Can people display numerous professions, some of which merge into one outstanding career, producing the most wonderful theatrical productions?
Not many. But there is one person who is currently in Chicago, pianist, actor, playwright, composer, producer and director Hershey Felder. He is performing his fabulous play,‘Our Great Tchaikovsky’ upstairs in the Steppenwolf Theatre.
After creating highly regarded stage productions about Gershwin, Chopin, Beethoven, Bernstein, Berlin and others, Felder is now garnering some of his best reviews for ‘Our Great Tchaikovsky.’
Beautifully directed by Trevor Hay, the play is a one-man performance in which Felder shares Tchaikovsky’s life through his own acting, writing, and musical talents.
The musical, ‘A Taste of Things to Come,’ written by Debra Barsha and Hollye Levin, starts out in 1957 with four women living in Winnetka who meet once a week to prepare for an upcoming Betty Crocker cooking contest that they hope to win.
Sharing recipes is how their gatherings begin. While they chop, mix, and measure ingredients, they also read current articles in popular magazines, many of which lead their conversations down a non-culinary path of female frustrations, shared worries, and confidential secrets.
Joan Smith (played by Cortney Wolfson) is the weekly hostess to her three friends: Connie Olsen (Libby Servais), Agnes Crookshank (Linedy Genao) and Dottie O’Farrell (Marissa Rosen).
Joan changed her last name to Smith so that her neighbors won’t care about her real religion. Connie is pregnant and worries that her baby might not be born with her husband’s looks—especially when she reveals to her three friends that she had an affair.
Agnes is a single woman who discovers that her background is more diverse than the suburb where she was raised. And Dottie, a mother of many children, is overweight and takes numerous pills—before and after eating everything in sight—to try to shed pounds.
When Joan introduces them to a different piece of writing, the Kinsey report, they interact in more engaging conversations regarding the sexual revolution.
In the first act, rock ’n roll is ever-present with wonderful voices and fabulous dancing by the four friends to the production’s live music provided by a talented all-female orchestra.
Joan states that “lots of things bubble up in the kitchen.” That comment comes to life when racial, political, and other issues begin to surface as the women try to understand how to address them along with their personal needs.
The second act takes place ten years later in 1967, All but Dottie are hardly recognizable.
Joan, Connie, and Agnes are dressed like models and hippies and have taken on lives and professions of their own. This causes Dottie to feel sad and separated from them.
But when she describes how her “profession” is a mother to all of her children no matter what their ages are along with being president of the school’s PTA, not only do her three friends support her, the audience breaks into wild applause.
‘A Taste of Things to Come,’ directed and choreographed by Lorin Latarro, is a fantastic musical comedy that pays tribute to generations of females who paved the way for the important lives that many women currently embrace, along with the adventuresome and creative journeys that other women are pursuing.
DETAILS: ‘A Taste of Things to Come’ is at the Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place, 175 E. Chestnut St., Chicago, through April 29, 2018. Running time: two hours with one intermission. For tickets and other information, cal (800) 775-2000 or visit Broadway in Chicago.
‘Hedda! A Musical Conversation’ is a very entertaining one-woman show at the Athenaeum Theatre starring Jillann Gabrielle as legendary Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper.
Written by Gabrielle with book and lyrics by Michael Termine and music by with Howard Pfeifer, ‘Hedda’ is a one-act play that takes place from the mid 1940s through the late 1950s in Hedda Hopper’s living room.
Tasteful furniture, a rolling cart of favorite drinks , clothing racks with dozens of the hats she was famous for wearing and that prime necessity for a gossip columnist, a phone, set the scene for a fun 90 minute peek into the life Hedda Hopper.
Gabrielle’s performance as Hedda is superb as she walks and sings the audience through a life that went from Quaker upbringing to bit MGM player and then famed columnist.
Lively phone conversations and clever songs such as as “Hedda! Queen of Hollywood,” “Off the Record” (there’s audience participation), “Elizabeth, “Hats!” and ‘Don’t Drink the Punch” reveal much of her story.
