Bette Davis is back for another bow

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

When I was a youngster, I would often hear my parents mention their favorite movie star, Bette Davis.  Decades later, I gravitated toward old films and I, too, became a huge Davis fan.

Jessica Sherr does 'Bette Davis Ain't for Sissies' at the Athenaeum Theatre. Photo courtesy of Jessica Sherr
Jessica Sherr does ‘Bette Davis Ain’t for Sissies’ at the Athenaeum Theatre. Photo courtesy of Jessica Sherr

As I watched ‘Dark Victory, ‘Now, Voyager,’ and her many other movies—some of them numerous times—I found myself reciting a few of her lines along with her. I thought I knew almost everything about Ms. Davis until I recently saw the captivating play ‘Bette Davis Ain’t for Sissies’ currently at The Athenaeum Theatre.

The one-woman show, written and performed by Jessica Sherr, is a fascinating look at Davis’s life and career. It only took a few seconds to actually feel that the actress and playwright on stage was the real Bette Davis.

Jessica Sherr not only resembles the actress in her early thirties but her voice, expressive eyes and mannerisms emulate Davis.  And the one-act play’s staging and set design are such that allow Sherr to change costumes while she continues talking to the audience, never missing a beat.

Often in just a sentence or two, Sherr takes the audience through various stages of Davis’s life, beginning with her relationship with her parents, especially her mother whom Bette called “Ruth” after her father left them when she was ten years old.

Sherr then touches on Davis’ career beginning when on stage in New York.  Not being a blonde and no taller than five-foot three, she fondly reminisces about her earlier years by commenting, “They don’t care what you look like!”

Invited by an agent who saw Davis on stage, she left New York and traveled to Hollywood to begin life as a movie star. Even though she became known as a Hollywood “hometown girl,” she still missed New York and has said, “I hate California—it’s so damn sunny it makes me sick!”

This show is for anyone who wants a closer look at Bette Davis – the ten-time Academy Award nominee and two-time Academy Award Best Actress winner for her roles in ‘Dangerous’ and ‘Jezebel.’

Along with a closer view of her career, you’ll learn about Davis’s marriages, her relationships, her Hollywood friends, the others she avoided and how she stood up for what she wanted, plus how it eventually turned out.  And there’ll be many laughs along the way.

Details: ‘Bette Davis Ain’t for Sissies” is at the Athenaeum Theatre,  2936 N. Southport Ave., Chicago. A last minute extension now continues the show through July 9, 2017. For tickets more information visit AthenaeumTheatre  or call 773-935-6875.

-Francine Pappadis Friedman

Music tells the story for Director Scott Weinstein

 

If you go see ‘Ragtime,’ a Griffin production now at the Den Theatre through July 16, 2017, you won’t be viewing a Broadway spectacle (if you haven’t put it on your must see schedule do yourself a favor and take care of it now).

Director Scott Weinstein. Griffin Theatre Photo
Director Scott Weinstein. Griffin Theatre Photo

Griffin’s ‘Ragtime’ is a minimalist production intimately performed in nearly a theater-in-the-round setting with just two pianos and a wind instrument and new orchestrations by music director Matt Deitchman.

It’s Director Scott Weinstein’s way of focusing on the issues of racism, women’s roles, immigration, wages and society in New York City in early 20th century that writer E.L. Doctorow did in his 1975 historical novel and were translated into a 1996 musical by lyricist Lynn Ahrens, composer Stephen Flaherty with book by Terrence McNally.

‘Ragtime’ does not need to be a spectacle. There is enough meat in the story and music,” Weinstein said in a recent interview.

“This production strips away the visuals. We made it about the people. It’s very intimate,” he said.

A similar feeling of intimacy is achieved by Writers Theatre’s powerful production of ‘Parade.’ Directed by Gary Griffin, the musical poignantly reflects the prejudices of a South that had not recovered from the Civil War.

