‘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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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

‘Over the Tavern’ recalls bittersweet memories of a Catholic upbringing

 

Janet Ulrich Brooks as Sister Clarissa and Logan Baffico as Rudy in Theatre at the Center's production of "Over The Tavern." (Photo by Guy Rhodes)
Janet Ulrich Brooks as Sister Clarissa and Logan Baffico as Rudy in Theatre at the Center’s production of “Over The Tavern.” (Photo by Guy Rhodes)

3 stars

You don’t have to be a Catholic school graduate to appreciate the battle of wits between the ruler-wielding Sister Clarissa and her vexing charge, 12-year-old Rudy Pazinski, in the laugh-out-loud “Over the Tavern,” now playing at Theatre at the Center in Munster, Ind.

But, if you happen to be a Catholic school graduate, the show, directed by Ericka Mac, is sure to hit home with every slap of that ruler on Rudy’s outstretched hand.

The Wednesday matinee audience guffawed each time Rudy defied the good sister’s demands that he learn his Catechism as it was written, forgoing his own contention that God put us on Earth “to have fun.”

Janet Ulrich Brooks rocks her role as the stern Sister Clarissa who E-Nun-Ci-Ates each word clearly and precisely. Logan Baffico does a good job as Rudy, although his speech got a little rushed as the second act progressed, leading the folks behind me to regularly whisper, “What did he say?”

The cast rounds out with solid performances from Cory Goodrich as Rudy’s mom, Ellen, and Eric Slater as his dad, Chet. Rudy’s siblings are played by Isabelle Roberts (Annie), Seth Steinberg (Eddie) and Julian Solis (Georgie).

The family lives over the tavern owned by Chet and his “Pops,” an alcoholic who is ruining the business. Chet brings his “bad mood” up the stairs each night to dinner with his family who wait in vain for him to remember to pick up the spaghetti dinner he promised.

Cast of Over the Tavern at Theatre at the Center. (Photo by Guy Rhodes)
Cast of Over the Tavern at Theatre at the Center. (Photo by Guy Rhodes)

The family might be troubled, but they are committed to Catholicism. The kids go to Catholic school and they learn the Catechism just as their parents did before them

It all comes to a hilarious head when Sister Clarissa arrives unannounced at the apartment over the tavern to discuss the children.

The semi-autobiographical play written by Tom Dudzick ends with an uplifting turnabout by Dad after a heart-to-heart with Sister Clarissa.

DETAILS: Over the Tavern,  is at Theatre at the Center, 1040 Ridge Road, Munster, IN through Aug. 11, 2019. Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes, including a 15-minute intermission. For more information, call (219) 836-3255 or visit TheatreAtTheCenter.

Cindy Richards

For more shows visit Theatre in Chicago

 

‘True West’ is true self

 

L o R Namir Smallwood (Lee) Francis Guinan (Saul) Jon Michael Hill (Austin) in True West at Steppenwolf. (Photo by Michael Brosilow)
L o R Namir Smallwood (Lee) Francis Guinan (Saul) Jon Michael Hill (Austin) in True West at Steppenwolf. (Photo by Michael Brosilow)

3 stars

Rivalry or jealousy between brothers is as old as Cain and Abel but that may not really be what is going on in Sam Shepard’s “True West” now on stage at Steppenwolf.

It is also not whether the role of Austin is played by Jon Michael Hill and that of Lee by Namir Smallwood in the current revival or that Gary Sinise was Hill opposite John Malkovich in the famous 1982 production.

More of a clue lies in the 2000 Broadway production when the two leads were played by Philip Seymour Hoffman and John c. Reilly who switched roles during the run and when director Matthew Warchus asked the Tony Committee to see Hoffman and Reilly as one.

Even though familiar with Shepard’s work, I thought “True West” would be another play expressing the deep, consumed-by-jealousy expressions found in sibling rivalry.

It’s not. What Shepard said, and is expressed on the Steppenwolf “True West” site is,

“I wanted to write a play about double nature, one that wouldn’t be symbolic or metaphorical or any of that stuff. I just wanted to give a taste of what it feels like to be two-sided. It’s a real thing, double nature. I think we’re split in a much more devastating way than psychology can ever reveal.”

L o R Jacqueline Williams (Mom), Jon Michael Hill (Austin) and Namir Smallwood (Lee) in True West at Steppenwolf. (Photo by Michael Brosilow)
L o R Jacqueline Williams (Mom), Jon Michael Hill (Austin) and Namir Smallwood (Lee) in True West at Steppenwolf. (Photo by Michael Brosilow)

Think about it. You will better understand what is happening when you watch Austin, the clean-cut, Ivy League brother and Lee, a street-smart, thief and wanderer, change character.

Austin has a wife and kids back home but is typing away on a computer so he can finish his screenplay draft while house-sitting his mother’s place east of Los Angeles in the California desert. Hollywood producer Saul Kimmer, originally played by Francis Guinan  who reprises his role for this production, is interested in the play so stops by to read it.

Lee, his brother whom he hasn’t seen in years, comes calling. Lee is manipulative. He thinks nothing of stealing from homes in whatever neighborhood he comes across including where his mother lives, or of drinking whatever is available in their bars,

Austin envies Lee’s carefree life. Lee, who likes the idea of turning out a screen play that can make enough money to afford a ranch, knows how to cut a deal with the producer to take a play Lee dreams up and has his brother type.

Act I sets the stage as Lee takes over. Act II turns menacingly violent and almost deadly. But comic relief comes when Mom, originally portrayed by Laurie Metcalf, now by Jacqueline Williams, returns from Alaska\ to find her house trashed and her boys fighting.

Maybe the play will have audiences thinking about their own double nature or that of people they know.

