‘Hunchback’ has melodious ring

 

Hunchback of Natre Dame choir by Music theater Works in Cahn Auditorium, Evanston. (Photo by Brett Beiner)
Hunchback of Natre Dame choir by Music theater Works in Cahn Auditorium, Evanston. (Photo by Brett Beiner)

4 stars

I was curious to imagine how this epic story that features a soaring gothic cathedral in the heart of Paris would be portrayed at Music Theater Works’ Cahn Auditorium venue.

But from the moment the curtain rose revealing the stunning scenic set design and twenty-four member choir for MTWs’ “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” the audience was thoroughly captivated.

Set around 1492 the essence of this operetta is derived from Victor Hugo’s  epic novel of the same name with similar themes of intolerance, injustice, abuse of power, and “man’s inhumanity to man” as in his “Les Miserables.”

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Always remember ‘All That He Was’

 

'All That He Was.'  L to R:  Ethan Warren,  Rick Rapp. (Photos by Nicholas Swatz)
‘All That He Was.’
L to R: Ethan Warren, Rick Rapp. (Photos by Nicholas Swatz)

4 stars

 

First, a gentle warning to theatergoers planning to see”All That He Was,” a deeply moving, sometimes humorous new musical by Pride Films & Plays at The Buena: bring along lots of Kleenex.

When theatergoers walk into The Buena, they may be surprised to discover that they’re about to attend a funeral. The entire theatre has been transformed into an outdoor, park-like space.

This sepulchral space is highlighted by a tasteful garden of plants and flowers surrounding an arbor and peppered with places to sit and the stage is festooned by strings of tiny white lights.

A poignant AIDS-inspired, mostly sung-through musical, “All That He Was” is a newly revised version of the original, award-winning one-act by Larry Todd Cousineau (book and lyrics) and Cindy O’Connor (music).

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‘Women of 4G’ – Lost in space

 

Fast forward to the year 2094, 75 years in the future when”Women of 4G,” presented by Babes with Blades, tackle Earth’s uninhabitable air.

Cast of Women of 4G (Photo courtesy of Babes With Blades)
Cast of Women of 4G (Photo courtesy of Babes With Blades)

3 stars

Because of the arrogance and stupidity of our world leaders, the earth’s fragile environment has now been totally destroyed. With the planet’s atmosphere almost completely polluted, mankind is literally gasping its last breath.

In one final, heroic attempt to insure  another 500 years of life, a team of seven superior female scientists and their lone male Captain, have been sent on a life-and-death mission into outer space.

Once into the cosmos, the crew of 4G plan to launch a lifesaving satellite, brilliantly developed by one their own, LT Wollman. This celestial orb promises to reverse the harmful gases and lethal rays that have destroyed earth’s precious oxygen supply.

But something else has gone deadly awry. At the top of the play, the audience learns that the ship’s captain has been murdered. Playwright Amy Tofte’s often funny, frequently violent feminist science fiction melodrama quickly evolves into an intergalactic whodunnit?

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When comedy expresses pain at ‘International Falls’

 

Sean Higgins and Marie Weigle ( Pphoto by Katie Reynolds)
Sean Higgins and Marie Weigle ( Pphoto by Katie Reynolds)

4 stars

Set in a Holiday Inn hotel room in International Falls, Minnesota, traveling comedian Tim has come to the end of the road while front desk clerk Dee wants to escape her life. Together they explore the use of comedy to mask their sadness and express their pain.

Tim (Sean Higgins) shares his unsuccessful quest to find his own unique voice and urges Dee (Marie Weigle) to find hers, stressing that honesty and authenticity is what is important.

In “International Falls,” playwright Thomas Ward evidently understands that struggle and has clearly met the challenge writing some of the most authentic and honest dialogue I have ever heard on stage.

Presented by by the Agency Theater Collective in partnership with End of the Line Production, Ward’s brilliant dialogue comes to life as spoken by Higgins and Weigle. You feel like you are sitting in their hotel room witnessing the events unfold.

Higgins’ cringingly awkward stand-up asides are perfectly painful and his obvious discomfort with himself combined with false bravado is portrayed with appropriate nuance.

Weigle’s pent up frustration, emerging confidence and vulnerability is palpable but never goes over the top.

The blocking was seamless and meaningful.

The naturalness of the actors can only be achieved when they have a critical eye assuring them that what they are doing is right.

