‘Flower of Hawaii’ blooms in Chicago

 

Cast of 'Flower of Hawaii' (Photo courtesy of Folks Operetta)
Cast of ‘Flower of Hawaii’ (Photo courtesy of Folks Operetta)

3 stars

 There are two very good reasons to see “The Flower of Hawaii” at Stage 773 on Belmont.

First, is the exceptional musical score by Hungarian composer Paul Abraham expertly conducted by 2007 Georg Solti Foundation Award recipient Anthony Barrese leading an exceptional 19-piece orchestra.

Secondly, is the exciting vocals of tenor Rodell Rosel in the role of Prince Lilo-Taro. The prince has returned to Hawaii after being lost at sea in time to claim his childhood betrothal to Princess Laia performed by the alluring former Ms. Illinois (2014) and Chicago native Marisa Buchheit.

Written by Paul Abraham in 1931, “The Flower of Hawaii” is a jazz operetta now making its American premiere. Translated by Hersh Glagov, it is presented by Folks Operetta as part of their “Reclaimed Voices Series” giving voice to Jewish composers and librettists who were persecuted, exiled or perished at the hands of the German Third Reich.

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A perfect musical for July

Franklin ( Edward Kuffert) Adams (Sean Michael Barrett)) and Jefferson (Justin Smith) sing about the birth of the United States of America in 'The Egg. ' (Photo courtesy of MadKap Produection
Franklin ( Edward Kuffert) Adams (Sean Michael Barrett) and Jefferson (Justin Smith) sing about the birth of the United States of America in ‘The Egg.’ (Photo courtesy of MadKap Productions))

3 stars

A fun way to renew acquaintance with the founding of the United States of America and learn more about the significance of July 4 is to see “1776” at Skokie Theatre.

The musical with book by Peter Stone is a fictionalized account of the goings on that led the delegates of the Second Continental Congress to eventually, unanimously vote for Independence on July 2 and approve the Declaration of Independence document on July 4, 1776. Just don’t expect a fast-paced “Hamilton” style musical.

While “1776” also boasts the Tony Award for Best Musical (1969), the music and lyrics by Sherman Edwards paint the dithering and arguing by the delegates with a brush dipped in sarcastic-toned ink.

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Matchmaker, Matchmaker

3 1/2 stars
 
In an age when social media has usurped our lives, it’s refreshing to visit a time when people actually spoke to each other, and with eloquence.

Like all her novels, Jane Austen’s 1815 novel, “Emma,” is a comedy of manners set in Georgian-Regency England. The title character, however, is unlike any of Austen’s other heroines in that Emma is pretty, smart and rich, but also strong-minded, overindulged and rather full of herself.

Because a woman’s goal and main occupation at that time focused on landing a good husband, Emma is also unlike her peers. While she fancies herself an accomplished matchmaker for other young women, Emma isn’t particularly interested in marriage herself. As one of the self-entitled, she finds meddling in other people’s lives more fun and fulfilling than minding her own business.

At Lifeline Theatre, ensemble member and accomplished playwright, Phil Timberlake, has captured Austen’s irrepressible spirit in his fast-paced, highly creative adaptation and each of the novel’s major characters are brought to life under the sharp direction of Elise Kauzlaric.

Cast of Emma at Lifeline Theatre. (Photo by Suzanne Plunkett)
Cast of Emma at Lifeline Theatre. (Photo by Suzanne Plunkett)

Austen fans will understand that any theatrical interpretation will include copious amounts of stilted, witty conversation, and will stress character over plot. In this respect, audiences won’t be disappointed.

But Kauzlaric’s production is truly remarkable. It’s highly inventive, casting only five talented, energetic and versatile young actors to portray every major character in this story.

This is often accomplished by merely re-entering through a doorway, rounding a pillar or simply turning on a dime. This gifted ensemble seldom relies on new costume pieces to change persona. Instead, they employ a slight physical adjustment, a vocal change or grab an identifying prop, such as a walking stick, a fan or pair of spectacles, to signal a new character. Sometimes, an actor will even play a two character scene with himself, switching back and forth between lines of dialogue. Much of the production’s humor arises from these amazingly speedy personality conversions.

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A Touching, Tragic Tale

Hedwig and the Angry Inch at Theo Ubique. (Austin D. Oie Photography)
Hedwig and the Angry Inch at Theo Ubique. (Austin D. Oie Photography)

 3 1/2 stars

First of all be warned. “Hedwig and the Angry Inch, may not appeal to every taste. Audiences who attend this four-time, 2014 Tony Award-winning musical should be comfortable with in-your-face performances, deafening rock music, blinding concert lighting and 95 minutes of adult humor and a brazenly bold backstory.