Interestingly, Weinstein directed ‘Parade’ as a college senior when it was Northwestern University’s  2010 Dolphin Show. “It is one of the best scores for musical theatre,” he said. “There hasn’t been a revival until recently. Now there is a smaller version.”

He added, “It’s the same with ‘Ragtime.’ It was big. I wanted it stripped down.”

As to how he and his collaborators chose the show, Weinstein said, “It stands the test of time.”

After noting that the musical was written in the 1990s based on a book from the 1970s about the early 1900s, Weinstein said, “It’s even more relevant now. It’s so easy to go on line and see that these issues are still in the news.”

Asked if he thought Doctorow would be surprised, he said,” “Yes, and disappointed.”

Weinstein will be directing “Rock of Ages” at Drury Lane theatre this fall, beginning Aug. 24, 2017 and had directed its Childrens Theatre’s James & the Giant Peach in May.

A very successful director (“I’ve been lucky”) he has a long list of credits that includes (though not limited to) other Griffin shows, Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, Steppenwolf Theatre’s Garage Rep Series and Adirondack Theatre Festival. He is also the Associate Director for the National tour, Las Vegas and Chicago productions of “Million Dollar Quartet.”

“I like musicals. I like how music tells a story,” he said.

But he also likes shows that are not predictable. “I feel that we have preconceived ideas. There are our assumptions. The challenge is to do something other than expected,” Weinstein said.

It may be no surprise, that he likes Stephen Sondheim. Asked what show he would like to do, Weinstein immediately said, “Merrily We Roll along.”

 

‘Parade,’ a powerful story of injustice relevant today

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

The Writers Theatre production of ‘Parade, a powerful, Tony Award-winning musical about the wrongful conviction and death of a Jewish factory manager, is so well acted and sung that many audience members seemed to have bought the false witnesses’ stories.

Patrick Andres and Brianna Borger in 'Parade' at writers theatre. Photo by Michael Brosilow
Patrick Andres and Brianna Borger in ‘Parade’ at Writers Theatre. Photo by Michael Brosilow

They must have believed the manager was guilty because there were gasps from the show’s opening night audience when in the second act the stories turned out to be no more than lies coached by a prosecutor with an eye on the governorship.

The story is a true tale of how Leo Frank, a Brooklyn Jew, is deliberately convicted and killed for the rape and death of a young Atlanta, GA factory girl in 1913.

Although married to a lass Georgia born and bred, Frank was a Yankee and a Jew. He appeared cold and unfriendly and didn’t appreciate his wife in the beginning.

 

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‘Ragtime’ still a social issues reminder

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

There is nothing ragged about this Griffin Theatre version of Tony Award-winning ‘RAGTIME.’

Katherine Thomas , center with cast of 'Ragtime.' Photo by Michael Brosilow
Katherine Thomas , center with cast of ‘Ragtime.’ Photo by Michael Brosilow

Re-imagined by Director Scott Weinstein, the 1996 musical with book by Terrence McNally, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and music by Stephen Flaherty, has new orchestrations by Matt Deitchman and is perfectly scaled to the intimate Den Theatre stage.

A tight ensemble follows the adventures of three groups of individuals from various cultural and socio-economic strata at the turn of the 20th century by using the new music of the era – Ragtime. It has become the soundtrack of the age.

The new sound’s syncopation punctuates the changing rhythms of the increasingly fast-paced times that introduced industrialization along with such social challenges that defined pre-WWI America as European immigration, urban racial integration, unionization and women’s independence.

Taken from E.L. Doctorow’s novel, the musical throws together African American domestic worker Sarah (Katherine Thomas), her baby and the baby’s piano playing daddy, “Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Denzel Tsopnang), into the household of an upper middle class, white suburban (New Rochelle) family

“Father” (Scott Allen Luke) is a fireworks manufacturer and part-time world explorer who leaves his wife to manage the business. In the process she finds opportunities to explore her own independence.

This brings “Mother” (Laura McLain) into contact with “Teteh,” a recent Jewish immigrant (enthusiastically played by Jason Richards), and his pre-teen daughter (Autumn Hilava) who recently arrived in New York seeking the American dream.

