A playwright views show business

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Audiences don’t have to ask themselves what do playwrights sometimes think about directors, actors and backers.  Moss Hart gives his answer in his 1948 spoof, ‘Light Up the Sky.’

L-R Geoff Isaac, Laurie Carter Rose, Robert Frankel, Jordon Golding and Chuck Quinn in 'Light Up the Sky' at Citadel Theatre. (Photos by North Shore Camera Club)
L-R Geoff Isaac, Laurie Carter Rose, Robert Frankel, Jordon Golding and Chuck Quinn in ‘Light Up the Sky’ at Citadel Theatre. (Photos by North Shore Camera Club)

Now at Citadel Theatre, the play offers a behind-the-scenes scenario where a veteran director and actress and a new backer go from fairly confident before the curtain rises, to devastated when they think the show is a failure, to we-have-a-hit exultation when the reviews come in.

Usually co-authoring a play with George S. Kaufman in the 1930s  such as ‘You Can’t take it with you’ and Merrily We Roll Along,’ Hart wrote ‘Light Up the Sky alone in the late 1940s. It was first produced in 1948. BTW, Hart moved to writing screenplays in the 1950s.

He already had several successes by this time but in the play, the playwright is portrayed as a newbie who speaks from his gut about the state of the world. The actors and audience aren’t sure what it is about, however the backer feels it is important and a winner.

But on opening night the playwright doesn’t even stay for the curtain. Everyone feels it was a dud and they are ready to close it. The playwright leaves for the airport.

Then, a Shriner at the hotel for a very noisy convention, stops at the room to apologize for this friends and says he would like to back a future play because he wants to be part of the theater business. He brings reviews which show that the critics unanimously love what the playwright is trying to do.

L-R Chuck Dribin, Sarah-Lucy Hill, Robert Frankel and Lauren Miller in 'Light Up the Sky.
L-R Chuck Dribin, Sarah-Lucy Hill, Robert Frankel and Lauren Miller in ‘Light Up the Sky.

Brought back to the hotel from the airport by force upon a request of the backer who has with mob connections, the playwright is venomous in his condemnation of directors, actors, backers and audiences. And yes, he did have a chance to read the reviews at the airport.

Rather than a tribute to show business, the play is more like a comedic, deliberately exaggerated, putdown of the people who populate it. and audiences who don’t understand a show’s message. But it also seems to declare that if play writing is in your blood you learn to put up with others’ foibles and develop a hard shell.

At the end, the playwright is convinced by a seasoned playwright to persevere. So he decides to stay and fix his play for the remaining out-of-town tryouts before going to Broadway.

All the action takes place in the leading lady’s suite at the Ritz in Boston, the town where the play is premiering before possibly heading to Broadway.

The veteran playwright who has worked with the leading lady in his plays, is visiting her in her suite before the show. He calms the young playwright with advice about accepting both the good and frustrating aspects of show-business.

Directed by Pat Murphy, the play is populated by characters with over-the-top personalities such as Carleton Fitzgerald, interpreted as an emoting, emotional director by Geoff Isaac and as Francis Black, played by Sarah-Lucy Hill as a NYC, nasally-sounding, ice-skating, show-girl married to backer Sidney Black.

Surprisingly, Rob Frankel as Sidney who has mob connections, doesn’t sound like a gangster but plays the role with terrific, intelligent, take-charge fortitude. Similarly, Laurie Carter Rose isn’t overly dramatic as the leading lady Irene Livingston but still personifies celebrity.

The sanity foils to the overblown persona in this show are Chuck Quinn, very believable as  veteran playwright Owen Turner, Irene Currie who is charming  as Livingston’s bio-ghostwriter Miss Lowell, and Jim Heatherly as Shriner William H. Gallagher.

In the hands of Jordan Golding, playwright Peter Sloan shows two sides:  quiet  and anger.

Added to the mix are the star’s mother, Stella Livingston, a delightful, gin-playing character performed with verve by Lauren Miller, and the star’s husband, Tyler Rayburn, a Wall Street broker, acted with great humor and facial expressions by Chuck Dribin.

Scenery by Eric Luchen and costumes by Paul Kim nicely set the right period and place.

The play offers interesting insight from different perspectives from a playwright who knows what it takes to get to Broadway. But though fun, it doesn’t have to be two and a half hours long. The first act definitely can be shorter. Perhaps one intermission of 15 minutes could replace the two ten minute breaks.

‘Light Up the Sky’ is at Citadel Theatre, 300 S. Waukegan Rd., Lake Forest, through Oct. 29, 2017. For tickets and other information visit Citadel.

