Old boy meets girl story still resonates as a witty musical

RECOMMENDED

Tony Award nominated ‘They’re Playing Our Song,’ now a Brown Paper Box production at Rivendell Theater, is a boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love, have problems, split and get back-together-again story with a celebrity twist.

Dan Gold (Vernon) and Carmen Risi (Sonia) and company in "They're Playing Our Song." A Brown Paper Box Co. photo
Dan Gold (Vernon) and Carmen Risi (Sonia) and company in “They’re Playing Our Song.”
A Brown Paper Box Co. photo

With book by Neil Simon,  music by Marvin Hamlisch and lyrics by Carole Bayer Sager, the show is a witty, entertaining musical with such easy listening songs as “If He Really Knew Me,” “When You’re in My Arms,” “I Still Believe in Love,” and “They’re Playing Our Song.”

What oldsters may remember from when the show opened on Broadway in 1979 with Robert Klein and Lucie Arnaz, is that it is somewhat autobiographical about Hamlisch and Sager’s 1970’s relationship.

The show is about New York Grammy and Oscar award-winning pop music composer Vernon Gersch connecting with lyricist Sonia Walsk because he is looking for a collaborator.

They start off with problems because Sonia is bubbly but has trouble keeping appointments anywhere near on time and is very busy trying to break up with a long-time boyfriend, and Vernon is sarcastic, uptight and somewhat aloof.

They start to bond when on a “non date” proposed by Sonia they dance and hear the band play songs they wrote.

Problems Sonia has with ex boyfriend Leon eventually comes between them when she appears very late for a recording session and Vernon says he can’t take it any longer.

That they still have feelings for each other becomes evident when they reconnect in LA.

On the cute side, Sonia wears dresses used in shows given her by a stage friend. On the witty side, they are both neurotic so Simon has Vernon saying “She’s a flake, I’m a flake. Two flakes make a snowstorm.”

She is in awe of his composing talent but he is in awe of her bubbly personality. He remarks that if a power outage causes a blackout in New York the only light seen would be coming from her.

Sonia is perfectly portrayed by Carmen Risi who has acted in Oil Lamp and Citadel productions in the Chicago area and in Four Seasons productions in Madison, WI.

Dan Gold who is often in Mercury, Apollo, Porchlight and Light Opera Works  productions, is very believable as Vernon.

The two leads are totally convincing in their angst and attraction to each other.

My problem watching the show was with the Greek chorus of three females who are supposed to be in Sonia’s head and the three mails from Vernon’s head.

Even though they were talented singers and dancers, I found them distracting and sometimes annoying.

However, the leads are good enough and the show witty enough to make it a delightful evening out. To learn more about Carole Bayer Sager, see her 2016 book, “They’re Playing Our song: A Memoir (Simon & Schuster).

“They’re Playing Our Song” will be at Rivendell Theater, a small store front space at 5779 N. Ridge Ave., Chicago, now through Aug. 20, 2017. For tickets and other information visit Brown Paper Box.

 

 

Cirque du Soleil turns its magical talents into a Mexican dream

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Luzia – a combination of two Spanish words for light, “luz,” and rain, “lluvia,” is the backdrop for a unique performance that unites traditional Cirque du Soleil elements with scenes and characters from Mexico.

In “Luzia – A Waking Dream of Mexico,” acrobatic performances, beautiful costumes and music will not disappoint, even if they are somewhat expected in a Cirque du Soleil production.

Luzia: A Waking Dream of Mexico, is under the Big top next to the United Center now through sept. 3, 2017. Photo courtesy of Cirque du Soleil.
Luzia: A Waking Dream of Mexico is under the Big top next to the United Center now through Sept. 3, 2017. Photo courtesy of Cirque du Soleil.

The show opens with a traveler parachuting on to the stage. He will guide the audience on a magical and comedic journey through time and space.

After landing, he turns a large key and the show slowly begins to unveil the beauty of Mexico with a woman (Shelli Epstein) playing the role of the Monarch butterfly.