“Little Boy” (Ben Miller) opens the play by introducing the characters to the title tune “Ragtime.” “The Little Boy” weaves among the characters throughout the rest of the production and is on some level the thread that pulls them together and toward one another.

The “Family” household additionally includes “Grandfather” (Larry Baldacci who also appears as industrialist J.P. Morgan). He just wants some quiet.

Then there is “Mother’s Younger Brother” (Matt Edmonds). He finds meaning in his life by embracing the plight of the underclass “Negroes” and mistreated workers.

There are appearances by historical notables Harry Houdini, Booker T. Washington, Henry Ford, Emma Goldman and “Specialty Entertainer/Celebrity” Evelyn Nesbit (Caitlain Collins), who provides periodic comic relief. Their vignettes supply political and social context of the time that drives the action.

Every character has a musical opportunity to shine resulting in a production with many glittering gems that come together like a charm bracelet; each with an individual tale commemorating a specific experience but in the end working together to tell the story of one grand shared adventure.

The entire cast is comprised of excellent singers. Laura McClain gave us everything she had in “Back to Before.” Katherine Thomas was a joy every moment she sang including “Your Daddy’s Son” and the show stopper duet “Wheels of Dream” with Denzel Tsopnang.

Pianists Jermaine Hill and Ellen Morris with Clarinet Dan Hickey perform in costume onstage providing outstanding accompaniments in a production where the music virtually never ends.

Details RAGTIME is at the Den Theatre at 1333 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago, now through July 16, 2017. For tickets and other information visit Griffin Theatre or call (866) 811-4111.

 

 

Lollapalooza Aftershows

Lincoln Hall, Metro, Park West, Schubas, Subterranean and The Vic are some of the 16 venues hosting the Lollapalooza Aftershows. Show tickets go on sale June 2, 2017 at 10 a.m. CT.

Lincoln Hall is among the venues hosting Lollapalooza Aftershows Photo by Clayton Hauck
Lincoln Hall is among the venues hosting Lollapalooza Aftershows Photo by Clayton Hauck

Here is the Aftershow list of entertainers and venues. For more information visit Lollaaftershows.

Aug. 1 – Jon Bellion with MAX and Anthony Pavel are at Metro.

Aug. 2 – Suicideboy$ are at Bottom Lounge, Kaytranada with Kweku Collins and Lou Phelps are at Concord, the Drums with Stef Chura are at Empty Bottle, the Temples with Declan McKenna are at Lincoln Hall, Spoon with CRX is at Metro, Liam Gallagher with Blossoms is at Park West, Hippo Campus with Remo Drive is at Reggies, Mondo Cozmo with Billy Raffoul is at Schubas, Atlas Genius with Stanaj is at Subterranean and Foster the People with Home are at The Vic.

Aug. 3 – Pretty Reckless with Slothtrust appears at Bottom Lounge, Little Dragon with Xavier Omar is at Concord, Pup with Deeper is at Empty Bottle, Phantogram with Flint Eastwood comes to House of Blues, Crystal Castles with Pham is at Lincoln Hall, Jai Wolf with Gryffin appears at Logan Square, Porter Robinson with Intermodal is at Mid, Tegan and Sara with Frenship are at Park West, Cloud Nothings with Oozing Wound are at Reggies, Skott with Flor comes to Schubas, Paper Diamond with Golf Clap at Soundbar, Highly Suspect with the Frights are at Subterranean, Whitney with  Kevin Devine is at Thalia Hall and Ryan Adams with the Districts appear at The Vic.

Aug. 4 – Andrew McMahon with Missio at Bottom Lounge, Mac Demarco with Middle Kids at Concord, San Fermin with Ron Gallo at Empty Bottle, Vance Joy with Cobi at House of Blues, Royal Blood with White Reaper at Lincoln Hall, Slushi with Young Bombs at Logan Square, Gramatik with K?D at Mid, Live with the Shelters at Park West, Taylor Bennet at Reggies, Lemon Twigs with Bunny at Schubas, Warpaint at Subterranean, Sylvan Esso with Flock of Dimes at Thalia Hall, Banks with the Japanese House at Vic.

