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Past presidents discuss events and each other in American Blues Theater's 'Five Presidents.' (Photo courtesy of American Blues Theater.)
Past presidents discuss events and each other in American Blues Theater’s ‘Five Presidents.’ (Photo courtesy of American Blues Theater.)

‘Five Presidents’

3 stars

Rick Cleveland’s fictionalized docudrama, which is generously laced with comic zingers and one-liners that lighten the subject, imagines a 90-minute get-together between past presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, and the current “Leader of the Free World”, Bill Clinton.

The year is 1994 and the setting is a gathering room in the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, CA, tastefully designed by Grant Sabin and nicely lit by Alexander Ridgers.

The occasion for this meeting is the funeral of President Richard Nixon. Even though these five men would’ve greeted each other on this occasion, it’s unlikely that they spent an hour and a half talking together about so many different topics.

For most of the play, the five living members of this exclusive club banter about each other’s faults and failings and recite  the various foreign and domestic policies that each President passed while in office.

The one plot point that runs throughout the play is that President Ford has decided he no longer wants to deliver his portion of Nixon’s eulogy but the other four try to convince him otherwise.

President Regan keeps offering to come to the rescue by volunteering to speak extemporaneously. However, the other men are aware that Reagan is in the onset of Alzheimer’s and understand how disastrous his eulogy might be.

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‘The Spitfire Grill’ shines

 

The Spitfire Grill at American Blues Theater. (Photos by Michael Brosilow)
The Spitfire Grill at American Blues Theater. (Photos by Michael Brosilow)

4 stars

American Blues Theater’s latest offering doesn’t just touch your heart; it enfolds your soul in warmth and caresses you with its humanity. Like the song that one character sings, this production “Shines.”

It’s impossible to experience this folksy musical without shedding a tear or feeling a lump in your throat. At its core, this little musical is a celebration of the simple things in life.

With music by James Valcq, lyrics by Fred Alley and a book co-adapted by both artists from the film of the same name, this is a warm, heartfelt story of redemption and hope. It’s a show we could all use right now because it’s so positive.

The composers eschewed a big, brassy score to instead create a gentle mixture of folk, country, pop and bluegrass spiced with just a touch of Celtic influence

Musical director Malcolm Ruhl brings the lovely score to life on accordion, with Ian Paul Custer on piano, Greg Hirte on violin, Scott Sedlacek on guitar/mandolin and Magdalena Sustere on cello. Although told primarily through its music, the simple tale rejoices in its quieter, more reflective moments.

Director Tammy Mader really understands this musical and demonstrates, once again, why she’s become one of Chicago’s preeminent directors. Staged with sincerity and artistry, Mader takes us on an emotional journey that audiences aren’t likely to forget. She creates some gorgeous stage pictures, allowing movement to flow organically.

Like the season during which the play begins, the attitudes of this small town are initially cold and guarded. But, like Spring, the weather and people in Gilead soon begin to warm up. Color, light and love gradually fill the stage.

In this intimate Stage 773 venue, actors are never very far from the audience. The line between theatergoer and actor seems to disappear as patrons become comfortable and feel like almost a part of the story.

The Spitfire Grill at American Blues Theater. (Photos by Michael Brosilow)
The Spitfire Grill at American Blues Theater. (Photos by Michael Brosilow)

This is thanks, in part, to Sarah E. Ross’ rustic scenic design within a forest setting. Jared Gooding’s mood-altering lighting design conveys the earthiness along with the changing Wisconsin seasons. Costumer Lily Grace Walls has designed a realistic wardrobe for the characters, at first in earth tones of brown beige, and eventually bursting with color and patterns like the town itself.

The cast is exceptional. Each actor brings personality and honesty to his or her character. Their powerful voices are filled with pain, healing and, ultimately, blissful happiness.

The always splendid Jacquelyne Jones carries the show playing tough, ex-con Percy Talbott. As her own tragic story begins to blend with the suspicious, gossiping folks around her, Percy’s protective walls start to crumble and secrets are revealed.

The magnificently talented Catherine Smitko is doing some of her finest work in this production. She’s feisty, but real, grounded and humane as Hannah, the bitter, yet motherly owner of the Spitfire Grill.