Although the beginning may start off slowly, hoop-diving acrobats dressed in hummingbird costumes bring it back to life in the second scene as they go through their routines on moving treadmills. With each leap, the acrobats perform a series of moves with increasing difficulty and grace.

As the show progresses from one scene to the next, the performers display their unique talents – balancing on one hand, flying from a trapeze and using aerial straps to move in ways you don’t expect.

However, it was the water and light show that generated some of the loudest applause. There is an impressive, controlled wall of rain with gorgeous pictures projected on it.

Everyone expects to be amazed, perplexed and amused by a Cirque du Soleil show. It’s a rarity to be made mildly queasy, but intentionally or not they pull it off with the most memorable and discomfiting positions of male contortionist Aleksei Goloborodko.

Throughout the show, the traveler, Eric Fool Koller, ensures the youngest members of the audience will leave with big smiles on their faces as he takes turns playing the narrator and the more traditional, bumbling circus clown.

Skillfully directed by Daniele Finzi Pasca, I highly recommend the show for both returning Cirque du Soleil fans and anyone who has never experienced the beauty and athletic abilities of this type of performance.

Cirque du Soleil’s “Luzia, A Waking Dream of Mexico” will be playing at the United Center (Parking Lot K) now through Sept. 3, 2017. For tickets and other information visit Cirque du Soleil Luzia.

– Sheri Jacobs

 

A sweet Shakespearean romantic comedy under the stars

RECOMMENDED

One of summer’s finest pursuits is viewing a William Shakespeare play while reposing under the stars and sipping a smooth wine.

First Folio Theatre affords that experience with a first-rate production of the Bard of Avon’s “As You Like It” on the grounds of the historic Mayslake Peabody Estate in Oak Brook.

Leslie Ann Sheppard (Rosalind), Courtney Abbott (Touchstone) and Vahishta Vafadari (Celia) is 'As You Like It' at First Folio. Maia Rosenfeld Photography
Leslie Ann Sheppard (Rosalind), Courtney Abbott (Touchstone) and Vahishta Vafadari (Celia) is ‘As You Like It’ at First Folio. Maia Rosenfeld Photography

The gently rolling hillside forms a natural amphitheater for the two-story wooden stage and for audiences to spread their blankets and pop their picnic baskets.

Directed by Skyler Schrempp, this delightful tale meanders among a tangle of storylines and a large cast. The plot weaves family feuds, banishments, mistaken identities, forgiveness and love triangles.

Most everyone finds themselves exiled in the lush Forest of Arden. That is, until truths are revealed and couples happily pair up in marriage like they typically do in Shakespearean rom-coms.

The highly polished cast numbers nearly two dozen, many of them First Folio returnees and almost all with previous Shakespearean credits on their resumes.

Leslie Ann Sheppard shows great flexibility in her dual-gendered role as Rosalind. At the onset, she is a favored and stylish family member of the royal court. After she is banished, she heads to the forest and adopts a male persona for safety reasons.

She is accompanied by her cousin and best friend Celia, played adroitly by Vahishta Vafadari who takes on the guise of a peasant. The young women venture a convoluted path to find their loves.

Courtney Abbott is charming and comedic as the mohawk-crowned, androgynous jester Touchstone.

Tempering the frolic is Kevin McKillip as Jacque, a melancholic lord. With great gravitas he delivers one of Shakespeare’s most well-known soliloquies, the one that begins with “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.”

Costume designer Mieka van der Ploeg advances the setting as ambiguously modern-day, yet-far-away with attire that borrows from vintage, punk and club-kid cultures.

Throw in a couple of fascinators, a pair of black-and-white wingtips, and a few dirndl skirts, and you get the feeling you’re somewhere else.

A summer evening at First Folio Theatre is as idyllic as the Forest of Arden. Arrive early to enjoy the natural landscape. The staff sets out citronella candles, but bring mosquito repellent.

