A Touching, Tragic Tale

Hedwig and the Angry Inch at Theo Ubique. (Austin D. Oie Photography)
Hedwig and the Angry Inch at Theo Ubique. (Austin D. Oie Photography)

 3 1/2 stars

First of all be warned. “Hedwig and the Angry Inch, may not appeal to every taste. Audiences who attend this four-time, 2014 Tony Award-winning musical should be comfortable with in-your-face performances, deafening rock music, blinding concert lighting and 95 minutes of adult humor and a brazenly bold backstory.

The theatergoer who considers Rodgers & Hammerstein or Lerner & Loewe the hallmarks of the American musical probably won’t love a show that’s this garish and loud. However, younger, less conservative audiences, as well as the many devotees of this cult musical, will find everything to love about Theo Ubique’s finale to their first season, now playing in Evanston through July 28.

The show began as a modest little rock musical that told the story of Hedwig Schmidt, a young, queer, glam, rock singer who underwent gender reassignment surgery.

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The hidden agenda of ‘Four Places’

 

Meg Thalken, Bruch Reed and Amy Montgomery in 'Four Places' at The Den Theatre.' (Michael Brosilow photo)
Meg Thalken, Bruch Reed and Amy Montgomery in ‘Four Places’ at The Den Theatre. (Michael Brosilow photo)

4 stars

Theatergoers who prefer their dramas as real and affecting as everyday life should run to see this extraordinary production, now in its final performances at the Den Theatre.

Joel Drake  Johnson’s 80-minute one-act which plays out in real time, speaks to every member of the audience, but particularly to those between ages 40 and 65.

Smartly and perceptively directed by Lia Mortensen, a fine actor, herself,  she expertly guided a gifted, four member ensemble as they breathe life into their characters and avoid artificial schmaltz.

Eleven years ago Johnson’s heartbreaking, emotionally stunning play premiered at Chicago’s Victory Gardens. This revival production is every bit as poignant and passionate as the original. What makes the play particularly powerful is the intimacy of the Den’s upstairs 2B Studio venue. The actors are never more than a few feet from the audience, allowing this compelling, sometimes caustic, characters to reach into the hearts of its audience.

The story is about a bitter confrontation and intervention between a mother and her two middle-aged children.

Peggy and her widowed daughter, Ellen, have a weekly lunch date at the same local eatery. They’re always seated in Barb’s section, a chatty waitress who has a special, protective fondness for Peggy.

On this particular day, the dynamics change when Peggy’s 40-year-old son, Warren, unexpectedly joins them. From the beginning of the play, something unspoken between the two siblings creates a tension that you can cut with a knife.

As the hour unfolds, the audience gradually discovers the secrets and lies that these family members have kept hidden, and they learn what this mediation is all about.

The four places of the title are the car, the restaurant, the waiting room of the eatery and diner’s restroom, all wonderfully and modestly created by scenic designer Jeffrey D. Kmiec, assisted by Milo Bue.

Melissa Schlesinger’s detailed sound design along with Josh Prisching’s area lighting perfectly help delineate each of the four locales.

The cast is absolutely magnificent. Every actor in this ensemble production belongs to Actor’s Equity. Affiliation in this professional guild often guarantees a stellar production, and this staging is no exception. Each of these  actors has performed at every major Chicago area theatre.

Meg Thalken, the senior member of this brilliant ensemble, is sheer perfection as Peggy. With her upswept hair and her handbag clutched in a death grip, Thalken is completely believable as this complicated, conflicted mother.

At first Peggy seems innocent, although she’s suspicious as to why Warren is suddenly joining Ellen and herself for lunch. It’s a weekday and her son should be in school teaching, but, for some vague reason, Warren has invited himself along.

As information unfolds and emotions peeled away, Peggy remains a sympathetic character, an aging woman fiercely trying to hang on to her dignity and independence.

Amy Montgomery is superb as Ellen. Together with the always masterful Bruch Thomas Reed, as Warren, these two siblings plot, palter, bitterly plead and run the gamut of emotions, from guilt to indignation as they pry information from their mother and attempt to sensitively reveal their plans for her future.

The bumpy road to their hidden agenda digs deeply, exposing buried secrets dealing with aging, disease, alcoholism, pent-up resentments and coping with the inevitable.

Rebekah Ward is both clever and comical as Barb the busybody waitress who’s just a little too familiar with her customers.