And lovely Dara Cameron is shy, touchingly withdrawn and emotionally battered as Shelby. Her performance is at once heartbreaking and hopeful. Shelby provides the gentle friendship to Percy that helps the young woman to soften and trust again.

Together, these three talented actresses are transcendent and provide the heart and soul of this production.

All three actresses display excellent, expressive, professionally-trained voices. Jacquelyne Jones’ “A Ring Around the Moon,” which opens the play, is stunning. Dara Cameron’s exquisite “When Hope Goes” tells how the town and its residents have changed over the years. The two women share their hopes and dreams in the wonderful “The Colors of Paradise.” In “Forgotten Lullaby,” Catherine Smitko’s Hannah discovers the deep-rooted feelings and haunting memories that she’s buried for years.

Completing the cast are handsome Donterrio Johnson as Joe, the town sheriff and Percy’s parole officer. He beautifully sings of his own wishes for the future in “This Wide Woods.”

Karl Hamilton plays Caleb, Shelby’s abusive husband, a bitter man who lives in the shadow of an MIA war hero. His melancholy can also be attributed to losing his job after the local quarry closed (“Digging Stone”). Ian Paul Custer is gentle and touching as the mysterious Stranger, a role guaranteed to bring a tear to the eye. And Gabrielle Lott-Rogers is very funny as Effy, the town’s nosy, outspoken postmistress and effusive gossip-monger.

Mader’s production is simply wonderful. It’s pitch perfect in every way, from her magnificently talented cast, to her  creative team who help bring the show to life. She presents a heartfelt story with characters and music as cozy and welcoming as comfort food, the perfect anecdote to all the negativity that surrounds us today.

This is really a must-see production, a tale told by a gifted theatre company that absolutely “Shines.”

DETAILS: “The Spitfire Grill” is at American Blues Theater at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago through August 17. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes. For tickets and other information call (773) 654-3103 or  visit American Blues Theater.

Colin Douglas

For more shows visit TheatreInChicago.

 

Thriller on Clover Road

Philip Earl Johnson explains to Gwendolyn Whiteside how the deprogramming is going to work. (Photo by Michael Brosilow)
Philip Earl Johnson explains to Gwendolyn Whiteside how the deprogramming is going to work. (Photo by Michael Brosilow)

3.5 stars

“On Clover Road” keeps you on the edge of your seat.

It’s not often that a play comes around that creates such drama and suspense,  your heart races and you might have to look away. Such is the case with the live performance of “On Clover Road,” playing at American Blues Theater through March 16, 2019.

The title itself implies a bit of luck that finding a four-leaf clover might bring. In a sense, the play is about luck too, both good and bad, and how it impacts the characters.

Written by Steven Dietz and directed by Halena Kays, “On Clover Road” tells the story of an angry, frustrated mother who meets with a cult de-programmer believing she will be reunited with her runaway daughter. Her daughter has been gone for more than four years and the mother has all but given up hope. Read More

Top 10 shows of the year

 

Lyric Opera House (J Jacobs photo)
Lyric Opera House (J Jacobs photo)

Chicago area theaters put on so many excellent productions that picking our top 10 shows is not merely challenging, it also reflects individual points of view, entertainment preferences and theater and music backgrounds. Readers are welcome to disagree and comment with their own suggestions.

This year, we also are including Broadway in Chicago and Lyric Opera contenders because Chicago audiences attend those productions and support those organizations with subscriptions.

A bit about our reviewers: Reno Lovison, Pam McKuen, Francine Friedman, Mira Temkin and editor Jodie Jacobs are professional writers who have contributed over the years to a variety of publications. Read more in the About section of Chicago Theater and Arts. Their selections could each have extended to five and more but were narrowed down to two apiece.

 

Reno Lovison

“Haymarket”

“Haymarket” was an important Chicago story, well performed and included appropriate Bluegrass music reminiscent of labor-oriented folk songs. See review of this Underscore Theatre Company’s production at Haymarket.

“The End of TV”

“The End of TV” made me a Manual Cinema fan, offering a fresh way to experience live performance utilizing old and new technologies. See review of the Manual Cinema production at The End of TV.