 

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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Chekhovian takeoff is serious fun

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Imagine children named for popular characters who then take on some of those people’s  characteristics in situations similar to their namesake’s and you get some idea of what to expect in ‘Vanya and Sonia and Masha And Spike.’

Ellen Phelps (sonia), Billy Minshall (Vanya) and Sisie Steinmeyer (Masha) at Citadel Theatre. Photo by North Shore Camera Club
Ellen Phelps (Sonia), Billy Minshall (Vanya) and Susie Steinmeyer (Masha) at Citadel Theatre. Photo by North Shore Camera Club

Written by satirist and witty playwright Christopher Durang, and directed  by Mark E. Lococo, Loyola University Director of Theatre, the play is currently bringing chuckles to the Citadel stage in Lake Forest.

When Vanya’s adopted sister, Sonia, says she had a bad dream – “I’m 52 and not married,” he answers, “You are 52 and not married.” He asks her if her dream was a documentary.

Seriously funny, the play is, in a sense, a tribute to Anton Chekhov’s understanding of sibling relationships, middle-aged angst and boredom.

A mash-up of Chekhov’s characters in ‘The Seagull,’ ‘Uncle Vanya’ and ‘The Three Sisters,’  the action plays out in a Bucks County, PA farmhouse in an increasingly attractive region outside of Philadelphia. Kudos to Scenic Designer Michael Lewis for creating a terrific setting on Citadel’s intimate stage.

Vanya and Sonia, named by their late parents who were professors, still live in the house where they grew up but it is owned by their sister Masha, a successful actress who pays the bills instead of an aging, male relative. Of course the land includes somewhat of a cherry orchard.

The play’s title, alone, clues audiences in to Durang’s play as a Chekhovian takeoff. Instead of an aging professor bringing his young, beautiful wife home, Masha shows off her young lover, Spike who likes to undress to show off his bod.

Add to the mix, Cassandra, a colorful psychic cleaning lady, blends Greek tragedy with Haitian voodoo for some delicious, almost Carol Burnett-style comedy.

It all works because of perfect, inspired casting.

Billy Minshall, Father Mark in Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding is the ideal, philosophical, gay Vanya. He is writing a play seen through the eyes of a molecule that is left when the earth destructs. His rage at Spike’s representing current cultural and societal change, is worth the price of admission.

Multi-talented actress/director Ellen Phelps wears the life-has-passed-me-by Sonia role so well she might have just stepped out of Chekhov’s world. But unlike a Chekhov play, she goes to a costume party, her first outing in years, and dresses as Maggie Smith going to an Oscar ceremony. Afterwards, Phelps does an amazing phone piece as a woman who doesn’t know how to respond when a man she met at the party calls for a dinner date.

Susie Steinmeyer, outstanding in Citadel’s ‘Lend Me A Tenor’ and ‘Jake’s Women,’ projects just the right amount of celebrity aura and angst as an  actress who doesn’t want to admit shes aging.

Chicago Shakespeare Theater regular Colin Morgan is superb as the witless boy-toy Spike. Lizzie Schwarzrock is delightful as ingénue Nina, a next door neighbor who admires Masha and wants to be an actress.

Judy Lea Steele, a veteran of Chicago theater, brings the house down when she crazily warns of various misfortunes as Cassandra.

North Shore theater goers are lucky to have the production so close but it is worth a trip north for Chicagoans.

Vanya and Sonia and Masha And Spike’ is at Citadel Theatre, 300 S. Waukegan Rd. lake forest, now thru May 28, 2017. For tickets and other information call (847) 735-8554 or visit Citadel.

 

‘Upright Grand’ at Citadel is 90 minutes of amazing theater

Charlotte Mae Ellison (Kiddo) and Mark Ulrich (Pops) in 'Upright Grand.' Photo by North Shore Camera Club
Charlotte Mae Ellison (Kiddo) and Mark Ulrich (Pops) in ‘Upright Grand.’ Photo by Kyle Techentin.

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Citadel Artistic Director Scott Phelps has taken a riviting script about parent-child relationships by playwright Laura Schellhardt (think ‘Auctioning the Ainsleys’) and placed it in the intelligent hands of Jeff award winning director Scott Weinstein.

But to really pull off multiple messages on growing up, fulfilling dreams and responsibilities,  Citadel cast the play with Chicago area veterans who ought to be up for Jeff nominations in their “Upright Grand” roles.

The father, a talented pianist called Pops who tells personal stories while playing at the Broken Man’s Bar is Mark Ulrich.

Charlotte Mae Ellison as his daughter, Kiddo, is perfect as a 12–year-old with all the angst of a teenager who is suspended for writing “School is crap” on her academy’s wall, later, as the sophisticated accomplished 21-year-old who is on a concert circuit and at the end when she comes home and…. OK, won’t put in spoiler alert here.

