‘Invisible’ reminds us of the power of bigotry and hate

 

L to R: Megan Kaminsky, Morgan Laurel Cohen, Barbara Roeder Harris, Richard Cotovsky. (Photo by Michael Brosilow)
L to R: Megan Kaminsky, Morgan Laurel Cohen, Barbara Roeder Harris, Richard Cotovsky. (Photo by Michael Brosilow)

4 stars

The year is 1925 in the deep South and the KKK is expanding its reach to include the women folk who will spread their doctrine of racism against African Americans, Jews, immigrants and Catholics in Mounds, Mississippi.

Making its world premiere at Her Story Theatre, “Invisible” is an imaginary tale of one woman who can’t rationalize her involvement in the Women’s Ku Klux Klan movement with her own moral compass and sense of decency.

Mabel Carson’s friends have convinced her that this is the path to take to make America great with the slogan, “America for Americans.”  Yet when a reporter from the Chicago Tribune arrives on the scene, Mabel begins to question their ideals, methodology and the nature of true friendship.

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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.

 

Sneak Peek at next season in Mid-North neighborhoods

 

Lobby of the Athenaeum Theatre on Southport Ave., Chicago. (Photo courtesy of the Athenaeum Theatre )
Lobby of the Athenaeum Theatre on Southport Ave., Chicago. (Photo courtesy of the Athenaeum Theatre )

Chicago Theater and Arts “Sneak Peek” series looks at what will be on stage at a venue you like and also lets you know about some shows you might want to put on the calendar that you didn’t know were coming to Chicagoland.. Part Four searches the area from Athenaeum to Wit.

Part One was Looking ahead to the next theater season starting with Broadway in Chicago. Part Two was Theaters Downtown and on the Mag Mile.) Part three  was what will be on stage in the Lincoln Park and Near North areas. When this series is over, the next will break shows down by category as Halloween, Christmas, world premier, classic.

Enjoy the new season

For more details, tickets and subscriptions click on each theater’s link. Theater is not a typo. Some production companies use theatre others theater.

 

Athenaeum Theatre

A multi venue operation, the building is at 2936 N. Southport Ave. This summer, Eclipse Theatre Company is doing “Beyond Therapy” through Aug. 18, 2019 on Stage Three.

This fall The Right Brain Project presents “(Non) Fiction” Aug. 22-Sept 15, in Studio One. This winter Eclipse Theatre Company  will do “Why Torture is Wrong and the People Who Love Them as the last part of the 2019 Christopher Durang series.

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

 

Mercury Theater

The building is at 3745 N. Southport Ave.  Monty Python’s “Spamalot” is there Aug. 30 to Nov. 3, 2019. For tickets and future shows call (773) 325-1700 and visit Mercury Theater.

 

Stage 773

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

American Blues Theater is currently doing a revival of “Spitfire Grill – The Musical” through  Aug. 17 in the Pro Theater, Black Button Eyes has “Ghost Quartet” through Aug. 17 in the Box Theater and Fearless Fiction Productions is doing “Murdering Macbeth,” Aug. 29 to Sept. 8 in the Thrust Theater.

In addition, David Gosz & Leo Fotos are presenting their musical about living with mental health, “Tru,”   Nov. 1 to Nov. 24 on the Thrust Stage. Her Story Theater is doing “Invisible” Oct. 3  to Nov. 3 in the Box Theater and American Blues Theater is doing a revival of “Five Presidents’ Sept. 6 to Oct. 19 in the Pro Theater, followed by its annual holiday show, “It’s a Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago”  Nov. 14, 2019 to Jan 4, 2020, also in the Pro theater.

Stage 773 also hosts cabarets and one-night shows. To see those listings visit Stage 773/All Shows.  For tickets and other information call (773) 327-5252 and visit Stage 773.

 

Strawdog Theatre Company

The theatre is at 1802 W. Berenice. Strawdog is doing “The Effect” Oct. 13 to Nov. 23 and “ Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins” Saturdays and Sundays in December, 2019. TBA is the winter of 2020 show. “Welcome to Keene, New Hampshire” is April 16 to May 30, 2020. For tickets and other information call (773) 528-9696 and visit Strawdog.

 

Theater Wit

A shared venue, Theatre Wit is at 1229 W Belmont Ave.

Currently on stage is Kokandy Productions’ “Head Over Heels – The Musical” through Aug. 25, 2019.  Remy Bumppo Theatre, a resident Theater Wit company, presents “Howard’s End” Aug. 29 to Oct. 5, then “Top Girls” comes Jan 16 to Feb. 22, 2020 followed by “The Agitators” April 30 to June 6. In addition,  The Gift Theatre is doing “Kentucky” Oct 17-Nov. 16.