Director Cody Lucas clearly gets credit for pulling this small ensemble together into a beautiful unified performance. Orchestrating the emotional level with symphonic accuracy, Lucas dials up the emotions to peak levels that never gets shrill, then dials them back down to create a needed contrast that keeps the audience engaged and caring about the characters.

This voyeuristic experience is further enhanced by the intimate setting of the Nox Arca Theatre which is actually a small industrial space on the 5th floor of a concrete loft building on the corner of Irving Park in the Ravenswood corridor. Scenic Designer Soli Eisenberg has done a brilliant job of incorporating the natural elements of the room to create the effect.

By the way the music mix before the show began was awesome.

DETAILS: “International Falls” is at Nox Arca Theatre, 4001 N. Ravenswood Ave, #405. Chicago, through August 31, 2019. Running time is 90 minutes with no intermission. For tickets and information visit We Are the Agency.

Reno Lovison

For more shows visit Theatre in Chicago

A Funky Journey at BET

Cast of 'You Can't Fake the Funk' at Black Ensemble Theater. (Alan davis photo).
Cast of ‘You Can’t Fake the Funk’ at Black Ensemble Theater. (Alan davis photo).

2.5 stars

“You Can’t Fake the Funk (A Journey Through Funk Music)” presented by Chicago’s Black Ensemble Theater works hard to “turn this mutha out.”

“There’s a whole lot of rhythm goin’ round” in this energetic performance written and directed by the company’s own producing and managing director, Daryl D. Brooks.

The journey through the history of funk is hosted by Dwight Neal as Dr. Funk and takes place aboard the “Mothership,” an allusion to  George Clinton and the Parliament Funkadelic’s 1975 platinum album “Mothership Connection.”

Clinton actually incorporated a spaceship as part of the scenery into his concerts but BET’s homage does not do it justice and Denise Karczewski’s lighting didn’t do too much to help, particularly if you consider the lighting effects prominent in the disco style shows of this time.

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‘Love, Chaos & Dinner’ at Teatro Zinzanni

 

Teatro Zinzanni dinner theater entertainment in the Cambria Hotel, Chicago. (Photos courtesy of Teatro Zinzanni)
Teatro Zinzanni dinner theater entertainment in the Cambria Hotel, Chicago. (Photos courtesy of Teatro Zinzanni)

 

4 stars

 

You arrive at the 14th floor of the Cambria Hotel to be greeted by a bevy of smiling faces, all of whom are there to happily launch your theatrical experience.

If you’ve ever been on a cruise ship, you’ll understand what awaits you. At the far end of the theatre lobby there’s a huge bar, where all manner of beverages await your order, including a complimentary glass of champagne.

Then, with a fanfare, the company of waitstaff announce that the 300+ seat Spiegeltent is now open and ready for your entertainment and dining pleasure. And with that, you’re off and running for three hours of nonstop munching, merriment and mayhem.

Seated at one of the linen-covered tables arranged in-the-round on various levels, the audience is waited upon by cheerful, exuberant waitpersons. The delicious, four-course dinner, developed and overseen by “The Goddess,” Debbie Sharpe, begins with an appetizer, that already waits at your table.

Your waiter takes your order of entree you prefer (braised beef short ribs, a pasta dish, vegetarian Thai curry, roasted chicken breast or herb roasted salmon); he also records a credit card, in the event you decide to order additional drinks. While you’re enjoying your first course, you start to take in your gorgeous surroundings.

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Kiss

Cast of Kiss, a Haven production at The Den. (Photo courtesy of Haven)
Cast of Kiss, a Haven production at The Den. (Photo courtesy of Haven)
3 stars

 

 

There are so many unexpected twists and turns in this exciting drama, that seeing this one-act as the finale to Haven’s current season. is truly an emotional experience.

At first, the play is masked as a melodrama about four friends in Damascus who are united in their addiction to watching a particular soap opera but Chilean playwright Guillermo Calderon has written a political story.

The play opens in Hadeel’s somewhat bland-looking apartment. This lovely young woman who’ll be hosting the evening’s get-together, settles in to relax and watch some television before her guests arrive for their viewing party.

Suddenly, there’s a knock at the door. Arriving much earlier than the others, Youssif enters the living room with something important on his mind. Without giving away too much, suffice it to say that long before the televised soap opera’s fireworks start, the emotional pyrotechnics of real life begin.

