Eighteenth century Mozart opera in perfect tune with #MeToo times

 

Amanda Majeski, Ben Bliss and Rachel Willis-Sørensen in Don Giovanni at Lyric Opera of Chicago. (Kyle Flubacker photo)
Amanda Majeski, Ben Bliss and Rachel Willis-Sørensen in Don Giovanni at Lyric Opera of Chicago. (Kyle Flubacker photo)

4 stars

If you knew before seeing “Don Giovanni” (Il dissouto punita, ossia il Don Giovanni), the outstanding production now at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, translates as “The Rake Punished, namely Don Giovanni (also The Libertine Punished), you would have some idea that the opera was not about a lover but about a powerful man who felt entitled to take sexual liberties.

However, directed by Robert Falls, artistic director at Goodman Theatre, the Lyric production skillfully makes the comic moments funnier, the sexual attempts more offensive, the violence more dramatic and the punishment more tumultuous.

Aside from the ending (no alert here) what particularly makes this production worth the three hour, 20 minute sitting time, is the cast. All are excellent actors and superb vocalists.

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A Modern Twist on a Holiday Classic

‘The Nutcracker’

 

The Nutcracker by the House theatre. (Michael Brosilow photo)
The Nutcracker by the House Theatre. (Michael Brosilow photo)

4 stars

Ten years have passed since The House Theatre of Chicago first presented their original, contemporary version of E. T. A. Hoffman’s classic story, “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.”

Whenever theatergoers hear that iconic title, forever associated with Christmas, they envision fairies and a toy that comes to life to bravely battle a Mouse King to rescue a little girl named Clara.

They imagine a dazzling spectacle, a lavishly-produced ballet, featuring dozens of lithe, magnificently skilled dancers. They picture lush, imaginative costumes and a story set in a magical land of snowflakes and flowers.

But with neither a tutu nor a toe shoe in sight, the House Theatre once again revives its popular production of their modern, family-friendly adaptation, loosely based upon the original tale.

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‘Dead Man Walking’ brilliantly thrusts opera into the contemporary genre

4 stars

Patricia Racette top center, Ryan McKinny bottom left, Susan Graham bottom right and parents of murdered teens bottom center at Angola in Dead Man Walking at the Lyric Opera of chicago. (Ken Howard photo)
Patricia Racette top center, Ryan McKinny bottom left, Susan Graham bottom right and parents of murdered teens bottom center at Angola in Dead Man Walking at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. (Ken Howard photo)

Every season opera houses around the world include at least one story of murder and often, its consequences.  But whether clothed in lyrical or dramatic music by famous composers, their librettos typically focus on mythology or historic tales. Those productions seldom produce the kind of gut-wrenching reactions and post opera discussions sparked by “Dead Man Walking,” now at the Lyric Opera of Chicago through Nov. 22, 2019.

Written by composer Jake Heggie and librettist/playwright Terrence McNally and first produced by the San Francisco Opera at the War Memorial Opera House in October, 2000, the opera is based on a 1993 non-fiction book of the same name by Sister Helen Prejean, a Roman Catholic nun.

Sister Helen, a member of Sisters of Saint Joseph of Medaille in New Orleans, was against capital punishment and served as a spiritual adviser to two convicted murderers on Death Row. The phrase “dead man walking” was commonly used in American prisons for a man who received the death penalty for his crime.

L-C A gold light on the prison floor stands for the separate places that Sister Helen (Patricia Racette) and Jospeh De Rocher (Ryan McKinny) can speak to each other in Dead Man Walking at Lyric Opera of Chicago. (Ken Howard photo)
L-C A gold light on the prison floor stands for the separate places that Sister Helen (Patricia Racette) and Jospeh De Rocher (Ryan McKinny) can speak to each other in Dead Man Walking at Lyric Opera of Chicago. (Ken Howard photo)

Heggie and McNally’s opera is not about the innocence of murderer Joseph De Rocher, dramatically portrayed by bass baritone Ryan McKinny. He is convicted of raping and then brutally stabbing to death a teenaged girl. His younger brother, Anthony De Rocher, received a life sentence for participating in the crime and shooting the girl’s boyfriend.

The opera, primarily taking place in the early 1980s at the Louisiana State Penitentiary known as Angola for its site on the former Angola Plantation in Louisiana’s West Felicianna Parish, starts with the murders.

Sister Helen, soprano Patricia Racette, is leading youngsters in a spiritual piece, “Gather Us Around, ” before she announces she has to go to Angola because Joseph who had been corresponding with her, asked to meet, face to face.