To see Theater Wit’s 2019 Summer Opera productions visit Theater Wit/Box Office. For tickets and other information call (773) 975-8150 and visit Theater Wit.

 

TimeLine Theatre Company

TimeLine, located at  615 W. Wellington Ave. chose shows for 2019-20 on the theme of Exploring today’s issues through the lens of the past” starting with “Oslo,” Sept. 18  to Oct. 20 followed by “Rutherford and Son,” Nov. 14 2019 to Jan. 12, 2020. Then, “Kill Move Paradise” is Feb. 20 to April 5 and “Relentless” is May 14 to June 27, 2020. For tickets and other information call  (773) 281-8463 and visit TimeLine.

 

Windy City Playhouse

The main location is 3014 W. Irving Park Rd. A second site in in the South Loop’s Motor Row.  Currently on stage is “Southern Gothic” through Sept. 1 and “The Recommendation”  through Sept. 22, 2019. Check location when ordering tickets.

Next, “Every Brilliant Thing” opens Sept. 18, 2019. “The Boys in the Band” begins Jan. 29, 2020. For tickets and other information call  (773) 891-8985 and visit Windy City Playhouse.

Jodie Jacobs

New musical features Graffiti as art

 

Graffitti art in NYC from the 70s and 80s celebrated in musical Graffiti Kings. (Photo courtesy of Jonathan Gross)
Graffitti art in NYC from the 70s and 80s celebrated in musical Graffiti Kings. (Photo courtesy of Jonathan Gross)

If you take a train, “L” or bus in Chicago you are likely to see murals, words and names painted on the sides of overhead passes and buildings. Some tell a story or express moods and feelings but you might miss that if your vehicle isn’t stopped long enough. Sure there are also gang territory and identification words.

Would you lump all of it together as graffiti? Or would you think of any of the work as art, as cultural expressions?

Jonathan Gross not only sees much of the paintings as cultural art expressions, he is writing two booksabout that; “Four Studies in Graffiti” and “Cure for the Common Core: Arts Education in the Public schools.”

But what theater goers, musical lovers and arts aficionados should know is that Gross is putting the finishing touches on an earlier show he wrote, “Graffiti Kings: A Musical.”

Originally written on New York’s graffiti of the 1980s based on “Graffiti Kings” by Jack Stewart, “Subway Art” by Henry Chalfant and Martha Cooper and “Training Days” by Chalfan, the revised musical will be slightly expanded.

Still titled, “Graffiti Kings: A Musical,” the version coming to a Chicago venue in late May includes research into artist Martin Wong’s social realism of ethnic and racial identities works and collection and will fictionalize graffiti collectors into a composite of characters.

The revised show, now an hour long, will be performed at 7 p.m. on Stage 773, May 30, 2019.

“Graffiti Kings” had premiered in April 2016 at the Old Town School of Folk Music with student performers from DePaul University’s renowned theatre department; formerly the Goodman Drama School. It was backed by musicians Gross and Vincent Buoncore.

DePaul University English professor and playwright Jonathan Gross. (Photo courtesy of Jonathan Gross
DePaul University English professor and playwright Jonathan Gross. (Photo courtesy of Jonathan Gross

You see, the playwright is DePaul University English Department’s Professor Gross. His area is Nineteenth-Century Literature; World Literature. No ivy-tower escapist, Gross worries about students in schools that under-fund the arts.

But during a recent phone interview, what emerged was this is the Gross who co-wrote such popular children’s musicals as “The Dragon’s Tale,” The Blue Dog” and “Snoops and Schnozzles” with Jacqueline Russell back in the 1990s. Russell is now artistic director of the Chicago Children’s Theatre.

Also revealed was that Gross studied piano and trumpet, and played in a jazz trio with Buoncore and Kim Healey called Lush Life.

A long-time admirer of Ethel Waters and Duke Elington, Gross wrote “Harlem Renaissance Remembered” (Brilliance Audio) and “Eye on the Sparrow: Afterlives of Ethel Waters and Bessie Smith.” He sees “Graffiti Kings” as the third part of his trilogy.”

“The play and songs for “Graffiti Kings” were written by me, inspired by the voices of graffiti artists Blade, Seen, Zephyr, Lady Pink, Lee Quinones and Martin Wong (graffiti collector whose work is compiled in NYC’s Museum of the City of New York),” said Gross in a follow-up note.

The show celebrates their characters in his original songs: “Open Book,”  “Train,” “When I Said Goodbye,” Sheila,” “ Look Back in Anger,” and “Passenger.”

“Graffiti wasn’t a crime in the 70s and 80s. I’m trying to get people to see it as a culture contribution, to be admired and not as vandalism,” said Gross.

For tickets and more information on the show call (773) 327-5252 and visit. Stage 773/Graffiti Kings.

Jodie Jacobs

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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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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