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‘Now and Then’ is sweet and tender

 

Cast of Now and Then at The Pride Arts Center. (John Olson photo)
Cast of Now and Then at The Pride Arts Center. (John Olson photo)

3 stars

 

“Now and Then” on stage at The Pride Arts Center is an uneventful love story that celebrates the ultimate fulfillment of a long term relationship.

Daniel and Greg meet at a college open mic night and stay together for 42 years. Daniel is an aspiring singer/songwriter while the more pragmatic Greg has aspirations of being a stand-up comedian.

The two men seek achievement in their careers, struggle to pay the rent, and ultimately find happiness and contentment through their commitment to each other while learning along the way that the key to success in love is a giving heart.

The story is told largely though song by six actors who portray the couple in three stages of life.

The unique aspect of this production is that all six actors are often on stage interacting together, suggesting perhaps that we are at every moment in our lives our current selves, our past selves and our future selves.

The young Daniel (Will Fulginiti) and young Greg (Benjamin Walton) represent the couple’s budding youthful romance. Alex Smith and Carl Herzog portray Greg and Daniel respectively in the growing years of their relationship. Skip Sams as Greg and the play’s songwriter and lyricist Dennis Manning as Daniel play the elder couple.

Just as Greg and Daniel’s relationship is based on a chance encounter, so too is the relationship between Manning and “Now and Then’s” writer, producer/director Ronnie Larsen.

Larsen met Manning in 2018 when he learned that the mattress salesman was also a songwriter. After hearing Manning’s songs Larsen penned the play and had it on stage within months. Larsen is clearly a talented theatrical craftsman to have created this piece in such a short period of time.

The fact that the songs were already written is both its strength and its weakness. Larsen uses Manning’s well written songs effectively but in the aggregate they sound like a singer/songwriter’s songbook, very unified in style.

What the music lacks from a theatrical point-of-view is a sense that a particular song was written for a particular character to achieve a particular emotion at a particular point in time.

In spite of that criticism the very capable cast uses musical dynamics to vary the mood and add drama where it is needed. “Solitary Man” is the lynch-pin song that both opens and closes the play.

Manning does yeoman’s work as the primary guitarist, but hey, these are his songs, while Will Fulginiti brings much needed youthful energy to the production with his exuberant guitar playing style and portrayal of young Daniel.

Benjamin Walton as young Greg provides much of the show’s humor. Herzog and Smith add conflict and each have memorable musical moments. Skip Sams as the elder Greg brings a sense of calm that brings the play to its ultimate resolution.

Some might want to quickly conclude that this is a “gay play” but that would be putting it in a box that limits its message. Rather, it is a play about love and commitment featuring characters who happen to be gay, but it speaks to anyone who might appreciate and value the benefits of a life well lived that is based on mutual support and true love.

This is a perfect chance to see this play before it moves to London in September 2019.

DETAILS: “Now and Then” is at The Pride Arts Center, 4139 N. Broadway, Chicago through August 11, 2019. Running time: 2 hours with one intermission. For tickets and other information visit Now and Tnen the Musical.

Reno Lovison

For more shows visit Theatre in Chicago

 

‘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.

 

‘Pomona’ as a dark mobius strip of a story

 

Pomona at Steep Theatre. (Photo courtesy of Steep Theatre)
Pomona at Steep Theatre. (Photo courtesy of Steep Theatre)

3 stars

In the dark, dystopian world that young, British playwright Alistair McDowall creates, reality unexpectedly oozes into the science fiction thriller and then, just as suddenly leaches back out again.

This surrealistic play is a kind of mobius strip of a story. The non-linear plot pops back and forth between the present and the future. It kicks all logic deep into the murky  shadows that envelope Joe Schermoly’s nightmarish scenic design, and reality turns into an M.C. Escher-like staircase to nowhere.

McDowall’s play begins in a car driven by a verbose man named Zeppo (the always excellent Peter Moore) who goes to great lengths to describe the plot of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” to Ollie, his confused traveling companion.

Throughout his enthusiastic narration, as Zeppo devours a bag of McDonalds’ chicken nuggets, we learn that Ollie, played with empathy by Amber Sallis, is meeting with Zeppo because she’s desperate to find her twin sister who disappeared. Ollie hasn’t contacted the police because her sister, who may or may not actually exist, might’ve been involved in some shady dealings.Read More