Among the many things that makes this play interesting there is her interaction with the audience. When the phone or doorbell rings, she looks out at the crowd and says, “I’ll be right back.”
And when the audience hears her say, “Hello, Elizabeth” or “Joan,” or “Marlene” and others, everyone knows who’s there.
Hedda had an amazing effect on not only the motion picture industry, but on politics, as well. Her song “I’m Political” describes her conservative values and moral views as her columns go after Charlie Chaplin and other Communist sympathizers.
She also had famous heated discussions with many of Hollywood’s elite including the Elizabeth Taylor/Eddie Fisher/Debbie Reynolds trio.
Her column had a readership of over 30 million, and it set the stage for many types of columns today.
DETAILS: ‘Hedda! A Musical Conversation’ is at the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport, Chicago, through March 17, 2018. Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission. For tickets and other information, call 773-935-6835 or visit AthenaeumTheatre.
For those who aren’t familiar with the revised musical ‘Merrily We Roll Along’ based on the book by George Furth with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, prepare yourselves for a wide range of emotions while observing the lives of three close-knit friends over many decades.
The original Broadway play written by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart in 1934 evolved into a musical in 1981 that barely survived. Fortunately, Sondheim and Furth revised the show in 1994, which is now a fabulous production at Porchlight Music Theatre at The Ruth Page Center for the Arts.
Directed by Michael Weber with music director Aaron Benham, this remarkable musical is presented in reverse chronological order with the years posted on the stage’s backdrop so that the audience can easily follow the three friends’ relationship— easily, but not always merrily.
The trio of friends includes Franklin “Frank” Shephard (Jim DeSelm), a talented musician whose objective is to make money—and who eventually succeeds by marketing to influential folks who can help him.
His longtime friend is Charley Kringas (Matt Crowle), a wonderful lyricist who doesn’t want to follow Frank’s ways of reaching his goal.
The trio includes Mary Flynn (Neala Barron), a writer and friend to Frank and Charley but whose longing for Frank is slowly uncovered while the play continues going back in time.
Frank, Charley and Mary’s early friendship started out like a song. And on that note, most of their relationship is told through many musical numbers, such as “Old Friends/Like It Was,” sung by the trio with lyrics such as “we were nicer then” . . . and “old friends fade—they don’t make the grade.”
‘Merrily We Roll Along’ also reveals other relationships. Frank’s marriage to his first wife, Beth, (Aja Wiltshire), is destroyed by his affair with Gussie Carnegie (Keely Vasquez). Beth sings “Not a Day Goes By” as she gains custody of their young son while she and Frank divorce.
We first observe the three friends at beginning of the play where they’ve already achieved success despite painful experiences that ruined their relationship. Then we travel back so that at the end of the play, we see their friendship decades earlier as they try to launch their careers.
In addition to the five major outstanding cast members, the rest of the exceptionally talented cast of over twenty men and women also bring their extraordinary voices to the musical numbers. They are accompanied by seven marvelous musicians.
Many of the play’s lyrics are memorable, but one line is unforgettable: “Friendship is like a garden . . . you have to water it and care for it.”
DETAILS: ‘Merrily We Roll Along’ is at Porchlight Music Theatre at The Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 N. Dearborn St., Chicago, through March 17th, 2018. Running time: 2 hours and 30 minutes. For tickets and other information, call (773) 777-9884 or visit www.porchlightmusictheatre.org
The World Premiere of ‘Traitor’ at A Red Orchid Theatre is an adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s ‘An Enemy of the People. Red Orchid ensemble member and playwright, Brett Neveu, adapted Ibsen’s drama and placed it in a fictional northern suburb of Illinois called East Lake.
Directed by Michael Shannon who is also an ensemble member, a founding member of A Red Orchid Theatre and a Tony Award-nominated and Oscar-nominated actor, ‘Traitor ‘is filled with one dozen inter-related characters whose different opinions and goals lead to heated discussions, sudden humor, angry arguments, profanity, and physical fights.
