Alluring music, seductive leading lady and golden voiced lover makes this ‘Carmen’ a must see

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

‘Carmen,’ the popular opera by Georges Bizet’ where nearly all the music sounds very familiar, is an audience pleaser at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

A new production directed and choreographed by Rob Ashford who did the Lyric’s Carousel’ two seasons ago, the opera has the kind of important touches that make Broadway musicals special.

Ekaterina Gubanova (Carmen) teases Joseph Calleja (Don Jose) in 'Carmen' at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Photo by Todd Rosenberg
Ekaterina Gubanova (Carmen) teases Joseph Calleja (Don Jose) in ‘Carmen’ at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Photo by Todd Rosenberg

There is fine acting of major roles, an outstanding voice, that of tenor Joseph Calleja as Don José, a leading lady, mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Gubanova who seems born to the part of Carmen, modern dance movements that capture audience attention during musical interludes, and exciting music thrillingly played by the Lyric Opera Orchestra that has people tapping their toes during the opera and humming during intermission.

Ashford’s staging is creative. The final scene where Don José stabs Carmen rather than have her go to her most recent lover, the dashing bullfighter Escamillo (Christian Van Horn), is  set against the dramatic, high back of a bullfighting arena where its audience is silhouetted against a red-orange sky.

Excellent set design by David Rockwell and costumes by Julie Weiss beautifully fit the period, location and atmosphere.

But make no mistake. This is opera. Bizet’s music and the libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy have turned Prosper Mérimée’s ‘Carmen’ novella about seduction, jealousy and death into a dramatic opera, beautifully sung at the Lyric.

The takeaway from Lyric’s ‘Carmen’, a co-production with the Houston Grand Opera, is Gubanova’s ‘Habanera’ and ‘Seguidilla,’ Van Horn’s ‘Toreador Song’ and Calleja’s gorgeous ‘Flower Song.’

Details: ‘Carmen’ by Georges Bizet is at the Lyric Opera of Chicago in the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive, Chicago, now through March 25. For tickets and other information visit Lyric Opera and call (312) 827-5600.

 

‘Love’s Labor’ becomes lost in translation

SOMEWHAT RECOMMENDED

A parody of William Shakespeare is clever when performed by Second City or by another theater when advertised as a take-off by one of Chicago’s many production companies.

Rosaline (Laura Rook) and Berowne (Nate Burger) are attracted to each other. Others are Longaville (Madison Niederhauser), Dumaine (Juliam Hester), King of Navarre (John Tufts) and Princess of France (Jennie Greenberry) in 'Love's Labor Lost' at Chicago sheakespeare Theater. Photo by Liz Lauren
Rosaline (Laura Rook) and Berowne (Nate Burger) are attracted to each other. Others are Longaville (Madison Niederhauser), Dumaine (Julian Hester), King of Navarre (John Tufts) and Princess of France (Jennie Greenberry) in ‘Love’s Labor Lost’ at Chicago Sheakespeare Theater. Photo by Liz Lauren

But it was a surprise when opening night of Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s ‘Love’s Labor’s Lost,’ an early Shakespeare comedy, lines were intentionally overly emoted and humorous characters became caricatures.

Written in the 1590’s, CST’s version is nicely placed in the 18th century with a romantic, beautiful set by scenic designer Kevin Depinet and gorgeous costumes by Christina Poddubiuk.

There’s no question that the play, an ironic exposure of good intentions foiled by man’s innate nature, is a comedy.

Ferdinand, King of Navarre (John Tufts), and his three companions, Lords Berowne (Nate Burger) , Dumaine (Julian Hester), and Longaville (Madison Niederhauser), pledge to three years of study and fasting without the company of women. The King subsequently decrees that women will not be allowed within a mile of the court.

Complicating matters is a subplot of Spaniard Don Adriano de Armado (Allan Gilmore) betraying an affair between local lad Costard (Alex Goodrich) and local wench Jaquenetta (Maggie Portman). Adriano also likes her and discusses it with his page, Moth (Aaron Lamm).

Then the Princess of France (Jennie Greenberry) and her ladies, Maria (Jennifer Latimore), Katherine (Taylor Blim) and Rosaline (Laura Rook) arrive to speak with the King but they have to camp outside the court.

Of course, since this is a Shakespearean comedy, the king and his lords fall for the Princess and her ladies and messages are given to the wrong people.

Taking a playful approach similar to ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ a comedy also written in the 1590’s, should work. The problem, at least for fans of Shakespeare’s sophisticate language,  is when actors’ overblown actions distract from clever dialogue.

Details: ‘Love’s Labor’s Lost,’ directed by Marti Maraden, is at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, 800 E. Grand Ave. on Chicago’s Navy Pier, now through March 26, 2017. For tickets and other information call (312) 595-5600 and visit Chicago Shakes.

 

‘Mamma Mia’ moves to a vibrant disco beat

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

It doesn’t matter if you have seen’ Mamma Mia’ before. As an audience member sitting next to me at the Marriott Theatre said, “I saw it on Broadway. This is better.”