DETAILS: “As You Like It” is at First Folio Theatre, Mayslake Peabody Estate, 1717 W. 31st St., Oak Brook, through Aug. 20. For tickets and other information, call 630-986-8067 or visit First Folio.

— Pamela Dittmer McKuen

 

 

 

 

Little Fish Searches for Her Place in the Big Pond

RECOMMENDED

“Little Fish” is a musical adventure of a young woman’s journey to get her life on track as she leaves a bad relationship, gives up smoking and ultimately finds a core group of friends who are willing and able to support each other through life’s challenges.

Nicole Laurenzi and cast of "Little Fish." Michael Brosilow photo
Nicole Laurenzi and cast of “Little Fish.” Michael Brosilow photo

Even though I quit smoking thirty years ago I could still relate. I always tell people I wanted a cigarette for the first five years. So I understand how addiction to nicotine can make you crazy.

The opening musical number grabs your attention and sets the tone immediately.  It’s like a roadmap that lets you know where we are heading as the adventure begins.

Nicole Laurenzi takes control of the stage the minute the lights come up and doesn’t let go for the next 90 minutes with no intermission.

She and her voice are perfect for the role of Charlotte, an aspiring writer in New York City who is both vulnerable and determined.

Her mission at first seems simply to quit smoking and to overcome the fact that she is average and ordinary. In the end she does not emerge as a beautiful swan but rather as a content, more confident human being who just wants some peace of mind and feeling of security. This is not a fairy princess story but rather a story the majority of people can relate to.

Charlotte’s two new NYC friends encourage her to try swimming and running to take her mind off her cigarette craving. Her beautiful friend Kathy (Aja Wiltshire who has a gorgeous voice) introduces her to swimming at the YMCA where Charlotte earns the moniker “Little Fish.”

Her gay male friend Marco (Adam Fane) suggests running.  Marco gets the title song explaining the need for little fish to “swim in schools” or basically band together for support and for their own protection.

Cinder (Teressa LaGamba) is Charlotte’s first NYC roommate and gets most of the comic relief in this production as she belts out a couple of the most emotionally energetic tunes.

Curtis Bannister, Teressa Gamba and Nicole Laurenzi in Kokany Productions "Little Fish." Michasel Brosilow photo
Curtis Bannister, Teressa Gamba and Nicole Laurenzi in Kokany Productions “Little Fish.” Michasel Brosilow photo

Robert (Jeff Meyer) is the smug know-it-all ex-boyfriend who appears in flashbacks voicing Charlotte’s insecurities and doubts as he reminds her that whatever she does will never be good enough.

The addition of the young Anne Frank (Kyrie Courter) who appears in a dream is a very funny idea.

“Little Fish” is entertaining and might more accurately be termed a modern opera. Bravo to Michael John LaChiusa who not only wrote the book but also the music and lyrics. No small task, which he accomplished brilliantly.

The story, loosely based on Deborah Eisenberg’s short stories “Flotsam” and “Days,” is well conceived and well executed but the star of this overachiever’s trinity is the music, an upbeat mix of jazz and pop rock with strong Latin rhythms.

There is nothing here that will assault the senses or challenge anyone’s musical preferences. It has a kind of “old school” cabaret quality that is easy to listen to with easily articulated lyrics and a few memorable tunes.

Carl Herzog as Mr. Bunder gets his Frank Sinatra groove on very effectively, as Charlotte’s smarmy boss offering a classic NYC vibe.

I can see this as a standalone melody for a number of Sinatra or Harry Connick wannabees

Shout out to Kokandy Production’s six piece band conducted by Kory Danielson.  The lack of an overture was a disappointment as I would like to hear more from them and it would have been nice to help us get in the mood.

Arnel Sancianco ‘s minimal set design worked well even though director Allison Hendrix seemed to prefer to avoid using the center of the stage.

The choreography was a miss for me as was the lighting. I realize this is a small space but the movements were cliché and not well executed bordering on comical at times and looking much like a high school production.  An exception was the swimming sequences which were quite effective.

