better by the minute.
Pippin’s imaginative journey is at the heart of Broadway legend Stephen Schwartz’s classic musical ‘Pippin’ which won four Tony Awards in 2013.
The new Chicago production at Mercury Theater’s Venus Cabaret Theater is delightful. Its captivating tunes “Corner of the Sky” and “Magic to Do” are beautifully played by musicians Courtney Anne McNally, Andrew Milliken, and Diego Salcedo.
At the end of the play, Pippin finally discovers where his happiness lies. His message is a worldwide, all-embracing theme.
A fabulous cast keeps the delighted audience at the edge of their seats as they watch with amazement as each member displays proficient, multiple skills. The singing is beautiful and the dancing is incredible.
Leading Player is performed by Donterrio Johnson who brings Pippin together with the following characters: King Charlemagne the Great—aka Charles—Pippin’s father played by Don Forston; his half-brother, Lewis, played by Adam Fane and his grandmother, Berthe, played by Iris Lieberman.
The cast also includes Nicole Armold, Kayla Boye, Michael Rawls, Gabriel Robert and Sawyer Smith.
“Pippin” is directed by L. Walter Stearns with music direction by Eugene Dizon and choreography by Brenda Didier.
DETAILS: “Pippin” is at the Venus Cabaret Theater of Mercury Theater Chicago, 3741 N. Southport Ave., Chicago, through Dec. 16, 2018. Running time: 2 hours. For tickets and other information, call 7(73) 325-1700 or visit Mercury Theater Chicago.
With Halloween 2018 on the horizon, “Little Shop of Horrors” plays into the spookiness of the season. The sort-of-dark musical comedy is now running at Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook Terrace. It’s more spirited, shall we say, than scary.
The action centers around a dilapidated flower shop on Skid Row and its hard-scrabble denizens. The two central characters are Seymour, a hapless employee played by Will Lidke, and Audrey, his tartly dressed coworker and the object of his affection played by Kelly Felthous. Mr. Mushnik, their boss played by Ron E. Rains, is just as down on his luck as everyone else.
Seymour suddenly is offered success beyond his imagination by a demanding, carnivorous, exotic plant on a growth spurt. The condition? The plant is blood thirsty.
After being told in Alice Walker’s 1983 Pulitzer Prize novel of what Celie Harris, a young African American girl, endured in the first half of the twentieth century and how she survived aided by two other females, her story was turned into a movie in 1985 and a musical that won several Tony nominations in 2006.
What is in now appearing at Chicago’s Auditorium Theatre through July 29, 2018, is the National Tour of the musical’s revival begun in London in 2013. It went on to Broadway to win Tony Awards in 2016 including Best Revival of a Musical.
Directed by Tony Award-winner John Doyle, the current tour features Adrianna Hicks as Celie, Carla R. Stewart as friend Shug Avery and Carrie Compere as friend Sofia. Read More