Cassie Slater (Rosie) Danni Smith (Donna) and Meghan Murphy (Tanya) in 'Mamma Mia!' at Marriott Theatre. Photo by Justin Barbin
Cassie Slater (Rosie) Danni Smith (Donna) and Meghan Murphy (Tanya) in ‘Mamma Mia!’ at Marriott Theatre. Photo by Justin Barbin

A jukebox musical based on the songs of ABBA, the Marriott production has it all: terrific solos, great dance numbers, fine staging and a perfect combo of light and sound that brings back the 1970s disco era. A Swedish group, ABBA was performing, basically from 1972 to 1982. Read More

‘Straight White Men’ offers a different view of family interaction

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In spite of the title ‘Straight White Men,’ Young Jean Lee’s play now on stage at Steppenwolf, there is more than one theme presented to the audience.

Ed (Alan Wilder) Jake (Madison Dirks), Drew (Ryan Hallahan) and Matt (Brian Slaten) in "Straight White Men" at Steppenworlf. Photo by Michael Brosilow
Ed (Alan Wilder) Jake (Madison Dirks), Drew (Ryan Hallahan) and Matt (Brian Slaten) in “Straight White Men” at Steppenworlf. Photo by Michael Brosilow

First, there is the question of what makes people uncomfortable. Before the play starts, audiences are subjected to exceedingly loud music with lyrics some might find objectionable.

However Elliott Jenetopuloes who is working on a platform for non straight white artists, and Wil Wilhelm  who has acted at Northlight and other Chicago theatres, sashay through the aisles handing out earplugs if requested.

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Historically important story still relevant

 

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

‘The Book of Joseph’ now at Chicago Shakespeare Theater through March 5, 2017, is scary.   That’s not in a ghostly sense, but in the way past signs seem to repeat themselves.

JIn America oseph Hollander (Sean Fortunato) receives letters from his family in Poland who would not leave when they could because they thought they were safe. L to R Doola (Patricia Lavery), Lusia (Mikey Gray), Genka (Brenann Stacker) Gerta (Glynis Bell), Salo (Ron E. Rains) and Maria (Amy J. Carle). Photo by Liz Lauren
In America, Joseph Hollander (Sean Fortunato) receives letters from his family in Poland who would not leave when they could because they thought they were safe. L to R Dola (Patricia Lavery), Lusia (Mikey Gray), Genka (Brenann Stacker) Gerta (Glynis Bell), Salo (Ron E. Rains) and Maria (Amy J. Carle).
Photo by Liz Lauren

The play, a world premiere by Karen Hartman developed with Creative Producer Rick Boynton, relates the Hollander family’s horrific experiences during World War II and then continues the story in current times in the United States.

The first half of the play is based on letters that Joseph Hollander, brilliantly portrayed by Sean Fortunato, received and saved from his large family in Krakow, Poland.

His mother, sisters and spouses plus two nieces were not willing to leave when Joseph got them all the needed papers and visas. A wealthy, well-traveled lawyer who saw what was happening, Joseph leaves for Portugal with wife Felicja Hollander (Gail Shapiro) and  a ward, the 14-year-old son of a friend. Entry to Portugal was denied so they were taken to the US and Ellis Island.

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Elemeno Pea’ takes a satiric view of society angst and sibling squabbles

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It would likely be hard for some people to fault Simone (Sarah Hect) for enjoying her lifestyle among Nantucket’s wealthy second-home residents even if as an assistant she has to cater to Michaela’s (Grayson Heyl) every insecure whim.

Sarah Hecht, Grayson Heyl, Maggie Kettering and Nick Fanti in 'Elemeno Pea' at Citadel Theatre. Photo by North Shore Camera Club
Sarah Hecht, Grayson Heyl, Maggie Kettering and Nick Fanti in ‘Elemeno Pea’ at Citadel Theatre. Photo by North Shore Camera Club

It is also understandable that Simone’s sister Devon (Maggie Kettering) who has made a shambles of her own life, despises what she sees as snobbish attitudes.

During the show it is learned that ‘Elemeno Pea’ refers to a section of the alphabet song that one of the sisters was unable to distinguish as individual letters.

The sisters squabble about everything while Michaela’s life tumbles downhill when she realizes her husband, often mentioned but never seen, is going to divorce her.

A sort of stand in for the husband is Ethan (Nic Fanti) who is a family friend with little more to do than manage his portfolio and travel.

Debuted at the 2011 Humana Festival of New Plays, the show is currently at Citadel Theatre in Lake Forest where it is well acted, staged and directed.

What stops this satire from being a great play is that it would benefit from some judicious editing of the sisters’ squabbles and Michaela’s hand-wringing.

In addition, it could use some intelligent dialogue on marriage, spousal expectations and family obligations.

It is also learned way too late in the play why Michaela’s marriage is in trouble. Playwright Molly Smith Metzler had employee Jos-B (Ray Andrecheck) reveal the cause near the show’s end instead of dropping hints earlier. Audiences like clues.

At 90 minutes, the play is not long but it feels lengthy. There is too much building the background. It delays understanding several complex, important points.