(***: In spite of my two picks I find myself periodically thinking about “Arcadia” and “Fear and Misery in the Third Reich” but probably more as a result of the playwright than the players.)

 

Pam McKuen

“Once”

A Paramount Theatre production, “Once” is a sweet but short-lived romance with an imaginative set and an upbeat cast of congenial music-makers that was put on at a suburban jewel. See review of Once.

“On Your Feet”

A Broadway in Chicago presentation at the Cadillac Palace, “On Your Feet” is the life story of Emilio and Gloria Estefan. It has everything you’d want in a musical: global hits, glitzy costumes, dramatic lows and comedic punches. I’d see it again. See review at On Your Feet.

 

Francine Friedman

“Miss Saigon”

Loosely based on the opera “Madame Butterfly,” the musical “Miss Saigon” embraces the relationship between an American GI and a young Asian woman while it follows the final days of the Vietnam War.  The play’s touring company of wonderful actors, singers and dancers, along with real photos of orphaned, war-born American/Asian children displayed in its second act, brought the musical to life.  See review at Miss Saigon.

“Women of Soul”

At the Black Ensemble Theater through Jan. 21, 2019, “Women of Soul” is a tribute to many well-known female singers, covering their different genres and numerous years.  In addition to the wonderful performers who sing their famous tunes, many newly-revealed details of how their careers blossomed and how some of their lives ended adds insight to their backgrounds. And the closing tribute to the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, brought everyone to their feet. See the review of Women of Soul.

 

Mira Temkin

“The Buddy Holly Story”

An American Blues Theater production, this high-energy biopic of singer/songwriter Buddy Holly kept the music going at a frenetic pace as a testament to the amazing talents of star, Zachary Stephenson and the entire cast. Even though “it was day the music died, according to Don McLean,” the audience never wanted it to end. See review at Buddy Holly Story.

“A Shayna Maidel”

What is family? Can it be created or reborn? “A Shayna Maidel” performed as a revival by TimeLine Theatre, answers these  thoughtful questions in a most profound way. See review at A Shayna Maidel.

(*** Also agree that “Miss Saigon” is among the year’s best. This new versio, now on on tour ,takes out all the stops in theatrics, wowing audiences as one of the most spectacular musicals ever written and produced. Contemporary theatre goers can’t help but get caught up in the past, knowing how the war ended with the cost in human life and how many Vietnamese orphans the U.S. left behind.)

 

Jodie Jacobs

“La boheme”

Lyric Opera of Chicago’s “La boheme” was extraordinary theater. It had everything from inventive scenery and creative staging to exceptional acting, singing and orchestration. Fortunately, it continues in January, 2019.  See the review at La boheme.

“Steadfast Tin Soldier”

Audiences have come to expect unusual presentations from Lookingglass Theatre. However, Mary Zimmerman’s adaptation and direction of the “Steadfast Tin Soldier,” has to be seen to really appreciate its outstanding pantomime and puppetry. See the review at Steadfast Tin Soldier.

 

1940’s come alive in ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’

Custer, Cameron, Robinson, Dahlquist, Joseph, Mohrlein (Photo by Michael Brosilow)
Custer, Cameron, Robinson, Dahlquist, Joseph, Mohrlein (Photo by Michael Brosilow)

4 stars

If you haven’t been invited to a holiday party yet or are just feeling ready to get into the Christmas spirit, you can’t do much better than the American Blues Theater’s staged radio show version of Frank Capra’s classic “It’s a Wonderful Life-Live in Chicago!.”

In this production, the theater is set up to give the illusion that you are part of the studio audience for a live radio broadcast in 1944 at WABT Studio on Belmont Avenue in Chicago.

There is a spinet piano, stage left, and three old-timey microphones on stands across the front where most of the action takes place.

Stage right is an array of apparatus where Foley artist Shawn J. Goudie will add sound effects. Above the piano is a lighted sign which displays the words “On Air” and “Applause.”

