Suspenseful British theater

Ensemble in An Inspector Calls by J.B. Priestley, (Photo by Mark Douet)
Ensemble in An Inspector Calls by J.B. Priestley, (Photo by Mark Douet)

4 stars

JB Piestley’s classic “An Inspector Calls” has landed at Chicago Shakespeare Theater just shy of it 75th birthday. But its scenario is as interesting and suspenseful today as it was when first performed in 1945.

The time is an April night in 1912. The place is the home of the Birlings, a wealthy, British, class-conscious family. They are celebrating the engagement of daughter Shelia to Gerald Croft when Inspector Goole arrives to question their connection to a young girl who has committed suicide.

Picture melodramatic fog, lighting, staging and pauses in conversation for the greatest effect as Inspector Goole’s relentless questioning extracts honesty and confessions from the Birlings and Croft.Read More

‘Twilight Bowl’ where life changes expectations

 

Twilight Bowl at Goodman Theatre (Photo courtesy of Goodman
Twilight Bowl at Goodman Theatre (Photo courtesy of Goodman)

2 1/2 stars

As four girls, Clarice (Hayley Burgess), Jaycee (Heather Chrisler), Sam (Becca Savoy and Sharlene (Anne E. Thompson) living in a small Wisconsin town periodically meet at their local bowling alley, audiences watch them change their ideas, their focus, their influences and their expectations.

The girls are joined by friends Maddy from Winnetka (Angela Morris) and bartender Brielle (Mary Taylor).

Written by playwright Rebecca Gilman, the concept is excellent. However the first meeting we see as the girls graduate from high school makes little sense and is hard to buy into until later in the show.

Apparently they are having a party with presents and cake to say goodbye, at least temporarily, to Jaycee who is going off to prison. Maybe this would have worked better for me as a flashback after seeing the last act.

Maddy, who later met one of the girls at OSU joins them later but her character seems to be added simply to have a comparison to someone who went to New Trier High School.

The leavening factor is the bartender, a good personality to add to the mix.

As a female coming of age story it has some interesting points about making choices and how background matters even if these girls set down in a different place would have a different perspective.

Regina Garcia’s set design of an old bowling alley bar is perfect as the place the girls get together.

“Twighlight Bowl” is at Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St., Chicago, through March 10, 2019 in the Owen Theatre. Approximate running time: 90 minutes, no intermission. For tickets and other information visit Goodman.

Jodie Jacobs

For more shows visit Theatre in Chicago

 

 

‘Pipeline’ points to black lives matter

 
Tyla Abercrumbie and Matthew Elam in 'Pipeline' at Victory Gardens Theater. (Liz Lauren photo)
Tyla Abercrumbie and Matthew Elam in ‘Pipeline’ at Victory Gardens Theater. (Liz Lauren photos)

2 1/2 stars

 

In 90 short, uninterrupted minutes, playwright Dominique Morisseau lays out how the direct route from school to prison has become the American norm for young, black men. That is, if they’re not being gunned down by some trigger-happy police officer.

This is the hopeless existence depicted by the playwright of such important dramas as “Sunset Baby,” “Skeleton Crew” and the upcoming musical, “Ain’t Too Proud—the Life and Times of the Temptations.”

In director Cheryl Lynn Bruce’s new production at Victory Gardens Theater, a topic the playwright explored in a solo documentary, “Notes From the Field,” is starkly played out upon Andrew Boyce’s sparse, flexible scenic design. It’s a theatrical environment that wisely offers more focus upon the characters than the setting.

Tyla Abercrumbie, as Nya, commands the audience as a stressed out teacher at a crowded urban high school, a place where the security guards are just as important as the instructors. Coping with dozens of violent infractions every day is almost de rigueur.

Besides dealing with difficult students, Nya is a poorly paid, divorced single mother. She has tried hard to protect her teenage son, Omari, by getting him out of this dangerous environment and sending him to a private boarding school.

Now Nya has to address her son’s recent personal problem, while enduring the overbearing bullying of her estranged husband, Xavier, a man who’s been all but missing from his son’s life.