The lighting or lack of lighting seemed arbitrary. Memorably, a tableau which might have been an opportunity for the lighting designer Alexander Ridgers to shine, literally left the actors in the dark. These are not deal killers and perhaps will improve over time.

As a side note Kokandy Productions offered an interesting newsprint playbill but it lacked a list of songs and any background information about the creator Michael John LaChiusa which seems a major faux pas.

Chicago’s premiere production of “Little Fish” is entertaining and makes me want to keep an eye out for future offering by LaChiusa. There are no big laughs and no great let downs. Much like Charlotte herself it is a safe and secure evening’s entertainment and ideal for lovers of cabaret style music.

Each performer gets his or her moment and they each do it effectively. This production is in keeping with The Wit’s stated mission to offer “humorous, challenging and intelligent plays that speak with a contemporary theatrical voice.”

Details: “Little Fish” is at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Avenue in Chicago now through Aug. 20, 2017. For tickets and other information call (773) 975-8150 and visit Kokandy Productions.

Reno Lovison

Absurd dark ‘Hir’ comedy is highly relevant

RECOMMENDED

Amy Morton (Paige) describes the alphabet of gender designations as Francis Guinan (Arnold) holds up the blackboard sign in 'Hir' by taylor Mac at steppenwolf. Photo by Michael Brosilow
Amy Morton (Paige) describes the alphabet of gender designations as Francis Guinan (Arnold) holds up the blackboard sign in ‘Hir’ by Taylor Mac at Steppenwolf. Photo by Michael Brosilow

Not Him, not Her but ‘Hir.’ The title sums up the gender neutral and cross gender designations of the thought processes, actions and reactions in the Taylor Mac play now at Steppenwolf Theatre.

Paige, the mom, perfectly portrayed by Amy Morton as a woman finally liberated from a tyrannical husband and household drudgery, says “I don’t do laundry anymore.” She adds, “We don’t do order.” Paige encourages her daughter to take testosterone shots.

The daughter, Max/Maxine, finely articulated by Em Grosland, well explains the world as seen by Mac, a highly honored playwright who has adopted the gender title of “judy” (yes, lowercase) to describe himself.

Then there is Arnold, Paige’s husband well interpreted by Francis Guinan who, before he had a stroke, expressed his extreme dissatisfaction with a changing, more culturally accepting society by beating up everyone in his family including the dog. Paige is feeding him estrogen hormones and puts him in a dress and wig to emasculate him.

Em Grosland (Max), Amy Morton (Paige), Ty Olwin (Isaac) and Francis Guinan (Arnold) in 'Hir' at Steppenwolf. Photo by Michael Brosilow
Em Grosland (Max), Amy Morton (Paige), Ty Olwin (Isaac) and Francis Guinan (Arnold) in ‘Hir’ at Steppenwolf. Photo by Michael Brosilow

Complicating the scenario is Isaac, the “prodigal” son portrayed by Ty Olwin, a dishonorably discharged marine. He comes home from Afghanistan to find a messy house and a disabled father who is more like a clown than the fierce neighborhood nemesis he had been.

The initial shock of seeing ‘Hir’s’ messy set that opens Act 1 role forward on the stage with a grotesquely made-up, seated clown-like figure, becomes more understandable when Paige declares she is now free to work outside the home and does so and later, when Isaac reminds his dad that he used to beat up the family.

Coming to Chicago shortly after the Pride Parade and court rulings on gender neutral bathrooms, the play is a relevant look at some of the changes taking place while also delving into the anger displayed from some segments of the old guard who still believe in cultural, religious and sexual discrimination.

Directed with great insight by Hallie Gordon, ‘Hir’ is a well-thought-out absurd dark comedy by Mac, a multi-talented New York playwright, actor, director, producer, performance artists who has received, among other honors, the Kennedy Prize, the Helen Merrill Playwriting Award, a NY Drama Critics Award and two Obies.

