‘HAIR’ is still relevant

RECOMMENDED

 

HAIR The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical is a revival of the infamous hippie era production that raised many eyebrows in its day and contributed significantly to the evolution of American musical theater.

HAIR is at Mercury Theater through Sept. 17, 2017. Brett A. Beiner photo
HAIR is at Mercury Theater through Sept. 17, 2017. Brett A. Beiner photo

It might be easy to simply see this current production of HAIR as riding a “permanent wave” of nostalgia. Or you might choose to see it as a “bald” faced celebration of 1960’s era youth, depicting the struggles a significant portion of the boomer generation experienced on the road to adulthood, which incidentally had a huge impact on modern culture.

The original production contemporaneously reported on that cultural shift in America as it simultaneously contributed to it. So it is impossible to speak about the current production without referencing its history.

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Theatre scene shines in western suburbs

 

It’s not too early to check out shows that are coming in 2017-18.

Drury Lane,Oakbrook Terrace, will have theater-goers rockin', tappin' and cheerin' this coming season. Photo courtesy of Drury Lane Theatre.
Drury Lane,Oakbrook Terrace, will have theater-goers rockin’, tappin’ and cheerin’ this coming season. Photo courtesy of Drury Lane Theatre.

Because Metropolitan Chicago is rich in theatre and entertainment choices, what is happening and where next season is divided into areas. Click northern suburbs season options for that section. City sections will be next.

First, take a look at some of the go-to possibilities west of Chicago. They are exciting enough to attract people from other areas in and around the city.

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Great shows make up an exciting season north of Chicago

 

Chicago theatres and entertainment venues have a terrific line-up of shows for the 2017-18 season. Now is a good time to plan what to see with season tickets or dropping hints for birthday or holiday presents.

Genesee Theatre north of Chicago in Waukegan features name entertainers. Photo courtesy of Genesee Theatre
Genesee Theatre north of Chicago in Waukegan features name entertainers. Photo courtesy of Genesee Theatre

Don’t just consider plays. There’s also one-and two-nighters of top entertainers at a couple of venues. With so many places to go for a night out the Chicago theatre scene has to be broken into different areas. Not everything to see is downtown or Near North. So, try some of the theatres and other venues north of the city.

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‘American in Paris’ shines with wonderful Gershwin music plus terrific set design and dancing

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Put together George Gershwin’s stirring music, Ira Gershwin’s delightful lyrics, Craig Lucas’ thoughtful book, Christopher Wheeldon’s  exceptional choreography and direction and Bob Crowley’ amazing set design.

Henri (Nick Spangler) and dancers perform a fantasy number at a Parisian club. Photos by Matthew
Henri (Nick Spangler) and dancers perform a fantasy number at a Parisian club. Photos by Matthew Murphy

Then people their work with the fine dancing talents of McGee Maddox of the National Ballet of Canada and Sara Esty, former Miami City Ballet soloist.

Add in the excellent acting and vocal talents of Nick Spangler from Book of Mormon and of Adam Hockberg and Emily Ferranti from “Wicked.

With all that creativity and talent put into one show you’ll have an evening to remember at ‘American in Paris,’ now at the Oriental Theatre through Aug. 19, 2017.

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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