 

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Shagimuratova worth the ticket to ‘La traviata’

L-R: Giorgio Berrugi/Alfredo, Mario Rojas/Gastone, Albina Shagimuratova/Violetta -- in La Traviata at Lyric Opera of Chicago. (Photo: Todd Rosenberg)
L-R: Giorgio Berrugi/Alfredo, Mario Rojas/Gastone, Albina Shagimuratova/Violetta — in La Traviata at Lyric Opera of Chicago. (Photo: Todd Rosenberg)

3 stars

Giuseppe Verdi’s music always gets four stars and played by the Lyric Opera orchestra conducted by Michael Christie, the popular La traviata, certainly is no exception.

The music and Francesco Maria Plave’s libretto  beautifully express the emotions of fun-loving, delightful, but doomed (think Camillia ) courtesan Violetta.

Gloriously sung by Russian soprano Albina Shagimuratova, her “È strano! … Ah, fors’ è lui…” (“Ah, perhaps he is the one”) and her famed, declared choice of freedom “Sempre libera” (“Always free”) are opera highlights. Just hearing her is worth the trip.

La traviata also has one of opera’s great drinking songs. Alfredo Germont, who loves Violetta toasts her with the crowd at her party in “libiamo ne’ lieti calici” (“Let’s drink from the joyful cups”).

Italian Giorgio Berruci making his Lyric debut as Alfredo, is OK, but he doesn’t have the full, soaring voice of other tenors who have played the role. However, as the opera ends and the lovers are reunited though Violetta is fading away, their  “Parigi, o cara, noi lasceremo,” (“We will leave Paris, O beloved”) and their “Gran Dio!…morir sì giovane” (“Great God!…to die so young”) are beautiful and touching.Read More

‘Dear Evan mixes great songs with needy plot

The North American touring company of Dear Evan Hanson. (Photos byh Matthew Murphy)
The North American touring company of Dear Evan Hanson. (Photos byh Matthew Murphy)

3 1/2 stars

It’s not breaking news that teenagers experience angst in high school from parental to peer pressure and from wanting to fit in to having a best friend and from feeling insecure or inadequate to not knowing how to express one’s self or experiencing bouts of depression. In addition there are teens on drugs, troubled teens and teens contemplating suicide.

It’s also not breaking news that actions go viral because someone is always around snapping and recording on a cell phone or that some of the so called stories out there are “fake news.”

Add to the mix that either teenagers think their parents don’t understand them or that they want something from them they are not able to manage. There is also the issue of parents who are so busy with other aspects of life that they are not around when needed.

In the hands of songwriters Ben Pasek and Justin Paul (who later did “La La Land”) and playwright Steven Levenson (Days of Rage) those issues coalesce in the Broadway hit musical, “Dear Evan Hansen,” directed by Michael Greif (“Rent,” “Next to Normal”).

There have been a lot of shows that deal with family problems but what seemed to set this one apart upon seeing it when the national tour hit Chicago this week, were the extraordinary songs that expressed Evan’s wistful feelings such as “You Will Be Found,” Waving Through a Window and “For Forever.” Evan’s mom, Heidi who after her husband left them, works and goes to class so is seldom around, also gets her heart wrenching song, “So Big, So Small.”

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‘Brooke Astor’s Last Affair’ is Fair

 

Underscore Theatre Ensemble, Brook Astor's Last Affair. (Photos by Jesus Ricca)
Underscore Theatre Ensemble, Brook Astor’s Last Affair. (Photos by Jesus Ricca)

2.5 Stars

The Chicago Musical Theatre Festival produced by Underscore Theatre through Feb. 24, 2019 is a great opportunity to experience new work from emerging composers, lyricists, and playwrights of this classically American performance genre.

My first festival experience this weekend was “Brooke Astor’s Last Affair” based on the life of New York socialite and philanthropist Brooke Astor.

The format is flashback fantasy in which Brooke is forced to review some life choices including the relationship between her and her son (from a previous marriage), Tony Marshall.