Details:b“Elemeno Pea” is at Citadel Theatre, 300 S. Waukegan Road, Lake Forest, IL now through March 5, 2017. For tickets and other information visit Citadel and call ( 847) 735-8554 ext. 1.

 

Oh what a Chicago night

 

It was Feb., 4, 2017, not December, 1963. But the people who attended the ‘Chicago Voices Concert’ at the Lyric’s Civic Opera House will arguably remember the night.

The Handsome Family, John Pine and Shemekia Copeland were among the performers at the Chicago Voices Concert. Photo by Cory Weaver
The Handsome Family, John Pine and Shemekia Copeland were among the performers at the Chicago Voices Concert. Photo by Cory Weaver

One famed musician after another performed on stage. Their common denominator was a Chicago tie.

Put together by Renée Fleming to showcase sounds of Chicago, the opera star pointed out that music brings people together. “Amongst the fear and heartbreak we do what we do best,” Fleming said.

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‘Faceless:’ A remarkable play about Islam, fear and vulnerability

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Playwright Selina Fillinger’s brilliant dialogue and profound character interaction, alone, should enter ‘Faceless’ into the ranks of important courtroom dramas.

'Timothy Edwards Kane (L to R), Susaan Jamshidi, Lindsay Stock and Ross Leman in 'Faceless at Northlight Theatre
Timothy Edwards Kane (L to R), Susaan Jamshidi, Lindsay Stock and Ross Leman in ‘Faceless’ at Northlight Theatre

Add the spot on direction of B.J Jones, the insightful scenic design by John Culbert lighting by Heather Gilbert, costumes by Izumi Inaba, music and sound by Andre Pluess and projection design by Stephan Mazurek, and you have a must-see world premiere at Northlight Theatre.

On trial is a white, teenage girl who has been radicalized on the Internet and wants to emigrate to join ISIS. A federal prosecutor has asked a U.S. born, Harvard educated, Muslim  female in his office to take on the case.

The action unfolds in a spellbinding 80 minutes that should give audiences a clearer picture of some of society’s and family problems currently making headlines.

Susaan Jamshidi, who has been seen in Chicago with Remy Bumppo, Lookingglass and Victory Gardens (among others) is exceptional as prosecutor Claire Fathi. Lindsay Stock who has been in Goodman and Collaboraction productions is amazingly believable as defendant Susie Glenn.

Chicago veteran actor Timothy Edward Kane (Northlight, Court, TimeLine, Writers, et al.), does a fine job as Scott Bader, an arrogant lead federal prosecutor. Joe Dempsey, another Chicago veteran who was in Northlight’s ‘Inherit the Wind’ and productions at Goodman, Paramount, Lookingglas, Court, et al.), plays the highly sympathetic figure of Susie’s father, Alan Glenn.

Audiences are very familiar with five-time Jeff Award Winner Ross Lehman who is masterful as Mark Arenbergb, Susie Glenn’s defending attorney.

The show should spark discourse. Post show discussions will be held Feb. 8, 9, 12, 15, 16, 23 and March 1, 2.

Details: ‘Faceless’ is at Northlight Theatre in the North Shore Center for Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie, IL, now through March 4, 2017. For tickets and other information visit Northlight and call (847) 673-6300.

 

 

The disco beat is hot at drury Lane’s ‘Saturday Night Fever’

 

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When life is going nowhere, dance it out. That’s the gist of “Saturday Night Fever,” the latest musical to open at Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook Terrace.

Erica Stephan (Stephanie Mangano and Adrian Anguilar (Tony) in Drury Lane's Saturday Night Fever Photo by Brett Beiner
Erica Stephan (Stephanie Mangano) and Adrian Anguilar (Tony) in Drury Lane’s Saturday Night Fever Photo by Brett Beiner

Based on the 1977 hit film, “Saturday Night Fever” the musical follows Brooklyn teenager Tony Manero, who escapes his dead-end job at a paint store by spending weekends at the 2001 Odyssey disco. It’s the role that launched John Travolta to stardom and made white suits a style icon of that generation.

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Opening night crowd appreciates Bellini’s challenging bel canto ‘Norma’

 

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A love triangle, betrayal, an ominous war, a necessary death – all centered on a strong woman, is perfect opera fare.

Sondra Radvanovsky (Norma) and Elizabeth DeShong (Adalgisa) in Norma at the Lyric Opera of chicago
Sondra Radvanovsky (Norma) and Elizabeth DeShong (Adalgisa) in ‘Norma’ at the Lyric Opera of Chicago

The brilliant 19th century composer Vincenzo Bellini found such a plot in “Norma, ou L’infanticide” a play by Alexandre Soumet.

Don’t worry, in the opera Norma threatens her betraying lover with infanticide but doesn’t kill their children. What Bellini did was to turn the story into what has become the iconic bel canto opera.

Now, the Lyric Opera of Chicago which has only done “Norma” three previous times beginning with Maria Callas in 1954, is doing a new-to-Chicago, co-production starring opera’s current Norma favorite, Sondra Radvanovsky.

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