Aug. 5 – Mura Masa with Saint JHN is at Bottom Lounge, G-Jones with EPROM is at Chop Shop, Zane Lowe Presents Towkio plus Amine plus Jidenna spear at Concord, Alvvays is at Empty Bottle, Milky Chance with Arizona comes to the House of Blues, Car Seat Headrest with Gold Connection appear at Lincoln Hall, NGHTMRE with Moksi is at Logan Square, Alison Wonderland with Ephwurd is at Mid, Grouplove with 888 is at Park West, 6lack with Michael Christmas is at Reggies, Barns Courtney with Luke Henry is at Schubas, Joyryde is at Soundbar, Moose Blood with Vant is at Subterranean, Kaleo with Colony House is at Thalia Hall and the Shins with Mt. Joy appear at The Vic.
Aug. 6: – Zeds Dead with Wax Motif is at Concord, the Head and the Heart with the Walters are at Metro, Borgore with Dirty Audio is at Mid and Slander is at Soundbar.

It is all relative

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Mike Nussbaum (Albert Einstein) and Katherine Keberlein (Margaret Harding) in 'Relativitiy' at Northlight Theatre. Michael Brosilow photo
Mike Nussbaum (Albert Einstein) and Katherine Keberlein (Margaret Harding) in ‘Relativitiy’ at Northlight Theatre.
Michael Brosilow photo

Theater-goers lucky enough to have seen Mark St. Germain’s ‘Freud’s Last Session’ at Mercury Theater when Mike Nussbaum took on the role of Freud (as of June 3, 2012) will have an idea of how Albert Einstein is portrayed in the world premiere of ‘Relativity’ at Northlight Theatre.

Once again, Nussbaum, now 93, is brilliant and St. Germain’s intelligent writing presents interesting insights into a world-renown, intellectual figure.

The story line revolves around a daughter born to him in 1902 by first wife Mileva Marić before the two were married. The world knew about his two sons born later, but not about daughter Lieserl until correspondence came to light in 1987.

What was known then was that Lieserl had contracted scarlet fever but no mention was made later about her. Although conceived in Switzerland where her parents were at the Zurich Polytechnic, Lieserl wasn’t brought back there to by her mother following the birth and Marić’s convalescence with her parents in Serbia.

St. Germain builds his new play on the premise that Lieserl survives.

Einstein is working at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study where his cantankerous housekeeper/secretary Helen Dukas, delightfully played by Chicago theater veteran Ann Whitney, protects him from interruptions by curiosity seekers and reporters.

Dukas successfully stops Margaret Harding, well depicted by Katherine Keberlein. The forty-something Harding who says she is a reporter from a Jewish publication finally waylays Einstein outside. Noting that it is cold he asks her in.

What follows are personal questions because Harding says her article will be different.

Using known quotes by Einstein, St. Germain has him field and rebuff Harding’s piercing questions about family, personal relations and views on mankind with statements about the importance of solving the mysteries of the universe.

Similar to ‘Freud’s Last Session’ where two protagonists, Freud and allegorist C. S. Lewis, argue their points of view, ‘Relativity’s  arguments, though more personal, are between Harding and the originator of the famous E=MC2 formula. Theories, including those in quantum physics are mentioned, but Harding’s arguments keep returning to the definition of a “great” person.

Directed by BJ Jones, the play is a fascinating, fictionalized, 80-minute look at Albert Einstein.
Details: Relativitiy’ is at Northlight Theatre, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie, through June 18, 2017. For tickets and other information call (847) 673-6300 and visit Northlight.

 

Old-fashioned romance makes a nice break from serious messages

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

With so many reality, edgy plays pricking the conscience of today’s highly  news-aware theater-goers, an old-fashioned, enchanting boy-girl attraction can become a refreshing change.