I very much wanted to love this show and it has a number of interesting moments but overall it was a miss.

The book and lyrics by Rachael Migler are the heart of the production and get the job done in terms of telling the story but the music by composer Nick Thornton is generally underwhelming with the exception of “Marry for Money” and the very cute “Dachshunds and Men.”Read More

What if Ibsen’s Nora returned

Sandra Marquez (Nora) and Yasen Payankov (Torvald) in A Doll's House Part 2 at Stepponwolf Theatre. (Photos by Michael Brosilow)
Sandra Marquez (Nora) and Yasen Payankov (Torvald) in A Doll’s House Part 2 at Stepponwolf Theatre. (Photos by Michael Brosilow)

3 1/2 stars

The back story is necessary to really understand playwright Lucas Hnath’s witty “A Doll’s House, Part 2, now at Steppenwolf Theatre. Otherwise audiences might sympathize with Hnath’s portrayal of the people Nora left behind when she slammed the door on her conventional, egotistical banker husband and their three children.

When Henrik Ibsen, a Norwegian playwright known for digging below society’s conventions to expose them for what they really are, published “A Doll’s House” in1879 he defied accepted familial and economic norms of the day.

He shocked a society that placed women in subservient roles to men. In many households, women were expected to be ornamental and needy and they had to have their husband’s or father’s signatures and OKs on legal documents.

Hnath, adept at penning plays that are both comedic and tense, (think Isaac’s Eye), takes on the “Doll’s House” iconic feminist heroine to ask how did she fare 15 years after she left her husband Torvald’s household and his demeaning view of her so she could be free to define herself.

Portrayed with gumption and defiance by Steppenwolf ensemble member Sandra Marquez, an extravagantly clothed Nora first challenges her old nanny, Anne Marie, to guess why she looks rich.

Played to perfection by Chicago veteran Barbara E. Robertson as the angry care-giver who stayed on to raise Nora’s three children, Anne Marie guesses traditional women tasks and skills.Read More

‘Dead Man’s Cell Phone’ finds the right tone

Cyndey Moody and Mike Newquist in Deadman's Cell Phone at Greenhouse theater. (Photo by Paul Goyette
Cyndey Moody and Mike Newquist in Deadman’s Cell Phone at Greenhouse theater. (Photo by Paul Goyette

 

3 stars

Our cell phones have truly become extensions of ourselves, storing bits of personal and secret data with the potential to live-on sharing and connecting pieces of our lives even after we are gone.

In “Dead Man’s Cell Phone” presented by “The Comrades,” Wilmette playwright Sarah Ruhl explores what might happen when a stranger interacts with a deceased man’s cell phone she retrieves in a diner.

This is an absurd tongue-in-cheek noir-style, dark comedic drama directed by Arianna Soloway. It features the winsome, inquisitive and inventive  Cydney Moody as “plain Jane” Jean who is perhaps being a bit voyeuristic  but also just wants to make people feel better. In the process, she finds herself more involved than she probably expected.

Valeria Rosero and Cyndney Moody in Dead Man's Cell Phone
Valeria Rosero and Cyndney Moody in Dead Man’s Cell Phone

Performed by an expert ensemble that includes Bryan Breau as the dead man Gordon, Caroline Dodge Latta as his at times overbearing but loving mother Mrs. Gottleib, Lynnette Li as his somewhat reluctant widow Hermia, Mike Newquist as his neglected brother Dwight and Valeria Rosero as the secretive “Other Woman.”

The stunning simple set design by Sydney Achler is a series of monochromatic paint-splattered trapezoids whose hectic colorization and odd angles contribute visually to the unbalanced surrealistic quality of the story.

There are a few bothersome inconsistencies in the story but they are easily overcome by the outstanding performances of the ensemble and the thought provoking subject matter.

This is a weird ride that makes you want to see what’s around the next turn.

“Dead Man’s Cell Phone,” The Comrades production at Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago, goes through March 10, 2019. Running time is 90 minutes with no intermission.For tickets and other information call (773) 404-7336 or visit Greenhouse Theater.