One of the highlights of this production is the long car ride during which very little is said, but the faces of these three actors speak volumes.

The Den Theatre’s excellent revival of Joel Drake Johnson’s poignant one-act drama is sometimes searing, often humorous and ultimately heartbreaking.

The show, the Den Theatre’s return to producing its own plays and musicals, is a must-see.

DETAILS: “Four Places” continues through June 30, 2019 at the Den Theatre, 1331 N. Milwaukee, Chicago. Running time: 80 minutes. For tickets and other information call (773) 697-3830 or visit The Den theatre.

Colin Douglas

For more shows visit TheaterInChicago.

 

‘Sweet Texas Reckoning’ has racism and homophobia plus a happy ending

 

Sweet Texas Reckoning at The Den. (Photo by Heather Mall)
Sweet Texas Reckoning at The Den. (Photo by Heather Mall)

2 1/2 stars

The word that keeps coming to mind, while watching Traci Godfrey’s story about a family reunion in Texas, is “cliched.” The hour-and-forty-five minutes spent with these four characters offers glimmers of brilliance but ultimately feels like a special Pride Month movie on the Lifetime Channel.

Had this “dramedy” been written by a playwright who could offer some honest, new insights into what makes people tick, especially in small, conservative towns, it would’ve been a far more honest portrayal. There’s a germ of a good idea here. But, in the hands of Horton Foote, Preston Jones or Tennessee Williams, this story wouldn’t be nearly as banal and stereotyped.

Set in the conservative, southeastern town of Sealy, Texas, Godfrey’s play is about a woman who for decades, has been drowning her guilt, bigotry and lies in her secret stash of bourbon.

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Playing It the company way

Ken Singleton (J. Pierrepont Finch) in Music Theater Works’ How to Succeed in Business Without really Trying. (photo by Brett Beiner)
Ken Singleton (J. Pierrepont Finch) in Music Theater Works’ How to Succeed in Business Without really Trying. (photo by Brett Beiner)
4 stars
The bouncy overture winds down, the curtain rises and we find a young man in coveralls descending from above in the Music Theater Work’s “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.”
J. Pierrepont Finch, an ambitious young window washer, is discovered reading Shepherd Mead’s tongue-in-cheek instructional book of the same name, while dangling from scaffolding above Madison Avenue.
Narrated for this production by NPR news quiz host, Peter Sagal, the book progresses chapter-by-chapter, charting the recommended course for Ponty’s rise to power in the business world.
Now, bear in mind that this how-to manual, a 1952 best-seller by Shepherd Mead, subtitled “The Dastard’s Guide to Fame and Fortune,” was written as a parody of the popular self-help books of that era. Between this book’s unfailing advice and Finch’s pluck and pizzazz, this likable kid is undoubtedly destined to rise to the top…or is he?
It’s hard to believe that this show which set a new standard for musical comedy satire, is almost 60 years old now. The hummable score by Frank Loesser (“Guys & Dolls,” “Most Happy Fellow”) features a libretto by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert, adapted from Mead’s humorous book of the same name.
The musical has a field day lampooning the seeming ease with which an entry level employee can rise to the top of the corporate ladder. A film preserving the performances of most of the original cast was released in 1967. This 1962 Pulitzer Prize and eight-time Tony Award winner has been successfully revived twice on Broadway, earning additional Tony Award nominations and wins.
Throughout the play, whenever it seems the darkest, the young, eager beaver aligns with precisely the right people to learn from and suck up to, as well as the easiest loopholes to infiltrate, in order to reach the top. And when all those elements are out of reach, Ponty employs his considerable boyish charm, ultimately helping him to achieve success.

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Let’s live life through music . . .

Cast of Falsettos. (Joan Marcus photo)
Cast of Falsettos. (Joan Marcus photo)

4 stars

In 2017 when “Falsettos” returned to Broadway, it was nominated for five Tony Awards, including the Best Revival of a Musical.  Now two years later, this fabulous musical is in Chicago, directed by playwright James Lapine with music and lyrics by William Finn.

Taking place in New York in the 1970s, we meet a charming, neurotic gay man, Marvin, played by Max Von Essen; along with his 10-year-old son, Jason, played by Thatcher Jacobs.

We also meet psychiatrist, Mendel (Nick Blaemire) and Marvin’s wife Trina (Eden Espinosa)whom he leaves for his lover, Whizzer (Nick Adams).