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Thoughts on the Jeff Awards

Benson, Mahler, Stevenson and McCabe (preview) in Buddy-The Buddy Holly Story, an American Blues theater revival. (Michael Brosilow photos)
Benson, Mahler, Stevenson and McCabe (preview) in Buddy-The Buddy Holly Story, an American Blues theater revival. (Michael Brosilow photos)

Some very fine performances and productions were honored at the 50th anniversary of the Jeff Awards Oct. 22 at Drury Lane in Oakbrook Terrace.

As an example, American Blues Theater’s “Buddy – The Buddy Holly Story”  received the most awards:  Production – Musical -Midsize, Director Lili-Anne Brown, Principal Performer in a Musical Zachary Stevenson, Music Director Michael Mahler,and Ensemble – Musical or Revue.

But think about it.  When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences name the Oscar winners each year, movie goers who haven’t seen the award-winning shows still can catch them on DVD, Netflix and other film distributes.

There are arguably many people who would still like to see the American Blues Theater’s production.Read More

Theater Sneak Peak: Part Three Belmont/Lakeview/Wrigleyville

 

Sometimes it’s nice to know what a theater company you like is doing for its next season and the dates to put on your calendar. The “Sneak Peak” series does just that, listing the companies by area .

Descriptions of shows will follow in the next series which will be by category such as world premier, classic, Halloween and holiday.

Meanwhile click on the venues in “Sneak Peak” for the theaters’ own details. BTW, some companies use theater and others use theatre, thus the differences written here are deliberate and not typos.

 

Anthenaeum Theatre

The venue is at 2936 N. Southport Ave. Black Button Eye Productions is doing “Nightmares and Nightcaps: The Stories of John Collier” here, Aug. 17 – Sep 15 in Studio Two. and Dream Big Performing Arts Workshop is doing “Alice and Wonderland Jr. Aug. 17- 18 on the Main Stage.

Studio One has “Bliss (Or Emily Post is Dead)” through Aug 25 and Studio Three has “Bus Stop” through Aug. 19, 2018.

“The Dark at the Top of the Stairs” is in Studio Three Nov. 22-Dec. 16 and  “The Elder Son” is in Studio Two, Nov. 15-Dec. 22.

For tickets and other information call (773) 935-6875 and visit Athenaeum Theatre.

The Proscenium (Pro) at Stage 773. (A Stage 773 photo)
The Proscenium (Pro) at Stage 773. (A Stage 773 photo)

 

Mercury Theater

The theater is at 3745 N. Southport Ave. Currently, “Avenue Q” has been extended through Nov. 4, then “Pippin” is in the  Venus Cabaret Theater, opening TBA followed by its annual “The Christmas Schooner, date also TBA.

For tickets and other information call (773) 325-1700and visit Mercury Theater.

 

Stage 773

A multi-theater venue, Stage 773 is at 1225 W. Belmont Ave.

American Blues Theater is doing  “Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story” through Sept. 15, then “Flyin’ West” Oct. 5-Nov. 3 and its annual holiday show, “It’s a Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago”  Nov. 15, 2018-Jan 5, 2019.

Hell in a Handbag has “The Artificial Jungle” Sept. 23-Oct. 28. and “The Golden Girls: The Lost Episodes” Oct. 13-Nov. 3.

The Degenerates are doing “Potty Talk”  Sept. 3- Oct. 29.

For tickets and other information call (773) 327-5252 and visit Stage 773, American Blues Theater, Hell in a Handbag Productions and The Degenerates Theatre

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The Buddy Holly Story – How Rock Got Rollin’

 

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Benson, Mahler, Stevenson and McCabe (preview) in Buddy-The Buddy Holly Story, an American Blues Theater revival. (Michael Brosilow photos)

Refresh your memory. How rock ‘n  roll  was  changed  by  the  guy with the big glasses from  Lubbock, Texas is worth the trip back in time when taken there by the American Blues Theater’s “Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story.”

“Buddy” tells  the  tale  of  singer/songwriter Buddy  Holly  and the Crickets through  an all too brief career ended by tragedy. Yet, some 50 years later, his music  continues to be played and loved by a whole new generation.

Classic  songs include: “That’ll  be  the Day,” “Maybe Baby,” “Peggy  Sue,”  “It’s so Easy to Fall in Love,” “The  Big  Bopper’s,”  “Chantilly  Lace,”  “Ritchie  Valens,”  “La  Bamba,”  plus  many  more.