DETAILS: ‘Hir’ is at Steppenwolf, 1650 N. Halsted St, Chicago, through Aug. 20, 2017. For tickets and other information call (312) 335-1650 and visit Steppenwolf.

Drury Lane deals a winning hand with ‘The Gin Game’

RECOMMENDED

In both life and cards, we must play the hands we are dealt. That truism is powerfully revealed in Pulitzer winner “The Gin Game” now playing at Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook Terrace.

Paula Scrofano and John Reeger in 'The Gin Game' at Drury Lane Theatre. Photo by Brett Beiner
Paula Scrofano and John Reeger in ‘The Gin Game’ at Drury Lane Theatre. Photo by Brett Beiner

Fonsia Weller and Weller Martin are two reluctant residents of a shabby senior-living home, having run out of money and options. They strike up an acquaintance and begin playing gin to pass the time. As their games and conversation progress intimate secrets are revealed and they begin to discover each other’s weaknesses in both cards and life.

The two-character drama by D.L. Coburn brings together the legendary talents of real-life married couple and Jeff Award winners Paula Scrofano as Fonsia and John Reeger as Weller. They dodder and totter about the stage as though the infirmities of advanced age were real.

Both exhibit vast emotional range as the relationship between their characters builds to its explosive conclusion.

Scrofano and Reeger have appeared in over 150 plays in the Chicagoland area, 30 of them at Drury Lane. With “The Gin Game,” they join an illustrious roster of duos who have performed these roles, among them Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn, Mary Tyler Moore and Dick Van Dyke, and Cicely Tyson and James Earl Jones.

The Drury Lane production is artfully directed by Ross Lehman, who last directed the couple in 1986.

The show begins before the audience is fully seated as two non-speaking crew members dressed as nursing aides in medical scrubs set the stage with apathy. They lounge about, one smoking a cigarette and checking her cell phone, and the other reading a magazine. They grudgingly leave only when Weller enters the scene.

Kudos also to the creative team which includes scenic designer Katherine Ross, lighting designer Lindsey Lyddan and projection designer Mike Tutaj.

Drury Lane is known for highly detailed set design, and the “Gin Game” follows suit. The play takes place on an unkempt patio, which is decked out with mismatched furniture, an overturned chair, stray hoses and flower pots, and a weary-looking Santa Claus yard ornament. At the back of the set, images of the home’s resident activities, drab furnishings and medical equipment are projected at intervals to reveal the hopelessness inside.

“The Gin Game” is not a pleasant story. The subject matter is bleak, and the second act especially is pounded with profanity. But it’s worth seeing, just to watch theater icons Scrofano and Reeger in yet another transformation.

DETAILS: “The Gin Game” is at Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace through Aug. 13. For tickets and other information, call (630) 530-0111 or visit Drury Lane Theatre.

By Pamela Dittmer McKuen

 

 

 

A covered bridge uncovers hidden emotional needs

 

RECOMMENDED

When Francesca, the central female character in “The Bridges of Madison County,” wonders aloud how Robert, a National Geographic photographer, came to her doorstep in Winterset, Iowa, she answers herself with the wonderful line, “The patron saint of Iowa housewives sent you to me.”

Kathy Voytko and Nathaniel Stampley in 'Bridges of Madison County' at Marriott theatre. Photo by Liz Lauren
Kathy Voytko and Nathaniel Stampley in ‘Bridges of Madison County’ at Marriott Theatre. Photo by Liz Lauren

And so, it might explain how and why a woman whose husband and two kids are off to snag a prized-steer award at a neighboring state fair might seriously consider an extramarital affair and even consider leaving home for a new-found love.

Francesca, who winds up on an Iowa farm after leaving Italy with an American soldier, is brilliantly portrayed by Broadway and Jeff-Award winning actress, Kathy Voytko.

Well-directed by Nick Bowling at Marriott Theatre, the show is a heartbreaking romance that uncovers buried emotional needs.