Reno Lovison

For more shows visit Theatre in Chicago

 

Thriller on Clover Road

Philip Earl Johnson explains to Gwendolyn Whiteside how the deprogramming is going to work. (Photo by Michael Brosilow)
Philip Earl Johnson explains to Gwendolyn Whiteside how the deprogramming is going to work. (Photo by Michael Brosilow)

3.5 stars

“On Clover Road” keeps you on the edge of your seat.

It’s not often that a play comes around that creates such drama and suspense,  your heart races and you might have to look away. Such is the case with the live performance of “On Clover Road,” playing at American Blues Theater through March 16, 2019.

The title itself implies a bit of luck that finding a four-leaf clover might bring. In a sense, the play is about luck too, both good and bad, and how it impacts the characters.

Written by Steven Dietz and directed by Halena Kays, “On Clover Road” tells the story of an angry, frustrated mother who meets with a cult de-programmer believing she will be reunited with her runaway daughter. Her daughter has been gone for more than four years and the mother has all but given up hope. Read More

Emotional and explosive ‘Elektra’

Nina Stemme as Elektra at Lyric Opera of chicago. (Photo credit Cory Weaver and Lyric)
Nina Stemme as Elektra at Lyric Opera of chicago. (Photo credit Cory Weaver and Lyric)

3 1/2 stars

A stormy Nina Stemme filled the Lyric Opera House with a powerful interpretation of Richard Strauss’ “Elektra,” Feb. 6.

Known to the Met and European house for her vibrant vocals in Wagner and Strauss operas the Swedish soprano is making her Lyric debut this month as the tragic Elektra whose only motive for living is to avenge the death of her father, Agamemnon.

Stemme not only brings the expected explosive passion to the role, she also tempers the portrayal with wistfulness and contemplative anguish.

A one-act opera, there are no gaps for well-deserved applause and bravo! after each of Stemme’s arias.

The other two important female roles are Elektra’s sister, Chrysothemis, sung beautifully by acclaimed South African soprano Elza Van Den Heever and their mother, Klyamnestra, expressively sung by internationally known American mezzo-soprano Michaela Matens.

The two male characters vital to the story, Elektra’s, long lost brother, Orest, and the queen’s lover, Aegisth, don’t appear until the end. Scottish bass-baritone Iain Patterson who was recently Creonte in Medea at the Berlin State Opera sounded right at home in this dark mythological tale as was American tenor Robert Brubaker, a frequent artist at the Met.

Michaela Martens as Klytamnestra with confidante Whitney Morrison and train bearer Emily Pogorelc in Elektra at Lyric Opera of chicago (photo by Cory Weaver)
Michaela Martens as Klytamnestra with confidante Whitney Morrison and train bearer Emily Pogorelc in Elektra at Lyric Opera of Chicago (photo by Cory Weaver)

Directed by Nicolas Sandys as a revival of Director David McVicar’s production, the 2019 “Elektra”  is not a stand and sing to the audience opera. Instead, it is dramatic theater that combines exceptional singing and acting  with Strauss’ turbulent music played by the Lyric Opera Orchestra conducted by Donald Runnicles.

What audiences may not recall from this tale based on Sophocles’ Electra, is that the queen was enraged by Agamemnon’s supposedly appeasing a goddess by sacrificing another daughter, Iphigenia, before he left for Troy.  But no matter the motivation, Greek mythology makes potent opera.

My only problem with the production was the costumes of Klyamnestra and her court. The rubble in and around the courtyard where the action takes place and the ruinous state of the palace,  itself, seem to symbolize decay. I got that. However, the queen and her court appear to be over grotesquely costumed in apparel from a 1931 “Cabaret” nightmare so they distract from the opera’s action.

DETAILS: “Elektra” is at the Lyric Opera House, 20 N. WackerDrive, Chicago, through Feb. 22, 2019. Running time: 1 hr, 40 min. with no intermission. For tickets and other information visit Lyric Opera.

Jodie Jacobs

For more shows visit Theatre in Chicago