Dr. Tom Stock (Guy Van Swearingen) is the play’s lead, a science teacher who was raised in East Lake, moved away, and returned to his hometown many years later to help establish a new charter school to revitalize the small suburb of East Lake and bring others to the suburb.
His wife, Karla (Dado), is a book editor. Their two children, Molly (Missi Davis) is a first-grade teacher and Randal (Nation Henrikson), is a student at the new charter school.
While teaching at the charter school Tom notices the sluggishness and apathy of some of his students. That leads him to send samples of the school’s area soil to another scientist who finds it contaminated with dangerous levels of lead.
Tom is adamant to bring this severe problem to the town’s attention. He is convinced that with many of his contacts he will be successful.
His outspoken sister, Patty Stock (Kirsten Fitzgerald), is the town’s mayor. A close friend of his is Walter Hove (Larry Grimm), a newspaper editor. Madison Bills (Kristin Ellis) is an associate editor.
Most of the play’s scenes take place in Tom and Karla’s home where their friends and family are constantly coming in and out to visit, share meals, have drinks, and smoke.
But when Tom learns that many local investors in the charter school, including his father-in-law, Howard Kihl (Frank Nall, do not want to expose the school’s lead contamination, he realizes that he alone must release the truth.
Tom is reminded by his wife that many people in his past didn’t like his energy, especially when he stood up for what he believed in, regardless of others’ opinions.
Tom’s retort compares “scathing with honesty” and calls them “interchangeable,” as he devotes every minute to exposing the soil’s contamination.
Following intermission, the audience is led from Red Orchid Theatre to an empty storefront a few doors down. It is set up as the location for East Lake’s town council meeting which grows from verbal arguments over the school’s lead contamination to physical violence.
After feeling like town residents attending the council’s meeting, the audience is led back to their seats at the Red Orchid Theatre for the final scene which focuses on Tom’s goal to convince the East Lake residents to face their town’s serious health issue.
Tom’s wife, Karla, finally sides with her husband when their son, Randal, is rushed to the hospital with lead poisoning.
The rest of the very talented cast includes Jenn Sheffer (Natalie West), a shop owner and council member. The other council members are Fran Wysocki (Mary Jo Bolduc), Bill Strand (Stephen Walker) and Eric Rhyde (Jacob Alexander).
DETAILS: ‘Traitor’ is at A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 North Wells Street, Chicago, through February 25, 2018. Running time: 2 hours and 30 minutes. For tickets and other information, call (312)943-8722, or visit A Red Orchid Theatre.
‘Red Velvet’ transports audiences to the tumultuous world backstage in the mid-1800s of London’s Theatre Royal in Covent Garden. Written by Lolita Chakrabarti and directed by Gary Griffin, the award-winning play reminds us of who is veiled into the history of Shakespearean performers.
‘Red Velvet’ tells the story of a black actor, Ira Aldridge, who leaves New York in 1822 as a teenager and heads to London because actors of color were not being hired to perform in Shakespearean plays in the United States. Aldridge’s life on stage confronts the belief that Shakespeare is for everyone.
In 1833 at London’s Theatre Royal, Edmund Kean, a great Shakespearean actor, collapses on stage while performing the lead in Othello. Edmund’s son, Charles, wants to take over his father’s role, but Edmund is replaced by the young black American actor, Ira Aldridge, who had portrayed Othello in the provinces with much success.
Aldridge’s performance in one of London’s most prestigious theaters was mesmerizing. But the reviews by many of London’s theater critics were conflicting, revealing their racial prejudices as they pointed out Aldridge’s physical features and unusual accent that made it difficult for him to pronounce English impeccably.
Following Aldridge’s first two performances, the production was cancelled. Unfortunately, other major theaters in London were closed to him, so Aldridge launched his first continental tour in 1852, becoming one of the most famous and celebrated actors of the nineteenth century in eastern Europe.