Voytko’s face and body movements are so expressive it is easy to empathize with this housewife who suddenly feels appreciated as a woman and is fascinated by someone who travels the world for work.

What also helps are Marsha Norman’s script (book) and Jason Robert Brown’s thoughtful and moving music and lyrics.

There is “What Do You Call a Man Like That?” which Voyko beautifully sings on the covered Roseman Bridge she helped Robert locate. It alerts the audience that more than a casual relationship will develop.

Then there is the terrific, first-act ending “Falling into You,” the beautifully sensual duet Voyko sings with Robert, insightfully played by Nathaniel Stampley.

Although based on the novel by Robert James Waller, the musical is not a reproduction of it or the 1995 Clint Eastwood film that won Meryl Streep an Oscar nomination. (Voytko’s performance ought to bring her a Jeff Award nomination). The musical’s ending is different though won’t be revealed here.

Francesca’s family which is periodically interjected into the action includes husband Bud, maybe deliberately understated by Bart Shatto to promote the contrast between farmer and lover, daughter Carolyn played with spirited angst by Brooks MacDougal and son Michael who does not want to become a farmer as explained by Tanner Hake. An older Carolyn in Act II is Allyson Graves.

Their neighbors are Marge interpreted with sympathy by Wydetta Carter (she also sings “Get closer”) and her husband, Charlie, nicely played by Terry Hamilton.

Emily Berman does a fine memory-style interlude with a guitar when she sings “Another Life”  as Marian, Robert’s ex-wife.

The Iowa scenery is well captured by Anthony Churchill’s projections on the theatre’s walls.  Set design by Jeffry D. Kmiec features the bridge, a masterful centerpiece.

Details: “The Bridges of Madison County” is at Marriott Theatre, 10 Marriott Dr, Lincolnshire, IL through Aug. 13, 2017. For tickets and other information call (847) 634-0200 and visit Marriott Theatre.

 

Eugene O’Neill comedy at Goodman is lighthearted and profound

 

RECOMMENDED

Perfect for a month that includes the Fourth of July, Eugene O’Neill’s “Ah, Wilderness,” is about hope, wistfulness, freedom and coming of age in an idyllic family setting at the turn of the last century.

The extended Miller family in Eugene O'Neill's "Ah, Wilderness!" at Goodman Theatre. Photo by Liz Lauren
The extended Miller family in Eugene O’Neill’s “Ah, Wilderness!” at Goodman Theatre. Photo by Liz Lauren

So don’t, when you see the play is by O’Neill who penned the Pulitzer Prize-winning, semi-autobiographical play, “Long Day’s Journey into Night,” think dark family drama.

They both take place on a Connecticut seashore but “Ah, Wilderness” is a lighthearted comedy that likely presents the type of family O’Neill wished he had.

You will meet the Miller family during the Fourth of July. Nat, the father is presented intelligently and with empathy by Randall Newsome as a fine newspaper editor and family man who pretty much goes along with whatever wife Essie (Ora Jones) and second son Richard (Niall Cunningham) want.

It’s easy to see that Essie, nicely played by Ora Jones, softly wears the “pants” in the family. Richard, brilliantly interpreted by Niall Cunningham as an intellectual high school student who favors flowery, somewhat purple prose and poetry, adores neighboring sweetheart Muriel McComber (Ayssette Monoz).

Thus the title is taken from a translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, a favorite poem of Richard. Many people will recognize at least part of the stanza. It goes “A Book of Verses underneath the Bough, A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread – and thou Beside me singing in the Wilderness – Oh, Wildernesss were Paradise enow!

The rest of the family consists of eldest son Arthur (Travis A. Knight) who attends Yale where Richard is expected to go, daughter Mildred, played with spunk by Rochelle Therrien, and  youngest son Tommy, a cute turn by Matthew Abraham as a boy still in knee pants.