The third figure is Matt Edmonds who literally plays as the Accompanist. He is a shadowy figure for father and daughter, a piano tuner who compares people to pianos that are out of tune or in tune. Later he is Todd, son of Pops’ friend Toady from the bar.

Premiered at Theatre Works in Pal Alto, CA at its 2012 New Works Festival, the play examines how one’s parental role and responsibility or lack, influences the next generation and how sometimes those actions are not understood until years later.

Pops goes through life as an absentminded professor who doesn’t know how old his daughter is at different stages but “retires’ from the bar to encourage her to focus on piano when he learns she is gifted. He sees his own dad as far from encouraging him with his musicianship.

By the play’s end, a successful Kiddo understand what her father went through and voices what probably many adults think when she says “I’d go back if I could.”

A charming part of the play is that throughout the different stages, Kiddo asks her father for one of his stories and audiences get to hear snatches from classical and popular music.

Something to think about is how to characterize a person or family. Pops’ family were farmers. He plays an upright piano. His wife’s family are wealthy and have endowed a musical academy. They have a grand  piano.

A phrase to think about that is said during the show is “We’re more upright than grand.”

Unfortunately,  “Upright Grand”  is only at Citadel through March 26, 2017.

Details: Citadel is at 300 S. Waukegan Rd., Lake Forest, IL. For tickets and other info call (847-) 735-8554 and visit Citadel.

 

Elemeno Pea’ takes a satiric view of society angst and sibling squabbles

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It would likely be hard for some people to fault Simone (Sarah Hect) for enjoying her lifestyle among Nantucket’s wealthy second-home residents even if as an assistant she has to cater to Michaela’s (Grayson Heyl) every insecure whim.

Sarah Hecht, Grayson Heyl, Maggie Kettering and Nick Fanti in 'Elemeno Pea' at Citadel Theatre. Photo by North Shore Camera Club
Sarah Hecht, Grayson Heyl, Maggie Kettering and Nick Fanti in ‘Elemeno Pea’ at Citadel Theatre. Photo by North Shore Camera Club

It is also understandable that Simone’s sister Devon (Maggie Kettering) who has made a shambles of her own life, despises what she sees as snobbish attitudes.

During the show it is learned that ‘Elemeno Pea’ refers to a section of the alphabet song that one of the sisters was unable to distinguish as individual letters.

The sisters squabble about everything while Michaela’s life tumbles downhill when she realizes her husband, often mentioned but never seen, is going to divorce her.

A sort of stand in for the husband is Ethan (Nic Fanti) who is a family friend with little more to do than manage his portfolio and travel.

Debuted at the 2011 Humana Festival of New Plays, the show is currently at Citadel Theatre in Lake Forest where it is well acted, staged and directed.

What stops this satire from being a great play is that it would benefit from some judicious editing of the sisters’ squabbles and Michaela’s hand-wringing.

In addition, it could use some intelligent dialogue on marriage, spousal expectations and family obligations.

It is also learned way too late in the play why Michaela’s marriage is in trouble. Playwright Molly Smith Metzler had employee Jos-B (Ray Andrecheck) reveal the cause near the show’s end instead of dropping hints earlier. Audiences like clues.

At 90 minutes, the play is not long but it feels lengthy. There is too much building the background. It delays understanding several complex, important points.

Details:b“Elemeno Pea” is at Citadel Theatre, 300 S. Waukegan Road, Lake Forest, IL now through March 5, 2017. For tickets and other information visit Citadel and call ( 847) 735-8554 ext. 1.

 

Holiday shows on and off the radar

If you’ve lived in the Chicago area more than a year or have visited it during the holidays in past years, some shows and events spring quickly to mind when talking about traditional doings. Others are less likely to make it to the calendar simply because they’re not necessarily headliners in a city rich in good theater, music, dance and art.

Nutcracker returns with World Fair setting at Auditorium Theatre. Joffrey Ballet photo
‘Nutcracker’ returns with World Fair setting at Auditorium Theatre. Joffrey Ballet photo

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Holiday fun times five

The signs of the season are there. Macy’s windows have come alive with moving characters, holiday market tents are going up in Daley Plaza, a giant evergreen is hoisted in Millennium Park and people are wondering if we should pray for cold to have good ice in the park or warm weather for good shopping.

The Nutckracker is at Marriott Theatre. Amy Boyle Photography
The Nutckracker is at Marriott Theatre. Amy Boyle Photography

No matter what the weather holds, here are a few of the jolly, holly ways to celebrate the season in the Chicago area.

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