Dion Johnstone who portrays Aldridge in ‘Red Velvet’ said, “Ira Aldridge used his platform on the stage to convince European audiences that people of color had souls and intellects as wise and as deep as theirs.”
Aldridge became known across the continent for other great Shakespearean roles, including Shylock, Macbeth and King Lear. As was customary at the time, he played what were held as traditionally white roles in “whiteface.”
‘Red Velvet’ makes audiences ponder about racial performances. There are few black Hamlets, King Lears, and others. Shakespeare’s plays are powerful, but actors of color can make them seem political. In ‘Red Velvet,’ Aldridge deliberates at length that there is “something about velvet . . . a deep promise of what’s to come.”
DETAILS: ‘Red Velvet’ is at the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, 800 E. Grand Avenue, Chicago, through January 21, 2018. Running time: 2 hours and 15 minutes. For tickets and other information, call 312-595-5600 or visit www.chicagoshakes.com .
Many themes in the arts have universal relevance. ‘The Consul,’ currently in production by the Chicago Opera Theater, is a great example.
People from villages, cities, and countries all over the world can identify with this modern opera composed by Gian Carlo Menotti. Based on immigrants and political refugees, the opera takes place in an anonymous totalitarian country.
‘The Consul’ debuted in 1950 and went on to win the New York Drama Critic Circle’s award as the Best Musical Play. Menotti also garnered a Pulitzer Prize. ‘The Consul’ was described by The New York Times as “an opera of eloquence . . . written from the heart.” Andreas Mitisek, the director, reflected on his own experiences as an immigrant which drew him to this opera.
Award-winning Metropolitan Opera Soprano Patricia Racette plays Magda Sorel, the wife of John, played by Justin Ryan, a dissident who escapes from the police, hurries home and explains to his wife that she must apply for a visa in order to leave the country. John tells Magda to take their frail infant and his mother to the consulate and while they are awaiting their visas, he will hide at the border’s edge and join them once they’ve safely crossed over.
At the consul’s office, Magda fills out the paperwork and submits her application to the clerk and then joins the large group of refugees. The secretary gains everyone’s attention and announces that she cannot guarantee that anyone will receive their visas.
While Magda’s child’s health is failing, she is approached by the police who want information about John, but she refuses to answer any of their questions.
The brilliant voices and beautiful music conducted by Kristof van Grysperre are what increases the emotional depth of this exceptional story. After both her child and mother-in-law pass away, Magda cannot bear to imagine any additional losses, as she descends into a morose state of depression.
‘The Consul’ remains relevant today, as Magda sings “Give us back the earth and make us free.” Unfortunately, our world’s refugees do not have the libretto, arias, scenic design and beauty that this opera provides its audience.
In addition to Patricia Racette and Justin Ryan, the rest of the marvelous performers are Audrey Babcock, Victoria Livengood, Cedric Berry, Kyle Knapp, Vince Wallace, Kimberly E. Jones, Kira Dills-DeSurra, Zacharias Niedzwiecki, and Lani Stait.
DETAILS: ‘The Consul’is at the Studebaker Theater, 410 S. Michigan Ave. through Nov. 12, 2017. For tickets and more information, call (312) 704-8414 or visit Chicago Opera Theater.
‘This Wonderful Life,’ and adaptation of Frank Capra’s 1946 classic film, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” could have many other adjectives added to its title, such as “fabulous, extraordinary, unique and marvelous” to name just a few.
Playing at the American Blues Theater, it’s a one-man show written by Steve Murray, directed by Carmen Roman and starring James Leaming.
After doing the production across the country for the past ten years, Leaming has now brought the play to Chicago, garnering numerous awards along the way.
If familiar with the movie, you know the story encompasses several characters. Learning successfully portrays them all in eighty uninterrupted minutes.
He begins the play in a story-telling style as George Bailey, Mr. Potter, Clarence the angel, Uncle Billy, Mary Bailey and many more.