The theatergoer who considers Rodgers & Hammerstein or Lerner & Loewe the hallmarks of the American musical probably won’t love a show that’s this garish and loud. However, younger, less conservative audiences, as well as the many devotees of this cult musical, will find everything to love about Theo Ubique’s finale to their first season, now playing in Evanston through July 28.

The show began as a modest little rock musical that told the story of Hedwig Schmidt, a young, queer, glam, rock singer who underwent gender reassignment surgery.

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The hidden agenda of ‘Four Places’

 

Meg Thalken, Bruch Reed and Amy Montgomery in 'Four Places' at The Den Theatre.' (Michael Brosilow photo)
Meg Thalken, Bruch Reed and Amy Montgomery in ‘Four Places’ at The Den Theatre. (Michael Brosilow photo)

4 stars

Theatergoers who prefer their dramas as real and affecting as everyday life should run to see this extraordinary production, now in its final performances at the Den Theatre.

Joel Drake  Johnson’s 80-minute one-act which plays out in real time, speaks to every member of the audience, but particularly to those between ages 40 and 65.

Smartly and perceptively directed by Lia Mortensen, a fine actor, herself,  she expertly guided a gifted, four member ensemble as they breathe life into their characters and avoid artificial schmaltz.

Eleven years ago Johnson’s heartbreaking, emotionally stunning play premiered at Chicago’s Victory Gardens. This revival production is every bit as poignant and passionate as the original. What makes the play particularly powerful is the intimacy of the Den’s upstairs 2B Studio venue. The actors are never more than a few feet from the audience, allowing this compelling, sometimes caustic, characters to reach into the hearts of its audience.

The story is about a bitter confrontation and intervention between a mother and her two middle-aged children.

Peggy and her widowed daughter, Ellen, have a weekly lunch date at the same local eatery. They’re always seated in Barb’s section, a chatty waitress who has a special, protective fondness for Peggy.

On this particular day, the dynamics change when Peggy’s 40-year-old son, Warren, unexpectedly joins them. From the beginning of the play, something unspoken between the two siblings creates a tension that you can cut with a knife.

As the hour unfolds, the audience gradually discovers the secrets and lies that these family members have kept hidden, and they learn what this mediation is all about.

The four places of the title are the car, the restaurant, the waiting room of the eatery and diner’s restroom, all wonderfully and modestly created by scenic designer Jeffrey D. Kmiec, assisted by Milo Bue.

Melissa Schlesinger’s detailed sound design along with Josh Prisching’s area lighting perfectly help delineate each of the four locales.

The cast is absolutely magnificent. Every actor in this ensemble production belongs to Actor’s Equity. Affiliation in this professional guild often guarantees a stellar production, and this staging is no exception. Each of these  actors has performed at every major Chicago area theatre.

Meg Thalken, the senior member of this brilliant ensemble, is sheer perfection as Peggy. With her upswept hair and her handbag clutched in a death grip, Thalken is completely believable as this complicated, conflicted mother.

At first Peggy seems innocent, although she’s suspicious as to why Warren is suddenly joining Ellen and herself for lunch. It’s a weekday and her son should be in school teaching, but, for some vague reason, Warren has invited himself along.

As information unfolds and emotions peeled away, Peggy remains a sympathetic character, an aging woman fiercely trying to hang on to her dignity and independence.

Amy Montgomery is superb as Ellen. Together with the always masterful Bruch Thomas Reed, as Warren, these two siblings plot, palter, bitterly plead and run the gamut of emotions, from guilt to indignation as they pry information from their mother and attempt to sensitively reveal their plans for her future.

The bumpy road to their hidden agenda digs deeply, exposing buried secrets dealing with aging, disease, alcoholism, pent-up resentments and coping with the inevitable.

Rebekah Ward is both clever and comical as Barb the busybody waitress who’s just a little too familiar with her customers.

One of the highlights of this production is the long car ride during which very little is said, but the faces of these three actors speak volumes.

The Den Theatre’s excellent revival of Joel Drake Johnson’s poignant one-act drama is sometimes searing, often humorous and ultimately heartbreaking.

The show, the Den Theatre’s return to producing its own plays and musicals, is a must-see.

DETAILS: “Four Places” continues through June 30, 2019 at the Den Theatre, 1331 N. Milwaukee, Chicago. Running time: 80 minutes. For tickets and other information call (773) 697-3830 or visit The Den theatre.

Colin Douglas

For more shows visit TheaterInChicago.