Their extended family include relatives Lily Miller, Nat’s sister who is wistfully interpreted by Kate Fry as the former fiancée of Sid Davis, Essie’s brother. They still love each other but he can’t change because he loves drink, gambling and “ladies of the night” too much. Davis is done with humor but without remorse by the talented Larry Bates.

Rounding out the picture are Norah, a funnily clumsy maid played with wonderfully comedic moves by Bri Sudia and Belle, the “fast” woman delightfully handled by Amanda Drinkall whom Richard is paired with at a local dive.

Muriel’s dad, David McComber, is portrayed as the dislikeable but understandably protective father by Ricardo Gutierrez. Also in the show are the dive’s bartender (Joe Dempsey) and The Salesman at the bar (Bret Tuomi).

The production also works now in 2017 even though its time period is 1906 because of the fine directing of Steve Scott (remember the insightful and comedic turns of his Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike). Scott is retiring this summer after several years as a Goodman Theatre producer and director.

Of course there is also Todd Rosenthal’s charming set and Amy Clark’s fine costumes that are wonderfully evocative of the period.

“Ah, Wilderness! is a sweet but not saccharine play of a family that deals philosophically with a teenager going through romantic and philosophical challenges. It even includes a heart-to-heart father-son discussion that almost touches on growing up hormones.

“Ah, Wilderness! is at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St., Chicago through July 23, 2017. For tickets and other information call (312) 443-3800 or visit Goodman.

 

Classic tale comes alive on stage

 

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

To get teenagers away from their cell phones for a while and interested in learning more about a classic novel or excited about going to a stage show, take them to ‘Moby Dick’ at Lookingglass Theatre.

Mattie Hawkinson, Kelly Abell, Javen Ulambayer and Cordelia Dewdney in 'Mob y Dick' at Lookingglass theatre. Ulambayar is Mungun. the three woman are the Fates and other roles. All photos are by Liz Lauren
Mattie Hawkinson, Kelly Abell, Javen Ulambayer and Cordelia Dewdney in ‘Moby Dick’ at Lookingglass theatre. Ulambayar is Mungun. the three woman are the Fates and other roles. All photos are by Liz Lauren

Following rave reviews on tour, the show is back in town where it first appeared and received four Jeff Awards in 2015. It’s now back home in Lookingglass’ black-box space in the historic Water Tower Water Works (a Chicago Fire survivor) through Sept. 3, 2017.

The way Lookingglass’ David Catlin has adapted and directs the Herman Melville seafaring epic, the story leaps off the pages with great physicality and graphic portrayals.

In addition to an exceptional ensemble, the production is done in association with The Actors Gynmnasium. They are aided and abetted by the fantastic, curving bone-like scenery that mimics the inside of a whale designed by Courtney O’Neill and the rigging designed b y Isaac Schoepp.

But the novel, and thus the show, is more than a tale about a fierce adventure surrounding a white whale called Moby Dick. As the crew of the Pequod find out after they’ve signed on, Captain Ahab who lost a leg to Moby Dick, wants vengeance in a manor reminiscent of Shakespearean tragedies. The story really is about obsession.

Anthony Fleming II, Nathan Hosner, Jamie Abelson and Cordelia Dewdney, Kelly Abell and Mattie Hawkinson in 'Moby Dick'
Anthony Fleming II, Nathan Hosner, Jamie Abelson and Cordelia Dewdney, Kelly Abell and Mattie Hawkinson in ‘Moby Dick’

Ahab, intensely interpreted  by Nathan Hosner, becomes madder to the point of not caring who dies as he pursues his goal.

The story is told by Ishmael, the only crew member who survives the pursuit. Jamie Abelson and Walter Owen Briggs alternate in the role.

On another level, the story is also about men, such as Queequeg, played magnificently by Anthony Fleming III, who seek adventure in place of responsibility, and Starbuck (really, long before the coffee chain) who seeks income through whaling oil.

This is a show that teens and adults who appreciate a well-told, well-presented yarn will appreciate.