Joseph's mother (Susan Graham), center, pleads for her son's life as the victims' parents (Lauren Decker, Allan Glassman Talise Trevigne and Wayne Tigges) listen at a board hearing in Dead
Joseph’s mother (Susan Graham), center, pleads for her son’s life as the victims’ parents (Lauren Decker, Allan Glassman, Talise Trevigne and Wayne Tigges) listen at a board hearing in Dead Man Walking at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. (Ken Howard photo)

Elaine J. McCarthy projections take Sister Helen and audiences on  a long, hot drive to Angola. Some comedic relief comes in the form of a motorcycle cop who stops her for speeding, then tears up the ticket when he learns she is a nun.

There are a few other comedic moments but set against Michael McGarty’s magnificent set design, the opera really is about the interaction between Sister Helen and Joseph.

Audiences do hear the heartbreak of the teens’ parents, the Harts and the Bouchers, at a board hearing. And at that hearing, Joseph’s mother (mezzo soprano Susan Graham) pleads for her son’s life.

“Dead Man Walking” does not excuse or rationalize a horrible murder. The book and the opera is about crime and punishment, guilt and redemption.

A number of factors make the Lyric production particularly powerful. Racette and McKinny perfectly act out McNally’s cut-to-the-heart libretto. Heggie’s dramatic music is well-interpreted by conducted by Nicole Paiement of San Francisco’s Opera Parallele.

Leonard Foglia’s directing and staging with Brian Nason’s lighting and Roger Gans sound design create an edgy emotionalism that leaves the audience saying wow as they exit.

“Dead Man Walking” is at the Lyric Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Dr., Chicago, on select dates through Nov. 22, 2019. Running time: 2 hours, 55 minutes. For tickets and other information call (312) 827-5600 or visit Lyric Opera/Dead Man Walking.

Jodie Jacobs

For more shows visit Theatre in Chicago

Political humor is nothing new

 

L-R: Megan DeLay, Lucinda Johnston. (Photo by Heather Mall)
L-R: Megan DeLay, Lucinda Johnston. (Photo by Heather Mall)

‘The Suffrage Plays’

3 stars

It might be difficult for some to conceive of a notion that denied roughly fifty percent of the population from having a say in what was considered to be a modern democratic process. But indeed, this was the case deep into the first part of the twentieth century, both here and in Britain.

These three pithy, well performed, one-act plays directed by Beth Wolf and presented by Artemisia Theatre as “The Suffrage Plays” provide insight through a good deal of levity and snarky repartee that give voice to the debate that 100 years ago provided women with the right to vote.

Before the age of TV and the Internet, people looked to the theater for entertaining political commentary the equivalent of Stephen Colbert, The Daily Show, or Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update. Read More

An honest country musical

 

(left to right) Kelly Combs, Lena Dudley and Charlie Irving in New American Folk Theatre's world premiere of My Life is a Country Song.. Photo by Joseph Ramski Photography.
(left to right) Kelly Combs, Lena Dudley and Charlie Irving in New American Folk Theatre’s world premiere of My Life is a Country Song.. Photo by Joseph Ramski Photography.

3.5 stars

Country music has been described as three chords and the truth. The world premiere of Anthony Whitaker’s “My Life is a Country Song” presented by New American Folk Theatre has taken that adage to heart and crafted a well told musical tale of love, friendship, and personal triumph.

Donna (Kelly Combs), a receptionist at the Lincoln Ford dealership, has divorced her abusive husband, Gary (Kirk Jackson), and rented an old mill house from Shirley (Judy Lee Steele) who is a photographer for the local paper.

After explaining that she has never before had keys of her own which weren’t also shared with her parents or husband, Donna sings the poignant ballad “My Front Door.”

Soon thereafter ex-husband Gary tries to suggest that he has changed, worming his way back with “A New Coat of Paint.”

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‘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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‘Merchant’ still controversial and thought provoking

 

 L-R: Jack Morsovillio, Mitchell Spencer, Chuck Munro, Erik Schiller. (Photo by Brian McConkey)
L-R: Jack Morsovillio, Mitchell Spencer, Chuck Munro, Erik Schiller. (Photo by Brian McConkey)

3 stars

“The Merchant of Venice,” presented by Invictus Theatre Company, has  William Shakespeare’s words but is done in a more contemporary staging by director Charles Askenaizer.

The story is about Venetian merchant Antonio (Chuck Munro) who provides his friend, Bassanio (Martin Diaz Valdes), money needed to woo Portia (Julia Badger), a very wealthy young whom he feels he has a very good chance of marrying.

The problem is that Antonio does not have the ready cash on hand, so he agrees to borrow it from the local moneylender, Shylock (Joseph Beal).