 

‘Sweet Texas Reckoning’ has racism and homophobia plus a happy ending

 

Sweet Texas Reckoning at The Den. (Photo by Heather Mall)
Sweet Texas Reckoning at The Den. (Photo by Heather Mall)

2 1/2 stars

The word that keeps coming to mind, while watching Traci Godfrey’s story about a family reunion in Texas, is “cliched.” The hour-and-forty-five minutes spent with these four characters offers glimmers of brilliance but ultimately feels like a special Pride Month movie on the Lifetime Channel.

Had this “dramedy” been written by a playwright who could offer some honest, new insights into what makes people tick, especially in small, conservative towns, it would’ve been a far more honest portrayal. There’s a germ of a good idea here. But, in the hands of Horton Foote, Preston Jones or Tennessee Williams, this story wouldn’t be nearly as banal and stereotyped.

Set in the conservative, southeastern town of Sealy, Texas, Godfrey’s play is about a woman who for decades, has been drowning her guilt, bigotry and lies in her secret stash of bourbon.

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Playing It the company way

Ken Singleton (J. Pierrepont Finch) in Music Theater Works’ How to Succeed in Business Without really Trying. (photo by Brett Beiner)
Ken Singleton (J. Pierrepont Finch) in Music Theater Works’ How to Succeed in Business Without really Trying. (photo by Brett Beiner)
4 stars
The bouncy overture winds down, the curtain rises and we find a young man in coveralls descending from above in the Music Theater Work’s “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.”
J. Pierrepont Finch, an ambitious young window washer, is discovered reading Shepherd Mead’s tongue-in-cheek instructional book of the same name, while dangling from scaffolding above Madison Avenue.
Narrated for this production by NPR news quiz host, Peter Sagal, the book progresses chapter-by-chapter, charting the recommended course for Ponty’s rise to power in the business world.
Now, bear in mind that this how-to manual, a 1952 best-seller by Shepherd Mead, subtitled “The Dastard’s Guide to Fame and Fortune,” was written as a parody of the popular self-help books of that era. Between this book’s unfailing advice and Finch’s pluck and pizzazz, this likable kid is undoubtedly destined to rise to the top…or is he?
It’s hard to believe that this show which set a new standard for musical comedy satire, is almost 60 years old now. The hummable score by Frank Loesser (“Guys & Dolls,” “Most Happy Fellow”) features a libretto by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert, adapted from Mead’s humorous book of the same name.
The musical has a field day lampooning the seeming ease with which an entry level employee can rise to the top of the corporate ladder. A film preserving the performances of most of the original cast was released in 1967. This 1962 Pulitzer Prize and eight-time Tony Award winner has been successfully revived twice on Broadway, earning additional Tony Award nominations and wins.
Throughout the play, whenever it seems the darkest, the young, eager beaver aligns with precisely the right people to learn from and suck up to, as well as the easiest loopholes to infiltrate, in order to reach the top. And when all those elements are out of reach, Ponty employs his considerable boyish charm, ultimately helping him to achieve success.

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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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‘Next to Normal’ dives into mental illness with clarity

 

From L. Kyrie Courter (Natalie )Keely Vasquez (Diana) David Schlumpf (Dan) and Liam Oh (Gabe). (Photo by Michael Brosilow)
From L. Kyrie Courter (Natalie )Keely Vasquez (Diana) David Schlumpf (Dan) and Liam Oh (Gabe). (Photo by Michael Brosilow)

4 stars

“Next to Normal” brilliantly and unerringly brings to the stage what life is like in a home where a family member is mentally ill.

Penned by Brian Yorkey who also did the lyrics and with music by Tom Kitt, the show took three Tony awards in 2009. It also won the Pulitzer Prize for drama because even though it has highly expressive musical numbers, it is not a feel-good musical.

“Next to Normal” is a heart-wrenching drama about a husband who keeps trying to help his wife combat what has been diagnosed as bi-polar depression triggered by the death of their young son early in their marriage and about their teenage daughter who no matter how successful she is in school, can’t get the attention she deserves and craves.

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‘The Memo’ brings a dystopian message from Vaclav Havel

Tricia Rogers (Director Gross) in 'The Mem.' (Photo by Anna Gelman)
Tricia Rogers (Director Gross) in ‘The Mem.’ (Photo by Anna Gelman)

 

3 Stars

“The Memo” is an interesting if not important piece of theater as it was written by Vaclav Havel who went on to become a player on the world stage in the role of reformer. Havel served as the last President of Czechoslovakia, then as the first President of the Czech Republic from 1993 to 2003.

Written in 1965, it was originally translated into English as “The Memorandum” by British writer Vera Blackwell in 1967. The Organic Theatre production is using the later translation from 2006, encouraged and approved by Havel, written by Canadian Paul Wilson and re-titled “The Memo.”

This is an absurdist black comedy that might be described as Monty Python meets “Office Space” in the “Twilight Zone.”

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