“Falsettos” second act introduces two lesbian neighbors of Marvin’s, Dr. Charlotte (Bryonha Marie Parham) and Cordelia (Audrey Cardwell).

Performed by phenomenal voices, “Falsettos’ ” wonderful songs tell the story throughout the show.

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‘The Memo’ brings a dystopian message from Vaclav Havel

Tricia Rogers (Director Gross) in 'The Mem.' (Photo by Anna Gelman)
Tricia Rogers (Director Gross) in ‘The Mem.’ (Photo by Anna Gelman)

 

3 Stars

“The Memo” is an interesting if not important piece of theater as it was written by Vaclav Havel who went on to become a player on the world stage in the role of reformer. Havel served as the last President of Czechoslovakia, then as the first President of the Czech Republic from 1993 to 2003.

Written in 1965, it was originally translated into English as “The Memorandum” by British writer Vera Blackwell in 1967. The Organic Theatre production is using the later translation from 2006, encouraged and approved by Havel, written by Canadian Paul Wilson and re-titled “The Memo.”

This is an absurdist black comedy that might be described as Monty Python meets “Office Space” in the “Twilight Zone.”

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Chicago shakes “Six” wives

 

Cast of 'Six" at Chicago Shakespeare. (Liz Lauren photo)
Cast of ‘Six” at Chicago Shakespeare. (Liz Lauren photo)

3 Stars

The Chicago Shakespeare Theater presents the North American premiere of the energetic pop-concert musical “Six” by Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss featuring the story of the six wives of England’s 16th Century monarch Henry VIII.

The fate of the queens are apparently remembered by English school children using the rhyme “divorced, beheaded, died; divorced, beheaded, survived” which becomes the leitmotif of the opening number as the women introduce themselves to the audience.

A series of nine musical numbers centered around a common theme with virtually no dialog, this production is more of a pop-concert than what you think of as traditional musical theater.

Presented as a kind of musical competition, each of the “Six” wives takes turns telling her life story, including her relationship with the notorious Henry.

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Augie March misadventures

Cast of Augie March at Court Theatre. (Michael Brosilow photo)
Cast of Augie March at Court Theatre. (Michael Brosilow photo)

2 ½ stars

Free-Style Chaos Defines Augie March

This theatrical version of “The Adventures of Augie March,” at the Court Theatre perhaps serves to illustrate why the popular novel by Chicagoan Saul Bellow has never before been adapted to the stage.

The story line basically follows everyman hero Augie March (Patrick Mulvey) as he meanders aimlessly through life allowing the people he meets to shape his journey. In this way Bellow suggests the arbitrariness of life and is perhaps a cautionary tale of the dangers of undefined goals.

The play opens in the Atlantic Ocean with Augie and his maniacal companion (John Judd) floating in a lifeboat after the sinking of their merchant ship.

During a flashback, Augie’s odyssey begins in the 1930s depression era crowded apartment he shares with his mother (Chaon Cross), two brothers and an overbearing Russian Jewish grandmother (Marilyn Dodds Frank).

Along the way Augie meets an odd assortment of characters which is one of the hallmarks of Bellow’s writing as he reveled in the peculiarities and idiosyncrasies of humanity.

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‘August Rush’ not ready for prime time

The cast of August Rush at Paramount Theatre in Aurora. (Liz Luaren photo)
The cast of August Rush at Paramount Theatre in Aurora. (Liz Luaren photo)

2  1/2 Stars

There’s no denying that John Doyle is a gifted genius. The artistic director of Classic Stage Company in New York City, Doyle has won awards for his productions of beautiful “Passion,” “Carmen Jones” and “The Visit.”

He’s primarily known for his much-acclaimed, pared down productions of “Sweeney Todd” and “Company,” where, in addition to acting, singing and dancing, the reduced cast also provided all the musical accompaniment.

His latest production, adapted from a popular 2007 film of the same name, is now enjoying a pre-Broadway tryout at the Paramount Theatre in Aurora where Doyle has simplified the story and amped up the musical component with mixed results.

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‘Undeniable Sound’ is undeniably worth seeing

Henry Greenberg (Jeff Mills) and Lena (Lindsay Stock) in Undeniable Sound of Right Now at Raven Theatre. (Photo by Michael Brosilow)
Henry Greenberg (Jeff Mills) and Lena (Lindsay Stock) in Undeniable Sound of Right Now at Raven Theatre. (Photo by Michael Brosilow)

4 Stars

 There is so much to like about “The Undeniable Sound of Right Now” by Laura Eason at the Raven Theatre in Edgewater. It’s a snapshot of one of the many evolutionary changes that is inevitable in a growing and vibrant city.