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‘Sunset Boulevard’ starts Porchlight season with Hollywood flair

 

 (L to R) Hollis Resnik as Norma Desmond and Billy Rude as Joe Gillis in Sunset Boulevard at Porchlight Music Theatre .(Photo by Michael Courier )
(L to R) Hollis Resnik as Norma Desmond and Billy Rude as Joe Gillis in
Sunset Boulevard at Porchlight Music Theatre .(Photo by Michael Courier )

3 1/2 stars

Popular Chicago stage veteran Hollis Resnik has joined such leading ladies as Glenn Close and Patti LuPone to inhabit the delusional figure of Norma Desmond in the musical version of “Sunset Boulevard.”

Resnik does so with such believability and panache as to make viewers wonder if she is able to shed the role when leaving Porchlight Music Theatre each night.

A 1993 Andrew Lloyd Webber musical with book and lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton, the stage show is based on a 1950 Billy Wilder film noir about a one-time silent screen star desperate for a comeback.

Her unwitting victim is Joe Gillis (Billy Rude), a struggling Hollywood movie writer who needs the script rewrite job Desmond offers so he can pay off his car loan.

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Zoo animals take over Marriott stage in a musical Madagascar adventure

A zebra, giraffe, hippo and lion escape from a NYC zoo in Madagascar A Musical Adventure at Marriott Theatre. (Photos courtesy of Marriott theatre)
A zebra, giraffe, hippo and lion escape from a NYC zoo in Madagascar A Musical Adventure at Marriott Theatre. (Photos courtesy of Marriott Theatre)

3 stars

if you were an animal in a zoo, what would you would wish for as you blew out candles on your birthday cake?

Marty the zebra, charmingly portrayed by Ron King, wanted to leave New York’s Central Park Zoo to return to the wild. But he wasn’t the only one. A handful of like-minded penguins also pined for their icy climes.

And so, Marty, accompanied by his friends who don’t want him to go alone, Alex the lion, Gloria the hippo and Melman, a hypochondriac  giraffe, head out of Manhattan to find paradise in the  Marriott’ Children’s Theatre production of  “Madagascar – A Musical Adventure.”

Penguins and a lion escape a zoo in Madagascar A Musical Adventure at Marriott Theatre
Penguins and a lion escape a zoo in Madagascar A Musical Adventure at Marriott Theatre

The penguins also seem to end up there.

Based on DreamWorks’ animated film, Marriott’s stage version zips along in an easy-for- youngsters, sit-through hour filled with zany, fantasy fun.

The show’s sub-theme, that friends stick together, is enhanced by George Noriega and Joel Somellian’s score for the stage musical.

Liam Quealy as Alex, king of the zoo, is terrific as he hungers for steak but his roar also comes in handy as he scares away dangerous creatures where they land on Lemur King Julien’s side of Madagascar.

Directed by Johanna McKenzie Miller, the Marriott show features Jesus Perez’ wonderfully creative costumes and Sarah E. Ross’ terrific puppets.

The lemur king and his subjects live in Madagascar.

However, I wish the actors moving the penguins would remember they need to fade more into their puppets instead of the penguins fading into the actors. After all, kids love penguins.

Also, if ordering tickets, try not to sit where I did in the low number area of Section 2 because many of the characters will have their backs to you.

DETAILS: “Madagascar – A Musical Adventure” is at Marriott Theatre, 10 Marriott Drive, Lincolnshire, through Dec. 19, 2019. Running time: one hour. For tickets and other information visit Marriott Theatre.

Jodie Jacobs

For more shows visit Theatre in Chicago

It takes an Ibsen to describe societal ills

 

Greg Matthew Anderson and Cher Álvarez in "A Doll's House" at Writers Theatre. (Michael Brosilow photo)
Greg Matthew Anderson and Cher Álvarez in “A Doll’s House” at Writers Theatre. (Michael Brosilow photo)

‘A Doll’s House’

3 stars

Arguably, a play that has been cut down to some of its basic tenets and character features works for some audiences and with some scripts. However, the 95-minute, one-act Sandra Delgado-Michael Halberstam adaption of Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House (also called “A Doll House”) now at Writers Theatre, left me yearning for the original, three-act play.

To me, what makes the adaption worth seeing is its superb acting and directing.

The show nicely fits into scenic designer Arnel Sancianco’s charming Victorian parlor in WT’s intimate Gillian Theatre. It brings the action so close to the audience that no characters’ telling facial expressions, nods and shoulder shrugs are missed.

Well helmed by Lavina Jadhwani, the characters’ body language is as important as what they are saying and not saying. Both those points are essential in this version because of the missing character development that is found in Ibsen’s original play.

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