‘Dear Evan mixes great songs with needy plot

The North American touring company of Dear Evan Hanson. (Photos byh Matthew Murphy)
The North American touring company of Dear Evan Hanson. (Photos byh Matthew Murphy)

3 1/2 stars

It’s not breaking news that teenagers experience angst in high school from parental to peer pressure and from wanting to fit in to having a best friend and from feeling insecure or inadequate to not knowing how to express one’s self or experiencing bouts of depression. In addition there are teens on drugs, troubled teens and teens contemplating suicide.

It’s also not breaking news that actions go viral because someone is always around snapping and recording on a cell phone or that some of the so called stories out there are “fake news.”

Add to the mix that either teenagers think their parents don’t understand them or that they want something from them they are not able to manage. There is also the issue of parents who are so busy with other aspects of life that they are not around when needed.

In the hands of songwriters Ben Pasek and Justin Paul (who later did “La La Land”) and playwright Steven Levenson (Days of Rage) those issues coalesce in the Broadway hit musical, “Dear Evan Hansen,” directed by Michael Greif (“Rent,” “Next to Normal”).

There have been a lot of shows that deal with family problems but what seemed to set this one apart upon seeing it when the national tour hit Chicago this week, were the extraordinary songs that expressed Evan’s wistful feelings such as “You Will Be Found,” Waving Through a Window and “For Forever.” Evan’s mom, Heidi who after her husband left them, works and goes to class so is seldom around, also gets her heart wrenching song, “So Big, So Small.”

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Five shows to take the mind off winter

 

Writers Theatre in Glencoe is interesting outside and on stage. (Jodie Jacobs photo)
Writers Theatre in Glencoe is interesting outside and on stage. (Jodie Jacobs photo)

 

If escaping to somewhere warm hasn’t worked out this year then escape instead to a fun or interesting play that takes you to a different time or place.

 

“All Childish Things,” a crazy plan to steal Star Wars toys from a warehouse encounters the Dark Side, at First Folio in Oakbrook through Feb. 24. The show is appropriate for Star Wars fans ages 12 and up.

Seeing a show at First Folio is an experience because it is in the Mayslake Peabody Estate, a supposedly haunted mansion in a Du Page County Forest Preserve.

 

“The Producers,” Mel Brooks zany plot to make money on a show by producing a flop, is at the Paramount  Theatre in Aurora through March 17, 2019.

Paramount is worth the drive to Aurora because the shows there are full-blown, Broadway-style productions with excellent casts and great scenic design, costumes and orchestration.

 

“Dear Evan Hansen,” a complicated scenario dealing with mental health, fitting in, bullying and other problems teens face in high school, is at the James M Nederlander Theatre (formerly Oriental) through March 10.

The Tony-Award winning musical is starting its National tour in Chicago as part of the Broadway in Chicago series.

 

“A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” a delightful Porchlight  Music Theatre production at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, through March 16.

If you haven’t seen a Porchlight musical, it’s time to add it to your go-to list.

 

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” a classic August Wilson play, is at Writers Theatre, Glencoe through March 17.

August Wilson presents, rather than tip toes through, confrontation, but he does so in unexpected ways. Plus, Writers Theatre is in an award-winning Jeanne Gang (Studio Gang Architects) designed structure.

 

Jodie Jacobs

 

 

Greek gods and monsters populate Percy Jackson musical

 

Kristin Stokes,l, Chris McCarrell and Jorrel Javier go on a hero quest in The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical. (Photo: Jeremy Daniel)
Kristin Stokes,l, Chris McCarrell and Jorrel Javier go on a hero quest in The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical. (Photo: Jeremy Daniel)

2 ½ stars

Fans of Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series about the trials and friendships among children of god and mortal coupling should understand and enjoy “The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical” now playing at the Oriental Theatre.

Adults not familiar with the series will get the idea from this low-budget (no real scenery changes), touring show that yeah, what Riordan calls “half-blood” youngsters not only have to please their mortal parent but also put up with and please their Greek god dad or goddess mom.

Because my granddaughter liked the series, I read the books, was hooked on their adventures and thought the show might be fun.

Well, it’s not bad. All it needs are some decent-singing voices aside from Chris McCarrell who does a fine job as Percy and his mom Sally, played by Jalynn Steele, who has the best voice in the cast.

The rest of the cast are certainly in character but it’s hard to understand all the words because they shout-sing in nasally, tinny voices.