“True West” is at Steppenwolf, 1650 N. Halsted St., Chicago, through Aug. 25, 2019. Running time: 2 hours, one intermission. For tickets and other information call (312) 335-1650 or visit Steppenwolf.

Jodie Jacobs

For more shows visit Theatre in Chicago

In ‘The Recommendation’ it is all about who you know

 

Michael Aaron Pogue as Izzy leads the audience into a scene of 'The Recommendation at Windy City Playhouse. (Michael Brosilow photos)
Michael Aaron Pogue as Izzy leads the audience into a scene of ‘The Recommendation at Windy City Playhouse. (Michael Brosilow photo)

4 stars

 Upon entering the theatre, an attendant gives the patron his ticket in the form of a congratulatory letter of acceptance to Brown University. Theatergoers are then plunged into the world of the play as they’re welcomed to a collegiate orientation by Iskinder Iodouku, nicknamed Izzy (beautifully played by Michael Aaron Pogue)

Jonathan Caren’s thought-provoking play is very interesting. It’s not about what you know but who you know and the favors that people will perform now in exchange for something later on.

Izzy also serves as the narrator of the story. He’s a good-looking African-American young man,whose father immigrated from Ethiopia and married a white American woman.

He is going to tell us about his friend, Aaron Feldman, when suddenly Izzy’s narration is interrupted by a cocky young man who bursts into the lobby clad only in a towel. Izzy introduces us to Aaron (played to perfection by Julian Hester), a handsome, self-entitled, young, white boy whose lawyer father is wealthy and well-connected.

And thus begins Caren’s timely story of power and white privilege in America.

Julian Hester, left, and Michael Aaron Pogue in “The Recommendation.” (Photo Michael Brosilow)
Julian Hester, left, and Michael Aaron Pogue in “The Recommendation.” (Photo Michael Brosilow)

 

Through the double doors we’re ushered back several years to the college dormitory room where Aaron and Izzy first met. We learn many things about the two roomies, including that Aaron is planning to become a filmmaker while Izzy is hoping to eventually attend a good grad school to become a lawyer.

Aaron promises that his influential father, at his son’s insistence, will gladly write Izzy a glowing letter of recommendation to get him into UCLA.

Flash forward a couple years and the two guys have now graduated from Brown. Aaron has become the pampered assistant to a hotshot director and Izzy is enjoying his graduate work, thanks to Aaron’s father.

While Izzy relaxes beside the pool, Aaron goes on a beer run; however, he’s stopped by the police and arrested for having a suspended license.

Locked up in the jail’s holding cell, Aaron encounters Dwight, a buff, streetwise, black inmate who’s a repeat offender and really  knows the system. Dwight has connections of his own within the prison world and he tries to instruct Aaron how to survive the big house.

Aaron’s parents decide to teach him a lesson by refusing to post bail. After a rough night, Aaron promises his cellmate that once he’s released from jail, he’ll convince his influential father to help clear Dwight of his charges. All Dwight has to do is promise to protect the pretty white boy against the other inmates.

Thus begins another series of incidents in which one person promises a favor in exchange for something else in the future. It’s that old adage of “You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.”

Julien Hester and Brian Keys in The Recommendation. (Photo by Michael Brosilow)
Julien Hester and Brian Keys in The Recommendation. (Photo by Michael Brosilow)

Windy City Playhouse has become one of Chicago’s go-to theatre for exciting, emotionally involving, immersive drama. Their long-running hit, “Southern Gothic,” continues at their new south Loop location.

But for this new drama, playwright Jonathan Caren worked together with artistic director Amy Rubenstein to transform his drama, originally written for a typical proscenium stage, into a totally immersive theatrical experience. And it’s a winner.

Directed with amazing skill and tempo by Jonathan Wilson, the production take place in different locales. The various settings are the handiwork of talented scenic designer Lauren Nigri and the result is simply extraordinary.

Such close proximity to the actors and the action totally draws the audience into the story. Sometimes the theatergoer becomes a casual participant in a scene, but more often he’s simply a fly on the wall observing and trying to predict what will happen next.

Julian Hester, left, Michael Aaron Pogue, center, and Brian Keys in “The Recommendation.” (Photo Michael Brosilow)
Julian Hester, left, Michael Aaron Pogue, center, and Brian Keys in “The Recommendation.” (Photo Michael Brosilow)

The play is occasionally funny. But, particularly as the story progresses, it grows darker, more intense and deeply disturbing.

The first act revs up to a traumatic climax while theatergoers share a darkened jail cell with Dwight and Aaron. Vicariously we sense the claustrophobia, desperation and unrelenting terror that Aaron is experiencing while imprisoned.

But the feeling of dread continues and grows throughout Act II, ratcheting up to a fever pitch until it finally explodes during the last scene that’s set in the steamy sauna of an affluent sporting club.

Windy City Playhouse’s riveting production of Caren’s explosive drama is an absolute must-see.  The play’s totally immersive, bringing every theatergoer into the story. No one simply sits back at a safe distance and observes.

Director Jonathan Wilson has maintained the drama’s realism by keeping his actors honest, involved and on top of every possible situation that might occur. Sometimes theatergoers are asked to stand; but more often than not, plenty of seating is provided within each of the many locales. Refreshments are occasionally offered to further enhance the theatrical experience.

Make sure you see “The Recommendation.” It’s one theatrical experience you’ll never forget.

DETAILS: “The Recommendation” is at Windy City Playhouse, 3014 W. Irving Park Rd., Chicago, through Sept. 22, 2019. For tickets and more information call (773-891-8985) or visit WindyCityPlayhouse.

Colin Douglas

For more shows visit Theatre in Chicago