Georg Nowack (Alex Goodrich), Ladislav Sipos (James Earl Jones II) and Mr. Maraczek (Terry Hamilton) in "She Loves Me" at Marriott Theatre. Photo by Liz Lauren
Georg Nowack (Alex Goodrich), Ladislav Sipos (James Earl Jones II) and Mr. Maraczek (Terry Hamilton) in “She Loves Me” at Marriott Theatre. Photo by Liz Lauren

Luckily, Marriott Lead Artistic director Aaron Thielen recognized the need by bringing composer Jerry Bock and lyricist Sheldon Harnick’s and writer Joe Masteroff’s delightful 1963 musical,  ‘She Loves Me,’ to this Lincolnshire theatre.

The plot: two people fall in love with each other through letters and later find out that their correspondents are people they know and don’t think they like.

That story line has been too good not to repeat in different forms over the years. Think “The Shop Around the Corner,” “In the Good Old Summertime” and more recently, “You’ve Got Mail.” Read More

Who can be trusted when there are ‘Objects in the Mirror?’

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

If you paint over a color you lived with for years would you be able to forget the original, familiar shade? What about your identity? If you identify your name with your family, could you comfortably give it up and adopt a different name and identity?

Luopu Workolo (Lily Mojekwu) makes son Shedrick Kennedy Yakpai (Daniel Kyri) promise to do whatever necessary to survive as he leaves Liberia for a safe country. Photo by Liz Lauren
Luopu Workolo (Lily Mojekwu) makes son Shedrick Kennedy Yakpai (Daniel Kyri) promise to do whatever necessary to survive as he leaves Liberia for a safe country. Photo by Liz Lauren

In ‘Objects in the Mirror’ now at Goodman Theatre, Shedrick Kennedy Yarkpai,  a young  man who escaped to Australia from war-torn Liberia with his uncle John Workolo’s family, had to leave his mother,  Luopu Workolo, and adopt his dead cousin Zaza’s name so that his uncle could use his name for another family member who also needed papers.

The name change haunts Shedrick throughout the play.

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Glorious voices do justice to Lerner and Loewe music and lyrics

 

RECOMMENDED

The wonderfully lyrical songs and the delightfully fun numbers in Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s ‘My Fair Lady’ plus the gorgeous voice of Lisa O’Hare as Eliza Doolittle and Anthony Powell’s costumes are reasons enough to see the Lyric’s show.

Eliza Doolittle (Lisa O'Hare) and Mrs. Higgins (Helen Carey) and cast at Ascot. Todd Rosenberg Photography
Eliza Doolittle (Lisa O’Hare) and Mrs. Higgins (Helen Carey) and cast at Ascot. Todd Rosenberg Photography

Bryce Pinkham who played  Monty Navarro on Broadway in “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder,” was a treat to hear as he sang “On the Street Where You Live” as Freddy Eynsford Hill. So was the ensemble, many of whom either hailed from the Lyric Opera Chorus or past Lyric operas.

Powell’s period costumes made exceptional fashion statements that defined the characters.

The voices, music, lyrics and the story based on George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion” make up for some of the production’s deficiencies.

Richard E. Grant as Henry Higgins appears unaccountably childish, particularly when he waves his arms about in his mother’s home and when back at his office.

In addition, the acts don’t flow well. There is a what-are-we-supposed–to-do-now moment when Eliza visits her father after she has become a lady, and the excellent dancers in Alfred Doolittle’s drunken pre-marriage morning scene move in a way more appropriate for a Parisian Apache street then one in London.

Eliza appears dressed for the ball with Henry Higgins (Richard E. Grant) at his desk and Colonel Pickering (Nicholas Le Prevost) standing. Todd Rosenberg Photography
Eliza appears dressed for the ball with Henry Higgins (Richard E. Grant) at his desk and Colonel Pickering (Nicholas Le Prevost) standing. Todd Rosenberg Photography

Set Designer Tim Hatley’s Ascot scene, shown first in silhouette, perfectly emulated the stiff, no emotion can be shown, restraint expected of the British upper class and O’Hare was grandly shocking in her close encounter with the race and Mrs. Higgins friends.