Percy fans might not care but if a song is worth writing and singing it ought to be sung so audiences hear more than a couple of words.

And the songs, with music and lyrics by Rob Rokicki, are basically good. McCarrell puts over his frustration well in the “The Day I Got Expelled” and “Good Kid.”

Riordan’s page-turning story-telling, cleverly interpreted in the book by Joe Tracz, keeps audiences wondering what will happen next and how will these “kids” handle the next obstacle.

Director Stephen Brackett, scenic designer Lee Savage and lighting designer David Lander move the story along with obviously low-budget staging. Riordan fans likely don’t care. They just enjoy seeing how Percy, the love-child of powerful god Poseidon, handles his “hero quest” to bring his mom, struck down by a Minotaur,  back from the Underworld and also recapture Zeus’ lightning stolen by Hades.

The show is only in Chicago for a short time so Percy Jackson fans who want to see how Riordan’s story is interpreted on stage need to snag a ticket now.

DETAILS: “The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical” is at the Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph St., Chicago, through Jan. 13, 2019. Running time: 2 hours with one intermission. For tickets and other information call (800) 775-2000 and visit Broadway In Chicago.

Jodie Jacobs

For more shows visit Theatre in Chicago

Reflective and joyous ‘Fiddler’ deserves applause

Fiddler on the Roof (Joan Marcus photo)
Fiddler on the Roof (Joan Marcus photo)

3.5 stars

The exceptional voice and expressive movements of Israeli actor, dancer  Yehezkel Lazarov, alone, make the “Fiddler on the Roof,” the 2015 Broadway revival, worth the ticket.

Add  in the fine cast, Michael Yeargan’s creatively low-contrasting set design, Catherine Zuber’s dream-scene costumes and Christopher Evens’ recreated choreography  inspired in part by Jerome Robbins, and audiences see a memorable, highly charged, redo of the 1964 Tony-Award winning musical.

Current audiences may not remember that this musical with book by Joseph Stein based on tales by Sholem Aleichem including his “Tevye and his Daughters,” end with the villagers being forced by the Russia’s tsar to leave their homes.

But this revival has Lazarov, somewhat clothed contemporary-styled and holding a book, looking at the village’s railroad sign against the background noise of a speeding train.

Remember it because the show ends with Lazarov back in his opening apparel, pulling the “fiddler,” nicely done by Paul Morland, in to the exodus with him to the station.

And that is just the opening and closing of what Lincoln Center Theater Director (“My Fair Lady”) Bartlett Sher has wrought. Every song and every dance number elicited highly appreciative applause. Every interaction of the daughters fighting tradition in their quest for happiness had the audience worriedly wondering how Tevia would react and handle breaks with tradition.

Lazarov as a philosophical Tevye didn’t disappoint. What was disappointing was Maite Uzal’s shrewish interpretation of Tevye’s wife, Golde. The director ought to have her dial back her harsh, mean-spirited sounding responses. She can be strong-willed and even demanding without sounding nasty.

Of course the show features such memorable Jerry Bock (music) and Sheldon Harnick (lyrics) songs as “Tradition” “If I Were A Rich Man,” “Sunrise Sunset” and “To Life,”  with new orchestrations by “Ted Sperling.

However, except for Lazarov and the wonderful voice of Ruthy Froch as  second oldest daughter Hodel, the voices blend well instead of standing out on their own. Jesse Weil as Motel the tailor, sounded particularly weak making me wonder if he was nursing a cold.

The touring revival was the best-staged “Fiddler” I’ve seen in a long time. Just expect a long first act and a total 2 hours, 55 minutes (one intermission).

It’s an excellent production but given the musical’s length of almost three hours (15 min intermission) because of well-executed but too long dance sequences, a few minutes could be cut from the dances in both the first and second act and still have an exciting show.

DETAILS: “Fiddler on the Roof,” presented by Broadway in Chicago, is at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph St., Chicag0,  through Jan. 6, 2019. Running time: 2 hrs, 55 minutes (one intermission). For tickets and other information visit Broadway in Chicago.

Jodie Jacobs

For more shows visit Theatre in Chicago

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.

 

Two drinks or desperate for sophomoric comedy needed for this show

 

Cast of The Play That Goes Wrong. (Photo by Jeremy Daniel)
Cast of The Play That Goes Wrong. (Photo by Jeremy Daniel)

2 1/2 stars

The “clues” are all there before “The Play That Goes Wrong” supposedly starts that the title is justified.