‘Moby Dick’ is at Lookingglass Theatre in the Water Works at 821 N. Michigan Ave. through Sept. 3, 2017. For tickets and other information call (312) 337-0665 and visit Lookingglass.

 

Superb acting and singing make Lincoln Center ‘King and I’ a must see production

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Laura Michelle Kelly (Anna) and Baylen Thomas (Louis) arrive in Siam in 'The King and I' now on stage at the Oriental Theatre. Photos courtesy of Broadway in Chicago,
Laura Michelle Kelly (Anna) and Baylen Thomas (Louis) arrive in Siam in ‘The King and I’ now on stage at the Oriental Theatre. Photos courtesy of Broadway in Chicago,

Just when you think you have seen as many fine interpretations of how Rogers and Hammerstein’s classic ‘King and I’ musical ought to be done, along comes director Bartlett Sher’s beautiful and insightful Lincoln Center production.

Not only are all the voices in the outstanding category (and how often can you say that), Sher’s direction has brought forth all the characters’ strong motivations.

The songs everyone has come to know and love such as “I Whistle a Happy Tune and Hello Young Lovers” are beautifully sung by Laura Michelle Kelly as governess Anna Leonowens.

Manna Nichols and Kavin Panmeechao as doomed lovers in 'King and I.'
Manna Nichols and Kavin Panmeechao as doomed lovers in ‘King and I.’

“We Kiss in the Shadow” and “I have Dreamed” take on an added coating of sadness and desire when exquisitely sung Manna Nichols and Kavin Panmeechao as doomed lovers Tuptim and Lun Tha.

But you also have Jose Llana who really makes you understand the crossroads where he’s at between Siam’s traditional views and the “westernization” of his court he thinks will keep his country from colonization. He not merely sings, but acts “A Puzzlement.”

Based on the real Anna Leonowens’ memoirs as told by Margaret Landon in the 1944 novel, “Anna and the King of Siam,” the musical depicts how two strong characters, the independent governess Leonowens, and the King, known as Mongkut who sees women as servants, move from strongly-held beliefs to mutual respect, admiration and caring.

Joan Almedilla as Lady Thiang in 'King and I'
Joan Almedilla as Lady Thiang in ‘King and I’

Then there is Joan Almedilla as Lady Thiang (First Wife) singing “Something Wonderful.” The song does more than describe her feelings towards her husband, the King.

Almedilla’s exceptional expression of the words seemed to speak to many of the wives in the audience.

As to the youngsters in the show,  “The March of Siamese Children” is charming and lighthearted but Graham Montgomery does a particularly fine job as Anna’s son, Louis, and Marcus Shane presented just the right amount of royal demeanor as Crown Prince Chulalongkorn when he stepped into a role opening night usually played by Anthony Chan.

Choreographer Christopher Gattelli’s “The Small House of Uncle  Thomas,” a ballet meant to entertain visiting English dignitaries but actually is a message from Tuptim that slavery is wrong, is well put across by dancers Lamae Caparas as Eliza, Amaya Braganza as Uncle Thomas, Yuki Ozeki as Topsy, Rommel Pierre O’Choa as Simon Legree, Michiko Takemasa as Little Eva and Nobutaka Mochimaru as the Angel/George.

Jose Llana (King of Siam) and Laura Michelle Kelly (Anna Leonowens) in 'The King and I.'
Jose Llana (King of Siam) and Laura Michelle Kelly (Anna Leonowens) in ‘The King and I.’

The set design by Michael Yeargan was a creative mix of an Asian style wall backdrop, pillars and Buddha that places more emphasis on the action than ornamentation. That said, the set immediately captures attention when the curtains open with a a life-size boat coming onto the stage carrying Anna and Louis Leonowens.

Catherine Zuber’s costumes perfectly place the show into Leonowen’s  period and location.

‘The King and I’ is at the Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph, Chicago, now through July 2, 2017. For tickets and more information call (800) 775-2000 or visit Broadway in Chicago.