However, that same stiffness seemed to pervade the production except for Hill’s song and when Eliza encounters him outside Henry Higgens home.

The music, conducted by Broadway veteran David Chase, reminded audiences why “My Fair Lady” continues to be a draw more than 60 years after it debuted.

Directed by Olivier Fredj, the Lyric’s show is the Robert Carsen production for Paris’ Théâtre du Châtelet starring a new cast.

Details: ‘My Fair Lady’ is at the Lyric’s Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive, Chicago, April 28 through May 21, 2017. For tickets and other information call (312) 827-5600 or visit My Fair Lady.

 

Old is new again in refreshed ‘Chicago’

 

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

It was a very appreciative audience, some dressed as flappers, who packed the house opening night of “Chicago” at Drury Lane Oak Brook.

Alena Watters (Velman Kelly) and ensemble in 'Chicago' at Drury Lane Theatre, photo by Brett Beiner
Alena Watters (Velman Kelly) and ensemble in ‘Chicago’ at Drury Lane Theatre, photo by Brett Beiner

The Bob Fosse and Fred Ebb script with music by John Kander is iconic due in no small part to its signature song “All that Jazz.”

This new production is fresh and energetic with a set worthy of a full-fledged Broadway production. The costumes (or lack thereof) were tastefully sensuous with no hint of vulgarity.  Every performance was spot on and the choreography of Jane Lanier was an entertaining mix of classic Fosse with a hint of Busby Berkeley.

It’s hard to explain how a story line that follows the escapades of a number of imprisoned female murderers plotting their strategies to elude prosecution can be so amusing. However this dark subject matter manages to find humor in the abject cynicism of the characters and the media’s interest in salacious subject matter.

The two co-equal leading ladies Alena Watters (as Velma Kelly) and Kelly Fethous (as Roxie Hart) are smitten with the idea of parlaying their infamy as murderesses into bankable fame on the vaudeville stage upon their seemingly inevitable acquittals.

Velma and Roxie’s certainty of release is based on the flawless record of their attorney one Billy Flynn skillfully played by Guy Lockhard.

Cast of 'Chicago' at Drury Lane Theatre, photo by Brett Beiner
Cast of ‘Chicago’ at Drury Lane Theatre, photo by Brett Beiner

These three characters drive the story aided by Matron Mama Morton (E. Faye Butler) and Roxie’s pathetic husband Amos Hart (Justin Brill) who interject a good deal of humor, notably Amos’ song “Mr. Cellophane” and a charming duet, “Class” by Velma and Mama Morton.

The character of Mary Sunshine (J. London) is also delightful as is her solo “A Little Bit of Good” dynamically sung in an operatic style.

The action takes place in the 1920’s, so suitably, the play’s style harkens back to productions from that era.

It is more of a musical revue based around a loose storyline, rather than a more traditional play that utilizes songs to further the plot – – which is the formula of modern American Musicals of the post WWII era

In this way the production is closer in style to George Cohan than Rodgers and Hammerstein while the overall mood is reminiscent of ‘ Cabaret’ and ‘A Three Penny Opera.’

‘Chicago’ is a fun evening, suggested as appropriate for children 13 and older.

Details: ‘Chicago’  is at Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace, IL now through June 18, 2017.  For tickets and other information call (630) 530-0111 and visit Drury Lane.

By Reno Lovison

(Guest reviewer Reno Lovison produces business videos. His interest in theater began very young. He studied with the Jack & Jill Players Children Theater and earned his Equity Card appearing in several professional Chicago productions at the Goodman Theatre, Mill Run, Melody Top and Ivanhoe. Reno does content writing, blogging and business articles and has authored two non-fiction books. See business video at Renoweb.)