When performing the biography of a legend, how successful the show is depends on who plays the star. In this case, Zachary Stevenson who performed in Paramount’s “Million Dollar Quartet,” is spectacular.

Not only does he physically resemble Holly, but he exudes Holly’s dynamic energy and has all his dance moves down pat, such as hopping on one foot as he plays the guitar. Stevenson’s portrayal of Holly is a joy to watch.

Angela Alise, Liz Chidester, Vasily Deris, Ann Delaney and Molly Hernanez (Preview) in Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story.
Angela Alise, Liz Chidester, Vasily Deris, Ann Delaney and Molly Hernanez (Preview) in Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story.

But credit must be given to the entire ensemble whose amazing performances, both vocally and with a range of instruments, are stellar.

Piano, violins, bass, electric guitar and drums glide in and out throughout the show. Although they don’t appear until late in the second act, Cisco Lopez as Ritchie Valens and Vasily Denis as Big Bopper are outstanding.

“Buddy: The  Buddy  Holly  Story,” an American Blues Theater revival is written  by Alan  Janes and directed with precision by Lili-Anne  Brown. Musical  direction  is by ensemble  member  Michael  Mahler and costume design is by Samantha C. Jones who must have a ball putting these 1950’s costumes together.

The first act is filled with lots of upbeat Holly music as his career ascends. But it’s a hard act to follow since the audience knows what’s going to happen

However, instead of ending on a downer the show explodes with more of Holly’s music as an enduring testament to his legacy. The audience never wanted it to end.

Prepare yourself for one fabulous night of theater!

DETAILS: The Buddy Holly Story is an American Blues Theater production at Stage 773, 1225  W.  Belmont  Ave., Chicago, through May 26, 2018. For tickets and other information call (773) 327-5252 or visit American Blues Theater.

Mira Temkin

For more shows visit Theatre in Chicago

Wonderful is an understatement

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

‘This Wonderful Life,’ and adaptation of Frank Capra’s 1946 classic film, “It’s a Wonderful Life,”  could have many other adjectives added to its title, such as “fabulous, extraordinary, unique and marvelous” to name just a few.

James Leaming in This Wonderful Life. Photo by Michael Brosilow
James Leaming in This Wonderful Life. Photo by Michael Brosilow

Playing at the American Blues Theater, it’s a one-man show  written by Steve Murray, directed by Carmen Roman and starring James Leaming.

After doing the production across the country for the past ten years, Leaming has now brought the play to Chicago, garnering numerous awards along the way.

If familiar with the movie, you know the story encompasses several characters. Learning successfully portrays them all in eighty uninterrupted minutes.

He begins the play in a story-telling style as George Bailey, Mr. Potter, Clarence the angel, Uncle Billy, Mary Bailey and many more.

While the play is both touching and hilariously entertaining, he keeps it simple for the audience to follow with their imaginations.

In addition, the sparse but effective props and beautiful photos displayed as scenery contribute to one’s memories of the famous film.

Leaming accurately describes the play as a love story, especially when Clarence the angel shows George how different the small town of Bedford Falls would be if George had never been born.

He quotes Clarence who says “Each man’s life touches so many others” and “No man is a failure to his friends.”

When Leaming asked the audience members how many had seen the iconic film before the play began, 99% raised their hands. The movie has become a regular showing on television as the year-end holidays approach.

As with the film, the play, ‘This Wonderful Life,’ is a must-see production!

Leaming brings quite an impressive dramatic background to the production. He trained at American Conservatory Theater and Second City, and he has appeared at Steppenwolf, Northlight, Victory Gardens, Goodman, Drury Lane, Peninsula Players, and other venues. He also has many credits in films and television, and is a founding Ensemble member of the American Blues Theater.

DETAILS: ‘This Wonderful Life’ is at The Edge Theater, 5451 N. Broadway, Chicago through Nov. 26, 2017. Running time: 80 minutes, no intermission. For tickets and more information, call (773) 654-3103 or visit American Blues Theater.

Francine Pappadis Friedman

For more shows visit TheatreinChicago.