While the play is both touching and hilariously entertaining, he keeps it simple for the audience to follow with their imaginations.
In addition, the sparse but effective props and beautiful photos displayed as scenery contribute to one’s memories of the famous film.
Leaming accurately describes the play as a love story, especially when Clarence the angel shows George how different the small town of Bedford Falls would be if George had never been born.
He quotes Clarence who says “Each man’s life touches so many others” and “No man is a failure to his friends.”
When Leaming asked the audience members how many had seen the iconic film before the play began, 99% raised their hands. The movie has become a regular showing on television as the year-end holidays approach.
As with the film, the play, ‘This Wonderful Life,’ is a must-see production!
Leaming brings quite an impressive dramatic background to the production. He trained at American Conservatory Theater and Second City, and he has appeared at Steppenwolf, Northlight, Victory Gardens, Goodman, Drury Lane, Peninsula Players, and other venues. He also has many credits in films and television, and is a founding Ensemble member of the American Blues Theater.
DETAILS: ‘This Wonderful Life’ is at The Edge Theater, 5451 N. Broadway, Chicago through Nov. 26, 2017. Running time: 80 minutes, no intermission. For tickets and more information, call (773) 654-3103 or visit American Blues Theater.
A plethora of emotional family issues from parent/child relationships and sibling interactions to growing up, coming out, and leaving one’s family on several level, sets the stage for ‘Fun Home’ at the Victory Gardens Theater.
A musical adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s 2006 personal graphic novel of the same name, the show has music by Jeanine Tesori and book and lyrics by Lisa Kron.
Chicago audiences may remember when the show played at the Oriental Theatre with a full complement of scenery and props in November, 2016, early in the Broadway Tour.
The Victory Garden production, directed by Gary Griffin, is presented on a sparse stage that encourages the audience to focus on the family’s characters.
The music, directed by Doug Peck, begins with songs that introduce the Bechdel family of parents Bruce and Helen and the three young Bechdel children, Alison, Christopher and John. “Home” is the family’s Bechdel Funeral Home.
Alison Bechdel (Danni Smith) works on her memoir in the present day as she recalls two past periods in her life where Small Alison, a child of about 10 (Stella Rose Hoyt rotating with Sage Elliott Harper) and Medium Alison, a college freshman (Hannah Starr), often appear simultaneously on stage with Adult Alison.
Audiences tune in early to the humor of living in a funeral home when the children hide in a casket while their father, Bruce (Rob Lindley) talks to a client.
When the client leaves, the children emerge from the coffin and perform an imaginary advertisement for the funeral home by dancing and singing “Come to the Fun Home.”
As the play continues, Medium Alison goes off to college and tries to discover her own sexuality. She begins to wonder if she’s asexual until she meets Joan, a classmate and self-confident lesbian.
Alison’s attraction to Joan comes out in her song, “Changing My Major.” And when she writes a letter to her parents revealing her sexual identity she is shocked when her mother, Helen (McKinley Carter), reveals that Alison’s father has had homosexual relationships with men and underage boys.
When Alison comes home from college on a break with Joan her mother describes the devastation she experienced in her unfulfilling marriage with Bruce and sings the haunting “Days and Days.” But, before Alison and Joan leave they all have a pleasant evening with Bruce around the piano.
Adult Alison and her father go for a drive in his car, breaking down the barriers of their pasts. They work hard to express themselves to each other through the song, “Telephone Wire.”
Bruce understands his daughter’s coming out, yet tries and fails to find a way to hold himself together. Regarding his own life, he makes a statement that rings true: “It’s harder when you’re older to begin.” As he faces his demise, he sings “Edges of the World.”
Resigned to her own past and its connection to her father’s, Alison states that she remembers “a rare moment of perfect balance, when I soared above him . . .”
Over the years, she played the physical airplane game with her father and she reminisces about the two “other” Alisons.
The finale, “Flying Away, ” brought the audience to its feet.