Now at the Oriental Theatre the farce that goes over-the top to be wrong begins with audience interaction when the “manager,” says something about ticket problems and the guy at the controls and his stage crew member point out problems with the set and auditorium as needing more duct tape.

More than duct tape is needed to fix this farce, a touring “hit” of a show that began in England then moved to Broadway.

But audiences are warned that what they will see is supposed to be an amateur production by a university drama society of “The Murder at Haversham Manor,” an Agatha Christie- “Mousetrap” style mystery somewhat akin to the “Noises Off” farce.

Thus scenery mishaps and missed lines and are to be expected. After all, this is supposed to be farcical take-off of an amateur college production.  And some of the antics are funny.

The problem is that the longer the show goes on, sophisticated theater audiences will find it less witty and more juvenile. It probably does belong in the category frat house entertainment for visiting parents.

That said, designer/prop maker Chris Bean who is also the director, costume designer, voice coach, etc. etc. etc. nicely creates a flawed British manor house where doors don’t work, pictures fall of the walls and windows don’t open as they should.

DETAILS: “The Play That Goes Wrong” is at the Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randoph St., Chicago through Dec. 16, 2018. Running time: 2 hours with one intermission. For tickets and other information call (800) 775-2000 or visit Broadway in Chicago Shows.

Jodie Jacobs

For more shows visit Theatre in Chicago

‘Miss Saigon’s’ heat is on!

Anthony Festa (Chris) and Emily Bautista (Kim) in Miss Saigon at the Cadillac Palace Theatre. (Matthew Murphy photo)
Anthony Festa (Chris) and Emily Bautista (Kim) in Miss Saigon at the Cadillac Palace Theatre. (Matthew Murphy photos)

4 stars

After its 25th anniversary revival on Broadway in 2017, “Miss Saigon” is reappearing this year on a national tour.  Directed by Laurence Connor, the music is by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil, with lyrics by Boublil and Richard Maltby, Jr.

Loosely based on Puccini’s opera, “Madame Butterfly,”  “Miss Saigon” follows the final days of the Vietnam War.

The first lead character that opens the show is The Engineer played by Red Concepcion. The Engineer runs Dreamland, a steamy bar and brothel in Saigon that’s packed with beautiful Vietnamese women whom he has lined up for American soldiers.

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‘Hello Dolly’

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Betty Buckley & Hello, Dolly! National Tour Company. (Photos by Julieta Cervantes)
Betty Buckley & Hello, Dolly! National Tour Company. (Photos by Julieta Cervantes)

I’m glad you’re on stage in Chicago where you belong.

It doesn’t matter if Carol Channing, Bette Midler or Barbara Streisand come to mind, the current touring version with Theatre Hal l of Famer Betty Buckley as Dolly Levi, that  brash New York “meddler, matchmaker and miraculous handler of anything needed, is making her endearing way into audiences hearts.

Fortunately the tour is currently in Chicago at the Ford Oriental Theatre where audiences also get a terrific Horace Vandergelder in the person of consummate film and stage actor Lewis J. Stadlen and a talented supporting cast.

Both Nic Rouleau (Book of Mormon) as head Vanergelder clerk  Cornelius Hackl and his love interest, Analisa Leaming who  reprises her Broadway role as hat shopper owner Irene Malloy,enchant audiences with their wonderful rendition of  “It only Takes a Moment.”

While Jess LeProtto (Broadway “Hello, Dolly! Ensemble) pulls off exciting dance moves as junior clerk Barnaby Tucker and his love interest Kristen Hahn (Broadway, “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder), adds delightful comic relief as hat shop employee Minnie Fay.

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Four very different Chicago shows extend performances

 

Chicago’s theater productions are not only numerous and doing well, they are often extended to accommodate demand. Here are four show extensions with widely-different styles and themes that you might want to see.

Front, Rashada Dawan, Back left to right Emma Sipora Tyler and Tyler Symone. (Photo by Marisa KM)
Front, Rashada Dawan, Back left to right Emma Sipora Tyler and Tyler Symone. (Photo by Marisa KM)

Caroline, Or Change

A moving story with book and lyrics by Pulitzer Prize winner Tony Kushner (Angels in America) and score by Jeanine Tesori (Fun Home, Violet) the show has been extended to Nov. 11, 2018. It is a Firebrand Theatre/ TimeLine Theatre production at The Den Theatre, 1329-1333 N. Milwaukee Ave. For tickets and other information call (773) 697-3830 and visit Firebrandtheatre. For more about the show visit Change can be difficult.