Set in the fall of 1992 Hank (Jeff Mills), the owner of a Chicago dive bar, slash, live music venue, is in the autumn of his career in the midst of evolving musical tastes and gentrification that threaten everything he has built.

Hank has two great loves – live music and his twenty-one year old daughter Lena (Lindsay Stock) who grew up above the club and shares her dad’s enthusiasm for music.

Lena is anxious to expand her horizons to include the emerging style of “house,” a genre of electronic dance music of the era created in Chicago that features D.J.’s as the curators of the musical experience.

Her dad is a traditionalist who feels that D.J.’s are not musicians and that electronic music is in opposition to the live music he has championed for twenty-five years.

Thus the conflict is established,. It plays out in the confines of a neighborhood tavern that, like its owner, is definitely showing its wear.

The set design by Jeffrey D. Kmiec and decorated by Lacie Hexom is reminiscent of the many neighborhood watering holes that once dotted the Chicago map from north to south in this working class city.

In the earlier half of the 20th century Chicago boasted 10,000 “shot and a beer” joints. Most have closed or been converted to fern bars and pubs.  Those that survived like Hank’s are loved-to-death by countless elbows, decorated through neglect and illuminated with the ever present twinkling strand or two of Christmas lights.

These establishments retain and reflect a bit of each of the individuals and groups that made this particular venue their social hub, and Hank’s clientele have indeed left their unique mark on this location.

But neighborhoods, music, and people change; and we are all forced to face the changes that are an inevitable part of growing up and growing older. What is undeniable is the here-and-now and the sounds it makes.

Hank has little patience for nostalgia and no stomach for being viewed as a legend. The question is how do you confront the end of an era?

The story involves non-traditional family relationships and various forms of love which in this case includes Hank’s longtime, off-again on-again, salt-of-the-earth girlfriend, Bette (Dana Black), who accepted the role of surrogate mother in the absence of Lena’s birth mother

It is clear the two women have a true affection for each other which was all the more poignant on the Mother’s Day performance I attended.

Jeff Mills in the Undeniable Sound of Right Now at Raven Theatre. (Michael Brosilow photo)
Jeff Mills in the Undeniable Sound of Right Now at Raven Theatre. (Michael Brosilow photo)

Stock is spot on and perfectly embodies the role of Lena who is smart, savvy and charismatic. It is no wonder that she is adored by her “parents” as well as the club manager, Toby (Christopher Acevedo), the landlord’s son Joey (Casey Morris),  and Nash (Henry Greenberg) the up-and-coming D.J. each vying in one way or another for her attention.

No doubt casting director Kanome Jones made Director BJ Jones’ life a little easier by providing an outstanding ensemble.

Eason has done a terrific job of juggling a number of ideas yet pulling it all together into one well-crafted unified whole. She understands Hank’s reluctance to turn over the reins and sympathetically advocates for the youthful exuberance of Nash and Lena.

Meanwhile the supporting roles of Bette, Toby, and Joey are fully fleshed characters with their own important contributions to the plot. Her dialogue is authentic and at times emotional without becoming saccharine.

When I don’t know much about a play I try to keep it that way until I see it. This was surprisingly different than what I expected, thinking it was going to be more of a jukebox musical.

It does have some recorded music as background as well as a few short riffs and verses admirably played on guitar by Mills – choices of sound designer Lindsay Jones. Music is integral to the story but it is not a musical.

If you are afraid that the indie music rock scene is not a genre you understand or enjoy do not let this dissuade you. The theme of the story is universal and the musical references are incidental. This can be any time period and any inter-generational conflict.

I predict this production will be deemed Jeff worthy with special recognition of Lindsay Stock and maybe BJ Jones and Kmiec as well.

Don’t miss this one. If you have experience with an aging business owner, a music maker, or someone affected by change that they feared or were reluctant to face this will likely resonate with you.

DETAILS: “The Undeniable Sound of Right Now” is at Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark Street, Chicago through June 16, 2019. Running time is 90 minutes with no intermission. For tickets and information call (773) 338-2177 and visit raventheatre.com.

Reno Lovison

For more shows visit Theatre in Chicago