Along with the beautiful music and talented dancing and singing, the acting is marvelous.
All of the Alisons are terrific and believable. Lindley commands the stage with his dual portrayals of Bruce’s open present and secret past.
Carter dutifully carries on her multiple roles of wife and mother while rising above her concealed unhappiness.
The rest of the actors: Preetish Chakraborty, Danielle Davis, Leo Gonzalez and Joe Lino, round out the stellar cast.
After years of performances off-Broadway, the original Broadway production of ‘Fun Home’ premiered in 2015. It was nominated for twelve Tony Awards, winning five, including Best Musical. A national tour began in October 2016.
So, sing and dance your way over to Victory Gardens to see this outstanding award-winning musical play!
DETAILS: ‘Fun Home’ is at Victory Gardens Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave., through Nov.12, 2017. Running time: About 100 minutes, no intermission. For tickets and more information call the box office at (773) 871-3000 or visit Victory Gardens.
George Orwell’s famous novel, “1984,” is likely to haunt audiences in AstonRep Theatre Company’s interpretation of the story, now at The Raven Theatre.
The production is powerful and provocative as wonderfully convincing characters transport the audience to the frightening nation of Oceania.
Adapted by Robert Owens, Wilton E. Hall Jr. and William A. Miles Jr. and directed by Robert Tobin, the play mentions and defines Orwell’s phrases such as the famed “Big Brother is watching you.”
Then there is “Newspeak” as the official politically correct language of Oceania, “Crimethink” for thoughts that oppose the government of Big Brother, “Goodthink” that are thoughts approved by the Party and “Doublethink” for the power to simultaneously hold and accept contradictory beliefs in one’s mind.
On that subject of power, the Party controls everything in Oceania, even the people’s history and language.
The leading character, Winston Smith, is played by Ray Kasper whose amazing talent covers a wide range of emotion. Winston is a low-ranking member of the ruling Party in London in the land of Oceania.
Everywhere Winston goes, the Party watches him through telescreens. And everywhere he looks, Winston sees the face of the Party’s seemingly supreme leader, Big Brother.
Frustrated by the rigid oppression of the Party which prohibits free thinking and all other expressions of individuality, Winston writes his criminal thoughts in his illegally purchased diary.
He interacts with a beautiful co-worker, Julia, skillfully played by Sarah Lo. Practical and optimistic, Julia becomes Winston’s lover.
The two of them move into a room above a store where they temporarily feel hidden from the watchful eyes of Big Brother. As Winston’s love for Julia progresses, his hatred for the Party grows more intense.
Winston becomes fixated on O’Brien, a mysterious upper class member of the Inner Party, powerfully portrayed by Amy Kasper. Winston believes O’Brien is a secret member of the Brotherhood, the legendary group that works to overthrow the Party.
He finally receives the message that he has been waiting for. O’Brien wants to see him.
Winston and Julia travel to O’Brien’s grand apartment where O’Brien is living a life of luxury. O’Brien sends Winston off with a copy of the manifesto of the Brotherhood which Winston excitedly reads to Julia in their room above the store.
Not to divulge the rest of the play to those unfamiliar with Orwell’s novel, Winston learns the bitter truth about many of the characters. The suffering he endures in the terrifying second act changes him forever.
The remainder of the very talented cast includes the following: Alexandra Bennett, Lauren Demerath, Lorraine Freund, Ian Harris, Rory Jobst, Tim Larson, Nora Lise Ulrey, and Sara Pavlak McGuire.
To quote director Robert Tobin: “. . . the power of ‘1984’ serves best not necessarily as commentary on current events but rather as a warning. Like a preventative medical screening, we need ‘1984’ as warning of what our world could become if we don’t take care of ourselves, our government, and each other.”
Details: ‘1984, an AstonRep Theatre Company production is at The Raven Theatre (West Stage), 6157 N. Clark St., Chicago, through Oct. 8, 2017. For tickets and other information call (773) 828-9129 and visit AstonRep.