 

Downstate

Steppenwolf Theatre Company extends its world premiere production of a difficult subject by Pulitzer Prize-winning ensemble member Bruce Norris through Nov. 18, 2018. For reviews of the show visit TheatreInChicago. For tickets call (312) 335-1650 and visit Steppenwolf.

 

WaistWatchers The Musical

The Chicago premiere of this funny salute to friendship, fitness and food at the Royal George Theatre, 1641 N Halsted St.,has been extended through Dec. 31, 2018.  For tickets and more information visit WaistWatcher the Musical. For a review of the show visit WaistWatchers.

 

Hamilton Company at Private Bank Theatre Photo by Joan Marcus
Hamilton Company at Private Bank Theatre Photo by Joan Marcus

 

Hamilton

Once again, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s mega hit about Alexander Hamilton co-starring his wife and her family and his fellow founding fathers, has been extended. Tickets are available through May 26, 2019. The show is at the Private Bank Theatre, 18 W. Monroe St. For tickets and other information visit Broadway In Chicago. For more about the show and to see a review visit Hamilton is worth the hype.

 

Jodie Jacobs

 

 

Pure magic beyond your imagination

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Henry Boshart as Charlie Bucket and Noah Weisberg as Willy Wonka in Charlie and the Chocolagte Factory. (Photo by Joan Marcus)
Henry Boshart as Charlie Bucket and Noah Weisberg as Willy Wonka in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Roald Dahl’s timeless 1964 classic comes to life on stage in this phenomenal, highly-imaginative production of  “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” now playing through October 21 at the Oriental Theatre in Chicago.

Capturing the dreams of the young and young at heart, the musical tells the story of the world-famous chocolatier Willy Wonka. Sales of his candy are down, so he holds a contest to award a tour of his factory to five lucky “golden ticket” winners.

Featuring a cast of zany characters, including an impoverished Charlie Bucket, the children and their families go on a life-altering journey through Wonka’s factory with surprising results.

With direction by three-time Tony Award® winner Jack O’Brien, the show features music by Grammy®, Emmy® and Tony Award® winner Marc Shaiman with lyrics by Grammy® and Tony Award® winners Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman.

Superb scenic and costume design by Mark Thompson recreates the colorful world of Willy Wonka. Innovative choreography by Joshua Bergasse highlights the show.

Gene Wilder starred in the 1971 film with such wonderful songs as “Pure Imagination,” “The Candy Man,” and “I’ve Got a Golden Ticket.” New music has been added to the show from the songwriters of “Hairspray,” including the powerful and visually beautiful, “The View from Here.”

Noah Weisberg as Willy Wonka and company in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. (Photo by Joan Marcus)
Noah Weisberg as Willy Wonka and company in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

It was fun to watch the numerous children in the audience as they experienced the Oompa-Loompas, eye-popping visuals, glass-elevator and crazy demise of the “spoiled” children.

My only issue with the show is the lack of consistent sense of place. Charlie’s family looks like they’re from the 1940s, Mike Teavee’s mom is straight out of the 1950s, while Mike has an I-PAD and Violet Beauregarde is a contemporary “Queen of Pop.”

Noah Weisberg is delightful as the purple-caped, top-hat-wearing Willy Wonka. He portrays Wonka with innocence and charm, yet a touch of evil.

Henry Boshart (Collin Jeffery and Rueby Wood alternates) steals the show as the downtrodden Charlie Bucket. He dreams of a better life for himself, his widowed mom and four beloved grandparents. He’s adorable, high energy with a sweet singing voice.

The real stars of the show are the Oompa-Loompas, creatively imagined as puppets and humans dancing together and the incredible dimensional visuals showcasing a world of candy, color and animation that are pure magic. The entire show is a graphic feast to behold.

“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” is an ideal show to introduce children to the world of musical theater.

DETAILS: “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” is at the Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph St. through Oct. 21, 2018. Running time: 2 hrs. 30 min. with one intermission. For tickets and other information, visit  Broadway in Chicago.

Mira Temkin

For more shows visit Theatre in Chicago